The people of Camelot sing in the streets. The castle is alive with vivid colour and it seems to Undine that even the flowers on windowsills and the velvet of curtains are impossibly brighter than the day before.
“The King is returned to us!” says Lynolin, catching her hands in an impromptu dance around the courtyard, which is already bustling with more activity than she has seen in the year and a day since she came to the city.
“What do you mean?” she asks her fellow serving maid, “He left only for a day. He often does so, why does everyone celebrate so?”
“You weren’t here when he was still a prince. You weren’t here before, but just look at him and tell me you can’t see how different he is. The King is home, and Camelot - we will be right again.”
Undine walks past the training yards on her way to the laundry house to judge for herself whether King Arthur is so changed, but he is not there. Perhaps there is something different, she thinks to herself, for she cannot remember there ever being a day when the King was not in the training yards at this hour. She often wonders at his expression when he trains, as though he has nothing worth fighting for but he does so because he has never done anything else.
She is sure she is half in love with King Arthur, but everyone is. It’s easy to be in love with the King, because he is the most distant and loneliest of stars. Everyone who sees him hopes and dreams that they might be the one to pin him back to his country, but they know in their hearts they never could.
That evening there is a great feast. Undine has yet to see the King, but upon asking each of her friends, and even some strangers, what all the celebration is for, they give her an answer equal to Lynolin’s. “The King - when you look at him, you will see. He is made of light again.”
She brings her tray of wine into the hall, and suddenly Undine understands. She has watched the King many times before. In the year and day since she came to Camelot, never has she seen the King meet anyone’s eyes, or have a conversation lasting longer than two minutes about anything other than business, nor has he ever looked at her, though she serves him his meals every day. Never has Undine seen him smile.
At the table he laughs aloud at something Sir Constantine has said and then chats with Morgana who sits at his right while offering her some more bread. His eyes are so blue, she has never seen them that colour before. He sits back and moment and waves his hand, signalling for more wine.
Dutifully she walks forward to fill his cup and is about to step away, bowing her head as she always does, but he stops her.
He turns slightly so his hips face the man seated at his left. She is surprised she did not notice him before. He is about the same age as Arthur, with intense pale grey eyes and dark hair. He is too slight to be a knight and his hands are too rough to be a noble’s, but he wears the fine dark gold brocade coat at his shoulders as though he was born to it. “This is Undine.”
She bites back a breath, surprised that he knows her name, but the King continues. “I thought you should know, Merlin, she replaced you…for serving food anyway, and she is both better at it than you ever were, and she looks much nicer than you in the Hat.” The words are rude alone, but his voice is so jovial they seem practically complimentary to the dark haired man.
“Anyone would have looked better than me in that hat, Arthur.” He turns to look at her, and for a moment, his eyes are not grey at all. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Arthur.”
“What?” asks the King.
Merlin addresses Undine. “Send my regards to your mother, please. She makes very fine trout. And tell her again that I’m sorry about trying to kill her, not all water nymphs are quite so friendly as she.”
She feels her mouth drop open and her eyes widen. “Yes, sir.” she squeaks.
An expression appears on the Kings face, which can be described only as wicked. He grins showing all his teeth, and Undine has certainly never seen this King before. Where is the pain? The loss? The coldness?
He whispers something into Merlin’s ear, which causes the man to blush and chuckle. “Yes, yes.” He says after moment.
The King turns back to her. “Thank you, Undine.” He says, as he never has in the past.
The King is returned to us.
It is very late and the white of the moon on the black of the sky is starkly elegant.
Gwen braids and unbraids and brushes Morgana’s hair again and again until her scalp aches, and she places her hands over Gwen’s and says with the fluttering pulse of her wrist, please, stop now. The castle’s great clock chimes to twelve and Morgana stands to look out the window. She sings beneath her breath of forgiveness in another language.
“Have you dreamed…?” Gwen begins to ask, but Morgana shakes her head, eyes tilted to the floor.
“What if no one else is ready for this, I mean, this will change everything, won’t it?”
“It wasn’t that Camelot was ever not ready for magic.” Morgana says, but she isn’t so annoyed, because she often wonders the same things.
Three years was too long without Merlin in Camelot and it shows in the dragging feet of the people and the grey rain that won’t leave the skies above the city clear. It’s funny how magic affects a place. As much of it as Merlin had – when it suddenly goes missing, nature changes. Morgana fears what may come of Camelot if it is longer left in shadow. What if Arthur can’t find Merlin to ask his return, or what if he doesn’t want to come back? Perhaps he’s found some place better. Someone better. Maybe Camelot isn’t enough anymore.
Morgana wouldn’t be so surprised. When she does dream of Merlin – though she has not for some time, and expects it is his own doing - it isn’t a servant boy she sees, but a man, seemingly very tall, and with eyes like the sun fading out of a slow summer day. He is not clothed in homespun wool but the fine light of eternity. He is so powerful.
Finally when light has peaked in soft pink streaks the colour of new bruises, a clatter of horses sounds in the courtyard. Morgana leaps to her feet and flies like a small child down the stone steps and out of the castle with Gwen trailing behind.
In the pale dawn, it is hard to make out the two figures standing still against the sky as if painted there. They appear to be giants, for a moment; legendary, and timeless and then Morgana steps closer, and sees only Arthur and Merlin. Arthur dismounts first and holds his hand out to help Merlin off of his horse. Merlin accepts it though Morgana thinks he usually wouldn’t have. Merlin’s horse is not one Morgana has ever seen before. It is white, though there is no such thing as a white horse, and it places it’s head first against Merlin’s chest and then against Arthur’s. It nods to them, and makes a soft noise before galloping from the courtyard.
For a moment, neither of them notice Morgana, who stands several paces back from them, shy as she never has been before.
The two men stand chest to chest, their hands raised and pushed palm to palm, as though comparing size and shape. The whisper to each other, too softly to hear. Then Arthur tilts his head down, so that their faces are impossibly close together. They stand that way for long minutes, so near to each other that their eye lashes must be brushing as they blink.
Finally, Morgana coughs and they both turn, seemingly surprised, to look at her. Merlin smiles and waves and steps away from Arthur to come and greet her, but Morgana does not miss the way that Arthur catches up with Merlin quickly, and slings an arm around his shoulder in easy camaraderie, or perhaps because he is much too afraid to ever let go.
“I’m home, now.” Merlin says as he kisses Morgana’s cheek.
“Don’t leave again.” Morgana replies.
“Like I was really eager to go in the first place.” He half-laughs. “But I can’t anyway. Destiny, and all that.”
These days, Arthur and the King look grey as each other.
Uther has sent Arthur to Gaius several times, asking him to check his health, prescribe him something, but in truth, there is nothing physically wrong with him at all. He finally gives Arthur a phial of apple juice just to make Uther leave him alone. Similarly, there is nothing for Gaius to prescribe for the King that will make colour return to his cheeks or depth to his voice.
These days, Arthur is acting as king - Uther rules in name only.
It is strange to Gaius that Uther should die for no reason other than that he is old now. Gaius is even older, as are many other members of the court, but Uther has lived a hard life, and it has taken it’s toll. His hair is grey, and his eyes are tired, and his breaths grow longer and longer apart by measures smaller than the turning of the moon. Gaius used to believe that a person nature stayed the same throughout their lives, and that no one was really so different when they were old from when they were young, but he remembers well the boy Uther used to be and he sees now who he has become and they are not the same man.
Arthur is measurably kinder to the King now than he has been in these last two years, and Gaius knows that Uther takes it as a death omen far more telling than one any backwoods witch might be able to provide him. Change twists the air and makes the Kingdom heel at its feet. Gaius has seen it many times before, it isn’t hard to scent the sly upheaval.
Arthur comes to his rooms one day and they sit and speak to each other on Merlin’s bed, Arthur thinking Gaius doesn’t notice that he presses his nose into the sheets every time Gaius turns around, and Gaius marvelling that he still hasn’t gotten around to cleaning the old bedroom out, as if he ever would. No one is dead. He tells himself. But it seems as if someone is, and soon someone will be.
“I am a terrible son.” Arthur says.
“Of course you are not.” Gaius replies, “You are only angry at the freedoms your father won’t allow you. Every son suffers so.”
“No. I am a terrible son, because I am eager for my father’s death. And I cannot even say it’s for the good of Camelot!”
Arthur is rarely quite as blunt as that, and it takes Gaius by surprise, but he still has his answer. “You are only a boy in love, and no one could begrudge you that.”
Arthur scoffs. “I’ll tell you who could begrudge me that.” He doesn’t finish the statement because, of course, they both know perfectly well who. Instead he takes the painkillers Gaius has made for his father, and he waits because that is all he can do.
Uther dies when Arthur is gone from the city, as he is every month. Gaius overhears Morgana asking Arthur not to leave, because it is clear to any that see him that Uther could slip away into the dark any day now, but he only shakes his head to her and saddles his horse.
Arthur’s manservant has disappeared, because he is a sorcerer, as Uther suspected he might be even before the entirely telling event during the Crown Prince’s tour when bandits attacked them thinking they were only travelling nobles, and arrows rained from the trees upon the royal party, but none found their marks, and instead the bounced up from the ground, turned around and instead chased their masters. Merlot or whatever he was called stood up high on his horse with his arms splayed out and his eyes fierce gold.
Arthur, beside him, appeared furious, but Uther was not sure it was for the right reason
He has run now, just like they all do. If he were to return, Uther would kill him in a second, not because he has done anything wrong yet, but because it’s only a matter of time. And because Uther has killed others before him for the same reason and Kings make only absolute laws. He would kill him because a man who runs is a coward, sorcerers most of all.
Three days later, Arthur disappears too, and Uther waits for Gaius to tell him that magic is responsible for this terrible misfortune; he waits for all hope to be lost except the single flame, which saves them all. Instead Morgana knocks on his door two nights after Arthur’s vanishing and gives him a note which reads: I will return soon, please do not worry. in Arthur’s thick surely-curling script.
He does not know whether to be more offended that the letter is clearly not meant to reassure him, being written for Morgana’s sake or because she has taken two days to show it to him. He means to say as much to her but stops when he sees a look upon her face that is not the same as when he killed her handmaiden’s father, but it turns his stomach inside out in just the same way.
Arthur returns three weeks later. Uther told the people that he was away in a neighbouring village to deal with bandits, but no one seems to believe it. It isn’t hard to guess the lie, there haven’t been any reports of bandits anywhere after the manservant’s showing, and no other knights have left the castle to aid him. Some say that the Prince visits a Lady from another land for love, some say he hunts his manservant for his betrayal, some say he fights with his father, a rift among the royals.
For another three weeks past that, Uther scarcely sees his son at all, he means to summon him and chastise him for his disappearance, ask him where and who and why, but it seems as though each time he might finally proceed to do so Arthur’s eyes meet his across a courtyard or the hall with such coldness that Uther is afraid of his son. He means to ask for answers, but he fears he knows them already, and he fears knowing he is right.
A month passes, and each day Arthur grows more and more distant, not only from Uther, but from his knights and Morgana and his people. Then he disappears again for two days, and Uther is sick of all these cover stories, and whispers in the street about what possibly could have happened to their beloved prince. He is especially sick of feeling like it’s his fault. He has done nothing wrong. A king does not make mistakes. When Arthur returns he has a pale silvering of contentment in his eyes, but it fades away like sparks in rain.
The disappearances do not stop. Every month like clockwork, Arthur is gone, and returns with his grief heavy shoulder temporarily lifted. Uther sometimes plans to send people to follow him, he sometimes has mind to ask Gaius if there is any chance of magic at play, but he never does. He finds himself alone in the throne room with Morgana and Arthur and Gaius, and he sees for a half glimmer of a moment, that everything he has worked for, all the careful chains he has bound Camelot in to keep her the safest he knows how are for naught. The future that is coming is not the one he has built, and he can do nothing for it. He sees this and makes himself forget, finding his own safe chains to lock treacherous thoughts behind.
And though a King is never wrong, the worst part of everything is the guilt. No matter what he says in the privacy of his mind, no matter what reasons he may devise, it is not possible for him to completely push away the knowledge that the jaded weariness cloaking Arthur as sure as any armour is his own doing. He used to privately wish, though he hated to do so, that Arthur might have a little something of this look: tiredness, a worldly knowledge. Arthur was too warm before, his heart unprotected, out on his sleeve. But it isn’t right for Arthur, perhaps Uther is that sort of King, but Arthur is not, he sees that now.
Sometimes, he wants to ask Arthur how a manservant could possibly be worth more to Arthur than clean boots and a polished sword, how Arthur could ever care more about Merlin than about his father’s trust. But Uther doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t want to know the answer, because he is a King, and Kings are never wrong. He must live with no regrets, and die by those same laws.
It has been exactly one month now and Gwen wants to cry for Merlin’s absence because Arthur won’t.
He’s only been back for a week from wherever he went, Gwen can only guess, but she’d probably be right. She serves his wine at dinner now, as he refuses to get a replacement servant, and Morgana sits next to him anyway so it isn’t any extra hassle for her. It’s strange to her that when Arthur asked her to pour the wine, he was worried it might be inconvenient for her, he would never have even thought to care before Merlin.
Sometimes, she thinks about the time she’s known Arthur divided up like that. Before Merlin, After Merlin. Now she has another to add to the list: After Merlin Left.
Now, Arthur is made of steel. He’s cold and hard and he never slips in his speech or his fighting in the practise yard. He a perfect prince in the way he never was before, never thinking of his own wants, completely judicious in his actions. He plays no favourites with the court, does not miss a feast or scheduled training with his knights, he does not take advantage of his royalty or tease any of the common people.
Gwen wants her prince back, though, because however strong this one is, he’s too brittle with ice, and Gwen fears he might shatter in a strong wind.
A tournament has just finished, and Arthur has won it as he always does, though when he fought it was fireless, the crowd felt it, and by the last day, the stadium was only just full, unlike the usual overcrowded rows and peasant children climbing over the walls just to get a glimpse of the famous Prince Arthur.
On her way to Morgana’s room to dress her for the “victory” feast, Gwen passes Arthur’s chambers, and hears him shout out and the sudden sound of breaking glass. Terror burns down her spine, because if Arthur is truly in danger than who will save him now? She pulls the door open quickly, but only finds a broken vase smashed against the far wall, and Arthur struggling and unable to get his armour off alone.
She rushes forward to help him, but he shakes his head violently, growl catching roughly as it crawls out his throat. Gwen slows and instead hovers several feet away from Arthur, her hands itching to help him, but to fearful of the desperation in Arthur’s eyes.
Finally he has struggled free, and instead he stands still, breath sharp and fast, as though he has just come from a great battle.
“Gueniverre. Gwen.” He says her name like a mirthless laugh. “I can’t do it. Not without…”
Merlin. Hangs off the end of the sentence sneakily.
“I can’t even take of my armour alone. And he was terrible at it. How is it even possible that I need…I can’t…”
His mouth opens but nothing more comes out. She has rarely seen Arthur so barely laid before her, perhaps never. Even Before Merlin Left, before he was made of stone, Arthur had his pride. She wonders if Merlin were privy to this strange other entirely mask-free Arthur all the time.
She stares at her feet and searches the air for words to fix a broken prince, but there is only one person who can do that, so she tries for the next best thing. “Well, I think, I mean, maybe it’ll be good because, not that I’m saying…you’re really strong already, but now you’ll be stronger because you will miss each other and then it’ll be like absence makes the heart grown fonder, or something, so you’ll be happier later or, at least, you might be, and then he’ll be back before you know it and you can be together?”
He shakes his head. “I wish, Gwen, but you don’t understand. I’m not alive anymore without him. My father won’t die for years.”
“What if His Majesty said magic was…?”
“No.” Arthur says, quickly, “He won’t ever, and I won’t ascend the throne with blood on my hands.”
Silence reigns, and then Arthur says. “I can’t believe that prat made me so – so bloody in love with him. He’s gone and done exactly what you aren’t supposed to do with magic, he’s made me useless. I really might as well be dead!”
“What if you visited him?” says Gwen. She regrets it the minute it’s out of her mouth, because it’s a stupid thing to say, visiting Merlin, like he’s just on vacation in the next town over, where does she come up with these things, but then Arthur nearly smiles.
“Oh, why didn’t I think of that, that’s brilliant.” He pauses, and then sighs, exasperated. “That must be what Merlin mean when he said he’d be back in the clearing in a month. I thought he was just planning some party with the forest sprites or something…” Arthur trails off, still mumbling to himself, and Gwen slowly backs from them room. She finally reaches the door and she closes it carefully behind her and then stands still, pressing her ear to the door.
Arthur’s muttering grows softer and softer, and then, after a second of quiet, there is a thin cry of anguish and another vase smashes against the door. Gwen turns her head down, and hurries to help Morgana dress.
Merlin escapes from the cell they held him in as soon as the guards walk away from it to return to their ale and dice. He cloaks himself in silence and uses a spell to shape the shadows around him, masking his presence. Eyes don’t settle on him, they slide away as though his image is soaked in oil.
He does not hesitate as he walks past the castle’s main door, as he walks past safety, freedom, instead he climbs the staircase to Arthur’s chamber, taking them three at a time, his feet strangely echoless on the flagstone steps.
Merlin murmurs to the lock at Arthur’s door and then enters slowly, just in case Arthur is feeling wary or nervous enough to draw his sword at someone who enters through a dead bolted door.
The room, once Merlin is inside, would appear empty, save for the curtains drawn tightly around the Prince’s bed. It’s spotless, and no clothing or disused weaponry clutters the floor like normal. The table is empty of food and trays. Merlin draws the curtains back from the bed - the velvet makes a soft noise like a mother hushing a frightened child.
Arthur lays on his bed fully clothed, his boots still laced, with his silk lined jacked unbuttoned halfway. He holds a silver dagger between his hands, twisting it back and forth as though the curves of the carvings of the handle might hold the questions to his answers.
He turns and catches Merlin’s eyes, and though the room is very dark they can see each other with sharp clarity, perhaps because they look on each other so often that their memories build up half the picture.
“I told you to run, as soon as possible, you’re risking yourself, climbing all the way up here first, Mer-lin.” He draws his name into two long syllables to express his annoyance.
“I wasn’t going to go anywhere without saying goodbye.” Merlin says, not liking that his voice tilts into a near shake for a moment.
“We said goodbye.” Arthur replies, dropping his eyes back to the dagger in his hands quickly, and Merlin can’t help but feel a tiny bit of relief. Arthur’s voice nearly quavers, too.
“Properly, I mean.”
“Don’t - ”
“ - be an idiot. I know, I know. But anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I’m not leaving.”
“Uh,” Arthur says, scooting to the side of the bed, ignoring where his boots leave mud prints. “Perhaps we’re not on the same page about the definition of ‘idiot.’ My father is going to kill you.”
Merlin sinks onto the bed beside Arthur, scooting along until his arm rests on top of Arthur’s. “I’ve got it sorted. If you can just keep him from killing me right away – just convince him its better to leave me alive in the dungeon, and then I can still watch you, so that if anything happens I won’t be too far to help and if - ”
“I’m not keeping you in the dungeon until my father dies, Merlin.” He pauses, and then nearly whispering adds, “You’re like a bloody rose, Merlin, you’d wilt.”
“I’m not a flower, you prat. I wouldn’t.”
Arthur sighs his usually exasperated how-did-I-get-stuck-with-you sigh, and then turns on his side and pushes at Merlin until they lay mimicking each other, reflections, mirrors. Arthur reaches out and so does Merlin, and they press their hands together as they often do in just this way. As usual, Arthur feels a sudden rush of magic, gets a small glimpse of the power curled up inside Merlin. He feels the wind on a rocky beach, tastes the last gasping breaths of early death, the hot burn of blood and metal and sunlight, and the sweet stretch of new blooms in spring.
“If I feel this now, you must always feel it, a hundred times more. You’d wilt, and I wouldn’t be able to let it happen.”
Merlin looks as though he’s about to argue more, but instead he shakes his head and sits up, digging in his pockets until he pulls out a small blue stone. Gently, he presses it into Arthur’s hands.
“I’ve made this for you last year, just in case, you probably remember when I was sick for that week?”
“Well, I invested a lot of power into this, and that’s why. It should sort of direct attention away from you. Sorcerers often are drawn to you, us, I think because you burn very brightly, and destiny, and fate, when it has such a direct path…I see it sometimes, when I dream, it’s like a ribbon, and it feels as if I snapped it, I could rule the world…”
Arthur gets a slightly alarmed look in his eyes, and Merlin only laughs. “I wouldn’t of course, it also feels as if I snapped it I would die, but that’s not the case for most, I think. Anyway, the purpose of the stone is that it should sort of mask this, when a sorcerer thinks about you it should guide their thoughts away a bit. Just to lessen the trouble you usually draw. It won’t work forever, but hopefully…”
With firmness, Arthur responds, “It won’t have to work forever, of course.”
“Right, well the other thing it does is let me know if you’re in trouble, and also, it should allow Morgana to dream of you more often and accurately, because I asked for a bit of her blood to make it.”
“Seer - I thought I’d mentioned that to you.”
“Uh, no. But whatever…you’d think I’d expect this by now.”
“Hmm…” Merlin laughs, with his usual mile wide grin. It occurs to him that this might be the last time Arthur makes him laugh for years.
They lay in silence for a long time, Arthur absently tracing patterns on Merlin’s stomach where the skin has been exposed by his moving. He lies as still as possible because Arthur might stop if her realizes what he’s doing. Instead he hums softly and thinks of the future as only one who lives in a darkened present can.
“I have to leave before it’s light.” he says.
“I love you.” Arthur replies. “I know that…I know that I don’t say it often enough, but you must understand, it’s self-preservation, I have a duty to the country too, and I choose it before you, but only because I believe that you do too, that you agree. And I love you.”
“Prat.” Merlin murmurs against Arthur’s ear, and he disappears off the bed like a ghost, fleet of foot and near invisible in the moon’s half-light. Arthur sits up quickly, and turns his face up to watch Merlin’s figure leaving. Merlin turns back to Arthur after a moment and leans forward to bestow a kiss on his lips.
“If you would meet me in the clearing on the far edge of the lake in three days time, with food and supplies, I’d be very grateful, I can’t risk trying to steal them now, if I want to be out of Camelot proper by morning.”
“Of course.” Arthur replies.
Merlin turns at the door before closing it behind him. “I’ll miss you.” he says, and then he is gone.