"I told them if they don't keep their clothes on this year, it'll be the last time they're welcome at the Solstice Festival."
Merlin stifled a laugh as he walked beside Eleanor through the park adjoining his property. "I'm sure that will keep them in line."
"I should think so!" Eleanor said, ignoring his sarcastic tone.
Merlin sidestepped one of the many workmen who were either constructing wooden booths or setting up tents throughout the park. Vendors and musicians and performers mingled among the crews, all preparing for the weekend's festivities.
"All that Neo Druid and Neo Wiccan and Earth Children nonsense," Eleanor was muttering. "Just an excuse to run around bare-arsed and pissed if you ask me."
"It's better that than what they could be getting up to."
"What in the world could be worse?"
A flash of memory. Of screams waking him from sleep. Of thirty men in pagan robes gathered under the solstice moon. Of children held at swordpoint, about to become sacrifices to the gods of the latest invaders of Albion.
Rage had consumed him at the sight, and his magic had exploded from him, crushing the men against the tree trunks with such force that the trees had snapped in half and flattened the forest all around him.
He could still remember the nausea and shock he'd felt at the sight of crumpled bodies and decimated forest. The children he had saved had all run away. Terrified of the death and destruction. Terrified of him. He hadn't blamed them, and he hadn't chased after them. He'd wanted to run from himself too.
It had taken him two days to bury all the bodies of the dead men.
It had taken him two years to use magic again without seeing their unmarked graves.
He realized they had stopped walking beside a low wooden stage. Eleanor stood facing him, surrounded by young men and women holding guitars. All of them were looking at him expectantly.
"I said, Emrys, that this is where the band will perform. They'll be separated from the camping area on the far side of the park, but within walking distance of the food vendors at the hilltop by the road."
"Yes. Good. Of course. That's… Sorry, was there a question I should be answering?"
Eleanor heaved a clearly exasperated sigh, but smiled at him. "Do you just want me to take care of it?"
Merlin took her hand in both of his, affecting as humble an expression as he could muster after fifteen hundred years. "Would you, my lady?"
"Old fool," she said, and swatted at his arm fondly. "Go on then. Off with you."
Merlin wasted no time in leaving the group to their plans. The coordination of the Avalon Solstice Festival was definitely best left to Eleanor. He had no skill for such things. And no love for them either.
No, he was much better at tending his gardens, and making soaps and elixirs for the apothecary, and tending to what ailments he could for people in the village, and writing books for his library.
He was very good at waiting by now.
Merlin strolled through the park, hands shoved in the pockets of his long coat, watching vendors set out their wares on the few completed booths. Already he saw several of them bearing signs claiming to sell items of magic .
These children of the new age, Merlin thought wistfully. All of them longing for the old ways. But none of them with even a hint of real magic.
Which probably was for the best
Merlin pulled his coat closed against a chilly wind as he wandered into the camping area. "We're going to have a word about tomorrow's weather," he said up to the grey clouds. "There'll be none of this nonsense for the first day of summer."
It would only take a little nudge of the ancient magics of the earth to ensure a sunny warm day. Not a difficult bit of magic to perform at all. Not for him, anyway. Not for a long time.
His winding path eventually brought him down to the grassy lakeside, to a fifty foot wide circle of waist high stones. Locals had been calling the rock formation the Stone Circle of Avalon for centuries now. It was the main feature of the park by the same name that bordered his estate. It had even been declared a National Trust Property a few years back.
A lot of damn fuss over a calendar, Merlin thought, as he strolled over to the circle's heelstone. He'd only built the thing to mark the passage of time. His own body had been useless in that regard.
Merlin glared across the rippling lake at the ruins of the tower on the Isle of Avalon. Two sides of the same coin, he thought. I should have known it was more than an expression. I should have realized that if Arthur would endure, then I would too.
And endure they both had. Separate, and alone. At opposite ends of existence.
Year after year, century after century, lifetimes of man, Merlin had lived on and on and on, ever since that horrible day when he'd placed Arthur's body in a boat and sent him to the Sidhe.
Merlin pressed a wrinkled palm against the coarse rock of the heelstone, his eyes upon the green grasses beneath his worn boots. Right here, he thought. Right here in this spot, it had all come to an end.
He could almost see his younger self on the grass, abandoned even by the great dragon, kneeling beside Arthur's body, begging the unfeeling universe one last time to give Arthur back to him, pleading with the ancient magics of the earth to please let Arthur stay, please, just let Arthur stay-
Merlin's gaze snapped to the ruined tower.
I felt that, he thought. I did. I know I did.
Merlin dropped to his knees and toppled forward, pressing his hands to the damp grass and cold earth.
"Inbringe cume mec onbregdan cume her!"
His magic rose to fill him, and he sent it at once deep down into the ground, stretching past soil, past rock, deep into the liquid core of the earth below. Finding no trace of what he sought, he surged with his magic up through sea beds, up through the oceans, up into the clouds, then back down to earth again in the rain that flowed to the rivers, and to the lake, and upon the shore, until finally rushing back into his body.
Merlin heaved in a breath as if emerging from deep water. He saw the world tilt, felt his body list sideways, and fell hard to the ground.
"Nothing," he whispered to the ruined tower, or at least to what he could see of it through the long white hair covering his face. "But that's… I felt something… I did… I did…"
Someone shouted his name nearby. With great effort, he lifted a shaking arm and pressed his palm to the ground to push himself up. When his body refused to cooperate, he rested his cheek upon the cool grass instead, and pulled what strength he could through the natural forces of the living things all around him.
Too long, Merlin thought. It had been far too long since he'd connected with the ancient powers. He'd let his body grow too old and weak to support the attempt.
"This is your fault, Arthur," he muttered into the grass.
'How is it my fault?'
"You've been gone so long that I've actually turned into an idiot."
'You were already an idiot when we first met, Merlin.'
"Better an idiot than a royal arse."
"Some help over here!" he heard Eleanor shout.
"I'm all right," Merlin muttered, and with a grunt of effort, pushed himself to his aching knees. After pawing his hair out of his face, he realized Eleanor and several of the construction workers were standing around him, staring at him in obvious worry.
"Should we call Emergency Services?" one of them asked.
"No you should not. I'm fine." Merlin got a foot under him and extended an arm to the man. "Just help an old man to his feet, will you?" Instead of taking his hand, two of them men stepped to his sides, grabbing him under the armpits like a child and hauling him to his feet. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Let go. It's just a bit of low blood sugar from not eating today," he added, because that was always a good excuse for magical exhaustion.
"I'll take him inside and make him eat something," Eleanor told the rest of them. She grabbed hold of Merlin's arm in a grip worthy of a Knight of Camelot. "Come on."
Merlin tried to shake free from her grip as she walked him up the hill towards his property. "I can walk on my own."
Eleanor let go of him, watched as he staggered sideways when he tried to take a step without support, then sighed loudly and grabbed his arm to steady him again.
"Oh shut up," he told her.
"I wasn't going to say a word," she said, as she walked him through the park and towards the wooden side gate to his property. His legs were unsteady under him as he passed through it, and he nearly lost his balance twice before they bypassed the wide porch stretching along the glass wall of his house.
Eleanor passed the glass doors to the café and guided him towards his private entrance in the North Tower. "Do you have your keys?"
"Why would someone like me need keys?" Merlin said, then stumbled in surprise at his too honest reply. Apparently he was not as unaffected from his collapse as he thought.
"Just because you own half the lake region doesn't mean you should leave everything unlocked," Eleanor said, proving once again how easily modern people believed what they wanted. "There'll be hundreds of people here in a matter of hours to camp out for the festival tomorrow. You need to protect your things. Such as they are," she added, as she led him through his front door and into his residence.
His rooms on the first floor of the North Tower were sparse indeed. Although the layout was open and modern, with living area flowing into dining area flowing into kitchen, it was definitely more empty than minimalist. A few paintings hung on the walls, and long curtains hung beside tall narrow windows in the rounded stone walls. But there were no real signs that someone actively lived there.
Which made sense, Merlin thought. Because he didn't.
Eleanor sat him on his ridiculously overstuffed sofa and went to get him food in his kitchen. As he relaxed back into the cushions, he heard her saying something to him about the sad state of his refrigerator, and his habit of taking food from the café kitchens.
Ah, he thought sleepily. She must have discovered the sandwiches I nicked this week. Or possibly the bag of scones I took from the bakery counter this morning. Or possibly the flavored creams from the café. Or, come to think of it, just about everything else that I have in there.
"Eat this," Eleanor said, startling him awake by shoving a plate into his hand. "Go on."
"I'm not a child," Merlin said, grabbing a muffin from the plate, and taking a petulant bite of it, sending crumbs cascading down into his beard and onto his coat.
Eleanor watched him eat, her arms crossed tight over her flowered disaster of a dress, worry deepening the wrinkles of her narrow face, pressing her lips into a tight line.
"What?" Merlin asked, finally.
"You wonder why I'm trying to find you someone, Emrys. Well. This," she gestured to his crumpled form on the couch, "is the reason."
"I'm fine, Eleanor."
"You are not fine-"
"I told you. I just didn't eat today."
"That's exactly what I mean. If you had someone to keep an eye on you, you'd be much better off. I know I have been, since I found my Frederick."
Merlin leaned back against the sofa, his eyes falling closed. He was so unspeakably tired. He could feel the exhaustion deep in his bones.
"Let me find you someone special-" Eleanor began.
"I already had someone special," he said, because he was too tired to lie about this anymore. "But he's gone now."
There was a long moment of silence. And then a soft "oh". Finally, there was a movement by his side on the sofa, as she sat next to him. "He," she said.
"All these years," she said, and she sounded hurt now. "All this time we've known each other. And you never said."
He drew in a deep breath, sighed it out, turning his head on the couch to look at her troubled expression. "It wasn't like you're thinking. Between him and me. At least. I didn't even realize. Not until he was gone."
She placed a hand on his arm. "I wish you'd told me."
"It was a very, very long time ago."
Another long silence. "You know," she said finally, "I happen to know there are quite a few eligible older gentlemen in the village…"
Merlin huffed out a laugh. Because honestly. She was just relentless. "Eleanor," he said, and covered her hand with his own. "My dear, dear friend. Thank you for what you're trying to do for me. But please. Don't. Because there is only one person I belong with. And no other person will do. Believe me. I've tried."
She squeezed his hand, her expression unspeakably sad. "Promise me you'll eat the rest of that," she said.
"Yes, Eleanor," he said, in his best doddering old man tone yet.
"And get some rest," she said, more in her normal tone of voice. "You'll need it for the festival tomorrow. I've hung your Merlin costume behind your bedroom door, by the way. Try not to set it on fire again this year."
"Ah yes," Merlin said, and smiled tiredly. "That's right. Tomorrow I get to be Merlin again. That's always nice."
"I don't know why you don't just use your own name," she said, as she picked up his plate and put the muffin back in his hand. "Emrys was Merlin's name in the legends too, after all."
"No one knows that," Merlin said, and took another bite of muffin after she gestured for him to eat again. "Believe me. It's easier living as Emrys than it is Merlin."
"A good thing you weren't named after your father, then."
That's right, Merlin thought. He'd told her when they met that his father was named Merlin. That had been his name, during the second world war. It had all been so long ago. He couldn't remember what lie he'd told the people in the village when he'd replaced his older self as a young man.
He watched her walk the plate to the kitchen through half-lidded eyes. Sleep was pulling at him, even as he struggled against it. "Did you put my hat and cape with my costume?" he asked.
"Of course I did. You can't be a wizard without a hat and cape, now, can you."
"Never wore a hat, back then," Merlin said, as his eyes drifted closed. "Well. Almost never. Only when Arthur made me. Hardly ever wore a cape, too. Shame, really. Always liked red. Probably for the best… Could have caught fire… All those times with the dragons…"
He felt her lift the muffin from his fingers and press her hand to his arm. "Take a nap," she said. "Then have some of those sandwiches you nicked from the café later and go to bed. You'll feel better in the morning."
He tried to say that he would do no such thing. But the door to the main house was barely closed behind her before he felt himself pulled into sleep.
He woke several hours later, groggy and disoriented. A single lamp barely illuminated the dark room. Outside the narrow windows, night had long since fallen.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, he got to his feet and staggered across the room to his downstairs bedroom.
He didn't bother checking to see if the Café or Apothecary or South Tower Museum were closed and locked. He trusted the people who worked for him. They cared for this place. And they cared for him too. He had no doubt things would be secured for the night.
After stumbling into his downstairs bedroom, Merlin walked past the meticulously made bed, over to a small closet door in the far wall.
He opened its door to reveal a circular stone staircase lined with candelabras. Candles flickered to life as he climbed the stone stairs, guiding him up to the second story of the North Tower.
Which is where he actually lived.
Merlin emerged from the stairwell into a long stone corridor that ran the length of the North Tower, lakeside to roadside. Its walls were lined with burning torches that flickered to life at his presence. Between the burning flames, tapestries of bright red hung from the walls, all bearing the yellow dragon of the Pendragon crest.
The corridor would have been familiar to many in Camelot. Especially if they had ever walked the halls between the king's chambers and the rooms of the Court Physician.
With a yawn, Merlin turned left down the corridor, to head to his room within the chambers of the Court Physician. But after only a few steps, he slowed, and then stopped.
How long? he wondered. How long since he'd checked on Arthur's rooms? A few weeks perhaps? Or- no. No, that couldn't be it. Outside it had been snowing, hadn't it? Yes, that's right. He remembered noticing the cold.
But the last snowfall had been months ago.
Merlin turned, and stared down the corridor at the closed wooden double doors.
"That can't be," he muttered. "It can't have been months."
But when Merlin pushed open the doors to Arthur's chambers, the stale air that rushed out at him told him all he needed to know.
It hadn't been months since he'd tended to these rooms.
It had been years.
Merlin stared into the dark rooms, at the shuttered windows and the closed drapes and the dark candles, breathing in the rank smells of musty fireplace and dusty stone and neglect.
Hugging his coat to his chest against the chill, Merlin walked into the stone anteroom, past Arthur's desk and table and chairs. He stepped into the archway to Arthur's bedroom choking on dust, blinking it from his eyes as he regarded the dimly lit wardrobe and dressing screen and canopied bed.
He could be standing in Camelot, in Arthur's rooms when he had been a prince, if not for the stillness and disuse of this place. He'd let himself pretend it more than once in the past. In moments of weakness.
Merlin waved a hand at the dozens of tall candles on their iron stands and in their wall sconces, sending magic to light them. They flickered to life all around him, chasing away the darkness, revealing the carefully reproduced rooms.
Upon every surface, he saw a a thick, white, layer of dust. On Arthur's table. On his parchment. On his bedding. On his pillows. Everywhere.
Merlin stepped over to the wooden frame of the standing mirror beside Arthur's bed. "Look at this," he said, and dragged two fingers through the layer of dust coating the surface. "I can't even see myself."
'You say that like it's a bad thing, Merlin.'
"Vanity was your specialty, Arthur, not mine." He grabbed the sleeve of his coat and wiped away a larger section of mirror, revealing an old man he barely recognized as himself.
'Gods, Merlin, what happened to you?'
'That,' answered another voice, a younger voice, an angrier voice, 'is a very damn good question!'
For a split second, Merlin saw in the mirror not the man he was, but the man he had been.
Young. Powerful. Furious.
'Look at yourself!'raged his younger self. 'Look at what you've become!'
Merlin wiped the rest of the dust from the surface of the mirror with his bare hand, top to bottom, until he could see his actual reflection staring back at him.
His long white hair was wild around his face, his beard contained bits of grass, his coat was dirty from the trip to the stables, and his clothes looked like they'd been slept in, more than once.
He was, in fact, the very image of a mad old sorcerer who lived in the wild.
'Where is the warlock who took on the Saxon Army?' his younger self railed at him. 'Where is the man who stood as equal to dragons? Where is the sorcerer who ran headlong into fire and danger and death?'
"He's dead," Merlin choked out. "He died, on the shores of Avalon, with his king."
Sudden rage filled him, at a fate he hadn't wanted, at a destiny he had failed to avoid. Merlin grabbed hold of the mirror's wooden frame, and his magic surged forth, shattering the glass into dust.
He thrust a hand into the dust cloud, churning his fist through it, forming it into a whirlwind.
You want power? he thought furiously. I'll show you power.
He pushed more magic into the whirlwind, expanding it until it filled the room. Its winds left Arthur's possessions untouched, but lifted every spec of dust and dirt from the room, until all traces of neglect were gone.
Merlin thrust his arm towards the bedroom window, and the curtains flew aside, the shutters banging open, the double glass windows bursting outward. He shoved his palm forward, and sent the tempest of dust out of the window, up into the sky, where it exploded like a firework.
The sound of it shook the glass, and vibrated in his chest, a sound so loud that it would be heard in the Village of Avalon down the road.
Let them come, Merlin thought furiously. Let them come and let them try to take me away from Arthur to some laboratory for study. I will call the lightning from the heavens. I will open the earth to swallow them whole.
Merlin felt himself shaking as the ancient magics surged around and through him, flowing in brilliant rivers of color and light that pulsed and vibrated and sang in his blood and his bones. Within the undulating currents he saw molecules and atoms and electrons and quarks and bits of matter so small that men had not yet discovered them.
So easy to manipulate, he thought wildly. So easy to shape and rend.
Merlin grabbed onto the mirror's empty wooden frame, and with barely any effort, twisted and warped the atoms of the air. Within the empty frame, the air shimmered, vibrated, then solidified into a flawless mirror.
Inches away, Merlin's reflection stared back at him in perfect detail.
The entirety of his eyes shone with gold. His body was glowing from within as well, a ghostly yellow shining through even his clothes. His lips were pulled back in a sneer, his expression a death's head grin, and his expression was twisted into a horrifying mask of merciless, limitless power.
Merlin's hands jerked away from the frame, his body convulsing in his shock.
He must have staggered backwards, because he felt the bedpost hit his back and his head. He focused on the pain, desperately trying to come back to himself.
'As clumsy as ever, Merlin.'
"Yes," he choked out. "Clumsy and an idiot and the world's worst servant, yes, that's who I am, that's what I am, tell me Arthur, tell me that's who I am…"
'Well you're also a total cabbage head, obviously, if you can't remember something so simple.'
Merlin nodded frantically, his eyes squeezing closed. He could always remember Arthur better with his eyes closed. Arthur with his blue eyes and blond hair and fine clothes and jacket and boots, his hand on the hilt of Excalibur, a fond smile on his lips.
"What else," Merlin said through a tight throat. "Please… What else… Arthur…"
'You're also the most loyal and bravest man I know. And you've never forgotten your duty. So don't start now.'
Merlin's eyes snapped open, for just a second believing that Arthur was standing there.
The candle lit room sat silent and empty around him, still faintly smelling of dusty stone and stale hearth and too many years without someone having set foot in it.
Merlin pushed himself from the bedpost and staggered to the open lakeside window on legs that threatened to give out at every step. He leaned upon its stone sill heavily, weak and shaking down into his bones, heaving in deep gulps of cold night air.
In the darkness of night outside, both the lake and its tower were hidden from view. But Merlin knew they were there. They were always, always there.
"Please," he said to them. "I can't do this anymore. Not alone. Without him, I'll…"
Memories flashed before his eyes, of sorcerers whose powers had grown unchecked, who had twisted the world to suit their desires, who had put themselves on a higher throne than man or god.
Monsters and murderers, driven mad by the power of magic, all of them.
And none of them had ever held even a fraction of the power Merlin now possessed.
"Please," he begged, of the Sidhe, of the ancient sleeping magics of the world, of any of his magical kin who may still be left. "Please. Give him back to me. I need him. I need him." He pressed his forehead to the stone. "Please..."
He stood with his head bowed until his thoughts swam and his legs almost buckled beneath him. With the last of his strength he stumbled to Arthur's bed, pulling off his coat, kicking off his boots, before crawling fully clothed under the blankets.
The linens smelled nothing of Camelot. Nothing of Arthur. Nothing did here anymore.
I'll wash it all tomorrow, Merlin thought. Not with magic. But properly. With my hands. With the soaps I make just like the ones in Camelot.
Merlin pushed long white strands of hair out of his face with trembling old fingers, feeling every single year of his long life weighing heavy on his body.
"I'll do better," he whispered into the soft fabric beneath his face. "I promise, Arthur. I'll do better. I will. I will."
'All right, Merlin. All right. Just rest now.'
'I don't want your sorrys, Merlin. I want you to sleep before you do something truly stupid.'
"There's a list already," Merlin whispered into the pillowcase.
'Of that I'm certain.''
Merlin felt his thoughts slide away, melting into dreams. In them, Arthur stood by the bedside, shirtless and in sleeping breeches, blond hair mussed, blue eyes fond.
"Really, Merlin? Sleeping in my bed? Does your insolence know no bounds?"
"There's room for you here as well," he heard himself say, his voice young and strong.
"I should throw you in the stocks," Arthur said, but slid into the bed next to him. Then, as if he had done this many times before, Arthur wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close. "Now go to sleep."
Merlin pressed his face into the warm skin of Arthur's neck. He felt a heartbeat there, and it made him want to cry, though he didn't know why. "There are other things we could do instead," he told Arthur.
"In the morning," Arthur said, and slid a hand around to caress his face. "We'll do all those things in the morning."
"Yes. I promise. Now for once in your life, do as I say. Go to sleep. You're exhausted. And bad things happen to you when you're exhausted."
Merlin frowned against Arthur's neck. Yes, bad things did happen. But he couldn't remember what. Something about a forest. Something about a tower. And there was a boat, wasn't there?
"Don't think about it," Arthur said.
He nodded, relieved. "Yes, my lord."
A press of lips against his forehead. A warm breath on his face. "Good night, Merlin."
"Good night, Arthur," Merlin said, and slid into dreamless sleep.
Author's note - All chapters of this story are posted in its entirety at AO3 here: /works/9851609/chapters/22106327
I wanted to post at least part of it here too, because I have a warm spot in my heart for . But I've moved to posting all my things on AO3. If you'd like to learn what becomes of Merlin and Arthur (hint: happy ending!), visit me there.