The first time Arthur met him, he had just been fired.
Angry and despairing at the state of his life, he had stumbled into a bar that he usually didn’t frequent and nearly bit the barman’s head off demanding some form of alcohol to drown his sorrows in. He had fallen onto a seat, mad and a bit pathetic, and waited for his drink to come.
“You alright, mate?”
“No, I’m not bloody well –” Arthur whirled around in his chair, glad of a convenient target to take his fury out on, but his voice died in his throat as he laid eyes on the man sitting next to him.
Electric eyes regarded him curiously and almost sadly through long lashes. Arthur could swear that he had seen those eyes somewhere before. There was something very, very familiar about them.
Other than his eyes, the man seemed rather ordinary. Tall, surely, and on the skinny side, his overlarge leather jacket highlighting the lack of meat on his bones. Messy black hair, pale skin, high cheekbones… He was good looking, in an off-kilter sort of way.
Arthur, surprising, found that he was no longer angry. He was curious.
“I’m…okay,” he said much less sharply as the bartender handed him a pint. He took a swig, and setting it down, realized that the man was still staring at him.
“Let me cover that for you,” the man handed over just enough money to pay for the drink and Arthur’s gaze snapped back up to him.
“That’s not necessary,” he began, but the man cut him off.
“You look like you’ve been through the mill; just let me make your day worthwhile.”
“Because any day when free alcohol is involved is a day worth living,” Arthur joked, and then caught himself. What was he doing? He hardly ever made small talk with strangers.
But somehow, this man didn’t feel like a stranger. It felt like Arthur had known him forever. Which was ludicrous, of course, they had never met before. Had they?
He asked as much. “I feel like I know you. What’s your name?”
“I’ve got a lot of names,” the man gave a soft chuckle. “Which one would you prefer?”
“Stop pretending to be interesting and just tell me,” Arthur said, not annoyed, even though he should have been.
“I’m Merlin,” he held out a long-fingered, callused hand. Arthur took it, and, even though he would refuse it later, felt some kind of electric shock run through him.
“Nice to meet you, Arthur,” Merlin still hadn’t let go of his hand.
“You, too,” Arthur hadn’t either.
Merlin finally drew away as he asked “So what’s got you down in the dumps?”
“Lost my job,” Arthur sighed, taking another drink. “Never liked it much, but, y’know, it was still a job.”
“Know the feeling,” Merlin took a sip of his own drink as well.
“What about you, what are you doing in a bar at four in the afternoon?” Arthur was actually interested in hearing the answer. Normally, he could give less of a shit about a stranger’s personal business, or even one of his friends’ personal businesses, but he wanted to know. He wanted to know this man, Merlin, know his life, his likes and dislikes, know everything he could glean.
It was a scary feeling, one that shook him to his core. He shouldn’t be so affected by this person that he had known for less than five minutes, even if it felt like he had known him for at least a lifetime.
Merlin shrugged in response to his question. “I dunno. Just felt like it, I suppose, and didn’t really have any better plans for the night.”
Arthur wondered if Merlin was an alcoholic, or a bum, and didn’t care. “You work?”
“Bookshop a few blocks over,” Merlin waved a hand off in one direction, but Arthur didn’t know this neighborhood very well, so he couldn’t place the location. “Where did you work?”
“Advertising firm,” Arthur said. “But let’s not talk about work.”
“Okay,” Merlin took it in his stride, barely blinking. “What do you want to talk about?”
Arthur shrugged his shoulders, for the first time uncomfortable. “I…I don’t know. Tell me about yourself, I guess. I need a distraction.”
Merlin turned to him, a slow smile growing on his face. He looked nice when he smiled, but his muscles twisted in such a way that Arthur wondered if they worked in that way often or if they were utterly unfamiliar with the process. The thought saddened him unexpectedly.
Merlin was talking, though. “So I was in Prague in the fourteenth century – Check your history book, that’s under the rule of Charles IV – I didn’t like him much, even if history remembers him fondly, but then again, I don’t like most monarchs. Shit, I said that out loud, you better check and make sure no one heard me say that because I might unexpectedly have to burst into a chorus of God to Save the Queen in order to stop myself from being mobbed by angry Brits.”
Arthur let out a loud, incredulous laugh as he gazed at Merlin with growing affection. He was making up stories to cheer Arthur up. A stranger was making up stories to cheer him up. This was…well, it was easily one of the nicest things that had been done for him recently.
He played along. “Back to Charles IV?”
“Right!” Merlin slid seamlessly back into the story. “So I’m not sure how familiar you are with the history of Prague, but Charles was eventually crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Holy Roman Empire, bunch of no good bastards trying to rain on my parade half the time, outlawing things left and right...For one of them, he actually wasn’t too bad. But Charles University was one of the good things he did, oldest Czech university there is. I taught there for a few years, because I was bored with traveling about. Taught history, in fact, and I tried to inform my students of what really happened when their books left out a few key details, but apparently the officials didn’t like that, saying I needed to stick to actual history – I’d say I know a fair bit more about history than those pretenders, seeing as I lived through it, but no. I was fired. Goddamn Prague. Never went back.”
Arthur couldn’t stop grinning. “And since then, you’ve held a grudge against Prague?”
“Precisely!” Merlin brandished his drink at him.
Arthur would endlessly deny it later, but he was giggling uncontrollably. Merlin had sounded so serious and passionate about everything that had been in his story, and he had made every inch of it up on the spot. That was talent, surely, pure talent.
“You should write a novel, if you can tell stories like that,” Arthur told him as his glass clinked against Merlin’s, but at the compliment, the other man’s smile turned forced.
“Yeah,” he said. “I should.”
A few minutes later, Arthur excused himself to go to the bathroom, but when he returned to the bar, Merlin was gone.
He tried not to think about how upset he was over this.
The second time was the next week, around eight on a Friday night, and Arthur was back at the same bar, not because of Merlin, no, but…well, yes, because of Merlin.
His week had been spent haunted by cerulean eyes, a crooked smile, and fantastic stories. Arthur had no idea why this person was affecting him so much, but he almost didn’t care. He just knew he needed to see Merlin again. Needed. Like it was instrumental in order for him to survive.
He was aware that showing up at the bar again made him a bit of a crazy stalker, but he didn’t know what else he could do. If Arthur wanted something, he went and got it.
He just never pictured what he wanted was a story.
Arthur, from the same seat at the bar where he had resided the last time he was here, turned to find Merlin falling into the seat next to his, looking tired, confused, but also a bit pleased, if the light in his eyes was anything to go by.
“Hey, you disappeared on me without saying goodbye,” Arthur said. “Never got to finish your story.”
“Sorry,” Merlin said, and he truly looked it. “I got a call and had to skip out pretty fast. Have you…were you looking for me?”
“What? No!” Arthur scoffed, perfectly schooling his features to be the picture of calm. “I come here sometimes.”
Merlin smiled amusedly and Arthur got the feeling that he was being seen through as if he was made of glass. “Sure thing, Arthur, I believe you.”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur hoped he wasn’t blushing. Merlin, however, suddenly looked as if he had snapped back into another time, his eyes going unfocused and glossy before he looked back, features slack and eyes heavier. Arthur wondered what he had done. If he had done anything. He hoped he hadn’t.
“So, you liked my story?” Merlin asked, and Arthur nodded. “Good. Because it’s one hundred percent true, every bit of it.”
“Sure,” Arthur used Merlin’s exact same tone from earlier, making the other man go pink, which delighted him on levels he couldn’t explain. “You definitely lived in fourteenth century Prague.”
“Course I did,” Merlin knocked back more of his drink, what looked like scotch. “I’ve lived everywhere. Been everywhere. Done everything.”
“Oh, yeah?” Arthur raised a challenging eyebrow.
Merlin met the contest with a grin, his voice taking on a decidedly cocky tone. “Yeah.”
“Okay then, tell me about World War II,” Arthur decided on the spot. “What did you do then? What side were you on?”
“The Allies, of course,” Merlin looked at Arthur as if he would be crazy for suggesting anything different. “And contrary to popular belief, the war did not start over a sandwich.”
“A – A what?”
“A sandwich,” Merlin said darkly. “Met someone a few years back who would swear up and down the war began over a sandwich. I have no idea how that even came about, but we would have very long debates over it. I’m sure you know the textbook definition of how the war started, so we’ll skip over that, I just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t some newfangled idea, one of the greatest wars in history starting over a sandwich. If that happened, I might actually start crying over the state of humanity.”
“I definitely don’t believe that,” Arthur reassured him with a chuckle, wondering how Merlin had pulled that tale out of his ass. “So I think you’re safe.”
“Thank God,” Merlin sighed, raising his hands up in mock praise, Arthur laughing at him. “Anyway, I was in the trenches for part of it. Horrible time, by the way, I don’t recommend it. Better than the Great War – Sorry, World War I – In terms of soldiering, anyway, concentration camps were a million times worse than anything in any other war. God, that was horrendous. Liberated one near the end of the war. Just seeing people in that state…I can’t even begin to describe how terrible that was.”
Merlin’s voice was wrought with emotion, as if he was reliving it with merely the words, even though he hadn’t lived through it in the first place. “You have family that was actually in it?” Arthur said quietly. “Grandparents that told you stories?”
“Have you been listening at all?” Merlin said with a weak laugh. “I was there.”
“Whatever you say,” Arthur said teasingly, and Merlin was smiling again, and looking at Arthur like he was bit dim and slow, but Arthur could really care less.
When Arthur had to leave a couple of hours later, after hearing a plethora of other, happier, sarcasm-laden stories, he made sure that he and Merlin had exchanged phone numbers.
He wasn’t chancing it again.
Merlin had been in a submarine during the Cold War.
He had lived in the Mayan Empire for a time.
He had been in America at the time of their civil war.
He had been a respected political figure in China, but try as Arthur might, he couldn’t get a name out of him.
He was part of the founding of the University of Oxford.
He had known Joan of Arc and been present at her execution.
He helped write the Treaty of Versailles.
He hated monarchy on a general principle, he had a mile long grudge against the Knights Templar, he still had never returned to Germany since the war, had saved over a thousand people’s lives during the Plague, had met Jesus Christ (who had been vastly unimpressive), and was going to find a time machine so that he could stop the Salem Witch Trials since he hadn’t been able to the first time around.
And yet Arthur didn’t know his last name.
He didn’t know where he lived, where his bookshop was, who his friends were, if he had any family. He barely knew a thing about him other than his blatantly untrue, beautifully crafted stories about how he had been alive for an eternity and would stay alive for an eternity more.
Arthur didn’t know him, not at all, but it felt like he did. It felt like he’d known Merlin for all of that eternity, known him and all of his stories, had each of them memorized and written down in his head and Merlin was just flipping the pages.
“Tell me something real,” Arthur requested one night as they sat in one of the bar’s booths. They met here at least once a week over drinks, but still hadn’t gone anywhere else. Arthur wanted to, he wanted to see Merlin’s bookstore, or go back to his flat, or anything. But they hadn’t.
“I tell you real things every day, you just choose not to believe in the absolute truth of my words,” Merlin was a cheeky little bugger, which was one of the things Arthur had learned about him, learned eight or nine or possibly several dozen times over.
“Merlin,” Arthur was not whining. He was not. He was just persuading in a childlike manner.
Luckily, Merlin wasn’t one for foreplay.
“Fine,” he sighed, rolling his eyes, exasperated, and Arthur grinned in victory. “My bookstore is called Dragon Books and I’ve managed it for a little over three months. Happy now?”
“A little over three months?” Arthur frowned. “I met you about that same time.”
It was hard to believe it had been that long, but it had. He and Merlin had been meeting up quite a bit now, with increasingly regularity.
“I had my first day at the new job same time you had your last,” Merlin said with a smile and a swig of his drink. Arthur got the feeling he was missing something distinct, but he shook it off. He had gotten a new job since then, not a great one, but it was enough to pay his bills and get his father off of his back.
“No such thing as coincidences, Arthur. Now it’s your turn. Tell me something about you.”
“Me?” Arthur repeated. “Nothing special about me.”
“Don’t say that,” Arthur was surprised at the command in Merlin’s tone, and he turned to see electric eyes boring into his own with great meaning. “Never say that, Arthur.”
“Don’t be a girl, Merlin, I didn’t mean it like that,” Arthur shoved his arm lightly while Merlin glared in a very non-threatening manner. Ha. Soldier his arse; Merlin couldn’t look frightening if he tried. “I just meant that my life’s kind of boring at the moment.”
“Don’t be a prat, I told you something, now it’s your turn,” Merlin persisted lightly, and Arthur gave in with a smirk.
“I like football and I play piano,” Arthur said. “My sister owns a bakery and I stop by there at least once a day to drool over her selections. My best friend tells me that I’m mentally unstable just because I like my socks placed in a color-coded order.”
“Bossy,” Arthur grinned, but complied. “I have a pet goldfish named Sparkles because my friend is a wanker who doesn’t know how to give birthday presents. I have monthly dinners with my father that I try and fail to get out of every time. Last Halloween, my friends talked me into having all of us go to my sister’s annual party as the cast of Star Wars.”
Merlin hadn’t stopped smiling through all of this, but it was a sad sort of smile, a longing sort of smile, the kind that Arthur wanted to wipe off his face as fast as he could. “Who were you dressed as?”
“I want to see pictures.”
“Not a chance.”
Merlin was still laughing, almost cracking up. Arthur tried his hardest not to grin, because this was possibly the happiest he had ever seen the other man.
“Tell me more about your friends,” Merlin requested. “I…I haven’t had friends in a long time. I’ve forgotten what it’s like.”
Arthur’s heart gave a sharp pang. He always had gotten the feeling that Merlin was lonely, but he hadn’t really received any confirmation before now.
“Well,” he said. “There’s Gwaine. He’s a prick. He’s the one that got me that goldfish. He’s off his hinge, I swear, never shuts up about anything, he’s even worse than you when you get started on your hatred of modern government and religion.”
That got a small smile out of Merlin, so he continued. “And Leon, who’s like my brother, known him since I was four. He took the blame for many of my crimes during secondary school. And Guinevere, or Gwen, but I call her Guinevere, who is my queen. Not in the romantic sense because she’s Leon’s fiancée and more like my sister than anything, but she’s one of the most important people in my life by far. And then there’s Percival, who looks scary but is actually a human teddy bear, Elyan, Gwen’s brother who’s away traveling most of the time, and Lancelot, who is such a decent human being that it makes you sick sometimes. And then there’s my sister Morgana. She pretends she hates me, but she’s a liar.”
“They’re very lucky to have you,” Merlin said after a moment, his grin turning into something just slightly bitter. “I’m jealous.”
“Of…of them?” Arthur’s eyebrow rose. “Why?”
“They get to see you, get to be around you all they want,” Merlin said quietly. “They can laugh at your jokes and hear your complaints, spend time with you, be there for you…they’re lucky.”
“Because they get me?” Arthur couldn’t even begin to describe the tumulus emotions that furled up inside of his chest at Merlin’s words. Therefore, naturally, he pretended they weren’t there. “I know I’m rather brilliant, Merlin, but come on. I thought it’d be me you were jealous of what with the great friends and everything.”
“Oh, I’m jealous of you, too, never forget that,” Merlin’s laugh, usually musical and boisterous, was forced. “But more so of them.”
“Then how about you come over to my place?” Arthur asked. “You could meet them. Seeing as how Gwaine’s my flatmate, they’re all probably there because he needs entertainment from human forms at all hours of the day. I’m sure they’ll like you, and if they don’t…well, they can go fuck themselves.”
“Kind of you to offer,” Merlin said, twisting his empty beer bottle in his hands unnecessarily, almost like it was a nervous habit. “But I’ve got to get going. See you next Friday?”
“Yeah, sure,” Arthur sighed, defeated, as Merlin stood up and began to head out the door. But when a smile flashed backward in his direction as Merlin waved, Arthur found himself smiling yet again.
Merlin always made him smile.
“So where are you going, Arthur? You always disappear for hours around this time of the night. Got a hot date? A not so hot date? Who am I kidding? You’ve been besotted for months, so of course they’re hot.”
“Are you going to listen to me when I tell you it’s none of your business?”
“Not a chance, Princess.”
Arthur considered banging his head into a brick wall. Multiple times. Until he could finally drown out Gwaine’s incessant, never ending questions about his personal life.
God, he hated Gwaine sometimes.
“Yeah, c’mon, Arthur, tell us!” Morgana pestered.
He hated Morgana, too.
And the rest of the no-good traitors that he somehow ended up calling his friends.
Gwen piped up. “C’mon, Arthur! Is she pretty?”
“He’s lovely, thank you,” Arthur snapped and then immediately cursed his own stupidity.
His friends had never liked leaving him alone about any manner of his life, always being the annoying little buggers they were, and Arthur would truly like to throw them down into deep dark pit of doom and laugh maniacally from above them as he watched.
Well. Maybe that was a bit extreme, but the point remained that they didn’t know how to keep their mouths shut. Not a single one of them.
The lot of them was all in his flat currently, leading to his predicament of bothersome-ness and wanting to strangle quite a few them, especially Gwaine, since he was the instigator and enabler who told them all to come over in the first place.
So naturally, aggravating Arthur about his love life or lack thereof was first thing on the agenda.
“He?” Morgana looked far too delighted for her own good.
“Yes, he,” Arthur groused and determinedly did not meet her eyes. “Look, you’ve gotten some information, more information than I’d like you to have, much more, actually; I’d prefer you all to be clueless. Can I go now?”
Morgana and Gwaine looked as if they were about to jump down his throat, but thankfully, Leon, from his spot in the corner curled up with Gwen, took pity on him. “Let him go, guys.”
Arthur gave him a grateful look.
“You can torture him for information later.”
“I retract anything nice I’ve ever said about you,” Arthur told him darkly, and Leon smiled sunnily in response while Gwen giggled at the pair of them.
“So are you, like, dating him?” Lancelot waltzed out of the kitchen, Percival close behind, both looking on with interest and just the slightest bit of humor. Apparently they had overheard. Goddammit.
“Do you want to?”
“What – No! No, definitely not. Why would you even – no. No!”
Arthur was going to choke the life out of them for forcing him to admit what he had barely acknowledged himself.
They didn’t seem to care, though, as Gwen and Morgana were squealing like pre-pubescent girls, Leon, Lancelot, and Percival were exchanging looks, and Gwaine was wearing the biggest shit-eating grin Arthur had ever seen. He braced himself for the inevitable impact and snapped.
“Look, I don’t care what you lot think. He’s brilliant, alright, absolutely brilliant, and before you ask, no, you’re not going to meet him. I’ve already tried that tactic, it was unsuccessful. So just drop it, alright?”
Arthur was expecting a barrage of ceaseless queries about Merlin, about his sexuality, about every single little aspect of their relationship. Questions Arthur didn’t want to answer. What he and Merlin had was his and his alone, not theirs to dissect and pick apart. Why should he have to share this with anyone else?
But the questions didn’t come. Well, one did, softly, from Lancelot. “What’s his name?”
Arthur hesitate half a second before answering. “Merlin. His name’s Merlin.”
“I’m happy for you,” he said simply, no trace of sarcasm or bitingness, and Arthur was violently reminded that Lancelot was really fucking good person.
“Will you tell us why he’s so brilliant?” A grin played on the corner of Morgana’s lips, but it was a real one, not the mocking one that Arthur would expect from her.
“He tells stories. He tells them like they’re true.”
He let the door slam behind him as he left.
“What’s got you in a mood?” Merlin asked as soon as Arthur threw himself into their booth, and he was thrilled to see that Merlin had already ordered him a drink. He took a vigorous swig.
“My friends are all bastards,” Arthur responded darkly, hoping Merlin didn’t pry for details. That would be a touch embarrassing, and he couldn’t just spew off bullshit on the spot like Merlin did. “I need a story. A good one, please, not a depressing one.”
Merlin was good at depressing stories, stories that took place at desperate places in lethal wars, stories about people that he loved – well, stories about people that had died, died horrifically and horribly, died in the most painful ways possible, stories about the worst parts of human history.
Arthur didn’t want to hear one of those today.
Merlin was silent for a moment before saying in the strangest tone of voice that Arthur had ever heard, somewhere between nervous and hopeful, shaky and firm, hesitant and full-force, “How about I tell you my favorite story?”
“You’ve got a favorite?” Arthur’s eyes slid up to Merlin’s unreadable ones.
“A very favorite,” Merlin nodded in assent. “It’s…well, it’s not really like the other stories.”
“Go right ahead,” Arthur gestured out grandly. “No one’s stopping you, me especially.”
“So…There was a kingdom, right? Greatest kingdom there ever was, ruled by the greatest king there ever was.”
“Thought you hated kings,” Arthur said, grinning and leaning back, preparing himself for what was sure to be a great tale.
“Most kings,” Merlin said. “Not this one.”
“What makes this one so special?”
Merlin’s eyes traced up Arthur’s body, sending a shiver down his spine. “I’ve been asking myself that for years.”
“Well?” Arthur said after a moment, Merlin giving no signs of continuing further.
Merlin cleared his throat, and it was only then that Arthur realized that there were tiny beads of sweat on his forehead and his hands had a distinct tremor to them. Was he really this concerned about showing off his story? He’d never suffered through any difficulties before.
Without thinking, Arthur reached his own hand over to grab onto Merlin’s, to keep it still, to anchor him to the reality that he sometimes escaped from. Merlin regarded him through long lashes, half smiling, half incredulous. Arthur gripped tighter, which seemed to prompt Merlin into action.
“So, greatest king there ever was. I served him. Well, I suppose I should say I serve him. I’ve never really stopped. Technically, that was my role – manservant. But I was also kind of….well; I call it a Black Staff. I took out a lot of people that wanted to kill him, even though he didn’t know it was me. Most people still thought I was just the idiotic, slow, bumbling little servant boy, though.”
“That sounds like shit,” Arthur said with a frown, although the story seemed very familiar. Maybe he’d read a book or seen a film like this once. “Why, exactly, is this your favorite story?”
“Shh, I’m getting there,” Merlin squeezed Arthur’s hand. “So I’m a servant to the king. But we’re more than that. We’re friends. Good friends. Best friends. He might not know my secrets, but he knows me. And I know him. I know him better than I know myself. He’s…he’s everything to me. My life, my future, my destiny – even though he is a right prat sometimes.”
Arthur knew this story. He didn’t know where from, but he knew that he knew it. It was bone-crushingly familiar to him, and the idea of it was just on the tip of his tongue, but try as he might, he just couldn’t place it. So he let Merlin, whose voice was becoming stronger and stronger with each passing word, continue onward.
“He’s a prat, but he’s my prat – so I don’t really mind it most of the time. But…I’m scared, see, scared about my secret, but also scared about our destiny. I was told he was going to die, that he was fated to die and…I couldn’t let that happen. I did everything I could to stop it, but in the end – it was too late. He died.”
“Thought you said this was going to be a happy story,” Arthur spoke as if he was underwater, slowly and forcefully, struggling to breathe. He had always been affected by Merlin’s stories in peculiar ways, but this was something new, something entirely different that he just couldn’t put his finger on.
“Well, that really depends on him,” Merlin’s eyes wouldn’t meet Arthur’s; they stared straight down into an empty pint glass. “He’s supposed to come back, meant to come back someday. And I’ve been waiting for him. That’s why I have all of those other stories, why I’ve lived this long. I’m waiting. I’ll always be waiting. I’d wait for him until eternity itself ran out.”
Arthur realized something in that moment, something important, something that had been staring him in the face for as long as he and Merlin had known each other, something that he had been choosing to ignore, something that was so glaring and obvious that Arthur must really be thick to have taken this long to discover.
His voice was quiet when he spoke. “Who is he?”
Merlin’s voice was even quieter, more somber, and in a way, heartbreaking. “He’s you.”
“Everything was true? Every story was real?”
“Every last one.”
Arthur could hardly breathe.
It was terrifying yet illuminating at the same time, having Merlin stare at him like he was the sun choosing whether or not to rise and bring light and warmth to the world. This new revelation, this idea, this thing, scared him beyond all belief. Arthur believed him, of course – he couldn’t remember the life Merlin spoke of, but he knew that he should. Those memories were repressed, bottled up inside of him, but they were there, he was certain.
“I’m…I’m King Arthur, then?” The pieces fell into the puzzle one by one. “And you’re Merlin. The sorcerer. Black staff. Magic was illegal, wasn’t it?”
Merlin nodded, tears welling up in his eyes and Arthur wanted nothing more than to wipe them away, but he wasn’t sure if he should, if he even could.
“And my father hated it, because it killed my mother,” Arthur said, finding the answers one by one. “I know that. I don’t…I don’t remember you, Merlin. How can I not remember you? You waited – you waited thousands of years for me and I…I can’t even remember you.”
Arthur didn’t realize he was approaching hysteria, hyperventilating, with tears threatening to spill out of his eyes, and until Merlin grabbed his other hand and held him in close, letting Arthur rest his head on his shoulder.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” Arthur could feel Merlin shaking and crying, too, and what a sight the pair of them must be for the rest of the frequenters. “It’s okay. You’ll remember eventually, I promise.”
“What about –Guinevere, Morgana –” A panicked thought entered Arthur’s mind. “My wife. My sister who – who betrayed me. Lancelot. Gwaine. The rest of…they’re my knights? I don’t remember…I can’t…”
“You don’t have to,” Merlin said soothingly, rubbing soft circles against Arthur’s back, and Arthur relaxed into the touch. “I remember enough for the two of us. And everyone else, too, if need be.”
“All of your stories were true,” Arthur whispered. “I can’t – you really lived through all of that.”
“I really did.”
“How did you – how are you even alive?”
“How could I possibly die knowing that you could still come back to me?”
“You idiot,” Arthur tried not to sob out as he squeezed Merlin tighter. “Goddamn fucking loyal idiot.”
Merlin pulled away from where his head had been leaning into the crook of Arthur’s neck so that he could regard Arthur with a watery, all too happy, all too sad, fully and absolutely beautiful smile. “Look at that! You’re remembering me already.”
“I can’t believe you,” Arthur shook his head in incredulity. “You…you…why didn’t you say something?”
“What could I say?” Merlin said, a laugh shaking through his shoulders that didn’t quite reach his fiercely grinning, tear-stained face. “Hey, Arthur, by the way, you’re a reincarnated king that I’ve spent over a thousand years waiting for? Yeah, that would go over well.”
“Then why didn’t you ever come and meet me anywhere else? Come to my flat; go to dinner or the cinema, meet my friends…your friends, too, come to think of it, weren’t they? And you missed them.”
“It was hard,” Merlin said softly after a moment. “After such a long stay in this darkness…this overwhelming darkness. You can’t even imagine how it feels to be in the light again. It’s blinding, I needed to shield my eyes. It’s like seeing colors for the first time. Seeing something beautiful and knowing that you can have it, you can touch it, but it might slip out of your fingertips and shatter on the ground.”
“I’m not breakable,” Arthur told him, even though he wasn’t entirely sure if that was true. He wasn’t sure if anything was true right now. He just knew that he needed to keep holding onto Merlin’s hand and never, ever let go.
“But you are,” Merlin said, voice breaking. “You’re mortal. You’re human. That makes you breakable, vulnerable to harm.”
Arthur couldn’t respond, couldn’t find a proper way to reassure Merlin that he wasn’t going to break, wasn’t going to leave him, wasn’t going to lock him in that darkness once again. So he just held on tighter.
So he pressed a kiss onto Merlin’s forehead, not wanting to push, go deeper, push further. Merlin leaned into him, though, keeping their bodies close together, and Arthur whispered “Tell me a story. One of our best. I just…Just please help me remember myself. Remember you.”
With a shaky voice, Merlin began to speak.