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Give me a year

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“How long?”

He doesn’t meet Arthur’s eyes. He can’t. “A year. At most.”

Arthur buries himself against Merlin’s chest and cries for the first time in fifteen years.

 

**

 

They spend three weeks in the hospital.

Well, Merlin spends the better part of three weeks in the hospital, being wheeled from diagnostic room to diagnostic room, letting himself be scanned by every machine known to modern medicine and a few that look straight out of a science fiction novel, describing his symptoms in painstaking detail to not one but four different ‘specialists in the field’, sacrificing what feels like all the blood in his arm into an endless row of tubes, and scarfing down admittedly shitty hospital food because not being able to feel his arm won’t be what stops him from being a human garbage receptacle.

It should probably be the worst experience of his life, except for the fact that Arthur takes it upon himself to also spend the better part of three weeks in the hospital, never more than a few steps out of his line of sight.

Arthur holds his hand through the blood draws and tucks copies of every scan or report into a crisp manila folder labeled Merlin — Camelot General and sleeps on the rickety chair next to his bed well past visiting hours and somehow, for three whole weeks, nobody pages him from work.

Merlin desperately wants to ask if Arthur quit—he was getting pages during their honeymoon, for God’s sake—but refrains. Because even though he’s tangled up in a web of wires complicated enough to be a rudimentary knitting project, even though his head hurts from trying to remember what all the medical jargon means, even though he might snap if one more sentences begins with Mr. Emrys, I’m very sorry but..., they haven’t spent this much time together in forever.

And when he’s next to Arthur, he’s happy. Strangely, weirdly perhaps, given the setting, but—happy.

Then three weeks are over and chief physician Dr. Caerleon walks into his room with a frown and a pinch in her eyebrow. Merlin knows what she’s going to say, has known since the first day Arthur dragged him to Camelot General for “a complete workup, Merlin, because I’m not accepting anything yet!”, has known all along, and yet—

It still hurts when she shakes her head with a small, sad smile. “Dr. Gaius was right, Merlin. I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.”

Arthur’s hand slips from his.

“Thank you, Annis.” There’s something about someone seeing nearly every part of your body on an X-Ray and being more familiar with your inner workings than maybe even your husband, that makes first names a near-requirement. He reaches for Arthur and finds that he’s still, too still, and pale as a sheet. “If you could give us a moment.”

“Of course. Take all the time you need.” She steps away with a firm nod, and Merlin hears the click of the door being pulled shut, but he has eyes only for Arthur.

Merlin doesn’t say anything, just watches a muscle twist repeatedly in Arthur’s jaw and waits, knowing he’s trying to gather the right words. The paleness has bled into his eyes, leaving them a dull, washed-out blue that wrings Merlin’s stomach into knots.

“I’ve never begged for anything in my life,” Arthur says finally, and his voice is as pale as the rest of him, flat and toneless and masking the anguish that Merlin knows he won’t display in a hospital room, surrounded by cameras and prying gazes. “But I’m begging now. I’m begging now, Merlin, please—”

Merlin surges out of the bed and presses a kiss to Arthur’s lips, swallowing away his next words. He doesn’t want to hear Arthur beg; it wrenches something terrible in his heart. Arthur is proud to a fault, hides his fear and vulnerability beneath layers of snark and scorn and wit, and hearing him beg is hearing him stripped of every defense, heart on a platter, completely and utterly bared. Helpless.

It’s hearing him helpless, and Merlin hates that down to his very bones.

He tries to push every ounce of his conviction into Arthur with the slide of his lips and curl of his tongue, tries to drain away every drop of fear or pain or desperation into himself, because he can deal with any of that if Arthur is steady by his side—the only thing he can’t survive is watching Arthur break.

“Don’t you dare,” he whispers, breath ghosting over stubble, chapped lips, a row of endearingly crooked teeth. “Don’t you dare beg, not to me.”

When Arthur pulls away, panting, his eyes are wet, but the corners of his mouth are turned up in a wobbly smirk. It’s a shadow of his usual haughtiness, but it isn’t begging, and Merlin’s grateful.

“I’m ordering you, then—give me a year. If they’re saying a year, max, I—” The smirk wavers and falls, replaced by something heavier, fiercer. “I want the full year with you. Don’t you dare—quit halfway.”

It’s as close as they’ll probably ever come to putting this into real words, this thought that he can hardly even give shape to in his own head, so Merlin takes the plunge into honesty. “You know I can’t promise that. You know I can’t.” He lets his desperation leak through, lets Arthur hear how terrified he really is beneath the stoic bravado of the past few weeks, because maybe it won’t feel like such a nightmare if they’re scared shitless together.

“I know.” Arthur presses their foreheads together, eyes screwed tightly shut, one hand cupping the back of Merlin’s neck, and lets out a shuddering breath. “I know.”

 

**

 

He can’t promise to make it a year, but he’ll try. He’ll try because it’s the first thing—the only thing—Arthur has ever been willing to beg for: stay with me, don’t leave, don’t die without a fight.

Don’t die.

 

**

 

Everyone is very, very loud, louder than the music he spent forty-five minutes getting to play from the Bluetooth speaker, but Merlin couldn’t care less.

When he looks around the room, what matters is what he sees—his friends, people who’ve become family, enjoying themselves.

Gwen and Morgana are laughing animatedly in the far corner, catching up after weeks of work running them both ragged; Gwaine and Will took to each other like a house on fire the moment they met a few years ago, and are currently immersed in some drinking game that looks dangerous but also strangely fun; Lancelot, almost dutifully, is trying to count out thirty candles for the cake, scowling in frustration every time someone bumps him and he loses track; Elyan, Percival, and a little strangely, Freya, are chatting next to the snacks table, an eclectic group that somehow still seems to work; and Leon and Arthur, perhaps a bit predictably, are stationed behind the kitchen counter as unofficial bartenders for the night.

Merlin has heard countless stories of how they both worked their way through uni waiting tables and mixing drinks, but he hasn’t actually seen Arthur in action for a long time. So it’s difficult not to stare at the way Arthur’s fingers slide deftly from one task to the next, twisting, shaking, pouring, seamlessly holding out two blue beer cans when Will walks over without him needing to ask, or sticking an umbrella into some fruity-looking pink concoction that Percival later snaps up greedily.

The confidence, the competence, is incredibly sexy.

Not to mention how Arthur opted for a black button-up tonight, sleeves rolled up to his forearms, the collar button popped to reveal just a hint of skin—and it’s quite possibly Merlin’s absolute favorite outfit of Arthur’s entire closet.

It hits him that he wants to drag Arthur straight to their bedroom and have them snog like teenage boys. Or shag like bunnies. Either. Both. Doesn’t matter.

Except then Lancelot appears to have finally figured out the candles, because he calls for everyone’s attention. “Alright, everyone, time for the big moment! Get over here, birthday boy.”

All eyes turn to him, and Merlin smiles, does his best to ensure it doesn’t waver. Nobody except Arthur knows, yet, because he has to tell his mum first, but it’s almost nice that way—everyone’s face is alight with happiness, drunk on the company and the cheer and the masterful drinks, and there isn’t a single pitying expression to be found. Even Arthur is clearly making a valiant effort, grinning like everything is okay, like this isn’t probably the last time they will ever celebrate this particular milestone, and Merlin is sure he’s the only one in the room who can tell that Arthur’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Time for cake!” he exclaims, injecting a little more excitement into it than he feels, but not regretting that at all when the room bursts into cheers and hoots in response.

“Happy birthday, Merlin,” Lancelot says, lighting the final candle before handing him a knife. Someone dims the lights.

He cuts a slice, then makes the split-second decision to snag a bit of icing on his finger and smear it across Lancelot’s cheek.

Lancelot spends a solid second looking absolutely shocked before schooling his expression into an affectionate look of outrage. “Oh, it’s on!” he declares gleefully.

Merlin grins. Good.

If this is to be his last birthday, he plans to enjoy every second.

 

**

 

The phone call to his mum is exactly as difficult as he feared.

Arthur, bless him, took one look at him sat on the couch with the phone in his hand and simply knew. He was out the door in minutes, muttering something about a grocery run even though they made a trip just yesterday, and Merlin had never been more grateful for his husband’s knack of reading people. The ensuing conversation would be hard enough without an audience.

That was twenty minutes ago.

Now, he’s still sitting on the couch, phone in hand, finger hovering over the bright green call button. Mum’s number stares at him from the screen, bold and stark in large black digits.

Merlin takes a deep breath. There’s nothing to do but do it.

Ring. Ring.

“Hey baby, how are you?”

He closes his eyes. Her voice, as always, settles deep beneath his skin like a comforting blanket.

“Hi mum, I’m okay. I’m, uh—” Is there any good way to say it? A right way? If so, it evades him now, every potential combination of words vanishing off his tongue into the ether. “Tell me about your week,” he deflects, and settles back as she launches into a story about a lightbulb leaking in the kitchen.

It’s light and long and comfortingly mundane, exactly what he needs to hear. Whether it‘s luck or a mother’s intuition, he’s grateful, slowly relaxing to the soothing lilt of her words.

“Is everything okay?” she asks at the conclusion of her tale, and it’s only then that Merlin realizes he hasn’t said a word in several minutes.

“No,” he whispers finally, suddenly wishing she was here. He thought it would be easier over phone, not having to see the pain on her face, but more than anything he wants to crawl into her arms like the seven-year-old boy who was bullied for big ears and just hold on in the certainty that mum would make everything okay. “No, it’s not, I—”

There’s no making this okay.

“Mum, I’m—I’m—sick.” There are tears in his eyes, threatening to spill, but he blinks them back. Now isn’t the moment.

“Oh, baby, is Arthur taking good care of you? Or do I have to drive up there and show that boy how to make some soup?”

He laughs despite himself, a small, choked-off thing. Mum’s soup is the best. Arthur’s attempt, one memorable time when Merlin came down with the flu, tasted like piss-water, and he’s stuck to tea ever since.

If only this could be fixed with a little soup and tea.

“Not that kind of sick, mum. This is—it’s serious.”

“Merlin? What are you saying?”

“It’s serious—it’s—” His throat tightens, clogs. “It’s terminal,” he breathes out finally, voice breaking. “Mum...”

“You don’t mean that. Tell me you don’t mean that.”

Silence. He can’t speak, can’t shape any words.

“Merlin, please tell me you’re not—Merlin—my baby boy, Merlin—

The tears fall.

She’s crying too, on the other end of the line, deep, hiccupping sobs that hit him like a bag of bricks straight to the chest, but he steels himself. There’s more to say.

It comes out in halting, broken pieces—the early signs, Gaius’s ultimate diagnosis, all the second and third and fourth opinions Arthur insisted on at Camelot General.

When everything is out in the open—well, nearly everything—she asks the question, the question, the same one Arthur did.

“How long?”

The answer is the same as it was three weeks ago, looking into Arthur’s haunted eyes: a year, probably less. But he says instead—

“Not enough.”

—and that, more than any number, is the truth.

 

**

 

The room spins around him, shapes and colors flying past in blurry circles that leave him too disoriented to stay on his feet.

Merlin collapses back into the chair, hands braced against the table for balance, and snarls at the floor.

Ding. The doorbell buzzes again.

“Get the door!” he calls out, surprised when his voice doesn’t shake.

“Too lazy to get up?” Arthur throws back, but a few seconds later Merlin can vaguely make out a shape exiting from the study door.

“Hey, Hunith,” he hears a moment later, and then a muffled oomph like a forceful hug.

“Oh, Arthur.”

It hits him, suddenly, that someday far too soon they’ll be the only real family each other have left. The thought burns a hole in his stomach that refuses to abate even as he pushes up slowly to his feet and manages to stumble a few steps in the general direction of the door.

“Whoa, Merlin!” A strong, steady hand curls around his upper arm, holding him up just as the floor lurches into view. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Dizzy,” he grits out, reaching blindly for the first support he can find. His hand brushes against a warm patch of skin—Arthur, always hot as a furnace—and he clings on, desperately trying to stay upright.

“Merlin—” Mum’s voice wobbles.

She shouldn’t have to see him like this.

“Hunith, will you bring a chair over?” Arthur interrupts gently, and Merlin could kiss him—would, if straightening from his hunched position wouldn’t send him sprawling all over the tiles.

“Of course,” she agrees immediately, and he hears the click of shoes being toed off before there’s a soft pad of footsteps receding toward the dining table.

Merlin deflates, letting more of his weight sag onto Arthur.

“I didn’t want her to see this,” he confesses quietly to Arthur, who hmms and readjusts them so Arthur’s hands are steady on his waist and he can grip Arthur’s forearms for balance. “I wanted her to see me well.”

The wall swims before his eyes and he tips forward precariously, tightening his hold on Arthur just in time to avoid falling flat on his face.

“Hey—I’ve got you, Merlin. I’ve got you, don’t worry.” Arthur speaks fierce and firm, but low enough that only they can hear.

Merlin closes his eyes, secure in the knowledge Arthur won’t let him fall, and focuses on the feeling of the floor beneath his feet, trying to reorient himself to up and down. Some of the panic bubbling in his throat has subsided by the time Mum returns, scraping a chair lightly against the ground.

“Here, baby, sit.” She still sounds a little tremulous but there’s a steel behind it that reminds him, not for the first time, the kind of strength it took to raise a kid like him in a neighborhood like theirs as a single mother. “Sit, you’re okay.”

Her hands are soft against his shoulders when she guides him back into the chair, and he melts into the touch.

“I’m sorry, mum,” he says weakly, eyes still closed, fully expecting the light swat to the back of his head that he receives in response.

“Don’t be daft,” she scoffs, not unkindly, and a knot loosens somewhere deep inside him.

Merlin...” He can’t help but smile at the tone in Arthur’s voice, knowing exactly what’s coming next. ”Shut up.”

A warm feeling seeps into his chest, finally beating back the earlier burn of despair.

What a family he has.

 

**

 

“Did you pay the water bill?”

“‘Course I paid the bill, Arthur, I’m not planning to run around smelling like a savage because we don’t have running water.”

“If this is how you smell with running water, I shudder to imagine—”

“Oi! You sleep next to me every night, I’ll remind you.”

“I do, with nose plugs. I put ‘em in after you conk out.”

“Prat.”

“Yeah, love you too.”

 

**

 

The clock on the bedside table reads 3:08 in bright red digits when Merlin startles awake.

He looks immediately to the right, reaching out on instinct to where Arthur tosses and turns beside him as a low, gut-wrenching moan tears itself from Arthur’s throat. “No—no—please—”

They’ve long since learned that it’s easier, and better, if Arthur wakes up on his own, so Merlin simply flicks on the reading light and waits, gently brushing Arthur’s hair back from his forehead. He grimaces when his hand comes away sticky with sweat. It’s a bad one tonight, then.

It takes a few more minutes—during which Merlin’s heart clenches and clenches, stomach wringing into knots as Arthur continues to plead with some unknown, unseen force in his head—before Arthur wakes with a panicked shout, panting like he’s just run a marathon.

“What—” His eyes are wide and glassy when they meet Merlin’s.

“Shh, shh, you’re okay. You’re safe.”

Arthur is still trembling as he gathers his bearings, gaze darting around the room to catalogue their surroundings. The reading light is dim, but Merlin knows it illuminates enough for Arthur to make sure there are no hidden dangers lurking in the immediate vicinity.

Finally, his heaving breaths smoothen out and the lost, faraway look in his eyes fades to one of recognition. “Merlin,” he rasps, hoarse, and Merlin smiles.

“Hey,” he says softly, thumb tracing little circles against Arthur’s cheek. “You with me?”

Arthur‘s hands continue to shake with aftershocks, but he nods. Merlin takes that as his cue to shift them around, prompting Arthur to roll onto his other side so Merlin can drape himself along Arthur’s back. He pulls Arthur close despite how hot and sweaty he must be, knows that right now the contact is more important, and wraps an arm around so his fingers rest against Arthur’s heart.

It’s somehow easier, they’ve learned, for Arthur to be honest if they’re not face-to-face for this.

“Anyone we need to call?” Morgana and Leon are both well used to it—neither of them ever complained, even in the beginning, but by now they’re something of experts at answering the just needed to hear you’re okay call and heading right back to sleep.

But Arthur merely shakes his head, curling his spine deeper into Merlin’s chest with a strangled sob. ”Just—you.”

Something hot and protective coils in his stomach. “I’m here, Arthur. I’ve got you.”

He lets several minutes pass, Arthur relaxing a little more with each one, before broaching the subject. “Tell me about it?”

Another minute goes by, the sound of their breaths a staccato rhythm in the otherwise silent room, before Arthur replies. “The usual stuff. You, bleeding. Screaming for help.” His voice is dull, hollow. Devoid of emotion. “I’m tied—or held back, maybe, I don’t know—but I can’t get to you. I just—watch—” A shudder runs through Arthur’s body that Merlin feels down to his very toes.

“It’s just a dream, yeah? I’m okay. I’m not bleeding, I’m not hurt, I’m okay. We’re both—” he stops the familiar litany abruptly when Arthur stiffens. “What’s wrong?”

There’s no response, but Merlin plays back his words and it hits him, suddenly—I’m okay. I’m okay.

But he’s not. He’s not okay. And someday all too soon, Arthur’s nightmare will turn into reality.

Neither of them get much sleep after that.

 

**

 

He invites Will to the pub, because he deserves to hear it next and Merlin has already had one too many emotional chats on his sofa.

Will knows something is wrong the moment he orders water, and it’s almost easy after that, easier than it was to tell anybody else. Maybe that’s from the change of scenery, or maybe it’s just that he knows Will has a wife and kids and a life that’ll continue after Merlin’s gone.

He and Will haven’t been close for several years now. If he had to pick someone as his best friend, it would still be Will, always—sharing a childhood like theirs does that to you, forges a bond too deep to be broken by just lack of communication—but Gwaine probably knows more about the daily rub of Will’s life than he does, these days.

And that makes it strangely freeing, in a way, because Will doesn’t look like his world is ending when he digests the news. A little broken, yes, but not shattered.

Not like mum. Not like Arthur.

“I can’t believe it, Merls,” Will says finally, taking a long, long swig of his drink and swiping a hand across his mouth. “All the shit we survived as kids, and it comes to this. Thirty years old, living a charmed life in a nice part of town, and that’s when you bite the bullet.”

Merlin snorts. The best part about Will’s crassness has always been that it staves off any emotional turmoil that isn’t directly related to picking a fight. There’s never a danger of tears around him.

“Karma’s funny like that,” he says eventually, swallowing a large gulp of water. It goes down cold, like a shot of pure ice to his veins.

“Yeah, real stand-up comedian, karma. You’ve grown too posh next to that Arthur of yours, Merls. I think you mean to say it’s a b—”

“Yes, thank you, Will.” He rolls his eyes, can’t help the exasperated grin that tugs at his lips. “Pick on the sick guy, real classy of you.”

“You know me, mate. Always classing it up.”

Merlin laughs for real then, full-bellied, head tipped back, because he does know Will, despite the missed calls and cancelled plans and thin veil of tension between them, and that’s the absolute last description anyone would ever use to characterize him.

The evening passes a bit like that, between reminiscing about the crazy old days and taking the piss out of each other just because they can, and Merlin almost forgets the cloud hanging over this entire meeting.

Almost.

Then, a few minutes before last call, looking into the eyes of the first friend he ever had in the world, the only person who was always at his side as a kid, the one who got him through thick and thin and unimaginable lows, he knows there’s still one thing he needs to say.

“Thank you for coming, Will. I know, I know—formalities, how posh of me—but we haven’t exactly had the greatest track record of keeping our commitments, either of us, so. Thanks. For that and for—well, for everything, innit? For keeping me alive as a kid so I can sit here now and hold a grudge about you missing my wedding.”

“It’s been three years, Merls, you gotta get over that,” Will groans, but his eyes are suspiciously wet when he lets out a deep breath, almost like he’s gathering courage (which is ridiculous, because the only thing Will’s ever had in spades is the courage to do whatever he wants without thinking about it beforehand).

A beat. Then—

“This isn’t you saying goodbye to me.” Will sounds like he’s announcing a royal decree, strong and sure, and Merlin can’t help but believe him. “It isn’t, and you damn well know it, just like you know you’re touched in head if you’re thanking me for something, so. Save your fancy speeches for your highbrow friends, and just don’t be a stranger, yeah?”

“Only if you’ll pick up when I call.” Merlin barely forces the words out around the lump in his throat.

“I picked up today, didn’t I?”

Merlin nods. “And thank god for that.”

“What did I just say about thanking people? Seven hells, Merls, you’d think with ears that size, something would actually go in!”

He accidentally steps on Will’s foot. Hard.

 

**

 

ARTHUR!”

Arthur pokes his head out of the bedroom doorframe, hair sticking up every-which-way, with a look of concern on his face.

“Is everything okay?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so.” He holds up the sugar jar in one hand and the salt jar in the other—they’re even conveniently labeled, for god’s sake. “Because someone came back from the supermarket and decided to screw around with my kitchen organization.”

The concern fades into irritation and the barest hint of glee. Merlin understands—it’s been too long since they’ve done this.

“What, did I put them in the wrong jars?” Arthur scoffs, stepping forward as if to inspect whether that’s true.

There’s no need. Merlin’s completely unsalvageable breakfast is evidence enough of the mistake.

“Yes!”

“And you know this because...”

“My eggs were sweet, Arthur. And the coffee was salty.” He shudders, nearly gagging against at the reminder. No amount of rinsing his mouth with water will ever fully erase that taste from his memory.

“You—” A laugh sputters out of Arthur and soon he’s doubled over with the force it, clutching his stomach. “Oh, I wish I could’ve seen your face! That’s brilliant.”

“This is not funny!”

“No, Merlin, this is absolutely hilarious. Do you think you could reenact the moment for me? Can’t believe I missed it.”

He cooks all of Arthur’s food with sugar for the rest of the week. Except the stupid idiot has a sweet tooth the size of his ego and ends up loving it.

Prat.

 

**

 

Most of their friends knew Merlin before they knew Arthur.

Merlin would be the first to admit he was a bit of a loner in uni, but he met Lance almost immediately, who knew Gwaine, who knew Percival, who knew Elyan, whose sister was Gwen, whose best friend was Morgana, who had a brother named Arthur. And somehow, within a few months, one connection turned into seven and a group was formed.

Then came Leon.

Arthur introduced him one day as my best mate in the world, and that was that. He became part of their group like he’d been there from the beginning, a bit quiet at times but steady, unwavering, and somehow the only person that Gwaine would ever actually listen to.

But Merlin has long understood that Leon is Arthur’s Will—the one who was there through his childhood, the only one who knows all of his secrets without having to be told, because they lived them side-by-side.

So they tell all the rest of their friends together, in pained, halting words, his hand clutched tightly in Arthur’s, but with Leon he asks to do it alone.

“What do you mean? Am I—did I do something wrong?” Arthur’s voice is tiny, and Merlin’s heart clenches.

“No! No, that’s not it at all. There are just some things I need to say to him, yeah?”

Arthur’s expression clears, something like realization dawning. “He will, Merlin,” he says quietly, and neither of them have to specify what they’re talking about. “I understand that you’ll—I get why you gotta tell him to, but regardless, he will.”

He’ll look after me, are the unspoken words, and Merlin knows that’s true, wouldn’t even be bothering if he didn’t already know that, but it’s still his responsibility to be sure. To make it clear to Leon, and be sure.

“I’ll just—be in the bedroom then?” Arthur turns, a little uncertain, and Merlin watches his back retreat all the way past the sofa and beyond the doorframe. He looks away only when the door closes to cut off his view, all the things he wants to say still stuck in his throat.

There’s no time to dwell on that, however, and he turns to the phone in his hand.

Ultimately, after dialing the right number and gathering his resolve, getting the words out is easy, easier even than it was with Will, because he knows exactly what Leon’s reaction will be. Not pity, not denial, not a tirade, but—

“I’ll look after him.”

—a promise, about the only thing that matters.

“And I’m sorry, Merlin. I’m so sorry that this is happening to the both of you.”

They’ve never had the closest of relationships, him and Leon, but that’s exactly why this will work—Leon’s first priority is Arthur, always, and he’s never been more grateful for that than right now. Never counted on it more than now. Because he needs to know that after, there’ll be at least one person with enough wits about them to hold Arthur back from the edge rather than join him in blinding grief.

“I know you’ll be there for him. I trust that you will. But I still—I still have to make sure, you understand? I have to make sure you’ll keep him from breaking.” Merlin keeps his voice as steady as possible, refuses to dwell on what Arthur will be like after.

He won’t be able to get through this if he thinks about what he’ll be leaving behind.

“I can’t do that.”

“What?”

“Keep him from breaking.” There’s a note in Leon’s voice, heavy and resigned, that fills his veins with dread. “He’ll be a wreck, Merlin.“

“And I’m asking you to prevent that. To look after him once I—can’t.”

“I can keep him upright. I can throw away every sharp object in his flat. I can patch him together with duct tape and make him put one foot in front of the other until it becomes a habit. That’s what I can do.”

Merlin doesn’t understand why he sounds so angry. “Leon—?”

“And I will do all of that, Merlin. I will look after my friend. I promise you, I will.”

“Thank you.” That’s all he wants to hear. The confirmation, the absolute confirmation, that Leon will be there—the only person remaining, at that point, who would still be able to get through to Arthur.

“But you’re only fooling yourself if you think I—or anyone—can keep him together,” Leon continues, as if Merlin didn’t speak at all. “You know Arthur better than anyone, so I know you already know this, but I’ll remind you anyways. You’re the best part of his life. The most important part.”

“I—” He stops. There’s nothing to say.

“I can take care of him, Merlin,” Leon gentles his tone. “But you—leaving will be like cutting out a piece of his heart. And that’s not something he’ll just come back from.”

And Merlin nods, finally, because he does know Arthur better than anyone, and that’s why he knows Leon’s words ring true. “Promise me you’ll do everything you can, then.” It’s a heavy burden to place on someone, but Merlin hardly cares—Arthur is worth it, Arthur has always been worth it.

“Of course.” The reply is instant. Leon knows Arthur is worth it, too. “We all will.”

It’s not enough, not nearly enough, but it’ll have to do.

 

**

 

“It’s going to be a shitshow, Arthur.”

“They’re our friends.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows, hoping it conveys yeah, exactly.

“Do you think it’ll really be that bad?” Arthur paces back and forth at the foot of the bed, fingers rubbing at his temples.

“Lance will definitely cry. Gwaine will ask inappropriate questions that’ll make you want to strangle him. Elyan might punch something and not offer to pay for replacing it. Gwen—oh god, Gwen’s going to cry too, between asking all the right questions—the same ones you asked, and already know all the answers to.”

Arthur blanches, apparently not having thought through exactly what Lancelot’s all of us are coming ‘round to your place tonight would really mean.

Merlin is grateful they’re coming—it warms the scared seven-year-old buried somewhere deep inside him, the one who thought he’d be forever alone, that there are so many people who truly care—and in any case, it’ll be a welcome distraction from the fact that they have yet another trip to Camelot General scheduled for the next morning.

But.

When Arthur abruptly stops pacing and comes to a stop just a few feet away, Merlin can’t help but notice how weary he looks. There’s an angled stoop to his shoulders, taut like a bow pulled too tight, and a stiff set to his jaw that suggests he hasn’t relaxed in hours. Maybe even days.

Probably not far off the mark, given what they’ve been doing in that time.

And it’s that, more than anything, which fuels Merlin’s decision. “You don’t need to be here for it, Arthur.”

“What do you mean?”

“When they all come. I know—” How rough it’ll be. How draining it’ll be. How Arthur will have to continue wearing his mask of strength through the whole thing, because he can’t afford to break down if Gwen and Lance and even Gwaine are all there depending on him to say the right things. “—what it’ll do to you,” Merlin settles on, and doesn’t bother clarifying. They both know.

When Arthur turns, he has that look on his face, the one that means he’s torn between what he wants to do and what he thinks it’s his duty to do. Sure enough—

“I’m not running away,” he states firmly, and Merlin nearly rolls his eyes.

What a stubborn, idiotic, noble prat.

“No, you’re not. I’m kicking you out, okay? Go see Leon. Play FIFA and do—laddy things, relax a little. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, yeah?”

“Are you sure...”

Arthur. I’m sure.”

Finally, finally, Arthur nods. “If you wanted the flat to yourself, you could’ve just asked,” he deflects with a grin that wavers somewhere between petulance and exasperation.

But a little bit of tension bleeds out of his shoulders and his eyes say thank you, and Merlin understands just fine.

 

**

 

Merlin doesn’t tell Arthur when the scale reads a full stone lower than it did two months ago. In truth, he doesn’t have to.

Shirts that used to hug his shape hang loose on his frame. He cuts a new notch in his belt on the opposite side, needing it to curl tighter around his trousers to save them from slipping right down his legs. Always a little lean, his cheeks look hollowed and gaunt in the mirror, little more than bones giving shape to skin.

Merlin knows Arthur notices. Extra helpings of pasta and toast and chicken appear on his plate, and Arthur is not hungry so can you finish that for me Merlin a little too often.

Neither of them say anything about it. This is just reality now.

 

**

 

“Merlin?”

“Yeah?” He looks up from his book, resting a finger to mark the page as it flaps shut.

“I love you.” Arthur’s voice is small and tight, and his eyes are damp in the soft glow of the reading light.

Merlin can taste the syllables on his lips but—as always—waits several minutes to say them, never wants the truest words he’s ever known to be cheapened by a too, as if this is merely reciprocal and not the very fuel that keeps his heart beating.

“I love you, Arthur.”

 

**

 

“MERLIN! MERLIN!”

Merlin opens his eyes to screaming.

The first thing he notices is something cold and hard at his back. His fingers twitch as if to grab it, and scrape against—tiles. He’s lying on tiles.

The second thing he notices is the sharp, pungent smell of burnt food that accompanies every breath.

The third thing he notices is someone looming above him—Arthur.

“Oh, thank god. Thank god, Merlin.”

He tries to sit up, but finds that he can’t, every limb sluggish and heavy. “What—what happened?” The fourth thing he notices is that Arthur looks terrible. Pale as a ghost, eyes bloodshot, a wobble to his lip that suggests he’s about seconds away from completely losing it. “Are you okay?”

“Am I—?” Arthur chokes out a small laugh, rubs a hand across his face. “Typical. Passes out on the floor, unresponsive, wakes up and wants to know if I’m okay. Bloody hell, Merlin, I should be asking you that.”

Passed out on the floor? It certainly explains why Arthur looks the way he does—Merlin can’t even imagine what he’d do if he found Arthur collapsed on the tiles—but where there should be a memory of that, of slipping, falling, maybe his vision blurring out, there’s just...nothing.

“I don’t—I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

“What’s the last thing you do remember?”

Merlin closes his eyes, trying to wade through the hazy fog of his memory. The last thing...

“I was...in the kitchen? Cooking breakfast.” His eyes fly open. “I was making eggs, shit—is that—did I burn—?”

Merlin doesn’t miss the faint shiver that runs through Arthur as he nods. “I smelled something burning and came to see what was wrong—you were on the floor, not moving, and the stove was just—smoking. The eggs were charred black.”

“I must’ve been out, what, several minutes?” The very idea sends a chill down his spine.

“If I hadn’t turned it off...” Arthur’s voice is flat and robotic, betraying just how much fear he’s trying to hold back. “I don’t know what might’ve happened.”

Neither of them want to dwell on that sobering thought.

“But you did, yeah? And I’m okay,” Merlin says quietly a moment later, trying to convince himself as much as anyone. “Did you—did you call Gaius?”

“Not yet—whoa, c’mere.” Arthur slides a steadying arm behind Merlin’s back as he makes another aborted effort to sit up, and carefully maneuvers him to lean against the kitchen cabinet. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit groggy, but okay, I think. Really.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. That’s—that’s really good.” Arthur exhales, long and pensive. “But this is going to change things, Merlin.”

His heart thuds to a stop. “What?” Has Arthur finally had enough? Is this where he draws the line?

Arthur’s eyes widen almost comically. “Not like that! Don’t be an idiot, Merlin.”

And yeah, maybe that was a bit of a stupid jump. He knows, almost with more certainty than his own name, that Arthur would never.

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbles sheepishly, blames it on the fact that forming coherent thoughts feels a bit like wading through molasses at the moment.

“I just mean—I’m going to call Gaius, and Dr. Caerleon, and probably take you in to Camelot General today just to be safe.”

Merlin stifles his groan. It’s the right thing to do, and he knows it—no point complaining.

“Assuming they say it’s—what’s that phrase they like to use—a common, though concerning, part of the symptom progression—

“Albeit,” Merlin cuts in, mostly to lighten the mood. “Albeit concerning.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and continues, though Merlin is pleased to see a faint smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Then we’ll have to expect that this might happen again.” They both sober. “So I think—I think it’d be best, just in case, that we keep you away from an open flame here on out.”

The thought of instituting such a precaution hits him like a bigger blow than maybe it should. But he’s had the same morning routine for years and years, starting off the day with an apron around his waist making breakfast, and it hurts to watch that slip away. Like breaking a familiar, well-worn tradition.

Arthur must notice his hesitation, because he starts, almost apologetic, “I know it’s a big ask, but—”

And that really can’t stand. “No, wait,” Merlin interrupts. He can still see the ghost of Arthur’s earlier fear lingering in those blue eyes, and knows that while it might be a big ask, it’s certainly not an unfair one. “You’re right. It’s safer that way, and I’m sure Gaius and Annis will end up agreeing with you.”

“We can invest in some good cereals or something.”

“Not a chance! You’re going to be cooking me a solid breakfast every morning, Mr. Pendragon.”

Arthur laughs, a small, faint thing, but doesn’t refuse. “A new morning routine.”

And he’s right, Merlin realizes—just because one tradition breaks doesn’t mean they can’t start a new one.

 

**

 

The headache starts suddenly, but all too soon it’s a howling, raging beast inside his skull.

Merlin mostly ignores it the first time, just cocoons himself in the bedroom with the blinds closed and the lights off, and rides it out. Arthur isn’t home when it starts, and it’s gone by the time he comes back with groceries.

Somewhere between immediately devouring the newly-bought chocolate fudge ice cream and making sure the salt and sugar go in the right jars this time, Merlin forgets to mention the headache episode at all.

It happens again, two days later. Arthur is in the study, door closed the way it usually only is for important meetings, so Merlin does his best to weather the storm alone in the bedroom. When Arthur pokes his head into the room an hour later with a concerned, “Everything okay? You don’t normally sleep during the day”, the truth is on the tip of his tongue, but he thinks of how scared Arthur looked after his stove episode and what comes out instead is a half-irritated, “Stop worrying, I’m just a bit knackered. Only you would think a nap is a sign of impending doom.”

Arthur must decide that if he’s coherent enough to be making jibes, he’s probably fine, and leaves him to his ‘nap’ after that.

Eventually, finally, the pain subsides.

He goes to Camelot General after it happens again the very next day. Arthur is at work, one of the few days in a month he has to physically be at the office, and doesn’t know a thing about it.

Dr. Caerleon says the headaches are a common, albeit concerning, part of the symptom progression, and writes him a prescription for pills that should at least make them less frequent, if not less debilitating.

“Does this means it’s getting worse?” he gathers he courage to ask, half-dreading the answer. The words run through his head like a refrain—give me a year.

He can feel that goal slipping through the cracks when she gives him a sad smile, so similar to the one all those months ago. “I’m very sorry, Merlin.”

That isn’t a direct yes, but it’s answer enough.

So Merlin swallows down the little white pills every morning as soon as he wakes up, listening to the rumbling of Arthur making them both breakfast in the kitchen, and refuses to let his hands shake as he shoves the bottle back in the bottom drawer between two faded Beatles shirts he never wears.

It’s just one secret. One tiny omission.

Guilt eats away at his insides a little more every day, but Arthur’s smile starts reaching his eyes and he sleeps through three whole nights without a single nightmare for the first time in months and one Saturday he even leaves the house long enough for a quick game of footie with the lads, and it’s almost worth it.

Almost.

But mostly Merlin just aches.

He aches to cry into Arthur’s shoulder at the realization that he probably won’t make it a year, aches to be held when the pain splits his head so badly he almost wants to die—so one morning when he wakes up to a telltale throbbing between his temples and feels a tingle of real fear down his spine at the thought of the torturous pain to come, he knows it’s time to come clean.

Except he pads into the kitchen to find that Arthur is singing to himself and laughing, actually, truly laughing in a way he hasn’t since finding Merlin motionless on the tiles, and all the words dry up in his throat.

He can’t watch those happy crinkles fade away and those lips turn down in pain and those eyes bleed emotion until they’re nothing but hollow, so he clenches his teeth and smiles and tries not to feel like he’s driving a blade into his husband’s back when Arthur presses a delighted kiss to his lips, expression soft and fond and shining with complete faith.

It has to be worth it.

 

**

 

Arthur finds out, because of course he does—Merlin has never been able to keep a secret from the people who know him.

Mum already knew about his first kiss and was halfway to guessing it was with a boy by the time he actually told her, crying into her arms and so, so relieved not to be weighed down by the burden of lying to her.

Will knew he was leaving Ealdor for London long before Merlin called him to break the news, having both noticed his rather poorly disguised attempts at saying goodbye to all their old haunts and found the uni acceptance letter ‘hidden’ under his pillow.

So it really shouldn’t be a surprise when Arthur barges into their bedroom one evening, red in the face and shaking with fury.

“Merlin.”

He sees Arthur, sees the paper in his hand with the pharmacy letterhead stamped on top, puts two and two together, and has just enough time to think oh shit before the paper is shoved in his face.

“Tell me what this is.”

When Arthur is truly angry, he never shouts. His voice goes low and deadly, an undercurrent of steel running through every word, and there’s something about that hard, flat tone which absolutely erases any thought of disobedience.

“I said tell me what this is.” There’s a glint in Arthur’s eye, as sharp and polished as a dagger, that suggests they’re wavering on a precipice and it won’t take much to tip this over the edge into a fight.

Merlin hates when Arthur is angry. He’s not scared of Arthur, knows Arthur will never ever hurt him no matter how furious he is, but scared for him—the chilling rage is a reminder that this stupid, stupidly noble man he married is still Uther Pendragon’s son, and sometimes that reminder leaves Arthur unsteady and reeling with guilt for days after the anger fades away.

Uther’s very mention still casts long shadows, even hundreds of miles away from his physical presence.

Merlin flicks his eyes to the paper in Arthur’s hand for just a second—he already knows what it says, knows the betrayal it reveals—and feels a lump of regret lodge itself in his throat.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—I wanted to tell you, but I just—you—you were so happy and I didn’t want to ruin—”

“I didn’t ask for excuses. I asked you what this is.” Arthur’s eyes are fire and his voice is ice and Merlin wants to cry at how much he seems like a stranger.

“It’s a—a prescription.” Please, he pleads silently, but Arthur is unyielding, mouth pressed down in a firm line. Please don’t make me say it. “Arthur...”

“Say it. I want you to—say it.”

“It’s a prescription for my—headaches. Well. Migraines, really, they’re—terrible. Painful.” He looks up and sees the flash of concern in Arthur’s eyes, gone as soon as it came but absolutely unmistakable. “Arthur, I-I went to Camelot General and—you already know, I’m sure you know, so please don’t make me—I’m so sorry.”

Tears stream down his cheeks, thick and hot, and his throat tightens too much to speak. He can’t put his lies into words, not like this.

“How could you hide this from me? How—I’m your husband.” Arthur’s voice breaks and there’s no anger in it, anymore, only pain. “Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, because there’s nothing else to be said, because every excuse disappears like sand in the sea in the face of that look in Arthur’s eyes, wounded and scared and so, so sad. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He just doesn’t want them to fight.

 

**

 

They fight.

It’s ugly and messy, as it always is, but mainly it’s just quiet. In their lives, bickering and bantering and verbal sparring means things are normal; it’s silence that signifies something has gone terribly wrong.

There are no kisses or fleeting touches when they pass each other by. Arthur mostly keeps his distance, shoulders stiff, eyes hard, and Merlin follows suit, so that they’re almost never in the same room at the same time.

(Except at night, when they still sleep in the same bed—their bed. Waking up alone isn’t a fate either of them tend to handle well, even when the tension is thick enough to be a third body lying in the middle)

There are no frivolous arguments for the sake of passing the time, challenging each other the way only they can, the original foundation of their relationship. Arthur starts locking the door when he showers or takes meetings for work, a cold slap in the face that catches Merlin completely off-guard even as the message is crystal clear: I don’t trust you. Merlin splits their laundry into two separate hampers and only sends his half for dry-cleaning, pointedly letting Arthur’s suits and slacks languish.

During the day, Arthur spends most of his time in the study with the door closed, working. He comes out once every evening and brews tea—one cup, just for himself—before returning to the room and slamming the door closed.

Merlin’s mug hangs on the rack, untouched.

Arthur’s always been the one to make his evening cup ever since they first moved in together, years and years ago. It’s not like Merlin can’t make his own, now, but he doesn’t—it feels wrong, almost like another betrayal, to break the tradition.

And in any case, it’s not the tea that he craves, but the affection of the gesture.

The tea is a small, almost petty thing, but it’s enough to show that there’s no ease between them, just a brusque, grating politeness—

“Did you pay the water bill?”

“Yes, I—”

“Excellent. Thank you.”

—that leaves him wrong-footed and aching. The third day in a row that Arthur doesn’t even meet his eyes, he nearly has a breakdown on the toilet.

He misses his husband. He misses them.

But despite all of that—

He wakes up every morning to breakfast waiting on the table for him, even though they don’t eat it together, wakes up every night to soothe a trembling Arthur back to sleep, and holds onto the hope that there’s enough love left between them to fix this.

 

**

 

It creeps up slowly, gradually, but somewhere between chapter four and chapter ten another headache is raging between his temples. Merlin tries to lie down on the couch, squeezing his eyes shut, hands clamping over his ears, but nothing helps. The pain isn’t external, it’s internal, a hammer beating against his skull, and with every passing second his resolve weakens.

He wants Arthur.

The thought is familiar, but what’s new is the realization that Arthur knows, so he can have Arthur now, if he wants. If he can muster up the strength to stand and somehow make it ten paces to the bedroom door, behind which Arthur is doing—something. He’s not sure what, exactly, because they haven’t said a word to each other since dinner yesterday, but it doesn’t matter.

Despite everything, there isn’t a single doubt in his mind that if he makes it to the door, if he makes it to Arthur, he’ll be taken care of. They’re fighting but they’re still Merlin and Arthur, and that has always been enough to trump everything else.

“Shit,” he curses weakly, pushing off the couch onto his feet. The room spins around him, vision blurring from the sheer effort of keeping his eyes open when it feels like a knife is trying to gouge them out from the inside, but he persists. “C’mon, Merlin. C’mon. Ah, shit.”

One step, then another.

His hands curl into fists, nails digging red crescents into his palms. Every breath comes out high and strained.

Another step. And another. Another.

C’mon. The door handle hangs in his line of sight, tantalizing. C’mon.

Another stab of agony shoots through his skull and it’s too much. He falls to his knees just a few feet from the door, clutching at his head, and lets out a sob. The remaining space between him and Arthur stretches out like a gaping chasm before him, unbreachable. So close. So far.

The pain is worse, today, more than usual. It’s the worst one yet, and he’s going to bang his head against a wall until there’s nothing left inside to hurt unless someone makes it stop.

Black spots dance in front of his eyes and he squeezes them shut, every inch of his being consumed in white-hot, blinding pain.

Only one thought remains. Arthur. Arthur will make it better. Arthur will make it stop.

There’s no chance of standing again so he crawls, reaches out a shaking arm and thumps it once, hard, against the door, before sagging to the floor. Arthur.

“Please, please, please,” he pleads with the tiles, begging, shameless. Another wave of agony. “Please.”

Make it stop.

“Please, please—”

And then there are arms around him, strong, sturdy, a familiar contour that he would know anywhere, and Merlin could cry with the relief, is crying, he realizes belatedly, cheeks wet with tears.

“Arthur. Arthur.” He can’t find the words to say what he needs, can’t find any words at all, but between one breath and the next he’s sinking into something soft and there’s a blissfully cold compress pressed against his forehead.

Several seconds pass before Merlin realizes someone is talking to him.

“Merlin? Merlin!”

Arthur. Arthur’s talking.

He makes a little sound deep in his throat, hopes Arthur understands it as the most he can offer at the moment.

Arthur has never been one to let him off easy, however. “Please, Merlin, I know it hurts, but please—you’re scaring me. Just tell me what I can do. Tell me what you need.”

It takes a Herculean effort to come up with a response, but he tries for Arthur, for the panic in his voice.

What does he need? Normally he would just curl into a ball and bite into his fist to muffle any noise, make sure Arthur doesn’t find out, suffer through as best as he can alone, but that’s all past now. What does he need?

“Merlin?”

He’s no longer in Arthur’s arms, he realizes. The cold compress feels good but his arms felt better, an anchor grounding him to the world.

“Need you,” he manages to say, every word reverberating back through his brain and leaving white spots behind his eyelids. “Just—you. Just—

His last coherent thought is of blue eyes above him and a gentle finger against his cheek.

 

**

 

He wants to scream.

Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t, but it builds and builds, the need for some sort of release, until he’s trembling with the force of keeping it all contained.

“Merlin?” Arthur says softly, penetrating the haze in his head. “You’re shaking.” The arms around him press tighter, pull him in closer.

Merlin goes willingly, tries to bury himself even deeper into Arthur’s chest. He loves the feeling of being enveloped in a protective cocoon, the steady pressure a touchstone when everything else is in free fall.

“I might—I might scream,” he admits very, very quietly to the fabric of Arthur’s shirt, half-hoping he doesn’t hear.

“I appreciate the warning,” Arthur replies drily, but doesn’t make any move to pull away.

“Is that—is that okay?” Mum always hated it when he was a kid, though in hindsight, he’s realized that was probably because she couldn’t bear to hear him in pain like that.

“You do whatever you need to, okay? It’s just me here, Merlin.”

Gods, how long has it been since hearing his name in that posh, lazy drawl, the syllables curled and dragged in that way which only Arthur can quite manage? He’s missed it, stupidly. He’s missed it.

“Okay. Okay, I’ll, uh—”

He screams.

And screams.

And screams.

He screams until his voice is hoarse with it, expelling every drop of pent-up energy, distracted just for a moment from the pounding in his head.

Arthur never flinches, never shushes him, never asks him to stop. Just rubs a hand across his back, bracketing Merlin’s body with his own, and peppers light kisses across his forehead when his voice breaks.

Once he’s worn himself out, Arthur leaves just long enough to bring in lunch—Merlin’s stomach turns at the thought of chewing or swallowing, knowing every movement will be excruciating, but likes the smell of it in the air as Arthur eats beside him. Then they curl together on the bed for hours, neither moving, neither speaking, just—waiting.

When the sun sinks over the horizon, bathing the room in an orange glow, Merlin finally takes a deep breath and doesn’t feel it rattle through his skull.

“I think it’s over,” he sighs, raspy.

A squeeze to his arm is the only response.

“How did you get through this alone?” Arthur asks after several minutes, and his voice is sad.

“I don’t know.” Because he doesn’t, anymore, can’t imagine toughing out the pain all on his own, holing up in the bedroom and keeping the sounds in. Can’t believe he managed to do it before.

“How many times did you—how many times were you in pain, and I was too busy being happy to notice?”

The self-contempt in his voice hurts to hear, and Merlin makes a shushing sound in response. That doesn’t matter now. That doesn’t matter anymore.

“I’m sorry. For every time it happened and I wasn’t here for you. I’m so, so sorry.” Arthur sounds small, flayed open.

It’s something new about their lives now, that apologies are verbalized. There’s no point dancing around it and wasting time anymore, not when every minute is suddenly so precious.

Merlin knows arguing with Arthur about the necessity of his apology won’t get them anywhere, and besides, that isn’t what Arthur needs. So he smiles, just a little, tries to project how much he doesn’t blame Arthur in the sincerity of it, and says, “You’re here now. It’s okay. I—I forgive you, Arthur, it’s okay.”

The words feel weird, a little foreign, because they don’t normally put things like this into such direct statements, but the tingle of unfamiliarity is worth it for the way Arthur relaxes, nodding. He hasn’t forgiven himself, Merlin can tell by the way his jaw is clenched tight and his eyes are still shuttered, but they’ll get there eventually.

“I’m sorry too. For not telling you. For keeping it from you. I trust you, I’ve always trusted you. You have to know that.” He watches Arthur, relieved when he makes a noise of assent. “It was never about not trusting you, I just—you were happy. You seemed happy for the first time since everything with the stove, and I didn’t want to ruin that with another burden.”

“You’re not a burden,” Arthur says instantly, as though it’s truly that black and white.

Merlin can’t quite bring himself to believe that, because Arthur certainly didn’t sign up for this, but he lets it settle. One heart-wrenching discussion at a time.

Several minutes pass in silence, and for the first time since Arthur barged into their bedroom furious, the quiet doesn’t feel awkward or tense. Just comfortable. Just them.

“Are we—are we good?” Merlin can’t help but ask eventually, placing a hand palm-up on the mattress as an invitation. His heart pounds frantically in his throat.

Arthur reaches out and slots their fingers together. “I love you,” he says, and it’s not a yes but it’s a start.

 

**

 

Merlin knows they’re okay when a steaming mug is set in front of him a few days later, Arthur pointedly looking everywhere but at his face.

His smile upon taking a whiff of the familiar brew feels too big for his cheeks.

“Thank you,” he says, knows this is about far more than just tea.

Arthur nods, finally meets his eyes. He knows too. “Yeah.”

Merlin takes a small sip and sighs, content, something slotting into place in his chest that feels a bit like coming home. Some rather orgasmic sounds come out of his mouth as he works his way through every last drop, partly as a joke, partly for the twinkle of amusement in Arthur’s eyes, but mostly because it really is just that good.

In fairness, Arthur makes the best tea. Better even than mum’s, though he’ll never tell her that.

“That was incredible,” he offers, setting the mug down after draining it to the dregs.

“Well.” Arthur spreads his hands, smirking as if to say of course it was. Merlin rolls his eyes. “Now will you please take my shirts to the dry cleaner? Everyone at work is starting to wonder why I’m no longer accepting video meetings.”

 

**

 

There’s blood in the sink.

He shakes and shakes in front of the mirror, hands braced against the vanity because the last thing he can afford to do is fall, and stares at the red drops stark against the white porcelain. For the briefest moment, he considers turning on the tap and rinsing away the evidence that it’s gotten worse, considers walking downstairs to the candlelit dinner Arthur’s laying out for their anniversary and pretending like his throat isn’t on fire.

But the thought of lying like that, after everything, turns his stomach sour.

“Arthur!” he calls, and hates himself more than he thought possible when Arthur runs into the bathroom a blink later, eyes wide with fear and a sauce-coated spatula still in his hand.

“Everything okay?” Arthur reaches out to steady him, then freezes when he sees the blood.

Merlin tries for a weak smile and knows he falls painfully short. “I—not really?”

They’re in a cab to Camelot General ten minutes later.

“I’m sorry I ruined our anniversary,” he mumbles quietly into the lapel of Arthur’s suit, belatedly realizing he didn’t even get a chance to ogle him in it.

And he loves Arthur in a suit—especially this one, a soft gray tailored for Gwen’s wedding that he knows stretches perfectly across those broad shoulders and hugs his chest just right.

Arthur’s hand tightens around his own. “Don’t you ever think that.” Their cabbie takes the familiar left turn toward the hospital entrance, and Merlin swears he can already taste the antiseptic that smothers the air beyond those sliding doors. “The only thing that would’ve ruined our anniversary is if you’d hidden this from me.”

There’s a tinge of bitterness in Arthur’s voice that makes guilt wash over him anew. But Arthur’s fingers are warm where they curl over his own, and Merlin holds onto the reminder that they haven’t lost this, lost them. They can get it back to what it was, one truth at a time.

Their anniversary passes in the hospital between the hum of machines and light chatter of the nursing staff, and Merlin hates that what should’ve been a night of romance has instead been reduced to this—him curled up in a hospital gown, as pale as the sheets, unable to even reach up and give his husband a kiss with all the wires holding him in place.

Arthur spends the night, scoffing when Merlin suggests he should go home and sleep in their bed. At some point, his stomach growls, and Merlin remembers that neither of them have eaten dinner. They make do with cold soup and a bag of stale crisps each, because shitty food is still better than no food, and Merlin wishes with every fiber in his body that things were different.

But Arthur’s eyes are brighter the next morning as he signs the discharge papers, his touches gentler when they clamber into a cab home, and Merlin feels it regrowing between them—a fragile trust, spun as delicately as a spider’s web.

Stepping inside, he’s immediately greeted with the sight of their anniversary dinner still spread on the table, candles unlit, napkins folded into little swans by each of their plates. His chest tightens painfully.

“Shit, Arthur...this is beautiful.”

“Happy three years,” Arthur says, voice gravelly.

Neither of them want to dwell on the thought that three years will be all they get.

“Thank you for doing all of this. I know it’s more than I probably deserve after—everything, but—thank you.”

“You—” Arthur breaks off, shaking his head in what looks like wonderment, except Merlin can’t think of a single reason why that would be. “You deserve the world, Merlin. Always. Never—never let me make you think you don’t.”

His heart swells with affection like a balloon puffed up with air, sudden and giddy, and he rears forward to capture those lips in a searing kiss.

And it’s enough, in this moment, that there’s no trace of hesitation in the way Arthur kisses back, fierce and sharp and heated like a summer storm.

It’s enough for now.

 

**

 

Moonlight dances in strange patterns across the wall, seeping in through the curtains, and Merlin watches the shapes instead of reading his book. It’s been open to the same page for the better part of fifteen minutes, but if Arthur notices, he doesn’t let on.

Minutes tick by, slow and sleepy, until suddenly the reading light fizzes out, plunging the room into semi-darkness with a pop and a hiss. Arthur jumps a little, startled, but Merlin hardly reacts—he’s cocooned in Arthur’s arms, head against his chest, and there’s nowhere on earth he feels safer.

Looking up, his eyes find Arthur’s, whose face is now half-shrouded in shadow. The other half looks ethereal in the moonlight, almost angelic, all angles and sharp lines and a single gentle curve where he’s smiling. His hair shines a sort of silver, flopping onto his forehead without any gel to keep it coiffed up, soft, and Merlin drinks it in.

He looks and looks and wants.

“I always wondered what you’d look like with longer hair,” he says quietly, and wishes the light hadn’t gone out so he could see Arthur’s reaction.

“You know I’d grow it out for you,” Arthur says immediately, and Merlin does know. That was never the problem. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Just figured it’d happen eventually,” he admits. “You’d be too busy to go to the barber or something, and it’d grow out. And I’d run my hands through it and—“ he chokes on the words, a lump forming in his throat, because they’ll never have that lazy future anymore, that luxury of letting things happen naturally and enjoying the simple pleasures when they do.

Everything they want, they have to make happen now.

Arthur presses a kiss to the top of his head, light and fleeting. “I’ll skip my haircut next week,” he says softly, like a promise.

Merlin hums and pushes away the regret to smile, closing his eyes. He dreams of feathers and silk and golden-blond hair soft beneath his fingers.

 

**

 

As the leaves turn brown and a chill settles in the air, Merlin sits three rows up in the rickety stands and watches Arthur play football.

All the lads—Arthur, Leon, Lance, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, along with a couple of Arthur’s work friends he recognizes and a few he doesn’t—joined the local league together a few years ago as the Knights, and they’ve won the Camelot Cup, as it’s jokingly called, nearly every year since.

Merlin isn’t biased, or anything, but he chalks a big part of that up to the fact that Arthur could probably have played for at least a League One side if he’d wanted to pursue the sport professionally.

Instead he’s here, on a pitch that looks like the cows have been at it for a few days, wearing a baggy youth football shirt with the number 9 emblazoned on the back, red-faced, sweaty, hair plastered to his forehead—and sporting the biggest smile Merlin has seen on his face in weeks. Maybe longer.

As the game ticks down to the final minutes, Gwen nudges him with a sharp elbow, pulling his thoughts away from how much he wants to shag Arthur senseless in his kit. “It’s two-all, Merlin!”

“Is it actually?” Given that he’s watched all eighty-something minutes so far, the score probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise, but he can’t even remember the opponents having scored a single goal, let alone two.

Gwen swats his arm. “You’d know, if you took your eyes off Arthur long enough to watch the rest of the game!”

Merlin laughs. “Yeah, fair enough.”

Except it doesn’t feel like the game will end in a draw. There’s a kind of energy in the air, electric and crackling and filled with promise, and he’s sure, doesn’t want to jinx it, but he’s sure...

The ball curls off Arthur’s foot—Merlin holds his breath, tracks the arc of it with wide eyes—and crashes into the back of the net.

...they’re going to win.

“YES!” he screams at the top of his lungs, still nearly drowned out by the stands exploding in cheers and hoots around him. There aren’t many of them, mostly just the WAGS of all the players, but no one could claim they aren’t a passionate bunch. “That’s my husband!” he says fiercely to Gwen, can’t contain the glee in his voice.

Arthur turns around as soon as the goal is given, grinning as big as his ears, and points at him in the stands as if to say that one’s for you. Or maybe just hey, did you see that?

Either way, Merlin grins back just as widely, flashing Arthur a double thumbs-up before he’s almost completely engulfed by the swarm of back-slapping, head-patting, hug-wielding Knights celebrating the goal. The ring of players crowd around him, obscuring all the but barest trace of blond hair, shining golden in the light of the setting sun.

“We did it, Merlin!” Gwen waves her homemade Knights banner wildly in the air. “We did it! Oh, the team just hasn’t been the same without Arthur. What a goal—”

All of them pack into The Tavern afterwards to celebrate the win, passing the evening in light, lively chatter and affectionate jibes (“Remember that free header you missed? We could’ve been up three-nil at the half if you’d’ve got that!” “Ehh, didn’t want to steal Arthur’s glory. You know he gets all pissy if he doesn’t bang a few in.” Swat. “Shut it, you twat.”) Arthur holds his hand under the table with a pleased little smile curling around his lips, glowing and loose-limbed and lazy the way he only gets after ninety minutes of hard-fought footie.

And Merlin thinks, suddenly, I’m going to miss this.

 

**

 

Arthur buys a new phone.

“It has 128GB of storage!” he proclaims, pulling it out of the packaging with the glee of a little kid getting a new toy, and Merlin smiles.

Not much gets either of them smiling, these days.

Over the next few days, Arthur proceeds to take pictures at absolutely every moment, even ridiculous ones—Merlin brushing his teeth, fluffing up their pillows before bed, blinking sleep out of his eyes on a lazy weekend morning, padding out of the shower wearing only a towel, lounging against Arthur’s chest on the sofa. It’s almost endearing, given that they’ve never been big camera people before.

When he starts making them pause to take a selfie in the middle of every kiss, however, Merlin can’t help but ask.

“Arthur, as much as I love that you’ve discovered a new hobby, don’t you think it’s getting a bit much?”

“Hmm?” Arthur clicks another picture, this time with his lips pressed dry and soft against Merlin’s cheek.

Which is, frankly, highly distracting and very much not unwelcome, so Merlin indulges a few more clicks as Arthur fiddles with the right framing before trying again. “Arthur.” He pulls out that tone, the tone, and Arthur lowers his phone immediately, eyes widening.

“Shit, I’m sorry. Is it too much?”

There’s something so achingly young in his eyes that melts Merlin’s heart. “No, I’m just...curious, I guess. Why the sudden interest?”

Arthur looks away, suddenly appearing very interested in the tiles of the kitchen backsplash.

“I was looking through some old albums the other day,” he says finally, cheeks reddening, “and there was one full of pictures of Uther and my mum. Back when they were young, before—you know.” Merlin nods. The death of Arthur’s mother isn’t a topic they ever really discuss, but he knows the story. “And it hit me that we don’t have that. Pictures, I mean. Of us, together.”

“Well, we’ve got our wedding pictures.”

“That we do,” Arthur agrees, a faraway look on his face. “But I don’t want to forget, someday. How happy we are, or how you—how you look. If there’s nothing to jog my memory, I—”

He spreads his arms almost helplessly, and Merlin understands, the weight of it hitting him like a truck.

I don’t want to forget you, Arthur’s eyes say where his words cannot, and Merlin understands.

“Right, give me the phone, then,” he decides. “I have some excellent pose ideas.”

 

**

 

Arthur scrubs the kitchen counter with their trusty green rag, hair now long enough now that it falls into his eyes. Merlin smiles a little, at the thought that Arthur’s growing it out for him, just because he asked, and knows the look on his face is exactly as dopey and fond as their friends always claim.

So sue him. His husband is the best.

Then the smile fades. It’s now or never.

“Arthur?”

“Hmm?” He doesn’t stop scrubbing, long, sweeping motions that show off the ripple of muscle in his arms.

A deep breath. “After I’m gone—”

Arthur freezes and looks up, eyes wide.

Merlin swallows and steels himself, staring at the edge of the sink because he can’t look at Arthur if he’s going to say this.

“After I’m gone,” he repeats, and feels the tears already gathering at the sound Arthur makes in response, low and pained like a whimper, “I want you to be happy. However—whatever that takes.” He lets out a ragged breath. “Whoever that takes.”

And then the tears fall. Images flash through his mind of someone else reading against Arthur’s chest, someone else kissing him good morning, someone else standing at the altar telling him I do, and it hurts like a bullet wound straight to the heart, but he still means it. Above everything else, he wants Arthur to be happy, and what kind of fate would it be to never love again, lonely from thirty until death? He wants more than that for Arthur, wants him to have a full, joyous life of kids and grandkids and growing old with a partner, even if it isn’t meant to happen with him.

“Don’t you dare,” Arthur growls, snapping him out of his thoughts, “say that to me. How dare you. Like there’s someone else. Like there could ever be someone else.”

Merlin shakes his head, wipes away the tears. Arthur takes a step toward him, but he holds up a hand to stop him. “You can’t tell me you don’t want kids and dogs, a big family. Or that you want to wake up alone every day for the next however many years. You can’t tell me that’s what you want.”

“Of course that’s not what I want!” Arthur runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “We’re not talking about this. Dinner’s ready, let’s eat.”

But when Arthur tries to stride past him toward the table, Merlin darts out a hand to grab his wrist. “Wait. Wait, Arthur—don’t be an arse about this.”

Arthur shakes off his hand but doesn’t move. “You’re telling me—you’re basically telling me I should cheat on you with someone else, and I’m the one being an arse about it?”

“That’s not—I’m not saying now. Or even immediately after—after. I’m just saying that someday, if you—if you find someone great, someone who deserves you, someone to build that dream family with, then it’s okay. I want you to have that. I want you to be happy, and I wish it could be with me, but—it’s okay.” His voice wavers but it doesn’t crack, doesn’t break. “I want you to know that it’s okay when you move on.”

Arthur is still glaring. “Shut up, Merlin. Just—shut up. I’m not moving on. I’m not—you’re deluded if you think I’ll suddenly start going out on the pull with Gwaine or something.”

Merlin snorts despite himself. He would pay to see what kind of outfit Gwaine could wheedle Arthur into.

“That dream family you’re talking about—yes. Yes, I want kids and grandkids and dogs, and I want a big manor in the countryside with a lawn where I can watch them all run around. I do want that. But you don’t understand, Merlin, I don’t just want it—I want it with you.”

Something unnameable swells in his chest. God, he loves this man.

“The whole dream is a life with you, us, together, and if I don’t get to have that, then—then I don’t. There’s no substitute. I can’t just replace you with someone else and-and still achieve that dream, as you suggest. I can’t. I can’t.”

“It’s not wrong to do that. It’s not wrong to move on,” Merlin tries weakly, no real defensiveness to it. The depth of Arthur’s words, what they imply, are just too much to process, too much to accept at face value.

Arthur steps forward, and Merlin doesn’t stop him this time, lets deft fingers brush away the tears drying on his cheeks.

“Of course not. But I could never move on from you.” Arthur looks him straight in the eye, and there are no walls there, no defenses, just raw honesty. When he smiles, it’s both sad and impossibly gentle. “You’re it for me, Merlin.”

Maybe it’s the way Arthur says it, plain and easy and so sure, like an objective truth, but Merlin believes him.

And it breaks his heart.

 

**

 

Late one evening, languid kisses on the sofa turn heated, almost desperate, a clash of lips and tongues and teeth that lights a fire deep in his belly.

Arthur,” he breathes out, like a poem, a prayer, leaving little kisses along the bridge of his nose until Arthur makes a keening sound and pulls him in for a bruising kiss.

But that isn’t where Merlin wants to go, today, and he pulls away. Something like hurt flashes in Arthur’s eyes, but before it can fester, he cups a hand around Arthur’s cheek, one finger grazing lightly down the arch of his jaw, the jut of his chin, the swoop of his chapped lips. Another hand skims through the strands of his hair, soft and mussed and golden-bronze in the light, long just for him. Arthur seems to melt under his touch, looking at him through hooded lashes as a tear runs down his cheek.

Merlin smooths it away with a murmured shh, pressing a kiss to each eyelid as they flutter closed. “Let me take care of you,” he whispers, over and over, running a finger lightly down the side of his face, until Arthur finally relaxes, tension draining out of every limb and the lines around his eyes slackening the way they never even do during sleep anymore.

He always wants to shout his love from the rooftops, but this—etching it into Arthur’s skin, just the beating of their hearts as witness—

It’s the quietest I love you he’s ever said, but all the more powerful for it.

Sometimes Merlin doesn’t think he can survive what he feels for this man, the pure force of his affection threatening to tear itself from his body, but right now it feels like that massive ocean of emotion is contained in just the tips of his fingers, pouring out into every inch of this beautiful soul beside him.

The man who saved him, the man who healed him, the man who loved him until he could love himself.

He touches and traces, slow and soft and gentle, until—

“Take me to bed,” Arthur croaks finally, pupils blown wide, the blue of his eyes almost completely drowned in inky black, and Merlin does.

 

**

 

The thought comes to him suddenly, in the middle of a movie, and then it’s all he can think about.

“My mum used to say that more than anything, she wanted to grow old with Balinor,” he says once the credits start rolling.

Immediately, Arthur sits up on the couch, attentive, eyebrows raised in light surprise. They never talk about Balinor.

“I never understand what that meant. I always thought, why worry about missing out on growing old with someone?” he continues. “The glory days are when you’re young and spirited and romantic, not after retirement.”

Arthur snorts lightly, glides a hand through Merlin’s hair.

“But I get it now, what she meant. I get it, because I just realized I want that, too.”

Arthur’s hand stills.

“I want—I want to be there when you get gray hairs to tell you they look distinguished. I want to fuss with you about our silver jubilee celebration and cheer from the stands every time you score a goal, I—I want a life with you, Arthur. I want to be old and hard of hearing and still wake up next to you, retelling bad back when I was younger stories while you complain I’m telling them wrong.”

A heaviness hangs between them in the air as Arthur lets out a wet chuckle, more a clenched sob than anything mirthful.

Several minutes pass in silence.

But Merlin feels the words rising up in his throat, the words that damn them, and can’t tell if it’s strength or weakness that finally loosens his tongue.

“I don’t want to die,” he whispers, and knows it’s the first time he’s said it out loud, ever. “I don’t want to leave you.”

With that, every last wall and protective barrier comes tumbling down. A wild, desperate terror expands in his chest as every fear he’s bottled up over the last several months spills out through the cracks. “I don’t—I don’t—I don’t want to die, Arthur—I’m only thirty, my mum’s still alive, I can’t—I can’t—” He chokes on air, barely able to draw breath. “I don’t want to die, Arthur, please don’t let me die—”

Merlin doesn’t know why he’s begging, but he can’t stop, can’t escape the blind panic squeezing him like a vice—can’t escape the cold dread crawling through his veins—can’t escape the thought of facing a dark and eternal nothingness alone—his lungs scream, empty—

“Breathe, Merlin, breathe,” Arthur’s voice cuts through the chaos like a beacon. He lets himself be shifted around, pliant and willing, until his head rests against Arthur’s chest, which rises and falls in a slow, exaggerated pattern. “Feel me breathing? In and out, Merlin, follow me. You can do it. In and out.”

In and out. In and out.

He breathes and breathes, and clings on.

 

**

 

Arthur Pendragon-Emrys.

That’s what the certificate says in large, bold, impossible-to-miss letters, but Merlin reads it again and again, unable to believe his own eyes.

“Is this—” he can hardly get the words out, choking up on a well of emotion. “Is this real?”

“Sure is, Merlin. Got the official seal and everything.” Arthur is smiling, light and fond, but there’s a weight in his eyes that shows he knows exactly how serious this is. Exactly what it means.

“I—I don’t know what to say. Arthur. This is...” Merlin casts around for the right word, but can’t find anything that fits the size of the gesture, the depth of what it conveys. “It’s—” He lets out a deep breath, waits for his scrambled thoughts to arrange themselves. One towers above the rest. “We didn’t change our names when we got married. So why, especially now, when I’m—”

“Hey.” Arthur trails gentle fingers down the side of his face, quieting him immediately. “You’re a part of me. Always will be, always. I just—thought I’d make it official, that’s all.”

“Sap.”

Your sap.”

And that’s true, isn’t it? Arthur bears his name now, stitched to his identity like a permanent tattoo, and Merlin’s heart threatens to burst with the feeling of it. You’re a part of me. Always.

“Arthur Pendragon-Emrys.“ Merlin tests it out, can’t help but smile at the way the syllables sit on his tongue. “Arthur Pendragon-Emrys.”

It feels good. It feels right.

 

**

 

Merlin wakes to a blond man next to him in bed, blinking at him with large blue eyes, and his blood chills.

Everything is frayed and fuzzy, sluggish as he catalogues messy bed hair and sharp features and pink lips, trying to fit the pieces together. A thought hovers in the back of his mind, just out of reach like a forgotten word, an itch he can’t scratch.

There’s something—something is missing.

“Your—your name?” he asks haltingly, squinting like that’ll bring the just out-of-reach thoughts forward, like that’ll cut through the haze and provide some clarity.

The man blinks, then smiles. His smile is blinding, and it sets something alight in Merlin’s heart that he doesn’t understand.

“Do you want to hear it that badly?” the man asks, light and teasing. He’s still smiling, fond, strangely familiar.

Merlin’s chest constricts. He reaches for the thoughts, straining, can feel them floating at the edge of his brain, but can’t grasp anything concrete.

“Your name,” he croaks out.

The man’s eyebrows furrow, and a look of faint concern flashes across his face before the smile returns. “Pendragon-Emrys,” he says, almost proudly, a tinge of pink blooming in his cheeks. “Pendragon-Emrys. I showed you the certificate, Merlin, it’s real. Pendragon-Emrys.”

“Merlin.” He tests the syllables on his tongue. They feel familiar. “Merlin. That’s me. Merlin.”

Now the man’s smile falls completely, and there’s naked fear written all across his face. “Yeah, Merlin. That’s you. Of course that’s you, why wouldn’t—” He stops cold, and something frantic creeps into those eyes. “Who am I, Merlin? Do you know who I—” The man’s voice cracks. “Who am I?”

“I—I don’t—” Panic rises in his throat. He tugs desperately at the missing pieces, snarled together like a tangled knot. It’s there, he knows it’s there, he just can’t

“It’s me. It’s me, Arthur. Merlin, please—it’s me. Tell me you know it’s me—Merlin—” The man is pleading, a wild, desperate look in his eyes, and—

Merlin gasps, feels the knot untangle as the fog lifts and everything slips back into place, the pieces slotting together. Arthur. Of course. Arthur. His husband, his life, his everything—Arthur. How could he ever—how could he have forgotten—

“Arthur,” he breathes out, and his husband is trembling in front of him, breath coming out in short gasps, tears clinging to his lashes. “Arthur. Arthur. My husband, my—Arthur. I love you. I can’t believe—everything was just so fuzzy, I couldn’t—” He can’t force the words out fast enough, reaching for Arthur with frantic arms. “I know you, I remember, I promise—”

“I thought you forgot. I thought I’d lost you.” Arthur shakes and shakes in his embrace, broad frame somehow curling in to fit perfectly against Merlin’s chest, hands clutching desperately at the folds of his shirt. “I was so scared,” he whispers into Merlin’s neck, barely loud enough to be heard.

And even softer, even quieter, a plea—don’t leave me.

 

**

 

“ARTHUR!”

Arthur pokes his head out of the bedroom doorframe with a knowing smile. “The salt and sugar again?” he asks, clearly trying to smother a laugh.

Merlin scowls, unimpressed. “This is absolutely not funny. It’s not.”

“Just a little bit, you have to admit.”

No. I can’t tell if you’re doing it on purpose or not, either, and I don’t know which one’s worse.”

Arthur only smiles.

 

**

 

Merlin hates the wheelchair. But both Gaius and Dr. Caerleon insist it’ll make life easier, and when the two of them agree, he knows better than to not listen.

Arthur splurges a little, gets an electric one complete with a remote control, and they make a little game of racing in a deserted parking lot—Arthur walking backwards versus him on wheels—until Merlin remembers how he always used to beat Arthur at footraces back in uni. It’s not really fun after that.

Merlin complains vocally about the wheelchair almost every day, knows he still has enough strength and coordination left not to need it a little longer, and Arthur always lets him rail against it, never says anything one way or the other.

Then, after one particularly long and colorful rant, it comes to a head.

“Merlin?”

He‘s halfway through a sentence about why it’s too early for a wheelchair but shuts up immediately at the tone in Arthur’s voice—small, unsure.

“I know you hate it. And we don’t have to use it, whatever the doctors say, if you don’t want, okay? You know that.”

He nods. He does know that, knows Arthur would never force him into something against his wishes regardless of what anybody else demanded. They’ve never needed to go against medical recommendations before, so he’s never really considered it, but maybe this time...

“But—it’s only when you leave the flat, right? And...” Arthur pauses, looks away. “It helps me worry just a little less, when you’re out of my sight.”

Merlin feels like he’s been punched in the gut.

Worry is a constant companion of Arthur’s, these days. As much as he tries to hide it, Merlin hasn’t missed the way he looks like he’s aged ten years in only that many months, a constant furrow in his brow and crease in his forehead. Hasn’t missed the mingled desperation and relief in his voice every time they see each other again after an hour apart.

If a wheelchair means Arthur worries a fraction less about whether he’s going to collapse in the middle of the road, if it means one small weight off shoulders carrying so much, if it means a even little more light will come back into those hollowed blue eyes, that’s a small, small price he is more than willing to pay.

“Okay.”

“Yeah? Really?”

“Of course. Anything for you.”

 

**

 

“Let’s go see the sunset,” Arthur declares one evening.

Merlin turns the idea over in his head for just under a second, sparing no more than the space of a heartbeat to think about the logistics before deciding he doesn’t care. “Yeah, go on, let’s.”

They don’t drive far, just about a half hour toward the countryside, before Arthur parks at the base of a sloping, deserted hill. “Here we are.”

It strikes him that they didn’t use any sort of navigation to get here, but Arthur never looked unsure of any turn he made.

“You planned this!” Merlin realizes, surprise bubbling in his chest. Is that—is Arthur blushing? “You utter sap.”

Arthur huffs and steps out of the car to pull the wheelchair from the back, but not before Merlin sees a pleased little smile on his face, one that means Arthur, cool, suave, my-confidence-is-my-biggest-asset Arthur, was nervous.

It surprised most of their friends when Merlin let slip, after a few too many at the pub, that Arthur was the closet romantic in their relationship. Merlin’s prone to forgetting it’s Christmas morning when he wakes up on December 25th, but Arthur never lets a birthday or an anniversary pass unrecognized, uncelebrated. Merlin told his friends, all those years ago when they were still just dating, that it was probably a remnant of Arthur’s anal-retentive tendencies at work bleeding into the rest of his life.

Only well, well, after that, when they were engaged and soon to be married, did Leon pull him aside one day and sketch out the bare bones of Arthur’s childhood.

He deserves to tell you the full story on his own terms, but until then, you should know this much, Leon said at the time.

And Merlin understood very quickly after that why Arthur never missed a special occasion.

But this, spontaneous romantic gestures—Arthur doesn’t really do that. His affection is written in cups of tea and extra helpings of pasta and the fourteen different medical journals that show up on their doorstep every month, practical, daily things, not choreographed displays.

Merlin tends to be the one that comes up with those. It’s one of the many reasons why they work so well.

But today, now—their fingers tangle together as the sun dips lower and lower on the horizon, yellow bleeding into red, streaks of dusk weaving orange and purple across the sky—and it’s nice, beautiful even, to take a deep breath of the crisp evening air and relish the feeling of every thought or fear or worry drifting away like the birds above.

Of being, even just for a moment, completely at peace.

The moment ingrains itself somewhere in his very bones, soft and warm and sweet, and made a little sweeter knowing Arthur made it happen just for him.

 

**

 

From the moment he wakes up, something is wrong, and he knows. It’s going to be today.

“Arthur...” He looks at Arthur, everything written naked on his face, and Arthur understands immediately.

“No. Hell no, no, absolutely not.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Shut up, Merlin. C’mon, breakfast.”

Arthur doesn’t let him out of sight the entire day, taking work meetings from the table with one eye on Merlin sprawled across the sofa. For his part, Merlin reads and reads, light, happy books to keep his mind occupied, and tries not to focus on the rising feeling of dread mounting in his chest.

He isn’t ready. Shit. He isn’t ready to go.

Somehow, they make it through the day.

Arthur’s hand never leaves his wrist as they crawl into bed that night and bury beneath the covers, fingers pressed against his pulse point like the force of it will keep his heart beating.

If only.

But the feeling is still there, the cold, looming feeling that it’s going to be today, and Merlin reminds himself—in his sleep is as good a way as any. Maybe it’ll be peaceful.

But neither of them sleep. A wild, desperate terror expands in his chest every time he thinks about closing his eyes—what if it’s for the last time?—so he stares into Arthur’s eyes instead, sees the same fear reflected back at him. The reading light stays on, even though nobody is in the mindset to read, and it helps when exhaustion tugs at his eyelids like an iron weight, keeps him from sinking into sleep.

Arthur doesn’t cry, doesn’t speak, doesn’t sleep, just curls long fingers ever tighter against his wrist and breathes, long, ragged breaths that sound almost deafening in the silence.

Merlin prays for the first time in two decades. Please. Not yet. Please. He isn’t ready.

Time inches forward, one flickering red digit at a time.

And when the first streaks of dawn finally break out across the sky, the inexplicable feeling lifts. It won’t be today.

“Arthur...” He looks at Arthur, just like the previous morning, but this time feels his cheeks lift in a little smile. “Not today.”

“We don’t know that.” But Arthur lets out a shaky breath, and his fingers finally leave Merlin’s wrist to trace the edge of his smile. “We never really know.”

“Yeah.”

 

**

 

Arthur calls Uther. It goes about as terribly as expected, though Merlin gets why Arthur felt it was necessary.

The nightmares come hard and fierce, that night.

But the next morning, Arthur looks at him with red-rimmed eyes and there’s something in them, a kind of calm, a kind of acceptance, that wasn’t there the day before.

“What did he say to you?” Merlin asks finally, wanting to understand.

It’s several minutes before Arthur replies. “He said it will be worse than I could ever imagine. That there’s no point wasting my time trying to imagine it, because I’ll never come close to the reality.”

“It?” But deep down he knows, he already knows.

“Losing you.”

 

**

 

He doesn’t get out of bed.

Once upon a time, a day of nothing but sleeping in and cuddling and trading kisses as the sun made its way across the sky was a luxury, something to look forward to, but it’s become a necessity. Every part of his body aches when he moves.

So now he simply—doesn’t.

It’s the worst feeling in the world, betrayed by your own body. But there’s a clock running in his head—give me a year, Arthur ordered, asked, begged—and he isn’t far out from that, so he stays in bed and holds on.

He stays in bed—Arthur lying beside him more often than not, a fresh cup of tea always cooling on the nightstand, mum flittering in and out of the flat, his hands running through golden-bronze hair that’s longer than he ever dreamed, now, complete with a layer of stubble that does things to his focus—and holds on.

 

**

 

“Take care of my mother.”

“I will, c’mere.”

“Wait—promise me. She’s stubborn, maybe even as stubborn as I am, okay? So you can’t believe her if she says she’s okay, because she might not be—you have to drive up and check on her, promise me—”

“I will, Merlin.”

“—and you should call her once a week, at least, maybe more if you’re not busy, because she gets really lonely sometimes—oh, and she takes meds, too, which she didn’t tell me about for ages, something for her heart, I think, so you have to call the pharmacy every once in a while to check—because sometimes she runs out and that’s—and you have to—”

“Shh, shh, c’mere. It’s okay, c’mere. There we go. Shh.”

“Promise me?”

“Your mum and I, we’ll take care of each other, yeah? I promise you.”

“Okay. Okay. Good.” A beat. “...and Will too?”

“Pushing it, Merlin.”

But he hears it mumbled softly into the hollow behind his ear a few seconds later, his own words echoed back.

Anything for you.

 

**

 

“It’s been a year, today.”

“What?” Arthur looks up, rubbing a hand across his face and trying to blink himself awake.

He’s beautiful like this, Merlin realizes—hair rumpled, cheeks creased with pillow lines, blue eyes gleaming in the early morning sun. So beautiful it almost hurts, like looking directly into a blinding light.

Every word burns as it comes out, now, gritty like sandpaper against his throat, but Merlin hardly cares. This is important. This is too important not to say. “I gave you a year.”

The realization dawns quickly, Arthur’s expression slackening for a moment before unfurling into something awed, fierce, delighted.

“You gave me a year,” he repeats, reverent. “Merlin.”

And it sounds too much like I love you for Merlin not to tangle their fingers together and lean in for a kiss.

He doesn’t know, then, that it’s their last.