with reason to smile (snarkydame) wrote in merlin_flashfic,
with reason to smile
snarkydame
merlin_flashfic

Fate, and the Oak Tree by snarkydame

Title: Fate, and the Oak Tree
Author: snarkydame
Length: a little over 3k
Rating: PG-13 for references to violence
Warnings: Spoilers for season one, some references to violent character death
Summary: To punish Merlin for his pride, Fate interferes with the lives of his reincarnated friends.


* * *


Fate, and the Oak Tree




When the winds blow and the rains come, and the old oak's roots pull free from the ground, that's fate. The small creatures that made that oak their kingdom, now scurrying for cover from the drowning storm, don't rail against the fall, or raise their faces to the lightning in grief, in rage. They run. They find new homes. They die. That's fate.

The old oak settles in the sucking mud. The rains blow away. The sun shines. And the great old tree rots, slowly, until only the bare bones of its massive trunk remain, covered in moss, weathered and hollow, a dry, fragile husk. Eventually, even that is gone.

That, too, is fate.


* * *

They all end bloody. They end broken, they end battered, and mantled with blinding glory. But then, Merlin figured, vaguely alarmed by the numb bitterness of his own thoughts, they never really ended at all.

This was only the third time he'd found Guinevere. Alone. He supposed, after the way things ended the second time (Lancelot choking on bright, bright blood, holding her hand on the pyre ), and the first (Morgana raving in her arms, the ship sinking beneath them), it may have been a mercy.

She'd been weeping, he knew, but her face was calm. She held a small dog with a crooked ear, who barked madly at the soldiers as they came near. Gwen raised her chin, and stood as tall as she could. Her jeans were torn at the knees, and splashed with mud, and worse than mud. Her jacket was far too large for her.

Merlin touched her face on the television screen as she bent and placed the dog in the arms of the child behind her. She gave the boy a push, and he backed away, one hand wound tight through the little dog's collar.

The cameraman was murmuring now, his voice halting, choked with tears. Awed. Merlin ignored him. On the screen, Gwen spread her arms wide, her empty arms, shielding the children behind her as they scattered into the maze of rubble and ruin.

She was halfway around the world, but he gathered his magic to him anyway, until his bones felt incandescent. Surely somehow, he could save her this time. He must be able to save one of them.

But even as he reached for her, he heard the sound of gunfire from the television screen, and his magic escaped in a horrified rush, breaking every bit of glass around him.

He stared for a long time at the shattered screen in front of him, listening to the brittle sounds of broken windows falling over the screaming, crowded city street.

* * *

He'd found Lance a dozen times now. He seemed impatient to be reborn, always eager, always brilliant.

He'd lived to old age this time. Merlin caught his breath, smoothing gray hair away from his strongly weathered face.

At his touch, Lance opened his eyes. Slowly, they focused on his face, and Merlin could see the question rising in their dark depths.

"I know you," Lance said, his voice thin and drawn with pain. "Were you a student?"

Merlin made himself smile. "No, professor. I never studied here."

"Oh," he said, vague. "Did the students get out?"

Merlin looked around at the auditorium. There were scorch marks everywhere, and bullet holes sprayed across the podium. The sprinklers sent sooty streams of water falling over the stairs. Everything was soaked, except Merlin, and Lancelot.

"Yes," Merlin answered. "You got them all out." He closed his mouth. Swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"Why?" Lance's simple question held no censure, no suspicion.

Merlin closed his eyes, and concentrated on the blood seeping out from under his fingers. "I didn't get here soon enough."

He started, as Lance's hand rose to cover his. "Yes, you did," he said, and smiled, that same bright beautiful smile.

Merlin stared down at him long after the smile faded. As the sirens grew louder, and strained voices began to echo in the hall ways, he stood slowly, and wiped the blood from his hand onto his jeans.

"No. I never do."

* * *

He always found Morgana. Like a moth, he circled around her through the centuries, desperate for light. And recognition. She always knew who he was.

She sat in her wheel chair, under the spill light from the window; a slight girl, not quite twenty. Her white scrubs were too short for her – her wrists and ankles showed beneath the cuffs.

He was brushing her hair as she spoke, the long dark strands like satin rope, heavy and smooth in his hands. Her voice was brighter than birdsong. Innocent.

"Merlin," she said, "Did you know? Gawain is an astronaut this time. I saw him on the news last night." She grinned. "He's bound for Titan!"

He nodded, forgetting she couldn't see him. He'd often seen the knights, in passing. Smaller lives, but bright ones. He never interfered.

Morgana kept smiling. "The ship will fail. They'll lose that FTL engine in the asteroid belt, and drift for years and years. He'll be so cold."

Merlin froze, staring down at her blind eyes, crinkled with laughter at the corners. "Morgana," he breathed. Her hair slid out of his hand as the brush stilled.

The laughter left her face, replaced by an odd distress, like a child's, who knows she's done something wrong, but isn't quite sure what it was.

"I'm sorry? I would have tried to warn him, but they never actually mail my letters. And there's nothing you can do – it's just too far. So you shouldn't feel bad about it."

She was trying to reassure him, he realized. He choked off a laugh. Some lives, she would have reveled in his dismay. And in others, she'd have killed herself trying to keep Gawain from going on that mission.

He never knew, with Morgana.

"Keep brushing, please?" she asked him, tentatively . "It feels so nice."

After a moment, he did. The tears, at least, he could keep from falling.

* * *

He searched for Arthur for centuries, never with any success. Empires rose and fell and rose again. The world grew crowded, the stars came within reach. He found Gwen, found Lance, found Morgana. He watched them die, again and again. And still, he never found Arthur.

Late one autumn, he went back to the island. To Avalon, where they'd taken his body the first time.

He could feel the magic, coiled and waiting, massively powerful. It felt like a mountain, hanging over his head. But he couldn't stir it.

He ran begging hands over the stone where the tomb should be, weeping silently. He knelt in supplication, he tore at the ground with his magic, pulling lightning from the clear skies. He stood in the center of the barren rock and screamed his frustration until his throat was raw and his voice was in shreds.

"Give him back," he whispered, near voiceless. "I want him back."

And then, finally, he heard a voice behind him.

"Such pride," it said, sultry and scornful. "You think we'd change fate for your sake? He will wake when the time is right. Not before, and not after."

Merlin turned, so fast he fell. The blasted ground was warm beneath his knees. "Nimueh."

She raised an eyebrow, and smiled, more gently than he would have thought she could. "You keep trying to save them. But that's neither their fate, nor yours."

"Fate," he said. His ruined voice made it an ugly word. "And what is my fate, if not to die in blood and glory with my friends?"

Her smile softened even further, but her voice was cold. "Your fate is to watch. Just that. Until the end comes."

He stared at her. They all died. Again. And again. "Why?"

Nimueh's smile slowly died, and she knelt down to meet his eyes.

"You killed me," she said simply. "And so we have something of a connection, you and I." She tucked his hair behind his ear.

"You'll watch them die, in blood and glory, because that's fate. You'll keep looking for them, knowing you won't get to them in time to save them. That's fate, too. You won't be able to stop yourself. And because you killed me, I'll tell you why."

Very gently, she leaned in and kissed his cheek. Her lips were cold, and he shivered as she whispered in his ear.

"It's your pride, warlock. Your own stubborn pride. You thought you could shift the balance of the world to suit yourself. You tried to interfere with fate."

Merlin felt frozen. Like Nimueh could shatter him with a touch. She stood, brushing charred dirt from her knees. "Now," she said, in a clear, calm voice. "You're learning otherwise."

Merlin licked his lips, and swallowed, trying to find his voice.

"And Arthur?" he managed, as she turned to walk away.

"If he were to wake," she said, after several steps, "he, too, would try to shift fate's course. It is kinder to keep him sleeping, until he can't."

"Since when," he cried out, his words nearly unrecognizable, "is fate kind?"

But Nimueh, pausing only for a moment, did not answer.

* * *

Merlin wandered the world then. Not searching for his friends. No destination in mind. It was like walking through a nightmare of constantly shifting faces. He would fold his magic around himself, and walk three steps through Prague, then a mile through Tokyo, a day's journey through Brazil. He couldn't tell if he was running away, or trying to find a place to stand.

But he stopped finally, when grasping for his magic felt like trying to weave cobwebs. He was lying in a field, a sheep's paddock, lined with a low stone wall. A black faced ewe stared down at him, a tuft of grass hanging from her jaw. It was spring, he thought. There was a lamb, peeking out from behind the ewe. Behind the cottage on the other side of the wall, laundry hung to dry in the sun.

His mind felt scoured. Blank, and tender enough that new thoughts felt painful. So he lay there for a long while, trying not to think.

But one thought, doggedly persistent, kept trailing its way through his flinching mind.

It was his fault.

Gwen, Lancelot, Morgana, dying in madness, terror, sacrifice.

Arthur, still sleeping, cold and alone.

His fault. A lesson for his pride.

A sullen, resentful rage began to pulse behind his eyes. It wasn't fair.

The black faced ewe and her lamb shied away as he sat up, and joined the rest of the small flock in the far corner of the field. They all watched him, ears twitching.

They died so he could watch them die.

He snarled, like a wounded animal. Fate could find another toy to play with.

He closed his eyes, and dug his fingers into the sun-warmed dirt. "Please," he asked the earth. "Lend me this?" And magic flowed into him, as green and gentle as the spring grass, as dark and solid as bedrock.

He took a deep breath, holding the borrowed power, and told himself sternly that he wasn't running away. They would have a chance to live now, untangled in his fate.

He wove the magic around himself, in a spell so complex he couldn't see the end of it, until the rage and hurt and fear gained distance. The sunlight felt like liquid, and he drank it thirstily. The wind pulled at him, and he swayed, feeling his bones stretch and creak.

Remotely, he noticed the black faced sheep clustered in alarm in the corner of the field, and the wide, leafy shadow reaching over them. But then all was green light, and a deep, earthy peace.






The march of time is relentless. Civilizations reach for immortality, but time cuts them all down. This is fate, on a grand scale.

When the space station fell and fire rained across continents, they said it was the end of the world. When survivors crawled out of the ruins and huddled together, they said a new dark age might be upon them. When warlords began to take bites out of what used to be great cities, they were sure of it.

But eventually, they started to hear stories, ancient stories. Of knights and kings and ladies. Of warlocks, and of fate.

And when a young man made a name for himself, protecting the people around him, those people called him King, and named his city Camelot, after the greatest of those stories.

Fate keeps to its script, no matter the time it takes to read it.

* * *

Time means little to an oak. Centuries may as well be seasons, passing without notice.

The oak's roots were deep and gnarled, bracing a trunk two grown men couldn't reach around. Its branches spread wide, and generations of squirrels played within its leaves.

A rope swing, knotted around a plank of wood so old and rotten it looked like lace, hung from the lowest branch. The outer layers of the branch had grown over the rope, holding even its frayed and fragile length in place.

The oak stood in the center of a field. The spare remnants of a stone wall showed through the grass here and there, but the deer that rested in the oak's shade paid them little mind.

A young stag, antlers barely a hand's width long, raised his head to stare at the far end of the field. Then he and the rest of the herd took off, bounding weightlessly over the ruined wall, and disappeared into the woods beyond.

Some time after the deer took flight, a rider came into view. She rode with a sword on her hip, and a revolver slung from her saddle. She sang as she rode past. Beside her, a young man watched the woods with wary eyes, one hand on the rifle laid across his lap.

Her voice faltered as she neared the oak, and the young man reined in his horse to keep beside her.

She had stopped her horse beneath the wide spread of the oak's branches. The light, shining through the leaves, turned the world there green and gold, and the shadows drifted across her face like butterflies.

Slowly, a wondering smile spread across her face.

"Tristan," she said, "I think we should wait here for the others."

"Lady?" Tristan asked. "It's only a mile or two more to the town."

"Oh, but this is such a rare old tree. It would be very pleasant to sit here in its shade, don't you think?"

Tristan studied the tree, eyes catching on the ancient rope swing. "I think this tree has stood here since before the Fires," he said, a trace of interest crossing his face. "The Lady Gwen would like to see it."

The dark haired rider's smile widened. "She certainly would," she said. "In fact, if you wouldn't mind, could you ride back to tell them of the change of plans?"

Tristan made as if to protest, but only sighed. "Do put up a flare, Lady Morgana, if an opportunistic bandit comes around."

"Certainly. After I've disarmed and apprehended them, I'll do just that."

Morgana dismounted as the young knight rode off, and walked to the oak's trunk. She hesitated, looking up through the branches, and then pressed her hand flat against the bark.

"Is it you, Merlin? Or am I dreaming things again?"

* * *

Their picnic lasted well into the evening, and the light beneath the oak had long since turned purple and blue with dusk by the time the rest of the company came upon the ladies and their knights.

Morgana leaned back against the trunk. "He's here, Merlin. Do you think you could wake up now?"

"What was that?" Gwen asked, turning towards her. "Did you say something?"

"No, no. It was nothing." Morgana smiled. "Go on. I know you want to see Sir Lancelot as soon as you can."

Gwen blushed darkly, but she was already turning towards the commotion of the arriving company.

Morgana watched as she moved away. "I missed you," she said to the oak. "I was sane, most of the time. And I saw Gwen, and Lance, and the knights, more often than ever. But they never knew me, like you always did. It was lonely.

"Oh," she exclaimed then, a soft breath in the shadow. "Was that why you came to me so often, even when I was mad?"

She smiled up at the branches, a little tremulously. "I'm glad," she said, "that you seem to have found some peace. But you've missed the end of the world, and Arthur's return. You have to come back now. He misses you too."

And as she moved off, to convince Arthur and his company to camp here, instead of going on to the town, she missed the way the branches moved, as if a strong wind blew through them.

* * *

The camp was asleep when Morgana returned. She stood, waiting, under the oak tree, watching the camp.

"What exactly are you playing at, Morgana?" came a voice from the other side of the tree. She jumped, spinning around to see Arthur glaring at her.

"When did you get passed me?" she hissed, slapping him on the arm. "You startled me."

"And you've been acting very strangely all evening!" Arthur stepped closer, and the hilt of the young king's sword knocked against the trunk of the tree.

The whole oak shivered.

Arthur looked up, frozen. "What –"

Morgana shushed him. "Wait! Didn't you feel it? That connection?"

"Morgana, it's a tree!" Arthur hissed.

She rolled her eyes and grabbed his shoulder. "Listen to me. You said you had a feeling sometimes, that something very important was missing. 'Like half of my soul,' you said to me. Don't you feel anything at all about this tree?"

"I don't think a tree is the missing half of my soul, you crazy . . ." Arthur trailed off, catching sight of a leaf slowly falling to the ground. His eyes went distant, unfocused.

"Merlin," he murmured. "His name is Merlin."

Morgana caught her breath in something very like a sob.

As if in a dream, Arthur shook her hand off of his shoulder and drew his sword. It gleamed, even in the deep shadows under the tree.

Arthur stared at the blade, his eyes slowly narrowing into an expression of annoyance. "How long," he growled, looking back at the tree, "do you expect to keep me waiting?" And he ran his sword into the tree.

It slid into the trunk without resistance. Morgana's fists clenched at her sides.

In the utter silence that fell over them, she could hear Arthur whisper, "Please."

And then, quite suddenly, there was no tree.

On a pile of green leaves a young man lay curled, fast asleep and naked. The ancient rope swing lay loosely wrapped around his arm, and Arthur's sword was pinned to the ground beneath his ribs.

Arthur took in a shuddering breath, and whipped his cloak from his shoulders, carefully wrapping Merlin in its folds. He rolled him cautiously away from the blade, and gently pulled his arm through the coils of rope.

He pulled him tight against his chest, and his eyes met Morgana's over Merlin's bent head.

She was smiling as she stared back at him, but there were tears gleaming in her eyes.

Behind her, the camp was beginning to stir, as the sentries noticed the sudden lack of oak, and raised the alarm.

Morgana's eyes grew distant. "Hold on to him," she murmured. "I don't think Fate is done with him yet."

And Arthur's grip tightened. He snarled, holding Merlin to him. "Neither am I."

* * *

Merlin found Arthur only once. He woke from a very long, strange dream, to see him sitting at the foot of his bed. His pale hair fell over his eyes, and he was lacing his boots with great concentration. On the bed beside him, Excalibur lay in its sheath, the belt tangled around a rifle stock. Merlin kicked at it, under the covers, but Arthur was too intent upon his boots to notice.

"So when did swords come back in style?" he asked, smiling stupidly at the way Arthur tied his laces. His heart felt lighter than air. He was sure it would come floating up any minute now.

He'd never lose him again, he vowed, as Arthur's head shot up, and their eyes met for the first time in thousands of years.

Not ever.



fin


 

Tags: seven deadly sins challenge
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