The click when the door closes makes Merlin snap out of his thoughts, and he glances at the clock beside the bed. 6:18. Apparently. He hadn’t realised that much time had passed.
Arthur’s voice is muffled and gentle, and Merlin can hear the rustling of the plastic bags when he unpacks them in the kitchen and puts the groceries into the fridge. It’s the same every other day. It's routine.
He hears Arthur’s footsteps on the horrible, sandy brown carpet as he first looks in the sitting room, then the home office, trudges up the stairs and into Merlin’s old bedroom. Merlin isn’t there, though that is where he usually spends his time these days.
Again, Arthur calls out, but Merlin doesn’t answer. Arthur will find him eventually. He always does.
The door to the toilet creaks, as it does when you open it. It does every time Arthur has to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. He thinks that wakes Merlin up, so he takes extra care to open and close the door slowly to make it creak less, and to avoid stepping on the equally creaky board outside the bedroom. He doesn’t have to do it, because Merlin is always already awake.
The footsteps are now picking up pace and doesn’t come to a halt until Arthur tugs the door to their bedroom open and finds Merlin sitting curled up on the bed. Merlin knew Arthur would find him. He always does.
Arthur doesn’t touch him, but he sits down beside him, on the edge of the bed. In a well-known gesture, he covers his face with his hands and lets out a deep sigh.
“I got scared,” he says.
“Sorry,” Merlin answers. He hadn’t meant to scare him. “I’m alive,” he adds. “No need to worry.”
Arthur straightens up and looks at him. Merlin doesn’t meet his eyes. “It’s difficult not to, Merlin.”
“I said I wouldn’t try again.”
But there’s something in Arthur’s voice that says that he doesn’t trust Merlin a whole lot right now.
“I’m better,” Merlin says.
That’s a lie. He’s actually worse. He feels like a burden.
He continues, “You don’t have to...”
Stay. Arthur doesn’t have to stay.
“But I do, Merlin.”
At that, Arthur reaches over and takes Merlin’s hand, where it’s resting haplessly on the covers. He takes his time arranging Merlin’s fingers like he wants them and then squeezes his hand. The fingers that are tangled in Merlin’s are warm where his own are cold. They shouldn’t be cold. He hasn’t moved all day, just sat inside this warm house doing nothing.
“Merlin, you don’t... You’re not all right, but I need you to be okay,” Arthur’s voice is soft, almost a whisper.
It's too much. Merlin draws his hand away and tucks his knees to his body, curling into himself, hiding his hands in his armpits. Surely, Arthur doesn’t want to go there. Instead, there’s a warm hand briefly landing on his knee before disappearing completely. There’s another sigh.
“Have you eaten anything today?” Arthur asks.
When he had got up for work this morning, Merlin had feigned sleep to avoid having breakfast. Arthur had left food in the fridge, but Merlin hasn’t touched it. Nothing tastes good anymore, and there’s really no point to eating, anyway. He’s not hungry. He doesn’t need it.
Merlin shrugs to answer the question. “Yeah,” he says, but that’s a lie, too.
He’s lying an awful lot these days.
“Talked to Hunith?”
He shakes his head.
If he had talked to her, she would know, the way mothers always do. She would drop everything to come here and take care of him, and Merlin doesn’t want that. He’s already too much trouble.
Luckily, his mother trusts Arthur a lot. It’s difficult not trusting Arthur to fix everything.
He can’t fix this, though. He can’t fix Merlin, because Merlin can’t fix Merlin. And no one should ask that of Arthur, because Arthur—
Everything in Merlin’s life comes back to Arthur, really. He had always been there when Merlin’s world tilted and was about to turn on its head. He was there when Merlin got kicked out of school. He was there when Merlin’s father disappeared for a year, and then was found murdered. He was there when Merlin lost his job, when he started shutting himself away from his friends, when he stopped going outside. He was there when Merlin woke up in the hospital.
Why does he stay?
Why does he stay?
“Why do you stay?”
Merlin hadn’t meant to say it out loud. He doesn’t look up, doesn’t want to, but he can feel Arthur watching him.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Because Merlin is more trouble than he’s worth. Because Arthur deserves to be free to find someone to be happy with and be able to do all the things with. Someone to live with. Merlin just holds everyone back. Merlin ruins things. It would be better if—
“Why wouldn’t I, Merlin?”
Arthur’s voice is closer now, and when his hands gently cups Merlin’s cheeks, Merlin answers. It’s a whisper — a prayer, almost.
“Because I hold you back.”
Arthur’s thumb runs across his cheekbone, and Merlin unwillingly leans into the touch — just a little.
“Listen, okay? I love you, Merlin. I love you even when you don’t love yourself. I love you always.” Arthur’s voice is shaking a little when he continues. “This is temporary. You will get better. You will be happy, even if it doesn’t feel that way now. I want to be there when you’re happy.”
“We can meet where I’ll be happy. Later,” Merlin says.
Arthur’s grip on his jaw tightens slightly. “I also want to be there with you every step of the way, and don’t you dare leave before me. Merlin. Please look at me.”
Merlin doesn’t for a long time, and they sit there quietly for minutes. Neither of them move.
Taking a deep breath, Merlin looks up into Arthur’s eyes. They’re the same dark blue like the day they met almost fifteen years ago. Strange to think about that now. They were so young and naive and childish, then, thinking that everything works out as long as you have each other and some sort of faith. It’s not that easy. Life isn’t that easy.
“Merlin, please listen.”
“You—” Arthur takes a deep breath. “You don’t understand how much you mean to me, and you should, okay? I love you and I will never stop loving you. Please understand that. Merlin?”
“Okay,” Merlin says and looks away.
“I want to sleep.”
That is not untrue, though the word "sleep" means something else to Merlin.
But he just turns away from Arthur and scoots in under the covers, closing his eyes and pretending to fall asleep immediately. Arthur probably isn’t fooled, but it doesn’t matter.
It takes a long time before Arthur gets up from the bed and leaves. Merlin can hear him move around in the house, talk to someone on the phone, but he is still awake hours later, when Arthur gives him a good night kiss on the cheek, and carefully and quietly lies down beside him. Where it takes Merlin forever to fall asleep — if he does at all — Arthur’s breathing evens out and he’s gone within minutes.
Merlin turns onto his back and stares up onto the ceiling. Turning his head slightly, he watches Arthur as he sleeps. The beautiful nose, the strong jaw, the blond hair. The pretty eyelashes he has teased him about a thousand times before. When he was happy and didn't ruin people's lives just by being alive.
Merlin reaches out with a finger and runs it lightly over Arthur’s lower lip.
He just needs to get there, and then it’ll be fine.
It might take a while this time, but now he just has to wait for Arthur to find him.
Arthur will find him. He always does.