“There’s,” Arthur said, pushing the word out if his lungs with an effort. His chest felt as though it were filling with liquid fire, leaving no room for anything as trivial as air. It only hurt in a distant sort of way, at least; mostly he felt warmed to his very center. “There’s…something I want to say.”
”You’re not going to say goodbye,” Merlin said, struggling again against Arthur’s weight.
“No,” Arthur shook his head slightly. “No.” It hadn’t even occurred to him, to be honest. If these were going to be his last words…well. Goodbyes were always full of regrets. His time for such things was done.
“Everything you’ve done, I know now,” Arthur said, staring up into the face of the man that had known him better than any other. ”For me,” he said, voice catching on the word. He knew now without any doubt that it had been for him, Arthur. Not the Prince, not the King. Him. “For Camelot. For the Kingdom you helped me build.”
“You’d have done that without me,” Merlin said, and Arthur laughed. “Yeah, maybe,” he agreed, without any conviction.
Arthur would always have become King, certainly. He would have taken his father’s crown, sat on his throne, and carried out his predecessor’s will. It would have been a reign of unending bloodshed and hardship, tears and hatred, that would have invariably lead to the fall of his beloved kingdom.
But that future never came. Because, once upon a time, an appalling little upstart had dared to challenge the world as Arthur knew it. Had upended it, really, by refusing to cow to the Prince’s will and instead found his way into every corner of Arthur’s life as though he had always been there. As though a servant’s place was at the right hand of his King.
It had made all the difference.
God, if these were going to be his last words, they would matter only because it had made all the difference.
“I want to say…something I’ve never said to you before.” And maybe there was time yet for this one regret. One he could address with a full heart, and then lay it to rest forever.
Arthur turned his head, seeking out the gaze he always sought first when he wanted to share a joke, or a secret. The eyes that could by turns make him feel like a wretched tyrant, or a man truly worthy of wearing his people’s crown.
Stunned blue eyes locked with his, and something deep within Arthur began to unravel. There you are, he thought, and the moment stretched over him into a place beyond time and understanding. He was warm, and happy, and home.
“Thank you,” Arthur breathed.
For being the voice of conscience when I was deaf to my own.
For being the light of hope in my darkest hours.
For being the bravest man I ever knew.
For being the best friend I ever had.
For being you.
Somehow, Arthur found the strength to lift his hand to gently cup the back of Merlin’s head. He smiled as the world around him blurred, keeping his eyes fixed on that bit of blue that meant familyhomehappylove until at last everything seemed to fade away.
Merlin? He thought hazily, startling. Merlin?
Hush, said a soothing voice. Sleep, good King. Your man will be with you when you wake.
And so assured, Arthur floated off into the welcoming darkness.