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All the Laughter from Before

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1.
One story goes like this:

"There was an enemy sorcerer, whose son Uther had killed, and who was desperate to make Uther feel the same pain. And so the sorcerer wove a spell around Prince Arthur, and it killed him slowly over the course of a season. From May to August, Arthur had faded. And then Arthur's manservant, Merlin, realized that it was no ordinary illness, and he, being a great sorcerer himself, but good and kind, defended the prince, and saved his life.

"But alas, King Uther could not abide magic of any kind, and Prince Arthur's protests and the physician's pleas and Merlin's explanations fell on deaf ears. Merlin was killed that very night- burned alive for saving the prince, and the prince was locked in the dungeons, where he could not help his friend."

Like all stories there are two sides, and this is the other:

"There was once boy called Merlin, who came to the court to ensnare the prince in his grasp, for he was an evil wizard, determined to destroy all of Albion. He bated his time, and made the prince believe he was his friend, someone to be trusted until two Augusts after his arrival, the good King Uther Pendragon recognized that his son's illness was related to the boy who never left his son's side for a moment. When the evil wizard Merlin was burned, Prince Arthur emerged from confinement healthy and strong again."

What really happened is a little less glamorous than either account.


2.
Arthur has been sick for a few months. Gaius has tried every potion and tincture and salve he knows of, and though it seems to be a very minor ailment, Arthur is slowly losing his strength, and is almost as pale as Morgana.

Merlin teases the prince that he'll have to start wearing flowing gowns, and that if he loses any more weight the breeches that once fit so snugly will flow wide like skirts in any case.

Arthur usually gives Merlin a doleful look, and then hits him upside the head. Gaius always quickly hides his smiles, but they are funny together.

It turns out that it is magical, but not intentional- in May Arthur had gone with Merlin to Ealdor, to visit Hunith. Apparently, being Arthur and Merlin, they had not stayed upon the beaten path.

"I believe you passed through a fairy circle," Gaius explains. "It's fairly simple to cure- it's draining you of your strength, using your energy for the forest, but I think- "

"Arthur is strengthening trees?" Merlin demands, gleeful, shooting a look at Arthur.

"It's curable?" Arthur demands, reaching out and swatting at Merlin, who dances out of range. "Well?" he demands of Merlin, who rolls his eyes. "I can make it a royal command, Merlin," Arthur threatens with a smirk.

"Royal prat," Merlin snorts, and then his eyes go golden.

Arthur had informed Merlin that he was fully aware of his powers a full seven months ago, shouting at him for being uncommonly foolish (even for Merlin). In the months since, Merlin has become less skittish about using magic, and Gaius has found an unexpected ally in the prince. Arthur oscillated between wanting Merlin to train his powers and determinedly keeping the magic a secret.

"I thought I'd been- hiding it," Merlin had protested weakly, book lying on the floor by his bed and his bedsheets twisting themselves in agitated worry like a grandmother wringing her hands.

"Merlin, you are utter rubbish at everything," Arthur had informed him, batting away an anxious kerchief. "How you are still alive I have no idea."

Merlin had thrown himself at Arthur and Gaius had hastily shut his door and then gone to find something to do. In the other end of the castle.

Merlin reaches out now and wipes at the air in front of Arthur's face. The air sparks green around the gold of Merlin's hand, and they are all so absorbed watching it that nobody notices Uther until he is roaring,

"What is this treachery?"

Arthur startles and moves to turn, to try to defend, but Merlin grabs him and holds him in place, muttering, "I'm almost- "

"Merlin, you idiot," Arthur grinds out, the line of his back angry and his chin raised to full Pendragon stature, but he stays still. Merlin exhales slowly, and Gaius realizes Merlin's fear is that he will have somehow only given the fairy magic a foothold if he doesn't erase it all. Fairy magic is vindictive when irritated (they have learned that the hard way), and Merlin will not take that chance. Finally, ageless moments later, Arthur shimmers green and Merlin sparkles gold and then he steps back and his lips quirk inappropriately and he says,

"Well, if I'm going to die, I might as well save you one last time."

It all goes rather chaotic from there.

Uther grabs Arthur by the back of his shirt and throws him back at the knights behind him, who hold fast to their prince but do not look at Arthur, faces a careful blank as he staggers for his footing and strains against them.

"You have bewitched my son," Uther snarls, and Gaius thinks that that's the most laughable conclusion anyone has ever reached (or would be, if it didn't mean death).

"I saved him," Merlin snaps back, face flushing angrily.

"Merlin, shut up!" Arthur shouts.

"Take my son to the dungeons, lock him up- he is not in his right mind," Uther instructs.

It takes four knights to wrestle Arthur out of the room, even in his weakened state.

"Sire- " Gaius begins, chest tight with fear because he knows what comes now: he has had twenty two years of experience with this.

He knows that Uther does not believe Arthur to be bewitched: they have both seen enough people entranced to recognize the signs, and Arthur is Uther's son, and it has been two years since Merlin entered their lives. But Arthur willingly, deliberately, and knowingly shielded and protected Merlin, a sorcerer: such a crime is punishable by death. It is tantamount to treason.

But Arthur is the Crown Prince, and he is also Uther's son- but he is also Igraine's son, which Gaius thinks today may be more important. Uther cannot kill his last link to his lost wife.

"You have nothing to say to me," Uther warns, and oh, Gaius has quite a bit he will say, but suddenly he is without words. He stares at Merlin, who smiles a little apologetically.

Merlin, who never learned how to disappear because he couldn't see the point. This is the bloody point! To escape!

Uther grabs Merlin by the back of his neck and shoves his dagger under Merlin's throat, and Gaius cannot understand why the boy does not fight back, but Merlin seems- paralyzed.

Terrified, and… of course. He is protecting Gaius by not allowing Gaius to speak, but it would have been Arthur here, defending Merlin, and Arthur is gone. And this is the worst- this is what he and Arthur and even Hunith have been nagging Merlin about: do not let Uther catch you.

Uther drags him down the stairs, bellowing for a pyre and a fire and stake, and Morgana flies out of a hallway, Guinevere close on her heels, both of them horrified.

"Uther- you cannot!"

"Restrain her!" Uther barks, and knights advance on Morgana, who stops shouting and starts shrieking as only she can, vicious and unyeilding even as she is dragged to her chambers, and Gaius takes a moment to be terrified of her. If she should someday become what she promises to be, Morgana will be awesome in her power.

Guinevere follows, taking his hand and they stand at the top of the steps as Uther bellows about evils of sorcery, and false allies. Gaius wonders if he knows that he seems mad, but then Merlin is lashed to the stake and doused in cooking oils, and he stares at Uther hard. Gaius tries to see if his eyes are golden- prays for his eyes to be golden. Gaius tightens his hand around Guinevere's and she sobs drily. Neither look away as the fire surges up from the kindling towards Merlin, who starts coughing and hacking and then screaming as he vanishes from sight.

"Merlin, Merlin, oh my God, Merlin," Guinevere chants in horror, but Gaius, though he can speak now (and does not want to consider why), stays silent.

He wishes the damn fool would do something, but of course not- Merlin will die to protect Arthur- if he vanishes, Uther might be angry enough to do something rash. Merlin will not risk it.

When the fire dies away there is a collapsed skeleton, and Gaius closes his eyes and tries not to vomit.


3.
She enlists Atherol and Elmar, two stable boys who knew and liked Merlin to help her collect the bones and hide them in a satchel.

She holds it tightly, fingers white-knuckled as she approaches Morgana's room, which is guarded by two knights. They wave her through, though, and Gwen looks at Morgana, collapsed on the bed.

"Did you- "

"I did," Morgana affirms. Her voice is raw, and Gwen sees that her hands are bruised and scabbed and raw: she must have raged against the door for an hour.

"He says he will keep Arthur locked away for a week."

"Uther is a brute," Morgana sneers. Her dark eyes fall to Gwen's satchel, and her face crumples.

"Is that- ?"

"I thought- we might- we might bury him," Gwen manages, the backs of her eyes hot and her nose stinging as the tears start up again. She really is very tired of crying; of being forced to mourn those she loves because of Uther.

"Arthur- " Morgana begins. "Arthur should…" she trails off, wrapping her arms around her. She knows as well as Gwen that Arthur will be watched every moment of every day, and if they want to bury Merlin they will have to do so without Arthur.

Gwen lays the bag on the foot of the bed and they sit at the head, curled together and staring at it.

Gwen cannot believe this- that this is all she has left of Merlin.

That he is gone.


4.
They come to him in the deep night, and he blinks at the two young women. Both look exhausted, with the air of the grieving about them, and in the darker one's hand is a bag.

"He deserves a burial," the pale one says, almost regally. She wets her lips with her tongue, and then says, pleadingly, "please? He was our friend, our dear friend, and- "

Father Halsey suspects that these are the remains of the boy who was burned for sorcery, but the families of the executed have been coming to his chapel outside of Camelot for nigh two decades. He has long gotten over the conflict of giving criminals their last rites, as so many were innocent, and all were loved. Who is he to deny them a final resting place more comforting than the life they were taken from?

He nods, and they go out back. They both help him dig a grave, and he fetches holy water and begins the service.

It is the dead of night, and there are only two girls to mourn, who cry silently and Father Halsey wishes that God would recall Uther Pendragon.

They are all ready for the prince to take the throne.


5.
A week after the manservant Merlin is burnt, Arthur is let out of the dungeons.

He is pronounced "cured" by the physician, but he is still slight from his illness.

This morning is the first time they've seen him in nearly a month.

Ywain has seen the expression on Arthur's face before- he has trained with Arthur for near a decade. It never bodes well when Arthur enters a fight looking like a harbinger of death.

The knights all do their best at morning practice, fearing retribution, fearing wrath. For the first time, fearing the prince. Ywain wonders if they expect Uther to surface in Arthur.

Arthur is deliberative, graceful, and chivalrous. He is weaker than they are used to, but pushing himself as hard as he would push them. He does not win every fight, but he wins enough to gain the respect of the knight-hopefuls.

Ywain looks around at his brethren; those who have known Arthur for years, and sees what he feels reflected on their faces: He is still their leader, their champion.

"He's different, though," Idris comments quietly as he and Ywain come back from practice a month later. Arthur is nearly back in peak condition, and merrily thrashing them all. "I should not want to be the King."

"He was merely a manservant," Caindrith protests in a hushed tone, as though perhaps Arthur will hear them. Last week Sir Kenton dismissed Merlin and Arthur's hand had clenched around his wine goblet and Lady Morgana had thrown her knife at him.

It had embedded in his shoulder, and the feast had ended in chaos, but everyone now fears that Lady Morgana's temper, and knows not to dismiss Merlin Emrys, not even in death.

"He saved Arthur's life," Idris replies, as though that is all that matters.

There are two stories. The one that Uther clearly is trying to spread, and the other that Lady Morgana's maid, Gwen, is quietly spreading. Gwen's story is far more successful at capturing the people of Camelot's imaginations.

Little things change. Arthur says "my people" when speaking of state affairs. It is still "our land", though. Ywain never noticed that- that Arthur includes the landed and unlanded knights in ownership of Albion. That Arthur seems to think the king is merely a stewardship- that the land belongs to those who live upon it.

Uther seems to fade as Arthur grows stronger, and Ywain wonders if he never saw this coming: if Uther never thought one day Arthur would cease to be merely a prince and start being a king in waiting.

He became a knight to protect the realm. He never expected to serve a king whom he would gladly die for: now he looks forward to the day that he does.


6.
Hunith stares uncomprehending at the letter that Gaius sent her for long moments, and then starts shrieking.

She sent him there- she wanted him safe.

She threw him to the wolves. She killed her son.

Years later, after she is gone, children will say that you can hear Hunith still screaming for her slain child. Shh, listen? Can't you hear it? They say if you listen too long, your ears bleed. If a pregnant woman hears it, she knows her child is going to die before her.

It's the truth. Listen.


7.
"I will not allow my people to be punished for laws they do not understand!" Arthur says evenly. Some of the outer territories are not paying taxes, and word of witchcraft is filtering in. Uther wants to go and show them the might of Camelot. Morgana is less than surprised that Arthur has a different idea. "We'll find another way- send messengers with the new laws to the outer reaches of the kingdom. I won't needlessly slaughter the innocent. And their ignorance is innocence. They can't read the laws, and it's not as though we send messengers to explain these things."

Arthur turns and walks out, and Morgana stares after him, then looks to Uther.

Uther looks withdrawn, pale and shaken. Morgana wonders what it would be like to realize that your only child is only waiting for you to die; had assumed responsibility for a kingdom long before you were willing to relinquish it.

"My Lord- " she begins, only to realize she doesn't know how to finish it. You shouldn't have killed Merlin, he was all that kept Arthur in check, or You did this to yourself, giving him so much control or Do you really think him capable of cold-blooded murder? die in her throat. They are all legitimate- all true and reasonable.

He looks up at her, smiles faintly. They both remember a time, before Merlin, when Arthur stormed and had tantrums. There was greatness there, lurking under the surface, but in the months and years since Merlin had inserted himself into Arthur's life, Arthur changed.

He strides now, rather than storms. He feels the weight of responsibility and shoulders the burden, he has become- people who had once worried about Arthur's rule now yearn for it.

It has taken Merlin's death to turn Arthur into something colder, more determined, but Morgana can admit to herself that she's known it was there.

No one suffers any illusions that the knights do not swear their loyalty entirely to Arthur. Morgana suspects the only reason Camelot's forces have been quiet is because Uther fears giving an order to which Arthur might object.

She leaves, sweeps out. She would be lying if she said that she is not a bit satisfied, smug. Arthur is a king she can love, respect: Uther deserves this.

She dreams of Merlin. He is trying to tell her something, but she cannot hear him.

Three months after Merlin's death, Morgana throws a book across the room without touching it.

Gwen stares at it, then at her, and they both pale.

"Get Arthur," Morgana says shakily.

Arthur listens to her incredulously. "Do it again," he demands.

"I can't," she says, "and that is not the point! This is not some sort of entertainment, Arthur, this is serious! What if- "

Arthur raises his eyebrows, and she raises hers back. "He killed Merlin," she says finally.

"He won't kill anyone else," Arthur almost snarls. She forgives him, and Gwen puts a hand on his arm. The three of them stand quietly, united in the agony of grief.

Gaius hands her a book silently a week later.

"It was Merlin's," he says softly. "He would- I think he would like you to use it. And- the dreams, Morgana."

She nods. Once she stopped fighting, she realized her dreams are of things yet to come. And not all the things that are coming are terrifying.

Every night she hopes to dream of Merlin.

She never does.


8.
Gawain of Orkney arrives at court, all golden skin, freckles, and bright red hair. He and Arthur start beating on each other almost immediately, which Gwen recognizes means that they're best friends.

Arthur needs someone else- needs a companion. She and Morgana can only do so much, and there is already enough gossip about the three of them which makes her blush.

Gawain's mother was Arthur's mother's half-sister, or some such. They are related, in any event, cousins, almost equal in age.

"You've crippled me," Gawain announces. "Look, Gwen, see how I am crippled."

"You're walking fine," she points out mildly. It is the first nice day of spring, six months since Merlin was killed.

"He hit me on my backside," Gawain informs her darkly, collapsing into the grass beside her. "He is a brute."

"Shut up," Arthur snorts, shoving at him with his foot. Gawain oomphs and shoots Gwen a conspiratorial smile.

She likes him. He is friendly and open and uncalculated. He is loyal to Arthur to almost a fault, but smart and an equal match for him when they spar.

Gwen and Morgana agree that he is good for Arthur, and different enough from Merlin not to feel like a replacement.

It takes Gawain two months to stop by her when she's mending on the stairs outside. He leans down and asks, seriously,

"Who did he lose?"

"He lost- Merlin. His name was Merlin," she says. "He was his manservant- his friend. He used magic to save Arthur's life, and Uther had him killed, and Arthur locked in the dungeons so he couldn't interfere."

Gawain's mother is a sorceress. It's the worst-kept secret at Camelot, and a sign as sure as any that Arthur is the one in control, that a sorceress's son, noble or not, relation or not, is a knight in Camelot's court.

Gawain's eyes go distant, and he nods. "I wondered why he doesn't have a manservant."

"Don't- don't bring it up," she says quietly. "He doesn't talk about it."

"Never?"

"No," Gwen says. "I think if he started, he would never stop."

Gawain nods, and then straightens as Arthur crosses the courtyard. His walk suggests purpose: a quest, perhaps. There is a beast terrorizing a few towns south of Camelot; Arthur likes that sort of thing, though Gwen has to strain to think of the last time he went hunting.

She sighs, and then looks about the courtyard. The children shriek and chase each other, darting around adults. It wasn't so long ago she was doing that. She wishes she could be that young and carefree one last time.

The children miss Merlin- they have no one who laughs in the stocks, now. They all comment on it, sometimes when they find rotten fruit ("This would've been perfect for Merlin!"), sometimes when the stock's latest occupant swears at them. It seems all of Camelot misses Merlin- people whom Gwen has never met ask her to pass on their condolences, even now.

And now when Gwen sits on the staircase, mending or sewing or simply enjoying the sunshine, children and strangers, newcomers to Camelot come to ask her about Merlin, and she finds herself the guardian of his legacy, fighting against Uther's lies.

So she tells them about how Merlin made everyone laugh, had been the worst servant but had made the prince smile. That he had been loyal and drank poison and he and Arthur had been inseparable for two years. She tells them about how Arthur made Merlin wear ridiculous hats, and that some days Merlin would wear them just to see Arthur laugh in surprise. She viciously rebuts the rumors that Arthur was spelled by Merlin, that it was all a spell. Eventually, people stop suggesting it.

Some days she looks up and sees Arthur paused, listening, and sees in his eyes the same aching grief that she feels.


10.
"For the pain," Gaius says quietly, handing Uther the potion for his shoulder.

"They're all just waiting for me to die," Uther remarks, taking it and looking out the window.

"Yes," Gaius agrees.

"I never meant- "

"He has become what you made him," Gaius interrupts, watching the prince direct a royal guard, Gawain of Orkney at his side. He takes in the plaza, watches Guinevere place a bouquet of wildflowers down in the spot where Merlin's pyre was constructed, Morgana's hand curve over her shoulder and the two women turn to look at Arthur, who has stopped and is staring hard at the flowers, Gawain's hand firm on his shoulder. "He will be a good king, Sire. His people love him."

"His people," Uther repeats, and then nods almost to himself. "It is a terrible thing, to have one's child usurp one."

"It is a worse thing to see one's child burn," Gaius retorts, and leaves without asking for dismissal.


11.
The dragon shifts wearily. Somewhere, beyond everything, Merlin Emrys waits for the cosmos to correct itself.

If only people would listen to him, this kind of thing would not happen. But no.

They never do.


12.
"What did you say his name was?"

"Lancelot."

"Lance a lot? That's actually his name? You're not taking the piss?"

"No, I'm - why would I make that up?" Arthur demands, almost indignantly. "We have to open up the knights. If nobles want to be knights then they'll have to work along side common people- I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to protect their country."

"Fear of uprising, mostly," Gawain replies, leaning against a battlement. "Nobody wants to arm the masses."

"I'm going to."

"That's why you'll be legend," Gawain replies easily. He believes it, too. He's not sure, though, that Arthur does.

"Arthur? Morgana requests an audience?" Gwen asks from the doorway. She smiles at him, and Gawain smiles back.

"What do you think of bringing this Lance fellow back?" he asks.

Her smile is brighter. "Really?"

"There's your answer," Gawain laughs as Arthur ducks away, tugging Gwen along with him.

Someday.


13.
"He's going to die," she says bluntly. "He's going to die, his heart will fail him, and you'll be king. There was snow outside, and he didn't look much older than he is now."

Arthur's mouth works and Gwen lays a hand on his arm comfortingly.

"Arthur," Morgana prompts.

"All right," he acknowledges, before turning on his heel and leaving.

"What was that?" Morgana demands of Gwen.

"I haven't any idea. Maybe he needs time. Uther is his father, after all."

Morgana nods faintly. He needs to get ready. He doesn't have Merlin, and she doesn't think she's strong enough to deal with everything she dreams of.


14.
The boy stands quietly next to the grave. Not a boy, a young man. He speaks softly, sitting and pulling his red cloak about himself for warmth.

He stays the entire night.

Father Halsey sighs, and goes to bed.


15.
A year and eight months after Merlin's execution, Uther suffers failure of the heart.

All of Albion waits with baited breath.

Arthur simply sits in his chambers, staring at the fireplace as it snows outside.

"You are such a mess," Merlin says. "And it's freezing in here. Can't you light your own fire?"

"Shut up," Arthur retorts.

Several moments pass.

Arthur freezes, replays the last minute, and concludes that he's gone mad.

Brilliant. He's about to get the throne and he's lost his mind.

And apparently his cracked brain is going to torture him with Merlin.

Morgana and Gawain will never let him hear the end of this, and Gwen will just look at him with sadly disappointed eyes.

"I like the beard, though," Merlin's voice continues. "Though it might itch. Is it worse than stubble burn? Still, interesting sensations, trying new things…"

Arthur blinks, and frowns at the empty fireplace. The voice continues. Because his hallucination is very close to what he remembers Merlin to be: annoying.

"See, I honestly thought I was dead, you know. I mean, burning. Fire. It hurt, I don't mind telling you. But I couldn't get out, and…well, everything happened quickly, don't you think? Maybe I am an idiot, and would you look at me?"

Arthur calmly looks at his hallucination of Merlin. Bit of stubble- nice touch. Hair is longer, a bit curly, actually. Apparently his hallucination is also going to be his wank material. He's sure his future queen will understand.

"You know that when you repeal the anti-magic laws all of magic is going to crash down on your head, don't you?" Merlin continues, crouching down beside him. "Morgana isn't strong enough to protect you, and you don't have anyone else. You're lucky I'm back."

"I don't have anyone," Arthur agrees quietly.

"No- no, that's not- do you think you're seeing things?" Merlin demands. "Oh for- wait here."

Morgana, Gwen, and Gawain all come into the room.

"It's him, Arthur," Morgana insists, quiet, fierce joy in her voice. "He's - he's here."

"I promise," Gwen says, dropping down in front of him and taking his cold hands in both of her warm ones, squeezing with a smile. "He's- it's Merlin."

"It's a scrawny chap with black hair and a neck scarf who has gold eyes," Gawain said.

Arthur concludes that he's hallucinating all of them as well, and wishes they would leave him alone.

The hallucination of Merlin pushes the hallucination of Gwen aside and takes his hands. He feels real enough, but Arthur won't be fooled.

"You're such a prat," Merlin whispers affectionately. "I cannot believe I died for such a prat. Arthur, you bastard, it's me."

"You're dead."

"Balance restored. Apparently all the times the dragon told me to let your father die were times your father was meant to die. And since I cocked them all up- I had to die. Universe had to have a life, except it wasn't supposed to be me, apparently, so now your father is dead I'm- not."

Arthur looks at him. Raises an eyebrow.

"Okay, yes, fine, it sounds mad, but I swear, Arthur, this is destiny- I'm supposed to protect you, and- " he breaks off in frustration. "Will you guys give us a minute?"

There's the sound of footsteps, and then the door closing, and Arthur stares at Merlin.

"You're here."

"Yes."

"If I had killed him- you would have- "

"But that's not you," Merlin replies, and kisses him, and Arthur has missed this, but there's no way he can be hallucinating because he'd forgotten.

He'd forgotten how sharp Merlin's teeth were, how his tongue plundered and his kiss robbed Arthur of breath. Arthur plunges his fingers into Merlin's longer hair and kisses him back, fierce and hungry and angry and terrified that if he stops it will vanish.

"I'm not leaving you," Merlin promises over and over, pressing it into the hollow of Arthur's neck, to his chest, to his ribs, his abdomen, his groin, his cock. Presses the promise into his lips until Arthur believes, and comes with a sob.


16.
This is what happened: the Old Religion demanded the life of Uther Pendragon in order to even the cosmic balance. And the Old Magic waited for a long time, until its vessel had matured.

And then the vessel had refused to take the life of Uther Pendragon, despite prompting, and yet the debt of life had to be satisfied.

And Old Magic and Uther Pendragon could not coexist, not in any functional manner, and so Merlin Emrys had died.

And yet the Old Magic had scooped him up, plucked him from the fire and placed the bones of another in the fire.

He had lain in Avalon, asleep and waiting for the moment he could return: the moment Uther Pendragon passed from this world to the next.

Uther Pendragon's last breath woke Merlin Emrys from his slumber, and as the dead man's skin cooled, the warlock found himself in Camelot. Specifically, in front of the dragon, who was getting quite weary of destiny, to be perfectly honest.

"Look, this makes no sense," the young warlock insists.

"You should listen to me," the dragon retorts. "And find clothes. The young Pendragon- ah, no, the only Pendragon, now- is going to be very dubious about this, and obstinate."

"Shock me," the warlock snorts. The newly-awakened are always very obnoxious.

"Go on, fulfill your destiny," the dragon sighs.


17.
There are things to deal with.

Merlin has to fight back all of the sorcerers and witches and wizards who want vengeance, and it takes him a full year to establish his supremacy.

Arthur remarks that he thinks it's a bit much when Merlin affects the weather and glows entirely golden, and Merlin invites Arthur to bite him.

Hunith is dead, having died from grief not two months after receiving word that her son was dead, and Merlin is inconsolable for a week, and wretched and guilty for years to come.

Gaius passes away peacefully in his sleep a year after Merlin returns.

Arthur has to take a wife, and Gwen accepts with a bright smile. She doesn't care about stubble burn on Arthur's thighs, and he doesn't ask about where she spends her nights once Lancelot returns to Camelot.

They are happy. Albion prospers for thirty years before it all goes horribly awry.


18.
"You're such a prat," Merlin hisses, hands covered in Arthur's blood as they sit in the shallows, watching reality fold back and Avalon reveal itself.

"You could stay," Arthur whispers raggedly. Mordred is slain, Gwen is gone, Morgana is gone- Camelot isn't anymore, and Merlin can feel the earth shift and time press on. They have to pass out of this world.

"I promised," Merlin replies finally, lifting Arthur and they walk on the water into Avalon.

Merlin turns to look at Arthur, who is twenty-two again, with everything in front of him.

"I promised I wasn't going anywhere, never again."

"What are we going to do here?" Arthur demands. "What fun can paradise be?"

"I'm going to pretend you didn't just ask that question," Merlin informs him. "Because there is so much wrong with it."

Arthur grins, and then looks back, to where the battlefield was.

"We arsed up," he says finally. "Somewhere."

"I let Mordred live," Merlin replies. "Back then, I should have let them kill him, but I had to save you. So really, this is your fault."

Arthur hits him upside the head. "Shut up, Merlin."

Merlin shrugs. "Someday the world will need you, and we'll all return. Do it right this time."

"Oh, you know this, do you?" Arthur scoffs, heading down into the ruins to investigate. A century passes with each step he takes, and Merlin sighs.

"Will you just accept that I am a powerful being of infinite knowledge and power- "

"And limited vocabulary?" Arthur demands from somewhere far ahead. Merlin sighs again and follows him.

He doesn't think Avalon will hurt her king, but this is Arthur, and he does draw trouble like honey draws flies.

Merlin follows him, because it's what he does. For all of eternity.