[personal profile] new_kate
Men for all Seasons

Masterpost




They flew into the desert before dawn, and watched the sunrise over sands, sky striped in impossibly bright colours, dunes softly blushing under the early morning light. By noon the cockpit was unbearably stuffy, the metal walls painfully hot to the touch. Gwaine landed the plane in a small outcrop of trees; there was barely a shade, but it was better than none. They shared some dry biscuits and water, and then Arthur and Gwaine picked up the foils and went for it.

It'd been a very long time since Arthur had any practice with the light, whip-like blade, and there was no shame in being beaten so thoroughly. Gwaine's technique wasn't suited to real combat and he still favoured his wounded leg, but they played by the rules of the sport, and Arthur could barely score a touch. Gwaine stripped to the waist, and his chest glistened with sweat. Merlin watched them fence intently, sucking on a biscuit in a way that completely ruined Arthur's focus.

"All right," Arthur conceded when it was best eight out of seventeen to Gwaine. "But with a sword or a mace I'd completely destroyed you."

"You keep telling that to yourself."

They flew further, and landed when the sun began to dip down towards the horizon. Gwaine's shoulders were burned red from the hour of frolicking shirtless under the bright sun. Arthur tried not to be gleeful or think of it as divine retribution. Doctor Kai had given him some salve for his burn, which Merlin applied to his hand thrice daily, and he generously shared a dollop with Gwaine. They ate spicy food they'd bought in Casablanca, and drank wine Gwaine brought from Calais. After the sun had set the sudden chill caught them by surprise. They built a small fire from the dry twigs of the nearby trees, and got out the furs they bought back in Germany in preparation for the Antarctic summer.

They rolled together, burrowed under their coats and slept on the ground, like they used to during campaigns when they couldn’t pitch tents. Gwaine still had the same annoying habit of twitching in his sleep, but Arthur had got used to that even before he was king.

He woke up from the chill at his side where Merlin wasn't, and squirmed, trying to disentangle himself from the furs, still half-asleep.

"I'm here," Merlin called. He sat by the remnants of their fire, poking a twig in the embers. He blew on the glowing end of the twig, and sparks flew from it, falling into a Pendragon crest against the black of the night.

"All right?" Arthur whispered.

"Yeah. Just, sometimes when I wake up I can't quite breathe. It passes."

"We should have talked to the doctor about that."

"I have. I had a good talk with him before we left. He said this could happen sometimes, and I shouldn't worry. Joint pains, too."

"That's just old age," Arthur said and poked him with a foot. Merlin grinned and crawled back to lie between him and Gwaine, warming his cold hands between Arthur's thighs.

"I've been thinking about the battle," he said when Gwaine stopped making unhappy sounds from being jostled and started snoring again.

"Yeah?"

"Let's say we had a friend who could help. But I don't think he'd fare well against Vril. And – if he dies, I – I'm not sure what to do."

"That's easy. Keep him in reserve, see how the battle goes and where he'd do best, don't put him against the wrong opponent. Remember that time in Deva, when we had a squad of militia? We didn't send them at the enemy knights, because we knew how that would go. We set up a flank attack..."

"Oh yeah, I remember. That was a good campaign."

"Yes, we did well there."

Merlin moved his warmed hands to cup Arthur's cock, and Arthur pinned him to the sand and kissed his smiling mouth, and watched moonlight sparkle in his eyes.

For the most of next few days they flew over dull, bare sand, and when they reached grassy land Merlin clung to the dome of the cockpit, watching the wildlife below.

Arthur couldn't tell if it was the anticipation of the coming battle, or something that had happened in Berlin, but Merlin seemed different. There was new light in his eyes, as if he was waking up from a long doze, noticing the world around him anew. Arthur tried not to wonder if that would last; watching Merlin smile like this was a joy in itself, a gift.

"That's the ugliest unicorn I'd ever seen," Merlin said. "Oh, oh, Arthur, look at that! Horses with stripes! Bet you'd love one."

"That's zebras," said Arthur and imagined himself astride a garish steed. "No, they're a bit small for me."

"Hah, you're not that tall. Oh, look! That thing, with the neck! That's amazing!"

Just when they started to get used to the heat they reached the ocean, and circled the rocky shoreline till Gwaine found a flat place to land, and then went to the beach for a wash.

"Not a moment to soon," Gwaine said, shedding his clothes on the rocks. "No offence, but you both really smell."

They waded into the waves naked; ocean salt bit at Arthur's healing burn, but it was bearable. Merlin kept getting knocked over by the waves and laughing, splashing in the shallows; his body pale and beautiful, dark hair on his chest slicked by the water, his face, baked by the African sun, speckled with tiny freckles.

Then they dressed, and stood on the shore, looking southward. There was nothing there, just the flat, empty line of the horizon.

"Two and a half thousand miles, give or take," Gwaine said. Salty water had made his hair even more lush and shiny, and it looked spectacular blowing behind him in the ocean breeze. "Can you really do this, Merlin?"

"Oh, sure," said Merlin and threw a rock into the ocean, skimming it toward the unseen distant shore. "Easy."

**



The flight over the ocean was endless. Once they left the African shore behind there was nothing to mark their progress against, just the monotonous patterns of waves and more waves. Even the sun was hanging in the same position low above the horizon and wouldn't go down, as if time had stopped altogether and they weren't moving at all, would always be stuck there, suspended between water and sky. It'd been growing steadily colder, and that was the only sign that they were getting closer.

Then there were icebergs, small islands of white among the grey-blue, a welcome sight after thousands of miles of nothing. The first ones they saw were flat at the top, barely rising above the waves, and then there were more and more, tall and fantastically shaped, like a fleet of ships spreading into the ocean, to venture north and slowly melt into the warm waves. They saw a whale flip its giant tail between the mounds of ice, and then a few dark specks moving on one of the icebergs, recklessly diving off its sides, some smaller creatures Arthur didn't recognise.

And then, finally, there was Antarctica. The shoreline had sprung up upon them unexpectedly, and was approaching fast, taking shape. It was a startling white and blue, with taller mountains tinted golden pink further in the distance.

"Arthur, look," Merlin said. "The mountains! They're floating!"

Far, far away the tallest peaks seemed to hover above the rest of the continent, like something from a fairytale: white castles in the sky, crafted by a thought of a magician, held up by nothing but will and wonder.

"That's a mirage," Arthur said. "We saw it over the desert."

"Don't spoil it with your – dollopheadednes! Just look how beautiful it is. I thought it would be the arse end of the world, and it's just so..."

"Yes, all right," Arthur agreed and watched the mountains with him, pressing against his side, and scratched the glass clean when it started to ice on the inside.

At the coast they were hit by a strong sidewind. The hull of the plane groaned, fighting against it, but they got through. They landed close to the shore, on the first flat patch of snow Gwaine could find. He climbed out of the cabin, blue-lipped, shaking, trying to flex his fingers.

"Should have dressed in Africa, what was I thinking," he stuttered while they wrapped him in his coat.

The sun hadn't set, it still hovered over the icy ocean uncertainly, but it must have been close to midnight. Merlin stretched a small bubble of warmth under the plane and they huddled there, watching the film of magic flutter in the cold wind, and then they slept.

When Arthur opened his eyes again Gwaine was awake, sipping from a flask and rubbing his leg.

"The cold can't be good for the wound," Arthur said compassionately, and Gwaine shared with him his breakfast of neat scotch. The sun was still up, on the other side of the sky now. Merlin was at the edge of the water, surrounded by a flock of strange clumsy birds, and he seemed to be communing with them, flapping his arms in the same way as they flapped their stubby wings.

"He said we're very close," Gwaine said. "An hour's flight at most."

**

It took even less than that – they had barely gained altitude when Gwaine suddenly threw the plane into a nauseating loop, flew back, low above the jagged ice peaks, and dropped down in a painful, abrupt landing behind a small mountain ridge.

They climbed up it, and crawled the last few feet to the summit on their bellies. Gwaine found the target with his field binoculars, then passed them around.

It was a black dot in the distance, stark against the white. Through the binoculars it could be seen to be a squat building several stories high. Arthur could see a few men patrolling outside, wrapped in thick furs, and above the building two familiar spheric shapes were moving, dancing idly in the air, circling the roof, diving and rising again.

"It's smaller that I expected," Arthur said. "Smaller even than that factory in Berlin."

"I think it's mostly below ground," Merlin said. He turned around to lie on his back and stared at the sky for a while, thinking, or listening to the distant pulse of Vril.

"Gwaine," he said. "Could you fly from here without magic?"

"Probably. The tanks are still mostly full, and we have all the extra fuel I brought. We could just about get to Argentina, if we refuel at the end of the peninsular. We might have to crash land and ditch the plane at the shore, but I don't mind doing that. Why? Is this in case you're wounded?"

"No. I want you to fly there now, without us."

Gwaine leaned back and stared at Merlin coolly.

"Well, that's obviously not going to happen," he said.

"Gwaine, I need you to go. If we lose here, nobody would know what we'd discovered. Someone has to tell everyone."

"I thought you could talk to sorcerers all around the world. Can't you send them a message?"

"No, not from here, it's too far," Merlin said and blinked earnestly, staring Gwaine straight in the face.

In hindsight Arthur had often wondered how Merlin had managed to keep his magic secret for so long, because he was, in fact, an incredibly poor liar. He had many tell tale signs. When he lied his voice changed, his eyes widened, and Arthur knew that under the hood of his coat his ears would be flushed at the tips. He could always tell when Merlin was lying, as long as he wasn't lying to him.

"He's right, Gwaine, you have to go," Arthur said. "You need to bring this intelligence back. I'm sure we'll win, we have the sword and the element of surprise, but if we don't finish the job we'll need an army to mop this up."

"Benesh knows where we went - "

"Benesh has a paper from a German archive, and conjecture. That's not going to be enough to order a military strike at a time like this, with defences already stretched thin. You have the proof now. You've seen it with your own eyes, you have the location."

Gwaine shifted away from the top of the ridge, dug a cigarette case from under his coat and lit up, clumsily grasping the thin paper stick with his gloved fingers.

"I suppose I see your point," he said. "Okay, I'm going to stay here, with the plane, and if you don't make it back..."

"We can't risk it. For all we know the saucers might patrol the area, and if they spot you, the intelligence would be lost. You have to go now, while you can."

"How the hell are you going to get back without me?"

"We will," said Merlin with a smile. "Once I don't have to worry about alerting the enemy, I can do a lot of things. We'll probably be in London before you."

They argued till they were too cold to lay on the icy rocks, and then they climbed down the mountain and argued some more, pacing around the plane. Arthur knew Gwaine wasn't going to change Merlin's mind, and was probably protesting just to drag out the good-bye.

Together they pushed the plane on to a flat stretch of snow long enough for take off, and Arthur took his glove off to shake Gwaine's hand properly. Gwaine yanked him into a hug and slapped him on the back, and then did the same to Merlin. Merlin wouldn't let go, silently clinging to him, and Gwaine kept patting his back, hard, as if he was determined to make the farewell as manly as possible.

Finally it was over with, and they watched the plane speed away over the snow and take off sharply, and then it was gone, lost in the blinding whiteness.

"You have already contacted Gilli, haven't you?" Arthur asked.

"Yes, we spoke this morning, before I went to look at the penguins," said Merlin nonchalantly. "I could sense then exactly where this place was, and thought I had better let him know."

"Good, it's good that he knows. I'm sure Gwaine will make it. But just in case he gets drunk in Argentina and forgets about his mission."

It was a several mile walk to the base. They picked their way through the icy cliffs and headed down into the valley, walking unhurriedly, saving their strength. It was about as cold as the bitterest winter Camelot had ever seen, but the sun was shining and there wasn't much of a breeze, and the biting chill was bracing, pleasant, making Arthur's face tingle, and icy air burned dry and crisp inside his lungs.

After a couple of miles Merlin started shivering and pulled a bubble of warmth around them, and then took off his mittens and pushed back the fur-trimmed hood of his coat to rub at his ears.

"Almost there," said Arthur reassuringly, squinting happily at the bright, bright sun in the clear skies. "Merlin, if I die..."

"You're not going to die. I told you, there will be no more of that."

"Well, if I do – ," he stopped and squeezed Merlin's shoulder through the thick fur. "The war isn't over, far from it. I'll probably just pop right back in Wales."

He wanted to ask Merlin not to grieve, not to be upset at all, and leave his body where it would fall. He didn't need to be laid to rest, because he wasn't planning to rest, he was coming back. But the heartfelt words didn't sound right in his head, and Arthur gave up on that and fell back on what he did best: commands and insults.

"So I want you to head straight back to England and meet me in London. And don't keep me waiting. No dawdling, no playing with penguins, no stopping over in Africa to get me a riding zebra. That's an order, do you understand?"

"Yes, Sire," Merlin smiled, and Arthur wanted to pull him closer and kiss him, but it never seemed right before battle. Even if they didn't have an army standing at their back, watching and waiting for a command, it still didn't feel appropriate.

He gave Merlin a firm pat on the shoulder, straightened his scarf and pulled his hood back up, and they kept going.

Closer to the compound Merlin made a little snow blizzard to wrap around them and cover their approach. Arthur kept an eye on two saucers in the sky, but the men patrolling the building noticed them first.

Gwaine had left Arthur his handgun and all the ammo he'd brought, and Arthur started shooting as soon as he saw them reach for their machine guns. Two of them fell and the rest rushed to the low fence around the building to take cover, firing as they ran. Merlin deflected the shots with a wave of his hand and pushed the men back into the open, under Arthur's bullets.

The saucers stopped and dived at them, both at once. They were bigger than the one they had seen before with a flared disk in the middle which did make them look like laden, chunky plates. Rays of Vril laced the ground around their feet, leaving deep gouges in the ice. Merlin grunted and threw one of the saucers down, making it crash into the snow yards away from them. A pillar of white shot up, showering Arthur with dry scratchy flakes, and he thrust Excalibur into the middle of that, blindly, hoping the magic of the sword would do the trick.

Next moment he was flying backwards, Merlin's hand bruising his arm in a hard grip. They were both wrapped in a shield of magic, blown back by the power of the blast. He saw a deep crater where the exploded saucer had been, and the other saucer striping the sky with rays, aiming at them; then they hit the ground and he couldn't see anything for a moment, his breath knocked out of him, his face caked in snow. He still held the sword, and he tightened his cold fingers on the hilt.

More soldiers ran out of the building while they struggled to get up. A volley of bullets whistled past them, and Arthur tried to push Merlin down, but he was already pulling at the second saucer, fighting against its will. A wave of Vril came down on them, and Arthur put up his blade, hoping to deflect it. It worked - the rays changed direction, clipped one of the soldiers and made the others halt their fire and back off. The saucer hovered in the air, resisting Merlin's power; Arthur gripped his sword like a dart and threw it up, praying he wasn't going to lose their only reliable weapon.

It hit the target, and this time he got to see it. The saucer flashed dark blue all over, and then something spun out of its middle, ripping through the metal casing like paper. Merlin's shield slammed into it just as it exploded, and pushed the blast from them, toward the enemy soldiers. Arthur noticed he had his eyes closed, because he was trying to look away, too.

They walked over to the crater; Excalibur was safe, untarnished. The hilt and blade were warm, and it hurt Arthur's chilled hands to touch them.

The blood looked very bright on white ground, but it was already freezing, seeping into the snow crystals, turning pale pink.

"Not that I don't love my magic sword," said Arthur. "But, think about it, Merlin, how much handier would a magic crossbow be right now?"

"There's no pleasing you," Merlin said, and tried to smile with blue shaking lips.

Someone opened fire at them from above, from the windows of the building, and two more saucers rose in the air. They ran to the building, under the cover of its walls, to the entrance. Merlin muttered a spell and stroked the door, feeling for the lock. The spell wouldn't work; he bared his teeth and slammed both hands into the thick metal, and it crumpled under his palms as if he had punched a sheet of paper.

"They'll be waiting for us inside," Arthur whispered. "Ready?"

Merlin pulled his mittens off with his teeth, rubbed his hands together and nodded.

Arthur took position by the edge of the door frame, ripped the ruined door off the hinges and ducked away. A spell rolled past him: a displacement of air, and a nearly tangible deadly intent that always made a primal part of him cringe and shiver even as he chanted to himself that it was Merlin, Merlin. Then he grabbed Merlin by the scruff of his neck and yanked him out of the doorway.

Merlin chose fire, because he was cold, maybe. It was always effective, but Arthur wished he's gone for something that killed cleaner.

The shooting halted after a few rounds, drowned by the screams. A few soldiers pushed outside and tried to roll on the packed snow to beat down the flames. Arthur shot them to stop the pain.

When it was over they went in, carefully breathing through their mouths. Arthur took a machine gun from the hands of a corpse and rifled through the bodies to gather ammo.

Then another wave of the guards was on them. Arthur had never used a machine gun before, and for one terrifying moment he couldn't master the recoil, was spraying bullets everywhere. Merlin covered with a burst of lighting that took out a few lights along the narrow corridor and fanned out into the wider space beyond, doing enough damage by the sound of it.

"Right, I have it, let's push on," Arthur said, and they ran into the belly of the base, head on, wrapped in magic.

It was a maze of corridors and huge cavernous rooms. He could only spare a moment's glance at the surroundings – he saw squat metalworking machines like in that factory in Berlin, and in other rooms huge white panels covered in knobs, levers and dials. When they dropped a few floors down there were several rooms full of smaller saucers, stacked up along the walls to the ceiling, dark and dead, waiting to be filled with Vril.

The soldiers kept coming. Arthur shot at them in short bursts to better control his aim, only stopping to pick up more ammo. Merlin seemed to know the way, and he kept them shielded from bullets, and Arthur tried not to think of this as a slaughter.

He shrugged off his heavy furs when he started sweating, and then regretted it. Every skirmish ended up at close range, and now their blood landed on his hands, the sleeves of his leather coat. The pulse of Vril was everywhere, pervasive like air pressure, like a constant hum inside his skull. As they rounded a corner three fist-sized saucers whirred at them, and Arthur dropped the gun to slash them with the sword.

There wasn't enough space for manoeuvre in the narrow corridor; Merlin managed to shield him from the blast, but got clipped himself. He was pushed to a far wall; when he stood up again his chin was bleeding freely, a whole chunk of skin taken clear off.

"Stay sharp, dammit," said Arthur and tore a piece of cloth out of his tunic to staunch the bleeding. He held it to Merlin's face, pressing down hard. Merlin skin was oddly cold, and he was so pale that the shadows under his eyes looked green.

"Arthur, it's just a scratch," he said. "We're here, it's down that passage."

Two soldiers were guarding the door, clutching their guns in a nervous grip. They must have heard the alarm, the shots and the screams, but have probably been ordered to keep to their posts. They stared at Arthur's blood-spattered clothes, and then at the crackling ball of magic in Merlin's hand.

"Run," Merlin advised.

One of them dropped his gun and bolted; the other stood his ground and opened fire, and Arthur made sure he died quickly.

Behind the door there was a small room, furnished as a make-shift bedroom and a study. On a folding table in the middle was a chunk of crystal, floating inches above the surface, wrapped in ripples of magic. A thin pillar of bright blue-white light shone from the crystal downwards, through a hole in the table, and disappeared into a hole in the floor.

This is how Vril is made, Arthur thought to himself. It looked too mundane, yet impossible to understand. So he didn't try, instead focusing on the Vril-master.

A woman stood by the table with her hand on the crystal. Her fingers moved softly in the glow of magic, weaving it into new shapes. She wore an officer's uniform: trousers, high boots, heavy jacket that drowned her small form. Her fair hair was tucked neatly under the hat, exposing old scars on her forehead, and her eyes were cold, unsurprised.

"I'm glad you made it," she said. "Always nice to see a familiar face."

**

"Morgause," Arthur said. "You – how – why? You can't be – why are you working for them?"

She sighed, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, Arthur. The Fuhrer is just another Cenred. A little man with a little kingdom and big ambitions. His usefulness is running out, but he still has a few years left - "

Arthur pulled the trigger and sent a long round of bullets through her middle.

The bullets disappeared, fizzling out inches away from her chest. She moved her fingers, and the air around her shimmered, laced with thin tendrils of Vril. Most stayed wrapped tightly against her, holding her in a protective cage, but some twitched and stretched threateningly in Arthur's direction.

"Right," said Arthur and dropped the useless weapon - partly to mollify her, mostly to keep his hands free for his sword.

"A crystal from the cave," Merlin said, nodding at the table. "Is that what you're using as a centre? Clever."

"The heart of a dragon would also have worked," she said with a broad smile. "It's quite easy to do here. The rotation of the Earth creates a nice momentum."

"Why are you doing this," Merlin asked. "Morgause, why are you still doing this?"

"What else is there, Merlin?" she shrugged. "It's this or being stepped on. Pushed aside, cast away, forgotten. There's this, and then there's oblivion."

Her expression was stony, dead, and she still looked beautiful despite the scars, but something ugly was lurking in her dark eyes, some deep, old pain, tinged by manic excitement.

"There's more," Merlin said. "There's life."

She laughed, too loudly, startling them.

"You brought your little king," she said. "Your bad penny. Does he make you feel alive? Does he make you feel like you matter?"

"Yes," said Merlin softly. "He does. Have you been alone all this time? Did you forget how it felt?"

"Don't you dare," she hissed. "The two of you took everything away from me. Everything that was mine, you took it and you ruined it all. And now you came here to insult me. Don't you dare."

Vril quickened around her again, but she still wasn't attacking, and Arthur couldn't understand why.

"So what will you do?" Merlin asked her. "What is the plan? Rule the world?"

"Rule it. Burn it. I've not decided yet."

"Do you think it will bring you peace?"

She pursed her lips, frowned. Her hand on the crystal became restless.

"So you don't care about the war, about the people who'll die," Merlin said. "What about the magic? You know it's wrong, what you're doing. It's violence. Magic is what we are; you can't force it like this."

"Poor Merlin. You don't know, do you? While you slept, people broke into the fabric of the world. They reached deeper than magic, into the very forces that hold matter together. And you know what they'll do with this knowledge. They always do the same thing. They'll make weapons. In a few years my ball lightnings will be obsolete. In a decade men will be able to burn the world to ashes all by themselves. This is the dusk of the magicians, Merlin, these are our last days, the last time we'll ever matter. After this we'll wither in the shadows. Even you."

"You could just stop," Merlin said pleadingly. "If you just stop, I'll let you go."

Arthur kept silent. He wasn't going to promise her mercy.

"There's no stopping this," she said. "You've destroyed some of my creations. I don't know how, but you did. You saw what happened, you felt it. When Vril unravels, all the magic that went into making it bursts free. It's angry, and it rages blindly, and it will destroy all it touches. I've been working on this for a long time. We're standing above a sea of Vril, the ground beneath us is filled with it. If you break my hold on it, the freed magic will rend this building apart. Half a continent will be swallowed by a maelstrom of magic, and it will tear us to pieces. It will overpower us, break our shields, and consume us alive. Not just our bodies, Merlin. All of us. The very magic that holds you together, every bit of it, in your skin, blood and bones, it will all be ripped from you. It will be sucked into a whirlpool of wild power, and it will scatter over the snow, seep to the core of the earth, spin out into the leylines, and it will be all gone. Everything that was you – all will be gone."

They looked into each other's eyes, caught in some distressingly private moment. Merlin didn't seem surprised by her words, or even a little worried.

"Is that why you're here?" she asked. There was an wistful undertone to her voice, like she was making some kind of filthy, secret promise. "Is that what you want? Merlin, do you want me to bring you peace?"

"No," Merlin said. "Thanks. I'll be fine."

"Merlin," Arthur called. His palms were sweating, and he wiped them dry to have a sure grip on the sword. "Is this - "

"No, she lies," Merlin said lightly. "She always lies. Do it."

He threw up his hand and his power slammed into the Vril. The air boiled where they touched. Morgause stumbled back a step, and Arthur drew Excalibur and thrust it into the crystal.

It shattered, and the bright pillar disappeared. For one heartbeat nothing happened, and Arthur believed that would be that: they'd done it, they'd won, and now he could kill Morgause and take Merlin home.

And then the building started to shake. The first tremor threw them to the floor; Morgause laughed and gracefully rolled back to her feet.

"So this is how it ends," she said.

She shrugged off her jacket, and stood before them in a thin white shirt, her eyes glowing bright red. She spread her hands and conjured fire, and then stopped. He lips shook and she let the flames die between her fingers.

"Sister," she said.

Morgana was in the room with them. She stood between Arthur and Merlin, wearing her old green dress and emeralds in her hair, and she wasn't looking at either of them. Merlin made a pained sound and reached for her, and she moved, easily avoiding his hands, and walked to Morgause.

They hugged tightly; Morgana was real, not a spectre, not a vision. Morgause clung to her, clutching Morgana's shoulders with her small hands.

"Come with me," Morgana said, stroking her hair. "It's time. We'll walk through the mist together, and there will be no more pain. No more darkness. I promise you, there'll be only love."

Another tremor came from below; the floor cracked open and a white stream of light spat out. Merlin conjured a shield against it. The building shook again, harder, and Arthur grabbed for the wall to stay upright. When he looked up again Morgause and Morgana were gone, and just the two of them were left in the room.

The crack in the floor was still releasing waves of angry force, and it had already bored through the ceiling. Merlin's hand was bleeding. He cradled it to his chest, under his coat, staining his shirt.

"Did magic do this?" Arthur asked, and saw Merlin's terrified eyes, and knew. "She didn't lie. Damn, Merlin! Can this really kill you? What do we do?"

"We need to get out of here," Merlin said. "We need to get to the roof."

**

The door to the roof was padlocked, and Arthur wasted the last of his bullets shooting the lock off. The door flew open, blown in by a gust of icy wind, and they pushed on to the roof, struggling to pull freezing air into their lungs. 

Everything was white. The whirlwind of magic raged all around the building, throwing up masses of snow. It was a blizzard, pierced through by bright lightning; every faceful of snow felt like a brush of sharp claws. 

Merlin threw his head back and yelled a spell. Arthur held him, steadying him against the wind, and waited. 

"Nothing's happening!" he shouted over the howl of the wind. The sun was hidden behind the mess of magic and snow, and it was so cold he could already barely move his lips. "It's still - "

"I can't stop it! I - " Merlin started, and then his throat seized from the cold and he choked, struggling to breathe. 

Arthur pulled him to a sheltered spot near a vent and wedged them both against some pipes. When he touched the metal of the roof his hand stuck to it. He yanked it free and it left a red smear on the roof, but it hadn't hurt at all, and the wound didn't even bleed. Around the pale red of the torn skin his hand was startling, chalky white. 

The building was falling apart, shuddering under them with loud metallic groans. Merlin put up his bubble of warmth around them, but he couldn't make it hold for more than a few moments. He tried again and again, and each time it was torn away by the angry swirls of wild magic. Merlin's teeth were rattling, and he could no longer push spells through his numb lips, but he kept trying.

"Don't bother," Arthur said after a while.

"C-cold, it hurts," Merlin protested. His lips looked raw, sluggishly seeping blood.

"It won't in a moment," Arthur said, woozy and sleepy. He felt no pain already. He was getting warmer by the second; it was pleasant.

Something big gave underneath them and the building sagged sideways. There was a series of explosions just below ground level; the roof snapped, splitting down a long crack just a few feet from them, and a white torrent of magic spat out of it toward the sky. It burned Arthur's skin and he turned his face away, hiding it against the folds of Merlin's coat. Merlin's hair was iced in white at the ends, and he'd stopped shivering.

"This is it, I guess," Arthur whispered. "I want you to do something for me."

"What, now?" managed Merlin indignantly. 

"Take me with you. I don't want to carry on. I've done enough, I think. I don't want to come back if you're not here."

He didn't know if Merlin could break the cycle of his reincarnation, but it was a nice thought. They could pass into the afterlife together. Or, like the others, they could be born anew, different and fresh. Even if Arthur didn't remember Merlin, they'd meet again, somehow. He knew that much.

"I told you," Merlin muttered. It was barely a sound, badly slurred. "No. More. Dying."

Arthur laughed and looked up, to rest his eyes on the white empty chaos. But there was something there, high above them, beyond the mess of snow and magic. Something dark was moving through the sky, trying to descend, looping through the air when it was pushed back by the swirling currents.

"Look. I think one of them got away," he said. "Merlin, can you - "

Merlin shifted against him and lifted an arm, and at the same time a pillar of fire shot down from the flying thing above them, cutting a clear path through the magical storm. Arthur pressed against Merlin, trying to shield their faces, but the fire stopped inches away from them, held back by a golden film of Merlin's spell. The warmth felt alien and wrong, and made him cry out in pain.

The shield broke at the same time as the fire died down, and Merlin dropped his arm and sagged against Arthur's side. The thing in the sky dived into the steaming tunnel left by the fire and rushed at them. 

It was a dragon, Arthur realised through the fog in his head, a dragon, flying down at them with its wings folded and its claws outstretched. It could be the same dragon, except he'd dealt a mortal wound to that one. Merlin had told him he had.

He reached to draw his sword, but couldn't grasp the handle. His fingers wouldn't bend; he couldn't feel his hands at all, couldn't even tell if he had fingers. His arms and legs were dead weights, useless. He pushed to his feet to meet the beast head on, and toppled straight over, sprawling on the roof face-down, defenceless. The dragon was on them already; its claws closed around Arthur's middle, gently, carefully.

**

Arthur was lying on dry warm ground, and thick dust felt soft against his sore skin. He couldn't move, even when he gathered enough strength to try. From the way his face hurt he suspected the numbness of his limbs was a blessing.

Merlin was curled on his side nearby, his arms listlessly stretched in front of him. Every bare inch of skin was covered in bloody blisters, but his eyes were open. The dragon stood over him, crouched on all fours, enormous and scaly. Its fanged maw hovered close to Merlin's limp body, and Merlin seemed unafraid.

"I didn't think you'd make it," Merlin said.

"I've been waiting in New Zealand since you'd landed in Antarctica," said the dragon. Its voice reverberated around them, made even stranger by a ghostly whisper that curled under each sound. "When I'd sensed where you were going, I knew you'd need me. I was on my way before I heard you."

"Thanks," said Merlin weakly.

"You should have called me sooner. You should have asked for my counsel. That was reckless, young warlock."

"Sorry," said Merlin and awkwardly craned his neck to look at his hands. "My fingers are black. That's not good, right?"

"I can heal that," said the dragon gruffly and bowed its head, and exhaled. The air around Merlin shuddered, as if boiling.

Merlin groaned and pulled his hands to his chest, and carefully flexed his fingers.

"Help Arthur," he said. "Please."

The dragon walked a step to the side, sending a soft shudder through the ground, and stared down at Arthur. 

"I thought I killed you," Arthur said, and the dragon opened its mouth and smiled. Its breath smelled like a dog's, but with a touch of brimstone.

**

Next time Arthur opened his eyes they were in a different place. The sky above them was high and clear, the kind of blue that was too blue to exist in reality. 

The ground was almost bare, sun-scorched. There was a thin forest of unfamiliar trees not far away, and a glimmer of the ocean in the distance. Arthur was laid out in the shadow of a small bush, with Merlin's coat pillowed under his head. The dragon stretched on the ground nearby, half on its side, its hind paws sprawled wide and its belly exposed to the sun. Merlin sat by the dragon's head, talking to him excitedly. The dragon listened with a toothy grin, and sometimes let out a booming chuckle.

Arthur got up, checking himself for injuries. Everything seemed to be functioning, though he could do with another ten hours or so of solid rest. Merlin smiled at him, touched a gentle hand to the dragon's muzzle and beckoned Arthur to the small stream nearby.

He stretched a hand over water, pulled a few pints of it into the air and made it roll into muddy-looking ball. He made it swirl, shedding dry dust back into the stream, till the water was clear and sparkling under the bright sun.

"Nothing to drink from," he said. Arthur cupped his hands and dipped them into the cold spinning ball to fill them. The water tasted of Merlin's magic, sharp and crisp, and he drank till he was so full he could barely stand upright.

"Couldn't find any food," said Merlin, tugging him back into the shade. "There are bears in that forest, but they're tiny and they just nap on the trees..."

"I'm not desperate yet," said Arthur and lightly kissed Merlin's chapped lips, tasting metallic tang of blood.

Merlin had a lot of explaining to do, but that could wait. Arthur obviously hadn't killed the dragon, and he hoped he'd at least damaged it severely. That battle was known as one of his greatest feats, and he wasn't ready to let it go.

"That was a good quest!" Merlin said brightly. "Travels, and penguins, and golems, and all the people we'd met..."

"Wasn't half bad," Arthur agreed. "The war isn't over, though."

"No," said Merlin. "We can win it. But it will still probably take years. It's going to get worse before it gets better, but we'll do it."

"Morgause said something about the dusk of the magicians..."

"Oh, well," Merlin shrugged. "Maybe we won't matter as much as we used to. Maybe we'll never be able to change the world by ourselves. But we'll still be able to help out. The world is okay, really. We just need to keep it safe. We should head back home now. Kilgarrah doesn't want to fly us over, he says he's not a horse and I'm just taking advantage, but we're probably too heavy to carry that far over the ocean. He's getting on a bit, I think."

"I thought dragons didn't age past adulthood."

"They can still get lazy and cranky. We'll take a boat, he said he'd lend me the money."

"He has money?"

"Well, treasure. He has hoards, he likes shiny things."

Arthur glanced over at the dragon. It smirked back at him and rolled on to its belly; its claws scraped deep gouges in the ground, tearing up bunches of dry grass.

Merlin squinted at the sky, smiling broadly.

"Feels so good," he said. "Just being alive, you know? Everything looks so beautiful. All the colours are bright, even the air tastes great. It's like I've been waking up, remembering who I am. Who we are. If I start moping again, remind this of this day, okay?"

"There will be even better days," Arthur said.

"Yeah. We're together, and you're not going to die anymore. We'll have a whole new lifetime. We'll make new friends, see new places. Hey, after the war is over, we should go travelling. Just laze about, swim, eat lots of foreign food..."

"Let's not talk about food right now," Arthur said. His stomach rumbled needily, though it wasn't too bad yet, as long as he didn't think about it. Merlin's skin was still marred with healing bruises, but he looked strong. Happy.

"They have private cabins on those big boats," he told Merlin. "The journey will be long, so we'll have plenty of time to catch up on everything." 

Merlin grinned and leaned closer to kiss him. The dragon tactfully turned away.

"Let's go then," Merlin said. "Wait, I'm going to try to talk Kilgarrah into letting you ride him, you'll love it." 

He got up and ran over to the dragon, light on his feet. Arthur tipped his face up, to the bright sun, and thought about the mists, and Avalon, and his destiny.

"Sorry," he said quietly. "Whatever my fate is, it will have to wait. I'm needed here. Can't just leave him to wander the world alone. Looks like I might be a while."



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