[personal profile] new_kate
Masterpost


They spent all day in a pub that stayed open. Arthur got Merlin food and a stack of newspapers, then ran out to a post office to send a telegram to the air field, hoping he'd spelled Lancelot's odd foreign name correctly. 

It was a long shot. The telegram might not find its way to him, and Lancelot might decide not to come. He'd only met Arthur once, briefly, and he might not even remember him. He could be on duty, unable to get to London. But they could spare a day or two to wait for him. Arthur hoped he was doing the right thing, and that seeing a familiar face would cheer Merlin up and reassure him somehow. 

He bought maps and some German books and rushed back, glad to find Merlin where he'd left him, reading.

"How are you getting on with those?" he asked.

"Spelling's gone to pot," Merlin said, frowning tightly. His fingers were black from tracing the fine text on freshly printed pages. "But I can read it. Picking up lots of new words. This war is just - the numbers of killed and wounded, they don't make any sense. It's thousands. I can't imagine. It's more people than used to live in the whole of Camelot."

"Yes, I know. Take a break. I want to teach you some German. Of course, you'd better not try to speak it when we're there, just stick with me and pretend you're a mute idiot, should come naturally. But just in case."  

He opened a book of fairy-tales, to start with something simple, and read a few lines out loud, getting ready to translate and explain.

"Oh, I know this," Merlin said. "It's dragon language. I can speak it."  

"Really?"

"King Arthur is a pompous overbearing stupid-headed man who doesn't have faith in his sorcerer," said Merlin in an odd German dialect. "See? I'll have to pick up the right accent, but that's easy, listen, listen, I can already talk like a Londoner," he added, drawing and distorting his vowels the way the patrons around them were doing.  

"Hm," said Arthur. 

"I'm good at this," said Merlin, reaching for the newspapers again. "All sorcerers have to be. Spells are very precise; one wrong sound, and bam, you're a toad. Well, all right, not really, it's more like bam and nothing happens. Turning people into proper toads is very hard, not for a novice."

"Can't remember last time you were this chatty," Arthur confessed. "So, are you really feeling up to this?"

"I wish you'd stopped looking at me like I'm a lame horse," Merlin said. "I'm not going to - "
He shoved the newspapers at Arthur, jabbing his fingers at the text and the pictures.

"You've read these, haven't you? We've no time to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to be up to this. Did you get the maps? They've renamed everything, I can't understand what's going on if I can't tell what's where."

Arthur pushed Merlin's untouched plate to the side and unfolded the map of the world on the table, to give him a sense of the scale.

"First of all," he said, gesturing at the drawings of the two hemispheres. "I should tell you that the world is round."

It had taken him a while to come to grips with this, and even now he couldn't remember the explanation for this peculiar fact.

"Oh, that makes more sense," Merlin nodded.  

"It does?"

"Yes, it's like, you know," Merlin waved a hand and the soup flew up from his plate and rolled into an untidy ball in the air. It swirled on its axis, sloshing drops of broth on the table. "That's how it's always felt to me."

"Put your soup back and eat it, you're skin and bones," Arthur commanded, trying to hide his relief, grateful that Merlin's magic was shielding him from some of the strangeness of this new world. "Fine, so here we are. This is Albion."

"Used to be bigger on the old maps," Merlin pouted. 

"Well, looks are deceiving. All of this, this and this are kind of ours too."

They talked and studied the maps, just like in the old days, in Camelot's council chambers. Arthur used to have a recurring dream about this. He'd dreamt that Merlin was with him on his current war campaign, and had never left. In the dreams he helped Arthur plan the next attack, sweeping his long fingers over the maps of Hastings or Waterloo. His ideas were often useful, and on waking Arthur would cling to them and weave them into solid strategies. That helped him through the first suffocating moments of waking up alone.

"Who are you waiting for?" Merlin asked suddenly. Sometimes in the dreams he'd read Arthur's mind and ask him questions about things he'd never said. Arthur tensed, trying not to panic.

"What?" he asked, stalling. This wasn't a dream. He knew that.  

"We could just as well go over this on the way, when we stop for the night. But we're not setting off, and you keep looking at the door."

"I guess I'd better warn you," Arthur said. "Look, there are people in this time - they're just normal people. Not like me or Gilli. They were born here, twenty-something years ago. They wouldn't know you. But they look a bit like... Maybe it's a bad idea. I thought it would be like a little piece of home. We can leave."

"No, let's wait," said Merlin, staring at the map, voice flat and dull. "I'm curious now." 

"I don't even know if they'll show up. And it might be too strange for you."

Merlin gave a little amused snort.

"You think out of everything that's what will confuse me the most? No, Arthur, don't worry. I've been to the Cave of Prophecies. More than once. I've looked into the crystals. Nothing is too strange after that."

He never liked to talk about the Crystal Cave, but often used to ramble and moan about it in his sleep. Whenever he'd mentioned the crystals, his eyes shadowed, shifting from blue to grey, as if he was seeing them again: the infinite futures, crossing and collapsing, the one true path to find in the mirror labyrinth. Sometimes Arthur thought that alone could drive a man mad.

"Did you ever see any of this?" Arthur asked. 

"You know," Merlin said with a crooked smile. "I never thought to look past our lifetime."  

The bell at the front of the pub jingled again, and as Gwen stepped in through the door that Lancelot - Javier - was holding for her, Arthur realised that he still hadn't devised a convincing story to tell them. 

"Now remember," he said and squeezed Merlin's hand. "It's not them."

"No, it's them," Merlin whispered, digging his fingers into Arthur's skin. "Arthur, it's them! They feel - they're not, but some part of them - "

Arthur hushed him and rose to greet them. All three of them wore civilian clothes, stuffy wool suits with square shoulders that made Percival look comically wide. Gwen's narrow skirt barely covered her knees. Arthur had only ever seen her bare legs before when they were in bed together.  

"Arthur," she said, rushing to their table. "What happened? When you didn't show up for your tests today, everyone was so worried."

"Captain Simmons called the airfield," said Lancelot. "He asked if we'd put you off, or if you looked like you were coming down with something. We told him you were eager to join. We thought..."
Then they noticed Merlin, who was still staring at them, mouth hanging open, eyes wide and moist.

"Who's that then?" Percival asked. 

"Hi," said Merlin. "Hello. I'm - I'm me, I'm... Arthur, what were you going to join? You didn't tell me."

"I was going to defend London against air attacks. With them. That's what they do. This is Percy Smith, Gwen Thornton, and Javier Guerrero - yeah, just call him Lancelot. Thank you all for coming. I know it's odd, you barely know me..."

"We thought you'd been killed in the raid last night," said Percival bluntly. "When Lancelot got your telegram, they made me drive all the way here. And here you are, safe and sound. Sitting in a pub with your mate. We thought you wanted to fight."

"Oh, he does," said Merlin. "He always does, can't hold him back. But we're needed elsewhere right now. There's important work to be done. I'm, I'm Merlin. Hi."

"Merlin!" gasped Gwen. "Like the engine! I just knew, when I said it yesterday, they way you - I knew there was a story behind it!"

"What kind of a name is Merlin?" frowned Percival. 

"I think it's a codename," nodded Lancelot and took a seat by the table. "I told you, Percy. He's a soldier. He's fought before. You have, Arthur, haven't you?"

"You have that look," Percy nodded. "My old man had that look. And you talk and walk like a soldier."

"But why didn't you tell us?" Gwen asked. "You said you were a new recruit..."

"Because he couldn't," said Lancelot and swiftly grasped Arthur's hand. "You didn't have these yesterday. I've seen marks like that before, in Spain."

Arthur twisted his hand free and tugged his sleeve down to cover the raw bruises left on his wrist by the ropes. Two of his fingernails had turned purple, with ugly black lines in the centre where the needles had gone in.  

"It's best if I don't tell you everything," said Merlin calmly, even though his jaw ticked as he stared at the bruises. "But there's definitely more to Arthur than meets the eye. Unfortunately, you're not the only ones who've noticed that."

"Oh dear," said Gwen in a hissing whisper. "You're secret agents!"

She and Percival swiftly grabbed a chair each and they all huddled closely at the table, devouring Arthur and Merlin with shining wide eyes.  

"We can neither confirm nor deny that," said Arthur quickly. It seemed odd that they would jump at this wild conjecture so readily, but that was how the human mind worked. Arthur himself had spent his youth coming up with very reasonable, completely non-magical explanations for all Merlin's little oddities: why his bumbling manservant always ended up at the centre of improbable coincidences, why things seemed to move on their own accord around him, why he sometimes spoke in tongues and had yellow glowing eyes. If you wanted to believe in something, you could always find a way to bend logic to the right conclusion. And they wanted to believe he was a good man, he could see that, and they welcomed the thrill of adventure.

"Spies!" whispered Percival excitedly. 

"This is what I'm guessing, you don't have to tell us if it's true," muttered Lancelot, conspicuously glancing about. "Arthur has worked deep undercover, but he was decommissioned. That's why he doesn't have a record with the army, even though he'd obviously seen action."

"I thought I was free to join the RAF," Arthur shrugged. Lancelot's story wasn't that far off the mark.

"But your identity has been compromised. And you were captured and interrogated. There are German spies right here, in London."

"Well, a few less now," Arthur said. "There might be more, but that's being dealt with. They didn't get anything from me."

"Of course, we know you wouldn't talk," nodded Gwen. The look she gave him was disconcertingly familiar, starry-eyed. "We'll never tell anyone. You can trust us. Did you rescue him, Merlin? That's such a great codename, by the way!"

"It was my friend," said Merlin. "I was... away. But I'm back now."

He took a breath and finally smiled at them, and reached out to softly touch their hands. 

"I'm glad to have met you," he said. "You're - you're wonderful people. I know you can defend our kingdom. Me and Arthur are going to help you. We'll make sure there's one less thing for you to worry about, when you're fighting them off."

They all exhaled in awe and leaned closer in.

"Are you going back in the field?" Lancelot asked. "Is that why you called us here? Do you need our help?"

"Why would spies need our help?" Percival muttered.

"Well, if the agency is infiltrated, they might need someone the Nazis don't have an eye on..."

"No, I just," Arthur said. "I don't know anyone else in London. Merlin doesn't either. I just wanted to say goodbye to you. I thought we could have a drink together, before we go off. And I wanted to ask you to make something up for Captain Simmons. I don't want him to think that Arthur Pendragon's son is a coward."

"He never thought that," said Percival. "But, yes. We'll explain."

"And, Gwen, I do need to ask a favour from you," Arthur said. "Merlin needs..."

What Merlin needed was a friend, someone he could talk to without having to put on a brave face. Merlin's best friend used to be Gwaine, but Gwen was the first friend he'd made when he came to Camelot. She was the one who taught him how to look after Arthur's armour; the two of them had been thick as thieves even before Merlin's first week of service was over. Arthur hoped that he might connect with this girl, too, and find some comfort in her company. And he wanted to talk to the others without Merlin here. He needed advice.

"As you can see, Merlin needs new clothes," Arthur said. "Could you help him at least try to look presentable?"

"What's wrong with my clothes?" asked Merlin defensively, adjusting his neck scarf. 

"Nothing, if you're going undercover as a Welsh shepherd," she said and got up. "Come on, Merlin. My brother lives not far from here, I'm sure some of his stuff will fit you."

"No, take him shopping, please, buy him nice things," said Arthur and passed her a handful of paper money.  

"That's not going to be easy, not with rationing, but I have a plan," she nodded.

She threaded his arm around hers and pulled him out of the pub, quick and determined.

"It will do him good to spend an hour with a pretty girl," Arthur said. "Before he's back in the fight."

"He's a bit... odd," Percival said. 

"Yes," said Arthur. "He's... Fuck, I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. He's shell shocked."

They had a name for it now. He'd learnt it in the Great War. They'd had to name it, because the sickness of the heart had been claiming more soldiers as wars had changed. In the old times honed skills and well-tended armour could see you through a battle, but even then there had been chaotic fights, when you didn't even see the man who killed you. But to march through the field while cannons tore men to shreds the the right and left of you, or to rise from the trenches into a hale of bullets - that kind of warfare required a special brand of courage, akin to lunacy. 

But at least he didn't have to explain. They understood, and nodded, tightening their jaws, and Arthur knew they wouldn't look down on Merlin for not being invincible. 

"What does command say?" Percival asked. 

"That he's strong," said Arthur bitterly, remembering Gilli's calm, callous conviction. "Come on, you know what command always says. Your country needs you; if you can stand, you can fight. He's been away for a bit, and he says he's better. But - "

"Are you afraid he'll freeze up when you're out there?"

"He won't. He won't, it's just. I don't know what it will do to him."

"He's dear to you, isn't he," said Lancelot. "Personally. You're close, I can tell."

Arthur took a breath and stared at the sticky table top. 

Merlin wasn't dear to him. He was necessary, like air. He was part of Arthur's soul, and now, looking back, Arthur couldn't understand how exactly he had managed to fight, and think, and walk around all those years without Merlin by his side.  

"There are no words in the language for what he is to me," he said hollowly. Lancelot smiled, as if he disagreed and knew the exact words. Maybe he did. He'd always been better with that stuff, with words and feelings. 

"My dad had that," said Percy reluctantly. "Shell shock. He didn't talk about it much. But he told me once - when it happened, his captain made him sleep all day, and then took him back to the front line, and made him just sit there. And talked to him. About us back home, and the war, and everything, for two days straight. That's what you're supposed to do, he said. Talk."

"I tried that," Arthur shrugged. "I don't know what else I can say."

"I had that too," said Lancelot. "Or something like, maybe. When I was in that camp, I couldn't sleep. I thought I was going mad. I kept seeing fire, and all their faces..."

Percival shifted in his chair and pressed his shoulder to Lancelot's. They stayed like that, both silently watching as Lancelot's fingers stopped trembling. 

"But, you know what?" Lancelot said with a soft smile. "Since I got back in the air, I've been just fine. I have a reason to carry on now, and work to do. I'm myself again. Maybe it's for the best that you're needed again. It could do him good."

They got drinks and talked some more, and before they'd got through their pints Gwen and Merlin came back, hand in hand, nearly skipping with excitement, like a young couple returning from a date. Merlin's face was flushed from the wind, and his eyes sparkled brightly, probably due to the sugar from the liquorice stick he was sucking on. 

"How do I look?" he enquired, twirling about.

He wore a dark, fitted woollen suit that hugged his waist and made him stand up straighter and look taller. The white collar of his shirt showed off his neck, and his tie was deep blue, a hue that made his skin glow. 

"Same as always," said Arthur. "Ridiculous, incompetent and possibly drunk. I like the colours. Wait - did you keep your boots? Merlin!"

"I'm not breaking in new boots while we're on a quest! These are fine!"

"They're ancient!"

"I like them," said Merlin and pulled on his necktie. "I'm already going to be uncomfortable enough in all this. This is stupid, what does this do? It's not going to keep me warm or anything."

"Oh God yeah, these bloody nooses," nodded Percival, clawing at his own tie. "Hellish things."

"While you sat around gossiping about me, Gwen came up with a plan for how to get us to Berlin," Merlin announced, and Arthur rose from his seat to smack him on the head.
 
"Merlin!" he hissed. "How many times - secret mission! It means you're supposed to keep it secret!"

"Come on, they're our friends," said Merlin disarmingly. 

"Someone could be watching us right now!"

"No, I'd have noticed," said Merlin and bit off a chunk of liquorice. "This is great, do you want some? I bought loads!"

"Are you thinking your admirer could help them?" Lancelot asked, and Gwen laughed.

"He's not my admirer! He's just a flirt, he's like that with everyone. With both of you as well, by the way."

"Yeah, that's true," Percival nodded. "Listen, we were posted to the coast before, and that's where we met him. He's a French smuggler, but don't hold that against him. He's a decent chap."

"He crosses the channel at least three times a week," said Lancelot. "He carries weapons for the Resistance, among other things. He could smuggle you in, too."

"Well, that's sorted," said Merlin. "Arthur, look what I bought."

He hefted the thing he'd brought with him and put in on the table. It was long, black, oddly shaped. 

"It's a lute box," he announced.

"It's not..."

"Oh come on, Gwen, it doesn't matter, it's not like I'm going to try to put a lute in it. We can carry our things in it."

"Spying equipment?" asked Percival in a reverent whisper.

"Yes, that," said Merlin and opened the box slightly to show Arthur an old, beaten-up scabbard half-hidden under a stack of spare shirts.

Arthur nodded. Excalibur was behind his chair, tucked against the wall, swathed in blankets he had taken from Gilli's car. A scabbard would be handy. He had no idea what use a sword could be on their quest, but it was a good, trusty weapon, infused with old magic. His hands had missed it.

"I got you a hat," said Merlin with an evil smile and fished around in the box.

This had to be a revenge for all the times he'd made Merlin wear official livery. Arthur braced himself for the sight of some feathered monstrosity, but the hat was actually quite nice. Muted brown, made of soft felt, with a practical wide brim. Arthur shrugged, twirled the hat in his hands and put it on. 

"It's called a fedora," said Merlin and reached out to adjust the hat, with the same gesture he used to straighten Arthur's crown on his forehead. Gwen smiled, and the men nodded approvingly, and for a brief moment it was as if they were all sat around a different table, in a different place and time, shadows of old friends filling the empty spaces between them.

**

Arthur thought about them later, on the last train to the coast, dozing on an uncomfortable bench with his new hat shadowing his eyes. The train car moved smoothly on the rails, barely rocking despite the incredible speed. The clattering of metal under them was loud and regular; Arthur couldn't remember why exactly the train made that sound, and couldn't explain it to Merlin when he asked. But he liked it. It was soothing. 

He heard a short muted scream and reached to the left without opening his eyes. 
He still did this, after all this time. Every time a pained scream cut through his dreams, he thought he was back in Camelot, in his own bed, and he always reached for Merlin to shake him out of the nightmare. His fingers would meet nothing - trench dirt, bed sheets, wall of a tent. Then he'd wake up, and realise the voice wasn't Merlin's. It was someone else, someone outside, on another pallet, on another hospital bed, it was never Merlin because Merlin was gone. 

Except this time Merlin was here. He was soundly asleep, tucked against Arthur's side, his even breaths puffing against Arthur's neck. Arthur stroked his warm stomach and glanced around.

The train was getting less crowded as they moved further from London. Every bench was still taken, and every isle was filled with bags and boxes, but no passengers now had to perch on their suitcases for the lack of seats. 

A few benches from them a man was rubbing at his chest, breathing heavily. He must've been the one who'd screamed. A girl lifted her rumpled head off his shoulder and reached for him, frowning with concern.

"Just a dream, love," the man told her. "Go back to sleep."

A woman in the opposite seat gave Arthur a knowing, sad smile. 

"I'm the same," she said. "Whenever a child cried in the bomb shelter, I'd wake up thinking it was these two."

She had two children with her, both asleep with their heads in her lap. The boy looked about seven; his legs in short trousers dangled off the seat, feet bumping softly against his mother's shins when the train swayed. The girl was smaller, three or four, chubby and pretty, curled on her side like a kitten, her little fists tucked to her chest. 

"He's not a child," Arthur stopped petting Merlin and tried to sit up straighter, but Merlin grumbled in his sleep and leaned on him more. Arthur's left arm was going to be numb by the end of the journey.

"This bloody war's flayed everyone raw," the woman said. "My husband's out there every night, under the bombs, putting out fires. And when he comes home he wants a long cuddle, bless him. He's staying with his Mum while I'm away. He wants her to fuss over him."

Arthur had only just noticed how many children there were on the train. Their families must be taking them to the countryside, away from the burning city.

"It's good that you're going," he said. "He'll miss you, but it'll be better for him, knowing you're all safe."

"I'm just dropping them at their gran's," the woman patted her daughter's brown curls. "Then I'm heading back. I'm a nurse, I'm needed."

There was nothing he could say to that which wasn't a platitude, so he simply nodded. But that must have been all right, because she smiled at him again.

A few stops later she woke her children up and led them off the train. An elderly woman met them at the platform, and they all embraced; Arthur waved at them from his window, but they didn't notice.

For a while Arthur watched the dark shapes of trees blur past the window, listened to Merlin's soft snores and wondered if it would be against the law to kiss him. 

He'd heard his soldiers talk about it: it had been illegal for men to share more than a friendship. Maybe it still was. Arthur didn't understand why, but laws had been getting more complicated over the centuries, and some didn't make any sense out of context. 

Uther's laws had been very simple. Any theft was punished the same way, whether the culprits stole out of greed or mischief or because they were half-mad with hunger. Murderers were hanged, regardless of circumstance, unless they'd killed in combat, in accordance with the Knights' Code. And there was only one punishment for any kind of sorcery. 

Uther said that was the purest, fairest justice. By the time Arthur had taken the crown, he didn't think so. But he knew he couldn't just pardon everyone he felt sorry for, or mete out arbitrary punishments as seemed fitting, and he couldn't ask that of his officials. 

So they tried to make better laws, fairer ones. By the end of his reign the book of laws read like an epic poem in an obscure tongue; Arthur couldn't remember why he'd signed some of his decrees, but he knew there had been a good reason at the time.

Maybe there had been a good reason once to outlaw this. Arthur glanced at Merlin's pouting mouth and decided that he didn't care. He shielded their faces with his hat and softly kissed Merlin's lips. 

Merlin hummed in his sleep and clung to him, drawing Arthur's tongue in his sleep-sour mouth. They kissed for a while, in slow, dreamy strokes of their lips. Then Merlin flinched and bolted upright, gasping. 

"It's just a dream," said Arthur. "You're okay, shh, just a dream."

"No no, that actually happened," Merlin mumbled, blinking. "We're in the future!"

He looked around with a manic smile, and tapped on the thick glass of the train window.

"Distant future, full of wonders," he laughed. "You know, Elyan used to fantasise about this all the time. He said one day blacksmiths would make contraptions that would put my magic to shame. He tried making something - it was just something silly, I don't think it worked. And here we are, in a huge iron cart, flying faster than an arrow."

He settled back with his head on Arthur's shoulder, playing with his fingers.

"Here we are. And you're immortal."

"Kind of," Arthur said. He was very much mortal; he was, in fact, the world's greatest expert on dying. But there was no need to split hairs.

"And Morgana is in Avalon. At peace, in the mists."

"She is. I think she's happy."

"She is. I saw into Avalon once, did you know? She would be happy there. And Mordred is dead, and Gilli is the court sorcerer... It actually all turned out a lot better than I thought it would. I thought..."

"You did worry a lot over absolutely nothing. Finally we can agree on that."

"And our friends are still here. Some part of them, at least. Have you met the others, too?"

"From time to time. Most of the knights - they often end up as soldiers, so sometimes we fought together..."

"You lot," Merlin huffed. "Just can't stop clobbering things with sticks. I'm glad they were with you."

They hadn't been with him, exactly. He preferred not to make personal connections, because war is war, and people die, and you never know who you'll lose. There was a time, centuries ago, when he and his men got ambushed during reconnaissance mission. A man who looked like Leon took an arrow in the stomach, and Arthur had carried him for miles back to their camp. For the last few hours he knew he was dragging a corpse. He knew, and he couldn't stop, and couldn't let go.

"I met your mother once," he remembered.

"Yeah?"

"About a hundred years ago. She worked in a field hospital. She was younger than I remembered her, thirty, maybe."

Merlin listened intently, with a hopeful smile. 

"Um, that's it. We never spoke. I avoided her, actually. I knew she wouldn't recognise me, but - I was still afraid she'd ask why you weren't with me."

"I'm with you now," Merlin said and tightened his fingers on Arthur's hand. 

"I still don't know if I should be taking you to war again."

"Well then, it's good that you aren't."

Arthur pulled back to look at his face and Merlin stuck his tongue out at him, grinning.

"I'm taking you with me, you dumb arse," Merlin said. "You can't fight this kind of magic, even Gilli can't. So it's my quest. I'm just letting you tag along."

"How big of you."

"I figure you'll be safer where I can keep an eye on you."

Merlin sighed and stared out of the window again. 

"And I do need a guide," he said. "Everything's changed. I don't understand most of - this. It's a bit scary. But I think we'll manage. When I first came to Camelot, I didn't understand anything about the court. And I fared pretty well."

He turned and nuzzled at Arthur's neck. An old woman across the aisle averted her eyes with a private smile. 

"Um," Arthur said. "Well. You didn't, actually. You were in the castle's dungeons before your first day was over."

"That doesn't count. It was completely your fault."

**



They'd found the pub Gwen had told them about, where her admirer conducted his shady business, and squeezed through the drinking crowd.

"I'm going to ask the barman to point him out to us, wait here," Arthur said, but Merlin had already peeled off and rushed to the corner table, where a lanky long-haired man was nursing his pint, flipping through a battered notebook. 

"Gwaine!" Merlin yelled, flailing his arms like he was about to fling himself into the man's lap.

"Gwenaël," said the stranger and rose to his feet, smiling at Merlin leeringly. "But for you, I shall be whoever you want me to be."

His accent was very slight, and he looked exactly the same, down to the soft sparks in his eyes and artful mess of stubble framing his wide lips. 

"Mr - I'm sorry, I don't know your last name," Arthur said. 

"No last names. Let's keep the business simple."

"Fine. I'm Arthur. This is Merlin."

"Hello, Merlin," the man took Merlin's hand and lifted it as if he was about to kiss Merlin's fingers. 

"Gw- Gwenaël," said Merlin with a happy laugh. "Hi."

"No, please, call me Gwaine. I like how that sounds. I think this should be my name from now on, so I think of you whenever I introduce myself."

"Oh for fuck's sake," Arthur sighed and shouldered between them. "We seek passage to the continent. We heard you were the man to talk to. Lancelot and Guinevere send their regards, by the way."

"And Percival," Merlin reminded. "Gwaine. Hi. I didn't know it would be you. I mean - I didn't know that's how you'd look. Uh, that doesn't sound right either, does it?"

"English is a strange language," Gwaine shrugged. "Where are you from? I can't place your accent, forgive me."

"Nobody can place his accent," Arthur grumbled. "Because that accent doesn't exist anymore. But he's basically Welsh. So, the continent. I don't have much money left, but..."

"Why would you want to go to the continent? It has fallen. We've signed our country away, it's theirs now. You should enjoy your fair isle while it's free."

"I've been to France," said Merlin suddenly. "It's called France now, right?"

"They've not renamed it yet," Gwaine said.

"Is that where you grew up? While I was travelling, I went there. It was very pretty. The food was a bit... garlicky, but I liked their bread. And cheese, do you remember, Arthur, I sent you some cheese! Did you like it?"

"It had turned mouldy by the time I got it."

"Yeah, it was like that from the start. I've not learned the language very well, though."

"France wouldn't be the way you remember it," said Gwaine. "You shouldn't go. Not now. Maybe some day, if..."

"We need to go now," Merlin sighed. "Gwaine, please. We're going anyway, but I'd like to go with you."

The man closed his notebook and stuffed it in his pocket. 

"Both of you?"

"Yes."

"Then my next appointment is cancelled. We can leave now, if you're ready."

"He just flutters his eyelashes at you, and you snap to attention?" Arthur huffed. "Nothing ever changes. There's no rush, tend to your little smuggling business, we'll wait."

"There's no point. With your weight, I can't take any more cargo. I'll have to leave behind some of the merchandise I've already got."

**

Gwaine had a car waiting outside, tucked into an alley by the pub, and he drove them out of Dover, up the coast and into the fields, to a shabby farmhouse.

They were greeted by a stern-faced middle-aged woman.

"What's all this?" she asked, squinting at them suspiciously. "Where are the crates?"

"I've got passengers instead," said Gwaine.

"Gwenaël, you know I'm only helping you because it's about fighting the Jerries," she frowned. "This isn't a touring operation."

"They're paying. Money's money."

"They'd better be paying their weight in perfume," she said and stomped back into the house.

There was a large shape tucked next to the barn, its silhouette stark and familiar.

"It's a German aeroplane," said Arthur, staring.

Gwaine grinned and patted an edge of the upturned metal wing.

"Yes, she's pretty ugly," he said. "But wait till you see her in action."

"I saw them in action. Over London."

Gwaine shrugged, unperturbed.

"Not this model," he said. "This baby is just a few months old. Brand new and improved. They've not been used in combat yet."

He opened the dome over the back part of the cockpit and hauled out a heavy crate.

"This is a two-seater," he said. "But I've ripped the gunner's seat out, so if we make some room, you both should be able to squeeze in here. It won't be comfortable, but it's a short enough trip."

"And why would you just happen to have a brand new German aeroplane?"

"My group raided a German airfield," said Gwaine casually. "Gotta love a good suicide mission. I managed to lift this one, and we blew up the rest."

"Oh, Gwaine," laughed Merlin affectionately. Gwaine puffed out his chest and made a show out of lifting another crate.

"I had an old Stuka before," he said. "They were easy to capture, during the Spanish campaign those bombers fell out of the sky left and right. They didn't have an autopilot yet, so when pilots blacked out on a dive, sometimes they couldn't recover fast enough to pull up again. I flew it for a while, but then it crashed into the sea."

"Wow," said Merlin, enraptured. "What happened?"

Gwaine pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the crate and uncapped it expertly.

"Can't really remember, I was drunk," he said and took a long swig straight from the bottle. "All right, get in."

**



When Arthur decided to join the RAF, he'd thought that aerial combat wouldn't be much different to learning to fence from horseback, or to fight with guns instead of blades: just a new skill to master, new weapons to get used to. Now, surrounded by loud noise and juddering machinery, separated from the abyss below by a thin metal wall, he wasn't so sure.

The aeroplane continued to climb, slowly and shakily, as if the air was riddled with invisible potholes. Arthur's body felt heavy, pressed against the sharp edges of the crates. He thought about the engine that held them in the air and kept them from falling: small parts clanking against each other, fragile springs, a mess of valves and pistons, countless components that could fail.

Merlin was calmly staring at the clouds through the dome above them, and Arthur began to worry that his unflappable attitude wasn't a good thing. Merlin's numbness to fear and confusion could be another side of that numbness to joy that had coloured their last years together.

There was an odd pressure building inside his head; suddenly it turned into a dull ache, and he went half-deaf.

"Something is wrong," he said loudly, rubbing at his ears.

"Oh, yes, that," Merlin nodded. "Just keep swallowing, it will pass soon."

"How would you know?"

"I've flown before."

"You can fly?" Arthur asked. He still didn't know the full extent of Merlin's power; he doubted even Merlin did.

"I have my means," Merlin smiled.

"So you can just..."

Arthur imagined Merlin soaring through the air, thin and long like an arrow, arms thrown wide like wings. Then he pictured himself hanging off Merlin's back like a sack of grain – no, travelling like this was probably easier. Definitely more dignified.

"Yeah, I can do all kinds of stuff," Merlin said with a shrug. "But I think it's best for me not to show my hand till we know what we're up against. We should blend in, do what they do in the future."

"That's wise," Arthur admitted. "I'll make a strategist out of you yet."

"Besides, if we hadn't done this, we wouldn't have met Gwaine!"

"He's not... No, Merlin, listen, I know you're used to Gwaine rushing to do your every bidding. But this man – he doesn't even know you. Doesn't it seem strange he's so eager to help you?"

"No," said Merlin simply, looking at him with a soft smile. "Remember when we first met him? He didn't know us, and he jumped into a bar brawl to save us. That's just how he is."

Arthur huffed and swallowed again, and this time his ears miraculously cleared. The aeroplane had levelled, rumbling along steadily. There were still many dangers; they could be spotted by enemy aircraft heading to raid London, and they didn't have the weapons to fight back. Arthur tried to think about this to stop himself thinking about the way Merlin had looked at the stranger who wore his dead friend's face.

Arthur had been alone for a very long time, and he'd found it bearable. He hadn't craved attachments; he'd enjoyed his privacy. He'd never had much when he'd been a royal.

But now he had Merlin back, and everything was different. The idea that something, or someone, could infringe on this, take some of it away, even the tiniest bit – the thought stirred something desperate and ugly in him, something he didn't want to admit to.

Arthur had never considered himself a jealous man. Merlin had always been welcome to his marital bed, and he loved to watch him bury his face between Gwen's thighs, or arch off the bed as Lancelot worked at him with his tongue. On long campaigns away they'd sometimes shared with the knights, but he'd never asked Merlin where he spent his rare nights away, and hadn't needed to know if he and Gwaine were lovers. But things were different then.

"I never asked you to be faithful," he said. Merlin glanced at him with a puzzled frown and Arthur rushed on, struggling for words.

"You know why that was," he said. "At least, I always thought you understood. We both knew from the start I couldn't be faithful to you. I had to marry some day, to sire children. But I'm not a king any more, I can do what I like. So, now... I'm asking."

"Wow," said Merlin after an unbearably long pause. "After all these years, I'm still surprised sometimes what a prat you can be."

"What?"

"Well, this isn't about me, is it? It's about Gwaine! What is it with the two of you, why does everything have to be a pissing contest? He barely said two words to me, and here you are, trying to mark your territory!"

"It's not-"

"It is! Otherwise you'd have said all this years ago, when you decided not to remarry!"

"I couldn't then," Arthur shrugged. "So my marriage had failed; it wasn't your fault, and your... friends weren't to blame either. I couldn't ask you to chuck them all just because I wanted you to myself. But now there's no one, there's just us, and I don't want you to start anything before you at least give me a chance -"

Merlin bit his lip and pushed toward him, awkwardly vaulting Gwaine's crates. He looked like he was about to land a punch, but instead he grabbed Arthur by the neck and yanked him closer, into a wet, rough kiss.

"You're mad," he mumbled, grazing Arthur's lips with sharp teeth. "You're a lunatic."

"Yes, fine, I know," Arthur conceded, kissing him back gently, trying to soothe. "I know I won't lose you. Not to Gwaine, not to - it's not like that with us, it's more than that - just forget I said anything."

"No," said Merlin and squirmed into a small space between crates and cockpit wall, to press against Arthur. "I want you to have me all to yourself, Sire. I'd like that."

They kissed, slowly, in silence, for a very long time. Arthur curled his fingers over the sharp angles of Merlin's shoulders and licked across his mouth, and felt hopeful.

"It will be good," he said finally. "I'll – everything will be different, you'll see. So many things went wrong last time. Things didn't even started out right. This time - "

Merlin pulled him closer and shut him up with more of those soft, lingering kisses, and Arthur let him, let himself float in mid-air, high above the sea, and not think, not worry about anything.

The aeroplane jerked around them; the engine groaned at a different pitch, and Arthur's body became weightless. The feeling was physically sickening.

"We're falling," Arthur said, trying to stay calm and not to dig his fingers into Merlin's arms.

"We're landing."

"Oh. Right."

"Don't worry. If we fall, I'll catch us."

It lasted forever. The aeroplane slid into a sickening nose-dive and levelled again in a shaky, stuttering motion.

"What's he doing, that drunken idiot," Arthur groaned, queasy from helplessness more than the changing altitude. "There aren't any bumps in the air, it shouldn't feel like we're being dragged over rocks!"

"Almost there," Merlin promised, and soon they hit the ground hard, then rattled forward at an impossible speed.

"Ow, ow," Merlin grunted, scrambling to brace himself and Arthur against the cockpit walls.

When they climbed out the ground didn't feel solid under Arthur's feet; it wobbled and lurched whenever he stopped concentrating. Some people were unloading the crates and arguing with Gwaine in French, talking too fast for him to follow. They weren't paying any attention to Arthur, and he gave in to a flash of vertigo and knelt on a neglected field covered by rotting ears of wheat.

Merlin crouched by his side, palming at the ground, and then lay down and stretched flat on his belly.

"Merlin, if you're making a fool of yourself to make me look less of a weakling," said Arthur, swallowing to stave off nausea. "Then, by all means, carry on."

"I'm listening to the magic. If Gilli is right, and the Vril people have been trying to pull the magic from the land, I should sense the distortion." Merlin frowned and pushed up. "No, it's still too far. I need to get closer."

The Frenchmen had unloaded the plane and were now pushing it off the field, towards a large barn. The farmhouse beside it was half burned, its windows dark and gaping. Arthur wondered what had happened here and what had become of the people who used to tend this field, but thought it best not to think of that any further.

"What's all the commotion?" he asked instead, after Gwaine had joined them on the remains of last summer's harvest.

"They don't think I charged you enough."

"I can give you more money!" said Merlin. "It's just painted paper, right?"

"Don't give it another thought," Gwaine shrugged. "So I guess you're a forger?"

"I'm many things," Merlin said coyly.

"I'm dying to know what your game is." Gwaine smiled. "I can tell it's not your first tango, my guess is that you're planning something exciting. But, of course, the less we know, the safer we are. We're going to drive you to Calais in a covered truck, so if you're captured you won't be able to lead them back to our base."

"We'd never betray you, Gwaine," said Merlin.

Arthur worried his sore fingernails and nodded:

"That's sensible."

"I'll be in town for a couple of days. There's a bar at the docks, you can find me there. If you need anything – I guess you're good for papers, but weapons, information..."

"We have what we need," said Arthur. "Actually, can I borrow a gun? I want to shoot a couple of bullets. Is it safe here?"

Gwaine narrowed his eyes, but obligingly produced a handgun from under his jacket. The model was unfamiliar, but the principle stayed the same. Arthur nodded and led Merlin to the line of trees at the edge of the field.

"I want to show you something," he said. "This is what they use now instead of crossbows. They have bigger ones, with more precision and power, but these are handy. Easy to carry or conceal, easy to shoot. Every enemy soldier will have one of these at least. Now watch."

He quickly took aim, guided by instincts from the last war, and fired into the middle of the nearest oak.

"Fuck," squeaked Merlin, clutching at his ears. "Ow, that's really loud. You could have warned me!"

"Did you see where it went?"

"Yeah, into that tree..."

"Go and take a look. I want you to see what it did."

"I get the idea, Arthur."

"Go and take a look."

Merlin rolled his eyes and trudged toward the tree. The Frenchmen had stopped their work, distracted by the shot, but were back at it now, loading crates into a big car with a wagon attached to it.

"We're almost ready," called Gwaine. Merlin was walking back now, pale, stumbling at the rows of broken wheat stalks.

"Okay," said Merlin. "Okay, yeah. You've made your point."

"Not yet. I want you to shoot it now."

"Arthur, I don't want to. I get it."

"You don't. You need to know how easy it is. How fast the enemy can do it. You need to know you can't hesitate. Come on," he pressed the gun into Merlin's clammy hand and guided him into the correct stance. "Just put your finger there... and squeeze. Harder."

The shot fired; Merlin's whole body jerked against Arthur's hold, and he dropped the weapon.

"It hurts," he said, rubbing his hand. "And I think it went wide. It's not that easy."

"You'll be better after a few days of practice. Everyone we face will have had more. You have to remember that."

"Well, this is going to be a fun trip for you without any weapons training," said Gwaine worriedly. "I'd kind of assumed you knew what you were doing..."

"I don't need weapons, Gwaine," said Merlin. "I am a weapon."

"Merlin..." Arthur started, and Merlin shook his head, baring his teeth in a stubborn grimace.

"No. I won't hide and lie again. Not now. I have magic, Gwaine."

"Magic? Like in a circus, or like the spiritual-"

"Like this," said Merlin and whipped his hand toward the oak, and the old tree shuddered, shedding the last of dead leaves, and split along the middle with a loud groan. The mutilated trunk swayed, sagging under its own weight; a few branches snapped off and fell down, on to the twisted roots.

"Guns can't do that," muttered Merlin, and Arthur decided to stand back and let him work through his anger, and to explain about cannon at a better time. Merlin aimed his right palm at another tree, hissing out his favourite fire spell, and stuttered mid-word when Gwaine caught him by both wrists and gave him a gentle shake.

"Don't," Gwaine said. "Stop destroying the French countryside, it's suffered enough."

Merlin stared at him, huffing angry breaths through flaring nostrils, and his eyes were yellow with magic, thoughtless and wild.

"You're not a weapon," Gwaine said. "You're a man. Merlin, my friend, you're a man."

"You don't know," said Merlin. "You've no idea what's going on. There are sorcerers in Berlin, people like me; they would fight. They would put all their magic behind those... guns, and machines, and they'll march with the invading army, to burn our kingdom down. And I have to stop them. I have to stop them."

"I know what's happening to you," said Gwaine softly. "It's happening to my men, too. Fighting changes you, of course it does, it has to. But if we forget we're human, the war will never end."

Merlin laughed harshly, rocked forward and pressed his forehead to Gwaine's shoulder.

"I know that. Fuck, you think I don't know that?" he mumbled. "Gwaine. Please. Come with us."

"To Berlin? Are you sure?" Gwaine shot Arthur a confused glance over Merlin's shoulder, and Arthur shrugged. He'd half-expected this.

"It's his mission. If he says he needs you, he needs you. Look, I understand that you have duties here, and it will be dangerous..."

"I could do with a holiday," said Gwaine cheerfully. "Even real soldiers get to go on leave. And what's life without thrills?"

"Thanks, Gwaine," said Merlin weakly, still clinging to him. "It's just... we're fighting the same enemy, so I thought... we don't really know this land, we could use help..."

He pulled back and quickly wiped at his face with his sleeve.

"I'm better, I swear," he told Arthur with a crooked, forced smile. "I'm just, I don't know. I'll go and get our things."

He went to gather their possessions from where the Frenchmen had dumped them on the field. Gwaine gave him an encouraging wave, and turned to stare at the ruined tree.

"Blood of Christ," he whispered. "That was..."

"That was nothing," Arthur said. "The things you're going to see if you come with us – listen, if you don't want to do it, I'll explain that to him. You've no reason to trust us. As far as you know, we're just a couple of lunatics going to the heart of enemy territory on some half-baked suicide mission..."

"You don't need to oversell it, I've already agreed," Gwaine grinned. "I'm not about to miss out on an adventure of a lifetime. Well, you seem less than thrilled to have me along, so if - "

"Actually, I'd be very grateful if you would join us," Arthur admitted grudgingly. "You are – I mean, you seem like a competent fighter and a good man. And you know what to say to him when he's... I never seem to know what to say."

"It's because you're too close. Nothing's easier than dispensing sage advice to complete strangers, my friend," said Gwaine, and although the endearment was just an annoying French figure of speech, it sounded real somehow.

"Friends," Arthur nodded and offered a handshake.


Webcomic by [livejournal.com profile] amphigoury


*

Gwaine had decided that trying to fly inland would be too dangerous, and that they should travel by train. They took the longer route, via Lille and Paris; Gwaine thought it would be faster and safer than trying to cut through Belgium, and he wanted to see some friends in Paris, fellow resistance fighters, to coordinate their efforts.

They had a small compartment all to themselves, and could talk to each other in English without drawing attention. The train was halted and searched by soldiers every few hours, but the papers Merlin had made to Gwaine's instructions seemed to satisfy them. The black guitar case holding Arthur's sword and Gwaine's gun was stowed under a seat with all the other bags. Merlin had enchanted it to be "mostly invisible", whatever that meant. The soldiers looked right at it and pushed it aside without opening it, before rifling through other luggage.

At one of the stops Gwaine ran across the platform and came back with provisions. The food was familiar from the last war – hearty crusty bread, mellow cheese and strong, heady French wine. Merlin chewed on a bread crust without enthusiasm, and seized the whole bottle of wine for himself, taking long, greedy swigs with grim abandonment.

"It's unwatered," Arthur warned.

"Of course it's unwatered!" said Gwaine, looking wounded. "Just because our country is conquered, we're not going to start watering down our Bordeaux! This isn't the best year, I give you that..."

"He's just not used to strong wine."

That wasn't exactly true. Since the nightmares had started, Merlin could put away yards of ale on a bad day, sometimes drinking unwatered whiskey till he made himself sick. Arthur had never been sure if he should put a stop to it, because at least on those days Merlin was out at an inn, talking to people, not moping alone somewhere dark. Besides, when Merlin was nursing a hangover he seemed quite cheerful, as if a headache kept other pains at bay.

"Oh, shut up, Arthur," Merlin said, defiantly gulping down more. "I can hold my drink just fine. If you recall, no matter how much I drank I never ran out on a balcony bollock naked yelling 'I'm the king of all I survey!'"

"That's because you'd be under the table by that point! And that was just once, I was merry, all right? How about I remind you of the time you turned the water in our well into mead?"

"Everyone liked that!"

"Yeah, till it was time to feed children, wash floors and do laundry."

"I undid it the same day, it only took me a few tries..."

"The whole town stank for weeks! Just give me this bottle before you turn this train into a pumpkin."

"I won't – ugh, you're such an overbearing clotpole, would you stop nagging?"

"I will when you behave like an adult and remember that we're on a mission..."

"Christ, the way you bicker," chuckled Gwaine. "How long have you been married?"

"We're not married," said Merlin sadly and took another enormous gulp of the wine. He was drunk already, badly slurring his words, heading to maudlin phase. "Not anymore. Our wife left us for our friend."

"Merlin, he's just making a bad joke," said Arthur. "And she wasn't our wife."

"What, I loved her too!"

It was true, he always had. Sometimes Arthur got an impression that Merlin had been more invested in their marriage than either of them. Merlin made them admit their first spark of attraction, and then kept fanning it till it blossomed into something more. He dragged confessions out of them both, passed messages, arranged dates, protected them against all odds. He'd convinced Arthur that Gwen would make a fine queen; he oversaw all the wedding preparations, and began setting up a nursery weeks after their wedding night. He'd made sure that bright, cosy room was kept tidy and clean of dust for many long years, ready and waiting.

He settled every argument they'd ever had, and he'd always been welcome in their bed, both of them wanted him there. Gwen had fancied him before she first kissed Arthur, even before she'd met Lancelot. Merlin kept talking about the names he thought would be great for their future babies, till Gwen asked him to stop. It had been his marriage, as much as theirs. When Gwen had decided to leave she spoke to Merlin first.
"Yes, but when you say our wife, it makes her sound like a floozy," Arthur explained.

"Actually, her fucking off with your friend sounds a lot worse," said Gwaine.

"No, it wasn't like that. It was love," said Merlin. "We're not angry."

He finished his wine and blinked owlishly, staring at the empty bottle in confusion.

"I'm just going to..."

"Be sick all over yourself?"

"No, I'll just nap," Merlin announced and slumped over Arthur's shoulder, burying his nose in Arthur's collar, and started hoarsely snoring right away.

Gwaine looked at him, smiling warmly, affectionately, just the way the old Gwaine used to stare at Merlin when his back was turned.

"You're lovers, aren't you?" he asked.

"Among other things, yes," Arthur said tersely, supporting Merlin's heavy limp body with an arm around his waist.

"Why ever did you marry someone else, you imbecile," Gwaine sighed. "You're everything to him. Even I can see it."

"I had to. And it was with his blessing, he pretty much chose her for me. He preferred that I married his friend rather than some snooty airhead my father had picked."

"Ah," Gwaine nodded. "That. Yes, you don't have to explain, my father was a vicomte."

"Really? So you're..."

"No. I'm nothing," Gwaine said, calmly busying himself with food. "My parents are gone, my name is on the wanted list, my family estate is a military base, my factory is making bullets to help keep my country on its knees. And that's as much as I'm going to tell you about my past. This is who I am now."

He brushed crumbs off his hands and toasted Arthur with his bottle.

"We'll stop overnight in Paris," he said. "I'll get you to a safehouse. You both look like you could do with some rest before we go further."




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