Title: honest goodbyes (only work once or twice)
Pairing/s: Merlin/Arthur, hinted Arthur/Gwen.
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: It's two in the morning when Arthur makes the call, but Merlin still picks up.
Warnings: Implied emotional infidelity.
Word Count: 1000 words.
Prompt: #226 welcome home, and my trope_bingo square "unrequited love/pining." Title from Bic Runga's song, Honest Goodbyes.
It’s two in the morning when Arthur makes the call, but Merlin still picks up, thank god.
“‘lo?” he says, voice groggy with sleep. There’s a pause, presumably while he checks the screen, then he says fuzzily, “Who’s this?”
There are numerous things Arthur wants to say right then. The first is, thank god you’re the kind of forgetful idiot who’s had the same phone number for the past six years. The second, close on its heels, is: fuck, has it been six years? What he actually says is, “Only you would pick up the phone at 2am without checking the caller ID.”
There’s a very long pause, in which Arthur’s heart performs a series of unpleasant acrobatics in his chest. He can hear Merlin’s light breathing on the other end of the line, and when his voice comes back he sounds much more awake. “Arthur? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Arthur lets out a strangled laugh. He scrubs a hand across his eyes, even though he knows Merlin can’t see him, and tips his head back to look up at the stars. “I’m at a pay phone outside the Ealdor train station, and I need a ride.”
It’s strange, seeing Merlin again. This is partly because he hasn’t bothered to dress, and instead steps out of his beaten-up Mini Cooper wearing pyjama-bottoms and a too-big jacket over a hastily-donned Han Shot First t-shirt. Arthur knows that shirt — he remembers buying it for Merlin as a Christmas present, a long time ago, although the Merlin he had known then hadn’t filled it out quite so well, nor had he sported a day’s growth of stubble when he wore it. Arthur swallows. Six years is a long time.
Merlin stops a few feet away and folds his arms. “I thought I told you not to call me.”
“You told me not to call you until I was done being a selfish prat,” Arthur corrects. He licks his lips. “Well. I called you.”
Merlin’s expression doesn’t change, and Arthur looks away. He’s not used to being this nervous, not used to feeling guilty when he can't even narrow down exactly what he's feeling guilty for. His life is complicated. It’s always been complicated, and Merlin knows that; it’s not even entirely Arthur's fault.
“It’s been six years, Arthur,” Merlin says finally. “Why me? Why now?”
There’s a long answer and a short answer to that question, neither of which seem appropriate here. Arthur shakes his head. “It’s after midnight and I’m stranded in bumfuck nowhere with a dead mobile,” he says. “Who else am I going to call?”
At least this time, Merlin almost cracks a smile.
The car is cramped, full of old sweet-wrappers and discarded books with half the corners folded down. Merlin drives while Arthur sits in the passenger seat with his back stiff, wondering what the fuck he’s supposed to say. “Thanks for the lift,” is what he eventually settles on. “I wasn’t — I guess I didn’t really think this whole thing through.”
This is uncharacteristic enough that it earns him a sideways glance, but Merlin doesn’t ask. “You’re welcome,” he says. “I suppose that means you need a place to stay, too.”
He phrases it like it’s a burden, but there’s a teasing lightness in his tone that makes Arthur smile in spite of everything. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“You woke me up at 2am for this.” Merlin’s eyes crinkle. “It’s already too much trouble.”
When they get to Merlin’s house, Arthur sits politely in an armchair while Merlin makes up a bed on the sofa. All he wants to do is sleep, but Merlin chatters on about inconsequential things, seemingly undeterred by Arthur’s monosyllabic responses, and Arthur can tell he’s worried. He hands Arthur some spare pyjamas to sleep in, turning his back while Arthur gets changed, and when Arthur is done Merlin surprises them both by folding him into a fierce hug.
“I’m glad you’re here, Arthur,” he whispers. “We’ll talk in the morning, yeah?”
Arthur buries his face in Merlin’s shoulder and nods. “Thank you,” he says again. For the bed; for the reprieve. For everything.
It rains overnight, and Arthur wakes to find the world damp and grey and Merlin in the kitchen, talking quietly on the phone. He smiles when he sees Arthur, a reflexive movement before he catches himself, and hangs up a moment later. “Coffee?”
They sit together at the table, mugs in hand. There are bags under Merlin’s eyes, and he still looks rumpled, as if he hasn’t slept. Arthur feels another twinge of guilt. “I guess you want to know what I’m doing here.”
“Some explanation would be nice, yes.” Merlin takes a sip of coffee and looks down at his hands, jittering nervously against the mug. “You scared the shit out of me last night.”
“I’m sorry.” Arthur winces. “I just — I can’t go back to the flat, anymore.”
Merlin inhales sharply. “You told her?”
“I had to. I was fucking miserable, Merlin. But afterwards…well, like I said. I wasn’t really thinking straight.” He gives a hollow laugh. “This was the only place I could think of that I actually wanted to be.”
Merlin swallows, and Arthur can see his throat working. He probably shouldn’t have said that, but he can’t bring himself to regret it. Rain runs into the guttering from the roof, a steady plunk-plunk-plunk. Finally, Merlin squeezes Arthur’s wrist and gets up, taking his coffee over to the window.
“There’s an opening in the bookshop,” he says at last, tentatively. He doesn’t turn around. “You could…you could maybe start there.”
Relief floods through Arthur, so strong he has to close his eyes. It’s not forgiveness, it’s not an apology, but it’s not kicking him out, either. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
He drinks his coffee, warmth seeping slowly into his bones. Outside, the Welsh countryside drips and patters, bright and alive; maybe it’s not home, but it’s something.