“So,” Merlin says, wringing his hands. “I need to tell you something. About...me. And magic.”
Arthur blinks at him. Droplets of water make little pat sounds as they drip from his hair and burst on the brick walkway, and Arthur rather thinks the fact that he is, apparently, back from the dead and soaking wet should be reason enough for Merlin to table this nonsense until he's toweled off a bit, but he's blocking the door and staring at him so anxiously the nerves are washing off of him in waves, so clearly, Arthur's alone in this opinion. “I haven't left my mind in the lake, Merlin, I already know you're a – ”
“It's not that,” Merlin interrupts. He's started bouncing his leg a bit, toe tapping out a nervous drumbeat on the front step. “It's just that it's – magic is – different now. It's, ah, well – it's not quite as – the thing is – oh, hell, I should probably just show you,” he decides, miserable, and pushes open the door.
The first thing Arthur notices is the bluebird perched on the rafters. Then he notices the second bluebird. And the third. And then the eight thousand other fucking bluebirds fluttering about the cottage, dodging droves of squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks and fucking deer ambling through Merlin's parlor, sniffing the furniture, scampering to and fro, and – tidying up?
“Surprise?” Merlin shrugs.
Standing naked under a stream of warm water in a room that gleams white and silver, Arthur's racing through an obstacle course of countless questions he's too exhausted to address properly – where does the water come from who heats it what are these bottles on the shelf how is Merlin still here how is he still here oh god where is he – but there's one he can't manage to escape:
When Merlin shooed all the animals out of the room before teaching Arthur how to use this contraption, he'd gone red and mumbled that they'd been so reluctant to leave because they were used to “helping.”
What the hell does that mean?
Arthur is keenly aware of his clothes. They're thin and soft and smell a bit like the soap from the shower, and he feels like he's sitting in his underclothes, but Merlin's wearing much the same thing (of course he is, these are Merlin's, and isn't that interesting) so he supposes the fashions have changed somewhat over time.
Merlin slides a mug of something that smells warm and herbal across the table towards him. “I'm guessing you have questions?”
“Is this a...potion?” Arthur asks, eyeing the liquid, suspicious.
“What? Er, no. It's just tea. Sorry, I sort of forgot it only came to England a few hundred years ago. It's good, though, you really ought to try it.” Merlin's mouth twists in a small smile. “Anything else?”
A bluebird lands on Merlin's shoulder and nips at his hair. Arthur points to it. “That.”
Merlin colors rather spectacularly and runs a hand over his face. “Oh, God. Look, it'll be much easier to explain once you've learned a bit more about how things work now, maybe that should wait – ”
Arthur crosses his arms. “I want to hear about it now.”
Merlin sighs. “Fine. Just...look. Magic's a bit weird, it turns out. It doesn't behave like we used to think it did. It's not a constant.” He pauses a moment, gesticulating in the empty air for a bit. A robin perches on his finger the moment his hand stills. “Do you remember hearing stories about sorcerers and witches back in Camelot? False ones, I mean, told to frighten children?”
“And when you met real sorcerers and witches, didn't they turn out to have pretty much the same powers as the ones in the stories?”
“Yeah, that's not a coincidence. And not because the stories had any truth to them – at least, not directly – it's complicated.” Merlin sucks in a deep breath. “Magic comes from stories. That's why they hold such power over us, they're the only purely magical thing there is. But stories change. Back in our time, the stories said sorcerers got their magic by tapping into the inner workings of nature, or worshipping old gods, so that's what we did. Those stories are still around, but that's not what people here think of when they think of magic anymore, so magic...moved on. It works differently now. You'll understand this a lot better once you know about movies, but back in the thirties, some bloke named Walt Disney decided that magic meant having an army of cheery little woodland creatures hanging around you all the time, and that story gained so much power I've been stuck with this lot ever since.” The bluebird on his shoulder chirrups happily. Merlin strokes its neck.
For lack of a better idea, Arthur takes a swig of tea. It is good. He'd resent that if he properly noticed, but his brain's only offering white noise and muffled panic at the moment, so he just takes another sip. “So you can't...control things anymore?” he manages to ask after a spell.
“Oh, no, I definitely can. But since the mid-nineties I've had to wave a stick about to get anything done.”
Arthur decides not to tug on that thread just yet. Something clicks. Only a few hundred years ago – surely that doesn't mean – “How long have I been gone?”
Merlin winces. “You won't like it.”
“I don't like a lot of things. I don't like you. I've still got to deal with them.”
To Arthur's surprise, Merlin grins, his face splitting with it like a sunbeam slanting through a crack in a crumbling stone wall. “What are you smiling about?”
He shakes his head, smiles harder. “Nothing, it's...I guess I've sort of missed hearing you insult me, that's all.”
Something warm creeps from Arthur's stomach to his throat. It must be the tea. He swallows it down. “Wonderful. I'll do it again if you don't answer the question.”
Merlin nods, grimaces at the tabletop. Arthur feels it when he looks at him. “By my count, it's been around fifteen hundred years.”
“...Oh.” The chirps and squeaks from Merlin's woodland entourage trail off. Arthur could swear they're watching him. The robin on Merlin's finger looks almost sympathetic when it cocks its head towards him, and it's just surreal enough that it lets Arthur feel something besides the urge to dive back in the lake and try to swim home. “Then how are you still – ”
“Right.” Each breath he takes now feels more frantic, and he realizes his hands are shaking half a second before he drops the mug. “Shit!” he yelps, as scalding liquid splashes over his hand and the ceramic shatters on the tile. He moves to pick it up again, to do – to do something, but Merlin reaches out and grabs his hand, stilling it.
“Don't worry,” Merlin rushes out. “They'll take care of it.” Before Arthur can ask what the hell he means, six or seven field mice scurry over and nudge the broken pieces into a dustpan held in the mouth of a dewy-eyed doe, while two squirrels mop up the tea with their tails, looking entirely too chipper about it. A floppy-eared brown and white rabbit hops on the table holding a washcloth between its teeth, nosing at him hopefully. Numbly, Arthur takes it and dries off. The rabbit seems pleased. Arthur doesn't know what to think about that. Truth be told, he's more or less completely focused on the fact that Merlin's still gripping his hand. It's...nice. Comforting.
He doesn't know what to think about that either.
When he speaks again, his voice comes out small. “Merlin, how am I here?”
Merlin smiles like his heart is breaking. “I don't know. When you – when you died, the dragon told me you'd be back when Albion's need was greatest, but compared to today, the need has been pretty damn great before. In the 1930s, I thought for sure – ” He trails off. Takes a breath. “I've learned a lot about magic since then. It always comes back to stories – heroes' tales, imagination, legends and myths. So, my best guess is that you're here because that's just how the story is supposed to go.”
Arthur nods faintly. That'll have to do. After a long moment, Merlin squeezes his hand, and when he lets go, suddenly Arthur feels more exhausted than he can stand. “I think I'd like to sleep now. For a bit.”
“Yeah, of course,” Merlin says, and rises. “I've kept a room made up for you.”
Arthur gets up to follow him, then gives a massive start when he realizes what Merlin just said. “Thank you,” he mumbles, and his tongue trips over the words. “For...being here.”
The corner of Merlin's mouth quirks upwards, and he doesn't look quite so heartbroken anymore. “I could say the same to you.”
When Arthur wakes, he doesn't know where he is. Then he rolls over and finds himself face-to-face with a chipmunk perched on the bedside table. It squeaks cheerfully at him, hops to the bed and nuzzles at his cheek, then scurries away underneath the door.
This is going to take some getting used to.
He staggers out to the kitchen a few minutes later, and nearly turns on his heel and goes back to bed, except he can't move. Merlin's standing at the stove, wearing pajamas and...singing, in a sort of lilting, wordless tune. All around him, songbirds swarm, dropping ingredients – including, disturbingly, eggs – into the pan, assorted rodents march dishes in a steady procession from the cabinet to the table. The whole lot of them squeak and dance along in perfect time to whatever the hell is coming out of Merlin's mouth as they go about their chores, gazing at Merlin with sickening adoration writ plain on their fuzzy little faces.
“Am I interrupting?”
Merlin startles and nearly dumps the contents of the pan over the head of the nearest groundhog. “Er, good morning,” he stammers. There's a moment's heavy silence. “They, ah, like to help,” he explains, the tips of his ears burning bright.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “I see. And do they mainly help with the cooking, or the performance?”
The redness spreads to Merlin's cheeks. “They have more fun when we sing,” he mumbles.
“Well, don't stop on my account,” Arthur smirks, taking a seat with a flourish. “Cooking or singing. I'm just famished enough to stomach your attempt at food, and I could do with a laugh.”
“Oh, piss off,” Merlin grumbles, turning back to the stove, clanging the pan against the stovetop loud enough to wake the dead. Grinning, Arthur absently strokes the ears of the nearest rabbit and watches Merlin be angry with him.
It's good to be back.
“Catch,” calls Merlin from the kitchen as he washes dishes alongside a small army of humming hedgehogs, but makes no move to actually throw anything. Arthur's about to ask him what the hell he's on about when a box drops from the ceiling and smacks into his lap. A pair of ducks quack happily at him from the rafters. He glares at them and opens the box.
Whatever's inside is flat and silver and embossed with a bitten-into apple. “What is this?”
“Just open it.”
He does. It glows white. Magic, he supposes. After a moment, the whiteness switches to a picture of a dramatic mountain landscape, then, in the center, there appears a small picture of a sword, the words Arthur Pendragon, and below that, Enter password. “Do I need to...say a magic word, or something?”
Merlin chuckles, then walks over and sits next to him on the couch. “No, just – type in I am a huge prat. No spaces. Then hit the return key,” he says, looking entirely too pleased with himself.
Arthur furrows his brow, but does as Merlin says, seeking out each letter one by one and pressing down, uncomfortably aware that he's missing something. The picture changes again. “Now what?”
Merlin reaches over and swipes his finger across the device and clicks on a multicolored circle, and the picture changes once more. “Now I'm going to teach you how to use the Internet. It's...think of it like a library, where anybody can write a book and put it in for other people to find. A lot's changed in the past fifteen hundred years, and I'm certainly happy to answer any questions you have, but this might be more helpful for some things. Besides, it'll be a good crash course into modern life. I've bookmarked some things...here,” he says, pointing to something reading Future Stuff, “mostly about history and technology and the like. And if you've got a question about something else, you can just type it in that bar there.” Arthur's mind's gone cross-eyed. Merlin claps him on the shoulder and stands up. “That should be plenty to keep you occupied while I run to the market. Have fun!”
As Merlin sweeps out of the cottage, the throng of songbirds chirping a goodbye, Arthur becomes increasingly certain that Merlin's playing some sort of trick on him. He clicks on the folder Merlin pointed out to him, and scanning through the dozens of topics – The Complete History of Britain, The Beginner's Guide to Democracy, Computer Skills for Dummies – he feels lost in the woods. The feeling is only accelerated by the forest's worth of animals staring at him, sizing him up. Under the gaze of their hundreds of beady eyes, Arthur swiftly realizes his most pressing question, and letter by letter, taps it out:
Who is Walt Disney?
Merlin returns within the hour. Arthur is waiting.
“Set anything on fire while I was gone?” he asks, toeing out of his boots.
Arthur takes a moment to savor this. “Nothing at all, Cinderella.”
Merlin does a spectacular impression of a statue of a man halfway through taking off his shoes. “Oh, God,” he whimpers under his breath.
“I can't imagine why you neglected to mention that your powers come from princess magic,” Arthur smirks, reclining lazily. “Or that all those stories you spoke of were written for little girls. It's not as though I could take you any less seriously.”
“I am this close – this close – to chucking you back in the lake,” Merlin threatens, stalking off to the kitchen. “Or ordering one of the deer to gore you.”
“Come now, that's hardly very ladylike!” Arthur chides, following him. “You'll never attract your Prince Charming with that kind of talk.”
Merlin slams his shopping bags on the counter. “That's it.” He yanks open a drawer, grabs something thin and wooden, and with a flash of light, Arthur suddenly finds himself eye-level with the field mice, his skin distinctly slimy. Merlin stoops down. “Not all fairy tale clichés are so flowery, it turns out, and I've had loads of time to practice. Now, are you going to behave, or will I have to go full wicked stepmother on you?”
No matter how hard Arthur tries to cuss Merlin into a thousand pieces, it comes out as a placid sort of ribbit.
“Good,” Merlin croons, saccharine, and taps Arthur on the nose with his wand.
In the blink of an eye, Arthur's sprawled on the tile floor, scrambling to examine his limbs. “There was a time,” he croaks, standing up and dusting himself off, “when you would've been executed for even thinking about turning your king into a frog.”
“Strictly speaking, you're not royalty anymore,” Merlin says, tossing the wand back in the kitchen drawer. Arthur flinches when it clatters. “But according to you, I'm a princess. I outrank you. So make yourself useful and help me put away these groceries. They'll show you where everything goes.” Behind Arthur, there comes a percussive series of thwaps, and a dozen bright green frogs hop on the counter and start nudging open cabinet doors.
“Very clever,” grouses Arthur. “I rather think I miss the days when you kept your magic hidden.”
“I don't,” Merlin quips, beaming, and in spite of himself, Arthur nearly returns the smile.
Arthur isn't looking for anything in particular as he wanders about the cottage, it simply occurs to him that he's lived here for some time now, and he has yet to visit every room. It's several steps down from he castle he grew up in, to say the least, but he can't deny there's a certain charm to it. It feels...lived-in, which only makes sense considering how bloody long ago Merlin built it – and isn't that utterly bizarre – and the view of the lake from the window is idyllic, if bittersweet.
He pauses in front of a door he's not sure he's opened before. Just then, Merlin appears at the end of the corridor, and stops dead in his tracks when he sees Arthur's hand on the doorknob. “You probably shouldn't – ”
The door clicks pleasantly as Arthur pushes it open. He locks eyes with Merlin and smiles.
“ – go in there,” Merlin sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. Arthur turns, smug, into the room, and his eyes nearly pop free of his skull.
A healthy assortment of animals prance busily about the room. This is, oddly, normal. What is less normal is the mannequin draped with pink silk standing in the middle of the floor, and the way every creature present gives it their undivided attention. Mice scamper about with sewing needles clamped between their teeth, diligently stitching seams and sewing buttons, and chipmunks perch all around, holding the spools aloft. A fawn stands off to the side, cradling a roll of fabric in its mouth, watching intently, and a pair of cardinals swoop down, a pale blue ribbon trailing between their beaks, and deftly tie a bow around the waist.
A dress. They're making a dress. “Merlin, why are they making a dress?”
“I don't know,” Merlin groans, burying his head in his hands. “I don't tell them to make anything, they just do. I haven't the foggiest idea where they even get the material, it just shows up, and then they – ” he gestures miserably towards a closet bursting with frills of pastel pink, blue, and yellow. “They're determined.”
“What do you do with them all?” Arthur asks, staring transfixed at the swirls of ribbon.
“I don't wear them, if that's what you're thinking.” Merlin says with a pointed glare. “I sell them online. It's the only thing I can think to do, but there's only so big of a market for ballgowns that look like cotton candy gone wrong, so they sort of...pile up.” He worries at his bottom lip with his teeth. “I've got closets full of them, but I think I'd break their hearts if I told them to stop.” The mice finish sewing on their buttons. They sit back on their haunches and squeak excitedly. Merlin flashes them a smile that only barely reaches his eyes.
“You're running a sweatshop. An animal sweatshop.” Arthur's more than a little pleased with himself for remembering the term from reading up on the so-called Gilded Age (and add that to the list of horrors he never would have allowed under his rule.) “This is slave labor.”
Merlin looks sheepish. “...Does it help that they volunteered?”
Arthur shuts the door and walks away.
It's pouring. Merlin seems not to understand this, as he's left the door wide open, and is allowing a whole parade of sodden, dripping creatures to tramp through it, never mind the fact that they're tracking in the entire lake as the storm creeps ever further into the hall.
“Merlin, must we wait for all of them to come inside before shutting the house? They're animals. They generally live outside.”
“I waited for your sorry arse to show up for fifteen hundred years,” Merlin responds drily from where he's crouched near the doorway. He flicks his wand at a shivering fox cub, and with a poof of air that smells of dryer sheets, its fur fluffs up in a warm, dry cloud. After rubbing a grateful head against Merlin's leg, it scampers off to leap onto the armchair, and the queue advances, a yellow duckling waddling forward and plopping down expectantly at Merlin's feet. It's nauseating. “You can be patient for a few minutes more.”
“But it's cold,” Arthur insists.
“So go start the fire,” Merlin suggests, watching the duckling toddle to the hearth, cheeping happily all the way.
“Can't you just – ”
“Busy,” Merlin interrupts, attending to a sneezing barn owl. “Can't hear you.”
After a moment's furious debate, Arthur decides he values not freezing to death slightly more than his pride, so he tosses a few logs into the fireplace, making a show of grumbling under his breath. Just as he looks around for the matchbook, a pair of mice scurry across the hearth balancing it on their backs. “Cheers,” he says automatically before remembering that he doesn't talk to Merlin's animal entourage, and shooing them away.
After he gets a blaze going, he turns around just in time to see a swarm of porcupines and hedgehogs clamber onto the sofa, and decides that this is not a battle he cares to fight. Instead, he settles for the rug, sitting with his back against the couch, and his legs stretched towards the fire as far as allowed by the encroaching fawns turning in circles like dogs before lying down and basking in the warmth.
Arthur watches the brightly colored songbirds flutter to the mantle and string together like jewels on a necklace for a minute or two before Merlin collapses next to him. “I think that's everyone."
Arthur glances 'round at the solid crush of fur and feathers packed in front of the fireplace. “Are you sure? It's looking a bit empty in here.”
“Oh, shut up and scoot over, if I end up sitting on this skunk we'll all wish I hadn't.”
Rolling his eyes, Arthur tries to oblige, but after only moving a few centimeters discovers that he's trapped by a bundle of baby bunnies who would, probably, prefer not to be squished, so Merlin ends up bumping into him and, thanks to the skunk blockade, sort of...staying there. Arthur finds he doesn't mind.
Staring deep into the flames, Arthur gazes back across time. This talisman against the dark, at least, has not changed, either in the hypnotism of its crackle, or the warmth of its glow. It's a comfort to know that in any millennium, the world looks gentler by firelight, though it may make the shadows more severe. But all the same – “I can hardly believe how long it's been,” Arthur says on a sigh, longing for the warmth of a long-ago hearth on familiar flagstones.
“Yeah, I know, seems like only yesterday I was fishing you out of the lake, but you've been here for months,” Merlin replies lightly, but when Arthur turns to ask him if he's gone completely lackwit, there's a far-off sadness in his eyes, and he knows that when he looks into the fire, it casts shadows of Camelot for him, too. He wonders how many ghosts Merlin sees leaping with the flames, and realizes with a jolt that for over one and a half thousand years, he was one of them.
The guilt, if nothing else, is enough for Arthur to play along. “I must say, I'm surprised you've never once gone mad with power and thrown me out.”
“I've been tempted,” Merlin admits, his grin soft as the halo of a hidden candle. “But old habits die hard, I suppose. You've got a home here for as long as you want one.”
A home. Habit and wishful thinking still insist on chaining that word to Camelot, but Merlin, sitting so close in his too-big jumper, wears the amber firelight well enough to convince Arthur that here, in this little cottage by the lake, there may yet be room for something more.
Only when the fire fades to pulsing embers and Merlin nods off with his head drooping onto Arthur's shoulder does Arthur notice the pair of snow white doves perched atop the mantle clock, their foreheads pressed together in sleep, and he wishes that the universe could at least pretend to be subtle about taunting him.
As the two of them sit at the kitchen table after breakfast, a chipmunk sniffs the dishes in the sink, then sits back on its haunches on the counter and hums a long, high note. Out of the woodwork scurry dozens of mice, and from the rafters descend a flock of sparrows. They all hurry to match the tone, which then evolves into a cheerful melody intermingled with the splashes and clinks of a dishwashing frenzy.
Merlin never even glances up from his newspaper, just hums along, much to the delight of his live-in woodland choir, who sing all the louder for the encouragement. This completely baffles Arthur, who still grabs for a sword that isn't there every time he hears the wordless, squeaky cacophony of voices echoing down the hall.
“This is, by far, the weirdest part of the future,” Arthur says, unable to tear his eyes from the trio of harmonizing mice grappling with a scrub brush.
“What is?” Merlin asks, then notices Arthur's incredulous face. “Oh. Right. I suppose I don't really notice anymore. I remember the first time they did it, though – scared the living daylights out of me.”
“I suppose it's a fair trade-off for not having to do your own cleaning,” Arthur remarks. “As far as servants go, they're a bit out of the ordinary, but they get the job done.”
Merlin furrows his brow. “They're more than that,” he says, reproachful. “They've kept me company for a long time. I couldn't exactly spend too much time around people here, or they'd notice I've overstayed my welcome, as it were, so having this lot around's been a real lifesaver.” He smiles fondly at the nearest rabbit, hard at work drying a mug. “The fact that they seem to like doing the washing up's just a perk.”
The full force of a thousand years of solitude hits Arthur in the gut, and he can't help but stare. “How on earth did you do it?” he asks, suddenly quiet.
“Stay here. By yourself, for so long.”
Merlin goes a bit red and drops his gaze. “Didn't have much choice, did I?”
“Of course you did, it's not like I was around to tell you off if you left,” Arthur counters, failing to keep his tone light. “So why did you stay?”
Merlin opens his mouth, but before he can answer, a red squirrel scales the table and tugs on his sleeve with wide, worried eyes. “He doesn't know?” it squeaks, and Arthur chokes on his tea.
“They talk?” he rasps once he catches his breath.
Merlin glances nervously from the squirrel to Arthur. “Er, sometimes – ” he stammers, but is interrupted by the anxious chatter rising from the rest of the dishwashing team.
“He doesn't know?” chirps a robin, aghast.
The squirrel shakes its head and spreads its paws. “He doesn't know!”
Moving as one, they swarm Arthur, staring up at him in abject disbelief. Linking paws, the rodents stand in a circle around him and sway from side to side while the birds bob in a ring around his head, and before he can ask Merlin what the hell is going on, a hundred high-pitched voices sing out,“How can it be? It's all so clear! A thousand years he's waited here!”
“Merlin, what are they – ” Arthur sputters, but Merlin only stares, color trickling hot into his face.
Unfazed, the chorus only grows more enthusiastic. “But lingering here by the shore is nothing he's not done before,” the birds tweet joyfully, flapping their wings to the lively beat of an invisible symphony accompanying the performance, airy woodwinds and strings leaping through the air.
“His loyalty's beyond compare, through thick and thin, he's always there,” the mice and squirrels chitter in response, mobbing around Arthur's chair. Their tiny paws push and prod at the legs, tilting them off the ground and forcing Arthur to abandon ship and stumble to his feet. Glancing helplessly at Merlin, Arthur sees he's been given the same treatment, looking nothing short of mortified.
Hundreds of beseeching, beady eyes simper up at Arthur as the creatures they belong to tug at his ankles and nudge him towards Merlin, who's growing redder by the second as he tries and fails to wrench free of the insistent gaggle's grip. “He's labored oh so long, it's true, there's nothing he'd not do for you!” trill birds and beasts alike. Something soft and red drifts down in front of Arthur's eyes – he looks up and sees the songbirds tossing beakfuls of flower petals over them like confetti.
The phantom flutes flutter in a bubbling tremolo as the music swells to a crescendo, and from all corners of the cottage, more wildlife stampedes into the kitchen to join in warbling “Through all these trials we're singing of, he stays just for his one true –”
“Stop it!” Merlin's eyes flash with something ancient and dangerous, and the thunder of his voice charges the air and sends the freshly-washed dishes clattering from the shelves. Magic, Arthur realizes dimly as they shatter on the tile.
When Merlin sweeps from the room and out the front door without a word, furiously brushing rose petals from his hair, Arthur realizes two things: he's never, ever heard Merlin raise his voice to any of his animal companions, and no matter how he scrambles to think of alternatives, really, there's only so much that rhymes with “of.”
Merlin still hasn't come back.
Arthur isn't quite sure how long it's been, he hasn't been keeping track of time, just sitting and watching the chipmunks sweep up the broken dishes, singing a forlorn little tune that is, frankly, doing nothing to ease the ache in his chest. It's darker out than it was when he left, though, and Arthur feels his absence gnawing at his insides more with every passing minute. Even so, he finds himself dreading his return – what is he supposed to say? Of course, he can think of a thing or two he'd like to say, but it's just not that simple, is it? Nothing in his life is ever that simple, especially when Merlin gets involved. Arthur's already sitting, but he feels the need to sit down more. He settles for resting his head in his hands and despising himself.
He's so lost in self-pity that he almost doesn't notice when something warm drops in his lap. When he opens his eyes, he finds a brown and white rabbit, and recognizes it as the same one he met his first day here. “What am I going to do?” Arthur asks, half-heartedly pretending he's addressing himself, not the rabbit. The rabbit, infuriatingly, seems to believe him, and says nothing, just stares up at him, nose twitching. Arthur stares back, wishing that for once, magic could be cooperative.
“Does he really –” Arthur swallows, hard. “Is it true?”
The rabbit still offers no answer, and after a moment of silence, it's with a jolt and a swoop in his stomach that Arthur realizes he doesn't need one. He knows. Of course he knows. God in heaven, how could he have been so blind?
“Do you know where he is?” The rabbit leaps from his lap and bounds to the door, hind foot thumping excitedly on the mat. “Take me to him,” Arthur orders, pulse roaring in his ears, and follows.
The rabbit never once slows down to wait for him. It doesn't matter. Arthur runs.
When Arthur reaches the top of the hill, he's as out of breath as he's been in this life. As soon as he sees Merlin, sitting with his back to an ancient tree and looking out at the lake, he finds it doesn't matter. He walks towards him, making enough noise to give fair warning, then sits next to him, as close as he dares, then immediately realizes why Merlin chose to come here – the sunset over the lake is dragon fire in slow motion, the horizon a blaze of orange, purple clouds drifting like smoke.
Merlin hastily wipes his face with his sleeve, and Arthur pretends not to see. “Come to make fun of me, I suppose?”
Arthur could swear he hears a small, brittle noise as something cracks in his chest. He takes a deep breath. “It hasn't been that long for me, you know,” he says, eyes fixed on the island in the middle of the lake, a small green blot on the water. “I didn't feel it.”
“Didn't feel what?” Merlin asks, voice thick.
“Dying,” Arthur replies, turning towards him. “Being dead, rather. Passed by in the blink of an eye. One moment, I was in your arms, then the next, I was still there, only we were in the lake, and you were somehow managing to keep me afloat, armor and all.”
Merlin ducks his head, smiling just a bit. “You didn't make it easy, thrashing about like that. Nearly drowned us both.” A heavy moment trundles between them. “Why are you telling me this?”
“What I'm trying to say,” Arthur sighs, “is that the years haven't mattered to me. Not really. But I know they've cost you a great deal, and for that, I am sorry. I want you to know that I am truly grateful for all you've done. Then and now. It meant the same to me back then, too.” He places an unsteady hand on Merlin's wrist where it's braced on the grass. “You meant the same.”
“Arthur, what are you saying?” Merlin breathes, looking for all the world like he wants to bolt.
“Fifteen hundred years,” says Arthur, feeling stronger now, “is long enough.” Courage comes with the pounding of his heart, and between one beat and the next, before he can lose what's left of his nerve, Arthur surges forward and kisses Merlin like he's the one back from the dead.
Merlin makes a muffled sound of surprise against his lips, and Arthur feels a bizarre desire to laugh – really, all things considered, this shouldn't be that shocking – but it melts away as soon as Merlin throws his arms around his neck and starts kissing back properly. It's a sensory overload. Merlin's hands are threading through his hair and he smells like his soap and Arthur feels the soft, contented sounds he's making in his chest and his lips are warm and clever and worth waiting for a thousand times over, and, and, and – it's all Arthur can do to twist his fingers into Merlin's shirt and hold on for dear life.
Time has made little sense to Arthur since he realized that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't wrap his mind around how much he'd skipped through. Here, kissing Merlin, it escapes him further, as he finds himself acutely, blissfully aware of every second, but unable to count them. Right when Arthur decides he could do this forever, there's a gargantuan rustling of leaves, and unnumbered shrill little voices belt out “TRUE LOVE'S KISS IS A WONDROUS THING, DREAMS COME TRUE AND BIRDIES SING –”
The song continues, but Arthur doesn't register the words – Merlin's turned a rather brilliant shade of scarlet and hidden his face in Arthur's shoulder, and the warmth of Merlin's embarrassed, dizzy laughter against his skin is the only thing worth noticing at the moment.
“Is this going to happen every time?” Arthur finally asks, taking in the sheer joy radiating from the squirrels and songbirds and all the rest as they sing their hearts out.
Merlin pulls back and looks at Arthur, smiling with his entire face. “I haven't the faintest idea,” he admits with a shrug. “This is something of a first.” Impossibly, his grin grows. “Only one way to find out though, yeah?”
For once, Arthur doesn't care to argue with him. He leans in and kisses him again, forgetting to pay attention to the magical singing animals, but remembering something Merlin told him ages ago – he's here because that's how the story is supposed to go. Well, Arthur supposes, pulling Merlin closer, as far as stories go, this one's about as fairy tale as they come.