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The Slow Path (An Interlude)

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Just outside of London
February 15th, 1752

The city loomed, emitting only a soft glow as the candles and torchlights lining the street were extinguished one by one and the masses settled in for sleep. It was nearing midnight, and the sky was a void of limitless black which gave way for speckled stars and the beaming silver light of the moon. All was silent but for the distant thumping gallops of a horse, exerting itself as quickly as its legs would take it and hurtling over any barrier in its way. The rider was bent low over the horse's mane, the hood of his dark green traveling cloak flung back by the haste of the ride so that his ears filled with the rushing sound of wind.

He slowed the horse to a reluctant trot when he reached the city limits, not sitting up straighter as the animal below him kicked up chunks of dirt in its wake as they made their way through the quiet, desolate street.

At the end of the lane, the rider saw a small golden light coming from the inside of a tavern, which appeared to be the only place still open on the block. He clicked his tongue and kicked his heels into the horse's side, willing it to go faster, before coming to a halt outside the tavern and dismounting. Rubbing the chill out of the joints in his fingers, he pushed through the door.

The inside was littered with surly looking men, each of them with sullen eyes staring vacantly into their pints. The barman looked up at the newcomer expectantly, but the rider did not head for the bar. He stood still in the threshold, eyes scanning every face until they met the one he was looking for: a man sitting at the table in the very corner of the room, gingerly sipping a cup of tea, one leg crossed delicately over the other, and staring at the shadows dancing on the wall before him pleasantly as though they were conversing with him.

He stuck out like a sore thumb.

The rider strode up to the corner table, apparently undetected by the man, and came to a stop right next to the occupied chair. There was a beat before the man looked up at him hesitantly, but a smile erupted on his gaunt features when he recognized the dark figure over him.

"And what sort of time do you call this?" Merlin said as the Doctor stood up to full height in greeting.

"Sorry," answered the Doctor. "Traffic was Hell."

They beamed at each other before folding into a tight embrace, and the Doctor rocked Merlin from side to side a bit, letting out happy noises, which elicited some stares from the other patrons. When the hug broke, the Doctor kept his palms on Merlin's shoulders, and they each looked at how the other had changed; or, in the Doctor's case, how he not changed. Merlin was even certain the Time Lord was wearing the same clothes he had on during his last visit.

Merlin, however, could not say the same about himself. His face was much more lined, especially around the eyes, and silver wisps dusted his once raven colored hair since he'd last seen the Doctor. If the Doctor noticed, which Merlin was sure he had, he did not say. Merlin hadn't expected him to, anyway; he knew how much the Doctor hated watching his friends grow old.

"How have you been?" the Doctor asked cordially, releasing Merlin from his grip.

"Antsy," Merlin told him as they sat down, one across from the other, the yellow flicker of the candle between them. "It took me nearly a full day to get here. I can hardly wait for cars—or at least electricity."

"Ah, well, you've got a bit more to go until that," the Doctor informed him, and Merlin decided it was just another thing he'd have to add to his growing list of items he was waiting for.

At once, Merlin noticed a pint of cider already waiting for him on the table.

"I believe it was my turn to pay the tab?" the Doctor said off Merlin's look.

"I rather think it is," he agreed, even though he couldn't remember anymore. He just had to take the Doctor's word for it, since less time had passed for him. Briefly, Merlin wondered how little time it really was for the Doctor. Had it been mere minutes since their last meeting, while it had been a hundred years for Merlin?

A hundred years exactly.

Each century, the Doctor would come by to this very tavern on this very date to see Merlin, like clockwork. The Doctor said it was to keep Merlin in the loop, but he never seemed to have any more news than he did on any previous occasion. This led Merlin to believe the Doctor only made these visits to put Merlin out of his misery: to keep him from wondering if the Doctor had discerned Arthur's return yet. Or, perhaps, the Doctor did it to give Merlin a friendly, familiar face after so many years. To keep him grounded and pressing on. Either way, Merlin was glad for the visits, and he often found himself looking forward to seeing the Doctor again.

As he took a gulp of his drink, he realized the chair next to the Doctor was empty.

"Clara?" he found enough bravado to ask aloud, his stomach churning in anticipation of the answer. While there were only a handful of times Clara actually did accompany the Time Lord in visiting Merlin, he knew how treacherous running with Doctor could be.

"Movie night with Angie and Artie," the Doctor proclaimed cheerfully.

Merlin gave a surreptitious sigh of relief, no matter how upset he was at not seeing Clara that day. The century had been a long one, and he would have been very happy to have Clara smile genially up at him, hug him warmly, and offer him words of support. Still, he was glad she was safe.

"And the Winchesters?" he asked hopefully. He often wished the Doctor would bring Sam along on one of his visits. Merlin would have been overjoyed to see his friend once more, to catch up and find out how he was doing. Really, Merlin just wanted to know Sam was still alive somewhere out there. However, he never voiced these desires.

The Doctor gave a flutter of his wrist before sitting back in his chair. "Oh, you know them," he said loftily. "They've probably sacrificed themselves for one another in some way at least half a dozen times by now."

Merlin gave a light chuckle at this, having to agree.

"But I haven't seen them since I dropped them back off in Kansas," the Doctor admitted. "I keep telling you, it's only been a few months for us."

"And is there any news?" Merlin asked, trying to keep his voice as level as he could, not daring to let hope fill his heart. Still, he couldn't meet the Doctor's eyes.

"Still nothing," the Doctor told him in a despondent tone, and Merlin closed his eyes for a long pause. It took him a moment to realize the Doctor was speaking again in rapid tones.

". . . There was a baby born to the Royals recently, but no dice. I checked." He pulled a face. "Security was not happy about that, let me tell you, but I had to make sure. Plus, he's not called Arthur. Still, that's alright, we don't necessarily know if he'll be reincarnated or pop out of the lake, right? It could still happen. And I told Sherlock to be on high alert after that whole business with the Angels falling. You remember, I told you about that? Anyway, he's been keeping an eye out—seeing what he can turn up. I think he even went to the lake once or twice, just to check. Clara's been peeking her head out, too."

"Sherlock's back in England, then?" Merlin asked, clearing his throat in attempt to divert the Doctor from the topic. He hadn't expected too much progress, but he had hoped, and he tried not to let his heart drop too low into his stomach.

"Yep," the Doctor answered, but he wouldn't be swayed from the conversation. "Anyway, I think Arthur may be coming back sooner than we think. Remember what the demon told us? It said he needed ranks to fall back on—and that was the Winchesters and me. We have a role to play in this, and that means it has to happen in a time when Dean and Sam are alive."

"Or," Merlin challenged, "it could happen at any point and you could simply fly the others to it in your time machine."

The Doctor looked as though he hadn't expected Merlin to work this out, but he should have. The days in which he could out-logic Merlin had long passed.

"Too right," the Doctor agreed. He gave a breath of finality. "So, like always, I'll be on the lookout everywhere I turn, and I'll rush straight to you the second I find anything out. Meanwhile, you keep your ear to the ground, too. It's always possible I could miss something."

Merlin rolled his neck in attempt to get the stiffness out. He wouldn't let the Doctor go just yet.

"Yeah, but what if neither of us ever find anything?" he asked solemnly with a shrug. "What if Kilgharrah was wrong? What if he's not coming back?"

"He will," the Doctor reassured him. "I don't think you'd be around anymore if he wasn't. You're living proof."

Merlin snorted. "Still living," he murmured bitterly into his drink.

The Doctor looked hurt by this. He folded his arms on the splintering tabletop and leaned forward onto them.

"Remember what I told you about giving up hope?" he asked softly, searching Merlin's face.

"Don't," Merlin answered, feeling somewhat guilty all of a sudden.

The Doctor reached up and tapped the tip of his nose. "Right," he said lightly. "He will come back, Merlin. Believe in what you've always known; and, if that doesn't work for you anymore, believe in what I know."

Merlin furrowed his brow so that the lines on his forehead doubled. "What is that?"

"That the universe is drawing you closer and closer to him every day," the Doctor said with a smirk. "It demands you be together."

Merlin let out a breath that sounded like a scoff mixed with a laugh and shook his head at the empty chair besides the Doctor, as though to ask the invisible Clara if she thought the Doctor was as mad as he let on.

"How do you know that?"

"Because," the Doctor answered promptly, as though he had expected the protest. "Every atom in the universe was created in the Big Bang and, ever since then, they've been recycling themselves. When something is destroyed, the atoms scatter across space to create new things. Sometimes, rarely, those atoms find each other, and we call it fate.

"I fancy thinking Sherlock and John share particles from the same Latin scroll, and Dean, Sam, and Castiel once formed parts of an ancient warrior, and, who knows, maybe you and Arthur once shared some distant star."

Merlin smiled warmly at this thought despite himself as the Doctor continued.

"Maybe you and I share atoms that once made up the same whole?" He shrugged. "Maybe we all do? That could be why the Toymaker said it was so hard to build a universe without us, because it had to get down to the micro level first—to find all the bits that came to together to form us as individuals, and the single atoms we share that brought us together again."

"I always saw you as a man who thought destiny was rubbish," Merlin said, keeping his tone light.

"Who said anything about destiny?" the Doctor asked him. "I'm talking about a magnetic pull, like the universe attracted us to one another."

Merlin chortled. "Destiny," he repeated with emphasis.

The Doctor gave him the widest of grins. "Science."

Neither of them wished to rehash their age-old debate of magic versus knowledge, but they agreed to disagree. Still, it made Merlin feel better. The reminder of his destiny, or whatever the Doctor called it, seemed to strengthen his resolve.

He drained his pint and sat up straight, squaring his shoulders.

"Send Clara my love," he told the Doctor, who nodded as the legs of his chair scraped against the wooden floor and he stood up.

"I'll see you," the Doctor promised, starting away from the table.

Merlin nodded to his back. "And Doctor?" he called, regaining his attention. "You don't have to wait another hundred years this time."

He smiled somewhat sadly, as did the Doctor, and he kept his eyes on the Time Lord until he disappeared into the dark street outside.


Read Part III: The Rise and Fall.