Merlin’s heart beats too hard in his chest, his throat tight.
“Hello, love,” Arthur says, voice betraying him only a little as it trembles on the last note.
A jumble of feelings wells up all at once, and for a second Merlin thinks he’s going to drown in them all: hate, disgust, confusion, longing, love. Too many of them fight for dominance, but the only word that escapes his lips is a simple, “Hi.”
There’s a small smile on Arthur’s face, a tiny curling of lips, but he doesn’t step closer, and Merlin isn’t able to yet. They just stand there, looking at each other, drinking each other in.
“How is Morgana?” Arthur asks, eventually. His voice is tense, but more worried than angry. “Grew up well?”
Merlin looks down and smiles at the thought of his — their — daughter. “She grew up beautifully, Arthur. I wish—” He breaks off and looks up again, uncertain if it’s okay to continue. So much time has passed.
“I’d been there?” Arthur fills in the gap, and Merlin nods.
“Yes, to see her, to teach her. She’s so much like you. Headstrong and unrelenting,” Arthur scoffs, but Merlin can see him smiling, “but also incredibly caring and kind. I—” Merlin pauses. “For a while, it was almost too much, you know? She took after you more and more for every day, every year.”
“Married to a wonderful, kind woman who has enough patience to deal with her temper. They have a boy, a bit of a rascal. You’re a granddad, Arthur.”
Merlin smiles, and in the moment of silence Arthur turns his head away. He swallows thickly and takes a deep breath before looking back up.
“Does Morgana remember?”
Merlin shakes his head. “She was too young. She knows all the stories, though. How we met, how she came to live with us, why you... disappeared.”
Arthur’s eyes are sad, and Merlin wants to touch him, make him feel better, but he’s still caught in between, unable to move.
“She has got all the photos of us, of you and me, and all the photos I had of you and her. I’ve told her everything I could, and she knows, Arthur. She knows.”
“Yeah?” There’s doubt in his tone, but Arthur’s face is honest and open. “You’re not just saying that to make me feel better?”
Merlin shakes his head, feeling himself tear up. “No.”
Arthur takes a step closer, slowly puts his foot down like he’s trying to pace himself. He’s gone from curling and uncurling his fingers to crinkling and smoothing out the fabric on his t-shirt instead. It’s a shirt Merlin always loved seeing him in — bright red with an almost washed-out beer logo print on the front. It’s nothing special, just one Arthur got for free at a festival once, but it always fitted him so well. It still does.
When the tears start rolling down Merlin’s cheeks, he doesn’t know if it’s from happiness, relief, or anger. Arthur left him, and now he’s back, and it’s... it’s...
The question comes out with a loud sob, and Merlin angrily wipes away the tears before they threaten to spill onto the ground. His skin feels tight over his knuckles, smooth, and he flexes his fingers tentatively, watching the wetness there.
Arthur reaches out a hand, but quickly puts it down when Merlin glares at him. “Merlin, please,” he says, voice soft. “I didn’t want to leave, you must know—”
“Yes, yes,” Merlin says, anger flaring up like a fire in his chest. “You selfless bastard. I know it happened because you just went ahead and didn’t think!”
Saying something like that is like kicking a puppy, because Merlin knows that Arthur never wanted to leave. Merlin knows that everything Arthur did, he did out of love. He knows that he never would have left if he’d had a choice in the matter.
Smoke inhalation doesn’t care about choice or destiny. Liquid in your lungs doesn’t care about reasons and chivalry. “Medical complications” doesn’t care about love and family.
Death takes what it can get, and doesn’t care about prayer or pleading or bargaining. Merlin knows that — he tried everything.
Merlin closes his eyes and tries to steady his breathing. When he opens them again, Arthur has moved closer, finally close enough. Merlin wraps his arms around him, buries his face in the crook of his neck — like he did so many times before – and cries and cries and cries.
He cried then, too, sometimes, but never like this. This is washing away all the grief he’s kept bottled up for his whole life, everything he couldn’t tell Morgana, all the worry, all the hurting, all the disgust with himself — disgust he hasn’t been able to tell anyone about ever since Arthur died.
Time doesn’t exist in the same way here, but Merlin is sure that it takes a while for his tears to run dry. His skin feels prickly and when he meets Arthur’s eyes, they are red from crying too.
Merlin disentangles himself from Arthur’s embrace and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I hated you.”
“For leaving me alone with her. I know—” He takes a deep breath. “I know you didn’t want to, I do, but it was so easy hating you for not thinking.”
Arthur looks deeply unhappy, standing there with his arms hanging loosely by his sides. His fingers aren’t moving at all now. “I know.”
“Sometimes, when I’d lie awake and couldn’t sleep,” Merlin says quietly and swallows before continuing, “I wished that you’d left her inside.”
It’s his deepest shame, something he’s never been able to tell anyone. What kind of father wishes his husband back in exchange for his daughter, whom he has promised to protect from everything bad in the world?
“I needed you more than I needed her, then. I loved her, I never stopped, but I couldn’t help blaming her when she was sleeping peacefully in her cot and I was left awake and alone.”
Arthur goes silent when Merlin raises a hand.
“I know,” he says, “I know you did the right thing, all right? You were always the one who was honest and brave and self-sacrificing. I was so inadequate, Arthur, still am. I needed you then, because you promised me to stay and you promised me to always be by my side.”
“I was, I was,” Arthur whispers, but he doesn’t move. Doesn’t meet Merlin’s eyes.
“But when I was sitting there with her in my lap and she wrapped her chubby arms around my neck, squeezing as hard as she could, calling me ‘dad’ for the first time...”
Arthur looks pained.
“I didn’t understand until then. Without meaning to, she made me understand that I had to do it for her, and I did. Don’t regret that for a second, but it wasn’t easy without you.”
“You were always stronger than you thought,” Arthur says as their eyes meet again. “You were always the one who kept me together.”
Merlin reaches out for him, and Arthur responds by taking a cautious step forward. He slowly strokes Merlin’s cheek, leans in and presses a soft kiss to his lips.
“You’re as beautiful as the last time I saw you,” Arthur whispers and drags him close, holding him.
The last time Arthur saw him was in the hospital, sitting by his bedside with rumply hair and dark bags under his eyes. Merlin had held his hand when he drew his last, rattling breath. Alarms had gone off, alerting quick-acting nurses and doctors, but they still hadn’t been able to save him.
For a long time, Merlin had thought it must have been easy — just falling asleep into death, leaving all the problems behind. He’d been bitter about that, wishing the roles had been reversed. Why had the world decided to keep him alive when Arthur had always been the one worth saving? It had felt like a punishment, reliving the fire in his dreams for years afterwards, and still knowing that regardless of how badly the dream ended it was nothing compared to reality.
How does anyone continue after something like that?
Merlin never did. He had tried to meet someone new, eventually, but no one ever made it past a first date. There wasn’t any real point to it — no one could compare to Arthur, so Merlin gave up. When Morgana reached her teens, she sometimes watched Merlin with worry and occasionally tried to set him up with teachers, dance class tutors, or other miscellaneous adults that flitted in and out of her life and whom she felt could possibly make her dad fall in love again.
But love doesn’t work like you want it to, and it didn’t for Merlin. People say love only grows by sharing, by spreading it out on many... but it stays eternally single-minded for some. Arthur wouldn’t leave, and Merlin didn’t want him to.
“I love you,” Merlin whispers and holds tightly onto Arthur’s shirt in fear he’ll disappear again, “Never stopped, not even when I hated you.”
“I know. Me neither.”
Merlin takes a deep breath and carefully leans his head against Arthur’s, resting his chin on his shoulder.
“What is this place?” he asks, suddenly bone tired and keeping upright only because of Arthur’s arms around his shoulders.
“A meeting point, I think,” Arthur says.
“Were you here the entire time?”
“No, I was...” Arthur tilts his head up and closes his eyes. “I don’t know. I wasn’t here. I could feel time pass, though, and I can’t do that here, so I must have been somewhere else.”
“So you’ve waited as long as me?”
Arthur turns his head and places a kiss on Merlin’s cheekbone, close to his ear. “I don’t know. Maybe? It’s been a long time, but I’d do it all again and again and again, if meeting you is the reward.”
Merlin swallows. “Did you meet anyone else? Your dad, my mum?”
With a sad shake of his head, Arthur answers, “No.”
“She loved you like her own, you know,” Merlin says, quietly. “She was so happy when we got married, and a part of her broke when you died. She loved you. Will always said that she changed after the fire, but I never noticed. Maybe I changed too much too.”
Arthur’s grip around his shoulders tightens. “My dad?”
“He... He blamed me for your death. Not Morgana, he adored her more than anything, but I reckon he needed someone to blame and I was the perfect person. I might have left the kettle on, causing the fire. I must have made a mistake somewhere. I lured you in from the beginning, ‘turning you gay’. It got better in the end, before he passed away.”
He can feel how Arthur is trying to turn to meet his eyes, but Merlin tightens the embrace. “He got cancer. Morgana and I were at the hospital when he died, and I think he was grateful for that.” He swallows and whispers, “Damn hospitals.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, quietly. “He was always a bit... difficult.”
Merlin snorts. “Yes, a bit.”
He can feel Arthur smile against his skin, and it’s such a familiar feeling, but one he had almost forgotten. “I love you,” Merlin says again. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
He clings to Arthur’s shirt, wants him closer still, but it’s impossible.
“How—” Arthur begins, but breaks off before starting again. “You died, too. How did you...?”
“It was easy. Morgana was settled, and I had gotten old, Arthur. I just went to bed, fell asleep with this strange sense of peace... and when I woke up, I was here.”
“I’m glad,” Arthur says. “I never wished for your death, but I’m happy you’re here. That we’re here.”
“Do you think we’ll go somewhere else, or... will we stay here?”
The place they’re standing in is oddly nondescript with white everywhere. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. Enough white to make it impossible to tell where the floor ends and the wall begins.
“If we have to stay...” Arthur begins, “I think we need to liven the place up a bit. A splash of colour here and there.”
Merlin can’t help but giggle. “You can draw me as one of your French girls, frame the picture and hang it on a wall.”
“Jesus, Merlin. ‘Titanic’ references?”
“It was our film. The one where you teased me for crying and I ended up emptying a whole bucket of popcorn onto your head before storming out of the theatre.”
Arthur chuckles and kisses Merlin’s temple, whispering against his skin. “You made me chase you down the street and beg your forgiveness.”
“And then you pulled me into that alley and kissed me.”
“It was an action-filled first date, if nothing else.”
“It was a wonderful first date,” Merlin says and withdraws enough so that they can look at each other properly. He meets Arthur’s eyes, suddenly serious. “One I never forgot, and one that made me laugh and cry in equal measure later.”
Arthur’s smile turns sad as he takes both of Merlin’s hands in his. “I’m so sorry for leaving, love.”
They fall quiet. Arthur runs his thumb over Merlin’s wedding ring where he’s holding his hand. It’s a soothing motion, and Merlin leans his head on Arthur’s shoulder again, letting out a small sigh.
“Did you never take it off?” Arthur asks after a few moments.
“No.” Merlin sighs again. “It felt wrong. I was yours then and that never changed.”
“I wish you’d been happy, love,” Arthur says softly into Merlin’s hair.
“I was happy until you died, Arthur. Afterwards, I survived.”
“Morgana became my life. She made it worth it.”
Arthur lets go and takes a step back, turns away and runs his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know what to do, Merlin. I can’t change what I did.”
“I would have. I would have done anything to come back to you. To her. I would have sacrificed everything, but nothing could bring me back.” Arthur turns to look at him.
The shout surprises them both.
“It’s just... I know, okay?” Merlin says, voice lower. “I know, because you always put us before yourself and that was your fucking undoing, Arthur.”
Merlin covers his face with his hands and makes a strangled noise. “Please don’t apologise anymore. Please. Please, don’t.”
The silence becomes heavy, and for the first time Merlin doesn’t know what to say to Arthur. It’s never ever — not even in the early days of dating — been a problem before. Something is standing between them, and it scares him. He closes his eyes and takes a deep, shaky breath before opening them again. Arthur is looking at him, Merlin’s own grief reflected in that beautiful face.
Merlin reaches out for him, takes both his hands in his. “I love you,” he says.
“And I love you.”
“More than life.”
“More than life,” Arthur confirms.
Merlin slowly breathes out through his mouth in an attempt to calm himself and then he looks Arthur dead in the eyes.
“I never forgave you. I loved you, but I never forgave you for leaving.”
Arthur looks like he’s been slapped in the face. He tries to draw away, but Merlin holds his hands firmly.
“Arthur,” he says, voice soft, “you need to hear this.”
It takes a few moments before Arthur nods shortly, but he keeps his eyes averted.
“I was so conflicted, because you were my everything and I thought I was yours. When you ran back to get Morgana and you two hardly made it out... When you put your shirt over her mouth and nose to save her instead of yourself... I know you didn’t make the choice to die, but you did by being so insanely chivalrous and stupid.
“I kept resenting you for dying and leaving me with a one-year-old, a funeral to arrange, a house and a life to try to rebuild... and the never-ending guilt of having got out of the fire first.”
He tries to catch Arthur’s eyes, but his head is still bowed.
“I know you only wanted to save her. I know you wanted to live, but you wanted her and me to live more. Arthur.”
And finally, Arthur looks up and their eyes meet.
“I never should have blamed you, but I did. Humans are stupid that way. Uther blamed me for your death, and I blamed you because that’s the only way I could deal with it.”
Arthur draws in a shuddery breath and whispers, “I blamed me too.”
“Morgana blamed no one. She was too young then, of course, but even later... she didn’t. She understood why I could never move on, even though she tried to make me sometimes.” Merlin lets out a short laughter that ends up more like a sigh. “She’s so smart. So much like you.”
The smile on Arthur’s face is weak, but it’s there.
“Arthur,” Merlin says and takes Arthur’s face in his hands, “I forgive you, and you should forgive yourself.”
When he leans in to kiss him, he pretends not to feel the tears on Arthur’s cheeks. “You sacrificed yourself for us, you idiot. But you waited for me, and you shouldn’t feel any more guilt.”
Arthur kisses him back then, a soft press of lips and, afterwards, an unsteady breath. “You promise?”
The words come out so quietly, Merlin’s not sure he’s heard them, but he answers anyway.
“Okay,” Arthur says, and Merlin opens his eyes to look into his. They’re the same, beautiful blue as the day he died and it makes Merlin’s heart ache.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he says and smiles encouragingly.
Arthur squeezes Merlin’s hands, his own smile weaker, but there nonetheless. “Okay,” he says again, “Okay.”