Sat in a corner, nursing his pint, Merlin was wallowing. It was another year of waiting, and yet another that he would be celebrating the death of his friends and family all by himself. Years ago, he had decided that remaining perpetually burdened by their absence was no way to go about. It was bad form, he had deduced, after a rather sudden wake up call in the form of losing another of his patients to suicide.
Swallowing another sip of his alcohol, he attempted to banish the image of the young girl lying on his table, after her body had gone into shock, which led to her death minutes later. He had cursed the world, and raised his fists to the sky, whilst surrounded by colleagues. Then, he placed his operating instruments down and strode out of the room, leaving behind his companions to clean up the aftermath of a surgery done far too late. If that day had taught him anything, it was that his problems were not so awful that he really did wish he were gone from the world.
All around, chatter wafted through the air, as people trickled in to avoid the cool October air. Outside, leaves sprinkled the streets, and the scents of autumn intermingled with the usual smell of repugnant city air that polluted every metropolitan area in the world. With each day that passed, cool wisps became gusts, as fall ushered in its chillier temperatures. The ringing of the bell above the door had become a background noise though, as had the others surrounding the slight man, because his mind was further away from the room than any other could imagine that day.
Throughout the years, Merlin had held onto some glimmering hope that with the state of world affairs, that Arthur might resurface once again. After the disastrous election that was held in the States, as well as equally terrifying daily world events that had begun to pile up, he had truly thought that it signaled a time of crisis. He had met men like the one elected into the highest office over there, and if history were anything to go by, those narcissists did not ever bode their people well. With that shred of a thought, he had often pondered how long it would be before the man, with hair not unlike a corn husk, would bring the world into another struggle of power between countries. Now, over a year later after he had first allowed the seeds of hope to be sewn in his mind, the flowers that had blossomed from them were wilting.
A sudden jerk brought Merlin out of his reverie, and he found himself face to face with yet another stranger. He had hoped for two swift seconds that fate might smile down upon him, and place Arthur directly in his path, whilst he delved into his more maudlin thoughts. Of course, that would be too straightforward for the powers at be, who had always been anything but. While Merlin stared unamused at the individual whom had collided with his low set chair, he was met with an apologetically awkward grin, before the waitress scurried away as if she'd been slapped in the face.
Somewhere deep down, he knew that he could have been a bit more gracious about the obvious misstep. However, as he had aged, and the world began to change, he did too as well. Despite Arthur's entreaty at his death that he remain himself, it was inevitable that at some point, as he would become a product of the earth and all around it, that he would eventually morph as well. His magic, with its ties to nature, had not waned, but become poisoned with the hatred of the world.
It occurred in spurts, and usually he could stave off the worst of it, as he never did wish to be what he had seen around him. Yet, it was so much easier to allow hatred into one's heart, than acknowledge the pain that it required to change from a caterpillar and into a butterfly. Over many centuries, Merlin had become more embittered than ever, and thoughts had crept up on him, ever reminding him of his greatest failures. If Arthur had thought him sullen before, then his current mental state would not please his former King any more than his previous one had.
Sucking down the last of his drink, he slammed it down, as if the noise could banish his thoughts of his former best friend. Reminders of the blond never ceased to send him into a spiral of misery, which brought out the absolute worst in him. He never meant for them to, but as he had aged, the moments where he allowed himself to think on the Once and Future king drew him into the darkest depths of his mind, much like an addict desperate to enter a state of temporary dysphoria, itching to leave the world behind if only for a few hours. Resurfacing, as he had discovered, became increasingly harder as the days went by. The years that had drawn on, taking him further and further from where his heart had never truly left, had taken a toll on him.
Going by the bar to pay for his tab, he found the young girl who had accidentally knocked her foot into his chair, before he had all but growled at her. Once the awkward exchange of him handing over the required money for his spirits was over, he exited swiftly, not unlike Balinor had done once before long ago. Grasping the soft fabric of his magically preserved crimson scarf, Merlin made certain it was firmly around his neck, before braving the cool weather outside.
Down the pavement he went, with no particular destination in mind, the wilds of his mind springing about. Memories of those long gone shout and whisper to him, threatening to drive him mad. The alcohol he had consumed had not been nearly enough to make him tipsy, or sloshed even. This was a drunken state of another kind, which he logically knew he shouldn't entertain, but at spying all of the happy people bumbling about around him, the wizard couldn't help it.
Slowly losing himself to beckoning whispers of the past, Merlin lost semblance of where he was, in relation to the physical world around him. Somewhere between fifteen hundred years ago, and the current spot on the London street block he occupied, his right foot took an errant step, and suddenly he found his body being tossed against another's in swift cohesion. For a moment, he spied the dark hair that framed the unlucky man who happened to be in his way, and thought that perhaps he had found Gwaine. Only when the accent of a well-ingrained British socialite, laden with expletives escaped the man, did he realize the err of his ways.
Roughly, he righted himself vertically, and brushed himself off after disentangling his misbehaving limbs. Not bothering to apologize, as the man he had smacked against was already too far away to bother, Merlin made the executive decision to purchase a bottle of whatever hard liquor he could procure at the nearest store, and find himself a taxi to the Lake of Avalon.
At this sudden idea, Merlin trudged through the city, finally stopping at a small independent liquor shop on a street that he scantly remembered the name of. When he made it through the door, his mind still sloshing between what had been and what was, the exhausted wizard went through another pained exchange. The man behind the till scrutinized him, while he endeavored to procure payment from his wallet, without letting on that he felt less than sober. It was after all illegal to sell to someone currently intoxicated, and for good reason, Merlin had always wagered. Gwaine, he knew, would not have agreed with that particular modern edict though.
After grabbing his purchase once the transaction was complete, Merlin made his way to the curb side, with plans to hail the closest taxi that would approach him. Some of his co-workers in A&E argued that the black cabs were too expensive, but as the sorcerer appreciated quality over Uber, he nixed the thought of hailing those cheap forms of the real McCoy.
So, Merlin walked, with his arm stuck out. It took all of a few minutes for a cabby to spot him and pull to a full stop right beside him. Hopping into the back of the car roughly, he caught his ankle on the outer exterior of it. Cursing, he pulled the rest of his leg in, before shutting the door. The woman behind the wheel, a middle aged one with long gray hair, not unlike Alice at one time, smiled at him kindly.
"Hello, dear. Where shall I be taking you today?"
Based on his past experiences with a woman so similar to herself, Merlin found himself shrinking into the back of his seat before he replied shortly with, "I've got a map." As he reached into his left pocket, making like he really had one, he managed to magic the one from his flat into it as she had begun to ramble for a bit.
"Oh, good. I always do like an adventure. Most of you young men are always in such a hurry. It'll be nice to get away from the city for a bit. Have you ever been there before?"
When her eyes returned to his, gnarled fingers laced together over the leather seat that separated the sections of the car, he thanked the Gods that she had no idea he had just used magic. Her annoyingly familiar humor only egged him on to procure the familiar folded paper faster. As he spread it out, and in detail described where she would need to go, his anxiety over the moment faded when her comprehension of his stilted speech became more noticeable.
"We'll be there straight away, love. Not to worry," she assured, then turned and began to search the street for people.
Closing the map, and folding it as he had done several times since his purchase of it seven years ago, he returned it to his pocket. Sinking himself back into the seat, he buckled himself in and made certain that his alcohol was secured, before allowing his shoulders to ease up just a bit.
The ride was relatively pleasant, although the woman who had reminded him so of Alice, seemed to have reckless streak in her behind the wheel. A time or two, he wondered if he were mortal, whether or not he would fear for his life. His white knuckled right hand, which he had wrapped round the door handle affirmed this sentiment.
Soon enough, she found a spot not too far down from where he had dictated to her, and she parked. Pulling out his wallet with shaky hands, he grasped what money he had in it, which in truth was far more than he owed her, and gave it all to her. At first, she doubted he was serious, and even went so far as to wonder whether the fanatic seeming man she had met were really in his right mind. However, the blue eyes which glanced back at her long enough to confirm that he was indeed not pulling her leg, seemed a bit more clear than they had since she first picked him up.
"I hope you find what you're looking for, love. Have a wonderful day!"
"Thank you," Merlin replied briskly, before shutting the door behind him.
After she was well and gone, Merlin breathed in the air around him. The hum of strong magic, although deeper than it once had been, struck the warlock to his very core. This magic, unlike the kind which had carved itself through the earth's veins and allowed itself to become tainted, was still as pure as the day he had lain Arthur to rest. Drawn to it, Merlin's feet felt lighter as he stepped to the sacred ground which hovered over what had once been the Lake of Avalon.
Tears unbidden sprung to Merlin's eyes as he wished not for the first time that the lake had not disappeared. Holding tight to his bottle of alcohol, the aged but nimble warlock made his way forward. After walking for what felt like the better part of an hour, he made it to the tower, which had stood where it had for longer than he could remember. Like him, it was a remnant of a time long gone.
Dropping down to a position where his posterior was on the ground, and his back leaned against the ancient structure, he unscrewed the top off of the bottle in his grasp.
"This one's for you Gwaine, wherever you are."
A swig later, and he wiped his sleeve roughly over his mouth to get the excess liquid to disappear from it. Leaning back and closing his eyes, a strange feeling bubbles in the pit of his stomach. Unsettled, he set the bottle down, but did not release it from his hand. Glancing around, shifting his gangly legs a bit, Merlin wondered if showing up there had been a decent idea. A raven cawed above him, which only served to add to the sense of foreboding he felt.
He had felt this way before though, and nothing had ever come of it. The keen sense of disaster that he once had, disappeared years before, as had just a bit more of his sanity. This though, was easily the worst spiral he'd had in years. Even at his lowest, Merlin had never allowed himself to return to Arthur's grave, for fear it would cause him to do something desperate. After nearly two millenniums of waiting for the man to return, he had brought himself to a tentative state of happiness. Now, on Samhain night, that had been shattered by thoughts which he had tried so hard to bury. Not even the memory of that young child's suicide could bring him out of his vastly morbid state, in that moment.
"Arthur," Merlin said loudly, as if the strength of his voice alone could raise his King up from the dead.
While he had been meaning to say something more, his mind's recognition of that name on his lips, brought about another deluge of images to the forefront of his mind. At this point, Merlin wrapped his fingers around the neck of the bottle and set it far from himself, then laid on his side. Voices loud and soft spoke in his mind, bringing forth with them a false sense of security that maybe he had fallen back through time and gone home. Reaching up, the haunted wizard placed his hands on either side of his head, and let out a guttural scream.
Reduced to sobs, which continued endlessly for minutes uncounted, Merlin didn't even bother to stop the rain storm which his magic conjured up at the height of his pain. Lying there, despair now fully ingrained in every cell of his body, tears continued to pour down the raven haired man's face. Somewhere in the saner depths of his mind, Merlin wished he could blame the alcohol for this sudden moment of weakness, but not even life allowed him that simple pleasure, it seemed.
Numbed to the outside world around him, Merlin remained where he was, unaware that the atmosphere had shifted. The air became more crisp, and pure, as the scent of magic began to permeate the air. Lost to his bitter musings, even as a lightning bolt touched the ground illuminating the vicinity around him, he was ignorant to the sudden presence of another.
Stepping forward, his first footstep in over fifteen hundred years a bit shaky, Arthur Pendragon began to walk toward the heap of broken man that was not even three feet from him. With the storm around them to cover the noise of his feet making contact with the ground, the blond man moved steadily forward. Each step brought him closer to Merlin, the wisps of death still licking at his heels as he moved to his friend's side. Once beside him, he dropped to his knees, and reached his left arm down to rub the immortal man's back.
At the touch, Merlin does not immediately react, partially believing it was merely another delusion brought on by a deeper level of pain. When Arthur continues, the lanky man begins to wonder whether or not he was experiencing an illusion. In slow motion, the dark haired man lifted himself up and twisted so that he was in a seated position. As his eyes fell on Arthur, his mouth dropped open, and words escaped him. Gaping like a fish, he floundered in the presence of the man he had longed to see from the moment he had perished so long ago. While this happened, Arthur stared at Merlin in equal measure, tracing every single line of his face over at least twice, determined to commit it to memory again.
Given up on trying to speak, Merlin lifted his hands and reached out to touch the chainmail that Arthur was still bound in, as if he had just left the world not more than a few minutes previous, rather than hundreds of years before. As his skin collided with the cool metal, another sob escaped him, followed by a choked out, "Arthur."
With shaky arms, the two embraced each other. Burrowing his face into the sharp metal that encased Arthur's chest, Merlin found purchase for his hands at two separate parts of the man's body. Meanwhile, the former king clasped his right hand around the warlock's neck, and then put his left hand around his back, using the position to rub soothing ministrations across each spot. Silence fell, and the two entangled themselves around each other, seizing their first moment together again as a life raft amongst a sea of unknown.
Eventually, Merlin dared to look up, and found light blue eyes staring down at him fondly. He discovered at that point that his respiration became labored.
"I'd say you've far exceeded your two days off, Merlin," Arthur intoned lightly, reaching down tentatively to card his left hand through the raven hair near him.
The familiar words that echoed strange to his ears, made Merlin's heart jump, as did the strong hand running through his dark tresses. A sigh escaped him, before he responded in the language which he had once used with such flippant ease, "Did I? Hmm, hadn't noticed."
Continuing with the stroking, Arthur replied, "Gods I've missed you."
"And I you," Merlin choked out, as he attempted not to allow the dam to break free again.
Noting this, Arthur moved and brought Merlin to where he was leaning more in between his arms than out of them. Tightly, he wrapped his hands around his former manservant, and held him close. Had it been in the time of dragons and the height of Camelot, Merlin might have asked why, but now was not the time he wished to ask such questions.
"I've been watching you, Merlin. All of our friends from Camelot have too, until they return to this world again, at least. That girl in the pub you scared earlier, that was Sefa. The man you knocked into was Cenred, despite facial appearances denoting otherwise. Your, as they call here, "cabbie", was Alice as well. You've been surrounded by people from our land, just not in the forms that we once knew."
Wrapping his mind around this, Merlin looked up again, tentatively this time.
"How much have you seen then?"
Arthur lifted a hand to make a gesture.
"Oh, well, just everything," he admitted.
"That's wonderful," Merlin muttered, now more humiliated than he had ever been.
"You know, Merlin, you have nothing to be ashamed of."
"That remains to be seen, I suppose."
Rolling his eyes, Arthur moved so that they were closer than ever. Bending his neck down, he whispered into Merlin's ear, "I love you too."
If Merlin was ever certain that this was just another delusion, then that had proven it to be true, if nothing else. Jerking away from the hold his former king had on him, he pulled himself unsteadily to his feet.
"Go away. You're not real."
Merlin's anguish in being let down once more only served to make him more melancholy than he had been before. Walking away from where his dreams had been dashed yet again, he reached down and took the bottle of liquor he had tossed aside earlier in his hands once more. Before he could take a swig, however, a firm hand ripped the bottle right out of his own grasp and smashed it against the tower behind them.
An indescribable sound escaped Merlin's lips as he dropped to the ground on his knees.
Arthur came down to his level with some difficulty, but managed it well enough so he could clasp his hands onto the tops of Merlin's shoulders.
"I'm no more of an illusion than you are, Merlin."
Merlin's body became overwhelmed with wracking sobs, but to Arthur it hadn't seemed to matter. Instead, he slowly embraced the exhausted warlock, holding him tightly against his chest. Carding his fingers through the sorcerer's ebony locks, he calmed Merlin with his touch alone.
Despite the challenges ahead, as Merlin knew even in his deep subconscious that there would be many, he felt relentlessly hopeful for the first time since Kilgharrah had reminded him that Arthur would rise again. The anxiety he felt at the road ahead paled in comparison to his joy that he, Merlin, was now home in the arms of the King he had loved for over a thousand years. All else, could be dealt with in due time, but for now, he was home, and so was Arthur.