Recipient: aesc Genre: Crossover, Drama Pairing: post-McKay/Keller, McShep, Arthur/Merlin UST, pre-Arthur/Gwen Rating: PG-13 Words:~40 000 Disclaimer: Standard Disclaimers apply; this is a work of fiction for fun, and not profit or intent of profit is being derived. All recognizable characters and settings are the property of MGM and the BBC. Author's Notes: I did a lot of peeking about my recipient's journal to get an idea of her preferences, so I hope this hits all your buttons, darling! Set post season 5 for SGA and up to episode 10 of season 2 for "Merlin", a retelling of Arthurian Legend centered on a young Merlin, reluctant manservant to the prattish Prince Arthur, and maturing sorcerer in a kingdom where magic is outlawed and difference scorned. Summary: "I am Prince Arthur of Camelot!" the boy in the chainmail said. For a small, infinitesimal moment, Rodney considered losing it.
"Right, Prince Arthur, the Prince Arthur," Rodney scoffed instead. "And I'm Merlin."
The dark haired boy that stood a few paces behind his golden Prince cleared his throat. "Uh, no," he said, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, "Actually, I am."
Right, of course. Because this totally was Rodney's life.
In a land of myth, and a time of magic, the destiny of a kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name?
* * *
There was a time, Myrddin mused, that he would have been inclined to reach out to the horizon and murmur a soft spell, just to make the sun linger a few seconds longer on the horizon, just to treasure the rich red hues and the marvellous indigo that spread like an exhaled stain across the tops of the far mountains.
Everything in this world has been carefully crafted, built slowly and to Myrddin's specifications, threaded through with the power and secrets of his venerable people; he could slow the sun for his own amusement if he so wished.
Today, he was contented to just let the natural world run its own course; for the planet to turn, and the sun to vanish out of his sight. He had been more inclined to do so far more often lately. Let nature take its course, that is. Myrrdin had been less and less disposed to meddle.
From the battlements of the castle walls, he could see the people as they moved off home from the wells, stalls, shops and markets that made up the majority of the rabbit's warren of humanity spread out below the castle of Camelot. They were, each and every one of them, people he knew well. He had, at one time, brought them or one of their ancestors to this place, personally. He had held them as squalling newborns, and for their predecessors, he would have closed their eyes for them after death.
He had so planned to do so for them, as well, these living ants in their fantastic colony. But, no.
It was too heart sore a gesture to perform any longer - seeing them lying there, empty, unable to rise up and join their far ancestors on another plain of being. Just one more reason why Myrrdin was so bent on keeping this place and these people safe, secret and secure, and away from his own kind.
In the courtyard behind him, he could hear his young apprentice Gaius calling welcome to a party returning home from the scout, the cluck of chickens and the clop of hooves on stone. The boy was clever - when his master didn't return, he would find the books left behind for him, for the purpose of continuing his study, science disguised as magic, maths as spells, technology as power.
Power. It was an important thing here. Myrrdin had made certain of that.
The city's last warrior-king was nearing an age when someone was bound to challenge his power soon.
Myrrdin would have interfered there, too, in his youth. Now, he found he didn't much care how the tide turned, as long as whomever rose to the throne would keep his ancient and situational trusts and vows with Myrrdin. Nature could take care of nature.
He had already planted a seed to ensure that the son of the most likely victorious warlord -an Uther Pendragon of great lineage - would be a worthy leader. His job was done. Camelot only needed a King who protected his people, encouraged them to flourish, and treasured the Gifts of the Ancestors. This boy would do so. His father, too, if Gaius was able to convince him of the worthiness of those with the Ancestor's gifts.
Myrrdin had no doubt of that. Barring some great tragedy, the next few generations of Camelot's rulers would be almost as powerful as Gaius and his nearly-pure blood.
When the sun fully set, Myrddin turned rheumy eyes to the stars. The first of the small pin pricks of light were sparking into sight high above him; on another world, outside of this place, the stars would be slowly emerging just the same, but their patterns would be so different. Myrddin closed his eyes and sighed.
He was tired.
He was an old man and he wanted rest; yearned for it.
He could go, for a while, if he chose. This place could continue without him for a few decades. He could come back, but later. He could be born again, if he so chose. Perhaps he might choose. The Golden Dragon had already offered, and more than once, to be its protector and shepherd if Myrddin decided to step out of the world or sleep.
And Myrddin was ready for sleep.
Myrrddin made up his mind. It was time to rest. But before he could do that, he had to make sure that the doorways to this place were locked, and his cave of wonders shut up. No one, either of his people or of the people of this world, must find what he left behind. And that meant returning back through the Ring.
Bidding no one goodbye, fearing that they would plead for him to stay, that they would not understand, Myrrdin descended from the battlements and vanished into the trees of the thick old forest that hemmed in the northern wall of the castle.
The walk to the misty Valley of the Ring took Myrrdin most of the night, even with his power enhancing his stride, and he was fatigued by the time he arrived. He stopped for a day and a night at the rim of the Valley, looking down into its bowl at the clear, sparkling lake it cradled. He watched the sun rise and traverse the sky above the small island far out in the centre of the water.
When the sun set again, he summoned the small boat that he kept tied on the far side of the water. It took him longer to pull the boat to him with his mind than it used to, and it made the spot between his eyes ache fiercely. Myrrdin paddled the boat back manually, tying it once more to its moorings on the dock, wet with mould and disuse.
The exercise made his shoulders ache, and it was delicious. There were so few physical sensations left to him: he no longer hungered, no longer lusted, no longer slept. Pain was a strangely welcome visitor, simply because it existed.
A thousand crumbling stairs later, Myrrdin stood before the Ring. Even upon this open stone platform, it was shrouded in the thick soupy mist that he had sculpted the landscape and weather patterns to produce. Natural camouflage, making the island totally unwelcoming to the humans that dwelt nearby. Waving his hand before the Ring, Myrrdin watched with quiet joy as it flashed and spun into life.
Such a legacy his people had created.
And such a tragedy to have followed.
When the spigot of energy that spat from its core settled, Myrrdin could see his own reflection in the pool of the event horizon gazing tiredly back at him - and behind that, the Dragon. Myrrdin had not heard the creature arrive, but no matter; he had designed it to be quiet. Still, the cloying fog could not block out the spark of fire that glanced off its scales. The Dragon nodded its goodbye to Myrrdin in the reflection, which Myrrdin, without looking backwards, echoed back.
Myrrdin had made the Dragon immortal - he would see the riddlesome creature again, anon.
Then Myrrdin took his last breath of Avalonian air, and stepped through.
He felt his physical being split apart and this time, it was so much harder to allow the 'Gate to reassemble him; the pull for something greater was almost too much. Soon, he promised himself.
Back in his laboratory, Myrrdin shook off the cold of the subspace journey and moved to his workbench, and the control console it held. The power cell shone a frosty blue through the cylindrical pane of transparent metal that hemmed it in. With a few swift keystrokes, he shut down the doorway to his private experimental civilization, to that mirror of the five kingdoms that made up the Albion he was now situated within.
The terraforming had taken the most work on that other planet; the people, less, though they were his favourite part of the creation. That, and the fantastical creatures he had lifted straight from the tales of the people of this world, made into flesh and blood and living bone on another planet.
The last part had been the deliberate modifications in the wormhole speed; Janus, as outlawed as the man was, did have some rather excellent, and useful, theories.
The experiment secured against any accidental entry by base humans, Myrrdin then reached out with his mind and found that the disagreements between his brethren was no more settled than it was when he had departed for respite in that other place. A thousand years had passed in the decade that Myrrdin had made his stay in Camelot, and still none among the Ascended had settled their differences. It made him even more exhausted.
Leaving the laboratory, Myrrdin walked out into the open air, headed towards the great stone circle he had placed many hillsides away to point the direction. To any humans watching, it would have appeared that he might have walked straight out of the hillside. In fact, as Myrrdin turned to catalogue how the passage of time had treated the exterior of his hidden bunker, he could see that at some point some human must have witnessed this very thing, for now the face was decorated with a laboriously cut down monument of earthen banks and exposed chalk; it was in the outline of a man, reaching out as if to open up the place where Myrrdin's invisible door stood.
The sight warmed Myrrdin. Clever little humans.
He had such hopes for them, even now.
For a moment, he let his thoughts linger on their potential, their fierce and desperate little joys and triumphs, the way that they, unlike his kind, wanted terribly to live. Myrrdin had found their passion emboldening, inspiring. The others called it 'sinking to their level' or 'rutting with people barely evolved past opposable thumbs', but Myrrdin had found his interactions with these clever creatures to be more invigorating than anything he had known back on Atlantis.
Long ago, when this incarnation of himself was far younger, Myrrdin had sewn his wild oats, as the humans were wont to say, with a viciously clever girl child of a northern clan chieftan. It had been years since he had been back there to check up on his descendants; he wondered if any of them had grown into the sorts of people he picked specially for his experiment. It was always difficult to ensure and determine which of his people's progeny would be endowed with the use of their technology. With so few of them left walking the Earth, their blood already so diluted among the humans they had coupled with, Myrrdin did what he could to keep the genetic material strong.
His only regret was that he often grieved parents by snatching their children away into his underground laboratory, off to his strange and distant kingdom where time moved differently. There were stories sprung up about it, he knew - they called him a malicious fey, a changling maker - just as there were myths about Zeus and Apollon, and their vigorous appetite for human women. Myrridin took these demigod children too, the Heracleses and Perseuses of the warm south. The children of Foxes in the East, the spawn of Coyote and Raven in the West, the Anansis and the dyamphyrs, the Aztec sacrifices and the Inuktituk.
But the blood - and the 'magic' within it - must survive into the next millennium if his people were to ever have a chance to take back Pegasus from the scourge of the Wraith, and live once more in bright and shining Atlantis. And it must be strong.
Or else his bright and shining Atlantis would remain forever in the cradle of the cold sea.
The grand plans rushed back into Myrridin's head and for a moment he felt young and enthusiastic again. He recalled his days plotting and planning, building and directing, his many years wandering the Earth. The weapons he had designed, the plots he had laid.
Then the weight of his age and the chill of the air crept back into his bones, and he stooped, head heavy, and sighed.
Tired. He was just... so, so tired.
Sleep. Yes. Perhaps, just for a little while, he would sleep.
Raising his hands to the night sky - seeing again the same stars, but from a different point of view - Myrridin of Caerdyff, advisor to the Kings of Albion, closed his eyes, gave up his flesh, and Ascended.
The Once and Future Kingdom
Doctor Rodney McKay absolutely, one hundred percent, completely did not believe in magic.
He had said so, many times, and at length. It didn't seem to deter Torren John Emmagen, however. Torren wanted a wizard birthday party. And, as Rodney's work with chemistry and engineering was the closest thing that Torren knew to magic - Sheppard's lame card tricks did not count, in either Rodney's eyes or Torren's - then that meant, by default, that it was up to Rodney to provide a party filled with all the right flash and bang.
Rodney would never forgive Jennifer for introducing him to Harry Potter.
His mind shied away from thought of her, so he turned instead to the other irritant, the lack of any sort of workable physics in the book series.
This was also something he said, repeatedly, at length.
"Jeeze," Sheppard moaned, lifting his hands to his ears with more drama than Rodney would have attributed to Mister McStoic Pants. "Tell your girlfriend that, then, and please, please, give it a rest, McKay."
Rodney scowled to hide his surprise. Right. Sheppard didn't know.
Sheppard was smirking, so Rodney let him think that his frown was at the term. The world 'girlfriend' seemed hideously juvenile to him, especially now that he had rounded the corner of 40. Sheppard knew that he preferred 'partner' (but that didn't feel right either - too serious and snobby and professional); obviously, the Colonel had a bee under his tac vest today.
"Who pissed in your cornflakes?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard stopped and turned to look back at Rodney, hands on his hips. He was ridiculously attractive when he did that, and Rodney was comfortable enough in his manhood to admit it. As much as Rodney teased Sheppard for the whole Man In Black routine, the mysterious field gear look worked for him. Bastard.
"McKay, we've been back in the Pegasus Galaxy for five weeks. Torren and Kanaan have missed Teyla like crazy, and you know she was going freaking insane without them. Is it too much to ask that you just indulge the kid? He missed you, he wants you to spend time with him - take it for the goddamn compliment that it is."
"I don't like kids," Rodney mumbled, but it was more reflex than an actual protestation. He got sort of gooshy inside around Torren and Madison, at least; but he absolutely did not get all paternal around the chocolate stealing brats from Planet Lord of the Flies. Even the blonde one with the ridiculous curls that flopped over his forehead who watched him with serious dark eyes whenever he went there to do some shield harmonic calibrations. Even that one, despite how clever he ... okay, well, maybe not that one.
Sheppard rolled his eyes - at least, he made a face that looked like he rolled his eyes. The planet was bright, the sun reflecting off of some mirror like mineral in the soil, so it looked like the grass was constantly glowing. Thus, Sheppard had on his flyboy sunglasses and Rodney couldn't actually see his eyes through his aviators. But it looked like Sheppard was rolling his eyes. His lips were pursed in that I'm totally rolling my eyes at you, Rodney way.
"I would believe that if I hadn't just spent thanksgiving weekend in Vancouver with your niece. That was nice, by the way, thanks for the invite. I wasn't really relishing the thought of going back to Virginia."
Rodney shifted from foot to foot. Sheppard had come. And Jennifer hadn't been invited, because even then things had sort of been getting... thin. Like a work teeshirt that stopped being comfortable and instead became... embarrassing.
Talking about family stuff always made him vaguely itchy. Kind of in his palms. Like an electrical burn. "Well, I felt I owed Teyla and Ronon a real thanksgiving before Atlantis returned and, uh, you know, it would be weird without you... without the whole team being there."
Sheppard grinned and got it, which was why Rodney liked being his friend. He never actually had to say any of the embarrassing stuff - and he never had to hear it, either, 'cause Sheppard also never said it. They got it.
Sheppard walked back the few steps on the animal trail they were following through the light underbrush and slung an arm across Rodney's shoulder. "C'mon, McKay," he said jovially, "You must've eaten too much tofurkey, we're lagging behind." He patted Rodney's belly. "Can't let Teyla and Ronon get all the glory on our first mission back, can we?"
Around them, the grass was strangely beautiful and strangely eerie and strangely Rivendell-ish, and sort of smelled like cinnamon, and Rodney wished that grass would continue to glow if he brought some back to Atlantis and put it in a little clay pot for his office; of course, it wouldn't. Without the specific wavelength of this solar system's sunlight and the exact soil composition, then the grass would just look like grass under Ancienty fluorescents, all the magic drained away.
Magic that Rodney knew was just science.
Smiling, he let Sheppard tug him up the path.
* * *
As per usual, the energy readings seemed to be too faint to be worthwhile following at first, but of course led them to some sort of hidden laboratory.
"It's us, isn't it?" Rodney asked, as he poked around on a console. "Like, we have some sort of horrible magnetism for sci fi cliché and potentially fatal secrets?" Because, they did, you know. They so, so, did.
Ronon slapped his shoulder and smiled. He'd been doing that a lot more since he started getting laid regularly, and it was frankly disturbing because Rodney knew what it meant. "Maybe it's a ZPM factory," he suggested around his toothy smirk.
Rodney tried not to get all warm and gushy at the thought. The nice thing about his team was that they also got him sometimes. They understood the science sector's personal investment in urgency and shields and the terrifyingly alien concept of actually safety and ... just, yay team.
Teyla, hands resting calmly on the butt of her gun, looked up at a cylindrical column that dominated the laboratory. It was sort of a glowingish teal and Rodney thought TARDIS before Teyla said: "It is a TARDIS."
No, for serious. Yay team!
Sheppard sniggered and Ronon rolled his eyes. Rodney was tempted to snap something about molesting the technology, and then shrugged and decided not to when Sheppard started to run his fingertips along the rim of the console. It didn't matter how many times he said it, anyway; the technology called to Sheppard, the same way it called to Rodney, the way it called to every other ATA gene carrier in the world. Things were lighting up, but nothing was making ominous whiiiir or buzz of countdown to destruction noises, so Rodney held his tongue.
It wasn't like six years of admonishing the Colonel - full bird, thank you very much Woolsey, and Sheppard would never know that Rodney was proud as fuck for him - had stopped Sheppard from molesting the technology before.
Rodney followed like a preoccupied dinghy in Sheppard's wake, passing the scanner up and down and up and down, while Teyla and Ronon took careful stock of the walls and perimeter with measured footsteps. Rodney focussed on the readings, feeling unaccountably safe with his team around him, with them watching out for him while he immersed himself in his tasks, safer than he sometimes felt in his bed on Atlantis, his hips wrapped in Jennifer's hot warm thighs.
A cold fist of ice slammed him in the gut. No, none of that, anymore.
It's not that Rodney was ever, you know, ridiculously emotional about the people in his life. It's just there were people in his life, and it really wasn't something that Rodney had ever expected. He'd sort of vaguely hoped that he and Jeannie would one day be all chummy and Disney Channel sibling-y, but there had always been a larger part of him that felt that such thoughts were ridiculous.
She was significantly younger than him. Nearly ten years. It wasn't much when you were both adults, 40 and 30 aren't really that far apart, but it was an eon of understanding and generational gaps when they were younger. The McKay kids just never really played together; the only thing that they had shared was the math. But things were better now, things were closer, and if it never meant that they would end up doing the silly things that brothers and sisters did on TV, then at least he knew that he loved his sister and his sister's family and they loved him back and were willing to invite him into their home, their lives.
And now Rodney had a best friend, and two other really awesome warrior friends who could totally kick his ass or defend it, depending on what he needed.
And he was telling himself, over and over that really, he didn't need a girlfriend who fucked like a champion and seemed to mostly like him for who he actually was; at least, she had nagged him a lot less than the other girlfriends of his past. That didn't matter, though, because she had still wanted him to become, become more like he had been with a goddamned worm in his fucking skull and now that he thought about it... no. No. that was gone now, too.
Rodney unwound his fists from around his tablet and took a deep breath, turning his mind back to tracking the source of the energy readings in the lab and scoping out the equipment in case something that might reveal the purpose of this particular laboratory jumped out at him.
Oddly enough, thinking about Jennifer didn't hurt as much as Rodney expected. It seemed like maybe he had always know that there was going to be an ending to the whole thing, and that because it wasn't a surprise when it happened, it hadn't hurt as much as it might have.
There were other things that Rodney could focus on, that meant more. Other people.
Rodney was back in the Pegasus galaxy, doing work that he loved, focussed on research and innovation and changing the world into a better place and getting credit for it. Things were good. Things were actually kinda great.
Which is why when Sheppard stepped back sharply from the console and muttered "Uh-oh", Rodney totally, totally was not surprised.
'Cause that was his goddamn life.
* * *
Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot - one kingdom of the five that spread across the isles of Albion - had received, nearly daily for the last week, reports about some strange weather in a half-forgotten valley on the edges of his territory. At first it came from wary village leaders, sending messengers or squires, but was quickly followed by passing merchants, and then all-out panicked shepherds who'd come straight to the castle themselves.
Something bizarre was happening in the Valley of Mists.
Which meant, of course, that Prince Arthur, sole son of the King and chiefist of its knights, was sent to scout the situation and report back to his father on probable courses of action. Which also meant, of course, that Merlin, the Prince's personal servant, had to go with.
Merlin really disliked horseback riding. Walking was so much saner; there was nothing to fall off of, no great heights involved, and the only creature's temperament that required handling was one's own. Oh, yes, it was nice to not be footsore come evening, but Merlin was fairly certain that he would prefer footsore to arse-thighs-knees-and-lower-back sore. Arthur, the prat, had no problems, springing off of his horse in the evening with nothing on his mind than what he could make Merlin cook for dinner. Merlin had come from a rather poor village in the neighbouring kingdom, so he'd had no horse to practice with in his youth; he was not a good rider at all.
But walking wouldn't have gotten them to the Valley - a three day ride! - fast enough for Arthur's impatient liking, so they had to take the horses and the bed rolls and the stewing pots and dried fruits and meat and everything.
Merlin was torn between wondering if perhaps the Crown Prince of Pretty Much Everything shouldn't have more of an armed escort - Sir Kaye or Sir Percival at the least - when he ventured out of daddy's sight, and absurdly glad that it was just him and Arthur and the Dragon's ringing words about destinies and implied partnerships.
As much as Merlin disliked the Dragon's puzzles and riddles and admittedly selfish attitude (though Merlin supposed that if he was chained up under the castle, he'd been peevish and self-absorbed too), there was a truth to what the Dragon said about Merlin's destiny with Arthur. When Merlin was around the Prince it sort of felt like... like it was meant, like he belonged there, like he had been born simply because Arthur had been, too.
Merlin wanted to be there for Arthur, to protect Arthur, to give Arthur his all; he couldn't do that with suspicious magic-hating knights watching his every move. Oh, not that they suspected that silly, bumbling, too-thin Merlin was any sort of warlock (and they'd be oh, so wrong) but because they were trained to look for and hate all forms of magic, benign and otherwise.
Merlin couldn't use magic if they were about. And if he couldn't use magic on Arthur's behalf, then Merlin felt sort of wasted and superfluous and wrong. Arthur was the reason Merlin even had magic to begin with, the great riddling lizard had said. Arthur was the reason for Merlin's entire existence.
Which was awfully melodramatic, when Merlin thought about it, and yet somehow still... right.
Gwen had once accused Merlin of fancying Arthur, when she had caught him watching Arthur upbraid his knights in the courtyard from a higher battlement. Merlin had turned red and spluttered and totally denied it; no, 'fancy' wasn't the right word.
Merlin didn't want Arthur sexually, didn't have a big stupid crush on his Royal Prattishness, had no desire to be a royal consort.
But Merlin loved Arthur.
He loved the Arthur he knew when it was just them, sitting in his rooms after a long day of training and exhausting heat, teasing and honest and without titles and jobs. He loved the Arthur that stood up to his father when Uther was being pig-headed and prejudiced. He loved the Arthur who went into the market with Merlin just to keep Merlin company, even though having a manservant meant that he didn't have to go to the Market himself, that was the point. Merlin loved the Arthur who helped little girls who'd fallen in the streets, who bought the bread that hungry boys were eyeing and gave it to them, so they wouldn't have to steal it, who spoke to the old men and paid attention to what they said, who helped the farmers struggling to offload a barrel of apples or salted pork or casks of beer and only took enough in payment for the help to serve as a snack for Merlin and himself, when the farmer had offered so very much more.
Merlin loved the Arthur who sat beside overinflated dignitaries and tedious feats and genuinely listened to them, so the conversations devolved out of the normal pompous posturing into a genuine concerned discussion between two people who just wanted the best for their kingdoms.
Merlin loved what Arthur could be, the King he saw under the bratty Prince, coming to the fore more and more with each kind action, each thoughtful declaration, each afternoon in the gardens teasing Morgana mercilessly, each loving glance he sent Gwen when he thought nobody was looking.
Merlin loved that Arthur made a point of sitting and talking to Gaius, and Hunith when she visited, because they matter to Merlin. Merlin loved that Arthur didn't care that Gwen was a servant, but didn't forget it either, for her sake. Merlin loved that Arthur had sweets he despised sent up to his room from the kitchen because Merlin liked them. Merlin loved that Arthur made him wear that godawful hat that marked Merlin as his own at feasts. Merlin loved that Arthur groaned and sniped and complained and bitched, but when it really came down to it, trusted Merlin to watch his back, to save his life.
Merlin loved Arthur, but no, not in that crass shallow physical way that Gwen meant.
He loved the Arthur who appeared when it was just him and Merlin, away from Camelot, alone. Which might be why they were travelling like this, chasing after stories of haunted lightning and glowing blue pools of levitating ponds, with no company but the horses and themselves.
Because maybe, secretly, Arthur liked the Arthur he was when he was alone with Merlin, too.
* * *
The pulsing flashes went on for what felt like forever, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes. Rodney threw up his hands to protect his face, and when there wasn't an immediate explosion or heat - just light, piercing, too much - he squeezed his eyes shut and groped around, calling for his team.
They all seemed to have the same idea, because he found Teyla first, her arms out in front of her. They clung to each other, and Rodney shouted her name, but the terrible white silence seemed to have robbed the room of sound. Not air, he was still breathing, but its ability to carry sonic waves, certainly. He ran his hands over her face, around the back of her head, down her shoulders, and she felt fine to him, no warm wetness, nothing missing where it shouldn't have been or sticking out of places.
Sheppard collided with them, Ronon not far behind, groping with one hand. The other, Rodney would bet was filled with ray gun.
Clinging to one another, fingers wound into tac vests, chests heaving and mouths open under questing hands to yell but eerily silent, blind, they stood and waited. The flashing got more strobe like and Rodney prayed that nobody dropped down into an epileptic fit. If someone fell, they might not find them again until it was too late, all over.
The flashes built to a sort of crescendo, and Rodney held his breath, waiting to be blown into atoms, to have the air sucked out of his lungs, to feel his brain melting out of his ears.
Fucking Ancients! he thought, and tried very hard not to remember the tears dotting Jeannie's lashes when they had made their private goodbye just a week ago, when she had admitted over a pair of coffees in the too-early morning of the kitchen that her greatest fear was that Rodney was going to go away, go off world, go into a strange lab, and never come back.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, the light was gone.
Sheppard was yelling in his ear, and Rodney jerked back, which made him accidentally chin-check Teyla's forehead.
"Sorry, sorry!" he said, flailing his hands in indecision, unsure whether to wring them or to raise them and see if he'd drawn blood.
He hadn't, and everyone took a hasty step away from each other to scope out the new situation. Sheppard was rubbing the back of his head and glaring at Ronon in a way that broadcasted another bang up.
Ronon grunted an apology and did not holster his gun. He was looking at something over Rodney's shoulder, something that cast a glowing white-blue light across his cheekbones and slim nose.
Rodney recognized the quality of that light, of course. They all did. They'd all seen it a million times before. Turning, Rodney saw exactly what he expected to see: an event horizon puddle.
What he did not expect was that it was tall and oblong, and not bounded on any side by a Stargate. There didn't seem to be any frame at all, just a floating, rippling portal into subspace.
"Uh," Sheppard said, scratching the back of his neck, "That's not normal."
"Nor, I suspect, is the entire laboratory vanishing," Teyla added.
"Wait, what?" Rodney asked, tearing his gaze from the strange pool. Teyla was right. The whole of the lab was gone. All that was around them were the rough hewn walls of the cave. Ronon immediately began scouring the shadows, looking, Rodney assumed, for an exit.
As far as Rodney could tell, there wasn't one. Just the pool of event horizon hovering unnervingly in the centre of the room. Rodney did not look up, took a deep breath and tried to shove down the claustrophobic panic that tried to bubble up through his chest. Now was so very not the time. He had to channel his nervousness into something else. Like accusing Sheppard.
"Fantastic," he snapped and pointed at Sheppard. "You, what did you touch?"
"Just the console!" Sheppard said. "I... uh."
Sheppard ducked his head, a sure sign of guilt, and Rodney seized on that.
"What?" he demanded.
"There was some sort of... I dunno, it felt like a knot, in my brain, when I touched that crystal knob? So I ... undid it. With my..." he twiddled his fingers beside his temples. "Yeah."
"For god's sake," Rodney huffed. As early as a year ago, Rodney would have started yelling about imbeciles and touching what they shouldn't and insulting Sheppard's intelligence. He still had the urge. But he had learned that his blustering did nothing but annoy, and in this case he really couldn't blame Sheppard, as he had been doing exactly as Rodney had asked of him: exploring.
It wasn't Sheppard's fault that his super ATA gene made all the Ancient technology roll over and spread its legs for him.
"What are our options?" Teyla asked as Ronon returned to their huddle.
"No doors, no vents," Ronon reported and Rodney swallowed again, heavily, to keep from pulling in desperate panicked breaths.
"We'll suffocate eventually," Rodney pointed out, though perhaps unnecessarily, looking at the pale cast to everyone's faces.
"So that's our only door." Sheppard pointed at the event horizon.
"We don't even know where it leads!" Rodney wailed. He sounded petulant, even in his own ears. "What if it's a space gate?"
"Then we just suffocate faster," Sheppard said and shrugged and Rodney felt a little offended that he was just so damn cavalier. "Either way, it's pretty much our only option right now, Rodney."
"Can you not think the lab back?" Teyla asked, but Rodney could tell by the way her lips pulled down that she knew just as well as Rodney that if Sheppard could do that, he would have already by now.
Sheppard just confirmed it by shaking his head and saying, "Sorry, I'm trying, but nothing."
"Then we go through," Ronon said, and took a step towards the puddle, gun at the ready. "There's no other choice."
"I wish we had a Malp-on-a-stick this time," Rodney said.
Sheppard made a face, wincing at the memory, and silently, one by one, they walked through.
* * *
Out on the water, Avalon wept.
Merlin sometimes wondered what Arthur would do if he'd revealed his own magical nature. It wasn't so much that Merlin wielded magic as he was magic. Uther had no mercy for witches and wizards, for dark creatures like trolls and gryphons, but what, he wondered, would the King do with a second chance at meeting a unicorn? With a mermaid? With a fair and good creature that couldn't help the way it was born?
Already Merlin knew that Uther respected dragons enough not to kill the last of them, even if he did fear them. Maybe that meant eventually, if in time, when Uther had mellowed or some event had occurred that changed his mind or softened his stance, other creatures would be left alone before they too went extinct. Creatures like Merlin.
And Merlin knew that while Arthur didn't share in all of his father's prejudices, the hatred that had been schooled into him since birth was an irrepressible force all the same. An irony, because it was magic that had caused Arthur's existence, magic that had nurtured the unborn babe, dark magic that had stolen the life of Queen Igraine to give to her son. Perhaps, in time, Camelot would be a place where the good and magical were tolerated. Maybe even welcomed.
If the Dragon spoke truly of the future, then Merlin would be an important element of Arthur's Kingship. Perhaps, with a warlock at the right hand of its King, Camelot might even become a haven for the gifted and the different.
In the distance, the island tugged at his breast, stole the air from his lungs, and Merlin squeezed his eyes shut. He'd forgotten what being the presence of strong magic felt like, had deliberately put away his memories of Gaius and a lightning storm.
He longed to tell Arthur how it felt to be here. How Avalon reached out her arms to him and beckoned.
Until then, Merlin was stuck rowing his Royal Peevishness across to the Avolonian isle by hand.
A day encamped on the riverbed and proven Merlin's fear - that the strange light that pulsed like a slow heart beat originated in the very vortex of the mist, that the strange pull that had begun under his sternum when they had ridden down into the valley was also centred in the same place.
Arthur had sent Merlin to search for a boat along the shore line; of course, the minute his back had turned, on his way to search the brush in the opposite direction, Merlin had simply summoned one instead.
Though, how he had known that there was one moored to a slowly rotting dock out in the middle of the lake, how he had known exactly what sort of knot he needed to mentally slip from the boat's tether, how he had known to guide the boat to himself so easily, Merlin didn't like to contemplate.
There was a lot about his own nature that Merlin didn't like to contemplate. His apparent lack of father, for one thing. Because, if he was honest with himself, he wanted to be human, just human. Because he wanted to be loved and accepted and appreciated on a human scale, by his human friends and by their human standards.
For a little while longer, Merlin wanted to continue to deceive himself.
Arthur had returned, muddy and frustrated, to find Merlin splashing through the shallows to get the old thing lined up with a set of rocks that would keep Arthur's feet dry. Merlin wasn't an entirely abysmal servant all the time. Of course, Arthur had scoffed and waded right into the chilly lake himself and got them both heaved up into the thing with minimal splashing. He'd eyed the interior, clearly searching for leaks. Merlin willed them all back, away, silently ordered the water to say on the outside.
His magic felt stronger here. Better. Cleaner.
It scared the shit out of Merlin.
And then they were moving, one hesitant oar stroke at a time.
"Merlin," Arthur said from his place at the prow of the old boat, breaking Merlin's reverie. He was staring forward into the mist, speaking in hushed tones that Merlin might have called reverent in any spiritual setting. "Do you believe that places can be magical?"
Merlin had spent a long time practicing not to flinch. He dipped the oars back into the water and chose his words carefully.
"I believe that magic is a benign force that is neither truly good or evil; that places and objects can be endowed with magic."
"But it is how people occupy and use that magic which makes them good or evil?" Arthur guessed, and there was a wry twist to his lips. "Merlin, you have a fool's heart. You believe the good in everyone, don't you?"
"I have to," Merlin said. "Because what kind of world would it be if people were born evil?" And what would be my place in it? he asked himself, but not out loud.
"The air tingles," Arthur admitted. "I can feel my hairs standing up. I feel a yearning, a...a need to go forward... But I'm not scared, I don't feel danger, I only feel..."
"Welcomed?" Merlin finished.
Arthur turned around in the boat and sat down, folding his hands under his chin thoughtfully. "You feel it too?"
Merlin nodded and didn't give voice to his other fear, that this place was meant for them, only for them, the Coin with Two Sides. Whether for good or for ill, this Avalon island sunk in mists was beckoning to them both with soft cries, and Merlin knew that there was no way they could turn back now, any more than there was a way that he could ever be just human.
* * *
The fog was thick when they came out the other side. Rodney lifted his scanner and frowned as the screen on the thing went haywire, glowing with so many energy tracking lights that it became useless for anything more than a flashlight. With that thought, he turned its screen outwards and used the glow to determine the stability of his footing.
There was a short dais to descend, a few steps of glistening gray stone set in an uneven pattern of flags.
On this side, when he looked back over his shoulder, the 'Gate just looked like a normal 'Gate: up a few stairs, ringed in the habitual naquedah, only...
"Huh," Sheppard said. "Those are the Milky Way constellations. What is a Milky Way 'Gate doing in Pegasus?"
Rodney looked around. "No DHD," he said, heart sinking.
"No way to return to the laboratory?" Teyla clarified. "Or Atlantis?"
"Nope," Rodney said, already kneeling to feel around the base of the stone dais. "I'm looking for a hatch or something," he said, "There's gotta be some way to connect this thing to some sort of dialling device, even if it's just my tablet. Help me look."
Teyla immediately joined him on the ground, but Ronon was staring into the mist.
"Ronon, what are you--?"
"Shhh," he said, and Rodney spluttered. "Don't you tell me to shush, you great hairy--!" but Sheppard cut him off with a barked "McKay!"
Rodney knew that tone of voice and snapped his mouth shut so fast his teeth clicked. Ow.
Teyla stood cautiously, hands going to her gun. Rodney clutched at his the sidearm in his thigh holster, flicked open the catch, and waited. His calves began to scream in protest.
The world went silent, except for... oh, that's what the others must have heard. There were footsteps, quiet and scuffling on the stone. They sounded like boots made of leather, and there was the faint chink of metal on metal, high and almost musical, like the sound his keychain made when it was jumbled in his pocket.
Rodney could hear the soft harsh panting of the others approaching. They sounded like they'd been climbing or running hard. Maybe they had. Rodney held his own breath and narrowed his eyes and peered into the mist.
Suddenly, the tense silence was cut with a loud, "Hello?"
Rodney stifled his own instinct to shout back, or shoot, and heard, "Well way to go, you idiot! Just announce our presence then! Who needs the element of surprise? Not us!"
"Sorry, Sire," the first person said, in a surprisingly crisp accent that might have once, generations ago, been British. Finally a pair of men - boys, really - emerged out of the mist.
They were both quite young looking - in their early twenties, at most, and both dressed like Ren Faire aficionados. The first voice belonged to a whippet thin boy with a messy shock of very black hair and ears that seemed to be trying to run away in opposite directions. He wore rough trousers and flat leather shoes, and an equally rough shirt paired with some sort of garish neckerchief.
The second speaker fit his 'Sire' moniker better, a blond wearing tough leather pants, boots, and glittering armour at his throat, shoulder, wrists and ankles that had nevertheless seen battle enough to be scarred and pocked. The faint jingling sound came from his chain mail. He held an equally loved but battle scarred sword out before him, not threatening but not limp, either. Careful.
The mist was tugging at both boys' hair, flattening the black and blond strands into matted tangles across their brows. Their cheeks were pink with their exertion and the faint cool dampness of the mist.
"Hello," Teyla called back, her voice soft and calm. "We mean you no harm. We are travellers, explorers and peaceful."
The boy in the mail let his sword drop fractionally. "Us, as well," he said. "We've come to investigate the light."
"Ah, I think that was our fault," Sheppard said, slipping his lazy drawl into his voice, as effective a mask as his easy smile, meant to make the people of Pegasus underestimate how dangerous his keen military mind and sharp pilot's reflexes really were. "We turned something on by mistake. But don't worry, it's off now. No harm, no foul."
He jerked his head backwards at the gate. Neither boy seemed to think it out of the ordinary - they didn't look confused, but they didn't look as if they knew what a Stargate was either.
"What was it?" the dark boy asked. He didn't look scared, but his expression was determined and his hands clenched by his sides. "It was pulsing for weeks."
"Weeks?" Rodney asked, finally pushing himself to his feet. "The glow from the event horizon should have only been visible for about ten minutes."
The boy with the sword frowned. "Never the less, there have been flashes for weeks, scaring the people of the outlying villages."
Rodney turned to Sheppard and whispered: "The flashing in the lab was only happening for a minute at most."
"Time dilation?" Sheppard hissed back.
"Maybe?" Rodney said. "I'll need to recalibrate the LSD. I want to get somewhere drier before I break out my tablet."
"Fucking great," Sheppard snapped.
"At least we're with you this time," Rodney said under his breath. Then he turned back to the boys. "You, with the toad-sticker," he said, snapping his fingers, "Tell me about this light you saw."
"I beg your pardon?" the boy asked, eyes going wide and skin flushing along his nose with indignity. "Who are you to speak to me like that, peasant?"
"Who am I?" Rodney spat back, and Sheppard's grip tightened on his gun, even as a smile tried to slide into the corner of his mouth. "Who am I? Who the hell are you?"
"I am Prince Arthur of Camelot!" the boy said.
For a small, infinitesimal moment, Rodney thought he was going to lose it. "Arthur? As in, King Arthur and the Round table? Ha!"
"I said Prince," the boy said with the kind of tone that explained fully how thick he thought Rodney was.
"Right, Prince Arthur, the Prince Arthur," Rodney scoffed. "And I'm Merlin."
The dark haired boy cleared his throat. "Uh, no," he said, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, "Actually, I am."
"Oh," Rodney said, deflating, gobsmacked.
"Pleased to meet you, Prince Arthur, Merlin," Sheppard said, finally lowering the P90.
Rodney sat down on the step and put his head in his hands and tried very hard not to have hysterics.
Oh god, seriously, how was this his life?
* * *
The strangers were weird.
That was the nicest thing that Merlin could think about them. They seemed harmless enough, genuinely kind and curious, just explorers like they claimed. But they wore odd armour that consisted only of a black fabric chest plate - how would something like that stop an arrow? - and carried compact black boxes that they aimed at him and Arthur like crossbows, but didn't seem to have any real purpose or threat.
They spoke in idioms and used jargon that Merlin had never in his life before heard, and he'd met many travellers in the court of the King.
The woman, Teyla Emmagen, seemed to be of a rank with the other three, and that made Merlin squirmishly pleased. Gwen and Morgana had proven themselves just as capable on the battlefield - both physical and political - as their male betters, sometimes more than equal, on a few occasions. It had always sat wrong with Merlin that just because one was female that made her require protecting and shielding. Even his mother was made of tougher stuff than that.
Merlin had said something to this effect to Gwen, once, and she had asked him where he had come up with such a strange thought, from whom he had learned this wrong concept of total equality, and Merlin'd had to admit that he hadn't really learned it from anyone. It was just that it was always what he had thought, that the concept, the vision of a world where men and women, from all races and all tribes, lived and worked and loved together, in equality and harmony.
He felt like, once, a long time ago in another life, he had seen it, lived it.
Gwen had laughed at him, merry and honest, and patted his shoulder and told him that he was living in a fantasy realm.
But here was proof: this Teyla was just as respected, her opinions just as considered as her male compatriots.
The travellers gathered together into a clump to discuss their discovery and predicament, leaving Merlin and Arthur to hunch down on a half eroded wall to watch and wait.
"Do you really think they were responsible for the light?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shrugged. "They seemed to think so. They also seem quite sure that it was harmless. What do you think it was?"
A beacon, drawing us here, Merlin thought, but did not say. The whole island vibrated with magic, so strongly that Merlin wondered that the rocks of the walls did not shake loose. Surely Arthur must feel it, too. Even the military leader of the travellers - Colonel Sheppard - seemed to sense it. He kept rubbing his bare arms, the back of his neck, in an attempt to make the short hair there lie flat.
Merlin wondered if he was a sorcerer too.
"It could have been what they said," Merlin opined. "A portal that they accidentally opened and stepped through. What do you think it was?"
"I was hoping for a dragon," Arthur admitted, baring his teeth viciously. "I would like to fight one of those."
"Are you insane?" Merlin said, "Dragons are bloody huge!"
Arthur elbowed him in the ribs. "Oh, so you've seen one, have you?" he asked, and his tone was meant to tease, but it sent cold water splashing down Merlin's spine.
"No, I guess not," Merlin lied, dropping his eyes so Arthur wouldn't see the truth in them.
The noisiest of the group, an alchemist like Gaius as far as Merlin could tell, got to his knees beside the large stone ring and began to scrabble around, looking for an opening. Merlin could feel what he was searching for, the low throb centred on a single tile of stone, like a heartbeat.
"If they are travellers, if they were brought here on the whim of some wretched magic, then it would be Camelot's duty to help them return home," Arthur said.
Merlin wondered how altruistic the offer really was. They seemed to possess a superior knowledge of the sciences and the lay of the world than Camelot, and perhaps more advanced weaponry as well. Uther would be undoubtedly pleased to host such valuable guests at the castle. Merlin wondered if they would be held in comfort or chains; he suspected that it would be the former until they refused to cooperate.
For a second, Merlin contemplated telling the travellers to flee now. But where would they go? They had already made it clear that the place they came from was too far away to escape to now. No, taking up with Camelot would probably be the best choice for them, too. It was the only place within a week's ride that could afford to house and feed four adults this late in the harvest, and it was seat of learning in the area.
If they were to look an answer on what had happened to them, it would be found at Camelot.
As Merlin thought about it, the alchemist man, McKay, passed his hand over the stone that attracted Merlin's attention, and it shimmered out of existence.
"Whoa!" McKay said and fell backwards, apparently just as surprised as Merlin and Arthur that it vanished.
"What have you done!?" Arthur hissed, jumping to his feet and raising his sword threateningly. Immediately, the other three travellers had their black boxes aimed at the Prince.
"Arthur," Merlin chided, "it was an accident, you saw it. Look at how surprised he is."
But McKay wasn't all that surprised. He was grinning.
"Ha!" he said, jamming his face right up to the hole and peering down into the dais. He looked for a moment, then pulled back, jammed his hand into the glowing aperture, and removed it with a handful of blackened stones. "Just like I thought. The whole system is so degraded that a DHD would be useless, anyway. Whoever controlled this 'Gate must have been Ancient. It would only respond to someone with the ATA and psychic enough training to dial remotely."
"You mean, with their brains?" Sheppard asked, and a look of annoyance crossed his features.
"You mean, with magic?" Arthur clarified, growling.
All of the travellers started in surprise, throwing between them a look of amusement and confusion.
"It's not magic," McKay scoffed, climbing to his feet and dusting off his trousers. As he stood, the stone shimmered back into existence. "It's science. It only looks like magic to people too primitive to understand the difference. There's no such thing as magic."
Now it was Arthur who scoffed. "Yes, there is, and it is evil."
McKay rolled his eyes, "Right, okay, whatever. Then this is a magic portal that opens a magic doorway between the stars, and because Sheppard and I are wizards, we accidentally activated the magic portal and we all ended up here. But because the magic crystals in the magic portal have fried-" and here he held out the blackened stones "- we can't magic ourselves home to our strange and distant realm of Atlantis. That clear enough for you?"
"Neither is Camelot or... or Avalon," McKay snapped.
"As Camelot's Crown Prince, I would beg to differ," Arthur said, knuckles still white around the sword. "And you are standing upon Avalon."
"I...really?" McKay asked, face going pale.
Sheppard sighed and gestured for his compatriots to lower their weapons once more. "Look, Prince Arthur, what McKay is trying to say is that to get home, we're going to have to get some help, and it seems to me that you guys would be our best bet. At the very least, we'll need tools and someplace to stay."
"Why us?" Merlin asked, panic rising in his chest.
"Well according to the legends, Camelot is the best place around get the help of fellow wizards." Sheppard looked right at Merlin as he said it, and Merlin felt his throat closing up. Sheppard was smiling.
Beside him, Arthur frowned. "Well, the stories are wrong."
"I do not understand," Teyla admitted.
"Magic is outlawed in Camelot," Arthur growled.
Sheppard and McKay's eyes widened and snapped onto Merlin's face. Then, as if they both realized at the same moment that they were betraying him, their gazes flashed to one another, and then skipped around the island upon which they found themselves stranded.
Worse than the bloody Druids, these two. Merlin was just lucky that Arthur underestimated him so thoroughly or he might actually get suspicious.
Merlin was torn between running before Arthur could gather what their expressions of disbelief meant, and staying and asking how these people seemed to know so much of Camelot and Merlin's secrets when they were from so far away. Instead he cleared his throat and said, softly, "Arthur? It's not magic, what they do. It's just science, like Gaius. Your father wouldn't deny them aid if it was just science."
"I don't know, Merlin. Even bringing them to Camelot might be unwise."
Merlin touched Arthur's elbow gently, tugging the material a little. "They need help, Arthur. You were willing to offer it before magic was suspected. Don't..." he stopped.
Arthur turned to face him, his eyes ice chips in his pale face. "Don't what, Merlin?"
"Please, Sire," Merlin whispered. "Don't be as... as prejudiced as your father."
Arthur scowled, but seemed to be considering it. Finally he turned back to the travellers.
"Fine, we will escort you to Camelot and provide whatever tools of science you will require to aid in your quest to return home." He lowered his sword, but then raised a finger. "But, I warn you; any hint of magic, or of ill intentions, and my father will have you executed before that day is over."
"No magic, we promise," McKay said, holding up his hands, palms out, in a gesture of peace.
"Very well," Arthur said, turned swiftly on the balls of his feet, and started towards the stairs. "Come along," he said, and expected everyone to follow. He was the Prince; it wasn't an unfair expectation.
Sharing a look among them, the travellers picked up their packs and weaponry, and started back down the stairs. Merlin groaned; he'd just caught his breath from going up the damn things.
* * *
They ferried across the lake in two groups; Arthur and Merlin travelled with Sheppard and Teyla, and then Sheppard rowed back to fetch Ronon and McKay.
They made camp on the edge of the lake again, in the same spot that Arthur and Merlin had the night before. The horses were happy to see them, mouthing at Arthur's palms as he offered up dried apples from their own saddlebags. Teyla was immediately drawn to the beasts and helped Arthur look them over and prepare them for tomorrow's journey. She claimed never to have met a horse in real life.
Merlin, with the aid of Ronon, was able to gather enough firewood to last the next three nights, and Sheppard produced something small and silver that flashed with fire and set the kindling burning.
"Don't!" Merlin hissed, pushing the silver thing out of view. "Don't do that again!"
"Do what?" Sheppard asked, genuinely confused.
"Use magic! Arthur was serious when he said it was an executable offence in Camelot."
Sheppard looked at him queerly, and again Merlin got the sense that there was something about Merlin, personally, which utterly confused the man.
"S'not magic," Ronon grunted.
Sheppard wriggled his fingers out from under Merlin's and held up the silver square. "It's not," Sheppard agreed. "See? Here's the flint, and the steel; there's a flammable liquid inside that catches the spark and sustains the flame."
Merlin could see the workings of the device well enough for himself, and he hadn't felt the distinctive surge of magic that accompanied lighting the fire, but he was wary nonetheless. "Be cautious with your fire maker all the same," he said.
Unnerved, he busied himself with readying his gear for a trip into the woods - they'd need meat for dinner, if they were going to travel far tomorrow, and they hadn't enough provisions left to eat and share with the travellers. He had a knife for cleaning kills, but it was usually Arthur who did the actual hunting. Arthur was busy, Merlin could see, flirting gently with Teyla Emmagen in that Princely I-don't-really-mean-it-but-you're-female-so-I-can't-help-it way he had.
Were he alone, Merlin would have used his magic to capture a few rabbits, but he didn't dare do it now. That meant he'd have to try to snare them on his own.
Sheppard called him back over to the fire and produced a few flat boxes from his pack. "Look, they won't last long, but we have travel rations that we'd be willing to share with you tonight. How many days is it until we reach Camelot?"
"Three day's ride," Merlin said. "Slower, as you must go by foot."
"Well, dinner is on us, tonight, then," Sheppard offered with a lopsided grin, "And we'll help hunt tomorrow, fair enough? It's getting late, and nobody wants to be out in unknown woods."
Merlin let the relief show on his face. Ronon, on the other hand, looked disappointed. "I saw a deer," the man said. "I've never hunted deer." He seemed genuinely disappointed.
"Deer burgers tomorrow, big guy," Sheppard said, consolingly, and patted his shoulder.
Ronon settled down onto a spare log beside the fire and warmed himself by the flame, instead.
Everyone was still slightly damp from the thick mists that blanketed Avalon, and with the sun setting rapidly, it was growing chilly. Merlin stripped off his outer shirt and kerchief and hung it on a thin stick by the fire to dry - Sheppard and Ronon removed as many layers as they could and did the same. Merlin still didn't see what sort of protection they expected the black vests to be. Then they went back to preparing the repast, sliding little trays out of the paper boxes.
It was only then that Merlin realised that McKay was not with them by the fire. Merlin looked around, and spotted him on the far side of the encampment from the horses, his back against a tree and a strange glowing square in his hand, huddling under a blanket that must have come from one of the traveller's packs. Merlin quashed his instinct to cover up the obvious magic of the square, and instead watched McKay; he worked with it as Geoffrey or Gaius may work with an abacus or book. It was a tool to McKay, nothing more, and again Merlin felt no magic around except the strange magnetic pull of Avalon out on the water.
Maybe what McKay had said on the island was true; there was honestly no magic here, only science. Except that Sheppard had seemed as uncomfortable within the pull of Avalon as Arthur had.
Merlin stood and went over to McKay. The other man didn't look up as Merlin approached, but seemed aware of his presence. Could he sense magic as well? Merlin wasn't sure of anything with these four any more. McKay shifted over so Merlin could sit beside him on the tree root, so Merlin did.
He peered over McKay's shoulder at the glowing square, and saw that McKay as reading a book on its odd surface. The words and letters were strange to Merlin, however, and he didn't understand what it said.
"What is that?" Merlin asked, and McKay started at the sound of his voice.
"Oh!" McKay said. "I thought you were Sheppard..." he frowned. "Anyway, it's a computer. It's uh, like a whole library, inside this, uh, casing. I'm using it to try to figure out where we are and how we got here, and how to get home. It's not magic, either."
Merlin grinned. "I knew that."
"Did you?" McKay lowered the computer and looked into Merlin's face. "Is magic really illegal in Camelot?"
Merlin shrugged, suddenly discomfited, and looked away. He turned his eyes up to the stars instead. "There was a great war for the throne of Camelot. Many sorcerers failed to side with Uther Pendragon. Some hurt those he loved. When the crown of Camelot was won, Uther then waged a war on magic, killing magical creatures as well as sorcerers. He claims it's to protect the people of Camelot."
"'Claims', eh?" McKay said.
"I mean, it is!" Merlin added hastily. It would do no good for these travellers to think that Merlin was a traitor or spoke treason.
"Sure, it is," McKay scoffed. "I've met his kind before. If it's not magic, it's something else." He waved a dismissive hand. "It's because their eye colour or skin colour is wrong, or because they don't believe in the right god, or because they don't love the right kind of person, or something. It's bullshit, is what it is."
Merlin squirmed in his seat. He was torn between happiness to hear that in McKay's land there was no institutionalised hatred, and knowing that saying as much to Uther would get McKay locked in the stocks, or worse.
"You can't say things like that..." Merlin said softly. "Not in the court, at least."
McKay frowned, the left side of his mouth pulling down in a sort of comical scowl. "If you don't want me to, I won't," he said.
Merlin looked back sharply. "What does that mean?"
It was McKay's turn to look away now, to stare at his hands, at the sky, anywhere but at Merlin.
"There are stories..." McKay started, slowly. "Stories from our land, about King Arthur and Merlin his... wizard."
Merlin gasped in a breath and held it. How could there be stories, already?
"In the stories, Merlin used his magic to help Arthur unite Albion and become the One True King. There are lots of different tales, and they talk about Excalibur, and the Sword and Stone, and Quest for the Grail... but in each of them, Merlin aids Camelot with his magic and he and Arthur are mostly inseparable allies."
"Two sides of the same coin?" Merlin couldn't help but whisper.
Merlin buried his head in his hands. "What strange and distant country are you from that you talk of things that are yet to come as if they have already been?"
McKay looked up and seemed to be studying the stars. "There," he said, pointing to one twinkling pinprick in particular. "That one."
"You're from the stars?" Merlin asked. "How then can you not be magic?"
"I told you, it's science," McKay said. "We use science to travel across space, and, apparently, to fall into a place where time is so badly dilated that the past is playing out before our eyes."
"You're from, what, the days that are yet to come?" Merlin asked, aghast.
A smile tugged at the corner of McKay's mouth. "The centuries, more like, or millennia." Her grew thoughtful, eyes narrowing shrewdly, and Merlin felt a stab of panic at the back of his throat. "In the stories, they say that Merlin knew the future because he had lived his life backwards. He was born old and grew young. Or was reborn after having done all his deeds already or... something."
"That's horrific!" Merlin said, aghast. "Who would want to know what the future really held?"
McKay's look turned thoughtful. "You know, it would be pretty horrific. You'd have to watch everyone you loved die before you ever met them." He raised his eyes to his friends. "Also? According to the stories, you're supposed to be blond."
Merlin let the silence linger for a moment, and then said, "These stories. Please say nothing else about them. Arthur can't know..."
"What?" McKay prompted. "The future? Or that you're a wizard?"
"Sorcerer, if you please," Merlin sniffed. "Wizards only do parlour tricks."
McKay turned to Merlin eagerly. "But you're really magical? Is it magic or is it the ATA gene?"
McKay fetched a white square, much like the computer, out of his vest. "Hold this."
He shoved it at Merlin and Merlin put out his hands and grabbed it just to keep the older man from jamming it up against his chest.
The square in his hand lit up so brightly that it filled the glade with a flash like lightning. McKay snatched it back immediately, guilty looking, and hid it back in his vest. Arthur frowned and left Teyla and the horses.
"What have you done!" Merlin hissed. "Now he'll know and I'll get my head chopped off!"
"It's not magic, it's science!" McKay protested. "With an ATA that powerful, you can't be a descendant like Sheppard. Jeeze, you're a freaking Ancient!"
McKay wavered. "Maybe you call them the Ancestors? Or, um, the Altera?"
Merlin shook his head. The only similar name they had for a peoples were the Olde Ones, and he wasn't about to say their name out loud and call the Elves down upon them. Elven folk stole people, sometimes people like Merlin,a dn held them in their realm for years, making the folk believe that they had only been gone a few days or hours or...
Merlin stared at McKay. What if he was an Elf?
No, no, Merlin would feel it, know it, he was sure. Because Elves, like Merlin, were beings of magic and not just humans who channelled it.
A new and unpleasant thought occurred to Merlin. What if he was the Elf? Or half, at least, because Hunith of Ealdor was human enough, that Merlin was sure of.
Merlin shook his head, hard. This was just getting too complicated! He just wouldn't think about it; he'd put it out of his mind for now and... and... maybe talk to his mother, later. Damn these travellers for making him think! He had to stop. Now
Enough had happened today to make Merlin antsy without adding that. Arthur had admitted to feeling magic in the air, these weird people had appeared and insisted that Camelot was a haven for sorcerers, and then they claimed that the Dragon's riddling prophecies were definitely going to come true -had already! - and they knew that Merlin wielded magic, even though they then insisted that magic did not exist, yet they somehow travelled here from beyond the stars!
Merlin didn't know what to think, what to do... he was a big ball of panic and he thought that any second he was going to scream or puke or start laughing like a crazed woman.
"What is an Ancestor?" he asked, gulping air desperately, watching Arthur stalk towards them across the glade and wondering if perhaps this would be the last time he ever saw the Prince, before a sword blade or an axe fell upon his neck.
Finally, McKay seemed to notice how tense a situation this was about to become. Hastily, he blurted: "Someone who's, uh... not human, but looks like it."
Merlin startled to hear the fairly apt description of himself. "Fairly accurate, then," Merlin said flippantly, shocking himself with his own casual admission. That's what comes of dwelling on it all afternoon! he chided. "But it will sound a lot like 'sorcerer' to Uther's ears. Say nothing, I pray you!"
"Fine, fine," McKay vowed, and then sat upright as Arthur came within hearing distance, Sheppard not far behind. "Sorry," McKay said, snapping upright. "Just a malfunction with my equipment. Merlin was trying to help."
Arthur's scowl dipped lower. "There's your problem, then. Never let Merlin help with anything if you want it to remain intact."
Oh, thank the heavens. Merlin thought, swallowing down his fear.
Merlin smiled, even though it was thin and strained, knowing that this was Arthur's way of teasing, his way of dismissing the strange. It was a blind spot that Uther had schooled into his son, and one that Merlin had been more than grateful for, and more than once. An Arthur that accepted magic and readily believed that it could be the answer for one or another mishap or moment of good luck would also be a dangerous Arthur. Better that he thought his manservant merely incompetent.
Sheppard peered at both Merlin and McKay in askance, but McKay just shook his head once and Sheppard smiled. Merlin felt his stomach drop when he remembered that Sheppard, too, knew that he was magical. All four of these strangers knew and expected it to be accepted.
Merlin's emotions oscillated between terror that they would reveal him, either purposefully or not, and he would be stuck through by Arthur on the spot, and joy that perhaps the future they predicted, a Camelot where Merlin and his kind are welcomed and treasured, could come to pass. It was making him vaguely nauseous.
Arthur looked to Merlin, too, and Merlin smiled again queasily. Arthur rolled his eyes.
Then Sheppard clapped Arthur on the shoulder.
"Well, you highness," the Colonel said, "It's not much, but dinner is served."
"Dinner?" Arthur asked, cutting a glance between Merlin and the fire. It was clear that it wasn't Merlin who had been doing the work.
"On us, tonight," Sheppard offered. "Come and get it."
McKay hastily packed up his computer and the stones he was studying. "MREs? Fantastic!" he crowed and dashed to the fireside.
Sheppard grimaced. "Don't let McKay's enthusiasm fool you. It's just barely food."
Arthur let forth a surprisingly genuine smile. "Travel rations rarely are."
Sheppard returned the grin, and Merlin felt his insides unwind. He secret, it seemed, was safe for now.
* * *
In the morning, they broke camp surprisingly efficiently. The alchemist McKay spent the greater part of it complaining about the ache in his back and the hardness and dampness of the ground, but his commander only gave him a soft, exasperated look, so Merlin supposed the complaints were habitual and empty. Even the woman Teyla seemed fond of McKay's crankiness.
It was a nice change to see a team that seemed to actually like one another.
Merlin tried very hard not to think of Arthur's total lack of respect for him. They were a fantastic team, too. Only, Arthur didn't even really know that they were one.
When they were ready to head out, Merlin offered up his horse to Teyla, choosing to walk with McKay, Ronon and Sheppard. Arthur rode, of course, and once more Merlin felt the small surge of annoyance at his Prince. A more honourable man would have walked as well, and offered to take everyone's gear upon the horse. Chivalry schmivalry.
He's learning, Merlin told himself. He'll get there.
This had the double good fortune of keeping Sheppard and McKay, the two who seemed the most familiar with the tales of 'Merlin the Sorcerer', out of Arthur's earshot. It also gave Merlin lots of time to contemplate what the alchemist had said the night before: that they were from far into the world that had not happened yet, the future.
Merlin wondered by how much, if it was even true. Squinting critically, Merlin deduced that McKay absolutely couldn't been who his name suggested - any son of Sir Kaye would have to be quite a bit less pointed of features and light of hair. If anything, McKay looked more like the folks of Ealdor, with his bright blue eyes and broad shoulders.
Sheppard reminded Merlin more of Morgana, though, with the same colouring as the Mercians or the Druids. And where Ronon and Teyla were from, Merlin couldn't even begin to guess. He'd once asked Gwen from where her family hailed, for her skin was so much darker than most, and her father's had been downright black.
She had told a story of her grandfather wandering for many years as a travelling smithy, until he had come to Camelot during Uther's war and served as the Royal weapons smith. He had stayed thereafter, for the love of one of the healer's daughters. Gwen had never known the name of the country of her forefathers, only that it was far south and there was little snow.
Merlin supposed that, with what little evidence he currently held, he had to believe the strangers and their wild tale, at least for now.
"I wish we had the 'jumper," McKay said as he hefted on his pack and they began the trudge back to Camelot.
"It wouldn't have fit in the lab," Sheppard countered and Merlin could see that this too was fond and habitual, this friendly jibing. "At least you're off the hook for Torren's party."
"Oh, fuck, that was tomorrow, wasn't it?" McKay snarled. "As if I have any time to throw together anything now. And if we are time dilated then it will still be tomorrow when we get back and I will be exhausted from all this walking. Jennifer is going to be pissed."
"Jennifer?" Merlin asked, because that was the only part of McKay's rambling oration that he actually understood.
"His girlfriend," Sheppard teased.
McKay cast his eyes downward and his cheeks got red.
"Um, actually... no," Rodney said softly.
"Right, 'partner'," Sheppard corrected, lifting his fingers to bracket around the word. Merlin wondered if this was some sort of spell, but then deduced by the look on McKay's face that it was instead more teasing.
Merlin liked the banter between these two. It reminded him a lot of himself and Arthur, when they were unobserved.
"Not... uh, well, might not be, by the time I get back," McKay said. "Actually, pretty sure not."
Sheppard stopped and grabbed his friend's arm and halted their progress. Merlin stopped a few paces away to be polite.
"She broke up with you?"
"Actually, I... sort of dumped her. Right before we came on the mission. I didn't... she wanted me to do the party and she didn't even ask me and she just assumed that I would."
"Of course you would, McKay, it's Torren!"
McKay squirmed under the concerned gaze of his friend. "Of course I would, yes, but I was angry that she would assume, that she was making decisions for me without even asking and trying to get me to do things that I wouldn't... I mean, she keeps making us go on double dates and volunteers me to repair people's broken gadgets, and just assumes that I know when she wants a night in or to go see some dumb festival and it's not that I don't it's just that she doesn't ask, and I just got so sick of it, and it feels like she's trying to control me, to force me to be something I'm not, something I don't want, and she said that..."
"That if I was any sort of decent man then these would be things I would do anyway."
Sheppard sucked in a breath and bit at his lips. Even Merlin winced.
McKay, eyes on his feet, added, in a small voice, "So I told her that she had better go find herself a decent sort of man."
"Shit, Rodney," Sheppard said, and patted his arm gently, with such tenderness that Merlin wondered if the commander even knew how fond the touch appeared to outside eyes.
The two men stood there miserably for a moment. Then they seemed to notice Merlin's gaze, how far ahead the riders had gotten, how Ronon was also standing and waiting by the wayside.
"Oh, for god's sake!" McKay snapped. "It's not like I'm the first person in the history of the world to shoot off his mouth and get his ass dumped!" Merlin allowed a smile to curl the side of his mouth as McKay went on: "Unless I am? What if I am! Oh my god, Sheppard, what if I've just rewritten history so that everyone's happily ever afters become divorces and heartbreak!"
"I wouldn't give yourself too much credit," Merlin called with a smile. "Even Camelot doesn't have happily ever afters."
Sheppard let forth the most startling round of braying laughter that even Arthur and Teyla looked back, surprised and delighted.
* * *
Rodney felt oddly lightened with the news of him and Jennifer finally out in the open. Dr. Keller. Whatever.
Really, if there was ever a more perfect segway or opening than Sheppard's question, he hadn't heard of it, but still, Rodney wasn't sure that this was something he really wanted to discuss without a six pack of beer and the pier. Or the race cars. Or, at least not on a mission. Well, not on a mission in front of the runty pre-hero version of a mythical character from Welsh fairy tales.
Still... it was sort of like a bandage, right? Pull it off right away, quickly, leave as little pain as possible behind, don't prolong it?
So there it was, all out in the open and everything. Oozing a little.
Okay, so Sheppard kept shooting him unreadable looks, and Ronon maybe was looking thoughtful, though now that he was sort of but not really with Amelia Banks, Rodney wasn't sure what was going to happen between him and Keller. Jennifer seemed to have liked Ronon well enough when she was with Rodney, but then Keller... well, half of the problem had been that Keller had liked everyone and Rodney had never been sure that it was him in particular that kept Keller with him, in his bed and by his side, or some sort of prestige thing or older man thing, or ... or what.
Rodney honestly couldn't understand what it was that Keller saw in him. Yeah, he was awesome, yeah he was smart and funny, but Rodney had no illusions that he was also sort of bitchy and high maintenance and sometimes really mouthy and wound up. He'd liked sex with Keller, cause c'mon, it was sex, but he couldn't help but feel like he sometimes disappointed her, like he wasn't flexible or creative or, well, young enough. But sometimes he just wanted middle age sex: comfortable, missionary, sweet, and with someone who loved him, not just loved being with him.
He'd liked being out with Keller too, liked the way she wound her arm around his, the way she stood beside him and looked gorgeous. But he found her events stuffy and boring and filled with self important hacks, and from the look on her face when they went to physics or maths conferences on Earth, she'd felt the same about his. But she had made everyone he knew look twice, especially when he introduced the beautiful blonde as a doctor, and his title and accomplishments had made her look good, too.
Besides the sex, the way they made each other look good in public, and the security blanket that was being with someone, what had they every really gained from being together? They didn't just hang out and watch movies, and play with gadgets - that's what Rodney did with Sheppard. Rodney didn't rush from his lab to share a new discovery with her; he'd tried and she was never that interested unless it was medical in nature. She just patted his shoulder and said, "That's neat, Rodney." He'd only tried to share that with her twice.
He didn't train in the gym with her - Keller had a gaggle of girls who did yoga and Pilates and aerobics and Rodney wasn't invited. Rodney did his training with Teyla and Ronon, learning to fall and fight, learning to take a hit and give one, learning to run and lift and jump. Keller trained to look slim and hot. Rodney trained to survive.
So what had Keller and Rodney ever had together? A few quiet enforced-Sundays where they sat together in a lounge and ignored each other to read? A few walks along the pier?
All his favourite memories involved Ronon and Teyla and Sheppard. All of his nightmares, too. His team was his family in a way that... well, Keller had never been. And never could be.
Rodney was never going to be that perfect husband who remembered to bring home flowers and take out the garbage, and Keller was never going to be that accommodating partner who let Rodney be absentminded or preoccupied or challenged him in his theories. Keller wanted a house and a garden and a fence on Earth. Rodney wanted to stay on Atlantis forever. Rodney was probably pretty sure that he was going to die on Atlantis, either of old age or of his own minion's stupidity.
Their kids would have been gorgeous and smart and loved by both of their parents, but would their parents have loved one another?
And there it was - Rodney wasn't going to do to any kid of his what his parents had done to him and Jeannie.
Keller wanted a Rodney who didn't exist, and Rodney was sick of trying.
Lost in his thoughts, mind swirling first around Keller, then back to the problem of finding some Ancient technology in this medieval wasteland to cannibalize to fix the 'Gate's dialling system, and then a ZPM with enough power to get them back to Atlantis, or to the SGC in a pinch, then around to the issues of time dilation and how Arthurian Legend was playing out before his eyes, then back to Keller, Rodney somehow missed it that they walked for nearly three hours straight.
Around mid morning, when they paused for a break, Rodney realized that he was feeling light headed and sort of hollowed out. He supposed he must have looked rather pale, because when he plopped himself onto yet another conveniently felled log, Ronon gave him his spare peanut butter powerbar. Sheppard offered up some vividly red berries and nuts that he had apparently been gathering in his tin cup as they walked.
"What if they're poisonous?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard licked his lips, bringing attention to the stain on his teeth and tongue. "I'm not dead yet," he said. "Go on, I think they're just really tiny raspberries."
Rodney ate a few cautiously, waiting for the gut clenching reaction to unhealthy fruit, or the tingle in his gums that signalled an allergy attack. When neither came, he finished the cupful and gave it back to Sheppard with a grateful glance.
Really, it was just so nice to have a friend who got it, who cared. Keller would have given him her powerbar, too, but it would have come with the nagging reminder that it was his duty to manage his hypoglaecima, that he should have packed more and monitored his blood sugar and his intake and exercise. Sheppard understood - he got that Rodney was so cerebrally focussed that sometimes, a lot of times, he felt so disconnected form his own body that he just plain forgot. He had been rail thin as a child, and malnourished at Area 51 where the new discoveries had totally trumped taking a proper lunch.
He'd met Carson the first time when he'd woken from a low blood sugar induced passing out. Carson had been working in the genetics lab next door when he'd heard the crash of Rodney's body falling into his tool cart. He'd rushed to see what the noise had been, had called the medics and stabilized Rodney, had stayed with him in the infirmary when it became clear that nobody else cared about Rodney's wellbeing, had become first his self appointed nanny, dragged Rodney away from the joy of science for food, and then slowly become his friend.
His best friend. The only real friend Rodney'd had before Sheppard.
Carson, and his team, they all understood that this was the source of his hypochondria, his laser focus awareness of injuries and medical conditions because, when they came to his attention, he knew he had to take care of them immediately, before some other intellectual puzzle took him away again.
But Keller had wanted him to fix himself, to change. It seemed to be her underlying motivation in everything they did - different eating habits, different hours, different mannerisms, different preferences in sex. It was like she'd wanted him to transform into an entirely different person and he...
Well, he didn't want to.
For all his faults, Rodney McKay was someone he was content being. And he seemed well liked enough by Sheppard and Carson, Teyla and Ronon, and even Cadman and Elizabeth, so really, what was the issue? Sheppard pestered him about his heath, his diet and his exercise, but that was because Sheppard wanted Rodney to take care of himself, knew that it was just an end to a means when it came to being able to work with and on Atlantis as much as he liked. Sheppard didn't mind the weird hours, or even the stuffy hacks at the boring physics events.
Otherwise, Sheppard was pretty much Rodney's ideal girlfriend. In fact, the only thing that Sheppard couldn't compare was the way Rodney had sex. An image, sudden and surprisingly graphic, jumped into Rodney's brain. Sheppard, naked, sprawled on top of the covers of Rodney's bed, grinning that goofy grin, golden skin sheened with sweat, and saying "Well, I don't know what Keller was having issues with, but I'm pretty darn content."
And wow. Rodney was more lonely than he thought, a little more torn up about Keller's scathing comments, if he was fantasizing sleeping with his best friend and commanding officer just to boost his own bruised ego.
Rodney felt his cheeks flush and he looked away, down at his own hands, empty and balled up on the tops of his thighs. Uh, right. Groping for some distraction, Rodney drank some water from his canteen and tried not to notice that even Merlin and Arthur were watching him carefully.
"McKay gets really sick if he doesn't eat often," Sheppard said, and Merlin and Arthur were kind enough to walk to the other side of the path and give Rodney some privacy as he recovered.
Ronon took Telya aside and told her about Keller, Rodney assumed, because Teyla came back and helped him to his feet, making sure he wasn't too shaky, and gave him a forehead hug. She clasped his shoulders tightly, but not painfully, and squeezed a few times right on the spot where he got the worst knots. Teyla had the uncanny ability to hug and massage at the same time and it was fantastic.
"I think you are a wonderful man," Teyla said softly. "And you will find someone who appreciates you for exactly who you are."
"Uh, thanks," Rondey said, and ducked his head. Sheppard was looking at him funny again.
Sometimes Rodney caught Sheppard looking at things (the wall, a balcony) or people (himself, Teyla and Kannan together) or nothing (the water out of a window) with expressions on his face that were strange and filled with... with something that Rodney couldn't articulate. Rarely did Sheppard's face betray anything but lazy comprehension, boyish delight, utter boredom, or rigid militaresque anger.
Those were the range of expressions that Rodney could interpret, but sometimes there was also something that was fleeting, something that looked like raw hunger, but was gone so fast, shuttered behind the Sheppard that Rodney knew, that Rodney sometimes wasn't even sure he'd seen it.
They started walking again, Rodney feeling a bit stronger, if not less footsore. Nobody really said anything, so Rodney filled the silence with an oration on exactly how incompetent the new hires from the SGC were and how annoying it was to receive apprentices (he used this word, because Merlin was apparently the apprentice of the local apothecary, a man named Gaius) who thought they were so clever because they could quote a text book but who had no idea how to rewire a blown panel. He didn't need more physics doctorates with fresh faces and hero worship for Oppenhiemer and Hawking. What he needed were electricians and carpenters and combat engineers, but would the SGC and IOA listen? Noooo.
When they stopped for lunch, there were a lot of shared glances and averted eyes and half dropped conversations and even the kid Merlin had looked at him sadly a lot, but Rodney was just fine, really.
He said it, "I'm just fine!" again, and nobody said a word. Not even Arthur, up there on his horse, doing his best to look all princely and totally unconcerned with the problems of the plebs. Maybe he really was.
Arthur dismounted and he and Merlin distributed among them the last of the hard dark bread they'd brought with them, unwrapping a pungent cheese to soften the texture. Ronon and Sheppard both had cups full of those little red berries, and while it wasn't much of a feast, it was enough to tide everyone over until they stopped for the night.
As Arthur strode around the small clearing in the glade, looking at animal tracks and taking in information from the skies and the sounds that only Ronon would have been able to spot, Rodney contemplated him. Rodney had never been all that fascinated with mythology, much less with Arthurian Legend, so he had no idea how to take the Prince. He was beautiful and arrogant and self assured and ...hm, really, rather Ancienty, when Rodney thought about it.
God, those Ancients were prats.
Thoughts of the Ancients led Rodney to start to dwell on this Merlin kid. He sure as hell didn't look like the most powerful conjurer or Ancient that the world had ever known. He was gawky and shy and self effacing. Was it possible that he was that same Myrrdin that had created the Sangraal deascended? And if he was, would he have his memory of the time before, or was he, like Daniel Jackson, entirely without that knowledge now that he wore flesh again?
Or was it just that Merlin was a common name in these parts?
If Merlin was Myrrdin de Wylt the Ancient, then why couldn't he have sent them back through the Stargate to the lab? Either he couldn't and didn't want to admit it, he could and was keeping them here for a reason, or he had no idea.
Rodney was inclined to think the latter, but then, they'd thought the Genii had been all rustic and primitive too, hadn't they?
A glance at Sheppard told Rodney that he was probably considering the same. Or if not exactly, then something similar enough. Even Sheppard's super-gene hadn't been enough to will the Stargate back to life on Avalon (Avalon! For reals!). So either they needed to convince Merlin to do it for them - thus making this whole trip to Camelot entirely pointless except for the time it would gain them with the boy - or they would have to find something in the libraries there.
Rodney was going to bet on the Camelot libraries, because Merlin did seem entirely too clueless to really be Myrrdin de Wylt. Unless he was a very, very good actor. However, if Arthur's rolled eyes and puffed sighs as Merlin helped him repack the saddle bags were any indication, Merlin really was the idiot that the Prince kept calling him.
Well, might as well try to start sweet talking the natives, Rodney thought. If nothing else, when everything inevitably turned pear shaped - no one had ever accused Rodney of being an optimist - then at least they might have one ally willing to bust them out of the stocks.
When they got back on their way, Rodney pulled out the powerbar Ronon had generously handed over and split open the wrapping. He tore off a piece with his fingers and popped it in his mouth, proving it was food, and then held out the remainder for Merlin. The kid could certainly use a bit of fattening up, if nothing else. Rodney was having a really hard time resolving this scarecrow with a mouth with the images of Myrrdin that Daniel had painted with his words, or the pictures and paintings Rodney had seen in galleries, the old men in the pointed purple hats in the movies.
Cautiously, Merlin pinched off a bit of the bar and popped it in his mouth. He chewed for a second, and then his face split open with a painfully honest smile. "That's good, yeah?" he said, and reached for more.
As he was chewing, Rodney ventured, as casually as he was able (which meant, he was fully aware, it was pretty damn tactless): "So what are you to Arthur, the Prince, I mean, exactly?"
"Oh," Merlin said, brightening, if it was possible, even more. "I'm Arthur's personal manservant."
"I'm sorry, his what?" Rodney asked, aghast. "Not his... his most trusted advisor or... or any of the other medieval epithets they used for best friend?"
Merlin ducked his head and flushed. "We're... getting there. I was awarded the post of serving Arthur after I saved his life. It's an honour."
Rodney couldn't close his lips around the snort that came. "Right, okay," Rodney said, under his breath. "Because I'm sure it's fantastic serving the son of the man who's made your very existence illegal."
Rodney expected Merlin to laugh, or get angry, or something. Instead the boy just shrugged and said, very seriously, "Arthur is not his father."
* * *
Merlin was grateful when they stopped for the day. They'd travelled nearly to the place where he and Arthur had stopped before. It was a few more hours walk yet, and the dusk had come on quickly. If anyone was going to eat tonight, then Ronon Dex was going to need at least a little light by which to hunt. It was a shame they didn't have more of those powerbars that McKay had shared with him that afternoon.
It was also a shame that magic was illegal, because otherwise Merlin could just conjure up a full ... no.
Merlin kicked a tree angrily.
Damn the travellers, anyway. Damn them for their reasonable conversation and their accepting ways, their friendliness and openness and lack of questions. Damn them for reminding Merlin what it is exactly that he lived with every day, or rather lived without. Damn them for making him wish for an honesty and transparentness that could never be, not with Uther Pendragon on the throne of Camelot. Damn them for reminding him how badly he wanted to give his all to his Prince.
Damn them for making him yearn.
To distract himself, Merlin set up the campfire, collecting stones and wood, watching Sheppard string up some sort of shiny slick material above them in a surprisingly waterproof canopy when the first misty drops of evening dew began to descend. Merlin wondered what other wonderful things would come out of the traveller's packs. He watched as Teyla offered to make something for the meal and her two present compatriots scramble to assure her that it was really, very unnecessary.
Merlin supposed that she must be a worse cook, even, then Morgana.
Arthur, meanwhile, dound a nice log to sit on, started the fire, and sat back, allowing everyone else around him to do all the work. Like he always did. Merlin watched the travellers eyeing him, cautious and respectful but clearly unimpressed that he was more than willing to let the lesser folk to do all the labour.
Merlin tried not to be ashamed.
When it was just the two of them, then Arthur more than split the work of setting up and breaking camp fairly, no one else to impress. Now that there were more, Arthur felt the need to prove himself the Prince, and the one in charge, by making people - even people who ought to be his guests, by rights - serve him.
Arthur would be a good King, one of these days. Eventually. Merlin kept telling himself that. Had to really believe it.
When Ronon returned with a deer slung over his shoulders and a grin the size of a sword on his face, Arthur stood and went over and aided in the cleaning and cutting of the carcass. Merlin sighed in relief; perhaps Arthur was feeling possessive of the creatures of Camelot's forests, but likely it was that he'd caught Merlin's glances and realized what they meant.
Prince or no, the travellers seemed hardworking and respectful; there was no point in being aloof here.
With two men working the cleaning, there were large cuts of venison in the pot with some root vegetables and dried herbs in no time at all. Merlin banked the fire and put on the pot to cook. It would be at least an hour before the meal was ready, and Merlin didn't need to watch it constantly so when the warriors went off to exercise out the kinks of a day's hard travel in a slightly cleared area on the crest of a small rise, Merlin went to watch. Arthur found his way over as well, after cleaning the blood from his hands. McKay once more turned his attention to his computer, and eventually Sheppard drifted over to where Arthur and Merlin sat watching Teyla and Ronon spar together.
"But they can't see each other in the dark," Merlin protested. At least, he could barely see them, though he thought maybe it was because they moved with such grace and speed.
"They're fast," Arthur commented, by way of greeting, as Sheppard plopped down on the ground beside them. The man must be in his forties, at least, Merlin thought, and yet didn't seem to be plagued at all with the common injuries and complaints of the old. He didn't even wear the weather of forty years of soldiering on his face. He must be in excellent shape, for someone so near to the end of his life. Merlin hadn't known anyone who'd ever lived longer than their early sixties.
Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck, the same uncomfortable gesture he'd made on Avalon, and Merlin wondered for a second if it was because of his proximity now to magic. To Merlin.
Sheppard gestured to his two warriors and smiled. "They're not weighed down by all that chainmail and armour."
"Then what protects them from the fall of the blade?" Arthur asked.
Sheppard's grin grew wider. "They don't get hit."
"Hmph," Arthur said and rose to his feet. "We shall see."
He strode off to join the other two and after a few seconds of conversation, Teyla Emmagen fell into a defensive stance opposite Arthur's. The Prince's eyes cut between his sword and her pair of sticks, but then she was attacking swiftly and he had no more time to worry about the gender or armaments of his opponent.
"Humble, isn't he?" Sheppard questioned.
Merlin took a moment to answer, because even startled by the strange flowing quality of Teyla's attacks, Arthur still wasn't caught too abysmally off guard. He swung wide with his sword, perhaps let one too many blows fall on his armour, expecting - falsely - for the steel to keep the impact from being too harsh. Teyla hit hard. Very soon Arthur was ducking and spinning more, using the sparring as an excuse to study Teyla's swirling style more closely, to adapt and adopt.
Merlin bet getting whacked with those sticks probably hurt a lot and were the incentive to try the new techniques.
It was, frankly, beautiful.
"He's the best knight in Camelot," Merlin replied when he was ready, keeping his tone light. "He deserves a little of the big head he has."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow at Merlin.
"I said 'a little'!"
Sheppard laughed and reached out to pat Merlin's shoulder. What surprised them both was the lance of bright blue light that leapt like a lightning bolt in miniature between their skin.
"Ouch, I think," Sheppard said, staring at his palm. It was a little red but otherwise unscathed. He looked up. "Are you okay?"
Merlin nodded, eyes wide and fearful as he turned to the combat. Neither participant had noticed the strange flash of light, but Ronon was staring thoughtfully. Merlin sighed in relief. "Arthur didn't see."
Sheppard's eyebrows screwed up into a squiggly black line. "See, now, this is what I don't get," he admitted. "How can all of our stories about King Arthur and Merlin exist if magic is outlawed? Especially if magic is, like McKay says, a really wonky version of the ATA gene."
"I don't know," Merlin said hastily, lowering his voice. "Uther will never lift the ban."
Sheppard sucked on his bottom lip thoughtfully. "Uther, no, but maybe Arthur?"
Merlin closed his eyes and forced himself not to hope. He wasn't sure how he would handle the disappointment if he was wrong.
* * *
When dinner had come and gone, the travellers clustered together on one log for a 'team meeting', they called it, leaving Arthur and Merlin on the other side of the fire and to their privacy. And definitely not a team.
For a few moments they spoke of the plans for the next day (walk more), and what to do with the travellers when they returned to the castle (hand them off to Geoffry and Giaus), and then Arthur fell silent, watching the people on the other side of the fire.
Merlin left him to his thoughts, lost in his own. If the Dragon was right and there really was a great destiny for Arthur and Merlin, if they were truly to unite Albion and be great storied heroes to all the generations that would come, surely Merlin wouldn't be expected to do it all with his magic completely hidden?
Something hot twisted in Merlin's gut and he frowned. The thought of hiding something so important, something so vitally a part of himself, from Arthur made Merlin sick to his stomach. He felt disloyal for lying, and yet he would be considered a traitor if he confessed. Either way, Merlin was damned.
"Merlin... are you my friend?"
Arthur's question in the firelight was so sudden and shocking that at first Merlin wasn't sure he'd heard it.
Merlin contemplated saying "Of course, Sire" or "Sure, Arthur, that's why I let you call me names," but a flippant response didn't seem to be what Arthur was seeking. Instead, Merlin asked, "What does that mean?"
Arthur looked away, and Merlin guessed that he was faintly embarrassed. His eyes flicked over to where Colonel Sheppard and his three companions were sitting closely together on a log, each peering over McKay's shoulder at his computer. They were reading a story about similar traveller's dilemmas among the stars, and discussing their options. Sheppard was a good leader; he listened to and weighed each of his subordinate's opinions but still maintained control of the conversation and made the final decisions. There was a circle of equality there.
But under all that, Merlin could see that same fondness he had this morning, the way Telya smiled at McKay's furious hand gestures, the purposefully too-hard slaps the giant Ronon laid on everyone's shoulders,Sheppard's palms against McKay's neck as he leaned over the alchemist to point at something on the computer. They touched frequently and affectionately. Merlin could see how Arthur, held aloof and alone, only son and heir to the throne of Camelot, might be jealous.
His only childhood playmate was his father's ward, a girl of sharp tongue and beauty. His male friends had all been his protectors, or his sworn nights, his inferiors. Uther was cold and distant, giving no warmth for Arthur to bask in. That left only Merlin, the only other man he knew of an age that he wouldn't one day have to send out into battle, perhaps to his death. Merlin was the only one who knew the intricacies of his schedules, the hoops through which he had to jump at court, the most private of his personal rituals, his everlasting battle between obedience to the throne and disgust at his father's laws.
Had Merlin not been Arthur's servant, he may, indeed have been Arthur's friend. But it was only that same servitude that even made them as intimate as they were. Without it, Merlin would be known to Arthur only as Giaus' dogsbody, if he was acknowledged at all. And without that same servitude, Arthur would probably be dead a hundred times over by now.
Thinking of the welcome of Avalon, the camaraderie of the travellers, the hope that their presence had kindled, Merlin took a chance and hazarded an answer. "Arthur, there is ... a secret. About my past. When you can accept it, then you will truly be my friend. Until then, Sire... you are my Prince."
"Then, we are not friends," Arthur said. His expression was hidden by the fringe of his hair.
"I didn't say that," Merlin pointed out. "I'm just saying that you have to be my Prince, first. But I'm loyal to you. I trust you. I'll honour you. You are never cruel and always do what you honestly believe is right. And I know everything a friend would know... who you fancy, what foods you prefer, and that sometimes you can be a giant clotpole."
Arthur snorted out a laugh and reached out to clip Merlin's ear. Normally Merlin would duck, but seeing how enviously Arthur watched as Sheppard often did the same to McKay, he held still and allowed it. It only stung a little. Truth be told, Merlin was a little skin starved, too.
"So what's the secret? You're secretly a big fat girl?" Arthur asked, the honesty of the emotional moment too much for him. To protect himself, he slipped the Prat Mask back on. Merlin wasn't surprised, and it didn't sting as much as he feared it would, because Merlin understood why it was important for Arthur to have it. "Loyalty? Trust? Shall we braid flowers into each other's hair next?"
Merlin smiled and looked away, letting Arthur tease his way back into comfort.
* * *
It was halfway through the morning of second day before Merlin got a weird tingling feeling in the back of his neck that was not simply the retreat of Avalon or his new intense awareness of Colonel Sheppard's sparking presence. The Colonel seemed to feel it too, because he began rubbing at his arms a bit frantically. Even McKay seemed discomfited.
They kept walking, however, shooting each other concerned glances, and trying to decipher if the feeling was limited to just them without expressing it in anything more than eyebrow waggles.
They were on foot today, Arthur included, and all their packs were strapped to the two horses. Good, it'd only taken a day for Arthur to grow some manners. Merlin was more proud of him already.
Teyla and Sheppard were taking turns trading off stories of the adventures of Teyla's son Torren, with his surrogate uncles. There were many tales of near spills and humorous misunderstandings and the utter panic with which Rodney had reacted when he realized that a two hour babysitting stint meant that he would probably have to change diapers at least twice.
"Luckily the kid's almost potty trained," Ronon rumbled with a know-it-all smirk.
Merlin responded with his own stories of life in Ealdor, of caring for the younger children in the village with the help of Will when the adults and the older children went into the fields to bring in the autumn harvests.
"They left you behind to care for children?" Arthur asked, incredulous, "You?"
"Why not me?" Merlin asked, playfully affronted and glad of the distraction. "I'm good with kids. They like me."
"That's because you have similar intelligence levels," Arthur quipped. He was thoughtful for a moment, and then, more seriously, asked "I've seen Ealdor, Merlin. There weren't so many able bodied adults that they could have afforded to keep both you and Will out of the fields."
Arthur said nothing of magic, nothing of Will being purposefully excluded because of his sorcery and Merlin being tasked with watching over him, but it was there in the question all the same.
"It was when I was young," Merlin said, shaking his head slowly in answer to Arthur's unvoiced question. "Will and I weren't yet tall enough to use the scythes safely. We went out the next year and little Mathias cared for the children."
"Little Mathias?" Arthur asked, eyes wide. "That giant of a man who near swept me off my horse when we were training with the staffs?"
Merlin shrugged, grinning. "He was quite small as a child."
"It is the same among my people," Teyla conceded. "When I was smaller I was often left in charge of the children when my father and the adult folk went into the fields."
"It wasn't because you're the leader's daughter?" Sheppard asked.
Teyla smiled; the question wasn't meant unkindly. "Even the leader of a people must sometimes work among those he presides over. When time is short, the harvest ready, and hands are few, every pair is important."
Merlin snorted. "I'd love to see King Uther in the fields with his subjects. He'd probably take off more feet than fell stalks."
Arthur choked on his own laugh, caught between the humour of the image and the impropriety of laughing at it. "Merlin," he scolded. "I could put you in the stocks for that."
"Of course, Sire," Merlin said, adding that special inflection that he reserved just for Arthur, the one that made the epithet sound slightly offensive, "I'm sorry, Sire."
Arthur rolled his eyes and asked, "So, your father is the lord of... of Athos, you said?"
"Was," Teyla corrected. "He was lost to us in a... raid," she said carefully, and Merlin wondered what truth that hesitation hid. He looked to McKay for a clue, as his face was the most transparent, but McKay was steadfastly looking at his feet. Huh.
"So your husband is Lord of Athos now?" Arthur asked.
Teyla smiled softly. "No. He is merely my husband and has no claim to my title. Among my people the leadership is passed on to those who prove themselves worthy, and not hereditably. Often the title does pass from parent to child, but that is simply because the child in question has grown up among leaders and therefore is already well trained for the position. I already had the people's trust, and proved myself a skilled enough negotiator and warrior that they chose to keep the leadership among the House of Emmagen."
Arthur scrunched up his nose and already Merlin could see where his issue lay. Merlin winced even as Arthur voiced it: "But you're a woman."
Teyla didn't look offended, and merely pointed out: "I am good leader, and for the Athosians, that is enough."
McKay made a scoffing sound and rolled his eyes again, and again Merlin marvelled that this world of theirs was a place where women were warriors, equal in the army and in life, and, obviously, in ruling as well. And where it was safe enough to criticize the leadership out loud, where it was all right to quarrel and verbally spar with a leader like Teyla in front of strangers such as himself and Arthur.
A world where even a leader, woman or not, still answered to a military commander when he was more competent.
"But," Arthur protested, and Merlin made a gesture that suggested that his Prince stop before he jammed his foot any further down his throat. Arthur, being Arthur, ignored it and ploughed ahead: "What sort of people allow themselves to be ruled by a woman?"
Sheppard snorted. "The kind that can get their asses handed to them by her."
Arthur's hand ghosted over the place on the back of his thigh where Teyla had landed more than a few sharp blows in the previous evening's sparring, and Merlin did his best to school his features into neutrality. Arthur probably wouldn't take it kindly if he caught his manservant grinning at his own embarrassment.
"The leader of Atlantis was a woman," Ronon added. "Twice. And my own mother was Matriarch of the Dex House."
"I didn't know that," McKay blurted. "Really, your mother?"
"She was a fierce woman," Ronon grinned. "She won rights to my father before she was even twenty two."
Sheppard seemed to digest this information and asked, "Did Melena win you?"
Ronon just grinned, and there was a hint of salaciousness to the smile.
"What sort of barbarous tribe do you come from?" Arthur asked, aghast. "Women in charge? Women winning the menfolk like battle prizes?"
"What happens when your Kings die?" Sheppard asked reasonably. "And the son is too young to rule?"
"The Queen Regent acts as ... ah," Arthur said, shamefaced. "I see."
"Don't you know any fierce women?" Ronon asked, "Or women who are great leaders of people?"
"Morgana," Merlin said, instantly, "and Gwen."
"Morgana, certainly," Arthur admitted. "If she had any ounce of battle and strategy training, she would... well, I would not want to put my army against hers."
"You lose to her in chess."
"Shut up, Merlin. But Gwen?"
"Don't be unfair, Arthur," Merlin scolded. "You saw them in Ealdor. Both of them. Morgana was brilliant with the sword, and Gwen is a more subtle strategist than you'll even know. You've never seen her direct people in feast preparation or in your father's household, but Arthur, she's a... a force. She is the head of Morgana's whole staff. If our laws permitted you two to--"
"But they don't."
Silence, awkward and heavy, descended. The travellers cut uncomfortable glances among themselves and for the first time, Arthur seemed to notice.
"But, ah, that does not mean that I cannot have the grace to acknowledge the regent of another nation," he said with a humble nod towards Teyla, and then turning to Ronon added, "and respect a culture that is not my own. My apologies to you both, I spoke out of... surprise. And ignorance."
Both parties accepted the apology, though Teyla more verbally than Ronon. Merlin felt that pride for his Prince swell in his chest. It was always wonderful when Arthur suddenly got it, what it meant to be a King and a Regent.
"And Gwen is a brilliant and subtle strategist," Arthur conceded with a nod towards Merlin, and Merlin was happily surprised and touched by the intended apology contained within the admission. "She's going to make some poor henpecked husband perfectly miserable with her ordering about one day." Arthur's eyes took on that soft faraway quality that they had begun to possess when he thought of Gwen.
Merlin tried not to notice, because if he did, he'd have to start pitying his Prince.
Arthur reminisced for a moment, his lips coming loose from their perpetual scowl, and then he snapped out of it and said, "But I refuse to believe that Morgana would be anything more than an unholy tyrant if given a crown."
Merlin laughed. "Don't let her hear you say that."
Behind them, McKay was murmuring to Sheppard: "Morgana? Gwen, a servant? As in, Guinevere? I thought she was Morgaeus, the sister... what does that make Mordred?" McKay asked, and Merlin could already see the look on his face that meant that he was going to start bringing up those damned stories again.
"I don't know," Sheppard hissed back, "But not here."
Merlin was grateful that at least Sheppard was keeping his mouth shut. Merlin was about to fall back to converse with them, in order to curtail this other conversation, but then stopped dead, because, suddenly, it was as if he had walked into a wall. But the wall was intangible and invisible, a wall made up of fine hot sparks that danced along his skin and itched at the underside and made him shiver and fill with a delicious sort of earthy heat. It was the feeling of very strong, very old magic.
"John?" Teyla asked, halting on the path when she noticed that the Colonel had stopped a few paces back, directly beside Merlin, and was frantically rubbing his scalp, making his ridiculously thick hair spring in even more directions.
Merlin felt the shiver across his own scalp, but he was better at disguising his reaction to the physical presence of magic.
"It's, crap, I dunno..." Sheppard said, scrubbing up and down his arms, now. "It's like... I feel all wiggy, all of a sudden. Rodney?"
McKay nodded, scrubbing now at the back of his own neck. "Yeah, me too."
Both of them pointedly did not look at Merlin, which he appreciated immensely.
Arthur ran one gloved hand across his own hair, but Merlin assumed it was vanity and not the same discomfort that the three sorcerers were feeling.
The alchemist turned back to where the horses were tailing happily behind them and unhooked his small white computer from the pack on the horse saddle and woke it to life. It flashed brightly, and gave a shrill, unnatural whistle. Merlin was so startled he took a step backwards and immediately regretted how cowardly it must have looked. He was only mollified when he realized that Arthur had been just as startled as him, if not more - Arthur's sword was already half out of its sheath.
"Whoa!" McKay said, reading the device intently. "There is a massive energy spike over thataway. I haven't seen anything else on the scanner that suggests that there would be any Ancient presence here--" and here he couldn't seem to help himself, and glanced up at Merlin, but hid it but also turning his eyes to Arthur to address the next part to him, "but a spike this big can only be a ZPM or a lab or a high output pedestal device like a shield or anti aircraft drone cannons, or--"
Ronon grunted, obviously already knowing where McKay was leading with an opening gambit like that. "Something worth checking out?" he interrupted.
McKay snorted and shot him a snippy look. Apparently, he didn't like being cut off. "Yes," he snapped snarkily. "Energy good. And for it to be strong enough that even my artificial gene-" and here he sniffed because apparently he hated to admit it, no matter how true it was "- is picking it up like this..." He turned to Arthur. "What's over that way?"
Arthur followed where McKay pointed, squinted as he thought for a moment, obviously recalling maps in his mind, and finally said "The hills near Craig y Dinas, the head of the Neath Valley, and Pont Nedd Fechan. Nothing but stone and country lords and cattle."
"And perhaps," McKay corrected, rapidly clicking his fingers together imperiously, "our way home!"
* * *
Rodney pointed the way through the brush, shoving irritably at the overgrowth and trying to forge a path through the gorse that sprang back in Arthur's wake. Sheppard, as always, waltzed along behind, unnatural in his grace even while he was forcing his skin to stop jumping with odd sensations. Where the call of Ancient technology often manifested as a strong magnetic attraction or a sort of lustful, addling kind of lure, this felt more like a hundred bugs crawling up his skin and wrapping around his brain, covering him over with a dusting of awareness rather than the normal pull of want.
It wasn't that Rodney needed to find whatever it was that was loosing its siren's song on him, but more that he suddenly became hyper aware of the world around him, the breath of the fresh and forest scented breeze, the warmth of the Earth below, the fine haze of moisture that the plants breathed onto his skin, the vibrations of each animal movement, the light of the sun. It was as if the whole world had opened like a late evening lily, perfuming his senses with everything that he usually ignored.
Christ, is this was magic was? Is this what it meant to be a full blooded Alterian?
No wonder Merlin refused to give it up, even while serving the most dangerous King he could have called his lord, even while living in Camelot.
The awe that Sheppard must be feeling, even as McKay felt it, didn't seem to have fallen upon Merlin; but then the boy was from here. He lived with it constantly, had lived with it his whole life. Perhaps the boy had never known the seductive touch of Ancient Technology, but he was probably the closest thing to a real Alterian that Rodney guessed still lived. He probably interacted with ATA compatible things on this level all the time without even realizing it. Ancient technology might be as imbedded into the cities and rituals of Camelot as they were in other Pegasus cultures, without the people living there ever knowing it.
Perhaps even the greater portion of Merlin's abilities came from simply psychically activating technology of which he was unaware; as for the rest, Rodney had read the reports of what people had watched Ancients do with their minds, had seen the energy weapons of Proculous, had become telekinetic and pyrokenetic and psychic himself as he'd gotten closer to ascension. If sorcery was just plain old Alterian extra-normal mental abilities, it would explain a lot about the Arthurian myths.
As they walked, Sheppard's confused and perhaps slightly wary silence extended to the rest of his team, affecting Teyla and Ronon's mood. To his credit, even Prince Arthur was clanking less than usual, walking stealthily directly ahead of Rodney with his sword drawn.
Rodney felt a little exposed with just the Prince and a length of sharpened metal between him and whatever might choose to jump out of the trees. It's not as if there was Wraith here (that he knew of), but there were always bandits and wolves and... oh, maybe Griffins and Unicorns and the like?
He shoved down a gruesome image of being skewered through the stomach by the flashing silver horn of a giant white horse.
"That way," he said, when they finally came to a clear patch of forest. There wasn't much about; the thick lay of rocks at the foot of the hills around them had forced a gap in the canopy, letting the warmth of the morning sunlight through in orangey shafts. What little greenery there was struggled to gain a foothold in the crevasses and windswept soil deposits between the boulders.
When they were standing in the midst of the glade, Rodney checked the LSD one more time before admitting, "I don't know where it is."
"What do you mean?" Sheppard asked, coming up behind him to check the readout. Rodney let him look, irritable. There was a touch, and then the warm hand that Sheppard laid on the back of his neck served its purpose and began to soothe his frayed nerves.
Sheppard smelled like sweat and three days in the same clothes, and that strange sort of spicy undertone that Rodney had always assumed was hair product or aftershave or too much Athosian tea. But none of them had shaved recently and whatever gel Sheppard might have used had probably been washed away by the mist. And Teyla was hoarding her tea. Sheppard's beard was starting to fill out, giving him a sort of roguish Sherriff of Nottingham look; not quite the six month growth he'd had when they'd rescued him from the first time dilation sanctuary, but still more scruffy than Sheppard liked, and women liked to kiss.
The thought of being trapped here in this bizarre alternate version of the United Kingdom for six months while Zelenka and Woosley tried to spring them made a shudder run through Rodney. Already his own normally patchy whiskers were starting to grow together enough to form a rough shadow of an evening beard. He couldn't imagine trying to shave with a... a straight razor. In what seemed to be the equivalent of ancient Wales.
Did Atlantis even know they were gone by now? Had they missed their check in, yet? Or had mere minutes passed on the other side? They could be stuck here in the land of no-hot-running-water for years and years before Atlantis even thought of wondering where they were. It could be decades before Atlantis bothered to start mounting a rescue party!
Rodney's insides twisted painfully. Jennifer. Jennifer wouldn't even wonder where he had gone. Jennifer wouldn't care. There was nobody, besides little Torren and Kannan, who would really notice if they were late coming back from this mission.
"Easy, buddy," Sheppard said, running the rough pad of his thumb over the nape of Rodney's neck again, and Rodney realized that he was starting to hyperventilate, sucking on the air.
The panic attack ratcheted up higher because, really, there was going to be no rescue and Rodney had no way to get the gate to dial itself without at least a ZPM or powered up DHD and he didn't know where to find either in this backwater Ren Faire rip off, and he was going to have to learn how to swing a sword and say 'milord' and he couldn't locate the source of the damned energy signature and they were lost in the Welsh wilderness. And Sheppard was touching him like that. Right here.
"Rodney?" Teyla said softly, coming up on his other side. She too reached out and ran her palm down his arm, soothing. "Are you well?"
"No, no, I'm fine," Rodney insisted. "I just... I can't figure out where the signal is. I would say it's below or above us, but..." He looked up. There was nothing but empty sky above them. Ronon swiped his hands through the air, in case there was some sort of cloaked outcropping or building, but he hit nothing.
Teyla began to pace away, eyes intently following the fault lines in the rock.
Rodney looked over to Arthur and Merlin. The Prince was waiting on the edge of the rocky shelf, one hand on his hip and the other still wrapped around the hilt of his sword. His face was closed and suspicious, but the lines of his shoulders radiated discomfort and pissiness. Maybe he was feeling the same hyperawareness as himself and Sheppard?
And if he was, would he be happy about it? Would he even know it for the magic that his kingdom so detested?
Rodney began to wonder how safe they were going to be with this Prince from here on out, how wise it would be to complete the journey to Camelot. Surely what they were doing now had to look like magic.
Merlin, on the other hand, had his eyes closed. He was standing just behind Arthur's left shoulder, deferent. He was swaying slightly from side to side, looking nothing so much like the lackwit that Arthur often accused him of being. Rodney was ready to dismiss it until he realized that Merlin kept swaying in the same direction each time. To the right and slightly foreward, contrary to the pull of gravity and the pendulum of physics.
Sharply, McKay turned and looked in that direction, and ... yes! There was an indentation in the base of the craggy cliff, a sort of oblong shape around which grew a nearly perfect oval of trees and scrub that couldn't be older than a few decades. At the head of the shape grew a great swatch of a stick-like bush.
"Merlin!" Rodney called, and the boy snapped out of his stupor, blushing fiercely and glancing fearfully at his Prince. But Arthur didn't seem to have noticed that Merlin's attention had most definitely been elsewhere. "C'mere, help me with this," Rodney said and snapped and pointed at the indentation.
The rest of Rodney's team converged too, and Ronon managed to artfully insert himself between Merlin and Arthur (Rodney loved how observant his team was, loved it), giving Rodney just enough time to hiss "Is it coming from here?"
Merlin swallowed heavily and nodded quickly. "Old magic," he said, and then Arthur had made his way around Ronon and was appraising the oval of rock critically, with the same sort of tactical reasoning that Rodney had often seen on Sheppard's face.
Sheppard himself was leaning with a false easiness against the cliff face, radiating an air of casual and lazy interest, but Rodney could see the sweat standing out on his upper lip, across his forehead, the way his knuckles balled white against his biceps. As the next most powerful ATA carrier in the group, and the second most experienced with the lure of the technology though probably the least practiced in covering it up, Sheppard had reason to be struggling with his desire to surge forward and rush in.
Merlin, on the other hand, just looked interested, his stance loose and his expression deceptively bland. He'd had more practice at hiding his reaction, obviously.
"What do you want Merlin to do?" Arthur asked, staring at the stone.
"I, uh," Rodney stumbled, trying to think of a way to cover up what he'd needed the sorcerer for. "Wanted to know what kind of... um, tree that was," Rodney finished lamely, pointing at the clump that grew at the head of the oval.
"Hazel," Arthur supplied. "Unless I am mistaken?"
"It's hazel," Merlin confirmed. "Gaius makes me strip the bark for... uh, nevermind," he said, catching Arthur's bored look.
"Is it important?" Arthur asked, eyes narrowing at Rodney, and Rodney felt the laser beam glare of the gaze right to the back of his head.
This was getting dangerous.
Ronon tensed, but Teyla remained as outwardly calm as ever. Rodney knew that meant pretty much nothing.
"No," Rodney said, "I just, uh, wondered if we'd kill the plant if we dig it up."
"Dig it up?" Sheppard asked, shifting uncomfortably.
Rodney waved the LSD in his face. "Obviously, whatever we're looking for is under that stone."
Arthur poked at the stone with his sword, but it seemed solid enough. "If it's a doorway, then it hasn't been lifted in generations," the Prince said, observing the growth of some of the smaller weeds and flowers as they climbed industriously up the side of the smooth rock. "And I expect that it would take several strong men to lift the stone away."
He jammed the tip of his sword in a crack at the base of the stone, and wiggled it from side to side, testing the solidity. When he tried to wrench it back, the sword had gotten stuck and refused to budge.
"Oh, you can't be serious!" Arthur snarled and doubled his grip on the hilt.
"Whosoever pulleth this sword from this stone is rightwise King of England," Sheppard whispered just loud enough for Rodney to hear.
It made Rodney's breath catch in his throat, caught halfway between a gasp of horror and chuckle. This was really, truly starting to get ridiculous.
"Uh, that's not Excalibur, is it?" Sheppard asked out loud as Arthur strained, mortified.
"What? No, this idiot here," and Arthur jerked his chin at Merlin, "lost it. In a lake."
"Naturally," Rodney heard himself saying.
With a grunt, Ronon wrapped his meaty hand around the pommel and together he and Arthur jerked his sword out of the crevasse. "Perfect," Arthur snarled, "the point is completely ruined. Merlin, you'll have to try to bang it back into shape and resharpen it tonight."
Merlin made a face, looked to the heavens, and said, "Of course, Sire."
He made the honourific sound like a cuss, and Rodney turned away to hide his smile. Manservant and Prince or Great Advisor and King, this was clearly the sort of dynamic that made great partnerships, the kind of buddy-buddy teasing relationship that always seemed to evolve into great passionate love affairs between men and women, (or maybe between men and men, if Rodney was correctly reading the sorts of looks that Merlin sometimes threw at Arthur when the Prince was at his best behaved) the kind of strange thing that he and Sheppard had and...
McKay's brain glanced off the realization and spun back towards the puzzle of the door.
No, no, not now. Now would be a very, very bad time to be thinking about... no.
"It appears that we can't lever it open," Arthur said. "Look for any hand holds in the rock," he ordered, and bent to follow his own directive.
Rodney looked to Sheppard, who shrugged and followed suit. Right then, they were taking their cues from the Prince, for now. Teyla and Ronon both bent to run their hands around the rim of the rock, and Merlin and Sheppard both hesitated for a second before meeting each other's eyes, and reaching out at the same time.
Had Rodney not been focussed on his LSD, and therefore looking sort of downwards and thus aware of Merlin's hands in his peripheral vision, he wouldn't have noticed that it was Merlin's palm that alighted on the stone first. To Arthur, though, it would have looked like they'd both touched it at the same time, so, when the rock that was solid to everyone else shimmered and sort of melted out of existence for Merlin, Sheppard straightened immediately and said "Oops."
Merlin stepped back with panicked horror etched across his face, and Arthur straightened and was about to turn and see, see everything, and he'd know and Merlin had said that Arthur would kill him if he knew, and Rodney could see Merlin's throat tightening, see the way that the boy looked like he was about to puke, and Merlin couldn't die, he was important, so Rodney snapped at Sheppard: "Way to go Colonel! Why do you always do that?"
Arthur's eyes stopped short of Merlin and turned to Sheppard, narrowed and cold as ice chips.
"That was magic," Arthur intoned darkly. "I know magic when I see it and that was it."
He raised the sword, and even its bent tip didn't make it look any less dangerous in his hands, with that expression behind it.
"It was science," Rodney insisted, but Arthur just shook his head.
"I refuse to be lied to by you lot for one moment longer. I was willing to overlook it on Avalon because you seemed to be genuinely lost, victims of a spell that you had no control over. But this, the white tablet that glows and makes noise and led you straight to a fairy circle crowned with hazel? The ability to melt rock with a touch? You are sorcerers!"
"Please, Arthur!" Merlin said, his face now filled with a different kind of fear, fear for Sheppard. "They're just travellers; they didn't know that sorcery is outlawed in Camelot. They mean no harm."
"And how can you be certain of that?" Arthur snapped without taking his eyes from Sheppard. Ronon rolled up onto the balls of his feet, ready for Sheppard's go ahead, and Rodney slid one had to cover the butt of his Baretta, unsnapped the safety hook that held the gun in place. Teyla's eyes narrowed and her hands loosened, ready to grab the makeshift bantos rods she had fashioned from deadfall, hand already going to where they were strapped across her back. "My father says that all magic is evil."
"And how is he certain of that?" Merlin snapped back.
The impertinence of the riposte was enough to make even Rodney blink. Arthur's face went puce with anger and he risked a glance away from his perceived opponent and at his manservant. "Merlin," he snarled dangerously.
Sheppard, assessing the situation and realizing how close this was all coming to a shit storm of probably epic proportions, took a step around the now open hole in the ground, and thrust his empty hands to his sides.
"Merlin's right," he said quickly. "Okay? He's right. We're sorcerers and we came to Camelot by accident. We can't get home until we find, uh, this thing we need for our, uh, city. But we didn't know that this land was Camelot when we came to it, and we certainly didn't know that sorcery was outlawed. Look, we're sorry, but we really aren't the bad guys, here. We just need to find our, uh, sacred jewel, uh, thing, and go, okay? And this tablet says that there might be one nearby. We have no designs on Camelot, or the King, or you, or anything. We just want to grab it and go."
Rodney could see Arthur's jaw working, the muscles under the skin hopping dangerously. But he could also see that the Prince was seriously considering what Sheppard had said.
"If they wanted to hurt us," Merlin said softly, "They probably would have already. Arthur," he pleaded softly. "Just let them take what they need and go."
Arthur's frown got deeper, but his eyes softened.
"We promise that once we've retrieved our sacred jewel," Teyla said in her best we are trustworthy and honest diplomat's voice, "we will return to our land with it and never return. You will never hear of us again."
"You'll go back to Atlantis?" Arthur clarified. "A place that doesn't exist outside of fairy stories?"
"Hey, we're sorcerers," Sheppard shrugged.
"You are," Arthur conceded and with one last glance around the circle, lifted himself out of his fighting stance, though he didn't lower his sword. "And thus far you have proved yourselves honourable. You have shared your meals with us, your full names, and the tales of your homes. You could have overpowered us as we slept and you did not. For now, I trust you."
Rodney breathed a deep sigh of relief, and straightened slightly. Behind Arthur, Merlin did the same.
"However," Arthur added. "I will not just leave you to your search with only your word that you intend Camelot no harm. Merlin and I will remain with you and aid you to find your sacred jewel." Air quotations might not have been invented yet, but Rodney could clearly hear them around 'sacred jewel' all the same. "And when your task is completed, we will accompany you to Camelot's boarders and see you safely gone from my father's land. Forever. Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Sheppard said. "You have my word, Prince Arthur, that we intend Camelot no harm."
Arthur sheathed his sword. "A man's word is an unbreakable vow."
Sheppard stretched out a hand. "My word."
Arthur took the Sheppard's hand cautiously, as if worried that it might melt like the cover stone if he touched the other man. When nothing happened, he firmed his grip and they shook on it.
Rodney released his gun.
Merlin touched Arthur's shoulder gently, not wanting to provoke him, but wanting to reassure all the same.
"Thank you," Merlin said softly. "Thank you for giving them a chance."
"Don't be daft, Merlin," Arthur said, clearly uncomfortable with the honest emotion that shone from his manservant's eyes. "I only did it because I want them gone as soon as possible, and without the complications that my father's knowledge of them would cause. It is still my duty to protect the safety of a royal guest, no matter what their station. The, ah, the last thing we need is a nation of sorcerers with the power to create portals into Camelot from behind our boarders to be angry with us for harming its citizens."
"Granted. All the same," Merlin said.
A bright flag of red flashed across Arthur's nose and, dear god, the Prince was blushing.
"Well, I know Will was your good friend," Arthur muttered, "and he... well, he helped. Ealdor."
Merlin ducked his head too, and yes, Rodney could see it clear as day now, the big fat stupid crush that Merlin had on his Prince. Dear god. It was like bad slash fanfiction.
Rodney firmly did not think about what that meant about his own perception of his relationship with Sheppard.
And what on earth would this mean for the whole Guinevere thing? Unless Guinevere really was this servant Gwen they'd be discussing earlier, and then maybe it was the myths that got it wrong and ... uh, it all made Rodney's head hurt. Everything was wrong here, nothing at all like the King Arthur stories he had grown up with and now that he was thinking about it, he wondered how their side of the time dilation field knew about these myths at all? Especially if they hadn't really happened, yet... unless somehow the Ancient whose lab they had stumbled onto had already seen to the end of this strange experiment, or this was a time loop, or the Ancient had de-ascended at an earlier time period and, and when they take Arthur's body to Avalon after he's slain by Mordred they're really taking him to Myrrdin's lab where the King could be ascended, which means that he feasibly could return at the hour of Albion's greatest need and ... god, time travel was just too damn complicated to contemplate right now, when there were already so many other factors to juggle.
A lot of the Arthurian stories were just tales that were modified and retold to suit the needs of the British, to give them origin tales, hope when they were conquered by the Saxons, hope against the Tudor rule, hope against the undertow of religion that was yanking at the national identity of the British in the Victorian age. But could the first tale have come from here? Certainly; and Rodney could even understand how it had been changed and rewritten over the intervening years into what he had read in books as a child.
The question was - how did it get from now and here to thousands of years ago on Earth when it hadn't even happened yet?
Unless they had also travelled back in time when they stepped through the portal in the laboratory, and now ... Rodney shook his head. He would deal with that bridge when he crossed it. Right now, he just had to hope that when they got back to the Laboratory of Myrrdin that it would be 2009, in the Pegasus galaxy. If it wasn't, well... Rodney could work with that.
"So, McKay," Arthur said, turning away from Merlin, breaking their moment. He blushed again, looked down, wiped the palms of his gloves on his sleeves and said, "What does this jewel look like?"
Rodney held his hands apart about half a foot. "Yea big, orange and amber and gold, cobbled all together like glass. It has a round base, it's cylindrical, jagged end. Sometimes it glows, warm to the touch. Hear of it?"
"Never. And we don't have anything like that in the Camelot treasury, that I'm personally aware of," Arthur admitted, and Merlin too, shook his head. "And you won't leave without it?"
"We can't leave without it. Or something similar that will help us open the portal back up," Rodney said.
Arthur considered this. "So it truly was an accident that landed you on Avalon?"
"Yes," Teyla said earnestly.
"Then I guess we better go down and check it out," Arthur said, waving at the entrance that the stone had revealed. There were stairs made of stone that led down into a darkness so complete that Rodney couldn't penetrate it.
Sheppard lifted his P90 and clicked on the small flashlight that was mounted on the sight. Teyla and Ronon followed suit, and Rodney separated the flashlight from his gun so as to leave one hand free for the LSD. He could see the way his beam shook in as it cut through the darkness, the last shivering remnants of the adrenaline that had flooded his system.
He took a deep breath and steadied his hand, and checked the LSD. "Definitely from down there," Rodney said.
"Amazing," Arthur said, staring at their flashlights. "You make light shine from a tube."
Rodney sighed. This was going to get tedious very fast. Merlin, on the other hand, had his eyes narrowed at the flashlights, thoughtful.
The tight beams of the flashlights did little to dispel the thick darkness of the staircase, and Rodney heard Arthur send Merlin to search for a thick piece of dry wood. The Prince then proceeded to rip a strip of fabric - probably worth more than what Merlin made in a year - from the bottom of his cloak. When Merlin returned, Arthur wrapped it around the end of the thick stick that the sorcerer produced and doused it in something from a flask from Merlin's satchel that smelled strongly of pitch.
Arthur turned and presented the smelly end to Sheppard. "Light it," he commanded.
Sheppard grinned and reached for the pocket on his tac vest that held his Zeppo.
"No," Arthur said. "With your magic."
Sheppard's eyes widened, a clear oh shit broadcasted to Rodney by glance, but then Merlin, standing behind the Prince and out of his range of vision, raised his hand and nodded for Sheppard to do the same. Sheppard raised his hand, mimicking Merlin's gesture towards the tip of the torch, and said "Abracadabra."
The ridiculous word covered Merlin's own hissed run of nonsense syllables, a word that Rodney had never heard before but sounded vaguely Ancient-y. More shocking, the boy's eyes glowed, momentarily, a bright predatory gold. Rodney bit down on his own tongue to keep from yelping in astonishment when the torch burst into flames.
Merlin quickly dropped his hand, his eyes once more that guileless blue. Sheppard smirked smugly, hiding his own shock as he lowered his free hand back to his P90.
Holy shit. Magic.
Even knowing what it was, it really and truly did look like real magic.
Because there were no Ancient devices, no technology, no hologram projectors, nothing around them that could have caused those flames to lick into existence except Merlin. Merlin who really had to be a true, full Alterian. Finally, an Ancient in the flesh.
Rodney was starting to think that he'd had quite enough of these sorts of universe realigning shocks today, thank you very much.
Without a word, Arthur pushed through the ranks of the others with his torch, and began to descend the staircase. Sheppard followed immediately behind, and Rodney, taking up his normal position behind the Colonel, realized what great trust Arthur's leading actually showed. Rodney thought that the Prince wanted to be first because he was bossy and wanted the glory, but now he saw that it wasn't that - well, maybe it was a bit - but because Arthur was showing this strange military commander from a world away that he trusted Sheppard enough not to stab him in the back.
Merlin stepped into the hole after Rodney, followed by Teyla and Ronon.
When they reached the bottom, the light of the torch and the piercing beams of the flashlights picked out the low ceiling covered in stalactites, a cavern wall carved from the side of the mountain rock, and a thick table that was perfectly smooth and perfectly round, made of the same gunmetal blue as Atlantis' walls. Ringing the room was a series of dormant consoles and quiet view screens, all hidden beneath those semi opaque, spiderweb-like dust covers they had found when they had first arrived in the city.
"Looks all clear. Lights, McKay?" Sheppard asked, and Rodney broke away from the group crowding around the bottom of the stairs to search for what he assumed would be the power console.
He found it predictably immediately to his left. Pulling off the dustcover, he ducked underneath to switch one of the control crystals out of the standby slot and into the 'on' position. The whole room flooded with a warm orangey glow that reminded him of the sun through the stained glass windows in the mess hall back home.
Arthur snubbed the torch in the dirt of the packed floor by the wall, then went over to the table, pulling off his leather glove and running his fingers along the smooth, rounded edge. "What metal is this?" he asked. "It's warm."
"We call it Atlantian Steel," Sheppard said. "It's an alloy of iron, naquadriah, and a few other base metals. Very strong, very hard to forge."
Arthur nodded, not really hearing the explanation as his eyes widened and skipped around the room. Merlin went over to the table as well, and settled himself into one of the carven chairs that looked so anachronistic next to the slick metal. He had a frown settled between his eyebrows, and he looked like he was thinking, hard.
Rodney wondered if he was now feeling that same seductive lure of Ancient technology that he and Sheppard knew so well, if it was Merlin's turn to be discomfited by strange sensations.
On the far side of the table stood a pedestal of the same material, and a great tarnished bell. It was about the size of a grown man's head, made of a goldish coloured metal that was so dirty that it was practically grey.
"Merlin?" Rodney asked, stooping over so Merlin could whisper.
"I... know this place," Merlin admitted. "I don't know why."
"There's a round table in the legends--" Rodney began, but was interrupted by Sheppard's shout:
"Don't touch that!"
Merlin jumped to his feet and he and Rodney turned to the sound, eyes both comically round.
"Honestly, I'm fine!" Arthur said, withdrawing his hand from where he had obviously lain it on the grimy surface of the bell. A nearly perfect handprint was visible in the dust, the golden metal below gleaming ominously. "I just wanted to touch it."
"Why?" Sheppard asked.
"I..." Arthur stopped and blinked. "I don't know. I just had to."
Rodney groaned. "Has anyone tested him for the ATA?"
"ATA?" Arthur asked. He took a step away from the dais and stopped, blinking harder.
Merlin took a few steps towards him, drawn like the opposite end of a magnet, and concern flashed through his eyes. "Arthur?"
"Ancient technology is practically seductive to people with the ATA, they can't keep their paws off it, even if they wanted to," Rodney said, but Merlin obviously wasn't listening.
"I don't have any sort of magical... uh... hey..." Arthur said, then stopped and swallowed hard. "Um, I don't feel so good." He was swaying on his feet, and all the colour suddenly drained from his face. "I feel... Merlin!" he shouted, groping out towards his manservant.
Then the Prince dropped backwards, so hard and so fast that the skinny sorcerer had just enough time to dash forward and get his hands under the Arthur's armpits as and keep his head from striking the bell.
* * *
It appeared as if Arthur was going to be down for a little while, so they laid him out on the surface of the round table with one of the emergency blankets from their packs tucked around him for warmth. With nothing to show for his sudden unconsciousness, no poison tipped blow darts sticking out of his neck or the scream Ancient technological systems, they had to just assume that whatever had happened to the Prince was mental in nature and would eventually pass. That he would wake.
While they were waiting, Merlin took a seat at the table, fussing over Arthur's comfort, while Rodney and Sheppard concentrated on trying to figure out what the bell was, and what it was for.
"I could touch it," Sheppard offered. "See if it does that to me, too."
"What a fantastic idea," Rodney said, puffing out a sigh. "And then when the whole place starts to self destruct or the angry natives arrive with their pitchforks, we'll have two unconscious, overly muscled men to haul out on their fine little asses. Go right ahead."
Sheppard shot him another one of those funny looks, the sort of confused and sort of hungry looks. Rodney wondered if maybe Sheppard should have had that other powerbar instead, if he was looking at things like that.
"Overly muscled? Fine little ass?"
"Shut up, Colonel," Rodney said. "You know what I meant." Knowing, of course, that Sheppard probably didn't know what he meant, because it wasn't until that very afternoon that Rodney sort of started to get what he himself meant. When he said things like that. And he said things like that a lot.
Because... yeah. Like that.
While the tablet ran its scan breakdown, he sat down on the steps leading up to the pillar that supported the bell, and turned his attention back to the rest of his team. Sheppard followed him down, stretching his long legs out in front of him and picking at the burrs that had snagged in his boot laces.
Rodney's eyes followed Ronon, because it was too discomfiting to keep looking out of the corner of his eye to see if Sheppard was still looking at him, or if he'd slipped that lazy-drawl-face back on (and the accent was a total mask, as the Colonel had grown up in Virginia). Rodney wasn't sure which he would prefer, because if it was the hungry face, Rodney wasn't sure how he was going to deal with it, how he was not going to have a nice little I'm-supposed-to-be-straight-and-in-fact-was-really-committed-to-enjoying-pussy-and-never-thought-there-would-be-a-time-when-dick-was-interesting-until-about-three-o-clock-this-afternoon freak out if he caught a) a man looking at him like that or b) his best friend looking at him like that or c) his commanding officer looking at him like that or d) John looking at him like that.
But if Sheppard was not looking at him like that, if that facade of non-caring came back, Rodney wasn't sure how he would feel about that, either, because it might mean that a) Sheppard isn't really interested, or b) maybe that he just thought Rodney was weird and that's what that face meant, or c) maybe that he really did seem to be thinking about Rodney that way and was stoically holding himself separate for the sake of his career, or d) maybe that he really was just hungry after all and Rodney was just totally reading this whole thing wrong.
There were just too many damn variables. His whole life had parachuted into something with too many damn variables.
Teyla had gone back up into the air to see if there were any indicators on the surface as to what had happened down here, or if there were other caves or entrances they had missed. Ronon was prowling the consoles, touching nothing but looking for any screens that may have lit up, or lights that might have come on that they had missed.
Merlin was still seated at what Rodney had mentally dubbed the head of the table, as it was furthest from the entrance. Of course, there was no actual head. It was a round table and all the chairs were the same. But that was sort of the point of Arthur's legendary dining set; all men were equal at the table and their opinions and hurts equally valid, even as the King's.
Rodney wracked his brain and tried to remember if Merlin had ever sat among the knights of Camelot in legend. He had no idea. Maybe this was it, this was the only time anyone would ever see Merlin seated there, with his back bowed with concern, shoulders tight, whispering encouragements into Arthur's unmoving ear.
Rodney didn't think that Merlin was aware of it, but his long fingers kept sweeping back and forth across the Prince's sweaty forehead. The movement was so tender and honest that Rodney had to look away. It was too open, too... much.
Especially after the sort of day Rodney'd been having.
With the scan still ongoing and the simple green progress bar singularly boring (maybe one day he'd write some code for his own - it would have a puddlejumper flying around the spires of Atlantis, maybe), he ended up looking back over at Sheppard, peeking out from the corner of his eyes. Rodney was slightly startled to see neither of the expressions that made his stomach flip floppy, but a naked jealousy with which the Colonel seemed to be regarding the two boys.
The second Sheppard saw Rodney's head jerk up, the look vanished. But now they were looking at each other, both expressions carefully blank, and for some strange reason Rodney couldn't stop staring at Sheppard's goddamn eyelashes.
Sheppard licked his lips, and for an absurd second, Rodney thought Sheppard was going to lean forward and kiss him. He caught himself tilting his chin up, offering up his face and froze, aghast.
Sheppard's eyes went wide, white showing all around his irises, showing those same eyelashes off to fantastic effect, and there was a second of incomprehension that was squashed swiftly by that little boy delight that Rodney was so familiar with. Oh my god, Sheppard was looking at him like a coveted Ancient gadget!
That was... surprisingly hot.
Before Sheppard could lean in and take Rodney up on his offered mouth, Rodney chickened out and turned aside, grabbing the tablet and punching at a few other icons to bring up some totally useless programs, just for something to do.
"Ah, uhm," Rodney said. "Still, um, nothing. But, but what do you think it might be?"
Jesus Christ, could he get any more juvenile? Stuttering? Blushing? Rodney cursed his family's Scottish heritage and pale skin roundly and stood so that John - fuck, Sheppard - couldn't see.
Sheppard stood too, jammed his hands into his pockets and scuffed the heel of one of his boots repetitively on the packed dirt floor, and shrugged. "Does Arthur have the ATA? It could be that. Or it could be because he doesn't have it." He didn't sound too disappointed, so Rodney felt it was safe to sneak another glance at his expression. It was carefully blank again, and Rodney felt his stomach shrivel.
Was Sheppard pissed off now? Hurt? Happy? He couldn't tell and Rodney cursed himself again, for his inability to read people, for giving into these strange spinning thoughts and thus turning Sheppard into the sort of person he would have to start to learn to read instead of just be around.
Wordlessly, Rodney handed Sheppard the LSD, and the Colonel turned and went over to the round table. Ronon had completed his scan of the room, shook his head in the negative at Rodney, and went over to Arthur, too. Merlin stood, wary, as Sheppard approached.
"Will you test him, too?" Merlin asked. "Why?"
"If he has the same, uh, heritage," Sheppard said, "then it might explain why he fainted. Sorry, passed out from manly succumbing to technology." He tossed a blinding grin over his shoulder and Rodney, and it was so fond that it stole Rodney's breath.
Merlin looked at Sheppard like he was crazy, and maybe he was, a little, because holy shit, Sheppard might just actually be in love with Rodney. That made Rodney's gut clench. He waited for his dick to voice its opinion of the realization, but it just hung there, asleep or still depressed about the loss of Jennifer, he wasn't sure.
His brain seemed to think that it might be interesting, if nothing else. His heart was too busy hurting to be paying attention, just yet, but Rodney was pretty sure if Sheppard kept staring at him like that, making jokes just for him like that, it might be sitting up and panting quite soon. And then maybe other body parts might follow. And then, maybe... well, orgasms were orgasms.
Rodney was a scientist, if nothing else. He could be persuaded to do a little experimenting.
Merlin nodded, stepping aside to let Sheppard get close. The Colonel touched the side of the LSD to Arthur's bare hand, and it sparked and flashed. Rodney felt something that was wound up in his middle loosen slightly.
The glow was not as strong as it had been for Merlin, or as it was for Sheppard, but it was at least comparable to Rodney with his artificial gene. The technology always seemed to know whose gene was the genuine one, was a little more reluctant with the artificial carriers.
As relieved as Rodney might be - it meant they were one step closer to having a working theory for what had made Arthur pass out, what the bell was, and therefore where the intense energy signature was originating - Merlin looked downright horrified, like was about to be sick.
"Arthur's a sorcerer?" he asked, and it sounded like he was choking on his own tongue. "But I... how?"
"Birth," Sheppard said. "Evolution, maybe. McKay told you about the Alterians, right?"
"The people that you think I am from?" Merlin asked, furrowing his brow.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. He thought for a moment - and Rodney was surprised to see that he could read exactly what it was that he was thinking about: do we tell him everything? - and then decided. "Yeah," he said again. "See, where we are now is about, uh, by our calendar, probably around the year seven hundred, give or take a few centuries."
"Counting from what?" Merlin asked.
"The birth of... someone really important," Sheppard said. "But see, we come from, uh..."
"The future," Merlin supplied. "McKay said that you are from the days that are yet to come."
"Far in the future," Rodney corrected. "About two thousand years or so."
Merlin swallowed heavily. "That is far."
"See," Rodney said, leaving his tablet on the floor by the bell and coming to join the small circle of people around Arthur, "I told you we came from the stars, but we - well, Sheppard and me, not Ronon or Teyla - we're from Earth, originally. My family is descended from the McKays of Scotland, actually, right here on, uh, Albion. Sheppard's family is from..."
"France," Sheppard offered. "Gaul?"
Merlin nodded. "And?"
"And, about ten thousand years ago our time, uh, seven thousand yours," Sheppard corrected, "There really were travellers from the stars. They came here to Earth to escape a great enemy in their own home, the place that Teyla and Ronon are from. When they got here, they tried to blend into the population, so they, uh, interbred with the humans. There are some people whose blood lines are, uh, a more direct line back to these Alterians, so they can use their technology. 'Cause see, they invented these machines that can only be used by them, to keep the enemy from using them. And this, these technologies and abilities that they have, it's what you'd call magic."
"What kind of people?" Merlin asked.
"People like me, like you, like Arthur."
Merlin turned thoughtful eyes to Rodney. "But not McKay?"
"Ah, no," Rodney said, shifting slightly. "They used... magic to, uh, give me magic. I needed it for my work."
Merlin shook his head. "But no, you're wrong. The Pendragon bloodline is pure - there has been no expression of magic all the way through the line, I know, I checked when I was trying to find a way around the outlaw."
"What about his mother?" Teyla suggested from the entrance. Obviously she'd heard most of their conversation on the way down the stairs.
Merlin shook his head again. "Queen Igraine was..." he stopped and his mouth dropped open, the blood draining from his face. "Wait a minute; Queen Igraine was a war prize. Uther loved her so much that he... and he wanted a son... Sheppard, Arthur was conceived by magic. Nimueh used magic because Igraine was barren. Would that be enough...?"
"It seems so," Teyla said, coming over and staring down at the prone Prince. "It is a strange irony, is it not? That a father should hate magic so much when the son is the product of it, that his son himself has the potential to be a sorcerer."
Merlin looked down at Arthur sadly. "That still doesn't explain me, though."
Rodney's interest was piqued. "Why not? Doesn't your family have a history?"
"My mother's brother was a sorcerer for the court in the old days," Merlin confessed. "He was supposed to be quite powerful, but he's since given up the practice."
"And your father?" Sheppard asked.
Merlin blinked. "But you... the stories don't say?"
"Say what?" Ronon asked, but Rodney had a sudden sinking feeling spread through his chest. He remembered the stories, now.
"I have no father," Merlin explained.
"No father?" Teyla asked, startled. "How is that possible?"
"I don't know," Merlin said with a shrug. "My mother never spoke of him when I was a child, and when I finally asked who he'd been, she said that she simply awoke pregnant one day. Many of the people of Ealdor thought I was... the product of a demon. You know, an incubus? But, uh, my mother never believed it. She taught me only to use my powers on behalf of people, for good reasons."
Rodney snapped his fingers, because, yes, of course! "You're Merlin!" he said.
Merlin frowned and nodded slowly. "Uh, yes. I think we've established that."
"No, no," Rodney said, slapping his palms down on the table, "I mean, you're Merlin. I was right! You're Myrridn de Wylt!"
"The Ancient that built the Sangraal?" Sheppard asked, catching on. "But... but why would he deascend? Why would he deascend and become some kid in a backwards medieval simulation in a time dilated environment in a laboratory experiment? No offence," Sheppard added.
"Oh, none taken," Merlin snorted.
"Think about it," Rodney said, "Myrrdin wanted to stop the Ori, stop the fighting among the Ascended and protect mankind. He invented the Sangraal to stop them, but what was he doing before hand? Learning to ascend. Teaching and guiding mankind, revealing his secrets. And to whom?"
"Arthur," Sheppard said, pointing to the sleeping Prince."But that was thousands of years ago."
"You think a little time dilation can't take care of that? They grow up, someone writes down the Arthurian legend cycles, it pops out of Myrrdin's lab and into rural Wales, and poof, there you are! Merlin takes Arthur to Avalon after his death, and where does Avalon lead to? An ancient lab that as we all know, still works. What if Myrrdin went back in time, to here, to plant clues, so that Daniel Jackson and SG1 could find the planet Camelot, what if he created all of that just for SG1? And what if there was another one, a different Camelot? When he was Moros, that other Elizabeth said he was the High Chancellor of Atlantis; we have to assume then that he probably had a lab in Pegasus, too. Maybe this whole place is patterned on the real Albion on Earth, maybe it's another experiment, maybe it's somewhere the Ancient bloodlines could be protected and cultivated. Back in that lab, there's probably stasis chambers, maybe even one of Janus' time travel devices. Moros confiscated all of Janus' work, and they do say Merlin lived his life backwards."
"But I still do not see why Myrridn de Wylt would choose to become flesh again," Teyla began.
She was interrupted by a bright flash of golden light and the cracking boom of thunder too close to the ground, hemmed in by an echo inducing ceiling. They all winced.
As the silence that followed stuffed their ears, they turned nearly in unison to look at Merlin.
The boy was furious.
He was glowing.
"No, stop!" Merlin shouted.
The air around them all plunged into freezing and Rodney gasped. The boy had his hands out in front of him, and his eyes were on fire, golden and wide.
"Stop talking about me as if I'm not here! I'm not some strange creature from beyond the stars! I am not a wise man who made weapons to defeat ancient enemies or guided the growth of culture! I did not create this world as a game! I am just me. I am just Merlin!"
"But the deascention process removes a lot of memories, I should know--" Rodney started, but swallowed the rest of his sentence when another booming roll of thunder rang through the close cavern. The sonic waves made the whole room shiver - even the bell resonated a deep note.
"I am not this Myrrdin," Merlin snarled. "Because I can tell you now, that if this world was mine to shape, I would not have created the kind of people that I have met, the unkind and the cruel and the selfish. This world has nothing to do with me."
"Then why," Sheppard asked softly, "don't you have a father?"
* * *
Something hot and terrible and wrong clawed at Merlin and he felt the room, all the shining tables with their strange flat surfaces and illegible writing and buttons and levers vibrating, reaching out to him, trying to get inside of his head and he hated it, feared it.
This was nothing like the beautiful, open magic that Merlin knew, nothing like the world unfolding to his will, nothing as clean and pure. This place was filled with wonton need, everything in it crying out to him, weeping for him, raging for him as Avalon had wept and reached and beckoned.
It was so much, too much, and Merlin couldn't ground himself in Arthur's touch any longer, couldn't stand the slow slide of these alien minds slithering up his spine, reaching into his head to wrap around and around his brain. He threw himself to his feet, clapped his hands to the side of his head and before he even knew it, had slammed up a mental shield, golden light and crackling blue and powerful.
But he couldn't block it out, the siren song of the room, couldn't make it stop. And they were talking, speculating, defining Merlin without his permission, without his want and it was all too much.
"Why would I do it?" Merlin cried, and it felt like the words were being ripped from the very centre of himself, the part of him that knew, deep down, that he was not like the people around him, that knew he was different from others because while they studied and practiced and meditated and learned magic, he was magic. He was magic born into human flesh, born into a world that was his for the shaping, his to guide, his to change and protect and his to... his. His to give to someone whom he deserved to rule it, who would be better than those who had ever come before, who would make its spires shine.
His to give... to Arthur.
The single, possessive thought was terrifying. Railing against it, he turned to the travellers, hoping their fast mouths and strange minds could explain in a way that did not make Merlin despise himself. "Why would anyone? Why would anyone shut up a whole civilization's worth of people in a closed jar, like this? For what purpose?"
"Protection," Ronon said.
The room went quiet, because, ... yes.
Oh, yes. The correctness of the thought blossomed like a flower of fire deep in Merlin's belly.
McKay made an unseemly sound and his mouth dropped open, gapping. "What?"
Ronon cleared his throat with a soft grunt and said, "Moros or Myrrdin or Merlin or whatever; he was High Chancellor of Atlantis, right? So, he had to expect that they would go back eventually, but if all of the Alterians were going native on Earth..." He shrugged. "There had to be some Ancestors left to run the city."
Atlantis, Merlin thought. And now that he knew it was real, suddenly the images that he had conjured when he'd first heard the tale of the fabled city on his uncle Gaius' knee when he was a child made perfect sense. He hadn't been inventing the city, its amber glass, its pointed spires, it's wide and reaching piers. He had been remembering it. He had known, just as he had known about the little boat moored on the docks of Avalon.
Colonel Sheppard looked unhappy, trying not to scratch his own skin off. Merlin supposed the raw manifestation of magic that he couldn't seem to pull back into his own body must be very uncomfortable for the man. Well, too bad; they had made Merlin as unhappy as he could possibly be. Merlin didn't feel sorry.
"So this is, what, a stud farm?" Sheppard asked, eyebrows drawn upwards in the middle of his forehead, looking pained.
And then something pinged again the side of Merlin's brain, something warm and inviting, something alien and mechanical and wrong came to life. A light flickered into existence, but it wasn't the same as the soft orange glow of a torch or candle; it was foreign and cool and blue.
McKay, drawn to the console like a puppet on a string, looked up at the rectangle of flickering blueish light, and seemed to be able to read the blocky, strange letters that appeared on the wall. His blue eyes widened.
"Yes," McKay breathed. "That's exactly what this is. Look." Merlin's rage, the arching sparks of blue lightning that he had thrown from his fists had left a small black scorch ring on one of the consoles, and it was at this McKay was pointing. Then he lifted his eyes to the screen, and his finger. "Read that. There's all the data. It was as if the room knew what Merlin was thinking and brought up all of the experimental... but of course it did. This had to have been Myrrdin's in-world laboratory. Dormant until now, dormant until he'd... come back."
Which meant that this Myrrdin had always meant to come back.
That he really could be Merlin.
Oh, no, no Merlin thought. I don't want to be him.
Merlin walked over to the rectangle of light, the glowing book, and the magic around him was so bright, his fury still so high that he felt as if he was floating more than walking. As he approached the text slowly changed from the blocky letters that Rodney somehow knew into something scrawling and rune-like, something Merlin could read for himself.
He stopped under the glowing book and let his eyes drift across the words.
"What does it say?" Teyla asked.
"He took them," Merlin whispered, golden eyes flashing along the text. "He took the children of his colleagues and he hid them here. Like an Elven King. Maybe he was the Elf King. And then he went away, he went away and came back."
"As you," Sheppard said softly.
"No!" Merlin said again. He slammed his hand down on the console and something else flashed to life, another screen shimmering into existence, a family tree. This too, Merlin read, and when he'd finished, he reeled away, clutching his head. "This man was abominable. Testing theories on people? Kidnapping children? Breeding people as one breeds livestock? I am not him. I do not want to be him! No!"
"What?" Sheppard asked, and when McKay approached, the text changed back into the first language. "Oh my god, I was right. It is a stud farm. Mryddin engineered ... he was making something."
"The perfect hybrid," Rodney said, reading faster than the Colonel, translating for Teyla - still standing by the table, holding the Prince's hand - and for Ronon who was hovering behind Merlin with his hand on the butt of his blocky, ineffectual weapon. In any other situation, Merlin would have been amused that this warrior thought him enough of a threat to take up his armament. He felt like he should be insulted, instead, that Ronon thought such an awkward club would be effective against magic, but instead he just felt slightly hysterical.
McKay wasn't finished. "Human, but endowed with all the best traits of the Ancients. He was trying to make someone like you, Sheppard. He arranged marriages, set up courts. I mean... but why?"
"Don't you remember the legends?" Teyla said. "You told me. They say that Arthur will return in the hour of Albion's greatest need. Perhaps Arthur's having the ATA gene was not entirely the fault of the sorceress Nimueh after all."
Return? Merlin thought. Return as I apparently have? When the world is at its most threatened? And whose prophecy is that? Mine? The Dragon's?... Morgana's?
"Albion, or Atlantis?" Sheppard asked, and there was a thoughtful cleverness in the man's tone. "It seemed like he was breeding the perfect successor for himself; Moros, High Chancellor of Atlantis, was cultivating his heir."
And that was when it happened.
"Arthur," Merlin said miserably.
"Yes, yes, exactly! It explains so much!" McKay was talking, confirming what he thought was a statement, that Merlin had guessed at where this was all going.
But it wasn't.
Teyla said, softly, "Do not sit up too fast, your majesty."
But it was Arthur, and when did Arthur ever do what he was told by anyone other than his father? Merlin flicked his eyes back to the glowing book and hated, hated that man, that Myrrdin, that other him all of a sudden. Because Arthur was beautiful, Arthur was human and alive and Arthur was not the product of a spell, or a curse, or heartless breeding, or magical intervention. Arthur was... Merlin's.
With a sinking feeling, Merlin tore his eyes away from the morbid account of Myrddin's experiments, and back to the round table.
Arthur was sitting up, leaning heavily on the back of one of the chairs, Teyla hovering uncertainly by his side. He was staring with a white face and glassy eyes and like the fool Arthur always accused him of being, Merlin was still glowing golden, the occasional bright blue spark of lightning dancing out of his fingertips.
"Merlin?" the Prince asked, his mouth a hard line, "Is what they read true? You're some sort of... Arch Sorcerer?"
Oh, and it was so much worse than Merlin feared, because not only could Arthur see it - the desperation and pain so great in Merlin that he couldn't seem to reel it back in, to hide it safely once more underneath his skin - but that Arthur had heard. And every evil prejudice that Uther Pendragon had ever whispered about magic into his son's ear, planted in his son's heart, suddenly germinated.
"No," Merlin said, softly and desperately, and his eyes were wet, his voice strangled, his fingers reaching, but shivering, curled, too scared to actually touch. Too scared that he would be batted away. "Arthur, no, I'm not this ... abductor. I'm not."
He took a step forward, but Arthur was on his feet so fast it was almost unnatural. He groped at his belt for the bent sword and brought it up to defend against Merlin. Against him.
And in that single gesture, Arthur cut out his heart. There was no wound, and yet, Merlin bled.
Oh Arthur, Merlin thought, and then said: "Oh, Arthur." He raised his hands, but to do what - prove they were empty, to embrace, to jinx - he didn't know.
"Just... just, no," Arthur said, and turned on his heel and fled up the stairs, into the soft dusk that had signalled the start of night.
Merlin stood silently for a moment and watched him go. The whole room fell silent, the consoles going dark, the golden glow fading, his head spinning with grief.
"Well," McKay said. "That went well."
* * *
Ronon Dex went out into the night after Arthur, not to fetch him back, but just to watch over him, make sure the Prince didn't go and do something... well, something.
And Merlin let him, sinking down onto the floor, banging the back of his head against the leg of the nearest console purposefully, repeatedly. His knees turned to mush, and suddenly he was shaking all over, and he didn't know why, couldn't stop it, couldn't think.
"That's it," Merlin whispered and the back of his eyes burned. "Arthur hates me. And he has every right to."
"Oh, for god's sake!" McKay snarled. "Grow a spine!"
"You are the most powerful sorcerer that history has ever produced! You are the reincarnation of Myrrdin de Wylt! You built Camelot. Twice, I might add! On two separate planets in two different galaxies! So tell that sonofabitch child to stuff it up his cassock."
"Um," Merlin pointed out, knowing it for the inanity it was the moment it left his lips. "A-Arthur doesn't actually wear a cassock,"
McKay threw up his hands and turned away.
"Merlin," Sheppard said softly, reaching out tentatively to pat his shoulder. The spark of light passed between them again, but this time neither of them flinched.
"It's me," Merlin said, squeezing out the words around the horrible burning lump in his throat, the feeling of sick swirling in his gut. "I... I don't know how I know, but I do. It's me."
"You can't know that for sure," McKay said, "You can't just take it for granted that all of our theories are right. We're just guessing."
"Well, your mere guesses have driven off Arthur!" Merlin snapped, but he was too shaken to put any of the fury he felt into the words. Because it was there, it was all there, on the magic screen filled with the confessions, the aims of a man who was long dead and yet reborn.
Sheppard squatted down and looked Merlin in the eye. "Myrridn de Wylt is the one Ancient that we've dealt with that seems to honestly have the best interests of the galaxy at heart. We might not like his methods--" He waved at the consoles and McKay scoffed and said:
"Do we ever like their methods?"
Sheppard ignored him and went on. "But in this case it was done with ... well, we have a saying where we're from. Sometimes the end justifies the means."
"How is abducting people, forcing people to ... into acts of fornication for the sake of a bloodline... justifiable? It's not just a bull covering a heifer. These are human beings."
"But that's just it," McKay said, with a broad gesture to encompass the room, and the work that was done in it. "To many Ancients, we humans were... no better. Than cattle, I mean. We were all an experiment, at one time or another, if you go back enough generations. They created human beings as a..." he trailed off and shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with admitting it. "They weren't the great and noble civilization that we like to pretend they were."
Teyla came over to Merlin and offered him her hand. He hesitated and she said, "I do not hold you responsible for the crimes of your past incarnations. You were reared human, with a human heart. Merlin, that is enough for me."
He let her pull him to his feet, and was startled when she laid her hands on his biceps and tilted her forehead up so that his touched hers. It was a warm and weird embrace, a symbol of trust, Merlin guessed, for it bared her throat completely.
"But is it enough for Arthur?" Merlin asked.
Sheppard straightened. "Don't see why not," he said.
"How can you know?" Merlin asked, and he felt his voice crack, break, embarrassing like he was a youth again, so crammed with emotions that Merlin couldn't even begin to parse that he felt like his chest might burst open. "What if you've ruined everything? What if he sends me away? What if he tells Uther and I'm killed?"
"You won't be," McKay said calmly.
Merlin wanted to scream. Their assurance was infuriating! "But how do you know?"
McKay shrugged. "Because we know how the stories end, Merlin. And not one of them is about how Arthur has your head chopped off."
And yes, of course, of course.
* * *
McKay and Sheppard wanted to investigate the writings of Myrrdin - and it was better for Merlin to think of this... this other self, as someone else entirely with a different name, or else he may go mad, honestly, go right off the edge of the world. So he and Teyla took to the night to try to find Ronon and Arthur and... well, Merlin's mind shied away from imagining what the reunion was going to be like, so he tried not to think about it.
As soon as he reached the night air, chill fingers creeped down his shirt to clutch at the sweat that his earlier exertion and rage had caused. Merlin could... well, could feel Arthur, for want of a better word. He knew where the Prince was, and, if he was honest with himself, he had always sort of known.
From the moment he had met Prince Arthur of Camelot, a spoiled brat boasting for his boorish friends, Merlin had known; this was the man he'd been waiting his whole life for. This was the man he was meant to write destiny with. The Dragon hadn't told Merlin anything he hadn't already felt for himself.
Merlin would always know where Arthur was.
Surefooted now that he had no reason to muffle his magic, Merlin led Teyla to the place where the trees began to thicken again, marching in a brushy line right up to the place where the broad shield of rock crawled up to the foot of the mountains. There, Arthur and Ronon were seated at the base of a large tree, perched on its ancient roots. They were both panting heavily, sweat dripping into their eyes. Arthur had a split lip and the beginnings of what promised to be a spectacular bruise on his left cheekbone. Ronon's cheek was torn in small flecks inside a red welt, and Merlin knew that it was the kind of injury that a chainmail clad elbow to the face caused.
They had been fighting. Merlin moved towards them, but Teyla snagged his warm gently and shook her head and pressed a finger to her lips. "Let us just listen," she said so quietly that Merlin nearly did not hear her. Together they moved into the shadows cast by a nearby tree and waited.
Eventually, after his blowing breaths had steadied, Ronon said, "About nine years ago, I lived on a world called Sateda."
Arthur huffed out an annoyed breath, but didn't silence the warrior.
"It was wonderful," Ronon said. "It wasn't perfect, no city, no world ever is, but it was one of the most advanced planets in the galaxy. That is, until the Wraith came."
"The Wraith?" Arthur asked. "Demons?"
"Yeah, kinda. They eat people."
Arthur shuddered, horror crawling across his face. Unbidden, the image of a blue-skinned monster flashed through Merlin's mind, the memory of arguments long lost, of pleading, of a losing war and a gruelling siege, and of a deep, deep sadness when he had to walk away from... his home.
"What happened?" Arthur asked.
Ronon shrugged. "We lost," he said, with such honest simplicity that Merlin wanted to weep. "Everyone loses to the Wraith. They always have."
"I was captured," Ronon corrected. "They made me a Runner. Used me for... sport."
Arthur lifted one glove clad hand, laid it carefully on Ronon's shoulder, an unspoken show of sympathy and support. "And then what?"
"I was a Runner for seven years, and then I heard of the people from Atlantis. They weren't the Ancestors, that much was clear. Everybody knew that. But somehow they could use the magic of the Ancestors. At first, the whole galaxy feared them; they were powerful and strange and seemed to posses the same sort of weapons and technology as the Wraith. We feared that we would soon swap one kind of tyrant for another."
"But they liberated us; they try. Unlike many of the people of my galaxy, the people of Earth, they fight back. They don't accept that they only exist to be food for the Wraith. And they have an advantage; they can use the weapons of the Ancestors, the knowledge of the Ancestors because, though they are human, they have the blood of the ancestors within them."
"You mean magic," Arthur spat.
"I didn't trust them at first, either."
There was a pause as Arthur digested this. "But is magic not evil?"
"Only the kind used by the Wraith. The Earthers use it to protect people. All people, not just their own. They have taken on such a burden..." Ronon trailed off and chewed on his lip. "They are noble. They are worth fighting alongside. I have no place, no home of my own. I have gladly taken up under their banner."
Arthur snorted. "More royalty? First Queen Teyla, now you, the Last King of Sateda. These sorcerers must be very noble indeed to command Kings and Queens."
"Yes," Teyla said, emerging from the shadows. Neither Ronon nor Arthur seemed surprised by her presence. "They are."
Arthur stood and brushed the dirt and grass from his tunic. "So the moral of the story is... that despite the terrible things that these Ancestors, the Ancients, the Alterians, whatever you call them, might have done... their children are worth trusting?"
"Merlin is not Myrrdin," Teyla said softly. "Just, I believe, as I heard him tell Colonel Sheppard that Arthur is not Uther."
Arthur looked away sharply, and Merlin was surprised to see shame on his face.
"He trusts you to be better than your father," Teyla prompted. "Can you not trust him to be better than his previous incarnation?"
Merlin felt his ears and cheeks burning.
"He's a sorcerer," Arthur protested petulantly, but there wasn't as much heat in his voice as before.
"He is your sorcerer," Teyla corrected.
For a long moment, Arthur just stared at his feet, arms folded across his chest, shoulders tight and unmoving. Then, slowly, his raised his face to the sky, gaze drinking in the light of the moon, golden hair and tanned skin and blue eyes gilded in silver.
"Yes," Arthur said, "I suppose he is."
* * *
Rodney regretted it instantly when Sheppard suggested that Teyla accompany Merlin. That meant that there were just the two of them in the cavern, alone with ... whatever it was that was between them.
Rodney turned immediately to the tablet, and crowed with delight to see that the scan of the bell was complete. It seemed like there was some sort of genetic encoding involved, and a strong resonance pattern that would affect brain wave length so that when the bell was struck and rang, it would force the person with the specific genetic key into a coma-like... huh, a sleeping spell? That was, Rodney had to admit, kind of clever.
Cheaper than anaesthetic and a good way to prove that the correct genetic match had come out in the offspring of a union.
Maybe it had been created so Myrrdin could bring people here, specific people with specific genetic markers and put them to sleep to, uh, no, he didn't feel like contemplating that just now. And didn't the stories say that Uther seduced Igraine in her sleep? Yuck.
Bent over the results flashing on the tablet screen, it took Rodney a moment to realize that somebody was standing right behind Rodney and was breathing on the back of his neck. He really, really hoped it was Sheppard because as much as he didn't want to deal with whatever it was that was between them just now, he really wanted it less to be some bandit or awakened experiment or, heaven forbid, a Gould or Wraith.
"Rodney," Sheppard said softly and Rodney released a woosh of air he didn't realize he had been holding. Just Sheppard. "Rodney," he said again, and there was something in the way he said it that made Rodney's stomach swoop and tighten. "Am I wrong? Did I get it wrong?"
"Get what wr--" Rodney began, turning to look Sheppard in the eye, but he was cut off when Sheppard crowded up and mashed his lips up against Rodney's. Their teeth clicked, and, okay, ow, but then Sheppard pulled back and bit and puckered his lips and opened his mouth and, yeah, that was his best friend's tongue in Rodney's mouth and it, huh, yeah, it felt kind of fucking fantastic, so Rodney let his free hand crawl up Sheppard's back and wind into his hair and he tilted his head and opened his mouth wider and god yeah.
"John," Rodney said when they broke apart for air, and before he could get another word out, Sheppard's tongue was back, insistent and slick and hot and everything that Jennifer Keller and Katie Brown and even April Bingham had not been. Rough and demanding and prickly and so god damned fond that Rodney thought he might be splitting apart, right down the middle.
"Christ, say my name again, Rodney," Sheppard panted, foreheads pressed against one another as they tried to catch their breath again, puffing into each other's mouths.
"John?" Rodney said, tentatively, and Sheppard - John - reeled him in by fistfuls in his tac vest, and at the same time he pushed Rodney back into the console behind him and bent him back and, swear to god there was no other word for it, plundered his mouth. Rodney rather liked the results of that one little word, so every time they took a breath, he said it again, over and over, testing different tones and degrees of breathiness like the good little empirical scientist that he was, and hello, now his dick was interested.
But Merlin was still distraught and Arthur was still out there and Teyla and Ronon would be coming back any second now, so Rodney pushed back, hands out to put some distance between him and John, and John, eager and desperate, overbalanced himself, flailed out with one bare hand, and hit the bell.
They both froze. John did not pitch over in a faint, even though Rodney had his arms out to catch him if need be. Neither did Rodney. They looked at each other, and for a moment there was silence as the peals of the bell died away. Then they grinned, and John was blushing, and then Rodney was blushing, and it was all so grade nine that Rodney had to laugh, and then John laughed, that horrific har-har-har donkey braying, and just when they were going to start kissing again, because it was wonderful, it was fantastic, there was a frantic shout from somewhere above their heads.
John jumped away from Rodney guiltily, and ran the back of his hand over his lips to try to erase any evidence - as if Ronon or Teyla would ever report John to the airforce! - and together they turned to the staircase.
Ronon was bounding into the room with Arthur, limp as a rag doll, in his arms. Arthur's pretty face was bruising, but so was Ronon's and Rodney wondered for a brief second if they'd been jumped by thieves. But then Teyla was directing Ronon to lay Arthur onto the table once more and Merlin was following frantically behind, and Teyla said "He just passed out again, for no reason."
Ah! Of course. Rodney snapped his fingers, and smirked smugly because of course, like always, he was several leaps of logic ahead of everyone else, already at the end of the answer before they'd begun to understand what the question should be.
"Ring the bell again, Jo-Sheppard," he said, stumbling over the familiarity of John's given name in public. It was ridiculous, of course. He called Teyla and Ronon by their given names, and everyone called him Rodney, except when they were annoyed with him, so why couldn't Rodney call him John in public? "John," he said purposefully. "The bell."
Brow furrowed with confusion, John nevertheless reached out and rapped one knuckle against the tarnished dome. A low peal resonated with surprisingly pleasant tone throughout the chamber, and slowly Arthur's eyes fluttered open and he sat up, clutching his head.
"The bell?" John asked, and Rodney explained to everyone what he thought it was for.
"Well that's bloody fantastic!" Arthur snarled. "And what good does that do me? All anyone ever has to do to overpower me on the field or kill me in my sleep is strike that goddamned bell!"
Merlin raised his hands, eyes flashing golden even as his fingertips danced with fire. Rodney cut a startled glance at Arthur, who looked uncomfortable with the bold display, but no longer murderous. Okay then.
"I'll destroy it," Merlin said. "No one will use it against you."
Rodney and John moved out of the way quickly, and Rodney had just enough time to squawk, "Don't hit anything else! I need the crystals and the power source!" before the entire bell was wreathed in fire that burned so brightly that the bell surely would melt within moments.
Only, it didn't.
The dust of decades burnt away, leaving the surface gleaming gold, but the metal itself didn't tarnish or warp; it didn't even get streaked with soot.
Merlin pressed forward, hands shaking and eyes glowing ever brighter, but the bell simply resisted all his efforts. When Merlin dropped his hands, exhausted and panting, Rodney touched its surface carefully so as not to set it ringing again and said, wonderingly, "It's still cool."
"I'm doomed," Arthur moaned, even as he helped Merlin into a chair, passed the sorcerer a flask from his own satchel and tipped it up against his lips when it was clear that Merlin didn't have the strength to lift his arms that high himself.
Obviously something had happened out there that had, if not repaired, at least shored up the friendship between Prince Arthur and his manservant. Rodney spared himself a second to wonder if Merlin would still be Arthur's manservant after this, or if when they returned to Camelot Arthur would insist upon a promotion for the talented sorcerer.
Or if they were going to have to hide this until Uther Pendragon passed from this world and left his son the crown, and the ability to change the laws.
"What good is that bell at all?" Merlin moaned.
"That may be useful," John ventured slowly, "if it puts Arthur into a kind of stasis. Arthur was too deep into it for it to be just regular sleep, or we would have been able to wake him up before. And if it is stasis, then it means he won't age - at least not at a normal rate - and he can't die of any injuries. You could keep him down here long enough for... " he trailed off and shrugged, but Merlin's attention was caught now, and the boy was sitting up, eyes glittering.
"Until Arthur is needed again in Albion's greatest hour of need?" the sorcerer asked, reciting prophecy that he had just self fulfilled.
"Yeah," John said. "That."
* * *
They spent the night in the cave, as Merlin felt too shaken to move, and too tired to even sit upon a horse. They made a fire near the door so the smoke could exit through the stairwell, and made a meal of what Teyla could gather and Ronon kill.
Arthur had inquired curiously if Merlin would be able to summon food for them, and Merlin wished, oh how he wished he could, how he wanted to really impress Arthur, do something good and wholesome for his second act of sorcery, prove that he was more than just a weapon of destruction, but he was just too wrung out. Emotionally, he felt like a wet rag twisted viciously by a castle laundress, and physically he felt like an overcooked carrot, limp and soggy.
They sat around the flames, trading more stories, this time with discussion about magic, and it thrilled Merlin to be able to speak openly with his Prince. The pride that shone in Arthur's eyes, which matched the pride Merlin had for Arthur, when he told the true story of Knight Valiant, made all the heartache and fear and anger of the day worthwhile.
Arthur was only mildly perturbed that Lancelot - and again, McKay and Sheppard exchanged one of their meaningful glances at his name; but Merlin really did not want to know - had learned that Merlin was a sorcerer before him. But Merlin had calmly pointed out that it was necessary and besides, Lancelot wasn't about to behead Merlin for it either.
"And in Ealdor? The twister?" Arthur asked softly, and sensing the importance of the question, for once McKay didn't interrupt to demand context. "That wasn't Will."
"That wasn't Will," Merlin agreed.
"You've saved my life more times than I think I can ever know," Arthur admitted with awe. "And always at the peril of your own. You let your friend die knowing I hated him unjustly."
"It's worth it," Merlin said with a little humble shrug.
"No, it's not," Arthur insisted. "And it's not fair. Merlin, you work as hard, if not harder, than any knight under my hand and you do it all in secret and at great risk to yourself. And yet you have nothing to show for it, no monetary reward, no land, no respect at court, and no acknowledgement from me. That will change, especially the last."
"No, really, Arthur," Merlin said. "I'm happy just serving you. Just serving Albion."
"And serve you will," Arthur said, "But not as you were. When we return to Camelot, I'm firing you."
"Oi!" Merlin said, summoning up enough energy to be indignant. "How is that a reward for all my hard work?"
Arthur couldn't manage to clamp down the mischievous grin. "You will become Gaius's apprentice full time, and my advisor, Merlin."
"Oh," Merlin said, because it was everything he'd ever wanted, really; for Gaius to pass on all his knowledge, magical and otherwise, to have the time to really study, and for Arthur to finally listen to him. "But your father?"
"Can hang himself," Arthur snapped. "This is my decision and not his. You were an abysmal manservant anyway. And now you can have your own to order around."
Merlin smiled, in a manner that he suspected was actually somewhat goofy, but didn't care. "Two sides of the same coin," he said softly.
"Beg pardon?" Arthur asked.
"It's what they'll call you," McKay offered. "Two sides of the same coin."
"Hm," Arthur said, frowning. He still wasn't entirely comfortable with the notion that these strangers were not only from a distant land, but from far into the future as well.
After a few more tales, Merlin fell asleep leaning against Arthur's shoulder, and woke sometime in the middle of the night laying wrapped on the Prince's cloak. Teyla and Ronon were also asleep, and Arthur was propped up on the bottom step with his head lolling against his chest, speaking in slow cadence with Colonel Sheppard, who sat a few steps further up, the both of them obviously on watch.
McKay was missing, and Merlin supposed he was still awake tinkering with the consoles, transferring all the information from Myrrdin's journals onto his computer via the magic of a thin black cord and something called 'downloading'. Either that, or it was his turn to stand watch out in the open air; or he was relieving himself.
Either way, the murmur of Sheppard and Arthur's conversation caught Merlin's attention and he turned over, knowing it was too dark in the light of the glowing coals for them to see whether his eyes were open or not, and feigned continued sleep.
"Your father must be proud," Arthur was saying softly, "To have a son who commands the loyalty of such great alchemists and warriors."
Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "My father doesn't know. Didn't."
Arthur brought his head up, and his eyes were wide with obvious surprise. "But all you've told me about your childhood - the great houses, the many horses, the wealth. Obviously you are the son of a great landed Lord, a knight in your own right, and therefore as the eldest-"
"I didn't inherit the estate," Sheppard corrected, and Merlin felt the same shock that he saw on Arthur's face. "I didn't want it. It's different where we are. I wasn't given to the service of my king. I ... I chose to serve. My brother is the eldest, and he chose not to."
"And he is not a knight?" Arthur asked, aghast. "How can he command the respect of his subjects if he cannot fight with them? For them?"
Sheppard shrugged again. "Like I said, it's different where we are. It's all about money, now. Who can make it, who can make a lot of it. My father wanted that for me, but I wanted something more. I wanted to give myself to my country, to my planet. I wanted to make a difference that didn't amount to hoarding gold." He looked up the stairs, eyes full of stars. "I wanted to fly."
"Then you are more noble than I thought," Arthur said, clapping his shoulder gently. "Lord Sheppard of Atlantis, Commander of the City."
Sheppard ducked his head and chuckled. Arthur rose, bid Sheppard a good night, and lay down on the far side of Merlin, content, it seemed, with the cold ground. As spoiled as Arthur was in the palace, Merlin never forgot that he was a knight himself, and therefore accustomed to all the rough living that patrols, sieges and forest raids required.
Just as Merlin was about to drop off again, McKay came down the stairs, tugging at his strange trousers. Ah, so he had been answering the call of nature.
"Wash your hands?" Sheppard asked as McKay plunked down on the step beside Sheppard, their arms touching from shoulder to wrist. There was a rustling sound and Merlin was surprised to see their fingers twine together, in a firm lover's embrace.
McKay seemed just as surprised as Merlin, though pleasantly so. Had the alchemist not just recently broken off his partnership with Jennifer? Perhaps they moved on to new lovers faster on their world - Sheppard had said that things were done differently. Or, perhaps, as Merlin guessed from the look on Sheppard's face, affectionate and relieved and unabashedly happy, this was a long time in coming.
"I used Purell, thank you," Rodney sniffed, which Merlin took for an affirmative. McKay looked down at their hands again, and the broad grin wavered, pulled down slightly in one corner.
"Hey, you okay buddy?" Sheppard asked, reaching up with his other hand to run it along the back of McKay's skull, tip his head down so they could look into each other's eyes. It was thrillingly intimate and Merlin quashed the sensation that he was a voyeur.
"Freaking out," McKay admitted. "Just a little. I mean, hello, gay now. And speaking of, since when have you been gay?"
Merlin supposed that 'gay' was slang for men who loved men, the Vice of the Romans. Merlin couldn't bring himself to be disgusted by it, not when these two men were so clearly in love.
"Since always," Sheppard admitted seriously.
"But, the air force, the rules."
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Jeeze, Rodney, it's not like I sucked cock in front of my superior officers. I can be discreet."
McKay's cheeks turned a mottled pink. "What about all the alien priestesses you've bagged? Chaya? Teer? Princess Mara? Were they all beards?"
Sheppard shrugged again and leaned in, nuzzling his nose against Rodney's temple. "Consider me less 'gay', and more of an equal opportunity lover. If people want me, I'm all for that. But I prefer..."
Sheppard whuffed out a chuckle that ruffled McKay's hair. "You," he said softly.
Rodney leaned back to study Sheppard's face. "Since when?"
"Since 'Think of where you are in the universe.' "
McKay smiled gently and leaned forward and kissed Sheppard. It was tender and brief, and McKay pulled back and said, "You should have said something, you asshole."
Leaving them to their privacy, Merlin rolled over in his borrowed cloak, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.
* * *
In the morning, they finished what little water they had, smothered the fire, and proceeded to search the chamber for a ZPM. Rodney was sure that there had to be one. How else could something so strong as the bell work over such great distances? Where else could that goddamned energy spike be originating?
Every time Rodney looked at John, he felt his lips start tingling, his stomach tighten up and his dick jump, and he was amazed because never in his whole like had the mere sight of someone bowled him over like this. Not Katie, not Jennifer, not even Sam bloody Carter.
And if he admitted it to himself, he might have been a little bit in love with John since he saw the hologram of the Sol solar system spring into existence over the then-Major's surprised face. Just a little bit. Well, with his hair and his brains, and his cool, and the you-really-want-me-on-your-team surge of distrust and joy that he remembered so well form dodgeball in elementary school, which then morphed into the friend thing, then the bestfriend thing, and then the love-in-a-manly-way-because-we're-buds way.
Strangely enough, this felt a completely natural next step to take, and Rodney gave himself a few seconds to wonder at that. If he had expecting all along to fall into whatever this was with John, then... had he always also known that Jennifer and Katie wouldn't work out? Had he somehow sort of subconsciously made them not work out?
Rodney shook his head and refocused on the problem at hand. All this psycho babble bullshit had never been his strong suit; he was turds at reading people, and his own self was a person, too.
He allowed himself a few brief seconds to mourn Kate Heightmeyer. Then he hauled the skinny wizard over to sit down beside him.
While everyone else poked around the room, pressing at panels in the walls and poking at consoles, Rodney had Merlin going through the files they'd downloaded last night, trying to get the young sorcerer to recall enough about his previous life to figure out where the power room might have been. Merlin was obviously reluctant, unhappy with the pursuits of Myrrdin, but was becoming more and more comfortable with the concept of a previous incarnation as the hours went by. His sentences started to contain the words "Yes, I remember..." and "I recall".
Eventually hunger for food, fresh air, and sun drove them all out into the daylight, and they passed a pleasant few hours teaching Arthur and Merlin the rules of American football, using one of the empty water flasks as the pigskin. Merlin, recovered enough to use his magic again, provided an absolute feast of, Rodney gathered, all of Arthur's favourites.
It was a little weird, eating food that had sprung into existence at the insistence of a telekinetic, just a random string of carefully manipulated atoms, but then, what was real food except a string of stitched together atoms? The mead was good, the sun warm, and the company pleasant. Arthur returned to gently flirting with Teyla and Rodney used the time to scroll through the more personal entries of Myrrdin de Wylt.
As little respect as Rodney had for a man who kidnapped other people's children, he could see the beauty and importance of the plan. Take in as many of the Halflings as possible, populate a world with them and hope that the bloodlines become strong enough that a new breed of Ancients emerges. But protect them, take them out of the world so no Ori or other Alterians could corrupt them or wipe them out. And thus, ensure that when Atlantis rose once more, there would be population enough to sustain her.
Only Myrrdin couldn't have forseen the Ori war coming to the Milky Way galaxy, or that human kind would eventually evolve to the point where the recessive ATA genes would come back into the predominant fore, or that Daniel Jackson would have cracked the secrets of the Stargate and led humanity out into the stars thousands of years earlier that they would have if they'd had to develop their own space faring technology.
So here they were, in this strange pocket of history where time moved at a snail's pace, where myth somehow was reality, and the stories were leaking through to their world two thousand years ago.
Where Myrrdin's heir was learning to accept Myrrdin's reincarnation for who and what he was, learning to be the kind of King that Atlantis, and Albion, deserved.
* * *
Lolling in the sunshine, Teyla napping against Ronon's shoulder and Arthur and Sheppard going over the finer points of touchdown celebration dances, McKay let forth a surprised yelp. Merlin left the blanket, where he was scooping up the last of the conjured strawberries, and meandered over to where McKay was kneeling, staring aghast at his computer.
"What is it?" Merlin asked, feeling happy and charitable.
"You!" McKay snarled, pointing a shaking finger at his face. "You!"
"I, I what?" Merlin asked, feeling dread slither up his spine.
Sheppard, exchanging a glance with Arthur, stepped forward and patted the top of McKay's head indulgently. "Yes, Rodney. We know. We've been over this. Twice."
"Fuck off, John," McKay said irritably, batting at the hand that was prodding him. "I mean, Myrrdin dialled the gate using his mind. I needed a ZPM for the gate, but we can't find the damn thing. We need dialling crystals, but the lab is all out. I can't dial the damn gate, but hecan!"
Sheppard blinked. "Huh," he said. "So he can."
Merlin rolled his eyes and buried his face in his hands. "I take it I have a lot to learn?" Merlin asked.
"Yes," McKay said, patting to the rock beside his own hip. "Park it."
* * *
It was late into the evening before Merlin felt he understood how the 'Gate system worked well enough to conjure a wormhole, so they returned to the cavern to sleep for the evening, with the intent on beginning their journey back towards Avalon in the morning.
While Sheppard and Ronon busied themselves with the matter of collecting food, Merlin took Arthur out to the hill face to begin to lay a powerful spell that would keep this portal hidden for the rest of days from those who did not know where it was.
"Well, how will you find it then, Merlin?" the Prince asked. "You can barely find my left boots."
"And I'll never have to find them again," Merlin pointed out cheerfully, but it was a valid question. "Ah!" he said, "Can I borrow your sword?"
Arthur looked reluctant, but passed over the blade. With a whispered word and a flash of gold, Merlin straightened and sharpened the tip. He turned next to the hazel bush that grew at the head of the entrance. Reaching down, he dug his fingers into the soil and, reaching deep into the calm, open magic that was his alone in this world, he placed upon the hazel the sacred duty of always guarding, and concealing this door way, save to those that carried a piece of it with them. To those special few, the bush was to clearly reveal the door.
Done that, Merlin then cut a sturdy branch from among the tangles of the bush, and stripping it of its leaves and branches, fashioned it into a walking staff of fine quality. As he had with Arthur's sword, he passed his hands along the length, polishing it to reflective perfection, finishing the upper knob with a tiny carven image of a dragon rampant with wings outfolded, painted in bloody red to match Arthur's cloak.
"A staff?" Arthur asked.
"Every good sorcerer needs a staff," Merlin insisted.
Arthur frowned. "But you don't need any wand. I've seen you."
"Ah, but our enemies don't know that. Let them think that my staff channels my magic, and see how they underestimate us."
Arthur grabbed Merlin around the neck and dug his knuckles into Merlin's scalp and rubbed.
"Ah! Ah!" Merlin cried, laughing, "I surrender!"
Face aglow with good humour, Arthur released him and grabbed the staff out of his hands. "Why a dragon?"
Merlin smiled at him merrily, and winked. "I'll tell you when we get back to Camelot."
* * *
After the remains of desert, which Merlin also created, faded into nothingness, Rodney returned to his reading of Myrrdin's journals. Teyla sat with him, reading over his shoulder to practice her Ancient. Rodney couldn't bring himself to get annoyed with her constant interruptions for clarification. He just felt so warm and fuzzy and today had actually been sort of relaxing and vacation like, even if they didn't have a new ZPM.
But then Teyla sort of froze up beside him, eyes glued to the screen and said, "Rodney... am I reading this correctly?"
Rodney looked at the sidebar she was perusing, following the tap of her fingernail on the screen. "Revisited the clan home of the Kayes," he read, "From whom the great Lord Ector - I took him forty seven years ago - had sprung. The son does well in Camelot and I returned to see if another child of the blood exists; none found, but the Lord Ector's niece I found refreshingly enticing. I admit to dallying therewith, and intend to return in nine months time to retrieve my child if it proves to strongly take after its father. Lord Ector will relish a new foster, I believe, as his own son Kay is now promised to Pendragon's court."
"So?" Rodney asked.
"Rodney - Kay? Does 'Mc' not mean 'son of'?"
Teyla pointed at another entry, dated approximately a year later, and Rodney read that out loud, too. "The child is weak in the blood. I have left him to his mother in the hopes that he will produce a stronger line of Alterian blood in future generations. I doubt it, however."
"So, someone out there is the descendant of Myrridn de Wylt, so what?" Rodney asked.
By now they had attracted the attention of everyone, and four more pairs of eyes were on him, making him nervous.
"McKay," Teyla said, giving him a look that scolded him for being purposefully obtuse.
"Wait, what? Me?"
"Oh, no, no!" Merlin cried, aghast, "Wait, does this mean he's my, my what?" Merlin asked, eyebrows furrowing... "he's my grandson?"
"Sort of," John conceded.
"Only not!" Rodney spluttered, "I'm the great great great, um, a lot of times great grandson of his first incarnation! I'm barely related to him at all!"
"That was his second, technically," John pointed out with a smirk.
"Shut up, Colonel."
"But-he's older than me," Merlin whined. "I remember, I remember the woman who... but it's still this strange sort of, of disconnect. Like a tapestry torn in half, and inexpertly stitched back together. The lines and the colours don't completely match up."
Arthur elbowed him in the ribs. "You sly dog, you. Any other children running about we should know of? Some Druids, maybe?"
Merlin flushed to the roots of his hair.
"What?" Arthur yelled. "Who? When? How many?"
"Well," Merlin said slowly, "There was this Druid boy named Mordred. I always did wonder how he knew my, um, my other name..."
* * *
It took another two days to return to Avalon, but the party lingered happily. Merlin enjoyed the chance to slowly acclimate Arthur to his abilities outside of the castle, and Arthur spent it mercilessly teasing McKay for his choice in ancestors, and Merlin his choice in obviously mouthy blonde women.
And then, suddenly, they had returned to the Isle of Mists. The fog tugged at everyone's hair and clothing, coating each face with the sparkle of a hundred jewels when the sun broke unexpectedly through the cloud cover.
Carefully tutored by McKay, Merlin had very little trouble opening the 'Gate to the address required. McKay spoke into his radio, a magical communications device that sat in his ear, and assured the people on the far side of the pool of rippling water that they were who they claimed to be, to let them come through to the SGC.
"Seven minutes," McKay told his team. "We've been missing from the planet for seven minutes." He shook his head and laughed.
Once they had the go ahead, Ronon bid goodbye to Arthur and Merlin with jarring slaps to the back and an admonishment to visit Atlantis once they'd lived up to 2009. Teyla performed a ritual departure embrace that involved touching foreheads, the same trusting gesture that she had used with Merlin in the cavern when he had been distraught. Merlin was touched, again, but sincerity of the contact.
Arthur gave McKay a good hearted punch in the arm, and a firm handshake. "Thank you," he said earnestly. "For opening my eyes. I have not only an ally that I would have wasted were it not for you and your people, Lord McKay of Ealdor" - it was a nickname that McKay didn't entirely enjoy - "but I have also gained a good friend."
He looked meaningfully at Merlin, letting Merlin know that he hadn't forgotten Merlin's promise around the fire all those nights ago.
Then Merlin concentrated, holding his hands palm up, and something shimmered into existence upon them. It was oblong, amber in colour and...
"Holy fuck, a ZPM!" McKay crowed.
"I remembered how to make them," Merlin admitted. "I wish I could write out the formula for you, but I don't know how."
"Practice," McKay ordered. "Send it through the 'Gate when you've got it. In the mean time..." He held out his hands, making grabby motions.
Merlin handed over the sacred jewel and laughed when McKay clutched it to his chest and did a little dance of joy.
"Thanks, Grandpa!" McKay crowed. Then he turned to the 'Gate and, without hesitation, followed Ronon and Teyla through the event horizon.
Merlin turned to the last remaining traveller.
"I couldn't choose a better regent for the throne of Atlantis," Arthur said, shaking John's hand. "Four rulers watching over my throne seems a bit excessive, but if it's you lot..." he pulled a face, and then smiled. "I think it's well taken care of."
"We'll be back," Merlin said. "At the hour of Albion's... Atlantis' greatest need."
"We'll keep the Control Chair warm for you. So, what are you going to do?" Sheppard asked, scratching the back of his head. He jerked his chin in Arthur's direction. "Teach that one how to ascend? Wait around for a few centuries and then drop in?"
"Yeah," Merlin answered with a grin. "Might do."
Sheppard rolled his eyes to the sky and puffed out a laugh. "Then god help us all," he said. "I almost feel sorry for the Wraith." And he turned to follow his compatriots into the puddle of the wormhole.
Epilogue: Arthur In His Cave
By W. Jenkyn Thomas 1907
(edited somewhat by )
Once upon a time a Welshman was walking on London Bridge, staring at the traffic, and wondering why there were so many kites hovering about. He had come to London after many adventures with thieves and highwaymen, which need not be related here, in charge of a herd of black Welsh cattle. He had sold them with much profit, and with jingling gold in his pocket he was going about to see the sights of the city.
He was carrying a hazel staff in his hand, for you must know that a good staff is as necessary to a drover as teeth are to his dog. He stood still to gaze at some wares in a shop (for at that time London Bridge was shops from beginning to end), when he noticed that a man was looking at his stick with a long fixed look. The man after a while came to him and asked him where he came from. "I come from my own country," said the Welshman, rather surlily, for he could not see what business the man had to ask him such a question.
"Do not take it amiss," said the stranger: "if you will only answer my questions and take my advice, it will be of greater benefit to you than you imagine. Do you remember where you cut that stick."
The Welshman was still suspicious and said. "What does it matter where I cut it?"
"It matters," said his questioner, "because there is treasure hidden near the spot where you cut that stick. If you remember the place and can conduct me to it, I will put you in possession of great riches. Times are hard and what gold was left there I need."
The Welshman now understood that he was dealing with a sorcerer, and he was greatly perplexed as to what to do. On the one hand, he was tempted by the prospect of wealth; on the other hand, he knew that the sorcerer must have derived his knowledge from devils, and he feared to have anything to do with the powers of darkness. The cunning man strove hard to persuade him, and at length made him promise to show the place where he had cut his hazel staff.
The Welshman and the magician journeyed together to Wales. They went to Craig y Dinas, the Rock of the Fortress, at the head of the Neath Valley, near Pont Nedd Fechan, and the Welshman, pointing to the stock or root of an old hazel, said, "This is where I cut my stick."
"Let us dig," said the sorcerer. They digged until they came to a broad, flat stone. Prising this up, they found some steps leading downwards. They went down the steps and along a narrow passage until they came to a door. "Are you brave," asked the sorcerer, "will you come in with me?"
"I will," said the Welshman, his curiosity getting the better of his fear.
They opened the door, and a great cave opened out before them. There was a faint red light in the cave, and they could see everything. The first thing they came to was a bell. "Do not touch that bell," said the sorcerer, "or it will be all over."
As they went further in, the Welshman saw that the place was not empty. There were soldiers lying down asleep, thousands of them, as far as ever the eye could see. Each one was clad in bright armour, the steel helmet of each was on his head, the shining shield of each was on his arm, the sword of each was near his hand, each had his spear stuck in the ground near him, and each and all were asleep. In the middle of the cave was a great round table at which sat warriors, whose noble features and richly-dight armour proclaimed that they were not in the roll of common men.
Each of those, too, had his head bent down in sleep. On a golden throne on the further side of the round table was a King of gigantic stature and august presence. In his hand, held below the hilt, was a mighty sword with scabbard and haft of gold studded with gleaming gems; on his head was a crown set with precious stones which flashed and glinted like so many points of fire. Sleep had set its seal on his eyelids also.
"Are they asleep?" asked the Welshman, hardly believing his own eyes.
"Yes, each and all of them," answered the sorcerer, "but if you touch yonder bell, they will all awake."
"How long have they been asleep?"
"For over a thousand years!"
"Who are they?"
"Arthur's warriors, waiting for the time to come when they shall destroy all the enemies of the Cymry and repossess the Island of Atla... Albion, establishing their own King once more at Caer Lleon."
"Who are those sitting at the round table?"
"Those are Arthur's Knights, Owain, the son of Urien; Cai, the son of Cynyr; Gwalchmai, the son of Gwyar; Peredur, the son of Efrawc; Geraint, the son of Erbin; Trystan, the son of March; Bedwyr, the son of Bedrawd; Cilhwch, the son of Celyddon; Edeyrn, the son of Nudd; Cynon, the son of Clydno " - " And on the golden throne?" broke in the Welshman - " is Arthur himself, with his sword Excalibur in his hand," replied the sorcerer.
Impatient by this time at the Welshman's questions, the sorcerer hastened to a great heap of yellow gold on the floor of the cave. He took up as much as he could carry, and bade his companion do the same. "It is time for us to go," he then said, and he led the way towards the door by which they had entered.
But the Welshman was fascinated by the sight of the countless soldiers in their glittering arms, all asleep. "How I should like to see them all awaking!" he said to himself. "I will touch the bell-I must see them all arising from their sleep."
When they came to the bell, he struck it until it rang through the whole place. As soon as it rang, lo! the thousands of warriors leapt to their feet and the ground beneath them shook with the sound of the steel arms. And a, great voice came from their midst, "Who rang the bell? Has the day come?"
The sorcerer shook like an aspen leaf. He shouted in answer," No, the day has not come. Sleep on."
The mighty host was all in motion, and the Welshman's eyes were dazzled as he looked at the bright steel arms which illumined the cave as with the light of myriad flames of fire.
"Arthur," said the voice again, "awake; the bell has rung, the day is breaking. Awake, Arthur the Great."
"No," shouted the sorcerer, "it is still night; sleep on, Arthur the Great."
A sound came from the throne. Arthur was standing, and the jewels in his crown shone like bright stars above the countless throng. His voice was strong and sweet like the sound of many waters, and he said, "My warriors, the day has not come when the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle shall go to war. It is only a seeker after gold who has rung the bell. Sleep on, my warriors, the morn of Wales has not yet dawned. Albion is not yet risen." And he winked at the sorcerer.
A peaceful sound like the distant sigh of the sea came over the cave, and in a trice the soldiers were all asleep again. The sorcerer hurried the Welshman out of the cave, moved the stone back to its place, took from him his hazel staff, and vanished.
Many a time did the Welshman try to find the way into the cave again, but though he dug over every inch of the hill, he never found the entrance.