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Exile

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Exile

***

            When their server makes eye contact, Arthur picks up the bottle of beer and gives it a little shake.  She nods knowingly and he throws back the rest of his drink.  His date sits across from him, talking about something – Arthur had asked him a question, but now he can’t remember what.

            “Are you listening?” Owen asks.

            “Yeah, sorry.  I had a long shift today.”

            Owen nods.  He doesn’t look completely convinced, but he’s also a doctor at the same hospital so Arthur knows he understands.  He’s good looking in that overtly traditional way and his hair always sits just right.  He never looks crumpled like he just rolled out of bed.  He likes to play polo and rugby and he drinks tea, never coffee.  They’ve gone out a few times and ended up in bed once.  It was fine, although Arthur suspects that Owen thought it was much better than he did.  On paper, Owen should be the perfect guy for him.  Poised, proper, never outspoken, but Arthur likes his men to be a little rougher around the edges.

            “I was able to send a patient home today after almost seven months in the hospital.  I told her I never wanted to see her again.”  Arthur smiles a little.  “It’s kind of bittersweet sometimes.  You get to be such a part of their lives, but then they’re gone.  She’s released into the care of another doctor now, closer to her house.”

            “How old?”

            “She was eight.” 

            Their server takes Arthur’s empty beer bottle drops off the new one.  He immediately starts drinking from it. 

            “I don’t know how you do it.  Pediatric neurosurgery?  I couldn’t do it.”

            God, this conversation.  Arthur’s had it with almost everyone he knows.  Sick kids, brain surgery, pain and death.  Really, though, it’s the kid part that most people can’t handle.  Owen does orthopedics, so he deals with a lot of broken bones and sprained limbs.  Arthur wonders if they continue dating how Owen will handle it when Arthur comes home after losing a patient.  It’s always rough and he goes into a dark, solitary place.  It takes a lot to pull him out and back onto the ground again.

            “I’m off tomorrow, though,” Owen says, “if you want to come over later.”

            Arthur glances up at him.  He takes another swig of beer and nods.  “Yeah, I could do that.  I’m not back until Monday.”

            A small group bursts through the door of the pub.  There’s five or six of them, all laughing.  It’s freezing outside with a hint of snow, so they’re probably trying to escape into the warmth.  Arthur turns and watches them undo their scarves and unbutton their coats as one of the servers approaches to ask them about a table. 

            That’s when Arthur sees him – Merlin – carefully folding his green scarf.  There’s a man next to him, who puts his arm around Merlin’s waist and whispers something in Merlin’s ear.  He laughs – Arthur can hear that familiar laugh, but it’s stilted, the laugh Merlin makes when he’s trying to be polite but the joke’s not funny at all.

            “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Owen says, “or a serial killer.  I can’t decide which.”

            Arthur turns back to him.  “Sorry,” he says.  He rubs a hand over his face.  “Shit.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            “One of the guys who just walked in?  He’s, er, my ex.”

            “Ah.  Bad breakup?”

            Arthur takes in a deep breath through his nose.  “Yeah, you could say that.”

            “How long ago?”

            “Six, seven months.”  It’s been eight months, four days.  Arthur never means to keep track, but he can remember when Merlin moved out and left a box behind, like he’d packed up their lives and the parts he didn’t want he was giving back to Arthur. 

            “Is this the first time you’ve seen him since you broke up or something?”

            “No.  I saw him at the theater once and then we showed up at the same party.  I don’t think either of us stayed.”

            Owen tilts his head slightly as though studying him.  “Are you still in love with him?”

            “No,” Arthur answers quickly.  “But we were together a long time.”  He clears his throat.  “God, what a fucking downer I am.  Want to get the check and head out?”

            Owen sits back in his chair.  “Why don’t you tell me about it?  You don’t seem over it.”

            “I’m over it.  I’m just – it was hard.  Seeing him is always weird.”

            “I was married once,” Owen says.  “When I was in my early twenties.  I was twenty-three, she was twenty-two.  We lasted seven years.  Been divorced for almost five years now.  I think it took me about a year before I could see her and not want to die.  Another year before I could actually say I was happy she was happy.  How long were you guys together?”

            “Forever,” Arthur laughs. “I don’t even know.  Ten years, I guess.  All through university and med school.”

            “He’s a doctor too?”

            “No, a teacher.  He teaches Literature.”

            Owen reaches over and takes Arthur’s hand.  it’s not a romantic touch; it’s sweet, though, encouraging.  “Tell me about him.”

            Arthur chances a glance.  He doesn’t think Merlin’s seen him yet, but he’s sitting so close to that guy.  They’re clearly together, or at least on a date.  He only recognizes one other person in the group, Merlin’s old friend Gwen, another teacher from his school.

            He looks back at Owen.  “What is there to tell?  We were together, but then one day we weren’t.  We weren’t happy the last year we were together.  I had these two TBI patients that I lost back-to-back, within a days of each other.  Their injuries were too severe.  One was in a car accident and another fell out of a tree on the play yard at school.  They were both little, six or seven.  They were at hospital for several months before they … I wasn’t really nice to him during that time.  Nice to Merlin, I mean.  That’s his name.”

            Owen nods and rubs a thumb across the back of Arthur’s hand.

            “When he finally said he was leaving, I was shocked.  I should’ve known, though.  We were both miserable.  I’d been throwing myself into work and not coming home sometimes.  He was spending more time with his friends.  I still thought we’d get through it all, but I guess he had other ideas.”

            “Sounds like maybe you were depressed and he wasn’t being supportive.”

            “No, I think that’s too simple.  I think it was mostly my fault and by the time I was ready to let him back in, he was ready to leave.  I tried to fight after the war was over instead of in the middle.”

            “He broke your heart,” Owen says.

            “Mm,” Arthur says noncommittally. 

            “It’s okay to admit.”

            “Yes,” Arthur confirms, “he shattered me.”

            “Shattered?  That’s pretty intense.  You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?”

            “No,” denies Arthur, “stop saying that. But maybe I’m not at the place where I’m happy to see him happy.  Why don’t I go get us some shots and we can get pissed and I can take you home and fuck you?”

            Owen smirks.  “You think I’m a sure thing?”

            “God I hope so.”

            Owen laughs.  “Sure.  Shots of whatever is top shelf.”

            Arthur nods.  He doesn’t want to wait on their server so he gets up and goes to the bar.

***

            When Merlin sees him, he wants to die.  What the fuck?  This was supposed to be a fun night out with the other teachers from school, but instead he has to run into his old boyfriend.  This is ridiculous.  And he’s sitting over there with some beautiful man, like model beautiful, who clearly is also a doctor.  Merlin’s able to spot doctors now.  It’s the way they carry themselves.  Like they’re more important than everyone else.

            Oh, hell, he knows that’s not true.  That’s not how Arthur carries himself.  He’s just not ready to see Arthur out on a date.  Of course, he’s kind of on a date, too.  Except his science teacher date is nowhere near as beautiful as Arthur’s doctor.

            “I’m going to get a round of shots for everyone.  Let’s celebrate the three-day-weekend and bank holiday on Monday.”

            The table cheers and Merlin stands and goes to the bar.

            “Two shots of top shelf whisky.”

            Merlin slams his eyes shut.  That voice is so familiar.  It makes his heart stop.  He remembers the last time he heard that voice; it was so broken and lost, begging him not to leave.  Even thinking about that day when he left makes Merlin’s hands shake.  He opens his eyes and looks Arthur’s way.  Their eyes meet, but Arthur doesn’t say anything, doesn’t acknowledge him.

            Then Arthur’s eyes flick backwards, at the table where Merlin’s friends are, and he knows he’s looking at Merlin’s date.  When his eyes go back to Merlin, the expression on his face is so transparent: That guy?  Really?

            Merlin wants to laugh even though it’s nowhere near funny.  Arthur was his home for so long and now they’re nothing.  How dare he judge anything about him anymore.  He had his chance, he had a hundred of them, and he let Merlin go.  He let him pack up their lives and divided it out as though it was transactional.  He gave Arthur the things he hoped he’d want, a box full of memories that were honestly too painful for him to keep.  All the memories of their very best times, things so sentimental Merlin couldn’t bear to take them with him when he left.

            God, seeing him at this stupid pub makes Merlin feel like he’s totally alone on some stupid island, without a lifeline.  Only Arthur could make him feel so completely lost without even saying a word.

            “Hey,” Arthur finally says.

            “Hey.”

            Arthur takes the two shot glasses and slides down the bar until he’s standing in front of him.  “How are you?”

            “I’m okay …things are okay.  You?”

            “Okay,” Arthur echoes.

            “Your date’s cute.”

            “Don’t do that.”

            “Sorry.”  Merlin shrugs.  “At least I’m not looking at your guy like I want to kill him in his sleep.”

            “I’m not – you’re allowed to see whoever you want.”

            “I know that.”

            “Are you happy?”

            Merlin is surprised at the question and he has no idea if he should be honest or not.  “I’m okay,” he says again, which is actually the truth.  He’s certainly not good, but he’s also stopped crying into his pillow at night so things are looking up.  “Are you?”

            “Not particularly.”

            “Oh.  I, er, don’t know what to say to that.”

            “You don’t have to say anything.  It’s not your fault.  It’s my own shit.”

            Merlin is quiet.  He takes all of Arthur in.  His hair looks the same, he’s wearing the same clothes, but he looks like he might be a little thinner, and that might be a gray hair just by his ears.  If they were still together, he would take Arthur home and take care of him.  He’d make him some canned soup, because honestly that’s all he knows how to cook without burning it, and find something to watch on Netflix, before making Arthur get some sleep.  But they’re not together, they haven’t been for a while, so he can’t even ask him what’s wrong.  He can’t take care of him.  All he can do is worry and play memories in his head like recordings of all the times he’d taken care of him before.

            Arthur looks like he wants to say something else, but instead he says, “Have a good night, Merlin.”

            Fuck.  Hearing his name on Arthur’s lips goes straight through his chest.  He wants to gasp for breath. 

            Arthur takes a step away, but then turns halfway back.  “You look good,” he says.  “My date doesn’t look half as good as you.”

            “Wait,” Merlin says before Arthur can walk away again.  But when he stops and looks at him, Merlin doesn’t know what to say.  “Do you think we could ever maybe one day be friends?”

            Arthur gives him a long appraising look.  He slowly shakes his head.  “No.  I don’t think I’ll ever be okay with that.”

            “Never?  Why?”

            “Because I miss you every single day,” Arthur says.  “Having you in my life again – but as friends?  I couldn’t handle that.”

            Merlin flinches.  This isn’t the response he expected to hear.  “Oh.”

            “Have a good night, Merlin,” Arthur says again, and goes back to his date.

            Merlin watches him go.  Fuck that guy.  He ripped his heart out and now he has the audacity to say he misses him?  What the fuck!

            “Seven shots of tequila, please,” Merlin says to the bartender.  He watches as the guy glances at the table behind him where Merlin’s friends are still sitting.  “Two of them are for me,” Merlin snaps, “I can do math.”

            The bartender raises his hands in surrender.  “I literally don’t care how much you drink, just don’t puke on my floors.”

***

            Arthur sits back down and immediately downs his whisky without waiting for Owen.  He slams the glass on the table and then chugs the rest of his beer.

            “What?”

            Owen is staring at him with a slight smirk on his face.  He shrugs.  “You’re still in love with him.  I was watching you at the bar.  It’s all right, I’m not offended.”

            “Fine, whatever.  Yes, I’m still in love with him.  Which is why I’m leaving.”  Arthur takes his coat off the back of his chair and starts to pull it on.  He stands and does up the buttons. 

            “You can still come over if you want,” Owen says.

            Arthur pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and throws down some money, enough to cover both of them.  “Why?  I think in the last twenty minutes it’s become abundantly clear that we won’t be dating after tonight.”

            Owen’s smirk is back.  “I’m aware, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have any fun.  Or we can just be friends, whatever.”

            For a moment Arthur considers going back to Owen’s flat, but he knows he can’t.  His brain is too much of a mess and Owen’s been pretty great tonight and at least deserves someone who will pay attention while they’re fucking him.

            “I can’t.  I’m going to get an Uber.  Do you want to wait with me or…?”

            “Do you want me to take you?  I mean, I was your ride here in the first place.”

            Arthur shakes his head.

            “I’m not drunk.  I’ll probably get a water just to be sure and then drive myself home unless you want to come with me.”

            Arthur nods.  “Right, okay.  No, thanks.  I’ll properly apologize on Monday if I run into you, but right now – I have to go.”

            Owen seems to understand and wishes him a good night while Arthur practically flees from the pub.

            It’s freezing outside, but the air is completely still.  He swears it smells like snow and when the Uber pulls up, he’s grateful for the warmth of the car.  It’s a short ride to his flat and if it had been summer, he probably would have walked home.  He tells the driver if he doesn’t talk he’ll leave a big tip, so they drive in silence.

            Once he’s in his flat, he takes off his coat and scarf and toes off his shoes.  He goes to his kitchen and grabs a glass and his bottle of Jack and then sets both down on his coffee table.  The box Merlin left is still by the door; he’s hasn’t been able to go through it in the last eight months, but this is the night.  He picks it up and puts it on the floor by the sofa.

            He takes a deep breath and pours himself some Jack, filling the glass halfway up.  Getting more drunk and going through a box left by his ex-boyfriend is probably a terrible idea.  And the term ex-boyfriend seems too small for what they were.  Merlin was the love of his life – no, Merlin is the love of his life.  Calling him an ex seems to diminish how important he really was.

            Except fuck him – he could have given him any number of warning signs, but he didn’t.  Instead he left Arthur in a thousand pieces and didn’t even help put him back together.

            Arthur picks up the first thing out of the box.  It’s an envelope full of ticket stubs: every movie and concert they ever went to.  Arthur puts it aside.  Next is a t-shirt that says I Heart NY.  Arthur remembers they went on holiday to New York City once, their first getaway together after Arthur finished med school.  The plane ride was long and Merlin was a nervous flyer, but exploring a new city together made the anxiety worth it.  Then Arthur pulls out a small green teddy bear.  It’s old and beat-up.  He holds it in his hands and stares at it.  Something has reached into his chest and squeezed his heart so tightly he can barely breath. 

            He drops the bear onto the table and gulps down his whisky.  That bear is over ten years old.  They had still been in university but they didn’t get to see each other as much as they wanted.  Merlin had loads of literature and writing classes; Arthur had science and biology and anatomy.  There was a carnival out in the country, only an hour and a half drive away.  They decided to go instead of finishing their homework.  There were rides and junk food and games.  Arthur played some sort of game where he had to knock over tin bottles labeled Milk and ended up winning a teddy bear.  He chose a green one since it was Merlin’s favorite color.

            When he handed it over, he said, “Maybe on the nights when I can’t stay over, you can sleep with him instead and think of me.”

            Merlin had laughed and hugged the bear and something about the joy in his eyes made Arthur say, “I love you.”

            It was the first time he’d said it, the first time either of them had said it.  Arthur remembers the glassy look in Merlin’s eyes when he said, “I love you, too.”

            It was so easy to love Merlin back then.  Other than schoolwork they didn’t have any responsibilities to anyone else.  They spent all their time together and had moved into a flat while they were still in school.  Everything slotted into place.  They were happy – for years they were happy – until they weren’t.

            Arthur can’t go through the rest of the box.  Merlin put all their best memories in here, packed them up, and dropped them at the door.  These memories are precious to Arthur and knowing Merlin was able to toss them away makes him want to throw up.

            There’s a sudden knock at his door.  Arthur stares at it, unsure if he wants to find out who is on the other side.  The knock comes again, followed by, “Arthur, it’s me.  Please open up.”

            Arthur steels himself.  He checks his eyes to make sure they’re dry, he takes a swig of whisky straight from the bottle, and he pauses at the door, trying to slow down his racing heart.  When he unlocks the door and opens it, Merlin is there, at the threshold, looking frozen and maybe even a little broken.

***

            The bartender gives Merlin a tray for all the shots.  He does one right there as soon as it’s poured, but takes the rest back to his table.  He sits next to Will again and has to purposefully avoid Gwen’s eyes. 

            “Bottom’s up,” he says as he takes his shot. 

            “Oh that’s bad,” Will laughs.  “I never did like tequila.”  He scoots his chair a little closer to Merlin’s.  “Who were you talking to at the bar?”

            “Ah,” says Merlin, “you know … an old friend.”

            “Is that code for ex-boyfriend?”

            Merlin nods.  “Mm hmm.  Hey, Gwen, you gonna drink that?”  He reaches over and grabs her shot and takes it before she even has a chance to answer.

            “Looks like he’s leaving now,” Will says.

            Merlin looks over at the table.  God, Arthur looks wrecked.  And his date, bless him, looks a little shellshocked as Arthur runs out the door.  Seeing him was surreal.  Like an out of body experience.  Merlin knew Arthur still existed but he liked to pretend time had stopped for him.  Thinking about him moving on, being with other men, it was overwhelming.

            As Arthur vanishes out of sight, Merlin finally looks over at Gwen.  She looks sad and offers him a sympathetic look.  Then she says, “What happened at the bar?”

            “Oh, you know, the usual … I said something stupid and he … he said …” Merlin takes in a deep breath.  “Fuck!” he cries out.

            Will flinches and looks towards Gwen as though she could give him all the answers.

            Merlin stands.  “Can someone order me an Uber?”

            Gwen rolls her eyes.  “Fix your phone, Merlin,” she says.  “Uber won’t take you if you don’t have the app.  Here, I’ll come with you.”  She stands and grabs her coat.  “Lovely evening, sorry to cut it short.  See you lot on Tuesday.”

            “Wait,” Will says, grabbing Merlin’s wrist.  “What’s going on?”

            “I’m sorry,” Merlin says.  He pulls out of Will’s grasp and wraps his scarf around his shoulders.  “He said he misses me.”

            “Uh, okay?”

            “It’s been eight months and he said he still misses me.  I have to go.”

            Will sighs but nods.  “Yeah, sure.  I get it.”  To the rest of the table he says, “Another round?”

            Merlin follows Gwen outside.  It’s so cold and his coat is a little too worn for the weather.  She orders the Uber and holds his hand as it drives to the flat he used to share with Arthur. 

            “What’re you going to say when you go up there?”

            “I don’t know,” Merlin admits.  “I really don’t.”

            “Do you still love him?”

            “I never stopped.  Shit, seeing him with that other bloke – maybe I reacted too fast.”

            “You gave him plenty of chances,” Gwen reminds him.  “He chose not to come after you.”

            “He was my everything, Gwen, and I walked away from that.”

            “He let you walk away.  Look, Merlin, you’re my best friend, but you were making yourselves miserable.  Maybe enough time’s past that you can fix what was broken.  Love isn’t the magic cure-all.  You can love someone and be bad for them.”

            “You think Arthur was bad for me?”

            Gwen smiles and shakes her head.  “No.  Only at the end, so if you guys can fix that then brilliant.  If you can’t and you need to come home, then I’ll be back to pick you up.  I’ll stay down here for a little bit.  If you’re not back in twenty minutes, I’ll head home – but ring me if you want me to come back for you.  Your phone still makes calls, doesn’t it?”

            The Uber pulls up in front of the block of flats where they lived together for half a decade.  So many years together and then they fell apart.  Merlin wonders if perhaps he’s lost his fucking marbles, driving after Arthur.  He doesn’t even know what he’s going to say.  He climbs the stairs to the third floor and knocks on the door.

            “Arthur, it’s me.  Please open up.”

            When the door finally opens, Merlin wants to die again.  Arthur looks fucking destroyed.  His eyes are a little red and his expression is vacant, like he’s felt so much that he’s starting to shut down.

            “Can I come in?”

            Arthur steps aside to let Merlin in and then closes the door behind him.  Merlin looks around; nothing in the flat has changed since he left.  It feels weird to be here, in the living room where they spent hours watching Supernatural and Downton Abbey together.  He takes off his coat and throws it on the back of one of the armchairs.

            “You went through the box?”

            “Yeah.  First time.”

            “First?  You never looked in there?”

            Arthur shakes his head.  “Why would I want to see what parts of our relationship you just discarded?”

            “Dis – what?  You think I put that shit in a box to discard it?”

            “You left with me it.  Took us ten years to make those memories, took you ten minutes to throw them away.”

            Merlin laughs.  It’s a little maniacal, like he can’t control it.  “Fuck you, Arthur.  I made that box because those were all the things that reminded me why I loved you!  I thought if I left it with you then you’d remember the same things.  Maybe you’d remember and come after me.”

            “Come after you?  Come after you?  You left me!  Why would I come after you?”

            “We were together ten years!”

            “And you threw us away!”

            “I tried talking to you!” Merlin cries.  “For months I tried talking to you.  I told you I wasn’t happy.  I told you I wanted us to work through it, but you kept pulling away.”

            “I was depressed.  I’d lost my patients and—”

            “And that wasn’t my fault.  Normally I could pick you up, but this time it was like you wanted to stay down.”  Merlin shakes his head. “I didn’t come here to fight.”

            “Then why’d you come here?”

            “Eight months, four days,” Merlin says.  “That’s how long I’ve missed you, too.”

            Arthur shakes his head.  “You can’t – you can’t say these things to me,” he says, his voice hardly above a whisper.  “You broke my heart.  I can’t do it again.  I barely survived the first time.”

            Merlin’s breath quickens.  “Neither did I.”

            “All these movie tickets and t-shirts and stuffed bears.”  Arthur shakes his head.  “I thought it was another way you were breaking up with me.  Throwing me out like rubbish.”

            Merlin shakes his head.  “No, no.  Those are the best memories.  I don’t want to forget them or throw them out.”  He risks it and takes a step closer.  “My heart was broken, too.  I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to move on, but when I saw that bloke you were with, it reminded me that I wasn’t ready.”

            “Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice now back to normal volume, “you are the love of my life.  If you are here for closure, I can’t give it to you.  I can’t have the conversation of what went wrong. I’m not – I’m not ready for that.  Just you being here in this flat is giving me the smallest bit of hope and I can’t go through another heartbreak.  I can’t spend any more days crying over you.”

            “You cried?”  Merlin is surprised.  He doesn’t remember a single time when Arthur cried in all the years they were together.

            “Of course I cried,” Arthur snaps.  “Nearly every day at first.  I was wrecked.  Merlin.  I’ll say it again: you broke my fucking heart.”  He voice quivers, just slightly.  “I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to believe that.”

            “You’re the love of my life, too,” Merlin whispers. 

            “What does that mean?  What do you want?”

            It sounds like such a demand, but Merlin can tell Arthur is teetering on some kind of edge here so he stays calm.

            “It means … it means I miss you and I don’t want to miss you anymore.  I don’t know how to do this, but I think it’s time we try to work it out.  You can’t pull away again and if you’re hurting because of a patient then you let me help you or you get a professional to help you.”

            Arthur nods.  “Okay,” he says, “and you can’t let me go.  Not again.”

            “Okay.  I promise.”  He aches to have Arthur’s arms around him again.  “Can I kiss you?  Please let me kiss you.”

            He sees the exact moment when Arthur breaks.  There are tears in his eyes and he only nods; it’s as though he can’t speak.  Merlin nearly launches himself at him, and when his mouth presses against Arthur’s, it’s smooth and familiar.  It’s like a thousand of their kisses before, only this one is filled with promises.  It tastes like whiskey and tears and Arthur – so much Arthur.

            Something explodes inside Merlin’s chest and that familiar squeeze against his heart that happens whenever he thinks of Arthur deepens.  This is all too much, the enormity of everything he’s feeling. 

            Merlin pulls away, but stays close.  He takes in a few deep breaths and says, “That was intense,” he says.

            “Let me take you to bed.”  Arthur’s fingers flex against his hips.

            Merlin nods.  “Yes, please.”

            “But you have to stay until tomorrow.”

            Merlin nods again.  “I won’t leave.”

            Arthur takes his hand and he follows him back to his room – their room.  This was once Merlin’s room, too.  This was once the bed they shared together every night.  Merlin pulls on Arthur’s hand so that he turns around.  They stand by the bed, looking at one another.  Merlin lets go of Arthur and then pulls his shoes off, then his socks.  His shirt goes next and he takes Arthur’s hand again and places it on his chest. 

            Arthur makes a sound in the back of his throat, a whimper or a groan, and then closes the gap between them.  Soon they’re a tangle of limbs, skin against skin, laying on the blankets and Arthur hovers over him before taking him in his mouth.  Merlin punches the headboard behind him, feeling as though he might burst out of his own skin.  He arches his hips and Arthur swallows him down.  He doesn’t let him come yet, instead crawling back up his body, pressing kisses into his skin, before taking his mouth again.

            “I want—” Arthur starts.  “I want to be inside you.”

            Merlin nods vigorously.  It wasn’t something they did every time, but he wants it now.  He needs it.  He lets Arthur get him ready and when they’re connected, sharing each other’s bodies, Merlin can’t help but cry out.  He claws at Arthur’s back, wanting him to go faster, harder, wanting him to go slower, deeper, anything to keep this from being over.

            “I love you,” Arthur says into Merlin’s skin.

            Merlin grabs him, hands on both his cheeks, and pulls his head up so that they’re looking at one another.  Arthur’s eyes are wet and Merlin feels the intensity of it.  He wants to look at him when he says it, wants to see Arthur’s reaction.

            “I’m here,” Merlin whispers.  “I’m not going anywhere.  I love you.”

            Arthur’s breath catches in his throat.  Merlin watches his eyes spill over.  He wipes the tears off Arthur’s cheeks and then brings him in, kissing his mouth.  It’s over rather quickly after that, but neither of them move, as though they don’t want to break this connection.  Eventually Arthur does pull out and grabs his shirt off the floor to clean them both up.

            “I’m off work the next two days,” Arthur says.  His voice sounds unsure.

            “Me too.”

            Arthur is quiet.  He nods.

            “You should look happier.  You still look sad.”

            “I can’t,” Arthur begins.  He pulls Merlin close and grabs the blankets to cover them both.  “I can’t think of this is real yet.”

            “I understand,” Merlin says.  “We hurt each other.  Deeply and equally.  And—”

            “I won’t forgive myself for it,” Arthur interrupts, “but I forgive you.”

            “I forgive you, too.”

            Arthur kisses his shoulder and then Merlin lets himself fall asleep under the familiar covers.

***

            When Arthur wakes the next morning, he expects to be alone.  He knows Merlin promised him, but they had both been drinking, both seen each other out with other people.  He wouldn’t blame Merlin for leaving.

            The other side of the bed is indeed empty, but the flat doesn’t feel that way.  Arthur sits up and grabs a pair of boxers from a drawer and goes into the kitchen.  He smells coffee and when he looks over to the living room, he sees Merlin standing with a mug in his hand, looking through the window.  There’s a park across the street and Merlin used to watch the people come and go every morning before he left for school.

            Merlin turns and they make eye contact and this is it.  This is the moment of truth. 

            “I didn’t want to let you know I was struggling,” Arthur says.  “Work got really hard and I blamed myself for a couple of patients who – well.  It wasn’t my fault and I know that, but when you’re in care of their care, it feels as though it’s your entire responsibility.”

            “You’re supposed to trust me.  I wanted to help you.”

            “I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t giving one hundred percent to you.  You were supposed to be the most important person to me, but I couldn’t – I was lost.”

            Merlin doesn’t move away from the window.  “When you’re hurting and only able to give ten percent, then I give the other ninety.  I make up for it.  That’s how this works. And when things are bad for me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.  That’s how we support each other.  But you weren’t talking to me so I didn’t know what to give.  You were at ten percent but I was only giving seventy because I didn’t know how badly you were hurting.  And then I was angry that I didn’t know so that seventy became fifty … then forty … and then I gave up completely.”

            “I know.”

            “How do we fix that?”

            “Do you trust me?”

            Merlin flinches as though the question hurts.  “I trust that you love me.  I don’t trust that we can get back to where we were before things fell apart.  I want to, but …”  He shrugs. 

            Arthur clears his throat and pushes back all the emotion threatening to spill over.  “Then we start over,” he says.  “From the beginning.  We date, hang out, go to dinner.  You take me to see those awful foreign films you like.”

            “That’s what was in the envelope,” Merlin says.  “Not every movie we ever saw, just the ones I knew you didn’t want to see.”

            “Why would you keep those?”

            “To remind me, of course.”

            “Remind you of what?”

            Merlin smiles a little sadly.  “How much you loved me.”

            Arthur feels like those words punched him right in the gut.  He loses his breath for just a moment before bracing himself.  He’ll go the rest of his life and never forgive himself for what he did to Merlin. 

            “Why don’t I take you home?” Arthur says.  “You need clean clothes anyway and I don’t have an extra toothbrush.  If you’re really sure you can give us another try, then I’ll come pick you up for dinner.  I want you want this again.”

            “And then what happens?  After dinner, I mean.”

            “And then we go from there.  A lot’s happened in eight months.  I want to know everything – but you can leave out dating other people, that I don’t want to know.”

            Merlin grins.  “I don’t want to know either.  That guy last night was prettier than me.”

            “Owen?  He’s a doctor at the hospital so we may run into him again, but he’d never be able to replace you.”

            “Will’s a teacher.  The bloke from last night.  We work at the same school.  We’ll run into him again, too.”

            “That’s okay.  We’ll get through that.  I’ve never been worried about stuff like that before so I don’t plan on starting now.”

            “That’s good,” says Merlin.  “Are you picking the restaurant?”

            Arthur considers this for a moment and then nods.  “Yeah.  I’ll take care of it all.”

            “Then tell me what time to be ready.”

            “Six.”

            “All right, then.  Take me to Gwen’s.”

            “I figured that’s where you would move.  Let me put on some clothes.”  Arthur goes back into his bedroom and throws on a pair of joggers and a thick jumper.  His coat is still in the living room and he shrugs it on.  “Ready to go home?”

            Merlin puts his mug on the kitchen counter and grabs his own coat.  “It’s not home,” he says.  “This is home.  And hopefully I’ll be back here soon.  When we’re both ready.  I want to come home.”

            Arthur rubs his chest, right over his heart.  “Yeah … I want that, too.”

***

End.

***