Arthur has known for twelve years. Twelve damn years he’s been tortured with flashes that happen randomly, and he has tried everything. It has given him dozens of odd looks from strangers, but he has long stopped caring. They never last too long, and he has always passed it off to others as migraines or sudden sensitivity in his eyes. His lies were always obvious, but thankfully, no one ever pressed the subject.
Am I crazy? He wondered the first time it happened. He had only been fifteen years old and in the middle of reading aloud for English class.
“The king sat on his throne, knowing war would soon be upon them. The verb, ‘sat’ in this ca-“
As soon as that phrase left his lips, his blissful days were over. He saw Merlin, a young, smiling country boy straight out of Ealdor shouting “Prat!” at him while throwing down a leather pouch, and he ran out of the classroom, heartbeat thundering in his ears to splash some cold water on his face.
The moment the water hit him, he saw Merlin with a bucket standing next to him, smirk wide and eyes gleaming from his victory. “Sire, you seem to need some assistance getting your clothes dried”, he murmurs, and Arthur almost feels Merlin’s fingers against his wet cheek. He didn’t know how he knew the man’s name was Merlin, but it seemed right.
He could never bring himself to see a professional, despite how absurdly insane he thought himself to be. His parents wouldn’t understand, and he couldn’t explain to them either. Instead, he snuck medications into his pocket when no one was looking.
He went through dozens of kinds of medications without even looking at the names. Anything that sounded like it would work he took without question in desperation that it would suppress his hallucinations.
After six months of theft, alcohol, and more blackouts than Arthur would ever admit, he woke up to a red faced Uther, lips pressed into a tight line and shaking.
“No more.” His father had gritted through his teeth, and searched his room for any stashed pills.
That night when he drifted off into natural sleep, Arthur dreamed he was in a small room full of dusty books and parchment. He felt and heard his own voice say, “Explain this. Now.”
He couldn’t see Merlin, but heard his voice as a book was pushed into his hands. “I think that one day you’ll understand. You’ll remember this and you won’t be as angry as you are now.”
“This is the best you can give your king?” Arthur felt anger and panic rising in his chest, and Merlin simply replied, “Our memories will return to us when the time is right.”
He had felt his own throat vibrate when he laughed. “And when would that be?”
A hand brushed against his arm. “The magic won’t fail us, Arthur.”
He had then woken with a violent jerk and bolted to the nearest liquor store – damn the consequences Uther would later have him pay.
When he was sixteen, he realized that no one else remembered. At least his mother was alive and happy with Uther in this life, but they could not begin to know how much they should appreciate their time together.
The week before his sixteenth birthday, Arthur met Lancelot, who stuck out a hand to shake and grinned.
“Just Lance,” he said, and gripped Arthur’s hand firmly.
The moment their hands touched Arthur was assailed with memories – memories of Lancelot in tournaments, on quests with him, a slight blush on his cheeks from a highly inappropriate sneer by another drunken knight and, finally, Lancelot’s fallen face as he held a woman by his side. The woman, Arthur knew, was Guinevere, though he had yet to meet her in this life.
Arthur had endured a year of memories on his own and wanted to shake Lance the moment he remembered and demand to know if he did, too. But one look directly into Lance’s eyes, and Arthur just knew, the same way he knew Guinevere’s name, that the person he met was simply Lance, and not Lancelot.
Lance was as brave and kind as Lancelot ever was, and Arthur despaired for another month until Leon transferred into his school.
Of course, Arthur had been too full of hope. Leon had no idea he had been a knight either.
Even without knowing, Arthur found himself becoming fast friends with Lance and Leon, and slowly became secretly appreciative of how they did not remember. They were his mates of their own choice, and not bound to him and a kingdom. They loved him without knowing he was their king, and as much as Arthur wished he could confide in someone about these damned visions, he was wholly gratified.
All that changed two years later when Morgana moved back to London.
She had been in Ireland for almost two years, doing some type of library work that Arthur never bothered to ask about. “I’m going to stay with you, just for two weeks before I move into my own flat, okay?” she asked as she barged into his newly acquired flat with three stuffed suitcases, two duffel bags, and a giant backpack.
“I have schoolwork.” He snapped at her as she started to unpack.
“Oh, please. I won’t bother you one bit.” Morgana took over the empty room that was meant to be Lance’s in a month, and actually did not bother him at all.
Until one night when he got himself disgustingly drunk and babbled everything to her.
“Lance and Percy dragged you back here last night.” She had told him the morning after and handed him a hot cup of tea.
They talked about useless things for a few minutes, but then Morgana steeled herself and looked at him.
“Are you sober yet?”
He nodded. “Not completely, but I should be okay for class later.”
“You aren’t going to class.” She said, and started to pour more hot water for him.
“I’m...not?” That was preposterous. Morgana had promised to stay out of his way.
“No.” She began to make herself some tea and said casually, “You and I are going to spend today having a much needed talk about Camelot.”
If Arthur had gawked at his step-sister, she didn’t mention it. She only smiled and added a splash of milk to her tea.
“I know you remember it, Arthur.” Arthur had never remembered Morgana to speak to him with such a soft and comforting voice. She probably never would again, until he finally found Merlin.
With his hands suddenly shaking violently, he was outrageously pleased that someone had finally remembered their past life, but there was so much confusion welling up inside him. There was too much he wanted to say at once, too much he wanted to ask her that he didn’t know what to say first. Instead, he just stared at her, knowing he was spilling warm tea all over his wrist and counter. Soon there was warm liquid dripping down his cheeks as well.
He saw a blur of Morgana dropping her own cup and rush to him, and he had never cried in front of anyone so hard.
Arthur couldn’t see clearly from his tears, but he saw in his mind Morgana on his throne, sneering at him, then Morgana was on her knees in front of a body with blond hair, sobbing, and dress completely soiled in mud. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She repeated over and over, arms enveloping the body, rocking back and forth.
But that had been over a thousand years ago, and they had been given a chance to make things right without a throne to fight over.
“Do you know anyone else?” he asked in between heaving gasps as he tried hopelessly to calm down, but she only shook her head and whispered, “I’m sorry” in his ear. He shivered from the déjà vu.
Years of keeping thoughts of another life to himself, years of being surrounded by the same people as before, the same people who couldn’t recall a single thing about who the previously were left him with a constant feeling of alienation, and all emotions erupted. He told Morgana everything. In return, she told him all she knew and they clung to each other, the only two in the world.
She had only known for a year, with her memories coming back when she slept at night. “Oh, and this one time I was in the library. I almost ripped apart a priceless first edition.” She laughed.
“Why is it just us?” he asked her, and winced at how pathetic he sounded. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she shushed him.
“I don’t know.” She admitted, “But I have a feeling that we will all remember before this life is over. And you know you can trust me when it comes to predicting the future.” She winked.
He had never loved her more.
Arthur called her sometimes, if she was away and he couldn’t bear it. Most of the time though, Morgana was in London working, and she always took him out for lunch on Saturdays.
They used to ask each other every week if they had met anyone knew, or if their friends showed signs of remembering. After months of negative answers and shaking heads, they both stopped asking.
“I know how much you two cared for each other, Arthur. The time will come”, Morgana said to him one day. He knew that if she was sure, then it was bound to happen - the only problem was when it would happen. It was more than agonizing.
Lance had gone out with a stunning blond in their last year of university, and when he announced how serious he was about her, Arthur wished he could congratulate his friend.
Don’t you see how wrong this is? He wanted to shout. This is not the way it’s supposed to work, he thought vehemently, this woman wasn’t in any of his memories! She just showed up in his economics class, and Lance had gone after her. Every single cell in his body felt an indescribable shift in the air when he brought her to Percy’s party.
“Hi, I’m Ellen.” She looked shy and waved at everyone.
She was nice, Arthur thought grudgingly. Of course Lance would pick someone who looked shockingly pretty and generous at the same time, but it was still wrong. There was no other word he could think of besides wrong. When Lance spoke of her, something in the air cackled, as if nature knew it wasn’t right, but no human knew except for Arthur. Morgana felt the shift too, but not the extent he did.
“Probably because he was your knight.” She explained to him over chips, and he sighed heavily.
Lance went out with her for five months. Arthur knew it was five months because they were the most sleepless consecutive months he had ever had. He had disturbingly real dreams of Lancelot and Guinevere back in Camelot. He saw the glances they cast each other during feasts, Lancelot accepting a lavender ribbon before jousting, and her joyous face when he returned from quests unharmed. Each night he slept less and less, until they finally parted. He had almost succumbed to sleeping pills again on the fourth month, but Lance had rung the moment he dressed for a trip to the store to say things were falling apart.
He could never bring himself to seriously date. He knew he couldn’t. There were many men and women who asked him out for coffee or lunch, but he never dared. Merlin could come at any given moment, and he would not start off with the wrong impression. To compensate, Arthur had countless one night stands, the majority of which he was intoxicated.
Each morning he would peer at his partner’s face with a wild and naïve hope that it would be Merlin, dark curls damp with sweat on his forehead taking small peaceful breaths.
It never was.
He hasn’t met anyone new since he and Morgana had that talk. Now, he isn’t sure that he will anymore. It’s been years, and keeping this secret is second nature to him.
Arthur is twenty seven now.
It’s been twelve years since his first flash of memory, and twelve years has beaten him down. Now he doesn’t hope that someone who resembles an old, dead soul from Camelot will actually be them, nor does his head snap into the direction of anyone who has dark hair and blue eyes.
He goes to work, meets Lance at his favorite pub every Friday night, and most of the time Morgana has to sober him up Saturday mornings so they can have lunch, and nothing meaningful happens.
No one comes, and no one even begins to realize that they are knights. No one knows that he is their king. No one truly looks like Merlin, and no one is named Merlin. With each year that passes, Arthur has started to experience more and more violent dreams, so much so that he has bought extra clothes to keep in Morgana’s flat for the nights he stays and goes through endless sleeping pills.
There is no helping it. The pills don’t exactly work the way they used to, but he needs something besides soft words to assure him that soon things will end.
How soon will it truly end, he wonders every Friday before downing his drink. He feels as if his life is falling apart, when it really isn’t. Well, it isn’t if you weren’t king in your previous life. Uther is about to promote him, he has a mother, and a close group of friends always willing to lend a hand or just have dinner with him, yet nothing was as fulfilling as being in Camelot with Merlin by his side. Sometimes he would wake from his memories with the taste of sweet summer in his mouth. A few mornings he had been woken by a clang of swords, and he shot up in his bed, hands feeling the sheets blindly for Excalibur before he saw that he was in his flat, a lifetime away from sword fighting.
But it has been over a decade, and Merlin has not appeared. Merlin has to, he reminds himself every day. There is no way that destiny would give him memories and leave him, would they? Morgana had no one either, and Arthur suspected the fates were rolling on their backs with laughter at the pair of them now.
Everything is monotonous. Arthur knows everything will be until Merlin finally comes into his life.
Twelve years, and Arthur finally finds Merlin.
He finally finds Merlin, and when he meets him, he also finally remembers his death.
Morgana needed a book picked up for her, so Arthur dutifully went to what was possibly the most cramped and musky library or bookshop he has ever been to.
Clutching the slip of paper with the title that Morgana hastily scribbled for him, he tries not to knock down stacks of books as he makes his way to a dusty wooden desk in the back.
“Can I help you?” an elderly man greets him, eyebrow raised.
Immediately Arthur laughs, and the man looks alarmed.
He’s found Gaius.
If Gaius was here, then Merlin has to be close.
“Sir?” Gaius asks and Arthur grins so hard he feels his cheeks hurt.
“I’m here to pick up a book.” He tells Gaius, and hands him the slip of paper.
“This may take a while to find, sir. Please be patient.”
Gaius walks into a back room where Arthur can see more stacks of encyclopedias and leather books.
Of course Gaius would be working in a bookshop, especially a puny one full of old books no one has ever heard of. Arthur almost wants to forgive the twelve years, because this is such a dingy place full of books he could hardly begin to care for.
He’s lost in his thoughts when a familiar voice asks him, “Are you looking for something, sir?”
He shivers for a moment and his pulse skyrockets.
Arthur knows that voice. He’s always known it, ever since that English class, but hearing it outside his visions is something he isn’t used to quite yet. It’s been too long, and the voice almost isn’t real at first. That is, until Arthur turns.
Merlin is there, holding a huge dictionary close to his chest, smiling serenely at him, just like a lifetime ago, eyes crinkling in the same way they’ve always done, lips curved upwards just like Arthur remembers, face structured with the same sharp cheekbones Arthur remembers kissing before heading off to battles.
Like with Lance, Arthur takes one look directly into Merlin’s light blue eyes, and isn’t surprised when he finds no recognition.
No one else has remembered, of course Merlin wouldn’t either. He should be crushed - he is - but the pain has dulled as time went by. Now he’s just glad to see Merlin, with or without his memories.
At least Merlin was here, flesh and bone in front of him, instead of the apparition-like Merlin in his memories.
“I think so.” Arthur chokes out, and bites his lip at how weird his voice sounds.
Merlin sets his dictionary down and smiles again. “What do you need?”
You, Arthur thinks. You, you, you, only you, Merlin.
“Um.” He says, not trusting himself any further before he scares Merlin off.
He has to say something, right now. Preferably something intelligent, but his mind is blank, and all he can think of is how it’s about fucking time he’s met Merlin.
“Ah, newcomer.” Merlin nods knowingly and starts naming a few books.
It should be a shame that Arthur isn’t listening. These books are probably Merlin’s favorite, or at least ones he has an inclination towards, but Arthur feels something stir in the air, and suddenly things are right. Merlin has yet to remember he is the most powerful warlock the world has known, but after years of lamenting to Morgana and keeping secrets from all his friends, the air around him has changed for the better.
For a second Arthur smells something he always has in his dreams. He breathes in a combination of sweat, leather, rosemary, and honey. He is just about to smile at the nostalgia when a memory hits him.
The moment the vision begins, Arthur knows that it will be the last one he sees.
Merlin is hovering over him, dirt caked over his face and his mouth moving, but Arthur can’t hear a word he’s saying. There is something warm on his own forehead and neck, and he knows it is his own blood. The blow must have taken his sense of hearing away also. He becomes aware of the blood oozing out of his ears, and Merlin’s eyes are widening in panic. His eyes cloud and he is saying something while Arthur despairs. This is the end, and they both know it. They had been prepared for a year, but there was never enough time in the world for them. As soon as Arthur opens his mouth, he feels how chapped his lips are, and the strain of trying to talk drains the last of his energy.
“Mer...lin.” he feels himself say, and is relieved he can’t hear how broken his voice is.
Merlin’s lips are moving furiously and his eyes are gold but dripping with tears. Arthur wants desperately to laugh at how beautiful Merlin is with golden tears, but he feels like he’s slipping away.
No man is worth your tears, he thinks, regretting that Merlin has never perfected telepathy. Especially not for me.
The last thing his mind registers is Merlin’s lips against his.
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”
Arthur is shaken out of his final memory.
He hears himself breathing hard at remembering his last few moments, and Merlin is looking at him, head titled to the side inquisitively.
“Sorry.” Arthur grimaces, partly because he is still feeling the blood pounding in his ears and because he has waited too long for this – for Merlin, and he is not going to mess this up.
“What were you saying?”
Merlin looks at him oddly, but starts to repeat the book titles.
“I don’t know what kind of books you’re into, sir –“
“Arthur” Arthur interrupts, and Merlin beams at him.
“Well, Arthur, you may or may not be a fan of history or even historical fiction, but there is one book that most people I know enjoy.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow, but can’t suppress his grin when Merlin reaches out to a nearby shelf and hands him a thick book.
The title is faint and Arthur squints to make it out, but Merlin saves him the trouble.
“It’s my favorite.” He says. “The actual title is in Welsh, but it’s a huge encyclopedia of European mythology. Most of it is Welsh mythology though….Welsh book and all.”
Merlin suddenly looks a bit sheepish.
There was no familiarity at first to convince Arthur that Merlin would soon regain his memories, but now the air is humming with magic, and in the dim lighting of Gaius’s bookstore, Arthur sees remnants of twelve years of memories finally fade, leaving room golden for a split second before Merlin opens the book to his favorite myth and smiles warmly.