The highs and joys of their relationship lasted strongly until the approach of a new year. They'd learned more about one another and grew comfortable in this new life, living together as partners rather than friends. It was easier than Arthur ever imagined it to be.
Arthur found himself more satisfied and happy than he'd ever been before. He woke each morning looking forward to the day and went to bed each night in the arms of a man he loved. Most importantly, he no longer felt guilt for his feelings. His previous internalized hatred for how he felt no longer existed, and he wondered why it ever did. Why he ever stopped himself from diving into the possibilities that his love had to offer.
He no longer has nightmares. No more haunting from his disappointed father, or the lifeless body of his sister, or a heartbroken wife questioning his love. Now he was certain in himself and his choices in life. His choice to be with Merlin, a magical man of many wonders.
Arthur has continued reading the journals, although some stories he gets from Merlin throughout their time together. He's read about strangers that kept his bed warm at random, battles that coated the world with more death, and friendships made along the way. He read about love and hate and everything in between. Now he no longer questions who Merlin has become, how he's changed, and instead understands as if he were there the whole time.
However, Arthur notices the toll that old age has left permanently on Merlin. How he lacks energy most days, tired even as he pretends not to be. How he thrashes around the bed from a nightmare, or rather a memory. How he grows quiet when he remembers a darker time, though he rarely ever tells Arthur of such memories.
Most importantly, Arthur notices how much Merlin forgets. Some days the man wakes up and panics, unaware of who Arthur is or where he is until a minute passes and it all rushes back in. From small things like forgetting to lock the door to bigger things like forgetting how to start the fire. Forgetting who Morgana or Gwaine or even Uther was, stumbling around as he tries to fill the voids.
Arthur's adapted to these gaps, though. He takes more caution in double checking things are done or offering to help when he sees the other man struggle. He never voices his worries because it doesn't need to be spoken. Merlin appreciates these moments beyond anything, even if he doesn't speak that either.
Merlin has been the most alive he's been in a thousand years if not more. He finds himself wanting to do more, like celebrating his first Christmas with Arthur or experimenting with his cooking. He tells more stories and laughs when he teases. He makes love to Arthur more passionately then he has in years.
He feels young again.
For so long Merlin spent his life floating between empty and content. The years and days would pass by in a blur, either from his own uncaring nature or from a world of addiction. When he became sober he felt more gone than ever before, but now he no longer craves to forget. No longer passes the day by, but instead absorbs every moment as if it was his last. Arthur has reminded Merlin of why life was worth living again.
However, the inevitability has arrived. The depression that he swallowed back for this long had come bubbling to the surface faster than he could've realized. There was nothing he could've done to delay it or prepare, it just washed over him suddenly as Winter came to its end. Despite how perfect his life was, depression was not something that cared about perspective. It was inescapable and it was back deep inside Merlin.
A sadness that had been there for longer than Merlin can remember. It was a shadow over his life, often seen in the words of his journals even without a light to cast it. He'd hoped that it was gone for good now, that the completion of his life was enough to cure him...the dark days always come when the sun isn't shining bright enough. But even the sun gets tired sometimes.
"Merlin, it's half past noon. You should really wake up now...you've been like this all week." Arthur tried again, head peeking through the door into the dark bedroom. "At least come down a bit for lunch."
Merlin said nothing, just turning deeper into his covers and into the dark. Arthur waited a moment, desperately hoping for a change, before signing and the soft click of the door was heard. After a moment, making sure that Arthur was really gone, he reached back under his pillow and pulled out the photo album.
His eyes had long since adjusted to the dark as he flipped through the pages, scanning the pages full of pictures desperately. His head aches with the pain of no longer being able to cry, his face stiff with dried tears. His hand cresses each photo before he moved on to the next. A habit so common that, if it wasn't for the plastic covering, the photos themselves would've long since been worn away.
Growing tired of the ache in his chest and his head, he closed his burning eyes and clutched the book close to him. A dreamless sleep invaded him yet again, though he knew that when he woke he'd still be tired.
Downstairs Arthur sat worried, head in his hands. He hadn't seen Merlin leave the room for almost a week now, hardly having eaten any food or drank any water. He'd given up on sleeping in the same room with the man when he felt his presence was no longer wanted. If he was being honest, Arthur was scared.
It was so sudden and now he doesn't know what to do next. It felt so foreign, this new heavy sorrow weighing in the air, and wrong. He wanted to be there for Merlin, show him that he cared, and make things better but he wasn't sure how. Or even if that's what the other man wanted.
It's not like they gave lessons on this during his youth. This wasn't a problem that mannerism or a sword could solve.
So instead he tried his best to make a stew. It took him nearly half an hour to learn how to turn on the stovetop, then another hour in itself to figure out what actually went into a proper stew. His diced vegetables weren't as well as Merlin's was when he made this, but he tried his best to get it perfect. He tried to go based off memory of what Merlin had always done, hoping his time watching the other cook would come handy now.
Snow fell softly outside as night approached and Arthur decided that the stew was properly done. After a short taste (that burnt his tongue) he decided it wasn't as good as Merlin's was, but it was good enough. At least he hoped so.
Arthur sat alone as he ate dinner on his own for another night. He missed the teasing and the bantering. The stories and the not-so-subtle hints at what adventures dessert would bring in bed that night. Now the house was cold and silent. His eyes flickered up to their bedroom again before he finished and washed his dish. Then he turned and gently made Merlin's bowl.
Carefully walking up the spiral staircase Arthur, he mentally prepared himself. For what, he wasn't sure. He opened the door and walked over to a half awake Merlin, setting the bowl and spoon down on the bedside table. Merlin's dark eyes watched him silently, questioning your, but he said nothing. Arthur smiled in the dark, leaning down to press a soft kiss to Merlin's forehead.
"I made you some hot stew...it's not as good as yours but I tried my best. There's more in the cold box if you get hungry." He whispered, brushing his hand over Merlin's curls. "Goodnight, Merlin. I love you."
Merlin wanted so desperately to sit up, kiss him, and wash away his despair. To shout those three words back. But he couldn't bring himself to whisper, or move, or even blink. Instead he watched as the love of his life walked out the door, taking his heart with him.
Merlin stared at the soup a while, hands still clutching the book, and had an inner debate. His body and mind was too tired to move and eat that soup, not to mention his complete lack of appetite. Then a small voice, stubborn and loud, popped into his mind. A voice with an uncanny resemblance to the late Gwen, whom he missed dearly as well.
So he tucked the book back under his pillow and forced himself to sit up. He wasn't ready to shower or leave the bed or turn on the lights. However, he could eat this stew before it got cold. He could try to support the effort Arthur was so obviously putting forth.
He ate silently, surprised at his own hunger, and a ghost smile graced his face. Arthur was wrong, because this was the best stew Merlin's had in centuries. When he was done he stayed sitting, looking around the cold room. The lack of Arthur's warm presence only just weighed in him...and he realized how lonely it felt.
Merlin creeped out of the bed, ignoring the inner tiredness and pain it brought forth, and forced himself towards the door. He was thankful to find that Arthur had turned out all the lights before bed, leaving him to wander downstairs in the dark. He stopped before the guest room door, hand hovering above the handle, before forcing himself to continue. He'd gotten this far, hadn't he?
"I know I've not quite been myself this week," Merlin whispered softly as he sat besides Arthur in the dark bedroom, knowing the man was awake after he'd sat up. "I'm sorry about that. This time of year is always hard on me..."
Arthur turned over to look at Merlin's outline in the dark. Then, after a second of hesitation, he pushed back the blankets on that side of the bed and laid back down. Merlin took that as a message and laid down so they were facing each other. They couldn't see one another, but somehow Merlin knew those beautiful blue eyes were trained on his. It gave him the courage so continue on.
"You know how I said I was married twice?" Merlin whispered, his breath fanning Arthur's face from their close proximity.
Arthur nodded, his hand rising and laying comfortingly on Merlin's cheek. In his chest his heart beat hardly, making him feel as if thunder were trapped behind his ribs, but he remained silent. Merlin needed this, he knew.
"Her name was Isabella Stein. She was a nurse, which is how we'd met one another. We married in the late 2090s and lived together in Germany. I—We had 3 children."
Arthur's eyes went wide in shock. The idea of Merlin having children, of him being a father, baffled Arthur. Still he said nothing, just continued to silently encourage the man to go on. He leaned in so their foreheads met each other, to remind Merlin that he was listening. That he cared.
"My boys, Morgan and Lance. My baby girl Gwenith. They were beautiful, Arthur. They had curly hair, my baby girls was red like her mothers, and they had the brightest smile," Merlin told, voice shaking with grief.
Arthur could feel Merlin's tears running down his cheek and clashing against where his hand rest. With his thumb he wiped them, then moved forward and kissed them away.
"Then the war came and I knew it wasn't safe to stay in Germany any longer, although I know now that nowhere was safe. I left one night to arrange our escape... the bombs were dropped before I made it back. They were gone, Arthur. Burned to death. My babies were gone and I—there was nothing I could do! All the power, all my power, and it didn't matter. My babies were gone because I wasn't home, Arthur! I wasn't there to protect them!"
Arthur pulled the sobbing man to him and held him tight. They held each other and cried for the loss of Merlin's family. For the loss of Merlin's last chance at happiness in over a century. For the children that Merlin lost and Arthur would never meet.
Oh, what misery to lose a family would bring.