Merlin died 304 days ago, on a Thursday in May last year. Thirteen days before his 30th birthday.
It happened like this: Merlin met Arthur at the age of 24. Arthur was 26.
And if they hadn’t met that time at Chiswick market, they would both be better off now. But they did, and here they are.
“Merlin! Come and see!”
Arthur’s smiling – Merlin can hear it in his voice even though his boyfriend is out of sight. It’s the opposite tone of the one he donned yesterday when they had fought about something inconsequential and ridiculous, like they do on a regular basis. Merlin doesn’t like Arthur’s angry voice. It’s short and cold and hurtful and sometimes it cuts into your very soul. On the other hand, that’s what happens when you’re angry, right? You want to make a mark. You want to make someone else hurt, too.
The voice always returns to normal or close to normal before they fall asleep, though. When they go to bed Arthur snuggles close and apologises for whatever it was they had fought about, and Merlin presses his nose into Arthur’s neck and says he’s sorry too. They always do that after a fight, both of them unwilling to go to sleep angry, and when they wake up in the morning everything is back to normal. Merlin’s happy he doesn’t have to listen to Arthur’s angry voice in the morning – him smiling is Merlin’s favourite sound.
Today, Merlin has been reading on the sofa the entire morning, and his limbs protest slightly when he struggles to get out of the comfortable nest he’s built himself. He follows Arthur’s voice into the kitchen.
“Ta-daa! Look what I made!”
Truthfully, it looks like a cake made of shit, but Merlin can’t say that.
Instead, he smiles and says, “Wow! Is that chocolate? It looks delicious!” even though it really doesn’t.
Arthur is a horrible cook, but he loves trying and Merlin loves his enthusiasm so he puts up with the occasional upset stomach and risk of food poisoning just to be able to see Arthur smile nervously when he presents his most recent gastronomic masterpiece slash catastrophe.
“Yeah, I, uh,” Arthur says and when his cheeks turns a gentle shade of red, Merlin smiles. “I was a dick yesterday, and I wanted to make you happy and you love chocolate so I thought...” He gestures to the cake and finishes meekly, “... I know you love chocolate.”
Merlin moves closer, into Arthur’s space. He reaches up and runs his fingers through the blond hair and watches how Arthur closes his eyes and enjoys the feeling of it. “Thank you. You’re perfect.”
And even though it turns out the cake tastes like shit, too, Merlin never stops thinking that Arthur is perfect.
He walks the streets even though he’s dead. It’s weird how everything changes when you stop breathing. Even the light changes – everything gets darker without going completely black. You can see the sun shine, but it’s shining through a dimming filter. And that’s fine, because what does it matter? When you’re dead, you can’t get hurt anymore. You don’t need to see the world properly anymore.
When Merlin had just died, the doctor said that the death had been quick and painless, but that had been a lie. Death isn’t ever painless. Maybe his mother had felt comfort at those words, that death was painless. Maybe his friends had felt soothed and calmer at the thought of death being similar to falling asleep or losing consciousness.
Merlin had hurt when he died. The pain had crawled in under his skin, like an electric current burning away everything that was him. Here he is, now. Empty and fleeting. Invisible and pointless. Not feeling much of anything anymore, because there is nothing important left to feel.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
Arthur proposes on their last Christmas together. Merlin’s mum is in on it, because she just beams at them both over unwrapped Christmas gifts and eggnog, but Merlin is taken by complete and utter surprise. He will never ever admit that he starts ugly sobbing when Arthur kneels before him, but they both know exactly that ugly sobbing is really happening. After a few seconds of stunned silence, Merlin flings himself around Arthur’s neck and ruins his shirt with his tears and snot, and cries, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
That’s the cue for Hunith to start crying, too, and Merlin kisses Arthur and it’s wet and sloppy and perfect because how can it not be perfect? Merlin can feel Arthur’s heart beat against his chest and his warm arms around his middle, and that moment – that single moment of perfection – turns out to be the happiest of Merlin’s life.
His family and close friends talk to him sometimes. Not about him – or, they probably do that too when he’s not there – but to him. They talk about their days, their lives, and they try to deal with all of it, to keep living, and that makes Merlin’s heart clench a bit though he can’t really understand why. It’s not like he’s alive anymore, so he can’t understand why they keep telling him to come back to them. Death is permanent. Death is final. Death rips people apart when they’re not supposed to be separated.
Sometimes, though, his mother gets angry and yells at him for not being there anymore and that he needs to come back to them because she needs him. Merlin always disappears when that happens. It’s difficult to watch, even for someone who’s empty inside.
There’s not much Merlin can do about that anyway, is there? He’s faded into nothingness and he’s only clinging to the mortal world because he can’t get himself to let go quite yet. Because he’s scared of letting go completely and because fear and guilt are the only things he’s feeling these days. He’s the one to blame for all of this.
He’s scared of being alone. He’s scared that no one will meet him when he leaves.
Arthur is beautiful when he sleeps. Obviously, he’s gorgeous when he’s awake too, but there’s something special when he’s relaxed and oblivious. He makes small, breathy noises, and Merlin closes his eyes and tries to soak them into his skin because he wants to keep them with him forever. He runs a finger lightly over Arthur’s forehead and watches how his love, his boyfriend, his lover scrunches his nose and frowns but refuses to wake up. It’s adorable.
So yes, generally, Merlin loves Arthur when he’s not awake.
Except that time.
Sometimes Merlin sees Arthur in a crowd. It’s never for long – just a second – but in that second, Merlin comes alive and he thinks that maybe this is just a mistake. It’s a joke. This is just a joke – a cosmic joke because Merlin has done something to offend God or the gods or whoever it is that rules life and death.
But then he’s gone, and Merlin goes back to being dead.
That morning, they fight. It’s an ugly one. Merlin calls Arthur bad things and Arthur looks at him with something similar to hate and they shut themselves away from each other for the rest of the day. But they can’t stay away forever, because they have to go to Uther and Ygraine’s monthly dinner, and they quietly change into nicer clothes and get into the car. Merlin is wearing a plaid shirt he knows Arthur hates. Not that Arthur’s any better, of course. He wears the ugliest, loosest pair of slacks he owns, just because Merlin has told him on countless occasions that he loves Arthur’s arse in jeans. They both act like five-year-olds sometimes.
During the drive, Merlin keeps his eyes fixed stubbornly out of the side window and refuses to look at Arthur. Arthur keeps his eyes on the road, but Merlin knows that he’s got that frown on his forehead and that’s proof enough that this is going to be an exceptionally awkward dinner.
Merlin doesn’t see what happens, but he feels how the car cringes and how the tires on his side catch in the gravel by the side of the road. He turns to Arthur and for a split second, their eyes meet and then Arthur tries to straighten the car and fails. It spins around and veers off the road. The sound when metal meets wood is deafening.
The silence afterwards is the worst sound Merlin’s ever heard.
“Arthur?” he says weakly, “Arthur? Arthur. Arthur, please... Arthur.”
It takes too many seconds for him to realise that Arthur isn’t breathing.
He reaches out and touches Arthur’s cheek, and when he doesn’t get a reaction, he grabs his shoulder and shakes it. Gently at first, but then more and more violently. He tries to reach with the other hand as well, but he’s pinned to the seat by the seat belt and he can’t get it off and he just wants it to come off, but it doesn’t.
He knows but doesn’t understand, and he’s hurting and can’t breathe and he fights and–
Afterwards, he knows that exact moment is the moment he dies because Arthur is dead and Merlin has died with him, because it’s not possible to live without him. Arthur is Merlin’s life. They are supposed to live life together. They deserve to grow old together. They deserve... They shouldn’t have fought, because Merlin loves Arthur and he must know that, right? Merlin can feel hands on him, hear faint voices, and afterwards he is told that he was hysterical when people reached the car to try and help.
Hours later, in the hospital, Ygraine holds him and cries into his shoulder. Hunith hugs him and doesn’t say anything, because what can you tell a dead man?
“What, Pratdragon? I’m reading.”
“Give me a kiss.”
“No! You’re sweaty and disgusting! Shower first, kissing later.”
“Fine. You’re such a mood killer.”
It’s true, Merlin thinks. I killed him.
He deserves to be stuck in this nothingness.
Time might make it easier to bear, but time doesn’t heal grief. It doesn’t make death go away. Nothing can change the past, and Merlin lost more than his life that day. He lost everything.
He wanders the streets and secretly hopes that he’ll be run over by a car or a train, or that he’ll fall in the Thames and drown, or be killed in a mugging gone wrong. Anything but this.
Merlin knows that time won’t heal grief, and he needs to see Arthur again.
He needs to say he’s sorry. (For surviving, for fighting, for leaving.)
And it’s not like he isn’t dead anyway.