A/N: About this fic: so of course I was heartbroken by the finale, and immediately sought comfort in fanfics. The thing is, though, that it's blasted hard to find a gen story, let alone one that doesn't have Merlin catatonic for a thousand years. (If you have recs, by the by, I'll be more than glad to read!) So I guess I wanted to try my hand at it, go for something new. Not to say this doesn't have angst - actually, this is probably the angstiest angst I ever did angst - but it might be of a somewhat different sort than is currently trending out there.
His feet are wet. As is the rest of him.
He trudges stubbornly to shore, the chainmail weighing him down more with every vaguely swim-like step. As soon as he reaches it he stumbles to his knees and catches his breath, unravels his cloak from his neck and tosses it aside in an abrupt, hurried movement. His shoulders slump in relief.
He raises his eyes. It's a warm summer afternoon, but that is about as much as he can gather. The land isn't the land he knows, and though the trees are old and he has a vague knowledge of where he must be the forest in front of him is far from familiar. The paths he expects to see have gone and been replaced; the dense foliage he remembers has become sparse. Oddly shaped metal poles stick up from the ground without seeming to serve any purpose – and in the distance , a meadow cleaved in two by a wide black ribbon has been curtained off by a steel web.
He grimaces, and finds that the air itself has an odd taste.
An incredibly loud groan buffets his ears and he flinches, covering them with his hands as he scans the forest for what might have caused the sound. A giant, he thinks, or else a monster from Gaius's book. Perhaps whatever made that steel web.
But nothing emerges from the woods. When he looks to the sky – a dragon, he wonders? – he glimpses something distant that glints in the sunlight, but it is nothing he's seen before, and passes from sight quickly enough.
"Just an airplane," someone says behind him, and Arthur whips around.
It's a young man – or, at any rate, a boy on his way to becoming one. His face is smooth and unblemished, half of it shadowed by a hat that is as undignified as any Arthur's seen. His entire attire is decidedly foreign, full of colour, and yet the oddest thing about it might be that for all that it appears worn and torn, it gives off the impression of being particularly well made. Arthur cannot fathom why one would tear holes in a perfectly serviceable pair of breeches, but evidently it must be a fashion of some kind.
A rather foolish one, if so.
The stranger seems perturbed at having a sword at his throat, though perhaps not enough to satisfy. He grins nervously, and something about it strikes Arthur as terribly familiar.
"Whoa there," the boy exclaims, gulping, hands up in surrender. "I'm just here to help. Cool sword, though." He flashes another bright grin, and, his gaze holding Arthur's, delicately pushes the blade away from his skin. "Ouch," he hisses, and a drop of red blossoms on his finger.
A fool, then. Arthur suppresses an eye-roll, but allows his sword to be moved aside. "Airplane?" he echoes.
"Yeah, y'know, those metal things people fly on." He makes a face after a moment and laughs. "Or, no, I guess you wouldn't, would you? Erm. Welcome to the twenty-first century?"
Arthur frowns at him, then glances over the boy's shoulder. No one else shows. They seem to be alone.
It doesn't make any sense.
"Who are you?" he says, furrowing his forehead. Of all those he'd thought he might find upon his return, it was certainly not this stranger. "What business have you here?"
"Marcus Turner," the boy says, glancing up from his finger, and there again is that carefree grin which Arthur can't help but find irritating. "And well, among other things, my business is currently bringing King Arthur home." He pauses. "…You are King Arthur, right? There isn't another medieval knight running around here in a suit of armour?"
"I am Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther," Arthur says, and sheathes his sword.
Marcus Turner's eyes widen. "Blimey," he whispers to himself, then laughs sheepishly, hand reaching up to rub the back of his head. "Uh, it's an honour to meet you. Sir. Your highness."
It'll do. "Pleasure, I'm sure," he returns absently as he once again surveys their surroundings with a frown. "Daylight won't last long. Where are you camped?"
Marcus blinks. "Camped?"
"Your horses, boy," Arthur says impatiently, finally looking back at him. "I expect you have one for me as well?"
"Er, I haven't ridden a horse since…" he squints into the distance, then shrugs. "Okay, pretty sure I've never ridden a horse. Maybe a pony when I was little, but that doesn't count, does it?" He glances at Arthur's face and stops. "Er, I mean. I thought we'd just take my car."
"A carriage," Arthur says dubiously. "You have a carriage." While the boy hardly looks like he's worked a day in his life, Arthur's having a difficult time picturing him with anything so grand.
Another blink, then a laugh. "Oh man, I can't wait to see your face."
Arthur circles the car for the fiftieth time.
"I told you, the horses aren't invisible," the Turner boy says, exasperation clear as he crosses his arms and leans against a faded blue door. This is likely because Arthur had made him demonstrate the mobility of the large contraption several times by now, but to be fair, Marcus hadn't been very patient to begin with.
Arthur shoots him a sceptical look and raps his knuckles against the rusted steel. It still seems perilously close to falling apart.
"And a good thing too," Marcus had replied when Arthur first commented about it. "Five years ago Granddad would've killed me for letting you get the seat wet." He'd eyed Arthur's dripping armour doubtfully. "Still not sure the old girl will take your weight, to be honest."
Which hadn't been particularly reassuring.
"Come on," Marcus groans now, before suddenly perking up. He shoots Arthur a smirk that couldn't look sly if it tried. "You can't tell me you aren't just a bit curious," he wheedles. "You want to know what it's like, don't you?"
Arthur keeps his expression blank as he sweeps his gaze across the machine that should by all rights be put to pasture.
"And where would you be taking us?" he asks, pretending he isn't, actually, insanely curious. "It's almost nightfall. Camelot's a four day's ride at the very least. "
"Er. Right. Camelot." Marcus looks uncomfortable – he opens his mouth to say something, then clearly thinks better of it. He says instead, "That wasn't exactly the plan."
He narrows his eyes. "You said you'd be bringing me home."
"Yeah, home. My home," Marcus says. "Where Merlin is."
"Merlin," Arthur says, staring out the window. The metal poles studding the road have turned out to be the futuristic equivalent of torches, their pale glow smearing into horizontal stripes as the car speeds up. It must be the glass that's blurry. Or perhaps Arthur's vision – but that is, of course, a ridiculous thought.
Either way, he doesn't care to look into it.
"He's alive," he repeats to himself. "After all these years."
"Yeah," Marcus replies, hands tapping rhythmically on the wheel across from his seat. It steers the car, Arthur's determined that much, but he's yet to discover what causes it to move forward. He'd ask, but he has more important things on his mind. "Comes from being magical, I expect."
He starts, and then shakes his head in wonder – Merlin's magic is still so new to him. There are those who say he's the greatest sorcerer to walk the Earth. "And why did he send you? Why didn't he come himself?"
They wait at a crossroads. The boy hesitates. "He's got his reasons."
Marcus shrugs. The light turns green, and they accelerate again.
Arthur scowls in frustration. The boy's been stubbornly cagey, refusing to tell him anything of importance – any information on Guinevere, for instance, or his knights, let alone the welfare of his people. Plenty of time for that later, he'd say, or Granddad should probably be the one to tell you.
Other than Merlin's name, Marcus hadn't really said anything that might assure Arthur of his intentions. To be honest, Arthur isn't entirely sure why he decided to take the youth at his word – for all he knows, he could be walking into a trap.
But Arthur doubts it. Something about the boy is familiar enough to inspire trust, he thinks, though he cannot determine what it is.
Or maybe the chance of seeing Merlin again is enough to trump all common sense.
"Where are we? Can you tell me that, at least?"
Marcus doesn't seem very fazed by Arthur's pointed question. He shoots him a knowing grin. "Highway A1, by the coast."
"Thank you," Arthur says dryly. "That was exceptionally helpful."
The grin widens. "I'm sorry, really I am. This must be pretty frustrating. It's just, Granddad's said to take it easy with you. Doesn't want you to be, uh, overwhelmed, and all."
Arthur narrows his eyes. "I mean no offense to your grandfather, but I assure you, I am quite capable of taking care of myself."
"Probably." Another shrug. "Sorry, got my orders."
Arthur leans back on the seat, lets his head loll onto the headrest.
A while passes, and then he says, "Merlin, is he-" he stops, starts again. "Is he happy?"
Marcus glances at him. "Yeah," he says. "I think so, anyway."
He clears his throat. "Good," he says, nodding. "Good." He goes back to watching the scenery through the window, and does his best not to think.
He feels the weight of eyes on him, but when he turns Marcus has already turned his attention back to the road.
"It's true, then," Marcus says after Arthur had become quite used to the silence. "The stories about you two. That you were close."
He blinks, surprised. "There are stories?"
"Sure, lots. Nearly everyone's heard."
Interesting. He doesn't know whether to be wary or flattered. "What do they say?" he asks, and wonders whether anything about Merlin's magic had made it to the tales, or if Merlin's deeds have been consigned to eternal ignorance.
He hopes not.
"Most of them say you were a king's bastard," the boy tells him matter-of-factly, "and that Merlin was the wizard who hid you away after your birth. When the king died, Merlin told everyone that only someone who could pull the sword Excalibur from the stone could be the rightful heir, and all of Britain tried but you were the only one who could. So you got crowned, became king and all that. There are stories about Camelot and your knights and your adventures, but they all say Merlin was your greatest advisor and taught you how to be a great king."
"That's… only half true," Arthur says, after a long moment. "I was never a bastard. And I was king well before I pulled the sword."
Arthur almost smiles, remembering. I've never had a friend who could be such an ass. "He was just a servant boy when I met him."
Marcus' eyes widen. "A – a servant boy?" he exclaims, sounding choked. "You mean he– did all that –"
"Of course." He shifts in his seat. "He was just a bit younger than me, I should think. But a loyal friend. Stubborn, reckless, clumsy, yet… very wise, at times. I owe him a great deal."
Silence. Arthur looks over, and sees Marcus frowning at the road.
"I'm surprised Merlin hasn't told you what really happened," he remarks. "Didn't you ever ask?"
The boy's thin fingers tighten on the wheel. "When I met him," he says, after a moment, "I – well, he told me right away he was the real Merlin. From the legends. I believed him, you know, I was just a tyke and he had magic, it made sense." The grin that had practically been a fixture on his face is suddenly nowhere to be seen, a thoughtful frown taking its place. "Course I had questions – who wouldn't? But he didn't… didn't like talking about it too much, so after a while, I just… stopped asking."
Arthur's throat feels tight. "It didn't end well," he says. "But there were good times more than bad."
"I know. The legends say that too."
He looks back out the window, letting the thrumming vibration of the car lull him. The night in this age is different from the one Arthur remembers; instead of an all-encompassing black, dotted by stars, this night sky glows a dim yellow at its edges, as if the darkness is nothing more than a dream.
It's pretty enough, but he misses the stars.
They make a turn into a street that looks like any of the others they've been on so far. The houses in this time are grander than the ones Arthur is used to, certainly grander than any peasant had back then - of course, they have nothing on his castle, but still it is more than he expects.
Marcus insists, however, that they are nothing to be in awe of.
"But anyone can live in them?"
"Course," the boy says offhandedly, then seems to reconsider. "Well, if you have money. Not that you need all that bloody much for these," he adds, almost under his breath.
Arthur watches his face curiously. "You lack for money?"
He cuts at the air dismissively, one hand on the wheel. "Eh, we get by. Convinced Granddad to move into town a couple years ago - that was a trip, let me tell you, the old man likes his trees. Wasn't cheap either, but it sure as hell made life easier on the two of us."
"Just you two, then?" Arthur asks.
Marcus' eyes flicker to his face, then back on the road. "Just us two. My mum and dad died when I was little."
"I'm sorry," he tells him, for well does Arthur know the burden that comes with loss.
Strange; Arthur suddenly realizes that apart from Merlin, nearly everyone he knows (knew) are orphans. He wonders what that says about him, about his people. About his time.
And he wonders if this age is any different.
The boy just shrugs, expression open and untroubled when he smiles. "Eh, don't be. Granddad's been good to me, can't really complain."
Arthur nods uncomfortably, and thinks he has to admire the boy's acceptance of his fate. He suspects he himself may never be completely at peace with Uther's death, let alone his mother's.
Perhaps it's envy rather than admiration, he admits grudgingly to himself, and then wonders how it came to be, Marcus' serenity. If it's that Marcus is an utter simpleton, and so the loss had never properly registered. Or if one merely cannot miss what one barely remembers.
…Or perhaps it is just as it seems. It is a sad state of affairs, Arthur reflects, that his first instinct is to suspect idiocy rather than sound mental health.
"Here we are," Marcus says merrily, pulling the little blue contraption in front of a modest two-storied house. Flanking it are a few tall pines, and in front is a small garden that would likely have delighted Gaius had he been here to see it. A cheerful yellow glows beyond the curtained windows – clearly whoever's inside is awake, and waiting.
Merlin. Arthur stifles the urge to run.
Marcus points at Arthur's door. "You pull the handle there," he says, demonstrating on his side, "then push."
Arthur tries it. It sticks a bit – clearly in the future hinges still need to be oiled – but opens with a terrible squeak after he applies some force.
He stands and stretches his legs, noticing that his clothes had dried during the ride. Odd, this; Arthur can't remember ever sitting still for so long. Even the dullest meetings with his advisers had been interrupted by a recess or, in his more desperate moments, some hasty excuse conjured up by Merlin.
Not that he hadn't enjoyed the car and its extraordinary speeds, but the sitting did lose its novelty sometime in the first hour or so. Arthur wonders if Merlin will take him on a proper ride one of these days. Surely he misses riding horses.
He glances at Marcus. The boy's staring nervously at the house, mouth pursed. Something indefinable passes over his eyes as he looks back to Arthur.
"So, that's that," he says, and the smile on his face almost doesn't look strained. "Home sweet home."
"It's lovely," Arthur says softly.
Something in the stiff shoulders loosens a bit. "Yeah, well, it'll be more lovely once I get supper started," he replies, and abruptly begins to pick his way across the brick-studded path. Arthur follows. "Dunno what you're used to, but I'm betting culinary trends have changed a bit since your time."
"No pheasant?" he says lightly. The red door looms in front of them. Arthur finds himself slowing, and promptly stumbles on the pavement.
Marcus chuckles from up ahead. "Not nearly."
He forces himself to keep up. "Well, Merlin had me taste rat, once. You'll find I'm not that picky."
They reach the house. "Rat? Really?" the boy laughs, rummaging through his pockets. "You'll have to tell me that story someday."
The door opens, and paints their faces a golden yellow.
"I'm home!" Marcus calls. He glances back to Arthur as they step inside. "Closet's over there," he points, "just put your… red blanket thingy on one of the hangers, all right?" He turns back to the inside of the house, hastily kicking his shoes off. "Granddad!"
Arthur would object to the designation of his cloak as 'red blanket thingy,' but he's too busy staring at the small entryway. Small paintings line the walls to either side of them, none of which are in good quality but still seem to have been chosen with thematic care. Ahead are two short flights of stairs which apparently lead into the kitchen, judging by the glimpse of cabinets and fruit bowls, and under his feet is a worn rug that says welcome in large blue letters. The inviting smell of food floods his nose, and he realizes he is starving.
Home. A ready meal.
He feels a pang in his chest.
Marcus blanches suddenly. He shoots up the stairs. "Granddad!"
Arthur blinks, and after a moment, follows behind uncertainly.
"Granddad!" he hears as he nears. "How – how did you – what the hell do you think you're doing, Granddad, you're not supposed to –"
"Quiet, you worrywart, I'm fine." someone says. "Go wash your hands, I made supper - and for heavens' sake, take that ridiculous hat off before I spell it off."
"You – you made supper?"
"Honestly, Marcus, as though I haven't fed you all these years. The meal's perfectly edible, I assure you. I'd even call it fit for a king."
The boy's silhouette blocks the kitchen from view, but Arthur notices the rigid line of his back, the stark white of his knuckles as his fingers clutch onto the doorposts. "Granddad," Marcus says, and there's a tremor in his voice.
"He is here, isn't he? It would be just like him to be late."
Arthur puts a hand on Marcus's shoulder and moves him gently aside.
"Late?" he says. "I've never been late to anything in my life. At least not until you came along."
A grin, widening.
"Blaming me for your shortcomings? I see how it is. You haven't changed one bit."
"Of course not, Merlin," Arthur says, smiling so hard it hurts. "After all, you'd get bored."
He's so fragile.
Arthur's seen Merlin sick before – carried him in his arms after battles gone wrong, after foolishness on his part, foolhardiness on Merlin's. But even then fragile had been quite the wrong word to describe Arthur's manservant; despite his skinny frame Merlin was mind-blowingly resilient, indomitable, and Arthur had never truly doubted that he'd be all right – he remembers his belief faltering only once, and that was after a sudden rockslide had separated them both, trapping a bleeding Merlin on the wrong side.
A sudden rockslide he can likely attribute to Merlin himself now, come to think of it.
Arthur's seen Merlin old before too, though at the time of course he'd had no idea. This Merlin looks different from the wild Dragoon, however – softer, better groomed (his hair and beard are noticeably shorter), more laugh lines in his cheeks, more crow's feet by his eyes. Dragoon had been a gruff and fierce curmudgeon, but this Merlin seems… more like Merlin. More like the smiling and stubborn servant boy he remembers.
And yet there's less of him. His shoulders may be broader, his jaw somewhat wider, but Arthur feels like he can count Merlin's every rib with his fingers, even through the thick woollen shirt he wears.
There's so much less to wrap his arms around.
A noise from the hall snaps them back to reality; reluctantly, Arthur detaches himself and stands. He runs a hand over his eyes and represses the impulse to sniff, laughing instead. "It's good to see you, Merlin."
And what a vast understatement that is.
Merlin smiles up at him from his armchair, hands folded in his lap now that they have slipped off Arthur's back. His eyes are shining, tear tracks running into his beard, but unlike Arthur he makes no effort to hide any of it. "Welcome back," he says simply, but behind his words are entire worlds of meaning.
Merlin's always been good at that.
He takes a seat at the small table. "So," he begins, but now that he's here, can't think of anything to say. He can't help staring, marking all the changes time's had on his friend.
Perhaps it's rude, but Merlin looks at him with just as much fascination. "You're so young," he says, with a small laugh. "I didn't remember you being this young."
"And you're a proper old man now," Arthur says, trying to gloss over the ache in his heart. Merlin has left him well and truly behind. "Not to mention, a grandfather!"
Merlin chuckles. "Not in the honest way, I'm afraid. I took Marcus in when he was very young and I very old. One nightmare, one shout for 'Granddad,' and my fate was sealed."
He glances out the hallway. "And you took care of him all this time?"
"Not so long, considering," Merlin replies, eyes glittering merrily. "And not too difficult. I had some experience with unruly brats, if you remember."
"And I with idiots," Arthur retorts.
They scowl at each other, then grin, and for a moment it is almost like old times – the two of them only young fools, with few duties and even fewer worries.
But only for a moment.
Arthur's grin fades slowly. "Merlin, what happened?"
The old eyes suddenly look tired, though they do crinkle along with Merlin's smile. "You must be hungry – let's eat before the food gets cold. Everything else can wait."
Marcus comes in as Arthur awkwardly begins to set the table, having been instructed by Merlin as to the location of the tablecloth and silverware. His skin is red from scrubbing and his eyes are raw, gleaming wetly as he surveys the small kitchen in silence. Evidently he'd followed Merlin's request and set the cap aside – his short dark curls are finally visible, and cling stubbornly to his head.
Arthur's breath hitches; the knives he holds nearly slip from his fingers. He turns to Merlin quickly, but the latter only smiles and shakes his head.
"Good of you to join us, my boy," he says with a generous grin. "Help Arthur with the table, won't you? I think making dinner has earned me a reprieve from the rest of the chores tonight."
After a moment, Marcus nods, and wordlessly heads to the oven. Arthur watches; he seems far from the happy, talkative boy he'd met by the lake.
"You'll have to forgive me, Arthur," Merlin tells him, quite chipper, "I couldn't quite seem to remember your favourite dishes. I trust this won't be too rough on your royal stomach." Merlin takes the knives from Arthur's slack hand and smirks mischievously.
"I just hope this'll turn out better than your usual fare," Arthur replies after a moment, regaining his footing. "If I don't find myself ill by the end of the night, I shall count myself pleased."
"I have improved, you know," Merlin says, raising an eyebrow. "I had to eat my own cooking for a thousand years, after all."
"And you have my deepest sympathies," Arthur says dryly.
Merlin's eyes widen with mock indignation. "I don't recall you complaining quite so much before, my lord!"
"That was because my only other choices were between Gwaine and Percival," he returns, "and those were hardly an improvement."
His old friend laughs, and Arthur cracks a smile. Merlin's face may have changed – his home and his loved ones as well – but his laughter is still as warm and ridiculous as it ever was.
It gives Arthur heart.
A clang jerks them out of their conversation; Marcus practically slams the plates unto the table. "Dinner's ready," he says.
The food's good, indeed excellent – he supposes a millennium was enough for Merlin to improve his skills after all. There's spiced chicken and potatoes and strange sauces, long threads of boiled dough and a salad full of vegetables Arthur doesn't recognize. The bread is good and fresh; the butter melted just enough to be easily spread. In truth, it is more than Arthur had expected, and more than fit for a king – when Merlin tells him food in this day and age is rarely scarce in Albion, and that this meal is thought commonplace, he can't help but gape in awe like a fool.
It must be true, however. Both Marcus and Merlin eat sparingly, though Arthur suspects the former does so more out of sullenness than a lack of appetite. Arthur, for his part, shoves as much food down his throat as he can possibly manage, even though the spices are rather foreign and rich for his taste.
Reviving from the dead leaves one rather famished, it seems.
There's little conversation, and that is mostly between Marcus and Merlin as the latter attempts to draw Marcus out of his sudden moodiness. He's marginally successful; Marcus snorts in laughter a couple of times, loud and short, as though by accident.
Arthur shoots furtive glances up at the boy throughout the meal, unable to resist. It's the effortless grin, the open expression. A thousand other tiny things that Arthur found memorable but could not place. Merlin's work, on Mordred's face.
No wonder he'd felt so familiar.
"Enough," he says finally, pushing back his plate and licking the last of the sauce off his fingers. "Merlin, it's time you told me."
"Of course," Merlin replies, not missing a beat. "Marcus my boy, put the dishes away, if you please."
Marcus frowns. "I want to hear."
Merlin smiles at him even as Arthur gives him a wary look. "And so you will, of course. Conversation is just rather more pleasant in a clean kitchen, don't you think?"
The boy stares, then swallows. His hands curl into loose fists. "I guess," he mutters, and stands. "I'll get my iPod."
"Good man," Merlin says with obvious pride, and Marcus ducks his head, shoulders relaxing a bit as he leaves, as if unwillingly.
And Arthur hesitates.
He clears his throat, working his way to it. "Does he – " does he know, he means to say, but doesn't quite manage to finish.
Merlin shakes his head. "No," he answers softly. "He remembers nothing. And I… I thought it was too much of a burden to remind him."
If Arthur closes his eyes he can see the light in Mordred's eyes fading, the wavering smile of resignation as he crumples to his knees in front of Arthur. If he tries he can feel the sword piercing through his gut, the pain that doesn't ease when he presses a hand to the wound.
Or, worse, the sensation of Excalibur piercing young flesh – the sadness sweeping through him as he realizes he's failed his youngest knight irrevocably, and could have done nothing to prevent it.
A burden. That's one way to put it.
His fingers clutch onto the tablecloth. "Thank you," he says hoarsely. "I – I'm glad." He swallows as a thought occurs to him. "His parents, did they – "
"They were dear friends." A cloud falls over Merlin's face. "I couldn't prevent their passing. And when he came to me… I didn't realize who he was. Not at first." He smiles crookedly, pain in his distant eyes. "Coincidence, or destiny, I no longer know."
As always, he thinks, Merlin takes the world's failures entirely upon himself. It's something that had mystified Arthur when he'd thought Merlin just a serving-boy; it's something that mystifies him still when he considers the aged sorcerer in front of him.
It does make him realize, however, that those years since his death were not inconsequential. Merlin must have seen so many things, met so many people. Had so many more opportunities to love and cherish and lose.
It is a small, unfair thought that he discards immediately, but Arthur does wonder for an instant where he and his friends rank; if, after so much love and loss, the first wounds even still register.
"You're good with him," he says instead, because Merlin is. "Gaius would be proud."
"I'm not the half the man he was," Merlin replies absently, eyes on the hall where Marcus had disappeared to. Then he turns to Arthur and grins so sheepishly Arthur can almost envision his old friend as he'd once been, young and beardless and impossibly earnest. "But thanks."
Marcus washes dishes – running water on command, another miracle of this odd age – mouth screwed up in a pout even as his head bobs along to music Arthur can't hear. Merlin informs him it's how children are, nowadays, each listening to songs no one else knows.
To Arthur, who'd once held lively feasts full of music and laughter and friends in his halls, it seems rather lonely.
Merlin tells him everything.
It is strange, Arthur thinks vaguely as he listens. He had known this was a new era, a new time, that everyone save Merlin had died long ago. And yet hearing it all told, hearing of Gwaine's torture and Guinevere's grief and Leon's pain and Percival's loss suddenly brings it all to sharp, horrid life, while Gaius's death and Camelot's eventual fall bring him a dull ache beneath his breast, as if no time at all has passed,
Although in truth, for Arthur, it might as well have been yesterday.
Merlin tells him more – of Kilgarrah, of Balinor, of Lancelot, of other things of which they never had time to speak. Nearly every story ends unhappily; another stone weighing on his heart, that had long weighed on Merlin's.
Arthur says little. There is little to say. Even had there been a word that could somehow encompass all he feels, it would not have been spoken; his throat chokes on a mere breath.
He does not cry, nor weep - he expects that will come later, in bed, under the cover of night.
Still, it is a close thing; and Marcus's averted eyes and Merlin's sigh tell him it's not nearly so far as he'd like.
The telling is hard on Merlin, and hard as it is to hear, it is harder for Arthur to see it. His old friend's eyes are cool and detached, his aged voice even and melodic, but his knobby fingers tremble, and he flinches with every loss he tells as if living through it again.
And these are the years Arthur knows of. The years Merlin chooses to tell.
He cannot imagine listening to the rest.
Perhaps Merlin notices; with the fall of Camelot, not long after the death of the last of their friends, Merlin changes tack. His mood lightens, his stories shorten – he tells of his travels, adventures, skims through a decade of loneliness, then centuries, and, before long, a thousand years.
"A long time," Arthur says quietly.
Only Merlin could smile at that without bitterness, Arthur thinks. "A long time," he agrees.
Arthur breathes in, exhales. "So – " he stops, takes another breath. Steadies himself. "What now?"
It's a ridiculous question. An absurd question, really, for the king of Camelot to ask his old manservant. Unthinkable.
But then, Merlin was never just a manservant.
"Now?" Arthur's greatest advisor says, and there's a secretive glimmer in his eyes. "Excellent question, sire. And I do have a good answer. But we'll speak of that tomorrow."
Marcus shows him to his room upstairs.
"It's not fancy or anything." He says this with a shrug, as if he couldn't care less. "But Granddad said you're used to the floor."
Arthur snorts. Funny, Merlin. "He would."
"Light switch is here - you just push it, see? Got clothes for you over there," Marcus nods to the wardrobe. "Feel free to wear whatever, they're all yours." He pauses. "Er, just so you know, no one really wears armour nowadays."
He wonders if Marcus thinks everyone always wore chainmail in his day. "Thank you," he says.
Marcus nods again. Lingers, as Arthur heads to the closet and peers inside.
Some of the garments are strange, made out of strange materials, but none of them are quite like Marcus's outfit, for which Arthur is grateful. Whoever picked the clothes knew his tastes – solid, muted colours, sturdy fabric, nothing overly constricting his neck.
His throat tightens as he stares at the shirt in his hands.
"He always knew you'd come back," Mordred – Marcus, tells him. "We used to visit the lake, the two of us. Throw rocks into the water. He'd call you a toad."
He can't even manage a laugh. "But this – he must have known – "
"He felt it a month ago. Started visiting the lake every day. Made the bed. Bought all these clothes." He inhales. Something raw enters his voice. "I thought he was bonkers. Didn't think – didn't think you'd really show."
It doesn't take a sorcerer to figure out that Marcus is less than happy he did.
Arthur wonders what changed since they'd entered the house - whether it was some unconscious action on his part or a hidden memory that's turned Marcus against him. They'd gotten on well, him and Mordred, before circumstances drove them apart. Marcus had seemed to like him well enough too, before.
"Whatever it is I've done to offend you -" he starts quietly, but Marcus shakes his head and cuts him off as he walks to the door.
"You – you made him laugh," he says, and Arthur sees his throat working. "You made him laugh, so. I owe you, for that. I guess."
He stops by the doorway.
"Don't take it personally," he says, not turning around. "I just – I just wish you never came back."
Arthur goes to bed. Lies there for a long time, staring at the ceiling, listening to Merlin's and Marcus' murmurs, the scritch scratch of something rolling across a wooden floor.
Percival smiles. Gwaine laughs. Leon stands proudly next to Lancelot and Elyan.
Guinevere takes his hand.
Thank you, Merlin whispers, and Arthur yells.
…He doesn't sleep well.
Merlin's already in the kitchen by the time Arthur makes his way down the stairs. If he notices Arthur's less-than-stellar state, he doesn't mention it.
"Mornin', milord," he greets Arthur cheerfully. "Marcus just went out for milk, but he won't mind if we start eating without him. Not much for breakfast, I'm afraid."
"Good morning," he says, and smiles despite himself.
They eat in comfortable silence. It's easy, familiar - every so often Arthur glances at Merlin and is surprised to see him an old man. His chest pinches peculiarly, each time.
As the meal winds down, Arthur notices Merlin looking at him strangely.
"What is it?" he asks, wiping his mouth. He peers down at himself, but it doesn't appear as though he's spilt anything on his new robes for once. "What?"
"You're here," Merlin says, hesitant, voice full of wonder. "You're really here."
Arthur feels something painfully tug on his heart. "Course I am," he says roughly. "You saw me last night, didn't you?"
Merlin's eyes are damp, but he runs a hand through his beard and grins as if just in embarrassment. "Yes, well. You looked like a proper king then." He eyes Arthur's shirt. "In these clothes, though…"
"You bought me these!" Arthur says indignantly.
"But do they fit, and if so, for how long?" Merlin ponders aloud. "I forgot how much you like to eat. Considering all you've had last night, I really should have taken that into account."
He grits his teeth. "I'm not fat!"
"Though I suppose it's somewhat of a miracle you were even able to dress yourself in the first place…"
Merlin smiles sunnily. "There there, sire. Drink your juice, it's good for you."
"So," Merlin says some time later. "I thought you might like to go out today. See what became of Albion for yourself."
His fork stills on the way to his mouth. He puts it back down slowly. "Today," he echoes.
"Good a time as any, right?" His eyes twinkle. "Things have changed a bit since you were here last, sire. Marcus would be glad to show you a few of them."
Somehow Arthur sincerely doubts that. "You're not coming?"
Merlin swallows a bit of toast. "Afraid not," he says. "Fancy a bit of a lie-in today, I confess." He glances at Arthur and chuckles at whatever he finds there. "Don't look like that. I'm ancient, you know. My old bones would only slow you down."
He feels a frown pull on his eyebrows. "Is everything all right?"
"More than all right, Arthur," Merlin answers warmly. "How could it be any less, now that you're here?"
Arthur ducks his head, busies himself with finishing his sausages. He'd never known how to respond to these odd flashes of sentiment, never known whether they rendered him strangely awed or just plain uncomfortable.
Better just ignore them.
"You don't want to go."
Damn Merlin's eyes.
"Why don't you want to go?" The sorcerer sounds bemused. "You can't possibly want to stay here. The company of an old man isn't quite that fascinating – and I should know, I've had a thousand odd years of it."
"Good enough," he mumbles, and doesn't look up. The weight of his friend's stare hasn't lost a bit of its intensity - he feels it on his face, like burning.
Merlin just looks at him.
"I can't," he says.
Merlin's voice is gentle. "Can't what?"
Arthur raises his eyes, only to drop them.
And suddenly it's too much – the words burst out of him like water from a dam, like blood from a free-flowing wound –
"I can't, all right? I can't do this!" he snaps. "I died, Merlin, I lost everything! I can't just – come back to life and keep going like nothing's happened!"
"That's not – that's not what I'm asking of you, Arthur."
He fairly spits out his words. "No? What are you asking of me, then?!"
Merlin doesn't answer immediately. The morning light hits one of the glass cups, splattering fat drops of rainbow across the table and Merlin's hand. Merlin turns his hand over, splaying his fingers wide, and watches the play of brilliant colour across his palm as if it might tell him something.
And who knows - perhaps it does.
"Live," Arthur's best friend says, after a moment of gazing at his hands. "That, more than anything else, Arthur. That is what's most important, that is what I ask of you. Just live."
Arthur's eyes sting. "I don't know how to do that."
Merlin's gaze jerks to meet his. For the first time, he looks shaken. "Arthur –"
"I'm not a king anymore, Merlin," he says. "My people are gone. I don't fit in this land. I don't know how I can start over, when everyone I know is –" he stops and covers his mouth, staring at the table.
Merlin lays a large and warm hand on his arm. "Arthur," he says, and there's so much pain in his face.
It's selfish, it's selfish and he doesn't care. "Guinevere's gone," he whispers, voice wrecked. "And I'm supposed to just, what, live without her?"
A sharp inhale.
"And Leon. Leon's always been there for me. And Gaius always had all the answers. Gwaine, Gwaine always made me laugh and I – I brought him nothing but misery, Merlin, him and Elyan and Percival. And Lancelot, God, Lancelot." The world is blurry when he looks back at the simple, unassuming kitchen table. "How am I supposed to do this without them, Merlin? How am I supposed to do anything without them by my side?"
Silence. Merlin's grip tightens on Arthur's shoulder.
Arthur takes a shaky breath. Reminds himself that he's not alone. He still has Merlin. And for that he is grateful, is so grateful. He still has Merlin.
He doesn't want to think what he'd have done otherwise.
"Maybe you don't have to."
Arthur snorts as he raises his head. "What's that supposed to mean?" he says bitterly.
"I didn't want to raise your hopes." Merlin bites his lip – it looks odd on an old man. "But you've seen Mordred. I – there's no reason the others shouldn't have done the same."
Something terribly like hope kindles in Arthur's chest. "Have you – have you looked?" he manages breathlessly, after several voiceless tries.
"No." Merlin's voice is strangely forbidding. "Losing them once was enough, I think."
Arthur blinks. "But Merlin –"
His friend withdraws his hand, looks away. He makes this odd absent twirl of a gesture, and the spots of rainbow rise from the table and dance merrily around Merlin's fingers.
It steals his breath away. Magic. He'd nearly forgotten.
"I make no promises, Arthur," Merlin tells him softly, not looking at him. "There is no guarantee you'll find them. I don't know where they are, or when they were born. You might find them only children, you might find them dying of old age. They might remember you – but then again, they might not."
Arthur thinks on that for maybe a second. "Doesn't matter," he decides, and stands. The street outside seems brighter all of a sudden. "If they're here, I'll find them. If they don't remember me, I'll help them remember. Whatever they might be like. I don't care. I'll see them again."
Merlin stares at him for a long moment, then grins, eyes gleaming damply. "I thought you might say that." His dimples have become furrows and fissures on his face, partially obscured by a white beard, but are no less endearing than they'd ever been. "For what it's worth, I do believe fate's on your side. You will need your friends for what you must do."
It heartens him, until he processes fully what Merlin's said, and then he just cocks his head to the side, puzzled. "What I must do?"
"Yes." Merlin puts his hands on the table and leans forward. "Your destiny awaits, Arthur. The world has need of you. "
Merlin bids them farewell, utterly at ease as he languishes in his armchair. Find them, my lord, he'd said, smiling up at them. They're waiting.
Arthur's antsy to be out and about – his head is spinning from everything Merlin's told him, and besides, he does have people to find – but he can't help the brief flicker of jealousy. He's not expecting much from Marcus in the way of conversation.
And indeed at first it's just as he predicts. They take a walk around the small neighbourhood, and Marcus is unsurprisingly unhelpful. "Here's a tree," he says crossly as they pass an oak. "Here is a yard. Here's a man walking a dog. Behold the wonders of the modern age."
Arthur doesn't hold back from rolling his eyes anymore.
They're close to the house when Marcus's pocket begins to whistle and sing. Arthur jumps, whirling about as he tries to find the source of the melody.
Marcus glances at him with amusement and brings the singing glass rectangle to his ear. "Hey, what is it?" he says to it, just as it stops ringing. "We're almost home."
Arthur frowns. The boy looks ridiculous. "Who're you talking to?"
The boy waves him off dismissively. "Not that short," he says with a frown of his own. "It's nearly lunchtime." Pause. "What, into the city? But that's at least an hour – but Granddad –" His eyes flicker to Arthur, and he turns his back on him. "Yeah? And what about you? …So what! Magic doesn't solve every –" His shoulders slump. "Oh, fine," he says sullenly. "Just – don't do anything stupid, okay?" Muted laughter echoes from the little rectangle. "I'm serious!" More laughter. "Okay, okay, I'm off. Love you too, bye."
Marcus clicks something on the side of the – whatever it is. Arthur watches in fascination. "The box talks?"
"What?" Marcus wrinkles his forehead. "Oh, the phone? It's a phone. You can use it to talk to people who aren't around." Arthur opens his mouth. "Long as they have one too," Marcus adds, and Arthur closes it. "I'll show you later. Anyway." He clears his throat. "I'm taking you to lunch in the city, Granddad said it's okay."
Arthur raises an eyebrow, though he somewhat appreciates the transparent effort at courtesy. "There's no need. Whatever Merlin says, I'm not your responsibility."
Marcus shrugs, not meeting his eyes. "Yeah, I know. Look, it'll make Granddad happy, all right? Let's just get it over with."
And with that promising start, they near the battered old car – which apparently has been in Merlin's keeping for the past thirty years, but has entered critical condition only in the last five. Arthur runs a hand over the blue steel, intrigued. Last night he hadn't had a chance to properly marvel at modern machinery. "May I?"
"What?" Marcus says absently, and then his eyes widen. "Oh, no fucking way, mate, no fucking way."
He frowns. "I'm an excellent rider."
"It's not a horse!"
It is somewhat of a turning point, however. Marcus is much more talkative now – patient as he explains why they need to stop at a petrol station, or why he must adhere to one side of the yellow line which, as far as Arthur can tell, has been drawn rather arbitrarily and no one else sticks to.
The city's larger than Camelot ever was, the buildings almost taller than the eye can see. Arthur stares at the people they pass; there is such variety here, and in such quantity. Some are taller than Percival, while others are as short as the dwarf in the Fisher King's realm. Some are paler than Morgana; others, darker than Elyan. Many of them wear even more bizarre clothes than Marcus does, and once, Arthur is certain he's glimpsed a woman with an Adam's apple.
There are children nodding their heads to silent music, grim-faced men in grim-colored clothes, youths with metal in their faces and women showing more skin than Arthur's seen outside of his marriage bed. Each is a disappointment, however, and he finds among them no one he recognizes. None notice him save to glance past him, and none of them greet him with a familiar voice, though those who do greet him seem friendly enough.
They eat at a place called Indian – or at least, so Arthur gathers. Everything is written in a language he doesn't know, and what he can read makes little sense. Marcus seems to have no such problems however, as he orders for them both, and when the food arrives Arthur can't help the feeling that it is some sort of test.
It looks unlike any dish Arthur's ever seen; a small and rather irrational part of Arthur almost longs for Merlin's rat stew. At first he plans to only taste it, or else plead a lack of appetite, but something in Marcus' eyes makes him scowl and shove a respectable heaping into his mouth.
He doesn't spit out the green-coloured meat, but it is a close thing. His tongue burns, his eyes water; he reaches for the glass of milk and downs it in one swallow. Marcus laughs so hard the entire table shakes.
And Arthur sees Mordred as he once was, and cannot get angry.
"Marcus," Arthur says as they walk, with as much dignity as one can afford while holding a cone filled with a sweet cream that has a tendency to smear unto your nose – another modern invention, and one that Arthur heartily approves of. "If I were to look for someone, how might I go about it?"
Marcus looks up from his own cone. He appears flummoxed. "You're a thousand-year old king, who could you possibly look for?"
He sighs. "Humour me."
"You got a name?" the boy asks. "That's a good way to start."
Arthur hesitates. He knows they might have different names in this age, as Mordred does, but the task of searching the entire modern world without even that much seems far too daunting. "Guinevere. Leon." To begin with.
"Oh." Marcus suddenly appears uncomfortable. "Erm," he clears his throat. "You know that they're, uh, dead."
Suddenly the sweetest thing in the world couldn't triumph over the bitterness in his mouth. Arthur tosses the ice cream into a 'dust bin' – Marcus had already rebuked him several times for simply tossing rubbish over his shoulder. "Humour me."
Merlin's boy peers into his face curiously. "Well. I guess you'd look up their names on the internet. See if the profile pictures match."
Which tells him absolutely nothing. "I see," he says noncommittally, when a thought strikes him. "Would Merlin be able to do it? With magic?"
The boy bites his lip. "Don't know. Maybe," he says. "But look, can you – can you not ask him? Please?"
Arthur wrinkles his forehead. "Why not?"
"It's… just don't, all right?"
He finds himself growing weary. He still doesn't know what he's done to deserve Marcus's resentment. "Marcus, this is important. Merlin will agree with me."
Marcus stares at the ground. "It's not – that's not it. I know it's important, all right, I get that."
He narrows his eyes. "Then what is it?"
"I just don't want him to… try too hard." The pale throat works. "He tries really hard for you. Too hard. You don't even realize."
And Arthur looks at him, this earnest young boy who owes him no allegiance, who only cares for Merlin's welfare. A long time ago Mordred's loyalty had been to Arthur – once, he and Merlin could barely stand each other's presence.
But it fits, somehow. Perhaps Arthur had taught Mordred honour, the value of a sword with a cause to wield it for, but it is Merlin who taught Marcus to smile and laugh with no fear of consequences.
It is but a small penance.
"Very well," he says, and Marcus's face lights up in gratitude.
They return later than they meant to.
"Phone's one thing," Marcus grins. "Still not sure you're ready for a computer. Maybe a nice thick book."
He makes a face. "Keep your books, I'd rather the computer. I'm sure it's not as complicated as you make it sound."
The boy laughs. "You'll be surprised."
The second they walk through the door there's a noticeable change – Marcus's laugh turns forced, and Arthur sees his narrow shoulders sag as he looks up the stairs, as if burdened with troubles too great to bear.
"Come on," Arthur says, and Marcus nods. They climb.
Only to stop, and stare.
Where before it was cosy and cluttered, now the house is spotless and orderly, with nary a speck of dust on the floor. The windows gleam, not a dirty streak marring them, and the kitchen counter sparkles as if only just shined. Even the furniture seems grander and new - and to top it all off, waiting on the table there's a meal still warm, far richer than the one last night.
And in the armchair sits Merlin, fast asleep.
"Blast it," Marcus whispers. He runs to Merlin's side, crouching by his legs, but the old man doesn't wake or do more than sigh, not even at a gentle nudge. "Granddad!"
Arthur stares at the freshly-painted walls, and feels something inside him break a little. Merlin did all this. For him.
He tries really hard for you.
He begins to see what Marcus meant.
"He should be in bed."
Marcus glances at him from the hallway, arms full of blankets – which he promptly drops. "You're right, you're right," he says, clearly frazzled, running a hand through his messy hair. "I should get the wheelchair –"
"It's fine," Arthur says. He bends down and scoops Merlin up gently, then straightens, barely feeling the weight – Merlin's so thin. "Where are his chambers?"
Marcus stares at him, eyes wide. "I – right here," he says jerkily, and disappears down the hall.
Arthur follows behind at a more sedate pace, careful of his charge. The downy white head rests limply on his shoulder; slow breaths gust softly across his neck. It somewhat tickles, but Arthur doesn't look down. Instead he hitches Merlin up, and holds him more securely.
At the doorway he pauses. Merlin's room is much like the house – small but homey, and decidedly Merlin. The furniture is simple and wooden, the bed almost tiny, but the walls and surfaces are littered with various keepsakes and mementos, pictures and paintings which must be worth a great deal, for an immortal sorcerer to choose to keep them, of all things.
He wonders what stories lie behind them.
Merlin stirs in Arthur's arms. His eyes flutter open sluggishly. "Arthur?" he murmurs.
"Shut it, Merlin," he says, and gently puts him down. Marcus holds back the covers and replaces them on top of the thin torso. "It's off to bed with you."
Merlin frowns blurrily, then blinks. "Your dinner," he says, struggling upright, before slumping against the wall with a sigh. "Sorry, sire, I must have fallen asleep." His eyes alight on his ward, and he smiles. "Marcus, lad. Did you two have a good time?"
"Fine." The boy's throat works visibly. "It was fine."
Merlin arches his brow. "Just fine?" he says with apparent amusement. "My boy, you spent an entire afternoon with the legendary king of Camelot. You must have an adventure or two to tell."
Marcus tenses. His arms quiver at his sides.
"I'll get your meal," he mutters, and fairly runs out of the room.
Merlin looks after him, expression unreadable.
"You idiot, Merlin," Arthur says. He places a pillow between Merlin and the wall even as he settles in the chair by the bed. "He deserves better than you give him."
Something forlorn passes over Merlin's face, and then he tilts his head, smiling at Arthur. "Don't they always?"
Arthur frowns. "Don't give me that," he says.
"Give you what?"
The wide-eyed innocent act was a lot more convincing without the crow's feet, Arthur thinks wryly.
Just then Marcus returns, awkwardly hauling a small table with a tray and two steaming plates. He places it between Arthur and Merlin without a word.
"Thank you, Marcus. Won't you join us?" Merlin says with a cheerful smile. "Arthur can tell you about the time his father married a troll."
Arthur starts. "Merlin!"
"Or was it an ogre?" Merlin laughs. "What do you say, Marcus?"
"No thanks," the boy says quietly. "I'd rather be alone."
"Marcus –" Merlin starts, but by then he's already gone.
Arthur stands uneasily. "Should I –"
"Ah, let him go," Merlin sighs, calm as he latches his eyes on the doorway. A door slams, but he doesn't flinch. "He's easily upset these days."
He sits back down slowly, and wipes any trace of emotion or judgment from his voice as he says, "And why is that?"
Merlin's smile fades. He seems genuinely thoughtful. "I suppose because I've told him too much, and yet not nearly enough."
His mouth twists into a scowl. "Just so we're clear," he growls, leaning over the table, "being old does not give you the right to be cryptic. No riddles, Merlin. I am still your king."
Merlin blinks at him for a moment, and then bursts into laughter - just laughs, and laughs, and laughs, until Arthur's almost afraid for his sanity.
"Oh, my friend," he finally wheezes, tears in his eyes, "I have missed you! How did I manage all these years without you putting me in my place?"
"With great difficulty, I'm sure." He doesn't smile. "Merlin."
The laughter falters, then comes to a decided halt. "So he told you," Merlin says, with some resignation.
Arthur shakes his head. "He didn't have to." He swallows. "You can't walk, Merlin. Did you really think I wouldn't notice?"
The act. Dinner already made. House polished. Always pretending he'd only just sat down. Take him to his room, Marcus. Thought you might like to go out, my old bones will only slow you down. Fancy a bit of a lie-in today.
For the first time, bitterness makes it unto Merlin's voice. "Of course not," he replies humourlessly, and sinks back onto the pillow, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry. You must think I'm pathetic."
"Pathetic?" Arthur repeats, lightly. "No, no. I've seen you pathetic, Merlin, remember? This is definitely not pathetic."
Merlin smiles a little, his eyes still shut. "I like this resurrected you," he says. "You're nicer."
"Sleep, Merlin," he tells him. "You're delusional."
A small chuckle. "Maybe just for a little bit," his friend murmurs, and goes quiet.
The food's cold by the time Merlin wakes up again, but Arthur doesn't mind. He sits up in his chair, arms still folded across his chest, sending Merlin his best glare.
Merlin's mouth quirks a bit, as if he can see it through his closed eyelids. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?" he says.
"Oh, I'd say so." Arthur smiles grimly. "You're lucky I'm the only one here - I daresay Gaius would have known how to deal with you properly. Or perhaps Percival and Gwaine, they would have come up with something creative."
Merlin lays a hand over his eyes. "What a terrifying thought," he says, laughing faintly. "I can't say which is worse."
But Arthur has no interest in nostalgia at the moment. "What is it, Merlin? Have you seen a physician?"
Merlin peers at him from between his fingers. "Great as it is, even this era has no cure for old age, Arthur."
He frowns. "What does that matter? You're immortal."
Arthur shoots him a scowl, then wipes at his mouth as he thinks. "Marcus said that a month ago you were fit enough to walk about and visit the lake yourself. But yesterday you had him come get me. What changed in between?"
Merlin shifts, sits up with difficulty. "I began to feel poorly last week, so I had him take my place. I didn't know exactly when you'd come, you see, just that you would."
He rises to his feet and begins to pace. "Have you taken medicine? Some sort of treatment? How long until it passes? I'm assuming you've had this before."
"Arthur, please. There's nothing to take, there is no treatment. This isn't a… recurring ailment."
He scoffs. "You can't tell me this is new."
But Merlin tells him nothing.
He stops and turns to face his idiot of a best friend. "Really?" he says incredulously. "You seriously expect me to believe that this is just a matter of you getting old? After more than a thousand years of health?"
Merlin shrugs. "I've been lucky."
He narrows his eyes. "And how exactly do you explain becoming bedridden in the span of a week?"
"My luck ran out?"
He slams the table, hard. "Goddamn it, Merlin! Why now? What could have possibly changed after all this time?" He breathes hard, then asks more quietly, "And why don't you seem to care?"
His friend suddenly looks uncomfortable.
"Merlin," Arthur says. "What aren't you telling me?"
There's a long, long silence.
Finally, Merlin sighs. "I told you this morning, didn't I," he says. "Why you came back."
Arthur frowns as he remembers. "You said the world was lost. That it needed someone to bring peace to the nations and restore magic to the land."
"Yes. And that is true." Merlin smiles at him. "You will bring that to pass, Arthur, no one but you will do. I have the utmost faith you will succeed – in fact, I am certain of it. There will be battles, great battles, the likes of which you've never seen, but you will triumph over them. You must know that."
Something about Merlin's words causes a chill to run up his spine. "What aren't you telling me?" he repeats, hardening his voice.
Merlin's fingers clutch the folds of his blanket as if in reflex, then loosen. He turns his head, as if to stare at the wall.
"I told you this world will need you because it is ridden with war, and magic has fled, and a great danger is coming that can only be fought by the return of magic and the forces of Man banding together." He sighs again. "And that… that is all true. I swear it."
Arthur's throat tightens. "But not the entire truth."
"No." Blue eyes, still sharp and bright, look back at him with sorrow. "It will also have need of you, Arthur, because my time as its guardian is ending."
Arthur frowns. "You're going somewhere?"
Merlin looks down.
"No, Arthur," he says, and behind his words are entire worlds.
Arthur stares at him.
"No. This is –" his voice breaks, then threatens to vanish altogether. He strides over to the table, slaps his hands on it for balance as he leans forward, forcing Merlin to meet his gaze. "This is ridiculous, Merlin, this is unacceptable. I won't have it."
The familiar blue watches him resignedly. "It's life, Arthur."
"The hell it is!" he roars. "You're supposed to be the greatest sorcerer who ever lived, you're bloody magical! You are not going to leave me in your ratty little house when I've only just got here!"
"It's not as if I have a choice in the matter –"
"Do you really expect me to believe that?" he snaps. "There's always a way, aren't you the one who taught me there's always a way? You're my servant, Merlin, and you think a hundred years, a thousand years, can change that?" He catches himself, lowers his voice. "I am not saving the world without you."
Merlin closed his eyes. "You have to."
He grits his teeth. "I don't want to."
And then Merlin shakes his head. "Doesn't matter. Listen, Arthur, Marcus has magic. I taught him little, but the book of magic is in the bookcase, he'll need it –"
"Don't, Merlin –"
"He can help you, Arthur, he'll be a great asset to your cause, I know it. You can trust him - he'll help you establish yourself in this world, and then you can –"
"Merlin," Arthur croaks.
Merlin opens his eyes and looks at Arthur, studies his face silently.
"I am so sorry, my friend," he says at last. "I thought – I thought your next adventure would have me in it, but." His knobby hands tremble. "This time I can't join you."
They eat the cold dinner. Which is to say they both pick at it, only to find it tastes like ashes in their mouth.
Or at least, that's what it's like for Arthur.
"No wonder Mordred hates me," he says dully, bowing his head over his plate. "You're dying because I'm here."
"No, no," Merlin replies urgently, and puts a warm, live hand over Arthur's wrist. "You've got it backwards, Arthur. You're here because I'm dying. We're two sides of the same coin, Arthur – it's your duty to balance me out."
"Balance you out. How am I supposed to do that," he says. "You won't even be here."
Merlin is quiet for a moment. "I don't know, Arthur. But that's the way of it."
Arthur looks away, hating it, hating Merlin, hating everything. He suddenly understands Marcus completely – learning that Merlin's time was up, seeing Merlin exert himself for Arthur's sake…
Of course Marcus would resent Arthur. Of course Marcus would resent the person stealing away the only family he knows.
Arthur wonders if they were always meant to be enemies, him and Mordred. If it is his destiny to always take away the ones Mordred loves.
If only Gaius was here, he thinks. Gaius would have a cure, or an idea for a cure. Gaius would have sent him on a quest to help fix whatever's wrong with Merlin.
Gaius would have fixed this.
"You're coming back, though," he says suddenly, speaking past the stone in his gullet.
Merlin freezes for a moment, fork in the air, then frowns. "Coming back?"
"Like Mordred," he says impatiently. "Like Mordred and the rest. You'll come back. You will always be, you said that."
Merlin closes his eyes. "I am an incarnation of magic, Arthur. Magic always was, and always will be. That's all I meant."
"But Mordred came back. And Guinevere, and Gwaine and the others, they're all coming back." Arthur says it calmly, without allowing a trace of doubt to creep into his voice. Because they are coming back. All their friends.
They're getting a second chance.
"I – I don't know," Merlin says. "I'm different, remember."
"Not that different," Arthur retorts.
Merlin smiles slightly. "Arthur, what is the last thing you remember before you woke up in the lake?"
He frowns, thinking. "I remember… the battle. Mordred. You and Gaius. Mor- Morgana."
He furrows his forehead. "Dying," he says finally. "It was like falling asleep, for a long time."
"Very long," Merlin agrees softly, and something like the remnants of old grief pass over his face. "But you weren't surprised to wake up again, were you? You weren't surprised to find that time had passed."
"No." He raises his head as he realizes. "No, I – somehow I knew I'd come back, I knew I was meant to come back."
Merlin smiles a little. "Because you were. The old religion called you the once and future king, Arthur, because you were once a king, and so you shall be again."
He takes a breath, and it hitches unsteadily.
"Me?" His smile widens painfully. "I... I was once a sorcerer."
The days pass slowly.
Merlin grows weaker and weaker with each. Arthur and Marcus tend to him as best they can, silently agreeing to keep the peace for Merlin's sake. Arthur carries him inside the house, ignoring the indignant protests, while Marcus pushes him in the wheelchair whenever he wishes to go outside – which, as the days go by, is less and less frequently. Meal preparation is given over to Mordred by mutual accord; Arthur, for his part, is tasked with the cleaning up.
They take turns sitting with Merlin, cajoling him to eat, entertaining him in various ways. Marcus tells him stories of school and people they know; Arthur reminds him of adventures they've had, things they've done. Asks him to tell his own stories. Sometimes the three of them play board games, together – something about it makes Merlin's eyes sparkle with childish delight, and neither Marcus nor Arthur have the heart to refuse him.
More often than not, though, Merlin simply sleeps.
"He wants to see you."
Arthur's head jolts up a little from where it had rested on his arms. He yawns, squeezing his eyes shut as he stretches, and scratches his belly. "All right, where is he?" he murmurs sleepily.
"Out back, in the yard."
His eyes blink fully open. "You left him outside?" he says incredulously. "Marcus, I thought we'd agreed –"
Marcus looks away. "He asked."
Arthur straightens, frowning. "What's the matter?"
Marcus's eyes are red and puffy, spilling over into his cheeks. He wipes his runny nose with a sleeve. "I'm –" he sniffles, hiccups, rubs his nose again – "I'm going to a friend's house. For the day."
"All right," Arthur answers slowly.
The pale blue gaze runs over the walls, the floor, anywhere but Arthur. "Everything is – is set up." He puts down a little pad of paper, threads his shaking fingers through his hair. His movements are jerky, stilted. "So – so when he – when it happens, just call this number, okay?"
"Marcus." Arthur's standing, ice in his veins. "Tell me what's going on."
The tears never stop running down Marcus's face. "He doesn't want me to see," he whispers. "Says I –" he swallows. "Says I deserve better."
"Better – " he echoes in confusion, but then his eyes widen, jerk to meet Marcus's. "No," he says, but Marcus nods.
"He said goodbye."
It's a beautiful afternoon.
Merlin sits in his wheelchair, eyes closed. Blankets drape over his legs, tucked in lovingly at the corners. The cool breeze sifts noiselessly through the white beard, and sunlight surrounds the slight figure, casting him in an almost ethereal glow.
Arthur walks down the steps stiffly, reluctantly. He makes no effort to be quiet – it's far too tranquil here for his liking.
"I was just thinking," Merlin says without turning. "Remember when I drank from that goblet? The poisoned one, I mean. Nimueh's."
"I remember," he says. "I just don't understand how after all these years, you remember that and not my favourite meal. I think I'm insulted, Merlin."
Somehow, even without a clear view of his face, Arthur can tell Merlin's smiling. It seems like Merlin's always smiling, these days. "I always was a rubbish servant."
"Yes, well," Arthur says, and swallows. "I liked it that way."
He looks away, and clears his throat awkwardly.
"So," he changes the subject, forcing cheer into his voice, "what about it? The goblet?"
Merlin sounds wistful. "Nothing really, just. It was the first time I nearly died."
It's like a stab to the chest. Arthur stops breathing.
His friend sighs, his shoulders drooping. He seems even thinner now, huddled underneath all those blankets.
There's so little of him left.
"I was so scared," he murmurs. "I was so scared, Arthur."
"You didn't look it."
Chuckle. "Didn't I? I just remember thinking, this is it. This is the last time I'll do anything like this. Goodbye, danger, goodbye, Camelot, if I live I'm retiring to Ealdor."
He smiles a bit. "You gave yourself too little credit."
Merlin pauses, then snorts as he shakes his head. "I didn't give you enough. You saved me. And you didn't even have a dragon to nag you to it."
He swallows. "Close enough. Morgana helped me see it was right."
"Did she?" Merlin's smile is audible. "The things you learn." His head bows. "It's ridiculous, Arthur, isn't it? To be more than a thousand years old, and still just as afraid of death?"
Softly he says, "It's not ridiculous at all."
Merlin smirks at him, gently teasing. "How nice of you to say, sire."
He groans half-heartedly.
Another chuckle, brief. Merlin looks up at the quiet blue sky, and the sun lights up his face. "You weren't afraid, though. Pretty sure I was a lot more frightened than you were, actually."
From what he remembers, Arthur is pretty sure that's true. "Heavy blood loss, Merlin. I don't think I was feeling much of anything."
Merlin nods, acquiescing. "Maybe you're right." He exhales. "Just like falling asleep, eh?" he murmurs, as if to himself.
It's quiet, then. Arthur stands rigidly on the last stair, and sees nothing at all.
"Would you –" Merlin hesitates.
Arthur snaps to attention, moves to crouch by Merlin's side. "Anything, Merlin," he says. "Just say the word."
"Carry me?" his friend whispers, avoiding Arthur's eyes. "I'd like to – I'd like to feel the grass."
He nods. "Of course." He picks him up, blankets and all, one hand under Merlin's back, the other below his knees, trying hard not to notice how Merlin's shrunk since their reunion, trying even harder not to compare him to the boy Arthur had carried after he'd drank poison for his prince's sake, once upon a time.
It's not fair, he thinks, eyes stinging. Their second chance should have been more than this.
He lays Merlin by the roots of the great oak, places the white head in his lap. The sun's rays meander through the leaves and dapple the lined face.
"I found the others," Merlin tells him, eyes closed. "I don't know their new names, but I know where you might find them. The list's on the fridge."
Arthur freezes, speechless.
A knowing smile plays upon the thin lips. "You didn't think I wouldn't, did you? Prat." Affectionately. "You really should know better by now."
"I – when –"
"Marcus helped me." He squints up at Arthur. "You'll take care of him, won't you? I'm quite fond of the boy."
Merlin and his blasted understatements, Arthur thinks helplessly. "Of course, Merlin," he says. "He's your son."
A pause. Suddenly Merlin grins, brilliantly. "He really is, isn't he?"
Arthur smiles back, a little, sadly.
The great oak looms overhead, its dying leaves falling around them, landing with a muted whisper on the green lawn. It's a peaceful scene, the kind Arthur's almost glad he never had to watch just because of what it means. As king he had always been too wrapped up in his duties and in other people to marvel at the scenery – had always been too busy, or too worried, or too in love.
Not Merlin, though. Merlin had never been too preoccupied to see beauty for what it is.
A strong gust of wind blows over them abruptly, mussing their hair, and swipes the leaves back into the air. Arthur stares in wonder as they float around them, a perfect fluttering circle of red and yellow.
"Was that you?" he breathes down at Merlin.
The thin mouth quirks up a little as he watches the leaves dance back to earth. "Still got it."
His chest tightens. "It's amazing, Merlin."
It's warm. The last of the leaves glides back to the ground.
"I can't believe you found them," he says, hushed.
There's no response for a moment, and when he looks down Merlin's smiling at him so fondly it's almost unbearable. "You won't be alone," his friend says, and it breaks Arthur's heart because more than anyone else, Merlin knows exactly what it's like, and exactly how much it means to Arthur.
He won't be alone.
He chokes. "I owe you," he makes out, barely. "I owe you so much."
"You owe me nothing, Arthur."
"No." He closes his eyes, trying to stay calm, stoic, in control. He's a king. "I – if it wasn't for you –"
"Don't," Merlin cuts him off abruptly, and Arthur's eyes snap open. For the first time, Merlin looks desperate, almost panicked. "Don't thank me. Please. Not again."
His control crumples. "I'm not saying goodbye," he says unevenly, clutching unto Merlin's jacket.
"So don't say that either."
Arthur shakes his head, blinking rapidly as he tries his best to smile, for Merlin. "What am I supposed to say, then? What do you want me to say?"
"Say…" There's a second's hesitation, and then the old blue eyes crinkle at the corners. "Say I can have a day off."
He lets out a poor excuse for a laugh. "Just the one? Already promised you two, didn't I?"
A puff of air, barely a chuckle.
His smile shatters. He steels himself and says hoarsely, seriously, "Merlin -"
But Merlin reaches up just then, just for a moment, and grips Arthur's shoulder.
"It's enough," he whispers. He makes as if to say more, but stops himself. "It's enough," he repeats.
And he sounds grateful.
Suddenly Arthur understands, suddenly he knows exactly why this is so terrifying to hear. He holds Merlin tighter, clasping the suddenly slack fingers in his own. "Stop it, Merlin," he says roughly. "I'm not that nice, all right? It's just two. Two days, that's all you get."
His friend's hand is cold and clammy in his grasp. Arthur panics and struggles not to show it.
"Two days," he repeats, "and then you come back." He swallows. His cheeks sting. "You're coming back, you hear?"
"Merlin? Merlin!" His throat tightens. "Listen to me, it's not enough, it won't ever be enough. You'll come back, Merlin."
The wind makes the grass shiver, brushes the hair out of Arthur's eyes. Somewhere, a robin's trilling.
"You have to come back."
…Two days pass. Merlin doesn't return.
Then again, though, Arthur hadn't really expected him to.
Guinevere squeezes his hand as they stand together over the grave.
Gaius looks dazed, a man in shock. "I don't know how we can do this without him, sire," he says faintly. "I really don't."
Arthur glances at Marcus standing beside him, blank and dry-eyed, without a tear to spare. He wraps an arm around the boy's shoulders, brings him in close.
"I don't either," he tells them all. "But there's no other choice."
He's looking over the battle map when someone taps his shoulder.
Arthur glances up, wearily runns a hand down his face. "What is it, Gwaine? I'm busy."
"Arthur," his friend says, oddly hoarse, oddly pale. "Someone here to see you."
Arthur frowns. So much for secret location, he thinks irritably. "All right," he sighs tiredly, rolling his eyes, and gestures dismissively. "Bring them in."
Gwaine nods and leaves. Minutes pass, and in truth, Arthur quite forgets what Gwaine came to see him about. He scowls down at the map instead, fists at his waist, and wonders if perhaps Gwen would have an idea for a better supply route. She was always good at these things.
"Wow, that does look serious," someone remarks, and Arthur starts. The voice is young, strong, annoyingly chipper. "Need some help?"
Arthur straightens, then turns around slowly.
"About those two days," Merlin says, and breaks into a grin.
A/N: Okay yes, I folded at the last second and gave you a happy ending. Much as I love owning-old-age!Merlin, Arthur does need his sorcerer by his side.
About Marcus/Mordred: I liked him well enough but was never all that attached to him. I'd like to think he got a second chance, though, and I like the idea of both Merlin and Mordred redeeming themselves through their new bond. (Say what you will, but Merlin's hostility towards Mordred was more a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.) Maybe you think that he was mostly an OC in this fic, and of course you'd be right. I kind of threw a bit of Merlin's personality in there. But growing up without fear - and more importantly, with Merlin - does change you, I think.
And about old!Merlin: I like the concept of Merlin traveling the world - I think he's too much of a peoples person to ever really become a hermit, and I don't think he could ever really lose the love he has for his friends, for humanity, for beauty (that butterfly!). I always thought Dragoon was hilarious because he was so not the gentle, happy Merlin we knew, and maybe that was the point. I can't see Merlin ever becoming him, to be honest.
I have to admit it bothers me sometimes in fics when Merlin instantly reverts to being young after meeting Arthur, like he's ashamed of his old age and can pretend those years never happened. Thing is though, the thought of him not being able to do that is rather heartbreaking, which is why I was wary of writing this. I've never written Merlin and Arthur before, and I was somewhat hesitant how to capture the change in dynamics - seeing someone old when they were your age just yesterday must be painfully awkward, not to mention just painful. But somehow that never manifested here. I'm not really sure why. Maybe these two are just too incorrigible to ever change.
I'd like to think so.
Thank you for reading and making it this far. Please, if you liked - review. I'd be glad to know what you think.
So I started writing a Merlin fic right after 5.12. Because I thought it was a brilliant episode, and I had feels, and wanted to write my own ending (which is now grotesquely AU and I might never finish) before the showrunners showed theirs.
Then I saw the finale.
And oh God. That little fire dragon, like in that one episode I can't remember. That haunting variation on the end credits theme at the end. Talking about first day they met. Gwaine being betrayed by someone he loved, Gwaine dying thinking he failed. Arthur trying to ruffle Merlin's hair, head lolling, asking Merlin to stop trying to save him and just be with him. Ughh. It could have been so corny but it was so, so well done.
I've never seen a show that didn't end prematurely or after it jumped the shark, that flat out rocked the ending - but this finale? It's going to stay with me, and honestly, I don't know what to do about that.
I may never forgive them for killing Gwaine, or for robbing us of another season where Arthur and Gwen and the knights know about Merlin and it's all sunshine and roses and legalizing magic and Merlin proving himself to everyone, and I may never feel truly satisfied by this ending, purely because it is an ending and oh I hate those – but I do think it was an incredible episode with incredible performances (Bradley James, I salute you), and hands down the best finale I've ever watched. This is how you do a death scene. This is how you show friendship. This is how you finish off a show. Goddamn it all.