Title: Coming Undone
Summary: Really, all Merlin needed was a hug. He just never quite imagined that this was how it would happen.
Spoilers/Warnings: Coda to Episode 3x05
Word Count: 2,800
Disclaimer: This is how the episode would have ended, if I owned them. Clearly I do not ;)
Authors' Note: Wow! I actually wrote a fic that was less than 10k. Actually, I'm pretty happy I wrote anything at all, considering my recent writer's block. So go me! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to misswinterhill for being awesome and betaing this thing for me so quickly. Thanks so much hon! This is a bit different from my usual M/A writing style, but it seemed to work better for this story somehow. Concrit always welcome!
It happens, in the end, for the most ridiculous of reasons.
The day starts out like any other. Merlin arrives in Arthur's chambers – slightly late, but really, with everything that's happened in the past couple of days, he thinks he deserves a bit of a lie-in just this once – only to find that Arthur's not there. The bed looks like it hasn't even been slept in. And that tiny detail is all it takes for Merlin's heart to start racing and his mind to begin jumping to wildly absurd conclusions.
So he spends the next hour roaming the castle grounds in search of Arthur, or someone who may know where he is. Unfortunately for Merlin, his search ends up being entirely fruitless, and no one has any idea of where the prince could have wandered off to. He is not in any meetings, not training his knights, not hiding in all the usual places. Merlin knows that he shouldn't panic, shouldn't automatically determine that the worst has happened, but he still can't seem to help himself.
By the time noon arrives, Merlin has worked himself into such a frenzy that he decides to go down to the stables, take a horse, and go out to find Arthur himself. Surely he couldn't have gone far, if he'd injured himself. Of course, it's also possible that he was taken hostage by bandits, but Merlin doesn't want to think about that just yet.
Halfway through saddling up his horse, Arthur strolls casually into the stables, giving Merlin a perplexed look as he hands the reins off to one of the stable boys. Fear instantly melts away into relief at the sight of Arthur, and he is surprised by how fast his heart races in his chest, thumping so loudly that it is the only sound he can hear.
"Going somewhere, Merlin?"
"I was heading out to find you, you imbecile. Where the hell have you been all morning?"
If Merlin sounds upset, Arthur doesn't acknowledge it.
Arthur cocks an eyebrow. "You can't speak to me like that," he says, but it is lacking conviction. "Besides... I was out on patrol this morning. I told you last night; don't you remember?"
Merlin blinks. He doesn't remember having that conversation at all. "No."
"Of course I did. It was just before I dismissed you for the evening."
The memory is nowhere to be found, madly as Merlin attempts to search for it, and while he knows he hasn't quite been himself lately, he is still certain he would've remembered Arthur telling him something like that.
"That must have been someone else, because you certainly never told me." He tries to hide the tremble in his voice, because this really isn't as big of a deal as Merlin is making it out to be.
"Are you sure?" Arthur folds his arms.
"Yes. You didn't tell me. I would have remembered if you had."
Arthur's eyes narrow suspiciously at Merlin for a few seconds, studying him. "Right. Well, I suppose I meant to." And then, with the wave of a hand, "Come on. We don't have time to just stand around all day."
Following dutifully after Arthur, he can't help but note that there is still a slight tremor to his own hands, and it takes almost the whole trip back to Arthur's chambers for the shaking to stop entirely.
Merlin runs into Morgana three times that afternoon, and every single time he feels the guilt of a thousand terrible decisions stab at his heart. He knows he's already failed her, so many times over, and it's only a matter of time until he fails Arthur too. Like he almost did in the forest.
The pain of that reality still haunts him, and he doesn't know when it will end.
Merlin returns to Arthur's chambers later that evening with his dinner in hand.
He must not look very well, because Arthur actually insists that Merlin join him, even though he would really rather crawl into his bed and sleep for days. Still, he can't refuse the offer, and takes a seat across from Arthur. The spread looks delicious, but Merlin finds he can't appreciate it; everything tastes like sawdust right now.
After half an hour of pretending to be fine, while Arthur prattles on at him in another attempt at coercing Merlin into talking, he is more than relieved when Arthur announces he's finished. In his haste to clear away the dishes, one of the large plates slips through his fingers despite his best effort to recover it before it breaks.
He watches as the plate falls to the floor, almost as if moving in slow motion, and when it finally hits the ground, the sound reverberates through the entire room, causing Merlin to nearly leap out of his own skin.
Merlin has broken many dishes in his time, but none have shattered quite like this particular plate, or made such a complete mess.
It's such a small thing, really. Just a broken plate. But in a long line of stressors and hardships, compiled and condensed and stacked high upon Merlin's shoulders, until he can barely keep upright from the burden of it all, it seems to be the final straw.
Tears prick at Merlin's eyes as he fumbles on the floor with the broken shards, trying to collect the larger pieces into a pile before sweeping the rest away. He manages to gather most of them without difficulty, even if his hands are shaking and his vision swimming behind the moisture in his eyes. But of course, this wouldn't be Merlin's life if even the simplest of tasks wasn't made all the more trying, and he manages to nick the side of his palm on one of the shards. It isn't a serious wound, but it immediately starts to bleed, and what's more, it hurts.
"Bloody hell," Merlin mumbles angrily, blinking heavily against the tears that still threaten to fall, and he stands, turning away from Arthur so he doesn't see.
"Are you all right?" he hears Arthur ask with a hint of concern, and Merlin reaches up with his good hand to swipe at his eyes, knowing full well that Arthur's gaze is wearing a hole into the back of his head, but praying all the same that he somehow missed the action anyway.
"I'm fine," he says curtly, depositing the plate shards on the dinner tray and using the sleeve of his tunic to try and curb the blood flow. "Just caught my hand on one of the pieces. Nothing to worry about."
"Let me take a look at it."
"No, it's fine, Arthur," Merlin tries to assure him. He's quite sure the hunch of his shoulders and the quiver of his voice are doing nothing to support his cause, but he doesn't care all that much at the moment. The only thought running through his mind is that he needs to get away from Arthur right now, because the last thing Merlin wants is for Arthur to see him like this.
"Stop being so stubborn and just let me look at your hand, Merlin. I'm not entirely useless when it comes to these things, you know, despite what you might think." And Merlin nearly jumps at how close the voice is, coming from just over his right shoulder all of a sudden. He hadn't even noticed Arthur's approach.
Instead of responding, Merlin grasps the tray with unsteady hands, preparing to make a hasty retreat, but he is stopped by a firm hand to his upper arm.
Before words of protest can even form on Merlin's lips, Arthur turns him around and openly gasps when he takes in Merlin's expression. He isn't sure why, but he is suddenly flooded with a sense of guilt and shame. Merlin mentally braces himself for the ridicule and mocking he knows is going to come. After all, why would anyone be close to tears over something as silly as a broken plate?
He isn't, however, expecting the words that come out of Arthur's mouth, when he finds his voice once more. "Gods, Merlin, what's wrong?"
There is none of the condescension or derision he expects, no jokes or insults or jabs dancing behind Arthur's eyes. He simply stares at Merlin with surprise and worry, brows furrowed, eyes assessing, and mouth pulled down into a frown. And he thinks that maybe he also sees something resembling fear.
Merlin swallows heavily, sorrow unfurling in his belly and crawling up his chest, grabbing his throat in a chokehold, and he knows that if he tries to speak, he will lose the last bit of restraint he still has left. He shakes his head, gaze fixed firmly on a spot of dirt on the floor or an errant shard of the plate, anywhere but on Arthur.
"It was only a plate, Merlin. You've broken hundreds of those before," Arthur tries again, with a deliberate lightness to his tone this time.
The desire to escape only continues to escalate, as the sting of recent decisions and events merge with the fear he felt this morning and the pain currently radiating from his hand. But he can't flee, not with Arthur staring at him with such concern, waiting for some sign that Merlin hasn't lost his mind permanently. Unfortunately, he can't seem to do that, and a traitorous tear slips, unbidden, down his cheek, revealing everything and nothing all at once.
It's barely more than a whisper, almost like a plea, and something inside Merlin breaks. He feels Arthur's hand cup his jaw then, gently tilting his chin up to meet Arthur's gaze, and Merlin is finally lost.
He knows it's completely ludicrous that this, of all things, is what makes him lose his composure in front of Arthur. But as it is, he does, and he finally allows his fear and grief to pour out. Before Merlin can even process what's happening, he sees Arthur take a step forward, feels his arms curl around Merlin's body, pulling him close and holding him firmly in place. Merlin chokes back a sob as he buries his face in Arthur's shoulder, his own arms coming to wrap tightly around Arthur's waist, hands fisting in his tunic. A hand rubs gently up and down Merlin's back and he can hear Arthur murmuring softly into his ear, though he can't quite make out the words. As Arthur holds him, Merlin cries – for almost killing Morgana again, for setting off a chain of events that he sought to prevent, and for the burden that weighs so heavily on his shoulders without reprieve. But mostly, he cries for Arthur, cries at the fear and terror Merlin felt at nearly losing him again.
Time seems to still, and Merlin sinks into Arthur's warm embrace, a feeling of safety and peace falling over him for the first time in a very long while. He needs this – has needed this – for so very long. It should be awkward and strange and feel entirely unnatural, but it is none of those things, for which Merlin is more than grateful. He's not sure how long they remain like that, in each other's arms, Merlin sniffling and Arthur rubbing soothing circles down his back, but he knows that it has to come to an end eventually. Arthur pulls away from him only after his sobs subside and his tears run dry, and Merlin instantly feels the loss.
For a moment they merely stand there, still wrapped in the other's space, even if their limbs are no longer physically entwined. Merlin can't quite bring himself to meet Arthur's gaze, embarrassment from his reactions still lingering.
"Er, I'm sorry for what I did to your tunic," Merlin eventually says, breaking the ice. He casts a watery smile in Arthur's direction.
Arthur's eyes dart down to his tunic, stained dark from Merlin's tears, but he simply shrugs. "It's all right. You're the one doing the laundry anyway."
In spite of himself, Merlin can't quite prevent the quirk of his lips and the soft, breathy laugh that escapes. This, in turn, grants him the reward of a smile from Arthur, and some of the earlier heaviness weighing him down floats away.
"Your hand is still bleeding," Arthur remarks then, gesturing vaguely towards Merlin's injury.
Tilting his wrist, Merlin glances down to note that Arthur is, indeed, correct. "It's fine. I'll patch it up when I get back to Gaius."
"And bleed all down the corridors along the way?" Arthur scoffs lightly. "I don't think so."
He would be lying if he said that he didn't appreciate the offer, but Merlin also knows that he can't impose on Arthur any more than he already has. "Really, Arthur, it's not that bad."
"Maybe not," Arthur accedes, waving a hand. "But you can't bandage your own hand, either way."
"Mer-lin," comes the immediate retort, and that seems to effectively end the conversation.
He finally steps back, away from Merlin, and moves to the door. It is opened and Arthur speaks to someone on the other side before making his way to the opposite corner of the room, rummaging through a chest he pulls from under the bed, Merlin's eyes trailing his every movement even as his feet remain firmly planted on the ground.
Within a few minutes, Merlin is seated at the end of the table, Arthur directly across from him. There is a basin of warm water - delivered by one of the servants Arthur had spoken to earlier - and soap, as well as salve and bandages. Sometimes it comes in handy that Merlin keeps various supplies in Arthur's chambers, and for once he is grateful for the cumbersome chest that Arthur often complains of taking up too much space.
They remain in silence as Arthur peels Merlin's bloody tunic away from his hand and proceeds to wash the cut with the soap, water and a soft wash cloth.
Merlin knows that Arthur wants to ask him what's going on, what's been eating away at him for the past several days, but he doesn't say anything as he works, except to occasionally remark that Merlin should 'learn to stop being such a baby, honestly' and 'please, it can't be that bad.'
Any of the usual physical roughness that accompanies Arthur on a regular basis, however, has been smoothed away. He works quickly, but with light touches, gentle movements, and a soft expression that leaves Merlin almost breathless. Arthur has never, in all the time Merlin has known him, been this compassionate, and it makes Merlin's heart swell with affection.
"There you go. Good as new," Arthur announces, when he's finished bandaging Merlin's hand.
It's certainly no match for Gaius' handy work, but Merlin has to admit that Arthur's done a fairly decent job of cleaning and wrapping his hand. He supposes that long journeys away from Camelot and from the convenience of a physician have taught him a few basic skills.
Glancing up at Arthur through his lashes, Merlin feels like he doesn't even know what to say. 'Thank you' seems thoroughly insufficient, somehow, for what Arthur's just done, what he's given of himself.
"Arthur—" Merlin says, but Arthur cuts him off.
"It's all right. I know."
Merlin stares at him, feeling just a bit like a love-sick sod, once again reminded of merely one of the many reasons that Arthur will one day become the greatest king Camelot has ever known.
Arthur moves to stand, then, making a show of putting away the medical supplies still sitting on top of the table. "You're dismissed for the evening, Merlin. But be here bright and early tomorrow morning. You have almost a day's worth of chores to make up for."
There is a little hint of Arthur's typical teasing tone returning to the surface, and Merlin knows, then, that his recent behaviours haven't changed anything between them.
Merlin nods, stupid grin plastered on his face, and stands, reaching for the dinner tray he'd previously neglected.
"Leave it. I'll get another servant to bring it down to the kitchens," Arthur instructs him, as if it's nothing at all.
He doesn't need to be told twice.
Just before Merlin reaches the door, he turns back to meet Arthur's gaze, as he continues to watch him steadily.
"Thank you," Merlin says, voice full of sincerity and gratefulness. Arthur's lips curl into a grin, and it is the last thing Merlin sees before he closes the door.
Arthur's smile chases him back to his room, settling comfortably in the back of his mind. Nothing has been solved, not really. But for now, Merlin believes that everything will be all right, in the end, and it is enough to keep him from coming undone.