THE DARK AGE
Arthur faded slowly out of life. His eyes had closed some time earlier and would not open again. His limbs had gone leaden, and he had no command over them for the first time since infancy.
The only sign that he remained yet in the world was the sensation of Merlin's arms around him. Arthur could not feel his own arms, nor the ground beneath him, nor the sun on his face, but he could still feel Merlin's hands moving him, Merlin's hands clasping him, Merlin's tears against Arthur's cheek.
At some point, he was fairly sure there was a dragon. Arthur saw it, though not with his eyes.
A dragon, he thought, as much as he could think; fond, resigned, annoyed. Oh, Merlin.
He felt the desperation in Merlin's touch more than the touch itself. Merlin still fought to get him somewhere to save his life. That was no use. Arthur was already dead, as anyone with eyes could see--even eyes that would never see again.
Still, it had been nice to hope, for a little while.
But now even the pressure of Merlin's arms faded into the grey. Arthur remained at peace as long as even the faint sense of Merlin's presence anchored him.
Then, abruptly, Merlin was gone, and Arthur finally panicked. He fought against death with the full force of his will, but his last rush of strength had come too late. Where he had been drifting, now something was pulling him away, faster and faster, until death surged over him with finality.
Arthur felt the sunlight before he saw it. It warmed his cheeks and tickled across the bridge of his nose. It was the first warmth he had felt since death had taken him from Merlin. When he thought about it, it was the first anything he had felt since that moment.
It must be over now. He must be dead.
Resignation overrode reluctance, and he opened his eyes to the spirit world. He had to blink past a great deal of non-ethereal grit, only to squint into what could not possibly be the sun. Arthur remembered the spirit world being somewhat dimmer. More mist, less of a glare.
"Father?" he mumbled as he tried to move his fingers. As near as he could tell, they seemed to be folded over his chest. With a creak and a crackle, he managed to draw them up to wipe at his eyes. "Father?"
Surely his father would have come to him. Despite the way they had parted last, despite how Arthur had ended his life, despite how he had given thanks to a sorcerer and left his kingdom in the hands of the commoner queen Uther despised--surely his father would not leave him alone here.
No one answered him. Arthur rubbed his eyes harder and used his other hand to lever himself upright. He felt stone under his palm, warm from the same sun that was disrupting his vision. But how could the sun be here?
Arthur shook his head to clear the rest of the cobwebs. As his eyes finally focused, they veered wildly between stone and grass and, high over his head, blue sky paled by the incandescent sun.
He was in a tower, one that had seen better days, as it had neither a floor nor a roof, nor much of anything in between. Or perhaps this was how towers always looked in the afterlife: smooth stone walls circled around him and stretched up to the open sky. Arthur could not say.
Someone (and he had no ideas about that, either) had laid him on a stone slab that was not quite a tomb, not quite an altar. He still wore his chain mail and cloak; he hoped that meant Merlin had given him a proper knight’s funeral.
For a spirit, he felt solid enough, except for his knees. Those buckled like they were made of air the moment he eased off the stone and asked his legs to take his weight. They declined, and after a hard jolt to both joints and dignity, he found himself making a closer inspection of the grass that flourished where stone or tile might once have been laid.
Arthur patted it wearily and pushed himself back to his feet. This time, they held him, more or less, as he turned around in a slow circle.
Behind him, a doorway arched empty with more green and blue beyond it. Arthur took a lurching step toward it, and then another, and another, until he was walking steadily out of the tower and out into the green that was almost as blinding as the sun in the tower.
Outside the tower, the sun was only just clearing the horizon. Arthur stared at the hazy sky in confusion. He blinked to clear his vision, but the sun was still not where he thought it had been. He must have been more dazed upon waking than he thought.
The tower stood at the top of a hill with glimmering water spread out beneath it: a river, or perhaps a lake. The hill sloped sharply down to the rocky shoreline, but when Arthur turned to the west, the grass rolled away in gentle waves. Fluffy white specks that could only be sheep dotted the slopes between his hill and the trees.
Nearer to Arthur, a small house perched on the side of the hill. More like a hut--a cottage, if Arthur were generous. He squinted at the chimney, but he could not make out whether the wisps of white were smoke or clouds or just his imagination.
"Hello?" he called. His voice sounded like gravel; he wondered if he was meant to sound that way for all eternity. At least if he ever got to haunt anyone, he would sound the part.
For lack of any better option, Arthur began trudging down the hill toward the cottage. His stride grew a little firmer with each step, although he still felt a little wobble in his gait. Perhaps this was a rather odd adjustment to incorporeality.
Arthur tried the door and found it unlatched. His voice sounded louder when he stuck his head into the cottage. "Hello?"
The hush fell again as soon as his voice faded, making him feel like he had not spoken at all. He pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside.
The interior felt cozy while giving the impression of greater space than one would expect from the outside. It reminded Arthur of Gwen's old house in the lower town, and of the cluttered shack in the woods where the crazy old sorcerer had lived.
The crazy old sorcerer who was Merlin. That would take an afterlife or two to sink in. He supposed Merlin had not really been at the tavern all those nights Arthur had been without him.
"Because he wanted to live in a crazy old man shack in the woods." Arthur shook his head. "Because that makes so much sense, Merlin. Even for you."
Speaking aloud, even just to mutter to himself, was exhausting. Behind a screen in the back of the cottage he found a wide, surprisingly thick bed. The mattress was soft and fresh when he sat down on the edge of it. For an instant, Arthur longed for a nap. Why not? He had only just woken, but so far he had found little else to occupy his time.
Instead he continued his puzzled survey of his surroundings. Shelves of empty jars lined one wall, clear and clean with lack of use. But a large basket near the door brimmed with bright apples as though someone had come in from the orchard and then hurried to other business.
Arthur entertained the fleeting thought that this might be meant to be his new home. He took a wistful pleasure from the idea, though he had never imagined living anywhere alone. The apples alone might not be proof of another's presence, but as he looked around, other, smaller signs caught his eyes: a chair askew at the table. A small writing desk had a quill left blotting a flurry of strewn parchment while a crumpled page had fallen and been left on the floor.
He picked it up and smoothed it out over the desk. His eyes widened to see a familiar sharp scrawl. Strong emotion had blotted and smudged the words, but Merlin's hand was unmistakable.
Had Merlin written this for him? How had he gotten it here? Could Merlin write again? Could Arthur respond?
His fist smashed down on the desk as his chest twisted with grief for what he had left behind. He thought the afterlife would bring peace and clarity, but Arthur's fragile peace had shattered.
He had a hundred unanswered questions and an equal battalion of regrets. So many of both seemed to revolve around Merlin. He had known from the start that Merlin was more than he seemed, but he had thought that he was the one who knew Merlin tip to tail, all his secrets and oddities, his startling bravery and wisdom.
Arthur had known for a good while that Merlin deserved more than a life of fetch and carry. Perhaps not a knighthood—though now he knew that Merlin most likely could easily defeat Arthur himself in combat—but a seat at the council table, a seat at Arthur’s right hand, that Merlin had more than earned, magic or not.
He always thought there would be time for that, someday. Merlin would succeed Gaius as physician and advisor and take the seat that, in Arthur’s mind, Gaius was holding in trust for him. Until then, Arthur had every right to keep Merlin and all his unique qualities to himself--even, apparently, the qualities Arthur himself knew nothing about.
The rush of emotion nauseated and weakened him again, and the walls around him stifled him. Leaving the strange note on the desk, Arthur made a beeline for the door.
He emerged into the sunlight, which no longer warmed him. He turned in a helpless circle with no idea where to go or what to do. Never in his life had he felt so aimless and alone.
Then movement in the distance caught his eye. He turned toward it—a boat had just come ashore and a figure was climbing out of it, stumbling in haste, familiar even at this distance.
"Merlin?" Arthur strained to see better. He had no awareness of leaning forward until he overbalanced and crashed down onto his knees for the second time that morning.
He swayed there on his knees, cursing his weakness. If this was life after death, it was no marvel that his father’s spirit had been so blasted cranky. At least Arthur’s weakness had saved him from a display of greater weakness, racing down a hill to greet someone who could not possibly be here.
"Arthur?" The shout drifted over the sound of pounding footsteps that grew louder until they skidded to a stop next to him. "Arthur. Arthur."
Then familiar hands gripped his shoulders to support and shake him. Arthur raised his head to blink up into Merlin’s wide, wet eyes. "Merlin?"
For another few moments, all Merlin could say was Arthur’s name. Arthur tried to believe he was a vision, a projection, a delusion, but Merlin’s fingers felt solid against Arthur’s neck and his breath warmed Arthur’s cheek when their foreheads pressed together.
"But how did you get here?" Arthur gripped Merlin’s elbows, which felt bonier than usual, to keep him close. "Did you use the horn?"
"What?" Merlin pulled back enough to wipe his eyes, which rolled to look askance at Arthur at the same time. "What would I need with a horn?"
Arthur clamped down hard on a giggle of undignified madness. "Of course. You have magic."
Merlin’s mouth quirked. "Yes. But I didn’t need it for this."
The half smile pulled at Merlin’s drawn face until it appeared more of a grimace. Arthur frowned and tried to arrest the sinking of his heart. "Oh hell. Merlin. Tell me you didn’t actually off yourself to come serve me in the afterlife."
The grimace turned into a gape. "Excuse me?"
Arthur brought his hands up to span Merlin’s ribs. He could feel each one pressing into his palms. "No, I see, you wasted away pining for me, didn’t you? Really, Merlin."
Merlin pulled back, eyes and cheeks blazing with indignation. "I did not, you self-important twat. I’m not dead at all."
"Oh." Relief sighed through him, chased by selfish disappointment that Merlin’s companionship would be fleeting. To have Merlin by his side in this next life felt reassuring and right. "Then how are you here, if you didn’t use the horn, or your magic?"
"I took the boat." Merlin hiccupped a laugh. "You're not dead, Arthur. You're still alive. Or alive again. I don't know."
Slowly, Arthur looked down at his chest and brought his hand up to press against the spot where Mordred's blade had pierced him. His mail gleamed, unbloodied, unblemished.
He yanked it up, scrabbling at the gambeson beneath. "Here, let me," Merlin said, though his hands trembled when he reached for Arthur's hem.
Underneath all the layers of metal and linen was nothing but smooth, healthy flesh. Arthur had to pull at the skin to see the thin line where his mortal wound had been.
"How long have I been here?" He rubbed at the faint scar with awe. Either a great deal of time or a great deal of magic had gone into his healing. His heart--his living, beating heart--raced with suspicion that it had been both.
"A year, more or less." As soon as Arthur dropped his hand, Merlin's palm covered the spot over his heart. "You slept in the tower, but I didn't think--the dragon was right."
"The dragon?" Suddenly Arthur remembered the wind on his face and the beat of wings beneath him, though he had not thought he felt anything at the time. "Merlin, I expect an explanation immediately."
Merlin took a deep breath, hesitated, then opened his mouth and inundated Arthur with the most fantastical stream of words he had ever heard. By the time Merlin finished, Arthur had his palms flat on the ground to brace himself against his spinning thoughts.
"The once and future king. I remember you calling me that, long ago. Have you always known this would happen?"
Merlin's gaze drifted to the tower behind Arthur. "No. Not like this. Not now. But I always knew you were meant for greatness."
Arthur turned his head and cleared his throat. He had not realized how much pressure his death had relieved until it weighed down on him again. "The hour of Albion's greatest need," he said. "Camelot is in danger, then?"
Merlin sighed and bowed his head. "I suppose so. It usually is."
"Then we must go at once." His legs still felt weak, but the urgency propelled him to his feet. He did not understand half of what Merlin had told him; he suspected he would never understand the rest.
What he did understand was that he had left Gwen alone to face whatever new threat had arisen. Though she was a capable queen with the best of his knights around her, it was his duty to protect Camelot, as he always had and always would as long he was able.
Merlin got to his feet as well, stealing guarded looks at Arthur in between swipes at his damp eyes. Arthur faced him without flinching or saying anything more. No doubt Merlin wanted Arthur to react to the rest of it, all those things Merlin had been keeping hidden: fate and magic and Arthur’s very life and death.
Alas, Merlin would have to be the one to languish in ignorance for a while longer. Right at this moment Arthur could handle putting one foot in front of the other; all else would have to wait.
"Right," Merlin said at last and reached for Arthur’s discarded mail. "Camelot needs her king."
Once dressed again, Arthur shook off Merlin’s supporting hands. He stayed steady enough on his feet until they reached the boat and a sudden wobble nearly sent him into the water. Merlin caught him—then caught his breath as he lowered Arthur down into the boat.
Arthur righted himself. The boat began to move away from the shore under the power of no sail or oar that he could see. Merlin must be propelling them with magic, though Merlin’s breath still hitched too much to speak.
His eyes flicked from Arthur’s face to the view over Arthur’s shoulder, and then down to his own hands. One hand came up to knuckle again at Merlin’s eye, dry now but red.
Something flickered in Arthur’s mind. Like the dragon, it was another memory he could not have seen: Merlin on the far shore, face crumpled in grief, turning away from the tower beyond the water. A chill crawled through Arthur’s belly.
"Was this my funeral boat?" he asked, deceptively quiet under the wave of nauseating panic crashing over him.
At the question, Merlin put on his shifty look; Arthur could scarcely believe he had failed to recognize that look for what it was all these years. "It wasn’t really a funeral, per se. You weren’t quite dead yet."
And how had he never realized the extent to which Merlin’s explanations failed to explain anything at all? "So you brought me across? To the—the magical healing tower?"
"The boat wouldn’t take me. Not then, anyway." Merlin’s shoulders had stiffened as though even Arthur’s living presence could not lessen the distress of the memory. "And I still don’t know exactly what healed you. But yes, more or less."
"Wait a minute." The outrage was easy to summon and pleasantly diverting. "You just put me in a boat and set me adrift?"
"I had no choice! It was the only chance to save you." Merlin’s stricken look twisted into Arthur’s chest—so he poked harder.
"You had Gaius and a dragon and all that magic, and that was the best last ditch effort you could come up with?" Arthur snorted and shook his head. "I suppose I should be grateful you didn’t set me on fire before you shoved me out to sea."
"It’s only a lake, you big baby." Merlin’s eyes finally blazed back to life, and they had a highly satisfying argument all the way back to shore.
"Clearly arranging transport is not your greatest skill," Arthur said as he hauled himself out of the boat. He splashed into the shallow water that lapped at the shore’s edge. "But please tell me your horse can bear two of us."
"Er, I’m sure it could." Merlin splashed up beside him and Arthur eyed his bony frame. "If I had one."
"You have no horse. How did you even get here?" And how would Arthur get home in time and with the strength to help his people?
"There’s a village a few hours walk to the east," Merlin said. "We can get horses there. Don’t worry. Whatever is going on in Camelot, Gwen can handle it until we get there."
"Of course." Arthur nodded and forced that knowledge down into the part of his brain that wanted to start running. If Gwen could not handle a crisis, he would never have trusted her with his kingdom, which meant he would never have married her at all.
Merlin set out at a brisker pace than Arthur could usually coax from him. "By the way," he called over his shoulder. "Gwen repealed the law against magic six months ago."
Merlin’s pace was also brisker than Arthur’s heavy legs could match. Merlin disappeared into the trees, but then reappeared and fell back to Arthur’s side. "I thought you might want some time to get used to that before we got back."
Something about the soft apology in Merlin’s voice made Arthur feel like a proper villain. "I suppose," he said, "that I would have got around to it myself, sooner or later."
If he had not been certain of that when he said it, Merlin’s smile ensured it. "I suppose you would have done," Merlin answered, and when his arm slid around Arthur’s back, Arthur let himself take comfort from it.
He cleared his throat. "What else happened in Camelot while I was—away?"
Merlin frowned and looked to the side. Before Arthur could press him, he brightened and launched into an extended story about the kitchen mouser having kittens when everyone thought it was a tom. Next was the minor crisis when it was briefly thought that Leon's new squire had got Lord Ethelwhite's daughter into a spot of difficulty. Then Gwen had been kind to the apprentice seamstress who had ruined the queen's new gown.
None of it had the least bit to do with the management or defense of Camelot; Arthur let him babble nonetheless. It felt like home, and homesickness swirled inside him, lit by flashes of joy that he would walk Camelot's halls again after all. He only wished he could ride Merlin's waves of nonsense to get there faster.
Instead, his stumbles slowed their progress more and more as the day went on. Finally Merlin drew him to a comfortable spot under an ancient oak and deposited him on the mossy rock beneath it.
"I'm fine, Merlin." Arthur tried to lever himself back up, but both his protest and his arse fell flat when his legs could not meet the challenge.
"We won't make it before nightfall at this rate, and no one will sell us a horse after dark," Merlin said, much more reasonably than Arthur liked.
"They'll give us all the horses we want. I'm the king of Camelot."
"The king of Camelot has been dead for a year." Merlin knelt down next to him. "And you need rest if you're to be any good to Camelot."
"I've done nothing but sleep for that year." Arthur ducked Merlin's hand when Merlin tried to examine his eyes like he was a horse himself. "How much more rest could I possibly need?"
Merlin's grin faded. "The magic of the Sidhe healed you, but we can't know if it healed you completely or what toll it took in the healing."
"At least there's something you don't know," Arthur grumbled, but he let Merlin prod him a bit, just to make one of them feel better.
"There's too much I don't know," Merlin told him and then stood up and disappeared into the trees.
He returned with an armful of kindling, a scarf full of berries, and a brace of dead rabbits. Arthur could at least handle skinning the rabbits while Merlin built a fire. He lit it with no more than a blink of his eyes while Arthur tried not to watch with awe and discomfort. Merlin had got used to new habits without Arthur around.
They ate in companionable silence, which continued after they had licked the last of the grease and juice from their fingers. Arthur's thoughts drifted between distant Camelot and the man beside him. A year could be such a long time. He knew both must have changed in his absence. He wondered if either truly needed him back, at least once the immediate crisis passed.
Merlin's hand on his shoulder disrupted his brooding. "You're nodding off sitting up. Better get some real sleep. Tomorrow could be a very long day."
Arthur held back his sigh and nodded. He stretched out over the soft ground. "Wake me at daybreak. I want to reach that village before they finish their breakfast."
For a few minutes, he could hear Merlin puttering around the fire. Then Merlin finally came to curl up next to Arthur, back pressed against Arthur's side.
And then Arthur slept again.
He woke with the sun warm on his face. The sensation sparked a greater blaze of irritation. "Merlin!" he grunted before he even opened his eyes. How unconscionably long Merlin must have let him sleep for the sun to be reaching him through the trees overhead.
Yet when he did open his eyes, the sun was not filtering through the forest canopy. Instead, he squinted at its direct glare through the long funnel of the tower where he had woken last.
Slowly he sat up. It was the same place; he had never seen anything else resembling it. "What the bloody--?"
He trailed off, sheer confusion overcoming his anger. He could not imagine any reason Merlin would bring him back here or how Merlin could have moved Arthur so far without waking him.
At least his body felt stronger than it had yesterday. His legs held him without a wobble when he rolled off the stone slab. The food and rest must have helped, though he was not in the mood to admit Merlin was right about anything.
This time he knew where he was going. He strode out onto the green hill and again was surprised at the change from the midday brightness to a dimmer dawn. Before he could look back at the tower, something down by the water caught his eye: the boat was already there, pulled up onto the shore.
Arthur started down toward it at an uneven jog, but stopped after a few steps. The boat had been pulled ashore, and Arthur certainly had not done it. That meant someone had to be here on the island with him, either Merlin or someone else. Either way, Arthur had many questions for them.
He turned toward the cottage. That was the only place a person might be where he could not see them, unless they were hiding behind an apple tree or under a sheep.
The cottage stood as quiet as it had yesterday, though he thought it had a more inhabited air. A fly buzzed around a small compost pile at the edge of a garden he had not noticed yesterday. The front windows had been blocked against the sun, and Arthur thought he spotted a wisp of smoke drifting from the chimney.
Arthur's hand brushed along his belt as he reached the cottage, flexing in a futile wish for his sword. He eased the door open and took a wary step into the dim interior. He scanned the room and for a moment thought it was empty after all.
Then he heard the rustle and pained whimper from the bed. Although Merlin had always been more likely to be one to observe Arthur sleeping, the intimacy of their life together meant Arthur knew well enough the sound of Merlin caught in a nightmare. He headed for the screen shielding the bed.
"No." Merlin lay fully clothed on top of the rumpled quilt. His body twitched as Arthur approached. "What? What did I do? No. No."
"Merlin." Arthur gave Merlin's shoulder a firm shake.
He jumped back when Merlin sat bolt upright with a gasp. "Arthur?"
"Yes. Remember me?" In his relief at finding Merlin, Arthur let himself glower his annoyance at finding himself back here once more. "King of Camelot? Handy in a crisis? Incompetent manservant with no sense of direction?"
Merlin showed no flicker of reaction to the jibe. He started shaking his head, and although he stared right at Arthur, Arthur did not feel as though Merlin saw him at all. "I don't know what I was supposed to do. What did I do wrong?"
"Merlin." The anguish in Merlin's voice made Arthur's stomach clench. "Whatever wits you have, you cannot lose them now. Do you understand?"
Merlin's chest heaved once with a dry sob, and Arthur had an instant of panic that Merlin truly had lost his mind overnight. But Merlin calmed after another breath and his eyes focused on Arthur. "Arthur. You're really here again."
Arthur sat on the edge of the bed so Merlin could feel the reality of him. "In the flesh, at least as near as I can tell. And you have even more explaining to do than you did yesterday."
"Yesterday." Merlin shook his head. "Arthur, you've slept for nearly another year."
The breath rushed out of his lungs, and his head started to spin by the time it returned. "A year."
"Yes. You were sleeping like normal, but when I tried to wake you at dawn, I couldn't. You were dying, exactly like before. I had to bring you back."
"How is that possible?" The first year had not seemed unreasonable, given that his last memory was of dying. But yesterday, he remembered everything from yesterday so clearly. More than a night could not have passed.
"I don't know." Merlin dropped his head. "I don't understand Sidhe magic. No one ever has."
"And Camelot? What happened? Is everyone safe?" Fear gnawed into his belly; he had failed his people again.
"Nothing happened. There was no danger." Merlin looked up, and the bewilderment in his eyes scared Arthur more than anything else. "They were preparing for the harvest. Already planning the feast. I spent half a year there, but nothing happened."
"Perhaps the danger was averted then," Arthur pressed. "But it must have returned, or why would I have woken again?"
"Maybe. But I've been searching and scrying and I haven't found so much as a cloud on the horizon. Magical or otherwise."
"So you think this is something else. My being here."
"I think so. I just don't know what." Merlin clenched his fists on his knees. "I don't know what I did wrong last time. I don't know what I'm supposed to do now."
Silence settled over them; to Arthur, it felt like a shroud. "How long do you think I have?" he asked at last. "This time."
Merlin shrugged. "I've no idea. Another day and a night? Until you fall asleep again?"
Arthur slowly shifted further onto the bed until his back braced against the footboard. "Then I won't fall asleep." He nudged Merlin's knee with the toe of his boot. "You'll keep me awake. Tell me a story."
He received a blank look instead. "I don't know any stories."
"Really." Arthur arched his eyebrows. "You can't think of a single thing to tell me that might interest me? Not one thing that happened that I might not know about?"
Merlin had the grace to wince. Then his face smoothed. Gone was Arthur's bumbling manservant; now Arthur faced the powerful man he had only met in the last days of his old life. The sorcerer. Arthur's sorcerer.
"I suppose there might be one or two tales I could tell," Merlin admitted. A wry half smile toyed around his lips, and he looked directly into Arthur's eyes as he started to talk.
There was no babble this time, no nonsense, though Merlin was telling the most unbelievable tales. Arthur believed every word and hardly noticed the day passing until his stomach interrupted with loud rumbling.
All the time that Merlin talked and even as they ate meager repasts of apples and water, Arthur rarely took his eyes from Merlin's face. He was not sure what he was looking for until he found it. For all the changes, for all the confidence and power, Merlin was still simply Merlin--every bit the lovely idiot he had always seemed, though in different ways than Arthur had known.
"How are you feeling?" Merlin kept asking after the sun had set again. "Are you tired?"
"Tired of apples and water," Arthur grumbled. "But not sleepy. Keep talking. I always had my suspicions about that blasted wyvern."
In the darkest hours of the night, Arthur still did not feel drowsy, but when he reached for another apple, his body had begun to feel heavy and lifeless once more. By the time he finished it, lifting his hand to his mouth had become almost too difficult to manage.
"Merlin," he said into the brief quiet of a pause. "I'm not feeling so well."
Merlin stiffened. He reached out to touch Arthur's shoulder. "It's nearly dawn. You just need to hang on past the sunrise."
"I don't think I can," Arthur admitted. The mere weight of Merlin's hand on his shoulder unbalanced him; after a moment of struggle with his unresponsive limbs, he gave in and let himself sink down onto his side on the bed. "I'm going to sleep again, aren't I?"
Merlin bent over him, clutching at his shoulders. "But you'll wake again. I know you will."
Even breathing was a struggle, but Arthur managed a short, bitter laugh. "When? Another year? What good is that to anyone?"
"A year." Merlin's hands slackened on Arthur's shoulders, but then tightened again an instant later. "Wait. I hadn't kept track of the date. It wasn't a year more or less."
"What?" Arthur tried to ask, but his lips would barely move and his tongue not at all. He struggled against the darkness looming beneath him; he was losing swiftly. His eyes fixed on the window, where the stars had just begun to fade into a lightening sky.
The last thing he felt was Merlin's lips against his ear. "Don't be afraid, Arthur. I think I understand it now."
Arthur wrinkled his nose before he fully woke. At the same time, the pungent scent of pickled eggs made his mouth water. Merlin had better have left him enough time for a good breakfast before training.
He smiled and stretched and opened his eyes. Merlin hovered above him; the crease between his eyes cleared into a grin as though Arthur’s waking had washed away all his worries. A normal day in Camelot, then, and all was well.
Then Merlin moved aside and the sun hit his face, burning reality deep into his eye sockets. The smell of the eggs turned his stomach, and he pushed Merlin’s proffered hand away as he sat up. "How long?" he croaked.
"A year." Merlin radiated joy; apparently another year without Arthur had suited him well. "A year, Arthur, to the moment."
"I’ll try not to be offended by your glee, Merlin." The pickled egg almost ended up smeared into Arthur’s chainmail as Merlin reached to steady his elbow. Arthur nearly allowed it to happen, just to make Merlin have to clean it out of the links, but he evaded the threat at the last moment.
Merlin kept grinning and used his free hand to tug at Arthur’s arm. "Come on. I’ll explain over breakfast."
Arthur followed him out of the tower. Emerging into the early morning light relieved his eyes and his nerves. The island, as strange and isolated as it was, at least felt more real and alive than the never-ending noontime of the tower.
As they walked toward the cottage, Merlin pitched the pickled egg overhand and laughed as it bounced twice down the hill before splattering across the grass. "No worries. I have better for you."
In fulfillment of his promise, a waft of baking loveliness tickled Arthur’s nostrils. His mood improved instantly, and he hastened his steps. "I could use a good meal. Haven’t had one in years, have I?"
Merlin opened the door and waved him inside. "Fit for a king, I promise you."
When Arthur stepped into the cottage, even the anticipation of his watering mouth did not prepare him for the sheer volume of food Merlin had managed to lay out inside. He had expected some bread and meats, his usual morning repast. Those he found on the table, but in such quantity as to feed all of the knights of Camelot—or all the ones remaining, at least.
Fruits and cakes and wheels of cheese piled around the platter of meats, so much that he was not convinced the table could bear the weight. On the shelves and desk, and every other available surface, sat tarts, loaves of bread, jars of jam and preserves, ales and jugs of wine. The scent of roasting chicken drifted to him, borne on the waves of heat from the corner stove.
"Merlin." Arthur took another step in and stumbled over an enormous jar of olives. "How in the world did you manage this?"
"It was not easy, but doable once I knew exactly when you’d be back." Merlin pulled out one of the chairs at the table and gestured toward it with a flourish. "Sit, my lord, and let me serve you."
"Well, I must say, this is more like it." Arthur took his seat in front of the one somewhat clear space on the table and let Merlin begin piling things on a plate for him. "Now start talking. You can serve us and explain what’s going on at the same time."
"Every year, Arthur." Merlin put down the plate of meats and cheeses in front of Arthur and began plopping pieces of fruit on top of it. "You’re waking up every year. At dawn, on the anniversary of the day you came here, you wake up, and then sleep again when the sun comes up the next day."
Arthur paused in the act of reaching for a slice of ham. "But why would that happen? That makes no sense."
"I don’t know," Merlin admitted and sank down into the other chair. "I can’t think of a reason unless it’s that you need to wake every now and then to keep healthy and ready for whatever Albion’s greatest need turns out to be."
Arthur stared at the plate, his joy in the food dimming as it became a duty instead of a treat. "Yes. I suppose I need to keep my strength up."
Merlin’s hand settled on his forearm, making Arthur realize that his fist was clenched on the tabletop. "This is still a good thing. You’re not dead. And maybe one day a year doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a lot better than watching you lie in that tower for the rest of my life."
His calming voice sharpened into a ferocity that made Arthur’s gaze snap to his face. Without his nonthreatening façade, Merlin’s eyes burned with power—and a devotion that Arthur had once taken as his due, but now astounded him down to his bones.
"We have a whole day," he said and watched Merlin’s lips curve. "We’ve accomplished great things in less than that."
Merlin squeezed his arm before sitting back and waving his arm at the heaping table. "Go on, tuck in. Not an apple in sight, I swear."
Arthur obeyed, buoyed once more to savor the taste of the food and the gift Merlin had made of it. After only a few bites of ham, half a pear, and a bit of jam on bread, his stomach began to ache.
"We’ve tarts," Merlin said as soon as he pushed his plate away, and set one in front of him.
Arthur took a bite to appease him. The tart was obviously Camelot made, as was the wine that washed it town. Wetness prickled behind his eyes, though whether for the reminder of home or the clear service of love Merlin had undertaken, he was not certain and did not wish to contemplate further.
"There’s a raspberry one as well," Merlin said when Arthur failed to take a second bite.
Arthur shook his head. The thought of eating anything more made him feel ill, though he had consumed much less than his usual wont. "Can’t eat that much. I’ve had no real activity in... well, I suppose it’s years."
Merlin nodded and reluctantly cleared Arthur’s plate. He wolfed down the rest of the tart with much less reluctance, and then was smiling again. "We could take a walk, if you like. Here, I brought you some clean clothes. I thought you might want to get out of your armor."
As soon as Merlin said that, Arthur wanted very much to be rid of the heavy chainmail and stifling padding beneath. Merlin helped him strip it off and get into a fresh tunic and trousers. As they left the cottage and set out on a walk, Arthur lifted his arm to his nose to inhale the scent of the herbs the Camelot laundresses always used to sweeten his clothes.
"Smells like home," he said when Merlin raised his eyebrows. "I suppose...I suppose there’s no hope of returning to Camelot, even for a day?"
Merlin turned his head to look out over the orchard as they walked. "Camelot is at least four days away even on a fast horse. Unless I had a dragon, I don’t think I could get you there and back in time."
It was Arthur’s turn to raise his eyebrows at that.
"I don’t have a dragon," Merlin clarified with a grimace. "Er, not readily available, anyway."
"Right." He would have to get used to statements like that, he supposed. At least he would have the chance. "And what did everyone in Camelot say about it?"
"I only told Gaius. We thought it’d be better to wait until we were sure I was right and you’d come back." They walked in silence for a few more steps before Merlin spoke again. "I haven’t told Gwen anything at all, really."
He had not considered this, that Merlin had kept Arthur’s bizarre condition as much of a secret as he did most everything else. "So she thinks I’m dead. Everyone thinks I’m dead."
"Not exactly. They came here once—Gwen and Leon and...everyone." Merlin stopped and turned to look out over the water. Arthur could see only the edge of his face. "When you... when I brought you here, I sent a message to Gaius. I had to tell them that I’d failed to save you, so they’d know—they’d know you weren’t coming home."
Arthur took a step forward, but stopped, arrested by the memory of the crumpled bit of parchment on the cottage floor. I failed. I’m sorry. Good-bye. "And you weren’t, either, were you?"
"No. I wouldn’t have been any good to them, then. Once the boat returned to shore, I came here and saw you in the tower. I couldn’t bear it, so I went back across the lake, and that’s where they found me."
"And you told them what happened to me?" Arthur found it difficult to imagine his queen and court here in Avalon, trampling the grass and scaring the sheep. Two worlds, and only Merlin seemed able to cross them with ease; he was unsure which seemed more otherworldly to him now.
"I told them what the Great Dragon told me—that you would sleep here until you were needed again. Gwen wanted to see you, but the boat wouldn’t take her and I...." Merlin turned his head further so that Arthur could see only the back of his head. "I wasn’t much help."
Arthur put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. He was sorry for Gwen’s grief, but Merlin’s grief was real and present before him and he found it difficult to think beyond it. "She knew you would take care of me."
Merlin’s back rose and fell in a deep sigh; then he turned around. "I’ll bring her to you next year. If she can’t cross here, you can cross to her. It’s only a day, but it’s better than nothing."
"No." Arthur was shaking his head before Merlin finished his plan. "She has a kingdom to rule. I’m no good to her like this, just a distraction."
"She’s your wife." Merlin’s eyes narrowed.
"And then I died. Let her move on." Arthur turned and strode down the hill, irrationally angry at Merlin for pressing the matter. With the ring he had sent her, he had said everything to Gwen that needed to be said.
He could eat little at the midday meal. By dinnertime, the mountains of food had begun to loom over him, depressing in their optimism. He would never eat even a fraction of this; he would never see his home or his people again. The cozy cottage felt like a dungeon cell.
Half buried under pies, a heavy wooden trunk caught Arthur’s eye. It had not been here the last time he woke and entered the cottage; he had last seen it in his own chambers in Camelot. "How did you get all of my clothes if no one knows I’m still alive? I hope you were more subtle than when you went around stealing Morgana’s dresses."
"I asked Gwen for them, and she gave them to me." Merlin took a bite out of a chicken leg and spent a contemplative moment sucking it out of his teeth. "I think she thought I’d gone insane with grief."
The matter-of-fact way he said it made Arthur nod slowly. "And had you?"
"It’s possible." Merlin shrugged, and after a moment, Arthur decided to accept his unconcern. Merlin had been at least half mad for most of the time Arthur had known him.
They toyed with their food in silence until Arthur pushed away his plate. "Next year," he said. "Bring me weapons, armor, and training gear. I need to keep fit. I need to be ready when I’m needed."
"All right," Merlin agreed and they said little else the rest of the night.
As dawn approached, Arthur felt the first leaden tug at his limbs. Slowly, he made himself stand. "I suppose this proves your theory," he said, but Merlin looked more stricken than triumphant.
"I’ll stay with you," he said, reaching for Arthur’s arm.
Arthur waved him off. "I’ll go back to the tower myself. You don’t need to see it again."
Merlin opened his mouth to argue; he clamped it shut again at Arthur’s grim look. He followed Arthur outside, but stopped at the door as Arthur climbed the hill.
Light spilled from inside the tower as he approached, pooling in the predawn darkness. Arthur found it strange, but oddly welcoming as he dragged himself the last few steps. He paused in the doorway, leaning against the wall; he felt Merlin’s gaze on him, but he did not look back.
He shuffled inside and the warmth of the overhead sun eased the growing stiffness in his limbs enough for him to climb onto his stone bed. The stone felt cooler through the fabric of his tunic; he sighed with gratitude at not having to fall asleep in his chainmail yet again. It made it easier to relax and let the magic take him under again.
There was a different quality to his sleep this time. Arthur was not dreaming, not exactly, but he had awareness of time, identity, and flickers of things beyond him, as though his knowledge of his circumstance had lifted a veil from his eyes. He stood motionless, suspended between one world and the next.
He knew that Merlin was beside him almost at once; Merlin must have followed him into the tower as the dawn took him. He felt Merlin’s hands on his arm, on his face, anchoring him to the then and there. Even when Merlin moved away, Arthur felt his presence until finally Merlin went beyond the water and left Arthur empty and adrift.
Time felt strange. It flowed around him in a swift current, but he did not travel with it. He had never considered the motion of time before, but he knew that this was not the natural way of it. Arthur watched a year drain away, measured and finite, until he felt his own physical presence slot back into the world as though he had never left it.
He opened his eyes into the heat of the sun that told him he was alive again.
"Good morning." Merlin sat cross legged on the ground nearby, running a polishing cloth over a helm and checking his reflection in the shine.
Arthur sat up; at some point during the year, Merlin had draped a blanket over him and put a soft pillow under his head. He pushed the covers aside and tested his limbs. He disliked the stiffness in muscle and joint that made him feel still wounded. "Did you bring the equipment?"
Merlin held up the helm to show off its gleam. "Obviously."
"Good." Arthur stood and reached for the helm. "No more sitting idle. Time is passing."
Merlin’s long look only unbalanced him further until Merlin nodded and stood up. "Right."
They walked out into the cool dawn. Merlin had not just brought weapons, he had brought entire racks of them. Arthur ran his hands over his favorite practice swords and maces, lances and crossbows. As Merlin pulled his own training gear on, resignation oozing from every pore, Arthur tried to imagine they were still in Camelot, ready to take to the training field.
He gestured for Merlin to take up the huge wooden practice shield that served as one of Arthur's favorite targets. "Ow," Merlin complained when he took a heavy blow from Arthur's sword.
Arthur silently echoed the sentiment; the blow rang as hard up his arm and into his shoulder as it did into Merlin's shield. He pressed forward, expelling his frustration in blow after blow until Merlin tumbled backward to the ground.
Normally Merlin would have a litany of complaints ready at this point, but instead he struggled to his feet and faced Arthur again with grim determination. Normally that would please Arthur; now it only heightened his frustration with the reminder of how much, even now, he was being patronized.
"Why are you doing this?" he shouted and swung his blade to slash at the grass.
"What? Helping you train?" Merlin stood and dropped his guard, looking as puzzled and innocent as a puppy, like Arthur could demolish him without losing his breath.
"Acting like you're nothing more than my hapless manservant when we both know you're anything but." How Merlin must have rolled his eyes at him. Every time Merlin called Arthur a cabbage head, he must have truly believed Arthur an idiot without peer. "Come on, fight me."
The puzzlement slowly faded and peeled away to reveal Merlin's true face. "All right," he said after a contemplative pause. "Let's see how we fare."
He lifted his hand; Arthur lifted his sword and hoped he knew what he was getting into. Arthur had defeated sorcerers before--although, perhaps he had not after all. Merlin had been at his side every time.
Arthur focused on Merlin's eyes, waiting for him to give away his first strike. He almost missed the subtle flick of Merlin's fingers, and when he saw it, it told him nothing about what was about to happen or what he could do to counter it.
The whack on his backside made him yelp like a pup. He spun and struck away the blade right before the flat was about to make another go at his arse. "The hell? What--?"
Merlin snorted behind him, but nobody stood in front of him. The sword swung in the air, wielded by an invisible hand. He knew he was gawping, so much so that he missed the telling dip right before the sword struck at him in earnest and only just got his own blade up in time to deflect it.
The sword moved in quick, expert moves, driving him backwards, sideways, and in circles. Arthur dripped with sweat before he had the chance to glance over at Merlin.
His least favorite servant was sitting with his back against the wall of the cottage, legs stretched out in front of him with another helmet on his lap being polished to a shine. He looked up with a grin. "How's it going over there?"
"How are you doing this?" Arthur gasped out the words, lungs working harder than they had needed to in years. "How are you so skilled at swordplay?"
"I'm not. You are." Merlin held the helmet up, making a show of checking the gleam in the morning light. "It's linked to you with all your skills, strategy, and experience."
"You mean I'm fighting myself?" Arthur yelped. For a moment, he fancied he could see a phantom Arthur opposing him. The sword twirled in mid-air as though to salute him.
"Think of it this way: there's really no way to lose." Merlin waved his hand in the air again. Arthur jumped and swung around, expecting a new attacker to join the fray, but instead an apple floated over to nestle gently in Merlin's upturned palm.
Merlin took a big bite. Then his eyes flickered to the side, just in time for Arthur to raise his guard against the next sally.
Never had he been so evenly matched against an opponent. Whereas it had been disgruntling at first, slowly a love of it began to fill him, and he threw himself into the bout with no quarter given or expected. Without the concern of defending Camelot, of his own life or death, or even the training of a knight, he lost himself in the pure battle-joy.
Even at the end, when his exhausted legs gave out from under him, he loved it. If his endurance was not quite what he expected of himself, at least he still had a physical body with blood and breath in it--thanks to Merlin. He started laughing as he tumbled back onto the grass, pushing the combative sword away when it hovered over his chest. "I yield, I yield."
"I knew your pride would be the last thing to take a beating."
Merlin had brought out a simple breakfast of meat and fruit. Arthur had never seen anything so appetizing in any of the great halls of Albion. He crawled over and flopped back down at Merlin's side, jostling his hip with his elbow. "I can't believe you left me with nothing better to fight than a wooden post all those years."
"Because if I hadn't, you'd have tied me to the wooden post and set me on fire." Merlin's voice was mild, but the words themselves pricked in a way Arthur could no longer ignore.
"No," he said and hauled himself up to sit cross-legged next to his friend. "No, I wouldn't have."
Merlin's head did not move, but his eyes slid sideways toward Arthur. "No? Last I heard, you weren't sure what you would have done."
"I know I wouldn't have hurt you, nor suffered anyone else to do so." That seemed remarkably clear to him now, looking at Merlin’s profile as he had every day for the many years Merlin had spent at his side.
Merlin's eyes looked forward again. "Easier to say that now, though, isn't it?"
Arthur could see it now, the ache that Merlin must have hidden for years. It was there in the tense set of Merlin's shoulders, the way his head kept trying to drop before Merlin pulled it back up as though reminding himself he no longer needed to hide.
"I'm not saying it would have been easy," Arthur said haltingly. "I would have been angry and scared. But you would have persuaded me I was wrong, like you always do. I still don't understand why you never tried."
This time Merlin's head did drop and Arthur could read the anger in the clench of his jaw. It fascinated him, like he had learned a new language and a foreign script suddenly made sense to his eyes. He still could not tell if the anger was meant for Arthur or Merlin himself.
"It was always the wrong time," Merlin said at last. "Or at least never the right time."
Something jabbed his memory, like a stone in his boot. "You even told me that magic is evil; that my father was right about everything. Why would you say that?"
Merlin's throat worked, but he did not answer. Tension built in Arthur's nerves until he regretted saying anything in the first place. Why anyone ever wanted to talk about things like this, he could not imagine.
He reached out and gripped the back of Merlin's neck. "It doesn't matter." He gave Merlin a rough shake to snap him out of his mood. "It doesn't. What we do now matters."
Merlin took a shaky breath and swayed a little. Arthur pulled until Merlin's shoulder pressed into Arthur's chest and Arthur's breath stirred the hair behind Merlin's ear. This was easier.
After a few minutes Merlin snorted, and as soon as Arthur lifted his head to look at him, he found himself with a slice of ham stuffed in his mouth. "Eat your breakfast. I had to steal this ham from the kitchens under the cover of night."
"I think they can spare me a few slices of my own pig," Arthur said around defiant chews of his ham.
Merlin finally smiled. They ate, and when he finished, Arthur stretched out on his elbows to enjoy the luxury of loosened muscles. He felt the best he had in a long time.
He looked around as Merlin sucked the last bit of cheese from his fingers. "I think you must have half the armory here. Did you steal that as well?"
"I informed the queen that I had need of armaments. She chose not to ask any questions." Merlin's exaggerated haughtiness made Arthur snicker at the memory of some of Merlin's more outrageous requests over the years. "Leon was not overly pleased. But he's never really liked me."
Leon had never understood Merlin, nor the place Merlin owned at Arthur's side. Arthur had never known whether Merlin had even noticed Leon's dubious regard, or whether he would care if he did know.
Perhaps Merlin cared more than Arthur would have guessed; his brow creased with a frown, more perturbed than he had ever been over Arthur's disapproval. "What did Leon say?" Arthur asked.
"He thinks my obsession with you will endanger Camelot."
"What?" Arthur exclaimed. "How ridiculous. Serving me is defending Camelot."
"He doesn't know that." Merlin was never more reasonable than when pointing out Arthur's irrationality. "He thinks I'm depriving Camelot of my powers. I think he wants me studied and weaponized."
That did sound like Leon, but Arthur had already begun a comprehensive survey of all things Merlin. He intended to defer to nobody, except perhaps Gaius, on the subject. "And in any case," he continued out loud. "Camelot has you for the rest of the year. They can spare you to me for one day."
Merlin twitched as though startled, and then grimaced. "To be honest, I don't spend that much time there usually."
Arthur stared at him, uncomprehending. "What do you mean?"
"I go back a couple of times a year to see Gaius and fetch things for you. But I don't live there anymore."
"But...." Arthur shook his head. "Then where do you go?"
Merlin shrugged, which did not help Arthur's comprehension. He had never lived anywhere but Camelot, could not even imagine doing so. "Mostly I stay close to here. That village, Glastonbury, isn't far. Some nice monks from the new church set up shop there a while back. I visit them sometimes."
"Monks." Arthur only knew what a monk was in the vaguest of terms, but he could not imagine choosing their company over the court of Camelot.
"And of course, there's here." Merlin gestured towards the cottage behind them. "I think that was meant for me, actually."
Arthur wavered between feeling touched that Merlin wanted to stay near him and horrified at the idea of Merlin wandering the woods without friends or home. "But Merlin, in Camelot you'd--"
"I can't." Merlin shook his head in sharp denial. "Without you, I just can't."
He jumped up and stalked away, disappearing around the corner of the cottage. By the time Arthur got to his feet and followed, Merlin had vanished.
He did not stay gone for long. Arthur had set up a target for crossbow practice and fired only a handful of bolts before Merlin emerged from inside the cottage, looking sheepish.
Arthur had almost never had a day of complete leisure during what he found himself thinking of as his old life. He was happy enough to abandon his crossbow to let Merlin introduce him to his favorite sheep.
Around the back of the cottage, Merlin had built a fire pit surrounded by rough wooden benches. As evening fell, Arthur practiced his lowlight shooting while Merlin roasted a mutton chop for dinner.
They ate and drank and then sprawled out by the fire. Something in Arthur relaxed; this felt normal, like any of their many adventures with only each other for company. He had always liked it better that way.
"Did I tell you I had to disarm Leon with magic?" Merlin asked. Their fingers brushed as Merlin passed him the wineskin and a grin bloomed over Arthur's face.
"You did not." Arthur took a healthy swig and passed it back. "I can imagine his face."
"You can't," Merlin chortled, eyes glowing, though only with firelight. "Really, you can't."
"Tell me," Arthur commanded. As Merlin sat up and began telling the story, Arthur laughed in the correct places. Yet he did not take in the words so much as the movement of Merlin's hands when he gestured, the way his lips moved when he grinned.
Arthur had discovered Merlin's beauty long ago, a treasure unappreciated by most to both his annoyance and pleasure. The revelation had not served him any purpose. He owed his kingdom a queen; he had demanded fidelity from his wife and owed her the same in return.
Then he died. He still owed his kingdom his service; that never could change in any life. But he could ask nothing of Gwen now--which meant he owed her nothing in return.
What he could ask or owe to Merlin remained as unclear as it ever had been, but at last he had enough freedom to ask the question now. As a start, he gestured for the wineskin again just to feel Merlin's fingers touch him once more.
Arthur's sleep, for lack of any better word, felt sweeter. Merlin stayed nearby for most of the year. He spent much of each day sitting and chattering at Arthur; though Arthur could not hear him clearly except in snatches, it kept him close to his body.
That made it easier to let himself drift when Merlin was gone. He heard other voices then: shades of men he once known passing before him as though paying obeisance. He could not speak to them or follow them deeper into the mists, but in their own way, they made him feel more real.
Once, he thought he heard Gwaine's deep guffaw, and his heart clenched. Merlin had not told him that Gwaine had died. Less and less tied Merlin to Camelot, and Arthur could not like that, even though a selfish part of him wanted to rejoice that he would have Merlin more and more to himself. At least until Merlin aged and died himself--and that thought clenched a cold fist of terror around his heart even in sleep.
Merlin had been gone for some time before his final return. Arthur had drifted closer to the physical world again; he could tell that his soul was seeping back into his body in preparation for his waking. It let him feel the brief press of lips to his cheek when it happened, and the trill of joy that it sent through him in response.
His joy lasted until he woke, though as his head finally cleared from the magic haze, he had to wonder if that gentle affection had been real and if so, what it meant. He opened his eyes to one of Merlin's more suspicious smiles.
"Good morning." Merlin reached to help him up, the essence of attentive solicitousness, and finally, finally, Arthur could tell when Merlin was hiding something.
He rubbed his eyes and forced himself to ask the obvious question. "Is Gwen here?" For no one else in his life had ever kissed him with that kind of tender intimacy. The logic of the thought should have brought him even greater joy on waking, but instead anxiety curled through him.
Merlin stiffened, and the cage of obligation started closing its bars around Arthur once more, until Merlin shook his head. "No, of course not. I wouldn't bring her here unless you asked."
Arthur stared at him for a long moment, ignoring Merlin's insistent little tugs at his arm to urge him out of the tower. Assuming Arthur had learned anything about what Merlin looked like when he lied, he was telling the truth now--but he was still hiding something. "Who else has been here?"
Merlin's confusion seemed genuine. "What? Nobody. Just me. Why, were you expecting a delivery?"
The trill of joy returned before Arthur even consciously processed the implications. "No," he said with a grin. He slung his arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Though you're going to tell me whatever it is you don't want to tell me."
Merlin grimaced, but nodded as Arthur steered him out toward the morning. "I know. But it can wait until after breakfast."
Fair enough. Arthur was starving.
Breakfast distracted him and his mind moved toward his morning's training. Merlin got him equipped and then stepped back. "Gwen married Leon," he blurted.
"What?" Arthur said, dumbfounded, just as an enchanted sword made a swing at his head. He parried mostly on instinct.
"Last month," Merlin called from the safety of the sidelines.
"And you choose this exact moment to tell me this?" Arthur drove his invisible opponent back and spared a glare in Merlin's direction.
"I thought you might want something to hit." That was not Merlin, the sentence finished silently.
He did, in fact, like the idea of hitting something. Arthur pressed the attack and as he did, the sword's defense style changed. It was fighting like Leon now, and Arthur's lip curled in a feral grin. So Leon thought he could just step into Arthur's place, did he? He could see now where all that stoic loyalty had been leading--right onto Arthur's throne.
"Is my crown comfortable, you bastard?" Arthur snarled and bashed the sword so that it skittered across the grass. "Or did you have it refitted already for your enormous head?"
"Oh, he doesn't have a crown," Merlin piped up. "He's not king."
"What?" Arthur said again, just as the sword skittered back along the ground to him and swept his feet out from under him, once of Leon's favorite show moves.
Mercifully, Merlin waved his hand as though brushing Leon himself aside, and the sword let Arthur stay down. "Gwen didn't make him king. Not even a prince. He's still the first knight, just like before. He's just... well, her consort, I suppose."
"Oh." Arthur sat up and rubbed the spot above his eyebrow where he had hit the ground the hardest. "Well, in that case, I don't see why you're making such a production over it."
"Sorry, what?" Merlin was the one confused now, which was how Arthur preferred it.
His attention was already moving on. He supposed it would be silly to get upset over it even if Leon had assumed the throne beside Gwen. Arthur was unlikely to need it anytime soon, and he could think of no one he would trust more with the safety of his land and people, no more reliable partner for the queen Arthur had left alone.
Still, he no longer felt like swordplay. "I think I'll have the crossbow this morning instead."
He spent a pleasant morning demolishing targets. Merlin puttered about, helping set up the targets and collect the bolts, all the while watching Arthur as though he were about to explode again. Arthur found it very entertaining; every frustrated reaction from Merlin made him want to laugh out loud with the joy of Merlin being so very Merlin.
As the sun hit the top of the sky, he hefted a few spears for extra exercise while Merlin laid out their luncheon. "We should go hunting later," Arthur said. "We could get a pig for dinner."
"Right," Merlin said. "We could do that. We could also stop pretending like I didn't just tell you that Gwen married Leon and that you're not upset about it."
"But I'm not." Arthur pulled off his sweaty tunic and dropped down next to Merlin. "Yes, for a moment I had a perfectly reasonable reaction to the thought of a rival family taking control of my kingdom, but it passed. I always trusted Leon with my life."
"So you trust him with your wife?" Merlin pulled away the plate of cheese Arthur had just reached for.
Arthur sighed and sat back. Sometimes he forgot that Merlin had not grown up amongst nobility; some things still had to be explained to him. "She's not my wife anymore. According to the laws of Camelot, I'm dead and she's free to do as she pleases."
"And that doesn't bother you? Not at all?" Merlin pulled the plate back further out of Arthur's reach when he made another bid for a chunk of cheddar. "She's been sleeping with him since at least last year, you know."
"Is that what's been bothering you? I was dead last year, too, Merlin."
"I noticed," Merlin snapped, and Arthur frowned. This conversation was not going in the pleasant direction Arthur had hoped.
"I'm glad for her," he said. None of this was anything he had wanted to articulate; he had hoped that the existing sequence of events would simply follow through their natural course. "She shouldn't be without comfort because I'm gone. And I'm glad for myself as well."
Merlin's hand dropped away from the plate, falling to his side as though it had given up on Arthur ever making sense. "How is this good for you?"
He honestly thought he would not have to explain this part to Merlin. After all, it was Merlin who had kissed him, so surely he must already have worked out the implications. "Because, you idiot, if Gwen has chosen another consort, then I'm free to do the same."
Merlin gaped at him, and Arthur laughed. Perhaps Merlin had just thought Arthur was the slow one, that he would need more time to work through this. Arthur had nothing left to prove now, but he thought he rather liked surprising Merlin still.
So he cupped his hand around Merlin's jaw and leaned in to bring the conversation to its inevitable conclusion. He took the puff of Merlin's startled breath as a triumph as their lips touched for the first time.
In the past, Arthur had suffered from the (fleeting, inconsequential) worry that he might be a clumsy kisser, too quick to mash and clash as he had once heard a knight say of one of his comrades. He had not always offered Merlin the respect he had known he deserved; his affection could be rough. But Merlin's stillness made it easy to kiss him with care and skill.
Merlin's hand slid across Arthur's ribs as he started to respond. Arthur smiled against his lips. All the closeness, the tenderness growing between them, yesterday and all the days before, was leading to this new beginning.
He pressed Merlin back, down into the grass. The graceful curve of Merlin's shoulder fit perfectly against Arthur's palm. Their tongues slid together, almost by accident, and Arthur let himself relax onto Merlin's body. How they had never done this before, how it had not just happened as a natural consequence of their proximity, Arthur could no longer understand.
Then Merlin squirmed, which was delicious, until Merlin squirmed right out from under him. "Arthur, stop."
Arthur had no choice, since Merlin was now standing inexplicably several arms lengths away. He blinked up at him, feeling and disliking the reversal of their earlier confusion. "I swear, Merlin, if you bring up Gwen and Leon again, I am throwing you in the lake."
Merlin was blinking back at him and--were those tears? Those were tears in Merlin's eyes, and Arthur's heart sank. He had never driven anyone to tears by kissing them before. If he had misread Merlin's tenderness so thoroughly, if it had only been compassion for Arthur's perceived loss, he would not be able to bear the humiliation, let alone the much greater loss attached.
"It's not about Gwen," Merlin said. "Or maybe it is. You tell me, Arthur."
"I don't understand." He had thought that his lack of understanding of Merlin was at an end, yet even with the last secret lifted from between them, Merlin still made no damn sense. "Do you actually think I kissed you to... what, get back at Gwen? Or Leon?"
"No." Merlin closed his eyes. "I think you realized that I may be the only person you'll ever see again, at least enough to have a relationship. I think you want love and comfort and to know I'll never leave you alone."
Arthur had started to get to his feet to go to Merlin, but the words cut his legs out from under him. His arse hit the ground with a jolt he barely noticed. Merlin's words lodged deep in his gullet and he could not dislodge them. It was the worst thing Merlin could have said because suddenly Arthur did not know whether it was untrue.
"I would never leave you, Arthur." A tear trailed down Merlin's cheek unchecked. Arthur wanted to mock him in self-defense, but he had to dig the heels of palms into his own eyes. "I wouldn't, no matter what, for as long as I live."
Arthur could not respond. When he took his hands from his eyes, Merlin had gone, belying his own words almost as soon as he spoke them. He got up and went looking for Merlin in the cottage. When Merlin was not inside, Arthur sank into one of the chairs at the little table and put his face back in his hands.
Damn Merlin up, down, and sideways. He was right, although not in the way Merlin thought. Arthur already knew Merlin would never leave him; he had always known that, for as long as he cared to know it. For a brief, beautiful morning, Arthur had also known that Merlin loved him and nothing remained to stop them from living the rest of their lives with only each other, even if Arthur had been called back to Camelot this same day.
Arthur would not deny that sometimes he could be the entitled prat Merlin enjoyed mocking, perhaps even more than Arthur was generally willing to concede. But he had never deliberately caused real harm to someone he cared for to satisfy his own selfish desires. The realization that he had so nearly done so to Merlin sickened him.
Of course Merlin would never leave him. If allowed, Merlin would spend the rest of his life devoted to Arthur's every need. The first time Merlin had pledged him that, it had seemed proper and right as prince and servant, a fine situation for them both. But that had been in Camelot, not on a mystical isle far from everyone else Merlin loved.
And now Arthur had thought to bind Merlin's heart as well as his service. Inasmuch as he had thought at all, he had imagined a pastoral love affair, free from all the obligations and restrictions that had come between them as friends or anything more. It would have been glorious--for Arthur. Arthur, who could be no companion to anyone every day of the year save one.
He would have left Merlin lonely and bound to him, unable to seek love or family with someone who could be a true partner to him. Merlin would have wasted away his life living only half a life; anyone who let that happen could not claim to love him.
Outside, the day had begun to fade by the time the cottage door opened and Merlin slipped inside. He stood by the door, posture slouched in weariness. "I'm sorry. I've wasted half our day."
Arthur looked up and managed a smile. He drank in Merlin before he spoke, memorizing the lines of his face. "It wasn't wasted. I had a lot of thinking to do."
"I know that takes you a while." Merlin's answering smile cracked another fissure into Arthur's heart. He took a breath to speak, and Arthur cut him off with all the ruthlessness of a cavalry charge.
"It does take me a while, but I like to think that eventually, I reach the right decisions. I want you to go, Merlin."
Merlin's smile turned wary. "Go where? Do you still want to go hunting?"
Temptation pulled at him to say yes, that was exactly what he meant, to let everything at least go back to how it had been before. He forced himself on before cowardice could get the better of him. "No. I want you to leave this place, and I don't want you to come back."
The stunned look on Merlin's face almost made him take it back. "What do you mean? You don't want to see me for another year?"
"No. I don't want to see you again ever." Every word hurt like a wound, but Arthur knew how to fight through pain. "You need to leave here and not ever come back. Go back to Camelot, go back to Ealdor, go wherever seems good to you as long as it's not here."
"You can't be serious." Disbelief was smoldering into anger; Arthur could use that. "I reject your advances, so you're sacking me?"
Arthur kept his voice low and reasonable, knowing it would madden Merlin further. "I can hardly sack you when I have no money to pay you in the first place. But I'm still your king, even if I'm no one else's anymore. I'm commanding you."
"No." Merlin folded his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes, digging in. "I'm sorry if your pride is wounded, but I'm not leaving you to fend for yourself here for the rest of your life."
"The rest of my life could be a very long time. Yours is passing much faster." Arthur got up and crossed the room to put his hands on Merlin's shoulders. "You've done your duty, Merlin. I'll be fine here on my own. Go have the life you deserve to have."
"What life am I supposed to have without you?" Merlin's voice wavered and cracked. "Besides, I've slaved for you for years. You've never been that concerned with my having a life away from you before."
"I'm correcting that now. I don't know if I'll ever leave this place, but you can. Magic is legal now. Go back to Camelot and have the life you should have had all along. Leon was right. Camelot needs you. I don't."
"Is this some kind of ploy to get me to appreciate you and fall into your arms?" Merlin backed up against the door, shaking beneath Arthur's hands. "Because that isn't fair, Arthur, and you know it."
He bowed his head against the desire to pretend that was all he wanted. "You have your own destiny, Merlin. Stop hiding behind mine."
The silence lasted so long that if he had not had Merlin's shoulders gripped under his hands, if he had not felt Merlin's breath stirring his fringe, Arthur would have thought he had already gone. When Merlin did speak, his voice was raw and cold.
"You ungrateful ass." Merlin broke his hold with a quick sweep of his hands and shoved Arthur away from him so hard that Arthur stumbled backwards until he hit the table. "You can rot here alone forever. See if I care."
Before Arthur could regain his balance, the door slammed shut and Merlin was gone from his life. Slowly he straightened up, but he forced himself not to move for a long time. He would not watch Merlin go. He would not call him back. He had done the right thing, though he already regretted it with a sick feeling in his gut.
Finally he let himself step outside the cottage and look down toward the water. The boat was gone.
He went back inside and sat down at the table while outside the sky darkened into night. Merlin had not started a fire before he left and Arthur had no idea where he kept a flint, if he kept a flint at all. He supposed it would not have been high on Merlin's supply list when he could start fire with a whisper and wave of his hand.
Arthur would have to obtain one. Somehow. This was his home now.
He sat and stared into the darkness as the hours of the night marched by. Loneliness gnawed at him, so unbearably that if Merlin had walked in at that moment, Arthur might have thrown himself onto Merlin's boots and begged him to stay.
If he had needed it, he could not have asked for better proof that Merlin had been right. Arthur could not trust his own emotions anymore. He could only feel grateful that he had realized in time to set Merlin free.
Nonetheless, he stood by the archway of the tower for a long time, staring out at the distant glimmer of the water before consigning himself to his lonely sleep.
His dreams were darker and more disjointed than he had experienced since his awareness of them began. At the very start, he fancied that he felt Merlin's presence, the grip of his hand on Arthur's hand and his voice whispering fierce in his ear.
The impression faded after a painfully short time, but Arthur clung to it through the mists and shadows for all his long drift through time. He clung so hard that he woke with Merlin's name on his lips, so eager to see him that the emptiness of the tower confused him when he opened his eyes.
He looked around as he sat up, but Merlin failed to appear. "Merlin?" he called without thinking. He heard no answer and felt foolish for expecting one.
Yet he could still feel Merlin's presence as strongly as if his friend was standing next to him. No, that was not quite true. It was not Merlin's physical presence he sensed, but Merlin's magic. That hung heavy in the thick air, the same magic that reached Arthur in his deathly sleep.
Outside the bright tower, a dark and stormy morning engulfed the isle. Arthur stepped out into the driving rain, which soaked him to the skin between one breath and the next. His boots squelched in the wet ground as he jogged to the cottage and flung the door open.
A rumble of thunder almost drowned out his voice when he called Merlin's name a second time. It did not matter: the cottage was empty.
Merlin was rather mad at the best of times, but not mad enough to run around in the open during such a ferocious storm. If Merlin was neither here nor in the tower, he was not on the isle at all.
Yet he must have come back at some point. The racks of Arthur’s training weapons had been brought inside and covered with sheets to keep the dust off. Arthur would never have thought to do it himself.
Merlin must have come back to clean up after Arthur one last time. Perhaps he had cast some kind of protective magic over the isle at the same time, the magic Arthur had felt in his sleep and still felt now. It did not mean Merlin was here; it meant Merlin truly had gone.
Thunder cracked in a great clap overhead, making Arthur flinch for the first time since he was a toddler. He crossed to the table and sank down in his chair—though he supposed both chairs were his now. This was what he had wanted, he reminded himself. It was good and right that Merlin was not here; Merlin would be under a much sturdier roof, probably not even noticing the storm outside as he laughed over breakfast with Gaius or Gwen or Leon.
He tried to think about what he needed to do. He still needed to train, although he was not sure how to keep his skills honed enough without Merlin’s help. He would need to hunt, if the rain ever let up. He could not remember ever hunting by himself before, but in all honesty, Merlin was of so little use on a hunt that sometimes it had been much like hunting by himself. Arthur would manage--assuming he could even get to the mainland without the boat Merlin had taken.
A howl of wind rattled the shutters, and Arthur shivered. He would need to build a fire at least. He got up and ransacked the place looking for a flint. Surely Merlin would have made sure he had a flint before he left.
None appeared, and Arthur’s breath started to shake a little. Tears—irrational, ridiculous tears—sprang up behind his eyes. He gave up on the flint and lay down on the bed. He should have been dozing here, newly in love, but instead, he would never see Merlin again.
The storm raged on for hour after excruciating hour. By the time the downpour lessened to a drizzle, Arthur had no idea whether it was day or night. Exhaustion dragged at him as he finally sat up and swung himself off the bed.
Outside, the clouds were beginning to clear, leaving patches of bright stars. Oddly, now that the storm had passed, his sense of Merlin's presence had grown even stronger.
He jerked around, heart racing, already thanking every god he had ever heard of. "Merlin?"
The voice called him again, a snatch of sound from behind him, always behind him as he turned in frantic circles. Panting, he changed tactics and ran down the hill. If Merlin was calling to him from the water--
But the boat was not there. He saw nothing out on the water, and as hard as he listened, he could hear nothing but the whistle of the wind and the storm-driven waves breaking on the shore.
He hiked back up the hill with his hands pressed over his ears. Obviously, he was going mad. That was not surprising, but he would have hoped it would take longer than this.
Arthur stumbled into the light of the tower and dropped his hands. All was silent here. He took a deep breath to calm himself and dashed the tears from his eyes. He despised himself for how much he wished Merlin had truly been here, how much he wished he had lost this battle of wills.
Dawn was still hours away, but he could see no point in going back and fighting for every minute of life as he had before. In the end, he had only been fighting for more time with Merlin.
He still could not bear to lie down on the cold stone slab again. So he slumped down against one of the crumbling walls and let the silence numb his mind until he knew nothing more.
His madness continued into his dreams. Merlin was with him, talking to him, holding him. Arthur could hear him much more clearly than ever before; clearly, this Merlin was born only from Arthur's imagination.
But the dreaming was sweet. Arthur smiled to hear Merlin beg his forgiveness as he never once had done in real life. Arthur was the one who was sorry that he had not known how to say anything that was in his heart before it was too late for Merlin to hear it.
He woke with reluctance, not ready to say good-bye and face his life of lonely subsistence. A physical sensation, almost too subtle to recognize, dragged him back into the physical world. Something was bunching up his shirt, pulling it tight to the side. When he become aware of that, it led him to notice something heavy against his ribs.
Arthur opened his eyes. Long fingers tangled in his tunic next to a dark head pillowed beside him. The tears came again before he could croak Merlin's name.
Merlin's head jerked up at once to look at Arthur, eyes red and haunted. They did not speak for a long moment; then Arthur reached for him at the same moment Merlin hauled himself upwards. Merlin’s head rammed into Arthur’s jaw; Arthur wrenched his wrist when it caught in Merlin’s armpit. The pain was bliss, because it meant Merlin was solid and real and here.
They wound up in a precarious embrace on the edge of the stone, tangled in the blankets Merlin had drawn over them. That also hurt, but Arthur refused to move while he had Merlin’s cheek pressed to his. He had done what he believed right; he was not a good enough man to send Merlin away a second time.
"I’m sorry," Merlin mumbled in his ear. "I’m so sorry."
"I thought you—" The sentence choked off in his throat. He wanted to make a joke of it, jest about Merlin following his orders, but he could not find the heart for it.
"I know. I’m sorry. I thought I could show you that I could go and do other things and still come back to you. I had it all planned to the day, but then the storm hit and the bridge over the river washed out, and I couldn’t find any way to get to you in time even though I tried everything--"
"Stop." Arthur tightened his grip around Merlin’s shoulders even as he said, "You weren’t supposed to."
"I won’t leave you. It doesn’t matter what idiotic reason you’ve come up with to get rid of me."
Arthur gave a soft huff. "I’m still your king, you know."
"And I’m the only subject you have at the moment. I think that gives me some leverage." Merlin separated from Arthur with a fond shove. "Come on. I made breakfast."
As they walked out into the early morning, a shadow overhead caught Arthur’s eye. It was the first bird he had seen circling the isle, but he could not quite make out what kind—
"Come on, slow arse." Merlin tugged at his arm and then took off at a run, forcing Arthur to give chase and beat him back to the cottage.
He knew Merlin was near for most of the next year. He had a project, Merlin had told him, and Arthur was not inclined to argue. He assumed it had something to do with the piles of sorcery books in every corner of the cottage. One of Merlin’s journeys the previous year had been to the ruins of Cenred’s castle in Essetir to clean out the library of magic texts Morgause had kept there.
Sometimes Merlin wandered a little further away. During those times Arthur slid further from the living world and into the mists where the indistinct shades and whispers drifted past him. Arthur did not like it, but he could bear it knowing Merlin would bring him back to color and life.
Then, late in the year, one of the shades approached him. Arthur shied away; none of them had ever come so close before. But when the hazy figure became more distinct, dismay made him forget his fear. Oh, no. Oh, Gaius.
Gaius stopped several feet away. He stood straight, still old, but younger than when Arthur had seen him last. Then slowly he bowed to his king, a last respect Arthur felt he should be the one paying.
When he straightened, he looked at Arthur for another moment, and Arthur understood. He could not send Merlin away again; Merlin was his to look after now, just as Merlin did for him. He felt the weight of that responsibility, though it did not feel like a burden.
Then Gaius was gone, and Arthur’s heart ached for Merlin, who did not know. For weeks, Arthur shouted in his mind every time Merlin came near, hoping Merlin would somehow sense something was wrong. Whether he succeeded or not, Merlin did eventually leave the isle for a longer time.
When he came back, Merlin knew, and Arthur could do nothing to comfort him.
He was not surprised to wake alone. As he sat up and rubbed his eyes, he heard the sound of rock hitting rock.
He would have been startled by the scene outside if he had not already known something was wrong. The side wall of the cottage was completely gone; Merlin must have used magic to blast it out. Several wagons with stones and wood stood around what remained of the structure.
Merlin himself knelt on the ground by a pile of roughly hewn stones. He had one of them between his hands. As Arthur approached, the stone suddenly was no longer rough, but a perfect shape for adding to the wall Arthur could see already traced out in layers of similar stone. Merlin slotted the stone into its place and reached for another.
He did not look up as Arthur came and knelt down beside him, frowning down at the stone in his hands as if his ire alone could reshape it. Without speaking, Arthur took the stone from Merlin's hands and found a place for it. While Merlin shaped the next stone, Arthur adjusted the stones Merlin had already laid rather haphazardly.
They worked in silence until Arthur reached for the next stone and found Merlin's hands clenched into empty fists on his thighs. Merlin had his head bowed, but Arthur could see that his eyes were squeezed shut in a grimace of pain.
When the first sob hit, a harsh, ugly noise, Arthur eased closer and slid his arm around Merlin's back. He rested his chin on Merlin's shoulder and waited. He knew this pain too well himself.
Each new sob made Arthur's chest hurt in sympathy, but slowly they diminished until Merlin slumped against Arthur in exhaustion. "Gaius is dead," he rasped.
"I'm sorry," Arthur murmured. "I'm so sorry."
"I went to see him. I was so excited to show him--" Merlin's breath caught in a last dry sob. "And he was gone. They'd left all his things for me, but he was just--gone."
Arthur closed his eyes. He remembered the warm and cluttered rooms Merlin had shared with Gaius. He remembered the cold and empty hall where he had sat on his father's throne and pretended he knew how to go on without him.
"Gwen came to see me. She asked me to stay. She said they needed me, that I'd have all the honors she could bestow. And maybe she was right. Maybe you both were. I should have been there."
Arthur's heart pounded with selfish fear. "Maybe. But there was nothing you could have done, Merlin. He was an old man. That's all it was."
"I still should have been there." Merlin took a deep, crackling breath. "But it's too late. They don't need me now."
And Arthur did. How he did. He squeezed Merlin gently and then straightened up. "Do you know what I need right now?"
"Right. You must be starving." Merlin blew out a short sigh and pushed himself to his feet.
Arthur rose as well, but grabbed Merlin's shoulder before he could move away. "I need a nap."
Merlin stared at him out of red and swollen eyes. "A nap? You just woke up. You've been sleeping for a year."
"Yes, I know. But that's nothing like real sleep. I haven't really slept in years. I miss it."
Merlin stared another moment and then nodded. "Right." He turned back to his wall. "I suppose I should...."
Arthur gripped him harder and steered him towards the gaping hole where the wall used to be. "Tell me, Merlin, did the previous wall offend you in some way?"
Merlin paused on the makeshift threshold and looked back at the group of wagons outside. "I needed more room. For all of his books. And stuff."
Arthur followed his gaze and noticed for the first time the wagons behind the wagons he had already seen--wagons with heaping loads covered with huge swathes of burlap. His imagination could not stretch far enough to even guess at how Merlin had got any of this across the lake.
"I think we need to build another story," he said and pulled Merlin the rest of the way inside.
He shoved Merlin down to sit on the bed and then crouched down to pull off his boots. In a daze, Merlin curled up on top of the covers.
Arthur got his own boots off and stretched out next to Merlin. Merlin's back was to him; Arthur shifted until his arm touched along Merlin's spine.
He had not lied: it was bliss to have a real bed under him, a roof over him, and someone he loved breathing softly beside him. Dozing off felt like slipping into a warm embrace.
When he woke, Merlin was propped on his elbow, looking down at him. "Do you want to see what I was so excited to show Gaius?"
Arthur's mouth quirked as he stretched his arm over his head. "I don't know. Do I?"
Merlin's lips quirked in response. "Come with me."
They walked out and down the hill. Arthur's toes curled into the soft grass with each step. Merlin stopped in the middle of the green expanse and looked up into the clear blue sky.
Then he opened his mouth and bellowed out words in a language Arthur had never heard before, in a voice Arthur had never heard before.
No. Once, he thought he--
A sudden rush of wind tried to knock him off balance. A shadow fell over him. Something enormous swept over his head--
And then a dragon stood before him.
Instinct overcame reason; he stumbled backwards, reaching at once for Merlin and a sword he did not have. The dragon reacted to his fear by rearing up on its hind legs and hissing.
Merlin broke away from Arthur and flung himself between them, arms raised and waving. "All right, enough. Arthur, it's fine. He won't hurt you."
"It's a dragon." Arthur stared up at the beast, who had dropped back down to all fours, but was eyeing him with equal wariness. "I remember a white dragon attacking my men in battle."
"I don't see the point in rehashing all of that." Merlin gestured for him to come closer. "Arthur, this is Aithusa, the White Dragon, the last of his kind. Aithusa, this is King Arthur, the Once and Future King."
Merlin spoke again in that strange, resonant tongue. The white dragon seemed to listen, and then it turned its luminous blue gaze on Arthur. It considered him for a moment before kneeling on its front legs in a deep bow.
Arthur looked at Merlin, who nodded encouragement, before approaching with cautious steps. "Hello," he said. He had no idea how else one greeted a dragon who was not trying to kill you, but he had met enough other animals before. He reached up to the giant head and scratched it firmly between its horns.
It seemed to like that, by the way it blinked its huge eyes. He moved his hand to scratch the base of one of its neck spines, and it lowered its hind legs to settle fully onto the ground.
"Huh. He likes you."
Arthur rolled his eyes and tried to make his heart stop pounding. "Merlin. Please tell me you didn't just introduce me to a ruddy dragon with the intention that it would dislike me."
Merlin came up beside him and rubbed the dragon between its slitted eyes. "No, no. He's just a little skittish around people. He's been through a lot."
"Haven't we all." He could see the scars marring the dragon's pure white hide. When he ran his hand over one, the dragon opened its eyes again, looking as though he had disturbed a best-forgotten memory. "Aithusa, you said? What kind of name is that?"
"An old one." Merlin smiled, though his eyes held a melancholy cast. "It means 'light of the world.' His birth was meant to be the symbol of your long and prosperous reign."
There was nothing Arthur could say to that, so he put it from his mind and patted Aithusa on the flank. "He looks bigger than he did before."
"Well, that's what a steady diet of magical sheep will do," Merlin said. "I've been trying to train him as well."
"Oh, yeah? What can he do?" An idea occurred to Arthur; he looked over his shoulder at the piles of building supplies on the hill. "Hang on. I'm going to try something."
He jogged up the hill, ignoring Merlin's confused calls behind him. A pile of unfinished wood pieces sat right at the crest of the hill, and Arthur veered towards it. He selected a long piece of a good weight and hefted it over his shoulder.
"Aithusa!" he shouted back down the hill. "Aithusa! Here, boy!"
"Arthur! For the love of--" Even at this distance, he could see Merlin glaring at him. "He's not a dog!"
Arthur hurled the wood as hard as he could so that it soared in a slow arc down the hill.
"Arthur, he's not going to--Aithusa!"
The dragon took an eager bound into the air and took off after the wood. He flapped upward, and then dived toward the wood, which was bouncing across the grass like a skipping stone. He glided over it until he finally snapped it up in his jaws. Then the dragon tumbled onto his back in the grass, snapping at the wood to keep it dancing just above the massive clash of his teeth.
Arthur watched with a broad grin. He could like having a dragon.
Merlin was watching with a dumbstruck look when Arthur meandered back down the hill to him. "Sorry, you were saying?"
Aithusa gamboled back and dropped the heavy piece of wood at Merlin's feet with a satisfied air. Merlin shook his head slowly and then began to laugh.
Arthur kept grinning. He might not have the skills of a physician or a sorcerer, but he could take care of people as well.
Later, they sat on the side of the hill with the remains of their lunch scattered around them. Aithusa napped a few yards away, the length of him sprawled most of the way down the hill.
"It was that day when I couldn't get to you." Merlin's thumb played with the stem of his apple core. "The day of the storm."
Arthur nodded silently. His stomach twisted around his lunch at the thought of that day and that storm; he focused on the sunshine and Merlin beside him.
"I summoned the Great Dragon. The bridge was out and my horse had bolted. He was my only hope of reaching you in time."
Aithusa heaved a rumbling snore and Arthur looked at him dubiously.
"Different dragon," Merlin clarified. "Kilgarrah was the one who--well, never mind that. He didn't come. The last time I saw him, he told me his time in this world was almost done, and when he didn't come, I knew he was gone."
Arthur nodded. He had never held any fondness for dragons of the live sort, not before today, and he had a feeling that he had seen this Kilgarrah before in bad circumstances. But Merlin had valued him, and Merlin had lost so much.
"When the storm let up, I found a puddle and used it as a scrying bowl. I could see you. I was calling to you, but--"
"I heard you," Arthur said. "I thought I was going mad."
"I think I did go mad. At least a bit." Merlin pitched the apple core down the hill. "I woke up face down in the mud. My head was more of a mess than my face. I had no idea what to do next. Then I heard a rustling in the bushes."
Aithusa rumbled again. Arthur had difficulty imagining such a beast hiding amongst the shrubbery.
"I yelled and threw rocks into the foliage. When Aithusa slunk into the open, I realized he'd had to answer my call. He's the Great Dragon now."
"So you brought him here?" Arthur remembered the bird he thought he saw the previous year.
"Not at first. I was furious that he hadn't come in time." Merlin ducked his head in embarrassment. "I screamed at him and told him to get the hell away from me. He just cowered on the ground like he didn't understand--or like he had nowhere else to go."
"That I can understand," Arthur murmured, though he was glad when Merlin did not seem to hear him.
"He was Morgana's dragon. He was lost without his mistress just as I was lost without my master." Merlin cast him a sidelong look full of rue and affection. "And I needed something to occupy me while I waited for my next chance to tell you that you're an idiot. So I coaxed him to come with me, though it took most of the year to gain his trust."
Arthur smiled and stretched out on the grass with his head by Merlin's hip. "I suppose that's just your destiny, to rehabilitate all of us poor, lost creatures."
Merlin's hand stroked his arm and came to rest on his shoulder. "Do you want to know why I was taking Aithusa to see Gaius now?"
He made an inquiring noise, curious though the sun was lulling him into a pleasant stupor.
"Come on, get up." Merlin's caress ended as a heavy thump on his shoulder as Merlin got to his feet. "I think he can take two."
"Two of what?" Arthur got up and followed as Merlin whispered into Aithusa's ear.
The dragon's eyes opened and he rose in a graceful push. He gave a rumble that sounded both nervous and excited. Then he bent his front legs in a crouch, and to Arthur's surprise, Merlin vaulted up onto his back.
"Come on, get up," Merlin said again, grinning widely.
Arthur's heart pounded as he understood what Merlin was offering. Terror warred with eagerness, his old beliefs with his new. But he had to experience it again, this time with his eyes open in every way.
He took Merlin's outstretched hand and jumped up behind him. He had barely secured his arse in the gap between Aithusa's back ridges when the dragon's muscles bunched beneath his thighs and he had to grab Merlin around his waist to keep his seat as Aithusa launched them into the air.
Merlin hollered in joy as they rose above the isle. Arthur would have done the same, but the cold wind and the view stole the breath from his lungs. The sky surrounded them in blue; below them, blue and green and gold wove in elegant patterns Arthur had never known existed.
The tower that so dominated his inner landscape looked so small from here. As Aithusa carried them away from it, Arthur looked toward the real world. He hungered for every detail he could absorb as Albion flowed beneath them, a hundred times faster than any horse could cover.
They flew for hours, and it was late afternoon when Merlin turned his head to talk to Arthur. "We flew right into Camelot," Merlin called back to him. "Dropped down into the courtyard as people scattered around us."
Arthur could imagine the reaction, and the immediate ring of guards that must have surrounded them.
"Everyone ran out of the keep to see us. Leon's jaw dropped so much we could have flown into his mouth." He could hear the grin in Merlin's voice at that. "And then Gwen came running down the steps and stood there with her skirts still bunched in her hands, staring at us."
Then Arthur saw it: white spires and sprawling walls, ensconced in golden-green fields and lush forest. His fingers dug into Merlin’s waist. "What are you doing, Merlin?"
"It’s all right. They won’t see us."
Aithusa swept down in a languorous arc over Camelot. The wind brought tears to his eyes as Arthur looked down into the keep. Along the walls, guards had their faces upturned in wary acknowledgement of their aerial company; a few of them had loaded their crossbows as a precaution.
Down in the courtyard, servants, knights, and townspeople milled about on their daily business, only a few distracted by the dragon overhead. Camelot was prospering, flourishing; he had known that to be true, but relief washed through him to see it with his own eyes.
And there, on the highest rampart, Leon and Gwen strolled arm in arm, looking happy and healthy. When Leon spotted Aithusa, he pointed up into the sky. A moment later, Gwen began waving her arms in greeting, all regal dignity fading into girlish excitement.
"Are you sure--?" Arthur’s voice choked off. Merlin reached down and squeezed his wrist.
"They can’t see you. They think it’s just me," Merlin said, then hesitated. "And are you sure? Aithusa could—"
None of this belonged to Arthur; Camelot, her knights, her queen, all had only been in Arthur’s care for a short time. They did not need him anymore. Only Merlin was his to keep.
"No." He rested his chin on Merlin’s shoulder, relaxing against his back, and looked down at bustling, beautiful Camelot for the last time. "Let’s go home."
Arthur found his days falling into a comfortable routine. They trained every morning; destiny still lurked with the threat that Arthur would be needed again someday. But for the moment, having seen the proof that they did not need him now made him freer than he had ever felt in his life. He might only have one day in a year, but he could spend it how he pleased.
They usually hunted in the afternoon. As in their training, Merlin proved more invaluable an aide than Arthur had ever thought possible. "Astounding what you can accomplish when you decide to be useful," Arthur liked to tease him, if only to see his eyes roll.
In truth, Arthur was never certain whether the difference lay more with Merlin or himself. He took greater care with Merlin, now that they were both free from the strictures of rank.
"What shall we hunt?" Merlin asked him the first day they ventured across the lake and into the woods.
"Something big enough to feed you for a while," Arthur replied, and then gave a shrug and a gruff harrumph. "And whatever you think won’t disrupt the balance of nature. Or whatever you people go on about."
Merlin’s radiant grin could have taken out an entire army, at least if the army were as susceptible to barmy sorcerers as Arthur had found himself. They caught the stag with just enough effort to make it fun. Oddly, Merlin did not stumble over anything, not even once.
Occasionally they traveled on dragonback, but Aithusa slept most of the day on the hillside and Arthur found himself even fonder of naps than he had been before, now that he had time to take them. Even so, he would not have taken the time if Merlin had not taken to lying down beside him every time. Arthur would have liked to curl around him, but they had not spoken about whatever affections might still be between them. Arthur felt more strongly than ever, but swore to himself he would not push his luck again.
During Arthur’s longer sleeps, Merlin puttered around the island until he used up the fresh food. Arthur liked that; Merlin’s lingering presence kept Arthur anchored long enough that when Merlin finally left, Arthur's solitude did not consume him.
At the harvest he left for Ealdor to help his mother for a time, though she remained sturdy and strong until the end of her life. After that, he would go to find other magic users with whom to commune, from the potion peddler in the closest village to the druid camps of Eire. At first it worried Arthur, who still found it strange to think of trusting a sorcerer who was not Merlin, but he gradually realized that this was Merlin's way of training.
Merlin only went back to Camelot in disguise now, and only at the end of the year so he could bring the news back to Arthur. The Saxons were the ones uniting Albion now, with the support of Camelot and the other kingdoms. Arthur did not mind; the Viking threat that Uther had pushed back before Arthur's time had resurged. Briefly, they had wondered if Arthur would be called for the same purpose, but the Saxons proved able enough war leaders.
Percival went questing one year and never returned. No one ever knew what became of him, but Arthur knew he lived for years afterward. Arthur always knew when someone he had known passed from the world: he saw them as they went from one realm to the next, sometimes clearly, sometimes only a shadow. Sometimes they saw him; sometimes they raced on without notice.
When Hunith passed, she stood before him, much like Gaius had, but her eyes shone with love and compassion for him. Arthur longed to be able to move, to embrace her, to speak and tell her how very precious a gift she had given him in Merlin.
Leon went before Percival. He stood before Arthur as well, with a look of almost ecstatic worship. He bowed deeply, and then was gone. Percival kept a more sober countenance when his time came. Arthur never knew what home or purpose he had found away from Camelot, but he looked at peace. For a moment, he thought he heard Gwaine's laugh as he had once before.
A few years later, Gwen died. Since Leon's death, Arthur had been thinking of what he would do when he saw his wife one last time. He could not speak in the between worlds, but he felt he should try to convey something to her with a look, a feeling; something of his admiration and gratitude for her.
He never had the chance to try. Either she did not see him as the others had or she did not care to stop on her way to whatever, or whoever, waited for her on the other side. He felt her presence only as a brief flurry of energy, and could not even be certain it was her at all until he woke to Merlin's sober eyes.
"It's all right," he said and meant it. Gwen had lived a long and happy life, with or without him.
Much longer without him than with him, a fact which meant he could no longer ignore one minor detail that he had been trying not to think about. A full human lifetime had now passed since his own life ended.
"Merlin," he said one evening several years after Gwen’s death, watching his friend poke at the fire. "You do realize that everyone we’ve ever known is now gone, don’t you?"
Merlin looked up with a wry smile. "Scintillating dinner conversation, thank you."
"And yet," Arthur persisted, heart pounding. "You don’t look a day older than the day we came here."
"Neither do you," Merlin retorted, and there went his eyes, fixed in a defensive shield Arthur had never thought he would have to see again.
"You used to use magic to make yourself look old." Arthur took a deep, unsteady breath and had to look away to finish the question. "Are you using it now to make yourself look young?"
"What? No." The genuine surprise in Merlin’s voice made a start in easing Arthur’s worry. "No, it’s not that at all."
"So there’s something else you’re afraid to tell me?" Arthur pushed. He had to know. He had to know how close he was to losing Merlin.
"Not afraid. It’s just not something I understand myself," Merlin answered slowly. "The thing is, I don’t think I’m completely human."
That hung in the air for a long heartbeat until Arthur sighed. "Explain."
"I wish I could. I was conceived and born like anyone else, but I’ve been told that I’m not just magical, but the essence of magic itself. That I chose to come into the world as a human in order to help you fulfill your destiny."
Arthur understood very little of that, but something in the words had already begun choking his throat and stinging his eyes. "But what does that mean?"
"I think it means I’m immortal," Merlin said. "Or as good as. I think I chose to take mortal form, and I get to choose when to leave it."
"So you won’t age. You won’t die." Arthur turned his head to hide the tears that had begun streaming unchecked down his face.
"I don’t think so. I wouldn’t ever choose to die while you still lived."
Arthur tried to get up and walk away before the sob swelling in his chest broke free, but Merlin caught his arm. Merlin pulled him close, wrapping his arms around Arthur at an angle that nearly dislocated Arthur’s shoulder until Arthur gave up and shifted around to meet his embrace.
Once Merlin’s arms were around him, all his fear and relief boiled over into ugly, choking sobs. Merlin would never let him live it down, and that was wonderful, stupendous, because it meant Merlin would be there to be the thorn in Arthur’s ego forever and Arthur would never lose him.
The following year, Arthur woke from what had almost been a pleasant dream to a sober-faced Merlin. "What is it?" Arthur hauled himself up as fast as he could. "Is something wrong? Is it time?"
"No, not like that." Merlin jerked his head toward the empty doorway before following his own direction. "But there’s something I think you need to see."
Aithusa waited outside. "Breakfast?" he hoped aloud and received a disappointing piece of bread for his trouble. "All right, then."
He accepted Merlin’s hand up onto Aithusa’s back. While he would preferred breakfast and exercise first, the dizzying rush of the dragon launching into the open air never failed to make him giddy. The necessary grip of his hands around Merlin’s middle gave him a guiltier pleasure and reminded him why he did not often press for journeys by dragon.
"Where are we going?" he shouted over the billowing wind.
"Camelot," Merlin answered. His answer drifted directly to Arthur’s ear, but still so quiet Arthur thought at first that he had misheard.
Arthur stiffened with surprise. Immediately he wanted to tell Merlin to turn around. What could there be for him to see in Camelot now? Only Guinevere’s tomb, perhaps, if they sneaked into the keep, but he knew better than anyone that whatever had made her Gwen had slipped free of the mortal realm with joy. Her bones held nothing of her now.
Yet something in Merlin’s somber demeanor and grim determination made Arthur hold his tongue. Merlin had seemed withdrawn and troubled of late, more with each year that passed. That troubled Arthur in turn, but he had not known how to draw Merlin out. Now if he kept his tongue a few hours more, he thought he would find out.
Many more years had passed since he had seen Camelot, but the first glimpse of her towers struck his heart with a keen note of love. He hung on tighter to Merlin to keep himself from reaching out to touch them as they soared past.
Then Aithusa dropped lower and lower, until it became clear he was angling to land in the courtyard. "Merlin!" Arthur hissed. "Are you mad? We can't land here."
"We can." Merlin said nothing more, leaving Arthur to clutch at him with nerves jangling from trepidation instead of exhilaration.
It hardly mattered, he told himself. There could be few people, if any, who would recognize him now. And perhaps Merlin had already disguised them with magic without Arthur being aware.
The courtyard was deserted when they touched down, which would not be unusual at dawn or midnight, but seemed bizarre for the noon hour. "Merlin." His internal alarms, barely silenced, began to ring out again. "What's happened here?"
Merlin waited until they dismounted to answer. He stood in the center of the courtyard and turned in a slow, melancholy circle. "Everyone has gone," he said at last.
"What do you mean, gone?" Visions of plague, starvation, invasion made Arthur's heart race. "What the hell happened, Merlin?"
Merlin turned back to him with a startled look, as though just realizing how ominous he had sounded. "Nothing. They just started leaving."
His panic eased, but his confusion increased. "But why? Why would anyone leave Camelot?"
"Gwen left the kingdom to Mithian's daughter, but the year after Gwen passed, she married the Saxon king and moved to their capital." Merlin shrugged as though the ways of mere mortals had become a mystery to him. "All the nobles accepted gifts of land closer to the new court. And after that, everyone else followed, a few at a time, in a steady trickle."
Arthur's heart thumped as he made the same slow circle Merlin had. He took in the complete hush; no fires crackled, no animals stamped. "Camelot is deserted."
Merlin hesitated, then nodded. "Yes."
Arthur nodded along with him, still looking around at the ghostly keep. Avalon was now his home, but Camelot held his heart with a power beyond words. Arthur knew what happened to abandoned castles and towns. He had seen what the Romans left behind, what was left of his mother's old home after the last of the family was gone.
"She'll fall to ruin," he said and felt his heart breaking in his chest. He could already see a rope of ivy creeping along one of the walls, something the gardeners would never have allowed.
"She doesn't have to." Merlin stepped close and gripped his shoulders. "I can save her, if you allow it."
"It's hard to explain," Merlin started. Arthur, quite used to that by now, waved his hand to hurry him along. "You know how Avalon isn't quite in our world or in the next world, but in between?"
"Yes." Magic space, or so Arthur thought of it. He had never asked Merlin for more of an explanation than that; he would not understand it and did not want to. "Are you saying you can send Camelot there?"
"I can. I can send her into the mists, where time can't touch her. No one will ever find her again. She'll be safe." Merlin looked at him, solemn, and bowed his head. "Do you wish me to do that, my lord?"
Slowly, Arthur nodded. The thought of Camelot empty forever hurt; the thought of Camelot safe forever soothed. "Yes. I wish it."
Merlin smiled with relief. "Do you want to walk around for a bit, first?"
A refusal was poised on his tongue, but he found himself swallowing it and nodding. "Yes. I'd like that."
They spent the afternoon strolling through the castle. Neither of them spoke more than a few words here and there. The furnishings and art had long been removed, but Arthur could see everything as it had been: the banners in the Great Hall; the stacks of books in the physician's quarters; his own bed. He missed that comfort the most, standing in the echoing emptiness of his old chambers.
"They never changed a thing in here, you know. Other than what I took for you." Merlin came up beside him. "Someone cleaned and dusted every day, though no one else ever came in here. Except for me, of course."
"Well, someone had to ransack my things." Arthur smiled, though it faded fast under the weirdness of standing here in a place so familiar and so strange.
"I always put them back where I found them." Merlin wandered over to the shield and placed his palm flat against the wood. He closed his eyes and intoned something under his breath.
Something flickered in the corner of Arthur's eye. He looked and saw his wardrobe against the wall. Another flicker, another turn of his head, and there was his table and most comfortable chair. He did not see anything actually appear, but item after item filled his rooms until finally his bed filled the emptiest space and everything was as he remembered it.
He walked cautiously toward the table and reached down, letting his fingertips skate just above the surface.
"It's real," Merlin said behind him. "Real enough, anyway. You can touch anything."
Arthur lowered himself into his chair and looked at the papers stacked by his right hand. On top was the speech he had been meant to give to the milliners before he learned of Morgana's attack. He had almost been relieved for the excuse to avoid it.
He still felt the urge to avoid it, so he pushed himself up and wandered over to the bed. When he flopped down on his back, something in him finally relaxed. Merlin was puttering again; Arthur closed his eyes and listened. For a little while, he could imagine they had come home.
The sun was setting when they trudged out from Camelot's gates for the last time. Aithusa waited for them on the plain outside.
They stopped and turned around. As the last rays of the sunset gleamed off the bell tower, Merlin lifted his hands and chanted something that rolled through Arthur's bones even as the mists rolled over the walls. His eyes shone gold and power radiated from him. Arthur stared at him, mesmerized.
At last Merlin dropped his hands; Arthur turned toward Camelot, but it was gone.
Aithusa bore them back to Avalon, much more slowly than his customary flight. "He's tired," Merlin said in a low voice when they were safely back by their fire and Aithusa was picking at a sheep down below. "Magic is fading from the world, Arthur. Camelot became its last refuge in the end, but now it's scattered, dissipating."
"You're going to send him back to Camelot." Arthur felt the answer before he asked the question.
Merlin pressed his lips, but nodded. "He can sleep there in safety. This world has no place for dragons anymore."
Before dawn arrived, Arthur walked down into the meadow where Aithusa had curled himself. The dragon lifted his head and puffed a weary greeting as Arthur approached. Arthur reached for the great head and spent a few minutes scratching Aithusa's favorite head spine in silence.
"Sleep well, dragon," he said at last. "Wake to a better world than I gave you."
The years began passing faster. Maybe it was the magic or maybe it was only time, but Camelot began to fade into Arthur's memory. It seemed a beautiful but half-lived life; Merlin was his entire reality now, though sometimes he felt of little use to him.
Perhaps Merlin had grown lonelier without Aithusa, or even his furtive visits to Camelot, but his frustrations multiplied with every day that Arthur woke and slept and did not wake again.
Some years he looked more cheerful. "The Vikings are making another go at it," he said. "Maybe...."
He never finished that sentence anymore. Neither of them did; little need when it was the only thing left to talk about. But Arthur already knew that the Vikings were a paltry foe against his destiny. He tried not to watch Merlin's crestfallen face as he trudged back to the tower at dawn.
"The new religion is growing ever more intolerant and brutal," Merlin said a few years later. "Maybe...."
"I think that battle is already lost." Besides, Arthur rather liked the little monks who had chosen their village to build this abbey they walked through now. The abbey and the pilgrims it drew with its relics had grown the village into a town that expanded to within an easy ride of the isle.
"It sucks the magic from the world like one of Gwaine's penny wenches," Merlin grumbled and Arthur jostled his shoulder in sympathy.
One of the monks wandered past and gave them a stern look--a silent admonition toward their own silence. Arthur stifled a snicker, feeling like a boy at lessons again.
They wandered more quietly down the transept and into the ambulatory until they found the small chapel they sought. "Behold Edmund, King of England," Merlin intoned, spreading his hands to display the rough-hewn tomb before them.
"The quality of the sculpture has much declined." Arthur eyed the stone effigy with some doubt. "And the quality of the kings as well."
"Edmund Ironside was not ferocious enough a warrior to meet your standards?" Merlin had witnessed his coronation in this same church some years ago. He had reported on the virile energy of the new king with a relish Arthur had not enjoyed.
"He lost his throne to a Dane." Arthur shook his head. "Consider me unimpressed."
Merlin laughed, then looked abashed at the monk who paused in the doorway.
Arthur woke with Merlin's hand on his chest. He placed his own hand over it without thinking. Merlin did not notice; his eyes locked on Arthur's face in a fever.
"The Duke of Normandy has invaded," he said.
Arthur levered himself up on Merlin's shoulder. "He'll be repelled, no doubt, just as the Vikings were."
"No, you don't understand." Merlin leaned in closer. "Edward is dead and Harold defeated. The Normans have conquered. William the Bastard is King of England."
The name "England" still rang strange in Arthur's ears, but stranger still the thought of Norman invaders ruling her. "He can't hold the throne, surely. The nobles will rise against him."
"They are scattered and isolated. They have no one to unite them now."
Arthur's heart quickened its beat. "We've thought that before, Merlin. What's different now?"
"I can feel it, Arthur." Merlin's hand gripped the back of Arthur's neck. "In the air, in the earth. This is a turning point in the world."
A thrill of excitement traveled up his spine to meet Merlin's touch. "Then I'd better train hard today. I've been too negligent of late."
"Today and tomorrow as well," Merlin said.
He made Merlin put him through a grueling regimen. Later they rode into the town so Arthur could hear for himself the latest news from the many travelers who passed through to trade in sheep or visit the abbey. The cold air of autumn reminded him how sharp a divide stood between the real world and the eternal springtime of Avalon.
They found a table in the tavern. As always these days, Arthur's nerves jangled to be surrounded by so many people who were not Merlin, but he forgot his discomfort as Merlin's tricks enabled them to listen to each group of their fellow patrons. All talk was of the Normans, as expected; Arthur listened for any hint of military strategy, any weakness he might exploit should he find himself at the head of an army once again.
As the hour grew late and the candles burned down, Arthur looked at Merlin and nodded. He had learned all he could tonight, and it would be a longer ride home in the dark.
Then the tavern door banged open and a group of armed men tramped in. By their armor, they were unmistakably Norman. They took the largest table and demanded food and ale, despite the late hour.
A few at a time, the townspeople slipped out, but Arthur exchanged a second glance with Merlin. In silent accord, they kept their seats, and Merlin cast another spell to let them hear the conversation across the room.
They hardly needed it. The Normans were loud enough to be heard in Avalon, and coarse enough to match. Their tongue was incomprehensible to Arthur's naked ears, but Merlin's magic turned it intelligible enough for him to follow.
Little of their bawdy talk was much more than common soldiers' nonsense, though Arthur heard enough to know that the main body of the Norman army remained in the east around the capital. This lot was part of one of several groups delegated to the building of castles and fortifications around the rest of the country.
The Normans had begun to slide under their table when the candle in front of Arthur guttered out. "We've stayed too long," he muttered.
"Maybe not." Merlin's eyes glittered in the light from the hearth behind him. "Maybe...."
"Maybe," Arthur agreed, but when he moved to push himself up, his legs would not hold him. "Or maybe not."
Merlin's mouth tightened; then he sighed with a sharp nod. "It's all right. The time isn't right. We'll be ready when it is."
He needed Merlin's shoulder jammed under his arm to rise. As they stumbled toward the door, the lone remaining Norman gave them a slurred cheer before slumping facedown onto the table.
One of their horses would have to remain; Arthur could not hold himself in the saddle. "What will happen if I'm not on the island?"
"I'll have to carry your fat arse." Merlin's arm tightened around Arthur's chest as he spurred their horse down the road into the darkness.
"'M not fat," Arthur mumbled, though in truth, he worried about the softness around his belly more than he should.
Merlin risked a magical light to speed their way, but even so, the sky was light and Arthur nearly insensate by the time they reached the little boat on the shore of the lake. With a great deal of heaving and grunting, Merlin got Arthur into the boat.
Arthur faded before the boat reached the safety of the isle, but he heard Merlin's whisper, pressed against his ear. "It'll be soon. It has to be soon."
The next two years passed in similar fashion. Merlin traveled most of the year, gathering every scrap of information to present at Arthur's awakening. The earls gathered support in the south and especially the north, not so far away in Mercia and Northumbria.
Even Arthur now could feel the change rising in the land and the people. In the third year, the earls were nearly ready to rise themselves. Arthur slept with swelling heart, fully confident that he would wake again to a different season, called at last to his purpose.
It could not happen fast enough; his sleep grew uneasier by the day, filling with distant screams and shadows broken only by flame. When he felt Merlin, it was Merlin's distress he felt, a prolonged misery Arthur ached to break.
At last he woke, and almost tripped over Merlin sitting cross legged on the ground, head bowed onto his fists. "Merlin? What day is it? Is there news?"
"It's the same day it always is." Merlin's voice was low and hoarse. Arthur had never heard it sound so dark.
He slid off the stone and crouched beside Merlin. "What happened?"
Merlin gave a sharp laugh without lifting his head. "Nothing. Nothing happened, Arthur. You slept. The north is burning, thousands of people are being slaughtered, and you slept."
Arthur slumped back against the stone, dizzy with horror. "Tell me what you mean."
"The earls of the north rose at last. I raced back here at once. I was so sure I'd find you awake. That was the moment, Arthur, the exact moment when they needed you. I could see it in the weave of the world, as clearly as if someone had drawn me a fucking map."
"There were many of them. Do they still fight?"
"What's left of them. But William sent his entire army, and they don't observe any rule of civilized combat. They massacred entire villages: men, women, children. I saved as many as I could, but the Normans were everywhere and they never stopped."
Arthur gripped Merlin's arm as hard as he could. "This isn't your fault, Merlin. Not either of our faults."
"They burned the towns, the barns, the fields, and salted the earth. The few who survived are starving now; winter will finish them. I used magic to hide as much stored food as I could, but it won't be enough. And then I left them to come back here, and still you slept."
Bile rose in Arthur's throat; he had felt it before and his instinct remembered how to suppress it. "I'm here now. This must be the time. I won't sleep again."
Merlin finally looked up at him with wet eyes and a sad smile. "Yes, you will."
Arthur stood and held out his hand to Merlin. "Get up. We have work to do."
Merlin complied without argument, but his participation in Arthur's training was half hearted at best. He outright refused to go into town. Arthur did not mind that; he was not certain he could bear to hear any more tales of atrocities against his people that he had yet no power to prevent or avenge.
"We should prepare to travel fast," he said. Merlin made a noncommittal sound, so Arthur forged on with his own stubborn resolve. He gathered supplies and packed them until Merlin grew exasperated and displaced him from the task.
Arthur stood back and watched, satisfied that he had at least turned Merlin away from his grief and toward their greater purpose. He hoped that the preparations would last the whole night so that the dawn might come and surprise Merlin with Arthur's continued presence, but the moon had not yet set by the time Merlin had their packs ready to go.
"We should leave now," Arthur said. "Every hour, every minute is precious."
Merlin only looked at him, calm, almost pitying. "We'll leave at dawn. If we can."
Arthur could not argue that. He set his jaw and settled in to prove Merlin wrong.
They sat by the fire in silence. As the stars faded, Arthur sat as still as stone, fists clenched on his knees, waiting. For a moment, he thought he might be fading, but he pushed past it. It was all in his mind: instinct, muscle memory.
"Arthur," Merlin said at last as the horizon started to lighten.
Arthur gritted his teeth and did not answer. He was not sure that he could.
Finally Merlin rose and gripped his shoulder. "It's almost dawn. Shall we leave?"
His fingers uncurled slowly, but it was the best he could manage without help. "Dammit," he choked out tears of frustration leaking down his cheeks, beyond his control. "Why? I don't understand."
Merlin sighed and got his shoulder under Arthur's arm to lift him to his feet. "Maybe there's nothing to understand. Maybe we've had it wrong all along."
They stumbled into the tower and Merlin heaved Arthur onto the stone slab. His eyes held no warmth, but he tucked the pillows and covers around Arthur with no less tenderness than ever. "I'm sorry," Arthur breathed before Merlin could pull away.
But Merlin stayed bent over him, looking at him with those calm, empty eyes. "I can't do it anymore. There's nothing I can do anymore. Not without you."
Arthur looked up at him without comprehension, until Merlin straightened and closed his eyes. He intoned more of the words Arthur never understood, words Merlin almost never needed anymore to guide his power.
Merlin gasped and doubled over, hands braced on the stone. Even braced, he swayed as though weakened.
"What have you done?" Arthur whispered.
With effort, Merlin pulled himself up onto the slab and then collapsed boneless next to Arthur. "Let me sleep until he wakes," he pleaded to something Arthur could not see.
Almost understanding, Arthur used the last of his living strength to turn his body enough to let his arm flop over Merlin's still form.
THE NEW AGE
Arthur woke, feeling sleepy and warm and not quite ready to rise. He reached for his covers to pull them up over his shoulders. His hand groped over his own leg, and its empty grasp pulled him back to reality.
He pushed himself up on his elbow; he had never woken on his side before, as though out of a natural sleep. The covers had been kicked down around his feet. The space beside him was empty, but warm under his palm. Merlin had been with him, he remembered, sharing the peace of his dreams.
Magic buzzed in the air. Magic always lingered in the air here, but this felt different even to Arthur's ordinary senses. Something was happening.
Arthur got his feet under him and went to look for Merlin. He did not have to go any further than the doorway of the tower.
Merlin stood out on the hill, just below the crest. He faced the water, looking down at something there. A hush hung in the air, a stillness Arthur could not bring himself to break. He stepped out onto the grass, one silent step at a time, and stopped when he saw the figure stepping out of the boat and turning to look up the hill.
No other human had set foot in Avalon since they had come here. Arthur had not thought that anyone could. He watched the amorphous figure with curiosity as it climbed.
Then the person came into better view. The shape resolved into a woman, white dress and black hair floating in the wind. Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. He could not yet make out her face, but he did not need to see it to know her. He could never mistake the set of her shoulders or the tilt of her head for anyone but Morgana.
He looked to Merlin, who must have known who approached long before Arthur did. Merlin’s posture was relaxed but wary. His arms hung at his sides, but Arthur had learned to recognize the defensive readiness in the curve of his fingers.
Morgana showed neither fear nor aggression. She merely climbed as though the hill were her own garden, until she stopped a few arm's lengths from Merlin.
They spoke at length. Arthur could not hear a word of it, but stayed where he was. It went against every instinct to leave Merlin undefended, even though he knew Merlin himself was the only possible defense against Morgana.
At last he saw Merlin nod, and then step aside to let her pass. Whatever she said must have satisfied him; Arthur let that ameliorate his fear. Instead, a different kind of fear gripped him as her gaze met his for the first time: his mortal enemy, his dead sister.
She stopped in front of him and they studied each other. Her eyes looked wide and clear, if solemn, free from the madness and hatred that had become all he knew of her. He had no idea what to make of her; then again, he never had.
And once again she stunned him when she sank to her knees before him. She knelt with her head bowed and arms outstretched as though waiting for the executioner to take her head. Arthur looked down at her and felt excruciatingly self-conscious about his bare feet.
"I used to dream that you’d finally kneel to me," he said when she did not speak. "But I’m not a king anymore."
She looked up at him, and although her eyes had a gloss of tears, a bit of her old smirk played around her lips. "You can’t escape your destiny, brother."
"Believe me, I know." He bent down to raise her to her feet. Her arms felt strong as steel under his hands, though when he lifted her, she felt as substantial as dandelion fluff. "I’ve tried."
"As have I. All of us paid the price, didn’t we?"
"Some more than others, I suppose." He studied her face, but he had never been skilled at reading her. "Why are you here, Morgana?"
"Because it was time for me to come," she said. "It was time for there to be peace between us. And it was time for Emrys to wake."
"Merlin? Not me?" Until he said it, he had not realized what he was hoping all of this would mean.
Her fingers brushed his arm in a hesitant caress. "I’m sorry."
"Time for me to wake?" Merlin said, stepping up to Morgana’s shoulder. "How long did we sleep?"
"Half a millennium, or the better part of it." She laughed at the way Merlin’s mouth stayed open. "You never did know your own power, Emrys."
Merlin clamped his mouth shut, lips tightening into a frown. "Why wake me now, if it’s not Arthur’s time?"
"Because the world is waking up." Morgana smiled and stepped past Arthur toward the tower. "Let me show you."
Arthur exchanged a cautious look with Merlin as she stepped through the archway into the bright light of the true Avalon. Merlin shrugged and gestured to Arthur. "After you, my lord."
To his surprise, Arthur almost felt a lord again as he walked after Morgana, as though her quiet dignity was restoring his own. For a moment, he thought her dignity might suffer a blow as she nearly ran into the wall.
She stopped in front of it and turned, one hand on the wall and the other beckoning to them. "Come."
Arthur obeyed. He supposed it would be a poor start to their fledgling relationship if he asked her if she were still quite mad after all. Instead, when Morgana extended her hand, he took it.
Then she took a step up into thin air and tugged him to follow. She tugged hard enough that he stepped up before the evidence of his eyes could dissuade him from the attempt. To his surprise, the air held his weight as well as any stone step. Merlin snorted behind him.
Step by step they ascended in a slow spiral up the inside of the tower until they reached the top of the wall. Although the sun beat down on his head, the top of the wall was wreathed in heavy mist. Morgana stepped out onto it and Arthur had no choice but to follow. Merlin’s hand on his shoulder as he stepped up to join them felt more secure an anchor than Morgana’s hand.
"Now look." Morgana waved her hand and the mist blew away in a strong gust of wind.
They were high up, very high up, and Arthur could see the whole glassy stretch of the lake around their little isle. Beyond it had once stretched the vast forest where Arthur hunted; now it formed a thin band separating the lake from the town, that now came nearly to their doorstep, and the farmland beyond.
Arthur had grown up with towns and farmland, but even from this distance, these looked different. Something about the shapes of the rooftops, the patterns of the streets and fields: this world was as removed from his experience as Camelot had been from Rome.
"Do you see it?" Morgana murmured. Arthur frowned and turned to answer before realizing that she was not looking at him. "Look, Emrys."
Merlin frowned as well. He was looking into the distance, but not at the fields. "I see too much. What is this?"
"Rebirth. Renaissance." She smiled. "A new age."
Much later they sat around the fire, silence broken only by the crackle of the wood. Morgana stared into the flames for a long time before letting her fingers sweep through it as though through a still pond. Arthur winced. "What are you, Morgana?" he blurted. "What happened to you? After."
Once again she looked at Merlin instead of him. Merlin met her gaze, then looked away.
"I am a priestess of the Old Religion," she answered. "When Emrys sent me back to the Goddess, she held me to account for how I served her."
"Not too happy with you, was she?" Merlin said, but this time she looked at Arthur instead.
"When I took the mantle of High Priestess, I took on sacred obligations, bound by magic into the fabric of the world. But I ignored what little I knew of that. I thought I knew better and that revenge would restore balance."
Revenge only took away the rest of what someone held dear. Even the thought of it exhausted Arthur’s spirit after all this time. "I was ignorant as well."
"I should have taught and guided you," she said. "Brought you back in harmony with the Goddess. That was the task I was meant for. And the world changed forever because of my failure."
Merlin made a choked sound. When Arthur looked at him again, he was hunched over, head in his hands. "Merlin?"
"I burned in fire and drowned in the deep waters before my anger and arrogance were purged." Morgana continued. "Then I walked the world for centuries, until she felt I had learned what I should already have known."
Arthur’s heart clenched, but not for Morgana. Merlin had turned his back to them, still sitting doubled over as though in pain. "It’s not your fault," Arthur said.
"Intentions matter little to the gods when their will is crossed." She touched her fingertips to his jaw, drawing Arthur’s gaze back to her. "I’m one of the lucky ones. The Goddess gave me a second chance to see my purpose through."
"And what is your purpose, Morgana?" The rasp of Merlin's voice scraped down Arthur's back and reminded him of yesterday, before their long sleep when everything had hurt with lack of hope.
It spurred Arthur to cut Morgana off before she could answer. "No. What is my purpose? Why are we here? What am I supposed to do?"
She smiled, gentle with pity he did not want from anyone, let alone her. "You're doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, Arthur."
"But what am I waiting for?" he persisted. "What is it your goddess expects of me?"
"Oh, Arthur." Her tone took on a tinge of her old acid; underneath the repentant priestess was still some hint of the girl he had grown up with. "Still thinking everything is about you."
He did not think that was such an unreasonable assumption, given the circumstances. Already he could feel the pull of the tower. Another year would pass before he could discuss any of this with Merlin, and the frustration bit at him.
Merlin stood up and held his hand out to Arthur. He let Merlin pull him to his feet, and with no more than a look at Morgana, they walked together to the tower.
Despite the increasing weight in his bones, Arthur savored every step. It was the only time he had alone with Merlin. "Are you sure you'll be all right alone with her?"
Merlin paused in the archway and glanced back at Morgana, still sitting by the fire and staring into the flames. "She's no threat to me anymore," he said. "Even if she wanted to be."
The familiar anger of remorse jabbed ugly into his belly. "She would never have been, if I had--"
"Stop it." Suddenly Merlin looked more exhausted than Arthur felt. "We can blame ourselves in circles, but it won't change anything."
"Do you think we can change anything?" Arthur accepted Merlin's arm around him the rest of the way, though he could still walk under his own power. Centuries of sleep together had only increased his pleasure in Merlin's touch. "Is she right? Is this our second chance as well?"
"I don't think it's that simple. And we've all wasted more chances than we can count." Merlin fluffed his pillow and then perched beside him as he lay down again. "Maybe that's why destiny has to step in."
Arthur would have liked a word with destiny on that subject, but it was already too late for any more words today.
His last sleep had been so long and so peaceful that he had become unused to the half sleep that gripped him without Merlin by his side. Even that was different now: the shadows and whispers seemed vastly more alien.
Even in the between worlds, time passed at an excruciating pace until at last he could open his eyes again, grateful as he had ever been for the awakening. Merlin had been gone from Avalon for almost the entire year; to Arthur's distress, he was not within eyeshot now.
From outside drifted the faint sound of laughter. Alone, Arthur pulled himself to his feet and stretched his muscles, which seemed stiffer than usual. He heard the laughter again, this time audibly feminine; whatever had happened while Arthur slept, Morgana was still here.
He found both witch and warlock sitting out on the grass, playing with some brass contraption of spinning balls. "Arthur! There you are," Merlin called as though Arthur had only stepped away for an extra-long piss.
Merlin jumped up and came to take Arthur's hand and pull him over. The contact and Merlin's smile went a long way toward improving Arthur's mood.
Even Morgana's smile seemed sweet, though guarded as he approached. "Good morning, Arthur."
"Morgana. You're still here."
"Gone and come back again, actually." Merlin pulled Arthur down next to him with a bigger grin than Arthur had seen him wear in many years. "We've been all the way to Paris and back."
"To Paris? What for?"
"Because that's where the French king holds his court," Morgana said. "Most of the time, anyway. These modern high kings aren't quite the homebodies you were."
Arthur bristled, feeling insulted, though he was not sure where else a king was supposed to live, if not in his castle. He also could not imagine why Merlin had traveled all that way to see another king when he had a perfectly good one right here. Morgana's mischief, no doubt.
"We weren't there to see the king." Merlin paused. "Though he did cut quite the dashing figure."
"I'm surprised he let you in the door, then," Arthur said, surprising himself with the harsh edge to his voice. He had not spoken to Merlin like that in many years.
"Merlin cleans up quite well when you force the issue," Morgana said. "Though the man we were there to see did not seem to care much about grooming."
"He was a scientist, Arthur," Merlin burst out as though his excitement had overwhelmed him. "Like Gaius, only he understood things about the heavens that Gaius never even thought about."
"Like what?" Despite his irrational displeasure at the thought of Merlin in another king's court, his heart beat faster to see Merlin so excited about something.
Merlin reached for the odd brass device, which did look like one of the strange objects Gaius had kept in his quarters and which now cluttered the storeroom of their expanded cottage. "Look. Imagine this is our world and this is the sun. How would you think they moved?"
Arthur raised his eyebrows and gave a pointed look back toward the tower, where the noonday sun blazed ever unmoving. "I can honestly say, Merlin, that I have absolutely no idea anymore, if I ever did."
Merlin conceded the point with a grimace. "All right, but for those confined to the earthly plane, how do they see the sun?"
"It moves around the earth every day, of course." Even the ancients had known that. "How else would it rise and set?"
"Something must be moving, that's true." With a delicate flick, Merlin set the little brass spheres spinning. "But it's the earth, not the sun."
Arthur stared at the spheres, trying to track which one was supposed to be which. Morgana sighed and stopped them with a look. "Show him properly, Emrys."
"Let's wait until dark," Merlin said. "It'll look better."
Arthur shrugged, happy enough to shake the confusion from his brain and move on to things he understood. He stood up and looked at Merlin. "Training," he said, and Merlin nodded.
Morgana watched with an indulgent smile as Arthur pulled Merlin toward their training space, like a mother watching small boys play soldier. "Don't forget the new toy."
Like a well-trained hound, Merlin diverted their course toward the cottage. Arthur scowled, but followed.
The interior looked different--worse, it smelled different. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the rafters and many of the empty jars along the shelves were now filled with concoctions or specimens. The atmosphere threw him back to the first time he had entered the dwelling of the old sorcerer, skin crawling with magic he did not trust.
"You two seem thick as thieves now." He followed Merlin into the two-story workshop that housed Gaius's collection and everything Merlin kept adding to it. "You were away a long time."
Merlin paused with his hands on a long wooden box that lay across the workbench. "She's...different now. It's hard to explain, but I think the Morgana she is now is how she always should have been. If I hadn't failed her so badly."
"And you feel like you owe her for that?"
Merlin gave him an amused look. "No, I'm not blinded by guilt. I see her clearly."
Arthur weighed his own caution against his trust in Merlin, and then sighed. "All right. What were you so eager to show me?"
"Behold, my lord, the latest modern weaponry, an invention from Spain." Merlin opened the box.
Inside, a long device of metal and wood nestled in velvet. A line of small metal balls was arranged below it. Arthur cocked his head at it. If this was a weapon, it was easy enough to figure that the device must somehow fire the balls like a crossbow fired bolts. He could imagine the damage they could do on impact with flesh.
"Huh," he said.
"It's called an arquebus." Merlin slid his fingers under the weapon and lifted it out of the box. "It's like a cannon you can fire from your shoulder."
"What's a cannon?" Arthur held out his hands and tested the weight of the thing when Merlin placed it onto his upturned palms.
"Wouldn't fit in the boat. Come on. I got the arms master to teach me how to load it before we stole it."
Arthur smiled. "Well done."
Merlin showed him how to load it, took him out to a large, thick wooden post he had set up for target practice, and then got the hell out of the way. Arthur discovered why as he stared up at the sky a minute later. "That thing kicks like a horse," he wheezed.
"Recoil," Merlin supplied from somewhere behind him. "I hear you get used to it."
If Arthur had hit the target, he could not find any proof when he staggered over to it after getting back on his feet. He persevered on and off throughout the day until he could manage the recoil and more or less aim the shot. His shoulder ached like a bad tooth, but the wooden post had been splintered to his satisfaction.
He almost forgot that he had not seen Morgana for most of the day until she came up beside him and shielded her eyes against the setting sun. "I think you killed it."
He grinned at her; for a moment they were just themselves again. "See, I can learn new things." He raised his voice. "More useful things than stargazing."
Over at the target, Merlin looked up from his examination of the hit marks, exasperated. Arthur laughed.
"Yes, what could be more useful than a new way to kill people?" Despite her withering tone, she gave a hesitant touch to his arm and smiled when he instinctively offered it to her. They started in awkward silence back toward the cottage.
Merlin caught up with them and relieved Arthur of the heavy weapon. "It's nearly dark."
"Ah," Arthur said, remembering. "You were going to show me something else."
"Something truly important." Morgana's lips twitched in a tiny smile, quickly hidden by her ducking head.
They had brought delicacies from France for supper, although Morgana ate nothing but the apples that grew on the isle. Afterward, Merlin drew them a little ways from the fire, until Arthur could see only dim shapes in the darkness. Merlin sat cross legged next to him; Morgana was a faint luminescence on his other side.
Merlin cupped his hands together and stared into them. A shining sphere took shape between them and spun slowly over one of his palms. He lifted his other hand and passed it over the spinning ball. A smaller, shadowed ball formed and began to circle the larger globe.
"Terra," Morgana said. "And Luna."
Intrigued, Arthur leaned closer. "That's the whole of the world? It looks so small. Albion must take up most of it."
Morgana laughed. "Not so small yet as it will be."
He looked to Merlin for an explanation of Morgana's cryptic words, but Merlin kept his eyes on the spheres. He stretched out his arm and a pinprick of light formed over his fingers. Soon it grew into a star that illuminated their faces. "The sun. I can see it, almost, now that I know where it is."
Merlin pushed it up into the air, where it hung still. The other spheres rose to join it, and Arthur watched in awe as the ball that represented the world began to orbit around the star while the smaller moon circled the world. "So we really do go around the sun? How did anyone figure that out?"
"Observation," Merlin answered, eyes glued to the rotating spheres. "Mathematics. They're like magic, Arthur."
"They are magic," Morgana corrected. She did not look away from Merlin, the fervor in her eyes as great as his. "Science, mathematics, magic--they are all only words for what binds together the world of man and nature."
"That's how spells work." Merlin turned his head to Arthur, and Arthur wondered how he had ever seen him as anything ordinary. "Once you understand the science of how something works, you can manipulate it with magic. The ancient Druids and sorcerers knew much more about science than we do now."
"And that's why most of us could do nothing without our grimoires," Morgana said. "But Emrys is connected to the world in a different way. He won't need the spells."
Merlin shrugged. "The spells are just directions. I can see the orbit of the earth and moon now that I know what they're doing. But I can't actually do anything about it."
"You will. Someday." Morgana's intensity faded into silence, broken only by the faint hum of the spheres as they spun. Arthur tried to imagine what else there could be to discover about the earth or the sky, but he had never had much of a head for science. As his father liked to say, that was why they employed a physician.
They all startled when a loud crack echoed across the hill, coming from up by the fire. "Shit." The orbs flickered out of existence as Merlin jumped to his feet and ran back, leaving Arthur and Morgana alone in the dark.
He had a brief compulsion to run after Merlin, but something kept him where he was, next to Morgana. It was easier when he could not see her.
"I don't ever know what to say to you," he said at last, and she gasped as though surprised he had spoken at all.
"I don't expect anything from you." Her voice drifted out of the darkness, soft and strong. "Forgiveness is too much to expect for the things I have done."
He lay back on the grass and watched the stars wheel overhead. One of them broke away from the others, streaking across the sky. Maybe someday Merlin would show him how they moved as well. "I think I have to forgive you, or else condemn myself as well. I do want to forgive you."
She stayed silent for a long moment, though he could feel how she tensed. "Do you mean that?"
"If I can trust you."
Her answer came without hesitation this time. "You can. Arthur. All I want--"
When her voice choked off, Arthur frowned and turned on his side. "Morgana?"
"I'm sorry," she said, and he realized she was struggling not to weep. "I thought I was beyond grief. I thought I was beyond feeling anything."
His heart did something contrary and complicated that ended in a great sigh. "Let's not grieve anymore. The world is sad enough."
She laughed through her tear-thickened throat. "When did you become wise, little brother?"
"Long before you, I expect," he said. Then his hand snapped out and hauled her into his lap, where he rubbed his knuckles briskly in her hair. She shrieked and hit him and for the first time, she felt substantial and real.
The years resumed their onward trudge, more happily now that Arthur had a sister instead of a cautious ally. He still did not enjoy that she took Merlin away for the greater portion of the year, leaving him alone in the shadows.
Nor could he always bring himself to enjoy waking to see them together, bent over a book in avid discussion, often dressed in the odd modern fashions of the moment. They made a striking pair with their pale skin, dark hair, and vivid eyes. They could have been brother and sister--or something quite different.
He would make himself be glad for them if it were true. He could swallow the bitter taste and pretend it was happiness. That was what he had wanted for Merlin, after all: someone who could give him the year-round companionship he deserved, and who could understand Merlin on a level Arthur never could no matter how many years he devoted to the study.
Perhaps that was how Merlin and Morgana had been meant to be all along, if things had gone as they should. But it had not happened yet; Arthur felt he would know, and he breathed a sigh of selfish relief every day that he woke and found it so.
After a few years they coaxed him into a strange doublet and hose so they could go into the town. He had not been eager to walk through this strange new world; the odd shoes and stiff, frilly collars did not add to the appeal.
When they crossed the lake and entered the town, Arthur's anxiety eased a little. Although the buildings were taller and of somewhat different construction, the bustle of townspeople going about their daily business felt exactly like it always had.
"Do you want to see your tomb?" Merlin grinned until his eyes crinkled; he had probably been waiting most of the year to see the look on Arthur’s face. "The monks ‘discovered’ you a few years back when they were repairing the place."
Morgana shot Merlin a sharp look. "That seems unnecessarily morbid, Emrys, even for you."
Arthur thought he might agree with her, but the bustle of the crowd was beginning to wear on his nerves. He was no longer used to being around so many people at once, and the cool quiet of the unchanging abbey would not be unwelcome.
The abbey was much more changed than he had expected. Quiet still hung heavy in the air, but it was the hush of abandonment rather than devotion. The old church had burnt down centuries before; the new church did not look new at all. Someone had stripped it of all adornment, tearing out the benches and even the doors, leaving it bare stone already threatened by ivy and weeds.
"The king decided to make up his own religion," Morgana said. "As if one new religion wasn’t enough."
"I wish I’d known I could do that," Arthur answered. "I could have solved a lot of problems that way."
He received a glare of true anger and was almost glad of it. For all that she spoke of herself as purged and cleansed, she still carried her pain. Arthur had never been one for letting things fester.
The tomb was a block of black granite, without effigies, to Arthur's relief, but a plain inscription in Latin. "Here lies the renowned King Arthur and his queen Guinevere," Morgana read aloud. "Buried in the Isle of Avalon.'"
"Thousands of pilgrims have come here over the centuries to pay honor to the great king." Merlin touched his fingers to the stone with reverence, though his king stood quite living beside him. "Your legends lives and grows with every year."
With more caution, Arthur reached out and brushed his fingertips over the monument. The granite sent a chill up his arm. "But Gwen isn't buried here, is she?" He had never desired to see her tomb in Camelot, but in Camelot, buried in the mists, it must have been.
"No more than you are."
"Did she build me a tomb?"
"I--" Merlin shut his mouth again, then scratched his chin. "Actually, I don't know. I never thought to ask."
"Well, you knew I didn't need one." They exchanged small grins, the pain dulled by the intervening centuries.
Morgana stepped up beside them, and she also reached out to the tomb. Her fingers hovered over Guinevere's name. "How she must have hated me."
"She never hated you." The answer came before he thought. "She would have killed you without remorse, to save Camelot. But she didn't hate you."
"No," Merlin agreed. "But I think she hated me, at least a little."
Before Arthur could answer, Merlin turned and left the church.
He walked often with Morgana along the top of the tower, sometimes with Merlin, often alone. Merlin's absences were clearly deliberate, and while Arthur appreciated the fence-mending time with his sister, more and more he disliked not having Merlin at his side. Since Merlin had bound them in sleep together, his feelings had become all the keener.
"I'm sorry to keep him away from you for so long," Morgana said as they looked out over the isle. Merlin was down near the orchard, earnestly explaining some new scientific principle to a disinterested sheep. "I know it makes it harder on you."
"Is it really making him more powerful, talking to all these people? Reading all these books?" The books and piles of unbound notes had grown to look like a landslide had manifested itself inside Merlin's workshop. He expected to wake up any year to find another expansion added to the cottage.
"More than you'll be able to see for a while." She smiled and raised her hand until the wind died down. "He can already do more than any other magic user in the history of the world. When he truly understands the nature of it, there won't be anything he won't be able to do."
"Except get me out of here," Arthur said, and she touched his arm. "I wish I could understand magic better. Merlin said once that he was made from it."
She gave a hesitant nod. "That's almost accurate. I called him a magic user, but that's what the rest of us are. Merlin is magic, the embodiment of it."
A slight chill went through him. "That I really don't understand. And if it's true, I don't understand what he ever needed me for at all."
She smiled and her hand tightened on his arm. "You're his humanity."
"Have you really never showed any ability for it?" she asked during another walk along the battlement.
"No. One day when we were bored, Merlin tried to teach me a spell."
Morgana's lips curved slowly. "Oh? What kind of spell?"
"I don't remember." It had been the simplest spell Merlin could think of: starting a simple fire.
"Ah. And what happened?"
"Absolutely nothing." The only thing burning had been his face as the kindling sat inert and unimpressed.
She did not insult him by repressing her chuckle. "I had wondered, you know. You're made of magic as much as Merlin, in your own way. It seemed strange that you were born of it, but had no connection to it."
The words rearranged themselves several times in his head, but made no more sense than when she had spoken them. "What do you mean, born of it?"
He heard a choked breath behind him and turned to find Merlin, standing on empty air a couple of steps below them. The color had drained from his face, leaving him paler than Arthur had ever seen him without one of them being on their deathbed.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Morgana looking between them. "Still keeping secrets, Emrys? That surprises me."
"It surprises me, too." A chill of suspicion he had never thought to feel again curled through his stomach. "What do you mean, born of it?"
Merlin closed his eyes and bowed his head.
Arthur had to clear his throat. "Do you mean that everything Morgause--that my mother told me about what my father did... do you mean that it was all true?"
"Yes." Merlin opened his eyes and stepped up until he could meet Arthur's gaze straight on. "Your mother was barren. Your father commanded the High Priestess to use magic to give him a son."
"And he knew the price." Morgana's cold voice cut through the haze of denial trying to comfort Arthur's mind.
"Can the goddess read a man's heart?" Merlin snapped back at her.
"No," she admitted.
"Then you don't know what he knew or believed."
Arthur shook his head, bringing his hand up to rub his eyes before meeting Merlin's again. "I thought there were no more lies between us," he said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Merlin clenched his fists and stepped closer. "I hated Uther. He was a cruel, weak-minded tyrant, and he would have killed me without a second thought for everything I did to save his life, his throne, and his son. But he was your father, and you loved him. That was the only good thing about him. What would it serve to take that away from you?"
Tears glossed Merlin's eyes and Arthur's own vision blurred as they looked at each other. "Do you believe that he knew my mother would die?"
"I don't know." Merlin's eyes flicked to Morgana, then back to Arthur. "His hatred of magic after your mother died was very real. I don't know what bargain he thought he made."
"You know what he was," Morgana insisted.
"Yes," he answered and bowed his head. He had come to an uneasy peace with it long ago.
To his surprise, Morgana's hand settled on his shoulder. "It's no crime to love your father, Arthur. I envy you that, in a way."
He patted her fingers, still focused on Merlin. Uther held no more power over their lives; other things now held greater sway over his heart. "Promise me that was the last secret."
"I promise." Merlin's eyes were steady and open.
Arthur sighed, and then smiled. "Well. That's too bad. What will we find to talk about next century?"
Though he had let go of Uther, Arthur had plenty of time over the rest of the sixteenth century to brood over his own complicated relationship with magic. Magic had created him; now magic imprisoned him like a cruel parent.
Merlin and Morgana continued their journeys. Arthur knew the intimacy of traveling alone with Merlin; he couldn't help watching them for signs that intimacy had become something even more intimate. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. He wasn't sure whether that troubled him more or less than if he had.
It wasn't his business, he reminded himself. It couldn't be, and Merlin deserved more than Arthur could give him. But it did not keep Arthur from taking advantage of Merlin's distraction in the mornings to steal a few minutes of privacy with his own fist and vivid imaginings of what might have been between them.
Merlin struck up friendships with all the great minds of Europe, Africa, Asia. His magical abilities had not increased in any way perceptible to Arthur, but he did his best to share Merlin's excitement in the work of his new friends, even though he understood little of it and it all seemed to have very little to offer Arthur.
Nor did he have anything to offer, to Merlin or the world. Speaking of Uther's wrongs had only reminded him of his own. Morgana had done her penance through her mystical scourging, but Arthur knew of no way to atone for misdeeds except through better deeds. He had no deeds of any kind to do in Avalon.
He continued to train with each new arquebus, calivre, or even the cannon that Merlin finally brought him. Yet it grew clearer with each decade, with each battle and war that passed, with every new king or queen, that through all the troubles that seemed so significant in the present moment, Albion was getting along well enough without him.
It made him cranky, as did the continuing lack of restful sleep. He spent most of each year in solitary disquiet. He and Merlin had not napped together since their long sleep. He doubted they would again; he did not think he would share a bed with Merlin again unless they meant it for more than sleep.
"Kepler clearly has the right of it." Merlin returned to his beloved astronomy once again. "The orbit of the earth can't be perfectly circular. That's obvious."
Arthur hummed without commitment, content to lie drowsing in the grass. A few sentences ago, Merlin had been expounding on recent discoveries in anatomy, a subject of greater interest to a warrior, though he did not understand half of what Merlin said anymore on any subject. French, Italian, Germanic, and Arabic tumbled through his English, and even the English words changed faster than Arthur could follow.
He closed his eyes and focused on the sound of Merlin's voice. After a while it stopped, and he heard the rustle of paper, then the thump of Merlin's body as he flopped down beside him. "Am I boring you?"
Arthur let himself smile without opening his eyes. "Constantly."
"Does my speech still sound strange?"
"No more than usual."
Merlin sighed. "I'll bring you more books. I'll stop in London on the way back from Alexandria for them."
Arthur sat up. "Alexandria?"
Merlin had his hands folded over his stomach and turned his head to give Arthur a lazy, curious look. "What's wrong with Alexandria?"
It lay many leagues from Albion, that was the fucking problem. Merlin would be gone the entire year once again. Arthur fell back to the grass with a huff. "Nothing. I just miss you."
Merlin's laugh alerted him to his misstep. "I'll be here when you sleep, and I'll be here when you wake. When will you have time to miss me?"
Dismissive sarcasm teetered on the edge of his tongue, but he could not bring himself to put any more lies between them. He grimaced and said nothing.
Suddenly Merlin's face loomed over him. "Arthur? You don't know if I'm not here when you're not awake. Do you?"
He tried to look away, but Merlin hovered too close. "It's easier when you're here," he muttered. "You...anchor me, so I can rest."
Merlin looked down at him for a long moment. "And what's it like when I'm gone?"
"Cold. Frightening." The words came with reluctance, but at the same time, a deep, selfish relief to finally be saying them. "Like I'm dead."
He felt the rush of Merlin's sigh over his cheek, and then the brush of Merlin's nose against his as Merlin bowed his head. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Oh, like you don't know what you'd have done if I had." Arthur pushed Merlin away and sat up, turning his face toward the orchard. "Lurking over my corpse like my nursemaid day and night, never giving me a moment's peace from your prattle."
Merlin shoved him back and then gripped his arm to demand his attention. "What does that mean? Do you think there's anything I wouldn't do to take care of you, or to make this even a little bit easier for you?"
Arthur sighed. "I know. But that's no life, Merlin. We'd only both end up miserable. Besides, one of us has to know what's going on out in the world."
"I do have to go," Merlin said, almost to himself. "Everything I'm learning, I can feel it building towards something, though I don't know what it is yet."
"I know," Arthur said again. "I don't understand any of it, really. But I believe Morgana when she says you have to do it."
Merlin chewed at his lip for a few seconds. "What you said about me prattling--"
"Merlin," he sighed.
"Can you hear me when you're asleep?"
"I... don't know, really." Arthur avoided his eyes. "I think so. I could have been hallucinating. Dreaming. Something."
Nodding slowly, Merlin let go of him and sat back. His jaw tightened. "I'll figure it out. I'll speak with Morgana."
"If you can find her." Morgana had taken to disappearing for longer stretches during Arthur's waking hours.
Merlin frowned. "She's been different lately. Peaceful, but sadder than she was. Don't take it personally.
"I don't." He and Morgana had made their peace with each other and, as much as possible, with the memory of Uther. Little remained to be said between them, and he was more grateful for his time alone with Merlin.
They stayed alone until dawn and Arthur faded away to the sound of Merlin's voice, prattle prattle prattling away. He thought he must be sleeping with a smile on his face.
Merlin stayed for a few months, and when he returned, a few months still remained to Arthur's sleeping time. It was Merlin's voice that began to call him back to the living world, an intermittent drone that Arthur could not separate into words for a long time.
Slowly the words grew more distinct until Arthur could tell Merlin was talking about astronomy, as usual. But the next day, the subject was botany, and the day after that, theology. By the time Arthur could open his eyes, he was not surprised to find Merlin sitting cross legged next to him with a large tome open on his lap and a pile of others teetering at his side.
"Hang on, you're going to love this next bit about logarithms," Merlin said without looking up as Arthur rolled his head to the side to look at him.
Arthur pushed himself up, lead-limbed as usual. Half the books slid off the stone and tumbled to the ground. Merlin protested, but Arthur already had his hand locked around the back of Merlin's neck and was hauling him closer.
Merlin's nose was pressed into Arthur's neck. When he shifted, the pages of his book crackled dangerously between them. "So that was better?" Merlin asked.
After all this time, he had no idea why he could reach out so easily to Merlin with his hands, touching him, embracing him, and letting it mean as much or as little as they needed it to. But he had not a single word to give Merlin in return for all of this.
"Well," Merlin said, squeezing Arthur's side where his hand had gotten trapped. "I thought at the very least, it might bore you to sleep for real."
At some point, the sixteenth century passed into the seventeenth. They saw Morgana only once every few years, but Merlin continued his journeys without her. He never spent more than half the year away before returning to Arthur with a new wealth of news and discovery to share.
Arthur found the political news more interesting than the scientific. The old queen died and the new king further united the land, bringing the south and the north under the same crown. Arthur approved, at least until the man's heir aimed for even greater unity and instead shattered the entire country in civil war.
"Maybe soon?" Merlin offered with a hesitant smile when the king was executed by his own parliament and the throne stood vacant. It was a deplorable turn of events, yet Albion had suffered worse and had not required Arthur's aid.
Arthur smiled back, but let his gaze slide to Morgana next to him. She sat contemplating an apple, ignoring them. It split in her hand into perfect slices, and Arthur accepted the one she offered him. The juice tingled down his throat--the magic of Avalon entangled him inside and out. He did not think it intended to release him any time soon.
Merlin sighed at their lack of enthusiasm and went back to the letter he was answering. Someone, apparently, had discovered that living flesh was made of countless tiny cells that required a special device to see. Their correspondence had Merlin convinced he could heal any wound with a thought, although he had not managed it yet.
"Let me see your arm for a second," he said absently.
"No." Arthur scooted closer to Morgana.
She was toying with the remaining slices of her apple, and then gave them all to Arthur. He had not seen her eat solid food in some years, but she did not seem to miss it. She leaned back on her hands with a pensive frown.
"Emrys. There’s something I’ve always wondered--do you know what ever became of my little white dragon?" She looked out over the lake, gaze ranging across the treetops, seeing something Arthur could not. "I’ve looked all over the world, but no one has seen a true dragon in centuries."
Merlin looked up from his scribbling. His gaze met Arthur's; Arthur could read the same premonition in his eyes as Arthur's instincts whispered to him.
Contrary to her recent habits, Morgana stayed with them through the night. At dawn, Arthur pulled her into his arms. Her spine stiffened in surprise.
She returned the embrace after a moment, but said nothing. Neither did Arthur.
He kissed her cheek and walked into the tower without looking back, heavy with unspoken goodbyes.
Merlin left Avalon only briefly that year, at least as far as Arthur could tell. He spent most of the rest of the time at Arthur's side, where Arthur could hear his voice, clearer than anything else had ever been in his half life.
But when Arthur woke, Merlin had retreated to the fire pit. Arthur found him roasting a rabbit for their breakfast and sat down next to him.
The sun had almost cleared the horizon before Merlin spoke. "You should have seen her face when the mists cleared. You'd have thought I stabbed her through the heart. Er. Again."
Arthur nodded. He still remembered the maelstrom of joy and pain from his own last walk through Camelot's silent streets. He could only imagine what Morgana had felt revisiting the home she had tried so hard to conquer. "Did she take the tour?"
"No. I think those memories are still a punishment for her. I took her straight down to Aithusa's lair."
"What did she say when she saw him?"
"To me? Nothing at all. I'm the only one left who can speak the dragon tongue, but even I don't know what she said to her dragon."
Merlin frowned, and Arthur's heart sank into a well of pity--for Merlin and himself. He had never stopped wondering if Morgana meant more to Merlin than he wanted Arthur to know. "She stayed, then."
"You knew she would. She was never meant to stay in the world so long. Not like us." Merlin turned his head toward Arthur, though his eyes did not lift to his face. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry? What for?"
"I know it meant a lot to you, having her here." Merlin's fingers closed around Arthur's wrist, a warm and sweet pressure. "Now you've got only me. Again."
A tiny thrill tingled from his wrist up into his shoulder, absorbed into his heart between one beat and the next, quicker beat. "You still don't get it, do you?"
Merlin finally looked up at him. A little frown still creased his brow, but Arthur recognized it now--not sadness for himself, but his ancient, continuous love for Arthur.
"Merlin, if I had everyone I've every known right here, anyone in history I could choose to keep me company--" Air hitched into his lungs, making his head swim. "I would send them all away so I could be alone with you."
A sheen came over Merlin's eyes as the line between them relaxed. He still said nothing, but his hand came up to cup Arthur's face. When Merlin leaned into him, Arthur bent to finally meet his kiss.
His head grew even lighter as their lips moved together, until he realized he had forgotten to breathe, like a young squire having his first kiss. At the first touch of their tongues, Merlin pulled back with a gasp as sharp as Arthur's breath in his lungs. They laughed, and then Arthur rolled onto the grass and dragged Merlin with him.
Their mouths settled into each other again. Merlin stretched out against him, offering the full length of his body for Arthur to touch as they shared their long, hungry kisses. Arthur accepted the offer; his fingers craved warm skin and they found it at the nape of Merlin's neck, at the insides of his wrists, at the small of his back.
When his hand made a bold sally under Merlin's shirt, Merlin groaned into Arthur's mouth and shoved his knee between Arthur's thighs. The hard ridge against Arthur's hip send a new surge of blood between his legs. He gripped Merlin's hip and kissed harder.
They rolled as they kissed, locked together and unable to keep still. Arthur felt needy and desperate and more alive than he had ever been. Their shirts got rucked up between them, letting them press belly to belly.
Merlin shivered in his arms, running his hands along Arthur's sides. "I want to take you to bed," he groaned. "Please--can I take you to bed?"
Words of consent tumbled together and spun away before they reached his tongue. Arthur stumbled to his feet instead and let Merlin pull him down to the cottage.
For the first time, the roof over his head felt cozy instead of confining, welcoming more than trapping. The bed looked as it always had, and Arthur could not wait to push Merlin down into it.
He reached for the hem of his tunic only to slap his own bare skin. Startled, he looked down: they were both naked.
"Remind me to tell you about the kinetic theory of matter." Merlin's eyes glittered with the magical fade, fixed on Arthur's groin.
Arthur returned the regard, struck by how hard Merlin was, how long and how thick and flushed with blood. They admired each other's erections until Arthur could not help reaching to grasp the thick shaft heavy between Merlin's thighs. Merlin groaned and stumbled backward until they fell into the bed together.
Their naked limbs entwined, clumsy with lust as Arthur grappled for skin and position and Merlin fought back with lips and tongue. The kisses won the day; Arthur settled onto his back as Merlin’s fingers dug into his hair and pulled his head where Merlin wanted it.
Merlin’s weight on his body drove him toward madness, or orgasm, whichever came first. He had never felt such an urgency towards it. His hand found Merlin’s gorgeous cock again and gave it a few good tugs to make Merlin grind down onto him. Merlin choked, but pressed harder down into Arthur’s mouth. Then his body jerked and his cock spent its seed onto Arthur’s belly.
No physical pleasure, but rather the knowledge, the mere idea that he had made Merlin come brought Arthur’s seed surging out to join Merlin’s. He groaned and clamped his fingers around the back of Merlin’s neck to keep Merlin kissing him until his hips stopped thrusting.
Merlin broke the kiss, but not by much, panting against Arthur’s mouth. His lips curved as Arthur felt the jolt of his rueful laugh under his hands. "Sorry. It’s been a long time. A very, very long time."
"Has it really?" He made no effort to hide his interest in the answer, rubbing his nose against Merlin’s cheek and locking his arms around Merlin’s back to keep him close.
"Longer than for you." Merlin returned the nuzzle against Arthur’s ear. "I wanted my hands on you longer. I wanted my mouth on you longer."
"We have all day. The sun’s still barely up." The hours stretched before him, redolent with happy promise.
Then his stomach rumbled. Merlin started to laugh, but then his head snapped up. "Oh, shit. The rabbit," he exclaimed as he wrenched himself out of Arthur’s arms and sprinted outside, still in the nude.
The rabbit was quite charred, but Arthur ate what remained of it with good cheer. He did not even mind sating the rest of his hunger with the island’s bounty of apples. Even if there had been enough forest left to hunt in, he was not planning to spend time anywhere but Merlin’s arms today.
The hours that had seemed so plentiful in the morning passed too quickly. Dawn found him still in bed, still curled into Merlin, face pressed into Merlin’s neck to hide from the growing light.
"Can I stay?" he mumbled into Merlin’s clammy skin. "Can I fall asleep here with you?"
It meant he would have to haul Arthur back to the tower himself, but Merlin did not hesitate. "Yes. Stay here. Don’t go."
He did not want to go. "Keep me awake," he begged until he realized that his mouth had not and would not move.
Still, even as his vision faded, it felt like real sleep this time, won by hard exertion. It stayed just as sweet for the rest of the year.
He woke to the heaviness of quilts and Merlin draped over him. When he opened his eyes, the familiar tower took him by surprise. He was no longer in their bed, but it seemed Merlin had brought most of it to him.
Merlin lifted his head from Arthur's shoulder as soon as Arthur stirred. He looked down at Arthur, shading him from the sun, and studied him before bending to kiss him. Slowly, Merlin woke Arthur's body with fingers and lips, chasing the cold away.
At the moment of his climax, Arthur heard what sounded like a pile of books tumbling to the ground. He decided not to mention it.
Afterward, his limbs felt supple and warm, a benefit when Merlin shoved him out into the dawn. "I laid out clothes on the bed for you," he said to Arthur's back. "I'm taking you to town."
"Why?" He was used to Merlin's indiscriminate use of furnishings to hang clothes, but he could think of better uses for both the bed and their time.
"Why not? We can't go for a walk like normal people?"
Normal--that was a word that had tasted of forbidden sweetness to Arthur all of his life. A normal day out for normal lovers. He paused with his hand on the door and grinned over his shoulder. "Why, Merlin, are you trying to woo me?"
Merlin gave him a tiny, wrinkle-nosed grimace. "What for? I already got what I wanted."
He shouldered past Arthur and vanished into his workshop, leaving Arthur grinning even harder.
Not feeling in a hurry to deal with the outside world, Arthur took his time meandering about the main room of the cottage. It seemed even smaller now after all Merlin's additions to the house. Most days, Arthur remained in the open air as much as possible to drink in the illusion of freedom. He only entered the building when Merlin wanted to show off a new project, or when he needed something and could not persuade Merlin to fetch it for him.
Along the way, he had failed to notice the care Merlin had put into this first space. What had always looked like a random jumble now coalesced into a careful and loving order before Arthur's wondering eyes. The bed, the wardrobe, the table were all arranged at the same angles Arthur had favored in his chambers in Camelot. His boyhood practice shield hung on the wall so he could see it from his chair, if he ever sat in it. Other possessions, beloved and insignificant both, mingled with Merlin's acquisitions everywhere he looked, here in their home.
"Aren't you ready yet? Or have you forgotten how to dress yourself again?" Merlin appeared in the doorway, dressed in an absurd doublet, hose, and poofy breeches. Apparently no one in this century wore proper trousers.
But Merlin's eyes gleamed with eagerness and his cheeks held a bashful flush. Arthur's heart thumped and nothing could be done except to cross the room and haul Merlin into his arms.
Merlin gave a cough of surprise, but sank into the embrace. Arthur held him tighter and gathered his breath. He had never been overly facile with words, but some words had to be spoken, for honor's sake. "I love you, too," he said and blinked against the hot rebellion in his eyes.
"Are you sure this is the fashion?" Arthur nudged the feathered and bejeweled monstrosity on his head. He nudged it back the other direction, but nothing could get it to balance on his head. "I don’t see the point of hats."
"You just think you’re too good for anything less than a crown," Merlin jibed, and Arthur did not deny it because it was, for the most part, true.
"You’re not wearing one," he said instead.
"I am but a humble commoner and you are a great lord." Merlin’s eyes crinkled with mirth and he trailed his hand in the water as though sharing a joke with the lake itself. Arthur smiled to see the familiar gesture; he supposed it had been too long since they had gone exploring together.
"I suppose that makes sense," he said and leaned back in the boat to watch the tower shrink as the isle faded into the distance.
An hour later, Arthur blew a feather out of his face with an exasperated look toward Merlin. They walked past a pair of tradesmen unloading a cart. Arthur tensed, and sure enough, just like the last thirty people they had passed, the tradesmen did a double take right at Arthur and their coarse laughter trailed after them down the street.
Merlin turned his head to examine the wares of a vegetable stall as though he had not heard a thing, but Arthur knew he was hiding a grin. "Merlin," he said through gritted teeth. "This is a ladies' hat, isn't it?"
Merlin turned back to him with a bright, inquisitive expression welded onto his innocent face. He said nothing, which was answer enough.
Arthur stopped in the middle of the street and closed his eyes in despair. Two young ladies—with similar, if more modest hats—jostled his shoulder and then scurried away, snickering to each other as they looked back at him. "This is Morgana’s hat, isn’t it?"
"Yes." Merlin rocked back on his heels, looking at the hat as though it were his greatest work. "She was the only noble person I knew with a hat of sufficient magnificence for my king."
Arthur growled and his hand whipped out to seize Merlin’s arm. But Merlin dodged him and took off sprinting. Arthur pelted after him, zigzagging through the streets until he cornered Merlin in a deserted alleyway.
Merlin sputtered with laughter as Arthur stalked up to him. Arthur backed him against the wall and kissed the mockery out of his mouth. He kept kissing until Merlin melted against him and flung the hat into a pile of firewood so he could get his hands into Arthur’s hair.
"I suppose at last Morgana has had her revenge," Arthur said when they broke for air.
Merlin gave him a sweet smile that went straight down into his groin. "And so have I," he murmured and nuzzled another kiss against Arthur’s lips.
The building he had Merlin pressed against turned out to be an inn. And a room at any inn, in any century, Arthur soon learned, were exactly the same.
"But why not?" Merlin persisted.
Arthur shrugged and this time did not look up from the book on the table in front of him. Merlin still favored the scientific texts, ever more advanced and incomprehensible, but Arthur liked history best. Battles and kings, court intrigue and exploration—in any era, that was the world Arthur understood.
"We could be to London by midday. The capital, Arthur! Don’t you want to see it? You could be ruling there someday."
Camelot was Arthur’s capital; if he could not rule from there, he did not care much about what old Londinium had grown into. Besides, as time had reached the year 1913 of the new religion, Arthur had considerable doubts as to whether he would ever be required or even capable of ruling this modern empire with its far-flung colonies. He could not begin to imagine what he would do with a colony if he had one.
Merlin’s arse shoved the book out of the way and his hands fell on Arthur’s shoulders. "The train is like a metal dragon that runs faster than any horse you’ve ever seen. How could you not want to ride that?"
Arthur sighed and looked past Merlin’s shoulder. "Real horses do fine for me, thanks. Besides, you were just as excited about that gigantic unsinkable ocean-crossing ship a couple years ago, and look what happened with that."
Merlin moved his face down into Arthur’s range of vision so he could not keep from looking at him. "Are you scared? Shall I build you your own special train?"
He lifted his fingers as though to snap them, and Arthur had to smile with the amazement that never quite left him. "Is that supposed to make me less frightened?"
"Aha!" Merlin’s fingers completed the snap, although fortunately for their ceiling, a steam engine did not magically form in the room. "So you admit it."
"If it makes you feel better." Arthur leaned around Merlin, reaching past his hip for the abandoned book.
Merlin caught his hand and drew it back. Even after a love affair of centuries, Arthur felt a thrill at the pressure of Merlin's fingers against his. "The trains have been running for decades and I haven't been able to wheedle you off this isle in years. What's wrong?"
Arthur smiled and bent his head to kiss their joined hands. "There's nothing out there that concerns me. I don't get that much time. I'd rather spend it with you."
"That's sweet." Merlin bent his head and kissed the top of Arthur's. "But you have to understand what's going on out in the world. We have to be ready."
"I'll read the newspapers." Arthur liked the newspapers better than he liked the world. What he liked even better than that was the heat of Merlin's thighs; he pushed his chair back and bent lower to feel it against his lips.
"Arthur." Merlin grabbed him by the back of his hair and pulled him up.
Arthur sighed and sat back in his chair. "I'll learn more from the papers than from one afternoon wandering around. And have time for more important things as well." He nodded significantly at Merlin's crotch.
"This is important." Merlin sighed, but let Arthur draw him closer until he was straddling Arthur's lap. "War is coming, Arthur. Everyone knows it."
"War comes and goes." Arthur pressed his nose into Merlin's shoulder and inhaled. He missed the scent of Merlin during those long times when his senses were taken from him. "They haven't needed me for it in a long time."
"It's more than that," Merlin whispered against his hair. "It's coming, Arthur. It's almost here. This century is what we've been waiting for."
Arthur froze. A long time had passed since Merlin had last said that, and Merlin's power had grown infinitely greater since then. "Are you sure?"
"I can feel it everywhere. The world is moving so fast." Merlin stroked his hair and kissed him again. "That's why you don't like seeing it, isn't it?"
He wrapped his arms around Merlin to feel the solid reality of him. "It's different now," he admitted. "I know things always change, but before, it still felt like the world I understood."
Now it was all smokestacks and metal and noise, always the noise. Even Glastonbury, hardly a hotbed of industry, had changed with the arrival of the trains Merlin was so keen on. Engines propelling things forward with nothing to push or pull them--it was unnatural at best.
Merlin sighed again and began to slowly rock against him. "I know. I feel the same way, sometimes."
The pleasure of their bodies moving together soothed Arthur enough to give a derisive snort. "You? You thrive on it. Your chemistry and physics and biology. Every year you can do more. Soon you'll be creating life out of thin air."
"Don't even joke about that." For an instant, Merlin's face paled, as though the thought truly frightened him. "You'll read the newspapers?"
"Every one of them. You'll come to bed with me?"
"Immediately." And with a thought, it was done.
War did come. The very next year Arthur knew it as soon as he saw Merlin’s face. There was no need to read the headlines of the newspapers clutched in Merlin’s white-knuckled hands.
"You’re certain this war is different?" Arthur stared down at one surprisingly cheery story about the likelihoods of zeppelin raids on the east coast—that part was certainly different. Man conquered the air and turned the miracle towards war; he could hear Morgana's scorn.
"It's not just Europe. It's the whole world at war, Arthur."
A world war. He could hardly conceive of what form such a war could take. His own world and his own wars had been so small in comparison.
Dutifully he followed Merlin back to the cottage. A machine gun stood on a sturdy tripod outside; Arthur ignored it. He could use the modern weapons well enough, but he doubted he would ever need to do so. Gone were the ages when the skill of one man could turn the tide on the battlefield. There was still an art to war, but it was game of armies, not men. Fortunately, Arthur had been a master of both.
Merlin had replaced Arthur's history books with books on military strategy and modern weaponry. Arthur settled to his studies without complaint save for a single private sigh. Strategy had not kept up with the racing technology. Arthur could sympathize. The machine gun he could cope with. Even the tank was merely advanced artillery, an exceptional, monstrous catapult. But submarines, airplanes--their very existence made his head hurt.
After some hours, the touch of Merlin's lips on the back of his neck came as sweet relief. He straightened up and allowed a small smile. "Have I won the day already?"
He felt the upturn of Merlin's lips against his cheek. "You've won lunch, at least."
That year was not Arthur's year. By the next year, tension made an unbendable rod of Merlin's spine.
"They're calling it the Great War." Merlin's voice wavered almost to the cracking point. "Thousands are dying. Dying horribly in the fields, in the trenches. You can't even imagine the trenches, Arthur."
Merlin was right. Arthur could not even imagine fighting, dying, so far from the home he fought to defend. "Merlin," he started, words slow with oncoming thought. "If I don't stay awake--"
"You must," Merlin burst out. "A world war--even the colonies are fighting. The Germans are bombing the coast. What else could you be intended for?"
A bitter twist caught Arthur's mouth. "I don't know," he said. "I honestly don't know."
Merlin took a ragged breath and turned his damp eyes toward the ceiling. "I know what you were going to say. If you don't wake, I must go fight myself."
"That was not what I was going to say!" The thought made his stomach churn with a sick dread.
Merlin's fingers grazed his wrist. "I've gone to battle before."
"Not for a long time. Not like this." Not since the days of William the Bastard, and Arthur had not realized how glad he was of that until this very minute. "War has changed, Merlin."
To his surprise, that made Merlin smile. "No, it hasn't. It's still men trying to kill each other with metal objects, for reasons that always seem so important to them at the time."
"The weapons are beyond--" Arthur started to argue, but Merlin stood up and walked outside before he could get any further.
He followed and found Merlin on the side of the hill, several yards from the machine gun. The muzzle pointed at Merlin's chest.
"Fire it," Merlin called.
Arthur stopped and planted his feet, crossing his arms over his chest. "No," he called back.
The moment stretched out, not even the wind breaking the silence. At last Merlin sighed and Arthur smiled in triumph. He might not order Merlin about as much as he used to, but he could still out-stubborn him.
Then the distinctive rat-a-tat of the gun blasted his ears. "Merlin!" he screamed, heart trying to claw its way out of his chest.
The noise stopped. Merlin stood perfectly still, untouched, with a ring of bullets around his feet. He looked down at them and they melted into a ragged circle. Merlin stepped out of it almost daintily.
The machine gun tilted askew on its stand. Arthur approached it as though it were one of the more venomous serpents he had encountered.
"It won't fire again." Merlin rejoined him and dropped a single bullet into Arthur's palm. "The weapons have advanced, but so have I."
Arthur studied Merlin's face, so familiar and beloved that he had stopped really seeing the sorcerer long ago. Merlin had a warrior's heart; Arthur had known that since the beginning, well before he knew the real way Merlin had been fighting for Arthur.
He also knew that Merlin's powers knew few limits, at least in theory. Was this what Morgana had foreseen when she set Merlin to expanding his abilities? To make him into an instrument of war in Arthur's place?
The thought intensified the sick feeling in Arthur's gut, but--
"I have to do something." Merlin's voice was soft, apologetic, and unyielding. "I don't know what I can do, but I can't watch our people die like this. I have to go."
Arthur nodded, head heavy as lead. "If I don't wake."
"If you don't wake."
Arthur had hoped a year alone in soul-numbing limbo would be enough to let him forget the look on Merlin's face when Arthur had finally sagged onto his shoulder, strength stolen by the call of the tower. But when he woke, he could still hear the choked noise of disappointment that was the last thing he heard from Merlin. It would be the only sound from Merlin he heard today--Merlin had left the isle at once, and Arthur knew he would not see him unless Arthur stayed awake a great deal longer than usual.
They had agreed on it, he reminded himself when he took a reluctant step into the empty cottage. Arthur could fend for himself as long as he had to while Merlin did what he could to protect Albion. It was the only thing Arthur could do for his people.
He wandered through all the rooms of the cottage, but Merlin had left him no message. Arthur lingered in Merlin's study until he cursed himself for the useless sentimentality.
Arthur had no practical need to leave the isle. When Merlin had discovered what made the winter air cold, he had spelled a crate to keep their food fresh. Most of it had withered with a year's neglect, but there was enough left to supplement the salted meat and preserves.
But he could not just sit and wait for his living death to reclaim him. Merlin's absence made the war feel more immediate and perilous than any war in centuries. He had to know what was happening. He had to find something he could do.
Merlin had spent a great deal of time trying to talk him into modern clothes, which at least looked less bizarre than most of what had come and gone since the damn Normans had swarmed in with their continental fashions. Arthur had no trouble finding the simple clothes he needed, and only moderate trouble donning them; buttons still made his fingers fumble.
When he got down to the lake, he stood dumb in his uncomfortable shoes, staring at the empty spot where the boat always waited. Of course Merlin had taken it back to the mainland when he departed. Arthur remained a prisoner of Avalon.
Just as he was contemplating whether he still had the strength to swim that distance, the water gave a strange ripple. He frowned at it; he had never noticed any fish in this lake. If there were any, he would be somewhat leery of what they would look like.
The ripple moved away from him. Arthur squinted after it until it met a dark shape moving in the opposite direction: the boat, gliding toward Arthur as though the strange ripples drew it across the water.
When it bumped to a stop at his feet, he looked down at it with suspicion. But in the end, it was no weirder than anything else in Arthur's life, so he shrugged and climbed in. As he watched the isle recede behind the boat, he imagined he was leaving it forever, going to find Merlin to share the news of their freedom.
"Maybe," he said to the water as if it could listen in Merlin's place.
A wide road now ran past the lake, built for the carts hauling goods from the farms beyond the town. Arthur trudged down it into the more populated streets, which bustled with activity. Several people stopped their business to give him an odd look. He adjusted his jacket, feeling vulnerable and confused without Merlin by his side.
At last he spotted a newsagent's and hurried to it, eager for whatever information he could find. He picked up the daily newspaper and his heart sank at the headline about deaths in the trenches. Merlin would be there at the front, so far away from Arthur he might as well have set sail for the other side of the world.
Arthur tucked the paper under his arm and reached for one of the other publications he recognized from Merlin's pile of reading material the previous year. Merlin had dismissed it as government propaganda, slanted to boost public morale. Arthur's political instincts pinged; if any signs of Merlin's magical activities could be found in the press, he thought it must be here.
Reading the modern printing still took him longer, but sure enough, he found what he needed to see. A series of those strange German airships had gone down without explanation over the Channel before they could barrage the coast. A company of British soldiers escaped an ambush unscathed when every German machine gun mysteriously jammed at the same time. Arthur smiled.
"Are you going to pay for that, lad? This isn't the public library, is it?"
Arthur looked up into a white-whiskered scowl. The proprietor, he realized after a second of befuddlement. "Er, I don't--" He patted his waist where a purse of gold and silver had once hung. Arthur was not even sure what money looked like in this age. "I don't know--"
"You don't know if you can pay?" The old man leaned closer with narrowed eyes. "No army pay, then? How has a strapping young chap like you avoided the conscription? I've no business with cowards."
Arthur bristled even as his jaw gaped in surprise. No one in his life had ever spoken to him like that, not even Merlin. He wanted to storm away, but he needed these papers. They were his only link, however tenuous, with Merlin. "I--"
"Tch, David, can't you see the lad is suffering a neurosis?" A warm hand fell on his shoulder; he turned to meet the maternal pity of a sturdy lady of middle age. "I know the signs. You've done your service, haven't you, my boy?"
"Yes, my lady," he answered. Over her shoulder he could see women, children, old men, but no men or boys within a decade of Arthur's physical age.
The old newsagent snorted. "My lady, indeed. You must be addled. Well, my apologies for calling you a coward, but you still have to pay for the magazine if you want to read it."
His rescuer tilted the publication in his hands until she could see the cover. "Ah. It's difficult, isn't it? Not being there, not knowing what's happening. You still have friends out there, I reckon."
"Yes." He swallowed hard against a new pang of loneliness and worry. Merlin would never age to death, but did they truly know that a bomb or stray bullet could not take Emrys from the world before he willed it? "My--my best friend."
The old man frowned fiercely and cleared his throat several times. "Keep it," he said and gave two erratic pats to Arthur's shoulder. "God bless."
The man turned away, but the woman took Arthur's arm with a kindly smile. "You look lost, lamb. Wishing you could do something to help, aren't you?"
That seemed an understatement. He could never hope to explain the complexity of guilt and fear and need inside him. Then the world seemed to shift a degree to realize that, as a woman in wartime, she already understood. "Yes. I can't--"
She shushed him. "No need to tell me your story. I've seen it often enough, haven't I? Come with me. I'll find a task for your idle hands."
He followed her until he no longer knew where he was. The dense stone buildings thinned, but then a large, many-windowed modern building loomed ahead at the end of the street. "You know the old asylum?" his guide asked, and Arthur shook his head. "Ah. It's a war hospital now. I thought they might have brought you here when you came back."
She led him inside and down a long corridor with many closed doors. His skin prickled, both from the strangeness of the building and the lingering stench in the air. He had not walked a battlefield since long before his new friend could trace her ancestry, but he knew the smell of putrefying flesh.
Arthur stopped at the first open door they encountered and peered inside. Beds lined both sides of the room and in each was a wounded man. He saw missing legs, stumps for arms, heavily bandaged heads, before the woman took his arm again and pulled him away.
"Come now, it won't do you any good to look at that. You can help them best by hard work, if you can manage it."
"I can," he said, mind still back with the wounded soldiers.
She brought him to a large room where women, some in plain dress, some with white caps and aprons, sat rolling bandages from strips of cloth, mixing small bottles of medicine, or scrubbing pans and instruments. A few looked after him curiously as he passed, but most were much too busy to give him any notice.
"Sit here." She pushed him down into a chair at one of the long work tables. "Let’s make you useful."
She moved away to speak with two of the women in white caps. He caught the word ‘addled’ and felt their looks of pity. Arthur had never felt pitied before—he would not have expected to like it, but it brought a peculiar relief to know that they expected nothing from him.
A wave of shame followed, an echo of the shame he imagined Merlin would feel if he saw Arthur like this. Here sat the Once and Future King, playing the simpleton to hide from war while his lover fought in his place.
They brought him bandages to roll and supplies to sort. It was menial work, servants’ work; Arthur reminded himself that if Merlin had humbled himself to serve for so long, it certainly was not too good for Arthur. This was all he could do now, and so it was his duty to do it.
The tasks kept his hands busy, but left his mind free to wander. As it always did, it wandered to Merlin, who might be in combat at that moment. Was he fighting with rifles and revolvers, or lurking to the side to use his magic as he always had in Arthur’s battles? Did he realize what day it was? Would that distract him, putting him in greater danger?
His fingers dug into a wad of bandaging material, seeing it wound round and round the stump of one of the amputees he had seen inside that room. Even if Merlin could not be killed, Arthur knew very well that he could be hurt. Arthur had seen him wounded, poisoned, desperately ill. Flesh was flesh, no matter how magic the soul it housed, and flesh could be torn and rent and severed.
Arthur had told Merlin to be careful, but he should have told him to put his own safety above all else at all times. He should have commanded it, as his king. Why had he not thought to command it?
He had his head in his hands, slumped over the table, though he failed to notice until he felt that now-familiar hand on his shoulder. "It’s all right, love," the woman said and slid a rough ceramic cup in front of him. "Here, a cuppa will set you right again."
"Thank you, my lady." Arthur straightened himself up with a weary sigh. He knew it was the wrong form of address, but at least it made her smile as she left him to stare down into the steaming liquid.
Tea, he supposed. He had heard of it. He remembered Gaius and Merlin had liked to drink something similar: a ghastly, smelly infusion of herbs Gaius called beneficial to health.
At least this smelled a good deal better than any of Gaius’s foul brews, so Arthur took an experimental sip. The hot liquid burned over his tongue and down his throat, sweet and sharp. After a few more sips he did feel calmer and stalwart enough to continue his tasks.
He worked until sunset. As they lit the lamps, he slipped out. It took him the rest of the night to find his way back to the lake, but first he stopped to look at every soldier housed in the makeshift hospital to be sure none of them were Merlin.
He woke with a gasp, rolled off the bier and lay retching on the ground. The year had passed long, slow, and empty. He had felt every excruciating minute of it. Hundreds of thousands of souls had streamed past him as he had not ever seen, young souls afraid and confused. The grey beyond pulled him deeper than it had in centuries, and every moment the terror of finding Merlin on the wrong side of it.
But he had no sign of Merlin at all. The war raged on. Grimly, he dressed in the same modern clothes and found a cap to cover his hair and make his youth less obvious. It helped that he felt as old as time, in body and soul.
He found the same newsagent's and stared at the headlines. He still had no money, but he tied a half dozen of Avalon's prettiest apples in one of Merlin's less attractive scarves. The proprietor startled at recognizing Arthur, and again at the silent offer of the apples.
Arthur left the man wiping a tear from his eye. He tucked the stack of periodicals under his arm, feeling his honor restored, even if he did have to play the simpleton. Merlin would laugh when Arthur told him.
At the hospital, he looked in the face of every wounded man to make sure Merlin was not among them. Someone had plastered posters to the walls between the windows. Arthur stopped and stared at one: a knight in full plate armor reared back on his horse, driving a lance through a serpentine dragon. In an elegant type along the top and bottom it read: BRITAIN NEEDS YOU AT ONCE. Stricken and furious, he retreated.
He stalked back to the lake and then to the cottage and cleared enough space in Merlin's study to spread out his papers. The mechanics of this war still astounded him, but even in this small sliver of a view he could identify the rhythm of it. Albion and her allies were winning, though not fast enough to prevent loss of life in numbers Arthur's mind refused to comprehend.
He closed his eyes. Merlin needed to come home.
Not the least because the electric lights Merlin had installed did not work without Merlin's magic to fuel them. Arthur lit candles as daylight faded. Stacks of letters covered of Merlin's work table, his correspondence with four centuries of great minds bundled up with bits of twine and ribbon. Arthur reached for the nearest stack which sat unbound; Merlin must have been reading them before he left.
These had come from a man called Newton, already two centuries dead. Arthur smiled. The top letter concerned matters of optics and light, but he remembered Merlin's excitement over the man's simplest discovery. Merlin had spent much of a sunny afternoon dropping things on Arthur's head and chortling, "Gravity!"
Arthur had only rolled his eyes. Gravity did not seem so impressive to him. Things fell because they always fell; they always had and always would and that seemed enough to get by on.
Suddenly weary to the bone, he shed his strange clothing and curled up in bed. Merlin's scent was long gone from the pillows, but the memory of it was enough to finally let him sleep.
He woke groggy, but with a pounding heart. His legs kicked out involuntarily, heels striking stone instead of soft feathers.
Arthur had slept through the night and the year--but he had not moved himself to the tower. Merlin must have come back.
But when he stumbled out to the cottage, all remained as he had left it. Dust covered every surface in an unmarred blanket. Disappointment struck a keen note through his confusion and he stalked back outside.
He sat on the side of the hill as the morning grew brighter, staring down at the boat he had left pulled onto the shore a year ago. Against his melancholy, he tried to gird himself for another solitary trip.
The boat wavered in his vision. He blinked to clear his eyes, but then the boat moved again. It rocked from side to side and then slid into the water. Arthur inhaled a short, shallow breath, and waited.
It returned when the sun had climbed, bearing a single figure bent double, head bowed over knees. An olive cap concealed all but a narrow glimpse of dark hair; a drab jacket hung loose over thin limbs.
Arthur was moving before the boat bumped to a stop at the shore. When Merlin stood up and wobbled, Arthur caught him and wrapped his arms tight around the perfect, breathing whole of him.
"I made it," Merlin mumbled into his shoulder. "Thank God. Panicked that I'd mistook the day, that I'd miss you by seconds."
"No, no, I'm here." His throat closed up after that. They embraced in silence, suspended between water and land, until Arthur trusted himself to move again.
He got Merlin fed and bathed and into bed with only token argument. "You serving me--now that's something I never thought I'd live to see." Merlin managed a tired grin as Arthur knelt to pull off his boots.
Arthur stopped and laid his hand on Merlin's knee. "It is my honor," he said simply, and watched Merlin duck his head to hide the tremor in his chin.
In bed, Arthur took his time examining and caring for every inch of him. Every finger, every toe was inventoried and secured safe and unblemished under his lips and tongue. At last Arthur speared deep into the heart of him and Merlin groaned beneath him in a pained ecstasy Arthur recognized. War took a man to a strange place between life and death; Arthur's job was to secure him in life.
Afterward, he tucked Merlin against him and told him the lightest version of his adventures in the town. Merlin smiled and kissed his shoulder. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
Arthur sobered. "I'm sorry I wasn't there."
The ferocity in Merlin's voice surprised him. "I am. But the war is over now."
"Not quite. But the Germans have asked for terms. It won't be long now until we have an armistice." Merlin heaved a sigh across Arthur's chest. "I couldn't wait any longer. If I had to wait another year to see you, I would have lost my mind."
"No one would have noticed the difference," Arthur soothed, catching Merlin's threatening hand before he could decide how to punish Arthur with it. "You did so well. I saw the papers. I knew where you were and what you did."
"It was never enough. I saved five soldiers from a grenade while ten more were gunned down behind me." Merlin sat up, leaning over his knees as he had in the boat.
Arthur propped himself up on one elbow, but said nothing. There was nothing that could be said.
"I could have ended it in a second," Merlin said after a while. "I could have stopped the heart of every Axis soldier I saw. I almost did it, once, but I saw his eyes and he was just a boy, as frightened and brave as any of ours."
"I know," Arthur said. Merlin was no killer, unless pushed by immediate peril. Never had Arthur felt so thankful not to have the burden of magic himself.
At dawn, Merlin still slept heavy in his arms. The reluctance to disengage and return to the tower had never gone so deep into his bones. But it seemed unfair to make his exhausted lover responsible for moving him.
"Don't you dare." Merlin's fingernails dug into his wrist. "I can't keep you with me for long, but I want every second I can have."
That was enough to succumb to the temptation. Arthur settled down against him, nosing into the hair at his temple. "We can go on your trains, if you want," he mumbled as natural sleep vied with unnatural to claim him. "To London, or wherever you like.."
"Really?" Merlin's head rose up, and Arthur took his smile with him into sleep.
"Oh, God." As the train lurched back into motion, Arthur clutched half at the seat, half at Merlin's jacket. If Merlin had not procured them a private compartment, Arthur would have had to throw himself off the moving train to escape this humiliation.
"Just think of it as a really fast horse," Merlin exhorted him for the thirtieth time since they had boarded this infernal transport back in Glastonbury.
"This is nothing like a horse," Arthur snapped. A horse ran in a natural rhythm of muscle and sinew. This felt more like a carriage drawn by a whole legion of frothing mad horses. Arthur had never liked carriages much in the first place.
"No, it's steam power." Merlin's eyes lit up at the prospect of explaining the mechanics of the steam engine to Arthur--again.
Arthur considered his immense love for Merlin, and then cut him off in self-defense. "No, Merlin. Steam is what tells me my soup is ready. It does not propel people across the countryside at ridiculous speeds."
Merlin looked at him for a moment. Then he launched into another stream of engineering babble. Arthur risked another glance out at the dizzying landscape and immediately winced. At least arguing with Merlin distracted him from the urge to spew his breakfast and self-respect all over his new traveling clothes.
"After lunch," Merlin prattled on, "we might have time to catch a talking picture before the last train back."
Arthur made a non-committal sound. As the train rocked along, his stomach could not support any notion of food, motion, or talking.
"Do the moving pictures still scare you, Arthur?" The sweetness in his voice might have fooled an eavesdropper into thinking that Merlin addressed a small child. That made Arthur feel entitled to scowl like one.
"You can't tell me you don't find the whole notion as bizarre as I do," he protested. "Even magic can't capture something happening and let you see it months later and leagues away."
Merlin shrugged. "It's a simple matter of optics and sound waves. Easy enough, really."
Then he extended his hand and splayed his fingers toward the empty compartment wall above the opposite seats. He let out a soft sigh, and an image resolved on the wall. Arthur inhaled when he recognized the Great Hall of Camelot.
There were his knights, or at least the backs of their heads. There was old Geoffrey and there was Arthur himself, kneeling on the dais as Geoffrey lowered the crown onto his head. He watched himself rise slowly, grim-faced under his new burden. A shout broke the silence--Leon's voice first, and then the rest of the court with him. "God save the King!"
As the image and sound faded, Arthur gave a shaky laugh. "I remember. Never in my life was I more terrified than at that moment."
Merlin turned his head with a soft smile. "I was so proud of you."
With a sigh, Arthur closed his eyes and let his head rest on Merlin's shoulder. The rocking of the train seemed gentler now.
Arthur did not care for London. Even small Glastonbury swarmed with too many people for Arthur; the crowds of London overwhelmed.
He found the cinema pleasing enough in the end. Merlin found one closer to home and they went almost every year for the next two decades. Arthur found it a less stressful way to learn about modern society, despite Merlin's protests that no one ever behaved in real life like they did in the pictures.
"Have you actually met Greta Garbo?" Arthur finally whispered in the middle of a film. "No? Then how would you know how she behaves?"
Merlin grumbled until someone hushed him from down the row, but after a minute he sneaked his fingers into Arthur's hand. Arthur liked that part the best.
Slightly less enchanting, the radio and newsreels kept him as up to date as he wanted to be with the rest of the world. They showed the current king and his family (all of whom Arthur found pretentious and dull), the odd antics of the Americans in their faraway continent, and the rumblings amongst the European powers, which had never really stopped after the Great War.
He could not miss the way Merlin began to tense up beside him during those segments as they moved through the fourth decade of the century. "So," Arthur said as they climbed back into the boat one evening. "Do you think anything’s going to come of that Hitler fellow?"
Merlin did not answer until the boat glided out into the lake. "Maybe," he said at last and kept his head down until they reached the isle.
Soon enough it became clear even to Arthur that the German chancellor was a formidable problem that no one could seem to solve. He could not be overthrown, he could not be appeased, he could not be contained. He could only be stopped.
Britain had joined the pledge to help stop him if the self-proclaimed Führer overstepped his borders. When Arthur awoke in the last year of the decade, he knew at once from Merlin’s face that the world was at war again.
"It’s not too bad yet." Merlin did not protest at the way Arthur’s fingers dug into Merlin’s arms to keep him close.
"But it will be." When Merlin failed to answer, Arthur squeezed him even tighter. "Don’t protect me. You’ve felt something coming for a while."
"Worse than the last time," Merlin admitted, and then hesitated. "I might not be able to be here next year. If you wake before that...."
"I’ll find you." Arthur tried to smile past the cold lump in his throat. "Though I expect you’ll hear about it if King Arthur shows up asking for a commission."
When Merlin did not laugh, Arthur let the silence fall. All he wanted was to keep Merlin here until Arthur could go with him, but he doubted that would ever happen. He felt no different than usual, no weight of approaching destiny. That only ever happened to Merlin.
"It’s going to leave scars on the world," Merlin said after a long while, and Arthur had nothing to offer against that.
Once again, the radio and the electric lights stopped working without Merlin’s magic to power them. At least Merlin had left him with currency this time, so Arthur could go into town and take refuge at the cinema. He had no stomach left for the films themselves, but he studied the war footage in the newsreels with hungry focus. He even sat through the propaganda films, searching every scene of combat or deployment for a glimpse or sign of Merlin.
The signs were not so easy to read as they had been in the Great War. This second world war raged in an even larger scope in air and land and sea. Britain was steadily getting the worst of it and still Arthur remained trapped and useless.
He stumbled out of the theatre in the second year of Merlin’s absence and had to grip a lamp post to steady his rage. "When?" he growled at nothing he could see. "When could I ever be needed if not now?"
A passing man with a bushy moustache stopped to pat his shoulder awkwardly. "Cheer up, lad. You’ll get your chance. Even the reserved occupations will get called up before much longer."
"It must be a sign, Merlin," Arthur muttered as the man continued on his way. "Or else I’m just going mad now."
He spent the rest of the night planning how he would move the Allied troops and ships. He thought of what he would need to say when he was standing up next to Churchill, to rally his nation to victory. He had done it all before. He was born for it.
Sunrise did not even cross his mind until he looked out the window at the glow on the horizon—and promptly collapsed into oblivion.
By the time he woke again, the Americans had charged into Europe and the Pacific. They had taken all of Arthur’s fervor with them, leaving him heavy with helpless worry and shame. He had no desire to leave the isle and face the countrymen whom he was failing by his very existence. But while he did not want to know anything more about the war he would not be allowed to fight, he could not bear not to know what Merlin was fighting.
Then the following year, for the second time in his long life he heard the word ‘Normandy’ on every person’s lips. Only this time, it was a name of victory and hope against aggression and conquest. Arthur dared to smile a little at that, although it only emphasized his own loss of hope. Now, as back in the Conquest, Albion continued along, fending for herself and looking to other great men and women with their own destinies.
Arthur was little more than a fairy story for children now. No one was waiting for his return—except Merlin. Merlin would be so horribly disappointed, but Arthur slept better that year than he had yet in this mad century. It came as no surprise to find Merlin waiting when he woke.
Merlin was sitting on the edge of the bier, head bowed. "It’s over," he said as soon as Arthur stirred.
Arthur worked some saliva into his dry mouth. "I know."
"I don’t understand it." Merlin tilted his head up to look at the otherworldly sky. "I don’t understand it, Arthur. Every day I was out there, I was so sure I would see you or hear your name. We needed you so badly."
Arthur pulled himself up to sit. His voice was still hoarse from several years’ disuse. "I’m sorry."
"I saw the German death camps. They turned mass murder into an industry. An art form. They experimented like they were scientists. They reveled in their efficiency. I’ve never seen evil like that, Arthur."
Arthur gripped Merlin’s arm. "You helped stop it."
"Not enough to make a difference." Merlin finally looked at him. His hollow eyes pulled a chill up Arthur’s spine. "There’s something else I have to show you."
Merlin had cleared all the newspapers Arthur had left on the table. Only one remained, one Arthur had not seen before. He stood over it and looked down at the headline: ‘U.S. Drops Atomic Bomb.’
"I don’t understand," he said.
"I do." Merlin picked up the paper and opened it to more stories on the effects of the bomb.
Arthur read them in silence. The icy feeling in his gut grew with every word. Entire cities flattened, innocent civilians vaporized, the lucky ones just horrifically burned: this was not war Arthur recognized.
"They call it harnessing the power of the sun," Merlin said. "Of the very universe itself."
"Is that true?" He had no idea what that even meant, but if Merlin did--
Merlin read the thought on his face and a bleak smile pulled at his lips. "I specialize in the power of the universe, don't I? Think of it, Arthur. I won't even need a bomb. A little mental effort and I could destroy cities with just a thought."
Behind the ferocity in Merlin's voice rose a fear Arthur had never heard before. "But you wouldn't."
"Why wouldn't I? I could rule the world. Or destroy it." Merlin gave a harsh laugh. "Maybe that's what it'll take to finally stop these wars."
"They would only make war on you, then." Merlin had ruled Arthur's world since the day he entered it; Arthur could not afford to share.
"Let them try." Merlin clenched his fists and took a menacing step toward Arthur. His eyes flared gold. "Look at me, Arthur. Don't I terrify you?"
"Sometimes I'm terrified for you." Arthur closed the distance between them and raised his hands to Merlin's face. "You have more power than any person should have to be responsible for."
Merlin closed his eyes and leaned a fraction into Arthur's touch. "But then, I'm not really even a person, am I?"
"That's bullshit." His thumb caressed the corner of Merlin's mouth. "Do you know what really terrifies me? The thought that someday you'll realize I've never been worthy of the devotion you've given me."
Merlin's eyelashes clumped with dampness when he finally opened his eyes again. His lips twitched against Arthur's thumb in a tiny smile before he turned to look down at the newspaper. "I think the world has moved beyond either of us," he said as he brushed his fingers over the headline. "I don’t see what difference either of us can make now."
Arthur had come to the same conclusion some time ago, but fought against it for Merlin's sake. So this was Merlin giving up at last. Arthur's eyes dampened as he wavered between mourning and relief. "I know."
Merlin slumped and leaned against Arthur. "Can I just stay now? Can't I just stay here with you?"
The relief won a powerful victory. "Yes," he said, trying not to snuffle into Merlin's neck. "Stay with me."
Merlin stayed and Arthur slept. Merlin rarely left the isle for any longer than it took to fetch fresh food, because it still tasted somewhat off when he tried to generate it. "The spark of life," he told Arthur with a shrug as Arthur spit out a mouthful of tomato. "That’s the part that can’t be replicated, even by me."
Arthur doubted that, but it seemed to make Merlin feel better to think a limit existed to his powers. He certainly showed no interest in increasing them further; he talked to no one, read nothing. Arthur knew that Merlin lay down to sleep with him for weeks or months at a time. Those were the times Arthur dreamed.
But eventually, Merlin’s natural resilience won out. His curiosity reasserted itself and he started leaving for short trips to seek out new books. He started reading to Arthur about politics, anthropology, and some kind of gibberish about computing something or other. The world outside their little sanctuary moved faster and faster, one revolution tripping over the next.
Merlin also bought a television, which Arthur loathed. The only time he would watch it was when Merlin could get it to play I Love Lucy.
"She’s exactly like you," Arthur howled through tears of laughter as Lucy’s latest attempt at employment ended with a hat full of chocolate on her head.
"You are delusional." The screen went black and Merlin got up in a minor huff.
"Oh, come on, don’t run away." Still laughing, Arthur caught Merlin’s arm and pulled him down on top of him. One thing he did like about this century was the furniture. Sofas were simply brilliant.
Merlin eschewed all things scientific for some time, but the race between the new superpowers of the world to explore space and reach the moon could not help but attract his interest. For his own part, Arthur still had trouble conceiving of the emptiness beyond the sky. He ignored the whole matter until he left the tower one morning and almost fell into a small, shallow crater in the ground.
"I got you a present!" Merlin called from the other side.
"You got me a... hole in the ground." Arthur gave it a bleary blink. "And here I didn't get you anything."
"Like you ever do." Merlin skidded down the side of the crater and gestured for Arthur to come meet him. "I'll fix it later, but I wanted you to see it properly."
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. "Yes, I see it. Thank you."
"I had to really concentrate to slow it down and shield it so it wouldn't burn up on reentry." Merlin crouched down in the center of the crater and peered at something. "Well, and to keep the impact from the destroying the isle. Obviously."
"Yes. Obviously." Since he could see no other way to get out of the tower, Arthur stepped over the edge and started a controlled slide down the slope. He winced at the sharp rocks that caught on his bare feet. Merlin could at least have left him his boots to put on.
But Merlin smiled up at him as he approached. Over two decades had passed since the end of the war, and Merlin had not smiled much over those years. The sight knocked Arthur's cross mood out from under him.
"Look." Merlin nodded down at the ground at his feet.
At first, Arthur saw nothing but dirt. Then he made out a dark grey rock about the size of his fist embedded in the earth. "You mean the rock?"
"Go on, pick it up." Merlin motioned with eagerness. "I left it for you, just cleared around it a bit."
The rock felt heavy for its size. Up close, he could see the face of it was pitted with dozens of small holes. "What an odd stone," he murmured.
Merlin's grin nearly split his face before the words finally burst out. "It's from the moon."
The words made no sense to his ears. "What moon?"
Merlin's head tilted as though Arthur's words lacked as much sense as his own. "The moon?" he tried again and gestured up to the moon fading into the glow of dawn. "The Americans finally landed there."
"And you went?" The question seemed idiotic even as he asked it, but none of it made any sense to begin with.
"No." Merlin shook his head with a snort. "But when I was watching the landing on the television, I saw this rock. I'd been reading about aerodynamic heating and the shock layer, so once I got it moving, I had to really concentrate to--"
As Merlin jabbered on, Arthur looked down at the rock in his hand. Intellectually, he understood the extent of Merlin's powers as much as anyone could. He thought of Merlin's magic as welling out of the earth itself, yet to hold a rock that came from beyond the earth shocked him with the sheer underestimation he had unconsciously made.
He held the rock up to the light to see it better, and a chill prickled over him.
Arthur almost tripped over Merlin the next morning. Merlin lay spread-eagled on the grassy floor of the tower, staring up at the eternal sun with a blissed-out grin.
"Isn’t it amazing?" he called up to Arthur. "It never moves! Day or night, it’s always just... there."
"Yes, I had noticed." Arthur frowned down at him. "Merlin, what the hell are you wearing?"
Merlin just tilted his head enough to grin at Arthur through a scruffy goatee. The year before, Arthur had noticed Merlin's hair had curled down a bit longer than usual, growing out the silly moptop hairstyle he had sported through the middle of the decade. Now it tumbled all the way down to his shoulders, held back only by a scarf wrapped around Merlin's head. He wore a sleeveless suede jacket that seemed more fringe than solid material and trousers of that coarse blue fabric that flared out abruptly between his knees and his bare feet.
"I found the druids, Arthur," Merlin crowed as Arthur struggled to pull him to his feet and out of the tower. "A whole herd of them out by the standing stones every full moon."
Arthur stopped and stared at him. "You found druids? Really? I thought they were long gone from the world."
"They're not real druids, of course," Merlin scoffed. "But they talk like them and dress up like them at the weekend."
"They have magic?"
"No. Magic is truly gone from everywhere but here." Merlin sobered for a moment before a sly grin spread over his face. "But they believe in it."
"Merlin." Arthur rubbed his hand over his face. It was much too early for this. "What are you doing to the fake druids?"
"Just giving them a helping hand." Merlin tripped over the threshold and giggled until Arthur shoved him down in a chair. "I think they're going to make me their king. Wouldn't that be something? King of the druids!"
"That would be something." Arthur sighed and went to put the kettle on. "Let's get you sobered up, your highness."
Merlin started giggling again, as if Arthur had said the funniest thing ever heard. A few hours later, Arthur finally pieced together the reason.
They lay out on the side of the hill, Arthur content now that he had persuaded Merlin back into his normal clothes. He had almost forgotten the morning's drunken hilarity when Merlin pulled out a clear pouch of what looked like tea, or possibly hedge clippings, from his pocket.
"My new druids have some very groovy friends." Bizarrely, Merlin winked and began to roll some of the green stuff into a flimsy paper.
Arthur watched the process with some doubt. If that was the stuff inside the cigarettes and cigars he had seen people smoking in town, he could not imagine what enjoyment anyone got from it.
When the end of the fat cigarette began to smolder, Arthur wrinkled his nose at the odor. "Put that out. It smells disgusting."
Merlin laughed and sucked at the other end of it. His eyes closed and he made a noise of appreciation Arthur usually heard in other circumstances, when he was doing the sucking. That piqued his curiosity, but he still shied away when Merlin tried to hand him the odd cigar.
"It's called a joint," Merlin corrected him and burst into laughter again. His eyes had gone a bit bloodshot, but he looked happy, like all his cares had fled.
Arthur finally shrugged and reached for the joint. Back in Camelot, some people had used various herbs for intoxication. Arthur had never partaken. A prince, a king had to keep his wits about him--but what did that matter now?
He sucked on the joint as he had seen Merlin do and grimaced at the taste. "No, you have to inhale it," Merlin told him. He took it back and demonstrated. When he exhaled, the smoke swirled in the air before coalescing into two small dragons that chased each other around Arthur's head until they dissipated.
Arthur shook his head, but he could not help laughing as he reached for the joint again. His fingers brushed over Merlin's, sending color high into Merlin's cheeks. This time the smoke scorched his lungs and made him cough until he choked. "People do this for pleasure?" he sputtered.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "You're a hopeless square," he informed Arthur and rescued his joint just as Arthur was about to fling it into the grass.
When Arthur's breathing calmed, Merlin took a long drag. Then he leaned in and reached for the back of Arthur's neck. He drew Arthur to his lips, something Arthur could never resist. Their mouths met and sealed together, and the smoke slipped sweetly into his lungs as Merlin exhaled.
This time Merlin smiled. "Love you, baby."
He took another dose in the same manner. The third time Merlin filled his lungs, it was Arthur who chased the smoke, just to feel the softness of Merlin's lips. Until this moment, he felt he had never truly appreciated how plush they were or the full bliss of their press against his own.
Merlin sighed out the last of the smoke to share between them. He succumbed easily when Arthur used the weight of his body to bear Merlin down into the grass. When Merlin tried to raise the joint again, Arthur brushed his hand aside and returned to his mouth. His tongue flicked in light daubs against Merlin's lips, his teeth, his tongue.
"You taste sweet," he mumbled between soft, quick kisses.
"It's the weed." Merlin nipped at Arthur's upper lip, then soothed it between his own.
Arthur drew back and frowned down at him. "No, that's not it. That tastes terrible."
Tiny giggles burst from Merlin's throat; then his eyes crinkled shut in full bellowing laughter. "Does it even matter?" he got out between chortles.
Arthur could feel the shake of every laugh between their chests and bellies. "No," he said, and when Merlin tried for his lips again, he let him have whatever he wanted.
Later, he lay with his head on Merlin's chest. They had eventually got around to finishing the joint, after they finished each other, and Arthur felt mellow and heavy. The pressure of Merlin's arms around him spread through his body.
"What do you think is going to happen to us?" he asked.
Merlin brought his fingers up to toy with Arthur's hair. "I don't know. Nothing, I expect. Absolutely nothing."
His mind felt abnormally open. All the thoughts and questions he had forbidden himself to ask rose to the surface like hungry fish demanding to be fed. "But what about the destiny we have to fulfill?"
Merlin's hand tightened on his head, then relaxed and resumed his petting. "We had a destiny once. We failed. I failed."
Arthur smacked Merlin's hip in admonishment. "It was my destiny to bring magic back to the land. If anyone failed, I did."
"You don't have to get competitive about it." Merlin shifted onto his side and tucked Arthur's head under his chin. "My destiny was to guide you to yours. I don't think I was supposed to fall in love with you."
"If you think I can regret that, you're insane." He pressed a kiss to Merlin's breastbone. "I was the king, Merlin. I made my own decisions. God knows I've ignored your terrible advice before."
"Especially when I was trying to keep you safe." Merlin returned the kiss into his hair. "I don't know, Arthur. I think destiny is done with us."
"But what about what your dragon said?" The thoughts persisted, disrupting the peaceful haze he wanted to submerge in. "The once and future king, Albion's greatest need, all of that?"
Merlin's lips stayed pressed to his head for a long while without moving. Then Arthur felt his breath stir his hair. "I only ever had Kilgarrah's word for that."
"But you're the Dragon Lord. He couldn't lie to you."
"He couldn't disobey me. I didn't command him to tell me the truth." Merlin's arms tightened again. "I was too desperate to believe him to question anything that gave me hope."
"Why would he lie about that, of all things?"
"Why wouldn't he? He bore no love for me. Even at the beginning, he only ever told me as much of the truth as suited his purposes."
Arthur struggled to free himself enough to get onto his elbow. "Yes, but then why am I still alive? This isn't your dragon's magic. I'm not convinced it's even the Sidhe. Why keep me here if not for a purpose?"
Merlin started laughing again. "Do you want know what I really think?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Almost never."
"I think this is the punishment for our failures. You were meant to have a long and prosperous reign. We were meant to restore magic, so magic imprisons us."
"Gwen did those things, in the end. Wasn't that enough?"
"Look at the world, Arthur. Look at what Albion became. Do you think it was enough?" Merlin smiled, incongruous with his words, and stroked the back of his hand over Arthur's cheek. "Albion doesn't need us anymore, because we already failed her."
"So now we're trapped in time, waiting for something that will never happen." The soft drugged haze let him focus on Merlin's touch instead of the long-standing pain of the thought. "I've wondered as much for a while. I'll never be part of the world again, will I?"
"And I can never leave it." Merlin shifted to bury his face against Arthur's neck. "Because I will never, ever leave you."
He should have forced him to leave, long ago, but the thought still hurt too much to voice aloud. "I wish I could stop leaving you."
"You don't leave me. You're taken." Merlin huffed without mirth. "I know you think I carry you to the tower every dawn, but I don't."
The words tickled a memory a half-century old, when Arthur had slept in one place, alone, and woken in another, still alone. "The tower takes me back, then."
"Every time, I try to keep you with me as long as I can. As long as I can see you, feel you, it can't take you." Merlin wound his leg around Arthur's thigh as though to demonstrate. "I try to stay alert, but every time, I close my eyes or drift for just a moment. And then you're just gone."
Arthur leaned into him to strengthen the press between their bodies. "Do you think it'll ever change?" he asked as the breeze began to cool into evening.
"We made it to the moon." Merlin settled deeper into his embrace. "Maybe if we find a new world, the gods there will be kinder."
"The Eurostar can have us to Paris in two hours. It’s not like the old trains. It’s all very nice and comfortable. You’d like it, I promise."
Arthur hummed enough to acknowledge that he knew Merlin had spoken. He kept his eyes on the notebook in front of him. Merlin complained at his lack of interest in modern technology, but that was unfair. He liked this paper—so smooth and bright with very helpful lines. And the self-inking pens! He might have written more of his own speeches if writing implements in Camelot had been so pleasant to use.
"Arthur. You can’t just sit here and rewrite Malory forever."
"It’s full of lies and hideous slander, Merlin. Doesn’t that bother you?" Arthur gestured to the page he had open. "Agravaine was Gwaine’s brother? And who the hell was Galahad? I never met a Galahad. What a ridiculous name."
Merlin’s hand splayed out flat over the paper, smearing the ink where Arthur had just crossed out Galahad’s name several times. "It’s been over thirty years. You can’t let one bad experience in a mosh pit turn you into a hermit forever."
He had actually enjoyed the mosh pit. It served as a catharsis for his frustration, united in rage with the angry youth around him. His fingers tightened on his pen; the memory brought that anger to the surface again. He could jam it back down where it belonged if Merlin would only stop prodding it.
"The City of Love, Arthur. Come on."
And there it was. Arthur slapped the pen down on the desk. "Merlin. I understand that it’s the city of love to you, but it’s nothing to me but a name."
"That’s just because you haven’t been there yet. With me." Merlin propped his arse on the edge of the desk and smoothed the hair back from Arthur’s brow. The affection in his touch melted Arthur’s anger into grief.
"No, Merlin," he said as evenly as he could. "It’s because you’ve seen a hundred films, read a hundred books, heard a thousand people talking about how romantic Paris is. I haven’t."
"Yes, because you—"
"No, it isn’t because I like to stay here." The frustration rose again, along with the terror that would not be able to repress it again. "Tell me, Merlin. What good does one day do me out there?"
Merlin’s hand dropped and a confused little frown creased his brow. "It’s better than nothing."
"No. It isn’t." Arthur dropped his head to avoid Merlin’s gaze. "The world completely changes every time I wake up."
He could still hear the frown in Merlin’s voice. "It always has."
"Not like this." He tilted his head to glare up at Merlin. "Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"Look, I promised I wouldn't mention the Kardashians again." Merlin held his hands up in self-defense. "I even put my iPad up in the attic."
"Stop trying to pretend that the world is the same place it used to be. I don't even recognize it anymore." Arthur slammed his hands down on the table and shoved his chair back to push himself to his feet. "One day out of a year isn't even enough to keep up with what it means to be human. I can't have a life out there. Stop trying to force the impossible."
Merlin's face had gone slack with guilt and shock. The disappointment in his eyes far exceeded Arthur's capacity to bear it; he turned and walked out of the cottage.
He stalked down the hill to the orchard and lost himself among the trees. The apple grove always murmured with magic. Arthur disliked the way it swirled over his skin, but when he wanted to have a sulk, he did not have many options for where to go.
At least the grove always stood the same no matter how many years passed. Even their cottage kept changing as Merlin added rooms to hold all the modern objects and conveniences he brought home or created. Arthur rather liked the running water and electric light, but Merlin had also piled up a whole room of books, magazines, and recorded music and film that he thought Arthur would like or should know. It was more than Arthur could consume in a thousand years; he felt the weight of it, all of Merlin’s hopes and expectations for him, every waking hour.
It was not like Arthur refused to try. He let Merlin show him ridiculous films. He played odd little games on Merlin's first computer and even listened to Merlin's rapturous explanation of the system of ones and zeros that told the computer what letters and numbers to use. Arthur thought it would surely be easier to just use the actual letters and numbers, but saying that would not have shortened the seminar.
Arthur finally put his foot down when Merlin tried to introduce him to the maniacally overwhelming internet. "Right, great idea," Arthur muttered at the memory as he stalked through the trees. "Why can’t he just let me be?"
He came to his favorite tree, the one that felt the kindest and least ethereal, and slid down to sit with his back against it. Arthur lay his head back against the smooth bark and tried not to wish that Merlin would come and find him.
His relief at the soft footsteps behind him gave lie to his efforts at self-delusion. Merlin nudged Arthur’s shoulder with his knee and then wedged himself down between Arthur and the tree. He only spoke once Arthur had begrudgingly settled back into his arms. "I’m sorry."
"Don’t be. It’s not your fault I can’t cope with the world."
"I just don’t want you to give up."
"I’m not giving up on life." He laced his fingers into Merlin’s where they rested against his ribs. "I’d just rather build a life I can actually live."
Merlin nodded against his cheek. "I get it. But this won’t be forever. We’ll get you out of here someday."
"I thought we’d agreed not to kid ourselves about the destiny thing anymore." Accepting his fate was difficult when every instinct said to fight it, but he could not think of any other way to stay sane.
"Maybe this is destiny or maybe it’s punishment, but either way, it’s going to end. I don’t think we have much longer to wait. Can’t you feel it?" Merlin poked him in the side. "Hey, that Mayan apocalypse is coming up. We can’t discount the Mayans."
Arthur had to laugh at that. So many apocalypses had come and gone over the last few decades that they had become a near-daily private joke between them. Y2K had given Arthur his last frisson of real hope, until he had awakened with the date months past and only a new calendar on the wall to show for it.
"No, I won’t discount the Mayans," he agreed.
"Don’t discount me, either." Merlin’s arms tightened around him. "I mean it, Arthur. Your time is coming. I can feel it. Maybe I just have to find the right spell to get you free."
Most of Merlin’s hopeful feelings had come to rather difficult ends, but Arthur still loved him for it. Merlin’s hope continuing was much more important than his own. "All right. But in the meantime, I was hoping to feel a more immediate coming. If that fits in with your plans."
He tried to shift around to start making his case with kisses, but Merlin’s arms tightened even more to keep him still. "Actually," Merlin said with a contemplative hum in his ear. "There is one more scientific discovery I wanted to share with you."
Arthur groaned. So much for his hope of a happy afternoon to restore his mood. "Oh?" he said with only a token effort to cover his disinterest.
"Yes, you see, I started reading a lot about neuroscience. You can find a lot of fascinating stuff on the internet, you know."
"Fascinating." Arthur closed his eyes and relaxed back against Merlin’s chest. He supposed a nap would suffice.
"For example, sex is all about the nervous system," Merlin said and Arthur opened his eyes again. "You think all your pleasure is in your cock, but it's really in your brain."
"Oh, really?" Arthur grinned. At least this was amusing and had the potential to lead somewhere better. "Then why does it feel so good when I stick my cock in you?"
"The pudendal nerve," Merlin said. "Which, if I'm not mistaken, is right about... here."
Arthur gasped as a shock of pure sexual excitement shot through him. He could not have said whether it came from his cock or his balls, but he felt both stir in response.
"Right, there it is." Merlin's voice rumbled in his ear, making him want to squirm. "Then your brain responds through the same line to stiffen up your cock."
"Yeah, I can feel that part." Arthur's hand started to move down to cup himself. Merlin caught his wrist and pinned it back against his side.
"It's telling the muscles around the artery in your groin to relax and let your cock fill up. Let's see if we can speed it up, hm?"
A groan ripped out of Arthur's throat as his cock grew thick and hard faster than it ever had in his life. His arm twitched again with the need to undo his trousers and free his sudden erection. Merlin just held him tighter.
"Cut that out," he said, almost primly. "I'm fucking you with science."
Arthur groped for a response, but it fled before he could do more than grunt. A new pleasure had started up in his body.
"In case you were also wondering why it feels good when I stick my cock in you, that's your hypogastric nerve." Idly, Merlin kissed the side of his neck as the sensations spread through him. "Oh hell, let's get things moving through the pelvic nerve and take care of your whole bum."
He liked it when Merlin took care of his bum. He gripped hard on Merlin's hand and tried to tell him. "Merlin. Ah--you--"
"Having trouble getting your thoughts together? That's your lateral orbitofrontal cortex shutting down, getting you ready to come. It's all very primal."
From the words, from the play of magic under his skin, Arthur felt very ready to come. He jerked in Merlin's arms as the pleasure sparked through him unrelenting.
"All that dopamine flowing through your brain must feel so good." Merlin nuzzled his temple. "I want to give you some more."
Then Arthur was soaring into pure euphoria. The point of no return approached--but Merlin felt it too, and he kept Arthur riding the knife's edge. Arthur arched and jerked in Merlin's confining embrace until finally Merlin released him into orgasm.
The pleasure took over his body. He could hear Merlin's voice, hoarser now, still explaining what was happening inside his cock and balls and brain during his climax. None of it made any sense now, but the words tumbled through him, hitting the pleasure centers Merlin described.
"Your brain is so beautiful." Merlin relaxed his grip as Arthur finally went limp in his arms. "Lit up like the stars."
Arthur's head lolled to the side as he slowly regained control of his own nervous system. "And here I thought that new lubricant was the best thing science did for me lately."
Merlin gave a quiet laugh and rubbed a soothing hand over Arthur's chest and belly. "I love you. So damn much. I don't know how I stand it sometimes."
Arthur felt the same, down to his exhausted bones. "I'll go to Paris with you."
"Really?" The perk of excitement in Merlin's voice sealed his decision. "Wait. Do you really mean it?"
"Yes. We can go tomorrow, if you like. Get the train tickets."
"I will. And I'll hire a car to get us to London bright and early." Merlin's fingers tapped over Arthur's hip. "And a nice hotel room for the afternoon, maybe?"
Arthur smiled and let himself drowse among the whispers of the apple trees.
He woke alert, alone, and with a strong urge to leave the tower at once. Arthur grinned. Merlin had spent the final minutes of his last waking day impressing on him the urgency of getting on their way to the Eurostar as early as possible.
Arthur had expected Merlin to be looming over him when he woke, waiting to chivvy him along. Merlin had been at his side most of the last few weeks. Arthur had sensed his agitation and wished he could reach through the mists to assure Merlin that Arthur had not changed his mind about Paris.
His favorite boots stood next to the bier. Arthur grinned wider as he pulled them on—it was a comforting gesture, probably meant to lull him in preparation for whatever modern outfit Merlin had waiting for him in the cottage.
Oddly, when he left the tower the isle stood quiet and the cottage empty. After hunting through the jumbled-on maze of rooms, Arthur went to search outside. He finally found Merlin sitting on the side of the hill near the water, dressed in jeans and a hooded jacket.
As Arthur approached, he saw Merlin was bent over his knees with his head in his arms. Arthur frowned; he hoped nothing had gone wrong with Merlin’s plans. He had begun to almost look forward to seeing something outside Albion.
"Good morning," he called when Merlin did not react to his footsteps.
Merlin’s head whipped up and around. His face froze in shock and—horror? "Arthur?"
Arthur held up his hands. "If you forgot to get the train tickets, it’s all right. We can try again tomorrow."
"Arthur?" Merlin said again as he staggered slowly to his feet. "Oh, no. No, no, no, no."
Something cold crept into Arthur’s chest. "Merlin? What’s wrong?"
"No. No," Merlin kept repeating. He grabbed Arthur’s shoulders to turn him around. "No, you can’t be here. You can’t be awake. What are you doing awake?"
"What?" Arthur looked around, heart pounding, but saw no indication that it was not the same day it always was. Then again, Avalon always looked the same.
"You weren’t supposed to be awake." The anguish in Merlin’s voice triggered a ripping panic in Arthur’s chest.
"Merlin, stop." He tried to face Merlin to make him stop and explain this madness. But Merlin was propelling him with more than physical force up the hill and back to the tower.
He dug his heels in as they approached, but to no avail. Merlin shoved him at the entrance--and he bounced off the empty air.
"Ow! What the hell, Merlin?" He sidestepped Merlin's grip at last and rubbed his sore forehead.
Merlin paid no attention. He stared up at the tower with a look of incredulous fury. After a moment his eyes glowed and he stretched out his hands to the open space. Arthur could still see the inside of the tower, pillows and quilts still crumpled on the bier, but as he watched, the stone walls slowly knit together, sealing the entrance.
"No." Merlin went ashen, as Arthur had only seen once before as he lay dying in Merlin's arms. "No, you bastards! You can't do this!"
He started to bang his fists on the seamless wall. Heart pounding, Arthur grabbed at Merlin's arms, wresting him around to face him. "Merlin, please. What's going on? Is this not the right day?"
Merlin's breathing slowed as his eyes focused on Arthur's face. "No," he said yet again, but for the first time Arthur felt like the word had meaning. "It's weeks too soon."
Arthur stared back, head awash with confusion. He had imagined this moment a thousand times, but he felt no ecstasy, no relief. "I'm awake," he said. "Why isn't this good news?"
Silently, Merlin pointed up at the sky.
Arthur followed the gesture, twisting his neck to look up at a dim light in the grey sky. "The moon?"
"That's not the moon," Merlin said.
Arthur looked harder.
"An asteroid." Arthur stared down at the newspaper Merlin had set in front of him some time ago. "I don't understand. Is this like that film you made me watch?"
"Close enough." Merlin leaned his elbows on the table, head down, fingers laced behind his neck.
"So why don't they just destroy it?" Arthur's heartbeat quickened. "Is that why I'm awake? Am I Ben Affleck?"
"That's just a movie, Arthur." Merlin gave a sharp, mirthless laugh.
"What, then?" Battle adrenaline flooded him with the surety that the world could not simply end. There had to be something he could fight. "I’m awake. I’m here. What am I supposed to do?"
"There's nothing you can do. There's nothing anyone can do."
"What about the Americans? NASA--"
"NASA would need decades to plan a mission to divert it, even with the whole world cooperating. This one came out of nowhere, from beyond the sun where they couldn't see it until it was too late."
"But can't they just--"
Merlin's head came up at the same time his fist came down hard on the tabletop. "They can't destroy it. It's over five kilometers wide and it's made of iron and it's going to hit somewhere in the middle of the UK in about sixteen hours."
A wave of nausea swept him and his fingers went numb. He swallowed back the bile and looked down at the newspaper again, but he could not focus his eyes on the words. "So Albion will be destroyed."
"Obliterated. Vaporized. It'll hit us with the impact of twenty-five thousand atomic bombs exploding at once. And we'll be the lucky ones. The rest of humanity will die, too, just slower."
He could not bring those thoughts into focus in his mind any better than on paper. "That's why I'm awake, then? Because the world is going to end today, so what do we matter anymore?"
Merlin bowed his head again and his voice roughened. "It was the only comfort I had, to know that you were safe in that tower. How strange is that?"
"Comfort?" He gaped at Merlin in disbelief. "Oh, yes, how safe I’d be. Safe to wake up year after year, unable to leave that damned tower ever again, knowing every other human being in the world was dead. And where were you going to be during all of this?"
Merlin looked up with a wan smile. "I couldn't risk disrupting your safety. I was hoping the isle would be safe, too. It's not quite Avalon, but it's not quite in the world, either."
A flash of anger went off behind Arthur's eyes, but it died away just as quickly. Not enough time remained for anger—or much of anything else. A sudden peace fell over him: there was nothing left to be done. For the first time in his life, he was utterly free. For the next sixteen hours, the only thing he needed to worry about was Merlin.
He reached out and tangled their fingers. "I think Avalon is out of our reach now. But we still have one more day."
Merlin looked back at him in silence. Arthur was starting to wonder if Merlin had heard him or understood when Merlin’s fingers tightened around Arthur’s. "Yes, I suppose we do."
"Think we could still make it to Paris?" For Merlin’s sake, he could still smile. His long life and noble death, his destiny and his redemption had all been stolen from him, but nothing could steal his last hours with the love of his life.
"Trains aren’t running anymore." Merlin’s smile faded faster than it appeared. "People mobbed the stations when the estimated impact point leaked out."
"Right." Arthur pushed back the fear that threatened to disrupt his calm. "Well, I suppose we could just go down to the tavern and have a drink. If they’re open."
"They haven’t closed since the news." Merlin’s exasperated look was more convincing than his smile as he stood up. "And no one calls them taverns anymore."
"And I don’t have to care anymore," Arthur retorted, feeling almost giddy about it.
The false joviality lasted until they walked into town. Arthur immediately regretted his suggestion. The streets stood deserted, though not empty. Sheets of paper plastered every building, pole, and signpost. Arthur paused to let his eyes scan over them: children’s drawings of the asteroid, scripture verses, prayers, jokes, rants at the government.
A chill went through him when his gaze fell on one large piece of paper plastered high on the wall with three words printed in thick red lines: SAVE US ARTHUR.
Merlin suddenly stalked past him and tore down the sign with an angry grunt. He crumpled it up and pitched it down the street. It bounced until it skidded into the gutter.
Arthur watched it disappear. "Well," he said. "I suppose that sums up my life rather poetically."
He regretted the words as soon as he saw the anguished look flash over Merlin’s face, but he had no way to take them back. Instead he took Merlin’s hand, something he had never done before out here in the world, and they continued on down the street.
At every corner, piles of random objects formed heaps like cairns. Arthur thought them made of junk or debris until they passed closer to one heap and he discerned the shapes of hundreds of mobile phones, computers, wallets, jewelry. Across the street, someone had parked a shiny red car with no roof, the kind Merlin had told him was fast and expensive. On the front end someone had started a stack of leather coats, and on the back end, a pile of athletic shoes.
"None of it matters anymore," Merlin said when he saw Arthur craning his neck to look.
They turned down another street Arthur had once known well. He looked across to where a newsagent's had once stood. He wondered if the grumpy old man or the kindly woman had any descendants left alive to witness the end of their history.
When they rounded another corner, Arthur almost jumped when he saw another human being coming towards them. He was a young man with a thick, scruffy beard and scraggly long blond hair. His clothing reminded Arthur of the end of Merlin’s drug binge in the 70’s, and he broke into a wide smile when he spotted Merlin and Arthur.
"Good for you!" He came towards them with his arms spread wide. Arthur froze in confusion until it was too late to avoid the man’s enthusiastic embrace. "Good for you being out and about, mate," the man repeated as he pounded Arthur on the back. "Can’t stop living, can we? Gotta keep trying."
"I’m sorry I couldn’t save you," Arthur blurted, and then froze again, horrified at himself.
The man just drew back enough to look him in the eyes. "Gotta keep trying, mate," he repeated. "Gotta keep trying."
Arthur avoided looking at Merlin as they continued on their way, the man whistling an eerily cheerful tune behind them. "Why are there even still people here at all?" Arthur asked.
"Some people left. They tried to get everyone out who had family abroad." Merlin shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets. "But there wasn’t much point, really."
When they reached the pub, they found it quiet except for the clink of glasses and low murmur of conversation. It felt almost normal, until Arthur looked closer at the patrons. Some sat in pairs and held soft but frantic conversations; others clutched their tankards and stared into space.
They made their way up to the bar. "Two, please," Merlin said. "Whatever you have left."
The barman nodded and started to pour. "So, what’s your money on?"
Merlin rubbed his chin. "Birmingham, I think."
"Ah, yes, that was my thought as well. On the telly they just said maybe it'll be Newcastle."
"No," Merlin returned with finality. "Definitely Birmingham."
With a twist of his stomach, Arthur finally caught up with their meaning. "Are we going to miss Birmingham when it's gone?"
"No, not really," Merlin said, and the barman let out a single bark of laughter.
They took their pints to an empty booth. Arthur started to slide in across from Merlin until Merlin grabbed his hand and pulled Arthur down beside him. He refused to let go of Arthur's hand. "I forgot to mention the other big news this year. Gay marriage is finally legal."
The word 'gay' still seemed odd to Arthur's ears, equally as odd as the rise of societal homophobia had been in the first place. "That's nice. I would have liked to marry you." He slid his arm around Merlin's waist. "At least the world finally came to its senses about one thing."
"Miracles have been abounding lately." Merlin lifted his glass to drink, and then gestured with it towards the muted television over the bar. "They finally made peace in the Middle East. All of them."
Even in his own time, Arthur had never thought that would happen. He squinted at the tiny figures, some suited and some robed, shaking hands and posing for the cameras. "No kidding?"
"Said they wanted to go to their gods with clean souls."
Arthur nodded, and they devoted themselves to their ale for a while. The barman brought them fresh pints without being asked, waving away Merlin's offer of money. Arthur slowed down on the second one. His head had felt fuzzy enough as it was since he woke, and something was still bothering him. Something other than the imminent ending of the world and their own lives, at least.
He kept seeing the man on the street, burning eyes not entirely sober or sane. He kept hearing his words--gotta keep trying. Had Arthur tried at all? No, he had not tried anything, except to distract Merlin. He was not even doing a good job of that, as Merlin stared at the table next to him, lost in his own dark thoughts.
He could call the Americans, he supposed, exhort them to try harder. He could speak to their king, or whatever they called him, reveal himself and offer their services.
And they would laugh. And still there would be nothing anyone could do. Decades, Merlin had said, it would take the scientists decades to figure out how to divert the massive rock hurtling towards the earth. And yet--
"I keep feeling like there are so many things I should tell you." Merlin's low voice knocked the thought from his mind before it could fully form. "While I still can."
Arthur pulled him closer into his side. "Merlin, you've been talking to me non-stop for over a thousand years. I cannot imagine that there could be a single combination of words left that you haven't said to me."
Merlin rested his head against Arthur's. "I think I could still surprise you."
"Nah." His fingers played along Merlin's side and over his hip, toying idly with the pocket of his jeans. "I know everything about you, remember? Always have."
"Always," Arthur insisted. "From the first minute, I knew you were fearless, beautiful, and boundlessly stupid."
Merlin's snort stirred the hair by his ear. "And that I could kick your royal arse."
"Cheating," Arthur said mournfully. "Always cheating."
Merlin stilled, and then snorted again, louder. "Speaking of cheating, do you remember the time Gwaine tricked Cook into roasting six whole chickens and sending them up to Percival's chamber?"
Arthur chuckled. "Of course I remember. I had to sit there and not laugh while she made a very long formal complaint against him. What did I punish him with?"
"A month of dish duty." Merlin echoed his laughter. "He was ecstatic. He stole so much out of the larder and passed it out to all the knights."
The hours passed faster as Arthur followed Merlin back into their shared memories. So many people they had loved, gone for so long; it seemed right to let them live again now. At some point, the barman brought them a plate of steaming chips, and even he smiled at their laughter.
Though they could not see outside, Arthur could feel the lateness of the day by the time Merlin sighed and dropped his forehead onto Arthur's shoulder. "If we want to catch the last daylight, we should go now."
Part of him wanted to just stay in the pub until it was all over, but at Merlin's words, another part of him jumped inside. The feeling of waiting returned, stronger than ever, roiling in his ale-filled stomach. It would have made sense, except that it accompanied a sense of anticipation instead of fear.
But he was used to waiting, his every day revolving around the tower and the wait for dawn. This was nothing more than an echo of long habit.
The sun had nearly set when he followed Merlin outside. The asteroid streaked in a luminous white line across the darkening blue of the sky, much larger and brighter than it had been that morning. Arthur stared up at it with a morbid fascination. "It doesn't even look like it's going to hit us, really."
"It's at an angle to skim us," Merlin said. "But when it gets close enough to the atmosphere, our gravity will pull it in. It'll all happen very fast after that."
They walked aimlessly for a while. People were starting to come out of their houses to look up at the sky, to see the last sunset and wait. From some distant church, Arthur heard the faint strains of a pipe organ and voices raised in a hymn. The sound made him think of the echo of voices in the Great Hall.
"What will happen to Camelot?" he asked. "And Morgana and Aithusa, if they're still there. Will they be safe in the mists?"
Merlin thought for a long while before answering. "I don't know. I suppose it'll be as safe or unsafe as the isle, in the end. We should probably head back now."
Arthur nodded, though his steps felt heavy. He longed for their warm and cluttered home, to escape the uncomfortable tension of the dying world into at least an illusion of safety. At the same time, he felt a powerful urge to stand with his people until the end.
But just standing there would not serve them. He needed to fight his enemy, even if that enemy was a rock the size of an island. "Gotta keep trying," he muttered, mind racing.
Merlin glanced over at him. "What did you say?"
"Merlin." Arthur stopped in the middle of the zebra crossing. "Did you try anything to stop the asteroid?"
Merlin recoiled as though Arthur had struck him. "What? What the hell does that mean?"
Something prickled down his arms. He grabbed Merlin’s shoulders and gave him a firm shake to secure his attention. "Did you actually try anything?"
"Fuck you, Arthur." Merlin’s eyes blazed hot and wet. "What exactly do you think I could do? I tried to push it away, for weeks I tried, but even I'm not strong enough for that. Even NASA—"
"You said decades," Arthur cut in. "They’d need decades. For what?"
"Maybe not decades," Merlin stammered. "But years, at the very least."
"To do what? What, precisely, would they have done if they had another twenty years to get ready?"
For the first time in their lives, Merlin looked frightened of him. But Arthur could not stop. He could feel the synapses firing in his brain, bringing on the familiar rush of adrenaline. This was his battle.
"They would have sent up an unmanned spacecraft with a nuclear payload," Merlin answered before Arthur could shake him again. "They would have set off a nuclear detonation to create enough thrust to divert the asteroid away from us."
The adrenaline hit his brain and Arthur started to laugh. "Really? That’s it?"
"That’s impossible now, is what it is," Merlin insisted. "Even if they already had a craft that could do it, which they—Arthur!"
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist and broke into a run. The few people on the street had been starting to look over at their argument, and he had no time for an audience.
"Dammit, let go of me," Merlin snapped behind him, but he would have needed to use magic to break the iron hold Arthur had on him.
He kept running, even up the steep curve that led to the lake. Only when they crashed down among the few remaining trees at the lake’s edge did he stop and let go of Merlin’s arm.
"Listen to me." He gripped Merlin’s shoulders again and leaned closer. "It may be impossible for the scientists, but it’s not impossible for you."
Even in the near-darkness, he thought he could see the blood draining from Merlin’s face. "You’re mad. I can only do what science can do."
"But scientists could do this if they had enough time to build the equipment. You just said so. But you don’t need equipment."
"It’s not just equipment." Merlin’s eyes had gone wild, but Arthur could see the thoughts beginning to get through behind them. "They’d have to do a million calculations on how to land on a relatively small object moving through deep space. How much power to use to shift its trajectory just enough, but not to hit the moon or our satellites. And you can’t make the detonation too strong, because if you destroy the whole asteroid, all the pieces will just come raining down on earth and we’ll still be fucked."
Arthur laughed with pure joy. "You can do that, Merlin! You can do that. It’s all just mathematics."
"I’ve never done anything like that," Merlin protested. "Not remotely."
"You brought me a rock from the moon."
"Completely different. The moon wasn’t moving and I wasn’t trying to blow it up."
"Of course it was moving." Arthur grinned, remembering spinning brass balls and Morgana’s laughter. "The moon moves around the earth and the earth moves around the sun."
Merlin looked close to hyperventilation. "But how could I—"
"You don’t need a bomb." Arthur leaned closer until he could feel Merlin’s breath on his face. "Remember what you told me after the war? A little mental effort and you could blow up a city, a country, the whole world. Why not an asteroid?"
"I never—" Merlin stopped and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Arthur saw the wet shine of tears on his face. "All I could think about was how to keep you safe."
"I know." Arthur pulled back, gentling his grip into a caress. "Do you understand now? This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting to do."
"But you were supposed to—"
"It was never about me." Arthur laughed again and almost could not stop. "Morgana told me as much, didn’t she? I thought she was just ribbing me about my ego, but she knew then that it was all about you. Can’t you feel it?"
Merlin shook his head. "I don’t know what I feel anymore."
"Trust me, you can do this. You will do this." Arthur looked up at the sky and narrowed his eyes at his foe before turning his glare back to Merlin. "I am your king, and I command it."
It was the only command he had ever given Merlin as king to sorcerer. At once Merlin calmed and pulled in a deep breath before giving a tiny nod of assent.
Arthur spun him around to better face the enemy above. "All right. Now find the asteroid. It’s right there, we can see it. You just have to find it in space."
Merlin stayed silent for several long minutes. Then he shivered and his head dropped down between his shoulders. "I see it. Oh God, Arthur, it’s massive. And so damn close."
"But not too close yet?" Arthur asked and hoped Merlin could not feel how hard his heart was pounding. "Our gravity hasn’t caught it yet?"
Merlin shook his head, and Arthur exhaled. "No. But it’s almost within the moon’s orbit now. It’s closer than I thought. I think it’s coming faster than they told us."
Arthur started to urge Merlin on, but Merlin was already muttering to himself about trajectories and calculations. So Arthur dropped his chin to Merlin’s shoulder and his hands to Merlin’s waist and concentrated on breathing.
"Okay, okay," Merlin said at last. "I see where I need to hit it to change its course away from us."
Arthur straightened with a crow of excitement. "Yes! I knew you could do it."
"I haven’t done anything yet." Merlin gave a deeper shudder under his hands. "Arthur, I know what I said back then, but I’ve never actually tried to create a nuclear detonation, let alone in space."
"But you’ll do it." Arthur kissed his shoulder, burying his nose in the soft material of Merlin’s hoodie for a moment. "I’m going to die if you don’t. This is the only way to save me."
Merlin’s shoulders rose and fell once. Then he lifted his head to look up at the asteroid. Slowly, his hands lifted toward the sky as well. "Atoms," he whispered. "All I need are atoms."
For such a long time, nothing happened. Arthur twitched with the need to do something to help. He did not want to distract Merlin, but then, Merlin rarely let a silent moment fall while he was working. So Arthur did what he assumed Merlin always did: opened his mouth and just let the words fall out.
"If we’d done things right the first time, if we’d brought the magic back to the land," he murmured, "maybe science and magic could have grown up side by side. Now we’d have sorcerer-scientists who could just look at that asteroid and snap their fingers and send it on its way."
He kissed Merlin again on the same spot. "But now I know Morgana was right. This was our second chance. Our obligation to make good on our destiny. I had to stay because you had to stay. Because you would never, ever leave me."
Tears burned his eyes. They had nothing to do with the asteroid or his regrets; nothing but the utter humbling of Merlin’s love. "Dammit, Merlin. I didn’t do anything to deserve you, you bastard."
The words dried up, and his teeth drew blood from his lower lip as he stared up at the deceptively lovely streak in the sky. "You can do this," he managed to whisper in Merlin’s ear. "You are the world. You are magic."
And then the asteroid flickered. Another flicker, and then a light bloomed from it, brighter than the asteroid, brighter than the sun, and a thousand times more beautiful.
"Merlin," Arthur choked. "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin."
Merlin’s hands finally fell to his sides. He swiveled around and gave Arthur an ecstatic grin before collapsing in his arms.
Many hours later, even sitting in the boat in the middle of the lake, Arthur could still hear the peeling of every church bell in Glastonbury. They had begun as soon as both the Americans and Russians had confirmed in stunned, tearful disbelief that the asteroid had changed its course.
Even over the bells, the sound of singing and cheering drifted over the still lake. "You’d think we’d won the World Cup," Merlin murmured from his spot on Arthur’s shoulder.
Arthur could not remember what that meant, but he resolved to find out if he were given the chance. "Are you sure you’re feeling all right?" he checked.
"Of course." Merlin gave a giddy laugh, but then sobered. "For now, anyway."
Arthur hung on tight to his hand. Dawn approached—one that no one had expected to see, especially not Arthur. "Do you really think I’ll stay awake?" he asked yet again. "Now that I’ve served my purpose?"
"Yes," Merlin answered without hesitation yet again. "Why would they imprison you again?"
Several reasons had occurred to him over the intervening hours, even while they stumbled through the suddenly raucous streets in search of some tea for Merlin. People were propping television sets in their windows so everyone could watch the news together. Merlin grinned, proud and inane, at all of them, stopping to watch his handiwork every time they saw the images broadcast.
But once his kingdom and his world were safe, once Merlin had recovered enough to begin cleaning up the debris he had left in the sky, Arthur felt the shadow of the tower once more. What if his yearly sleep continued? Or what if he fell asleep and simply never woke up again, now that he was no longer needed to keep Merlin in the world?
They had come to rest here, halfway between Albion and Avalon, to wait for the verdict on Arthur’s fate. Beside him, Merlin stirred from Arthur’s shoulder, sitting up to point up at the slowly lightening sky. "Look, there’s one more. I think that’ll be the last of them."
Arthur watched the shooting star, a tiny fragment of what would have been their death, and smiled despite himself. "Where will that one land?"
Merlin hummed and raised his hand as though to touch the meteor. "Outside Houston, I think. A little souvenir for my friends."
He took advantage of Merlin’s movement to slide down and claim Merlin’s shoulder for himself. As Merlin’s arms closed around him, he sighed and closed his eyes so he would not have to watch the pinkening sky. "I love you," he said.
Merlin kissed his head. "Don’t say that just because you think it’ll be the last time you can."
"I’m saying it because it’s true," Arthur said. "But the sky is getting lighter."
"Just a few more minutes. And then I’m going to make you learn how to use a computer, and after that I’m going to make you get on an airplane. You’ll hate it so much, but I’m finally going to see a platypus."
And suddenly, Arthur wanted that so much that the longing made his eyes ache. He wanted all of it, even the internet; every insane thing that meant having a life with Merlin.
He pressed his face into Merlin’s neck and then held himself very still, not daring to move lest he discover he no longer could. If the stony chill of the tower crept over him, he did not want to feel it.
Merlin had also gone still. Arthur concentrated on the warmth of his throat against Arthur’s nose, the way the zipper of his hoodie caught against Arthur’s bottom lip. As long as he could feel that, he was still here.
"Arthur?" Merlin said soft in his ear at last. Too deep in his own thoughts, he did not answer until Merlin’s fingers clenched in his shirt. "Arthur! Arthur, say something. The sun is coming up. It’s dawn. It’s tomorrow."
Slowly, Arthur forced his muscles to straighten him out of Merlin’s embrace. The sky glowed pink and orange and a brilliant blue. It was the first sunrise he had seen in over a thousand years.
Then Merlin seized his face and kissed him, and Arthur decided he could miss one more.