"You're going to be fine, you know," says Arthur, holding Merlin's hand more tightly.
Merlin sighs. The machine next to him hasn't stopped beeping in two hours. He's pretty sure it's supposed to do that, but it doesn't make it any less annoying. It sounds a little too much like a ticking clock for Merlin's liking.
"Yeah," he says. "I know."
Arthur shifts slightly in the uncomfortable plastic seat next to Merlin's bed, his fingers brushing across Merlin's thumb as he does so. It's an unintentional gesture, but it's comforting all the same.
"They're taking their time, aren't they?" he asks, in a vain attempt to instigate small talk. Merlin wants to make some remark about prolonging the inevitable, but he doesn't think Arthur really wants to hear it, no matter how true it might be.
"Well, that's the NHS for you," he says, aiming for light-hearted but ending up with distracted.
Arthur looks at him.
"Merlin," he says.
Whatever he's about to say is cut off when a nurse arrives and stands at the foot of Merlin's bed. Merlin swallows hard, his heart-rate suddenly through the roof and startling the monitoring machine. The nurse waves for him to ignore its more frantic beeping.
"We'll be heading into surgery now," she tells him. Merlin nods, silently.
This is it. Moments and hours and counting down have all been leading to this.
He looks at Arthur, and Arthur smiles, obviously in an attempt at reassurance, but his heart's clearly not in it. Merlin reaches out, and Arthur leans forward. It's a short kiss, not much more than the dry brush of lips, but it's loaded with meaning and things that might never be said.
"I'll see you when you come out," he says.
Merlin manages a smile.
He doesn't see what good it could possibly do to say how unlikely that is. They both know. It doesn't need verbalising.
He's wheeled into surgery down a long corridor with painted walls, murals done by former patients, and Merlin wonders how many of them are still alive.
The trolley passes a crying woman. She might be a widow, a grieving daughter or a former parent. He doesn't know what's worse. He wonders who would cry like that for him.
Arthur would. Gwen and Lance would. Gwaine would, but only for a few months before he learnt that bereavement was the best chat-up line.
Oh God, Gwen would probably name her firstborn after him. Merlin wouldn't wish that on anyone. He wishes he'd told her that.
There are lots of things he wishes he'd told her. He wishes she knew that he likes the way her hair curls, that it makes him smile when she's so engrossed in her work that she forgets she's left the oven on, that she should be good to Lance because he'll be good to her.
There's more that he wishes he'd told Arthur. He wants him to know that he's sorry, first and foremost, that he didn't plan any of this. He wants him to know that what they touched upon last night was just the scratching of a surface that should have been explored years ago, and that if they'd had time, they could have made up for it. There are smaller things, too. He wants to tell him that he likes the red tie better than the blue one, that he always puts just the right amount of milk in Merlin's tea, that he works too hard and it makes Merlin ache to see him unhappy. Merlin wants him to be happy. That's all he's ever really wanted.
If Merlin dies, that'll make Arthur unhappy, and that's reason enough to wake up.
The lights are suddenly bright, blinding enough that he has to close his eyes. The oxygen mask is placed over his nose and mouth and he counts to ten, thinks of Arthur and tea and how they promised to go to the park next Friday. Arthur wouldn't go alone.
His last thought before the darkness consumes his consciousness is that he's been thinking in the conditional tense, not the past.
Heaven looks a lot like a hospital cubicle, thinks Merlin. It must be Heaven, though. He feels deliciously warm, like he's been wrapped in a blanket and fed toast and honey from the hands of angels.
"Not quite," says an amused voice, and Merlin wonders why the angels sound so much like Arthur. His mother used to say that angels were made of all the things you love. That makes sense.
"Don't mock me," Merlin mumbles. It's not easy to talk when he's so tired. "I've had a very hard time. I died, you know."
"You didn't, actually," says Arthur's voice, and there's something there, a concern and a relief that Merlin never thought an angel's voice would have.
"You sound sad," Merlin tells it. The voice laughs.
"Quite the opposite, I assure you," it says, and then Merlin can feel someone holding his hand, his fingers slotting into the other person's like a jigsaw. It feels nice. Heaven feels safe.
"Good, good," yawns Merlin. "I'm glad that you're happy. Can I sleep now?"
The angel squeezes his hand.
"As long as you promise to wake up again," it says. "You've given me enough of a fright already, thank you."
"Sorry," says Merlin, because he is, but he's also sleepy and then it goes dark again, but it's a cosy sort of dark, secure and pleasant, and he really doesn't mind it.
"You're a lucky bastard," says Lance. Merlin blinks and turns to look at where Lance is sitting. Gwen is with them, standing at the foot of Merlin's bed, her arms crossed and a fond smile on her face.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Don't be," Gwen smiles. "Lance is just being an idiot. It's his way of saying that he's glad you're back."
"I was never not here," he counters. Gwen chews her lip.
"Not technically," she says. "But you know what I mean."
"She means you're not going to die anymore," Lance explains. "Not before your time, anyway."
Gwen raises an eyebrow.
"Sensitive as always, Lance," she sighs. Merlin smiles.
It feels strange, not dying. His cells aren't multiplying dangerously anymore. His body isn't being invaded by things he can't control.
He's been told that it could come back. He has five years to wait before he knows whether it might. He thinks he can wait that long.
"You're stuck with me, I'm afraid," Merlin says. Gwen laughs.
"I think we'll cope," she replies.
Merlin thinks she has.
The park is cold and brisk and it's been a week already since Merlin was discharged from hospital with the relative all-clear. 'In remission', he was told. That's his status. It's limbo, really, but it's better than Hell, so Merlin will take it.
Arthur frowns at him.
"Penny for your thoughts," he says. "Not that they're usually worth that much. Ha'penny, then."
"It's 2012. I'm adjusting it for inflation and asking for a fiver," Merlin tells him. Arthur shoves him companionably, and Merlin pushes back, somehow managing to take Arthur's hand in his. They sit on the bench together in comfortable silence for a few moments before Merlin continues. "I'm just happy. That's all."
Arthur laces their fingers more tightly together.
"I'm not exactly displeased, either."
"I thought you'd be devastated at having to put up with me for the foreseeable future."
"Not really. Doing your funeral arrangements would have been a lot more hassle."
"You'd have let Gwen do it and you know it."
"I wouldn't have, actually."
Arthur's frowning again now, and Merlin rests his head on his shoulder because that always makes Arthur smile. It works.
The six month mark is a special occasion, not least because Merlin finally agrees to move in with Arthur permanently. Gwen insists on throwing them a house-warming party that everyone knows is a thinly veiled 'congratulations on not dying!' affair. Merlin gets very drunk, as does Arthur, and they end up sneaking away and shagging in the cupboard under the stairs while everyone else drinks wine in the living room and reminisces about when they first thought Merlin and Arthur were a couple.
It turns out everyone knew before they did. Neither is surprised.
On the year anniversary of his surgery, Merlin goes for a check-up appointment. Arthur drives him and keeps quiet when Merlin snaps at him to stop fretting because it's making him nervous.
When he gets the all clear, Merlin takes Arthur out for lunch to apologise.
When it's been two years, Arthur asks Merlin to marry him. He proposes in their bathroom of all places because they're on their way to an expensive restaurant, where Arthur had planned to propose, but Arthur panics and gets down on one knee while Merlin is brushing his teeth.
Merlin says yes, but doesn't kiss him until he's rinsed his mouth out.
On the fifth anniversary of the successful surgery, Merlin has his final appointment. Gwen drives him and Arthur to the hospital and waits outside with Arthur when Merlin tells them he wants to do this alone. She then waits outside by herself when Merlin changes his mind.
She takes them both back to hers for a party when Merlin gets his final all-clear.
He's not 'in remission' any more. He's officially healthy again.
He and Arthur don't spend long at the party before going home together. No-one is surprised.
When it's been six years, Merlin realises that he's alive. Arthur is next to him, sleeping through his 9am alarm because it's Saturday, and Merlin is alive.
"Thank you," he says to Arthur, and Arthur grunts in his sleep in response, throwing an arm around Merlin and pulling him in more tightly.
"Thank you for keeping me alive," Merlin says again, and this time, he's sure he sees Arthur smile.