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Arthur sags against Merlin’s shoulder, dragging them both down even as Merlin fights to keep them upright. His armour is a cold, sharp line against Merlin’s stomach, but Merlin barely feels it. “We have to make it to the lake,” he says, hauling at Arthur’s arms, but he doesn’t have the leverage he needs. Arthur is just too heavy, limp in his grasp.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice wheezy and weaker than Merlin’s ever heard it before. Merlin’s heart thumps out of rhythm at the sound; that’s not how Arthur is supposed to sound. He’s a king, the greatest king in the land, and he’s meant to be regal and commanding, not soft and pleading. Not so damnably weak. “Not without the horses,” he says. “We can’t. It’s too late.” Merlin shoves at him again, trying to force his uncooperative form to move. “It’s too late,” Arthur repeats, a mere exhalation.

“No,” Merlin gasps out, trying to have enough conviction for the both of them. Arthur’s given up, he’s giving up and accepting death, and Merlin can’t let it happen. He just can’t.

“With all your magic, Merlin,” Arthur says, and it hurts more than anything else to hear Arthur speak so softly of him, so free of resentment for what he’s learned, and know that it’s the stillness of death that grants him that serenity, “you can’t save my life.”

“I can,” Merlin says. “I’m not going to lose you.” He can’t lose Arthur. Arthur is his everything, he will have nothing left if Arthur dies. Arthur’s weight bears him down, though, like the weight of the world on Atlas’ shoulders and just as important. Merlin can only be crushed beneath his own impotence, his struggles desperate and fruitless.

“Just—just—” Arthur puts his gloved hand over Merlin’s, a gentle pressure so unlike all the rough touches they’d shared over the course of their companionship. “Just hold me.” Merlin feels as though he’s had the wind knocked out of him. He clutches Arthur to him even as his heart pounds painfully in his chest, racing to compensate for the way Arthur’s is slowing. Arthur’s head rests on Merlin’s shoulder, his sweat-soaked hair a ticklish presence against his neck, and Arthur turns into him, seeking heat and comfort. Merlin clings tighter.

“There’s something,” Arthur says, fighting to speak loud enough to be heard, “I want to say.”

“You’re not going to say goodbye,” Merlin says sharply because even if he’s stopped his frantic flight toward the lake, just because he’s letting Arthur rest for a moment more, that doesn’t mean that they won’t make it. They can still make it, Arthur just needs a moment. Just another moment and then he’ll be back on his feet and everything will be fine.

“No,” Arthur sighs. He fights to turn, to face Merlin properly, to look up at him with eyes that are already glazed and paling. “Merlin,” he says with a tiny approximation of a fond smile, that same fond smile that always made Merlin’s breath catch in his throat. “Everything you’ve done, I know now. For me—” Merlin chokes back a sob. “—for Camelot. For the kingdom you helped me build.”

“You’d have done it with me,” Merlin says, sure of that, more sure of that than anything.

“Maybe,” Arthur says, but he shakes his head. “I want to say something I’ve never said to you before.” His words come slowly, like he’s struggling to get enough breath in his lungs. Merlin waits, his own breath held lest he miss this, lest he break this moment where Arthur is wide-eyed and intent on him. “Thank you.” Arthur’s hand comes up to cup the back of Merlin’s head, trembling slightly against his hair. Then it drops, limp, as Arthur’s eyes close.

“Arthur,” Merlin breathes, struck dumb. “Arthur.” He gives Arthur a shake and his eyes flicker, just enough to give him another glimpse of blue. “Stay with me,” Merlin begs, barely able to get the words past his lips. But Arthur’s eyes have rolled back into his head, only whites visible where the lids are barely parted. Merlin shakes Arthur again, calling his name. Sobs force their way up Merlin’s throat until his whole body shakes with them. He pulls Arthur tighter against him, trying to force his body to warm by sharing his own heat. Arthur’s head lolls and Merlin cradles it in his hands, leaning down to press his own forehead against Arthur’s.

All his magic and he is helpless. All the power in the world and he can’t even save his best friend’s life. What good is he? The dragon is wrong, and the druids. He is no legendary sorcerer, he has no ultimate power. If he did then surely he wouldn’t be sitting here rocking his king’s corpse. There is no stopping or reversing a wound like this, not even with the Cup of Life.

Merlin shoots upright, shocked out of his grief by the sudden bolt of memory. He hasn’t thought about the Cup of Life since he had hidden it away after destroying Morgana and Morgause’s immortal army, years ago. Merlin almost trips over his words as he babbles out a hastily constructed spell to bring the golden goblet to him. He holds out a hand and the chalice appears within it, glinting in the slowly fading sunlight. Merlin grips it tightly, feeling the thrum of ancient magic under his fingertips, and casts his thoughts back.

He nearly cries from frustration. He only witnessed the use of the Cup once, a decade before when he was young and untrained, far from literate in the Old Tongue and too desperate to listen closely anyway. But it had worked. Gaius had been dead, and Merlin had brought him back, he had. He’d traded Nimueh’s life, as she had traded his mother’s and then Gaius’, but he doesn’t know how he did it then and his mind is clouded with panic. He can’t do it wrong, not with the myriad of horrible consequences coming to mind. He can’t botch this, not when it's Arthur’s life on the line. There was only ever one person who truly understood how to wield the power of Life and Death, how to manipulate the energy that was the life force and drag it from one place to another.

Merlin lays Arthur carefully on the ground, forcing down bile at the sight of him so pale and unmoving, and stands on shaky legs. He raises a hand and says, “Arásae mid min miclan mihte me to helpe. Hider eft funde on þisse ne middangeard me w'æs.” His voice is deep and harsh, commanding. The spirit he seeks fights against his call, unwilling to come to his aid, but he drags her inexorably into his world until Nimueh stands before him, looking exactly as she had in the moment before his lightning bolt had struck her and with her unnaturally blue eyes flashing in rage.

“Emrys,” she spits. “How dare you summon me from my rest.”

“I will return you to it, Nimueh,” he promises. “But I need your help first.”

Nimueh laughs, the sound of it sharp and cruel. “My help? You expect me to provide aid to the man who murdered me?”

“You will help me or I will trap you in this world to wander for all eternity,” Merlin growls. “Do not test me, Nimueh. I killed you then, but there are fates far worse than death and I will not hesitate to resign you to them.”

Nimueh looks at him then, her gaze piercing, calculating. She looks almost pleased with his ruthlessness, which almost makes Merlin falter. But he holds his ground. Then she smirks, that infuriating tilt of the lips that screams of secrets and illicit knowledge. It makes Merlin feel horribly wrong-footed, but he can’t afford to back down. There’s nothing she can know that will stop him now, not when he has a path to follow and a course of action to take.

“What is it you require of me, warlock?” she asks, her voice silky smooth and subservient.

“Arthur is dying,” Merlin says, forcing down the way his voice wants to hitch on the dreaded words. “I need to save him. I need to trade my life for his.” He holds out the Cup of Life. “But I don’t know how to do it properly and I don’t have the time for trial error.”

Nimueh looks past him to Arthur, her face the picture of indifference. Merlin’s fights down the urge to bark at her to hurry up, to demand she obey him. He gets the feeling that would be vastly counterproductive to getting her cooperation. She walks forward, her bare feet and long dress making no noise against the grass. She reaches out as if to take the Cup from Merlin’s hand, but her own passes through it, immaterial. Her expression tightens slightly, the only sign of chagrin at the reminder that she is not, in fact, a part of this world. She steps back.

“I will help you, Merlin,” she says. “If you were anyone else, I would spit in your face and haunt you for the rest of your miserable life for what you did to me—” She says it the way one would talk about their dinner plans, wholly casual and unconcerned. “—but the destiny you hold is crucial to the fate of all magic.

“Truly, I should have expected this,” she continues, circling around him leisurely, as if she has all the time in the world to chat. Merlin grits his teeth, his tight hold on the Cup making his fingers white and bloodless. “As it has always been Arthur’s fate to die, so it has always been yours to give your life for his.”

“My fate?” Merlin asks. “If it was always my fate to trade my life for Arthur’s, then why did you stop me the last time I tried to do so? Why go to such lengths to take the lives of those I cared about instead of mine? You said that I was too important for my life to be sacrificed.”

“There were too many things you did not know or understand, Merlin,” she says, condescension written in every line of her beautiful face. “Things you still do not know.”

“Then tell me.”

“Have you never wondered about that name the druids gave you?” Nimueh asks, a disconcerting smile stretching over her face to reveal white teeth. “Emrys?” Merlin shakes his head and her smile widens. “It’s not so much a name,” she says, “as a title, and its meaning is telling.” She pauses, obviously waiting for Merlin to break and ask her, but he grits his teeth instead, unwilling to play her games. Eventually she turns to face him fully. “Emrys,” she says, gleeful, “translates to eternal, Merlin. In the druidic tongue, they call you the Immortal One.”

Merlin stares at her, uncomprehending. Then he shakes his head, once, sharply. “No,” he says. “That’s not possible.”

Nimueh begins to circle him again, forcing him to turn to keep her in his sight or to allow her behind his back.

“And yet you’ve defied death before, Emrys,” she tuts. “Didn’t you notice? My poison, first and foremost. It was too potent even for an antidote, I made absolutely sure of that. And yet you were on your feet the next day, right as rain. Did that not strike you as odd?”

Merlin swallows hard and shakes his head again, a denial of the evidence before him rather than an answer to her question.

“Or my fireball,” she continues, her face hardening for a flash. “Just before you killed me. Do you really think I would have turned my back on you if I hadn’t believed you were no longer a threat? A blow like that would’ve killed any other man.”

He shakes his head again, a shaking hand coming up to press against the round scar on his chest, the only remnant of that encounter. Gaius had gaped at it when they got back to Camelot and Merlin had finally confessed the details of his and Nimueh’s encounter, baffled by the inexplicable way the wound had healed itself before they’d even left the Isle.

“Surely you realized that surviving the blast of a Sidhe staff made you extraordinary,” Nimueh went on, still going in circles around him, making him dizzy even at her slow pace. “Several times, in fact. That staff destroyed Sidhe elders in the hands of one mere boy not even trained in its use, and yet you took a blast from one of their own directly to the chest and walked away with little more than a bruise.”

Merlin doesn’t ask how she knows this, can’t manage to force any sound past the buzz of panic and denial rising to fog his head.

“And the Dorocha, Merlin, surely you realized then.” She is relentless, cruel in her determination to make him understand. “No mortal man has ever survived their touch. That’s what the legends all said, isn’t that right? What made you so special? The vilia may have lent you their strength to get you on your feet faster, but you would have survived without their intervention. Because you are no mortal man, Emrys.”

“Don’t call me that,” Merlin snaps, his heartbeat thundering so loudly in his ears that he barely hear her anyway. He stumbles backwards, away from her and her poisonous words and her intimate knowledge of his life and all that it means. The Cup of Life falls from his hand but he doesn’t notice, too busy squeezing his eyes shut and pressing his palms against his ears, trying to get her words out of his head, get them out where they can't  overturn everything he’s ever known.

“You know it’s true, Emrys,” Nimueh says, her voice a whip in the air, cutting through Merlin’s clumsy defenses with punishing force. “Look deep inside yourself and you will know it’s true. You are magic, Merlin. And magic is eternal.”

Merlin sinks to his knees under the weight of that proclamation, gasping for breath that doesn't want to fill his lungs. His head spins, but his magic, normally a warm and comforting weight in the pit of his stomach, writhes and leaps inside him, reaching out in accordance with all that the witch had said. Merlin wretches, emptying his stomach of what little it contains until he’s shaking and spent. He scrambles backwards, desperate to get away, to run and run and run until everything he’s heard is nothing but a faint whisper on the wind. But his hand catches on something solid, something that still has a bit of warmth to it.

Arthur. He stares at Arthur—Arthur’s body—laid out on the ground behind him, still and pale and exactly as he had left him. He doesn’t dare to feel for a pulse or watch his chest for breath. He doesn’t want to know if Arthur is dead, if Arthur has achieved the one thing that he never will. If Arthur has gone where he can never follow. Merlin’s breath is harsh and sharp in his chest and his lungs scream for respite, overburdened, but Merlin has eyes only for Arthur. He can’t live without Arthur. And he certainly can’t live forever if Arthur is already lost to him. Arthur cannot be lost to him yet.

Merlin forces himself to his feet, his limbs weak underneath him and his magic reaching out unbidden to steady him. He faces Nimueh, who watches him with that same cruel smirk. A twitch of magic summons the Cup to his hand once more and he holds it out toward her, sure that his eyes are as cold and unforgiving as hers had always been. The flicker of her ever-confident expression, the tiny glimpse of fear, is a balm on Merlin’s soul, a tiny bit of petty vengeance.

“Tell me how to save him,” he says. “I won’t ask you again.”

Nimueh lifts her head, a slight rebellion against the command in his tone, but she quails in the face of his quiet rage.

“Arthur Pendragon has always lived on borrowed time,” she tells him, which isn’t what he wants to hear from her. Merlin opens his mouth to tell her just that, but Nimueh raises a hand to forestall him. “His parents sought my help in his conception, as you well know. He was created through the use of magic, and you know that magic craves balance. For a life to be created, then another must be taken. Uther did not understand this law, nor did he accept it. And when Arthur took Ygraine’s life as his own—” She shrugs, a delicate gesture. “Well, you know what happened then.”

Tell me how to save him,” Merlin growls.

“Patience, Emrys,” she bites back, as if she has the right to be irritated by his interruption, as if Arthur is not slipping away with every second she prattles on. “He is not yet beyond your reach. And you must understand.”

Merlin takes a deep breath, trying to calm the pounding of heat in his blood.

“Ygraine gave up her life for Arthur,” Nimueh says, and Merlin thinks he hears sorrow under all her bite and impatience. “All 31 years of it.”

“31 years?” Merlin repeats. Nimueh nods.

“Balance, Emrys,” she reminds him, almost mocking. “31 years were given, and 31 years have been taken. Arthur’s borrowed time has run out.”

“Then I will give him 28 more if you’ll just tell me how,” Merlin shouts at her.

“It’s not that simple with you, Merlin,” Nimueh sneers. “Ygraine’s life force was drained and transferred to her son, an empty vessel awaiting a soul. Your soul is eternal. It cannot be siphoned from you and given to another. Why do you think I did not tell you any of this when you were a boy?”

“Because you wanted Arthur dead to get back at Uther.”

“I am not so stupid,” Nimueh says, actually sounding offended. “Arthur is the Once and Future King. That his destiny come to fruition is paramount. I admit there were times when my bitterness blinded me, but that was certainly not one of them.”

“Then why?”

“Because if you had attempted what I am about to tell you then, the damage would have been catastrophic,” Nimueh insists. “Had you tried to trade your life for his, you might have actually succeeded. In which case, you would have been dead. Well and truly dead. And Arthur would have borne your unnatural lifespan instead, and your magic along with it.”

“What?” Merlin breathes out, taken aback.

“Your magic is your life, Merlin. I thought that had been made abundantly clear,” Nimueh says with an irreverent roll of her eyes. “To treat your life force like any other would have been a grave mistake with disastrous consequences for the entire land. Even I in all my foresight cannot imagine what would have ensued.”

“Then how must my life be treated?” Merlin asks. “What do I do to save him?”

Nimueh comes to stand directly before him, barely a hand’s breadth separating them. “Your life, Merlin, is your magic,” she says, her eyes boring into his with unnerving intensity. “You have long since had a natural talent, an innate control that surpasses all the decades of dedicated study and training I and others of my caliber underwent. Your magic responds to your will alone, a far subtler and more precise control than any other has ever achieved. That is what you need now, Merlin.”

“What do I do?”

“You take the Cup,” she says, laying her spectral hand atop his around the goblet’s stem, a barely-there touch that makes Merlin shiver. “You fill it with water from the Lake. Then you take hold of your soul and rip it apart.”

Merlin jerks back. “What?”

“Your life force is limitless, Emrys,” Nimueh says, emphasizing his name—his title. “To bestow it all upon Arthur is far from what we want. He needs only a miniscule fraction, a mere drop of water in the ocean that is your soul. You must handle this carefully, Merlin. Too few years and Arthur will not have the time to do what he must. Too many, and all will be ruined.” She stalks closer to him again, invading his space until he could no longer back away from her without tripping over Arthur’s legs. “You must tear your self to pieces, Emrys, in order to save your king. You must do it precisely and without hesitation. Are you capable of it?”

Merlin swallows and tries to breathe in the face of Nimueh’s unwavering gaze. It is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at his feet, and he has no choice but to take it up. Not if Arthur is to live. Merlin’s magic quails inside him at the threat of violence against it, but it rises at his command anyway. The metal of the Cup is cold against Merlin’s fingers, which clutch so hard that they’ve almost gone numb. Merlin nods, says, “Yes,” as firmly as he can manage, and turns away from Nimueh.

He crouches at the edge of the lake, dips the lip of the chalice beneath the surface, and tilts it upright again when it’s filled to the brim with sparkling water that practically sings with magic of its own. Cradling the Cup carefully in his hands, Merlin rises and turns back. Nimueh watches him impassively as he drops to his knees beside Arthur instead, unable to bring himself to look at Arthur’s pallid face, which was so vibrant and expressive only a few days ago.

“Drink from the Cup,” Nimueh tells him.

Merlin looks up at her, confused, but she offers him no explanation and he’s not exactly in a position to dispute her authority on the subject. He takes a sip of the water, crisp and sweet on his tongue. It slides down his throat and the coolness brings with it a wash of calm and serenity through him, soothing the frantic tattoo of his heart and letting him breathe easy for the first time since he saw Arthur fall from Mordred’s blade.

“Close your eyes, Emrys. Look within yourself. Call forth your soul and take hold of that which Arthur needs from you.”

Merlin takes a shaky breath and bows his head. His magic rushes forth to fill him more fully than it ever has before, pulsing just under his skin. The scope of it is staggering, all lain out before him. Never-ending. He gathers a bit of it to him, just one pleat in the grand tapestry of it, and holds it tightly. He opens his eyes and feels them burn.

“Now raise the Cup,” Nimueh says. She sounds a bit breathless, awed by the subtle but sure display of Merlin’s strength. “You will repeat the spell I give you, and then Arthur must drink the water.”

Merlin listens as she speaks the incantation, power resonating in every syllable. He lifts the glittering chalice high with both hands and intones, “Ic, sé undeáþlíc, oþ þú ágiefe dӕl mín sylfum dógorgerímes.”

It is pain unlike anything Merlin has experienced before. It is a rending of his very essence that sears him past flesh and bone and blood. His magic, his soul, his life force rebels against the command he’s given it, shrieking in protest and drawing back, pulling away in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. But Merlin thinks of Arthur, of Arthur’s stoicism in the face of his own pain, his death, and Merlin grips on tighter to his soul and pulls. His entire body shakes under the force of his struggle and the water in the chalice laps dangerously at its edges, threatening to spill over. Merlin lifts Arthur’s head with one hand, and brings the Cup to his pale lips with the other.

It takes a few tries, and it’s hardly a neat job, but he manages to get most of the water into Arthur’s mouth. He drops the Cup uncaringly and runs his fingers over Arthur’s throat, massaging, encouraging the muscles there to work one last time, just one, please. And finally Arthur swallows reflexively, and the incessant pressure in Merlin’s soul gives without warning. Merlin slumps over like a puppet cut free of its strings, losing consciousness. He returns to himself only a moment later, feeling as though his entire body is bruised deeper than any physical blow could ever cause. His magic feels raw and flayed, painful to the touch.

But even as he gets his breath back, he feels the sudden rise of Arthur’s chest. Arthur coughs, spitting up the rest of the water, and turns his head. Merlin stares, too shattered to turn him onto his side as he knows he should. Arthur is alive. Arthur is alive and moving and breathing, and that’s all that matters.

Arthur has stopped coughing now and is pushing himself upright, gasping for breath and looking absolutely bewildered. He begins running hands over himself, pressing against his stomach and his chest. He wriggles a finger into the bloody hole in his chainmail, probing underneath to find only tender new skin. He takes a moment to process this before he finally looks up.

“Merlin,” he says. “What did you do?”

And Merlin has to laugh, because he never expected to hear that voice say his name again. It’s either laugh or cry, because he may have saved Arthur this time but he is still on borrowed time and that time would run out someday and Merlin won't be able to save him then. He can't. He laughs until he sees how disturbed Arthur looks and then he realizes he’s crying anyway, that the laughter hadn’t stopped the tears from coming. He chokes on his next breath and wipes the tears away with his sleeve.

“Merlin?” Arthur says again, more tentatively, as if he’s wondering whether Merlin’s lost his mind.

“Arthur,” Merlin says, and he says it again just the pleasure of it. And then he’s thrown his arms around Arthur and he’s holding him tight and he’s shaking again. Arthur’s too taken aback to react immediately, but then he slowly wraps his arms around Merlin’s waist in return. It feels like a long time before Merlin can bring himself to let go.

“What happened?” Arthur tries again. “I was dead, Merlin. I know I was. There’s no coming back from something like that. And we didn’t even make it to the lake,” he says, gesturing to the shoreline several meters away. “What did you do?”

Merlin sniffs and wipes at his wet face again. “I—I healed you,” he says eventually. But Arthur looks at him long and hard and then shakes his head.

“No. No, you didn’t. You couldn’t, otherwise you’d have done it yesterday. What did you do?”

“Yes, I did. I healed you. That’s it.”

Merlin,” Arthur drawls, just the exasperated way he always did, but there was something hurt and despairing in his face.

“I just—” Merlin bites at his thumb, his mind foggy and slow and a deep, throbbing ache in the core of him making it hard for him to think of something to say, anything else to say. “Please, Arthur, you don’t want to know what I did. You don’t want to know what I do. I wish I didn’t know.”

Arthur reaches out and takes Merlin’s hand in his, squeezing it until Merlin looks at him. “No more secrets, Merlin. Please.”

Merlin’s tears spill over again, just when he thought he’d run dry. He tries to say something, but the words don’t come out right, so he stops to breath and then tries again. “I traded some of my life for yours.”

“What?” Arthur looks aghast. “No! You can’t—you can’t do that, Merlin. I don’t want you to die for me.” Merlin chokes out a laugh, shaking his head, and Arthur stops, confused. “Why are you still alive then?” he asks. “A life for a life, I’ve heard Gaius say it before. Balance. If I’m alive then you should be dead.”

Merlin shakes his head, trying to find the words to say what he needed to. He has to tell him. He has to. No more secrets. He presses the back of his hand to his mouth, fighting down nausea at the thought of it all, at the seeping wound that is his soul. “I only gave you some of my life,” he chokes out eventually.

“Some of it,” Arthur repeats. He runs a hand through his hair and Merlin doesn’t know who Arthur is more concerned for; himself for having a limited lifespan or Merlin for having cut his own short for his sake. “How much?”

“Fifty years or so,” Merlin whispers, a hysterical laugh pressing at his throat. He fights it down.

Arthur stares, uncomprehending. “Fifty?”

“Apparently I’ve got plenty to spare.” Merlin does laugh this time, just a little, and Arthur only looks more troubled. “Did Gaius tell you what the druids call me?” Merlin asks him, his voice high-pitched and shaky. “Emrys,” he says, without waiting for Arthur to answer. “They call me Emrys. They always have, but no one ever saw fit to tell me what it meant before.”

“What’s that?” Arthur asks, halting, like he isn’t sure he wants to hear the answer.

“Immortal.” Merlin can barely get the word out. It’s the first time he’s said it and it feels like a death knell of its own. “I’ve got plenty of years to spare for you,” he says. “You can have as many as you want. I certainly don’t need them all. I don’t—I don’t want—I don’t—”

And then he’s crying again, real gasping sobs, and Arthur’s arms are around him, Arthur’s hands on his back rubbing circles. Merlin can’t hear what Arthur’s saying over the sound of his own ragged breathing, but he feels Arthur’s breath on his temple, ruffling his hair, feels the rumble of Arthur’s voice in his chest. It’s soothing in a way, so he tries to focus on that instead of on the vast span of interminable years he can see stretching before him, empty and meaningless and alone.

Eventually he calms enough to hear Arthur murmuring, “Shh, Merlin. Shh, it’s alright. It’s alright, you’re alright. I’ve got you. It’s alright. You’ll be alright.” They’re just meaningless platitudes, the sort of things you say to anyone who’s upset over something you can’t actually fix, but he cleaves to them all the same, to the comfort Arthur offers him.

There’s a chill that runs over the back of his neck, startling him, and he hears Arthur’s sharp intake of breath. Merlin rallies himself enough to look up and sees Nimueh there. He’d forgotten all about her, had expected his hold on her spirit to have faded while he grappled with his magic. But there she is, wearing an look he can’t quite make sense of. It’s nowhere as cold as it was before, though, nor as cruel.

“Take heart, young warlock,” she says, looking as though she surprises even herself in saying it. “It is true that you will live beyond your time, and all those who inhabit it. But there is still a glimmer of hope for you.” She looks at Arthur, a small smile gracing her red lips that is infinitely more genuine than any expression Merlin had yet seen on her. “Your destiny is not a solitary one, Merlin. Emrys exists to serve the Once and Future King. You have ensured that the Once will come to fruition. But the Future is still to come.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur asks, a tremor in his voice. Merlin wonders if Arthur recognizes Nimueh, if he remembers the only other time they’d met, but if he does he says nothing of it. And he shows no fear when Nimueh steps forward to place her intangible hand against his cheek.

“You will live out your life, Arthur. The life that Merlin has gifted you,” she adds with a glance at Merlin. “But when you reach the end of that life, you will be given another. You will rise again, King Arthur Pendragon. When Albion is most in need, you will come to her aid. And Merlin will stand at your side then, two halves of one whole reunited.”

Nimueh stands back, looking upon them both with a strange sort of pride. “The story you have been a part of will live long in the minds of men,” she says. “I am glad to have had a part in it as well, however small. Be at peace with your fate, Merlin, for the spirits walk with you. And when Arthur’s time comes to pass into the next world and await his return, he will be with you as well. You will never truly be alone.”

With a last smile, Nimueh’s form dissolves, carried away on a light breeze until there’s nothing else of her. The two of them stay as they are for a long time, kneeling on the ground as the light fades around them. It’s not until the sun truly begins to set that Arthur shakes his head and then heaves himself to his feet. He reaches down for Merlin’s hand and Merlin looks up at him for a moment, limned in the golden sunset. And he knows that he will wait. The ragged edges of his soul flutter, yearning for unity but not so painful now, knowing the time will come when he will be whole again. Years may pass, decades, centuries, but they will pass and they will fade. And a new era will come and Arthur will reign once more. And Merlin will be there, whether he must wait a thousand years or more. For Arthur, he will.