Arthur comes out of the water new and whole.
Joints that had once ached with every summer storm move with ease. Hands that were once hardened by years of grasping swords and spears and scepters are soft and free of callouses. And his scars, the remnants of victories and losses and accidents that had previously been scattered amongst golden skin like stars, had been erased, smoothed away over centuries in Avalon.
At first, Arthur can’t help but feel as though part of himself has been taken from him. There’s no longer any reminder of battles won or assassinations thwarted or trysts (nearly) discovered. When he remembers nights spent under Merlin’s devoted attention, being cherished with lips and tongue and teasing fingertips until he was nearly driven mad with frustration, he feels an acute sense of loss.
It isn’t until they’re lying in bed one night, not long after his return, that Arthur first feels grateful for their absence. Merlin’s eyes have gone dark and unreadable as his fingers ghost across Arthur’s bare abdomen, tracing the outline of a sword long gone. He doesn’t say a word, but it’s obvious where his thoughts have travelled.
“Hey.” Arthur’s voice is almost obtrusive in the quiet. Merlin stills, but relaxes once Arthur reaches down to catch Merlin’s fingers in his own. Whatever words of assurance or distraction he’d meant to say are lost when their eyes meet. It doesn’t matter -- they’ve long understood each other without having to say a word.
Perhaps it’s the lack of his own scars that fuels his next words, or maybe curiosity too long unsatisfied. Perhaps it’s finally the opportunity to ask and know that all the secrets and half-truths that had lain between them for so long will finally be missing. Whatever it is, the words come out almost of their own volition as Arthur reaches up to touch a pale mark on the back of Merlin’s shoulder blade. He’d noticed it, before, but had never dared ask, as afraid that Merlin would lie as he was to hear the truth. “What’s this from?”
It’s not meant to distract Merlin from dwelling on the past -- not wholly, at least -- but the way Merlin quirks his eyebrow before answering tells Arthur his (lack of) subtlety did not go unnoticed. “A serket. Morgause’s work.”
That explains as much as it doesn’t. Arthur bites down the half dozen questions that bubble up at that, instead letting his fingers wander. They move idly up, brushing against a small, circular patch of raised skin at the nape of Merlin’s neck, half-hidden beneath dark curls. “And this one?”
“Morgana’s fomorroh.” It’s not phrased as a question, but Merlin’s voice lilts like it is one, his brow furrowed as he obviously tries to figure out why Arthur’s suddenly asking.
Arthur merely hums. He paws at Merlin’s shoulder, pushing him into the bedding, and hovers over him to press a kiss to another small scar on his chest. “This?”
Merlin’s smile loses the bemusement, instead taking on a glint of understanding as Arthur begins learning each of Merlin’s blemishes and the stories behind them. It’s his turn.