Merlin watched Arthur's boat for a long time.
All he could see was the shape of the boat slowly sailing away from him. Tears streamed unchecked down his cheeks and blurred his vision as he stood there with a sinking feeling in his heart. He watched it go until it was but a tiny speck in the distance, but even after he had lost sight of the boat, he continued to stare at the place where it had gone, knowing that this would be the last time he would see his king for a long, long while.
Merlin felt numb. His legs were on the verge of collapse from the grueling journey, but he paid them no attention. He could do nothing but stare at the distant ruins on the other end of the lake, even after the sun had gone down and the moon had risen high in the otherwise pitch-black darkness of the night. No one was around to hear him when at long last, the young warlock sank to his knees, shaking all over as wrecked sobs tore themselves out of his throat. No one was around to see him when the greatest sorcerer who ever lived curled into a ball on the shore, moaning long and low, "Arthur… Arthur… Arthur… Arthur, please… please come back to me…"
Merlin woke to birds twittering in the trees around him and a string of leaves from a willow tickling his face. His throat felt parched and dry, and the tears from the day before had crusted on his face, making it stiff with tear tracks. He opened his eyes, then shut them again, wishing he could turn back time.
When he finally got up with shaky legs and looked at his reflection in the lake, he saw that his face was red and raw and his eyes puffy.
Take heart, for when Albion's need is greatest, Arthur will rise again. The dragon's words echoed in his mind and slowly etched themselves into his soul as Merlin mounted his horse to make his way back to Camelot. There was no need to hurry; after all, no one would be waiting for him to serve them again. Merlin curled his fingers into his horse's dark mane and gripped the reins with his other hand, thinking of how just yesterday it had been Arthur's body in this saddle.
All these years Merlin, and you never sought any credit.
Stop. He had to stop. Merlin steeled himself, pushing the thought to the back of his mind, and rode on.
Gaius and Gwen were standing by the citadel of Camelot when Merlin finally arrived at the gates of the town. He noticed that they were both dressed in black. Gaius' expression was solemn as he helped Merlin off his horse, supporting him when he stumbled and half-collapsed onto the old man. Gwen did not say anything, but enveloped Merlin in a hug, resting her head on his shoulder. Merlin could feel the hard metal of the golden crown perched on her head digging into the side of his skull.
When they broke apart, Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but it seemed that Gwen had anticipated his words before he had even figured out what he would say; she shushed him with a hand. "You did everything you could, Merlin," she said gently, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "I'm grateful to you for that."
Merlin said nothing. He didn't need to.
"Come now, Merlin," Gaius said gently once Gwen had released him, placing a weathered hand on his hunched shoulders. "Some rest will do you good." Merlin wordlessly let Gaius lead him to his chambers without a look back at the forlorn queen watching them go.
But rest would not come to Merlin. It took an hour of tossing and turning and trying to push away the memories threatening to pull him under before Gaius came in again to check on him, sighing when he saw that Merlin was still awake. The physician disappeared momentarily before reappearing at the door with a small chair, which he set by Merlin's bedside, and sat down. Merlin watched him mutely, waiting for him to say something.
"This is a very difficult time for all of us, Merlin," Gaius finally said. His words were slow and measured, and he suddenly looked every bit his age, perhaps older. "There are... others... who lost their lives for Camelot in battle."
Merlin closed his eyes. He didn't want to hear it, but he had to ask. "...Gwaine?"
Gaius' silence told him everything. Merlin inhaled sharply before counting to ten and releasing his breath as slowly as possible. You knew this was going to happen, he told himself. After all, up against Morgana, the knights stood no chance. "And the others?" he said weakly.
"Those from the Round Table are alive," Gaius said simply. Except. Merlin felt his fear subside, though an ache lingered from the knowledge that another one of his dearest friends was gone. How many more people would he see depart from his life, now that he knew he would never die?
"We may be united in grief, Merlin, but I think that the two of us bear the brunt of the pain, you more than I," Gaius continued. "We knew that it was Arthur's fate to fall at Camlann. Even with all your power, it would not have been possible for you to avoid destiny."
Merlin was glad that all this time, Gaius hadn't tried saying comforting words like "it's all right" or "I'm sorry". The old man knew him too well not to say those things, choosing instead to state things calmly. They eased into a comfortable silence. Merlin stared blankly at the wall and his eyes drifted to his dresser.
Merlin, come here. Look what I found. I found a place where you can put things. It's called a cupboard.
It was too much. For a moment Merlin wished he were blind; everything about Camelot reminded him of Arthur, every sight, every sound, every smell made him flash back to a distant memory or a vision of what could have been. Before, he had thought Camelot was his home, but now he knew that this was not true. Arthur was his home, had always been, always would be.
Gaius noticed Merlin's stricken expression and placed a comforting hand on his. It took a few moments before Merlin was able to get the words out. When they finally did, his voice sounded hoarse and croaky, as if it hadn't been used in days.
"I loved him."
Gaius did not seem the least bit surprised; Merlin supposed he should have seen it coming. "I know," he said, squeezing Merlin's hand. The tiniest hint of a smile graced Gaius' face and a few more wrinkled lines appeared around his eyes. "You could have not been more obvious, Merlin. A blind man could have seen it."
"I love him," Merlin said again. He fought to keep his emotions in check, but it was no use. "I never got to tell him. I thought I would be able to, in time, but - "
A sharp hiccup interrupted his words, and Merlin gave up on speech entirely. Gaius leaned forward in his chair so he could wrap his arms around the boy he had come to love as a son, patting him on the back as Merlin's entire body was wracked with sobs. Gaius looked down at Merlin's face buried into his chest, and saw a single tear, one of his own, drip into the younger man's dark mop of hair. Bowing his head, Gaius cried with him, rocking gently.
Gwen came to Gaius' chambers later that evening. She stalled in the doorway, looking unsure of what to do. "Is he all right?" she asked, inclining her head.
Gaius let out a tired sigh. "He is very weary from his journey, but Merlin is as fine as he is going to be." Gwen nodded and stepped into the room. In an instant, her posture changed from the confident, regal pride she held as a queen to the humble servant she had once been. She didn't have to put up pretenses around her friend, after all.
"How things have changed," she said with a wistful smile, looking around the room at the various potions stocked on the shelves and the medical instruments on the rickety wooden table. "I remember it was just years ago Merlin and I were scrambling around trying to find an antidote for you so we could capture a goblin."
The old man gave a faint chuckle as his eyes misted over from the memory. "We have come very far since then, my lady," he agreed. He stood by the table as Gwen walked across the room, stopping at the stairs leading to Merlin's chambers. She looked back at Gaius and tilted her head slightly towards the door. The old man answered her silent question with a solemn nod. Gwen took a breath before she disappeared up the stairs. Gaius watched her go.
Merlin was lying on top of his covers, staring at the ceiling. He did not move a muscle when Gwen stepped into the room, but the hardening of his gaze was all the indication she needed to know that he had sensed her presence. Biting her lip, Gwen sat down in the chair Gaius had left by the bed, folding her hands in her lap.
"Hello, Merlin," she said tentatively. She did not expect him to reply, but released a breath she didn't realise she had been holding when he turned on his side to face her. She momentarily balked at the sight of his pale face and bloodshot eyes, but when she spoke her voice was gentle. "I just wanted to say thank you…" She stopped when Merlin visibly tensed, his eyes widening. She felt a flutter of something inside her that felt a lot like fear, but managed to school her features. However, the stammer she thought she had gotten rid of after being crowned was now evident in her words once more. "M-Merlin? Did I... say something?"
Merlin stared at her for a few seconds. "His last words," he said suddenly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"'Thank you.' Those were his last words to me."
There was a silence after that, one that stretched out and become increasingly tangible with every second that passed. Gwen sucked in a breath, feeling as if the walls of the room were suddenly pressing in around her. She had always been slightly claustrophobic. "What else did he say?" she asked quietly.
She watched Merlin close his eyes, his expression painful. "Not much," he whispered. "I held him when he… his hand was in my hair. And then… he let go." He buried his head in his hands and let out a choked sob. "I failed him."
"Don't say that." Gwen took Merlin's hand in hers, ignoring the shock from his icy skin, and the two friends sat in silence. The ring bearing Arthur's sigil on Gwen's finger dug into the palm of Merlin's hand, the cool metal like a sharp reminder of what had happened.
Merlin did not open his eyes again. Gwen felt as if he were very far away despite the fact that he right beside her, close enough to touch. When she looked at him, she noticed that Merlin seemed older, somehow. There were no wrinkles on his youthful face just yet, but his small frame exuded the complete and utter weariness of an old man who had seen far too much in one lifetime.
"I won't blame you if you wish to leave Camelot," she told him, knowing from his too-stiff body that he was not yet asleep. "I will make arrangements if you wish to stay, but I will understand if you want to go, may it be to Ealdor or wherever else. We will speak again in the morning."
She rose silently and left the room.
He instantly turns as soon as his name leaves Arthur's lips, and runs to his side. "How are you feeling?" he asks. He knows it is a stupid question, but it is all he can think of.
Arthur tries to get up, as if he wants to show him that he is all right, but fails utterly as he lets out a loud groan of pain. Merlin can almost feel it too; a sharp stab in his stomach twists as Arthur grips his shoulder, wincing in agony. "Lie back, lie back," Merlin says urgently, seizing his hand. The glove is cool against his fingers, but he can feel Arthur burning up inside.
Merlin turned over in his sleep, shaking uncontrollably as the memories from his last days with Arthur flooded his mind.
"I'm a sorcerer. I have magic." He is gripping Arthur's wrist like it is his lifeline, holding on to it tightly as tears fall thick and fast from his cheeks. Every moment has come to this; he clutches Arthur's hand, trying to memorise the sensation, the feeling of every strand of muscle and bone, because after this he knows Arthur's reaction will mean he won't be able to for a long, long while. "And I use it for you, Arthur. Only for you."
Arthur is looking at him like he did at their first meeting: slightly bewildered, almost amused. "Merlin, you are not a sorcerer. I would know."
Merlin can feel his breath speeding up as his heart races in his chest. It's now or never. "Look. Here."
He turns away and raises his hand towards the fire. It's laughably easy how the words flow to his lips with barely a thought. He can feel the familiar rush of warmth flowing through him and the scorching burn behind his eyes, and then it's there: a glowing, golden dragon conjured out of sparks from the fire hovers before them, a stark contrast to the dark forest all around. He manages to sustain it for a few seconds before he lets it fade. The fire-flecks fall and die out before they reach the kindling flames again. A few spitting sparks, and then there is silence.
Merlin is almost scared to look at Arthur, but when he does he sees that his king's expression is conflicted. This is the turning point of their relationship, and Merlin has never been less afraid. He holds his breath, dreading each moment as it passes and slips away, like he is counting down towards something.
It feels like his heart has shattered in his chest when the first words Arthur says are, "Leave me."
When Merlin woke the next morning, he almost immediately closed his eyes again, willing for the dream to return, trying to recall one last glimpse of Arthur no matter how painful it was to relive the past few days. He barely paid attention to the fact that his cheeks were damp, and his pillow soaked through with tears. When he knew for certain that his efforts were fruitless, he dressed and left to see Gwen in the throne room as she had requested.
Gwen was already sitting on the throne when Merlin arrived. She didn't have any council members or maids with her, so it was just the two of them alone, but Merlin felt the need to bow down to her nonetheless. It was only right for him to show respect to the queen.
(The queen, but never his queen.)
"Have you made your decision?" Gwen asked him.
Both of them knew the answer before Merlin even said the words. He lifted his head to look at her. "I'm going back to Ealdor," he said, his voice wavering despite his firm tone. Gwen exhaled softly, and the sound echoed through the room. Nothing she did or said now would be able to sway Merlin from his decision, and the knowledge of that hung between them as a silence stretched out once more.
"Very well," said Gwen at long last, trying for a smile. "I shall prepare one of our finest horses for your journey. There will be no need to return it; I feel your service to the kingdom of Camelot has earned you that."
Merlin bowed to her again. "I hope all will be well for you and your kingdom, my lady."
"Thank you, Merlin. Now go and pack your things. If you don't leave early now, it will be dark before you make much progress." Merlin nodded and began to retreat out of the throne room.
Merlin could feel Gwen's eyes burning into the back of his head as he turned. He wondered if Gwen knew about him and Arthur, knew that somehow, despite the fact that Arthur loved Gwen with all his heart, that she would never replace that one part inside him that had been reserved for Merlin since his first breath. He wondered if Gaius had told Gwen about the prophecy. But just as he was about to reach the doors, Gwen said hesitantly, "Merlin?"
He turned and saw Gwen looking at him with a bittersweet smile. "I'll miss you. Take care."
Merlin swallowed, then nodded at her. "You too, Gwen."
How was it possible for the world to still be turning? The flowers were still bursting with colour as they turned their faces to the sky, the wind still blowing through the trees and rustling the leaves as it passed, the afternoon sun still beating down upon the back of Merlin's neck as his horse trotted in the direction of Ealdor. It was remarkable how everything had simply moved on after the light left the eyes of the king of Camelot. Merlin wanted to scream at the universe for its insolence. How dare it ignore the passing of the greatest warrior and friend who had ever lived? How dare it continue to live as it had lived instead of pausing to wait until he had returned?
He was already beginning to miss Camelot; it was like a dull ache pressing down on his chest. He didn't know if he would ever see the friendly and caring faces of Gwen, Gaius, the knights and the people he had come to know in the last decade he had spent there ever again. Perhaps he would visit it again one day, when the people he knew were long gone and the place had changed beyond recognition. Seeing it now would be too much pain.
Merlin was still unable to come to terms with the fact that he was immortal. It was a concept he found too difficult to grasp. How long would he have to live before Arthur rose again? Would it take a century? A millennium? An eon?
However long it took, Merlin would wait. He had been born to serve Arthur all his life, and that was a promise he would keep as long as he breathed.
Arthur slowly drinks the water Merlin offers him, and when he has had his fill Merlin fastens the cap back onto the water-skin. Something rustles in the trees and Merlin looks around, tensing up as the responsibility and need to protect his king rushes into him again. He knows that Morgana could be anywhere this second; is she lurking in the trees, watching them, waiting for the right moment to pounce?
"Merlin." Arthur saying his name brings all his attention back to him, and he looks back at his king again, hanging on to his every word, watching even the slightest movements he makes. Arthur smiles a little at his rapt expression and continues. "Whatever happens – "
"Shh." Merlin shakes his head. He doesn't care that Arthur might have something to say, not when he can tell that even talking brings him pain; there's a twitch in Arthur's eye betraying what he really feels inside. "Don't talk," he urges him. Arthur needs to save his strength for the journey ahead, so he can be taken to Avalon and healed.
"I'm the King, Merlin. You can't tell me what to do." Arthur's words should sound exasperated, but the resigned tone he uses to speak carries an undertone of affection instead.
"I always have," Merlin reminds him. "I'm not going to change now." He says this with a smile and a soft exhale that lingers in the silence, but there's a lump in his throat as he thinks about what they've gone through together, making his voice sound strained.
Arthur looks at him. His eyes are bluer than usual, and in them Merlin sees a hint of sadness, maybe regret. "I don't want you to change," he says slowly, watching Merlin and making sure he is focusing completely on him as he enunciates every syllable. "I want you… to always… be you."
Merlin can't believe it for a moment, and can do nothing but stare at him while a feeling of warmth completely unlike the kind he experiences when doing magic wells up in his chest. Perhaps it's gratitude, or even love; he doesn't know for sure. Arthur swallows and lifts a hand, pointing a gloved finger at him with a furrowed brow. Merlin almost tells him put his hand down so as not to waste his energy. The hand is shaking when Arthur says, "I'm sorry about how I treated you."
Arthur's voice wavers a little, and he looks like he genuinely means every word. He swallows after he says this, his head bowed, and sags weakly, but Merlin isn't going to let go of the fact that his king has just apologised to him, a rare feat. As Arthur's head rolls to the side, Merlin leans down so he can look at him properly. "Does that mean you're going to give me a day off?" he jokes.
Arthur lifts his head again and their eyes meet, blue on blue. After a few moments, Arthur looks away, but there is a small sparkle of mirth in his eyes when he replies softly, "Two."
"That's generous." Merlin smiles lightly, despite the fact that he knows Arthur will treat him just the same like the royal prat he is when they get back.
(If they get back.)
Arthur's lips curl up in a smirk reminiscent of Morgana, but his is softer around the edges, kinder. Then, all of a sudden, his head lolls forward. Merlin's heart jerks sharply and he rushes to cradle Arthur's face, but when he sees that his king is still breathing, he doesn't resist stroking his cheek with his hand. And if Arthur moves his head and nuzzles into his palm a tiny fraction, well, no one is there to see them.
Their faces are so close now, barely inches apart. Something flutters in Merlin's chest; he could just lean in and tilt his head right now, press his lips to Arthur's and taste him on his tongue in these quiet, tender moments of peace. He wants to touch him, call him his 'cariad', and so many other things besides. He holds back, but only just.
"Get some sleep," he whispers, and without meaning to he feels his eyes going wet again. He tries to get a hold of himself, not wanting to worry his king by breaking down in front of him. Arthur doesn't reply.
Looking back, Arthur could have given him a year off, and it still wouldn't compare to the eternity he has to endure now.
Merlin completed his journey to Ealdor by late afternoon the next day. Overnight, he managed to spear a few well-sized fish from the river close by and cooked them over a small fire to fill his stomach, but he was hungry again by the time he reached the village. The horse seemed to know its way and soon the sounds of clucking chickens, creaking wheelbarrows and laughing children filled his ears. He emerged from the forest and felt a ray of sunlight shining down on him, much too bright. Ealdor had not changed much from the last time he had seen it. The harvest had been fruitful and the villagers seemed content, greeting him with bright and welcoming smiles as he passed them by on his horse. He was able to grace them with a smile of his own, however strained it was, and it seemed to suffice for them as they turned away and continued with their work. As soon as they did, Merlin barely took notice of his surroundings and rode on, his eyes blank and unfocused.
When Hunith opened the door, the expression on Merlin's face told her everything she needed to know. "Come in, Merlin," she said gently. "Leila will take care of the horse."
A small girl who could not have been more than eight years old smiled at him and took the reins from his hands, which were red and raw from two days of riding. Merlin barely registered her, but assumed that she was one of the neighbour's children who had agreed to accompany Hunith instead of having her work all alone. He nodded mutely and followed his mother into the house.
Hunith made him sit down at the table and bustled around with her pots and pans. "I'll make soup if you like," she said conversationally. "It's such a coincidence that you arrived; Arden kindly gave me some sugar cane only yesterday. It's your favourite."
Merlin put his things down and watched his mother prepare. Once she had set the water to boil, she moved to sit opposite him. "You look tired," she said with a worried expression on her face, and in doing so Merlin noticed that she had gained a few more wrinkles since he had last seen her. He opened his mouth, but Hunith shushed him much like Gwen had done. "You don't have to tell me," she said. "It's Arthur, isn't it? I… I heard about the battle."
Merlin tried to put on a brave face so Hunith wouldn't worry, but failed when her gaze softened even further. He released a shuddering breath, and Hunith took this as a cue to wrap her arms around him. Though Merlin was taller than her and had been for several years now, he missed the way she surrounded him with her love and warmth so he could lose himself in her arms. For a moment, he wished he could return to that simple country life he had once had. It was true that he hadn't been entirely happy then, what with the village children laughing and jeering at him all the time, calling him a bastard for his father's absence and a freak for his abilities, but in retrospect, life had seemed so much easier before Arthur had danced his way into his life and took up his entire world, becoming the only thing that really meant to him and ensuring that nothing would ever take his place.
Funnily enough, Merlin didn't regret it. He wouldn't have changed a single thing, though he longed for that innocent life he had once had all the same. "He's dead," he said into his mother's shoulder, his voice slightly muffled from the way his mouth was pressed into the slightly yellowed linen shirt she was wearing. "The dragon told me I would have to wait for him until he rose again."
Though he had never told his mother about Kilgharrah, it came as no surprise to Hunith, who said, "Oh, Merlin," and held him tighter, no questions asked. Merlin leaned into her touch and closed his eyes.
"All I've ever wanted is for you to be happy," he heard her say as she stroked his hair. "I knew you were destined for great things, but I knew in my heart that greatness always came with great suffering. But I never imagined it would come to this, Merlin." She moved her hands to his shoulders and held him at arm's length as she studied his face. "You carry a burden on your shoulders far greater than any man, my son." She lovingly brushed a lock of hair that had fallen over his eyes, her hand lingering to touch his cheek as tears filled her eyes. "Must you wait for him?" she asked.
"I don't have a choice, Mother," Merlin replied, smiling weakly. "But even if I did have one, I know I would choose to do so a hundred times over."
Hunith nodded in understanding. "I knew you would say that. I always knew there was something special between you two." Merlin chuckled softly. Her next question was a little more tentative. "Does this mean you'll… go on living, until he returns?"
It took a few seconds for Merlin to reply, not wanting to shock his mother. "I'm… I'm immortal, Mother. It appears I must."
He saw his mother's eyes sparkle with tears, and her grip on his shoulder tightened. "For how long?" she asked, and the tone of her voice told him she was dreading the answer.
Sighing, Merlin shook his head. "As long as it takes."
Night fell. As a boy, Merlin would climb a tree to admire the sunset, but he did not do so tonight when dusk arrived. The beauty and colour of the world had become dull and faded to him without the bright, golden presence that was Arthur. Leila had tied his horse to the fence surrounding his home, near a water-trough where it would be able to drink and rest. Merlin could hear the soft whinnies and nickers it made from his window.
The voice startled Merlin, and he looked up to where Hunith was standing near the door, leaning on the frame. He nodded, giving her a tired smile.
She extended a hand to him. "Come with me, then."
Wondering what this was all about, Merlin got out of bed and followed her out. They stepped out of the door and Merlin let out a gasp at the sky, which was clear and filled with stars. He recalled how he and Will would lie on the grass as children and stare up into the night sky, pointing out the different constellations and wondering whether it was true that each star was a soul of one who had departed this world. Merlin imagined childishly that perhaps Arthur was up there somewhere, and there was a star burning just for him. The star would be a bright one, for sure; Arthur would have settled for no less.
Merlin also remembered how on sleepless nights, he would go out into the forest and make a fire to keep him company. The woods surrounding Ealdor were free of dangerous beasts, and no one had been attacked by anything wild in years, which made it safe for him to venture into their depths even as a child. It appeared that Hunith's intention was to lead him there again tonight. Hand in hand, they walked barefoot into the thick trees together, venturing deeper than Merlin had ever attempted in his youth. When they finally came upon a clearing, Merlin and his mother were already a good distance away from the village and well out of earshot.
Merlin found some firewood and stacked it up to make a fire, while Hunith sat on a small log and watched him. "You can do whatever you like here," she told him. "Best to let it out all in one go. You'll never be able to sleep otherwise." She smiled, then stood up. "I can leave you alone here, if you like," she suggested. "That way you'll have some privacy." Merlin nodded gratefully towards her, and after a moment of hesitation, Hunith turned and left.
A long while after the sound of her feet moving through the grass had died away, Merlin decided to sit down again. He held out a hand towards the firewood. "Forbearnan."
At first, there was no rush of heat flooding his body at these words. It left him with an empty coldness that seeped into his bones. Merlin took a breath and tried again. "Forbearnan!"
His magic seemed to be stunted. Merlin panicked, and felt his breath coming in quick, short gasps. He squeezed his eyes shut. You are magic itself, a son of the earth, the sea, the sky, he reminded himself, repeating his father's last words to him. You cannot lose what you are. After a few moments, Balinor's words had calmed him down again, and he opened his eyes to attempt once more. With firmness in his tone, he repeated the spell, and felt a rush of relief as well as the familiar warmth he had been waiting for when the firewood finally caught alight.
Merlin sat by the fire for a while, staring into the flickering reds and yellows as his mind wandered. At some point, without realizing what he was doing, he lifted his hand and whispered a spell.
The fire rose higher, and an image slowly formed before him. Arthur's face appeared, glowing as the flames licked around him, his hair painted golden as he hovered in midair. Merlin stilled to watch him, eyes wide, his heart filled with an intense serenity. But after a few moments, something broke inside him to see that face, knowing it was only an illusion, knowing he was deluding himself with his hopeless fantasies. As his emotions overpowered him, he saw a fiery-gold teardrop fall from Arthur's face in the flames, dropping into the embers and making them emit a sizzling sound that rang through the silence of the night.
The tranquility of the moment had been broken. Suddenly, Merlin felt so, so tired of it all, of destiny and responsibility and immortality. He wasn't prepared for this at all, to wait eons for Arthur, to watch all his friends and all the people he knew die, to stand by as civilisations rose and fell and gave rise to new ones, to be stuck in time as the world evolved around him.
A tortured sound ripped its way out of Merlin's throat as he lifted his face to the sky and screamed. The fire rose tall and hid Arthur's face from view as a powerful something grew in him, the flames rising in a smouldering column taller than the trees with thick, black tendrils of smoke billowing from them. His magic broke free and lashed out; there was an almighty crash of thunder and the sky seemed to split apart as a fork of lightning cracked it in two, and almost simultaneously Merlin felt as if he himself had been broken in half. Animals screeched and scattered away in all directions to hide as Merlin released his anger on the world around him in a fearsome explosion of pure, unadulterated magic.
"I WON'T LET YOU TAKE HIM," Merlin bellowed at the heavens, his voice unearthly and magnified to ten times its usual volume, echoing far and wide. "HEAR ME. GIVE HIM BACK." His magic lit up the sky in a blinding flash of white, all colours and sounds disappearing into it and swirling until he was dizzy with the agonizing pain tearing his soul apart. The rush of power coursing through him was scalding, as bright and hot as the smouldering tower of fire beside him. The knowledge that he could not bring Arthur back made him cast his ire to the elements. The wind howled in time with his wails as trees were ripped from their roots. Even the land itself shifted beneath his feet as his magic burst out and radiated in waves from him.
Merlin knew he could do it; another burst of magic, and he would be able to destroy the world around him. He would reduce it to nothing, because without Arthur the world held no meaning anymore.
He couldn't bring himself to stop at first, but when he finally did some time later, he collapsed bonelessly to the ground and wept profusely. The fire went out as if it had never been there in the first place, but the black smoke it had formed hung like a dark storm cloud above his head. Wreckage lay all around him: fallen trees, overturned earth, and a ringing silence that meant all life in the vicinity had either ran away or perished. Merlin had nothing to dry his tears with save for his neckerchief, but when he untied it from around his neck, the colour of the fabric made him feel as if a fist had wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed.
The colour was red, Pendragon red, red as the cape that graced Arthur's broad shoulders, red as the Camelot flags the waved above the knights charging into battle, red as the blood that had seeped from the fatal wound, bleeding into his chainmail…
Rrrrriiipp. Merlin viciously tore the fabric in half, then did it again and again until it was reduced to tattered threads. A golden flash in his eyes burnt them to ash before he was able to come back to himself once more.
From that moment on, Merlin never wore red again.
"I can't… I'm not going to lose you," Merlin gasps out, struggling with all his might beneath Arthur's weight as he tries to lift him up. They're so close to the lake, they can't just give up now. If they stop here, their journey will have been wasted, and Merlin doesn't know what he would do if that happens. He feels Arthur's gloved hand on his, patting the back of his fingers in comfort. Merlin is so wrapped up in his desperation that Arthur's next words completely throw him off.
"Just, just… just hold me. Please."
Merlin stops, breathing heavily. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Arthur's face is scrunched up in pain, and Merlin suddenly realises that this is the end. They will not reach the lake. He will not be able to save Arthur. He has failed him, failed his destiny.
Arthur waits for Merlin's breathing to return to normal before he speaks again. "There's – there's something I want to say," he forces out. His eyes are distant, and his voice breaks on the last word.
The rest of the world falls away. Merlin barely manages to keep himself together. "You're not going to say goodbye – "
"No." Arthur cuts him off, and Merlin looks down at his king, the greatest friend he has ever known. It hurts to see him reduced to this, to have to hold him in his arms. Arthur is shaking his head and looking at him. "Merlin," he says softly. Merlin watches him as Arthur repeats his name, but there isn't enough air left in him to say the words properly.
Arthur sucks in a shaky breath. "Everything you've done," he says, his voice thick with emotion, "I know now. For me… for Camelot. For the kingdom you helped me build…"
Arthur's voice is slurring by the last sentence, his voice already weakening. Merlin isn't ready for this. "You'd have done it without me," he says quickly, unable to tear his eyes away from Arthur's face and holding on to his gaze, fearing that every moment will be their last.
Arthur has the gall to smile and lift an eyebrow despite his pain. "Maybe." His smile fades, and he looks away from him at the sky. For a moment Merlin thinks he's gone and holds him tighter, but Arthur isn't finished yet.
"I want to say… something I've never said to you before." He turns his head a little more so he is looking straight into Merlin's eyes. Arthur's are glittering like two sapphires side by side, radiating a calm, peaceful acceptance of everything Merlin is and everything they have done together. Arthur is barely holding on, and Merlin holds his breath as he waits for his final words.
"Merlin…" Arthur's voice is barely above a whisper now.
They stare at each other for a long moment, then Arthur reaches up and claps his hand on the back of Merlin's head, his fingers curling into his hair and holding on tightly, smiling softly all the while. It is one of the most intimate gestures he has ever shown Merlin; before, they were separated by the boundaries of a master and his servant, of a king and his follower. Here they are just Merlin and Arthur, more than just two friends, more than just two lovers. They are two soulmates destined for a life together, as the dragon said; two sides of the same coin, two halves of one whole. Merlin is shaking already, but he leans into Arthur's touch.
He can tell the exact moment when it happens; the grip in his hair loosens, and Arthur's hand drops. The light goes out and leaves those sparkling blue eyes and doesn't return.
"Arthur," Merlin says as the king's eyes become half-lidded and his body goes limp in his arms. He checks Arthur's pulse, and when he can't feel anything, it feels like his own heart has stopped too. "No," he gasps out. "Arthur!" His hand moves to Arthur's cheek, and Merlin shakes him. "Arthur!" he yells, his hand touching Arthur's hair, the back of his neck, anything to get him to wake again.
For a moment, Arthur does; his eyes come back into focus, and his mouth opens in a small, silent gasp. Merlin feels a surge of emotion and wants to kiss him furiously, to take him and beg his king to never leave him again, but he can feel it draining his magic and his strength as he uses it to sustain Arthur's soul, to keep it trapped in his frail body. He is barely holding on, despite the fact that he is putting all the effort he has in him into it. Arthur's life is quickly slipping out of his hands, as if it is a piece of rope and Merlin is playing a sick game of tug-of-war with destiny. "Stay with me," Merlin begs, his voice breaking, but it is too late; Arthur's eyes roll back in his head, his jaw goes slack, and Merlin knows that he is gone.
"Arthur…" By now, he knows that his voice is falling on deaf ears. "No…" He reaches down and curls his arm across Arthur's back and under his arm, trying to lift him up.
Arthur's expression is serene, and there is a small smile etched into his too-still features. Merlin doesn't want Arthur to leave him, not like this, not when they still have so much to do. They would have been invincible together, he thinks. A king and his warlock, side by side, defending the mighty kingdom of Albion they had built together. But all that is lost now, and for how long, he doesn't know.
Merlin lets out a strangled howl as he is crushed by the combined weight of Arthur and his destiny, now much, much heavier and much more painful than before. "ARTHUR!" It feels like his heart has been ripped out of his chest; he reaches with his other hand and wraps it under Arthur's other arm.
The injustice of it is too much. Merlin raises his head and takes a deep breath before he screams at the heavens.
The villagers of Ealdor began to whisper among each other about the young man who would look at them with a haunted, faraway look in his eyes, wandering the village without any sense of direction and speaking to no one at all. After that night, the man went home and sat alone for days on end, stunned by despair, without any impulse to go outside and converse with the villagers or even with his own mother. In little more than a month, people regarded him with wary gazes and stolen looks, as they watched him make his way into the forest and not return for hours on end.
Not long afterwards, it was known to Ealdor that the man they now knew as Merlin had disappeared from the village.
to be continued...
I don't think I've ever cried this much from writing a story. I immersed myself completely in Merlin's pain and anguish, and had to re-watch some scenes of the finale in order to get the flashbacks right (as well as cry my eyes out over those two idiots. Again.) It was excruciatingly difficult, but I'm very proud of what I've created. The cover art for this story was done by the exceedingly talented OrangeMouse.