Apples still gave him a sick feeling even in this new life. Now for a new reason, the memories thick and choking, running down his throat like sour honey. But the apple orchard was Arthur's favourite place, even in his new life.
They were Aaron and Eric Raleigh, NGO workers in the old world and survivors in the new one. Neither safe in the old or the new, but together, and that was more than could be said for their Camelot days. Merlin was never quite sure how much Arthur remembered of his final hours, but again, why would either of them want to remember?
They had ten years together before the apocalypse hit, ten years of saving people in the way you can in the future, by taking matters into your own hands. They had ten years together, two hiding in dark cupboards, five in rundown shacks in war torn countries and three in a brightly lit apartment, where they used candles to light up for dinner because old habits die hard.
Merlin was never sure why Arthur came back so early, but maybe Destiny wasn't as cruel as the scripture reads. To give him ten years before corpses began to walk, was more than he could ever ask for.
They got four years in the new world. Some months of it were spent hungry and tired and scared, very scared. But they were together, and they would always would be so that's okay, right?
Finding new people, recruiting them, training with them, becoming their friends. It's like Camelot was in the future, now complete with food shortages and flesh eating monsters. Not that Camelot didn't have those too.
Some of Rick's group reminded Merlin heavily of his beloved Knight friends, and sometimes he felt sad when they called him Aaron, though he had no reason to be. Their souls were long gone, they wouldn't return.
But then one specific man would just give him this calculating stare, and his eyes would tell him that he knew more about him than he did himself. And Merlin would see the ghostly hand of Lancelot resting on that winged leather vest.
They fought, of course. They wouldn't be Merlin and Arthur if they didn't argue constantly. But there was no venom, no bite, just mutual agreement to push each others buttons until they were all pressed. And then start again.
Merlin forgot what it felt like to have hot blood splattered across his face, what it tasted like dripping into gums, gagging on it as the iron taste made him think of apples so far away. Bludgeoned to death in front of him, two men, their skulls split in two, and he saw the wizard's execution, on the steps of the castle on his first day in Camelot. He saw the bodies slumpt over like the corpses frozen by the Dorracha, except they twitched with postmortem reflexives.
The Saviour's fists and heels against his face and ribs reminded him of the particularly vicious torture Morgana put him through, a cleverly aimed steel toe boot to his left shoulder and he was feeling every spike of the mace.
He fell into Arthur's arms like he would every night except it was because his knees were beginning to give out and he didn't want to fall into the puddle of Spencer's guts running down the street, the red running like a stream around Negan's boots and into the drain. His knife flashed with blood like Mordred's had, that night.
Chasing the Saviours out of Alexandria became a copy cat of their memories of beating Cenred's immortal army and ridding Camelot of Morgana's influence for the countless time. Daryl's back against his as they span slowly, covering each other as they took out a non friendly one by one, until roar of Shiva, sounding so like Aithusa's calls, was lost to the sound of gunfire. And Lancelot returned, in someway.
Attacking outposts felt too much like Arthur's stories of ambushing Druid camps, but at least Merlin was sure these were the bad guys. Their dead rose fast and bit down on the calves and shoulders of their past comrades, swaying the win into their hands.
Until Francine went down. Because as soon as Francine went down, he saw red.
The bullet flew so fast through Arthur, so clean, so on path, he was sure it had missed him. But when he was pressed up against the corrugated iron shield, he felt the warm red liquid gush through the fingers pressed against Arthur's gut, their fingers shaking with quickly dispelling adrenaline.
He dragged Eric away from the battleground, his mind a fog of trying to keep them both upright and a distant idea of calling for the long dead Kilgarragh to take them to the far away Avalon. But a tree would do, with how fast the blood was falling.
"Eric," Merlin choked out, incase unwanted ear were listening,
"I'm so sorry..."
"Were you the one who shot me?" Arthur puffed, a ghost of a smile on his paling face.
Merlin voice cracked on a sob,
"I... I pulled you into this. You didn't want to fight."
It was so weird, to live a life where Arthur was the one who didn't want to fight. Where he was the one with a weapon always heaving in hands or against his chest.
"Until -- Until I did," Arthur sniffed as he gripped as tight as he could to Merlin's shirt, leaving red finger prints against the check pattern,
"You need to help them."
"What? I can't-"
"You need to go," Arthur breathed heavily out through his mouth as tears began to bead in his eyes, and he tried so hard to hold on, keep his positive attitude, just for Merlin,
"I can bleed here fine on my own..!"
"I'm not leaving you," Merlin leaned his forehead against Arthur's clammy one, linking their fingers together against the gaping hole in Arthur's stomach,
"Don't be an idiot. They need you."
Arthur leaned up and pressed his chilled lips against Merlin's fiery ones, hoping to slow down time for just a minute. He pulled back only for Merlin to duck his head down, watching as he stroked a thumb against Arthur's pale knuckles.
"Aaron, look at me," Arthur sighs, when he doesn't even attempt to look up, "Merlin. Look at me."
Merlin lifts his head up at his true name, the one he only gets called when Arthur has given up any hope of Merlin listening to him,
"You know I love you. You know I'm right."
"Okay," Merlin agrees, but only holds Arthur's hand tighter.
"Now... stand your ass up, get back to the fight, and you win this thing."
"I will," Merlin clears his throat, forcing his heart back down into his chest.
"We will," Merlin pauses, pressing his lips against Arthur's unbloody palm, "I love you."
"I always had a hunch."
He shouldn't have left him. The bloody tree bark reminded him of the red grass on Avalon's waters edge.
He had failed Arthur. Again.
And if this wasn't the time for Arthur to come back truly, if this wasn't enough....
Then what would be?