Arthur woke to a world of white blankness.
At first, he wasn't sure why this surprised him. But softly, slowly, images drifted into his mind: pale, muted memories of things that should have been horrifying, but were leeched of any true impact as though they had been packed in wool in his mind. There was a battle-white lightning and bodies flying, a sorcerer on a cliff. And there was something, something important about that sorcerer.
The name sent a frisson of emotion through him-fear, longing, grief, gratitude-so strong that it took his breath. The final scenes of his life played before his eyes, the journey and the pain that had exhausted him and the worry for Merlin that had eventually dominated his thoughts.
It had taken dying to bring him to a true understanding of Merlin's worth and devotion, and with that understanding had come horrible knowledge-that after years of saving Arthur from nearly every type of threat and danger, Merlin was going to fail. And when he did, it was going to devastate him body and soul.
Arthur had seen, brilliant in the man's eyes, a desperation to accompany his king even into the shadow lands, something he would not be allowed to do.
Or would he?
Arthur sat up with a lurch, eyes searching the area keenly. Mist surrounded him, a whiteness clinging to the ground, hanging in the air, blocking out everything except a beautiful ceiling of blue sky overhead. It was quiet; the air was calm and peaceful in a way that was completely foreign to Arthur. How long had he been here?
After several, louder tries garnered no response, Arthur felt confused relief, which annoyed him. If this was death, then it was nothing but evil to wish Merlin here with him.
Arthur swung his legs over the edge of the...invisible...bed he had been lying on. He stood and, for a few seconds, glared at the nonexistent thing, feeling his jaw tighten.Was this magic nonsense really necessary?
"Hello?" he called out. "I'm awake. Can someone please explain where in the bloody hell I am?"
Arthur frowned. That sounded like...
Then there was the soft sound of footsteps and a small, familiar figure appeared in the mists, someone with dark skin, curly hair and smiling brown eyes-his beloved wife. "Such language! Is that any way for a king to be-"
Arthur swept her up in his arms before she could finish chastising him, his heart full of sudden joy and pain at the same time. He pulled her small body up to his and buried his face in her shoulder, shuddering with emotion. "I'm sorry I had to leave you."
Gwen's small hands patted and soothed him. "I know, Arthur, I know. I know everything now. This is Avalon and we've all had time to talk and to figure out our part in your story while we were waiting for you to awake. And now, here you are."
As she shifted, Arthur reluctantly let her slide down from her arms. She looked up at him with a sweet but slightly distant air, as though their passion were nothing but a fond memory now. It was not so for him. Arthur frowned, a question trying to form in his mind.
Before he could voice it, another voice called out from the mists. "Your majesty, you've awakened!"
An impossibly tall, thin figure in chain mail was striding toward them.
"Sire! You have no idea how good it is to see you." Leon crossed the final distance in seconds and gripped Arthur's arms warmly in his hands.
Arthur clapped a hand on Leon's shoulder, feeling a grin split his face and a new steadiness in his limbs. "The feeling is mutual, Leon. How have you been?" Arthur's gaze slipped to Gwen as she shifted and a his joy began to fade. His wife had slipped her hands around Leon's arm, turning the two of them into a couple as they faced their king. Arthur could not force his eyes away from that casual but intimate touch.
Leon shifted uncomfortably. "Sire, I hope that-I hope that you understand..."
Arthur forced a smile. "The two of you married. Of course. I would have suggested that to you, Gwen, had I had time. I'm glad you were not...lonely."
Gwen gave him a sad smile. "I remained alone for eight years and had thought to stay always so, but Sir Leon had different ideas."
Leon's face had grown pale, and he swallowed. "I never sought to replace you, sire. I only sought to make her smile again, to shoulder a small amount of the load she bore in being Queen."
Arthur brushed off his worries with an impatient gesture. Although the idea had taken him by surprise, he knew it to be something he could understand and, in time, possibly grow to appreciate. But for now, he needed to change the topic.
"If you are both here, then I assume you have both...died." It felt slightly impolite to ask, but neither of them seemed disturbed as they gave their assent.
"And so...where is Merlin?"
Gwen's face fell and Leon's eyes clouded over with emotion. They glanced at each other before turning to Arthur.
Gwen reached out to touch Arthur's arm. "He's not here. The rest of us have passed on and been brought to Avalon. But not Merlin. He's still alive, still waiting. He's..." Tears flooded her eyes and she turned to Leon, shaking her head. He put an arm around her before attempting to explain.
"He gone somewhere that we can't see, sire. We used to be able to watch over him, to try to influence things in some small way, but not since the last..." Leon trailed off exactly as Gwen had, irritating Arthur to no end. Could no one finish a sentence in this cursed place? "He's changed, over time. He's gotten worn out, living so long, waiting, and...he sort of...went funny in the head."
Gwen huffed out an irritated breath at Leon. This was obviously an argument they'd had before. "Stop saying that. He's going to be fine. He just...everyone kept on and on at him, Arthur, and once he got started, he couldn't stop trying to explain about you and him and Camelot. They thought he was..."
Leon took up the story when she trailed off. "They always do. In the past, he could just move on. But for the last few hundred years, they put people like him in homes and try to help them."
Somewhere in the middle of Arthur's growing feeling of panic, a bloom of true dread grew. "Few...hundred years?" Arthur was sure he'd misheard Leon. "How long has it been?" The two of them gave him a twin look of caution that left him breathless. "How long?"
"It's been over a thousand years, Arthur. Closer to fifteen hundred, actually."
Arthur felt his blood run cold. His mind fragmented. Did he still have blood then, here, in death? He must, because he could feel it now, his heart pounding like a runaway stallion.
"You said Merlin was still...living?"
They nodded reluctantly. Arthur's vision tunneled until there was nothing but white and two people far, far away. His mind was with Merlin, who, despite all his many kindnesses, his self-sacrifices and his willingness to take on Destiny's mantle of pain, had apparently been rewarded with nothing but centuries of loneliness and near insanity.
There were only a few, last faded thuds-dirt landing on the coffin above him-and finally, everything grew still. Smothering darkness and stale air pressed in around him. When he had been young, so very long ago, he might have been afraid. But he knew better now; he was a creature of magic, a being made from sea, sky and earth: being buried alive held no fear for him.
Slowly, the sound of his breathing filled the coffin. He flinched and began to move his arms and legs, feeling the slide of the soft, cool lining of taffeta surrounding him. He hadn't dared to see what color it was before, but now he opened his eyes, lifted a hand stiff from disuse and called his latent magic forth. The glow illuminated the fabric lining the long box around him, a deep shade of blue. He shuddered out a sigh.
Moira's choice, obviously. She'd always loved the blue of his eyes, despite the agedness that laid waste to his body when magical apathy outweighed his common sense. He could have de-aged himself, but...why? There was no more hope of happiness for himself, none beyond the unreachable, unattainable...the impossible.
But Moira had never given up on him, had nursed him in the home until the energy of her caring caused him to start caring to again, to feel the need to ease her worry and explain why her efforts were in vain. He was going to miss her.
"I was put on this earth forty years too late. You and I should have met as hot-blooded teenagers, Mr. Atwater. With those eyes and that smile and my dancer's legs, we could have lit the town from one end to the other. People would still be talking about the scandal today."
Her voice faded from his mind. In her own way, she had loved him.
But it doesn't matter. She will die. They always do. Always.
A violent wave of emotion choked his breath. That's what he had found himself telling her, telling them, but they wouldn't listen to him...
"It's true, don't you hear me? He lived and breathed and died and he was nothing like the books said. None of them get it right!"
"Mr. Atwater, please, just stay calm. We don't want to have to sedate you-"
But once he'd started, he just hadn't been able to stop.
"Sometimes, it seems like I imagined all of it. When you're the only person to remember-the only person left alive-oh gods, oh please...don't you understand? I'm the only one left!" And he had come unglued, awash in memories and grief that he couldn't stop. A bewildering crowd of people had poured into the room, which was always a bad sign.
Moira's face had twisted in empathy for him. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry but we have to get you calmed down before you hurt yourself."
"Hurt myself?" he pled with a bitterness so deep that it choked him and any reason left in him. "As if I would care! Do you have any idea how many times I've tried to to kill myself? Do you?" Then maybe, he'd gone a bit mad, because he'd said something along the lines of, "Do any of you want to take a turn?"
Moira apologized, over and over, but her voice was overridden by the staff psychiatrist, who was supposed to be off duty at this hour, but who was, instead, watching Merlin's hysteria with clinical detachment.
"You heard him. That changes everything."
There was an instant change in the bodies around him, in the way they moved and scurried.
Merlin went cold and felt instantly sober. "No, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean to say it. It's just hard. Don't you understand?" he pleaded. And that struck him as funny, asking the psychiatrist that question. He began to laugh in panicky jerks. "Of course you don't understand. No one does. No one knew Arthur but me. No one believes he'll return. Sometimes I don't even believe-"
As they gathered around him, Merlin's voice rose to a shriek. "No! I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. Ow! I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said...it."
"It's okay, Mr. Atwater. Please, just sleep."
"Moira, Moira...it's so hard to remember and if I don't talk about it...he disappears. And I...I hate...that...worse than...worse'n...'nything."
"It's okay, Mr. Atwater. It's going to be okay. I promise," she whispered.
He heard her soothing voice in his head even now, heard how she had grieved over his lifeless body at the funeral. Merlin wasn't actually dead, of course. Thanks to his almighty, bloody power, he'd found a way to fake even that.
This was the fourth time he'd been buried, the fourth time he'd awoken and found that despite his wishing and praying and begging and hoping that this time it would take, he was still here.
"Why?" he inevitably asked himself.
"Because he will return," he unceasingly answered, "and I must be here for him. He should not be alone. No one should be alone."
Not even me.
Sobs bubbled up in his chest, coming from wherever he had banished them. He breathed in gasps and hitches, crying out to whoever was listening.
"I can't do it. I can't do this anymore. Let me die. Let me sleep. I'm so tired."
He heard his own mind trying to feed him wisdom and reassurances as it always did, something from the vast store of knowledge and experience he'd had, but he couldn't focus on anything but the pain in his chest and the endless tears choking him.
"Why can't I die? Why-can't-I?" He slammed his fists against the coffin until fury gilded his eyes gold. His mind seized the moment to pull a clear vision of Arthur's face as he had thanked Merlin, his hand tangled in Merlin's hair, his eyes lit up with waning emotion, just before he had gone limp and gently slipped away from this world.
To one who could never taste its oblivion, that moment when everything fades and the burdens of life, even life itself, cease, seemed all the more beautiful and desirable. Merlin had seen it in so many forms, in so many that he loved: Freya, Will, Lancelot, Gwaine, Gaius, Gwen, Percival, little Arthur...
On and on the memories came until the pain of it scalded, scorched its way out of his chest, bringing his magic to a raging crescendo that burst out in a primal scream. He was too far gone to hold back and the scream first shattered his throat, then his mind and everything material around him.
There was no Merlin now, nothing left but a body that did not cease its unending living, no matter the state of the soul within...
The hillside cemetery where Mr. Scott Atwater had been buried hours ago showed no sign of the cataclysmic event that had just happened under the surface. Workers continued to bundle away the equipment and store it for the next funeral. Even the most dedicated mourners like Moira had turned away and only a soft wind stirred the plot where the most powerfulsorcerer to ever walk the earth lay buried.
There was no sign that the earth itself was pooling its own magic, mourning with its child as he lay insensate, driven mad with grief. The tendrils of magic began to weave themselves around the long, lanky figure, staving off the dripping dirt and shredded wood of his casket, cleaning away the blood and signs of misery, soothing aches and restoring health. But even as the magic caressed him, it felt Emrys pulling away in his mind, far away.
He was broken, beyond reason, beyond sense.
The magic mourned with him. It should not have happened this way. Arthur was supposed to have returned by now. Something had kept him, some deeper purpose. Something was keeping him still.
So. Something must be done.
The magic soothed Emrys, cradled him and with a desperate lurch and a keening call of mother to child reached inside his mind, inside his body...and unmade him.
Not completely-not from the end to the beginning-no. The world needed him too desperately. But he could not exist as he was and for that reason, the magic made him exist as he had been. She shrunk him, reduced him, rewinded him until the clear, deep blue eyes had been set in a small, pale face that could almost be called pudgy with baby fat.
All that had plagued him was forgotten. Merlin sighed, curled into a chubby little ball and snuffled noisily as he fell back asleep. Magic wept. He must go somewhere else, somewhere where his centuries of memory couldn't find him.
The magic shuddered at the thought, but acted in faith. She blessed Emrys on the dark crown of his hair and pushed him deep into the earth, still sleeping. Her tendrils reached out, moving him along through soil and water, protecting him until he was out of her reach. Then the Old Ones of the sea, as much a part of him as the Old Ones of the earth, took him through the water and transported him farther.
Until he was out of their reach, too.
Let him find love, she wished. Let him find a home. Let him be...happy.
Empty and bereft, she felt outwards, trying to find where he had gone. But wherever Emrys was, he was now too far for her to follow. Her next task would be to wake the one person who could truly help him, but not yet. Not quite yet.