Leon was the first to spot the movement. It only took a few seconds assessment to realise it was Arthur and Boris. Getting up he turned through the archway to address the camp.
They all started to stir. Gwen and Uther were up first; Merlin followed, scrabbling frantically up, with Gwaine huffing as Merlin's elbow slammed into his side. Darting around Leon Gwen reached the archway, blinking in shock as Arthur strolled down the causeway with Boris trotting beside him chomping on the stolen sausages, and for some reason Arthur sang the Muppets theme as he ambled along.
He paused when Gwen ran forward and threw her arms around his neck, clinging to him tightly. He looked surprised and mildly disturbed for a few moments before putting his arm lightly around her waist. Gwen tightened her hold.
"Thank God you're all right." She released her grip and pulled back. "You are all right?"
"Perfectly," Arthur told her.
Gwen stepped back, frowning and looking a little unconvinced.
"I am," Arthur announced to both her and Uther as his father stepped forward.
"What did you think you were doing?" Uther demanded, although he clearly didn't require Arthur to answer, instead as Gwen backed up Uther took her place, hugging Arthur just as tightly.
Arthur sounded it, and looked it to Merlin, but he still approached cautiously, unsure of his reception. Arthur slowly extracted himself from Uther, who took the hint and moved to one side to allow Arthur to face Merlin. For a moment Merlin looked apprehensive. Arthur watched the nervous approach with a frown.
"What's the matter with you?" Arthur asked him. "Couldn't you find anything?"
"No... Yes! I did... but..." Merlin tailed off, not entirely sure what he was saying. Arthur understood the gist of it, despite the incoherence.
"I'm fine, Merlin," Arthur repeated. He met Merlin's nervous gaze remembering his words, that the only person he had even slept with was Gwaine, and Merlin had every intention of keeping it like that. No doubt Gwaine did, he clamped a hand down on Arthur's shoulder in something of a gesture of thanks. It was all he did, also backing off to let Merlin and Arthur face each other.
"I'm sorry, I just..." Merlin tailed off and then his eyes widened in surprise as Arthur stepped forward, reaching to put his arms around Merlin's shoulders and hug him as if it was the most normal thing in the world. All of them watched with varying levels of surprise, Arthur had always made his feelings on physical contact clear, but it appeared to be something he had worked through. He took Merlin into his arms without any hesitation, rubbing his hand up and down Merlin's back in a reassuring gesture.
"Don't worry about it; better me than you when it comes to Cenred."
Arthur pulled back. "Trust me; I got more out of it than he did. Plus Morgause is superbly pissed off now. I get the feeling Cenred will turn the moment it looks like things won't go her way."
"But you can't trust him," Gwaine argued.
Arthur turned to look at him, stepping back from a relieved looking Merlin. "Not as far as I could throw him, but I can trust his self-serving nature."
No one could really answer that. The fact that Arthur looked entirely fine and well, and utterly undisturbed by what he had been forced to do the previous night was something none of them could argue with. Arthur turned back to Merlin.
"So you did find something?"
"Yes. But I'm not sure what some of it means. Some of it is obvious, it's your stuff, or rather King Arthur's stuff. You're technically not the exact same person but..."
"Where's he going with those sausages?" Arthur mused interrupting Merlin's halting talk. All the way back Boris had been happily chewing through his chain of sausages, and now, all of a sudden, he appeared to be furtively skulking off with the remaining few. As he trotted off, he hunched his shoulders and lowered his head, as if that would mean he was suddenly invisible.
Merlin turned in confusion as Arthur gently pushed past him to trail after the wyvern. Boris jogged around a corner, and Arthur clambered up the uneven foundations of the castle and went after him. Merlin glanced at the others and then ran after Arthur. Gwaine, Leon, and Morgana all followed. Percival obeyed Leon's signal to stay and watch the archway and Lancelot, preferring to stay close to Gwen, opted to stay by the camp.
Uther pondered his position, and then as he heard Arthur's yelp of shock he leapt up the wall and ran around the corner. As he ran he heard Arthur's call it was answered by a strong, resounding, voice.
All of them stayed frozen with shock, Arthur rather painfully on his backside where he had fallen. Boris lingered, not entirely certain which direction to go. The dragon gave a sad sounding murmur and lowered her head, gazing sorrowfully up at Merlin, who used the deep tone of voice to bellow something else at her. The dragon retreated, huddling back into the crevice from which she had jumped out at Arthur. Boris shuffled with her, stretching his neck out to put the sausages down, nudging his offering with his nose to push them towards the dragon.
"Merlin, don't shout at her," Arthur said looking up at him. Merlin stared down with wide eyes.
"I thought she was going to hurt you, when you fell."
Arthur shifted so instead of being planted on his backside he was on one knee.
"The only thing hurt is my arse, and a modicum of pride." He did rub his stinging backside, wincing where he found a sore spot from landing on a stone. "And I don't think she would, she must have been staying here, might be why Boris is here."
Boris tilted his head and grunted in confirmation. Then he went back to nudging the sausages.
"Why?" Gwaine asked.
"To keep her company," Arthur said.
"How do you really know she's a she and he's a he?" Gwaine added.
"I think the stories do say that the young dragon that was rumoured to have been in existence was female," Uther mused. "And the stories of Merlin's power as a Dragonlord appear to be confirmed."
"Still no need to yell at her," Arthur informed everyone. He shuffled forward and picked up the sausages Boris had been pushing towards her. He huffed irritably at Arthur.
"Oh shush," Arthur admonished before carefully offering out the meat to the nervous looking dragon. "There you go."
She eyed him with large, sad looking eyes. Arthur shuffled forward and she cowered a little, giving Merlin a nervous look. Merlin looked a little rueful and said something else in the strange language, it held a hint of command to it, but baring in mind Arthur's words, he kept it as soft spoken as possible. The dragon gave a mewling reply before easing forward to take the sausages. She retreated again hunching down to eat the offering. Boris shuffled forward, curling close to her, sitting by the entrance of her cave. The wyvern gave a rumbling murmur, nudging her side gently. Arthur watched them for a moment before turning to look up at Merlin.
"I take it you didn't find her earlier on then?"
Merlin shook his head. "No, I didn't think to come this way."
"So... what did you find?"
"There's a cave, more sort of a vault I think. I think you, King Arthur, was buried there."
Arthur slowly got to his feet. Boris murmured and looked up at him.
"You stay with her," Arthur told him. "I suppose we had better name her hadn't we?"
"Her name is Aithusa," Morgana said. The dragon looked up, pausing eating her sausages and she gave a bleating sound of greeting to Morgana. Getting up she eased her way out of the small cave she had tucked herself into. Morgana looked quite startled as the dragon pushed her nose into her hand.
"She likes you," Arthur said. "So, what have you found?"
"Wow, I mean, wow."
Arthur looked at the deep room. The steps led a good way down but the ceiling of the vault ran up high, arching over. In the centre of the room, neatly laid out was a chain mail shirt, a red tunic, a pair of leather gloves and some boots. The clothing had been laid on a raised section of stone, which had clearly been put there for that reason. Arthur reached out, gently touching the soft material of the tunic. It looked very neatly maintained, after so long; Merlin had, somehow, found a way to preserve it.
"Mine, or King Arthur's, I presume."
"I think, from what you said about the conversation you had with me... or... not me, other me..." Merlin paused. "That's really weird, but I think as you are the Once and Future King that you are more likely to be him, more exactly than anyone else is their other selves. If you see what I mean."
"No," Uther said. Merlin bit his lip.
"I think he means that as we have only ever existed once before, whereas everyone else has turned up previously, we are less diluted than the rest of you. I am more likely to be like King Arthur than you are Uther Pendragon, who was Arthur's father. You have only fathered me twice, but existed more than that..." Arthur paused and turned to look at Merlin. "I'm not explaining it much either."
"More sensibly than the other half of the coin," Leon said. "That's how you are described, two sides of the same coin."
"When did we enter a really clichéd soap opera?" Morgana asked as she slowly stepped into the vault. The dragon trailed along behind her and Boris followed along trotting over to where Arthur stood.
"Why do I get a wyvern when you get a dragon?" Arthur asked. Morgana shrugged.
"I think the other dragon died," Merlin said sadly. "We found a hillock on the other side of the island, with a carving of a dragon on it. I doubt I buried him here, but I think I mourned him."
"So, she's the only dragon then? I guess you decided she needed company. Boris is kind of a substitute," Arthur mused. "That's a bit sad really. She must have been here with you, but you had to leave and she couldn't. She doesn't look very well."
"Stories state the dragon was imprisoned," Leon said looking at the laptop he had propped on his arm to keep searching through the files. "As she grew she became deformed. From what I can tell, Merlin, her Dragonlord, was unable to heal her. From that picture we have of Kilgharrah, it's clear that she is much smaller than he was."
"He was millennia old, or older than she is," Merlin reasoned, while he watched Arthur finger the chain mail.
"Still, it's over a thousand years since she was born, from what I can find, she's hardly grown."
Morgana hoisted herself up onto a ledge at the side of the vault. Aithusa settled under the dangling feet, stretching her head up to let Morgana pet her.
"Maybe the lack of magic had affected her."
"It wasn't lacking in magic when she was born, magic returned to the land and Merlin stayed faithful to Camelot, even after Arthur died. He protected the queen, and the knights of the round table, those that remained. And why am I finding all this information now, I can't even believe I have an internet connection," Leon said.
"You probably don't," Arthur said, moving to the top of the stone table, leaning against it, at the far end, where a dagger lay, just over the neck of the carefully laid out clothing. "It's not only this stuff we are finding now, it's all that information as well. This is the stuff I need, but, the purpose is still evading us."
"I don't see why," Morgana said.
"Think about it. Arthur's job, previously, was to create Albion, bring all the kingdoms together and restore the balance of magic to said kingdoms. Which I did, and once I had done it, along came Mordred."
"Who killed you," Merlin snapped. Arthur looked up.
"But he didn't, Merlin, if you look at it a little differently. They were both fatally injured on the battlefield, at Camlann. Mordred died there, he was buried. Arthur wasn't dead, he was brought here. I'd served my purpose there, in that time, and once I had done that, that was it, I needed to be preserved for the rest of the prophecy to complete; the future part. Mordred was there to ensure that happened. That was his purpose. The purpose now is the one thing that is not revealing itself." Arthur lifted his hand and waved it vaguely in the direction of the mainland. "They don't know it, Mordred doesn't know it, he just thinks he's here to kill me."
"Like he did last time," Uther said. "Mordred probably died thinking that he had killed you, King Arthur. He had struck a fatal blow, why would he think any different, even if you had been buried here."
"Or does he just think that this time will be a little more fatal?" Leon asked.
"Thanks for the optimism," Arthur said.
Leon frowned, looking confused. "Oh, well, presumably when you die this time you don't reincarnate."
"Well, how about we consider the fact that I'm not going to die. I haven't done anything, which would make this time round rather pointless." Arthur glowered at him a little before looking around at the others. "We can forget anyone else fighting, the battle of Camlann was simply a stage for Arthur and Mordred to face off on. The rest of it seems irrelevant."
"Some of the stories you showed me were Arthur coming back to fight Mordred after he had taken your kingdom, and your queen. No offence Morgana, he's your cousin but ew!" Gwen said. Morgana smirked.
"I've read those stories as well, ew! at him being my son, with my brother."
"It really does sound like a very bad soap opera," Gwaine said. Merlin giggled, clamping his hand over his mouth to stifle the sound.
"So," Arthur said. "I'm meant to fight, and have some armour in which to do it, although, we don't entirely know why this time. I guess then Merlin might not have known how deeply it resonated the last time. But you've had long enough to think about it."
"There's something else that was left here, you need to see it," Merlin said. Arthur nodded and then looked to Gwen.
"I think I should add. It was Morgause that left that bracelet for you, the Eye Of The Phoenix. She wanted you out of the equation."
"But why?" Gwen asked. "What was I?"
"Arthur's queen," Leon said.
"More than that," Uther said. "She was Camelot's salvation, and what Arthur fought for. Without her you would not be who you are now. Gwen has helped this time, they must have known that."
"A queen is her king's confidant," Leon said.
"But in the stories, Gwen betrayed Arthur," Gwen said. "Why wouldn't they just follow that?"
"History is written by the victors," Arthur said. "It's told by the people who are there to tell it. Merlin didn't die. Merlin is immortal, and ensured that he was here, and he must have heard everything, but he probably made sure that you all, whenever it needed to be seen, saw what was necessary. Whatever they decided to read, and understand, he probably left to them."
"He could have manipulated them," Leon said.
"No, he wouldn't have. Merlin wouldn't have done anything that could be considered unfair."
Merlin blinked, looking a little surprised by that.
"This isn't a football game, Arthur, there are not any referees," Uther snapped.
"No, but Merlin knew what part of it was mine. That's why this is here, I have to fight, and he left me what I needed. I have the sword, I've got the outfit, what else do I need."
"Actually, there is one more thing," Merlin said. "Come and look."
He turned and walked out of the vault, by a door that Arthur had just assumed as a shadow. Everyone else, but Gwaine, looked confused. Gwaine had presumably been with Merlin when he had been hunting around the island for what he needed. Arthur followed, hearing the others trailing behind him. They took several steps down and then encountered a very strange staircase upwards, that couldn't, Arthur thought, possibly exist because it seemed to at least reach the first floor as they trudged up the steps.
His hand trailed down to his pocket and he cursed to himself. He didn't have the picture anymore, of the castle that had been there, that Merlin had built, which existed but didn't exist.
Pockets of magic still existed. Old Merlin had told him that. The shadow in the room probably led into one, and the castle was still here. It was just that no one could see it, Merlin's presence had probably unlocked the metaphorical doors.
"How the hell are we going upstairs?" Leon asked.
"You know that castle in that picture?" Arthur said.
"Although it doesn't look like it, it's still here, just we can't see it."
"Like an alternate dimension," Gwaine said.
"I guess so," Arthur said. "Merlin had time to make a few of them from what he was saying to me."
"And he left the picture then? Which you found, and wanted, so he left a trace of something for you to find." Leon mused. "And then Cornelius Segan woke up."
"Could be they were following Merlin's trail to find you," Uther said.
"Or the other way round," Arthur said. "They've all been playing this game, and I've been oblivious to it. That's a bit annoying."
"I was up to whatever it was I thought you wanted, or something..." Merlin said and Arthur heard the creak of boards. He jogged up behind Merlin and looked at the room. A small room because it didn't require space. The two items were small and neatly placed on their own pedestals.
"Why are there two of them?" Arthur asked.
"I can only touch one," Merlin said putting his hand on the neat gold band that presumably fit Arthur's head. Merlin grazed his hand over the more ornate crown and his hand passed through.
"Okay, so I have only got one, two seems a bit complicated. Why would I have two anyway."
"You are the king of Camelot, and then the king of Albion," Leon said. Arthur turned.
"That was a good question you asked earlier, why are you suddenly the oracle of everything?"
Leon looked up from the laptop he had been keeping balanced on his arm. "I don't know."
"Never mind," Arthur said. "So this is mine then, both of them are but for some reason I only get one. Do I wear it or what?"
Arthur picked it up, looking at the gold band hesitantly. Merlin shrugged.
"I don't know I just know that..."
Arthur didn't hear the rest of Merlin's words as he experimentally put the item on his head. As it connected it almost drove him down onto his knees.
'Do you know how to walk on your knees.' 'I wouldn't have a friend who could be such an ass.' 'Shut up Merlin.' 'Cabbage-Head.' 'It's been like that for hundreds of years and it's not about to change for you.' 'Yes, Sire.' 'Arthur.' 'You must be courage.' 'It's the ultimate test of strength and courage.' 'I told them it would never be you.' 'You're a sorcerer.' 'I blame myself for what you have become.'
The words swamped Arthur's mind, he felt vaguely aware of the others rushing to stop him from hurting himself as he fell. He let them, instead Arthur let the words run through his mind. As he dropped and his head fell forward he knew the crown would fall, and the moment would be lost. Arthur lifted his head wincing at the clang of metal. It was not around him, he watched, he felt himself fight, and he gasped at the searing pain as Mordred slammed the sword into him. Arthur knew he responded in kind and something shifted inside him. He bled onto the battlefield, so did Mordred. But Merlin had taken him away, had thought he could be saved. Lights flashed behind his closed eyes and Arthur gritted his teeth and opened his eyes, the sound of the crown clattering to the floor bought him back to reality.
"Arthur are you all right?"
"Next time you need to leave post it notes around the place, like 'Warning, this crown may give you serious flashback syndrome.' Fucking hell, Merlin, you didn't think to warn me."
"I've just watched my former life. I spent an awful lot of time telling you to shut up and throwing things at your head."
"That's not very nice," Merlin said.
Arthur pressed his head between his hands. "For what you just did you deserved it in advance. Ow! And trust me, you got your own back."
"Sorry?" Merlin offered tentatively.
"Apology accepted. On the plus side, I think I can manage in a fight, except for one downside."
"And what is that?" Uther demanded.
"Not telling, just in case I'm wrong. Help me get changed, I need to get ready, and I am not wearing that damn thing, I am not a king or a prince or anything. I'm just me, I'm Arthur Pendragon."
"Do I look stupid?" Arthur asked as he tugged at the chainmail.
"If you were going to a party, I'd say yes; but for the occasion today, I'd say no."
"You're better dressed than the competition," Percival said dropping the material of the red tunic over Arthur's head to settle it over the chainmail. He flicked the material around, trying to tug the creases out of it.
"Percival, it's fine," Arthur said, taking the belt from Merlin's hand and looping it around his waist, securing it so it didn't press the rings of the chainmail into his stomach. He shifted it about until it felt comfortable.
"Here," Uther said, moving to his left side and he gently eased the sword into Arthur's belt settling it on his hip. Arthur shifted experimentally. "Keep your hand on the hilt when you are walking so the blade doesn't tangle around your legs."
"Good advice," Arthur said.
"And don't let yourself get killed."
Arthur looked up in surprise, meeting his father's gaze, seeing the worry in his eyes. As much as Uther knew Arthur had to do this, Arthur guessed he didn't like the idea of it. It was probably, Arthur thought with sudden insight, easy for him when Arthur had been no more than a fact, something Uther knew existed, but had yet to encounter. Now he knew him, and had spent time with him, it would make it much harder.
"That's good advice too," Arthur told him which at least coaxed a smile out of him. "Now, you're sure I don't look stupid?"
"No, you look, well..." Gwen tailed off. "Kind of magnificent."
"Do you want your crown as well?"
"Cos that will be real useful in a fight, plus the damn thing gave me a headache," Arthur said to Merlin who still tentatively held the gold band.
"It might stop a sword cracking your head," Gwaine suggested.
"Not helpful and no. I don't think so, you keep it Merlin."
Mordred's voice echoed from beyond the archway, positioned on the causeway.
"Couldn't I just shoot him in the head?" Morgana snarled. Arthur turned swiftly.
"No!" he ordered with an odd urgency. "This is my job, I'll deal with him. I think I've got everything I need."
Boris trotted up to him and sat at his feet, lifting his nose to push Arthur's hip.
"Including my escort," Arthur said patting Boris' head. He then put his hand back on the sword hilt and walked a few experimental steps. "I reckon I've got that."
He turned to look at the others, who had all clustered together a little, staring at him with shock and awe. Arthur took a breath and shrugged his shoulders, managing a brief smile.
"Here we go then."
And he stepped through the archway to meet Mordred.