The nothingness that cradles him is soft and grey, easing the aches he’s carried for too long until it’s hard to remember how the pieces of his body connect. It’s hard to remember he has a body; hard to remember why it’s important that he cling to the memory of sinews and bones. There’s no time, here, no way to judge the ebb and flow of it as it passes, and it would be so easy to give over to it, allow this nothing-place to envelop him completely: a hazy shroud, warm and safe.
Perhaps he spends hours there, perhaps years. There is a thought in him—but somehow less than a thought, closer to a wordless, shapeless longing—that he should pass on from this place, that he has been here too long already. He thinks he could do it, if he chose. He could pull the web of his being in close and slip through the slender cracks in this place, lose the last of himself as painlessly as a sigh of breath, but though he thinks of it often he never acts on the desire to be utterly gone.
Something holds him back, still, though for a long time he does not know what it might be. His thoughts are scattered, slow as syrup in winter, and it takes him countless ages to find the hook in him, slender as a thread but strong. The hook is buried deep, and it pulls at him, a steady, insistent tug that keeps him from giving in. It twinges: at first only intermittently, a simple pulse of grief he can easily ignore. As he sinks further into the shroud, though, the rolling grief grows stronger, the hook digging more firmly into him, a white-hot pain that sparks his long-dead anger. Who dares keep hold of him like this? Who dares to sink their hook into him, to keep him where he does not want to be? He is blown-open, dreadful, empty as the night: if he cannot move on, he will go back and visit a vengeance upon the one who will not let him go.
He cannot touch Merlin either, not at first. He finds Merlin in front of his old wardrobe, head bowed, hand clenched in the fabric of one of Arthur’s oldest tunics. Arthur is caught by a sudden, unlooked-for wish that Merlin take the shirt—it’s worn thin and soft, a color Merlin would look well in—but Merlin leaves the tunic there, no trace of his presence but the burst circle of wrinkles from his grip. Arthur reaches for him as he passes, grabbing for his wrist, his elbow, the scruff of his neck, but his hands pass straight through Merlin’s dear familiar skin like so much vapour.
The rage in him flares like iron heating in the forge, and for the first time he cannot tell if it’s because he wishes to move forward—into nothingness—or back.
The illusion never lasts long. He can never hang onto the living world for long after Merlin goes boneless, finished, as desperately as he wraps his arms around Merlin or digs his fingers in. The ripping away tears at him a little more deeply every time, until he cannot help but scream, yell his frustration into the void. Once or twice as Merlin fades from him, Arthur thinks he sees Merlin’s eyes go wide, but he’s sure it’s nothing more than wishful thinking before the day he finds Merlin bent over his sorcery books, murmuring over spells for the laying to rest of souls.
Arthur can think of only one soul Merlin might wish to lay to rest.
The thought fills him with something very close to panic, and the force of it shocks him. He grabs hard at Merlin, pushes himself as far into Merlin as he can, until his fingers are half sunk into Merlin’s arms and his cock is deep enough to make Merlin shake and press himself back into Arthur’s arms. Don’t send me away, Arthur murmurs to him, hooking his chin over Merlin’s shoulder to brush his lips against Merlin’s ear. Bring me back, he says, and it isn’t until the words leave his lips that he realizes just how much he means the words, how many of the fierce hopes he thought he’d lost are hanging from each syllable.
Bring me back, he says again, arms tight around Merlin while they move together, straining frantically for release. He wants to curl his body around Merlin and watch their fingers link together where Merlin can see; wants to watch Merlin smile when he looks at him and makes some terribly irreverent remark. Bring me back, Merlin.
There is a moment—one brief, agonizing moment—where he is sure he’s failed. His grasp is slipping, his body afire; he’s run up against the end of his strength, and he is still here, still in the formless void trapping him, no closer to escape than he had been when he started. He can feel his concentration waning with his strength, his mind fragmenting, but he grits his teeth and gives one final pull: for himself, for Merlin, for the kingdom he had loved and died for.
There’s a flash, a screaming moment when all the earth cries out in pain around him, and then—
When he walks forward, arms crossed against the wind and his chin tucked, ripples spread around him with every move, leaving a wobbly trail behind him. He dips his fingers curiously in the water, watching the water stream from his cupped hand with a wonder he can’t quite place. The sight of droplets falling from his body delights him for a reason he can’t quite put his finger on, but the feeling is growing fainter fast as he tries to remember what might have affected him this profoundly.
It seems as if he should remember how he came to this place. When he concentrates, he can feel the loose tendrils of memory at his fingertips like the trailing edge of a curtain, but the farther he stretches for them the more insubstantial they become. He does not remember why holding water in his hands has moved him so profoundly, but he does not stop to marvel at it long, because he does remember Merlin. He remembers Merlin in a hundred, a thousand different ways, and he knows—without knowing how—that somewhere out there, Merlin is waiting for him. He thinks Merlin has been waiting for him a long time, and it is senseless for either of them to wait for any longer; not now, not when Arthur is so close he can almost feel Merlin's hands in his.
He moves through the water again, his steps steady over the uneven bottom of the lake, and though he lets his fingers drag through the water, he does not drop his eyes from the land again.