Title: like a funeral, like a fair
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Merlin recognises him immediately the moment Arthur’s eyes meet his.
Warnings: Major character death, angst, minor spoilers for 5x13.
Word Count: 738 words
Prompt: #228 Second Chances and my trope_bingo square, "immortality/reincarnation."
Author's Notes: I have writers block something chronic at the moment, so this is actually something I wrote a while back but never got around to posting anywhere.
Merlin isn’t sure how many lifetimes it takes before he figures it out. Enough that the coin is finally balanced on its end again, and he and Arthur meet once more in passing, their lives touching briefly like hands brushing in a crowded room. Merlin is a doctor, well versed in the various ways and means of dying, and knows even as he enters the room that His Grace the presiding Duke of Sussex is not long for this world. Despite his advanced age, however, and the ravages of time and illness on his once-unmistakeable features, Merlin recognises him immediately the moment Arthur’s eyes meet his.
“Your Grace,” Merlin says, bowing his head with a sense of aching familiarity, and Arthur’s eyes widen, mouth tipping upwards in a half smile at the private jest.
“Leave us,” he tells his attendants. They file out obediently, and when the door closes behind the last of them he gestures the doctor forward, clasping one of Merlin’s comparatively youthful hands in both his own.
“It’s you,” Merlin says inanely, feeling the old bones shift under his grip. Whatever elation he might have felt at the reunion is tempered by Arthur’s obvious fragility, and the knowledge that he is almost, almost too late. “It is you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur says, and there’s an eye-roll in his voice even if his expression doesn’t change. “And I assume that means you remember too. Unless you go around making eyes at all the Dukes of your acquaintance.”
Merlin laughs. “You never know, sire,” he quips. “One of them might just sweep me off my feet and deliver me into a life of luxury.”
Arthur’s grip is brittle and his skin feels like paper. He’s sitting propped against several pillows, looking sunken and faded, his golden hair dulled to various shades of grey. Even his eyes are old, rheumy and clouded, and Merlin has the sudden realisation of what it might have been like that first time their lives had intersected, if only things at Camlann had taken a different path. To see Arthur again is a gift; to see him so old and close to death is a mixed blessing.
“I wanted to tell you,” he begins, and then stops, because it was so long ago now, and it’s not as if magic even exists anymore. He says, “There was so much I never got to say.”
“Knowing you, Merlin, I can only imagine.”
Merlin glares, but the quirk of Arthur’s mouth is fond and far too familiar. In this lifetime, Merlin is past the time of violent passions, on the cusp of middle age, but the sweet-sharp ache of longing is still there for all that, and from the way the old duke sighs and closes his eyes, he thinks perhaps Arthur understands.
“I can’t believe it took you this long,” the Duke says finally, and his voice is very faint. Merlin knows he should get on with his examination so as not to exhaust his patient, but his concern for Arthur’s well-being is at war with his own innate desire never to let go of the other man’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, pressing his lips to the swollen knuckles, his voice choked with emotions he dare not name. “I’m so sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur’s hand tightens on his.
“It’s all right,” he says, without opening his eyes. “Next time, just — just don’t be late.”
Arthur, Duke of Sussex, dies in his sleep a few weeks later, and Merlin attends the funeral, keeping to himself so that he won’t have to explain why he is crying. In one sense, this is a victory: so much time has passed between the two of them that he was beginning to believe Kilgharrah had been wrong about this, as he had been about so much else. But here was definitive proof that both he and Arthur were being reborn and that it was possible for them to find one another. The only trouble was, how did it work? Was Arthur even now alive again, a squalling infant being rocked in his mother’s arms? Or did it take longer than that — was there some sign or portent by which he could track the king’s rebirth?
“I will find you,” he promises the gravestone, when everyone else is gone. “I swear, I’ll find you, Arthur.”
It has only ever been a question of when.