Everyone knew the man at the end of the lane was a little eccentric. In a village the size of theirs, everyone knew everyone, knew everything about them, yet no one knew much about the man at the end of the lane. Some people said he was called Bertram, others called him Fred and a few others knew him as Merlin – but that was more of a joke due to his appearance. People could be cruel sometimes.
Whatever he was called – everyone got around that by never properly talking to him – the man was odd. A few children claimed they’d seen him in old fashioned dresses and while they considered themselves to be a fairly liberal village, no one knew what to think of that. Still, most people simply nodded their head and hissed at their children to stay away from that house.
Which worked for a day or two, but the children always went back. They all pushed through the thick ring of bushes that surrounded the man’s lawn and some crept up to the doorway. The house sat alone at the end of the road, overlooking the lake behind them. It was a dark and dingy house, appealing to all children as some territory to conquer.
Occasionally the man would leap from his house, door banging against the ivy covered door and a roar in his throat. The children would scream and scatter, the older ones laughing and slowing after two paces of panicked running. The old man meant no harm ad would pass around chocolates, smiling at the children and shooing them from his garden. Senile and strange, but the man would never harm a soul.
There was one more thing that the village knew about the man. Each and every Monday he would walk down to the lake, walk its entirety – not an easy feat, but somehow he managed it in under a day – before taking himself to the nearby pub. There, he’d sit in the corner furthest from the roaring fire with a pint, quiet and still as if he was the very chair he was sitting on. No one approached him and he never approached anyone in turn.
That was just how life was in their village. Every village had a strange man and it was no big deal, not when he was harmless. Everyone left him to his own devices and the old man kept to himself.
If only they knew.
But waiting wasn’t all that Merlin did. Oh no. He looked and took notice, notice of the people around him and the dates. He always read the papers – every one of them, despite how vicious some of them were and how ridiculous some of the stories were. Merlin couldn’t afford to miss out on vital information, not now when things were beginning to align.
Merlin had seen the signs, had spent an eternity trying to read them and prepare for them.
Like the tragic death of Mrs Smith, who left behind two strong willed children and a loving husband. Like the return of the foster kid twelve houses down, the kid who’d dropped out of every school he’d attended because he was convinced he was a failure. Like the arrival of three young university lads who were renting in the village because it was cheaper than getting anywhere closer to the uni itself.
But those signs wouldn’t spark properly for a while and Merlin simply kept an eye on them all, smiling to himself when he heard villagers talking about them. It gave him hope – for if they could return, different people with the same souls, then the one Merlin so desperately wanted to see again could too.
The cuckoo clock on the wall went off and Merlin rose, ignoring the ache in his bones. Life was easier as an old man – no one asked odd questions and just accepted his need to be alone. Sure children liked to crawl over his garden and he tolerated them (okay so he enjoyed their antics really), but for the most part, everyone leaves an old man to himself.
Merlin dressed quickly, shoving on his wellies and walking coat. He was glad modern technology kept up with clothing; over the decades his walks around the lake of Avalon had become ever so slightly more pleasant.
He grabbed a bag, shoved his thermos of tea in there and slung it onto his hunched back, feeling for his staff – walking stick, he corrected himself – and leaving the house. Merlin didn’t bother to lock the door, knowing the house would protect itself should anyone be stupid enough to try and steal from him. Besides, it wasn’t as if there was anything of value in his house. The only thing he wanted had been stolen a long, long time ago.
The walk around the lake was, as usual, tortuous. Merlin knew the route like the back of his hand. He knew which warrens were in use and which herds of deer were in the area. He knew where the prey for the falcons were and knew where the ladybirds would be gathering when they were around. This wood, this lake, were his and his alone. He was magic, he was power and he was all Avalon had left to cling to.
Yet in the same way, Avalon was all Merlin had to cling to too.
As he walked, Merlin let himself drift into old memories, a dangerous practice he only reserved for these walks. The land responded to his melancholy, trees whispering to themselves and boughs knocking together gently in the wind, grasses pushing him along in support and animals daring to look at the human passing through. Merlin paid no heed though, thinking of the lonely days of Camelot after Arthur had died and how he hadn’t been able to bear returning.
They’d all known Merlin wouldn’t return. Even Gaius had known, back when there had been hope, Merlin had seen the truth in his eyes and-
No. Merlin took a deep breath, pausing on the track and leaning on his staff. He didn’t need to think about Camlann, Camlann was always in his mind and yet there were so many other memories, happier ones when everyone was safe and brimming with life.
Back when destiny was just another funny word.
It took a surprising amount of effort to begin walking again, but Merlin did it. He somehow managed to keep Arthur, Gwen and the knights’ smiling faces in his head as he walked round, his magic ebbing and flowing around him. The lake didn’t stir an inch and Merlin turned away with half-closed eyes, feeling the urge for alcohol settle in his belly.
The pub was the only one in the village and had a homely feel. If Merlin was honest, he’d admit that it reminded him of the Rising Sun back in Camelot with its hearty fire and traditional menu, but he had no one to be honest to.
The name Camlann still wouldn’t leave his mind though and Merlin took his usual seat with a grimace, drinking his pint with a fierce intensity. He returned for another – ignoring the shock of the barkeep – and then two more when he’d finished respectively. It was hardly Merlin’s intention to get drunk, but he’d never held liquor well and centuries hadn’t changed him much at all.
It was how, on a Monday evening, Merlin ended up sitting at the bar, waving his hands excitedly as he told stories of knights and beasts.
“Then it came leaping out of the bushes, big as a horse, snarling with poisonous saliva,” he paused, looked down at his empty glass and frowned at the dregs of beer left. “What was I saying?” Merlin asked, having forgotten what he’d been talking about. Was it the chimera or the questing beast? Or had he been talking about one of the high priestesses he’d bumped off? It was hard to tell with the fuzziness in his mind.
“Not that it matters,” Merlin continued, shifting on his stool to see who he was sitting beside. To his delight, the chair to his left was occupied by an elderly gentleman and he smiled, glad that someone had been listening after all.
“What we really should talk about,” Merlin said, pointing at the various bottle stacked up behind the bar with all the wisdom of an emperor (or so he liked to think). “Is the lake.”
“The lake?” the man beside him said, curiosity in his voice. It reminded Merlin of something, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Yes!” he said instead. His eyes trailed over the bottles and he smiled when he saw a red one. He’d always loved the colour red. “I fucking hate that lake.”
There was a brief silence and then, “But you walk it every Monday.”
“I do,” Merlin acknowledged and paused, lowering his hand at last and sighing. “Because it’s everything to me.”
That was the closest Merlin had ever come to saying what exactly the lake of Avalon meant to him aloud. He hated the lake with a burning passion because it meant so much to him and Merlin would never be able to leave it.
Everyone he’d ever loved he’d set to rest on the lake. Freya – though she still kept a hold of Arthur’s sword, keeping the blade gleaming and strong, a reminder that one day, one day they’d be that strong again – had been the first Merlin had laid, but there were too many more. Lancelot, Elyan, Gwaine, Percival, Leon, Gwen, Gaius… all of those he’d cared for and those who had died. Though he’d never returned to Camelot he’d taken their bodies, letting them surrender to the clear waters of the lake.
He’d let the earth take Morgana. She was buried in an unmarked grave, the very thing she’d feared when breath had still entered her lungs, and Merlin tried to forget the location. Every week he’d pass by the ring of trees and narrow his eyes, searching for any sign she might return. So far there had been nothing and he hoped it would stay that way.
“I really fucking hate it,” Merlin said again and the man beside him clapped his back, the weight familiar and reassuring.
“We all have our demons and vices,” he said with a stern grin and it hit Merlin like a tonne of bricks. Gaius, this man was Gaius! “But sometimes they’re there for a reason.”
He then bid Merlin a goodnight and left, slipping his coat on and hands into his pockets, as if he hadn’t just proved himself to be someone Merlin had loved long, long ago.
There was a reason though, a very important reason. In fact it was the only reason Merlin still existed, still hoped and still went through his days as if nothing was wrong. Arthur was his reason – wasn’t he always? – and Merlin smiled to himself, the buzz in his head dying down as he allowed his magic to heal away the effects of alcohol.
By the time he’d returned to the lake, Merlin was sober. He still held his staff and backpack and wore his elderly face, but he felt younger than he had for years. The lake was buzzing with magic and Merlin didn’t need to slow down time to see the shimmers of the Sidhe as they danced over the surface water.
“Emrys,” a deep voice greeted and Merlin nodded to the Sidhe queen. She smiled and bowed her head; Merlin had been living for longer than her bloodline had been in power and he was the only one she would ever lower her head to.
“No doubt you felt the stir of time,” she said and Merlin nodded, watching as the queen hovered above the water, toes only just touching the still surface.
“Familiar faces have appeared,” he said, ignoring the nervous coil in his stomach.
“Yes,” the queen said, sobering somewhat. “But you know what else that means…”
She didn’t have to say it and Merlin really didn’t want to think of it, not when he was this close to getting Arthur back. But he had to say it, had to admit that there was a reason for this all, a reason that couldn’t revolve around Merlin’s happiness.
“Albion needs its Once and Future King,” he said thickly and the Sidhe queen nodded.
“That is a story for another time though,” she said and turned, waving her hands as the gateway to Avalon appeared. “There is much the King needs to learn before then.”
A figure, barefooted and clothed in white, stepped from the gateway and Merln hardly registered as his staff fell to the ground. The water lapped at the man’s calves as he walked towards the shore, shoulders squared and eyes twinkling. Behind him, the Sidhe began to retreat, their queen nodding to Merlin before she left, sealing the gateway to Avalon and leaving Merlin alone with… with…
“You look ridiculous,” Arthur – and fuck it was Arthur! – said as his feet touched the muddy shore. Any normal human would have slipped, but Arthur just crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow at Merlin.
“That can’t be natural or you’d be a wrinkled prune by now,” he continued and Merlin shook his head, still taken aback by how easily Arthur had returned. “Take it off,” Arthur demanded and Merlin’s magic rose to the challenge, fading the wrinkles and darkening his hair until all that was left was the man who had held Arthur as he’d died, the man who had fought with everything he had to protect his king and failed.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, the words cracking as they left his lips in a whisper. “Arthur I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I-“
“Shut up Merlin,” Arthur cut in and Merlin’s head snapped to look at him, eyes widening at the smile on Arthur’s lips. “I’m here now and I’m sorry for making you wait so long.”
That was all it took and Merlin threw his backpack to the ground, launching himself into Arthur’s arms. Arthur was warm and nothing how he’d been the last time they’d been together. He was alive, vibrant and Merlin clutched him tightly, tears spilling from his eyes, no doubt dirtying the white robe Arthur was wearing.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, though it wasn’t a command or question, it just was. His arms encircled Merlin, pulling them as tight as could be, two hearts beating in synchronisation; happy, healthy and ready to take on the world.
“There are so many things I want to say,” Merlin said, voice strangled by emotion. He laughed, loosening his grip ever so lightly on Arthur’s robe. “So many things I have to tell you.”
“Why did you wait?” Arthur said suddenly and Merlin smiled, the answer coming to him easily. It might seem like self-punishment to anyone else, staying at the place where everything went wrong, but it had never been a choice for Merlin.
“It’s always been you, Arthur,” Merlin said, pulling back. His eyes were watery with tears and he knew he looked pathetic right now, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. “You told me never to change and so I haven’t. Everything I’ve done and everything I continue to do is for you.”
They weren’t the most eloquent words or the most profound confession, but Arthur understood them. He understood their meaning and threw his head back, laughter echoing to the stars above; a proclamation that their king had returned.
“Take us home, Merlin,” he said, breath warm against Merlin’s cheek. He was close, though Merlin wasn’t sure he’d be able to bear letting go of Arthur and couldn’t fathom letting him leave his sight. One day, perhaps, but not yet.
They walked home together, the pack and the staff forgotten. Merlin had no use for either of them now, not when Arthur was back, and he let the woods claim them, let the residual magic in his staff return to the earth and the contents of his backpack disperse. Some of it would no doubt return home – such was the burden of being the most powerful sorcerer in existence, your personal items often took on personalities themselves – but Merlin didn’t want to think about that.
“I’m glad it was you,” Arthur said suddenly. They were a footfall away from crossing the threshold of Merlin’s house but Merlin stopped, seeking Arthur’s eyes in the dark.
“Me what?” he asked softly, hand still clutching the robe on Arthur’s arm.
“You everything,” Arthur replied simply, grinning like a fool – like the fool he’d once been under an enchantment. “I realised it on that fateful day, but it’s always been you.”
The world didn’t tremble and the planets didn’t shift, but to hear those words from Arthur made Merlin’s heart soar. Joy spread through his bones, warming his very soul, and the loneliness that had crept in disappeared, replaced by the happiness and love he shared with Arthur.
Although, when Arthur closed the space between them and kissed Merlin, Merlin was positive he felt magic tingling through his entire body. His eyes were closed though and he smiled, pushing Arthur back gently until they were in the house, against the wall and pressed against each other.
They only broke apart when an enthusiastic boot trod on Merlin’s foot and even then they were hard pressed to stay apart for any length of time.
And while the world would face its toughest battle yet soon, for that was the reason Arthur had been returned to them, Merlin found he’d grown quite tired of destiny and what they should and shouldn’t do. They would walk their own path, make their own way in life and if anyone tried to stop them… well Merlin was a whole lot wiser and a lot less empathetic these days and he had a lot to live for now.
They would make their own destiny, two sides of the same coin as an old friend had once said.
When the previous owner had died suddenly, no one had been surprised. The house had fallen to his grandson – Merlin – and everyone had pretended not to be shocked that the man had had children at some point. Still, the house had gone to Merlin (and Arthur) and no one had questioned it, welcoming the new couple with open arms and laughing at the coincidence of their names.
“Like the legends!” people would say and Arthur and Merlin would nod, a twinkle in their eye as they excused themselves.
The garden changed dramatically, herbs sprouting where thick bushes had been and Merlin taking the time to teach curious children about herb lore instead of letting them crawl through his garden like before. Less children were interested, of course, but one in particular enjoyed the lessons, a young boy with dark hair and bright blue eyes who was only at the village for summer with his aunt. No one commented on how much the child liked to learn from Merlin or the kindness Merlin and Arthur displayed, but it was nice to see an otherwise lonely child socialising.
While the couple had their secrets, everyone knew where they could be found on a Saturday. Together – and then later with an odd group of friends – they’d walk around the lake, just like Merlin’s grandfather. And, in the same way, they’d tumble into the pub, all smiles and cheer, some days taking up an entire segment of the pub, laughter and friendship pooling around them all. When asked why, Merlin would throw his arms around Arthur, kiss the life almost out of him and proclaim his love for the lake, leaning against Arthur, telling of a secret only they knew.
And then there was the one thing that everyone knew, even people who had only been in the village for a few moments.
They were happy.