Long ago, Merlin recognized this truth about himself: he was kind of rubbish at most things. He couldn’t cook without burning the food, do laundry without shrinking a sweater, or do the washing up without breaking a glass. The list of his non-skills was seemingly endless: he couldn’t keep appointments, meet deadlines, turn in assignments.
Arthur – who was dismayingly good at many things, like rugby and understanding economics and being attractive – liked to tell Merlin that he’d be dead within minutes if the apocalypse ever happened, and Merlin quite cheerfully agreed with him.
They were both been wrong about that, but it was a close call. The fact that Merlin lived through the initial invasion was due to one very handy canister of gasoline, a book of matches, and Arthur’s absurdly good sense of timing.
“Honestly,” Merlin says, “What self-respecting alien species invades on a Wednesday? Wednesdays are for skivving off work and eating yesterday’s leftovers. Who the fuck does anything so ambitious on a Wednesday?”
He and Arthur are huddled in a shelled-out building in what, this time last week, was a suburb of London. There’s a steady trickle of gunfire in the distance, interspersed with the eye-watering whine of the Mantidae’s sonic weaponry. Eventually, the gunfire cuts out, leaving an awful droning silence.
“Merlin,” Arthur says. “With everything they’ve done, are you really going to complain about their bloody timetable?”
The Mantidae look like four-foot tall praying mantises with long, curving fingers instead of claws. Their skin is hard and plated, nearly impenetrable to gunfire. Their eyes look like faceted gems. Their fingers end in sharp barbs that can rend human flesh into flayed stripes with one swipe. Nobody understands why they’ve come, or from where. It was an ordinary, boring Wednesday afternoon; and then it was the end of the world.
“I hadn’t finished watching the last season of Lost,” Merlin says. He has been crying steadily for two days. It’s all the dust and smoke in the air. “They couldn’t have waited until Sunday?”
“Ah, but Sunday’s the day for a lie-in,” Arthur says. “Who wants to be invade when they could stay in bed until ten-thirty?”
They shrink back further into the doorway as they hear engines overhead. The craft hovers, then moves on.
Merlin wipes his eyes. Damn smoke.
“I can tell you how it ends, if you want,” Arthur says. “Lost, I mean.”
“Don’t you fucking dare, Pendragon.”
“Oh, come on. It really wasn’t that–”
Merlin kisses him for the first time to shut him up. He kisses him the second time because the world is burning to cinders all around them, because they saw an untold number of people die in the last forty-eight hours, because Arthur is warm and there and gloriously alive, and Merlin can’t think of a better person to spend the end of the world with.
Arthur kisses him back, which is good, because otherwise it would have been a very awkward apocalypse.
If life were fair, after the end of the world, anyone who survived would be given a fuzzy blanket, some tea, and a nice bed to hide under and weep.
Life is not fair, and there is no actual end to the end of the world. It doesn’t get worse, really, because it’s already about as bad as it can be. It just goes on, against all logic. The buildings crumble, the governments fall, people die in unnecessarily horrible ways, aliens run amok, and the survivors gathers in dirty little camps that are worse than the time Will convinced him to go the Glastonbury Festival.
It doesn’t end. This is how life is now.
When Arthur tells him that he’s going to fight, Merlin thinks of course. That’s what Arthur is: a fighter. His arms were made to cradle weapons, not skinny, useless art-school dropouts, regardless of how safe and warm Merlin feels in his embrace. Arthur is a warrior; it’s down in his core, written into his genes.
That doesn’t stop Merlin from picking up a clod of mud and throwing it at his stupid face. He misses. Hand-eye coordination is on the long list of skills he lacks: he can’t aim, he can’t shoot, he can’t fight, he can’t follow Arthur into this absolute fucking folly. He’d be worth than useless fighting alongside Arthur; he’d be a distraction.
“You bastard,” Merlin says. “You utter fucking prick.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, because he knows what this means, that they’re going to lose each other.
“Stuff it up your arse,” Merlin spits, clawing up another chunk of dirt.
The second clod of mud hits Arthur squarely in the chest. He staggers back, and Merlin thinks, that’s what he’ll look like when he dies, that same look of idiotic surprise.
The third mud clod falls from Merlin’s suddenly numb fingers.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says again.
“I don’t forgive you,” Merlin lies.
They don’t kiss like the world is ending; it already did. They kiss as though this fragile thing between them might implode, suck them both into a singularity point of despair.
Despair is an indulgence neither of them can afford. Not if they want to live.
Arthur goes. He’s not alone; their camp is splitting in half, between those who can (or must) fight, and those who cannot, or will be of better use elsewhere. Arthur leaves with a group of about twenty men and women, their faces all hard, brittle, determined, beautiful.
Arthur’s shirt still has a stain over the chest from the mud; from a distance, it could be blood.
This, Merlin thinks, is worse than the actual end of the world.
A rough organization is created. Line cooks and housewives create kitchens, theater techs collaborate with the IT folks to start building a communications network among the camps. Teachers make lesson plans, sending groups of teenagers to scavenge for learning materials. Merlin volunteers to work in a traveling field hospital and finds, to his surprise, that he’s actually good at it. Between his love of gruesome horror movies and his midwife mother, Merlin’s lost most of his squeamishness.
(His mother’s almost certainly dead, but Merlin’s hometown is a backwater Welsh village that even locals have a hard time pointing out on a map, never mind an invading alien species. And if anyone could survive, it’s Hunith bloody Emrys, with her organic herb garden and antique rifle collection.)
Merlin took a few anatomy classes at uni, all of them focused on artistic elements, but still. He knows that the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, and so on.
“God help us all,” Gaius, an actual doctor, replies to that. “You’re forbidden from touching anything sharper than a bed pan.”
Merlin empties his fair share of bedpans, it’s true, but does plenty of other things. He learns how to give injections, wrap sprains, take blood pressure, bandage a wound. He learns, during one awful day, how to perform a tracheotomy. Hardest of all, he learns when and how to give up on someone, how to hold their hand and look in their eyes as they die.
He goes to the communication tent every day, pestering the woman there for news of Arthur. They become friends when Merlin makes a joke about her being Uhura.
“Haven’t got the legs for it. Miniskirts aren’t really appropriate in this environment,” Gwen replies primly.
The temperature has started to drop. The tent is badly sealed, not well insulated. Gwen wears thick layers of sweaters, gloves with the fingertips cut off.
“Miniskirts are appropriate in any environment,” Merlin replies, and she laughs, and that is all it takes. The one upside for being part of newly-endangered species: making friends is much easier.
“They had an engagement up in the Lake District two nights ago,” Gwen says a few months into the never-ending end of the world. Her face is pinched and anxious; her brother Elyan is in the same troop as Arthur. “Ambush.”
The cold creeps into Merlin’s gut. “Casualties?”
“Two dead, two wounded. Neither of them Arthur.”
“Elyan?” he asks. This is their other bond; they both have their other halves out on the front lines.
“Also fine. The wounded are being sent back here for recovery.”
Merlin nods. What can he say to that? Oh good, I’m glad someone else was murdered in his stead, or maybe, Too bad he wasn’t grievously wounded, then I’d be able to keep him here. Better to keep silent than to make Gwen realize what a bastard she’s befriended.
“Do you know what people are calling them?” Gwen says, leaning closer.
Merlin looks down at his fingernails. There’s mud underneath them, no matter how much he scrubs.
“They’re calling them the Knights.”
Merlin smiles faintly. “I’m sure Arthur just loves that, the pillock.”
He’s been keeping a journal. Well, sort of. He has a stack of loose papers that had former incarnations as bills, receipts, and accounting ledgers.
It’s nearly all for Arthur. So much of his internal narrative is shaped for an audience consisting of one infuriatingly absent man, and his journal is the one place where he can put it down, solidify his thoughts so they stop rattling around his brain:
Sometimes I daydream about the other ways we used to joke that the world would end. Zombie apocalypse is still my favorite (slow zombies, I mean. Fast zombies are bullshit.) I wouldn’t have minded a Water World scenario either. I bet you’d look good wearing a bunch of repurposed fishing nets. I’d live through another apocalypse just to see that, actually.
We’re heading down towards the coast. It’s colder than a witch’s tit this week, so we’re hoping for some milder weather. Do you remember that time we were in Brighton for Christmas, because your father was having some big to-do, and you made me go along for emotional support? We got absolutely piss-drunk, you vomited on Morgana’s shoes, and then we went outside in the garden and sang Christmas carols so loudly and terribly that the police were called and your father had to pay them off. Good times, mate. God, we were such arseholes.
Just come back to me in one piece, you prat. Or at least one very large, breathing chunk with your brain function still intact. Preferably with your cock still attached. I’ve got plans for it.
Today was awful. There was a child and she
I had to
Nevermind. I need a fucking drink and a cuddle. I know where to get the first, at least.
“You’re Merlin, aren’t you?” the injured man says. Merlin glances up from where he’s been re-bandaging a wound on the man’s thigh. Gwaine, he remembers. One of Arthur’s Knights, wounded in the latest battle and driven to the hospital to recover.
Gwaine had been touch-and-go for a while. He’d arrived feverish and glassy-eyed, his leg swollen with infection. Three days of fevers and delirium, lancing the wound to drain it, Gwaine’s dry, cracked lips muttering nonsense. He’s only been lucid for the last day or two, but Merlin is going to count him as a win.
“Oh god,” Merlin says. “What did he tell you?”
Gwaine huffs a laugh. “Too much. First few weeks out, he honestly didn’t shut up. Not a great understanding of the concept of TMI, has Arthur.”
Merlin covers his face with his hand, wondering how many embarrassing stories about him this stranger has heard.
Gwaine must take pity on him, because he tells Merlin how he had found a Ken doll in some wrecked council estate in Manchester, painted the name MERLIN on it, and then superglued it to his pack. Gwaine carries on one-sided conversations with it whenever Arthur gets in a mood.
“You realize that’s insane, right?” Merlin says, grinning like an idiot.
“I figure if anyone would understand, it’d be you.”
Merlin laughs. He’s happy that Gwaine survived.
“Oh, I’ve got something from him,” Gwaine says. “He wanted me to give it to you if I saw you.”
Merlin feels as though all the breath has been punched out of him.
“Front pocket of my bag, wherever that ended up,” Gwaine says. Merlin finishes bandaging his leg as quickly as he can, and runs off to find it.
He finds the green canvas bag and tears open the front pocket. He pulls out a worn out case with the words LOST SEASON SIX printed on it, and laughs until he cries.
“Do you...” Merlin starts to say to Gwen, then trails off.
“Do I what?”
Merlin’s mouth opens, but he can’t seem to form a coherent sentence. He shuts it and looks down at his breakfast instead; lukewarm, rubbery oatmeal. Disgusting, but it's all there is.
“Use your words, Merlin,” Gwen says, smiling kindly.
“Oh piss off. It’s just– do you ever wonder?”
Merlin pitches his voice low, not wanting it to carry across the mess tent. “Why we bother at all?”
It’s been so long since he’s seen Arthur; two full moons have passed since he sent Gwaine off with a sheaf of papers rolled together in a rubber band (”They’re letters for... Well, they’re a random collection of complaints and bad jokes that I wrote with him in mind.”). It’s nearly spring, though nobody’s quite sure of the date, and there are bloody crocuses emerging from the ground like nothing has happened at all .
“No,” Gwen says firmly. “I don’t. Wondering is nearly the same as saying it isn’t, and I can’t function like that.”
Merlin stares at her, open-mouthed. He had assumed everyone was embroiled in this kind of existential crisis. “How do you do that?”
Gwen blows on her tea. “I keep mental list of things I want. A house instead of a drafty tent, with a cat to keep the mice away. A lover. A garden. A handful of babies.”
Of course Gwen still believes in happy endings. Of course.
“What do you want, Merlin?” Gwen asks.
He pokes at his rubbery oatmeal. “I want the war to be over.”
“Everyone wants that. What else? Simple things.” Gwen presses.
Merlin sighs. “Fresh fruit. Tea with a disgusting amount of milk in it. A comfortable bed.”
“And a great snoring war-hero stealing all the covers?” Gwen says, smiling.
“I wouldn’t let him steal them,” Merlin grumbles, though if he had Arthur in his bed, he’d let him get away with anything, so long as Merlin were allowed to keep him there.
"I think we'll both get what we want. We certainly deserve to."
Merlin shoves the last bit of oatmeal in his mouth, forcing himself to swallow instead of choke. “Well, if it’s just a matter of waiting for life to be fair–”
“It’s not,” Gwen snaps. “Fairness has nothing to do with it, Merlin, nobody is that delusional. I think it’s going to happen because I’m going to fight until my last bloody breath to make it happen.”
“And that’s enough?” Merlin asks, after a moment of shocked silence.
Gwen sighs. “It has to be, doesn’t it?”
They move steadily north as the weather warms. Early spring slowly becomes late spring, and the world wakes up in tiny increments. Grass grows through the cracked tarmac. Daffodils unfold in former gardens. The birds create a racket every morning, a cacophony that makes Merlin long for a rocket launcher and enough spitefulness to use it.
There’s about twenty-five people in the camp at any given time, plus the patients. Half of them work in the rough hospital they’ve created out of musty old military tents and rickety cots. The other half rotate through defense duties, cooking and foraging, and communicating with the network of survivors.
Every day is the same: wake up; drink scorching hot tea with no milk; eat rubbery oatmeal or hot cereal; check on patients; be affectionately abused by Gaius in the name of education; check on patients again; eat lunch, if there is any; check on patients once more; bury anyone who’s died; pester Gwen for news of Arthur; ask after her brother Elyan and the rest of the Knights as an afterthought; eat dinner while trading gossip; sleep.
It’s a routine interspersed with rough surprises, some of them good, most of them awful. There’s the gastroenteritis epidemic, where they lose three people, and the typhus epidemic, where they lose nine. There’s the day their foraging group doesn’t come back. There are the nightmarish reports about the Mantidae, that they’ve stopped outright killing and have started capturing any humans that they come across.
There’s the news that Hunith is the head of a camp in Gwydyr Forest, and yes, her chosen weapon is an antique rifle that she brought from her home. There’s the day that Arthur’s camp is near enough to raise by radio, and Merlin spends fifteen shaking minutes spouting absolute nonsense into the speaker, and Arthur just says, Merlin, god, you’re still such an idiot, god, I miss you.
There are nights when he lies in his bedroll on the hard ground, too exhausted to sleep, Arthur’s absence still a tangible ache, even after so long.
“Just keep swimming,” Gwen says to him one night. “Remember that?” She starts singing it to him, pokes him until he starts to sing along.
When Gwen gets the news that the Knights suffered heavy losses in an ambush, Merlin finds two clean white rags in the bandage bin and a marker. He writes JUST KEEP SWIMMING on the thin cloths, then ties one around each of their wrists. They hold hands all night in the communications tent, waiting for the list of the dead and missing, then cry themselves to sleep with guilty relief; Elyan and Arthur are alive, even if half their comrades aren’t.
“Merlin,” someone hisses.
Merlin flaps a hand at them, turns over in his bedroll.
“Ugh, fuckoff,” Merlin groans into his pillow.
A boot nudges his ribs. “Get up, you lazy arse.”
Merlin recognizes Gaius’s voice. He makes an effort to open his eyes, and manages to get one at least half-mast.
“God, why are you doing this?” he groans.
“I’m not God, you twit. Haul your lazy carcass out of bed and get to the hospital.”
A few minutes later, Merlin manages to stumble over to the hospital, yawning and groaning. Dawn is just starting to tint the eastern sky with shades of pearl and silver, and it’s cold as balls. Merlin pulls his sweater tighter around him, shuffling through the hospital’s door.
He blinks stupidly when he catches sight of Gwen, sitting on one of the beds with a young black man, their hands are clenched together. Her face is red, puffy, still damp with tears.
“Merlin, this is–” she starts hiccuping and can’t finish.
“I’m Elyan,” he says, extending his free hand. Merlin takes it, hands numb.
Is he dead? Merlin asks, but his voice silent and imprisoned in his head. He’s dead, isn’t he.
“Sorry,” Gwen says. “This is so stupid, I just can’t believe you’re here.”
“I know, I thought you knew I was coming, guess the message got lost–”
“Why are you here?” Merlin says. He’s aware that his voice is shrill, but his mind is stuck on a loop of He’s dead, Arthur’s dead, that’s what you’ve come here for.
“Merlin,” Elyan says, and his face is serious, concerned–
There’s a stabbing pain in Merlin’s gut, grief like a knife.
“Sorry,” Merlin says, clutching his stomach. He’s going to be sick. “I need to–”
He gets up, flees from whatever Elyan is about to say, ducks around Gaius, pushes through the tent door and runs–
Right into Arthur. Who’s alive, and whose eyes are bluer than Merlin remembers in the graywash of his memory.
Merlin’s been awake for less than five minutes. He hasn’t had his tea. He only managed a few hours of sleep. He can handle far more than he ever thought himself capable of, back before the invasion, but this is too much.
It’s an entirely valid excuse, in Merlin’s opinion, for nearly fainting like a Victorian maid with the vapors.
Arthur catches him before he falls, naturally.
“You’re too skinny,” Arthur says, fitting a warm hand over his hipbone. He’s more-or-less carried Merlin back to his tent, and they’ve been clinging together ever since. Merlin has skillfully avoided asking Arthur a multitude of questions, such as why he’s here, and for how long; it feels like there’s a spell around them, and questioning the miracle of Arthur’s solid presence beside him might break it.
“I’ve always been too skinny, according to you,” Merlin replies.
“Exactly,” he says. “You didn’t have any weight to lose. I could cut myself on these.” He presses his thumb into the sensitive hollow next to the bone, and Merlin squirms next to him.
“I am a bit hungry.” He looks up at Arthur, grinning in a way he knows makes him look ridiculous and slightly stoned. “It’s hours ‘til breakfast. Suppose I’ll just have to gorge myself on your cock instead.”
Arthur cringes. “That is probably the least sexy thing anyone has ever said to me, including the time some bandits in Newcastle threatened to chop off both my hands.”
“Hey,” Merlin says, rolling over onto Arthur, delighting in the feel of a warm body beneath his own. “Protein is protein. I have to do something to stave off hunger.”
“Merlin–” Arthur begins, and Merlin can’t stand it. He puts his hand over Arthur’s lips, pinching them shut.
“New rule: from now until breakfast, you can only say my name, and the words ‘please’, ‘yes’, and ‘thank you’.” Understood?”
Arthur looks at him, eyebrows furrowed. Merlin stops grinning for a moment, shuts his eyes, and says, “Just give me this morning, you prat. The war can wait that long, can’t it?”
The creases by Arthur’s eyes smooth out. Merlin takes his hand off Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur says, “Yes, Merlin.”
Merlin kisses him. Arthur’s big hands curl around his waist, pressing them together. Merlin breaks the kiss and says, “Right. Oral sex?”
“Yes, Merlin. Please, Merlin. Thank y– oh, bloody hell, Merlin, your mouth–”
Four days. It seems like a joke: after ten months of absence, Arthur and his knights (and they are his, Merlin notes; it’s obvious to everyone except, possibly, Arthur himself) have been assigned four days of R&R, and are being billeted at the camp. The whim of some administrator of their rag-tag resistance, and Merlin has everything he’s been pining over for most of the last year. For a few days, anyway, before it’s all taken away.
It’s a cruel joke, it’s a divine miracle, it’s everything in between. It’s a dozen new scars on Arthur’s body, some of them deep and twisting. It’s the dead, stagnant look in his eyes when Arthur talks about the Mantidae, a hatred too deep for anger. The way his face reanimates when Merlin makes a stupid joke or tries to tickle him, sweet water bursting out of dry desert rock. The look of determination as he wrings another orgasm out of Merlin, hissing come on, I want to see it, Merlin, come on. His face when Merlin returns the favor later, grinding down onto his cock, swallowing up every one of Arthur’s moans.
“God,” Arthur pants, loose and relaxed and smug. “You’re trying to kill me.”
Merlin kisses him greedily. “No, just maim you. Then you wouldn’t be able to leave.”
Arthur looks at him, something fragile and regretful in his eyes. “Merlin–”
“Don’t. Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
Arthur kisses him, neatly shutting him up. They’re probably going to have to do that every time they’re together. If this isn’t the last time.
Merlin doesn’t realize he’s crying – he never does, not since the Worst Wednesday Ever, which is how he thinks of the invasion; he never cries, he just leaks tears, like there’s smoke caught in his eyes – until Arthur says, “God, don’t do that. I can’t stand it.”
“Sorry,” Merlin says. “Sorry, just–”
Arthur exhales, a gust of warm, moist air across Merlin’s neck. “I wish I could stay.”
“You wouldn’t be Arthur Pendragon if you did.”
“No,” Arthur sighs.
“This is enough.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It has to be,” Merlin says. “I’ll take what I can get.”
Arthur’s hands tighten around him, almost a spasm. “I’ll come back to you,” he says. “Merlin–”
Don’t, Merlin want to say, and he starts to struggle out of Arthur’s arms, because it’s too much, Merlin can’t ask him for any kind of lover’s vow, knowing that the world delights in breaking such things.
“I promise,” Arthur says. “To always come back to you.”
“You idiot,” Merlin hisses. “You can’t do that!”
“The hell I can’t,” Arthur says, and his tone is so familiar in its imperiousness and self-confidence. Like the universe had better bend itself to Arthur’s will, or else they’ll have words.
“You’re impossible,” Merlin says. Arthur kisses him, and Merlin thinks, this is what I’ll fight for. To my last bloody breath.
They leave at twilight, the dying rays of the sun staining the edges of the world crimson and gold. Gwen is crying as she hugs Elyan goodbye. Merlin feels as though his heart is in the eye of a storm, calmly thumping along through a chaotic jumble of feeling: pride, fear, overwhelming love, terror. Arthur’s hair looks like burnished gold. He turns around in the dusty Jeep as the Knights drive off, and he waves once. Merlin waves back, and watches until Arthur’s face is lost to distance and shadow.
“We can do this,” he tells Gwen. He tugs on the dirty white fabric on her wrist; he can barely make out the words JUST KEEP SWIMMING. “It’ll be easier this time, right? Not like it could be much harder.”
The war drags on, slow as an insomniac’s night. They move camp every few weeks. They drill for emergencies. They treat the wounded. They talk to other pockets of the Resistance, which has earned its proper noun status now. They avoid the Mantidae, sometimes barely. Merlin keeps up his journal.
You stole my handkerchief, didn’t you? The blue one. You’re not a real knight, you silly git, but if you want to wear my snot rag into battle, I’ll certainly not stop you. So long as you don’t expect me to wear one of those pointy hats with the veils and swoon at you. I mean, more than I already have. Nobody’s going to let me live that down...
I could write sonnets about your hands. The rough calluses on the pads of your fingers, the scars on your knuckles, the blunt nails. That night you pushed two fingers into me, no warning, I had to bite your arm to keep from screaming. I was so sore already but I didn’t care, I kept begging for more and you gave it to me– Wait, this is going to turn into a sonnet about your dick, isn’t it. Although honestly, I don’t know what the hell a sonnet is. Dirty limericks have always been more my style...
Bad night. Six dead. Two more aren’t going to make it past dawn. I hate typhus, hate the war, hate everything, you included. Or the absence of you, the emptiness where I need you to be. Bastard.
Midnight, or near enough to it. The stars are out, clearer than they ever were in the old days, when Merlin had been an aimless twenty-something with a string of crap jobs and a crush on his best friend. He and Gaius are sharing a rare cigarette after completing a six-hour surgery to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s arm at the elbow.
(He escaped one of the Mantidae’s camps in Bristol, and wandered for days until he found them, bearing fresh wounds and old scars and the same old horror stories: captive breeding, biological experiments, starvation. He’d fallen on broken glass while fleeing. It was a miracle he hadn’t died on the table.)
Gaius has a streak of the philosopher about him sometimes. “It’s interesting, if you ignore all the awfulness,” he says. “An invasive species descends on a planet, attempts to colonize it. Did they not know we were here? Are there so few habitable planets out there?”
“They obviously didn’t care when they found out.”
“I disagree,” Gaius says. He draws the cigarette smoke deep into his lungs and then releases it. It curls up around his face, wreathing around his jaw. “They cared, extermination isn’t the easiest or most effortless choice. And now they’re setting up captured humans in drafty, disease ridden camps, using them as lab rats, trying to breed us into tameness. Punishing our resistance efforts as much as they can. Sound familiar?”
“Sorry, what?” Merlin said.
“It’s the same story as any colonization in history. If I were the kind of person to entertain thoughts of divine justice, I’d be a bit worried.”
“Excuse me, justice?” Merlin says. “Did you hear what that boy was telling us? You want to tell me that–”
“We did the same things. The British Empire once stretched across the globe– I know I cast aspersions on your intellect daily, Merlin, but surely you’re not stupid enough to think we achieved that through peaceful means.”
Merlin smokes in silence. Of course he knew, but that had all happened ages ago. Now that he thinks about it, what’s a century or two in the life of a species? Hardly a sneeze.
“We had camps as well, you know. We subjugated millions through violence, and let diseases and famines finish the job. Now it’s being done to us.”
“To everyone,” Merlin reminds him. “This isn’t just in England. Gwen was talking to Resistance groups in, what, Nigeria this morning.”
Gaius sighs. “You’re right. It’s not colonization, it’s a global war of attrition. Two sides trying to wear down the other in tiny increments. Death by paper cuts.”
Merlin sits, staring up at the stars. Nobody knows where the Mantidae came from. Nobody knows how they communicate, why they came, if they’re willing to negotiate for peace. The Mantidae have never offered an explanation, just more violence.
“We’ll win eventually, of course,” Gaius says, taking a drag off his cigarette. He blows a smoke ring towards Merlin. “We have everything to lose, so we have everything to fight for.”
The time between Arthur’s visits stretches like taffy. There’s never a timetable, and often no warning;, Merlin never knows when he’ll wake up to Arthur touching the shell of his ear, or walk into the mess tent for dinner and see all of the Knights gathered at one of the tables, shoveling food into their mouths and telling outrageous stories. Merlin learns never to look for him, to take him as he comes.
All their time together is borrowed time.
Arthur sometimes brings him things, or sends a visiting Knight back with a gift: a keychain with the phrase WORLDS BEST GIRLFRIEND embossed on it, a rock from the shores of Loch Ness, a tattered copy of a Spiderman comic.
Merlin sends him letters, or rather, excerpts from what Gwen calls his Dear Arthur Diary. He sends Arthur the happier, sillier notes, the ones with the naughty drawings in the margins. He doesn’t write about the war, or his ongoing battle with wanting to lie down and die, or the future.
Except once. Arthur is sprawled across him, snoring and drooling and still spitefully beautiful. He snuffles in his sleep, mumbles nonsense, and unconsciously tightens his grip on Merlin’s hipbone. After a few minutes of feeling like he might burst with everything he hasn’t said, Merlin gently extricates himself, finds a scrap of paper, jots down five lines, and tucks it into one of Arthur’s pockets.
Whenever I think of the end of the war, I think of three and a half things:
1.) Fresh fruit.
2.) Tea with real milk in it.
3.) A comfortable bed.
3a.) You in that bed. Preferably naked.
Two months later, Merlin finds a familiar blue handkerchief tucked into one of his shoes. Percival must have snuck it in there after he dropped in last night, for a meal and a few uninterrupted hours of sleep after a recon mission.
There’s a scrawl of black writing on the fabric, and Merlin moves it closer to the electric lantern, trying to decipher the handwriting.
spending an entire day reading a book
fish and chips
falling asleep next to you, knowing I won’t have to leave in the morning
Merlin ties it around his neck, keeping the words next to his pulse.
The Mantidae have been stepping up their offensives, leaving bloody nightmares behind where camps used to be. Foraging missions are decimated, survivors of the internments camps speak of savage conditions, heinous punishments.
“This isn’t an accident or a whim,” Gaius says. It’s at an informal camp council meeting; a half dozen people, the common-law leaders of their group, and an equal number of whiskey bottles. “Simple brutality’s stopped being an effective method of control, so they’ve become sadistic. This is the language of war.” He takes a gulp of whiskey. “The only one we have in common.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing, then,” a hawkish woman named Yelena says. “At least it means the fight’s not over.”
Which is little consolation when an emaciated man wanders into their perimeter, bearing marks of brutal experimentation. Thick lines, black with dried blood and whatever wound-closing gel the Mantidae use, score patterns across the bloated skin of his stomach. They can see scarlet lines of septicemia beginning to branch off.
“Fuck them,” Tamika says. Before, she’d been a pharmacist in Edinburgh. She’s as good a healer as Merlin, and has a much better bedside manner to boot. “Fuck them with something hard and sandpapery.”
“And barbs, don’t forget the barbs,” Merlin says. “I’m going to go wash up.”
“I’ll get his drip started. Jesus.”
Merlin is drying his hands when he hears it, Tamika singing. She doesn’t often do it – who sings during a war? – but this isn’t the first time Merlin has heard her crooning to patients. She has a sweet, high voice, Scottish vowels round in her mouth.
“Blow the winds over the ocean,” she sings. “And blow the winds over the sea. Blow the winds over the ocean, and bring back my bonnie to me.”
Merlin hums along with the refrain along with her as he puts the towel in the laundry bin. Bring back, bring back, bring back my bonnie to me, to me. Bring back, bring back, bring back my bonnie to–
The explosive in the man’s stomach, well-hidden under the mess of scabs and swollen skin, detonates. The world goes white, then burns black.
Tamika dies. The man, obviously, dies. Four other patients are killed in the fire. Most of their medical supplies go up in flames.
Merlin is lucky. A ruptured eardrum, some bruises, and some second– and third-degree burns on his arm; it hardly warrants a day off. Despite that, he can’t seem to get out of bed. He can’t eat, can’t sleep. He keeps hearing Tamika’s high plaintive voice, singing a silly old song.
Bring back, bring back–
Who sings during a war? Honestly.
Gwen sits with him, holds his unburned hand, talks to him about Lancelot’s magnificent biceps, tells him embarrassing stories about Elyan when he was a chubby twelve-year-old nerd. Merlin lets her voice wash over him, tries to listen hard enough to drown out Tamika’s round Scottish syllables.
Bring back my bonnie to me, to me–
“Where’s Arthur?” he says. His voice is rusty. It’s the first unprompted words he’s uttered in days.
Gwen bites her lip.
“If he’s dead–” Merlin says, meaning to finish just tell me, so I know it can’t get any worse.
“He’s not,” Gwen assures him, and somehow, that is worse.
“Then where is he?” Merlin says, voice rising. “Why the fuck isn’t he here when I bloody need him?”
“Darling, hush, please don’t–”
Bring back, bring back–
“Some fucking hero,” Merlin shouts, voice breaking. “Some fucking friend–”
“Merlin, please, you don’t–”
“Who sings during a war?” he demands. “Nobody sings during a war but the dead–”
There’s the prick of a needle, and time slows down, coagulates like a puddle of blood. Merlin collapses back onto the bed, gravity pulling at him, dragging him into the dark.
Bring back my bonnie to...
He sleeps for three days. Arthur is there when he wakes up. Most of him, anyway.
Merlin stares at the angry purple scarring on his hand where two of his fingers should be. Then up at his face, where there’s a crooked line of stitches from his cheek to his jaw.
“Idiot. Don’t ever scare me like that again,” Arthur says.
Merlin blinks, whispers. “Shouldn’t you be asking me if I’m all right?”
“Of course you’re all right. You’ve got chocolate pudding, and you’ve got me. What else do you need?”
Merlin blinks again. “Chocolate what?”
Arthur waves his good hand at the crate next to Merlin’s table. There is indeed a chocolate pudding cup. God only knows where Arthur found it.
“He tried to leave as soon he got the message,” Gwaine tells him, chewing on a hunk of dried beef, boots up on Merlin’s bed. “Silly git was still bleeding all over the place, could barely stand on his own, and he tried to order us to get a car ready. Percy had to pin him to the bed until someone could stick him with morphine.”
Arthur is off sleeping in Merlin’s tent. He’d attempted to kip in the hospital bed with Merlin, but Gaius had rudely ordered him out, over both of their objections. Gwaine had appeared shortly thereafter, and Merlin has a sneaking suspicion that Arthur ordered Gwaine to guard him.
“Bloody tyrant,” Merlin says fondly.
“That he is,” Gwaine agrees. “Made me drive for sixteen hours just so he could make sure your cock hadn’t burnt away or something.”
“Oh, piss off,” Merlin says.
“Oh, Gwaine, he kept wailing. What if his todger has been singed off? What shall I do without his penis? Oh, curse you, cruel fate!”
Merlin throws the empty pudding cup at him, but he’s laughing so hard it hurts. Well, more than when he’s not laughing.
“All the necessary equipment’s in order,” he says. “In case you were wondering.”
“His too. I mean, so far as I know, I didn’t investigate too deep. I think they’d tell us if our C.O. got shrapnel in his wanger, though.”
Merlin picks at the sheet on his bed. “What... what happened?” Arthur hadn’t told him.
“Rigged explosive, just like you, though this was in a storefront in Yorkshire rather than in some poor bastard’s stomach. Our medic might have been able to save Arthur’s fingers, but Owain was standing right next to the...” Gwaine trails off. “Anyway. Nothing to be done. Not for either of them.”
The silence hangs heavy between them. “Well,” Merlin says, because he’s sick of such silences. “On the bright side, it’ll be much easier going if Arthur and ever I decide to try fisting.”
“Oh my GOD,” Gwaine screams. “My fucking brain, you arsehole, there is not enough bleach in the fucking world.”
But now they’re both laughing, gasping with it, like they’ve just finally learned to breathe underwater after nearly drowning.
“How much longer do I get to keep you here?” Merlin asks. Gaius has finally released him from the hospital, with stern instructions for both of them to take it easy, and they’ve walked to a circle of old oaks that’s within shouting distance of camp, a nice middle ground between safety and privacy.
Arthur looks at him, looks away. He fidgets, which he never used to do before the Worst Wednesday Ever. “Not sure,” Arthur says. “They want us to rest up after what happened. I mean, they wanted us to rest up somewhere else, but it’s too late now.”
There’s never been an undefined date with Arthur, not once in the dozen or so visits they’ve managed.
“Something’s happening, isn’t it?” Merlin asks. “Something big?”
Arthur touches his face, scratching at the skin around the stitches. “Yes.”
Merlin grabs his hand, lest the twit infect his wound. “And you can’t tell me about it.”
Arthur nods. “It’s why they kept us away so long. I’m sorry, I wish–”
“Don’t,” Merlin says, and they lapse into silence. Merlin takes a breath, thinks now or never.
“I heard what happened to Owain. Sorry.”
Arthur nods, shrugs. He looks up at the interwoven canopies of the trees above them and says, “So am I.”
Merlin swallows. “You’ll be needing a new medic, then.”
It’s quite visible when he gets Merlin’s meaning; something slams shut in his eyes.
“No. No. Absolutely not.”
“I’ve been learning under Gaius for the last–” Merlin draws a blank, realizing he doesn’t know how long it’s been since Arthur left to fight. “For three summers,” he says.
“Three summers isn’t a medical degree–”
“I’m more than qualified to be a field medic–”
“Qualified?” Arthur shouts. Birds take wing out of the oak trees, and they both flinch at the shuddering sound of wings. “You don’t know what it’s like out there, how bad–”
“Excuse me, but where do you think I’ve been between your visits? Vacationing in bloody Bali?”
“It’s not the same, you idiot, this isn’t the front line–”
“Tell that to the front line, then, because it dropped in for a fucking visit last week and killed six people. Look!” Merlin yanks open the gauze on his arm, exposing the burned skin on his wrist. “See? It left me a few mementos.”
Arthur stares at his arm, at the crusts of pus and aloe gel on the blistered skin. He drags his gaze away, looking out onto the green fields, the rolling hills.
“Merlin, please don’t do this,” Arthur says, voice rough and pitched almost too low to hear.
Merlin winds the bandages back around his arm, patting the tape back into place. Three summers, he thinks, so that’s what, just under three years? He’s seen Arthur about a dozen times over that period, and his stays are anywhere from a night to five days.
“Is it... do you not want me around?” His voice sounds tired and hollow to his own ears, a hurt bone-deep.
Arthur staggers towards him, gripping him painfully around the hip, and kisses him. It’s the first time they’ve really touched on this visit, both of them too mindful of the other’s wounds. Merlin opens his mouth to it, lets it drag him under like a wave for a few seconds, because this is the only thing in the world that always makes sense, even when it’s hard and wild and tinged with grief. This is where he belongs.
“Never think that,” Arthur says. “God, Merlin–”
“Then let me come. Obviously, it’s not much safer at the camp–”
Merlin stops talking when Arthur bends at the waist, crouching down like he’s about to be sick. “Jesus, Arthur, what–”
“You don’t understand,” Arthur says, voice thick, eyes pinched shut. “Did Gwaine tell you how Owain died? Shrapnel sliced open his neck, nearly decapitated him. I was right next to him, I got soaked in his blood.”
Merlin gets his arm around him, trying not to imagine it, but he knows too much now. He can see the shrapnel enter the neck, partially severing the spinal cord, the arc of arterial spray. Merlin knows what it is to look in someone’s eyes as they die, terrified, clutching your hand.
“If that happened to you,” Arthur says. “If I had to watch you–”
“You won’t,” Merlin promises. He touches Arthur’s back, realizes the other man is shaking. Arthur grabs at his hips, hauls him closer into an awkward embrace: Arthur on his knees, Merlin off-balance, folded into him.
“Please don’t do it, Merlin, don’t enlist, I’m– fuck, I’m begging you.” Arthur laughs then, jagged and broken, a shard of hysteria. “Good god, reduced to begging. My father is spinning in whatever ruined high-rise became his grave.”
“Don’t knock it, you shit,” Merlin says. “If it works, it works.”
Arthur shudders against him again. Merlin thinks, with a twist of panic, that he might be crying, but when Arthur looks up at him, his eyes are dry. “I just– I need something. A tether, a life line, I don’t know. I need to be able to come back to something when this is over.”
“When it’s over,” Merlin repeats stupidly.
“Fresh fruit,” Arthur says. “Tea with milk. Comfortable bed. See? I remember.”
Merlin blinks, hearing the old list repeated back to him. “A bed with you in it, that’s the important bit.”
“Preferably naked, I know.”
Merlin shuts his eyes; he was wearing the blue handkerchief the day of the explosion; it had been cut away, along with his JUST KEEP SWIMMING bracelet. Gwen already made him a new one, he’d woken up with it tied around his unburned wrist. The handkerchief is gone, though. Doesn’t matter.
“A day with a book,” Merlin says. “Fish and chips. Not having to leave in the morning.”
“I will be the most house-bound agoraphobe ever, the second this war is over. As long as you’re there with me.”
Merlin sighs, touches the greasy strands of Arthur’s hair, the threads of silver mixed in with gold. “Of course. Someone will have to fetch your fish and chips.”
Another dawn at the end of the world. Dove gray clouds, soft light, a group of men idling by a caravan of Jeeps. Both the men and the cars have seen better days; they’re bruised and dented and scarred, held together with stubborn hope and duct tape.
“This is the most crap apocalypse ever,” Merlin declares, because it’s easier to say than goodbye.
“Agreed,” Arthur says. “Shoddy planning, poor execution.”
“Piss-poor costuming,” Merlin adds, tugging at Arthur’s threadbare sweater. “Where are the leather pants? The tribal tattoos?”
“No mohawks either, or fancy goggles.”
“You’d think the designer had never been to Burning Man.”
Arthur snorts. “Now you’ve lost me.”
“Please,” Merlin says. “I couldn’t lose you if I tried.”
“Not that you would,” Arthur says after a moment. It’s a statement, but there’s an unsureness to it that breaks Merlin’s heart.
He kisses Arthur on his unmarred cheek. “Don’t be a git.”
Arthur gets into the Jeep. Merlin leans over the driver side door to talk to Gwaine.
“If you bring him back alive, I will bake you a chocolate cake,” Merlin tell him.
“Don’t believe him,” Arthur says from the back. “He could never bake worth shit.”
Gwaine winks at him. “There’ll be time to learn.”
Merlin kisses his cheek, too.
Summer. Long days, humid nights. His arm heals, the itch of it driving him mad. His scars are smooth, shiny, almost entirely numb.
One night, he stumbles out of the hospital tent after an absolutely brutal shift, and has to blink several times before he realizes he’s not hallucinating from exhaustion, there are glowworms in the fields. They’re the first he’s seen since he left Ealdor, a thousand years ago. He drags Gwen away from tent communications tent to see them, and she makes a wish on one, like it’s a shooting star.
Here’s the bad news: don’t tell Gwaine, but he may have to settle for zucchini bread, because I haven’t the faintest idea of where to find chocolate these days. The good news: I have learned how to bake things that are actually edible. Told my mum when I talked to her on the wireless last night: she refused to believe it, but she’s promised to reveal her highly coveted scone recipe after the war.
Every morning, he brings Gwen tea in the communication tent and asks, “Any news of them?”
Every morning, she holds the mug in front of her face, steam wreathing her face, and says, “Not yet.”
Fall. Cold winds shake the branches of the willows, knocks leaves and twigs into the river. They find an orchard and raid it of apples, sweep and crisp and tart on the tongue.
“Any news of them?”
These are the weeks that used to belong to the dead: Hallowe’en, All Saints. Merlin’s haunted by a sweet voice, lilting Scottish vowels, beseeching whomever might be listening: bring back, bring back–
As the weeks pass, it slowly transforms into a litany for the living. Bring back, bring back–
Bring back sunlit afternoons and lazy mornings. Bring back gardens full of gaudy flowers, orchards full of fruit. Bring back markets with the swell of voices. Bring back children playing in fields. Bring back hushed libraries and raucous midnight cinemas. Bring back arguments about the phases of the moon, whose turn it is to do the washing up, Scotch versus Irish whiskey. Bring back the smell of paints, turpentine, canvases. Bring back obscure and boring poetry. Bring back Bach’s cello suites. Bring back a day without horror. Bring back love without fear. Bring back fresh fruit, tea with milk. Bring back a day lost in a book, fish and chips.
Bring him back. Bring them all back, every one.
The world ended on a Wednesday, which is ridiculous. It begins again on a cloudy, listless day, spitting rain and sleet. For all intents and purposes, it might be a Wednesday. There’s no way to tell, but it has the same sense of arbitrariness and absurdity.
“What do you mean, it’s over?” Merlin says, dropping his spoon back in the oatmeal. It’s the same horrible oatmeal, same damp tent, same scrubby moor outside. Nothing has changed.
“The war is over,” Gwen repeats. “They’re in a full retreat.”
“I don’t know!” Gwen says, flustered. “I’m just repeating what I heard!”
“That’s not good enough,” Merlin says. “I’ll believe it when I...” He trails off.
Gwen tugs on the dirty scrap of fabric on his wrist. “When you what?”
“When I see it,” Merlin says brusquely.
“When you see him, you mean,” Gwen says.
Spring. Mud. Crocuses. Birds. Buds. Blossoms. The sun, warm on pale skin. They settle in a river valley near the Yorkshire Dales, a tiny village that escaped most of the worst destruction. Medieval stone walls, thatch roofs, ancient timbers – it’s surprisingly easy to build a new village on the exposed bones of the old one. They maintain a watch, the communications tent becomes the communication room, on the top floor of the old tourist information building, the hospital moves into the clinic. The town breathes, shuffles into a new life, shakes off the last vestiges of winter, grows.
Merlin plants strawberries. He treats patients. He trades witticisms with Gaius (”Don’t flatter yourself by calling it wit, Merlin.”). Every morning, he brings Gwen tea.
“Any news of them?”
“Not yet.” She breathes in the steam. “There are still mop-up operations going on in East Anglia. Apparently, the Mantidae have fallen back to Ipswitch.”
“Fucking Ipswitch. Never liked it anyway.”
The weeks tiptoe by. Leaves unfurl on vines. The first lambs are born, and it’s all anyone talks about for days: new life, the sheer novelty of it.
“Remember when we were sophisticated city-dwellers who talked about things other than the weather and baby sheep?” Merlin says to Gwen one morning.
“Oh yes. All our conversations were about Pop Idol or footie or who had impregnated whom.”
“Ooh, speaking of, did you hear about Yelena?”
“No! Is she–”
“Eight weeks along,” Merlin says proudly, as if he had caught the baby himself rather than just cooed over a positive urine test. “I’ll need to call my mum in a bit, she’s going to have to talk me and Gaius through the whole thing.”
Someone decides on an arbitrary date for Mayday, and people start gathering all the liquor they can find. Calves are born, and kids, and Merlin is suddenly able to have milk in his tea. He doesn’t though; he’s waiting.
Bright rays of sunlight, burning through the fog. It’ll be clear by mid-morning. “Any news of them?” Merlin asks, opening the door.
Gwen bursts into tears. Merlin drops the tea, spills it all over himself, the mug shattering on the floor.
“Oh, god,” Merlin chokes out. “They’re dead, aren’t they.”
“No, you arse,” she gasps out. “They’ll be here this afternoon.”
All the strength leaks out of Merlin’s legs, and he slides down onto the floor, getting yet more tea all over his pants. Gwen stumbles over her desk, throwing herself into his arms, and they hug, and she cries, and Merlin doesn’t. He’s too shocked.
“Sorry,” Gwen says, wiping her eyes. “I just – it’s been so long, I thought they were dead and was dreading the day I’d finally get the word, and I’d have to tell you, and then there’s Gwaine’s voice, and he’s complaining about bloody jock itch.” Gwen sobs even harder.
Merlin gives a shocked bark of laughter. “What else did he say?”
“That Elyan is alive, Lancelot is alive, and that you owe him a chocolate cake. And that zuchinni bread isn’t an acceptable substitute.”
“Oh, balls,” Merlin says, and that phantom smoke is back in his eyes, and he’s crying.
He goes back to the hospital for a wash, then home to change his clothes – the latter takes an embarrassingly long time, and Gwen gets fed up with waiting for him. When he finally comes back, she’s asleep in the guest bed, and she’s smiling. Merlin lies down next to her, listens to her calm breathing, tries to follow its rhythm.
He feels like he’s going to burst out of his skin, like all the atoms of his body are going to explode in miniature novas.
They go up on the southern gate to watch. They bring a thermos of tea, because Gwen complains about losing her morning cuppa. They wait, watching the swallows carving paths through the air. A few others stop by, waiting with them. The day is hazy and golden in the afternoon.
“Shite, what if–” Merlin begins to say.
“Don’t you fucking start, Merlin.”
They finish the tea. The day turns purple and red at the edges, shadows lengthening. Gaius brings them food, and neither of them eat it. The crowd at the gate grows after dinner, chatting quietly.
There’s a van in the distance, making its way slowly down the pitted road.
“Shit. Fuck. Is that–”
“Oh bloody hell, it’s them, it must be.”
“Who else would it be?”
“Rest assured, if it’s the Royal Mail, I’m going to fucking murder someone.”
An impossible limbo of time; the van never seems to get any closer, until all of a sudden, it’s there. A half dozen bodies spill out of it, laughing and whooping, and Arthur is there, and Arthur is limping over to him, and Arthur’s eyes are an impossible shade of blue, more than memory can contain.
The moon shines through the window, hanging in the sky like a pearl. It spills light onto the Arthur’s pale limbs, twisted up in the sheets.
“I don’t want to sleep,” Arthur says, then contradicts himself with an enormous yawn.
Merlin fits himself around the warm curve of Arthur’s back. He rests his hand over Arthur’s heart, feels it beating against his palm. Steady, alive.
“It’s okay,” Merlin says. “We’ll both still be here in the morning.”