Warnings: Major character death and minor character deaths aplenty (including a stillborn child); violence; the briefest allusion to rape; descriptions of self-harm; suicidal thoughts; angst; unhappily-ever-after
Summary: Written for this prompt over at the kink meme: Arthur/Merlin, Merlin dies. Alternatively, Arthur is so stricken with grief that he goes on a mad quest looking for a sorcerer to bring Merlin back to life. When it finally happens, Merlin is horrified because it's truly impossible to just bring someone back to life like that and he's fairly certain he's some kind of half-dead abomination. Arthur doesn't care. Bonus points: This is how Merlin lives forever waiting for the Once and Future King!
Thanks: to maybelater__ for the beta/calming down my neuroses
It turns out that Merlin does burn.
There are too many guards, really, too many people filling the courtyard. The pyre is too big, too grand, and the ropes are tied too tightly. And Merlin – Merlin is small in the middle of it, shoulders hunched and head bowed like maybe he can fold into himself, slip into negative space.
The air is still and the sun is bright overhead, spilling gold and glory at Uther’s feet, drenching Merlin in broken shadows. And Uther, high above and cloaked in velvet and silk, says nothing because Merlin can weave sorcery from words that aren’t even his own, because Uther is terrified that the pyre isn’t grand enough, the fire not hot enough.
The fire catches and still Merlin doesn’t look up. Not as the straw crunches sickeningly under the flames, not as the orange sparks near his feet. The fire lights up his face – black and sooty from two weeks in the dungeons with nothing but dirt as a blanket. He doesn’t move, and it’s so wrong, all of this, because the fire is sliding across his feet, swirling around his legs, and still he doesn’t make a sound.
The sound that finally comes, a relief to those who were waiting for it, doesn’t come from Merlin at all. It’s the inhuman wail of a child who shouldn’t be here, who shouldn’t be watching bone turn to ash, skin dry to nothingness. And the sound is so loud, too loud, echoing off the walls, bouncing like it’s trapped within a mausoleum, like it’s from a world beyond.
The guards shove through the crowd, searching, and Uther can’t breathe and maybe this is sorcery because the air’s been chased out of his lungs and he can’t look away as the flames snap at Merlin’s clothes, as they flash in Merlin’s hair, haloing him in sudden, blinding gold.
But it’s too late: Merlin looks up, eyes wide, so wide, and perhaps this is what the crowd has been waiting for, some sign that this thin slip of a boy can spin magic with his voice. For some sign that this is something more. And perhaps now the ropes will fall away and Merlin will walk through fire, the magic spilling from his fingers. Perhaps now Uther will fall from a throne that has always been too high.
But then the flames veil him and it’s done, soundless and chilling. He shudders – if it’s him any longer, if his skin hasn’t molted, if his blood hasn’t boiled away – and then the fire traps him, consumes him, slays him, and if there’s anything left, no one wants to find it. No one wants to sort through the ashes, the dust, because there’s nothing so terrifying as magic that hasn’t quite died.
It takes a few minutes for the crowd to remember how to breathe, for the people to realize they’d been holding their breaths for something, for anything. They’d been so sure that Merlin would live, that Uther would fall on this clear, bright morning, but it was stupid, really, to think anything of the sort.
After all, the only person who might’ve saved Merlin is locked up in a dungeon, haunted by smoke he shouldn’t be able to smell.
Arthur counts the hours by the guards’ shifts. One, two, three, and Merlin died halfway into the first shift (he shouldn’t know this, shouldn’t know that the last word Merlin’s mouth shaped wasn’t sorcery at all but Arthur, Arthur who hadn’t come) and so it’s twelve hours that bleed into each other before Uther comes.
“Arthur,” he says, and Arthur can’t look at him because he doesn’t want to see Merlin’s blood on his hands. He doesn’t want to leave this four by four cell that smells of ash and earth and piss, because as long as he’s in here, he can pretend that Merlin is waiting in his chambers with his insolent smile and bright, bright eyes.
And so Arthur says nothing.
“Arthur,” Uther says again, voice low and angry. “I can only hope that you have been ensorcelled, because otherwise there is no excuse for this behavior.” He’s wearing his reddest cloak, the one woven with gossamer gold silk, and he’ll parade around in it for the next few days in the way he always does after a sorcerer is executed and Arthur has never hated the cloak like he does now, has never hated anything as much as he hates that cloak. And it looks even redder today, so red that it would make maidens blush, and Arthur wonders if perhaps Uther is literally wearing Merlin’s blood like a victory.
“You deliberately opposed my authority in front of the whole court,” Uther says sharply. “Arthur – look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
Arthur looks and he imagines he makes quite a wretched sight, the shadows slipping into the hollows underneath his eyes, fingers bruised and hand aching because at some point he’d punched the wall and maybe he is ensorcelled because this isn’t normal, because his blood is rushing in his ears and he can hardly hear what Uther is saying and every time he blinks, all he can see is Merlin: Merlin’s simple, shy smile, Merlin’s fingers graceful as he laces Arthur’s shirt. Merlin as he bows his head to Arthur, Merlin as he whispers You’re my king, I’ve always served you in a way that betrays all that Uther is.
“Do you deny that he was a sorcerer?” Uther demands.
“No,” Arthur says, and Uther looks briefly relieved, like maybe he’d feared that Merlin had robbed Arthur of his speech, and it’s ridiculous, Arthur thinks, because Merlin isn’t – wasn’t, now – evil, and of course Merlin was magical because there’s no other explanation for the way his face went warm with laughter, his smile bright with sweetness.
Arthur tips his face up to look at Uther properly. Uther looks away as if he doesn’t like the blankness he sees in Arthur’s face.
“There will be consequences for your blatant disobedience,” Uther says, as if this isn’t the most excruciating punishment that there ever was, trapping Arthur deep in the castle, helpless within four walls as he imagined Merlin’s screams, Merlin’s pale skin charring, burning. “This grief is unbecoming; the boy was a sorcerer, Arthur, and he’s carried out his plans well. You trusted him with your life, exactly as he had planned and I understand that he has been a companion of sorts to you for these past few years, but Arthur, you will be king one day. You cannot lapse into these sullen fits of childishness – look at you, pining for this boy! Look at how he’s already influenced you!”
No, Arthur thinks, not Merlin who’d outlined Arthur’s body with his own when Arthur had been in bed for days with that fever, needing warmth that fur blankets couldn’t give. There’d been no evil in Merlin’s hands, just simple, helpless innocence in his smile, just loyalty in every breath. And Arthur has done exactly as Uther has ordered for more than twenty years, has believed exactly what Uther has told him to believe, but this he cannot.
He doesn’t want to leave this cell because as Arthur belongs to Camelot – Merlin belongs to him.
“You will present yourself tomorrow morning,” Uther says flatly, “in front of the entire court and you will apologize for your disobedience. You will admit to having been ensorcelled and you will announce to the court that you have taken it on as a personal goal to see that all magic is eradicated from Camelot. And then when I give you your punishment, you will bow your head, thank me for my leniency, and you will do as I tell you.”
The anger is such a sudden thing and it feels a bit like madness, and Arthur knows in that moment that if Uther had dared to walk into the cell instead of hiding cowardly behind those metal bars, Arthur would hurt him now. Arthur would hurt him for every single second Merlin had been stuck in that limbo between life and death, for every single time Merlin had prayed for a quicker death as the flames ate away at his skin and heated his blood. He wants to see Uther under him, skin painted with bruises and Arthur’s hate, Arthur’s madness – for it has to be madness, but he doesn’t care anymore because all he can think is Merlin Merlin Merlin. He wants to make Uther cry out in the way Merlin must have cried out.
But right now Uther is too far away and Arthur wants to sleep, wants to be wrapped in dreams of Merlin, and he thinks: Later.
“Arthur,” Uther snaps, and Arthur even manages a smile, though it must be a terrifying thing, because Uther is still not looking at him.
“Yes,” Arthur says. “Sire.”
There’s a boy waiting for him in his chambers, and Arthur hates him from the moment he sees him.
He’s too quiet, and maybe servants are supposed to be this quiet, but three years of Merlin and Arthur already misses a bath that goes cold too quickly because Merlin can’t be bothered to boil more water. The boy is efficient and competent and he doesn’t collapse on Arthur’s bed like it’s his own, doesn’t sit with Arthur as he eats to chatter about the gossip amongst the servants even though Arthur doesn’t care about the gossip amongst the servants. Arthur had just liked to listen to Merlin talk, had liked to see the way his face lit up as he yammered on and on and shamelessly stole Arthur’s food.
“Get out,” Arthur says quietly.
It turns out that he says it too quietly and the boy doesn’t hear him, not as he’s stooped over poking meekly at the fire and it’s too much: the fire, orange and blue and gold, the same gold that’s threaded into Uther’s cloak, the same gold that had swirled around Merlin and taken him and there’s just this boy who’s supposed to replace Merlin, but he doesn’t belong here, not in Merlin’s space and before he knows it, Arthur’s yelling at the boy to get out. He’s throwing things: china and clothes and those stupid little figures that Merlin would buy at the market and leave all over Arthur’s chambers, and the boy is running, afraid, and Arthur locks the door behind him and can’t breathe because Merlin is dead and he can’t be dead.
Because Arthur can’t live in a Camelot where Merlin doesn’t climb into his bed to tell him the stories his mother used to tell him as a boy in Ealdor when Arthur can’t sleep, as if he’s five years old. He can’t live in a Camelot where tournaments don’t start with Merlin getting him into his armor, whispering luck that Arthur will inform him he doesn’t need, and where tournaments don’t end with Merlin’s proud smile, brighter than the sun.
Arthur goes to bed, hungry and cold, and wonders if he’ll ever be warm again.
The court is laid out a bit like a crowded chessboard: the knights are restless in the back because they’ve promised their lives to Camelot but their allegiance to Arthur; the rooks and bishops line the walls, dressed in their fanciest clothes because yesterday’s execution and now this makes for one of the more exciting social events of the year; and Uther is high on his throne, wearing a crown that Arthur would think is gold if he’d never seen gold in Merlin’s eyes.
There are others, too, though, others that aren’t part of the court and yet are worth ten of it. Gwen is as near to Morgana as she can get without tipping into impropriety, and she looks worn and unhappy. And the white flowers in her hair would look ridiculous if Arthur – unable to sleep, terrified of nightmares that promise worse than what daylight brings – hadn’t spent the night sitting by the abandoned pyre (scooping up ashes because he’ll take what he can get) and hadn’t found the delicate white flowers Gwen had left there, unseen. He tries a smile out for her because she’s wearing the flowers in her hair just like Arthur had shoved a scrap of one of Merlin’s terrible neckerchiefs into one of his pockets when he’d found it this morning draped over a chair in his chambers.
It’s not enough, of course. But if they can pick up all these shattered pieces and just hold on – maybe, maybe something, and Arthur doesn’t know what, but he’ll keep looking until he finds it.
And there’s Gaius, who looks as if he died yesterday as well. He’s leaning against a servant girl, his skin so thin it’s gone translucent enough to see the curve of each bone. He’s still, almost frighteningly still, and if Gaius died right here, right now, Arthur wouldn’t be surprised.
He thinks of Hunith in her small home, gathering berries and baking bread and knitting neckerchiefs in ten different colors and sending them to a boy who doesn’t exist anymore. Arthur will have to go to her, will destroy her entire, beautiful world, because all that’s left are ashes and memories.
He’s glad he left his sword in his chambers because the grief he’d thought he’d poured onto the pyre during the night comes again, more consuming than sorcery could ever be, and he wants to know whether the nobleman standing only five meters to his left – braying with laughter as he describes exactly how Merlin had collapsed, ringed in fire – would scream like Merlin had screamed if Arthur ran him though.
But then Uther nods, practiced and smooth because he probably did practice this speech thrice over, and it’s all such a farce. He’s using pretty words like disappointment and sorcery and punishment, and all Arthur has to do is bow his head because if this is a chessboard, he’s always been the pawn.
Uther’s always been good at this, weaving his little fictions, and he even promises to forgive Arthur – because of course Arthur had been ensorcelled by the sorcerer Merlin (and the nobles’ eyes all go wide with glee because what a fantastic story this will make for days to come) – though Arthur hasn’t asked for forgiveness.
“Were you anyone else,” says Uther, circling Arthur but addressing the court, “you would be imprisoned for making such a spectacle of yourself and impeding the course of justice. But—” and now Arthur is watching him, head dipped in what might look like deference but is nothing of the sort—“taking into account that the sorcerer Merlin undoubtedly used his darkest magics on you to insinuate himself into your household, you are not at fault. After all,” Uther says, and oh, this is perfect, because he’s laying a heavy hand on Arthur’s shoulder and pitching his voice low and steady, “was I not the one who gave him direct entrance to your household? You are a good man, Arthur, and you will make a fine king. Sorcery is a vile thing, and it can easily mislead even the best men.”
Uther’s fingers curl hard into Arthur’s shoulder. “You agree you were ensorcelled,” Uther says, and it’s halfway between a question and a statement, but Arthur knows he’s meant to answer.
And yes, of course he was ensorcelled, because he can’t stop thinking about Merlin, and three years ago life had expanded so that Merlin could fit into it and now Arthur’s drowning in those empty spaces, so yes, Arthur was ensorcelled, is ensorcelled.
He says: “Yes.”
Uther looks satisfied and it’s amusing, really, because Uther is too busy searching for the deception in magic to see the deception in Arthur’s eyes.
“There will be those who do not believe you,” Uther says, picking up his thread in this beautifully planned drama. “Some, even, here in court. And so, Arthur, you must prove yourself, as you will have to prove yourself as king a thousand times over. Now,” he says, and finally he’s moving away from Arthur, back to a throne that in this very moment Arthur despises, “how will you do that, son?” His voice is warm, and he’s bright on his throne, the picture of fairness.
Arthur has worn his honor like a fine cloak from the moment he was knighted, kneeling here on this very floor six years ago. He’d looked up to see Uther smiling proudly down at him, and it was like having the sun and the moon and the stars all within reach. But now Uther’s face is tight with hard anger and the honor doesn’t matter, does it, because honor wasn’t enough to save Merlin.
And so it doesn’t matter that he kneels, doesn’t matter that he announces to the entire court that he will pledge his life, as his father has before him, to driving away this plague called magic. That under his lead, Camelot will finally free herself from magic’s poison, that under his lead, all practitioners of magic will burn as they ought to, so as to purify Camelot of the evil they have caused.
Uther looks pleased because Arthur’s played this game better than he had dared hope, and probably he’s thinking that this all turned out for the best. A sorcerer burned, and a prince championed. The nobles look thrilled at the display, because it’s all very romantic: Arthur on his knees, promising himself to Camelot.
“Rise, Arthur,” Uther says grandly, and Arthur does, slow as a dream. “That is a good vow,” Uther says gently. “And tomorrow you will set out to keep it.”
Arthur looks up sharply.
“There is word of a sorcerer living near Camelot’s western border. You will arrest this man and bring him back to Camelot for his trial and punishment.” Uther smiles. “Do this, Arthur Pendragon, and your favor will be restored.”
“Yes, Sire,” Arthur says, because there’s nothing left.
He sleeps little and dreams less. When he wakes, he realizes that his dreams were empty of Merlin and it terrifies him, that he’s losing Merlin already. He grabs at the tattered neckerchief and buries his face in it, trying to remember the way Merlin’s eyes crinkled when he smiled, really smiled, those only-for-Arthur smiles that were worshipful and overwhelming because he’d always seen a greatness and glory in Arthur that Arthur never could.
Arthur tries to remember except he can’t, doesn’t remember the exact color of Merlin’s eyes or whether he had dimples, and it’s like Merlin is already fading and it’s too fast, too soon, because Arthur isn’t ready to let go.
The grey morning slides into a greyer day, and they’re ready to set off – Arthur and Tristan and Bors and a squire who will have to serve all three of them at once – when Morgana rides out, silken skirts fluttering alarmingly around her ankles. Gwen is riding after her, though much less skillfully, and Arthur notices that she’s not wearing her flowers anymore and he supposes that the flowers have died.
They’ll all forget, of course, eventually; Arthur just didn’t think it would happen this soon.
“No,” Arthur tells her. “You aren’t coming.”
Morgana lifts her jaw and manages the complicated feat of looking down her nose at him even though she’s technically looking up. “Uther already granted me permission. It’s quite fortuitous that this came up, actually. Gwen and I were just saying last week that we wanted to get out of the castle a bit, stretch our legs. Weren’t we?”
“Yes, my lady,” says Gwen, her smile worn at the edges.
Arthur looks to his right – and he wasn’t expecting to see anyone there, not really, but it occurs to him that the only reason he looked is because that’s where Merlin would be: to his right, close at hand. And now there’s just empty space where Merlin should’ve been, would’ve been, grinning fondly back at him.
It’s the emptiness that makes him say, “Fine. But do keep in mind that this isn’t actually a jaunt into the countryside; we’ll be going a bit faster than you’re used to and there may be a very dangerous confrontation with a very dangerous sorcerer. If all you’re looking for is a stretch of your legs, you might be better off taking a turn around one of the gardens.”
Morgana looks at him, long and slow, her mouth drawn in at the corners, and he realizes that she’s here for him. Uther and the court may have eaten up the mockery that was yesterday, but Morgana isn’t so easily fooled. She smiles at him like he’s a baby bird, liable to fall and break a wing, but he merely shakes his head and rides ahead.
The two-day ride takes three days, but Arthur doesn’t mind.
At some point, the castle fades out of view and everything narrows to just this: the cold wind cutting into his skin, the sun pristine overhead, washing the world clean, Morgana blithely informing him that this isn’t a race, Arthur, and then shamelessly racing him anyway. And Merlin – well, the grief is still there, because he can’t outrun it though he tries that first day. It’s stitched into his skin like a cloak he can’t shrug off. And every breath aches a bit, because every breath is one more breath in a world that doesn’t have Merlin in it.
But it does get easier. He busies himself with the mundane, like keeping an eye out for thieves and trying to calculate how far they’ve gone and how far they have to go. Gwen goes starry-eyed when Tristan tells her of his love, a maiden who lives far across the sea. Bors keeps them entertained with a bawdy story of a woman who falls madly in love with a bull.
(“Bors,” Arthur says reprovingly. “There’s a lady present.”
“Oh, don’t fuss, Arthur,” says Morgana. “Though, I thank you for your concern.”
“I was talking about Gwen,” Arthur says smugly.)
Sleep is still an elusive thing though, and this stillness makes it all the worse. He assigns Tristan and Bors the first and second watches so that he can take the third, but he stays awake through the night anyway, poking at the dying fire and trying to not think of ashes.
He’s not particularly surprised when Morgana comes to sit next to him just as the dawn spills over the horizon. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment, just pulls her cloak more tightly around her shoulders and watches the fire give a final shudder before it fades. And then she tucks her small hand in the crook of his elbow and sighs.
“Do you remember when you were five and that mangy pup of yours died?”
“I don’t think Merlin would appreciate being compared to a mangy pup,” Arthur says.
Morgana slides her thumb under his eyes, tracing the smudges of sleeplessness tattooed there. “Oh, Arthur,” she says.
He shoves her hand away. “Don’t,” he says crossly. “Don’t, Morgana. How would you feel if it were Gwen?”
Morgana looks over her shoulder briefly, as if to ascertain that Gwen is still curled up there in her too thin bedroll, hair fluffily obscuring her face. “Empty,” she says. “And you’re allowed to feel empty, Arthur, no matter what Uther says. You’re allowed to have loved Merlin, fleas and all. But this – this is a mistake.”
Arthur laughs, and it’s an unwilling sound, hard and frozen. “This, whatever it may seem to you, isn’t a pleasure jaunt, Morgana. I’ve lost my favor, remember? This is a punishment; I’ve no choice. And anyway, I don’t see what’s so strange about this. My father tells me to walk and I run; that’s all I’ve ever done.”
Morgana shakes her head, looking a bit wild about the eyes. “Not this. I meant that speech – all that pretty rhetoric about driving magic from Camelot. Uther enjoyed it, I know, and the court is holding you up to be some sort of tragic hero – fools that they are,” she adds darkly. “And it would all be such a splendid little story if we didn’t both know that every single word was a lie.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” says Arthur, and tries to shrug her off.
“Don’t be purposefully thick, Arthur, it doesn’t suit you,” Morgana says with hushed impatience. “You don’t believe that Merlin had put an enchantment on you, regardless of what Uther would like everyone to believe. And you don’t think that Merlin was evil—”
“Of course not,” Arthur says, and he tries to stand because he doesn’t want to talk about this, not to Morgana, or anyone because Merlin and the memories that Arthur has left of him are private things, not for the likes of Morgana who doesn’t know the way Merlin had knelt before Arthur and pledged himself to him, chastely pressing his mouth to the tender inside of Arthur’s wrist.
“Then what,” says Morgana quietly, “are we doing out here?”
“I am under orders,” Arthur says flatly. “You, on the other hand, are under the misguided impression that your presence is welcome here.”
Morgana smiles thinly. “Tell me that you think magic is evil. That Merlin really was an evil sorcerer who was biding his time in your service, waiting for the right moment to kill you.” At Arthur’s dark look, she continues, “Or, if you like, tell me that you think magic isn’t the evil thing that Uther has said it is. Tell me that there’s a reason you knelt in front of the throne and willingly deceived all of Camelot. Tell me,” she says, “that you know what you’re doing.”
And, looking down at her bowed head, Arthur doesn’t know. Twenty years and it has always been so clear: magic had been the thing that had killed his mother. Magic is what stirs the terrible monsters that Arthur and his knights have to deal with on a weekly basis. The fear of magic is what keeps the people from straying too far from their homes at night. All that is true, Arthur knows this as well as he knows his hand around the hilt of his sword, sure and strong.
But then there’s Merlin.
“I don’t know,” he says softly. “I don’t – know.”
Morgana closes her eyes. “And that’s the problem,” she says, voice sounding a bit odd. “Because if you think magic is irrefutably evil, that’s at least something. And if you think that magic is irrefutably good, well – that’s something too. It’s those spaces in between that are dangerous.”
Arthur looks at her very carefully and a bit helplessly, but it’s like she’s given him a sentence in code without the key, and try as he might, he can’t make any sense of it. But he feels like she’s said something important, so he pockets it for later and offers this, low and pained: “I miss him, Morgana. And I – I’ve never been as scared as I was that day, sitting in that cell and hoping that this was all just some terrible nightmare.”
Morgana gives him a pained smile of her own. “I know,” she says. “And I’m scared for you.”
The village is too small to have a name. It’s just a haphazard scattering of shoddily put together houses, and Arthur doesn’t recognize it for a village at all until he’s standing in the middle of it, kicking at broken pottery, walking on earth gone to decay. There’s a faint mist licking at his boots, and the air is so heavy with the cold that every movement is painful, that every word hurts. The sun is gone – odd, that, because not twenty minutes ago Gwen had urged Morgana to wear a veil to protect her fair skin – and the village is doused by shadow.
And it smells a bit like death.
“Arthur,” Morgana says, voice sounding strained and maybe a bit shrill. “Let’s turn back.”
When he turns to look at her, surprised, she says softly but no less troubled, “There’s something wrong with this place.”
And there is, he thinks, because entire villages aren’t supposed to feel like tombs. There’s laundry on that fence, as if it was put out to dry years ago and then forgotten; a garden, there, that must’ve been meticulously tended once but is now overgrown with weeds; and worst of all, a child’s tattered doll perched against a wooden post, grinning obscenely up at them.
Tristan draws close to him, voice pitched low. “It’s as if they just left, sire. They didn’t take anything with them. Who knows how long this place has sat like this?”
Arthur has a sudden thought, a horrible image ripping through him: broken bodies tucked into their beds, an entire village that had gone to sleep one night and never woken up.
His voice is flat. “If they left at all.”
“Arthur,” Morgana calls urgently. “There’s something wrong here. This isn’t – if this magic, this is no ordinary sorcerer. Uther meant to have you arrest some shopkeeper reputed to sell magical amulets. Something else – something awful – happened here. We should return to Camelot and tell Uther.”
Arthur is about to agree – because Morgana looks so afraid, Morgana who is never afraid, her eyes wide and her skin so pale that it’s almost gone to translucence, and because he doesn’t have the manpower to fight the sorcery that he knows is here, that he can feel buzzing deep within his bones, malicious and terrible – when he hears it.
“Do you hear that?” he demands. Tristan shakes his head and Arthur tries to listen, tries to dig beneath the noises that seem unnaturally loud: Morgana’s horse shifting anxiously, Gwen’s panicked breaths, his own heart thumping against the cage of his ribs. And yes, there it is, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at the same time, the blurry, distant sound of someone singing.
It’s coming from one of the houses, the last one in a deplorable row, and he can hear it clearly as he unsheathes his sword and approaches the door, Tristan behind him. It’s a man’s voice, not singing like he thought before but chanting with a rhythm that doesn’t make sense to Arthur’s ears. Arthur presses his ear to the door, trying to map out the inside of the house as best as he can before he goes in, and then, mouthing three, two, one at Tristan, he wrenches open the door.
He doesn’t know what he’d expected, in what little time he’d had to expect anything. But whatever it was, he’d not expected a wizened old man perched on an overly padded chair, spindly legs poking out of a thick robe, mouth stretched in a hideous and toothless smile.
“Ah,” the man says, not looking up. His eyes are a glazed white and Arthur feels foolish, sword drawn against someone who can’t even see him, but not foolish enough to drop it. “Arthur Pendragon,” he says, his grin managing to go even wider, revealing gums that have withered to black. “I have been waiting a long time for you.”
“Who are you?” Arthur demands, voice edged with something – fear, maybe, though that doesn’t make sense; there’s nothing to be afraid of, only antiquated furniture and crumbling walls and the desperate surety of emptiness. And there’s the old man, a sack of bones draped carefully over the chair like death has skipped over him and he’s left picking anxiously at a bit of cloth, waiting for its next visit.
“No one,” the man says. “Or your father’s greatest enemy, if you want to be generous.” He gives a raspy laugh and strangles on the air, coughing. “But generosity has never been a trait of the Pendragons, has it, young prince?”
“Your name,” Arthur says, “without the riddles, this time.”
The man smiles blackly. “You won’t remember it tomorrow. In fact, I don’t even remember it now.”
“Then tell me what happened here,” Arthur says. “To this place.”
“This place is as it always was,” the man says gleefully. “But you’re still not asking the right question.”
Arthur’s had too little sleep and too much sorrow to humor an old man who shouldn’t still be alive. “I’m all out of questions, unfortunately. Let’s go,” he says to Tristan. “There’s nothing for us here.”
The man falls into broken, gasping laughter. “I ask for the right question and you give me the wrong answer. Leave, if you can, young prince, but I think that you’ll find that all roads lead back here. You see,” he says, wobbling to his feet, and it’s a bit like watching a foal learn how to walk, staggering hopelessly until he finally gets it right. “You’ve lost something that I’m afraid you can’t do without.” He’s grinning that horrible grin again, all dark space with a darker hint of tongue, and Arthur suddenly wonders whether he’s waiting for death or if he is Death, if this is his dilapidated castle.
“I tire of your riddles,” Arthur says flatly.
“No riddle,” the man chides. “Only clarity.”
He throws something, then, and it should be impossible that he knows exactly where Arthur is, but he does. And Arthur should move out of the way because it could be anything, because he knows that magic comes in so many different shapes: in lilting, meaningless words, in a naïve, innocent child’s palm. In Merlin’s sweet smile as the dawn streams into the room.
Arthur shouldn’t catch it, but he does. His fingers curl around the edge of the cloth the man had been plucking at earlier, and it’s oddly stiff, as if it had been recently damp and then put out to dry for too long. It smells like the sharp green of grass under the sun, like the acridity of sweat, so familiar and so dear that it takes Arthur a moment to place it, because now he can’t imagine that he’s ever done without it.
But he does place it, because the cloth is a faded red, exactly the same shade as the scrap of the neckerchief tucked neatly beneath the plates of armor that curve around Arthur’s shoulder and settle firmly over his heart.
Arthur looks up – or, he means to, anyway, but then the world unfurls in a brilliant kaleidoscope of color, so bright that it nearly blinds him. And then it bleaches into white and he can’t see anything at all.
Arthur wakes to a softer world.
It’s not waking, not really; for one thing, he’s still standing, and for another, sleep is a finite thing, with a definite start and finish, but this – this is something that’s ended before it’s begun. He’s standing exactly where he was a moment ago, the scrap of Merlin’s neckerchief still clutched in one hand, his sword still loose in the other.
But everything else is all wrong.
The broken windows have been glassed anew, and they’re generous with the light they let in, washing the room with color. The walls have been carefully rebuilt, the jagged cracks sealed to invisibility. The furniture is still a mishmash of odd patterns and odder shapes, but the patterns are no longer so faded, the cloth no longer stretched so thin with wear. And the stench of death that had clung to Arthur’s skin like it desperately wanted in, like it had greedily seized him and meant to keep him – that’s gone.
And so is Tristan.
The old man is gone too, but maybe not gone so much as replaced; there’s a boy now where the old man had stood, young, perhaps younger than Arthur. His smile is wide and unpracticed, the jaunty curve of his mouth eerily familiar. What age had robbed him of, his newfound youth has given him back: he’s kicking up out of his woolen robe and staring wondrously at his legs as if he’s never seen them before.
And maybe he hasn’t, Arthur thinks. There’s no blindness in the boy’s eyes, just green.
“What have you done?” Arthur says hoarsely, and when he moves, there’s a moment of uncertainty – this world isn’t his, he knows this somehow, down to his very bones, and it’s like all the rules that have underscored his every thought and act for twenty years have fallen aside, as useless as Uther’s swords against magic. But his voice is his and he takes a step forward, looking around for a Tristan who isn’t there. “Where am I?”
The boy is marveling at his fingers, smooth and limber, folding them into a fist and then wiggling each one in turn. “What?” he says distractedly. His voice is deeper than Arthur would’ve guessed, perhaps a shade too deep for such a young, sweet face, and Arthur wonders if it’s sorcery that had leeched the life from him, or if they’ll all age like that – if Arthur will shrivel up too, one day, left alone to count his dead.
“Oh,” the boy says brightly. “Right.”
“What is this place?” Arthur says sharply. “Where’s Tristan?”
The boy smiles and bows his head in a mocking display of deference. “Don’t you recognize it? Young prince?” He tilts his head. “Listen.”
Arthur doesn’t want to listen, because the fear that he has always kept at bay with a sword and a bit of valor is suddenly here, close enough to smother. This is another world and there’s no one to fight, not here, because how do you fight an entire world? He shuts his eyes because it’s all so conflicting, because Merlin was magic, and Merlin had made him smile. But this is magic too, and it terrifies Arthur, leaves him helpless and numb in a world not his own.
And outside – there are noises he’d not heard before because he’d not been looking for them. They’re familiar, dear noises, the stirring of the lower town just before the dawn outside the castle walls. But those noises don’t belong here, not in a village plagued by death.
The boy laughs and runs at and then past Arthur, past where Tristan should be, a gawky mess of wrists and knees. He throws open the door and tumbles into the sunlight and Arthur follows, the dread curdling low in his belly.
It’s the same little village, but it too has been transformed. The houses are lined in neat rows, strung with lines for the washing. There’s a wagon, there, leaving a trail of dust that puffs up and then settles back onto the ground. There are people milling about in the front yards, calling to each other across their fences, singing as they stoop over their gardens. There are children as well, shrieking and climbing all over each other, falling down and taking a moment of utter stillness to decide that they’ll laugh this one off instead of cry, and Arthur can’t help but look mistrustfully at them, because they shouldn’t exist.
“Well?” the boy says, looking thrilled. He’s standing in the sunlight, all the details of his face smoothed away. He looks expectantly up at Arthur, but Arthur’s still standing inside the house, hand on the door because he can’t be here, shouldn’t be here, and all he wants is to close the door and be back in that broken house, in a village occupied by no one.
“This isn’t my world,” Arthur says.
The boy laughs again, tilting his face up into the sun. “How arrogant you Pendragons are. There are more worlds than just yours.”
“Take me back,” Arthur says, grabbing at the boy’s arm, twisting a fragile shoulder. “Now.”
“You’re hurting me!” the boy exclaims. He’s writhing in Arthur’s grip, contorting his arm this way and then that, but Arthur is stronger and angrier, and if the boy’s fortunate, all Arthur will leave him with are bruises.
“What is this place?” Arthur demands. “Why have you brought me here?”
The boy gives up, finally, and looks disgustedly at his arm, limp in Arthur’s hold, and then up at Arthur. “To help you, though you wouldn’t know it, the way you’re assaulting me,” he says waspishly. “I told you; you’ve lost something and I’m to give you the chance to get it back.” He shades his eyes with his hand and stares hard at something particularly interesting to his left before smiling, satisfied. “Ah,” he says, and then gives the arm still in Arthur’s grip an experimental tug before giving it up as a bad job. “There we are.”
Arthur follows the boy’s gaze.
Later, he’ll realize that he’d expected this all along, ever since the old man had tossed him the scrap of cloth back in Arthur’s world, dingy and decaying as it was. Later, Arthur will think of course, because Arthur has never, ever lost anything so important to him as this. (Later, far, far later, Arthur will sit on his bed, surrounded by what ifs and possibilities and he’ll wonder if this is what madness is like, wanting something that has been utterly and forever lost.)
But now there’s just this: he looks different, like maybe Arthur’s remembered him wrong, and maybe he has remembered him wrong, because with each day, Merlin slips further and further away. His hair is messy beyond repair, but still dark, so dark against pale, pale skin. His hands – and how had Arthur forgotten his hands? – are expressive, never still, and always a bit too thin. And Arthur’s too far away right now to see Merlin’s smile, but that he’s not forgotten, will never forget. Merlin’s mouth is curved in a delighted smile because when Merlin smiles, it’s always unrestrained – and maybe the smile is a bit secretive, maybe his smile has always held a secret, but Arthur hadn’t discovered it until too late.
And the aching emptiness that Arthur has carried with him for five days – heavy and unbearable as the urn Arthur had had sent to Hunith – is already gone, shed here on the porch. It’s all wrong, because Merlin is dead, had died, had whispered Arthur’s name over and over, but Merlin couldn’t escape fire and Arthur was a prisoner of stone and metal. And if Merlin is dead, then all these people are dead as well, and maybe Arthur too, but it’s as if Arthur has been starving for weeks and if he’s dead, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t, because Merlin had been his life, and if this is death, here with Merlin, Arthur doesn’t need life.
Maybe one day Arthur would’ve learned to live without Merlin. But now he doesn’t have to.
“This is my choice?” Arthur says, not looking at the boy, not looking at anyone but Merlin, because the last time Arthur hadn’t looked after him properly, Merlin had faded to ash and dust and nothingness.
The boy yanks his arm away from Arthur and crows when Arthur lets go. “Yes,” he says, sounding bored. “You went and got your warlock killed. Apparently, you’re meant to have a second chance.”
“I do,” Arthur says, and his smile tastes unfamiliar, like he had forgotten what happiness was. They can all run away together, Arthur thinks dizzily, he and Merlin and maybe Morgana and Gwen. They can stay somewhere and live simply, and all those things that Arthur had lost – leaning against Merlin’s side, warm and drunk and content; listening to Merlin’s long-suffering sigh like his life was difficult whenever Arthur told him to clean his boots; telling Merlin one of Bors’ rude stories just to watch him flush pink all the way up to his ears – can happen again.
“I want him back, I mean,” Arthur clarifies.
“I see that,” the boy says. “But this is not a gift, Arthur Pendragon. Those who live here, in this world, have already had their time in yours. They’re not meant to go back and few want to. Here, they are content, never without food. And they – we, now, I suppose – escape things like old age or disease. We have our family—” and he gestures vaguely— “as your warlock has, because everyone dies eventually, don’t they?”
“Merlin doesn’t,” Arthur says with absolute certainty, watching as the man Merlin’s standing with slings a companionable arm across Merlin’s shoulders. “Merlin doesn’t have anyone. His mother’s alive.”
The boy laughs, delighted. “Then I suppose that’s taken care of,” he says, and perhaps there’s a trace of malice there, but when Arthur looks at the boy’s face, he doesn’t see any of the cruel old man, just the flushed cheeks of a young boy who’s been out for too long in the sun. “Unfortunately,” he says, “there’s just one other pesky thing to get out of the way. As I was saying – people aren’t meant to go from this world back to your world. Death is a one-way gate. So, we have a problem. For your warlock to cheat that gate – well, there must be consequences.”
“Consequences,” Arthur says, and now he can almost hear Merlin’s laughter, clear and sweet, carrying across the din of voices, the steady rhythm of an axe against wood, the clang of a hammer against metal. “What consequences?” Arthur says, but it’s languid and unconcerned, because whatever it is, it won’t matter. If Merlin’s only allowed a certain amount of years, then they’ll make the most out of what they’ve got. If Merlin has to make do without his eyesight, then they’ll cure his blindness with magic. If Merlin’s life can only be given alongside someone else’s death, then Arthur will kill the man who has been locked up in the dungeon for weeks for raping Lady Cornelia’s daughter and who Uther hasn’t got around to executing yet.
“Ah,” the boy says, and his grin is terrible, somehow all the worse for having got his teeth back. “That would make it too simple, I’m afraid. No, you must make the decision based on what you fear may happen; only that way will you come to know what your warlock is worth to you.”
Merlin, Arthur thinks, is worth everything: a throne, a kingdom, everything. “Yes,” Arthur says.
“Go, then,” the boy says, but Arthur’s already going.
He’s mere centimeters away when Merlin sees him and Arthur thinks yes, because this feels right, having Merlin so close and alive, warm and breathing. His voice is easy and loved and beloved and always there, until it wasn’t. And Arthur can’t help but touch, can’t help but reach out as he’s done a million times, sliding his hand around Merlin’s wrist, thinking that he’ll never again let go.
And Merlin – Merlin looks at him, wide-eyed and shocked, and this time, Arthur will memorize the shade of those eyes, will have a shirt made in that color so he never forgets it. But Merlin’s mouth – always so quick to curl into a smile – curls the wrong way, and his mouth goes thin and flat, and then he’s saying Arthur’s name but it’s all wrong and it’s like they’re back in Camelot, Arthur in the dungeon, Merlin tied to the stake.
But then everything goes black and there’s nothing, neither death nor life – just nothingness.
Somewhere behind them, Morgana is screaming.
Arthur still has hold of Merlin’s wrist, the fine bones grinding together underneath his fingers, Merlin’s pulse skittering wildly under his touch, and he should let go now except he can’t because Merlin’s here and he’s real, and it’s a bit like waking up from a dream that doesn’t quite want to release him, so he’s caught, suspended in this dream come to life.
Merlin looks terrified, his face gone to white, washing all his fine features away, and Arthur thinks no, that doesn’t make sense at all, because Merlin should be happy; he’s here, he’s alive, here with Arthur and he reaches up to, he doesn’t know, to press the color back into Merlin’s skin, to curve his hand around the nape of Merlin’s neck and haul him in until he can feel him properly, warm and real and Arthur’s.
Merlin steps back in three jerky movements, like he doesn’t have the energy to do it in one.
Morgana’s screams cease and the sharp, sudden silence is a painful thing, a heavy presence of something indefinable, something not quite right, instead of an absence of noise.
“What have you done?” Merlin says, and his voice is all wrong, hard and desperate with none of the sweetness that Arthur remembers. His mouth is a white line, a gash across his face, and Arthur wants to laugh because this is so ridiculous, Merlin’s alive and everything is right now, as it should be, but here they are, standing in a village that’s not as deserted as it seems, underneath stormy skies. And Arthur’s smile feels grotesque, like a broken mirror that reflects Merlin’s face, gilded with horror.
“What have you done?” Merlin demands again, stumbling back like he can’t bear to have Arthur this close. He’s all wrists and elbows and suddenly Arthur can’t help but think that whoever put him back together did it haphazardly because surely Merlin was never so delicate-looking. But maybe it’s just that Arthur’s never seen such explicit fear on Merlin’s face; it’s almost obscene, the way it carves Merlin’s face into something misshapen, something macabre, and Arthur reaches for him again, wanting to smooth everything away so he can just have Merlin again, he doesn’t understand why Merlin is being like this—
“Oh, God,” Merlin says, the end of it disappearing into a furious sob. His shoulders hunch and he’s shaking and sobbing and screaming all at once and all Arthur can do is watch helplessly. “What have you done?” Merlin says, again and again until it all runs together into a meaningless litany, hands yanking at his hair, fingernails digging into his skin like he can rip it off, like he wants out of it.
“Merlin, stop it,” Arthur says, and he means it to come out as an order, but Merlin’s not listening, and God, why is he doing that? There’s blood underneath Merlin’s fingernails now, striped across his arm where he’s trying to peel off the skin, like he’s looking for something – muscle, maybe. Bone. And Arthur’s seen so much blood in his twenty years – has had his hands stained with it, has had to wash the gore that flecked onto the fine hairs on his arm – but it’s different when it’s Merlin’s and he has to – he can’t look, he can’t look.
Merlin looks up, then, with wild eyes, eyes that are no longer blue, no longer any color. “Get it off,” he says, voice pitched near a scream. “Get it – I can’t – please, oh God, I can’t—”
Arthur reaches for him again, tries not to look at all the blood. “Merlin,” he says and tries to stop the trembling of his hand. “Merlin, you’re here, you’re safe. Will you just—”
He’s nearly touching him now, fingertips a whisper away from Merlin’s face, and if he can just – thumb under Merlin’s eyelashes, thread his hand in the soft, feathery hair at the nape of Merlin’s neck, then maybe—
Fear gives Merlin speed – and maybe the magic is helping, but Arthur doesn’t want to think about that now, doesn’t want to think at all, all he wants to do is get Merlin back, chase away whatever’s haunting him (and maybe it’s him, he thinks, maybe Merlin is scared of Arthur, but Arthur doesn’t want to think about that either). All he wants to do is uncover Merlin’s smile, the way it brightens his whole face, the way the whole world just narrows to Merlin, just for a deep, sweet second.
But Merlin’s running, fast enough that Arthur can’t catch him, yet not so fast that Arthur loses him.
They run through the village, like the sun chasing the moon through the sky but never catching up to it, and if Arthur had thought that the cloying scent of death that hung, sickly sweet, from the houses and clung to the road would be left behind, he’s wrong, because he can still smell it, as if it has burned through his blood, viscous and consuming.
“Merlin,” he shouts, the wind sweeping his voice up, swirling it until it’s lost.
They run for minutes, days, maybe, and so when Merlin stops, it takes Arthur a moment to remember what standing still is like. He feels heavy, every breath a burden, but he can’t look away from Merlin, not even to slump over to catch the breaths that rip through his chest, rattle wildly against his ribs. He staggers over to clasp Merlin’s wrist and hates the way Merlin flinches, fingers furled into a fist like he can’t stand this – Arthur’s touch.
“I can’t,” Merlin says into a sob, and finally the pallid tinge to his skin has been banished by the pink of exhaustion. The blood has dried on his arms and it looks odd, nothing like blood at all, but as if Merlin’s splattered paint all over himself. He’s trembling like he’s cold, and he looks so frail, and Merlin’s always been scrawny, angles where curves should be, but he looks fragile now, eyes too luminous in his face. He’s blinking fast like he doesn’t know where he is, like he’s woken up from a nightmare and found the nightmare to be real.
“I’m dead,” Merlin says, his voice going eerily flat. “I – died.”
“You’re all right now,” Arthur says, pulling once, twice, and then Merlin lets himself be gathered up to Arthur. Arthur does this carefully, tucking Merlin’s cold hands in between them, curving one arm around Merlin’s waist, slipping his fingers through Merlin’s hair to cradle his head. “You’re all right,” Arthur says, and now that he’s got Merlin close, he doesn’t know what to do. He strokes Merlin’s hair cautiously, the arm around Merlin’s waist tense because he’s afraid that Merlin will try to run again.
“You’re okay,” Arthur says, and he thinks he can make Merlin believe it. He’s got Merlin’s neck bare, and he fits his chin into the crook of neck into shoulder. “You’re okay,” he says again and again because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“I died,” Merlin says dully.
“You did,” Arthur says. “But you’re – but you’re all right, everything’s fine now.”
“No,” Merlin says, still in that terrible monotone, so at odds with how he feels under Arthur’s hands: shaking like he’s halfway into a seizure, hands limp on Arthur’s shoulders, his heart an unsteady lilt against Arthur’s. He’s not looking at Arthur, no, his eyes are closed like he doesn’t want to see Arthur, doesn’t want to see this world that’s washed silver and gold and bright with sunlight.
“Look at me,” Arthur says, trying to be gentle, but he doesn’t know how because Merlin’s the gentle one, all soft smile and tender fingers. Arthur’s hands only know how to take life; they’re clumsy when it comes to keeping it. “Merlin, look at me.”
Merlin looks and Arthur thinks thank God, because Merlin’s eyes are blue again, so familiar that he can’t believe he’d ever forgotten it. “You shouldn’t have done this,” Merlin says, and now he’s pushing ineffectually at Arthur’s chest, trying to get away, but Arthur has lost him once and he’ll never, ever let go of him again. “You shouldn’t have – I died, I’m meant to be dead, I’m not – this isn’t – you should’ve left me there!”
“Stop it!” Arthur says sharply, catching one of Merlin’s wrists. “Shut up, don’t say that!” He can’t – God, maybe this is what the old man – the boy – meant about there having to be consequences; maybe Merlin has gone mad, maybe this isn’t Merlin at all, just some wispy shadow of what Merlin was, a broken little doll.
“I saved you,” Arthur says, releasing Merlin around the waist in favor of grabbing both of his wrists. “Listen to me,” he says roughly, shaking Merlin as if he can shake the hysteria out of him. “I saved you, you’re Merlin, you’re here and you’re safe and you’re with me, do you understand? You can’t – God, don’t say things like that!”
He feels so helpless, and it all feels like insanity, the wind rushing through his ears and having Merlin so close but not because this isn’t what he’d wanted, he’d wanted Merlin and Merlin should be happy to be here, because he’s meant to be here, with Arthur. He shouldn’t want to be back there, dead, no one wants to be dead. No one wishes for death, not when they have a second chance at life.
Merlin’s safe. Arthur saved him.
Merlin makes a strangled noise, one that dies long before it reaches his mouth. His mouth flutters into the shapes of words that never make it into existence, like he desperately needs to say something but doesn’t know how. Arthur stares at Merlin’s thin wrists in his hands, at the way the ends of the bones jut out of his skin in strange knobs.
“I saved you,” he says again, needing Merlin to believe it.
Needing himself to believe it.
“Arthur,” Merlin finally says, and Arthur tries not to hear the hopeless quality to it, the sigh that Merlin gives as he comes closer, laying his head on Arthur’s shoulder, winding his arms around Arthur’s waist and resting his hands on Arthur’s upper back where it curves into his shoulders. Arthur can feel Merlin’s mouth trembling against his neck, like Merlin is whispering into Arthur’s skin, but what he’s saying, Arthur doesn’t know.
Arthur smoothes his hand down Merlin’s back, fingers trailing bumpily along Merlin’s spine, and he doesn’t even realize he’s speaking until he vaguely notes that his breath is ruffling Merlin’s hair.
“Everything’s all right, you’re happy now, Merlin. You’re happy.”
He wishes that Merlin would say yes, yes, everything’s all right now, yes, he’s happy now, here. With Arthur.
But Merlin doesn’t say anything at all.