The light filtering through the castle was transforming into a warm glow, letting the occupants know that day was soon to become night. It was the type of week that passed by in a haze, no looming threat of war but also no time that could afford to be wasted. Summer was creeping in and slowly coating every crevice with an insufferably dry heat, tiring those who were forced to be a victim to the beating sun.
Arthur found himself striding down the hallway on this particular Friday night. His council meeting had kept him for longer than it usually did and he was teetering on the edge of exhaustion. The humid air had been a constant taunt to his drooping eyelids, making every second feel like a thousand years. It had somehow managed to be even more tedious than normal, which until that evening he assumed to be impossible.
The prince turned around to see his manservant speed-walking down the hallway, earning the boy some pointed glares from a few nobles who he almost collided with. Arthur rolled his eyes, in the six years that he had known Merlin he was certain he had barely changed. He didn’t care about impressing those around him. He felt no pressure to obtain a false appearance. It was brave and refreshing; perhaps even a little endearing. Although he would never, ever admit it… Arthur admired him for it.
Merlin fell into an easy step behind him, a routine that the duo had become familiar with. The inhabitants of Camelot were used to the sight of their blonde prince making his way around with his slightly taller and much lankier servant. On nearly every occasion that they were witness to this scene, it saw the two of them exchanging quick conversation and hushed jokes; isolated in their own little world. If Merlin was standing a bit closer to Arthur than servants were meant to be standing to their masters, nobody commented on it.
“I think that sets a new record for most boring council meeting we’ve ever had to endure,” Merlin muttered lightly. “What do you say?”
Arthur laughed despite the deep tiredness that was settling into his bones, throwing his companion a look of agreement.
“You know,” Merlin continued. “I don’t doubt that all that decision making was exhausting, but you had the privilege of sitting on your royal arse on that royal throne the whole time. I had to stand on my own two legs. For seven hours.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, thinking about how Merlin would probably be thrown in the stocks if he dared talk to anybody else like that. He knew that Merlin’s ridiculous insults were only reserved for him, and Arthur liked it that way. All those years ago, perhaps the two of them had started out with intent to actually hurt each other, but it had quickly become their secret language of communication.
“It’s not a throne, Merlin,” Arthur drawled. “It’s merely an ordinary chair that has a little extra padding.”
Merlin grinned, a glint in his eye. “What, like you sire?”
Arthur laughed despite himself, which was more than definitely a sign of his fatigue. He cursed how quick-witted Merlin had become and how he could draw such unguarded happiness from Arthur, even in the worst of times. He quickly schooled his features into his best scowl, glaring at his manservant. “I am not fat, Merlin.”
“Of course not,” the raven-haired boy innocently replied.
Arthur huffed, noticing that Merlin was basically walking next to him now. The long strides of their legs were matching, an easy rhythm of transport. Merlin then slightly overtook Arthur, throwing the prince a cheeky smile over his left shoulder. Such an act was probably against royal protocol. Arthur found that he didn’t really care about royal protocol much at all.
They eventually reached the prince’s chambers, groaning at the thick heat that had been building up in there during the day. Arthur watched his servant glance over to the windows, a guilty look clouding his delicate features.
“You forgot to open the windows, didn’t you Merlin!”
The boy had the decency to nod sheepishly, before making his way to the other side of the room and pushing them open. Both men knew it was no use, the humid night air was even more unbearable than the heat that they were trapped in.
“Forget it, I’ll just subject myself to a sleepless night,” Arthur pouted. He was so tired. He often wondered how he came to live such a stressful life. His Father had been unresponsive for the past year. Arthur assumed he was engulfed in a cruel grief as a result of Morgana betraying his trust. As a consequence of Uther’s state, the prince had taken over his Father’s role in the kingdom. Arthur was essentially the king now, something which deep down he knew he was not ready for. This meant that he was always needed and always exhausted. He found himself constantly missing the way that things used to be. As well as taking over from his Father, he also had to commit to his previous duties too; such as training the knights every morning and welcoming anybody of slightly high status that came to visit Camelot. “Keep up appearances,” his Father would tell him. “Don’t be weak.” Arthur was certain he never had a free minute, and now he was going to be lying awake in sticky humidity for the whole night, probably feeling too nauseous to sleep.
“Sleepless night?” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes. “I wonder how that feels, sire.”
Arthur laughed lowly. To be fair, his bed was much nicer than Merlin’s. He didn’t understand how the servant could sleep in that plank of a bed. He could barely manage it when he stayed at Gwen’s house.
Maybe soon Gwen would be sharing Arthur’s bed, and then Merlin could complain to her instead. His manservant knew that when Arthur became king he planned to marry her. This notion seemed impossible until the day when he realised that his Father may not recover.
Arthur knew that Gwen would make a fine queen, and he needed to show his people that times were changing. He had to show them that he was not his Father. Gwen was a lovely woman; Arthur knew that they cared deeply for each other. An unspoken agreement lingered between them, a knowledge that they both belonged to each other. He trusted that Gwen would always be there for him. Perhaps it was also a little act of rebellion, showing the nobles that status meant nothing, and that he should love who he chooses.
Suddenly Arthur felt Merlin’s fingers on his shoulders, startling him. His insides curled, probably as a result of being brought back to reality so abruptly. Merlin tapped Arthur’s shoulders in a way that Arthur knew meant “lift-your-arms-so-your-shirt-can-be-taken-off.” Merlin delicately lifted Arthur’s blue shirt over his head and then moved to put a night-shirt on him, but the prince lifted his hand up to cease the action.
“Too hot for a night-shirt, and for the blankets too. I think I’ll just sleep without anything on at all,” Arthur mused, stretching his strong arms to the ceiling.
Merlin visibly swallowed, the tips of his ears gaining a rosy hue. Good Heavens, it really was hot in here. After seemingly forgetting himself for a moment, he rolled his eyes. “Alright you prat, but if blood-sucking insects decide to eat you alive…”
Arthur chuckled. “What?”
“Well,” Merlin continued after a long pause. “Just don’t expect me to rub the ointment on you.”
Arthur shivered, despite the warmth of the room seemingly growing stronger. All this talk of insects was obviously making him feverish.
He lifted his arms above his head again in resignation, his face clearly displaying how he most certainly did not want to be eaten by insects. A few moments later, a grinning Merlin was dressing him in his night-clothes; nattering on about the following day and all of Arthur’s kingly tasks.
All at once, Arthur felt like he was about to explode. He was not ready for these responsibilities. He never let himself think about it, but suddenly he could feel his looming reality; what if his Father never recovered? What if he never got to be the person that he once was ever again? What if he had lived the life that was for himself, and now all that was left was to exist for war and peace? Arthur didn’t mind this, he expected it. He just hadn’t expected it so soon.
There would be no more hunting trips with his knights. No more dinners with his Father. No more midnight conversations with Merlin. He would be crowned. He would marry. He would barely see his wife, probably opting to sleep in separate chambers because she’d become too annoyed by the late hours of work required for a king. He would have children. Grow into an old man. Probably become cynical and bitter just like his Father.
The grief of his lost life hit him all at once, making his knees give out as he fell onto his bed. Merlin made a very confused noise and was pulled down on top of him, his fingers still clutching the fabric of Arthur’s night-shirt. In an attempt to attain his balance, the boy ended up straddling Arthur’s waist. When Arthur opened his eyes again, Merlin’s face was very close to his own. The pale features of his servant were flushed and shocked, almost akin to how a deer looks when it spots a hunter with an arrow. Arthur felt very strange when Merlin’s gaze travelled down to his lips, and he just couldn’t understand why. He realised that it was probably because he was grateful for the concern that his manservant showed him… Quite a lot of concern, judging by his expression.
“I’m guessing you want to know what’s wrong with me?” Arthur breathed.
Merlin’s eyes momentarily darkened. Arthur chose that moment to chuckle, because the air had grown much too heavy and his servant's focused stare was making his head feel even foggier. Before he next blinked Merlin was off him, collecting his laundry off the floor and striding over to the other side of the room.
“What’s wrong?” His voice wavered a bit on the last word, making him sound unsure. This early Summer exhaustion really was affecting everybody.
“Well Merlin,” Arthur barked, suddenly feeling fire fill him. “At the rate that I am going at, I’ll probably be required to become the king of Camelot before the year is up. I’ve been juggling every issue in this kingdom by myself for months, and by the looks of it that is not going to cease anytime soon. I haven’t even lived twenty-seven Summers yet and already I have to give my freedom and life away to serve. Which I would be fine with, if I hadn’t been so quickly thrown into the job without a word of warning. My secret sister has decided that she wishes to kill my Father and she probably plans to kill me too. There are wars to fight, fields to assign and people to feed. There are problems that I need to solve that I know nothing about. I cannot sleep, I can barely eat and I can’t find a minute to myself. You keep on telling me that I am destined to be a great ruler, but I have no idea how to rule. My Father is delirious and will not speak to me. Oh, and my idiot manservant left the windows closed all day and now I feel like I’m suffocating!”
Arthur’s final word rang shrill in the chambers, bouncing off the stone walls. Merlin blinked at the prince slowly, his features blank. “And what is it that you want, sire?”
Arthur sighed, what did he want?
“It’s just…” Arthur whispered the words leaving his lips, not gaining enough courage to look Merlin in the eye. “I know how testing these times are going to be. I know the struggle that awaits. I know that there must be a war. I… I wish that I could get to the time where I’ll be truly happy. When I can just live. It’s all I wish for, with everything in me… Do you understand?”
Arthur felt his face heat up. God, since when did he become such a girl? Why was he suddenly coming out with all these flowery desires? Merlin must think he’s pathetic.
Before Merlin had the chance to respond, Arthur had already decided to pretend that the whole incident didn’t just happen.
“Anyway, back to the topic of idiot manservants… Would you mind getting me a sleeping draught?” Arthur knew that he probably wasn’t even going to take the medicine, but he definitely needed a minute to get himself together.
“Of course, sire,” Merlin stuttered. He looked like he wanted to say something else. As quickly as the prince noticed this, Merlin's face closed off, a canvas of neutrality once again. He nodded his head once at Arthur before shuffling out of the door.
Arthur settled against his headboard, letting his eyes drop shut. Hopefully Merlin would forget about their strange one-sided heart to heart. The second almost-as-favourable option was that Merlin just wouldn’t want to talk about it with Arthur. Who was Arthur kidding? Merlin wanted to talk about everything.
He supposed that if he was forced to talk to anybody about feelings and the effects of those, he probably would choose Merlin. In fact, he imagined himself deep into his old age going to ask Merlin for advice. The boy always had strange bouts of wisdom, and the prince knew that he would always have solutions to the problems that Arthur found himself facing. Arthur would never admit to Merlin that he valued his help, but he did. He also imagined Merlin being his manservant until the day he died, and Merlin had said as much to him too.
“Well, well, well…” A deep and scratchy and definitely not-Merlin voice said.
Arthur’s eyes flew open and he pushed himself off the bed, his body already in battle mode. He took in the sight before him; an old woman stood low on the floor opposite him, her grey hair falling over her eyes and restricting a clear view of her face. Arthur could see her wrinkled hand clutching a walking stick, her nails long and yellow.
“Arthur Pendragon,” she purred. “The young prince. Or should I already be addressing you as king?”
Arthur felt his shoulders tense. They were trying to keep the state of his Father a secret, making up detailed excuses and intricate stories. What was this lady implying? What did she know?
“Oh, don’t look so scared dear,” she taunted. “I’m only here because you called me.”
Arthur grabbed the sword that was leaning against the wall, holding it up to the old woman.
“Stay back,” he calmly stated. “If you don’t, I will be forced to use this.”
The old woman giggled. Actually giggled. It was done in an extremely malicious way, and Arthur didn’t even know that such an act was possible.
The lady simply hobbled around Arthur’s sword, choosing to stand dangerously close to him. “Oh, my dear…” She rasped into his ear. Arthur shivered. Not in that pleasant way he had done earlier, but in a scared way. The woman -
Wait… Did he just define his feverish shiver earlier as pleasant? This exhaustion really was clouding his thoughts. He needed to get this old woman out of his chambers, recite the heroic tale to Merlin with an aim to impress him a bit, and then sleep.
“You cannot do anything to harm me,” she chided. “For I am of the old religion. I heard you when you wished with everything in you. You want to be truly happy? How… sweet. Would you like to experience those happy times right now, young prince?”
Fear crept up Arthur’s spine, a numbing shock. He was used to the conversation that he was currently being subject to, and it is was usually followed by a life-threatening curse. He could not use his sword on the old woman, the risk of her using a curse that would instantly kill him was too great. He could not risk his life like that. If he died and his Father never recovered, nobody would be able to rule the kingdom. Except Morgana. Oh, God.
Arthur briefly wished that he had given Merlin his Mother’s sigil, because at least then Merlin could be king. That was the law, after all. It would probably be a shock to the poor boy, but Arthur supposed that he would make a compassionate and brave ruler. Also, he hadn’t died in battle yet, even if he was hopeless with a sword. Although, him not dying was probably due to the fact that he hid behind trees and rocks and any object that he couldn’t be seen behind. Still, to go into such battles without even a shred of armour was a plain death-wish. Sometimes Arthur wished that he could have some of Merlin’s unfaltering courage and faith for himself, but he knew that he had more of his own thanks to the boy being a constant presence for so many years. Arthur really did appreciate the talks that Merlin subjected him to before a battle, almost as if his servant knew something was about to happen that nobody else did. Of course, he would be on his deathbed before he could ever admit to thinking any of this.
Which now that he thought about it, was probably what he needed to focus on.
“I will grant you the wish, Arthur Pendragon,” she continued. “You wish to see a time of pure happiness. That feeling barely exists, my dear. I look into your future, and I see no such thing. Do you know why? Because all who possess magic will suck every bit of pleasure out of your life. We desire burning revenge for the hurt you’ve caused us. In that case, the curse will take you to the peacefulness of death. But your death will not be calm, young prince. No, it will be cold and empty. There is nothing you can do. I have seen your death. I am aware of your fate. You shall experience what you have put my people through, the darkness that we have faced because of your merciless ways. So, I will show you no mercy. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to return. If not… You will be stuck in that blackness forever. Prepare yourself, Pendragon.”
Arthur felt horror cease his whole body. This cannot be happening.
Now would be a perfect time for Merlin to surge through the doors; the witch would be momentarily distracted and Arthur could drive a blade through her chest. Despite this fantasy, with every second that passed he was losing hope in his existence.
Arthur quickly tried to escape, to get out of the door and run before she had the chance to cast the full spell. To his horror, he felt that he couldn’t move a muscle. This is it. This is it.
The witch began to mutter and chant in an ancient language that Arthur didn’t understand. He felt painful tendrils of magic bind him into time, imprinting his being with unforgivable chains. Around him, everything was going red. He was burning. He felt himself burning. In the blinding heat of the moment, he decided that when he was king, he would never ever execute anybody in such a way.
All at once, the magic was ripped off of him. He collapsed to the floor in a heap of pulsating pain and shallow breaths. His eyes were tightly shut but he could still see the world around him bathed in red… Burning and burning and burning. He registered deafening noises surrounding him, but they slowly faded into a soundscape of nothingness.
Suddenly, he felt himself being shook awake by gentle hands, the soft touch bringing him back to reality. He shot up onto his feet and nearly knocked poor Merlin out in the process.
“Where is she? Is she gone?” His voice sounded weak and ragged even to his own ears. Definitely not how a king should sound after a battle. He supposed it had been an unfair fight though.
Merlin nodded his head rapidly, softly rubbing Arthur’s forearms in an attempt to calm him down. Arthur shook him off, all of this was so confusing and he could not have Merlin knowing that the soon-to-be king was feeling so weak after one short encounter with a witch, his stomach was beginning to flip over itself for heaven’s sake.
He saw a brief look of hurt flash through Merlin’s blue eyes, but the man then proceeded to fold his arms and intensely stare Arthur down. The prince shifted under his gaze, he knew what was coming.
“Do you feel cursed? Did it hit you? Arthur, that was so close. I should’ve been up here. As soon as she saw me she just disappeared. She must have transported herself, I would’ve ceased her, or called the guards but she just went, and anyway, the guards are downstairs tonight for a meeting about the borders and I wouldn’t have been able bear it if I had to leave - ,” Merlin abruptly snapped his mouth shut, putting an end to his frantic rant. “So, how do you feel?”
Arthur momentarily closed his eyes, how did he feel?
“Well, it didn’t hit me, I don’t think,” he breathed. “In fact, I know it didn’t. She told me she was here to grant my wish, I don’t how she heard… I mean, she was listening, obviously. She told me that she was here to bring me to the time of happiness that I wanted. And that… That there would be no time of happiness. And the closest I’d feel to happiness was death. But she planned to curse my death. And of this would all happen in the future? I really don’t know Merlin, I’m too tired for this.” Arthur gave a humourless laugh that was met by a bereft expression from Merlin. Then he simply sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
The prince took in the sight of his manservant, who looked very pale and very nauseous. Arthur suspected that if a stranger had witnessed them at this moment, they would be certain that Merlin was the one who had almost been killed.
“Anyways,” Arthur continued. “I’m fine. I could feel the curse trying to rip me away from here but I held on… And then you showed up. Just in time. Good timing that was, by the way.”
Merlin omitted a sound that was somewhere between a huff and a laugh. “Would it kill you to say thank you once in a while?”
“Probably,” Arthur grinned, feeling the stress of the encounter melting away when Merlin rolled his eyes in his “you’re-so-stupid-I-can’t-believe-I-put-up-with-you” kind of way.
Merlin smiled shyly at him then, obviously embarrassed by the reality when it set in; he had just saved Arthur’s life. Though it was unintentional, if he hadn’t walked in at that moment then the prince might’ve been dead. Of course he would be flustered by such a noble thing, the humble idiot.
Arthur realised that his thoughts were definitely being affected by his lack of sleep. Yes, he should definitely sleep now.
The prince proceeded to climb into bed, fluffing the pillows and deciding to look at anything but Merlin. He felt himself being watched in a curious way, and his strange shivers were returning. Once he heard Merlin’s breath of resignation, he knew that his manservant was done trying to get the answers out of him. For tonight, that is. There was no doubt in Arthur’s mind that the boy would interrogate him in the morning. Arthur saw him shaking his head and blowing out the candles in his peripheral vision.
Before leaving for the night, Merlin turned around and gave Arthur a look that made the prince’s chest clench.
“Arthur, I…” he whispered, barely audible. “I’m glad that you’re safe.” It was their unspoken agreement. Arthur didn’t even know what it was, he just knew it was there. He also knew that Merlin knew it, too.
He then reached over and squeezed Arthur’s shoulder, looking both bashful and uncertain at the same time. Before Arthur had a chance to call him a girl or perhaps even pull him into an embrace (that was the fatigue talking), Merlin dashed out of the room.
Arthur’s breath caught in his throat, his weariness obviously catching up with him. He was so shaken up from a stupid witch that even his breathing was affected. Thankfully, the wind that the sorceress had brought in with her curse had actually seemed to cool the room down, making it a temperature now perfect for sleeping.
Sorcerers can be so dramatic.
Arthur settled down into his pillow, brushing the hair out of his eyes. Strangely, despite the days events he felt a presence of warmth in his chest. It wasn’t unfamiliar, he had just never given himself permission to notice it before. In his life, he may not get the pure and unadulterated happiness that he used to wish for, but maybe the feeling that was currently spreading throughout his whole being would be enough.
The last thought that Arthur had before sleep took over him was how perhaps he could be truly happy living this way. And despite his sleepy searching, he just couldn’t understand what had changed.
Arthur slowly found himself being brought to consciousness. He supposed he was caught in the in-between state that happens after dreaming but before reality, that aimless stretch of morning where you understand nothing yet understand everything. He felt so comfortable.
Comfortable in his position. Comfortable in his existence. Comfortable in everything. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if he had ever felt so at ease in his life.
His bed felt much nicer than it usually did… Much nicer. He snuggled into the pillow further. It smelled of flowers. That was new. He would have to ask Merlin how he achieved such a thing when the boy came to rouse him.
Somewhere in the back of his consciousness he vaguely remembered the blistering heat of his bedroom from the night before. It had cooled down nicely, he even could feel a warm breeze from his window coming in and refreshing his bare skin. From outside, he could hear strange rumbling sounds. He would have to enquire about them later.
Arthur could also feel the sunlight on his face, a soft glow pouring into his bedroom. That couldn’t be right. The sun felt much too warm for such an early time. It felt like a mid-day heat rather than a subtle dawn warmth. How peculiar. Maybe it’s because the Summer season is coming in. Or maybe it’s because Merlin had forgotten to wake him up. On second thought, that definitely could not be it. The training with the knights would’ve been delayed and somebody would’ve had to come and fetch him.
Arthur did feel incredibly well-rested though. Much more refreshed than he had felt in years. It was pleasant. Very pleasant. He was sure that he had just woken up earlier than usual, so he might as well make the most of the opportunity and try to fall back asleep. The prince gave a satisfied sigh, appreciating the position that he was in and immersing his relaxed body deeper into the warmth.
Somebody was in his arms. He was spooning them. Which was… new. At first he assumed that it was Gwen, but that couldn’t be right. They weren’t even wedded yet. He tried to think back to the night before, had any maids been in his company? But Arthur hadn’t indulged in such a thing in years. He had barely enjoyed it when he did, what had possessed him last night?
He could feel the soft tendrils of sleep stubbornly clinging to every fibre of his being, and he still didn’t know why this person was here… But they were, and he’d figure out all the answers later. For the moment, he’d just shuffle closer and enjoy their heat.
Arthur only had to push his face forward the tiniest bit before he found his nose emerged in the person’s soft hair. He breathed in, smelling something so familiar yet so unreachable.
It was sweet and clean and earthy, and in that moment Arthur knew it was the best scent that he had ever had the pleasure of indulging in.
He tightened his arm around the mystery person’s waist and pulled them closer. They made a tiny noise of contentment and reached down to grab Arthur’s hand, intertwining their fingers. The prince felt small circles being gently rubbed onto his knuckles, making his toes curl. He felt the type of warmth spread throughout him that could not be a result of the air. The hand he felt in his own was almost as big as his, but much softer. It felt delicate against his palm.
And that’s when Arthur realised that he was naked. Very naked. And the person in his arms was also very much naked too. Which definitely should not be happening.
The prince suddenly felt reality set in, what was he doing? He most certainly did not fall asleep with somebody in his bed last night. Had some crazed woman entered his room and undressed him while he was sleeping? Oh, God.
His brain all at once lost the fogginess of sleep and Arthur tensed. He needed to get up, now. He peeled open his eyes cautiously, but the sun streaming through the window momentarily blinded him. It was shining into the room much brighter than it ever had before. When his eyes adjusted to the unusual level of morning light, his stomach dropped.
Where was he?
The prince was not in his chambers, but in a very strange place. A very new place. A very not-palace-like place.
Arthur shrieked, kicking the person next to him away with such force that they were catapulted off other the side of the bed. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at the insane woman that had definitely kidnapped him. The prince was so wrapped up in the danger of this strange situation that he couldn’t even think straight.
Would people at the palace be coming to get him? How would they know where he was? He suspected that the first person to notice his absence would be Merlin, and judging by the sun’s position in the sky, that should’ve been a few hours ago. What if they didn’t come on time? What if he was killed before they could find him?
Arthur looked around in his dazed state. Where was he?
Good Heavens, this was the strangest room that he had ever been. His mind was swimming in panic and fear, the room looked like nothing that he had ever seen before.
What was happening?
The prince felt numbing panic cease him, he needed to escape. And quickly.
Arthur was stood facing the bed, one not as big as the one in his chambers. A bed that’s size was usually meant for two ordinary people. Too small for a prince though. So, it’s definitely not somebody from royalty that has captured him. Arthur wasn’t sure if that should be a relief or not.
The person on the floor was still groaning, hidden from his view as a result of the bed between them. And - God. The wall behind them was clear. Actually clear. All that Arthur could see was blue sky.
The prince’s breaths were heaving, escaping his throat in panicked gulps.
He had to run. He had to leave. Well, he had to get some clothes. Then leave. He needed to get back to the castle as soon as possible. Oh, God. He had to -
The prince froze. What in the -
“Why did you just push me onto the floor, you great idiot?”
Arthur couldn’t move. He knew exactly who that voice belonged to.
What was going on?
Suddenly, a very familiar raven-haired head popped up. He propped his chin on his arms and then proceeded to rest his cheek on the bed. He was glaring at Arthur and - wait, what?
His servant pouted, his face suddenly becoming soft. “And you’re not even going to help me up? Honestly Arthur, I thought we had something special here.”
“Merlin?” Arthur breathed, paralysed with something strange. He could barely get any words out of his mouth. Suddenly everything froze, the prince had no idea where he was. He had no idea what Merlin was doing in this strange place with him. How did his manservant look so calm?
And then Arthur had to double-take.
The Merlin in front of him didn’t really look much like Merlin at all. But it definitely was him, down to the voice and the face and the delicate features. But his servant didn’t look like a boy anymore, more of a man.
That was new.
The Merlin in front of Arthur shot him a peculiar look, and then proceeded to push himself onto his feet. He faced Arthur with his arms crossed over his chest. Wearing nothing. Just like Arthur. The prince stood there speechless, suddenly feeling very confused.
What was happening?
Suddenly concern crowded Merlin’s features, his eyebrows knitting together.
“Did you have a nightmare, Arthur?” He asked, a soft anxiety in his tone. “I’m sorry, I should’ve known. It’s just been so long since the last one. You could’ve just woken me up though, instead of, you know… Flinging me off of the bed.”
Arthur stayed standing there, staring at Merlin. Well, his face. The prince refused to look any lower. His servant then gave a breathy chuckle, before opting to look at Arthur with a look so intensely full of something that Arthur actually had to look away.
Arthur must be dreaming. There was no other explanation for what was currently happening.
Merlin’s soft and gentle voice broke him out of his trance, reminding him that this was all apparently very much happening. “Look, why don’t I go and make us some tea? I’ll even serve it to you in bed. Like how I used to.” Merlin smiled softly at him then, a teasing glint in his eyes. “And of course I’ll get in there with you, very-much not like I used to, and then we’ll talk about your nightmare. And if you’re really lucky, we can stop talking at some point. Does that sound like a good plan?”
Merlin offered him a small look of reassurance. Arthur felt his stomach clench. What did Merlin mean by “used to”?
Then his servant leaned down and gathered some strange garments off of the floor and promptly dressed himself. After quickly covering his modesty, he proceeded to pick up some more equally as strange clothes and throw them at Arthur.
Arthur strand at him, affronted.
“What? Somebody insisted that we sleep with the window open, and now I’m cold.” Merlin mused, making his way around the bed to stand next to the prince. Arthur realised that he probably looked like the face of confusion itself, but he couldn’t manage to school his features into anything more calm when all of this was happening.
“Arthur, I cannot walk around the house naked, as much as you protest.”
Why would Arthur protest Merlin not walking around the house naked?
Merlin walked closer to him then, nudging the garments in the prince’s hand. “You’re going to get chilly too, you might as well throw these on.”
This was ridiculous.
Who did Merlin think he was, ordering the heir to the throne around?
“Don’t look so scared your highness. They’re not a permanent fixture, you’re free to take them off whenever you please.”
Arthur then felt Merlin’s hand on his shoulder, the servant’s strong fingers gently squeezing his skin.
“What, do you want me to put them on you too?” Merlin breathed. “I’m sorry sire, but I think kings can dress themselves.”
He then proceeded to lightly shove Arthur down onto the bed, offer him a wink and walk out of the room. He actually winked.
After quickly dressing himself, Arthur pulled the covers around his body once again, willing the whole encounter out of his head. He was going mad, he wouldn’t let his mind entertain any other explanation. The prince shut his eyes tightly, willing himself to wake up.
This was not happening.
Maybe he just needed to fall back asleep? This was just a strange trick of the mind. A very realistic dream. Maybe he would tell Gaius about this after Merlin woke him.
For now he would just refuse to open his eyes.
Yes. What a good plan.
Arthur felt sleep take over him once again.
His last thought before he was completely pulled under was how he had almost been cursed the previous night. The witch had said she’d bring him into the future and into his pure happiness, and if he had no happiness the prince would feel cold death.
This most definitely did not feel like cold death, but instead like…
When Arthur was brought to vague reality once again, he found himself cocooned in the warmth of soft blankets. The bleariness of waking up seeped into his mind, making the world around him move in slow motion. He registered somebody’s fingers combing through the strands of his golden hair, small and delicate movements against his skull. The fingers then proceeded to move down to his neck, feather-light touches dotting his skin. He felt small circles being rubbed tenderly onto his nape, making his stomach flip over itself in pleasure.
The whole thing felt so natural. It felt like an after-thought. Like a subconscious habit. Like the smell of the air after it had rained, or the waves lapping infinitely against the shore. The only thing that the brain of a sleepy prince could come up with is that it felt so… Right.
Still clinging to the fine-line between sleep and reality, Arthur slowly opened his eyes. He realised that he was lying in the shadow of the mystery person who was the orchestrator of his morning massage. Once his vision focused, he found himself to be looking into a pair of very blue and very familiar orbs. An expression lay in the man’s eyes that he simply had never seen before, Arthur was sure that not even Camelot’s most talented poets could put into words the something that was currently being aimed at him.
Arthur found himself frozen, he couldn’t move or breathe or speak. All at once, the morning’s previous encounter came rushing back into his mind and the prince was struck with a paralysing fear.
This really was happening.
He registered his companion’s lips moving but failed to hear the words that he was speaking. His mind was not responding in the way that a normal mind should. He found himself unable to form words or thoughts, the only thing that he could feel for certain was a suffocating sense of dread unfurl in the centre of his chest.
He realised that Merlin was looking at him expectantly, probably waiting for Arthur to reply
Arthur decided he was going to attempt to speak. He was going to be calm.
“What?” Okay. Good work.
Merlin just huffed a laugh, his eyes crinkling with a small smile.
“I said that I went to go make our tea and when I came back you were fast asleep. I put your cup over there, it’s probably still warm. It’s only been a little while.”
The man reached down onto the floor and produced a bowl of strawberries. Massive strawberries. Arthur was certain he had ever seen any fruit look so perfect.
Merlin looked at Arthur cheekily, albeit a little sheepishly.
“I also brought you a bowl of strawberries, but I ate most of them.”
Arthur was so confused. In this strange world, Merlin still seemed to be his servant. But he also slept in the same bed as him. And ate his food. And looked at him weirdly. Huh.
The prince didn’t think that he could manage to get any more words out, so he resorted to reaching into the bowl and plucking out a plump strawberry. As the sweet juice burst across his tongue, Arthur saw his companion cock his head in confusion.
“Are you in a quiet mood today, your majesty?”
Merlin drawled out the title in a way Arthur had never heard it before, and even went as far as raising his eyebrow.
How does he respond to that?
“Merlin,” the prince said carefully, keeping his expression a mask of neutrality. Merlin’s forehead crinkled in confusion, as though he was taken aback by Arthur’s earnest reply to his… playfulness.
He had to proceed with caution, they were obviously under a strange spell that his manservant was unaware of. Hell, they were probably being watched.
But of course Merlin would know this, his companion always knew when something was amiss. He was acting like this because he didn’t want to put Arthur in danger. And now he was acting confused because he didn’t want to anger their observers. The duo needed to work together to escape the force of evil that had most definitely threatened Merlin into acting like nothing was wrong. Arthur needed to subtly decide on a plan, kill their captors and then get him and his servant back to Camelot.
But… What if Merlin was enchanted? It was hard enough to get his servant to listen to him when he was in his normal mentality, let alone affected by some magical affliction.
“Erm… yes?” Merlin eventually asked, his wide blue eyes unsure and searching.
“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” he said in a commanding tone, carefully devoid of emotion. This was battle.
Merlin looked scared now.
“Okay,” he breathed, putting the bowl on the ground. Arthur realised that this was probably an excuse to break eye contact, which was peculiar. Merlin never backed down from a challenge.
“Merlin,” Arthur spoke quietly and coldly. “Do you know where we are?”
Merlin looked perplexed, and downright offended.
“Is that a joke, Arthur?”
There was a pause as Merlin’s eyes searched the prince’s face, looking for an answer that he wouldn’t find.
“We’re in our bed.”
God. Merlin really was under a spell.
Then Arthur froze. He thought this was their bed? Their bed? Their bed? Their bed? What kind of enchantment was this?
“Merlin,” he said carefully, calmly. “I think you’re under a spell.”
Merlin looked like he was on the verge of either punching him in the face or crying, the prince couldn’t decide which.
“I need you to listen, for once in your life,” Arthur muttered, every word measured and soft. He was using the non-threatening voice that he usually used on a wild animal before he sliced a spear through their heart. “I think a sorcerer has captured us. And… And put you under a spell. Not me, though. Just you. You know how dangerous magic is, Merlin. We need to escape and get home. You need to stay behind me. Do you understand? And even if you don’t understand, just listen to me.”
Merlin looked at him, absolutely bewildered. His blue eyes were wide and glassy.
And then, in the smallest and most heart-breaking voice imaginable; “but, we are home.”
Is he out of his mind?
The servant stayed staring at him for a moment longer. Suddenly, much to Arthur’s annoyance, Merlin burst out laughing. Laughing.
“Fuck,” Merlin guffawed.
Fuck? What kind of nonsense word was that?
Arthur just sat and stared in panic as Merlin giggled, the man seemed to be absolutely out of his mind. His servant’s hand came up and gently gripped his arm, squeezing his skin softly.
“You nearly had me there, love,” Merlin muttered, his shallow breathing finally calming down.
Arthur felt a blush rise high on his cheeks. He pointedly make a decision to never ever acknowledge what Merlin had just called him, and instantly pushed it out of his mind.
He didn’t know what to do.
If Merlin wasn’t going to listen to him, he’d make him listen to him. Abruptly, Arthur threw his leg over Merlin and hauled himself up into a sitting position, his lower-body wrapped around the waist of his manservant. And just because he knew his insolent servant was going to protest, he grabbed Merlin’s arms and pinned his thin wrists above the familiar mop of raven hair.
Merlin’s eyes didn’t look so blue anymore, the ocean irises were drowning in his expanded pupils. He also made a strange high-pitched whining sound. He held Arthur’s gaze, his teeth gently capturing his lower-lip, his eyebrows furrowed.
The prince heard blood rushing past his ears, his face inches away from the delicate features of his friend. Merlin is showing all the signs of being scared, he realised.
They really needed to escape, Arthur decided. Otherwise, Merlin wouldn’t even be alive to feel the anxiety that he was so-clearly experiencing in this exact moment. The time to be gentle was over, this was their lives at stake.
“Merlin! Listen! You’re under a spell, we need to go right now. We need to get back to Camelot!” Arthur half-whispered and half-shouted, his gaze burning intensely into the hooded stare of his manservant.
All at once, Merlin’s face went incredibly blank.
“Arthur,” he breathed, barely audible. “What do you mean? Get back to Camelot?” He spoke the words as if they were poison in his mouth, he sounded terrified but quietly viscous.
“I mean we need to go home!” Arthur could hear the fear and franticness that he was currently feeling becoming evident in his voice. “Everybody will be wondering where we are! My father will probably be worrying, the knights too. I mean, hopefully they’re already out looking for us. But what if we’re somewhere nobody can find, hidden by some god-awful sorcery or -”
Suddenly, Merlin shoved Arthur off of him with such force that the prince ended up on the opposite side of the bed. His manservant then scrambled off the mattress and took several steps back before he hit the strange clear wall. Even with the distance put between them, Arthur was certain that he had never seen such unadulterated fear in somebody’s eyes then Merlin had in his at that exact moment.
“Arthur,” he spoke, his voice catching on the name like it was the most important word to ever leave his mouth. “I need you to tell me, what’s the last thing you remember?”
Arthur stalled, taken aback by Merlin’s suddenly calm tone.
What is he wasn’t enchanted?
“Last night, after the council meeting, we went back to the chambers…” The prince stuttered, barely able to get the words out of his mouth. Merlin’s gaze was burning through him, making heat rise to his cheeks. “You went to get me a sleeping draught, and then, an old sorceress came in and… She threatened me and told me that her people were going to kill me, told me that I would have no happiness in my life… Told me she was going to perform a spell that is meant to take whoever it is cast upon to their true happiness, but told me it would take me to death instead. Then, it burned… But you came in and stopped her and she disappeared and I… Well, then I went to sleep and woke up with you earlier and thought it was a dream. Not that I usually have dreams like that, obviously. But it just didn’t make sense, and now you’re here and acting like you can’t remember what happened yesterday for God’s sake and will you please stop looking at me like that?”
Merlin continued staring at him for several moments, his face suddenly very pale.
“Arthur… how old are you?”
What a ridiculous question. Merlin knew how old he was.
“Nearly twenty-seven, I’ve known you for six years.” He heard Merlin intake a sharp breath, shock etched across his features.
Suddenly, Merlin fell to the ground. It looked as if his legs had just simply given out from beneath him, he sat in still silence for a moment before his face crumpled.
Arthur watched in shock as tears suddenly spilled from Merlin’s eyes, wetting his cheeks and rolling down his neck. He took loud heaving breaths, and sounded like he was quietly whispering the word “no” to himself, over and over again.
Arthur stood there frozen for a moment, before coming to his senses and scrambling to sit next to Merlin on the floor, gripping his shoulders.
“Merlin! Merlin,” he hollered, but it seemed that his manservant refused to meet his eye. “Merlin, as your master I command you to tell me what is wrong!”
Merlin visibly flinched, his red and puffy eyes aligning to Arthur’s.
Suddenly, he stood up, shaking Arthur’s hands off of him.
The prince watched his companion run out of the room, unsteady on his feet and panic shining through each of his movements. He pushed open the door and threw himself into the hallway. Arthur followed far behind him, after being stuck frozen on the ground for too long. He saw Merlin ripping things from the wall, gathering them in his arms. His manservant was frantically collecting items off shelves and surfaces from all angles, he then proceeded to shove them in places were things didn’t go to be found.
WHAT WAS HAPPENING?
Once the shock wore off Arthur, he charged after his servant. The prince was barely noticing his surroundings, the only focus he could obtain was on the unexplainably strange behaviour of Merlin. The frantic rise and fall in his shoulders was clear to see once Arthur cornered him into the edge of the room.
“Merlin, as the prince I demand you tell me right this instant what is happening!?”
He heard his companion whimper, a sound of pain and denial.
Merlin finally looked up at Arthur, his red eyes appearing empty but terrified. Arthur observed the pale face looking back at him.
Something about him is different. Something is so different and wrong and -
Merlin then drew a deep breath, his eyes finally focusing on the wondering stare of his friend.
“Arthur, I’m sorry… It’s been fifteen-hundred years since you last saw me.”
Once, when Arthur was only a young boy, he had run off from his Father while out on a royal trip with him. They had been near the borders, the king was busy investigating a problem with the harvest or a rise in crime or something equally as boring for a six year old. He can’t remember what had possessed him to think it was acceptable to run away from where the group was residing, but something definitely did.
The only thing that Arthur can remember from that day was a blue butterfly coming to rest on his hand while he was playing on the grass. The creature had been so delicate, the young boy was almost certain that it had been glowing in the soft Autumn light. The little prince thought that he had never seen a butterfly after the harvest was collected, such pleasures were usually only reserved for when the sun was shining brightly against a rich blue sky, not when there was a deep grey painting the heavens.
The butterfly had sent a light feeling through his body, almost as if it had carried an otherworldly and magical force. Arthur wanted to keep the butterfly, it was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen. When the animal had drifted off through the trees, the prince had decided to follow it. Arthur was certain he almost felt a gravitational pull between him and the creature, his mind had told him that he could not let it out of his sight. He couldn’t explain it, even in the years to come he could never find the right words to summarise what had happened between him and the little blue butterfly.
Arthur was so absorbed in not losing his new-found friend that he hadn’t been paying attention to where his feet were stepping. Before he knew it, he was tumbling off a mossy ledge and into a lake. The little boy hadn’t known how to swim. He was underwater for what seemed like hours, thrashing and desperately trying to heave breaths of fresh air into his lungs from above the surface.
But all of a sudden, he was lying on the ground next to the lake, safe and sound on the grass. He was shocked in how this came to be, but accepted what had happened as something unexplainable. Sometimes the most beautiful things couldn’t be translated into words or facts, they just existed. Arthur didn’t tell his Father about that day and seldom thought about the experience, as he grew older he wasn’t even sure if it had actually happened or if his young brain had just made it up in a search for adventure.
Arthur had only felt as if he was drowning once in his life, and that was when he a little boy. This was a fact. But not anymore, because Arthur was certain he was drowning when he heard the words “fifteen-hundred years” spill from Merlin’s lips.
He could almost feel the blue water pooling around his limbs, almost felt as if he was gasping for a breath that would never actually come. He felt as if his sanity had dropped past his feet and deep into the ground, felt as if his heart was thrown from a height so steep that there was no chance it could find solid ground again without shattering into a million pieces.
This is how he felt, but the prince found that he could do nothing but stand frozen in shock.
That couldn’t be true. This couldn’t be real. Such a claim was not possible. Why is Merlin lying to me? The real Merlin would never lie to me.
Arthur’s hand instinctively flew to his side, ready to grasp his sword. The only thing that he could find was the soft material of the sleeping trousers that Merlin had given him earlier in the morning, and Arthur felt his heart strain in his chest just at the thought of his manservant’s caring words.
He saw Merlin’s eyes observe this action, fear and something so much stronger and so much sadder clouding his features. In the midst of his shock, Arthur peered at Merlin again. He really did look painstakingly different but painstakingly the same. His skin appeared more gold from where it was catching the light. Rather than pale like a midnight moon, it was instead illuminating him like the sun itself. There was a light stubble dusting his cheeks, and the dark smudges that usually lay beneath his eyes had disappeared. His dark hair was spilling in curls across his scalp, sweeping to one side on his forehead and cascading slightly over his ears. His normally protruding cheekbones didn’t cut into his cheeks anymore, instead they were highlighted by soft skin. Merlin looked healthier and less like he was about to collapse from hunger, he didn’t look like somebody divulged in adolescence anymore but instead like somebody who had basked in their maturity. Also, Arthur could see the vast expanse of his neck, which was usually hidden by a neckerchief. It was long and smooth and soft-looking, making him look effortlessly elegant and not-at-all like the clumsy man he was in Camelot. There was a soft and loose and strange-looking shirt that he had on, it was in a light shade of grey and falling beneath his sharp collarbones. His arms were bare but looked firmer and stronger than they had just the day before, still skinny but not as thin looking. Arthur could actually see firm muscle, which was definitely new.
The prince met Merlin’s eyes once again, and they were the same. Innocent and blue and appearing inexplicably sad.
This was Merlin. No doubt about it. This was his Merlin. But the Merlin standing in front of him did not look over thirty years old, let alone over a thousand.
Arthur felt in the exact same health as he had the day before, there was no way that he was over a thousand years old. In fact, such a notion seemed like it couldn’t be true, so Arthur concluded that it definitely wasn’t.
“No,” the prince breathed, sadly defiant. “That’s impossible.”
Merlin’s scrunched his eyes shut, tilting his head towards the roof.
“No, Arthur, you need to listen - ”
“That was a statement Merlin, I was not looking for an explanation! I will find a way to get us out of this, I said it was impossible! Only a monster would put us through this, take us this far into the future! Who would ever want this? Are you out of your mind?”
Arthur could hear his last words bounce off the walls and through the air, making Merlin’s shoulders curl into his chest. The prince watched as his manservant’s whole demeanour changed. Merlin usually stood tall throughout all of their arguments and disagreements, but today he seemed to crumble beyond recognition with every word that was spoken.
“I can’t, Arthur,” he heaved, tears once again pooling in his eyes. He was already choking back a sob, the promise of it making his voice waver on the prince’s name. “I don’t know what to tell you, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have to find out like this.”
“It’s impossible,” Arthur repeated, partially because he had a feeling deep inside his bones that Merlin was telling him the truth. He couldn’t accept any of it. It didn’t make sense.
“It’s not impossible,” his manservant choked, covering his eyes with the back of his hands.
Then, to his utter disbelief, Merlin threw his arms around Arthur’s shoulders and began sobbing into the crook of his neck.
This was the first time that they had hugged.
The prince stood frozen in shock for one moment too long. Nobody had ever embraced him before, especially not like this. What was he supposed to do?
Just as Merlin was about to pull back, obviously discouraged by Arthur standing like a statue with his hands stuck to his sides, the prince cautiously wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, holding him close against his chest.
Arthur was surprised at how inexplicably natural it felt having Merlin in his embrace, cradling his shaking form.
“It’s alright,” he whispered into Merlin’s ear, which he was certain actually made the man cry more.
Perhaps he wasn’t very good at comforting people.
But then he felt Merlin’s grip around him tighten, felt his face bury further into the side of his neck, found himself completely pushed against Merlin.
Although Arthur wasn’t sure what exactly was happening, he couldn’t find himself able to think of anything but the fact that Merlin was draped within his arms, seeking refuge in his embrace. He couldn’t focus on anything but the tenderness of Merlin’s actions, the way his lips ghosted Arthur’s neck, the way his soft sniffles were clouding Arthur’s hearing… How even when Merlin’s sobs became silence, they still stood like that, in the middle of God knows where, taking comfort in each other.
There were many things that the prince couldn’t explain about the situation. The fact that apparently he was one-thousand-and-five-hundred years in the future. The fact that everything felt familiar and new, felt far yet near, felt both like reality but also like a dream.
There was one thing Arthur was certain of though, the embrace felt like a promise of something that he could not yet explain. He didn’t know what this meant, but he promised himself that he was going to find out.
Arthur and Merlin stood like that for what felt like forever.
This is alright. This is calming. There is nothing strange about this. Nothing strange about this at all.
And if Arthur was honest, there really wasn’t anything strange about it. Even though he supposed there should have been. It didn’t feel wrong. It didn’t feel awkward. It felt familiar. It felt comfortable. It felt... right.
It just felt like it should be. Like the sun that shined in Summer and the darkness that engulfed Winter. It’s etched into the fabric of the world and into the endless stars in the sky. It’s in the way the flowers bloom without question and the way the rain falls to help them grow. It felt like it should be.
Even though Arthur cradled Merlin in his arms for a long enough time that the man’s frantic breaths eventually calmed into a steady rhythm, when Merlin slowly pulled away Arthur was certain that the act hadn’t lasted for enough time.
Arthur didn’t know what to say nor what to do after that. He stood frozen for a second, trying to regain the previous train of thought that had managed to ease into relaxation. The circumstances of the act all at once came rushing back to him, knocking the air from his lungs once again.
Merlin needed to explain what was going on, and quickly.
The servant draped his hands over his eyes, blurring the tear tracks that lay in cascades down his cheeks so that his face glowed in the soft light. Arthur couldn’t bring himself to peer around the mysterious room, everything felt so overwhelming. Partially because he was terrified of what he would find in this strange new place and partially because his eyes seemed drawn to his manservant’s somber features.
That was new. But was it really?
Merlin seemed to be refusing to look at Arthur, instead opting to look down at his bare feet. The prince reached out to put his hands on his manservant’s shoulders, hoping to break him from the deep thoughts that he appeared to be lost in. Merlin often got lost in thought, but never like this. Never in such a way that his blue eyes shone like the stars, reflecting like rain threatening to spill from the darkest of clouds. As soon as Arthur’s hands met Merlin’s shoulders, trying to snap him out of whatever this was, the man flinched, shaking himself out of the grip.
“No, Arthur,” he spluttered, seemingly uncertain of himself. “No. We can’t do this.”
Arthur’s brow crinkled; what on earth did Merlin mean? Why was he suddenly so defensive? What was the this that they couldn’t do?
“Can’t do what? Merlin, you’re not making any sense!”
The servant just shook his head sadly, his lips set in a firm line.
“You’ll understand, Arthur. One day. I promise.”
Arthur shook his head, red clouding his vision. “And what if I don’t, Merlin?”
Merlin’s eyes widened, his eyebrows drawing together in a frown. He had that terrified look again and also appeared to be on the brink of another emotional breakdown.
“If I cannot make you understand... If I cannot get you back to the place where you will learn it for yourself… Then I will have failed. Again.”
Merlin rarely told Arthur anything but the truth. That’s why Arthur relied on him so much. Merlin was the person that he fell back on when it all became too much. The person that always told him what was so, no matter how it would make Arthur feel, and now... Now, Merlin was keeping secrets from him.
And Arthur couldn’t have that, because Merlin was the person who wasn’t supposed to do that.
“Merlin, I demand you tell me what is happening, otherwise how are we supposed to fix this?”
“Arthur, just because you’re the King you think - “
“The what?” Arthur said sharply.
Merlin abruptly shut his mouth, eyes narrowing.
Arthur heaved in a breath, indescribably frustrated with the current situation.
No, he couldn’t think about that right now. It wasn’t important. He needed to get home. To Camelot. And he needed to take Merlin with him. He was pushing that “king” thought to the back of his mind and adding it to the ever-growing list of things he refuses to acknowledge. Like the way Merlin felt in his arms. Or the way he called Arthur “love.” Or the way they woke up in the same bed -
“Merlin, why aren’t we in Camelot?”
Suddenly, a horrible thought dawned on the prince. What if Merlin was under a spell? No matter how much he was protesting, he wasn’t really appearing to be very… stable. It was something that he had never been witness to before, this side of his manservant. He had no other idea as to why Merlin would be living in the future if it wasn’t for an enchantment. Possibly he had accepted that it was impossible for him to return to the time he should be living in. Maybe seeing Arthur brought on an influx of emotion and nostalgia. That would explain all the crying, maybe he had missed Arthur.
But he wasn’t surprised when he woke up.
Arthur heaved a breath, a million contrasting thoughts and possibilities swirling around inside of his head. He realised that he had slipped into his internal consciousness for possibly minutes, which was something that he couldn’t do. Not in a battle. This was a battle. The man in front of him was still refusing to meet his eyes, instead seemingly becoming very interested in his hands.
“Stop fiddling with your fingers, Merlin. You’re making me nervous.”
Merlin’s head shot up, blue orbs slipping back into the current moment.
“I thought you didn’t get nervous.”
Arthur chuckled, despite the situation. This was the Merlin that he knew. The boy with challenge on his mind and defiance in his eyes. A man with wild loyalty in his heart and a foolish courage in his being. Not a crying and frantic mess that seemed unable to simply explain something.
If the old Merlin was back, Arthur supposed it was time to get him to talk.
“You’re cursed Merlin, aren’t you.”
The prince watched the man in front of him shrug. “I guess I was, but not in the way you’d think. I was cursed, you could say. For a long time. But then that curse turned into a gift.”
What did Merlin mean?
“If you’re not cursed,” Arthur carefully questioned. “Why were you upset? How could you not have expected me to be confused, waking up in a world so far from my own?”
Sadness clouded Merlin’s features once again. “That’s not something I can tell you. But it’s not a curse. Perhaps this is, but the fact that I’m here is a gift.”
Arthur frowned. “Have you been given some sort of mental affliction, Merlin?”
Merlin scoffed, anger shining on his face, hands clenched into fists.
“No! Arthur, I can’t make you believe me, but I’m not mad.”
Arthur flinched at his manservant’s expression, it spoke of deep sadness and reminiscent thoughts. Arthur didn’t know what it meant, and he was almost certain that Merlin wouldn’t tell him.
“I need to get back to Camelot.”
Merlin nodded his head. “Yes, you do. I’ll help you.”
Arthur scoffed and Merlin’s eyes immediately narrowed.
“And how are you going to do that, Merlin?”
Merlin crossed his arms, defensive in the soft light.
“I can’t tell you that either.”
“So, what can you tell me?”
Arthur watched Merlin standing there in this strange place, looking so different to the boy in Camelot. This Merlin seemed unsure. The Merlin that he had seen only the day before never seemed unsure… About anything. His manservant crossed his arms, his teeth defensively tugging at his pink lips. He seemed to be thinking of the right thing to say, carefully trialing the words inside of his enigmatic mind.
“Because it will ruin everything.”
“Of course it won’t. The truth never ruined anything.”
Merlin laughed. It wasn’t the boyish and carefree laugh that Arthur was so familiar with, instead a humourless and bitter sound that darkly spilled from his mouth.
“There must be a solution, Merlin. I’m going to find a way for us to both get back to Camelot.”
Merlin glared at the ground, chest heaving in deep breaths.
“I’m not going back to Camelot, Arthur.”
Arthur stilled, his eyes widening at the sheer insolence of the man in front of him.
“Yes, you are.”
“No! You don’t understand, I can’t.”
“Are you mad?”
“Will you stop saying that? I’ve heard it enough, Arthur. You of all people are proof enough that I am not insane!”
Silence. The prince didn’t know what to say to that.
What on earth had he missed? Who was this man in front of him with so much pain in his eyes?
Arthur stepped forward slowly, as if not to startle his servant.
“You know you can tell me anything, Merlin.”
The servant laughed again, the bitter and cruel sound ringing through the room. This was ridiculous. Merlin was Arthur’s servant. He wasn’t supposed to laugh like that; especially not when Arthur was trying to be nice to him. The prince felt a flush creep up his neck, embarrassed at his attempt of comfort being turned so harshly away.
“Are you forgetting who I am, Merlin?”
Suddenly the he stilled, and Arthur could’ve sworn that the man had grown even paler.
“Arthur,” he breathed, barely audible. Merlin stood frozen, eyes wide and mouth parted.
A look of realisation flashed over the man’s face, contorting his features into a delicate form of awe.
“Arthur,” he repeated, his voice catching on the word. “It’s you… It’s really you…”
“I don’t know who else I would be.”
Merlin giggled. Actually giggled.
“What’s happening in Camelot?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Where are you in… time?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, growing more confused by the second. If they really were in the future, if this Merlin really wasn’t the one that he had seen only the day before, then the prince didn’t know what on earth he was supposed to do.
“You look different,” Arthur blurted.
Merlin raised an eyebrow, his cheeks subtly filling with colour.
“But you don’t look over a thousand years old.”
Merlin’s eyes once again fell to the floor, hands clasped defensively under his chin.
“I know… Arthur, there’s a lot I need to tell you.”
Silence. Once again. Painful silence.
Merlin suddenly grabbed Arthur’s hands, holding them in his grasp.
“You have to try not to hate me.”
“I could never hate you.”
Merlin laughed. It wasn’t bitter this time, more… Sad.
“You’ve hated me before.”
No. That wasn’t right. Arthur had never hated Merlin.
“I’ve never, ever hated you. Why would you say that?”
Usually Arthur would joke when he felt the tension between them rising, but the air was thick with an honesty that the duo had never allowed before. Usually they stopped before things could get like this, as if they were both scared of what would come from it.
“You have hated me Arthur, you just haven’t reached that bit yet.”
“I’m sure it didn’t last long, Merlin,” Arthur jibed, hoping to get a smile from this new Merlin’s lips. Instead he got a poorly concealed frown and sparkling eyes. Then Arthur realised…
Oh, God. This Merlin knew everything. Everything that would become of Arthur’s life. Everything that he was set to do. Every mistake that he was bound to make.
Arthur studied Merlin’s face, taking in the blue of his eyes, accentuated by the light bouncing off the not-yet-fallen tears. His lips were caught in a pout, downturned at the corners. Arthur wished that he could just reach out and -
“Okay,” Merlin suddenly stated, meeting his prince’s eyes and snapping Arthur out of whatever that was. “I’ll tell you what I can. Maybe it's the only way to get you back to your time. But you have to promise me something, Arthur. I’m telling you this because it’s necessary. And you asked. You have to help me on one thing though, you have to try not to hate me.”
They stood staring at each other, tension coating every length of the air around them.
Merlin shifted, glancing behind Arthur.
“Wait here for a second, and eh, close your eyes. Or something. If you want. I want to go and… review the room so you don’t get, eh, overwhelmed.”
Arthur snorted, narrowing his eyes.
“When have I ever been overwhelmed, Merlin?”
“Well, when you pushed me off of the bed for starters. That was about an hour ago.”
Arthur flushed, remembering the previous incident. Merlin obviously noticed and smiled shyly at him.
“I’ll be back in a second.”
Arthur stood there for he didn’t know how long, thinking back over the morning’s events. After a few minutes he heard Merlin clear his throat behind him, beckoning Arthur after him.
Arthur rolled his eyes at Merlin’s lack of respect. As usual.
“I’m meant to give the orders, Merlin.”
The servant laughed, the sound fooling Arthur’s ears into thinking that they could be standing in Camelot and not in this strange place fifteen-hundred years into the future.
"Maybe in the past Arthur, but you’ll find that I’m the one who gives the orders these days.”
Then Merlin turned around, and honest-to-God, flounced out of the room.
Arthur stood there, rooted in the spot and feeling very confused by the morning that he had been subject to.
“Are you coming, my lord?”
Arthur swallowed and followed Merlin through the door, subjecting himself to another dose of the unknown.
As the prince was lead to a soft-looking sofa, he pointedly refused to observe the room that surrounded him. In the disorientated edge of his vision, he felt everything within sight screaming at him… He didn’t belong. He stuck out like a sore thumb, too regal and too old for such a time or place. This whole morning was just too much for him, he felt as if he was stuck in a daze from which he would never escape. Every frame of vision felt uncomfortably blurry, an unfamiliar trauma setting deep into his bones. The only thing that wasn’t unfocused and uncertain was the man sat in front of him, staring at him with an unelectable somber locked into his irises.
How could it be?
How could it be that when Arthur had walked into this strange room - everything had been unfathomable. The world around him was an intense canvas of swirling colour and yet, Merlin of all things was as crisp and clear in his vision as...
Well, as he always was.
This strange man that Arthur had known for so long was somehow sitting in front of him with a mind full of secrets. And also managed to be living 1,500 years into the futurity.
It was so strange how things had worked out.
Was it really though? Their relationship had never been considered conventional by anybody’s standards. And if Merlin had barely batted an eyelash at the prospect of them waking up together in a strange futuristic time, could Arthur really be surprised? But here Merlin was, staring at the prince like he was about to break his heart.
Nope. Definitely really strange.
If Arthur had to put his absolute certainty into one person, it would be Merlin. Arthur knew that Merlin was his best friend. The one person he trusted with every fibre of his being. The one person who would never lie to him. The one person that he could drop the achingly-difficult facade in front of. The one person that he would protect with his life. The one person he couldn’t imagine his life without.
And now Merlin was about to tell him all the things that Arthur didn’t know.
Though this Merlin was different. So different. Yet so the same. And Arthur was about to find out why things seemed to be this way.
Get it together. Focus.
“Okay,” the prince sighed. “Out with it.”
Merlin sighed, rubbing a hand over his face.
“Fuck,” he drawled, shaking his head. “Right, so - ”
“What does that mean?”
Merlin paused, flicking his eyes to Arthur.
“What does what mean?”
“That word. Fuck. You used it earlier too.”
Merlin blankly stared at him for a good five seconds before erupting into laughter, shoulders shaking with the force of it. Arthur was bewildered.
Was Merlin okay? Was he stable? Did he actually have a mental affliction?
The prince flushed, eyes falling to the floor.
“I really don’t see what’s so funny, Merlin.”
“Me? How on earth am I being funny right now?”
“Because you’ve been out of the middle ages for barely an hour and instead of asking ‘what’s this strange appliance’ or ‘what’s that black box in the corner of the room’ you’re asking what the word fuck means.”
Arthur scoffed, taken aback at how Merlin was managing to insult him of all things after crying so long into his shoulder that there was still a wet patch.
Merlin’s eyes were shining with blue mirth, his face lighting up in the boyish way that it had always seemed to do. He looked like the sun. Or the moon. Or possibly both, Arthur didn’t know. The prince let himself stare at his manservant for a moment, revelling in the face of his spirit.
Arthur felt the earlier flush heat into a blush of all things. He felt it as it reached from his cheekbones to his neck. God, this really was a strange world. Arthur was feeling embarrassed when Merlin insulted him, even reaching the point of blushing.
“Well,” the prince began, fighting the sudden wave of betrayal deep inside of him. “For starters, you spent about ten minutes in here getting rid of everything. I heard you clumsily pattering around, as usual, and by the looks of things you’ve taken anything suspicious out of the room. Also, earlier when you were behaving like a lunatic and running from that room, I was more concerned with chasing my idiot manservant rather than looking at what was around me. And don’t forget, in the process of running, you took nearly everything around you into your arms and dumped it in a cupboard, which by the way, I could just go look at if I so pleased. So, there.”
Merlin looked at the ground, audibly swallowing.
“Actually, you couldn’t open it. I locked it.”
Arthur scoffed. “No, you didn’t. I didn’t see you locking it.”
“You wouldn’t have.”
What was that supposed to mean?
“It’s nothing, just forget it Arthur.”
Silence. Again. How brilliant.
“Okay, Merlin. Start the story again and don’t laugh at me this time. Do I have to remind you that you’re my subject?”
His manservant snorted, that undeniable Merlin look returning to his eyes.
“Okay. So, the reason I am alive so far into the future is because of… Sorcery, I guess.”
Arthur gasped, the thought of Merlin being cursed… Innocent Merlin, who wouldn’t even hurt a fly, was eternally alive because of sorcery.
“That’s…” The prince began, but he had no words. None at all.
“Well, this is certainly a better reaction to you finding out last time. Last time you threw a mug at the wall.”
“A what? Wait, no, what do you mean finding out last time?”
Merlin snapped his mouth shut, red disdain colouring his features.
“There are some things… Things I can’t tell you. Not because I don’t want to, but because it could ruin the course of things forever - ”
“You sat me down because you told me you wanted to tell me and now you’re completely backtracking - ”
“No!” Merlin suddenly shouted, causing shock to wind its way through Arthur’s veins. “You don’t understand. I can’t lose this. Maybe it’s selfish of me but I can’t change the past, not after how long I waited...”
Merlin buried his face in his hands. Arthur blanched.
“So, what you’re saying,” the prince began, still not reaching out a hand to touch his servant, “is that you lived through all the trials and tribulations of our time, you know where we fail and you know what brings suffering, and yet you think we shouldn’t change it? We shouldn’t save people? Aren’t you wondering why I woke up here? Maybe this is meant to be, maybe I’m meant to save Albion.”
Merlin laughed his humourless drawl, slowly lifting his face out of his hands.
“Arthur,” he began, a vague disassociation in his voice. “If this is the reason that you’re here, if I am meant to change all that has happened, then I have lost all my faith in the universe. I would rather die than give up what I’ve just gotten. If I truly have already lost it, I have no reason to live. Maybe it’s selfish of me to not to want to save everybody, but I didn’t suffer though fifteen-hundred years to have all I’ve ever wanted ripped from my grasp the minute that I feel happy. Back when you knew me, I would’ve sacrificed everything to save anybody. But something that you’ve taught me recently, is that sometimes I have to think about myself. And if that makes me selfish, then I’m sorry. The older you would understand.”
The older him?
Arthur regraded his servant for a moment, a quiet wonder in his bones.
“Everything, back then…” Merlin muttered, a storm clouding within his eyes. “I swear to you, everything that I did back then, lead directly to the end. In the most horrible way. It broke my heart, and it still does. I was fooled by words that I thought were wiser than myself. Now I’m older… Older than anything or anybody that used to tell me what to do. And only now do I see the truth. And it’s not worth it. It happened, and I’ve only started to learn to accept it. I’ve moved on, and so have you.”
The man paused, as if gathering his thoughts.
“Well, you, but not this you. The… older you.”
Merlin shook his head, interlocking his fingers so tightly that his knuckles grew white.
“Never again will I try to meddle with destiny. Never again will I try to change the way of the world. I’m sorry, Arthur. I wish I could help, I really do. But I can’t.”
Arthur tried to find sense in the words that Merlin was saying… What did the man mean? How could Merlin have tried to change destiny in Camelot? What did he mean by the older Arthur, did he mean after Albion had fallen? That Arthur learned to move on after the death of his kingdom, of his people? Arthur could never recover from such a thing, not even the older and wiser version of himself.
“Arthur,” Merlin’s soft voice cut in to Arthur’s mudded fragments of attempted thought. “Do you love me more than you hate magic?”
Arthur blanched, he could never love Merlin. What an absolutely ridiculous thought.
As a friend, he obviously means.
Well, of course Arthur loved Merlin as a friend. Merlin had been at his side for nearly a quarter of his life, the servant’s time split between advising him with intelligence and also being quite useless. Merlin was Arthur’s most treasured friend and loyal companion, and -
“What does magic have to do with this?”
Merlin laughed, empty and sad.
“Magic is a joke. Did you know that? It doesn’t fucking work. A dragon told me that you would come back when Albion’s need was greatest… I watched every war with sinfully eager eyes, just waiting for you to burst through the door of my shitty cabin by the lake. I thought that I had hit rock bottom when you died. Little did I know that I would keep on falling for an eternity before ever hitting the floor, and then the floor fucking shattered beneath my feet. I was crazy, Arthur. I was fucking insane. I couldn’t do it. I had no choice but to carry on. If I hadn’t been immortal I would’ve died a thousand times.”
Immortal. Merlin was cursed with immortality.
The man sighed. Arthur didn’t dare move.
What was happening?
“Arthur, the truth is that you died, and the prophecy said that you were going to come back in the time of Albion’s greatest need. This curse, as you call it, means that I cannot die. I don’t age. I waited, and waited, and waited… Just for you, Arthur. Always for you. I waited for a thousand years, and then five hundred more, and then just when I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore, you came back. I felt alive again. Finally. As long as you’re with me I know that I can feel this way forever.”
Merlin screwed his eyes shut, as if speaking these words physically pained him. Arthur didn’t know what to say, he felt as if the man had just taken his heart out of his chest and lay it down at his feet.
Just for you, Arthur. Always for you.
“Our souls are interlocked, in a prophecy, a destiny…” He took a deep breath, wiping clumsily at his eyes, his gaze stuck to the floor beneath him. “We are both eternally young, and will be until the world ends.”
Merlin stopped talking then, his eyes trailing over to meet Arthur’s.
Arthur didn’t know what to say. He was shocked. He felt nothing. Just numbing shock. It was bleeding through his veins, sending flares up his back.
No. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.
Arthur couldn’t live until the end of the world, he didn’t want to watch everything and everybody die. He couldn’t bear it.
“You’re wrong,” he spoke calmly, as if saying too much would raise hell from beneath the ground. “You’re completely wrong. That’s impossible.”
Merlin just shook his head sadly, his hands sitting uncomfortably at his sides as if he was mentally restraining himself from reaching out to touch Arthur.
“It’s not, Arthur, I’m sorry - ”
“And how did he react? The other me?”
Melin flinched. “Well, he saw it as a good thing.”
Arthur scoffed. That was ridiculous. That was impossible.
“Why? Why would anybody see this as a good thing?”
Merlin tucked his legs beneath him, curling in on himself and looking as if he were close to crying again.
“Arthur, do you know how I know that I can get you back to your own time? Back to Camelot?””
The prince frowned. He didn’t know. “No.”
“It’s because I’m a sorcerer.”
The man in front of him said it with such an innocent conviction, with such a quiet earnestness, that Arthur didn’t manage to doubt it for even a second. Not only that, but he also had the strangest feeling that he had heard it before. From the look on Merlin’s face, this wasn’t the first time that he had confided such a thing to the prince.
The only thing that Arthur could think was…
Of course Merlin was a wizard, it made so much sense. He didn’t feel angry, he felt… Peaceful. He had heard this before. It felt familiar. Like the blue butterfly that had lead him to the lake, it felt like something he already knew.
Merlin scoffed. “Okay?"
“I feel like I’ve heard you say that before.”
“You have. And contrary to this reaction, you were very angry.”
“I don’t feel angry now. Maybe I should.”
Merlin’s eyes softened, a blush creeping up his cheeks.
“I’m glad. You know, that you’re not angry. Glad that you’re not throwing mugs at the wall.”
“I feel like I’ve heard it before. It’s strange, this whole morning feels so familiar. Waking up, um, like that… I feel like it’s happened before. But I can’t actually remember it, you know? We’ve never hugged before, but when we did it felt like I’d spent so much of my life already doing that. It’s like, when I was a child there was this little blue butterfly, and I followed it, and I fell into a lake and passed out… And then I woke up on dry land, perfectly normal. And I don’t know how it happened, but it felt familiar. Just like this. ”
Merlin’s eyes watched Arthur with that look swimming in them. The one that Arthur wasn’t used to, but now that the prince thought about it, it also felt familiar.
“My magic has always protected you. Only you. I’ve only ever done it for you. I was born with it, and I was so scared of it growing up. And then when I was eighteen, well, I moved to Camelot. I met you and I hated you, because boys like you never liked boys like me, and why should a person like me ever want to know somebody like you? But then I got called down beneath the castle and a dragon told me that you were my destiny… Which as we always say now, probably should have sounded some alarm bells in my mind.”
Merlin chuckled, lost in his own world.
“Then the years went by, and I grew to know you, to really know you. And I found myself begin to care for you. All those times during battles, all those impossible situations that you got out of, that was me. It was all me. Well, I’d give you some credit here or there.”
Arthur huffed, feeling the mirth in Merlin’s eyes lighten the colours of his soul.
“God, Arthur, I was so terrified that you would find out about my magic and hate me. Send me away. Burn me. God, it used to kill me. As soon as it got to the point where I knew you well enough for you to not immediately execute me, I was already at the point where I had known you too long to have not told you. I couldn’t have you hate me, because I could never hate you. Even if I had been at the pyre and the crowd had gathered and you were on the balcony standing there with that same look in your eyes that your Father had… I don’t actually think that I could’ve hated you.”
Merlin paused. Arthur was stunned.
“They prophesied us. I am Emrys, the most powerful sorcerer to ever live, the man who was supposed to mentor you on your knowledge of magic and bring us into a golden age of Albion… But these prophecies… What they taught, the stories that they foretold… I was so wrapped up in them that I couldn’t see the truth. I protected you for ten short years, and then you were taken from me.”
Merlin shut his eyes, a pain so real in them that Arthur blanched.
“Merlin… What happened?”
Merlin shook his head, but then continued.
“As the destines said, a young sorcerer named Mordred stabbed you, a sorcerer who was serving Morgana. He was originally your knight, but I knew of what the prophecy foretold… I thought I was protecting you, protecting Albion… The only thing that I cared about was saving you, no matter the price. You asked me once, when he was dying, whether you should make magic legal again so that you could save him. I said no. It killed me, but I found that the thought of losing you killed me more than anything else. I could barely imagine it, it was unbearable.”
Arthur thought he saw tears shining in Merlin’s eyes, but he couldn’t be sure.
All these years later, and it still tears him apart.
“After Mordred stabbed you, I took you to Avalon. I tried to save you… I wasn’t fast enough. On that journey, I told you of my magic. You were angry, but you forgave me, and… And then, you died in my arms.”
Another shuddering breath.
“I never went back to Camelot. I know they needed me, I know. But I was so far lost in grief, and… I felt as if I had failed them. I knew that I had failed you. I was too ashamed to go back, to face them. I had spent every second of my time living for you, and now that you were gone, and I couldn’t actually die… I thought that I might as well try to disappear. I sent a letter to Gwen.”
A slight shaking in his shoulders, it would’ve been unnoticeable to anybody but the prince.
“I was a coward, but I could barely move. I lay in the dark for years upon years, feeling my heart shattered inside my chest and replaying every single moment that I ever had with you. I didn't eat or sleep or speak for years, and sometimes I’d get up and decorate my shitty little waterside cottage or try to learn about the world but I felt empty.”
Merlin edged closer to Arthur, as if just being near to him eased the cold pain of these memories.
“I waited for fifteen hundred years, and I had found a spell to break the immortality, and I yearned for our souls to be together again… You see, they are intertwined and have been since the day that we were born. When you died, I felt as if a part of me had died, and it actually had. When you left, you took half of all that I am with you. I felt broken. I couldn’t live. I tried, but the years passed and I stayed. Just as I was about to join you in the veil, you came back. You rose out of that lake like my fucking knight in shining armour, and I felt complete one again.”
Arthur and Merlin never let themselves be vulnerable with each other. A soft word or feeling and one of them usually jibed to break the strange atmosphere, but right now, the prince didn’t even dare to breathe. They sat for several moments, basking in the deepness of the new waters they were treading.
“And what happened next?”
Merlin smiled slowly, the ghost of a promise on his face. “Well, I think that’s for you to find out for yourself.”
Arthur strangely didn’t feel shocked by any of this.
Sad? Yes. Though not surprised.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Merlin looked away sadly.
“Because I know how to get you back. And you’re not going to remember any of this.”
No, Arthur thought.
No, I don’t know if I can live without you now that I truly know who you are.
Merlin shuffled closer to him then, the ghost of his hand hovering above his prince’s.
“You told me the story of the butterfly and the lake before, well, the other you…”
He cleared his throat.
“That day I saved your life. I don’t know how, but the butterfly was my magic. I was gifted with this magic to protect you, the reason I’m still here today is solely so I can live by your side. I’ve always been protecting you. Looking after you. You came back when I needed you most… I figured out that you never came back because Albion was dead, so how could you come back when her need was greatest? I was all that was left, so you came when I was about to fall off the edge.”
Merlin snuffled, as if the emotion was still as new as it had been all that time ago. Arthur’s heart felt swollen in his ribcage.
“I didn’t leave that lake for fifteen hundred years. I didn’t let myself grow close to anybody, because I couldn’t bear to lose anything again. I didn’t see the world, I watched from behind the wall. And I’m glad I did, because that means I get to discover everything with you. Which makes everything better. Because, fuck, Arthur… You make everything better. You really do. You always have and always will. I’m so glad that we get to stay alive until the world fucking ends, because I don’t care if there’s a paradise-after-death or whatever that I’m missing out on, because living with you is heaven on earth every single day. I'm still not used to waking up and seeing you next to me. And I know I never will be. Even if everything ends in flames, I’ll build us a spaceship and we can live together, on Mars or something.”
Merlin chuckled at the confusion on Arthur’s face. A confusion that was there for so many reasons.
“Arthur, I’m never going to leave you, so don’t be scared of what’s to come, because I will always wait for you. Always.”
And with that word, Merlin tipped his head forward and captured Arthur’s lips beneath his.
Oh. And this felt familiar too.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Everything. Every little thing. All of these stories that he hadn’t yet lived. All of the day’s events. All of his life’s events. The strange feeling he got every time the man so much as looked at him. Every second of every day suddenly made blatant and simple sense; Arthur loved Merlin.
It was so much more than anything he had ever felt before, it was love in every form, love on every level. It was all-consuming, it was like the universe, like time, like space. As constant as the moon and the sun and the clouds and the stars.
Arthur threw his arms around Merlin’s shoulders, pulling him nearer so that they could be impossibly close. Merlin’s mouth flowered beneath him, his tongue like a velvet petal invading Arthur’s senses. He felt the man pour his love and his life and his soul into every little movement, into the perfection that Arthur was currently experiencing. Merlin’s hand cupped Arthur’s cheek, fingers trembling gently against immortal skin.
Forever, Arthur thought. I can have this forever. I get to live with him forever. We could do this for every little stretch of time that will ever be. I will never get tired of this. Having him with me, feeling his lips against mine, having him bloom beneath me. This is who I am. This is who he is. This is how we will always be. I will fight for this. I have never believed in anything as much as I believe in this. I have never wanted anyone as much as I want him.
Merlin pulled back, eyes darting down to examine Arthur’s flushed face. Merlin’s own face was peachy, softly glowing from the rosy innocence of their actions.
Arthur didn’t understand… The feelings that he was feeling weren’t new. They were so ever-present… They were as strong as anything he had ever known… But acting on them, letting himself acknowledge such a thing made these feelings light on fire. He felt it in every cell of his body. He felt as if he had just been born, as if he had just seen light for the first time, as if he had just felt any sense of feeling for the first time. He felt as if he had just taken his first breath, almost as if he had never breathed before. It was almost as if a weight had been lifted off his chest, as if this secret that he had been unknowingly carrying around with him was now free and fluttering in the wind.
Familiar. Familiar. Familiar.
“It’s you, Arthur Pendragon. All the roads lead to you. Always have and always will.”
Arthur felt emotion bubble in his throat, felt unspoken words swim in the mouth that Merlin had just been kissing.
“Arthur, in that cupboard that I locked with magic are pictures of you and me. You’ve been back for two years, and we barely stayed at that lake for a day. I had a fortune from all the things I owned, enough money to last us a lifetime. We bought this home in London, and we explored this new world together. I saw things that I had only read about in newspapers or books or seen on the TV, which you were absolutely terrified of, by the way, it was kind of hilarious. Anyway, we stayed here, and then we travelled. We flew on aeroplanes and sailed in boats and rode on trains… Nobody new that the two oldest people to live on this earth were currently stumbling around in awe of the world that everybody takes for granted.”
Merlin chuckled, gathering the prince's warm hands in his own.
“In that cupboard, are photographs… Which are, erm, like real-life paintings, you’ll find out one day… But, that cupboard if filled with pictures of us, all over the world. I panicked and put them away because I thought that you’d hate me if you ever found out what we are to each other. But I was foolish, because we’ve always been this, haven’t we?”
Arthur had no words, so he nodded and leaned forward to briefly and lightly press his lips against Merlin’s. He caught the small smile of the man in front of him, shyness causing them both to look down at their intertwined hands.
“Arthur, what I’m trying to say is that we travelled the world, and saw everything. But the only part that mattered to me was being with you. You are my world. When we got home, every day was as magical as all the other ones. It doesn’t matter where we are, whether we’re doing everything or nothing… No magic I’ve ever known has come close to this.”
Merlin lifted his hands to lightly trace Arthur’s cheek, the movement gentle and comforting.
“I mean, I guess now you can figure out why we woke up in the same bed this morning.”
Arthur felt a laugh being ripped from his chest, as boyish and unguarded as they always were when it was Merlin who caused them.
“God, Merlin, shut up. Please.”
Merlin eyes lit up as he leaned in closer. “Aw, you’re blushing!”
Arthur captured Merlin’s lips once again, gently and softly and slowly. Merlin sighed beneath him, the feel of a promise in the kiss.
Merlin lead Arthur to the window, letting Arthur’s eyes explore the sprawling view beneath him.
Merlin sighed, carefree and honest. “I know, it’s fucking mad.”
Arthur laughed, turning to the man next to him and finding him more impressive than London or whatever it was called.
“We’re thirty floors up. It’s the best view in the city. I’m surprised you’re not having a crisis right now.”
The prince shrugged, nonchalant.
“I don’t know, it all just feels so…”
Arthur grinned. “Yes. That’s the word.”
A few moments of silence, loaded with an indistinguishable softness.
“Are you ready?”
Arthur huffed, the sight of London blurring beneath him.
“No, but what choice do we have?”
The man in front of him hummed, a note of agreement.
“What about the older me? Where’s he got to?”
Merlin grinned, eyes turning to half moons. “Oh, it’s a side-effect of the curse. He’s in there somewhere, in your head. You’re going to go and he’s going to come back and feel like he just had a very long sleep.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“Oh, of course I’m going to tell him! I’m going to make fun of how oblivious he used to be and tell him how we kissed and he’s going to laugh about how I managed to keep his twenty-six-old-self calm about all of these strange relationship developments.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Won’t he be mad?”
“I mean, you are actually him, Arthur.”
Gently, as if bringing him out of the trance of the modern world, Arthur felt Merlin’s arm on his shoulder. A reminder of what must be. The servant turned his prince toward him, drinking in every angle on his face.
“Arthur, you’re stronger than you will ever know. You’re a warrior, but you also have the most gentle heart, don't forget that. A lot is going to happen, but me, well, the younger me, will be there every step of the way. I promise. It will all be worth it. All of it, I swear it.”
Merlin laughed then, a wistful echo.
“And this spell is going to wipe your memory, but honestly, I really wish you and me would sort our shit out before you die for fifteen-hundred years.”
Arthur’s eyes fell to his servant’s lips, before once-again edging closer and bringing them together. This kiss felt like a goodbye, because it was a goodbye. It was the last time that Arthur would get to kiss this miraculous man for over a thousand years. The prince poured every little bit of himself into it, into each and every movement he made. He hoped it would be enough. He wasn't sure how his fifteen-hundred-years-back-in-the-past-self would manage to look at Merlin without instantly thinking of this, even if he was memory-wiped.
They broke apart, foreheads against each other, basking in each other’s air.
“Merlin, I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m sorry that nothing came of it for so long. I hope that the rest of your life is all that you hoped for.”
Merlin smiled, not sadly. He looked peaceful.
“Arthur, I have all that I want. I love every second that I get to live, because I get to live it with you. God, it sounds ridiculous. I’m so glad that I get to wipe your memory because you’d hold this against me forever.”
The prince frowned. “You mean you and the other me don’t go around spouting love poetry at each other?”
Merlin lightly punched his arm, fake disapproval etched into his irises. “Believe it or not, things are exactly how they used to be. There’s still a lot of insulting each-other, just with more hugs and more sex.”
Arthur scrunched his face, feeling the all-too-familiar blush climb up his neck.
“Oh, and I love you too."
The prince softened at that, pulling Merlin into one last, feather-light brush of lips.
“Okay, do it.”
Merlin nodded and placed his hands on Arthur’s shoulders, his eyes dancing over Arthur’s form, as if trying to indulge in the man and commit the sight to memory. Then his eyes squeezed shut, and foreign words started to fall from his lips.
Arthur felt himself slipping away. He felt time beginning to claw at him. He looked at the man in front of him one last time, feeling uncomprehendingly fortunate to have somebody that saw him for who he truly was, somebody who he loved so much.
Goodbye Merlin, he thought. Goodbye and thank you.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur felt light pour into his vision, obnoxiously accompanying his manservant’s voice.
“Come on, Arthur. Time to face the day!”
“Don’t want to.”
“You know I can’t hear you when your face is buried in that pillow.”
Next thing Arthur knew, he was on the floor.
“Now get up, you have a council meeting in half an hour.”
The prince climbed to his feet, arms stretching towards the sky.
“Where’s your top?”
“I don’t know Merlin, must’ve taken it off during the night. The air was so hot I thought I was going to light on fire.”
Arthur saw a flush colour Merlin’s ears. The servant’s lips were pursed, an attempt at disapproval.
His lips were so pink, so -
What had he just been thinking?
He could barely remember.
“How are you feeling after that witch, my lord?”
Arthur rolled his eyes, then frowned. “You know, I had a dream about that last night.”
Concern flashed through Merlin’s features, as strong as thunder. “Really? What happened?”
The prince racked his mind, he was certain it was… something.
There was still a hint of worry in Merlin's eyes, but he obviously decided not press the subject.
“Don’t worry, Arthur. We’re all used to you not remembering. Everybody knows it’s part of your condition.”
The prince scoffed, crossing his arms. “Shut up, clotpole.”
His servant barked a laugh, the warmth of it causing heat to slip into Arthur’s sleepy limbs.
“As I keep on telling you, that’s my word!”
“And as I keep on telling you, it suits you perfectly!"
Merlin’s grin fell into a soft smile, and something tugged deep in Arthur, the familiarity of a memory that he just couldn’t reach bubbling to the surface…
“Come on then, clotpole. Are you going to help me to get dressed or not?”
Merlin grumbled, holding out clothes for Arthur to take.
“I don’t know why I put up with you, my lord.”
“You love me really Merlin, you just won’t admit it.”
They both stilled, the words ringing in the air.
“No, sorry, I could never love somebody who could be such a prat.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, the familiarity of the words settling into his bones.
The familiarity of the morning blurring into all of the ones that had come before.
Deep down, Arthur hoped it would always be like this.
He really, really did.