JANUARY 21, 2011

Arthur watched out the window of the jet as the runway at Richmond International Airport became steadily closer. He could hear the pilot on the loudspeaker announcing the time and the weather as they pulled up to the gate, and instructing them to remain seated until the plane came to a complete stop. Next to him, Merlin was still asleep, headphones in and hood pulled over his head, and Arthur smiled. He elbowed Merlin roughly in the side, causing him to jump several feet and bang his head on the overhead compartment above him.

"Owfuck!" Merlin yelped, the ricochet sending him dropping back down into his seat. Arthur stifled a laugh as the harsh looking woman in the aisle next to them shot them a mean glance, jerking her head towards the sticky little boy clutching her skirt. Merlin smiled sheepishly and waved his goofy little wave, making the kid smile and the mother's frown lessen by a fraction. Arthur shook his head.

Merlin: always the charmer.

They followed the procession out of the plane, getting shepherded into the terminal, and Arthur caught a glimpse of flying dark hair go by him before a screaming Gwen was sitting on top of Merlin on the linoleum, having knocked him over in a running tackle.

"You- are- the- worst- friend- ever!" She yelled, reinforcing each word with a punch, and Merlin was curled up on the floor, bag held protectively over his face.

"Gwen! Not the face, Gwen! Not the face!"

"You're a painter, Merlin, you don't have to look pretty."

Arthur turned a half step toward the direction Gwen had come from to see Lance leaning causally against the railing, passively observing as Gwen and Merlin continued to squabble on the terminal floor. Only when they were starting to gather a crowd of spectators did he shuffle over and lift Gwen off Merlin, setting her back on her feet a safe distance away, where she continued to fume.

"How hard is to pick up a phone, Merlin?" She said, eyes narrow and glaring at Merlin, who was slowly picking himself up off the tile.

"I was kinda busy," Merlin said, readjusting his sweatshirt.

"Oh, don't even give me that bullshit story. You couldn't possibly have spent all of last month shagging," Gwen said, a bit too loud considering the still dispersing crowd. Arthur heard a few passerby snigger.

Merlin had turned bright red, flushing all the way up to the tips of his ears, looking like some sort of rare breed of lobster.

Arthur cleared his throat. "To be fair," he said calmly, "we were kidnapped."

Gwen and Lance turned to look at Arthur in perfect unison, matching looks of disbelief on their faces.

"Okay," Arthur said, pointing, "that was kind of creepy. How did they do that?" He asked, turning to Merlin.

Merlin, who was still looking far too red to be natural, just shrugged, as if people acting in perfect synch with each other was a normal occurrence. Which, considering the people in question, probably wasn't unlikely.

"Excuse me," Gwen said, and Arthur turned around again, one eyebrow raised as if to say, yes? "You're joking right?" She asked. "Merlin, tell me he's joking."

"Er…" Merlin said, letting out a sort of nervous giggle. "It's kind of a long story…"

Gwen just stared, mouth hanging open, apparently speechless. Lance slung a comforting arm around her shoulders, starting to steer her towards baggage claim, a look indicating Arthur and Merlin should follow. "A story," he added as they went, "that is probably best kept until we get home." Gwen looked like she was about to argue, but then seemed to realize that yes, she was still standing in the middle of an international terminal, and yes she had just tackled a man to the ground and attempted to beat him to a pulp, and seemed to decided better of it, nodding stiffly and following Lance out of the gate.

The car ride home was unbearably silent, Lance and Gwen sitting up front, Merlin and Arthur riding in back, and Arthur couldn't help but remember the very first time they were all in the car together, in the exact same seats, in the exact same silence. Every once in a while, Arthur would look at Merlin and he knew that he was thinking the same thing.

When they finally got back to Lance's apartment, (it was decided the most neutral territory), everyone seemed significantly more relaxed. They all ambled upstairs and claimed a seat at Lance's kitchen table, tea appearing in front of them like it always did, and Merlin and Arthur started their story.

Arthur explained about Morgana's flight last May, and his father's subsequent illness, leaving him the responsibility of his father's position, which he did not want. Gwen was nodding; it was nothing she hadn't heard from Lance. So he went on to talk about the letter from Morgana and the warnings of potential betrayal, leading to his eventual return to England.

"With Merlin," Gwen interjected.

Arthur paused. "Obviously."

Gwen stuck her tongue out. "Just clarifying."

Lance laid a hand on her shoulder, silencing her, before motioning to Arthur. "Continue."

"Right. Cheers mate."

And so Arthur pressed on, describing his meetings and his plans to relinquish his title by giving it to Morgana, finally gaining enough votes to change the law regarding women in the House of Lords, when they were kidnapped by Agravaine-

"Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. Who the hell is Agravaine?"

"Oh right. He's my father's political advisor. And my uncle."

"Your uncle."

"Right."

"And he kidnapped you."

"And me!"

"Shut up, Merlin."

"Yes, he kidnapped me."

"And me!"

"Shut up, Merlin!"

"Why did he kidnap you?"

"AND ME!"

"SHUT UP, MERLIN!"

"I just think it's important for you to know that I was kidnapped too! Fucking knocked unconscious by a bloody man dressed in riot gear!"

"Okay, fine, why did he kidnap you and Merlin?"

"He kidnapped me because he planned to make an example of me, frame me for some series of crimes or scandals and make me lose the vote in the House. And he kidnapped Merlin because he decided to get in the way."

"I was going after you!"

"Fat load of good that did."

"I saved your life!"

"You keep saying that, and one day maybe I'll believe you."

"Enough, you two! Get back to the story! Why did Agravaine want you to lose the vote?"

"He's always been jealous of my father's political career. Also, he still blames my father for my mother's death. I imagine he sought to seek revenge on my father by using me."

"He didn't take your father too then?"

"No. He locked my father in his room with the television, intending to have him witness the scandal he planned to start."

"But he didn't start a scandal?"

"Not exactly."

And so Arthur told them about Gaius and Morgana and their breakout and the ensuing battle and the magic and Agravaine's untimely demise. When they reached the end, the looks on their faces made it very clear that Gwen and Lance didn't believe a word of it.

"So what you're trying to tell me is that you," Gwen said, pointing to Arthur, "are actually the Arthur. As in King Arthur of Camelot."

"Yup."

"And you," her finger moved to Merlin, "are the great sorcerer Merlin?"

Merlin nodded, grinning.

Gwen turned to Lance, eyes wide. "They've gone mental."

"Gwen," Merlin said, holding out a hand. Gwen just stared at it.

"What?"

"Take my hand, Gwen."

"You're making this sound like some sort of melodrama on Lifetime, Merlin."

Arthur scoffed. "We are so much cooler than Lifetime. We're HBO, at least."

Merlin shot him a look, before turning back to Gwen. "Just… just trust me okay?"

Gwen still looked skeptical, but she tentatively reached out a hand, laying it atop Merlin's on the table. And suddenly it was like she was coming alive, and Arthur knew that was how she must be feeling as well. He had felt it just a week ago, had felt the power and the memories leaping from Merlin's touch, like magic. Gwen gasped, gripping Merlin's hand tighter, eyes flashing that familiar gold for a split second, before reverting back to their usual dark brown. Lance was watching the whole thing carefully, eyes darting from Merlin, to Gwen, and finally landing on Arthur. Arthur nodded, just once, and it was all the encouragement Lance needed to add his own hand to the pile, throwing himself into the maelstrom of magic swirling around Merlin and Gwen.

Arthur watched in fascination as Merlin's magic creeped out from his fingertips and into the hands of Lance and Gwen, restoring lost memories and reinventing life, reaching out and creating, and Arthur was suddenly strongly reminded of Merlin painting, of strong hands holding brushes, of smooth strokes across canvas, and he realized he missed that Merlin. He knew that it was the same man, but he seemed somehow different now. This Merlin was a great sorcerer, a wizard who fought some of the most important battles in history, and was his one true companion through the ages, and yet he longed for Milo the painter, the clumsy, brilliant artist that had colored his life for the last four months.

Merlin was letting go now, magic retreating back into his body, hand disconnecting from Gwen's and Lance's, eyes fading back to blue. And now they were all even, and they were all on the same page. Four people out of their time, four people who had made history, now sitting in a loft drinking tea in Richmond, Virginia, the events of the past few weeks becoming just another victory to add to the endless pile they'd collected.

Arthur and Merlin left a few hours later, begging exhaustion and jet lag. They took the steps slowly up the Merlin's apartment, only to find everything just as they had left it. And Arthur was surprised at the enormous sensation of home that overcame him. The paintings were still there, frozen and beautiful and taking up the majority of all surface space. The kitchen was the same, except for a layer of dust that had risen on the counter during their absence. Even the ratty sofa was comforting, and Arthur spotted Freya snuggled up against the armrest, sound asleep. Fuck, he had even missed the stupid cat.

Merlin was already inside, putting bags away and checking the fridge for food, and Arthur let himself drop down on the sofa next to Freya. And it was all so surreal and so true at the same time. Here they were, King Arthur cuddling with a fat house cat and the Great Merlin making Eggo waffles in their tiny kitchen, yelling expletives at the toaster and tripping over his own feet.

Arthur knew it wouldn't last. Agravaine would be back, would be born again in the next life to continue his quest for power. Morgana would serve her role as Lady Pendragon, Duchess of Albion, having just been voted into the House of Lords last week, and he would have to return periodically to check up on her. Gaius would continue to provide counsel and sage advice, even when he wasn't asked, and Uther would continue to suffer beneath the weight of an everlasting broken heart. Gwen and Lance would stay in their perpetual perfection, being so right for each other that it hurt to watch them sometimes. And Arthur would one day have to fulfill his destiny again; he would have to die in defense of something just and something good. He would have to watch as his life fell apart before his eyes, knowing that nothing in the world would stop it. And Merlin… Merlin would always be there, picking up the pieces. He would remember. All of history was preserved in the magic within him, just waiting to be remembered, to be shared.

But for now, Arthur was happy to eat waffles with Merlin in their walkup flat. He was happy to be a part-time model and full-time lover. He was happy to be in love with a painter, happy to deal with the splattered clothes and the constant stubble and the smell of turpentine. He was happy to be studied, happy to be mapped out on a canvas at the magic hands of Merlin. And he was happy to watch Merlin paint; watch him work magic over a canvas, eyes molten gold and full of fire, constantly adding new canvasses to the living architecture of portraits.

Looking around at the paintings now, Arthur realized with a start that he recognized them all. These were more than just unnamed strangers posing for a sitting, these were the people of their present, and even more so the people of their past. Faces preserved through colored pigments and clever brushstrokes, souls floating somewhere in the layers of oil paint and varnish, thousands of years of life in a single canvas. They hung there, in the air, presence so think Arthur felt he could taste it: his past woven together with Merlin's and so many others, always to be repeated, and always something to look forward to.

And Arthur was content to wait for it, to cherish this moment, to watch Merlin's fingers dance across a canvas, spreading life and color where there was none, illuminating the world around him, like magic.