Chapter 9 - The Beach
Quiet at first. It was like being pulled slowly from a river. In fact, Merlin could see the red of stones glittering at the bottom. One in particular shone brighter than the others, and he fought to try and grab for it. The more he swam toward the bottom, the more he felt he was getting closer to the surface somehow.
"How is he?"
"... the mend... know what happened?"
"...found him in the woods..."
The riverbed looked unnatural. There were odd lines in it, like bookcases. There was a table, and over there a window. Then everything started to seem very solid and not like a riverbed at all. Merlin felt his arm begin to ache as he reached for the red stone before it could be lost to the rapidly shifting riverbed.
"When do you think he'll wake?"
"Can't be sure. His body was in bad shape, but I can't see his mind."
Merlin gasped loudly as he broke through the riverbed as though it were the surface of the water. His hand shot out to grab the red stone, but it was suddenly much farther away and hanging around the neck of one of the fuzzy figures in the room. His whole body shook and his arm went into a spasm as he dropped it back to his side, and he whined.
"Merlin?" Gaius asked, very close.
"What's wrong with him?" Arthur asked as Merlin shivered on the bed and looked around the room for something he couldn't find. He didn't even know what he was looking for.
"He's in shock," Gaius explained, putting his hand on Merlin's uninjured shoulder and fixing the blanket that rested on top of him. "Merlin, it's alright. You're home."
"Home," Merlin repeated, his heart hammering as though he truly had been held underwater for too long. He felt as though he'd be trying to escape the waves for forever. His eyes saw a glint of red light and he saw again the red jewel. "Arthur."
"Yes," Arthur said and sat by the bed like Gaius. "You're in Camelot. You're safe."
Merlin groaned and closed his eyes. He suddenly remembered the morning he'd been whisked off to the past as though it had truly been only that morning. He knew his trip to the past hadn't been a dream, because the pain in his arm stung and kept his order of events undeniable. He chuckled harshly and then hissed.
"Flower picking... is dangerous," he said and smiled up at Arthur. The prince seemed to want to smile, but something akin to guilt flashed across his face.
"Merlin," he began and then stopped to consider his words. "You were missing for a whole day. Do you remember what happened to you?" The sorcerer sighed and nodded. "So what happened? Who did this to you?"
"Bandits," Merlin groaned. Arthur looked about to leave, but Merlin raised his uninjured hand to call him back. "You already... took care of them."
"What?" the prince asked and looked down at him curiously.
"He must be tired," Gaius said. "It's probably the shock talking."
Arthur's expression turned serious and he frowned. Merlin saw the intense analysis going on beyond Arthur's eyes when they looked into his own. "Are you tired, Merlin?" he asked, and it sounded almost as though he expected Merlin to be lying.
"Y-Yeah," Merlin admitted. He was tired from adrenaline and not enough blood in his veins and from missing Arthur so much. He was exhausted.
"Best to let him sleep now that we know he'll live," Gaius said. "At least, I don't see any signs of brain trauma. Do you?"
"Merlin is a brain trauma," Arthur said and grunted. He never took his eyes off Merlin, but Merlin was looking all over Arthur. Seeing him all grown was like nectar from the Gods. Part of Merlin had thought he'd never see this version again, and it felt so good to finally be near him again. It was a joy to just see the way those clothes hung on the prince. He was so... corporeal, so close.
"I missed you," Merlin said without thinking, but Gaius would probably cover it up with saying it was the shock again. Maybe it was the shock, but it was also true. Merlin closed his eyes and relaxed his body as best he could, but winced when the attempt shifted his cut arm. A steady hand touched him just below the bandaged wound, and when Merlin opened his eyes he saw Arthur closer than ever.
"Get some rest," he said. "I'll talk with you when you're better."
"Breakfast, your highness," Gwen announced as she stepped into the room. Arthur was sitting at his table, reading a scouting report. Merlin was changing sheets with one arm.
"Ah. Thank you, Guinevere," Arthur said and glanced back at his manservant with a smile as the handmaid set it up in front of him. "See how on time she is, Merlin?"
"Quite, Sire," Merlin agreed. "Unfortunately I only have one hand to assist you with."
"Oh, I'm more than happy to help a friend," Gwen assured. "Is there anything else Merlin might need help with?" and she directed the question at Arthur.
"No. I'm going easy on him until he's healed. Thank you, though." Arthur gave her a smile and lifted his cup for a drink. Gwen bowed her head and gave a relieved smile to Merlin before she made her exit.
Everyone had been quite worried about him, it seemed. He'd vanished in the morning and had not returned with the flowers for Morgana. Gwen alerted Arthur first after half the afternoon was gone and he had not shown up. Arthur sent Leon out for a look, and when the knight had returned with a broken basket and some fruit a full search party had been organized to go out the next morning. They found no signs of struggle but also no sign of Merlin. According to Gwen, Arthur had been the first one out to look and they'd been searching through lunch when they'd found him.
When he'd been able to return to work, everyone he passed had given him a clap on the back or a hug, being careful to avoid his arm. It was surprising how many people seemed to have noticed his absence. Arthur only showed how much he cared by how much work, or how little in this case, he gave to Merlin. Other than that, he seemed deep in thought all the time.
Once Gwen had been gone for several minutes, Arthur turned from his breakfast to watch Merlin slowly cleaning up the floor.
"You know, I always had my suspicions," he began. "But you never seemed bothered by things I said or hints I dropped."
"I'm sorry?" Merlin asked, dropping Arthur's clothes from the previous day in a basket.
"I mean it was you, wasn't it? You were the man who led me through the forest when I ran away as a child," Arthur stated more bluntly. "And don't treat me like I'm stupid. I memorized that final morning after it was over, and you showed up in the forest with the exact same wounds you had when you left me back then. I checked an old journal of mine too. They were exactly the same."
Merlin stood in the middle of the room, watching Arthur. He wondered how much of the trip the prince truly remembered. Did he remember the part about Merlin being magic? Was it safe to admit to being the old man?
"How is it possible?" Merlin asked. He meant to go on, but Arthur slapped his hand down on the table.
"I don't know!" he answered loudly. "But I've been over it in my head a thousand times these last few days and a million times in the three years before that. I knew I recognized you when you appeared in Camelot. I even asked you if I knew you, but you didn't seem to recognize me at all. I thought you must be the son of that guy I traveled with, but he was too young to be a father to you, and you looked exactly the same... maybe more rustic."
"Hey," Merlin complained, but Arthur interrupted, continuing his speech.
"But then the other day you talked about the beach, and you said the same thing you said to me as a child, and I knew. You must be the same guy. Somehow you had gone back in time and met me... magically. But when you said it, you didn't seem to be trying to give me that hint. When you vanished, I thought the worst first, but when Leon showed me where he found the basket, part of me already knew where you'd gone. You hadn't been hinting at me because you didn't know the beach was a hint yet. And I was worried, yes I admit it. I was worried because I remembered the state you'd been in when you left me that day... and that's the part that has always stuck with me. Do you realize you left me? You disappeared in the middle of the forest and left me looking a fool in front of half the knights of Camelot!"
"Sorry?" Merlin tried, unable to fully grasp what was happening. Was Arthur actually blaming him?
"Sorry? I thought you had run off or something just to make me look bad. The knights kept that over my head for over a year until I was suddenly better than them at every weapon and could easily knock them to the ground. And my father! He heard and obviously went on a tirade about how you'd been a trick and trying to fool me into believing everything you said, so I started to hate the very idea of you and that witch we met. You know how easy it is to believe magic is evil when the two magicians you meet personally leave you to face ridicule? I thought I was going to murder you if I ever saw you again," Arthur explained.
"But you didn't," Merlin said, as though that made everything better. Arthur stood up.
"So you admit it was you, then?" he asked, and he looked scarily serious. "Everything that happened during those days. You admit to it all?" He sounded dangerous, as though all that hate had slipped back into him from the mere memory and he might very well enact his revenge this very moment.
He was right in front of Merlin then, and the light from the window sent red rays glinting from Arthur's necklace. Merlin had been about to defend himself, but when the light hit his eyes, he just felt all the worry drain from him. He reached out and touched the red stone.
"If you hated me so much," he said calmly. "Why did you keep this?"
"I'm not crazy," Arthur said, although it felt more like a question. The anger slipped from his expression. Merlin smiled.
"You're not crazy," he said. Arthur's arms were around him then, pulling him tight but leaving out his bandaged arm.
"I thought you'd died," the blonde admitted into Merlin's shoulder. "That day and when you disappeared here recently. I thought for sure I was going to find you lifeless in the forest. That's twice you've wormed your way into my life only to leave me worried."
"Sorry," Merlin replied, though it hadn't really been his fault. "I had no choice. I was pulled back and forth without any say in the matter."
"Well... you're here now," Arthur amended and pulled back. "And you're okay."
"Yep," Merlin agreed and nodded. Then he bit his cheek. "So how much of that excursion do you remember, exactly?"
Arthur looked Merlin over curiously, as though trying to discern why his manservant suddenly looked so nervous. Then his eyes got wide and he sucked in a breath of air. He shook his head, and Merlin knew he'd figured it out.
"You're secret's safe with me, Merlin," he said. He even smiled. "It always has been."
Merlin had to admit it. His heart melted.
The ocean was a deep blue and endless. It ran into the horizon, rolling off into nowhere. Looking out, Merlin assumed it had to end somewhere, had to run into something somewhere too far for eyes to see. Nothing just ended. His eyes, as bright as the shallow waters, looked down to his feet, dangling off the rock. His legs were just long enough for his toes to touch the sand and for the foaming waves to slide up to his ankles with every rush they made for the shore. Jacket forgotten farther up the beach, sleeves and pants rolled up, and afternoon sun shining down on him, Merlin decided he'd never been so calm.
"Was it worth it?" Arthur asked, voice surprisingly close. He was standing about fifteen feet off, but Merlin hadn't even known he'd come out of the tent. As had been promised many years ago, it was just the two of them.
"Was what worth it?" Merlin asked.
"The wait," Arthur said and motioned lazily toward the water.
Merlin smiled and looked down at a crab scuttling at the wave-line. "It wasn't a long wait for me. I only told you I wanted to go two weeks ago," he reminded.
"Hm... I keep forgetting it's all recent for you," Arthur mused. "I'm not used to the idea of time travel."
"Me either. I didn't even know it was possible," Merlin admitted and kicked his foot, splashing a bit. "Have you tried standing in it, yet?"
"Yea. Seven years ago, my father brought me here on my request." The prince walked over, his pants rolled to his knees, and hopped up on the rock by his servant. "You were still fresh in my mind then, and I thought if I went to the beach, you might be here. Of course, it was stupid. You didn't even exist then."
"I did. But I was just a kid like you," Merlin said. Arthur looked good, relaxing in the sun, but his face showed he was thinking hard about something. "Are you okay?"
"When I was young... I wanted to run away from Camelot and never look back," Arthur began, squinting in the sun. "I told you it was because of his treatment of sorcerers, and I wasn't lying... but there was something more to it that I never told you."
"I already know," Merlin said, interrupting. Arthur looked at him in minor surprise. Merlin shrugged. "Tethella."
"The green witch, right?" Arthur asked. "Do you know what happened to her?"
Merlin shrugged. "I believe she kept looking out for you when I wasn't around, the same way she said she'd been doing for years. Mm, but I haven't seen her in all my years here. My guess is she moved on, went somewhere else. Fell in love."
Arthur pressed his lips together and pulled his fingers in so tight on his hand in nervousness that some of his knuckles popped. Merlin looked over at him, shading his eyes.
"Speaking of feelings," Arthur said. "When I was young..."
"I told you - I know," Merlin said again with a tiny smile. " Tethella showed me. She'd watched over you your whole life, so she knew all about you."
"I doubt it," Arthur said with a little snort.. Merlin leaned over and grabbed his prince by the back of the head before kissing him full on the lips. He pulled back slowly at first and then quickly, trying to see Arthur's face. Truthfully, the prince had never seemed so unsure of words.
"What I told you in the past was no lie, Arthur. I know it's been a long time for you, but for me it hasn't." Merlin took a deep breath to calm his hammering heart. "And I still love you more than anyone or anything, and I would still die for you, and you're still the one I fear the most because if you reject me then I will have nowhere else to go... You're my destiny."
Arthur pressed his lips together and shut his eyes as though something pained him inside. Merlin went to reach for him, but Arthur caught his hand and pulled him closer for a second kiss.
"Eight years," Arthur murmured between them. "Eight years I waited for you even after you arrived in Camelot. Eight years, and I had you and lost you and trusted you and hated you. I became strong for you... because for eight years, you've been all that I wanted in my life, Merlin. And gods be damned, I didn't even know your name! I didn't even know if you were real, but I had this necklace, and now I know it was you, my idiot of a servant, and that's even better because you've been the only person I could trust for a long time now."
"Arthur...," Merlin tried, but Arthur shook his head. He still held Merlin's head close to his.
"I ran away from home because I fell in love with a sorcerer once and my father killed him while ranting about the unnatural and disgusting people in the world. I was terrified, but you taught me to be strong. I'm still terrified, Merlin, but I'll protect you this time. I will," Arthur declared. "And I know it's stupid to worry because this is your true timeline, but I keep feeling like you're going to disappear again."
"I'm not going anywhere," Merlin assured and ruffled Arthur's hair gently. "Remember what Tethella said? She said I would bleed when I returned to where I belonged, and I bleed here. I told you before - if you want me, I'll stay with you forever."
"I do," Arthur said, voice rough. He kissed Merlin briefly and pulled back to a normal sitting position. "I do, but if you treat me like a teenager, I'll put you in the stocks."
"As you wish, Archie," Merlin said with a teasing grin. He expected Arthur to get mad, but the prince just tried to hide his smiles and looked out at the sea. Merlin's mother had been right. This was the best feeling in the world.
A/N: Thanks so much to everyone who read and even more thanks to those who reviewed. I really appreciate you all. I hope to hear from you all in the future!