"Just hold me"
As Merlin watched the boat bearing Arthur's body drift towards the island in the centre of the lake of Avalon, he wiped his eyes. He understood now, that Arthur had forgiven his deception. He also understood that Arthur had given the royal seal to Gaius to take back to Camelot because he knew that Merlin would not return there without him. Merlin knew that he should take solace in the fact that Arthur was confirmed to him to be the Once and Future King. He knew that Arthur would return to him one day. It didn't ease the ache in his heart though, to know that his closest friend would not be there every day. A sharp cut, instead of a gradual end to their time together stung so much more? Merlin started back towards the forest. What should he do with his life now? He spent a few days in the thickest parts of the forest. On the third day he buried Morgana's body. She did not deserve any honours, but he felt it might help appease any of the magical community that came across her marker that he had respected, if nothing else, her position as a High Priestess. In the end Merlin headed back towards Camelot. He wanted to visit the spot where Gwaine had died and honour the memory of another close friend he had lost. He also wanted to speak to Gaius, even if he couldn't actually enter Camelot. Merlin sent a message to Gaius, using a beautiful tawny owl he came across in the forest. He understood Morgana's use of birds to carry messages, but Merlin felt that her vicious ebony-coloured bird was off-putting. Owls were far more appropriate, Merlin felt.
He stayed for a whole day on the outskirts of the lower city, a mile or so from the gate. As the dark came in on that day, Merlin heard the crunching of leaves and snapping of branches that signified Gaius' approach. Merlin stood to meet him. Gaius stopped a few paces short: he was out of breath, having carried two large bags of Merlin's belongings. He dropped the bags by Merlin's fire and opened his arms. Merlin embraced the older man in a hurry and began to weep openly. Days of solitude had allowed him to harden his heart to the actions he had chosen, but seeing Gaius ripped the seams and made it hurt all the more. He wept for what had happened, and what was yet to occur. When Merlin withdrew, scrubbing at his face and eyes with his sleeve, Gaius was still breathing heavily. It pained Merlin to consider this: Gaius was not a young man, and had been put through many strains since taking Merlin in. He did not have many years left on this earth.
"I understand your reservations Merlin," Gaius started, reading him in an instant as the older man had always been able to. "However, you have made a wise and noble choice in the oath you are planning." He sighed heavily and made motions towards his own eyes. "I will not deny that I would much rather you returned to the castle with me and took back up work as a physician, but your life is your own now. Until the Future King rises, your destiny is your own."
Merlin smiled ruefully, and softly kicked a few stones back towards the fire. "My destiny was never my own. Until the king returns I must simply prepare. However long that takes." Merlin looked back up at him. "I will take the time to learn magic properly now, when there are less threats. Other things as well: languages, trades and useful skills. Like my time as your apprentice."
Gaius smiled down at him and placed his hand on Merlin's face. "I am pleased. Understand now, that if our paths do not cross again," he stopped to clear his throat, "that if our paths do not cross again, I have looked upon you in the last few years as my son. The most dear and precious person in my life and a mighty and powerful man that it has been my privilege to know." Merlin started to tear up again and embraced him.
True to his sentiments, Merlin did travel far and wide. For several years he did not stray overseas however, staying within reach in case of news of Gaius and his mother. Gaius slipped from the earth before Merlin managed to reach him, but Merlin was there for the last few hours of his mother's life. He did not weep this time, nor had he done so since leaving Gaius outside Camelot some ten or twelve years ago. He had not been jaded by his time alone, but his heart had been firmed. He just needed to wait for the return of the king. A lorry roared past. Merlin had long gotten used to the loud sounds and garish vehicles that seemed to symbolise this era. He wafted a cloud of exhaust fumes out of his face with a wrinkled hand and carried on down the path. He was making his way to the small jetty that held several tourist boats to make the trip he made on every Christmas Eve. He handed over the paper notes he found unpleasant, being so less substantial than the metal coins the world had used for so many centuries, and received a wary smile from the nervous youth manning the boats. Some young upstart taking on holiday hours for higher pay, not the kindly man Merlin had known the last few years. He got in the boat, refusing the assistance of the young man with a gruff lack of manners. Beneath the hair on his face Merlin smirked: the benefit of age that he held in highest regard was the hilarious lack of manners that society seemed to accept, regardless of the time period. He moved the oars with his arms, in show for the young man on the shore, but actually propelled himself to the island magically. Upon disembarking on the grassy shore, Merlin breathed deeply. The unpolluted air of a little area of grass and trees that he himself had campaigned to have protected only a few generations previously was of great relief to a man who was currently living in the centre of a large and densely populated city. The world had changed much over the course of Merlin's long life, but the state of the life around him was of much concern. His magic had allowed him for many years to feel the life that was central to all beings, and he worried for the state of the flora and fauna that had been a constant to Albion throughout his life, which was now suffering so.
He walked slowly towards the very centre of the island, towards the obelisk. Many years ago, though still many years after leaving Camelot, Merlin had come to the island, justifying it to himself as Just Incase. He had been surprised to find a smaller stone marker, directly in front of the North face of the obelisk. It held a small diamond in the centre, surrounded by a circle of runes declaring the loyalty of all men to the Once and Future King. Since then, every year that Merlin could, he returned on Christmas Eve to make a mark on his grave of the years that had passed. Every year he sat there and remembered, and allowed himself to wonder just how much more he would wait. He knelt at the marker and carved another line into the stone with his favourite knife. Merlin rocked backwards and paused. "How much longer are you going to keep me waiting Arthur?" As the words left his mouth, Merlin looked down at the hands folded in his lap. As he stared, he was filled with pure joy: the skin began to smooth out before his eyes, with every blemish disappearing and every crease unfolding until his hands were those of a young man. The young man he had once been. He raised those hands to his face and felt smooth skin, thick hair on his head. He stood up, already feeling fitter, and turned. Standing in front of him in a simple white tunic and trousers was the Once and Future King, as fresh as he had been when Merlin last saw him.
"Arthur," Merlin stepped forward and opened his arms. The pair embraced after many years of separation and Merlin could feel Arthur wiping his eyes. As they stepped apart, Merlin spoke softly. "I suppose that Albion has finally gotten bad enough that you have been returned to us. We have much work to do."
Arthur smiled back, quickly, but then cleared his face. "Well, you've had plenty of days off. We had better get to it Merlin."