"Two souls are sometimes created together and in love before they're born."
—Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
Before there is the end, there is the beginning.
In the beginning, a fair-haired man wandered into the Gods’ realms, lost. The Gods kept him and gave him no name, for even Gods cannot name that which they did not create. But they kept him and cared for him because they saw he was good and brave. When chaos reigned on earth, they pled him to serve the earth as her warrior. The man nodded his acceptance, descended to earth and fought with steel and words until he brought peace once more.
The man stayed, and, though he was not human like Gods’ creations, he became human like them: he wandered the earth and met, one day, a dark-haired man he fell in love with. The Gods watched and found that the other man was neither magós nor imp nor anything they could identify. The dark-haired man with the eyes of the sea simply was, and for that the fair-haired man loved him more than his own life and all other lives on earth. The Gods soon feared the man for the very same, because they saw that he was of a magic greater than their own.
They watched as he touched his lips to their warrior and said, “Arthur.” They watched as the fair-haired man touched his own lips back to him, saying, “Merlin,” as though they had known each other before even the Gods knew of them, or time, or breath. They watched, terrified and wrathful, as Merlin bowed before the one he called Arthur to pledge him his services because Arthur was who he was, hair like the sun and eyes like the sky, arrogant and forgiving and hard and soft and so endlessly, endlessly selfless. He said he had been waiting for Arthur without knowing he had been waiting, and there was nothing on earth Merlin would want more than to love him.
The skies opened in a storm after Arthur had lain with Merlin for the first time, and the Gods spoke to Arthur in rolling thunder. “You have betrayed us,” they said, their words crackling with lightning. “You have sworn to protect the earth, and yet you bind yourself in mortal folly to this wicked creature. Come back to us, and you shall be forgiven.”
“I have not forsaken you,” Arthur spoke calmly, and his hand was strong and warm on the back of Merlin’s neck. “You only ever spoke of the earth I needed to protect, but never which. Your earth is not mine. I have found mine, and it is Merlin who bears the sky and the sea in the blue of his eyes, and the land in his milky skin. And it is to him that I pledge my services, once and future, as he pledged his to me, and I shall protect him until I die.”
“Then you shall die,” the Gods roared, for they did not humour words spoken against them. In their entitlement for sovereignty they thought Arthur’s words blasphemous, so they cursed him to perish in battle for their earth, how, in the end, it came to be.
As Arthur lay dying in Merlin’s arms, Merlin howled to the sky cursing the Gods and their greed. Arthur’s last words to him were, “I’ll find you, my little bird,” and Merlin, blind with grief and mad with rage, did the darkest blood magic he knew of; in Arthur’s last breaths he bound Arthur to himself, so that he would live again and have a full life, the one the Gods had taken from him, and Merlin would be there, waiting for him in stone.
But magic is a fickle thing, and the Gods are never merciful. They were both cursed into an endless cycle of rebirth and death and rebirth again; Merlin, who survived the ages as lifeless form trapped in a statue waiting for Arthur because he loved him, and Arthur…
Arthur, because he swore to serve the earth.
“There will be battle tomorrow.”
He says the words before he even thinks them; they’re as natural as the breath he draws.
“Yes,” Merlin’s calm voice agrees.
Arthur is seized by a sudden, fierce desire to see Merlin one more time. His feet carry him to the other man, and he comes to a halt some steps before him.
Merlin is half-shrouded in shadows, and Arthur’s eyes trace the contours of his body hungrily: the high arches of Merlin’s prominent cheekbones, the clean lines of his long arms and legs, the relief of his sharp collar bone. Merlin is a study of deep blue eyes, white skin and dark hair, the only subject Arthur was ever willing to learn for no other reason than pure selfish need.
“You won’t stay.” He speaks without regret. Those words feel familiar, though Arthur has not spoken them before. He knows without knowing that they are true.
“I can’t.” Merlin’s eyes glisten with a reluctant kind of acceptance. In the play of shadow Arthur cannot quite interpret Merlin’s blue irises; he thinks he sees something flicker up in Merlin’s eyes for a second or two that may be an accusation. “I’m so sorry.”
I’m sorry too, Arthur wants to say. His lips are sealed in a sad smile, and the unspoken words tie a noose around his neck, stealing his breath. I’m sorry too, because I’ve never before not wanted to go to battle. I must; you know that. I don’t want to; you don’t know that.
And Merlin never will know.
Not in this life.
“Then this is the end,” Arthur says finally, softly.
It is the end because it must be the end; Arthur must go, yet he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to, but he must, he must, he must...
The last time that Arthur sees the beauty of the still sea in this life is the moment before Merlin’s lashes hide his eyes entirely. The white of his face and his hands becomes the uneven grey of stone, smooth and hard and cold.
The finest stonemason in the whole of Camelot could not have built a statue more to Merlin’s likeness.
Before Merlin gave Arthur his life, Arthur gave him his life, like this: with soft lips, whose shape fits perfectly into the form of Merlin’s stony ones, and with trembling hands that warm the cool rock framing Merlin’s cheekbones.
And then Merlin is gone, because he cannot stay, because Arthur cannot stay.
(Because Arthur cannot stay for him.)
(Arthur’s fourteenth reincarnation unfolds exactly like all the others before.
Arthur does not know (not yet) that he and Merlin are simply protagonists in a tragic theatre play that is performed every now and then during the centuries, because the Gods are fickle and selfish. War is Arthur’s father and Destruction is his mother, and he is born from them to bring peace.
The Gods wrote the script from vengefulness or spite or both. The scenarios vary, but the core of the script remains the same and keeps replaying in a ceaseless forever:
1. Arthur is born into a situation requiring his help.
2. Merlin (as a petrified statue) follows him.
3. In an undefined point of time, Arthur meets Merlin and brings him back to life.
4. Merlin, in turn, brings meaning into Arthur’s life.
5. After a few years (or months), Arthur dies in a battle for humanity.
6. Merlin returns to stone and sleeps.
In each sixth moment, in every single life, again and again, Merlin thinks:
The Gods must be the devils in masquerade.
The sun on the morning of Arthur’s death is always the most beautiful he has ever seen.)
ACT I: THE BEGINNING.
On earth, an emergency reigns. Into this, Arthur is born. He is primarily a warrior and secondly a good and brave man whose purpose in life is to bring an end to earthly chaos. The setting is the place where a crisis may be located. (Variations in setting such as the gritty heat of deserts, the blood-stopping cold of icy ground, the lush green of fields or forests, or the crimson stone of barren land, etc. are possible.)
After Arthur’s birth, Merlin is waiting for him, trapped in stone. When they then meet, the inexplicable, recurring, apparently eternally lasting connection between both characters causes Merlin’s release: before Arthur’s eyes, Merlin becomes human again. This happens at a place and at a time that are left to chance. Dialogue and further, smaller details besides Merlin’s revival are also left to chance.
Addendum: Arthur never remembers his previous lives.
An example of Act I from Arthur’s fourth life (4):
The sand is hot and soft under his feet, yet Arthur doesn’t feel it. He walks with calm, wide steps towards the temple, and the sun burns the skin of his nape and bare arms. The temple steps lying in the shadows of the pillars around the entrance are a welcome relief for the bare soles of his feet, even though Arthur knows it’s nothing but a temporary impression of coldness. Shadow does not bring chill, and while he walks through the labyrinthine corridors of the temple, the air does not change. If anything, the deeper Arthur advances, the more stifling it becomes.
Deep in the earth, Arthur steps into a dusty, dark room, illuminated dimly only by the torch he is carrying. He steps forward determinedly without seeing where he is going (he knows the way), heart thudding faster with each step, and lights the torch mounted on the wall in the right corner. It catches, flares, then dims down to a steady flicker. He puts his own torch aside, the excitement making him careless, though nothing flammable is near.
The statue is still here.
(Where else should it be? The statue was always here, a barely audible voice whispers inside of Arthur’s head. Here as though waiting, waiting for something, someone…)
He kneels before it, needing a moment to let the force of relief wash over him. It loosens the invisible string around Arthur’s throat, and his breathing calms, if not his heart. The line of his temples and forehead bead in a trickle of sweat. He bows his head, his fringe falling over his forehead with the movement, and stares down at the statue’s smooth grey bottom, a stone circle in whose midst feet begin. As Arthur raises his head to let his eyes wander up the statue’s thin, long legs, the skin on his neck stings, golden brown where the sun has seared into it.
The boy chiselled in stone is as fascinating and strange as the smooth grey surface of his statue. Arthur feels guilt and relief both when he looks at the boy: fine, long limbs that don’t speak of physical labour, and a face with eyes dipped down in a sorrow that is reflected in the downward bow of his mouth, one whose blunt cut tastes of dust and a melancholy that makes Arthur long for the far-away blue of the sea.
When Arthur kisses those marble lips this time, hands trembling as they settle on the slim carving of a hip (as though perfectly made for his hand, his only, and oh, that is a dangerous, dangerous path to tread...), his breath falters, his heart hammers—
Melancholy eyes stare right back at him as ashen lids open to reveal blown black pupils and the blue of the sea.
The sea is not far away anymore, though. It is so close Arthur can see speckles of the golden sun within.
ACT II: THE MIDDLE.
They get to know each other and (most probably) know love*.
Dialogue and further unimportant action besides Arthur’s imminent death and Merlin’s repeated petrification are left to chance.
*The Gods hold no influence over this event. Yet it keeps happening repeatedly, with such a regularity in any conceivable circumstance that it may be safely recorded in the script.
“You shouldn’t be alive,” Arthur hisses, gripping his sword tighter. “You should—Gods, you’re a statue! How can you—?”
The statue—no, no, the boy—is alive, despite Arthur’s startled bafflement and repeated claims that he simply can’t be alive. And he can’t be, truly; Arthur has been visiting the statue in the hidden grove, hundreds of steps away from camp, every other day. He found a statue there every time, made of stone and another curious material that is smoother to the touch, smoother and more beautiful to look at, with what looks like artful, sparse splatters of white paint as if the rock bleeds from within.
Nevertheless, the statue that was definitely made of rock, solid and hard and grey and unmoving, is now this… this boy.
This boy, who is blinking ridiculously long ashes against the sun falling brightly through the swaying trees overhead, whose strange mouth (so curiously shaped) has opened softly to take in a breath through his smile, a grateful little smile as though it were too long ago he last drew a breath—this boy is definitely real.
The statue’s white blood seems to have turned. The boy’s skin—such a ghostly paleness—is hot to the touch. The rest of him is all thick dark hair, black like the hilt of Arthur’s sword and black like restless nights. Gods, no, the boy is definitely no longer a statue, not with the blue of his eyes and the red of his mouth.
“Magic may do many things, as you see,” the boy replies calmly, and his voice shouldn’t fall softly, shouldn’t sound so alluring to Arthur’s ears (it is), and Arthur should not be able to understand him (he does). “Such as… bring life to stone, I suppose?”
“What witchcraft is this? Do the Gods know of your unnaturalness?” His father shines through Arthur in these words; Arthur is only twenty now, and he doesn’t know yet know his own heart as well as Merlin does.
A statue transforming into a boy, a boy that Arthur understands though he speaks another language, a boy that…
...is actually breaking out into laughter, loud and explosive in the stillness of the Isle’s forest. Arthur frowns at the boy’s utter thoughtlessness. What if there are enemies around, just waiting to find and chase their prey? And enemies are around; by all rights this boy is Arthur’s slave if he belongs to this Isle (which he must do), because now the Isle is his. The boy shouldn’t be laughing, shouldn’t be doubled over, holding his stomach, shouldn’t be crying from amusement but terror. Arthur should probably gag him and tie him up and drag him back to camp to throw him to the other slaves and then make him swear fealty to Arthur and the North, but somehow…
Somehow, Arthur can only frown and watch the boy with keen, keen eyes and wonder if his hair feels as soft as his mouth looks, and think, without reason, I needn’t make him swear fealty. I already have it.
The thoughts confuse Arthur, and confusion makes him angry. He takes a step forward and snaps, “What is it?”
Arthur’s tone seems to still the boy somewhat. When he looks up at Arthur from his crouch, his eyes are not as young as his body says he is, and his mouth is a sly, crooked curve.
“Rest assured that your precious Gods know more than you do,” the boy says, slightly husky from the way laughter has stolen his breath. There is something else in his voice that Arthur catches but doesn’t understand, something dark and humourless, like his eyes.
Arthur should strike the boy’s lip bloody and his eyes black for his utter and obscene godlessness (his father would have him flogged and hanged as a public lesson), but he does neither. He merely loosens his hold on his sword, his mouth twitching. Fortunate for the boy, then, that Arthur has never been his father, neither in manner, nor in belief.
“Do they now.”
“They do.” The boy cocks his head and watches Arthur. After a moment the wicked glint in his eyes is back, the darkness in them lightens, and the humour returns. “They know my name is Merlin, for example.”
Merlin. Arthur says it inside his head, and is surprisingly unsurprised at how the name fits inside his mouth, how readily his lips shape the beginning (Mer…) and how his tongue delights in the end (...lin.). It feels as familiar as the Isle itself; when he first stepped on the land, his heart swelled with something inexplicable and his throat prickled. It was like thirsting for something unknown.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, the name soft and lovely in his throat. It feels like a balm for the prickle there, the thirst stilled with the syllables of Merlin, Mer-lin, Mer-lin, yes, Merlin...
The boy stands and kes a step closer. This close, his pores are large and his breath is warm. His hand closes around Arthur as though the curve of his palm were moulded for the curve of Arthur’s shoulder.
Merlin stares at him, and breathes. Breathes again. Then he says, softly and quietly, “Arthur.”
Arthur has no time to spare to question how Merlin knows his name, because something inside him agrees. Something inside him unwinds and breathes, and when Arthur breathes with it, it says yes, yes, this is me, I am Arthur, I am the Arthur you have called.
Arthur is overwhelmed and dizzy with the strangeness of it that is as familiar as the rhythm of Merlin’s breathing, and he doesn’t know, he doesn’t kno what it is, but there is something, just outside his perception, something he can’t catch, something, something, something…
So he says quietly, “You are my slave,” because these are his customs, and this is his land now, and so Merlin is his, too. “And you will come with me.” He turns to step away, back to the shore where his people wait. He doesn’t look over his shoulder.
The footsteps behind him are clumsy and loud, but they’re there.
(He always does.)
Night falls fast and dark, and Arthur stares after the knights on their strong steeds long after they’re gone. He feels foolish standing in the middle of the road with his sword stuck in the earth beside him, but the anger and disappointment are more urgent than the shame, hot and bubbling in his stomach. He clenches his jaw and pulls his blade out, striding home in quick, impatient steps. He recklessly throws his sword into the barn, for once careless of the loud clatter it makes when it hits the ground. He knows he will lose sleep trying to polish the scrapes away tomorrow night, but the thought is distant and unimportant.
His mother is home, he realises belatedly when he stands on the threshold.
Arthur swallows hard, throat suddenly dry.
“Where have you been?” His mother’s voice is low and dark, dark like her face that keeps flickering in and out of Arthur’s sight in the light of the candle they keep on their table.
“Checking on the horses.” The lie tastes as stale and indifferent as it is. His mother stares at him unnervingly, and Arthur glances to the right, where his sleeping spot is separated from the main room by a piece of cloth. Sleep awaits him there, and oblivion. Nothing ever sounded nicer. He clears his throat. “Well, I’ll be—”
“I forbade you to ever speak to the knights again.”
The words are flat and hard, and go like a punch straight to the gut. Arthur’s nostrils flare, the desire for sleep gone, and all his carefully held back anger is suddenly ablaze. He can’t stay here. He can’t stay and listen to one of his mother’s tirades again.
“And I don’t care!” he yells, and with all the ardour of his seventeen years he slams the door shut. His mother’s shouts fall on deaf ears and disappear as Arthur keeps running, over the grass and fields and into the woods. His feet take him to his clearing, the way through the trees as familiar as it has ever been. He stops, breathing hard. When he looks up, he isn’t surprised to see a slim figure sitting on the wide trunk, the graceful lines of Merlin’s profile and limbs outlined by the full moon shining through the canopy. He isn’t surprised at all.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Merlin says casually. His head is tilted towards Arthur, his eyes reflecting the moonlight in a way that goes like a second punch to Arthur’s stomach, but different—painful, yes, hurting, yes, but in a good way, stirring something base and dangerous that makes the hairs on the back of Arthur’s neck stand.
“Yes, such a coincidence,” Arthur snarls, heart speeding up. He doesn’t want to be mean to Merlin, doesn’t want to say any nasty words, but Merlin—he looks beautiful, half-illuminated in the moonlight, surreal enough that, for a moment, Arthur isn’t sure if it’s the statue before him, or his smiling, laughing friend. Merlin, the boy from stone, is beautiful, and he’s here, he’s always, always here, whenever Arthur doesn’t need him and, worse, whenever Arthur does.
Heat rises to Arthur’s cheeks, and he balls his hands into fists. He doesn’t need Merlin, he fiercely tells himself. And, so what if he’s thought that Merlin might be here, that’s just—
(Of course Merlin would be here.)
“Why can you never just let me be?” he shouts, a little desperate and a lot petulant, feeling on display, vulnerable, with how Merlin just keeps looking at him. “What is wrong with you, that you always have to… that you always...”
Have to know me so well. Have to be here. Have to be so beautiful. Have to make me want you when it’s unnatural, when I shouldn’t—
None of those words come forward. Still Arthur’s heart skips a beat when he sees that Merlin smiles a slow, fond smile, as though he’s heard every single word of Arthur’s unspoken thoughts, as though he knew what Arthur might say before he even thought it. “I was looking out for you,” he says softly. The words reach Arthur clearly even through the blood rushing madly through his ears. “I’m your friend.”
The anger abates as suddenly as it came, leaving behind only disappointment and the sadness. They are only vague sensations now; none of the initial overwhelming urgency remains. Arthur’s hands loosen, and his body, again, knows what he needs before he himself does. He steps towards Merlin, who is still and unmoving, watching him approach.
Branches crackle and leaves rustle under Arthur’s feet as he moves, uncannily loud in the silence. The sounds carry over his skin in a tangible, tense vibration. Merlin’s skin is pale, and his eyes are large, almost liquid in the moonlight caught within. The longer Arthur looks, the more his chest constricts until it feels too small, as though it could not hold all of his emotions. Prominent above all is the fear; he is scared, scared beyond his wits (What if he’s misreading Merlin? What if Merlin doesn’t want him? What if Merlin will laugh? What if…) but fear has never stopped Arthur. Fear is to be overcome, not to be indulged.
“Idiot.” His skin is hot and tight when he steps between Merlin’s splayed legs. The flesh of Merlin’s thighs presses against Arthur’s own, soft and hot, yet solid with muscle. Arthur breathes in, breathes out, and then…
“You’re not my friend.” The murmur of his words is lost with the wet touch of his mouth to Merlin’s, lost in the fire that burns down Arthur’s spine when Merlin’s mouth opens, halts, presses forward and kisses back.
You’re so much more.
The murmur of Arthur’s thoughts, though, is everywhere. It’s in the blood inside his veins and the pumping of his heart, the urgency of his hands when he manhandles Merlin to the forest floor. The ground beneath them is dirty and wet, and they kiss in the forest awake with the slickness of their sloppy mouths, their lapping tongues, their clumsy fumbling and hoarse groaning.
Later, when they’re tired and trying to calm (too shy for more than swollen mouths and red-stained necks), they lie together. Merlin’s cheek is warm on Arthur’s bare chest, and Arthur’s nipple feels tight from how peaked it is with Merlin breathing against it.
The sky overhead is clear and dark, the moon proud and full. Arthur wishes he would never have to be anywhere else but here.
But he has to.
“I will go with them when they come, next time,” he confides quietly into the stillness of the night. The words are as final as his intent. “No matter what Mother says. I am better with a sword and shield than most of them, and I can help the king to free the land of barbarians.”
If Merlin’s breath stills at his words, it is too brief for Arthur to notice.
“I can do more good in battle than I can do here in this village,” he says, bitter and fierce, and tightens his arm around Merlin’s waist. “So I must go.”
After a long, long while, Merlin says, “I know.” Only those two words and nothing more.
Arthur nods absently, staring up at the sky. It’s a beautiful night, but the stars have never seemed so remote.
ACT III: THE END.
There is no definite point of time at which Arthur dies. The moment varies, but the latest point of Arthur’s death is in his twenty-eighth year of age. The circumstances of his death remain the same: he dies for the world in a fight against a diverse number of larger or smaller emergencies such as injustice, sickness, war, etc.
Merlin becomes a statue at Arthur’s death, and he will sleep until Arthur wakes again.
- Arthur will die a premature death, should he speak the words “my little bird” to Merlin.
- Merlin, as statue, will stare at the sunrise of every second day after Arthur’s departure until he ultimately falls asleep.
The ruins Arthur found for them are old and dilapidated. The sun is high in the sky and slants warm over the edges of the debris, throwing strange shapes on the broken wall to their right and onto the ground. They are alone here, shadowed from the sun as they lie in the corner of the crumbled house. All is quiet except for their breathing. Arthur’s hand is soft on Merlin’s thigh as it strokes the light hair there against the grain.
“Have I managed to shut you up at last?” he murmurs into the sweaty curve of Merlin’s neck, tasting the salt of his skin on the rough of his tongue. “Didn’t quite know that was possible...”
The words seem to take five seconds to reach Merlin. He stirs just so, groaning like the slightest movement is an offense. His eyelids are heavy, and he blinks slowly down at Arthur, disoriented. “Don’t be such an arse, you… arse.” Before he can say anything else, a yawn escapes his mouth. He pulls a face when he realises that he can’t stretch his body the way he wants to, not with Arthur’s heavy body covering his own.
Arthur watches him wriggle, grinning and unrepentant.
“Go away, you prat, you’re too fat,” Merlin whines, too lazy to put real strength into shoving Arthur off him. He lets his head thump back against the pelts, frowning with closed eyes. Arthur goes back to Merlin’s neck, nibbling at the red spot his mouth has left to punish Merlin for calling him ‘fat.’
Suddenly, then, Merlin’s throat begins vibrating under his teeth and tongue as Merlin starts chuckling, breathless little huffs of laughter against Arthur’s forehead. Arthur pulls back, offended.
Merlin’s eyes are wet and narrowed in crinkles, his mouth is pursed from holding back a snort, and his cheeks are flushed. “I just—you’re too fat, you prat, that—that rhymes,” he splutters, and his grin is bright and stupid and lovely.
Lovely. The sight of Merlin happy and breathless and relaxed underneath him is so lovely, and Arthur can’t help himself. He leans forward and kisses the laughter right from Merlin’s mouth, thinking, like the stupid sap he secretly is, that nothing can possibly ever be bad again now that he has tasted Merlin’s laughter. Though all his muscles ache from having made love to Merlin for the last half hour, he still heaves himself up to crawl over Merlin and cover him entirely.
They kiss, long and slow and deep, until Merlin is breathless not from amusement but from Arthur, until all Arthur can smell and see and feel is Merlin. His heart is high in his throat when he pulls back, their mouths parting with a wet click. Merlin is staring up at him with wide, rapt eyes.
The sight of him makes Arthur’s chest ache.
“My little bird,” he whispers, as if to himself, reaching out a trembling hand to Merlin’s cheek. It feels like rediscovering a secret. “My beautiful little bird.”
Just like that, Merlin’s entire face falls. His eyes close and his mouth closes and his everything closes. From the way he turns his head to the side to press his cheek into his shoulder, Arthur knows he would like nothing better than to pull the pelt over his face to hide from Arthur. Arthur watches, dismayed and uncomprehending, how Merlin’s throat is working against tears, trembling. Without any idea as to what to do, he begins kissing just underneath Merlin’s jaw.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, shh, Merlin, shh, I’m sorry—”
Merlin calms only slowly underneath Arthur’s kisses and quiet, frantic apologies. When he first shows Arthur his eyes again, the blue is dim and sad and seems so, so remote. Arthur swallows, and it hurts.
“It’s okay,” Merlin says hoarsely. When he smiles it is in his mouth, not in his eyes.
It’s not okay. Arthur knows it’s what Merlin wants to say, just like he knows it’s what he never will say. He feels Merlin’s fight in the way his hands tie Arthur’s cow-hide belt too tightly, making it cut into the flesh of Arthur’s waist. Arthur says nothing of it.
“I must go,” he repeats instead, more softly now. He ducks his head in an attempt to catch Merlin’s eyes. He does, and the smile he smiles is that of a man in love who must say goodbye. “You know I must. Asturias can’t wait forever.”
“Pelagius is strong enough on his own,” Merlin protests, and his gaze holds Arthur’s all of thirty seconds before flitting away again. It’s not okay is what he really says when he pulls his hands back and crosses his arms in front of his chest. The rejection stings for a long moment before Merlin heaves a world-weary sigh and steps forward to nudge his nose against Arthur’s, as if despite himself. “But I know if you don’t go you’ll be so restless that I’ll chase you off in the end,” he says half-heartedly, a strained effort at being cheeky. He pokes Arthur in the chest.
Arthur hears: It’s not okay, but I know you. I love you the way you are, so I will never want to change you. So go. Go, do good, and please come back to me.
Arthur pulls Merlin into a hard, vicious kiss, wanting to leave bruises so a part of him will stay with Merlin while he is out at Covadonga, battling for his master and their beliefs.
When he steps back, his hands and chest feel empty already.
“I’ll come back to you,” he promises fiercely into the space widening between them, and he doesn’t wait to see Merlin’s watery, accepting smile.
He will never come back.
He realises it as the battle draws to a close, and the white-skinned invaders trample heedlessly past him on their horses, through the fields and over the ransacked houses and over all the corpses of the friends that Arthur couldn’t save. They are as you are, Tysha had told him when Arthur came to her village to look at one of her sickly goats. Man of clouds, they are as white as you are, only they are not nice. They are not friends.
Tysha was his friend, all of her family was, so Arthur had gone to protect them because he was good with the assegai and the dagger. Only, it seems, not good enough—
He will never come back.
The stench of death is thick and pungent, creeping from one corpse to another, at last clinging to Arthur himself like the flies already cling to his friends’ rotting flesh. He fought, and he failed. This is his price to pay. His body is broken and bleeding beyond repair. He’s glad Merlin doesn’t have to see him like this.
His vision is hazy and unclear. Through the pain wrecking his body and his senses, he can just barely make out the setting sun, unforgivingly hot and terribly beautiful in its crown of ruby red.
Arthur’s last thought is of Merlin.
Are you looking at the sky, Merlin? Are you watching the same sun?
Arthur thinks he must be dreaming. That can’t be Merlin’s voice. One, Arthur left him home, in safety.
Two, all his dreams are of Merlin.
He shifts his head ever so slightly into the direction of the sound. The movement hurts. Everything hurts, most of all his chest. The arrow came quickly, unnoticed like the blink of an eye. What’s surprising is the pain, after.
Now, everything is pain. Now, everything is hot and blurring and tilting. The world is coming to an end.
But the Gods are kind enough to let his death be a sweet death. Merlin is here.
The thought makes Arthur smiles a faint smile full of red teeth gleaming with his dying blood. If he could only tell Merlin he just thought the Gods kind, Merlin would scowl and call Arthur a clot-pole because he’s a blasphemous, impious little bugger.
Arthur has never loved anything on this earth more than him.
He wants to tell him; he can’t. This is one of his last breaths, and he takes it to the sound of Merlin’s heart breaking.
“—Arthur, Arthur, no, no, no, no. Arthur, Arthur, no no no no no no no Arthurarthurarthur—”
“My little bird…”
The words are but a breath on Merlin’s lips, the last Arthur will ever speak, and the last he ever wants to speak. There is nothing else than this—there never was anything else than this. Just Merlin. His Merlin. His little bird.
If only Arthur had seen it sooner, he would not have gone and—
—and Merlin cries, mutely, a noise that is as desperate as the shriek of a fatally wounded animal in its silence, only he isn’t dying (he never is) but Arthur is (Arthur always is), and the sun rises, beautiful and crowned red with Arthur’s blood, again, again, again, and that’s even worse than his own death, seeing Arthur die, one time, two times, three times, four-five-six-seven-eight times, nine and ten and eleven and twelve and—
endless, endless, it’s endless,
Arthur’s body torn apart, his blood everywhere—in his smile in his ears his hands his stomach his chest his legs, everywhere. Arthur’s voice fading, cracking, crying, breaking, falling silent. Arthur’s eyes dimming, fading, paling, becoming sadder, sadder, blank. Arthur’s breath ceasing, his heart stopping.
like the ebb and flow come and go, endless, endless—
like the sun will rise and set, endless, endless—
like the world will keep turning,
like the day will kiss the night,
like the night will bow before the day again—
Endless, a vicious cycle on rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, forever, forever rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat and rinse…
...and repeat (stone)... and rinse and repeat (love)... and rinse and repeat (death)... and rinse and… (stone)...
The chorus of Merlin’s life. The chorus of his love.
Repeat and rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat and…
(Arthur is the Gods’ slave, and will, until the Gods grow sick and bored of him at last, work through his lines in the script mindlessly, until he will one day break down in exhaustion like a lab rat in its exercise wheel. He will never lead a normal life of birth, maturing, aging and death, and his only sweetness is the eternal temporariness of Merlin’s presence.
Even though the Gods hold no power over Merlin, they don’t mind. Merlin may possess a magic greater than theirs, yet he is his own slave, eternally captivated by his love for Arthur, following him into death again and again and again, from life to life to life.
Because Arthur was once the very person in his sense of suicidal heroism that Merlin ever gave his first and last love to. He would never change Arthur, for he loves him as he is, and so he lets Arthur go to death, again, again, again.
The Gods, however, made a mistake: even though they all had a vague awareness of it, they never knew of the absolute, unfathomable abyss of Merlin’s feelings for Arthur.
They understood that Merlin would spend the decades between Arthur’s awakenings as a statue; they frowned at this madness, but since they could not change it, they let it happen. It wasn’t as though Merlin would die. No, Merlin never would die for Arthur, they thought. Nothing is as important to a human being as their own life, they thought. So Arthur would die, again and again, while Merlin would sleep in stone waiting for Arthur to return.
So the Gods never foresaw that Merlin would sacrifice himself for Arthur one day.
They never foresaw that Merlin, after listening for centuries with stony breath to the silencing of Arthur’s, would ultimately tear apart the yellowing pages of their script with the sinful hunger of a hellfire, page by page:
every single line—
every single word—
every single letter—
every single comma—
every single period—
every single bracket and dash and colon and quotation mark—
with the viciousness of a storm they tried to tame but failed—a hurricane that harboured blood and sweat and spit and dirt and desperation and fear in its destructive gusts.
When the eye of a storm is the simple human expression of a yearning gone sickly desperate, the storm is inexorable.)
They are advancing fast and far; rows upon rows of the enemy stretch out over the field. Like the sky, there is no end of them in sight. The sun glints off their shields and the ends of their spears, raised high. They are formidable. Arthur would be unnerved by their numbers…
...if he didn’t have warhorses.
He presses his feet into his horse’s side. She snorts softly, and Arthur pets her mane, indulging for a long moment, his face soft at the feel of her tender flesh beneath his leather glove. Then he tightens his hold on the reins, and they turn around, facing his men. He schools his face into a stony expression.
“They outnumber us easily.” He calls them to attention and sees some of them squirm in unease already. “But they are called the Men of Horse for eating their horses, not for leading them into battle. This is our advantage—and so it will be our victory!"
He gives the call to battle by thrusting his blade up high, and when he rides forward, he is not alone. His men are right behind him on their horses, following their prince. The familiar surge of anxious excitement seizes Arthur as he plows right into the enemy: this is his, this he knows. The sword in his hand is as familiar as the noise around him, clattering and clanging and the agonised cries of the recently wounded echoes in Arthur’s ears like the painful sound of nails ripping. The battle is a blur of steel and blood and pain, Arthur’s body moving entirely on reflex and instinct, hacking through the foe’s warriors and trampling the faces and limbs of fallen men into mush with the strong hooves of his horse.
Arthur’s breath is loud and harsh in his ears, his heart thundering fast in his chest, beating against his ribs painfully as if in an attempt to escape. The certainty of death sits deeply in his bones, and it rattles his marrow when the flat side of a sword hits his armour, hard. There is fear on his tongue, bitter. It’s not fear of death, though, not his own death. He fears the mortality of his men, and failure, and regret.
No, of all the things in life he ever worried about, dying was not one of them. Along with birth, it’s the most natural thing; it’s never been this that Arthur feared. Death—death is certain. Certain and final and absolute. It feels as unbreakable and inescapable as his bones feel breakable and fragile, here on the battlefield, where the devil has come out to play among humans. He is just one man among many, then, and there is nothing here that distinguishes him from his brothers in arms.
No, it’s life in which nothing is certain and anything is possible, where everything can change with a roll of the dice. It’s life that has always paralysed Arthur more than death, life with its endless and complex expectations and tasks that bring the fear of failure and regret. Failure because that is his history, regret because he is in battle and thinks of Merlin, and those things are mutually exclusive.
Arthur doesn’t want to die (he has Merlin). He just knows he must, sooner rather than later, because he is the prince and head knight, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He has a duty, and he intends to fulfil it.
And nothing will ever, ever change that.
Arthur blinks against the sweat in his eyes; his hair is clotted with blood and sticking to his forehead. He stops atop a small hill and climbs off his horse. He breathes through his nose, nostrils flaring with the loss of breath from fighting, and his mouth is a hard line as he surveys the scene around him. Slaughter and blood and the stench of death: the stench of death is so thick in the air. It’s clear that they’ve won; of all the people standing there is only the uniform grey armour of Arthur’s house left, and the black armour of the Men of Horse lies with its bearers on the ground, broken and bruised. This is victory, and victory tastes like copper and smells rotten and sour. Arthur has never liked killing.
“Look after the wounded,” he tells Rinelle, voice rough. He stares after the stumbling man, and when Rinelle is gone, he deems it safe enough to turn. Ardia’s mane is thick and warm and wet with fresh blood, but it is familiar, so Arthur buries his face in it. Heart thudding fast, he tries to breathe in the scent of home to forget the foulness of victory. He is hurt with a vicious cut to his shoulder, but nothing is more important than this, now.
“You did well,” he whispers lowly near Ardia’s ear. It twitches against Arthur’s cheek, tickling him slightly. Something about this intimate, familiar moment sends a bolt through Arthur’s chest, and a sob gets caught in his throat. He silences it by gripping Ardia’s mane. She senses his distress and neighs, shaking her head slowly, nervously. “Shh, my love, it’s okay,” Arthur is quick to reassure her, voice thick. He gentles his hold on her. “It’s okay, Ardia, we’re fine. We’re going home.”
I will go home to Merlin.
Barely has he thought it that a small smile graces Arthur’s lips. Merlin. Of course, Merlin. What would any of this be without—
The scream is loud and sudden and—Arthur realises, insides lurching—horribly, horribly familiar. Everything comes to a stop. Arthur’s breath, Arthur’s heart, the entire world. This one second of realisation—of how he knows that voice—is the single worst moment of Arthur’s life. He thinks the name before he is aware of it, before he decides he doesn’t want to think it because doing so would make it true, and it can’t be true, it can’t be true. It can’t be true.
(Except that it is.)
Something thumps against Arthur’s back, hard, jolting him forward into Ardia. He goes down, stumbling, as she gives a start and tears out of his grip. Arthur has no mind for anything but the weight against his back, thinking himself insane because his body is trying to tell him that pressure is all the same, there are no different kinds of pressure.
Only… only Arthur’s body knows the presence of the one it is meant to be with.
Arthur turns around, the weight dragging over his back in a way that makes all his insides run cold. His hands shake before they find the familiar cloth—those trousers, that tunic, that kerchief.
“Merlin,” Arthur says blankly. He stares down just as blankly, not understanding what he sees, not trusting his eyes. Merlin is here, lying here with his chest pressed against the ground, and on his back, there’s—he’s—
—pierced through with a lance.
Arthur’s entire body goes numb.
It’s not supposed to go that way, he thinks stupidly, inexplicably. It’s not supposed to go that way. I die, you stay safe. That’s the deal. That’s the deal, so why—why are you—
He looks back over his shoulder, uncomprehending, blindly watching as one of his own men strikes down a man in black a few feet away. There is no satisfaction at this death, nothing at all.
Merlin is here, and Merlin is dying, is dying fast, right before him, and there is nothing Arthur can do. Nothing he can do but bow down and hold Merlin’s face, hold his face and be there.
“What are you doing here,” Arthur says hoarsely. There’s a pleading tone in his voice, as though he were begging Merlin to say he isn’t here, not really, it’s only an illusion. An illusion called forth by Arthur thinking of him, perhaps.
(The Gods granting him his wish, perhaps, to be with Merlin.)
“Sa-saving you,” Merlin gasps out, his voice so thin, so ghostly, like the alabaster of his skin. “As al-always.”
“I can’t lose you.”
There is nothing else to say. He can't lose Merlin. He can't.
“You won’t,” Merlin whispers. “You’ll s-see me again.”
How? Arthur wants to ask. "You shouldn’t be here,” he says instead, as though it makes any sense, as though accusing Merlin of being here and saving his life is going to change anything about this at all. Yet it feels important, important to say it, and Arthur’s heart thunders in his throat waiting for an answer.
“I couldn’t l-lose you. Not again.” Merlin’s face is a portrait of pain, but when he speaks the words there is a deranged sort of desperation in the lines of it. “Not again,” he rasps urgently, and Arthur knows the stark shock of panic in his eyes is not for the thought of his own death, but the thought of Arthur’s.
It makes no sense. Merlin has never lost Arthur; this has been Arthur’s first real battle, the first real moment of his potential death. Merlin cannot lose him again because he has never lost him before.
(Or has he?)
Thoughts dwindle into nothing. Then, as sensation becomes only the rough of his fingertips on the skin of Merlin cheeks, sight the red of Merlin’s lips and the lobe of Merlin’s ear, taste the memory of Merlin’s mouth on his—Arthur hears Merlin’s death rattle.
The sound is beautiful despite the crudeness.
He loves the man before him.
As the seconds pass, Arthur can only hold Merlin. He can only hold him and keep his eyes open despite the tears, because those few moments will be the last in which he will ever see the shade of blue that is Merlin’s eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmurs, barely audible. His breath is hot on Merlin’s ear. “I’m so sorry.” It’s my fault. It should be me in your stead. You should not be there. It’s my fault. “I’ll find you. I’ll find you, my litt-”
“Do—Don’t,” Merlin interrupts roughly, coughing hard. “Just—just m-my—m-my n-name—”
Merlin’s breath is rasping now. A few seconds, no more. There is nothing to do but comply.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, softly, so softly. It’s the tenderest name he has ever spoken. “I’ll find you, Merlin.”
And Merlin, death in his heart, smiles as though he could not be happier.
(Merlin’s firestorm touches the last piece of paper and devours it.
It catches fire, glows, blackens, crumples, then burns to ash. A breeze carries the ashes into the wind to be forgotten.
While Merlin closes his eyes to never open them again in this life, his storm abates and vanishes.
Meanwhile, Arthur dreams, once only.)
The dream is a dream of Gods and the earth in its very beginnings; a dream not of the darkness before the light, because before Merlin there has never been darkness. It is a dream of the darkness after the light, a dream after Merlin.
After Merlin, who bears the sea and the sky in his eyes and the land in his milky skin.
Who is not only Arthur's love but his other half, the breath of his body, the stars of his sky.
Who has pledged himself to Arthur as a servant before Arthur ever pledged himself to him.
Arthur swore to serve the earth once only—
And he swore to serve Merlin once and forever.
Arthur wakes with his heart high in his throat and his eyes wide open. He remembers. He remembers—those past lives of running and never reaching his destination; of closing his eyes to the desert and opening them to the highlands. He remembers the sun and the rain and how the moon always looked the same whether he slept with ice underneath his head or with grass, and how he was born, always lacking something.
He remembers looking in the mirror and finding half his face missing without knowing why, turning on his heel and glancing at his half-shadow only to dismiss it as self-doubt. He remembers the unbearable insecurity, remembers it eating away at his guts and nerves until he felt like a figment only. He remembers that this is his core—the restlessness, the insecurity, the incessant rush of waves reaching for a shore but never arriving.
He remembers fighting; above all he remembers fighting. He remembers touching sword and arrow and dagger and lance and touching nothing and having only his bare hands to kill. He remembers the noise of steel and shrieked pain, the taste of blood and sweat and dirt. He remembers the fit of his legs around the strong flesh of horses and the hot pressure of his galloping steed against his thighs riding to war, to battle, to death.
He remembers death, dying, knowing he would die. He remembers the sweetness of it—knowing his life is about to come to an end and knowing, with his heart if not his mind, what would be waiting at the end of it.
At the end of each life, Arthur would be reborn; he remembers that now. At the end of each life, the cycle would begin anew. He would go to battle again, he would die again, he would torment himself through another life filled with doubts and chance and failure and regret, but it would be worth it. It would be worth it.
At the heart of it is one constant, and this constant is always waiting for him.
The only thing more constant than his own bones. The only certain thing in Arthur’s life. In all his lives, the only thing he ever truly needed. And, oh, he had known that, of course he had, how could he not? How could he not feel the stillness Merlin gives him, no matter what life, no matter what situation—how could he not feel the stillness Merlin gives him when there is none? Merlin, who looks at him as though he has hung the stars in the night sky, as though it is he that makes the sun shine and vegetation grow from soil.
Merlin, at whom Arthur has always looked with the very same eyes—eyes of wonderment. Merlin, for whom he has always broken through all those human constructs of rank and normalcy because he wanted to, needed to, couldn’t not. Merlin, who is his fire and sea both—who incites him more than anything else ever has, fills him with a fire that eradicates all the cold insecurity in a flash, and who gentles him with his steadfast presence and the sea in his eyes, lapping over wounds external and internal alike.
Merlin, who is a paradox with the frank insolence of his mouth and the unwavering devotion and incomprehensible faith in his eyes. Merlin, who had known Arthur first before Arthur ever knew himself; who had spoken his name and whose name was the first word Arthur ever simply knew without being taught.
Merlin is his bones, his heart, his home, is the true antidote to the restlessness of Arthur’s spirit. And Arthur, oh, he had always known. Had always known that Merlin touched him on a visceral level more vital than anything else. He had always felt his chest burn warm at the sight of Merlin’s eyes on him. His hands had always moved with deliberate slowness, just to savour the texture of Merlin’s skin underneath his palms.
Merlin, whom Arthur has always jeopardised, because he had not remembered.
Had not known that he was enough for Merlin as he was, simply as he was: as Arthur, not as prince, nor as regent over golden temples nor as ruler over stormy kingdoms over the sea…
Because Arthur has been everything in his lives, has been everything and has been everywhere, and the only thing he ever truly was (whatever that may be) was himself. Himself, Arthur, as he was, is, will be, and that was enough for Merlin to wait for him through centuries, to suffer unspeakably, to sacrifice himself.
Arthur was enough. He was enough.
And he had never known. He had never known he was needed, needed like he needed Merlin. He had wished, yes, and there had been varying whispers of love in all of their lives, but Merlin had come to Arthur as a servant first before Arthur ever pledged himself to him. So it was self-evident, that when his heart trembled from lacking so many things, when he had always been born lonely into expectations and roles, when he had been taught that wanting was wrong—
it was self-evident, and so easy, to assume. To assume without knowing and get it all wrong.
Now he does, though. Now he is certain of it, more certain than he has ever been of breathing, that Merlin loves him.
Now he remembers, now he knows, now he realises.
Battle need no longer be his only friend.
He will not take what he wants—because he never has, because he can’t and shouldn’t—but he will do what he knows how to do; he will serve.
He will serve again.
And when he dies two weeks later, there is nothing to regret.
They wake again, centuries later.
It’s late when Arthur leaves the police station, the sun setting behind thick clouds. When he trots past the marketplace, the throng of people from the earlier day has long since dispersed. The vendors hurry to shut down their stalls to be home before nightfall. Some of them nod respectfully at Arthur, others eye him suspiciously. As the mayor’s son and a man of law, he has a considerable reputation in their small town. Arthur, though, smiles at friendly Ed and glaring Rita alike, treating them all the same.
In these last days of summer, nightfall comes earlier and earlier. Leading his horse down the main road, Arthur enjoys the final rays of sun on the back of his neck. His brown leather trousers and the long sleeves of his white shirt protect him from the evening breeze rushing through the streets, and the brim of his hat keeps the glare of the sun out of his eyes. Old Luke’s abandoned warehouse on the outskirts comes into view slowly, its boarded front and partially collapsed roof gradually growing larger with each patient step of Arthur’s mare. From a reasonable distance, Arthur inspects the structure from left to right, once, twice, listening for any strange, telltale sounds. Couple kids up to mischief down the road, Lady Simmons had complained this noon, pretty face set in a scowl. Makin’ a right racket, sir. Very obliged to you if you check on that, sir.
All he sees is a derelict wooden warehouse, by now held together as much by cobwebs as wood and nails. There is no noise, and one glance is enough to tell Arthur that no one’s been around here recently, or in a very long while. Arthur himself has never taken much notice of it before. It’s just one more building in need of repair, and his town has many of those.
Until today—until now, that is.
This morning, Arthur woke with a certain sense of pleasant boding, and it took him a few minutes to place it. When he did, he could only relax against his lumpy bed and smile, eyes closed, up at the ceiling.
He smiles to himself now when he climbs off his horse. He unfastens the gas lamp and speaks soothing words to his mare, pushing her cold muzzle in good-bye against Arthur’s palm. At the back of the building Arthur finds a couple loose boards through which he can slip. Inside it is dark, dirty and musty, and Arthur holds out the lamp in front of himself. It’s still gloomy, and he has to choose his steps wisely. His feet lead the way on their own until he has lost all sense of direction. The dust is thick on his tongue and he has banged his elbow twice against something sharp, but when he finally stops, the smile is still on his lips.
There, before him, is Merlin.
The statue is the same as it was all those past lives. Grey-white, hard and lifeless, Merlin looks beautiful even in stone, his head dipped down and his body lithe and young despite how old he really is. Arthur leans forward without thought, without patience, longing only to feel the warm softness of Merlin’s lips under his again after so much time spent apart. Still, all the dreams of Merlin by night and the memories of him by day could not have prepared Arthur for the moment those lashes finally flutter, opening slowly to the first breath.
“Merlin,” Arthur murmurs against the corner of Merlin’s mouth, lips leaving butterfly kisses with the hot wash of his breath. His hat lies long forgotten on the floor, having slipped down his head with him tilting his face for a kiss. “Merlin.”
The beat of his heart is calm now, the steadiest, the most secure it has ever felt in this life.
Merlin’s eyes open, slow and dreamy. The grey flees his skin like sickness flees a cure, and his eyes glitter strangely, preternaturally almost, in the flicker of the gas lamp. Arthur is drawn to them like a drowning man to the sea, knowing tragedy and pain follow his heels as the water first licks at him but still going further. For a moment, he doesn’t know where he is. He remembers that very first life, that time when time was not and the Gods still spoke, and it feels like nothing more than a dream, a fancy; Merlin feels like nothing more than a dream, a fancy.
And maybe that’s right, Arthur thinks. Maybe Merlin is nothing more than a that.
But Arthur exists, and there is no Arthur without Merlin, and no Merlin without Arthur.
The last particle of stone is gone and Merlin is all life when a gasp escapes him, that startled little gasp he always gives when he wakens fully. Arthur smiles softly, and yearns to brush his lips against Merlin’s cheek.
“Ah—ah, Arthur,” Merlin groans then, and instead of reaching for Arthur like Arthur expected him to, he places his hands on Arthur’s chest as if to push him away. He hangs his head low, face contorted in pain. “No, wait, I—it hurts. My chest, Arthur, it hurts—”
Arthur thinks of a lance, thinks of a lance piercing Merlin’s back and reaching through to the front, and he thinks of the placement—right in the centre, a little to the left. Close to the heart.
He swallows hard.
“Let’s—let’s get you out of here.”
The ride home is long and arduous. Arthur heeds none of Merlin’s complaints and teasing to go faster (“You’ve never gone fast enough, Arthur, do I have to teach you how?”) and leads his horse patiently at a slow and careful trot. It’s night when they reach his house, and Arthur glances around to see if anybody’s watching them. The street is empty as he thought it would be, and Merlin barely keeps him from carrying him inside, insisting the pain is mostly gone now. Arthur supports him with a shoulder anyway and tugs him into his own bed, hurrying off to warm milk and cut slices of fresh bread and cheese.
He steps over the plank that always creaks, holding the tray cautiously. From the gap in the door he watches Merlin breathe and shift and sigh. It is strange to see him here in Arthur’s own bed, finally, after all these years, strange and yet painfully, wonderfully right.
“Done creeping up on me?”
Merlin’s voice tears Arthur out of his reverie, and Arthur opens the door with his foot and steps inside slowly. “Done creeping up on you,” he says, setting the tray down on the small desk beside his bed. He drags the chair in the corner closer and sits down beside Merlin, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
“How do you feel?” he asks, voice rough.
“Better,” Merlin murmurs. Through a quick glance of eyes, they agree without words that this is all they will say about the topic. They know where the pain comes from and that is enough. Let the past be the past. This is here, and this is now, with Merlin leaning back in Arthur’s bed, looking exhausted even though he’s just woken up from stone, hair dark and messy over his forehead, large ears showing.
The sight of them makes Arthur smile despite the fear clenching his heart in a slow iron grip, and he wants to reach forward and take Merlin’s hand. He refrains though—doesn’t want to hurt Merlin.
As always, Merlin knows him better than Arthur knows himself.
His hand is warm and alive in Arthur’s, and Arthur closes both his hands around it. He bows to kiss Merlin’s the inside wrist once, soft and lingering. Merlin’s eyes are hooded when he looks at Arthur, heavy from either sleep or longing.
“So,” he begins. His voice is too hoarse to speak properly, so he clears his throat and gives it another shot. “So, a lawman then?”
Arthur raises his eyebrows, surprised despite himself. “Good guess.”
“Not hard to guess at all.” Merlin smiles, slow and fond. “When have you ever done anything else?”
“True.” He shrugs. “Quite predictable, me.”
“Quite selfless, you.” It’s meant as a joke, but Merlin’s voice carries not the echo of pain but the sound of it, old and deep like a stubborn wound that won’t close.
He looks desolate and alone.
He looks desolate and alone, and Arthur knows he can’t (won’t) ever ask Arthur to stay despite it all.
Arthur’s mouths softens into a knowing smile.
Merlin won’t need to ask Arthur to stay.
Arthur climbs onto the bed and straddles Merlin. He supports himself by placing his hands on either side of Merlin’s head and leans down to kiss Merlin hard and long and deep, wanting to take all the ache and sorrow for himself. Merlin melts for him like wax for fire, going loose and pliant underneath Arthur’s hot, searching mouth, because for all that he summons earthquakes in Arthur’s defence, for all that he takes arrows to the chest and lances to the back, for all that he is strong and persevering and enduring—he has always needed Arthur like Arthur needed him, and all his walls fall and all his armies surrender for Arthur and no one else, now and forever.
In the fortress of his strength, Arthur is his Achilles’ heel.
“You remember me,” he whispers brokenly when they part. His eyes are large and young and disbelieving. “You remember me this time.”
My heart has remembered you always, even if I did not, Arthur answers silently. He has always spoken better with actions instead of words, so he remains wordless and kisses the first of many tears off Merlin’s face. His palm on Merlin’s chest, over his heart, is proprietary, protective.
This time, Arthur will be selfish.
They may have eternity, but each life, each moment passes too quickly, and this life is no different.
Before this life is over, they have this:
Merlin’s face bright with laughter and youthful the way it should be, unexpected and achingly familiar. He doesn’t smile much these days, and Arthur knows the knowledge of this probably being their last life together sits tight and coiled in his chest. Should the Gods still exist, Merlin has angered them now; whatever invisible wound the sacrifice from his last life scarred him with, he carries it within him every second of the day. He is frequently short of breath and unable to move with the vicious sting in his chest, and his magic dwindles to nothing sometimes. He doesn’t smile much, except for when Arthur mouths wet and languid kisses just behind his ear, or when Arthur brings him the first snowdrop of the spring and brushes its stem over his cheek, telling him his skin is just as white as the petals are. Or now, one of the rare occasions he can breathe freely. He moves his fingertips over Arthur’s chest, drawing curious shapes like an ‘L’ or a ‘Z,’ and a moment later, the stars vibrate against the canvas of the night and come together into glowing little butterflies that dance over their heads across the wide dark sky.
Merlin laughs joyously, like a small child, and his eyes twinkle like little blue stars of their own as Arthur keeps gazing at him, distracted more by Merlin’s beauty than the stars.
This is Merlin, he thinks then, chest tight with love. This is Merlin, smiling when he can make the stars dance for me.
“I don’t want to stay—stay inside a-another day!” Merlin’s yells are hoarse and stilted, lacking air and strength. “I’m sick of lying in bed and—and doing nothing!”
“You are sick because you gave your life for me, Merlin,” Arthur tells him calmly, keeping his hands firm on Merlin’s shoulders. “And you will stay inside today to rest. I won’t have you not breathing again.”
“You can’t keep me here,” Merlin says, and his hands are feeble and frail when they grip Arthur’s wrists. “You can’t.”
“I can,” Arthur says, words soft, intent hard. “And I will.”
Merlin is too weak to do anything but let Arthur confine him to the bed again. He goes willingly, but reluctantly and angrily. His chest is heaving underneath the sheets, and Arthur watches the movement, like something broken trying to repair itself, with a growing sense of despair. For a moment, he feels breathless himself; it’s like he has to take a step forward if he wants to go to Merlin, but there is an abyss between them in the shape of the scar of Merlin's back, one he can't ever cross. He will never reach Merlin.
It is their last life; Arthur is sure of that. He grows surer of it every day.
Still, even as they are trapped in this last vestige of their vicious cycle of eternity, they are absurdly bound to the ridiculousness of mundane human life. To survive, they need food and shelter. For food and shelter, they need money. For money, Arthur has to work.
“I have to go to work,” he says, the words sounding hollow and pathetic to his own ears. He says it so he won’t have to say, “I have to leave,” because if he said those words, he knows Merlin would grow breathless from the panic and stay breathless. It’s a pitiful substitute, but he will have to go out alone, and Merlin will have to let him go.
“Yes,” Merlin says, desperately, urgently, “but take m-me with you.”
“No, Merlin,” Arthur says and bids Merlin goodbye with a kiss to the cheek. “I won’t die today. Stay here.”
He says it every time he leaves. Merlin never believes him, even though he always comes back. Arthur cannot fault him for that.
When he comes back home that night, cold from the snow and weary from the day, Merlin’s body is wrapped tightly in the blankets, as if he’s hugging himself because Arthur wasn’t there to do it for him. When Arthur slides in bed behind him, he remains facing the wall rather than Arthur, ignoring Arthur entirely. It takes Arthur two hours of warm kisses to Merlin’s neck and the promise that he’ll stay home tomorrow for Merlin to finally turn around and allow Arthur’s mouth to find his own.
Yes, Merlin will never ask for Arthur to stay.
No, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t wish to say it with a desperation so fierce it would darken the sun by day if only he were strong enough.
Sometimes Merlin moves around Arthur as though he’s not sure if Arthur is real or a ghost.
He has dinner ready when Arthur comes home from work, and they eat, and it feels so hauntingly, sweetly ordinary. For a moment then Arthur forgets that their togetherness is conditional and temporary, and he relaxes against the hard wooden chair, groaning when the muscles pull sharply in his neck and shoulder and upper back. Merlin cleans the dishes away.
Arthur indulges the dream of this being a domestic scene like any other. He watches Merlin breathe carefully and move slowly, watches his hands work in the water, watches him laugh at himself when he accidentally splatters his own face with it, and he thinks, oh, oh, what if…
And he closes his eyes as if that could help against the pain, as if that could help anything. Noise recedes and time slows until the universe zeroes in on the brush of Merlin’s fingertips against his throat. Merlin’s stomach is hard with his ribs framing it and soft with its flesh, and the back of Arthur’s head fits its shape perfectly. Merlin’s frail breathing is reflected in his touch. He cradles the strained muscles of Arthur’s neck in his palms and rolls them underneath, trying to knead the tightness away in a dragging, light massage, gentle and calm. It sparks a slow burn of arousal in Arthur’s stomach, the tinder catching fire, and yet… it also hurts.
It's too gentle.
He shrugs Merlin’s fingers off, feeling the man behind him freeze instantly. When Arthur stands up, his groin strains with the hardness of his prick confined in his trousers, and he turns to Merlin just in time to catch the look of utter yearning on his face. It’s not an immediate yearning; it’s the sort of yearning for something far off that you know you will never have again, and it makes Arthur angry. Makes him angry not at Merlin but at everything Merlin's had to go through so that it makes him feel like Arthur isn’t there even though he is—he is , right in front of him, as real and physical as Merlin himself. Arthur knows it’s hard, too hard to love and hope and lose so many times, but he is here. He is here and he will not go anywhere. Not this time, not ever again.
“Merlin,” he says, voice rough with unspoken emotion. Eyes on Merlin’s face all the time, he steps forward. Merlin is trying his hardest to keep himself together. His face is aloof and his eyes do not look at Arthur’s but at some other spot on Arthur’s face, and his hands are fists by his sides. Yet, in response to each of Arthur’s steps coming closer Merlin takes one away, as though he were shrinking back from Arthur. Arthur doesn’t give in, just walks up to Merlin until he has the other man with his back against the wall.
He sets his hands to Merlin’s hips, cupping the bones there, and that is enough to shatter Merlin’s shaky mask.
Merlin’s face falls, the same way it did all that time ago when Arthur had called him his little bird. He doesn’t close off this time, though. As if Arthur’s touch were his undoing, his face remains open even as all else collapses to ruins. Arthur knows it is because his touch is proof of his existence. Ghosts cannot touch. Merlin knows he is here. And even in his ruins, Merlin in his entirety is Arthur’s definition of beauty.
Merlin’s lashes are thick as they flutter repeatedly, lying like soot over the arc of a cheek where the tears fall from his eyes. The sea in his eyes is not still but stormy, and the lines of his body try to fold in on themselves but fail with Arthur’s touch on them. Merlin reaches out, brings his trembling hand to Arthur’s jaw and presses his fingertips into the vulnerable flesh there, just above his throat. Arthur lets it happen. Lets Merlin reassure himself that Arthur is not dead, is not dying, not right now. That he is here.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, red lips parted. All the centuries of loneliness and heartache reverberate in his low voice, in his eyes suddenly too bright. He looks lonely and forlorn, abandoned. Like a house that is too large and has served its time, a house whose doors won’t close and whose windows rattle, never still as it grieves for its family’s ghosts and tries to lure them back inside.
But Arthur is no ghost, and Merlin has never had to lure him in. As Merlin follows him, so has he always followed Merlin.
“I’m here,” Arthur says, the only thing can possibly say. “I’m here.”
Merlin tries to raise his other hand to Arthur’s cheek. He doesn’t manage, stops just short of it, his fingertips a breath away from Arthur’s skin. He is frozen again, as though the simple act of touching Arthur were too much for him. He just stares, wide-eyed, breath rattling in his throat. Then, small, so small, he whispers, “Show me.”
And Arthur, cupping Merlin’s face in his hands to tilt it for a kiss, does.
“Oh, this frozen snow is so good,” Merlin says with a mouth full of ice cream. Arthur watches, morbidly fascinated, as Merlin’s tongue, wet and white with the creamy confection, licks over his lower lip. “So. Good.”
And then he makes another sound that is entirely appropriate for Arthur’s bedroom and entirely inappropriate for the public.
They spend a beautiful summer day out in town. Arthur helps Merlin onto a horse, watching Merlin with keen eyes and listening with alert ears for any hitch of Merlin’s breath. Today is one of the rare days, a good day, when Merlin can actually go outside. They take it slow, and though Merlin complains of Arthur’s mother-hen tendencies, his gratefulness shows in the fond, tender looks he gives him. Arthur does not return those meaningful glances here with other people around, because while the world is so old already, it still has not changed. Love between two men still risks wrath and incomprehension, so Arthur is always careful with his gestures.
But the day is beautiful, and Merlin is more beautiful than the day, so he lays his fear aside, for now, and indulges in the sound of Merlin’s laughter.
He takes Merlin to the shops and buys him another kerchief, telling him now he looks more appropriate and less like a jester from the middle ages. Merlin actually manages to summon enough strength to kick him in the back of the knee, startling him into tripping over his own and falling down. They watch children chase each other around on the fields, Merlin persuades him to another round of ice cream, and then they watch a concert.
When they return home, after, it feels almost normal. Feels almost normal to walk down a road at night with Merlin by his side, as though they just spent a rare free day enjoying one another together, as though they were just the same as everyone else. They sit on one of the benches just by the road watching the starless, cloudy sky, and here, in the darkness, Arthur feels safe enough to let his hand find Merlin’s.
When Merlin smiles at him from the side, Arthur closes his eyes and thinks: This is what I want. I want us to see each other go gray. I want Merlin to be okay with me leaving because he knows eventually I’ll come back, not because fate spared me that day but simply because I want to return to him. I want to see him in the morning when he wakes, not from stone but normal sleep, knowing it won’t be the last time I see him like this. I want to see him wake every day. I want to spend all the days and seasons and years with him that a human life can offer.
Like any other mortal. Like any other mortal, bound by nothing else than love and free will.
I want a free, normal life in which I can simply love him, and he can love me back.
The day before Arthur goes, he feels it.
He has become so adept at sensing death that it begins as a prickle in his palms and spreads over his arms to his chest, his throat and belly and legs. It becomes water, then, heavy, unforgiving water, that fills his body to the brim and lets him suffocate like a slowly sinking ship. It’s gradual and long, the process of death settling itself snugly into Arthur’s chest, wanting to stuff the chambers of Arthur’s heart with itself until Arthur’s heart stops beating and lets his body wither away.
And Arthur would let it, if he had not this time realised that the chambers of his heart are filled with Merlin already.
(Have always been.)
So he swallows the pain and kisses Merlin, a lingering kiss full of longing and emotion that he hopes Merlin will feel until the last of his days.
The last day dawns bright and beautiful, as if in mockery of what Arthur knows is about to come. He remembers Merlin’s words, low and pained, stuttered into the curve of Arthur’s shoulder: I hate the Gods. Every time you died, I watched the sun rise. I had never seen a more beautiful sun than that, each life, each time. I hate myself for thinking that.
The sun today is… yes. Particularly beautiful.
Arthur only smiles and turns away from the window, crawls back into bed beside Merlin. Merlin is a long, thin stretch of light skin and goose pimples in the winter chill that calls to Arthur with the potency of a siren’s call. He goes, eyes stinging, to worship the taut line of Merlin’s neck, to lay his splayed hand over Merlin’s stomach and to feel it tremble underneath. Merlin opens to him like a flower for the sun, and the sour staleness of his mouth is the loveliest taste Arthur has ever had; it is real, neither dream, nor fancy.
They make love in a rectangle of morning sunlight, bodies stuttering, eyes finding one another and holding, hands intertwined like their breaths, skin sweaty and movements shaky-good.
At the end of it, Arthur watches Merlin breathe, a broken rhythm, and whispers, “Come with me today, please?”
Merlin’s eyes open slowly to regard Arthur lazily. He’s always been idle and boneless after sex. So he sees the darkness in Arthur’s eyes but doesn’t register it, and his smile is bright and happy around a thin inhalation. “Of course.”
The restless thing insides settles a little now that Arthur knows Merlin will be him all day.
It is the day of his death.
The Gods have never been merciful. If they want Arthur to die, they will try taking Merlin too.
Work is slow that day. Cases come and go, but Arthur stays inside with Merlin. There is mostly paperwork to do, and he is careless today, careless about the way he lets his knuckles drag over Merlin’s cheek even with other people in the room. Surprised, Merlin watches him curiously but never turns away.
It is Arthur’s last day, and he indulges in the only certainty his bones have ever needed. He knows it makes no difference anyway; everyone already knows. Though Merlin never kisses Arthur, he touches him uncommonly often when they are outside and have to pretend to be nothing more but friends. Most often Arthur turns away, but sometimes he does not. The uncertainty of the two them in public feels dangerous, the precariousness of this specific age they have been born in acute. As society advances, Arthur knows, the more it regresses, and today he cannot swallows past the bitter lump in his throat at that knowledge.
They have always paid for their love with death, whatever the reason.
The station closes down, the process as unremarkable as every other day. The silence after everyone has left for the day stretches out long and vast and reaches the corners of every single room. In this stillness, Arthur is seized by a sudden craze to catch Merlin by the wrist and haul him out of here. To carry him to his horse and ride away where no one is around to watch and judge. To go, run away, right now, find the shadows and darkness so the Gods cannot see them, so fate cannot see them. They wouldn’t need to see anyway, not if all they’ve ever seen was the other.
But they can’t; Arthur knows it’s futile. Were they to go now, Merlin would probably get acutely breathless on horse and die from a lack of oxygen, or some bandits would cross their way and shoot Merlin, or Arthur’s mare would trip and send them sprawling to the ground to break their necks, or…
The possibilities are endless. There is nothing that Arthur can do but stay, stay here with Merlin to make sure he is safe.
When it happens, Arthur would laugh at the sheer lack of originality; it’s just a typical two-against-five scene in a bad script.
Though the pages of their script may have burnt, Arthur knows these are the last lines. He will not play his part, though. There are more important things than that. He is here to ensure Merlin will stay alive.
“Stay back,” he tells Merlin calmly as he steps to face their hate.
Their hate is strong; strong enough for Arthur to only get three of them down. After that, everything goes too fast. Arthur gets his skull cracked open with the fattest of them sitting atop of him and slamming his head back and back and back, maniacally, against the floor. It is hate in its vilest form, something personal and intimate and ugly that bears echoes of the time when ‘culture’ had not yet been a concept and everything was explicitly and openly brutal rather than implicitly and hidden.
But it is what it is: being a man of law doesn’t mean they won’t kill him because they think he’s committed a crime. Law is as fickle as humanity, Arthur’s learnt, and sometimes the purest thing of all will become a vilest.
A crime. Him loving Merlin, Merlin loving him, a crime. It makes his blood boil, the fact that they call the purpose of his existence a crime. But he can’t do anything else; they are too strong and he is too weak, and he has done what he could, and if they should get to Merlin, they will—
They would, but they don’t get to.
Arthur thinks he hears Merlin call his name, but he isn’t sure. He isn’t sure what’s happening at all. One moment, one of them is splitting Arthur’s skull open with his hands, the next he is thrown straight across the room so his body hits the wall with a sickening crack. Arthur’s sight blurs, the back of his head is almost numb from the extremity of the pain, and the breathless seconds of waiting to see what’s happening—what’s happening with Merlin—are unbearable.
But, as always, against all reason and sense, when the world tilts dangerously and almost turns over, Merlin is there.
The scene is achingly familiar, just the same like so many before: Arthur dying, Merlin leaning over him, pale as the ghost Arthur would soon become, crying and begging for Arthur to stay.
“Don’t... cry for me, my little... bird.” Arthur is choking on his own blood. He doesn't want to be anywhere else but here. “I’ll—I’ll come… find you…”
It’s not quite the same, though. This is the last time, and this last time, Arthur doesn’t die for the world; he dies for his world.
And that makes all the difference.
(The curtains close.)
The corn cobs stretch tall above him like fingers of pointed green trying to reach for the sky. He blinks against the glare of the sun and, squinting, thrusts his arm up and splays his fingers against all the blue, trying to catch some of the passing clouds. He allows most of them to slip by—they don’t look interesting anyway—but then there’s one that looks like a dinosaur, his favourite, the Bra-chi-o-sau-rus. Joshua mouths it to himself, thinking B-C-O-S-R and filling the gaps, the way his mama taught him so he can remember the name. It’s an oddly shaped cloud, and he likes it instantly, the way he likes odd cat Margie with the missing tail the other children don’t like. Maybe his mama is right, and odd things really like one another always.
He doesn’t want to let the cloud escape, so he pushes his shoulders back into the grass and cranes his head to glance around the field and towards the wood to see if anyone’s here. No one is, and he tilts his face back again, grinning wide as he watches the Bra-chi-o-sau-rus cloud approach his hand spread against the sky. It’s slow and takes ages but at last it’s there, right in the fit on his palm, and he concentrates, thinking, I want this cloud to stay there, and he lets go.
Joshua knows his eyes have gone the colour of the corn again when he shakily draws his hand back to his chest and stares up at the sky: his Bra-chi-o-sau-rus cloud is still now while all others move past, idle and undisturbed.
“You’re my friend!” he yells triumphantly, his grin only getting wider.
“I am,” says a sudden voice from behind him, and Joshua jerks something bad. He’s just looked, hasn’t he? There hadn’t been anyone—
But there is. A young boy, his own age or maybe a little older, with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky. He stands a couple feet away, a wooden sword dangling from his hand, and he’s staring at Joshua like he’s just seen it raining cookies.
Joshua goes still, tensing. He doesn’t often speak to other children his age. His mama makes sure he doesn’t, saying he is too special for them, and he must hide that, or they will hurt him.
He doesn’t know what to do, not with this boy staring at him like that.
“You—you are?” he asks hesitantly, because the Bra-chi-o-sau-rus cloud is the first friend he’s made besides tailless Margie. Even if it’s a friend that doesn’t meow back or rub herself against his legs or chase him around when he’s eating a pie, it’s still a friend.
“I am,” the boy says, nodding. He comes closer, with the slow, self-assured gait of someone who’s allowed to speak to all the children and is good at it. “If you show me how you did that.”
“How I did—did what?” Joshua is stuttering now, and oh, God, he should really have trained at lying better; his mama always tells him it’s going to get him into trouble one day, and…
“You’re a bad liar,” the boy says, grinning suddenly. He points at Joshua’s face. “Your ears go red when you lie.”
“I’m not—I’m not lying!” Joshua splutters.
Great, now his face is getting red too.
The boy just throws his head back and laughs. Joshua, thinking he’s being laughed at, immediately thinks uncharitable thoughts of the boy’s laugh sounding like a donkey’s bray, before the boy calms and grins again.
“You’re a funny one,” he says, not unkindly. “I’m Luke.”
Luke doesn’t look like a Luke, but then again, Joshua’s always thought he doesn’t really look like a Joshua either, so he lets it slide.
“Joshua,” he says.
“So how’d you do that?” Luke asks, and he tries to keep his face stoic and uninterested, but the brightness in his eyes gives him away. It’s clear he’s talking about Joshua’s Bra-chi-o-sau-rus, because he’s staring up at it, mouth wide open. It makes him look like a frog.
He doesn’t sound scared or hesitant like Joshua’s mother does when she’s talking about Joshua being special. He sounds curious and interested, and maybe… a little awed.
On an instinct, Joshua says, “Don’t know. I’ve been born with it.”
Luke gazes at him for some long, breathless seconds, and Joshua thinks now the worst things in the world will happen. The boy will tell everyone, and they will laugh at Joshua for the rest of his life because he really is the son of a woodsman like they tell each other he is. But he isn’t. He can just… do... things.
Instead of yelling or pointing at him, though, the boy shakes his head. “You’re no Joshua,” he says with the solemn certainty of someone who’s discovered a great secret. “You can do magic, and if you want to play with me, you need a better name.”
Joshua has no idea what the boy is talking about, but the boy just goes on and on. He must really like hearing his own voice.
“So I’m a knight,” Luke starts and brandishes his wooden sword proudly. “And I call myself Arthur when I play, because Arthur was once a great and good king and the best, best, beeest knight there ever was! And Arthur had this sorc—He had this… this wizard, see, and his name was Merlin, and he could do many things, and I think you look a little…”
Luke eyes him critically from head to toe. Joshua flushes under the gaze (again), but he juts out his chin. “I look a little what,” he says challengingly, raising his head.
“Well, yeah, you look a little weird like Merlin does in the pictures of my books. Like, I mean, are those your real ears?” Luke gazes pointedly at Joshua’s ears. “Or are they glued on? They look like they’re glued on. Did you use sticky tape or something?”
Joshua can only stare. Well, he isn’t really big on talking to other kids, yeah, but this one is just—so rude.
“I—I’d use sticky tape on your mouth,” he blurts, all the politeness his mama taught him gone in an instant in the face of Luke. “God, you’re such a turniphead!”
Luke gives him another look, but this time it’s not the look of someone who’s seen it raining cookies. “Yes, you’re weird,” he says as if in answer to some of his own mental spinnings. “So, yeah, your weirdness and your ears just make you perfect for a Merlin, really, sooo…” He taps the tip of his sword gently against Joshua’s chest. “I’ll be Arthur and you’ll be my Merlin, yeah?”
Luke—no, Joshua thinks, not Luke, Arthur—Arthur stares at Joshua expectantly, eyebrows raised high, his hand thrust out for Joshua to take.
Joshua looks at the hand, lets his eyes trace the boy’s face. He’s a prat (a giant prat), but he speaks to Joshua normally (if a little arrogantly) and wants to play with him. He wants to play with him, and he has hair of sun and eyes the colour of the sky, and his teeth are crooked.
And something about the picture he makes, standing straight and tall (though not as tall as Joshua) with the wooden sword in his hand, makes Joshua think, Yes.
Yes, I’ll be your Merlin.
So he nods, takes a step forward, and shakes Arthur’s hand.
Arthur grins at him, bright as happiness, and—
Merlin can’t help grinning back.
He never liked the name Joshua anyway.
you'll remember me when the west wind moves
upon the fields of barley
you'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
as we walk in the fields of gold.
will you stay with me, will you be my love?
among the fields of barley
we'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
as we lie in the fields of gold...
I never made promises lightly
and there have been some that I've broken...
but I swear in the days still left
we'll walk in the fields of gold.
we'll walk in the fields of gold.