Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
- Emily Dickinson
He considers it the cruelest of injustices that it's Morgana who finds her way back to both life and his side first, if for no other reason than he can't seem to get rid of her.
"The boy is powerful," she leans against his shoulder, passing him a cardboard cup of coffee that's already been leached of warmth by her hand.
He takes a sip, eyes roving over the middle school parking lot. It helps that in this form he looks like he could almost be one of them, long used to these times and these fashions, if not for Morgana at his side. Her dress is long and tight and while modern, still stunningly inappropriate. It's the darkest crimson - she doesn't wear black anymore. The boy walks in between a boy who's yet to be set on his destiny and a girl who is compelled by the moon, "He is young, and foolish."
She nudges him, "Weren't we all," and she almost sounds like when he met her for the very first time, powerful and manipulative, but young and hopeful and loved.
Perhaps the cruelest of injustices is this: as the long years pass, Morgana regains her sanity, her empathy, her remorse, while Merlin falls deeper into a despair he can't fight, and a madness he will not. She regains common sense and stability, and can wield her power as she was always meant to, with a clear mind and heart. He can hardly breathe most days, spends hours still and silent, trying to remember what it is he must do to live, and then summoning the will to do it when his skin feels stretched too thin and his heart stumbles as if threatening to beat no more.
It is perhaps unfair to lay this at Morgana's feet. He's felt this ever since he first drew breath in a world where Arthur did not.
"You helped him," he accuses her, while they creep around the Hale house, watch a father clutch at his daughter and the boy sleep with his throat barred to a wolf.
Morgana grins, and he shudders to see the delight in her eyes. "If only," she murmurs, and he doesn't pull away from her fingers curled around his wrist, "I would have, if necessary, but it was not. He sent them back on his own, killed one even. Could we have done such at his age?"
Merlin's lips are bared in a snarl, "If called upon, yes. And we did far greater than this, did far greater than he will ever do."
"Perhaps," she says, and even now, when she is nearly the person she could have been, he is not completely comfortable with her, does not find her mind easy or her heart wise. "Perhaps he will do far greater than we - at least, until we are called on to do so again."
He snorts, does his best to keep the ice fromcreeping towards his heart, "It's been many years since our magic has been a necessity."
"Centuries," she breathes, and the hungry way she stares at the boy almost causes a flare of worry before he remembers that he doesn't care, "And yet, when was the last time demons such as those roamed this land? Evil spirits, more easily subdued by the language of the Old Religion than the clumsy Latin he wields."
"More than centuries," he says, wishing to leave this land - America may have its charms, but it's not Britain, not Albion, and he can't understand why Morgana is so fascinated by these fumbling children that she begs him here. He can afford to indulge her, though, as it seems the one commodity he has is time.
She moves her hand so her fingers are intertwined with his, tugs at him until he turns to her, and in the face of her dazzling smile - so like Arthur's, not in size or shape, but in the way it changes her whole face - he nearly twitches his own upwards in reflex, but then remembers his reason to smile died long ago. "Merlin," she says, hushed like a child divulging a secret, "he wields the power of the Old Religion without ever knowing it's name, calls upon a power he doesn't understand and can barely control to defeat horrors that should no longer roam this Earth."
"Your point, Morgana?" he's tired, feels every day of his years when Morgana looks as young as she does now.
She laughs, "The monsters make their way to this plane, a magic long abandoned settles in a clueless boy and seeps from the land, and what else, my dear Merlin, what else may awaken, in conjunction with monsters and magic from a time long past?"
Merlin cannot breathe, cannot think, cannot hope, and will not - he can't afford it, his sanity will not survive the disappointment. When Morgana twirls them in a circle and hold him tight, he hides his smile in her shoulder, thinks that if it is not exposed to the word that it does not count.
The boy's name is Stiles, and he's fourteen and reckless and an absolute fool playing with powers he cannot hope to understand.
"Shadows," Morgana insists, "the earth cannot reincarnate what is not dead, and yet - do you not see us in them?"
Stiles's body is trained and conditioned by wolves and his magic by a man fool enough to not recognize it for what it is, but wise enough to know that this boy is different. Merlin long ago grew a strong body by hard labor and Arthur beating him with a sword until he wasn't useless with a blade in his hand, and taught himself from a forbidden, dusty book. He remembers Stiles throwing himself over the boy with the hand on destiny on his shoulder - Scott - and thrusting fruitless magic at an impossible being to keep his best friend safe. He hopes that history does not repeat, that shadows will shift and change and that perhaps these children will live to be old.
Morgana leans against the tree which makes his skin crawl, so wretched it is, and looks down at the boy who lies stretched out between the Hale cousins, their soft hands drifting over his skin in a comfort they need more than he does. "It leaves him drained," she says, "every time, and yet he persists, for this horrid, dying thing."
"He is not that bright, for all his potential," he's far from the tree, the way it tugs at him and takes from his heart the ability to beat is disconcerting, although oddly never painful.
She tosses her long trail of curls over her shoulder and arches a delicately sculpted brow, "You do not give him enough credit. He's started training the others."
He laughs, darker than any sound to ever pass his lips while he still remained in Camelot, "He instructs those in a magic he cannot himself control."
"That is not true - their magic, while unfamiliar, is easy enough for him to temper and shape. It is only about himself that he remains ignorant." Morgana's dress is like the green of leaves in summer today, and made of lace so fine he knows it to be magic which keeps it from tearing in this forests. "I do wonder with his obsession with the tree."
"It is no wonder," Merlin dismisses, "in the face of an adversary he can neither identify nor fight, he stupidly expands his energies on what he believes he can help."
"You cannot ascribe all his actions to youth and foolishness," she scolds, and he wishes desperately that she would remove her side from the tree.
He shrugs, doesn't answer as he looks down at the slack face of the boy who could have been trained to be a mighty sorcerer, once upon a time.
"Who is Derek?" Morgana asks, pressing a mug of burning hot cappuccino to her lips that shall be cold by the time it reaches her tongue.
Merlin stirs his spoon into his hot chocolate, only remembering to do with his hands rather than magic when he feels the barista's eyes on them. "Stiles's wolf? An amplifier, of sorts, it certainly seems as if the boy can better control the magic in his presence."
"That's not what I meant," she huffs, "He - does not fit. Scott is clearly Stiles's Arthur, and I'm sure the rest will fall into place soon enough; I'm almost tempted to claim Lydia as my own shadow. But Derek, the bond he and Stiles share - I do not understand."
Arthur risked his life for a servant he barely knew, stood against Uther on more than one occasion, but he also rode off to save men who would gladly die rather than have Arthur endanger his own life, and he accepted a woman whom had betrayed him back into his court and his heart because his love was more valuable than his pride. There are many bonds a person can forge, and so few that are clean cut. Merlin looks up at Morgana, the sweetness in the tilt of her head and the honest confusion in her eyes. He thinks of the bonds she lost and never had and says, "You would not," but his voice is so gentle that she merely frowns against the rim of her cup.
"Save him," Morgana hisses, and Merlin can't, he can do nothing more than let his hands hover uselessly over the dying body of a man whom he's already lost once. "Merlin!"
He looks up at her, and by the step she takes back he knows he must look as wrecked as he feels. "He's dying, again, and I can't - how the hell did he get in a bloody tree in the middle of America?"
"That's not important," she hisses, and how can she say that, she loves Arthur, has been almost as eager for his return as Merlin, and before he can question her she's pulling him up the elbow, as if he is once more an scrawny, insolent manservant. "Help him!"
Merlin blinks away his fear to see, and Stiles lays dead against this horrid oak, Derek crying uselessly over him, and says, "I can do nothing - if his sacrifice is accepted as worthy, Arthur lives, and the tree is cleansed and made a sacred place of honest intent and protection. If he dies, so does this land, and so does Arthur. Such is the way of rituals of the Old Religion." He does not know how he says that with a steady voice, but he's shaking, he knows he is, and he prays that youth and foolishness do not outweigh loyalty and love and raw power.
The Hale boy's anguished howl cuts through the trees, and Merlin lays hands on Arthur, tugs him up against his chest and presses his hands to skin that's just as cold as the last time they were here. He's not in armor, but brown breeches, and his favorite red tunic that was nearly threadbare by the time Arthur was no longer there to wear it. The oak which had always made Merlin flinch from it, is drained of everything - it's evil, poison magic, it's natural magic, the life it sustains, and Arthur's life hangs in the balance of a boy younger than Merlin when he first came to Camelot with even less of an understanding of the power he calls forth.
Then the boy's life force pours into the tree, sparkling and crackling against its roots and curling around it's leaves, replacing old, dark magic with glittering silver threads of his soul. As soon as the magic of his soul settles in the tree, Arthur's heart beats in his chest, and Merlin buries his face in Arthur's hair.
"I don't understand," Morgana is by his side, skimming hands over Arthur's shoulders.
"Sacrifice for Sacrifice - Arthur died for Camelot, was bound in this tree, and even a nematon can only safely hold the Once and Future King for so long, until it rots and curdles and draws all manner of other rotting, curdling things to it. So Stile offers himself in exchange with the blessing of that whom controls the land, a shining young mage full of power, to heal the wound endured by holding a king."
"So he is dead?" in their hundreds of years together, they have not grown fond of many, but she has grown fond of him. He doesn't answer, because while he is far more connected to the earth than she, there's no way she can't feel it, the ancient power which has lain doormat rushing through the ley lines and into roots to push Stile's soul out of the oak and into his body, with strings of the ancient magic stubbornly clinging to his soul.
Stiles's gasped breath is echoed by Arthur's, his hands scrambling against the arms around his chest as he coughs out, "Merlin?"
Merlin moves just enough so he can graze his lips over his king's forehead, and thanks the gods for young, foolish mages.