Title: Hell and Back
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Still there, still with him. And that’s all that matters at this point as the city of Chicago burns around them.
Warnings: fire, burning, aftermath of a burning city, deaf Merlin
Word Count: 1100
Prompt: 366 – Historical AU
Author's Notes: If you haven't been able to tell already, I'm a huge sucker for Historical AUs. So I defintely couldn't pass this prompt up. Welcome to The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Chicago, October 8th 1871
Arthur coughs, choking on acrid smoke and fire and ashes, trying to ignore the screaming and crying, the elbows that bump into him as he fights with the crowd to escape the pits of hell roaring not a few yards behind them. He pulls the handkerchief further up his nose with his free hand but at this point, it's useless and he knows it. His lungs are searing with the heat and straining under the pressure. To be frank, he’s not sure how he’s still standing at this point let alone moving but he pushes forward nonetheless. Just a bit further, just a bit longer.
He gives the hand in his a reassuring squeeze, feeling Merlin return the pressure not a second later.
Still there, still with him. And that’s all that matters at this point as the city of Chicago burns around them.
Curse this damned city, he hadn’t wanted to come here in first place and now look at where he’s at.
But, he reasons, if he had never journeyed so far into the Americas he would have never met Merlin. And even now as his lungs seize and heat burns through his shirt and waistcoat, he doesn’t regret any of it, not for a second.
Though he may not live to regret anything if they don’t move faster.
Arthur pulls them forward, stumbling along the pavement, attempting to weave in and out of the crowds that seem to be fleeing in all different directions. It’s chaos sewn from the seeds of panic and survival, feeding off the flames obscuring the evening sky. And Arthur is just trying to ride the rapids to calmer waters.
But they barely make it another few steps before Merlin’s hand is ripped out of Arthur’s own. He nearly loses his balance with the force of it, pitching into the empty space where Merlin had been not a moment ago.
“Merlin!” he manages to choke out, though the name is but a garbled mess on his cracked lips, swallowed up by the soot that coats his airways. He’s getting bombarded from all sides by fleeing bodies, arms, legs, shoulders, bruising, pushing, pulling, dragging him ways he doesn’t want to go.
Not without Merlin.
But the smoke is too thick and the heat nearly unbearable. His eyes smart, vision obscured by tears no matter how many times he blinks to clear them. And when that fails, he stumbles to and fro, shouting Merlin’s name though he knows it’s useless over the screams of the rest of the people in the streets. His heart seizes, fear choking him more than the smoke ever could and he coughs and heaves, taking another few blinding steps before being shoved to the ground when someone rams into him from behind.
He gets his hand underneath him and stumbles to his knees only to get pushed to the left by another rushing body and again sprawls in the ground as someone else trips over him from behind. He’s knocked around, never truly able to gain his footing and he’s sure this is where he dies, that his body will be nothing but soot and ash. Nothing to send back to his father in London, to his sister. And Merlin—
Arthur’s heart clenches even as a foot adds a bruise to his ribs. Merlin will survive. He’s smart and knows this city like the back of his hand. He’ll make his way out. Arthur is just sad he never got to take him out to a show like he promised. To prove to him that he could be happy, that Arthur could make him happy. That though society may not accept them as they are, Arthur sure does.
Tears carve tracks down his cheeks from more than just the smoke.
And then there are hands clawing at Arthur’s shoulder, pulling at him and without thinking, Arthur follows the urgency and his heaved up onto his feet. He blinks, rubs at his eyes trying to make sense of what just happened. A moment later, dry but gentle hands cup his cheeks and he knows it’s Merlin.
Merlin who found him amongst the rubble and the ashes. Who came back for him. Who risked life and limb to ensure Arthur remain at his side.
All too soon those hands have disappeared only for one to slide back into Arthur’s own. And now Merlin is the one pulling him forward, leading him down twists and turns and giving him encouraging squeezes of reassurance. He can still barely see even Merlin’s own form in front of him but the fear is gone. Merlin is here by his side and Arthur knows that no matter what happens, they’ll be alright.
Soon enough they are stumbling through clearer air, surrounded by civilians and volunteers who bundle them up and cart them further away from the path of the blaze. Then there are nurses and physicians and water, so much water and Arthur washes his eyes and soothes his throat, finally able to breathe in more than just smoke. Though he coughs and coughs and coughs, he feels a bit better with each one and he can hear Merlin doing the same beside him.
Finally after washing his eyes once more, Arthur blinks the water away and looks over at Merlin, truly able take stock of him. He’s a rumbled mess, his soot-filled hair standing up every which way, white shirt covered in dirt and ashes where it peeks out from beneath his unbuttoned harried waistcoat and burned in a couple places. His once pale cheeks are now painted grey and black.
He’s a mess and Arthur knows he himself doesn’t look much better. But in that moment, he’s the most beautiful person in the world.
As though pulled by his gaze, Merlin looks over and meets Arthur’s eyes. A small smile tugs at his lips, crinkling his brow. Arthur returns it with a swell of emotion.
It’s only then that Merlin extracts his hand from Arthur’s, moving both in the gestures Arthur has come to learn over the past year but in a combination he had yet to see until that very moment.
“I love you,” Merlin signs.
Through the chaos still raging around them and despite the hell they had been through, Arthur doesn’t hesitate a second. He easily copies the gestures, putting all the love and emotion welling up inside him into every movement. “I love you too,” he signs back.
He slips his hand back into Merlin’s not caring in that moment how it might be perceived. He has found what he hadn’t known he was searching for, and realized it in the most unlikely moment. But this is it.
Arthur knows he will follow Merlin to hell and back again just to remain by his side.