When Arthur comes to, the first thing he notices is the snow. Fluffy white powder swirls in the air, piling in heaps on the frozen ground and leaving puddles on his bare skin.
The second thing he notices is that he’s completely naked.
“Fuck,” Arthur hisses through clenched teeth. The biting cold hits him like sharp knives carving at his bones, and he frantically rubs his shoulders and huddles inward in a bid for warmth. Around him, ice and snow stretch out and turn blurry on all sides, unnervingly placid and iridescent in the moonlight. Distantly, Arthur can almost make out something whistling through the air, landing with a soft thump.
A passing wind knocks him into a squat, teeth chattering and tremors wracking bodily through his frame. He stares down at his rapidly freezing extremities and wonders how he always manages to land himself in these situations.
Arthur’s mind feels bleary and soupy, a jumble of thoughts and pictures that don’t string together into anything coherent. Where is he? How did he get here? Struggling to focus, Arthur closes his eyes, momentarily pushing aside the mounting snowstorm and his rapidly developing hypothermia. A hazy image of a tear-streaked face and barren, oppressive branches swims into view. Avalon. Merlin.
“Fuck!” Arthur yells, louder, clenching his teeth together to stop the trembling. Wasn’t he dead? He blinks, rolls back his shoulders. Sniffles. Quickly laps at a stray snowflake with his tongue. So, alive then. Though—Arthur pauses to take stock of the frigid air cutting away at his flesh— probably not for long.
What is going on? Sights and sounds still mist at the edges of his consciousness, but they drift away whenever Arthur tries to reach out with searching thoughts. Arthur groans with shivers and frustration.
Right, then. Deciding he's in no position to have a drawn-out session of soul-searching, Arthur pulls himself up to his warrior’s height, carefully scanning the area around him. He’s pretty sure he’s on some frozen body of water, but he can’t see where the water ends and land begins. Most of the scenery devolves into inky darkness past a few footsteps, and whatever features might have been otherwise visible are covered by the falling snow. Arthur grits his teeth and trudges hesitantly forward, surprised that his feet miraculously haven’t frozen stuck onto the ice. King and knight that he is, it’ll take more than a winter and an unfortunate lack of clothing to stop him.
“Arthur! Are you here? Arthur!”
His name, though tinny and distorted in the wind, snaps Arthur to attention, and he swivels sharply around, the movement causing him to teeter dangerously.
“Get me out of here!” He yells back, somehow managing to sound imperious despite being trapped arse naked in a blizzard. Virtual stranger the voice may be, but even Arthur wasn’t so stubborn as to refuse help in his current predicament.
“Arthur? Arthur? Arthur!” Someone half runs, half stumbles into his field of vision, and Arthur barely gets a good look at the person before arms latch onto him and pull him down into a crushing embrace. They both tumble haphazardly to the ground, Arthur taking the brunt of the fall and how was that even fair? He opens his mouth to complain—who do you think you are get off— but the warmth of another body burns over him in a wave, and he only manages a strangled garble before sagging limply into the lovely heat. He tips his head up, not sure whether he should thank or tell off this mysterious savior, and—
“Merlin?” Arthur’s voice cracks. Merlin’s face, sharp and pale and delicate, looms into focus above him. The moon backlights the curls framing his head, longer and more unruly than Arthur remembers, and a scatter of stubble runs around his mouth. Still, Merlin looks achingly familiar, like a wraith from a past lifetime— but that didn’t make sense because Arthur was still in this lifetime.
Merlin’s crying—typical, the girl— tears dropping and freezing before hitting Arthur in shards. His hands run across Arthur’s face, his hair, his chest, as if making sure Arthur was real.
“Arnd yo ahkau?” Merlin asks desperately, then winces, finally noticing Arthur’s state of undress. “Yonr frean!” He quickly shrugs off his coat, bundling it tightly around Arthur. Giving Arthur an apologetic look, he waves his hand briefly in the air. As his eyes flash gold, a pulsing blue sphere materializes, radiating heat like a campfire.
Arthur, indeed, does flinch a bit at the magic. Between the dying and the waking and the almost dying again, he had forgotten the criminal that is his manservant. But when the sphere drifts towards them and envelops them both, sending Arthur into a sea of blissful warmth and levitating them off the rapidly melting ice, Arthur finds he has little to resent.
Merlin turns his head back towards Arthur, tugging the oddly puffy overcoat even more snugly around his shoulders. “Betau?”
“Merlin, I’ve always known you were an idiot, but I thought you could at least speak properly.”
At the words out of Arthur’s mouth, Merlin’s eyes widen almost comically, touching a slender finger to his lips. Arthur begins to instinctively track the movement, but Merlin speaks again, driving Arthur’s sight back up.
“Sorry— old language—” Merlin mouths around the syllables like something unpleasant, and his speech falls heavy and awkward.
“By the gods, Merlin, are you quite alright?” Arthur questions, mildly concerned. He didn’t mean it at first, but now Merlin really sounded like someone had dropped him on his head as a baby with a bit too much enthusiasm.
“Wait. Spell.” Not giving Arthur a chance to protest, Merlin places a hand on Arthur’s chest, and Arthur barely registers what he’s doing before his eyes spark gold. Tingling spirals shoot into Arthur, crawling around in his lungs and climbing up to his throat. He hunches down and coughs, appalled that he’s somehow not even afraid, just slightly anxious at the searing now spreading to his tongue. Just as he’s considering breaking out of the bubble and scooping up some snow to cool his mouth, the prickling swiftly vanishes.
“Better now?” Hands probe gently at Arthur, and he straightens up to Merlin’s earnest expression.
“Yeah.” Arthur replies, too confused and disoriented by the magic’s abrupt halt to reproach Merlin. His ears feel clear and unclogged, his mouth finally unstuffed of the cotton that he didn’t even notice had stuck his tongue. Arthur shifts, propping himself into an upright position. Dimly, he’s aware of icy landscape passing them by as the sphere floats across the frozen water. He rubs absentmindedly at his temples. “What happened?”
Worry drags at Merlin’s face. “You don’t remember? You died. And—” He waves a hand helplessly in the air. “—you’re back now.”
“Last I remember, the crops weren’t yet ready for harvest.” Arthur squints at Merlin. “So I’ve left Camelot half a year?”
Merlin swallows drily. “Arthur,” he whispers, and Arthur’s so taken aback by the sudden fierce pain lancing through Merlin’s features that he has a wild urge to tell him to forget it, that they’ll figure it out once they’re back. “It’s been a long time.”
“How long?” Arthur hates himself for asking, sees the sorrow crack open and seep out of Merlin’s skin, but he has to know. “Tell me. How long?”
“Fif—” Merlin chokes, voice hoarse. “Fifteen hundred years.”