Rating: T, Gen
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, Gwaine, Lancelot, Morgana, Gwen, Gaius
Warnings: Some violence
Summary: Steampunk AU. All Merlin ever wanted was to be a mechanic in peace without anyone giving him grief for the magic he was born with. But his life is flipped upside down when he is sucked into an epic adventure alongside the famous protectors of the realm, The Order of Avalon, as they set out in search of the mysterious Emrys. Magic, mechanical dragons and swashbuckling abounds.
A/N: Written for the Merlin Reverse Big Bang over yonder on Livejournal. Updates will be pretty quick since I already have this story posted in it's entirety over on AO3 - so possibly two chapters a day, maybe more (I would do it all at once but prepping the chapters can be a bit tedious).
The Order of Avalon:
The Emrys Quest
Merlin clutched the controls with sweating palms and swallowed back some of his mounting unease. He banked right, moving over the great sprawling city of Camelot with its towering buildings both ancient and modern, like a forest of human ingenuity reaching for the clouds. It looked endless from so high up, but while Merlin awed over such magnificence gleaming in the midday sun, his heart lodged in his throat as he began his descent toward that very city.
Merlin had faith in his beautiful machine. What he didn't have faith in was his skill to maneuver it through the taller structures. He'd only ever had the fallow fields to practice in, and had made it a point to stay clear of the forests – because who in their right mind steered a flyer into a woodland? Magic made control of his machine a thing of beauty but not of perfection, because a machine was only as good as its pilot, all the more so since it was Merlin's mind more than his hands doing the steering.
There was also the little issue of how people might react to a flying machine that looked remarkably like a dragon.
Merlin swept low over the city stretched out beneath him through the viewing window of his machine. Everything became a near-blur, making it next to impossible to tell one building from the next. Merlin's heart gave his ribs an almighty kick when he thought for sure he was heading in the wrong direction, the guidance tower nowhere in sight. But a quick adjustment in the form of a mental nudge to the right and there the thing was, rising like a miniature Eiffel Tower from the forest of buildings. Merlin exhaled a relieved breath and aimed for it.
Landing was no great feat for Merlin, Ealdor being a favorite testing ground for new flyers, and that meant hangars and runways galore to choose from. But neither did his machine land like most flyers. After announcing his arrival over the crackling communications box and getting permission to land, Merlin angled his machine for the tongue of runway jutting from the great domed-glass hangar. One pull of a lever and the machine hummed as the legs eased themselves from the body. Another pull of another lever, and Merlin could hear the thunderous clap of flapping canvas wings.
His machine didn't squeal and peel across the runway, it slowed, it touched down, and settled like a bird easing into it's nest. Merlin smiled. He couldn't help feeling a little smug about the way the runway men gathered and gaped at such a simple touchdown, or that they seemed a bit dazed when the machine began to move so flawlessly, like something that truly was alive rather than mechanical, into the hangar. Machines made to mimic living creatures weren't uncommon but the large ones meant for transport were clunky, uncouth things that moved more like infants taking their first steps. Even rarer were the machines that mimicked flying creatures, since getting the landings right without the use of magic was not only tricky but deadly.
Merlin mentally steered his machine through the great doors of the hangar. The place was a chaotic hive of mechanics and pilots working on a variety of flying machines, some as small as a horse, others bigger than Merlin's dragon. A pull of a third lever and the dragon's wings folded themselves against the metal sides. Merlin then backed the machine into the nearest available parking space, then he flipped switches, pulled a fourth lever and the machine lowered itself to the ground like a cat settling in for a nap. The machine's great head lowered to the ground. Merlin pressed a button that slid the cockpit covers back, scrabbled out and hopped from the dragon's head with ease.
"Gah, that thing's a bloody beauty!" an airman crowed. He was an old gent, heavy-set with graying hair and a beard, his face and coveralls grimy with oil. He looked Merlin up and down, frowning at his patched and filthy brown aviator coat and equally filthy trousers. "How's a bit like you afford something like this?"
"A little at a time," Merlin said, lowering his goggles to let them hang from his neck. He beamed, standing tall. "I built it."
"You didn't," the man exclaimed, which only made Merlin beam all the more.
"I did, actually," Merlin said, mildly affronted. He looked up at his creation, so much like the dragons of legend, gleaming copper and gold – not real copper and gold, of course, merely the result of the protectorates coating the metal to keep it rust free. But each part, each metal plate and each metal joint had been crafted with care, shaped and treated not simply to vaguely resemble a dragon, but to be a dragon in just about every way. Merlin even had plans to make it capable of breathing fire.
"Ealdor ingenuity, right there," Merlin said proudly, patting the metal leg.
"Huh," the man scoffed. "If that's country work I'll eat my goggles. That's probably just scrap you prettied up." He stomped off in a huff.
"Don't mind Eli," someone said, "He's just jealous is all. He still needs a manual just to remember where to put the bloody steering box half the time." Laughter rippled through the hangar.
Merlin ignored it all, staring up as his creation. He'd gotten the idea after stumbling onto a trunk that had belonged to his father, full of notes on how to make mechanical creatures more alive. Merlin had been ten at the time, and so enraptured by the idea that he spent half his life making his dream possible – collecting scraps where he could, buying what he could, paying the metal smith to shape the metal when he could, and spending every moment not in school apprenticing with whatever mechanic would take him.
The only other interest in Merlin's life had been his magic, but that, too, he had used to make his creation real. It had made him feel less of a freak, giving the power he was born with purpose – power that came to him as naturally as breathing, which the people of his village had said wasn't natural at all.
Merlin left his pride and joy in the care of the hangar, with no worries of the jealous or covetous taking an unhealthy interest in it. An enchantment protected it, and the controls would respond only to him. He paid the first of his rent for the space to the man in the glass booth near the hangar entrance, then inquired rather awkwardly as to the location of a place called only The House. The man's eyes about bugged out of his head at the question.
"Lords, boy, good luck getting into there," was all he said, along with the needed directions.
Where the city had been both awe-inspiring if nerve-wracking from above, it was nothing but nerve-wracking on the ground – the crowds, the noise, steam-engine cars hissing and trundling fast down the streets as though with no regard as to who might be crossing them, and if people weren't shouting at you to buy this or that from their market stalls, they were bellowing at you to get out of the bloody way. Thank goodness for the steam buses was all Merlin had to say about it, nestled in the padded seats of a copper double-decked behemoth. The city was a blasted maze, liable to swallow Merlin whole wasn't careful.
It almost did when he had no choice but go the rest of the way back on foot, his destination not on the bus' route. The bus had landed him in a posh part of the city, where he stood out like a little quail in his dirty brown coat among peacocks in lacy dresses or top hats and waist coats. When Merlin asked for directions, he was answered with a sniff and a glare as though he were a simpleton.
"One more block, then to the right," said a man with a curled mustache. "Not even you could miss it if you tried."
Merlin fought back the need to bristle, brusquely saying his thanks and moving on. Merlin was seriously starting to wonder what his mother had been thinking by sending him here. Maybe Ealdor wasn't a place for a magic-born mechanic but he wasn't sure what being in a place this big, loud and prattish would accomplish.
Then Merlin turned the corner. He found his destination. The man was right, he couldn't have missed it if he tried. The House was practically a castle, or maybe Cathedral, it was so huge, not to mention rather ancient looking - a place of stone, towers and gargoyles looking menacing even at a distance. It was surrounded by a high wall of flagstones and the entrance barred by a great iron gate like spears stacked against a rack. Merlin found himself once again having to swallow back his unease. Straightening his back, he forced himself to approach like a man who knew what they were about.
Until the guard – big, burly, resplendent in a uniform of red and gold and armed with a musket - stepped into view and glowered at Merlin. Merlin deflated.
"State your business or be off with you," the guard said when Merlin was at the gate.
Merlin gulped and swiftly fished his mother's letter from his pocket. "Er, um... I'm here to see Gaius? I'm... I'm Merlin, his... um... nephew. I-I think it was told I'd be coming today..."
"Right," the man said flatly, but pulled a small leather bound book from his pocket and consulted it. After a curt nod, he shouted for the gate to be open.
Unfortunately, that wasn't that. Merlin was immediately surrounded by two more guards. It was without warning that they patted him down and rifled through his ruck sack. Once satisfied that he posed no threat, they practically shoved him on his way.
"East wing, second level, fifteen doors down. And don't stop until you get there," the guard called after him.
Merlin managed to nod and not to cringe.
The House was much like the city, awe-inspiring and rather frightening. While the exterior stood old and important, the interior gleamed like the halls for ancient Greek gods, with marble floors, high pillars and paintings in gold frames. It was also another bloody maze. But that men and women in finery walked among men and women in dirty coveralls or pilot coats gave Merlin a modicum of courage. It was nice, no longer being looked at like something scraped off the bottom of a shoe every time he asked for directions. But it wasn't until he found the right door that he started to feel an actual sense of ease.
Then he opened that door just as an elderly man tipped back over the flimsy rail of an upper balcony. Merlin's magic reacted, slowing time then pulling a cot across the floor beneath the suspended body. Time resumed and the man landed with only an oomph. After a bit of shocked spluttering, the man finally looked at Merlin and sighed in relief.
"Thank you kindly, my boy," he said, hefting himself up onto his feet. "People always said that bloody balcony would be the death of me, but finding space for my books can be such a nuisance and it's rare for me to ever need a book from the upper lever." He dusted off his brown jacket and trousers, a futile attempt that only smeared more of whatever powder was currently staining them.
"That was quick magic, I must say," he said, still dusting away. "Especially for one so young. May I inquire as to who you studied under?"
Merlin blinked. "Oh, uh... no one."
The man looked up sharply. "Come again?"
"I didn't study with anyone."
"Then how did you know what to do?"
"I-I just did. It just came to me."
"Well, what do you want me to say?"
"The truth," the man said sternly, taking an equally stern step toward Merlin.
Merlin took a nervous step back and blurted, "I was born like this."
"Also impossible. Who are you, what are you doing here?"
Merlin flinched. "Oh, um... here," and thrust out his mother's letter to the man. The man – who Merlin's brain finally decided must be Gaius – opened the letter and scanned it.
"Merlin?" Gaius said, bewildered. "But you weren't to come until Wednesday."
"It is Wednesday."
"Oh," Gaius said, even more bewildered. "Well then... I suppose I should show you where you'll be staying," he said more lightly. "This way. Do mind all the bits and bobs on the floor, some of them are fragile." Gaius began leading the way through an obstacle course of glass, metal and little machines littering the floor. Only to pause, turn back and smile. "Although what I should be saying is thank you."
Merlin smiled back.
Gaius' chamber was both an inventor's dream and a maid's nightmare, books piled among odd inventions that whirred, clicked or whistled, some of which had been made to look like living things – a clockwork mouse here, a robot cat there, even a dragon about the size of a medium dog, curled up beneath the table with steam curling from its nostrils and various vents. Potions and elixirs bubbled in beakers and gurgled through pipes, with more bottles of elixirs sitting among empty plates of eaten food. Merlin was guided through all of this to a set of stairs at the back leading to a narrow door. Through the door was a tiny room with a single window, bed and table.
"Here you are, then," Gaius said. "You can stay here or stay until you can afford a place of your own. Your mother said you were a gifted mechanic so I arranged an interview for you with one of the chaps from The King's Hangar. They're always in need of gifted mechanics. You need a pass to come and go from The House – it's on the table by the stairs – and you'll receive another should you gain employment at the hangar. But whatever you do, do not go wandering. The grounds are fine but when inside you must be careful where you end up. Any door with the Pendragon seal you are not to enter, understand?"
Merlin nodded. "Um, yeah. But... what is this place, exactly?"
Gaius gawked at him for a moment. "You don't know of The House?"
Merlin shrugged helplessly. "Should I?"
Giaus, shaking his head, chuckled softly. "No, I suppose not. Ealdor is quite a ways away. But you do know of the Order of Avalon, yes?"
Merlin smiled. "Oh Yeah. Definitely. I have a mate, Will, has the biggest collection of Order dime novels of anyone in the village. We used to stay up all night reading about the Order."
Gaius chuckled again. "Yes, well, those are just stories, ones not even based on the real members of the Order. They don't even call its headquarters The House. They call it the Citadel or some such nonsense."
Merlin stared at him, his brain slowly but surely making sense of Gaius' ramblings. Then, Merlin's eyes going wide, "Oh. Oh! Is this...? No. No, it couldn't... is it?"
Gaius, smiling bright, nodded, "The headquarters of the Order of Avalon."
Merlin could feel the blood drain from his face. "Oh. Well, I suppose that explains the, um... reception at the gate."
Gaius winced. "I do apologize for that. Security is going to be rather tight in a place such as this. But your name will be on the roster and you'll have your pass so you should be fine from now on."
"Some of the guards can be a little overzealous in their duties, but they'll get used to you soon enough. Come now, get settled and I'll give you a bit of a tour on the way to the dining hall. You must be quite hungry after your trip," Gaius said.
Merlin was, but it had been violently subdued by the revelation that his new home was also the residence of the Order of Avalon, the protectors of the realm, a clandestine group of fighters and spies, so secret that no two characterization was ever the same in the dime novels.
And Merlin was in their headquarters, had probably passed them in the halls. Will was going to explode when Merlin told him, if Will even believed him.
"Merlin, are you coming?" Gaius said, his gentle voice cutting through Merlin's shock like a knife.
Merlin flinched from his thoughts and hurried after Gaius now heading for the door. "Yeah, coming."
The Order of Avalon. Lords, if Merlin hadn't felt like a naive country boy while he'd negotiated the city, he was certainly feeling it now.
Gaius was no stranger to chaos. He'd been the head physician and scholar of magic for the Order for well over twenty years, for goodness sake. His first day on the job had come with two gunshot wounds, a concussion and a magical artifact of such a dubious nature that few had been brave enough to touch it. For Gaius, chaos was not merely an acquaintance, it was a faithful companion.
And yet it still amazed him how so much chaos could find a home in one skinny, coltish young man. They had yet to leave the chamber when Merlin tripped, twice, brusing his knees and elbows (Gaius' fault, really. He was used to the clutter so had never had a mind to clean it up). Once beyond the chamber, Merlin had nervoulsy requested the use of the loo, a task that took him eighteen minutes and which involved him going through the wrong doors five times and getting hollered at four times. On finally reaching the dining hall, the boy's nerves had been so rattled that there was no possible way for Gaius to miss the way his hands shook. Then they entered the hall itself with its crystal chandeliers and tables so polished and gleaming they were like liquid, and Merlin's appetite expired right then and there. If he wasn't nibbling at the rich food half-heartedly, he was picking at it. Gaius decided that perhaps it would be best if Merlin dined in their chambers rather than the hall from now on – a practice Gaius much preferred himself, anyway. The poor boy didn't begin to relax until back in the semi-safety of the clutter.
It was while Merlin busied himself unpacking his belongings in his new room that Gaius sat himself at his desk and read, word for word, Hunith's letter. It told both an amazing and heartbreaking tale of a boy who could move objects with a flash of gold in his eyes before he could even walk and talk; of a boy who posessed more magical skill and power at the age of five than the novice apprentices who studied under elder sorcerers; and of a boy frowned upon, even shunned, by most in his village for being "unnatural."
Except it wasn't unnatural, not to one who had made understanding magic a part of his life – in part to aid Gaius in the healing of others, and also in part as a result of his youthful days in which magic had been too much of a grand fascination to pass up. To call Merlin unnatural was narrow-minded and cruel, but not even Gaius could deny that Merlin was unique. Not so unique that there wasn't a term for what he was, but from what Gaius knew of warlocks, the ones who iwere/i magic, not merely born with the potential for it, they did not come into this world on a whim. Warlocks had a purpose, which meant Merlin had a purpose.
Hunith, however – from what Gaius ascertained from her letter – did not care for purposes. All she wanted was a place where her son would feel accepted, for someone to guide him, to help him understand the gift he did not choose to have, and to offer him more than what a tiny narrow-minded village on the edge of the realm could offer.
It was such a simple request, but it didn't feel simple, not when all evidence pointed to the life of a warlock being anything but uneventful. There had been three that Gaius knew of recorded in the annals of history, the last known warlock spoken of over a thousand years ago. Most thought them myths these days, a child's fairytale of heroes who vanquished great evil and kept the world safe. The last warlock had defeated a great army of the undead or some such.
A clatter, a bang and a yelp pulled Gaius' attention to the top of the small stairs and the closed wooden door. It had only been a few hours since Merlin's arrival and already Gaius could easily picture the boy bumbling about the room as he tried to put things away. He chuckled to himself.
The image of that same boy, standing thin, nervous and tripping over his own feet before an army of corpses, killed the laugh.
Lords, Merlin hadn't been here for a day and already Gaius had to wonder what he was getting himself into.