The passage of time means little to the dead. Merlin might've been here for an hour or a century; he knows not and finds it difficult to care. He exists and doesn't exist, caught between the realm of the living and an afterlife that taunts him with its glow of restful peace that lingers ever beyond his reach. He remembers little of his life Before. There are flashes, fleeting impressions that disperse quickly like images in still water broken by stones cast from a careless hand.
Running barefoot through the woods. Rich loam between his toes, damp and sun-warmed, redolent of the smell of earth and green, growing things. An uprooted tree. Fear. His mother's kiss upon his brow. The straps of his heavy pack digging into his shoulders through the soft leather of his well-worn jacket. A hard-packed road beneath weary feet.
He doesn't remember dying.
Merlin drifts around the unfamiliar room aimlessly, running spectral fingers over and through the objects in his path. He is curious in an abstract way, taking in the remnants of a rich man's repast left carelessly half-eaten on the table, the tunics scattered haphazardly on the floor, the fine armor burnished gold in the firelight, and the swords meticulously sharpened to a razor's edge. He wonders what sort of man occupies this place that holds him captive.
A roaring fire burns hot in the hearth, yet the warmth does not touch him. He feels a heaviness in the air, an intensity that weighs him down, mooring him to this space as though destiny has bound him here…and perhaps it has.
And then he sees Arthur, and he knows.
It is not the room that binds him.
His skin is searing beneath Merlin’s hands. He gasps out his pleasure and Merlin feels. It is something akin to life, this sensation, and he needs it desperately. He fancies that he feels the echo of a heartbeat in his chest, of hot blood coursing through his veins once more, of air filling lungs long left to rot in an unmarked grave.
To embrace Arthur is to cast off the shackles of death, if only for a little while.
He loves and resents it simultaneously, that Arthur can give him this taste of life that reminds him of all that he is missing, and yet he knows having Arthur is the only thing that makes his state of being bearable.
Merlin is drawn to Arthur; iron to lodestone, bee to blossom, river to sea. And he stays; the pull is inexorable. It is the heavy hand of fate, he thinks, the will of the Goddess. He does not -- cannot -- resist.
To appear before Arthur, to cause his amorphous form to coalesce into something manifest and clear – it requires Merlin’s concentration. It is an exercise of power, of will, and not so different from the magic he’d used in life.
Arthur is vibrant before him, all golden hair, blue eyes, and Pendragon red. By contrast, Merlin is a mere shade, a shadow of his former self.
Arthur faces him boldly, and Merlin feels a distant echo of pleasure. It ripples through him, shapes his lips into a smile, and suffuses him with something that feels almost like contentment.
When Arthur returns, Merlin shows himself again. He will prove to Arthur just how real he is, until he never doubts again. It is a caricature of life, but it is his and he has no intention of letting it go.
Arthur is hot and eager beneath his cool touch. For now, it is enough.
And yet, it will never be enough.
She cannot have Arthur, because Arthur is all Merlin has.
He stakes his claim, lays his marks on Arthur’s flesh with teeth and cool fingers. He waits until Arthur is undone, until he can sense Arthur’s need simmering beneath his skin, expressed in harsh breaths and muttered pleas. He answers; he takes; he owns.
Arthur’s body trembles with the need for release, and Merlin grants it. Seed coats his fingers, viscous and scalding as he speaks into the nape of Arthur’s neck, mouthing the words against fevered flesh.
“Mine,” he says harshly. “You are mine".