Lance managed to book them all rooms at a little bed and breakfast across the road from a lake, and they all made due on their previously drunken plan to get out of the city just to be getting out. Gwaine, sneaky bastard that he was, invited Gwen and Morgana to come along. Merlin came with them, because like hell they were leaving him behind.
It was cloudy and drizzling most of the time, but the area was gorgeous, the nearby village full of those little shops with little items you could only find in those far away country places where people still made things by hand. The lake was beautiful even under the gray sky, and when the drizzle decided to take a rest they would bring blankets out onto the grass for a picnic, eating and playing games all to the gentle lapping of the water.
Merlin preferred to sit and stare out over the lake, at the tiny island in the distance where an ancient tower sat like a lone sentinel guarding that little patch of land. Except he always looked so bloody lonely sitting there, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders because the air was just cool enough to make him shiver. Getting him to join them in their conversation or games had meant to be a game in itself. It became more like a necessity. Merlin was not meant to be alone, and they wouldn't let him.
So they would tug on his arm, or cajole him, or tease him until he finally joined them, and he would roll eyes as if he were indulging them, only to lose himself in whatever activity they were doing. Merlin called Arthur a prat while they were playing croquet and decided to make up their own rules that mostly involved cheating, Arthur called him idiot and they both laughed, and it felt so very, very right.
Arthur, Gwaine and Merlin shared a room on the second floor of the bed and breakfast. It wasn't exactly the most masculine room with its doilies and flowered wallpaper, but it was warm, comfortable, and Arthur (though he wouldn't admit it) rather liked how it smelled like freshly baked apple pie. You could also see the lake and the tiny island through the window, much to Merlin's liking.
“Just.... just hold me,” Arthur said. Because he was dying. Because he didn't want to die alone. Because Merlin, being Merlin, wanted – needed – to do something, to save him, to do for Arthur what he had always done.
What Arthur wanted was for him to be there.
“I don't want you to change,” Arthur said, wanting to hold onto Merlin as Merlin was holding him and never let go. “I want you... to always be you.”
Arthur woke up and he didn't know why. He didn't have to go, and the room was silent as a tomb. He looked around, wracking his half-asleep brain for whatever it was that was bugging the hell out of him enough to pull him out of his sleep. He was going to smack himself if he forgot to lock the car again--
His eyes passed over Merlin's bed, the one by the window overlooking the lake. The clouds had cleared; moonlight was pouring through the parted curtains, spilling across the rumpled blankets of a bare mattress.
It bothered him, seeing the bed empty, which was ridiculous. The boy was just going to the bathroom, for goodness sake, that was all. But then there was that sense of something wrong, something missing, and it was with annoyance more than worry that Arthur caved to it. He wasn't sure what it is he was even bothered by, but he searched the room all the same, a stupid and futile endeavor in the dark. He passed the window and looked out toward the lake. The moon was large and bright, turning the world silver and black.
A dark shape sat huddled on the grass by the shore, alone and far away.
Arthur frowned. “No.” That couldn't be Merlin, not this late at night out in the cold. He was just going to the bathroom, that was all. Arthur went into the hall to prove it. The bathroom was at the very end.
The door was open, the interior dark.
“What the hell is he doing?” Arthur hissed rushing back into the room. He jammed his feet into his shoes, not bothering to tie them, threw on his jacket and hurried from the inn.
The night was the crisp, fresh cold of a spring rain, both biting and invigorating. Dew and the remains of drizzle soaked quickly through the ankles of his sweats as he kicked through the grass toward the huddled form staring out at the lake as though entranced.
Arthur's immediate desire was for a swift and anxious reaction full of loud demands as to what the hell Merlin was thinking, coming out here this late at night. Did he want to get sick again? Did he realize how much finding him gone had terrified Arthur? And what the hell was so fascinating about that damn lake?
That would have been his reaction if he hadn't looked at Merlin's face. The boy was staring, just staring, looking half-asleep but placid, even has tears flashed like diamonds down his face.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked. Seriously, did this boy ever stop crying?
Merlin looked up at him with a blink of surprise and smiled. “Oh, Arthur. Hi. What are you doing out here?” There was no thickness to his voice, no nasal inflection of a stuffed up nose. It was just Merlin as he had been the entire weekend, content and contemplative whenever he looked out over the water.
Arthur frowned. “What are you doing out here? It's the middle of the bleeding night.”
It was Merlin's turn to frown, taking in his surroundings with the look of a man finally realizing where he was.
“Um... I'm not really sure. I had a bad dream. I remember that. It made me feel hot and stuffy. I think I just came out for some air and... lost track of time, I suppose.” Yet he made no move to get up, instead burrowing deeper into the blanket he had brought. At least he had thought to bring something to help keep off the chill.
This was the part, Arthur knew, where he should have coaxed – if not demanded – that Merlin come inside. Except it didn't feel right, and Arthur had come to learn that maybe listening to such feelings might not be a bad idea.
He wanted to stay, in fact. Take in some fresh air of his own. He settled next to Merlin on the wet grass instead.
But a chiding was still in order.
“Yes, well, remember that losing track of time could mean another bout of near-pneumonia. Gaius'll kill you if that happens.”
“No, he'll kill you for not making me come inside,” Merlin said. He grinned shamelessly around his tears.
Arthur glared at him, then rolled his eyes, then looked back at those tears still racing each other down the pale, thin face.
“Why are you crying?”
Once again, Merlin blinked, startled. He brought thin fingers to his cheeks, lifting the moisture onto his fingertips. He stared at them like they were something impossible.
“I don't know,” he said. He rubbed his fingers together. He looked from his fingers to the lake and the island in the distance, with its lonely tower watching as the world moved on without it.
“It's this place, I think,” Merlin said. “It makes me sad, sometimes. I don't know why.”
“Then why do you like sitting here, staring at it?” Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged. “Because...” but shook his head, his quiet laugh self-deprecating. “It's stupid.”
“Can I hear it, anyway?” Arthur said, and if it sounded hopeful, and just a touch desperate, it was probably because he was tired and hearing things.
Merlin tugged the blanket tighter around him. “Sometimes... sometimes it makes me happy, too.” He looked over at Arthur, just as hopeful, just as desperate. “That doesn't make sense,” he said.
Arthur looked out over the water, silver in the moonlight, at the island and the tower.
And he felt it. The sad. The hope. The joy. They danced around each other, over and over – a pain like a knife to the heart, a loneliness tempered by hope where there should be no hope, and joy as free as flying and as warm as a blanket. Over and over and over again.
“A-Arthur?” Merlin said, tentative and timid as the day Arthur had met him, huddling lost and alone against that dumpster. The memory made Arthur's heart break, his eyes blur. When he blinked, he felt warm moisture slide down his face.
“Yes?” he said.
“That night, during the card game, you talked about how... how you all met. How you always meet your friends.”
“Yes?” Arthur said.
“Did you mean it? Am I, you know... a friend too?”
Arthur gave him a bewildered look. “Seriously? Has it not become blatantly obvious at this point?” He shook his head at what seemed to be the boy's unending inability to recognize what was right in front of him. Then he wrapped his arm around the bony shoulders. He pulled Merlin against his side, holding on like an unspoken promise that he would never let go.
And it was right, like a missing piece back where it belonged, like finding the brother Arthur never knew he had, like the best friend that had had to leave his side, just for a little while, and was back where he belonged.
The cycle ended. There was no sadness, no loneliness riding on the thin thread of hope. There was only joy, like flying and warmth. Like being home.
“You are such an idiot,” Arthur said. “Of course you're my friend. Is it really that hard to realize?”
Merlin chuckled. “Gah, you're a clot pole, sometimes, you know that?”
“Merlin, that's not even a word.”
“It is now.”
Arthur ruffled Merlin's hair until he squawked in protest, and they both laughed. Arm still around his shoulders, Arthur began tugging Merlin to his feet.
“Come on,” he said. “Inside. You've had enough fresh air.”
They went inside, Arthur and Merlin. Maybe it was that feeling of joy, or maybe Arthur's brain unhappy about being awake and getting revenge by plaguing him with the most ridiculous thoughts, but it felt not unlike they were walking toward the future – a good, bright future that had been waiting for them throughout centuries, as ancient as the world itself.
It was definitely his tired brain getting revenge. Had to be.
Except that it felt right.