A Once and Future Destiny
Chapter 1 – First Day in Camelot
Arthur straightened the cuffs of his sleeves in the back seat of his father's Bentley, then smoothed his hair. He hadn't been this nervous on his first day of anything else – not high school, not his first job, not any of the four years he'd been at Brown. He watched the greenery blur past the window, tapping the ring he wore on his left hand idly on the door's armrest.
"You're not nervous, are you, Sire" Leon's cool, somewhat ironic voice came to him from the driver's seat of the car.
That made him smile. He loosened the knot of his silk tie, and instead of answering the question, he commented, "The last time you called me 'Sire,' Leon, I was a teenager."
Leon chuckled, nodding. "I remember. Your father gave me a week off without pay, and said I could return to my job on one condition…"
"That you never mentioned my 'daydreams' again?" Arthur guessed. "He forbid me from speaking to you about them, too, asked if I wanted to be responsible for you losing your job."
He was silent for a moment, thinking back to adolescence and the vivid dreams he'd had, night after night, of men in red cloaks and chain mail, of legendary monsters, of women in sumptuous velvet gowns, and one woman in particular. Of a uniquely wrought sword that fit his hand perfectly. Of battles… and sorcerers.
"Well, Arthur," Leon's voice held amusement as he checked his side mirror before making a turn, "you will be entering Camelot for the first time today. It's a big day – Sire." His eyes twinkled briefly at Arthur in the rearview mirror.
That young dreamer he'd been had reveled in those dreams of a kingdom and a sword and a table, isolated as he'd been in all the finest schools, by his father's money and business power. Until one day when he'd come face to face with his father's newest employee, a driver/bodyguard named Leon – and recognized that face. And found, to his surprise, that Leon recognized him, too.
"Leon," Arthur said, his voice deepening slightly, "why now? Why here – I mean, D.C.?" Leon remained silent. "And what about the others?"
Leon decelerated in preparation for his turn into the main drive of Camelot Technologies, Inc. "I don't know," he said. "I never truly believed my own childhood dreams until your father hired me, and I saw you – again. But I'm sure it's not a mistake, not a coincidence – it's not for nothing." He passed the employee parking lot entrance, instead coasting down the circular drive and braking in front of the main entrance of the building.
Arthur looked up at the imposing stone edifice, at the twisted metal of the modern-art sculpture on the lawn, symbolizing a rising sun. He could see nothing of the interior of the building through the darkly tinted glass. He took a deep breath and reached to open the door; he was afraid of nothing.
He was King Arthur, after all.
Leon cleared his throat. "I'll be returning with your father in about an hour, sir," he said professionally, neutrally. "He wanted me to remind you that his assistant will meet you in the lobby with instructions for your first day."
"Thank you, Sir Leon," he said wryly, swiveling on the padded leather seat to step out of the car. He slammed the door behind him, then crossed the sidewalk to enter the building as Leon pulled the Bentley away from the curb.
Arthur pulled open the glass door, crossed the charcoal-grey floor-mat, pulled open a second glass door to enter Camelot's main lobby. The Camelot rising sun was set in shimmering yellow granite in the white tile of the floor in the center of the lobby, which was open to all three floors. To his left two vacant meeting rooms stood open, and in the rear a comfortably arranged waiting area centered around a thick beige rug. The grand staircase was centered in the rear, rising to the second floor before splitting to continue up to the third at right angles to the main stair. To his left, the high counter of the receptionists' desk hid the waist-level work area behind. He leaned on the narrow ledge, bringing computers, phones, filing cabinets, printer, charts, and lists in organized chaos into view.
The plump, elderly lady perched on her padded chair gave him a bright smile over her shoulder, held up a single finger to him as the phone system warbled, echoing through the lobby. She reached to press a button on the phone – Arthur noticed the stem of a headset extending toward her mouth.
"Good morning, Camelot Technologies, this is Patty," she said, pleasantly professional. "Yes, sir, the director is at his desk – one moment while I put your call through – you're very welcome." She pushed her chair back from the computer terminal, rolling and swiveling simultaneously to face him. "How can I help you?"
He gave her his best charming smile. "I'm Arthur Drake," he said.
Her brown eyes lit up behind half-specs. "Of course you are! First day of your internship, bright and early! If you'll please sign in on that clipboard, I'll let Mary know you're here – that's just for today, you know, Mary will get you set up with your photo ID and key card later."
The phone system warbled again, and Patty spun away, using the edge of the desk to draw herself back to her console. "Good morning, Camelot Technologies…"
Arthur signed his name, bold and dark, then wandered a few steps away from the desk, craning his neck to see up to the other levels of the building. First day in Camelot – his pulse quickened. His first day in prep school he'd scanned classmates eagerly for "familiar" faces. He'd done the same every year of college. If he hadn't had Leon – no matter that they weren't allowed to discuss their "dreams" – he didn't know what he would have done. Denied the truth of things, places, people "remembered", denied his identity?
Like his father had done?
A clatter of heeled pumps interrupted another incoming phone call, and a heavyset blonde woman came into view, descending the large main staircase. She was closer to his father's age than his, he saw as she came to him, beaming.
"And you're Arthur Drake," she said, reaching to take both his hands. "I'm so pleased to meet you – I'm Mary, your father's PA. Though you don't look much like your father, do you, dear?"
He gave her his charming smile. "I've been told I favor my mother," he said.
Behind him, the phones rang, interrupting Patty's cheerful greeting.
"Well, we've got a busy day – a tour for you this morning, and then quite a bit of paperwork this afternoon, I'm afraid – excuse me one moment."
Patty was still animatedly fielding calls, though the phone system announced another caller. Mary stepped around the side of the desk, picking up the phone at the second station. Moments later, the two women exchanged a look in the temporary silence.
"Hasn't the temp agency sent a replacement receptionist?" Mary said.
"Yes, she's just finishing distributing the mail." Patty pointed to the door behind Mary, which opened as a young woman leaned against it from a room beyond – an extensive, cubicle-dotted room, Arthur saw, before his attention was captured completely, and time slowed to a crawl.
Long dark ringlets cascaded down the back of her blue and white striped shirt, clipboard in hand, fitted black pants – she turned. Smooth brown skin, rounded cheeks – chocolate eyes. He approached slowly, helplessly, as she smiled and greeted Mary, his heart rising in his chest to smother his voice. Turn and look at me, his heart commanded.
"Mary, this is Gwen Bell," Patty was saying. "Gwen, Mary is Mr. Drake's personal assistant. And this young man –" Gwen turned to see him for the first time – or, again – eyes widening in astonishment – "is Arthur Drake, Mr. Drake's only son. He'll be serving an internship at Camelot this summer."
Remember, please remember, he pleaded internally, leaning over the high ledge of the desk to reach his hand to her, saying aloud, "This is a genuine pleasure."
Gwen almost dropped the clipboard. Her hand rose to touch his and jerk back, as though she'd put her hand into a fire. Mary cleared her throat in amusement, the phones warbled, and Patty turned back to the desk.
"I'm sorry," Gwen murmured, dropping her eyes in confusion, a blush coloring her complexion more richly, "I'm meant to be – answering phones." Mary moved out from behind the desk, and Gwen stepped forward to the vacant seat, darting another glance up at him.
"Have lunch with me?" he said swiftly, happily. "Twelve o'clock, in the break-room?" She hesitated, then dipped her head in agreement.
"We'll start down here, Arthur," Mary said, leaning against a second doorway, further down. He strode to follow her, trying to stop grinning, and threw a look over his shoulder. Gwen was watching him with a stunned expression – when he met her eyes again, she turned away, flustered, to reach for the phone headset on the desk.
"I don't mean to be rude, but policy does forbid inter-office relationships," Mary said maternally. "Now, this is the After-Sales Service department, you'll share an office in the corner with the director while you're here. The mail slots are just there, the call center is that whole corner over there, and let me just introduce you to –"
Arthur shook hands happily, grinning like an idiot – well, maybe not that – though there were no more "familiar" faces. His queen of hearts was here. Some deep part of him that had been in quiet tension for years, relaxed almost fully. Seeing Sir Leon, his father's driver/bodyguard, had helped, but now… now he knew.
Even the thought that his internship would be served in the A.S.S. department couldn't cloud this day.
He hoped there was only one break-room.
He checked the watch on his wrist as Mary led him around a corner toward the rear of the building, commenting on the regional office that resided within the corporate headquarters, the warehouse facilities to the extreme rear of the building, through that door there, dear, "And the restrooms, locker rooms, fitness room, and break-room are down this hallway," Mary pointed out. "There's three refrigerators, four microwaves, and a toaster oven, if you want to bring a lunch – or some of us like to call out for delivery – Chinese or Italian or subs, or you can drive down into town."
He followed her up a carpeted stairway, down another hall. "Here is our marketing department, mail room, and our salesmen's center," Mary told him, pushing open another door onto the second floor, with an open floor plan checkered with chin-high cubicle walls. They threaded their way through the corporate jungle, pausing to greet whoever wasn't occupied with phone calls.
"This corner is the IT department," Mary announced. A quick glance though smoky glass windows re-oriented Arthur; they'd come back to the front left corner of the building again. "Actually, we have a new intern in this department as well, started just last week – fresh out of high school, if you can believe it – but his grandfather heads up the lab – that's in a separate building we can visit later if you're interested – good morning, Carol, and how's your young intern – Marvin, wasn't it?"
Carol, a thirty-something woman in a navy pantsuit with close-cut brown hair, looked up from her computer, though her fingers never paused on the keyboard. "He's with Aiden right now – some problem with the firewall on their new program." Arthur sensed Mary's surprise, but Carol shrugged and added as she turned back to her own work, "He said he could handle it – he knows he can call Steve if he can't figure it out."
"Hm," Mary said, and gave Arthur a bright smile. "Let's go see how they're doing."
He followed the blonde PA down another short hall, and paused at the doorway she entered, putting her hands on her ample hips. "How's it going, Aiden?" she said.
A thickset middle-aged man straddled a padded desk-chair backwards, his sleeves rolled up and his arms resting on the suit-coat draped over the back of the chair. He twisted gently in the seat, eyes on the computer screen several feet away, where someone else knelt, typing furiously. "Just fine," he answered absently. "He's a wizard with computers, aren't you, Merlin?"
Wizard – Merlin. Arthur practically leaped into the room, passing Mary swiftly before coming to a dead stop. And if seeing Gwen wasn't enough – here he was. Merlin. Mop of shaggy black hair, jeans over timberland boots, a long-sleeved collared shirt over a ridiculous green t-shirt that showed at the open collar and through the white pin-striped fabric. But… he had a black leather wristband studded with silver knobs, and the nails of the fingers working so furiously were painted black. He chewed a mangled red coffee stir-stick.
"Merlin!" Arthur exclaimed, ridiculously, blissfully happy. Wait til Leon found out – and Gwen, it was her first day, she probably hadn't seen Merlin yet – and who else would he find here in Camelot?
Aiden said in a tone of explanation, "He is a wizard - with computers – so we decided Merlin was more appropriate than Marvin. For a nickname." Mary chuckled.
Merlin shot Arthur a dark glare under the shaggy fringe of his hair, and turned his attention back to the screen.
Arthur stood as if frozen in time, as if the ceiling had dropped down, or he'd been hit over the head with a … tree branch, or… "Don't you know who I am?" he blurted.
Merlin reached for the mouse with his right hand as he continued working the keyboard with his left. He sent another brooding glance over Arthur's person, took in the figure of Mary beside him, and concluded shortly, "Nope."
"I'm Arthur," Arthur said stupidly, stuck in disbelief.
Merlin snorted, attention back on his work.
"That's a funny coincidence – Arthur and Merlin, in Camelot," Aiden offered. Mary chuckled appreciatively.
"You're done," Merlin announced suddenly, unfolding to his full height and brushing between Arthur and Mary on his way to the door.
Arthur spun, grabbing his sleeve. "Don't you remember me?" he demanded. "Merlin?"
He'd never seen those blue eyes glare so angrily. He dropped his hand.
"Merlin – Marvin," Mary said uncertainly from behind them. "Ah – Merlin, this is Arthur Drake – the boss' son."
One corner of Merlin's mouth rose in a faint sneer. "Ah, the prince of the realm," he said. Had Merlin's sarcasm ever been so bitter? "If you'll excuse me – sire –" one long arm crossed his body diagonally as he bent forward in a mocking half-bow – "I have work to do."
Arthur pressed his lips together to keep his mouth from dropping open as he watched Merlin walk away, every pace of his gawky stride familiar. Merlin didn't look back.
"He is a genius," Aiden said apologetically behind them. "Just – a bit antisocial, is all."
"If you want to make a complaint to HR –" Mary said to Arthur hesitantly.
"No," he said immediately. "Don't worry about it." A small part of his mind prompted ironically, what would they do to merlin – put him in the stocks? A dungeon?
Don't worry… don't worry… excuse me, sire… a wizard with computers… Arthur didn't remember hearing a single word Mary said the rest of the morning.
What on earth was wrong with Merlin? He remembered a cheerful, irreverent grin, an irrepressible good humor, even at his own expense, a self-sacrificial courage… he remembered a friend. Plenty of horseplay, certainty – but Merlin was well able to hold his own, even as a servant against a trained knight and king. And at the end… the end Arthur remembered but dimly. What stood out were three things – the anxious fear on Merlin's face as he confessed his deepest darkest secret, his own gradual realization of Merlin's selfless service, and – through pain and a spreading warm numbness – an overwhelming gratitude for his best friend's unreserved love and support.
What had happened?
"Well, now it's noon." Mary's voice penetrated his fog of confusion. "After lunch we'll be doing paperwork in HR's conference room, but for now, what would you like –"
"How do you get to the break-room from here?" he said quickly, wincing as he realized his rude interruption.
"You can go down the main stair just here," Mary said, without offense, "or there's the door on the back wall where we came up, that leads to the break-room corridor."
"Thank you – I'll meet you in the lobby at one?" Arthur said. Mary nodded and moved away.
Arthur leaned over the railing opening to the lobby as the phone system burbled and echoed. Only Patty's plump figure was visible from above. Arthur headed swiftly for the back-wall door, fairly jumping down the stairs and swinging himself around the turn into the break-room corridor, now warm with the smells of food. He stopped himself sprinting down the carpeted hall, eagerly craning for another glimpse of her, ready to put the mystery of Merlin's reaction to the back of his mind.
First he thought she hadn't come, and his heart dropped again. Then he saw her sitting by herself in a back corner, at the very end of one of the long tables, a brown paper bag on the table in front of her. Her arms were crossed over her body as she leaned forward, biting her lip nervously as she watched another coworker rummage in one of the refrigerators.
"Gwen," he said with relief and love as he came nearer, holding out his arms.
Her chair squeaked and clattered as she jumped up, glancing self-consciously toward the room's other occupants. He heard female voices behind him, entering the room, and dropped his arms, satisfying himself with taking her hand. "Gwen," he said again.
"You're Arthur," she said. She glanced up shyly, but didn't pull her hand away.
"You're Arthur," she repeated, with emphasis.
He grinned, remembering the shock he'd felt being re-introduced to Sir Leon. "Yes."
"You're Arthur Drake," she said. Then she pulled her hand away, and dropped into the metal folding chair, clutching the sides of the seat with both hands.
He pulled out the chair opposite her, leaned forward over hands clasped on the tabletop, held her eyes with his. "Arthur Pendragon," he said, keeping his voice low as more people entered the room.
She sighed, her shoulders dropped as tension relaxed. She studied him, searched his face, then blurted, "What color was the gown I wore to my coronation?"
Ages ago. He remembered her face, beautiful and serious and happy – queen meant little to her, he knew, the emotion was all for him, and their vows, and beginning their life together. He remembered her hair, a long wavy black cloud – hadn't there been flowers in it? – and the crown, looking to him as if it had always belonged there. And his knights – his friends – proclaiming unreservedly, Long live the Queen!
"Purple," he said decisively. She turned her face slightly, brows lowering. "Or red?" He racked his brain, trying to pull that detail from the memory.
"What was Merlin's mother's name?" she ventured, her expression unsure, as if she feared he would begin to laugh and confess he was only playing a game, only flirting.
"Hunith," he said immediately, smiling as he remembered Gwen scolding him for scorning the bowl of gruel he'd been served.
She took several quick, happy breaths. "Oh, I hoped –" she said. "I mean, Allen was older than me, when I first dreamed… he said he remembered too, that he had those dreams, but part of me wondered if he was just playing along for his baby sister."
"Allen?" Arthur said. "Elyan?"
She nodded. "He's stationed in San Diego now – the navy."
They paused, sharing a happy grin. "Here – you should eat," Arthur said, gesturing at her brown-bag lunch. He stood up, digging in his pocket for change for a sandwich from the pair of vending machines on the back wall, and a Coke.
"Is anyone else here?" she said when he sat back down. "Arthur – I've missed you." She reached to touch the back of his hand, but drew back quickly, looking up self-consciously as two overweight women squeezed behind him to take seats almost near enough to eavesdrop.
"Leon is my father's driver and bodyguard," he told her, enjoying her smile of reminiscence, "and Merlin works upstairs in IT."
Her brown eyes widened. "What?"
"Yes – I gather he's a wizard with computers," Arthur continued, mindful of their neighbors but grinning anyway.
Her mouth dropped open with shock, before she focused on opening a container of pasta salad from her bag lunch. "He told you?" she said.
Arthur blinked. He hadn't considered the question of whether anyone else knew – Gaius, certainly, but anyone else? Gwen? "He told you?" he echoed incredulously.
"After the…after Camlann, I wondered," she said. "I asked Gaius…Is he coming? Is he going to join us for lunch?"
He paused, some of the good feeling of being with her leaking away. "No, I – I didn't ask him," he mumbled. "Didn't get a chance. He was busy." He ripped open the cellophane wrapper, poked at the slices of turkey and cheese between slightly-soggy white bread, and didn't feel hungry.
"So – Camelot," Gwen said. "Your father's company. Does he remember?"
Arthur frowned. "I think he did. When he was young. But he wouldn't listen to my dreams, when I started – remembering. If it wasn't for Leon…"
Gwen nodded. "Allen and I haven't talked about it in years, but when the temp agency told me – Camelot Industries… I couldn't help feeling… even though part of my mind told me I was crazy to hope…"
He took a deep breath, satisfaction filling him. Whatever was wrong with Merlin, it didn't matter – he was here and she was here. And who knew who else would come? He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. The other knights? Other family members? Uther was now "Thomas Drake", and he'd never heard even a whisper of a half-sister, but… who knew?
"Arthur," Gwen began, toying with her plastic fork. "Do you know – why? I mean, why us? Why here? Why now? I mean, Camelot is long gone – Albion – we're in America now, not even England – or Wales – or…"
"Leon told me this morning," he answered slowly, "it can't be a mistake, can't be a coincidence." A thought occurred to him – grandfather – and he added, somewhat playfully, "Gwen, when we had questions – why is this happening, what does this mean, who did we go to?"
"To Gaius," she said immediately, but uncomprehending.
"Merlin has a grandfather who 'heads up the lab'," Arthur said, feeling a smile of relief pull at his mouth.
"You think it might be Gaius?" she said eagerly.
"It's worth a try," he said. He followed her glance to the wall-clock. "You've got to get back to work?"
"Yes – I'm a receptionist for this month," she said. "Someone's on maternity leave." She bit her lip and didn't meet his eyes. He stood as she did, having been raised – twice – to be a gentleman.
"Can I make a date with you?" he said. "Can I make a standing lunch date?" His brain stumbled into the present. "You're not seeing anyone, are you?" The weekend – the nights?
She smiled her own sweet smile. "No, I wasn't," she said. "But, Arthur…" She bit her lips again, giving him an almost pleading look. "Gwen Bell and Arthur Drake aren't… married."
He leaned close, taking her meaning and intending to follow that cue for their present relationship, for the time being, but he couldn't resist whispering in her ear, "Yet."