Arthur calls Merlin in Mongolia.
“You’re in Mongolia,” Arthur says. “Why are you in Mongolia.”
“Maybe I’m visiting family,” Merlin says brightly.
“You’re not Mongolian.”
“I could be,” Merlin says, sounding terribly wronged. “I could’ve been raised by a sheep-herder. I could’ve grown up among sheep.”
“That would explain a lot,” Arthur says, and thinks of Merlin, lazing in the endless sea of grass, the sun wrapping him in summer warmth. Arthur is in Singapore and it’s been three weeks since that night in Copenhagen, trying to stretch the minutes into hours because they didn’t know when they would be able to meet up again.
(It’s a six-hour direct flight from Singapore to Ulaanbaatar, Arthur knows this.)
“Rumor has it that you’re taking the job in Seoul,” Arthur says.
Merlin is quiet for a moment, and that silence is in a language Arthur still doesn’t know how to read.
“I am,” Merlin says.
Arthur says flatly, “There’s a reason no one’s taken that job. It’s impossible.”
“My favorite kind of odds,” Merlin says, and how Arthur hates him when he gets like this: careless.
“The mark’s a paranoid billionaire agoraphobe,” Arthur says, tone edged with irritation. “You’ll never be able to get close enough, he’s got a team of bodyguards, all of whom have been with the family for years, he hasn’t made a public appearance in two decades, the house’s security system is attuned to—”
“It does sound difficult,” Merlin says cheerfully.
“It’s a fucking accident waiting to happen,” Arthur says.
“Probably,” Merlin agrees.
Arthur’s head hurts. “You’ll need a partner. Look, we can meet up in Bangkok and—”
“I’ve already got a partner lined up, actually,” Merlin says, casual. “Don’t worry about it. Listen, Arthur, I’ve got to go, there are marks to kill, cows to milk, sheep to herd—”
“Merlin,” Arthur says.
“And frankly,” Merlin says, voice cooling by at least five degrees – and Arthur can picture him now, his jaw held tense and the corners of his mouth curled down, young and sure (but not Arthur’s, never Arthur’s) – “it’s not any of your business.”
Arthur looks out the window at Singapore, spread out sleek and clean, a hodgepodge of light and color. A festival has spilled out onto the street outside Arthur’s hotel, all electric blues and shocking pinks.
Singapore is beautiful and Arthur’s here to desecrate it.
“You’re right,” Arthur says, and if his voice sounds distant, odd – well. It’s not like Merlin will notice.
“Shit,” Merlin says. “Arthur—”
Arthur hangs up and tells himself there’s no reason for it to hurt this much, it shouldn’t hurt this much.
Except, it does.
When they meet up again, it’s on a rooftop in Nairobi, underneath the stars.
It’s been two years since Beijing, Arthur thinks, watching the night douse the city. Two years of running in circles, chasing after something he doesn’t think he’ll ever reach. Two years of always being the one to watch Merlin leave, two years of being in love with someone who doesn’t know what the word means.
Arthur is twenty-nine and he’s so, so tired.
He remembers being six-years-old on Christmas morning, bursting into his parents’ room to find them inexplicably asleep at five in the morning. He remembers being appalled that they were sleeping through Christmas, it had already been Christmas for five entire hours, and he remembers what they looked like in those peaceful moments before he woke them up, on their respective sides of the bed, not touching except for where their hands were knotted loosely together as if they couldn’t bear the idea of not holding onto each other, even when they were lost to dreams.
He remembers being seven and huddled underneath a tree, cold and miserable as the storm washed the park into a blur of grey, all because his mother had woken up that morning and decided a picnic lunch was in order. He remembers exchanging doubtful glances with his father because the skies had already gone colorless with the threat of rain, and he remembers his father agreeing to the picnic anyway, leaning close to his mother and telling her very seriously that her smile was bright enough to chase storms away. (He’d been wrong, but it hadn’t seemed to matter.)
He remembers being eight, the week before his mother had died. He remembers the hospital, all sterile white walls and hushed whispers and food that tasted like dust. He remembers his father telling his grandmother to Take Arthur, I can’t leave, I can’t, what if she wakes up and asks for me, even though his mother hadn’t asked for anyone, hadn’t even woken up for two weeks. He remembers his father pressing a dry kiss to his mother’s cheek, and he remembers thinking that she’ll wake up any moment now, just like Sleeping Beauty. (She hadn’t, of course, but Arthur had waited.)
He remembers Lance and Gwen’s wedding in France, Lance’s hands trembling as he lifted Gwen’s veil, reverent, like he was unwrapping a present he didn’t think he deserved. Arthur remembers thinking that Lance was being stupid, because Gwen, Gwen had looked radiant and so happy, and when she’d lifted her face to Lance’s, it had been like a flower turning its face to the spring sun.
He remembers when Morgana would come home from university for the holidays, always dragging a new boyfriend along to wither away under Arthur’s father’s glare. It was a new one each set of holidays, and maybe even a new one each week, but the thing was that Morgana had always been truly and deeply in love with each one of them, even if she couldn’t keep their names straight. She was in love with being in love, she would tell Arthur, it was the most wonderful feeling in the world.
No one, not his father or his mother or Lance or Gwen or Morgana – no one had ever said love was like this. No one had ever told him that love was a bit like drowning, and that unrequited love was a bit like drowning and knowing with perfect clarity that no one was going to save you.
Merlin lights a cigarette. It flares blue-gold.
He says, “The thing is – I’m in love with you.”
The words are a little bit like the streak of electricity that is a city surrounded by desert: wrong.
Arthur says, “Tell me all the lies you like. Just not that one.”
Merlin doesn’t listen to him. He never does.
“I know it’s not what you pictured. I know you want something more – polite.”
“Polite,” Arthur says.
“Conventional, then. You want a house in the countryside and you want people to refer to us as ArthurandMerlin. You want hordes of little blond children and a wedding in the south of Italy.”
“That,” Arthur says, “is not what I want. Mostly I just want you to stop shooting at me.”
Merlin looks up at the stars. Arthur doesn’t think he’s looking for anything in particular; he’s just looking away.
“Maybe,” Merlin says quietly. “Maybe not. But it’s all the same in the end – I can’t give it to you.”
Arthur knows that. He’s always known that. Still, he says, “Why not?”
The moonlight catches on Merlin’s lashes, silvers his face. He looks almost ugly in it.
“You don’t know me at all, do you,” Merlin says abruptly. “I’m twenty-four, Arthur. And I’m not like you, I’m not – I’m not jaded to this. I love it, I love waking up in a new country every week, I love the adrenaline that runs through you after a job goes well. I love the seedy hotel rooms and the yachts and almost getting killed and knowing that I should stop while I’m ahead and not being able to. I love taking jobs I’m not sure I’ll live through and I love – I love being on my own, getting to do whatever I want. I don’t – my mother thinks I’m dead, Arthur, because that’s how I want it. Because this is everything to me.”
Merlin looks at his cigarette, the smoke curling unhappily around his thin fingers.
“I love you,” he says, sounding tired. “But it’s not enough. It won’t ever be.”
Arthur looks down at his hands. He hadn’t realized they were shaking.
He says: “I can wait. Christ, Merlin, I’ve already waited a year, ever since Buenos Aires—”
“Buenos Aires,” Merlin says, flat. “I’ve loved you ever since Beijing. Do you – do you see?”
“Beijing,” Arthur says slowly. He can’t breathe.
“It doesn’t matter,” Merlin says. “Because I hate it. I hate – I hate feeling this way. I can’t – I don’t want this. When we were in Cyprus, I passed up a job in Los Angeles and I felt like shit because I need this, it’s part of me, it is me. You – I love you but I can’t need you like that. I don’t want to.”
He shuts his eyes, lashes a dark, delicate sweep against his cheek.
And he says, “I’ll always need this more than you. And I know I’ve done it all wrong, except for a while I thought that maybe I could have both, that I could just keep everything separate. And then – you called me in Mongolia about the Seoul job and I realized that it doesn’t work like that, I can’t just tuck you away into your own compartment and pull you out whenever I fancy it.”
And he says, “I hate hurting you, but I don’t think I can stop.”
And he says, “We have to end this, whatever it is. It’s the only way.”
“End it,” Arthur says. His voice sounds odd, foreign to his ears.
(He can think of a million reasons for why he should let Merlin go.
The thing is, he doesn’t want to.)
“It’s not what either of us wants,” Merlin says. “There’s no point in making this difficult.”
“Right,” Arthur says.
“If I were someone else,” Merlin says wistfully.
“I wouldn’t want you,” Arthur says. “If you were someone else.”
Merlin gets to his feet. He says, “I know,” and, “I’m going to Seoul. I think you should go in the opposite direction. Spend Christmas in New York.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything. He can’t.
Merlin looks at him – Merlin, who isn’t Arthur’s (even when he was). “Fuck,” Merlin says, and bends down to slide his mouth against Arthur’s. He tastes like the smoke from his cigarette: he tastes like goodbye. “See you,” Merlin says.
He doesn’t mean it.
Merlin throws down his cigarette and leaves, ducking back into the building.
The cigarette is still smoldering, flickering. Arthur watches it for a while.
Then he reaches over and puts it out.
And these are the days after:
Christmas blurs into the sort of haze that can only be provided by Scotch with a nine-syllable name, and Arthur spends it in Madrid, watching the city kaleidoscope around him until the neon greens collide with the pale purples, until the alcohol is roaring in his ears, until the world shrinks to just this: his cheek against the cold tile, his hand curled around a too-empty glass, one heartbeat and then the next.
(Lance calls him. Says, “I thought you were coming over for Christmas,” and, “where are you?”
Arthur says, “I don’t know.”)
He calls Sophie.
He says, “How did it feel, when I told you it wouldn’t work out with us?”
“Horrible,” she says softly, voice silvered by the drowsy French night. “Like I wanted to die.”
“But you’re fine now,” Arthur says. “You got over it. You don’t love me anymore.”
Sophie doesn’t say anything.
His mobile rings with a job offer from Beijing.
He can’t. Not Beijing. Anywhere but Beijing.
New Year’s Eve is back in London, the city lit bright as the day.
Color knifes through the night sky, and Arthur watches the fireworks from his hotel room window. He has a flat here, somewhere in the mess that is London at night, but he can’t go back there. Merlin never spent any time in Arthur’s London flat, except Arthur remembers leaning against the balcony railing, Merlin’s voice pouring in from Zimbabwe or Uganda or wherever he was.
(“Tell me a secret,” Merlin says.
I love you, Arthur thinks, but, “All of my passport aliases are named after Dickens characters,” is what he says.
Merlin says, “I already knew that. You’re shit at this.”
“Tell me a secret, then,” Arthur says.
And Merlin goes quiet, so quiet that Arthur thinks the connection might’ve cut out. But he says,
“I think about you. Sometimes.”
Afterwards – in Prague, in Vienna, in Cyprus – they don’t talk about it.
It isn’t much, after all, isn’t a promise or a vow. But Arthur remembers.)
There’s a girl in Paris, her blue-black hair spilling into Arthur’s hands, across his wrists.
He bends her over the table in his hotel room, buries his face in her shoulder when he comes.
And if her shoulder is wet when they fall away from each other – she doesn’t say anything about it.
Gwaine calls him and says, “Your lad just did a quick turnaround to Shanghai. He’s back in Seoul now.”
Arthur says, “He’s not my lad.”
“Do you want me to stop tracking him, then?” Gwaine says, easy as that.
Arthur is in Vienna, trying to remember what it looked like before Merlin kissed him, there – on that bridge – under a streetlamp, looking otherworldly, not quite real. Arthur thinks that Vienna must’ve been duller back then. Before Merlin infused it with color.
“Arthur,” Gwaine says.
(Arthur has never been very good at letting go.)
He says, “Yes. You should stop tracking him.”
And, honestly, it’s a bit like falling apart.
Lance tells him that he needs a break.
“I’m fine,” Arthur says.
“You haven’t fucked up a job that badly – ever,” Lance says. “Even when you were twenty-three and you didn’t know which way you’re supposed to point your gun.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur says again.
“It’ll get better,” Gwen says when Lance despairingly hands the phone off to her. “Arthur.”
“Sure,” Arthur tells her. “Of course it will.”
(The thing is – it’s been two months. Two months and nothing’s better yet.)
He’s on a train, somewhere between Bucharest and Zagreb. It’s three o’clock in the morning in whatever time zone Arthur’s sleep schedule is still synchronized to.
When his mobile rings, he thinks that maybe he expected this, maybe he had known this would happen as early as June, but certainly by December. Definitely by December.
Her English is shitty, but Arthur’s Korean is worse.
The words are absurdly clinical, absurdly metallic. Arthur thinks that it’s funny, isn’t it, that a nurse at a hospital would have mastered the same monotone that Arthur’s voice drops into right after a kill.
He catches a few words, like plucking raindrops out of a cloud.
He says, “I can be in Seoul by Friday.”
And if Arthur has to lock himself in a bathroom stall in the airport, has to put his head between his knees and remember how to breathe – well, it’s not as if anyone’s there to see him.
Four layovers, vodka that burns on the way down as well as on the way back up, so little sleep that the world starts to bleed color – raging blues, yellows as bright as the sun, and the worst of it is the reds, blood so real that it starts to look fake, reds that Arthur can’t stop seeing even when he shuts his eyes – and the huge skyscrapers that dwindle into cloudless winter skies:
For Arthur, this is Seoul.
He doesn’t remember the stretch of time between the airport and the hospital, just snatches of it: stumbling off the plane, checking his mobile because surely the hospital would’ve called him if – if anything had happened, if anything had changed between Beijing and Seoul. He must’ve caught a taxi, must’ve got to the hospital okay because now he’s here.
Two hospital beds, only one of them occupied. The white, white lights. That sickly sterile smell.
And the only thing that he can think is fuck, fuck fuck fuck they must’ve – is anyone watching why isn’t anyone here don’t they know that he’s dead—
And who will even come to the funeral, Arthur wonders, dizzy. Maybe he can get a hold of Merlin’s mother, won’t that be hilarious, she can watch her son die again, and Lance and Gwen would come, and that’s good because Gwen will know what to do about the flowers, and maybe Arthur can track down some of those men and women tucked into the corners of the world, the ones that got to have Merlin for a few days here and there because they didn’t mind watching Merlin leave, because unlike Arthur, they didn’t mind letting go.
They’ll have the funeral in Istanbul because Arthur thinks that Merlin loved Istanbul, or, no, that’s not right, he had a flat in Istanbul but that doesn’t mean he loves – no no no, he’s getting all the tenses wrong, and – shit.
The sob catches in his throat, as if snagged on a nail, and Merlin is – oh God, was – twenty-four, twenty-four, you’re not supposed to be dead at twenty-four, and none of this is fair it’s not fair how can any of this be fair?
The funeral should be in Cyprus, Arthur thinks with sudden, perfect clarity. Merlin loved Cyprus.
And because Merlin has always been difficult, it figures that once Arthur has got the details for the funeral all sorted out in his head, Merlin blinks his eyes open and says irritably, “Oh my God, what are you doing here?”
It’s been twenty-five hours since Arthur last slept. He wonders if this is a hallucination or a dream.
He wonders if there’s any difference.
“I thought you were dead,” Arthur says, accusing.
“Well, I’m not,” Merlin says, and that may be empirically true, but Merlin looks pale in this paler room, as if these stark white lights and these bare white walls have leeched all the color out of him. He’s all jutting elbows and bony knees, his skin gone to translucence, to fragility. He looks like one of the china dolls Morgana used to have as a child, the ones she was always breaking because she was never careful enough with them; Merlin looks like he’s been taken apart and haphazardly put back together by someone who didn’t quite know where everything should go.
“You look terrible,” Arthur says, and he thinks that he should go over there, there’s all this space between them, except he has to wait for Merlin to tell him it’s okay, because Merlin tells him to walk and Arthur runs; that’s all he’s ever done. It’s all he can do.
“I got shot in the back,” Merlin informs him. “Did you just come here to insult me or—”
“No,” Arthur says, and he’s so tired, it’s been three days of zigzagging across Asia because he couldn’t get a fucking direct flight on such short notice, it’s been three days of trying to remember if the woman on the phone had said he’s fine or he’s dying, three days of trying to picture all the various, horrible ways it could have gone: Merlin on his back, bleeding into the snow, Merlin’s delicate wrists being snapped by a paranoid billionaire who figured Merlin couldn’t bother him again if he didn’t have hands, Merlin’s broken body being tossed into the river, taken away with the tide and swept out to the sea.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, quiet, almost sweet, and Arthur hates everything, the whole world.
(He remembers being eight and his father whispering into his mother’s curved palm, I won’t leave you, I promise, and he remembers thinking that that was what love was.
He remembers a rooftop in Nairobi, and thinking Merlin would never understand love as Arthur did. Remembers thinking that if it were Merlin dying of a disease that had given eight-year-old Arthur more nightmares than all the monsters in the world, Arthur wouldn’t leave him.
Except – Arthur had left, hadn’t he.)
“I should’ve,” Arthur says, and he knows that now’s not the time but he can’t help it, can’t stop—“I shouldn’t have told Gwaine to stop tracking you, I should’ve told him to look closer at the job, because then we would’ve seen where you were compromised—”
Merlin laughs, tired. “Now everything makes sense,” he says. “Like you randomly showing up in Budapest.”
Arthur reaches out before he knows what he’s doing, carefully curves his hand against Merlin’s cheek.
Merlin leans into the touch, a little startled, but he looks pleased, and Arthur feels desperate, helpless, the way he does when Merlin looks at him like that, his eyes bright and his smile sweet, as if this moment is somehow separate from all the rest, as if in this moment, there’s only them, just them. As if Arthur is all Merlin could ever want, even though that isn’t true. Merlin wants the sky, wants the sun and the moon and the stars, and Arthur can’t give that to him.
Arthur says, “Budapest was your own fault. You didn’t even bother to use an alias.”
“Merlin is an alias,” Merlin says, and he pulls away long enough to lace Arthur’s fingers with his.
“No, it’s not,” Arthur says. “That’s your real name.”
Merlin looks briefly vexed and then says, “I knew you were in Bucharest. You slipped up, used the same credit card you used in Cyprus.”
And Arthur says, “I wasn’t hiding from you.”
Merlin looks intensely interested in the way they’ve twined their fingers together; he looks like he did in Nairobi, where they were under the stars instead of these bright white lights: he looks almost carefully distant, terribly casual, as if he knows that just one word from him will break Arthur’s heart (has already broken Arthur’s heart because it wasn’t just Nairobi, was it, there was Paris and Vienna and Prague and Istanbul and Budapest and the whole world, because at some point, Arthur started finding the map of his world in Merlin’s skin).
Merlin looks up, looks horribly ill and Arthur loves him, thinks that he’ll never, ever let him go.
Merlin says, “Stay with me,” and Arthur says,
This is the rest of Seoul:
Merlin sleepily pressing the question, “How’d you find me, anyway?” into Arthur’s neck, hand stroking in time to the lilt of Arthur’s pulse, like the pitter-patter of Arthur’s heart is a song he knows all the lyrics to.
“The hospital called me,” Arthur says. “Apparently you carry my number around in your wallet.”
Merlin says, somewhat defensively, “Only because I haven’t bothered to program it into my mobile.”
“Hmm,” Arthur muses. “The woman also said you had it framed in tiny pink hearts.”
“I hate you,” Merlin informs him. “I hate you and I hate this conversation.”
“Go to sleep,” Arthur tells him, indulgent, and Merlin does. He’s probably half-asleep already when he says,
“I’m glad you’re here,”
but Arthur will take what he can get.
Falling asleep together on the too-small hospital bed because the other one is too far away, and Merlin telegraphing all the words that he doesn’t say onto Arthur’s skin, because they’re better with these slow, lingering touches than they’ve ever been at talking. Arthur is too careful and Merlin is never careful enough, but they manage to curl around each other, and when Arthur drifts off to sleep, it’s with Merlin’s breaths in his ear, too close and too warm and very, very wanted.
And in the morning:
Waking up to the sun slanting in through the blinds, the morning creeping into their dreams, and the doctor coming in to tell them that the wounds are healing nicely, the bullet went through cleanly, that they can go but Merlin should make sure he has access to a doctor because you never know, and also to take it easy for a few months in a way that mostly means the doctor would prefer that Merlin not get shot at.
Merlin says, “I have a flat in Istanbul,” and Arthur says,
“Your flat is infested with cockroaches, Merlin.”
“Only the downstairs,” Merlin mutters rebelliously, which is true, if not exactly persuasive.
Arthur says, “We’ll go to London.”
Merlin looks appalled. “I am not moving in with you,” he says.
But he doesn’t say anything else, which Arthur takes as meaning that Merlin is pleased but also too embarrassed to let Arthur know that he’s pleased. In the taxi, Merlin says with outraged dignity,
“I’m being abducted, you realize, you are abducting me against my will.”
Arthur traces the lines on Merlin’s palm, wondering if this is how their lives start.
“It could be worse,” he says. “I could’ve brought the handcuffs, but I left them in London.”
Merlin turns to look out the window, but Arthur sees the shape of his smile in the reflection.
And on the plane:
Watching Seoul drop away below them, glimmering like champagne in the sun, and Merlin slumped in his seat, looking wan in the dim cabin lights. He looks tired, here in the stale grey air of the airplane, more tired than he looked in Seoul. Arthur asks him if he’s in pain and Merlin just blinks at him, like he’d forgotten that Arthur was there.
Merlin says, “I just – I haven’t been back to London. Since I left.”
“It’ll be all right,” Arthur says, feeling utterly useless, and he feels even more useless when Merlin just presses his cheek against the cold window and shuts his eyes.
“Of course it will,” Merlin says, but the bravado is clumsy.
Arthur reaches out to – to touch him, but it’s so confusing because there had always been all these boundaries between them, lines that Merlin had drawn, lines that Arthur had got used to, but now they’re all muddled up and he doesn’t know what he’s allowed to do anymore.
He settles for his palm on Merlin’s knee, light, unsure. Merlin opens his eyes and Arthur feels startled, embarrassed, starts to withdraw his hand, tries to redraw the boundary lines in his head, but then Merlin’s hand is covering his, Merlin’s fingers curling in the spaces between Arthur’s fingers, and Arthur realizes –
two months ago, Nairobi, Merlin saying I love you –
there aren’t any boundary lines. Not anymore.
When they get into London, they crawl into bed and sleep for twenty-two hours straight.
And when Arthur wakes, it’s to skies that are orange with the lingering afternoon and violet with the encroaching evening. It’ll take a few days to get back into the rhythm that is London, and longer for London to feel like home. But looking around his flat – barren, really, save for the dining table, the sofa, the bed, the stack of plastic crates that does a marvelous imitation of a coffee table – he thinks that maybe, if he stays long enough, piece by piece, London could start to feel like belonging.
He finds Merlin already awake, sitting by the window in the living room. Strands of gossamer, fading sunshine catch on his hair, on his skin. He’s parted the curtains that Arthur always keeps drawn because that way he can pretend that he’s in Cairo or Moscow or Rome or Bucharest – anywhere but here.
Arthur says cautiously, “Hey.”
Merlin looks at him, blinking slowly. He’s wearing jeans and a jumper Arthur’s never seen before; his feet are bare and he looks like he could still be in university, looks at odds with the sleek, unforgiving lines of Arthur’s flat, against the outline of stiff, buttoned-up London. His hand is pressed against the window, and Arthur thinks that he looks a bit like a caged bird, grounded by broken wings.
“Hi,” Merlin says, just as cautious.
There’s tea in the cupboards; Arthur owns at least six different properties around the world and they’re all properly stocked with tea even if some of them lack basic necessities like beds and – distressingly, in his Mumbai flat – toilets. “How do you take yours?” Arthur asks, hunting around in the cupboards for the kettle.
Merlin stands, briefly silhouetted by the coming twilight. “I don’t, actually,” he says. “I don’t like tea.”
Arthur says, “I didn’t know that.”
Merlin shrugs, stuffs his hands into his pockets, and then removes them.
“It’s nice,” Merlin says. “Your flat.”
“It’s horrible,” Arthur says. “I hate it.”
Merlin’s smile is a little bit dazzling. And when it fades, Arthur still feels warmed.
Except then Merlin says, abruptly, “You should know – that nothing’s changed,” and the warmth abandons Arthur, sudden and cruel. Merlin looks at his feet, apparently and inexplicably fascinated by them. “I’m still – I haven’t changed. I still think the same thing I thought in Nairobi, and this – my being here now doesn’t change that.” He looks up, his mouth a thin line, as if he’s stuck between a smile and a grimace. “I’m not trying to be cruel and I’m not trying to be nice, this isn’t me being grateful.”
“What are you saying,” Arthur says. He thinks he should be angry, but all he feels is tired.
Merlin looks irritated. “I hate London,” he says, and now there’s an almost violent edge to his voice. “I hate it here. It’s – you told me about your dad and how you were – you were running away from something. You were running away from the life he had all planned out for you.” Merlin carefully folds his sleeves over his fingers. He looks embarrassed, and Arthur thinks how strange all this is, standing here in his London flat with Merlin, the teabag sitting out on the counter, as if all this is normal, like Arthur never robbed Merlin in Monte Carlo, like Merlin never shot Arthur in Beijing.
“You were running away,” Merlin says, soft. “I was running toward something. I – I wasn’t like you, I wasn’t running at all. I went to university and I was going – I was going to study medicine, you know.”
Arthur hadn’t known. He doesn’t know anything about Merlin, really, just the pieces Merlin lets him have: how Merlin likes to be touched, likes to be kissed; that Merlin has a place in Berlin but can only say three words in German, none of them useful; that Merlin owns one suit and approximately twenty pairs of jeans; that right before a job, he listens to trashy Europop because it’s mindless and sometimes the only way to get through a kill is by effectively losing your mind.
“Why didn’t you?” Arthur asks.
Merlin’s smile is small, faint, but real. “I’m better at breaking things than I am at fixing them,” he says. “I was happy but I was – I don’t know, it was all so normal. And I never felt normal. I had my mum and I had my friends and I was doing well in university but – it was never enough, I wanted more than that. I was good at university but I was better at this. I remember the first time I killed someone and it was terrifying and I felt guilty but it was also – it made me feel real and I’d never felt like that before, like I could do anything.”
The kettle starts to shriek like some disapproving harpy.
Merlin stares at it blankly. “And London takes all that away. It’s like I never left, it’s like I’m that stupid nineteen-year-old kid who thought that he was happy.” He looks up at Arthur and his face looks wide open, bright and luminous, terribly vulnerable, and Arthur privately thinks that he still looks nineteen because that’s the thing about Merlin: he’s not as grown up as he thinks he is.
Arthur sorts out the kettle and then goes to him. Reaches out. Hooks a finger around Merlin’s belt loop.
“I’m not done yet,” Merlin protests, but there’s a smile shadowing his mouth. He very deliberately brings his hands up, rests them lightly on Arthur’s chest.
“Of course you aren’t,” Arthur says.
Merlin slants what is probably meant to be an annoyed look at him, but it comes out pleased. “I just mean that I still hate London and I still don’t think this is going to work because we don’t want the same things and probably within a few weeks you’ll try to shoot me with the gun that you keep stashed in your underwear drawer and I’ll try to brain you with your stupid kettle.”
He ducks his head a bit, shy, almost, and peers up at Arthur through dark lashes.
Arthur tugs him closer. Slides his thumbs into the waistband of Merlin’s jeans.
“I didn’t come here to – leave you, I don’t like hurting you,” Merlin says. “And when I say I’m not here because I’m grateful – I mean that. I’m not here because you came to Seoul; I’m not trying to repay you a favor.” His voice goes hushed, intimate, breaths warm against Arthur’s mouth. “I’m here because I want to be. And I think – we should try this. See how it goes.”
Arthur looks at him and can’t look away.
Merlin’s hands tangle in Arthur’s shirt. “I’m done now,” he says irritably. “If you don’t want—”
“No,” Arthur says sharply, because how can Merlin think that he wouldn’t want this, it’s all Arthur’s wanted, has wanted for two and a half years, has wanted so long and so hard that now that he’s being offered it, he doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to look first. It’s Merlin, he’s no different than he was two minutes ago or two months ago or even two years ago, but it’s not at all the same because now Arthur’s allowed to have him and how impossible it is, that Merlin should think that Arthur could ever let him go.
“I want,” Arthur says on quick snatches of breaths. “I want, I do want—”
Merlin curves an arm around Arthur’s neck, looking mollified as he says “Okay, then,” and then he’s laughing as Arthur pushes him up against the window, kisses him long and deep into the London night.
March thaws February’s frosts and there are moments –
waking up to find Merlin next to him, limned in late morning gold, and Arthur leans close, trying to sort out what he likes best: the fragile whisper of Merlin’s eyelashes or the pale glimmer of a shoulder peeking out from underneath the covers or his hair curling sweetly around his ear or the soft pout of his mouth or the way he smiles into Arthur’s kiss, slow as a dream (It turns out Arthur can’t choose.)
and getting caught in a thunderstorm, the skies splitting open above them, and Arthur tries to duck into a coffee shop, but Merlin’s pulling him out onto the pavement, holding him close. The world melts into a colorless sea, but Merlin’s eyes are as blue as the wide open summer skies and his skin is slick with the storm, and Arthur tucks his hands into Merlin’s collar, kisses the rain off his eyelashes (You’ll catch cold, Arthur says, sipping kisses off Merlin’s mouth, and Merlin says, Warm me up, then.)
and later, stretched out in front of the window, the rain throwing London into a halo of color, and the hours strung together like Christmas lights. Arthur’s hand is reverent over Merlin’s heart, his fingertips trying to memorize this simplest of patterns, wondering which heartbeat says I love you, which one says Stay with me. Merlin catches him at it and Arthur looks up, embarrassed, says, I was— but Merlin just drops a kiss into Arthur’s palm and presses himself along Arthur so their bodies align, and they fall asleep like that (counting heartbeats)
and dinner at Lance and Gwen’s, and even though Arthur has known Elaine for all four years of her life, brings her sweets from Madrid and dolls from Moscow, and even delivered her when Gwen rather inconveniently went into labor in Arthur’s backseat, still two kilometers away from the hospital – Elaine decides she likes Merlin best. This possibly has something to do with the fact that Merlin spins her around until they’re both dizzy, that he lets her climb all over him and then pretends that he can’t find her when she clambers onto his back. I like him, Lance says approvingly as they watch Merlin gamely sit down to a tea party and very seriously shake the paw of a stuffed bear. Merlin looks up and sees Arthur watching, grins and waves him away, and later, when they’re tucked close together in the taxi, headed for home, Merlin says, I like kids, and Arthur feels so helpless, feels like his chest is going to explode with all the words he doesn’t know how to say, so he just kisses Merlin, kisses him until Merlin understands, until Merlin’s hand soothes the line of Arthur’s jaw (and then he kisses him some more)
and going back to that old hotel-turned-crack-house that lurks at the frayed edges of London, the first time that Arthur’s been there in nearly a decade. He doesn’t know why he wants to show Merlin, just that he has to, because this is a part of him as much as the beautifully tailored suits and the shiny guns and the banknotes folded into his wallet. They go back that corner, the first place anyone ever died at Arthur’s hands, and Arthur looks for the bloodstains that have long been painted over. I hate this, Arthur says, kicking at a loose stone, turning away, thinking that this was a mistake, he hates London, he doesn’t know why he wanted Merlin to see this, these nightmares that are really memories. But Merlin catches Arthur’s fists, scrapes a kiss along his clenched knuckles, says, I want to know all of you, the polished parts and the uglier ones too, and if Arthur spends the night with his face buried in Merlin’s neck, if his eyes are too-dry in the morning and his voice hoarse – it’s a secret that they’ll both keep, slotted neatly in with all the others
and this last one, short and simple and somehow brighter than all the rest: Merlin standing in the doorway of the bathroom while Arthur is brushing his teeth, just watching him in the mirror. What? Arthur says, turning around and Merlin shakes his head, looks embarrassed. Nothing, he says, voice faltering. I just – I love you, that’s all, he says, and he looks so amazed that Arthur has to clutch him close, whispers, Say it again, and Merlin does, again and again and again until it’s ringing in their ears, until it’s all that they know
– when Arthur wishes that they could stay like this forever.
Neither one of them will remember those first three weeks.
This is what they’ll remember, in those six weeks after, how they unwound:
The way Arthur’s flat starts to feel smaller, as if the walls are bending, creeping in. He’s always hated this flat, the way the shadows lengthen across the floor, stretching the emptiness into oblivion, but it’s his flat, a snatch of air in a rotting city, a reprieve from the cacophony that is London. Arthur had thought that it was big enough for two people, but the thing is that Merlin just takes up so much space. His clothes are scattered around the bedroom floor and his towel is draped across the sofa and his battered trainers keep turning up in unexpected places, like the bathtub. He uses Arthur’s razor and is utterly defeated by the dishwasher and he’s just – always there. (It’s not a problem, of course, it’s just that Arthur hasn’t lived with anyone for so long, and it takes a while to remember how. It’s fine. This is what he wants.)
The way Merlin is never on time, and it’s not even that, it’s more like Merlin is aware of this concept called time and just ignores it completely. Arthur goes to see his accountant, whose business is just barely this side of illegal, and afterwards they’re supposed to meet up for dinner. Merlin never shows and after half an hour, Arthur gives up, goes back to his flat to find Merlin slumped in front of the television, just in his boxers. (“Sorry,” Merlin says, looking thoroughly charmed by the force of Arthur’s glare. He tugs Arthur down by his tie, slides his hands up under Arthur’s shirt. “I like this suit,” he says, nipping at Arthur’s jaw, and, softer, “don’t be angry,” and Arthur tries not to be. It’s a stupid thing to be angry about, he tells himself. It is.)
The way Merlin talks through films, the way he still doesn’t realize that Arthur doesn’t want to go out to the pubs every Friday night. The way he goes out with his old schoolmates and doesn’t invite Arthur because, “You’d find it dull,” Merlin says, dragging his hand through Arthur’s hair, “they’re all my age.” The way he eats shit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – children’s cereal and beer and ice cream – if Arthur isn’t there to keep him properly fed, like he’s still in bloody university. The way Merlin flirts with everyone – the girl at the shop, the boy who sells him his shitty daily paper, Gwaine, when he comes over unannounced, the way he does once every couple of months. The way Merlin taps his fingernails against the tabletop as he’s reading the paper, the way he breathes, he has to be doing that on purpose.
The way Merlin snidely tells him that maybe he doesn’t always want to hang out with Lance and Gwen, the way an argument can turn from what they’re going to have for dinner to why can’t Merlin ever do the dishes anyway? The way Merlin doesn’t insinuate so much as outright say he’s bored, and why can’t they go to Paris, Merlin’s back is healed, or maybe Merlin should just go alone, it’d be nice not to be kept up all night by Arthur’s snores for a change. The way neither of them have ever had a proper relationship before and so they don’t know that there are rules to arguments, they don’t know that there are certain things that you are not allowed to say (and so they say them anyway). The way Merlin spends the night after a fight in the spare bedroom (the way the fights begin to multiply until he finally just moves into the spare bedroom).
The way they turn down five jobs between them so that they can stay here even though here is the last place they want to be. The way that Arthur starts to miss the thrill of the kill like he’d miss a hand or a leg, the way Arthur starts to realize that maybe he doesn’t want what he thought he wanted. The way Arthur starts to wonder if it really was ever love, because surely this isn’t love, watching Merlin leave, skin hot with their third argument of the day, and listening to him stumble back in at five o’clock in the morning, drunk and miserable. The way Arthur spends hours wandering London, this city that he hates, because he hates the prickly-loud silence of his flat more.
The way Merlin says coldly, two months into this mockery of a relationship, “Are you happy now? I’ve turned down two jobs, we have dinner every Saturday at Gwen and Lance’s, we live together – I suppose you’ve got what you want, haven’t you.”
The way Arthur says tiredly, “This is not what I want.”
The way Arthur buys a single ticket to Kiev.
The way the woman behind the counter pleasantly says, “Round-trip, sir?”
And the way Arthur says, “One-way.”
Arthur won’t remember Kiev or Belgrade or Sarajevo, these cities that slide together like blank pages in a book. He won’t remember the bar in Kiev, the air smoky with blue jazz; he won’t remember Belgrade, the cramped hotel room with too much furniture yet somehow empty all the same; he won’t remember Sarajevo, finding one of Merlin’s cheap cigarettes squashed in his pocket, lighting it and watching the rain burn.
All he’ll remember is three weeks of staring at a mobile that doesn’t ring, waiting for a call that doesn’t come.
And he wonders if this is how they break – one country at a time.
But this – this, they’ll both remember. Because this is Rome:
Lance owns a flat at the edges of the city, where the hills begrudge Rome her space. It’s a squat little place, with a low-hanging roof and a neglected garden that shrinks back from the road. He’d bought it long before he’d broken Arthur out of that Kolkata jail cell, probably on the run from the SAS or the SIS or whatever jumble of letters it is that haunts Lance’s past. Arthur doesn’t ask and Lance doesn’t tell; Arthur has his own secrets to worry about.
He stays for six days, long enough for his guns to find homes under his pillow, in the biscuit tin, in the vase. He goes to the market to buy food, using rusty Italian that sounds a lot like English. He meets with a minor Mafioso, is too smart with his mouth, and comes away with no job and a bruised cheek for his troubles. It doesn’t matter: he hates the Mafia. He’s mostly in Rome for the excellent wine, anyway.
On the sixth day, he lets himself into the flat and thinks that he should leave soon. Lance’s neighbor – a tiny crone of a woman with startlingly blue hair – is beginning to give him suspicious looks, and, combined with that fuckup with the Mafia eight years ago and the subsequent warrant for his arrest – Rome is hardly a bastion of safety for him.
He goes to fetch the gun out of the vase in the living room.
“What,” Merlin says coldly, “the fuck.”
He’s sitting in a ratty armchair, wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the night Arthur left: those jeans that are worn thin at the knees, the hoodie that’s slightly too large and must’ve been maroon at one point but has now faded into softer shades. He looks as if he hasn’t shaved in weeks and his wrists are hollow, bird-like. His eyes are impossibly blue and the pupils small, like he’s sleep-starved, like he’s been running on coffee and adrenaline and those colorful boxes of sugary cereal that he buys in bulk.
And apparently, he’s found the gun from the vase, because he currently has it trained on Arthur.
Arthur says, “That took you longer than I expected.”
“Oh, did it,” Merlin says, icy. “I’m so sorry that it took me so long to follow you across the whole bloody continent.”
Arthur says, “Did you really come all this way to shoot me?”
“I am seriously considering it,” Merlin says.
“Bad form, that,” Arthur says. “Repeating yourself.”
“If you’re talking about Beijing,” Merlin says loftily, “that was just a flesh wound. This time, I am going to shoot you in a very embarrassing location—” and his eyes touch briefly on the aforementioned embarrassing location— “and throw your lifeless body into the Tiber.”
Arthur shuts his eyes.
It’s been four weeks. Four weeks of too much whisky and hanging around for one last glass because maybe this glass will make him forget that he left Merlin in London, that he’d finally caught the one thing he’d wanted for so long only to realize that he couldn’t keep it. It’s been four weeks of wondering where they’d gone wrong, four weeks of trying to figure out why they fit so well together in Montreal and Vienna and Moscow and why they fell apart in London. Four weeks of hoping that maybe falling out of love is a bit like falling in love: sudden and unpredictable and inevitable.
Four weeks of realizing there’s no such thing as falling out of love. Not for Arthur.
Merlin says quietly, tiredly: “You left.”
He looks miserable, the sharp planes of his face gone sharper, the finer details washed away. He’s been chasing Arthur around the whole of Europe, probably spending long nights at his laptop, trying to map out Arthur’s trail. His fingers are trembling around the gun, with the unsteadiness that comes from too much caffeine and not enough sleep. He looks utterly psychotic, and Arthur suddenly realizes that Merlin’s probably sitting in that armchair because standing is too much effort.
And Arthur – Arthur’s the one who did that to him. Broke him.
“I was going to come back,” Arthur says, and somehow it’s both a truth and a lie.
“Were you,” Merlin says.
Arthur says, “You were right. It was never going to work.”
Merlin laughs, a hopeless, shattered sound. “So you left.”
Arthur sits down on the sofa, a pea green thing that should probably go out with the rubbish.
“I couldn’t stay,” Arthur says, hoarse. “We were miserable, Merlin.”
Merlin’s head snaps up; he looks blazingly angry. “And you thought the solution was to leave.” His voice is hysterical at the edges, like he’s unraveling at the seams. “Fuck you. Just – fuck you, you don’t get to just leave. You don’t get to walk away from three years of – you don’t get to treat this like some experiment that didn’t work out for you, so thanks, but no thanks. That’s not – you can’t—”
“We don’t work,” Arthur says helplessly. “You knew that, you were the one who told me that—”
“That doesn’t mean I wanted you to leave,” Merlin yells.
Arthur says softly, “Is that how it is? You can leave me in Nairobi, but I can’t leave you.”
Merlin’s mouth thins into a white line. “Nairobi was a mistake. I wasn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur says. “You were right. We don’t fit together.”
“Shut up,” Merlin tells him. “Just – shut up. Christ, I’m so fucked off at you right now I don’t even need a gun, I could shoot you with my brain. You have all these stupid – ideas of what love is like. You think that we have to have a house and kids and dinner at seven every bloody night. That’s not – we’re not cut out for that. That, back there? That’s not us. You and I – we’re Beijing and Monaco and Buenos Aires and Vienna and Prague. You’ve got to stop comparing us to Lance and Gwen, we’ll never fit together like them, I don’t want to fit together like them.”
Merlin’s hand is loose around the gun and he’s leaning forward, his face suffused with color, the mania softened into something warmer, something brighter. His hair is sticking up in odd tufts and he’s fighting for Arthur the way no one has before, except for maybe Lance.
Merlin says, lower, almost gentle, “This is me, Arthur. When I decide I want something, I don’t let it go.”
“I know,” Arthur says, because he does. Merlin goes after what he wants, and when he’d finally decided that he wanted Arthur, needed him, he’d stayed, hadn’t he, because it was Arthur who’d left, ultimately.
Merlin wouldn’t have left, not after Seoul.
“And I love you for it,” Arthur says.
Merlin goes still. Says, “You’ve never said it before.”
Arthur says, “Of course I have.”
“No,” Merlin says. “You haven’t.”
Arthur can’t breathe.
It’s – of course he’s said it before, of course he has, he’s thought it every day since Buenos Aires, has thought it into every moment, every kiss like a prayer, like a litany that just goes on and on and on. He counts the days by Merlin’s smiles, the hours by Merlin’s breaths, the moments by memories of discovering what Merlin looks like in each city: how Vienna makes him light up, how Moscow makes him shiver beneath the sheets. He’s loved Merlin so fiercely and for so long that he thinks that it must be ingrained into his genes because there’s no other explanation for the way he can’t stop.
Except he can’t remember saying it. London, Seoul, Nairobi – Arthur’s never said it. Not until Rome.
“It’s all right,” Merlin says. “It’s not like I didn’t know.”
Arthur looks at him, and it hurts, it absolutely aches, the frantic way he loves Merlin, vast as the seas. And Merlin lets out a strangled breath, comes to sit next to him, his thigh a soothing line against Arthur’s. He’s shuddering almost, like he wants to be closer, like he doesn’t dare get any closer.
Arthur can’t think with Merlin this close. He’s never been able to.
He plucks up an earlier thread, says: “You don’t understand. It’s not wanting what Lance and Gwen have, I want those things, I always have. And you don’t. I’m almost thirty, Merlin – I don’t want to do this for five more years. I can’t keep chasing you around the world, only to lose you each month and wonder when I’ll find you again. And if that’s the only way we work together – I don’t know how to do that.”
Merlin reaches out, fingers the sleeve of Arthur’s jacket. Arthur can almost feel his touch through the thick cotton, warm as the sun.
“I know,” he says. “But Arthur, that’s us. You keep trying to separate them out, but you can’t, they’re all tangled in each other. The guns and the suits and almost getting killed in Seoul and scaling cliffs in Athens and fucking in Paris until we’re sore with it – that’s us, right now. It won’t always be – I don’t want to do this forever either, but right now this is what I want. And maybe in a couple of years, we can have another go at the sort of permanence that you want. And it’ll be better then because we’ll both want it.”
Arthur looks at him in wonder, the way he looks utterly wrecked, and it sounds so easy, so simple.
Arthur says, “You sound so sure.”
Merlin slants a smile at him, just a crooked lift to his mouth. “I am sure,” he says. “I left you handcuffed in a bathroom in Buenos Aires and you still came after me. I tried to dump you in Nairobi and you still came to Seoul. How can you not be sure?”
Arthur can’t help his smile, can’t help how ridiculous he must look. He can’t help but smooth Merlin’s hair back, careful, can’t help but slide his teeth around Merlin’s ear as he leans in to whisper, “We’ll fuck it up again, somehow. We always do.”
“Then I’ll shoot you again,” Merlin says, easy, hand catching Arthur’s, their fingers threading together.
“You know there aren’t actually any bullets in that gun,” Arthur says, helplessly happy.
Merlin looks down at the gun, as if it’s personally betrayed him.
“You deserve to be shot,” Merlin says, petulant. “When I catch up to you again—”
“Shh,” Arthur says, and leans close to breathe Merlin in. “You’ve already caught me.”
Dubai goes liquid in the May heat; the summer sprawls out across the city in careless, hissing fury.
Arthur’s hotel is a smug-looking building, with white spires that disappear into the sky and gleam like washed-out marble in the sun. The windows are glassed clear and they look out over the sea, glittering blue and stretching out until it meets the horizon in a nearly invisible seam.
Arthur shares his lift with a weedy, jaundiced-looking man holding a leather briefcase. He puts the briefcase down, almost as an afterthought, nods imperceptibly at Arthur. And when he gets off on the seventh floor, he neatly steps over the briefcase, walks away with the barest shadow of a limp.
Arthur picks up the briefcase but doesn’t bother to open it. After that job in Johannesburg, four years ago, clients know better than to try to cheat him. He takes the lift down to the lobby, leans across the absurd, gold-plated counter, and says, “I’d like to check out, please. Room 1072.”
The clerk beams at him. “Ah, Mr. Plummer,” he says, looking positively thrilled. “There was a message left for you.” Arthur accepts the envelope, slides it into his trouser pocket, and settles his bill – the edges of which, Arthur notes amusedly, are gilded in yet more gold.
He takes a taxi to the airport, and it’s not until he’s on the plane, tucked comfortably into first-class, that he pulls out the envelope, smooths it out with an absent hand. He expects Lance’s neat handwriting, the careful angles and block letters screaming military just as loudly as the grim perfection that is an assault rifle in Lance’s hands. It’s not Lance’s handwriting, though: it’s just one line of messy black ink –
Grand Hyatt Beijing, May 23rd
– and if Arthur’s smile is more fond than exasperated, if his heart skips into his throat – well, there’s no one around to call him on it.
Beijing, he thinks, trying the word out on his tongue, soft as a secret. Beijing’s starry nights, kissing the summer off Merlin’s skin, unraveling him and holding him close. Beijing, catching Merlin’s mouth, that angle where Merlin’s eyes go a shade deeper, lit dark with intent. Beijing, where Merlin tastes like something new and familiar, sacred and well-loved. Beijing, where they’ll pour promises into each other’s skin, Beijing, where they’ll keep those promises, again and again and again.
The world blurs underneath him, the city melting into the sea. The blue skies pale into silver and the sun paints the clouds gold, and tomorrow Arthur will touch down in Lisbon, will catch Merlin just as he’s leaving his hotel, will press him up against the glass doors, will kiss him until he’s slick with it, until the summer monsoon sweeps them inside so Arthur can kiss him some more.
Because the thing is – Arthur doesn’t have to wait until Beijing. Not when they have the whole world.
Note: The title comes from the poem To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell.