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It's not going to make sense.

The point is that it doesn't.

"No one really knew who Uther Pendragon had been originally, what life had led him to survive MAD, but everyone had a theory. A large contingent maintained that he had been a military man, serving in some secret base safe from the brunt of the destruction. Others theorized he must have been a corporate leader, with the money and resources to build a bunker even when the world staggered under the weight of overpopulation. A few whispered of anti-magic cults and religious leaders, of heaven-sent miracles.

Even more mysterious was Uther Pendragon’s son, named Arthur in a gesture of optimism. The boy never celebrated his birthday, but anyone who so desired could inspect the records and find the date of his birth: the very day the world went to hell."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

“The first thing you need to know about Camelot,” Gaius said, kicking the motor of his auto as it stuttered and coughed its way into life, “is that it’s a dictatorship. Uther chose those names for a reason. Don’t expect to see any understanding or support for anarchist lifestyles here.”

Merlin nodded, fiddling with the scarf around his neck as he sat down in the passenger seat. He wondered if now would be a good time to mention his dislike for the anarchist society he until recently had lived in, but decided against it. Gaius had been kind enough to take him on as a student of sorts. Merlin had seen political discussions result in death too many times to risk one here, especially when he wasn't sure who would be the one in danger. "So I won't go looking for anyone who does. No problem, right?" he replied.

But Gaius shook his head as he climbed into the seat behind the wheel. "Merlin, you look like an anarcho-communist," he said. "Unless you want to undergo a thorough change in appearance before we reach Camelot tonight. And knowing you, even the best sorcerers couldn't help you lie to anyone."

"I'm better at it than I look," Merlin protested, before remembering that the whole point of leaving Ealdor was to keep his magic a secret, and if Gaius managed to guess it on only the first day, Merlin was doomed.

But Gaius only graced him with an incredulous expression. "I'll believe it when I see it," he said, and the auto lurched into motion down the dusty, sand-mired road. The sun beat down on them with no mercy whatsoever, and Merlin wiped grimy sweat from his face and neck with his red scarf before tying it inexpertly around his nose and mouth. Sand still got everywhere with the first few gusts of wasteland wind.

Despite its reluctance to start, Gaius' auto didn't rattle and jolt nearly as much as those Merlin had grown up with. In fact, after the rough start, the auto travelled smooth and fast, like something out of the world before MAD. He said as much to Gaius, who merely laughed - a bit self-consciously, Merlin couldn't help but think - and said that it wasn't nearly as nice as the cars of his youth. Merlin had seen pictures of cars, heard stories of far more advanced autos than were used today, but he wasn't sure he could really believe in them. They were history, and history was only words, sometimes on paper, sometimes lost in the dusty, hazy air between speaker and listener.

The air outside today was not only dusty and hazy, but damp. That meant clouds - real clouds, not dust clouds - were probably passing by, somewhere up in the stratosphere, or wherever it was that clouds passed through. There would be no precipitation, of course. Rain hadn't fallen since the days cars drove about on the streets of a thriving, if threatened, planet. But Merlin looked forward to the breeze that accompanied them, and the moisture in the air that wouldn't crack his lips and dry his hands quite as badly as the normal dusty dryness. Most people, Merlin included, went around with bloody fingertips encased in gloves. The least skin making contact with the air, the better. Cloth would at least stave off the dry until hydration was possible.

Everyone went thirsty, unless absolutely about to die of sickness. Water was worth its weight in gold if it could not be welled.

That was how Gaius apparently made his way from distant Camelot to Ealdor. He had stocked up his auto with water, and now carried medical supplies and Merlin back to the enclosed city where both would find use in great demand. While Camelot had apparently great facilities - in comparison to everywhere else - it lacked in plants, and places to grow them. This Ealdor could provide. And in exchange... water, from one of Camelot's natural springs. Such a trade was not common, if there was even a precedent. Ealdor didn't much like the way Camelot handled its leadership. Words like 'fascism' were thrown around quite often in the days before Merlin's departure, and if not for his mother's fairly influential position as the outpost's own medic, he probably wouldn't have had a chance to leave. Certainly not with Gaius.

For this reason, Merlin was resolved that he would do whatever he could to make sure that Camelot would not expel him. And that meant, first and foremost, hiding his magical abilities away from everyone. Even Gaius. He'd seen what it could do to other people's opinion of him in Ealdor, and magic wasn't banned there.

It was late morning when they turned the first bend in the mountain road and Ealdor disappeared from view. Merlin sighed, hopefully inaudibly. Ealdor hadn't been particularly kind to him, but it had been his home for as long as he could remember. He'd miss his mother, and he'd miss Will. Perhaps Will especially. Camelot would have been a lot more exciting of a destination if he'd had a friend along.

Over the next few hours, Merlin watched the familiar harsh and rocky mountains give way to harsh and rocky hills, and the ground change from packed gravel to packed dust. The canyon disappeared from view a few miles after Ealdor did, and the intensity of the wind softened slightly. But no plantlife made itself known along the roadside, aside from the odd gnarled silhouette of a tree, remnants of the days when this land had hosted a great forest.

Eventually they stopped descending and began climbing again, the hills rising higher toward the next curve of the mountain range. The land here looked like it had been scrunched together, pushed from both sides until it could compact no further and broke into waves. "We're coming to the summit," Gaius called over the noise of the wind and the auto's engine. "You'll be able to see the whole southern river valley from here. It's a view worthy of examining closer, so if you like, we can stop for a moment."

"I have seen it before," Merlin said.

"Nevertheless," Gaius replied, smiling. "But if you insist, we can continue."

It occurred to Merlin that maybe Gaius wanted to see it for himself, and simply didn't want to say so. He wondered at that - in Ealdor, people typically said as little as they needed to, and rarely beat around the bush. It was a lifestyle of brevity born of necessity - the dry dusty air would get into your throat if you let it, and while cracked, bleeding lips were bad enough, a cracked, bleeding throat was worse. And once in, it was impossible to get all the dust out of your teeth. So people didn't speak that much, Merlin being a notable exception. But maybe in Camelot, where the surrounding cliffs cut off most, if not all, of the wind, it was different. Maybe when you could talk whenever you felt like it, you didn't need to say everything outright. Maybe it was some sort of test of people around you, to see who picked up on what. Or maybe Gaius was used to working for important people, and taking part in the kind of intrigue that important people apparently liked to take part in. Maybe he just didn't want to impose.

It was all very confusing. Hopefully someone would think to explain all these new things to Merlin before he made an ass of himself. Well. More of an ass than he would otherwise make. No one had ever been able to prevent Merlin from making an ass of himself; he doubted anyone would start now.

"We can stop, if you want to," he said. "Although it's a better view closer to sunrise or sundown."

"This will suffice," Gaius replied, and he smiled a bit wider. "In that case, I for one would like a break from the sound of this engine."

They slowed to a halt at the summit of the hill, and Merlin took in the familiar view. The river valley cut a deep track through the wastelands. It had not been named 'river valley' for any lingering waterway, but a relic of the past. Even before MAD had ripped up the world and reformed it in its current chaos, the valley had existed, containing a quiet but deep river that had provided not only food and drink, but a source of hydraulic energy that would have powered three Camelots from one plant alone. If the river had still been there, Ealdor would not have been the tiny outpost it had become, but perhaps even a city to rival Camelot. But during the destruction, a great deluge of water had carved its way through the valley, digging a massive trench where a soft groove had once woven, and dragging all the river's water out to sea with it. When the rain had stopped, the river bed had simply remained dry. The wreckage of the hydraulics plant had been deserted, and later when a group of Ealdor's people came to investigate, they found nothing remaining of the once powerful engines, or even a means to replicate them.

Fortunately, there were other means of energy. From this hill, Merlin could see all three windmills, turning ponderously atop their own hills. They were not quite as well-engineered as they might have been, but given the materials on hand, Merlin felt they matched anything old Earth engineers had created, at least in terms of ingenuity. Maybe Camelot, with its greater population and resources, had something better - but Merlin was inexplicably proud of Ealdor's three metal giants.

He probably shouldn't be, anymore. They weren't his giants, and nor was Ealdor his home. He'd given that up, betrayed it in the eyes of everyone else there, when he'd agreed to go with Gaius to Camelot. They'd all but run him out of town. Merlin still wasn't sure which was worse, in their eyes: his magical abilities, or the fact that he hadn't shied away from even the mention of Camelot, bastion of fascism and military authority.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Gaius sighed, sounding content and perhaps just a little bit wistful. Merlin shrugged, but didn't really have it in him to reply.

He didn't notice the footsteps until too late, but the clicking of automatic guns snapped his attention back to the present very sharp-like. They had been surrounded in very little time by at least five gun-wielding bandits. Merlin glanced back at the cargo they carried and wondered how these people knew what it was. Or if they even cared. Their faces were masked with scarves, their eyes covered with battered goggles. They looked like anyone out in this wilderness – desperately in need of something to subsist on, something to protect them from the elements, and somewhere to go.

"Don't make a move," warned one of the bandits, brandishing his gun. "Hands where we can see them. And then if you co-operate, we'll let you walk away."

Merlin raised his hands to eye level, slowly, and to his right Gaius did the same. The bandit who'd spoken smiled nastily, and then two others converged upon the cargo. From where he sat, Merlin couldn't see much – but the tarps over the crates rustled and crackled as they were carelessly shifted over. A few moments later, the two bandits lifted a crate and very shortly thereafter dropped it. With the crash also came the sound of glass shattering.

"Those crates contain delicate medical equipment –" Gaius began, but before he could continue, another bandit walked over and hit him over the head with the butt of a gun. Gaius slumped in the seat, knocked out, and before Merlin quite knew what he was doing he had jumped out of his own seat, lashed out blindly, knocking over the two would-be thieves in the back of the auto with a burst of strong wind. Then the others brought up their guns and fired at him, and Merlin had a split second to realise what he'd done before a bullet tore through his right bicep. Pain shot through his arm with all the intensity of the wind itself, and he pushed back in retaliation. The wind picked up, throwing dust into his eyes, and over its roar he heard shouts and more gunfire. This time he threw himself to the ground and the bullets whizzed over his head, but he saw stars as his head collided with something hard, something sharp.

Merlin rolled downhill, head spinning and arm burning, half choking when he accidentally breathed in dust. He only registered that he'd come to a stop when he landed on more rocks. Then he looked up, and spotted the blurry forms of what must have been the bandits at the top of the hill. They must have seen him, too. They could see him – they would shoot him – he was stuck here, no way he could get up and run in time. He didn't want to die.

With the strength of panic, he pushed out, maybe with him arms, maybe with his mind – pushed out and pushed off from the ground. Time seemed to slow for a moment; two muffled shots cracked overhead, and he hung in the air. Then a searing, white-hot line of pain shot through his head, almost like a bullet itself. Then there was nothing at all.

"The city-state of Camelot was the first successful attempt to rebuild anything of the former world, and its success had come entirely from Uther Pendragon's ingenuity. Instead of returning to one of the old cities and taking refuge among collapsed skyscrapers and crumbling brick walls, or rebuilding completely anew, Uther sought out military bunkers and forts built to sustain heavy damage. He and the entourage he assembled discovered a bunker built deep into the side of a cliff, somewhere in Europa-that-was. During the war, some attack or battle had sheered half the cliff away, baring the remainder to the elements. Uther and his followers used the rubble to rebuild – first the bunker, refashioning it to become Uther's stronghold, and then building a settlement outside, for those who did not fit inside the old bunker, or did not choose to live underground.

In time, the tale of Camelot's success spread, and her population swelled. People eager for direction or safety or companionship made the journey to Uther's thriving city, bringing with them their diverse skills and cultures. Uther accepted them all, with one stipulation: that magic, the tool that had brought about the end of the world, would never enter into the walls of Camelot."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

Morgana probably should have been surprised to find the young man lying at the base of a sand dune, but the dark head of hair struck her as familiar in a way she could not quite identify. Like she had dreamed about someone like him before. Biting her bottom lip in momentary ambivalence, Morgana dismounted from her motorbike and crouched to examine this youth a little closer.

He wasn't in particularly good condition. Whatever had left him unconscious had also blacked his eye and perhaps even broken his nose. Jagged, bloody scrapes lined his arms and legs, particularly noticeable against the paleness of his skin which hopefully had more to do with complexion and less to do with blood loss. Up close, he looked older, perhaps closer to Morgana's age. He had no shoes or gloves or goggles. Morgana remembered Uther speaking of bandits; looking down at the figure crumpled before her, she understood a little better what 'bandits' meant.

That made up her mind. With a gentleness she rarely had cause to exhibit, Morgana lifted the man and pulled him onto the motorbike in front of her. Then – carefully – she revved her engine and drove home, original objective long forgotten. Joyrides could wait. She had a responsibility now, however self-assigned it was.

That was the main problem with being in the candidacy for position as Uther's heir. No one really wanted to be the one who let her do anything dangerous or remotely interesting. Arthur had a similar problem, with the double doom of being a candidate for the throne and Uther's only child. They could drown in administrative work until they bled from their ears, or shoot the heads off of makeshift targets until they drained the junkyard, but attempt to do something constructive and immediately everyone had a million places to be.

They couldn't keep her from leaving the city, despite the best attempts of many to do just that. Driving amongst the scrubby wasteland hills was not her idea of fun, especially not on dry days like today when wind knocked dust into her nose and eyes and mouth and ears and everywhere else. But it was the one thing she could do where there was no one else to criticise or tell her to stop. And it was the only place she could go to be alone.

Except for today, apparently. Still, Morgana would take an injured twentysomething over her stepfather and stepbrother any day. At least this kid wouldn't talk her ear off or boss her around. And when he recovered, Morgana would have an ally. In Uther Pendragon's regime, such an asset was not easily come by.

At the barricade, she waved aside the concerned patrol with practiced ease and revved her engines as she drove through. That wasn't for dramatic flair, no matter what Arthur scoffed; it was a warning. Citizens of Camelot, beware! Morgana hadn't yet killed anyone riding through town, and she didn't intend to start today.

The young man slept for about a day and then hovered in a feverish delirium for another one, until Morgana caved and called her sort-of maid in to help. Gwen had assisted the town doctors enough in her spare time to have some rudimentary knowledge, and together they chased the fever out.

On the third day, their charge opened his eyes and blinked up at them. "Where… am I?"

Morgana smiled, and Gwen beamed like the sun. "You're safe here," said Morgana. "And you're healing. My name is Morgana, and this is Gwen, and we saved you."

"Oh," said their charge, and "Thank you," and "I'm Merlin."

"Morgana Faye, later Pendragon, was the daughter of Uther's second wife. As a child she demonstrated the same strength and empathy for those around her that would serve her well later. More often, however, she acted with unmatched obstinacy and unwillingness to comply with another's rules. It was this quality that accelerated her to the throne, both by securing the position of heir and then, some claim, by driving Uther to a stress-induced demise.

While it cannot be denied that she would become an inspired ruler and one of the saviours of civilisation itself, her means of reaching this position were questionable at best. No verifiable sources can testify that she knew what the consequences of her actions would be, but it is fact that she was the one to bring the sorcerer Merlin Emrys into Camelot, and nurse him back to health. Had she not done so, she might never have achieved the throne, for at that point in time, Arthur Pendragon was the favoured candidate.

Morgana was nothing but kind to the man she rescued. Sources present at the time say she did not seem to have any motive beyond compassion in her caring for Emrys, but it cannot be denied that this deed would repay itself very shortly thereafter."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

Morgana had given her the afternoon off, Gwen claimed. Since Gaius had no way to know if she was lying, and could use the help anyway, he allowed her into the laboratory where he had just begun replenishing his stock of natural skin irritation and burn remedies – specifically those using aloe. Three slightly withered aloe plants occupied one side of the table in the middle of the room; Gaius had Gwen sit down next them, and handed her a pair of clippers. "Be ready to cut leaves off as I require them. Separate them from the others and cut as close to the stem as possible. The juice won't harm you, but you ought to watch out for the barbs on each side."

"I'll remember that." Gwen smiled and held the clippers out in front of her like a weapon, pointed at the first aloe plant. Gaius nodded toward it and watched as she carefully sliced through the thick green flesh, juice oozing out over the blades and her fingers. Once removed, the leaf joined its fellows in the large plastic bowl, waiting for Gaius to squeeze the juice from the flesh.

They worked in companionable silence for all of ten minutes, punctuated by Gaius' requests for another leaf and Gwen's quiet humming. When the bowl filled to a point where Gaius could not continue to squish without sloshing aloe goo over the edge, he covered the bowl with a cloth and waved for Gwen to leave the plants alone for now.

"Fetch me the other bowl from the counter, please," he said, pointing to where the clean bowl stood near the window. Gwen rose and fetched it, hovering at his right while he situated the bowl in the middle of his side of the table. She remained there while Gaius carefully strained aloe goo through the cloth and into the new bowl. Once most of it had been transferred to the new bowl, he scraped the remaining goo and leaf pulp from the cloth, back into the first bowl.

"If you need an assistant…" Gwen looked down at the table when Gaius tried to meet her eyes. "I can help, maybe. I don't think Morgana would mind too much. I mean, I couldn't help you all the time, because of my job – but you look like you need some help." She clapped a hand over her mouth then, looking up wide-eyed. "Not that you're doing a bad job! I just meant that you must have so much to do and there's only one of you…"

"I would appreciate any assistance you could provide," Gaius assured her, smiling, before she could embarrass herself further. "I did anticipate having more regular help, but things did not go quite as I planned. I was going to take on an assistant, you see."

"That didn't work out, then?" Gwen asked, reaching for another aloe leaf. They worked in silence for a few moments, Gaius looking thoughtful, Gwen exercising her best patience.

"I lost him," Gaius eventually admitted. "I embarked upon an excursion that went unsanctioned by the High Commander. He accompanied me on the way home, as he had found himself in something of a dangerous position in his old home. Unfortunately, before I could bring him all the way to Camelot, we were attacked by raiders and, in the ensuing scuffle, separated." Jar now filled to near the brim with green goo, he replaced the cap and set it aside with the other full jars. "That will do for today," he added. "We don't want to kill one of our few remaining aloe plants."

Obediently, Gwen set aside the clippers and released the aloe leaf she had lifted from the surface of the table. "When was this? They can't have got too far. I'm sure there are other people who wouldn't mind going around the Commander to help you. He can only kill them - you can heal them." She smiled up at him, sweet and guileless, and Gaius looked down and suppressed a smile of his own. He had no idea how she had maintained that air of innocence in the world she had grown up in. Perhaps it was that she had known no alternatively. The first forty-three years of Gaius' life had been soft and easy, and now this post-apocalyptic nightmare weighed heavily upon him. Gwen, who had never known anything else, had grown up making the best of it.

But Merlin had not. Gaius had not spent a great deal of time with the young man who would have become his assistant, but what conversation they'd had proved Merlin a jaded, rather bitter sort of person. Maybe it was different, growing up outside Camelot. Until journeying to Ealdor, Gaius had never thought to consider himself lucky to live where he did.

"Several weeks ago, I'm afraid," Gaius said, in belated response to Gwen's question. " He came from a small settlement in the mountains to the northeast – we were about halfway back to Camelot when we were separated. I don't imagine he would have gone home, and I can't imagine his chances for survival were very high, out in the wastelands alone."

Gwen frowned, all of a sudden. "What was his name?" she asked slowly.

"He was named Merlin."

Just as suddenly as she had frowned, she now smiled – big and surprised and delighted. "Morgana rescued a boy named Merlin from the wastelands the day before your return!" she said. "We didn't ask for your help, because Uther Pendragon wasn't supposed to know. But he's better now – Merlin, not Uther – and he'd probably be better off back here with you anyway."

"He's here?" Gaius asked.

"Come with me," Gwen said. "I'll take you to him myself!"

"The sorcerer Merlin left Morgana Pendragon's care after about a month, to serve as the assistant to Camelot's most experienced physician and pharmacist. Gaius Shallot was known for his agreeable nature and his unwillingness to act outside the boundaries of his job. His close friendship with Uther Pendragon meant that it was doubtful he knew of Merlin's abilities until Merlin's departure from Camelot. Nevertheless, he and Merlin shared a close friendship of mentor to student. Much of what we know of Camelot in the early days and Merlin's time there is thanks to Gaius Shallot's journals, uncovered after his death in 2045.

But arguably the greater influence on the young Merlin, even more so than Morgana Pendragon or Gaius Shallot, was Arthur Pendragon, Uther's son by blood and for a brief time heir to Camelot."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

Merlin knew Arthur Pendragon by Morgana's flowery and vicious descriptions, if nothing more. Blonde hair wasn't too common in Camelot, and Arthur's carried the certain lustre that came with daily washings. Everything about him seemed cleaner, of better quality, in the same way that Morgana always looked stylish and surreal. Uther probably had the same sort of larger-than-life glamour to him – though from what people said, it was less glamour and more an aura of intimidation.

Arthur hadn't noticed Merlin, tucked behind a column and watching the sparring in the courtyard below. The entrance to Uther's stronghold had been hollowed out by wind and magic before anyone had ever lived here, but human labour had made it elegant and important-looking. Uther received visitors and immigrants here. His elite soldiers trained here, too – which was how Merlin had caught his first glimpse of Morgana's step-brother.

The way Merlin had angled himself against the wall meant that although daylight shone past him into the entrance, he was concealed from most lines of sight. He'd perfected his positioning here on days when he didn't really want to catalogue Gaius' stores of antibiotics again. There were certain nuances to the spot – edges to avoid, colours to match, angles to maintain – which could only be achieved by practice. Gwen had helped him a lot with those. But someone on their own wouldn't know that.

And that was how Merlin spotted the man with a gun on the other side of the wall.

Guns were fairly commonplace in certain areas of Camelot. The barricades, for instance, and the interior entrances to Uther's stronghold. But not outside these walls. There was no good reason for that man to be there, and plenty of bad ones. Merlin got one hand free of the wall and out in front of him and thought of the penalty for magic. It was the same as the penalty for conspiring treason, which was probably what this would look like after that gun was fired.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Either way, Merlin might die.

The man took aim. Merlin clenched his hands in fists and rushed him, praying to anyone listening that he'd close the distance before that gun went off. Then he connected, flesh meeting kevlar, and for a moment he saw stars. The man went down with him, and the gun skittered from his hands and into the courtyard. It took Merlin a few seconds to realise that the sound he'd heard had been a shot, fired into space.

Footsteps, shouting, the clatter of weaponry: these things did not register as loudly as the man's hissed imprecations and clicking of a second gun, now pointed at Merlin's head. Merlin clenched his eyes shut and thought desperately of missing bullets, trigger failure.

No second shot went off. When he opened his eyes, Uther's men and Arthur had reached them and subdued the assailant. Merlin got shakily to his feet and wondered if it would be suspect to get the hell out of there. It probably would. Then again, he might already be suspect anyway.

"Who the hell are you?" asked one of the soldiers, turning to him and looking vaguely skeptical. Like he didn't think Merlin could actually have done that. Before just now, Merlin would have agreed with him.

"Merlin Emrys," he said. "I work for Gaius Shallot. It's in the records. You can even," and here he fumbled in his pants pockets for his citizen's pass, "check my papers."

"We don't need proof of residence, kid," the soldier said, now also looking vaguely amused. "We just need to know what to put in the report."

"You saved my life," Arthur Pendragon added, and Merlin just about died then, of embarrassment.

"Funny thing, though." Another soldier spoke up, with a frown on his face. "That shot didn't just go wide. It curved, did anyone else see that? Right up into the ceiling. It left a mark."

"Can bullets even do that?" another asked. "I mean, I've seen some trick shooting, but nothing like that…"

"Probably wasn't intentional," a third said. "The kid had just rushed him, remember."

Merlin had a feeling he knew the real reason the shot had gone wide, and felt a sinking sensation in his stomach, and ice down his spine. He'd sworn to himself not to use magic for just this reason.

He made it back to Gaius' laboratory and home only to find that news travelled faster than he did. "I heard about what happened," Gaius greeted him. "I must say, I'm impressed."

"I feel sick," Merlin muttered, mostly to himself.

"Uther seems to be impressed as well," Gaius continued. "He's asked you to have an audience with him, 18:00 sharp." He smiled, stepping aside to let Merlin in. "I'm very proud of you, Merlin."

"That makes one of us," Merlin said, just as quietly as before. How long would it take Uther to suspect magic? Very little, in all probability, once he saw the scrawny guy who'd managed to tackle a guy with a gun before he could shoot it.

Merlin swallowed thickly, staring at the solid and foreboding wooden doors to Uther's office. This was it. Uther was going to condemn him to defenestration for possessing magic, or worse, decapitation for using it. Maybe, since he saved Arthur's life, the sentence would be lighter and he'd just be shot. Merlin felt vaguely ill.

He wondered if he should regret his use of magic to save Arthur Pendragon. Maybe he was a bit deranged – Arthur's continued existence instilled only a great sense of resigned relief in Merlin. At least someone benefited from all this fuss. Maybe Arthur would eventually do something amazing for the world, and justify Merlin's sacrifice.

The doors opened slowly, scraping against the cold iron floor. "Enter," commanded Uther Pendragon, and Merlin stepped forward, feeling his throat tighten as if with a noose.

"The afternoon's events were… surprising," Uther said slowly. He sat at his undamaged old-world desk and surveyed Merlin with an impassive expression to rival the paintings hung on the office walls. He even dressed like a soldier for office work, apparently – or maybe only to condemn those who possessed magic.

"Yes, sire," Merlin murmured, not entirely sure why he still bothered with formalities. He was dead anyway, right?

Uther raised a hand to stroke his chin thoughtfully. "You're my physician's ward," he said presently.

"I am, sire," Merlin said.

For a moment, Uther simply stared at him, as if sizing him up – perhaps trying to guess how much of a threat Merlin could really be? But then the ruler of Camelot heaved a sigh and broke his stare to reposition himself in his chair. "Young Mr Emrys," Uther said, "you ought to understand by now the enormity of the threats surrounding my son."

"I understand, sire," he replied. Men with guns, check. Anyone who didn't like Uther, check. Magic users with the exception of Merlin, check. Disfiguring by Morgana? Possible.

"Good," said Uther, and then he said nothing for a while, staring off into space. Eventually, he seemed to return to himself again, and smiled coldly at Merlin. "Tonight, I will reward you for your services with a position within the household, as my son's attaché. You will accept, despite the protestations of my son. With my ward's assistance, should you need it, you will persuade Arthur to keep you on as a servant. This will only be a front."

"I'm a bodyguard?" Merlin hazarded. Not dying, then. At least, not yet.

"Close enough," Uther replied. "You will keep my son alive and well, no matter what you need to do in order to achieve this." As he said this, his smile faded, and his expression grew stern, intensified. "As long as he remains so, I will make it worth your while. But should you fail, your life won't be worth much at all. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear," Merlin said, biting his tongue before he could say anything else or do something embarrassing, like point out that he was not a soldier at all, had very limited self-defense skill and less proficiency in defending other people. Unless he used magic, which would also be a very bad thing to say.

Then again, Uther could very easily have discovered Merlin's secret, and chosen to use this new resource to his own advantage. Clearly he expected Merlin to risk his life to keep Arthur safe – and using magic certainly qualified as risking his life. Maybe that would spare him an execution. Maybe Uther Pendragon didn't care at all, and wanted to get some use out of the latest sorcerer before killing him. Merlin would very likely never know, though, and so he couldn't afford to slip up and reveal his powers, except as a last resort.

Nothing new, really, except the last resort no longer applied merely to his own life. That was more than a little bit scary.

"Good," Uther said, and waved a hand. "Attend again this evening, in this office, and I will give you your position. Until then, you're dismissed."

Merlin bowed and backpedaled out of the room as quickly as he could, forgoing dignity entirely. He managed to remember a strangled, "yes, sire!" as he stumbled through the double doors, and then sagged against the wall opposite once he'd made it out entirely. The doors closed behind him.

Arthur was waiting outside, arms crossed and leaning against the wall. "I know what my father said in there."

"Oh?" Merlin opted to keep his opinions to himself. He definitely didn't need to earn the ire of Arthur Pendragon – especially not now.

"I won't be requiring your services," Arthur said. "I don't need an attaché or a manservant or a chauffeur or whatever my father called it. Tell him you're declining."

That would go down well. "But –" Merlin began.

"I don't need you," Arthur said. "Thank you for taking down that man earlier, but don't quit your day job."

Merlin opened his mouth to agree, so that he could get the hell out of here and go back to worrying about his much-decreased lifespan, when the doors to Uther's study rumbled open again. "Arthur, come here," Uther called through them.

"Good luck," Merlin said, restraining the sudden urge to pat Arthur on the shoulder. He also restrained the urge to say 'see you tomorrow', because he would, but Arthur apparently wasn't going to like it. Instead, he took to his feet and got the hell out of there as quickly as he could.

Whatever Uther said must have engineered the desired effect, because Arthur didn't instantly throw him out when Merlin reported for duty the next morning. Instead, Merlin was met with the stained and rumpled uniform from the day before. "Take this down to the laundry," Arthur ordered, seated at his own desk and very obviously not doing anything at all. "If they've got anything for me, bring it back." He waved his hand at the door.

In a stunning display of self-restraint, Merlin refrained from comparing Arthur's uninspiring air of superiority to his father's much more effective intimidating glares, and went to do as commanded.

"The naming of Arthur suggests that Uther had planned all along to pass the city along to his son, no matter his claims about needing to make up his mind. Arthur was a much blunter man than either his father or step-sister, inclined to throw out diplomacy and intrigue alike whenever he could. Politics grated on him, so he spent the greater part of his time training with Camelot's armed forces. Had the succession ever become the subject of violence, Arthur Pendragon would have easily taken the metaphoric throne. He also maintained great popularity with the people, cultivating good relations by helping with physical labour and acknowledging the presence of his people.

Morgana Faye, later Pendragon, regarded him as an annoyance, but family. The two Pendragon children shared friendship bordering on rivalry for much of their childhood. Gaius Shallot wrote that 'though real affection as clearly present between the two, often it was overshadowed by the knowledge that they both could not win.'

Interestingly, though Morgana cultivated the allegiance of the sorcerer Merlin, he was much more closely linked to Arthur in almost all accounts of his days in Camelot."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

"I don't get to see you at all anymore," Morgana declared, appearing at the door to Gaius' workshop. Merlin looked up from his work, which involved an eyedropper and very exact amounts of chemical to drop into various vials in the name of medicine. He grinned over at Morgana, and got up properly.

"It's all this work," he said, sighing gustily. "Being Gaius' apprentice was enough. Now I'm supposed to chase around after your brother and do everything he asks of me, and I still need to sleep and eat some of the time. I really don't think it's fair at all."

Morgana patted his shoulder kindly. "Well, there's life for you. If it helps, at least you didn't grow up with Arthur."

Merlin grimaced. "There's that."

"Are you going to invite me in, or aren't you?" Morgana flicked the side of his head with perfectly-manicured fingernails, and Merlin laughed and stepped aside so she could enter. "Nice place you've got here, by the way. Your mentor has more style than I would have expected." She twirled a lock of curling dark hair on one finger and looked around. "Very apothecary chic."

"He'd probably thank you," Merlin said. He couldn't really see anything beyond easy access to necessary equipment, but then again, he wasn't the queen of style that Morgana was. "Something to drink? Tea?"

"That would be fabulous." Morgana smiled dazzlingly at him and seated herself at the work bench. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything too important," she added.

From where he stood by the water tank, Merlin shook his head emphatically. "Not at all. I was - going to go mad with boredom. You've saved me." He smiled back, quickly, and then looked quickly back at the filling kettle. Something about Morgana always left him feeling not just second-best, but about tenth-best, after a whole regimen of other people he had never met but knew had to exist. It was worse with her than with the rest of her family - no doubt because he not only respected and feared her, but admired and liked her, too. She was about as amazing a person as Merlin could imagine. It was really kind of scary.

He set the kettle on the gas stove, apparently reclaimed and rebuilt by Gaius himself, and returned to the table to sit opposite Morgana, setting the vials and eyedropper to the side. "Anything in particular bring you here?" he inquired.

"Other than to see you?" There was that dazzling smile again. "I'm avoiding my brother. You're not the only one who finds him insufferable."

"I wouldn't say insufferable, exactly," Merlin objects. "Just really - er - okay, maybe I would."

"Still, you managed to get past that." Morgana wasn't smiling, exactly - she had three fingers over her mouth and chin, which was actually sort of really attractive, but also meant she was thinking hard about something, which was scarier than anything else could make up for. Merlin would never ever fall in love with Morgana, if only because it would mean constantly being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "You saved my brother's life, after all."

"Sometimes I wish I hadn't." Merlin said this quietly for two reasons: he didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about his intentions toward the man he was actually supposed to protect, and it wasn't really true. Much, anyway. Even though this morning had been a disaster on far too many levels, and he had the bruises to prove it. It really wasn't fair in any way; Arthur had fought with his father again, Merlin had done something wrong or said something improper or just got in the way, and there was a fist to his face that sent him staggering into a shelf.

But Morgana laughed, and they changed subjects, and eventually the water boiled and there was tea. This they drank, and Merlin returned to his eyedropper and vials, and Morgana stuck around to talk to him, and it actually turned out to be a tolerable day, even after the fiasco that had been the morning.

The next morning, Arthur didn't immediately send him off on some difficult and exacting task. "I would like to apologise for my behaviour," he said instead, in a very stiff and well-rehearsed sort of voice. "I acted ungratefully toward you. I took anger out on you that wasn't directed toward you, and you can't have known why."

Merlin blinked twice, and quickly went through all possible explanations. "What did Morgana threaten you with to get you to say that?"

"Apparently it doesn't even occur to you that I could figure out my mistakes on my own," Arthur replied, loftily and rather snappishly. "I don't need Morgana to tell me what to do."

"No, but really," Merlin said. Which was probably pushing it, but Arthur had been a right bastard yesterday morning, and Merlin hadn't exactly volunteered for this.

"It's not your place to ask about my personal life." Arthur's voice had gone ice cold, signalling very clearly that the conversation was to be over. Instantly. Prat, Merlin thought at him.

Merlin had managed to save Arthur's life only once more thus far. He'd only spotted this attacker by chance while returning home one evening. A man scaling the cliff face didn't really stand out, but Merlin spotted him. That was an easier save: he loosened a few handholds and watched the man fall. Except then the man had reached the bottom of the gully and Merlin had realised that now some guy was dead because of him, and he probably wouldn't be the first.

Merlin didn't really like his job too much, these days. But Arthur had apologised today, which was a first, and that was kind of nice. Merlin liked when people realised he was a real person. It didn't happen to much around here.

"Apology accepted," he said, a little late, but Arthur actually smiled. Sure, it was slightly mocking, and sort of ironic, but it was a smile, and maybe they were getting somewhere after all.

The wind whipped through Merlin's hair in an altogether unseemly fashion, and once again Merlin vowed to himself that as soon as they got back to Camelot he would shear it all off. If Gaius let him near the scissors, that is. He directed a calculated forlorn expression Arthur's way, but Arthur remained unmoved, still concentrating on the barren hills before them.

"There," he finally said, pointing to a dark blotch in the distance that Merlin couldn't quite make out. "That must be where their auto broke down."

They were part of a search party, looking for a scheduled group of immigrants who'd never shown up. Apparently Arthur did things like this a lot. Merlin would have been content to let the experts work, except that his job was to follow Arthur around and protect him from things like assassins but also giant sandy man-eating mutant monsters.

"I can't see anything," Merlin told him, squinting into the afternoon wind. On a clear day he might have had better luck, but with another storm brewing to the north and the wind howling down the wastelands like a battalion of rocs, he could barely see past the front of the auto. "Arthur, the storm's almost here, it's not worth it –"

"Shut up and finish tying the top down," Arthur ordered, glancing briefly back at him. "As long as you can do that with at least some competence, we'll be fine." He turned back to the windshield, smugly unaware of the dirty look Merlin graced the back of his head with.

But Arthur was right, unfortunately – the top did need to be tied down well. Because if they planned to drive into a storm out here in the wastelands, they couldn't afford any place where the wind could force entrance and push them over. Merlin looped rope through grommets and tied the best knots he knew, and then shut his eyes against the sand and pounded on the side of the auto. "I've finished!" he yelled over the roaring of wind. "Can I get back in now?"

The door opened, and Merlin climbed gratefully inside, slamming it shut behind him. He then shook the sand from his overgrown hair and his face and shirt, taking his turn to ignore Arthur's glare as sand skittered across the seat and floor and dashboard.

"At least we won't be too light," Arthur remarked, redirecting his glare to the sand around his controls.

Even inside the auto, Merlin could hear the storm around them growing in strength, roar strengthening and shoving sand against the windshield and sides. Arthur revved the engine and its growl nearly got lost in the sound of the storm, and then they lurched forward, out into the worst of the badlands to face the worst of the storm. Teeth-rattling shakes threw both passengers back and forth in the front seat. Merlin couldn't see anything out the window, particularly not a dun-coloured auto.

This was sheer lunacy. Sure, Arthur felt a responsibility to the people of Camelot, and yes, that was good. And his efforts to help them had brought about many good things, and a great deal of trust from the people. That was good, too. But driving out into the middle of a dust storm to retrieve the contents of a crashed auto just because some immigrant wanted the other half of her possessions crossed the line between duty and insanity, and Merlin was fairly confident that this was the kind of thing Uther paid him to keep from happening.

"This is a bad plan," Merlin felt compelled to say again.

"Yes, yes, we both know how you feel about it," Arthur retorted, rolling his eyes. "The entire city of Camelot knows how you like to play it safe. Unfortunately for you, I'm in charge, and so we're going to ignore your urges and do something worthwhile." He banged one hand on the steering wheel and glanced over at Merlin very briefly. "You didn't have to come."

"Yeah, well." Merlin tried to lean back more into his chair, sinking as much out of Arthur's line of sight as he could. It was a pretty fruitless endeavour. Sort of like this whole mad goose chase, actually. "Maybe I like risking my life to find people in sandstorms."

"You, Merlin? Really?" Arthur actually laughed at that, leaning into a turn that banged Merlin up against the auto door. "You mean to say you actually operate in something that isn't self-interest?"

"I saved you, didn't I?" Twice, actually. Merlin can't exactly tell him about the second time, though. He doesn't like Arthur telling him that he's too selfish; it feels a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Arthur turns to look at him again, and Merlin studiously does not meet his eyes, stares out the front of the auto. "And you got this job," Arthur said finally. "A much better paying job than being a doctor's assistant. Much less tedious, too, if what Gwen says is true. Is that really selflessness?"

"I had no idea!" Merlin finds himself actually growing angry at that. He hadn't known Uther would repay him this way, hadn't even wanted him to. He'd been relieved when Arthur told him not to show up, for the brief moment before he realised that Uther would make it work out anyway. Merlin didn't actually like putting himself in danger - he'd come to Camelot for just that reason, after all. "I didn't want the job. I would have been fine going home with a thank you. I have a perfectly good life with Gaius, I don't need anything else, I-"

That probably constituted speaking out of line. Merlin shut up.

There was silence in the auto for a while, as they stared out the windows in search for people Merlin did not expect to find. After a while, Arthur said, "Then why do you do it?"

There were plenty of ways to answer that. Merlin could tell the truth - that he had to - or say that Gaius had really wanted him to, or that he only wanted to do it to spite Arthur. "Someone had to," Merlin said, instead.

Arthur didn't say anything more. Silence returned.

"Hang on," Merlin said presently. He stared as hard as he could out into the swirling sand, and saw it again: a blur of dark amongst the sea of pale dust and sand. "I think I see something!"

Arthur turned the car sharply in the direction Merlin indicated. "I can't see anything," he said.

Merlin glanced over at him. There was a way to make it easier to see whatever was out there, and it wouldn't make too much of a fuss. Lowering his goggles would probably look suspicious, though. Merlin squinted his eyes as much as he could without closing them altogether, and thought very hard about seeing through the sandstorm. The backflip in his brain that he'd come to associate with successful magic happened in barely a few seconds, and then suddenly he could see them. Five people all told, huddled at the side of an overturned auto, swathed in coats and blankets in a very likely failed attempt to keep the dust at bay. "Right ahead of us," Merlin said, and then, as they drew perilously near: "Stop!"

Arthur cut the engine. "I still can't see anything."

"Just trust me on this," Merlin said, and pull down his goggles, pulled up his scarf over his nose and mouth. The wind howled terribly when he opened the door, and despite his outer gear, dust still managed to get into his eyes and nose and mouth. He felt sand down his back and in his ears and winced; he would be forever cleaning it out when they got back to Camelot. Arthur had stayed in the car. Typical.

HE could still see, thanks to his magic eyesight tweak, but by the way the people were looking wildly around for the source of noise, they could not see him. They were barely ten meters away from where Arthur had stopped the auto. Even against the wind, Merlin made it over to them in very little time at all. "Hello!" he called, over the wind. "Are you the Barrow family?"

"Thank God," said the woman, and Merlin blinked in surprise; he hadn't met too many religious people in all his days in Ealdor or Camelot. Hadn't they all buggered off after the world had been completely ravaged? There had been a whole apocalypse shebang, according to the people who had been alive back then.

"If you'll just follow me," Merlin said, "we can get you into our auto - your stuff, too, if there's enough room."

"Agatha can't walk," said a man, who looked enough like the woman to be family. A brother? But no husband. A family of siblings, then, or an aunt or uncle and a single parent. The man pointed at one of the shapeless child forms, clinging desperately to the woman's knee.

"I can try to -"

"I'll carry her." Arthur stepped into place just ahead of Merlin, and reached out his hands. "I don't think you have the arm strength to actually lift her, Merlin."

Merlin swallowed his rude response - there were children present, after all - and offered a hand up to the woman first. She took it, smiling very faintly, and slowly got to her feet. "Thank you," she said, and coughed. "My name is Eleanor. This is my brother Paul, and his two daughters: Molly and Agatha."

"Nice to meet you," said Merlin.

"Who's the other child?" Arthur asked.

"He says his name's Dred," said Paul doubtfully. "We actually found him - he said he got lost, going to Camelot, and needed help getting there. So we gave him a lift this far, until the auto broke down."

"Lucky for you we found you in time," Arthur said. "The storm's only going to get worse."

They loaded everyone into the auto with minimal difficulty, even managing to fit a bit of luggage on people's laps and under their feet. Arthur tried to radio the other searchers, with no luck; the storm cut off reception as they both had feared it would. Then, with Merlin running careful navigation, they began driving back to Camelot.

"You didn't fail completely out there," Arthur commented, as the sand died down around them and the actual road to Camelot came into view. Which actually meant 'thank you' in Prat-ese. Which Merlin really shouldn't have been able to translate so easily.

"You're welcome," Merlin said, unable to really be irritated. After all, he had done pretty well. Saved five people he'd expected never to see, managed to use his magic with no one the wiser. Inspired what constituted a compliment from the man he worked for. "I suppose I can say the same for you."

Arthur rolled his eyes and swatted at Merlin's head, which hurt, but not as badly as it shook him. Did this mean he and Arthur might actually be starting to get along?


"In all fairness, the sorcerer Merlin probably would have been content to live out his days unremarkably in service to Arthur. Though at first the two did not get along at all, gradually a friendship of necessity developed between them. After several months spending most days together a great deal of the time, Merlin himself claimed to be growing fond of the position – and perhaps even, as Gaius Shallot observed, fond of Arthur as well.

But outside forces were at work, and the stability Camelot enjoyed at that time would not last long. Uther Pendragon had many enemies, and thus, so did Arthur. And, as Merlin's name slipped into stories about the heir in potentia, so did he."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

Merlin didn’t intend to be out so late of a night, especially with reports of fights breaking out in the town and Gaius out on call. But events had conspired against him – well, events, and Arthur, who’d ordered him out in the first place. “If you’re going to be my personal assistant, you might as well actually do something useful with your time,” he’d said that first day, and from then on spouted off a litany of sundry tasks to be completed before the end of the day, each day. Merlin could easily have finished them in record time with the use of his magic, but under such surveillance as Uther mandated, he couldn’t chance it.

And thus he was still running errands when the sun set, and well past the lighting of the halogen streetlights. He had only just finished Arthur’s last task, which had seemed more the jurisdiction of a courier or telegraph and was probably just to make him run. So much for promises to Morgana to treat him better. So much for Gaius claiming they were growing friendlier by the day. But Merlin could live with this. Arthur was often a prat and a bastard and being completely unfair, but Merlin was used to completely unfair and at least he wasn’t living in fear of death. As much.

He almost wasn't surprised to find the walkway to Uther's stronghold occupied. It would be just his luck to wait. But he did freeze in shock upon hearing a familiar voice carrying through the night air.

"…said he's probably somewhere in there. Because they're not going to make life easy for us, are they? How bloody huge is that place, anyway?"

"Will?" Merlin called, incredulously. They had been best friends in Ealdor – fights about magic and fascism notwithstanding – but for Will to show up here was most unexpected. What the hell could be important enough to bring Will to the place he despised more than any other.

The figures on the walkway all turned around toward him. "There he is!" said another, and then one broke off from the crowd and came running toward Merlin at top speed.

It was Will. He looked just the same as ever, hair just a bit too long and flying back in his own wind, knife at his belt. Merlin grinned broadly, opened his mouth to call another greeting, when a gunshot rang out, and an immense sharp blow like a kick to the shoulder pushed him back. He staggered, shoulder screaming, and bit down on his tongue to keep from actually doing so.

"What…?" he managed, as Will reached him and slowed down.

"Hello, Merlin," Will said, and smiled more cruelly than he ever would have before. "We're going to kill you."

Merlin punched him, with his uninjured right fist, and then clamped that hand to his left shoulder and shouted for help, backing away from Will, who reeled backward. Two more shots rang out into the night, but neither connected. Merlin dodged into the shadow of nearby buildings and knocked at the first door he came to. No one even approached the door. He moved on to the next, with the same result, and all the while the people who'd once been his friends poured into the street and came running for him.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Merlin muttered. Someone had to be hearing this. If just enough of the militia would hear – or even Uther's soldiers – or even Arthur for that matter. If enough people heard, and came running in time, he might be all right. He couldn't kill these attackers. There were too many of them, for one, and the thought of pushing Will's life out made him sick to his stomach.

But he might not have a choice.

Just then, the street filled with light, and Merlin realised he'd cast his magic anyway, bringing a very bleary militia running in less order than they usually marched in. One was still wearing a nightshirt. But neither side had the advantage of surprise, and the militia had better numbers. The struggle was even shorter than Merlin had expected.


The door behind him opened, and Gwen peered out, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. "What's going on?"

"I don't know," Merlin said. "Someone just tried to – tried to –"

"Who the hell are you talking about?" yelled one of the militia, cutting into Merlin's attempts to make a suitable explanation for something he didn't want to understand.

"Camelot has a wizard!" Will screamed, and Merlin winced. Gwen's eyes went very wide, and she looked from Merlin to his subdued attackers and back again, the beginnings of understanding. "We were doing you a favour!"

Merlin wrenched his eyes away, not willing to see understanding dawn completely, and walked out into the streetlight again. Will made an attempted lunge in his direction as he approached, but the militia around him held him down. Merlin forced himself not to react.

"You're delusional," he said, and the members of the militia nearby eyed him warily. They had begun to uncoil rope, standard issue, to properly truss their captives. "I'm no one important."

"You're bleeding," said a woman to his left, pointing at his shoulder. "Go see a doctor. We've got this."

"I'm going," Merlin said. "Thank you."

"You're a fucking sellout," Will snarled around the man and two women restraining him, lunging again toward Merlin. "Do they know? Did you tell them your secrets, too? Are you doing Pendragon's dirty –" His captors shoved him down, cut him off, tied him up. Merlin stood as still as he could and made himself watch. He didn't say anything more. He didn't think he could.

A sudden touch at his elbow broke his resolve, and he flinched, turning to his left to find Gwen standing there. She didn't try to smile at or reassure him, but placed a hesitant hand on his good shoulder. "Did you know him?" she asked softly.

"He was my best friend."

Merlin turned his eyes back to Will, who was still glaring at him, face contorted with rage and revulsion. Merlin's shoulder throbbed with pain, and he was beginning to feel a little dizzy. His side was growing rather damp. Hadn't he been shot there before?

Morgana woke exceptionally early that morning, looking out her window to a sky not yet touched by daylight. The top of the cliffs to the east glowed, but only with phosphorescent fungi.

She dressed as quickly as possible in the chill air, pulling her thick blue coat on over more utilitarian clothing, and then stepped out into the hallway. At this hour, the only sources of useful light were the dimmed florescents on the ceiling, but some light did shine through the windows. By that light, she saw Arthur, leaning on the frame of an open window, brooding.

"Cold air won't help your complexion," Morgana called, though quietly, so as not to wake anyone else. "And it won't help you sleep, either."

"Shove off," Arthur said, but only halfheartedly. He didn't turn around to face Morgana, or even acknowledge that he was speaking to anyone in particular. "I'm not the one who needs beauty rest."

Morgana rolled her eyes. "Have you slept at all?"

Arthur simply continued staring out the window. That would be a 'no'.

"Merlin is fine, by the way," Morgana said. An aside; Arthur wouldn't actually admit to feeling concern for anyone, let alone his hapless manservant – attache, whatever – who had not even had the decency to put up a fight before being shot in the shoulder. Again.

"Did I ask you about Merlin?"

Morgana smiled, slowly, noticing how the muscles in her face bunched together in places and stretched in others, taking time to feel each crease. "No," she said eventually, just as slowly. "But I know what you want to hear."

"The guerillas are being shot at dawn," Arthur said.

"Is that what they're calling them?"

"I'm going to go watch. It's my duty, as potential heir, to see how capital punishment is carried out – to watch the consequences of the law." Arthur turned to look at her then, defiance written all over his face and the slope of his shoulders. Nothing to do with Merlin at all, of course. Morgana only smiled back.

"I'll see you later, then," she replied. "Capital punishment is no fare for a lady."

"Gaius Shallot's journals and Morgana Pendragon's account both depict a marked change in Merlin Emrys' behaviour, after the attack. The identities of his attackers were never verified, though Morgana postulated that they could have been residents of the same settlement Merlin had grown up in, practiced in banditry but not the sort of stealth they would have required to successfully penetrate Camelot and escape once shots had been fired. Faced with his own mortality, or possibly the deaths of old friends, Merlin retreated into himself, and so began his decline.

Camelot declined with him. That winter, food production fell to a low that was not able to be sustained. Eventually the famine grew to such a state that Uther Pendragon, long a firm believer in his own splendid isolation, sought to trade with one of the cities to the north, named for the old Greek state of Thebes. Their king Leonidis – for Thebes had called itself a monarchy, and not a military state – agreed to assist Camelot in a demonstration of generosity that baffled Uther. So it was that Camelot opened diplomatic relations with another local power, for the first time in her existence."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

Arthur woke him up at a ridiculous hour of the morning. Not even the morning. It was still pitch black outside, and would have been inside, too, except that Arthur had switched on the light. The grim look on his face was enough that Merlin didn't complain. Well, that, and the fact that technically he was Arthur's subordinate in all matters save life-or-death ones, and that he wasn't technically allowed to complain about being woken up. "What's going on?" Merlin asked instead.

"They took Morgana."


Arthur shook him, pulled at him to sit upright. "Do I have to spell everything out for you? Morgana's gone. So is the contingent for 'diplomacy'. They tricked us. Took the money, left us the food, and left with Morgana."

"What?" Merlin sat up on his own at that, shoving back the blankets and attempting to swing his feet out onto the floor and stand up. Unfortunately, Arthur got in the way, and so Merlin instead fell back on his bed. He made a much more dignified second attempt, glaring down at the floor and wishing he was in a position to yell at Arthur. He was very good at insubordination. Uther probably had already had enough complaints about him.

"I told you twice already, Merlin," Arthur snapped. "Get up, get dressed, we need you awake because apparently my father thinks you're important enough to know about this." He pushed at Merlin's shoulder one more time - so much for potential friendship, Merlin grumbled to himself, if it goes down the drain at the first sign of trouble - and then stalked out of the room.

Uther railed at them for an hour or so, and then shut up long enough for Arthur to volunteer to go after her. He was shut down, not only by Uther, but everyone else who'd been called together – with the exception of Merlin and Gwen, who had agreed not to say anything at all the entire time. Then Uther proceeded to write a very diplomatic and angry letter to King Leonidis, while Arthur stalked out of that room, too, and Gwen and Merlin followed.

"Get supplies," Arthur said, shortly. "We're going after her."

"All of us?" Gwen asked, eyes wide in surprise.

"Unless you don't want to."

"Oh, no, I do!" said Gwen, and she scurried away in record time.

"You, too, Merlin," Arthur said, and Merlin blinked once at him before heading off, much more slowly.

For the past few weeks, he'd been coasting on autopilot, trying and failing to get his bearings again. He'd seen his best friend killed before him, and it was a little bit his fault. Not his fault for Camelot's law, or the fact that Will had come after him – just that he'd brought the militia. Just that he'd valued his own life above his friend's.

What kind of a person did that make him? Would he be of any use to Arthur, too cowardly to save anyone's skin but his own? Merlin really was the worst man ever made a bodyguard. He would go along to find Morgana, for how could he not? What else could he do? She was his friend, and so was Gwen, and maybe even Arthur, too. He didn't want to see any more friends killed. Ever. But he wasn't sure how much he could actually do to prevent that.

He didn't wake Gaius, just left a quick note saying he'd be gone for a while, and not to worry. He also apologised for the rations he took, and the rope, and the small first aid kit. Then he packed as well as he could, and slipped back out the door to wait for Arthur and Gwen at the barricade.

Outside Camelot, in the mountains to the immediate north and east, there was snow on the ground. Merlin stared at it, dumbfounded; precipitation was unheard of in this part of the world. It had neither rained nor snowed since the days before MAD. And yet the ground above them was white, and the ground beneath them soggy.

"Leonidis has a sorcerer," Arthur explained, sounding only a little disgusted. "He brought rain – except it froze, and snowed instead. That was when the talks ended."

They made it up into the snow around noon, by Arthur's watch. By mid-afternoon, some of the snow had melted into treacherous, murky puddles. Even with boots and waterproof pants borrowed from the military stores, Merlin – and possibly the other two, though they failed to mention it – found his feet and legs soaked and shivering by the time they reached more solid land. Mud caked his left side where he had fallen, and he could feel more mud weighing down his hair. The air was growing steadily colder as the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west.

"We'll need to stop soon," Arthur remarked, glancing back at Merlin with that odd expression on his face again – sort of grim, sort of condescending, but mostly undefinable.

"But where?" Merlin asked, glancing down at his waterlogged boots. "We can't stay out here; we'll freeze overnight."

A little ahead, Gwen paused and stared intently toward the hills to their left. "I think I can see lights over there," she called back to the others. "There might be an settlement of some kind. They'll probably want payment, but we surely have something they'll want – right?"

Arthur nodded after a moment, stepping out into the slush once more. "Good spotting," he said, and then turned halfway back. "Come on, Merlin; you're the one who wanted a place to spend the night so badly."

Merlin, however, had just now realised why the valley seemed so familiar. It was familiar. He'd been used to seeing it from above, true, but the same rock formations marked the sides of the valley walls, and the same gnarled, cancerous trees sprouted precariously from pockets of earth amidst the stones. And now that he looked for it he could see the first windmill, rotating as ever upon the summit, powering a place he had been sure he would never set foot in again.

It was cruel, that the home he had left behind was only a day's journey away as the crow flew. That only chance had kept him away this long, what with Arthur's tendency to go out on long drives. And now with Will dead, and his intentions what they were, there was no chance of welcome there. But Arthur didn't know where Merlin was from, or that he had any connection to Will whatsoever. And Merlin didn't want him to find out.

"Maybe there's somewhere easier to reach," he said, with very little hope for agreement.

Naturally, his suggestion was ignored.

"What about us annoyed them so much?" Arthur asked, dropping with a thud onto the hard surface of what Merlin really hoped wasn't supposed to be a bed. "We were perfectly nice to them. We even offered to work for our keep."

Gwen glanced very briefly over at Merlin, hopefully unintentionally. But then again, she knew, didn't she? "It was probably more complicated than that."

"It was," Merlin agreed. He was sitting slumped against the wall, elbows resting on his knees, face partially in his hands. "They all hate you here."

Arthur frowned, and hesitated just a beat before speaking. "But we didn't tell them who we are."

Gwen sighed. "There isn't any point talking about it - we're here now, and at least we're not out in the cold tonight. As long as they're not actively planning to kill us, we don't need to worry about it. Best to get some sleep, while we can."


Merlin didn't speak particularly loudly, but he didn't need to; both Gwen and Arthur fell completely silent at his words. "The… people who tried to kill me, a while ago. I'm pretty sure some of them are from here. If not all of them. Because I, um. Used to live here, too. But I left for Camelot, which probably made me even less popular than I already was."

"And they probably are planning to kill us." Arthur stood up again, began pacing.

"It's likely."

"What are we going to do?" That was Gwen. She stood up as well, but to walk over to the door and look out. "They'll see us if we leave."

"Then we leave tonight," Arthur said. "Late, when they're mostly asleep. At least then our chances will be slightly better."

"I don't want to hurt anyone," Merlin objected, and apparently he sounded something like as miserable as he felt, because Gwen sat down next to him and put her arms around him. She knew what he meant.

"We'll do our best not to," she said.

"Unless they hurt us first," Arthur amended, rubbing absently at the handgun at his side.

Sometime in the night, Merlin managed to fall asleep. He woke to Arthur shaking him, as he had only two days before. It now seemed more like two months - Camelot was already growing soft and faint in his memory, like he'd never really been there at all. Ealdor, and particularly this room, seemed a great deal more real. Possibly because there was much more immediate danger here.

"We're going now," Arthur said.

"Are you ready?" Gwen asked. Sometime while Merlin had been asleep, she had bundled together their belongings again, and was carrying one. Arthur had the other, and seemed to have no intention of delegating the task of carrying it to anyone else.

"Yeah." Merlin swallowed, and stood up. He swayed a bit, vision going gray with the sudden movement, and then steadied. "I think so."

"King Leonidis was a superb strategist. Morgana said as much herself, often utilising tactics she had learned from him while his prisoner. Her time in captivity was by her account 'uneventful, and unexpectedly comfortable' – giving her rescuers no way to accuse him of mistreating her. Thus, when Arthur Pendragon and his contingent arrived to rescue her, they found themselves facing a different sort of conversation than they had anticipated."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

They found Leonidis' city of Thebes fairly easily, by the cloud of factory smoke. "Magic," Arthur muttered, and set his jaw in an unhappy line. Merlin couldn't agree more.

The city itself was nothing like Camelot. It had obviously been built on the remains of another city, or large town, not quite lost to the whims of nature and battles fought years ago. It climbed a hill to sprawl around the fortress that obviously housed its king. People watched Arthur and Gwen and Merlin as they walked by, but did not look surprised or uncomfortable. If anything, they looked curious.

The sun was setting on the second day when they walked up to Leonidis' castle and knocked upon the door. A doorman opened it, waving them inside regally, and ignoring them as soon as they had entered. Down a long hall they came to a set of double doors, also opened by a doorman, and then they were in the throne room, complete with ridiculously ornate throne.

"Welcome, citizens of Camelot," King Leonidis said, sitting atop the throne, smiling benevolently down upon them. "I believe we have a trade to orchestrate."

Leonidis played his cards right. In exchange for Morgana's freedom, and continued positive diplomatic relations with Camelot, two of their number would retrieve a certain stolen device for him. The third would wait with Morgana until the first two returned. Then Leonidis' pet sorcerer would take them all back to Camelot, where Uther would simply have to acknowledge Thebes' greater might.

"This is way too elaborate just for leverage," Merlin muttered.

"Who says it's just for leverage?" Leonidis inquired, smiling.

Gwen volunteered to stay behind. Leonidis provided Arthur and Merlin with a location, and then sent them all to sleep in very comfortable guest quarters. In the morning, before proper sunup, a squad of guards marched Arthur and Merlin to the edge of the city, facing the direction of the journey to come.

It all happened far too quickly.

Merlin stared up the cliff face, thinking dubious thoughts. "I don't think we'll be able to get up there," he said, glancing over to his companion. Arthur had his eyes trained to the top, frowning in concentration. He probably hadn't heard Merlin at all.

"It'll take us about two hours," he muttered. "If we hurry."

"Up a sheer cliff?" Merlin rested a hand against the stone, and bits of the cliff crumbled off around him. He hadn't known Arthur harboured suicidal tendencies. Delusions of grandeur, maybe. But this was just madness. "How do you intend us to climb it?"

Arthur turned to look at him then, scorn bright and apparent in his face. "With our hands and feet," he said. "And also the rope you brought."

The cliff was easily a few hundred meters high. "How do we get the rope up there?" Merlin demanded.


Arthur said this nonchalantly, almost as if he were joking, but Merlin felt his jaw drop. He should have thought of that. But more importantly, Arthur should not have known. How could he have known? This was the one secret Merlin had managed to keep from almost everyone. And Morgana had sworn she wouldn't tell...

"You're joking," Merlin said. "Right?"

Shaking his head, Arthur clapped a dusty hand on Merlin's dusty shoulder. "I'm not stupid, Merlin." He looked back up to the top of the cliff, then back down at Merlin. "You could easily get a rock up there with the rope attached. You could probably get the rope up there on its own. Actually, you could probably get us up there without the rope."

"No way," Merlin told him. "I can't do that."

"I've seen you do it." Arthur shook him, just once, and not very hard. But it seemed to make whatever point it was supposed to in Arthur's eyes. "I've seen you move things much farther distances."

"But not up!" Merlin protested.

"What's the difference?"

Merlin stared at him. "Did you never learn anything about science? Gravity is a really big deterrent when it comes to magical transportation. I could maybe get us most the way up, but I'd probably pass out at the top, and very possibly before we made it up. It's really not worth trying."

But Arthur only shrugged. "Then get the rope up there. Gravity can't have nearly as much effect on it, can it?"

"I bet your tutors quit," Merlin muttered. But he couldn't protest further; he could get the rope up to the top. He could even make it stick, so that they could climb up. Thankfully, this wasn't a shale cliff; even if the rope were secure, if the stone cut it off in the middle, all bets were off. But sandstone wouldn't harm the rope. Much. He hoped. With a silent plea to whatever sorts of deities could possibly exist or care about his fate, he tossed one end of the rope up and then shoved at it. It shot up through the winds that buffeted against the cliff face, higher and higher, until it reached the top. There it hung. Merlin tugged at the other end of the rope, which did not pull it down.

"Will it hold?" Arthur asked.

"I don't know," Merlin said. "Only one way to find out."

"This magic thing is overrated," Arthur muttered, but grabbed hold of the rope and began climbing anyway, feet pushing against the stone in front of him. Merlin watched for a few seconds, to get an idea of how the hell it was going to work, and then swallowed and pulled himself up after. The rope seemed to give a bit, but that was all. It held after that. Merlin told himself not to look down, or up at the top - in the latter case, mostly because he would only see Arthur's backside, which was really not particularly high on his list of places to see before he died. *Really*.

Time stretched out much longer than it should have. Merlin felt his hands sweat, grown cold and stiff, much too soon after they began. He had no idea if it had been seconds or minutes or hours since they began, and had no desire to look up or down to find out how much progress they had made. The rope swung around with Arthur's climbing, and more than once Merlin nearly collided with the stone face of the cliff when Arthur swung in a little too close. Other times the wind pushed him one way or another, or blew in against the cliff and into his face. Down his shirt, sometimes, too. He was too busy focusing his magic on keeping the rope aloft to do anything about the cold, though, so he did his best to ignore it entirely.

"All right down there?" Arthur called down after a while, in a most uncharacteristic gesture.

"I'm fine!" Merlin yelled back, over the roaring of the wind. Arthur wouldn't be able to spot the lie in his position.

Opening his mouth proved to be a bad idea, though. The wind rushed a mouthful of dust by, and he was sputtering for a long moment afterward, trying to get it out. He spat a few times, but after that he remembered that he probably wouldn't be able to drink anything until he got up to the top, and so did his best to swallow all the dust he could and ignore the way it coated his mouth and throat.

Up here, he couldn't hear much over the wind in his ears, couldn't see anything beyond the rope and his hands and his feet and the cliff. His world had narrowed to the here and the now and the magic keeping the rope up. If this was what big magic was like, Merlin didn't like it at all. He much preferred quick charms to the kind of focus he had to use now. His head was spinning, his eyes grown dry and aching, his hands sore and numb and probably swollen.

He had no idea how long he climbed, but eventually he put a hand up and found nothing but air. He flailed, and lost control of the enchantment – and then Arthur grabbed him by both arms and hauled him up onto the cliff.

"You're all right," Arthur said. "Relax, you're about as stiff as these rocks."

"I'm cold," Merlin complained, because it was better than "thank you". He was the one who did the life-saving around here, thank you very much.

"Is a little bit of heat really that difficult?" Arthur asked, pulling his coat in a little bit tighter and glaring pointedly at the cave mouth, where the wind howled and whistled by.

Merlin scowled at him. "I'm trying," he retorted. "You're more than welcome to try as well."

"No wonder my father outlawed magic, if that's the best it can do," Arthur grumbled. "How about a fire? Can you make a fire, or is that too difficult as well?"

"A fire with what?" Merlin said. "I don't see any fuel."

"Magic," Arthur prompted.

"Despite what you think, it's not a solution to every problem," Merlin grumbled, but flexed his hands to try to warm them up enough to gesture a fire into existence.

Twenty minutes or so later, Arthur glared at the fire. He'd been doing a lot more glaring than usual, since Morgana had gone missing. Merlin was sure it wasn't good for him, or his eyesight. But god forbid he say anything about it - Arthur still wouldn't take any suggestions about how to better his well-being, even when offered by someone as knowledgeable about these things as Gaius' apprentice had every reason to be. Clearly insanity ran in the Pendragon line, because Uther had thought Merlin would make a good bodyguard in the first place. The only thing Merlin really had going for him was an inexplicable suicidal tendency to throw himself in the way of danger. He couldn't even get Arthur to respect him enough to trust him to know where danger was.

"Do you think this is actually going to work?" Merlin asked, eventually.

"It's going to have to work," Arthur replied.

But really, it was a good thing Merlin remained skeptical, because things didn't go to plan – starting with Leonidis' sorcerer showing up and tripping about a hundred traps and then buggering off, leaving Merlin to ward them all off and Arthur to run in and grab the extremely important device. Which turned out to be nothing more than an old lightbulb, somehow still whole.

Merlin smelled a rat.

"Morgana never told the story of her rescue from Thebes. With no one else tell it for her, only a few facts are known: that her rescue took a very long time, and that things turned violent in the end. King Leonidis' temper was not well known until after Morgana and her rescuers escaped."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

The man on the dais smiled, beckoned them closer. "You have it, then?" he asked, and it was then that Merlin saw the shadows on the wall. A good thing he'd caught the trick back on the mountain; those were snipers a floor up, waiting for them to hand over the device. Merlin didn't doubt that orders had been given to let no one out of here alive today. He glanced over at Arthur, who nodded ever so slightly. Merlin looked up, indicating that Arthur should as well.

"We have it," Arthur said, raising his eyes ever so briefly to the shadow of a gunman on the wall. "We'd like to see the hostages first, though."

That was the plan; once Merlin could see Morgana and Gwen, he could easily shield them from bullets or release them from any sort of handcuffs or rope. But the king smiled down at them and shook his head. "Not so easily," he said. "Unfortunately, your companions attempted escape last night. They have not left the confines of our castle, but unfortunately we cannot present them to you at this time."

"You can't see it until we see them," Arthur repeated, crossing his arms. Merlin reached out around him with his mind, feeling for the familiar brush of Gwen's soft and kind aura, or Morgana's smooth, cool shell. He located them three floors up. Gripping the lightbulb carefully in one hand, he pushed against Morgana's shell, asking a wordless question against the side of her head.

Merlin. Her surprise was tangible, almost, a punch against the skull, vibrating through Merlin's sense of self. She turned to look at him, though she couldn't very well see anything; his body was still below, next to Arthur. Do you have it? she thought, apparently catching on.

Yes. He couldn't speak the word, but he radiated as much of an affirmative as he could, hoping she'd get the message. I need to see with your eyes, he added, pushing against the side of her head. There wasn't too much of a chance she would understand, but if she could just open her mental block a little...

She somehow managed to understand that, because in an instant he was inside her head - and how weird was that? - looking down two floors to where his own body stood next to Arthur, facing the king. That's you down there, Morgana thought. With the thing King Leonidis sent you to get. And those are snipers, ready to kill you as soon as you hand it over.

Merlin conveyed acknowledgement. Can you understand me when I do this? he added.

No response. Morgana turned her gaze on the king and his ornate chair. If you can strike at the back somehow, it'll collapse. Gwen and I found some plans for it - apparently, the King chose appearance over functionality.

Not nearly as smart as Uther, Merlin told himself. He pushed Morgana's vision toward the snipers on the walls, and attempted to form the question: can you do anything about them?

I can probably distract them somehow, Morgana said, frowning; Merlin felt the muscles in her face contract as if her body was his own. It was the most bizarre sensation he'd endured in his entire life. I can't do much more than that, I hope you realise. I'm not a wizard like you. Most of what I do will involve shouting and throwing things.

With a last non-verbal reminder of the importance of self-preservation - and wasn't he an enormous hypocrite for saying something like that? - Merlin pulled away, dropping back down to his own body.

" this. Merlin? Are you there?" Arthur waved a hand in front of his face. Blinking, Merlin took a step forward to steady himself, and lurched to the side.

"I'm sorry, I must be tired, I'm not used to this kind of travel," Merlin babbled, and hoped Arthur would get the real message. "What were you saying?"

"The circumstances of our agreement have changed," King Leonidis said, in a tone that suggested he was enjoying repeating his words almost as much as he must have enjoyed saying them the first time. "Therefore, the terms of our agreement must also change."

"We haven't done anything you haven't asked." Arthur was glaring now. "And we've done everything you've asked us. We'll give you the device, you let us and our people go freely, and everything will be fine."

"That would have been the case," the King said. "But your friends broke our agreement, and unfortunately their behaviour must reflect upon you." He stands, spreading his hands wide. "I am sorry, but there are new terms now."

At that signal - it must have been a signal - the doors to each side of the throne opened, and a group of ten guardsmen trooped into the room, carrying large machine guns with ease. They stopped in perfect formation, five on each side of the King, and took aim - not at Arthur, as they normally should have, but at Merlin. "Tell your manservant to hand over the device, and you won't be shot where you stand."

Now would be a great time, Morgana, Merlin thought as loudly as he could - though Morgana was not naturally a telepath, so it probably didn't do much good. He had to think fast. He could shield himself, and probably Arthur as well, but King Leonidis probably had a sorcerer on hand. Merlin had counted on being able to escape once he started running. Snipers wouldn't have been able to follow them too quickly. As it stood, Merlin could hold up a shield against the machine guns, but he had no idea for how long. Handing the device over was of course out of the question. If Merlin was right about it, Leonidis wouldn't care one way or the other.

Merlin took a deep breath, summoned all of his strength to him. He had to be calm for this, and steady, and focused inwardly.

Then Arthur grabbed him by the wrist and started running, and all right, maybe there were other ways to deal with this.

Bullets punched into the ground just behind them and beside them, but either chance or magic kept them unharmed until they reached the double doors, which Arthur kicked open. They ran out into the hall and almost into Morgana and Gwen.

"We need to get out of here," Morgana gasped.

"On it," said Merlin, and thought very desperately about the street outside Gaius' house in Camelot, right by the gully bridge, under the dun-yellow sky. The floor shifted under him, and things exploded behind his eyes, and shots rang out, and Gwen screamed, and then everything vanished.

Merlin hit the ground, and fainted.

"The real catalyst for Morgana's maturity was the death of Gwen Thomas, her best friend since early childhood. Though Leonidis dealt the killing blow, Morgana never ceased to blame herself for the tragedy. It can also be argued that Gwen's death brought about the end of what little friendship existed between Morgana and Arthur. In a way, this left Morgana free to act – the bonds of friendship and family severed cleanly, leaving only a tie to the city itself. And for the first time, the ruthless streak that would define her actions in the future showed through."

– A Lady of the World, Alexandra Demarkos

"I'm so sorry," Merlin said, and "I couldn't save her."

Morgana said nothing.

Merlin reached out a tentative hand and brushed a stray tuft of hair from Gwen's still face, biting his lip in a manner that suggested he might start crying. He didn't say anything at all, not even when Morgana slipped an arm around his waist to pull him into a sideways hug. He did lean against her, ever so slightly. Morgana tangled her free hand in the sheet on Gwen's stilled chest, and they stayed like that for a long time.

Eventually Merlin shifted, taking his weight back and swiping at his eyes. "She was too good," he said, and his voice caught and broke.

"She was too young," Morgana responded around the lump in her own throat.

"Have you seen Morgana?" Arthur asked, leaning carefully against the frame of the door as if it might crumble or come alive beneath him. "She's been gone all day – even before I woke up. And we need her for –"

"I haven't seen Morgana." Anything to keep that sentence from being completed.

Arthur sighed. "If you do see her, tell her to get her arse back up to the stronghold. We need her right now." But then he didn't leave, just kept leaning against the doorframe, staring into space. Merlin put down the bottles he'd been organising under the faint precognition that he wouldn't be immediately returning to them.

"You can come in," he said. "If you like."

For a moment Arthur stared straight at him without appearing to see anything – but then he shook his head, as if to shrug it off, and then shook his head again, a more clear response. "No. I need to get back up to the stronghold as well."

"Is there anything I can do?" Merlin asked. Because there had to be something besides putter around Gaius' now-spotless workspace, waiting for something to do. Morgana was probably out riding her monster on the wasteland, Arthur was ordering people around and looking for her, and Uther was probably ordering people around and complaining about her. Gaius was still working hard to determine what killed Gwen. Merlin had nothing at all to do but brood, and rearrange bottles of salvaged medicine from twenty years ago.

Arthur made as if to shake his head, but stopped before he got more than about forty-five degrees in one direction. "Walk with me."

Merlin grabbed his coat, and walked out with Arthur.

"I don't know what's going to happen to either of us right now," Arthur said, after a few minutes of silence. "We're both in the same amount of shit - her for getting us into trouble, me for going after her without my father's permission. One of us has to inherit, because no matter what he says, my father doesn't trust anyone, including us. But right now we both look like terrible choices." Arthur sighed again, and opened the door out onto the walkway. The wind that swept down the gully flung his hair out in all directions, and Merlin's scarf along with it. "So he's waiting for one of us to screw up again."

"Are you afraid it'll be you?" Merlin can't really imagine Arthur screwing up. Not badly. Not unless the alternative was something much worse.

"We've had this conversation before. I don't get nervous." Arthur continued walking, a little faster than before, so that Merlin had to run to catch up. "I'm not afraid it'll be me. I know it'll be Morgana."

"And then you'll be the heir to Camelot."

"And what the hell is that going to do for me?" Arthur demanded, and his voice turned rapidly angrier with each word. "Some young kid with a position he didn't earn, just gained because he wasn't the biggest failure of the family. No one is going to respect me for it, and it's going to take years to fix that mistrust. And in that time, if I do anything wrong at all, it will just take more time to fix it."

Merlin opened his mouth, but realised just in time that he had absolutely nothing to say to that. They continued walking.

"You know," Merlin said, after another long silence, "maybe Morgana won't screw up as badly as you predict."

Arthur turned to face him, looking older and grimmer than Merlin had ever seen him. This man could actually be king. Merlin suddenly felt very scared, and very much alone. "This is what is going to happen today," Arthur said, voice barely calm, barely audible, but rattling through Merlin's eardrums nonetheless. "First, Morgana will wait until the last minute is up before returning. She'll have spent the entire time screaming and raging against fate or Leonidis or me for letting you and Gwen help save her. When she comes in, she won't be in her right mind at all. She'll be reckless. She's got a huge, dangerous machine. You know what happens next."

"That's how it's going to happen?" Merlin couldn't imagine Morgana ever not being in control, but if ever there was a time for her to lose it, now was that time. He just hoped she didn't blame him as well for going along with Gwen and Arthur, for not saving them all. Or maybe she just blamed him for finding a different set of loyalties. There had been a time, after all, when the sun rise and set with her. He hadn't sworn fealty, but he'd acted like he had.

But Merlin was getting pretty good at letting people down and moving on with his life. He suspected it was part of being a sorcerer.

"That's how it might happen," Arthur said. "I don't think I'm wrong."

"But you want to inherit. Don't you?"

Arthur stopped. They were now standing in about the middle of the concrete walkway, in the worst of the dust and wind, over the deepest bit of the gully. Below, though Merlin had no plans on actually seeing for himself, rocks and dips formed a sharp and jagged floor, covered in the yellow-gray dust that covered everything out here. The sky was the same colour. So was Arthur's hair, and the hood that should have been covering it. Fit to be king, covered in the soil of his kingdom. Merlin could have reached out and rubbed a piece off, and been holding Camelot and not Arthur at all.

"I trust you," Arthur said, slowly, like he hadn't realised it until just now. Like he hadn't said it before, when they were halfway up a cliff, or shivering in a cave, or facing down a million protections to retrieve the piece of junk that should have saved them all.

"You do?" Merlin asked, because he'd almost fallen off the rope, nearly killed them when the fire went out, and the piece of junk hadn't saved them, hadn't done anything at all.

"I don't understand it either," Arthur said. "And then I go and say things like that, expecting you to keep them to yourself. Because I trust you. But you're smarter than that. You know better than to think I have any business trusting anyone."

"I'm really not very smart at all," Merlin said, in a small voice. Arthur might not have heard.

"But even so," Arthur continues, "even so, I expected better of you. As a servant, if nothing else. You could have kept your own secrets and let me keep mine. Except maybe it wasn't that easy. How long has my father known about you?"

The last sentence was not a statement, but nearly a shout. Merlin considered several answers, but then decided to stick with the truth. "I don't know. But if he has, he's known since he gave me that job."

Arthur moved too fast for Merlin to protect himself against, pushing him down and pinning him against the side of the walkway. He stared up at the sky, the smoke, and Arthur, and wondered if he should be more afraid than he was. The rough side of the walkway pressed sharply against his back, and his head grew heavy with blood. It was very cold, with the wind howling around his head and up his jacket, but he paid this little mind. More important: Arthur's angry looming face, the hands clenching his arms, the only two things keeping him from falling down the gully to die a broken death.

"Then how am I supposed to trust you?" Arthur said, voice low and menacing. "My father's spy."

"I'm not – " Merlin began.

"I've known almost as long as you have," Arthur interrupted. "But at first you kept out of the way, so I didn't care. And then you never asked questions, so it didn't matter. And then you helped me rescue Morgana, which I imagine my father didn't like too much. So now you're making it up to him by getting me to tell you all my sordid secrets."

"I'm not a spy," Merlin said. "I'm supposed to be your bodyguard."

Arthur burst into surprised, incredulous laughter. "What?"

"After I saved your life that first time, Uther said you needed someone completely loyal to you in a position to help you if that ever happened again. I was supposed to keep you safe, no matter the cost to me. So if that meant using magic or dying… I'd probably die anyway if I didn't."

Arthur didn't ask how he could believe any of that. He also didn't loosen his grip. "And you swear that what you're telling me is true?"

"I swear," Merlin said, softly. "I swear it's all true."

Arthur stared down at him and still did not let go. "I believe you."

Merlin's pulse was racing now, though before it had not. He opened his mouth to ask why he had not been let up, but then said nothing. He met Arthur's eyes.

Then Arthur hauled him up off the walkway wall. "If we hurry, we might be able to stop Morgana from doing something stupid," he said, and he only sounded a little out of breath.

They never made it to the barricade. A swirl of tilting ground later, Merlin slammed into rock at the feet on a tall, dark-haired woman who smiled quite unhappily at him.

Her name was Nimueh. She told him a story. Once upon a time, the world was whole and human and didn't need magic, so humans used magic instead of things they needed. And then they fought, long and desperately, for those things they needed but didn't use, and then someone used magic, and then everyone did. And then the people woke up one morning to a world that wasn't there anymore.

"I will give you power and control," she said. "You must keep this from happening again."

"It'll happen again?" Merlin asked.

"It only takes two wizards to start a war, Merlin," she chided. And then she leaned to whisper in his ear what he had to do. Merlin shouted back a refusal. And then she told him what would happen if he refused.

"The end of the world, Merlin."

"Please don't make me choose."

"Then you choose inaction. And so the world waits longer for its doom."

"I don't want to lose –"

"In the name of a good cause," Nimueh said, "we all must sacrifice that which we love most."

"I don't –"

"Goodbye, Merlin," she said, and sent him spinning away again.

Merlin stumbled and fell to his knees as the transportation spell ended. Then he sneezed the last of Nimueh's magic out of his sinuses and winced as grit ground into his knees and palms. He felt as if he had just run all the way from Nimueh's hideout, instead of using magic. Next time someone said anything about magic being a crutch, he was going to have arguments to make.

"What the hell happened?" Arthur demanded. He was leaning against a rock face, staring down at the familiar city below. Thebes. "We were just –"

"Magic," said Merlin. It swirled in his veins and his nerves and his brains and sang in his ears.

"Arthur," he said, "We have to do something."

It felt so natural, walking through the halls of an unknown building, unseen and unfelt by anyone in the vicinity or their machinery. Merlin didn't say a word, though, didn't tell Arthur they were safe. Nimueh's warning kept playing through his head. The favoured son of Camelot, whisked by magic to kill the king Leonidis. That would not sit well with anyone, and might even propel the two citites to war. And if Nimueh was right? What if Leonidis did have a sorcerer? Would it matter in the end? Merlin and Arthur would be long gone by then, and one sorcerer would only lead to Camelot's inevitable defeat.

No, you needed two sorcerers to destroy a world.

Merlin could stand by and watch Camelot end. Merlin was finding lately that he could let a lot of things happen. Or maybe this had been something he had always been able to do. As long as he was all right, still breathing, nothing was too precious to sacrifice. Growing up in this world taught him well: nothing had the same worth as another day to live.

He paused against a wall as Arthur froze, waiting for sudden footsteps around a corner to fade away. There was no point, tiptoeing like this. But it made Arthur feel better about it, so they would. Merlin would also do anything for Arthur. And now, standing with his back to a stranger's wall, breathing just a little heavily, that scared him to death.

Because Nimueh was probably right. And Merlin didn't care.

"Where is he?" Arthur whispered, once the footsteps died away.

"Just a little farther," Merlin said, only a little louder, and they kept going. Merlin didn't look where he was going, simply kept pushing at the enchantment, seeing how elaborate he could make it. Already it gave, knocked against itself and buckled with complexity, but Merlin built it up each time it wavered. An exception for unexpected allies. A condition for tangibility. A way to avoid locked doors. And a scent to track their victim with, so that Merlin would not have to watch where he was going at all. He felt magic sing in his ears and rush through his nerve endings and up his spine. The strength was something he never once had experienced before. If it came down to it, he could destroy a city. He could probably destroy two cities, without harming a hair on his or Arthur's heads.

Then there was the door, the right door, and it was locked. Merlin did not slow down, merely raised a hand and waved it lazily at the closed door, and watched it noiselessly sweep to the side. They entered without a word, and stood at the foot of Leonidis' bed, and Merlin wondered for the first time how to kill him. A magic spell to still his heart? Arthur's sword through his chest? A slow, excruciating death, screams muffled by spells so that Merlin and Arthur could watch him suffer as long as they pleased?

"Do you want to, or should I?" Merlin asked, and a grin tugged at the edges of his mouth like he'd never grinned before. There was a moon in the sky, visible through the window, and a gun on Leonidis' desk. Arthur walked over to it and lifted it, letting the light reflect from its sleek lines and curves. He did not smile, not even a small acknowledgment that Merlin had spoken. Merlin thought of asking again, of hitting his prince in the knowledge that there was nothing anyone could do. He was more powerful than Arthur, than Uther, than Gaius. He could fell Morgana before she could even think to stand against him, and Nimueh still lay cold on a cave floor. Merlin could do anything he might want to do. Save the world, or destroy it forever.

It wouldn't take two sorcerers to end the world. It would just take him. Just one.

He could do it.

Arthur turned around, holding the gun still, and then froze. Merlin checked himself and found the grin on his face, and mania that must be showing in his widened eyes and the clenching of his fingers. No wonder Arthur looked like he'd seen a ghost. He was probably realising just why Uther hated magic. Well, Uther was right, and he was going to learn this for himself. After Leonidis, what was to stop Merlin from killing him too? He could rid this world of all its old leaders, men and women of the old world. Their values were invalid, their memories unhelpful. Uther could go, Arthur could be king. And Merlin could ensure that he be king of Camelot and every adjacent region, and every region adjacent to that, and to that. A great and powerful empire, ruled by this man with a gun and Merlin's suggestion, and a dash of magic every so often, just to remind the world who held the true power.

"What the hell?" Arthur asked, and Merlin frowned at him.

"What's wrong?"

"What's wrong with you?" Arthur lowered the gun. "You hid your head whenever my father ordered executions. You ran away rather than take a bandit's life. And now you're smiling."

"I learned something about survival," Merlin said, crossing his arms. "Either they do it, or I do."

"Who's 'they'?" Arthur asked, and he stroked the gun's handle with his thumb like it was just an idle image, just a prop. Something meaningful but safe. Something like Merlin might have once been.

"Everyone else," Merlin said. "I have to take care of dangers before they take care of me."

Sometimes even that's not good enough. Merlin still had revenge promised for every limp lock of crinkled dark hair, every smile that wouldn't see the light of day again. He still had words to say for a hateful face, condemning him for a betrayal all in his mind. But Will deserved death for threatening Arthur. No one threatened Arthur and lived - not anymore. Not with Merlin on the job.

"What are you planning to do?" Arthur asked, and it was like he knew, like he knew exactly what was going to happen. He brought the gun up. He pointed it.

Revenge, thought Merlin, and the fire burned through his veins. He thought of Will's face again, the single word on his lips as the firing squad took aim. Kill him, thought Merlin, and he didn't see Leonidis at all, but only Arthur, standing there with a gun in his hand. How long had he been under Merlin's unconscious control?

"Fire," said Merlin, and the ensuing blast shook the room.

"Fire," said Merlin, and the next shot, to his ears, made not a sound.

"With the way to the rule of Camelot suddenly clear, Morgana spent a great deal more time cultivating good relations with all the people who had loved Arthur best. No one suspected her of killing her step-brother – with the sorcerer Merlin revealed, blame was placed upon him, and all Camelot mourned together. That spring, Camelot re-opened official relations with Thebes – under new rule, for Leonidis had died quite suddenly of alleged heart failure. Uther stepped down from command that summer, and spent the remainder of his life in retirement, fondly overseeing his step-daughter's rule and assisting in the training of her soldiers, a task to which he fit extraordinarily well."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

"I understand that your state finds itself in uncertain governmental positions." Uther Pendragon laced his hands behind his back. "We, too, are going through an amount of turmoil concerning the line of succession." He took a step to one side, as if to begin pacing, but then stopped and resettled.

"Do you suggest that our mutual interests would be better served seeing to our own problems, and leaving each other be?" The man in the long black coat frowned, touched a hand to his chin. "A pre-emptive ceasefire, perhaps?"

Uther held up a hand. "A parting of the ways would only return us to the state of distrust we have been accustomed to. To properly sow peace between our states, we must work together to demonstrate our dedication to a common goal." He waved a hand across the table. "Only then can we easily trust each other."

The man in black lowered his own hand to the table. "A commendable ambition, but I am afraid that such conditions may not be within our grasp." He paused, perhaps for effect, inhaling deeply once. "I am successor in name to our king, but the power does not yet reside in me. Hence my presence here, and not a diplomat's."

"Then allow me to aid you in achieving the throne of Thebes," Uther said. "And then, perhaps, we will talk more."

Though the conference continued on late into the night, Morgana slipped away before the sun had quite finished sinking into the hazy horizon. She'd run out of anger sometime between the time Gwen died and the peace talks began, and though she felt horror, disbelief, and terrible, terrible grief, it all condensed into an ache behind her ribs, weighing her down against the storm without. She grasped the knob of her bedroom door and stumbled in, collapsing on her bed as she ran out of energy.

In the dim dusk light, colours all faded to varying degree of gray. Morgana could not distinguish between the clothes hanging on the edge of her bed and the bed itself, the blankets and the floor. Outside the sky glowed blue and gold and orange, though it had been gray-brown all afternoon and would soon fade to black. Somewhere out there, Merlin could probably see the same sky. Was he watching it? Or was he too busy with his powers and his flight, having accomplished what he needed to accomplish? He wouldn't have enjoyed what he had to do. He must have believed in his cause, though. He must have thought he was doing the right thing.

And maybe he had. But that wasn't a thought Morgana wanted to follow. She sat up with vague plans to undress for bed, and then her fingers encountered smooth paper that crinkled and crackled, loud in the silence of the evening. It hadn't been there before.

She picked it up, unfolded it. The words written there blended too well with the paper's shadow, but instead of switching on the light, Morgana stood up and went to the window, using the last bit of daylight to read the letter.

Morgana –

By the time this letter reaches you, you'll know all about what happened, I imagine. It's true. But you have to understand – I had to stop the war before it started. It was either that or help destroy the world again. As you probably know by now, I'm a sorcerer. And I would have used my magic however I had to, in order to protect Arthur, and Gwen, and you. In the end, I could only save one of you.

I didn't like the choice I had to make. I didn't want to make it. But it was the right thing to do. Gaius is forever telling me that "right is not always easy, and the easy choice is rarely the right one". I think I know what he means now. You'll look after him, won't you? I think my actions will hurt him the most. Show him this letter, please. I think it might help.

Don't ever come looking for me, either. You won't find me, and – there's some things you can't know. And Camelot will need you, I think.

I'm sorry. For everything, really.


"The sorcerer Merlin was never seen again, though on occasion tales of his adventures passed through gossip chains and were written down. Interestingly, he was always depicted with a companion, though no two stories could agree on this companion's identity. A ghost, or a familiar; perhaps a dragon, or a young boy lacking a father. A gallant gentleman looking for adventure. But here his tale diverges from Camelot's, and so here his importance wanes."

After The End: The Rise and Fall of Camelot, G. O. Monmouth.

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