The screaming had started again. It may have been just a few minutes – but it felt like a never ending loop. As if it had never stopped. It was a constant ringing in Arthur's ears, replacing the silence. He remembered one of his tutors telling him it was possible to grow accustomed to even the most irritating of sounds. But Arthur would never get used to the screams. They burrowed in his head at clawed at him. Peace was a foreign concept.
Arthur stared up at the roof he couldn't see, back flat against the pile of blankets spread on the floor. Beside him, another body lay straight and quiet. Arthur stuck out his hand, groping for the other's. The hand found his and squeezed tightly. It was clammy and shaking – but not from the cold, though there was plenty of that.
“Merlin?” It was a quiet whisper, but the sound of his own voice unsettled him.
“Still here.” Merlin came from the shadows, his body closer to Arthur's. This was the closest thing they knew to peace now. In the darkness, Arthur found Merlin's jaw, kissing until he met his lips.
“Why aren't you asleep?” Their bodies shook against each other, cold and terrified.
Because people were dying outside. Because they could be next. Because they hadn't gotten a proper sleep in a year, so why start now.
Things had been good, once. It felt like some far off distant fairy tale, trying to recall days when all that had mattered was his education and his father's dinner parties. When their hiding had been playful – locking themselves in broom cupboards for a moment of solace. When they had been safe.
But the war changed everything. Arthur was slapped with a swastika and Merlin with a Star of David – Berlin had become anything but safe. And Arthur's father had stood there and watched it all, his hand on Arthur's shoulder like a death grip. Uther Pendragon, SS General and comrade to Hitler.
They stayed there for a while, eyes closed. The screams would fade, and then return, louder and poignant, like someone was fiddling with the volume on a radio. Another house raided. Another pathetic attempt at rebellion. Through a darkness, another noise pitched. A baby was wailing, and a man was muffled, screaming.
Above them, the roof creaked, and Arthur knew Morgana was awake, pacing. Arthur couldn't stay still any longer. He pushed himself away from the blankets and from Merlin. As he stood he nearly tripped over the empty plate of food Morgana had brought them earlier.
“Arthur...” Merlin's voice followed him, but Arthur replied with a shush. There was nothing in the room – though it was not much of a room at all, long enough to lay down in and just tall enough that his head did not brush the floor boards. The walls were cement – or some sort of stone, Arthur didn't know what it looked like, just the feel of it.
At the side that faced the street was a window, hidden with canvas that had been painted black. The window it self was grimy and barred and Arthur pulled back the canvas, peering into the street.
It was as though hell had descended onto earth. The world was orange and red – fire licking against a blackened house, plumes of smoke billowing up from pyres of sticks and bodies. Arthur couldn't tell whether forms that danced through the flames were humans, or just shadows. The crying had gotten desperate, and Arthur wondered where the baby's mother was.
There was a gun shot, and then silence. The canvas had gotten heavy, but Arthur couldn't tear himself from the sight.
Merlin reached out and touched his back – it was a comfort Arthur didn't know he needed. His face is hit with the fire, the corners of his mouth twitching. He turned to Merlin then, drawing in a breath that felt like a dagger in his lung. The light of the fire cast Merlin's pale face in orange, the streaks of tears down his cheeks like liquid gold. The screaming erupted again and Arthur dropped the curtain, letting darkness engulf the room once more.
“Arthur – let me see.”
He didn't want Merlin to see. He didn't need to. It could be Merlin out there, Arthur realized with a sickening thought. He crushed Merlin to his chest, burying his nose into his hair. “I'm sorry.” Arthur said. “I'm so sorry.”
None of this was fair. They were all innocent – weren't they? Why was this happening? Why were people letting this happen? More shots rang out, and Arthur felt Merlin flinch with each one. He didn't understand how his father could stand for something like this. To be able to stand on the other side of the gun, knowing that the people he was killing were innocent.
Vomit caught at the back of his throat but he forced it back down, burning. It scared him how close he had been to following in his father's footsteps. The uniform, the Luger... he had been a perfect Hitler Youth.
And Merlin had changed it all. Stupid Merlin, too loyal to escape to America, too hopeful to leave Arthur. Hopeful for a dash a freedom. That's how they had ended up here, in the cellar of his cousin's basement, breathing in darkness.
Another bullet, and a wail from a woman. He heard Merlin hiccup, and searched cupped Merlin's face in his hand.
“Merlin, listen to me.” His whisper was urgent, and in the darkness he thumbed away the wetness of Merlin's tears. “We're gonna make it. We'll get ourselves to Copenhagen... Sweden...” Arthur's lips pressed to Merlin's forehead. “Remember those photos in my text book? You and me, we'll get ourselves a little house in Ireland away from everything – our own slice of heaven. Like we said we would.”
Merlin pressed his cheek against Arthur's hand, and when he spoke it was cracked and broken.
“Those are my people.”
They were Arthur's people too. Maybe not by religion, or blood, or even relation. But they were human beings. And that should have been enough.