Okies, this little ficlet was spawned off this gorgeous art by ptelefolone on Livejournal - http : / / ptelefolone . livejournal . com / 10043 . html Without the spaces, obviously. I think I should also partially credit the insane inventors of Zombieland, which I saw about a week ago and lurked in my subconscious till I checked out the art again and then morphed into a giant, evil zombie plotbunny. And cookies to those who can guess which song I was listening to when I wrote this!
"Run, Merlin." Arthur hadn't realised he'd said the words out loud till he heard them. A terse mutter, fluttering weakly in the burning air and melting into the tension that surrounded them. He also realised that he didn't care. Crouched on top of the warehouse roof, he watched in the mid-afternoon sun as Merlin sprinted desperately to the door, his bag clutched to his chest – full of food they needed. Greg was running backwards in front of him, shooting frantically. Zombies fell, only to stumble to their feet again. When the monsters had first appeared several months ago, it had felt like the end of the world.
"Run, god damn it, run." Arthur hissed, his knuckles white where they clutched the edge of the building. His hands ached for a gun. He was a better shot than Greg.
A zombie, thin and lean and only stumbling slightly – freshly dead – caught up fast. Gunshots shattered the air once, twice, three times, and finally the monster jerked back. And then Greg turned his back on Merlin and ran harder to the door. "Out of bullets," Arthur whispered to himself, watching the zombie gain on Merlin again. "MERLIN!" He bellowed suddenly. Merlin glanced up, and Arthur swore he could see the panicked whites of his eyes. "DROP IT!" He shouted recklessly. "RUN!"
Merlin didn't, of course he didn't. Arthur pushed away from the roof edge and ran for the hatch, jumping down it and ignoring the ladder. His ankles tingled as his feet slammed at breakneck speed into the ground, but he ignored it and ran, hearing the squeal of the door opening and several gunshots in quick succession. Morgana or Gwen. He burst through the door and practically fell down the hole that led to the ground floor. He managed to grab the side of the step ladder with one hand and swing his feet onto a rung to stop himself breaking a leg as he landed.
Gwen and Lance were pushing the door closed as he arrived, not out of breath, and grabbed Merlin's shoulders. "Are you alright? Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
Merlin shook his head without raising it and his arms loosened around the bag. He pulled away from Arthur and handed it to Morgana, who took it gratefully as she pulled him into a quick hug. "Well done!"
Merlin's silence was worrying Arthur. And the worry turned to icy fear in his veins as his eyes came to rest on a smear of blood on Merlin's arm. "Merlin?" His lover turned, his hair hanging in his eyes and shadowing them from view. "Your arm…"
The others' eyes dropped to the incriminating limb, and Greg gasped, a sharp intake of breath. "He's bitten." He said in a whisper. "He's been bitten."
"No." Arthur couldn't breath. No, that wasn't right – he was breathing, but it was shallow and uneven, and he could feel his heart pounding loud and painful against his lungs. "No, no he hasn't."
Merlin stepped closer, and Arthur felt a distant burn of anger as everyone else took a step away. Black hair was pushed away from red-rimmed eyes, bloodshot with lack of sleep. "Yes I have." He said quietly. Arthur couldn't pinpoint the emotion behind his voice. Defeat? Resignation? Fear? He couldn't tell. He was too overwhelmed.
"No…" he breathed.
"Well that's great." Greg's voice, angry and bitter. "Just fantastic. You want us to shoot you or throw you back to those creeps so you can lure them away?"
"Shut up!" Arthur shouted, turning furiously on the other man. Greg stepped back a couple more paces, but didn't stop scowling stubbornly. "Don't you dare…!"
"Dare what?" Greg snapped back edgily, casting a suspicious look at Merlin. "He could turn any moment. I'm only stating the obvious."
"Don't!" Arthur stumbled closer, ready to punch Greg's stupid face in. "Don't you say that!"
"Arthur?" Merlin sounded calm, kind of sad. "It's okay. He's right."
"No!" Arthur was painfully aware of Morgana, Gwen and Lance's stares on him, sympathetic and horrified and all those other things he didn't want burdening him. "No, he's not." He whispered, choking on the lump that had risen in his throat. He spun and grabbed Merlin's arm, the bitten one. "We'll…we'll cut it out. Before it spreads."
"Too late." Merlin shook his head. "Way too late. I can tell."
"No." The word was little more than a sound squeezed from between Arthur's lips, barely audible as anything but a cross between a moan and a growl, an octave higher than his normal voice.
"We'll leave." Morgana's voice was too loud in the silence. Arthur fought for control of himself, squeezing his eyes tight shut.
"What?" Greg was indignant. "How do we know he can handle it? What if he lets it turn?"
It. Like Merlin was already one of them. Like he was already a monster. An animal, primed for extermination.
"Get out." He snarled.
"GET OUT!" Arthur roared, turning on him, and he must have looked pretty scary, because Greg backed up and followed Gwen, Lance and Morgana as they left, going into the office next door.
Arthur turned to Merlin. "What the fuck for?"
Merlin smiled sadly. "I guess I should have run faster, huh?"
Arthur swallowed and closed his eyes. "Guess so." Like it or not, these were his last moments with Merlin. Forever.
"Hey." Merlin stepped into his personal space, only a spare inch between their chests. "Hey." He whispered again, and Arthur leaned into him, burying his face in Merlin's hair, all his rage gone.
After a long moment, Merlin drew back and reached around to the back of his pants. When his hand reappeared, it was holding his gun, held out to Arthur. Because they had a time limit on the goodbye, and Arthur could at least appreciate Merlin wanting to die before becoming a slavering zombie bent on eating their flesh.
So he took the gun. It was warm, and Arthur wished all they had to do was cut off Merlin's arm.
Merlin led him to the pile of crates near the end of the warehouse, in the darkness under the scaffolding. He sat down, crooking one leg up onto the wood and resting his hands casually, as if they were about to have a friendly chat. Arthur stepped into the circle of his legs, putting an arm around Merlin's shoulders and pressing his forehead to the thatch of dirty dark hair that hadn't seen a shower for weeks.
Merlin met his eyes when he pulled away, and Arthur saw the fear there despite Merlin's valiant attempt to hide it. He had to be the strong one here. He kissed Merlin's high cheekbones and the tip of his nose and the point of his chin and the corner of his right eye. Merlin closed his eyes and tilted his face up to catch Arthur's lips in his own and just press them together, no tongue. Sweet and sad and heartbreakingly final. "I love you."
Arthur's breath hitched, and he held the gun behind his back. "And I love you right back." He whispered.
Merlin sighed and closed his eyes. Arthur could feel the pulse in his neck jumping and fluttering, fading and then pounding. He was dying. His reactions slowing and his vision probably blurring. "You feel okay?" Arthur asked in a quiet voice. "No pain?"
"My arm stings a bit." Merlin said. "But that's all."
"Good." Arthur swallowed. "That's…that's good." He gripped the gun a little tighter. "I love you." I'll miss you. God, I'll never love again, I swear. I love you so much. I always will.
Merlin didn't say anything as Arthur pressed his lips to his brow and brought the gun up and around, pressing it against his heart. A second of trembling, agonising silence, and Arthur's whole world focused on his cold, sweaty finger on the trigger. And then he pulled it.
The bang was loud, and the jerk of the aftershock sent the fist holding the gun punching back into Arthur's own chest. Merlin's hand flew to Arthur's side and his fingers scrabbled there for a second before he slumped, falling forward heavily into Arthur's chest. Arthur let the gun fall from his fingers as he wrapped his arms around Merlin's too-thin shoulders and sobbed.
The sound echoed in the wideness of the warehouse, and Arthur stopped making himself be the strong one, because Merlin was dead now. Dead and gone and never, ever able to come back. He cried out, the volume hurting his throat. He didn't care. Merlin wasn't coming back. He was nothing more now than a body in Arthur's arms, tall and thin and ropey and everything he'd fallen in love with.
It felt like the end of the world.
Unbelievably, the world didn't actually end, and Arthur lived for two more decades. He stuck by his oath to protect the others, and only judged the situation stable enough for his departure when the population of The Nest, as it had grown to be called, was over fifty. Morgana had a man, and a kid – Mordred was just kind of creepy – Gwen and Lance were married and she was expecting, and Greg was just being Greg; unattached and annoying and a better shot than he had been.
Arthur had never quite forgiven him.
It figured though, that Morgana would catch him as headed for the third side door in the fifteen foot wall that surrounded The Nest. "Arthur?"
He turned to look at her, his sort-of sister, and didn't smile. He hardly ever smiled.
She looked at him with sad, wise eyes that had seen too much, and jerked her head at the holster that held his gun. "How many bullets?"
"One. I don't plan on any going to waste."
"We hoped…" she trailed off and sighed. Arthur understood. They'd hoped he'd live longer than he felt he absolutely needed to. Merlin had faded to a memory in their minds – they were the only ones at The Nest who had known him after all.
"You don't need me anymore." He said calmly, and was glad when she didn't argue, just closed the distance between them to hug him close.
"If you see him again," she whispered. "You know, if any of that shit is real – and you deserve it more than anyone, so I hope it is – tell him we still miss him. And we love him."
"Yeah." Arthur's voice was scratchy when she pulled away, and she smiled, tweaking his collar.
"Love you too, little brother. Okay?"
"Will you tell the others you saw me?"
"Oh, I expect so." She nodded.
"They'll be mad you didn't try and stop me."
"Not to my face they won't be." She smiled, that nasty smile she did so well, and the corners of Arthur's mouth turned up.
"See you, then."
He turned and opened the door. He heard her lock it behind him, and sighed. That was the only part of his plan he'd worried about. But now everything was fine, all the loose ends tied up. He'd left a nice, long letter, divvying up his few personal possessions between his friends, and his gun was a reassuring weight at his hip.
He started to walk, aiming for the reddish rocks that could hide an army. He'd timed it so that the watchmen wouldn't see him, so he took it easy after he reached the first gully. He wanted to walk so far away that they wouldn't hear the gunshot. He wasn't sure how far that was, but he figured when he reached the edge of a cliff that he was far enough.
He stood on an outcrop of rock and felt the sun on his back, hot and comforting. He smiled properly, taking in the view for a minute before he pulled his gun out and held it for a moment in his hands, looking at it. It wasn't his gun really – it was Merlin's. He'd kept it for nineteen years, just for this shot. This perfect slice of reality he could take for his own and cut himself away from.
He sighed and pulled back the safety catch, holding it up to his temple, his finger warm on the trigger. The perfect moment. He'd waited a lifetime.
He smiled as he pulled the trigger, and the bang echoed out across the gully.
He woke up in a bed he'd never slept in, but felt so comfortable in he'd be willing to bet he'd spent his whole life coming back to it. Strange, that feeling, but he felt warm and fuzzy, and didn't really feel like thinking it over. He shifted, and realised that he was lying facing another person, curled up on their side like he was. The shape of the person's back through the black material of their shirt seemed so familiar, and Arthur frowned, trying to remember.
He stopped bothering as the person mumbled something sleepily and turned over slowly in two jerky motions to stop the blanket turning with them. And Arthur recognised the face – high cheekbones, long eyelashes, straight nose and messy crop of black hair. Merlin. God, how could it not be? Of course it would be Merlin.
Merlin opened his eyes and smiled dozily, and Arthur stared at him like he'd hung the moon, because what could be more incredible than seeing something he had spent years trying to remember exactly? "Hey," he whispered, his voice scratchy with sleep. "You've been gone a while."
Arthur swallowed and pushed himself closer, wrapping an arm around Merlin's back and stroking his face with his other hand. "You've been gone longer." He whispered back, and curled his hand around Merlin's jaw, bringing him in for a long-awaited kiss.