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initiation | demolition | reconstruction | confrontation | absolution




PART THREE: CONFRONTATION
(Merlin)


Arthur fades the instant Merlin lets go of his hand and Merlin finds himself reaching for the empty place where he’d been. It’s a mistake. He knows that in his heart, it’s a mistake just like he’s realized letting Morgana fade was a mistake. He reaches for the empty space where Arthur used to be but he doesn’t find a thing.

There’s not a soul left in the universe except for him and The Man With No Face. There’s nowhere left to run. No one left as a buffer and his magic is failing him. He can still feel the power of the dragonlord curling in his stomach but the other part’s missing. It’s the part of him he doesn’t particularly want back. The part of him that is willing to do the unspeakable without hesitation. The missing part tied to the dark magic. If he could be whole without it, Arthur would still be here.

But he isn't whole and he doesn’t want Arthur to see.

The Man With No Face is looking at him and finally, Merlin is ready to acknowledge what he is. “I don’t want you here.”

“You haven't got a choice,” the man says and when he steps forward the blank slate of his face shifts, his features crystallizing, sprouting out in relief as if by magic. “I’m the only thing left in the universe. You don’t exist without me.”

But he does. Merlin knows he does because he doesn’t feel that same jagged hole in his being like he has since this thing began. His magic is here but it’s not this all-consuming alien thing. He feels settled, comfortable in his own skin for the first time he can remember but the sentiment seems ridiculous when his exact double is standing in front of him, identical in every aspect for the gold light that shines in his eyes.

It's him: His magic twisted into human form, the seduction of it, the amorality.

Merlin as he is now would never consider sacrificing Mordred on the dragon's word alone. Can't imagine Morgana will ever be anything but a friend to him.

"You've already betrayed them," says the magic. "You've let me take them away. It's the only way to keep them safe. And you want to keep them safe, don't you?"

"Safe from what?" Merlin demands. "There's nothing left! Camelot is gone! Arthur is gone. Destiny doesn't exist anymore."

"And who's fault is that?" the magic's voice is distressingly calm and the man in front of him never moves his mouth to speak. "It was you, not I who let go of the Prince."

Guilt clenches at Merlin's stomach but he doesn't let it get to him. "It wasn't me. I wasn't the one who let him go."

"You wanted him safe."

"This isn't safe! Nothing's left of him. He's as good as dead."

The man smiles at him, a thin alien thing that doesn't look at all like Merlin himself.

"I don't need you." Merlin snaps, pulling at the magic that still resides inside him. "I'm going to fix it."

"You mean to kill me?"

"I don't want to kill anyone." The bottomless pit of magic he'd always felt isn't there. There's a faint glimmer, yes, but nothing like it's supposed to be.

Only it was never supposed to be like that. If the golden-eyed figure in front of him was any indication, he'd expelled that part of him, purging it from his being like one of Gaius's illnesses. He feels different somehow. Lighter. More human.

"You cannot defeat me."

Merlin thinks of Arthur standing in front of him, facing an impossible enemy and then the magic starts to whirl into being. If he was the one who tore this world apart, he can put it back together.

A picture of Arthur swirls into his mind and he latches onto it, tries to build from it, all of the thousand little points that make up a person. Because it's not just the looks that make up a person. It's the memories, the personality, the arrogance on top of chivalry, the entitlement wrapped around a genuinely good person.

He builds Arthur up out of memories, stretches until the vision contains Gaius, Morgana, Gwen and even Uther. He tries to picture the rest of it, Camelot spiralling out from the castle, Ealdor over the border, the forests, the other kingdom. He fills his head with it, closing his eyes so he can picture everything. When the picture in his mind is as complete as he can get it, he starts to push, gasping as the magic pours out of him.

And it hurts. It hurts more than it ever has before. It feels like it did when this started, like he is tearing himself apart to better get at the magic. But when he opens his eyes, there's nothing in front of him but a whisper of Arthur, the faintest shadow of the man that should be there. Merlin reaches for the spectre, grabbing instinctively for his hand. He'd kept Arthur here for as long as he did because he didn't let go.

But there's no hand to grab, the phantom evaporating on contact and Merlin is left in a sea of white with only his counterpart for company.

"We cannot survive like this," Merlin says.

"Who said anything about your survival? I will remain, of course, I was here far before you and will be here far after. You, I expect, will merely starve to death."

Just like that Merlin gets it, wonders how he could have possibly missed it his whole life. He'd always known the magic was something wild, that left to its own devices, it is prone to chaos.

This is the magic left to its own devices, blended in with all the parts of himself he doesn't acknowledge exist. He's not Nimueh. He doesn't need that feeling of lightning dancing under his skin, but he was born to it. It's his job, his burden, his destiny, to keep that magic in check.

Which means he needs it back. If he doesn't take it back the whole world's going to stay this way and he can't have that, doesn't want that. He makes a wild grab for his counterpart and gasps as it all comes flooding back, the fear, the chaos, the confusion, the magic. It enfolds him, seeping into every part of his being. It hurts, but it's a familiar kind of hurt. He's chosen this now. Sure there'd been an impossible situation surrounding it, but this is his magic, his darkness.

And that means he can control it.

He opens his eyes, staring into the vast expanse of nothingness and pledges that this will never happen again, that he won't let anyone—not Mordred, not Morgana and not even Arthur—cause Camelot's destruction.

He opens his eyes and they flash gold.

(Coda: Absolution)