Warnings: Modern AU, time shifts, m/m relationship, explicit sex
Spoilers: Very vague references to season one and two
Rating: R (for sex and language)
Word Count: ~7800
Summary: Merlin thought he knew what to expect from his life until he met a fortune-teller and then a dragon.
Author's Note: written for elfflame for camelotsolstice's inaugural year. I tried to incorporate at least a vague idea from each of her three pic prompts: a glowing crystal ball, a beach scene, and a handwritten leather journal, as well as allude to her written suggestions. You may recognise some of the lines as direct quotations from the dragon's speeches in season one. For those of you that know more about King's Reach Tower, I apologise for usurping it for Pendragon Software, but I couldn't resist the name. I had quite a wrestle with this fic, and I'm not sure I did it justice, but I hope folk like it anyway.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.
Merlin shades his eyes from the glare of the August sun as he looks towards Brighton Pier.
"Oh! A fortune-teller!" exclaims Gwen, grabbing Merlin and pulling him up the beach.
He follows willingly, not at all surprised to be led into a tiny shop that smells heavily of incense. Even if it wasn't their last summer hurrah, he wouldn't have hesitated. Merlin's known Gwen since before he could talk — their mums became fast friends after they met at pre-natal yoga class — and he knows she's fascinated by all things mystical.
An older gentleman with a flowing, white beard smiles up at them from where he sits reading. "I've been waiting for you," he says. "Come, come. You first."
Merlin has no intention of having a reading himself, but the man's already cupping Gwen's elbow and disappearing with her through a curtained doorway. Shrugging, Merlin wanders closer to a set of shelves off to one side that's caught his eye. He examines the horde of dragon figurines that populate it. They're all gorgeously crafted and appear to be made by artisans from all around the world. It's a fascinating collection. He's just studying one that has a distinctly aboriginal air when Gwen walks out of the back a little while later.
"Now your turn, lad."
And somehow Merlin finds himself ushered past the drapery and seated at a small table with a crystal ball in the centre of it before he can manage to open his mouth to protest. Unsurprisingly, the stand is a large brass dragon that holds the ball with his wings and tail. It ought to seem gaudy, Merlin thinks, but somehow it doesn't.
Merlin sighs and looks up at the fortune-teller. He's not expecting much, just the usual general, yet vague, blather about his future. It's not that he doesn't believe in seers, but they're right next to the Brighton Pier for bloody sake, the place for tourists and showmanship, not serious mystical discussions. So he's not in the least astonished when the ball starts to glow red from within. However, he's a bit taken aback when the eyes of the fortune-teller do as well.
When the man starts to speak, his voice is big and booming and inside Merlin's head as well as out. "You have done well, Merlin." And when did he go from 'lad' to 'Merlin'? "But I fear you forget your destiny and the reason your gift was given to you. You've allowed it to go dormant; dismissed the knowledge that we belong to the past and the future and the now. Arthur still needs you as much as he ever did in Albion. That your and Arthur's path lies together is but the everlasting truth. You cannot do this alone and the young Pendragon will never succeed without you."
It is at this moment that Merlin finds his voice. "What? Arthur Pendragon? I think you've got the wrong person."
"There is no right or wrong. Only what is and what isn't. Very soon you shall remember that."
It's not until later, when he and Gwen are strolling down the pier laughing and eating sugar mice, that it occurs to Merlin to wonder how the old man knew that Merlin worked with Arthur.
Merlin finds himself taking the lift up to the management level of Pendragon Software less than two weeks after the strange encounter. He wonders for a moment if Arthur has been to Brighton recently, but quickly discards the thought. It's just that the last time Merlin was on the 27th floor of King's Reach Tower was for his interview. Obviously he's seen Arthur since then, however Merlin's only dealt directly with Arthur once, and then it was via email. It's not as though the lead engineer of one of the company's software packages has a lot of reason to talk with the head of sales and marketing. Unless the head also happens to be the son of the owner and therefore has the ability to order said engineer to do something.
The memory of that email still makes Merlin fume.
He'd just finished explaining to Geraint that he didn't care what Geraint thought he sold to the customer, there was no way the feature could be added to the product in the timeframe allowed, let alone for the price. After informing Geraint that'd he'd best figure out a way to break it to the customer, Merlin had stomped off down the corridor secure in the knowledge that he'd won. His smug satisfaction only lasted the ten minutes it took for Arthur's note to arrive with the edict.
As Gwen frequently points out, Arthur had also informed Merlin he had leave to hire the two programmers and extra software tester that he'd indicated to Geraint would be required to even consider working on the feature. But that didn't make the unilateral decision any more palatable for Merlin, despite the fact that it was how he'd finally managed to get Gwen hired in as a tester (and don't get Merlin started on the idiocy of employers that seem to think the only thing that doctorates in literature qualify one for is filing and answering phones. Gwen had spent years researching and analysing difficult concepts; transferring those skills to software testing had been a walk in the park for her). Of course Gwen is more than a little biased; not only did she end up with a job from the whole debacle, but she's also hoping for something more than the quickly developing friendship with Lance, one of the two added programmers.
Merlin halts that train of thought and turns to more pressing matters, like why Arthur's assistant has asked him to come up to Arthur's office first thing on a Monday. Her message hadn't given any of clues, just time and date, and thus leaves Merlin guessing as to whether he's in for a some sort of reprimand for his dealings with the sales team or some sort of praise. Wracking his brain, he tries to think of anything noteworthy, good or bad, that he or his team has done recently, and comes up blank.
Approaching the executive offices and finding Arthur's door closed does nothing to lessen his unease. Feeling completely unprepared, Merlin knocks, waiting for Arthur's "Come" to swing open the door.
The sight of Arthur decked out in a hauberk, gorget and vambraces and carrying a sword is so startling that Merlin's mind goes completely blank, or at least a close approximation there of. Which is the only excuse for why it takes him a full five minutes to realise he's in a castle and not on the 27th floor of King's Reach Tower. During those five minutes Arthur commands Merlin to help him shed his armour, calls him an idiot twice, and generally speaks to him with such familiarity that Merlin can't help but respond in kind.
"You needn't be such a prat, I'm doing the best I can," Merlin finally mumbles while he wrestles with the fastenings. He has a fleeting moment of gratitude for the numerous weekends he's spent with Gwen — and recently Lance — at medieval fayres over the years before adding, "You're wearing armour, for Christ's sake!"
Which is when he looks up and notices the stone wall and stained glass behind Arthur and has stark moment of terror. The edges of Merlin's vision start to grow grey, the buzzing in his ears so loud that he almost misses Arthur's query.
"Merlin, Merlin! What's wrong with you?"
Merlin stares at him blankly and feels the ground sway. Reaching for him before he topples, Arthur manhandles Merlin into a chair. A wooden chair, covered with furs, Merlin realises and shakes his head, trying to clear it.
"Merlin." Arthur sounds annoyed. "Merlin, look at me." He grasps Merlin's chin and pulls his head up so he can peer into his eyes. "Have you been into the mead?"
Merlin may not know where he is or what's going on, but he knows it's not some alcohol-induced hallucination and it grates on him to have Arthur imply he'd be drinking while at work. He wrenches his face away. "Of course not! I'd never ... God, you are such an arse!"
"Merlin, you can't talk to me that way, I'm the Crown Prince! One of these times you're going to do it in front of father and he'll have you flogged."
Something is very wrong. Though Uther Pendragon, CEO, might be angry if he heard Merlin being disrespectful, flogging would certainly not be in the offing, even metaphorically. And not only is the room strange, Merlin is wearing entirely different clothes than he had on when he knocked on Arthur's office door just moments ago. The fabric is rough, the cut simple.
Whatever's going on, Merlin's beginning to realise, is most likely not some elaborate joke. Merlin thinks back through the last few minutes. Arthur, armour, stone, furs, Crown Prince, Uther, flogging. A thought lodges in Merlin's brain. Camelot. His vision begins to grey again.
"Merlin!" A small part of his brain notes that Arthur sounds more than a little alarmed. Suddenly he's being pulled out of the chair, a warm body supporting him, and Arthur's voice sounds right next to his ear. "That's it, we're going to Gaius."
Merlin thinks about protesting, but as Arthur drags him through the castle, he just stumbles along beside him. They round a corner and nearly run headlong into a young woman hurrying the opposite direction.
"Oh!" she exclaims, startled, but quickly composes herself. "Sire, I was coming to find you. The King requires your presence."
"Gwen?" Merlin hardly recognises the bewildered voice as his own.
Gwen's eyes dart over Merlin's limp stance as he leans on Arthur, her lips pursed in confusion.
Arthur's disentangling himself as he turns to Gwen, propping Merlin against the wall. "Thank you, Guinevere. If you could make sure Merlin makes it to Gaius? He seems to be a bit more muddled than usual."
As Arthur strides off, Gwen tugs at Merlin's sleeve, drawing his attention away from the retreating figure. "Merlin? Merlin, are you all right?"
Studying Gwen more closely, Merlin catalogues the differences between this woman and his best friend. They're subtle, but they're there. "I'm not sure, Gwen."
"Come on then," she responds in the exact same matter-of-fact tone he's heard so many times in his life. "Let's get you to Gaius."
At her encouraging smile, he gathers himself together and pushes off of the wall. Moments later, they stop in front of a rather plain-looking door.
"Do you want me to come in?" she asks. "I mean, I would, it's just that I need to fetch Lady Morgana's meal, and get to the washing, but none of that matters really, if you need me. Well, I mean, of course, Lady Morgana's meal matters, but I'm sure she'd understand once -"
And it's the oh-so-familiar ramble that gives Merlin the strength he needs to smile and say, "No, Gwen. I'm sure it'll be fine."
With another fortifying smile, Gwen hurries off. Merlin takes a deep breath, pushes open the door to Gaius' chambers and pulls up abruptly at the view out of the 27th floor of King's Reach Tower. He stands stock still, trying to process the fact that the man sitting behind the desk is Arthur, head of sales and marketing for Pendragon Software, and not Prince Arthur, heir to the throne of Camelot. The two are so similar that the only way he knows for certain is by the steady click of the keyboard and the faint scent of Armani cologne. Even the look of growing impatience is a duplicate of the expression Prince Arthur wore as Merlin struggled with his armour.
"I know I cut an imposing figure," Arthur says without looking up, "but I'm sure you'll agree it will be easier to have an actual meeting if we are both in the same room, as opposed to me in my office and you in the hallway."
It's the tone of voice more than the words that shakes Merlin out of his stupor; has him entering the office and shutting the door with more force than is actually necessary.
"You wanted to see me?" He keeps his voice as polite as he can manage.
Arthur's eyes are still on his screen. "Yes, you'll be assisting me with plans for an international branch Pendragon Software will be opening in New York at the start of the new year," he states imperiously.
"I thought that was pretty clear. Or are you one of those weird programmers that's particularly thick in the morning?"
Merlin hasn't had anyone talk to him with such a condescending tone since Cambridge. His bewildering morning and temper get the better of him. "Bloody hell, you're just like him," he bites out.
"Prince Prat," he says with a bit too much ferociousness. At the distinct lack of response he adds, "You know, your cousin several centuries removed. The one you're named after."
Arthur finally looks up. "He was neither a prince nor a prat. He was a great king."
"He was a great king," Merlin readily agrees (and he feels the truth of it deep in his bones). "But while Uther was king, Arthur was a prince. And trust me, he was a prat."
Arthur's studying him with an odd look in his eyes and Merlin realises that perhaps he might have been raving like a lunatic. He feels his cheeks heat. "So you're saying that one of the greatest Kings of England as well as I, the son of the owner of the company you work for, are both prats, correct?"
"Yes?" says Merlin wondering how long it will take to find another job.
Arthur's silent for a moment. "I'd suggest that you share neither of those opinions with my father should the occasion ever come up."
Merlin blinks. "I'll make a note of that."
"Shall we go over the purpose for the new branch, then?" Arthur asks, shuffling through the papers on his desk.
Merlin drops into a chair. "Of course."
On the following Monday, Merlin finds himself once again in Arthur's office arguing over plans for the upcoming New York branch. In the intervening week, he's had two other planning meetings with Arthur, innumerable calls about the same, ended up in Camelot four times and drunk himself into a stupor twice (once in his own time, and once in Camelot. To be fair, Merlin really can't be blamed for the time in Camelot. Who knew something so sweet could be so potent? Fortunately the Gwen of Camelot seems to be as fond of Merlin as the Gwen of his own time, or things could have gone a lot worse. Having realised Merlin was too drunk to manage on his own, she had taken it upon herself to get him back to his room. Though Merlin does have a memory of the scent of sweat and leather; of strong arms all but carrying him as he stumbled to his room; of a soft murmured, 'idiot' that belies the hope that Gwen had got him back to Gaius' on her own. As for his own time, Merlin feels perfectly justified about getting blindingly drunk on Friday night down at Will's usual pub. If the added responsibility of helping set up an entire new branch for the company isn't enough reason, he's sure no one would argue with him about needing a drink or two to deal with the random and sudden time shifts he's been experiencing all week).
Today, Arthur is asking him who should be in charge of the programming team in New York. At least that's a question Merlin can answer with confidence.
"Du Lac? That temp programmer you hired to work on that ridiculous feature Geraint sold?" Arthur asks when Merlin suggests Lance. And Merlin doesn't even have time to be impressed by how apparently on the ball Arthur is, before he spoils it with "Don't be an idiot, Merlin. He doesn't even have a degree. I was thinking of someone like Bors."
Merlin wants to punch him. "Yes, because the six years Bors spent quaffing beer at Cambridge and discussing which language would be the most optimal for programming robotic sex dolls with — during which time Lance was actually writing code for his local bank — makes Bors so much more qualified. God, Arthur."
"Has he even managed before?"
"A team of four at the bank."
Arthur studies him for moment and then nods. "Fine. Get me his CV and another candidate with a relevant degree that's been with the company for more than eight months and I'll decide between them."
Merlin does his best to not look too smug.
Arthur's computer plays a short snippet of an 80s rock song that sounds familiar, however is too short for Merlin to identify before Arthur's swearing as he looks at the time. "Bugger, I need to talk with father before my lunch meeting. You'll get me those CVs?" Merlin nods.
And with that, Merlin's being ushered out the door of Arthur's office and into — Bloody hell, not again, thinks Merlin — into a large stone hallway. "I'll be testing some new men this after I finish with the King," Prince Arthur says. "Make sure my favourite sword is ready."
"Of course, Sire."
That week is sort of the template for the next three months.
Merlin has regular meetings with Arthur, and sometimes others, hammering out the various details for the New York office, things about what hardware will be needed and how to link the programming teams and other such stuff. They argue and tease and Merlin refuses to let Arthur get away with trying to pull rank and Arthur pretends that this annoys him.
Sometime in the middle of October, when Lance agrees to run the New York programming team, Arthur invites him and Merlin out for drinks. After that, it isn’t unusual for Arthur to join Merlin on a Friday night at the pub. Usually Lance and Gwen are along, and every once in a while Morgana (Arthur's step-sister and CFO of Pendragon Software). Once, on a rather disastrous evening, Will joins them. It takes all of Gwen's placating nature, Arthur's ingrained etiquette and Lance's rather large bulk between Will and Arthur to prevent a brawl.
In the midst of all this, Merlin continues to shuffle between his own life and Camelot. It happens without warning or any discernable pattern. Merlin finds himself in Camelot for anywhere from fifteen minutes to a few days, however, when he returns to his own time, no more than a minute or two has passed. Periodically, he wonders how the Merlin of Camelot is dealing with the random bits of life he isn't experiencing, since twenty-first century Merlin appears to be living them instead. He contemplates trying to work out some sort of messaging system after watching Gaius make meticulous notes in his journal one day, but has to forego the idea given the fact that Merlin is a servant and parchment is a fairly rare commodity.
Despite the disjointed nature of his time in Camelot, Merlin learns his way around the castle and his chores. On one occasion he discovers, with frightening clarity, Camelot's policy on magic and the danger of the secret that Gaius, and Gaius alone, keeps for Merlin — well, for Merlin's Camelot doppelganger, as Merlin, himself, isn't magical. He spends time with Gwen, Lady Morgana, Gaius, random knights and servants (some of whom have an alarming resemblance to Pendragon Software's various employees) and, of course, Arthur. During one heart-stopping incident, Merlin even ends up talking briefly with King Uther — that whole thing is just odd, because Merlin keeps getting flashes of Uther in his three-piece suit delivering one of the Pendragon Software end-of-year speeches which are the only occasions when Merlin ever actually sees him.
Over the months, Merlin learns that his Gwen and Camelot's Gwen have many frightening similarities, though, thank God, twenty-first century Gwen isn't burdened with the loss of both of her parents, and so is free of the touch of sadness that lurks beneath Camelot's Gwen's bubbly demeanour. There are other distinctions, of course, but both women have a certain Gwen-ness about them that is unmistakable. The same is true for Gaius, Morgana and some of the others. Except Arthur. Arthur is so very Arthur in both times periods that he's almost indistinguishable (Merlin guesses he, himself, also mirrors Camelot's Merlin, since no one seems to bat an eye at anything he does or says when he's there). When Arthur teases him about his lack of romantic encounters, he does so in both eras, the only difference being that the prince makes some allusion to unicorns and the manager to computer games, instead. It means Merlin has to be continually conscious of where he is whenever he's alone with Arthur. Fortunately the armour helps.
Still, all in all, Merlin's rather content with whole bizarre situation. He rather likes the time he spends in Camelot and the camaraderie that Prince Arthur and his manservant share. Merlin can't help but feel as if he's known Arthur for more than the few months they've been working on this project, can't help but extend the familiarity and banter into his meetings with the Arthur of his own time, unable to bring himself to be the kowtowing employee anymore than his counterpart managed to be an appropriate manservant. Similarly, just like Prince Arthur, the head of sales and marketing doesn't seem to want him to behave any differently.
Despite all that, the one time Merlin finds himself preparing the prince's bath — and Arthur walks over wearing only a thin piece of cloth wrapped tightly around his hips and Merlin almost dumps the last bucket of steaming water down his front — Merlin's forced to admit that he might be in a wee bit of trouble.
See, Merlin's always found Arthur gorgeous, from the first moment he saw his picture on the wall of the office while he was waiting for his interview three years ago. It's just that he had known that the chance of he and Arthur actually getting along would be slim. Merlin's had dealings with the well-to-do ever since he was at Cambridge. They aren't the kind of crowd he gets along with. So he had looked on Arthur as one might a beautiful celebrity or a fine work of art; lovely to look at, impossible to touch.
However, over the past few months as Merlin's spent time with Arthur (both in and out of Camelot), Arthur's started to seem less like art and more like that ridiculously expensive bottle of brandy your uncle owns. The one that you know tastes exquisite, because he allowed you a miniscule glass of it once on some extremely special occasion; and now you think wistfully how nice it would be to have more of it, but know that it is entirely out of your league.
The one-on-one meetings and Friday nights at the pub aren't doing anything to quell Merlin's longing for more than a simple working relationship with Arthur. And his jaunts to Camelot certainly aren't helping. He may be the Crown Prince's servant, but it's plain that Merlin and Arthur's relationship goes well beyond that. Arthur's loyalty and trust are apparent in every action. Now and then Merlin catches Arthur watching him with an expression that can only be described as fond.
Not that there can ever be anything between a royal and a servant. And in his own time, Merlin's working-class roots put Arthur almost as far out of his reach as is true for their counterparts in Camelot. Besides, even if Merlin can somehow dredge up the courage to try and bridge the gap, it'll all be pointless in a week when Arthur moves to New York to head the new office.
Merlin is going to be late to the party to celebrate the imminent opening of the New York branch if he misses the next train and Arthur's going to kill him. Of course, this is one of the stations that has more stairs and tunnels than one would think possible and Merlin knows he's going to have to run if he's any hope of making it. He rushes down the tube stairs, swerving through the crowd and leaving people swearing in his wake. He can hear the sound of the arriving train just before he rounds the last corner, and barely manages to keep his feet when he finds himself not on the tube platform, but on a small ledge in the middle of a vast cavern.
"Ah, here you are at last," says a voice. Merlin finds himself looking into the large, golden eyes of a dragon. "What have you done with your magic, young warlock? Do you believe it is no longer required? This is not the end, it is yet another beginning, and you and Arthur will need all your skills."
Merlin stares, dumbfounded. When the dragon continues to wait, as if expecting an answer, Merlin finally croaks, "Um, see, I'm not your Merlin. I'm a different one. I don't have magic. I'm not even sure what I'm doing here to be honest."
A low rumbling sound echoes through the cavern and it takes Merlin several moments to realise the dragon is laughing. An instant latter he understands that he is the cause for dragon's mirth and promptly gets offended.
"Hey, it's not like this sort of thing happens every day. Um, well, to be fair it actually does happen nearly everyday lately, but it didn't used to and I doubt it happens to other people; though Uther and Gaius and Morgana, not to mention Arthur and Gwen and quite a few others all look like it could happen to them, however they don't seem like they're being shuttled back and forth in time. Not that I have a problem with being shuttled back and forth in time, it's kind of fun. Or, well, perhaps fun isn't the best word, more like interesting ..." and, oh God, he sounds like Gwen on one of her bad days and he's only succeeded in setting the dragon off into another gale of laughter.
At Merlin's dark scowl the dragon finally manages to compose himself. "If only it were so easy to escape one's destiny," he chortles. "There is only one of you in all the times that there are. Why do you resist what you know to be true? The now does not negate the once or the future." The dragon's tone turns more serious. "You must be watchful, young warlock. Arthur still faces threats from friend and foe alike."
Merlin wonders how he's supposed to respond to something so cryptic and finally decides noncommittal replies are probably the best. Eventually, after he manages a tactful escape and makes it back up in the prince's chambers, Merlin discovers the castle has guests and must hurriedly ready an impatient Arthur for the meal.
This is the fifth feast that Merlin's been to in Camelot. He finds the interplay of the nobles rather fascinating, though tonight he's distracted by his earlier encounter below the dungeons. Afterwards, he thinks if only he'd been paying better attention, he might have found a different way. As it is, he's dimly aware of a commotion off to his left, but only focuses in on the danger as one of the visiting knights throws a double-handed axe at Prince Arthur.
It's not as if Merlin suddenly remembers a certain spell, or knows how to recapture his magic, it's just that this is Arthur and he can't die. So when Gwen cries out in alarm and Sir Pellinore races to intercept the traitor and the blade is just inches from the prince's face, Merlin holds up his hand and shouts, "NO!" He feels something electric slide through him and watches with as much shock as the rest of the hall when the weapon stops mid-flight, then drops to the table with a resounding thud.
The entire room is silent for a beat, motionless, before Uther turns and shouts for the guards. The eruption of noise and movement washes over Merlin as he's dragged out of the room. Arthur is still staring at the axe.
Ironically, it's Uther's rigid laws that actually save Merlin in the end. There are more than enough witnesses to Merlin's act of sorcery to allow Uther to forego any trial, but tradition demands that he be burned at dawn, which means he's thrown into a cell to wait. Merlin sits on the straw and ponders the night's events, wonders what will happen in his own time if he dies in Camelot, worries about how terrible it's going to be to be burned alive.
Well after midnight, Merlin hears the key in the lock and looks up to find Arthur striding into the cell. "Arthur? What are you -"
Arthur cuts him off with a tight, "Shut up!" And then, "Follow me," his voice low and strained. He turns on his heel, moving so swiftly out of the cell that Merlin barely has time to scramble to his feet before he's gone.
Merlin's legs are half numb from squatting on the dungeon floor and he's having trouble keeping up with Arthur's angry stride. Arthur stops, waiting impatiently for Merlin. Grabbing Merlin's wrist when he nears, Arthur whispers a harsh "Hurry up!" before he's pulling him along.
All of Arthur's movements are rough and sharp, but though it's secure, his grip on Merlin's wrist is surprisingly gentle. Merlin's fairly sure he could break Arthur's hold if he tried. However, he has no desire to be released from Arthur's grasp. It's all that's anchoring him in the midst of this surreal night. Among Merlin's jumbled thoughts of dragons and magic, Arthur is the one thing he trusts. The only thing he's sure of.
After many twists and turns Arthur at last leads him down a tunnel that opens onto the edge of the forest; the metal bars that must have sealed it lie haphazardly on the ground, the edges bent and contorted. Sir Gawain stands next to them. One of the mares, saddled up as if for a hunting trip, shifts restlessly by his side.
Arthur clasps Merlin roughly by the shoulders, pulling him so they're facing. "Tell me you've never used your magic to harm Camelot or my people. Never enchanted me or the king."
"No! Never! I'd never, Arthur ... I wouldn't -" Merlin chokes out, pleading, desperate. "I swear!"
"Tell me you never will. That you won't ever use your magic against Camelot," Arthur continues.
Merlin's frantic to explain; can't stand the wary look in Arthur's eyes. "Of course not. Arthur you have to believe me. I only -"
Arthur cuts him off, but both his grip and voice have softened. "Are you powerful enough to evade capture? Will you be able to survive?"
The question startles Merlin. "I ... I don't know. I think so."
"You have to know," Arthur replies gruffly. "I'm not helping you escape just so I can watch you die at the hands of one of my knights. I won't risk you like that; I'll send Gawain with you if I have to."
Merlin reaches up and cups Arthur's cheek. "I'll be all right, Arthur."
"You'd better be," Arthur says, leaning into Merlin's palm. "I can't lose you, Merlin."
"You won't," Merlin whispers.
There's a shout and the sound of running feet echoing up the tunnel behind them. Arthur pushes Merlin towards Gawain and the mare. And suddenly Merlin finds himself alone on the tube platform watching the train speed off down the tunnel. His whole body's shaking and he's desperately afraid he's going to vomit right onto the tracks. Though he's more than aware he'll be explaining his actions for the next month, Merlin doesn't care. In less than ten minutes he's racing through the night air back to his flat. He'll send an email later, but there's no way he can handle having to say goodbye to Arthur again tonight.
Merlin doesn't contact Arthur before Arthur leaves the country four days later, nor does Arthur try to get in touch with him. Two days subsequent to that, Merlin drives a teary Gwen home from the Heathrow after seeing Lance off. When another three days pass without Merlin ending up in Camelot, he begins to wonder if the strange phenomenon and his physical proximity to Arthur are related or if the fact that, as far as he knows, Merlin of the time isn't actually in Camelot any longer is the culprit.
After another two weeks without a change, Merlin's no longer concerned with what the cause is; he just wants it fixed. He aches to see Arthur and he doesn't care if it's Prince Arthur or the one in New York. He misses him in a way that shouldn't be at all possible after the short time they've spent together and the even shorter time apart. He has no explanation for the intensity of his feelings and can practically hear Arthur telling him not to be such a girl, which is no help at all.
Merlin's thought about calling Arthur with the pretext of checking on how the hardware setup is going in the new office. However, Lance's handling all of the technical stuff and Arthur must know that Lance communicates with Merlin frequently in order to make sure everything's sorted. Besides, Merlin's never explained why he skipped the Pendragon Software New York launch celebration, a party he was supposed to at to receive official recognition for the work they'd been doing. He can't figure out what to say. Arthur, I'd just travelled through time and spoken with a dragon and saved your life with magic that I didn't even know I could do and was supposed to be killed by your father, but you saved me and I just didn't feel I could face seeing you or Uther again that night, seems a little too problematic to go with, and Arthur, something came up, a little too vague. And anyway, if Arthur really wants to talk to Merlin he certainly knows where to find him.
So the days continue to crawl by and Merlin's craving to see Arthur becomes almost a tangible thing. He does his work on autopilot, going straight home at the end of the day — not even Will can get him down to the pub anymore. Merlin ignores the holiday cheer and numerous party invitations. He's totally oblivious to anything happening around him. Which is why he's completely gobsmacked when Gwen tells him she's resigning. It turns out that after three weeks of constant texting, tweeting and instant messaging, Lance had arranged for a late night phone call where he shyly confessed his desire to show Gwen New York City.
Gwen's always wanted to travel, and she figures now's as good a time as any. A year's worth of Pendragon Software tester's salary has given her a bit of a nest egg, more than enough to get her over to North America (she's going to go to Prince Edward Island first. Gwen's always adored Anne of Green Gables and wants to visit. Then she's got plans to see a friend in Quebec and another two in Toronto. She blushingly admits that Lance is going to meet her at Niagara Falls, where they'll spend the day before travelling back to the New York City. She also cuffs Merlin in the back of the head when he suggests there might be a wedding involved). She's already got her American tourist visa application in, which will allow her to spend six months there if she so desires. And after that, well, who knows? Maybe a work visa from Pendragon, or that marriage that Merlin was teasing about earlier. Merlin can't help but be happy for Gwen, she's so excited, but it just adds to the bleakness of the upcoming year.
However, it's how Gwen manages to convince him to attend the Pendragon Software Christmas party, something he was going to give a miss this year. He usually enjoys the somewhat ruckus do, but this month he's having enough trouble just facing work, let alone somewhere where he's supposed to be merry. His attempts at dodging the event are brushed aside by Gwen. After all, it is their last chance to party before Gwen's off on her adventure.
And Merlin's going to be late.
He rushes up to the hired ballroom, pushes open the doors and stops cold as he sees what appears to be a feast in the great hall at Camelot. It's not nearly as disorienting as the first time it happened, but after just over a month without the time shifts, it's unexpected to say the least.
He has a moment of sheer panic as he looks toward the head table, wondering whether Uther will have him killed on the spot. However, Arthur's cry of "Merlin, at last!" seems filled with joy and not fear. When he finally locates Arthur, he looks older than he did when Merlin left him a month ago, and he's sitting in Uther's chair. Gwen's seated on his left, wearing clothes as fine as Morgana, who sits to his right. Uther is nowhere to be found. When Merlin looks warily at the guards, Arthur throws his head back and laughs.
"Honestly Merlin, if you thought I was going to have you put to death, why on earth did you come back?" Arthur's smiling at him fondly. "Idiot."
"Arthur," Gwen admonishes, swatting lightly at his arm. "Welcome home, Merlin. It's so good to see you. I'm so pleased you made it back in time for tomorrow's coronation ceremony."
Morgana rises. "It is lovely to see you," she says as she envelops him in a hug. "Too bad you didn't make it back in time for the feast, though," she adds, laughing. "We were just finishing. Come on, Gwen, let's leave the boys to catch up. We still need to do a final fitting of our gowns for tomorrow."
Gwen gives Merlin a quick hug as she goes by, then links her arm with Morgana's. They stroll out of the great hall together. Merlin grins after them, more content than he's been in weeks. He staggers a little when Arthur claps him on the back.
"Come on, then. I'll have some food sent up to my chambers. You can dine there while the servants ready your rooms."
"I have rooms, do I?" Merlin queries.
"One would expect nothing less for the Court Sorcerer."
"And that would be me?" Merlin raises an eyebrow. "I seem to have missed the bit where you asked me."
Arthur shoves at him with his shoulder. "Like you have anything better to do."
While Merlin eats, Arthur regales him with accounts of fights and feasts and adventures that happened during his — Merlin gleans — four-year absence. Finally Arthur turns to him and asks, "Where have you been? What have you been doing?"
Merlin shrugs. "Oh, I've been here and there doing, you know, this and that."
"Here and there? This and that? You really are useless," Arthur says without heat.
"Prat," responds Merlin with an impish grin, lobbing a small crust of bread at him.
It smacks Arthur between the eyes and he looks startled for a moment before he retaliates with a berry he'd been about to eat. Merlin's scrabbling with Arthur for the few remaining bits of ammunition, batting his hands away from the tray and laughing, when Arthur stills. The mood shifts abruptly.
"God, I've missed you, Merlin. I can't even begin to express how much. I'm so glad you're back with us." Arthur's tone's gone serious. "I was afraid -" he stops, his next words barely a murmur. "I don't think I can do this without you."
It hits Merlin then, like a punch to the gut. Arthur will be King tomorrow and Gwen his queen. Merlin will be Arthur's counsellor and his loyal friend.
And he will love him fiercely for the rest of his life. Love him for his courage and his honour, his tolerance and his justness. He will admire his integrity and his beauty. And he will never get to touch him. Not really. Sure, there will be an occasional clasp to his shoulder or, even more rarely, a quick, manly hug if one of them leaves Camelot for an extended time. But he will never get a chance to trace his fingers along Arthur's jaw, never be able to taste Arthur's lips, never be able to experience the heat that is simmering in Arthur's gaze.
It's clear that Arthur knows this as well and there's so much longing and sadness in his eyes, that Merlin wants to say I'm sorry and I never meant to hurt you. He wants to make promises like I'll never leave you again and I'll always be at your side whenever you need me. But most of all he wants to say I love you.
But Merlin has no right. He'd left, and during his absence Arthur had made his promises to Gwen. Neither Merlin nor Arthur would ever betray her like this. Arthur's hands are clenched, as if he's fighting the same urge Merlin is, trying desperately not to reach out and touch.
"Arthur, I -" Merlin chokes out before he can stop himself.
And Arthur turns away, his breath hitching.
It's obvious that Merlin needs to leave. "It's grown late," he manages. "I should go." He doesn't want to. At Arthur's tight nod, Merlin forces himself to walk to the door. "Goodnight, Sire."
Pushing blindly at the doors, he stumbles through them and is assaulted by the noise of the Pendragon Software Christmas party. Merlin wants to turn on his heel and leave.
"Merlin!" Gwen calls. "You finally made it." She's by his side a moment later, shoving a glass of wine into his hand. "Drink up," she instructs cheerily. "I'm expecting more than one dance out of you."
"Sorry I'm late, Gwen," Merlin finally manages, wincing at how wrecked he sounds.
Gwen looks up at him, her eyes widening. "Merlin, what's going on? Is everything okay? Something didn't happen to your mum, or Uncle Gaius?"
Merlin breaks in before Gwen gets on a real roll. "No, no, everyone's fine. I just ... ran into an old boyfriend on the way here," he improvises. "Dredged up some stuff."
"Yet you still decided to grace us with your presence. I suppose we should feel honoured," a familiar voice says from behind him.
"Arthur!" Merlin exclaims, whirling around. "Why aren't you in New York?"
"Because it's Christmas, Merlin," Arthur says with exaggerated slowness. "Most people spend it with their loved ones. Don't worry, I'll be gone soon enough and you won't have to worry about avoiding me."
Merlin can hear the anger and hurt underlying each word. "No, Arthur, I didn’t mean -" he begins, but Arthur ignores him.
"Guinevere, Lance tells me you'll be visiting New York soon. You'll allow me to take you both to dinner while you're there, won't you?"
Gwen flushes prettily and replies, but Merlin can't make out what she's saying above the roaring of his own panic. Arthur won't even look at him, and Merlin's sure his only chance to make things right is slipping away.
"Happy Christmas, Guinevere. Merlin." And then Arthur's turning to go.
Merlin reaches out, clutching at Arthur's sleeve. "Arthur, please!"
The despair in his voice must get Arthur's attention, because he's finally meeting Merlin's gaze, concern flickering across his features. "Merlin, what ..."
Merlin doesn't mean to say it out loud. "I can't lose you again."
Arthur's standing stock still, a stunned expression on his face and Merlin's suddenly aware of the fine fabric being crushed beneath his fingers and the hordes of laughing employees surrounding them. "Oh, God," he says, releasing Arthur and stumbling back. He whips about and pushes through the doors, fleeing out into the hallway, but Arthur's right behind him.
"Merlin, stop," Arthur commands, softly adding, "Please."
And Merlin does. Warmth presses close up against his back and a hand comes to rest lightly above his hip.
"Turn around, Merlin," Arthur murmurs in his ear, the hand on his waist tugging gently.
Merlin can barely breathe, but he does as he's asked. Arthur cups his face, lifting it so he can capture his lips. And Merlin is completely lost. He surges forward, a helpless whimper sounding in the back of his throat. The kiss turns messy and urgent then, Arthur crowding him up against the wall in the corridor.
"I didn't know what to think when you missed the launch party without an explanation," Arthur says between kisses. "Not a word. And then you were gone the next time I was back in Camelot." He's mouthing down Merlin's neck, nuzzling behind his ear.
"Camelot? Arthur, what ... oh, yes ... do you ...ngh ... mean?" Merlin asks. But Arthur chooses that moment to grind his hips against Merlin's and all thought flies from his head. It's all friction and heat after that and Merlin has Arthur's belt undone before he even realises what he's doing.
"Not here ... we can't," Arthur groans with regret.
If only we were at the flat, muses Merlin then we ... He blinks at the sight of his bed in front of him.
Arthur lets out a shaky laugh. "I see you've kept your magic then. Good to know."
"Apparently," responds Merlin with a bewildered air. "Arthur, we should talk."
"Later," Arthur says, pressing close once more. "Other things, now."
And Merlin loses track for awhile about whose hands are doing what and whose mouth is where, until he's lying flat on his back on the bed, naked with Arthur cradled between his legs. Arthur kisses him then, deep and demanding, slides his hips in a way that leaves them both gasping. Merlin sucks along Arthur's collarbone, laves his tongue into the hallows above it. Arthur rocks down, his cock nudging Merlin's thigh and Merlin shifts beneath him to align its hard length against his own.
"Christ, Merlin ... I've wanted ... I can't ... Jesus," Arthur pants.
And Merlin can only respond with, "I know ... oh, fuck."
It's frantic and clumsy and perfect and it doesn't take long before Merlin is arching up into Arthur, as Arthur stills above him chanting Merlin's name like a litany.
There're still a lot of questions to be answered and logistics that need sorted, but as Merlin nods off with Arthur's arm wrapped securely around his waist, he realises that as long as they have this, the rest will fall into place.