Merlin’s bed was still warm.
That was unfair, Arthur thought idly to himself as he stared at the stone ceiling above him, the folds of Merlin’s blanket coarse between his hands. It was unfair that Merlin’s bed should be warm with use, smelling like soap and baked bread from the kitchens, an indent that showed where he had spent his nights for the past ten years.
Merlin had been with Arthur for ten years – his manservant, his comrade, his right-hand man, his friend –
His sorcerer, Arthur remembered that too, but surprisingly, his body and mind were numb to that fact.
So Merlin had been a filthy lying sorcerer. So what?
It still wouldn’t bring him back to life.
Arthur turned around, stomach churning at the thought of living the rest of his life without Merlin by his side. Merlin was his constant, his steady presence forever a guiding light.
And now he was gone.
“Arthur?” Gaius blinked at Arthur the next morning when he appeared from Merlin’s bedchamber, rumpled with sleep and still wearing the same clothes he’d had on the day before. Arthur blinked at him in greeting. “Have you been here all night?”
Arthur didn’t grace the question with a response, thinking the matter obvious. He brushed past Gaius on his way out there to – to do what he didn’t know, but he didn’t want to have this conversation –
Gaius touched his arm to stop him, the old man’s wrinkled face shaking with the tears Arthur knew would probably be mirrored in his own eyes if he could feel anything right now.
“Everything he did, he did for you,” Gaius’s voice shook and Arthur wished he could have been the arrow that Gwaine had shot into Merlin’s funeral pyre yesterday. “Sacrificing himself…he would have done it a thousand times over. This time was just the one time it happened to work out for him.”
Gaius’s face twisted in a wry smile, but Arthur vehemently shook his head, vomit threatening to come up out of his throat. “He knew he would die?” Arthur whispered, his throat hot.
Gaius blinked sadly at him. “Yes, I believe so. He is – he was the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the earth, but even he had limits. And when you put yourself in the middle of two opposing armies…well. I don’t think he had any misconceptions about what would happen to him. Or then again, maybe he did. He always was just a touch arrogant about these matters.”
A fleeting smile was sent in Arthur’s direction, but he didn’t return it. “Not a single man lost,” Arthur’s body shook. “Not a single man even had to fight. The Saxons just vanished into thin air. We all saw it. The gold in his eyes. The lightning that rained down on them. And then he just...just crumpled…”
Arthur sucked in a breath before marching for the door, determined not to dwell on his grief, because to even think for one second that Merlin was never going to smile at him again struck him to his very core.
“I’ll send Geoffrey to keep you company today, Gaius,” Arthur muttered on his way out the door, because he knew that’s what Merlin would have wanted.
Midway through the day, Arthur realized that he couldn’t do it.
Sitting through a council meeting, the men’s voices echoing off the chamber walls, but Arthur not hearing it, not really, too busy reliving every time Merlin changed his life. Finally, Guinevere touched his shoulder.
“How about you get some sleep, my lord?” Guinevere said softly, and Arthur finally focused his gaze on her, her dark, kind eyes hesitant on his, her voice empathetic. Arthur opened his mouth to say that he was fine, that he couldn’t just stop being king because his life came crashing down around him –
“I can manage –” Arthur tried to say emphatically and without reservation, but all he heard was a croak.
“I think I can handle state matters today,” Guinevere took his hand and brought Arthur to his feet. “Or for as long as you need me to, my lord.”
He was just a servant, Arthur tried to say, except for when he was an enemy sorcerer. Two irreconcilable ideas, and yet neither of them were true.
Arthur let Guinevere lead him from the council chambers into the hallway.
“Arthur,” Guinevere took her hand out of his to smooth back his hair. Usually, Arthur liked her touch on his skin, but today it just felt too smooth and silky, her perfection just too much to handle. “You shouldn’t be alone right now. You need to know that you’re not alone. Your knights and I will support you no matter what.”
“Gwaine’s probably halfway to Mercia by now,” Arthur muttered half-heartedly under his breath, stinging slightly at the idea yet all the while wishing he was doing the same.
“No, he’s not,” Guinevere said gently. “None of us are leaving, Arthur.”
Except that Merlin’s already gone, Arthur didn’t say out loud.
Guinevere kissed Arthur’s cheek. “I’ll miss him, too. We all will. Well, except for the cook. I already overheard her saying that her job is going to get ten times easier without Merlin snatching her treats. She started crying immediately after that, though, so I don’t know if we can take her word on the matter.”
It was then that Arthur noticed the tears in Guinevere’s eyes, threatening to spill over. He pulled her into a loose hug, trying to say thank you for being the queen when he could no longer be king.
He wouldn’t be king if not for Merlin – how was he supposed to be king without him? Hell, was he supposed to be a human being without him?
The questions bounced around in Arthur’s head as he floated aimlessly through the hallways of his castle, his father’s castle, the castle that was his birthright. The castle that Merlin could have overtaken a million times. The castle that Merlin had stopped Morgana, the Saxons, and anyone else from ever taking a million times.
Arthur eventually found himself in Camelot’s streets. Maybe it was his imagination, but they seemed greyer and more subdued today than any day he could remember, even the day after his father’s death. No one stopped him, or even gave him a second glance, not in the hour Arthur spent listlessly searching for something he’d never find again.
Too frustrated with the silence in his own head reflected in the world around him, Arthur forced himself to open the door to the Rising Sun, knowing that if any place in Camelot was still in a drunken uproar, it was the tavern. But when the rickety door slammed shut behind him, the eyes of all of his knights, sitting together at a round table in the center of the room.
“If you expect us to train today…” Gwaine muttered darkly from the center of the group of men, a bottle of ale loose in his grip. Percival, from next to him, shoved him slightly.
“Sire,” Percival said slowly, as if awaiting retribution, “we’re celebrating Merlin’s life…if you’d like to join us.”
Leon sat to Gwaine’s other side, supporting his shoulder. These were the knights Merlin knew best, those he was closest to, but they weren’t the only knights here. Galahad, Owen, Kay, Geraint…at least a dozen and a half men, all with seats at the Round Table, sat together with their ales to celebrate a king’s servant, an enemy sorcerer, a man who was both and neither of these things all at once.
“Leon was just telling us about how you and Merlin met,” Geraint piped up. “It was very funny…sire.”
“It was funny,” Arthur admitted begrudgingly after a moment. “…None of the rest of you know the story of the Lady Catrina. I’ll have to tell that one.”
“Oh, I know that story,” Leon’s previously miserable face turned into a slight grin. “The troll your father married?”
“You don’t know what Merlin did,” Arthur pointed out, and Kay pulled up a chair to the table for him, and for the next two hours, Arthur felt almost human.
Still slightly drunk, Arthur found his way back to Merlin’s bed that night. It was a little less warm, Merlin’s imprint slowly being overtaken by Arthur’s.
Arthur didn’t return to the council the next day. Or the next week. He had tried to train his knights in the mornings occasionally, because hitting things with a stick had always made him feel better before. It was something physical, something he could do, that got him out of his own head.
But now all he could think about was how Merlin used to take Arthur’s beatings on the training field without complaint when he could have obliterated any man he wanted to ash.
And Arthur felt horribly guilty that he had treated Merlin so, and horribly helpless that there was nothing he could do to fix it. So he didn’t train the knights.
He had looked over a few treaties – in the wake of the entire Saxon army vanishing from earth and his sister’s apparent disappearance, there was a lot to think about in regards to how he and the other countries would operate without their presence and threat.
But again, that made his stomach churn with sickness, because it was Merlin’s voice in his head that kept telling him what the best course of action was.
Growing up, Arthur had always had Uther’s voice in the back of his head, telling him what to do, reminding him of what he wanted, of who his father desired Arthur to be. Sometime over the past ten years, that voice had morphed into Merlin’s. It was a kinder, gentler voice, but one that Arthur couldn’t bear to hear right now.
The only thing Arthur did consistently was sleep in Merlin’s bed. He hadn’t spent a night in his own since Merlin had died, and had no desire to ever go back to his chambers again. That was where he and Merlin had woken up him every morning. If he went back there, someone else would have to start waking him up, and Arthur couldn’t bear the thought.
Still, he felt guilty about how little he had seen his wife because of this, so he arranged to have dinner with her on the evenings where his head didn’t feel like it was about to explode in grief, rage, or helplessness. And Guinevere was as kind and beautiful as she always had been, but something felt very, very wrong.
“Back again, my lord?” Gaius peered at Arthur over his spectacles as Arthur shut the doors to the physician’s chamber behind him. “Surely your own bed must be more comfortable than Merlin’s.”
“His bed is very small,” Arthur allowed. “…I should have noticed that before.”
“Merlin took care to make sure that you didn’t notice certain things,” Gaius reminded him, but then chuckled slightly. “Well. Not as much care as he should have. The part of him that wanted you to know about the magic always kept getting the rest of him into trouble.”
“He would’ve been in trouble anyways,” Arthur didn’t have to force the slight smile he sent in Gaius’s direction. The fleeting moment of cheerfulness gave Arthur the courage to battle through. “I just…do you feel like he’s not really dead? Like he’s going to come through that door any minute?”
“Like he was just out at the tavern for the evening,” Gaius agreed, a small but sad smile on his face. “Every day. Every morning when I wake up, I forget he’s gone. Just for half a second. But it’s like losing him again every day.”
“That’s how I felt when my father died,” Arthur said. “But this…this is….so much worse.”
Arthur hadn’t said that aloud before.
“I imagine it’s like losing the other half of you,” Gaius said softly and Arthur looked at him, startled with the accuracy of his claim. “The two of you…your destinies were intertwined. No, more than that. You were destined for each other. He was born for you – and you were born for him. Never complete without the other. That’s what the prophecy foretold.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur said slowly, pulling up a chair to Gaius’s workstation, heart thumping loudly in his chest. “Why haven’t I heard this prophecy before?”
“Because it had to do with Merlin’s magic,” Gaius told him. “The Once and Future King and the Greatest Sorcerer to Ever Walk the Earth were destined to bring magic back to Camelot and create the golden age of Albion and unite the kingdoms – together.”
“Together,” Arthur repeated, heart now in his throat. “How – how can that prophecy come true if he’s dead?”
“Prophecy is a difficult thing, Arthur,” Gaius sighed, suddenly looking very old and very tired. “We can never know exactly what it means. Only time will tell. Maybe Merlin really will just pop back from the tavern.”
“I hope so,” Arthur said quietly and retired to Merlin’s chambers.
A week or so later, Arthur was laying in Merlin’s bed far before the sun had set, and Guinevere came in the room.
She looked out of place there in her regal scarlet gown, her perfectly curled hair, and steady expression, but Arthur could see in the corner of his eye the servant girl she once was – the girl she would always be and yet never be again.
“The council needs a couple of signatures,” Guinevere told him apologetically, coming to sit on the stool next to Merlin’s bedside cabinet, quill and ink in one hand and papers in the other. Arthur forced himself upwards.
“I’m sorry – I’ll return to the council soon, I just –”
“Arthur,” Guinevere said softly but insistently. “I told you. I can handle the council. Leon can handle the knights. You can take as much time as you need to grieve.”
“I can’t,” Arthur said, staring down at the page in front of him without seeing it, quill so tight in his grip he could nearly break it. “Because then I’d never leave this room again.”
Guinevere seemed to understand, at least from the sad look in her eyes. “I know. I know how you feel. And…part of me wants to talk about how, in my experience, it gets easier with time. How my father’s death is painful but distant. How Lancelot’s death is painful but I put it away. How Elyan’s death is painful but I bear it. But you and Merlin – you didn’t love each other like ordinary people, so it wouldn’t make sense that you’d grieve like ordinary people either.”
“Love?” Arthur started, blinking over at her. “Guinevere, we –”
“Shh,” Guinevere put a soothing hand on his shoulder. “Arthur, it’s okay. I know. I understand. You and Merlin loved each other more than – more than any of the rest of us could possibly imagine. You may not have showed it all the time, you may have pushed it aside, but you and I both know that you loved him. And he loved you. I knew that before I knew about the magic, but that makes it so much clearer.”
“Guinevere,” Arthur began, but he knew, with growing dread and anxiety, that she was right. That he had ignored it and pushed it away until he was too late. “I…I love you. You know that I love you, don’t you?”
“Oh, Arthur, I’m not saying that you don’t care for me,” Guinevere took his hand in her own with a tight grip. “I meant what I said – I will always be your queen. And I knew when I married you that what you and Merlin had would always eclipse us. Not in public, not out loud – but in our hearts.”
“Then why did you marry me?” Arthur asked, searching his mind for why a woman as incredible and intelligent and beautiful as Guinevere would stay with a man who quietly longed for another. The self-awareness of that fact – that longing – ate Arthur to his core. He had never let those feelings bubble to the surface before, even in his thoughts.
“Do you remember,” Guinevere said, a small smile playing on her lips, “the first time you kissed me?”
“Of course,” Arthur replied, smiling at the memory of the kitchen in Guinevere’s old home – did Gwen ever miss that house? Did the castle seem too large for her sometimes?
“I was obsessed with you,” Guinevere said with a little laugh. “I was a serving girl who had the handsome prince’s affections – and he was so noble and just, his obsession as strong as mine, and I was so innocent and desiring love. We both had dreams of marriage right after that kiss, Arthur. We had all those years of dancing around in secret, kissing in cupboards and in the halls – all of that time, but we didn’t have enough to really know and love each other, flaws and all. And by the time we got married…we had promised ourselves to each other a lifetime ago.”
Arthur’s lips twitched, though not in humor. “I spent all of that time trying to avoid a marriage of duty, and yet…”
Guinevere sighed, her hands still tight around Arthur’s. “We gave each other our kisses, Arthur, but we never gave each other our hearts. Yours was always, always Merlin’s. By the time I discovered that, our duty to one another was already sealed. And I don’t regret it – not being with you, not marrying you. You are my dearest friend in the world, Arthur – my constant companion. But if Merlin’s death has taught me one thing, it’s that we must be honest with one another. Before it’s too late.”
Arthur swallowed thickly. She was right. He had been so obsessed with the idea of Guinevere as his queen since the moment they kissed – marrying for love instead of his father’s decree. Guinevere had always been a haven for him when he’d been younger – someone to idealize and imagine ruling beside him.
But that made Guinevere his queen. It didn’t make theirs a love story – only the story of a young naïve couple who believed the world would shape to their will.
“You will always be my queen,” Arthur told Guinevere thickly after a moment. “And one of the greatest friends I’ll ever have. But you – you can be free of being my wife. I don’t want to stop you from – from being honest. I wish I had been I will always wish I had been. If there’s – if there’s someone else…find them. Tell them. For me.”
Guinevere’s eyes filled with tears as she leaned forward to kiss Arthur’s forehead. The silky smoothness of her skin didn’t bother Arthur anymore. “Thank you, Arthur. I free you of being my husband. I free you to mourn the man you love without worrying about me.”
“So,” Arthur said as the two of them hugged tightly, Guinevere pressing her forehead into Arthur’s shoulder, his shirt becoming wet with tears. “Is there someone? For you?”
Guinevere pulled away with a watery smile. “Not yet. But Sir Leon and I are very close and someday, I think I will love him very much. If he lets me.”
“He’s a lucky man,” Arthur told her, and even though that morning he had thought himself a happily married man, he somehow found more comfort in the fact that his wife would someday love another and be happy with him. It was what she deserved.
Gwen smiled at him, wide and toothy, and Arthur saw the serving girl she’d still was and the queen she was becoming all at once.
It was in the early hours of the morning in Merlin’s rooms when the door slammed open with a dramatic flourish. Arthur hadn’t been sleeping, too busy wondering how long he could be in love with a dead man before it ate him whole, but he jumped up, startled, despite it.
Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to see Gwaine, his eyes visibly bloodshot in the early morning light streaming in from the window. Gwaine stumbled toward the window instead of the bed, his hangover growing more evident by the minute.
Gwaine sat on the window’s sill, sprawled out, as Arthur groaned and forced himself upwards in the bed. Gwaine was aware enough to flicker his gaze in Arthur’s direction.
“The first night I spent in Camelot was in that bed,” Gwaine said, and his voice barely slurred at all. “Merlin and Gaius had patched me up real nice. And I came over to this window that morning and got my first real glimpse at Camelot.”
He stared melancholically out the window for a moment before turning back to Arthur, his gaze unusually sharp. “I didn’t come back for you.”
“I know,” Arthur said as he rubbed the sore spot in his neck. “Merlin always came first with you.”
“Not just me,” Gwaine pointed out. “Lancelot, too. And he brought Percival into the mix. Elyan would never have trusted you if Merlin hadn’t given the go-ahead. Gwen never would have married you. I guess you’d still have Leon, but Leon’s a stick in the mud.”
“I like Leon,” Arthur said, and he would have laughed if Gwaine’s voice weren’t so serious. “…Is this your way of saying that you’re leaving?”
Gwaine gave Arthur a disgruntled look. “What? Fuck that, no. God, Arthur, you’re thick. No. I’m telling you that you owe your kingdom, your men, and your wife to a man with magic.”
“Gwen’s not really my wife anymore,” Arthur pointed out but relented with a sigh. “Yes, I get your point. And I already knew that I’d have nothing without Merlin, not even myself.”
“That’s evident,” Gwaine said looking Arthur up and down with a snort. “When was the last time you did anything productive?”
“Two months ago,” Arthur replied immmediately.
Merlin had died two months.
“That’s what I thought,” Gwaine said, but his voice was less harsh and more gentle this time around. “C’mon, Princess – Merlin would slap you upside the head if he could see you moping like this.”
“Believe me, I know,” Arthur muttered. “I just – I don’t want to go back to doing these meaningless formalities of kinghood without him there to make it – make it easier. And I want to do something for him – so that people will know who he was and how much he did for them. But he would have hated a statue –”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Gwaine stared at Arthur in utmost disapproval. “Arthur…he was a sorcerer who spent his life, down to his last breath, protecting a kingdom that hated him. I think the least you could do to show your appreciation is to make sure that never happens to anyone else again.”
“Repeal the ban on magic,” Arthur said slowly, the idea growing in his heart. “I – I didn’t even think. How could I be so stupid?”
“I can guess how,” Gwaine muttered half under his breath.
“I just – I don’t think of him as a sorcerer, even now,” Arthur shook his head at his own thickness. “He’s still just Merlin in my head – the sorcery is a footnote, something that just makes me feel guiltier about how I treated him, but – If I could help his people. If I could bring magic back to Camelot and unite the kingdoms, I can make the prophecy come true after all. I can make sure everything he did wasn’t in vain.”
Arthur sprang up from the bed, adrenaline coursing through his veins for the first time since Merlin’s death. “Thank you, Gwaine,” Arthur said fervently and pulled his most reluctant knight into a tight hug.
“You just get weirder by the minute,” Gwaine mumbled, but Arthur could hear his smile.
“So this is what we’re going to do,” Arthur said, trying to curb his energy and enthusiasm. Gwen, sitting next to him as he addressed the council, grinned up at him in encouragement. Gaius, from down the table, had tears in his eyes. “First, we’re going to have a formal ceremony in which we make sure everyone in the city knows that magic is now free to practice. We’re going to send Sir Percival as a representative to the Druids to make sure they know that they’re safe here now. We’re going to issue a formal apology and excuse any sorcerer executed by my father and myself for their crimes. And then my wife and my first knight, Leon, are going to spearhead a project to bring more magic-users into the kingdom so that we can show our deepest regrets throughout these past thirty years.”
Arthur cleared his throat as murmurings broke out down the table. “This kingdom owes its livelihood to magic countless times over. And I admit, I haven’t always been aware of this. But now that I am, I want to honor that magic. I want this to be my legacy as king – a legacy of tolerance and love for all people.”
And for the first time in his life, Arthur felt proud of himself. He hoped that wherever Merlin was, he felt proud, too.
Water, especially, in his lungs.
Merlin wretched for air and realized there wasn’t any. He felt his body react poorly as he choked. River – he was at the bottom of a river.
That was his last conscious thought before a girl’s face appeared before his own – a beautiful dark-haired girl with a slight smile, who pushed him upwards, from the riverbed and into the cool, clean air.
Merlin sputtered at the lake surface, drinking in as much oxygen as he possibly could, coughing out the water that had previously been wracking havoc on his lungs.
“Freya?” Merlin rasped as soon as he could speak, looking down into the water for a sign of her, but the lake spirit was gone, her duty to him completed.
It was then that Merlin realized he was naked, and the water was absolutely freezing.
Shivering, he began to swim toward shore. He was at Lake Avalon, that was for certain, the final resting place of Freya and Lancelot. But why –
Memories came crashing back to him as he crashed against the shore. The battle against the Saxons – no hope left for Arthur to survive it, not if the prophecy came true –
So Merlin had taken it all upon himself, freezing time with a bolt of lightning, fighting each of the soldiers one by one as Camelot’s army stood still. A thousand men, and Morgana to contend with when he finished them.
And once Morgana had been vanquished, Merlin knew his job was done.
He had tried to look at Arthur one last time before he fell, but the magic had drained everything from him.
Apparently, he thought, sputtering on the shore, the damage had only been temporary.
That was worrying. Very worrying.
But first Merlin had to worry about getting some clothes and food before night fell.
He caught a rabbit to roast for supper and magicked himself trousers and a shirt. It was then that he noticed odd, smoky black marks on his body.
The reality of the marks set in a moment later.
“Burned,” Merlin muttered to himself. “They burned my body in a boat. And I sank…”
He shouldn’t have come back. He shouldn’t be alive. His body must have rebuilt itself from the ground up, and as far as Merlin could tell, he looked the same as he had before, sans the odd smoky scars.
“Freya…” Merlin called out toward the lapping lakeshore from his makeshift fire. “Am I immortal?”
There was no response.
Merlin took it as a yes, shuddering at the thought. He’d have to find some way to prove it. Not that he overly wanted to die again, but this was just an assumption unless he got himself killed again and came back. He’d get into a barfight with a bandit and not defend himself – that ought to do it.
And if he lived, he’d go back to –
His body was burned. That meant he had a funeral. That meant everyone in Camelot, everyone that Merlin loved, thought he was dead.
And, if they had been present at the battle, they knew of his magic.
Those thoughts paired together were more unsettling than the immortality. If he went back…Arthur would be furious with him. He might think Merlin was a traitor. And there was no telling what his army thought, what all of Merlin’s knight friends would think of him now. And Arthur would have assuredly told Gwen. Returning would mean going to a hostile kingdom, not going home.
He wondered how long he’d been dead, if his friends had grown to accept his death and moved on.
He wondered about his newfound immortality – if it would be easier to let them think he was dead than tell them he would survive anything. If they would see that as indicative of him being less than human.
And if surviving anything meant he would live forever…how could he ever begin to live without knowing Arthur was safe?
Arthur must be safe, Merlin assured himself. He’d go back – disguised as Dragoon, though he would use a different name – to make sure Arthur was safe, and see if it would be safe for Merlin to let him know he was alive.
He hoped Arthur didn’t hate him now. He hoped that there was a single person in Camelot who still cared about him – despite his magic.
A week later, Merlin saw the spires of Camelot again. It had always been a comforting feeling in the past, but today they just reminded him of how separate he was from the inhabitants of the city he hoped he could still call home.
He’d gotten himself killed six times along the way in one form or another, and the result was always the same – he’d wake up in either the same place or the place his killer had taken him without a scratch on him, barely a headache.
Merlin wasn’t sure if that was the result he was looking for, but then again, he was still alive, so things could’ve gone worse.
He transformed into Dragoon just outside of the city. He had thought about stealing a horse, but walking was slower and the anxiety clawing in Merlin’s gut assuredly wanted the journey to be a slow one, so he’d traversed it by foot.
He had figured from one of the barkeeps in Mercia that Camelot had fought the Saxons more than six weeks ago, so Merlin had been dead for at least that long. Avalon wasn’t near the battlefield, so Arthur must have brought him there afterwards for the pyre.
It was comforting to know that Arthur had at least deemed Merlin worthy of a funeral.
Part of Merlin knew that his worry of execution was unfounded – Arthur might be upset, but he wouldn’t kill Merlin. He hadn’t feared that in a long time. What he feared was losing Arthur’s friendship and trust, things that meant more to him than anything else in the world. With Merlin dead, Arthur wouldn’t have to worry about whether he could still be trusted. But alive…
Merlin shuddered, whether from the thought or the spell that aged him prematurely, he didn’t know.
He remembered the first time taking this potion, he had said to Gaius I can’t believe I’m going to look like this someday…
But maybe he never would.
Merlin definitely knew what caused the next shudder.
Merlin wished it would be easier to see Gaius, but he knew he couldn’t make it up to the castle disguised as the killer of Arthur’s father. But he could make it through the lower town and figure out what had happened in Camelot since the battle. That would be easy enough.
The familiarity of the lower town helped Merlin to breathe again, his anxious nerves quelled by the laughter of the children on the corner and the shouts of the shopkeepers. It felt like the world shifted and became more right in the lower town.
Still, the town seemed more subdued than Merlin remembered it being. There was a certain lack of energy to it that Merlin hadn’t seen the likes of since Arthur had been on his deathbed. That wasn’t reassuring.
Merlin planned on heading over to apothecary, because the most people in town would have a cause to go there and so the owner would have the latest news from the castle, but his plans were derailed by an envoy of knights coming back from patrol.
Merlin didn’t want to gain their attention, and quickly turned away, but in his old, frailer body, ended up tripping over his cloak.
“You there! Are you alright?”
Shit. Merlin braced himself, forcing his elderly bones to do their job. That’s Leon.
“Fine, Sir,” Merlin croaked out, but Leon helped him to his feet regardless, because that’s what Leon did. Why Merlin expected anything else, he didn’t know.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Leon’s ever-kind eyes searched Merlin’s face. Merlin heaved a silent sigh of relief that Leon was safe and still available to fuss over the nearest passer-by. “A man of your age and a fall like that…”
“I’m spryer than I look,” Merlin tried his best to make his voice deep and serious, completely unlike Dragoon’s because Leon might recognize him then.
Leon chuckled. “I’m sure. Is there someplace I can help you get?”
“No, no,” Merlin said before realizing that if he had the knight’s ear, he may as well figure out what the state of Arthur was. “Though maybe you could tell me, sir – I’ve been away from Camelot for several months and was wondering the state of affairs in the castle. I haven’t received much news in the countryside.”
Leon’s face seemed to grow sadder before his eyes, and Merlin’s heart rate ramped up, worry about Arthur spiraling out of control. “Well, I’m sure you heard that we defeated the Saxons. Well – I suppose we is a bit of a stretch. But the battle is over and Camelot is left standing.”
“What – what did you mean about the we?” Merlin asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Leon sighed, his face greatly troubled. “The king’s servant, Merlin – I’m sure you’ve met him, everyone has – he…he was the soldier who defeated the Saxons. He gave his life to save all of ours. Everyone is in mourning.”
“W – what?” Merlin tried not to sputter. Arthur in mourning – that made sense. The knights, Gaius, Gwen – absolutely. But Camelot itself? “He’s…a servant, though.”
“He is – was so much more,” Leon said, his voice and face somber, and Merlin was met with a rush of affection for him. “He was a friend to all, and Camelot will never know the likes of him again. The king more than anyone else. Everything that’s happened in the kingdom since then has been colored by his loss. I don’t know if his Majesty will ever recover.”
“Thank you,” Merlin reached a hand out to shake his friend’s, emotions rolling throughout his body that he wasn’t sure the names of. “Thank you, sir. I’m sorry…sorry for your loss.”
Leon nodded at him before leaving to follow the rest of the knights back to the citadel, leaving Merlin lost for words.
He would come back in an instant just to make sure that Leon never looked so somber again. Part of Merlin was shocked at how grievous his friend had seemed – but then again, he and Leon had known each other nearly so long as he and Arthur had.
He’d have to hear about the town from someone else, someone who hadn’t been close with him, if he were to get an accurate picture of Camelot herself. At least he knew Arthur was safe – mourning, but safe.
Part of Merlin, a part he tried to push down, was happy that, at least per Leon’s story, Arthur seemed so lost without him. It would have made him much happier when he was younger. Today, though, most of him still just wanted Arthur to be safe and happy regardless of anything else, even Merlin’s own death.
If Merlin was truly dead, he’d want Arthur to be happy.
Merlin decided to trek a little closer to the upper town to visit the market. There was a girl there that he had talked to most weeks when fetching supplies for Gaius – she talked to dozens of people every day.
“Morning,” the girl, whose name Merlin was almost certain was Elise greeted him with a smile. “What can I get you today?”
“Nothing to buy,” Merlin said, his voice gravelly. “Just wondering – I’ve been in the countryside these past few months and just wanted to know how Camelot has fared in my absence.”
“Oh,” Elise said with a slight deflate of her posture, probably from the fact that she wouldn’t be getting any money out of this transaction of information. “Well, not much. The knights won that battle a couple months back. Almost no casualties, I hear, so that’s good for the kingdom.”
“Very,” Merlin agreed, glad that he was getting a better picture of the battle in Camelot’s eyes from Elise. “I’m sure Camelot is in high spirits from its victory.”
Elise grimaced. “Not really. One of the blokes who did die in the battle –” and here, to Merlin’s dismay, she began to sniff tearfully, “he was a real good customer of mine. Came in every week, was always so nice. Flirted with me a lot, made me feel real special. He was a big deal up in the castle, I think, some advisor to the king or somethin’, but he was real sweet on me. I miss him lots and I know Gretchen and Louise down at apothecary miss him, too, was just everyone’s favorite – anyway, I’m talkin’ your ear off. We got a good wheat crop in this year, and corn, too. Water’s fresh. Don’t got much to complain about. Were you wonderin’ about anything else?”
“No, thank you,” Merlin said, still blinking in shock. This girl who he barely knew had noticed he was gone. She missed him. She thought he was the king’s advisor.
Merlin wondered if Leon’s view at been so slanted at all – and promptly decided that he needed a drink if he was going to deal with anyone else spinning tales of how great he had been.
The Rising Sun, at least, didn’t appear to have changed. It was midmorning, which meant that it was rather empty except for a few slacking knights and town drunkards. The bar keep, an older man named Leroy, who had been there for years, greeted Merlin when he came in with a pint of ale ready at the bar. Merlin smiled gratefully as he struggled into his seat.
“What’s an old man like you doing in a rough and tumble place like this?” Leroy asked good-naturedly as Merlin took a sip of his drink.
“…I’ve been out of Camelot for a few months,” Merlin figured he may as well keep up the pretense and see what Leroy knew. “And taverns have always had the best gossip.”
Leroy gave a full-bellied laugh, slapping the oak table with a guffaw. “That’s the truth, innit? What you want to know, old man?”
“How’s the castle faring?” Merlin asked lightly, keeping at as distant from himself as possible. “Anything interesting?”
“Oh, yeah,” Leroy grinned. “Juicy gossip from there – according to some of the knights, the king and queen aren’t sharing a bed anymore.”
Merlin frowned. Arthur and Gwen having problems? That didn’t sound right. “That’s odd.”
Leroy made a noncommittal noise. “Eh. They haven’t had a baby yet – I don’t think they shared a bed too often to begin with.”
That was true enough, Merlin supposed – they really only spent special occasions in the same bedchamber, because Arthur liked his privacy. They spent their anniversaries together and such, or when Arthur was feeling romantic, but it wasn’t frequent. Merlin had never seen that as indicative of a problem, however.
“I’m sure they’re still together,” Merlin said, mostly trying to reassure himself.
Leroy shrugged. “If you ask me, the queen’s far too pretty and smart not to keep her options open,” he guffawed. Part of Merlin wanted to agree, but stopped himself on Arthur’s behalf.
“How about the tavern, then?” Merlin asked, not feeling comfortable thinking about Arthur’s marriage when Gwen wasn’t around. “How’s your business going?”
“Not a lot changes ‘round here,” Leroy told him, wiping down the bar with a dishrag. “Folks come in to get pissed for the same reasons every month of the year. Though there was one time that a bunch of Camelot knights came in just to reminisce. That was sweet – never thought of knights as the sentimental type.”
Neither did I, Merlin thought, a little disgruntled at the idea. “Reminisce about what?”
Leroy grimaced. “Friend of theirs died. Friend of mine, too, to be honest. He didn’t come in here a lot, but when he did he was with them knights and always made sure none of them did nothing too stupid. Always had a tip for me and would come talk to me when his friends got too rowdy. I like that in a man. Some common sense. Oh, I nearly forgot – this group of old ladies came in and ordered four drinks for each of them, now that was riot –”
Merlin was very nearly annoyed that he couldn’t go anywhere in Camelot without hearing about himself. He didn’t have any right to be – it was nice, wasn’t it, that his loss was felt not only by his friends but by Camelot herself?
Merlin had spent all of his life waiting for some sort of recognition for his years in service to her – but did his death give him that?
Waving off Leroy once he finished his ale, Merlin headed out of the tavern, intending to go back to the forest and just…lay down and think for a while, let the stress of the day wash away, because this was not what he had expected and yet –
“I’m so sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going –” Merlin was cut off by a familiar laugh.
“I’m the one who just plowed down an old man,” Gwaine grinned at him from underneath his usual locks of wavy brown hair. “So I’m the one who ought to apologize here.”
Merlin’s voice died in his throat at the sight of one of his closest friends. Gwaine looked ever the same, though in absence of his usual armored attire, he was wearing his old clothes and –
“Pots,” Merlin blurted out. “You’re carrying pots.”
“I am,” Gwaine acknowledged with a smile and a nod.
“You’re a knight, aren’t you?” Merlin asked, hoping that Gwaine wouldn’t press him on how he knew that fact. “What are you doing carrying pots around?”
“Helping the court physician,” Gwaine answered promptly, and Merlin felt a steady rush of affection for Gwaine and sympathy for Gaius all at once. God, he needed to see Gaius. “He’s having some trouble getting around and I’ve been helping out.”
“That’s…very nice of you,” Merlin said, trying to convey just how nice he thought it was. “You don’t see a lot of knights willing to help out a court physician.”
“You don’t see a lot of sorcerers wanting to help Camelot, either, but reality is a strange place, my friend,” Gwaine said with a laugh and Merlin’s stomach dropped. So his sorcery was common knowledge – that was a good fact to know. At least Gwaine was taking it in his stride – but then again, it was Gwaine. “Then again, that’s all about to change soon.”
“How do you mean?” Merlin prodded, suddenly feeling very hot under the midday sun.
Gwaine gave him conspiratorial wink. “Well, old man, you heard it from me first – Camelot is never going to execute another sorcerer for using magic again. Not while King Arthur’s alive.”
It seemed like all of the breath disappeared from Merlin’s lungs. “W-What?”
“And if the princess – sorry, king – changes his mind, well then, I’ll just have to enforce the rule,” Gwaine winked at him again. “I’m sorry, old man, I really have to go – these pots won’t deliver themselves. If you frequent the tavern, I’ll definitely see you again sometime!”
Gwaine gave a wave with the hand that wasn’t carrying Gaius’s string of pots that Merlin had carried every week for the past ten years, off into the sunny Camelot midafternoon, Merlin staring after him all the while, trying to comprehend.
Magic was going to be legalized. Merlin had spent his whole life wishing for it – and now it was happening.
He had spent his whole life wishing for some sort of recognition for his actions – and now it was happening.
All because he was dead.
Magic itself had died for Camelot, Merlin realized dimly. Magic died so that magic could live.
Merlin gazed around the market square, wondering what it would be like when magic could be practiced freely. He could almost see the juggler on the street corner doing magic tracks, the children’s eyes turning gold and it being celebrated instead of feared.
If Merlin was alive, would Camelot’s future still look that way?
Or if magic had tricked Camelot into thinking that it had died on her behalf, would people lose their trust in magic?
It didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter, Merlin knew in his heart. Because he didn’t make his decisions based on his destiny anymore. He made his decisions based on Arthur.
What would Arthur do if Merlin came back?
Merlin had long since lost hope that Arthur’s feelings for him went as far as Merlin’s did – how far that was, Merlin didn’t like to think about. But Arthur always came first to Merlin, and even though Merlin knew that Arthur cared about him, that their friendship was important to him, that he was the only person Arthur could turn to in times of trouble – Arthur had too many other duties outside of Merlin to consider.
But Arthur was going to legalize magic – that meant that he had to have accepted and forgiven Merlin’s.
And Leon said that Arthur was grieving him, that he might ever recover. And Leroy had said that Arthur’s marriage had suffered since Merlin left.
Merlin thought of what losing Arthur would feel like – the hopelessness, the bone-ripping pain, the terror, the crushing loneliness that would surely result if Arthur were to –
If Arthur felt even a fraction of that for Merlin, then Merlin had to come back. He had to make sure that Arthur was safe and happy. Because the world could be crashing down around them, but Merlin would consider it a victory so long as Arthur would smile at him again.
“…Gaius?” Merlin peered his head around the corner of the physician’s chambers. It was the middle of the night and the guards were no match for Merlin, so he had avoided seeing anyone else. He could do that tomorrow. But Gaius deserved to be the first person to see Merlin alive and whole. “You home, Gaius? Come on, I know you spend your Sunday nights stewing potions for the upcoming week, I’ve helped you with it often enough.”
After a moment’s silence, Merlin finally pushed open the door to the physician’s chambers fully, stepping into the room. His shoulders relaxed at the familiar glow of the room, the potions bubbling on their respective tables, candles lighting up the small space, and Gaius –
“Merlin?” Gaius peered over his spectacles, both of his eyebrows up in his hairline.
“Surprise?” Merlin said weakly, shrugging his bag off his shoulders. “I’m alive?”
“Merlin!” Gaius leapt up with the energy of a much younger man and Merlin met him in the middle at his uncle squeezed the life out of him, and Merlin felt his shoulders dampen with tears. His heart seeped in his chest.
“Is it really you?” Gaius whispered, pulling away. “Don’t tell me Morgana brought you back to life like she did Lancelot to make you her slave –”
“No, no,” Merlin said with a laugh. “I – well, I was dead. And then I wasn’t. I’m pretty sure I’m effectively immortal which is…something I’m not going to deal with right now. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner; I’ve only been alive for a week or two and I had to travel back from Avalon – was that where my funeral was?”
Gaius grew graver as he nodded. “That was a terrible day, Merlin. Never let me relive it.”
“Immortal, remember?” Merlin brushed it off with a slight titter. “I don’t think I have a choice.”
Gaius hugged him again and Merlin laughed at the affection and knew he would have to lord it over Gaius later. When he pulled away, however, there was a strange look in his eyes.
“…You should go to your room,” Gaius said slowly after a moment.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Banishing me already? Come on, I want to talk to you. I need someone to sort my thoughts out with.”
Gaius smiled at him kindly. “And we will. Tomorrow. But for now you should…sleep. Prepare yourself for what’s…what’s to come.”
“Okay,” Merlin admitted defeat, but squeezed Gaius’s gnarled hand before heading to his bedroom. It would be nice to sleep in a proper bed again instead of in the forest or a goddamn riverbed…
Merlin didn’t bother lighting a candle, shrugging off his jacket, tiredness suddenly overwhelming him, especially at the thought of facing Arthur and the rest of Camelot tomorrow. At least he’d face the world with a fresh head –
A groan came from his bed and Merlin froze.
“Who’s there?” A familiar voice grumbled into the pillow, and Merlin was reminded of a thousand mornings spent together in exactly this same fashion. “Gwaine, I swear to God if it’s you again, I’ll –”
“Arthur?” Merlin whispered, not daring to believe it.
Arthur’s figure froze and a moment later his voice came back, steely and guarded. “Who. Are. You.”
“Arthur…” Merlin breathed, stepping forward, and then Arthur turned to face him and even in the darkness Merlin could see his eyes, wide and bright and hopeful and hard all at the same time.
“Are you a ghost?” Arthur whispered as Merlin grew closer, not fully aware of his movements but just knowing he needed to be sure of Arthur’s presence.
“No,” Merlin said, huffing out a slight laugh. “It’s…It’s really me, Arthur. I’m here.”
“Tell – tell me something only you would know,” Arthur said, and if Merlin didn’t know better, he’d say Arthur sounded scared.
“You were born of magic,” Merlin whispered. “Your mother traded her life for yours. Oh, and you snore really obnoxiously.”
Arthur’s face split into the most amazed grin, and Merlin’s heart thumped in his chest. “It is you. Where – where have you been?”
And suddenly Merlin felt himself being hit with his own pillow.
“I’ve been dead, you pillock!” Merlin wrestled the pillow from Arthur’s grip to hit him back. “I’ve only just now gotten back to Camelot after waking up in the lake you set me on fire in.”
“What?” Arthur’s voice was suddenly flooded with concern as the other man scrambled to his feet, and a moment of fumbling later, the room was illuminated in candlelight, Arthur’s face shining in front of Merlin’s, beautiful and wide-eyed and Merlin couldn’t believe he considered not coming back here. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
“No, no,” Merlin reassured him. “Not a scratch, I promise. I…I just came back.”
“Because you’re the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the earth,” Arthur said, and his voice wasn’t fearful. Only sure.
“I see Gaius has been catching someone up,” Merlin muttered under his breath. “Though now I see why he was so insistent on why I go to bed so soon.”
Something occurred to Merlin as he blinked at Arthur. “To bed. You’re asleep in my bed. Why are you asleep in my bed?”
Arthur’s face turned a pale pink and his eyes hit the floor. “I’ve….been here,” Arthur mumbled.
“I said I’ve been here,” Arthur said louder, glaring just slightly. “Every night. Most days. I didn’t want to go back to my chambers. They would’ve given me a new manservant and he would’ve been dreadful.”
“You missed me,” Merlin huffed out a little laugh.
“I more than missed you, you idiot,” Arthur snapped but with no menace to back it up. “I…life has been…I mean, I’ve been…. it’s been really boring without you here.”
“I heard you were despondent,” Merlin said, slightly joking but also serious.
“Gaius is a tattler,” Arthur glared out the door and Merlin knew he should correct him eventually but he didn’t want to deal with that right now. “I – look, I’ve been miserable, alright? Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“A little,” Merlin admitted. “I – can we hug now? Is that alright, or are your manly sensibilities too –”
Merlin was interrupted with a cut off of his airflow as Arthur squeezed him tightly around the middle. Merlin returned the favor in kind.
“Never do that again,” Arthur mumbled into his shoulder.
“I promise,” Merlin buried his head in Arthur’s hair.
They pulled apart and Arthur smiled hesitantly over at him like he couldn’t quite believe Merlin was real.
“Well,” Merlin said with the beginnings of a smirk, “budge up, yeah? This is my bed that you’re sleeping in, so it’s only right that you share it with me.”
Arthur made a disgruntled sound that didn’t reach his eyes. “Your bed is disgustingly tiny and I’m getting you a bigger one.”
“So you can have this one all to yourself?” Merlin teased him and Arthur flopped down on Merlin’s sheets. Merlin grinned at him and shoved him to the side to make room for himself. It was extremely tight – Merlin hadn’t shared it with someone in ages.
“This is not going to be comfortable,” Merlin pointed out, but then Arthur flipped from his back so that the two of them were locked in a hug again, just this time on the bed.
“Better?” Arthur said into Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin’s heart suddenly felt very soft.
Arthur, always worried about image and appearance and propriety and keeping his emotions at a distance, had missed Merlin so much that he willingly curled up in bed with him, not wanting to let go.
Merlin gripped him tighter. “Yeah.”
They lay together in candelight for a moment before Arthur said, his voice slow and hesitant. “…Merlin. Gwen and I – we aren’t together anymore.”
Merlin’s grip tightened. “I heard a rumor,” he admitted.”
“It’s not…not because we fought, or because we don’t care about each other,” Arthur said quietly. “It’s for a lot of reasons, but mostly because she helped me realize that I…that we, all of us, need to be honest with ourselves and each other. Which is a conversation that you could benefit from, but…if I’m being honest…I…I love you and I have for a long time and losing you was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through and I would really appreciate it if you loved me too because I’ve spent the last month believing I was in love with a dead man and now you’re alive, and –”
Merlin didn’t even think before cutting Arthur off with a kiss. This was what he’d never been honest with himself about, more than the magic, more than anything, this was how Merlin had deluded himself for all these years and now Arthur was right here and kissing back and utterly perfect –
“Hey, I thought I was the one who did the babbling,” Merlin whispered with a laugh when they broke apart. “Of course I love you, Arthur. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love you.”
“You won’t be a servant anymore,” Arthur told him, eyes suddenly intent and voice businesslike. “I want you to be my advisor – I mean, you always have been, but in a professional sense now. On magical topics. I – I’m going to legalize magic. I have a very comprehensive plan, and now that you’re back you can tell me if there’s anything I’m missing. I want to unite the kingdoms eventually – I know that was your goal. But I thought I was going to do it alone, but now –”
Merlin kissed him again.
They lay together in Merlin’s bed, neither of them willing to sleep – Merlin couldn’t stop wondering how unbelievably lucky he had gotten, and wondered why he ever thought it would be a bad idea to come back.
But he soon remembered the one corollary on his life here in Camelot.
“Arthur,” Merlin said quietly into Arthur’s hair a few hours later. “The reason that I’m still alive…it wasn’t just a one-off thing. I can’t be killed. Which means that maybe I can’t die in general. I think…I think I’m immortal.”
Arthur stilled beneath him. “Are you going to age?” he said softly a moment later.
“I don’t know,” Merlin said, voice shaking, the fear of an eternity without Arthur present in his mind. “I don’t know if I’ll live a normal lifespan or live for centuries. I don’t know if there are things that can kill me or not – swords forged in a dragon’s breath, for instance. I don’t know if I’m going to live for all eternity, or –”
“Can I be immortal, too?” Arthur cut him off and Merlin’s breath stuttered away. Arthur looked over at him with serious and intent eyes. “Can you make me immortal? So that you don’t have to – have to see me die? Because I know what that’s like. And I don’t want you to live with that pain for eternity. I could barely live with it for two months.”
“I don’t know,” Merlin felt like it was all he could say. “But I’m the most powerful sorcerer to walk the earth – and you’re the Once and Future King. If anyone can figure it out, I think it’s us.”
Arthur kissed Merlin’s hair, and Merlin stopped worrying for just a moment and realized that no matter what his future held, right now he was in Camelot. With Arthur. Home.