After a long time—Merlin has lost track of how long, but knows it's been centuries at least—the rock trembles and splits around him. Sunlight pours in, filling its hollow heart with promise.
Come, whispers the wind to him. Bring him back.
Merlin uncurls limbs stiff with their ancient sleep. The world is awhirl; he feels its struggles pull him in every direction at once: this way, that way, battle full-armed and terrible here, misery and oppression there, everywhere fear and suffering and the rage born of both.
"Is this the end, then?" he asks.
Bring him back, the wind repeats.
It is spring, strangely enough, that Merlin runs through on his way to Avalon. When he thought about it, in his prison-tomb-home, he always thought it would be late autumn, or deep winter. The trees would be sere and faded, crumbling into skeletons of themselves; or the whole world would be cold and still already.
But it is spring sunshine, neither freezing rain nor biting wind, that smoothes his former life's wrinkles and scars from his skin. It is golden light and soft skies and the pale jewel-green, treasure-green of new leaves that are his first sights here, and the sound of birds in the trees with them as a quiet gift after too long a silence.
The land he knew as Albion is strangely peaceful for this time of cataclysmic war. He is selfishly glad, as he crosses through Ealdor (now a massive field, stretched wide and rumpled-velvet brown, edged with crisp hedges and glinting green-gold with seedlings) and starts over the Ridge, that Albion is still almost safe.
In the distance he sees blurs of smoke, and turns his eyes away.
These places he knows: mountains, valleys, all places he has been, often and often in Camelot of old. (He avoids the city as much for fear of what it has become as for speed. It was not between his stone and Arthur's resting-place.)
He is on the shores of the lake; Avalon, the Isle of the Blessed, shines like a beacon in the misty distance, glowing like the moon. He has crossed the width of Albion between sunrise and noon. That last distance between him and Arthur is simply gone with a thought, and he stands at last, again, facing a dark-haired woman dressed in red.
For a moment it is Nimueh again; he freezes, near-forgotten panic crashing over him. This body is young and limber and hale, yes, but it has no confidence in its power.
But the courtyard is not a courtyard in ruins anymore; it is an emerald-fair field with flowers peeping cloud-white and sun-yellow through the grass. It is ringed with stones pale and pearl-colored, softly shining, and the great block of stone in which Arthur rests (dead or sleeping, healing, Merlin isn't sure—he himself should have been dead long and long ago) is the expectant color of thunderclouds about to break open to give the world brilliance and chaos.
The woman wears not fluttering layers of pink-red silk but a simple robe the rich pure color of lifeblood, which drops in straight elegant lines from shoulders to wrists and ankles. Silver glitters in her hair like melting frost; even as he watches, the last of it is gone. She wears a swordbelt; the sun strikes off the hilt like lightning caught in diamonds.
"Morgana?" he says wonderingly.
"Hurry," she says, and it is Morgana. He had expected to hate her, to feel, at least, the steady burning anger of an unforgiven wrong, but—she has made the Isle of the Blessed a beauty, and given Arthur an honorable rest.
And it has been so very, very long.
"I don't know how," he admits at last. That has been the thing he has never dared admit, or wonder, or worry: he knows down to the marrow of his bones, more than he knows anything about himself alone, that he has always been meant to serve Arthur, to love him, to restore him. And he does not know how to do the last.
Morgana looks away. Her hair hides her face. All the time he has been half-drowsing far away, she has been here; someone has tended to Arthur, he knows with the echoing awareness of fate, and that someone must have been her. She has been waking while Arthur lay in dreamless sleep; while Merlin crossed through Albion again and again in his mind and his body rested; while Gwen and Lancelot rested, their torn loyalties healing.
In the silent accusation of that endless lonely vigil he can do nothing but climb the steps to the—tomb?—and rest a hand on the stone. It is warm with the sun: it feels alive. It opens at his touch, a door just an inch or so taller than he swinging loose. The air inside is cool and herb-scented, the same bright clean spring-smell as outside, and the walls are faintly, warmly luminous.
Arthur looks like he is sleeping. The glow from the walls is brighter around him, much brighter, so that it seems as if he holds the sun imperfectly contained within his soul. Merlin sways, overcome with memory; whatever made him and Morgana young again has worked on Arthur too, unaware as he is, so that he is flawlessly, stunningly, happily beautiful. Arthur in the last years Merlin knew him was worn down by too many things: leading a constant war, guarding against rebellion, grief for lost friends and lost innocence, guilt at Morgana's defection, worries over Mordred's schemes, the pain of the snarled web of love and longing he and Merlin and Gwen and Lancelot had made of their beating hearts.
This is Arthur as Merlin first knew him, carefree. Merlin reaches out in instinctive yearning to brush a fallen lock of hair back from Arthur's blessedly unlined brow, and as skin touches skin he feels a surge of magic well up from the earth to fill him—overflow from him—weigh down the air around him with its presence, its demanding potential.
Bring me back, Merlin, Arthur's voice whispers in the silence. His lips, curved into a half-smile, do not move; his face is still. It's all right, you know; I knew I'd have to do all this.
"I don't know how," Merlin repeats.
Of course you do, Merlin. However voiceless, it is the tone Arthur has always used when quite calmly expecting Merlin to do the impossible for him, the voice that always, always, until that final catastrophe, made Merlin break whatever laws of magic and nature he needed to get it done for Arthur; one of so many of Arthur's ways of speaking to him in particular that Merlin has been aching to hear for however long this has been. He blinks tears out of his eyes. Oh, don't be such a girl, Arthur thinks at him, and if it is possible for a disembodied voice to be laughing affectionately then his most surely is.
"Damn you," Merlin breathes, awash with pain and love and memories. "Oh, Gods, I miss you."
Arthur's eyes open. "That is the least traditional resurrection spell I have ever heard in my li—mmf."
Merlin, driven beyond endurance, flings himself at Arthur and kisses him. Their centuries entombed in stone passed like fleeting moments; this moment expands like falling into the sky.
"I'm truly sorry," Morgana says from the doorway, "but I believe the world is possibly going to end in a short while."
Merlin guiltily pulls away. This is Duty, this is Destiny, this is... this is damnably ill-timed, really. Mortally cruel planning on the part of the universe, to offer him Arthur back for a fragment of forever and then demand they go off to risk their lives again, perhaps to die again.
At least this time they'll be together, as they should have been.
"Where's my sword?" Arthur asks, looking around the—Merlin can call it a tomb now, now that the man it was built for is living and breathing and making remarks he thinks are clever again.
Morgana unstraps the blade at her waist and hands it to him, hilt-first. Excalibur blazes sun-bright even in the faint shadows. Arthur locks it into his own belt and beckons to the door.
"I can't go with you," Morgana says.
They both stare at her.
"I had—much to be forgiven for." Her mouth twists wryly. "This is the last tiny piece of it: a final battle I can't help with, one last time to be told to stay home and embroider."
"It's all right," Arthur says helplessly. "I don't mind, really. You can come."
She shakes her head.
"Then get Gwen and Lancelot," says Merlin. "I don't think they'll wake without someone helping them, and—you know."
The wryness in Morgana's half-smile smooths into something that might be real humor. "I know. All right. Thank you, Merlin." She hesitates. "I—I think you'll do it. Succeed, I mean. I think you'll come back this time."
Arthur bows to her, as he has never bowed to anyone since he became king—as a prince to a sovereign queen. Merlin, aware that he is blushing, hugs her, and feels what might be a tear on her cheek as she hugs him back.
The sun beams down on Albion, whatever she is called now; spring clamors joyously in the land as Arthur goes forth with Merlin at his side to save her.