{ embracing the storm } (mithrel) wrote in merlinxarthur,
{ embracing the storm }
mithrel
merlinxarthur

Fic: Variations on a Theme, PG by mithrel

Title: Variations on a Theme
Author: mithrel
Rating: PG
Summary: Reincarnation fic. Arthur and Merlin at uni.
Notes/Warnings: Spoilers for pretty much the whole series so far, especially ep 11. The amount of research I did for this fic was ridiculous. I dug out my copy of Hamlet to look up a scene. I looked up the British university system, specific universities and programs, possible plays for Merlin to put on, and collegiate fencing in England. Then I found out about historical fencing, so I put that in. Why can’t I just write a fic without obsessing about details?

Arthur looked up at a knock on the door. It was his second semester at uni and his roommate, who was third year, had been evicted to make room for incoming students, so he was expecting his new roommate to show up.

He opened the door to see a skinny man about his age, with black hair and a pair of very unfortunate ears.

“Are you Arthur Pendleton?”

“That’s me,” Arthur confirmed, stepping aside to let him in. “Are you my new roommate?”

“Yeah. I’m Merlin Emrys.”

Merlin?!” Arthur asked incredulously.

Merlin rolled his eyes, “Yes, I know.”

“Someone in the housing department must have a sick sense of humour,” Arthur muttered, and Merlin snickered.

There was something familiar about the sound, and about Merlin in general, but he couldn’t place it. “Do I…know you?”

Merlin gave him an enigmatic smile. “Not yet.”

“What’s your major?” Arthur asked, attempting to shake off the feeling of déjà vu.

“English.”

“Figures,” he muttered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin demanded.

“With that scarf, you were either English, art, or theatre.”

“I’m in the drama club,” Merlin said, his tone daring him to comment.

“Ah.”

“What about you?”

“History.”

“Really? What’s your focus?”

“Medieval history.”

“So do you know much about your namesake?”

Arthur snorted. “If you mean King Arthur, he may have been based on a real person, but the reality is nothing like the legends. And Merlin was almost certainly completely made-up.” He wasn’t sure what made him say that, except that there was something about Merlin that he found deeply disconcerting.

Merlin shrugged. “If you say so. Which room is mine?”

“On the hall down the right.”

“Thanks.”

***


Arthur and Merlin didn’t spend much time together. Their classes didn’t overlap, at least not this term, and they had different schedules, and Merlin’s acting and Arthur’s fencing meant they only saw each other on weekends.

Merlin had been surprised to learn that he fenced. “I always pegged you for a football player.”

Arthur shrugged uncomfortably. “I just enjoy it.”

“What got you into it?” Merlin asked.

“It’s stupid.”

“Tell me anyway,” Merlin coaxed.

“Well, in high school we were putting on a production of Hamlet…”

“Wait, ‘we’? I thought you hated theatre.”

“My girlfriend made me audition.”

“Ah.” Merlin’s eyes shuttered.

“So anyway, I got the part of Laertes.”

“Not Prince Hamlet? You must have been mortified.” The teasing seemed forced.

“Do you want to hear this story or not?” Arthur demanded.

“Sorry, yes, go on.”

“Well, you know the scene where Laertes and Hamlet duel?”

“‘Give us the foils. Come on.’ ‘Come, one for me.’ ‘I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night, stick fiery off indeed.’ ‘You mock me, sir.’ ‘No, by this hand.’–”

“Alright, alright, you’ve made your point, stop showing off!” Arthur snarled, and Merlin grinned and bowed to him.

“Well, anyway, we got taught how to fight…well, stage-fight. But as soon as I got the sword I…I knew how to use it, like I’d been doing it for years.”

“Had you ever picked up a sword before?” Merlin asked.

“No, never. And I started to get…flashes.”

“What sort of flashes?”

“Well…battles. With a broadsword, not a foil. I killed people, so many people.”

“But you didn’t. You said you’d never picked up a sword before,” Merlin reminded him.

“Yeah, I guess so. Still, after that I took up fencing. What about you? Why the drama club?”

“I need to learn to be a better actor, become different people.”

That was an odd answer, but Arthur let it go.

***


When the break came, Arthur stayed in the dorm. His father was annoyed that he had decided to major in History, and Arthur didn’t want to go home. He’d wanted him to go into business, and thought it was useless learning about the past. But Arthur had enjoyed history, about the only thing about school he found worthwhile, besides sports. The past seemed more real than the present, especially the Middle Ages. He could imagine all the different times they learned about, as if he’d lived in them.

He’d expected Merlin to go home, but he didn’t. “My mother is busy. I might go spend the day with her later in the week.”

This was the first time Merlin had mentioned his family. “What about your father?”

Merlin shrugged. “Buggered off while I was young. Don’t know what happened to him.”

“I’m sorry.”

Merlin shrugged again. “We managed. And I got state aid for school, so that’s alright.”

“My mother died when I was a baby,” Arthur told him.

“Guess we have something in common then,” Merlin said. “What about the rest of your family? Sisters, brothers, aunts…”

“I have a half-sister, Morgan. Don’t see much of my mum’s family, except for her brother."

“Grandparents?”

Arthur shook his head. “My grandfather died when I was ten. What about you?”

“Just me and mum. I call her fairly often, and try to come home at least once every break, but spending the whole week there would be too much. How come you didn’t go home?”

“Because my father is convinced I should have majored in Business.”

Merlin grimaced. “Why on Earth would you want to study something as boring as that?”

“So I can make money and live comfortably.”

“And soullessly. If you don’t do what you want in life, what’s the point in living?”

“Exactly!” Arthur exclaimed.

There was an uncomfortable moment where Arthur seemed to see Merlin as someone else–still Merlin, but different, as the Arthur who was looking at him was different. He shook it off. “So, anyway, I’d rather not go home.”

Merlin nodded.

***


Arthur and Merlin spent the break going to bars and wandering around the town. Arthur had never made friends so easily before, but it was as if he’d known Merlin forever. He made fun of him not being able to hold his liquor, and Merlin complained that just because Some People had money it didn’t make them better than everyone else.

On Thursday evening Merlin told him he was going to see his mother the next day and he’d probably be gone when Arthur woke up.

***


That night Arthur dreamed again.

He’d had the dreams more when he was younger; he thought they’d disappeared, since he hadn’t had one since he’d started university.

They weren’t nightmares, not exactly. He was in a cave, holding a torch, and there was a…thing threatening him, looking like a man made of dirt. He was hanging over a drop in the dark, with a sword in his hand, fighting a spider on the ledge, and then a light was shining. He was sinking into water, before someone pulled him out.

He never felt afraid in these dreams. There was always someone looking out for him.

But there was a new dream tonight, clearer than all the others had been. He was sitting at a table on a beach, with two goblets sitting in front of him. One of them was poisoned, he knew that. Merlin was sitting across from him.

He felt the shock of recognition, but Merlin was speaking.

“Let’s think about this. What if I drink from my goblet first?”

“If it’s poisoned you’ll die,” he said flatly, unable to bear the thought. Why didn’t you just stay at home? Why can you never do what I tell you?

“And if it’s not, then you’ll have to drink from yours and you’ll die. There must be a way around it,” Merlin said, leaning forward.

“It’s perfectly simple,” Arthur said, no expression in his voice at all. “One of us has to die.” And it’s not going to be you! “We have to find a way to determine which goblet has the poison. Then I’ll drink it.”

“I will be the one to drink it.”

“This is my doing. I’m drinking it.” I’m the one who shot the unicorn. You warned me not to, and I didn’t listen and now my people are starving.

“It’s more important that you live! You’re the future king, I’m just a servant.”

“This is no time to be a hero, Merlin. It really doesn’t suit you.”

Merlin scoffed. “What if I drink from mine first, and if it’s not poisoned, I will then drink yours.”

Arthur looked at the man standing near them, the one who’d orchestrated this. “He said each of us is only allowed to drink from a single goblet.”

Merlin folded his hands and sighed, thinking.

“I’d no idea you were so keen to die for me.”

“Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself,” Merlin muttered.

Arthur laughed, then looked down at the table. “I’m glad you’re here, Merlin.”

Their eyes locked for a moment, then Merlin spoke again. “I’ve got it. Right. We pour all the liquid into one goblet and then we can be sure it’s poisoned. Then all the liquid can be drunk, and it’ll be from a single goblet.” He looked smug.

“You never cease to surprise me. You’re a lot smarter than you look!”

Merlin looked at him sceptically. “Is that actually a compliment?” he asked, grinning.

Instead of answering, Arthur gestured out to sea. “Look out.”

Merlin looked, and Arthur quickly poured the goblets together.

“No! I will drink it!”

“As if I’d let you.”

“You can’t die, this isn’t your destiny!”

“It seems you’re wrong again.”

“Listen to me–”

“You know me, Merlin. I never listen to you.”

He toasted him and drank.

“Arthur! No!”

He put the goblet down and Merlin stared at him in shock. “What have you done?”

He felt the poison take hold, and he collapsed.

***


He woke up in a cold sweat, and for a moment he didn’t know where, or even who he was. Then he remembered. He was at uni, and Merlin was his roommate. They’d never even been to the coast. It was just a dream.

But it wasn’t, it wasn’t. The wine hadn’t been poisoned, it was just a sleeping draught. It had been a test, and he’d passed. He’d had to prove that he was a good man to break the curse, so his people wouldn’t starve.

But he hadn’t passed, not really. If it had been anyone but Merlin, he didn’t know if he could have done it. Merlin had nearly died for him once already, and he couldn’t bear to lose him.

Where were these thoughts coming from? Or were they memories?

He stumbled out into the dorm, thinking somehow that Merlin would know, then he remembered. Merlin was gone; he wouldn’t be back until tonight.

***


Arthur spent the day pacing and trying to make sense of the dream, both the earlier impressions and the test on the beach. He wondered if he was going mad.

When Merlin got back he immediately asked him if something was wrong.

“No, nothing’s wrong.” It was stupid to expect Merlin to know the meaning of his dream, even if he was in it.

“Something happened. Is it your father?”

“What? No! I just…I just had a dream last night, is all.”

Rather than laughing at him, Merlin asked, “What was it about?”

“The first part was all dreams I’ve had before, though not recently. I even tried looking in dream interpretation books to figure them out, but there was nothing.”

“What happened?”

Arthur shrugged. “Just flashes, mostly, you know how dreams are. I’m in a cave with a torch, fighting this…thing, looks like it’s made of mud.”

Merlin looked thoughtful, then shrugged. “Anything else?”

Arthur nodded. “I’m hanging off a cliff in a cave…”

“Your subconscious has a thing for caves, doesn’t it?”

Arthur laughed. “I guess so. But like I said, I’m hanging off a cliff, fighting a spider on the ledge with a sword, then there’s this…floating light that guides me out.”

“Huh.”

“And there’s another where I’m drowning, but someone saves me.”

“You said you had a dream you hadn’t had before?” Merlin asked.

“Yeah, it was weird. You were in it.”

“Was I? Exactly what type of dream was it?”

“I have no idea what you’re insinuating,” Arthur said, even though he did, and didn’t want to think about it. He’d broken up with Sarah when he was accepted to uni, but still…

Merlin grinned at him, evidently not fooled. “So what happened?”

“We were on a beach. There was a table with two cups on it, and one of them was poisoned. Both cups had to be drunk, but each of us could only drink from one.”

“Sounds like a cross between a logic problem and The Princess Bride.

Arthur snorted.

“So what happened?”

“You came up with the idea of pouring the two goblets together and one of us drinking it, and I tricked you into looking away so I could drink.”

“You were willing to die for me?” Merlin asked incredulously.

“It was my fault we were there…I don’t remember why.”

“Good thing I’m not a psych major, you’d never hear the end of this.”

“Oh, shut up.” He paused. “It didn’t feel like a dream, though. None of those types of dreams ever do. It’s like I was really there.”

Merlin shrugged.

“Why were you in the dream?”

“Don’t ask me, your mind came up with it. Maybe it was someone else in the dream, but when you woke up you put me in there because we’ve been spending time together lately.”

“Maybe,” Arthur said doubtfully.

***


Two weeks into the new term Arthur had a fencing competition.

“Can I come?” Merlin asked.

“You’d be bored.”

“No I wouldn’t. I’d like to come.”

Arthur looked at him in surprise. “Sure, I just thought you wouldn’t be interested.”

“I like watching you fight,” Merlin murmured.

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

Arthur added that to the list of odd things Merlin had said and done.

***


Arthur ended up getting first place in the competition. He’d gravitated to historical fencing, specifically the early period, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although that still didn’t seem quite right, and he’d had to adapt when he first learned…and how he could adapt his existing technique for something he’d never done before he had no clue.

“That was interesting,” Merlin said.

“Really?”

“Well yeah. When you said ‘fencing’ I expected you to be fighting with a foil.”

Arthur wiped his sweaty fringe out of his eyes. “That’s modern fencing. I do historical.”

“And you know how to use all those weapons?”

“All what weapons?” Arthur asked, amused.

Merlin floundered. “Well, you had a dagger and a bastard sword and…I don’t know.”

“Single-handed sword, longsword, sidesword, rapier, and smallsword,” Arthur rattled off. “Also dagger, buckler and shield.”

“And a cloak?”

“It can also be used as a shield,” Arthur said, feeling somewhat defensive, although Merlin was an actor and he shouldn’t care.

“It suits you,” Merlin murmured.

“You think so?” Arthur said lightly, trying not to show how pleased he was.

“Yes. Good job, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

Merlin seemed to think for a moment, then asked, “We’re putting on a play next month, do you want to come?”

“I don’t do theatre.”

“You’ll like this one, I promise,” Merlin pleaded.

“All right, all right, I’ll go, just stop with the puppy eyes!”

Merlin grinned and bowed. “Your wish is my command.”

Arthur thumped him.

***


Merlin was right about the play. It was a dramatic adaptation of the first book of Le Morte D’Arthur, with Merlin playing Merlin, naturally, in a false beard and pointy hat, much to Arthur’s amusement, and he was having trouble merely watching it.

That’s not right. Arthur wasn’t fostered. And he didn’t pull Excalibur from a stone. Who’s Morgause? And Mordred wasn’t my son, he was a druid…

He stopped at that last thought. “My” son. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m not King Arthur!

“So did you like it?” Merlin asked him later, when they were back in the dorm.

Arthur shook his head. “It was wrong.”

“Howso?”

“Arthur wasn’t fostered, he grew up with Uther. Excalibur wasn’t in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake gave it to Arthur. And I don’t think Morgause existed. As for Mordred being his son…” He shook his head, glad he’d kept the pronouns straight.

“You seem very sure,” Merlin said.

“I am! It didn’t happen that way!”

“How do you know? It’s a legend.”

“No! I was there! It didn’t happen that way!” He stopped in horror at what he had said. But it was true. The dreams…they were memories. He knew how to fence because he’d used a sword, but the reason he didn’t know the exact techniques was because they’d shifted in a thousand years. And Merlin fit into it somewhere…

He groaned and put his face in his hands. “I’m going mad.”

“You’re not going mad, Arthur,” Merlin’s voice was soft, sympathetic. “The memories are starting to come through.”

What? “But I’m not King Arthur! I can’t be!”

“You are.” And Merlin reached out and touched his temple.

There was a buzzing in his head, and he remembered everything. The ban on magic, Merlin becoming his manservant, the unicorn, the Questing Beast, establishing the Round Table, uniting Britain…and more. He’d lived many lives, over and over throughout the centuries, waiting until he was needed. And Merlin…Merlin was always there.

“It’s you,” he breathed as Merlin took his hand away.

“Yes, it’s me,” Merlin said, smiling softly.

“You help me remember, every time.”

Merlin nodded.

“But why didn’t you tell me when we first met…I mean, first met this time?”

Merlin shook his head. “Would you have believed me?”

Arthur thought back. “I guess not.”

“You were still only getting subconscious impressions of your first life,” Merlin continued. “Until the memories started coming through more strongly I couldn’t use magic to unlock them or I’d hurt you.”

“We were lovers.” There was no doubt in his voice or his mind. That had been a constant, over all his lives.

“Yes,” Merlin said quietly, sadly.

“You waited, every time, when I didn’t remember you.” He recalled Merlin’s expression when he mentioned Sarah.

Merlin nodded.

Arthur reached out to him, and Merlin came willingly. He kissed him, and it felt like destiny, like coming home, like something he hadn’t known he’d missed until he found it again.
Tags: contributor: mithrel, fanfic, genre: au, rating: pg
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