The days passed slowly at first, but then they all seemed to blur into one another. Stuck in Uther's prison. He didn't know why the man didn't just execute him. Perhaps something to do with guilt, Merlin mused as his stubbled turned into a beard. As if living his life in seven feet by five feet was the better alternative to death.
The guilt he'd thought he'd feel over the fresh pain his not-death would have on his mum and mates was less than what existed. Maybe because everything was so numb. He couldn't touch his magic, though every so often, he'd push and push and push until he felt something spark, but then it would go back to nothing. The numb nothing feeling that nothing could touch him now. He'd waste away in the depths of the middle of nowhere, somewhere that didn't exist, just as he no longer existed. Again. He was already officially dead anyway. But he was sure that the media was having a field day with all of he stunts that Merlin pulled. He smiled faintly at the memory. He had been intimidating and terrifying. Out with a bang, he supposed.
Then there was Arthur. There were a billion different ways for Merlin to have interpreted that brief conversation. If it could be called that. In the end, he stopped trying.
He wished for his computer. A pen and paper. A rock. A tennis ball. A blanket some nights. A softer pallet. A phone.
An unnamed guard slid food into his cell twice a day, always with enough to save for lunch. Uther must really have felt guilty.
Not that it wasn't his fault he was in this situation anyway. Or Merlin's own fault for trying to stop the robbers from stealing and from shooting Ealdor Med's owner.
Time passed by Merlin's beard. It had been Two Inches. And his beard was not particularly fast-growing. It was really all just boring. The food varied—though little—and there was no one to talk to. So he settled for himself, muttering occasionally, quietly. To himself. By Four and a Half Inches, Merlin was having full-blown conversations with himself, aware that it made him look mad. Though he couldn't seem to care. He stopped when he heard footsteps coming to deliver food. By Seven Inches, he didn't even care anymore, pacing theatrically, gesturing emphatically, arguing successfully. He wished he at least could have retained some Shakespeare. The best he had was speeches from the telly and movie quotes. So he strung them together to make stories for himself.
When that got boring, he lay on his stomach and moved piles of dust into formations and played war with them. Or made mountains and valleys and imagined them to be fantastic vistas with cliffs on the sea.
Eventually, it had been Twelve and a Half Inches.
Twelve and a Half Inches of time. And that was only a guesstamate. Merlin wasn't very reliable at measuring with his fingers. His beard was long and he was sure he was even scrawnier than usual, any muscles atrophied from lazing about on the floor and pallet. His clothes were filthy and worn through in places. It probably didn't help that he had spent a large amount of time on the floor.
The door opened. Food. He wasn't hungry yet. So he continued to stare at the ceiling.
Time for his execution then? Finally? After so long, it would finally be a relief.
"God you're a mess."
He looked towards the door. Instead of Uther standing there, it was Arthur. Arthur looking older. More mature. More...stately.
"That beard looks ridiculous on you."
"What?" He said stupidly.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Kay, get over here, would you? Hurry up."
Kay hurried over with an armload of things curious enough to make Merlin rise and shuffle towards the bars.
"What are you—" Merlin stopped as it came out as a croak. "What are you doing here?"
Merlin couldn't help the eyebrow lifting.
"Honestly. No one could be bothered with a pair of scissors or at least some new clothes?"
Kay dumped the items near Arthur's feet and then produced a key to open the cell.
Looking from one man to the other in panic, Merlin backed away from the bars. "Wha-what are you doing?" Kay pushed the door open and then bowed before leaving.
"Merlin, what does it look like I'm doing. I'm letting you out."
"But your father—"
Arthur's face tightens. "My father is dead."
"O-oh." It whooshed out of him, just like some of the tension, and Arthur stepped in and unlocked the cuffs himself.
"You don't deserve to be down here."
"Sorcerer. Remember?" Merlin smiled wryly, massaging his wrists.
"My father's rules. Remember?"
"Arthur, I'm sorry—"
"It was his time." He waved his hand over the apology. "And I've had plenty of time to think. You know..."
"There was this voice that used to talk to me. Insult me. Say the stupidest things sometimes."
"Really?" Merlin arched a brow, going for innocence.
"Yes, and he was really great company. Until he suddenly disappeared."
"Yes. And I find that I miss him." Arthur cocked his head. "There was also a dog."
"That you brilliantly named."
Arthur just smiled. "So that was you then?"
"It was," Merlin admitted with a shrug. He stretched his arms over his head with a moan of appreciation. On the way down, he let them trail over his face, the hair falling away.
Arthur's face made it worth it. "That was..."
"Amazing? Astonishing? Awe-inspiring? Fantastic?"
"I was going to go with disgusting. Or strange."
"God, you have no idea what it's like to finally talk to another real person."
The expression changed on Arthur's face, looking a little like guilt.
"Oh, don't. Don't feel bad. It was your dad's fault. He couldn't kill me and he couldn't put me back in my position. Both for the same reason."
"Which was?" Arthur asked, voice low and breathless.
"I saved your life."
"I'm sorry my father's a coward, Merlin. Now that I finally know your name." Arthur's lips curled up in a smile. "But thank you for saving my life."
"Now. I need something from you."
The hope that had flared up fizzled away. "What is it?"
"Now that I'm king and all, trying to build support from all sectors, I was hoping that you would... stand by me and show the sorcerers that I mean them no harm."
"Close your mouth," Arthur retorted, looking a little bit insecure. "It's just that... I need your help."
Merlin laughed. Cracking up even harder at Arthur's alarmed expression. "You're letting me out?" Merlin said when he was able.
"I should have thought that obvious."
"You're to be my public voice towards the sorcerers. If you want it," he tacked on hastily.
"Your partner in crime?"
"That was bad." Though his grin said otherwise. "My mentor. My bodyguard. My...friend?"
Merlin shook his head. "That sounds perfect. How long has it been?"
"How long—oh. Since you've been in here, about two and a quarter years."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault."
"No. But it was yours. You were terrifying. No, don't look pleased. You were like...like a god come down to smite me. Or. Them."
"Sire, that was the intended effect. Though I suppose I did get a bit carried away."
"Yeah, the flying bit? Impressive. The lightning and sudden storm? Terrifying."
"I shall endeavour to not be...terrifying in the future."
"Unless I order you to."
"Then, by all means, I shall be."
Arthur laughed, leaning close, his head suddenly dropping on the man's shoulder.
"God, my own father. I never even...I never realised. I was so sheltered. And now... Now I know just how much was actually wrong."
Patting his back awkwardly, Merlin allowed a tender smile to play about his lips. "And now I'm here—to save the day."
"Idiot," he said fondly.
"Certainly not. Though, you know, we could move this discussion out of here—seen enough of it thanks, for the rest of my life. I need a few things."
"A change of clothes."
"They're right outside."
"And a mobile."
"I'm calling my mum. Poor woman thinks I'm dead twice. She'll be delighted, if not struck dumb, to talk to me. And my mates."
Arthur smiled. "You may certainly have all of those things. And whatever else you wish."
"A cake from Santa Gloria's Delights."
"Um. Done. I said, whatever you may like, Merlin. Just get it. You'll be employed by me. You'll get paid. Don't worry about."
"Great. That's perfect." Merlin smiled, the expression slipping when Arthur leaned in closer to him, a guarded expression on his face. He kept very still, Arthur's eyes flicking up at his briefly before he pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Arthur?"
"That was for saving my life."
"Um. You're welcome."
Then Arthur kissed him fully on the lips and Merlin groaned merely at the first human contact he'd had in years.
"Maybe we could..." Arthur murmured. "My room? We..."
Merlin grabbed him tight and then they were there, Arthur's same room, looking rather different if he bothered to pay attention.
Arthur murmured something about being amazed, and how useful, and definitely later, but it degenerated as they fell backwards onto the bed and Merlin felt himself be content for the first time possibly ever.