When Mike is born, there are no fireworks. No planets align, no stars fall. There is nothing hugely special about the day of his birth.

Except.

Except that Julie Ross knows—beyond a woman's intuition—that she is giving birth, hours before her water breaks. When that happens, her husband, Brian, is at her side in an instant, having already been heading to the living room, where she was sitting with her feet propped up. He can't remember why he was going there, now, but it hardly matters, does it?

Except that there is barely any traffic on the way to the hospital, as if the crowds are parting for them like the Red Sea for Moses, and all the traffic lights are green.

Except that there Julie feels little to no pain, even when she is far into labor. Her breathing is steady and all that she feels is right. The nurses look at her askance, but they don't complain, because a calm mother is infinitely easier to deliver a baby from than a terrified, pained mother.

Except that Mike comes out with his blue eyes wide and searching, and everyone in the room feels scrutinized. Julie and Brian catch their breaths at his beauty, and he seems to fill the room with an ineffable presence.

So yes, maybe Mike's birth is ordinary, but only because people choose to make it so.

***

When Mike is a baby, he doesn't remember much about his past lives. His night terrors are vague ideas of war and flashes of death. His dreams are full of floating feelings of love, and sudden spikes of joy.

His magic works rather in the same way. There are times when his mother and father are terrified of him, terrified of the way that his eyes shine gold when he laughs, and the way his howls sound old when he cries. At those times, the only person who dares go near him is his grandmother, Helena, her blue eyes shining out at him in a way that is all too familiar.

As Mike grows, so does his magic, manifesting more and more strongly, until his toys float when he's happy, moving around by themselves for hours on end; until the house seems to shake when he screams and throws tantrums. When he is two or three, he starts to remember names and faces. One time he calls out "Mama" and gets Julie instead, her movements wary and hesitant, and he starts to wail. She freezes, handing him to his grandmother, who gathers him close promptly, shushing him, and he quiets. She cradles him, murmuring softly.

"My little boy," she says, because it's better than what she wants to say—My son.

***

Nothing really seems to stick properly in Mike's head until age seven, when his family moves to New York, and he meets Trevor. Until now, his memories of other times have been more dreams than anything, and bits of intuition. The only thing about it all that has seemed real is his magic, which is undeniably not fantasy. As much as Brian likes to rebuke him for storytelling, apprehension in his eyes—as distant as Julie is, retreating more and more as Mike speaks of distant lands—neither of them can say that his magic doesn't exist. However, they try as much as they can to avoid the truth of it, and Mike can't bring himself to show off anymore, like he used to.

When he would beam as he froze a dropped glass in place, eyes golden, and say, "Look, Mommy, I'm helping," Julie would gift him with a strained smile.

"That's nice, sweetie," she'd say, with a glance at Brian. "Now let the glass go, all right?"

"But Mommy—"

"Let it fall, Michael," Julie would say, stern. "That's what it was supposed to do in the first place."

No, Mike learned early on not to show off.

This mostly changes when he meets Trevor.

It's around the same time as when Mike starts dreaming of a sandy-haired boy with a wide grin and reckless spirit. When he meets Trevor in the second grade, there is an instant connection, like a missing piece has fallen into place, and Mike decides he won't let that go. No matter what.

It isn't until he's known Trevor for a month or so—they're best friends already, of course—that he accidentally calls Trevor "Will", and puts a name to the sandy-haired boy's face. "Who's Will?" asks Trevor curiously, and Mike lies, says that it's a distant cousin he used to see, before he moved to New York.

He still can't use his magic around Trevor, but that's all right. He has a friend, and that's all that matters.

At this point, his visions have started to filter into his waking life. Outside of daydreams, even.
Sometimes he blinks and sees a haze over his eyes, like light filtered through cloth, and then when he examines it, it's like a whole different life. The first time that this happens, he gazes around the room, seeing wooden chairs that aren't there, seeing a door where there is none, everything ghostly and intangible, yet realer than anything he's seen until now. He looks expectantly at Julie, and sees nothing over her; he turns to Brian, and nothing has changed; he glances at his grandmother's, afraid nothing will be there, that this new revelation was all in his head—and there is a different face laid over his grandmother's, smiling back at him. His eyes widen, because this mysterious woman is young, has sable hair with no trace of grey, has clear blue eyes uncolored with age. He grins at her, wide and delighted, and she—she and his grandmother both—winks at him, mouth curved in a secret smile.

Mum, he thinks, like he's found another, bigger missing piece—and if he doesn't know why, then that's all right, because by this time he's learned to trust his instincts.

***

Being Trevor's friend is easy. Fueled with Mike's memories of Will, they quickly become inseparable. They are the terror of the school, playing pranks and telling tales, but it's all—mostly—harmless. All of the staff knows that they are good-hearted boys, not mean-spirited bullies. They play tricks on everyone, including each other. When someone turns to them, looking wide-eyed and offended—or worse, hurt—they don't hesitate to apologize, reaching out a hand to make amends.

With these types of tactics, Mike and Trevor don't make friends—they make armies.

Mike's brain is equipped with a large capacity for detail. Because of his memories of all the years, he has adapted to be able to hold all of them. His mind can quickly turn short-term memory into long-term memory, ensuring that once he learns something, he never forgets it.

This helps quite a bit with his studies; he aces tests left and right, passing classes with flying colors. He is the perfect student—except for how he likes to throw paper airplanes in class, or how he and Trevor hide all of their teachers' whiteboard markers inside of the bookshelf in the back of the room. Trevor doesn't look at Mike with envy or resentment, when Mike aces yet another test. He just grins and congratulates him, saying, "Okay, why don't we do some good with that brain, okay?"

"Good?" laughs Mike. "Is that what we're calling it now?"

Trevor makes a comically pensive face. "Well, it's definitely good for our school spirit."

"Really," says Mike. "How so."

"Well, don't you remember last week?" They had put red food coloring in everything in the lunch line. They had thought it was so brilliant, because to a fifth grader, everything brilliant involves red food coloring. Trevor gives a gleeful laugh. "It was all red. All of it."

"Except the mashed potatoes," Mike points out.

"We needed something to be white," Trevor explains.

"True."

"I like how the lunch ladies pretended they didn't see us." Trevor grins.

"They love us," declares Mike loftily.

"Of course," says Trevor.

This is a common occurrence (although their pranks get better) for Mike and Trevor as they grow older. When they get into junior high, nothing much changes, except that Mike joins the Debate Club, and Trevor is recruited by the track team. He makes Mike join too.

"But why," whines Mike.

"You're fast," Trevor says.

"How could you possibly know that?"

"Remember that one time—" Trevor starts, but Mike cuts him off quickly.

"That was a fluke."

Trevor rolls his eyes. "It was not, you idiot, the same thing happened, like, three times."

"You know, you calling me an idiot isn't going to make me join."

"Come on," Trevor pleads. "You've got to."

"I didn't make you join the Debate Club with me," Mike says reasonably.

"Well yeah, but it's the Debate Club," Trevor says.

"And?" Mike crosses his arms.

"Well, it's—" Trevor sighs, then mutters, "It's kind of lame."

"Sorry, I didn't catch that," Mike says. Trevor glares at him, and he relents. "Dude, I joined a club that's all about arguing, I get to regularly wipe the floor with idiots who think they're smart," Mike says, as if he's talking of paradise—which he is, in his mind.

"Whatever, man, do what you want."

"As long as I join the track team?" Mike asks dryly.

"As long as you join the track team."

***

When Mike turns thirteen, he starts to remember Camelot. It's little things at first: the water pump in the town square, the fountain in the courtyard, the wall of books in Gaius's chambers (though he doesn't know Gaius yet)—all with an overarching sense of fear.

After that, he remembers Gaius himself, the way both he and his chambers seemed to absorb the scent of herbs and then release it on hot days. He remembers the small room in the back where Merlin used to sleep, and Mike aches for the familiarity of it. Mike remembers the large tome of magic that Gaius had given him, and misses its guidance, though by now he probably knows everything in it to his bones. He remembers how vast the knowledge it contained seemed, and how extraordinary it had been to find out that it was just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the next years, he remembers Morgana, and he remembers Gwen, and he remembers the fresh-faced servant boy avoiding knives in the courtyard, but he doesn't remember who was throwing the knives. He remembers the sweet servant girl who helped Merlin with his duties, but doesn't remember who the duties were for.

He remembers Uther and all of the other lords and ladies. He remembers the visiting dignitaries and countries Camelot went to war with—Bayard and Mercia, Cenred and Escetia. He remembers Vivian and Sophia and "Lady Catrina", and the ubiquitous panic, the sense that he needs to defend, to protect, to save, but he has no idea who he was—is? Mike doesn't know—supposed to be saving.

It's as if his memories are dancing around the core of this—this thing, whatever it is. It's as if Mike's subconscious doesn't think he's ready for it yet. Mike keeps wracking his brain, thinking, thinking, but nothing—no one—comes to mind.

Until.

Until the moment comes—as it eventually has to—when he first remembers Arthur.

***

Except—except, that's not how it happens at all.

Sometimes, in the wake of Arthur, and his previous lives, and—and Arthur, Mike forgets that people don't see things like he does.

They need things in chronological order.

So here is what happens before Arthur happens. Here is what Mike loses before he gains anything else.

He loses his last semblance of normality—his parents.

***

"He won't talk to me!" Julie cries. Brian wraps his arms around her and shoots a look at Helena, who thinks, I wonder why. "He doesn't trust me, and I—I love him so much, and he doesn't even—"

"Oh, stop it, Julianne," says Helena irritably. "You know why he doesn't trust you."

Julie huffs. "Just because I tried to tell him to lay low—"

"You didn't tell him to 'lay low'," Helena replies, "you told him to conform!"

"I did not," Julie says, appalled.

"You did," Helena says, "every time that you flinched when he showed a sign of magic. He stopped trusting you before he turned five, because you got angry every time he tried to help the only way he knew how."

"Because it's the wrong way!" Julie protests. "It's unnatural, it isn't the way that God intended—"

"Since when are you religious?" Helena doesn't intend to let Julie get away with justifying her actions. "Since when have you ever been religious?"

"I'm not, it's just that—"

"I'll tell you when," Helena says, ignoring Julie. "Since you became frightened of your own son, and the only way you could justify that fear was through God."

"Oh, so now you're condemning my religion, are you?" Julie shouts, bitter.

"No," said Helena calmly. "I'm condemning your own cowardice."

"You just never could accept me, could you, Mom?"

There is a long silence. Brian—who has been looking back and forth between Helena and Julie like he's a spectator at a tennis game—gapes at Julie in shock. Helena stares at her, too, a multitude of emotions flashing across her face before it seems to settle on a mixture of pity and disgust. "Oh, honey," she says. "I think you're confusing me with you."

Julie hisses in displeasure. "It's not the same thing!"

"How?" Helena presses. "How isn't it the same thing?"

"Because I could never please you no matter what I did, but at least I tried," Julie says. Helena marvels a bit, inwardly, at the way Julie can look so easily past her own faults, her own selfish petulance, like a child.

"I can hear you," a voice rings around them, amplified by magic.

Julie flinches, and Helena pounces on it. "See? See, that is exactly what's wrong!" Helena glances at the ceiling. "Not you, sweetheart," she adds. She turns back to Julie. "You, Julianne, are the issue here. You are too busy being scared of your own child—your own flesh and blood—to love him unconditionally. Have I taught you nothing?"

"Apparently not," Julie says, laughing hollowly. "And maybe that's why you can't be satisfied with my parenting, and you have to butt in, and steal my son away from me!"

"I would never!" gasped Helena. "How dare—I didn't steal him. He trusted me, he still trusts me, because he has no one else."

"He has me!" shouts Julie.

"No, he doesn't," Helena says sadly. "Not when you don't love him like you should."

"Oh, like you love him like you should." Julie rolls her eyes.

"No," Helena admits, "I don't. I love him like you should."

Julie draws in a sharp breath, and storms out. Helena hears the jingle of keys being taken off the hook, and doesn't flinch when the door slams. Brian visibly deflates, sighing, defeat written all over him.

"What do we do now?" he asks.

"I don't know," Helena responds sadly.

Brian looks at her. "I've got to go after her."

"I know," Helena says, and leaves it at that.

***

Julie is in her car, driving aimlessly, when the call comes in to her mobile phone.

"Hello?" she answers, her voice thick with tears. She blinks her tears away.

"Julie?" Brian replies, his voice crackling in the feedback-heavy line. Julie glances out the window of her car.

Rain, she thinks.

As if echoing her thoughts, Brian continues, "It's raining, Julie, honey, it's not safe for you to be driving like this. Come back home."

"I'm going to stay in a hotel," Julie says, stubbornly.

"All right," Brian agrees hurriedly. "That's good, that's—that's a good idea. Just, just pull over and wait for me, okay? Please. Please, Julie."

"All right," Julie says hoarsely. "We can do that." She ignores how small she sounds, and how small she feels. She'll wake up in the morning, and everything will be better. She pulls over, and tells her where she is.

"Okay," Brian says, a few minutes later, "I'm right behind you, we can go."

Julie pulls back into traffic, briefly checking her rear-view mirror, but she can't see properly through the rain. She turns around, trying to get a better look, to assure herself that yes, Brian is really there, when she hears—

"Julie, look out!" Her eyes shoot open, and all she can see is blinding light and a screeching noise, loud in her ears, and then—

—a crash, and then—

—another, and then—

—nothing.

***

The aftermath of Julie and Brian's accident is brief and tumultuous. The police officer who comes to their door, who speaks to a stony-faced Mike and a freely-crying Helena, is apologetic—is more than apologetic—but it's not any help.

Mike swallows back the sharp pain of loss, and the knowledge of everything is going to be different now, and stands dutifully proud at the funeral, cries like a good son, but not too messily—he has to be composed, he has to be dignified, he has-to be—

It isn't until later that night that he really lets himself cry. He thinks that he's quiet enough, but there's barely a few minutes of tears before Helena is sweeping into his room, enveloping him in her warm embrace, perfumed from the many bunches of lilies they received that day.

"My boy," she says, sad and choked, "My sweet boy, my brave, brave boy."

They cry together, and then when the sun rises, they are ready to face the world again.

***

That night, Mike dreams of Arthur.

Years later, he still won't know why he remembered on that particular night—was it intended to be a distraction? A consolation?

Either way, it serves both purposes.

Merlin started out into the forests surrounding Camelot early this afternoon. Gaius told him to search for an herb that he needs to treat a mild sickness that has been floating through the castle. Merlin has been searching for hours since then, and he only just now found it.

It turns out that he has been walking around that area multiple times—has in fact looked in that very area specifically, but Merlin confused his herbs and didn't realize he was looking for the wrong thing until now.

When Merlin finally finds the herb, he starts to head back to the castle, only for it to start raining. He curses and runs the rest of the way back. When he arrives inside the castle, winded and dripping all over the cobblestones, two maids take one look at him and rush forward, cooing at him and trying—and failing, of course—not to giggle. They must be coming from the laundry, for their arms are full of clean and dry cloths of all sorts. Merlin tries not to look longingly at a towel in one girl's pile of clothing. She clucks at him concernedly, and looks around the corridor—empty, thank god, Merlin can't stand any more humiliation—before surreptitiously passing him the towel. He thanks them profusely and goes off on his way, less sopping wet than before.

When Merlin reaches Arthur's chambers, he is in slightly less of a bad mood. That is, until he opens the door and sees Arthur inside, scowling at the window. Arthur turns when he hears the door open.

Before Merlin can say anything, Arthur starts, "Where have you been? You've been missing all day, I had to get someone else to do your duties, Merlin, you—" He cuts himself off when he notices Merlin's appearance. "Merlin, what have you been doing, exactly? You look like a drowned rat."

"Thank you for that, sire," Merlin says. "I really needed that." But the truth is, it helps. After an awful day, Arthur's insults are surprisingly…warm.

"Whatever," Arthur says dismissively. "Just—go clean yourself up, or something. You smell."

Merlin rolls his eyes, fighting a smile. "Again, thank you, sire. Really."

"You're welcome," Arthur says primly. "You're lucky you have such a kind master, though—"

Merlin snorts.

"—because anyone else would have made you dry yourself off by working until midnight."

"I appreciate it, sire," Merlin says, not even bothering to hide his grin anymore.

"What's so funny, Merlin?" Arthur asks indignantly. "I'm trying to be nice."

"I'm sure you are," Merlin says, suddenly sincere. "I assure you, I appreciate it."

There is a long pause. Then Arthur clears his throat, and looks away. "Whatever," he says again. "You may go, now."

"Thank you, sire." Merlin bows.

"And take the rest of the day off," Arthur adds brusquely.

"Arthur?" Merlin asks, surprised.

"I can see that you're going to be useless for what's left of the day. I can get someone else to do your work."

"But—your dinner—" Merlin protests half-heartedly.

"Can be taken care of by someone else, just like everything else today has been. Go, Merlin," Arthur orders, and it sounds just as gruff and uncaring as before, but Merlin knows better. "Get some rest. I'll need you up bright and early in the morning."

"All right," Merlin acquiesces, and then smiles, slow and pleased. "Thank you, Arthur."

Arthur waves a hand in a shooing motion and, Merlin goes.

When Merlin is almost out the door, he hears—just barely—Arthur say, softly and uncomfortably, "Sleep well."

When Mike wakes up in the morning, he feels a little better.

***

The next night, Mike dreams of Balinor. Balinor, the last Dragonlord, Merlin's father, who Merlin didn't even know existed until his childhood was over.

Once Merlin finally found his long-lost father—had someone to call "Dad" who would, in return, call him "son"—Balinor died. He died, and Merlin lost him all over again.

It is a quick dream, just a half-remembered fuzziness that occasionally sharpened into images—a cave, a wooden dragon, Balinor run through with a sword trying to protect Merlin, Arthur shouting hopelessly, and through it all, Merlin's own tears.

And the fact that after that, he became the last Dragonlord, and saved Camelot by himself.

Mike wakes up, and wonders why his subconscious chose that particular memory to share. It isn't until later that he realizes what it means:

Take power of your own life, the memory reprimands, and don't just wallow in your own grief.

***

The night after that, he dreams of Hunith. He's dreamt of her many times before, but this time feels different. This has a sense of urgency, of fear, of tightly held secrets.

"Tell him," Hunith whispers, and Merlin shakes his head.

"I can't," he pleads. "Mum, you have to understand why I can't."

"He's your friend," Hunith replies, "and if he's a good one, he'll be there for you anyway."

"I don't think it works like that," Merlin protests, but broods on it anyway.

This time, Mike wakes up asking his subconscious, But how do I tell her?

***

When Mike finally gathers up the courage to approach Helena with the topic of his past lives, she is chopping vegetables for dinner. She takes one look at him and says, "Stop right there."

Mike stares at her. "What—"

"I don't know what it is you've got to confess to me," she says, "but whatever it is, it'll be fine, I promise you that."

"It's not exactly…" Mike hesitates. He thinks of an appropriate word to sum up everything. "Normal," he finally settles on.

Helena sets the knife down carefully on the cutting board, and says, "Oh. So it's that kind of confession."

Mike bites his lip.

"Sweetheart," Helena says, then stops. She starts again. "Mike, honey, I think I already know what you want to say to me."

"I doubt it," Mike mutters sullenly.

Helena bites back a smile. She crooks her finger at him, and he steps in closer. Helena cups Mike's face in one weathered hand. "I remember the first time you did magic," she whispers, and Mike feels something stir in the air. "You were so tiny, and your eyes flashed the most beautiful gold, and suddenly—suddenly I had all these emotions that felt odd, displaced, and all of these memories that weren't mine."

Mike's eyes widen. His mouth works soundlessly for a few moments, before he finally says, "You knew?"

Helena grins at him. "I'm your mother, Merlin. Of course I knew."

***

After that day, it is Arthur, Arthur, Arthur—only Arthur, all the time.

There are dreams of irritation and anger and fury, but there are also dreams of affection and lust and love.

On one memorable occasion, Mike wakes up sweating and sticky, feeling like his voice is hoarse even though he hasn't said anything. He stares into the thin sunlit area of his room, stunned, yet not at all surprised. He cleans himself up, hands still trembling with the enormity of the memory.

He goes down the stairs flushed all the way down to his neck, and Helena takes one look at him before cackling delightedly.

"Grammy," Mike whines.

"Oh, honey, you should see yourself," Helena says between peals of laughter. She stops, coughing, and Mike gets her a glass of water.

"Okay?" Mike asks.

"I'm fine," Helena dismisses.

There is an awkward silence where Mike tries really hard not to look at where Helena is rubbing her throat with the back of her hand, grimacing, and Helena pointedly pushes the still-half-full water glass away.

"Anyway," Helena continues as if nothing has happened, "you look very sweet, coming down here with that blush." She grins. "You think I don't know what's behind that?"

Mike flushes again. "Come on, Grammy, can we please not talk about this?"

"My little boy is growing up," Helena sniffles, wiping at her—totally dry—eyes.

Mike makes a sound somewhere near "gah" and throws his hands up in the air, going to get a glass of milk, Helena's laughter following him into the kitchen.

This starts a delightful—on Helena's part; on Mike's, it is positively horrifying—set of instances where Mike's dreams bleed into reality and make him stutter and fumble and blush.

Trevor thinks he's come down with something.

Helena thinks it's hilarious.

Mike just wants the earth to swallow him whole, please, God.

***

After a while, the dreams settle. Mike starts dreaming things he's already dreamt before. He doesn't get it—is he missing something? He hopes his subconscious isn't trying to make him have a big epiphany or something, because he's definitely not getting any sparks of realization.

It takes a few months for him to realize that he's just remembered everything he can remember.

Or at least, that's what he thinks.

After remembering his life as Merlin, he starts remember all of his other lives in between—Mark and Molly and Mary and Mac and so many others that sometimes Mike can't breathe with the weight of it all.

Through it all there is Arthur, who becomes Martin and Harper and Carlton and Parker and Mike doesn't know who he is this time around, but he's begging Fate to bring him closer quick, because Mike doesn't want to have to wait any longer.

For a while, Mike wanders around looking miserable and lonely, and Helena hugs him in sympathy, and Trevor frowns in confusion but organizes bigger pranks to make Mike feel better.

Mike gets over it, and learns to shove the longing to the back of his mind and power through. He gets so good at it that he almost forgets.

Okay, no, he doesn't forget, he never forgets, he doesn't even come close to forgetting—but he doesn't bother to dwell on it, and that's enough.

It works, for a while, and sometime during, Mike decides that no, he's not going to look for Arthur in this lifetime, Arthur can very well come to him, let Destiny send Arthur Mike's way if it really wants them to be together.

It works, but only because Mike is stubborn. As soon as Mike consciously makes this decision, he starts dreaming more and more of Arthur, of heat and warmth and rough embraces, and cool, dry lips on his own—like his subconscious is tempting him. Like it's taunting him.

Mike ignores it, and Helena looks worriedly at the dark circles that appear under his eyes, and Trevor kisses Mike to distract him and Mike is so desperate by this point that he lets him.

It's a small comfort, but it's enough.

***

Over the course of the years, with all the dreams and everything, Mike has learned to expect familiar faces—even when they're contained within supposed strangers. He finds himself examining people on the street in the same way he looks at relatives, searching for that spark of "I know you".

He learns two things along the way:

1. Not all people who are important to him now were important to him then.

And

2. Not all people who were important to him then are important to him now.

For example, his parents—and it still hurts to think of them, but maybe not as much as it's supposed to—never existed in Merlin's time. Or at least, Merlin never knew them. They could have been farmers or nobles, knights or ladies or peasants or kings. Mike doesn't know.

On the other hand, people who he doesn't really see now were Merlin's former friends, enemies, companions, lovers. Freya is the head librarian in the public library that is a few blocks from where Mike lives, and Mike smiles and strikes up a conversation, but she's really just an acquaintance. Nimueh was Mike's fifth grade teacher, and Mike had loved her, but had moved on and never seen her again. Gaius has yet to be seen—same as Gwen, Morgana, and, of course, Arthur—but Mike doesn't bother having expectations.

So when Jenny shows up, Mike tries to find a glimpse of something in her, but he doesn't see anything. It's almost a little refreshing, if also a little disappointing.

He gives Jenny and Trevor his blessing and sends them on their way, and there is an aura of comfortableness all around.

Years later, after Mike has been kicked out school and his grandmother is in a nursing home, Mike shows up on Trevor and Jenny's doorstep, and they roll their eyes and take him to bed.

It's supposed to be a one time thing. Then again, Arthur is supposed to be there for Mike, so Mike supposes anything goes.

And that's enough, and Mike puts Arthur out of his mind—or tries to—and tells Destiny to go to hell.

Yeah.

That's a big success.

***
Because, honestly, it's not that easy. These things accumulate, and suddenly Mike doesn't know how to deal with it anymore.

All of the years—all of the visions, dreams, memories—build up to the morning when Mike looks at himself in the mirror and, for a moment, doesn't recognize himself. He flutters his fingers over his face, trailing over the side of it, waiting for the feeling of prominent, too-sharp cheekbones. He runs a hand through his hair, mussing it up, feeling like it's completely the wrong color, thickness, style. At least the eyes are all right, he thinks wildly, tinged with desperation. He feel split between two people—between two lives, between hundreds of lives—and feels a sudden breathless ache where something or someone should be, and he can't, he can't—

Mike isn't sure he can survive like this for much longer. He knows he's felt this disconnect before (a lifetime ago, and that's the first time Mike has heard that used literally), but it's never been this bad. And he knows why—it's because there's no Arthur. He's not actively looking for his Arthur in this life, content—well not really content, but stubborn enough to pretend—to let Arthur come to him, or just be without.

And it's getting harder, but Mike remains firm and gets reckless and sells pot for Trevor, and tries not to feel the ache in his chest.

It's ridiculous, and it's driving Mike insane, but it's the best he can do against destiny.

***

Mike has always wondered if his memory has anything to do with his magic. He has learnt over the years that it probably has something to do with the whole reincarnation thing. Normal people probably aren't able to remember two lifetimes, let alone hundreds, so Destiny probably bestowed Mike with a bit more capacity for memory.

Destiny overshot a bit, this time.

So now Mike has some semblance of an eidetic memory, and sure, it gets him out of trouble, but his destiny has given him more trouble than the eidetic memory can make up for.

Still, it helps him get out of trying to deal drugs to undercover cops, so that's a plus.

Mike smooth talks the men trying—and failing—to get into a hotel room. That's really bad stalling, Mike thinks, and walks away. He can feel their eyes following him, and as soon as he's in the stairwell and out of sight, he breaks into a run.

***

When Mike runs into the room, he freezes. There is an air of tension, of anticipation, as if something big is about to happen. Mike can almost taste it in the air.

"Rick Sorkin?"

A woman's voice pulls him from his reverie. Mike jolts. "Excuse me, Mr. Sorkin, you are five minutes late. Is there a reason why I should let you in?

Mike looks at her, and frowns. She seems so familiar…

He stutters, thrown off enough to speak the truth. "I—" He looks around, only now registering the other people in the room, waiting for something. "Look, I'm just trying to ditch the cops, okay? I-I don't really care if you let me in or not."

She gives him a look, a little surprised, a little impressed, and he tries even harder to remember who she's supposed to be, who she was to Merlin. He doesn't really register her offer of water or her assurances that "Mr. Specter will be right with you", he's thinking so hard.

He does turn when the door opens, though, and freezes in shock, inhaling sharply and getting no oxygen. He feels like the breath has been sucker-punched out of him, and he's ashamed to say that his knees wobble under his weight, for a moment, because that—that's Arthur standing in the doorway to his right, that's his Arthur, and he's so close, and Mike just wants to reach out and touch him, see if he's real, but he's scared because he's waited so long, and he can't remember his reaction ever being this strong, before.

He exhales quietly, shakily, and follows Arthur—or whatever his name is this time around—into the next room. He looks over his shoulder and sees the woman wink showily at Arthur, and realizes just who she reminded him of, and sees Arthur tilt his head in acknowledgement.

In that moment, Mike runs his eyes over the curved lines of Arthur's back, his gelled hair, his tailored suit, the breadth of his shoulders and the confidence exuding from his every pore.

Arthur turns around, and Mike schools his features blank.

His hair and eyes are both dark brown, not the fair blond and blue of before. He's leaner, lither and more polished. He seems like nothing can touch him.

He seems to be around the same height as before, Mike notes as Arthur introduces himself. Arthur—Harvey, Mike corrects—radiates power and smugness with all of his body, just like before. Some things never change, Mike thinks wildly, heart beating too rapidly.

Mike is so caught up in Arthur—Harvey, dammit—that he doesn't notice his briefcase's latch loosening in his hand until it's too late. The briefcase falls open, and the weed comes spilling out.

Harvey cocks a brow and looks mildly surprised, but largely unruffled. Mike marvels at that, even as he starts stuttering and trying to explain.

Harvey waves a hand. "Don't make excuses. I hate that," he says, commanding. Mike straightens, mouth falling shut immediately. Harvey pauses at that, a considering look flashing across his face. "Just tell me the truth," he adds.

So Mike does.

***

Harvey stares at him for a moment after Mike finishes his tale, and then starts chuckling. Mike goes hot all over at the sound.

When his chuckles die down, Harvey asks, "How the hell did you know that they were the police?"

Mike laughs, a little self-deprecatingly. " I read this novel in elementary school and it was the exact same thing."

Harvey raises a brow. "You read a novel. In elementary school," he repeats, disbelief etched on his face.

"What? I like to read," Mike says, even though he knows that's not what Harvey was focusing on.

"And why did you ask them what time it was?" Harvey asks, looking only slightly curious.

Mike shrugs. "Throw 'em off. I mean, what kind of drug dealer asks a cop what time it is when he's got a briefcase full of pot, right?"

Harvey smirks, and Mike's heart stutters. After twenty-five years, this little bit of Arthur is enough to make him ache.

The next minutes are a blur for Mike. He remembers mentioning something about "consuming knowledge like no one you've ever met", and thinks in this lifetime. He remembers Harvey being impressed and leaning back in his chair and testing him, and he remembers Harvey offering a job jokingly and then staring intently and offering it again, this time for real. Mike remembers all of these things vaguely, because he is giddy from feeling Harvey's undivided attention after so long without his Arthur, basking in the glow of something that feels like a mix of sunshine on his skin—after a lifetime of rain—and the finest high.

It's addictive, a dangerous rush. Mike wants to feel it again and again and again; and maybe he takes the job partially because he needs the money—and partially because he actually really wants to be a lawyer—but mostly because Mike wants to be as near to Harvey as possible, to get that rush again.

Mike walks out with adrenaline thrumming through his veins, and a smile fixed on his face, his magic humming in excitement and delight.

That night Mike dreams of telling Arthur his secret, that he's magic, but really, Merlin's saved Arthur's life so many times, please, Arthur, please.

There is a flash of anger and hurt across Arthur's face, and then Mike wakes up.

Mike knows what comes next. What comes next is Arthur punching Merlin in the face and then kissing him breathless, saying "why would you hide this from me" and "you could've been killed" and "thank you, thank you" and "I love you" while Merlin gasps and rides it out.

Mike knows this, objectively, but he still feels more than a small bit of fear when he goes to Harvard to find out everything he needs to know; and even more later, when he walks into Pearson Hardman for the first time.

***

Mike looks around, nervous and eager and overwhelmed, all at once. It reminds him of walking into Camelot for the first time, fearful and anticipatory. Mike just hopes that this time he doesn't have to witness an execution.

Mike walks to the front desk, starting to ask the receptionist where to go, when she interrupts him.

"Have a seat," she says, obviously preoccupied. She points to the waiting area next to the desk. Mike frowns.

"I—"

She waves at him impatiently. Mike turns to go, when she points in the other direction. Mike sighs and turns around, taking the time to say "thank you", pointedly.

He moves into the waiting area, looking out the window at the view of the city. It's incredible, but Mike has seen Camelot and dragons and magic, and not much can really fill him with awe anymore. Still, the Mike Ross who hasn't had multiple lives would be awed, so Mike continues to stare, anyway.

"Mike Ross?"

Mike turns around and stops dead.

"I'm Rachel Zane," the woman says. "I'll be showing you around today."

Mike blinks. "Wow, you're—" Gwen, he thinks, but finishes easily with "—pretty."

Rachel Zane rolls her eyes. "Good, you've hit on me. We can get it out of the way that I'm not interested."

Mike blinks again, then realizes he should probably respond to that. "No, I'm sorry, I wasn't hitting on you."

Rachel smirks at him. "Trust me, I've given dozens of these and, without fail, whenever a new hotshot it is who thinks that because I just a paralegal. That I will somehow be blown away by his dazzling degree. Let me assure you, I won't."

Mike thinks back to Gwen, and his sorry attempt at flirting, and the awkwardness that followed, and has to struggle not to grin. "I was, I was hitting on you."

"You were," Rachel says, smiling. "Take notes, I'm not going to repeat myself," she says, handing him a notepad.

Mike takes it, and waits till she's out of earshot before whispering "I love you" in as a ridiculous a fashion as he can. Oh, how Mike had missed Gwen.

Rachel keeps talking as they walk, explaining things to him. Mike stores them in his memory even as he looks around. When they reach his cubicle, Rachel calls him on the fact that he hasn't used the notepad.

Mike grins, and repeats everything she said back word for word.

Rachel narrows her eyes at him, and says "Nobody likes a show-off," before leaving.

Mike can't find it in himself to be bothered by it.

***

Mike doesn't get to see Harvey for a little while after that. He goes to wait in Harvey's office, passing his assistant—whose name happens to be Donna, but Mike looks at her as Morgana—who waves him in after giving him the side-eye. Mike grins at her, and she looks away, a smile tugging at her lips.

When Harvey comes in, Mike looks up from fiddling with Harvey's stuff, a grin forming on his face.

"I'm going to have to let you go," Harvey says, face stony.

"What?" Mike says, smile falling.

Harvey explains the situation, and Mike winces inwardly. The last thing he wants is to put Harvey in danger, vocationally or otherwise.

On the other hand, Mike isn't about to let Harvey get away so easily.

So he blackmails Harvey, and feels a little guilty, but not much, because Harvey's kind of being an ass, and Mike just wants to stay with him.

Harvey frowns, and strides out the door, and Mike shakes his head, not even trying to understand him.

When he comes back, he springs Mike's first case on him. He briefly explains it, then hands it off.

Mike beams happily, and accepts the challenge.

***

"You're a kid!" the client says, incredulous.

Mike protests, "No, I-I'm a grown man." He leaves off the 'goddamn', because he doesn't want to sound too much like Harvey.

The client is sweet and harmless, and in an unfortunate spot of bad luck. Mike feels for her, is furious on her behalf, and promises her he'll get her out of this mess.

***

Harvey tells him not to care so much. Mike frowns, because that's not how he remembers Arthur. Arthur always cared a little too much. Arthur always cared, and never had trouble showing it—except to Merlin. To Merlin, Arthur had to express his feelings through banter and double-talk, but Merlin loved it anyway.

Harvey, however, is apparently different. Harvey doesn't care at all, about anyone or anything. Harvey says feelings get in the way.

Mike doesn't buy it one bit. He decides then and there that he's going to prove Harvey wrong. He's going to make Harvey care, and about Mike, too.

***

Donna is incredible, Mike figures out early on. Donna is fearsome and beautiful and wicked smart, and Mike loves her just as much as he loved Morgana.

Unfortunately, Donna doesn't seem to quite like him just yet. It's almost as if she resolutely doesn't want to be charmed.

Still, Mike wants to be close to her like he couldn't be before. He doesn't want Donna to hate him like Morgana began to after so many years of bitterness.

Mike feels more guilty about hiding things from her than he does from anyone else. He's used to Morgana being the one to know everything first. With her precognition, she saw danger coming before Merlin ever could. He feels like he's tricking her, lying to her, blinding her by keeping the truth from her.

Then there's the magic. Mike remembers Morgana being all alone with it, because Merlin was too afraid to share his secret. They had a common fear, and they could never speak of it. In other lives, they made things work, they were friends, they shared things no one else did. Mike misses having someone to talk to about magic, and knowing things others don't. Mike wonders if she has magic this time around—sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn't. That would be interesting.

Mike resolves to watch Donna closely for any spark of knowledge or recognition. With her visions, there's a chance that she already knows. Mike would welcome that with every fiber of his being.

***

Mike gets to know Rachel better, over sushi and books on law. They are able to laugh and joke and smile at each other, flirting sweetly and harmlessly. Mike has missed her, so, so much.

Rachel is whip-smart, quirky, beautiful, wicked, and fun. She is polished and put together and uses chopsticks like a pro, and is so perfectly, cleverly competent that he's giddy with it.

Mike can feel himself getting more than a little infatuated with her, just like always.

Even back in Camelot, Merlin was a little in love with Gwen. (He was also a little in love with Morgana, Gwaine, and Lancelot, and wholly in love with Arthur, because Arthur is his everything, but he somehow still has room to spare.)

***

When Joanna Webster flees from the conference room, dread washes over of Mike. It's his first case, he can't lose, he's not allowed to lose; he can't disappoint Harvey like that.

Then Harvey sends him after Joanna and all Mike wants to do is drag her back to Pearson Hardman, just to see the pride on Harvey's face, because Mike may care about the clients, but he cares infinitely more about Harvey.

Unfortunately, that would probably cause some problems—for everyone involved—so he lets her go. He has no choice.

And then he quits, running away like the coward he is, cursing himself because he should've known better. This opportunity was just too great, too perfect. There's no conceivable way it could have worked.

Maybe Mike wanted, the entire time, for Harvey to come after him. Like it mattered to him that Mike had left, like he wanted him to come back.

And he does.

Maybe it's not for those reasons. Maybe Harvey just wants to get his trouble's worth. Maybe he thinks that he took the time and effort to hire Mike, and Mike had better work himself to the bone.

Either way, Harvey comes after Mike, and Mike is still skeptical, and Mike is still sure that this is never, ever going to work, but Harvey has gone a long way toward ensuring that Mike stays as long as he can.

Mike leaves the building late at night, after watching Harvey turn around and go back the way he came, knowing all the while that he's coming back in the morning.

***

Mike sees the Harvey smile when Mike comes through his door. He barely looks up, but he seems pleased nonetheless, a little quirk of the lips appearing on his face.

Mike has to look away, has to move to the wall of glass, throat a little choked with all of his feelings, with being so very close, but not nearly close enough, never close enough.

Harvey comes and stands next to him, uncomfortably comforting. Mike smiles, can't help himself because Harvey is trying he really is, which means that he cares.

Then Harvey hands him the file, tells him Joanna's secret, and Mike smirks and says "Press until it hurts."

He's going to make Harvey proud, goddamnit, see if he doesn't.

***

They win the case.

They win the case, and Harvey cares, and Mike is flying, high off success.

Of course, Harvey denies that he cares. Mike doesn't believe one word of it, and tells him so.

Then Mike follows him out, but it feels like sailing off into the sunset.

Maybe Harvey doesn't know him, and maybe this is dangerous, and maybe Trevor is gone, but Mike is so happy, so fucking happy anyway. Mike finally dares to let himself hope that this will work out.

***

Mike hasn't had a dream in a while. His nights have been quiet and empty—or peaceful, some would call it—and Mike is pretty okay with that. The only note-worthy dream occurred in the early morning of the day that Mike met Harvey, though he didn't know it at the time.

Tonight, he dreams again. It's of the first time Merlin ever saw the Round Table, the original, with its ancient symbols and beautiful history. He remembers Arthur's near-breathless pride. He remembers his own happiness and anticipation. But—most importantly for this night, it seems—he remembers the knights.

There is Percival, the newest, barely knowing Arthur, but willing to pledge his life for his reign.

Elyan, with his love and compassion, so sincere in every word he speaks.

Lancelot, who should be Arthur's rival by all rights, but instead loves him more than any of the other knights, saw the king in Arthur before anyone else.

And Gwaine, dear Gwaine, with his charm and his grin and his wicked humor, teasing in the most serious of times, but so very loyal.

They speak, and Gaius swears fealty, and Gwen declares her love, and Arthur beams at all of them.

And then, then there is Merlin, who is waiting, waiting for Arthur to ask, when everyone else just gave it to him. And Arthur says "Merlin?" and Merlin responds flippantly, even while his heart is singing Yes.

***

Harvey is kind of an ass, is the thing. He expects Mike to know these things, except Mike doesn't, because he didn't go to law school. Sometimes Mike thinks Harvey forgets.

So Mike goes and begs help from people who won't help him, and finally thinks he's caught a break when Gregory offers a deal.

It stands to reason that Mike gets screwed.

So then Louis does his little show of "generosity", with his snapping and finger-pointing and tennis-club outings. Honestly, Mike would rather do the work, but whatever.

***

The moment Tom Keller grins at him, with the same charm and humor that Mike has been missing, Mike sees it. It's what makes him smirk back, what makes him banter and flirt harmlessly, what makes him throw in the offhand remark of "getting high."

It's supposed to be safe, to be completely without risk—who would ever find out?—but of course Mike gets completely addled and stupid when he's high, and doesn't think twice about going back to work. While he's high.

Honestly. Of all the stupid things.

Of course, Mike could just waggle his fingers and murmur a few words, and maybe accelerate the drug's path out of his system, but that takes quite a bit of energy and concentration, things that Mike doesn't really have when he's stoned.

So yeah, he goes to work, and Harvey takes one look at him and knows.

"Look at me," he cuts in, and Mike pauses, before rambling again, faster and more desperate. "Look at me," Harvey commands, and Mike has no choice but to stop, shut his mouth with an audible click, and struggle to stand up straighter—because that tone, that voice, carries the power of all the kings in its past.

"You're high," Harvey says, and sounds so disappointed and cold, and also like he expected nothing different.

***

Rachel catches him, later, in the ladies' restroom.

"Why are your eyes so red?" she asks, casually.

Mike freezes. "I—" he begins, and then sighs.

"Do you want to take a walk?"

***

They walk past an infinite amount of hot dog carts and passersby, but Mike doesn't see any of it. Rachel listens to his story attentively, wincing or shaking her head at some parts, and holding her response at others.

"You should have seen his face," Mike says, voice breaking, and then, idiotically, "We had a deal."

Rachel looks at him askance, and Mike gives her a carefully vague answer, and he thinks, miserably, That's the end of that.

But then she says, "Sounds to me like he let you down," and everything becomes clear again.

***

As they walk back to Pearson Hardman, Rachel is kind enough not to comment on Mike's silence.

I can fix this, he thinks desperately. I can fix this, I can fix this.

Rachel shoots him a concerned look, but says nothing.

There is a reason why he always loved Gwen.

***

"Is he free?" Mike asks, already moving past Donna's desk.

"Not for you," Donna says coolly, and it stops Mike like a wall, sends a shiver down his spine from its hard tone.

"He told you," he says.

"He didn't need to," she says. She looks up, finally. "You hurt him."

Mike swallows, but stands firm. "Yeah, well, maybe he did the same to me."

Donna holds his gaze for a moment, then sighs. "Go on," she says, and Mike rushes forward. "And, Mike?" He pauses. "Be careful."

Mike nods, and goes in.

***

Mike doesn't remember much of what happens next. What he remembers is—

"I want you to—I need you to trust me."

—and—

"So if you're talking about loyalty, you better goddamn earn it."

—and the incongruous sound of jazz in the background as Harvey stares out of his glass doors, and Mike can only see the stiff curve of his back, the tense line of his shoulders, and can imagine the tightness near his eyes and mouth; and it makes Mike ache to make it better, to smooth out all the strain and stress and awful hurt, since it's his fault anyway.

And he's so close to doing it, he's so close, but then an offhand remark of his triggers something in Harvey's brain, and they have to leave the conflict there.

But it's all right, because Mike knows they'll come back to it later.

Just like they always have.