Merlin doesn't move. Arthur is cleaning his sword in the grass, dries it on his cloak and sheaths it. He's still there, but he might disappear the moment Merlin tries to reach him. And Arthur hasn't seen Merlin yet, still too caught up in the rush of battle. Now he looks around, sees the people standing there. Sees Merlin. He looks horrified. Merlin waves sheepishly.
Joanne sighs. "Let's get everyone out of the cold. Dave, Mary, drive safely. Lily, my sofa is yours. And you – you need to get dried up to. Come along. Merlin, stop gaping and let's get home." She marches away in squelching strides.
The guest bedroom in Joanne's cottage is small. Merlin has never noticed this as clearly as now, when Arthur seems to fill every last corner with his presence. They're both uncommonly quiet, as if talking will somehow break the spell. Merlin helps Arthur out of his armour and sodden clothing with hands that moves by themselves. This, this is how it's supposed to be. The way he has to pull the wrong way to get the clasp of the gorget loose. The weight of the chainmail. The smell of metal, and oil, and sweat. The way he and Arthur moves as one, still after all these years.
It looks wrong, Arthur's armour in a pile by the IKEA wardrobe, Arthur's clothes draped over the plastic back of the chair. There should be a roaring fire to warm him, not a happily gurgling radiator. There should be a four-poster bed with dark red hangings, not the small sofa bed with checkered linen. Arthur, in striped blue pajamas that has once belonged to Joanne's husband, looks out-of-place too.
Merlin busies himself with the spare mattress Joanne has found in the attic for him to sleep on (she said it was for the stranger, but Merlin could never take the bed while Arthur slept on the floor). He folds Arthur's clothes, changes his mind hand hangs them over the back of the chair to dry again. At last, he allows himself to look at Arthur, really look at him.
Arthur is staring back. Their eyes meet. Merlin smiles uncertainly, Arthur looks pained.
"Merlin", he says. It's the first thing he's said since he came back. "Merlin, how long was I gone?"
Merlin looks at the twenty-first century room around them and has to bite his lip to keep from giggling hysterically. But Arthur isn't looking at the room, he's looking at Merlin.
"You're old", he says. "How long have I kept you waiting?"
An undignified noise slips from Merlin's lips. Arthur's features immediately shift to offended and Merlin's heart twists with the familiarity of it. Then he actually hears what Arthur's just said.
"Oh, this? I'm… it's useful. Get's me some respect – though not from you, should have known." Merlin passes a hand over his face, rubbing away the wrinkles. He shrugs off the extra years from his appearance. Age as a concept stopped applying to him long ago and he just slipped into the shape of an old man because it seemed to fit him. Now, with Arthur, it's equally natural that he should be young, black-haired, straight in back (and that last one feels so good, Merlin thinks as he stretches and lets younger blood flow through suddenly so much more agile limbs).
Arthur gapes. Merlin grins. Arthur leans over to punch his shoulder. There is another perfect moment when everything is at it was and as it should be. Then Arthur's face grows serious again.
"Really, Merlin, how long?"
Merlin tells him.
Arthur is quiet for a very long time (though, in relation to the centuries he's just spent in magical sleep, it's not very long at all, Merlin thinks and then has to stop himself and get back to the present). His fingers twist around the edge of the coverlet, knuckles whitening, but his face is set and motionless. Then he shudders and looks down.
"She ruled for almost fifty years. Camelot flourished. She died of old age. I think she was happy."
"Did she ever…?"
"She had to, of course. Camelot needed an heir."
Arthur nods. "Of course. It's – of course she did. Was it… political?"
"Are you asking if she married some horrible man to keep his kingdom on Camelot's side? No. She had offers, of course. Demands, even, as the years passed. She didn't want any of them. I think she feared that a new husband would try to rule Camelot in her place, make it into part of his own kingdom. Five years after you… five years after, she married Leon."
Arthur looks as if he has bit into an unripe apple that isn't as sour as he's expected.
"Leon? I guess it could have been worse."
"It was the best choice she could have made. And they both loved you, Arthur, all their lives."
The bed creaks as Arthur makes a motion to stand and hastily sits down again with closed eyes. Merlin clears his throat.
"You should sleep, sire."
"It sounds like I've been doing nothing else for far too long", Arthur snaps, but lies down obediently when Merlin gives his shoulder a small push.
"I'll be here when you wake up", Merlin promises. "We'll talk then."
You'll be here when I wake up, he thinks, trying to make it into a command. In the end, he doesn't sleep at all. He doesn't need to. He drags the spare mattress to the side of the bed and sits there, looking at Arthur, making sure he's still there.