Ophelia woke near dawn, thirsty. Carefully, she extracted herself from Orion's embrace. A moment's search found a silk and lace nightwrap to cover her naked skin.
On the second step, the wooden stair became stone. The walls around her appeared rough hewn rock, flickering with torchlight. On the third, her hand was settled in the crook of an arm.
"Hello, dear one. Keeping busy?"
She huffed at him. "Bloody mage."
"Now you sound like Arthur."
"Would you like to explain how I could have a ritual mark that I didn't know about? And that no one else saw — until Orion?"
"That would be telling." At her glare he laughed. "You didn't see it because it hadn't settled yet, and because you hardly spend you time examining yourself in the mirror."
That was fair. "I've changed everything."
"From what? Your past is the future, which means it hasn't happened yet. You can't change anything. You can only act."
Ophelia said nothing for several steps. "What do I do now? Is there a plan, a path? Something I need to do?"
Merlin snorted. "I know you had 'destiny' shoved down your throat by Dumblearse and Wixen Britain, but you need to let that kind of thinking go, dear one. There is no path — only options. You take each one as it comes, just as you take each step and crossroad."
"But you can get a map for what's ahead."
He flicked her forehead. Hard. "You know what might happen in an unchanged future. What more of a map do you want?"
She rubbed her forehead. "Mean."
"Well, sometimes you seem to learn best when there's pain involved, I've noticed." He patted her hand gently. "This isn't a story, or a guided playthrough — "
"First computers, now video games?"
"Hush, you, I have a lot of time on my hands." He frowned playfully. "This is your life, dear one. You live it. That's all. You hate fairy tales," he said, seemingly at random. "Why?"
"Not all of them, but so many are… heavy-handed attempts to teach subjective morality. The rules are different," she grumbled. "Morality should be the same for different people. Not set in stone, but in Muggle fairy tales, the rules are different for men and women. In wixen ones, they're different for wizardborn and muggleborn. That's not morality, it's societal constraints."
"Big words." He grinned at her glower. "All very true, but there's another reason."
"The curtain comes down, happily ever after. That isn't real. Happily is work; ever after is, what? A decade, a century? Life is every day, every moment. It's work."
"Exactly. You married a man… happily ever after. Except, not."
"Of course not! Bloody hell, that was the easy part!" Ophelia looked around. "How long is this staircase?"
"As long as it needs to be."
"You spent too much time with that prophetic dragon."
"Oh, I know." He wriggled his brows. "But I affected him more than the other way around, I assure you."
"I just bet. I married a man," she continued. "A stubborn man, with a busy life and a large family, many of whom I may end up killing. A man who's investigating corruption — which means I need to keep him alive, because I doubt people who embezzled millions will meekly accept the end of the golden goose." She sighed. "And that's just the next few months. We need to move houses, deal with his relations, the Ministry, society at large… Greece looks better and better."
"Because happily ever after is a lie. And so is 'do this one thing, fix everything, fade to black'. There's no 'thing' for you to do, Ophelia. You live, you make choices. You do what moral, sensible people do, and try to make the world a little better than you found it."
Quietly, she asked, "Can I tell him?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because it could… change… "
"Which you can't do because… ?"
"There’s nothing to change until it happens. Right."
Merlin smiled a little. "That's not what you're afraid of."
"What if he — "
"The man who figured out you'd travelled time by some fashion and, not only asked you to marry him anyway, but very deliberately didn't ask you anything about the future that would tell him your identity or benefit him directly?"
"It sounds stupid when you say it."
"Dear, it was always stupid."
"Shut up." He hummed cheerfully. "You never said what you do now."
"No, you told me that my puny mortal mind couldn't understand, but you didn't explain."
"I wait," he said quietly. "One day, my King will wake. I wait for that day. I chose to… stay aware, I suppose, instead of entering the normal cycle of life and death. When Arthur wakes, either because the world is ready or because Albion is about to fall, I will be ready, with all the knowledge I've accumulated. The price for that is to serve Magic in a different way than I did in life. Well," he chuckled, "there is still a great deal of meddling and poking my nose in things, only I do it at our Lady's behest instead of to save a royal idiot from himself."
Despite his humour, there was a distant sadness in his eyes. Wix legend held that Merlin and Arthur were lovers, despite both fathering children. Of course, the mothers of the their children were the same — Gwenhwyfar, Morgana Le Fay, and Niniane of the Isle each bore two children, one by Merlin and one by Arthur. That kind of symmetry could only be by design.
"How long will you wait?"
"Until the wait is over — really, Ophelia, for a clever witch you are quite oblivious."
Sympathy evaporated. He was exasperating. "Funny."
"I thought so," he told her cheerfully.
She fell silent, walking with him down the endless stairs. He seemed content to say nothing. Finally, she asked, "Just… live?"
Merlin stopped and turned her towards him. "Live. Love your husband. Raise from a child to a man the man who raised you as a child. Give your man a few more children — daughters, if you can, because that image is hilarious." She grinned. "Live, laugh, love, fight and fuck — that's the meaning of life, as far as I can tell. But there is one vital thing you can do." At her solemn look, he smiled. "Make mischief wherever you go. The world needs a little shaking up, wixen more than most."
"That,” Ophelia told him, "is something I can do."
"Well, then." He turned her and nudged her forward. When her foot fell on the next step, she felt wood under her. The stone staircase was gone, and she stood on the bottom landing of the Black House of Fara.
She went to kitchen and got a drink of water, then returned up the, perfectly normal, staircase. In the room she shared with her husband, Ophelia stripped off her wrap and crawled naked into bed and slid close to Orion.
His arm shifted, curling around her. Sleepily murmured.
She soothed him gently. Curled closer. Closed her eyes.
— — —
In the morning light, Ophelia kissed Orion softly. "I have something to tell you."
In the Marvel Movie Style:
Second Epilogue / Teaser
Hidden in the moors of England, a grand castle and great estate sprawled out behind ancient wards. Late morning light streamed in the tall gothic windows that lined the High Gallery. Arcturus often walked this way, choosing to follow a path that took him past the relics and images of his ancestors instead of a slightly shorter route to the library. Good or bad, dark or light, his family was his family and they had made him, and the House of Black, what they were.
In the centre of the back wall of the Gallery, an intricate and detailed Family Tree was etched in stone. The first name on it was so high up a ladder — or a broom — was needed to see it. The Tree spread out as if a living plant, sprawling out in all directions. It did not follow the direct line of descent, but included every cadet branch and line of the Black Family. Every bastard born had a place on the tree, if only to keep track of potential resentful enemies. Often such lines merged back into the Family by way of marriage to a different branch. No need to waste blood and magic just because some wix couldn't remember a simple contraception spell.
The Black Tree was the most intricate family record in western Europe. The secret of it came from an ancestor who had served Rome before its Fall — the first one, when the Christian Betrayer turned the Empire on its loyal wixen. Each Black line had a representation of the original which showed their own relations, but only the main Tree born every name and line.
As he always did, Arcturus skimmed over the Tree. He didn't know every name — no one could, without a year's dedicated study — but his habit of late involved checking the status of his close kin. HIs son and grandson's brush with death had made him paranoid.
His wife of fifty years settled her hand on his arm. "Checking again, Arcturus?"
He huffed. "If the boy — "
"He's forty-six, dear."
" — would stop gallivanting about and come home I wouldn't have to."
"Leave our son alone, Arcturus, he needs a little fun in his life."
"Apparently his fun is redheaded."
Melania Black, nee MacMillian chuckled. "Druella must be going mad with frustration. Lycoris, Cassiopeia and Lucrecia are enjoying torturing with her far too much."
"Do they know that you know?" he asked wryly.
"Of course not, I deserve some fun too."
" 'Fun', hmm?" he leered playfully. "I — wait a minute." Something on the Tree caught his eye. He might not have the whole thing memorize, but he knew this particular branch and been a little smaller days ago.
"What is it, dear?"
"I know the name of Orion's redheaded witch."
"Have you been holding out… no." She peered forward. "He didn't."
Arcturus sighed. "Of course he did."