No matter how far he travels, his soul remains restless.
The journey back to Camelot is the longest of Merlin’s life, despite the interminable, arduous stretch that he knows lies ahead of him.
He rides because he cannot walk. He cannot walk because he can barely stand.
He remained by the lakeside only a single night after sending Arthur on his way and left at dawn, when the first ray of sunlight touched his chilled skin. Sleep did not find him that night. He sat huddled on the shore and waited, watchful in the darkness for any sign of Arthur returning. A second chance, a third, a fiftieth. He only wanted one last chance, a final reprieve.
It did not come.
Silence is his companion now, as he rides without Arthur. There is no banter, no teasing. No quiet, honest conversation by the fire when he stops to rest. More than the lack of the familiar voice at his side, there is the lack of the usual resonances and echoes he can always hear, the vibrations of the world, of magic around him.
It is as if he has gone deaf as well as lame.
When the castle comes into sight, Merlin breaks his silence and cries for the first time since leaving Avalon alone.
He cannot begin to think of what he will say to Gwen.
Time is a funny thing. It expands and contracts, at once a yawning abyss to be stared down and a tight passage to be squeezed through.
The paramount fear in the hearts of men does not change with time. Merlin has ample opportunity to observe this and his findings are remarkably constant: above all other things, man fears his time becoming short.
Some days, Merlin envies them that fear.
He travels, but he does not stray from Albion, from Britain, no matter how the land changes.
He must be there when Arthur awakes.
Gaius really did have Merlin’s favourite meal waiting.
It’s cold, but Merlin doesn’t notice as he eats it while Gaius sleeps on nearby, weathered features drawn in a grimace. Merlin will wake him soon and his face will smooth for a moment of joyous disbelief. They will embrace and Merlin will feel no comfort.
The food is tasteless, like ash in his mouth. He purges the name and recipe for the meal from his memory, never to be thought of or eaten again.
He takes the form of an old man mainly. This way, no one bothers him. No one notices him.
It’s far easier to wait unobtrusively than it is to have people questioning him, wanting things from him and expecting things of him as they would a younger man.
Why do you always look so sad?
Are you married?
Do you have children?
Would you like to go for a drink some time?
He’s had enough of all that. He’s learned that his greatest disguise is still the one he favoured all those years ago.
It’s a lonely life, certainly. The peculiar old hermit who spends far too much time by a lake that has no ducks, no swans, no appreciable draws.
Merlin’s soul is most at peace when he is near Avalon, near Arthur. Though he wanders, he always returns to look out across the water and remember.
If he has any home anymore, it is here, where magic still flourishes, even if none but he can feel its touch and hear its song.
Magic is all but gone from the world in these times, replaced by science and money and religions far younger than the one Merlin knew.
No one pays homage to nature any longer. No one has time to enjoy the bounties of simple earth in an era of concrete and complicated steel.
In the end, he tells Gwen everything.
She listens. She cries while Merlin sheds no tears and smiles while Merlin can muster no warmth. She clutches his hand when he speaks of how Arthur died in his arms. He flinches and bristles because he has no wish to be touched, lest the fading heat of Arthur be forever leeched from his skin. He allows it though, because she is his friend and because it is her right as Arthur’s widow.
Merlin has no rights. Not in the eyes of the law. But in the eyes of all who care to open them, he has every right.
Gwen understands that. Gwen understands that better than anyone, and so he allows her to hold his hand.
“I’m glad someone was with him,” she says.
He knows from the ‘someone’ that she wishes it could have been her to wrap Arthur in her arms as he lay dying, her that pressed her forehead against his. She wishes she could have been the last person he saw and heard and spoke to. Merlin would have felt the same had their positions been reversed.
He’s selfishly glad they weren’t. Arthur’s last moments belong solely to him and even as he tells Gwen about it, he manages to keep back details to hoard and covet as his own. Arthur’s gloved hand brushing over the back of his head, his whispered plea to be held, the tenderness of his smile as he accepted death. As he accepted Merlin.
Despite those memories he jealously guards, Merlin does not resent Gwen. And while Gwen wishes she could have been with Arthur in Merlin’s stead, she does not resent him either.
They recognise each other as kindred spirits in their loss and if, on certain melancholy days, Merlin is sometimes arrogant and heartsick enough to think that he feels Arthur’s loss more keenly, he never speaks of it to Gwen and it never tarnishes their friendship.
Gwen keeps him close for the rest of her days; her most trusted advisor and her most steadfast companion since the death of her husband. Merlin stays gladly, content to extend his services to his Queen and to Camelot, thereby continuing his service to Arthur.
It would be an insult to Arthur’s memory to do anything other than ensure the kingdom they built together thrived.
Gwen proves to be a brave, compassionate and noble leader. Merlin would have served her even if she had never been his friend, or someone Arthur loved wholeheartedly.
Under her rule, magic gradually returns to the land. It also returns to Merlin when his grief is no longer a crushing weight bearing down on him. When the vice around his lungs eases, when Merlin draws his first breath again since Arthur breathed his last, the air is as saturated with magic as it had ever been.
On that day, when he rushes to Gaius and then to Gwen to tell them the news, Merlin receives a formal title. Although he bears it uneasily to begin with after years of having to hide his true nature, he earns respect and he earns the name placed upon him.
With the ban on magic lifted, Camelot’s Court Sorcerer learns and teaches and practices, and he becomes more powerful than ever before.
Every time he casts a spell, it is still only ever for Arthur. For Camelot, for Gwen – for Arthur.
On her deathbed, Gwen smiles at him.
“Perhaps I shall finally see Arthur again,” she says, her voice thin and weak.
Merlin hasn’t the heart to say she won’t, not with Arthur in Avalon. He takes her hand, studies the wrinkles and flaws on the backs of both his and hers. Time has changed them beyond recognition in so many ways.
“Perhaps,” he says.
“Or perhaps you shall be the one to see him again.”
Her brown eyes are as warm and bright as they were when she first spoke to him in the stocks, drawn to him because they both hated to see a man using his power incorrectly. Merlin finds no bitterness in her eyes when he looks, only boundless empathy.
“I don’t mind,” she says, squeezing his hand when he goes to pull it away. “I’ve always known how you felt about him and I always knew he wasn’t only for me.”
Merlin shifts uncomfortably under her knowing stare. His aged joints creak. “There was never-”
“There never had to be,” Gwen cuts him off with conviction. “Love is not measured out in single words or deeds. It cannot be found only in a ring or a bed, Merlin, you hardly need me to tell you that.”
“And people say that I grew wise with age.”
Gwen ignores the attempt at light-heartedness. She holds Merlin’s gaze, her mouth flat and serious. “You have aged in your body and mind, but I don’t doubt that you could make yourself look exactly as you did when you first came to Camelot and live another lifetime. Another hundred. You’re not going to die like me, Merlin, I can tell.”
Merlin is taken aback by her candour and insight. All those years ago, when he returned from Avalon, he never did ask how Gwen knew of his magic even before he told her. Gwen is and has always been the shrewdest woman Merlin knows, perfectly capable of reaching her own conclusions and not quite so blinded by closeness and long-held beliefs as Arthur had often been.
“Am I right?” she prompts when Merlin does not answer.
“You usually are,” he says with a forced lightness that he never feels when he thinks on his immortality, the bone-deep tiredness laced through his being after only a single lifetime.
“And what is your purpose then? To keep magic in Albion? To protect it?”
“To wait,” he says gently.
Gwen is the shrewdest woman Merlin knows, but she is also the kindest. No disappointment or sadness crosses her face when she realises the implication of that.
“For Arthur,” she finishes.
“As ever I have been.”
Gwen closes her eyes. “I’m glad.”
Over the years, he wonders what it will take.
Merlin watches civilisations fall. He sees war, famine, pestilence and death.
He watches families starve. He hears children cry.
None of it brings Arthur back.
It gets to the point where, when he wonders what it will take, he begins to wish for the opposite of the only wish he has clung to for centuries.
He wishes to never see Arthur again.
Better for Arthur to sleep forever and Merlin to never see his eyes, hear his laughter, touch his skin. Better for Arthur to sleep forever and never return to so hopeless a world.
In his next breath though, he always wishes for Arthur more desperately than ever.
Despite his growing desire for solitude, Merlin vows to speak with at least one person per year, and actively seeks to make at least one friend per decade.
He does this for several reasons. Firstly, to prove he can still feel. To prove that excitement, uncertainty, delight, and sorrow are not strangers to him. To prove he still has the capacity for love and to ensure that what he feels for Arthur never becomes anything less than pure.
He cannot let himself become a twisted shadow of the man he was before. Prolonged isolation makes him poor company, and he has to retain some semblance of social skills. He has to remember that, aside from the enduring chain that links his soul and Arthur’s, aside from his pitiful, endless love, there is another reason he waits for Arthur. He waits so that they can fulfil their destiny together and build a kingdom of peace and prosperity.
As a King, Arthur always acted with honour and consideration for his subjects. He was devoted to all of them, whether they be a noble-born knight or a lowly servant. He built a round table so all who sat at it were equal. He rode out into danger to save impoverished villagers after listening to their pleas for help.
It was just the way of things: Arthur loved his people, and Merlin loved Arthur.
Merlin loved the people of Camelot as well, but Arthur’s death opened his eyes to the truth that had evaded him for so long, even as his every act declared it, made it indisputable and inescapable. The love of his life had been and would always be Arthur, first and foremost, above anything else.
He sometimes dares to think that Arthur had a similar revelation at the end, a realisation that their bond went far beyond friendship and fealty.
The tragedy is that the realisation came far too late for them both.
People accept that an old man might live alone.
People accept that he might have lost the greatest love he has ever known.
No one seeks the love of an eccentric, wizened old fool.
No one imagines that an old man might still carry a beating, passionate heart, which burns ceaselessly with a youthful fervour for one that it has missed for over a thousand years.
Somehow, it eases that heart’s burden to maintain such a façade.
As he waits and wanders, not all is doom and gloom.
Merlin touches many lives and his own is touched in return. He advises monarchs (though none so worthy as Arthur or Gwen), aids physicians (but none can match the wisdom of Gaius), and befriends modern-day knights (never a company as loyal as Leon, Gwaine, Percival, Elyan and Lancelot had been).
The face of the world changes and Merlin moves with the times. Castles become relics, kings and queens become tourist attractions. Swords are exchanged for guns and chivalry gives way to social networking.
It should be hard to watch and harder to accept, but after so many years of the same things, Merlin finds himself yearning for change, and there is always enjoyment to be found in the quirks of any era he has walked through.
Merlin witnesses history-in-the-making. He goes to Shakespeare plays at the Globe theatre; he attends the concerts of baroque, classical and romantic composers who will still be praised centuries later. He visits art galleries and buildings that reflect architectural innovation. He learns to paint, to play instruments. He learns languages and anatomy and astronomy and technology.
He wonders what Gaius would have made of MRI scans and keyhole surgery.
He knows Gwen could have been as strong a diplomat and stateswoman in modern times as she was in her own. She would have been a suffragette had she lived in that time, Merlin is certain.
He imagines that Gwaine would have been the most internet savvy of them all, the only one who would bother to keep a ‘twitter’.
He can’t wait to show Arthur a football match.
Inexorably, man advances. Most rapidly of all in the most recent century Merlin has passed.
When a whimsical mood strikes him and he cares to be young again, he tries the current fashions on for size. Culture changes by the decade in the 1900s, and Merlin cuts his hair into strange shapes, dons clothes with odd embellishments and listens to music that Arthur would most definitely pull bemused, disturbed faces at. The thought makes him smile every time he buys a new record, dyes his hair a new colour. Arthur would get a kick out of this, he thinks.
All the while, he listens as tales of his and Arthur’s exploits get passed down. With time, the story changes and accuracy becomes both harder to achieve and less important to contemporary audiences. No one gets it entirely right, but Merlin doesn’t have the desire to correct people. Let them have their legends.
Arthur was born to be remembered by more people than just Merlin.
The day Arthur rises is not obviously an apocalyptic one.
Apocalypse or not, Merlin doesn’t care. Arthur is returned. Fittingly, Merlin wakes the same moment Arthur does, a fierce tug at his soul that makes him sit bolt upright, wide-eyed. A voice slides through his mind – a beloved voice that has been denied to him for so long.
Arthur sounds lost. Merlin doesn’t let him stumble around alone for a second longer than he has to, transporting himself directly to Avalon, to Arthur’s side where he belongs.
His breath catches in his throat when he sees him. Arthur is swimming towards the shore, only his golden head bobbing above the surface. He moves slowly, getting used to his limbs after more than a thousand years of stasis.
He looks to be the same age as he was when Merlin last saw him. He looks as if nothing has changed.
“Merlin?” Arthur calls out.
Merlin can’t answer. His throat is tight and his eyes are stinging and he still looks old when Arthur looks young, which isn’t right. He sheds the grey hair at once, the wrinkles, the liver spots. His face becomes smooth once again, his hair dark and thick. He discards the stoop, the need to walk with a stick, and he stands tall and unburdened.
He sheds his clothes too and he runs forwards as fast as he can, rushing into the water to meet Arthur half way. He doesn’t notice the cold water even as it laps around him and fills his open, gasping mouth as he attempts to speak.
There is no shame or self-consciousness in being naked before Arthur. He has nothing to hide, least of all his transient physical form in this moment of rebirth.
“Merlin!” Arthur is smiling, he’s laughing and spitting out water, arms flailing as he tries to stay afloat.
Desperation and relief and sheer joy all burst into bloom in Merlin’s chest, bubbling up his throat and finally escaping from his mouth in an exultant cry: “I’m here! Arthur, I’m here!”
It’s a pointless thing to say when Arthur has seen and recognised him, but no other words come in that instant.
Merlin is shaking when they meet and Arthur reaches out for him. It is the first time he has been touched in three years. Merlin closes his eyes, lays a hand on the back of Arthur’s neck to draw him near, and presses their foreheads together.
They both pant harshly, breathing each other’s air as if the swim had exhausted them. Arthur’s fingers are a mirror of Merlin’s, splayed possessively over the nape of Merlin’s neck and stroking over the ridges of his spine there.
“How long?” Arthur eventually asks when he’s no longer too breathless to speak, pulling his head back and opening his eyes.
“The year is 2013,” Merlin answers, because he’s lost track of the number of years it’s been, because he remembers the date only from a newspaper he happened to see last week.
“You’ve let me lie-in far too long, Merlin.”
They both laugh, holding each other up in the water. Merlin’s feet are just brushing the floor of the lake.
“When did you come back then?” Arthur asks. “I take it you’ve had a long rest too.”
Merlin shakes his head. “No, I’ve not been asleep, Arthur. I’ve-” Merlin breaks off to lick his dry lips, unable to stop the proud smile that’s spreading over them. “-I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Waiting?” Arthur blinks at him. His hands move until he’s cradling Merlin’s face between them, the confusion on his face turning into wonder. “For all this time?”
“I would have waited for longer, if I had to,” Merlin says, because it’s true, and in this new lifetime there will be no secrets between them. He will deny Arthur nothing.
Arthur’s thumbs stroke over his cheekbones, a gentle, fond caress. His eyes are full of the same unguarded affection Merlin saw there when Arthur was dying.
“I know you would,” he says quietly. “Because you love me, don’t you?”
Tears gather along Merlin’s eyelids and he nods. “I realised too late to tell you.”
“I knew, Merlin. At the end, I knew. And I knew that I loved you too, with every breath I had left in me. Did you know that?”
Merlin’s heart skips and soars at the words. “I- I had hoped-”
Merlin is cut off by Arthur’s mouth pressing against his. Arthur kisses him carefully, reverently, his lips soft and undemanding. It’s a chaste kiss, an achingly sweet gesture of love that’s older than the pair of them.
They both sink down slightly in the lake after a few seconds and they break apart, surprised. Merlin’s face feels far too warm and he knows he’s blushing and grinning like an idiot. Arthur looks much the same right now though, so it’s okay.
“We should probably get out of this lake,” Merlin says with a laugh. “There’s so much for you to catch up on, you’ve missed a lot.”
Merlin is thinking about the pleasure to be had in showing Arthur the 21st century: giving him history lessons, explaining that, for the most part, servants are a thing of the past and Arthur will have to learn to dress himself. He imagines taking Arthur clothes shopping. He imagines the look on Arthur’s face when he first sees a car, a television.
Merlin is thinking of all these things, but Arthur is only looking at him, obviously only thinking of him, when he says: “Yes, I have.”