[personal profile] new_kate
Men for all Seasons, Part 4

Masterpost






The safehouse was a small dingy flat in Montmartre, empty save for a few mattresses laid out on the floor in every room.

"It's not much," said Gwaine. "Just a hideout."

"Oh, we've had worse," Merlin assured him. "I didn't even have a mattress till I was nineteen. This is great."

"Leave your things here, and I'll give you a tour of the city. It's unlike anything you'll have ever seen, I promise you that. This will be a night you'll never forget."

"I just want to stay in," said Merlin, giving Arthur a sneaky, hungry glance. "You know. Sleep."

As soon as Gwaine was out of the door, Merlin grabbed Arthur by the collar, knocked his fedora hat off and kissed him, deeply, possessively.

"So, now that you have me all to yourself," he said with a goofy grin. "What are you going to do with me?"

"Oh, same old, really," Arthur mumbled, licking the warm, soft skin of Merlin's neck, and toppled him to the nearest mattress.

It took them a while to peel Merlin out of his new clothes; Arthur helped him get out of the tie, work buttons and cufflinks through the small holes and wriggle out of the braces, all the time greedily kissing and pawing at every inch of baring skin.

"I swear, getting a man out of full armour is faster than this," growled Merlin, clawing at his sock suspenders. "This is stupid, oh, come on, take this off, get naked, now, now."

And then they were naked, stretched together on the thin mattress, chest to chest, pressed against each other, fitting together in breathtakingly familiar ways. Arthur covered Merlin with his body, aligning them everywhere, legs, toes, cocks, bellies, and just held him there, feeling Merlin breathe under his weight, feeling his skin and known, loved angles and lengths of him, remembering and relishing every muscle, every jut of a bone, every bit of him.

"You're back, you're back," he said. He wanted to say so much more, find words for everything bubbling up in his chest.

"I'm back," said Merlin happily, rocking softly against him. "Oh, look at you. You're all new."

He ran soft fingertips over Arthur's back, arms, pushed him up to stroke his chest, smiling.

"Wow, Arthur. All your scars are gone, even the one from the Questing Beast. It's like none of that happened."

He pulled Arthur closer and kissed him, mashing their mouths together, hard and rough, scraping Arthur's back with his ragged fingernails, as if he wanted to mark Arthur's unblemished skin in a new way, make it tell a different story.

He grabbed Arthur's hand, whispered a word, and there was slippery slickness between their palms, an old spell Merlin had made up during one of their campaigns together when nothing else had been handy and they had been mad with lust, desperate to get inside each other. Merlin pushed Arthur's hand down and opened his legs, pushing upward, urging him on.

Arthur ran shaky fingers over the curve of Merlin's arse and suddenly remembered the last few times they'd done this. Merlin would drift off in the middle of being fucked, heavy in Arthur's arms. Then he'd open his eyes, and they'd be dark and empty.

It only ever lasted a moment, and then Merlin would be back, but Arthur wasn't ready to see that again, couldn't risk it.

"No," he said and rolled them over. "I'd rather you do all the work tonight."

Merlin eagerly climbed on top of him and hoisted one of Arthur's legs on his shoulder.

"Still so kingly," Merlin laughed, pushing slippery fingers into Arthur's arse till his breath hitched from the half-forgotten feeling of a burning, sweet stretch. "All right, Sire, I shall serve you."

When Merlin's cock forced him open, he wanted to cry from relief and joy, and Merlin barely gave him a second to breathe before rocking in deeper.

"Oh, Arthur, Arthur, you're..." he moaned.

"Am I all new inside too?" Arthur panted out, and Merlin laughed and kissed him again, and fucked him with strong, steady thrusts, and Arthur wanted this to go on forever, and barely lasted a minute.

"Damn," he mumbled against Merlin's lips as he was kissed through his bliss.

"Want me to stop?"

"No. Fuck no. No way."

Arthur wanted to shut his eyes and relish every slide of Merlin's cock against the tenderest bits of him, but he couldn't stop looking at Merlin's smiling face, the way he bit his lip every time he pushed into him, and then the way his eyes shut and mouth fell open as he shoved in hard, losing his rhythm, fucking Arthur's breath out with the force of his thrusts. He cried out sharply, shuddering, and his eyes sparkled gold, and just the sight of it made Arthur's spent cock jump again.

They lay tangled together, Merlin's cock slowly going soft inside Arthur, slipping out bit by bit, his warm come trickling down on the dirty sheets. Arthur held him tight, almost afraid to breathe. It felt different; kind of the way it felt first time they'd fucked after Arthur had found out about the magic. Raw, more real, a little scary. New.

"Feel awful now," Merlin said.

"Pulled your back?"

"No," said Merlin with an awkward chuckle. "No, I didn't mean – I feel great. Just guilty. Doesn't seem right to enjoy ourselves when the war is going on."

"Come on. We used to fuck like mad weasels before every battle. Brought the tent down countless times."

"Yes, but, then the other army was camped on the other side of the field, waiting just like we were. It's different now. They're burning London while we're... Every time we rest, more people die."

"Merlin, stop it. You used to be the one who'd tell me to rest even when a war was going on. To eat even when my people were starving. Can't save anyone if we're too weak to fight."

"Yeah," Merlin sighed and shifted against him, as if trying to pull back and curl in on himself. Arthur didn't let go, and Merlin stilled again, restlessly playing with Arthur's hair. "Heh, I used to be so wise when I was young. When I was nineteen, I had all the answers. I knew who I was, my destiny, who my friends were. What was right, what was wrong. I miss that clarity. Wasn't I supposed to get wiser with age?"

"I know, it's such a let-down," Arthur agreed. "I've been waiting for that sage wisdom, and it just never happens. After Gilli, I'm probably the oldest person in the world, if you put all my years of life together. And I don't feel any wiser. I just feel... like I always have."

"I'm sorry that happened to you, Arthur."

"Don't be. I'm glad it did."

"How can you be glad? All that fighting, and dying, and endless wars..."

"Merlin, I'm alive. I should have been dead for centuries, and I'm alive, of course I'm glad. I don't know why it's so hard for you to grasp, it's basic human nature. Everyone loves to be alive."

"Yes, they do, don't they," said Merlin thoughtfully.

Arthur grasped his naked shoulder and gave him a little shake.

"Hey. You never told me – and I guess you had your reasons, however idiotic they were. But now it's all in the past. Fourteen centuries in the past. It doesn't matter anymore. So you can tell me now, can't you? What happened to you back then?"

"I don't really know," said Merlin with a small catch to his voice, and was quiet for a long time, breathing unevenly against Arthur's shoulder.

"It wasn't any one thing," he said just as Arthur was beginning to lose patience. "Everything just... we'd been fighting for so long, one war after another, and I was so tired. I just wanted to rest. But there was never time, we had to keep going. And then we had peace, and finally everything was good, we'd achieved everything we'd set out to do. And you didn't need me anymore."

"I needed you."

"Well, to advise, maybe. But you didn't really need my advice by then. You were ready, you were a great king, you had your hands full but you were doing well. And I thought I could finally rest. And that's, that's when it all started. It's just as Gwaine says. It was like the war never ended for me. I kept dreaming about it, all the blood, all those faces, all the people we'd killed, all the people we'd lost. Everything I'd done wrong, or could have done better. Sometimes even when I wasn't asleep - I'd be in a room, talking to you, and then I'd be on a battlefield, or... somewhere. And it was so real, like it was still happening. And even when I was myself, I kept thinking about it. All the things I'd thought I'd forgotten, wanted to forget - they all came back, and I couldn't keep them out of my head, and I couldn't see anything else. All I had was remorse, and regrets, and guilt. No rest for the wicked Merlin."

"You're not wicked. Merlin, this is such nonsense."

"I know. It all sounds so stupid when I say it out loud. That's why I never wanted to tell you. It's all just... stupid."

"It is, and I'll tell you why. You've nothing to regret, Merlin. We built something together, something beautiful and enduring. I'm proud of it, and you should be, too. It's an insult to our memory to belittle our work like that!"

"Our memory? We're not actually dead, Arthur."

"You know what I mean. Yes, a lot of people died in the wars we waged. But a lot more people were saved, and so many more people had better lives because of us. And I think we had destiny on our side, guiding our hand, because..."

He rolled to the side, to look Merlin in the face, and felt once again that giddy, awed delight that filled him every time he thought of this.

"My father always told me a king must be heartless sometimes. That I'd have to make horrific decisions, do unspeakable things for the good of the kingdom, and bear that burden for the rest of my life. But... it just never happened. Yes, there were tough choices, but we never had to sacrifice our honour and do something truly awful. It was like something was watching over us. Some divine thing, maybe, you know? Maybe the Old Religion was grateful that we'd brought it back, maybe the gods... But something was helping us along, steering us clear from darker paths. Making sure we didn't have any regrets. Keeping us true to ourselves."

He'd never shared that with anyone, keeping this odd, hopeful faith close to heart, but he thought Merlin of all people would understand. He was probably the only one who could. But
Merlin just stared back at him blankly, twisting his fingers in the rumpled sheets.

"I don't know, yeah, it sounds odd," shrugged Arthur, disappointed. "Maybe we were just lucky."

"We weren't that lucky," said Merlin flatly. "Actually."

Arthur looked in his still, expressionless face, and felt suddenly cold, had to struggle to suppress shivers.

"Please don't get angry," Merlin sighed tiredly. "I don't want to fight right now."

"Explain," Arthur demanded, and Merlin nodded and drew a long breath.

"You were right, it's just as you said. We were building something beautiful. A kingdom that rewarded merit, valued equality, looked after the unfortunate, protected the helpless. A kingdom where everyone was worth fighting for, no matter who they were. And you were at the heart of that all. Goodly king Arthur, stalwart and pure of heart. Just like in all the songs they sang about you, it was all true. And I wanted you to stay like that. True to yourself. Not just for your sake, but for our kingdom, too. So, whenever a horrific choice came our way... I made it."

"Fuck," said Arthur, barely able to comprehend this. "You... fuck."

Merlin tried to grin; his eyelashes were wet with tears, but his face was still slack, his voice monotonous, expressionless.

"By the time you took your crown I'd been doing that for years. Before you'd learned about my magic I had no one to turn to, so I just went ahead and did it. I'd remove every threat myself, sometimes before you noticed it. And then, when you were king, there were things I didn't want you to know about. Things I didn't want on your conscience. So..."

"You - you had no right."

"I don't want to fight right now," Merlin repeated stubbornly. "And, you know, it's not like I went around slaughtering everyone who looked at you funnily. I did the best with the choices I had. Or so I thought at the time. I thought I could live with it, that it was justified. And I didn't think much about it, until..."

He suddenly shuddered all over and rolled closer, burrowing into Arthur's arms. Arthur nearly pushed him away, wanted to hit him, to yell and throw things, but managed to stifle his anger and put an arm around Merlin's cold back.

"I tried to fight it," mumbled Merlin near his ear. "I tried not to think about it and to enjoy the peace, the new Camelot, everything. I wanted to wake up and feel happy just because it was a sunny day, like I used to. It was so difficult. I wanted it to stop. That's the stupidest thing of all: it was all in my head, what was I fighting against? My own head?"

"Well," said Arthur, calmed bit by bit by the feel of Merlin's heartbeat against his chest. "You've always been your worst enemy. No surprise there."

"And then," Merlin carried on in a sudden breathless rush of words. "Then I just couldn't stop thinking about it, and I didn't even want to be happy anymore. It was easier to stop struggling, and give into that misery, and for a time it was a relief. I believed I'd deserved it, that it was my place. That maybe there would be some kind of peace if I just sank as deep as I could, let it have me. But there wasn't. There wasn't. And then one day I woke up and thought, what was the point of doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"Everything. Every day was a torture, and I was no use to anybody. All I was doing was spreading my misery around. There was just no point in carrying on, I didn't owe that to anyone. And that's when I decided to..."

"No," Arthur blurted out, clutching at him in fear.

"Oh, no. No. I'd decided to go travelling. Break out of the rut, look for help. Because it wasn't just unhappiness and bad memories anymore, it was crazy thinking. It was actual madness coming my way. And it helped, I did get better. So that's all in the past. Done with. And I'm sorry for having been – I just feel embarrassed now, mostly."

"You keep saying you're better," said Arthur cautiously.

"Well, I am! And now we're in the future, and, really, none of it matters anymore. Everyone I killed, everyone I didn't save – they'd be dead now anyway. Everyone we helped is dead now, too. None of it really matters now. Might as well never have happened. And we have a quest, it's always easier to pull your socks up when you have work to do. So, yeah."

Arthur spread his coat over them and they lay together in the darkness. He felt oddly tired, wrung out, like after a full day of treaty negotiations, and he struggled for something to say. There must be words, he thought, a few sentences that would make everything right, but he couldn't find them.

The door opened slowly, and Gwaine's voice whispered something in French. Several pairs of feet tip-toed across the room, past their mattress, into the other bedroom. The light there went on, spilling from under the shut door, and the apartment filled with the sound of hushed whispers, rustles of cloth and female giggles.

"Typical," Arthur whispered. "Wasn't he supposed to be coordinating the efforts of the resistance?"

"He's definitely coordinating some sort of effort there," Merlin laughed quietly. "Oh, Gwaine. Do you think that's his resistance friends or someone he's just met at an inn?"

"I'm sure he'll insist on telling us all about it tomorrow," said Arthur and pressed a kiss to Merlin's hair. "Okay. I'm not angry. And I'm glad you're better. Now sleep."

**



They were on a train again before dawn, and got to Berlin at dusk. Arthur's accent didn't allow him to pass for a Berliner, but it sounded similar to some provincial dialects, and his blond hair seemed to reassure the shopkeepers. They had dinner at a dingy eatery near the station; Merlin quickly slurped up his soup, poured a glass of water into the empty bowl and stared into it for a while, whispering under his breath.

"I'm going to assume it's magic, and not a sign of too much wine two days in a row," said Gwaine.

Merlin swirled water in the scrying bowl and got up.

"Our contact is ready to see us right now. Let's go."

They headed southward, to the meeting place Gilli had named for them.

"It's like they're not even at war," Merlin said, openly gaping at the sights like a hapless tourist. "Everything is so... tidy."

"They're at war all right," said Arthur and tried to pull his hat down. There were a lot of young women on the streets, and many of them gave him eager, hungry glances. This often happened during wartime when most of the younger men were away, posted to some distant front.

"Oh," said Merlin, pointing at the charred ruins of a small Gothic church. "Oh, look. Was that us?"

"Yes, probably," said Gwaine with mean satisfaction.

"I didn't know our planes could fly this far inland."

"This is about as far as they can get. After Dunkirk that's all your people can do – send in bombers. And, well. You."

"Hopefully we'll prove to be a more elegant solution," Arthur joked.

"Yeah," nodded Merlin. "I know it's war, but... it's a city. There are children here."

There was a small bunch of boys marching down a street, led by an adult. They all wore the same clothes – neat little shirts, neckties, knee socks and short trousers, and their little faces were proud and serious as they concentrated on keeping the right pace.

"Look at them," said Merlin, smiling. "Are they training to be squires?"

"They're training to be cannon fodder," Gwaine said. "Come on, let's just get this done."

They walked for a few more blocks, watching the sun set behind the tall stone buildings.

"It's definitely happening," Merlin told them. "Gilli was right, I can feel it now. Magic is twisted up here, the Vril people had been doing something to it. It normally just flows through the land, along the leylines, but here there's a pull and a knot, and it's not far away. I could find the centre of it, I think."

"Let's focus on the task at hand," Arthur said. "I wonder what our contact is like."

"Like me, probably," Merlin shrugged.

"Well, yes, I know he'll be a sorcerer. I was wondering what kind of man he is."

"That's what I meant. He's Gilli's good friend, and Gilli doesn't make friends easily. I was about the only one back in the day. So this guy is probably a bit like me."

Arthur tried to picture that, and couldn't. If pressed, he couldn't have described what Merlin was like as a man, as a person. Merlin was Merlin, and there was only one Merlin in the world, and that was that, as far as Arthur was concerned.

"So we're supposed to stroll down that street, and he'll watch us to make sure it's safe and we're not watched. Then he'll approach us and ask if we've seen his dog that's run away, and we're supposed to say... what's that?"

The street was dark and deserted by now; a large van pulled up to one of the houses half a block away, and several armed men in grey uniforms got out and spread on the pavement, surrounding the door.

"They're arresting someone," said Gwaine grimly.

"There are criminals in there?"

"These guys don't bother with crooks. They would be after some enemies of the state. Jews, dissidents, homosexuals..."

One of the soldiers kicked the door, knocking it off the hinges, and half of the soldiers filed inside the house. The rest stayed with the car, guns at the ready.

"I don't know what those words mean," Merlin said. "I don't think I care, though."

He crossed the street and headed toward the soldiers in long, quick strides.

"Merlin, we should stay on the mission," said Arthur, catching up with him.

"When I swore fealty to you," said Merlin through clenched teeth. "I promised to myself I'd never again stand by and watch this happen. I'd let too many people be dragged to the block for what they were; I wouldn't do it anymore."

Arthur fumbled for the catch of the guitar case and shifted the scabbard under his coat, getting ready to draw.

"There's no talking him out of it," he told Gwaine. A few people were being pushed outside and herded into the van: three men and one woman, their faces pale and twisted with despair. "This will get messy, you should probably - "

"Are you serious? I've wanted to do this for so long," said Gwaine, his hand already on his gun under his jacket. "I'll get the driver."

He headed to the front of the car, swaying and whistling off-key, pretending to be drunk. Merlin kept walking straight at the soldiers, and they were already shouting warnings at him, waving their guns, motioning for them to walk away. So far they'd only seen the two of them as annoying passers-by, but they didn't have more than a few seconds before that changed.

"What's the plan?" Arthur asked quietly.

"Light," Merlin said.

He gave the soldiers his best inconspicuous, moronic smile and lifted his open palms, and Arthur shut his eyes.

Even with his eyes closed the white flash was painful, overwhelming. It coloured his vision pink, and he could almost see the silhouettes of the soldiers through his eyelids. The men screamed; the van growled like a waking beast, but then a gunshot sounded, and the engine choked, then fell silent.

The soldiers who had been hit with the full force of Merlin's light were blinded for the moment, stumbling and clawing at their eyes. One of them hoisted a gun, about to shoot blind, and Merlin broke his neck with the snap of his fingers.

Three more soldiers were already inside the car with their prisoners, and they now jumped out, preparing to shoot at them from close range. Arthur darted under the line of fire and cut them down in three smooth, quick thrusts. The sword sang in his hand, revelling in the feel of the battle; he turned to the others, but Gwaine and Merlin had disposed of them already.

"You're safe now," Merlin said to the prisoners in his odd version of German. They were huddled at the back of the van, staring at them wide-eyed. The whole battle had barely taken ten seconds. "You can come out. We'll take you to safety."

"We'll take the van," said Gwaine. He'd shot the driver through the car window, and was now knocking the shards of blood-spattered glass out of the frame with his gun, trying to slip his arm inside to get to unlock the door. "We probably won't get far in it, but – oh, shit."

Arthur turned to follow his glance, and saw a man standing at the end of the street. It was a patrol solder, they'd seen plenty of them earlier all around the city. This one was just a boy, he couldn't be older than eighteen. He was too skinny for his uniform, blue-eyed and very blond, his eyebrows almost white. He stared at them and the bodies around their feet, frozen, and then started screaming.

Gwaine took a shot at him, and the boy darted behind the corner, still yelling. They heard more voices, and then the rumble of heavy boots on cobblestones.

They darted behind the car just in time; a full patrol ran into the street, yelling demands to surrender, and then someone fired a long round of bullets across the car, making it shudder.

"Run, I'll cover," said Gwaine, carefully peeking around the side of the cabin.

"Gwaine, no!" Merlin protested.

"This is a good plan, we'll cover his retreat when we get to cover," Arthur said and turned to the others. "You have to lead the way."

One of the men nodded, pushed off the side of the van and ran for the nearest alley. They all followed; gunshot sounded behind their backs, and then Gwaine opened fire, forcing the patrol to take cover.

"All right," Arthur said once they'd rounded the corner. "Now cover him."

Merlin nodded and stepped into the street, recklessly, a perfect target.

"Gwaine, run!" he yelled and hurtled a ball of lightning down the street. It rolled at the soldiers, crackling and spreading, shooting out long tendrils of unearthly light. The men fired at it, and the bullets sank into the white crackling mess, making it sparkle wildly and grow bigger, taking up the whole of the street, singeing the walls of the houses on the both sides.

Gwaine was running to them; he was just a few steps away when a single shot fired from the left, barely heard over the hum of the lightning, and Gwaine crashed to the ground.

One of the soldiers had gone around the line of houses and crept up on them through a different alley. He was crouching there, half-hidden behind a low stone fence, about to take another shot at them. Merlin turned to him and screamed; from the corner of his eye Arthur saw the man thrown back with savage force, his clothes and probably flesh torn from his body as he was cruelly twisted mid-air – but he couldn't spare another look, he had to get to Gwaine.

Gwaine was already getting up on his own, and Arthur pulled him up and propped him over his shoulder.

"I'm fine," Gwaine said. "Just a flesh wound. I can walk."

There was a freely bleeding bullet-hole above his knee, but the leg seemed to hold his weight, the bone wasn't shattered. They ran through the labyrinth of narrow alleys, led by the people they'd rescued. The patrol had raised the alarm – they could hear shouts and heavy footfall getting closer from all directions, and from somewhere further off came the wailing sound of a siren, echoing between the houses.

"We can cut through that street, we can get to - " said the woman, and then grabbed them and pulled them to a small recess between two houses.

A few soldiers stood at the end of the alley; the soldiers hadn't noticed them yet, but that way was blocked. They had to double back, and hope to find another route.

"Maybe they'll leave," one of the men muttered, and they waited, huddled against the wall.

Gwaine was sickly pale, glassy-eyed and sluggish, his trouser leg slick with dark blood.

"We need to stop that bleeding," Arthur told him. "Hold on a bit longer, don't swoon on us, we'll see to that as soon as we find better cover."

"Arthur," Gwaine whispered and pressed his gun in Arthur's hand. "I can't be taken alive. I know too much. You have to make sure. Promise me."

Arthur took the gun, nodding, mostly to give the man peace of mind. He didn't think he'd be able to fulfil that kind of promise.

Merlin was watching the soldiers, his jaw set grimly.

"We won't lose them like this," he said. "We're just about surrounded here. Arthur, you have to get everyone to safety. Make sure they're safe. Look after Gwaine. Go."

"Me? What about you?"

"I'll stay and fight."

He stepped out onto the street and whipped a lance of fire at the soldiers. One fell; the other ducked for cover, shouting for backup.

"Go!" Merlin yelled. Fire crackled between his fingers; his bony face, distorted by rage, seemed barely human. "Arthur, go!"

Arthur reached for him and was pushed back by the angry invisible force. More soldiers were taking cover at the end of the alley, and more were probably on the way. Merlin would hold the enemies back for as long as it took, covering their escape, but Arthur couldn't -

A dark, tall figure darted at them from the nearest alleyway, and Arthur took aim at it before he saw that it wasn't a soldier. The man wore civilian clothes and was unarmed. When he reached Merlin he fell to his knees by his feet and pressed his palms to the cobblestones.

The street rippled under his hands like a stormy sea; the old cobblestones scattered, ripped up by a force that pushed upwards from somewhere deep underground. A thick column of clay and earth rose up, twisting and tightening. It grew quickly, lurching upwards, sucking the broken cobblestones inside itself, forming a giant shape. It looked like a man crafted from clay by a child's hands: squat and thick, a little lopsided, with disproportionately long arms. It was now at least fifteen feet tall, and it was moving, stretching its wide shoulders, turning its round head, blinking two little slits in its face.

The men at the end of the alley yelled a word Arthur didn't recognise, over and over, and let loose a wide volley of bullets. The shots sunk into the monster's chest with wet sucking plops; it raised its long arms and moved at the soldiers. Arthur expected it to growl or roar, but the clay monster walked silently, intent on its target.

"It'll stay and fight," said the kneeling stranger and rose to his feet. "Come with me."

**

They ran from the sounds of the battle, ducking through the narrow streets, till they ended in a stone well between blind, windowless back walls.

"Dead end," said Arthur.

"No such thing," said the sorcerer and crouched down again. Arthur stepped back, expecting another conjured monster, but when the paved ground opened up to a gaping hole nothing came out, except for the strong waft of foul air.

The sorcerer quickly spoke to the others in a language Arthur didn't understand, and they jumped down, landing with a splash a few feet below. Arthur followed them, cringing when the liquid waste licked at his boots, and prepared to catch Gwaine to save him from falling and getting dirty water in his open wound.

Once they were all down in the narrow round tunnel, the sorcerer reached up and the ground closed above them, leaving them in complete, stuffy darkness.

They stood there, huddled close, listening to the distant noises and sirens above. Then the darkness softened and bloomed with a low blue light. A glowing sphere rose from Merlin's palm and hung above their heads, illuminating the way.

"I suppose you're Merlin," said the sorcerer.

"And you're, you're B-Benesh," Merlin stuttered, staring at the stranger in open awe. He must have been impressed by that trick with the clay giant.

"Wait, we're doing this wrong," said Benesh. "Have you seen my dog?"

They both let out the identical, nervous laughs of men coming down from battle.

"There's a dry spot that way," said Benesh. "We should see to the wounded."

They splashed through the tunnel in single file. The thick stench was awful, making them tear up and forcing them to breathe noisily through their mouths.

"That was incredible, that warrior you conjured," said Merlin. "Is he alive? Can they kill him?"

"Of course it's not alive. Only God can create life. It's just a golem, dirt and magic. It will fight for a while, and then crumble up."

"Wow. Can you teach me that spell?"

"I can try," said the man cordially. "But it probably has to be in your blood. My family was from Prague, that's where my ancestors first crafted the spell... Here. More light, please."

Merlin made the blue glow brighter, and Arthur helped Gwaine lie down in a small alcove in the side of the tunnel. Benesh ripped up Gwaine's trouser leg, brushed the blood off with his palms and frowned.

"I'll stop the bleeding," he said. "This will hurt a lot."

"Aren't you a soothsayer," Gwaine laughed weakly. Arthur pinned his legs to help him keep still, and Merlin hugged his shoulders and squeezed his hand. Benesh pressed his palms to Gwaine's skin, over entry and exit wounds, and muttered a spell. Golden light flashed briefly under his hands; Gwaine shuddered and exhaled.

"Yeah, it really hurts a lot," he said and passed out in Merlin's arms.

"Might as well let him rest," said Benesh. "I need to get these people out of the city, before all the roads are blocked. I'll be back soon, and we'll take him to a doctor."

"Okay, Benesh," said Merlin with a weird, watery smile. "Stay safe."

The rescued prisoners muttered their thanks; Benesh conjured a small flame in the palm of his hand and they headed off down the tunnel. Arthur climbed inside the alcove to sit by Merlin's side; Merlin pillowed Gwaine's head on his lap, and Arthur propped Gwaine's wounded thigh over his legs, to keep it raised. The bullet wound was gone. In its place now there was a smooth flat scar that looked like an old burn mark. But that cure seemed only skin deep, and the wound could still be bleeding inside.

"I didn't want to say anything in front of the locals," said Merlin. "But they have the worst catacombs I've ever seen – seriously, it's like they use them as an outhouse."

"Actually, they do. In a city this size it's impossible to clean up all the waste, it would pile up on the streets. So they pour it all down these tunnels, below the ground, and then the rain washes it away."

"Ah," said Merlin, uninterested, already distracted by his thoughts.

"So, what do you think about our contact? Brave man, isn't he? I like him. You know, he looks like someone I've met before, but I can't figure out who. Does he remind you of someone?"

"He looks like my father," Merlin said quietly.

"What are you talking about, you don't know what your father looked like. Oh! I didn't realise it at first, because he's so much younger now. Do you remember Balinor, the last Dragonlord? Remember, we went looking for him when the dragon broke out of the dungeon, and we found him and – you must remember him. You fell to pieces when he died, I saw you..."

"I remember him," said Merlin. "He was my father."

Arthur looked at his profile, limned in blue from the magical light, and suddenly saw the resemblance, and wondered how he hadn't noticed before. Even the age-worn bearded face of the last Dragonlord seemed somehow familiar when they first met him; this young man, Benesh, could be Merlin's brother. They had the same unruly dark hair, same nose, same chin, same curve to their eyebrows, same way of stubbornly setting their mouth. Merlin's face was softer, more delicate, as if Hunith's beauty had tempered the boldness of his father's features. But it was easy to see both of them in Merlin, their blood mixing to create his unique, striking looks.

"But you told me you didn't know him," Arthur said. "Just like I didn't know my mother – we talked about it, you told me... Were you lying? Why would you lie about something like that?"

"I wouldn't - I didn't know," said Merlin, slumping a little against Arthur's shoulder, pressing his sharp bony elbow to Arthur's side. That shouldn't be reassuring, but somehow always was. "My mother never said, and Gauis only told me on the day we rode out to find him. So... in the end, I only knew my father for a few hours. Not much you can learn in that time, really."

"Why didn't you tell me who he was?"

"I don't know, Arthur, why do you think I didn't tell you I'm the son of a banished criminal and might have magic in my blood?" Merlin snapped, glaring at him.

"I wouldn't have told my father! It wasn't - "

It wasn't your fault, he was going to say, and bit his tongue just in time. He still remembered the first years of his reign, when he'd been making peace with druids and other enemies of Camelot. That's what they'd said as they offered him their hands in friendship, to seal their treaties. They'd looked him in the face and said that it wasn't his fault he was his father's son, wasn't his fault he had that mad monster's blood in his veins, that they could forgive him that, that he was nothing like a Pendragon. And he smiled at them and shook their hands, even as rage boiled inside him and he wanted to break their fingers in his grip.

"I knew you probably wouldn't have. But there was no need to take that risk," Merlin shrugged, and it stung, but it was, Arthur supposed, understandable.

"Why haven't you ever said anything?" he pressed anyway. "In all those years..."

"Didn't see a point to dredging it up," said Merlin curtly. "He was d-dead, so..."

With an angry twist of his fingers he broke the glowing sphere, plunging them in the darkness again. There was no light source at all, Arthur couldn't even see his hands; the only points of reference against the pitch black were the weight of Gwaine's body on his lap, the shaking of Merlin's shoulder against his and the muffled wet noises Merlin was making.

"Merlin, this is childish," Arthur said. "I know you're crying."

"Well... I still don't want you to see it," Merlin mumbled.

"I've seen it before."

"That was b-before. I'm fine now, I'm not going to – we're on a quest. We've work to do. I'm..."

"No man should be ashamed to cry over his parents," said Arthur and tugged him closer. Merlin's face was slick with tears, leaving wet spots on Arthur's neck. "You saw me when my father died. You know I mean it."

"I can't do this," Merlin sobbed into his shoulder. "It will happen again, won't it? Balinor was hiding out in those caves for twenty years, he'd been safe there. And then we came and dragged him into the fight, and the next day he was dead. And now Benesh – Arthur, he's so young, he looks barely twenty. And we're going to drag him into this, and he... I can't watch him die again. I can't."

"He's not your father, though," Arthur said.

"Yeah, thanks, that makes it all right," laughed Merlin bitterly, sniffing in the dark.

"No, fine, he might have Balinor's spirit in him or – however that works, but he's a different man. He's not hiding in caves. You saw him, this isn't the first time he's taken condemned people to safety. And you know it wasn't the first time he set that thing loose on the town's guard. Golem – that was the word the soldiers were shouting, they'd seen it before. He's in the fight already, and he's brave and reckless. So we better join forces with him. We'll all be safer that way."

That seemed to help: Merlin nodded and stilled, breathing evenly now.

"I don't think he's different," he said.

"I didn't mean your father was a coward. He did agree to help us in the end."

"I think Balinor was like this when he was young. Before he lost his dragon. Before Camelot started hunting him. I think... the fight just goes out of you as you get older. Well. Not you, obviously."

Arthur smiled and blindly punched him in the shoulder, both to cheer him up and to thank him for a compliment. Merlin rocked against him with a soft annoyed huff.

"Hang on," Arthur said. "If your father was a dragonlord, does it mean you're - "

"Yeah. I inherited his power."

"What a pair we are," Arthur laughed. "A king without a kingdom and a dragonlord without a dragon."

"The kingdom's still there," Merlin said. His palm slid across Arthur's thigh; he found Arthur's hand in the dark and held it.

"If the dragon hadn't escaped," Arthur said. "If it was still chained up when I became king, I'd... I'd have trusted you with it. I'd have let you try to tame it."

"It's not a horse, Arthur."

"Of course not, it was huge and breathed fire! Imagine the kind of power..."

"No. It wouldn't have agreed to fight in our wars," Merlin said sleepily, tired out by the tears. "It would have helped us against sorcery, but it wouldn't have burned enemy armies for us."

"No, I wouldn't have wanted it to," Arthur conceded. "I wouldn't want to rule by fear. That would be against everything we were trying to do. Still, dragon. Could have been useful."

"Less than you think, probably. After twenty years of captivity he'd just want to fly about and laze in the sun and complain that he was the last of his kind and wyverns were stupid and clingy and boring to shag. Well. That'd be my guess, anyway."

He shifted against Arthur's side and brought the light back, letting it float softly upwards, illuminating his face, dry now, calm.

"That twist in the magic," he said. "It's very close. Something's weird about it though – well, everything's weird about it, really, but... I guess we'll find out soon enough."

**

Benesh returned and led them through the stinking tunnels, confidently picking his way through maze-like turns and crossings. Gwaine was still unconscious, and Arthur carried him on his back, trying not to pant too loudly from the effort.

They ended up in a narrow well and climbed up a slippery metal ladder. Benesh pushed open the heavy round lid and they squeezed through it, and they were back on ground level in a narrow back alley.

It was well past midnight now; the sky was black, and the stars shone weakly, dimmed by the distant street lights. They slipped past a few dark-windowed houses; Benesh unlocked a small door set below ground level and quietly ushered them inside.

The large room was lit by a single bare electrical bulb hanging from the oppressively low ceiling. The grey stone floor and windowless walls were a grim sight; the cold damp room must have been a scullery, couldn't be meant for living in. But there was a bed made on a pallet by the wall, and next to it was an old stuffed chair with a knitted blanket slung over an arm, and a small bookcase full of cheap paper-bound volumes.

"Do you live here?" asked Merlin as they lowered Gwaine onto the bed.

"No, I just sleep here sometimes," said Benesh, hastily sending small zingy bursts of magic over his filth-stained clothes. "Use magic to remove the smell, we can't talk to people stinking like this. How does my hair look?"

"This is hardly a time for vanity," Arthur started, feeling for Gwaine's skittering pulse. Before he could work up to something insulting, the door at the top of the short staircase leading further into the building creaked open, and he reached for his sword.

An elderly man in a dressing gown raised a disapproving eyebrow at him and walked in, slowly shuffling his feet in soft slippers. He didn't look as old as the last time Arthur had seen him, more as he had done in the first memories Arthur had from his childhood. There were still some dark streaks in the man's greying hair, and he stood taller, his back not yet bent with age. But it was Gaius, and Merlin recognised him too and went very still by Arthur's side, trying to reign himself in.

"Benesh," the old man said. "What have you done now? In fact, don't bother telling me, I'm sure I'll read all about that in the morning paper."

"Herr Doktor," Benesh elbowed Merlin, urging him to bow in greeting. "Our friend is wounded, could you..."

"Of course, let's see," said the man without hesitation and went to kneel by the pallet, but Merlin awkwardly lunged forward and grabbed the man in a hug, plastering himself to his chest.

"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled. "I'm just - so grateful that you'll help us. I know it's dangerous for you, I'm sorry."

"This is Merlin and Arthur, they came from England to join the fight," Benesh explained as the old man blinked and delicately tried to extricate himself from Merlin's long arms.

"Ah, Merlin and Arthur, how lovely," said the doctor. "Young man, that's quite enough full-body contact. I thought the British were supposed to be reserved."

He shooed them out of his light and examined the wound, probing the spell-seared skin with quick fingers.

"I told you not to do this, Benesh," he said. "This magic is crude and barbaric."

"He was bleeding..."

"And now he's bleeding internally, and I'll have to open him up again. You promised me you'd learn a better first-aid spell."

"Oh, who has the time," Benesh tried to joke, and wilted under the doctor's glare.

"Get him ready while I scrub up," the old man ordered and shuffled out.

"Don't mind the way he grumbles," Benesh told them while they dragged Gwaine upstairs and into the tidy house, and then into a pristine room with white walls and glass cabinets that didn't look anything like the mysterious clutter of Gaius's chambers the way Arthur remembered them. "Doctor Kai has known my family for ages, he helped deliver me when I was born, we can trust him. He'll help."

They laid Gwaine on the operating table, and Benesh rummaged through the cabinets, gathering supplies.

"We'll need boiled water, honey and the extract of - " said Merlin, and then a young woman hurried into the room, adjusting her nurse's uniform.

"Just use this," Benesh shoved a bottle of carbolic acid at him and stepped forward, surreptitiously smoothing his hair down. "Um. Sorry for waking you up at this hour, Fraulein Hilda. You don't have to – it's really just a flesh wound, I can assist..."

"Don't be silly, Benesh," she said, stifling a yawn. "I can catch up on my beauty sleep when nobody's bleeding to death. You're not hurt, are you? Every time Kai wakes me up at night, I... I worry, you know."

"No, I'm fine," he muttered, fidgeting as if he couldn't think what to do with his hands. "Are you well? You look well. You look very nice."

"Liar," she smiled. "I have pillow creases on my face."

"They... look nice too," Benesh said, blushing brightly and sticking his hand in a nearby flower pot. A tiny golem, about six inches in height, climbed over the rim of the pot and leapt on to the desk, trailing crumbs of rich black soil over the spotless surface. It ran toward the girl, bent its chubby legs and dramatically fell on its knees, then bowed to her deeply, pressing its arms to its small chest.

She laughed, amused and pleased, and only then Arthur recognised her. That was how Hunith had looked when she laughed, joyful and carefree, as if all the years had fallen off her face in an instant and she was a young girl again, just as pretty as she must have been in her twenties.

Hilda and Benesh stared at each other, grinning awkwardly, both flushed and bright-eyed, and Arthur felt like he was intruding on something intensely private, although they weren't even talking. Merlin kept methodically scrubbing dirt and blood off Gwaine's skin, and he was smiling too, the smile that was Hunith's and Balinor's at once.

"This is so strange," he whispered to Arthur. "It's like... I never dreamt I'd get to see them like this."

"I asked you to prepare the room for an operation, not to spray dirt over it," said the doctor from the doorway, sour-faced. Benesh grabbed the golem and stuffed it back into the flower pot, and Hilda rushed to Gwaine's side, tucking stray strands of hair under her cap.

"He's lost a lot of blood, so I won't let you move him," said the doctor. "You're all staying here till he's ready to leave. Benesh, get them settled, you know where the blankets are. Now get out, all of you."

"No, I can help, I'll stay and help," said Merlin, clutching at Gwaine's shoulders. "I used to be apprentice to a physician, I know what to do."

"Leave, he'll be fine, I promise you," said Hilda softly. "You don't want to watch your friend being cut open. He'll need you when he's recovering, so you should rest now."

The filed out of the room; there was nothing to do now but wait. Arthur already felt his muscles cramp with restless anticipation and his stomach flip with worry, and he knew it would be worse for Merlin.

"Well," Arthur said. "I think we might have attracted a bit more attention than we'd planned. We might need to lie low for a while before we make our next move."

"That's just what the enemy would expect," said Merlin. "They already caught up with you once in London, I'm sure they knew we were heading here. If we wait we're just giving them more time to prepare."

"I've been waiting for months while Gilli searched for you," Benesh said. He looked wild and twitchy, as if the short encounter with a pretty girl had left him intoxicated. "He said I didn't have enough power to face the Vril-masters alone. I'm sick of waiting. Let's go right now."

**

Their target, that twist in the magic that Merlin had sensed earlier, was just outside the city, in a small factory in the industrial district. It was meant to be empty at night except for a small security detail, and they still had a few hours before sunrise, when the factory would fill up with workers.

"I have tried to watch it since I found it, but I can't get close enough without fighting the guards. And I didn't want them to tighten up the security before we're ready for a full attack," said Benesh, walking side-by-side with Merlin, their lanky legs easily falling in step. "I think that's where they're making those new weapons, and I think it's probably the only location. I can't sense any shifts in magic anywhere else, at least not nearby. If we destroy this one, it will at least set them back."

"They might be able to rebuild it," Merlin said. "What we really need to do is get to the Vril-masters."

"I know, I know," Benesh sighed. "I've no idea how. But we'll come up with something together. I'm glad you're finally here, I really need your help with this."

"And we're grateful for your help," said Arthur. "It can't possibly be easy for you to take arms against your own country."

They needed friends, and it was tempting to trust this young man wholeheartedly, as Merlin clearly did. But Benesh was a German, and it was never wise to trust a turncoat blindly.

"It's not my country," said Benesh with a grimace. "It hasn't been since they banished me. I might have been born and grown up here, but now I'm just like you: a spy and a saboteur behind enemy lines."

Merlin stumbled and stared at him, and for a moment Arthur was also struck by the coincidence – Merlin's father Balinor had been banished too, it seemed like a pattern really could be repeating itself... But it was probably just that it was in character for Benesh and Balinor to get themselves into trouble.

"You were banished?" Arthur asked anyway. "Why?"

"Why?" Benesh snapped. "Have you been living under a rock for the last two years? Or do you just not give a damn what happens to other people, as long as your little island is safe?"

"I was inside a rock, actually," said Merlin. "And Gilli didn't tell me much, but... Have you been living in hiding for two years? Where do you sleep, when it's not in that cellar? In those stinking tunnels?"

"Different places. It's best to keep moving around," said Benesh, tugging down his sleeves like Merlin did sometimes when he was embarrassed. Arthur had only just noticed how worn Benesh's clothes were, even though he kept them clean with magic. He had a thin scarf tightly wound around his neck, and at first Arthur had thought it endearing, a little sign of Merlin's strange bond with this man. Now he could see Benesh was just trying to keep warm in clothes that were too thin for the season.

"That's terrible," said Merlin. "And – you're so thin – are you eating enough?"


"Oh, shut up," said Benesh, hunching sullenly. He looked even younger when he pouted, every inch a street urchin. "You're not my father."

"No, I'm not," Merlin agreed. "But... it's dangerous for you here. I don't understand why Gilli didn't invite you to stay with him."

"He did. He's known my family for generations, of course he did. When my parents died he wanted me to come to England, and to study magic and work with him. But I can't leave. If we just run, if we don't stand and fight, this will never end. If they complete those flying weapons then England will fall, and then the rest of Europe, and eventually there will be nowhere left for us to run to. I have to stay and do what I can."

"That's commendable," Arthur had to admit, and then, to lighten the mood, tried to joke: "And we both thought you were staying because of the girl."

He thought Benesh would blush and laugh, but instead the man rocked back as if Arthur had punched him.

"No, no, not Hilda, nothing's going on," Benesh said. "We're not, we've never – it's not like that."

"But she likes you," said Merlin. "And you like her, I saw you - "

"So what? It's not like I can marry her! That's illegal!"

"Why?" Arthur asked, and Benesh gave him another angry stare, as if Arthur was at fault for not knowing every odd law and custom of a foreign land.

"Oh, who cares why!" Merlin huffed. "Who cares about marriage at all, it's only a ritual! If you love each other - "

"We can't. If she even touched me, she could be put in prison for years."

"That wouldn't scare her," said Merlin heatedly. "She'd risk that. She's sheltering a French spy right now, tending to his wounds. I'm sure that's more illegal than... whatever the two of you would, um... Get up to."

"That's different, though," Benesh sighed. "Hilda and doctor Kai, they'd never turn away someone in need. Kai says a patient is a patient, if he ever refused to heal someone, no matter who they were, then he's not a doctor at all. But it's one thing to take a risk to save someone's life. I can't put her in danger just so we can be together in sin. She shouldn't be beholden to someone who sleeps in the sewers. She needs a man who'll look after her, who can marry her before God and the people, and I can't even go out for a walk with her. We can't ever be seen together. She needs someone she doesn't have to hide, someone she can be proud of."

"I know she's proud of you," Merlin said quietly. "Shouldn't you let her decide what she needs?"

Benesh turned away with a shrug and walked silently, stomping his scuffed boots on the cobblestones.

"Are you all alone, then?" Merlin asked. "Do you have anyone, apart from Gilli, Kai and Hilda? What about your family, what happened to your parents?"

"Krystallnacht," Benesh said, and when they both looked at him, puzzled, he explained. "They were killed in the riot."

"I'm sorry," Arthur said while Merlin swallowed miserably, probably thinking of how it felt to have Balinor die in his arms. "But you should take solace and pride in how brave they were. They rioted against this – I don't really know what's going on here, but there's obviously a lot of injustice toward Germany's own citizens, and - "

"My parents didn't riot," said Benesh tiredly. "They were minding the shop. The city rioted against them. Have you really not heard? Gilli told me it was in The Times."

"Tell us," Merlin asked. Arthur elbowed him in the side, cautioning him to reconsider, but Merlin solemnly shook his head. "No, Arthur, I need to know this. Benesh, tell us, please."

And he told them, not sparing any details, as they walked out of the city. He seemed to have told this story before – he didn't struggle for words, didn't repeat himself. But whether he'd told it once or a hundred times before it was still fresh and raw in his mind, his anger and pain naked and obvious.

"Stop," Arthur begged soon, but Merlin touched his wrist to silence him and asked Benesh to carry on.

"I'd have been arrested too," Benesh continued. "But that was when I summoned my first golem. My father had never let me try before, he said the old stories warned of the dangers. Of course, right then I didn't care. It wasn't much of a golem, but it helped me escape. Our house was seized by the Government, so I went to hiding. I spent the next three months trying to master the summoning spell, I wanted to rescue everyone who was arrested. It was hard going without a teacher, and Gilli wouldn't help me. Every time I scried with him he said I wasn't ready, it would be suicide, and I should just leave Germany and head for safety. In the end those who survived in the camps were released but exiled from the country. The rest of my family made it to America, but I'm going to stay here, where my parents are buried. I have to fight back. And no, I'm not staying here because of Hilda. In fact, she'd be the only reason I'd ever leave. I'm not an idiot, I know I can't save everyone by myself. But I could ruin her life, and if I left she'd be so much safer..."

Merlin let out a suspicious sniffle, and Arthur wanted to put his arms around him, but was afraid that gentleness would only make it worse right now.

"Aren't you glad you asked?" he said instead.

"I had to know," Merlin answered.




Next

Date: 2011-09-10 08:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] moonriddler-mim.livejournal.com
you weave the actual history of our world so well together with the fiction. well done!

After twenty years of captivity he'd just want to fly about and laze in the sun and complain that he was the last of his kind and wyverns were stupid and clingy and boring to shag.

oh LOL!!! Kilghara.... heeee!

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