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PART ONE

The Ladies of the Lake

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Chapter 102: The Fallen Fairy

Freya stood at the edge of the world. The water lapping at her ankles was near-frozen, but she did not feel the cold. She felt nothing but the pull, the pull of Avalon. One step. Another.

“Freya!” Nimueh’s scream sounded very far away. “Freya, you idiot! You’re enchanted!”

Slack-jawed, Freya followed the sharp-toothed girl deeper into the lake. “Come, now, Freya,” the girl said now. “Don’t pay attention to Nimueh. She’s just jealous. Don’t you want to sit by my side in Avalon?”

“By your side,” Freya agreed. She reached out clumsily, and the girl took her hand.

“Ia bend dǽdon níwe. Cúðon gare íewe deahl sǽ áre.” As she chanted, she pushed Freya down into the water. That was all right; Freya would do anything for her love. And her eyes, such a lovely red…

And that was the last Freya remembered of her time in the lake.

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“No,” Arthur said. “No. He didn’t end the chapter here. He didn’t.” But when he scrolled down, there was nothing but the rapidly-filling comments section. He was going to have some choice words for that Dragoon idiot in his next email.

“Trouble in paradise?” Morgana said. She was lying on the limo bench across from Arthur and holding a heavily tattered copy of The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath above her face.

“Just this stupid webseries,” said Arthur. “The author wouldn’t know pacing if it punched him in the face.”

Morgana swung one of her legs off the couch and sat halfway up. “This wouldn’t be Ladies of the Lake, would it?”

“You’ve heard of it?” Arthur said in surprise. Morgana rolled her eyes.

“BuzzFeed did a write-up on it last week.”

“Oh.” Arthur stowed his phone in his bag, oddly disappointed. He’d liked having Ladies be a sort of secret.

“Oh, relax,” said Morgana, turning the page in her book. “It won’t catch on with anyone but nerdy hopeless romantics.”

“I—I am not a nerdy hopeless romantic!”

Morgana smiled evilly. “Does the name Vivian ring a bell?”

“Leon!” Arthur called out. “How much longer?”

“The glass is up. Here.” Morgana pressed the button controlling the window separating them from their chauffeur. “Leon, darling. How much longer until we get there?” You’d think she were thirty instead of nineteen.

“About ten minutes,” said Leon cheerfully.

“Thank God,” Arthur muttered, loudly enough for Morgana to hear him. Vivian she mouthed. Arthur crossed his arms and turned to look out the window. They were off the motorway, finally, and were passing loads of candy-colored semi-detached houses.

“I used to stay in those,” said Morgana, sounding a little wistful. “With my father.”

“You’re rich now,” Arthur said. “You don’t have to slum it anymore, Morgana.”

She turned her smirk on him. “Really, Arthur? You call beach-houses slumming it? You really aren’t ready to hear about flats.” She rolled down the window, letting in the fresh sea-scent. As they drove, the semi-detacheds became single houses, which grew larger and larger and farther and farther apart. Soon, they’d be at beautiful blue Tintagel, with its wooden shutters and large back porch that led directly onto the sand of their private beach. It had always surprised him that just a few miles away, holiday-makers with squalling children were duking it out for towel-space.

Arthur used to love the summer more than anything. Now, all he felt was nausea. Even Ladies wasn’t helping like it usually did. Dr. Mal’s voice sounded in Arthur’s head: distress tolerance. Paced breathing. Arthur hated paced breathing. It made him dizzy and he always felt so self conscious doing it in front of people, like he thought he was a fucking yogi or something.

“Ten quid Uther doesn’t show tonight,” said Morgana. Arthur looked at her askance.

“I’m not an idiot.”

“But he promised!” she said, widening her eyes in mock confusion. “You think Uther Pendragon would break a promise?”

“He did take you in,” Arthur said irritably. It wasn’t that he disagreed with Morgana, but someone had to stick up for his father. “You talk as though he’s never done anything for you.”

“One good deed doesn’t a good man make, Arthur.” Morgana flashed her straight, white teeth in something that could be called a smile. She tried to hide it, but she had a rage tucked into her heart, a bitterness that dribbled through her veins like liquid fire, ever since her father died. Arthur could never figure out why Morgana had turned this anger against Uther. At least betting on Uther’s unreliability distracted Arthur from the fact that he was in Ealdor for the first time in nearly two years.

“Well, at least you can rejoice in the fact he’s not your father.”

A strange expression crossed Morgana’s face, and she dove back into her book. Arthur wondered if he were going to vomit. In some feat of somatic impossibility, his nausea migrated from his stomach to his legs. His thigh muscles fluttered, and he pressed his clenched hands into his lap.

Morgana sat on her knees and leaned her upper-body out of the car, her sleek black hair fluttering like ribbons in the breeze. From behind, her thin shoulder-blades reminded Arthur of wing-stumps. “Gods, this is going to be a good summer.”

Leon turned onto to the drive that led up to Tintagel, and Arthur could see the house soaring against the clear sky. He knew every pillar, every latticed balcony railing. This was his home, just as much as Camelot was.

As soon as Leon pulled up to the house, Morgana and Arthur were out of the car. Arthur realized Morgana hadn’t followed him only when he reached the porch; she was getting her suitcases from the boot. “That’s what Leon’s for,” Arthur called out, and she flicked him the finger. Arthur sighed and trudged back to the limo. “You don’t mind, do you Leon?” Leon didn’t respond, just gave him a wry look that made Arthur feel very small.

“Oh, fine,” he said, taking his own suitcases in hand. It was odd, going inside Tintagel again. That first moment of stepping into the foyer and gazing up the grand staircase used to feel like stepping into a hot bath. There was still a touch of that, but there was also a sudden spike in his anxiety.

“Race you!” said Morgana, and then they were leaping up the staircase. Arthur, the pride of his school’s football and rugby teams, tripped halfway up, and Morgana won. She didn’t stick around to gloat, though; she was just as impatient as he was to get to her room. Wincing, Arthur rubbed the knee he’d struck against the wooden step, and limped the rest of the way up. His room was right at the top of the stairs, and he let himself in with relief.

The first thing he did, before he could talk himself out of it, was swing open the French doors leading to the balcony and take in the view. Rolling sand and sea, and palm fronds waving. Tomorrow morning, he’d be able to see the sun rise on ocean. He gripped the balcony with both hands and steadied his breathing. It was the ocean, and nothing more. And still his breath sped up. His pupils dilated, brightening everything.

Hair slipping through his fingers and the crack and the water and the choking and thrashing and he can’t find her, he can’t find her, and her hair, her hair slipping—

“Arthur!” Morgana had come out on her balcony, to the left of Arthur’s. She’d already changed from her traveling clothes into black jeans and heavy eyeliner; clearly, she was ready to hit up the club scene or whatever it was people like Morgana did for fun. Probably sacrifice cats. “I’m going into town, you want to come?”

It took Arthur a moment to be able to respond. “Not tonight,” he managed. “I’m pretty tired, think I’ll turn in early.” Morgana looked at him askance.

“Wasn’t the whole point of this vacation exposure therapy?”

Arthur waved at the water. “Exposure. See?” His trembling hand didn’t exactly sell it, and Morgana narrowed her eyes.

“Suit yourself,” she said finally. “See you on the flip side.” Her doors clunked shut behind her. Below Arthur, the waves seemed to mock him. He took a steadying breath and went inside. And then he realized he had to take a shower. It was inevitable; he felt disgusting from the car ride. This wasn’t one of those nights he could just change pants and be done with it.

“It’s just a shower, it’s just a shower, it’s just a shower,” Arthur chanted as he got undressed. It was a nice shower, too. Uther’d had the bathrooms redone in their absence, and Arthur’s gleamed. There was even, he realized, a Japanese toilet. How excessive. Morgana would be furious.

He tried to keep his mind on the toilet as he flipped on the shower. He hoped it wouldn’t automatically attempt to douche him or anything. Phobia or no, Arthur really didn’t want water shooting at his arse from the toilet bowl. He thought this was reasonable. Annoyingly, the shower was also fancy, and had controls with ridiculous stick figures on them. According to the picture, the last button on the right would electrocute you through the shower-head.

Still, turning on the tap was turning on the tap. He put his hand on it and told it to move. It didn’t. He told it more sternly. It sat there. He automatically wondered what Freya would do. She was sure she would cross the Isle when the time was right, and that was much deadlier than a shower. She’d shake and Nimueh would hold her hand and she’d be frightened of the dark magic roiling in the waters, but she would make it.

Arthur turned on the shower.

After, a little shaken up but still alive, he flipped open his laptop and navigated to the Ladies of the Lake home-page. Two years ago, Dragoon the Great had uploaded the first chapter of what would become an epic, sprawling novel about a young girl, Freya, cursed by a witch to turn into a winged cat-monster at the stroke of midnight.Ladies had quickly gained a cult following, with thousands, hundreds of thousands, of fans. It had inspired fanfic, fanwork, and hundreds of discussion boards. But compared with the general public, Ladies’ community of fans was tiny. Arthur’d never met another fan in real life, before.

And now, almost two years after the first chapter was posted, BuzzFeed had done a write-up. Arthur looked down on people who held so much stock in I liked this before it was cool. But—he had! There was something so special, so magical in Dragoon’s words. Whoever the author was, he’d clearly known grief. Arthur didn’t know if he would have made it through college if it weren’t for Ladies.

He pushed the BuzzFeed article out of his mind and read.

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DECEMBER 2016

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Chapter 17

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

I’m sure you get emails like this all the time, and I’m sorry to clog up your inbox, but I just finished your latest chapter and it’s incredible. Freya’s reaction when she learns about Galahad’s death makes so much sense. I didn’t cry, obviously, but it was close. I’m really not the type to send fan mail. It’s usually a puerile activity, where the sender thinks they have a deeper understanding of the celebrity/book/movie than anyone else. And I don’t think that at all. I don’t know why you write what you write, but what you write is perfect.

Thank you so, so much.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: Chapter 17

To: pencillizard@email.com

Why would it be obvious that you didn’t cry? Do you have a medical condition of some sort? Maybe you were born without tear ducts? If so, what do you do when cutting onions?

—TGD

PS I’ve sent quite a lot of fan mail in my time, and I’m not sure whether I should be offended. Please advise.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Chapter 17

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

You have a funny way of taking a compliment.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Chapter 17

To: pencillizard@email.com

Thank you for your compliments :)

It’s funny that you think I’m bad at taking compliments bc my best friend says I’m a slut for them.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Chapter 17

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

I command you to take my compliment.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: here’s the thing

To: pencillizard@email.com

No.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: here’s the thing

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

It’s really not that hard. All you have to do is say thank you.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

To: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: here’s the thing

Thank you.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: here’s the thing

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

See how easy that was?

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: here’s the thing

To: pencillizard@email.com

It was brutal and I nearly died. I hope you’re happy.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: :)

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

I am. And Chapter 18 was even better.

Merlin was going to kill Will. He fiddled with the yellow straw stuck into his glass of Diet Coke and wondered if the judge would see it his way. Underneath the pulsing, flashing lights Will and an unknown girl ground against each other. Stupid Will, always being so stupidly persuasive. It’ll be fun, Merlin! I promise I won’t abandon you at the first sight of tits!

“Another Coke?” Gwen said. After three straight hours of working the bar, her curls were plastered to her forehead with sweat, and her cheeks were flushed a bright, almost drunk-looking, red. Merlin grinned and pushed over his glass. She went to fill it, but was stopped by a pair of obnoxious summer people demanding refills.

“They all descended at once,” Gwen said miserably, once they’d left with their fruit-flavored cocktails. “I’m so frazzled.”

“Need any help?” he said.

“You’re off tonight,” Gwen protested, but Merlin was already reaching over and unlatching the gate separating the area behind the bar from the rest of the club.

“Have I ever told you that you’re an amazing friend?” said Gwen.

“Maybe once or twice,” Merlin said, laughing. Gwen ducked her head. Somehow, the club got even more crowded after that, and it was impossible to talk between filling orders. Merlin and Gwen communicated in bumped hips and shared looks. They’d known each other for so long that they didn’t have to speak to say things like, Is this arsehole really instructing me on how to make his drink? and Did she actually expect us to believe she was bringing the second drink to a friend? We can clearly see her finishing off both of them in that booth over there.

“Oh, my God,” Gwen said suddenly, grabbing Merlin’s shoulder as he worked the tap. “I think I’ve found the love of my life.”

“What, really?” He followed her gaze to a black-haired girl sitting at one of the bar stools.

“She brought a book to a club!” Gwen said. “She’s reading a book in a club! She’s perfect! Go take her order, Merlin.”

“Wait, me?” Merlin stared at Gwen. “Don’t you want to take her order?”

“I don’t know if I can,” Gwen said. “She’s reading! In a bar! And she’s gorgeous! I don’t know if I can pull myself together.”

“Gwen,” said Merlin. “You are a brave, powerful, bisexual woman. I believe in you.”

“Okay, okay, fine. Deep breath,” Gwen said. “In and out. I can do this. Lovely Black-Haired Girl, I’m coming for you.”

“That’s the spirit,” Merlin said cheerfully, patting Gwen on the shoulder. She flashed him a nervous smile and went to the counter. It was loud enough in the club that he couldn’t hear anything they said, but he was gratified to see LBHG throw back her head and laugh. For a summer person, she seemed all right. Humming to himself, Merlin wiped down the bar.

“Don’t be mad,” Gwen said, when the club was finally empty.

“Mad?” Merlin leaned his broom against the wall. “Why would I be mad?”

“At least you’re not Will. Please don’t be Will right now.”

“You’re scaring me,” Merlin said, half-joking, but only half. “What did you do?”

“Oh, me? I didn’t do anything. But, um. That girl. She’s Morgana. Morgana Pendragon.”

Merlin frowned, turning the name over in his mind. “You mean the Pendragon Corporation? The one we protested?”

“She and her brother are staying at one of the beach-side mansions,” Gwen said apologetically. “I know, I know, it’s even worse than a regular summer person, but you didn’t talk to her, and she’s so nice.”

“Wasn’t there a death?” said Merlin. “Like, someone in their family taking out a boat during a storm?”

Gwen winced. “That would be Morgana’s mum, I suppose. Yeah, two years back. And she really is so nice, you won’t believe it.”

“Gwen,” Merlin said reassuringly. “If you say she’s nice, I believe you. What book was she reading?”

“Hmm? Oh.” Gwen had been smiling down at a tabletop, lost in thought. “Anna Karenina. She said it was her third time reading it.”

“You love that book!” said Merlin.

“I know!” Gwen tossed her rag up and caught it. “I’m showing her the library tomorrow. And I’ll bring her by Gaius’s, obviously.”

“I’ll be there,” said Merlin, giving a mock salute. Thinking of Gaius made him remember the time, and he checked his watch. “Oh, shit. Gaius is going to kill me.”

“You’d better get going,” said Gwen, taking the mop from him. When Merlin tried to protest, she waved him off, saying, “I’ll text Elyan, he can help with the clean-up.” So Merlin found himself walking down the center of town at four in the morning. All the shops were sleeping, and, though he couldn’t see the ocean, he could hear its constant rushing and smell its salt. His head tingled with the peaceful calm. Maybe he would have Freya and Nimueh find a dormant village, à la Sleeping Beauty. Everybody slumbering where they had fallen. Freya and Nimueh surrounded by people but totally alone. Before he could forget that thought, he jotted it down in his phone’s Notes app.

The bookshop was quiet when he got back, and Gaius’s snores filled the upstairs flat. Merlin slumped in relief. He was eighteen, literally about to go off to Uni, and he was still sneaking in like a returning truant. In the tiny kitchen, Merlin made himself a cup of herbal tea and stacked a plate with biscuits. He retreated to his room, placed his snack on his desk, and booted up his computer, absentmindedly scratching underneath his sleeve the whole while. He hadn’t gotten to write all day, and he was thrumming with excitement. But first, he had to indulge his curiosity.

Google: “ealdor + pendragon + boat + accident”. Enter.

Pages and pages of results, mainly because of Uther. The headlines were all along the lines of PENDRAGON CEO TRAGEDY. Merlin found her official obituary easily enough. “Ygraine Pendragon, née de Bois, is survived by her husband, Uther Pendragon, and her son, Arthur Pendragon. The funeral will be held on Sunday in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.”

The pictures of her were mostly from official events, but there were some random pap shots, probably on days when the proper celebrities weren’t doing anything interesting. In one picture, dated September 2009, Ygraine, her hair pulled back in a smart bun, walked hand-in-hand with a little blond boy, who was much smaller than than his backpack. He was smiling up at his mother.

Ridiculously, absurdly, selfishly, Merlin was jealous. The woman was dead, for Christ’s sake. But the love in her face was almost painful. Merlin sighed and closed the tab. Soon, he was drawn completely into his story, and his small room, with its futon and Steven Hawking posters and stacks of SF books faded away, replaced by gnarled, wild trees, and the muddy lip of a magic lake.


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Docs—>lotl chpt. 104 rough draft

Nimueh stirred the water with her fingertips and frowned as the ripples smoothed themselves out.

“Found anything yet?” said Freya, anxiously peering over Nimueh’s shoulder.

“How am I supposed to scry if you keep interrupting me?” Nimueh snapped. She stroked the water again. This time, Freya kept quiet. Outside the cave, the sun was rising, and it lit both of them with its rays.

In the water, the images began to form, rippling on the water’s surface like flags. A freckled boy in a moss-green cloak, running through a forest. He tripped on roots and stones, but kept going. Nimueh tried to shift the image, see who or what was chasing him, but all she got for her efforts was a stabbing pain in her temples. Then the image shifted to Freya’s face, lit with what looked like fire. Her mouth was moving, and tears ran down her cheeks, leaving behind clean trails in the ash. The next few images flashed so quickly that Nimueh barely had a chance to memorize them.

A throne, set down in the middle of a clearing. A sword plunged into a stone. A burning leaf. A crystal cave. Herself, holding up the Cup of Life. Freya sprouting leathery wings, her face lengthening and growing fangs. The underbelly of a dragon as it passed overhead. A unicorn lying on its side, a crossbow bolt sprouting from between two ribs. A sign-post for a tavern called The Rising Sun swaying in a late-night breeze. And Freya. Freya, rising into the sky. Freya, falling back into the lake. Freya, lost and alone and wrapped in rags. A pyre. A skull made of mist. A hand reaching from the lake, reaching for the sky. Sword, in stone. Woods. Boy. Freya. Crystal. Nimueh. Chalice. Sword woods boy Freya Crystal Nimueh Chalice, nimuehchalicefreyaswordrisingsunrisingsunRISINGSUN—

All of the sudden, her connection snapped. The water was water once again. There was a hand in the water, swirling it furiously. Nimueh followed the hand to its owner: Freya, her eyes worried.

“Are you all right?” she said. Lightly, Nimueh pressed the pads of her fingers to her lids.

“I think my magic is stronger when we’re closer to the Isle.”

“Mine, too,” said Freya. She shivered. “I don’t much like it here.”

“No,” said Nimueh, “me neither. And I was born there.” She sat against one rocky wall with her hands in her lap. To her surprise, Freya knelt down and wrapped her in a hug.

“We’re going to win this war,” Freya whispered into Nimueh’s ear. “We’re going to win this war.”

Nimueh laughed harshly. “Promise?”

Freya’s solemn eyes met Nimueh’s skeptical ones. “Promise,” she said, and kissed Nimueh

No. This wasn’t how he wanted their first kiss to go. The problem was, he wasn’t sure if he should leave it for the climax, like a dramatic kiss before battle or something. He closed his eyes and pictured what his readers would say if he put it in now. They’d like it at first, of course. The comments section and his email would be filled with celebrations. And he knew he was being mean, dragging out Nimueya like this, always leaving them with a bit of doubt. The accusations of queerbaiting had begun ages ago.

Maybe he should write something confirming that they’d be getting together? No, he didn’t want to betray anything that was going to happen. He could up the UST, though, to a point where it would be obvious. Have Freya almost kiss Nimueh’s mouth and then blush or something. Okay.

Freya’s solemn eyes met Nimueh’s skeptical ones. “Promise,” she said, her face so close that Nimueh could pick out every gold fleck in her eye [cliché must replace]. Nimueh had noticed Freya’s beauty before, of course—it was impossible not to—but now she was especially struck by Freya’s high cheekbones. They curved sharply/arced upward, like apples? The curve of an apple? Like shoulder blades? Shoulder blades on a face?

Merlin set his shoulders and hit backspace. He was going to get this scene right even if it took all night. Even if it killed him.

***

“Arthur, wake up! It’s time to wake up!”

“Get off, I’m asleep,” Arthur groaned, turning over and pressing his face into his pillow. Maybe if he pressed hard enough, he could suffocate himself.

“You said you’d go into town with me today.”

“Noooooooo.”

“Yeeeeeeees.”

Arthur sat up against the headboard, blinking away the sunlight flooding the room. Morgana had opened all his windows and the doors to the balcony, and the sun was still on the east side of the house, which meant it was well within Arthur’s rights to be asleep right now. It also meant that the noise of the ocean was audible. “What time is it, anyway?” he said, trying not to cringe.

“Nine,” said Morgana.

Wait. “Father didn’t get in last night, did he?” Arthur said.

Morgana snorted. “You know Uther. All empty promises.” She didn’t quite pull off the casual tone.

“I’m not a pity project,” Arthur said. “You don’t have to yank me out of bed. I’ll get up when I want to.”

“Arthur,” said Morgana. “I’m a fucking orphan. If I’m sympathetic, it’s because absent parents are rubbish, not because I pity you.”

“Oh,” said Arthur. “Right.”

“Anyway,” said Morgana, gliding away from his bed, “I’ll see you downstairs in fifteen for some quality sibling time.”

“You will not!” Arthur called after her. But she did.

It turned out that what Morgana meant by “quality sibling time” was talking about literature with the bartender from The Forge. The two of them skipped merrily down Main Street, their heads tilted together as they excitedly chattered about authors and books Arthur’d never heard of.

“Once you get through that terribly claustrophobic first chapter,” Morgana was saying, “and it really is quite claustrophobic, and you get to the college—have you noticed that so much dark academia is based on Bennington?—and you get to the college, you just want to hug her, but you also want to throw the book far away and take a breathing break.”

“Actually, oh, my God, I just read the best book that reminded me of Hangsaman!” Gwen, the bartender, said. “Freshwater? It’s about this woman, Ada, who has all these spirits in her brain, all of them with different personalities, which I suppose reminded me of Naomi because of Toni. And she has this traumatic experience…” Arthur wondered whether they’d notice if he just stopped walking.

At least it was a lovely day. Warm, with a hint of a breeze. And the Victorian houses, converted into shops, were pleasing with their bright trims and colorful doors. They passed a sidewalk café, and he entertained the idea of stopping there and continuing his Ladies reread at one of the small circular tables. But just as he thought that, Gwen was hopping up the porch steps to the bookshop next door. Arthur glanced up at the sign as they walked in: The Apothecary. Terrible name for a bookshop, Arthur mused. Truly terrible.

Inside, the shelves were packed tightly together, creating terse little corridors. A rickety metal staircase led to a mezzanine area. Arthur eyed the staircase skeptically; it didn’t look like it could withstand a child’s weight, let alone full-grown customers.

“Gwen!” said the boy at the register, looking pleased. “And hi again, Morgana.” He stuck his hand out for an ironic little handshake.

“Merlin, right? This is Arthur, my brother,” said Morgana, and Merlin turned a 100 watt smile on Arthur. He had a cheerful, open face that dimpled when he smiled, a thatch of cowlicked black hair, and sharp, high cheekbones. Arthur wasn’t much for instant attraction, but this boy was bloody gorgeous. He couldn’t help smiling back, just a little. His smile faded a bit when he realized that behind that cheerful face, Merlin was assessing him. Taking in the Rolex, the chinos, the oxfords. Arthur had to admit, he was dressed much more preppily than anyone else here. Still, what right did that give Merlin to judge him?

So Arthur said the first thing that came into his mind: “Do you ever hoover in here? This place is filthy with dust.” Morgana and Gwen stared at him. Merlin laughed disbelievingly.

“That’s the first thing you say?” He shook his head, laughing again. “You’re such a summer person.” Perfect. Arthur’d just confirmed everything Merlin had been thinking.

“I apologize for Arthur, I don’t know why we let him out of the house,” said Morgana, glaring at him. Was it getting hotter inside the shop? Arthur was definitely feeling hotter.

“So, anyway, let me show you around,” Gwen said, and tugged Morgana into the stacks. Arthur crossed his arms and leaned against the side of a bookshelf.

“You don’t like books?” said Merlin.

“What?”

“You’re not browsing,” said Merlin.

“I’m reading something else right now,” Arthur said tightly. Merlin nodded. They fell silent. “You’re not browsing,” Arthur pointed out when the silence had become unbearable.

“I have this thing called a job, you might have heard of it?” said Merlin. “I’m the cashier, which means I—”

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” said Arthur. “Has anyone ever told you that you’ve a talent for comedy?”

“My humor is my best trait,” Merlin said. “You know those questions on applications that ask you to describe yourself in a few words? Well, where you would put prattishness, I put humor.” He said this lightly, without any real malice. Arthur was about to respond when the bell on the door tinkled. Merlin beamed at the new arrival, a tall boy who had what Arthur privately thought was a rabbity face. Giving Arthur a look that could be described only as disdain, he turned towards Merlin, effectively blocking Arthur out from the conversation. Still leaning against the wall, Arthur took out his phone and resumed his reread.


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Ladies of the Lake—>Chapter 3

Freya’s life was taking on a dismal pattern. By day, she curled up in her cave by the lake and tried to forget how terribly damp and cold she was. By night, she hunted. Throughout the past few months, she’d managed to gain more control over her monster form, sating herself with cows and horses. It used to be horrific when she woke up full, knowing what was in her stomach. Now she accepted no longer having to scavenge for food as a silver lining.

When she wasn’t sleeping or hunting, she was sitting at the lake’s edge, staring out into the permanent mist that hovered over it. Her people, the Druids, said that the mist obscured a secret isle, inhabited by the last priestesses of the Old Religion. That was why Freya had come, in the beginning. She’d thought that maybe the priestesses would be able to help her. But the Isle let in only those it picked, and it hadn’t picked her. Maybe the Isle wasn’t even real. There were also myths that the lake led to a fairy realm, but Freya hadn’t seen any evidence of that.

But Freya, abandoned as she might be, was a daughter of the Druids. She prayed at the edge of the lake whenever she could. Great Mother, I beg of you, grant me entry. Sometimes, though more and more rarely, she’d perform small feats of magic, to remind herself that she’d once been something other than a monster. Mostly she used it to tend to the trees and wildflowers, but sometimes she would do something purely frivolous, like summon a light out of thin air. And there was the fire, which was useful in the colder months.

So the days and months passed, and Freya gave up hope of ever finding a different life. No, she was certain she’d grow old here, until her wings were too tired too fly and her body too weary to drag itself out of the cave. It was lucky, then, that she met the Lamia when she did.

“Really?” said a voice dripping with disgust. “You’re on your phone in a bookshop?” It took Arthur a moment to dredge himself up from the Lake of Avalon and Freya’s solitary despair. It was Will who’d spoken, of course.

“Leave him alone, Will,” Merlin said, to Arthur’s gratification. But Will kept going.

“Really, I don’t know what I’d expect from someone like you. I always forget how much I need to lower my expectations.”

“Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed or something?” said Arthur.

“He always does,” Merlin said blithely.

“And for your information,” Arthur continued, “I’m am reading a book.”

How to Win Friends and Influence People doesn’t count,” said Will.

“No, I got that one out of the way when I was five,” said Arthur.

“Fine,” said Will, “let me see.” And he snatched Arthur’s phone out of his hand. He stared down at the screen for an uncomfortably long time.

“Er, I think your friend may be malfunctioning,” Arthur said to Merlin.

“No, no,” said Will, beginning to giggle. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Look, Merlin.”

“Oh,” said Merlin, when he saw what was on Arthur’s screen. His face was still.

“BuzzFeed did an article about it,” Arthur said defensively, though he didn’t really know why they were reacting like this.

“Is that how you heard of it?” said Merlin, passing back Arthur’s phone.

“Yeah,” Arthur lied. “Why, you’ve read it?”

“In passing,” said Merlin. “I mean, I’ve read some of it.” Arthur almost demanded how Merlin could have possibly stopped reading once he’d started, but remembered just in time that he was playing it cool. No need to mention the hours he’d spent reading in school, in bed, becoming part of the story. Crying and not being sure if he was crying for his mum or for Freya’s brother. Even emailing Dragoon to tell him what the story meant to Arthur. Nobody else knew what Freya’s story meant to him. Nobody. Arthur was afraid that telling someone about his connection to the stories would weaken or cheapen it, and he wasn’t even sure where he’d start if he wanted to. His mum’s funeral? The panic attacks?

“I’ve read it,” Will offered. “It’s not that good.” Merlin swiped at him, and he ducked.

Arthur had limits. “Not that good? What I’ve read so far is fantastic.”

“Oh, don’t listen to Will,” Merlin said. “He has terrible taste in literature.”

“Says the man who doesn’t like The Lord of the Rings,” Will scoffed.

“Really?” Arthur said, finding it strange to be united with Will. “You don’t like it?”

“It’s so sexist!” said Merlin. “And before you tell me Tolkien was a product of his time, C. S. Lewis was his contemporary, and he managed to work in more than two women. And even if he was a product of his time, that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy reading his books.”

“You sound like Morgana,” said Arthur, amused. “Except that she’d tell you C. S. Lewis was a terrible racist.”

“Who sounds like me?” Morgana appeared out of nowhere, a stack of used books in her arms. “C. S. Lewis? He does not.”

“Morgana, seriously,” said Gwen, trailing after her. “You don’t have to pay for me.”

“I forgot to give you a tip last night,” Morgana said, which Arthur knew was a lie because Morgana never forgot to tip. “It’s only fair.”

Merlin counted up the prices on the tiny yellow stickers. “That’ll be twenty-three pounds, please. Cash only, until I can get Gaius to join the twenty-first century.”

“Gaius?” said Morgana, handing over the money.

“My uncle,” said Merlin. “He owns the shop.”

“He’s in the study?” said Gwen. Merlin nodded. “Gaius is an historian,” she explained. “He used to teach at Oxford, but he retired last summer.”

“The history of magic,” Will said with relish. “Or the history of the belief in magic, to be more precise.”

“Hear that, Morgana?” said Arthur. “Sounds perfect for you. She used to be a witch,” he added. “Put curses on our neighbors.”

“I wasn’t a witch, I was a Wiccan. There’s a difference.”

“So you’ve returned to God’s church?” said Will.

“Oh, no,” said Morgana. “I’ve simply realized that we live in a cold, uncaring universe that couldn’t care less if we live or die.”

“That’s cheerful!” Gwen said brightly.

“It’s her specialty,” said Arthur, fondly shoving Morgana’s shoulder.

“Shall we get something to eat?” said Will. “I’m absolutely famished.”

Gwen looked at Arthur and bit her lip. “Maybe…I don’t want to be rude…”

“To Arthur?” said Morgana. “It’s good for him. Someone needs to take a pin to that ego.”

“Well, it’s not a big deal, but he might be uncomfortable, so maybe before we get something to eat, Merlin could lend Arthur something to wear?” said Gwen.

“No,” said Arthur. He turned about, but didn’t find a single sympathetic face. “Absolutely not.”

“Come on, then,” said Merlin. “I’ll show you to my room.”

Merlin leaned against his shut door and watched Arthur disgustedly pick his way through the chest of drawers.

“What is this,” he asked, holding up a raggedy Fleetwood Mac t-shirt and looking a little ill. “Are those pit stains?”

“Yep,” said Merlin, severely unimpressed with this new guest. “Not all of us go for runs in sweat-resistant polysynthetic blends.”

“You run?” said Arthur, looking like Merlin had just announced he was a practicing sorcerer. “You?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Merlin.

“You can barely walk in a straight line without tripping yourself!” said Arthur.

You’d think one of his million au pairs could have taught him some manners. “Look,” said Merlin, “just pick something.”

“Fine,” said Arthur, snatching a long-sleeved red shirt and a pair of jeans. He stared at Merlin, and Merlin stared back, confused. “Some privacy?”

“Oh, right,” said Merlin. “Forgot about that.” He waited in the hallway, not exactly fuming, but definitely annoyed. When they’d first walked into his bedroom, Arthur’s thoughts had been crystal clear. The curling posters of scientists, the tiny bed, the left-out bowls of oatmeal (they weren’t that disgusting)—none of them passed Arthur’s judgement.

And he was reading Ladies! Merlin shook his head, chuckling. He wondered if Arthur would treat him with a bit more respect if he revealed that he was the author written-up on BuzzFeed. Probably not.

“Okay, I’m ready,” said Arthur, stepping into the hallway. Merlin swallowed. He’d seen that Arthur was fit before, of course, but the general douchiness of his clothing had gotten in the way. Now, in a casual shirt and dark blue jeans, feet clad in trainers, he looked sort of gorgeous, in a sculpted, mainstream, blond kind of way. What?” Arthur pursed his too-pink lips. “I don’t look stupid enough for you?”

“No, no, you look fine,” Merlin reassured him. “You’ll fit right in with us poor folk.” Arthur rolled his eyes.

“Let’s go,” he said, throwing a heavy arm over Merlin’s shoulder and leading him to the stairs, as though this were his house and not Merlin’s.

“Wait a sec,” said Merlin. “I’m just going to check on my uncle.” He rapped on the closed study door with the back of his hand before opening it a crack. “Gaius?”

“What is it, Merlin?” Gaius said grumpily. He was sitting at his roll-top, referencing a giant leather-bound tome while scrawling something down on a yellow legal pad. His white hair was sticking up in all directions. Merlin smiled fondly at the sight.

“I’m going out with some mates for lunch.”

“But your lunch-break isn’t until noon.”

“It’s noon, Gaius.”

“Oh. Is it really? Go on, then, I suppose. Don’t forget to lock up behind you.”

“Course not.” Merlin carefully shut the door behind him.

“Is he a crazy genius or something?” said Arthur as they clattered down the stairs to the shop. “Because he looks like one.”

“Yeah, he’s brilliant,” said Merlin. “I’m really lucky to have him. We’re back!” he said, to forestall any questions Arthur might have about why he was living with a great-uncle and not parents.

“Bloody finally,” said Will. “I’m starved.”

Watching Arthur eat at a snack shack by the beach was maybe the most entertaining thing Merlin ever seen in his life. First Arthur picked at the hamburger bun, clearly confused why it was so industrial-looking and not hand-crafted brioche or whatever. Then there was the way he held the soggy lettuce at the end of his fingers, and his total disdain over the leaking tomato. Merlin and Will exchanged a look.

Morgana, though Arthur’s sister, was doing a much better job at being ordinary. She and Gwen were sharing a giant tub of vinegar-doused chips, and Morgana didn’t look put out in the least by the state of the produce in her veggie-burger. It appeared that Arthur was just a total arse, then.

“You should have seen the look on his face,” Gwen was saying, “when I mentioned the sub-section of law 29. So I was able to argue not just morally, but bring up a whole legal precedent. It was brilliant!” Her face was glowing with the memory.

“Gwen’s a blood-sucker,” Will said. “Acts all sweet and innocent, but as soon as they press start on that timer, Ealdor’s Debating Champ takes over.”

“I’ll have to go to one of your debates this year,” said Morgana.

Gwen smiled down into the chips bucket. “I’d like that.” Merlin kicked Gwen under the table and gave her a grin. She raised her eyebrows like, Yes, I know, I’m great, aren’t I?

“Merlin, we on for tonight?” said Will.

Merlin groaned. “Again?”

“Merlin’s a homebody,” said Gwen. “If we left him to his own devices he’d never leave the shop. But you’d have to go out tonight anyway, Merlin, you’ve got first shift at the bar.”

“Oh, shite, thanks for reminding me, Gwen. I totally forgot.”

She frowned worriedly at him. He gave her a reassuring smile, unconsciously scratching his arm. It was annoying, but at least Will and Gwen cared. It would be hard to find more loyal friends.

“Is that woman feeding her dog ice cream?” Morgana said suddenly, swiveling in her seat. “Oh, my God. She’s letting it lick from her cone. And now she’s licking it too! Gwen, Gwen, I can’t look!” Morgana buried her face in Gwen’s purple sweater. A spark lit in Merlin’s brain, and he closed his eyes.

Nimueh and Freya sharing food while she’s in her Bastet form. Could be adorable. Have Nimueh take a bite of a lamb’s leg or something, cooked, obviously, and then give a bite to Freya. As ideas went, it wasn’t brilliant, but he put it into his Notes app anyway. But mentally dipping back into the story had unlocked the idea-section of his brain. Nimueh and Freya had to get to the Isle of the Blessed and pull the sword from the stone in order to close the gateway between Albion and Avalon. Nimueh, as a priestess-in-training and former handmaiden to the last High Priestess, knew the—

“Merlin? Are you deaf? Merlin!” Merlin jolted.

“Er, sorry,” he said, rubbing his left temple with the heel of his hand. “I was just thinking.”

“Don’t pull a muscle,” said Arthur. It was his voice that had pulled Merlin out of his thoughts.

“I’ll try not to,” said Merlin, going for his best cheeky grin.

“Well, good,” said Arthur.

“Come out with us tonight?” Gwen said to Morgana.

“I’d love to.”

“What about you, Arthur?” taunted Will. “Going to hang out with the townies?”

“I don’t see why not,” Arthur said stiffly.

Will smirked. “Do you just not feel the stick up your arse anymore, or…”

“Will!” said Gwen.

“No, it’s all right,” said Arthur, gazing cooly back at Will. “I don’t mind criticism. What is it you do for fun around here, anyway? Stargaze? Count sand?” Automatically, Merlin turned to look at the slopes of sand and sea on the other side of the boardwalk. If he didn’t have to get back to the shop, he’d suggest a swim right now. He was starting to get antsy, caught between Arthur and Will—not that he was on Arthur’s side, but he knew that Will said everything he thought, and that could get exhausting.

“Merlin?” Gwen said quietly, shifting on the bench to look at him. “You’re all right?” They were sitting next to each other, and, to Merlin’s relief, Arthur and Will were too wrapped up in their argument to notice Gwen’s concern.

“I’m fine. A little anxious,” he amended.

“Do you need your—?”

“No,” Merlin said, a little too quickly. “I’m fine, Gwen.” She looked like she was deciding between switching to argument mode and backing off, but then Morgana thankfully tugged Gwen’s arm and pulled her back into their conversation. At first he thought it was luck, but then Morgana caught his eye over Gwen’s shoulder and winked.

“Oi!” Will said. “Mordred, where’s your dad?” Mordred, wide blue eyes innocent as ever, snatched his hand back from Will’s chips tub. Merlin couldn’t help being impressed, for the thousandth time, at Mordred’s ability to creep on people.

“Argh, why are you so adorable?” said Gwen, reaching over to tickle Mordred’s stomach. He laughed silently and took a step back. Like always, he was wearing his Green Lantern cape and sucking on Ring Pop.

“He tried to steal my chips!” said Will, but he was laughing, too. Mordred flashed Will a quick grin, then clambered up next to Merlin, resting his head on his shoulder. Merlin felt his heart swell with fondness for the weird little kid.

“This your son or something?” said Arthur.

“Yep,” said Merlin. “Had him when I was ten years old.” Arthur looked like he didn’t know whether to believe Merlin or not.

“He’s Cerdan’s son,” said Gwen. “He runs the ice cream stand at the end of the boardwalk.”

“Does everybody know everybody here?” Arthur sounded incredulous.

“Arthur’s lived in London since before he was born,” said Morgana dryly. “He’s not used to small towns.”

“Haven’t you lived in London all your life, too?” said Will. Morgana and Arthur exchanged a look, and Morgana shrugged.

“I was adopted nine years ago,” she said, casually pulling her long, glossy black hair up into a half-pony. “When I was ten.” A wave of sympathy rushed through Merlin. Gaius had never adopted him, but he might as well have. It had been a year since Merlin last saw his mother.

“Oh,” said Will. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine,” said Morgana, her tone clearly ending the discussion. Merlin checked his watch.

“I’d better head back,” he said reluctantly. “You want to come to the shop with me, Mordred?” Mordred nodded emphatically. As he walked away, Mordred in his arms, he glanced back at Arthur. The sun was lighting him from behind, outlining his aquiline nose and strong jaw in gold and giving him an undeserved halo. Why were beautiful people always the worst gits? Merlin sighed and turned away.

Merlin looked like an elf. Was that weird thing to think? Should he tell Merlin that he looked like an elf? It was just, with the flashing club lights, and Merlin’s large ears and sharp cheekbones and black hair contrasting with his pale face and his long, clever fingers as he made a cocktail or something, and, and, and…Arthur was really drunk. Oh, well. He tossed back another shot and slid it across the bar the way they did in movies, only he overshot and it crashed to the floor on Merlin’s side.

“Thanks a lot,” Merlin said, or at least, that was what Arthur thought he said, but the music was really loud and he felt a little bit deaf.

“Hi, you,” said a voice in his ear, and Arthur turned to see, oh shit, was that Nora? The last time he’d seen her was the day before his mother’s funeral, and her hair wasn’t blue anymore but a shocking pink. “Wanna dance?” Her breath still smelled like bubblegum and vodka, and Arthur was so happy to see her. Maybe he’d pull tonight, after all.

“Sure,” he said happily and followed her into the chaotic crowd on the dance floor. A techno song bashed them over the heads, but he was just at that stage of drunk where he needed something like this, something wild and bigger than himself. He wondered what his father would say if he could see Arthur grinding with a sort-of-punk girl on a dance floor. Probably something like, Does eight years of ballroom lessons mean nothing to you?

Correct, Father. Eight years of ballroom means absolutely nothing. He ran his hands down Nora’s ribs, and she felt like living energy. He wondered if Merlin were watching. See Merlin? I’m actually quite charming. Nora’s bright-red mouth and bright-blue eyes drew him closer and closer, and the thought of Merlin faded away. Actually, he realized, Nora looked a bit like he imagined Nimueh. Straight nose, loose corkscrew curls, if that even made sense, did that make sense? Loose corkscrew curls?

“You have pretty hair,” he said, leaning his forehead against Nora’s. She tasted like bubblegum and vodka, too, and he really, really liked that taste. He could feel himself getting hard, and she could feel him, too, and she smirked at him and they kept dancing. He caught a glimpse of Morgana over Nora’s shoulder, doing what she called her “lesbian mating dance”, which as far as he could tell was normal dancing except maybe a bit more aggressive, a bit more confident, than dancing had a right to be. It certainly seemed to be working on Gwen, whose eyes were star-bright. Merlin popped back into Arthur’s mind, and he tried to look at the bar, but there were too many thrashing bodies in the way.

Stupid Merlin, not liking Ladies. Who the fuck didn’t like Ladies? It was a work of art! Arthur couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to be inside The Great Dragoon’s brain. The Lamia! Kilgharrah and Aithusa! Those weird mole rat things that almost ate Freya and Nimueh in the tunnel! Nora head-banged to the music, and he hoped she wasn’t hurting her brain. Her teeth were white and perfect when she smiled, and ran his tongue over his own crooked teeth, and did his mouth really taste that gross? Nora didn’t seem to care, pulling him down into another kiss, and he felt her breasts against his chest, and she took him by the hand and they worked their way through the dance floor and through the side-door into the alley, and she pressed him to the wall and she began sliding down to her knees, and then she vomited. Luckily, not much splashed on his trainers, but it was a close call.

“Are you all right?” said Arthur, not really feeling less drunk, but definitely coming down a bit from his dancing high.

“I’m sorry,” said Nora, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’ll give you a handjob instead.”

“No,” said Arthur, gently moving her hand from his zip. “You’re too drunk.”

“You don’t want a handjob?”

“Let’s get you some water,” Arthur said soothingly. After the cool quiet of the alley, the club felt too hot, too loud, and it was a predictable nightmare getting to the bar.

“Merlin!” said Nora when they finally made it. “Water, on the house.”

“Water’s always on the house,” Merlin said, a smile in his voice. “Drink it slowly.” He filled another cup and gave it to Arthur. “You’re almost as drunk as she is.”

“Am not,” said Arthur, but he drank it down anyway.

“Can I go the back room, Merlin?” Nora said. “I’m tired.”

“Sure. You remember the code?”

“Yep. Come on, Arthur.” She tugged him off the bar stool, and he wobbled a bit when he hit the ground.

As it turned out, the back room was actually a lounge, with a few couches and a small TV mounted in the corner. Nora collapsed on the nearest couch. “Stroke my hair,” she commanded, so Arthur sat cross-legged on the floor and ran his fingers through her curls. He was just starting to drift off, his forehead against the couch, when the door banged open and Merlin barged in.

“Stop, you shouldn’t—oh.”

“I’m asleep,” Arthur groaned. “Go away.”

“Sorry,” said Merlin, “I was just making sure that, um.”

“That I wasn’t taking advantage her?” said Arthur.

“Yeah,” said Merlin. “But you’re not. So that’s good.”

Arthur poked about for feelings of outrage, but he couldn’t really find any. If anything, he felt respect. “You’re a good friend,” he said. Merlin looked surprised, then pleased. “She looks like Nimueh,” he added.

“Nimueh?” said Merlin. “What do you mean?”

“From the web-series,” Arthur said. “The one you idiotically don’t like.”

“I don’t not like it, I just…whatever.” Merlin shifted on his feet. “Sorry to ask this, but would you come back to the bar with me? Nora’s passed out, and I trust you, I do, but it also don’t really know you, so it wouldn’t be right of me to leave you. Bar?”

“She could have been taking advantage of me, you know,” Arthur said.

“And if you were the one passed out, I’d take care of you,” said Merlin. Back at the bar, he gave Arthur another cup of water, and even added a lemon wedge.

“Can you at least tell me why you didn’t like it?” said Arthur, when the club was finally starting to empty and the noise-level was finally going down.

“Like what?” said Merlin, leaning his forearms on the counter. When he smiled, his cheekbones formed two sharp peaks.

Ladies of the Lake.”

Merlin’s smile slipped away. It was funny how fast expressions traveled over his face, like electricity over wire. A twitch of his lips, and he looked joyful beyond measure; a twitch of his eyebrows and he was a doctor about to deliver a terminal prognosis. “I don’t like it or not like it. I barely remember it.”

“You like to read, though.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your favorite book?”

American Gods.”

“Favorite movie?”

2001.”

“Drink?”

Merlin picked up a cup and began wiping it down with his rag. “I don’t drink.”

“But you’re a bartender.”

“Once again,” said Merlin, “some people have these things called jobs.”

“Merlin!” said Gwen, appearing rather suddenly at Arthur’s elbow, Morgana in tow. “I’m heading out now; Elyan will be down in a bit to take over.”

Arthur suddenly felt very tired. “I think I’ll go, too. See you around, Merlin.”

“Yeah,” said Merlin. “See you around.”

mobile streaming

JUNE 2018

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: fuck you

To: pencillizard@email.com

Language! And I think you’ll find chapter 103 more satisfying.

My summer’s okay. And idk how i feel about the buzzfeed thing. It’s weird. At least i wasn’t trending like poor Kylie and her nip slip. I think i could do well as a buzzfeed writer. I’d cruise LA for accidentally bared nipples, snag the shot, and cover it with an OMG sticker. Journalism has always been my passion.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: fuck you

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

You can’t go right into the journalism, Goon. You have to pay your dues. You can start as my PA if you want.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: ????????

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Oh, my God, are you the buzzfeed writer who doxxed me??

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: ????????

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

>:( Severely offended that you think I could be the author of such articles as “Thrupple: The Word You Never Knew You Needed” and “17 GIFs of Zach Efron Sneezing”.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: apologia

To: pencillizard@email.com

Apologia apologia apologia apologia :)

It took a week for Uther Pendragon to arrive. Morgana was out when he came; Arthur was reading Ladies in bed, like always. He hadn’t gone into town since the first day, not keen on being mocked by Will. Not keen on socializing, really. The anniversary of his mother’s death was approaching, and Arthur felt melancholy. At least he had Dragoon to keep him company. Besides being a brilliant writer, Dragoon was also extremely prolific: each chapter was around 7,000 words. Arthur, who liked to take his time reading, was only on chapter 24. Nimueh hadn’t even shown up yet; poor Freya was still wandering around on her own. He’d just gotten to the bit with the troll seducing the king of Cornwall when his father opened his door.

“Arthur,” he said, his lined face set in its permanent grimace, like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders instead of a mergers and acquisitions firm.

“Father,” Arthur said, too surprised to even feel surprise. “You’re here.”

“I’m sorry I was held up,” said Uther. “There was nothing I could do about it.”

“I’m sure not,” said Arthur.

“I’m going to change, and then you’ll join me for dinner in the dining room.”

Arthur sighed. He might have wanted his father here at the beginning of the week, but right now, all he wanted was to read his fucking book. But nobody said no to Uther Pendragon.

Arthur’s plate was chipped. He wondered if he should point this out, or if it would anger his father too much. They could probably get it repaired, though he wasn’t sure, not knowing much about chinaware. At least it wasn’t one of his mother’s plates, with the delicate golden rim and twining roses. If anything happened to those, heads would roll.

“I trust you have been spending your time well?” Uther said, when Isolde had cleared the first course (lemon asparagus and chilled soup, easy things, which she always made when things weren’t going well with Tristan) and laid out the second (filet mignon, which meant there was still hope).

“Yes, Father,” said Arthur, taking a fortifying gulp of red wine. “Ealdor is very beautiful.”

“It’s unfortunate that Morgana is not home,” said Uther, the lines in his forehead deepening. “Is she often out at this hour?”

“It’s seven o’clock!” said Arthur. “Still daylight out.”

“There are dangers everywhere,” said Uther.

“I know,” said Arthur. “How was your week?”

Uther sighed. “Typical, I’m afraid. After all that, we’ve not got Japan signed onto the deal. I’ll be heading out again tomorrow morning.”

“Oh,” said Arthur. He chewed on his meat. A little overcooked. Maybe Tristan and Isolde were finished, after all. There was a long pause. Uther wasn’t eating at all, but staring contemplatively into his goblet.

“I’ve got a question for you,” he said, face solemn. Arthur’s heartbeat picked up as he racked his brains trying to figure out what Uther was going to ask.

“Uh, shoot,” said Arthur, warily.

Uther played with the edge of his napkin, more unsure than Arthur had ever seen him. “Answer me plainly, please. Is Morgana a lesbian?”

Arthur choked on his spit. Of all the questions he would expect his father to ask, this wasn’t it. “I don’t know,” he lied, when he could speak again. “What prompted this, if I may ask?”

Another weary sigh. “Agravaine alerted me to activity on her Instantgram.”

“Instagram.”

“Sorry?”

“Not Instantgram. Instagram. No n-t.”

“Ah.”

Arthur didn’t have to ask what activity on her Insta; he’d seen the pictures of her and Gwen rubbing noses on the beach. It had been so long since their uncle had done his creepy run-through of their accounts, they’d both started loosening up online. Clearly a mistake.

“She’ll have to delete it, of course,” Uther said, cutting into his steak. Beneath the table, Arthur’s fists clenched.

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme, Father?”

“Enough, Arthur.” Uther resumed eating. Arthur stared miserably at his plate.

The front door opened, and two excited voices filled the front hall.

“I thought he would never leave us alone, the creep—”

“I can’t believe you told him off like that, Gwen, you’re amazing—”

“We’re in the dining room,” Arthur called out, before Morgana and Gwen could give Uther an aneurysm by making out.

“Oh,” Morgana said flatly, entering the room with Gwen behind her. “Uther.” Bathing-suit-clad and wrapped in fluffy towels, they must have come straight from the beach. A little sand clung to their still-damp feet. Beneath the table, Arthur’s foot kicked anxiously against the leg of his chair.

“Morgana,” Uther said. “And your friend?”

“This is Gwen,” Morgana said defiantly.

“Gwen, a pleasure.” Uther smiled with his mouth closed. “I’m very sorry, but I must ask for some privacy with Morgana.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Gwen said. “I’ll just go upstairs, then.”

Uther raised an eyebrow. “You live far from here?”

“Uther!” Morgana protested. “You can’t just kick out my friends.”

“No, it’s okay, I’ll go,” said Gwen. As she left, she brushed her pinkie against Morgana’s.

“You should sit down for this,” Arthur warned, as soon as the front door had shut.

Morgana frowned. “Sit down for what?”

“Father has a question.”

“Don’t sit,” Uther said. “The salt-water will hurt the mahogany.” Morgana paused, halfway into a seat.

“What is it?”

“Answer me honestly, Morgana. Are you a lesbian?”

“He’s still an absolute tosser,” said Merlin, and viciously crunched down a handful of potato crisps. They were on the sagging green couch in Merlin’s sitting room, doing their favorite activity of Will playing video games and Merlin being bored.

“Agreed,” said Will. “Die, Nazi scum!” On screen, a dozen pixelated Nazis burst into gory bits as Will repeatedly jammed his right thumb on the controller.

“Like, how low is the bar if him not assaulting someone is a plus?”

“Low,” said Will. There was another flurry of activity from his thumb, but he didn’t kill enough Nazis, and two of them opened fire. “Oh, fuck.” His health bar slid to zero, and it was GAME OVER. “You want a go?”

“Nah,” said Merlin. “You know I don’t like violence.”

Will reached into the nearly-empty crisps bag and scrounged around for the remnants. “Don’t tell me you give a shit about violence. You write about epic battles all the time.”

“Not in detail, though. And it’s not the same as simulated shooting.”

“Whatever,” said Will. “Insane that Preppy McPrepster reads it, though.”

“Oh, God,” said Merlin, leaning his head on the arm of the couch. “Don’t remind me. Now whenever I write, I just think about him reading it and judging me.”

“Cheer up, mate. He just started last week. It’ll be ages before he gets to the good bits. If he can even read. I bet he was lying.”

“I suppose.” Merlin’s tinny watch alarm went off, and he stopped so fast it barely had time for a second beep. It was too late; Will was already rooting for the plastic baggy containing Merlin’s pill bottles. “I already took my evening meds,” Merlin said quickly. Will ignored him, carefully popping open the bottles and extracting a pill from each one. “Really, I took them, I promise.”

“Merlin,” said Will, “I’ve been carrying around your pills all day. When the fuck did you take them?”

“When you went to the loo.”

“Do you have to do this every time?” Will said, annoyed. “I’m doing you a favor, okay? I’m saving your effing life here.” Chastened, Merlin held out his hand. He swallowed them using water from Will’s bottle, and even opened his mouth afterwards to show they were all gone. He knew it was just the placebo effect, but he could feel his thoughts slow down, become sluggish and mundane. Will started a new game and shot a few more Nazis.

“I have a summer assignment,” said Will. “Bloody irritating. It’s for my mandatory English—DIE, FUCKERS—class. Look at my transcripts, Merlin. I’m clearly a maths man. I can’t write papers.”

“So you’re asking me to do it,” asked Merlin.

“Hinting. Insinuating. Not asking.” Will leaned even closer to the telly and wobbled the controller’s joystick a few times. The view of a bombed-out London alleyway did a dizzying 360.

“Let me get my laptop,” Merlin sighed. Inside his bedroom, an experiment in entropy was taking place. It turned out that dumping your clothes and trash and books on the floor for a week had about the same effect as a mild tornado. Merlin couldn’t even see the floor—though, to be fair, it was a small bedroom. He crossed it in two steps and unplugged the computer charging on his bed. Before rejoining Will, he opened his laptop and was immediately confronted with his latest chapter of Ladies. After a second of deliberation, he bashfully scrolled down to the comments, knowing that this was an ego boost, pure and simple. He needed the reminder that he wasn’t pouring his heart into a void; there were real people on the other end, real people his words affected.

prettyhands: anyone else think they were gonna kiss….

sirgreen007: NIMUEH!!!!! MY BABY PULLED THROUGH!!!!!!!!!

justanotherenglishprof: Another excellent chapter, as always. You’re a very eloquent writer, Dragoon. Freya’s reaction after the curse was perfection! Just the right amounts of heartbreak and joy. 10/10

pencilizard: don’t have any words. (in a good way)

Merlin smiled at the username. He should email them soon.

“Hey, where’d you go?” Will shoved open the door and immediately stared at the mess. “Merlin, are you a four-legged, omnivorous, non-kosher animal?”

“Er…no?”

“Then why are you living in a pigsty?”

“Ooh, weak one, Will,” said Merlin, but his lips twitched. Somehow, Will managed to unearth the good beanbag from the rubble, and he collapsed backward on it, staring at the ceiling.

“I’m going to fail out of uni,” Will announced.

“Probably,” said Merlin, lying on his own back.

Will sounded very gloomy when he said, “I expect I’ll be sent home on my shield by the end of the first marking period.”

Merlin flipped to his side to get a better look at Will. “Sounds about right.”

“Really?” said Will. He looked properly scared, Merlin realized.

“God, no, Will. I was only teasing you. There’s loads of stuff to do besides English. You get the mandatory nonsense out of the way, and you’re set.” He dropped his right hand off the bed and waggled it until Will took hold. They used to hold hands all the time in primary, until a Year 3 girl made fun of them. It was nice, Merlin thought, to hold hands platonically. He was always jealous of girls for being able to cuddle so easily, without it meaning anything. Sometimes he thought he’d go crazy for lack of physical human contact.

“You’re sure I won’t fail?” said Will, as though Merlin’s opinion meant something. Maybe it did. Saying words to Will surely meant more than the words he published online, and those meant a lot.

“Surer than anything,” Merlin said. “I’d stake my life on it.” Will huffed.

“Don’t go that far.”

“I’m so confident, I’d stake my mother’s life on it.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“You’re right, I wouldn’t. But that’s just because I’d be a terrible son if I staked her life on anything.”

“I want to be young again,” Will said morosely. “Can I tell you something, if you promise not to tease me?”

Merlin squeezed Will’s hand tighter. “Promise.”

“I cried after I did it for the first time.”

“Really?” said Merlin, trying not to sound shocked. Will looked away, towards Merlin’s door.

“I just knew it was over. Childhood was over. It wasn’t just the sex, it was the decision to have it. Once you’re old enough to make that decision, it’s all over.” His voice thickened with tears and he brutally scrubbed at his eyes. “Fuck, I’m such a fucking girl.”

Merlin deliberated for a moment before sliding off the bed and onto the beanbag. He wrapped his arms around Will’s body and pressed his head into Will’s neck. A thousand years ago, they always slept in the same bed during sleepovers, until they realized Merlin was gay. They realized this while watching Lord of the Rings when they were thirteen, and Merlin said, “I really want to hug Aragorn,” and Will said, “What do you mean?” and Merlin said, “You know…hug him,” and Will said, “I really don’t know,” and Merlin said, “Doesn’t your stomach go funny when you look at him?” and Will said, “My stomach goes funny when I eat ricotta cheese,” and Merlin said, “No, not like that. It feels warm, like hot soup. I just want to hug him, that’s all,” and then Will said, “Merlin, mate, I don’t know how to break this to you, but you’re gay.” That night, they both got into Merlin’s bed as usual, but Merlin couldn’t fall asleep, wondering the whole time whether he was too close and if he made Will uncomfortable, and the next time Will slept over Merlin gave him the bed and slept on the floor.

So it was nice to hug Will again. “I don’t want to grow up, either,” Merlin admitted. “Being a kid was so innocent, wasn’t it? We thought such strange things back then. Do you remember when we watched that episode of Buffy and thought our history teacher was an alien?”

“Yes! And we would write these, like, knowing little lines into our essays? What was that thing you did with Queen Elizabeth I?”

“I just kept working in the word alien,” said Merlin. “It didn’t even make sense. I’d be like, many aliens came from other countries to see her. And things like, Elizabeth alienated some of her advisors by blah blah blah.”

“And that time we buried the brownies!” said Will, his face brightening. “I think we were three? It was during your mum’s dinner party. Why did we do that, again?”

“So the robbers wouldn’t get them,” Merlin said solemnly. “It was a serious operation, Will. We couldn’t let any of the infamous Ealdor robbers steal away my mother’s desserts.”

“And the pirates!” said Will. “We must’ve spent hours and hours sitting at the end of the pier with Gaius’s binoculars.” Merlin was just about to remind Will of the time they’d convinced each other that the leaping dolphins were warning them about sharks when his phone burst into a rendition of “Like a Virgin”.

“Will!” said Merlin, swiping it open. “If you change my ringtone one more time—Hi, Gwen. Okay. See you. She and Morgana are coming up,” he informed Will.

Will frowned. “Why does Gwen get a key and I don’t?”

“You had a key! Three of them! And you lost every single one!”

“This is defamation of character,” said Will. “I’m going to sue.”

“Let me know if you need help finding a solicitor.” They heard the front door open, and Merlin suddenly leapt up. “They can’t see my room! It’s a mess! Come on, Will. Out, out.” He shoved Will off the beanbag and out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him. “Coming!”

Morgana and Gwen had already made themselves comfortable on the couch, with Gwen’s head in Morgana’s lap and Morgana’s fingers running through Gwen’s hair. Merlin felt a flash of unnamed emotion—loneliness? jealousy?—and pushed it aside. Being alone was much better than dating someone, when you did the arithmetic. You didn’t have to compromise with someone else all the time, and you never got into spats. Police didn’t get called when you had a domestic, because there weren’t any to have. Although, Merlin had to admit, the police bit didn’t usually happen as often as it had with his parents.

“Morgana has the funniest story,” Gwen said, craning her head to look at them. “Tell them, Morgana.” Morgana fondly rolled her heavily-lined eyes, but launched into the story anyway.

“So, Arthur and I have this friend, Lance, who means well but always gets into some sort of trouble. And this one night, he gets really wasted with his mates and staggers back to his dorm room and collapses in bed, whatever. And then in the middle of the night, his boyfriend comes in and joins him, but he’s really tired, so he barely wakes up. And then in the morning, he realizes that he’s in this stranger’s room sleeping next to this kid he’s never seen in his life. So he wakes up the other guy, and the other guy is like, ‘What the fuck? I thought you were my boyfriend!’ and Lance is like, ‘I thought you were my boyfriend,’ and that’s the story of how he met his current boyfriend Gwaine.”

“Hmm. Not so funny,” said Will.

“Could be funnier,” Merlin agreed.

“See, I told you, Gwen,” Morgana said. “Nobody thinks it’s as funny as you do.”

“Maybe I just have the superior sense of humour.”

“Maybe you do.” Morgana leaned her head over Gwen’s until their noses touched. Gwen smiled beatifically and sat up facing her, straddling her lap, and Morgana cupped the back of Gwen’s head and gently pulled her into a kiss.

“The inn’s right down the road, if you want a room,” Will suggested helpfully. Merlin whacked him.

“They’re having a beautiful moment! Don’t ruin it!”

“I agree,” said Gwen, pulling back a little bit but still looking at Morgana. “Don’t ruin the moment.”

“Then why’d you come over at all?” said Will. “Can’t we do something fun?”

“I thought we were smoking?” Morgana said.

“Yeah, come on, Merlin,” said Will. “Get the stuff.” Merlin looked at Will. He looked at Gwen and Morgana cuddled up together. He thought how much he missed being hugged.

“Morgana?” said Merlin. “Does your brother likes weed?”

Arthur wasn’t sure how Morgana had talked him into this. He felt so awkward sitting cross-legged on the floor of Merlin’s sitting room. The bong in his hands didn’t help matters. He watched everyone who went before him carefully, but now it seemed so daunting. Suck in, unscrew the bowl, inhale, put the bowl back in, exhale.

“You’re wasting it,” Will snapped. Arthur shook himself and breathed in.

It hurt. A lot. He hadn’t remembered the pens his friends smoked hurting this much, but this shit was fucking searing. He did his best to hold it down as long as he could before he coughed it up. Large plumes of vapor spilled from his mouth.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gwen said kindly. “You only need to keep it in your lungs for a teeeeny-tiiiiiiny amount of time because THC absorbs in, like, two seconds.” She squinted. “Am I squinting? I need more weed. Pass the weed, please.” Will packed another bowl and passed the bong back around. Arthur’s second and third hits went harder than the first. His eyeballs felt like they’d grown fur, and he thought that was interesting because fur doesn’t grow on eyeballs, it grows on heads, no, not heads, cats? Fur grows on cats…Why was he thinking about cats? Had he just been thinking something? Oh, shite, what had he been thinking about?

“CATS!” he said triumphantly. Everyone looked at him. “Something about them,” he explained.

“I like dogs,” said Merlin from his curled-up position on the armchair. “Sometimes their heads look like dragon heads. Sometimes I think I’m petting a dog but actually I’m petting a dog. No, wait. That’s not what I meant.”

“You’re such an idiot,” said Will, who was staring intently at Arthur’s left foot. “You mean you pet dragons and think they’re dogs.”

“No!” said Morgana, shaking with laughter. “Everybody here is wrong! Shut up! Let me explain! You pet a dog, you pet a dog,” but she was laughing too hard to finish, and by the time she stopped laughing, they’d all forgotten what she was supposed to explain.

“Arthur has a silk sock,” Will announced. “You have a red silk sock, Arthur.”

“So?” said Arthur, who found he didn’t really care what Will thought of him at the moment. He could feel the part that cared all the way in the back of his mind, but it was pretty securely locked behind billions of confused neurons. He thought this was a pretty interesting idea and said, “My neurons are scrambled. There is no traffic. All traffic has stopped. My brain is trafficless.”

“I love everyone,” Merlin sighed. “I love everyone in the whole world. I’m so happy.”

“You fucking hippie,” said Will, digging his hand into the bowl of crisps.

Arthur smiled lazily. “Remember when my dad called you a hippie harlot, Morgana?”

“Yep,” said Morgana, resting her head on Gwen’s shoulder. “I got a laptop out of that one.”

“A laptop?” said Will. Morgana and Arthur snickered simultaneously.

“When my father oversteps his, um, his…what’s that word? You know, fencing something in…”

“Boundaries?” suggested Merlin.

“Right,” said Arthur. “When he oversteps his bounds, he throws money at the problem.”

“Of course he does,” said Will.

“But why’d he call you names?” said Gwen. Morgana threw her head dramatically against the couch back.

“Red tank top, harlot. Peace sign embroidered on it, hippie.”

“Ohh.” The corner of Gwen’s mouth quirked up. “That’s clever, actually.”

Morgana mimed clapping her hands. “Uther Pendragon, everybody. Comedian extraordinaire.”

“Sounds like a charmer,” Will said darkly.

“You’ve no idea,” said Morgana. “I left a book of Margaret Atwood’s poetry on the breakfast table once—pass the crisps, please and thank you—and he told me he was disappointed I was being taken in by such propaganda.”

“He didn’t like Handmaid’s Tale?” Gwen said, laughing.

“Oh, fuck, I thought these would be barbecue,” Morgana said morosely. “Why would they make them orange if they’re just plain? Um…right, anyway. Feminist liberation isn’t Uther’s favorite subject. He pretends that he thinks women are just as capable as men, but he’s terrified of pantsuits.”

Arthur shifted uncomfortably on the carpet. “Well, Margaret Atwood isn’t that good,” he said.

“That’s Arthur for you,” Morgana said in mock-disappointment. “Reads Byron and calls it a day.”

“Or worse,” said Merlin. “Shelley.”

“I hate Shelley!” said Arthur. “Load of masturbatory angsty bullshit.”

Merlin cocked his head. “So perfect for you then?”

“If you must know,” said Morgana in an unjust long-suffering tone, “once he discovered the poetry of Oscar Wilde, it was all over for him.”

“Morgana!” said Arthur. Because the hours he had spent pouring over print-outs and marking-up Dorian Grey—that was private.

“Hmm,” said Merlin, closing his eyes. “Bit obscure, his poems. Let me see if I can remember.” The standing lamp was right above him, and its warm light soaked his upturned face, illuminating his eyelashes and the edges of his lips. “He did not wear his scarlet coat,/For blood and wine are red,/And blood and wine were on his hands/When they found him with the dead,/The poor dead woman whom he loved,/And murdered in her bed.” His eyes flickered open. “Shall I go on? It’s sort of morbid.”

“Oh my God,” said Arthur, staring at him. “You actually go around declaiming poetry? You’re not in a bloody novel.”

“Merlin’s got an eidetic memory,” Gwen said proudly.

“Really?” Arthur said incredulously. “I could give you, like, any page from any book you’ve read and you’d be able to tell me what it says?”

“Not really,” said Merlin. “I can’t just read something and remember it months later. If I’ve just read the book, I might be able to tell you, but it only sticks longterm if I commit it to memory.”

“Oh, God, don’t ask him his process,” said Will.

“He’s literally Sherlock,” said Gwen. “It’s amazing. Seriously, go on, Merlin.”

If Arthur’s friends were praising his intelligence to the fucking moon and back the way Merlin’s were, he’d be happy. Merlin, on the other hand, pulled a face like he’d just cracked a tooth. “No, really,” he said.

“Do the room, oh please, please, please do the room,” said Gwen. Merlin groaned but dutifully looked around and shut his eyes.

“Oh, come on,” said Arthur, “that’s hardly enough time to—”

“Where’s everybody sitting?” Gwen interrupted.

“You and Morgana on the floor against the couch, Will above you, Arthur on the floor by the other armchair.”

“Color of my shirt?”

“Red, blue trim.”

“Where’s the bowl?” said Will.

“The snack bowl? By your feet.”

“Those aren’t hard,” said Arthur, crossing his arms.

“How many books stacked on the piano?” Will challenged.

“Five. Going up, Sophie’s World, The Prince, A History of Western Philosophy, Republic, and The Art of Tidying Up. The last one was a joke gift because everyone knows Gaius doesn’t throw anything away.”

“The books could have been there for ages,” said Arthur. “This really isn’t that impressive, you know.”

Even with his eyes closed, Merlin looked frustrated. “It’s not my fault you’ve not asked me any good questions.”

“Oh, I’ve got one,” said Morgana. “How many rings am I wearing?”

“Three. Two silver curlicue things on your right ring finger, and one with a green gemstone on your left thumb.”

“Jesus,” said Morgana, looking properly impressed for maybe the first time in her life.

Arthur dragged a hand over his face. “Bloody hell, someone please insult this man before his ego explodes.”

Merlin opened his eyes. “You don’t want to admit I’m good at something,” he said smugly, previous reticence forgotten.

“Because you’re not,” said Arthur. “A parlor trick doesn’t mean anything.”

“He can also write,” said Will. “Didn’t you hear his poem? And have you seen one of Gwen’s sculptures yet? They’re beyond fantastic. We’re not talentless just because we’re common-folk. What’s your talent? Extreme shopping?”

“I’ll have you know I’m captain of the football team and the ruby team,” Arthur said heatedly. “I’m a natural team leader. And I got top marks in school. Straight A’s.”

“A for arse?”

“A for A! And by the way, Will, where’s your talent? If Gwen’s a debating genius and a sculptor to boot, and Merlin’s a poet with a mental camera, what are you bringing to the table? Just here to average out the IQ points? Or don’t you realize you’re the dead weight in your friend group?” Arthur wanted to stop, but he was a terrible person at heart, and here was the proof in the vile words tumbling from his mouth. “Stumbling around being an idiot about everything, never being as good as your friends at anything. Anyone can see it. They pity you, Will.”

Will looked like a stunned rabbit. His nostrils quivered. “You—you—”

“Will,” Merlin said quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You know it’s not true, what he’s saying. You’re brilliant.”

“Yeah?” said Will, throwing off Merlin’s hand and standing up. “At what, exactly? I think I’ll leave you geniuses to your own devices. Wouldn’t want to make everyone else dumber by association.” He stalked out of the room, and a few moments later, the front door slammed shut behind him. Merlin tried to follow him, but Gwen pulled him back.

“No, don’t. You’ll just make it worse. He needs some time to cool down before he can listen.” Then, to Arthur: “I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” Arthur couldn’t respond. He was sick to his stomach, and his head filled with a white-hot something. Guilt, or maybe desperation. He wished he could rewind the past minute.

“I didn’t think he’d react like that,” Arthur muttered, sullen. “Sort of an over-reaction, don’t you think?”

Merlin’s voice was colder than an Arctic winter. “Do you realize how rude you are? You insult me constantly, and when Will tries to stick up for me, you hone in on his biggest insecurity. Do you have some sort of problem being nice to people?”

Arthur wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t. He wasn’t. A hand settled feather-light on his head, but when he jolted around, there was no one there. It was nothing more than a memory of his mother bending down and saying, Be nice, Arthur. He just wants to be your friend. He shuddered. And then, finally, came the numbness, so comforting in its familiarity. They could all think what they wanted about him; Arthur didn’t care.

“It was lovely to see you all,” he said, voice oozing false cheer. “I think I’m going to turn in for the night.” And out he went, down through the shop and into the night. He walked rapidly, trailing the last of his high behind him in the chilly air. His neck and upper arms ached; he was spending too much time in bed, hunched over his laptop. He used to come home from Ealdor tanned and strong from hours spent swimming. He’d been good at it, too. Cutting through the water like a bottle-nosed dolphin, which had been his mother’s favorite animal. She’d read him a book about them, what was it called? A Light Ring? A Ring of Light? A Ring of Endless Light! It was about a girl during the last summer of her grandfather’s life. And she could talk to dolphins with her mind.

His mother had loved books about animals. White Fang and Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book and Black Beauty. Except for the London and a few others, Arthur would never have read any of them. His father said, they were girl books. Fluff. And, sure, Arthur didn’t really care about Vicky Austen anymore, but his mother had, and that was enough.

He was almost home, now, and he could hear the roaring surf. Sand that had migrated to the front side of the house crunched underneath his shoes. The beach was so close; all he had to do was go past the front door, walk around the side of the house, and—

Arthur ran the rest of the way, the porch almost shaking beneath his footfalls. His fingers trembled, and it took him three tries to jamb the key in the lock. Cold sweat prickled at his palms and underarms, he barely made it three steps inside before he sank to the floor. Pathetically, he wanted his mum.

Can’t breathe and his chest aches and he can’t hear his own sobs and there’s water sealing off his mouth and it hurts, it hurts, it—

He put his head on his lap and cried.

mobile streaming

January 2018

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Re: Re: Re: dumb school assignment

To: pencillizard@email.com

if u say u can’t write poetry one more time istg okay so here’s what you’re going to do. write one word. ONE WORD. you won’t get anyway if you don’t write anything. trust me the first word is the hardest.

Predictably, it was only 5 AM when Merlin woke up, filled with a relentless energy that prodded him into his running things and out of the flat. It was his favourite time of day to run. The sun still down but threatening its comeback, and everything threaded with potential energy.

And then he ran into Arthur at the end of the path to Mermaid Cove. Arthur was standing in the small parking lot, looking lost. “What are you doing here?” he said when Merlin ran up.

“Running,” said Merlin. “Obviously.”

“No, I meant…whatever.” Arthur crossed his arms.

“Were you going to swim?” said Merlin. Arthur’s lips tightened, and he crossed his arms.

“What I do isn’t your business.”

“You were horrible to Will last night,” said Merlin. “Absolutely terrible. You need to apologize.”

A muscle jumped in Arthur’s jaw. “Fine,” he said at last. “I do feel sorry. I’ll tell him.”

Merlin swung his arms back and forth and observed Arthur some more. He looked tragic, like a Dickensian orphan, except really nothing like a Dickensian orphan. Orphans, why was he thinking about—oh. A chill shivered down Merlin’s spine. This was where Ygraine Pendragon had died. And now Arthur, total fucking arsehole, was standing alone by his mother’s watery grave. Merlin wanted to run on, he really did, but Arthur was simply piteous.

“Do you want to get some breakfast?” Merlin said.

Go to the lake, where the waters run deep, and the stone peaks, and the dead sleep, and sword awaits.

—Instructions given to Freya by the Lamia, Ladies of the Lake, Chapter 10

The Seagull Diner opened at 5 AM sharp every day and was Merlin’s favourite spot to get a bit of breakfast after a run. Usually he could put away platters of waffles and pancakes and bowls of hot cereal, but today his stomach felt small and unhungry. That was all right; Arthur more than made up for it by ordering the Atlantic Special.

“No one gets that,” Merlin said admiringly. “It’s not going to be good for your figure, I can tell you that right now.”

“I’m not a girl,” said Arthur, pulling apart a straw wrapper. “I don’t worry about my figure.”

“That’s what they all say,” said Merlin, not really sure what he meant but guiltily having fun anyway, despite Will. The man was fit, all right? And he liked to read, and he might be Merlin’s number one fan, which Merlin was doing his best to forget about. Maybe Merlin was wrong; Arthur had said that he’d just started Ladies, after all. “You all right, mate?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” said Arthur, clearly not all right. He’d gone from shredding the straw wrapper to tapping a rhythmless beat on the table.

Merlin sucked on his lip as he deliberated. He didn’t want to push Arthur, but maybe a little nudge couldn’t hurt. “It was the ocean, wasn’t it? You don’t like it.”

“I like it fine,” Arthur said gruffly. “Boats. Waves. Splashing.”

“This is sort of an odd place to go on holiday, if you don’t like the beach,” Merlin said.

“Tintagel’s home. Thanks.” It was Cedric, come with their breakfasts.

“Cheers,” Merlin said, plucking his toast from Ced’s right arm. “How’ve you been?”

“Can’t complain,” Ced said in a tone that meant he could. “Got a backlog at the workshop; loads of birds damaging their bloody rings in the water.”

“Cedric’s night job,” Merlin explained. “He repairs jewelry.” Arthur made a fake impressed face.

“I’m an artisan, I am,” Ced said glumly. “Get no respect here. Scooch over.” He dropped down on Merlin’s side of the booth. “You going out tonight?”

“Got plans,” Merlin said. Even with Arthur right across the table, Ced’s proximity brought back memories, and he didn’t stop himself from giving Ced a half smile. Always good to keep options open.

Ced’s eyes darkened. “Plans with me in them?” Merlin opened his mouth, about to answer, when he noticed Arthur giving both of them a death stare. Fine, fine. Merlin supposed he was being rude.

“If you’re good,” Merlin said, subtly shoving Ced off the bench. “Get us coffee, would you?”

“You act like I work here,” Ced joked, ruffling Merlin’s hair.

“You two are close,” Arthur said when Cedric was out of earshot. Merlin shrugged and smeared some butter around his toast.

“We go back.” The truth was, Merlin barely knew Cedric. According to Will, Merlin and Ced had had bathroom sex two years ago, but Merlin didn’t remember much from that period. He wasn’t quite sure he could actually count all the people he’d had bathroom sex with. At a particularly low point, there had even been a folder of hookup apps, which Will had deleted for him. Merlin wondered if he should be worried at his sudden urge to jump Cedric’s bones, but decided it was healthy. Late teens and early twenties were sexual prime time, after all.

“You grew up here?” said Arthur, mouth full of bacon. Merlin sighed.

“It’s complicated. Not really. I spent summer hols here, but I moved in officially about a year and a half ago. Gaius is getting on, and he needs help with the books and things.” Not technically a lie, but definitely a stretching of the truth. Ealdor was filled with bright teens looking for easy money, and it wasn’t as though Gaius actually needed someone to live with him. But Merlin’s mum had insisted. Even now, it hurt to think about.

Arthur was grinning and pointing at Merlin. “So you’re a summer person, too!”

“Take that back!” said Merlin, tossing his napkin. “I live with family.”

“I do too!” said Arthur. “Morgana!”

“You rent—”

“We own.”

“You own that monstros—I mean, I’m a normal person. I have a job here. And I live here full time now! It’s not the same as being a posh git with a yacht.”

A cloud crossed Arthur’s face, but it was gone quickly. “I don’t have a yacht.”

Right, fuck. The boat accident. Merlin quickly switched tacks. “And Morgana has told us about the cleaning woman. Isolde will get that; oh, that’s all right, just leave your dirty socks on the chandelier, Isolde lives for jobs like that.”

“Dirty socks on the chandelier?” said Arthur. “Really, Merlin? Is that what you think rich people do with their socks?”

Joy burbled through Merlin’s chest. Such a silly conversation, but so much fun. Arthur was growing on him, the arse. “You certainly don’t put them in the washing machine,” Merlin said, happily ripping the toast he’d ordered into strips. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. Perfect, if he were going to eat it. “Life is really very good, you know?”

Arthur looked as though he were trying to solve a complicated math problem in his head. “What the hell are you doing with your food?”

“Battlements,” Merlin explained. “And roadblocks.” He scattered maple syrup around his hastily-constructed bread-castle. “That should stop the horses.”

“Stop the horses?”

“The syrup. It’s sticky,” said Merlin. “So the horses’ feet will get stuck. This is basic warfare, Arthur. It’s hardly rocket science.” Goofy. That was a good word for how he was feeling. The sort of word his mum would have used. Stop mashing the peas into your hair! You’re so goofy today, Merlin! Arthur, luckily, was more amused that Merlin’s mum would have been.

“Haven’t you heard not to play with your food, Merlin?” he said, pointing at Merlin with his knife.

“But it’s so much fun,” said Merlin, beaming. “Look, I’ll be Lord Blueberry—”

He plucked the piece of fruit from Arthur’s plate.

“—and I’ll be in the castle, and here…you be Sir Butter.” He dropped the tiny butter package on the rim of his plate. Arthur looked around, probably making sure there was no one he knew to witness this.

“All right,” Arthur sighed, picking up the butter and hopping it across Merlin’s plate to the wall of bread. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Did you bring your battering jam?” Merlin was trying to be serious, but incredulous look on Arthur’s face was so adorable that he couldn’t help but laugh.

“You want me to construct a battering ram out of jam?” said Arthur. Merlin crossed his arms. “Fine. Does a strawberry do?”

“Fine,” said Merlin. He waited until Arthur had trotted the strawberry over to the wall before blowing a stream of water through his straw at Arthur’s hand.

“What was that for?”

“Boiled lead,” Merlin said smugly, leaning back in his chair. “Your forces are dead. Under the lead. Lead dead dead lead. The lead led the dead.”

“Thank you Dr. Seuss,” said Arthur, but his lips were twitching. Merlin bowed, nearly dipping his fringe in the syrup.

“Woah,” said Arthur, tipping Merlin’s chin up. “I think you’re the clumsiest person I’ve ever met.” For some reason, he didn’t take his hand off Merlin’s face. He just kept it there. Heat pooled below Merlin’s stomach. He accidentally looked directly into Arthur’s eyes and blushed a terrible red. He could feel his ears roasting. His breaths shortened. Slowly, he swept his right foot against Arthur’s left. Arthur looked…well, he looked quite stupid, actually, his eyes gone all vague and his mouth all open. But right now, he was Merlin’s stupid. Merlin’s insanely handsome, secretly intelligent, Arthur Pendragon…

“Are you ready to leave?”

“You’re not going to eat that?” said Arthur.

“Not hungry.” Merlin went for his wallet, but Arthur stopped him.

“I’ve got it,” he said, sliding one of those fancy rewards credit cards out of his pocket and waving down Ced.

“Thanks,” said Merlin after Ced took the check, not as bothered as he felt he should be. “Does that mean this is a date?”

Arthur’s eyes pinned Merlin to the booth. “I don’t know, Merlin. You tell me.”

“Nah,” said Merlin, leaning forward on his elbows. “I don’t even want to kiss you all.”

“Good,” said Arthur, also leaning forward. “Because you’d probably talk straight through it.”

“Would not.”

“Would absolutely.”

“Was that even English?”

Arthur shrugged, and Merlin had the very odd urge to lick the spot where Arthur’s neck met his shoulder. What if Freya licked Nimueh’s neck? And then—no. Freya and Nimueh weren’t here. Arthur and Merlin were. Merlin banished them to Avalon, to the Sword in the Stone. Right now, all he wanted was Arthur. Except.

“You were very rude to Will yesterday, you know.”

“Maybe,” Arthur muttered.

Merlin crossed his arms. “No, not maybe. You were actually sort of cruel.”

“I wasn’t,” Arthur said, without any real conviction. “He was being…he probably deserved it.”

“The thing is, I can’t be friends with such an arse,” Merlin said, as kindly as he could. “So you’ll have to apologize.”

“Oh, bloody—fine. When I see him.”

“Thank you so much,” Merlin said sweetly.


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The Ladies of the Lake

Chapter 104: Melée Madness

“I can’t believe we’re in Lot’s citadel!” Freya breathed. All around them stalls bulged with bright produce and children played jump-rope and dogs rolled on their backs in patches of mud. At every new sight, Freya’s eyes got wider and wider. (You must remember that Freya was raised in the woods and lived in the woods and had never seen a city before.)

“But that smell,” said Nimueh, wrinkling her nose. “Those fish can’t be fresh.”

“You don’t have to eat them, then. Can you believe we’re here?”

“Can’t believe our stupidity,” said Nimueh. Now, anyone in Albion could tell you that King Lot of Orkney had despised magic ever since the witchy Queen Anna abandoned him for the dark arts. Any magician in Lot’s land chanced being drawn and quartered, or burned at the stake, or being drawn and quartered, glued back together, and then burned. There were also beheadings sometimes, though those had gone out of fashion when a dotty magician invented the guillotine early and spoiled everyone’s fun by eliminating the sawing and hacking previously required to sever a head from its body.

“We need the prize,” Freya said stoutly. “We can’t find the sword in the stone without the jewel. Oh!” She suddenly found herself on the ground, with a pair of amused green eyes looking down at her.

“You just knocked over my friend!” said Nimueh.

“I didn’t mean to,” said green-eyes, smiling what a reasonable person might call a smirk, though he seemed to think he was being charming. He was obviously wealthy, with his hilariously large pantaloons and raw silk doublet.

Nimueh sniffed. “I think you should apologize.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Freya, standing up. “Thanks for asking.”

“Don’t tell me you’re upset,” said the boy. “It’s not like your clothes are nice enough to mess up.”

“You arrogant…horrible…clotpole!” said Nimueh. If they hadn’t been in the middle of Lot’s kingdom, lighting would be sparking off her skin. The boy’s pink, wormlike lips fell open.

“You can’t call me that! I’ll have you sent to the dungeons!”

Nimueh cackled. “Who are you, the king?”

Now the boy looked very smug indeed. “No. I’m his son, Gareth.”

All right, so Merlin may have edited Prince Gareth’s personality a teensy-weensy bit before uploading chapter 106, but Will needed a pick-me-up, and humiliating a fictional, green-eyed version of Arthur seemed a good place to start. Gareth would still play the same role—lose to Freya in the last round, gift her the jewel—but now he was an arsehole with worm lips. So there.

“Are you working on something, Merlin?” Gwen said, carefully placing his coffee order out of reach of his elbows.

“Oh, cheers, Gwen.” Merlin shut his laptop and took a careful sip of the scalding drink. It was hard to hold the cup steady with his leg jittering so much under the table. “I was looking at my course catalogue.” Gwen glanced around the café, and, finding no one in need of a waiter, slid in across from Merlin.

“You don’t even know how jealous I am, Merlin. I wish I were going off to uni in the fall.”

Merlin smiled encouragingly. “Only one more year until you graduate, Gwen.”

“Morgana’s going to be a sophomore next year,” Gwen said drearily. “She’s going to go back to all her uni friends and forget all about her summer fling.”

“D’you really think that?”

Gwen sighed. “Yes. No. I don’t know. She’s just so lovely, you know? She’s got those beautiful eyes, like cat eyes, have you ever noticed? And her smile, it’s so lovely. When she smiles, I swear my heart stops, and I have to be very stern with it and remind it I need it to keep beating, thankyouverymuch. I’m a goner, Merlin.”

“She’s lovely,” Merlin agreed. “And she clearly adores you, Gwen. If only she didn’t have that prat of a brother.”

“Has Will texted you? Because he’s not texted me, and I’m so worried about him.” When Merlin shook his head, Gwen anxiously twisted her fingers.

“This is bad, Merlin. Really, really bad.”

“I know,” Merlin said, his heart sinking. “I don’t know how to fix it, Gwen. I think I got Arthur to agree to apologize, but I’m afraid it’ll just make it worse. Because that would mean he said something hurtful, and it’s only hurtful if it’s true.”

“Which it’s not,” said Gwen. “At all. If anyone’s the dead weight in our friendship, it’s me. I’m so thoughtless, sometimes. Do you remember when I forgot it was your half-birthday?”

Merlin threw up his hands. “Nobody celebrates half birthdays, Gwen! For all I know, it could be my half-birthday right now.”

“Not unless it’s June 21st.”

“See? You’ve just proved you’re not dead weight. Nobody’s dead weight. Arthur’s just a royal ass.”

Gwen took her phone out of her apron pocket and stared at it, as if she could magic Will into calling. “You’ve at least texted him, right?”

“Thirty-five times,” said Merlin. “I was going to go by his flat when I was done here. You want to come with?”

“My shift’s over in five,” said Gwen. “Wait for me?” He was nodding when the glass door to the café swung open and Will, tired and worse-for-wear, but not dreadful-looking, marched in.

“Will!” said Gwen, pleasure filling her face. “You’re here!”

“Yeah,” said Will, dropping his satchel on the floor. “Had to make sure Merlin got his pills.”

“Oh,” said Merlin. He didn’t argue with Will this time, not with Gwen there. And it wasn’t fair to Will, anyway. “You’re a good friend.”

Will’s face twisted sardonically. “Yeah, well.” There didn’t seem much else to say, so Merlin counted out his pills and swallowed them down with coffee. “Got your sleeping pill. I’ll give it to you later if you need it.”

Merlin forced a smile. “Thanks.” When Will had taken over dolling out meds from the nurses at hospital, it had been humiliating. It still was. Unfortunately, it was necessary. Gaius had become too absentminded in recent years for the job, and if it had gone to Gwen—well, Merlin didn’t think he could handle the pitying looks. At least Will was matter-of-fact about it.

“About yesterday,” Gwen began, but Will cut her off immediately.

“It’s forgotten.”

“Will,” said Merlin, his throat sticking. “I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate everything you do for me. Thank you.” Will’s worth went way beyond his ability to help Merlin, but maybe this could get through to him. Here, in a very palpable way, Will had made a difference. “Maybe you could be a psychologist or something, when you’re older.”

For a moment, Will looked pleased. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “What’re the plans for tonight?”

“Well,” said Gwen, linking her arm through Will’s. “I was thinking we could do something special.”

“Your choice,” said Merlin. “Whatever you want to do.”

Will scratched his right ankle with his left foot as he thought. “Whatever I want to do?”

“Within reason,” said Gwen. “We’re not murdering anybody.”

“Or aiding and abetting a murderer,” Merlin added.

“No pet shops. Not after last time.”

“Absolutely no mini-golf! You’re too interesting for that.”

“And sobriety is your friend.”

“So many restrictions,” said Will. “But it’s okay. I’ve got it.”

The cakes were in the oven when Arthur came home. And the evening had been going so nicely, too. Out of respect for Gwen, and probably a little fear of Morgana, Will had abstained from making any cracks about Tintagel’s size, though he and Merlin had exchanged looks when Morgana pointed out which house was hers. But Merlin’s oven was broken and Elyan had mates over and Will’s house made do with a toaster oven, so Morgana’s seemed to be the best option.

And everything had been going so well. Will had convinced them they didn’t need cake mix, so they’d shot back some of Uther Pendragon’s finest whisky and started pouring flour into bowls. Morgana and Gwen kept taking kissing breaks, but Will was deadly focused. He’d threatened to have Merlin kicked out for mixing up baking soda and baking powder and ruining a perfectly good bowl of dry ingredients. There was a brilliant hectic feel to the whole thing, and everybody was getting along, and then Arthur came home.

“What’s this?” he said, standing in the kitchen doorway. He was unfairly beautiful, with his wind-swept blond hair and cheeks pink from the chill evening air. “Why, Morgana?”

“Because they’re my friends,” she said icily. “You can go to your room if you don’t like it.”

“And when did I say that?” said Arthur. For some ungodly reason, he was in a button-down and dress pants. He began to unbutton his shirt now, revealing the plain white undershirt underneath. “Father asked about you.”

“If he wants to talk, he can come to Tintagel,” said Morgana. A string of tension wavered between the siblings.

“You’re impossible, Morgana,” rebuked Arthur, dropping his shirt over the back of a chair. “A relationship takes two, you know? Father said he was sorry.”

“Not to me,” said Morgana. “And he’s not my father. And don’t leave your clothes lying around.” She snatched up the shirt and shoved it into Arthur’s arms. “There’s no reason your incompetence at life should make Isolde’s life harder.”

Merlin shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, strongly reminded of going round to play at friends’ houses as a child and getting stuck there while the parents had a row. “I think the cakes are almost done…” Gwen said hopefully.

“They’ve got at least ten more minutes,” Morgana replied, eyes still on Arthur. Gwen shrugged at Merlin with a regretful I tried look on her face.

“What if father’s plane crashed?” said Arthur. “You wouldn’t regret not saying goodbye?”

“That’s a fallacy,” said Gwen, clearly speaking before she thought. “Er, sorry,” she said when Arthur and Morgana turned to look at her. “But what Arthur’s doing is an argumentum ad passiones, an appeal to emotion. It has nothing to do with whether or not Morgana is justified in being angry at Uther.”

“That’s hot,” Will said approvingly. “Right, Morgana?”

“That was hot,” said Morgana. “You’re so smart, Gwen.” Her voice dripped low and syrupy; she was clearly done with Arthur. “Much smarter than my brain-dead brother.”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Grow up, Morgana.”

“You’d have to be brain dead to spend time in Uther’s company,” she continued, stacking the bowls and dumping them in the giant sink. “It’s intolerable otherwise. I see no reason to indulge a bigoted, homophobic old man.”

“He’s not homophobic,” Arthur ground out, the words like peppercorns between his teeth.

“Thank you for having us, Morgana,” Gwen said loudly. “We should get out of your hair.”

“Why should we have to leave just because Arthur’s here?” Will said into Merlin’s ear. “How’s that fair?”

Morgana slapped a wet dishtowel onto the counter. “Of course you don’t think he’s homophobic, Arthur, because he’s trained you well. Not to mention, you’re the straightest straight man to ever straight.”

Arthur’s face whitened, and Merlin could see the sharp bob of his Adam’s apple when he swallowed. “I’m not—”

“Not what?” said Morgana. “Not a homophobe? Because agreeing with a homophobe is pretty much the same fucking thing.”

“No,” Arthur said through tight lips. “I’m not straight!” Morgana jerked around to stare at him. The clock ticking on the wall was suddenly very loud.

“This just got exciting,” Will said brightly. “Shall I make popcorn?”

“What do you mean, you’re not straight?” said Morgana, caught halfway between anger and confusion. Merlin stifled his inappropriate reaction to laugh. Gwen looked like she was about to back out of the kitchen. “Did you just come out to me?” She looked around the kitchen. “Did Arthur just come out to me?”

Will shrugged. “Survey says yes.”

“You always assume the worst about me!” said Arthur, almost yelling now. “I can’t be anything but your insensitive, spoiled, brutish brother, can I? You think I like when Father goes on about the ‘alphabet soup movement’? You think I agree with him?”

“You certainly don’t say anything against it,” said Morgana, rallying. “He told me to delete my Instagram! He said my public image was inappropriate!”

“He’s our family, Morgana! The last family we’ve got!” Arthur yanked the fridge open so hard that the door hit the wall with a thud. Gwen jumped, and Merlin put his hand around her wrist.

“We should go,” he said. “Thank you for ha—”

“No!” said Morgana. “Don’t leave. Go away, Arthur.”

“Fine,” he spat out, six-pack of beer dangling from his left hand. “Enjoy baking.” Despite the house’s size, they could hear him stomping all the way up the stairs.

An extra-loud peal of laughter carried into Arthur’s room, and he rolled onto his stomach, pulling his pillow over his head. His stomach ached; probably anxiety, but the idea that me might have stomach bug made him want to cry. When he was little, his mother always let him into her bed when he was sick. She’d rub his back and give him ginger ale in tall glasses and watch telly with him. When he napped, the sunlight from the window warming him, she’d sit against the headboard and read to him so the stories melted into his dreams. He was too old for that now, but the idea that she would never do that again, would never rub his back or hug him or read to him, crashed over him for the billionth time in two years.

She would never know about his straight-A’s, or his college friends, or his football victories. She wouldn’t know about his good times or his bad times or all the times in between. She would never know that he liked guys.

“Arthur?”

Arthur pushed back his blanket and glared with one eye at the doorway, where Merlin was standing with his hands in his pockets. “What the fuck are you doing up here?” said Arthur, and pushed his face back into the mattress.

“Definitely not trying to be your friend,” said Merlin. “I’m not good enough at arse-kissing for that.”

“Excuse me?” said Arthur, sitting up.

Merlin grinned, that ridiculous dimple flashing in his chin. “You seem the type to require a certain level of obeisance from your friends.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed that you know big words?” said Arthur, a little amused despite himself.

“I’m very impressive,” Merlin said easily. He was inside the room now, with the door shut behind him.

Arthur snorted. “Good for you.”

“Isn’t it?” said Merlin, all but bouncing on his toes. Why the hell was he so happy when Arthur so clearly wanted him out? “Oh, my goodness. What have we here?” Merlin had zeroed in on the bookshelf. “You do read!”

“That’s what happens when you doubt me,” Arthur said grumpily.

Merlin shrugged. “I can think of worse things than being proven wrong. Although…”

“Although what Merlin?”

“I can’t be sure you’ve really read these, can I?” said Merlin, running his fingers over the spines. “We’ll have to do a little test.”

“Fine,” said Arthur. “I’ve definitely got nothing better to do than listening to you blather on about books.” The sarcasm rolled right off Merlin’s back.

“Great! Close your eyes.”

“So you can make off with my things?” said Arthur. Merlin pressed his lips together and nodded.

“You’ve got me. This is all a scheme to steal your alarm clock.”

“Whatever.” Arthur shut his eyes. He could hear rusting as Merlin went through the books.

“ ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’ ”

“Um, what?”

“It’s the first line of one of your books.”

“And I’m supposed to guess which one?”

“Of course, if you can’t, that’s fine,” said Merlin, and Arthur could him holding back a smile, the ends of lips twitching.

“Of course I can, you idiot. David Copperfield. Can I open my eyes now?” Arthur didn’t wait for the answer, though, and looked over at Merlin, who was looking through the middle shelf.

Dorian Grey,” said Merlin. “I forgot Morgana said you liked Oscar Wilde.” A smile filled his face. “She knew you liked Oscar Wilde, and she still thought you were straight?”

“To be fair,” said Arthur, “she was born listening to feminist punk-rock, and I never guessed about her.”

“I didn’t take you for the Victorian sort,” said Merlin, glancing up. “But your shelves are full of them.”

“My mum liked them,” Arthur said shortly. For a horrible moment he thought Merlin would offer his condolences or something excruciating like that, but he just nodded and went back to the book. “I’m more of a fantasy person.”

“Like Ladies of the Lake?” said Merlin, sliding The Picture of Dorian Grey back between Copperfield and Middlemarch. A Pavlovian ping of excitement went off in Arthur’s chest.

“Yeah,” he said, a little harshly. “It’s pretty good. It’s, uh,” and he’d already apparently come out tonight, what was one more secret, “my favorite book.” Merlin’s eyes widened skeptically.

“Your favorite book?”

“I know, I know, you don’t think it’s so good,” said Arthur, hating how raw and exposed he felt, like an empty tooth socket. “And it’s not good. It’s brilliant. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read, and I hate that it’s almost over.”

“The best thing you’ve ever read,” Merlin repeated, a smile hiding behind his lips. God, this was exactly why Arthur didn’t tell people about this book. He felt a desperate need to prove to Merlin how important Ladies was.

“My mother died two years ago,” Arthur said, his eyes fixed on Merlin’s. “I spent hours and hours in bed that summer, reading that book. When I found it, it was only out until the fifteenth chapter, so while I waited for updates, I reread. That book got me through hell.” As soon as Arthur stopped talking, he regretted everything he’d just said. He hated touchy-feely people; he hated himself for being one even more.

“Oh,” said Merlin. “I suppose it’s not terrible.”

“No,” Arthur said firmly. “It’s not.”

“What do you like about it?” Merlin said, taking Arthur’s desk chair without asking permission. Arthur glowered at him but sat down on the edge of his bed.

“Its author knows what tragedy feels like,” said Arthur.

“Tragedy?”

Arthur tugged back his window curtain and looked at the sea. “Yes,” he said gruffly, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the waves. “What it feels like to be lost. To lose others. And the metaphor.”

“The metaphor?”

“The Sword in the Stone. Closing the veil. They’re trying to put their pasts behind them, literally getting rid of their ghosts.” Arthur yanked shut the curtain and pulled himself together. “Why are you actually here, Merlin?”

“I’m gay,” said Merlin. Arthur started.

“What? I mean, I knew that. Because, um. The diner.”

Merlin ducked his head. “Sorry,” he said. “Everything was getting kind of tense, and I’m an idiot.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, Merlin.” But Arthur was relieved despite himself; he didn’t think he could keep talking about Ladies like this.

“Morgana was surprised to hear you’re not straight,” said Merlin, smiling again, because seriously, all he did was smile.

“Yep. I’d say I’m bisexual, but labels are shite.” Arthur ripped open the cardboard around the six-pack and pulled out a beer. “Want one?”

“I don’t drink, remember?” Merlin said distractedly. He was scrutinizing Arthur, eyebrows drawn together. Arthur grimaced.

“You an ex-alcoholic or something?” he said, hooking the beer cap against the window sill and pulling down. The amber-coloured liquid splashed all over his blue bedspread, but Isolde would—fuck. Maybe Morgana was right. Except that Isolde always washed the sheets, so it wasn’t like the beer stain would be any extra work. Unless she had to use a stain remover? Or maybe she wasn’t planning to wash the duvet cover this week… Arthur shut down that train of thought. He wasn’t about to spiral over this ridiculousness.

“…not an alcoholic,” Merlin was saying. “I don’t like alcohol, that’s all.”

“Cheers anyway,” said Arthur, and raised the bottle to his lips. The beer rolled smoothly over his tongue, peaty and cool. It was the best thing he’d tasted all day. Merlin, he realized, was staring. His cheeks were a little pink. Oh. Arthur could work with that. Merlin was cute, with his full lips and long lashes, and Arthur’s heart kicked back into action. Pretending not to notice Merlin’s heavy stare, he licked the rim of the bottle. Merlin closed his mouth and looked back to the shelf. “Looking for something to read?” said Arthur.

“You have my favorite book,” Merlin said softly. “Didn’t think someone like you would have it, to be honest.”

“Someone like me?” said Arthur, a little offended. “Smart? Successful?”

“Is that what they’re calling arseholery these days?” said Merlin, with none of the venom that had marked earlier encounters.

“Spit it out, then,” said Arthur. “What’s your favourite book?”

Ferdinand,” said Merlin.

“A picture book?” said Arthur, looking at the lowest shelf, which held the books his mother used to read to him. “That’s your favourite?”

“All he wants is peace and quiet,” Merlin said. “He just wants to sit beneath his cork tree and love the world. And then he sits on a bee and his whole life changes. He’s carted off to the bull-fighting ring and forced to perform for all the men and women, and he’s scared and alone and frightened. But he stays true to his values. He sits down and refuses to fight. That’s true bravery.”

“I always thought of him as a coward,” said Arthur. “None of the other bulls were scared to fight.”

“Arthur, Arthur,” said Merlin, looking disappointed. “Ferdinand wasn’t a coward. He was a hero. When he refused to fight, they stabbed him. They hurt him. But he wouldn’t give up his peace and quiet, because they were worth protecting.” His voice got progressively louder and more earnest as he talked. “If everyone were like Ferdinand, the world would be so good. Not good in a trivial way, good in a moral, through-and-through way. Good to the core.”

“Instead of bad to the bone?” Arthur offered. Merlin smiled crookedly.

“Yeah.” He licked his lips and looked down at his hands. “Sorry. I get enthusiastic.”

“It’s all right,” Arthur said, sounding absurdly sincere, even to himself. “It’s not a bad thing to be enthusiastic about. You’re a good person, Merlin.”

“Uh…thanks,” said Merlin, surprised. “You’re not so bad yourself, Pendragon.” Arthur nodded and took another swig of beer. “You, uh…you play football, right?”

“And rugby, yeah.” Arthur swilled the beer around the bottle, keeping a curious eye on Merlin.

“And rugby,” Merlin echoed. “You any good?”

“Captain,” Arthur said suspiciously. “You have something against athletics?”

“No,” said Merlin. “Not in theory.”

“In theory?”

Merlin stood and swivelled the desk chair with his foot. “I mean, loads of fit blokes running about? Nothing wrong with that. But inflated egos are so—” Merlin tutted. “Not hot.”

“So that’s what you think of us athletes?” said Arthur. “A load of inflated egos?”

Merlin was suddenly very close. “You haven’t done much to prove me wrong.”

Arthur blinked up at him. “I’ll have you know that I’m the most modest bloke I know.” That smile, again. Like joy personified.

“Really?” Merlin’s head dipped down, his face just above Arthur’s. Arthur had to lean back, bracing himself with an arm. Merlin stepped a foot on either side of Arthur’s legs and put his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, like they were about to dance, and Arthur squirmed. With his big eyes and soft lips, Merlin was pretty. Arthur wanted to stroke Merlin’s cheek, rub their noses together—

The door banged open. “Cakes are ready,” Gwen announced.

“Wait,” said Arthur. “I have to talk to Will.”

mobile streaming

February 2018

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: Re: mondays :(

To: pencillizard@email.com

that wasn’t even the best part, they brought in a counsellor to talk to us about being suicidal bc three ppl from my year tried to kill themselves. i’ve discovered that our generation is very depressed. the emo’s of the 90’s really have nothing on us. sometimes i’ll feel depressed but that’s just how life goes.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: mondays :(

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

If I ever told my father when I was feeling unhappy… I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but a few years ago my mother died and everyone thought she did it on purpose. If I’m ever to leave the house without a chaperone, my father has to be sure that I’m as well adjusted as a Stepford Son.

***

From: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Mondays :(

To: pencillizard@email.com

Attached: vido.mp4(5 MB)

You didn’t tell me. I’m really sorry to hear that. Please watch the enclosed video, I think it’ll cheer u up

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Prepare to die

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

NO MORE RICKROLLING

Outside the window, rosy-fingered dawn stretched her hand over the horizon. The sky was a mesmerizing shade of purple. Merlin couldn’t bear to stay in bed a second longer. He flung back his covers so quickly that he almost sent his laptop careening onto the carpet. “Sorry!” he said, and then laughed, because he was apologizing to a hunk of circuitry.

Before he brushed his teeth, he sent a quick text to Arthur.

Thank you for apologizing he’s still mad but it was the right thing to do

The response came while Merlin was brushing his teeth.

diner?

Merlin spat into the sink before answering.

u can’t avoid the water forever

Three dots, for an interminable amount of time. Then:

fuck off.

“You should feel honored,” Merlin said, hastily shutting and locking the door behind Arthur as if a crush of desperate customers were about to mob the shop. “You, my friend, are getting the exclusive tour.”

“Oh, goodie,” Arthur said flatly. “Where’s the giftshop.”

Merlin grinned. “This whole place is the giftshop, Arthur.”

“Oh, look,” said Arthur, spinning the rack on the counter. “Postcards.” There was definitely something off, Merlin decided. 99 to one, it had something to do with Ygraine Pendragon. They’d both lost a mother that summer, except Merlin’s was still alive. He wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. He’d seen that picture of Ygraine and Arthur on the way to his school. She’d clearly loved her son, and Merlin wasn’t sure he could say the same about his own mum.

“Are you going to give me the tour or not?” said Arthur.

Apparently Arthur liked SF, especially the pulpy stuff from half a century ago, so Merlin brought him to the sizable SF and Fantasy section. They both had to crane their heads to see to the tops of the shelves, which reached the ceiling.

“Is this…is this a first edition?” said Arthur, turning a tattered, coffee-stained book around in his hands. “Oh, my God. This is a Heinlein first edition! Shouldn’t you be selling this on eBay? People would pay good money for this.”

“For Farmer in the Sky?” said Merlin. “I don’t think it’s as valuable as you think it is. And we ran out of shelf space upstairs, so he needed somewhere to put it.” He studied Arthur as he turned to the first page and began to read. His lips moved the slightest bit as he read, and Merlin decided they weren’t that wormlike at all. They were very pretty, in fact. Smooth and soft and pink.

“Stop staring at me,” Arthur said, still looking down at the book.

“I wasn’t!” said Merlin. Arthur smiled and flipped the page.

“You couldn’t lie your way out of a paper bag, Merlin.”

Not unless lying by omission counts. “Ah, well,” Merlin said, sliding some dust off the shelf with his fingertip. “You like to be looked at. Admit it.”

“Of course I like to be looked at,” Arthur said, finally glancing up from the book. Amusement flickered over his face. “If you were as gorgeous as I am, you’d want people to look at you, too.”

“How do you get your head through doorways?” said Merlin. “Do you have to turn sideways, or what?”

This time Arthur’s smile showed a flash of sharp teeth. “Funny.”

Merlin debated taking a step closer to Arthur. “We’ve already established that I’m a comedian.”

“Oh, yes,” said Arthur, his voice low and intimate. “They should hire you for those Comedy Central roasts.”

“I’m waiting for them to call me back, actually.”

“Oh, really.”

“Yep.” Merlin couldn’t help the smile taking over his face. He felt as though he were radiating joy. Like a happiness lightbulb. He could do anything. Kiss Arthur, run for office, take over the world. Especially the kissing Arthur part.

“Are you going to get the book?” Merlin said.

“What? Oh. I feel almost bad. I wouldn’t want to take it away from you.”

“I promise we’ll survive. See anything else you like?”

Arthur looked meaningfully at Merlin, and Merlin ducked his head, staring down at his Converse. He was seventy-five percent sure that all this flirting would go nowhere, but it still made him feel things.

“I don’t know yet,” said Arthur. “You’ve not given me time to look.”

“Terribly sorry,” Merlin said, stepping back with a flourish. “The shop is yours, sire.” Arthur smirked and turned to a different shelf. In the end, though, all he bought was Farmer in the Sky, which he insisted he pay an insane amount for.

“You can’t just give out valuables like that,” he argued at the register. “It’s ridiculous.”

“Fine, fine,” said Merlin. “We appreciate your patronage.”

“I’m not a bloody Medici, Merlin.”

“Does monsieur want it gift-wrapped?”

Arthur looked a little bemused at Merlin’s silliness, which was a shame, because Merlin felt he could get much sillier. “No, thanks. And shouldn’t that be signore?”

“Which way?” said Merlin, starting to laugh. “Does monsieur want signore gift-wrapped? Does monsieur want it signore-wrapped? Or perhaps signore monsieur wants it gift-wrapped. Or maybe—”

“That’s enough, Merlin,” said Arthur, but he was smiling. “You’re really quite odd. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Only every day. How much are you insisting on paying for this, by the way?”

Arthur produced a calf-skin wallet from his jeans—designer label but at least not chinos—and rifled through the brightly-colored bills. When he plucked out a maroon one, Merlin tried hard not to roll his eyes.

“Do you know this exact book would sell for seven pounds on Amazon? You’re making me overcharge by 93 fucking pounds.”

“And it means more to me than seven pounds,” said Arthur firmly. Merlin almost argued, but then he thought of Gaius, and sighed. It wasn’t fair to deny Gaius income just because he was annoyed at a customer. A ridiculously attractive and intelligent customer. A ridiculously attractive and intelligent and blond customer. A ridiculously attractive and intelligent and blond and blue-eyed customer. A ridiculously attractive and intell—

“Merlin. Earth to Merlin,” Arthur said, leaning over the counter and snapping his fingers in Merlin’s face.

“I’m on earth, I’m on earth,” said Merlin, locking the money into the register. He checked his watch. There was still an hour left before opening, and he desperately needed out of the shop. Just for a run or something. “Arthur? Have you ever run a cash register, before?”

The look on Arthur’s face made Merlin laugh for five minutes straight.

It turned out that Arthur wasn’t an absolutely rubbish friend after all. He was oblivious, and condescending, and arrogant, and patronizing, and kind, and smart, and even funny sometimes. Being his friend meant a lot of cuffs on the head and shoulder-slaps and weird boy handshakes that Merlin and Will had stopped doing in Year 7. Being his friend also meant lots and lots of staring. Staring when Arthur was drinking water, his Adam’s apple bobbing with each swallow; staring when Arthur lay on his stomach in the sun while Morgana mocked him for not wearing sunscreen; staring, basically, at all times Arthur wasn’t staring at him.

God, it kept Merlin up at night, sketching circles around his room and picturing the bright colours of Arthur’s face. He was like an oversaturated photo with crystal clear definition; his face bloomed with contrasts. Blue eyes, pink cheeks, red lips, white teeth, Merlin wrote on his wall. The beginning of a poem, if he wanted it. Fragments of poetry ran through his mind quite often, now, like snatches of songs. Sometimes they fit into place so well he couldn’t believe he’d come up with them.

His passion for Ladies returned tenfold, now that he had a muse. When he needed that passion, that spark to animate Nimueya, he reached down into the depths of his feelings and pulled out that quivering, terrifying, powerful thing. And it wasn’t just Arthur he felt that way about. It was the world, brightening in the dawn beyond his window. It was the sea smells, the seagulls, the sword in the stone.

In Year 6, they’d read a book about a girl who was an orphan and had a boat. Merlin remembered nothing but the opening lines: The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me. Everyone who’d ever seen the ocean would know what she meant by that: the horizon demands to be noticed. It pulls on that spot behind your navel, the spot that never gave up on being connected to something greater.

Another good thing about being Arthur’s friend was that they weren’t just friends. Merlin and Will never talked hypothetically about making out—well, not seriously, and not since before sixth form. And Merlin never smelled Gwen’s hair, except when she got that fancy shampoo. But that didn’t count because he wasn’t smelling her.

This summer was loads better than the one two years ago, the one Merlin remembered only in fits and starts. At night, he’d get a sense memory of hands on his body, tongues wet and slimy in his mouth, and he’d press his legs together and bite the insides of his cheeks and try to forget what he couldn’t even remember.

He didn’t remember the autumn that followed that summer any better, but at least he knew what he was doing: nothing but lying in bed and watching the sparrows nesting in his window and helping Will, who’d offered to divide the pages and pages of Ladies manuscript into chapters. He’d put a can under his bed to pee into so he wouldn’t have to go down the hall to the bathroom, and he never wore shoes with laces because they were too much effort to do up. For a while, Gaius would bring him his toothbrush twice a day because Merlin wouldn’t use it otherwise. The scrubbing motion took too much out of him.

And now it was all better, and Merlin could cry in relief when he thought about those days. He couldn’t believe he’d ever been so sad.


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Documents—>Ladies—>misc.—>things that will never make it in—>whoops :)

December 2017

Freya hung from the rowan tree until her skin sloughed off. Freya was dead. I should just kill her. She should rot. I want her to rot. I can’t do this anymore. She can’t, either. Let’s just fucking die together.

i’m supposed to go to school tomorrow. everyone else started ages ago. and it’s a new school. and i’d rather die right now. just slip away painlessly. my body aches all over. especially my neck from this angle. because i have to sit weirdly to see the screen.

Anyway, Freya hung from the rowan tree until her skin sloughed off. Good fucking riddance.

Early one morning, Arthur woke to a tapping at his balcony door. At first he wasn’t sure what he was hearing, and thought for a moment that his bedroom was haunted. But then the tapping came again, and Arthur frowned. It sounded like a knock. But that was impossible, no one could get to the second floor balcony from outside. He shivered and peeked through the curtains. Just his own reflection, except…was that…

“Aah!” said Arthur, jumping back. He’d seen a face! There was someone on his balcony! Well, there was no use for it. He held his breath and threw the doors open. “Merlin?!”

“Did I scare you?” Merlin said apologetically. “I didn’t mean to, but I thought this would be a good time to go on an adventure.”

“An adventure? Merlin, it’s four-thirty in the morning! If you look outside, you’ll see it’s dark, which was what we call nighttime. And you know what we do in the nighttime? We sleep!”

Merlin made the cutest pleading face in the history of pleading face, and Arthur melted just the tiniest bit. “Either get into bed or go away.”

They stared at each other for a moment, and Arthur replayed what he’d just said. He was about to apologize when Merlin said, “Oh, fine,” and crawled into the space between Arthur and the wall. He snuggled up to Arthur, tucking his arms between their bodies.

It was comforting to have a warm body against him, and the bed was soft, and Arthur was just drifting off again when Merlin started fidgeting.

“Merlin,” Arthur moaned. “Stop moving.”

“Arthur I can’t, I can’t, I really can’t. I think we should go on an adventure. Come on, please?”

Arthur groaned. “Where would we go at this hour? And don’t say the beach.”

“Underneath the boardwalk,” said Merlin.

Arthur shook his head. “No way. It’s filthy down there, and there are needles everywhere.”

“That almost rhymed,” said Merlin. “You’re a poet, and you didn’t even realize!”

“Ha,” Arthur said.

“Isn’t it a good one?” Merlin sounded pleased. “Fine. We don’t have to go to the boardwalk. But please, please, please let’s do something?”

“You’re unbelievable, Merlin.” But Arthur couldn’t keep the fondness out of his voice. “Just tell me what you want to do and we can imagine we’re there. You seem like someone who would be big on imagination.”

Merlin burrowed his head into Arthur’s shoulder. “Okay,” he said. “We can be anywhere, then. The moon. Tokyo. The Amazon rainforest.”

“You pick,” said Arthur.

Merlin was so close that his sigh warmed Arthur’s neck instead of cooling it. “Let’s go to the Middle Ages. I’ve always wanted to be a knight.”

“And what makes you think you’d be a knight?” said Arthur, who was steadily waking up. “I’d be a lord, and you’d be my serf.”

“Fine,” said Merlin. “Then I’m going to go to a monastery and become a monk and eventually I’ll be pope and be in charge of everyone.”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works, Merlin.”

“It is,” Merlin said confidently. “You don’t have to worry about it. You’re only a lord.”

“Then dibs on being king,” said Arthur.

“The pope is above the king.”

“No, he’s not!”

“It depends on the country.”

“Merlin, what on earth are you talking about?”

“Okay, fine. You’re king. I didn’t want to be pope, anyway,” said Merlin. “I’d rather be an honest monk. I can illuminate manuscripts and plant tomatoes and things.”

“Tomatoes came from the Americas.”

“Root vegetables,” Merlin amended. “I plant root vegetables. And illuminate manuscripts. And then one day you go on a tour of your land. And then you come to my monastery.”

“This is a much more involved story than I expected.”

“Anyway, you disguise yourself, so no one knows you’re king. Like Peter the Great.”

“Excuse me?”

“Of Russia. He went around dressed like a sailor or something, but I think everyone knew anyway, and humored him. Or something like that. I can’t remember. But I don’t know you’re the king. And I give you a tour of the monastery out of the kindness of my heart.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“Then what?” said Arthur, a little curious despite himself.

“Um,” said Merlin. “This, I guess.”

And then Merlin leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to Arthur’s lips. They stared at each other, Merlin defiant, Arthur stunned. The tips of their noses brushed once, twice. Arthur kissed back, wrapping a leg around Merlin’s to keep him there.

“You smell good,” Merlin whispered.

“You smell terrible,” said Arthur.

“Thanks,” said Merlin. “Do you want to keep going?”

“Why not,” said Arthur. So they did.

“ ‘And this is where we do our gardening,’ said Nimueh, pointing out a patch of tilled earth.

‘Your gardening?’ Freya said, surprised. ‘I didn’t know priestesses gardened.’

‘Not well,’ said Nimueh. ”

—Ladies of the Lake, Chapter 50

***

Arthur was searching Merlin’s hair for nits. It should have been horribly unromantic, but Merlin went boneless when Arthur rubbed his hands through his hair. Every now and then, Arthur’s fists would tighten around a hank of hair, and he’d tug it, just lightly enough to be satisfying. “Tilt back,” Arthur commanded, and Merlin, who was sitting on the floor, leaned his head against Arthur, who was seated in the armchair.

“I think you’ve been searching for long enough,” Morgana said lazily. She and Gwen were painting each other’s nails on Merlin’s sitting room floor.

“Is this, like, a weird sex game?” said Gwen.

Will looked up from relentlessly sharing anarchist memes on his phone. “What sort of sex games do you play, Gwen?”

“No, you know, one of those games you play when you’re just starting out. Like playing doctor, but nits.”

“Starting out?” said Arthur. “Sex isn’t a job, Gwen.”

“Gross,” said Morgana. She kissed Gwen’s wrist anyway.

Happiness squeezed Merlin’s throat. He loved his friends so much.

“Describe the itchiness, Merlin,” said Gwen. “Does it feel like it’s crawling over your head? Or is it just in one spot?”

“His head doesn’t actually itch,” said Will. “That’s how he tricks you into scratching his head for him.”

“Are you conning me?” Arthur said in Merlin’s ear.

“No,” Merlin lied. “Keep looking.” He could hear Arthur’s smirk in the way way he breathed.

“I’ll let it go just this once. But you’ve been warned.”

“Mm,” Merlin agreed. Arthur didn’t stop stroking his hair.

“Are we doing something tonight?” said Gwen, fixing the edge of Morgana’s pinky-nail. Will opened his mouth. “Something sober, I mean.” Will closed it.

“What if you always felt drunk, and you had to pay to be sober?” said Merlin dreamily. “Like, you wake up and your vision’s fuzzy and you can’t walk in a straight line, but go to the bloke down the street and he’ll give you something to clear it up. And then you get a few hours of thinking clearly and doing things, and then you start to fuzz again, and you have to keep going and keep going to keep the clarity, but it gets harder and harder, and you’re starting to feel sober even when you’re not, and if you go too long with it you get the shakes, and before you know it you’ve got a rubber band around your bicep and you’re in an alleyway overdosing on sober, and all you wanted was to be able to drive without crashing your car.”

“You’ve never made me feel so grateful for sobriety,” Arthur said.

“We could play the poem game,” Will said suddenly. Gwen lit up.

“Oh, yes, I love the poem game!”

“What’s the poem game?” said Arthur.

“We get high and write poems,” said Gwen.

“And then we have to guess who wrote them.”

“I don’t know,” said Arthur. “I don’t really write.”

“Oh, come on,” said Morgana. “I’ve played before, it’s fun.”

“Ugh,” said Arthur. “Fine.”

Merlin padded to Gaius’s deserted office—he was at a conference—and came back with a stack of legal pads and cupful of pencils. Will got a plastic mixing bowl.

“Good luck to all,” Merlin said magnanimously, and sat on the floor with his back leaning against the armchair and the tip of the pencil in his mouth. His full lips twitched as he chewed on the utensil, and Arthur said, “You know that’s not a snack, right Merlin?” Merlin looked up in surprise, shrugged, and went back to his legal pad. Disappointment flickered within Arthur. He’d thought Merlin would say something back and they could have a good bantering session, but the little arse seemed too absorbed by whatever poem he was mentally crafting. Arthur sighed and looked around the room.

Everyone seemed to be absorbed but him. Morgana and Gwen sat with their backs to each other and their legs crossed, both of them scribbling furiously at their own papers. Will was lying belly-down on the couch and mouthing something to himself. The first word is always the hardest.

Freya

He scribbled that out immediately. Then thought about his school’s football pitch—he fucking loved that football pitch—but that seemed like it would invite only more teasing from Will. He could write about his mother, but this wasn’t some sort of emotion-sharing group therapy session. He groaned silently to himself and leaned his head back against the wall. Okay. Okay. He could do this. He could write a solitary, shitty, high poem. Piece of cake. Piece of cake!

Piece of cake
Bake at 210
Serve cooled

This, he realized, was not a poem. It was baking instructions. Maybe he could do something with that, though?

If you’re hungry, put me in the oven
If the smoke alarm goes off, please come running
I know you don’t know me very well,
But I don’t want to die in this burning hell!

No. Jesus. Definitely not. Just write. He put pen to paper. He wrote.

“All right,” said Will, throwing down his pencil. “Everyone ready?” They all were, except for Merlin, who mumbled distractedly and crossed something out.

“Finished,” he said a little while later.

“Okay,” said Will, holding up the mixing bowl. “Everybody fold up your poems and toss them in.” When they’d done this, he offered the bowl to Gwen. “Ladies first.” She gave him a look, but dramatically swished her hand around for a moment or so before pulling out a neatly folded sheet.

“Ahem,” she said when she’d opened it. “Are we ready to begin?” They were.

The hot breath of the subway queen
Is stale shit and her spit
Rivers of urine
She coughs up boiled people
Cooked in their own grease
And wipes her nose with a gum wrapper
Dropped into her vein by a young girl waiting
For the coming train

“Oh, my God,” Merlin said, laughing. “Who wrote that? It’s so gross!”

“Definitely Morgana,” said Arthur. She held her hands palms-up in an I have nothing to hide gesture.

“It says subway instead of tube,” mused Will, like this was a serious clue.

“The meter would be off otherwise,” Merlin pointed out. “But I think Arthur’s right, it does seem like a Morgana sort of poem.” Gwen looked like she was trying not to laugh, and Will narrowed his eyes.

“And we went to New York City over spring holidays,” said Arthur. “So, subway.”

“Or maybe Morgana’s rubbed off on our little Gwen. Perhaps Gwen has a touch of the macabre?” Will rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Her nail varnish is black, which leads me to believe she has a dark side. On the other hand, when’s the last time she’s taken public transportation that’s not a local bus?”

“You’re not Sherlock fucking Holmes,” Arthur said. “Calm down.”

“The game’s only fun if you let it be fun,” Merlin said sharply. “Let it be fun, okay?” Arthur looked at the floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“You still have to vote, Morgana,” said Gwen, nudging her with an elbow.

“Hmm. I’ll go with Merlin.” She smiled wickedly at him.

“So, final votes, then. Arthur, Merlin for Morgana; Will for me; Morgana for Merlin.” There was a moment of silence.

“Uh, now what?” said Arthur. “Does the author reveal themselves, or…”

“Will the real Slim Shady please stand up,” Will boomed.

“All right, all right, it was me,” said Morgana. Will groaned and pressed his hand to his brow.

“Oh, how you’ve betrayed me, Gwen! I shall never recover!”

Merlin looked sideways at his friend. “You want to read next, Will?”

“Oh, yes,” Will said cheerfully, perking right up. “Pass the bowl, Gwen.” He opened the poem slowly and said, “Give me a moment, please. I need to get into character.” Will loved an audience. “All right.”

The knights tilt in the late afternoon
Sunlight running down their lances like
River water rolling
Over goose-fleshed, stiff blue
Legs, toes dug into the rocks, and shivering
Like the horses’ manes in the late afternoon
Sunlight, as the knights tilt and
Tilt again

“Merlin,” Gwen and Will chorused.

“Don’t bother voting for anyone else,” Gwen advised. “The good ones are always Merlin’s.”

“And it’s always, like, fantasy stuff,” said Will. “Arthur?”

“Uh, Merlin,” he said, flushing.

“Guess I’d be an idiot not to go with Merlin,” Morgana said, flashing Arthur a look. He squirmed.

Merlin looked puzzled. “I don’t know. Gwen.”

“Okay,” said Will. “Round’s over. Fess up, Merlin.”

“It wasn’t me,” he said. “Stop looking at me like that, it really wasn’t.”

Arthur coughed. Nobody heard. He coughed louder.

“I think Arthur has something to share with the class,” said Morgana.

“It was me,” he said. “I wrote it.” Merlin tilted his head.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I…” Arthur, embarrassed, rubbed the back of his neck.

Ladies inspired you, did it?” said Will, looking positively gleeful. Oh, why had Arthur gone and written about fucking knights?

The next poem, a surprisingly sexy sonnet about a bee and a flower, turned out to be Gwen’s; the penultimate one, basically a drinking song without the music, was obviously Will’s.

“That just leaves Merlin’s,” said Gwen. “Go on and read it.” Merlin licked his lips and looked a little nervous.

“You know I don’t like to read my own stuff.”

“Oh, go on,” said Will. “You’re being a dick. We all know you can write circles around us.”

“Stop, that’s not true.” Merlin stared down at his paper. “I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote this, I really don’t.” His beautiful pointy ears were a ridiculous candy-colored red. “I mean, I was staring at the empty paper for forever.”

“My friend says first word is always the hardest,” Arthur advised sagely. “Stop being modest and read the damn thing. I’m sure it’s not half as good as everyone seems to think.” Merlin frowned.

“Um, okay.” And when he read, his voice was better than Arthur could have imagined. Smooth and silky as dark chocolate, and whisper-low.

she births death
her children rise and fall like breaths
their rooms—
tombs
but the bird that never dies
sheds its golden feathers on her windowsill
it brings her songs each time it flies
it roosts beneath her window
she brings it mice and writhing worms
and pets its silky head
but then one day she lifts the glass
and finds it might be dead
its ribs are cupped like fingers
around its burning heart
and even when she calls it names
it doesn’t rear its head
but it’s a phoenix
so she waits for it rise
and yet it never shakes its wings
and never again does it fly
and she never learns why
but the bird that never dies—
died

Arthur broke the silence. “Terrible,” he said. “Really, truly dreadful.” Will looked like he was about to argue, but seemed to realize that Arthur was joking in time.

“That was beautiful,” said Gwen. Morgana nodded in agreement.

“I don’t get what’s so great about it,” said Arthur.

“Of course you don’t,” said Morgana.

It came to him in the shower. It wasn’t just what Arthur’d said, it was all sorts of little things, plus the big things, plus everything that just made it so obvious Merlin couldn’t believe he’d never thought of it before. It took him nearly half an hour to find the email, and when he did, it didn’t convince him one way or the other.

the first word is always the hardest

Merlin paced his room that night, thoughts moving so quickly in his brain they felt like physical punches to his skull. Was Arthur really—? Could Arthur actually be—? Merlin kept returning to Arthur saying stuff like, I spent hours and hours in bed reading Ladies. Besides for Will, Merlin had never knowingly talked to anyone who’d read it. Except readers. Readers like—no, it was impossible. There was so way. No way. He flipped open his laptop and navigated to his email. Started to write one. Stopped.

No way, actually no way. Arthur? This was ridiculous. Completely fucking ridiculous. His head rang with thoughts, and he pressed his hands to the wall. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in—FUCK! Merlin sat on his futon and stood back up, sat down again and joggled his legs. Energy buzzed through his body with nowhere to go, and if it weren’t for Arthur, he’d feel brilliant, he’d be writing and writing until nothing remained in his head but lint. But this—shite.

Shite! Merlin threw his pillow against the wall. He was trapped, walled into a wine cellar, drifting through outer space within a cannibalistic spacesuit that cut off his limbs to—no, not now, not Bradbury, fuck Bradbury—No, no, it was fine, it was all right, everything was all right. He should call someone, except he shouldn’t, because they’d think that he was going mad like last time, and maybe he was going mad like last time, but he couldn’t stop the opera trilling behind his ears, Madame Butterfly falling down the stairs—not helpful, not helpful, NOT HELPFUL. He squeezed his eyes shut and shoved the intrusive sounds into a brown box which he packed down in the groove between thoughts and sent away on his neurotrain.

Okay. He could still write. His room was small enough that he could get his computer from his desk without leaving his bed. The words pounded from his fingers onto the screen, and it was a while before he realized that he hadn’t made any conscious decisions; the story was leading him, not the other way around. This wouldn’t be bad except he’d completely lost the plot and was entirely unsure why Nimueh and Freya were miles away from where he’d planned them to be. He shook his head sharply and tried to start writing again, but his fingers danced off the keys. His thoughts were moving too fast. That was okay, he had a backup for that, which was the voice recording app on his phone.

It was an hour and a half later when he finally pressed the “stop” button. 3 AM. Merlin slid his phone under his pillow and rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. He wasn’t sleepy, but he was bone-weary, and didn’t think he could manage anything more writing or thinking or plotting or planning without a rest.

When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed he was standing next to Arthur in a swimming pool, but neither of them were wet. The water was murky, its surface cluttered with bugs, and Merlin was afraid, of what, he couldn’t remember. “They can’t eat you if you eat them first,” Arthur said, and scooped up a handful of bugs, which turned out to be a giant pencil that he chomped like a carrot. Splinters stuck in his gums when he smiled.

Merlin woke with a gasp. It was still dark. For a minute or so, all he could do was lie there and try to calm his breathing. He realized he was frightened. Of what, he couldn’t say. He rolled over in bed and nearly dropped his laptop by dragging it off his desk. The internet was quiet tonight. Neil Gaiman had tweeted something about something that had a few of Merlin’s favorite blogs chattering, but besides that, his usual haunts lay fallow.

The emails. He scrolled through them, random phrases jumping out at him.

prefer strawberries

always wanted to

afraid of

never been

what if no one

still alive?

“Shit,” he said to himself, and collapsed back into his pillows.

It wasn’t a warm evening, and the wind rolled over them like the waves. It was the time of evening between sunset and nightfall, when the sun is nowhere to be seen and everything is diffused with a dim blue light. The full moon hung over the ocean like a gateway to another, brighter world. At the end of Part I of Ladies, Freya and Nimueh kneel in a clearing in the Forest Sauvage, whispering prayers to the moon. The section concludes with the moon's light wrapping around Nimueh like a mantle and crowning her new High Priestess of the Old Religion. This was after they’d defeated the giant scorpions.

And Arthur couldn’t make himself walk onto a beach. He closed his eyes and thought, It’s just one foot in front of the other. But he couldn’t forget that each step would take him closer to the water.

The light wasn’t fading as much as Arthur thought it would, and he realized the moon and stars would be enough to see by. So he wouldn’t be left alone in the dark with just the sound of the waves. But his automatic nervous system kept pinging with alerts: water! sand! are you sure you’re not drowning? make sure you’re not drowning!

Arthur’s heart was pounding, and his vision was blurring. Tears were minutes away.

“Are you going to swim?” Arthur said to Merlin, desperately trying not to feel the hair through his fingers. Merlin, a beach towel over his arm and a book in his hand, shook his head.

“You’re not going to get him to skinny dip,” said Will, with a scornful tone that implied Arthur should know this already. “He can’t swim.”

“Will!” said Merlin, and maybe the scornful tone hadn’t been for Arthur after all.

“It’s so ridiculous,” said Will. “The first time they took him swimming, he got a mouthful of water and refused to go back in.” Merlin made a face.

“I’m not going in, either,” said Arthur. “I can keep him company.”

“Why did you even come down if you’re not going to swim?” said Will. Why had Arthur come down? He could be inside, comfortable and warm and safe. But then he wouldn’t be with Merlin. So. Dilemma.

“I was bored,” he said. Will made a noise of disgust.

“I thought you’d be all over skinny dipping. Showing off your muscles or whatever.”

“Will. He has personal reasons,” Merlin said. “Leave him alone.” Will rolled his eyes, but went into the water without them.

“You didn’t have to stick up for me,” said Arthur. “I mean, I’m not helpless. I can defend myself.”

Merlin ignored this. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” said Arthur. “But you really can’t swim? You live on a beach!”

“No,” Merlin said. “I can’t.”

Arthur snorted. “You’re an odd one, Merlin.” There didn’t seem to be much to say after that,

The chill in the air strengthened, and horrible goose bumps prickled up Arthur’s back and arms. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. “You know what, actually? There’s this lake in Ladies. Surrounded by trees and things. And Mermaid Cove reminds me of that. You know, with the rock in the middle and everything.”

“The Isle of the Blessed,” Merlin said.

“Yeah! Yeah. The Isle of the Blessed. With the Sword in the Stone.” He blinked hard, his eyes burning.

“I saw you there,” said Merlin.

“Can you stop shaking like that?” said Arthur. Merlin, who’d been bouncing up and down on his toes, grinned.

“Race me?” And before Arthur could even understand what he’d said, Merlin was speeding down the path away from the beach.

“Merlin! Get back here!” Arthur yelled, running after Merlin, who was surprisingly fast. Arthur grit his teeth and put on an extra burst of speed, running straight into Merlin, tackling him to the ground. Merlin was so solid and real and warm that Arthur’s heart hurt. He hugged tight, pressing Merlin’s arms down by his side and burying his face in Merlin’s neck. He smelled a bit like warm laundry, and Arthur never wanted to let go.

“You knocked me over!” said Merlin, laughing for some reason. “This is perfect, oh, my God.”

“Do you yield?”

Merlin twisted his head to the side to catch Arthur’s gaze. “Never, Sir Knight. If you let me go, we can tilt, and tilt again.”

“You remember my poem,” said Arthur.

“Of course I remember it,” said Merlin. “Quoting is kind of my thing. And I like that kind of stuff, too, you know. Old fairy tales. Knights and dragons.” He paused. “Druid girls in caves.”

Arthur sat up and rolled off Merlin. “I thought you didn’t like Ladies.”

“I’m a man of many mysteries,” said Merlin, also sitting up. Moonlight glinted off his eyes.

“So have you read it or not?”

“I’ve read it,” said Merlin. “I don’t think it touched me in quite the same way it touched you. Why did you lie, by the way? When you said you just started reading it?”

“I don’t know,” said Arthur, which was partially the truth. He didn’t understand half the things he did.

“I bet you were embarrassed,” said Merlin.

“I was not.”

“You wanted us to think you were this untouchably cool Richie Rich. Not someone who reads online novels about magical lesbians.”

“You also think Nimueya is going to happen?” Arthur said. Merlin trailed his hand through the sand.

“No. Yes. I don’t know.”

Maybe it was the view, or the heaviness of night, or the susurrus of whispering palm fronds. Maybe it was the water. Maybe Arthur was just tired of holding everything in. Maybe it was because, for the first time, he was talking in person to someone who knew Bastet. But he said, “It’s going to happen. It has to happen. I have this feeling that if they don’t work out, I’ll never find love.”

“Uh…wow,” Merlin said. “Can I ask why?”

“God, it’s stupid,” said Arthur, looking down at his hands. “I guess I just feel connected with Freya. No mum, new school. Felt a bit like being kicked out a tribe. And I felt like a monster, too.” Merlin didn’t say anything, though his breathing picked up. “Alone, lost. And right when Freya found Nimueh, I started to make friends. I feel like our lives are conne—whatever. It’s stupid. I’ll shut up.”

“So your connection to Freya means that if she doesn’t find love, you won’t either?” It sounded so illogical when Merlin said it.

“I said whatever.”

“But—”

“Shut up, Merlin. I’m going home.”

“Wait!” Merlin’s hand shot out and grabbed Arthur’s ankle. “My dad left before I was born, and I’ve not seen my mum in a year. I didn’t want to mention it before because then it would seem like I was making it all about me, and I didn’t want that, but now you seem all sad and alone, so I don’t know my dad and I’ve not seen my mum in a year.”

“Merlin.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re still holding onto my ankle.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.” Merlin drew his hand back into his lap. “Do you want to get out of here?”

Arthur sighed. “Why not.”

The path to town led through a small stretch of trees. It smelled clean in a way London never did, earthy and salty and nightlike. Merlin put his hand against the layered bark of a palm and shook his head. “Gaius remembers when they brought these in. Feels so unnatural, doesn’t it? Palm trees in Britain?”

“It’s not a proper holiday without palm trees,” said Arthur.

“Uh, but I’m not always on holiday,” said Merlin. “I live here year-round.”

“Living in a destination spot is hard, is it?”

“Yeah, it is hard,” said Merlin. “Getting overrun every summer by pompous arseholes.”

“Ealdor wouldn’t exist without us,” said Arthur. “Your entire business is tourism.”

“Ealdor’s been around for over a hundred years,” said Merlin. “I think we’d be fine. Wait, did you hear that?”

Arthur stopped in his tracks. “What?” Merlin tilted his head and stared through the trees. Fear filled his face.

“It sounds like…”

“What, Merlin?”

“But it can’t be…”

“What are you talking about?”

“I think it is….”

“Merlin, what is it?”

“A RICH ASS!” Merlin yelled, swinging around to face Arthur again. Arthur jumped, which was enough to send Merlin into fits of laughter. “I got you!” he said. “You thought there was some sort of bear in the woods.”

“No, I didn’t,” lied Arthur.

“Did too,” Merlin said under his breath, looking at Arthur out the corner of his eye.

“For someone who’s supposed to be smart, you’re wrong a lot.”

Merlin loped up the steps to the boardwalk, and Arthur frowned.

“Aren’t we going to Main Street?”

“The boardwalk’s a shortcut. Come on.”

There were still people on the boardwalk, holiday-makers in towels, couples sharing ice cream or tubs of vinegar chips. Merlin seemed to know all the shop workers, and waved to every open stand. This meant he was waving all the way down the boardwalk, like an awkward celebrity.

“Oh!” said Merlin, stopping. “You know what we need?”

“No?”

“We need ice cream!” Merlin nearly did a back flip. “We need ice cream right now.” He grabbed Arthur’s hand as if he’d done it a million times before. Arthur tripped when Merlin started running, not prepared for the speed. “Cerdan!” Merlin said when they’d reached the ice cream stand. “What do you have for us tonight?”

The man at the booth had a short beard and a long face. “Pick your flavor off the board,” he said gloomily.

“Cerdan’s never happy,” Merlin whispered into Arthur’s ear. “The doctors can’t can’t explain it.”

They took their ice creams to a quiet bench, but Merlin couldn’t sit still. He bounced happily, devouring his ice cream in giant bites. “This is good, isn’t it? It’s so good. I love ice cream! I love ice cream, Arthur!”

A genuine laugh came out of Arthur’s mouth. “Are you all right, Merlin? You’re sure you’re actually eighteen and not five?”

“I’ll prove it,” said Merlin, and kissed Arthur, hard. After a moment, Arthur kissed back, blindly reaching for a place to put his cup. Just as suddenly, it was over.

“Come on, come on, come on!” Merlin, still licking his ice cream, jumped back up. “Race me again?” Arthur did, all the way off the boardwalk and onto a quiet residential street, more confused than upset.

“You have to be quiet now,” said Arthur. “People are sleeping.”

“Oh no, Arthur!”

“What?”

“My room’s a mess!” Merlin ran his hands through his hair. “We have to go clean it. We have to!”

Arthur stared. “Er, okay. If that’s what you want to do.”

“It is!” Merlin’s hands were moving faster and faster, and words zoomed out of his mouth. “Right now, or else I’ll die. I’ll die, I swear to God, Arthur, I have to clean my room right now.”

“Did you take some sort of upper when I wasn’t looking?” said Arthur, narrowing his eyes.

“No, no, no upper,” said Merlin. “No upper at all, at all, at all. Oh, God. Arthur. You need to apologize to Will for being rude!”

“I did already!”

“No, no, a proper apology. We should bake him cupcakes! Do you know how to bake? Morgana knows how to bake. Let’s go bake!” Merlin bounced on his toes. It was hard to tell at night, but his face seemed flushed. He was joyful as a puppy.

“Do you ever run out of energy?”

“Let’s not worry about that now. Let’s bake!”

In his pocket, Arthur’s phone rang. He frowned at the unfamiliar caller ID. “Arthur speaking.”

“Are you with Merlin?” Oh, joy. Will.

“Uh, yeah,” said Arthur. “You want to speak to him?”

“Tell him to come back to the beach. He left his phone.”

“Merlin, we have to go back to the beach and get your phone.”

“Is that Will?” said Merlin. “Tell him to keep the phone for tonight, I don’t care. I really, really have to clean my room.”

“He says he has to clean his room.”

“He has to what?”

“Clean his room.”

“Oh, Jesus. Arthur, tell him that I’ll chuck his phone into the water if he doesn’t come back.”

“Will says he’ll chuck your phone into the water if you don’t go back.”

Merlin backed up a few steps. “No. No, I don’t want to see him right now.”

“He says he doesn’t want to see you.”

“Put him on the phone.”

Merlin accepted the phone grudgingly, and bit at his knuckle when he answered. “Hi,” he said, suddenly sullen. Arthur had the feeling that he was missing something here. The feeling strengthened as Merlin’s one-sided conversation continued.

“I’m fine.”

“No, I just want to clean my room.”

“I’ll die if I don’t clean my room, you’ll have to bring the phone to me.”

“Will, you don’t understand.” And then Merlin lowered his voice and put his hand over his mouth and Arthur couldn’t hear the rest.

“Here,” said Merlin, nearly shoving the phone into Arthur’s chest. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Hello?” said Arthur, trotting after Merlin.

Will’s voice was tired. “Can you go back to his flat with him and stay until I get there?”

“Uh, sure.”

“Don’t let him do anything stupid,” said Will, and hung up.

Arthur watched in bewilderment as Merlin tossed clothes from his floor to the bed with a frantic, practically possessed, movements. “Where is it?” he demanded. “Do you know, Arthur?”

“Um, what?” said Arthur.

Merlin was already distracted by a sheaf of printed papers. “It doesn’t matter.” He looked up at Arthur. “You know what? Nimueya is real. Hang on.” He slid the laptop off the desk and fell into the beanbag chair. “I’ve got to do something, won’t be a minute.”

“You’re a terrible host,” Arthur commented, as Merlin’s fingers flew over the keyboard. “Aren’t you supposed to entertain me?”

“Don’t worry, delayed pleasure…the entertaining will be later,” Merlin murmured, absorbed in his computer. Arthur was sure Merlin hadn’t meant it like that, but his dumb mouth went dry anyway. His phone buzzed. Will, asking to be let in.

When Will got into the flat, he was panting and red-faced.

“Did you run here?” Arthur said incredulously. Will pushed past him to the bedroom, where Merlin was still sitting on the beanbag, typing.

“Hey Merlin,” Will said, with a voice that seemed a little too careful. “What’ve you got there?”

“‘Words, words, words,’” said Merlin, eyes still on the screen.

“You’re not supposed to quote,” Will said sharply, like this was something they’d gone over before. Maybe it was. Whatever Merlin’s problems were, they were bizarre. “You have to use your own words.”

“I’m writing.”

Will glanced at Arthur. “You should probably go.”

“Will you at least tell me what’s wrong?” said Arthur. “He’s a little over-energetic, but that’s hardly a crime.”

“A little over-energetic?” Will hissed, shoving Arthur back into the sitting room. “You really don’t know what’s going on, do you.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

The fight left Will. “I thought maybe he was just getting happier,” he said. “I thought maybe…but of course it turns into this.” He spat out the last word. “It always does.”

“Turns into what?” said Arthur, though the answer was slowing coalescing in his mind.

“Just go, Arthur. Please just go.”

Arthur opened the door slowly, and took another look behind him before he left. Will was leaning against the wall, his face in his hands. He was crying.

Arthur woke to a missed call and a text from Merlin. The text said,

Sorry abt last night cupcake idea still good tho.

Sorry for what? Arthur responded.

Merlin’s bubbles popped up immediately.

I was sort of mad last night i’m usually not like that

Not sure how to respond, Arthur went down the hall to Morgana’s room and opened the door right into Gwen’s face.

“Sorry!” he said, regaining his balance. “Are you all right?”

Gwen gingerly rubbed her forehead. “Ow.” She was wearing Morgana’s oversized “ask me about my feminist agenda” shirt inside-out and joggers with the words “Ealdor Girls’ Debate” emblazoned down the side.

“I’m very sorry,” Arthur said again.

“Shh,” said Gwen, closing the door behind her. “Morgana’s still asleep.”

“Do you want breakfast?” said Arthur.

As it turned out, there was a lot Arthur hadn’t known about Gwen. She was Jewish, for one, and allergic to peanuts, for another. She was also an avid watcher of Game of Thrones, which surprised Arthur.

“You think I’d be too gentle for a show like that?” Gwen said, amused.

“It’s the vibe you give off.”

Gwen rolled her eyes and ate another spoonful of cornflakes.

“Everyone says that.”

“Morgana hates Game of Thrones. She says it objectifies women and panders to the male gaze.”

“S’true,” Gwen admitted. “But Khaleesi’s still hot.”

“Khaleesi’s still hot,” Arthur agreed gravely. They both laughed at the same time.

“You’re nicer than I thought you were,” said Gwen. A second later, she clamped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No, it’s all right,” said Arthur. “I know I can be a little rude sometimes. I could have been more diplomatic with Will.” Thinking about Will made him remember Merlin. “Gwen, can I ask you something?”

She looked concerned. “Okay?”

“Last night, Merlin acted sort of strangely.”

“Oh.” Gwen stirred her milk around her bowl.

Arthur cleared his throat. “Was he…was he having a manic episode?”

“I hope not,” Gwen said, suddenly bright. “Are you done eating? Shall we wash up?”

“What are you doing?” said Arthur as Gwen carried their bowls to the sink. “Leave them on the table. Isolde will do it.”

Gwen stared up at the ceiling. “Just when I thought he was normal.” Looking back to Arthur: “Do you never clean up after yourself?”

“Why would I? That’s Isolde’s job.”

“That’s Isolde’s job,” Gwen repeated. “I…never mind.”

“What?” said Arthur. “If you have a job, you can’t complain if someone makes you do it.”

“But it’s basic human decency!” said Gwen. “You don’t have to make her job harder. Here.”

“What?” Arthur stared at her beckoning hand.

“Take your bowl,” she said. “You’re going to wash it.”

And then, of course, Morgana walked into the kitchen. “You’re making Arthur do chores?” she said, delighted. Her silk pajamas rustled as she came up behind Gwen and hugged her. Gwen smiled and leaned back, tilting up her head for a kiss.

Merlin flashed into Arthur’s head. Merlin coming up behind him, resting his head on Arthur’s shoulder. Merlin, who behaved so strangely, even when he wasn’t leaping around with ice cream. Maybe he’d pay Merlin a visit. Check up on him. Make sure he hadn’t burned down the bookshop while Arthur was gone.

Merlin woke up at 7 AM, two hours after he’d fallen asleep. Will was passed out on the couch. Merlin didn’t even brush his teeth before opening up his laptop and going back to his document. There was so much he wanted to say, and there wasn’t enough time in the world to say all of it. He sent a quick text to Arthur, and plunged back into writing.

This was amazing! He hadn’t felt this enthused since…since ever.

“Oh, shite,” said Will when he woke up and saw Merlin crouched over his computer. “Have you eaten anything?”

“Not hungry.”

“I’ll order pizza.”

Merlin was about to protest that pizza wasn’t a morning food when his eye fell on his computer’s clock. 12:05 PM. Not morning, then.

“Merlin,” Will said carefully, when he was done ordering, and Merlin pulled his shoulders up over his ears.

“Leave me alone, Will.”

“When’s your next appointment with—”

“Next Monday. Jesus.”

“I’m going to call Gaius.”

“What?” That finally got Merlin’s attention. “No. It’s not fair to him. He looks forward to this conference all year.”

“After his conference, then. But he needs to know, Merlin, so he can change your prescription.”

“I’m thinking of painting my walls,” said Merlin. “Gold’s a nice color.”

“You’re thinking of…Merlin, do you hear yourself?” Will’s face was turning red. “You’ve fucking snapped. I knew it was going to happen again, but I didn’t think it would happen so fast.” Will’s voice broke on the last word, and he turned away.

“Damnit, Will, can’t you be happy for me?” Merlin threw his laptop to the side and stood up. “I’m finally not depressed. I’m happy.”

“Yeah,” said Will. “You’re happy. I hope you’re still happy when you come out of this in a month with no money, no hair, no fucking clothes.”

“That was different,” said Merlin, and Will laughed.

“Okay. If you want to tell yourself that. Just remember that Gwen and I won’t always be here to do damage control.”

“And shaving my head was a tactical decision,” Merlin argued, scratching under his sleeve. “I needed to swim faster.”

Will’s mouth dropped open. For once, he was speechless. “You needed to…you needed to…Merlin, you can’t fucking swim!”

Merlin blinked rapidly. “Yeah, but Will, if I had to swim, I knew I’d be able to do it.”

“Promise me you won’t shave your head this time,” said Will. “Promise me.”

“Sure, fine, whatever, I’m not swimming anyway…” Merlin went to pick his laptop back up, but Will got to it first. “I’m writing!”

“Hang on,” said Will, sitting on Merlin’s bed. “I’m checking your history.”

“It’s not there,” said Merlin. “You don’t have to worry. I wouldn’t do that again, I promise.”

“I’m unplugging the WiFi.”

“Okay.”

“Stay here,” said Will, as if Merlin had somewhere to go. “I’ll be right back.”

“Whatever,” said Merlin, taking back his laptop. “I’m writing, remember?”

“How could I forget?” said Will.


mobile streaming

Merlin’s computer—>Untitled Document

Nimueh pressed Freya into the earth and said, “Do you yield?”

“Never,” said Freya. She didn’t want Nimueh to let go, you see. The minutes drifted over them, and still Nimueh held. Her cheek pressed into Freya’s own, and their sighs mixed together in the breeze. Up above, the veil of clouds drew away from the bridal moon.

Merlin’s Computer—>Untitled Document

The wind rushed through Freya, and she bent her head against the gale. Flecks of ice carried in the wind scratched her arms, and the scars on her back ached in the cold. She could still feel her fingers and almost wished she couldn’t; they burned with a fierce pain that cut her to the quick. She couldn’t hear her own screams over the double roar of the waterfall and this unnatural cyclone. No matter how hard she yanked with her frozen hands, the sword remained rooted in the stone.

“Oh,” said Will. “You.”

Arthur pursed his lips. “I’ll try not to take that the wrong way.”

“There’s no right way to take it,” Will said bluntly. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to check up on Merlin. Make sure he’s okay.”

“He’s fine.” Will starts to close the door, but Arthur jammed it with his foot.

“It’s okay if he’s not fine. I mean, you can tell me. I wouldn’t judge him or anything.”

“The fuck?” said Will. “You think I really care what you think? Sorry, mate, but you’re not his friend. You’ve got no reason to be here. Run along, now.” He made a shooing motion with his hand, like an old woman waving kids off her lawn.

“Will?” It was Merlin’s voice, and Arthur used Will’s moment of distraction to slip into the flat. Everything looked like it had last time Arthur was here, and he realized he was surprised. He’d sort of expected Merlin’s flat to reflect his state of mind, but everything was neat and clean.

And Merlin—he didn’t even look that bad. Hair a little messy, maybe, but that was part of the charm. In fact, his face had more colour than Arthur had ever seen, and his eyes were bright. “Hi Arthur!” said Merlin, seeing Arthur. “I thought it was the pizza.”

“It’ll be here soon!” said Will, sounding a little too chipper.

“No, no, no, no, no, it’s fine,” said Merlin. “I told you, I don’t want. Hi, Arthur.”

“Uh, hi.”

Merlin looked at Will. “Did I already say that? I think I already said that.” He picked a glass bowl off the coffee table and put it back down again.

“Why am I surprised that you let yourself in?” Will said to Arthur. “You clearly think you own the place.”

“Are you here for something?” said Merlin, pacing around the coffee table.

Arthur parted his lips to speak, but realized he didn’t have anything to say. Why had he come?

“You can stay if you want,” said Merlin. “I’m writing.”

“Poetry?” said Arthur. Merlin shook his head.

“Stop scratching,” snapped Will, grabbing Merlin’s arm. “You’re going to bleed.”

“Let me go or I’ll never talk to you again,” said Merlin. “Blood will have blood will have blood—Fuck. What’s the rest? I can’t remember. Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed…” He trailed off. “Arthur, can I use your phone?”

“No,” said Will, stepping in between them. “No phone.”

“But you took mine,” said Merlin, “and you cut the WiFi. Arthur, please.”

Arthur looked from Merlin to Will. “Don’t do it,” said Will.

“Arthur, Arthur, please,” Merlin begged. “I need your phone so badly, right now. I need your phone—no, wait. I’m going for a walk.” He made for the door and Will tackled him. “This is serial killer behavior!” Merlin was yelling now. “Cutting off communication! Imprisoning me!”

“I’m not bloody imprisoning you!” Will yelled back, sitting on Merlin to keep him from standing.

“Should Merlin maybe go to a doctor?” said Arthur.

“Thanks,” said Will. “Didn’t think of that. You’re the best. Ta.”

Arthur wasn’t used to feeling uncomfortable. The trick to life was to know you could belong anywhere, with the right mindset. But he hadn’t expected…this. He hadn’t known Merlin long, but the Merlin he knew was even-tempered and logical.

“For God’s sake, Merlin, you’re not a child,” Will was saying.

“If I’m not a child, why can’t I have my phone?”

“He could have mine for a few minutes,” said Arthur. Will looked murderous.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said, but Merlin, with an extra burst of strength, shoved Will off and stood up.

“Thanks,” said Merlin, plucking Arthur’s phone from his hands. “What’s the passcode?” Arthur looked at Will. Will, still sitting on the floor, made a resigned go-ahead gesture, and Arthur typed it in. He peered over Merlin’s shoulder, curious to see what Merlin wanted so badly.

“Oh!” said Merlin, when he’d pulled up the web browser. “It’s already here!”

“You wanted Ladies?” said Arthur. Merlin nodded, eyes glued to the screen. He was reading from where Arthur had left off, halfway through the chapter, and scrolling so fast that Arthur assumed he was skimming. Suddenly, the phone was flying through the air. Will, in a display of heretofore unknown athletic ability, jumped to his knees and just barely intercepted the phone with his hands.

“Jesus,” said Arthur. There was a slamming sound, and Arthur realized that Merlin was gone.

“He’s in his room,” Will said dully. “Here’s your phone.”

Arthur sat next to Will on the floor. “I know he’s having a manic episode.”

“Good for you.”

“He’s bipolar?”

“He has bipolar disorder, yes.”

“I used to have PTSD,” Arthur blurted. “I mean, I know stuff about mental illness. I’m not the idiot you think I am.”

“Excuse me,” Will said coldly. “I believe it was you who told me that I was an idiot.”

“You do nothing but insult me!”

“Whatever.” Will, Arthur realized, looked very tired. Purple bags sagged beneath his eyes, and his lips were alarmingly pale.

“I know we’re not friends,” said Arthur, “but I want to help, if you’ll let me.”

“I don’t need—” Will checked his watch. “Shite! I forgot my shift switched! Shite! You know what? Fine. Stay here and watch Merlin. I’ll be back by lunch. Don’t give him a credit card or Internet access.”

“Fine,” said Arthur, and followed Will down the hall to Merlin’s room. Will hurried around, gathering his things into a beaten-up backpack.

“See you,” Will said to Merlin, but Merlin, sitting in his bed with his laptop, didn’t even look up. When they were alone, Arthur shifted uncomfortably, finally sitting down in Merlin’s desk chair.

He’d been in the room once before, when they’d made him change clothes, but now he took the time to actually take it in. He didn’t think it had been so chaotic last time. Compared to the living room, it was a complete mess. The books that had been on the shelves now littered the floor, the drawings that had been pinned to the corkboard were all over the desk. Also, all the lightbulbs from the standing lamp were gone. Arthur wondered if Merlin had done this last one, or if it were a way to protect him. A long time ago, Uther had had all the glass and sharp objects removed from Ygraine’s bedroom.

A flash of bright green caught his eye, and he freed a scrap of paper from the mess on the desk. It was a color photo-copy of a child’s crayon drawing. A forest, with thick brown tree-trunks and giant poofs of emerald leaves. Standing between the trees were two vaguely female shapes with giant, misshapen hands. One had blue hair, and the other—oh. Arthur reevaluated the picture. It was the Forest Sauvage, he realized, and the women were Freya and Nimueh. At the bottom right corner, a child’s handwriting announced that this was From Molly Jones.

“Do you have a relative named Molly?” said Arthur. Merlin stared at him blankly.

“What?”

“Do you have a relative named Molly?”

“Do I have a…no, I don’t think so.” Merlin zeroed in on the picture. “You can’t go through my stuff!”

“My apologies,” Arthur said graciously, and put the paper back where it had been. “Why do you have a child’s Nimueya drawing?”

“She emailed it to me, it was really nice of her,” said Merlin. He was doing the thing Will didn’t like, where he scratched underneath his sleeve. His fingers moved quickly and sharply, and Arthur winced.

“Why do you do that? The scratching?”

“I’m the opposite of a black hole,” said Merlin. “Event horizon but outward and not stopped.”

“I—what?”

“It doesn’t matter, I’m just so happy!” Merlin shoved open the window, and a sea breeze drifted over them. And then, in almost the same breath, “Will sent you to spy on me, didn’t he?”

“Will and I hate each other,” said Arthur. But Merlin’s body language was tensing, his posture condensing.

“No, I know he sent you to spy on me. He thinks I can’t do anything on my own, and he took my internet modem, and I hate him, and you’re spying on me.”

“I’m not!” said Arthur.

“YOU ARE.” Merlin slammed the window, and Arthur jumped. How had Merlin’s brain chemistry changed so suddenly, so violently? Like a storm blowing in off the ocean, drowning everything in just a few hours. “I know who you really are.”

Arthur tensed. “I’m sorry?”

“I. Know. Who. You. Are.” Merlin took a step forward with each word until he and Arthur were nose-to-nose.

Breathe, Arthur reminded himself. What had they said in that family therapy session? When his father accused him of something, he had to say—“I understand where you’re coming from,” Arthur began, and Merlin tensed.

“No you don’t,” said Merlin. “You don’t understand a fucking thing.” And to himself, Arthur had to admit that this was true.


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Ladies of the Lake

Chapter 2

The cries of the other prisoners kept Freya up at night. She lay in a corner of her dingy cell and tried to ignore the screaming and begging for freedom. If she could scream, she would probably join them, but her voice had abandoned her. She had nothing in her throat but ice.

At least she couldn’t smell anything anymore. When they’d first brought her down, she’d vomited down the front of her dress from the stench. The prisoners weren’t given chamber pots, and the cells hadn’t been cleaned in years. Freya had never known anything could smell this bad. Even breathing through her mouth, she could taste the filth. She loathed drawing the dirty air into her body.

It seemed like every square foot of her cell had been used as an area for waste. It probably had. Sewage ran from one end of the cell to the other. Clearing a spot did nothing because the waste had been there long enough to sink into the stone itself. Freya could bear to sit only at night, her beast form being much less particular about its surroundings. She wished she could remain in her Bastet form all the time, but the binding of her powers had taken away what little control she’d acquired.

There would be no more prayers, Freya decided. Not anymore.


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Merlin’s computer—>Untitled Document

Freya opened up her wings over the ocean andit parted like the red sea over the sky. The clouds were everywhere,including Nimueh’s mouth and she opened and Freya opened up her mout and her teeth there were teeth—

There were teeth. Freya had TEETH. i need the internet RIGHT now will ik ur reading this hahaha ik ur not juts kidding

Anyway anyway ahyway anyway anyway anyway anyay way everything is wonderful everything is wonderful willderful will get off my mfking computer god i need to write i need to write i need to write i need to write and OH2 but scrmablde hahaha

Merlin’s computer—>Year 12—>Untitled Document

white hallways in every direction like an event horizon so stopped everything stopped but the white hallways so when someone implodes they end up frozen forever in the white dress wedding dress up white hospital gowns fall down fall down CLOSED WARD closed off the cliff and i lost my anchor i mean my rapelling hook it’s gone down the river brook

mum hates me mum hatesme there’s nothing left i can’t go back there there’s nothing left there’s nothing there’s nothing left

The walls were closing like a fist around him, and Arthur didn’t understand. There was no out but his arm, he needed to get out of the walls. “I need to run,” he said when Will finally got back. “Right now.”

Arthur said something, but the insides of Merlin’s ears were shaking too much to hear it. Will caught Merlin by the shoulders. “SHOES,” said Will, staring right into Merlin’s eyes. “PUT ON SHOES.”

“No time, I can’t, Will, we have to go now.” But he took the sandals and managed to get them on his feet. And then the the stairs fell away beneath him and down the road all the houses were so bright! and the sky was so blue! and there, there was the ocean, and Merlin filled the ocean and he filled the world and someone could sneeze in Japan and he’d hear it.

His sandals slapped against the pavement and they weren’t for running but without running there was nothing but walls and if he stopped running he couldn’t be the road anymore and he loved being the road. And beneath the road, the rocks and magma, he could feel it. Wings burst open in his chest and beat with his heart.

The sword! Merlin skidded to a stop. The Sword in the Stone. He could see it so clearly in his mind, its hilt standing against the sky like a tower, and what if it was a tower? Little people living in the hilt…

“Merlin?” said Will, he and Arthur catching up. “What’s up?”

“They’d have to be really small,” said Merlin.

“What would have to be really small?” Was Will always this slow? The people, the fucking people in the hilt. And Will was still looking at him like, What people in the hilt, and Merlin—

Really wanted chips. He headed in the direction of the boardwalk and the seagulls wheeled like pinwheels, and he wanted the crisp outside collapsing into mealy inside, and it was summer all over, not hot but warm and fresh against his face, and the seagulls were everywhere. “‘I feel as if I had been in the world a thousand years, and I trail my age behind me like an endless scarf,’” he declaimed, feeling every word.

“Where’re we going, Merlin,” Will asked.

“We should have a poker night!” said Merlin. “I really need the money. And I’d definitely win.”

“Because you count the cards!” Will said. “Nobody plays with a card-counter, Merlin.”

“That’s discrimination,” said Merlin. “And I need—I need a cigarette, thanks.” Yes, a cigarette, so he could fill his lungs with fire. He wanted to breathe like Aithusa, and if he looked at the clouds hard enough he thought he could just make out the tip of her tail, and Arthur, something about Arthur, what was it about Arthur?

But Aithusa, Aithusa—he needed to write that down, what it looked like, what he felt, but he couldn’t slow down for that. And he wanted to dance. He never wanted to dance, and now he yearned for it. There was helium in his heart, and he wondered if it were anyone’s birthday, and how they would feel about a cake.

They were one block away from the boardwalk and Merlin could sense the soft grass between the pavement and the curb springing against the rubber of his sandals, and he needed to feel what his sandals were feeling, so he kicked them off and sped up. They were in a summer home development, and lawns which had been empty all year now frothed with the flotsam and jetsam of beach holidays: surfboards, SuperSoakers, swimsuits left out to dry.

Merlin got to the boardwalk steps first. Arthur and Will were still a ways away, and Merlin huffed through his nose like he always did when he made up his mind. The rocks scraped at his feet as he climbed down. It was cool beneath the boardwalk, if dark. He didn’t expect anyone to be down here this early in the afternoon, but he’d had to check. The money folded into his pants was scratching him, which wasn’t good because every time he remembered it was there, he burst into uncontainable joyful laughter. Partly because he was ticklish, but mostly because everything was worthy of laughter today.

Freya lived beneath the boardwalk. Not in real life, obviously, but Merlin had gotten the idea for a creature in a cave when he got lost down here playing hide and seek. He’d been nine because it was the summer after Balinor left, and he ended up hidden against one of the support beams. Curled up in the dark, he’d imagined a blanket of wings protecting him.

The blanket of wings, if she shifted half-way while tugging at the sword…

“Merlin, come on.” It was Will, at last. Merlin didn’t turn around, but judging from the footsteps, Arthur was here, too.

“Caves are brilliant, aren’t they?” said Merlin gleefully. “I love a good cave. Do you either of you have a camera? Or a fancy camera-phone thing? I’m not allowed to have one because Gaius thinks the government uses them to catch Communists, which is hard for him because he’s a Communist, so he likes to be careful about it. Or he might not be a Communist anymore, but he was one before, and he still is one, but now all the old people who used to be Communists are getting quiet. I need paper and pencil. We need to go to the stationer’s.”

“We can do that,” said Will. “There’s the postcard place on the boardwalk, does that work?”

“Yes, one-hundred-percent, absolutely.” Merlin climbed up the rocks that led out of the boardwalk cave. The sunlight soaked into the back of his neck, its healing rays sucking out the tension that had been there for so long. He stretched his arms overhead, satisfied with the loud cracking noises from his shoulders. Will, who hated anything to do with joints and the cracking thereof, winced.

“Are you really going to walk around with no shoes?” said Arthur, managing to sound both disdainful and discomfited at the same time. “The boardwalk’s made of wood. You’ll get splinters.”

“Yes,” said Merlin, “I really am going to walk around with no shoes because shoes are both sole killers and soul killers in that your soles needs to be exposed to the elements if they’re going to survive, just like your souls have to go through purgatory and maybe past a three-headed dog depending what’s going on in your life when you die, and when you get judged, don’t be upset if they don’t let you into heaven because you wore shoes every day of your life and never faced any moral challenges, and Peter will lock you out, and Will did you remember my key, because I really don’t want to be locked out.” He rubbed the back of his hand against his nose and jittered his right leg as he spoke, so his words came out a little shaky, but there was simply so much to say.

“You ran out too fast,” said Will, annoyance coloring his words. “The door locked behind us, and I’m not tracking down Gwen for the spare. Gaius’ll be back tonight, though. Thank fuck,” he added as an aside, and Merlin, five steps from the top, turned on his heel to face Will.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Thank fuck. You can’t wait to get rid of me, right? You want Gaius to come and take me to that fucking meth lab again? Are you just killing time until the meth lab? I’m not going to the fucking meth lab!”

“The meth lab?” said Arthur, standing a few steps below Will.

“There’s no meth lab,” Will said angrily. “Nobody gave you meth. It was a delusion.”

Merlin’s hands curled into tight fists, and he had to fight to get air down his suddenly-tight throat. His brain was bashing his nervous system with commands to let the energy out, do something, shove Will down the stairs, and maybe Will could tell because he descended a few steps.

“I hate you,” Merlin said, as coldly as he could. “I hate you, Will. Arthur was right. You’re pathetic. You’re nothing. Get out of my life.” Arthur looked comically shocked, his mouth literally hanging open. Will and Merlin stared at each other for a second, another second, and then the anger was gone, wiped away in everything else Merlin felt. “I’m going to the postcard shop.”

“You do that,” said Will, and his voice wavered only a little. “Write whatever you’re feeling out of your system. This is temporary, Merlin. I’ll still be here after.”

Merlin’s breath shot in and out, and he raced up the rest of the stairs. He didn’t stop running until he reached the shop.

Merlin Wyllt @merlin_bird: god i need a good fuck somebody PLZ slide into my DMs

CedricC—>Merlin Wyllt: when and where

Merlin Wyllt—>CedricC: call me XXX XXX XXXX

“So we just sit here?” said Arthur, trying to make himself comfortable on the wooden bench opposite the stationer’s. It was an especially hot day, and everyone on the boardwalk was sweaty and sagging. Arthur pulled his polo away from his neck, and tiny breeze brushed against his damp chest.

“I realize it’s not exactly ClubMed,” Will began, and Arthur cut him off.

“It’s not that I’m uncomfortable. This is nice. I really like…the seagulls. They’re lovely. But this is what you always do when Merlin’s like this? Play nursemaid?”

Will leaned his head against the wall behind them and scuffed the heels of his trainers against the wooden floor. Arthur was just wondering if Will were going to ignore his question when he said, “Merlin’s got it lucky compared to some people.”

“Lucky?” said Arthur, incredulous. “He’s losing his mind.”

“You wait,” Will said grimly. “This is just the beginning. But, yeah. He’s lucky when you think about his dad.”

“His dad left before he was born, right?”

Will smiled humorlessly. “Is that what he told you? Nah, his dad was around until Merlin was nine. Would’ve been better if he had skipped town.”

Arthur felt a tinge of dread in his stomach. What happened to his dad?” Will opened his mouth, then shook his head.

“Not my story. But compared to him, Merlin’s lucky.” Will wiped sweat off his forehead and squinted at the envelope display in the stationer’s window. “Some people cycle a lot more than Merlin does, or have longer episodes, but his disorder presents atypically.” It sounded like something Will had said so many times that the words ran through grooves in his brain. “The last time he got this way was two years ago. Usually it’s smaller episodes, like just a few weeks for the mania and a few more for the depression.”

Trying to sound casual, like the answer didn’t really matter to him, Arthur said, “So he’s fine the rest of the time?”

“Oh, fuck, no,” said Will. “There are other sym—I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I should get a fucking therapist.”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “that would probably be for the best.” They both stared at the stationer’s in silence. The sun crept steadily westward, and Merlin still didn’t emerge. “There’s not a back door, is there?” said Arthur, suddenly imagining Merlin ninja-creeping out of the shop and over the side of the boardwalk.

“He’s writing,” said Will. “He writes a lot anyway, but when he’s hypomanic it’s constant.”

“Oh.”

Will, hands on knees, tilted to face Arthur. “Look, you don’t have to be here. You’re not even friends with him. You should go. Actually, I’d prefer it if you went.”

“Tough,” said Arthur, crossing his arms. “I want to make sure he’s okay.” He hoped Will couldn’t tell how fast Arthur’s pulse was jumping. Everything about this made Arthur think of Then, and he didn’t want to think of Then. “I’m going in.”

“No,” said Will, grabbing the back of Arthur’s shirt. “Let him cool off, okay?”

Arthur’s jaw clenched. “And you’re not at all worried that he’s…that something’s happening in there? In the bathroom or something?”

There was something going on in Will’s eyes, something more than his usual condescending attitude toward Arthur. They seemed softer. “You don’t have to worry about that right now,” he said calmly. “He’s not in danger to himself right now. He’s in danger of doing something stupid, like, God, so many stupid things he could pick. But he’s never suicidal at this point.”

Reluctantly, Arthur sat back down. “I don’t understand,” he said, pinning down one of the things that had been bothering him. “How did it happen so fast? He seemed normal two days ago.”

When Will spoke, he sounded exhausted. “We missed the signs, or Merlin was hiding them. Probably both. It’s true that he seemed happier lately, but I just couldn’t picture that happiness screwing him over like this. Screwing us over. Because when Merlin goes crazy, we all go crazy.”

“So why do you do it?” said Arthur. “If it’s so draining.”

“He’s my best friend,” Will said simply. “He’s been my friend since we were in nursery, and a mental illness isn’t going to ruin that. You haven’t known Merlin for long enough. You don’t know how great he can be.”

“I do,” said Arthur, feeling a little foolish at his adamance. “I know it hasn’t been so long, but, you know. Whatever. He has nice qualities.”

“And you both read Ladies,” said Will. Blessedly, a cloud drifted over the sun at that moment, diffusing the light that moments before had been threatening to burn down the boardwalk.

“It’s an okay book,” said Arthur. Will smirked.

“I know you’re up to date on it. Merlin told me.”

“This is slander,” said Arthur. “Lawyer up, Will.”

“Dibs on Gwen for my solicitor,” said Will. Arthur groaned dramatically. They were, he realized, having fun. Would wonders never cease? Just then, he noticed two familiar faces approaching from the other end of the boardwalk.

“Morgana!” Arthur called out.

“Arthur?” Morgana slid her sunglasses up her head and squinted against the sunlight. She was with Gwen, and they were wearing matching sundresses, except Morgana’s was black and Gwen’s yellow.

“And Will?” said Gwen. “Are you two hanging out?” She sounded adorably confused.

“We’re waiting for Merlin to be done in the stationer’s,” said Will. “Elena’s probably given him the storeroom.” Gwen swept her fingertips over Will’s shoulder.

“You’ll be okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” said Will. Gwen bit her lip and glanced back at Morgana, who was waiting with her towel in her arms. Poor Gwen looked unusually tired, her shoulders stooped and bags under her eyes. “He’s going to be fine, anyway. Just giving us a scare because he’s a prick.” When Will called Arthur a prick, it sounded like the insult it was. But when Gwen used the word for Merlin, it was melancholic.

“We were going to get our nails done,” Gwen apologized. “I have a coupon, but it runs out tomorrow…”

Arthur caught Morgana’s eye and pointedly looked from her perfectly varnished red fingernails down at her perfectly varnished red toenails (peeking out of six-inch cork sandals). It was a point of contention between the two of them that Morgana paid too much attention to her own looks to judge Arthur for any vanity on his part. She gave him the finger, and he mimed catching it with his hand like it was a kiss.

“Let’s go, Gwen,” said Morgana, twining her arm around Gwen’s waist and pressing a kiss to her neck. “They close in an hour, and I want to get ice cream.”

“I’ve got an idea!” said Will. “Bring Arthur with you!” Gwen laughed and immediately looked mortified.

“I’m sure you’re lovely company, though!”

“He’s not,” said Morgana.

Arthur silently pursed his lips.

“Oh!” said Will. “Gwen, could have your key to Gaius’s?”

Gwen dug around in her purse and retrieved it. “We’ll you around,” she said as Morgana stalked away. Will and Arthur went back to staring at the stationer’s.

The sun was literally setting when Merlin finally left the shop, tailed by a messy-haired blonde girl in blue culottes. “Hiya Will,” she said happily. “Merlin was just getting some things done—”

“In the back room,” Will said with her. “I know. Have a good time, Merlin?”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, scratching his chin with one hand and dangling a large legal pad with the other. “Lots of lots of writing and stuff.” He blinked hard, like someone clearing sunspots out of their vision. “You didn’t have to wait, I want ice cream.”

“I actually did have to wait,” Will said warily. “You need to take your meds.”

Merlin looked outraged. “Not right now, Will!”

“Merlin, I swear to God…”

“Not right now,” Merlin repeated. “I have to go, I have to go.”

Will’s hand shot out and closed around Merlin’s wrist. “Meds first, and then you can fly a fucking plane if you want.”

“I’m not going to,” said Merlin, backing up and taking Will with him. “You don’t understand how good I feel right now, you don’t, you’ll never understand, please let go, please just let go.”

“You want me to ring Gaius?” Will said, his voice dangerous. Merlin stilled.

“No,” he said sullenly. “But let go of me. I’ll go with Arthur.”

“Er, what?” said Arthur, wrong-footed. “You want to go with me?”

“He’s mad at me,” Will said, sounding exhausted.

“Because you talk like I’m not here!” Merlin gave a furious tug, and Will finally let go. They face each other, glaring. Then Merlin sniffed and tucked the legal pad under one arm. “Come on, Arthur.” Arthur looked helplessly at Will.

“Get him home,” Will muttered in Arthur’s home. “I’ve got to swing round mine to pick his stuff.”

“Bye, everyone,” said Elena. “I’ll see you at the bonfire?”

“Absolutely!” Merlin called over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world! Nothing better than fires! They’re the—ow!”

Will had clipped Merlin round the head.

Merlin focused on his feet as he walked because he had the peculiar feeling that if he stopped, the entire world would tip the wrong way over, and his head would brush against the darkening sky. His body hummed like the inside of a cell in the movies they’d shown on VHS tapes in college biology, the Golgi apparatus swallowing the contents of the ribosomes blooming from the husk of the rough ER, while the outer space of the cell between the stars and the sun the little blind organelles beeped and clicked, sending out their signals: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. So much of the infinite whirred in Merlin’s body, and he was alive with possibilities. He kept his notepad turned inwards so Arthur couldn’t see it.

Arthur. Pencillizard. Pencillizaaaard. Like a name. Emphasis changed. Pencilazard. Pencilazard. Pencilllllllllll. His tongue lifted to form the l and stayed there, half-twisted in his mouth. A caged animal, animal cage, animal tongue. Pencilazard. He looked at Arthur, who was looking straight ahead. What was going on in that pencilizard head?

“You lied,” said Merlin, and Arthur pretended to look confused.

“What do you mean?”

“I know Will sent you to spy, you keep lying about how you know me, and I know you know more than you say you know me, and I’m not crazy, I’m not,” Merlin said, the words tripping off his tongue—trippingly on the tongue. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

A sudden wind picked up, carrying with it the salt of the sea, and Arthur folded his arms over his chest, shivering. “I never said you were.”

“You thought it.” Arthur didn’t respond—a hit, a palpable hit. Blood turned to words in Merlin’s veins, and he had to speed up to keep up with them. Which Hamlet did Arthur prefer? The moody, angsty, emo wrist-cutter, or the dignified nobleman falling into the basest pitfalls of his mind? English teachers always liked the former because they thought he would capture the students’ imaginations. Hamlet, he’s just like you! If we could find his diary, it would be filled top-to-bottom with poetry along the lines of, I hate myself I hate my life I hate my mother Claudius isn’t my REAL DAD where is my REAL DAD.

“Fathers are funny things,” Merlin said. Arthur snorted.

“You could say that.”

“Mine thought I wasn’t real.”

“I—what?”

“He thought I wasn’t real,” Merlin repeated, one had working at his arm with the methodical precision of a backhoe. “He tried to open me up for my batteries, which didn’t make any fucking sense to me, but he halfway convinced me that all this time no one had told me that where I thought I was alive, I was actually half-alive, twilight alive, computer alive. And he tried to find them but all he found was blood and bone, like everyone has blood and bone, and there weren’t any batteries, not like in my Wall-E toy, do you remember that movie? Because I opened it up to show him when he asked for my batteries and that was all I had on hand, but that movie was so strange, wasn’t it? E-e-eve. E-e-eve. Poor Wall-E, all alone and tipping that trashcan hat to Hello, Dolly.”

“If we could back up,” Arthur said, looking a little green. “You father tried to open you up? To look for your batteries?”

“What batteries?” said Merlin. “I don’t have any.” Hilarity clawed up his throat, and he bent over laughing. They had to stop walking while Merlin laughed wildly, his stomach warped with the pain of laughing too hard. He would give anything to stop, and he would give anything to feel this way forever. Joy contained in an infinite point, the collapse of a star. Luckily, they were almost home, and Merlin managed the rest of the way, though it was a near-miss with all the snatches of severe mirth.

It smelled good inside, the way home smells when you’ve been gone on a long holiday, except Merlin had been gone for only a day and three-thousand words on a notepad. He wasn’t hungry and he could eat a horse, and the kitchen had nothing in it but a bunch of past-ripe bananas and a half-eaten yoghurt. That was all right; it had been a metaphorical horse.

Merlin flipped on the telly for some background noise and went to start on the laundry. Prying the dirty clothing from his floor was a serious work of excavation, and Arthur looked amazed at the flattened carpet of clothing. Merlin entered the load into the washing machine, his skin still buzzing so much, so much, so much. He couldn’t be in the same apartment as someone he couldn’t trust, and, besides, he knew what he needed.

“Bathroom,” he told Arthur, who was a right idiot as he just nodded. Once in the bathroom, it was a simple matter of climbing out the window and sliding down the drainpipe. He was barely aware of his feet moving, and was almost surprised when he found himself looking up at the Seagull Diner. He went up the window and cupped his hands around his eyes; Ced was hovering over a table of summer people, pen pressed to pad. Merlin knocked on the window, then knocked a bit more insistently. Ced glanced over, and his eyebrows raised. Merlin nodded. Ced held up five fingers.

“Hey,” Merlin said to a woman passing by with a cigarette clenched between her teeth. “Spare me one?” So he was smoking when Cedric came out to join him, his hair unpleasantly greasy from a day of work and lack of showering, not that Merlin cared.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” said Cedric, reaching for the cig. Merlin knocked him away impatiently.

“Get your own.”

“You’re holding it wrong.”

“I don’t care.” Merlin always held his cigarettes pinched between his thumb and his index and middle fingers. He’d always suspected there was one too many fingers involved in this equation, but it was the way he’d always done it. He smoked the cig down to the butt and was about to grind it out with his foot when he remembered he was wasn’t wearing any shoes.

“You’re barefoot,” said Ced, the observational genius.

“Yep,” said Merlin. “Got someplace we can go?”

“C’mon.” Ced took Merlin by the wrist and led him around the back of the shop. He pressed Merlin up against the wall, his stubble scraping Merlin’s cheeks, and Merlin closed his eyes. He was nothing, he was nothing, he was nothing. His mind zoomed through the stars, and his body burned like a supernova.

Afterwards, when Merlin went to pull his trousers back up from around his ankles, he found the money nestled in the crotch of his underpants. He was so excited that he stood there, half-naked, to count it. Cedric, who was wiping cum from hand onto the brick wall, looked interested.

“That for what I think it is?”

“Mmm,” Merlin agreed.

“I got something for you,” Cedric said confidentially. “Won’t even have to go down to the boardwalk. You’ll have to pull up your fucking trousers first, though.” When Merlin didn’t move, he did it for him, roughly. “You’re such a freak.”

“You’ve got something good?” said Merlin hopefully.

“What do you want, Oxy?”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Merlin shook his head so fast he got dizzy. “I need to feel more. Be more. More, please. I just need to be more. More.”

“Let me go to my locker. Be right back, yeah?” Merlin jittered while he waited, hitting his knuckles into the wall. He nearly dropped with relief with Cedric came back out.

“How much?”

Cedric told him the price, and Merlin scoffed.

“You said this would be a good deal!”

“Trust me, Merlin. This stuff is good.” Cedric dangled a plastic baggy filled with white powder in front of Merlin’s nose.

“What is that?”

“Speed, mostly. Some other stuff mixed in.”

“Awesome,” Merlin said. He didn’t really care how much he had to pay, not for this little slice of heaven, and he was about to pass over the cash when, out of nowhere, he was slammed into the wall.

“That’s right, motherfucker!” someone yelled right in Merlin’s ear. “You’d better run! And take your fucking drugs with you!”

“Ow, ow, get off!” said Merlin, twisting around enough to see—his heart sank.

“You’re dead, Merlin,” said Will.

PART TWO: THREE WEEKS LATER

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: dragons are just dirigibles

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

That’s just so false, I don’t know where to begin. For one thing, you’d need to be able to steer it, and as far as I know, dragons are unsteerable. Also, they’re not anymore a dirigible than a bat or bird or any other flying creature. But fine, I’ll admit that the thought of dragons being used instead of blimps for beach adverts is funny.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: dragons are just dirigibles

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Normally I wouldn’t do this, but it’s been a week, and I’m just checking you’re not dead.

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: dragons are just dirigibles

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Chapter 106 just went up so I know you’re alive. What’s going on?

***

From: pencillizard@email.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: dragons are just dirigibles

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Okay, I’m really getting worried now. ANSWER

“Arthur?” It was Morgana, striding into his room like she owned it. “You haven’t left that bed in far too long.”

“I like it here,” muttered Arthur. Morgana plucked his phone from his hand and turned it off.

“Hey!”

“You’re being depressing,” Morgana said, sitting cross-legged at the end of his bed. “This is a holiday, not a funeral.” He stared at her, and she winced. “Bad choice of words. But I’m serious, Arthur, you’re supposed to be having fun.” Arthur didn’t respond, and she sighed. “I’m sorry about Merlin. I know you two were becoming friends.”

“Barely,” said Arthur. “It doesn’t matter. Just another time I’ve fucked up and let someone get hurt.”

Morgana actually groaned. “Oh, my God, Arthur. That accident wasn’t your fault.”

“I swam away,” Arthur said to his lap. “I should have been able to save her.”

“You can’t always save someone who wants to die.”

“She didn’t want to die,” said Arthur, his head snapping up. “Shen wouldn’t have put me in danger like that. It’s not her fault we capsized.” The water rising above his eyes, the sting of the rocks against his hands. Opening his mouth to scream and taking in nothing but water. The current pulsing brutally, dragging him downstream, away from the little boat, and the yellow glint of his mother’s hair—Arthur gasped for air, and Morgana grabbed his wrist.

“Are you all right?”

Arthur tried to answer, but his lungs were squeezing closed, and he had to put his head into his lap for a few moments.

“I’m fine,” he said shakily. “Can I have phone back now? I was talking to a friend.”

“I’m your friend,” said Morgana.

“A different friend.”

“Which friend?” said Morgana.

“Um…Lance.”

“On WhatsApp?”

“Yeah,” Arthur said warily, expecting a trap.

Morgana pulled her phone out of her back pocket and made a show of opening the app. “That’s odd, he hasn’t been online since six. And by my watch, it’s half-past seven.”

“Is there a point to all this, or are you just trying to annoy me?”

“Arthur, you’ve been up your own arse this entire holiday.”

Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “My mother died here!”

“I know, but—”

“She’s dead, and it’s my fault!”

“It’s not—”

“And everyone I know goes mad—”

“MY MUM DIED TOO!” Morgana yelled. The air conditioner screamed in the silence. Morgana closed her eyes, and if Arthur didn’t know better, he’d think she was trying not to cry.

“Morgana,” he said brokenly. “Morgana.” Tears, actual tears, spilled from her eye and splashed on his blue coverlet.

“Sometimes, it’s like you think you’re the only person with problems,” Morgana said. “You know last week was the anniversary of my father’s death?”

“Oh, shite,” said Arthur. “Wait, ignore that. That was a terrible response. Morgana, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, and he knew that insisting it was would only make her more upset. “It’s not like I’ve been so observational when it comes to you, obviously. I can’t believe we’re both gay!”

“I’m bi,” said Arthur.

“Colloquially. Colloquially, we are both gay.” Morgana grinned evilly. “Uther is going to be so pissed. Shall we do a double wedding? Me and Gwen, you and Merlin?”

“Morgana, I don’t know if you’ve missed this, but Merlin’s gone fucking mental.

Morgana climbed up next to Arthur and slid underneath the covers. “Baby squirrels?” she said. Arthur laughed in amazement.

“Baby squirrels? Really?” But he curled up on his side, facing his sister. Even before they’d been siblings, they’d been best friends. Family vacations together, and games of hide-and-seek, and brawls over whose computer turn it was. How had he forgotten that? How close they’d been? Morgana rested her head against her shoulder, and he pressed his chin over his head. Baby squirrels were born with their eyes closed, so he closed his, and imagined being deep in the heart of an oak tree, warm inside a downy nest. With the blanket over them, and everything dark, it wasn’t so hard to picture.

“I love Gwen,” Morgana whispered. “I love her so much it hurts, and it’s never happened this fast before. Falling in love. Is that funny, both of us falling in love at the same time?”

“Me?” Arthur whispered back. “I’m not in love.” Even as he said it, he saw Merlin behind his eyes. Not the wild Merlin of the past few days, but the Merlin of the diner. Of those few weeks before his brain exploded. But how much of that had been Merlin, and how much had been his hypomania? What if Merlin-between-episodes hated Arthur? What if—

“Baby squirrels aren’t supposed to worry,” whispered Morgana. “Shhhh. Listen to the wind in the leaves.” Arthur didn’t hear the wind in the leaves, but he did hear the steady roar of the ocean. It crashed and crashed.

“I’m sorry I forgot.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, I’m really sorry. Tell me about Gwen. How’s it going with you two?” When Morgana didn’t respond, Arthur opened his eyes to find her staring at him.

“Did you just ask me to tell you about my life? This has literally never happened.”

“Pushing it, Morgana,” Arthur warned, closing his eyes again.

“It’s going well,” Morgana said, stroking his hair. “She’s smart, really smart, and you know how I hate stupid people.” Arthur smiled a little. Back when Morgana dated guys, all the way in Year 10, she’d been horrified to realize her boyfriend didn’t realize there were more planets than in Earth’s solar system. He’d really thought that after the planets it was just stars. She’d dropped him on the spot.

“And you both like to read,” Arthur prompted.

“We both like to read. And we can both be bitches. That’s very important.”

Gwen?” said Arthur. “Gwen can be a bitch?”

“Of course, she’s still loads nicer than I am,” said Morgana.

“Of course.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Do you ever argue?” said Arthur.

“Not yet,” said Morgana. “I’m actually a little afraid of our first argument. I think I’ll feel better once we get it out of the way.”

“Should I help you pick what to argue about?”

“What a kind and bizarre sentiment. I suppose if you think of something good, you could let me know.”

Arthur’s phone dinged from the end of the bed, where Morgana had left it, and he lunged for it, hoping it was either an e-mail from Goon or the Sunday chapter, which was already a few hours late. But it was just Uther, saying he’d cleared his schedule for last weekend at Tintagel.

“Tell me about being bi,” said Morgana sitting up against the headboard. “When did you realize?”

Arthur put down his phone on his bedside table. “I never realized that I was bi; I just realized that everyone else wasn’t.”

“That,” said Morgana, “is so deep. You should get a tat. So when did you realize straight people existed?”

“Father was talking about this politician who was caught soliciting gay prostitutes by an undercover cop. Complaining about what hypocrite this man was, for preaching one thing and doing another.”

“Uther’s always focused on the wrong part of the story,” said Morgana. “I hate how straight people do that. Like the crime of hypocrisy is worse than homophobia. The worst homophobes are the gays. sort of thing. It absolves them.”

“I knew instinctually that I couldn’t ask what Uther what a homophobe or a prostitute was, so I remember getting the dictionary,” said Arthur. “I brought it to the basement stairs to look up gay. And that led me to homosexual. And then I found prostitute. And then I tried looking up random words, but it wasn’t as much fun when it wasn’t a quest.”

“How old were you?” Morgana said in disbelief. “You could read, but you didn’t know what gay people were?”

“Your parents were different,” Arthur reminded her. “Aren’t you always saying that they wouldn’t do half the bigoted shite my father does?”

“That’s true, I keep forgetting you were raised by crazy people, and wow. We’re both putting our feet in our mouths today, aren’t we?”

“I know my mother was crazy,” said Arthur. “I know most mothers don’t read their children their suicide note as a bedtime story.”

Morgana clasped her hand over her mouth. “Did she actually do that?”

“Oh, God,” Arthur said, starting to laugh. “Is it crazy that she did that?”

“Yeah,” Morgana said, giggling. “I can’t believe that actually happened. Jesus.”

“Do you know what I just remembered?” Arthur said through fits of laughter. “When I was nine, she gave me this big bin of razor blades to hold onto! So she wouldn’t hurt herself!”

“No. Fucking. Way,” said Morgana. “Why is this so funny? Should we stop laughing?”

“It’s hilarious,” said Arthur. “Who gives razors to a nine-year-old? For safe keeping?”

“D’you remember that time she tried to make us sandwiches?” said Morgana. “And she started crying when she couldn’t open the peanut butter, like, I’m the worst mum ever! You should hate me! and we were like, Er, it’s just sandwiches?”

“Can you believe we’re three out of four on the dead parents score?”

“Oh my God, I can’t. I can’t.” Morgana twirled the end of her hair. “That’s impressive. You’d think we were assassinating them or something.”

“I can’t believe there hasn’t been an investigation.”

They fell into silence. Arthur was thinking about his mother; he assumed Morgana was remembering her own. Before Pendragon LLC struck big, they had lived on Golders Green in one-story house without central air. All their neighbors were Orthodox Jews, and none of them much liked the Pendragons. On Fridays after school, his mum would get off work early to take him to the ice cream shop. And then she quit her job and got him ice cream every single day, and he gained enough weight that his father had noticed and demanded to know what Ygraine was feeding him.

“Come on,” Morgana said, holding out her hand. “The bonfire’s tonight. Come with Gwen and me?”

“I thought that was last week.”

“There’s one every week,” said Morgana, hand still outstretched. “You know you want to.”

Merlin wanted the sword, he needed the sword, and nobody was listening and nobody would let him get it and instead it was all couches and too-small rooms and itching skin, itching impossibly, and his feet wouldn’t stop going back and forth, and his thoughts were coming out his ears, and instead Dr. Alice was scritching her pen against her white paper, and Merlin was trying to climb out of the couch, but the pillows were eating him.

“You need something firmer,” he told her. “I can’t sit up.”

“You’re not the first to say that,” said Alice, looking at him over her spectacles. It was all right for her, in her swivel-chair, so Merlin didn’t expect her to get how uncomfortable it was, but shouldn’t therapists be a little more, he didn’t know, a little more intuitive? He still wasn’t sure about Alice, with her nauseatingly pastel sweater-sets and soft hands and dodgy background with Gaius. Obviously, she was telling Gaius everything, no matter how much she denied it.

“Do you remember the homework I gave you yesterday?”

Merlin kicked his legs against the couch. “I don’t think so, I’m not sure. What was it?” He shifted positions again, trying to get comfortable. “Also, can I go now?”

“We’ve hardly started.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got friends and things to do and do you want to go to the beach with me? Then you’d know I was safe, and I could find the sword. Will’s keeping it from me. I need the passcode.”

“I see,” said Alice. “I think this might be a good time to check the facts. What do you think, Merlin?”

“I am checking them,” he protested. “It’s my book, and Will won’t let me find the sword. And why won’t anyone let me see my mum?”

Alice’s pen faltered. “I’m sorry?”

“My mum, I know she’s here, and everybody’s hiding her, and it’s not fair.”

“Merlin,” Alice said softly. “Your mother—”

“Don’t!” yelled Merlin. “I’m going now, if all you’re going to do is tell lies.” He made his way toward the door.

“If you leave now, we’ll have to terminate session early,” said Alice, and Merlin laughed, because of course they’d have to terminate session early, if Merlin wasn’t physically there, and, anyway, it wasn’t such a threat, since he didn’t want to be there. He didn’t point this out to her, though he did shut the door behind him, just to be polite.

Gaius was in the waiting room, making notes in a battered old book. “I’m ready to go back,” said Merlin.

“You still have forty minutes left,” said Gaius, for once on top of the time.

“She’s lying, and you’re lying, and I just want to go home.” He shifted away from Gaius’s glare. “Please, Gaius. Please.”

Gaius sighed a long-suffering sigh and marked his place in his book with a finger. “Merlin, if you’re going to act like a fool, you can do it in hospital just as well as you can here. And it would be a lot easier for me, I might add.”

“But Gaius, I don’t think Alice even has a medical degree!” said Merlin, throwing open his arms. “Have you ever sat in her couch? Have you noticed how squashy it is? It’s not conducive to a healthy atmosphere, therefore, I’m very sorry to tell you that that woman has not graduated med school.”

“My dear boy, of course she hasn’t,” said Gaius. “She’s a therapist, not a psychiatrist.”

“And she’s a terrible one!” Merlin gesticulated so violently that he knocked a plush velvet cushion of Gaius’s seat. “Do you see that? Do you see that? I told you! I bloody told you! This place has too! Many! Cushions!”

“I’m going to go talk with her,” said Gaius, forcing himself to his feet. “Wait here.”

“Are you going to talk about me?”

“That is why we’re here, Merlin. Don’t pick.” This last part was delivered sharply and directed towards Merlin’s left arm, where he was scratching at the already mottled skin.

“It’s my arm, not yours.” But he stopped—not because Gaius had told him to, but because he’d spotted the computer bag tucked away under the chair. “Is my notebook in there? Can I write while you’re with Alice?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he was unzipping the bag and perching the book on his lap.

blding stn in the bldng stn in the swrd the snee bldng the swrd. bld dr Th dn’t Gt Thr in blow awy in the wnd swrd lck veil nlcks the veil and vrythng flls out why

mrmd rcks mrmd stns mrmd scls HAIR TEETH BLOOD BONE pstd to mrmd rck mer wtr maid vrgn trrtry vrgn airlns brds wngs of steel the swrd the veil frya ndss nimueh nds they need it everythingeverythingeverything wtr calculus apprchng infnty nvr reaching it wtr fr you alwys reaching but nvr reaching right wy i mean fr nough if you slve limit you swm the wtr and hit yr head mrmd rck.

He should have more words. He knew that without the poison Gaius had doled out this morning, he would have many more. But this was like writing through cotton, through swaddling cloths. And his mouth was so. Fucking. Dry. He smacked his lips as he wrote, trying to get the saliva going.

But this was important, because last Sunday had been the last day of queued posting, and he needed Will to upload the new chapter for him. Merlin needed Gaius to get to Will, but when he looks up, Gaius was already gone. He was talking about Merlin at this very moment, which just wasn’t fair, because Gaius didn’t have a therapist Merlin could talk to about Gaius, and the asymmetry of this situation bothered him. He peeked at the receptionist desk, and she was gone too, along with the bathroom key.

“Oh, my God,” said Merlin, barely able to talk through his sudden wide smile. “I’m free. Holy fucking shit, Watson. I’m fucking free.”

He stood up, put the notebook back into the bag, and left through the front door.

“Arthur,” said Morgana. “One step. Come on.”

“You can do it!” said Gwen. She was wearing another one of Morgana’s shirts today—Women’s Rights Are Human Rights—and Arthur glumly took this as another sign of his destiny. Soon there would be two Morganas running around and yanking him out of bed. There were basically two Morganas right now, trying to force him down the steps to the beach.

“You’ve done it before,” Morgana said, wiping her windblown hair out of her eyes with something like fatigue.

“Not since—” Arthur stopped, but Gwen and Morgana shared a look. Morgana whispered something to Gwen, who nodded and went down to the beach, prompting a chorus of greetings from the teenagers setting up the fire-pit.

“It’s just you and me,” said Morgana. “Right?”

Arthur stared at the ocean behind her and tried to catch his breath. His ears were starting to hurt, which always happened when he didn’t breathe properly. The world was getting fuzzy, and not just because the sun was starting to set.

He was scared, which was such bullshit.

“Keep your eyes on mine,” said Morgana, taking his hands her own and backing down one step. Arthur took a shaky breath and tried to focus on her green irises, and then even deeper, on the dark holes of her pupils. He followed her one step, grimacing at the way the sand ground between his trainers and the wood. They made it down the stairs that way, Morgana stepping back and Arthur forward. Then he was on the beach, sand pouring over the tops of his shoes.

“Hey, look at you!” Morgana said, linking her arm through his. “You did it!”

“All right, all right,” he said. “It’s not like I cured cancer.”

“If anyone cures cancer in this family, it’s going to be me,” said Morgana, dragging him towards the crowd. Horribly, this was probably true. “How are you feeling now?”

“Um,” Arthur said through numb lips. “Could we sit?”

“Of course.” Morgana waited with him while he crossed his legs and slowed his breaths. “Do you mind if I go find Gwen? I’ll be back.”

“Yeah,” said Arthur, smiling weakly. “See you.”

“See you.” She left him with a pat on the back and an out-of-character kiss to the top of his head. Arthur rubbed his eyes and looked around. Will was slouched on top of a cooler nearby. talking with someone Arthur recognized as Gwen’s brother, Elyan.

“Oh,” said Will when he noticed Arthur’s gaze. “It’s you.”

“How’s Merlin?” said Arthur, refusing to rise to the bait.

“However he is, it’s no thanks to you,” said Will, kicking at the sand. “You have new sandals.”

They actually weren’t new, just a pair that Will had never seen before. Arthur decided not to mention this. He doubted it would bring the conversation anywhere good. “Hello, Elyan,” he said instead. Elyan didn’t seem to have an opinion on Arthur, so he was probably a safer person to talk to than Will.

“Hello,” said Elyan. “We were just talking about going for a swim.”

“Arthur won’t go,” said Will. “He’s scared of the water.”

“I—I am not!” said Arthur. “Who told you that? Did Merlin tell you that?”

“Easy,” said Will, smirking. “Nobody had to tell me. You think I didn’t notice your sister holding your hand all the way down here?”

“She wasn’t—I’m not scared,” Arthur repeated, even though the topic of conversation was enough to speed up his heart-rate by a good bit.

“Will likes to tease,” said Elyan. “Don’t worry about it.” He shucked off his shirt and drop it in the sand. “Come on, Will.”

Will gave Arthur one last scathing look before loping off after Elyan. Arthur wanted to scream. He hated how small Will made him feel, and he hated that Will was right. Arthur did need his sister to hold his hand. And he had failed Merlin. And Will didn’t even know about Arthur’s mother.

Did everyone hate themselves this much? Arthur wondered, staring down at Elyan’s sun-worn shirt. Or just the people who deserved it?

When Merlin got on the bus, he thought the driver would be able to tell somehow that Merlin didn’t belong, and even after he got to his seat, he kept sneaking looks towards the driver, trying to figure out if he was calling the police. Whenever the man reached for the gear-stick, Merlin winced and tucked himself closer to the window.

Of course, that meant that someone in a passing car would be able to see him, and that wasn’t good either, because they would report back to Gaius, and Gaius was basically dying for a chance to get rid of Merlin. But now Merlin was free, and the sun was eating up the world, and he was so, so, so fucking happy.

“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” he said, throwing caution to the wind by addressing his seat-mate. She didn’t look up from her phone, so Merlin tried again. “It’s lovely out, don’t you think?”

“Mm,” she agreed, her nails clacking against her phone screen as she typed.

“Like, so lovely,” continued Merlin. “I think I might go to the beach or ride a dragon or something. I’m looking for a sword. I don’t think you’ve seen it. Nobody but me has seen it, and then it’s only in my dreams, and I don’t really like dreaming because that means you’re asleep, and there’s so much to do at night. Ever since I stopped sleeping I’ve been getting loads done. It’s brilliant. Have you ever tried that? You might have to drink a lot of coffee. I know a good coffee shop.”

“Sorry, love,” she said, still typing. “I’m off caffeine. It’s bad for the chakras.”

“The chakras?” said Merlin. Immediately, the woman brightened, slipping her bedazzled mobile into her purse.

“It’s all got to be balanced, you know,” she said earnestly. “All your humors and chakras and things. I’ve got crystals at home.”

“The Crystal Cave,” Merlin said automatically. “It’s where they go to get the prophecies. It cuts through time. We’re here and they’re there. Knives made from crystals could work. What if all knives could tell the future? Wouldn’t that be absolutely insane? You could cut into bread and it would have whatever was going to happen baked into it.”

“Oh, my,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“One-hundred and ten percent,” said Merlin. “Really, really good. The future is bright.” The bus was a small road near the shore, and outside the window, the ocean glittered a brilliant blue. What a word. Brill-i-ant. Like something billowing, except for getting caught on the fish hook of the t. Up through the roof of the mouth, and then the words could flow straight from the brain and over your teeth and drip everywhere.

The air was filled with words, and Merlin took out his notebook and a green pen and flipped through the pages and pages and pages that were covered in his wide, ungainly scrawl. These were the words that would cinch the veil closed. These were his words, his only words, the ones he would take up Mount Moriah and slaughter in return for benediction.

Every stone has a sword in it, and that’s what Merlin would need, and why would everyone keep that from him? Why wouldn’t anyone let him know that he needed the sacrifice? Was he just supposed to blunder around on his own until the universe made sense?

Will, and Arthur, and everyone working against him, trying to get inside his head so he didn’t get the sword and didn’t close the veil and all the ghosts would fly around forever.

“Are you working on something?”

“Don’t look,” snapped Merlin, drawing the notebook to his chest. “They’re my ideas. You can’t steal them.”

“What would I want with your book!” said the woman. “No one’s stealing anything.”

“Oh, my God, don’t lie to me,” said Merlin. “I can tell when people lie.” He snarled the last bit, flinging it at her.

Without saying another word, the woman stood up and moved to another row.

There was a prickling feeling on the back of Merlin’s neck, and he whirled around. He thought he counted at least ten different people quickly look away. Just then, something massive flashed through his peripheral vision, but when he jerked to the side, there was nothing there. His heart threatened to stop up his throat.

“Can we hurry up this bus?” said Merlin, standing. The bus was crowded, and everybody was looking away, pretending not to know him. “Please?” And still no one looked at him. He shoved his way into the aisle, banging a few shins, and marched down the aisle, past all the spies.

“You have to speed up,” he told the driver. “Right now, please, immediately.”

The driver barely glanced at Merlin. “We go the speed limit and no faster. If you don’t like it, you can get off the bus.”

“You don’t understand,” said Merlin, almost crying with frustration. “It’s imperative. My uncle and Alice are going to kick me out, and Arthur’s trying to delete the last chapter, I mean Will is, I mean—I mean, I need the sword.”

And that was how Merlin ended up on the side of the road, his thumb pointed to the sky.

The library the next town over wasn’t as roomy as Ealdor’s, but hopefully Gaius’s spies wouldn’t know to check here. Sat in the back of the computers room, Merlin felt secure enough to try his email account. First he had to guess Will’s password.. “You’ll thank me after,” Will had said. “You’d be fucking furious if I didn’t do this.”

The Ladies password had also been changed, and Merlin couldn’t get in there without his email. So because Will was a bastard, Merlin couldn’t touch his own work. “He just wants it for himself,” Merlin said out loud. “Just for his fucking self, and I’m actually going to kill him. He’s so fucking greedy. Why can’t he just be happy with his own mum? Wait—oh, my God. He hired Arthur.

No, he couldn’t talk out loud. For all he knew, he was bugged. He was so tired of this bullshit. It would be all right, though, once he got into his accounts. Then there would be no more fucking around with the last chapter. Merlin would close the veil, and the ghosts would go away, and his mother would come back once she knew they were gone.

Merlin tried Will’s birthday. It didn’t work. Jesus, if Will prevented Merlin from uploading his own fucking chapter on his own fucking website, he was going to murder him twice.

“What do I know about Will’s password habits?” He looked around at the different monitors as if they were little oracles. The only other person in the room, a homeless man with dingy dentures, ignored him.

“He doesn’t do numeral soup,” Merlin said. “He does something he can remember. Something short and sweet. Like prague2020.” That had been the password last time Will did this. But he wouldn’t reuse a password, would he?

He would. Merlin slowly broke into a smile at the sight of his inbox. But—fuck. Merlin went cold. At the top of the inbox was an automated email informing Merlin that someone had logged onto his email on a new device. If Will saw that…Merlin’s hands shook as he rushed to delete it. Then he cleared his trash. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? Will was definitely using email to spy. How he could not? It was the perfect opportunity!

And now he knew that Merlin was on the run. And maybe he could even track the IP address, but Merlin knew he actually couldn’t because gmail encrypts the location of the computer but also maybe the automated email would give Will the IP? But that was fine, it was fine, because Merlin had deleted the email, and everything was okay, okay, okay.

He let out a breath and opened to docs.

When the sun set, the party began in earnest. Sugary American pop songs blared over the beach. Almost everyone had a beer in their hands. The party was bigger than Arthur had expected, at least a few hundred teens and young adults. He had met only a few of the people here, and even though he was usually good at small talk with strangers, the prospect of making an effort right now made him want to go to bed for a thousand years. He’d be in bed, too, if he weren’t so goddamn concerned with making Morgana happy. He checked his phone for the time, and was pleased to note that it was supposed to start raining soon. At least this awkwardness would be over.

Please, God, let this awkwardness be over. Like an old Catholic grandmother running her fingers over the rosary, Arthur ran through the plot of Ladies. First Freya was alone, and then there was the Lamia, and then the whole thing with the nuns, and then Nimueh, and then the veil between the world ripping open, and only a sword being able to close it.

Right. Because that made sense. A sharps word to fix something. Really, though, did any books make sense? Even something that was supposed to be logical, like, like—like The Stranger. Even that, especially that, made no sense. Didn’t the main character commit a hate crime or something? Arthur vaguely remembered something about a fist-fight. And hate crimes made little sense, because hate made little sense, and did he think he could save the world from hate crimes just by saying, Oh, that doesn’t make sense?

Obviously not. He gulped the rest of his beer and threw the bottle into the sand, where it would remain until a good soul like Morgana cleaned it up before the sea turtles or whatever got to it. Maybe a hermit crab would try to make it its home. He tried to think of other things that could be hermit crab shells, but it was a surprisingly hard game.

“Hello, you,” said someone, and Arthur squinted up into the darkness.

Nora?”

“Do you think?” she said, collapsing cross-legged into the sand. “I’m not actually sure I’m me.”

“Oh,” said Arthur.

“Do you remember when I almost gave you a blowjob?”

Was this a trick question? “How could I forget,” said Arthur. Nora leaned back on her hands and looked up at the sky. The fire lit up the edges of her hair, but he couldn’t make out the color, and he wasn’t sure if she’d dyed it again. The blue had been nice.

“Shall we give it another go?” she said at last.

“We don’t have to,” said Arthur, feeling oddly impartial.

“I’m not drunk,” she said, and did that cute smile thing that popped her dimples, and Arthur was about to say fuck it when he remembered that he actually kind of sort-of had a boyfriend. Except not anymore. And they hadn’t—it had been a long time since Arthur’d had sex, and it wasn’t that the prospect wasn’t inviting. He should say yes, he really should. Morgana would probably tell him to say yes.

“Sure,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Merlin couldn’t think, and he couldn’t sit still, and his fingers flew across the keys as he typed and typed and typed. Writing had never felt this good before, like he was tapped straight into the godhead, like this was heaven and he was learning at the angels’ knees, flowing with the holy words between life and death, and this was good, this was perfect, he was going to save the world, and all he had to do was write, and wasn’t that incredible, that all you had to do to save the world was write? He wondered why no one had thought of this before.

Though he didn’t wonder in the usual way. He barely had to skim the surface of a thought before it unfolded in a million different directions, dazzling him with sudden knowledge, and words whipped around his head like papers caught in a tornado:

computer currents like OCEAN CURRENTS to the center!!!!! equation of everything is sword in stone!!!!!! sword in stone is meaning of universe!!!!!!!!

Except even more torn up, even more unrecognizable—

computer ocean equation!!!!! sword stone universe!!!!!!!

And if his thoughts were scraps of paper, the words on the computer screen were confetti, and he was tossing them around like fake snow on a secondary school stage. He knew so much at once, and loved so much at once, and Nimueh and Freya were so close. They just needed a little push.

Nora brought Arthur behind a dune, right near the boardwalk, which felt significant in some dumb way, but actually wasn’t. Her mouth tasted sweet again, and Arthur realized it was her lip balm.

“I like your lip balm,” he said.

“Uh, thanks,” said Nora, and this time Arthur let her kiss him. It was starting to rain, and even behind the dunes, they could feel a cold wind. Nora didn’t say anything, so neither did Arthur. Wasn’t kissing in the rain supposed to be romantic? He wasn’t sure about sex in the rain. That might be less so. It certainly wouldn’t happen in a black and white film. Now that he thought about it, Merlin would look so good in black and white.

“Arthur!”

He snapped back to reality. “Yeah?”

Nora sat back on her heels and straightened her crop top. “Are you okay? It feels like you’re thinking about something else.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” said Arthur. “Really.” He undid the button to her jean shorts to prove it, and Nora said, “Do you want to talk about it?” but she sounded kind of disappointed.

“I’m really good,” he insisted, and he could see Nora mentally shrug.

“Okay,” she said, and pushed him backwards into the wet sand.

Merlin wasn’t, he wasn’t, he needed a phone, if he had a phone someone could track him, but no phone, nothing, no one would know where he was, but Will had his phone, right? Could Will track Merlin with his phone? Maybe his phone always knew where he was, like the cell tower or something radiated everybody and their phones would be radiated in the same way, and that’s why everyone got cancer. And he wanted to upload, he really wanted to, he had the document saved and everything, but also if he uploaded they one hundred percent would track him, they’d find the IP, and he didn’t know the library’s policy on VPNs.

At last, set to post after a delay, and scowled and scratched at his arm, which by now had serious gouges in it. There was skin trapped beneath his fingernails.

He couldn’t leave any DNA, so he double-checked the keyboard, and, fuck, fuck, fuck, why was that teenager girl leading a librarian over to the computer bay. He stilled, his muscles tensing, hand frozen on his arm. They were getting closer and closer, and any of those black buttons on woman’s sweater could be cameras, and he couldn’t stop shaking his leg and he wanted to post but he was afraid and FUCK they were stopping at the computer bay.

“So, I can’t, like, get it to print?” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?”

“Let me see,” said the librarian, leaning over the girl’s shoulder, and Merlin asked them if they could go away. They stared at him.

“I need you, I need you to leave, just in case you’re spying on me.”

The girl and the librarian exchanged looks. “We get a lot of crazy people,” said the librarian, as though Merlin couldn’t hear her. “The library’s a safe haven for them.”

Merlin clenched his teeth so hard he heard a crack. He stood, shaking. He almost couldn’t breathe. “This is your last warning,” he said, and the librarian made a come here gesture to someone across the room. At the same time, someone caught Merlin’s arm from behind.

“Do you need help?” said a man’s voice. It was so deep that Merlin could actually feel the vibrations in his ears, and the librarian said something about a security guard coming, and Merlin began to thrash. He kicked the mans shins and struggled and almost bit the man’s hand.

“Thanks,” said a man with a walkie talkie. “I can take it from here.”

If Merlin thought the first man’s grip had been hard, this one’s was brutal. He tried kicking at the floor as the man dragged him along, but that nearly yanked his arm out of its socket. They passed millions of staring people, a whole crowd of them, their eyes bright and red and their forked tongues seeping out of their mouths, and then the security guard opened the library door and dragged him into the rain.

“Do I need to call the police?” said the security guard, and Merlin frantically shook his head. “If I let go, you won’t try to get back inside?” Merlin nodded, and the guard’s grip eased. “Okay. Try to stay out of trouble.” He went back inside and watched Merlin through the glass. He’d probably already called them, and Merlin took off across the parking lot.

“Is this working for you?” said Arthur, looking up at Nora, who was straddling him. “Like, do you want me to do something else?”

“This is fine,” said Nora.

“Oh,” said Arthur.

“What about you?” said Nora. “Is there something Merlin did that you want me to do?”

Arthur sat up so fast that Nora tumbled off his cock. “You knew we were together?”

“I could count the inhabitants of Ealdor on, like, one hand,” said Nora. “I know I’m a rebound, but it doesn’t hurt my feelings because you’re my rebound.”

“That’s actually a relief to hear,” said Arthur truthfully, and he pinned a laughing Nora to the ground.

Merlin fell seven times because his soul kept outrunning his body, which would stumble trying to keep up. The wind coming off the sea lifted the sand on the side of the motorway, getting it in Merlin’s eyes and mouth, and his eyes teared up against the tearing wind and the sharp little grains of stone, and his tears mixed with the rain, and he thought he might be flying because his feet were barely touching the ground.

Maybe the wind was lifting him.

***

Nora wrapped her legs around Arthur’s back and dug in her heels.

***

Mermaid Rock rose from the fog like a mountain from the mist.

***

Arthur came with his face pressed into Nora’s shoulder.

***

Merlin took off his shoes.

***

Arthur’s phone beeped.

“Hang on, sorry,” he said, pulling it out of his discarded jeans’ pocket and hunching over to protect it from the rain.

It took him a few seconds to realize what he was looking at. A chapter has been added to

He got the passcode wrong two times and had to breathe slowly before he could enter it without a mistake. The browser popped open, loading to a familiar gray-green background. There was no Author’s Note explaining the delay, which Arthur had been expecting, but that was all right. Goon didn’t owe him—them, the readers—one. But it was clear something was wrong. The sentences didn’t make any sense.

In disbelief, Arthur scrolled through the four-thousand odd words, frowning more and more as he went along. hptl hlwys mmd rk head pasted on…undrwtr reaching fr infinite meaning…every stone grws a swrd…pierce veil peace veil pierce peace pierce pierce pierce pierce pierce

Arthur’s phone rang, and he was already in such a heightened state of anxiety that he nearly dropped it. He didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” he said, his mind miles away.

“Arthur?” The voice was frantic. “Arthur, have you seen Merlin?”

“Will?” said Arthur.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me. Listen, Arthur, this is serious, no one knows where he went. He hasn’t contacted you, has he?”

“No,” said Arthur, clutching the phone to his ear. “He hasn’t. When did he go missing? Is he okay?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be calling you, would I?” Will said acidly. “Just give me a ring if he gets in touch, okay?” The line went dead, which was just like Will.

pierce pierce pierce pierce… Arthur closed his eyes. It was so fucking much. Merlin missing and Goon gone mad…Goon gone mad…

Arthur’s eyes snapped open, and he skimmed the chapter once again. At second glance, it wasn’t gibberish, but an amateurish short-hand that excluded all vowels. One of the sentences jumped out at him. bmp ur hd n mrmd rock. Bump your head on Mermaid Rock? Arthur pressed a hand to his chest, trying to slow his heart.

we cn tlt nd tlt agn.

No. No. Merlin hadn’t. He hadn’t. How could he? He wouldn’t. But it wasn’t just that line.

snlt rnnng dwn th lncs lke rvr wtr rllng

i brth dth chldrn wh rs nd fll lke brths

fck wll dnt rd dnt rd dnt rd dnt rd DNT FCKNG RD WLL—

It was impossible. Ridiculous to think. Unthinkably embarrassing for Arthur if true. This whole time—no way.

“Arthur?” said Nora, pulling her shirt back over her head. “Is something wrong?”

Things that had no business slotting together were slotting together. Goon’s sudden silence. The insane chapter, too. Good had once told Arthur that he almost always had the following month queued. And there, right there, was Will’s fucking name.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Arthur, trying not to panic. “I just have a personal problem.”

He knew where Merlin was.

The Ladies of the Lake—>Chapter 109—>Comments

Lynettea: Excuse me what the fuck??

flourescentknight: i think this is on purpose but im not sure, ru ok?

prettyhands: oh my god ru having a stroke

Merlin was there, knee-deep in the swirling water, the sky opening above him like a second ocean. His hair was plastered to his head, his clothes to his body, and he looked so small that Arthur’s heart clenched.

“Merlin!” he called out. “You can’t swim!” The wind whipped away his words and forced him backwards. He lowered his head and ran, even as the sand stung his calves and flew into his eyes. His face was a mess of tears and snot and sand and rain, and he kept calling, even though he knew Merlin couldn’t hear him. In fact, Merlin was wading deeper, the furious water buffeting him, and for one horrible moment, Merlin’s head went under.

“NO,” said Arthur, but then Merlin was bobbing, gasping for breath but still forcing himself onward towards the peak of Mermaid Rock. Arthur’s heart surged into his throat, and he gasped along with Merlin. He could feel the water like it was in his own lungs, and he wanted to spit it out. Arthur hesitated at the edge of the water, and, even as Merlin struggled, the fear held Arthur back. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to walk back into the water. It had taken his mother, and now it was taking Merlin, and he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t do anything—

No, fucking fuck that. Arthur clenched his fists and stepped in and nearly lost his footing as he slipped over the sharp rocks near the shore. The wind was whipping the water until it roiled upward into sharp peaks, like so many sword-points. One of them slapped Arthur in the mouth, and he choked, his lungs straining. He floundered for a moment before he found his rhythm, his arms cutting through the water.

Amazingly, Merlin was almost at the rock, though Arthur could barely make him out in the chaos. He screamed for him, but the storm was too loud, and Arthur knew that Merlin would never hear. Arthur’s arms and legs ached from the brutal pace, but he forged ahead. There was a sudden swell, and Arthur was underwater, water rushing into his mouth. When he popped back up, he was retching so hard he could barely breathe.

And then Mermaid Rock was looming above him, and Arthur flailed in circles but there was no Merlin anywhere, and the feel of his mother’s hair in his fists when he found her too late, when she was settling at the bottom, and he reached around Mermaid Rock, his palms slipping off the glistening sides, and he took a breath and dove beneath the water.

It hurt to open his eyes, with the water smashing tiny stones into them, and it was too dark to see, and Arthur became the suffocating press of the water and the violence and the realization at how weak he was before the ocean. It was a monster with claws and fangs that dripped with blood, and he was just Arthur. He pressed forward, feeling blindly, when the tips of his fingers struck something softer than rock. He kicked his legs and reached out again. This time, his fist closed around something long and thin and armlike.

Now he just had to get back to shore.

Arthur came up and desperately gasped for air before the storm pushed him back under. It was much harder to swim with dead weight, and swimming with only one hand seemed to get him nowhere. Another gasp, and this time, Arthur forced open his eyes. Lights! Sobbing with effort, he pushed Merlin up for more air. He couldn’t breathe, for real this time, and his lungs were packed full, and maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t, but Arthur couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe. The land got closer, but Arthur wouldn’t make it and he couldn’t see anything anymore and he had almost given up when sand scraped his knees. His legs nearly buckled when he stood, and he almost went down again. He forced himself to his feet and dragged Merlin away from the water’s edge. When the sand beneath his feet was soft, he collapsed.

“Merlin,” croaked Arthur, resting a hand on Merlin’s chest. Up. Down. Up. Down. He was breathing.

Passed out, but breathing, which was something of a miracle considering, but Arthur’s eyelids weighed a thousand pounds, and he fell asleep with his head on Merlin’s chest.

PART THREE: ONE MONTH LATER

From the Notes of Merlin Wyllt

May 2016

Nora put plastic knife in mashed potatoes, sword stone? Story idea, lake, rock, sword, magic ban, snake slut (positive)

Jesus fuck I’m so happy right now!!!!!!!

To Arthur’s surprise, Uther made good on his promise to come for the last weekend in the summer. For almost a whole day, it went all right. They swam in the pool, and Uther didn’t say anything about lesbians. In fact, it took until supper for things to fall apart. It was during the fish course. They were having trout, which Arthur hated and Morgana, being a vegetarian, didn’t eat. The only person happily tucking into their meal was Uther.

“Isolde has outdone herself,” he said after washing down a bite of fish with a sip of Sauvignon blanc. “Don’t you agree, Morgana?” This wasn’t a mistake; he was looking directly at her fish-free plate as he said it. Morgana smiled tightly and stabbed at a tomato.

“Arthur,” said Uther, clearly not willing to leave well enough alone. “Why don’t you tell your sister how delicious this meal is.”

Arthur cast a desperate look at Morgana, who rolled her eyes. “If you think I’m going to eat that, you don’t know me at all. Father.”

Uther scowled. “Morgana, we’ve been over this. Do I have to send you to your room?”

“Please do,” said Morgana, starting to rise. Uther slammed his palm down on the table, startling Morgana back into her seat.

“I don’t remember dismissing you.”

“I don’t remember asking for you to be in charge of me,” said Morgana. “We all get things we don’t want.”

“You didn’t used to be like this,” said Uther. “What happened to my sweet Morgana?” Arthur caught himself about to laugh and shut his mouth just in time. What was his father smoking? Morgana had never been easy to parent.

Uther’s mouth thinned. “It’s this girl you’ve befriended, isn’t it? She’s convincing you to hate your family.”

“Her name’s Gwen,” Morgana said brightly. “And I didn’t just befriend her. I fucked her every. Single. Day. This summer.”

Arthur choked on his water, and Morgana did seem a little nervous, even with her chin stuck proudly in the air.

“Morgana,” Uther said in a low, cold voice. “I won’t have that kind of talk at the table. You’re young. You’re rebelling. You think that acting like a homosexual will get my attention. Well, you have it. And I won’t stand for any more of this vulgar language.”

Arthur looked towards the double doors that led into the kitchen, but Isolde was nowhere to be seen. Why, oh why, couldn’t she come clear this course?

“Vulgar language,” said Morgana. “Hmm. So, let’s see. Fuck is off the table, but you can talk about hating gay people?”

Uther rubbed his forehead like Morgana were the one being unreasonable. “There’s nothing wrong with gay people, but it’s time for you to admit that you’re not one. Do you know how rare it is? Stop pretending to be a dyke.”

Morgana went white. Arthur anxiously scanned her face, but she wasn’t getting better. It looked like she was seconds away from sobbing. This was bad. Morgana never cried in front of Uther.

And really, how dare Uther talk to Morgana like that? If what he said were true, he thought of her as his own daughter. How could he hurt her like that? Arthur knew what he was going to do, even as every bit of himself rebelled against it.

“Father,” he said, but it was too quiet. He coughed. “Father.”

With a sigh, Uther turned his attention to Arthur. “What is it?”

“Um,” Arthur said. He looked back at Morgana, who was still pale. “I’m…”

“Spit it out, Arthur.”

“Bisexual,” said Arthur. “I’m bisexual. I like guys. I had a boyfriend this summer.”

The scary part was how Uther’s expression was so still. It was impossible to know what was going on behind his eyes. Amazingly, he cut into his trout and took a bite, chewing slowly. His eyes were sweeping back and forth between Arthur and Morgana, like he was trying to figure out what their plan was. He kept eating until his plate was clear. Then he stood.

“I won’t be finishing supper with you. I have work to catch up on in the city.” His footsteps echoed down the hallway.

“Jesus,” said Morgana, when he was gone. “I can’t believe you did that, Arthur.”

“Look at my hand,” said Arthur. “It’s fucking shaking.”

Morgana laughed a little. “Mine too. Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Do you think he’ll come around?” said Arthur, oddly nervous to hear what Morgana would say. She looked him for a while, chin propped on her hand. At last, she shrugged.

“Who gives a fuck,” she said. “We’re both of age, so, literally, who gives a fucking fuck? I’ve got my money from working at the cinema and my trust fund, and we both know way too much about the stock market. We’ll be fine.”

“He’s our father,” Arthur said, but even as the words left his mouth, he knew he wasn’t as upset as he would have been three months ago. After nearly drowning again, Arthur couldn’t find it in himself to really worry over Uther’s opinion.

“Do you want to go get chips with me?” said Morgana, picking up her plate. Arthur smiled a little.

“Sure,” he said. “Beats this food any day.”

“Arthur,” Morgana said, snapping her fingers in front of his face. “Arthur, the car’s loaded. We’re ready to go.”

“Oh,” said Arthur. He was still sitting on the second-to-last step, staring blankly through the open door to their driveway. He felt numb and tired and desperately wanted to go to sleep, like he had since the hospital discharged him. And he did want to be at Camelot, lying in his regular bed, in his regular room. But the idea of getting into the car and driving away was too melancholy to bear.

“Look, I don’t want to go either,” said Morgana, sitting down next to him. She smelled like Gwen’s shampoo. “But it’s time to go, and that’s that.”

“What if,” said Arthur, and his throat swelled before he could finish.

“What if you never see him again?” Morgana said quietly. Arthur nodded curtly and looked away so she couldn’t see his face. He was sure his expression was terrible.

“You will,” she said.

“I don’t understand why he won’t let me visit,” said Arthur, frustrated.

“He needs time,” said Morgana. “Maybe he feels embarrassed. He did try to steal an imaginary sword.”

Arthur kicked his heels against the hardwood floor. “Will said that he’s not manic anymore. Apparently he just lies in his hospital bed all day. Will said all the sheets smell like piss, even when the orderlies have just changed them.”

“That’s so fucking depressing,” said Morgana, putting her arm around Arthur’s shoulder. “Do they know when he’s coming home?”

“I think tomorrow,” said Arthur. “Maybe the day after."

“You could visit each other during the school year. You’ll both be in London.”

“Maybe,” said Arthur. “If he even goes to uni.”

“Can you really see Merlin not furthering his education?” said Morgana. Arthur had to admit that he couldn’t.

“I wish everything could be like it was for those few weeks,” he said, and Morgana didn’t have to ask what he was talking about. “I think he really liked me, Morgana. I don’t think it was just the mania.”

“You could ask him,” she said. “When he’s better.”

Arthur rubbed his knees, which would probably always be scarred from scraping against the rocks in Mermaid Cove. “This was supposed to be an uneventful summer.”

“Hey,” said Morgana. “You’ve had worse.” They looked at each other and burst out laughing. Arthur had to hold his stomach, it ached so much.

“We’re demented,” Arthur said when their laughs petered out and they stood to go to the limo.

Morgana waved that away. “Maybe. But it’s better than being emo about it all. And you don’t even know about my summer.”

“Your summer?” said Arthur. “I thought you had a good one, with Gwen and everything.”

“Oh, that part was lovely,” said Morgana, slamming shut the car door. She tapped on the dividing window and waved to Leon. He waved back.

“So which part wasn’t?” Arthur said. “You can tell me.”

They were on the road when Morgana finally spoke. “Basically,” she said, “it’s a good thing the two of us have never hooked up.”

Arthur recoiled. “Why the fuck would we hook up? Morgana, that’s disgusting!”

“Even more disgusting than you know,” she said, unzipping her bag and pulling out a French edition of Madame Bovary. Arthur stared at her, uncomprehending. Then he gasped.

“There you go,” said Morgana.

“You’re fucking with me.”

“Hand to God,” said Morgana.

“How did you…”

“It’s not that exciting,” said Morgana. “I picked up the house phone and overheard a conversation I wasn’t meant to.”

“We don’t have a house phone at Tintagel.”

“Oh, this didn’t happen here,” said Morgana, fanning herself with her book as she waited for the air conditioning to kick in. “I found out ages ago, before summer, even.”

Arthur floundered for words. “And you didn’t—you didn’t—why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because Uther’s the shittiest father alive,” said Morgana. “And I didn’t want to make it real.”

“He does love you, you know,” said Arthur.

“Of course he does,” said Morgana. “That doesn’t mean I have to love him back.”

“You don’t love him at all?” said Arthur, and Morgana shook her head.

“I used to, maybe. But he’s lost that privilege. You can love him, if you like. I won’t be mad.”

Arthur sighed and leaned his head on the car window. “He’s my father,” he said for what was probably the millionth time.

“Like I said,” said Morgana. “I wouldn’t be mad.” She opened her book, effectively ending the conversation.

The sun was splintering the window, and Merlin curled up on his side, pulling his blanket with him. He had never felt so dead before. His heart was so heavy that it pinned him to the bed. At least he was finally home, where his pillow was soft and the air was clean. No Gilli trying to get him to play checkers or connect-four or some other mind-numbing game.

His door creaked open, and Merlin pressed his face into his pillow. “Go away,” he said, but he didn’t have the energy to say it loudly enough, and even if he had, Gwen would still come in. It was the last day before she left for school, and he’d heard her bustling around since the morning, since she was running the bookshop while Gaius scribbled away in the study.

“You don’t want to say goodbye?” she said. “We might not see each other until winter holidays.”

Merlin peeped one eye out at her. “Your hair.”

She smiled self-consciously and tugged at curl. “I didn’t think you’d noticed. Do you like it?”

“It’s purple.”

“Morgana said purple’s my color,” said Gwen.

“She’s right,” said Merlin, and that was the end of his conversational abilities. Gwen sat at his desk chair and spun it around and tried to get him talking, but despair was sealing his mouth and locking away anything he could say, so he just listened. Or tried to listen. It was hard. He wished everyone would leave him alone until the episode passed. He didn’t really believe that it would, but it had last time, hadn’t it?

“I’m staying at the Pendragon mansion for a few days,” Gwen said, picking through his pens and clicking the nubs in and out and in and out. “Isn’t that exciting? They have a room just for wrapping presents.”

And then, quickly enough that Merlin could have missed it if he’d zoned out, she said, “Your mother rang while you were asleep.”

Somewhere deep in his brain, beneath all the tragedy, a new emotion sparked into being. He couldn’t tell what it was. Maybe surprise.

“She said she’ll try again later.”

Merlin yanked the blankets over his head and pretended he was dead. Gwen pulled them back.

“Is that all right?”

No, it wasn’t all right. Obviously it wasn’t all right. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t talk to him when she hadn’t been there for any of it. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all. Merlin wished there were a single sound that convey all of this to Gwen.

“I know,” she said, though he hadn’t said anything. “You don’t have to talk with her if you don’t want to. It’s your choice.”

“Don’t want to.”

“Okay!” said Gwen, petting his head. “That’s fine. I’ll tell Gaius.”

“Fine,” Merlin said heavily. He closed his eyes and willed himself into sleep.

The next intruder was Will, who wasn’t nearly as nice as Gwen. “You have to get out of the fucking bed, mate. The sheets haven’t been washed since you got back.”

Merlin blinked up at Will. His mouth tasted rancid. He didn’t want to subject Will to that, so he didn’t open his mouth.

“Up,” Will said, grabbing Merlin’s shoulders and heaving him out of bed. Merlin promptly collapsed on the floor. He was so depressed that couldn’t do anything but watch Will strip the bed and count the dust bunnies.

“You’re going to lie here all day, then?” said Will. “You haven’t left your room in a week.” This last part was called from the hall, as Will was bringing the sheets to the washing machine.

“Stop,” Merlin whispered to the dust bunnies. “Stop talking.”

“Who’s going to get you out of bed when I’m at uni?” said Will, leaning in the doorway with fresh sheets in his arms. “We’ll have to buy a crane.”

Merlin desperately wanted to kill himself, but it seemed like too much work. He wasn’t even sure how he would get from the carpet to the bed. He was nailed to the fucking floor.

“When you get better,” said Will, “you owe me, like, hours of attention.” In his peripheral vision, Merlin could see Will settling on the floor. “I still think it’s a mistake not to go to for fall term. Stop being so lazy.” But Merlin could hear the concern behind the words, and Will suddenly put his hand on Merlin’s back. He rubbed up and down and up and down, and Merlin remembered how his mother used to do this, and started to cry. It seemed that was all he was good for lately.

“Go away,” said Merlin, but he didn’t really mean it, and Will kept rubbing his back. It felt nice, in a distant sort of way. The tears kept leaking into the carpet. He spoke again without meaning to. “It hurts.”

“Obviously it hurts,” said Will. “Your brain just got beaten up for two months.”

“Ughhhhhh.”

“That’s right,” said Will. “Use your words.”

Merlin didn’t, but Will kept rubbing his back anyway.

Some of Merlin’s school friends came by, and an ex who seemed a little too smug about the whole thing, and Gaius was always bustling around, but all Merlin could think about was his mother. Well, Arthur, too, obviously. But mostly his mother. And as he lay in bed, gathering strength the way a stone gathers moss as it rolls down a hill, he thought about the things he wanted to say to her.

Good parents don’t abandon their sons, he might say. Or he could be a little more emo and go with, Why don’t you love me? Sometimes he thought he would drive up to her house, wherever she lived now, and knock on the door, and see if she even recognized him. People’s faces could fade a lot in two years.

When he was finally able to face his Ladies e-mail account, he scrolled through pages and pages of e-mails and worried letters and annoyed letters and people asking if he’d lost it. They blurred in front of his eyes, and he slammed his laptop shut and lay back against the couch arm. “Merlin?” said Gaius, poking his head around the doorway from the kitchen. “Are you all right?”

“Yep,” said Merlin, and looked pointedly at Gaius until he retreated. He didn’t look at his e-mail for another week, most of which he spent in bed or on the couch or in therapy. Getting to therapy was agonizing. Merlin didn’t have the energy to walk down the stairs, so he sat on the top one and scooted himself down to where Gaius was waiting with the car.

Basically, Merlin was having the time of his life.

But his therapists kept telling him that he had to face his problems and blah blah blah, so one night he opened up his laptop again. This time, he went more slowly through the messages, and realized that in his haste he’d completely missed the messages from Arthur. So many messages that Merlin didn’t know what to do with them. Finally, he opened up the first unopened e-mail and read it. And then he read the next one, and the next one. He didn’t stop until he’d read them all.

mobile streaming

August 2018—October 2018

***

From: arthur.pendragon@gmail.com

Subject: tuna, thoughts?

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Okay, so I feel like this is something you’d have an opinion on. Tuna’s disgusting, right?? Only someone with no manners would open a can of tuna in a closed classroom. The girl behind me in my Russian Lit course won’t stop doing this!! I feel like I’m living in a pet shop.

***

From: arthur.pendragon@gmail.com

Subject: Morgana hid all my socks

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

Before you ask, I didn’t do anything to her! You’re lucky you don’t have siblings because mine is a psychopath. Also, is it weird that I’m using my regular email? I thought it might be more weird to go back to being anonymous pen-pals. Pen-pals are for girls, anyway.

***

From: arthur.pendragon@gmail.com

Subject: You’re famous

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.com

I met a guy who reads Ladies!! He said his sister reads it also. I asked if they managed to see the last chapter before it got deleted. He said yeah, and that it freaked them out. Everyone’s worried that Goon’s gone crazy or been hit by a car or something. You might want to do some sort of update where you tell everyone you’re alive.

***

From: arthur.pendragon@gmail.com

Subject: I talked to Gwen

To: dragoonthegreat@lotl.co

She said that you’re doing better. I’m really happy to hear it. Hurry up and get better and visit me. I could visit you, if you want, but you’ll have to tell me if you want me to come. So, you know, just shoot me an email. Or whatever.

PS I miss you so much. It’s all right if you don’t miss me, but it would be nice if you did.

It was November when the depression broke. It happened very simply. One morning, Merlin woke up no longer suicidally depressed. He wasn’t ready to go to school or for a run or anything like that, but he did go into the kitchen and fix himself a bowl of cereal, which he ate standing up over the sink. He was feeling things he hadn’t felt in months, and it almost hurt, how much he’d missed this. When Gaius came into the kitchen, he did a double take.

“Merlin!”

Merlin smiled his first real smile in months. “Gaius!” He almost spilled his bowl when Gaius hugged him, but he didn’t really mind.

“I have to go see my mother,” said Merlin. Gaius looked at him for a long time before he nodded.

“If that’s what you have to do.”

“It is,” said Merlin, turning on the sink and rinsing out his bowl. The water splattered over him, and he closed his eyes and pretended it was rain.

Arthur shifted the ice pack around his temple and kicked his heels against the bench legs. Percy was nice and everything, but sometimes he forgot to look where he was going, which was never good for anyone else on the field. At least it was only practice. Arthur didn’t think he’d be able to handle the embarrassment of his own teammate bowling him to the ground during a game.

“I’m so sorry,” Percy said for the millionth time.

“I barely feel it anymore,” Arthur lied. “Really.” His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he held up a finger. At first he didn’t recognize the number, which wasn’t programed into his phone. The area code looked familiar, though. “Hello?”

“Arthur?”

“Oh, my God,” said Arthur, getting up and walking away from practice, which was almost over, anyway. “Merlin.”

“How’s uni?”

“Oh, um.” Arthur looked around at the bare campus. Everyone with any sense is inside. “It’s great. I love it. I’m on the football team.”

“Not track?”

“No.”

Time stretched between them. “So,” said Arthur, at the same time Merlin said, “Anyway.”

“You go first,” said Arthur.

“I wanted to thank you, I guess. I mean, not I guess. Thank you.”

Arthur swiped his key card and happily entered his dorm building. The warm air was practically caressing his skin. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You almost died for me.”

“Oh, well when you put like that, I guess I am a hero, aren’t I?”

Merlin laughed, and the sound eased Arthur. “You haven’t changed.”

It took Arthur a few tries to turn his dorm room handle, which always stuck. He braced his side against the door and nearly went flying when he pushed it in. “What’s up?”

“I’m on my mother’s porch.”

Arthur stilled on his way to the fridge. “What?”

“I’m on my mother’s porch.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. That’s not why I rang.”

Arthur sat down in his desk chair and glanced through the window at the frozen sky. “Why did you ring?” Merlin’s breath floated down the line. “You there?”

“Yeah,” said Merlin. “I…I just wanted to say hi, I guess. And ask if you wanted to get coffee later. Tomorrow, maybe?”

On the wall, Arthur’s calendar fluttered. He cut his eyes away from PHYSICS TEST and said, “Sure. Tell me when.”

It was an ordinary house on an ordinary street. Red brick houses, sparse green lawns, children’s toys and battered cars and welcome mats, and Melin leaned his head against the cool white wood of his mother’s door and wondered what the fuck he was doing.

This wasn’t where they’d lived together. That house was long gone, probably home to another young family, like the Wyllts had once been. Goosebumps rippled over Merlin’s back and arms, and he wrapped his arms around himself. The car, a wood-paneled sedan, sat like a faithful old dog in the drive, so Hunith was probably home.

His throat half-closed and his heart beating a wild tattoo against his chest, Merlin rang the doorbell. It was electric, a horrible little bzzz that set Merlin’s teeth on edge. He pictured his mother, working on her laptop or doing dishes or having a nap on the couch, lifting her head and wondering if she’d heard something. He rang the bell again. Now he pictured her shuffling her feet into her slippers and pulling her hair back and checking her face in the hall-mirror, and now he didn’t have to picture her at all, because the door opened, and there she was.

He could see the moment she took him in. She stepped backwards, her hand over her heart. “Merlin?” He licked his lips but couldn’t find the words. “Merlin!” She rushed forwards, her arms open, but it was Merlin’s turn to take a step back. She dropped her arms and rubbed her upper arms awkwardly.

A man’s voice issued from inside the house. “Hunith? Is someone there?”

She gripped the doorway with one hand and glanced behind her shoulder. “Can you start Amber’s bath? I’ll be right back.” She stepped out onto the porch and shut the door behind her.

“Amber?” said Merlin. It was the first thing he’d said to his mother in a year.

Hunith’s thin face flushed a blotchy red. “My step-daughter.” She might as well have punched him the stomach.

“You’re married?”

“Well, no, not yet. In January.” She held up her right hand, and Merlin realized that her engagement ring had changed from a gold band to a silver one. The ring from her wedding was gone. “We were going to invite you,” she added. “We still are. I wouldn’t want to have the day without you.”

His nose tingled, warning tears. “You replaced dad. You replaced me.”

Her hand ghosted the side of his face, and he flinched. Hunith looked hurt.

“Of course not, Merlin. But life moves on.”

“You got rid of me,” said Merlin, his voice a centimeter away from trembling. “When I got sick, you got rid of me. You’re not supposed to get rid of your children.”

Hunith hissed a breath through her teeth. “It’s not like that.”

“It’s exactly like that.”

“You love Gaius,” she said. “You love the bookshop. And your friends. Will and Gwen. You always hated leaving at the end of the summer.”

“Mum,” said Merlin. She sagged against the porch railing.

“I know,” she said. “I know. But you don’t understand. I couldn’t—” Her voice broke, and she brought her hand to her mouth. Merlin waited for her to swallow her sobs. “I couldn’t do it again.”

“Like with dad.”

“One night,” said Hunith, “I woke up to this horrible smashing sound. And I went downstairs, and your father was tearing apart the drywall. And I asked what he was doing, and he said, You’re hiding him from me, and I didn’t know what he meant, and I begged him to tell me, and he just kept saying, You’re hiding my son, you’re hiding my son, and you were maybe three or four, and I went into your room and you weren’t there and I went downstairs and I just started screaming at him, asking him where he put you, and he kept telling me that I was hiding you, and I was begging him, fucking begging him, and do you know where he put you? Do you know where you were?”

“The washing machine,” said Merlin. “Mum, I’ve heard this story before.”

“Just lying there,” she said. “Staring out the glass window. You didn’t even cry.”

“But he didn’t turn it on. I was fine.”

Hunith shuddered. “God, I hate thinking about that night. Do you know what the doctor said? He said that he thought your father had symptoms of bipolar disorder, but he also had symptoms of schizophrenia.”

Merlin felt he’d stepped on a trap door. “Schizophrenia?”

“I’m not saying you have it,” said Hunith. “I’m just trying to explain that I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t see someone I loved go mad.”

He had to take a moment to control his anger. “So you abandoned me. You decided you’d rather miss it all than watch the mania.”

For a moment, it looked like Hunith would argue. Then the fight drained out of her. She suddenly looked very old and very small. “Yes,” she said. “I left you.”

Merlin went down one step, then another. His mother stayed where she was. “Bye, then,” he said, when he reached bottom.

“Wait, Merlin, come in. Please.”

“Maybe another time,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come to the wedding.”

“Please,” she said, her hands on the railing. “I love you.”

He looked up at his mother, at her house, at her life. “I’ll see you,” he said, and went down the path to the road.

The thing was, Merlin hadn’t really expected Arthur to show. It was dumb; obviously Arthur would come. But he hadn’t prepared himself to actually see him.

And yet, there he was. Arthur Pendragon, tucked into a corner of the coffee shop, sipping at something hot enough to flush his cheeks. Beautiful and alive and glowing and real. Merlin fidgeted with backpack straps and read the hipstery handwritten menu above the counter and counted out his change, and Arthur was still there.

Merlin bought a packet of biscuits and brought them to the table, where he stood awkwardly. Arthur, who was reading something on his phone—not Ladies, it looked like a Kindle book—didn’t look up.

“Hi,” said Merlin.

“Oh, my God,” said Arthur, putting down his phone and grinning. “Merlin!”

“Yeah, I—yeah. It’s me. Hi.” He sat in the rickety wooden chair across from Arthur’s and put down the biscuits. “It’s nice to see you.”

“Yeah, wow,” said Arthur, still smiling, though not exactly beaming. “This is crazy. How are you?”

“Me?” said Merlin. “I’m great.” He forced a smile, trying to cover the intense pit of anxiety in his stomach. He wasn’t sure if it worked. “I’ve been writing.”

“Really? That’s—that’s great.”

“Yeah.” Merlin fiddled with the wrapper. “Um.”

“We have things to talk about,” said Arthur.

Merlin tapped the biscuit wrapper back and forth. “We do.”

“You wrote my favorite book,” said Arthur. Merlin flushed.

“Yeah,” he says.

“You wrote my favorite book and you didn’t finish it.”

Merlin tilted his head. “That’s what you want to talk about?”

“So, are you going to?” said Arthur.

“Finish it?” said Merlin. Arthur nodded, and Merlin traced the whorls on the wooden tabletop.

“Maybe. I mean, yes, but I don’t know how long it’ll be. I have a draft.”

“That’s good, Merlin,” said Arthur, and they shared a brief smile.

“Are you angry?” Merlin said finally.

Arthur sighed. “I’m upset you let me go on and on about it without saying anything, but to tell the truth, I’m mostly embarrassed.”

Merlin made a face. “There’s nothing for you to be embarrassed about. I mean, I…well, you know. That’s loads more embarrassing.”

“Yeah, now that you bring it up, you are pretty embarrassing,” Arthur said. “Only a complete idiot would trip as much as you do.”

“Fuck off,” said Merlin, but he smiled down at the tabletop.

“But look,” said Arthur, moving around the biscuit packet with his large hands, “can’t you see how it’s humiliating? I thought I was sharing something private, and you let me think that.”

“Arthur,” said Merlin, and all the muscles in his throat bunched up. “You have no idea how sorry I am. Just, the longer it went on, the harder it was to tell you.”

“It’s bizarre, though,” said Arthur, looking up. His bright blue eyes were wide and earnest. “That we met twice.”

It took Merlin two tries to find his voice. “But good?” he said. Arthur looked like he was thinking it over.

“Hmm,” he said. And then he grinned. “Of course it was a good thing, Merlin. Maybe one of the best fucking things that ever happened.”

“Oh,” said Merlin. The corners of his lips quivered, and he turned away to rub his sleeve across his eyes. The song playing from the speakers finished, and there was a silence before the next one started up.

“If you want,” said Arthur, at the same time Merlin, “So, anyway,” and they laughed awkwardly and Arthur said, “If you want, we could get out of here. Go for a walk.”

“Sure,” said Merlin. “Yeah.”

It was freezing outside, and they both tucked their faces into their sweaters and pulls their hands up into their sleeves.

“D’you think snot could freeze at this temperature?” said Merlin. Arthur gave a short, surprised laugh.

“If it’s below freezing, so I reckon yeah.”

“Gross,” Merlin said happily. “So, um. How’s uni?”

They stopped at a light, and Merlin bent down and cupped snow in his bare hands. It turned his fingers red and froze them stiff, but he tilted the little clump of snow from side to side so it glittered in the sharp noonday sun.

“It’s good,” said Arthur, looking over Merlin’s arm at the snow. “Same old. You know, exams and studying and friendly classmates and annoying classmates—”

“Like tuna girl,” said Merlin, dropping the snow when the light changed and they walked into the street.

“You read my emails,” Arthur said, sounding surprised. Merlin looked up at him, and flinched guiltily.

“Not until a few weeks ago,” he said. They were on campus, now, and Merlin looked around at the spired stone buildings. Draped with snow, they looked like something straight out of a fairytale. “It’s so pretty here.”

“I know,” said Arthur. They walked through a small copse, the bare branches above them. “You think you might go to school soon?”

“January.”

“Are you excited?”

“On good days,” said Merlin. He looked away, wishing he hadn’t said that. “No, I am. I’m excited.”

“You don’t have to lie,” said Arthur, sounding frustrated.

Merlin rubbed his runny nose against his sleeve, and Arthur made a sound of disgust.

“What? I don’t have a tissue.”

“You could have asked me for one.”

“Do you have a tissue?”

Arthur pursed his lips. “That’s not the point.”

Merlin laughed and nudged Arthur affectionately. “You don’t think these things through, that’s your problem.” The back of his hand grazed Arthur’s.

“Why are you really here?” said Arthur. Merlin looked up at the painfully blue sky.

“First of all, to thank you.”

“You did that on the phone.”

“In person,” said Merlin. “I wanted to do it in person. Like, you could have died. I would have been so pissed if you’d died.”

Arthur snorted. “You sound like Will. How is he, by the way? Still eating the rich?”

“He’s goth now. He painted his fingernails black and everything,” said Merlin. At Arthur’s face, he added, “Swear to God. His new girlfriend has him listening to death metal.”

A pained expression crossed Arthur’s face. “That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever told me, and he’s not even here to mock.”

“Be nice,” said Merlin. “By the time you see him I guarantee he’ll have moved on. The girl’s nice, but Will’s getting tired of the raves. Apparently his eardrum burst when he got too close to the speakers.”

“You’re joking,” said Arthur.

“Arthur,” said Merlin, “I really wish I were.”

They smiled at each other, and Merlin’s stomach fluttered. He might as well have heart eyes. It was terrible.

“So,” said Arthur. “How are you? Really?”

Merlin looked down at his boots and thought about the answer. It was more complicated than he’d like it to be. “I still have mood swings. Like, not full episodes, but, shockingly, I’m not the most stable person. At least I’m no longer psychotic. Yay.”

“Thank God,” said Arthur. “I don’t know how many midnight swims I can take.”

The corner of Merlin’s mouth crooked up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Swimming into the ocean during a thunderstorm is wonderful for the constitution.”

“You are so odd.” They walked in silence for a little, and Arthur pointed them in the direction of his dorm. They passed a snowball fight, and Merlin packed another snowball and threw it in Arthur’s face. Arthur spluttered, his face screwed up in indignation.

“I’m going to kill you, Merlin!” And Arthur jumped on him, pushing them both into the ground. It was Merlin’s turn to have a face of snow, and he twisted his head from side to side, laughing through Arthur’s hand.

“I yield, I yield!”

“Really, Merlin?” said Arthur, his face blocking out everything else. “You’re such a coward.” Merlin couldn’t answer; he was breathless. The end of Arthur’s golden fringe was tickling Merlin’s forehead, the tip of Arthur’s nose was brushing his own. It felt like Arthur’s clear blue eyes were looking all the way down into Merlin’s soul. And underneath Arthur, pinned by his weight, Merlin felt safer than he’d felt in a long time.

“‘Like river water rolling over goose-fleshed, stiff blue legs,’” he murmured against Arthur’s lips. “‘I took a deep breath and listened to the brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.’” And then he lifted his head and kissed Arthur.

Merlin liked Arthur’s bed. It was very comfortable. “I brought my own mattress,” Arthur explained.

“Of course you did,” said Merlin, and pulled Arthur down on top of him by his belt. “Take this off.”

“You’re, like, so not in charge of me,” said Arthur, but he was laughing. Merlin loved when Arthur laughed. It softened the sharp angles of his face, made him look younger. He twined his fingers through Arthur’s silky hair and Arthur nuzzled into Merlin’s neck. His teeth scraped the tiniest bit, and Merlin thought he might die when Arthur started sucking.

“Everyone’s going to see the mark,” he protested.

“Do you care.”

Merlin didn’t have to think about it. “No.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Arthur, sounding smug. He could sound smug about anything, but this didn’t seem the time to mention that. But when Merlin tried to kiss Arthur again, Arthur suddenly pulled back.

“Wait,” he said. “I have to tell you something.”

Merlin’s heart plummeted. This was it. They were over. Or Arthur was straight/dying/moving to Japan. Didn’t his father have work there?

“Maybe you should sit up,” said Arthur. Merlin did, his heart going at approximately one-thousand beats per minute.

“Yeah?”

“I had sex with Nora,” said Arthur. “On the beach. Right before you tried to get the sword. I thought you should know.”

The relief was staggering. “Oh, my God,” said Merlin. “I thought I was going to have to fly to Tokyo every summer.”

Arthur cocked his head and squinted at Merlin. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Merlin. He rested his hands on Arthur’s chest. “I had sex with Cedric, right?”

“Okay, but—”

“I don’t expect you to wait for me when I get sick. Especially when we weren’t even together-together.”

“Okay,” said Arthur, “but that’s the thing. I want to wait for you.”

Merlin couldn’t keep looking into Arthur’s sincere eyes, and he dropped his hands to his lap and looked down at them. The knuckles were chapped and red. “I was psychotic, Arthur.”

“Uh, yeah, I know,” said Arthur, brushing his thumb over Merlin’s. “I have the waterlogged trainers to prove it.”

“No you don’t. You took them off.”

“Merlin.”

“And I lied to you all summer.”

“Oh, my God, I totally forgot,” Arthur said dryly. Merlin thwacked his shoulder.

“Don’t tease.”

“Let’s go over my issues, shall we?” said Arthur. He began ticking them off on his fingers. “My mum died in front of me, Morgana’s my dad’s biological daughter—”

“What the fuck?”

“—and I’m entitled, and spoiled, and rich.” Arthur thought about the last one. “Actually, the rich isn’t such a negative. I think you’ll enjoy being rich.”

“Can we return to the Morgana’s your bio sister part?”

Arthur waved this away. “We’ll circle back to it. My point is, next time this happens we’ll put you in the mental hospital much faster.”

“Thanks,” said Merlin. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to tease?” said Arthur.

Merlin put his arms on Arthur’s shoulders. “I’m not teasing. I’m making a joke. There’s a difference.” He tried to kiss Arthur, but they both tilted their heads in the same direction and bumped noses.

“Sorry,” said Merlin. “I went to the left.”

“Do you have to fuck everything up?” said Arthur, smiling.

The next kiss was soft and warm and made Merlin feel like he’d just drunk a mug of warm cider. Arthur pushed him back against the bed and wrapped his legs around Merlin’s, and Merlin thought he might fall straight through the mattress.

Arthur’s bright blue eyes were wide and earnest, and the light hit him just right, bringing out the red of his lips and the pink of his cheeks, and Merlin thought, Now I know how to write love.

It wasn’t the most appropriate thought, but Merlin knew Arthur wouldn’t mind.


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The Ladies of the Lake

Chapter 112

When a war ends, it’s hard to believe it’s really over. Freya stood in the midst of the cautious dawn with the sword pointed to the sky and thought, Now everything changes.

“You did it,” said Nimueh, in a low, awed voice. “I can’t believe you did it.”

“We did it,” said Freya, stabbing the sword into the soft ground. “Oh, gods, Nimueh. We did it.”

Nimueh took a hesitant step forward. “I want to say something I’ve never said to you before.”

“I know,” said Freya, the burgeoning sunlight filling her eyes. “I love you, too.”