Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living, nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Two sides of the same coin, Kilgharrah had said. Two halves of a whole.
Merlin had thought he’d known what that meant.
He staggers back to Camelot exhausted, almost dead on his feet. The knights at the northwestern gate rush to him, put their arms around him, and take him in the castle to the Queen.
Gwen sits at a desk in the royal quarters, looking at innumerable rolls of parchment and treatises and lists of farm yields and expected crop harvests and not seeing any of them. She stands so quickly when the knights enter the room with Merlin between them that she knocks her heavy wooden chair to the floor.
Merlin, who has been practicing what to say to her for the past two days, does not say anything.
Gwen covers her mouth with her hands and stares at him. Something is happening behind her eyes that Merlin cannot see. “Leave us,” she tells the knights, her voice husky; they do. When they are gone, the tears in her eyes spill over. “Is he…?”
Merlin—the weight of an ocean on him, an ocean of grief—can only nod. He can feel himself crying, too, but it is happening very far away, perhaps to someone else.
Gwen sobs once, then catches herself. The two of them stand there for a long time. Both weep silently, unable to console the other, unable to bridge the gap within themselves that becomes, as they stand there, a chasm without end.
Finally Merlin says, “I’m sorry.”
“No.” Gwen lowers her hands from her face. “Never, Merlin. I know who the sorcerer on that ridge was. I know what you did. Never apologize to me, not for anything. Not ever.” She approaches him and after a brief hesitation, takes his hand. Merlin is numb. If he could move his legs, he would—would remove himself from Gwen’s clumsy and grief-shaken grasp and walk down the many stairs to Gaius’s quarters and lock himself in his room and lie down there and sleep for a day, a week, an age. How does she know? How long has she known? It doesn’t matter. It does not matter who knows anymore, if everyone knows, because Arthur knew and now he is dead.
The once and future king, Kilgharrah had said. He'd said nothing of the present.
“I have to address the court.” Gwen’s hands tremble, but her voice is steady. “You should rest.” She squeezes Merlin’s hand and then turns away from him, her hands going to her face to hide her expression. Her shoulders shake.
Merlin does as he is told. He takes himself down the stairs and through the long passageways to Gaius’s quarters, blessedly passing no one. The castle is in a state of silent paralysis, as if everyone is too afraid of the pain of the past few days to make any noise or do anything that needs doing. Merlin makes it to his room, shuts the door behind him, and, alone, presses his face against his pillow and screams until he is dizzy with it. Then he sleeps.
He wakes in a half-dream state sometime in the middle of the night. He feels feverish, and there is a damp washcloth on his head, long since cool. Gaius is asleep in the chair beside Merlin’s bed. Merlin is awake long enough only to think that he did not bury Morgana—should he do that, is it too late, does she even deserve it?—and then he drifts off once more. This time he does not dream.
At midday he wakes to Gaius’s hand on his forehead. “Merlin,” Gaius says. “I was so worried. I thought you were ill.”
“Yes.” Merlin’s voice is hoarse. If one’s soul can be ill, then Merlin is ill, and he does not think even Gaius will have a remedy to cure him. “May I have some water?”
Gaius leaves and returns with a cup of water, then leaves again and returns with two bowls of hot oatmeal, sweetened with honey. He hands one to Merlin. Gaius does not ask any questions, and the two of them eat in painful silence that Merlin is grateful for nonetheless.
“I told him I would die to protect him.” Merlin stares into his empty bowl, then realizes his tears are falling into it. “But I didn’t.”
Suddenly he is furious. The option to die in Arthur’s place had never even been presented to him. All this time in Camelot, all these years serving Arthur, and Merlin had grown accustomed to the idea that someday he would give his life to save Arthur’s. And then Arthur had been mortally wounded, and he died over the course of several endless days. Merlin had not been able to do anything. To die to save him had never even been possible.
Had that not been Merlin’s destiny? If not that, then what? Has he always been destined for this: to sit in bed weeping over an empty bowl, while outside a blackbird begins to sing?
Gaius gently takes the bowl from Merlin. “You did all that you could. I know that does not feel like enough right now, and perhaps it never will. But the fact of it remains. What you could do for Arthur, you did. And Arthur knew that.”
It is the first time that Merlin has heard Arthur’s name spoken aloud since he died. He shuts his eyes. “How can this be it?”
“It hasn’t ended,” Gaius says. He clasps Merlin’s hands. “Not yet.”
Merlin spends most of that first week back in Camelot in bed. It is not as if he has anywhere to be—he is out a job, after all. The thought makes him laugh once, brokenly, and Gaius looks up from the other room but says nothing.
One morning, someone knocks at Gaius’s door. Merlin pays this no attention, as people have been knocking all week but were invariably looking for Gaius. But this time Gaius lets the person in, speaks to them for a moment, and then comes to Merlin’s room.
“Percival is here to see you,” Gaius says. “He has a message from the Queen.”
Merlin has no reason to refuse this, not really, so he drags himself out of bed and into Gaius’s quarters. Percival is wearing his chainmail and his cloak, and he looks very tired and very sad. But when he sees Merlin, he smiles a little.
“Hello, Merlin.” Percival looks as if he will reach forward and clasp Merlin’s arm, but then something stops him. “I bring a message from Queen Guinevere. She wants to speak with you tonight, if you are agreeable to it.”
“I....” Merlin looks to Gaius for a way out, but one is not forthcoming. “All right.”
“She will meet you at the royal quarters tonight then.” Percival’s smile falters a little. “Are you all right, Merlin?”
Merlin tries to smile, but he knows what he looks like.
“I understand. I won’t keep you any longer.” Percival turns to leave, but when he reaches the door, he hesitates, then faces Merlin again. His expression has shifted, and Merlin, who thinks that he knows Percival fairly well, cannot decipher it.
“There’s something you need to know,” Percival says. “No one wanted to disturb you, so we haven’t known how.... It’s about Gwaine.”
Merlin feels a surge of dread more severe than he had thought himself capable of feeling, had thought that he might not ever feel again. “What’s happened?”
“We went after Morgana.” Percival’s face is like glass, letting light through. “We thought—I don’t know what we thought. She got the better of us, and made him tell her where you and Arthur were. I found him once she had gone, but....” Percival lowers one hand to his sword hilt. “It was too late.”
Merlin sits, slowly, at the table. He hears something ringing, and after a moment realizes that it is his ears. When he shakes his head to clear them, the noise does not go away.
“He felt so guilty for telling her,” Percival says. “He would be glad to know you’re all right.”
“And that Arthur isn’t?” Merlin asks bitterly. But he is thinking of Gwaine, and the way that grief is a pit whose bottom can always be dug deeper.
“He would be glad,” Percival repeats. He turns and fumbles with the door.
Merlin watches him. It takes a lot of effort and time to connect his thoughts, even very simple ones. Ideas travel from point a to b, but the path is no longer linear. “I killed her,” he says as Percival is about to leave. “Morgana. She’s dead.”
Percival pauses. One hand still on his sword hilt. “Good.” He leaves.
Merlin goes to his room and begins putting on his boots. Gaius watches from the doorway. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“No.” Merlin picks up his bag. “I’ll be back later.”
Just outside the northern walls of the city, where the bluebells grow, there is a place where knights of Camelot who have died in service of their king are buried and remembered with honor. Merlin makes his way there, not hurrying, picking flowers as he goes. Bluebells of course, for they are everywhere, and also yellow archangels and violets aplenty. Merlin even spies a group of deep purple orchids, of which he picks only one, because they are too beautiful to ruin. The gathering reminds him of Lancelot, and the funeral that Merlin had been forced to have for him in secret. Merlin can feel his heart beating hard in his chest, harder than his slow walk through the field should necessitate. He tries not to think.
The older graves, of knights who served Camelot before Merlin’s time, are closer to the city itself. The stones that mark them are mossy and coated with lichen but still stacked neatly upon themselves. Every few months, a servant from the court visits this place and sets right any stones that have been dislodged. While many fallen knights are given water funerals at the lake outside the city, they are given markers here as well, so that those who loved them have a place to come and think of them, and remember them, and give physical presence to their legacies in Camelot. Which is why Elyan has a place here. And now so does Gwaine.
Merlin pauses at Elyan’s grave to lay a handful of flowers before the mound of stones. It is remarkable, truly, that Elyan and Gwen, the children of the city’s blacksmith—himself mistreated by Uther—rose so far in Arthur’s court and his regard. That speaks to something important—honor, perhaps, or merely respect, and the value of every individual person in Arthur’s mind. Except when it came to sorcerers. Yet even then, in the end....
No. Merlin touches the stones of Elyan’s marker, then turns away. And there before him is Gwaine’s grave.
Merlin busies himself with the simple process of neatly arranging the remainder of his flowers before the burial mound, thinking only of his hands and the blooms and the smell of the grass and the way that the sun makes shadows on the stones. It is a long time before he realizes that, once more, he is weeping. The flowers arranged, Merlin remains on his knees by the grave for a long time.
“I’m sorry, Gwaine,” he says aloud, when his tears have dried. “Thank you.”
And—not caring who sees, not anymore, not now, not after everything—he points one arm upwards and casts a shower of glittering, heatless sparks in an arc above the grave. Gold and green, the sparks fall around the stones like the branches of a weeping willow and remain there, suspended, for several long moments. Then they fade, and Merlin gets unsteadily to his feet and goes back to the city.
Gwen answers Merlin’s knock at the royal quarters herself, alone. She is wearing a simple black dress and smiling, but thinly. “It’s good to see you,” she says.
“You too, my lady.”
“Please.” She gestures at the table. “Eat with me?”
There is more than enough food and wine for two, and Merlin can hardly say no. He is hungry, anyway, after his walk outside the city. It is the first time that he can remember being hungry in more than a week. He sits at the familiar table where, especially in the past several years, he had shared meals with Arthur and Gwen often. Now it is just him and Gwen.
“Have you been well?” Gwen asks. She is not wearing any jewelry or a crown, not even the simple circlet that she generally wears about her forehead. She looks the way she did when she was younger—when she and Merlin were both servants of the court and spent many afternoons gossiping together in the kitchens or storerooms.
Merlin gestures vaguely. “Gaius looks after me.”
“I’m glad.” Gwen picks at her food. Merlin wonders who looks after her. It should be me, he thinks. His life was devoted to Arthur, but Gwen is his friend, too. And now she is queen, and Camelot is still standing. That should mean something to Merlin, but it doesn’t. Not yet.
“Percival told me about Morgana,” Gwen says.
“I should have told you sooner.”
“I figured that something like that had happened. In any case, I knew that she was no threat to us now.” Gwen picks up her wine goblet but does not drink from it. “I still miss her sometimes, you know,” she whispers. “What she was like before. When she was our friend.”
Merlin closes his eyes. “I do, too.”
He thinks of the heft of Excalibur in his hand. The way it had slid between Morgana’s ribs, so neatly. The breath leaving her lungs.
They eat in silence for a little while. Then Gwen says, “I wanted to tell you something, Merlin. Something important.”
Merlin sets down his fork. “All right.”
Gwen searches his face. Her warm eyes are pleading in a way that Merlin does not understand. “I’m making a decree in the morning about the use of magic in Camelot.”
Merlin does not move. He fears that if he does, his calm, so precisely maintained, will shatter.
“I’m repealing the ban,” Gwen says. “Magic will be free in Camelot once more.”
Merlin turns his face from her, pressing his hands against the tabletop, open-palmed. He finds, to his amazement, that he is not about to cry. He does not even want to. He wants to scream and throw things. He doesn’t.
“It is what Arthur should have done a long time ago,” Gwen says. “I should have at least tried to convince him to do it, but I never did. But he would have done it eventually, I think. I know.”
Merlin nods, still not looking at her. He realizes that aside from the spell that he cast over Gwaine’s grave, he has not done any magic at all since Arthur died and Merlin sent his boat sailing towards Avalon.
“I’m sorry, Merlin. All these years....”
Merlin looks down at his hands resting on the table. They don't look like his own. “I did it for him,” he says quietly. “All of it.”
Gwen, gently, reaches out and takes his hand. “I know.”
They sit like that for a long time, while their food grows cold, and outside the sun keeps on setting.
“I wanted to offer you a position on my council,” Gwen says at last. “As an advisor on matters of magic. You would be the royal sorcerer. At least think about it.” She squeezes his hand, then lets him go. “It is the least that I can do. And I want you to stay in Camelot and be recognized for who you are and all that you have done. But if that is not what you want, I will understand.”
Merlin nods. They finish their supper. A servant comes in to light the candles and the fire, then clears away their plates and cutlery and cups. When she departs, Merlin stands to leave, but before he reaches the door, he stops.
“I’ll do it,” he says.
Gwen smiles, her hands clasped below her collarbone. “Thank you, Merlin.”
When Merlin kneels at her feet before the throne the next day to accept his royal position, the knights applauding and cheering, the rest of the court watching in apprehensive wonder, he thinks: only for you, Arthur.
The days turn impossibly to weeks, then the weeks to months. Merlin performs his new duties as royal sorcerer to the court of Camelot. He attends council meetings as he has always done these past few years, only now he does so in an official capacity. When the issue of magic arises, all the faces in the room turn to his, awaiting his judgment. Merlin gives what answers he has. He roams the empty hallways of the castle at night when he cannot sleep, which is often. He wakes up in the mornings and is halfway to the royal chambers, yawning and holding a plate of breakfast, before he remembers that is not his job anymore. If he wanted, servants would bring breakfast to him, now. (He does not want this.) There is no one for him to bring meals to anymore, no one’s armor to prep and clean, no one’s sword to sharpen, no one to wake when he has overslept because he spent half the night worrying about some kingly issue or another, because Arthur is gone. Those moments when Merlin forgets it are somehow worse than the moments afterwards when he remembers. Because how could he forget? How could I....
Merlin wants to ask Gwen about this; her transition from maid to queen. Did she ever wake up in the mornings confused when her new maid laid out her dress and jewelry and circlet? Does she, too, wake up and forget that Arthur is gone? But Merlin doesn’t ask. He doesn’t talk to anyone about anything that he does not have to. What is there to say?
Days and weeks and months. Merlin does not remember a year ever being so ponderous. Like time itself is in mourning.
The majority—the vast, vast majority—of magical issues that he counsels on are ordinary. Small-scale. Simple. They involve regular people, regular men and women, who simply happen to have some small or large amount of power and who use it in their lives for everyday tasks, ordinary purposes. They are just trying to live in peace—as Merlin might have done, had this not been his path: had he not ever left Ealdor and instead used his magic to protect crops from deer and rabbits and keep the town’s well flowing in times of scarcity.
A few magic wielders of more considerable power and ambition remain, but with Morgana gone and the sorcery ban in Camelot lifted, they rarely cross paths with those tasked with keeping Camelot safe. And they all know that the one among them with the most considerable power of all sits upon the court in Camelot, and the Queen lends him her ear, trusts him, loves him—and they know that if they cause any sort of real trouble, they will have Emrys to answer to.
So things are quiet. The peace Arthur longed for slowly becomes real.
All it took was his death. All it took was the reveal of a decade-old secret. Why couldn’t destiny ever be plain, told simply? There is so much that Merlin would have done differently. There is so much that he would have said.
Had he just known.
The power of a dragonlord over a dragon is not unilateral. It is born of a mutuality of purpose, respect, trust. Merlin has called upon Kilgharrah’s aid many times. Yet it still catches him by surprise when, one day that fall, Kilgharrah calls for him.
Merlin is sitting in the council chambers with Gwen, the knights, Gaius, and the other advisors when he hears the dragon’s call. It rolls through the stone hallways of the castle like boulders in the mountains. He gasps, clutches his head, and rises to his feet.
Everyone at the table stares at him. Of course—they had not heard.
“I have to go,” Merlin says. “Begging your pardon and your leave, my lady.”
Gwen stands as well, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” Yes. “I’m sorry. I’ll explain later.”
She gestures, giving him permission to leave. Merlin nearly runs from the room. He doesn’t realize until the double doors slam against the walls in front of him that he cast a spell to open them without thinking, so urgent is his need for swiftness. He takes his horse from the royal stables and leaves the city at a gallop. If the gate guards notice that his horse’s hooves do not touch the ground at every other step, they say nothing of it to each other.
Merlin reaches Kilgharrah by midnight. He has never been to this place, which must be where Kilgharrah lives, but he heard Kilgharrah’s voice in the back of his mind the whole way, guiding him onwards. Merlin ties up his horse and rubs down her flanks quickly, since it was a hard ride and he does not want her injured. Then he takes a breath and walks into the glen just ahead, which is lit faintly with moonlight.
Kilgharrah lies curled in the center of the clearing, his tail wrapped neatly around his forelegs in front of his nose. He is breathing evenly but shallowly. Merlin’s heart leaps into his throat. He had hoped that this would not be why Kilgharrah had called for him—but in his heart, he had known.
Merlin kneels in front of the dragon’s nose. Kilgharrah opens his eyes, and after a moment they focus on Merlin.
“Young warlock.” Kilgharrah’s voice is tinged with a faint wheeze. Merlin puts his hand on Kilgharrah’s snout, and Kilgharrah closes his eyes.
“I came as quickly as I could.” Merlin looks at the dragon for a long time, trying to figure out what is wrong—but of course nothing is wrong. Not really. Kilgharrah is simply old—he said so himself. “Is there anything that I can do?”
A trail of smoke seeps from between Kilgharrah’s fangs. “No. But I wanted you here with me, in the end.”
Merlin’s eyes burn. Somehow he had never expected Kilgharrah to say something like that so openly—somehow he had thought the dragon too proud, too cryptic, too invulnerable. “I’m glad you called for me, then,” he says thickly.
Kilgharrah opens his eyes again and looks at him. “Selfish of me, really, to make you bear witness to this,” he rumbles. “You have borne a great deal of loss in your short life already.”
“Don’t,” Merlin says, and then finds that he cannot continue. He keeps his hand on Kilgharrah’s snout, and Kilgharrah bears the gesture patiently, perhaps even gratefully. Merlin is not quite sure. “I can tell you about all the news in Camelot, if you like. What it has been like since—since Gwen lifted the magic ban.”
Kilgharrah rumbles assent. Merlin settles against Kilgharrah’s side and does his best to ignore the way that Kilgharrah’s breath comes too fast. He talks for a long time about nothing truly important—minor details of his life, the comings and goings of the court, the witches and warlocks who are adjusting to their new lives as legal citizens. Merlin has gotten good at filling his thoughts with such minutiae in the past few months.
After a while, he falls silent. The moon has set, and they sit together in the gray hour before dawn.
Kilgharrah turns his head and looks at Merlin with one large golden eye. “There is one favor that I would ask of you.”
“Anything,” says Merlin.
“The young dragon, Aithusa. Do you know where she has gone?”
“No.” Merlin has heard nothing of her since before Morgana’s death, though he has wondered whether she is all right. Yet he has not looked for her.
“I thought as much.” Kilgharrah breathes out. “It would mean a great deal to me if you would find her, and...help her, however you can. Teach her the dragon tongue. Make sure that she has a safe place somewhere in this world, if that is at all possible.”
“I will,” Merlin promises.
Kilgharrah closes his eyes. “Thank you, Merlin.”
“Of course.” Merlin says nothing for a moment, then swallows. “Kilgharrah? Is there anything that I should do, after.... I mean, I don’t know how dragons—what they do for a burial.”
An amused hum, and a small burst of flame. “You do not have to do anything. I chose this glen for my own; this is where I wish to lie. Let nature and the woods take me as is their way.”
Merlin blinks away tears and leans against Kilgharrah’s scaly warmth. “I will,” he says again.
They sit together in silence, listening to the woods begin to wake up around them. By the time the sun lifts itself fully over the eastern horizon, Kilgharrah is gone. Merlin covers his face with his hands.
When he has the strength to do so, he gets to his feet and looks at what is left of his friend. “Goodbye, Kilgharrah,” he says. “Great Dragon, and truest of friends.”
Kilgharrah said that no ceremony was needed, but Merlin lifts his hand anyway. As he did at Gwaine’s burial mound, he sends a spray of red and gold sparks into the air above Kilgharrah’s head. They hang there suspended, glittering like dewdrops in the sun. Then Merlin wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands and goes to his horse.
The ride back to Camelot is longer than Merlin remembers now that the urgency has left him, and he is exhausted and heartsore. He reaches the city gates at dusk and is again shepherded, gently but firmly, before the Queen.
“Merlin,” Gwen says when the guards have left. “We were worried. Are you all right?”
“Yes, my lady.”
She gives him a look, the one that means don’t. “Where did you go?”
“To see a friend.” Merlin does not wish to say more, but he realizes that Gwen will not accept that right now. “He called for me.”
“Called?” Gwen looks puzzled.
“Yes.” He hesitates. “The Great Dragon—the one who attacked Camelot once, if you remember.”
“I know. But he was my friend. A dear one, and he was dying. So I went him.”
“Merlin....” But Gwen is not reprimanding him. She sounds sad, instead. “I’m sorry.” She looks at him for a moment, her expression discerning. “You must be tired. You should rest. Please, let me know if there’s anything you need.”
Merlin bows. “Of course, my lady.”
Before he leaves the royal chambers, he catches a glimpse of her face as she watches him, her eyes overbright, her expression a mixture of worry and grief. He closes the door.
The coin’s moment of greatest potential is at the height of its toss, still spinning. As soon as it starts to fall, the window of probability begins to close. Doors of possibility slam shut. The coin lands with one side up and one side down. The moment is over. The judgment is passed, the wager won or lost. Pick up your things, dust yourself off, hand over your coins. Go home.
How do you find a dragon who does not want to be found? Merlin hardly knows where to begin. It takes him longer than it should to think to merely call to Aithusa. He has no idea whether this will work. It always did with Kilgharrah, but Kilgharrah was full-grown, able-bodied, and had cause to answer Merlin’s call. There is so much about dragons that Merlin still does not know. His father and Kilgharrah had hinted that a dragonlord’s power over a dragon is absolute, but what about a dragon who barely knows her own name, and who has lived the vast majority of her life in fear and exile? Merlin wishes that he could leave Aithusa alone, in peace; but he made a promise, and as far as he knows, there is little peace out there at all for a young, injured dragon on her own.
Merlin rides past the outskirts of the city a few weeks after Kilgharrah’s passing, not wanting to summon a dragon to the heart of Camelot should Aithusa actually answer. He paces around the familiar woods, trying to work up the courage to call her name. For all he knows, Aithusa might know that Merlin killed Morgana—and for all of Morgana’s faults and wrongdoings, she had loved Aithusa dearly and tried to protect her as best as she could, and Aithusa had loved her in return.
Finally, the sun at its zenith, the day unusually hot, the woods buzzing with the sounds of insects, Merlin puts his shoulders back and looks up at the trees and calls, with all the authority—and compassion—that he can muster: Aithusa!
The woods ring with the echo of the name. For a moment everything else falls quiet, even the insects robbed of their voices; then sound returns, the echo dying, and Merlin sits on the ground to wait. He waits for a long time. At sundown he gets to his feet, his joints stiff and achy, and brushes the dirt from his clothes.
“Well,” he says quietly to himself, “I guess we’ll just have to keep trying.”
Merlin rides out to that glen in the forest and calls for Aithusa whenever he has the chance. He goes at least once a week and usually more, sometimes for days in a row if he can spare the time away from the court. He calls for Aithusa and then walks through the woods nearby to pass the time, memorizing them as he did in his first days at Camelot, so long ago now, noting the differences where there are any to be seen. Gaius worries for him, but Merlin tells him why he must do this and Gaius does not try to stop him.
Still, Merlin wishes that there were someone he could bring with him. He is lonely, sometimes unbearably so. It had been a rare thing in the past for him to ever be in the woods around Camelot by himself; he had always been with Arthur, or Gwaine, or Elyan or Percival or Leon or, longer ago, Lancelot. Merlin wishes that Lancelot were here. Lancelot would understand this devotion to duty—would understand, even, the terrible beauty and grace of the dragons, and the responsibility that Merlin has to look after the last one of their kind in the aftermath of Uther’s reign.
Leon stops Merlin in the halls of the castle one evening when Merlin, tired and sweaty and frustrated, returns from one of his now-regular excursions. Leon looks thinner than Merlin remembers, and gray shows at his temples and in his beard. He has the red cloak of the knights about his shoulders, of course; but Merlin notes that the clasp of the cloak at his throat is not gold, but black. As it has been since Arthur’s death. Some of the other knights have put away their ceremonial grieving wear in recent weeks, as is generally appropriate. Merlin doubts that Leon ever will.
“Your pardon, Merlin,” Leon says. The formality grates, but Merlin can hardly fault Leon for it. He has not made himself easy to talk to. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
Merlin nods, and Leon leads him to an alcove in the hall where they might have some privacy from the passing servants and members of the court. “I don’t wish to pry,” Leon says, “but I can hardly fail to notice how often you leave the city these days. I know it is for something important, but....” He pauses, struggles with the wording, and then apparently gives up and says what he means plainly. “I’m worried for your safety.”
Merlin, touched, nonetheless wishes Leon had not said it. “You don’t need to be.”
“Perhaps if you brought a knight to escort you,” Leon presses. “I would be more than willing to volunteer, Merlin. Sir.” He seems to belatedly remember Merlin’s new role as royal advisor. Merlin doesn’t mind.
“I don’t need any protection.”
“Maybe not. Still, it would ease our minds.”
Leon looks embarrassed. “Percival and I have talked about it a little. Meaning no disrespect.”
“I take none.” Merlin gives Leon a long look. He almost wants to accept the offer—not for protection, but for companionship. But something stops him. He does not know how to explain a dragon to Leon or Percival; and a part of him insists that companionship is something that he no longer deserves.
“Listen,” Merlin says at last. “You know me, Leon, but you are unused to knowing me as a sorcerer.” He raises one hand. A gentle burst of flame shoots from his fingertips and shapes itself in the silhouette of a miniature dragon. It settles around Merlin’s shoulders. “I am in no danger. But I appreciate your concern.”
Leon does not frown, but it looks as if this takes effort. “As you wish,” he says, and he bows before walking away. Merlin watches him go. Definitely thinner, he thinks; and older, too. Maybe he should have accepted the offer. Maybe not.
That autumn is wet and cold. Gaius grows sick at the start of it. The damp gets into his lungs and stays there, and despite the remedies and potions that Merlin makes, all the herbs that he hunts for, all the spells that he casts over Gaius’s chest while he sleeps, nothing can make it go away. Merlin stops going to the glen to call for Aithusa and spends the entirety of his days reading through Gaius’s books for a solution. He finds nothing.
“You cannot cure this, Merlin,” Gaius says to him one night. Merlin pretends not to hear. “All of us must one day grow old.”
“You’re sick,” Merlin says, “not old.”
“I am both,” says Gaius gently. “And as we both know, there are some things that are inevitable.”
Merlin closes the book, too heavy-handedly. “You can’t,” he whispers. “You can’t.”
Gaius, unsteadily, turns Merlin’s face by the chin so Merlin will look at him. “Oh, Merlin,” he says. “I must.”
The cold is persistent that year. Merlin takes it upon himself to make sure that Gaius’s fire is always burning, hot and bright, and spends his days looking after him. A quiet search begins to locate a new royal physician. Merlin takes no part in it. He busies himself with the minutiae of each day, of looking after Gaius, of keeping his chambers neat and warm and well-supplied with anything that Gaius might need. He writes a letter to his mother to tell her what is going on. He continues his research into Gaius’s illness in secret, but of course he finds nothing, because Gaius is right. Just as he always is.
Merlin spends that fall and winter on tenterhooks, constantly searching for any sign or symptom that might indicate a worsening of Gaius’s illness. Despite his anxiety, he sees nothing. When winter begins to turn, thoughtfully, towards the idea of spring, he allows himself a small flicker of hope. Perhaps this is not Gaius’s time after all, and with the approach of warmer weather, Gaius’s cough might finally lessen and fade.
But it doesn’t. One night, in the week before the equinox, Gaius takes a turn for the worse. There is no one to send for. The woman chosen to succeed Gaius as court physician—who has, in recent weeks, been taking over most of Gaius’s duties—stops by Gaius’s chambers and examines him. Brigit is a short, middle-aged woman, brusque in her work but unerringly competent, though she lacks Gaius’s knowledge of the magical, having never dabbled in sorcery herself. That magical knowledge is Merlin’s responsibility now as the court’s royal sorcerer. The thought makes Merlin slightly hysterical. When Gaius is gone, it will take two people to fill the void that he leaves behind.
Brigit takes Gaius’s pulse, looks into his eyes, feels the lymph nodes around his neck, and sighs. She looks at Merlin for a moment. Merlin wants her gone more than he has ever wanted anything else in his life.
Gaius, who is weak but quite lucid, gestures Brigit away. “It’s all right, Brigit. I think my diagnosis is the same as yours.”
Brigit clasps his hands once. “It has been my pleasure to meet you, Gaius.” She smiles at him, gently but sadly, and inclines her head to Merlin when she departs
Gaius lowers himself back against his pillows. The effort of sitting up and speaking to Brigit has exhausted him. Merlin, his eyes filling with tears, busies himself with meaningless tasks: stoking the already roaring fire, making two cups of tea, neatening the rows of potions and antidotes arranged on the shelves about the room.
He shakes his head just slightly, not turning to look at Gaius.
More insistently: “Merlin.”
Merlin turns, and at the look on Gaius’s face, sits at his side and takes his hands. They are thin and frail in a way that they never were before, and the weakness in them sets Merlin to the verge of weeping. But something stops him. Not pride, never that; but an unwillingness to mar these precious remaining moments with a preoccupation with his own grief.
“Knowing you, Merlin,” says Gaius, “has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life.”
Merlin, motionless, sucks in a breath.
“For twenty years—longer—I served Uther. I told myself that I stayed to help people where I could, to convince Uther when at all possible to do the right thing. But I let myself get complacent. I did less good than I had hoped. At a certain point, if you do not act directly against that which you claim to oppose, you end up doing nothing more than prop up the evil you tell yourself you are fighting against.” Gaius sighs. “So I was. Then you came to Camelot, Merlin. And you do not know it, but you brought purpose and meaning to my life again.”
Tears begin to slide down Merlin’s face. He wipes them, impatiently, ashamedly, away.
“There was something wonderful in you,” Gaius says. “I saw it; Uther feared it, though he did not know it. Arthur saw it and loved it, as I did. I knew that if I did nothing else in my life other than protect that which was good in you, then my life would have served a greater purpose than I ever could have hoped for during those long years of Uther’s reign. And I don’t speak of your destiny, Merlin, or of your power as a sorcerer; I speak of you. Your character, your heart. Your love for others.”
“Gaius,” Merlin whispers.
“Let me speak. I spent so many years not speaking, it would be a shame not to when I have the chance. If Camelot is great today, and it is, that is because of you. Arthur was a good man. But you made him a great king.”
Merlin shakes his head. “No.”
“Yes,” Gaius says gently. “It is true, though I know maybe you will never believe it. But someone should still say it. Yet even with all of that aside—Merlin, you have loved me as your father, and there has been no greater gift, no greater blessing, in my life than that.”
Merlin can feel himself gripping Gaius’s hands too tightly for such a now-frail man, but it is impossible to stop. “I’m the one who has been blessed,” he says. Gaius smiles at him and kisses his hands.
“As I said.” Gaius leans back against his pillows once more. “This is not the end.” He looks sharply at Merlin, his gaze strong and piercing. “You cannot go down twice into the same river; this I know. But there are always new rivers, Merlin, and always new ways to come home.”
A little while after that—after the two of them have drunk their tea and Merlin has drawn the blankets around Gaius’s shoulders to keep him warm, then settled in the chair beside his bed—Gaius falls asleep. Merlin, drowsy but steadfastly staying awake, watches over him all that night. And by the time the morning comes, the breath in Gaius’s lungs stops, and his cough is gone for good.
All of the city of Camelot comes out for Gaius’s funeral to say goodbye to their beloved physician. Gaius delivered children and healed illnesses and mended broken bones and eased pain in this city for the past fifty years. He was the singular remnant from Uther’s reign that was universally beloved. The procession fills the streets of the city, and Merlin finds comfort in this, at least: the knowledge that Gaius made a great difference in this place for decades and will be remembered for it.
Gwen sends for Merlin that evening and wordlessly hands him a piece of parchment. It is a request from Gaius to the Queen—that Merlin be allowed to keep Gaius’s chambers, should Merlin so wish, as well as all of Gaius’s possessions, aside from those of his craft, which he gave mostly to Brigit.
Gwen—her hair down, her jewelry and crown set aside—watches Merlin for a moment. Then she says, “I had thought to give you some chambers of your own within the castle to match your role as advisor. I am more than happy for you to keep Gaius’s chambers, if you wish.”
The idea of living alone in the rooms that he shared with Gaius for over a decade aches, but the idea of leaving them hurts even more. Merlin nods and hands Gwen the parchment.
She smiles sadly at him. “I am sorry, Merlin.” She sets the parchment aside and hugs him. He hugs back, uncertainly. He has forgotten how. She kisses his cheek before he leaves, and when Merlin returns to Gaius’s chambers—his chambers, now—he wonders why that should make him feel so sad, so lonely.
Among Gaius’s possessions are the dozens of spellbooks from which Merlin has studied all these long years. Yet atop the familiar stack of them is one that Merlin does not recognize. When he examines it he realizes, with a shock like lightning through him, that it is a book translating the ancient language of the dragons.
Where on earth had Gaius found such a thing, and how, when he had been so sick for so long? Merlin opens the cover and sees a message inscribed there.
Your mother sent me this when I wrote her a letter asking—rather circuitously, as the topic is of course not an easy one—whether she retained any of your father’s possessions after all these years. I don’t know if he ever spoke to her of his nature as a dragonlord, and I did not ask, but in any case I wondered whether he might have left her something that you would find useful. She sent me this, saying that she has never been able to read a word of it (little mystery why), but that you might be able to.
Perhaps it may help you with Aithusa? I hope so, at least.
Happy belated birthday, Merlin.
All my love,
Merlin closes the book and holds it tight to his chest. It is small, battered, full of notes jotted in the margins. He suspects that it is written in his father’s handwriting—that more than anything else, this had been a journal that Balinor kept as he learned the dragon’s language.
Merlin has not thought of Aithusa in weeks, preoccupied as he has been with caring for Gaius. But Gaius had been thinking of the dragon, and of Merlin. Merlin grips the book tightly for a long time. Then he puts it carefully aside and sets about arranging the things that are left in his quarters.
Spring is properly underway when Merlin returns to the woods where he spent months the previous year calling for Aithusa. He has dismounted his horse and removed her saddle so she can relax while he waits before he realizes that anything has changed. The grasses and weeds are trampled, and off to the side of the glen there is a collection of flowers and twigs arranged in what looks at first glance like a nest: an immense one though, indeed.
Merlin’s breath catches. He stands still and looks around, carefully, before sitting cross-legged on the ground and beginning to wait.
A few hours pass, warm and pleasant in the new spring sun, before Merlin hears a low, tentative growl. He does not move, his eyes closed, his hands on his knees. His horse whickers but does not startle or run. Good girl. Merlin's heart is pounding so hard that he can feel his blood in his temples.
Another growl, quiet, like a question. Merlin sits motionless but squints open his eyes. There is nothing before him but the peaceful little glen. He focuses on drawing his breath evenly, slowly. Behind him something moves.
After several long minutes, Merlin feels the warmth of something’s breath on the back of his neck: something big, something curious, sniffing at his hair and clothes. He does not move. And finally Aithusa, with a low sound like a sigh, or a whimper, puts her head on Merlin’s shoulder and curls up around him, her tail coming to rest on Merlin’s knees.
Merlin cannot keep from smiling. “Aithusa,” he says, and she snorts in gentle response. Merlin puts his hand on her face, feeling the smooth ridges of her scales, and laughs.
The shortest spell is a name, after all.
Merlin spends his weeks half in Camelot and half in the woods with Aithusa. He attends to his duties as an advisor to the court, and then he packs some food and clothes and books—always bringing his father’s journal, in which he has begun to add his own notes—and heads out of the city for at least the next three days. It is easier than running back and forth between the city and the woods every day, especially since Merlin has advised Aithusa to stay a certain distance from Camelot, lest she be discovered. But Aithusa, naturally cautious after her years of hiding, needs no such warning, and so far she has drawn no negative attention.
Still, Merlin fears for her. And he is a little afraid of her, too. He agonizes over how to tell her about Morgana, but he does not know how to explain. So he says nothing.
Aithusa is bright but fearful, starving for knowledge and education but incredibly distrustful of it as well. Any sudden noise is likely to make her take lopsided flight and flee. Merlin has grown used to this, and he always waits for her to return a few hours later. The frequency with which she does this is lessening—slowly, but steadily at least. And Merlin understands. How can he blame her, after the life that she has lived?
He wants to ask what happened to her, desperately so, but he does not. What separated her from Kilgharrah? For surely Kilgharrah would not have parted from Aithusa willingly, though Merlin realizes that he never asked Kilgharrah about this and cannot be certain. But he can hardly imagine it. How did Aithusa find Morgana, and why did she stay with Morgana after that—why, of all people, had Morgana been the one to hold Aithusa’s complete love and trust? Merlin does not think he will ever have the answers to these questions. He tries to make his peace with this, even as his guilt—for not looking after Aithusa better, for killing the one person whom Aithusa had loved—lingers and does not lessen with time, but deepens instead.
He is a dragonlord—the last dragonlord, as Aithusa is the last of the dragons. He should have looked after her.
When Merlin tries to examine Aithusa’s old injuries, she pulls away from him, her gaze disapproving and distrusting. She does not seem to be in continuous pain; her injuries are old and affected her growth, disabling her in terms of speed and balance, but as far as Merlin can see, they are not something that necessarily needs to be fixed. Aithusa look after herself, clearly; to assume that her disabilities make her miserable is deeply condescending, and so Merlin learns to let those concerns go.
Teaching Aithusa the dragon’s language is harder than Merlin expected, mostly because he is not sure how to teach a language that he knows mostly on instinct. In a way, he and Aithusa are both the students, and Balinor is their teacher, his writings and notes instructing them from beyond the grave.
But Merlin’s secret fear—that he would be unable to teach, or Aithusa somehow unable to learn—is not realized. Aithusa learns in great leaps and bounds, though for a long time Merlin does not realize this, because Aithusa mostly refuses to speak. But when he speaks to her, she understands, and she writes painstaking responses in the dirt with her claws, her spelling and wording perfect. The first time she does this, Merlin laughs and throws his arms around her neck. Aithusa stiffens but does not fly away.
“Wonderful,” Merlin says in the dragon tongue; “wonderful—wonderful!” He has not felt joy like this in years. When he rides back to Camelot that night, he feels both heavy and light.
An invitation awaits him in his quarters: a note from Gwen, asking simply that he dine with her tomorrow evening on the anniversary of Arthur’s death.
Merlin goes to bed and leaves the message unanswered.
Merlin spent most of his life as an early riser. Life in Ealdor had necessitated it, and by the time Merlin moved to Camelot and one of his tasks was to wake Arthur, he had grown used to the habit and enjoyed it. Mornings were clean and new, and the early sunlight always seemed to have its own color, unique from the sunlight of afternoon or evening, and Merlin liked to see it. But in the past year, he has found it harder to get out of bed, never mind get out of bed early; when he was taking care of Gaius he returned to the old habit, but now he lacks the impetus. He wakes late on the anniversary of Arthur’s death and lies in bed willing his legs to move, his hands to push aside the covers, his heart to beat. His mind is blessedly empty, but so is the rest of him. Eventually he rises and makes tea and sees that it is midday, perhaps later. He could leave the city and make it to the lake nearby before the sun begins to set. Not the lake of Avalon, of course, but the lake where he buried Lancelot. He wants to be near water, something moving. Yet he does not go. He finishes his tea and works on his notes in his father’s journal. About a third of the book’s pages were empty when he got it; soon he will need to either supplement the pages somehow—take the book out of its binding and re-spine it—or start a new journal. He is not sure yet which he will do.
At evening, someone knocks on his door. It is Percival. He inclines his head to Merlin. “The Queen requests your presence, should you consent.”
Merlin does not know whether he does or not. But he didn’t leave the city earlier when he could have; that might be answer enough. He gets his cloak—the day has been unseasonably cold—and follows Percival to the royal quarters where Gwen awaits him.
“Thank you, Percival,” Gwen says.
Percival bows. “Please send for me if you need anything else.” He take his leave, but not without a last glance at the two of them.
“It has been hard for him.” Gwen steps back to allow Merlin to enter the chambers. “Hard for us all, I suppose. Will you sit?”
Merlin does so, unclasping his cloak. Gwen wears a simple dark dress, and when she sits across from him, the light from the fire reflects strands of gray in her hair. When had those to come in? She looks changed, the way that Percival looks changed, the way that Leon looks changed. Has Merlin been less observant of late, or has the past year—peaceful for the kingdom at large—been so hard on them as to warrant this?
Their supper is already laid out. Gwen reaches for her goblet, gesturing for Merlin to do so as well. “A toast seems proper, though I hardly know what to say, even after a year. Merlin?”
Merlin grips the goblet, remembering a different cup, a different drink, a different year. I had no idea you were so keen to die for me. “For Arthur,” he says.
“For Arthur,” says Gwen. They drink. They eat. Merlin, who has not eaten all day, finds that he has something approaching an appetite; but he does not miss the way that Gwen is hardly eating. Unsure how to ask—whether he even should—Merlin eats in silence. Gwen had been his first friend in Camelot. Now he does not know how to speak to her without the ghost of the person they both loved getting in the way between them.
Finally Gwen sets down her fork. “Merlin, you can’t go on like this.”
He stares at her. “What?”
“I’m worried for you. We’re all worried for you. I know Gaius was.” She sees the look on his face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for that to be a blow. But you must see why I’m worried. I never see you anymore, except in council meetings. You don’t speak to the knights. You spend half your time alone in the woods. I don’t know how to help you.”
“You don’t have to help me.”
“For god’s sake!” Gwen gets to her feet and starts to pace. “Can’t you see you’re being selfish? I don’t get to be selfish! I have to be queen.” She stops and covers her face. “I miss you. I miss my friend. Maybe you don’t want to be friends anymore—maybe you’re angry with me. I wouldn’t blame you. But can’t I at least know that you’re all right? Or that you’re getting there?”
She turns back to face him. Her eyes are red, her hands clenched at her sides. She looks very much as Merlin remembers her from his early days in Camelot: strong-willed, fiercely loving, loyal. He almost cannot speak.
“How could I ever be angry with you?” he asks. “You should be angry with me.”
“It’s my fault he’s dead.” It feels good to say it, the way re-opening a deep wound feels good, the way splitting open your knuckles feels good. The way truth-telling feels after a lifetime of silence. “It was my destiny to save him, and I didn’t.”
“Fuck destiny,” says Gwen. Her hands grip the back of her chair. “We all made our choices. You might think yours were bigger because of who you are and your power, but they weren’t. I made mine and Arthur made his, and he died because he was stupid and brave and good and that’s just what happens. People die. They die and they leave us, or they don’t die and they leave us anyway.” She is in tears now. She turns away from him.
No, Merlin thinks—they die, they do. That much I know. He steps around the table towards Gwen, but he only goes a few paces. There is still someone standing between them. There might always be someone standing between them. “I didn’t mean to leave you,” he says softly.
She doesn’t turn. “I know.”
“I....” He falters. “I don’t know how to explain.”
“Then don’t. I didn’t ask you to come here because I wanted any answers from you. You’re too good at keeping your secrets, Merlin. You always have been.” Now Gwen turns, her face tear-streaked but her gaze steady. “I asked you to come here because I wanted you to know that there are still people who care about you. I miss you. I miss being your friend. And that’s all.”
Merlin’s eyes feel heavy, like stones. “I miss you, too.” When Gwen steps towards him, he does not move away, and when she puts her arms around him, he hugs her back just as tightly, not wanting to let her go.
“Where do you go?” she asks with her face pressed against his shoulder. “All those times that you leave the city, for days and days—where do you go?”
“Not far.” Which is true enough. “Do you remember when I told you I knew the Great Dragon?”
“And do you remember the dragon Morgana befriended?”
“Yes. I’ve been trying to teach her—she can’t speak, you know, doesn’t know any of the dragon’s tongue. Kilgharrah asked me to look after her when he was gone. I made a promise.”
“Is she....” Gwen seems hesitant to ask. “Dangerous?”
“No. Certainly not to me, but I don’t think she is a danger to anyone. She’s lonely and scared. She just needs somewhere to belong.”
“I see.” Gwen looks away, into the fire. “She trusts you?”
Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe. She doesn’t trust anyone.”
“Except Morgana,” Gwen says quietly. She rubs at her eyes. “I’m sorry for yelling at you. I’ve just been so scared and so alone for so long—trying to keep this kingdom together, to do what I think Arthur would do. But I’m not him and I don’t know how to be. I need your help, Merlin. I need your friendship.”
“You have it,” Merlin says. “I swear, Gwen. You’ll always have it.”
She touches the side of his face, looking at him, and he hugs her again. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you.”
Destiny, Merlin thinks, is a toss of the coin. Among other things. An elaborate game of chance, played out over the course of a very long lifetime.
Flip the coin. Roll the dice, and watch them go. Any wagers, now? You, with the neckerchief. Some lives are foretold, you know—if you want to bet on a sure thing.
No? All right. It’s your bet.
Keep your eyes on the coin, now.
Arthur presses his thumb to Merlin’s bottom lip, his fingers firm on Merlin’s jaw. “It’s split, but I don’t think anything’s broken.” He inspects Merlin’s mouth for a moment longer, his touch warm, steadying, unbearable. Then he lets go. Merlin remembers how to breathe. His tongue goes out to touch his bruised lip, make it sting. Arthur watches that, too.
Around them lie the bodies of the two bandits who had attacked them. One of them had dragged Merlin off his horse and punched him in the mouth; when Merlin fell over, Arthur had attacked the man. And Merlin, spitting blood, had flashed a spell at the other attacker, and when Arthur turned, the bandit tripped and met the tip of Arthur’s sword stomach-first. It had been a hasty spell foolishly cast. Unnecessary, because Arthur could easily handle two bandits on his own, and risky, because Arthur had turned a mere second after the spell was finished and only just missed the flash of gold in Merlin’s eyes. Stupid. Merlin doesn’t care. He is bruised and aching and so fucking sick of it all. If Arthur keeps looking at him like this, he doesn’t know what he will do.
But Arthur looks away, at the mess they have made of the woods, and sighs. “We should return to Camelot and let them know about this. I’m sure it’s just a random attack, but you can’t be too careful.”
“No,” Merlin says.
Arthur blinks. “What?”
“No.” Merlin steps towards Arthur, who does not flinch away. He never does. “We’re not going back to Camelot.”
Arthur swallows. His eyes betray him, flicking down to Merlin’s bloodied mouth and then back up to his eyes. The night before, Merlin had shouted at Arthur, he doesn’t even remember what, and Arthur’s face had gone stony before he hauled Merlin in and pressed their mouths together. They had kissed in the castle hallway like a pair of idiot teenagers, frantic, Arthur’s hands tugging in Merlin’s hair, Merlin’s hands pressing Arthur back against the wall, frustrated, breathless, finally, let this finally happen, after all that Merlin has waited for and done, until footsteps at the other end of the corridor made them spring apart guiltily, Arthur panting, Merlin straightening his clothes, the two of them not looking at each other, not talking about it, not saying anything. When Arthur had informed Merlin that morning that they were leaving the city together, that there was something that needed to be done, something very official, only the two of them, Merlin had not argued at all.
Merlin wants this. He has always wanted this and has never been so close to having it. He shouldn’t let himself. He shouldn’t let Arthur. He is going to anyway. (Seven years—!) He is unsettled, disoriented from the punch to the face, and he is walking towards Arthur anyway, getting rid of all the distances between them one-by-one, until only one remains. He grasps Arthur’s chainmail.
“Tell me to stop,” Merlin says. “Order me to not to, and I will. But only then.”
“Merlin....” Arthur’s eyes are bright like the sun glinting off the lake outside of the city. Merlin knows their exact shade, their precise gradient: how they fade from the deep colors of the lake-depths to the gold-sky-blue of the surface as you reach the pupil. Merlin knows the slant of Arthur’s nose, once-broken; well-healed, but the flesh has its own memory and it has forgotten nothing.
“Say it.” Merlin almost wishes that Arthur would. They cannot come back from this if he does not. But there has never been any going back. You cannot go down twice into the same river—and you cannot unkiss someone once your mouths have met.
Arthur throws down his sword. “No,” he says, and he grabs Merlin by the shoulders and pulls him close and kisses him like this is something that makes sense, something that he understands. Merlin’s breath hitches, he can’t help himself; Arthur kisses him hard and his mouth hurts, Merlin can still taste blood, but he leans in towards Arthur anyway. His hands are as rough as Arthur’s on his shoulders, his breath as fast as if they ran all the way here even though they both rode, Merlin keeping behind Arthur the whole way because he did not want to be looked at, he wanted only to be looked at, he wanted nothing but to be seen.
“Is this why you brought me here?” Merlin asks, even though he knows it is. “Alone, all the way out here away from the city, no one to walk in on us this time, no one to see, all so you could have me?”
Arthur’s breath hisses. “Yes.” He pulls at Merlin’s hair and then frames Merlin’s face, holding him close, kissing him silent.
“So long,” Merlin says when he can breathe. “So long—Arthur—you don’t know how long I’ve....” He breaks off, embarrassed—it is true but he doesn’t have to say it, not like this—but Arthur makes a noise and pulls at him. “All those times we were alone out here, back before you were king, when it was just us, I used to think about you doing this every time.”
Arthur bites Merlin’s swollen lip, and he yelps. “You hid it well.”
Merlin laughs, breathless. “Did I? I always thought that you would notice and turn me out of Camelot.”
Arthur kisses him, his tongue sliding over abused skin. “Never,” he says, “not ever,” and Merlin tells himself that what he feels when he hears Arthur say this is happiness, not grief.
They kiss for a while longer. Merlin’s hands, so familiar to the lines and slants of Arthur’s body, nevertheless take their time to refamiliarize themselves to them in this new context. Arthur’s touch is greedy, relentless, but when his fingers slide beneath Merlin’s waistband and Merlin pushes him away, Arthur stops, opening shell-shocked blue eyes to look at Merlin, waiting.
“Not—not here.” Merlin gestures with his foot at the bodies of their two attackers.
Arthur laughs. “Yes,” he says, “right,” and he drags Merlin away. Merlin hardly thinks that his feet ever touch the ground. Arthur leads him and Merlin lets himself be led, and after a few minutes Arthur pushes Merlin against the trunk of a tree, his knee sliding between Merlin’s thighs so that it is hard to breathe.
“What else,” Arthur says, “what else, tell me what else,” kissing Merlin again, his hands rough on Merlin’s clothes but not doing anything with them. Somewhere along the way he removed his gloves, and Merlin wants nothing else but the touch of skin on skin, but he does not know how to ask for it.
“Insufferable,” Merlin gasps. Arthur smiles against his mouth and then moves away to start kissing his throat. Merlin sucks in a breath. “Asshole, making me wash your back, rinse your hair, dress you even when I know you don’t need me to, not always, not your regular wear, your—ah—” Arthur sucking a kiss against his collarbone “—I thought maybe you just didn’t realize, didn’t know what I felt, but now I see that you knew and you are an asshole and a prat—”
“I knew?” Arthur’s right hand hand slides beneath Merlin’s shirt and over his ribs, his fingers pressing against bone. Merlin shivers. “Hardly. Maybe I just liked it, did you ever think about that?”
Merlin moans. He does not mean to, and he feels his face go hot. Arthur laughs at him. “More,” Arthur says, “more.” Kissing Merlin again, kissing his hurt mouth, Arthur’s left hand braced against the tree, his shoulders caging Merlin in, his right hand tracing out its territory on the map of Merlin’s stomach.
“I don’t have more.” Merlin can’t think, let alone string together a sentence. “What do you mean, more—”
“All those other times that you won’t shut up,” Arthur marvels; his thumb crests the ridge of Merlin’s hip bone, and Merlin bucks at his touch; “and now here you are with nothing to say.”
“You like it,” Merlin realizes. “You like it, you like my talk, you always want me with you whenever you have to visit another kingdom, you bitch if I can’t come along. I’ve heard the other servants say it, Leon practically told me for himself that it was true. You bitch and rearrange everyone’s schedules and tell the knights it’s for practical reasons, you just needed my help with something, but now I know, I don’t see how everyone doesn’t know, you like me, you always want me there, you always want me with you—”
“There we go,” Arthur says, pleased, and he slides his hand beneath the waistband of Merlin’s trousers.
Merlin grabs at his shoulders. “Not fair, you’ve still got all your armor on, I can’t—”
“Mm hm.” Arthur bends his head to kiss the side of Merlin’s neck again. He touches the inside of Merlin’s thigh, the place where his leg meets his groin, the very bottom of his stomach. “Funny how that happened.”
“Bastard,” Merlin says, because he is. He moves his hips, trying to move into Arthur’s touch.
Arthur pulls his hand away. “Say it,” he says. “Say, touch me, Arthur.”
Merlin shifts his hips and tries to turn his head to kiss him. “Is that an order?”
He means it as a joke, but Arthur’s hand stills where it is playing with the hair below Merlin’s belly button. “No,” he says quietly, and he turns his face to Merlin’s.
Merlin looks at him. The blue of those eyes. “Touch me, Arthur,” he says, and Arthur does. He slides his hand around Merlin’s cock, the angle awkward because of how they are standing, but Merlin doesn’t care; he lifts himself into it. Arthur sets about kissing him again and stroking him in a measured, even pace. Merlin shuts his eyes tight, his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, one hand playing with the hair at the nape of Arthur’s neck, his other hand holding on, scared to let go or move too much, scared to do the wrong thing and somehow remind Arthur of where they are and who they are and what they are doing, like that will make Arthur change his mind. His knees feel shaky but Arthur holds him up, broad-shouldered, seemingly unaffected by the weight of Merlin’s body pulling him down. It makes Merlin dizzy. He tries to turn his face away when the rhythm of Arthur’s hand starts to make his breath catch, but Arthur takes his other hand and grabs hold of Merlin’s chin and pulls him back in for another kiss. Merlin doesn’t think his lip will ever be the same.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, “Arthur....”
Arthur nuzzles at the pulse in Merlin’s throat. “Don’t move.” He pulls his hand from between them. Merlin sucks a breath, which Arthur steals with a kiss before dropping to his knees and taking Merlin’s hips in his hands. The noise that Merlin makes is undignified and hearing it makes his ears grow hot. Arthur laughs.
“You’re perfect like this,” he says, “really, I just—” He interrupts himself and tugs Merlin’s trousers down so that his cock is free. Arthur wraps one hand around it, the other pressing reliably against Merlin’s hipbone. “You....” Arthur shakes his head, kisses Merlin’s stomach, and then kisses somewhere much lower. Merlin sighs, his hands on Arthur’s shoulders, holding him, being held, wondering why he ever waited so long, wondering why he went and gave in.
He comes in Arthur’s hand, which Arthur goes and wipes on Merlin’s trousers without so much as a by-your-leave, but Merlin doesn’t care. He drags Arthur to his feet and kisses him fiercely, his legs still shaking. Arthur keeps gripping at Merlin’s hipbones like he can’t get close enough. Merlin reaches for Arthur’s belt to undo it, but the damn thing is impossible with one hand, and if he can get under the chainmail—if he can get past the front of Arthur’s trousers—
“You’d think after all these years that you’d know how to get me out of my armor,” Arthur teases.
“As if I haven’t spent whole nights lying awake thinking of the best way to do it,” Merlin grumps, fumbling. “This fucking belt—”
Arthur takes pity on him and divests himself of his belt, shoulder guards, and chainmail in quick succession. The deep neckline of his undershirt—the bane of Merlin’s life these past years—makes Merlin furious even as it makes him glad. He kisses Arthur and wraps his hand around his cock and starts jerking him off. Arthur exhales and puts his face to the crook of Merlin’s shoulder, his whole body trembling with unreleased tension. He is hot in Merlin’s hand, fully hard, and he moves against Merlin’s touch, fucking himself against Merlin’s hand. When he comes a few minutes later against Merlin’s thigh, he cries out, his arms around Merlin, his hand cupping the back of Merlin’s head. Finally, slowly, his trembling stops, and they stand there together, sweaty, tired, their hearts racing.
Arthur pulls back and looks at Merlin. He touches Merlin’s lip again. “I’ve made it worse.”
“Yeah,” Merlin says. “Gone and savaged me, haven’t you?”
Arthur laughs weakly. “I’m sorry.” He looks around at his discarded armor, seems to consider putting it back on, and then slumps against Merlin. “Tired.”
Merlin kisses his forehead. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Well, we brought bedrolls.”
“You did.” Arthur kisses him gently, slowly. “How wonderful of you.”
Merlin laughs. “All I had to do to get you to appreciate me properly was fuck you?”
Arthur hums. “I appreciate you. I appreciate you very”—punctuated by a caress, a kiss—“much.”
Merlin’s throat closes. “We should find our horses. They have all our things.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Bossy as always.” Arthur straightens his tunic and kicks at his discarded chainmail. He pauses. “Did I really leave my sword back there?”
Merlin snorts. “Not very kingly of you, sire.”
Arthur smacks his shoulder, but he is red-faced. They gather their things and lead the horses back. It isn’t late—barely mid-afternoon—but Merlin, for lack of a better idea, sets out the bedrolls. He had brought them foolishly, hopefully—well, one has to be practical, when you have thought so many times about having sex with Arthur in the woods, but now that it has happened, Merlin does not know what to do or say. The silence is stilted, uncomfortable; Merlin does his best to pay attention to his hands and not notice it. Arthur is brushing the horses, just as quiet. Merlin had known that there would be no turning back from this once it happened; it is why he avoided letting it for so long. Where they go from here, Merlin does not know. He is afraid to know.
Is this what Kilgharrah meant about destiny? Has all this, too, been foretold? The idea makes Merlin feel sick. He is tired of being a dancing puppet to destiny’s strings. He wants something for his own, anything, something precious. He wants Arthur.
He sits upright and clasps his arms around his knees, not looking at Arthur, who is lying on his side in his bedroll now and very much looking at Merlin. Finally Arthur sighs. “Come here,” he says, “idiot,” and he holds open his arms and folds Merlin against his chest when Merlin does.
Merlin closes his eyes and lets himself be held. I have him, he thinks; I have him, and now I must keep him safe.
They do sleep for a short time. Merlin wakes at sundown to Arthur snoring lightly against his neck, and he bites back a smile. He lies there, not wanting to wake Arthur, but apparently his waking is enough of a change to make Arthur stir. Arthur opens his eyes and squints at Merlin, momentarily confused. Arthur is often confused upon waking; Merlin thinks it is because he generally does not sleep well. Merlin holds his breath anyway until Arthur’s gaze clears and he smiles.
“Hello,” Merlin says stupidly.
“Hello,” Arthur says. He searches Merlin’s face. Then he kisses him.
They have sex again, more slowly, still impatient. Merlin gets Arthur out of most of his clothes this time—his pants cling stubbornly to one ankle but Arthur seems too focused on other things to mind—and gets to touch Arthur’s skin in earnest, kiss his shoulders, his stomach, his ribs. Arthur laughs at him but doesn’t stop him. He pins Merlin beneath him and kisses him with an intensity so unilateral that Merlin nearly asks whether he is sure, whether he realizes who he has pinned beneath him. Then Arthur sighs Merlin's name and kisses his brow. “Infuriating.”
“Me?” says Merlin, offended.
“Yes,” Arthur says. “Always telling me what to do, with that look on your face like I’m some sort of idiot—”
A kiss. “Shut up. No one tells me what to do, not even—” He stops. A name hangs in the air between them. Neither of them acknowledges it. “Yet here you are, this bossy little know-it-all, and to make it worse you’re nearly always right. But I have to sit there and take it, because otherwise I would have to send you away and get another servant, and I can’t do that, can I?”
“No?” Merlin presses himself upwards against Arthur’s body, his chest. Arthur slides his arms around him and pulls him possessively close.
“No,” he says. “Can’t, just can’t.” They are both naked but have not touched each other, their cocks sliding against each other every few moments, making the hair on Merlin’s arms stand up.
“You say it,” Merlin says; “you say it this time, say, touch me, fuck me, tell me what you want.”
He does not know why he needs to hear this or why he wants it so badly. An acknowledgement, maybe, that all that Arthur has said today is true. Arthur does not lie, and Merlin does not think that he has been, but doubt does not listen to reason.
Arthur grinds down on him, the muscles in his forearms standing out, the smell of his sweat all that Merlin can think about. “Merlin,” Arthur says, “please.”
That is more than enough for Merlin. He takes Arthur in his hand and Arthur sighs, low and quiet, pressing his forehead to Merlin’s shoulder and moving against him. Merlin lets him set the rhythm, too busy wonderingly taking Arthur in, the whole of him, his intensity and temerity and kindnesses and cruelties all. He loves Arthur, he knows this—he has known it for years, perhaps for nearly as long as he has been in Camelot. There is no one else to whom he would devote himself so. The idea is contrary to all that means. If there could be anyone else, it would not be devotion.
With surprising alacrity, Merlin rolls the two of them over so that he is atop Arthur, straddling him, still jerking him off with his hand. Arthur looks up at him. If Merlin could have found the right word at the moment, he might have thought of adoration. Of ruin, too.
Arthur keeps looking at him, twitching minutely into Merlin’s touch as if he is exercising great restraint not to break. Then he surges upwards and puts his arms around Merlin and kisses him, Merlin’s knees at his hips, Merlin balanced on his thighs, his head tipped up to meet Merlin’s mouth. Merlin kisses Arthur, fucks him, and one of Arthur’s hands goes to Merlin’s cock and fucks him too. They move together, wrapped up in each other. The wind is cool against the sweat on Merlin’s shoulders, but the rest of him is hot, is burning. Arthur’s touch makes cinders of him.
Arthur comes first, clinging to Merlin, panting against his ear. Merlin closes his eyes and tries to hold on, but Arthur is focused, unswerving, and he keeps stroking Merlin’s cock even through his own orgasm. He watches Merlin’s face, apparently captivated, which makes Merlin blush. Merlin comes a few moments later against Arthur’s stomach and Arthur rubs his thumb against Merlin’s hipbone as he does, delicate. Then Arthur falls back, and Merlin falls with him.
“Let’s not go back,” Arthur says. “We’ll run off, go be farmers. You can teach me how. You know how, right?”
“Shut up.” Merlin presses his face against Arthur’s neck. Arthur would never abandon Camelot. They both know this—even when they pretend otherwise. “We are going back because you have a banquet tomorrow, with many important nobles and such, and I will wash your back and select your clothes and dress you because you are insufferable, and you will make me wear that stupid hat and not let me get drunk even though you are allowed to. I will bear all this with great grace and integrity, as I always do, and everything will be all right.”
Arthur snorts. “Grace,” he says, “integrity. I think the hat makes you look quite dashing.” He is biting his tongue to keep from laughing.
They return to Camelot after nightfall. The next day, Merlin does all as he said: bathes Arthur, dresses him, kisses him, waits on him during the banquet, stupid hat and all. And that evening in Arthur’s chambers, Arthur pulls Merlin close and kisses him and whispers, “Don’t leave me. Never leave me.”
“I won’t,” Merlin promises. It has never been in question.
Three years later, Arthur is dead. Don’t leave me, Merlin thinks: and then he realizes that he never asked.
In the next four years, Aithusa nearly doubles in size. Her flourishing is Merlin’s joy, though he has no one to share it with. Gwen inquires about Aithusa now and then, but when Merlin asked Aithusa whether she would like to meet Gwen, she had firmly declined. Aithusa still does not speak aloud—she is either unable to or else simply refuses; she has never indicated either way. Yet Aithusa speaks with Merlin in his mind telepathically, as Kilgharrah and Mordred once did, and Merlin answers her in same. And it is in this manner that Aithusa tells him, four years after her arrival in Camelot, that she is leaving once more.
—I don’t understand, Merlin says, mind-to-mind. —You are welcome to stay. The Queen has said so many times.
—I know. Aithusa bows her great white-scaled head, and her silver-blue eyes meet Merlin’s. —And I thank her for it.
—Then why leave?
—To learn. I have learned much from you, and I will never forget it. But I want to know all of Albion, as Kilgharrah knew all of Albion, and see for myself the things that I have only heard of from others. I cannot do that in these woods. I cannot stay in one place forever.
She is right; of course she is right. —I understand.
—Thank you, Merlin. Aithusa’s eyes are grave and gentle and full of a love that Merlin does not think he has earned. He puts his hand on her scales, feels the warmth of her furnace-heart.
—I have to tell you something. I’ve been afraid to, and selfish. I need to tell you what happened to Morgana.
Aithusa’s wings, which had been slightly extended to feel the wind, grow still and fold to her sides. —I know her fate, Merlin. I have always known it.
Merlin stares at her. —All this time?
—Yet you answered my call?
—You are a dragonlord, and I a dragon. Both the last of our kinds. I could not resist your call even had I wanted to. But I did not want to. You were there at my hatching; you named me. And I knew your heart. As I knew Morgana’s.
Merlin blinks back tears and presses his face to Aithusa’s snout. —I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how it had to end.
Aithusa blows out a hot, smoky breath. —As am I, she says, and they are silent together after that.
When Merlin leaves the next day, Aithusa takes to the sky behind him. He puts up his hand in farewell and shoots a fountain of silver and blue sparks into the air before her. Aithusa roars up at them, mingling sparks with golden fire, and the woods echo with the thunder of her call. Soon she is so high above him that he can no longer see her. Merlin wipes away his tears and heads for home.
When he reaches the city, he stables his horse, puts his things in his chambers, and goes to the royal quarters as has become his custom these past few years. It is late. Gwen sits at her desk, analyzing maps and documents that Merlin does not recognize. She is tired, a little grayer, yet retains her spine of steel. She smiles when she sees Merlin.
“Back already?” she asks. “I thought you would be a few days longer.”
“So did I.” Merlin sits at a chair beside her desk. “Aithusa wanted to say farewell. She wants to travel Albion and see everything that Kilgharrah saw. She left earlier.”
“She’s gone?” Gwen sets down the report that she is holding. “Will she be safe?”
“I think so. She is a Great Dragon, after all, despite what she’s been through. She will be safe.” And if she needs help—if she calls for Merlin—he will answer her. That much he has promised.
“I see.” Gwen sighs. “I’m sorry. I know she has been a comfort to you. Ever since you began teaching her, I saw such a change in you.”
“I wasn’t her teacher,” Merlin says, self-conscious. “Not really.”
“Yes.” He looks at her. “Thank you, Gwen.”
“For understanding. There is no one else...no one else that I can imagine who would have done what you have done for me these past few years.”
Her smile is sad. “Not Arthur?”
“I don’t know.” He can never know, now. It doesn’t matter anymore. “For all that he achieved, I think maybe the best thing Arthur ever did was marry you.”
Gwen looks away from him, lets go of his hand. “I don’t know about that,” she says. Her voice sounds different, and she falls silent.
Merlin wants to ask Gwen if she knows—if she knew, then, about him and Arthur. Part of him has always suspected it; she figured out about his magic, after all. How could she have not seen this? But it is not something that they can talk about, not even years later. It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t fair—not to her and not to him, in ways that are painful for them both. For his part, Merlin feels no resentment towards Gwen; he never has. He loves her as a sister; she is dearer to him than anyone else now. He would never do anything to hurt her, let alone ask a question like this to satisfy his own self-hating curiosity.
But he thinks, yes—she likely knew. The knights knew, though Merlin also does not know that for certain—but how could they not? He and Arthur had been too young, too obvious, too stupid, too foolhardy. Long live the Queen—so Merlin had shouted at Gwen’s coronation until his voice was hoarse, and that night Arthur had found him and dragged him away and kissed him until his lips were numb.
“Is there anything I can do for you, my lady?” Merlin asks.
Gwen gives him that look again. “You know better than to call me that. No, Merlin. Get some rest.”
Before he leaves, he kisses her on the cheek. She laughs and touches his face with her hand. “Silly boy.” She sounds like herself again. “Don’t worry about me.”
“You’re the one who made me your advisor,” Merlin says. “As far as I can tell, it’s my job to worry about you.”
Her smile is sad. “Insufferable,” she says softly, and Merlin’s heart aches.
As the years pass, new knights join the ranks of Camelot, recruited from Camelot’s people after proving their loyalty and skill at arms. As per the tradition established by Arthur, new knights are not required to be of noble birth; and in fact, none of them are. Merlin is standing at a castle window, looking down in the courtyard where the knights are training, when he realizes that more of their faces are unfamiliar to him than not. Leon, of course, and Percival he recognizes; they are now two of the most senior knights, and they direct most of the training. There are a few others who were knighted during Arthur’s reign whom Merlin knows as acquaintances. The rest are strangers. His friendship with the Knights of the Round Table had been a natural thing, strengthened by his duties to Arthur; now Merlin is a royal advisor to the queen, a recluse, a sorcerer of great power whom no one in Camelot, aside from Gwen, truly knows how to treat.
Merlin had thought that perhaps as his heartsickness had lessened—as he had grown accustomed to living with grief—that he would meet the new knights and befriend them. But it has not lessened, and he has not grown accustomed to it. What does he have to offer these young, bright-eyed knights, their faces turned towards the future even as they vow to serve the memory of their dead king? That memory follows Merlin like a shade: a specter that haunts his every step, placing its own feet in Merlin’s footprints. Merlin cannot bring that shadow to the presence of others. At least he will not do so willingly.
Gwen has the same shadow; Leon and Percival do, too, to some extent. The two knights have thrown themselves into their work, and Gwen has delegated the training and leading of the knights—duties that traditionally befell the king—to them, citing their expertise and her faith in them. Leon and Percival share a near-equal status with Merlin in that respect: they are all royal advisors to the queen. But Merlin is deepest in Gwen’s confidences.
Even so, Merlin knows that Gwen has secrets that does not share with anyone, not even him. It is the nature of being the head that wears the crown. And where Merlin might once have tried to get those secrets out of Arthur—and many times succeeded—he has lost that capability now. Like a muscle, gone-unused, he lacks the strength; or rather like an organ whose purpose has been forgotten, he has become vestigial.
Gaius might have had something to say about this: about passivity, about apathy. Merlin can hear his voice but not the words that he might speak. In the courtyard below, scarlet capes spin and whirl. If Merlin closes his eyes, he can see the faces of the men he knew who once wore them. So he doesn’t. But when Leon requests Merlin’s assistance a few months later, Merlin agrees.
A patrol along the southern border went missing a few days ago and did not make its appointed rendezvous. Leon and Percival want to investigate its route with a couple of the newer knights in need of experience, but Leon in particular is concerned about the disappearance of the patrol. “I would feel safer if you came along,” he confides to Merlin, which makes Merlin blink. It has been years, yet the acknowledgment of his abilities still surprises him more often than not. “And perhaps you will be able to discover what happened to our patrol if we cannot.”
The five of them leave Camelot on horseback before daybreak. Leon leads them; the newer recruits Bedivere and Robin follow, and Percival and Merlin take up the rear. They travel swiftly and with little conversation. Bedivere keeps muffling yawns into his gloves when he thinks no one is looking. He is a young man with dark skin and large eyes—“good with a sword,” Percival had assured Merlin earlier that morning, “though less good with keeping a schedule.” Robin is smaller than one might expect a knight to be—but remembering Gwaine, Merlin knows that initial impression may often be deceiving.
It takes three days to reach the small village from which the patrol sent its last report to Camelot. To cover the distance between here and the next village in their route, which the patrol never reached, will take another three or four days. Somewhere along that path is where the patrol disappeared. They have no more information to go on than that.
“The Queen said to take no unnecessary risks,” Leon says. “So stay close, and don’t leave the group for anything on your own. Merlin?”
Merlin’s vision clears. The magical overlay with which he had been examining the village fades. He had been searching for any sign of something out of place, but found nothing. “Let’s go.”
Clouds roll in with the evening dusk, and all that night and the next day it rains a cold, torpid rain. Water gets in their supplies and their boots and their bedrolls, despite the water-repelling charms that Merlin casts. Making a fire proves impossible, and any hope of finding clues of the patrol’s disappearance diminishes with each hour that the rain continues. Merlin casts clear-seeing and all-finding spells every few hours to no avail. Come nightfall on the second day, the five of them are exhausted and fast reaching the end of their hope.
“We’ve nearly reached the next village,” Merlin says quietly to Percival as they continue their trek the following morning. The rain has lessened to a thick, clinging mist, limiting their sight in all directions and making the air hard to breathe. “Yet we have seen no sign of our lost knights.”
“Yes.” Percival hesitates, and the only sound is the quiet pattern of their horses’ hooves. “I fear that we may never know what happened to them.”
“Could it have been an accident?” Merlin asks, even though he knows that such a hope is dangerous to cling to.
“Perhaps.” Percival draws the back of his hand across his forehead to clear the water from his eyes. He looks as if he will say no more, but then he adds, “A power is growing outside of Camelot, I think.”
Merlin cuts a glance at him. “Why do you say so?”
Percival does not meet his eyes, his gaze on the path and the backs of their companions. “A hunch. The scouting party that disappeared last year—we thought it was simple bandits, an unlucky happenstance, but I’m not so sure anymore. Bandits are easy to hire, simple to trick. And people have been disappearing from the smaller villages in Camelot.”
Merlin frowns. “How do you know this?”
“Our patrols know it. They notice when things happen in such small towns, and the townsfolk trust us enough now to tell us when we don’t notice. I’ve told the Queen. She didn’t want to worry the rest of the council yet, not till we were sure something was happening. But she said that if something happened out here, or if I thought that it might, then I should tell you.”
Merlin releases his deathgrip on his horse’s reigns with considerable effort. He thinks of Morgana, dead for more than five years, and the power vacuum that her death had left behind. How, in the end, Merlin had been the one to slide the sword between her ribs. Surely, he thinks, surely not....
But a challenge to Camelot has always been inevitable. Without Arthur, Camelot is merely waiting out the days until its foundations crumble. So Merlin fears, with nauseating intensity. He forces himself to take a breath. He is shivering inside his damp cloak.
The once and future king: so never, never now.
“We should be careful,” Merlin says. “You may be right.”
“I hope I’m not.” Percival looks Merlin over at last, and the trust in his gaze splits Merlin’s heart open like the shell of a walnut. “But even if I am, we will be all right. After all—we have you.”
Yes, Merlin thinks; you have me. The great sorcerer, foretold by fate, who let the king of Camelot die.
Late in the afternoon of that third day, a bird begins to sing. It sings, and its voice spirals to a high whistle, and then a volley of arrows falls out of the gray shadow of the trees. Merlin’s horse screams and falls beneath him. Merlin lands hard, the breath knocked out of him, and only barely hears Leon shout for the others to prepare for the assault.
Dazed, Merlin staggers to his feet. He hears swords striking each other, Leon still shouting, horses whinnying frantically, someone laughing. Someone lunges at Merlin and Merlin kills him with a glance, magic snapping his neck like a handful of twigs. Merlin shouts for Percival but cannot see him anywhere. Limping—he twisted his ankle beneath his horse when she fell—he follows the sounds of swords and voices.
Farther up the path, Leon is fighting against two attackers. Lancelot and Gwaine—no—Bedivere and Robin stand back to back. Their cloaks are the only color in the steel-gray twilight. It is as if someone has poured all the light and life out of the world and left only the husk of it behind. Something presses on Merlin’s mind, a thumb bearing down upon a pulse. His ears are ringing again, louder than ever.
Leon cries out and staggers to one knee. One of his attackers—and this is no bandit, Merlin knows bandits, their disorganization and poor clothing and ragged looks—raises his sword to take off his head. Merlin lifts a hand and sends the attacker flying. His back breaks against the trunk of a tree. Leon’s eyes are the color of charcoal when he looks at Merlin, and then he gets to his feet. The body of the attacker shifts, changes, and then flows away on the wind and rain like smoke. The pressure on the pulse of Merlin’s thoughts doubles, trebles.
The other attackers, dueling Robin and Bedivere, step away when they see what Merlin has done. They are cloaked in black, the space where their faces should be nothing but pits looking into the hole of the world. One of them thrusts his sword into the air, and light splits the woods in two. When the light fades, the attackers are gone. There is no one in the woods but the knights in their scarlet cloaks and Merlin, who gasps as the presence in mind lifts and he can breathe.
He staggers a little, but Leon is already at his side to support him. “What were they?” Leon asks. “Do you know? Merlin? Are you all right?”
Merlin shakes his still-ringing head. “I don’t know what they were.” He looks Leon over. He is battered, will be bruised and aching, but all right. Bedivere and Robin both look terrified but intact. “I lost Percival.”
Leon grips Merlin’s forearm. “Where?”
“Farther back up the path.”
Leon gestures for Bedivere and Robin to follow. The four of them, Merlin increasingly steady on his feet but still limping, head to where Merlin’s poor horse lies dead. There is no sign of Percival.
After all—we have you. Merlin closes his eyes. The clear-seeing spell lightens the twilight, and a path, fast-fading, runs away into the trees. “Come on,” he says, “quickly,” and he limps after it.
They find Percival a few minutes later lying on his back in the underbrush, his breath coming in bursts, his face already pale from blood loss. A sword—a horrible, black, twisted thing—is stabbed through his chainmail and pins him to the dirt. Merlin kneels at his side, his hands moving like birds with broken wings over Percival’s torso, his throat, his face. He already knows that there is nothing he can do.
Percival grasps Merlin’s wrist with surprising strength. “The sword.”
“Hush,” Merlin says. “Don’t try to speak.” He whispers a spell that will numb the pain.
Percival shakes his head, his grip tightening. “Please, you have to—it burns, like fire....”
Merlin glances at Leon. He can see from Leon’s expression that Leon knows, too, that Percival will not survive. “Do it,” Leon says quietly.
Merlin shakily gets to his feet and puts his hand on the sword hilt. A jolt of power lances through his entire body. He stands his ground, and when it passes, he pulls the sword from Percival’s chest. Light flashes again, darkly: an unlight, a were-light from another world. The sword dissolves in ashy smoke and is gone.
Percival lets out a ragged breath. Merlin kneels beside him once more. It has started to rain again. “Dead,” Percival says. His voice is reedy.
“Don’t move,” Merlin says. He is crying, but he hardly notices.
“They were dead,” Percival insists. “Dead things.” He grabs Merlin’s wrist again. “Don’t let them...take me. Not like Lancelot.”
Merlin sucks in a breath. He never told anyone that it had not truly been Lancelot who returned to Camelot all those years ago, but rather a shade summoned by Morgana’s necromancy. But Percival—Lancelot’s oldest friend, who knew him before he ever came to Camelot—has, it seems, suspected that something was not right and figured it out on his own.
“I won’t,” Merlin promises. “Percival, I swear it to you.”
Percival’s grip relaxes. His hand falls, and few heartbeats later, he is dead. His eyes fill with rain. Merlin closes them, his hand shaking.
“Help me lift him,” he says to the others. “We must ride through the night. We have to warn the Queen.”
Gwen is silent while Leon and Merlin tell her what happened. When they finish, she paces around the otherwise empty council chambers. She touches the ring on her left hand again and again. The ring that Arthur gave her.
“You said you suspect necromancy,” she asks Merlin. “Are you sure?”
“Yet why? For what end?”
“I don’t know. Because it is unnatural”—Merlin thinks of the unlight and shivers—“and therefore terrifying. Because whoever this is may want to use the shapes of our old friends against us.”
Gwen turns her face to Merlin, wide-eyed. He shakes his head minutely. Arthur, at least, is beyond the reach of any necromancer. Any sorcerer.
“I will learn what I can to make sure this does not happen,” Merlin says. “And to learn how we can prevent this evil from taking further hold. Yet I will have to leave Camelot to do it. The only books of magic I have are Gaius’s; nearly all the magical knowledge in Camelot was burned during Uther’s reign. There is nothing here that can help us.”
“I see.” Gwen stands in thought for a moment. “I do not want you to go, but if you say that you must, then I cannot argue with you.”
“I will be as swift as I can.” Merlin hesitates a moment. “There are spells in the foundations of the castle and the city. I started making them years ago; they take a very long time to weave. But they will work as wards to protect Camelot from some of the dangers that we may now face. It is not much, not as much as I would like to leave you with.”
Gwen frowns. “When did you start these spells?”
Merlin, for reasons that he does not understand, cannot meet her gaze. “When Arthur became king.”
“All right,” says Gwen. “Go. Return when you can.”
Merlin bows to her, inclines his head to Leon, who is mud-streaked and weary, and takes his leave. He departs Camelot the next morning after Percival’s funeral, leaving behind a shower of silver and red sparks over the marker of his friend’s grave.
He is gone for a very long time.
Not purposely—his search leads him farther astray than he anticipated. Knowledge of necromancy, one of magic’s most unthinkable arts in any kingdom, is difficult to come by. Merlin keeps himself attuned to news from Camelot, ready to return should an attack come or the kingdom be threatened. But no threat surfaces.
He thinks of looking for Aithusa, but does not. If she wanted companionship, she would have said so. Merlin travels Albion alone. He sees and hears much, and he learns more than he could have hoped for. He is doing this to protect Camelot, to protect Gwen—so he tells himself when the months turn to years and he still has not gone back.
Eventually he can avoid it no longer. He rides back to Camelot three years after he departed. It has been ten years since Arthur died. When he kneels before Gwen, she pulls him to his feet and studies his face for a very long time.
“You have not changed.” Her voice is a whisper. “Not at all, Merlin. Not since the day he died.”
It is the first time that he has ever heard it said aloud.
It is not that he has not noticed. The others change with the years: their hair grays, the lines in their faces deepen, their joints get stiffer, their bodies get tired. Merlin has been waiting for this to happen to him. He spends a great deal of time disguised as his much-older self, after all; he knows what it should feel like to age. Yet time does not touch him.
Gwen says no more about it. But Merlin knows that she is not the only one who notices. It is the face of the coin that Merlin must forever wear. Arthur cannot live, and so Merlin, the coin’s other side, cannot die. Years slide like days, like water on glass, and Merlin endures them all.
Things remain quiet in Camelot. The kingdom prospers. There are no more reports of necromancy. Sometimes chance rolls the dice in your favor. So Merlin hopes. Let fate be wrong, let the prophecies fail. Let Camelot endure even without its king.
And so it does, for a while.
To be one side of a coin is to never see the face of the other. To be face-up is to force the other side face-down. When the coin lands, as it always must, it forces a single result. Whether you want it or not. Whether you like it or not.
Whether you can live with the consequences of it or not.
Arthur almost never cried. This Merlin remembers well. In all his years as Arthur’s servant—as his friend—Merlin only ever saw Arthur cry a handful of times. Part of this was due to his role as king. Part of it was just Arthur. Merlin could never figure out how much. Yet crying was one thing that Arthur never teased Merlin for doing. He would allow Merlin to turn away, wipe his eyes, regain his dignity, and he never said a word about it. Sometimes Merlin thought he felt Arthur watching him in those moments, bewildered, envious. There was a lot that, as king, Arthur was not allowed to do. And there was a great deal more that he simply would not allow himself.
Even those three days that he spent dying, Arthur had not cried. His eyes had not even filled with tears.
“Just hold me,” he had said, as if that could somehow be enough: as if that would make the dying easier. Perhaps it had. All Merlin knows, as someone with whom death has become quiet familiar, is that there is no way to make being on the other side of it hurt any less.
Merlin’s mother grows sick one particularly bad winter. A messenger brings word from Ealdor, and Merlin rides there as quickly as a horse will bear him. He remembers his years of training with Gaius well enough and has supplemented that learning with knowledge of healing magic. Brigit offers her advice, but cannot join him; influenza has been wreaking havoc on Camelot this year, and she is needed in the city.
Merlin rides hard through a wet snow and reaches Ealdor at nightfall. Someone he does not recognize—for he has been away for a very long time, more than two decades now—greets him outside the village and escorts him to his mother’s house. A fire burns in the hearth, and the village physician sits at Hunith’s bedside, pressing a cool compress to her forehead.
Merlin kneels beside Hunith and takes her hand. She opens her eyes and smiles at him. He can tell from the warmth of her skin that her fever is very bad, but she is still perfectly lucid. Always a strong woman, his mother.
“Merlin.” Hunith lifts her other hand to touch his face. Her long hair, pulled back in a messy braid, is shot through with white. When had that happened? When, Merlin wonders, had everyone around him begun to grow old?
“What ails her?” he asks the physician, an older man named Simon who had been the apprentice to the village’s former physician when Merlin first left Ealdor for Camelot.
“The influenza, my lord,” Simon says. Merlin tightens his grip on his mother’s hand. He has seen dozens of people in Camelot die to this sickness this winter. Despite all Brigit’s knowledge and Merlin’s magic, there is little that they or anyone else can do against such a sickness.
“She has been feverish these past two days,” Simon says, “but she has not worsened. I believe she will pull through, so long as we can break the fever.”
Merlin nods. “Thank you, Simon.”
Simon seems surprised to be addressed by name. He bows to Merlin, who flushes but has no time to spare from his mother to remind Simon that he had often treated Merlin’s scrapes and bruises when he was a child. “I will retrieve more rags and fresh water, my lord,” says Simon, and he leaves Merlin alone with his mother.
Hunith smiles at Merlin, her eyes sparkling. “My lord,” she repeats. “I suppose you really have gone and made something for yourself, haven’t you, darling?”
“I have no title,” Merlin says. “I didn’t want one.”
She thumbs his cheekbone. “I know.” She sighs and leans back against her pillows. Her forehead is spotted with sweat. Merlin takes a rag, dips it in the cold water in the basin beside her bed, and lays it across her forehead. “You haven’t been to see me in a long time,” she murmurs.
“I know. I’m sorry.” A few years after Arthur died, Merlin had made the journey back to Ealdor for a few weeks. He had needed to be away from the city, the reminders of Arthur that refused to fade. When he saw Hunith, he had collapsed into her arms, shocking himself. Yet she had understood—of course she understood. She, too, had once lost her love.
Merlin never said that to her, not in so many words. But Hunith knew. When Merlin left, she asked him to visit her again soon; and so he had done so semi-regularly, for a while. It was difficult to leave Camelot now that he was a royal advisor. Still—he could have come more often. Should have.
“I’m really all right,” Hunith says. “Except for this horrible cough.”
“Good. Just rest, and you will be better in no time.” Silently, Merlin casts a diagnostic spell. Such magic is dependent upon the medical knowledge of the caster and usually finds little more than what a prudent physician can discern. Merlin looks over his mother through the eyes of the spell. Simon was right; her lungs are sick with influenza. But she does not appear as badly off as some of the other people Merlin seen these past few weeks. He allows himself a bit of hope.
Hunith smiles. “I know that you’ll take good care of me. You always have.”
“No I haven’t,” Merlin says quietly. ““I should have been here more.”
“You had your life to live. Your destiny to fulfill.” Hunith’s smile turns wry when she sees the look on Merlin’s face. “Gaius told me. He was worried about you. But so proud of you, too. And so am I.”
She puts her hand to Merlin’s face again. He rests his hand over hers, leaning in to her touch. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know.... All that I’ve done, I’m not sure that any of it will matter in the end.”
“There are no endings,” says Hunith. “None that we ever reach together, anyway. It matters, Merlin. Trust me.”
He nods, does not open his eyes. She brushes away some of his tears with her thumb. “Darling boy,” she whispers. “Look at you. What is happening to you?”
He knows instantly what she means. He has begun work on a modified version of his aging spell: one that will make him look ten, twenty years older than he is, so that no one but Gwen will notice how he does not age, but he has not completed it yet. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Hunith says. When he opens his eyes, she is looking at him through tears in her own. “I always have.”
Hunith’s fever does not break that night, but nor does it worsen. Merlin casts a charm to ease the pain in her lungs, though he can do little else for her. He stays by her side all that day, leaving only to fetch water or bring sustenance and clean rags. Simon watches him, perhaps amazed to see the royal sorcerer of Camelot conduct himself so. Or perhaps he is remembering the boy of Ealdor whom he once knew.
Merlin tells his mother of Camelot, of Gwen, of the new knights in training, of Brigit, of the complicated political treaties that Gwen spends her time navigating to ensure that the peace that Arthur achieved remains lasting. Hunith listens attentively and asks questions whenever Merlin pauses to think. That is a good sign, Merlin hopes; this fever will not have her yet.
He falls asleep in his chair sometime after midnight. The fire makes the room hot, and when he dreams he dreams of dragonfire, of Kilgharrah and Aithusa on the wing. A sudden noise wakes him: his mother coughing violently into her hands. When Merlin reaches out to her, he sees that her palms are spattered with blood.
Fear puts its arms around him. He cleans his mother’s hands with a washcloth, hoping that she does not notice how he is shaking, then puts a new compress on her forehead and rushes outside to fetch Simon. Merlin returns to Hunith’s side a few minutes later, having made Simon—busy setting a broken wrist—promise to come as soon as he can.
“Merlin?” Hunith asks when he opens the door.
“I’m here.” He stokes the fire with a glance, then kneels at his mother’s side. “How do you feel?”
“Cold.” She is shivering, and her lips are blue. She is still hot to the touch with fever.
“Simon will be here soon.” Merlin dabs the sweat from her forehead. “You should drink something.”
Hunith dutifully accepts the water that Merlin gives her, but she drinks only a few mouthfuls before falling back on her pillows, exhausted. “No more,” she says. “No more.”
Merlin sets the cup aside, then holds her hand. He remembers all the long nights that he spent with Gaius in the last days of his illness. He is so scared that he hardly knows how to breathe.
“You’ll be all right,” he tells her. She squeezes his hand. Her grasp is weak.
Simon arrives, out of breath. He listens to Hunith’s lungs and heart, feels her forehead, checks her pulse. From his bag he produces a potion, one that Merlin recognizes. It is intended to ease pain.
“I’ve already cast a charm to lessen the pain,” Merlin says. “Is there nothing else that you can do?”
“Nothing else that I know of.” Simon puts his hand on Merlin’s shoulder, then lets it fall. “She may make it to morning. And if the fever breaks....”
If, Merlin thinks. May.
Hunith falls into an uneasy doze. She tosses and turns, shivering, and when Merlin tries to give her more water a short while later, she does not wake. Merlin sits with his hands over her, muttering spells that he does not cast. He knows none that would help.
Some things, after all, are inevitable.
Hunith dies a short time before mid-morning. Merlin leans down, still clinging to her hands, and kisses her forehead. It is finally cool. They bury her in the village cemetery south of town. It is where Merlin might have asked to be buried one day, if that choice were still his.
When he returns to Camelot, he does not need to say anything to Gwen. She looks at his face and knows. “Oh, Merlin,” she says, and she puts her arms around him. He buries his face in her hair and starts to weep. “I’m so sorry.”
She holds him, and the moment passes; and then they both go on.
It is his destiny, after all, to be left behind.
The third year of Arthur’s reign is the hardest by far. Merlin spends it consumed with doubt, paralyzed by the choices that he must make to protect Arthur. Every decision hides uncertainty behind its door; every possibility holds the threat of harm, or the reveal of Merlin’s secret, or worse. When Merlin can, he does nothing; even that option threatens to smother him. Kilgharrah tells him that his destiny is foretold and that Camelot’s prosperity under Arthur’s rule is written in the stars. He does not say how to reach that future, how to avoid making a mistake that will unravel it all like a single thread pulled out of the tapestry of fate’s particular weaving. I am the thread, Merlin thinks—I am the thread, and I am fraying, and I will weaken the whole until it all unwinds.
He does not want to harm Mordred; he must harm Mordred. He does not want to kill Morgana; he should have killed her years ago. He does not want Arthur’s trust, his heart, his love, while he yet keeps such an immense secret from him; yet Merlin must keep that secret, or else Fate will take hold of that thread and tug it free until Merlin’s place at Arthur’s side is unwritten.
The fear sickens him, makes him mean. Worse yet, Arthur notices. He has not said anything, but Merlin has caught Arthur looking at him when he thinks Merlin isn’t looking, and his expression is thoughtful, grave, sad. Like maybe he thinks that he is asking too much of Merlin—that Merlin isn’t meant for a life like this after all.
How can Merlin tell Arthur that this life is all that he is meant for? He keeps his silence. As he has become so well accustomed to doing.
I must pull away, Merlin tells himself. If I can step back from the situation, gain objectivity, clarity, then perhaps everything will fall into place. The path will become clear. Or at least the haze of doubt might lift, just a little. Just enough.
Gaius notices the change in Merlin; Gwen does, too. So Merlin avoids them when he can. He crawls into bed after midnight most nights, long after Gaius has gone to sleep; he sees Gwen in passing in the hallways and bows to her (with that self-same smile that they always share, that smile that recalls how they met and who they both once were) and hurries by when she tries talk to him, inventing some pressing duty that he must attend to as an excuse. It is easy to laugh and make jokes with the knights to hide the fear that is eating Merlin alive. Gwaine’s good humor and Elyan’s easy-going nature make any serious conversation rare in their company. And of course, the knights are running from fear too, in their own ways: they have the companionship of each other to keep themselves brave and good-hearted, as danger threatens Camelot from all sides. Even when Mordred is there, and Merlin’s indecision is so overpowering that he can hardly breathe, the presence of the other knights means that any real fear that Merlin might show is tempered.
But there can be no avoiding Arthur.
I am the thread, Merlin thinks, and I am also half of the coin, and my side is rusting through. He lives in dread of Arthur ever sensing that corrosion and correctly placing the blame of it at Merlin’s feet. What might Arthur say, if he knew all of Merlin’s fears?
He would not understand. Not really. For all that he does believe in, all that he fights for, Arthur Pendragon does not believe in destiny.
“You are distracted,” Arthur says one night. He is going over maps and reports, his feet up on the desk in front of him. Merlin is polishing Arthur’s chainmail, but only to have something to do. He is thinking about Mordred.
“I’m not,” Merlin lies.
“You’ve been burnishing the same spot for nearly thirty minutes. You’re going to rub a hole through it if you keep this up.”
“I won’t,” Merlin protests, but he lets his hands fall. The armor is quite shiny; immaculate even. He rubs his temple with the back of his hand.
“Do you have anything else to do?”
“Finished all your duties, have you.”
“Yes,” Merlin says, growing annoyed.
“Hm.” Arthur turns a page. “How unlike you.”
Merlin’s hands clench around the polishing rag. “Prat,” he mutters, just loud enough for Arthur to hear.
Arthur snorts. “If you’re finished, you may retire for the night, you know. I don’t need you to tuck me in.”
This is the game that they play, one that Merlin is usually adept at. But right now he feels stupid, fumbling, scared. He should leave; he should try to clear his head, as he has been fighting to do for weeks. He does not go.
“I don’t want to get comfortable in my quarters only for you to come stomping in on me at all hours because you’ve decided you need something or other,” Merlin says. “Sire.”
Arthur makes a noncommittal noise. “I do tend to do that, don’t I,” he says mildly. This sort of restraint is wildly unlike Arthur. “Well, come sit by me then, if you’re not going to leave. You’re distracting me with all this fussing about like a nursemaid.”
The tips of Merlin’s ears grow warm. “I’m not fussing.”
Arthur says nothing, merely shoots Merlin a grin and pushes a chair towards him with his foot. Merlin sits. Their knees are close enough to touch. Almost.
“What are you doing?” Merlin asks.
“Ha, ha. Reading what?”
“Patrol reports.” Arthur riffles through the pages, then hands a few of them to Merlin. “Here.”
Merlin stares at them. “What am I supposed to do with these?”
“Really, Merlin,” Arthur says, exasperated. “Read them, obviously. I know you can. Look for any inconsistencies between the reports—anything that seems off.”
Merlin holds the report but does not look at it. “This seems highly improper, sire.” He adds the honorific to gently remind Arthur that perhaps a king should not hand important royal documents over for his servant to read.
“Last I checked,” Arthur says, “I’m the king, and I decide what is or is not improper. Merlin.”
Merlin sighs and leans back in his chair. Arguing with Arthur whenever he pulls the “I’m the king and you aren’t” card is an impossible fight to win. Merlin glances at the report that Arthur gave him and feels his stomach drop when he sees the name at the top. Mordred. Of all the knights—!
Yet maybe there will be something in these pages that Merlin can use. He skims the pages, but as he reads it becomes increasingly clear that this is nothing but a routine report of an uneventful scouting mission, which Mordred outlines in lengthy, fastidious detail. Merlin sighs heavily when he encounters the sixth page of a tedious recounting of how Mordred, on a particularly foggy day, had gotten lost in the woods outside Camelot and wandered around for several hours without encountering much at all.
Arthur glances at him, then snorts at the look on Merlin’s face. “Got quite the eye for detail, hasn’t he, our Mordred?”
Merlin swallows. “You could say that.”
Arthur smirks. His knee shifts minutely and comes to rest against Merlin’s. “You see how exciting it is to be king. I bet you wish you’d gone back to your quarters after all.”
“No.” Merlin looks very hard at Mordred’s report so that he doesn’t look at Arthur. “I like to be helpful.”
Arthur huffs a laugh. “That’s not what I would call it.”
Merlin shoves Arthur’s knee with his own. “I do more around this place than practically anybody.”
“Mm hm,” says Arthur, unconvinced. “Next I suppose you’ll tell me that you really are off running errands for Gaius all those times that you aren’t around when I need you.”
The smile that has been forming on Merlin’s face fades. “What else would I be doing?”
“How should I know?” Arthur asks. “It’s not like you’ve told me.”
Merlin sneaks a glance at Arthur. He is looking at the knights’ reports, apparently unconcerned. “Gaius is the court physician,” Merlin says. “He needs a lot of things.”
“Yes, well.” Arthur turns another page. “So do I.”
An uneasy silence comes between them. Merlin finishes reading Mordred’s report—it ends with an unexciting narration of the last time that Mordred took stock of the armory—and then sits there staring at nothing, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. His knee and Arthur’s are no longer touching. Merlin wishes that they were. He wishes for a lot of things that he does not know how to get.
Just shift your weight, he tells himself. Just do it, touch him; it’s all part of the game, after all.
He starts to move his knee, and Arthur gets abruptly to his feet. He sets the reports on the desk and moves to stand by the fire, which is burning low. He clasps his hands behind his back. Outlined by the firelight, standing in profile to Merlin, Arthur looks very beautiful. Stern.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Arthur says.
“I’m your servant. It’s impossible for me to avoid you.”
“Yet you have been. Or have been trying to.”
Merlin does not know what to say. He puts Mordred’s report on Arthur’s desk. He wonders where Gwen might be. He has not seen her for hours.
“It’s all right,” Arthur says. “Outside of your duties, which as you’ve said, you always complete, you do not owe me any of your time.”
These past few years, nearly all of Merlin’s time not spent serving Arthur or assisting Gaius has been spent in Arthur’s company: in his presence, in his arms, in his bed. That is what has changed these past weeks. That is what Arthur means, when he says avoiding.
“I....” Merlin does not even know what he intended to say when he opened his mouth. When Arthur turns to look at him, he looks away.
“It’s all right,” Arthur repeats. He is standing very upright, the way he does when he gives a speech before the court. “I’m not accusing you of anything.”
You might, Merlin thinks. If you knew.
Arthur watches him for a moment. Merlin pretends to be deeply entranced by his boots. Then Arthur sighs and takes a few steps towards him. He is standing less tall now, less rigid. “I only wanted to ask whether it is because of anything that I did.”
He looks unbearably contrite. Merlin wants to laugh at the look on Arthur’s face and knows that would be a terrible thing to do. “It's nothing you’ve done.”
Arthur rubs the back of his neck. “All right.” The glance he gives Merlin is quizzical, but he asks no further questions. Somehow, that is what makes Merlin waver: Arthur’s unspoken respect for his wishes, even when Merlin has not given a reason for why things have changed. And Merlin suddenly wishes that they hadn’t changed, that he had never tried to withdraw himself from Arthur—that he could go over to him now, wordlessly, and fold himself into his arms.
Yet he mustn’t. He mustn’t.
Arthur moves a few steps closer. “You know,” he says, “I wonder often about all the things you don’t tell me.”
Closer still. “Yes. Insolent pain in the ass that you are. You preoccupy me.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Oh?” Arthur leans against the desk. His forearms are bare, his sleeves rolled to the elbow. “I preoccupy you?”
Merlin swallows. “More than you could possibly imagine.”
“I can imagine quite a lot.” Arthur’s expression is soft now—perhaps even longing. If Merlin would ever permit himself to think such a thing.
I’m sorry, Merlin thinks. He says: “Really? I’ve never seen any evidence of that.”
It is all too easy to fall back into the familiar steps of their game—especially when Merlin wants to more than anything else. He shouldn’t. But he does.
Arthur reads Merlin’s response correctly, and his smile is crooked, wonderful. “I imagine you quite vividly, in all sorts of compromising positions. On your back, on your knees...asking me to touch you.”
He is very close now. Merlin looks up at him through his lashes. “Oh? And what do I say?”
Arthur pulls Merlin to his feet so that they are chest to chest. He is warm and solid and Arthur, and Merlin has missed him so much. “You don’t say much, really. Beg, more like.”
Merlin huffs. “I do not beg.”
“Really?” Arthur’s mouth is close enough to Merlin’s that their lips brush, but he does not lean any further in, and he does not kiss him. “We could find out, I suppose.”
And he waits. He does not move, his hands on Merlin’s hips, his mouth a breath from Merlin’s, waiting for this to be Merlin’s choice.
Merlin closes his eyes. All his decisions have gone wrong of late. Please, he thinks—please let this one go right.
“We could,” he agrees, and he closes the distance between them. Arthur is immediately kissing him, his hands pulling Merlin’s hips against his own. Merlin puts his arms around Arthur’s shoulders and leans into the kiss, lets Arthur guide him, lets there be nothing in his mind but this moment, the two of them: no more fear, no more desperation, no more destiny. Just Arthur.
Arthur’s hands are warm and firm, and he laughs when Merlin licks his front teeth. “What is it that you always call me?”
“Dollophead.” Merlin kisses him. “Clotpole. Prat.”
Merlin can feel the rumble of Arthur’s laughter beneath his hands, in his chest. “How could I forget?” One of Arthur’s hands lowers to squeeze Merlin’s ass and Merlin leans up into him, burying his face against Arthur’s neck. He can feel Arthur’s heart racing beneath his skin.
Arthur nuzzles Merlin’s hair, acquiescing easily when Merlin puts his hand on the back of his head to nudge him into another deep kiss. They kiss, and kiss, and kiss. It has only been a few weeks, but Merlin cannot believe that he denied himself this for even that long.
Arthur sighs, then wraps his arms around Merlin’s torso, hugging him impossibly close, kissing along the line of Merlin’s jaw. “I missed you,” he murmurs. It shocks Merlin horribly. Arthur notices the change and draws back to look at him. “Merlin....”
“It’s nothing. Fuck me already, won’t you?”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Unbearably mouthy,” he says, “I mean, really,” but he lifts Merlin in his arms. Merlin wraps his legs around Arthur’s waist, framing Arthur’s face with his hands and kissing him. Arthur is walking them somewhere but Merlin does not pay any attention to that; he focuses only on kissing Arthur, the feel of Arthur’s arms, the way Arthur’s breath is already coming faster than before. Then Arthur throws Merlin down onto the bed.
Merlin laughs. “You prick—” he starts to say, but Arthur climbs on top of him and cages him in, presses down on him. He kisses Merlin’s neck and collarbone the way that he knows Merlin likes, and Merlin finds it a little hard to speak.
Arthur sucks a kiss against Merlin’s throat that will surely bruise, then leans up, looking down at him. “You were saying?”
“Fuck you,” Merlin says, smiling.
“I don’t think so,” Arthur says with a sly slanted smile. “Not tonight.” He leans back. “Unless that’s what you want?”
It isn’t. Merlin wriggles beneath Arthur, feels the hard press of Arthur’s cock through his trousers against his thigh. He shakes his head mutely. Arthur grins at him—and god Merlin has missed seeing the crooked line of Arthur’s front teeth, the way they dig into Arthur’s bottom lip—and kisses him again. They move against each other, dizzy with it. Merlin slides his hands beneath Arthur’s tunic and runs them over the muscles in his back, digging his fingertips in when Arthur kisses his neck again.
Arthur tugs at Merlin’s shirt. “Take this off.” Merlin does, and Arthur starts fumbling with his belt. Merlin, all too familiar with Arthur’s single-minded focus on undressing Merlin rather than himself, pulls Arthur’s tunic up over his shoulders, ignoring Arthur’s protests. Merlin kisses Arthur’s stomach, his nipples, and then Arthur pushes him back against the bed and says, “Stay still.” Arthur slides Merlin’s pants down over his ass and past his knees. Merlin kicks them off his ankles. Arthur wraps his hand around Merlin’s cock, and Merlin arches up into his touch.
“Still,” Arthur says again. “I’ve been thinking of exactly how I want you for ages now, and I’m not going to let you keep me from it.”
“You want me to just lie here while you fuck me?” Merlin demands. “And it’s barely been a few weeks. Don’t be melodramatic.” He sucks in a breath when Arthur twists his hand on his cock.
“Long enough,” Arthur says. “And I didn’t say lie there. Just...let me.”
Merlin breathes in. “All right.”
Arthur kisses him once more, his hand moving on Merlin’s cock. Then he kisses Merlin’s neck, his chest, hard enough to leave marks. Merlin tries to do as asked and restrain himself beneath Arthur’s touch, but it is more difficult than he anticipated. Then Arthur is kissing Merlin’s stomach, his hips, the line of his groin, and Merlin sucks in a startled, whistling breath.
“Good,” Arthur says, “very good,” and puts his mouth over Merlin’s cock.
Merlin twists beneath him, his hands fisting in the bed sheets. Arthur keeps his hand wrapped around the base of Merlin’s cock, not gripping tightly but firmly enough that Merlin will not get close to coming. Merlin groans, his legs tensing. Arthur licks up the underside of his cock, then around the head, his breath warm and unbearable. When Merlin opens his eyes he sees that Arthur is watching him, which is enough to make his breath stutter. “Arthur....”
Arthur grins at him, lets him go. Merlin feels suddenly very naked. “What—?” he starts to ask, then he sees that Arthur is rooting around in his chest of drawers for the oil that he keeps there. For years, Merlin has rubbed that oil into Arthur’s tired, knotted muscles after long training bouts and hard days, but in the past few years they have often used it for something else entirely.
Arthur looks at Merlin and raises an eyebrow. “All right?”
Merlin nods. Arthur rubs oil into his hands and rejoins Merlin on the bed, tilting his head to look at him. One hand he wraps around Merlin’s cock once more, and Merlin shuts his eyes. The other hand Arthur lets trace over Merlin’s inner thighs, then over the curve of his ass, just briefly. Arthur sighs and presses a kiss to the inside of Merlin’s left knee.
“Be still, then,” he says, and presses two fingers into Merlin. Merlin twists again, and one of his hands comes up to his face. He presses his knuckles against his mouth; not to keep himself quiet, because he can never be quiet during this, but to try in some way to steady himself. Arthur’s hand keeps moving on his cock, his fingers in Merlin’s ass, and Arthur kisses Merlin’s groin, his stomach, again and again. Unbearable, Merlin thinks—what do you know about unbearable?
It has been a few weeks, but not that long. Not really. “Please, Arthur.”
Arthur withdraws his hand and slicks himself with more oil. “All right.” Another kiss to Merlin’s stomach. When Merlin tries to turn over, Arthur presses one hand against Merlin’s hip and holds him down. “Stay.” He presses into Merlin slowly. Merlin counts the seconds, all four of them, and sighs when Arthur leans over him and starts, still slowly, to fuck him.
Merlin puts his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, his thighs bracing Arthur’s waist. “Yes,” he says. “Arthur,” he says. Arthur kisses his mouth, holding himself upright on his elbows on either side of Merlin’s head. Merlin pulls him down so that there is no space between them, and their torsos move against each other as Arthur fucks him.
Arthur laughs a little. “Gonna crush you,” he breathes.
“Hardly.” Merlin refuses to let him pull back. “Stay.”
Arthur groans. Merlin lets his hands roam over Arthur’s shoulders again, his back, his ass, which flexes beneath Merlin’s touch. Then he drags one hand through Arthur’s hair, damp with sweat, and presses his nose against Arthur’s neck. He smells good, familiar. Safe.
“I missed you, too,” he whispers into Arthur’s ear.
He thinks: I love you.
Arthur stills, just for a moment. Then he begins to fuck Merlin again, with intention. Merlin laughs and bites Arthur’s ear, scrapes his teeth against the side of his neck. In only a few minutes his legs begin to tremble in the way that means he is getting close. Arthur notices and wraps his hand around the base of Merlin’s cock again.
“Oh, don’t—” Merlin says, and sucks a breath when Arthur kisses him.
“Shh,” Arthur says. “It’s all right.”
Arthur thrusts into him. “We’ve already established that’s not happening tonight.”
“I can’t stand you,” Merlin says. Still smiling.
Arthur slides his hand on Merlin’s cock. “I can see that quite clearly.” He fucks Merlin, one hand around Merlin’s cock, the other curled beneath Merlin’s neck. The two of them are face to face. Arthur is trembling, too, with the effort of holding himself upright.
Merlin kisses him. “Come on,” he says. And—because he is weak, because he cannot help himself, because it is true—he says, “Come on, sweetheart.”
Arthur closes his eyes. He comes a few moments later, shaking, against the inside of Merlin’s thigh. Merlin kisses Arthur’s temple, holding him. Through it all Arthur keeps his hand on Merlin’s cock, and after a few moments more, he starts to fuck him with his hand. It isn’t long before Merlin comes, too, with Arthur kissing the line of his jaw as he does.
They lie together for a long while, not moving. The sweat on Merlin’s skin rapidly begins to cool, and he shifts beneath Arthur. “I’ll get a cloth,” he says. Arthur rolls away to let him up. Merlin unsteadily crosses the room to the basin, siphons some water into another bowl, and uses that and a rag to clean himself up. Then he brings another damp rag to Arthur.
Arthur wipes himself off cursorily, then tosses the rag aside and holds opens his arms, looking at Merlin. Merlin gets back into bed, pulling the blankets up as he does, and lets Arthur put his arms around him.
Arthur presses his mouth to Merlin’s temple. “You can tell me anything, you know.” He speaks so quietly that Merlin almost does not hear him. “I promise you. There’s nothing you need to hide from me.”
Merlin closes his eyes and says nothing. After a short while, Arthur falls asleep. His breath comes slow and even and steady.
“I wish that were true, Arthur,” Merlin whispers into the dark silence.
Beside him, Arthur starts to snore.
One side of a coin can never see the other’s true face: not entirely. Like two warriors standing back to back, they do not need to. The understanding is instinctual, implied. Or so Merlin had once thought.
But now, years later—decades later—he has to wonder. You’ve lied to me all this time, Arthur had said in the days before he died, and he was right. There was a part of Merlin that Arthur never knew. Couldn’t Arthur have been the same?
I knew you. I know I did. But the longer that Arthur is gone—the longer that Merlin is alone—the more that he has to face what is real. What is true.
And the truth is that he cannot know. Not anymore.
His destiny is to wait. Arthur—destined to sleep, to endure in a slow, unchanging stasis—did not believe in destiny. Merlin is beginning to wonder whether he does anymore, either.
The necromancer whose shades killed Percival is patient, far more long-sighted than Merlin could ever have guessed. In the years after Percival’s death, rumors of a power outside Camelot begin to fade. For a long time, no harm comes. Camelot does not precisely thrive, but it is prosperous enough. The peace brought by Arthur’s treaties remains.
The necromancer waits for more than fifteen years. Gwen’s hair grays further, until it is all silver. Leon continues to train new knights but no longer rides out with them; such adventuring is for younger men. When Merlin is not alone, he casts a glamour to make himself appear, to the non-discerning eye, several decades older. In truth, his appearance has not changed since the day that Arthur died. He has begun to cast this spell even when he is around Gwen, because the look on her face when she sees him looking so young makes his heart break. Gwen never says anything about it. She is, Merlin thinks, relieved.
She asked him why, once—why this was happening to him. He fumbled for an explanation, found none. How could he tell her that his life is tied to Arthur’s? To her deceased husband, her love, too: gone these nearly thirty years. How can Merlin tell Gwen that long after she is gone, Arthur is destined to return—and Merlin will be there waiting for him?
If you still believe in that sort of thing.
“It’s hard to say,” Merlin told her. “I think there is something that I am still destined to do. And I can’t leave until I’ve done it.”
Her smile was unbearably sad. “Leave?”
“It’s like you said, Gwen. Everyone does, in the end.”
It’s almost true.
When the necromancer attacks Camelot at last, no one is expecting it. His shades attack the citadel in the middle of the night, and the city’s alarm bells ring so loudly that they threaten to split the sky. Merlin leaps out of bed, his heart pounding, and fumbles among his belongings for his yew staff, which the druids made for him several years ago. Then he grabs his cloak and runs to find Gwen.
She is awake, hurrying through the halls of the castle with Leon at her side. “What’s happened?” Merlin asks. He sees that she is wearing armor and a sword at her hip, and his throat tightens.
“We’re not yet sure, but it is clear that we are under attack.” Gwen’s smile is suddenly wry, amused. “Just like old times, huh?”
“I guess so,” Merlin says. But this time they don’t have Arthur.
He can see that Gwen is thinking the same thing. She puts her hand on his arm, and he notices the lines on her face, come from a life of hard choices, yet also a life that has held laughter. He realizes, suddenly, that he did not cast his glamour before running here, and Leon is staring at him.
Merlin casts the spell. “Sorry,” he mutters to Leon, who just shakes his head wonderingly. “You’ll stay with the Queen?”
“A pack of wyverns couldn’t drag me away,” Leon says.
“I will try to find out more. If it’s who I think it is....” Merlin remembers the black sword in Percival’s chest; how it had turned to smoke in his hands. “Well, I will find out.”
“Be safe,” Gwen says.
“Aren’t I always?” Merlin asks—and he is gladdened when Gwen laughs.
When out of sight from Gwen and Leon, Merlin drops the aging spell—an uneccessary drain of energy—and casts a charm to scatter the light around him. He is not invisible but simply very hard to see. In this almost-pitch dark, that will be more than enough. Then he goes to find out what he can. It is not hard; he simply has to follow the screaming.
The castle courtyard is filled with moving shadows. They remind Merlin of ghosts, but the only ghost that he has ever seen—Uther’s—was sickly blue in color. These are darker than any shadow cast by the sun, so dark that they look as if the sky on a moonless night has sunk low and filled the courtyard of the castle keep. People are fleeing the shades, trying to escape but not getting far. The shadows swarm and overtake them before they can get farther than a few steps.
And that horrible light-that-is-not-light, the unlight, flashes and shimmers when they do.
Necromancy thrives on fear: fear of the unknown, of the unseen, of the unnatural. To dominate another soul is to reduce them to nothing but something-that-fears. So Morgana had once done to Lancelot. So this necromancer would have done to Percival, if not for the wards around the knights’ cemetery that Merlin spent three unbroken days in a trance casting while Leon watched over him.
To obliterate fear is impossible. But one can weaken it, reduce it: through knowledge, through foresight, through revelation.
Through, in a word, light.
Merlin lifts his yew staff. The tip sparkles a piercing white and begins to shine. The courtyard fills with a light brighter than the sun, a light so bright that it obliterates all natural shadows. The people still standing look at each other, amazed, their faces thrown in stark relief. The shades, of course, are not natural—but still they shrink from the light, shrieking with one voice. Merlin holds his staff high, and then in one motion crashes it against the cobblestones at his feet. A boom echoes off the high stone walls.
“Leave this place,” he says, his voice magnified a dozen times. “Leave in peace and harm no one, and no harm shall come to you. But continue on this path, and you will be destroyed.”
The shades waver, the way heat rises in waves from the earth on a hot day. They waver, then steady; and the light begins to slowly dim.
Merlin grips his staff, first with one hand, then the other. He leans into the spell, pouring all his focus into it. The light falters, fades, then strengthens. As it does, a presence touches Merlin’s mind and begins to speak.
—Stand down, Merlin Emrys, it says. —Your time has passed.
Merlin laughs through his teeth. —My time has just begun. You would do well to leave this place. Camelot is under my protection.
—A protection that means little without the one you swore to save.
The light from Merlin’s staff flickers. The courtyard is etched in blacks and grays and whites: there is no color at all, and the people all stand frozen, whether out of terror or some spell of the necromancer, Merlin does not know. The presence in his mind grows stronger, darker, expanding in the place between his temples.
—You will not have Camelot, Merlin says.
—Perhaps, says the presence. —But you cannot save it.
The unlight flashes green-violet, and Merlin staggers to his knees. When he can stand upright, he sees that the shades have gone, though not fled—and everyone else who was in the courtyard has gone with them.
He finds Gwen with her advisors in the throne room. All the furniture has been shoved aside, and everyone is armed and armored. Leon stands two paces behind Gwen. When Merlin enters the room, everyone looks up, frightened—and then sighs with visible relief when they see that it is him.
“It is the necromancer,” Merlin says. “As I feared.” Though not enough, apparently—not enough to better prepare for this assault. He has grown careless.
“I see.” Gwen’s hand rests on the hilt of her sword. “I take it that swords and shields will do little against him or his forces.”
Merlin hesitates. “I’m not sure.” An undead thing can only be killed with a sword burnished in a dragon’s breath, but these shades.... They do not act like the undead army that Morgana once used to attack Camelot. The shades are different. They are, in a way that Merlin does not yet understand, very much alive.
“Well, I suppose we will find out soon enough.” Gwen looks grim. Her silver hair has been pulled back in a long braid, and she is outfitted in full regalia, wearing a cloak that Merlin instantly recognizes as Arthur’s. The one that Arthur wore to ride to war.
“Gwen...” Merlin starts.
She shakes her head at him. “The lower town has evacuated, but it is impossible to tell how many people are still trapped in the city. We may try to draw the enemy out, but I do not see much hope in that. It is Camelot this necromancer wants, after all. Correct?”
“Then we fight.” Gwen draws her sword and lifts it high. “For Camelot.”
She does not shout it: her voice is steady and determined. Her eyes, when they meet Merlin’s, glint. She looks as if she is hiding a smile.
Merlin swallows. He wishes that Gwen were wrong, or that he could convince her to escape to safety. But backing down has never been in Gwen’s nature. It is why Arthur loved her. Why Merlin loves her.
He lifts his staff. “For Camelot.”
Since Merlin left it, the castle courtyard has filled with that otherworldly light. Every window, every cobblestone, every step is changed in such fey hues. It reminds Merlin of the Isle of the Blessed as it was when he last saw it, when Lancelot stepped through the rift between worlds.
(What would have happened if Merlin had gone through that rift as he’d intended? Would he have been permitted to make that sacrifice? If he had died, would Arthur have lived? —Or would Arthur have died anyway, and with no hope of returning, having lost that which anchors him to this realm? Having lost Merlin.
Idle thoughts. Idle worries. Merlin wishes that Arthur were here.)
Gwen stands at Merlin’s side with her sword drawn. It glints a cold black in the unreal light. Leon stands at her other side, and an array of knights stands behind him. All are motionless, waiting.
The presence in Merlin’s mind unfurls and speaks. —I can show you him again, if you wish it.
Merlin sucks air between his teeth. —Why don’t you show yourself instead?
—You want to see him again; that is all too clear. Time is cruel, after all. Memory is not perfect, and the faces we loved fade when we do not see them anymore. I can show you Arthur’s face.
—I know his face, Merlin says. —I will never forget it.
—You say that, says the presence, —and you may even believe it. But it is not true.
The darkness in the courtyard swells, expands, and a single figure rises from it: slender, draped in shadows. The shades unpeel themselves from the walls of the courtyard and array themselves around their master. They are, Merlin realizes, alive after all—the men and women taken from Camelot’s villages over a period of decades, forced half-out of this world and half-into the next. To exist in such a state is to be forced into unexistence, unbeing. In a way, they are like Arthur—gone from this world and held tethered to it by a single, immovable anchor: in this case, the necromancer.
—Who are you? Merlin asks.
—My name is Maleagant, the necromancer says. —Kneel, and you will be spared.
Gwen laughs, loud and bright. “I do not kneel. Not anymore.”
“You can hear him?” Merlin asks.
“He is hardly quiet.”
—Brave woman, your queen, Maleagant says. —I wonder: is she braver than your king was?
—Silence, Merlin says. He tries to cast a spell as he says this, a spell to still the necromancer’s voice; he does not want Gwen to hear what Maleagant has been saying about Arthur. But the spell wavers and fails as Merlin speaks it.
—Perhaps your queen would like to see her dead love, even if you do not, Maleagant says. He raises one ultraviolet hand, and the spell that he casts knocks them all off their feet.
Merlin lands hard, the breath knocked out of him. His staff is thrown from his hand and lands out of reach. His chest aching, his sight swimming, Merlin lifts himself onto his elbows to look for Gwen. She is on her back several feet away with Leon at her side. They are both stirring, as are most of the knights. Their cloaks, in the unlight, are as gray as ashes.
Merlin summons his staff and uses it to get unsteadily to his knees. It is only then that he looks towards Maleagant—and when he does, all hope and breath is stolen from him.
Arthur is there. Arthur in full color, his cloak scarlet red and his hair butter yellow. His eyes are two blue gemstones, and he is smiling at Merlin, at Gwen, at Leon and the knights. He is holding Excalibur, and the golden etchings on the blade shimmer in a sun that is not there.
“Merlin,” Arthur says. “Guinevere.” His smile makes roses bloom even in the barren soil that is Merlin’s heart.
Gwen half-screams when she sees him. “Arthur!” she cries, and tears slide down her face. Leon is supporting her, but he too is staring, utterly voiceless.
“Yes,” Arthur says; “I’m back.”
For a wild, frenzied moment, a heartsick moment in which decades of grief rise and set like the sun over the course of a year, Merlin believes him. Could this not be the moment that the legends foretold? Arthur, the once and future king, returned from Avalon in the time of Camelot’s greatest need to save Gwen and Merlin and send this necromancer to the death that he deserves.
But something is wrong. For all that Arthur looks beautiful—for all that Merlin cannot keep from staring at him, drinking him in—he is not as Merlin remembers. And Merlin knows, deep in his heart, that while the necromancer was right, and memory is not perfect, he also knows this:
He would know Arthur anywhere. At the end of time Merlin would know him, and that means that here, now, he would know if it were not him.
And this is not his Arthur.
“It is a shade,” Merlin says over the sound of the murmuring knights. “And a poor one, too. Arthur lies safe in the center of the lake of Avalon, where no sorcerer can ever reach him.” He takes Gwen by the shoulder and shakes her so that she will look at him. “Look, Gwen. Look hard. It is not him.”
Gwen is weeping, still clutching her sword. “Merlin...I can’t....”
“It is me.” Arthur looks confused, upset. He holds out his hands to her. “Guinevere....”
She does, turning her face into that terrible unlight. It drains her of her vitality, and she looks old and tired but also fierce and loving and brave. As her eyes search Arthur’s face, Merlin sees her expression slowly change. After a long moment, Gwen raises her sword and turns to face Maleagant.
“Your lies have no strength here,” Gwen says. Her voice does not waver. “You will not have Camelot.”
Maleagant laughs. —You cannot keep it from me, he says, and he lifts his hand once more. Arthur disappears as quickly as he appeared. Even though it was not him (it wasn’t him it wasn’t him it wasn’t him), Merlin cannot stop the way that his heart aches when Arthur vanishes. Then a spell radiates like a shockwave from Maleagant’s hand, and the cobblestones crack and shake, and the walls of the castle begin to groan and move, and Merlin falls once more.
Maleagant’s shades rush forward, cresting like a wave on the sea and surging towards Merlin, Gwen, and the knights. They move together but are not quite one being, and they have no faces but their mouths make broken slashes into another world. Merlin lifts his staff and shouts a spell, the words for light and force stringing together and hurling themselves at the approaching wave. A few of the shades fall back and clutch at their non-faces. The rest keep coming.
Merlin hears the sound of many swords being drawn. Now they will see whether mundane metal poses any threat to these things. The knights charge at the shades and the shades draw swords of their own, terrible twisted things that Merlin recognizes immediately as siblings to the one that killed Percival. When the knights bring their blades against these shadow-swords, they clash in the air and send sparks flying.
Gwen helps Merlin to his feet. Her hair has come loose and her face is still tear-streaked, but her gaze is clear and her expression determined. “Come on,” she says, and charges towards Maleagant.
“Gwen!” Merlin holds out his hand and sends a shade that tries to cut down Gwen flying to the other side of the courtyard. “Gwen, wait!”
He runs after her, but it is hard to move through the wall of writhing shadows that stands between them and Maleagant. Though the knights fight hard and their blades strike true, they make no headway against the dark tide. Merlin is slowly pushed back, away from Gwen, who has somehow fought her way through the shades and is bearing down on Maleagant.
Merlin shouts her name again. Gwen does not hear him. She raises her sword to strike Maleagant, and the necromancer raises his hand. Darkness flashes. Gwen is hurled away, her sword falling from her grasp. She crashes against one of the stone walls and collapses, unmoving.
“Gwen!” Merlin fights towards her. He has forgotten everything but her, desperate to know whether she is alive, whether she still draws breath.
—As I said, Maleagant mocks, —you could not protect Arthur. What makes you think you can protect her?
Merlin turns, weeping. He thrusts his hands towards Maleagant and shouts in the language of spells, of magic, of making and unmaking, the words of death and pain and ending. He hurls them at Maleagant with so much force that he tastes blood in his throat. Maleagant staggers to one knee.
Merlin drops to Gwen’s side, blinking away tears. When he turns her over, he sees the pulse in her throat, still beating. He presses his forehead to hers.
I don’t know what to do, he realizes. I don’t know what to do, what spell to cast, how to stop Maleagant. I don’t know how to save you, either.
And that is when he hears the roar.
He lifts his head to look up into the sky. A curl of orange-white fire hovers there for a moment and fills the courtyard with color and heat. Then there is an immense sound of wind and beating wings, the clatter of claws and scales: and then Aithusa lands on Camelot’s highest tower and roars once more into the night.
She is now as big as Kilgharrah ever was. Her scales glow pearl-white even in the gloom of Maleagant’s shades. Her eyes sparkle like blue stars, and when she roars again and shoots another breath of fire into the sky, Merlin sees some of the knights draw their bows and aim arrows at her.
“No!” Merlin shouts. “No, don’t shoot her—she’s my friend!”
The knights never get the chance. Maleagant sends them sprawling with a single gesture. Gwen stirs beneath Merlin’s hands and tries to sit up, and Merlin helps her.
“Is that...?” she asks, groggily.
“Aithusa,” Merlin says. “Yes.”
—He traps his shades between this world and the next, Aithusa says in Merlin’s mind. —But he himself is of this world alone. Despair is his most potent weapon. Do not give in to it!
She takes to the air again, spiraling down towards the courtyard and breathing fire as she goes. The shades, creatures of unlight and cold, flee before the flames. Maleagant does not. He shields himself with a spell and Aithusa wheels away, hissing, her fangs exposed in a snarl.
Leon, one hand pressed to a bleeding wound on his shoulder, staggers to Gwen and Merlin. “My lady—”
“Help me up, Leon,” Gwen says. “We have a necromancer to kill.”
Leon does so, letting go of his injured shoulder to draw his sword. Gwen wields her own, and Merlin raises his staff. Above them, Aithusa roars into the night.
“Maleagant!” Gwen cries. Her sword shines in the light of Aithusa’s fire—and, as Merlin watches, burnishes slowly to gold. He sucks in a breath. “We will defeat you, foul dweomerlak! Begone, if you be not deathless!”
Maleagant gets to his feet. Darkness streams from him like water, and his face, when he turns it towards Gwen, is featureless, empty. Leon stands at Gwen’s left, holding out a hand to steady her. Merlin steps into his place at Gwen’s right.
“Together,” he says to the others quietly. “Only together can we drive out fear and despair.”
And he raises his staff. Aithusa roars. Gwen lifts her sword. Leon does, too. A light fills the courtyard, a light so bright that it is pure star, cold and clean, as sharp-edged as diamonds or the edge of a knife. It carves away the darkness, and the shades all fall to the ground, face-down, supplicating themselves. Maleagant stands alone, a pillar of undark, his face turned into the sanctifying light.
“Gwen,” Merlin says, “now! Strike him!”
She does not hesitate. She lunges forward, her blade held high. The gold runes newly etched upon it glitter. Maleagant holds up his hand to ward her away, but Merlin disables him with a single world, a word of making: a word that turns fear back on its master.
Gwen’s sword cuts Maleagant in two. He shimmers, two halves of unlight broken apart by cold steel born of the dark earth. His hands open and close on empty air. Then he wavers, and goes translucent, and is blown away on the wind that rises from the east.
Leon and Merlin catch Gwen by the arms. She is unsteady, but her eyes are shining. “Look!” she says. “Look!”
The shades are getting to their feet, but they are shades no more. The sun is beginning to rise, and color returns to the world. As Merlin watches, the shades—all the people kidnapped from Camelot in the past twenty years—shake their heads and blink their eyes and turn back into people.
Gwen clutches at Merlin. “We’re all right,” she says, “you’re all right.” She drops her sword and hugs Merlin tightly. “Arthur would be proud, don’t you think?”
“Immeasurably,” whispers Merlin. He kisses her cheek. She turns and hugs Leon as well.
Aithusa lands on the other side of the courtyard, and everyone moves away from her except Merlin, who runs to her. He has to stop himself from throwing his arms around her, uncertain whether she would welcome the gesture.
—You saved us, he says. —Aithusa, thank you.
—You saved yourselves, Aithusa says. She looks at him with one great blue eye. —But thank you for saying so.
Her voice is warm, and Merlin, guessing that it is all right, puts his arms around her neck and hugs her.
It is his destiny to be left behind, after all; to wait. But it is also his destiny to be there when the others come home.
Gwen approaches them, limping. She is still holding her sword, though she has not noticed how it has changed. “Great Dragon,” she says, and to Merlin’s great surprise she kneels before Aithusa.
Merlin is surprised further still when Aithusa answers Gwen aloud. Her voice is rasping, gravelly, but distinct. “You just told a necromancer that you no longer kneel, my lady. I would not have you do so for me.”
“I know not how else to show my gratitude,” Gwen says. But she gets to her feet.
“Camelot is my home as well,” says Aithusa. “I would not see it destroyed.”
“For my part,” Gwen says, “I will not see you harmed. You shall be named a friend of Camelot and fall under my royal protection.”
Aithusa snorts a gentle laugh. “It is I who should kneel to you, my lady.”
Gwen smiles. She glances at Merlin as if to check whether it is all right, and then approaches Aithusa. She lays one hand on the dragon’s great snout. She seems to struggle with herself for a moment, and then she says softly, so that only Merlin and Aithusa can hear, “I, too, was a friend to Morgana once. For my part. I am glad that you have returned to us, Aithusa.”
Aithusa bows her head. Her sorrow is deep, and shared by those who stand beside her. “It is my honor.” She looks at Gwen, and then at her sword. “You may want to give that blade a new name.”
Gwen looks at it, starts, and looks to Merlin, who grins.
Camelot enjoys peace for a long time after that. The people forced into Maleagant’s service return to their families. The castle courtyard is repaired, though this takes several weeks. Those who died in the attack are buried and remembered. Leon is honored for his loyal service to Camelot and retires from knighthood, though he stays on as one of Gwen’s most trusted advisors. Aithusa returns to the woods outside Camelot, but she always stays near; on clear days she can be seen flying high above the kingdom, outlined in sunlight. She, too, is named a royal advisor to the throne, though she cannot fit in the council room and so her advice must be sought personally by traveling outside the city. Gwen makes this journey many times, though as she approaches her mid-seventies, the trips become less frequent. Merlin makes a burial mound for Maleagant several miles from the city, because it seems right; and then with a guilt that is many decades old, he makes one for Morgana, as well, and sends violet sparks into the air above it. Gwen and Aithusa are with him when he does.
Several years after Maleagant’s attack, Leon passes away peacefully in his sleep. Robin and Bedivere—no longer young themselves—give speeches at his funeral, as do Gwen and Merlin. Leon is buried in the knights’ graveyard beside the markers for Lancelot, Elyan, Gwaine, and Percival. So passes the last Knight of the Round Table.
Just shy of her eightieth year, nearing the end of the fifth decade of her reign, Gwen grows tired and weak. She is in no pain, she tells Merlin; this is simply what happens to everyone, after all.
“Not to me,” Merlin says.
Gwen puts her hands on his face. “Oh, Merlin,” she says, and falls quiet.
He moves in to the royal chambers so that he can take care of her. She likes to sit at the window and watch the people of Camelot move through the courtyard below, laughing, singing, arguing. Merlin can feel her death approaching as inevitably as any other ruin. He tries not to let this fear rule him, but it is hard. It has always been hard.
He sits up with her at night when she cannot sleep. Aithusa, curled around the castle’s tallest tower, her head level with Gwen’s window, watches over the two of them. They talk, or they don’t; when they do, they talk about the old days before Arthur was crowned. At one point, Gwen takes Merlin hands in hers. Her skin is as thin as wax paper.
“You have been my best friend in this life,” she says to him. “I hope that I have been yours. Merlin...thank you.”
He kisses her hands, warding away tears. “You were my first friend in Camelot, Gwen, and the truest. I will never forget it.”
Her smile is gentle, sad. “Arthur was wiser than he seemed to love us, wasn’t he?”
Wordlessly, Merlin nods, still holding her hands.
Gwen dies forty-eight years to the day after her beloved Arthur, and in the same manner: in Merlin’s arms. The chambermaids find the royal sorcerer cradling her and weeping with the bitterness of decades. Outside the window, the Great Dragon roars her grief into the sky and takes flight, flying up and up to tell the kingdom of the Queen’s passing. When the maids take Queen Guinevere from the sorcerer, he gets unsteadily to his feet and says a single word that they do not understand. He vanishes before them, and he is not seen ever again by anyone then alive in Camelot.
(“Look after her.” Arthur sits hunched in his bloodied armor, his face pale, sickly. He watches Merlin stoke the fire with a whispered word, a glance, and the look on his face does not change.
“You’ll look after her,” Merlin says. “We will get you to Avalon and heal you up, right as rain. You will come home to a city-wide celebration. They will be singing in the streets and Gwen will be there smiling, and she will not need any looking after because she will be with you.”
Arthur does not smile. His expression does not even soften. “Merlin.”
Merlin looks away from him. He has forgotten how to breathe. “I will,” he says softly, though it breaks his heart to do it.
Arthur relaxes. He presses one hand to his wound, and Merlin goes over to feel his forehead to see if he has become feverish and check his pulse to see if it has weakened. Arthur lets him do so without protest, his eyes watching Merlin as Merlin looks him over.
“She will be all right, then.” Arthur speaks in barely more than a whisper. “But who will look after you, Merlin? That is what worries me the most.”
Merlin does not answer him. He has nothing left to say.)
The tower of Avalon crumbles two hundred years after the decline of Camelot. Merlin, who has set up residence in a cave near the lake, is watching when it falls. Aithusa also lives nearby, and her presence touches Merlin’s mind gently. But she does not say anything, and neither does he.
The dust from the tower settles, and Merlin remains.
Arthur’s treaties fell apart long ago. Camelot is not war-stricken, but nor is it Camelot anymore. It has a new name, one that Merlin does not care to learn, and new rulers whom he does not care to meet. But he keeps his wards active in the foundations of the city and renews them every few decades. That much, at least, feels right. That much he can still do.
Merlin does not spend all of his time at the lake of Avalon. He travels between villages, spending a few days here, a few days there. The villagefolk know him mostly by rumor, by legend. They are wary of his presence but never turn him away, because whenever the white-bearded sorcerer visits, the crops grow more fruitful the next year, and the wells don’t run dry, and the children don’t get lost in the woods, never to return. The sorcerer is regarded as a good omen, but not one to take lightly. He is given a wide berth born of respect and a touch of apprehension. Merlin doesn’t mind.
A few centuries after Gwen’s death, Merlin returns to the kingdom that once was Camelot. He is curious—he cannot help himself. He has spent these long years wandering the rest of Albion with Aithusa at his side, avoiding the place that he called home for so many years. But there is only so long that you can run from something like that. Only so long before you must give in, and turn around, and step back towards the river, only to find that all the water has changed.
You cannot go down twice into the same river. So Gaius had said. But there are always new rivers, and always new ways to come home. Especially once you learn that home is a place where you have never been.
Sometimes Merlin dreams. Not as often as he would like, for they are often very good dreams. Arthur is there, and Gwen, and Lancelot and Gwaine and Elyan and Percival and Leon and Gaius, and it feels like coming home. It is not fair, Merlin thinks—not fair that Arthur should be destined to come back and not all the rest. For what ever were any of them without each other?
In Merlin’s dreams, Arthur smiles. In his dreams, Arthur touches Merlin’s face with his hands, his mouth, his breath. Merlin folds into him, lets Arthur embrace him. Someone is laughing. The banquet hall is full, and someone is doing magic freely, making butterflies hover and spin above the tables laden high with food. Gwen and Elyan are dancing, singing, while the knights look on and stamp their feet and laugh.
This never happened, Merlin thinks. It never happened like this. He closes his eyes and lets Arthur hold him.
He spends much of his time thinking, when he isn’t reading, or writing his journals, or weeding his garden, or watching the sun move over the arc of the lake. Spend long enough alone—not decades, but centuries—and you become very good at thinking. There is little else to do.
Can you still be in love, if the person you love has been gone from your life for longer than he was ever in it? For longer than you could have ever spent with him, even if he had not died so unfairly young, even if everything had gone right, even you spent all the decades of his life with him? Can you still be in love if it has been centuries since you have seen his face?
Centuries is putting the matter lightly. Soon enough—though nothing is soon anymore—Merlin will be approaching a millennium. He can only hope that he won’t see more than one of those. But of course: he cannot know.
He thinks about swimming out to the island at the center of the lake sometimes, mostly to see if he can reach it. Almost certainly not. If Merlin is what holds Arthur tethered to this world, then he will not be allowed to leave these shores: to leave the seabed defeats the purpose of the anchor. Yet it would be nice to slide through that cold green water and leave the weariness of this world behind. To pull himself onto the pale grass and dark earth and see Arthur’s face again, peaceful in his rest, and touch his mouth, his hair, his eyelids.
I would lie down next to him, Merlin thinks. I could wait forever, as long as I had to, so long as I could see his face while I did so.
Not everything in life is a coin flip left to chance. Some things are certain. Change, above all else. But for Merlin in the long years after Camelot’s fall, there is very little change in his life at all.
He starts writing letters. He is not sure when he began the habit, exactly; it was a long time ago, but also a long time after Camelot fell to ruin. All the moments of Merlin’s life stand like islands in the endless river of time, and to reach any of them is to swim through a current of hundreds of years.
In any case: he writes, because journaling becomes too interior, too self-possessed, and he needs someone else to talk to. He writes to Gaius, telling him about all the changes in the world; he writes to his mother and father. He writes to Gwen. They still remember you in the villages, Gwen, he writes—they tell tales of the greatest queen who ever lived, she who slayed the necromancer. He writes to Gwaine and Elyan, Percival and Leon and Lancelot, about anything and everything that he thinks they might like to hear about. He writes to Freya after he tries talking to her in the reflection of the lake and finds that she does not answer, perhaps cannot. He writes to Will and Simon and Brigit. He writes to Morgana and Mordred a few times, though everything he says comes out wrong, because he is not sure how to say that he’s sorry, or whether he yet is. He even writes to Uther, once—mostly to tell him what a prick he was. He writes to Mithian, who lived a long and happy life as an ally and friend to Camelot and Gwen. He writes to the servants that he knew, the stableboys, the maids, the kitchen cooks, the guards. He writes to everyone that he can think of.
And he writes to Arthur.
He writes a lot to Arthur. Somewhere between one century and the next, Merlin stops journaling entirely, and all his letters are addressed to Arthur alone. He finds that he has a good deal left to say.
Such as: You’re taking your bloody time, you know.
And: I woke up today and thought I’d overslept and forgotten to wake you, and that you’d have my head for it. Stupid, of course; you were always such a heavy sleeper that I could show up an hour before midday and you wouldn’t fault me for it. Not that I ever did, because I was such a model servant, of course. Usually.
And: You should have seen her, Arthur. When she raised her sword in the dragon’s fire...! You would have fallen in love with her again a hundred times over. I nearly did, myself.
And: I still have your mother’s sigil. It’s safe—I keep it on a cord around my neck. Impervious to rust, too, thanks to a little charm I created to cast on your bloody armor, since you were always getting it wet. Anyway. It never leaves my side.
And: You should see what people wear these days. I long for a good cloak. At least that used to keep me properly warm.
And: I’m sorry.
And: Was I a comfort to you, at the end? I’ve always wondered. I don’t see how I could have done you much good, I was so frantic and scared—but I hope I that I did. I’ve gotten much better, you see, at sitting beside people’s deathbeds. I hadn’t yet gotten any practice when you died.
And: It’s been so cold. All I can think about is how you used to sulk about that, and how I had to charm your cloak and boots to stay warm even in the bitterest of nights. I used to do that in secret; you always assumed that the shoemaker had just done a particularly fine job. No—that was me. I wonder if even at the end, you ever really realized just how much of it all was me. Maybe that’s what these letters are for.
And: I never told you this. Not in so many words, not ever. I always hoped that you knew, anyway. Maybe you did; maybe you didn’t. If I had just said it then, I wouldn’t have to wonder about it. So I’ll just say it now.
I love you.
Yes, Merlin decides: no matter how long the years, love can still remain; and if it is true, it does. Love is not finite; it does not alter when it alteration finds. All rivers run to the sea, and compasses, well-made, always point north. Time is just a symptom of love: a way to experience love, to measure it, to test it. Grief is not the absence of love but what remains of it; it is love held fast even when the person you love is gone. Thus even grief has its purpose: its fate.
He waits. And waits, and waits, and waits. He writes his letters, lays blessings on villages, watches the way the light of the sun changes from morning to evening, and from spring to winter. The winters aren’t hard, but the springs are. That is when Arthur died, when Gaius died, when Gwen died. The trees turn over new leaves, the flowers bud pink and new, and grief, that old friend, that most constant of companions, takes up his seat in Merlin’s house and waits alongside him.
Joy—when the larks begin to sing, and the frogs in the reeds begin their choir, and the night is hot, thick with humidity. It is beautiful here, this place. The water knows it, and the wind knows it, and the grass knows it, too. Merlin takes up knitting. When children from nearby villages wander by, he tells them stories of the old days until their mothers step out on their porches and call them home for dinner. They usually come back, sometimes with friends, for at least a few summers, until they are too old to care for such fanciful stories about warlocks, and dragons, and kings.
Inertia—when the weather turns cold, and the sounds of the woods go silent for the winter, and even time itself is standing still. Merlin is the one moving, unchanged, through it. The days are as long as years, the years as long as centuries. He has experience with them all, now.
Anticipation—when the light catches on the top of Avalon’s broken tower, and Merlin thinks that he sees it shift, change. But it never does. Not yet.
Sorrow—when Aithusa comes to visit, and the two of them, the last of their kinds, the last of a forgotten age, sit together by the lake and tell each other stories of the days of their pasts.
All this, and more. All this, and hope—unwavering, even when Merlin almost wishes that he could let it fade. Let it go.
He never does.
Fate bides her time. Chance reshuffles the deck; holds up the coin. One last toss, she says.
You never know, she says.
What’s the fun in betting on a sure thing?
Merlin and Aithusa sit by the lake together. Merlin leans against Aithusa’s side, his feet in the water. It is a hot day, a true summer day, the kind that you only ever really dream about. There are water skeeters jumping across the filmy surface of the still lake and crickets humming in the background. Aithusa’s breathe whistles when she inhales. She is getting old now, too. Merlin is thinking about lunch, and whether he should reweave the warding spells around the lake that keep passersby away; it has been a few months, and surely they must be weakening—
The tower of Avalon begins to shake.
At first Merlin thinks it is a trick of the heat, which rises in shimmery waves off the water. He blinks and shifts from side to side, trying to make the illusion disappear. He nudges Aithusa.
—Tell me, he says, —if you look at the tower...well, do you see anything?
Aithusa lifts her head and squints across the lake. Her breath whistles. —It’s moving.
Merlin sits upright. —The tower? Or is the the heat—the evaporation, maybe—?
—The tower, Aithusa says. Her voice is sure.
Merlin gets to his feet. His arms and legs feel very far away, like perhaps this is not his body but just one that has been loaned to him, and his time is nearly up. —Is it supposed to move?
—I don’t know. Kilgharrah was never clear on the details.
Merlin snorts. —True enough. But his heart is pounding. —Maybe it’s an earthquake.
Aithusa looks at him with one enormous blue eye. —In England?
—Stranger things have happened.
—Not for many long years.
Merlin swallows. —I know.
They watch the tower. It is hard to see clearly, whether by some trick of the light or heat or the nature of the tower itself. It shifts and wavers; not much like an earthquake at all, but like the rift at the Isle of the Blessed. The rift between worlds. Merlin puts one shaking hand on Aithusa’s scales. But Aithusa is already getting to her feet.
—I will fly up for a better look. Aithusa takes to the air in a thunder of sound and movement. She wheels unsteadily for a moment, then gains altitude, her wings a translucent silver-blue. Merlin watches her, suddenly scared to look anywhere else: scared to look back towards the tower.
There is a sound, immense and booming, a sound from deep within the earth, a sound like mountains shifting. Merlin stumbles, and he thinks that maybe it is an earthquake after all, some sort of freak accident—and that is when the tower of Avalon lights up and sends a piercing blue beacon of light into the sky.
Merlin covers his mouth with his hands. The light glitters and spins and sends out sparks of green and gold and white and purple, which fall like feathers over the tiny island at the lake’s center, making it glow. Something, a small figure, moves on the island’s shore. Merlin can see no more than that.
The water in the lake in front of him begins to ripple. It moves, and swirls, and trembles: and then Freya lifts her hand from the lake’s unknown depths, Excalibur clutched firmly in her grasp.
Merlin lets his hands fall. When he looks up at the sky, he sees Aithusa in the distance, and he hears her far-off shriek of triumph.
On the island, the small figure takes his first step into the water.
Merlin tilts back his head and laughs up into the light of the sun. My dearest love, he thinks—we’re not done, yet.
Merlin is sitting on the lakeshore with Excalibur across his knees when Arthur wades up to him. There are water hyacinths in his hair, which Arthur picks out with some embarrassment. He is wearing the armor that he was laid to rest in: the armor that he fought his last battle wearing, and which has been out of fashion for nearly one thousand years.
Merlin looks at him, and looks, and keeps looking. He cannot look at Arthur enough: he will never get his fill. Arthur looks exactly as Merlin remembers. Maleagant was wrong, after all.
Arthur makes his way out of the lake and stands there, dripping. His hair is plastered to his forehead, and the blood in his armor runs off in rivulets and then fades, cleansed. “That’s my sword you’ve got,” he says.
Merlin smiles. For a moment he does not think that he will be able to speak, but then he does. “It is.” He holds Excalibur out to Arthur. Arthur takes the sword, looks at it, and then slides it into the sheath at his waist.
“What is this place?” Arthur asks.
“England. Albion. The lake of Avalon.” Merlin has to keep himself from getting to his feet and lunging at Arthur, to touch him, kiss him, make sure that he is not just another dream. “It’s been a very long time, you know.”
“Has it?” Arthur looks him over. “You look the same.”
Merlin laughs, a little brokenly. “Yes.” He watches Arthur. “You should take your armor off and let it dry.”
“I can decide for myself what to do with my armor,” Arthur says. But he does as Merlin suggests, and soon he is standing there in his undertunic and trousers, barefoot. He sits beside Merlin to let the hot noon sun dry him off. They are almost close enough to touch, their arms nearly brushing. Merlin holds his breath.
“It’s going to rust if I don’t wipe it down,” Arthur says, mournfully.
“It won’t.” Merlin looks at Arthur sidelong. “I charmed it not to ages ago.”
Arthur snorts. “Of course you did.” He looks up at the sky, where Aithusa is still wheeling below the clouds. “Is that a dragon?”
“What is she doing?”
“Celebrating, I think.”
“You.” Merlin turns towards Arthur. He almost makes a motion to reach out to him, to touch him, and then he stops himself. If he reaches out now and his hand closes on nothing but empty air, an illusion, a dream, he does not know whether he could bear it. He might lose all hope then, after all.
“Me?” Arthur is looking at Merlin just as hungrily as Merlin looks at him. Merlin wonders how much Arthur knew and felt as he lay there in the heart of Avalon: whether he felt time pass, whether he felt longing and grief and love. “What for?”
“You’re back.” Merlin’s voice breaks. He takes a breath to steady himself.
“Of course I’m back,” Arthur says. He sounds affronted.
Merlin gives a breathy little laugh. “Of course. Well...I’ve been waiting a long time. You’ll have to forgive my....” Another breath. “My uncertainty.”
“It’s me,” Arthur says. “Don’t you know me?”
Merlin looks at him. His face, his hands, his eyes, his mouth. Yes—he knows him. “I do,” he whispers.
Arthur looks relieved. “Well, good.” With one easy motion, he takes one of Merlin’s hands in his own. The touch—solid, warm, real—brings startled tears to Merlin’s eyes. Arthur rubs his thumb over Merlin’s knuckles, and Merlin feels his composure finally begin to shatter. “I know you, too,” Arthur says. And he leans towards Merlin and kisses him.
Merlin lets the tears fall; he can’t help them. He puts his arms around Arthur and holds him close and breathes in the smell of him, the real warm human scent of him, and buries his face against Arthur’s neck. “You came back,” he says. His voice is shaking. “You came back to me.”
“For you,” Arthur says. “Only for you, Merlin.” And he puts his arms around Merlin and holds him.
They sit there together for a very long time.
—Merlin, Aithusa says, and Merlin lifts his head to look for her in the sky before realizing that she has perched on the tower of Avalon. —Merlin, the others are here, too.
—Yes. They’re heading for the shore. They’ll be there soon.
Merlin laughs, bright and joyous and unrestrained. He clings to Arthur and kisses him again, still laughing, while Arthur watches him, bemused.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asks.
“Waiting.” The word makes Merlin giggle. Yes, he is waiting; but the waiting is almost done.
“The others?” Arthur looks across the lake, towards the island’s shore. He, too, begins to smile. “Oh. Will they be much longer, do you think?”
Merlin rubs his thumb over Arthur’s lip, re-memorizing the familiar lines of Arthur’s face, the sparse scattering of freckles, the sunny sky-blue of his eyes. Arthur looks back at him, patient but not quite understanding. Not yet. “No,” Merlin says. He feels young again, made new. “Not much longer now, at all.”