Disclaimer: Merlin belong to the BBC and Shine. No copyrightinfringement is intended and no money is being made.
Warnings: War, angst, minor character death, major character death (temporary/reincarnation).
Author's Notes: Written for the Merlin Big Bang, Paperlegends, on LJ.
Thanks and love to my betas, Nu_Breed, Marguerite_26 and Sabriel75, to my cheerleaders Prplhez8 and Scribblemoose, and to my amazing artist, Tindu. (The story with art embedded can be read at my LJ, nympha-alba . livejournal . com)
See notes at the end for a list of books that were important for this story.
DESTINY THAT DARKLY HIDES US
By Nympha Alba
That's what Destiny is: to be face to face
and nothing but that and always opposite.
PART ONE – RIVER-GOD OF THE BLOOD
To sing the beloved is one thing, another, oh,
that hidden guilty river-god of the blood.
She is so beautiful.
Reluctant to leave, Arthur stops by the door and turns to look at her again, following her graceful lines with his eyes. It's been a perfect day with crystal-clear skies and the air crisp and sweet like an apple. His head aches a little, his face is probably still streaked with oil and his eyes feel gritty despite the goggles. He pulls off his neckerchief and rubs it over his face.
Outside the hangar he stops to look up at the sky. It's still perfect for flying, golden and glowing with the late afternoon sun. He raises his hand in salute as Jack, one of the mechanics, shouts a good-bye as he leaves the aerodrome on his bicycle.
"Arthur!" Freddie calls across the fence. "Need a ride into town?"
The motorcar rattles and groans, making conversation impossible on the way back to Cambridge. Arthur is grateful. He winds his muffler tightly around his neck and leans back to dream about his darling Dragonfly.
She is a Morane-Saulnier Type H, an elegant monoplane built in France last year, 1912. Tricky to fly and even trickier to land, she challenges him constantly and he loves her fiercely. He loves everything about flying, everything from the tedious repairs and splicing of wires to the curious lurch of his stomach when the aeroplane leaves the ground; he loves the sputtering roar of the engine and the stench of burning oil, the wind whipping his face and the feel of the controls through his thick leather gloves.
But if flying is a dream, returning to Cambridge and university is returning to reality. Freddie drops him off at the cast-iron gates and Arthur heaves a sigh as he passes through them into the sleepy Sunday stillness.
While Lancelot reads grace before dinner in hall that evening, Arthur's tired eyes roam the room. They sweep over blond heads and dark, over black and white attire, pristine linen tablecloths and polished silver, candelabra and glittering glass. Something catches his interest: a face. It's only one of the other undergrads, he assumes, a fresher perhaps, but there's something arresting about him.
Arthur leans back and lets his gaze linger on the pale profile, light against the dark oak panelling. A shadow beneath the cheekbone and the long black lashes give the face a foreign, ascetic look, and Arthur wonders if the boy's eyes will be black, too, when he lifts them; almond-shaped and dolorous like those of a Byzantine saint. The dark head is bent as if in prayer until Arthur notices the boy's fingers breaking open a bread roll. He suppresses a snort. A hungry Byzantine saint.
Tibi debetum obsequium praestare valeamus per Christum Dominum nostrum, Lancelot reads, and Arthur murmurs his Amen inside a smile.
After a day of flying he is usually alight with exhilaration, with the feel of the skies and the vibrations of the machine still there in his body like a physical memory, his ears still filled with noise. But tonight the pale boy steals his attention.
Towards the end of the meal Arthur glances over again, the same moment that the boy lifts his head. His eyes are as dark as Arthur imagined but not at all tragic. They're glittering under the black mop of hair as if he knows a secret, one he's bursting to tell.
The second time Arthur sees the boy is after cricket practice on a sunny day. He's walking back from the field with Leon, chatting about nothing, their bats swinging carelessly from their hands. They're warm in their cricket whites and the world is glorious in dappled green and gold. The boy is leaning against a wall with his dark hair and pale skin set off by the sandstone. One knee is bent and the sole of his shoe rests against the wall. His unbuttoned jacket is pushed back and his hands are shoved in his trouser pockets; an unlit cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth. His gaze follows them as they pass, and there's a look in his eyes that Arthur can't read. It makes a small shiver run down his spine like a drop of water, cold in the bright sun.
"Who's that?" he asks Leon when they're out of earshot.
"Who, the dark, brooding chap?" Leon shrugs and swats at some tall grass with his bat. "Name's Emrys. He has the rooms below Lancelot's."
Arthur tucks away this piece of information while he processes the image of the boy's – Emrys' – wrists and hands, magnified. Sharp, delicate bone. Cuffs beginning to fray. Long slender fingers.
A scholarship student, Arthur thinks. No one else would wear their cuffs until they're frayed. It makes him smile, and to stop Leon from noticing the smile he starts a fight. He turns and jogs backward, grins a challenge into Leon's face and dances around him before taking an exaggerated swing with his bat and hitting Leon's backside. And then there's nothing for it but to run.
The first time Merlin sees Arthur, he doesn't see Arthur at all. What he sees is fire; hazy, red-gold flames around a shadow-like figure, and for a moment the world stops and falls silent.
Then time loosens its grip, the world is back in motion, and Merlin knows - knows with a certainty he can't explain - that the flames will one day burn through the haze to dance around Arthur bright and clean and pure. Merlin wants to be there when that day arrives. When Arthur emerges.
Cambridge is emerald grass and buildings of gold, stone worked into patterns of lace. Turrets and spires dream against the blue sky and tremble upside down in the water. Merlin half expects the beauty of the surroundings to overshadow the faces of people but finds that the opposite is true. The living are printed in relief over the dead; the dead providing a backdrop but never leaving, the honest palimpsest of a true place of learning. Merlin has a thirst for knowledge, a hunger to find out.
Every moment here is saturated with curiosity and gratitude.
The sandstone feels powdery under his hands. It's layered into tactile topographic maps, speaking of the land from which it was taken. Merlin runs his fingers over it and listens.
Merlin was three years old when he understood that he was different, that not everyone could do the things that were as natural to him as breathing. It simply hadn't occurred to him that not everyone could still the wind, create sparks or move objects by thinking them to a new place.
Hunith had reached across the table for the salt shaker and Merlin had absent-mindedly passed it to her without using his hands (he was busy trying to think what he would use for the sail and keel on his bark-boat). When the shaker landed snugly in Hunith's palm she frowned and looked at it as though she'd never seen it before, as if it hadn't sat there on the kitchen table since before Merlin was born. As if it prompted her to make a decision.
"Merlin, dear," she said, taking a deep breath. "That thing you just did... "
And then she had pulled him on to her lap, hugged him to her and held him tightly, with his head against her breast so he could hear her heartbeat. Very gently she had explained to him that some things needed to be hidden, not because they were shameful but because they could be misunderstood.
The world had changed colour that night. Hunith had only wanted to protect him, but Merlin had always felt that his sense of loneliness stemmed from that moment.
Merlin never put his magic to much use. He sensed that it was a thing that could be honed and trained and fine-tuned, and he did practise now and then, but with no one to guide him it was difficult and a bit pointless.
He had never met anyone who had magic, at least not to his knowledge. He felt faintly sorry for all those who would never feel magic rush through them like warm, liquid gold, to tingle in their fingers and burn in their eyes.
He wondered what it was for, why he had been gifted with magic if there was no purpose to it. Most of the things he used it for were everyday, domestic, small; protecting Hunith's washing on the line from the rain, healing scrapes and cuts, lighting the fire in the grate when they were out of matches.
When he was ten, he learned that the practice of magic was unlawful.
In his early teens the magic faded into the background, stopped flaring up spontaneously like it had when he was a child. There were so many other things to try to understand, so much to feel and worry and fret about. When his eyes strayed and his fantasies began to revolve around other boys, long lean muscle and flat chests, Merlin came to believe he was truly cursed. There should only be so many things in a person's life that needed hiding.
Arthur has slipped back into university life so easily he has barely noticed. This is his second year, and lectures, cricket, Sundays at the airfield – it's all familiar ground. But this year there's the dark-eyed boy drawing his attention.
Arthur hasn't taken dinner in hall this frequently since his first weeks at university, but these days he's compelled to go. He wants to see that face in the soft light from the chandeliers. Emrys is aware of Arthur's presence, too, he can tell. A night when Emrys acknowledges it, when he lifts his head and meets Arthur's eyes, is a night when Arthur returns to his rooms with his heart a-flutter.
They have yet to exchange a single word and Arthur knows nothing at all about Emrys. As the days turn chillier and darker around them, Arthur's questions accumulate in his mind. He has nowhere to go to ask them.
Even if Arthur's been known to skip the occasional lecture, he never misses chapel. Seated in his pew he leans back and lets the choral music wash over him, listens to the clear voices swelling under the vaulted ceiling, floating above the gleaming black and white floor. He mumbles his prayers without thinking of the meaning, soothed and comforted by the ritual. His gaze wanders over the gilded cherubs and angels under the ceiling beams, their unseeing eyes wide open and glinting in the candlelight.
He's spent the day poring over heavy legal tomes and when he closes his eyes the small print still dances under his eyelids. Law bores him, but it was the only subject acceptable to his father. Medicine would possibly have done, Arthur thinks, if he'd promised to seek an academic career rather than becoming a hospital slave, but it never came up for discussion. If Arthur had been given a choice, he'd have gone for art history.
He looks around now for Emrys, the Byzantine saint, the El Greco, but he isn't there. When Arthur thinks about it, he can't recall ever seeing Emrys in chapel. Catholic? Atheist? Agnostic?
There's something about Emrys that won't leave Arthur alone; something that keeps niggling and fretting at the edges of his mind. He can't stop thinking about the ascetic face, the bony wrists and long hands, and he feels guilty thinking about it now, in chapel. He visits Lancelot's rooms nearly every day to try to bring about a carefully accidental meeting, but so far he's had no luck. He wants to pour out all his questions to Lancelot but doesn't know how to justify his interest, or mask it.
He wants to know if Emrys really is a scholarship student. At Eton, Arthur found he preferred the company of the scholarship boys, like Percy, to anyone except his oldest, closest friends. They were usually intelligent, humble, motivated, with none of the nonchalance or the tendencies to treat other students like dirt that he could see in people like Kay and Valiant – destructive forces who believed it their birthright to have and do anything at the expense of others. Arthur had quickly learnt to stay away from them and keep to those with a natural, innate kindness, an intuitive sense of justice – like Leon. Like Lancelot. Like Gwaine.
The only thing Arthur really knows about Emrys apart from the location of his rooms is that he and Lancelot attend the same translation class.
Merlin gasps awake in the darkness of his room, surfacing out of a chaotic dream of blazing metal and crashing noise. It's not night and not morning but that hour that hangs between them in a gossamer thread, a strange borderland where anything can happen.
Not asleep but not yet fully awake, Merlin nearly falls out of bed. Something is pulling at him, something that was in his dream... He lights the lamps and whips the covering sheet off the half-finished canvas on the easel. Shivering, he tries to light the fire but his hands are trembling, so he lights it by magic. It's an exception, he thinks.
When the kettle whistles on the gas ring he makes himself tea, and goes over to the table to mix paints. And then it's time to open the floodgates between his mind and his hand, between the dream and the canvas.
His recurring dreams are real and vivid but utterly confusing. They started in his early teens, and that's when he began to paint - to try to make sense of the fragmented, disjointed images that filled his nights. It's not the kind of dreams that are forgotten as soon as consciousness returns. They stay with him during the day, equally elusive and insistent. He doesn't know what they signify, only that they surface from deep inside him. They often frighten him.
The predominant colour of all his paintings is red, and while that is true for this one as well, this is shot through with glinting metal. Sometimes the red colour is a bright, vivid scarlet, sometimes dusty and faded like frequently washed linen. Sometimes it has the dark intensity of blood, and then he can feel the taste of it on his tongue, the tang of iron and the grit of earth. The dusty red doesn't taste of anything. It's tactile, he can feel it under his fingers, and that's why he associates it with linen. It feels like linen, both warm and cool, a thin shirt with nothing between its weave and the skin beneath it.
Sometimes the red colour is the hot glow of fire, and Merlin fears those dreams. They curl and roar, beat their enormous wings against the sky and block out the sun.
Merlin paints his way into morning, adding fragmented forms on the canvas in a rush, and he is safe again, for now.
Mr Gaius, the literature professor, has sharp blue eyes and a no-nonsense manner softened by an underlying kindness. His genuine love for the subject he teaches shines through his sometimes dry lectures, and for the first time in his life Merlin feels he is right where he belongs. His head buzzes with inspired lines as he carries stacks of books back to his rooms.
If he paints his dreams, books provide him with other images, the kind that can be analysed and discussed. Paintings are intuitive, instinctive, felt rather than thought: blossoms on the branches of emotion. The beauty of language can be intricate or wonderfully simple. On occasion it touches him without passing through filters of perception or analysis, but colours and images are direct links to his emotional core, to his being.
On his current reading list are Shelley and Keats, and Merlin immerses himself in poetry. He has read Adonais before but it never hit home like it does today.
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.
Merlin reads the passage twice, slowly, before pushing the book away. He rubs his eyes and leans back in the chair until it's balancing precariously on two legs, and tilts his head back. A bright reflection of something outside – a mirror, a watch, a bicycle handle – is dancing on the ceiling above him, a bright quivering shape. Suddenly Shelley's words connect with the reflection and with something in Merlin's own soul, something about fragments and mirrors, about the glass dome destroyed and rebuilt...
The chair crashes back down as he pulls the book closer to read the lines again. No, Shelley doesn't say anything about the dome being rebuilt. Then he's got it wrong, Merlin thinks. Shelley has missed something fundamental, because Death may trample the many-coloured dome to fragments but it's not the end. The dome will be rebuilt, it will rise over and over and dot the white radiance of Eternity not just once but many times, like gems spread on the satin of a jeweller's case. Merlin's fingers close around the edge of the table. He knows this, he knows that Shelley is wrong.
He feels ill, feverish. He is clammy and shivery, his hands are shaking and there is an odd sensation behind his eyes. His magic is alive in his veins; it shimmers in his mind and slowly twines itself around the tendons and bones of his arms and fingers calling for attention, reminding him of its existence.
Merlin closes his eyes, his fingertips inching forward until they rest on the volume of poetry.
Arthur is at dinner in hall again that night, all blond hair and black gown and aristocratic nose, and Merlin quickly looks away. Whenever Arthur is there Merlin keeps his eyes trained on his plate, his hands, his glass, or they will stray. There are times when he can't stop them, and he is frightened by his own reaction when he meets Arthur's gaze. Afraid his eyes will say too much.
And he is right to be frightened, he thinks, because he is well aware who Arthur's father is: Uther Pendragon, an influential politician who advocates corrective facilities for people like Merlin, who hates everything that Merlin is. His magic, his love, his desires - in Uther Pendragon's eyes, these are abominations deserving the severest punishment.
Arthur's presence in the room is like a physical touch stroking gooseflesh along Merlin's arms. When he looks up to find Arthur's gaze on him, they exchange a small smile - an involuntary smile that can't be contained. Heat rises to Merlin's face and he looks down in confusion, hoping the lights are low enough for Arthur not to see his blush. Arthur doesn't have Merlin's shyness. If something is to come from this, Merlin thinks, it will have to come from Arthur.
Some weeks into the term, Professor Gaius asks Merlin to Sunday tea. Flattered to be asked, Merlin puts on a new stiff collar and new cuffs and goes. It's a bright October day with trees like torches and a sky clear as glass.
The Professor pours the tea and offers Merlin warm buttered scones and strawberry jam, and when they're halfway through the first cup of tea, he abruptly steers the conversation to the subject of magic. Merlin jumps and drops his scone on the rug with the buttered side down, apologises profusely and then makes things worse by fumbling the scone so there are two more grease stains beside the first. Professor Gaius looks at him as if he can see his soul and waves his apologies aside.
"No matter, Emrys," he says. "And in any case I suspect you know how to clean that rug without soap and brush. You do have magic, don't you?"
The shock of the question washes through Merlin like scalding water. Back in Ealdor, when he was a boy, he used to sit by Hunith's rabbit cages holding his favourite, an irregularly patterned, black-and-white creature, stroking its ears and feeling its heart thrum in the tiny body. A fluttering little rabbit heart, that's what's inside Merlin's chest this moment.
Because how could Professor Gaius tell, how could he have guessed? Does it show? Has Merlin been careless? He'd have thought all these years of practice, all these years of carefully repressing his magic would be second nature to him by now.
"I'm sorry if I startled you, Emrys," the Professor adds with great gentleness. "I'm sure I can be a rather alarming old man at times, but there is no need for concern."
Merlin looks down at his hands and swallows his heartbeat, his face hot as he watches the toe of his boot nudge the edge of the darkening butter stain.
"Yes, sir," he admits in a half-whisper, directing his words at the floor. "I have magic."
The clock on the mantelpiece dispatches three seconds into eternity before Professor Gaius speaks again.
"I am only asking," he says, "because I would like to offer my guidance. I believe there is a reason for everything, and it is not always the apparent one, the one that is visible on the surface, but a deeper reason. And I believe one of the reasons you came to Cambridge, Merlin Emrys, was to have your magic strengthened and honed."
The initial shock is fading but reaction is making Merlin's hands tremble. The teacup he is holding is made of the finest, thinnest china, so delicate it's almost translucent, and he is suddenly afraid he'll break it, by wild magic or just by clenching it too hard. So he leans over and returns it to its saucer on the table, feeling the Professor's eyes on him with the strangest sense that he is being tested.
"Have you had anyone to guide you in these matters before?" Professor Gaius asks.
"It's illegal, Professor," Merlin manages. "Practicing magic is illegal."
Professor Gaius is watching him intently. "Yes," he agrees amiably, "it is, and it is possible that this conversation alone could send both you and me to court. But a law is not necessarily right because it has been made a law, and with a bit of luck and a great deal of hard work, it can sometimes even be reversed."
Merlin shudders in the sunlit room. He can't see where this is going, doesn't understand what the Professor wants from him.
"So no one ever taught you spells," Professor Gaius continues to prod, "or how to focus or contain your magic…?"
Merlin blinks stupidly, not comprehending, and shakes his head. Spells? His magic is intuitive, always has been, and it seems to work quite well without him ever saying anything or thinking anything articulate. Is this not how it works for other people with magic?
"I never use spells," he replies unsurely, inexplicably feeling a little guilty, like he has done something wrong and ought to apologise. "Is it necessary? I mean – should I learn spells...? Will they enhance my magic? Amplify it?"
Unexpectedly, it's the Professor's turn to drop his scone. He catches it with astonishing speed and deftness, but a dollop of strawberry jam slides down the buttered surface and lands on the rug next to Merlin's greasy mess.
"You don't use spells," Professor Gaius says after a minute. It's a statement and it comes out flatly, the words falling between them to lie there like the jam on the rug. "Have you never learnt any? Not a single one?"
Merlin can only shake his head, fixing Professor Gaius with his eyes, feeling ignorant and inadequate, unsure what the Professor's astonishment means. Is Merlin not – not normal, if the concept of normality can be used in connection with magic?
"Would you mind," Professor Gaius asks slowly and deliberately, "would you mind showing me some of what you can do?"
His voice is tense and Merlin hesitates, still not sure what Professor Gaius is after. Does he want proof of Merlin's magic so he can - do what, call the police?
The Professor seems to understand. "There is no need to be afraid, Emrys" he repeats. "And if you don't want to show me, you don't have to. It's entirely your own choice."
It's stupid, perhaps, stupid and careless, but Merlin trusts Professor Gaius. He is suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to show his magic, to openly demonstrate this fundamental part of him that's had to stay hidden all his life. It would be a relief, he thinks, it would be liberating to do magic in front of someone - an authority figure. To say this is who I am and not be ashamed or afraid.
"Maybe I'll..." Merlin says with his rabbit-heart racing in his chest, "maybe I should... Your rug needs cleaning, sir."
At the Professor's smile and nod, Merlin straightens his back, stretches out a hand with the fingertips pointing to the stains on the rug. No, he doesn't need spells. He only needs to feel the weave of the rug, the tight criss-cross pattern of threads and the greasy and sugary matter sticking and clinging to them. As soon as he feels it, he can remove it.
When he looks up at Professor Gaius again, the rug is clean.
Professor Gaius says nothing, and a frisson of nerves shudders through Merlin's body. He doesn't know what to think. It feels like he's being tested and he has no idea how he's doing.
"It's visual," he explains quietly. "I see it, what I want done. And I feel it. It never occurred to me that I would need spells to do what I do."
He turns to the cold, blackened fireplace, stares at it and imagines a fire in it. Immediately the flames spring to life, leaping up to begin a merry dance without being fed by coal or wood.
Professor Gaius stays silent. After an eternity that is probably no more than two minutes he clears his throat.
"These are small things, Emrys," he says. "Domestic ones. Have you ever tried your hand, or rather your skills, at anything more... extensive?"
"Well," Merlin hesitates. "I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but I can change the weather?"
Professor Gaius makes a strange noise then, a kind of half-choked clucking sound, like a turkey, Merlin thinks.
"Well, yes," he says in a very odd tone of voice, "I think that must be considered extensive, I think it definitely must."
Then he laughs and shakes his head, and Merlin eyes him anxiously.
"I redirected a stream once," he says, getting even more nervous when Professor Gaius guffaws. "So... I think I could probably do larger things? But I never really tried. I didn't feel there was much point. It's... I don't know, but it's like there's something missing every time I do magic. Like there's something I'd need to stabilise the magic, reinforce it. I'm sorry, sir, I'm not explaining this very well. Do you think it could be the lack of spells? Would spells enhance things?"
"No," says Professor Gaius slowly and firmly, "no, Merlin, I don't believe they would." Merlin notices the switch to his first name and he rather likes it. "Other people use spells as a means of focusing their magic," the Professor continues, "but you seem to do that excellently without the spells. As for what you said about something missing, it might well be true that you need something else to push your magic along. A situation, perhaps; an emotion, an experience that you need before you can proceed to more extensive things."
"How will I know what it is?"
Professor Gaius looks at him. "Whatever it is," he says, "you will recognise it when it happens."
Under Professor Gaius' firm but gentle hand, Merlin's magic opens like a flower to the sun. His power is called forth and rivers begin to flow – that's how it feels. Deep wells are wakened from their sleep. Magic is a great gift, Professor Gaius tells him over and over, one he should not waste. "And you are gifted, Merlin; tremendously so. There is no doubt about that."
Perhaps the Professor is right, perhaps Merlin really will be able to do good things, great things, one day. Acknowledged and encouraged at last, his magic blossoms, filled with possibility, and there are times when he feels like nothing but harnessed potential. In daytime he practises, and when he sleeps he can still feel his magic at work, perpetually in motion.
Merlin's hot, red, fragmented dreams recede and make way for dreams that are calm and clear, flooded with light. In these dreams he can do anything. In these dreams he turns his palms up and they hold a dewdrop, a butterfly, the sea, the world.
"Do you have magic, Professor?" Merlin eventually ventures to ask.
Professor Gaius is arranging things on his desk. His back is turned and his shoulders seem more than usually stooped as he carefully aligns a sheaf of paper with the edge of the desk and shakes his head. "Sadly not," he replies. "I only have the gift of sensing it in others."
Something moves and clenches in Merlin's chest, a strange hybrid of hope and dread.
"Others?" he breathes, and when Professor Gaius doesn't answer, he adds: "Are there others, here at Cambridge...?"
Professor Gaius turns then and looks straight at him. Everything is in perfect order on the desk. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that," he says sternly, but there's the beginning of a smile in his eyes.
The tension in Merlin's shoulders melts away as he smiles back. "Thank you," he says.
When Merlin re-enters the court much later, the night air feels clearer and sharper than before. He stops and looks at the deep blue night sky, at the ink-black roofs and spires silhouetted against it. You are not alone, the buildings seem to tell him. Magic lives in this town, in this place.
A couple of undergrads come stumbling out of someone's rooms, laughing as they shuffle and shove their way down the colonnade. Merlin ignores them and lingers another moment, breathing deeply and smiling up at the stars.
Whoever designed the library furniture was clever - the benches are hard and too low, uncomfortable enough not to invite sleep. Merlin sighs and changes position, abandoning his copy of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in favour of the newspaper. Chin in hand, absent-mindedly running his fingers through his hair and thinking he needs to visit the barber, he browses the first pages without much interest until his eyes come to rest on a headline on page four.
YOUTH CHARGED WITH PUBLIC USE OF MAGIC
Merlin flattens the paper with one hand and reads about the young man who, it appears, stopped a falling roof tile mid-air and in all likelihood saved a child's life. The report contains a tearful interview with the mother and a comment from Uther Pendragon, Member of Parliament, in whose view the young man's act of courage provides no ground for dropped charges or even a conditional or mild sentence. The practice of magic is prohibited by law for good reason, the MP tells the reporter, and anyone with magical abilities must be regarded as armed and dangerous. No leniency can be allowed where magic is concerned, under any circumstances. Despite the noble and laudable intent of the current case, the perpetrator will face imprisonment.
Merlin's lungs feel depleted of oxygen. He glances up at the marble bust of Sir Francis Bacon: generosity and enlightenment. Uther Pendragon is obviously not an admirer.
Light is streaming in through the high windows, filling the room like a sharp contrast to Uther Pendragon's medieval darkness. Armed and dangerous. No leniency can be allowed. This is what Arthur grew up with; this is what Arthur will have heard as truth all through his childhood.
The article hammers it home in a new way. Merlin's blood pounds in his temples. Suffocating in the library atmosphere, he snatches up his Lord Byron from the table and runs outside where he stops for a minute to take huge gulps of sweet air. Across the court he sees Arthur hurrying along the gravel path, gown flying, late for something. Merlin's heart constricts. There are so many obstacles, so many unknowns, and yet... and yet...
Arthur disappears under the arches without noticing him, and Merlin walks back to his rooms with heavy steps.
Damn Morgana and her taste for champagne cocktails in the afternoon! Whenever Arthur agrees to meet his half-sister, this is how it ends. He swears softly to himself and laughs as he walks back to college, a little unsteady on his feet. His temples are throbbing and he decides to go and bother Lancelot, who is well-organised and kind and will provide coffee.
Not that Arthur would ever tell Morgana this, but he's happy to have her in Cambridge. If she hadn't had money of her own, he doubts that Uther would have allowed her to attend university, but now she's happily settled at Newnham and free to get Arthur drunk in the middle of the afternoon.
He grins and heads for the stairs.
Lancelot takes one look at Arthur and reaches for the coffee tin. "Morgana?" he asks sympathetically.
As Arthur runs back down the stairs an hour later he feels much better, taking two steps at a time in flying leaps and humming to himself. When he rounds the corner he collides headlong with someone, so violently that he sees stars. Books lie scattered over the paving as he blinks the world back into focus, and there's Emrys rubbing at his forehead and looking disoriented.
"Ow," he says, and sounds like an affronted child.
It makes Arthur want to laugh but instead he apologises, takes Emrys by the elbow and scrutinises his face with genuine concern. "Are you hurt? I'm sorry, truly I am."
"Oh, that's all right," Emrys mutters and crouches down to collect his books.
Arthur follows, glancing at the bent, dark head while he picks up volumes of John Donne and Alexander Pope and dusts them off. The tips of Emrys' ears are red and something clutches at Arthur's heart, something too deep to be felt for someone he doesn't know at all, but nothing about Emrys is ordinary. They reach for the last book at the same time, stopping with their fingertips touching opposite edges. It's Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
"Ominous," Arthur says and grins, and their eyes meet.
Arthur stills and draws a breath. Close up like this, Emrys' eyes are intensely blue, shy and direct, secretive and wide open. The rosy afternoon light casts shadows beneath his cheekbones, his bottom lip, the apple of his throat, and makes him so tactile, so touchable, but with the distant beauty of a Botticelli angel. Not for the first time, Arthur wishes he could paint. He envisions Emrys sitting for him, turning his profile, opening his shirt to let light play over a pale shoulder and leave a pool of shadow in the hollow above the collarbone.
He hears his own breathing and flushes with shame. Emrys' gaze slides down to Arthur's neck, then to the book, and he snatches it up and holds it protectively to his chest.
They stand up and look at one another; Arthur's fingers glide over the smooth, soft leather cover of Keats' poetry. If he hands it over they're all done and he'll have to leave.
"Sorry," he says again with his heart in his throat. "I have no manners today. I'm Arthur Pendragon."
Emrys smiles a little then. He has a pretty mouth. "Merlin Emrys. Come in for coffee."
Some things leave an afterglow, some things resonate inside the mind long after they've happened.
Merlin looks at Arthur over Le Morte d'Arthur and refuses to consider the implications.
Whatever else Arthur is, he is also the most beautiful thing Merlin has ever seen, all gold and red and blue, crested with fire. His eyes are laughing; the sun touches his face. He smells like hot metal. Merlin wants to lean forward, touch his lips to Arthur's throat and feel them burn.
"Merlin?" Arthur says as he steps over the threshold. "Is that your real name?"
"Well, it's Myrddin really, but no one ever calls me that."
Emrys' rooms are more spartan than any Arthur has visited in Cambridge and he can't stop his eyes wandering. The floor is bare aside from two small rugs that look hand-crocheted and lumpy; Arthur thinks of the luxurious Savonnerie carpet in his own rooms and winces a little. There are books everywhere, in rows and stacks and towers on the floor and the desk as well as in the simple bookcase. Over in the corner is an easel and a small table covered with brushes, stained cloths and tubes of paint.
Arthur walks up to one of the large canvases on the wall and touches a finger to the corner.
"Did you paint these?"
There are five in all, all of them featuring intense, saturated colours and shattered forms, reality broken up and put back together into a landscape of dreams – or nightmares. Disturbed and impressed, Arthur steps back and looks at Emrys, who shrugs and offers him a cigarette. He takes it and watches Emrys put one between his own lips, making Arthur close his eyes and try not to think of the way they look, try not to think of that mouth at all. Emrys lights Arthur's cigarette but not his own, and proceeds to make the coffee.
A book lies open on the desk with a pencil resting in the fold, and Arthur walks over to it to stop himself staring at the graceful lines of Emrys' neck, the shape of his head.
... but I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart!
Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in its den?
What is he reading? Arthur flicks some pages to see the title.
"It's Adonais," Emrys says over by the gas ring. "Shelley's lament for Keats."
Kiss me, so long but as a kiss may live;
And in my heartless breast and burning brain
That word, that kiss, shall all thoughts else survive
Arthur takes a step back, his cheeks hot. He must be a little drunk still.
"Given slightly to exaggeration, these chaps, aren't they?" he says weakly.
Emrys hands him a cup and eyes him thoughtfully. "Do you think so? If someone dies, someone you really, deeply love...?"
That word from Emrys' mouth makes Arthur clumsy. He burns his fingers, then his tongue, and discovers that Emrys' face is transformed when he smiles. His eyes sparkle and crinkle up until they nearly disappear, and there's a dimple in each cheek.
"Have a biscuit," he says. "I just had a parcel from home."
Arthur is glad of the distraction. "Your mother makes you biscuits?"
Emrys only shrugs; his eyes are warm and soft.
The biscuits are the best Arthur has ever had – perhaps not the most refined ones, but they're good and honest, chewy with rolled oats and currants and crunchy with hazelnuts. He even closes his eyes for a moment in pure pleasure. When he looks up again Emrys' gaze is on him, intent.
"Good?" he asks in a low voice like the question isn't about about biscuits at all. Arthur shivers, his face going hot as he nods.
Emrys hands him a second biscuit. "They're nothing compared to what you're used to, of course," he says with innocent eyes. "Nothing to the biscuits you're being sent from home. I mean, no gold leaf, no diamond crusts... just plain old currants."
Arthur's hand stops halfway to his mouth. For a split second he frowns, then he throws his head back and laughs.
Emrys looks pleased with himself, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth to stop his grin. There's a tiny dimple just below the left corner of his mouth. Arthur wants to reach out and touch it.
"Tell your mother they're heavenly," he says.
The grin breaks through. "Made with butter and love."
Arthur has never once had a parcel from home. He used to envy the other boys at school who were sent chocolate and plover eggs and embarrassing warm underwear. The only post from Arthur's father arrived once a year – still does; a birthday note on embossed cotton vellum. Arthur knows the handwriting of Uther's secretary very well by now.
When the biscuit is gone he has no reason to stay in Emrys' rooms, so he casts around for an excuse to come back. In the end he asks to borrow the volume of Keats' poetry that he picked up from the floor. Emrys lends it to him on condition he returns it within a week.
Arthur steps into the court with the book tucked under his arm, his heart beating wildly at the realisation that Emrys, too, seemed to want an excuse.
When the door clicks shut behind Arthur, Merlin closes his eyes and slumps against the wall, sliding down until he sits on the floor. The air is burning his lungs. Something about Arthur electrifies Merlin's magic and makes it intensely alive. It heats up inside and around him until there is a shimmer in the air and a buzz in his veins; it weaves and twines its golden tendrils into his every thought and makes him tremble. Is it possible that Arthur has magic?
Merlin inhales through the nose and exhales again, slowly; bites his lip as he remembers Arthur's fingers brushing against his when he handed over the coffee cup. And most of all: Arthur standing in front of Merlin's paintings. He had looked at all five of them in turn, very intently with a small frown, tilting his head to one side and then to the other, as if to see whether they would change with the angle. Twice he had reached out to touch the paint on the canvas with a finger, and both times it had jolted Merlin, as if he had been touched by that fingertip.
Arthur hadn't said anything about the paintings, only asked whether they were Merlin's work, and then he had just stood there. What had he seen?
Merlin had been burning to ask but afraid to. He had watched Arthur surreptitiously while busying himself by the gas ring, wondering what went through Arthur's mind, and then watched Arthur out of the corner of his eye as he moved around the room.
And Arthur's instincts would have been right, Merlin thinks and leans his head against the wall as the buzz of magic dies down around him. The paintings are more than just paintings. His magic is involved in them.
Painting is intensely private to him, both the process and the results, but when he came to Cambridge he decided to hang some of his work on the walls. Visitors to his rooms have observed that he is more influenced by the Cubists than the Expressionists, but Merlin hasn't actually seen much of either school. To understand what people are talking about he has looked at art books and visited galleries and exhibitions, and while he does like some of the paintings, they never strike a chord with him. The truth is he is not particularly interested in art in general - not in other people's art.
Other artists seem to express themselves through their paintings. They want to tell a story, stir up emotion, make the viewer reflect. Art is a form of communication for them, but Merlin only needs an audience of one and this is why he never considered going to art school. He paints his dreams so that perhaps one day the kaleidoscopic visions will change into something intelligible, and he will know.
Merlin sits on the floor for a good half hour while his magic quiets to its normal low hum, and all the while his mind reverberates with the echo of Professor Gaius' voice: You will recognise it when it happens.
It's happening now.
Arthur grew up among boys. They were clever, dull or mediocre; physical, vocal, occasionally filthy. Some of them were pretty. Arthur was prudent enough to look away.
There were sports and changing rooms, dormitories and communal showers, and the occasional group wank where no one touched anyone but themselves. It was over quickly with some laughing and teasing, clothes were arranged and everyone walked away whistling, and Arthur was left wondering if he was cursed for wanting more.
He knew his father's views on the perversion that seemed to be rotting his mind, and thought himself condemned in every way. His unspeakable desires had to be hidden away in the deepest dungeons of his soul.
Arthur met girls, pretty girls, bright, and kissed a few of them but never took it further. He wasn't revolted. He wasn't excited. Nothing happened at all and he just didn't want it. Sometimes he looked at his friends and wondered what it would feel like to touch their skin, but they were his friends and it was not like that.
He had yet to fall in love even the slightest bit.
Cambridge didn't offer freedom, exactly, but a taste of it, a glimpse. He was not alone; of that he was sure. There had to be others here who shared his perversion. He read Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde and despaired. How could he ever touch other men without shame, without fear? In a fantasy world, in his art books...? His father was a highly visible public figure. How would it be possible for Arthur to live anything but a dishonest life?
But then there is Merlin Emrys, with his dark eyes and sharp bones and unexpected smile, and Arthur wants for this to be real. The world is rearranging itself.
Arthur waits two whole days before returning the book, and if his hand isn't quite steady when he knocks on Emrys' door, he prefers not to think about it.
Emrys smiles and takes the book, glancing up at Arthur through dark lashes. "Did you read it?"
Arthur is a miserable liar. "Um..."
Emrys laughs, all crinkles and dimples, and goes to make tea. Arthur holds himself together admirably through it all. He doesn't even stare too much at the white skin at the back of Emrys' neck. To do even better, he walks around the room poking at things. At the desk he stops and grins.
"You really do read everything at once, don't you," he says and points to where Shelley lies side by side with Chaucer, George Eliot and William Blake.
Emrys shrugs. "I suppose."
"So what are you really reading? What is your focus right now - I mean, what is it supposed to be?" Arthur's grin is widening.
"Yes," Emrys says, frowning, "but look, you can't read a novel or a poem as an isolated thing. You have to see it in relation to... to other literature, to music, art, history, contemporary politics..."
Arthur pokes at another stack of books. "So when you're asked to read English Romanticism, you don't stick to old Wordsworth and Coleridge or even stay within the political borders - you read Goethe, Victor Hugo, Madame de Staël, Chateaubriand and... what's this..." - he turns a book over - "Batyushkov...?"
"Among others, yes," Emrys replies coldly.
"Not an over-achiever at all, are you?" Arthur is laughing out loud. "Professor Gaius must love you. I bet you question every theory and start every sentence with 'yes, but...' "
"Oh, shut up."
"You're a scholarship student, aren't you?"
Emrys turns to look at him, straightening his back in challenge. "Yes. Why?"
Arthur makes a face at him. "I'm beginning to see why. Such... ardour... must be rewarded."
He regrets it as soon as it's out. Emrys' face is suddenly tense and pinched as he turns away.
"Don't be an arse," he mutters.
"Look, I'm sorry. I was just..."
"Yes, I'm a scholarship student." Emrys' voice is sharp. "I was a charity student at Sunnington before, a day boy with my tuition fee and meals paid. Not that you'll ever be able to understand, but it means something to me to be here. You, you've always had everything. You take all this for granted. To you, it's just..."
"Don't tell me what I think," Arthur interrupts.
"So that's another of your exclusive privileges, then? You can tell people what they think, but if they dare answer back...?"
Arthur takes a breath. This isn't worth arguing about. "As 'highly strung' as your romantic poets, Emrys?" he says, keeping his voice level. "I was only... What's the matter with you?"
They stare at each other. Emrys' eyes are hard and Arthur bites his tongue, realising that it isn't anger that makes his pulse race; it's fear. He can't afford to alienate Emrys now that they've begun; he has to keep Emrys in his life until... until he can understand.
"I'm sorry," Emrys says after a pause, but he looks angry, not repentant.
Arthur shakes his head, bites his lip. "No, I'm the one who should apologise. And you're wrong, by the way," he adds, trying a small smile. "It does mean something to me, being here, and I try not to take anything for granted."
Emrys' tense shoulders relax visibly. "I know I'm too sensitive about this sometimes," he offers in return. "You know, always the charity case. Ever grateful and indebted. Hand-me-downs and leftovers, crumbs from the rich man's table." But he does smile back.
"Hardly a charity case," Arthur says, thankful for his tactless comment that just taught him something important about Emrys. "Your brains and your... um, ardour, definitely earned you your scholarship."
Emrys laughs and punches his arm, and Arthur breathes again, marvelling at the transformation of Emrys' eyes from dark to crystal blue in seconds. There are borders and boundaries to learn, he thinks, but at least Emrys seems willing to let him in.