As the World Comes to an End
Chapter Six: Apologies
"Arthur! Oh god, what have I done? I'm so sorry, Arthur! I'm sorry! Please."
"Arthur, you're going to be all right. You have to."
"Arthur, I'm begging you. Please. Don't leave me here alone again."
"Arthur…I love you."
Arthur comes to slowly, Merlin's voice echoing in his head. He opens his eyes and finds himself in a good sized hut, bright sunlight pouring in through the windows to illuminate his surroundings. Dozens of mats cover the floor, but as he sits up slowly and looks around he finds he's the only one in the room. He rubs at his stiff neck, wondering where he is and how he got here.
The last thing he remembers is being in that field with Merlin, forcing Merlin to use his strength to heal himself. He remembers collapsing in Merlin's arms, remembers Merlin begging for forgiveness. Then everything goes dark.
As he glances around the room, he unearths vague memories of Merlin's voice: the words he heard before he woke up. Merlin telling him that he is going to be all right, begging him to be all right…telling him he loves him. He recalls the words as though he heard them in a dream, or perhaps in his sleep. When he feels his stomach growl he wonders just how long he's been out; probably for days considering how tired he feels.
Yet though his muscles ache and he's thirsty and starving, he feels good; nothing a good walk and a decent meal won't cure.
Arthur pushes himself slowly to his feet, testing his strength, and he finds that he can stand, but shakily. He eases his way toward the door and steps outside.
After a week of dark, stormy skies, and countless days of being asleep, the bright sunlight hitting his eyes is painful, and he pauses, shielding them from the glare. Eventually, his eyes adjust enough that he can look around.
He finds himself in a village, much like the other ones they've passed on their journey. The cottage he leaves is set apart from the rest, bigger than most of them, and situated near the banks of a river. He hears the laughter of children far off in the distance, and he hasn't heard the sound in so long that it actually brings tears to his eyes.
But then he finds Merlin, curled up alone on a boulder staring out across the water, and it's like there's nothing else in the world.
Arthur walks closer to him, but Merlin's so deep in his thoughts that he doesn't notice Arthur until he's right behind him.
"Have you ever seen such a lazy excuse for a servant?" Arthur jokes, and Merlin jumps off the rock so fast it makes Arthur's head spin.
"Arthur! You're okay!"
"Of course I'm okay," Arthur says with a smile, and the look of joy and relief on Merlin's face warms his heart. More than anything, it's the fact that Merlin is alive, walking and breathing and healthy and alive. The sun is shining and Merlin is all right and nothing else matters right now but this.
"Arthur, I thought that you…oh, God, I'm so glad you're all right," Merlin says quietly, the last two words coming out more as a whimper. He throws himself at Arthur, wraps his arms around him tightly, and Arthur smiles into Merlin's hair as he hugs him back. Merlin kisses Arthur's shoulder, nuzzles his face into his neck as he breathes in the smell of Arthur, alive and well.
"It's all right, Merlin. I'm fine. It's going to be okay."
Merlin just pulls him closer, and Arthur lets him. They hold each other until Merlin's calm enough to pull away, and when he finally does, he doesn't let go.
"You must have so many questions," Merlin says with a small laugh, and Arthur nods his head in agreement. He has so many questions he doesn't know where to start. Eventually, he asks the question that's been weighing on his mind for nearly a week.
"Merlin, I don't understand what happened. How did you get sick? And how did I heal you?"
Merlin shakes his head. "I don't know for sure, Arthur. I've had a lot of time to think about it while you were…." Merlin has to take a deep breath before he can continue. "While you were healing. When Malus first clawed his way out of the earth, it felt like he was…latching onto me. Like he was using my magic to help himself. Then later you said that he used me speak to you."
Arthur shudders at the memory. How could he forget?
Merlin continues. "I can't know for sure, but it felt like that brief contact with Malus' magic caused a reaction in my own magic. Like it made me…sick."
"Magic sickness?" Arthur asks with a raised eyebrow. "I didn't know that was possible, Merlin."
Merlin nods. "It's just like what would happen if you got sick. Only instead of my body being sick, it was my magic. My magic turned against me; it took what strength it could from me in order to heal itself from the taint Malus left behind."
Arthur nods. "It left you weak and feverish. But then you lost control of it."
"Yes. My magic took on a life of its own to protect itself. I was too weak to fight it. It…took me over. Which is why, when you tried to help me…."
"You couldn't stop yourself," Arthur suggests firmly. He wants Merlin to know that this wasn't his fault; that he had no control over what he did to him.
Merlin shakes his head. "Don't make excuses for me, Arthur. It doesn't matter if I meant to do it or not. I hurt you."
"Merlin." Arthur reaches out and puts his hands on either side of Merlin's face, uses his fingers to gently brush away the tears he finds there. "You didn't have any control over what happened. If what you say about your magic is true, and from what I felt…your magic latched onto me to protect you. It took my strength to heal itself. It wasn't your fault, Merlin. If anything…I forced you to let me help you."
Merlin pulls Arthur's hands away from his face and takes the smallest of steps backward.
"What do you mean?"
"I knew what was happening, Merlin. I knew you were using me to heal yourself. And I let you. I told you to. You knew what I was doing, and you told me to stop, but I wouldn't let you. You even begged me. But I…I couldn't let you stop. I couldn't lose you, Merlin. I had to do whatever it took to help you."
"You…." Merlin looks dumbstruck. Then he scoffs, shaking his head and turning away. Arthur doesn't say anything, waiting to see how Merlin will react.
When Merlin finally turns around, Arthur can see that he's shaking slightly.
"You almost…you almost let me kill you. You almost died, Arthur. And I thought I lost you. Again."
"I'm afraid you won't get rid of me that easily, Merlin," Arthur jokes, trying to lighten the mood, because he can tell that Merlin's only getting more frustrated.
It's the wrong thing to say.
Merlin takes a step toward him, a mixture of anger and grief in his eyes. "This isn't funny, Arthur. You nearly died. Again. You would have died, if I hadn't….If I hadn't stopped when I did…you'd be dead right now. You shouldn't have done it, Arthur. You shouldn't have-"
And now it's Arthur turn to be angry. "What would you have had me do, Merlin? Let you die? I'm not going to apologize for saving your life. I knew what I was doing, and I regret nothing. I'm fine. You're alive. That's all that matters."
"You matter," Merlin insists quietly, taking another step closer and placing his hand gently over Arthur's heart, and Arthur flinches at the touch. Merlin pulls away, upset. "I'm sorry, Arthur. I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't control myself. I tried to stop, but-"
"It's all right," Arthur insists. He hadn't pulled away because the touch unnerved him, but because it hurt. Carefully, he lifts up his shirt, and while Merlin gasps Arthur can only stare. There, over his heart, lies an imprint of Merlin's hand. It's red and shiny, like a burn that's slowly healing.
"Damnit. Arthur, I'm-"
"Merlin, if you say you're sorry one more time, I swear…." He trails off, knowing it's an empty threat, but he doesn't want to hear Merlin's apologies anymore.
"Arthur, I can fix it," Merlin says eagerly. "Just let me-"
Arthur puts his hand up. "Don't. It's all right."
Arthur lets his shirt fall, puts his hands on Merlin's shoulders, and shuts Merlin up with a kiss. He kisses him fierce and long, and when he finally pulls away they both gasp for air.
"I told you…I didn't want to lose you, Merlin….I'd already lost you once before."
"You prat," Merlin replies with a watery smile. "I'm pretty sure you're the one who left me."
Arthur shakes his head. "No, Merlin. We lost each other that day."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about what I never told you before I died. How it was my death that gave me the courage to tell you how I really felt. How much I loved you."
"Arthur…." Merlin puts his hand on Arthur's chest, over the spot where he knows the imprint of his hand lies burned into Arthur's flesh. He pushes at him slightly. "Please, you don't have to-"
"No, Merlin, I do. Listen to me."
Merlin pauses and looks up into Arthur's eyes, and the passion he finds there takes his breath away, and he finds that he can't speak, so he nods instead.
"You kept me going in the end. You kept me going longer than I ever could have gone on my own. You kept me alive, Merlin. You kept me fighting…just like you always have. I fought for you, to stay with you. You wouldn't give up on me, and I wanted to return the favor. You needed me, Merlin, and I'm sorry I had to leave you. I never wanted to. Even then…and especially now."
"Arthur…." Even as he shakes his head, Merlin looks touched at his words, and it makes Arthur smile.
"Let's sit down," Arthur suggests, and Merlin does as he asks, sitting down next to him on the boulder.
"Do you know when I finally realized how you felt about me?"
Merlin just shakes his head, looking at him closely.
"It was when you said you didn't want to put me in a bad position. When you admitted that you never told me about your magic not because you were afraid for yourself, but because you didn't want to force me into making a difficult decision. That's when I knew that you loved me."
Merlin smiles up at him, finally, and Arthur's so pleased he puts out his arm, and Merlin settles into it, leaning his head on Arthur's shoulder.
"I was…surprised, but pleasantly so. I spent the next two days just…letting everything in. Thinking about everything that had happened to me – thinking about you – in ways I never had before. That night at the campfire…when I said that I didn't want you to change…I didn't know it yet, but I think I was falling in love with you, too."
Merlin puts a gentle hand on Arthur's knee, and the touch warms Arthur's heart. He feels tears start to rise in his eyes, but they don't fall.
"When I was…when I fell in that field…when I asked you to hold me…I knew then that I loved you. I wanted you to know how I felt. That I knew all you had done for me: that you helped me build a kingdom I could never have built on my own. That I was grateful. But I didn't tell you how I felt because I wanted you to move on. I just…I just didn't want you to miss me."
"Arthur…." Merlin lifts his head from Arthur's shoulder and looks deep into his eyes. "That's stupid."
Merlin doesn't sound upset, or mad. It's just an emphatic statement of fact, and Arthur can't help himself: he laughs. He hasn't laughed since before Merlin got sick.
"Yes, Merlin. I should have told you how I felt when I was dying in your arms, and I'm sorry. As soon as I reached Avalon, I realized just how foolish it was. And then I was told I'd be coming back, and I wanted more than anything to see you just once more; to tell you everything I felt in the end. I'm grateful you blew that horn, Merlin. It gave me a chance to tell you how I felt. To make sure that you didn't spend all that time alone. I could never forgive myself knowing you lived two thousand years alone, waiting for me."
"I never found another like you, Arthur," Merlin says shakily, gasping around the tears in his throat.
"I never expected you to. But at least you weren't alone. That's all that matters to me."
"I don't regret what I did, Merlin. I can't lose you. Not when we've just found each other. Please tell me you understand."
Merlin turns Arthur toward him and rests his forehead on Arthur's chest, sighing deeply, breathing in the smell of Arthur, feeling his heart beat against cheek. He allows himself a moment to accept that everything is okay. Arthur is here, and whole. They both are. He understands why Arthur did it, of course he does. He did it for the same reason that Merlin begged him not to. As Arthur wraps his arms around Merlin, pulling him closer, Merlin smiles and whispers into his chest, "I do."
He feels Arthur smile against the top of his head, and Merlin lets himself be held.
Finally, he pulls away.
"I know why you did it, Arthur. And I…I am grateful. Only…."
"Don't ever do it again?" Arthur suggests, and Merlin can't help but laugh.
Arthur smiles. "We're going to be all right, Merlin. You'll see."
And this time, Arthur feels like maybe, just maybe, it could be true.
Eventually, Merlin pulls away from Arthur. "So, I'll bet you're curious about where we are."
Arthur looks around, suddenly remembering. "Yes, now that you mention it, I had been wondering."
"We made it, Arthur. To Windermere."
Arthur glances around, and his gaze falls on the river. "The seer's village. But how did we get here?"
"You'll have me to thank for that," says a female voice Arthur's never heard before, and he turns around to find a young girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, with dark brown hair and eyes so deep they can only be described as purple. "Welcome to my village, Arthur Pendragon. I've been expecting you."
They settle down at the river's edge, and the girl with the violet eyes tells them her story.
My name is Sybil. When I was born in the village twenty years ago, my parents named me Britney. I haven't gone by that name in a long time.
Winters are hard here. About 15 years ago, a particularly harsh one brought a bad strain of influenza. Many people in the village died, including my father. I was very young, three, maybe four years old. I don't recall anything about him. As far as I can remember it's always been my mother and I: two women against the world. My mother raised me to be self reliant. She gave birth to me late in her life, and she was always afraid she might die and I wouldn't be ready to face the world on my own.
I never had much of a childhood. My mother was the village doctor. "Healer" might be a more appropriate term. She taught me everything she knew. We've never had much in the way of modern medicine and vaccines. But our village has been here a long time, and my mother came from a long line of healers. They studied Eastern medicine, focused more on herbs and roots, natural remedies. We've always been ill equipped for the stronger diseases, but my mother was very good, and she taught me everything I know. I was assisting her with patients at six; with childbirth by nine. She was well respected, and well loved by everyone.
Five years ago, we had another bad winter, and the same strain of influenza hit us hard. My mother and I did our best, but she was old, and dealing with all the sick…it was inevitable. I lost my mother to the same disease as my father.
I was orphaned at the age of 14. But I knew how to take care of myself, and the village helped me with what they could in exchange for my healing services. I was never as well loved as my mother. She just had this way with people, you know? I was always a quiet child, moody, much more like my father. But they needed me, and I did my best for them.
Three months after my mother died, I started to have visions. Small things at first. What time it would rain the next day. The fact that rabbits were getting at the garden, which was why we were losing so much of our crop. They were just feelings at first. Strong feelings I would have throughout the day about one thing or another. I could never explain how I knew any of it, but I eventually learned that I could trust these feelings.
Then I started having dreams. I'd see who was going to get sick next, what they were going to get sick from. I dreamt of a mild case of stomach flu one night, and the next day half the village was throwing up from tainted meat they'd eaten the night before.
The dreams were helpful at first. I could stock up on medicines I needed ahead of time, know when I would need to ask one of the older women to help with childbirths, things like that.
But then one night I dreamt about things happening in another village. People arguing, fighting…killing each other. I didn't know any of these people, but the dream was so horrible…so real. I woke up shaking, covered in sweat, and I knew that what I had seen was real…and there was nothing I could do about it. I went about my day as normal, tried to forget about it. But then the next night I had another dream. An earthquake…a whole village swallowed by the earth.
I stopped sleeping. I was terrified of those dreams. I hated watching terrible things happen, knowing there was nothing I could do to help all those people. My healing got sloppy. The villagers saw that I was struggling. I started training Margaret, one of the older women in our village, and she started taking over most of my responsibilities.
The village talked about me. How I had lost my touch. How I couldn't get over the loss of my mother. How I screamed in my sleep. I went without sleeping for so long I lost track of the days.
And then one day I had a vision while I was awake. One minute I was walking next to the river, and the next I was on my knees, watching a mother and her daughter die in agony. When I came around, half the village was watching me. Margaret says I was screaming and crying, begging for the vision to stop. She gave me a sleeping draught, and I had the first dreamless sleep I'd had in months.
But when I woke up, everything had changed. I could see it in the eyes of the villagers, the way they looked at me…like I was crazy. No one trusted me anymore. Parents stopped bringing me their sick children. Pregnant mothers turned to Margaret for advice. Margaret made sure I still got my share of the food, but I could tell that many of the villagers didn't think I should have it. They talked about me when they thought I couldn't hear them, but my visions showed me what they really thought. I had failed them. I was weak. I was nothing like my mother.
Three weeks later, I had my most vivid dream yet. I saw one of the young boys wandering away from the village, and watched him die at the hands of a monstrous bear. I woke up screaming. I grabbed my shotgun without thinking and ran for the woods. Some of the villagers heard me and followed. I found the boy just as the bear was poised to strike, and I killed it just in time.
The villagers were stunned…but grateful. Maybe it was because I was finally able to do something with my visions. Maybe it was because I could finally accept them. Whatever the reason, my dreams became less intense, my visions more bearable. The villagers began to trust me, and I started healing again.
Years later, they still compare me to my mother. Except now they tell me I'm clearly her daughter. They apologize for doubting me. I use my dreams and visions to help my village. Some of the village women started calling me Sybil, after the great prophetess, and the name stuck. I left my old name behind me. Britney was a naïve little girl; a girl who no longer exists.
Three weeks ago, I began to have dreams about you, Merlin. A week later, I began to dream about Arthur. I saw visions of your days in Camelot, of all the good you did for Albion. I saw all the good you've done in the years since, Merlin. I began to feel as if I knew you both personally. Somehow I knew it was only a matter of time before I finally met you, and I ached for the day to come.
I watched Arthur come back to life. Watched you visit Camelot. And then that…that thing crawled Its way out of the Earth. I knew then…I knew that you two were the world's hope. That you would find your way to me. That I was meant to help you. Two nights ago I saw Arthur collapse in Merlin's arms. I put Margaret in charge and left right away. I followed the growing storm and found you the way I'd seen you in my vision. I told Merlin who I was. I promised him that I would save you, Arthur. Merlin carried you himself, and I led you here. It was a combination of Merlin's magic and my mother's medicine that saved you.
I believe that there's a reason I've been given these visions. Not just to help my village, but to help you both. To help you save the world. Rest for awhile. Tonight I will tell you what I know about Malus.
Merlin tells Arthur he should return to the cottage and sleep more. But Arthur insists that he's fine. He's been asleep for days, after all. He wants to see more of the village.
So Merlin and Arthur spend the day exploring Sybil's home. Arthur stretches his feet as they walk, noting that while he feels stiff, he feels better than he's felt since he got back. He wonders briefly if Merlin didn't use his magic to pour his own energy back into Arthur. But the idea makes him uncomfortable, and so he doesn't bring it up.
They walk past the center of the village, ignoring the looks they get from the villagers. Everyone seems to want to stare, but as soon as Arthur or Merlin makes eye contact, the villagers look away quickly. Apparently no one wants to talk.
The village lies nestled in the curve of the river. Sybil's cottage lies to the north of the village proper, next to the "sick cottage" Arthur woke up in. Nearby stand a group of storage sheds where food, fresh water, and other necessities are housed. To the north lies the forest where the men hunt for what food they can find. Along the western edge and much of the southern lie the fields. To the east lies the river, along with a good sized orchard and garden. Everything lies close enough to the river that a simple yet effective irrigation system has been set up. The village itself lies on a bit of a hill, and even during the wet months it never floods.
Arthur and Merlin walk down past the fields where people labor under the hot sun. The fields stretch along the western border from the woods down to the river's edge. At the river, they turn to the east, walking past an impressive looking orchard. They follow the river's edge, turn north, and find a series of gardens.
As they walk, Arthur notices that everyone has a job to do. The older children work the fields with their parents, while some of the younger ones work in the gardens, though they seem to make more of a mess of themselves in the mud and dirt than to be of much help.
Above the gardens, Merlin and Arthur find what appears to be a makeshift daycare. Older villagers – those too old to work the fields – and a few of the older children watch after the littlest ones. The sun is beginning to set behind the fields to the west, and the children swim and play in the river. Merlin and Arthur find a quiet rock at the water's edge and sit down to watch the sun set.
People begin to finish up their work in the gardens nearby. Villagers come in from the fields and pick up their children, many of whom ask for five more minutes and run back into the water squealing.
Arthur laughs as one particularly feisty little redhead runs away from the boy who must be her older brother, forcing him to chase her to the riverbank. She taunts him from the water, telling him that he'll never come in to get her. Then he surprises her by flinging himself into the river, clothes and all, and when he catches her he dunks her under, causing her to giggle.
Arthur smiles. He turns to Merlin and finds a similar smile on his face. Yet Arthur also notices a strange, faraway look in his eyes.
"Merlin?" Arthur questions.
"Hmm?" Merlin turns to him, but his thoughts are clearly somewhere else.
Arthur laughs. "What are you thinking about?"
Merlin shakes his head, as though he's just realized he drifted off. "It's nothing."
"Merlin." The way he says it is so familiar that Merlin can't help but laugh. "You're a terrible liar, Merlin. It's a wonder you were able to keep your magic a secret for so long."
Merlin smirks in response. "Well, it's not my fault you're such a cabbagehead."
Arthur scoffs. "Is that any way to talk to your king?" he asks in mock indignation, swatting him playfully on the back of the head.
Merlin laughs and bats his hand away. "I'm sorry. It's not my fault you're such a cabbagehead, my lord."
"That's better!" Arthur replies with a grin.
Merlin drifts off into his thoughts again, and Arthur decides to drop the subject. They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes. Arthur is sure the moment is over; sure that he just doesn't feel like sharing.
But then Merlin surprises him.
"I like it here."
He says it bluntly, but without shame. Arthur nods and opens his mouth to respond, but then Merlin continues.
"I think I could stay here. After two thousand years of…wandering…never settling in one place for too long…I just want…I want a home, Arthur. A real home."
Arthur smiles fondly at Merlin and reaches over to take Merlin's hand.
"Now that you're back, Arthur…for the first time in two millennia…I finally feel like I can actually have one."
Arthur squeezes Merlin's hand as he thinks over how to respond. He's touched at the idea that Merlin wants to find a home with him; to build a life together. He's happy for Merlin, and grateful for the second chance at life that he's been given. And it's that thought, more than any other, which makes him realize he already knows how he needs to answer.
"I'd like that, too. Someday. But, Merlin…we have a job to do. You know that, right?"
Merlin shakes his head, and Arthur hates to see the tears rise in his eyes.
"I know, but it's…it's not fair, Arthur. Why do you owe the world anything? Why do I? After everything I've done – everything we've done – don't we deserve…to rest?"
Arthur lets go of Merlin's hand and wraps his arm around his shoulder instead, pulling him close. Merlin sighs as he rests his head against Arthur's chest – right on the mark he left over Arthur's heart.
"Yes, we do," Arthur insists. "But my being here is a gift, Merlin. It's a debt that I need to repay. And then, well…the real reward is whatever we make it. You and me. Together. But first…."
Merlin breathes deep, then tilts his head to plant a soft kiss on Arthur's neck. "One more mission."
Arthur nods. "That's right. And after that?"
Merlin sits up slowly and stares at Arthur, a question in his eyes. "I told you what I want, Arthur. But what do you want?"
Arthur smiles at him, and his eyes ask, Isn't it obvious? He grabs Merlin's face gently between his hands and kisses him, slowly and deeply. When he pulls away, Merlin is left gasping for air. Arthur kisses him on the forehead and whispers his answer so quietly that only they can hear it.