new_kate ([personal profile] new_kate) wrote2010-09-24 03:01 pm

Arcane Asylum 15/16

Title: Arcane Asylum
Fandom: Merlin BBC
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin and a bunch of less true pairings mentioned in the flashbacks.
Rating: NC-17
Warnings for this part: smut! Highlight to read spoiler warning: sort of temporary character death but not really
Summary: Modern AU. For the last twenty two years Uther Pendragon had been waging war on magic. Now his son Arthur has been framed for a magical crime and sent to the prison for magic users. Arthur is instantly targeted by the inmates, but mysterious top dog Merlin takes him under his wing. They form a bond, and Merlin decides to help Arthur clear his name.
Originally written for this prompt at [ profile] kinkme_merlin
Many thanks to [ profile] devikun and [ profile] ghost_guessed for betaing!
Word count: 9K for this part.

First part
Chapter index

Part 15: Power to be Powerful

Merlin was inside the tree.

Arthur stared at it, unable to comprehend how he could be awake and yet in the middle of an Alien-esque nightmare. Merlin was naked. His clothes were right there, on the ground, carelessly discarded between the tree roots. He was submerged deep into the trunk of the great oak, as though he was drowning in solid wood. Two thirds of his body was below the surface; his face was clear, calm and still. The bark was spreading over his skin in uneven waves, growing over him, trying to engulf the rest of his body.

He was alive. Arthur could see that he was breathing. On every inhale his chest brushed against the line of bark that was curling over his breastbone. He could even see slight red marks on Merlin's skin where the wood pressed too tight.

"Let him go," Arthur said. "It's me you want."

"Not really," said Nimueh. "You're of little consequence. I only wanted your father to suffer as I did when he tormented my family."

"You killed my mother," he said. "We can never be even, no matter how much we hurt each other. We'll only have more to avenge."

He’d wanted her dead since he was a little boy, and now that he saw her he was terrified of her. He could feel angry power rolling off her in ragged pulses, and he knew she could literally turn him inside out with one twitch of her finger.

He took an unsteady step toward her. Lake water was dripping off him, streaming from his hair and down his cheeks like tears. He wiped his face with his wet sleeve, making it even worse.

"Please," he said. "Don't kill him."

"I couldn't kill him even if he let me," she said. "He's only asleep. He's not in pain, he's at peace."

She touched her hand to the edge of the bark and it moved, stretched half an inch further, curling over Merlin's bony shoulder.

"He offered this freely, he wanted to do this," she said, not looking at Arthur, as if she was talking to herself. "All his power, his great destiny, and he offered to throw it all away for a child of our enemy. He's too soft for this war. We can't rely on him to do what's right, and he's too powerful and stubborn to be controlled. We're better off without him. And it's better for him, too. It's a mercy to let him rest here, to be one with the green, forever free from his burden."

"No," Arthur said. "That's not what he wants."

"Go home, Arthur," she said, placing her hands on the oak again. "The bargain has been struck, and both sides have fulfilled their obligations. Emrys let me bind him, and I've released you from the spell. You will no longer be pursued by your father's laws. I swore to Emrys I won't harm you again. You're safe now. Return to your life and forget any of this ever happened."

"I won't forget," he said, and she shook her head bitterly.

"You are your father's son."

"No, listen. I'll go home, and I'm going to persuade my father to stop the war. Starting with the Anti-Magic Acts, we're going to roll back all the legislation against your people, and we're going to work out how we can live together in peace."

She laughed, barely listening.

"I know exactly what to do," he pressed on, talking fast. "If he doesn't listen, I'll go to the opposition. They're dedicated to civil rights, and they just might win the next election if they play it right. Working the magic angle can give them the push they need. But this is the last resort, because if the government changes, there will be an inquiry that will bury my father. He might be branded a war criminal. I don't want that. So I don't promise you justice, and I don't promise an amnesty for people like Muirden or you. But I promise I won't stop till I die or things change for the better."

"And in return?" she asked, looking bored.

"Nothing. This needs to be done. I don't want civil war in my country, and I want laws we can believe in, and I don't want my people to suffer. If you keep Merlin in this tree, I'm still doing it. But with him out there we'll get results a lot faster and more easily. I need him."

He needed Merlin desperately, he’d only just truly realised that: to stay sane through all of this, not to turn into his father. He couldn't imagine happiness without Merlin's smile, but that wasn't what Nimueh needed to hear. She stared at him, mildly curious, as if he was an amusing insect. But at least she was listening, and he continued.

"Nimueh, when I say faster and easier results, I'm not talking about man-hours and budgets. It's human lives. It's years of people's childhoods. We have to do it fast, and we need a truce. We need the magic community to meet us half-way on everything, and we need a leader your people can trust."

"And you think that's him," she snorted.

"Obviously! He's Emrys! We're just from the Wales headquarters, and they adore him there. I had to beat his groupies off with a stick. Laudine thinks he's the future. He's turned the men's prison into a sanctuary, and they don't sneeze without his say so. Why do you think I'm still alive? And they love him, too. Aglain supports him, Tauren listens to him, I think Muirden still carries a torch for him. Aulfric just sent his psycho daughter to kiss Merlin's ring. I heard some old ones don't like him, and I don't know how many of them there are, except you. We've met Cornelius, and Merlin ripped his incorporeal arse to shreds, so that's minus one. But everyone else..."

"Are you saying," she said slowly, her face lighting up as if all his words just started to get through to her. "That Emrys has the fealty of all my people?"


She turned to the tree and looked into Merlin's still face.

"I guess we do have a use for you," she said and sharply waved her hand, uttering a spell.

The tree trunk split wide, as if struck by lightning, and Merlin's limp body tumbled out onto the tangled roots. Arthur lunged forward to catch him; Merlin was warm against his own chilled skin, and he was already stirring, struggling to open his eyes.

Nimueh knelt next to them and touched her fingers to Merlin's naked knee.

"Emrys," she said. "I pledge myself and mine to you. You have our loyalty."

And a second later, while he rubbed Merlin's hands, trying to wake him up, she was gone.

Merlin finally blinked awake and looked up at him.

"You look the same," he slurred, still out of it. "You're so beautiful, I almost forgot. Why haven't you aged? How long was I in there?"

"Couple of hours," Arthur said, and Merlin jerked out of his arms, trying to get up.

"What have you done," he muttered. "We had a deal..."

"Deal stands," Arthur said and cradled Merlin against his chest again. "She undid the spell, you let her stick you in a shrubbery. Then she freed you, it's a different story altogether."

"Why did she?"

"I asked her to."

"Arthur," said Merlin and grabbed his shoulder, digging his fingers in. "Tell me what you paid for this."

"Nothing! I simply told her that you're awesome. Hyped it up, obviously. And that the world is a better, much funnier place with you in it."

Merlin took a stunned breath, shaking his head.

"Hang on," he said. "She was here, right? I thought I heard... Did she just pledge loyalty to me?"

"Yeah. I think hers and all her friends'. I told her you have fealty of all your people, I guess she didn't want to feel left out."

Merlin groaned and pressed his forehead to Arthur's wet shirt.

"So I'm like the king of all the magic people now. Fuck," he said miserably. "Cheers for that, mate. Now they'll want me to... do stuff..."

"I know, it's hard for a dork like you to suddenly be popular," Arthur said, stroking teasing lines down Merlin's naked back, to the top of his arse. "Don't worry. I'll teach you how to bear this burden."

"Yeah. It will only hurt for a bit," said Merlin rather randomly. Then he wrapped his arms around Arthur's shoulders and kissed him for a long, long time.

"You didn't really want to sleep in the tree, right?" Arthur asked when their lips parted.

"No," said Merlin, grinning, and nipped playfully at his lower lip. "I think you know what I really want."

He pushed Arthur down, flat on the uneven ground, and kissed him deeply, slowly stroking his tongue in. Arthur clung to his warmth, took his pretty face in his hands to trace every line, revel in him. Merlin's scarf was still on his wrist, bunched up and dripping. The end of it stuck wetly to Merlin's cheek, and Merlin pulled on it, amused, examining the leather string twisted in it. Arthur expected him to say something about Freya, but Merlin just smiled and kissed him again.

"Let's get you out of these wet clothes," he said cheesily, and abruptly Arthur was naked, free from all the clammy fabric. He gratefully pressed against Merlin's smooth skin with every inch of his body.

"I'm really angry at you," he said between kisses.

"Ooh, angry sex!" purred Merlin, rubbing their chests together.

"I'm serious. You need to stop lying to me. You have to stop withholding information and going off on these stupid quests. We're together. We do things together. Is that understood?"

Merlin stopped and pushed up on his arms. That made wiry muscles on his shoulders bunch up sexily, but Arthur manfully resisted diving in to lick them.

"It won't be easy," Merlin said. "I learned to lie before I learned to talk."

"I know. I know and I'm sorry," he said, stroking his thumb over the lush curve of Merlin's lips. "But it needs to change."

"Okay," said Merlin. "It won't be right away, but – yes."

They were rocking together, grinding slowly against each other; a tree root was digging into Arthur's left shoulder-blade, and he didn't care. Merlin's long body was sliding easily over his, Merlin's mouth laving his neck, his throat, sliding down to lick at his nipples. Suddenly Merlin pushed up again and looked around.

"We probably shouldn't do this here," he said uncertainly.

"We should," Arthur panted, tugging him down. "We should, come on."

He spread his legs and lifted his hips, begging for it, wanting to be taken, wanting Merlin under his skin. Merlin's fingers, suddenly slick, pushed into him, teasing inside, and he bore down on them, gasping for air. He wanted it harder and faster and couldn't wait. He wrapped his legs around Merlin's thin waist, crossed his ankles over his arse and pulled him in, and Merlin relented, pushed inside, huge and burning and perfect, and Arthur sobbed in delight, rocking into it.

Merlin's eyes were glowing gold, just like when Arthur first saw him, and now it didn't look freaky. It was beautiful. He was beautiful, everything about him, the curves of his ears and the lines of his chin, and Arthur was going to kiss all of it later. Merlin's cock pushed into him smoothly, going so deep he could barely breathe, the longest cock he'd ever taken, and he laughed, stupidly proud and happy, and braced his arms on the ground to push against Merlin, take him in even deeper.

Waves of golden heat rolled under his skin, tingling in his fingertips, his toes, his balls. The heat curled over his cock, where it bounced against his stomach on every thrust. It was a sensation like no other, not like a hand, not like a mouth, something different and amazing. Tendrils of it were worming between their bodies, curling into his stretched arsehole, flowing over Merlin's cock as he pushed in, in.

"You haven't... last night... there was no magic," Arthur panted out, stunned by the sudden sharpness magic gave to every touch.

"No, I wanted you, to remember you," mumbled Merlin, kissing his Adam's apple. "It's just happening. Should I stop?"

"No," Arthur said, clutching at his shoulders like a drowning man. "Fuck. More."

And there was more, more than his mind could process, and then he lay there, shaken and weak and awed, while Merlin still fucked him, slowly and deeply, arching his neck and baring his teeth, shivering with pleasure against Arthur's skin.

"Never leave me again," Arthur said, and Merlin came with a sharp cry, his hips slamming against Arthur's arse in stuttering jerks.

The magic quieted, curled back into Merlin. Arthur could feel it roll and move somewhere between them, settling into its usual steady flow. They lay together, staring up into the green oak canopy. Last wisps of power rolled off Arthur's fingers, ticklish like streams of sand, and melted into Merlin's skin.

He kept hearing whispers and quiet laughter somewhere close. Someone splashed in the waves just outside the shadow of the branches. He turned his head and saw a glimpse of the grey sleek skin of some sea creature - a huge fish, or maybe a sea lion. He wasn't sure if sea lions lived in lakes. The grey thing flipped around in the water, glanced at him with curious blue eyes, giggled and dived down.

The sky darkened overhead, covered by heavy clouds, and now he could see small lights hiding shyly between the oak leaves. They were silver and fluffy, and they made sweet, delicate sounds and they chased each other and twirled together around the thinner branches. Arthur was following them with his eyes when he saw a glimpse of a huge bird gliding through the sky above them. It had angular wings, a heavy large head and a long wide tail that narrowed to a point. He watched it circle the island, weaving in and out of sight as the wind moved the leaves of the great oak. The bird twisted in the air, performing a perfect barrel roll, and he saw four clawed paws hanging under its belly.

"Merlin," he said, breathless with childish delight. "I don't think we're in Cumbria any more."

It's okay," Merlin said. "I'll get us back."

They walked across the lake. The surface gave under their feet slightly, shuddering in wobbly waves like an endless water-bed. Arthur tried bouncing on it, and Merlin squeezed his hand tighter in distress and whined about complicated spells and extreme concentration.

They walked for some time, skipping through space occasionally. Arthur had no idea where they were, and didn't really care. He barely looked around, content to watch the play of sunlight on Merlin's skin.

Eventually they stopped. They were on a country road with a single-lane angling to the left, a sign promising a village there in just a mile and a half, and a bus stop sign not far from it.

"Right," Merlin said. "I guess we should, uh. Go home."

"Yeah," Arthur said.

They shuffled on the spot, and then reached for each other at the same time. The kiss was short and awkward; they both pressed too hard, almost bruising each other's lips, and pulled apart abruptly. There was a mute, heavy ache behind Arthur's breastbone; he breathed in, filling his lungs up, and said:

"I'll see you in a few days. You know I'll come and see you, right?"

"Yes, Arthur," Merlin said. "You've just pulled me out of a tree in the middle of a lake on a mystic plane of existence. I believe you'll visit me in prison."

"Damn right. I just need to get the clearance to walk through the perimeter. Hopefully right now my father will be so happy to see me alive and un-framed that he'll give me whatever I ask for."

"Like clearance to go back there after you barely escaped with your life," said Merlin sceptically.

"Yes. And maybe even a pony. I'll let you pet it."

Merlin smiled and kissed the tip of his nose.

"I can leave the Facility now if I need to," he said. "The girls in Wales told me the guys are staying put like I asked them to. So maybe I could come and see you sometimes, if we're careful."

"Yeah!" Arthur cheered up and dug through his pockets for his used train ticket. "We need to find a pen, I'll give you my address..."

"Arthur, please. I don't need your address," Merlin said smugly. "I have you all over my skin. I can find you anywhere."

"You'll probably need to shower at some point."

"I'll still have you all over me," Merlin said and lowered his eyes, blushing.

They stood together at the side of the road, toeing at the edge of the grass. Arthur struggled for more things to say, something light, nothing that would make them crumple into an emotional mess. Just something neutral to drag out the conversation, so they'd have a few more minutes together.

"Why are we doing this here, anyway?" he asked. "It's such a random spot."

"Well, my place is over there," Merlin gestured vaguely eastward. "London is that way, and here's a bus stop for you..."

"Merlin, you know perfectly well how I feel about buses."

"Okay," agreed Merlin easily, perking up. "I'll walk you to a railway station. No clue where the nearest one is, but we're bound to find one eventually, right? Let's go that way."

He reached for Arthur's hand again. Their palms and fingers fit easily and comfortably together. Arthur was going to miss this, Merlin's hand in his, maybe even more than he'd miss having sex with him while they'd be apart. They weren't even doing this because it was romantic or anything like that, it was just so Merlin could pull him along with his travelling magic...

Merlin stopped and tugged sharply on his wrist. He was staring at nothing in particular, tilting his head, trying to catch some sound beyond Arthur's perception.

"Arthur," he said. "I don't want you to panic."

"There they are! There!" cried a shrill, high voice.

Someone appeared at the bend of the road; it was a boy of about eleven, in baggy jeans and a green hoodie. He waved to someone behind him, and turned toward them.

It was Mordred, and he looked just like a kid should, normal, bouncy, excited. Arthur's signet ring hung on his chest over his hoodie, threaded on a piece of string.

"Hey!" yelled Arthur joyfully and stepped toward him. Merlin yanked his arm, forcing him to stop. Several armed men in body armour jumped out on the road and hastily pulled Mordred back. Few more were behind them, setting up a defensive formation, herding Mordred behind their transparent riot shields.

A rustle came from the bushes to the left. More soldiers were there, taking cover, surrounding them. An engine roared from behind, and an armoured car pulled up and screeched on the road, and turned sharply sideways to block their escape.

"They're warlocks!" yelled Mordred from behind the soldiers’ backs, pointing at Merlin and Arthur. His little face was white with fury, his lips twisting and shaking. "They're warlocks, I saw them!"

A blond woman in civilian clothes had her arms around Mordred's shoulders, soothing him in a motherly gesture. Merlin was staring at her, his face frozen, his mouth moving a little, as if he was whispering something inaudible.

"I told you they'd be here!" Mordred screamed. "Warlocks! Warlocks!"

The soldiers were exchanging hand signs, strafing around them. Arthur was about to yell something, explain the situation, negotiate, and then the tranq darts were fired. Merlin's hand whipped through the air, and the darts scattered on the ground, yards off-target.

"Deadly force," ordered one of the men into the sudden pause, and then there were metallic sounds as they all cocked their guns, so many, dozens of them, all around them.

"Yes, shoot them!" screamed Mordred, shaking against the woman. He was crying, bawling openly, and he wouldn't take his eyes off Arthur's face.

"No!" cried the woman, hushing him with a gentle touch to his hair. "This boy, that's Arthur Pendragon! He's Uther Pendragon's son, he's been missing - "

"Yes!" yelled Merlin and threw himself at Arthur, hugging him protectively. "He's my hostage, don't shoot!"

"Human shield goes in front, you moron," hissed Arthur and tried to subtly manoeuvre them into a more believable position. The soldiers wavered, exchanging more signs; one of them got on the radio and started muttering into it, glancing at the armoured car. "What's going on? Who's she? Why does Mordred want you dead?"

"Not me," Merlin whispered. "You. He's angry I left him - it's okay, I won't let anything happen to you. She's been sent by Nimueh, she's..."

He trailed off, breathing heavily against Arthur's cheek.

"Why like this?" he suddenly wailed dramatically, making Arthur jump. "I'll do it, I don't mind, just not like this, please!"

"Hang on, they've not told you to surrender yet," Arthur told him quietly. "Don't overdo it. Do you have a plan?"

"Yeah, yeah," whispered Merlin, clinging to him tight. "Yeah, I have. It'll be all right."

He looked at the woman again, drew a sharp breath and nodded. He looked scared, Arthur thought. It was not a good look for him: it made his face look skinnier, so his eyes overwhelmed it completely. He was still clutching Arthur to himself in that misjudged clumsy hug; it was uncomfortable, and he was gripping Arthur's arm too tight, pinching the skin.

"Listen," he said into Arthur's ear. "I can't get us both away, not with all of them here, it's too hard. I'm going to leave you with the soldiers and escape by myself. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Arthur said. It sounded sensible. He should be cleared of the charges against him; he'd be detained for a bit, and then Uther would come and get him. Mordred wouldn't try anything else while he was in custody. After all, Arthur could get him arrested just as easily, if he wanted to be that vindictive to a poor confused kid.

"I have to do this really difficult spell," Merlin said. "Emrys-only stuff. You need to get away so you don't get clipped."

"Okay, we'll pretend you're releasing me. Just don't dawdle, they might get jumpy."

"Yeah. Just remember, Arthur, please, remember, this is only for a few days. Whatever happens, remember that I'll see you in a few days. I promise. You believe me, right?"

"Yes," Arthur said impatiently. It was getting awkward: armed people were staring while they snuggled and exchanged clandestine whispers.

"I'm releasing the hostage, don't shoot!" Merlin yelled and dropped his arms. Arthur winked at him, put his hands up in surrender and slowly walked toward the soldiers. They pulled him behind the shields, put him flat on the ground face down and cuffed him with practised efficiency. He pillowed his cheek on the dusty roadside grass and turned his face to Merlin to watch his cool Emrys-only spell.

Merlin, of course, was dawdling, because he was daft like that. He just stood there, his neck sticking out of his giant parka, his ears backlit by the sun and glowing pink. He stared into the ground, leisurely taking deep breaths.

"Okay," he said finally, and still didn't move.

The woman moved, though. Arthur could just about see her from where he was lying, and he saw her extend a hand toward the soldier standing in front of her. Her dark eyes briefly glowed red. The man's back was turned, he was concentrating on watching Merlin through his gun sight. Arthur was going to yell out a warning. But he still didn't understand her agenda, and he didn't want to risk spooking thirty men who were aiming guns at his boyfriend with safety catches off. So he hesitated for half a second, and the man's gun muzzle spat fire.

There'd been no order to shoot yet, and the leader yelled to hold fire right away, waving his arms sharply; the man who'd fired dropped the gun and stared down at it as if it'd bitten him. It was all a blur, and in the middle of it was Merlin who stumbled backwards and fell over, lanky and uncoordinated as usual, and stayed down.

And then Arthur started screaming.

He tried to get up, he tried to form words. The men held him down and he kicked at them furiously, blindly. He dug his knees and shoulders into the ground and tore at his cuffs, trying to get just an inch closer to Merlin. He could do something, he was sure, he could help him.

All the soldiers were converging on him, and he could barely see Merlin now, just glimpses in the spaces between their boots. He thought he saw Mordred and the woman kneeling at Merlin's side, their hands bright red. He kept hearing their voices, though he couldn't possibly, he could barely hear the soldiers yelling something right in his face.

"The Ritual of a Sacred King will turn the tide of the war," the woman was saying, and there was Mordred's little voice woven alongside hers, right inside Arthur's head, and he couldn't shut it out.

"This isn't over," Mordred was saying, again and again. "This isn't over, I won't forgive you."

"Fuck it, just tranq him," said someone above Arthur and then it was finally quiet.

They tried questioning him when he came around, but he still couldn't focus enough to speak. In the end they gave him some water and left him alone in the interrogation room, cuffed to the metal table.

He'd been crying for the last couple of hours, on and off. He couldn't remember the last time he’d really cried, probably because he'd been too young to remember. For the first few painful minutes he'd struggled to hold it back; tears burned at the back of his eyes like pepper spray, and his throat was clamped so tightly he thought he'd pass out from lack of air. Then he gave up and let go, and the relief was unbelievable. He dropped his head on the table and cried his fill, letting tears and snot run down his face and puddle on the metal surface. He was loud, sobbing shamelessly and letting out every pathetic whine that clawed at the back of his throat. They could be listening, could be watching him through the mirror, could be recording this; he didn't care.

He felt lighter now, it was getting easier to breathe. But he kept crying, and didn't even try to stop himself. He was going to let it happen till his tears ran dry.

He barely noticed when his father came into the room, and couldn't stop crying even in front of him. Uther uncuffed him and pulled him into a hug. It felt weird, but good. Arthur stared at the fine herringbone of Uther's jacket, blurred from being just inches from his eyes, and unabashedly dripped tears right onto it, and sobbed into his father's shoulder.

"It's all right, son, it's all over," Uther said, holding him tight.

"It's not over," Arthur muttered, and just like that, the tears ended.

He went to the sink in the corner and washed his face. Uther offered him a handkerchief, and Arthur dried himself with it.

"The charges?" he asked.

"You're a free man, Arthur. I'm taking you home. I still don't understand how..."

"It was Nimueh who framed me. Yesterday we found her, and Merlin forced her to undo the spell."

"Did he kill her?" Uther asked, suddenly hopeful, and it was so out of place that Arthur nearly laughed.

"We have more pressing matters to address right now, don't you think, Father?" he said. "Merlin was their leader. All those mass murderers, ancient mystics and former terrorists, they all followed that - that silly, floppy-eared pacifist. You knew that. You just preferred not to believe it, because you had no clue how to control him. But he had only one agenda: to prevent bloodshed. He kept us safe from them, just because he was soft like that. They grumbled, but they all loved him. And now he's been shot trying to save me. Me. Your son. Do you know what's going to happen? Do you know what they'll do to us now?"

He saw a shadow of fear in his father's eyes, flitting there just for a moment before he regained his composure. But that was enough, Arthur knew he had the right strategy. He didn't even have to twist the truth all that much.

"It was an accident," Uther said. "The gun misfired."

"Do you think that will make any difference to them? Oh, and there is more. I learned a lot in there. The Facility is just a tiny sliver of what they are. They have - networks. Secret headquarters. Active temples. Sympathisers everywhere. They can use all that for their revenge. They're ready to take the war to us, they've only been holding back because Merlin thought we could still negotiate and come to a truce. He was willing to open a dialogue, he asked me to help with that... Oh, and you know what else? Do you know how powerful he really was?"

"Yes," Uther said grimly.

"Well, listen. They have this spell. When their leader dies, the one they've all been loyal to, they can do the Ritual of a Sacred King. It..."

He wasn't sure what it really was, but he knew what would make an impact.

"They harvested his magic," he said. "All that power is now in their hands."

Uther stared at him, and his face was frozen apart from a nerve jumping in his cheek. He sat heavily in the only chair and absently fingered the empty cuffs. His sleeves were smearing the wet streaks on the table.

"We must strike first," he said.

"Absolutely," Arthur agreed. "We have to move immediately. The tide of the war is going to turn now, and we can only survive it if we control it."

He braced his arms on the table and leaned over Uther, gathering all his power of persuasion.

"We need to go to them," he said. "Now. Today, tomorrow, as soon as possible. Hours probably count. And we need to make them an offer. It will be in honour of Merlin's memory, because we're really sorry. Not because we're afraid. We need to placate them and get them to consider a temporary truce, so we can buy some time. From what I've learned in there I believe that, as an opening offer, abolishing Sections Forty Four and Fifty Eight might do it."

He knew he didn't have to elaborate: the Anti-Magic Acts were Uther's holy book, he could recite them all by heart, he had written the bulk of the legislation. It was his life's work. Suddenly Arthur realised that this ruse was ridiculous, Uther was never going to buy it. He'd never give the warlocks an inch. He was too proud, and he hated magic too much; he would rather fight warlocks with nuclear weapons in his own country than roll back the laws he'd himself created.

"I see," Uther said. "That would split them. Those who want to avenge Merlin would be seen as betraying all he stood for."

Arthur nodded. Somehow it was easy to talk about it: Merlin's death, Merlin's memory. He could use it as a bargaining chip in these negotiations and not even flinch. It was only going to be for a few days, after all.

That thought took hold almost as soon as he woke up from the drug. It was utterly insane, denial at its purest, and he embraced it wholeheartedly. Merlin had said it would only be a few days, he'd promised. Of course, Merlin was a filthy liar, and he'd lied to Arthur's face hours after he'd promised to be honest with him. In hindsight it was obvious that Merlin had guessed Nimueh's intention to sacrifice him for the ritual, he'd known as soon as he fell out of that tree. He said nothing then, and kept quiet till it was already happening, lied to the very last moment. His promises couldn't be trusted. But Arthur wouldn't let facts distract him from the important part: this was only for a few days. He just needed to hold on for that long, and do what needed to be done.

"Clever," Uther said. "The Anti-Magic Acts are pointless now, of course. They've figured out how to abuse them. These laws were supposed to serve as our weapons, so we could cut through red tape and liberal nonsense. But when you were framed all that power was turned against us. I couldn't keep you safe. My own laws stripped you of your rights, of all the privileges and protection you should have had."

"Yes, that, what you said," Arthur nodded again, a little stunned.

"We'll go with your plan. We'll feed them the Acts, section by section, to keep them placid. In the meantime we need to identify the key players who could take Merlin's place in policing the extremists. The power gap needs to be closed swiftly."

"I've met some people who could swing that," Arthur said carefully, still not sure this was actually happening. "But they'll want something in return. Maybe we could consider pulling guards out of women's prison, put them on remote operation as well. They do like that bit of freedom."

Uther kept nodding thoughtfully, and he was listening, he was agreeing. Arthur couldn't have hoped it would be so easy.

"I've learnt my lesson the cruellest way a father could," Uther said. "All I ever wanted was to keep you safe, and my own actions made you their target. We'll do it differently now."

He got up and abruptly pulled Arthur into another hug.

"Let's go home, son," he said.

It was a painfully bright day outside. Everything looked sharp, in perfect focus, different. Even the air in his lungs felt unusually harsh and fresh. Arthur felt stripped of his skin, raw, a new man in a new world. It must have been all the crying, or just the subdued shock he was slowly riding out.

He stared out of the car window, learning everything again - the colour of the sky, the rhythm of his own breath. He imagined himself enclosed in a small bubble of fragile, imaginary peace, and held himself still, inside and out, to keep it all from shattering.

"You got attached to him," Uther said. "This will be a difficult time for you."

"I'm in love with him," Arthur said.

It was out, he’d said it. The words sang through his mind, true and beautiful, and didn't even feel tainted by pain.

"Well," Uther said uncomfortably. He didn't seem surprised. "After everything you've been through, a certain level of sexual confusion is not unexpected."

"I'm not confused," Arthur said. "I don't want to argue about this now."

"It's a textbook reaction to the situation you've been in. Merlin showed you some kindness when you could expect none. Your affection is a perfectly natural psychological response. It's a defence mechanism."

"I'm aware of that phenomenon, yes."

"But you're right. There's no point arguing about it now. It's real to you, and I know how it feels."

Even he looked different, Arthur decided, staring at his father with a wobbly grateful smile. He looked older, his face grey with fatigue, deeply lined. And yet, at the same time, he looked more like his younger self, the man Arthur only knew from old pictures. The one who smiled kindly from the press photos, and wore a silly face-splitting grin on the candid ones, and held his wife's hand in an awkwardly gentle grip, even twelve years into their marriage.

"We can stop by the morgue, if you want to say good-bye," Uther said, and Arthur shook his head vehemently, gritting his teeth. He couldn't. If he saw the body he couldn't maintain his delusion that this was all transitory, just for a few days, and then the world would shift on its axis and somehow give Merlin back to him. And he needed that. He had to stay calm, he had work to do.

"You need closure," Uther insisted gently. Arthur thought that was rich coming from the man who kept dozens of his wife's photos in his study and never visited her grave. But he knew better than to bring that up.

"I'll be fine in a few days," he said, and believed it.

In a few days they stood together at the gates of the Facility, exactly like they had only two weeks ago, and Arthur didn't feel fine at all.

"You don't need to be here," Uther said.

"I do," Arthur said. He'd promised Merlin he'd broker the peace talks, and here he was, on a diplomatic mission, albeit not in any official capacity. He was prepared, he was wearing a very nice suit and a power tie and he had copies of all the documents in his briefcase, in carefully colour-coded folders. He was going to focus on that, not on the memories of this place. "I know them better than you do now, you need me here."

The gates opened with the familiar screeching groan, and the soldiers wheeled in the food vats. The prison yard behind the gates looked somehow different than Arthur remembered. But a lot of things had looked eerily changed to him in the last few days, especially now that insomnia was starting to fuck with his head. He was getting used to it.

"So this is just talks about talks," said Uther to him, even though they'd already discussed it. He was unusually talkative when nervous. "We're going to establish intention, nothing more."

Muirden and Tauren unhurriedly approached the gates. Arthur gave them a short nod and waited for Muirden to say something hilarious about him crawling back for more.

"I'm afraid I bring sad news," Uther said. "I don't know if you've heard, but there's been a terrible accident. Merlin's been shot during an arrest. I know he meant a lot to all of you, and I'm sorry."

Muirden thrust his hands into his coat pockets and laughed.

"Yes, you loved him like a father, didn't you," he said.

"I want to talk," said Uther.

"You had your chance to talk to us," said Tauren. "Arthur, would you come in?"

Arthur nodded and headed for the ramp. He felt as light and empty as he had a few days ago when he'd just stopped crying, like he could float through air, nothing weighing him down. Uther grabbed his arm, and Arthur firmly moved his hands away.

"It's all right, father," he said. "It's all unofficial for now, they might as well talk to me. If I'm not out in an hour, I'll call you."

He could be dead in an hour, but he felt absolutely no fear. He even had a crazy fleeting thought that maybe this was what Merlin had meant when he said that in a few days they'd be together. Arthur walked in, watching the warlocks converge in the yard to meet him. The gates slammed shut behind him, and he stopped and unbuckled his briefcase.

"Before you do anything, hear me out," he said, digging through the papers, and nearly dropped them all when he saw Morgana standing next to him.

"Arthur, my god," she grabbed his chin to stare him in the eyes. "When did you last sleep?"

"In Wales," he said. "Why are you here?"

"For the vigil," she said. "Come on."

She dragged him to the cell block, past the others. People nodded and smiled at him in greeting, and he worried that he was beginning to hallucinate. He thought he was handling his insomnia pretty well, but maybe it was time to ask some druid for a dreamless sleep spell.

"They're weirdly friendly," he said louder than he meant to. "I've not even told them yet why I'm here..."

Aglain caught up with them and bowed to him slightly.

"You'll always be welcome here, Arthur," he said. "You joined with Emrys at one of our holiest sites."

"Oh, did you really?" yelped Morgana. "That's so sweet!"

"Yeah, we shagged on that island, " said Arthur numbly. "So what, are we like, druid married now?"

"Well, it's not really binding," said Morgana and pulled him through the doors.

The cell block was sparkling clean inside, and there was an enormous mandala-like symbol painted on the floor, colourful and elaborate, taking up all of the stair well. The walls were fresh cornflower blue. The broken cell doors were gone, and so were the bars. The cells were now a row of neat walled up rooms with solid doors.

"What's going on here?" he asked, stopping forcefully.

"Before Merlin left, he asked us to tidy up the place," said Tauren. "The young ones were quite enthusiastic. It's especially fitting now - this is a new lease of life for everyone. The Ritual of a Sacred King was a success. New power flows through the land, and the world is changing. We have been blessed."

"We all feel it," said Aglain, beaming brightly. "Our magic has been replenished by Emrys's sacrifice. Everything that had been bestowed upon him has now been returned to us tenfold, spread amongst all children of the Old Religion. He's fulfilled his destiny beyond any of our expectations. Everything has been infused with his magic, transformed and renewed. Even our enemies have been changed by this. Uther Pendragon wants to bargain with us - is that not a definite sign that the tide has turned?"

Arthur leaned on the railing, hugging his briefcase to his chest. It was all suddenly becoming too real, the truth that Merlin was gone crashing through his defences, and he wasn't ready yet. Everyone was looking at him with a happy grin, even Morgana, like none of them cared at all. Like having this shiny magic rainbow suddenly light up over them was an adequate pay-off for what had happened.

"I wasn't going to blame any of you," he said. "I know it was Nimueh who arranged that whole ritual thing. And it was me who gave her that dumb idea in the first place. And I'll find Mordred and that blond chick, whoever she is. But, you know, since I'm trying to fight for your rights here, do me a favour. Glad as I am that the death of my boyfriend is a source of such joy for you all, please stop fucking smiling in my face."

They all drew back and looked on him in sudden dismay.

"Didn't he tell you?" Morgana asked. "Arthur, he's immortal."

He hadn’t dared to really think about it, because the hope was too flimsy and irrational, and wouldn't stand any scrutiny. But he'd been waiting for something like this. A sudden revelation, a miracle, and then his faith would be rewarded. Merlin would somehow be just fine, and Arthur would be able to breathe again.

And it had happened.

His legs went a bit funny, so he staggered into the nearest cell - room - and sat down on an unmade bunk. Morgana and a bunch of others squeezed in as well, crowding the tiny space.

The cell had a window to the outside now, a huge uneven rectangle cut in the concrete. Instead of glass some pinkish film wobbled between the edges of the hole.

"All right. Run all this by me again," he said. "And by the way, I would kill for a cup of tea right now."

"We don't have tea," said one of the men.

"Well, you should get some," he said sternly. "For now magic me up a cuppa."

"Conjured food is a bit gross," said Morgana. "You can have some of mine."

She pulled a plastic travel box of teabags out of her hand bag. It was that weird herbal stuff she'd been drinking since she was fifteen. He never touched it, but he remembered the smell, and he suddenly missed it.

"That vile crap, okay, give it here," he said. Someone found him a foam cup and filled it at the sink; another guy boiled it by sticking his finger in the water. Arthur pulled a face and dunked the teabag in.

"All right," he said again. "Start from the beginning."

"Don't you want to see Merlin?" Morgana asked. "He's just here, I was taking you to him."

"If I see that tosser right now, I'll break all his teeth. I need to process this first."

Aglain pushed forward and cleared his throat.

"A few centuries ago," he said.

"Yes, magic began to wane, skip to how Merlin's immortal."

Aglain cocked an eyebrow disapprovingly and obliged.

"The birth of Emrys was prophesied, and it would happen in our darkest hour of need. We waited for him and sought him out. But when he was born, before he learned to hide and suppress his gift, he was very powerful. He must have sensed us reaching out for him, and he shut us out. He was only a baby, I suppose he simply wanted to stay with his mother. We didn't know he'd arrived till my people saw him with their own eyes. Of course, not all believed us."

"Yes, do dredge that up now, in front of the outsider," said Tauren sourly.

"The druids are attuned to nature, we see to the heart of things," Aglain pressed on. "Others, preoccupied with arcane trickery and amusing gadgets, only saw a very gifted and a very brave boy. When Emrys decided to shatter his connection to the land, to assist you in your quest, he was told it would be suicide."

"Which it was," Muirden pointed out. "He died. Like I said he would. It was a qualified medical opinion, and neither you nor he listened."

"He didn't," Arthur said. "I was there, he didn't die. His heart stopped for a moment, but I did CPR..."

He trailed off, feeling stupid. Morgana patted his back.

"I'm sure your CPR helped," she said patronisingly.

"I encouraged Emrys to break the link," said Aglain proudly, and Arthur suppressed an impulse to splash his vile-smelling hot tea in his smug face. "I knew he'd rise again from that, and this would prove his identity to everyone once and for all. Only Emrys possesses true immortality."

"It's what the word means," Tauren supplied. "Emrys means "immortal", literally."

"So that's how he's literally Emrys," Arthur said. "He knew that back in Wales and didn't tell me. Why didn't he tell me?"

"You'll have to ask him that," Morgana said. "Arthur, I'm sure he didn't want you to see what happened."

Arthur nodded and put the cup on the sink, untouched. Merlin had always been idiotically committed to protecting Arthur from the truth. He must have been planning to get sacrificed by his brethren in private, once he'd returned here. He wouldn’t even have told Arthur about it after he'd bounced back.

"It wasn't done right," said Aglain. "The Ritual of a Sacred King is a beautiful, sombre ceremony. And knowing that our symbolic king was immortal, and would live again once he gave his lifeblood and his magic to us - it would've been a joyous ritual. But the High Priestess made her decision without consulting anyone. As usual."

"She played it quite well, I thought," said Tauren. "The way she staged it - it made an impact."

Arthur just glared at him, too exhausted to sustain his anger.

"We never planned for this," said Aglain. "We thought the purpose of Emrys was to lead the battle. But the path he chose - to give himself, to gift his magic back to us, to the land, to change hearts towards peace... It's affected everyone in a way that's even deeper than magic."

Arthur wanted to scream at them that Merlin didn't choose it. He was roped into accepting. They'd been cornered, Arthur caught in the middle of it, Merlin not given a moment to think. But he knew that left to his own devices Merlin might choose that anyway. Merlin was just that kind of moron. If he thought it would help someone he cared about, he'd sacrifice himself without a second thought. Arthur needed to draw some solid ground rules on that subject, because that kind of crap could seriously fuck up their relationship. Which really didn't need more working against it: it was already going to be mostly long-distance and logistically complicated.

"Okay," he said. "So, fine, where is he? Is he hiding in his room because he knows I'm about to wring his skinny lying neck? Why didn't he let me know he's alive?"

"He's still asleep," said Muirden.

"What? I know he sleeps for England, but it's been days!"

"It might be weeks. It might be months or years. I healed his body once we'd recovered it, but his spirit is lost on the mystic plane. Magic on that scale has a steep price."

Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. It went as well as it had for the past two days. His body craved sleep so much that it instantly attempted to shut down - all his muscles went heavy and loose, and his mind tumbled into the dark. And then that black thing that nestled just below the surface leapt at him again, a roaring ball of rage and grief and fear. It hit him right in the chest and made his breath stutter, and he was wide awake again.

He picked up his briefcase.

"Let's go over the proposal first," he said. "I don't think I'll be able to afterwards."

They'd put Merlin in his old cell. It was untouched by their redecorating efforts. They said they wanted him to have the pleasure of ripping up the bars himself. It still looked as Arthur remembered it, with the hole into the adjoining cell and Mordred's drawings stuck to the walls. The only new thing was a neat row of foam cups on the floor by the bars. Every cup held a little bouquet of fresh wild-flowers.

Merlin looked better than he'd expected. Arthur'd seen him a lot worse. He still wore his jeans and blue shirts, and they looked clean, but the scarf had got lost somewhere. He was laid out on his bunk, his feet carefully wrapped in a blanket; he seemed comfortable. Looked after.

Someone was in there with him. Arthur'd not seen this man before. He was in civilian clothes, and he sat on the edge of the bed, holding Merlin's hand. He was talking. His voice was rough and scratchy as if he'd been speaking non-stop for several hours.

"So I said to her: Hunith, you're a hot babe, you need some fun in your life and Merlin would hate to see you shut yourself inside four walls like this. Just go on one date and see what happens, the bloke seems nice..."

When Arthur approached, the man gave him a distracted wave over his shoulder, not turning around, and said:

"I think he's getting better. He can definitely hear me. He just moved his fingers again."

"Who are you?" Arthur asked.

"I'm his best friend," the man said, finally gracing him with a glance. "Who the fuck are you?"

"I'm his boyfriend," Arthur said.

"So you must be Arthur, then," the man regarded him with angry narrowed eyes, surveying his suit and briefcase critically. "He didn't mention you were a corporate sell-out wanker. Where were you, boyfriend, when this happened to him? Too busy yachting?"

"I was handcuffed," Arthur said. "If you're his best friend, how come I've never seen you before?"

"Because I've not seen this stupid twat since he bailed on me and his mum without a good-bye. Imagine, not a word for over two years, and then the other day I get this in the post."

The man pulled a battered envelope from his pocket and handed it to Arthur. It held a folded blank of a requisition form, and the reverse side was covered in an uneven angular scrawl.

That had to be Merlin's handwriting; Arthur hadn’t seen it before. He touched the letters with his fingertips, trying to picture how they'd been written, Merlin's hand moving over this piece of paper. This was a glimpse at a new side of Merlin, a deeper insight into who he was. He started reading, slowly making his way through messy hurried lines. The letters were comically misshapen - Merlin clearly hadn't held a pen in years.

Hi Will,

Been a while, huh? Sorry. I thought it would be best this way. I missed you, you'll never know how much. I always thought I'd see you again some day but it looks like I won't after all. I'm not going to die, don't think that, okay? But I'll be away. Probably forever. A long time, anyway. I thought I should tell you so you and Mum would stop waiting, because I think you still are.

I tried writing to her but I just can't. So you'll have to tell her for me. Yes, it's a shitty thing to ask but I'm asking. I know you'll do it right.

I need you both to know that I'm happy. I have a boyfriend! Haha well maybe it's not so much of a shock. His name is Arthur. He's very handsome and amazing in every way once you get to know him. I wish you'd met him, you'd get on, I just know it. I never really told him, not in so many words, but I

Arthur stopped reading, folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. Whatever Merlin hadn't told him yet, he was planning on hearing it from his own lips.

"I'd been looking for him," Will said, rubbing his thumb over the back of Merlin's hand. "I've been looking for you, you jerk, do you hear me? Found some people with warlock connections, but they weren't much help. And then this - did you see, he used printed stationery, it says Wales Facility for women right there in the top corner. Bit of a subtle clue there, right? How did you survive on the run, Merlin, I'll never know, you're such an idiot. I went back to my contacts with this new info, they made some calls, and suddenly I'm offered a teleport here. And this is what I find."

"You're a good friend," Arthur said sincerely, even though something in him whined jealously at the thought of this stranger possessing a huge chunk of Merlin's heart. "I'm glad he has you."

"I don't need your validation, suit boy. I'm not sure yet if I approve of you."

Arthur stepped closer and knelt by the bed to take a better look at Merlin's face. He looked just like he did when he was deeply asleep: his face was soft, slightly flushed, and his eyes moved a little under closed eyelids.

"They said I might be able to guide him back. Familiar voice, all that," Will said. "It looks like he's responding more now. I should bring his mum, really. But I don't want her to see him like this. She's been through enough."

"Of course. Let's give him a couple of days," Arthur said. "There is a girl he maybe fancies a bit, I'll see if I can bring her here."

"Freya? Yeah, she's been. She's left for the night, she has some medical condition or something. Lots of people came. He's got an okay life, really. I was worried he'd be lonely."

Will gently placed Merlin's hand on the mattress and got up.

"Gonna go find some nosh," he said. "You two can have your gay moment."

Arthur waited till they were alone. Then he took Merlin's hand and pressed his lips to the delicate branch of blue veins on the inside of his wrist.

"I need you so much," he whispered.

When he looked up again, Merlin was smiling at him.

"Hey," Merlin said, just a little hoarse, bright-eyed. "Told you it would only be a few days. It was, right?"

And then, running his hand down Arthur's lapels:

"Wow. You look amazing in a suit."

Arthur had a long speech already prepared for this moment. He was going to yell and demand apologies, and force Merlin to make him at least five different promises, or maybe blood oaths, even. And then he was going to tell Merlin a ton of really embarrassing, mushy stuff, and not give a fuck how stupid he sounded.

In the end he managed to say only one thing:

"Shove over a bit."

Merlin readily wriggled his hips on the bed and shifted closer to the wall. Arthur climbed in with him, shoes still on, carelessly creasing his jacket. He wrapped his arms snugly around Merlin's ribs and kissed him, and smiled to himself at how wonderfully familiar it felt. Merlin clung to him and kissed him back till Arthur's eyes closed from the pleasure of it, and then there was only a bright glow under his eyelids, and Merlin's lips on his skin.

Last part

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