Arthur had to struggle to stay awake as Merlin drove them along winding forest roads. They hadn’t been travelling long, but his soft leather seat was comfortable, and the car’s motion was familiar enough by now to be soothing, tricking his body towards sleep.
Or perhaps not sleep, he thought. Perhaps it was just deep relaxation. It was difficult to tell. He had so little experience living like this; without being on his guard at all times.
It was unnerving, but exciting. Like leaving his sword behind. Like driving away from Avalon. Like venturing into the unknown world.
Fortunately, he’d never been one to shy away from a challenge. He would face this one as he had the others: With his gaze set to the horizon, his heart full of love for his kingdom... and this ridiculous, wonderous man at his side.
“-and it looks odd I know but we’ve definitely got to ride on it,” Merlin was saying, still prattling on about the circular metal monstrosity in the heart of London. He was quite excited about it, and had been going on about it for some time now.
Arthur studied Merlin's profile as he nattered away, recognizing the signs of Merlin being either nervous or excited or both. Words were spilling from his lips, but he was grinning nonstop, even laughing when he said something he thought funny.
When had it last been, Arthur wondered, since he’d seen Merlin this happy for this long? He couldn’t remember. Not like this.
“It’s been ages since I’ve been up in the air that high,” Merlin continued, absently tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Though I doubt it will be at all the same as riding on a dragon. The smell will be better, for sure!”
He looks young, Arthur realized. There was no trace of Merlin's very long life in his face, or his body language, or his voice. He really could be a man of thirty again...
“-although I’m not sure when the exhibit will open,” Merlin said, as he maneuvered the car around a bend. “I could text them, I suppose. They gave me their number. That’s not too pushy, is it? No, it’s not. Is it? Well. Maybe when we get to the hotel...”
Arthur smiled and leaned his head on the seatback, outright staring at the man by his side. He could do that now, without pretending he wasn’t, to himself or to others. He could stare all he wanted, to study the tempting stretch of bare neck above Merlin’s brown jacket, and the wonderful purple mark Arthur had left himself, just above Merlin’s collar.
“Is that your jacket from Camelot?” Arthur asked, right in the middle of whatever Merlin was saying.
Merlin glanced over, clearly delighted. “Are you suggesting that I used magic to preserve my ratty old jacket for fifteen hundred years just so you could find it familiar when you came back?”
“Of course not. Only an idiot would do something like that.”
“Or a lovestruck fool,” Merlin said, with another one of those shy smiles that stood in such contrast to the wonderfully wicked things he did in their bed.
Arthur stretched his arm across the seat back, his palm resting upon the warm skin of Merlin’s neck. Merlin leaned into his touch, tilting his head, until Arthur laughed and slid his fingers through Merlin's unfairly soft hair.
“Where in the world are we anyway?” Merlin asked, after the navigational device directed them down yet another forest road. “That’s the trouble with those damn things. We could be anywhere by now.”
“It couldn’t be worse than traveling by your sense of direction,” Arthur said, which was blatantly untrue.
“You and your technology,” Merlin grumbled, both jealous and aggravated, making Arthur even more happy that he’d had Heath demonstrate how to use the device in such detail.
When Arthur picked the device up, he stared wistfully at its animating map, remembering all the times he’d only had a scroll of parchment to guide his way. Now he could zoom in to see the tiniest streams. Or zoom out to see the entire country-
“I bet that damn thing has us halfway to the northern border,” Merlin muttered.
Arthur manipulated the map a few seconds, then drew in a sharp surprised breath.
“We’re not lost are we?”
“No, it’s- I just can’t believe I- How did I not recognize it?”
“What is it?” Merlin asked.
Arthur held up the device.
Merlin glanced over, then stared.
Arthur pointed viciously ahead, then rocked sideways as Merlin swerved off of the gravel shoulder and back onto the road.
“Sorry,” he breathed. “Sorry, I just-”
“Could you find it?” Arthur pressed, reading Merlin’s excitement. He felt it himself.
“Do you want me to?”
”Good,” Merlin said, grinning now. “Yeah, that’s- It’s good.”
"You can find it then?”
“Oh yes, sire. I can. And I won’t need that thing to do it.”
Arthur tossed the device to the seat, skin prickling with excitement as he looked out the window at the forest. I know these woods, he thought. I know these woods...
After only a few minutes, Merlin turned them onto a narrow gravel road that lead beneath a thick canopy of trees. The underbrush was dense, but gave way at their passing, granting them access until the road simply ended, quite abruptly, at the base of a steep wooded hillside.
“Is this it?” Arthur asked, peering through the windscreen at the forest.
“It is, sire,” Merlin assured him, bright eyed and smiling as he climbed from the car.
Arthur got out as well, savoring the sweet forest air, cool and damp and achingly familiar. When he shrugged on his black jacket, a hundred memories assailed him, because yes, this was just how it had felt back then, and if he ignored his modern clothes and the car, he could almost think it was back then.
“This way,” Merlin called, already heading toward some hidden path up the rocky hillside.
“How do you know?”
“Magic leaves a mark upon the land. Especially magic this old.”
Arthur lifted his gaze to the canopy of leaves, to the blue sky beyond. Sometimes, if he really tried, he could still feel the magics of Avalon, winding through the earth; through Merlin; through him. With a deep breath, Arthur closed his eyes, and listened.
There, he thought, straining towards the aching beauty that called him by name, ancient and ethereal, elusive as the memory of a childhood song, or a breeze that smelled of home-
“Are you coming?” Merlin shouted, startling him.
“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur shouted back, and headed toward the trail.
The ascent was rocky, the path overgrown, and Arthur was glad for his thick soled shoes and jeans to protect him. Merlin seemed not to mind the climb for once, scampering ahead of him through the brush, before pausing at the path’s summit.
“It’s this way” he called back. “Come on!”
Arthur hurried after him, emerging from the trail onto a narrow sunlit meadow. Merlin was walking through its tall grasses, heading to the grand vista overlooking the valley. There was a drop at the edge, but a long line of tall thick rocks lined it, and it was here that Merlin stopped, his hands resting upon one of the taller moss covered stones.
“Where is it?” Arthur asked, when he stepped to Merlin’s side.
“Look to the mountains, sire,” Merlin urged, breathless.
Arthur lifted his gaze to the range of mountains, and realized, with a start, that he knew them. The shock of recognition had him turning in place, looking with new eyes at the narrow stretch of meadow- the ridge where they stood- the sharp rise of a rounded hillside-
“The North Battlements!” Arthur burst out. “That’s where we are! And that hill over there- That’s the Citadel- And the sharp rise behind us- That’s the tower with my chambers!”
“And mine as well,” Merlin said happily, rocking back on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back, his brows nearly crescents in his delight.
“My rooms are right up there,” Arthur said again, staring up at the vine covered cliff face which was not a cliff at all, but was instead his tower, hidden beneath layers of nature. “By the gods, Merlin, you said you hit it in a mountain, but... I had no idea...”
“Would you like to go inside? I still remember where the armory’s hidden entrance can be found. We could get in without much effort.”
Arthur thought of his castle sleeping beneath the cold earth, dark and empty as a tomb. “No,” he said, through a tight throat. “Not today.”
“It will wait until you need it, sire,” Merlin said, with that same conviction Arthur had heard so often so long ago. “For as long as you need. Camelot will wait for its king.”
“Just as you did, hmm?”
Merlin’s expression pinched, signs of his great age returning to his lovely face, which wasn’t what Arthur had intended at all.
To fix his mistake, Arthur did what he never could have done in Camelot. He cupped one of Merlin’s sharp cheeks in his palm, and leaned in to kiss him.
Saying thank you, and I’m glad I have you, and I love you, all at once.
When they parted, Merlin slid his hands up Arthur's arms. "Before we go," he said softly, "I'd like to show you something. Would that be all right?"
Merlin's tone reminding Arthur of a hundred tiny magic dragons in his chambers, and of sparkling planets swirling above the South Tower. “Yes,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Merlin stepped backward, his arms raising at his sides, his fingers twisting through the air as if weaving invisible strands of thread. Golden light sparkled in Merlin’s eyes as the breeze picked up and the leaves shuddered and danced with the trees. Arthur could feel the world shifting sideways somehow, magic surging over him like a mighty river, yet leaving him in place, as it gathered to the sorcerer who commanded it.
Powerful, Arthur thought, breathless, as the magic shone like the sun in Merlin’s eyes. By the gods above he’s powerful. Arthur could actually feel the fabric of the world rippling around Merlin’s hands; could see the air shimmering and shining with it.
A surge of vertigo had Arthur squeezing his eyes closed and violently shaking his head- But then it was gone, leaving him breathless but unharmed.
“Sire,” Merlin said, in a strange echoing voice. “Sire, look...”
Arthur opened his eyes to look upon the forest.
Except the forest wasn’t there.
In its place was the Lower Town of Camelot, just as it had been fifteen hundred years ago, with its shops and houses and tradesmen at their carts, smoke rising from the forges, patrons stumbling from the Rising Sun.
When Arthur turned in place, he saw the Citadel and the towers of Camelot rising into the sky, red flags fluttering upon the rooftops, guards in armor standing vigil beside them. Several servants were shaking laundry from open windows, calling to one another. In the distance, Arthur heard the village bells ring the hour.
“All right?” Merlin asked, his voice still echoing, magic still sparkling in his eyes.
“What is this?” Arthur asked, breathless.
“An echo,” Merlin said simply. “It’s more detailed than I expected. But the land here is overflowing with magic. I think it always has been. It probably always will be.”
Arthur stepped closer to the battlement rocks to stare down at the crowded road leading to the castle.
Gwaine was striding down the street, his chainmail and armor catching in the sun, his red cloak flowing nobly behind him. He was gesturing wildly as he spoke to Elyan, sending both men into fits of laughter. Percival and Leon were walking alongside, smiling at whatever nonsense their friends were saying. Guinevere rode a white horse behind them all, a vision of beauty in her blue dress. Her hair was long and loose around her shoulders, and her smile was full of affection for her brother and her friends.
Arthur watched it all unfolding with his breath caught in his chest, grief welling up from where it always slept.
He understood now what Merlin had meant. About starting to forget the life they’d had. Even after his short time in the modern world, his memories had already begun to fade. And now here was Merlin, giving it all back to him, even though he was clearly as pained as Arthur by the sight of it.
“There’s us in the back,” Merlin said, voice rough.
Arthur watched their younger selves riding down the road together, laughing so hard that they were both in danger of falling off of their horses.
“I remember that day so well," Merlin whispered. “It’s one of my favorite memories. You thought Gwen had been gone too long for her ride, so you sent the knights to find her. They wound up disappearing too, to have a picnic with her in a meadow, where she’d fallen asleep in the sun.” Merlin paused, smiling sadly, a broken thing that had tears sliding down his sharp cheekbones. “You were so mad at them, sire. You made them walk all the way home. But that was all right by me. Because I got to ride at your side again. Just the two of us. One last time. Before the Fortress of Ismere. Before it all went wrong.”
Merlin’s voice cracked on the final word, and he swallowed hard, pushing out his chin and shoving his shoulders back.
Arthur took one last look at his wife, at his friends, at his town, and at his castle.
Then he turned his back on it all. Turning toward Merlin instead.
“That’s enough, Merlin,” Arthur said.
Merlin startled, still half lost in memory. “What?”
Arthur closed the distance between them, placing a hand upon Merlin’s cheek to wipe at a tear with his thumb. “This time is over. It was glorious, and wonderful, and horrible, and absurd, and all of the other things you would want from a life well lived. It will always be a part of us. Just as it should. But it’s in the past, and you and I live in the present. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Yeah?” Merlin choked out.
“Yes,” Arthur said, and kissed him.
As Merlin stepped into Arthur’s embrace, the world slid sideways once more. This time Arthur wasn’t dizzy, not with Merlin’s arms wrapped tight around him, clinging to him as if he were the one in danger of falling. When finally the wind fell silent, and the world felt still, Arthur ended the kiss, turning to look out upon the forest covered valley; the familiar shapes of the mountains.
“That was nice,” Merlin sighed into Arthur’s neck.
”The view of the past? Or the kiss?”
”All of it.”
Arthur closed his eyes and held him tighter, their bodies pressed so close that he could feel the round shape of his mother’s sigil, tucked away in Merlin’s front jeans pocket. “Still keeping it safe, are you?”
Merlin went very still in his arms.
“It’s a shame it isn’t smaller. Then you could keep it with you more comfortably. Perhaps even wear it. As a reminder to yourself. And a clear indication to others.”
“A clear indication of what?”
That you’re mine, Arthur thought. Just as I would wear something that’s a clear indication that I’m yours.
Again Arthur thought of the rings he’d retrieved from the vaults. The one from his mother’s family. And the one from his father’s. For all he knew, neither ring would fit either of them properly. He’d have to sneakily try them on Merlin’s fingers before they got to Italy. Fortunately, Merlin slept like a fallen tree trunk. It would be easy to check the sizing in his sleep. That way they’d fit properly for when he needed them.
“Arthur? As a clear indication of what?”
“As a clear indication of your unique fashion sense.”
Merlin huffed out a breath and leaned away.
Arthur avoided his curious gaze by turning toward the forest. “It’s hard to believe that no one lives here after all this time.”
“Oh it’s much too cold to live anywhere around here.”
“It is, is it?”
“Yes. It’s much, much too cold.”
“I always thought so.”
Arthur laughed as he watched two hawks idly soaring above the vegetation-covered Northern Gate. “Glad that someone is keeping watch here,” he said, nodding at them. “From a distance, they do look a little like dragons.”
“I had a dream about dragons the other night,” Merlin said.
Arthur looked over, alarmed.
“Not that kind of dream. Just… You know. A dream. My mother was there. And my father. He said something about there always being dragons.”
Arthur thought about the changing of the seasons, and the passing of the years. About how people were there and gone. About living and dying and living again. It had him sliding an arm around Merlin’s waist. “Yes,” Arthur said. “I think he’s right.”
“Everything moves in cycles. And magic is a part of the fabric of the world. So why shouldn’t it do the same?”
“You think the time of magic will come again?”
“I think I do.”
Merlin was thoughtful a long moment, but then nodded. “I think i do too.”
“We’ll do it differently next time,” Arthur said firmly.
“Yes, we will.”
The words vibrated with magic, an oath burning into the heart of the world. Arthur could feel it, magic echoing through the soil beneath Camelot, reaching out to the distant horizon, to the unknown world beyond. It had him turning in wonder to study Merlin’s profile, though he saw no sign of any of this in his expression.
Merlin caught him staring, and frowned. “What? Is there something on my face?”
Arthur choked out a laugh. “Just the usual.”
”You’re looking at me funny.”
“I always look at you funny. Now come on, let’s go.”
“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur sighed out, and grabbed the back of Merlin’s jacket, hauling him from the battlements for old time’s sake.
“You don’t have to- Let go,” Merlin said, and shoved at him.
Arthur shoved back, and saw a flash of something in Merlin’s eyes that set them both into a full on run.
By the time they climbed down the hillside, they were sweaty and breathless and covered in leaves. They walked to the car laughing, half hanging onto one another, half holding each other up.
When they fell into their seats, smiling and breathless, Arthur felt another wonderful surge of that same feeling. Of things being both strange and familiar.
Merlin nodded at him, his eyes sparkling, telling him without words that yes, he felt it too.
“To London,” Arthur commanded, and pulled the car door shut.
“To London,” Merlin agreed, and then turned the car around, guiding them away from the sleeping castle, and out of the silent forest, and onto the many unknown roads that stretched out full of promise beyond.
MORE STORIES FROM THE "WE BEGIN AGAIN" UNIVERSE:
<i>(If you liked this story, please hit “kudos” before continuing on)</i>
- Sweet Dreams of Mistletoe: 4 Years Before Camlann
- The Return of Magic (Upon Dragon's Wings): 1 Year Post Camlann
- Would you if you could (Remember): 30 Years Post Camlann
- And Like The Cycle Of The Year We Begin Again: 1,500 Years Post Camlann... When Arthur Returns
- Our Destinies Our Own: Story picks up the same day We Begin Again ends
- Ever Onward, Through Magic, Through Love: Arthur and Merlin's travels through the modern world