last01standing: ([LOM] Sam Tyler)
[personal profile] last01standing
initiation | demolition | reconstruction | confrontation | absolution




PART TWO: RECONSTRUCTION
(Arthur)


Arthur wakes up in pieces. There is a warm body curled up beside him, attempting to burrow into his side and his first thought is that the floor smells like horse shite. The second is that he doesn’t know any children. The third doesn’t so much occur to him as annihilate him. The fragments of memory that only slide back into place when he’s in physical contact with Merlin jar his mind, scratching at the mental mindscape of Arthur Pendragon and leaving him raw.

Merlin raises his head ever so slightly, as if stirred into awareness by the full force of Arthur’s panic. “Morning,” he chirps. “Are we going to play today?”

Arthur ruffles his hair absently as he pulls himself to a sitting position so he can examine the tiny room. He can pick out Hunith asleep on her bed, but Morgana is nowhere in sight. “Morgana?” he calls into the dim morning light. He doesn’t like having anyone out of view when the world is unravelling at the seams.

Merlin squirms out of his grip and Arthur is left grasping for tendrils of memory that escape into the air. “Morgana’s not here,” Merlin says decisively. “She had to hide herself away.”

“Who’s Morgana?” Arthur asks even though there’s a voice in the back of his head screaming that he should already know.

Shrugging, Merlin makes his way back toward him. “Doesn’t matter. Are we going to play today? I want to play knights and dragons!”

“Oh,” Arthur says, amused. Merlin has never struck him as the type who would lust after knighthood but it’s somewhat gratifying to know that his calling was somewhat respected by his manservant. “You’re going to be a knight when you grow up are you?”

Merlin nods and grins at him, the exact same grin the twenty-year old wore at the most inappropriate times, reminding him once and for all that Merlin was mentally a child.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Arthur says. “How about we journey back Camelot? I can show you true knights.”

The grin that stretches past Merlin’s face is truly a sight to behold. “Really? You'll show me the knights? Can I bring Will?”

Something about Will nibbles at his mind, two boys and a whirlwind in the middle of the battle. One of them raised a hand, the other, watching. Which was which? He’d never been able to reconcile the scene in his mind and he still has problems with it now. Will, a sorcerer. It doesn’t fit. “I don’t think so,” he says.

The boy deflates but only for a moment before moving to wake up his mother, chattering happily about prospects about going to Camelot. Hunith listens indulgently, her eyes on Arthur instead of her son. She grants him permission and as her son moves back outside, she catches Arthur by the shoulder. “He’s torn himself apart. I’m not sure how much longer he will last in pieces.”

“I’m going to get him back,” Arthur promises. No matter how charming he is as a boy, Arthur misses his own Merlin like a limb.

There’s something else though. Something Important. Hunith looks at him sorrowfully as Merlin bounces around singing some ridiculous tune about Camelot. Arthur spends a long time looking at the list he’d scrawled of the scrap of parchment. Went to Ealdor with Morgana and Gwen.

He doesn't know anyone named Morgana.

He has never heard of a Gwen.

They start walking.

Arthur feels raw, like there’s a gaping wound inside of him. The pain only eases when Merlin grasps his hand and everything floods back. But then the sheer force of memory almost overwhelms him. Merlin touches his cheek, his pale face a mask of confusion. “Is something wrong?”

“Morgana,” Arthur chokes. They’re almost to the gates of Camelot but the gates of Camelot are far closer than they should be, far less grand. “What happened to Morgana?”

“I sent her to the white place,” Merlin says, simply. “She has to hide. The Man With No Face will be looking for her.”

“Why don’t we have to hide too?” It sounds somewhat more important to him than The Man With No Face. Where is Morgana?

“I can hide you too if you like. It wants me most. It would have taken Morgana but it wants me.”

“And why does it want you?”

It’s a question he has instinctively avoided asking for almost two years now. Merlin is surrounded by so much of the danger and yet somehow, impossibly, Merlin always walks away from the danger.

“I have magic,” Merlin says.

The answer is devastatingly simple and in retrospect so thoroughly obvious that Arthur wonders how he could have possibly missed it. A thousand minute details from the past few years slot into place in his memories and even when Merlin tugs his had away, taking with him half of Arthur’s being, that single fact resounds.

Merlin is magic. Merlin has magic.

“Are you doing this somehow?”

Merlin looks at him, eyes wide and then darts away into a crowd of townsfolk. They’re the same three people, repeated over and over, but it doesn’t seem strange at all.

Focus, Arthur tells himself, the memories rush out of him the second Merlin leaves him but the single fact rings true in his head, imprinted there forever. Merlin is a sorcerer.

Merlin is also being marched out onto the executioner’s block. Grown-up Merlin. His Merlin who’d lied to him for years but no doubt saved his life time and time again. Merlin who is a sorcerer but is definitely not evil.

And this has already happened. He knows this. He can remember it. He’d been in the crowd with… someone… but his father had raised his voice and declared: “The boy has been found guilty of the crime of sorcery. The sentence, to be carried out immediately, is death by beheading.”

Almost the second the words had flicker through his mind, they're echoed in the real world and he has a jolt of clarity. “Stop,” Arthur says loudly and because he is crown prince of Camelot, everyone listens. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

His father looks down on him with an expression that, under normal circumstances, would have made Arthur shiver but this isn’t his father. This is a man in costume, a puppet playing out the same scene over and over.

“Let him go,” Arthur demands to the executioner.

“Arthur,” someone says. “Arthur you don’t need to.”

It takes him a moment to realize it’s Merlin on his knees, his head on the cutting board. “Merlin, for God’s sake just shut up and let me get you out of this.”

“I lied to you,” Merlin says. “I lied to you for ages.”

And part of Merlin must believe that he deserves to be here for the sin of dishonesty. “Merlin,” he says. “Merlin, it’s fine. You really think I’d toss you after everything?”

Merlin pulls himself to his feet. The crowd has gone mute, the executioner stands rigid like he had never been alive. The entire scene is suspended. Merlin controls this, he realizes with a blinding certainty. Merlin controls this and I’ve stopped him cold. “You—you’re, you’re not…”

“Oh, I am mad. And let me tell you, I’m going to make you pay for this but not right here and not right now.”

Merlin’s eyes grew round, and the executioner started moving again, checking the edge of his blade. Arthur seizes Merlin by the arm and hauls him to his feet. “For God’s sake, Merlin, I’ve already forgiven you.”

The look of surprise on Merlin’s face is something to behold but Arthur is more distracted by the fact that all of the people in the crowd disappear. “You don’t care?” he said.

“Oh, I care. That doesn’t mean you’re not still my friend.”

Merlin’s face lights up at the word friend. And he is a friend. Perhaps the only true friend Arthur has ever had. He’s so taken aback by the realization that he doesn’t flinch away when Merlin tugs him into a tight embrace. The executioner’s block starts to melt away and the contact is enough to make Arthur worry about it. This isn’t a good thing. Over Merlin’s shoulder, he sees someone lurking. The Man With No Face, angled toward them. “Merlin,” he whispers. “You know we have a problem here, right?”

He follows Arthur’s gaze, the colour draining from already pale cheeks. “We should run.” The Man With No Face takes a step toward him. “Oh we should definitely run.”

But there’s nowhere to run. They’re not in the courtyard anymore because there is no courtyard, just the castle and that thought stops being disturbing the second Merlin pulls away and starts off down the corridor. The make it to Gaius’s laboratory, both of them panting as Arthur bolts the door behind them.

Gaius is no longer there, has never existed and Arthur sinks to his knees as a fierce pain rips through his skull. Gaius is not here but he knows Gaius exists. So many of his memories with Merlin are tied up in the older man, so many moments like Merlin dying slowly of poison Arthur rides off for the flower that will save his life, Gaius keeping him alive.

He will not lose these memories. Because if he starts to lose even the memories tied to Merlin, what will be left of him?

The pain doesn’t subside but Arthur has braved far worse has been (dying from the wound inflected by the Questing beast) injured in battle more than he’d like to count. He opens his eyes and sees Merlin the boy, hiding under the table. There’s a phrase stuck in his head. It's a woman voice but he can’t picture her face, he stopped the magic but he splintered in the process.

“Gaius is gone,” the Merlin from the chopping block says, his voice thick with grief. “I knew this was going to happen.”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, moving toward the boy.

The older Merlin follows his gaze, his face twisting in confusion. “Who are you?”

“Merlin,” the boy retorts, sticking his chin out in defiance.

“He’s you,” Arthur says. The phrase is almost unnecessary. The looks on the faces are nearly identical. While he’s seen sorcerers who could alter appearances flawlessly, that expression could not be anything but Merlin. “You’ve split yourself apart somehow. I think you’ve got to pull yourself together if you want to have any hope of fixing this.”

“This is my fault,” Merlin whispers.

“For Christ’s sake, Merlin get a hold of yourself.”

(Then I guess you’ve better find a way to put him back together.)

“You’re the piece who feels guilty,” the boy says.

“And you’re just the boy I used to be.”

“Merlin,” Arthur groans. “I don’t care about who feels guilty or if it’s your fault. Just fix it. Now.”

It’s the younger Merlin who moves first, who extends his hand toward his counterpart, the other Merlin looks for a moment like he might flinch away but he catches Arthur’s eyes and then, decision made, he grasps the boy’s hands in his own.

Arthur tries to keep his eyes open but a golden light is building in front of him and he can’t see.

He wakes up in his own bed, to Merlin’s cheery voice. “Breakfast.”

His quarters are spotless which pings at his memory, Merlin may be a good friend and confidant, but he is not good at many of the menial tasks his position as manservant requires.

The eggs are perfectly cooked and not the slightest bit cold. Merlin stands at attention. “What’s wrong with you?” Arthur demands.

The look on Merlin’s face is confused yet vacant and Arthur sits straight up at high alert.

“Nothing, sire.” He moves proficiently around the room, sweeping up the clutter.

Arthur catches him by the wrist, craving contact for reasons that escape him until his hand closes around flesh. “Oh, God. I didn’t think this part of you actually existed.”

“Sire?”

“You’re the part of Merlin that’s actually not a rubbish servant.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Right,” Arthur says, tightening his hold on his hand. “We’re off to find the rest of you before the world unravels completely.”

Arthur doesn’t like this Merlin. He doesn’t meet his eyes, doesn’t tease him and isn’t his friend. This Merlin is hollow. He responds to every order, seems to almost anticipate his needs, but there's nothing else there. Arthur doesn’t last ten minutes before he turns to snap; “That’s enough, Merlin. This isn’t you.” He hasn’t let Merlin’s hand free but he hasn’t complained.

“You want me to go fix it?” Merlin asks, bewildered.

“If you can.”

“But why? I would have though you preferred me like this?”

“Merlin,” he says, exasperated. “I like you. I don’t know why I have to say it outright but like this, you’re… not you. I want my friend back and to do that, I need you whole. We can beat this thing, Merlin. I just need your help.”

Merlin smiles at him, really smiles and for a second he looks like the real Merlin, Arthur’s Merlin. “I’m going to have to go then. I’ll be back.”

Arthur finds himself tugging Merlin’s hand back to him, unwilling to lose the memories that come along with contact. “What happens to me if you leave?”

The smile softens. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he says. “Just stay away from The Man With No Face.”

When Merlin gently tugs his hand away from Arthur, his eyes fog. He forgets where he is again, stands up, looking toward his armour. It’s badly dented and frustration bubbles up inside of him but he’s not actually angry with Merlin. Usually in a situation like this, he would be angry with Merlin but that’s not what it is. It’s something different.

There’s a draft in the room coming from a space in the wall but Arthur can’t see a source. For a minute he imagines that there is a hole that cuts through the wall so there is a view of a vast town, a courtyard with a gallows and behind it all, a forest.

But that’s preposterous. There is nothing outside the castle. The entire world is here.

He stares at the space in the wall for almost an hour until the phantom draft disappears and then he forgets why he is even standing here.

He grabs his sword from the pile but forgoes the rest of his armour, moving out of his chambers and into the hallway. He has a prickling sensation in the back of his neck that feels like he’s being watched. He’s cautious as he rounds the corner and is rewarded as he sees the Man With No Face gliding through the hall. He presses back against the wall and jolts when a second later Merlin calls his name.

He looks different. Not in any definable way, but he seems more solid like this, more like a whole person than just a facet of one. “He’s still out there,” Merlin says. “We’ve got to get away from him.”

“What’s he doing?” Arthur demands, peering around to corner to watch The Man With No Face disappear into a different room. “Is this his fault? Tell me, Merlin.”

Merlin follows his gaze, going so far as to step into the corridor. Arthur yanks him back, weathering the blast of emotions and memories that swirl back into his person with ease. “Who is he?”

“He’s dangerous,” Merlin says. “He’s dangerous and the world’s going white and I don’t know how to protect you.”

“I’m crown prince of Camelot, I don’t need protection from my manservant.”

The look Merlin tosses him is equal parts fond and exasperated but he doesn’t say anything.

“This isn’t all of you is it?” Arthur asks the knowledge tearing through him. “There more. Other pieces strewn through Camelot.”

“The castle,” Merlin corrects lightly. “There is nothing outside of this, not anymore.”

Arthur takes a steadying breath. He paints a picture of Camelot in his mind. The sprawling town that surrounds the castle. The forest where he’d hunted. Ealdor and the towns dotting the border of Cendrid’s land. If he holds it in his mind, he thinks, maybe it will come back. Maybe… “Do you think you can fix this?”

Merlin shakes his head. “Not like this I can’t.” He flexes his fingers, a tiny golden spark flickering between them. “My magic’s not all here.”

“Then one of the other pieces has it,” Arthur reasons, ignoring the betrayal that stabs in his gut every time he has to connect Merlin to magic. He has forgiven his friend—he has to if he wants to survive this—but the betrayal of trust is a long way from forgotten. “So we find the piece that has the rest of it and you can fix it.”

“Maybe,” Merlin hedges.

“We have a plan then,” Arthur declares. He checks the hallway to ensure the Man With No Face has disappeared. “Come on. Let’s find the rest of you.”

Merlin looks decidedly unenthusiastic by the prospect. Arthur can’t let him think about that. Reconstructing Merlin has become his only priority. In face of a clearly magical task like this, Arthur is hopeless. Though it pains him to admit it, if Merlin falls today, Camelot falls.

And Arthur will not abandon Camelot.

He tugs Merlin behind him, intending on locating a stronghold where The Man No Face cannot find them. “You can’t go that way,” a voice says from behind them. “He’s already been there, there’s nothing to find.”

Arthur turns on his heels, not surprised to find another, almost identical version of his friend behind him. This Merlin has a more serious cast to his face, his eyes sharp and focused. It’s all the guile Arthur had previously though his manservant incapable. The part that had successfully managed to keep his magic a secret. He has a scar slashing through his right eye, something Arthur has not seen before and suspects the real Merlin had helped heal with magic. “Follow me,” he says and Arthur finds himself obeying without question, dragging the other Merlin along behind him.

Merlin leads him to a cavern under the castle. He’s known of its existence for ages. When he was eight years old, he’d taken Morgana by the hand as she led him into the caves. “I’m going to show you something amazing,” she’d said. “Trust me.”

They’d sat huddled up against each other the entire night, watching the dragon soaring above them, the enchanted chain that kept them safe from his wrath stretched taut. He feels a pang in his stomach at the thoughts of his almost sister, faded along with Gwen and the whole of Camelot. He pushes the thoughts angrily from his mind as the scarred Merlin grabs a torch from the wall. “We should be safe here for a moment.”

“For a moment?”

The other Merlin tightens the grip on his hand, looking impossibly young in the dim light. “There’s nowhere safe anymore.”

“Is it him who’s done this?” Arthur demands. “Was he the one who split you apart?”

“Who says it’s something someone did to me?” The scarred Merlin approaches his counterpart, examining him critically. “Who’s to say I’m not better off like this? It’s certainly easier to sneak around without the rest of me.”

“This isn’t natural.”

“None of this is,” he says. “We’re not going to be safe here for long.”

“And why not?”

The scarred Merlin lowers the torch, illuminating Arthur’s right hand. “Tell me, sire, what happened to your sword?”

Arthur follows his gaze downward. His hand is compulsively clutched in a fist where it should be wrapped around the hilt. “That’s…”

“That’s the world unravelling,” the scarred Merlin confirms. “And forgive me, but I’m not the part who is hopelessly devoted to this cause. I think it’s very likely you’re going to unravel next. No matter what the dragonlord says about destiny.”

“The dragonlord?”

Merlin barks out a harsh laugh. “You wouldn’t like the dragonlord. You don’t even like me. This is the first you’ve even acknowledged my existence.”

“Just because I didn’t know doesn’t mean I don’t like you.”

“It’s nothing personal,” the Merlin at his side says. “There are parts of you I don’t care for.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me!” Arthur sputters.

“Except,” the scarred Merlin cuts in, “for the part where you are a complete and utter prat.”

Arthur stares but both Merlins are grinning at one another and he can’t quite bring himself to anger. “Fine,” he says. “We’ve acknowledge that there are parts of you I don’t like. According to you there are parts of me who are a prat but that doesn’t change the fact that magic sounds like it’s the only thing we have left that could actually fix this. And unless I’m very much mistake, you might not like me but Camelot is gone.”

“Gwen,” the scarred Merlin says. "Morgana."

“Gaius,” says the other.

“So answer me this,” Arthur says. “How many more parts of you are there and how can we know which one holds your magic?”

“There are only three of us left,” the scarred Merlin says. “There used to be more than twenty. There were alliances formed. Myself and the dragonlord had decided that we would have been better off on our own.”

“Is it the dragonlord who has the magic?”

“Not all of it,” the Merlin at his side says.

By way of explanation, the scarred Merlin raises a hand and the torch sticks in the air.

Despite the inborn hatred of magic, it’s hard for Arthur not to be fascinated by the display.

The other Merlin looks at the torch, a smile ghosting over his face. “Most of the magic I have is only good for doing chores but it's something.”

“And I find it a bit hard to believe any part of you called a dragonlord is completely free of magic.”

“So what?” the scarred Merlin snaps. “We pull ourselves together and than everything’s good? It doesn’t work like that.” He jabs his fingers toward the only exit from the caverns. “We’re still going to have to deal with something like that.”

There is a nebulous white space down what used to be a corridor. The castle’s gone, Arthur realizes. This tiny cavern may be the last thing left in the known universe.

“Perhaps,” a cavernous voice says from behind them, “this is simply our destiny.”

Arthur freezes. There’s power in a voice like that. It’s low, rumbling and it sounds like it’s coming from something massive. “Merlin,” Arthur says slowly. “Please tell me there’s not a part of you who’s actually a dragon.”

The scarred Merlin smirks. The other Merlin stares, mouth agape. Arthur turns around. The dragon before him is indeed massive, but something around the eyes rings of his manservant despite the scales. He entertains the briefest image of the beast in one of Merlin’s neckerchiefs before it suddenly ceases to be destiny.

“Just because you look like the Great Dragon doesn’t mean you have to start talking like him," the scarred Merlin says.

“I though dragonlords were people,” Arthur sputters. “I mean I thought they’d all died out, but I’m pretty sure they were people.”

“Don’t look at me,” the scarred Merlin retorts. “I hate the dragon. I thought I’d be above imitating him, dragonlord or no.”

“We will never defeat him apart,” the dragonlord intones. “We are parts of the same whole.”

“He’s coming,” the Merlin still holding his hand says. “We’ve got to try something now or we’re all going to die.”

All three versions of Merlin turn at once to stare at Arthur, as if asking permission. The Man With No Face is advancing toward them, leaving a wake of white nothingness swirling behind him.

“Then it’s settled,” the scarred Merlin says, looking displeased but resolute. In a single movement, he steps forward seizing the Dragonlord with his left hand and the Merlin next to Arthur with his right.

The rest of the world melts as blinding light bites at Arthur’s eyes. His grip on Merlin’s hand is the only thing tying him to this place, the only thing that keeps him from fading to the unyielding white like Camelot had. Like Gwen had. Like Morgana had.

When the world swims back into focus, there is only one version of Merlin. He knows without asking that it is his version of Merlin. The one who’d fought him the day they met, who’d saved his life, who’d bumped shoulders with him walking down hallways and made him laugh when the weight of the kingdom threatened to weigh him down.

It’s Merlin, his Merlin.

In fact, the only thing left in the whole of existence, is the prince and his manservant.

And the Man With No Face.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” he tells Merlin. “We’re going to have to fight.”

Merlin looks ill at the thought but he nods slightly.

“I haven’t got a sword,” Arthur says. “It’s gone just like everything else. Stand with me. Between myself and your magic we can still hold it off.”

The Man With No Face seems to fixate on Merlin, gliding through the blank expanse like a ghost. Arthur should be scared, should recognize this a battle he will not win. But he glances to their hands, still linked together and thinks, recklessly, that as long as he has Merlin at his side, they can beat anything.

Then Merlin lets go.

(Part Three: Confrontation)