A/N: For the LJ community/challenge tobreakthespell. This story is based off Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl.
On New Year's Eve early in the reign of Queen Victoria, families across the vast city of London sat in their homes by firelights and warmed their bodies and ate delicious food to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They would stay up late at night, and young men and women would kiss their sweethearts at the stroke of midnight for good luck while cheers would ring through the household to ring in a new dawn.
Merlin, however, was unfortunately not one such young man.
No, instead of sitting at home, waiting to be used and abused again and again, he was trudging through the cold, ice-ridden streets, slosh wetting his clothes and making him tremble in cold. Instead of a warm fire, he had only the freezing winds for comfort on this darkening night, and a few matches to sell to anyone who would take one. Instead of delicious food to fill his belly, his stomach grumbled and growled in its emptiness.
And instead of having a young sweetheart to kiss at the stroke of midnight, the only one who touched him all night was his cruel uncle, to beat him for scaring away a wealthy old man who would have offered enough for a week's worth of food for Merlin. In this, Merlin could appreciate the cold, for he no longer felt the bruises.
"Get out of the way!" an old wagon driver yelled at him, and Merlin tried, but his shoes were old and heavy, and he had to slip out of them and abandon them as the wagon drove by. He only barely made it, being showered upon with ice as it drove by.
It took a few moments for Merlin to shake all the ice off his shivering form.
When he looked back, his shoes were nowhere to be found. He wanted to cry, but he feared the tears would freeze to his face if he did so. Instead, he looked around, seeking shelted for the moment of wind and cold.
He saw a small corner, made by part of the building being more advanced towards the street than the other, and it was slightly shielded from the wind.
Trudging over to it, Merlin fell to the ground, surrounded by stone to his back and side.
Across the street, he saw an old manor, warm yellow lights coming out the window. His spine shivered as he imagined what it would be like. In all his years, though barely of age as he was, he'd never felt that level of warmth, not during this time of year, and he wondered what it was like to be able to see beautiful snow and be warm at the same time.
He quickly stopped wondering, for it would do him no good to think of things he never had, and never would have.
…I had it in Camelot, drifted across his mind as he pulled his legs close, huddling into a desperate little ball of desperately little warmth.
He frowned at that. What was a Camelot? As he wondered at it, he saw his toes go beyond white.
He pondered the thought of going home, and decided against it, feeling a bruise against the hard stone at his side and knowing how much worse his beating would be if he didn't sell a match, how much worse his life would be tomorrow, what he would have to do to make up for it.
Instead, he lit a match, striking it against the wall, reveling in the warmth it brought.
In it, he saw a stone fireplace, one he'd never seen before and yet felt impossibly familiar. He felt was it was like to be warm all over!
He swallowed as the flame died out, dropped it, and plucked another from his hands, and dragged it down the wall, the only way he could give it enough speed and friction to light.
A roast…boar? He'd never even seen a boar in his life. Or heard of one to be truly sure! Yet the sight was familiar, he'd seen it before, he'd been there on the hunt, and it was childish indulgent pride in his heart as it was being brought out.
It wasn't his. But it was. It wasn't his, be he could have it.
He didn't know such love and generosity existed in this world.
The light fell, and he died out again. No! He couldn't let go of this, not when he was so close – to what, he didn't know, but he just knew he needed it, and fast.
Another match was lit.
This time, he saw robes and blankets and quilts of fur, and thought, not mine, and then, but his heart is, and it didn't make sense, but oh it felt nice.
And there was…someone…there…
But the light died out again, the momentary spot of warmth gone.
Who, who was it? His mind rang, and he needed to light another match, to warm himself, to find out…
Merlin lit another match and saw an ethereally beautiful woman with pale skin, dark hair, fire in one hand, and a sword in the other. Morgana, he thought, and the name tasted sad but familiar on his tongue. But it wasn't who he was trying to remember.
The little flame died, and Merlin remembered a warrior witch, friend and enemy both. That's what the name tasted like.
He struck another match, and in it stood another woman, dark and wearing a royal dress that made him think queen, but her face and her hands made him think friend and Gwen.
Another match. An old man, a mentor, a teacher-Gaius.
Another match more. A man, noble in heart and soul, pure in the deepest ways possible. Lancelot.
Another match, and another old friend, brash and almost cruel but caring deep down in his heart. Will.
Another match brought forth a splendid castle of nearly unfathomable excellence. Another one brought a round table, and all the meaning behind it that it brought. Another match, and a lake came forth, brimming over with the forces of nature. Another match, and a quiet room, lavish, private, and warm, strong, comforting arms around him.
As the flame died and Merlin saw his clothes and state, and cried out as faint memories of a better life flooded him. He shivered in the cold, and he could no longer feel his toes in the snow. They were deep blue, and he knew they would soon be black and lost.
A shooting star raced across the sky, and, remembering having once heard that a shooting star meant someone had died, he wondered if it was mourning his cold toes.
And these memories were broken, something missing, and with a new sob of desperation, he reached and drew all the matches across the wall, lighting them all at once, the bright flame of multiple matches warming his hands and chest and face.
Arthur, he saw in the match-light, and thought, love.
The visage of his prince knelt down before Merlin. "Don't cry, Merlin."
In the distance, chimes run out through the city as the clock struck midnight, singing in the New Year.
"Happy New Year, Merlin," Arthur said, before leaning forward and kissing Merlin.
Real or not, those lips were warm and Merlin sighed into the kiss, snuffling in relief at the warmth against his entire front, a marvelous counter to the cold stone at his back.
Merlin blinked tiredly as the kiss ended, breathing slow and slowing and steady at once.
"We miss you, Merlin," Arthur said softly.
Merlin nodded tiredly, head drooping, hoping Arthur understood.
"Come home with me?" Arthur asked.
Behind him, Merlin felt cold, hard, stone, and the harder and colder world behind it.
Behind Arthur, Merlin saw green fields and warm sunlight and in the distance, he could isles of light the brilliant, ethereal castle, lost to one world and preserved in another.
In front of all that, smiling faces and memories waving at him.
"Avalon awaits you, Merlin," Arthur said, standing up. "Will you come home?"
Merlin grinned as best as he could.
"Take me with you?" Merlin said, speaking to Arthur for the first time in…in a long, long time. Or hell, speaking for the first time that night, period.
Arthur grinned, holding out his hand. Merlin tried to grab on, and almost cried when he couldn't even get the strength to life up his own hand to clasp Arthur's.
"Don't cry," Arthur said again, crouching down. "I'll take you there, okay?"
Merlin slowly nodded, and Arthur reached out and slipped one arm under his thin shoulders and the other under his thinner knees.
When Arthur lifted him up, it felt freeing, like taking a deep breath after holding it to your limits, and elation and joy poured through his veins.
His head lolled, and on the ground, he saw himself.
For the first time in his life, he looked truly happy.
"Let's go, shall we?" Arthur asked.
Merlin managed enough energy to turn his head up to look into Arthur's eyes and smile in agreement.
Arthur turned away and stepped, instead into a wall, into a bright light, from where Merlin could feel warmth and sun and love coming through.
"Welcome home, love," Arthur said, pulling Merlin close to his heart. "We missed you sorely."
Merlin nodded, and Arthur, feeling it, looked down with a gentle, concerned smile on his face.
"Sleep, love," Arthur said. "I've got you."
Merlin blinked and nodded yet again, turning to tuck his face into Arthur's shoulder.
He felt himself being shifted up and felt a soft kiss on his forehead.
With a happy sigh, Merlin shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, the people of London exclaimed in pity and shock at the corpse of the young man on the outside wall of the church in the lower town.
His bared toes and fingers were black and his lips were blue, but there was an almost rosy flush to his smiling face, and all around him were scattered, burnt-out matches in black spots of snow.
"Oh, dear," one passerby said. "Poor boy froze to death!"
"There, see?" another one said. "He must've tried to keep himself warm with the matches he was selling."
"I wonder what he saw," pondered a third. "To die with a smile like that on his face?"
No one knew, and apart from a passing fancy, a bit of gossip and news for the day, no one really cared, either. Such was the way of life – just another dead waif on the streets of London.
They weren't to know, of course, that in Avalon, the young man was blinking awake, surrounded by warm and soft and comfort, and when he turned his head, he saw Arthur beside him, his arms wrapped around him, and in this, Merlin nuzzled into his love's body, now that he had all his memories back.
It felt like coming home.
"Hello, there," Arthur gently greeted, quietly and softly and tone brimming with affection, as he leaned over to kiss Merlin, who sighed and snuffled happily into the contact.
"Happy New Year, Arthur," Merlin murmured when they parted.
Arthur grinned as he pulled Merlin closer to him for the first time in far too long.
"Happy New Year, Merlin. Happy New Year."
Comments are love.