In his dreams, there were monsters. Masked figures lurking in the shadows, reaching for him with gloved hands as he ducked and dodged, but they were faster, supernaturally so. Long, dark capes waved behind them, and they moved in impossible, inhuman contortions. He felt the bubbling scorch of a fireball fly past his cheek, conjured from nothing. The shadowy figures smiled their inhuman smiles, and he ran, panting, legs moving as if through molasses.
Time slowed to a stop, then speeded up again, and when he turned the next corner he found his pursuers were nowhere to be found. Gasping for breath, he skidded to a stop among the smoldering ruins. It was every newsreel he'd ever watched, the front page of a score of newspapers, it was the screams of the dying and the mourning he could hear every day of his life, it was all real.
He fell to his knees, digging through the rubble after the cry of a child, but the stones cut into his hands and the pitiful cries got softer, not louder, and someone he loved was under there, bleeding, dying--
Calling for help only summoned the monsters back, and they circled him, grinning still, hands raised and dripping blood, and the woman in front wrapped her gloved hands around his neck and squeezed.
Arthur crawled back to consciousness by degrees, sorer than he had ever been in his life, and pierced through with a bone-deep exhaustion. He turned his head, and his father's face swam into view, stricken and still, his graying head bowed as he clasped one of Arthur's hands between his own.
A jolt of concern pierced him, and he jerked upright in a second. "Father, what's happened? Where on earth am I?" he said, but all that came out was a kind of demented groan. Moreover, his limbs refused point-blank to obey the instructions given, and before Arthur made it fully vertical he flopped back against the pillows, which were thin and cased in a fabric only a few degrees removed from paper. The impact rattled up and down his body, and he let loose another long groan. Even at the height of his primary school krav maga days, where a long afternoon lesson of grapples and holds and strikes would leave his whole body stiff and bruise-covered the next morning, he'd never quite felt like this, like someone had set fire to every cell in his body.
His father's hands tightened around his own hard enough to send a twinge up his arm, and Uther's face slid into his field of vision, steely eyes shining with an uncharacteristic wetness. "Arthur," father murmured, his voice cracking with disuse, "You--Arthur."
"You collapsed, at the benefit last night," came a second voice somewhere over his shoulder, familiar but not intimately so. He gave the words some thought and came up with a vague recollection of feeling thirsty, desperately thirsty, and suddenly too tired even to keep his eyes open, the low-pile carpet with its twirling red and gold patterns rising up to meet him--"A toxin lacing your champagne."
The familiar form shuffled into his line of sight when Arthur's neck proved too stiff to turn his head. It was Gaius, he realized, with a spark of childlike excitement. Gaius, always good for an extra sweet and a story. Gaius, whom he hadn't seen in years, not since Morgana left. Arthur felt his face beginning to slide into a fond smile, and managed to stop himself as the substance of the old doctor's words got through. Poisoned. He'd been poisoned. Slightly overwhelmed by the prospect, Arthur exhaled slowly. "Bloody hell," he managed, more intelligible than a groan this time.
"My assistant, Merlin," Gaius gestured broadly to a thin, pale face lurking in the back corner of the hospital room, and Arthur wondered tiredly how many more people were hiding in this cramped little room just beyond his field of vision. In his admittedly inexpert opinion this assistant looked far to young to be handling any matter that could be qualified as life and death. And his ears were too large by half, they stuck out like jug handles. "He noticed the debris around the rim of your glass, which helped me to identify and counteract the substance. It was, I fear, no naturally occurring compound."
Arthur's throat tightened. He was no fool, and no child. When people skirted around plain speech in that style, it could usually mean only one thing. "Supers?"
"Who else?" Uther scowled, a steely gray settling in his eyes which Arthur had learned to heed. Abruptly, his attention swayed to Gaius and his helper, demeanor going coolly professional. "Your boy should be commended for his keen eye and diligent work. Tell me, Merlin, what reward would you ask?"
"Reward?" The pale face went paler, spoilt milk sour. "Me? No, nope, I don't need anything. No reward." He carried himself like an idiot, and certainly spoke like one. "Anyway," he went on, in a too-eager note, "I just did what anyone would have done. Um. Sir," he added, apparently as an afterthought. How anyone in possession of all their wits could think that an appropriate way to address the Prime Minister was far beyond Arthur.
To Arthur's surprise, his father seemed amused by the boy's antics, rather than insulted. He chuckled. "I won't forget this. You saved my son." He brought his lips to Arthur's hand and brushed a dry kiss against the knuckles, an expression crossing his face which Arthur had never seen before. He blinked back the surge of odd emotions that rose in his throat and made his eyes prickle, leaning back into the pillows.
"Father--" he began, and stumbled over the rest of the sentence, searching Uther's face for something to make him feel less…adrift.
Father smiled, and let go Arthur's hands to trace fingers across his cheek. "Rest. Recover," he ordered. "You're safe now, and I will take measures to ensure those terrorists never touch you again." Obediently, Arthur slipped into sleep. As his eyes fluttered shut, he looked back at the pale nurse, wondering in a vague half-dreaming way what could have caused Merlin to start with fear at his father's words.
Healing was torturously slow, but even worse, Merlin seemed to have gotten it into his idiotic head that they were friends. "Brought you a few of Gaius' digestives to wash down dinner," he chirped, bumping the door closed with a hip and slamming the tray down next to Arthur like a cat showing off an eviscerated rat. "Don't tell him, I stole them. The hospital pudding's rubbish." Up close he proved to be less built up of curdled milk and more of delicate elfin features, soft pink lips and hair curling just a bit at the ends and cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. The ears were still…exceptional. He wore, of all things, a homemade nametag pinned to a threadbare red scarf, which supported Arthur's private theory that the boy was uniquely unqualified to be nursing anyone. Damned nepotism, probably.
"So, you. Saved my life," he ventured, after a seemingly expectant silence from Merlin.
Jumping on the offered olive branch, he blurted. "Yes. I mean, no! Like I said before, it was nothing much. Besides, it was the right thing to do, you know?" Merlin fairly glowed under the cheap hospital lights, and Arthur reminded himself to have Gaius lower the dosage significantly on whatever painkillers they were drugging him with. He gave Merlin a very thorough once-over in the hopes it would deter his looking so bloody earnest about it, but succeeded only in making something unhook in the center of his own chest.
"You're at the university, I expect," he said, because something sentimental and awkward like a thank you was threatening to slip between his teeth.
Merlin seemed to take this as the invitation it really wasn't to prattle on, expounding on things Arthur didn't remotely try to pay attention to, like his mother's name and how he couldn't really afford university, per se, but Gaius was training him up all the same, like an apprenticeship, and if he was very lucky perhaps in a few years he could join the staff but meanwhile--
"Listen," Arthur said irritably, after a few minutes of this, "I may owe you my life, Merlin, but no one said anything about having to listen to you blabber on like an idiot. It's not as if we're friends."
For a long moment the nurse was silent, and Arthur very nearly felt badly at his show of woundedness, then resented him for it. "Yeah," Merlin agreed, dropping into a register halfway between bitterness and mockery with an alacrity that took Arthur by surprise. "If it's any consolation, if I'd known you were such a magnificent twat I'd probably never had bothered saving you in the first place."
Taking advantage of Arthur's shocked and invalid state, he beat a hasty retreat, taking the biscuits with him.
He entertained vague notions of apologizing to the boy, but it turned out to be a moot point as next morning there was a new nurse to fuss over him and read monitors and ask him to rate his pain on a ten scale. The aches had got more bearable over the week, and while the new nurse brought no biscuits along and didn't grin nearly so wide as Gaius' shadow, she was, to put it bluntly, bloody gorgeous, with smiling red lips and bright blue eyes. "You don't want something for the pain?" she asked with a voice like honey, bending forward just enough to give Arthur a real show, which he debated nobly ignoring until he remembered that he'd almost died just last Wednesday, and if the universe was going to be offering this sort of compensation he'd be taking it no questions asked.
The nurse took hold of his hand, feeling for a pulse, then traced a finger along his wrist, scraping the surface of the skin with a nail. "Do you feel this?" she asked, and Arthur went warm all over.
"Erm," he vocalized, then coughed to clear his throat. "Yes, I mean. Yes. Would you care to have a drink with me?" he blurted, glanced down at her nametag and added, "…Nimueh?"
She gave a bright bell tinkle of a laugh, and scraped her nail across his palm. "Oh, Arthur," she sighed, and abruptly dug in hard enough to pierce the skin, a little blood bubbling out as Arthur hissed in alarm. "What I want from you is so much less mundane."
"Fucking hell," Arthur yelped, as the nurse--not a nurse, he realized, something shifting in his vision as the woman brought her finger to her lips and tasted the red there. Not a nurse at all. A super. "You," he growled, diving for the remote and cursing when she knocked it out of reach with a word, "Come to finish what you started?" It was easy to recognize Priestess' glowing blue eyes once she'd dropped whatever mind trick had kept him distracted.
"For what your father had caused me and my kind to suffer? At the very least I'll be making an example out of you, Pendragon's whelp." she promised, keeping him pinned to the hospital bed with one outstretched hand, and christ, Arthur hated supers.
He gritted his jaw and glared daggers at Priestess as he struggled against his invisible bonds, resolved to go down fighting. "You think anything you can do to me will change my father's mind?" he spat.
"Of course not. Uther King has never changed his mind, even for his own kin. But killing you will feel so good." She raised one hand and began to chant, fire sparking to life at the tips of her fingers, and Arthur had to force himself to keep facing her, refuse to close his eyes and cower and wait, which is why he saw the moment Priestess' whole body seized up and froze.
"Step away from him, Nimueh." The newcomer's voice was low and steady, like a man trying to calm a rampaging beast. He slid slowly into Arthur's view in a swirl of black, and Arthur felt his heart stop for a moment at the sight of his eyes, glowing gold through the slits of his balaclava. His gaze darted anxiously between the two supers, using his brief moment of freedom to dart for the remote and slam a finger down on the emergency call button. Neither paid him any attention. He wished for a convenient scalpel, but found the room more or less bare and whatever contents the cupboards held too distant to be any help, and settled for reaching down to pull the IV from his hand, poised to run.
"Warlock," she said coolly. "I take it our alliance has come to an end?" The curl of her red lips promised murder.
The cloaked figure all in black squared his shoulders, and moved, to Arthur's surprise, between Priestess and his hospital bed, like some kind of guard dog. "He doesn't deserve this," the super defended, thrusting his jaw out in defiance. "He's not his father."
Nimueh laughed again and thunder rolled outside the window. "Willful ignorance doesn't suit you, Warlock. The whole King clan are a plague on this city. If you truly wanted to protect Albion, you would heed my warnings and get out of the way."
Arthur heard a distant rattle, and looked back to see the door shaking on its hinges, stuck fast as his would-be rescuers threw themselves at it. He thought he could catch a glimpse of his father's eyes. "The poison was a mistake," the man in black was arguing. "Or haven't you been listening to the Dragon? Arthur is not yours to kill."
"No, according to the Dragon he's all yours, isn't he? The poison would have been enough if you hadn't sabotaged us at every turn. Tell me, do you enjoy being hunted? Because if you don't step aside right now you will find two armies turned against you."
By this time Arthur had backed himself against the other side of the bed, again trying and failing to find any feasible weapon besides the IV stand, which he hefted in shaking hands and brandished like a badly weighted quarterstaff. The man in black--Warlock, apparently--spared him a distant half-pitying glance before turning back. "Give up, Priestess," he said quietly, and the other super gave him a cold glare before dousing her flame, with reluctance.
"He lives," she conceded, not even bothering to look at Arthur. "For now." Whatever force had held her melted gradually away, and she tilted her head to stretch the stiffness from her neck. "But when I see you next, traitor, I'm going to kill you myself." As if that settled matters completely, the super turned and stepped through the open window in a flash like a lightning strike, leaving an empty space and the hospital-issue curtains, blowing gently in the wind.
When the super in black turned his unnatural gaze back to Arthur, he was ready, striking out with his makeshift pole and landing a solid whack against his ribs. Warlock grunted and stepped out of range, then raised a hand and tugged the IV pole from his hands as if by magic. Arthur hissed in shock, but the super just rolled his eyes. "Prat. That's twice I've saved your life now, King," he reprimanded, for the first time addressing Arthur directly.
Arthur opened his mouth to make some kind of threat, but Warlock cut him off with a gentle command of "Sleep" that knocked him flat on his back with eyes shut before he could get the words out.
His dreams were confused and unsettling. The faceless figures stalked him from the shadows, but every time one had him cornered another would appear, eyes flashing gold, and the monsters would turn on each other and rip one another apart, bringing whole city blocks crashing down in their wake.
The attack set father off on a new wave of anti-super legislation, the kind most papers referred to colloquially as a witch hunt. Usually, they lasted months at a time, and so it was no surprise that the rest of the week went by without Uther visiting Arthur once. The boy Merlin he must have scared off completely, and after their first visit Leon and Lance and the rest of his footy team mates were too busy with real life to keep stopping by, so Arthur was in the end left alone with Gaius. The old doctor was uncharacteristically silent as the days went by, sullen about something beyond Arthur's knowledge or control.
In the old days, he would try to ply Gaius with questions--about his studies, about Morgana's treatments, about a kind of bird he'd seen at school last term and…well, once in a blue moon he plied Gaius for his stories. "Tell me about my mother," he'd say, seating himself at Gaius' kitchen table, little legs swinging an inch above the ground, and though the doctor hesitated every time in the end he always sat down opposite Arthur and told him a story.
It would have been completely inappropriate now to bother Gaius about such things, and so when Arthur stumbled across the subject it was entirely by accident. "Pendragon's whelp, she called me," he was musing aloud as Gaius checked his blood pressure. Of the many aspects of the attack that had made no sense at all, it was one of the stranger. If Arthur had known anyone called Pendragon, he expected he would have remembered it. But Gaius started at the name, dropping Arthur's arm and leaning over him in concern.
"What did you say? Who called you that?" He spoke as if Arthur had just suggested he'd like both his feet amputated at the ankles.
Narrowing his eyes, Arthur searched Gaius' anxious face. "The woman. Nimueh, Priestess, whichever," he clarified. "It meant nothing to me, but you…"
Gaius shifted away. "It's nothing."
"Clearly it isn't." The doctor made no reply, pretending not to have heard. "Gaius, she wants me dead."
The old man stumbled over his reply, each word like a pulled tooth. "It's to do with…with Igraine."
"My mother?" he asked, thinking of the portrait hanging over the fireplace, the woman who looked like she might have been made of spun gold; he pictured the piercing blue eyes, the up-tilted corners of her small thin mouth. He'd always been told by well-meaning strangers that he looked the spitting image of her, the woman he never knew and could not escape. "Gaius," he pleaded, "I don't understand." The doctor kept his back turned to Arthur's bed in silence.
After a quiet drawn out so long Arthur was sure he was to be told to rest up and never mind all the questions buzzing under his skin, Gaius twisted his head far enough for the light to illuminate his thin lips, pursed in uncertainty. "No, it cannot be right to keep him in the dark," he whispered, and it must have been to himself for there was no one else to hear, and Arthur strained to listen, "Not with his life at stake." The doctor shuffled back to Arthur's side and bent over him, taking his chin in one hand and emptying a glass of tepid water down his throat. Annoyed, Arthur bore the nursing with a rigid glare. He opened his mouth to voice a complaint, the burning anger that he always kept trapped beneath his sternum because no one would tell him anything about his mother, about Igraine, and he had a right to know, but when he saw the flickering guilt in Gaius' eyes he kept quiet.
Sure enough, before a full minute's further silence had gone by the old doctor sighed and sat heavily on the end of the bed. "My dear boy, you must forgive me my years of silence. I sought only to protect you, and I must confess I've grown used to carrying the weight of your mother's secrets. But now I see…" he cleared his throat, refusing to meet Arthur's gaze as he stared Gaius down with trepidation and a kind of half-formed anger. "I see I was mistaken to assume ignorance would ensure your safety. You and your sister both."
"Morgana?" he started, propping his weight on his arms and shifting back against the headboard to scrutinize Gaius all the better. "What does she have to do with Priestess' trying to have me killed?"
"Much, I fear, but I must confess I believe Morgana was merely caught up in forces greater than she, and conflicts much older."
"What the bloody hell are you saying, Gaius? Is she in danger?" Older by three whole years and desperately competitive, he knew Morgana could defend herself. Hell, half the bruises he'd earned in those krav maga lessons were from his dear sister and best sparring partner. He'd not seen her for five years or more, now, but somehow he couldn't help worrying. Nimueh had very nearly succeeded in murdering Arthur twice now, and a fat lot of good that black belt had done him.
"I could not say for certain," evaded Gaius, before backtracking. "Arthur," he sighed, and fussed for a moment with the IV, "Priestess did not target you only because of who your father is, but because of who your mother was."
Arthur considered for a moment all he knew of the gilded gold woman in that portrait, and came up disappointingly short. A wealthy, beautiful socialite, a philanthropist and humanitarian, and, he thought he remembered hearing from someone or other she had an interest in the sciences, perhaps had once gone to school for engineering. Hearsay, like his own mother had been a distant friend of a friend. She'd died before he ever really knew her. "And who is that?" he asked, in a small, uncertain voice, feeling suddenly weaker in the wake of the question.
With a quiet huff of humorless laughter, the doctor rose to his feet. "If you will allow me the tedium of a few hours more waiting, it will be much easier to show you."
The last of the visitors began to trickle out, and still, Arthur was waiting. Idly, he dug through the accumulated get-well clutter across the bed and side table until he found his phone, and typed out a quick query in the search bar.
The first twenty results all seemed to be headlines or news items, with a few tweets. Absently, he ran a finger over the first result to open the article, and found his way blocked by a 'content removed' screen. Frowning, he moved on to the next link, only to reach the same conclusion.
This webpage has been removed because it contained information relating to the term, PENDRAGON, which has been deemed unsuitable for public viewing. Down the bottom of the page was cited some years-old legislative act of his father's making.
Arthur swallowed his apprehension and cleared his search history. If it was about her, he had to know and damn the consequences.
"Tintagel house," was the only explanation Gaius could give him, and this much directed to the driver of the cab he had just packed himself and Arthur into. At the name of the place little sparks of familiarity began to light in the back of Arthur's mind, but it was only once the cab turned a corner onto a street he knew but had half forgotten that the flame of recognition caught.
"Hang on," he burst out, as the cab turned into a long U-shaped driveway hemmed in by overgrown rosebushes, "This was our house. Gaius, I lived here!" At the sight of the place, even in overcast, rainy night, Arthur found he could barely contain a kind of childish excitement. Tintagel. The only place he had ever considered more than a house, the place he still thought of as home.
Gaius ushered him stumbling from the cab to the door, and began to fumble in his long overcoat. "Yes, my boy. A De Bois property. It passed to your father's family with his marriage to Igraine, who had lived here for some years with a group of close friends. Aha!" He retrieved an immense archaic set of brass keys. "And now, of course, I am its caretaker."
Arthur watched him unlock the door and step through, waving away a fine mist of dust and turning on the lights as he lingered in the doorway. "I had always wondered what happened to the place. Why we never came back, after--"
"Your mother's death? Well, I expect the memories of the place grew too much for Uther. But Tintagel always was more her house than his."
"You knew her then? Even before she married my father?"
"Oh, yes, I was an old family friend. I was at school with her cousin Elaine, and then her father took ill, the poor man, and later, of course, Igraine needed--" Gaius cut himself off abruptly, looking embarrassed, and shuffled Arthur down the hall to the library. "Forgive me, I keep getting ahead of myself. You see, one night soon after she and Uther were engaged, she brought me round and told me she had something important to show me." Arthur followed close at his heels, drinking in every word as his eyes roamed the bookshelves. Everything was pristine, untouched, as if the whole place were frozen in time, and the air was so thick with memory that at moments he could choke on it. Eighteen years, and he had never once been back.
"Ah, here it is," crowed the old doctor, as he reached out to a small golden statue of a dragon and wrenched it sideways on its pedestal. It broke with a sharp crack, but before Arthur could object the whole bookshelf swung inward and vanished. His jaw dropped nearly to the floor. "You remember the stories, I trust? Igraine was something of an architect, or at the very least a brilliant woman with far too much free time on her hands. The design is hers. Get the lights for us, my boy?"
Suddenly feeling the draught through his hospital gown as he stared into the darkness, Arthur realized he could just make out a set of steps descending to the lower level. He swallowed the feeling and pushed ahead of Gaius, bracing himself on the wall and moving slowly down the staircase until his fingers brushed against the switch.
The world flipped on its head. What the light revealed should not have existed anywhere. Not anymore. "Oh, christ," Arthur murmured.
Heedless of the way the earth had shifted off its axis, Gaius shuffled past Arthur and raised an eyebrow. "Igraine spent years of her young life searching for a purpose, and by the time I met her she believed that she had found it in striving to make the world a better place in any way she could. But charity and invention could only go so far." His gaze flickered to the walls, pasted with cutout newspaper articles, the headlines Arthur had been turned away from only hours before. PENDRAGON SAVES THE DAY. FAMILY RESCUED FROM DEADLY CHEMICAL FIRE. Faded color photos of a super dressed half in knight's armor, a golden dragon emblazoned on their chest, posing proudly in the central square. The kind of propaganda he had only seen atop piles for burning in demonstrations. His stomach churned. "She found a way," Gaius explained, as though the connection was obvious, "to help people directly, but it required a measure of stealth."
He picked a scrap of red cloth from the work bench and handed it to Arthur, who felt his fingers trembling around the fabric. It was a mask. But it couldn't be a mask, not unless… "You're saying my mother was a superhero?" As the words left his mouth his ribs hitched inwards, constricting his lungs and forcing quick, shallow breaths.
Gaius evaded the question neatly in his usual way, crossing to the chest of drawers in the corner. "Nimueh was a trusted friend and ally, but she proved not to be all that Igraine had hoped. She was born with supernatural powers, and believed that those like her should strive to eliminate the powerless in order to ensure their own survival. A better class of human, she called it.
"She turned against Igraine, used her inventions against her, even tried to take her husband and young son hostage. The battle was one of the bloodiest Albion has ever faced." As the cabinet doors swung open a pile of rusted mail and torn cloth slid to the floor. Through hazy double vision Arthur could make out a gold dragon rampant on a red field, and wondered dimly how much of the red was his mother's own lifeblood. "In the end," Gaius finished, reaching into the wardrobe and pulling out a cowl designed like a helmet, the visor ending at the nose. "Nimueh killed the super known as Pendragon and brought half the city down along with her."
The cowl was dented, cracked right down the center. Arthur accepted it numbly when Gaius offered it to him, staring into the shadowy space behind the eye slot. Something dark and hot was rumbling through his brain, his head felt like nothing short of a thunderstorm, because this. This changed everything. Or perhaps it changed nothing at all, but he'd never known, could never even have suspected--
He set the helmet down gently on his mother's work table, then turned his back and walked briskly up the stairs, out the door into the waiting rain.
His vision blurring at the edges, Arthur took refuge in the usual spot. He probably would never have known he was being followed if the man hadn't stumbled over his own feet and let out a string of quiet curses some meters behind him. Arthur supposed he should have been surprised or even frightened by this development, but as it was he merely drew his shoulders together under his sodden coat and turned to look at the man in the black mask. Warlock, if he remembered correctly. "Here to kill me, are you?" he asked, voice hollow and throat scratchy.
"Do you know what your problem is? You've no faith at all in your fellow man." Away from Nimueh, his manner was open, casual, completely human. If anyone had suggested to Arthur that morning there was a properly real person beneath a super's mask he'd have laughed in their face. In light of Gaius' revelations the idea wasn't so amusing now. "Have a little trust."
"You poisoned me!" he accused, sitting on the edge of a roof in the rain with absolutely fuck-all to lose.
Warlock let out a noise that could have been a wince, and agreed. "I suppose I did. But if it's any consolation I changed my mind very quickly." Arthur stared. "And anyway, you hit me with that pole," he continued, sounding almost indignant. "I had bruises for a week, you know."
In the dark, his bright gold eyes shown with earnestness, and Arthur had the strangest split-second feeling that if he reached up and slid the mask off he would see his mother's face staring down at him. His fingers twitched against the brick, and he swayed dangerously on the spot.
Lightning fast, a steadying black-gloved hand wrapped around his arm, then mirrored the grip to tug Arthur off the ledge until his feet no longer dangled and prop him safely against the little half-meter wall that ran along the whole edge of the roof. "Steady," Warlock warned, and Arthur felt so completely out of his skin strange that he accepted without question the way a positively sticklike superhero could support his generous weight like it was nothing. The masked man tsked softly, stepping away. "You ought to be getting home, mate. You'll catch your death out here, dressed like that."
"Why are you doing this?" He didn't intend to ask, didn't quite know who he was asking in the first place, but it felt like the most important thing in the world to know the answer.
Unblinking gold eyes searched his puffy, rain-soaked face, judging whether the question was genuine. "I believe when you are given power," he said at last, unflinching, "You have a duty to use it for good." How this masked stranger saw good in an action Arthur had been taught to fear as the ultimate evil all his life only left him with more questions, but this time he could find no words to voice them.
Warlock watched him a while longer before asking, gently. "Can you make it on your own? "
Whether he was volunteering blindly to accompany Arthur into what, for him, was equivalent to a lion's den, or simply searching for an opportunity to kidnap, torture, and murder Uther King's son in nasty ways in a misguided quest for revenge, Arthur's answer was the same. "I'll be fine," he offered with a tight smile, easing his way upright by degrees with one hand resting on the wall.
The other nodded, seeming to understand, and with a flash of lightning Warlock was gone.
In his dreams he dug through smoking rubble, following the cries of a trapped victim, and was entirely unsurprised to look up and see a figure digging beside him. Their face shifted when he looked too long, from the oil portrait of Igraine, stern and lovely, to a dark figure with golden eyes, to the empty helmet cowl, cracked down the center. "I want to help," they said, but when the debris was clear he saw his mother lying underneath, bloody and cold and still.
For a moment he didn't recognize the woman who seated herself on the other side of the café table, dressed in something indecent and flowy green with her dark hair piled up atop her head. The Morgana he remembered, five years in the past, had never moved with such self-assured confidence. She'd been softer, younger than her years and prone to nervous fits and bouts of insomnia. He was almost glad to see her so changed now. "Meggie," he sighed in relief, and she looked him over with the same fond amusement mixed with worry he'd been subject to coming home from school to tell her he'd been kissing Kay Bonmaison behind the gym and thought he might be a bit less heterosexual than father expected. (She'd told him to suck it up, because Uther already knew Morgana was a flaming lesbian and they couldn't both be the family disappointment.)
"Wart," she said, in her crisp melodic brogue, and snatched the coffee from his hands to steal a sip. "I must admit, brother dear, it's not often anyone manages to surprise me, but I really didn't see this coming." Her smile had changed, not sweet now but sly and knowing.
"I didn't think you'd show," he admitted, then scowled at her expectant look, pale green eyes surveying him over the top of her wide-frame sunglasses. "I…need your help," he managed.
Morgana's eyes went wide. "Oh, my. Saying that must have taken a year off your life, I'm impressed."
"For god's sake, don't gloat," Arthur complained, and reclaimed his coffee cup, only to find it emptied. Setting it aside with a black look, he leaned forward against the table and asked conspiratorially, "What do you think about the supers?"
To his surprise, Morgana, usually verbose to a fault, went white and silent, her manicured fingernails digging into the plastic-coated tabletop.
Frustrated, Arthur swallowed a groan and leaned back in his seat. "Come on, Morgana, you've never held back an opinion before," he said. "Just tell me what you think."
Raising one delicate eyebrow, Morgana set down her own cup of coffee between them, large enough to hold half a lake and black as mud, and began to irritably pilfer sugar packets. "And are you going to run and tattle to daddy if I give the wrong answer?" she accused, with a bitter cadence he remembered from her and father's old arguments.
"Morgana, please," he pleaded. "Just. I don't know who else to ask. Do you think they could be…good? For Camelot, for Albion?"
"Uther would have your head for even asking me that," she snapped, then went quiet again. Arthur watched and waited as she ripped the sugar packets open and emptied them one by one into her cup, her eyes distant. The silence dragged on, till Arthur was sure she was waiting to see him grow bored and give up the chase. Perhaps five years ago he would have done. "Do you remember when you were twelve," she said at last, changing tactics, "And you went out on the frozen pond with Leon? I tried to stop you because I thought you were going to fall in." Arthur nods, solemn, recalling how Morgana had run down the stairs two at a time to meet them, hair tangled and streaming behind her like she'd seen a ghost. At the time he'd brushed her concern off; Morgana had always been prone to bad dreams. "You did, Arthur," she reminded him, "You almost drowned." Leon had gotten to him just in time. If he hadn't been on his guard, he'd admitted…so, in the end Morgana's bad dreams had probably saved him. It was one of the reasons Arthur had always held her opinions in the highest regard.
"It's a good job Leon was half in love with you," he reminisced. Willing to listen to what Arthur dismissed as her paranoid ramblings.
Morgana sniffed in distaste, stirring her coffee concoction like a witch's brew. She corrected, "Me? Please, Arthur, don't be dim, it wasn't me he jumped into a frozen lake after."
Oh. Well. While Arthur was piecing together that little revelation, she took a long draught from her cup and continued, "I knew the ice would break like I know there's going to be a little boy," she said matter-of-factly, "Who's going to need your help."
"A what? Who?"
"Do keep up, Arthur," she quipped, taking a pen from her pocket and scribbling something on one of the discarded sugar packets. "Within a week or two, I can't say more precisely. You'll get all the answers you need from him. He's got a tattoo a bit like this, " she finished, and passed the ripped bit of paper across the table. Arthur took it, incredulous, and examined the spiral-cornered triangle drawn in the center.
"Morgana," he said, either a question or a warning to stop being so bloody cryptic, but his sister waved a hand nonchalantly and stood.
"I can't say how glad I am to see you finally putting that brain of yours to use, Wart," she said kindly, and mussed his hair, which would have gotten most people put in a headlock. "Late as the hour may be." She turned towards the door, then stopped, throwing another glance over her shoulder at him.
Arthur stared up at her, bemused, and she shot him a sweet smile that was all Morgana as he had known her before. "Oh, and brother dear, you'll have to go out through the kitchens. Uther's put a new lock on the door in the east wing."
He was having the strangest dream about the frozen pond, only instead of falling through the splintering ice as he remembered Arthur dove in, swimming furiously down through water so cold and dark and still it was like glass. The cold bit into every inch of his skin, but he went deeper, half swimming and half sinking.
He couldn't breathe, and his chest felt tight with the effort of holding in air, but just then a beam of light refracted through the hole his body had left and something at the bottom glinted.
With renewed vigor, Arthur pushed through the icy water, chasing the gleam, the thing he was here for, but as his outstretched fingers brushed against something smooth and hard a hand wrapped around his ankle and tugged him away, Leon's hands were wrapping around his middle, pulling him back to the surface as his lungs gave out and he inhaled water so cold his chest burned--
"There's a sword at the bottom of the lake," said a soft, high voice, and Arthur sat bolt upright in his bed with a start. His bedroom was dark, silent, and empty, the curtains wafting in a gentle breeze through the open window--
Arthur kicked off the bedsheets and turned to see the outline of a figure hovering awkwardly half inside the room, caught out. A gold glint or perhaps just the memory of the sword in the pond flashed in the dark, and for a wild moment Arthur thought it's Warlock, and he's here to kill me. But a moment later there was a soft sigh of resignation, and the last person he had expected to see turned his face towards Arthur's with a sheepish grin.
"Merlin?" yelped Arthur, and Gaius' assistant raised a frantic finger to his lips.
"Hush, please, I have to--"
"What the hell are you doing in my bedroom?" Arthur hissed, "Which, I might add, is in my house? Where I live?"
"I was just leaving!" Merlin said, a bit defensively, crossing his gangly arms.
"You're damned right, you are!" Arthur marched across the room and grabbed him by the scarf, ready to call for security when he became simultaneously aware of three things: first that he was naked from the waist up, second that Merlin had taken note of this, his wide-eyed gaze drifting lower by the second, and third that Merlin was standing so awkwardly to hide the boy standing behind him, who blinked owlishly up at Arthur from beneath a black domino mask, and promptly fainted.
Arthur stared, fingers still fisted in Merlin's atrocious threadbare scarf, a newer blue model this time. The boy, who was pale as death and no more than sixteen, slumped to the ground. "Merlin," he said in a tone icy enough to make Uther proud, "Explain."
Gaius' miserable excuse for a nurse paid him no mind, tugging his scarf away from Arthur and off over his uncombed mop of black hair. "Fuck, shite, no," he murmured, bending over the boy and examining the dark stain spreading over the shoulder of his thermal shirt. When he pulled the fabric away from the wound Arthur could just make out the symbol marked in ink below the teen's collarbone: a triangle with spirals at each corner. He froze, watching blankly as Merlin wound his scarf over the little boy's chest like a tourniquet.
"Who is he? Who did this to him?"
"Doesn't matter," Merlin argued. "I'm taking him to--I'm getting help." From Gaius, Arthur supposed.
"And the mask?" The nurse didn't reply, swallowing hard and hefting the teen's limp body into his arms. His spindly legs buckled under the weight. Arthur laid a warning hand on his arm. "Is he a super?"
The dark stain was spreading across the front of Merlin's t-shirt now. "I don't know," he lied.
The unconscious teen shifted in Merlin's arms, restless, murmuring something in the same high voice that had woken Arthur, and he heard the muffled crash of a door down the hall slamming. Light streamed in under the door, and voices drifted into hearing range. Angry, authoritative voices. "Oh, good," Arthur said to himself, throwing up his hands, "He's aiding and abetting a fugitive." Whether for sake of the boy's bloodless face, or Merlin's ridiculous blue eyes, or Morgana's warning and the strange symbol, he hesitated to alert the men storming the hallway. "Tell me, Merlin, are you completely mad?"
"He saved my life," the nurse said, a disturbingly determined tilt to his babyish chin. "Arthur, please, I can't repay that by letting him die."
You'll get all the answers you need from him, Arthur remembered, staring down the intruder and his living burden and feeling very much like he was standing at the edge of a cliff and poising to jump. He rather hoped he might turn out to have a working parachute as he clenched his jaw and pulled on an oversized blue hoodie lying on the desk by the windowsill. "Leave him to me."
"I know this house like the back of my hand," he argued, prying the unconscious boy from Merlin's grip and hefting him over one shoulder. "Whereas you will only get yourself captured, you dolt. I give you ten seconds past that door at the outside."
"I'm stealthier than I look!" he defended.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "That's hardly encouraging. You walk like your kneecaps are screwed on backwards," he countered. Before Merlin could protest, he was at the door, peering through the crack as the last of the security guards rounded the corner. "Stay here," he hissed over his shoulder, "I'll get him to Gaius."
The mask he had taken from his mother's house was still in the pocket of his trousers, little more than a scrap of red cloth. On a whim, he tied the fabric around the lower half of his face and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up.
The boy super was heavy, but Arthur took care not to jostle him when every movement caused him to moan softly in pain. Bullet wound, he surmised, clear through the meat of his shoulder. Camelot's police force had developed a habit of shooting first, and asking questions after if there was time, especially when it came to supers. The officer's safety came first. Arthur had never been so starkly confronted with the consequences of such a policy, and so the principle had never bothered him, personally, though he remembered it as one of Morgana's favorite subjects.
Covering his face felt right, a safe and natural precaution to take, and it wasn't until he first time he ducked behind a potted plant to avoid a guard that he realized how he must look. Like a super, or near enough as made no difference. Arthur couldn't decide whether the feeling twisting in his gut was guilt or excitement. It was strange, the way he felt like he was peeling back a layer of himself by putting the disguise on.
Remembering Morgana's cryptic warning at the last second, he turned away from the east wing and headed for the kitchens.
He didn't want to take it off, lurking on the fire escape outside Gaius' flat, but neither, he decided, did it feel quite right. Arthur hesitated. In the end he tugged the fabric away and shoved it back in his pocket before knocking on the window, not ready for anyone else to see the thing inside him that fit under a mask.
"Gaius!" he called softly into the night, setting the boy's limp weight down beside him the better to pound on the glass. As the curtains whipped back, his burden began to stir at last, mumbling a little and crying out in pain. The doctor's white, lined face appeared, foggy through the glass, and then the window was lifted up and both Arthur and the boy ushered inside.
"What on earth are you doing, rushing around clinging to fire escapes at this time of night, my boy?" Gaius flustered, speaking directly to Arthur as he hadn't in weeks.
Heaving the boy onto Gaius' couch with a groan, Arthur tried and failed for the words to explain. "Your idiot assistant," he managed, "He woke me--" The monumental stupidity of his actions hit Arthur all at once, like a bag full of bricks, and he sat down heavily at the end of the sofa. His mother, Pendragon, dead supers were one thing, and the unknowable but oddly helpful quantity of Warlock was another, but harboring a fugitive super and smuggling him out from beneath his father's nose was a third, very different matter. Not only criminal, but to Uther a personal betrayal of the highest order. If father had seen him tonight, wearing that mask of all things…
While Arthur buried his head in his hands and set to blankly staring at the carpet, not speaking, Gaius tutted and fretted over the wounded teenage super, unwrapping Merlin's scarf from his shoulder and dropping it to the floor. After a few minutes he recruited Arthur's useful and otherwise unoccupied second set of hands to ferry him buckets of water and paracetamol and the old sewing kit in the cupboard over there, there's a good boy. Arthur did all this blankly and without question, thinking about a parade he'd been to many years ago, just before Morgana had moved in, where he'd worn a small, neatly pressed suit and stood beside father through a round of speeches and choked on the ash from a bonfire built of old comic books.
Tonight, he felt like he'd thrown himself onto the pyre.
"You helped me because you're one of us too," said a voice that echoed like it was sounding inside his skull, and Arthur whipped his head around to meet the boy's fixed stare. His irises were paler even than Morgana's, silver like clouds after a rainstorm. When he spoke again, Gaius bent over wrapping a bandage across the neat lines of stitches in his shoulder, his thin lips did not move. "Pendragon, just like your mother."
"I'm…I'm not," Arthur whispered, mouth going dry.
"She wanted you to have her sword," the strange voice said coolly. "The one at the bottom of the lake. That's why you're dreaming about it."
Every muscle in him tensed at once. "You can't know that," he snapped.
Gaius glanced back over one shoulder, one brow tilting in concern at whatever he saw in Arthur's face. "Something wrong, my boy?"
"Nothing," Arthur denied without breaking eye contact, but he waited for the old doctor to wander away into the next room before kneeling beside the couch and leaning in close to the teenager. "What sword?" he hissed, but he remembered it gleaming at the bottom of the pond, buried almost to the hilt in rock. He remembered the dream clear as day.
The boy ignored him, tilting his head like Arthur had said something else entirely. "You should get a better outfit," he said in the same silent speech, now with a dismissive tone. "There's a woman who makes things for us, you could ask her. They call her the Blacksmith."
Unsure if he was feeling patronizing or just curious, Arthur leaned in closer. "And you would tell me how to find this Blacksmith?" he asked. "Don't you know who I am?"
The boy in the domino mask grinned. "You saved my life, Arthur King. You're a hero."
For someone who broke the law for a living, the Blacksmith didn't do a very good job at maintaining her cover. She agreed to meet Arthur practically straightaway, wore no mask (Arthur felt foolish in his red cloth kerchief, but not enough to remove it), and seemed uncomfortable with the anonymity of her title, fumbling her measuring tape and telling Arthur to "Please, call me Gwen," with an embarrassed air. Whatever fantasy he'd been entertaining about marching up to this woman with a security detail and leading her out of her flat in handcuffs vanished like smoke before she first stammered at him to come in. He never would, he knew, but he hadn't realized that he couldn't have done if he'd wanted to.
"Oh, no! It's not for me," he objected, when Gwen the Blacksmith tried to wrap her measuring tape around his chest. "I just want the armor repaired. It was. It was…it was my mother's." Admitting it aloud still felt like a shameful secret, but the burden was lighter in front of this stranger and her kind, dark eyes.
She bit her lip and drew the chainmail out of the satchel on the coffee table between them, appraising it bloodstains and all. "Are you sure?" she said, glancing between the dragon crest and Arthur's face with a kind of disappointment. "You'd look so well in it, don't you think? Oh, I have so many ideas!" Her pretty, freckled, dark face fairly glowed with excitement. After a moment, Gwen bit her lip and sighed. "Sorry, you're right, of course. I'll just mend it up."
"And the helmet," Arthur blurted, then lowered his eyes, feeling like he'd been caught out. "Please."
Gwen's soft pretty mouth turned up in a knowing half-smile. "Of course," she repeated.
He had half the armor laid out over the library carpet before he realized he'd been tricked. Curling his lower lip out in a pout, Arthur held the mail shirt--now much broader, rampant gold dragon stitched carefully into the chain-link patterned Kevlar--out at arm's length. His untrained eye hadn't picked up on the straighter cut of the trousers until this moment, or the way the vambraces buckled wider, though the rest of the plate armor was unchanged. But how the woman had managed to pluck the right measurements from thin air…Arthur narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the offending garment, then sighed and turned it round to slip over his head.
The fit was tight, but not uncomfortably so. It pressed like a well-made suit, emphasizing the broadness of his shoulders and slimming in at the waist. Petite, delicate Igraine's costume had been altered to suit him perfectly.
Peering at his reflection in the dark window glass, Arthur became suddenly, burningly curious.
He shucked off his own trousers and shrugged on the padded grey pair, then pulled the steel-toed boots over those. The gorget and pauldron he stared at bleakly for a moment before stumbling on the little leather buckles which would fasten it over his collar and down the right shoulder. It might have been a damned sight easier, he judged, with a little help. The gloves were thick black leather, the vambraces bright, heavy silver.
The cape, which was blood red and bore the same dragon sigil in the center, buckled neatly just under the gorget and fell almost to the ground. Not practical, especially not for Arthur's fast, mobile style of fighting, but certainly dramatic. Quite eye-catching. He turned to face the window again, admiring the striking figure in silver and red. Gwen's work was…she had done an admirable job. He looked just like her, the woman in the old photos on the walls downstairs. The woman in the oil portrait. Pendragon and Igraine. For the first time he could see the puzzle-piece edges sliding together, and realized they were one and the same.
Somewhere in the distance a car horn sounded, and Arthur nearly jumped out of his skin, snapping so quickly back to reality. He slouched and ducked his head, a little embarrassed to have gotten so caught up in his idle fantasy. The wisest thing to do, he knew, would be to take it all off, lock it up in some cupboard and forget it had ever existed. Wiser still would be to put his mother's secret legacy out of mind entirely. Arthur would be far better off without Pendragon.
On a whim, he tugged the visor from the bottom of the bag, and let the comforting weight of it fill his leather-gloved hands. Solid, and real. He pressed his lips together in a thin line and screwed his eyes shut, lowering the helm over his face.
When he opened them again, he did not know the man reflected in the rain-streaked glass.
"Father, I want to move back to Tintagel," he announced, tapping his fork nervously against the edge of the breakfast table.
Uther did not look up from his buttered toast. "Impossible," he dismissed. "I am the Prime Minister of this Albion, and I must be seen living here, where I conduct all my business. I certainly couldn't pack up and leave on a whim." He turned the page of his morning paper, and took a long swig of coffee interrupted by an irritable, "For God's sake, boy, will you stop that awful noise?"
Arthur clamped down on the hand holding the tapping fork, then dropped the poor abused utensil to his plate delicately. "I'm not asking you to move back with me," he clarified.
His father's face swiveled up into full view, his grey eyes wide and his brows knotted. "Arthur," he crowed in surprise.
Steeling his nerves, Arthur met his father's gaze with cool resolve. "It would be an opportunity for me to practice independence and responsibility," he argued. "And to study the history of the place. Our family history."
"Your mother's history," Uther clarified, but his expression turned fond. "Of course, I understand," he admitted, and Arthur released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Igraine was a remarkable woman," he continued, in a thin voice Arthur knew was being squeezed from his throat like air from a bellows. "I am sorry I have not spoken of her more often. It has been…difficult, these past years without her."
Afraid to shatter the spun-glass moment hovering between them, Arthur dared not speak above a whisper. "I miss her too," he said. "Every day."
He turned his gaze abruptly back to his eggs, unable to confront the glistening sheen he had seen lurking in Uther's eyes. Father cleared his throat. "Tintagel," he echoed. "I shall make the appropriate arrangements after lunch."
Arthur smiled down at his plate. "Thank you, Father."
As he rose to leave, however, Uther called after him. "You can share the house with that Emrys boy of Gaius'."
The bottom dropped out of Arthur's stomach. "Merlin?" He spun back around. "You can't be serious."
"Gaius informed me that the boy has been sleeping in his living room for some months now. Apparently, he moved to Camelot quite suddenly, and has yet to find a proper occupation or living situation. And he is owed a reward for saving you, as you remember." He bit off the corner of his toast with a satisfied crunch. "I see no reason not to repay him now that the opportunity has presented itself."
Arthur wondered if his father would be so very keen to reward Merlin had he known the boy had a tendency to sneak wounded supers away from law enforcement and to illicit medical care. Then again, he supposed his father would be reticent to forgive a man who had been out till dawn the night before patrolling Camelot's streets in a long red cape and armor, even his own son. He bit down hard on his tongue. "What a splendid idea," he ground out through clenched teeth.
Morgana had got the right idea all those years ago, Arthur decided, moving out in the middle of the night without bothering to warn anyone first. He kicked a hallway dresser as he stormed away to pack, and relished the reverberating clang as a Roman bust toppled off onto the floor.
He left his clothes on the far side of the bulrushes, determined not to drown and be found floating there in only his pants, but satisfied that at the very least he'd make an eye-catching corpse. There was no Leon this time around.
It was a perfectly foul pond. Waist-deep in the tepid water, he paused for a moment to reflect on the sheer idiocy of what he was doing. Hell, there probably wasn't even anything down there in the first place.
"Bugger," he cursed, staring into the thick, muddy water. "Might as well try."
He held his breath and dove under.
The water closed over his head and went almost eerily still, the surface turning smooth and dark. Birds circled overhead, the city smog inching over the horizon, where the tallest of Camelot's buildings stood silhouetted. A full minute passed.
After a while, the last of the ripples flattened out entirely. A curious pigeon landed near the pile of clothes and began to peck aimlessly at his socks.
When the shining point of the sword broke the surface of the water, rising like a the mast of a sunken ship in reverse, it cawed and flew away. Sunlight reflected off the metal bright enough to resemble its own small star. The pommel rose above the water, a hand clasped white-knuckled around the hilt. Arthur coughed and spewed muddy water from his mouth, striving with the last of his strength for the grassy bank and heaving himself onto it.
It was a bloody excellent sword, he decided.