7 Days Left…
It was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays were never good.
Everything bad that had ever happened in Merlin’s life, ever, had happened on a Tuesday. Well, apart from that time he nearly got roasted in the Great Fire of London, because that had been a Sunday, and then that other time when he’d been quite unjustly accused of sorcery while innocently living in a quiet little village north of Salisbury during the English Civil War, because that had been a Thursday. And then there were a few other instances of it not being a Tuesday as well, because Merlin was over a thousand years old and bad things did tend to follow him around on any given day of the week.
But, this time, it was a Tuesday. And the bad thing appeared to be some sort of faerie, pointy-eared, blue-skinned and sitting on the end of his bed eyeing him sceptically.
Faeries weren’t the most annoying of magical creatures. Goblins, pixies and sprites were all far more irritating, due to their inherently nasty nature underneath all that trickery. Faeries, after all, were just tricky. They weren’t evil. Mostly.
But this one was in his bedroom, looking at him. It was definitely a Tuesday sort of event.
“Good morning, Merlin,” it said. “You snore, you know? It’s most unattractive.”
“You’re a faerie,” he stated, for want of anything more intelligent to say. Wretched thing, coming into his house and insulting him first thing in the morning. Well, possibly not first thing, it was 9.30, but Merlin was very old, had invested wisely and was the second richest person in the world, so he didn't need to get up at the crack of dawn if he didn't want to.
The faerie did not look impressed. “Oh really, if I’m familiar with the slang of these times, just let me say that you, Mr In-love-with-my-king-for-1000-years-and-counting can talk! I, on the other hand, am a genie.”
A genie. Yes, that would be right, because he’d never actually encountered one of those. And they were possibly the trickiest of the whole lot.
“My mistake.” Merlin sat up, looking around for any sign of a bottle that he might be able to pop the creature back into. There were spells to banish them, but he hadn’t ever bothered reading up on those. Genies tended not to bother him, he had plenty of magic of his own, generally far more powerful than theirs. And, perhaps, he’d got a tiny bit complacent.
“My bottle’s in your bin, if that’s what you’re looking for. Smashed to pieces last night, thank you for that by the way.”
He’d knocked over that beautiful lapis lazuli jar from the mantelpiece last night, and it had shattered on the hearth. It was a particularly nice piece that Leon had picked up at a street market in Cairo nearly two hundred years earlier and given Merlin for Christmas that year. But there had never been anything magical about it, and he hadn’t sensed anything escaping when it had broken. Although he’d been quite drunk, because it was the anniversary of the day Merlin’s life had fallen apart, and he always needed alcohol, or drugs, or something to get him through it.
“You were in there?”
The genie snorted contemptuously. “I thought you were supposed to be the greatest sorcerer who ever lived! Of course I wasn’t in there. It was a tiny, tiny bottle, and look at me!”
It was difficult not to look at the blue-skinned creature, as tall and slender as Merlin himself (although he was sure genies were supposed to be fat, or perhaps that was just in Disney cartoons) and wearing little more than a gossamer shift to cover any modestly they might have.
“You were bound by it,” Merlin guessed. “And now you aren’t.”
“Correct. Quite a relief too, I didn’t think I could stand many more decades of being trapped in another dimension with you as my only entertainment. You really do lead the most tedious of lives, you know? Couldn’t you have given me back to your friend, that tall, delicious man who always has tales of travels to so many different lands whenever he visits you? He was a far better custodian than you.”
Leon, who had drunk from the cup of life and found himself immortal too, hadn’t wasted the centuries sitting around waiting for Arthur to come back. He’d explored the entire world several times over, got married 42 times at the last count, and sired more children than Merlin cared to think about. He also was a solid, familiar figure for Merlin down the centuries, dependable (mostly) and constant. Faeries, pixies, elves and genies never, ever visited Leon, and if they did he’d probably put it down to too much ale the night before. No, this sort of thing only ever happened to Merlin.
“Please feel free to jump into another bottle and I’ll be sure to pass you back to Leon again,” Merlin attempted. It was worth a try. The genie just rolled its eyes.
“As if. No, you’ve freed me, even if it was by accident, so I owe you a wish.”
“Shouldn’t it be three wishes?”
“Greedy. And obviously watching too many movies. No, you just get one wish, and there will be conditions attached.”
A wish. Merlin only needed one wish, and that was to have Arthur back. Though he was familiar enough with this sort of tricky creature. If he asked for Arthur back he’d probably find himself with a crumbling skeleton or something equally awful.
“Before I make my wish, what sort of conditions are there?” he ventured.
“Obviously your one true wish is the return of your king so don’t even bother trying to hide that one. Everyone who’s ever existed in the magical world knows that. And I can grant it, you’ll have your Arthur back at your side, living and whole, as he was before his long sleep.”
“Before his fatal injury,” Merlin corrected, just to make sure. He didn’t want Arthur dying on him again. The thought was unbearable.
“Yes, before that. Arthur will be back, and he’ll be healed and healthy and immortal just as you are. As I said, it will be your one true wish granted.”
Merlin tried to conceal how much he wanted that to be true. He knew it would only give the creature power over him. But Arthur back… it was a heady, wonderful thought. “What are the conditions?” he asked again.
The genie smiled, and it was almost a kindly smile. “Ah yes. Well, it is your heart’s desire to have him back. And he is your heart’s desire, so this isn’t a hardship. Accept the wish, and I will grant it.”
“Arthur must love you.”
That wasn’t so hard. Arthur did love him, in his strange and Arthur-like way. Merlin had no doubt of it. He’d even accepted his magic in the end. “Okay,” Merlin began, meaning to say more, but the genie clapped their hands together.
“No, I didn’t agree…”
“Okay is agreement, is it not? Arthur is now returning to you and will soon be out on the bank of the lake. I'm feeling generous, so I'll cast a spell that allows him to understand modern English. You have one week from now to make him fall in love with you, and to consummate that love and your union, or you will take his place on the isle of Avalon and the eternal sleep.”
“Consummate?” Merlin gasped.
“Yes. Sex. I’m sure you know what that is, even though you never seem very interested in partaking of it. Well, there was that one man about ten years ago, and then that other one…”
“I know what sex is,” Merlin growled. “But Arthur was married. To a woman. He isn’t going to want me.”
The genie shrugged. “Things aren’t always what they seem. You of all people should know that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Arthur loved Gwen.”
“Everyone loved Gwen. You loved Gwen. She was a sweet, kind, lovely girl. Years of marriage to Arthur, and no children though. Strange, don’t you think?”
Merlin wasn’t thinking anything. His thought process had pretty much stopped back at the word consummate. He just stared at the genie, dumbstruck.
“Oh, and one other little thing,” the genie continued. “You can’t tell Arthur about this. If you tell him, then the magic is broken and Arthur will die. Again. You know how much fun that was last time, right? This time it will be permanent. No once and future king, nothing.”
Merlin hated genies. More than any other magical creature, genies were now top of his hate list. Cruel, sadistic, nasty little beasts. He was going to find the spell, and another bottle, and…
“Better hurry up, Emrys! Clocks are ticking!”
But first, he was heading for the lake.
There was no lake. In fact, there hadn’t been a lake for over a thousand years if you didn’t include the times when the area flooded. And it did flood, regularly.
Merlin wasn’t entirely surprised to find that it had flooded again, despite it being a reasonably dry autumn.
There was nobody around when Merlin drove up, the flooding was affecting a road and some houses close to the town, and all the flood relief workers were concentrating their efforts around that area. Merlin headed for the spot he had returned to so many times down the centuries, still remarkably untouched by the passing of time.
At first he wondered if perhaps it was going to turn out to be a cruel joke, because that was exactly the sort of thing he’d expect from a genie. The shoreline was deserted, it was just an ordinary cool, slightly windy morning in late September, much the same as any other. He half-expected the genie to reappear, laughing mockingly at him for believing the lie.
And then, suddenly, there was a boat drifting at the water’s edge. One moment there was nothing there, the next it was as solid and real as he could have hoped for. He held his breath, hardly daring to watch as his dearest, most precious dream finally started to come true. There was Arthur, tall and regal and magnificent, sitting at the prow, looking every inch the noble king. He was still wearing his red cloak, and all of his armour. The only thing that had changed was that there was no sign of the fatal wound Mordred had given him. He was alive, whole, returned to Merlin.
“Arthur!” Merlin raced over to the boat, arms flailing, not attempting to hide his delight. “Arthur!” He reached the boat, then stopped, suddenly hesitant when he saw the confused expression on Arthur’s face. After all that time, Arthur’s attention was on the world around him, not on Merlin.
Merlin’s future was looking shorter all the time
Arthur looked at him in confusion, then back at the road beyond. “Merlin... What’s that?”
It was a mini, pootling along the road at no great speed. It was bright yellow, and Arthur couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“It’s a car,” Merlin explained briefly. “Like a carriage only faster.”
“Where’s the horse?”
“I’ll explain later.”
The mini disappeared behind some hedges, and Merlin finally had Arthur’s attention. “It’s sorcery, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly. Come on, get out and we’ll go home and I’ll explain.”
Arthur didn’t move from the boat, gripping the sides firmly. “Did you heal me with your magic? I was sure I was going to die. What did you do? Why does everything look different? What’s that smell? The air tastes different. Merlin, what did you do?”
That wasn’t good. “How long were you asleep?” Merlin ventured. He had a horrible feeling that the answer wasn’t going to be anything like a thousand years.
“What? I don’t know. Not long. Where’s the dragon? Why am I in this boat? Merlin, what have you done to me?”
“Get out of the boat, and I’ll explain. You’ve been asleep a very long time.”
Arthur looked as if he were off to take part in a medieval role-play. The sooner Merlin got him out of sight, the better. Especially as he had Excalibur at his side, doubtless as razor-sharp as ever.
“Why does the air taste so strange?” Arthur asked again. They were out in the country, so he really wasn’t going to like it if Merlin took him into a city, with even more pollution.
“Things have changed while you were asleep. It’s going to take a long time to explain.” He dragged the boat in closer, and held out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation Arthur took it, and let Merlin help him clamber out of the boat. Then he looked at Merlin properly.
“Your hair’s longer. And what are you wearing? Merlin, what is that?”
It was just a hoodie over a t-shirt and jeans, but Arthur was reaching out to finger the fleecy material.
“So soft. And the colours… What seamstress made this?”
“What?” Arthur immediately let go of him. “Are you calling me fat?”
“No! Never mind that. I’ll buy you one. Just… let’s go, before someone spots you.”
Arthur froze. There was a huge articulated lorry thundering down the road behind Merlin, and that had Arthur’s entire attention. He drew his sword, and took a step forward bravely.
“Arthur, no, that’s just another horseless chariot, leave it.”
“Sorcery!” The lorry rattled past them.
“Engineering. Come on, we need to leave.” Mostly before anyone came along and Arthur started talking to them and getting even more confused.
Arthur was still staring after the lorry, and Merlin tugged at his arm. “Arthur.”
Finally Arthur moved, still looking around him suspiciously. He stopped dead when he saw that they were heading for Merlin’s car.
“My car. My… um… horseless carriage. You just sit in it and I’ll take you home.”
“In it? Inside it?”
“Yes. Like a carriage. Maybe close your eyes so that you don’t get scared while we’re travelling along.” Mentally Merlin gave himself a high-five for that one. He knew that comment, more than anything, would stop Arthur’s complaining. And yes, he was looking angrily at Merlin, insulted at the comment.
“I’m not scared. The king of Camelot does not get scared, Merlin.”
Merlin pressed the central unlocking button on his car keys. The car lights flashed momentarily, and the locks audibly clicked open. Arthur took a step back, and the sword was coming out again.
“What’s it doing? Was that fire? Is it some sort of dragon?” He glared at Merlin. “You spoke to that dragon. I remember… I remember riding through the sky… we were flying!”
Merlin remembered it too. He’d thought Arthur had been too far gone to notice, but apparently not. He’d just trusted Merlin to keep him safe then. The thought tugged at Merlin’s heart. And Arthur was going to need to trust him an awful lot now.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m a dragonlord. I could command them. But there are no dragons left now, Arthur. Kilgharrah died, and he was the last of his kind. This,” he gestured to his car. “This is just a machine, built by men. It might seem like magic to you, but it isn’t. And unless you want a very long walk, you’ll get inside.” He held the door on the passenger side open for Arthur.
Very cautiously, Arthur approached it and poked gingerly at it with his sword.
“Don’t scratch the paint,” Merlin told him, having little hope of being obeyed. In fact, Arthur jabbed it extra-hard, and Merlin could see a silver line appear in his paintwork. That was enough, really. He reached out with his magic, because there was no point in hiding it from Arthur any more, and took the sword away.
“Hey!” Arthur protested, but the boot of the car had already sprung open and the sword floated inside. The boot closed on it immediately. “My sword!”
“My car!” Merlin retaliated. “Honestly, Arthur, you haven’t changed a bit, you’re still a prize clotpole. Get in.” Without waiting for Arthur to obey, he walked around to the driver’s side and got in. If Arthur could see he was safe inside then he’d be more likely to follow. Maybe. “See?” he called. “It’s not eating me. Get in!”
Arthur glared at him, but got into the car and sat down in the passenger seat.
“Shut the door and put on your seat belt.”
Oh god, it was going to be a long, long week, Merlin realised. Perhaps dying in Arthur’s place would feel like a mercy by the end of it. Patiently, Merlin leaned across and pulled Arthur’s door closed, ignoring his barely-concealed squeak of protest, then yanked the seat belt across him and locked it in place. Arthur immediately tugged at it, then started wriggling around trying to get out.
“Merlin! Untie me at once!”
“It’s a safety belt. In case there’s a crash or something. Look,” he pressed the release button. “See? You can free yourself. But when we drive, we wear one of these. Don’t want you dying again as soon as you’re back.”
“Dying? You said this was safe!”
“It is! Mostly. I’m a safe driver, it’s other people. Anyway, it’s the law to wear one. Put it on.”
Arthur gaped at him in horror for a moment, then looked down at the belt lock. He experimentally pressed the button a few times, then locked the belt in place, freed it, then locked it again. After the third or fourth time, he looked up at Merlin, obviously very pleased with himself.
“That’s a stupid restraint,” he announced. “I can escape easily. Tell me about these other people who aren’t safe.”
“We probably won’t see any,” Merlin lied. “Don’t worry about it. Just keep the belt on, and keep still and everything will be fine.”
Arthur was going to be a nightmare once they actually started moving, Merlin realised. So he locked all the doors, just in case Arthur decided to make a run for it when they were heading along the A39 or something. Then he put on his own seat belt, and put the key in the ignition, hesitated for a moment, and turned it. Arthur’s reaction was fairly predictable.
“What’s that? What’s happening? It’s waking up! Merlin!”
Merlin turned the engine off, then waved the key at Arthur. “I have control of it.”
“Like the dragon?”
That gave Merlin an idea. “Yes. Yes, exactly like the dragon. Actually, these are part dragon and they do exactly as I say, so you’re perfectly safe, but you do need to keep still. Look.”
He sat up straight, and spoke in his dragonlord voice. It had been centuries since he’d used it, and it felt strange now. But Arthur had heard it only recently, for him, and perhaps he would have more faith in Merlin’s driving ability, and the car, if Merlin told a little white lie…
“Oh car, wake and carry us forth to… uh… home. Hear my command and obey me, oh car…”
Arthur gave him a dubious look, but didn’t say anything, so Merlin risked switching on the ignition, and risked driving forward a few metres. Arthur gave a little gasp and gripped the seat with both hands, but didn’t say anything else.
“You’re being very brave,” Merlin assured him. “If it helps, it’s fine to close your eyes.” Because that would stop him having a fit as soon as something overtook them or sped past on the other side or something.
“Don’t patronise me, Merlin,” Arthur growled. “Just steer your dragon car thing back to Camelot before it decides it’s hungry or something. Hurry up.”
Arthur probably wouldn’t like it if Merlin did hurry up, Merlin realised. He eased the car back onto the road, and drove along at about 25 mph, letting Arthur get used to the motion before going any faster.
A sports car almost immediately appeared behind them and overtook at speed. Arthur jumped, then glared after it.
“Why is that one so much faster than yours?”
Of course, even trapped inside a dragon-car-monster, Arthur would want to be in the fastest and best. Merlin wondered how many days it would be before Arthur demanded that they buy an Aston Martin or the like.
“I’m going slowly until you get used to it.”
A Range Rover hurtled past them in the opposite direction. Arthur twisted in his seat to look at it.
“That one’s bigger too! Merlin! This car thing of yours is like that fat little pony you used to ride, isn’t it? This is a servant car! I am the king! I should be riding a large, fast car. Can you not control those, is that it?”
Evidently Arthur had got used to it quite quickly. Merlin put his foot down, ignored Arthur’s sharp intake of breath, and floored it all the way back home. He could feel Arthur tense beside him, but knew that however frightened Arthur might be, he wasn’t going to let anyone know about it, least of all Merlin. Which meant that Merlin could get him home and behind closed doors before he had any awkward encounters with 21st century citizens. Telling them he was the king probably wouldn’t go down very well.
“People wear very strange clothes,” Arthur commented at one point. It was almost the only thing he said on the entire trip.
Merlin had glanced down several times and noticed his knuckles tense and white, showing how hard he was gripping the seat. But Arthur didn’t protest the journey, despite flinching a few times whenever a large lorry hurtled towards them. Merlin felt bad about it, but he wasn’t going to stand around in a field in the middle of Somerset explaining the past thousand years to Arthur. No, that was much better done at home, in private, with a very large mug of tea and a lot of chocolate biscuits.
Arthur was, after all, going to love chocolate.
Merlin had never moved very far from Arthur’s resting place.
He’d tried nearby cities, but never felt comfortable in them. Even the relatively tiny city of Wells was a little bit too big and bustling these days. And Glastonbury was just a hippy tourist magnet. So he was currently living in a cottage out in the country, on the outskirts of a tiny village about halfway between Wells and Glastonbury. It was quiet, but close enough to Arthur that he’d been able to get to the lake quickly when he needed to. It was also not all that far from Bristol. And from Bristol you could get pretty much anywhere. So all in all it suited Merlin.
It also suited Leon, who liked being able to call Merlin to pick him up from the airport whenever he was back from his travels. No amount of explaining that Merlin was no longer a servant and hadn’t been one for a thousand years had any sway with Leon when it came to airport pickups. Leon always seemed to find a reason why Merlin could come and fetch him. Probably because Merlin didn’t really mind, and always liked to see the one person who was familiar in his life. Quite literally his oldest friend. But it never hurt to protest a bit.
Arthur had been looking at the houses that they passed, twisting in his seat sometimes when he saw one that particularly caught his attention. He was still saying nothing, and Merlin wondered if that was because he had so many questions that he just didn’t know where to start.
When they pulled up outside Merlin’s cottage, and Merlin turned the engine off, Arthur already had his hand on the release button for the seat belt.
“Can we get out?” he asked. When Merlin nodded, he freed himself and immediately started pushing on the door.
Merlin released the locks, then leaned across and pulled the door handle for him. Arthur didn’t even look back, just scrambled out of the car and stood a few feet away.
“I prefer horses,” Arthur told him. “Is that why we’ve stopped here? So that we can ride the rest of the way to Camelot on horseback?” He looked around, taking in Merlin’s cottage. “This is one of the strange buildings that we passed. Too small for nobility, yet too fine for peasants. Is it an inn?”
“It’s my home,” Merlin told him, opening up the boot of the car and taking out Excalibur. It wouldn’t do for some opportunistic thief to break into his car in the night and steal such a weapon. Merlin could just see it turning up on E-Bay, and although he could out-bid anyone, it wasn’t worth the risk. “These are what people live in now, Arthur.”
“A peasant’s house?” Arthur stared at it, and Merlin tried not to feel offended. But it was difficult. Arthur wasn’t going to take well to 21st Century life.
“I am not a peasant,” Merlin told him. “I am very old, I am extremely wealthy, and I have magic. This is my home and I like it here. Also, don’t call people peasants, Arthur. In this day and age you’ll probably get your head kicked in for it.”
“Why?” Arthur followed him down the path, still looking around him curiously. “It isn’t a bad thing. And you are a peasant, Merlin. I’ve seen Ealdor. Your mother lives in a hovel.”
Merlin wondered whether he could get away with making Arthur sleep on the kitchen floor for that, rather than in one of the two very comfortable guest bedrooms. But then, he was supposed to be acclimatising Arthur to the modern world, in the probably very short time that he was going to have with him. Tempting as it was, that wouldn’t help.
“Actually, Gwen sent for her and she lived at Camelot,” Merlin couldn’t help saying. “She was very happy. Gwen made her a lady. She tutored Gw… the children at the castle.”
Gwen had sent for her because she’d been so concerned about Merlin’s state of mind after Arthur had died, but Arthur didn’t need to know that. Hunith had been a huge comfort to him, though nothing could make up for his loss.
“That’s good,” Arthur said thoughtfully. He was looking at a stone dragon statue that was sitting amongst Merlin’s rose bushes. “I like your mother. Are we going to Camelot soon?”
Merlin sighed, and opened his front door. He waited until Arthur had followed him inside and closed the door before he spoke. “Arthur, it’s been a thousand years. Camelot has gone. I’m sorry, but everything you knew has gone.”
There was a long silence. He tried to read Arthur’s expression, but it was carefully blank. Like those times when he was king, when he’d needed to keep a complete poker face, dealing with the enemy, with an unknown quantity. It tore at Merlin to be considered one of those now.
“Except you,” Arthur said finally. “You’re still here.”
“Yes.” Perhaps he’d explain about Leon later. That might be a bit much to take. “There are so many things that have changed.”
“I can see that.” Arthur hadn’t moved from the doorway. “Is this your sorcery, Merlin? Have you done this? Made me sleep and wake up in this strange place?”
“It is magic, but not mine.” Merlin wasn’t even sure whose it was that had preserved Arthur down the years. “It was always your destiny to return, to be the once and future king. I’ve waited for you.” He opened the door to the living room. “Come in here, sit down. Are you hungry? You’re always hungry.”
Arthur shook his head. “A thousand years,” he breathed. “So long… Is that really true, Merlin?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I thought you’d be reborn or something, grow up here. I didn’t think you’d come back as you, remembering everything and knowing nothing about the world today.”
Merlin’s landline chose that moment to ring, loudly. Arthur jumped back from the sound, more nervous than Merlin had ever seen him.
“It’s just a phone,” Merlin explained. The display said unknown caller, so he left it. Probably double glazing sales. “I’ll show you how they work. I’ll show you how everything works.”
Arthur gazed at him, suddenly looking quite lost. “But you won’t show me how to get home?” he said sadly.
“No,” Merlin agreed. “I can’t do that.”
Tea didn’t cure all ills, but Merlin was right about the chocolate biscuits. Arthur had eaten five and was keeping a firm grip on the rest of the packet. He’d always had a sweet tooth, and if Merlin introduced him to Cadbury’s as well then Arthur would probably be getting very fat very fast.
Merlin had given him a very quick history of the world, and Arthur had sat there eating the biscuits and looking confused. He was still unnaturally quiet, and Merlin wondered just how much he was taking in. He moved to pick up his mug of tea again, and Merlin heard the armour clink as he did so.
“We need to get you into some modern clothes. And maybe take a bath.”
“I had a bath two days before the battle,” Arthur told him. “It’s hardly necessary.”
Arthur smelled quite pungent. It was possible, probable even, that he had always smelled that way and that Merlin himself had most likely smelled even worse. But this was a land of power showers and a time of deodorant, and Arthur reeked. His ancient clothing was probably infested as well. Merlin wondered if he could put chain mail in the washing machine?
“It’s necessary,” Merlin assured him. “You stink.”
“You’re forgetting who’s king, Merlin,” Arthur told him in a rather superior voice.
That was going to take a little explaining as well. “Actually, you’re not king any more because of the whole die… uh, sleeping thing. There’s actually a queen at the moment.”
“A queen? Gwen?” Arthur added hopefully.
“No. Elizabeth. She’s been on the throne for ages, she’s officially the longest reigning monarch.”
“How long has she been queen?”
“Um… about 63 or so years now, I think.”
Arthur didn’t look impressed. “So, if I was crowned… what was it? One thousand years or so ago, surely I am the longest reigning monarch. And obviously I’m not dead, so I’m still king.”
Merlin wondered what Buckingham Palace would make of that claim. He hoped he could persuade Arthur not to storm down there and demand his throne back.
“You’re not king. Camelot’s long gone, I told you. The entire island is under the same rule now, has been for centuries.”
“Under this queen?”
“Under various kings and queens. The queens, generally, last longer.”
Arthur glared at him. “Is that down to me? Because I left Gwen in charge?”
“Well…” Merlin wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. “People don’t actually remember her reign so no. And there were plenty of queens before Gwen, weren’t there? Annis for one.”
“Hmm,” Arthur paused, obviously thinking about it. “And what about Gwen? Why don’t people remember her? She would have been a wonderful queen. She was a wonderful queen.”
It probably wasn’t a good idea to tell Arthur about the legends. But he was quite famous, it was going to be difficult to keep them away from him for long. “Gwen… well, her story got sort of twisted up with yours and her long reign became yours… It’s been a long time and things get muddled up with all the retelling. She was a great queen, yes, ruled for decades wisely and fairly. But history has all that down to you, instead. She and Leon…”
Oh, that was probably something else he shouldn’t have mentioned. Although Leon would turn up eventually, he always did, and then it would all come out anyway. He needed to call Leon. “Ah… Leon and Gwen… a long, long time after you’d died, they… uh… got married.”
This wasn’t going at all well, Merlin reflected. “Yes. Married. Out of respect for you.”
“Really, Merlin? Not out of a desire to have lots of little Gwens and Leons, and all the fun involved in that?”
“They… uh… loved each other as well,” Merlin muttered. “But you’d want that, wouldn’t you,” he added quickly. “You’d want them to be happy?”
Arthur made a disgusted, disgruntled noise in the back of his throat. Possessive as ever, Merlin realised. Some might call it a bit selfish. But then for Arthur it would have only been a few days since he’d seen either of them.
“They waited many years,” Merlin added gently.
Two. Nearly. “Five or six, easily. Might have been seven. Gwen was concerned about producing an heir, otherwise they would have waited forever.”
“And did they? Produce heirs, I mean.”
“Oh yes, four boys, they…”
It was starting to feel as if there were an echo. Merlin decided not to mention the two girls as well. He’d always felt sad that Arthur hadn’t left any children behind, but now that he thought about it from a slightly different perspective, it was actually rather strange, just as the genie said. Arthur and Gwen had been young and healthy, and Gwen certainly hadn’t been infertile as she’d proved in her second marriage. But Arthur’s parents had experienced fertility difficulties, and dealing with those had led to the tragic events around Arthur’s birth, so it wasn’t that surprising that Arthur might have inherited the same problem.
“They called one of them Arthur, after you.”
“Um… No, that was Constantine. They didn’t want the child to have to live up to your legacy. And the second boy was Tom, after Gwen’s father.”
“That would be Elyan. But Arthur was the fourth boy. And he was very brave and a great knight.”
Arthur didn’t like that, either, Merlin could tell. Perhaps he should have lied and said Arthur was the first born. But then Leon was bound to eventually let slip that he wasn’t.
“But they were happy?” Arthur asked eventually.
“Yes.” Merlin knew he’d hesitated just a little too long. Arthur eyed him sharply.
“Well, it was just that after a few years, Leon wasn’t getting any older. And then never did. And it was a bit awkward and I had to do a few spells to help out so he appeared to age and then it was all okay again. It was all down to drinking from the cup of life. You remember that? It… um… made him immortal too.”
“And I have to sleep through it all? While he marries my wife and takes my kingdom and generally has a great time! Wait… you said he’s immortal… so he’s still alive?”
“Good! I’m going to kill him!” Arthur reached for Excalibur, but Merlin quickly magicked it away, even though Leon wasn’t even on the same continent at the moment. “Give me that back.” He looked around, trying to see where it had gone. As Merlin had sent it into the very back of the drawer under his bed upstairs, he doubted Arthur would find it any time soon.
“Bath,” Merlin insisted. “Then clothes, then dinner.”
Arthur glared at him. “And then you’ll tell me all about what history has said about me?”
Merlin wasn’t sure about that. Arthur really, really wasn’t going to want to know what the legends said he did with Morgana and where Mordred came from. But Merlin would hide that for as long as he could.
“Yes! You’re a legendary figure,” Merlin told him enthusiastically. “Great king and everything.”
“Then I can have my throne back.”
“No,” Merlin paused. “But you can have a bar of chocolate instead.”
The first day didn’t go well.
Arthur had stopped being silent and now had so many questions that Merlin’s head was throbbing by the end of it.
There had been the light switch that Arthur had flicked on and off and on and off and on… until eventually one of the bulbs had blown.
“Magic,” said Arthur.
“Electricity,” Merlin told him, and tried to explain. Arthur really didn’t understand.
Then there was the kitchen, which held no end of wonders. Merlin wished he’d stuck to his old electric hob so that he would only have needed to explain electricity again. But he’d let Leon persuade him that induction hobs were the way forward, and that he’d like them because they were almost a bit magic too. But trying to explain to Arthur the magnets and the noise and the way that it heated the food... No, it was a bad mistake.
Then he’d opened the fridge freezer.
“Science. And electricity,” Merlin had said patiently.
Arthur peered at the frost-covered contents, and Merlin had belatedly wondered if perhaps his freezer was overdue for defrosting. “Sorcery,” Arthur repeated. “You did this. You have taken winter and held it in this small cupboard.” He closed the door, and stroked his hand over the outside of the freezer wonderingly. “And yet it isn’t cold on the outside.”
“It’s not magic. Clever people created all these things, Arthur. No magic involved. Look,” he’d tapped his hand on the other door. “This is a fridge. We put food here to stop it going bad.” He had opened the door to take out the carton of milk, and gestured to the food inside. “See? Cheese, milk, beer, salad, tonight’s dinner which I’m going to have to add to because you’re here.”
Arthur had put his hand inside of that too, feeling the temperature, and just looked a little lost.
But, worst of all, had been the bath, or, more accurately, the shower.
Arthur did stink, there was no getting away from it. He had many days sweat and grime ingrained into his skin, and the dust and blood from the battle as well. Merlin wasn’t house-proud, but he’d wanted to put down a cloth before Arthur sat on any of his chairs, it was that bad. And so, quite soon after Arthur’s arrival, they were standing in Merlin’s bathroom looking at the bath.
“It’s so white,” Arthur commented, poking at it with his finger and leaving a dirty smudge. He tried to wipe the mark away, but just made it worse.
“Maybe you’d be better with a shower,” Merlin decided.
Arthur looked at him suspiciously. “A shower? Do you mean rain?”
“Well, it’s a little bit like rain,” Merlin offered. “Warm rain. Warm rain that you wash under. It comes out of this,” he pointed at the showerhead. “You’ll like it.”
Arthur still looked dubious, so Merlin switched the shower on. Arthur didn’t jump back, or cry out or anything. He was obviously getting used to being surprised, and now seemed determined not to show it. That was Arthur though, never wanting to show any weakness. Merlin could see from the way he was holding himself that he was on high alert, ready to fight at any moment if needed. Still, Arthur was always brave. He held his hand under the spray.
“Yes, like I said. You stand under it, and wash yourself.”
Arthur did look startled at that. “But you wash me, that’s your job.”
It was Merlin’s job once, that was true. The part of his job he recalled with the fondest memories. Arthur, golden and beautiful, naked in front of him, Merlin allowed to touch him, caress a wet cloth over his body. It always left Merlin wanting so much more, and back then he hadn’t even realised why.
Showers weren’t the same as baths. He couldn’t even consider showering with Arthur. Arthur would see in a heartbeat what it meant to Merlin now.
“No, that was a different time. In the shower you wash yourself. I’ll help you with your armour, but then you can just stand there and wash yourself while I find you some clothes.”
“Clothes like yours?”
“Yes… No!” Merlin suddenly thought better of it. “Much nicer clothes. Clothes a king would wear. A modern king, in his spare time.”
“A king doesn’t have spare time, Merlin.”
That was true. Arthur never had, he’d worked from dawn to dusk and often sunk into the bath Merlin prepared, exhausted, with a grateful sigh.
“Just take your clothes off and get in. There’s shampoo and shower gel on the shelf.”
“Soap. There’s soap, in the bottle, on the shelf.”
“Soap in a bottle?” Arthur peered up at it. “Why would you put soap in a bottle?”
And then Merlin had needed to explain about shower gel and squeezy bottles, and watch the mixture of confusion and wonder on Arthur’s face as he examined the shower gel bottle, squirted it all over the bath, and probably would have decorated most of the bathroom with it had Merlin not taken the bottle away from him at that point.
“Leave some to wash with,” he advised. “Come on, take your things off and get in, you’re wasting water.”
Arthur just looked at him, pouting sulkily. Merlin had dreamed of that pout so many times down the centuries, and there it was right in front of him. And still as unattainable as ever.
“You must undress me, and then help me with my warm shower,” Arthur commanded.
That was too tempting to refuse. But Merlin needed to teach Arthur independence, and he needed to do so quickly.
“This time. It’s the last time, Arthur. You can dress and undress yourself. Nobody has a servant to do that these days, and if they do then people make fun of them. And what would you do if I wasn’t around?”
“Well you’re immortal,” Arthur pointed out as if Merlin were quite stupid. “You’ll always be around.”
If only that were true. Merlin used the excuse of unbuckling Arthur’s armour to hide his face and not reply. Just one week left. And he couldn’t just leave Arthur to wake up next Tuesday morning and find Merlin gone. Even if he couldn’t tell him the truth, he was going to have to say something, find some way to warn him.
The armour was fiddly to get off. He’d forgotten how it all fitted together, and struggled with it. Eventually he turned off the shower as the bathroom was steaming up, and just concentrated on what he was doing.
“You haven’t got any faster,” Arthur commented. “You’re out of practice.”
“And your manners haven’t improved,” Merlin retorted, dumping the armour on the floor.
“Careful with that. You’ll dent it again.”
“Why? It’s not as if you’re going to need it. There aren’t any medieval warriors around now, Arthur.”
“There’s Leon, apparently,” Arthur said grumpily.
Leon hadn’t, to Merlin’s knowledge, been involved in a swordfight for nearly two centuries. Even back in the time of Camelot, Arthur always bested Leon. Merlin didn’t particularly want to see whether the cup of life’s magic was going to be greater than Excalibur’s. “You’re not going to fight him? You really think Gwen should have lived out her life alone?”
“Yes!” He pouted at Merlin petulantly, just for a moment. Then he shook his head. “No. No, of course not. Gwen deserved to be happy. She was happy with him, I assume? She always had a liking for knights.”
It had been so long for Merlin that he’d half-forgotten his old friend. Lancelot had blazed so briefly through their lives. He felt a stab of guilt at the realisation. “Yes,” he said. “She was happy.”
“Good. She deserved to be. She was a good woman, the best of them.”
“Yes.” Merlin wasn’t going to argue that. He’d loved Gwen, as a friend, throughout the years he’d known her.
“You always liked her. I’m surprised you didn’t try for her hand. How many times have you married, Merlin? All those centuries, you must have had many wives.”
Merlin had never wanted a wife. And it had taken all those centuries Arthur was talking about before he had reached a time where he could legally take a partner of the sex he preferred. And now Arthur was there, tantalisingly close and still forever out of reach.
“I’ve never married, no. It seemed dishonest.” And Arthur could make of that what he would. Merlin waited for some mocking comment, but it never came.
“I know what you mean,” Arthur said finally. But before Merlin could ask him what he meant by that, he was plucking at his undershirt and changing the subject. “Come on, help me with my clothes, I want to try your hot water shower.”
Merlin wanted to argue again that Arthur could do that himself, but there was no point. Arthur was standing there expectantly, waiting to be served. Merlin sighed, then helped him pull his undershirt over his head. It felt thick and coarse in his hands, and smelled very bad. Merlin considered throwing it all in the bathtub with Arthur. It was all so dirty that it would probably break his washing machine.
Arthur though, he was as perfect as Merlin remembered. Standing there half-dressed, fumbling with the laces on his breeches, he was everything Merlin had ever dreamed of in his memories of his beloved king. And he was right there in front of Merlin again, all muscle toned by fighting rather than sculpted from weights at a gym. Perhaps everything wasn’t quite as perfect and defined as the physique of a modern fitness guru might be, but it was a more natural shape and Merlin thought it was quite beautiful.
And then Arthur turned, and Merlin saw the scar.
Small and dark and puckered, but there was no mistaking the place where Mordred had mortally wounded Arthur. It might have been healed, but it was still there, a reminder.
“Yes, that’s where Mordred stabbed me,” Arthur said softly, and Merlin realised that he was staring.
“Sorry… I’ll get the shower,” Merlin babbled, scrambling past Arthur and leaning in to hit the power button. “It’ll warm up in just a moment. Get in, you might as well wash off the rest of your clothes while they’re still on you. They’re so filthy they’ll probably disintegrate anyway. I’ll go and find you some clean things.”
He fled, before Arthur could say or do anything else.
Away from him, Merlin finally had a few moments to collect his thoughts. He could hear Arthur splashing around in the shower, and knew he had a few minutes before Arthur would call him again for something or other.
He had a week. Just one week to make Arthur fall in love with him. It wasn’t very likely to happen. Arthur was straight for one thing, he’d married a woman. He had just come from a time where men didn’t marry other men, didn’t even speak of any attraction they might feel. He wasn’t going to just get over that in a week and jump into bed with Merlin. He was probably never going to get over that. Men like Arthur just didn’t.
Who was he kidding? There were no men like Arthur. That was the problem, had been the problem for hundreds of years. Merlin’s few liaisons had always been with men who reminded him of Arthur, but none of them were the real thing. Arthur was the love of his life, and that love hadn’t abated at all during Merlin’s long, long wait.
He looked through his cupboards and drawers, trying to find clothes that might fit Arthur. Most things would be too small, but he found a loose t-shirt, socks, briefs, then rummaged through Leon’s room until he found some joggers that would probably be too long but at least wouldn’t be overly tight. A quick spell to shorten them and Arthur wouldn’t be any wiser. He grabbed a pair of trainers as well. Those would need a spell too.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled. “Where are you?”
Merlin hurried back to the bathroom, his arms full of clothing, and pushed the door open with his shoulder.
Arthur was standing there in the shower, his skin a healthy shade of pink, glistening and wet. He was the most beautiful thing Merlin had ever seen. He was also quite, quite naked.
Apparently Arthur was capable of removing his own clothes. Yes. That was good. Merlin tried to concentrate on that fact and not on the Arthur being completely naked fact. But that was difficult because he was faced with naked, wet, glistening, partially erect and naked naked naked!
The problem was, Merlin reasoned a few moments later, after he’d dumped the clothes on the bathroom floor, made a feeble excuse about forgetting something, and made a run for it, that he’d never actually seen Arthur naked before.
No, clearly that wasn’t true. But he’d been a virgin when he’d seen Arthur naked before and had just been confused as to why he felt the way he did when he looked at Arthur. Back in the day, such a thing between two men was hidden away, not spoken of. It was forbidden, against the laws put in place by Arthur’s father. Arthur had never changed those laws, although there had never been a conviction for it during Arthur’s reign. Merlin hadn’t found out that others felt the same way that he did until many, many years after Arthur’s death. Merlin had simply loved him from afar, never considering what they could have shared, and even if he had, then he would never have told Arthur. Arthur, he was sure, would have been appalled.
But now Merlin knew what it was to share his body with another. He knew the pleasure of lying with another man. He had looked at Arthur and desired him more than anyone or anything that he’d ever seen. And he had one week, one short week to persuade Arthur that it was what he wanted too, or that would be the end of Merlin’s life.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled again. “Attend me!”
Even the arrogant bossing around was a bit of a turn on. No, strike that. Merlin adjusted his jeans, trying to make himself more comfortable. The shouting was a lot of a turn on. It reminded him of the old days. In fact, he realised with a vague sense of shame, he’d like it a lot if Arthur not only took him to bed but ordered him around as well.
Reluctantly, Merlin went back into the bathroom. Arthur had managed to partially dress himself, which was one small mercy, but he was only wearing the t-shirt and the pair of briefs, and he’d managed to put the latter on back to front.
“Your clothes aren’t comfortable,” Arthur grumbled. “The cloth is thin and won’t keep out the cold. And they are perfumed, as if they were a woman’s clothes.”
That would be the fabric conditioner then. Merlin sighed. “You’ve got the underpants on back to front. Turn them round.”
Naturally Arthur had to do that in front of him, and Merlin had to stand there and feign indifference again. But Arthur was perfection, and Merlin had never wanted anyone so much. Well, apart from Arthur himself, centuries ago. But Arthur was back, and there, and completely unattainable. Merlin busied himself with the rest of the clothes, turning away while Arthur struggled with his briefs.
The joggers were too long because Leon was so tall, and the trainers were too small. Merlin used magic to make them fit, trying to ignore the pointed stare from Arthur while he did so.
“Is that how you used to adjust my clothes? With magic?”
“I knew I wasn’t getting fat!” Arthur crowed. “You tightened them deliberately.”
“I loosened them, actually,” Merlin told him. “It wasn’t my fault you kept pulling out old clothes that you’d worn as a teenage prince and expected them to still fit you in your late twenties!”
“They did! I… What’s that?” Arthur froze, staring at the bathroom mirror. With the shower off it was slowly de-misting and he had caught sight of his own reflection.
“A mirror,” Merlin said patiently. “You had mirrors.”
Arthur peered at it dubiously, pulling faces, turning left and then right, looking at himself. Then he put his hand out to touch it, trying to reach inside but only succeeding in smearing the glass. “It’s a perfect reflection.”
“Not grown any more modest, I see.”
Arthur ignored him. “It’s like a perfectly clear pool. Why can’t I reach in? Does the glass hold the water back? I look foolish in these clothes, Merlin. They’re underclothes. Where’s my armour?”
Actually, the t-shirt was form-hugging and looked good on him, but Merlin knew Arthur wouldn’t understand that.
“I’ve taken it for cleaning. You look fine, Arthur. Like a regular 21st century guy. Come on, I’ll show you your room."
It had taken nearly half an hour after that before they actually reached Arthur’s room. It was like trying to walk an overly inquisitive puppy, Arthur had wanted to know about everything.
It had been a long, long day.
No, Merlin realised, he couldn’t deal with this by himself. And anyway, if he was about to die thanks to the cruel condition put on Arthur’s survival then he would need back up. And there was only one person who could help.
He got out his phone, and called Leon.
Leon, as usual, didn’t pick up. Leon never picked up, it was just one of those things he did. He’d wait until you left a message, listen to it, decide whether he wanted to respond or not and then, maybe, he’d call back.
“Leon! I know you’ve got this. Call me back right now. Arthur’s back!”
A few moments later, sure enough, Merlin’s phone rang.
“Seriously. Listen, I can’t explain right now but you need to come home. I’ve got one week and then he’s on his own.”
“What have you done?”
“Nothing! Just get home, Leon. He’s completely lost in the modern world, they’ll lock him up if he’s left to his own devices. Please, Leon.”
There was a pause, then Leon spoke slowly and carefully. “What did you do, Merlin? Why won’t you be there?”
“I can’t tell you.” He wasn’t sure if the genie’s curse worked for Leon as well, or whether it was just Arthur that he couldn’t tell but he wasn’t going to risk it. “Just get back here. He thinks he’s still king. It’s just a couple of days after the battle for him.”
“Really? So… he still thinks he’s married to Gwen?”
“No, he knows what’s happened but it’ll take a while for him to get used to it. He needs both of us here.”
“When you say he knows what’s happened…”
“Yeah, he knows you married Gwen. He’s… well, less upset about that than I would have expected.”
“But still not happy? And still has that magical sword?”
“That’s a yes! I’m not coming back until he’s calmed down. If he’s straight out of Camelot, with all the battle knowledge… I couldn’t even beat him half the time back in the day. I haven’t picked up a sword in decades. No, Merlin, you look after him for a couple of days, calm him down. I’ll come back at the weekend. It’ll take me that long to get a flight.”
“Where are you?”
“New Zealand. I’ll email you details of when I’m getting in so that you can pick me up. And if you’re bringing Arthur just make sure he’s left that sword at home. And whatever you’ve done with this spell, you’d better undo it or fix it. We need you. Remember that. We’ve got through a thousand years without Arthur. But you? You’re the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. Whatever you’ve done, Merlin, you need to live more than he does.”
And with that, Leon rang off. Merlin sat there in his bedroom, alone, not feeling comforted at all.
6 Days Left…
The first morning with Arthur was definitely anything but romantic. Merlin was rudely awakened by Arthur bursting into his bedroom, crashing around and pulling back the curtains. Merlin tried to bury himself beneath the covers, but Arthur pulled them back despite his protests.
“Arthur, it’s 7:30 in the morning!”
Arthur glared at him, his hair a golden halo backlit by the morning sun. “Daylight! You should be up and about. You’ve got very lazy. And the chamber pot wasn’t under the bed!” He pointed at Merlin’s plastic waste paper bin, which he’d brought in and put on the floor beside Merlin’s bed. It was definitely going first to the bathroom and then straight out with the rubbish. It stank.
“Yes. Empty it.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “You empty it. It’s your…” He leaned over and looked at it, then wished he hadn’t. “Oh god, modern food really isn’t agreeing with you, is it? Oh, that’s horrible. Get it out of my bedroom!”
“You can’t order me about!”
“Nor you me! Go! I showed you the toilet and how it works, use it! And I don’t get up as soon as it’s light, not if I don’t have to. We have electricity. Lights. We can stay up all night and sleep all day!”
“Why would you want to do that?” Arthur had made no move to leave, and had picked up Merlin’s alarm clock, turning it over in his hands then putting it to his ear.
Merlin couldn’t actually think of a good reason for staying in bed all day. “Because I can! I might want to. Just take that muck out of here, please!”
Arthur must have flicked a switch or something, as the alarm suddenly went off right next to his ear, startling him. He jumped, dropped it, and Merlin heard a horrible plop. Because of course it would fall in the bin. And it was still going off.
Cursing, Merlin flung back the covers, got up, grabbed the bin and stomped off to the bathroom to deal with it. Arthur, he knew, would probably try to flush the whole thing down the toilet and end up blocking it, or he’d do something gross like empty it all into the sink. As it was, Merlin was going to have to employ the toilet brush and… no, it was too gross to even think about so early in the morning.
Arthur followed him in and watched. That was annoying too. Merlin was starting to wonder why he’d ever wanted Arthur back. But then he turned and caught his king watching him, and felt a rush of warmth and love, and so much relief that he was back, finally. He’d missed Arthur so much, even his clotpole-ish side.
“This is the toilet,” he sighed. “Shall I go through how we use it again?”
“I like the chamber pot,” Arthur insisted. “I don’t want to get out of bed.”
“Only old or sick people use those now. If you want people to think you’re old or sick…”
Arthur glared at him, but Merlin knew he’d listen when Merlin explained again. If there was one thing Arthur hated, it was showing any sort of weakness.
Arthur had so much to learn that Merlin really didn’t know where to start. He took him for a walk out across the fields, deciding that would be the most familiar thing. Arthur had asked for a horse, but Merlin hadn’t kept a stable in over a century. So they walked, Arthur marvelling at how far he could see, how clear of trees and bushes the fields were. They kept away from the roads, and barely saw another soul. Even so, when a plane flew overhead Arthur thought it was a dragon, and it had taken a lot of explaining to get him to understand that it was a sort of flying car and that there would be people inside. He’d gone quiet after that, and then asked if they could go back to the house.
Merlin had hoped to walk to the local pub for lunch, but that appeared to be beyond what Arthur could deal with, so he led him back. Arthur still didn’t say very much, and as soon as they got back Arthur went straight to the bathroom and a moment later Merlin could hear the shower.
It was Arthur’s second shower of the day, and wasn’t his last. Arthur loved the warm, comforting water, and seemed to go there every time he found things too much. He’d worked out how to dry and dress himself, which was something, though it wasn’t a chore Merlin would have disliked. It was small steps. Perhaps in a decade or two Arthur would be able to cope with the 21st century.
TV couldn’t be put off forever, video was too big a part of the modern world. Merlin started with photographs, flipping through an old album before switching to an online photo resource on his laptop. Arthur poked at the album, was even more confused by the laptop, and actually hid behind a chair when Merlin put the TV on, although he claimed later that he’d just stood back to get a better view.
“How did those people get in there?” he demanded once he’d got over his shock. He walked around, looking for some way into the TV. It was the latest, flattest screen, and Merlin could see the confusion written all over Arthur’s face. “This is magic. Doesn’t it hurt them?”
“No. It’s a camera, Arthur. Like the photographs. It takes millions of pictures and puts them all together and displays them one after another very fast so that it looks as if the pictures are moving. Look,” he pressed pause, and the picture froze. “See? It’s like those photographs, but lots of them. There isn’t anyone trapped in the television.”
Arthur poked at the screen curiously, but when the picture remained static he re-joined Merlin on the couch. He sat bolt upright as soon as Merlin un-paused the picture, constantly on alert, as if the people on the TV were going to leap out and attack them. Perhaps, Merlin wondered, Arthur thought they actually would.
Arthur eventually relaxed, and sat back in a more comfortable position. Merlin started looking for useful, educational programmes that would help Arthur understand more about the world he was going to live in. There was a whole series about the history of Britain on catch up TV, and some other shows about geography and the wider world. Arthur’s world had only consisted of Britain, and not even all of that. There was a lot of world out there that Arthur knew nothing about.
“This is like listening to my tutor when I was a child,” Arthur grumbled, but he watched and listened anyway. Merlin was fairly certain Arthur’s tutor hadn’t had a 42 inch flat screen.
By the evening, Arthur was visibly flagging, nodding off on the sofa after dinner. He seemed reluctant to go to bed though, insisting he wasn’t tired. But when Merlin eventually announced that even if Arthur wasn’t tired, Merlin was, and that he was going to bed, he noticed a brief flicker of what looked like panic on Arthur’s face.
It was gone in a millisecond, but Merlin had seen it. He knew Arthur, even after so long apart. If something was bothering him he would suffer in silence, never admit to any sort of weakness. But he was tired, probably hadn’t slept well the night before because it was all so new and strange. Merlin was the only familiar thing in Arthur’s world, and perhaps spending hours apart frightened him.
“Is your room okay?” Merlin asked. “Comfortable?”
“The bed was very soft. It’s very quiet here. Not like the castle.”
That wasn’t a yes, Merlin noticed. “You’ll get used to all this,” he assured Arthur. “It’s a lot of change right now, all at once. You’ll sleep better tonight and better again tomorrow.”
“I miss my old room,” Arthur admitted. “I slept there nearly every night of my life, you know? Since I was a small boy. When we went on campaigns, the best part about coming home was being able to go back there and close the door.”
“And make me run you a bath, yes, I remember.” Merlin remembered the endless trips up and down the stairs to Arthur’s room with the heavy buckets of water.
“Of course. That was your job. Of course, hot showers would have been better. With your magic, you could have done that, couldn’t you?”
“Yes. The water could have been heated up on the pyre while your father burned me!” Merlin hissed.
Arthur was quiet for a moment, regarding him sadly. “I would never have allowed that, you know?” Arthur told him, his voice gentler. “Not you. I would have found a way to save you. You could have trusted me.”
Merlin could still remember those last few painful days, the way Arthur had looked at him, hurt and betrayed. He could remember Arthur telling him to get out of his sight. “You were angry when you found out.”
“Yes. Because you lied. It was never about the magic, Merlin. I wondered, sometimes. There were things you did… but you know, I just thought oh, Merlin would tell me. He’s my friend, he’d confide in me. He trusts me. But you didn’t. Even when I was king, you didn’t. You out and out lied to me. That’s what hurt. The lies. That’s why I was angry.”
“You’re still angry.”
Arthur shook his head. “I haven’t got the energy to be angry. This place, this new world… I don’t like it. It smells wrong, everything in it looks wrong. I want to go back home, and I never can because it isn’t there any more.”
It wasn’t, and it never would be. But perhaps there was a way to make Arthur feel more comfortable. “Maybe… maybe I could try something?” Merlin offered. “With my magic?”
“What?” Arthur asked, instantly suspicious. It was ingrained in him, Merlin knew. He might accept that Merlin had it, but being comfortable with that was a completely different matter.
“Your bedroom. I could make it more like home? Would that help? Let me try?”
Arthur nodded, but still didn’t look entirely comfortable. It was a lot for him to take in, Merlin knew. The magic, the new world, everything.
“You don’t have to watch. Wait here, and I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
He didn’t wait for a reply, heading upstairs and into the spare bedroom that he’d put Arthur in the previous night. It was clean and light and modern, and nothing like the draughty, dark room Arthur had known. Merlin wasn’t going to make it cold and draughty, but he created heavy drapes over the windows, transformed the bed into a four-poster fit for a king, and changed the wardrobe into a solid-looking closet, much like the one Arthur had in Camelot. He tried to recall the exact designs and colours of the drapes and covers, but it was so long ago. In the end he settled for working the golden Pendragon crest into in the now deep red wallpaper. The final result wasn’t perfect, but he hoped that it would do. And then he called Arthur, and waited.
Merlin could see that he’d done it right as soon as he saw Arthur’s face. Something changed in it, a little of the tension letting go at the half-familiar sight.
“Is that better?”
Arthur smiled, and Merlin wondered if that was the first time he’d done so since returning to the world.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Okay, Arthur was definitely not feeling himself if he was thanking Merlin. The ex-king went over to the bed and stroked a hand over the red coverlet. Merlin was fairly sure he’d got that right, it was one thing he remembered well. There had been too many mornings when he’d found a half-naked Arthur tangled in it for it ever to slip from his memory.
“This is perfect.”
“You’ll be able to sleep, then?” Merlin checked. “And don’t forget, chamber pots don’t exist, get up and use the toilet.”
“I know.” It was one of the things Arthur had actually mastered during the day, Merlin had made sure of that after his unpleasant awakening.
“I’ll just go then?” Merlin edged back towards the door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Stay?” Arthur asked, so softly Merlin thought he had mis-heard.
“Just…” Arthur turned and looked at him helplessly. “I just sleep better with someone there. You used to warm the bed, sometimes when we were out on patrol.”
“You elbowed me and took most of the blankets,” Merlin pointed out, but it was a hollow protest and he was already decided. After all, if there was the slightest, smallest chance of breaking the spell, then sharing a bed could only help.
“I won’t do that. Just for a few nights.”
They might have no choice about that, Merlin knew. But he couldn’t tell Arthur that. It was ironic in a way, he could talk about his magic now as much as he wanted to, but he still had a big secret that he was keeping from Arthur.
“I’ll go and lock up,” he said. He needed a few moments. Sleeping with Arthur, now. That would be a lot different from his younger, innocent self doing so. He hoped he wasn’t going to wake up to find an embarrassing erection poking into Arthur’s back or something. But still, he wasn’t going to give up the opportunity.
Arthur was in bed when Merlin returned. The lights were all off except one on the bedside table, casting shadows across the room. Merlin crept quietly across the room, pulled back the covers and slipped into bed beside Arthur. He waited a moment, then flipped off the light switch.
Arthur didn’t answer immediately, snuggling further down into the bed until he was so close that Merlin could feel his breath on his cheek. It was something he hadn’t expected to happen, but he wasn’t going to let himself hope. Arthur was just lost, and although he’d never admit it, afraid. Merlin was stability in his world.
“I said something to you,” Arthur whispered after a few moments. “I told you never to change, to always be you. Have you always been you, Merlin? Are you still the same? Tell me something hasn’t changed. Tell me it’s you.”
“It’s me,” Merlin whispered back. “I waited for you, Arthur. I never stopped hoping that you’d return.”
“Well,” Arthur sighed, nestling closer, and putting an arm around Merlin. “I’m back now.”
It was all platonic on Arthur’s side, of course, but it felt so good. Merlin knew he wasn’t going to sleep a wink that night.
5 Days Left
Merlin did sleep, eventually. Possibly for a couple of hours, after lying awake listening to Arthur’s breathing, deep and even, for a long, long time. Arthur had no such problem with falling asleep, and when Merlin woke the next morning there was a large boner poking him in the back. Merlin wondered, just for a moment, if he dared take it further, roll over into Arthur’s arms, their bodies pressed close together. But he didn’t dare and it was the most frustrating thing ever. Merlin quickly got out of bed, ignoring Arthur’s grumbles behind him, and headed for the shower before Arthur got in there and hogged it. Merlin needed it more.
As he stood in the shower letting the water pour over him, he wished he’d been brave enough to at least try to take it further. Arthur had wanted him to share the bed, after all, even if it had been simply because he wanted as many familiar things around him as possible. And he’d held Merlin throughout the night, almost as if they were in a loving embrace.
They had four nights left, and part of a fifth. Merlin wondered if he could force himself to be braver that night, to make a pass at Arthur. But he was frightened of rejection, of what Arthur might say or do. Wondering was one thing, but the cold reality would be hard to bear.
But at least he had Arthur back for now. He could prepare him as much as possible for his new life in the twenty-first century. And life in the twenty-first century would start off with an identity. Arthur had none. As far as all the computers of the world were concerned, he didn’t exist.
Passport, national insurance number and record, birth certificate, all essential things that Arthur would need. A bank account so that Merlin could transfer some of his money. Merlin would also need to make a will so that Arthur could inherit everything. Grim but necessary. Obviously Merlin had never needed one before.
He got to work while Arthur was in the shower. Again. The water bill was going to be horrible this time. Arthur just loved the shower. But eventually Merlin had company again.
“What are you doing?” Arthur stood behind him staring at the laptop screen in confusion. “What’s that? You used it yesterday with the pictures. Is it a small television? Why is there a picture of me in there?”
“This is a computer, you use it to find information.” Merlin really didn’t feel like explaining what a computer was in any detail. He would probably have been there all day, and he didn’t have time because once he’d sorted out Arthur’s ID then he intended spending every moment that he got to himself trying to find ways to break the spell. So instead he concentrated on the other questions. “You need an identity. I have to do this every now and then for Leon and I. How old do you want to be?”
Arthur was still looking at the laptop with interest. Probably because he was pictured on it, Merlin thought. But then he looked at Merlin instead. “Thirty. I’m thirty, Merlin. My birthday was seven weeks ago. Don’t you remember all the…” His voice trailed off, and he looked a little sad again. “You don’t remember, because it was ancient history to you.”
“I remember it,” Merlin assured him. “You made me juggle in front of the whole castle again.”
“You cheated and used magic when you did that! Don’t think I haven’t realised that now!”
“Yes, it was that or make myself look like a fool. Now shush, I need to concentrate.”
He could actually feel the weight of the annoyed sulky pout Arthur was directing at his back for that one. But using magic on computers was tricky, and he needed to get it right. He wasn’t going to be around to look after Arthur, and needed to do everything he could to protect him now. Finally, he thought he had it right, sat back and admired his handiwork. Arthur had an identity, credit rating, a whole history.
“Okay, so you’re Mr Arthur Pendragon…”
“King Arthur Pendragon!” Arthur protested.
“Mister, unless you want people to think you’re insane.”
“I am the king!” Arthur snarled. “This Elizabeth woman has no right to my throne!”
Merlin sighed. A week was never going to be enough to prepare Arthur for the world. “You’ll always be my king, Sire,” he said, as gently and respectfully as he could, bowing his head slightly as he did so.
Arthur cuffed him round the head, but it was a gentle reprimand, and Merlin thought that for a moment it turned into almost a caress at the end. It certainly didn’t hurt. Arthur was losing his touch. But Merlin wasn’t going to point that out because he knew Arthur wouldn’t be able to resist proving that he hadn’t. And that would probably hurt.
“Now you decide to show some respect,” Arthur muttered. “I have to nearly die to get it.”
It wasn’t the first time Arthur had said something like that. He seemed to think he’d been sleeping all those years, and if that was what made him feel better about the strange situation he now found himself in then Merlin wasn’t going to correct him. But he’d died. Merlin knew, he’d felt it, felt the change in his body as Arthur’s life force left it.
“Yes,” he agreed, because it was easier. “Now let me get on with this. Go and watch television or something.”
Arthur didn’t. He sat down and watched Merlin instead, and asked questions about the laptop. It was distracting. Merlin booked them in at the registrars on the Monday, just so that he could pick up copies of Arthur’s new birth certificate. Most other items would be posted to them. But it was done.
Arthur existed in the world again. It was official.
4 Days Left…
Merlin hadn’t slept much better on the Thursday night, although Arthur was no longer having any problems. Perhaps it was the wine Merlin had opened after dinner, hoping it would help relax them both. They’d talked a lot about the old days, and Camelot, and then Merlin had talked a little about his life after Arthur, until Arthur had started to yawn and they’d headed up for bed.
“Do you want me to sleep with you again?” Merlin had asked, and Arthur had just laughed as if it was a foolish question then guided him into the bedroom, his hand warm on the small of Merlin’s back.
Arthur had got into bed and snuggled up against Merlin, and a few minutes later he was out like a light. Merlin had still been lying there trying to pluck up the courage to make some sort of move. The light snoring noise in his ear completely put paid to Merlin’s brave resolution that morning to try and seduce Arthur.
Unlike Arthur, Merlin could barely sleep at all. Having Arthur so close, and yet so far away was beyond frustrating. And in the morning, a few hours after Merlin had finally got to sleep, he was woken by Arthur getting out of bed and laughing that he was going to have the shower first this time.
It was hopeless. Merlin knew he was going to have to be braver.
There were other problems to worry about during the day. They needed food, because Arthur still ate like a king, and so the time had come for Merlin to take him back out amongst other people.
“We’re going to Asda,” Merlin announced, as Arthur settled himself down in front of the television again. He’d taken to the TV quite quickly, Merlin had noticed, and had learned to use the remote with remarkable ease.
“But Judge Rinder’s on. I like that. He has all the peasants come to petition him, and he’s quite amusing.”
Arthur was supposed to be using the TV to watch history documentaries. Merlin had worked out a schedule for him but Arthur wasn’t sticking to it very well. So far he’d caught Arthur watching Loose Women twice, Jeremy Kyle once, and Judge Rinder three times. Despite Arthur’s professed confusion and aversion to technology, he’d worked out how to find the On Demand service and had been happily catching up on various cartoons. Tom and Jerry were particular favourites.
“What happened to History of Britain?” Merlin asked with a sigh, trying to take the remote but failing as Arthur swung it out of reach. He should have known Arthur would be a remote hog.
“Boring. Rinder has two neighbours warring over a garden fence. I’ve learned some interesting insults! I had people arguing over that, you know? People coming to me to settle their arguments over land. I’m interested to hear what he has to say on this one. He’s very amusing. Father would have liked him.”
“You can watch it later,” Merlin promised, wondering if he could reprogram the TV with magic. Arthur’s brain was probably rotting away. “We’re going shopping.”
“To a supermarket.” Merlin paused, then added sneakily: “They advertise them on TV, in the breaks. You probably saw Asda while you were watching Loose Women.”
It was pathetic. Arthur actually did perk up and look more interested. He was going to be such a sucker as far as advertising was concerned.
Merlin held his hand out for the remote.
Arthur, as Merlin had suspected, had no idea what a supermarket was.
They’d started with an enormous one, which didn’t help, but at least it was a fairly quiet Friday morning and there weren’t too many people around. Still, it was busier than Merlin would have liked. Given the choice he would have taken a completely empty shop. Arthur was bound to do something to attract attention to himself. A larger shop was going to be better than a smaller one because Arthur wouldn’t stand out as much, but as they stood outside the gigantic supermarket, and Arthur stared, Merlin began to wonder if he might have been better going to at least a slightly smaller one.
“Is it a castle? A fortress?”
“It’s a market,” Merlin explained. “Everything is bigger now. People have more money.” He would be able to buy Arthur clothes in there as well. Arthur was currently managing with just a few t-shirts and jogging bottoms. It wouldn’t be the most stylish or expensive clothing, but Arthur wasn’t to know that. Merlin was quite sure he’d be into Armani as soon as he knew what it was. But in the meantime, plain basics would do just fine. “You can buy everything in here.”
“Nearly everything. Not horses. You won’t really need a horse, Arthur. We have a car. You can learn to drive.”
Arthur looked back at the car park. “I’ll want a faster car than yours,” he announced. “One like that,” he pointed to a large 4x4 that was parked across two spaces. “Or like that,” he added, seeing a sleek sports car zipping through the supermarket car park far too quickly and having to brake hard to avoid shoppers.
Of course, Arthur was going to be a nightmare on the road. Merlin was momentarily almost glad he might not be around to see it.
“Just concentrate on shopping for today,” Merlin advised, heading into the store.
“But when can I have a car?” Arthur asked. “Can I learn to drive now? It can’t be hard, everyone seems to do it.”
“Most of them not particularly well,” Merlin commented. “And no, you can’t. Here,” he put a pound in the lock and released a trolley. “Take this if you want something to drive.”
Arthur looked down at the contraption dubiously, but took it anyway. “What’s this for?”
“Shopping. You put things in it and then we buy them and take them home. Like a market.”
Arthur looked a little dubious, then paused, looking around. “It’s huge inside too. Why is there only one room?"
“That’s what shops are like. Come on, they have a clothes section.”
The clothes section was quite extensive, which was why Merlin had chosen that particular supermarket. Arthur watched him in obvious confusion as he pulled packs of socks and underpants from the shelves.
“Where’s the seamstress? Where is Mistress Fat Face? Is that her?” He pointed at a woman across the aisle from him who was helping her son try on a pair of trainers.
“Shh!” Merlin elbowed him quickly. The woman hadn’t heard, thankfully. “That’s a different shop. And there are no seamstresses here, it doesn’t work like that any more. You choose what you want, in your size, and take it to the till. So,” he picked up a pair of plain shoes, and a pair of trainers. “Try these on.”
He grabbed a few shirts, t-shirts, pairs of trousers and jeans while Arthur was struggling with the Velcro on the trainers. If they didn’t fit he’d have to just use magic again, but he thought he’d probably worked out the right size now.
“Comfortable?” Merlin asked. Arthur was walking around, looking at his feet in surprise. Belatedly Merlin wondered if although the shoes he’d magically stretched a few days earlier had fitted, the magic might not have taken into account retaining a comfortable sole. Arthur wouldn’t have noticed, he was used to ancient footwear that wasn’t really designed for comfort.
“Very. I want to keep these.”
“Great. Take them off and put them in the trolley.”
“No. I want to keep them on.”
“Take them off.”
The woman still had her back to them, so Merlin used his magic to swap Arthur’s new trainers for his old ones. The new ones now sat in the trolley. Arthur pouted at him angrily, but Merlin took no notice. It was like dealing with a particularly petulant child. But then Arthur had often been like that, and Merlin knew he shouldn’t really be surprised.
“Food next,” Merlin told him. “And don’t eat anything until we’ve been through the checkout. They’ll arrest you if you eat anything you haven’t paid for.”
He could remember Arthur strolling through Camelot marketplace, helping himself to any of the produce that he fancied. Merlin had trotted along behind, paying the stallholders, but he always wondered how often Arthur had done it when he wasn’t around.
Arthur shrugged, and Merlin knew he was going to have to keep a close eye on him. The last thing they needed was for the CCTV to pick up footage of Arthur helping himself to whatever he fancied from the bakery counter. They turned a corner, and there was the fruit and veg area.
Arthur had stopped dead still, staring. It was a large store, and the fruit aisle alone stretched from one end of it to the other.
“It has to feed a lot of people,” Merlin ventured.
“But there’s so much. This is more than all the stores at Camelot after a good harvest. I’ve never seen so much. And look at those apples, they’re so red, so big…”
He wandered towards them, and as apples were on Merlin’s shopping list anyway, Merlin picked up a bagful and put them in the trolley.
“I want those,” Arthur pointed at larger, redder ones. “And those,” he pointed at some mangos. “They’re strange apples.”
“That’s because they’re mangos,” Merlin told him.
“What’s a mango?”
“Fruit.”He picked one up anyway, so Arthur could try one.
“What are those?” Arthur darted over to the other side of the aisle, almost knocking into another shopper in his hurry.
“Bananas,” Merlin was having trouble keeping up. “Slow down, Arthur. And maybe try to be quieter? Most of this stuff is familiar to everyone else.” There were two kids a few feet away laughing at Arthur already. That would increase if Arthur carried on his enthusiastic dash, and could only end badly. Arthur had, after all, not lost any of his strength or muscles. Merlin knew. Arthur liked to sleep shirtless.
Perhaps Arthur had noticed the kids. He picked up a hand of bananas. “Are they good?” he whispered.
“You’ll like them,” Merlin broke off four and put them in the trolley. Perhaps they could have banana in custard later. He hadn’t had that in years.
Arthur carried on down the fruit and veg aisles, frequently asking questions, but at least he was being quiet about it. And then they reached the next aisle…
“Look!” Arthur nudged Merlin, then pointed. “I love this place, Merlin!”
It was the confectionery aisle, of course. Arthur was already heading down it, grabbing a handful of bars of Dairy Milk and dropping it in the trolley.
“The covers are all different.”
“Different flavours. Some have nuts in.”
Arthur immediately grabbed one of each. The trolley was almost full and there was still a lot of regular shopping to get.
“Maybe not so much?” Merlin suggested. “It’s not going anywhere. And it’s fattening.”
“I’m shopping, Merlin,” Arthur told him importantly, putting a Kit-Kat multipack and a bag of Mars Fun Size in the trolley. “I’m learning, don’t discourage me!”
Merlin rolled his eyes, took the trolley away from Arthur, and headed quickly for the next aisle. That didn’t stop Arthur grabbing as much chocolate as he could carry, and following Merlin.
He dumped the chocolate in the trolley, then looked around at the new aisle. “Why are there so many of those coloured boxes in that pile?”
“They’re on offer. Cheaper than usual. A bargain, the shop is trying to make people buy them.”
“Should we buy them?”
“Because we don’t need baby wipes. Come on, you’ve been using all my shower gel, that’s down here…”
It was already a long, long shopping trip.
And that was before they reached the in store bakery and Merlin didn’t manage to stop Arthur picking up and eating a fresh cinnamon swirl…
3 Days Left…
On the Saturday, after another night where Arthur slept far too soundly, and Merlin had hardly slept at all, Merlin decided it was time to start getting Arthur to mix with the world a little more. The shopping trip had been a good start, despite numerous traumatic moments. Taking Arthur out to lunch seemed like a natural second step. It didn’t go terribly well.
Arthur had been disparaging about the car again on the trip over there. Apparently he’d been watching Top Gear while Merlin was cooking dinner the previous evening and was even more convinced that Merlin’s car wasn’t the best. Arthur, unsurprisingly, wanted an Aston Martin…
“I thought you had money,” Arthur commented at one point, when Merlin had once again refused to entertain the idea of swapping his car for a more glamorous model. “You told me you’re rich now.”
“I am. I got that way by not wasting my money on stupid cars. Here,” he pulled into the car park, as close to the front door of the restaurant as possible. “You’ll like this place. They give you huge portions. King-size, they call them. That’s modern speak for greedily large portions, by the way.”
“I’m not greedy.”
“My kitchen cupboards and yesterday’s shopping trip say otherwise.”
“Well then you shouldn’t have used magic to make them talk, should you Merlin?” Arthur told him smugly, obviously thinking he was very clever. Merlin rolled his eyes. Arthur had probably heard that on one of the moronic TV shows he kept watching.
Inside the restaurant they were shown to their table, which was towards the back and gave them a good view of the rest of the room. Merlin liked that particular establishment, it had a large main room where most of the families went, and a small mezzanine area which only contained a few small tables that generally tended to seat two. The last thing he wanted was to have Arthur shouting at someone’s kids for misbehaving. Because Merlin could guarantee that Arthur wouldn’t approve of them being allowed to run around disturbing other people the way many now did.
They were early, and the place was fairly quiet anyway. There were two men sitting in the corner, one of whom looked vaguely familiar to Merlin. The trouble was, with living so long, other people grew older, changed, while Merlin stayed the same. If he didn’t have Leon down the centuries, he thought he might have gone insane. The only other customers in their area were an elderly couple in for the pensioners special, and a young man and woman who appeared to be more interested in their phones than either the menu or each other.
Arthur had no trouble paying attention to the menu. He went through it all, questioning almost every item on it.
“What’s a lassag-en-ee?”
“Lasagne. Pasta and meat, layered with tomato sauce and cheese. Go for the steak and chips, Arthur, you like that.”
Chips were another thing, like chocolate, that Arthur had latched onto straight away.
“Triple cooked… what’s that?”
“Just a fancy name.” It suddenly occurred to Merlin that the waitress was going to ask a long list of questions about what type of chips, steak sauce and accompaniments Arthur would like. “I’ll order for both of us,” he added quickly. And just in time because the girl was on her way over. “Listen to the choices she gives, so you’ll know for next time.”
There were a lot of choices. Arthur looked quite confused at the mention of spiral fries, sweet potato fries, skin-on fries…
“Why so many choices?” he asked after the girl had gone. “Surely so much food must be wasted, if it’s all been prepared, and the serving girl has to go and pick just a few items?”
“Waitress, not serving girl. And it’s all frozen,” Merlin explained. “Remember the winter cupboard in my kitchen?”
But he’d lost Arthur’s attention. Arthur was looking across at one of the other tables, his mouth hanging open slightly, surprised.
“Those two men,” Arthur said slowly, not even attempting to hide the fact that he was staring, “are kissing.”
“Yes,” Merlin agreed. “Stop staring, Arthur, it’s rude, and people will think you’re being homophobic.”
“Home a what?”
“Homophobic. It’s like a modern-day clotpole, only worse. People might think that you objected,” Merlin leaned closer, across the table, and Arthur finally managed to stop staring, briefly. “That you thought it was wrong for two men to kiss. And then they would think you were old-fashioned and narrow-minded.”
“I am none of those things,” Arthur said primly. “I was surprised, that’s all.”
And he went back to staring.
Vaguely, Merlin thought that he did recall the other man now. He’d met him years ago in a club when the man would have been a teenager. Fortunately he didn’t seem to have recognised Merlin, most likely because Merlin looked too young now to possibly be the same person, so there was no chance of him coming over.
“Arthur!” Merlin hissed. “Stop it.”
That time Arthur finally, with obvious reluctance, turned away. But he kept sneaking looks when he thought Merlin was distracted.
Merlin gave a heavy sigh, and tried to concentrate on the menu.
Somehow, miraculously, they hadn’t got thrown out of the restaurant, or caught up in a fight, or anything.
Merlin left Arthur on the sofa watching the TV, which Arthur always seemed quite happy to do, while Merlin himself sat in at the kitchen table with his laptop, searching through every record he could find on genies. He’d used a spell some years ago to upload all his old spell books into electronic format, for ease of searching, but they weren’t helping him much now. The trouble was, there wasn’t a great deal of information on genies. They’d never been a problem before, and he hadn’t ever bothered to collect specific information about them.
Eventually Arthur wandered out in search of a drink. For a brief moment Merlin thought he might make it himself but that hope was quickly dashed.
“Make me a coffee.”
Merlin just looked at him, eyebrow raised in a poor impression of Gaius.
“Please,” Arthur added. He was learning. Slowly.
“I’ll teach you to make one, again,” Merlin told him. “You can make me one as well.”
He knew Arthur was bursting to protest that he was the king and shouldn’t have to do such things. But to Arthur’s credit, he didn’t, which was a shame because Merlin knew the current queen could make coffee as easily as the next person, and had been hoping to throw that information at Arthur.
He showed Arthur how to use the coffee machine again, and then stood back, watching. Arthur wasn’t doing too badly, but then it was only a matter of making sure enough water was in the tank and using the right coffee pod, then pressing a button. Even a king could do it.
Actually, Arthur looked quite pleased with himself when he presented Merlin with his coffee, and Merlin belatedly wondered if perhaps Arthur had simply been worried about doing it wrongly and looking stupid.
“Thank you.” Merlin made a big show of sipping it, swirling it around in his mouth and savouring it before swallowing it. “Not bad.”
Arthur was staring at his mouth, almost entranced. Then he suddenly seemed to realise what he was doing and hurriedly turned away to pick up his own cup.
“Those men earlier,” he said, his back still to Merlin. “That wasn’t allowed in Camelot.”
“No,” Merlin took another sip of coffee. “Your laws forbade it.”
“My father’s laws,” Arthur corrected, turning back to face Merlin. His expression was very serious. “They weren’t mine.”
“You didn’t change them. That made them yours too.”
Arthur looked down at his coffee. “I couldn’t. People would have wondered why I did it. People thought it was wrong.”
“Did you? Back then?”
In honesty, Merlin couldn’t have said either way. “All I cared about was keeping you on the throne, protecting you, and one day seeing you allow magic into the kingdom again. I’d never thought about anything else.” And that was true, back then. “I know it was wrong now.”
“I wish I’d been braver,” Arthur said, still looking at his coffee. He was swirling it round in the cup. Any moment and he’d probably spill it. “There were other laws that I didn’t like as well. So many that I should have changed. The magic…” he looked up then, meeting Merlin’s eyes. “I would have changed the law, if I’d known about you. You could have persuaded me. I always listened to you, Merlin.”
“I know that now.” He’d always regretted it, because in the end Arthur had accepted it, accepted him. Things could have been so different. “I still think you’d have thrown me in the dungeons.”
Arthur shrugged. “It’s not like you couldn’t have got out if I did. Besides, I’d want you out by morning. I’d need you to bring my breakfast.”
They laughed at that, and Merlin started to feel that old warmth coming back, the ease of being around Arthur. It had been missing over the past few days, with Arthur trying to adjust, and everything so new. But it was there, it would always be there.
“My father put men to death, you know,” Arthur said, suddenly serious again.
“No, men. Men who loved other men. He executed them. There was a knight… he…” Arthur paused, then shook his head. “Never mind. My father was wrong about many things.”
There he was, the king that Merlin had wanted, and the man that he had always loved and believed in.
“Arthur…” Merlin edged closer. “You were never your father. You were always so much more, so much better.”
Arthur took a step forward. They were so close, their faces barely inches apart.
“You made me better,” Arthur told him earnestly, leaning in, his gaze flickering down to Merlin’s lips. Merlin could feel the warmth of Arthur’s breath on his face.
And then Merlin’s mobile went off, loudly, completely ruining the mood. Arthur leapt back as if he’d been burned and immediately turned away, heading over towards the sink. Merlin snatched up the offending phone, glaring at it. Leon. Talk about bad timing.
“Charming,” Leon’s slightly distorted voice commented from the speaker. “You need to work on your telephone manner, Merlin. Just calling to say I’ll be flying into Heathrow at about 2.30 tomorrow afternoon. Can you pick me up?”
Merlin knew it wasn’t actually a question, and that he’d end up doing it anyway. “Okay.”
“Great! Terminal 2, 14:37. I’ll text you the flight number. Got to go, my connecting flight is boarding. See you tomorrow. Hi to Arthur.”
The phone went dead before Merlin could ask anything else. He looked up, but Arthur had gone. In the living room he could hear the TV. It seemed to be louder than before.
He wandered out after Arthur, but the moment was gone and Arthur was intent on the movie he was watching. He nodded to Merlin when Merlin sat down, but then just went back to watching the film. It was a quiet evening for them both.
Arthur didn’t cuddle up to him that night, but chose to sleep with his back to Merlin, curled in on himself. He lay still, but Merlin couldn’t hear his light snores, and wondered if he was actually asleep. He suspected that they were both lying awake.
Merlin lay awake, as usual. He wondered if they were both awake, and both wondering just what had nearly happened in the kitchen earlier.
He knew he didn’t have much time left in which to find out.
2 Days Left…
On the Sunday, finally, Leon returned home.
The last leg of his flight was delayed, and after the long drive to Heathrow Merlin and Arthur spent most of the afternoon and early evening at the airport, listening to announcements. The planes, the announcements, the arrival and departure boards… everything fascinated Arthur. He’d rapidly moved from shocked to curious, and was asking questions about everything.
It was a good thing, Merlin knew. It meant Arthur was going to be okay in the world. He’d find his way, he’d learn… he’d probably get a lot of speeding tickets. But he’d be okay. He had made no attempt to change their sleeping arrangements though. Merlin had half-expected it after Arthur’s behaviour in the restaurant and then keeping his distance in bed the night before. But no, Merlin had woken up to find that Arthur had rolled over and cuddled up to him during the night. If only they had more time.
It was seven o’clock when Leon’s plane landed, and later still when he finally came through the arrivals gate. He looked exhausted, which was hardly surprising given that he’d been on an extended flight from the other side of the world, but still managed to raise a huge smile for his friends when he saw them.
“Arthur!” He swept the other man up in a bear hug, and Merlin tried not to feel a tiny twinge of jealousy. It was Leon, for goodness sake, and apart from anything else he was straight! But then, Merlin reminded himself miserably, so was Arthur. “Welcome back!”
The car ride home was an endless stream of conversation back and forth between Leon and Arthur, Arthur keen to know about Leon’s life, and Leon wanting to know about Arthur’s experience.
“So you don’t remember anything after you… uh…”
“Fell asleep,” Merlin supplied helpfully.
“Right. Yes, fell asleep. And then nothing until you woke up?” Leon barely managed to supress a yawn.
“Nothing,” Arthur confirmed. “Not even you marrying my wife!”
Merlin froze, but the expected argument never happened. Leon actually laughed, and to Merlin’s surprise so did Arthur. Arthur was usually so possessive and obstinate. He’d expected a fight.
“You’re not going to challenge me to a duel?” Leon checked.
“Merlin says you were a good husband to her, made her happy.”
“I loved her.”
“Me too. She was a good woman. Kind. She deserved to be happy.”
Merlin was driving, so he couldn’t really look round properly. But there was something strange about the way Arthur had said that. And he thought Arthur really did mean it. That wasn’t like his somewhat self-centred king. Leon and Arthur were sitting in the back seat, talking in lowered voices together so that it was difficult to hear. Merlin could have amplified whatever they were saying with his magic, but he let them be. He didn’t want to hear about their shared love for Gwen. Merlin gripped the steering wheel tighter, and kept his eyes on the road.
He had just one full day left. It wasn’t going to be enough.
It didn’t take long for Merlin to get Leon alone. Arthur went for yet another hot shower as soon as they got home, claiming the air was so strange that it was making his skin dirty. Merlin suspected it was just an excuse because Arthur really loved that shower.
Merlin followed Leon upstairs, on the pretext of helping with his bags. As soon as they were in Leon’s room, Merlin shut the door, put the bag down, and faced his friend.
“I’m going to die.”
“What?” Leon frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I can’t tell you why, but I’m going to die and you need to look after Arthur for me once I’m gone. You’ll do that, right? You won’t abandon him? He’s pretty helpless.”
Arthur’s voice, singing a popular ballad from when he was king, floated back faintly through the walls to them.
“He’s not going to have a musical career, obviously,” Leon ventured, wincing slightly. “But why? Did you swap your life for his? Why would you do that? No, I know why, but tell me you didn’t do that, Merlin.”
“It wasn’t me, but I can’t tell you anything else.”
“Another magic user? Morgana’s not back too?”
Merlin shook his head. “No. I accidently broke something and released a spell. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is Arthur.”
Leon narrowed his eyes, then looked around the room suspiciously. “Where’s that blue vase?”
Merlin didn’t say anything, because he couldn’t risk it, but apparently Leon understood anyway.
“What?” Merlin gasped. “Shhh! You can’t know! Nobody can know!”
“Of course I know about the genie. It’s why I gave you the vase. I had three wishes, and the third one was for it to give you your heart’s desire. Which is Arthur, of course. How have you screwed that up?”
“Leon!” Merlin wailed. “Why would you do that? You know faeries and genies and things are tricksters! There was bound to be an impossible condition if it wasn’t actually my wish! Now I’m going to die! So I can’t have Arthur! What were you thinking of?”
“I thought it would help! You’ve been moping around for centuries, I wanted to make you happy. I thought because you’re so clumsy, you were bound to break it eventually and get your wish and think it was just yours and you wouldn’t realise I’d interfered. It’s taken you ages to find it. Actually, I’d forgotten about it.”
“Well now I’m going to die tomorrow! Thanks!”
“Yeah… um… sorry about that,” Leon yawned, lying down on the bed and closing his eyes. “But you won’t, we’ll find a way out, we always do. Can we sort it… maybe in the morning? I’m so tired…”
And a moment later he was snoring.
Merlin thought about trying to wake him, but knew he’d probably fall asleep again right away. Instead, he headed back along the corridor and into Arthur’s room, for one last night with his love.
Arthur, of course, was still in the shower but at least he’d stopped singing. He always took ages in the shower. Merlin stretched out on the bed, really tired after so many sleepless nights. It wouldn’t hurt to close his eyes, just for a few minutes…
When he opened them again, it was morning.
The Final Day…
“So,” Arthur said as he tucked into the full English breakfast that Merlin had lovingly prepared for him. “What are we going to do today?”
We’re going to say goodbye, Merlin thought. He had until midnight, he supposed, and then he would never see Arthur, or anyone else, ever again. He wondered if it would hurt, or whether it would all just stop, and he wouldn’t even know it had happened.
“We’re going to the registrars,” he said instead. “I made an appointment for you. I need to be sure you’ve been set up as a citizen. We’ll be collecting a copy of your birth certificate.”
“It’s a record, false in this case, of when and where you were born, who your parents were, all that sort of thing. I’ve had to create a lot of fake records to make this work. You need an identity so that you can have a bank account… buy a car,” he added. Actually it was so that the changes Merlin had made to his will would show up as legal, and Arthur could simply inherit everything Merlin had. “So you’re self-sufficient and won’t need me if I’m not always around.”
“Why do you keep saying that, Merlin?”
“That you might not always be around. Why? I know you, I know what you’re like. What have you done?”
“It’s a spell, isn’t it?” Arthur continued, ignoring his protest. “One that brought me back. You’ve done something self-sacrificial and stupid, swapped your life for mine or something, and you’re going to leave me here alone. Is that what you were arguing with Leon about last night?”
Merlin couldn’t say anything. He held his breath, terrified that he had in some way failed and Arthur was about to die because he’d guessed the truth.
“Your silence is answer enough,” Arthur said. He sounded desolate.
“No! I didn’t answer. No!”
Arthur regarded him sadly. “If you have, and there’s some way you can reverse it so that it’s me sleeping or dying or whatever it was that I was doing for all those centuries, then you should do that. I don’t belong here, Merlin. Not without you.”
“Even if that was true,” Merlin said carefully. “You’d be okay, I’ve shown you the basics, and Leon’s going to be there to help you.”
“I don’t want Leon,” Arthur said petulantly. “You’re my manservant, I need you.”
“No servants any more, Arthur,” Merlin reminded him, yet again.
“There must be some way to stop this. You’ve got magic, can’t you do something?”
“Not this time.” Merlin got to his feet and picked up his jacket. “Come on, we’ll be late.”
Arthur, who looked thoroughly miserable, got up as well and followed him.
The Registrar’s office was in the town hall. It was a busy place but Merlin managed to get a parking space just across the road. Their appointment didn’t take long, all Arthur’s certificates were in place just as Merlin expected, and he came away with paper copies. There was even time to go into a café for lunch and then pop into a small supermarket and pick up a few things. Arthur wasn’t quite as curious the second time around, although he did pick up a couple of items that Merlin had to put back on the shelves.
They got back to the car, and just as Merlin was opening up the boot to store their purchases Arthur grabbed his arm.
“What’s happening there?” Arthur asked loudly, pointing towards the town hall steps. Merlin had never noticed in the olden days just how loud Arthur’s voice was sometimes. It carried, and people tended to look around at them. He had probably been brought up to talk that way, in preparation for becoming king. His word was law, and everyone should hear it. Now, however, Merlin kept having to tell him to speak more quietly. And that pointing was rude.
“Shhh, and don’t point.” He could see the little lines of annoyance on Arthur’s face at being told what to do. “It’s a wedding.”
“It’s two women!”
Oh, that was far too loud.
“Keep your voice down,” Merlin hissed. “Yes, they’re getting married. They love each other. And,” he put a hand up to stop whatever offensive thing Arthur was going to come out with next. “We’ll discuss it at home, in private.”
“But how can two women…”
“At home. In private,” Merlin said again. He had a horrible feeling Arthur was going to ask for the details of lesbian sex when they got home. “Two women can marry. So can two men. Things have changed.”
Arthur gazed at the two women standing on the steps of the registry office, gazing lovingly at one another and surrounded by friends and family.
“Yes,” he said. “They really have.”
Merlin felt his heart break just a little bit more. He wondered if Arthur would ever truly fit in. There was so much for him to learn, so many changes to accept. He dumped their shopping in the boot of the car, and slammed the boot down harder than perhaps was necessary.
“Come on,” he said a little sadly because it might be the last time ever. “Let’s go home.”
Leon was up and about, sitting in the kitchen eating a sandwich and reading the paper when they got back. He looked far more alert than he had the night before. Arthur hurried over to him.
“Leon! We saw two women getting married! To each other!”
Leon barely raised an eyebrow and carried on eating his sandwich. “That’s nothing new, Arthur.”
“It is to me. Merlin wouldn’t let me talk about it until we got home. So. We’re home. We’re talking about it.” He turned to Merlin accusingly. “That was two women.”
“I know. You announced it to the entire street at the time and you’ve said so twice in the past minute.”
“So you said it’s the same for men? Those two men in the restaurant who were kissing, they could get married to each other?”
Merlin had thought he’d caught the glint of gold on their hands, but he couldn’t be sure. “If they wanted to.”
“You two could get married,” Leon pointed out cheerfully, taking a sip of his tea. “You know, if you wanted to.”
“Leon!” Merlin glared at him, but Leon just shrugged and looked to Arthur expectantly.
Arthur, strangely, was blushing. Merlin wasn’t sure he’d ever seen that before. He thought back to their chat in that same kitchen just a day or so before. He’d thought, just for a few moments, that Arthur was going to kiss him. But he’d been wrong.
“I’ve been waiting for Merlin to get married,” Leon continued happily, pretending to be completely oblivious to Merlin’s glares and protests. “Ever since the law changed and men could marry each other. I was expecting to be best man, obviously. The tales I could have told at the reception…”
Arthur narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Why would Merlin get married to a man?”
Leon looked at Merlin with what Merlin knew was a completely put on expression of exasperation. He knew Leon far too well, and the man wasn’t a great actor. “Well because Merlin likes men, of course. Hasn’t he shown you all the pictures of his exes? I really thought the last one was going to catch you, Merls. I’d even started on my speech!”
“You like men?” Arthur breathed.
Merlin couldn’t even look at him. He could hardly believe Leon would do this to him. It was so unlike Leon, who had always been so kind and supportive. He knew what Merlin had gone through with his sexuality better than anyone. All those times all down the centuries when Leon had helped him, hidden him and his partner from the law, covered for him… And now…
“Why would you tell him that?” Merlin breathed. Leon was supposed to be helping. This wasn’t helping, this was just cruel. He could feel tears pricking at the back of his eyes. Any moment now, Arthur would say something thoughtless. Merlin’s life would end, knowing that the man he loved above all others didn’t feel the same. He thought he could bear it without the confirmation, but knowing it for certain would be too much.
But no, Leon was getting his phone out, switching it on.
“Look, this is Merlin a few years back with Josh… Good looking lad. Great cook, I miss his roast dinners.”
Arthur leaned over and looked at the screen. Josh had been tall and blonde and athletic, and had a pout not at all unlike Arthur’s. Merlin had liked him a lot.
“And this was Liam, a few years before that,” he pointed at another tall, blonde, blue-eyed man.
Merlin frowned. “Why have you got pictures of my exes on your phone?”
Leon ignored him and carried on swiping. “This was Merlin with David in the late 80s. And that’s Sean. And this was Peter.”
Those wouldn’t have been electronic photos. Even if Leon had scanned them in at some point and was accessing Dropbox or something he was unlikely to have them so easily to hand. They’d be hidden away in some hard to find file. Leon had to have got them all ready for Arthur to view. But why?
“That was Trevor in 1960.”
“Leon, please,” Merlin begged. He knew what Arthur would be seeing. Every single one of Merlin’s boyfriends, right down his long life, had always without fail been an Arthur clone. Always.
“I’m not apologising,” Leon told him, getting up. He took his phone back from Arthur, who was looking very confused. “I summoned a visitor this morning, Merlin, to see how my last wish was panning out. Blue skin, not many clothes, big ears? Yeah? Sound familiar?”
Arthur looked from one to the other. “Is it another boyfriend?” he asked. He didn’t sound very happy about it. “Is it your current boyfriend?”
“Merlin’s single,” Leon told him shortly, then turned his attention back to Merlin. “Our friend filled me in on the details of your deal. Sort it out. You haven’t got months to pussyfoot around. I love you, man. I don’t want to lose you. And you,” he turned to Arthur. “I was married to Gwen. Properly married. I know, Arthur. Well nowadays, if you want something or someone, there’s nothing stopping you going for it. Nothing at all. But I think you’ve caught onto that now. Oh,” he tucked his newspaper under his arm and drained his mug of tea. “And blue skin and big ears wouldn’t be Merlin’s type. Just in case you didn’t notice from the pictures, because nothing would surprise me with you two, he likes blonde hair, blue eyes, fairly muscular.”
“Leon!” Merlin cried, although it came out more as a strangled squeak.
“You’re welcome,” Leon grinned. “I’m going out. Have fun!” And with that he picked up his jacket, headed off out into the hallway, and a moment later Merlin heard the front door shut with a bang.
He couldn’t look at Arthur. Instead, he picked up Leon’s discarded mug and plate, slipped past Arthur head down, and went over to the sink. He turned on the tap and let the hot water pour into the bowl, watching it fill with soapy bubbles. Behind him, he knew Arthur had followed and was standing there, regarding him. Merlin turned off the tap, but stayed looking down at the water. He didn’t have the energy to even start to wash it up. And what was the point? In less than 10 hours it wouldn’t matter anyway. Nothing would matter to Merlin after that.
“What Leon said…” Arthur began hesitantly, but Merlin threw his hands up to stop him, turning to face his king for what he knew might be the last time.
“Yes, that’s true, it’s what I am. I prefer men, I always have. And yes, all those men looked like you because I prefer you above all others. And I know you’ll think I’m wrong and disgusting, and all of the things you’re about to say, but you know what, Arthur? I don’t want to hear them. I’ve heard it all before down the centuries, everything you could think of and more, so please don’t let me hear them from you as well. I have served you, I have loved you all my life, and I’ll go on serving and loving you until the moment my life ends. You are all I’ve ever wanted, you’re everything to me. Everything. So please, just don’t say those words!”
Arthur didn’t say anything at first. He leaned forward and gently, hesitantly pressed his lips against Merlin’s, just for a moment. Then he quickly stepped back, his eyes never leaving Merlin’s face, his own expression almost fearful, waiting for Merlin’s reaction.
“I’ve wanted you,” was all he said.
Merlin gaped at him. He’d wanted Arthur, so much for so long. He’d never hoped in his wildest dreams that Arthur would genuinely want him too. As if sensing he needed confirmation, Arthur leaned in again and kissed him properly this time, one arm snaking around Merlin’s waist, the other hand on the back of his neck, pulling him in close. Arthur’s kiss was possessive and hungry, his tongue invading Merlin’s mouth as he claimed it.
Somewhere, in the distance, Merlin could hear the village church bell ringing. Or perhaps it was just in his head, a magical celebration of finally getting exactly what he’d wanted. He pulled back, just momentarily, to look at Arthur’s flushed, breathless face.
“Upstairs,” Arthur breathed.
Merlin had so many questions, but they fled as fast as they had arrived, overwhelmed by the need to touch Arthur, get closer to Arthur. He let Arthur pull him towards the doorway, still kissing him. They staggered awkwardly up the stairs, Arthur not relinquishing his hold on Merlin. But then that was Arthur all over once he felt that something was his. He’d never let it go.
And Merlin was his, more than anything or anyone, and finally they both knew it.
Arthur kicked the bedroom door open. He’d already got Merlin’s shirt bunched up in one hand, and pulled it over his head.
“These clothes are so much easier to get off,” Arthur muttered. “That’ll be useful.”
“There are easier ways,” Merlin promised, feeling Arthur’s hands fumbling with his fly. He helped Arthur, then pulled his own jeans down, kicking them off along with his shoes then sitting on down on the bed. Arthur went to pull off his own shirt but Merlin stopped him.
“Wait. Let me.”
He let his magic loose, feeling it rush to Arthur joyfully because it had always loved him just as much as Merlin had.
“What…” Arthur looked slightly alarmed as his clothes unbuttoned and moved seemingly of their own accord, slipping off and flying away from him. His cock sprang free, already hard. Merlin laughed at the look on his face, and for the sheer happiness of being able to use his magic on Arthur so freely. He reached out again with it, letting Arthur feel the magic touching him, nudging him forward.
Arthur must have realised that he was about to be brought to the bed like some blushing bride, and decided he wasn’t going to have that because he suddenly strode over, climbed up onto the bed, and took hold of Merlin.
“Oh no, you’re forgetting who’s king,” he warned, leaning in to kiss Merlin and gently lower him back onto the bed.
“My king,” Merlin sighed, because Arthur always would be, no matter what their status was now.
“Just remember it,” Arthur breathed, climbing on top of him and nudging him to spread his legs so that Arthur could lie between them. “I’m going to have you, Merlin, make you cry out, and then when you think you’re done I’m going to have you again.”
Merlin shivered as Arthur lowered his head and took one of his nipples in his mouth, his tongue swirling around the little nub. “Please…” he begged, and Arthur moved his attention to the other one, pausing for a moment to grin up at his lover. “Arthur…”
Arthur was moving, trailing kisses down Merlin’s chest and lower, reaching his straining cock and taking just the tip into his mouth. That tormenting tongue swirled around the head and Merlin groaned and bucked his hips, unable to stop the moan of frustration as Arthur released him and crawled back up the bed to claim Merlin’s mouth.
Merlin could faintly taste himself on Arthur, and it was more of a turn on than he expected. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had that experience before, many times, but it was all so much better when it was Arthur. Arthur pulled away then, and Merlin breathed against his throat, pressing kisses along the line of it. He wanted to kiss him harder, mark him as his own, but Arthur was already pushing himself off Merlin, kneeling between his legs and reaching down to finger Merlin’s puckered hole. Just his touch felt wonderful.
“Good?” Arthur checked, looking up at him uncertainly.
“Mmm…” Merlin sighed. “Press harder.” He reached behind him and grabbed one of the pillows. “Here, use this.”
Arthur took the pillow and looked at it curiously. “Why?”
Oh, he had so much to learn, and Merlin was almost bursting with happiness at the thought that he would be the one to teach him, to show him.
“Makes it more comfortable for me and easier for you. Here,” he brought his knees up towards his body, lifting his hips and offering himself to Arthur. “I want to watch you when we do this.”
Arthur hesitated for a moment, obviously still considering what he was supposed to do, then slid the pillow under Merlin’s hips. “Better?”
“It will be,” Merlin promised, and was rewarded with the loving smile that spread across Arthur’s face.
“So perfect,” he heard Arthur say. “You’re so perfect, my Merlin.”
Merlin gazed back at him, not expecting to see this caring side to Arthur. He hadn’t expected intentional pain, because Arthur wasn’t like that, but he’d half-expected to be flipped over and pounded into the mattress, and many of his Arthur fantasies had involved that over the years. Instead, it looked as if Arthur was going to grant his wish to be taken face to face, so Merlin could see Arthur as he made love to him. So much better, although Merlin wanted to try that other scenario as well, sooner rather than later. But the first time… yeah, that was going to be sweet.
“Now you need to prepare me,” Merlin whispered.
Arthur looked at him a little haughtily. “I know that, Mer-lin. Your small television is very informative.”
“Last night, when you were arguing with Leon in his room, I used your small television to find information. I used the goggle,” he added proudly.
“Google. Oh my god!” Arthur had been back one week, just one week and he’d already learned to search for porn on the internet. “You said you were showering!”
“I took it with me.”
Arthur was due a long lecture about water and electricity and how badly they mixed. But later. Much later.
“Never mind that now,” Merlin told him, “where were we?”
Arthur smiled far too smugly and leaned down to capture Merlin’s mouth again in a deep, tongue-duelling kiss that went on and on. Merlin could feel Arthur’s erection hard and eager against his own. When Arthur started to rut against him, Merlin broke the kiss.
“No, I want you to fuck me. I need you to.” And he did, not just because of how much he wanted it. There was curse to be broken. Merlin had never, ever wanted to live more than he did right then.
Arthur pushed himself back up onto his knees again, still gazing down at Merlin. “I want that so much,” he breathed. He glanced at the empty bedside table. “I need…”
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold, and a bottle of lube appeared in Arthur’s hand.
“Yeah, that,” Arthur smiled. “I’m never going to get used to you doing that!” he added, uncapping the bottle and squirting a little lube onto his hand. He peered at the bottle. “Wait, you can buy things now? Specifically for sex?”
“It’s a different world,” Merlin told him. “Never mind that, just hurry up!”
Arthur reached down a little hesitantly to carefully push one finger inside him, gently stretching him. It was going to be slow, and Merlin was eager for more of Arthur. He could learn the art of careful and loving preparation another day. Merlin’s eyes flashed gold again and Arthur pulled his finger back, looking at Merlin in shock.
“Wait, did you just prepare yourself?”
“Just fuck me already,” Merlin wailed impatiently.
Arthur reached down again, probing with two fingers, then on finding the way eased, inserted a third. He crooked one of his fingers, finding the little bundle of nerves, and Merlin jerked, giving a little sob of pleasure.
“Was that it?”
Merlin silently thanked whoever had written whatever web page it was that Arthur had looked at. Arthur’s finger twitched again, and Merlin gave a little sob of pleasure.
“Arthur, please,” he begged, pushing himself down on Arthur’s clever fingers. “Please…”
Arthur just smiled down at him as if he were some precious, special thing. He lifted Merlin’s hips, lining up his cock against Merlin’s entrance.
“Do it!” Merlin snarled. “God, Arthur…”
Arthur pushed in agonisingly slowly, his eyes never leaving Merlin’s face. Merlin tried to push down, wanting to get him fully seated, but Arthur was in control now and wouldn’t be rushed. Finally, balls-deep, he stopped and gazed down at Merlin.
“Okay?” he checked.
“Please…” Merlin whimpered, needing him to move.
Slowly Arthur pulled back and then thrust back in, gently at first and then harder, building up a rhythm. Merlin gave sighs of pleasure as Arthur kept hitting his sweet spot.
“Arthur…” he whispered. “Arthur…”
“You feel amazing,” Arthur panted at him, and Merlin could see the love in his eyes as he said it. He reached down with one hand and started fisting Merlin’s cock in time with his thrusts, long, hard strokes.
It only took a few, and Merlin was coming, Arthur’s name on his lips, and a moment later he felt Arthur tense inside him, his face contorted with pleasure above Merlin.
Arthur pulled out carefully, and then collapsed onto the bed beside him with a sigh.
“Gods, that was good,” Merlin heard him say. “So good…”
Merlin slumped bonelessly in the bed, eyes closed, totally sated. Arthur was everything he’d always dreamed he’d be and more. He must have given a contented sigh, because he heard a little chuckle beside him. Typical Arthur, to be smug about satisfying his partner. Still, as far as Merlin was concerned he could carry on being smug for that reason as long as he liked. Merlin opened his eyes and turned his head, meaning to speak to Arthur. But what he saw made him freeze.
There, at the end of the bed, grinning broadly at him all over its little blue face was that genie. Merlin really, really didn’t want to know how long it had been standing there watching them.
Seeing he had noticed, the creature bowed deeply to Merlin.
“Mmm, he’s quite pretty, I can see why you like him. And you’re welcome, by the way!” the genie told him, then with a cheeky little wave,promptly vanished.
“What was that?” Arthur murmured, rousing himself to look around.
“Never mind,” Merlin advised. He rolled onto his side so that he was facing Arthur. “Doesn’t matter now.”
Arthur looked a little suspicious, just for a moment, then reached for him, pulling Merlin back into his arms. “So are you going to tell me now?” Arthur asked, holding Merlin close against him, one hand gently stroking his back. “About whatever Leon was talking about? Am I going to lose you? Because if this is all we’re going to have, I’d like to know.”
Merlin smiled, reaching up to kiss him but the angle was all wrong and he caught the edge of Arthur’s jaw instead.
“It’s not. The spell’s broken. You’re here to stay.”
Freed from the need for silence, Merlin told Arthur about the genie, and about what Leon had done with his final wish.
“But you have magic,” Arthur protested. “Powerful magic.”
“It doesn’t work against genie magic. Genie magic is based on wishes, it’s a totally separate strand.” Merlin knew, he’d spent every spare moment of the past week reading up everything he could on the subject, just in case.
“You wished this to happen? To die?”
“I wished to have you back,” Merlin corrected. He looked at Arthur steadily, seeing the sorrow in his friend’s face. “I didn’t even know I was doing it because it just looked at me and saw my greatest wish was to have you back. And I wouldn’t wish it undone, even if I’d died in your place. I’ve had centuries of life, Arthur. Yours had barely begun when Mordred cut you down. I want you to live again.”
Arthur stared at him, disbelieving. “But I would have had to live without you. I couldn’t bear that. I wouldn’t want to live on in this world without you, especially now. I’ve always loved you, Merlin, almost since the first day I met you, I think.”
“But you married Gwen.”
Arthur shook his head. “You keep telling me how long ago that was. And didn’t you hear what Leon said? He was the one who properly married her. I’m glad if they were happy, she deserved to be. Gwen was a wonderful, kind, loving woman and the best choice of queen I could ever have made. She did her duty for her king but she knew, she knew. There was only one person I ever truly loved. And it was forbidden, I couldn’t have married you. My father’s laws… you didn’t see what he did to a knight I was caught with before you arrived. Perhaps you heard about that?”
Merlin shook his head. “Not that it was you he was caught with.”
“Father hid it well then,” Arthur looked disappointed, but continued. “If it had just been me taking the risk… but it wasn’t. It would have been you as well, and the punishment would have been worse for you because you were a servant and he would have blamed you just like he blamed Sir Pelinore. I couldn’t stand the thought of you suffering like that. And I didn’t know if you felt the same anyway. I could hardly ask.”
“Leon always said it was obvious how I felt. He used to roll his eyes every time I brought home a new boyfriend because they always all looked a bit like you.”
He felt Arthur tense just a little. “These other men…”
“It was a thousand years, Arthur! I’m not a monk.”
Arthur made a grumpy huffing noise and Merlin couldn’t help smiling to himself at Arthur’s possessive streak. It hadn’t gone away, and it felt good, having it directed at himself. He snuggled closer in their bed, so like Arthur’s one from years ago, and yet so much better because it would be Merlin’s too.
“It was only because I was missing you,” Merlin assured him. “All of them, they were just a substitute for you. You’re my only love, always have been.”
He shifted so that he was lying on Arthur’s chest, and started to pepper it with tiny butterfly kisses, pausing every few kisses to grin up at Arthur until the sulky look vanished. Arthur gave a little mock growl and rolled him onto his back, straddling him.
“I’ll show you who’s king, Mer-lin!” Arthur promised, his erect cock rubbing against Merlin’s. It was a good, good feeling.
Merlin wasn’t going to die. He knew he was going to live forever and have sex with Arthur and no, that was going to kill him. He was going to die after all in a haze of pleasure.
It wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
The First Day…
Merlin was woken by the morning light streaming through the window. He turned away, burying his face in the pillow, trying to escape the brightness.
A soft chuckle alerted him to the fact that Arthur was also awake. Merlin shielded his eyes before attempting to open them again, squinting at his lover who was silhouetted against the window.
“You never liked mornings,” Arthur commented, leaning in to kiss him.
For a few minutes Merlin just enjoyed the kiss, savouring the reality of having Arthur there, of having escaped the genie’s spell. Then he opened his eyes at the wrong moment and was dazzled by the sunlight again.
“Why am I on the side that gets blinded in the morning?” Merlin grumbled, stumbling out of bed to pull the curtain across. They certainly hadn’t bothered wasting time on that the previous night.
“I’m the king,” Arthur reminded him.
“You are not.”
“Get back in here,” Arthur demanded, patting the empty space where Merlin had been lying a moment before. "Royal command.”
Arthur was definitely going to start getting bossy in bed, Merlin knew. He couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement at it, and just as soon as Arthur realised that it turned Merlin on he was going to be a hundred times worse. Merlin scrambled back into the bed, and cuddled up to Arthur.
Arthur made a pleased sort of sound, and pulled Merlin close. “Just you remember it,” he advised. “You’re mine now. I want to know all about how things have changed so that it’s acceptable for two men or two women to be together. And these weddings, I want to know about those as well.”
Merlin couldn’t help the huge, happy smile that he knew was on his face when he heard those words. “It’ll take time to explain. But then, we’ve got plenty of that.”
“So much to learn,” Arthur murmured, pressing his face into Merlin’s neck and kissing him there. It would probably mark, but Merlin didn’t care. He wanted Arthur to mark him, to own him.
“You’ll get used to it, eventually,” he breathed. “And we’ll see all the changes together now. Everything that’s still to come.”
“Mmm,” mumbled Arthur, distracted and obviously not really listening. “Sounds good.”
It did, even though it had come round to Tuesday morning again. Perhaps they weren’t so bad after all, Merlin thought, as Arthur shifted in the bed, moving up to kiss Merlin on the mouth, his hands reaching down to caress him.
No, definitely not bad. Not bad at all.