I know it's hard to tell how mixed up you feel
Hoping what you need is behind every door
Each time you get hurt, I don't want you to change
Because everyone has hopes, you're human after all
(VNV Nation :: Illusion)
Eternity Ends and Begins
Merlin died. Arthur wasn't sure he understood exactly how it had happened yet. Somehow his brain kept sticking on the words "Merlin died" and he couldn't form any other coherent thought. He felt dumb. Empty.
Morgana had screamed at him at first, because Arthur had been with Merlin when it happened, and he hadn't been able to protect him. It was his job to protect Merlin. So Morgana had screamed, and he had given no reply. He'd just waited for her to stop, and to leave. She'd hit him, too. He'd let her. It hadn't really hurt.
Morgana cried a lot. More than Arthur would've thought she would.
Arthur didn't cry. That was sort of a knight rule, he remembered. "No man is worth your tears," stuff like that. Shit like that.
He wished his chest wouldn't ache so much, though. He wished he wouldn't feel this heavy... thing compressing his lungs and his heart. He wished he didn't care. He wasn't good at feelings. He wasn't good at expressing them, and he hadn't cried since he was a teenager, not for any reason. Not for any argument he'd had with his father, nor for the knights and friends he'd already lost, nor for the pain of any wounds he had suffered.
And maybe, just maybe, he wished he could cry. He wished it wouldn't have felt like weakness, wouldn't have felt like disgrace. He wished his own body would allow him to release all the mess stuck inside him, because he was quite sure he wouldn't be able to stand it forever.
But he didn't cry, and so the mess stayed.
He spent the next few days doing what he was supposed to: fighting with his knights, riding around, training the dogs. Princely stuff. He didn't have to train the dogs himself, to be fair, but he wanted to. He wanted to fight until he felt exhausted, wanted to ride until he had no clue of where he was, wanted to train the dogs, to yell at them until they were in the very same state of craziness he felt inside. He wanted to yell, a lot, and so he did - at the dogs.
Maybe it really was madness. Maybe something was wrong with him. He didn't care. He kept yelling.
Gaius prepared the boy's funeral. His body would be buried in the lower town's graveyard, which was good enough for a servant. Morgana fought for him to be buried in the castle graveyard, but Uther disagreed. So it was the lower town. It had to be, since he was a servant. It was just logic.
Uther didn't change in the slightest. He grew angry at Morgana because she was too sensitive about the whole thing, and enough was enough. He grew angry at Arthur too, because he stayed silent all the time, even during the feast which had been given for him as a reward for killing the sorcerer, and it was irritating.
Arthur didn't want to disappoint his father - he didn't want to care about Merlin's death. He wasn't like Morgana. He wasn't a girl. He had to be able to stand it. Yeah, Merlin was dead. Right. It was sad, but life went on and he had things to do. He was the Prince of Camelot, he just couldn't afford to mope all the time. He wasn't even moping! He was just... thinking about it. A lot.
So he took care, when speaking with his father, to smile and maybe to laugh enough so Uther wouldn't say anything about his behaviour. Uther was pleased, and Morgana kept giving him looks. Her how can you even live with yourself? You're so disgusting I can't stand it, and if you had any honour you would throw yourself off the highest tower looks.
It made him feel guilty, and somehow the mess inside him grew.
He didn't hire a new manservant right away. He should wait until after the funeral, he told himself, it would be more correct. He didn't want another manservant, though, not yet. He didn't know if he wanted another manservant ever. So in the evenings he undressed alone, and in the mornings he went at the kitchen by himself to get his breakfast. He didn't sleep very much, yet, nor did he have much of an appetite.
Merlin's corpse would stay at Gaius chamber until the funeral. Arthur didn't go there, because he didn't want to see his friend's dead body. It wouldn't suit Merlin, he thought. Death. Stillness. Silence. It just... wouldn't suit him.
Maybe something really was wrong with him.
It was three days since Merlin died. Three days. That was like an eternity and no time at all. It was strange to see how normal things seemed to be, as if people weren't aware of what had happened yet. Arthur wished they knew. He wished the maids, the others servants, even the knights knew about it, and that they wore mourning. Too much sorrow was inappropriate from a prince, but surely it would be okay from them, right?
But they didn't. Some were sad, because they knew Merlin and liked him, but no one cried.
Why? Even Gaius didn't cry. Seriously, why? It would have been okay, nobody would have said anything if the old man cried. But he didn't. He stopped talking, except for answering the King's questions; he stopped caring, about everyone and everything, but he didn't cry.
That was weird, Arthur thought. That was wrong.
Tomorrow morning it would be Merlin's funeral, and he didn't know who would be there. He was scared nobody would, except Gaius and maybe Morgana and Gwen. He wasn't sure Hunith herself would have the time to come for her son's funeral, because it had taken him two whole days before he had thought to send someone to tell her. It was unfair that nobody cared. Merlin had been a good man, surely he had friends. Where were they now?
Tomorrow morning he would be buried, and Arthur didn't know if he should see him before. Maybe if he didn't, he would think about it for the rest of his life and regret it. And maybe if he did, he wouldn't be able to remember his manservant as he had been, smiling, clumsy, stupid... living. He didn't want his last memory of Merlin to be a dead body. What if he was already stinking so much that Arthur wouldn't be able to stand it? Dead bodies stank. Merlin didn't.
So now it was the last evening before Merlin's funeral, and Arthur stayed at his room, seated in his chair, his sight fixed on his untouched plate as he wondered if he should go or stay.
Someone knocked, and Arthur blinked before he answered.
It was Gaius. The old man entered and closed the door behind him, quietly. He gave Arthur a bow, and Arthur stood up immediately.
"May we... have a talk, Sire?" the old man asked. He looked exhausted.
Arthur nodded and offered him the chair across from him
"What is it, Gaius?"
"It's about Merlin, Sire."
Of course it was about Merlin. Arthur looked away, biting his lip. Eventually he looked back at Gaius, who was still waiting. Arthur nodded.
"Yes. I'm... sorry about your loss," he finally managed to say. "And I'm sorry I failed him."
"I hoped you might be able to tell me what happened."
Arthur wished he could. He wished he understood what had happened.
"It was really confusing, Gaius. I'm not sure I will be able to explain it."
"Please, Sire, I.... Try, at least."
Arthur nodded and, haltingly, began to speak.
Arthur and his Knights had been on a hunting trip for a week when it happened.
It hadn't been a real hunting trip, though, because they hadn't been looking for animals. Instead, they'd been after a sorcerer some peasants had reported to the King, a man who'd been threatening them with his magic to get what he wanted. So Arthur had brought his knights -and Merlin of course- to find the man and kill him, so he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone again with his damn magic.
It took them a week to find the sorcerer, and Merlin had been reticent the whole time, but that was normal. This was Merlin after all, and whatever Arthur's manservant might have said, he always did what Arthur told him to anyway. He was a little more gentle with Arthur since the previous tournament, when Arthur had nearly been killed - by accident, and that would have been a ridiculous way to die - and somehow Merlin was acting... differently. He complained a lot - more than usual - about things like how bad he'd been sleeping (although the ground didn't hurt Arthur's back at all) and about how tired he was (even if it was Arthur who'd had to hunt down something to eat with one of his knights). He'd complained about everything, and that had been irritating, really, because this trip was just fine. Arthur was feeling good, except for all this groaning he had to listen to.
Of course, these things were nothing, and if he'd known that his manservant wouldn't survive the trip, he would have acted differently. He would have sent Merlin home to keep him safe, or he would have given up, maybe. Instead, he'd found a stupid thing to get angry about, and that was how it ended. Merlin had been complaining, and so Arthur'd told him to shut up. His knights had snickered, and Merlin had sulked like the girl he was, calling Arthur "Sire" and "My Lord" with the tone they all knew meant, You're such a prat it's not even funny.
So Arthur had left him behind when they found the sorcerer's den and had gone in alone with his knights to fight, leaving Merlin with the horses.
The fight had been... weird.
If he were being honest, Arthur knew that he should have died at some point, or at least broken some ribs. The sorcerer had sent a ball of God-knew-what at Arthur and Leon, which had knocked them out in the middle of the battle, and while Leon had been groaning in pain and unable to sit up, Arthur had been spared. He'd jumped at the man once more, trying to stab him.
That was the moment Arthur should have died.
But he hadn't.
An intense ball of power had hit him right in the chest, just over his heart, and somehow he'd felt nothing. He'd been as surprised as the sorcerer, but he hadn't let his chance get away. Act first, think later - he'd stabbed the sorcerer through the heart.
All he'd been thinking about as they trudged back to the horses, Arthur supporting Leon as they walked, was the report he would give his father and the feast they would probably have when they returned home. And there Merlin had been, lying on the ground, his wide open eyes fixed on the sky, half his face covered by the blood escaping his mouth and nose.
Arthur hadn't moved, at first. He hadn't been able to. Because of the shock, maybe. It had been a knight who'd had to kneel on the ground at Merlin's side to touch him and say what they all already knew.
Merlin was dead.
Just like that.
Gaius had let Arthur explain without responding. The more the prince had spoken, the more difficult it had been for him to go on. If he could had avoided it, he certainly would have, but he owed Gaius the truth, or at least what he knew of it. He wasn't coward enough to ignore the old physician's needs, even if those needs forced him to relive the day his manservant died once again. He was able to fight with courage whatever opponent he faced, to deal with tense situations, to make political speeches, so this, just the report a journey to an old man, shouldn't have been a problem.
When he stopped speaking, though, it was mostly because his throat was too tight to say another word. He hated it. Merlin was a bloody manservant, dead for three whole days. His throat wasn't supposed to tighten just because he recounted a bloody trip! That was nonsense.
No. What was nonsense was Merlin's death. The idiot had found a way to die after Arthur had left him behind, where he should have been safe! The idiot hadn't even met the sorcerer, so why?
Maybe there had been an accomplice. Maybe another sorcerer had been there without any of them noticing and had killed Merlin the moment he had been left alone, defenseless.
For three days Arthur had wished there was an accomplice, because then he would be able to turn his boiling need to hit something toward the man, hunt him down and make him pay. Uther's fury against magic would be nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to Arthur's rage when he found the man. There wouldn't be a need for any knight's rule. Arthur would just hit him, yell at him, torture him endlessly to make him feel how bad it was, to make him feel the pain he was feeling himself. He wouldn't kill the man. He would simply put him in jail and torture him as long as it took for Arthur to feel better.
That idea had merit. Rage was better than emptiness, he could deal with it. Find Merlin's killer, torture him. Never let that rage go, because emptiness would return immediately. He didn't want to feel empty. Rage was good.
Never let it go.
Gaius kept looking at him, though his gaze was half-absent. They kept silent both, and Arthur knew that Gaius's thought were all bent toward Merlin again, just like his were. They just couldn't help it.
Gaius would probably died soon, Arthur thought. He wouldn't do anything to cause it, but he would just... stop living, at some point, because his heart wouldn't be able to stand the grief anymore. It was only three days since Merlin had gone, and already the physician looked older than ever, and terribly sick.
The man was empty.
Rage was good.
"There's something Merlin always wanted to tell you," Gaius said eventually, his voice low, "but never dared. I think it doesn't really matter, now, if I tell you."
Arthur blinked and hesitated a bit before he nodded, allowing Gaius to go on. But Gaius didn't. He kept looking at Arthur, his lips pressed together, his breathing a bit harsh, somehow.
"I want you to give me your word that, whatever I tell you now, you will still allow Merlin a proper funeral in the town graveyard."
"Gaius, there's nothing you could tell me which would make me..." Arthur's voice broke down as the old man kept his gaze on him. So he just nodded, a little afraid of what Gaius might tell him. The old physician looked concerned, almost afraid, and Arthur wasn't sure he wanted to know. "You have my word, Merlin will have a proper funeral," he heard himself saying, "but if there's something Merlin didn't want me to know, then you need not tell me."
He didn't want his last memory of his manservant to be spoiled by whatever it was, though that thought was probably pointless now.
Gaius kept silent a long time, just looking at him, and just as Arthur thought that he had decided not to tell, the physician muttered.
"Merlin... Merlin was a sorcerer, Sire..."
Arthur said nothing. His hand stayed lying on the arm of his chair and his gaze stayed stuck on Gaius, but he said nothing, his body still, not even tensed.
What the fuck was that?
"He wanted to tell you," Gaius said, no longer looking at him. His voice was still calm, and Arthur didn't know how it was that people were calm. Was it normal? Was he the only one who wasn't right? "But that would have been too complicated, and too dangerous for him. I often told him to keep his magic secret, to be careful... I wanted to keep him safe."
Arthur said nothing. The old man sniffed, his gaze stubbornly turning away, his eyes red.
He kept silent a while before he added, his voice broken, "You have to understand, Sire. He's- He was my boy. The dearest to me. He wasn't evil. I know what your father told you, I know I... I did many things myself against sorcery. Many things. But he wasn't evil. And he was always looking after you, he- all the time. You wouldn't believe how many times he saved your life. He saved yours, mine, even your father's.... He was a good heart."
Gaius quickly wiped his eyes, taking a harsh breath to try to control himself. Somewhere behind his shock, Arthur understood that Gaius had reached his limit. Something inside the old man had broken, and he was on the edge of crying all the tears he'd kept to himself since Merlin died. He probably would have already if Arthur hadn't been there, if Arthur hadn't been glaring at him after his confession. Men used to wait to be alone to break into pieces.
Arthur knew he should say something, should come out of this state of shock he was in.
"He died to protect you," Gaius went on, his voice no louder than a whisper. "He was not a traitor, Sire. He was your most loyal servant. He- He would have done anything for you! It scared me, all the things he would have done for you."
"What do you mean?" Arthur heard himself say. Was that his voice? It sounded threatening. Alien.
Gaius pinched his lips together, gasping for air and trying to hold on, to keep up appearances, maybe. His fists were tight, Arthur absently noted. "What happened... It was because of a spell he put on you just before you went. That was why you didn't suffer anything. He took it for you. The spell was just for practice. It wasn't supposed to end this way."
Arthur felt groggy. His blood was pulsing thought his temples and his head was turning.
That wasn't fair. Gaius couldn't be saying what he was saying, no. No.
Merlin wasn't a bloody sorcerer at all, and he certainly wasn't dead instead of Arthur. No. He was just dead because of someone Arthur was about to find and to torture. That was all.
That was all.
"I'm going to see him," he finally said, and once again his voice sounded alien to him. "You can stay here for a while." He stood up and went to the door, his feet walking of their own accord.
"Stay here," he ordered.
He was going to see Merlin. That was all. It was strange, how empty his mind felt, and how full his chest was. He didn't even know what this feeling was. He was only aware of his feet, almost running, his breathing harsh, and his heart beating madly. His mind was a blank.
No. No emptiness.
Rage was good.
Rage was so much better.
Arthur burst the door open with a terrible noise. He banged it closed behind him, breathing heavily, his eyes darting around to find Merlin. The room was almost dark by now, and unnaturally silent. All was clean, tidied, and in the centre of it stood the table, the dead body laying on it, covered by a sheet.
Arthur intended to remove the sheet. He wanted to. But his hands were shaking, his breathing was disturbed, and his heart was beating so madly than he wasn't sure he could. He was afraid to do it, he was afraid to see Merlin dead, even now. Even though he had already seen him during the trip back to Camelot, even now that he knew Merlin was nothing more than a bloody traitor.
It was too much. Maybe he had reach his limit too, maybe now was he allowed to let it slip. Let the mess burst out of him.
"You!" He yelled, his voice unrecognisable. "What the hell were you thinking?! What was that, Merlin? You think I can't look after myself? You think I needed your bloody help?!"
His lungs were burning. Never before had he felt so much anger, so much rage. His whole body was shaking, and he was screaming so loudly his throat hurt. Merlin didn't answer, he didn't move. Of course he didn't.
"I'm the future King of Camelot, you hear me?! I didn't need your help! It wasn't enough for you to be the most useless servant ever, to be an impertinent idiot, you had to be a traitor, too? A sorcerer?! Since when, Merlin?! Since when did you learn magic right under my nose? You thought it was funny?!"
It was pointless to ask questions, to yell at a corpse. Arthur thought it would have made him feel better, but it wasn't.
"You could have been a man and told me yourself! You're lucky you're dead, Merlin, because I swear I would have killed you myself right now! I trusted you, damn it! You hear me? I trusted you, no matter how much of an idiot, how insolent, how useless you were. I would have given my bloody life to save yours. I trusted you with my life, you bloody traitor!"
It was unfair, and Arthur knew it. But he didn't care. Right now he just needed to yell, to blame Merlin for everything, because that was the easiest way to stay angry and not to become desperate. He understood Merlin wasn't a traitor, he understood Merlin had just protected him, but he'd never asked for any protection, never, so it had been unfair of Merlin. That was how royalty was supposed to work: the subjects were supposed to serve their Lord, and the Lord was supposed to protect them. That was how it worked. He hadn't needed Merlin's help. He'd never asked for it.
"Gaius said you wanted to tell me. So, why didn't you? It's too easy to feel regret and do nothing about it! I thought I could have say anything to you – I thought you felt the same! Come on, you knew I was on your side. You knew I wouldn't have let you down. Because I'm like that with you, Merlin, even when you were wrong, even when you were stupid, even when you were insolent, I'd never let you down. Not when it was serious, not when you were in danger! I was stupid like that, wanting to protect you against anything. Tell me one time I didn't save your stupid ass when you needed me!"
Arthur was breathing harshly now, as if he had just run for hours. His legs were weak, and he wasn't able to catch his breath. He needed to calm down, clear his mind, stop yelling hysterically. Lifting his fist to his mouth, he bit it, closing his eyes to try to regain his senses. It didn't help.
"I liked you. A lot," he whispered eventually, his voice quavering. He didn't open his eyes, didn't dare look at the shape under the sheet, as if Merlin could still mock him. "I thought... I liked you too much. And that was stupid, just like everything is as far as you're concerned, and I've been such an idiot...."
That was stupid. Nonsense. Nonsense, nonsense!
His voice was broken by now, as everything inside him seemed to be. The unbearable feeling bottled inside had finally escaped him, leaving him more empty, more exhausted than he thought anybody could feel. And if his eyes were now wet, if he was shaking this much, if it was this hard to breathe, it was from frustration and anger only. There was just too much silence, now.
His heart was too crushed to stand the vision of Merlin's immobile shape under the sheet one more minute. He needed to leave, or at least to sit down. So he took a few steps back until his hand met a chair and slowly sat in it, breathing hard to regain his senses, no longer looking at his manservant's dead body.
It was okay to cry, just once. Nobody would know about it. It was okay to break down, just this evening, just for a few minutes, because life would still go on after that.
He would still be the prince, he would still become King. Everything would go on, just as it did before. Except Arthur would be alone, now. He had lost the only friend he truly cared about, and all of a sudden his whole kingdom didn't mean anything at all. Everything he owned, everything which made him the second most powerful man in the kingdom, hadn't the slightest importance anymore.
Eyes closed, Arthur prayed the God he didn't believe in. He offered everything for just one more day with his idiotic friend. He swore he would cut his right arm off himself, he swore he would be better, so much better. He offered his kingdom, just for the chance to go back a week in the past.
He would do anything, and his voice was no louder than a whisper as he kept begging please, please, please, endlessly.
He prayed for hours, he begged as he never had before. Because there was nothing else to do, because no matter how strong and powerful he might be, even he was powerless against Death.
Eventually night fell, and Gaius came in.
Arthur hadn't cried. Maybe because he hadn't had any tears left for years. His mind was clear again, just a little groggy, and even when the old man helped him to stand, they didn't look at each other. Arthur just bowed slightly before the physician and went out without saying anything. He turned back at the door and saw Gaius quietly seated near Merlin. He saw him take a hand as white as snow from under the sheet, gently squeeze it between his own, and kiss its knuckles.
Arthur closed the door, slowly.
He didn't sleep at all that night. Lying on his bed, his gaze lost somewhere, the only thing on his mind was Merlin's hand as he had seen it, motionless and ghastly.
In the distance, a soft whisper began calling his name. He ignored it, putting his hands over his ears and praying he wouldn't go mad.
The funeral went as Arthur had imagined it would. Gaius was there, as were Morgana and Gwen, each with a rose in hand, to listen to the priest as Merlin's casket was lowered. There was no maid, no servant, just the graveyard's boy behind the priest. Arthur looked at the casket silently. Morgana had taken his free hand at some point, and he had answered the soft pressure of it without knowing if she thought he needed comfort, or if she was the one who needed it. It wasn't really important. The heat of her palm was okay, he guessed.
The priest stopped talking, joined his hands before him, and took a step back. Arthur blinked and looked on as Gaius approached the hole. He slowly knelt on the ground and threw the rose he'd been holding on Merlin's casket, waiting a long time before standing up again and retaking his place. Gwen imitated him, her lips trembling and her jaw clenched. She gently threw her rose and went back to her place, mopping her eyes without a word. Then Morgana went, and then Arthur.
And that was all. The strangest friendship he never had was definitely over, ended with a flower.
He would be King in a few years, and Merlin would never see it.
"Rest in peace, my boy," Gaius whispered.
"Rest in peace," Morgana repeated in a sigh. "Rest in peace," Gwen added.
Arthur stayed silent. He felt Morgana press his palm, encouraging him, but somehow he wasn't able to say anything. He wouldn't break down again. All his despair had to stay inside him now. He knew he wouldn't break again, because that was how he was. He was a leader, the future King, a man of strength.
"Arthur?" Morgana whispered.
"See you in Avalon," he finally said. "You better run when you see me, idiot, because I'll find you and kick your ass."
His step-sister's mouth half-opened in shock, but he didn't pay any attention. They all stayed silent, so Arthur went on.
"Keep an eye on me, okay? I'm going to be a great king, the greatest ever. You'll cry in frustration at not being here with me when you will see that. But it'll be your fault, so don't complain."
Morgana looked puzzled, but didn't protest. Gwen was half weakly smiling, half crying again, but she kept silent as well. Gaius closed his eyes.
"We'll miss you," Arthur eventually whispered.
They all nodded in silence, and the graveyard's boy began to throw earth on the casket. Holding hands, they waited until the hole was fully filled before slowly leaving.
Morgana didn't release his hand until they reached the castle.
Life went on, just as Arthur had known it would. Gaius died two months after Merlin, and was buried right next to him. Uther himself followed the process, and they didn't wait long before hiring another physician, who started living in what had been Gaius and Merlin's apartment, once.
Arthur kept training with his knights, with maybe more effort than ever. Sometimes, they would train all day until utter exhaustion set in, and Arthur would almost fall asleep in his bath before his new manservant helped him reach his bed. He began spending more time with Geoffrey too, learning details about Albion's history and magic. Geoffrey wasn't supposed to let him access the books about that subject, but for whatever reason, he did, and Arthur learned how Albion had been before the Great Purge. He learned fairy tales and legends; he learned about druids and warlocks.
The new manservant he hired was a quiet and efficient man. He wasn't a flatterer, which Merlin had warn him against, but neither did he act the way Merlin used to. He was doing a job, nothing less and nothing more, and that attitude was just fine with Arthur.
Eventually, Uther offered Morgana's hand to a neighbouring Prince named Urien, and sent her away. Gwen followed her, and neither she nor he mentioned the romance they'd once had. That was long over, now. Morgana wrote him as soon as she arrived in her new home, complaining about everything and everyone, telling him how she'd sentenced her new husband to sleep in another bedroom for five days and had made him cry with shame the day she found him glaring at a maid. However incredible it might be from Arthur's point of view, the man fell madly in love with Morgana soon after their arranged wedding. And through the correspondence Arthur kept with her, he began to believe than she was slowly falling for him as well.
A year after Merlin's death, Uther arranged a wedding for his son, with Lisanor, the daughter of a strong ally. It didn't work out as well as Morgana's, and five months later they were already sleeping in different rooms. If she took a lover, he never heard of it. Arthur sometimes spent the night with a woman or a man, but mostly he slept alone, listening to the whispers calling him incessantly, night after night since Merlin's death. Sometimes he just listened, other times he put his hands over his ears until they vanished, but never did he whisper his manservant's name in return.
Months went on, and then another year. Uther's turn came to die, and Morgana and Gwen came back to help with the funeral. Morgana was three-months pregnant by then, and Gwen was living with Lancelot, who had found her. They stayed three weeks by Arthur's side before they had to leave again.
Arthur slept with his wife the day they left, and she became pregnant as well. She gave him a son, the most beautiful baby Arthur had ever seen in his life, with big blue eyes and hair as golden as his father's. They called him Loholt. He was a little younger than Morgana's son, Yvain, but they made sure the two children met as often as possible. Loholt was Arthur's pride and joy, and even if nothing grew better with his mother, he could live with that. He focused on his son, Camelot, and Morgana.
Kings weren't made for love; they were made for kingship, and power. So Arthur was becoming the most powerful king Albion had ever seen before, slowly, day by day. He allowed magic to return to Camelot, made alliances, won wars.
Seven years after Merlin's death, four years after his son's birth, he was the High King of all Albion. Everything was his, every man living on the Isle was devoted to him. It had taken him seven years, but it was done, the oath he had made on his stupid manservant's grave was honored.
He hoped the idiot had kept an eye on him, and was now crying as Arthur had said he would, longing to be at his side.
Arthur often wished Merlin was there with him. He missed the idiot.
A huge feast took place on the evening when the last kingdom swore fidelity to Arthur. They all danced until late at night, eating the best food from the kitchen. Morgana was there. She decided to stay two months with him, along with her son, before going back home. Gwen didn't stay that long. She went back at her family quickly, because she had a daughter waiting for her now.
It was only at that point, at the moment Arthur couldn't become any more powerful, that he followed the voice that called him every night. He walked without hesitation, as if he already knew his way through the corridors and dungeons, until he reached the huge cavern under Camelot.
The Dragon was there, waiting for him.
"Finally, we meet," the beast said, and perhaps it was smiling. Arthur couldn't say.
"Is that you who keeps calling me?"
"It is me, King Arthur," the beast agreed, his heavy head lowering in a slight bow.
"What do you want?"
"I've a message for you, carried for years. It is my duty to tell you before I go."
"And what is it?" he asked, dubious.
The beast looked at him for a long time. Arthur began to lose patience, but then it spoke again and Arthur's heart missed a beat.
"It is from Merlin, Sire, the one who once was your servant, years ago."
"...Merlin's dead," Arthur answered matter-of-factly, before echoing the Beast's words, "years ago."
"I know, Sire. That's why he needed me in order to send you a message."
"The dead don't send messages, Dragon. Don't mock me."
It was important to keep a clear mind, Arthur told himself, and not to believe what others wanted him to believe. Not to join in the Beast's game.
"You'll believe as it pleases you, King Arthur. I just have an oath to respect, and for that I need to give you the young warlock's last words."
Arthur almost smiled in disbelief. He would have been amused by the joke if he hadn't known better.
"Very well, what is it then?"
The dragon smiled as well - Arthur supposed it was a smile - before answering.
"I'm coming back. Wait for me."
Loholt kept growing and eventually reached the age of twelve, and Arthur himself was now thirty-six. Some grey hairs began to grow at his temples and his jaw was covered by a short beard, but nothing in his body declined. He was still the greatest warrior of Camelot, training every day. His face and his body changed, but didn't lose their nobility. He was now marked with the weight of years of experience in battle, and something in him grew stronger. He was the most powerful man in Albion, and looking at him was enough to make it clear, because of the strong, noble, impressive aura that flowed from his every move.
Yet Merlin didn't come back. Arthur kept looking into crowds, hoping for black hair, pale skin, and ridiculous ears, realizing he maybe was a bit crazy, that never would his former manservant be able to come back from the dead.
It had been fifteen years since the idiot's death. Arthur would see him at Avalon and kick his ass, just as he had sworn on Merlin's grave. That thought made the idea of dying weirdly funny.
It was a few days from his thirty-seven birthday when everything changed again.
The day began as usual. Arthur trained in the morning with some of his knights and with his son, teaching him how to fight, and they all returned to the castle by midday. He ate alone with his wife, with whom he'd been having polite chats for years, and aquiesced to her demand to take his afternoon to listen to those who had asked him for an audience. People were coming from all over Albion to talk to him about whatever was happening in their land, ask permission to do things, or ask his advice. He had sent his more trusted men out into Albion already, giving them lands and power, knowing they would govern in his name and obey his every commend. He made sure of that.
A woman was in the middle of the crowd. She looked about his age and was correctly dressed, but her hands and her skin were ruined, probably from a life of hard work. She looked uncomfortable in the too-big castle. When her turn came to speak, she curtsied deeply before him.
"Your Highness," she said, looking extremely nervous, "it is the- the greatest honour to be heard by you. My name is Katharine. I come from the land you conquered two years ago, in the North of Albion."
"That is very far away from Camelot," Arthur noted. Usually common people didn't come themselves, because of the distance and the need to stay at home to work. No law forbade them from asking an audience as well, though, but it was not usual.
"Yes, Sire. We took two weeks to come here. I'm here with my son; he's the one who wished to ask you an audience."
She turned a little to look over her shoulder and Arthur followed her sight toward a teenager a few steps behind her – her son, obviously.
And then he froze. Because even though the boy staring at him could not have been more than fifteen, even though it was impossible, even though his face wasn't exactly the same as before, Arthur recognized him the second he saw him. He looked a little less skinny and the ears were almost normal, but the eyes were the same, the grin was the same. Even the cheekbones were there. But he was so young, almost as young as Arthur's child.
They shared a look for no more than a few seconds before the boy bowed deeply, exaggerating the move.
"Sire," he said - and god, that voice, that manner of talking - "it's an honour."
"You're back," Arthur heard himself say, feeling his heart go crazy, beating unnaturally fast.
The boy smiled, but didn't look at him again. "I come from far away, My Lord, to ask you the favour of a position by your side."
"What kind of position?"
"Court Sorcerer, Sire," the boy answered, and everyone looked surprise that a so young boy had the cheek to ask for such a position. There were not many sorcerers left on Albion since the Great Purge, and almost all of them were now living at Camelot under the King's protection.
"Are you sure you're powerful enough to fill such a position? You look young."
"If His Highness will allow me to show him what I can I do, I'm sure I can convince him."
Arthur smiled and nodded. It was crazy. Nonsense.
"Leave us," he ordered the crowd. The woman looked a little afraid and shared a last glance with her son before following the others.
The room quickly emptied, and the boy - Merlin, God, Merlin - didn't move at all, still not really looking at Arthur.
"You're back," Arthur repeated.
Merlin nodded, and his movements weren't so sure now that they were alone. He looked more awkward, more clumsy. More himself.
"Yeah, well... Er. Yeah."
Arthur didn't say anything at all, just kept looking at him. He wondered vaguely if it were a trap from one of his ex-opponents, but.... But no-one could remember that well the way Merlin used to move, how he used to talk.
"I know it's, well, a little weird, maybe," Merlin went on. "I asked the Dragon to warn you that I would, you know. He didn't? He swore to me he would, so I thought you would be aware that..."
"He told me," Arthur cut in.
Merlin was back. Merlin was right there, babbling nonsense, looking unsure of what to do with his hands, of what to say. Merlin couldn't be back. Yet there he was.
"Oh. Okay. Well... Miss me?"
Arthur laughed a little, surprising himself. "A bit."
Merlin smiled, and of course Arthur missed that smile, more than he would ever admit. Merlin was right in front of him, certainly not older than fourteen or fifteen, perfectly alive, against all natural law.
Arthur would have gone and hugged him tight, had he been raised differently. He wanted nothing more than to hug Merlin, however girly and wrong it sounded, but he stayed still on his throne, just looking at him.
Merlin smiled and came forward until being right in front of him. Arthur didn't move. He let Merlin reach up and carefully touch his face, his jaw, his short beard.
"You've changed," Merlin whispered, "and you've become a great King."
Arthur nodded. Merlin smiled.
"Stand up," he ordered gently.
Arthur stood up without thinking. He was almost a head taller than Merlin now, which was weird since Merlin always had been a bit taller than him. He suddenly felt the weight of the past years, facing the young boy, and knew better than ever how much he had changed. He was now stronger and more mature than he used to be, and less beautiful, older. Merlin was young, so young it was wrong.
Merlin didn't seem to care. He smiled with his stupid, goofy smile, looking at Arthur - at his face, his tunic - as if not truly believing the King he had become.
"King Arthur," Merlin whispered, as if tasting the word in his mouth. "May I...?"
It was unusual for Merlin to ask permission for anything, but Arthur just nodded. And then closed his eyes the moment Merlin hugged him tightly, arms around him, forehead against his chest. Arthur breathed deeply - and even Merlin's smell hadn't changed - before returning the hug, burying his nose against the teenager's hair.
Just this once, it would certainly be okay.
"I missed you too," Merlin whispered. "A bit."
All would be right again, now.
Please don't go
I want you to stay
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