Character/s: Arthur, Merlin
Summary: The years fall away like the ashen feathers of a phoenix, and Merlin remakes them in flames.
Warnings: Post-Series 5, so implied spoilers for entire show.
Word Count: 704
Prompt: #61 - Broken
Author's Notes: N/A
The years fall away like the ashen feathers of a phoenix, and Merlin remakes them in flames. He defeats time by recasting Albion again and again, preserving that which he has sworn to protect. The world has grown old, but Camelot still shines in the morning sun, waiting for her king to return.
It isn't right; Merlin knows that. How could it be, without Arthur? But the flags still fly. The walls are indomitable. It is not the nation they dreamt of forging, but it has survived, and that is what matters. It's here, and with Arthur to lead, it will be great again.
The time of Arthur's return is a natural law not even Merlin can usurp, but he knows the day and the hour. He knows the nanosecond when his king will find his way back to the land he was forced to leave behind. His absence has spanned generations, but to Merlin it is like a breath he has been waiting a thousand years to exhale. He waits, and he is ready.
Merlin's is the last and the first voice Arthur hears. There is something in between that last and this first, but it slides away from his thoughts, infinite and unrestrained. He blinks in the hazy light, listening to Merlin's rambling with a bittersweet sense of homecoming.
"How long?" he rasps, still disoriented with the weight of his limbs, with being here and now in a way that feels both familiar and utterly foreign.
"A thousand years."
The response is oddly toneless, and Arthur looks - really looks - at his oldest friend. His skin is unmarked by the passage of years, blue eyes clear, limbs strong, and Arthur thinks for a moment that perhaps Merlin also tasted death and returned. But as soon as he knows what to look for he can see the centuries like a shadow across his features: grooves as implacable as the course of an ancient river after the water has dwindled away to nothing. Merlin tries to smooth it over with a boisterous gaiety, but Arthur can see the fractures inside.
"-definitely not polishing your armor, so you can forget about that-"
"Merlin." Arthur interrupts the stream of jibes and mundane chit-chat with a growing sense of foreboding. "Where are we?"
Merlin blinks. "Camelot."
Arthur focuses on his breathing, maintaining an implacable calm as he glances up at the enormous red sun. It seems to fill half the sky, yet its light is dim and the air is inexplicably thick, as though choked with a dry mist. He recognizes the battlement, and the courtyard below. He recognizes his own banner, though there is not even a whisper of a breeze to lift it. It is certainly his castle, and stretching below it are the streets of the town, each cobblestone perfectly fitted to the next. The buildings are pristine, practically glowing with the indistinct blur that the atmosphere gives to distant objects.
"Merlin," he says slowly and carefully. "Merlin, where are the people?"
Merlin freezes eerily in place, his breath arrested, and Arthur can see his fragile illusions fluttering away like dead leaves. "I saved some," he whispers finally. "Those that would listen. I saved them Arthur. They didn't die like the others. They just...faded. They grew old, and they died. Even the children. Until...everything dies, Arthur. I can stop the wind and the fire and the sickness. I can make food and clean water. But I can't touch time any more than it can touch me."
Arthur tries to speak, but gets stuck somewhere between yelling at Merlin to stop and asking him to explain. A terrible truth is unfolding and he doesn't know if the details will make it more or less bearable. Is this the great destiny that was foretold for his kingdom? Is this the shattered world Arthur has been sent back to save?
"But you're back, Arthur. We can...everything will be sorted now. I couldn't get it right because I only had half. I needed the other side of the coin, that's all. We can...make it...."
Merlin trails off pathetically. In the silence of that perfect, sterile world, Arthur realizes that the broken thing he's meant to save...is Merlin.