Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
For the first time, it occurred to Arthur that he might be dead.
It was what made the most sense, wasn't it? He was the king of Camelot; if he died, and if there were an afterlife, would it not make sense that his afterlife would be in his castle? Or maybe there really was something to the ghost stories that Gaius used to tell, and Arthur would be doomed to forever haunt the corridor in which he'd died. Gaius had said that some ghosts remained behind where they had lived without realizing that they'd died.
Of course, the problem with that theory was that there was no such thing as ghosts. And this didn't feel like an afterlife. For one thing, his body still hurt like hell and he was hungry and now he was growing cold on top of all of it. Besides, what sort of afterlife would it have been if the scene was in Arthur's destroyed castle? If there was an eternity waiting for a life to end, Arthur would have preferred that eternity to happen somewhere properly furnished.
It didn't help that he'd never leant much credence to the stories about afterlives. Life was life; what was the point of any of it at all if the important part of a person's existence didn't come along until its end? What was the point of eating or taking potions for averting death if the desirable part came after? It had all seemed too…mystical for Arthur's taste.
Still, it was seeming a little bit less mystical and a lot more possible now. Willpower and determination aside, it was more than reasonable to suspect that Arthur's injuries would have killed him by now. Even barring any further attacks, Arthur would almost certainly die without some sort of treatment, wouldn't he? At the very least, the bloodier wounds ought to have a wash before they festered. It would just be embarrassing if he were spared the implications of brain leakage only to die of infection. He hoped that Guinevere would think to omit the details for the statue that she would surely decide to erect in his honor.
That was all assuming that he wasn't dead already. He was dead from his injuries and now he was in his afterlife—however uncomfortable a thought that was—and he wasn't alone because Merlin was also dead and had come from his own afterlife to have a chat in Arthur's realm of…being dead.
Yes, it was all making lots of sense.
But Merlin was there. Arthur was sure of that much. He'd spent enough time with Merlin that it was easy enough to identify the source of the coughing. Hadn't he heard Merlin coughing before? Hadn't the coughing been made habitually memorable by Merlin protesting that he was too ill to work, each and every time? Hadn't Merlin actually been legitimately ill that one time and collapsed and then taken advantage of Arthur's guilt to fake his way out of a few extra days of work? It was Merlin, alright, Merlin coughing. And Merlin was dead.
So Arthur was obviously dead as well. That was the only explanation. He was dead and—considering just how he had died—he was vindictively pleased that sorcery had apparently not brought Merlin to the afterlife any more intact than Arthur. If Arthur was going to have to spend all of eternity falling to pieces, Merlin could bloody well deal with a cough.
Still, he had to check. Very slowly and swaying dangerously on his heel, Arthur pivoted around to look at what had been Merlin's dead body.
Merlin—either very much not dead or very much a ghost that had tripped over some ghostly debris and hit the ghostly floor—was propping himself up on his elbows, still more or less flat on his back and coughing as though…well, as though he'd been dead and his lungs were suddenly reinflating. After a moment, he eased his way up into a sitting position, wincing as though his entire body ached, and tears leaked from his eyes with the intensity of the coughs. The tears left streams in the grime of dust and dirt and blood on his cheeks. Arthur saw him wipe them away with the backs of his hands, and even from his angle, Arthur could see that the terrible palm-shaped burn on the side of his face was gone.
Yep, Arthur was definitely dead.
As though he'd heard Arthur's thought, Merlin began to scan the corridor, squinting in the sunlight.
He saw the bodies first, the bodies of the fallen sorcerers. Merlin's eyes fell shut and—for a moment—Arthur was afraid that he was going to collapse entirely backwards again. Instead, Merlin leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, holding the cramped position until his shoulders stopped trembling. Arthur didn't know what to do. Merlin shoved himself to his feet, wavering so violently that Arthur was sure that he was going to fall down. Still, Merlin managed to remain upright, and he shook his head back and forth as though he was trying to shake water from his hair and didn't have anything with which to dry himself. He began to look around himself at eye- rather than ground-level and seemed to notice Arthur for the first time.
"Oh," said Merlin, sounding very tired and looking away again. "You're here."
Arthur didn't know what to say to that. He'd expected something a bit more...exclamatory.
"I didn't want you to be here," said Merlin, apparently not needing a response. "You weren't supposed to be here. Not yet."
Arthur didn't know what to say to that.
"Call me selfish, but I really wish that I hadn't done it for nothing."
Arthur didn't know what to say to that. He wished that it wasn't so quiet.
"What a waste this all was," Merlin remarked, and Arthur didn't want to say anything to that. Merlin had basically just summed up everything that had happened ever since Merlin had fled the citadel—was that really only yesterday? "It was never supposed to go this way."
Arthur certain wasn't going to argue with that. He didn't know what Merlin's "it" was, but he certainly had a few of his own to wish for a redo.
"I don't know about you, Arthur," said Merlin, finally looking the king in the eye. "But I'm finding the afterlife something of a letdown."
And very suddenly, Arthur decided that he was very much alive.
"This isn't the afterlife," said Arthur, his voice sounding as though it was coming from very far away. "There's no such thing as an afterlife."
"Oh, good, he speaks," said Merlin, his voice growing stronger with every word. It was incredibly irritating. "I was afraid that this was my guilty conscience setting my afterlife in the corridor that I destroyed and leaving me with some Arthur-wraith that didn't actually do or say anything. Although it might have meant that you weren't dead, so that would have been good."
"I'm not dead," said Arthur, feeling oddly anchored as he found himself heading for an argument with Merlin. Some things never changed, he supposed. "You're not dead."
"Sure I am," said Merlin, actually rolling his eyes at Arthur.
"Magic has been used to try to kill me before," said Arthur, more irritated. "It doesn't always work."
"It does when I do it," said Merlin, shrugging.
"Well, aren't you special," Arthur muttered.
"Sort of, yes," said Merlin, the beginnings of a smile on his face.
"Don't," Arthur warned. "Don't even start with that."
"I'm banged into pieces and bleeding from a whole lot of holes that weren't in me a few days ago and my brain is leaking out of my ears, and you're smiling about it!" answered Arthur crossly. "I ought to have you hanged," he added, more out of habit than anything.
"I wouldn't bother," said Merlin, shrugging again. "Because I'm already dead. We both are."
"We are not!"
"Are we actually arguing about this?"
"Are you actually suggesting that we're dead?" Arthur countered hotly, choosing to ignore the fact that he'd been convinced of the very same thing only a few minutes ago.
"I think that I'd know!"
"And I wouldn't?"
"Magic and spirits and death are my realm, Arthur, so don't mind me if I'm going to go with my own opinion on this one."
"They brought you back to life, didn't they?" asked Arthur, choosing to ignore the slight validity of Merlin's argument.
"The castle fairies, Merlin," said Arthur, abandoning empathy in his agitation and gestured widely at the fallen sorcerers. "Who do you think?"
"Hmm?" began Merlin, glancing around until he realized what Arthur was saying, at which point he very steadily looked upward at Arthur's face. "I'd say not, no."
"They must have," Arthur insisted, remembering how they'd all one by one hunched over Merlin's body and laid hands on him.
"I don't see how," Merlin countered, a slightly patronizing tone to his voice that made Arthur want to hit him. "In the magical world as well as in…well, as in your world, I suppose, there are certain things that are absolute. Death is one of them."
"You being alive begs to differ!" Arthur shot back, pointing at Merlin, as though jab would convince him.
"Listen—no, listen, Arthur. I can stop death and I can slow death. I can inflict death and I can prevent it. I can trade it and I can sell it. But I can't reverse it."
"Merlin, you were dead! I saw it and I felt it and we're both alive now. They magicked you back to life!"
Merlin shook his head, clearly not even considering Arthur's argument. "You must have got it wrong, is all. I wasn't so very dead as you thought and they healed me or I healed me through them or the sun has some sort of magical property with this spell."
"I did not just get it wrong," said Arthur, angrier than he'd been in a very long time. "That would be a hell of a mistake to make, don't you think?"
"Your arm," said Merlin, gesturing at Arthur's broken limb.
"I didn't just decide that you were dead because I had a broken limb!" said Arthur, so offended that his voice jumped several octaves. Merlin smiled slightly at that but chose not to comment. Wisely, Arthur thought.
"No, I meant…Arthur, you can hardly manage a fork with you left hand. You left arm is your big useless shield arm. It would have been easy for you to miss any signs of life if you were feeling for a heartbeat with your left."
"I would not—wait, is this you agreeing that we're not dead?"
"I'm playing advocate."
"Look, with what I did…there was no coming back from that. No matter how many sorcerers there were trying to heal me. That was not a spell designed to incapacitate. I knew what I was doing, and I know what I did. I may not be particularly good at toting bath water or making beds, Arthur, but I am very good at magic. I'm healed because this is the afterlife, and who wants to spend forever with a big hand-shaped scar on their face?"
"Fine," said Arthur. "Fine! Why don't I play advocate now? If the afterlife is so full of healing and repairing, why do I look like I was struck by lightning and mauled by a griffin and tossed down the side of a mountain by an angry horde of unicorns?"
"An angry horde of unicorns?"
"Well, I don't know!"
"Probably not an angry horde of—"
"That's not the point, Merlin! If this is the afterlife, why do I look like rubbish and you look like regular you?"
"Maybe you're being punished by the gods for your treatment of sorcerers."
Merlin said it mildly, without a hint of accusation or anger. It was hard to tell whether or not he was entirely serious. He did seem to think that they were dead. But his voice grew very quiet and his gaze very hard for a moment before he averted it to squint into the sun rising higher over the courtyard. Arthur swallowed deeply.
"This isn't the time for us to get into who did what to whom, Merlin, and don't start preaching your gods at me. Just because you brought your fairy stories to Camelot from wherever it is you're from again isn't make me tremble in my boots now," said Arthur through gritted teeth, fighting the frustration that would do neither of them any favors at that point. Still, needing to vent at least a little bit, he kicked as large a piece of rock as he dared-not wanting to add some broken toes to his mess of body—that had once been part of his castle in Merlin's general direction. It crashed off of various chunks of debris, richocheting in such an unlikely pattern that Arthur would have been amused if he weren't so annoyed. It finally stopped when it crashed into the wall next to Merlin, having gained momentum in its bizarre route. A cloud of dust—disproportionately large, thought Arthur, not wanting to believe that the corridor had become that dilapidated—billowed up around Merlin, who waved his hand back and forth in front of his face to clear an eyeline.
"I'm not preaching anything—" Merlin began to respond before suddenly stopping. Merlin doubled over, and Arthur was beginning to grow concerned despite himself when Merlin sneezed violently.
"Serves you right," said Arthur. Merlin just wiped his nose on his sleeve in a move that Arthur had always hated—Merlin handled Arthur's food!—and stood very still for a moment. When he looked back up at Arthur, his expression was so odd that Arthur began to grow nervous again.
"Oh, no," said Merlin, sounding devastated, as though their situation had suddenly taken much more a turn for a worse than a sneeze. "We're alive, aren't we?"
"You needn't sound so upset about it!" said Arthur, too bewildered at Merlin's response to feel as satisfied as he normally would.
"I shouldn't be alive," Merlin insisted, sounding terribly unhappy. Arthur wondered if Merlin wasn't having a bit of fun with him. "It should have worked."
"Oh, no!" Merlin groaned. "This changes everything."
"How do you mean?" asked Arthur, feeling very calm all at once. Something about Merlin's panic triggered a sense of control in the king.
"Well, I'm a sorcerer, for one!" Merlin exclaimed. He began to pace, which was never a good sign with Merlin. "I destroyed your castle. I apparently beat you half to—well, three quarters to death—"
"Four-fifths," Arthur muttered. "At least—"
"—I beat you five-sixths to death. Oh, and, there's that other thing…did you miss where I'm a sorcerer?"
Arthur stared at him. "No, Merlin, I did not miss that you're a sorcerer."
"Can you see why I would rather that this wasn't real?" asked Merlin, sounding annoyed as he paced faster. "This complicates everything…"
"I'm not going to have you hanged, if that's what you're worried about," said Arthur, hoping to settle him down with that small reassurance, at least.
"I'd like to see you try!" Merlin threw over his shoulder, sounding insulted at the implication that Arthur could manage to do anything to harm him. Then he slowed for a few seconds. "No, I wouldn't. Sorry. Forget I said that. It won't get us anywhere…"
"Merlin, stop," Arthur commanded. "Just stop."
Merlin gave no indication that he'd heard Arthur, which didn't bother him too much. He was fairly used to Merlin ignoring direct orders, and he didn't know what he'd planned to say to him anyway.
"It would have been so much easier if we'd been dead," Merlin said, pacing faster and farther than ever. He reached the spot where all of the sorcerers had collapsed, and Arthur realized with a stab of apprehension that Merlin must not have noticed them for what they truly were when he'd awakened...Merlin had been so sure that he was dead, he must have thought that the bodies of the sorcerers were just invented figures of his afterlife, like the wraith-Arthur that he'd suspected…
"Uh-oh," Arthur breathed. Merlin just looked at the sorcerers for a very long moment, and it wasn't until his throat began to hitch that Arthur realized that he'd been holding his breath. Finally, Merlin turned toward him, and Arthur exhaled heavily. Then Merlin met his eyes.
"What did you do to them?" asked Merlin, looking angry and unbalanced for the first time. Arthur took an automatic step backwards. He knew that Merlin had been enchanted into attacking him, but anger with regard to Merlin had a much more frightening connotation now than it did when the only implication was having his itchy shirt laid out or his food handled with sneezed hands.
"What did I do to them?" Arthur protested, trying to sound calm and make Merlin understand. "Merlin, when last you saw me, I was one shove away from being pummeled to death! Five-sixths dead, remember? How could I face an angry horde of sorcerers if I couldn't land a blow on just you alone?"
"Well, I'm kind of different—"
"It's not enough that you're a sorcerer? You have to be a different sorcerer now?"
"You asked!" said Merlin indignantly, but the anger had faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Whatever mental state he was in at that moment, Arthur thought, at least he could recognize that there was no way that Arthur could have taken a grand final stand against anyone. Merlin turned away and began to walk his way through the pack of fallen sorcerers. He walked slowly, very carefully choosing his footfalls with more precision than would have been necessary in order to just avoid stepping on them. Arthur had the distinct impression that Merlin didn't want to touch them at all. With a wash of sadness and what was alarmingly close to pity, Arthur wondered if Merlin still wanted it all to not be real. He didn't say anything.
"They must have died with the sunrise," said Merlin, stopping. He bent down low over the serving girl. From his expression, Arthur knew that Merlin too had recognized her. "I never knew about her. Maybe nobody did."
He brushed a lock of hair away from her face, and he did not look at Arthur. He traced his fingers over the wounds that had copied those that Merlin had done to himself, placing his hand over the palm print on her cheek. His hand was larger than hers, and he covered the ugly red welt so completely that she could have been asleep, had it not been for the eyes. As though Merlin had heard Arthur's though, he gently removed his hand from her face and knelt down even closer. Arthur's knees almost began to ache with sympathy pain. With a delicacy that Arthur had never imagined Merlin possessing, he carefully opened wider her upper and lower eyelids. He looked for a very long time at where her eyes ought to have been. Finally, he closed her the lids as tightly as he could manage and rearranged her hair so that the terrible burn was covered.
"Her eyes were brown," said Merlin. His voice was very even.
"I never knew her name," said Arthur, the words ringing in the destroyed corridor. He wasn't sure if they were an excuse or a confession.
"No, you wouldn't," said Merlin, not a hint of blame in his tone. "She was a kitchen girl. There are half a dozen servants down in your kitchens at all times. If you ever actually saw her, it was probably by accident. How many servants' names do you actually know?"
He was so matter-of-fact that Arthur began to wish that he'd be angry about it. Not blow-up-another-corridor angry, but at least a little bit miffed. The problem was that Merlin was right. He didn't know most of the servants' names. Some he knew, of course: his groom, his substitute manservant Robert who came whenever Merlin disappeared for a few days, the armory attendants, a handful of others, Merlin…but he shouldn't have felt guilty about it. Merlin was right about that. Arthur's steward handled the hiring of the servants, and servants were necessary for a castle the size of his to function. Merlin even liked to tease Arthur that the only reason that he'd learned Merlin's name was because they'd met before Merlin had been assigned as his manservant.
Arthur didn't answer Merlin's question. There was no point. Merlin was with him for most of Arthur's waking hours. Merlin already knew.
"I'm sorry," said Arthur.
Merlin finally looked at him, although he didn't rise from his crouch. "For what?"
"I don't know," answered Arthur truthfully. "But I am."
Merlin stood up and wiped his face with his sleeve again, although he had not sneezed this time.
"I think," said Merlin, sounding very tired. "That I am too."
"I really wish that I were not a king right now," said Arthur. Merlin looked so miserable. "I don't know what to do."
"Normally, you'd ask me," said Merlin, a ghost of a smile on his face.
"And what would you tell me this time?"
"I don't know," said Merlin, looking distressed again. Distressed, and so very sad. "I'd probably say that it's not my place to interfere with something like this and that you ought to decide for yourself what's best for Camelot."
Arthur scowled. "I always hate it when you say that."
"I know," said Merlin. He picked his way out of the group of fallen sorcerers and approached Arthur, whose instinct to back away seemed to have vanished.
"I'd think that this would be a golden opportunity to try to plead your case," said Arthur, gesturing toward Merlin. "Not just you yours. All of you yours, the sorcerers, plural. Magic, sorcery, spells, curses, all that…I don't know, that stuff. I'm very tired."
The corner's of Merlin's mouth twitched again at Arthur's qualifier about his weariness. "I thought about it. But with this one…it's really really important that you decide this one for yourself, Arthur, whichever way that you go." He paused. "Although if you change your mind about trying to hang me, I might have a thing or two to say about it."
"Yes, well, as it is, you have about a thing or forty-seven to say about a lot of things," said Arthur, gesturing at Merlin again for no real reason.
"Shut up. I picked a number."
"Too bad. Forty-eight was a juicy one."
"Well, you can start with what the hell happened today. Last night. Yesterday. Whatever." Arthur gestured at Merlin for a third time, who looked at him as though the brain leakage was finally becoming noticeable.
"What's with the gesturing?" asked Merlin, mimicking Arthur's arm movements. "I'm the only other person here. I get that I'm the one that you're talking to about—"
Suddenly, there was a crash in at the end of the corridor, in the anteroom area between the outdoor balcony length of the hallway and the interior passage, and Merlin stopped talking. Relief flooded through Arthur. Everything was beginning to balance out. He was alive, Merlin was alive and not trying to kill him anymore, the sun had risen, and his men were storming the castle to stand behind their king. He still wasn't sure what he was going to say about Merlin, but they didn't know that Merlin had been the one going out of his way to try to tear the king limb from limb. If Merlin could keep his mouth shut-always a gamble-they could get cleaned up and eat and heal and sleep and deal with all of it later. His men were unlikely to question Merlin's unexpected presence at Arthur's side. It would hardly be the first time. Despite himself, Arthur smiled. It was all going to be okay now. He looked at Merlin, planning to reassure him that he wasn't going to hand him over to the approaching Camelot soldiers who were no doubt right around the corner.
Merlin, however, looked more alert than he had since he'd awoken, eyes very bright and so very blue that Arthur wanted to look away. There was no fright in his face, just a grim determination that bespoke a force building but barely contained.
"Merlin, no—" Arthur began, alarmed. He'd told Merlin that he wasn't going to have him hanged; why was Merlin going to attack Arthur's men? This was the last thing that they needed! "Don't—"
"Arthur," said Merlin, his voice hard. "Run."
"What? I'm not going to run and let you have a showdown with the knights—"
"The knights?" Merlin spared Arthur a glance so full of incredulity that Arthur was vaguely offended, although he did not know why. "Arthur, you need to run."
"I can't," said Arthur, shifting his weight and remembering all at once that his unwillingness to abandon his men was pretty much rendered moot by the fact that his body was almost certainly unable to do any more than hastily hobble. Running was out of the question. "Merlin, I can't."
Merlin shook his head in frustration, although he seemed to understand Arthur's difficulty. "Then get behind me."
"Your knights aren't coming, Arthur. How hard did I hit you in the head?"
"That was not the crash of a band of men coming to rescue the king. Did that sound like a dozen men to you?"
"They can be stealthy," said Arthur defensively.
"That is one person," said Merlin, waving Arthur to back away. "And that is a sorcerer."
"How could you possibly know—"
"Make that one of the forty-seven things that we discuss later, alright? Just trust me on this. There is a sorcerer coming at us, and I am not sensing any benevolence in him."
Arthur opened his mouth to argue, stopping when he saw what was clearly the figure of a woman at the end of the corridor, exiting the castle. The sun was still very bright; her identity was concealed and only by her silhouette could he be certain that she was female.
"There is a sorceress coming at us," Merlin corrected himself. "And I am really not sensing any benevolence in her."
"Oh, I hope that's not Guinevere," said Arthur aloud, ignoring Merlin's dire warnings as he realized all at once that he had no idea how he was going to explain any of this to his wife without a good amount of forethought. And medical treatment. And ale, if he had his way. He didn't move.
"I hope that it is!" Merlin hissed, and Arthur saw his body tense as the woman approached.
"Why?" Arthur hissed back, irritated. Merlin may have known sorcery, but Arthur had a wife. Surely it was his authority on women's figures that they were going to be heeding! He took a few deliberate steps forward, just to be irritating. Merlin scowled.
"Think about it, Arthur. Who else might it be?"
The woman was getting closer.
"Oh," said Arthur, inhaling deeply as he realized. The sunrise had lifted the enchantment that had set Merlin and the others against him. But they hadn't been the ones to cast the enchantment…his heart sank. "Never mind. I hope that that's Guinevere.
She was very close now. Arthur couldn't understand why they couldn't see her face yet. Surely she was near enough by now…
"Get behind me."
Finally, Arthur did, his heart racing uncomfortably in his chest. His eyes began to well up, and he couldn't place why.
The woman stepped into the shadows, and they saw.
Merlin inhaled sharply and raised his right hand.
Arthur took another step back.
And she smiled.
Well, it's been a while! Sorry for the crazy long delay. Thanks for anybody following this story who might have been patient enough to work their way through this one! I've actually had chunks of this chapter written for ages but couldn't figure out how to fit them altogether without sounding ridiculous. Hopefully it worked.
Anyway, I seem to be re-motivated now, so I'll either finish this up in a quick epilogue or go for another few chapters. I'm not sure if this story is dragging by this point. We'll see!
Thank you for reading, and I always definitely 100% appreciate reviews! :)