They say death is peaceful.
Someone had told him once that it’s like falling into an endless slumber. Sitting around a campfire with a battle looming somewhere in the distance it had always seemed like the best way to look at death, and many knights seemed to truly believe that it came with peace. No matter what chaotic circumstance they were in when they fell, how many screams had rung in their ears and how painfully the sword had twisted in their stomach, death was a fall into peace and silence.
In reality, being dead is a lot less peaceful than the process of actually dying. At least that is true for Arthur. He supposes it might’ve been different if he’d fallen in battle, the fight raging on around him. But he’d closed his eyes to the sound of wind gusting over the lake, to the sight of Merlin’s eyes and the feeling of his hands, safe in the knowledge that Merlin’s heart was steady and alive as his gave out.
Death is nothing like sleep. After the sound of Merlin’s breath had faded, leaving him alone in a way that he’d never been prepared to deal with, he’d wanted sleep. He’d wanted to be numb and free from thought. When he’d heard voices, whispers nibbling at the the edge of his consciousness, he’d wanted them to leave. He hadn’t wanted the capacity to think about everything he had yet to do, everything he had failed to see and everything he was leaving behind.
And yet, such is death. It’s a conscious state, which is both the greatest gift and the greatest curse of all.
The full extent of it doesn’t quite hit him until he meets his mother, pressing his cheek to her shoulder and nuzzling his nose against her neck. The touch is strange – not the warmth and the living, breathing feeling of skin he’s used to and he tries not to crumble as she runs a hand through his hair.
“There’s a horn,” he tells her, his fingers curling into her dress. “It can summon the spirits of the dead. Merlin will find it and he’ll call for me.”
She’s silent for a moment, her hands never quite able to stop running across him as if she needs to know he’s there. “Sometimes it’s better to let it be.”
“He’ll call for me,” Arthur says with conviction.
Merlin doesn’t call for him. Arthur feels resentment about that for a long time. It’s hard to tell for how long, exactly, because being dead is quite different from being alive and time never does pass the same way, but he knows it’s a long time because he still feels it when he greets Gaius with a solemn nod, only to be pulled into a hug that would crush the breath out of him if he had any.
Resentment is still heavy in his stomach when he pulls Gwen to his chest, running a hand over her hair, remembering a time when someone did the same to him.
“He’s been doing so well,” she says, running a thumb across his cheek. “He protects Camelot with every breath.”
Arthur nods, because it’s Merlin – of course he does. Of course he does.
Her hands run down his arms, up and down, never taking her eyes off him. “He hates the throne room. Still, even after all this time, he still takes a deep breath whenever he enters.”
He looks at his hand moving over Gwen’s hair and he remembers Merlin’s long fingers splayed over his chest as he tried to hold him up, his breath ragged as he pleaded for them to reach Avalon. The beat of his heart is clear as day in Arthur’s mind, strange and a little painful.
He knows she knows, he can see it in her eyes.
When she leaves, he has long since learned that those with no trace of magic in them never linger long, but it still hurts.
There are still grains of resentment left in him when he realises all of them have come through, that he’s seen of all of them, except Merlin. He seeks out Gaius, pretending to talk about a million other things until he finally cracks, looks up at him and says, “Merlin’s not dying, is he?”
And Gaius goes still, studying him solemnly before he shakes his head, his hand resting on Arthur’s knee for a brief moment.
“No, I’m afraid he’s not.”
It’s a strange how being dead is so much like being alive and yet nothing like it at all. Arthur has never wished for anyone’s death before, but as he sits there and listens to the stillness of his heart, knowing that Merlin’s will never falter, he knows that if he could wish for one thing, it is Merlin’s death – the very thing he has always feared.
The last, resilient wisps of resentment seep out of him when Freya takes his hand and lets him see. She lets him see when Merlin stands at the crumbled, old ruins of Camelot, looking exactly as young as the day Arthur died in his arms, but his shoulders look heavier, rounder around the edges like he’s carrying too much.
And Arthur knows then why Merlin never called, because seeing him sends a jolt so painful through his chest that it feels like dying all over again. Sometimes it’s better to let it be, the memory of his mother’s voice says and he bends his head, trying to shake the knowledge that Merlin is out there, immortal and always out of reach.
“Your destinies were entwined,” Freya says, her gaze heavy on him. “They always were and they will never stop being entwined. One day Albion will need you again.”
“What use will I be?” he asks, voice rough and weathered. “Time passes. If they haven’t needed me yet, why would they ever need me again?”
When Freya has no answer, he knows deep in his long-dead heart that Albion will never truly need him to rise again. And yet he waits.
“You don’t need to linger,” Gaius tells him once. “You could sleep and let the world call you when it needs you. You could rest, at times.”
But he doesn’t, because it feels like leaving Merlin alone. Even though Merlin has no way of knowing he’s still conscious, still here, still thinking and feeling Merlin’s phantom heartbeat, he knows that giving in would feel like betrayal.
Merlin had never given up on him. Not even when Arthur was seconds from death had Merlin stopped fighting. And so Arthur will fight in death the only way he can: by staying and waiting and lingering on.
Waiting is easy and difficult all at once. Easy because, when it all comes down to it, it’s only one of many things he would do to see Merlin again. In every other way, it’s difficult. Sometimes he longs so deeply that he wonders if he’s even dead because he can swear he felt pains he only experienced when he was alive. Sometimes he gives up and screams into nothingness while everything remains still around him.
“What did I do to anger the gods?” he asks Gaius who shakes his head in return.
“Sometimes the gods are not quite as fair as they should be,” he says. “If anything, you have both deserved the gods’ gratitude.”
Arthur looks down at his hands. “I showed too much hatred to the old religion. It blinded me.”
“Perhaps,” Gaius says. “But had the gods granted you the time to truly fulfill your destiny, you would have changed.”
When Arthur thinks that he will surely wait until the world ends and beyond, the Cailleach calls his name. Both Freya and Gaius appear at his side, a silent but solid presence.
“You have waited long, Arthur Pendragon,” the Cailleach says, her voice booming oddly around him as if it comes from all sides. “You have waited tirelessly, and yet the world seems to go on without the once and future king.”
He’s tired. It seeps into him then – just how tired he is from remembering and regretting and missing, and that’s not even counting the waiting and the small hope that maybe the world may really need him some day.
“The world may have moved on,” the Cailleach continues as her face remains impassive, “but your destiny has not. The world cannot deny you the other half of your whole, Arthur Pendragon. It has been waiting for you, as you have been waiting for it.”
The last thing Arthur feels in death is Gaius’s hand on his shoulder – steady and strong and familiar.
His chest aches and rumbles with the growing beat of his heart. It hurts against his skin, relentlessly pounding in his chest and he brings his hand up to it, feeling the strange flutter of it under his fingers and he wonders how it still knows the rhythm.
The first breath stings in his throat. It expands his lungs, burning, before it rushes out in a gust of air that shapes into a broken “Merlin.”
He hears a choked sound and looks up from his hand splayed across his chest, meeting the eyes that are the very last thing he remembers about being alive so many years ago. They’re glassy and bluer than he can recall. His heart clenches, making his breath hitch with the feeling of it, still too aware of the steady beat of pulse.
He recognises this place. It’s exactly where he died and he thinks the Cailleach needs a better sense of humour, but maybe he’ll allow her that since she brought him here – to the place where he can reach out and curl his fingers around Merlin’s wrists if he wants to.
He really wants to.
“I’ve waited,” Arthur says, trying to deal with the overwhelming feeling of life. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Merlin doesn’t say anything when he moves forwards unsteadily, walking faster and faster until he all but barrels into Arthur, one arm tight around Arthur’s waist and the other reaching up to run across his cheek. The feeling of warm, living skin is too intense and too real, and Arthur doesn’t know how he ever did without it. He presses a hand to Merlin’s neck, unable to stop running his fingers over skin, taking note of every single way his living body reacts to the feeling.
His finger brushes across the point where Merlin’s pulse beats steady and he closes his eyes, pressing his nose into Merlin’s hair and inhaling until he’s dizzy.
“Jesus,” Merlin says, his voice thick and broken, but so familiar that Arthur’s lips turn up into a smile that he feels deep down in his chest. “Jesus Christ, Arthur.”
Merlin’s heart thuds against his. He feels their dual heartbeats, slightly uneven in a strangely beautiful way, and he remembers the way his heart was still and cold once.
“I don’t know how to live anymore,” he admits, because he doesn’t. Not only has he been dead for so long that it’s almost all he knows, but time has moved on without him and the material of Merlin’s shirt feels odd under his hand.
“I’ll teach you,” Merlin says, laughing a little hysterically against his cheek. “I know way too much about living.”
When Merlin’s lips open under his, soft and warm and wet, Arthur listens to the blood roar in his ears and he remembers what living is like. He will learn again.