Summary: Merlin gets a chance to spend one more day with Arthur.
Disclaimer: Just because I work for the BBC doesn't mean I own these characters or stories. Just writing a fic here, people.
NOTES BEFORE READING: Okay, this fic really has nothing to do with anything. As some of you may know, I was doing Superwhomerlock AU gifsets on Tumblr, and decided to elaborate a little more on this one: post/43042554465/merlin-doctor-who-au-the-doctor-may-not-be-able (tumblr url: colinmorgasms). So, this fic is loosely based on/inspired by that set. And, if we're being honest, this fic has pretty much nothing to do with Doctor Who, which is why I didn't bother to label it as a crossover. For all in tense and purposes, this is a Merthur fic; so don't come looking for fun Doctor Who times. But anyway. Reviews would be awesome, per usual.
Dedication: For Manda, for putting up with me while I was writing this.
Death, I Think, Is No Parenthesis
"No changing events. That means no telling him anything of what's to come. It'll cause a temporal disturbance and rip a hole in the fabric of the universe."
The Doctor had been very clear. Increasingly so. He was wary about letting Merlin go off on his own, and Merlin had to beg him for just a few hours. "That's all I need," Merlin promised, his eyes big and pleading. "Just give me this, Doctor."
Eventually, the Doctor let him go with a huff and a vague wave of his arm. "Be back by midnight," he snapped in Merlin's direction before collapsing into the bench beside the console, and Merlin shot off in towards the door.
Yes, he knew what the repercussions would be if he were figured out. Yes, he knew this was a critical, yet forgotten, point in history, and the rest of history hinged upon it; but he didn't want to change anything. He just wanted to say goodbye—properly this time. He just needed to walk through the citadel's corridors one last time, to run his fingers across the spines of Gaius' books, to listen to the clanging of shield and sword as the knights trained—and to see Arthur.
Even if he only got a glimpse.
He hurried through the familiar trees, the ones that were now knocked down to make way for roadways and car parks. It was strange, making his way back to Camelot after all this time. He remembered the path well, and barely had to think of where to go. He simply let his feet fall one after another, leading the way back home, like a stiff muscle memory.
Finally, he broke the line of the trees, and the castle stood tall in the near distance, its stain glass windows glittering in the morning sun. Merlin took a moment to let the sight sink in—a sight he thought he'd never see again, and he realized at once that he was back in the time of dragons and chainmail and princesses and castles…
And he was wearing jeans and trainers.
But there was nothing for it: he had to go through with this. So, with a plan forming in his mind, he set off towards the gates of Camelot.
Getting into Gaius' chambers was a nonissue. It was easy enough to slip into the servants' wing of the castle during the morning hours, when everyone would be off doing choirs. Merlin remembered that this was around the time Gaius liked to do his rounds around the city, and Merlin sometimes accompanied him if he wasn't too busy with Arthur's every need. Merlin just had to hope the Doctor hadn't taken him back to a rare day when Gaius deviated from his schedule.
Luckily, when Merlin creaked the old wooden plank of a door into the chambers open and stuck his head in, the room was empty. It was just the way he had remembered it, all cluttered with papers and vials filled with colorful liquids—a mess that was the product of a busy, overworked mind. He regarded the room warmly before spotting the door to his old bedchamber across the way and pacing towards it.
His bedroom was smaller than he remembered and, upon sitting on the rock hard mattress, he wondered how he never developed back problems. Finally, he looked towards his dresser and picked out a purple shirt, a red neck scarf, and a pair of trousers. A small chuckle escaped him as he slipped them on, and then he found a pack to throw his other clothes into in case he needed to make a speedy getaway.
Upon swinging the pack over his shoulder, he emerged from the bedroom just in time for the main door of the chambers to open again. Merlin jumped in slight shock before seeing the top of the silver head of hair of the man who walked into the room. Sensing Merlin's presence, Gaius brought his head up, and his eyes were quizzical.
Merlin felt a lump form in his throat. The last time he had seen Gaius alive, age and fragility had taken their hold on him, and Merlin was holding his hand at his bedside as Gaius took his last shallow breaths.
"Merlin? What are you doing here?" Gaius scolded immediately. "I sent you out three hours ago to collect herbs! Surely you can't be done already."
Merlin opened and closed his mouth a few times before finding any words. "No," he managed to choke out. Then, with more conviction, he said, "No, I haven't. I just—" His mind raced wildly, and he felt the straps of his pack dig into his shoulders. "I forgot my pack," he said with an innocent smile. "Can't collect herbs without something to hold them in, after all."
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "Indeed." He ducked his head again and shuffled towards a table. "Well, do get on with it. Those herbs are very important!"
"Right," Merlin said, not taking his eyes off the man as he began walking; and, for a moment, he forgot himself. "Cool."
Merlin let out a nervous laugh. "It's very cool today," he said lamely.
"Then take a jacket!" Gaius snapped.
"Right," Merlin said again. He was half way out the door before taking a steadying breath and turning back around to look at Gaius—the man he owed so much to. His gaze lingered, and he could feel tears welling his eyes.
Gaius looked over at him, seeming as though he was about to yell again, but his face fell when he saw how Merlin was regarding him. "Merlin?" he asked softly—and god, he looked so old in that moment, but not as old as Merlin felt.
"Gaius—" But whatever he planned on following that up with was forgotten.
Gaius left his station and paced closer towards Merlin, and Merlin dropped all pretenses along with his pack and filled the gap between them. Gaius tensed in confusion at the unforeseen hug before slacking a little and patting Merlin's back awkwardly, but Merlin didn't care.
When the hug broke, Gaius' eyes were filled with worry. "What is it, my boy?"
Merlin wasn't sure if the sound that came out of his mouth was a laugh or a sob, but he was smiling brighter than he had in a long time. My boy. He was truly home now.
"Nothing," he said breathlessly. "Never better." He clasped Gaius' shoulder, not able to wipe the grin off his face, and nodded. "Herbs, then?"
With one last glance at the only father he had ever known, Merlin picked up his pack and departed from the chambers, but he had no intention of picking herbs. He would let his past self deal with that choir.
Right now, he had other duties to handle.
The morning sun was high in the sky now, streaming through the slits in the castle wall, and Merlin glimpsed people going about their business in the courtyard below as he walked through the corridors leading to Arthur's chambers. For the people of Camelot, this was a day like any other, and they had no notion that one day all of this would be gone—their shops, their streets, their families, their home, they're King—to make way for something just as impermanent—just as fleeting. Merlin paused at one of the small windows for a moment, taking a mental picture before all of this would be gone from forever, for the second time.
"Hey, Merlin," came a gruff voice from behind him that Merlin instantly recalled as Gwaine's.
Merlin turned around and watched the knight swagger towards him down the length of the hallway, his long red cape billowing out as he did so. He had a smile that was equal parts sly and genuine, and he was as handsome as Merlin remembered.
"Long time no see."
At this, Merlin inferred that Gwaine had recently returned from heading a patrol to the North, which he frequently volunteered for, as Gwaine's vagabond heart would cause him to act like a caged animal if he stayed put in Camelot for too long. He would sometimes be gone for weeks on end, and each time he would come back, he would say this to Merlin upon their reunion.
"Longer than you know," Merlin would always reply, simply because Arthur's demands of him would often make any day feel double its length. The exchange had become a bit of a joke between them at first, and then turned into a routine. However, when Merlin, not missing a beat, said his line this time, he meant it.
Gwaine must have sensed the power that the words suddenly held for Merlin, because his eyebrows furrowed in confusion as they clasped hands, but he shook his thoughts away quickly enough.
"Percival and I are planning on sneaking out of the castle tonight to go the tavern," he said, not bothering to keep his voice low. "Thought you might like to join us."
Merlin would have, very much so, indeed, but he knew that he could not if he wanted to keep his promise to the Doctor. Although he could hardly say no to Gwaine's charming grin, he found the willpower.
"Afraid I'll have to sit this one out," he told him.
"Oh, come on, Merlin," Gwaine groaned. "You're the best gambler out of the lot of us! We never lose with you on our team!"
Merlin chuckled at the memories. He couldn't make those times a part of his future, but perhaps the version of him that was off trudging around in the forest for herbs might like to. "Alright, then. Tell you what; ask me in a few hours. I may have a different answer for you then."
"Good man," Gwaine said, clapping Merlin on the shoulder. "Don't let Arthur work you too hard. You deserve a day off."
Merlin's smile didn't quite reach his eyes, but Gwaine didn't notice: he was already on his way back down the corridor, and Merlin watched him go.
If he had one regret, it would be never telling Gwaine about his magic: Gwaine, who judged a man by his heart and mind instead of his title; Gwaine, who was like a brother to Merlin; Gwaine, who would have accepted him the most. He never even gave Gwaine a chance. Merlin tried not to think on what trouble Gwaine would have gotten him into if he had known Merlin's secret. No doubt, he would have used it for sport. Oh, the good time they might have had…
When Merlin's secret was out and all of court knew he was a sorcerer, it had already been too late for Gwaine. Yes, Merlin deeply regretted all the times that never came.
He was lost in his thoughts until long after the tail of Gwaine's cape had disappeared around the corner and the man was gone completely, but Merlin eventually knocked himself back into reality and once again started for Arthur. He was close now, and his stomach was fluttering with nerves and his heart was beating in tandem with his footsteps—for Arthur.
The door was open was Merlin caught up to it, and he silently slipped inside, his mouth feeling as though it were full of cotton. For a brief moment, his heart dropped as he looked around the room and thought it to be empty, but there he was, sitting at his desk with his head bowed before a pile of parchment, his golden hair catching the rays of sunlight. Every so often, he brought his quill to his lips in thought before scribbling notes down on the ancient paper.
This was an Arthur who ruled over a peaceful kingdom—an Arthur who had not yet allowed Mordred into his inner circle. This was an Arthur who did not know what his servant really was.
Merlin watched him for longer than he would have liked to admit.
Arthur was tanner and broader than in the faded and yellowed photograph that Merlin carried around in his mind, and his lips were slightly fuller than in Merlin's recollection. However, when Arthur's concentration broke and he finally noticed the presence of another in the room, he looked up at Merlin to reveal the startling blue of his eyes. Merlin felt his breath catch in his throat at the shock of color. They were just the shade he remembered.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, puzzled. Merlin tried to answer, but his breath had not yet found him again. "I thought you were running errands for Gaius today."
There was a beat before Merlin realized he had the power of speech, and he tried to soften his beaming grin as he took a few tentative steps closer to Arthur, as though he were afraid Arthur would fade away if he got close enough to touch.
"Not today," he said softly, his eyes still searching Arthur in wonderment. He could scarcely believe what he was looking at. "Today, I'm all yours, Arthur."
"Good," Arthur said nonchalantly, throwing his quill amongst the parchment on the desk and standing up. "My room could use a good cleaning," he said as he walked towards his sword on the table and sheathed it. "You can do that while I train with the Knights."
Merlin's face fell and he spun around to look at Arthur. "What? No!" He had come so far to spend time with Arthur, and he certainly wasn't going to waste his day a part from him. This was the only chance he had.
"I'm sorry?" Arthur said, taken aback.
"No, it's just—" Merlin fumbled. "I thought I could make use of myself at training." Arthur raised a brow. "I've been to every session. Why stop now?"
"Then who will clean my chambers?"
Merlin pulled a face. "Perhaps one of Gwen's maids could do it today?"
Arthur snorted. "You would have me leave the Queen unattended?"
"Gwen doesn't need people waiting on her every moment of the day—unlike you, you prat," Merlin said, surprising himself in doing so. He hadn't meant to say it, but the words flowed out of his mouth before he had a chance to stop them. It was second nature around Arthur—the teasing; the incessant need to put him in his place because no one else would. How strange it was to fall so easily back into that banter with Arthur.
Arthur rattled his head, not seeming fazed by Merlin's insult at all. He was too accustomed to it by now. "Very well." At this, Merlin had to press his lips together tightly to suppress another large smile. "I didn't know you enjoyed it so much—especially since half the time we use you for target practice."
"I'll draw a target on my back," Merlin said happily.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Merlin, with a face like that, you won't need to. Now, fetch me my gloves, will you?"
Spotting them on the far table, Merlin rushed over to the black gloves and picked them up without a thought; but, as he held them in his hands, the familiar touch of the leather sent his mind back to the last time he saw them. They housed Arthur's still-warm fingers as Merlin laced them carefully together and rested them on the King's unmoving chest.
"Merlin?" he heard Arthur say distantly, and then louder: "Merlin!"
Merlin snapped back and looked at Arthur but, for the first time, he could not smile. In fact, he had to fight to keep his eyes from tearing up. Arthur didn't notice.
"Have you got ale in your ears? Bit of a late night last night?" he berated. Merlin held out the gloves sheepishly towards him and Arthur snatched them out of his hands.
"Forgive me, sire," Merlin said softly, his breath hitching.
"I—" Arthur started in a yell, but his words came to a sudden halt when Merlin's words processed. "What?"
Merlin found the courage to meet his eyes. "Forgive me."
For letting you die.
For not trusting you as you trusted me.
Arthur looked as though he didn't know what to say—and he probably didn't. That was the last thing he ever expected to hear from his manservant.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times, and finally settled on, "Come on." His eyes were searching Merlin up and down, almost sizing him up. "We'll be late."
It was busy work, and everyone knew it, but the Knights never paid Merlin much mind as he sat on the sidelines and buffed the scratches out of armor or kept the water bottles full. Most of the tasks were mindless, which was lucky because he kept getting distracted as he caught glimpses of Arthur during training. Today, Arthur was sticking close to the squires, who followed him around like he was a mother hen. They gaped as he impressively twirled his blade with a few flicks of his wrist, and each of them seemed nervous when he gave them personal attention. Arthur would never admit it, but while dueling with the newbies, he went easy on them.
He was at his best when he fought with the senior Knights, when he was able to demonstrate just how fierce and talented he was with a sword. The Knights reciprocated, but, even though they were the best fighters in all the kingdoms, they were nowhere near as skilled as their King. Among them were Gwaine and Elyan, both of whom met their fate too young; and then there was Percival who, not until many years later, fought for Camelot until his last breath. Then, of course, there was Sir Leon, who was fortunate enough to watch his sons and daughters grow before he slipped away peacefully one evening before finishing his supper.
One by one, the Knights who served Arthur so courageously fell—all of them claimed by Death in one way or another, but Merlin remained. He tried to remember all of the men by happier memories but, when one lives as long as Merlin has, one begins to only see a person by their end; which is difficult at fist, until Death becomes one's only friend. It was the only constant for Merlin.
Besides the waiting.
But today, all his friends had come back, free to roam and live and breathe. They were not the ghosts he so often dreamed of in fragmented and incoherent reveries. He could not help but smile brightly at the realness of it all. At the moments when Arthur caught his eyes across the field, Merlin's smile was infectious, and the King would throw his head back and laugh at the sky as though training was some sort of game. Merlin supposed it was. After all, in the grand scheme of things, they were no more than boys with plastic swords and wooden horses.
"No, no, that's not how it's done," Merlin heard Arthur say to a young squire. There was authority in his voice, but also the gentleness and the patience that came along with a teacher guiding a pupil. The young man hung on to Arthur's every word, and the other skirmishes stopped so all attention could be on Arthur.
"Here, I'll show you," Arthur went on, picking up his sword from the grass below. His eyes didn't need to search to find exactly where Merlin was, and Arthur gestured him over with two gloved fingers. "Merlin, come here."
Knowing he was about to a part of some demonstration—probably in the roll of the target—he reached down and grabbed the thick wooden shield beside him. He tried not to huff and groan under its weight. He had offered to be the mark, after all.
However, just as Merlin was standing upright with the large shield, he heard Arthur say, "No, Merlin."
Merlin caught his eyes, and saw that Arthur was gesturing towards a spare sword propped on the bench next to him. Merlin regarded it with a rising panic. Over a thousand years hadn't done much for his sword fighting abilities. He grabbed the handle of the blade as though it were diseased.
"My Lord, is this absolutely necessary?" Leon questioned, striding away from the Knight he was training with.
"Yeah, Arthur, give Merlin a break," Gwaine tried to reason.
"Arthur, I would be happy to help you demonstrate—" Elyan began, but Arthur cut him off.
"Oh, but Merlin insisted he come. He's been to every session, haven't you, Merlin?" Arthur said jovially. He wiggled his brows at Merlin. "Let's see if you've learned anything."
With a gulp, Merlin met Arthur face-to-face on the field. He knew Arthur wouldn't hurt him—not really—but, then again, Arthur was looking at him as though he were a piece of meat.
"Now, your part is easy," Arthur told him, but his tone didn't comfort anyone. "Just block my blows—and try not to die."
Merlin snorted. "I'll keep that in mind."
He barely finished the sentence before Arthur took his first blow, swinging his blade down fast and hard. Merlin cringed and blocked it reflectively with the sword he was given. It took all of his efforts not to accidently use magic to protect himself and, with every subsequent swing of Arthur's blade, Merlin took an instinctual step backwards. Arthur stepped forward each time, until finally they were at the edge of the field and Merlin was certain Arthur had forgotten this was meant to be a demonstration.
"I don't think the squires can see you from this far, sire," Merlin quipped, still trying to block Arthur's blows.
Arthur just laughed and kept on swinging. "Shut up, Merlin!"
And that's when Merlin decided the gloves were coming off. He stood tall, grasped the handle of the blade tightly, and swung it like a baseball bat at Arthur, who escaped it by ducking just in time. However, by the time he got back to full height, Merlin had taken off, running through the main gates of the city and weaving through the crowd.
"That's cheating!" Arthur shouted before taking off after him. It wasn't long before he was at Merlin's heels, and Merlin had to keep on eye on blocking Arthur's swings while running.
Spectators were gathering, no doubt morbidly hoping for their King to take off his servant's head, but Merlin managed to put some space between them by using magic to knock sacks of flour off a cart and into Arthur's way. Arthur responded by picking up an apple from a nearby cart and throwing it full force at Merlin, who dodged it and then kept running.
"I'll see that you're paid," Merlin heard Arthur promise the apple vendor as he took off in the opposite direction, eager to find a shortcut.
Meanwhile, Merlin had gotten himself lost in the crowd, no longer able to remember when he was. Holding his sword at the ready, Merlin stopped for a breather, wildly searching each face for any sign of Arthur. He heard his heart pounding in his ears and felt adrenaline course through his body. Arthur would catch him up eventually, and the suspense was making his stomach do flips.
And there he was, having already spotted Merlin, rushing towards him. Thinking quickly, Merlin looked to his left and saw a stand, selling decorative cloths and stones, and tipped it over in Arthur's path. It earned him a few very colorful words from the stand's owner, but Merlin met Arthur's eyes from above the wreckage and said, "He'll see that you're paid!"
"Oh, no you don't!" Arthur called, treading over the ruined stand and chasing Merlin into the nearby stable shed.
It was a dead end. With nowhere to run, Merlin spun around, attempting to defend himself with a feeble grip on the sword, but Arthur easily knocked it from his hands. He raised his own blade for the final blow and Merlin shielded his head with his arms. With a thought, his eyes flashed gold and Arthur stumbled, causing his sword to fly out of his hands.
Merlin opened his eyes tentatively, praying that this was finally over when—
"No, Arthur, don't!" he shouted as Arthur, now without his sword, decided to run full force into Merlin, causing them both to crash through the loose wooden door of a horse's pen and land messily amongst the hay strewn floor. Merlin struggled to get up, having to make a conscious effort not to use his magic to do so, but Arthur was on top of him in an instant, straddling him and pinning his arms down at the wrists.
"Uncle!" Merlin pleaded.
"What?" Arthur asked with a breathless laugh, and Merlin remembered that such terminology wouldn't be used for hundreds of years. "If that means I win, you'll have to admit it, Merlin."
"You win!" Merlin said back, but Arthur didn't let up. He simply kept on laughing, and Merlin could feel Arthur's warm exhales on his cheeks, and realized he didn't want Arthur to let up.
He stopped wriggling from underneath the King, and in his stillness he could feel Arthur's panting breaths reverberate throughout his body, hovering so close to Merlin's own. Merlin's eyes fell to Arthur's lips, knowing that if only tilted his head up an inch or two, he could kiss them.
But it had been so long since he'd kissed anyone—and even longer since he'd kissed Arthur. He wondered if he still remembered how. He supposed it was now or never.
At first, Arthur seemed to tense up, as Merlin had never been the one to initiate a kiss—but that was the Merlin from another life, the Merlin that had been Arthur's servant, timid and cautious that someone would find out their dirty little secret. Or that Arthur would reject him.
However, he'd had enough life experience to know that, in the end, Arthur would accept him through and through.
Arthur fell into the kiss and released his grip on Merlin's wrists, allowing Merlin to reach up and run a hand through the King's sweat-matted golden hair. Arthur pressed their bodies closer together, pushing Merlin further into the dirt and hay beneath his back. Merlin felt Arthur's hand slip beneath them, making its way under Merlin's tunic and groping at his stomach and chest.
He cupped the nape of Arthur's neck and deepened the kiss, causing a flood of memories to rock his body. How could he have ever forgotten what Arthur tasted like? More than anything, he wished for the bunches of chainmail around Arthur to disappear, as he had never hated them more. Distantly, he knew he had in him the power to rid Arthur of the armor within the blink of an eye, but he fought the urge…
Which was harder to do than expected because Arthur was now groaning into the kiss, and his lips were trailing down Merlin's cheek, and to the crook of his neck. Merlin's entire body was vibrating, and he could feel Arthur swell as he grinded against Merlin's hip. It was all Merlin could do to stop himself from moaning so loud that the 21st century could hear it.
He knew Arthur could sense his frustration, and he was simply eating it up. Arthur laughed against Merlin's skin, and Merlin could feel him smiling as he kissed him. Merlin was smiling, too, but he was vaguely aware of his fingers clutching Arthur, holding him tightly—never planning on letting go.
"Arthur—" he gasped, and then:
"My Lord, where are you?"
The shouts were getting closer, and it was only a matter of time until the Knights checked the barn. Merlin's eyes went wide, and Arthur immediately sat up on top of him. Merlin tried not to look too fondly at Arthur's disheveled hair and swollen lips, pink and glistening.
The door of the barn creaked open and Arthur separated himself from Merlin by jumping to his feet like a cat, leaving Merlin deserted atop the piles of hay. They watched the Knights crowd in, all of them staring at Merlin and Arthur perplexedly.
Arthur cleared his throat. "I—I won," he reported with a nod before clearing his throat again and searching wildly around for his sword.
"Lucky you didn't kill him," Gwaine said, stepping forward and offering his hand to Merlin, which Merlin took before being jolted to his feet. "Ey, Merlin?"
Merlin nodded, brushing himself off.
"I wouldn't have done," Arthur told Gwaine, rejoining them after he claimed his sword. "To kill him, I would have to actually be fighting him first. He didn't exactly fight bravely. Isn't that right, Merlin?"
He clapped a hand on Merlin's shoulder, eliciting a choked laugh from Merlin.
"Anyway," Arthur said to the others. "I think that's enough for today, men. Time for lunch." He began walking, and the Knight parted to let him through. "Merlin," Arthur beckoned, not looking over his shoulder as his did so, but the line of Arthur's shoulders told Merlin that lunch isn't exactly what Arthur had in mind.
Merlin followed the Knights out and, from behind him, he heard the horse whose pen they had invaded not moments earlier whinny knowingly.
The soft breeze from the open window chilled Merlin's bare chest as he stood next to it, watching the people mill around in the town square beneath Arthur's chambers. The world outside Camelot's walls was so young, and Merlin swore the sky was a little bluer, and the sun shone a little brighter than what he was recently accustomed to—but perhaps he was only projecting. Nonetheless, he felt a warmth in the very core of him: the feeling of coming home after a long day's work or, in Merlin's case, after nearly a millennia. He was content. He was happy.
From behind him, he heard the sheets ruffle as Arthur propped himself up in bed, and he could feel Arthur's eyes boring into him.
"What is that?" Arthur said.
"Hmm?" Merlin asked distractedly, only half looking back into the room.
"That," Arthur said, not very helpfully. When Merlin looked over his shoulder at him, Arthur was wrapping a sheet around him for warmth and heading over to stand behind Merlin. "On your shoulder."
Instantly, Merlin knew what Arthur was referring to. It was an old wound, one he had earned in the First World War, when a bullet went through his shoulder. It never really healed.
He felt Arthur's fingers ghost over the scar. "It looks like a knife pierced you," he said thoughtfully.
"It's nothing," Merlin insisted, turning around to face Arthur so that he could no longer see the wound. Merlin should have known better. After all, his body wasn't exactly the same as it had been thousands of years prior, and he should have known Arthur would notice. Still, it had been a long time since they'd done anything so intimate, even by Arthur's timeline—not since Arthur's marriage, when the King decided it wouldn't be moral to be with anyone but Gwen.
Sometimes Merlin hated Arthur's nobility, but it would seem that, in this instance, Merlin might have been a bad influence on the King. Arthur didn't seem to mind very much at all.
"Just a scar from my childhood," Merlin lied.
"Well, I've never noticed it before," Arthur said matter-of-factly.
Merlin chortled. "Yes, but you've never been very observant."
"Merlin!" Only Arthur ever pronounced his name like that.
His smile widened and he looked down coyly, his eyes catching the red marks on Arthur's chest where Merlin had sucked and bitten at his prickling skin.
"I better get going," Arthur said loftily. He left Merlin's side and began collecting his clothes from the floor.
"What?" Merlin asked, his heart dropping into his stomach. He followed Arthur closer to the mattress and plopped down on top of it. "And leave all this?" There was a sly smirk playing on his lips, hoping he could convince Arthur to stay.
For a moment, Arthur looked tempted.
"The King must be at the Council Meetings, Merlin," he said, slipping into his trousers. "And the King's servant must attend to the choirs he's been neglecting all day." Arthur waved a hand at the room, which was messier than before: papers strewn about the floor, littered amongst shards of a clay pot that had broken when it was knocked off the table. Merlin and Arthur really weren't watching where they were going on the way into the room…
"Neglecting?" Merlin scoffed. "I've been too busy taking care of your royal backside."
Arthur grinned his handsome grin. "And a very fine job of it you did," he said playfully. "But that doesn't take away from your other choirs. You can start with this." He threw his chainmail shirt at Merlin's face, and Merlin tried to appear reluctant to help Arthur back into it, which part of him was; but there was another piece of him that welcomed the opportunity. It felt right, serving Arthur again.
Arthur rolled his eyes at Merlin. "Oh, cheer up, will you?" he demanded as Merlin sat back down on the bed. "I'm coming back. Try not to miss me too much."
Merlin had tried that—once, in the late 1800s. It didn't work. As it turned out, there was no one who could fill the gap that Arthur left behind; no one who could take his place. There was never anyone else, and there was no forgetting that fact.
"I want this room spotless when I return!" And, with that, the door slammed behind him and Arthur was gone.
Merlin groaned and toppled over onto the mattress, burying his face into a pillow that still smelled sweetly of Arthur.
The next time Merlin saw Arthur, the sun had gone down over the hills and he and Gwen were conversing over dinner. Merlin walked in on them when Arthur was in midsentence—a sentence that lost momentum and eventually ended abruptly when their eyes met and Arthur scanned Merlin's body up and down.
Merlin tried not to blush under Arthur's gaze as he made his way towards the jug of wine and refilled Arthur's goblet. Gwen was smiling kindly at Merlin when he did the same for her, and Merlin returned the expression despite her presence being a total and complete cockblock.
Honestly, Merlin was glad for her. She had done very much for him in the years after Arthur's death, just as she had done much for others with magic. Gwen was the only monarch Merlin ever bowed to and deemed worthy to wear the crown, other than Arthur, of course. The land was in peace as she ruled, with Merlin on her right hand and Sir Leon on her left. No one would have ever thought she started out as a servant, but that instead she had been born to be a Queen up until the day she died, quietly in her sleep one summer night.
"Hello, Gwen," Merlin said fondly. He never addressed her Lady after Arthur's death; she insisted there was too much history between them for such titles.
"Hello, Merlin," she said before elegantly folding her hands in front of her and giving Arthur her full attention, now that he remembered what he was saying beforehand.
The evening went on slowly after that, and Merlin kept busy with choirs that he hardly remembered how to do and that generally kept him away from Arthur, but he had to keep up with them as to not raise any suspicions. The old Merlin had a schedule, one he unfortunately had to keep to.
Before he knew it, all of Camelot was winding down and the night was becoming old. It was only a matter of hours until he had to knock on the Tardis' doors, and he knew he better get a move on if he were to keep his promise to the Doctor. But he couldn't leave without saying goodbye to Arthur—without seeing him once last time.
He was keeping his head down as he walked through the shadowy corridors of the castle, taking the all too familiar steps towards Arthur's chambers, when he heard two distant voices coming around the corner. One of them was Gwaine's and the other belonged to—
"Shit," he hissed, looking wildly around before picking a column to hide behind, just in time for Gwaine and the younger version of himself to turn the corner. Merlin peered out of his hiding place, watching as the light of the moon streaked the other Merlin's face, and tried not to gasp. God, was that really what he looked like?
"So, what d'you say?" Gwaine was inquiring, grabbing Merlin by the arm and spinning him around.
"About what?" Merlin asked, crinkling his nose.
"The tavern!" Gwaine said somewhat impatiently.
"Tonight?" the other Merlin asked, and then patted the knapsack that rested on his hip. "I really ought to get these herbs to Gaius."
Gwaine let out a small chuckle. "You did that today? Ah, Merlin, no one ever gives you a break."
Merlin laughed with him. "Maybe some day," he said hopefully, and the two bid each other goodnight and parted. Gwaine went back the way they had come but the other Merlin paced down the length of the hallway, and Merlin held his breath and pressed himself as close as he could against the shadows next to the wall.
The younger him seemed to pass by obliviously, yawning and rubbing his eyes with dirty hands, but then he seemed to tense. Just a few feet from where Merlin was hiding, he stopped walking altogether and gazed around warily, sensing the foreign—but no, not foreign at all—magic that lurked so close to him. After a moment, he seemed to be satisfied that he was alone, and rattled the paranoia out of his head before walking on.
Merlin let out the breath he had been holding in and, knowing it was suddenly too risky to stay in Camelot any longer, rushed in the direction he'd been pulled in his entire life. Towards Arthur.
The King was in his night attire, and seemed ready to fall into bed, by the time Merlin arrived. He clocked Merlin's presence immediately, but Merlin could not bring himself to look at Arthur.
"Let me," Merlin said, walking towards the bed and turning down the sheets for Arthur, but Arthur did not go for them. Instead, he eyed Merlin lazily, seeming content with the warmth of the close proximity they now shared. "Will there be anything else?" Merlin added after a beat.
"No," Arthur said softly, almost sadly. "Guinevere went for a stroll with Elyan. She should be back any minute... No, you may go, Merlin."
Merlin swallowed passed the lump in his throat and nodded. "But you know I'll always be here if you should need me, Arthur," he said quietly. "All you have to do is call."
They met each other's eyes, and Arthur was looking at him strangely, perplexed by the rare affectionate words. "I know, Merlin," he whispered, and Merlin kissed him. It was tender this time, not hungry like before, but somehow more passionate. Arthur seemed to collapse into the kiss. This was goodbye, but he didn't know it.
They lingered breathlessly after their lips parted, and Merlin placed his hand gently on Arthur's chest, able to feel his accelerated heartbeat through the loose fabric of his shirt.
Arthur's heartbeat. Arthur was alive.
Merlin had the sudden all-consuming urge to tell Arthur everything that was to come, despite the Doctor's warnings. What did it matter if the universe broke apart? Who cares if the world would never be the same? All that ever mattered to Merlin was Arthur. Arthur was the only world Merlin would ever need.
But, stupidly, Merlin could never be that selfish.
He extracted himself from Arthur, collected his pack from the corner of the room where he had left it earlier, and started towards the door, but, "Merlin?"
He looked back, and Arthur was staring at him as though he were seeing him for the first time. "What's the matter?" his voice was gentle, a tone Merlin only heard out of him a handful of times. "You seem… different."
"Different?" he said, forcing an unconvincing smile. "My Lord?" he added as a second thought.
"It's just," Arthur began, shaking his head. "You wouldn't wipe that idiotic grin off your face all day, but now…" He gazed Merlin up and down, trying to fathom him out, as he sometimes did in moments of clarity when he was certain Merlin was more than just a common servant. Merlin wondered how many times the word magic ran across Arthur's mind and if, just for a second, Arthur scrutinized his trust in Merlin.
But, no. That probably never even once happened.
"There's something about you, Merlin..."
Merlin smiled fondly. Arthur had said the same words to him on the day they met all those years ago.
"Something you can't put your finger on?" Merlin finished.
For a moment, Arthur looked taken aback, but then evidence of the shared memory was written across his features. He smiled wide enough for the both of them. "You'll tell me some day."
Merlin folded his hands behind his back. "I'm an open book." But he feared Arthur wouldn't like its ending.
Arthur shook his head, exhaustion finally catching up with him. "Goodnight, Merlin."
And Merlin took in every detail of Arthur, committing it to memory and hoping it would hold him over until the next time he saw Arthur—whenever that may be. When, finally, they wouldn't have to hide the true nature of their relationship. Merlin would be able to live freely, in every sense of the word, with Arthur, and he'd finally have what he always longed for.
"Goodnight, Arthur," he said softly, and didn't look back as he left. He couldn't afford to look back anymore—especially to Camelot. He had to let that part of his life go, as he no longer belonged to the Old World. One day, Arthur wouldn't, either.
One day, Arthur would belong to him.
"On the dot. Don't think I've ever met anyone that timely." The Doctor barely gave himself a moment to open the door fully before he spoke. He took a moment to look at Merlin. "I see you're not planning on giving those back?"
It took Merlin a second to realize he was still wearing his scarf and purple tunic, but he supposed it was too late to go back now. "I don't think anyone will miss them too much," he said, pushing passed the Doctor and starting towards the console.
"So?" the Doctor said, rubbing his palms together, as he followed Merlin. "Good day, I take it?"
Merlin smiled dimly as he sat down on the bench next to the controls and the Doctor peered at him from the other side of the console. "Yes," Merlin decided, but his tone wasn't so convincing. "Thank you for this, Doctor," he added genuinely.
But the Doctor's expression matched Merlin's—a kind, small smile, and eyes too old. He started pulling levers on the console. "Time to go home, then?"
Merlin considered this. "No," he said, leaning forward. "Not home. Not really." It wouldn't be home until Arthur walked the streets with him, and Arthur's arms encircled him as Merlin kissed every inch of skin he could find.
Despite himself, Merlin grinned.
"But maybe some day."