Merlin decides there was no hope left for him. None at all.
Flower shops didn't open until at least 8 o'clock in the morning on the weekdays, and especially not in such a remote area.
Glastonbury has two shops within easy walking distance on High Street: Abundiflora and Enchanted Florals Ltd. But as it is, Merlin's wristwatch barely reads ten minutes to 6 o'clock, and petty crime by theft doesn't particularly suit him.
His birthday isn't supposed to be a nerve-wrecking affair.
The woods fall unnaturally silent as Merlin weaves his path deeper and deeper in.
Surroundings grow thick with creeping, pale fog, along with the tree-canopy overhead. A scent of rain to come.
The local farming area could use the rain, he considers. The grass beneath his feet appears yellowed. The soil too dry this late season. Merlin supposes if need be, he could meddle in natural affairs. His magic could allow the land to prosper abundantly—no, Merlin knows that much.
But the villagers, farmers and landowners, and townsfolk are content with their living and what they could reap. (What good is meddling where he is not needed?…)
Normally, any journey this far warrants Merlin to bring his satchel for collecting plants and herbs, but that isn't what he's seeking.
It would not be today.
Not today of all days.
He nears the lake. Knows the path to and from like the back of his hand. Today is the reason Merlin returns. Another day on the yearly calendar of the day of his birth. He has no exact record of how many days transpired since… Camelot's ruin—how many public holidays, how many Sundays or how many birthdays.
It seems silly to try and remember them all. Merlin isn't certain if today is even the accurate date.
But he hadn't always been so alone.
Merlin gained friends as those centuries went on. He longed for company, someone to hear him, acknowledge his existence. But then, eventually they too passed. Leaving him with the faint, warm glow of happier memories and another dull ache to settle in his heart. To be immortal was a curse, as he learned—an ugly, and a lonely one.
There's a clearing ahead out of the woods as he goes downhill, his cheeks flushing with the sting of cold, and his eyes alert despite the lack of visibility.
No point bothering with an aging spell to disguise himself. No soul likely would meet him.
Begrudgingly, Merlin wordlessly summons a fistful of white lilies into his hand, huffing out a breath. It doesn't feel right. The downy sensation of the flowers in his hand doesn't feel genuine.
"Cheers," he mumbles, shuffling in place, but reluctant to move forward.
Going forward is all he's ever done, and it's been the only choice. And what has that gained him?
Like tunneling, Merlin's ears pick out loud splashing in the distance. For all he knows, it's a person swimming frantically in the waters.
Who would be daft enough to brave the icy lake at this time? So early before the heat of the sun touches it?
Keeping his guard up, Merlin waits soundless and a good distance on the hill, until someone does manage to drag themselves onto the bank, seemingly winded and collapsing. The longer he does wait, the more it feels like a dream. (Impossible. He can't dream.)
The tattered, red cape. Broken chain-mail. Strands of blond hair darkened and plastered down.
Merlin's shoulders tighten.
"… no," rolls off his lips, softly, nearly pleading.
The image stays, living as the man-shaped figure hauls himself on his feet, with damp, leather gloves scrambling at tree bark, towards the northeast end of further woods.
Merlin knocks the side of his face harshly with a palm.
"No, I'm awake," he whispers, teeth gritting, forcing his eyes shut. "I'm bloody awake! I'm—awake!"
Blue eyes reopen, wider than before, but the figure does not melt away from existence.
Reality sinks in, galloping his heart in the confines of his throat.
"I'm awake," Merlin repeats, hollowly.
He waited. For so long.
He waited and waited and relied on nothing but a gossamer-thin string of desperate, grieving hope in Kilgharrah's words. Had it been so simple? Pick a day at random to visit where Arthur's last moments had been, and…?
The fistful of pure white lilies releases from Merlin's trembling hand, crushing under his wool-lined boots as he takes the first, few uncertain steps forward. Before losing sight of what eerily resembles Arthur—but it COULDN'T be that simple, could it—vanishing from the clearing.
The next steps carrying Merlin become a running start.
Not far now.
Merlin's legs take him on, pounding his feet across the dewy, slippery grass and then patches of dirt and twigs, but his mind feels as if it hazes.
Everything's slowing down as the ashes and beeches, and the greenery underbrush blur on all sides of him. He waited. But for this—chasing a long-lost memory, a colourful and familiar spark in the grey, fog-dull scenery? His exhales ghost out of him, and Merlin's chest roars hot.
Up ahead, the man-shaped figure appearing sodden to the bone but steadier, makes a jerking left and dives into the thicket.
Merlin follows him, and would follow Camelot's king to the very end of time and humanity itself. He braces himself in a wince. The back of Merlin's head impacts a tree trunk, as a chain-mail arm pins him by the throat. He flails in place.
His attacker presses in without mercy, a knee to Merlin's thigh.
A growl emits, ready to be voiced before everyone stills.
His name a single exhale, Arthur's brow furrowing in confusion and his tone a mix of it all, including confusion and relief. The arm covered in wet, cold metal to Merlin's neck lessens its callous intent. Allowing him another large gulp for air. The run-to and being pitched forward already knocked the wind out of him.
But the close-up of Arthur's face, how still firm and unaged, doubles the sensation.
His eyes never break their awed, terrified gaze on Arthur. Arthur.
Merlin's lips draw apart.
(Of all the things to come out of his mouth, of all things Merlin thought he might get the chance to say. Instead, he sounds like a clueless twit. Fantastic.)
Arthur swallows—it's him, he can feel it, his magic feels it—and stops the crushing pressure from his arm resting on Merlin's throat.
He gives Merlin a pointed look with both eyebrows raised.
"Are you going to keep staring at me, or are you going to explain what is happening?" he asks.
Or maybe you could explain it to ME?
"I wouldn't know where to begin," Merlin says, flinching lightly at his own words rushing out and too honest.
He takes a brief pause to rake his gaze over what he can of his old friend, tilting his head ever-so-slightly until Merlin's chin bumps down on Arthur's forearm. The lake water has a murky smell, and it clings to Arthur. Not the smell of death, of rot. The smell of a body that had been suspended lifeless in the watery depths for hundreds of years.
Dark blood crusted over the fatal wound in Arthur's side a long time ago. Arthur's hot blood tacking to Merlin's bare hands.
Now the wound's entrance looks dulled and faded to brown.
But was it… still there?
He watches Arthur blink away a droplet of water.
"How do you feel?" Merlin asks. His tongue feeling wooden and dry in his mouth.
"Wet," Arthur deadpans.
The casual 'obviously, Merlin' tone is so familiar and yet impossibly strange in his ears. He shakes his head.
"I feel fine… why do I feel fine, Merlin?"
Above all else, Merlin knows that lying results in future consequences. He has been keeping the truth about being born a warlock, about their destiny from Arthur for so long … it should be a relief now. That unpredictable and fragile era of their friendship can end.
But if Arthur remembers everything, including Merlin's confession… and didn't accept it…
The word cracks, whether from emotion or the wrecked quality of his sore throat. Merlin's hand reaches up, folding to Arthur's wrist and gently pulling him away. "I think you… it may have brought you back," Merlin explains quietly, gathering the courage to dare and peer at Arthur's expression and the slow nod.
The confusion ever more present, but it's only that.
Not hatred, not fear, not disgust. He doesn't recoil at Merlin's clutch on him. A bit of weight on Merlin's shoulders lifts for a blessed moment.
"Right," Arthur says, heedfully. "Magic…"
Unconsciously, Merlin's fingers round Arthur's wrist tighten to a squeeze.
"And why, might I ask, did magic bring me back in a lake?"
"I put you there," Merlin says, frowning. "In a boat, after you had…" His bottom lip worries under his teeth, like a nervous tic. "I don't know the real answer. I wish I did," he confesses. Merlin pushes off the tree, crowding their space enough to signal his companion to back away a few paces.
"Arthur, I need you to tell me everything you remember."
The direct command is enough for Arthur to mimic the frown. His arms rise to cross against his chest.
"I remember it all, Merlin," he says, simply.
Something akin to gratitude softens Arthur's features, even if it had been mere seconds. Merlin isn't sure how his head isn't spinning wildly with the realisation that Arthur knows everything from those final days in his life. He knows and appears fairly unimpressed.
As if Arthur can accept the facts so quickly and so shortly after conquering death.
It wouldn't be for long, Merlin understands this. There are going to be questions. If Arthur isn't voicing his troubles in his ex-manservant having been a great sorcerer in the era he knew him, then he would definitely be unnerved about being dropped off from Avalon, or wherever, into the 21st century.
But right now, the man who is and forever would be Camelot's legendary king—who had meant everything to Merlin—stood in front of him, tall in the early morning chill. Looking like a bit of a drowned rat covered in armour, in his opinion.
A beautiful one, and the best one Merlin has ever laid eyes on.
"Is it truly important to recall it?"
Arthur speaking again brings him to himself, and Merlin realizes with a hardened lump in his throat and fluttering in his stomach… that very little has changed.
That effortlessness between them still exists. They could have been hunting on Camelot's grounds with Gwaine and Leon in this moment, with Arthur making snide, prattish remarks about Merlin's supposed cowardice about fluffy, woodland creatures at his expense…
"S'rry—I just needed to know, is all," he mumbles, gazing down at his boots.
His eyes burn with unshed tears as Merlin's lips flatten together, peaking into a small smile as he stares back up.
"You look awful," Merlin says with a choked-off laugh.
An incredulous look passes over Arthur's face. "Your flattery skills are unrenowned. But me? What the devil are you wearing?"
Merlin glances down on instinct: dark, buckled hiking boots, a thicker pair of jeans, and two layers. He echoes the look.
"A jumper," he retorts, dryly.
It takes an embarrassingly long moment to hit him exactly why Arthur has no idea what a jumper is. Merlin's face grows hot.
"Ehm…" He tries backtracking. "Bit like a tunic, only warmer. And better."
"Right," Arthur drawls, and as an afterthought, he tugs at the argyle-patterned, black-pink-blue fabric with a speculative frown. "It's almost as ridiculous as that scarf of yours." Arthur's glove finds its way to his collar, inspecting its lack of formality. Merlin ignores another stomach flutter. He feels weirdly shy at the clearly physical motion.
Rightly so, he guesses.
Merlin gave up making close friends after the 14th century, choosing to be a friendly but rather mysterious acquaintance to his neighbors, if anyone had been interested in him.
Fortunately, for most of his various and widespread travels, they kept to themselves. So many of Merlin's friends had been swept away by a crippling plague that early century. Little did the history books care to discover that the Black Death had been the result of archaic, dark magic; the endgame of a villainous, foe of a fellow sorcerer.
It had been very complex magic that even Merlin struggled against… but now isn't the time to recollect.
"Oi, I like the stripes very—Arthur?" he asks, concerned, blue eyes rounding. Merlin darts in, grasping Arthur's shoulders as the other man sways visibly, head lolling.
He is freezing to the touch. They both are, but Merlin isn't covered in lake water and probably numbing at the toes. (Why were they still dawdling outside?)
Merlin tucks himself under an armpit, heaving one of Arthur's arms up as he supports his friend's weight, grunting.
"Let's get you to a fireplace before you keel over."
Arthur's body straightens up, as they begin moving. "M'alright," he insists. "The castle's still a good walk from here."
"Not going to the castle." He may as well play along.
With a cant of his head, Merlin fights his balance. He halts their progress to adjust his grasp on the long, broad line of Arthur's back, already beginning to feel sore. This is going to take a while. "There's a cottage not far from here."
It can't have just been easy.
Then again, Merlin doesn't have room for complaining about this. He rarely got what he wanted.
The further they go, towards the glades and over debris in the woods, came more stumbling and needing to catch their bearings. Arthur says nothing, but Merlin imagines the other man is none-too-pleased about feeling so dependent about getting about, or how icy water trickles through his clothes to his skin.
"We've done this before."
Merlin hears Arthur's shaking breathing in his ear, and the hoarse quality of it ruins his focus.
"You have a habit of needing me to carry you," he supplies, feigning cheer.
"You know what I mean." Arthur adds, seriously, "I was dying, Merlin."
Merlin's eyes thin to a narrow, but keep looking ahead.
"Not anymore," he murmurs. "You just got back. Stop talking, we're almost there."
Thickened fog surrounding them lightens up as the sun climbs high, beckoning on the new day.
Merlin ignores Arthur's too-low mutter of protest and scans his eyes over the groves.
The unnatural silence from earlier lifts. Once veiling the far-away, clean sounds of running brook water and birds twittering over his head, as well as the whistle of air through the tree-canopy. As if their arrival vests the rightful change in atmosphere.
Arthur's head tilts up. "It looks different."
"… 'course it does, clotpole," Merlin says, huffing for air, face muscles stretching for another smile. A larger, goofier one. "S'been a while…"
"Has it?" The other man asks, eyes tossing a sidelong glance at the noticeable tug on Merlin's lips. Arthur shoots him an unamused look, but there is a flicker all the same. "I believe I still arrived faster than you do for your duties. Never were on time."
"The rules never applied to me. Or maybe so I reckoned."
Arthur's own lips tug upwards as Merlin takes another difficult step. "The worst servant imaginable," he says, in barely concealed fondness.