Arthur wanted to cry with relief when the nondescript grey car in front of him started moving and its brake lights stopped blinding him. The traffic was still slow but at least it wasn’t motionless and Arthur would take any small mercies that were granted to him.
His leg was cramped from the repeated use of the clutch pedal and there was a painful crick in his neck and he just wanted to go home.
By the time he was unlocking the door of his flat, a pounding headache had been added to the mix and he wished for a moment that he wasn’t returning to a cold, empty home.
He trudged inside, following his routine of toeing off his shoes and pointedly ignoring the sleek black piano that had entered his peripheral vision. It had been sitting unused for months, a bleak reminder of happier days but no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get rid of it. It meant too much, held too many precious memories to be discarded like that.
Arthur sometimes wished he was the unfeeling prick people thought he was. Maybe then he wouldn’t be sentimentally holding on to inanimate objects and actually move on.
He irritably loosened his tie until the knot was dangling halfway down his chest and opened the fridge to heat up the cold lasagne Elena had dropped off for him the previous day. Elena was an amazing cook but the meat and pasta tasted like ashes in his mouth and he quickly shovelled it down so he could take a hot shower to ease his sore muscles and then finally go to sleep.
Arthur checked his phone as he towelled his hair and groaned when he saw another message from Gwaine asking permission to set Arthur up with a girl he’d met in some pub or the other. He typed out a firm no and threw his phone to the other side of the bed. That side always had space for his mess now.
If Arthur knew anything, it was that he wasn’t ready to date other people yet. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried because after relentless hounding from his father to take his business partner’s daughter Vivian out on a date, Arthur had reluctantly agreed to do it a few weeks ago. The dinner had been pleasant enough, even if Vivian came off a little self-centred and overbearing but Arthur had had far worse dates. But then he’d dropped her home and she’d taken the liberty to kiss him. Arthur had frozen on the spot, her fruity perfume and lipgloss-slicked lips overwhelming his senses and making him recoil on instinct. He’d immediately stepped away because of how deeply wrong it felt. Vivian had been predictably offended and refused to associate with him, ultimately leading to Uther shouting at him on the phone twelve hours later and Arthur giving up on dating for the moment.
He was barely holding himself together and just didn’t have the mental capacity to accommodate a brand-new person in his life.
A life he knew looked perfect on paper but in reality, was an inch away from falling apart.
Arthur’s phone was ringing. The ringtone was the default one rather than the intro of Sweet Child O’ Mine that it had been six months ago and it grated on Arthur’s nerves more than he wanted to admit.
He fumbled for the phone in the dark and found it under a mound of paper somewhere on his left. He blearily stared at the caller ID for a few seconds until his eyes focused and he could make out Hunith Emrys’s name.
He sat up abruptly, his heart rate picking up and accepted the call immediately. It had been a long time since he’d seen her number flash on his phone and somehow, it didn’t give him the rush of familiarity and motherly warmth that it used to. Under current circumstances, Hunith wouldn’t call him unless it was an emergency.
“Hunith?” he said tentatively into the speaker.
There was a muffled sniffle from the other end and when Hunith spoke, her voice was scratchy and raw. “Arthur, I’m sorry for calling you so late and I was trying to avoid it but I didn’t have a choice –”
“Hunith,” he replied as gently as possible. “What’s wrong? You know you can call me any time for anything.”
Hunith heaved a shuddering breath. “It’s Merlin. He –he was in a car accident.”
All air suddenly squeezed out of Arthur’s lungs at her words. “What?” he breathed. “He isn’t –”
“No, no,” Hunith answered, her voice wavering dangerously. “We’re in the hospital. He suffered a head injury and a few broken bones but doctors say he’s out of danger. He came into consciousness a few hours ago and by god’s grace, seems okay enough, if a little weak, but –”
“What?” Arthur demanded softly. “Please tell me.”
There was a pause. The room spun around Arthur and it felt like his heart was going to beat out of his chest.
Hunith took a deep breath. “He’s asking for you. Has been asking for you from the minute he woke up. I don’t know what to tell him, Arthur, because of the way you two left things but he’s so confused about why you’re not here and we think –the doctors think –” she swallowed, “–that he’s lost some of his memories because of the head trauma from the accident. He thinks you’re still together and I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth –”
“I’ll be there,” Arthur said, already getting up from his bed and wrenching open his wardrobe to pick out the first articles of clothing he got his hands on. “Send me the address, I’m on my way.”
Hunith agreed and hung up, his phone pinging with the text containing the address of the hospital a minute later.
It was around one in the morning and thankfully, the roads were relatively empty because Arthur hadn’t speeded like this in a long time.
He got the irony of the situation, that he was speeding when Merlin was in the hospital because of a car accident but he didn’t give a fuck about it. All he knew was that he needed to see Merlin now.
Arthur was just going through the motions when he parked his car, entered the hospital, asked for the right room number at the reception while his brain just conjured up image after image of Merlin lying injured in a hospital bed. He was jittery with nerves and hadn't breathed properly since Hunith had called him.
He barely registered the sterile halls and the flurry of patients, doctors, nurses, and relatives he passed. He slowed down when he reached the right place and saw Hunith and Gwen pacing outside.
Gwen saw him first.
"Arthur!" she exclaimed, running up to hug him. "I'm so glad you're here."
Hunith's face was blotchy and she looked on the verge of tears again after seeing him. He wasted no time in wrapping his arms around her and if they clung a little too tightly to each other for support, then no one had to mention it.
"How is he?" he asked when he'd released her.
Gwen must have seen the naked fear on his face because she placed a hand on his arm and said gently, "He's okay, Arthur. He's sleeping. I was going to call you in the morning but he looked so upset about you not being here that –”
“–that I couldn't help but reach out to you," Hunith finished for her. "I couldn't see Merlin in more distress than he was already in. I'm sorry, dear, for waking you up at such a late hour –”
"No," he interjected, clasping her shoulder in a reassuring grip. "There's no place I'd rather be. I'm just..." He inhaled shakily. "How did it happen? What's he even doing in London? Isn't he supposed to be in Berlin?"
Hunith suppressed a sob behind her fist and looked away. "He was visiting me. He was visiting me and he'd just gone out to run some errands and some bastard broke the signal and crashed into him. We're lucky it wasn't worse."
Arthur nodded, still struggling to wrap his head around everything. This was Merlin. Nothing bad was ever supposed to happen to him.
"And what about the –” he swallowed, "What does Merlin remember?"
Gwen's face crumpled with sympathy. "Oh, Arthur. He –he –seems to have forgotten most of everything that has happened in the last year. He doesn't know about the job in Berlin and he doesn't know about your separation. It's called retrograde amnesia and apparently, it's not uncommon after head trauma. The memories have every chance of coming back though," she added hopefully. "We haven't told him yet, the doctors told us not to put him under any stress right now."
Arthur didn't know what to say. His senses seemed to have numbed completely.
"Can I see him?" he asked finally, gaze flitting to the door.
Hunith nodded and gave him a watery smile. "Thank you for coming, Arthur. I've missed you. You know you've always been like a son to me."
Arthur kissed the top of her head and hugged her again before opening the door to Merlin's room and stepping inside.
Arthur's heart stopped at the first glance of seeing Merlin lying in the narrow hospital bed, his body covered in bandages in places and tubes sticking out of him. His eyes were closed but Arthur could see that he wasn't asleep. He knew how Merlin looked like when he was really sleeping and when he was pretending to sleep.
His lips quirked up involuntarily as he crossed the distance to the bed. "It's me, Merlin," he said. "You can fool your mother but I know you too well, idiot."
As he'd expected, Merlin cracked his eyes open, a dull blue in the dim lights.
Merlin's face brightened up with a lazy smile when he saw Arthur and he wordlessly held out his left hand so Arthur would take it.
"Hi, love," he said softly, in the tender way he hadn't in months and Arthur's throat closed up.
For a moment, it hurt too much to see Merlin like this and act like they were still together, for Merlin to look at him with so much love when he knew he didn’t deserve it.
But then Arthur took his hand, intertwining their fingers in a fluid motion and decided that he didn't want to think. He didn't want to think about how easy and familiar and natural it was. Not right now.
Merlin's head was wrapped in a bandage, black hair peeking out from over it. There was a plaster on his right wrist and there were a few angry scrapes on his face and neck.
Arthur's heart felt terribly fragile at the sight.
"Merlin," fell from his lips, reverent like a prayer and he brought Merlin's hand to his mouth to press a kiss to it.
Merlin's smile widened and he weakly squeezed Arthur's hand.
"What took you so long?" he asked after a moment, mouth turning into a pout.
Arthur rubbed circles on the back of Merlin’s hand with his thumb. "I was um –I was –well, it doesn't matter where I was. I'm here now."
Merlin searched his face, knowing something was amiss but he didn't push it. He sighed and relaxed, eyes closing briefly.
“How are you feeling?” Arthur asked, reluctantly releasing Merlin’s fingers to pull up a chair by his bedside.
“Like I’ve been hit by a truck,” Merlin answered with a wry grin.
“Oh, come on. When was I ever going to have the chance to make that joke?”
“You’re not the least bit funny,” Arthur informed him dryly. “Now, tell me how you’re really feeling.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and exhaled. “Tired,” he mumbled. “And uncomfortable and so loopy. I’m really hopped up on pain medication. You could probably get me to agree to anything right now.”
Arthur smiled. “Hmm, let me think. You have to come to Starbucks with me.”
Merlin groaned and turned his head to glare at him. “No. You know I hate that place. Capitalist chains taking over local businesses. I will take no part in it.”
Arthur huffed out a laugh. “How are you this coherent right now?”
“I have a very high IQ,” he replied, lips quirking into a crooked smile. “You have no idea how lucky you are to have me.”
Arthur’s stomach twisted painfully at his words and he swallowed hard. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah, I am.”
But Merlin didn’t notice his discomfort and rambled on. “Oh, and can you bring me my blanket from home tomorrow? This one here is so scratchy, I hate it. Also, I’m kind of hungry. Get the chocolates we got from Belgium last week. I hid some in the hidden drawer beside the sink so you wouldn't eat them,” he shot Arthur a panicked look. “Wait, don’t be angry and don't eat them now to get back at me. I got into an accident. You're meant to forgive all the bad things I did, okay?”
Arthur nodded wordlessly, not being able to bring himself to refuse, despite neither having the blanket nor the chocolates.
Merlin smiled at him again before settling against the pillows and closing his eyes, clearly too exhausted to keep talking.
Arthur just quietly watched him breathe for as long as he could, before he too fell asleep with his head resting on crossed arms near Merlin’s waist and Merlin’s hand quietly slipping into his hair in the night.
Arthur came home to an empty flat. He didn’t even know why he’d been hoping differently.
Despite living with someone for the first time in his life, Arthur had never felt so lonely.
He ate a quick dinner, making a plate for Merlin as well, in case he decided to show up in time to eat it. Somehow, Arthur doubted it and he’d never thought a covered plate of food in the fridge could depress him this much.
He’d given up on waiting around for Merlin two weeks ago, so he got ready for bed and slipped under the covers, not being able to help but feel sour and cranky at how fucking big the bed was for just one person.
It was the sound of the bedroom door clicking shut that woke him up. He turned on his side, closed his eyes and tried to ignore the sounds of Merlin moving around in the dark so he could go back to sleep.
It wasn’t long before Merlin snuggled up behind him and wrapped an arm around his middle. He was cold and any other time, Arthur would've tucked him between the sheets and himself to warm him but right now, he just felt like recoiling against the chill.
Merlin sighed into his hair and kissed a spot behind his ear. "Hi."
Arthur debated pretending to be asleep but decided it was too childish. "What are you doing here?"
Merlin chuckled, nosing into his neck, unexpectedly clingy. "What do you mean? I live here.”
"You do?" Arthur couldn't help the bitterness that seeped into his voice. "I wouldn't have been able to tell."
Merlin stilled. "Arthur."
"Am I wrong?"
"No, no. I'm sorry," Merlin said apologetically and pulled Arthur down by the shoulder so he was lying on his back with Merlin hovering over him. “I just –I got held up. Gaius and Nimueh had an argument over costume budget and publicity funds and then Sefa brought up that we were behind schedule on casting. It was such a mess –”
Arthur didn’t want to hear it. It was variations of the same excuse every night and it was getting rather tedious.
Arthur had been ecstatic when Merlin’s play, a brilliant piece of social commentary, had been picked up by the Avalon Theatre Group, a company he already had a ton of experience working for. They’d celebrated for a week and Arthur’s chest always seemed to be filled with pride, nothing making him happier than seeing Merlin succeed.
His hard work had paid off and the play was going to see the stage. Generally, a playwright’s role ended there but with Merlin being a rather competent and highly sought-after stage manager, he was heavily involved in the production of it as well, making him busier and Arthur lonelier than ever before.
“It’s fine, Merlin,” he interrupted. “I’m sure you have a genuine reason.”
Merlin shook his head. “No, it’s not fine. I’m sorry. I really am. What can I do to make it up to you?”
Arthur sighed and averted his eyes. “You don’t have to make it up to me. Just go to sleep.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said in a wounded voice. “Please don’t be like that. Come on.” He leaned down and placed light kisses over his cheekbones, the corner of his mouth and then finally his lips.
Arthur kissed back half-heartedly but Merlin didn't seem to notice his lack of enthusiasm as he kissed a trail down Arthur's neck and scraped his teeth against a spot he knew Arthur loved.
Arthur sucked in a harsh breath, heart starting to race and almost brought up a hand to card through Merlin's hair. Almost.
"Merlin," he mumbled, squirming until Merlin lifted his head. "I'm tired. Maybe later?"
The hurt was crystal clear on Merlin's face for a moment before he quickly masked it and nodded. "Of course. I'll hold you to it," he said with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
Arthur felt his stomach sink, an automatic reaction at the sight of Merlin's unhappiness. Something clawed at him to pull Merlin back into his arms and give him whatever he wanted but he resisted, instead choosing to turn his back to him and close his eyes.
When Arthur came to visit Merlin again, he found Gwaine inside animatedly narrating some wild incident he’d been part of that was probably only half true.
“Oh, look what the cat dragged in,” Arthur said in greeting as he walked inside.
Gwaine grinned. “Yes, you.”
“Shut up and get away from my boyfriend, Gwaine,” Arthur sniped unthinkingly and then froze as he registered his words.
Fuck, it was getting way too easy to think of Merlin as his boyfriend again.
Gwaine raised his eyebrows at him but thankfully didn’t comment on his slip. “Don't be jealous, Arthur. I won't steal Merlin away from you.”
Arthur scoffed, coming to sit beside Merlin on the bed. “I'm not worried about that. Merlin has good taste.”
Gwaine looked Arthur up and down. “Does he?”
Arthur flushed. “I hate you. Merlin, please ask him to go away.”
Merlin, who seemed to be enjoying their exchange immensely didn’t do any such thing. He just snickered and said, “No, I don’t think I will.”
“Don’t get your panties twisted, Pendragon,” Gwaine chortled. “I was leaving anyway. I hate the smell of hospitals. I bet even Vivian's perfume smells better than this, eh Arthur?”
Merlin's eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Who's Vivian?”
Arthur shot Gwaine a panicked look.
Gwaine coughed and grinned awkwardly at Merlin. “Um, no one. Just this woman I went out with last week.”
Merlin pursed his lips, thinking. “You said Vivian, right? That sounds so familiar. I'm sure I've heard that name before.”
Arthur swallowed. “It's a really common name, Merlin –”
“Vivian is Olaf's daughter!” Merlin exclaimed, sitting up straighter and turning towards Arthur. “Your father's partner? Wasn't Uther trying to set you up with her for ages before I came along? Wait, I think even for a bit after I came along.”
Arthur licked his lips nervously, cursing Gwaine for opening his big trap. “Yes, that's her. I set her up with Gwaine because he has such questionable taste.”
Merlin didn't look convinced. “Okay....what about Percival?” he asked Gwaine. “Weren't you interested in him?”
Gwaine wasn't just interested in Percival, he was his boyfriend of four months and while Percival was as non-threatening as a cupcake, Arthur really didn't want to get on his bad side.
For someone who had recently suffered from amnesia, Merlin’s available memory was annoyingly sharp and Arthur had no idea how they were going to salvage the situation. Except for maybe Gwaine just straight up getting up and leaving.
Which is exactly what he did.
“Oh, is that the time?” he cried dramatically, looking at his watch-less wrist. “I should get going. Feel better, Merls. I’ll visit you again soon!”
He dropped an obnoxiously loud kiss on top of Merlin’s head and practically fled the room.
Merlin gave Arthur a bewildered look. “That was strange, wasn’t it? I mean I know it’s Gwaine but that was strange, even for him.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and pulled Merlin back until he was leaning against Arthur’s chest. “Stop talking about Gwaine, Merlin.”
Merlin made a sound of protest but then relented, resting his head on Arthur’s collarbone. “Did you bring the blanket?” he asked.
Fortunately, Hunith had found The Blanket in Merlin's luggage, so at least he had something going for him.
“Yes, I did, you big baby,” Arthur replied, hiding his smile in Merlin’s hair. “It’s in that bag over there.”
“And the chocolates?”
“I didn't find them.”
Merlin gasped in disbelief and looked up at him. “They are in the hidden drawer beside the sink!”
“Well, it's hidden, isn't it?” Arthur argued.
Merlin huffed. “You're useless.”
Arthur gave him a glare and light shove. “Fine, then I guess I won't give you Elena's homemade muffins that she made just for you.”
“How are you treating me worse when I’m injured?” Merlin complained, crossing his arms.
Arthur laughed and drew him closer, something warm and pleasant unfurling in his chest and spreading through his body. He tried not to think about the fact that he hadn't held Merlin like this in over six months, mostly because it didn't feel like that at all. It seemed like his memories of the past year had also started blurring alongside Merlin's and that he had never stopped holding Merlin close in the first place.
It was a dangerously good feeling to get lost in.
“You’d be bored out of your mind without me,” Arthur told him.
Merlin scoffed. “I beg to differ. My mother brings me hot gossip from the neighbourhood. What do you bring?”
“’What do you bring?’” Arthur mimicked. “Do shut up, Merlin.”
Merlin dug a sharp elbow into his gut in retaliation and muttered, “When I finally get sick of you and leave you, then you’ll see.”
Arthur tried not to let it sting him as much as it did.
"They told Merlin.”
Arthur stopped mid-bite to stare at Gwen. “What?”
It was an unexpectedly sunny day and they were having lunch together at a café near the hospital. Arthur had just come back from his office after taking care of some things and giving in his notice for a few weeks of leave. He’d not taken any time off at all that year, work seeming to be the only thing that could distract him from how miserable he was without Merlin, so there were plenty of vacation days left.
Gwen bit her lip nervously and carefully folded her hands on top of the table. “The doctors. They told Merlin about his memories, the amnesia. All of it.”
Arthur’s heart stopped beating for a second. “All of it?” he echoed. “Did they tell him about me? About us?”
Gwen shook her head. “No, they didn’t tell him personal details. Just the medical terminology and the technicalities of what this means for him. The other private details of his life –what to tell him and what not to tell him is up to us.”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, a thousand conflicting thoughts flitting through his mind.
“So?” Gwen said tentatively. “Are you going to tell him what happened?”
“I don’t know, Gwen,” he admitted. “I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it. It’ll be like losing him all over again and I just…I’m not ready. Things have been going so well and it’s been so easy to be with him and I know it’s just pretence –”
“It’s not pretence,” Gwen interjected him with a frown. “Merlin’s feelings for you are real.”
Arthur sighed. “I know but they aren’t supposed to be. This is essentially the Merlin from a year ago, not the one who left me to tour all of Europe with his theatre troupe.”
Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, Arthur, you’re so –so –you don’t have any idea, do you?”
Gwen levelled him with a fierce look. “Do you know he was looking at rings?”
Arthur stared at her. Had she just insinuated what he thought she had?
“Not looking looking, like not officially,” she confessed with an exhale. “But I saw him checking them out when we visited the jewellery shop to get my necklace fixed. He didn't say anything but I could tell he was thinking about it.”
He was thinking about it. He was thinking about it. It was a proposal. It was marriage. Merlin had been thinking about potentially marrying Arthur.
The heat was suddenly sweltering and Arthur couldn’t breathe properly.
“When was this?” he asked in slight desperation because he had to know when this thought had crossed Merlin’s mind.
Gwen hesitated but then answered quietly, “About a month or so before you two broke up.”
A month. A month.
When Arthur had started harbouring doubts about their relationship, when he’d started questioning the extent of Merlin’s love for him was the same time Merlin had looked at rings and fuck, Arthur had just been the most obtuse, self-centred git, hadn’t he?
He’d considered it many times but Arthur had never been so sure that their breakup was a mistake. And it wasn’t a mistake he wanted to make again.
“I can’t tell him,” he decided. “I know it sounds selfish but I don’t think telling him will accomplish anything. He’s happy with me right now, Gwen and the knowledge will just come as a shock to him. Didn’t the doctors say we’re not supposed to stress him out right now?”
Gwen didn’t seem thrilled by the idea. “Arthur, you’re willing to keep such a huge thing from him? Something that had such a big impact on his life? No, Merlin deserves to know. Maybe not right away but eventually you’ll have to tell him. It’s not fair to him otherwise. You know that. Besides, what if his memories come back and he realises you’ve been lying to him? You think he’ll take that well?”
Arthur knew she was right. He knew it and he hated it.
“Fine. Fine, you made your point,” he conceded reluctantly after a moment. “I’ll tell him but on my terms, when I think the time is right. I don’t want to mess this up again, Gwen. I can’t.”
Gwen placed a gentle hand over his and smiled a little sadly. “I understand. It’s like you’ve been given a second chance. I want nothing more than for you two to work it out but you’re treading on dangerous ground, Arthur. Just –just be careful, okay?”
Arthur nodded and squeezed her hand. “I promise.”
When Arthur went to meet him again, Merlin had questions pertaining to the lost year. Lots of them. About his job, about Arthur's job, about their flat, whether they ever adopted a cat and if Arthur was hiding her from him (he wasn't), if he’d written another play and if he’d missed Gwen and Lance’s wedding. But none of them were about their relationship and if it had survived. He had so much faith in them that it never even occurred to him that things might have gone wrong between them.
It made Arthur’s chest constrict and a rush of affection for Merlin to course through his body.
“How does it feel?” Arthur asked, soothingly running his thumb over Merlin’s knuckles. “Missing a big chunk of your memory?”
Merlin shrugged, a small frown on his face. “It's strange because it's not all gone. I remember random bits but there's no context to provide them any meaning. You know what I mean? I need some time to get used to it.”
“I'm sorry,” Arthur said quietly, pulling Merlin closer on the small hospital bed. “How can I help?”
Merlin shook his head and shifted so their knees were touching. “It's all right. It’s just a year. I think I only miss the part about my play getting picked up by Albion, that’s all.”
“Your memories have every chance of returning,” Arthur reminded him. “They’ll come back, I know it.”
Merlin raised his eyebrows and studied him suspiciously. “What's gotten into you today? You're being sweet to me.”
“I'm always sweet to you,” objected Arthur with a scowl.
Merlin snorted. “Let's not get carried away.”
Arthur rolled his eyes.
Merlin laughed, a delighted a little sound. When he leaned in for a kiss, Arthur could do nothing but let him, Merlin's fingers twisting into his hair in a way that always made him shiver. It was soft and slow and Merlin sighed against his lips when they parted.
Arthur brought up a hand to cup his face, stroking his cheekbone lightly with his thumb. "I love you," Arthur whispered, taking himself by surprise. He knew somewhere distantly that he still loved Merlin but he’d not admitted it out loud yet. It felt oddly freeing.
Merlin didn't seem surprised by his admission. He just smiled and turned his head to kiss Arthur's palm. "I love you too," he said easily, as if it didn't shatter Arthur's whole world.
He didn't know. He didn't know if the Merlin he'd broken up with would've still loved him but this one did and Arthur was going to treasure it for all it was.
It happened at Gwen and Lance's housewarming party.
After four years of being together, Arthur and Merlin’s friends had sort of merged into a big group of mutual friends and acquaintances and Arthur had been looking forward to the party.
He showed up alone, of course, and he hated the way Gwen's eyes lingered on the empty spot on his right when she opened the door. She quickly masked it and ushered him in but he'd still felt the deep absence of his other half.
Arthur didn’t know how many more parties and events and dinners he could stand going to alone.
The party was good and he managed to enjoy himself after a few drinks with friends that were more like family. Elena was attempting to flirt with Gwen's colleague Mithian by explaining to her how best to make dough, Gwaine was making up outrageous stories to impress Percival who didn't look like he believed them in the least but was still obviously smitten enough with the bastard to not care. Lance was desperately trying to get on Elyan's good side while Elyan, being Gwen’s brother and a little shit, pretended to disapprove of his sister’s fiancé.
Arthur plopped himself between Leon and Morgana with a beer in his hand.
“You two weren’t flirting, were you?” Arthur asked when no one had spoken in a whole minute.
“I’m a lesbian,” said Morgana.
“I’m ace,” said Leon.
Arthur groaned. “God, it was a joke.”
“It wasn’t a very good one. I like Merlin’s jokes better,” Morgana informed him callously. “Where is he anyway?”
Arthur shrugged and took a swig. “Dunno.”
That got Morgana to stop smirking. “Arthur,” she said with a hint of concern in her voice. “Is everything okay?”
Arthur sighed, really not in the mood for this conversation. “I have no idea, Morgana. Can we please not talk about this?”
Morgana and Leon shared a worried look over him and he pretended to not notice. There was nothing worse than being pitied.
Leon roped him into a discussion about footie, while Morgana surreptitiously pulled out her phone and started tapping on it, making sure to keep the screen away from Arthur’s eyes.
He wasn’t fooled. “That’s Merlin, isn’t it?”
“No,” Morgana denied. Arthur narrowed his eyes at her.
“Yes,” she sighed.
“Well?” Arthur enquired. “Is he coming or not?”
“He’s going to try,” Morgana answered, with a rueful tilt to her mouth.
Arthur snorted, feeling the sting of resentment over the buzz of alcohol. “Right. I’m sure he will.”
Merlin surprisingly did end up arriving, if two hours late. Arthur watched him from the corner of his eyes, looking tired and rumpled but so good in that black jumper Arthur always wanted to tear off him. He greeted Gwen and Lance with a bright smile, no doubt apologising profusely for his tardiness and making them melt. So typical.
He didn't immediately come find Arthur, even though he did notice him sitting with Morgana and Leon, their eyes meeting across the room but neither making their way towards each other.
Arthur averted his eyes, because there had been parties in the past where Merlin had spent the whole time in Arthur’s lap, whereas now it was taking him half an hour to just approach him.
They both danced around each other for too long until Merlin finally grabbed his hand and dragged him away to the balcony.
The air was chilly and raucousness and good spirits of the party seemed muted there, a solemn silence falling upon them like the most fragile snowflakes.
"Hey," Merlin said, putting his hands in his pockets and swaying on the balls of his feet.
Arthur exhaled, watching his breath come out in vapour. "Hey yourself."
Merlin got straight to the point. "I have something to tell you."
"Yeah, I thought you did,” Arthur replied. “You have that look about you today."
Merlin flushed, a peachy colour that spotted on his pale skin. Arthur had always loved how Merlin looked when he blushed.
But he was getting impatient. “Just spit it out, Merlin. Is it good? Bad?”
"Definitely good,” Merlin said, taking a deep breath. “So you know Moment of Truth has been doing well, right? Well, it got noticed by Albion and they want it.”
Arthur’s eyebrows climbed high. “Albion wants your play? The Albion which tours all over Europe?”
Merlin nodded, a little nervously. “Yes, that’s the one.”
Arthur broke out into a genuine smile. “Merlin, that’s amazing,” he said, pulling Merlin into a hug that Merlin returned fiercely. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Merlin mumbled into his shoulder, holding on to him for a second longer before stepping back. “There’s something else, Arthur.”
Dread settled into Arthur’s stomach at Merlin’s tone. “What is it?”
“I won’t be working with Avalon any more, they’ve got the ropes now and can carry on without me. Albion wants me to tour with them,” Merlin told him, biting into his lip and looking into Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur stared at him. Albion’s tours could go on for as long as a year.
Maybe he’d be in London for a couple of weeks as part of the tour and maybe Arthur could visit him a few times but the rest of the time he’d be gone. It was essentially a year without Merlin. It was unimaginable.
"You should go,” he said, a lump rapidly forming in his throat.
Merlin looked alarmed. “What? Arthur, I thought we could discuss it –”
“What’s there to discuss?” he exclaimed. “It’s an incredible opportunity and you want to go, don’t you?”
Merlin swallowed thickly, hesitating.
“Don’t you?” Arthur repeated.
He nodded quietly. “Of course, I do.”
“Then you should go,” Arthur whispered, heaving a shuddery sigh.
“What about us?” Merlin asked in a small voice.
It wasn’t a question either of them would’ve addressed maybe four months ago but they both knew circumstances had changed between them in the last few weeks.
“I think you know, Merlin.”
Merlin shook his head vehemently. “No.”
But Arthur was tired. Tired of feeling hurt and bitter and neglected and disposable and like he had been knocked down in the list of Merlin’s priorities. It was largely a personal issue, something stemming from his childhood insecurities but Merlin was still the root cause of it. And a year away would only worsen things. Arthur could only see one way out of it.
He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “What are we doing, Merlin? Things haven't been the same between us for a long time. I'm obviously holding you back and I don't want you to resent me for it five years down the line. Don’t you think it’s better to part ways now than regret it later?"
“What are you talking about? Holding me back? That’s ridiculous!” Merlin argued heatedly.
“Is it?” demanded Arthur. “This conversation is proof of it. Because you should be celebrating such a huge step forward in your career right now, not worrying about what it means for us. What’s the point if we just spend half the time worrying about our relationship?”
Merlin stared at him. “You’ve been worrying about our relationship?” his voice wobbled. “You don’t think we can work it out long distance?”
Arthur smiled humourlessly. “We’re barely making it work in the same city, living in the same flat.”
A moment passed and then Merlin’s nostrils flared, Arthur seeing the anger rise up in him. “Right. So, you’re making some kind of big sacrifice for me. Is that your excuse? It has nothing to do with cold shoulder you've been giving me?”
Arthur gaped at him. “Excuse me?”
“Don't think I haven't noticed, Arthur,” he said, his eyes taking on a bright sheen. “You've not exactly been subtle. Feels like a convenient chance to get rid of me, right?”
“How dare you?” Arthur retorted furiously. “I'm not the one who’s putting his job before everything else. I’ve always made time for you, Merlin, no matter how busy I was professionally.”
Merlin grabbed at his hair in frustration. “I’m trying, Arthur!” he exclaimed, his voice wrecked. “It’s not like I want to disappoint you.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Arthur cried, his heart pounding into his ears. “You’d be an idiot to let a chance like this go.”
Merlin sniffled, bringing up a hand to wipe at his eyes. “But why does it have to be one or the other? You or the play? Why can’t I have both?”
“Because you can’t! Because I’m tired! I don't like feeling shitty all the time but I can't ask you to step back in your career for me because my god Merlin, you're doing so good and I want you to go on and win awards but I can’t –I can’t handle another year of this. I don’t want us to start hating each other, you mean too much to me for that,” Arthur admitted desperately. “Alright?”
Merlin stared at him, tears flowing freely down his cheeks now. “Don’t do this please,” he said in a small voice.
“I didn't mean for it come to this,” Arthur whispered, his heart breaking into a million little pieces. “I’m sorry.”
And that had been it.
As far as breakups went, theirs was fairly amicable. Merlin agreed soon enough, accepting that it was for the best. He moved out of the flat, soon moving out of the country and Arthur started coming back to an empty flat but this time with the surety that nobody else was going to be joining him.
Merlin left his piano behind, instructing Arthur to do whatever the hell he wanted with it. Logically, Arthur should have given it away but too many happy memories were attached to it. He didn’t think he could let go of the image of Merlin playing piano in his pyjamas in the early hours of the morning with his hair sticking up wildly just yet, nor the one where he tried to teach Arthur but they just ended up making out against it instead.
Arthur stopped buying groceries for two, there was a distinct lack of sweets in his house and his pillow didn’t smell like Merlin’s shampoo anymore, who always hogged it after throwing his away at some point in the night.
Somehow, something done for the best didn’t feel so good.
Arthur looked up from his phone where he was typing an email for work. “Read the book.”
Merlin groaned and crossed his arms petulantly. “I don't want to read the book, I've already read it. You brought Night Film, for god’s sake.”
“Hey!” Arthur objected. “You love that book.”
“Yes, but it’s a murder mystery,” Merlin told him with a pout. “I already know what happens in it, the mystery isn’t there anymore. If only my memory of this book were gone.”
Arthur stared at him. “How can you joke about this?”
“It's my memory, Arthur. I think I can joke about it,” Merlin replied with a cheeky smile.
Arthur rolled his eyes and got back to his email. “Fine.”
“Hello? I'm still bored.”
A moment passed and Arthur thought he’d occupied himself with something or the other. He was just starting to proofread the email when –
“Do you want to have sex?” Merlin asked casually.
Arthur promptly choked on air. “Sex?”
“Yeah, I haven’t forgotten that,” Merlin informed him with a wink.
Arthur huffed in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“Well, since we clearly can't make jokes around here, yes I'm serious,” Merlin answered matter-of-factly.
“Give me one reason why not!”
Arthur gestured to the room around them. “We're in a hospital.”
Merlin, in turn, gestured to the bed he was sitting on. “There's a fully functional bed right here.”
“It's a hospital bed,” Arthur reminded him.
“Stop saying hospital,” Merlin groaned.
“You're injured,” Arthur continued sensibly. “You've got three broken ribs. Your head was swollen like a football until two days ago.”
Merlin gaped at him, offended. “Um, only two ribs are broken and the head comment is frankly hurtful.”
Arthur fought back a fond smile. “We're not having sex, Merlin.”
Merlin threw up his hands in frustration. “Why? It would make me feel better. Don’t you want to make me feel better?”
“Oh, don’t give me that. It’s a hospital and it’s weird,” Arthur decided with finality. “Besides, your discharge papers are arriving any minute. Have some patience.”
“You’re leaving me no choice but to seduce you,” Merlin said, making no move to do any such thing.
“Aw please don't, Merlin,” Arthur mocked, not taking his eyes off the phone screen. “I don't know how I'll be able to keep my hands to myself.”
Merlin laughed and threw an empty chocolate box at him. “You're such a prat. Watch me ignore you the next time you feel horny.”
Hunith fought tooth and nail to take Merlin to her house but he refused fervently, muttering something about not being a baby. After Arthur reassured her five times that he could take care of Merlin, she finally agreed but not without giving him a mildly terrifying look that promised swift retribution if Arthur let anything happen to her son's body or his heart.
"Your mum hates me now," Arthur announced in the car later.
Merlin hummed with approval, playing with the air conditioning settings. "Good, because for a moment there she was starting to like you more than me."
“With good reason,” Arthur grinned.
When Merlin didn’t respond with a witty retort, Arthur looked over at him and placed a hand on his knee. “You okay?”
Merlin nodded, staring out the window and his hands shaking slightly as they clutched the seatbelt. “It’s just the first time I’m in a car after the accident. Feeling a little anxious about it even if I don’t remember it,” he sighed. “Just take me home, I’ll be fine.”
So, Arthur did. Arthur took him to the house that hadn’t been their home in six months.
"It's a cat."
"Yes, I can see that, Merlin. What is it doing here?"
The cat in question was sitting among the various half-opened boxes, pale green eyes boring into their souls. Or it seemed that way to Arthur.
It was ginger with white paws, one of which it brought up to its mouth to lick delicately and Arthur could just feel Merlin melting into a puddle beside him.
"I don't know but look at her," Merlin cooed, crouching down to pet her. The cat purred and leaned into his touch, "Aww, hello. How did you get in here?"
"The window's open," Arthur pointed out. "So, I’m guessing from there. Also, how do you know it’s a she?"
By now, Merlin had scooped it up into his arms and Arthur watched with narrowed eyes as the cat preened under the attention.
"I can tell. Wait –” Merlin replied, reading the tag attached to her collar. "See? Her name’s Nala. Oh, like Nala from The Lion King! That’s so cute.”
“Yes, we all understood that reference, Merlin,” Arthur said impatiently. “Why did she come here?”
Merlin shrugged, stroking the fur below Nala’s chin. “Probably belongs to the previous owner and thought this was still her home. I think the landlord mentioned something about the people living here having pets.”
Arthur sighed tiredly and plopped down on the haphazardly placed sofa, the beginnings of a headache building up near his temples. “Great. First day moving into our new flat and now we have to return a cat.”
Merlin sat down beside him carefully, making sure to not jostle Nala who seemed far too content on his lap, meowing indulgently as Merlin continued to pet her. Arthur could only watch helplessly as his boyfriend quickly fell in love with the creature.
He turned to Arthur with big, blue eyes. “We don’t have to return her immediately.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Are you suggesting we steal this cat?”
“No, no,” Merlin assured him with a hand on his arm. “We could take her back tomorrow. I mean, it’s late. We don’t want to disturb anyone right now.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, as gently as possible. “Her owners are probably worried.”
Merlin frowned, exhaling loudly. “Yeah, you’re right,” he conceded then brightened up again. “But wait. What if we call them and tell them we’ve found her and that we’ll bring her by their place tomorrow? Then they wouldn’t be worried anymore.”
Arthur hesitated. “Merlin –”
“Please.” Merlin was looking at him with such a hopeful expression that Arthur’s resolve crumbled.
Arthur couldn’t resist him, had never been able to. If Merlin really wanted something, he got it.
“Fine,” he agreed begrudgingly, pulling out his phone. “I’ll call the landlord and ask for the previous owner’s number. Happy?”
Merlin beamed and leaned in to peck him on the cheek. “Yes, thank you.”
“You’re a menace,” Arthur let him know for good measure.
Merlin grinned. “You love me.”
“Absolutely not,” Arthur scoffed. “Perish the thought.”
Merlin just ruffled his hair good-naturedly and got up to feed the little devil.
“Maybe we should get a cat of our own,” Merlin suggested that night, curled up on his side and staring at Arthur in the dark.
Arthur had imagined their first night in the new flat to go in many different ways but none of them had involved a damn feline sleeping between them. Arthur didn’t know how but it was an omen.
“Does it have to be on the bed?” Arthur grumbled, trying not to be upset about how far Merlin was from him. A mangy cat’s length distance, to be precise. Arthur was not happy about it.
“She, Arthur,” Merlin corrected him. “And you didn’t answer my question.”
“And you didn’t answer mine,” he muttered under his breath. “No Merlin, I’m not thrilled about the idea.”
“But why?” Merlin whined. “They’re precious. Look how much she loves you already.”
Arthur had to laugh. “Loves me? You do realise she’s been giving me dirty looks all evening? I’m seventy percent sure she’s going to try and claw my face off when I’m asleep.”
Merlin was aghast, propping up on one elbow in surprise. “This angel?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I’m telling you, she’s evil. Wouldn’t be surprised if she secretly belongs to Morgana.”
Merlin made a sound of disbelief and drew Nala closer to his chest. “You’re such a cynic, who raised you?”
Arthur tried not to feel jealous of a cat. He was above that.
“Never mind,” Merlin answered, probably thinking of Uther. “Stupid question. You could’ve turned out a lot worse.”
“I’m a delight,” Arthur retorted. “Unlike this beast.”
The cat hissed at him.
Arthur loudly prepared himself for a mutilated face in the morning.
Merlin told him to stop being overdramatic and go to sleep.
With a little unwilling help from Gwen and fairly willing help from Gwaine, Arthur had managed to have Merlin’s things moved back into the flat to avoid suspicion. Merlin knew that he had been on tour before the accident but that wouldn’t explain why his beloved coffee maker wasn’t in the kitchen anymore or why his hideous bean bag chair wasn’t sullying the classy look of the living room.
When Arthur arrived at the flat again with Merlin, it felt like he had walked back in the past, into a time when the only fights they used to have were over TV channels or breakfast cereals. It was a little surreal.
Merlin sadly walked over to the piano and ran his hand over the top, frowning at his bandaged wrist.
“I think I can finally play it better than you,” Arthur tried to lighten the mood, hugging him lightly from behind.
Merlin’s lips quirked up and he glanced at him dubiously. “I think you’re giving yourself too much credit.”
“Maybe you should try to teach me again,” Arthur whispered in his ear. “I’d enjoy that very much.”
Merlin leaned his head back. “You know what I’d enjoy?” he said in a low voice.
Arthur pressed his lips to Merlin’s bared neck. “Hmm?”
“Friday the 13th,” Merlin answered, suppressing a shit-eating grin.
Arthur froze and then promptly released him. “No.”
“That’s the most unsexy thing you’ve ever said in your life,” Arthur groaned. “Don’t do this to me.”
“Well, I’m watching it,” Merlin said, moving towards the sofa. “And you have to join me.”
“No thanks,” Arthur huffed. “I’m going out to run some errands, enjoy your movie.”
Merlin shrugged, switching on the telly and propping his feet up on the coffee table. “Fine, I’ll just tell my mum you left me alone to fend for myself the minute we reached home.”
Arthur stopped in his tracks on his way to grab his jacket and glared at him. “You’re a manipulative little prick.”
Merlin smiled brightly and patted the spot beside him. “Turn off the light and come here. I literally stopped watching horror for you for the longest time but right now, I’m injured and need some comfort and you can’t deny me that.”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief but did as asked, plopping on the sofa with his arms crossed in protest.
He hated horror movies with every fibre of his being but between a traumatising film and Hunith’s wrath, he was willing to take his chances with the movie and the subsequent nightmares it would produce for the next week.
“For the record,” Arthur said, as Merlin searched the film on Netflix, “I think it’s sick that horror movies are what give you comfort. Sick.”
Merlin ignored his barb and turned up the volume, slinging his legs over Arthur’s lap. “I’m going to show you Veronica next. It’s Spanish and it’s a masterpiece.”
“I wonder if it’s too late to ask Hunith to take you away,” Arthur muttered under his breath, the hair on the back of his neck already standing up at the eerie background music.
He knew what the next hour and a half would entail. Arthur would try to be brave but eventually end up pressing his face into Merlin’s shoulder to try and drown out the horrifying noise and visuals. Merlin would be positively gleeful at the turn of events and snuggle up to him, making Arthur feel like a five-year-old child. Sometimes, he wondered if Merlin only did all this for a cuddle but Merlin swore that he genuinely did enjoy the disturbing gore and Arthur honestly didn’t know which was worse.
Things settled into place frighteningly fast, as though the last six months had just been a glitch. It was getting dangerously easy to pretend that their separation had never happened and Arthur’s heart squeezed painfully at the mere thought of telling Merlin the whole truth.
Merin recovered, slowly but surely and even started writing a new play when getting cooped up at home made him start to feel antsy and unproductive. There was a stream of adoring visitors going in and out of their flat, ladling Merlin with every ‘get well soon’ card and gift under the sun and Arthur was starting to feel a tad possessive and a lot more in love with Merlin.
Merlin was quite reluctant about sitting in cars now and downright adamant about not driving them, which made things a bit tricky in their day to day lives but Arthur knew where he was coming from and couldn’t blame him a bit.
They went to see Albion’s production of Moment of Truth when the tour reached London and performed it in West End. Merlin was unbelievably surly afterwards, upset that he wasn’t well enough to join them yet.
Arthur got a gut-wrenching instinct to tell him then but he held it off, instead whisking him away to his favourite chocolate shop and buying him a year’s worth of truffles.
Merlin was happy. Yes, he was grumpy and uncomfortable sometimes, he was bored almost constantly and had taken to occasionally snapping at Arthur when he was locked inside the house for too long but underneath it all, he was obliviously happy. He wasn’t carrying the weight of a painful breakup around and Arthur so badly wished he could keep it that way. He didn’t want to see Merlin cry ever again the way he’d done on Gwen and Lance’s balcony that night and Arthur was constantly shifting between guilt and good conscience and his instinctive need to keep Merlin as happy as possible.
A month passed, then two and Arthur was in deep water.
Gwen, being the brilliant botanist that she was, had decided to have her wedding at Barbican Conservatory surrounded by the things she loved the most: plants. It was unorthodox but Arthur didn’t think he’d ever been to a more beautiful wedding.
Merlin was Lance’s Best Man and couldn’t stop grinning smugly at Arthur while Gwen and Lance read their perfect vows to each other and made sure there wasn’t a single dry eye in the room by the time they finished.
The centrepieces on the tables were naturally big, vibrant plants occasionally interspersed by candles in long glass holders and Arthur’s mind drifted to what Gwen had told him about Merlin looking at rings. His heart fluttered desperately at the thought. He resented himself for being stereotypically maudlin at weddings and decided to get drunk instead.
He was just getting more champagne when Merlin appeared at his side, grabbing his hand with one of his own and using the other to steal Arthur’s champagne flute to down the liquid in one go.
“Merlin, what –” Arthur started, bewildered.
Merlin gave him a dark look that said “If you don’t come with me right now, so help you god” and dragged him away urgently.
Merlin glanced back at him irritably as they got a little distance from the wedding crowd. “What?”
"Where are we going?"
“To find a corner to snog in,” Merlin told him flatly and continued his search for said corner.
Something hot coursed through Arthur’s stomach at his bluntness but he tried to appear in control. “This is highly inappropriate."
Merlin’s hand tightened on his. "I don't care, you look too good. Wanting to get my hands on you all day, come on."
Arthur made a sound of protest, not that he was actually doing anything to stop it. In fact, he was following Merlin quite enthusiastically
He tried one last time, before he gave in completely. "Gwen and Lance postponed their wedding for you, you should be there for them."
Arthur had the view of the back of his head but he could still almost see Merlin rolling his eyes. "I was there for them, for the last several hours,” he said. “They're dancing and looking into each other's eyes now. What am I supposed to do between them?"
Arthur smirked. "Maybe look into Lance's eyes."
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Merlin complained, rounding and coming to a stop behind a thick foliage of tropical plants, with a wall on the opposite side.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "That you were in love with Lance?"
Merlin glared at him. "I wasn't in love with him, it was a week-long crush."
Arthur teased, "It was at least a month long –”
Merlin shoved him against the wall with shocking strength and covered his mouth with his own, effectively shutting him up. Arthur couldn't find it in himself to begrudge him for it.
They kissed urgently, all hands and mouths, the thrill of getting caught spiking up their adrenaline.
Arthur had just got the top three buttons of Merlin’s shirt open when there was a sound of laughter from nearby and they froze, warm and breathless.
A moment passed without any more noise and Merlin twisted around to see if anyone was coming, his shirt collar slipping down to expose skin.
"Fuck, that tattoo on your neck is so hot," Arthur groaned, too buzzed to be thinking straight.
Merlin turned back toward him, looking puzzled. "What? I have a tattoo on my neck?"
Arthur swallowed nervously and figured he might as well come clean. "Yeah, at the back of your neck."
Merlin immediately brought a hand up to the spot. "Oh my god, really? Why didn’t you tell me? What is it? When did I get it?"
Arthur frankly had no idea when or where he'd gotten the tattoo. He'd seen it for the first time in the hospital but had avoided mentioning it, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to provide details. Until now, of course. He blamed his lust-addled brain.
"It's um –it’s a little dragon" Arthur said, his throat closing up at the implication.
Merlin's eyes widened in realisation and a blush creeped up his neck as he looked down at the floor. "Oh,” he whispered, surprised. "I'd always wanted one, but couldn’t get myself to do it. Good to know I finally had the guts."
Arthur didn't know what it meant that Merlin had gotten one after their breakup but the awareness that it was a dragon filled his chest with an unnamed rush of emotions.
He wordlessly tilted Merlin’s chin up and kissed him, parting his lips open with his own. Merlin made a needy sound at the back of his throat and slid his arms around Arthur's waist.
Feeling high and drunk on the occasion, Arthur almost told him then –briefly thought about softly confessing everything while Merlin was so pliant in his arms but then Merlin dropped to his knees in front of him, looking up at him with dark eyes and Arthur stopped thinking altogether.
Merlin and Arthur had met during the time they were in uni when Arthur had nervously approached Gwen for a date and instead of getting her number, had gotten lukewarm coffee spilled on him by the wild-haired theatre major she was talking to. Who turned out to be her best friend Merlin.
Arthur may have been a tad bit rude to Merlin that day, leading Gwen to promise him angrily that she would never go out with such a git and for Merlin to stare between them, trying extremely hard not to laugh.
Gwen’s oath to never date him had worked out nicely for Arthur because after a few bumps in the road along the way, he’d found an insanely lovely person in Merlin and then eventually gotten him to go out with Arthur.
However, this also meant that not only was Gwen still Merlin’s best friend but she was now one of Arthur’s closest friends too and that resulted in her visiting their flat. Often.
Which was usually pleasant but under the current circumstances, did not bode well for Arthur.
It wasn’t her fault, not really. It was inevitable and Arthur knew it but he still got a stab of fear through his heart when Merlin mentioned visiting The Louvre in the middle of the conversation, after Gwen finished describing her honeymoon to France.
Arthur stilled, his breath getting stuck in his throat as he looked at Merlin. They hadn’t gone to The Louvre together and to his knowledge, Merlin hadn’t visited it alone or with his family before that. That could only mean that he'd done it on his own in the past half-year.
Merlin was remembering. He was remembering and Arthur didn't have much time left.
Thankfully, Merlin didn't seem to notice what he’d said but Gwen's eyebrows drew together in confusion and she sent Arthur a querying look.
Arthur shook his head.
"What are you waiting for?" Gwen hissed at him as he helped her into her jacket by the door later. “Are you never planning on telling him?”
Arthur sighed, rubbing at his temples. “I’ve just been waiting for the right time. But now –he’s obviously getting his memories back and fuck. What the hell am I supposed to do, Gwen?”
Gwen must have seen how wretched he looked because her expression softened and she pulled him into a hug. “It’s going to be okay, I know it. He loves you, alright? Just be honest with him, Arthur,” she whispered soothingly.
Arthur nodded, feeling a stinging sensation in the corner of his eyes as he released her.
Arthur promised Gwen that he’d tell Merlin everything that night and he meant it. He’d choose the right moment and just blurt it out. It was high time.
It couldn’t wait another night.
"Merlin?" he said hesitantly, turning on his side to face him.
Merlin was rubbing at his eyes drowsily as he closed the lid of his laptop and kept it on the bedside table. "Mmm?"
Arthur’s heart quickened its pace. "I have to tell you something."
Merlin detected the tone of distress in his voice and frowned, searching Arthur’s face. "What is it?"
Arthur took a deep breath, looking at the worried crease between Merlin’s eyebrows, the concerned tilt of his mouth, and he couldn’t get the words out.
Arthur’s pillow smelled like Merlin again.
He shook his head and cleared his throat. "Nothing. Nothing, I’ll tell you later."
Merlin’s pouted, blinking. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah,” Arthur said, pulling him closer and kissing the side of his head. “Go to sleep.”
It could wait another night.
Arthur couldn’t sleep, riddled with anxiety but he tried to keep the tossing and turning to a minimum, so as to not wake Merlin up. He fell into a fitful sleep at around four in the morning and then woke up again at seven, his body protesting and his eyes feeling like lead.
He lay numbly staring at the ceiling for a while until he decided to get up and make some tea before he completely lost his mind.
Arthur leaned against the kitchen counter, breathing in the hot vapour from his tea, trying to think of the right words to say to Merlin that would cause the least amount of damage. That would maybe –maybe –make Merlin decide to stay after he knew the truth.
Gwen’s words came back to him.
He loves you.
Just be honest.
Merlin loved him. He just had to be honest.
The tea went down his throat in a scorching trail and he padded back to the bedroom, a sudden bout of determination seizing him in a tight grip.
He opened the door, wondering whether he should wake up Merlin now or wait for him to wake up himself, and then froze.
Merlin was sitting up on the bed, the comforter pooling around his waist, looking lost and dazed.
His gaze lifted to Arthur’s when he entered the room and Arthur saw so much anguish in his eyes that his heart nearly stuttered to a stop.
"We broke up. Didn't we?" he said slowly, sounding shocked, as though he couldn't believe what was coming out of his mouth –that such a thing was possible.
Arthur couldn’t deny it this time. He nodded. “Yes.”
Merlin ran a trembling hand down his face. “God, I just –it’s all coming back to me. I woke up just now and stretched out my hand but the bed was empty and -,” he took a shuddering breath, “–and I remembered all those other times I woke up to an empty bed and how miserable I was.”
Arthur took a tentative step towards him, a lump forming in his throat. “Merlin –”
“No,” Merlin commanded in a shaky voice. “Stop. No. I’m –I can’t believe this but it’s all here now. That night at Gwen and Lance’s housewarming party and the last six months. Arthur, you –you knew all this time. You knew.”
Arthur’s silence spoke for itself.
Merlin shook his head vehemently, as though desperately wishing for this to be untrue. “No, no, no. Why –why didn’t you tell me? It’s been two months, Arthur. Two. Months.”
Arthur’s heart was thundering and he didn’t know what possessed him to say, "You never asked if anything ever went wrong between us."
Merlin gaped at him. "I never asked? That's your excuse?” he huffed out a humourless laugh. “Sorry for having so much faith in us."
Arthur’s pushed a hand through his hair and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "No, no. I'm sorry. That’s not what I meant. I should've told you but Merlin, try to think about it from my side –”
“You lied to me,” Merlin accused angrily. “What possible reason could you have for not telling me? You were the one who broke up with me –”
“You think I wanted to?” Arthur exclaimed. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I have never regretted anything more. I loved you so much –love you so much.”
A beat passed.
Merlin's face softened infinitesimally but then he shuttered off again and got out of the bed to pull out a worn pair of jeans and Arthur’s blue hoodie.
Arthur watched him move in a stupor. “Where are you going?”
“I'm going for a walk,” Merlin answered shortly, without looking at him. “I need time to think.”
Arthur’s voice broke. “Merlin.”
Merlin stopped, exhaling. “Please, just. I'll come back, I promise. Right now –I need to –I need –don’t follow me."
Arthur could do nothing but watch his back as he picked up his phone, keys, and wallet and left.
Merlin didn't come back for three hours.
Arthur went through the motions of activity during that time, functioning on muscle memory alone –his mind feeling lost and untethered.
He somehow got the message across to his PA that he wouldn't be coming into work that day and managed to eat a dry piece of toast. He also cleaned around the flat, a deeply detested chore, just for something to do.
He started to get worried around eleven, as he paced a hole into the living room carpet and finally picked up the phone to call Merlin, space be damned, when the front door lock turned.
Arthur twisted around to see Merlin come inside, his hair ruffled and cheeks red from the cold but otherwise unharmed.
They stared at each other for several long moments.
“It’s been three hours,” Arthur blurted out at last.
“I know,” Merlin said, picking at the hem of the hoodie he was wearing. Arthur didn’t think he even realised that it was Arthur’s.
"Did you have anything to eat?" he asked next, his heart doing acrobatics in his chest as the tension in the room thickened.
A hint of a smile crossed Merlin's face. "Yeah, yeah. I grabbed a sandwich."
Arthur nodded. "Good, good."
Arthur was on unfamiliar territory, didn't know how he was supposed to proceed. He waited for Merlin to make the first move.
Merlin shuffled awkwardly on his feet, seemingly struggling with something.
He sighed finally and took a bold step forward. "I took you for granted."
Arthur looked up at him in surprise. "What?"
“I took you for granted,” Merlin repeated, swallowing. “I didn’t do it on purpose but I did do it and I’m sorry.”
Arthur blinked, brain struggling to keep up with the conversation. “What –”
Merlin had clearly prepared a speech because he continued, “I don’t agree with how you handled it but I understand why you were hurt. I had a lot of time to think about it in the last six months and I was –I was not being a really good partner. You weren’t either.”
Arthur bit his lip and sat down on the sofa. "I know. It all happened so fast, Merlin, and I was terrified that I was being replaced by your work and I didn't...I was so angry at you.”
"Why didn't you ever tell me this? You iced me out for days at a time!" Merlin said, with a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Because,” Arthur replied, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “Because I was becoming needy and I hated myself for it and I could never admit it to you.”
Merlin let out a huff of disbelief as he dropped down on the sofa beside him. “Admit it to me? We’ve been together four years, there are still things you can’t say to me?”
“I don’t know!” Arthur exclaimed, deep-seated insecurities stirring inside him. “I’m working on it, all right?”
Merlin rubbed a hand across his face, his eyes flicking over Arthur’s. “Christ, I remember I cried for a whole week because I missed you so much and I couldn't sleep properly for so long. Do you realise that?”
“Well, it wasn’t really a picnic for me either,” Arthur bit out, then sighed. “Merlin, please. Can we –”
“What? Can we go back to our bubble of domestic bliss and pretend everything is okay?” Merlin’s voice wavered as he faced Arthur. “You should've told me, Arthur. All these months here with you and turns out I've just been living a lie. It never even occurred to me that something like this could –”
“It wasn't a lie!” Arthur insisted, taking his hands. “It's not like I don't still love you. You know that, right? The reason I didn't tell you sooner is because of how badly I want you to stay.”
“I have always stayed, you’re the flight risk here,” Merlin told him shakily. “What about the next time I have to go on tour? Will you leave me again?”
Arthur shook his head fiercely, begging for him to understand. “God, no. Merlin, never again. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please believe me.”
Merlin searched his face, his eyes moist at the corners. He looked down at their joined hands. “I don't know –I’m scared, Arthur. If we could so easily separate once, what's to say we won't again? What's to say we just shouldn't stay broken up? I don’t know what to believe any more.”
Arthur’s chest constricted and he desperately tried to keep his heart from breaking. “What are you saying?” he breathed.
“I don’t know,” Merlin admitted quietly.
The room fell into a deafening silence and Arthur’s entire life seemed to be resting in the tiny space separating him and Merlin.
Seconds ticked by slowly.
Arthur dared a look at Merlin. He was looking down, dampness clinging to his long lashes and his lips bitten pink. Arthur couldn’t imagine not having him in his life.
“No,” he said finally, resolute. “I won’t let you go again. I won’t.”
Merlin lifted his eyes to meet Arthur’s, surprise written all over his features. “You won’t?”
“No,” Arthur asserted firmly.
They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, time suspended around them. Merlin must have seen something in his expression because his lips quirked up.
“Then don’t,” he whispered.
Arthur blinked, taken aback. “What?”
"Don't let me go again,” Merlin repeated, his watery smile widening. “I’m really angry at you right now for lying but if you even try to leave me again, I swear I will never forgive you,” he told him, sniffling slightly. “And fuck Arthur, when you're upset with me, let me know instead of relying on your emotionless bastard instincts."
Arthur laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “I promise,” he breathed, hardly believing what he was hearing. “I promise, love. You are it for me, you idiot.”
Merlin let out a half sob-half laugh and climbed into Arthur's lap, wrapping his arms tightly around his shoulders. Arthur buried his face in Merlin's neck, breathing in deeply, feeling lighter than he had in months.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” Merlin whispered into his hair. “I didn’t say that to you before.”
Arthur pressed his lips to Merlin’s throat, tightening his hold around his waist. “I’m sorry too.”
“Promise me we’ll make it,” Merlin said.
Arthur smiled. “We’ll make it.”