Pairings: Merlin/Arthur, brief Arthur/other
Warnings: Flangst; sort-of-but-not-really infidelity (Arthur/other); references to past character death; reincarnation; sex
Summary: In which Arthur is reborn and Merlin remembers how to live
Thanks: to maybelater__ for the beta/cheerleading/letting me ignore the WiP I'm supposed to be writing
Mumbai paints Merlin red and gold.
Arthur kisses the monsoon off Merlin’s shoulders, counting his breaths with simple, fierce concentration, because for Arthur, time is strung together like this: from one heartbeat to the next.
The heat smooths away all of their edges; they explode in a kaleidoscope of color and want, flavored with saffron and thick, sweet yogurt. And when they fall away from each other, it’s all right, because all it means is that Merlin reaches for him again, speaking a language Arthur doesn’t know but thinks he understands.
Four days in Mumbai, and on the fifth morning, Arthur wakes up to find Merlin gone.
The dawn spills through the windows, washing them in hushed golds and pale pinks. Their hotel room is all fragile glass, a fishbowl with the sun peering in, a much-wanted intruder, drenching them in a summer that’s almost as sultry as Merlin’s messy kisses, almost as hot as Merlin’s slow touches.
Everything is languid, honey-thick: they find their rhythm here, in the early Beijing morning.
When Merlin comes, the perfect lines of his back curve into an impossible, beautiful arch, and for Arthur, it’s a bit like falling and never wanting to reach the ground.
And afterward, when Arthur is tucking him in with long, lingering touches, Merlin blinks sleepily into the noon sunshine and says, “I love you,” dazed and easy, like he’s said it a thousand times before.
Then don’t leave me, is what Arthur thinks, fingering the beginnings of a bruise on Merlin’s hip, red from where Arthur seared his praise and love and worship into Merlin’s skin.
He doesn’t say it aloud, though; he doesn’t think Merlin would hear him.
All that remains of Merlin in Vienna is a cramped hotel room with shabby furniture and a few Indian rupees on the nightstand. They’re bright, a mishmash of red and blue, and the edges are curling in sighing abandonment; they mean nothing here, where the November sun limns Hofburg Palace with soft ivory.
Arthur fingers them idly and wonders if this is how Merlin comes undone (one city at a time).
They’re on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea and Merlin is standing too close to the edge.
Arthur hates Athens, this decaying city of marble and limestone and fallen gods. He hates the way Merlin walks among them, the way these temples feel like mausoleums. He hates the way Merlin is toeing the edge of the cliff with his trainer, as if it’s the edge of the world.
Arthur reaches out, fists at Merlin’s shirt, bunching it up at the small of his back. “You’re going to fall.”
“I want to fall,” Merlin says.
“Don’t,” Arthur says. “I don’t want you to.”
Merlin looks at him. His lashes are dark sweeps against his skin; they pick up gossamer threads of sunlight, and when he smiles, it’s almost real.
“I think I’m going mad,” Merlin says after a moment, hushed and private, like a secret.
Maybe they’re both going mad, Arthur thinks, looking out at the fishing boats bobbing in the water, like the little toy sailboats Arthur’s mother used to give him for his bath when he was four and Merlin just a relic from years gone by, or perhaps years that never were.
Because surely this is madness: wanting someone who doesn’t want anything.
In Bucharest, there’s this exchange, huddled together on a bus, not sure if they’re coming or going:
“I wish you’d stop chasing me,” Merlin says, looking pale and ill in the bright city lights.
Arthur says: “I wish you’d stop running away.”
New York City, Arthur thinks, is a bit like a disease.
It has its own absurd rainbow: electric greens and violent oranges and shocking pinks that don’t go together but collide anyway. There’s no such thing as sleep here; one o’clock in the morning and the skies are lit up, bright as the day. Arthur thinks that he might be dreaming these streets that never end.
It’s not until he gets lost that he finds Merlin, looking impossibly young and sitting on steps that fade into darkness. He’s wearing a worn black hoodie, his head bowed like he thinks that if he tries hard enough, he can melt into a shadow.
Arthur sits next to him. Merlin doesn’t look up.
Arthur curls a hand around the cast iron railing, and falls asleep to the blare of a siren, always going somewhere and never reaching it. At first, Merlin’s arm, a long, hot line against his, seems like a part of it all, something out of a dream, but then Merlin says brokenly,
“I killed you. I’m sorry.”
And Arthur wakes up.
They share a cigarette, tucked close together in a train station, watching Marrakesh burn with the sunrise.
“You couldn’t save me,” Arthur tells him. “It’s not the same thing.”
Merlin says, “Isn’t it?”
Arthur kisses smoke into Merlin’s mouth. “No,” he says, hooking a finger into the neck of Merlin’s shirt and pulling gently to bare his shoulder, wanting to watch the sun gild him in gold. “No, it’s not at all the same,” he says, warm and happy in these precious moments. Tomorrow he’ll wake up to cold, empty sheets, but today there’s just this.
Arthur traces his knuckles down the curve of Merlin’s throat, trembling and chilled with the morning, and he leans in close. He knows all of Merlin’s smiles and he loves them all dearly, but it’s this that he loves best: the moment right before Merlin smiles, the way his face goes bright, like a black-and-white photo suddenly infused with color.
“I love you,” Merlin says, fingers light over Arthur’s heart, reverent as a prayer. “But it’s not enough.”
Arthur doesn’t watch him leave.
He wanders through Cape Town, drinking too much wine, letting the summer unravel him at the seams.
The city is hazy with heat, and Arthur is starving for something he can’t have, and so when someone kisses him, just a flash of a slick, neon pink mouth, he lets her. He wraps her hair around his fingers like ribbons, and he leans in until all he can see is the blur of white cheek, the gloss of dark hair.
The next morning, a fire starts in Table Mountain and tumbles into the fringes of the city.
Arthur wakes up with the taste of ash in his mouth.
He gives up on Cape Town. There’s nothing for him here.
It takes Arthur three days and what’s left of his bank account to get to Sao Paulo.
Merlin meets him at the airport, the sharp planes of his face folded up like origami. There’s a battered duffel bag at his feet and a crumpled boarding pass in his hand.
“Where are you going?” Arthur demands.
“Away,” Merlin says shortly.
Arthur reaches out to see if he can chase away the sooty shadows under Merlin’s eyes. He wonders how Merlin has lived like this for centuries, dying a bit more for every day that he’s meant to live.
Merlin startles, skittish as a baby bird learning how to fly. “Don’t,” he says, trembling under the stark white lights. “You’re not real.” His voice is frayed at the edges, desperate, and Arthur wants to know who broke him, and whether it was here, under the bright Sao Paulo sunshine, or whether it was in Marrakesh’s spice markets, licking curry powder off each other’s tongues. Or maybe it was in Greece, watching the temples collapse, or perhaps – perhaps it all started in Mumbai, somewhere in between the thunderstorms and finding the map of his world in Merlin’s skin.
Arthur wants to know when Merlin broke, and how he’s supposed to put him back together.
This place had another name, once. Arthur wishes he could remember what it was.
He’s a month too late, he knows this. It had been two weeks, kicking around Sao Paulo, before he’d found a way out through vaguely illicit means. There was a night in Belize, in a shitty hotel room that may as well have been a prison cell, and then another week zigzagging across the Atlantic, looking over his shoulder for someone who was never there.
(He’s a month too late, now, but it doesn’t matter, because in the end, Merlin will always end up here.)
He doesn’t have a map, but that doesn’t seem to matter either; he follows the river, hand shading out the sun. He’s done this before, he thinks, but he was older then: older and wiser and he’d known when to hold on and when he was supposed to let go.
He’s younger now. He’s forgotten how to let go and he never, ever wants to remember.
When Arthur finally finds Merlin on an utterly unremarkable hilltop, the day is in the final moments of the sunset and the sky has wrapped Merlin in Arthur’s colors – the deepest of reds and the faintest glimmer of gold.
Merlin’s voice is hoarse, as if he’s been in agony for years (and maybe he has): “I can’t remember.”
“Does it matter?” asks Arthur.
Merlin knots his thin, trembling fingers in his hair, yanking hopelessly. “Yes,” he says, “I – it’s been centuries, and I’ve always known, I memorized the exact coordinates even though it didn’t matter, I always just knew, I could feel it – where you died.” His mouth is trembling too, his entire face is, shifting between something otherworldly and something childish and terrified, and Arthur hates the world for that, for leaving Merlin alone and unloved for so long.
“I can’t remember,” Merlin says, low and urgent, his words tangling up in each other, fast and rushed and despairing: “I watched you die. And I can’t – I had nightmares for years, and then the only way to stop the nightmares was to stop sleeping, so I did that, but I remembered everything for so long, and now I don’t – I can’t remember any of it. I was there, I must’ve been there, and you died, you’re dead, but I don’t remember how or where, I don’t remember any of it!”
“Maybe,” Arthur says, “that’s the problem. Maybe you’re focusing too much on how I died. Maybe you should start dreaming about how we lived.”
Merlin shuts his eyes, and Arthur reaches up to trace the curve of his cheek in the space between them.
“You’re not real,” Merlin says tiredly, more to himself than Arthur. “But I wish you were.”
Arthur thinks of Beijing, their sheets slicker and hotter than the summer that hissed and snapped at the windows, begging to be let in. He thinks of Marrakesh, watching the sun adore Merlin almost as much as Arthur does. He thinks of Mumbai, the sweet smell of jasmine underneath the thunderstorm.
Arthur has never felt anything more real than that, never felt more alive.
He reaches for Merlin’s duffle bag, farther down the hill, like Merlin had cast it away in disgust. There are no clothes in here, no carefully packed toiletries. No, the bag is filled with books: some are worn, the pages yellowed with age, and others are crisp and new, covered in florid colors and anachronistic patterns. Merlin carries the stories of their lives with him wherever he goes, as false as these stories may be.
Arthur finds the book he wants and goes back to Merlin, and he thinks that he may have died here, but this is where they’ll start living again.
“What’s this?” Merlin says suspiciously when Arthur presses the book into his hands, and Arthur asks,
“What makes this book real?”
“It’s not,” Merlin informs him. “I do not have an obnoxious talking owl, and also, Lancelot was quite good-looking.”
“I am mad with jealousy,” Arthur says. “Which of these stories do you believe?”
Merlin looks at the duffle bag, open and spilling secrets that were never theirs, just use their names.
“None of them,” he says cautiously, like he’s afraid that Arthur is erecting walls around him, trying to cage him in.
“Then why,” Arthur says softly, “do you carry them around if they’re pretend? And why do you run away from the only thing that might actually be real?”
Merlin stares at him, wrecked, the moon silvering his face. “I don’t know,” he says, helpless. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And then Merlin says, breath warm against Arthur’s face, “I don’t want to keep running.”
“Don’t, then,” Arthur says, because it’s that simple, so simple.
Merlin fists his hands in Arthur’s shirt, this barest of touches heating Arthur’s skin. “Is this real?”
“Yes,” Arthur says, and, “I love you,” and, “we’ve had our once, this time is our future.”
When Merlin kisses him, he tastes a bit like the Marrakesh spice markets, a bit like the Sao Paulo sunshine. He tastes like the early morning fog in Beijing and the hazy, late-night incense that hung in the streets of Mumbai. He tastes like old Greek magic and New York electricity. He tastes like snatches of the entire world, sweet and thrilling and amazing, and Arthur had once died for Camelot, but now all he wants is to live for Merlin.
And here, among these nameless hills that buried their legends long ago, Merlin and Arthur put each other back together.
(One piece at a time.)
1. The title is inspired by the N.P. Willis poem, "A Poem Read at Brown University"
2. The line "New York City, Arthur thinks, is a bit like a disease" is inspired by (okay, shamelessly stolen from) the song "New York City", by Norah Jones and the Peter Malick Group