It seemed impossible for him to find something that so significantly gave him solace in the excruciating passage of time.
Merlin remembered the first sunrise after Arthur’s death, the light clawing at his eyelids and throwing them open, dragging him out of his self induced darkness and forcing him to bear witness to the cursed day. He remembered it without fail, as clearly as if it had been written again and again in his mind each waking moment, the ink never getting the chance to dry, wound never having time to heal.
His eyes had very nearly not been able to open, swollen greatly from the torrent of tears that had escaped them, drying him up like a long suffering well.
One day had passed, yet as the lightest whispers of rain began to tap at his skin, giving him no other choice than to rise from the grassy shore of the lake and seek shelter, it felt like a million.
He walked, feeling the cord cut inside of him, nearly glancing behind him, sure the severed tie was trailing behind him, swiping at his ankles, thread dragging through the dirt.
It felt too dreamlike. A nightmare that had been given too much reign.
He followed the faint ebb of the sun behind the wool clouds as it traced its familiar path through the sky, neck sore from gazing up through the thick treetops. He did not stop for rest- it eluded him- nor for water- he had none. After innumerable steps translated into hours, and the trees thinned to reveal a well worn path, Merlin realized had been alone in these woods before. He did not recall when or why, only that he had made a trek through this very terrain on his way back to Camelot. That was nothing compared to this, though. The loneliness had scraped out everything within him, leaving him a hollow husk, an automaton, walking numbly and with no clear purpose.
It hurt. He’d never known pain like this before. Not when he was stung by a Serket, struck by a mace, poisoned, shot with an arrow, or when the magic had been drained from him. That loss was painful to him. This…. this was utter agony. It was hell. This was what hell was like.
The sun was beginning to set, but instead of painting the sky a rich crimson like the trail of a knight’s cloak, it remained a somber gray, as if the very earth was in mourning.
As it should be, Merlin thought tiredly.
His throat was screaming for water, but the numbness of his body had allowed him to ignore it for the most part, letting him keep on moving without any regard as to the blisters on his feet, the aching in his shins, the stabbing in his sides, the throbbing of his head. Unfortunately, it refused to sedate the feeling of his heart cannibalizing itself, ripping itself to shreds inside of his chest.
It was on the brink of dusk when he found himself entering the citadel of Camelot. He was struck only by the mildest of confusion, realizing slowly that he had no memory of even entering the lower town, much less reaching the castle.
Memories swept over him like a wave, a riptide pulling him in different directions. Every stone held a memory of Arthur, every single pillar, cobblestone, brick. Camelot was Arthur. And here he was as he had been so many times before, in its heart. It was empty and still, no pulse left. Dead.
A swath of deep red entered his blurring vision and Merlin began to sway on his feet, knees buckling as he stumbled towards it almost blindly, expecting a friend, a knight- Gwaine perhaps, yes, it should be Gwaine. Loyal, kind, charismatic Gwaine- there was the dark hair-
But it was not Gwaine. Later, Percival would tell him with red and mournful eyes that he was dead. Gallant, gregarious, hedonistic Gwaine. Murdered by Morgana before Merlin had killed her.
Another life he could have saved.
Guinevere was rushing down the staircase to the castle, hiking her gown up to keep it from hindering her strides. She was calling for him- screaming, perhaps- but it was a dull ringing in Merlin’s ears, like a utensil tapping at the side of a tin cup rather than the sonorous song of a bell. A blink and she was in front of him, grabbing him by the arms, shaking him, her lips saying one word over and over frantically. A question. A name.
Merlin was able to focus on her eyes, trying to remember how joyous they always were, richer than the most fertile of soils. They were barren then, devoid of most life.
She already knew the answer.
She just needed to hear it from him.
“Gone.” Merlin said in a hoarse voice, the single word scratching free from his throat. That one word felt like a condemnation. It had enough weight to squeeze the air from his chest, rendering him unable to breathe from the sheer force of it. Gone. Arthur was gone.
Gone. Gone until the beings that had deemed his life ready to be taken decided it would be of use once again.
The great Arthur Pendragon was dead.
Over one and a half millennia passed since the conception of that moment. Over and over without fail wars came and went, and Merlin found himself in the midst of them, desperately searching for his knight. Then he began looking for a soldier. Almost the whole world turned into war twice. Bombs rained down on Arthur’s once great lands, razing the earth. Still, he did not return.
Magic spoke to him in his sleep, warning him that he could not reveal his powers. The world wasn’t ready for it.
The world had been ready in Arthur’s time! How could it not be ready now?
Despite his protests, he heeded its wishes.
He cycled through over a dozen three quarter lifetimes, reverting back to his young adulthood once his ageing body would no longer hold his burden. He changed his name each time, kept up his guise, allowing himself to age normally, only interfering when he chose to. If he wanted to remain thirty years of age for a decade, who was to stop him?
There was no one left.
Merlin sat on the edge of his bed, the large room cloaked in the darkness caused by the incessant rainstorm outside. The droplets on the windows cast odd shadows on the wall, on Merlin’s bare skin, painting over his scarred back.
Perhaps they would cover the bullet wound from the Battle of Waterloo. The metal ball had been dug crudely from his skin, leaving a small star shaped scar near his left hip, the skin barely raised. Shrapnel scars from a landmine Merlin’s comrade accidentally activated in World War One speckled his right arm and parts of his chest. He’d been called Christopher then. Christopher Hunithson. He stopped changing the surname once the new century came.
World War Two had been the hardest. Seeing the suffering and not being able to intervene with his full might. He’d taken a bullet to the shoulder because in the craze of the battle he swore he saw Mordred, freezing in his shock. Merlin later got shot in the leg because he thought he was rescuing Daegal from enemy fire. The nurse looked like Mithian. The kind, elderly doctor sounded like Gaius. He vaguely recalled having some sort of mental breakdown and being sent back home, punching the commanding officer that acted too much like Uther. They called it ‘shell shock’.
Merlin called it ‘losing his mind’.
After living as so many different people, Merlin had ended up accumulating an absurd amount of wealth. He donated everything he got from war bonds to charity, keeping the rest to maintain his own abnormally extended life. Merlin ended up buying a sizeable house less than a kilometer away from the lake, close to being a manor in his opinion. It was a unique clash of Victorian and modern from many attempts at renovation. The kitchen walls were brick but the appliances were the newest available, the sitting room had been repainted not two months ago to be a blueish gray, the master bedroom was white. The study near the back of the house had glass walls, facing the enclosed yard lush with floral growth. There was even a small greenhouse for Merlin to grow herbs, the ones Gaius used in making medicine or to just let dry and hang on the wall, creating a familiar scent. The house became a home, something he’d been missing for far too long. When the twenty first century hit, Merlin knew that he could no longer keep drifting. Arthur needed him close.
There was a moment when he entertained the idea of therapy. He’d been through the trauma of around fifteen lives, and it was no doubt taking its toll on his mind, as well as his body. But it would be impossible to reveal any of this to anyone without being institutionalized. He hadn’t been in battle since the last world war, so the PTSD would take artful explanation.
“Would you say the war traumatized you?”
“I was always dealing with trauma. I think war just made things worse.”
“Now, which war was this?”
“World War Two.”
He still had his service records in a box in one of the many spare rooms. Merlin called it his archive room, filled with bins containing information from each life he faked. Bank records, false documents, anything he needed. If he ever wanted to be on national news or make a load of money at a freak show he could present all of his documents and say “Hi, my name’s Merlin and I’ve been alive since the fifth century, and if that’s hard to believe here’s my service record from the first world war, my fingerprint, photograph, and all. How do I look so young? Magic.”
Therapy sounded a lot better. So he went. It was around the first decade of the new millennia, and he’d chosen to present as his twenty two year old self. His therapist was a kind woman in her late thirties named Augusta Lachlan. Merlin had gone through five in his search for the perfect one, and settled on her. Augusta didn’t remind him of a ghost. She was new, her own person. It made it easier to take off his burden with a stranger. It was difficult for him to make new friends, yet he was sure he found one in her.
Merlin told her about his delusions, seeing old faces in new people. Trigger phrases, objects, places that would bring back memories so forcefully that he would shut down. He told her of his best friend, Arthur, who was wounded in Afghanistan, and how Merlin was unable to save him. He was unable to return home for proper treatment and Merlin- Ben- stayed with him as long as he could. The camp was invaded and many hostages were taken, including Arthur. It was easier to lie and say he was MIA. Arthur wasn’t truly dead, not if it was possible for him to return. And Merlin didn’t want to vocalize the fear of him being dead. He was gone. Not dead, just gone.
He recalled their time together, describing their relationship to Augusta, twisting the stories a bit to avoid the whole truth. Meeting when Merlin goaded himself into a fight, mishaps during hunting trips, trips around the country when they were younger, going places in search of artifacts. Almost everything.
“It sounds like he was much closer than just your friend.”
“No, he was married, we never-”
“I don’t mean to insinuate anything, but it seems to me that you two were married in your own way. A ‘two sides of the same coin’ kind of arrangement.”
Augusta began to sound too much like Kilgharrah. Merlin didn’t run that time, though. He would never be able to completely run from the past. Trigger words could not be dodged, faces could not stop bearing similar traits. A barista who’s hair was as dark as Morgana’s, an elderly woman he helped with groceries that responded with “thank you, my boy.”
The only escape would be if he locked himself inside his home, but even then he had set it up so that he could never forget. His mind wouldn’t let him. There were more scars under the surface, although however numerous the visible and unnamed ones were.
His thumb brushed over the engraving of Ygraine’s sigil given to him by Arthur. The medallion had survived with him, one of the many relics he had kept with him after Camelot had faded and the unknown duration of his life made itself known to him. The design in the center had been tarnished and nearly disfigured, no doubt due to Arthur having done the same thing Merlin was doing now. Even so, he could still make out the small form of a dragon.
The rain continued down in torrents and Merlin heaved a sigh, reaching to place the sigil back in the nest of velvet he’d made for it in his bedside drawer, a small shrine. He’d tried keeping it in the study with most of the other items he had saved, but that night he could not rest, panic seizing him. The fear of losing it was too great for Merlin to bear. So it remained with him in his own room.
A sweater lay across Merlin’s boxer clad thighs and he stared at the fabric with a distracted sort of gaze. It was a favorite of his, maroon, soft cotton, light and warm.
Color was what Merlin found solace in. The rich blues, reds, and violets he wore so long ago translated to slightly more muted tones in his wardrobe. The comforter, his whole bedspread, was a pale cream color, reminding him not only of his small room in the castle, but the walls of the castle itself. Maroon became a favorite. The blend of Merlin’s blue with the red of Arthur and Camelot.
He didn’t remember the year he took up painting. Acrylic was messy, but the colors blended beautifully to create an air of accuracy that only a camera could compete with. Merlin had portraits of Arthur, Gwen, and Gaius propped beside his desk in the study. He slept in the room on a futon for a week as he was bombarded with dreams of the faces of everyone he had known, rolling over in the dark to reach for the fan of papers on the ground, charcoal sketches soon filling the space and being taped to the glass. Arthur, Gwen, Gaius, Morgana, Mordred, Freya, Mithian, Agravaine, Morgause, his mother and father, Will, everyone. Even Uther. Hidden behind the others, of course.
Merlin spent hours created watercolor pieces of the scenery of the kingdoms. The castles, caves, forests, Lake Avalon. A spare bedroom was painted to look like the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Augusta had helped him with it in a session about developing healthy coping mechanisms. He’d refused to believe he needed them. He wasn’t ill, he wasn’t depressed or deluded.
At least that was what he told himself. A sane person can seem ill just as an ill person can seem sane. The line was becoming too blurred for him as of late.
It was only when his therapist showed up one morning with her silver blonde hair tied back, wearing a paint stained sweatshirt, ripped jeans, and carting a child’s red wagon laden with paint cans that he got his wake up call.
The two of them spent the whole day working on the mural, going off a hasty sketch Merlin had done with pastels. In the hours they spent painting he connected more with a person than he had in the last fifteen-hundred years or so. He learned about Augusta’s wife, Taharah, who liked to call her ‘Summer’. Their son, Rory, who was as adorable as he was a troublemaker. She became a friend, and he felt much less than just a client.
When she had finally gone home he looked at his paint covered hands and ran them down his neck, leaving a trail of rich greens down the sickeningly pale expanse, his face, forearms. Smothering himself with the vibrance and life of color. The vitality of green restored something in him as good as a potent spell and as he looked around the room his face split into the widest smile he’d experienced in centuries.
Merlin stepped into the shower not much later and watched the paint swirl in the water around his feet before disappearing down the drain. It was oddly calming, and for the first time in a very long while he actually felt vaguely at peace.
Augusta helped tear down the wall of denial and he accepted that things were not going fine for him. Merlin stretched himself thin over the years in his wait for Arthur, his searching, the unsurety. He did not know if Arthur would rise from the same waters, or if he would manifest on a battlefield in his full glory and strength, conquering the fight. It was time to stop the anticipation and to settle down and wait. Live a life for himself. It wasn’t easy to stop his daily walks past the lake, heart racing at the briefest ripple in the water’s surface.
“I’m not here to tell you that you’re ill,” she said in their first meeting, clasping his hand as if she’d known him for months. “I’m here to help you. If that means diagnosing you, giving you a name for what you’re feeling, I will. But my first priority will always be helping you heal.”
He pulled the sweater on and trudged downstairs. Despite the darkness, it was only early afternoon, which meant that he had to make some effort to sustain himself until falling asleep.
The house was devoid of any other life, save for a few plants. They helped to remind Merlin that he still had magic, which he used to keep them alive once he noticed their respective states of decay and dying. Watering them was not his forte.
In spite of the emptiness, it was very full, filled to the brim, stretching at the seams, with memories. The Pendragon banner, his and Gaius’s books shelved in the sitting room, Gwen and Arthur’s crowns hidden under a drawer’s false bottom. Even without the relics he would never be able to quell the tide inside of his head, bursting with centuries of words and faces and places. The endless cycle of gain and loss.
It was beginning to be too much.