We're all going forward. None of us are going back.
The drive south from the Eurostar terminal is long and dusty, but Merlin, who has never been abroad before, sits wide-eyed and delighted in the passenger seat making Arthur smile. Each time he glances at Merlin, he sees him framed by the window but with a different background; blocks of flats, a motorway exit, trees, a lake, a field. Like a Merlin slide show.
"Thanks for renting a nice car with air conditioning," Merlin says and wriggles himself into a comfortable position. The cool air stream is blowing his hair into a little peak off his forehead and it's so ridiculously cute that Arthur wants to pull over and snog him silly.
"I don't think there are rental cars without," he says instead.
"Imagine making this trip in my mum's ancient Ford Fiesta! We'd either have the windows shut and die of heat or open them and choke on dust."
"Enjoy the luxury then," Arthur says.
Despite the GPS they need to stop twice to ask directions. Late in the afternoon, when the heat begins to die down and the sun floods the fields with gold, they turn off the main road through the gates of the estate, making their way slowly up the drive. Following the directions of a farmhand they find Morgana outside a long, low brick barn, standing in an enormous plastic vat and laughing with a man with sandy curls and aviator sunglasses. Arthur's heart makes a skip and then doubles its pace. It's been such a very long time since he last saw Morgana so happy - well, since he saw her at all. And the man beside her...
She catches sight of them now and stills, shadowing her eyes with her hand as they approach, the laughter disappearing from her face. Arthur's throat begins to ache. He and his sister stand looking at each other for a few long seconds. Around them the crickets chirp, and from far off in the fields there is the sound of a tractor.
"Arthur," Morgana says, wiping her damp forehead with the back of a hand.
She is even more beautiful than he remembers her, with her sea-green eyes and the pale skin now tinged pink with sun and heat, and her long black hair twisted into a careless knot. Arthur does not trust himself to speak. He loves her, he always has, even when she plotted against him and wanted him dead in their past life; even when she left him lonely and miserable in this one. When he walks up to her she leans down and hugs him, and kisses him softly on the cheek. He hugs her back, hard.
"Don't get sentimental, Arthur," she whispers, as if she can sense him fighting tears.
She has not forgotten - she knows he hates crying. He gives her a grateful kiss, steps back and clears his throat.
"It's good to see you," he says, wincing a little at how bland it sounds, how it does not at all convey what he feels. "Oh, and this is Merlin."
Morgana's eyes light up with interest as she moves her focus to Merlin, who is biting his lip nervously at Arthur's side, but all she says is: "Nice to meet you," and indicates the man beside her: "This is Leon."
I know, Arthur wants to say. Because he does know Leon so very well - his companion, so brave and honest and true, the most loyal of knights. Leon who had said he would die for Arthur, and did.
As Leon removes his aviators, Arthur searches for a spark of recognition in his eyes but does not find it. He does see something else, though: the way Leon looks at Morgana, all hazy with love. Don't hurt her, he wants to tell Leon, but between Leon and Morgana, Leon is probably more likely to get hurt. But from the way Morgana looks at him in return, perhaps the risk is not all that great.
Maybe this time around, it can be different, Arthur thinks. Before, all those centuries ago, he had united Albion but failed spectacularly with the people he loved. He feels Merlin move beside him and turns his head to look at him. The sunlight is behind him, giving him a halo that makes Arthur squint, and he slips his hand to the small of Merlin's back and lets it rest there. The gesture is as possessive as it is protective. He slides his thumb under the hem of Merlin's t-shirt and moves it back and forth over a minute stretch of smooth, warm skin, acutely aware that he has been given a second chance and determined to take it.
Leon steps out of his vat, revealing feet glistening with grape juice, and helps Morgana climb out of hers.
"Do you really do this still?" Merlin pipes up as Leon hoses off their feet. "Pressing the wine with your feet?"
Leon laughs. "God, no, not for the large volumes. But we have volunteers working with the harvest, and they usually want to try the old methods - they want to know what it feels like, treading the grapes. Morgana seems to have a flare for it."
"Of course I have," Morgana says, looking regal even in a workshirt, tatty denim shorts and wet feet. "I'm very good."
Arthur coughs. The look Leon gives Morgana borders on adoration.
"Come in for dinner," he says to Arthur and Merlin, "and sample our wines while we get acquainted." When they thank him, he adds: "But I feel like I know you already."
Arthur looks at his old friend, wondering when he will remember, if he will remember, and says: "So do I."
Something inside him melts away and disappears; a hard knot, a lump of ice; allowing him to breathe more freely than he has in a long time.
As they make their way towards the house, the sun sinks below the treetops and leaves them in shadow, but the roof is still steeped in molten gold, shimmering like a mirage. Arthur walks behind Leon and Morgana and watches their fingers touch. His own hand still rests lightly at the small of Merlin's back. Just as Merlin leans in and presses a quick kiss to the corner of Arthur's mouth, Morgana turns her head and smiles at them over her shoulder. Merlin blushes, Morgana laughs, and Arthur stops to take Merlin's face in his hands. All will be well, he thinks, gazing into Merlin's dark blue eyes. All will be well.
He really believes it will. They are all moving forward, they can all make things happen, they will all make better choices because they have learned.
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin says and pulls at him. "I want to try that wine."
Better choices on the whole, Arthur modifies.
"What is wrong with you, Merlin," he says out loud. "You prefer wine to me?"
"Only in public," Merlin breathes in his ear, sending a shiver down Arthur's spine, a hot curl of desire in his stomach.
"Minx," he mutters.
Merlin flutters his eyelashes at him and Arthur takes his hand, interlacing their fingers as they follow Leon and Morgana inside.