Actions

Work Header

looking at you looking at me (sometimes it lasted love, but sometimes it hurts instead)

Work Text:

"Hey, it's me. Will's a bit drunk so I'm going to take him home and— Anyway, I didn't want you to worry. See you soon, I love you!"

Beep.

Message saved.

———

Merlin was warm and content, relishing in the peace of the quiet flat. He stretched lazily for sleep warmed skin to sidle up to, but Arthur was not on his side of the bed. He was in the middle of contemplating whether to get up to search for his wayward heater when the doorbell rang. The sound was muffled through the closed bedroom door, as was the sound of the front door opening. For some reason Merlin kept quiet, tiptoeing towards the door, where he found Arthur showing Uther inside — the older man holding a heavy, full bottle of scotch. He observed, slightly confused, as they retired to the kitchen. He couldn’t recall the last time Uther had set foot in their home.

Merlin admired the stretch of Arthur’s back as he collected two tumblers from the cupboard, a handsome silhouette in his tailored black suit. His face was worn when he turned around though, and his mouth too tight. Merlin wanted to smooth out the creases and kiss him, reassure him with his hands and lips. Eyeing the tense shoulders of both father and son though, he stayed where he was, at the threshold between their bedroom and the rest of the flat.

Uther had never approved of Merlin — not when he’d just been a friend of Arthur’s to be tolerated now and then, and even less when Arthur introduced Merlin formally as his boyfriend. From then on it was a sharp slide into thinly veiled hostility, and no matter what Merlin tried or said he never made a dent in that impregnable wall of mistrust. Arthur had long since ceased trying to get Uther to change his mind, assuring Merlin time and again that it didn't matter, really, he’d long passed the age of worrying about what his father thought. Once, after a spectacularly failed Pendragon dinner, Arthur had taken him by the shoulders and shook him; yelled for him to never feel unwelcome and small, not when Merlin made Arthur feel like he was golden, like something precious and cherished.

Merlin was too touched to call him out on the obvious lie then, and didn’t have the heart to bring it up afterwards. Arthur would always carry Uther’s horrid parenting skills around like a brand on his back, what do I have to do to get you to love me etched out in child’s scrawl, desperate and longing.

No matter how Uther regarded Merlin though, he was pleased to see Uther here. The man had allowed countless chances to really understand his son slip through his fingers, grinding them under the heels of his expensive loafers.

At the table, Uther poured them both a finger of the, no doubt, expensive brew. They gave a silent toast and slammed the burning liquid down, Adam’s apples working through the fire. Arthur sent his empty tumbler clattering across the table to Uther, who refilled both their glasses. They downed their drinks again after another silent toast. And again. Time passed in near silence, the only sound the clinking of the glass bottoms as they hit the table, the sluicing of liquid into empty receptacles. When speech finally emerged between the two, it was a cold shock to the system.

“It won’t get better, will it.”

Arthur’s voice was hoarse and filled with bitterness, grating on Merlin’s ears. Why did he sound like that? he wondered, distressed. He’d never heard anything like it from Arthur before.

“No,” Uther agreed, emotionless. He poured out another finger. “It won’t.”

Merlin’s unease at witnessing the strange familial scene reached unbearable heights, but for some unfathomable reason he couldn’t make himself approach them. It had been a very long time since he’d last felt intimidated by Uther’s presence, but right then he felt like an intruder witnessing a most disquieting reunion, rather than a guy lounging around in his own home. So he decided to retreat back into the room and left them to it.

He would ask Arthur about it later, maybe.

——

Merlin startled awake as Arthur slapped off the alarm. He watched blearily as Arthur got out from under the covers, slowly making his way to the bathroom to wake up properly.

Arthur brushed his teeth and shaved his overnight stubble, periodically flicking his eyes to Merlin’s razor, left on the edge of the sink, like Arthur always berated him not to. Merlin quite liked watching Arthur shave — something about the confident way his hand held onto the handle, his measured strokes and idle smoothing of the skin of his cheeks made Merlin’s blood burn. He stifled his amusement when Arthur pointedly did not to relocate Merlin’s razor after he rinsed the shaving cream from his face.

He came out of the bathroom and rummaged in their closet for a suit and tie. A few of Merlin’s clothes — the ones he never wore — hung next to Arthur’s perfectly pressed shirts. The rest of his clothes were haphazardly strewn across the floor like a half finished thought, Arthur kept grumbling, or more accurately, like a perfectly acceptable method of displaying one’s wardrobe to pick and choose from as the heavens intended, so there. Arthur was always after him to pick up his clothes, nagging in his ear until Merlin shut him up with kisses and promises of sorting it out later (with absolutely no intention to follow through). So, Merlin’s clothes stayed mostly on the floor and Arthur’s in the closet, where clothes are meant to go, Merlin.

After he was dressed, sharp as always, Arthur slipped into the kitchen and made coffee. He sighed as he stared at the mug Merlin left next to the sink instead of in it. Merlin slid onto his stool to watch Arthur, his laptop open in front of him, humming on the island separating the lounge area and the kitchen. Neither of them were very talkative in the morning — Arthur because he was raised to be seen and not heard, and Merlin because he still hoped to go back to sleep. Arthur set a steaming mug down before Merlin and poured the rest into his travel mug. Gingerly taking a sip, he picked up his suitcase and moved towards the door, carefully pulling on a coat and selecting a boring white cashmere scarf amongst Merlin’s many coloured monstrosities on his way out.

He turned back to look at Merlin from the threshold, smiling and whispering a “see you later,” before closing the door quietly.

——

Arthur was watching the video again.

Merlin heard the muffled sounds from in the bedroom, lounging on his side of the bed. His and Arthur’s tinny voices were laughing from the sitting room telly. Finding his way to the couch, Merlin snuggled into Arthur’s side as close as he could, feeling Arthur’s warm exhalations on the tip of his ear as he shifted to make himself more comfortable.

On screen, Merlin was pretending steal gold from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, looking far too shifty. Then the crackly intercom blared to life and the image shook, Arthur’s laughter clear as Merlin was scolded in French by disgruntled theme park attendants.

The scene changed to a dark hotel room, Arthur’s voice commenting on where they were and how nice their holidays were, if only Merlin would get a move on and wake up already, you lazy sod. The camera zoomed in to Merlin’s toes peeking out from under the sheet, trailing its way up past his knobbly knees to his pale hands clutching at the thin cotton sheet. He made a whimpering sound, refusing to wake up as the camera finally panned to his sleep rumpled face. He was adamantly ignoring Arthur, eyes stubbornly shut and nose wrinkled, even as a hand came into view and shook him roughly. Screen Merlin rolled over, revealing a pale back that was promptly marked red when Arthur’s hand smacked it. The image was chaotic after that, control of the camera lost in the ensuing off screen scuffle. The sounds of laughing and wet kisses and rustling sheets was all the viewer had to go on.

“We had a really good time, didn’t we?” Arthur said. Still cold, Merlin curled up around him tighter, smiling warmly into his side.

Arthur took the remote from his lap and turned off the sounds of Merlin gasping and Arthur groaning, leaving them in the dark.

——

Arthur cooked dinner.

That was the compromise Merlin had demanded before agreeing to move in. He cooked enough at work, and when he was at home Arthur had better serve him or he was going to have an affair. Arthur had scoffed, but had never once made Merlin cook.

Merlin offered sometimes of course, and Arthur let him. He wasn’t turning down four star cooking out of stupid chivalry or whatnot.

Merlin loved cooking. Surprisingly, he loved it more after it had become his profession. He loved watching the people he loved eat his food, finding new recipes and novel tastes that blended together like they’d always meant to be. He loved to cook, but he delighted in watching Arthur do the same. He like the way Arthur held the knife handle, precise and efficient; the careful rippling of back muscles as he tossed ingredients into the pot; his elegant profile as he waited for the soup to boil...it was a never ending list, really.

Arthur plated up two shallow bowls of carbonara, placing one in front of Merlin before sitting down, lifting his fork and spoon from the side. Merlin had laughed at him the first time he had seen Arthur eat pasta with both utensils, teasing him about his posh manners and elite upbringing. Arthur had turned up his nose and complained that they couldn’t all eat like monkeys, Merlin. Merlin had thrown a piece of bruschetta at him.

Arthur ate neatly, swirling the fettuccine onto his spoon before removing his fork and putting the spoon into his mouth. Arthur’s mouth was prone to smirks and insults, but it also curled into smiles, or opened for low chuckles that sent Merlin’s stomach flipping like a pancake. That mouth blew raspberries into his skin as often as it sucked kisses, plump lips that could drive him into madness or ecstasy, whichever state Arthur was inclined to see Merlin at the time. Even seeing it do nothing but open and close for a spoon of pasta made Merlin lick his lips.

The scrape of the utensils twisting together though, reminded Merlin of something — he stared at it hard, chasing the elusive memory as the pasta twisted around the screeching metal — but just as he was catching hold of it, the doorbell rang.

Arthur got up to answer it, mopping at his mouth with a napkin and ignoring Merlin’s snickering; his posh mannerisms were an endless source of amusement for Merlin.

Morgana strutted into the flat as soon as Arthur opened the door, pulling off her leather gloves and flinging them on the kitchen island, pausing just the slightest amount as her gaze swept past the dining area, taking in the plates before stopping on Merlin. He gave her a cheery wave and a grin, but stopped cold at her venomous glare.

What had he done? He couldn’t remember doing anything to upset her lately. Or ever. Crossing Morgana Le Fay was entirely too silly of a thing for Merlin to do, even accidentally.

Turning away sharply, the beautiful woman strode over to her brother and air kissed both his cheeks, inspecting his face for weariness and weakness, of which Arthur showed none. Morgana nodded once, patted his cheek and made for a chair, slinking into it gracefully. Arthur sat on the sofa, leaving a gap next to him that Merlin slipped into easily.

Morgana stiffened slightly, before picking up Merlin’s copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, spine creased and opened to pages ninety eight and ninety nine, where he had left it on the side table. Morgana closed it before declaring the place a mess, as per usual. Arthur drolly replied that he had seen her and Morgause’s flat, and certainly Morgana must consider it a waste zone if this was her definition of ‘mess’.

The siblings continued in this vein for a while, Morgana moving up and out of her chair to various photographs and frames of Arthur and Merlin, picking them up and putting them down wherever as they conversed.

“Uther’s worried, you know,” Morgana said airily, cutting the air with a careless sweep of her hand, a framed picture of Arthur and Merlin raising a toast at Leon’s 28th dangling from her fingertips.

Arthur’s hand twitched where it rested on his thigh. Merlin reached over and covered it with his own. Morgana’s eyes flickered to the movement before resting back on Arthur’s face, a small line forming above the clean arches of her brows.

“I can’t imagine why,” Arthur replied stiffly.

“Don’t play stupid; you know why. I hate it when you perpetuate the stereotype.” Morgana scowled, placing the picture down next to one of Merlin looking unamused in a huge, feathery hat.

“He has nothing to worry about. I’m in and out of the office on time, profits have raised three percent this quarter and, besides bloody Elena, no one in my team is in danger of— of injuring themselves with office supplies. I’d say that’s more than anyone could hope for,” Arthur challenged, his grip on his slacks tightening. Merlin worried at his lip as Morgana’s hand curled into a fist, letting out a breath when it was forcibly relaxed.

“Just...” Morgana let herself trail off. “You call me anytime. About anything.” She gave him a smirk. “I promise not to be mean.”

“Is that actually something you can turn off?”

Morgana looked at him for a while, expressions warring on her face, struggling to remain haughty. Then, decisively, she hauled him up, dislodging Merlin’s hand, and hugged Arthur fiercely.

“I hate seeing you like this,” Morgana gritted out, voice thick. As abruptly as it started, she let go of him and strutted out of the apartment, gloves shoved back in the deep pockets of her winter coat.

Immediately after the door closed, Arthur’s sprang into action. Merlin watched on dazedly, wondering when Arthur’s OCD had jumped up a notch as Arthur frantically replaced all the items that Morgana moved back into their previous positions. He ran his hands over the worn cover of Electric Sheep, slowly bending the spine and finding the right pages, stroking the print idly before placing them face down on the side table.

Merlin was on his side of the bed by the time Arthur stumbled out of the shower, smelling fresh and clean and delicious, though his skin was a bit too pink. He slid under the covers, turning off the lamp with a quiet click of a button, and moonlight streamed through the thin slit left by the curtain. It was just enough light, casting a shadow over Arthur’s face nestled in the pillow, sleepily running his hand on the edge of Merlin’s pillow, almost touching Merlin’s face.

Merlin moved into the touch, feeling the chill and not much else. He remembered Morgana’s poisonous look, the ice clinging to his chest, and thought of what he’d seen, what he’d felt. Slowly running his finger on the boundary of his side of the bed and Arthur’s, he accepted what was in front of him, what must be true.

“I love you,” Merlin whispered to Arthur, wrecked.

Arthur just smiled softly and closed his eyes, sliding off into sleep.

——

“Hi, this is Arthur—”

“And Merlin!”

“—and Merlin.”

“We’re not here right now, because we’re probably having sex or something. Leave a message!”

“Merlin, we’re not keeping that—”

Beep.

“Arthur, Arthur mate, Arthur, come on, come on please, god... God I am so sorry. I didn’t mean for it, I didn’t mean for any of it, please, please can you—”

Beep.

Message deleted.

——

A woman came bearing cookies and a wavering smile. She was very, very familiar but Merlin couldn’t remember her name. He couldn’t remember her name and that wasn’t right, was it? That wasn’t right at all. He put all of his concentration on remembering, furious at himself while Arthur collected her in a warm embrace and herded her to the kitchen.

The woman avoided looking at the lounge area, ignored the coat rack and the photo frames, the flat screen with Merlin’s face frozen on it. She concentrated instead on the framed puzzle hanging on the kitchen wall as Arthur fixed a cup of tea. Merlin was relieved to be able to recall this, at least; how he had been obsessed with completing the two thousand piece puzzle of Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss, working through a Friday night into a Saturday morning like he was still in uni and could still pull stupid all nighters like that. Arthur had muzzily stepped on it on his way to coffee, which had Merlin yelping and whimpering until Arthur lay down on the floor beside him, grumbling about weird chefs and stupid cow eyes and fumbling with the pieces in his half awake state. At some point Merlin had fallen asleep, and when he woke up next the puzzle was complete and Arthur had one hand buried in Merlin’s hair and using the other to flip idly through the Economist.

The woman sipped carefully at her tea, mustering a smile for Arthur as he sat beside her. Merlin ran his fingers over his open laptop as she reached out a hand and smoothed a stray lock of hair behind Arthur’s ear.

“Thank you for the flowers,” she said quietly. “They were lovely.”

Arthur shifted in his seat, visibly uncomfortable to Merlin. The woman did not seem to notice. “It was the least I could do,” Arthur said finally. He took a beep breath, taking her hand to give it a squeeze before dropping it quickly. Not looking at her, quietly, he said, “I would have come, Hunith.”

The woman — Hunith — and Arthur left it at that. They sipped their tea, drinking and talking of other mundane events quietly. Arthur didn’t broach the subject again, letting it simmer just beneath the surface, and the woman, Hunith, didn’t try again until she was at the door. Merlin was beside her in the foyer, wanting to reach a hand out and touch her, but not knowing why. Not remembering why.

“You’re all my boys, you know.” She put her coat back on, adjusting her gloves the way Merlin somehow knew she did whenever she was feeling out of her depth. “You’re all my sons. I hope that we can... together—”

Arthur’s back stiffened, his voice tight, words almost strangling their way out of his mouth. “I can’t, Hunith. I can’t look at him and not—” His fist clenched, knuckles growing white. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

They stood there, silent and unmoving. The moment stretched into a horrible discomfort, until she nodded slightly, disappointment in the lines of her face. “Whenever you’re ready, dear,” she said, sliding Arthur’s wayward hair behind his ear one more time before walking out the door. Merlin could see her shoulders heaving, just a little, but then Arthur closed the door and there was nothing.

——

Arthur watched the video.

Merlin swung his legs lazily on the stool, his laptop open and shining an eerily blue light into the dark. On screen, Arthur was guiding Merlin through the door of a function room, his eyes blindfolded. He had taken advantage of Merlin’s temporary loss of sight under the guise of guiding Merlin’s body, pressing up close and shifting his hips to the right or to the left when he needed Merlin to turn.

Then, a cacophony of voices yelled, “surprise!” and the blindfold was taken off. His mouth was an ‘oh’ of surprise, his face flushed and making quite an unattractive expression. A rush of people surrounded them and hoisted Merlin up and over their heads, carrying him to the cake and alcohol. Will — his best friend Will, who he had known since forever, that’s his face, that’s his face, Merlin still remembers it — got up on the table and made a speech, but Arthur fast forwarded it until it got to him and Merlin doing a slow dance on the floor to all you need is love.

It had been a week before Merlin’s 25th birthday, and Arthur had gotten everyone together to throw him a surprise party. He’d never felt so loved in his life.

Arthur rewound the clip, watching Merlin pop a bolt of champagne again and paused the video on Merlin’s happy, alcohol flushed face before putting the remote back down on the arm of the sofa and going to bed. Merlin followed him shortly after, molding his thin body to Arthur’s as much as he was capable, but coming up short at the boundary of Arthur’s side of the bed and his.

——

Merlin sat on the bed, looking on as Arthur put his freshly laundered and neatly ironed suits in the closet, careful to leave enough space for Merlin’s hoodies.

In the closet door mirror, Merlin’s face stared back at him, unblemished, as the periodic rustling of clothing went on. He looked normal, like the unsmiling Merlin that had worn a silly hat in the frame on the bookshelf, but he knew that he wasn’t normal anymore. He pulled up his hoodie to reveal — nothing. No matter how many times he had done it, hoping, desperately hoping for something to change, there was never anything there. He had gingerly placed his fingers in the nothingness once, and been too unnerved by the experience to try again.

There was a sudden banging on the door. Loud, obnoxious, almost violent. Filtered through the noise was scattered yelling and shouting.

From his perch on the stool in front of his laptop, Merlin saw Arthur wrench open the door, muscles tensed and face thunderous.

“What the fuck do you want?”

A man grabbed Arthur and bunched his hands in Arthur’s shirt, tried to shake him, but Arthur stood him down and was unmoved. “Arthur, Arthur god, he was my best mate, Merlin, Merlin, oh god—” the man sobbed. He looked terrible. His face was filthy and unshaven, his clothes stained and rumpled.

“Are you drunk.” And it wasn’t a question, too calm and cold. Chilling. The man — Merlin’s best friend? Was he really? Maybe he was — jerked back. From his position in the foyer, Merlin could only look on helplessly as his perhaps-best-friend swayed, clutching onto the door frame when Arthur dislodged his fists with a violent motion backwards. Arthur’s fist clenched, going bone white alarmingly fast, and punched the man in the jaw.

He went down heavily, blood spraying from his lip where his teeth had cut into it. He was just staggering to his feet when Arthur bodily dragged him and threw him into the wall opposite the doorway. Arthur, whose arms had cradled Merlin gently, soothed him, held him possessively against his front as Merlin panted into the sheets beneath him, drew his arm back and punched the man again, holding none of his violence in check.

Hold on, this — this isn’t right, Arthur isn’t like this, Merlin thought frantically. That’s not Arthur, that’s not, that’s not him! But Arthur kept pulling his arm back, kept his hand clenched in the man’s collar. The man, who may well be Merlin’s best friend, was lying there taking the hits, barely holding up his arms to protect his face.

He wanted to pull Arthur off of him. Desperately. But no matter how much he willed it, he never moved.

“How dare you,” Arthur heaved at long last, long, thready breaths escaping. “How dare you come here. Drunk. Drunk! After everything you’ve done!” Arthur’s roar reverberated down the hall, neighbours opening their doors just enough to see what the noise was all about, but not wide enough to get involved.

The beaten man coughed up bloody specks on his cracked lips, sobbing. He curled his injured body around Arthur’s foot, holding on for dear life and pleaded, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, god, you don’t know how I — I think about it all the damn time — every day, every day I think it should have been me, it should have been — why? Why? Why? It should have been me!”

Arthur’s back was rigid. He was scrabbling around the hem of Arthur’s trousers, babbling on and on, but Arthur was breathing heavily, knuckles white where the blood hadn’t covered them. Slowly, his fist flattened out, and he regained control of his breathing.

“Get out, William.”

William, yes, that sounded right, his best mate Will, shrunk in on himself, clutching tighter to Arthur’s calf and shook his head vigorously. Arthur brought up his other foot and slammed it down hard. Will cried out pitifully and released him, rolling out onto his back, cradling his injured arm to his chest. Arthur looked down at him dispassionately.

“Leave. Do not come back.”

He calmly went back inside and shut the door on Will’s sluggishly writhing form. Then there was the sound of the tap running in the bathroom and the medicine cabinet door opening.

By the door in the foyer, Merlin listened as Will’s broken apologizes tumbled on and on, feeling heavy and weighed down.

——

He was just taking off his chef uniform at the end of the day when the familiar trill of his phone sounded. Arthur and his impressive timing, Merlin thought happily. When Will’s picture flashed on screen though, hopeful caution stirred within him. Caution turned into shrieking ‘DANGER’ sirens moments later.

One quick text to Arthur and a tube ride later, he was inside a pub. He fought his way to the bar, becoming more and more frantic when Will’s familiar form continued to elude him. Checking the floor as he went, he prayed that he wouldn’t find Will lying on somewhere completely trashed. Please at least be sober enough to walk, he thought. Merlin knew from experience that the staff weren’t likely to lend a hand should Will be too drunk to function.

Relief almost dizzied him when he spotted Will at the edge of the bar, just barely keeping his seat on the stool and, thankfully, only arguing with the bartender. Unfortunately, the bartender looked like he was about two seconds from punching Will in the face. Merlin paid the tab and apologised profusely, hefting Will onto one shoulder and dragging him out of there.

“God Will, how long do you want to do this?” Merlin muttered when they were on the street, stumbling under the weight of Will’s uncooperative body. Will pretended not to hear him, as per usual. Merlin bit his lip, reigning in his anger and worry in the face of Will’s stubborn behaviour, spiralling so far out of control he had no idea what he could do anymore.

Will had been let go from his office job a few weeks ago. He’d shown no desire to get a new one, probably because his girlfriend of five bloody years decided she didn’t give two shits about someone without a steady income to support her spending habits, regardless of the fact that Will had supported her through university. This seemed to Will a good opportunity to acquire a distressingly permanent odor of cigarette smoke, bar toilets and booze. Oh, and to develop a tendency to start shit with anybody in his general vicinity.

This was the third time that week Merlin had come for him, and if Will didn’t come to his senses soon, at the very least he would get hospitalised from a bar fight, or get liver poisoning. At the worst — well, Merlin wasn’t one to dwell on the negative, though he was desperately trying to get Will to stop, to go talk to some doctors, but Will staunchly refused every time. Until he could be convinced, the only thing Merlin could do was make sure he got home okay, make sure he didn’t drown in his own vomit on the street somewhere.

To the disgust of onlookers, Will broke off to go heave the contents of his stomach in a bin. Merlin left him to it, too acclimatised to even wrinkle his nose, and made a quick call home. He didn’t expect Arthur to be there yet, and sure enough, the voicemail picked up.

"Hey, it's me,” he said after the beep. “Will's a bit drunk so I'm going to take him home and—” he cut off and covered the mouthpiece as Will gave a truly horrendous retch, managing to suppress a wince. After it had finished, he brought the phone back to his ear. “Anyway, I didn't want you to worry. See you soon, I love you!"

Merlin had never been in the habit of declaring his love so brazenly until he met Arthur. If only just the tiniest bit, he wanted to make up for his Uther’s constipated way of showing he cared for his son. Arthur would never have to doubt his regard, he’d never have to worry about whether or not Merlin really cared for him. Before Arthur, he’d never known someone so lovable could feel so unloved. Before Arthur, Merlin didn’t know a person could care for another so much that sometimes it felt like he might die at the enormity of it.

The only person who rivalled Arthur in that respect was Will. The bastard was so lucky Merlin cared for him so much, or else he’d have changed his number and denied all relation by now. He rubbed Will’s back as his best mate spat out what was left of his stomach lining, before dislodging Merlin’s hand from his back and stumbling down the road. Merlin chased after him.

“Will! Come on mate, wait up!”

“Fuck off, Emrys!” Will shouted bitterly. “Go back to your fucking rich boyfriend and your fucking perfect life and just— just fuck off!”

Merlin walked behind him a little, wanting to give him space and also not wanting to get elbowed in the eye — again. A drunk Will was rarely a nice Will these days.

“Will...” he tried. His best friend ignored him, veering off on course to another pub further down the street. Merlin pulled him back. “Hey, come on, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said soothingly. “Let’s go back to yours and—” Will just shrugged him off, slapping his hands out of the way and kept going, not even looking in Merlin’s direction. Stunned, he stared at the throbbing limb, disbelieving. Had he really? Again? What was the point of doing this anymore? He wasn’t listening at all!

“You keep drinking like this and you’ll kill yourself!”

Will stopped, swaying where he stood, as Merlin held his breath and waited for the onslaught, regretting losing control of his temper. Then, slowly, he heard Will start to laugh, loud and harsh and mean. They were at a stoplight, and he was slumped on the pole from the force of his derisive laughter. He lifted his head up suddenly, cutting off the awful sound. The force of his glare, the hate in his eyes, caused Merlin to stumble back. “Fuck you, Emrys. You wish I would fucking kill myself, don’t you? Save you all the trouble of spending time with me, wouldn’t it?” he said, seething, hissing. Woozily, Will pointed an accusing finger at him, swaying precariously, though he was supported by the pole. “Can’t have a couple of beers to have a good time, can I? To forget how fucking shit my life is? Fuck you if the complete destruction of my life is such a fucking inconvenience for you Emrys!”

“What? Will, that’s not what I—”

Will stumbled off the pole and walked backwards, ignoring him and still shouting. “Aren’t we fucking mates? Fucking hell, are you so fucking busy sucking Arthur’s cock you don’t have time for me anymore? Huh? So fucking what if he’s got money! So fucking what! Do I not deserve your time if I don’t fucking shower you with money? You greedy fucking bitch—”

But Merlin had stopped listening. His feet had flown across the pavement as soon as he saw the lights coming. Will was drunk off his arse, stupid with it, so fucking stupid, crossing an intersection without looking, and thank Christ he’d gotten to Will in time, thank Christ he’d been in time to push him out of the way, thank god, what an idiot that was so fucking close — he relished the flood of relief, feeling it wash over him like a weight lifted, light and freeing and fantastic — and then the pain came, and it was all he could feel, searing, crippling pain that sent his body flying, slamming into the windscreen and head cracking on the boot, the road rough as his body broke rolling scraping bleeding and—

—And then he was on his side of the bed at home, in his and Arthur’s flat.

——

Arthur was watching the video again.

They were in Paris, Disneyland, and Merlin had so many Donald Duck plushies he may as well have been a vendor there. Arthur laughed, clear and bright, as Merlin ran and hugged some poor sod in a Donald costume, a giant kid in his natural habitat. Then Merlin was eating from a cotton candy that was twice the size of his head and laughing as Arthur took his sticky fingers and sucked them clean off screen, making an obnoxiously loud noise. There was footage of the night parade, of fireworks, and then a badly framed sequence of Merlin and Arthur kissing, and as the lights bloomed in the sky behind them, faces back lit green, blue, red, the doorbell rang.

A rather pleasant looking fellow stood there when Arthur answered, rubbing his hands on his jeans. Arthur started slightly, surprised.

“Leon, I wasn’t expecting you.” He opened the door a bit wider. “Did you want to...?”

“Ah, no,” the man said, almost nervously. Then he cleared his throat and straightened up. “No, today you’re going with me down to the pub and — and that’s it. There’s no choice involved.”

Arthur put up quite the fight, but Leon was politely firm about it, until finally Arthur grumbled into a coat and scarf and left, shutting the door firmly behind him. Merlin felt himself fading, mindless and tired and disinterested, almost to the point of peaceful stasis when he was forcefully brought back by a couple entering the flat. He recognised them from some of the photos on the bookshelf, a pretty dark skinned woman and a tall, dark and handsome man. Merlin didn’t remember why they would have keys to the flat, but he had a vague feeling that it was fine, not out of the ordinary.

They came armed with boxes and bags, and as a unit they gathered up items from room to room: a mug on the sink, a laptop, a book laying open on the table next to the sofa. Merlin followed them around aimlessly, feeling lighter and lighter as each item disappeared into the abyss of their bags.

The first time they stopped was when the woman started crying, the man dropping everything and coming to console her. “Oh god Lance, oh god,” she cried, and he put her head on his shoulder and murmured into her hair, “I know, I know, it’s alright, we’re going to help him through this,” until her tears subsided and she was able to pull away and continue putting brightly coloured scarves into her box, Lance bending to remove some shoes, chucks caked with dried mud.

They moved to the bathroom next, placing items with great care into their boxes: a razor lying on the sink; a dry blue toothbrush; toiletries that seemed old and unused, the way the gels had separated with the top layers congealed. Afterwards, they moved to the bedroom, and Merlin perched on the bed as Lance rummaged through the sock drawer. This was when the woman cried a second time, sinking down on the floor next to the bed with a red hoodie she’d found under the covers on the side of the bed Merlin was on. He didn’t know how long Lance consoled her for this time, only that when he was aware again, light had started to fade from the sky outside the lounge room window, where the couple were watching the end of the video. Lance’s hand was hovering over the remote, but the woman put her hand on his arm and bit her lip, shaking her head. He left it alone and they kept watching, the video replaying itself from the beginning just as Arthur walked through the door, Leon a few pace behind.

It only took him two steps to figure out the items were missing. If Merlin still had breath it surely would have caught when Arthur’s expression darkened, almost murderous. No, he thought, no no no, I don’t want to see that again, I don’t want to see you angry again, no, no! And in between the panic he didn’t quite know why he thought that, he’d never seen Arthur very angry before, had he?

Yet all the same, he was uncommonly relieved when both Leon and Lance held him back, forcing him to the floor and pinning his arms and legs to stop his thrashing. The woman sat on his chest, crying silently and waiting for him to stop struggling. He did, eventually — body almost crumpling, unresisting, resigned.

“It’s just—Merlin’s been gone for two years, Arthur,” the woman said, stroking his sides soothingly, almost choking on her sobs. “He wouldn’t have wanted you to live like this.”

Two years.

Something wailed, anguished, miserable. Merlin was sure it was the sound of his heart, breaking.

It’s been two years.

He’d only ever wanted Arthur to be happy. To feel loved. He wanted Arthur to have the best of everything, and he wanted to be by Arthur’s side and watch him get everything he desired. He wanted to laugh and eat and make love and be with him, always. He had strived to give him that, every day, every minute, and he didn’t know if he’d succeeded, but...

Two years.

But Arthur wasn’t happy. Merlin contemplated that maybe, just maybe, Arthur would have been happier if they had never met. Maybe he’d have settled down and had blond children and tons of pets and been happy and healthy and completely carefree. Arthur deserved those things. Merlin always thought he’d be the one to give that to him, is all. Maybe after — after he forgot about all of this, after he forgot about Merlin he could still have those things. Would he? Would he really? He could barely stand the thought but it was true. It was true. Just forget. Forget, forget and erase this horrible reality.

A burden, that was what he was. And Arthur had been carrying him all alone.

Two years.

And it hurt. Merlin didn’t know how it could hurt, but it did. It burned him, burned from the inside out, the things Merlin could no longer give Arthur. Merlin knew he had forgotten a lot of things — and crudely he likened his memory to cheese, more holes than substance — but the one thing he never forgot was that absolute certainty that he wanted to stay with Arthur always, forever.

Until death do us part.

And, Merlin realised, with a heaviness and a sinking weight, a black fire engulfing his heart, part us it should.

“This is strange because, you know,” Arthur started, as though in a middle of a conversation, as if he weren’t pinned to the floor in his own home, fight seeping out of him at every word. “I must’ve done for a whole 23 years of my life, but I— Honestly I...” He paused to draw an uneven breath, limp. “I don’t know how I— Did I even exist before him?” Arthur asked, blankly staring at nothing, as if unaware of the three bodies holding him down. His voice was so cold, so devoid of the warmth Merlin loved dearly, small and wavering. “I’ve forgotten what he smells like.”

The woman sobbed into his chest, and then slapped him, hard.

“Get it together, Arthur Pendragon,” she demanded, hoarse. “Please, please just— Merlin loved you. He loved you because you are strong, and— and brave, all the time. Even when it’s hard to be brave. He loved that about you! What would he think? Seeing you, seeing you too despondent to walk out of your own flat, every day surrounded by things that don’t, that don’t—” She couldn’t go on, just shaking her head at him and making his shirt wet with the droplets of her tears.

“I miss him too, Arthur,” Lance confided quietly, a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “It feels like he’s still here sometimes, but...” He exhaled threadily. “But he’s not. And we can’t put our lives on hold. We have to move on. We have to do what Merlin can’t anymore, Arthur. Arthur, do you—? Please tell me you know.”

Listen to them, Merlin willed. Listen to them, you stupid, stubborn, wonderful man.

For a terrible while, the rough breathing of four people were the only sounds in the room. Then Arthur’s jaw tightened.

“Have you gone through everything?”

Lance and the woman stilled, and she trembled as she replied, “Yes.”

Arthur eyes slammed shut, as if blocking out the word, and what it meant.

“You...” he began, jaws and fists clenched a sickening white, and the others visibly braced themselves.

But Arthur forcibly calmed himself, unclenching his muscles and blinking away the moisture that had gathered in his eyes.

“I couldn’t have done that. I...” he sucked in a breath, as if wounded, punched in the gut. “I don’t think I’ll ever thank you for it.”

“I’m sorry we did it. But we just couldn’t do nothing, not when you keep...” the woman trailed off.

Arthur’s mouth lifted wryly. “Wasting away?” No one responded. Arthur moved his gaze over them and then shut his eyes, miserable. “Let me up. I won’t hit you.”

They eased off of him slowly, and he stood, weariness in every line. He slowly walked around the flat, his expression at the barrenness hit Merlin like a physical blow. Arthur disappeared into the bedroom where Merlin could not see him, and then was back out in two minutes. His face was a deathly pallor, maybe from rage or despair; he’d never seen Arthur look like that so Merlin couldn’t be sure. Or if he had, he didn’t remember anymore.

Leon and Lance greeted him with an empty CD case and the remote to the TV, awkward, uncomfortable. Leon cleared his throat, but still croaked out, “for when you’re ready,” flopping the case around listlessly. The three prepared to end there, prepared to walk out and leave Arthur to his grief but he shook his head, and held up an unsteady hand for them to stop.

Ah.

This Arthur, Merlin knew. Arthur, the strongest person he had ever met and had the privilege to love. It was a bittersweetness, the pride he felt at Arthur’s determination. He was never one to delay; once he decided to do something, it was as good as done.

Arthur was slow in taking the remote, but take it he did, turning off Merlin’s smiling face with an unsteady press of a button. Stiffly, he pressed the eject button and took hold of the disc. He shuddered through a long breath, and then Leon was crouched down beside him, a reassuring hand on his shoulders. Without looking he fumbled the disc into the cover, gritting his teeth.

“We’ll put it with the rest of Merlin’s things for you to— to go over when you’re ready.” Leon said, and Arthur flinched, breathing harshly and gripping the carpet under his feet.

“Leave before I wrestle it out of your hands,” Arthur tried to joke. Merlin was beside him in an instant, whatever it had been that anchored him suddenly released, and he was no longer tethered anywhere and he knew, he knew. He pressed himself into Arthur’s warmth, desperate to carve this last memory somewhere inside himself, to keep and cradle and have forever, to never forget, please don’t let me forget him, please. He didn’t have long. He knew somehow, once that disc passed the threshold, that he would be gone.

Leon nodded quickly and passed the case to Lance, who took it somberly in one hand, and the woman’s hand in the other. They moved for the door, but before they left she told him, “We’re here for you, whenever you need us. We love you, Arthur.”

And that was some consolation at least. There was still someone to tell Arthur ‘I love you’. Even if it wasn’t Merlin, there would still be someone. Just not him. The agony Merlin felt at the thought was unfathomable, but at least that much, at least there would still be that.

Merlin pressed a ghost of a kiss to Arthur’s cheek, the last time, the very last.

“I love you,” he whispered.

The door clicked shut.

——

Beep.

"Hey, it's me. Will's a bit drunk so I'm going —”

Beep.

Message deleted.

You have no saved messages.


——

end.