Full of Grace
Merlin watches the boat float away across the lake of Avalon until he can't see it anymore. He watches it until it reaches the island, until it disappears into a mist that not even his magical vision can penetrate.
When Merlin can no longer see his King, his knees hit the ground and he weeps. He kneels on the cold wet shore and cries until his eyes run dry. And then he just sits there, watching the island in silence as his world falls apart around him.
And that's how Percival finds him. Minutes, hours, days later, Merlin isn't sure, though at some point the sun has set and it's gotten terribly cold.
Merlin is torn from his silent reverie by a strong, gentle hand on his shoulder.
Merlin doesn't look up at him, keeps his gaze on the lake. From the way Percival is shaking Merlin knows he doesn't need to say anything.
But when he speaks for the first time in hours, his voice comes out quiet and wrecked.
Percival doesn't say a word, but he keeps his hand on Merlin's shoulder. Whether he's giving comfort to Merlin or taking comfort for himself, it doesn't matter. They both take the smallest amount of comfort from the moment that they can.
Eventually, he sits down on the ground next to Merlin.
"What happened?" he asks quietly.
Merlin doesn't want to talk about it. Merlin doesn't have words for how much he doesn't want to talk about it.
Percival doesn't push him. Instead he gets to his feet and leaves.
He comes back a few minutes later with firewood, a small bit of food, and a flask. He passes the flask to Merlin, and Merlin drinks from it gratefully, feeling the liquid hit his stomach and warm him. He drinks a bit more as Percival sets up the fire and struggles to light it.
Merlin takes another sip, then gently pushes the knight's hands away from the firewood. Without a word, his eyes glow gold and the campfire bursts into flame.
Percival looks up at him, eyes wide open, but Merlin finds no fear there, only shock and confusion. Merlin wonders briefly if he'll be okay with his magic, then decides that it doesn't really matter.
Merlin holds the flask out to Percival. After a brief pause, the knight smiles and takes it from him.
He takes a long, deep pull.
After a minute of silence, Percival finally speaks.
That's when Merlin tells him everything. How he's the sorcerer who killed the Saxons. How he found Arthur and took him away to try and save him. How Arthur died in his arms, finally at peace but leaving Merlin behind to pick up the pieces of himself.
Percival tells him how Gwaine died thinking he had failed. How pleased he would be to know that Arthur died in the arms of someone who loved him. How pleased Gwen will be.
Two hours later, Percival sleeps fitfully on the ground, and Merlin lies awake next to him. Sleep doesn't claim him that night, or for many nights to come.
The next morning, Percival begs Merlin to come back with him. Tells him that Gwen will want to hear how Arthur died from the man who was with him. How Gwen could use his help in ruling the kingdom. How Camelot needs him.
In the end, Merlin refuses, and Percival leaves without him, heading back to Camelot to give the news of the King's death to Leon, Gwen, and Gaius – the only other members of the original Round Table who are left.
Merlin doesn't know how long he sits beside that lake, staring out at it, hoping Arthur will return. He thinks about everything they've been through. Goblins, trolls, fairies, dragons. Nimueh, Morgause. Morgana. Mordred. All the times Merlin saved Arthur's life. All those things Arthur never knew about what Merlin did for him. All those things Arthur never knew about how he felt. All those things they will never do, or say to each other. All those opportunities taken from him too soon.
In the end, the idea comes to him out of nowhere.
He begins the long, slow trek back to Camelot.
Merlin told Arthur to destroy it, but he knows for a fact that the King did not listen to him. For a time, Merlin had contemplated using his magic to destroy it, but something had made him pause. It had ended up buried deep in the vaults of Camelot, hidden in a box in a disused armoire between two dusty bookshelves.
The horn of Cathbhadh.
Getting into Camelot is simple. Merlin merely chooses to make himself invisible. He takes a brief moment to wonder at how easy it is for him to do things that used to be so difficult.
He enters the vaults, takes the horn, and leaves as silently as he entered.
He passes Gaius in the halls on his way out, and when Merlin sees the look of sadness on his mentor's face, his heart clenches painfully and he stops. As he watches Gaius walk away, he stares down at the horn in his hand.
He leaves Camelot behind him.
Merlin returns to the lake of Avalon and waits. He eats only when he knows his body will shut down without food, drinks only because he knows he needs it. He sleeps only when staring out at the lake becomes to painful.
When he sleeps, he dreams of his King; wakes with Arthur's name on his lips and tears drying on his face.
Time passes without any real meaning, but Merlin knows when he needs to go.
He leaves the lake and journeys to the Great Stones of Nemeton.
He reaches them on the morning of Beltane, just in time to watch the sun rise over the stones.
He brings the horn to his lips and blows it without a second thought.
When he opens his eyes, he's bathed in an unearthly blue light. He's not sure where he is, if he is really even anywhere, but it doesn't matter, because he can see a shape coming closer to him, surrounded by a light so blindingly white that he has to shade his eyes.
When the light fades, Merlin blinks, and there, standing right in front of him, so close he could touch him, is-
It's the first word Merlin has said in months, and his voice is hoarse and broken. But it feels so good to say Arthur's name that he says it again, only this time it comes out as a sob.
Merlin doesn't even attempt to hold back his tears. Arthur looks just like he did when he laid him to rest. Chainmail in place, red cloak pinned to his back perfectly. Excalibur gleams where it hangs from his belt. It's him. Arthur. His King, his best friend, his whole world. He looks regal and strong, radiant...and beautiful. Merlin feels himself choke up.
It's the only word he can say, the only word that matters, and Merlin begins to tremble.
Arthur takes a step toward him and reaches a hand out to his shoulder. Merlin feels Arthur's touch - warm, comforting - and he wants so badly for this to be real. But Arthur's hand never quite makes contact, and Merlin finally accepts that Arthur is truly gone and he will not be able to get him back.
It hits him hard, so hard his knees buckle, and he collapses to the ground.
But Arthur stays with him. He wraps his arms around Merlin in a ghost of a touch. It's not real, Merlin knows Arthur can't really touch him, but he feels it just the same. He feels the love and concern in Arthur's embrace, and when Merlin breaks down and sobs, Arthur kneels with him and quietly holds him. He strokes his back, runs his hand through his hair. Ghost touches run along his body, but instead of feeling cold and lifeless they warm him and fill him with light.
Merlin pulls away at the sound of his name, looks up into Arthur's eyes, and the amount of affection he sees mirrored in those blue depths is enough to take his breath away.
"I didn't want to leave you, Merlin. But my time was up. You have to know that I wanted to stay. With all my heart. I want to come back, Merlin. But I can't. Not yet. It's not my time. Albion will need me again someday."
"What about what I need?" Merlin asks desparately, tears pouring down his face. "I need you, Arthur. I can't…I miss you so much."
Arthur smiles at him sadly, and Merlin watches a single tear fall from his King's eye.
"I miss you, too." Gently, Arthur grabs Merlin's face between his hands, wipes the tears from Merlin's cheeks. He wraps his hands around Merlin's neck and pulls his head down. He places a gentle kiss on the top of his head, and Merlin feels the kiss linger for just a moment before Arthur pulls away.
"I will not tell you not to weep, Merlin. Before I passed into Avalon, I stood on the shore of that island and I saw you standing on the other side. I watched you fall, and I heard you crying, and there was nothing I could do to help you. I know I told you once that no man is worth your tears. But I was wrong."
"I wanted to help you so badly I thought I would die again from the pain. I couldn't help you then, but I will help you now. You don't want me to follow you back to the world, Merlin. It won't be-"
"Real. I know. I realize that now. I just…."
He doesn't know what to say, doesn't know how to put into words all that he is feeling. The anger, the pain, the emptiness and loneliness and sheer agony he feels at having lost that which makes him whole.
They sit in silence for a minute before Arthur breaks it. "Merlin…I have to go soon. But there's something I want to ask you to do for me."
"Anything," he answers without hesitation.
"I want you to return to Camelot. Gwen needs a friend and an advisor. I need you to help her, to help my kingdom."
Merlin looks away, feels his cheeks burn red in shame. Of all the things he could have asked him to do….
"Arthur…I can't…I can't go back there. I tried. It's not…it's just not Camelot without you."
"Merlin, look at me. Please."
Merlin uses what little strength he still has and looks back up at Arthur.
"We'll meet again, Merlin. I don't know when, but I swear to you that we will. But until then you have to be strong. Camelot needs you. The world needs you. You can do it, I know you can. You're stronger than you know, Merlin."
"I'm not, Arthur. I can't…I can't do it. Not without you."
"All right. Then do it for me; as a favor to me, a promise. Be strong, Merlin. For me. Please."
Arthur reaches out and grabs Merlin's hands, holds them tightly between his own. Merlin feels warmth spread through him again, and his magic flows out of him without warning. A blue fire leaps to life around their entwined hands, so bright it puts the blue light surrounding them to shame. It embraces them, warm and comforting, and it feels natural, like it was always meant to be this easy for Arthur to see it; to see him.
Arthur doesn't flinch at the fire, or pull back. Instead he watches it quietly. Suddenly, a look of wonder passes over his face, and Arthur smiles as he looks back up at Merlin and laughs softly.
"You…you were with me. In that cave, when I went to get that flower. You were there with me."
"I've always been with you."
Tears fall from Arthur's eyes, and he looks so beautiful it makes Merlin's heart ache.
And there's so much that Merlin wants to tell him. He doesn't have to say anything, though. Arthur understands him, knows him so well; perhaps better than he knows himself.
"I love you, Merlin." His voice is filled with both wonder and sadness, and his eyes fill with tears.
Merlin shakes his head, gasps harshly around a sob. He wants to kiss him so badly it's like physical ache, but he knows that here, now, it wouldn't be real. It wouldn't feel right.
But he'll wait for that kiss. He'll wait for his King. He'll wait a thousand years if he has to.
He reaches up and gently brushes the tears off his King's face, just like Arthur has done for him.
"I love you, too, Arthur," he says quietly, and for now, it's the best he can do.
Arthur smiles at him fondly, and Merlin sees so much love and acceptance in his eyes that he feels a sense of hope wash over him. Arthur gives him a courage he didn't think he'd ever find again.
"I'll return to Camelot. I'll help Gwen, I'll help Albion. I'll…I'll wait for you, Arthur. I promise."
Arthur smiles at Merlin through his tears. He pulls their hands apart, and the blue fire fades. Then he grabs Merlin's face between his hands and kisses Merlin gently on the forehead.
"Thank you, Merlin," he whispers against his skin, and Merlin feels that unexpected warmth spread through him again.
Then without warning, a worried look passes over Arthur's face, and he pulls Merlin to his feet quickly.
"Make me one more promise, Merlin. Please." He sounds desperate, panicked, and Merlin would promise anything to make Arthur's pain go away.
"What is it?"
"Promise me that you…just…don't do this alone, Merlin. The thought of you waiting for me is painful enough, but the thought of you waiting alone, I…I can't bear it."
"Arthur…what are you asking me to do?"
"I can't ask you to wait for me, Merlin. I won't. But I know you. I know you'll wait for me even if I beg you not to. All I ask is that you don't wait alone. Don't bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Let others help you. Let yourself love, and be loved."
The thought of loving someone else seems impossible to Merlin. He could never love anyone as much as he loves Arthur. But Arthur's not really asking him to.
"I don't want you to just wait, Merlin. I want you to live."
In the end, Arthur cares more for him than Merlin ever thought possible. Even when he was dying, all Arthur cared about was comforting Merlin. Telling him he never could have built his kingdom without Merlin's help. Telling him that all his hard work had been noticed and appreciated. Asking him to hold him. Thanking him. Telling him not to change, to always be Merlin. That's what his king wants. So that's what Merlin will do for him. He will return to Camelot and help Gwen. He will help Albion in any way that he can. He will use not just his magic, but his courage and strength, his good heart, and his capacity to love. That's what Arthur meant when he told him never to change, and Merlin vows that he never will.
"I will. I promise. But you should know… I'll never find someone who's a bigger prat than you are, Sire."
Arthur laughs out loud, and it's the sweetest sound Merlin's heard in a long time. "I'd never have it any other way. Idiot."
They stand in silence, smiling at each other, and Merlin wishes he could just stay here forever, staring into Arthur's eyes.
But he knows he can't.
"I know," Merlin whispers.
"I'm going to miss you," Arthur says shakily, and Merlin realizes that they're both crying and he has no idea when they started again. Merlin pulls Arthur into a fierce hug, never really touching him, and he yearns for the day when he can really be with Arthur again.
As he pulls away, Merlin whispers, "I'll keep my promise, Arthur. I swear."
Merlin steps back.
"You're not going to say goodbye, Merlin. I'll see you again, old friend."
Merlin nods. "And I'll see you again, my King."
Arthur smiles at him through his tears. "You know the rules, Merlin. You can't look back."
Even so, it takes all the strength Merlin has, all the strength that Arthur has given him, to turn his back on his friend, walk out of that place, and walk back into Albion.
Arthur told him not to look back.
And he never does.
In the end, Merlin does his best to keep his promise.
He returns to Camelot. Gaius is so happy to see him he cooks him his favorite meal every night for a month.
Gwen is grateful to have him back. After many long, late talks, she decides to appoint him Court Sorcerer, and Merlin graciously accepts. He spends his days helping her in all the ways he can, from making decisions on how to rule the kingdom to staying up with her late into the night and recounting their fondest memories of Arthur.
Gwen rules the kingdom fairly and justly. She marries Leon, but in the end, she remains barren.
Over time, Merlin grows closer to Percival. Maybe it's the fact that they've both lost someone they love dearly. Maybe it's the fact that Percival is the only one who knows just how much Merlin cared for Arthur. Whatever it is, the two remain good friends until the day Leon and his knights return from a mission carrying Percival's body.
On the day that Gaius dies, Merlin decides to age himself at the same rate as everyone around him. As Gwen and Leon grow old together, Merlin grows old, too. But only on the outside. Inside, he remains as young as he was the day Arthur died, and he knows that despite his outward appearances, he will never age a day until Arthur returns.
The price of immortality is high. He returns to Ealdor to be with his mother as she dies. He watches Leon die. Finally, he watches Gwen die. He sits by her bed, looking like an old man but feeling like a tired young man. As she lies on her deathbed, old but still radiant despite it, Merlin tells her that he loved Arthur, not just as a friend but as something more. She tells him that she already knew.
After Gwen dies, Merlin watches helplessly as the kingdom falls apart around him. It only takes a few despots and tyrants on the throne for Camelot to fall to ruin despite Merlin's best effort. In the end, he can't bear to watch the death of the kingdom Arthur loved so much. So he sheds the old man, becomes himself as he was when Arthur knew him, and he leaves.
But he never goes far.
Centuries after Arthur's death, he meets a woman who reminds him how to love. She loves him for who he is, reminds him that he has so much to offer the world, and he falls for her. He grows old with her, never telling her that he has magic. She dies in his arms, and as he weeps, he sheds the old man once more and moves on.
She gives him the courage to leave what's left of Albion and see the world. He watches civilizations rise and fall. Watches countries grow and flourish. He finds causes, fights in wars, watches as Albion becomes England.
He returns to England to end the Black Plague, and he stays for Shakespeare. He wanders through Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, even spends a few months in Antartica, but it's too bloody cold for him.
He visits the New World for awhile. He likes the thought that the people who have fled here can make a new life for themselves, though he's not particularly fond of what they do to those who were there first. Still, he helps them fight for their independence, and when they turn on each other, he saves as many lives as he can. In the end, nearly 1 million people lie dead, and Merlin heads in search of something more peaceful.
Over the years, Merlin meets new people, and he falls in love with some of them, men and women alike.
But none of them are Arthur.
He grows old with them, but eventually they die and Merlin finds himself alone. He always visits the lake of Avalon after, hoping that Arthur will return to him. But he never does.
Sometimes, he goes decades, centuries without falling in love again.
Sometimes, the weight of it all is too much. Helping the world, watching everyone he loves die, missing Arthur, wondering when he will come back. He takes long breaks away from everything. Becomes an old man and moves to quiet places where he can be alone. But in the end, he always goes back to society. He made a promise to Arthur, after all.
Merlin may be the world's greatest sorcerer, but he's still a man, and he's in pain. He misses Arthur everyday he lives. It's like someone has torn out a piece of his heart, and though Merlin loves again, no one can ever truly fill that hole. He visits the lake when things get so hard he can barely stand to keep breathing anymore. In the end, he always leaves. Arthur will return to him someday, and the thought keeps him alive. In the end, he knows only Arthur will make him whole once more.
Cities crumble. Nations pull themselves apart. Even nature begins to tear away at the Earth. Wars envelope not just countries but the whole world. Merlin is sure that World War III will bring Arthur back into the world, but after twenty years of bloodshed and nearly half a billion deaths, Arthur still does not come.
On the day World War IV ends, Merlin grieves, and he wonders if the world will be able to pull itself together again.
Merlin's asleep in the ruins of an old castle in Scotland when he feels the Earth tremble underneath him, and a voice calls to him from far away.
Merlin leaps to his feet. He feels the ground pulling at him, feels a magic intense and ancient rise up from the Earth, and he couldn't fight it even if he wanted to. He sheds his old skin without trying, feels himself grow young again, and he gasps as the magic pulls at his very core. He grabs his chest and whispers Arthur's name.
Then he blinks, and he's at the shore of the lake of Avalon. He was just here a few weeks ago, sending little boats full of candles over the lake's surface in memory of those who died in the last world war.
He feels the Earth tremble again, and the force of it brings Merlin to his knees. He hears a voice calling to him again. Only this time, he can make out who it is.
It has been centuries, millennia, since he has heard this voice. But he would know it anywhere.
"Arthur," Merlin gasps, and when the Earth stops trembling, Merlin gets shakily to his feet as Arthur's head breaks the surface of the water.
Merlin watches in wonder as his King struggles to shore, weighed down by soggy red cloak and damp chain mail, Excalibur hanging loyally at his side.
Arthur spits out a stream of water, and even from this distance Merlin can see his old friend rolling his eyes.
"Merlin, are you just going to stand there gawping or are you going to help out your King?"
Merlin laughs, and it's been so long since he's done so it comes out nearly hysterical. But he doesn't care. Arthur is here. Whole and alive. He's finally here.
Arthur continues to struggle up the shore as Merlin runs, faster than he's run in a long time, maybe ever. He reaches Arthur before he's out of the water and the force of their meeting knocks them both off their feet. They land in the water hard. Arthur barely has time to indignantly shout out "Mer-lin!" before Merlin crashes their lips together. It's violent and passionate all at the same time, full of so many things gone unsaid for so long. Merlin kisses Arthur like he's wanted to kiss him for more than a thousand years, and Arthur kisses him back.
And it feels just like coming home.