Boxes. So many fucking boxes, stacked into cubes, shrink-wrapped onto pallets and plastered with bright, multi-coloured flags. They dot the field as far as the eye can see, tangled rigging trailing out behind, the attached silver parachutes now amorphous lumps, pulsating in the spring breeze. It sparks a memory: harsh, stunning, like a blow to the chest.
Beached jellyfish, desiccating on the foreshore. Dozens, hundreds of them in jewel-toned purples and blues. He'd wanted to put them back in the sea, but Arthur had said…
Merlin starts at the hand on his shoulder, turns his head to see a smile spreading across Gwaine's gaunt face.
"Thank fuck," Gwaine says. Heartfelt. Not a curse at all. "Thank fucking fuck. I take back every shit thing I've ever said about the Nordic Alliance. C'mon, my friend. Tonight, we feast like kings!"
"I'd settle for water that doesn’t taste of iodine," Merlin replies, trying to summon a smile of his own. "Or my own piss."
Gwaine laughs like it's an old joke between mates and not just another facet of life along the barricades. This is why Merlin likes him. This, and the way he makes Elena's face come alive, makes the laughter shine from her eyes.
Still, he hangs back as Gwaine and the others break cover and surge down into the valley to retrieve the supplies. He's never seen such a massive aid drop; it's a lifeline, to be sure, as well as a much-needed shot in the arm. They are not alone; Mercia has not been abandoned.
Merlin can't help but wonder though: if the only help out there is coming from overseas, what does that mean for Camelot and the rest of the island?
Arthur had said they were already dead, or dying. Stopped him touching one with an arm flung across his chest. Then, a moment later, a broad palm, dry despite the heat, shaking the back of his neck, the mocking words – "Doesn't mean they can't still sting you, you dollophead!" – belied by the genuine panic in his eyes.
Merlin swallows the memory, fighting the dry lump in his throat. He touches the ridge the dangling sharpie makes along his sternum, beneath his clothes, and thinks of the last proper words he'd written with it.
It's getting harder to believe Arthur's still out there, that he's found the only box that used to matter.
Crystals of ice on a packet of frozen peas, pressed to a fresh bruise. Spray of sunlight through the blinds, striping cheekbones, washing out the blue of his eyes. Arthur's warm bulk bowling him over, bearing him down onto the sofa cushions. His insistent tongue licking, teasing a filthy wet "Well helloooo, nurse" into Merlin's mouth. Merlin ruining the kiss with laughter, thinking of old cartoons, of the anvil weight of this love, felling him over and over, and of the poor peas, now crushed and melting between them.
Merlin's dreams are vivid and plagued by details, ordinary but exquisite: bitter tea-mouth morning kisses; drag of chin stubble on sweaty skin; spent cock softening while the shower spray throbs against his back.
There is always a moment, just after waking, when he wishes he hadn't. When it seems too much, realising that this – parched throat stiff back narrow cot – is what's real. No peas. No tea. No Arthur.
He blinks up at the drab patchwork of vinyl and metal overhead, panicked by how insubstantial it all is, how fucking inadequate compared to the life he'd once known. He thinks about volunteering for a scavenging run out in the red zone, or maybe picking a fight with the rough trade on the welcome line. Val could easily take him if he didn't fight back, would probably relish the chance to give him a good beatdown in payback for the day he'd arrived.
Then the guilt creeps in, trailing memories. Always the worst ones first, starting with that fucking day. Escaping the stampede only to be caught up in the crowd outside the stadium. Blindly chasing after fair hair, stupidly following flashes of red and gold when half the damn city was decked out in Camelot colours.
Realising his error too late, packed like sardines on an outbound train, the not-Arthur with the all wrong everything – weak chin thin lips brown eyes and sunburnt nose – flinching away from his hand, shoving back.
"What the fuck's your problem, mate? Don't know ya, do I?"
Then the old man lunging at him, grabbing him by the shirt, stopping him from pushing his way off before the doors closed. Crazy old man with a caved-in face and lizard eyes, spit-screaming in his face how this wasn't how it was supposed to be.
"They were supposed to come from the skies! I'll be a slave to the new ones, Emrys, but not the old. You should have stopped them!"
The Emergence, they call it now. Merlin refuses to say it. There's too much reverence in it, for one thing – and seriously, fuck that – but also because that's not what the day was about, not for him. Whatever horrors were unleashed, and despite all the shit that's gone down since, for Merlin the tragedy of that day is only ever about one thing: He should have held on tighter.
He rolls onto his side, reaches up under his shirt, and tugs the sharpie free of its cap. He's been using it to count the days: little hash marks on the wall back at the flat, and now on the corrugated tin beside his cot, just like in the movies. Except he's not waiting to get out.
"You survived yesterday," he whispers – forces himself to say, even on the mornings he doesn’t believe it. "So I'm not going to die today."
Eventually the pressure in his bladder forces him up and out, down to the latrines. By the time he gets back, all he's thinking about is how to disguise their dwindling rations as edible breakfast, and if he has time to check quarantine for new arrivals before starting his shift on lookout.
Merlin doesn't mind them taking his rucksack. Elena had warned him how it would be at the Mercian border. Quarantines and rations, all goods shared alike. He's too exhausted to protest, at any rate. He'd swapped his last two days' worth of food for clean water and an uninterrupted night's sleep behind a guarded door; he's been walking on autopilot ever since, his imaginary conversations with Arthur veering dangerously close to outright hallucinations.
Of late they've been mostly about missing trains – missing as in pining for, not suspiciously absent, as once upon a time the eight-day journey would have been a matter of hours – and arguing whether or not train conductors are now more or less useless than astronauts.
When the two men in surgical masks close in for a pat-down, however – one grabbing Merlin's arms, the other shoving his hands in Merlin's pockets, groping under his clothes – something snaps. Yes, it's only a fucking pen. He can't eat it, and it's a shit weapon except at eye-gouging range. But it's all he has left, his last link to Arthur that's not in his head.
"No," he croaks, struggling. "No get off, that's…fucking leave it!"
He catches the man behind with an elbow to the gut, gifts the other with a sharp knee to the bollocks and a wild uppercut. It catches him in the mouth and sends him staggering back, howling. Merlin's bracing himself for the fallout, debating running versus dropping to the ground and curling up like a hedgehog when, inexplicably, he hears laughter.
"Shame on you, Val, he's half your size." A new man strolls over, mask dangling from one ear, bright grin in a grubby face. He's got a twinkle in his eye that Merlin shouldn't trust – he hasn't met anyone on the road with that look who's both sane and sober – but does.
"Gwaine, acting watch captain." He inserts himself in their midst, laughing again when he sees what the fight was about. He doesn’t ask, doesn't touch, just looks Merlin over with a curious expression, like he's reading the fine print.
"You got a name, sharpie?"
"Aha. Well, Merlin, I think you're just the sort of mad bastard we need along the barricades." He fishes a set of dog tags from a bin of confiscated watches and jewellery. He strips the tags off the chain and hands the latter to Merlin along with a length of duct tape.
"I don't find it in your pockets, I don't have to take it from you," he says with a wink. "Now let's get you to quarantine. Think you've got a friend waiting."
Elena's leaner, browner, her hair grey with road dust. Merlin spots her first, chatting to a woman on the next cot. She smiles when she notices him, but it fades quickly. He knows what she's going to ask the second she opens her mouth.
Merlin shakes his head, says, "But he'll come. When he finds the tapes, he'll know, and he'll come."
The woman on the next cot looks up from nursing her baby. Her eyes are wide-set, unfocused. "He was supposed to meet us here," she says, frowning. "Weeks ago. Months. It's all gone wrong, hasn't it? No one's where they're supposed to be."
Merlin sits on the bed, holding the box, until the first glimmer of dawn shows through the gap in the window boards. He'd ripped a plank off earlier with his bare hands, bruising nails and scraping flesh, yet he'd barely felt a thing.
"Last night was quiet though. And maybe she's wrong. There's so few of us left out here. We're no threat, and there's not much worth taking. What do they care?"
He doesn't notice the blood until it's soaked into the cardboard. He lifts his hand, examining the wounds; they're shallow, seeping sluggish beads of red. He half-expects to see reciprocal traces of ink, but of course there are none. The ink is long-dry. He'd used up the last of the tapes three days back, packed them into the box that very night, along with the walkman. Now he's just clinging, arguing, eating up precious time.
Elena had also told him about seeing an old neighbour on her rounds of the safe houses, someone she'd assumed was long gone, fled or lost in the riots. Elena said she'd been in the city centre that day, and if she'd survived – if she'd got out – why not Arthur?
"Fine. You win," Merlin says, climbing off the bed. "I'm going. But you still don't get to call me that, because it's my fucking word."
He shoves the box under the bed, shrugs into his warmest coat and grabs the rucksack waiting by the door. "Also, you'd better be alive, as I don't believe in ghosts, let alone talking to them."
He tries not to look at anything too closely as he leaves their old mansion block. It's where they'd first adult-compromised, making a home together that neither of their families entirely approved of: a posh old flat in a shitty borough on the outskirts of town. He wants to remember it as it was when they'd actually lived in it, not as a boarded up ruin in waiting.
"God speed," old Mr MacLir from the ground floor says, creeping out to warm himself in the sun while it is relatively safe. "Don't forget us."
"Don't come back," says his wife. She lifts a watering can that hasn't held any water in months, tipping it over pots of withered flowers. Geraniums, perhaps, or begonias. Merlin doesn't remember, can no longer tell.
As he passes through the gate, he hears her heavy sigh, then a thunk as she drops the can. "It wasn't supposed to be like this, Manny," she says, angry now. "What's gone wrong? Why hasn't it been fixed?"
With trembling hands, Merlin bars the gate behind him and begins to run.
I found you on a Saturday, and that was where I lost you…
It's a random line from an old song. Merlin can't remember what comes next, nor what it's about. He figures he got this bit stuck in his head because it's nearly true, and guilt makes for a stubborn earworm.
He's known Arthur forever – or at least it feels that way – so he has no idea what day of the week it had been when they'd first met. But he did lose him on a Saturday. He remembers that.
He remembers the scarves, too: half red, half mustard-gold, tacky font, and far too warm for June. He'd let Arthur lasso him with one and pull him kissing-close, then wrestle him down onto the floor.
"Merlin, it's the World Jousting Championship, back on Camelot soil at last! May never happen again in our lifetime. We are going. We have to. Look, I already got us these."
Ugly scarves. Noogies. Beard burn. Carpet rash. He'd let Arthur give him a lot of ridiculous things over the years, repeatedly told him so to his face. And mostly Arthur would just smirk in that knowing way of his, but on that morning it had been different.
"Not the least of which is my heart."
Said fucked out and sleepy and only half-sincere, slumped across Merlin's chest. Lips a ticklish murmur against Merlin's skin, one finger tracing idle circles around his nipple. And Merlin hadn't known what to say, so he'd laughed – laughed and shoved Arthur off, laughed at the mess they'd made of the scarves, agreed that they might as well go, as there was no returning them now.
On the day of the tournament, Arthur had tied his around his wrist, tried to cajole Merlin into doing the same. Slinging his arm around Merlin's neck on the platform – or was it on the train? – shaking the yarn tassels in his face.
"Proper pair of lads now, aren't we?"
"Proper pair of something," Merlin says, as he had then. He still wishes he'd thought to tie their wrists together.
Blinking back tears, he slots the last tape in beside the others and settles the lid on the box. He stares, knowing he should label it, but not what to write. All the words crowding his brain sound too much like an admission of defeat. Or like goodbye, which isn't an option.
He looks around the room, at all the empty spaces left by stuff traded or used for fuel. He's used up all the other boxes, is well into the last ream of the old misprinted Pendargon Ltd letterhead that used to clutter up the hall cupboard.
Merlin sniffs, smiling as he remembers the notes Arthur sometimes left, just to rile him: three-item grocery lists on an entire sheet of creamy A4; cheeky "receipts" for the night before, stuck on the fridge or bathroom mirror. The absolute best, though, had been that one before Arthur's first conference abroad. Elena and Gwen had found it first, peals of laughter ringing out from the kitchen: this cock is me if I can't be taped to a box holding a monstrous novelty dildo. Bright, tacky red. Sat beside the kettle, so Merlin would be sure to find it.
"You cheeky fucking bastard," he says, the tears coming anyway. He can taste them on his smile. "Not even in your dreams were you ever that big."
He uncaps the marker again, pressing it to the cardboard and watching the ink soak in as he writes: this box is me if I can’t be
Merlin used to find Elena's hugs a bit awkward, but when she turns up at the door with home brew cider and dried apples, he clings on just as tightly. She still smells good. He knows he probably doesn't.
Loneliness, as he's been realising, isn't just in the mind. It's a physical thing, a fucking ailment of skin and bone.
The cider is strong, or perhaps it's just that he's no longer used to it. When Elena leaves, he strips unsteadily and climbs into bed, trying to take comfort from the slide of the sheets against his bare skin. He grabs the walkman, then drags the pillows on top of himself before pressing the red button.
It's not nearly good enough of an illusion – not nearly enough weight – but with his eyes closed he can almost pretend.
He's never recorded himself doing this, hadn't planned to now. One moment he's chatting to Arthur about his day as he's disciplined himself to do, trying to skirt the worst of the despair; the next he's scratching his belly and pubes, then fondling his prick. His mind floods with memories: silly, selfish things from long ago; feelings that seem to have no place in this world, but persist nonetheless, like weeds.
Sidelong glances and sweaty palms, the hot flare of annoyance whenever Arthur was there. Flustered by the sound of his laugh, the sight of his arse and thighs stuffed into too-small PE shorts. Realising that the irritation was anything but, that it wasn't going away. Giddy, bumpy ride from known-you-forever to breathless oh-yes-like-that-there. The unexpected sweetness of their first kiss, Arthur's lips soft on his neck until Merlin had remembered to breathe and demanded…more. Always more.
Merlin whispers Arthur's name as he tugs himself to full hardness, turned on just by the shape of it in his mouth.
"Miss your lips on my neck," he says, imagining Arthur's chuckle and humming kisses in place of the walkman's squeaky whirring. "The way you'd laugh at my squirming and then hold me down, knowing how much I love it…"
"Holy shit, where'd you come from?"
Merlin finds the tapes – shiny 10-pack of TDK D90s, still in their wrappers – while scavenging the allotment sheds for board and nails to cover the windows. So far the worst of the violence has been confined to the city centre, but no one believes it'll end there. Word is the blight's spreading, and reservoirs from Northumbria to Wessex are drying up.
He scrapes a thumbnail against the outer packaging, but it's vacuumed on tight. He can't remember the last time he's seen a cassette recorder.
"Why can't you be a brick of Kit-Kat or Toffee Crisp?"
He tosses them in his rucksack anyway, figures if nothing else they'll give him something nice to look at. Something unspoiled, if not exactly new.
Later, he sees the man who used to run the corner offie sitting under the shade of a dying ash tree, drinking from a magnum bottle. He's got ancient headphones on, the spindly kind with a black Alice band and dodgy foam earpieces; there's an old walkman balanced on one knee.
"Last of my stash," the man says, eyeing Merlin's rucksack. "Trade you a nip if you've got anything interesting."
"Does that do recordings?"
"Dunno." Surprised, the man sets the bottle aside and examines the hunk of dark plastic. "I suppose. It's got a red button."
"I'd rather have that, then." Merlin shifts his rucksack off his shoulders. "What do you want for it?"
There's a painful, crawling moment when Merlin misinterprets the way the man's looking at him, thinks he's either going to attack him, try and rob him of the lot, or ask him for sex.
But it turns out the man's only missing his wife and her fruit pies, his teenage son and their rare Saturdays at the park. "I'm a shit husband," he admits, "and not much of a father, to be honest. Pictured them leaving me a dozen ways, but not this, never this."
Merlin trades him a litre of water, a box of Arthur's disgusting date-flavoured protein bars, and sits with him for an hour or so, bullshitting his way through nostalgia about cricket.
"It should have been you," he says when he finally makes it back to the flat, walkman and headphones clutched to his chest. "I think I've forgot more about that posh scum sport than you'll ever know about where your food comes from. And before you say anything, yes, I know that's not entirely fair – you should get your arse back here to defend yourself, shouldn’t you? – and yes, I did remember extra batteries."
He sits on the bed with a kitchen knife. It feels good, slitting the pack open: a clean sacrifice. He nicks the wrapper on one of the cassettes and peels the plastic away, trying to focus on what he wants to say. Maybe it's the wine – the old man had insisted – but Merlin's feeling the dangerous sort of brave. He decides to start with the worst day.
After a bit of fumbling, he inserts the cassette into the player the right way round and holds it up so his mouth's near the built-in mic. He closes his eyes, presses record.
Deep breath in, then out.
"Lost you in the crowd today… Well, back in June – that fucking day – but it still feels like now. Every morning when I first wake, I think… I stretch a foot out, roll over, and there's nothing there. No shins, no thighs, no place to burrow my head. Just your pillow. Fuck, Arthur, I…" Merlin pauses the recording while he chokes back a sob. He takes another deep breath, wipes his face on his sleeve. Pushes the red button again.
"I'm sorry," he says, bowing his head, pressing it against the walkman. "I thought you were ahead of me. I thought you were on the train, then I couldn’t get off, and then… Well, if you're listening to this, you'll know.
"I did try to go back though. That night, and again the next day when you didn’t show… all that week, in fact, but there were no trains running. Station was crawling with uniforms, wouldn’t tell us anything but to go home and keep calm, to call some bloody hotline if anyone was missing. And I did, I rang twice a day while we still had service, but all they ever said…
"You know what? Fuck what they said. What do you fancy for dinner, hm? Mrs MacLir says the rats are back. I'm sorry to say they don’t taste the least bit like chicken, but I traded the Pendragon-family-emergency vodka for a month's supply of pot noodle flavour packets, so anything's possible."
Day 0 (That Fucking Day)
The horses sense it first, rearing up with panicked, rolling eyes, startling their handlers. Merlin and Arthur lean forward in their seats along with everyone else, wondering what's going on.
There's a sound like thunder. Not from the skies, but rumbling up from below, as if the ground's swallowed something that doesn’t agree with it. It goes beyond the skin, liver-and-bone deep, then everything starts to shake.
"What the…" Merlin clutches Arthur's thigh. "Arthur what the fuck?"
The horses stamp and scream; one bucks its rider and charges straight towards the stands. The rest scatter to the far ends of the tilting grounds, away from the fissure that is opening up in the centre.
"Earthquake," Arthur says, grabbing Merlin's arm, dragging him off his seat, forcing him to his knees. "C'mon, get down – everyone, get down! Cover your heads!"
The woman on the tannoy is saying much the same, chirping on about keeping calm, but she's nearly drowned out by the rising din inside the stadium. Screaming, crying, people shouting into their mobiles. Merlin's being pushed as much as pulled, the man on his other side yelling at him to move.
He clings to Arthur, pointing down at the field. "No, look!"
Through the gaps between shoving bodies they watch the fissure widen into a gaping maw, earth liquefying and falling away into the pit. A glittering mist spews forth, rolling along the ground like waves. There's a long, low note – a horn being blown, though Merlin can’t tell where it's coming from – and for a moment it's as if everything's been put on pause. The noise dies down. The pushing stops.
Then they get a glimpse of something climbing out of the pit.
Merlin is still staring, caught in a half-crouch, when he feels the shaking begin again. This time, however, it's not the earth, but people stampeding for the exits. He narrowly avoids being crushed, only makes it out of their row because Arthur manhandles him over the seatbacks to the one below.
Following some instinct, they keep heading down instead of up, finding gaps in the tide of fleeing bodies.
"There!" Merlin shouts, spotting a group of stewards on the field. They're waving the scattered competitors and their horses towards a tunnel exit in one corner.
They find a mostly-clear row and sprint along it as far as they can, then play leapfrog from seat to seat until they reach the barriers. Arthur launches himself over, landing in a crouch then springing up to check that Merlin's behind him.
"C'mon!" he says, reaching out.
Merlin scrambles over the barrier and grabs his hand. They jog along the edge of the grounds until they reach the tunnel, where they join a fleeing throng of people and horses trying to navigate around arriving emergency vehicles.
By the time they emerge into daylight, they've been forced to a walk, but at least everyone seems to be going in the same direction. Merlin can see mounted police at the edge of the plaza, directing the crowd through bullhorns. He hears the burr and whine of approaching helicopters.
Arthur's slightly in front, using his bulk to push on. Merlin squeezes his hand to get his attention.
"What was that? What's happening?"
Arthur glances back, and Merlin's shocked at the look on his face: not so much dazed or frightened, but utterly lost, brows drawn together over glassy eyes. "I don't know. Merlin, I feel – "
The helicopter noises grow louder. Merlin's heart races. He breaks out in a cold sweat, gripped by one of those impossible sense-memories he used to have as a child.
Flying, not in a machine, but with the wind in his face, rain needling his brow. Wild joy tinged with terror, knowing any moment he might fall. Freedom, but weighted with panic; worried that he won't get there in time.
There's a sudden surge in the crowd. Merlin's shoved sideways, startled from his vision by the feel of Arthur's hand slipping from his grasp.
"No, Arthur!" He tries grabbing for the scarf but that, too, is ripped from his hand as the current of bodies around him shifts, forcing him to one side of a fountain while Arthur's pushed to the other.
"Head for the station," Arthur shouts, gesturing with his scarf hand as he's swept along.
"I'll be right behind you!" Merlin hollers back. But the panic remains, gnawing at his belly, pressing on his lungs. He doesn't know what's happening, can't wrap his mind around what he's seen. Whatever it is, it's not good news. All he knows is that he needs to get back to Arthur.
He cannot lose Arthur.
A woman crushed against him begins to sob hysterically. "Not again!" she cries. "Why is this happening? You promised…"
Merlin's just come off an uneventful shift on lookout – the flow of Camelot refugees is down to a trickle, and there's been no serious hostile threat along their section of the barricades in a couple of weeks – when he hears a sharp whistle.
It's Gwaine, looking in through the canteen door, baton in hand. He jerks his head towards the checkpoint. "C'mon. Trouble on the welcome line."
Merlin sucks down what's left of his bottled water ration, annoyed at having to rush through what's become his favourite part of the day. If the labels are to be believed, the water is from an actual spring in some Nordic paradise where icy mountaintops cavort with cherry blossoms. Merlin likes to imagine himself there frozen in the ice, perfectly clean and cold, having something beautiful to look at as he dies. He pulls on his sun hat, snaps on a fresh mask and jogs after Gwaine.
At the checkpoint, he's not at all surprised to see Val involved, but for once he almost feels sorry for him. The man he's squared off with looks half-feral, shaggy-haired and coated in more than the usual road filth. His teeth are bared in a snarl, and he's brandishing a weapon.
Merlin blinks, thumbing the grit from his eyes, but no, he's not mistaken. It's a fucking sword.
" – off!" the man is shouting. "Give it back! I told you, I'm not staying."
"And I told you, you want to set foot across the border, you put down your fucking weapon and surrender the goods."
"I'm not trying to cross, damn you! I just need to speak to someone, to –"
"Well you're speaking to me now, shithead, and I don't much like your tone."
"Val!" Gwaine barks, holstering his baton. "Stand down." He holds his hands up, then slowly unhooks his mask on one side, a blatant gesture of trust. After all this time, Merlin's still impressed with how natural he makes it look.
"Look, my friend, it's a warm day. You look like you could use some water. Why don’t you put that down, and we can go sit over there and have ourselves a nice chat." He pivots, pointing at the tarp-shaded rest area set up just beyond the checkpoint. He uses the distraction to signal Merlin with his other hand.
Merlin starts edging round, steeling himself for another rough afternoon. No one knows why, he least of all, but the ones who arrive extra broken seem to respond to him. There's a lot of crying, usually shouting, too – Merlin hears a lot of things he wishes he hadn't – but in the end they always come quietly, watching him with wide, puzzled eyes.
"This isn't how it's supposed to be," they'll say, and Merlin, cringing inside, holds their hands and helps them to their cots in quarantine, saying, "I know. It'll be alright now. I promise. You're safe."
Mad or no, this one's no idiot though. He clocks Gwaine's gesture and Merlin's movement. He lowers the sword to hip height, but keeps his weight balanced on his toes.
"I mean you no harm, I swear. But I keep the sword, and your man returns my pack."
Gwaine pretends to consider this. "I'll need to have a look-see, of course. I won't endanger this camp, nor the lands beyond."
"I told you, I'm not the enemy! What could I possibly have in my pack that – " He stops abruptly, shaking his head, then rubbing the spot between his eyebrows. "Very well, I accept…so long as you tell scarecrow action man there it's no use, he's never getting the jump on me."
Gwaine's laugh is well familiar by now, but this is the first time Merlin's had it directed at him. It niggles at some unpleasant memory, sends blood racing to his cheeks. He darts towards Val, grabbing the open pack from his hands and upturning it, giving it a violent shake.
"Well let's fucking see – "
"Careful!" The man lunges towards him, only managing to knock Merlin's hat off before Gwaine and Val push him back.
" – just what the fuck you…" Merlin trails off when he sees what tumbles out.
Torch batteries date-flavoured protein bars flask emergency blanket papers socks jumper first aid kit baby wipes lighter penknife bloody scrolls and – fucking and – a battered ziploc full of cassette tapes. There's another containing a walkman and headphones, the ancient kind: spindly black Alice band and no foam left to speak of.
"Where?" Merlin says. He doesn’t recognise his own voice, doesn't trust himself to look up. He's not getting enough air. He claws at the elastic, rips his mask off and crumples it in one shaking fist. "Where did you get these? Who did you – "
The next thing Merlin knows, he's being enfolded in an overpowering stench and squeezed so hard his ribs ache; there's a shaggy beard scouring his neck and hot breath at his ear, saying, "Merlin…my Merlin, it's you. Is it you? You're really here. Thank god, I…" The pressure lessens a bit. The man lifts his head and pulls back just enough so Merlin can see that, yes, it's his face under the beard and grime, his bright eyes drinking Merlin in.
"Tell your mates to back off, ok?"
"Arthur." Merlin mouths his name, grabbing hold of what's within reach – a solid hip, a handful of greasy jacket – and squeezing back.
Arthur presses their cheeks together, whispers, "Please, I know this'll sound insane, but you've got to trust me. I know why this happened now, and… Merlin, I can kill them. I have. And I know how we make it stop."
* * *
"Do you ever feel like you're… I dunno, like you're trying to do a puzzle with no picture on the box, and you've no idea if you even have all the pieces?"
Merlin sits up, hugging his knees. "Sure, sometimes. But…"
Arthur leans in, nudging Merlin with his shoulder. "What?"
It's only because Arthur's still looking out to sea that Merlin finds the courage to turn his head and openly study the dark shell of an ear, wind-whipped hair and a profile that might have been stamped on coins. Probably was, somewhere back down the genetic line.
"It doesn’t worry me. I'm pretty happy with the pieces I've got."
Merlin doesn't know if it's a memory of an actual conversation or of what he wishes he'd said – it's just as likely they'd said nothing at all, sat there drinking and stuffing their faces with sandy crisps while Merlin stewed in hormonal pining – but there's still a truth to it.
He studies Arthur's sleeping face, older and rougher than it had been that day on the beach, yet no less beautiful, and doesn't know what to do with the hope he's been given. Nor the responsibility.
"What are you thinking?"
Merlin starts, making the cot squeak. He'd forgot how Arthur can just do this: wake instantly. A few lazy blinks and he's back in the world while Merlin frets and wool-gathers, one foot still in his dreams.
"What you told barricade command earlier… Do you really believe it?"
"No. But…" Arthur shifts a fist from beneath his chin and reaches up, uncurling his fingers against Merlin's cheek. "I'm getting there. I've seen it, even felt it, I think, the first time I picked up the sword. A vibration, a…warmth, here." He trails his hand down, tracing the outline of the sharpie, then pushing it aside, nestling his palm on Merlin's chest.
"And when I killed them, they just – " He makes an explosion sound low in his throat, flicking his fingers against Merlin's breastbone. "Like on the telly. But rank. And the air sort of shimmered after."
"But if magic's real, if I'm…" Merlin covers Arthur's hand with his own, interlacing their fingers. Sunburnt knuckles, grubby nails: this life hasn't been easy on hands. "Wouldn’t I know somehow?"
Arthur studies him for a long moment, solemn at first, then with the beginnings of a smile. "Don’t you though? At some level?"
Merlin shrugs. As Arthur's pointed out, he's never been seriously ill. There's the odd way people look at him sometimes, the things they say, but people are quirky – that's the main reason he likes them – and he's always chalked the strange sense-memories up as part of having a vivid imagination.
Arthur's smile grows. He jiggles their hands. "Pretty sure you told me your dick was, once."
Merlin snorts. "Probably trying to convince you to swallow."
He's not thinking about it as he says it, but when he sees Arthur's reaction – sharp inhalation, eyes wide awake – he very much is: Arthur tackling him onto the sofa and pawing his fly open in response to a simple, "And how was your day?" Arthur sinking into a crouch in the shower or, during Sunday lie-ins, making a broad-shouldered ghost under the covers.
"Huh." Arthur bites his bottom lip, gaze roving over Merlin's face. "Isn't memory a funny thing? I don't recall needing much encouragement in that department."
Merlin feels his face flush, the vague pressure in his bladder suddenly overtaken by a different urge entirely. "No," he admits, squeezing Arthur's hand.
So far they've done nothing more than cling to one another, Merlin overwhelmed after the debriefing and Arthur clearly exhausted, but neither of them willing to let the other out of sight. When command had insisted Arthur spend the night in quarantine like any other new arrival, Merlin had strung up a blanket in a corner and pulled two cots together.
They'd fallen asleep crowded onto one.
Merlin tugs and shimmies, torturing the cot frame, until he's got Arthur settled on top of him, one thigh trapped between his own. "Kiss me?"
It's bristly and sour, yet wonderfully familiar, better than any dream. It's the loneliness being pressed out of him, scoured away with lips and tongue.
"This," Merlin says when the kiss ends. "This is what I've missed the most, more than baths. Or trains."
"I know." Arthur ducks his head, nuzzling Merlin's neck, subtly rocking his hips. "I've spent so long imagining it. All of you, here – really here – not just your voice in my ear. The first time I heard that tape… Oh, that was a good one. Fucking revelation. I'd almost forgot my cock was good for more than pissing, forgot there was such a thing as pleasure."
"Isn't that – " Merlin begins to grind upward, then stops. "Shit. Is that what went wrong? We were too busy shagging?"
"No." Arthur stills, then Merlin feels his slow head-shake. "No. They've been planning this for centuries. They hid the Cup of Life from you, fucked with the guardians and messengers. You would have chosen to remember by now. You always do, if you're needed. And you make sure I find the Sword.
"We've had more time, is all, and way more freedom, but this – " Arthur catches an earlobe gently between his teeth, then sucks a hard kiss just behind it. "This is one thing we got right."
Merlin shivers. "So you're saying we…"
"Always, Merlin. Every age." He draws back, looking Merlin in the eye. "Not necessarily my first, but my only, once it's happened. Fucking ridiculous, actually, how much I always want you."
Between the sunburn and the scruff, Merlin can't be certain, but he's willing to bet Arthur's blushing given the look in his eyes. He worms a hand in between them, traces the worry lines and along one eyebrow.
"Now that I wouldn't mind remembering."
"Then say you believe me, that you'll come with me to Cornwall."
"On a...a quest, you called it? For a magical cup?"
Arthur nods. Merlin rolls his eyes but gestures him to go on, and the worry lines fade. His eyes light up.
"I didn’t tell command – couldn't risk it being confiscated – but I have a bicycle. It's stashed in a safe house just beyond the red zone. We can get there in under a week if there's no trouble, and I've been recruiting people to help us."
"You love this, don't you? Playing the hero."
The light fades. Arthur shrugs. "Hasn't felt very heroic, to be honest. Nor like a game. But I suppose it is more exciting than pushing papers."
"Shit, Arthur, I – " Merlin tugs him down, holding him close, rubbing circles on his back. It feels leaner, harder, but his hands remember every dip and curve. He squeezes his eyes shut against the sudden welling of tears. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "It's all so…"
"I know." Arthur's voice sounds strained, but he goes lax in Merlin's arms, giving a soft grunt when Merlin finds a sore spot.
They lie like this for a time, Merlin listening to their heartbeats, tracking Arthur's breath. Gradually, though, he takes note of the murmurs and faint snores of those around them. It's much quieter than it had been on his first night in quarantine; only a quarter of the cots are occupied. Until today, Merlin hadn't considered that the decreasing number of refugees might be a good sign. He'd automatically assumed the worst – that there was no one left capable of making the journey, no one worth saving – and hates that this is what's become of him.
"You were right," Arthur had said earlier, in between gulps of Nordic paradise water and spoonfuls of rehydrated stew. " 'Talking to myself' side A. Two different things that work together. That's us, Merlin. We do serve a purpose – we can, if you'll agree to help."
"So," Merlin says, "all I have to do is drink from it, and I'll remember how to…fix all of this somehow?" He sighs, releasing Arthur. "Where to even fucking start."
"No, dollophead." Arthur heaves himself up on one elbow, cupping Merlin's jaw, giving it a gentle shake. "You're magic, not a god."
Merlin opens his mouth to cry nickname-thievery, but Arthur's one step ahead of him. This kiss is devastatingly soft and precise, the kind of perfect tease that used to make his knees wobble and his head swim. Does, still.
"You counter the destructive magic," Arthur murmurs. "Seal the undergates, heal the land, end the damn drought. Then it's up to us ordinary folk to sort out the mess we've made in response. Try and pick up the pieces, maybe build something better."
Arthur cradles Merlin's face, brow furrowing. "Unless…"
"Unless what?" Merlin whispers.
"Unless you want to create an army of the undead and take over the world. Because this one scroll I found suggests you can use the Cup to do that, too, but I'm not sure I approve."
Merlin's grinning, angling for another kiss when the absurdity of it all sinks in and he's overcome by laughter. It starts as a quiver in the pit of his belly and shakes loose, convulsing limbs and making it hard to breathe.
"No," he gasps. "Not zombies. That's a whole other apocalypse. Special occasion, yeah?"
Arthur catches the laughing jag. Just a chuckle at first, a bumpy, raspy sound that deepens until his real laugh breaks free: bright guffaws that verge on braying. The cot frame squeals in protest as they jounce it up and down. There's a swell of muttering from beyond their corner, a couple of groans, and an irate, "Pipe the fuck down, will you? People are trying to sleep."
They cover their mouths, snorting, until the jag has passed.
"A quest it is," Merlin says when he's got his breath back. "What're our chances, do you think?"
Arthur smirks down at him, prods the tip of his nose. "Found the sword, didn’t I? And the tapes. That's two for two."
Merlin forgoes reminding Arthur that, by his own admittance, he'd found the sword by chance – smashed a case after taking refuge in the national archives, grabbed up the first likely thing – and that barricade command is still split over whether he's their messiah or batshit insane. All he knows is that he hasn't felt so alive in months.
"Three for three," Merlin says, capturing Arthur's hand and bringing it to his lips, then bumping their noses together.