He doesn't look up when the footsteps pause outside the door to his tiny one-room cabin. He continues the slow, painstaking process of adding the herbs to the mixture, one pinch at a time, stirring ever-so-carefully so as not to crush the fragile leaves and activate the potion too soon.
The silence is deafening and he can feel eyes on the back of his neck, burning into the thin strip of skin between his collar and the haphazard waves he can only rarely be bothered to trim.
His name sounds foreign and familiar at the same time, escaping as a shaky breath, shaped and coloured by the weight of the years between them.
“Arthur.” And Merlin's voice shakes too as he turns, slowly, to look once more on the once-beloved face of his broken destiny.
Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot and half the lands of Albion, meets his eyes without flinching. His face is still under Merlin's gaze, but his jaw is set in the way Merlin remembers so well, the way it had been at his father's funeral, at Morgana's capture.
At Lancelot's resurrection.
The way it had been set, no doubt, on the not-so-long-ago night that spawned a thousand rumours of war, when the King of Camelot discovered that his Queen and First Knight had fled in an act of ultimate betrayal.
Arthur shifts almost imperceptibly as Merlin's eyes flicker down to his ringless finger. So the rumours had been true, after all.
When Merlin's eyes meet Arthur's again, he sees the changes that the years have wrought in his own appearance reflected in the flash of something unknowable that passes over the king's face. In Arthur's regard, he sees the sharpness of his own face and body, what little spare flesh he'd had as a youth stripped away by a life of solitude, of empty memories and shattered hopes. He sees the shimmering threads of grey scattered sparsely throughout his dark hair, and the stubble that clings to the shadowed outline of his jaw.
And he sees, superimposed over the top of everything else, the boy he used to be, all laughter and smiles and ridiculous ears.
He's not smiling now, and neither is Arthur.
The years have been … not kind, not exactly, to the king--even living so far away from the rest of humanity, Merlin's heard tales of the trials and struggles of Camelot--but Arthur bears the marks of his position with a quiet stoicism that has Merlin following the still-firm line of his jaw, cataloguing the faint scar over his left eye, tracing in Arthur's shadowed eyes the path that leads from the boy Merlin loved to the man he doesn't know at all.
He's been too long away from the rituals of human interaction; the few travellers he's hosted over the empty, stretching years never required much in the way of pleasantries, and so his voice sounds harsh and jarring in his own ears when he speaks.
“Why are you here?”
A muscle in Arthur's jaw twitches and his eyes flash, and Merlin has always been able to provoke him--even with the threat of fire between them, he remembers the way Arthur had glared at him with exasperated affection, before the young king had remembered the events that had led to his manservant--his lover--standing in chains before the court, a proven sorcerer and a killer.
“Camelot is under attack.” His voice is that of a king, clear and proud. “We are assailed by an unseen enemy, a plague that causes its victims to waste away, before falling into a sleep from which none can be wakened.”
Merlin blinks slowly, and Arthur shifts. “Our physicians and healers can do nothing. It's magical in origin, and all agree that only magic can combat it.” The request hangs, unvoiced, in the air between them.
Merlin turns away, then, back to his herbs, rolling a small sprig between his fingers and releasing its acrid, pungent scent into the air. When he speaks, he speaks to Arthur, not to the king. “You came alone?”
“Against the better judgement of my knights.”
And oh, there's an entire world of memories in the barest hint of amusement that leaks into Arthur's tone. Merlin can see them, as clearly as if they stood in front of him--Elyan and Percival and Leon, smiling and laughing and cuffing each other 'round the ears. Gwaine, slinging his arm around Lancelot's--
Not Lancelot's shoulders, not any more.
It crashes over him like a wave, the sudden, unbearable need to see them again, to see how they've grown into the knights they were all meant to be. When he spins around, up and off of the bench in a single, fluid movement that brings him nearly nose-to-nose with Arthur, the man might have quailed but the king doesn't back down. Merlin can feel Arthur's breath skim across his lips as they face each other silently; forcing himself not to close his eyes with the weight of them, he nods once, and steps around Arthur and out the door.
Arthur says nothing when Merlin lights their fire with a word, and Merlin wonders what's passing behind his inscrutable eyes as he stares into the flames. Is Arthur regretting his decision to come to Merlin for help? Is he wishing the fire was larger, burning tall enough and hot enough to consume a man completely?
Or is he staring at the scars on Merlin's exposed forearm, where the skin bears the puckered and twisted marks of another fire, a fire that had traded one life for another and sealed both of their fates?
As if reading Merlin's thoughts, Arthur swallows audibly. Merlin's eyes flash up to his, and Arthur's mouth is twisted strangely.
“I understand why you did it,” he says, the first words either of them have spoken since leaving Merlin's forgettable home hours ago.
Merlin doesn't want to let himself hope that Arthur means what Merlin thinks he means, but then Arthur takes a deep breath and continues.
“I hated you for it, for a while. What gave you the right to decide who deserved to live, and who deserved to die?” His eyes are fixed on the fire, and Merlin stifles a gasp when they raise up to meet his.
“We gave her a proper funeral the day after you left and interred her ashes next to my father's body. It took me months to be able to look Lancelot in the eyes. Gwaine was the one who finally convinced me that he wasn't …” He pauses. “Gwaine said no unnatural creature would have such a poor head for ale.”
That startles a laugh out of Merlin, and he looks away. “He was never dead,” he says quietly. “Just caught between the worlds.”
Arthur frowns, and prods at the coals with a stick. “Morgana--?”
Merlin's vision blurs, and he exhales shakily. “She's not caught, no.”
Arthur nods once, sharply, as if Merlin has just confirmed something he'd already known. And maybe he has; maybe Gauis had explained that the Veil required a life for a life, and that, for Merlin, choosing between Lancelot and Morgana had been no choice at all.
They sit in silence until it's time for sleep, and Merlin drifts off to the sound of Arthur's deep, even breathing for the first time in what seems like an entire lifetime of lonely nights.
The plague is indeed magical, but uncomplicated. Merlin's vaguely impressed by the abilities of the witch who'd sent it--he's able to trace it back to her, to mark her without her knowing it, and tucks the knowledge of her away to be dealt with at another time. He does send a warning lash of power out to her, though, and almost smiles as he feels her sever the spell in fear. There will be no new victims, he's able to tell Arthur, and the look of relief on the king's face is almost worth the way the room tilts when Merlin stands too suddenly.
It's been too long since he's used his magic like this, since he's done anything more complicated than encourage his plants to grow, the birds to sing, or the clouds to flee from the sky. But fifteen of the victims still breathe, and he can't rest yet.
He's not sure if Arthur has been watching him the whole time, but the instant he removes his hands from the last prone figure--sleeping, now, dreamless and peaceful and safe--Arthur is there, supporting him with an arm around his waist, waving away both the quiet, capable man who's replaced Gaius and the guards who step forward to help. Merlin tries to protest, but the words get lost as the air in the room seems to thicken; he slumps against Arthur's solid frame and struggles to breathe as the weight of his own body threatens to drag him down to the floor. He vaguely feels a huff of air stir his hair, and then the room's tilting again, and he's lifted in the air like a child, and everything falls away.
Merlin wakes slowly, by degrees, warm and comfortable and foggy with sleep. He's lying on his stomach, his cheek pressed against something firm that rises and falls slowly beneath him. Eyes still closed, he nuzzles against the soft fabric, inhaling the smell of a life he'd left behind, that he thought he'd lost forever.
The hand that was running slowly through his hair freezes, and an arm wraps around his waist, carefully but firmly, like he's something too precious to be left unheld. He can't stop the way his body tenses slightly, but the arm tightens and pulls him close, and he melts down into the solid warmth of the body beneath him before he consciously realizes what he's doing.
“I would never have hurt you.” Arthur's voice whispers just on the edge of hearing, husky and soft with sleep. Merlin screws his eyes shut tighter and grasps the thin material of Arthur's nightshirt with trembling fingers.
“I'm illegal,” he mumbles into the cloth.
“I'm the law.”
And Merlin can't deal with this yet, knows he should summon up the ability to rage at Arthur, to tell him that he should have said that all those years ago, that it's Arthur's fault that they're broken because he turned out just like his father …
But he can't, because it's not, because he didn't. Because Merlin made a choice, and Arthur made a choice, and they've both carried the consequences with them for far too long.
Instead, he pushes against Arthur feebly, worming his way up along Arthur's body and burying his nose in the soft skin where Arthur's neck meets his shoulder.
Arthur's breath hitches, and the hand in Merlin's hair slides down to cup the back of his neck. “I miss you,” Arthur breathes, and it's a prayer and a plea and a confession all at once.
Merlin's lips skim over Arthur's skin. “I had to leave.” He did, and they both know it--too much had been said, too much had been seen. The entire court had been watching, and Uther's law had been unchanged, and the kingdom had needed a Queen.
“I know. And I had to let you go.” Arthur shifts slightly, sliding one leg between Merlin's, intimate and tentative and familiar, stealing Merlin's breath away. “When you love someone, sometimes that's what you have to do.”
And for one brief, heart-stoppingly painful moment, Merlin thinks he means Gwen. He tenses again, and opens his mouth to apologize for bringing back the only man to ever rival Arthur for her affections, even though he's not sorry, has never been sorry, because it was the right thing to do, because they all loved Lancelot, and because all he ever wanted in the deepest, most selfish corner of his heart was for Arthur to be his--
And then the hand on his neck slips around and under his jaw, and tilts his chin up, and when their mouths meet, it's I'm sorry and I promise and I love you passing from one to the other in the perfect stillness of an endless future.