Marble flagstone impacts Arthur's palms as he gasps awake.
Arthur jerks upright from the strangely warm ground, chest heaving and mouth open, drowning. His body expects it, for his lungs to be filled with cold, dirt-cloudy water.
It never comes.
His shoulders feel lighter than they should be. The heavy, metal plating of his armor and weight of chain-mail… has disappeared. The ground is warm, yes, and dry. It bothers him more than he wants to admit consciously. Arthur blinks rapidly, trying to clear the stinging, intense glow of light from his eyes, and to regain breathing at a normal pace.
To to sort out the tide of disorientated emotions and thoughts rising within him—he died.
Gods above, it sent a chill through him.
Arthur had felt the process, bleeding out like a stuck animal and helpless to it—dieddied, and Merlin had—
Blue eyes, though not his own, like a fire-brand to Arthur's cringing memory. Rimmed red and watery, skin crinkled around their edges because of trembling, forced smile.
You could have done it without me.
Arthur could see them, the very blue colour flaring a dreadful, ancient gold.
A hand falls to Arthur's brow, pressing there with gentle, condoling intent. "Think no more on it for a time, my lord."
Strings of black, dripping hair come into view, as the bleariness to Arthur's sight vanishes. "You've been through much turmoil," she whispers, hot gusts of breath caressing his ear, and Arthur does not pull away from the stranger's touch. She—is no stranger. The spaces of his heart tell him this, as real as he feels air escape and suck past his lips.
"Freya?" comes a new voice to Arthur's ears.
A voice that worms inside him, brimming with sympathy and despair.
"He's here," she answers it, lifting her head up. Arthur glimpses her smiling, dark eyes when they look away. Forgiving eyes. Her face and hair smells like rainwater, but the rest of her is virginal, gossamer white covered in a long gown to her bare feet and a satin-lined cloak.
The hand to his forehead, soft and pliant, begins to smooth Arthur's hair from his forehead.
"Camelot's king is here. It is done."
The empty chamber dulls its glow. A broader-shouldered figure steps towards them, also wearing similar attire of white.
Arthur cannot mistake the kindness to the man's features or the obvious care in his actions. "Lancelot," he breathes out, eyes round with awe on his faithful knight when he kneels in front of Arthur, bowing. "You're here… you…"
"Morgana… her enchantment…" The pain in Lancelot's tone worries him. "Sire, I would have never wished to burden you as I had."
An old impulse would reach out and grasp his knight's shoulder, reassure him that it was not of his own mind. That Lancelot has already been forgiven for his trespasses, that Gwen was happily Queen. Reassure his dear friend that magic was only used to corrupt hearts—
And those once reassuring words curdle on Arthur's tongue, swallowing false when the memory of tear-filled blue eyes returns.
Despite his overwhelming confusion, there is really a single question that prickles most formidable at him.
Arthur straightens up, hand to his brow slipping away. "Where's Merlin?"
When no one provides a response, a suspicious frown tugs down Arthur's lips.
"Tell me, I order it," he says, his muscles beginning to quiver from agitation. From the unspoken jolt of fear that Merlin may have—done something terrible, out of stupidity, out of the blow of his grief before Gaius or anyone else could reach him. Great sorcerer or bumbling, or everything, Merlin was under his protection. He would receive a fair trial.
The growing silence breadths the vast, stone chamber from what seems like eons, before Lancelot tilts his head, facing Arthur once more.
Offers a soft and patient smile to his king.
"Safe," he replies.
Relief crashes into him almost immediately. With an ungloved hand grasping at his (healed over, oh) side, Arthur pushes against the ground as if wishing to stand.
"I must go to him," he grumbles under his breath, leg curled underneath his full weight.
Freya touches Arthur's arm, her tangled hair dripping down her pale cheeks, and it is as if the physical strength abandons him. Not about to be grateful about it, Arthur stubbornly pulls out of her touch, with a knee still balancing him up. "Albion does not need you yet," she says, firmly.
"He does," Arthur counters her after a long pause. "Merlin did everything…in his power to save me. I cannot let that be unanswered."
His frown deepens.
"And I cannot expect you to understand—"
A cutting, fierce laugh interrupts him. Arthur's eyes meet hers, as she shakes her head, grinning.
"You might be surprised how much I do, King of Camelot."
The enigmatic, amused quality of her grin does not settle him. It feels otherworldly somehow. And considering Arthur's hunch on where he was presently, it would be appropriate. "Merlin will endure without you," she explains. "It will be difficult for him, but he will be there for you when it is your time to return. This has always been known."
Freya examines him, then stating, "You do not recognize me."
Arthur mimics the shake of her head, going slower. "I feel that I should," he admits, tongue swollen-thick in his mouth. Her grin loses some of its previous amusement.
"We did not meet under favorable circumstances."
Her arms remain lifeless at their sides, but she had compassion to her touch; an understanding that could only stem from experiencing a tragedy. He could not see it. Not without the mud-grim caked on her face, her torn clothing, and the panic and child-like fear in her eyes when last he had seen her in a night-lit corner.
"You were felled by my hand. The cursed druid girl." Arthur's sorrow tumbles out from him, in ruins, his shoulders loosening. "I'm sorry," he whispers, bowing his head as Lancelot had, and knowing that it could not be enough to offer her. Winces as her fingers carefully thread the crest of his blond hair.
"I do not begrudge you for it, my lord," Freya whispers back, sharing an unreadable look with the other, silent knight. "What good would it do in death?"
Arthur's jaw twitches. "It does not make up for it."
Her voice like thorns and brambles. The very atmosphere of Avalon tremors and ripples undercurrents along with it.
And humbly, Arthur obeys.
Cool fingers slide down, grasping at the square of his chin and leveling their gazes.
The harshness to her lovely, wet features soften. She grasps Lancelot's hand with her free one, aiding him back onto his bare feet. "Will you come with us, Arthur Pendragon?" Freya asks, calmly. "It would be very lonely here. You could have peace." Those fingers belonging to her are strong for how they appear, but do not constrain him.
Arthur sends an imperceptible nod to Lancelot, and then he speaks his decision, brow pinched, "I will wait for Merlin. Leave me."
"And wait you shall. Farewell."
They're gone. Empty, white walls reverberate hardly a noise.
He squirms against the feeling of one, and arranges himself for the inevitable. Arthur glances off to the side when he finds Excalibur lying beside him, picking it up, and holding the sword close. Feels the pure radiance of sorcery humming its metal, and realizes how daft he has been for years.
Arthur's head falls to stone-wall, eyes lidding.
Time flows, winding and seemingly non-existent.
Hunger does not consume him, nor thirst. The dull glow pulses faintly, like a too-slow heartbeat, and Arthur assumes at some point he may have drifted off to sleep, propped up and clutching his sword protectively to his person, unable to spare a thought away from warrior's instinct, even in death.
He wakes to the sensation of endless floating. To cold, dirt-cloudy water filling his mouth and nose and eyes.
Arthur kicks himself upwards, choking on the effort. Fear claws at him, threatening to shred him to pieces, and he finally breaks to the surface, exhausted and shivering. Balmy, morning air greets him and warms the skin on his face. Arthur's water-clogged ears gradually pick up the noises of frantic splashing coming towards him.
His arm holding Excalibur extends in front of him, on the defense. He pushes the damp, blond fringe of hair from his eyes, blinking out droplets and narrowing at—
"You idiot," Merlin barks out, waist-deep in the murky lake and holding out a hand.
It's a damn near comical gesture and would do little to block the point of the sword from impaling him. They remain frozen this way for several moments: Arthur in an unbalanced fighting stance and Merlin not even a good few paces from him.
Merlin—not aged a day, in ridiculously wet and just ridiculous-looking clothing, ears far too big for his head, and crying.
The insult, Merlin's voice sinks in.
Arthur's eyes widen.
"… …Merlin?" he says dumbly.
A hiccupping laugh erupts from Merlin's parting lips, and the other man nods in the same frantic manner. His face crumbling under the pressure of keeping his smiling tears at bay. "Who are you calling an idiot, you idiot?" Arthur says, accusing with lip-curled indignation, sword lowered and already halfway into the gruff hug.
Nearly pitched off his feet with the oddly sturdy force of Merlin colliding into him.
Those familiar, spindly hands dig into the material of a soaked, white tunic and yank both men impossibly closer. As if Merlin would not be satisfied until they were melded into one physical being. It doesn't sound so terrible, Arthur considers mildly, if separate circumstances.
He cradles the back of Merlin's neck, fingertips dragging soft, black hair. The body-shaking sobs muffle into Arthur's shoulder, little whimpers of Arthur's name.
"I'm here now," Arthur says, quietly, closing his eyes and knocking his temple to the side of Merlin's head. He wants answers, proper answers. But the flood of his own happiness overcomes him. For now, just now at least, Arthur will settle for the echoes of songbirds, the unpleasant heaviness of water around him and the harsh breathes to his neck.
"I'm here, Merlin."
Originally I had written this in someone's askbox on Tumblr aaaaaand I thought it was worth sharing. =) Really hope you guys like reading it. Thoughts are welcomed.