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The odd uneven time

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Arthur never dreamed in colour.

The colour was the present, the colour was contemporary and current, more vibrant than yesterday's accepted grey or tomorrow's uncharted purple, and dreams touched neither of the levels of time. Dreams took his ageless innermost desires, dissipated rejections, restored hopes and squashed disbeliefs and turned them into something incomprehensible.

Dreams need no colour, Arthur thought.
Dreams deserve no colour.

Every now and then though, you wake up in a dream, knowing nothing and everything and you are nothing and everything and you're slicing an apple with a sword or you're dancing with a broken oar, paddling your way up a dried-up riverbed, and someone is cheering at you on the bank before you reach the toffee scented finish line, and that someone needs to be named and embellished in all the tones your imagination can muster.
You want to colour this person, but when you search inside your pockets you find crayons, and they're all grey, but that's okay too because you name the colours for him.
And then you paint it all gold.

***

»Come with me,« he says and he smiles and Arthur follows, perplexed, because he feels warm, and this is unlikely, but not unknown. He chases the bright, blinding, beautiful creature that leads him on, on, and they don't stop until they finally do.

***

He wakes up with a sharp intake of breath.
It's dark and he's alone and aching all over.
He's in a boat and this makes no sense because he doesn't remember ever having a boat.
He's cold and the steering seat is empty.

***

»Come with me,« he says and he smiles and Arthur follows, perplexed, because he feels warm, and this is unlikely, but not unknown. He chases the bright, blinding, beautiful creature that leads him on, on, and they don't stop until they finally do,
and that is when the dream usually ends.

Not tonight.

They stop and the vision is there and it is smiling. Arthur doesn't know what to do so he puts his hands behind his back in a knot.

»Hi,« he tries, and breaks the silence, and wonders if this is adequate.
»Of course it is,« the vision replies. »You followed.«
»You asked.«

And it is as simple as that. Nothing ever feels this simple in dreams, or even straight forward. The world forces you to give up being trustworthy, people are two-faced and cold and bitter, but not this one, whatever it is, and it's smiling and Arthur is terrified of being responsible for its frown.

***

Arthur is still in a boat.
It unnerves him because it feels real but it can't be, it has to be a bad, bad dream, because nothing in his life has ever felt this stifling and wrong. He can't make it out, any of it, and he wonders why doesn't he just get out.
He peers over the edge.

The water is too dark.
He thinks he can hear something, but it's distant and weak and unimportant. Arthur can't stop staring at the empty seat next to him.
It doesn't make sense and it fills him up with dread.

***

»You had a bad dream,« his vision simply states.

Arthur nods. He remembers feeling uneasy, an unsettling sensation of something rousing a red flag twice now in a reoccurring nightmare of an immobile boat and an unoccupied seat that lately plagues his mind. He doesn't understand what it is about, not yet, but he never forgets the remnants of anxiety that persist and follow him even into his good dreams.

»Why do you always know everything?«

This bothers him, but only a little. He figures it has to be an extension of his self so of course this creature knows, it knows everything Arthur knows and probably a great deal more, but it still feels like a whole different person. One that somehow exists outside of him and even outside this dream, which is madness and Arthur knows this too but he can't help himself. The golden dreams are always so much better than the black and white, an alternative of a boat too small and too empty, of an impression of a long, long ride made and too many holes unfilled and too many empty seats untaken. He remembers how it makes him feel crippled and empty.

The golden creature smiles.

He smiles a lot.

Arthur likes it.

»I don't know everything.«
»Liar.«
Arthur's ears are filled with melodious laughter he wishes to capture inside a glass bottle and play it over and over again. He wants to play it until it's just a cacophony of noises, he wants his ears to ring with it, he wants to be consumed by the sound. It's unusual how drawn he is to everything he's been given in these dreams, it's so little, and he understands so little, but he craves it, and he wants to take this precious warmth with him.

The boat is cold.

***

Arthur is still cold and he has a cramp in his right leg. He wonders, briefly, if he should stand up and stretch, try to get rid of that persisting kink in his back, but that feels wrong. He should stay where he is in case he gets company, and he wishes he knew who he's expecting. Bizarre sensation of wondering utterly nonsensical things like why his red cape feels redundant and that there isn't any tea to offer, and surely that's why he is alone in the first place, because he is such an awful friend, take place in his mind, and his heart starts racing. Laughable, ludicrous thoughts that only become important when the rest of the world doesn't make sense.
Sharp, violent bubbling of music, almost as if played underwater, sends something alive and liquidy and repulsive down his spine.
He bangs on the wood in frustration.

***

»Oh, Arthur.«

The sweetness in such a small, barely there, breathed out tenderness shakes him to the core. He's falling, falling, and he's safe, he lands on a cloud, which must mean he's been falling from even higher up, right? He wants to check if this is true, he leans forward towards the edge, but then suddenly a warm hand takes his.

»Not yet.«
»Why?«

He looks up at the lack of answer and the sight before him takes his breath away.The golden creature, his good dream, his after-nightmare sentinel, the lovely voice guiding him and talking to him and knowing him, it has touched him and maybe that's what it took, but Arthur can see it now.

See him.
And he's beautiful.

***

The wood won't break, and he keeps trying. It momentarily takes his mind off things, this little futile task of his, he's even glad he has something to do, a goal which keeps him occupied, and Arthur gives it his best.
When he flops down into cold, always so cold, wooden seat and runs a hand through sweaty hair on his forehead, studiously ignoring the ample lack of his passenger, he's suddenly relieved it was all in vain.
With all of his preoccupation with the imaginary prison of a boat, its hostile interior of bleak emptiness, he's never actually thought what outside meant.

So he looks.

He sees shadows. Deep, black shadows that he wants to picture dark blue and green, and they are full of murkiness and odd density, shaping into obscure silhouettes and patterns. He listens and he hears low gurgles, slow and low creaks, not unlike the old floor-boards that moan under heavy weight of haunted pressure, and he's not sure but he thinks it's the boat making those noises.

Arthur swallows hard. It's essential nothing gets in.

***

Arthur knows when the good dream starts because everything turns to gold.
Surely nightmares don't resonate light.

He waits and waits because he wants to see him again, it feels wrong when he tries to define him, but there is some truth in the similes that cross his mind, and they go like this:

Imagine a room. Four corners, a door and a window, and three of the corners are dark. The one that's the farthest from the windows is the brightest. He senses him there.

Imagine a roller-coaster. It's spinning and you are spinning and the whole world is spinning but at the middle there is peace and calm and in the eye of the storm there's him.

Imagine a cloud.

»Arthur.«
Arthur gasps and turns towards the sound.
»Why have you been hiding?«
»I'm always with you, Arthur.«
»I only know you from my good dreams.«
»Do you want to know me from your bad dreams?«
Arthur snorts. As if this man is capable of dropping him from a cloud into a sea of nightmares underneath. He looks up, but the man isn't smiling anymore.

It feels wrong.

»I missed you.«

He opts for honesty, because he cannot be anything else in his presence. It's funny, whichever dream he's in, he can only remember bits of the other kind. He must have a waking life, he must, only living, breathing, alive, awake people actually go to sleep and dream, right? But he cannot remember it, any of it. He doesn't know what time he got up yesterday or if he likes to drink alcohol or if he has children – all he knows is that there's something bad lurking underneath, there's something terribly wrong with the boat he's a prisoner of every other night, and he hates it when it happens, and the other thing he definitely knows too is that there's also something good and that he's in it right now and that good means this man and that this man is-

»Arthur?«

-everything.

***

There's a lesson to be learned here, he figures. There usually is.
The constant ripple of music is giving him a headache, but he's used to it by now, and he doesn't fear it anymore. It's just- there. It doesn't do anything apart from assaulting his ears with screeching of abused violins.
Arthur 1, nightmare 0, he thinks.
Then the endless sea of water around him starts moving, up and down, up and down, waves upon waves hitting and toying with his little wooden box. The music fades into loud, ominous silence for a moment, and then- Arthur gasps for air, his lungs hurting, and wonders why.

***

He wakes up on a cloud again, and someone is quietly murmuring something. He doesn't open his eyes, not yet, he wants his other senses to intensify, and after they do he's going to shut them out and look his fill. It's a soft lullaby, he's sure of it, and the other thing he's sure of is that it is for him.
It stops.

»Why did you stop?«
»Do you like it?«
Arthur looks up. »I do.«

The man smiles and shuffles closer. Arthur suddenly feels sheepish, and young, and shy of all things, an odd feeling of memory coming to him of things unsaid. He'd like to stick his hands behind his back in awkwardness again in want of a better thing to do, but he's sitting up and wonders where are these emotions of coyness coming from. He knows, he just knows, that this is completely uncharacteristic of him. If he will not stay coy, then-

He goes for the next best thing.

»Why did you just take my hand, Arthur?«
»Why do you say my name so often?«
»Because I like it.«

It's simple, so uncomplicated, and so straightforward and sweet Arthur closes his eyes because the saccharine sentiment is almost unbearable. He wants to ask again just so he would hear the answer one more time.

»Because I really like it.«
He looks at him, in surprise. Sometimes he does that, he answers the unasked, and Arthur just really needs to know more.
»What would you like to know?«

What is your name.
Why do you let me hold your hand.
Do you live on clouds always.
Could i join you perhaps.

The man smiles, but it is a sad, somber smile, Arthur can tell from his whole body language that something deeply distresses this man and Arthur wants to help, he needs to help, there is so little he has done in return so far and he's sure there's more he can offer.

»You already gave me everything, Arthur.«
The man takes his other hand and squeezes tight. It's not uncomfortable but Arthur can tell there's something behind the touch.
»In which order would you like me to answer the questions?«
»As long as you get all of them.«
The man laughs softly.
»I usually curse the impatience. But it's not something i dislike about you.«
»Is there more?«
»Of what?«
»Of what you don't dislike about me?«

The man throws his head back and laughs freely and easily now, and Arthur soaks it up, he's thirsty and it gives him the same sweet kick as caramel does.

»Merlin.«
»What?«
»Me.«

Merlin is looking at him, he has been looking at him intently since his laughter slowly ringed out, and he's never had such a focused look in his eyes before. There's usually softness, and laughter, laughter in a thousand minute lines around his eyes, laughter in an enticing curve of his lips, laughter in the way his whole body takes a form of happiness, and afterwards he sometimes blinks it slowly away and when he does, a forest of lashes caresses the skin of his cheeks. But not today.

Arthur feels pierced, he feels see-through, he feels seen-through and he feels like it's alright.

»Hi, Merlin.«

***

He feels like there's no escaping this place.
Or his mind.
The music is still playing and the water is still full of ripples, but nothing happens. He still gets random urges to hold his breath for some reason, but when his lungs scream at the lack of air, he breathes. Arthur can hear the endless tidal whispering from the outside, it seems like a constant flow of grim murmur, repulsive in its softness, waves upon waves of sloshing rumble, and he can't move from his seat, he's frozen and immobile as if nailed down by his own trepidation.
Not for the first time he wonders if he is suspended in some special kind of hell, endless solitude and foreboding omnipresent.
He feels like a sun on perpetual stand-by, terrified of its own rising.

***

»You never answered my questions.«
»Hello, Arthur.«
»I want to know.«
»I know.«

Merlin draws his legs up and places his chin on the knees. It's the way children sit and yet it's so graceful a ballet dancer couldn't have done it better. Arthur is a little bit mesmerized by this.

Merlin smiles, and suddenly asks, »What is your favourite sweet thing?«
Arthur laughs because Merlin asking questions is something new, and he won't have any of it. Not for a favour back.
»No no no, you don't get to ask questions until you answer some of mine.«
»I figured I'd ask because it's the one thing I don't know about you.«

***

Arthur wakes and the surroundings feel different. The perspective is all wrong and he has way too much leg space, suddenly.
He wants to look behind as always, to check the empty seat behind him, but there's nowhere to go. Little hairs stand up all over his body, as he swallows an undignified yelp.
He woke up on the steering seat.
Everything is still cold and dark but Arthur thinks of clear blue eyes and caramel.

***

»Why was our last dream so short?«
»That is up to you, Arthur.«
»But I don't want them so short.«
Merlin smiles. »I know.«
»Right.«

Arthur feels out of depth, and he wants to know why Merlin so rarely answers anything and he wants to know why Merlin knows and what Merlin knows and why is Merlin here with him and-
»I don't like them being so short either.«

He's looking at him unguarded, his blue, blue eyes dazzling and big and open and sincere and a thunderstorm of emotions behind them.

Arthur is drawn to him, he can't not be, he feels an age long desire building up. He doesn't remember walking up to him, he's just there, right in front of him, and oh, Merlin is an inch taller and he's so close and his eyes are everything that lies beneath the cloud and Arthur needs to make it all okay, he needs-

He kisses him.

There's no soft easing into it, tasting the unknown, familiarizing oneself with new scents and crevices, there's a magnetism of sorts Arthur doesn't know, and he'll readily admit to not really being a man of science but strange forces are at work here and he feels like he's defying laws of physics solely by trying to kiss his way into this man, and he realizes, with a hint of victorious thrill, he's succeeding. Merlin is gasping and mouthing back in an admiring rhythm of kisses, as sweet as the man himself, he appears hungry and Arthur shivers at the thought that finally, finally he's made him come out of calm, safe shell of his usual demeaour.

When he pulls back with regret that his golden-dream-lungs are sadly no different from his nightmare-lungs and cannot hold their own in a glorious onslaught of a kiss, Merlin is smiling through tears.

***

Arthur knows there should be someone to row the boat there.
He distinctly remembers there was one, someone must have got the boat here in the middle of everything, in this bottomless pit of whispers and heaving waves that keep sloshing and- He can almost hear the water being paddled through, except that he can't because there's no rower.

Is the rower dry?

***

»So, erm.«
The hands shoot back behind his back to safety.
»Hi.«

And, here's the thing. Here's Merlin and the cloud and the vast, endless couple of feet between them. Here's Merlin's easy smile and Arthur's uncertainty and the lingering taste of the kiss. It makes him wonder if this dream began right as the last one ended, he's remembering their last moments together when they meshed into one, and his lips still tingle and tremble, or maybe that is his heart, and he wonders if Merlin remembers it too.

Judging by his grin, he does.

»Because you are special.«
»Uh?«
»Your question. You asked why do I let you hold my hand.«
»Oh, right.«
»It's okay. You had other things on your mind.«

Arthur grins back and wonders if this is a new state of golden dreams. Like 2.0, with better special effects.
Merlin laughs.

»You have always been a muppet.«
»Which question are you answering now?«
Merlin comes closer. »I'm telling you about you.«
»I'd rather know about you.«
»I know. But you have to know about yourself. This is the whole point of everything.«
»Of this dream?«
»Yes.«
»What is the point of my bad dreams, then?«

Merlin lifts his hand and gently strokes his cheek.
»Oh, Arthur. Don't you see? They're not your bad dreams.«
»They feel very much like mine, I can assure you.«
»They can't be yours.«
»Whyever not?«
»Because they're mine.«

This time, as they stare at each other in silence and perplexity, Arthur knows it's the end of the session.

***

The words they're mine find a place in his mind. They stay there and make camp, they leave untrodden pathways of relentless paces following the same kind of cadence, almost a melodious sound of a heartbeat that correlates with they're-mine-they're-mine-they're-mine, and Arthur deems it strange, this listening to and counting your own heartbeat, all the while keeping your breath in just in case you count the last echo of a tiny drum deep in your chest.

They're mine.

Whose, is the question, and more importantly – what?

***

»I'd like more answers please.«
»You never tire.«
»I asked about the cloud some time ago.«
»And if you could stay here with me.«
»Yes.«
»I'm afraid I can't answer them.«

Arthur sits down, cross-legged, and thinks. He thinks hard and takes his time because he's learned by now that there is only so much talking him and Merlin get done in one dream and if he's supposedly in charge then he's going to think this through. Merlin is mysterious and apparently for a reason and Arthur doesn't know whether it's for reasons he can't disclose or doesn't want to, but he feels like he's missing something.

»So I can't stay with you?«
»You can.«
»Here?«
»What is here?«
»Our cloud?«

Arthur feels like he's said something completely wrong but at the same time also completely right because now it's Merlin who closes the gap between them. He sits down opposite to him and wrestles Arthur's hands from his deathly grip on his knees and holds onto them.

»Oh Arthur, you great big sap.«
»Yeah?«
»Do you remember how you once asked if there are other things I don't dislike about you?«
»I do.«
»There's loads.«
»Tell me.«
»I cannot.«
»Can't or won't?«

Merlin brings one pair of their joined hands up to his face and presses a feather-light kiss to his knuckles.

»I'm afraid to ruin anything.«
Arthur doesn't understand.
»I know you don't, but. Arthur. Arthur I can't risk mis-stepping, I can't plunge into the unknown here. It's you who has to do that.«
»Okay.«
»Okay?«

Merlin looks worried, and pensive, but nonetheless completely focused on Arthur.
Arthur grins.
»Go on then, tell me how awesome I am.«
Merlin's eyes nearly fall out of their sockets, but then he laughs and rubs a hand over his face.
»When I said you have to know about yourself, this is not what I had in mind.«
»So you don't think I'm awesome?«

Arthur pouts and watches with great excitement that Merlin's responding to it by leaning closer. Just when his heart starts picking up the beat, Merlin playfully quips,
»I think you are a number of things.«
»Such as?«
»Sometimes you're downright infuriating. Other times you're incredibly sweet.« Then he adds, looking up from under his lashes, »And sometimes, you're maddeningly irresistible.«

Arthur feels a bit warm around his neckline.
»Merlin are you hitting on me because if you are-«
»Mm?«
»It's so working.«
Merlin laughs, delighted. »Oh this feels familiar, it does.«
»It does?«
»Oh yes.«
»To what?«
»Our usual banter.«

Arthur wants to feel the usual with Merlin too.

»What else do we do, then?«
»Talk, a lot. I like talking to you.«
»Is there anything else you like?«
»Oh yes.«
»Wha- ohmm.«
Merlin kisses him, hungrily, and Arthur's been waiting for this, a Merlin-iniciated intimate breech beyond the hand holding, and he gasps into the warmth and taste that he remembers doing only once before, but he wishes he would have done it a thousand times already.

***

»What if I get it wrong?«
»I don't think you can.«
»Why?«
»Because I have faith in you.«

***

Arthur is raging against himself, the boat, the sunken feeling of inadequacy and helplessness, he is raging against the darkness and the conscious thought. He is angry because he can't be here alone anymore, not when he knows there were two in the beginning. There must have been. It's the only thing that makes sense in this forsaken little place that's pushing in on him like a heavy pressure of miles underneath the sea surface.
It's the only thing he can make out of it, this missing person of his, first the passenger and now the rower and just which of them, exactly, is he supposed to be, because he's been put in the shoes of both and they are both equally frightened.

Arthur woke up wet this time.
And the seats are gone, so he has no idea where he's supposed to be sitting.
He feels this is the most important piece of the puzzle yet, but he doesn't understand. He just doesn't understand.

***

Arthur feels alone. He shouldn't feel alone, it's a good dream and that means only one thing, which is Merlin. He's happy it's here, he's happy he's here but he's also tired and confused and his last nightmare took hours to be gone and he feels like sleeping a dreamless sleep.

Merlin appears at that. Frightened.
»Merlin, what is it?«
»Not that, just not that, please. You not dreaming is not something I can bear.«
»I'm surprised you can speak about it.«
»I-»
»You once said the nightmares are yours.«
»They are.«
»And these dreams are mine.«
»Also true.«
»Whose is the not-dreaming, then?«

Merlin sits down, and Arthur follows, because sitting down together is apparently a thing they do, and he follows because he feels like following Merlin always, he wants to follow him wherever Merlin goes when Arthur's nice dreams end, and apparently there is something that needs to be figured out here if he wants a chance of doing just that.

Merlin, bless him, takes his hand again, and Arthur is already addicted to this connection, he feels like it's real, not like the cloud beneath them and like the artificial golden light that can't exist, not really, he's sure nature cannot come up with such electric, gilded tones of yellow. But unlike everything transcendental about this, Merlin's hand is a warm, welcome weight, a bridge to god knows what and Arthur blames himself something heavy that he hasn't put this puzzle together yet.

»Not dreaming is no one's, Arthur. Don't you get it?«
Merlin looks a bit anxious at that, almost impatient himself, like he needs Arthur to just see.
»I need you to dream, Arthur, to dream as long as you need, you have to take your time but then I need you to do something even bigger than that.«
»Which is?«
»Wake up.«

***

Please, Arthur.
Please.
My love.

Arthur jerks up and feels like vomiting.
He's still wet, and the plea is meant for him.

Someone is broken.
And someone else is begging.
He's not sure which of the two is he.

Arthur reaches, with a shaky hand, to the side where the vast sea displays its deep expanse below him.
He finds the thin, moist strip of air between the sky and the sea, and dips his hand in.
And prays he's right.

***

Arthur calls for Merlin, but Merlin doesn't answer.
Golden rain is falling, which is a first, but then Arthur remembers, like a distant memory, of wanting to look over the edge of this place. Of this cloud.

What was it that Merlin said to him back then?

Sweet, sweet Merlin. Arthur wonders where he came from and why he came to Arthur specifically. He feels like he must have deserved him somehow, him and this golden dream to counteract everything that surrounds this little haven of calm and harbour of quiet. Merlin gone, the place still as beautiful and warm as before, but now that he's here alone, Arthur doesn't want to stay. Merlin has never said goodbye before so Arthur doesn't doubt this to be the end.

He doesn't doubt any of the words Merlin's ever said, actually.
What was it back then, when he wanted to look?

Not yet.

»Oh.«
Arthur gasps. And edges toward the precipice.
It's time, isn't it? To wake up and find him.

There's no cloud.
Arthur falls.

***

It didn't work.
He's still wet, and it didn't work, and Merlin said it would work so why didn't it?
He feels despair he hasn't felt since-
His whole body jerks. He's been longing for memories for so long now, for something that would reveal him his true nature, only a little something that would shed some light on things. The more he tried, the more elusive all thoughts of before or after were, but now – now he knows. He can see, clear as daylight, the last moments he felt despair like never before.

Arthur?

He was dying. He knows this because he felt his body weakening, his mind getting clouded and slow and so unresponsive to what his heart was trying to say. He felt his lips going still and numb, his whole spirit paralyzed. And above him, above him was the only thing that kept him grounded in this world. Anguished Merlin, still as a cast-iron stone, unsobbing and in-check for him, just for him, but Arthur knew better, he knew, even then, that it was an act, an act to console him. Even in Arthur's last moments Merlin thought only of him and what was best for him, because for sure seeing Merlin in tears would hurt more than any dagger or sword ever could.

He sobs, sobs for this man. He sobs because it didn't work and he cannot get back to Merlin. His Merlin. He needs to say things he couldn't before, he wishes for one more minute with him before the world engulfs him with darkness once more and he never remembers anything ever again.

Arthur.
Please.

He hears the plea again and wonders, briefly, if he has gone insane.
He almost wishes it to be true.

***

It's not nice to give people false hope, you know? You of all people should know this, with your playful blue eyes and pouty lips and your stupid wiggle when you walk and even if I could ever forget and forgive those, there are other things I cannot.

Remember whenever you did something really kind, like give change to the poor or get a kitten off a tree or pick up something an old lady dropped and returned it to her, you always looked at me with this funny face? If I didn't know better I'd think you're proud and are looking for reassurance of a deed well done, like you need some sort of affirmation from me – as if you waited for me, out of everyone, to show you this was indeed something I loved the most about people, their kindness and unselfishness, as if you wanted to counteract every single moment when I called you selfish and show me you in fact weren't.

I didn't dare to give you more than a nod because the consequences wouldn't be good. But I have to tell you, Arthur, that those moments with you were my favourite. You were a human being, no different to anyone else then, and you chose to be that with me. I couldn't ask for anything more, even though I wanted to. How I wanted to, Arthur. I wanted everything. I wanted to wake up and see you beside me, undone by the night, innocent in the early light when royal duties weren't a weight upon your shoulders. I wanted to walk through the forest with you as though there wasn't some danger lurking behind every shrub or tree trunk, and I wanted to take you to all of my favourite spots, places I always visited by myself, seeking solace and consolation when the life in the castle became too much.

In the evenings, when I left you – alone or in company – I wanted nothing more than to be the one who stayed by your side. Dressing and undressing you was the exquisite pain I just couldn't give up, despite the sharp, stabbing lust and thrill and agony it caused. I tormented myself every night by thinking thoughts I shouldn't have, wondering what it would be like to touch you and be touched by you, and it created a cramp around my heart from which I never recovered.

I wanted to tell you, in our last moments together. I wanted to be selfish and say the words of love and adoration and devotion, but then I stopped myself because what if what I said caused you discomfort in your last minutes? I couldn't do that, I couldn't take the risk of making you feel even worse than you must have felt, and. The thought I might never have the chance ... Please, Arthur. I need to take you out of this water before you turn into a frog. And you see, apparently you need to kiss a frog to restore it to its former body, and I'd like to do that only if you were awake. Please. It's been so long I don't even know who I am anymore. But if somebody took the time to turn me inside out, all they would find is memories of you.

***

Arthur's mind is storming for several reasons. He's sure his cheeks have gone crimson from everything Merlin's said, but there's something else. He thought he hasn't make it because water was all he could feel, but. I need to take you out of this water before you turn into a frog.

***

He inhales so deeply he swears his ribs are crackling. His chest expands and all of his limbs ache in an odd, tingling way, as if the blood, still for so long, is pumping again through the dusty veins. His throat constricts, and he chokes, and waves his arms around because – oh because he can.

He blinks into light, proper light that consists of so many colours he feels confused to see. He's grown accustomed to hues of golden and black, and this is all too much.

Too much of blue.

And he's not talking about the water.

A pair of bluest eyes are staring at him in disbelief, big and round and deep and old, as if they've seen the ages of the world pass by, they look wise and alert and distractedly surrounded by a carpet of lashes. Lashes Arthur knows and loves.

»Merlin,« he croaks.

Merlin looks like he wants to do several things at once, so naturally he opts for the most daft of them, Arthur notices with incomparable affection, and asks, »How do you feel?«

Arthur wants to laugh, but his throat is dry and stiff with disuse, so something like a pained moan comes out.

»Are you in pain?« Merlin jumps forward, misunderstanding the sounds, and in a display of motherly fret, checks Arthur up. Arthur feels as if Merlin suddenly developed seventeen hands and all of them are on him, and oh man, on some other occasion this would be so, so right.

He snorts again, and happily observes that at least his nose is down to some cooperation, and watches a surprised Merlin giving him an odd look.

»What?«

Arthur grins.

»I'm worried for your health and you're making fun of me?«

Arthur remembers how Merlin hates if he does a jerk of his shoulder in that yeah-because-it's-fun-to-watch-you-get-mad way, and does just that.

Merlin, the tender features on his face gone, takes a deep breath not unlike Arthur's first inhale after waking up, and unleashes a shower of ages pent-up agony. If Arthur took every third word, the rant would have sounded something like you – I – long – asshole – I – much – how – sit – nothing – you – years – asshole – died – waited – asshole, but he patiently waits for Merlin to talk his fill. He deserves this.

When Arthur cannot wait but a second longer, he pulls Merlin close and kisses him.

He deems it a matter of personal self-restraint and pride that he doesn't laugh when it seems that Merlin, for a few moments, doesn't even notice what is happening and keeps on ranting into his mouth. So he waits him out on this as well, and wonders, briefly, why has he always been this patient only ever with Merlin.

When Merlin's brain finally signals him something is going on, he lets out a faint oh, and then kisses back with the same fervor he uses when he wants to make a point in an argument. Merlin is passionate about things he considers important, and Arthur adores that in him.

What he doesn't adore, though, is that he's still wet, and now Merlin is too, so he grunts and rasps about getting out of here. Wherever here is.

Merlin grins at him. »Come. I have a house.«
»A house? Of your own
»Yep. It even has a pool.«
»What's a pool?«
»Oh it's like a pond, but cleaner. And you're not allowed to take a piss in it.«

Arthur considers this and decides a house with a clean pond sounds rather nice. Especially if it comes with Merlin moved in.

»Do you have any towels or dry clothes in your house?«
Merlin licks his lips in exactly the same way he always did after eating an apple, which made Arthur all warm around his neck and in need of hitting him hard on the head – preferably with his penis – and leans in close.

»As if you'll be needing clothes anytime soon.«

Arthur gapes and finds out he still enjoys Merlin giving back as hard as he's getting.

"So you're in charge now?"
"I always was, Arthur."
"Fine. You still have to make me caramel milk before sleep. No magic allowed."

Merlin looks at him uneasy, something like shock and disbelief passing over his features. "Why are you saying this?"
"Because apparently even after a decade of making it for me, you still hadn't realized it was what I loved the most."

Arthur is met with two huge eyes, not unlike those he saw when he woke up, only this time they're brimming with tears. Merlin whispers.
"You remember that?"

"I remember you waiting very long, Merlin." Arthur swallows hard and takes his hand. "Now come."