It had been stupid to stop. To give into this. But it's over and done with now. There's nothing Arthur can do to turn back time.
"Where is it you're going?" Merlin asks from the bed.
Arthur buckles his belt and pulls his shirt on over his head. The detergent smell is completely gone; just him there in the threads, a month of driving and gasoline and fast food. The tell-tale tang of gunpowder. One isn't supposed to recognise one's own smell, but it reminds Arthur of home, his sheets and the Oxford Uni sweatshirt hanging in his closet. All the little holes lining the threadbare collar.
Does anyone still go to university? Arthur has stopped keeping track.
"I owe someone." His canvas jacket never made it further than the hotel room door. He goes for it, catching those blue, blue eyes. "She's family."
Merlin nods and Arthur wonders about who he calls family. If they made Uther's hit lists or if they managed to fit the bill for survival. Unassuming non-Magicals, just trying to live normal lives.
He hopes so.
"And you know where she is?"
Arthur has one arm in his jacket sleeve. He stops and squints at Merlin. It's still early, still dark, and Arthur's eyes sting. Merlin looks back and Arthur feels the threads of discomfort uncoiling again.
But Merlin shrugs his shoulders. "People are hard to find these days."
Those threads relax and entirely different ones tighten up. People are hard to find, if they aren't dead or Magicked. Even if they are. There are plenty of people in England who will probably never know the ultimate fate of their loved ones. It feels odd to have just been pondering the state of the country's universities in light of everything else.
"I have an idea," Arthur says and wishes he could believe it. It's been months since he heard from Morgana, and that was in a dream. Considering his sister's gifts, he can't discount dreams, but it leaves so much room for doubt.
Her magic is on him, a scent of gardenias and lurid moss that clings like evening fog. She gave him so much and then took it all away. Ran away. It's more complicated than that, but lately Arthur can't help the cynicism.
Merlin has been a sea-fresh breath of air. It's worrisome.
The room still smells cloying, of sex, of humid breath and purple light and Merlin's skin. Merlin's clothing dots the floor: a grey shirt with long sleeves, jeans worn thin at the thighs, a shapeless woolen hat that, three days ago, revealed protruding ears and dark hair and made Merlin's face look skeletal in the shadows of the pub booth. He's not skeletal; he's willow-thin and wiry with muscle, and the way his eyes darted that night— Arthur knows what it feels like to be hunted. Or to believe you are being hunted, at least.
Arthur didn't eat last night. His body only wanted one thing and Merlin provided again and again, slow and sharp as salt-tang, fast and heaving amid the sheets and pillows. When they slept, it was right next to each other, fingers half linked, ankles hooked around knees, faces pressed into the give of shoulder and throat. The days and nights have blended, an oasis in a world moving too fast, always too fast, and Arthur's still hungry, but not for food.
Three days is too short a time to fall in love. And he doesn't fall in love. He craves, he needs sometimes— this time all the more so because it had to end and his entire body was aware all along— but he doesn't love. There's no room for it, not in this world. Love will be for the ones who come after; Arthur's job— Morgana's job, everyone's job— is to make sure there is still a world in which they can love.
And yet, he feels the impending absence of Merlin like a skewer through his guts.
He doesn't want to go back out there. He wants to strip himself bare and crawl back in amongst the sheets and the smell and sweat of Merlin, and forget what he set out to do, who he set out to find. Here, it doesn't seem like his father can touch him. Outside, anywhere else— but in here he is shrouded from that foreboding gaze. It's ridiculous, it's stupid, but he feels normal for the first time in a long time. Maybe ever.
"I don't—" Merlin's eyes are fixed on the wall to the right, the one with the door in it, and his profile could be the subject of a masterpiece oil painting, rich with shadow and graceful lines. He is so completely masculine that Arthur has to catch his breath. He's not sure where the realisation stems from; not as if there was ever any doubt. But there is something so breathtaking trapped in this moment. If Merlin ever moves again, it will come too soon. "Wish you wouldn't go."
Perhaps Arthur isn’t the only one having difficulty recognising himself. His relief is short-lived: how long has he known this man? He’s known and loved his sister for two and a half decades, and here he is, letting himself forget. Putting himself before her when she is the one in real danger.
If push comes to shove, if his father gets him back, Arthur has cards to play. Morgana does not. Morgana threw in her hand with the royal flush in plain view, only to have Uther change the rules of the game entirely. Arthur has duties and Merlin is not one of them.
"Could always come with me." He almost can't believe he says it, but he can still taste the words on his tongue. Merlin's eyes cut bright to his and Arthur stares, winded, wondering how to take it back. Knowing he doesn't want to.
He wants Merlin to come with him. Fuck.
The memory of Gwain knots up his stomach and Arthur turns, jerks his jacket the rest of the way on. "Kidding," he says. But it has to be said. Gwain bled to death in his arms and Arthur will not drag Merlin to a similar fate.
"I would, you know." There's something off in Merlin's voice. Arthur shrugs away the misgiving; what the hell does he even know about Merlin and the nuances of his voice?
Except in the midst of pleasure, that voice holds a whole lot of nuances. Arthur bites his tongue hard to shut his mind up. "Well, I wouldn't let you."
He hopes to god that Merlin will not speak again. He puts his shoes on in silence, listening for Merlin in the bed. The man is deathly still, unnatural. It's hard not to look, to take in his fill in preparation for the solitary nights ahead. He doesn't understand this connection, how fast it formed, how fast it is forming, because it most certainly is not done. Arthur knows it will keep on long after he walks out this door, until the ends of it break one by one and he is forced to consign Merlin to a blur of nights, a hazy face, disconnected curves of naked flesh and a rapid heartbeat beneath the pressure of his lips.
What are you doing out here? The last time he asked, Merlin's eyes shut down with a pain Arthur was seeing everywhere in this forsaken land, and he knew he had no right to ask, no right to know. It was another past lost, and Arthur didn't want to know any more pasts like that. He had his own, Gwen's and Morgana's, Leon's pretty wife burned alive and their home razed, Lance's dead parents. Gwain's children, Gwain's freedom, Gwain's life.
The question hovered: If he could kill his father, if he could get close enough— would he?
He rounds on the bed, presses Merlin back against the headboard, and kisses him soundly, a little desperately. It is only as he is doing it that he realises what he's done. Merlin meets his mouth with stilled lips, a cold give that Arthur is frantic to warm. He wishes he had just left while Merlin slept; instead of sex and sleep and steady breathing, this will be his last memory.
"Run," he whispers against Merlin's mouth, because he can feel it: whatever the case with Merlin's family, he knows Merlin himself would never have made the safe list. "I'm being followed. Get away from this place before they catch up."
He pulls back and Merlin stares at him with unreadable eyes. Arthur can't bear to look anymore. He turns, picks up hat and gloves, car keys, tote bag, his entire existence in two handfuls, and heads for the door.
"I'm here to kill you."
For an eternity, Arthur can't move. He can feel each second's tick, and he knows what he's going to find when he turns around. If he turns around.
Merlin stands beside the bed, his right hand extended steadily toward Arthur's face. His long fingers splay wide and Arthur can see the shadows, sleek over the contours. Merlin's arm, the bare skin pale, stretches from a corded shoulder. Tight muscles. Never even heard him get up. A sickly smell reaches Arthur: a death hex gathering itself from the particles in the air.
Something witty should take shape here, but he can't speak. He knows his mouth is open.
"Your father selected me specifically." Merlin's voice is flat on the end of the last word. He stands naked, half his torso thrown into darkness. "He knows your type, doesn't he?"
All Arthur can think about is the shape Merlin's mouth made on each thrust, the swift suck of air between his lips. The way he breathed against Arthur's chin, nudged his nose up and touched Arthur's in the seconds just after he came.
Arthur swallows. It hurts. "Should have known."
A small voice in him cries out: Merlin's a Magical. Magicals do not follow Uther Pendragon. And Merlin has a power different from any Magical Arthur has ever met. Where it was shrouded before, he can suddenly feel it in everything, every word, every breath, but he's felt something all along, in every clutch of Merlin's fingers, every gasp shaped like his name. It is beautiful and terrifying and dangerous.
Arthur knows his hand is weak but he has been trained to play every card he's got until the instant of his defeat. "How did they get you?"
For a moment, he feels Merlin will not answer. The sound of his own breathing stretches thin between them, and then, belatedly, Arthur picks out the rasp of Merlin's breathing. A strange syncopation.
"Your father," Merlin says dully. "He has my mother."
It's hard to take in, that single moment in which the last petal of hope withers away and falls from the stem. Good god, Arthur doesn't… He doesn't have a chance. His throat fills with dry heat, as ashen as the wastelands of England.
And this blow hurts, more than any other so far. That weak voice inside him curses his father for knowing him so well even now. Knowing his weak spots. He'll never escape from Uther Pendragon. He never did in the first place.
"He's a fucked up man, your dad. Using a mother to force her son to kill the only son he has."
"He has his moments," Arthur whispers.
Merlin will kill him. Arthur wonders how he'll do it. The death hex? Something else Arthur has never seen in action? Morgana has Graced him with countless sigils to prevent Magicals from manipulating his body, his actions and thoughts, but they have no power against a spell nocked like an arrow to a bow and loosed upon him. It doesn't matter: Merlin will kill him. Somehow that's the worst part of it all. A man he's known barely three days and a man he now can't seem to do without.
If Arthur didn't know better, he'd say Uther knew exactly what he was doing, and that Merlin has been slowly killing him from the instant they met.
He means nothing to this man. Except as the means of another's salvation, his existence has no purpose. Arthur has felt himself hardening toward this new world for ages, but he's not ready for this utter loss of humanity. It sears into his belly as if it's been heated over flame, but the wound will not cauterise. It just keeps blistering, bleeding.
His gun is in his tote. He can't remember the last time his weapon was so far away from him. Arthur wonders if he's been under a spell. The idea that he might not love Merlin of his own volition is devastating, and even more so, the question of why he loves him at all. This man is going to kill him.
"So." He's weaponless and his chest aches, so much worse than it ever has, even when Morgana left. He's too tired of running, of fighting against the inevitable. His father's will be done; there's never been any other ending. "Do it."
Merlin drops his arm so suddenly Arthur has to remind himself it was raised. "Can't."
Arthur sways. Merlin stares straight into his eyes and Arthur can't look away. "Why not?"
And that hard face, cold stone, shivers. Gives way on such a basic level that it snags Arthur's breath in his chest. Merlin blinks twice. "I… like you too much."
"You—" He fails mid-thought. Merlin's fingers twitch at his side. The smell of the hex is seeping away but the stink of that sort of magic is hard to forget. Not all of the Magicals can wield it, keep it from sucking them in instead. If Merlin wants him dead—
Well. Uther is not known for sparing expense.
"Bull shit," Arthur snaps. Merlin shudders.
"Two weeks ago," he whispers, so soft. "The first time I saw you."
Arthur stares, feeling empty. Too empty: the space within him is filling, dragging everything in from outside until it reaches equilibrium, and he thinks that when it's finally done it will tear him apart.
Merlin's throat ripples, shadow and bare skin. "You're good at hiding. The best I've ever met. No one else could have followed. I did because I had to."
Arthur wants to hold onto his anger, to feel anger in the first place. Shouldn't he fight for his own survival, acknowledge his right to it? But he can't because Merlin is right: he did have to. Merlin has cut him so deeply with this single swerve that Arthur is useless to defend himself inside or out. All he can do is nurse the ever-widening wound and hope, hopelessly, that Merlin will not strike with more finality.
"I was there," Merlin murmurs. His eyes, tight on Arthur's face mere seconds ago, are far away, trapped in a recollection. "In Wells."
Arthur shuts his eyes as Merlin goes on. He can see the girl as plain as day, feel her slight weight in his arms.
"You stopped for her. Even with where you're headed, the people who need you, you carried her home and you stayed. You could have been long gone. You're a good person, Ar… Arthur."
His name is what Merlin hesitates on.
"I don't know anymore." Merlin's voice quakes like aspen leaves. The air around them shifts and Arthur's skin tingles. "You don't deserve what I have to do."
His mother for a stranger? Arthur wants to ask what Merlin will do, but he's not sure he really wants to know. Merlin is in pain; it's almost physical, the etchings it makes around his eyes and mouth, the tremor slinking through his shoulders. It would be fascinating if it weren't so dreadful to witness.
Merlin sags so suddenly that Arthur nearly steps forward. The air goes quiet in a way it wasn't before. Arthur hadn't been aware of any noise but there was something, and now it is utterly gone. It feels as if the whole world has inhaled.
When Merlin looks at him again, something has died in his eyes. Their blue is sickly and unfocused. "Go," he whispers. His hand rises a little, fingers twitching as if to gesture, and sinks back again. "Get out of here."
Arthur can see that, in Merlin's mind, he's already killed his mother.
There is no time for what he's considering. Arthur should be with Morgana by now. He's already overdue. What does he owe to a man who was sent to kill him?
Instead of leaving while he can, he steps forward. Merlin flinches back, but Arthur circles fingers around his bicep and pulls him up straight. "I'll get her out."
Merlin's body quivers, so far from the trembles of pleasure and yet so like them. He looks at Arthur as if they are speaking different languages. "You—"
"I'll bring her back to you."
He's afraid, Arthur can see it. After a long, tense moment, "Why would you do that? For me."
Why indeed. Arthur's not sure he knows. Not sure he's willing to admit it aloud. "Because she's yours."
He meant to say 'your mother'. He knows what it's like to live with a mother-shaped hole. But he never knew his mother before her death and he can't imagine a hole like that.
"You don't even know me."
He'd like to. He just can't tell Merlin that. He's not even sure if he's right about all this. He could still die; this could be part of some more elaborate game, though Arthur can't see what it might gain Merlin, or his father, to play it like this. Merlin should just kill him or immobilise him and drag him back, free his mother.
He hasn't yet.
"But I can get her out." Better than you can. Better than anyone.
For a long time, Merlin doesn't move. Arthur can see motion quivering in his frame, held back, and finally one hand creeps forward, crosses the distance between them and eases into Arthur's. As soon as they touch, Merlin grips hard and the air rushes from him in one swoop. Arthur can feel the dampness of Merlin's palm against his.
"Alright," Merlin breathes. "Okay."