A/N: Okay, that's it, no more poking, proding, and butchering the crap out of this fic. I have been working on this for two months now, and my sister keeps laughing at me, so I'm calling it good and just posting it already.
So yeah, um...hello again :) It's been a while, though there are reasons for that, one being that I got a new job in December, and my freetime has become rather non-existent. The other reason is that my arm starts dying after just half an hour of typing. It makes writing a very slow process, plus I have about a hundred ideas for fics and I can't seem to just pick one.
Therefore, I wrote a one-shot, although I broke it into two pieces so it would be easier to digest, cause it got rather long (like everything I try to write does). This is a monumental occassion for me though, because it is an ongoing joke between me and my friends about how I can't write one-shots because all my ideas kind of explode into something epic. I have never written a one-shot before, so I'm a tiny bit terrified, but oh well. I gave it my all, and despite how much of a nightmare editing this has been, I'm extremely proud of it.

Title: Cast Me Gently Into Morning
Author: BeyondTheStorm
Raiting: T for a bit of the language and the overall mood, I guess.
Characters/Pairings: Just friendship here, although if you wish to interpret it otherwise, go right ahead. There's lots of Arthur, Merlin, and some others (i.e. Gwen, Gaius, Lancelot, Gwaine...)
Spoilers: Parts of Season 3, including the finale. Better safe than sorry :)
Warnings: Um...angst? Lots of angst? Is that a warning?

So, just a few quick things. Number 1, the entire fic is entirely from Arthur's POV. You'll see why. I love writing Arthur, because there's so much to play with, as we don't actually know how he would react to certain things. It's great fun getting to stretch his character. Also, this takes place post season 3.
Number 2, this is by far the angstiest (totally a word) thing I have ever written, as I actually intended to write angst for a change. Usually it just kind of happens from time to time.
Number 3, if you are the kind of reader that skims through paragraphs and just reads the dialogue, you will be very disappointed. This is a reflective and emotion-heavy, character development peice (at least I hope it is, because that was what I was going for), and the dialogue is not the main focus.
And finally, number 4, everything is intentional. I have read this at least 50 times (not even joking), and spent more time editing than actually writing it, and so unless there is a very obvious grammatical error, the way it's written and how it appears is completely intentional. However, feel free to point out anything that does seem like an error, and I shall fix it.

Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin, but I am having great fun fangirling over the season 4 spoilers, even though I have to fangirl by myself :) I also don't own the song "Answer" by Sarah McLachlan, which is where the title sort of came from. The whole line is "Cast me gently into morning for the night has been unkind." Beautiful song. I listened to that and "Shattered" by Trading Yesterday while I worked on this (my favorite song ever! :)

I have never tried anything like this before, but I've always wanted to, and I tried my best not to make it confusing, so please be kind.

Cast Me Gently Into Morning

He had never thought things would end up like this.

He hadn't even known that something like this was possible, could barely understand why it was happening in the first place. No matter how many times Gaius tried to explain it, using different words and different examples, he was pretty sure he would never be able to fully grasp what was going on. He could very easily blame a great deal of that on the way he was brought up, raised on his father's beliefs and ideals even though he had never fully committed himself to either. Some would disagree with that, would claim he was indeed his father's son, but the proof was right in front of him, lying on a cot in the middle of Gaius' chambers.

Merlin was a living, breathing example of Arthur's defiance against the king, the very sum of all his choices over the past few years, but it was uncertain as to how long he would remain that way. Something was wrong with him, something that the prince couldn't quite wrap his head around, but he was slowly starting to realize that there were a lot of things he didn't know or understand and some he probably never would…especially when it came to magic.

Even more so when it came to Merlin.

He should have realized that something was wrong, should have noticed days ago, but he had been so caught up in everything else that he had only noticed as an afterthought and nothing more. After the first two weeks or so, he had finally decided to do something about Merlin. He had vowed each night to figure it out the next day, tomorrow, but something always came up, and the days had simply bled together until another week had gone by—three whole weeks without a proper conversation or even an attempt to deal with all the issues that needed to be addressed. He had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts and his anger that he hadn't bothered to think about the consequences—and there were always consequences—and damn it all, he should have noticed!

It seemed that that was the story of his life though, at least where Merlin was concerned. How was it possible to miss so much about the one person he spent the most time with? Why hadn't he seen this? Why hadn't he seen any of it? It wasn't just this, whatever this was, but everything else as well: the fear, the lies, the loneliness…the magic.

Merin's magic, the reason his servant was lying in Gaius' chambers looking for all the world like he was dying.

If he had known it would turn out like this, he would have done things differently, would have made a different choice, but that's really what it all comes down to, isn't it?

Choices. One single choice composed of hundreds of smaller decisions.

He had thought he was done with it, that he only had to make the one choice, but oh how wrong he had been, because he had never actually stopped making his choice, hadn't finished seeing it through, and now it was too late to change things, to go back and make the right one. Even though he had promised, swore it upon a funeral pyre as an oath to a noble, selfless soul, he had still managed to mess things up, to not see anything that was happening until it was practically shoved in his face.

He had been asked to do only one thing—make just one choice—and apparently he hadn't even been able to get that right, because Arthur had already made his choice…and now Merlin was paying the price for it.

~It starts the same as all things do, with a decision, a sacrifice, and a silent promise~

"…Arthur Pendragon. I was hoping I'd get the chance to speak with you."

It had happened a few months back, a fleeting moment that hadn't meant much at the time but that he couldn't seem to let go of now. Just another feast with noble guests: a young lord and his enchanting sister.

"I never intended to hurt you. That isn't why I came here."

Just another feast gone terribly wrong—an assassination attempt, a fight, pointless casualties, too many things that shouldn't have happened—and all of it ending with the brother lying on the floor of the great hall, crushed by a chandelier of all things (just another stroke of luck in a long line of circumstances), and the sister being accused of sorcery before being hauled away by the guards.

"There's something I need to tell you. Whether or not you choose to listen is up to you, but you need to at least hear what I have to say."

Just another day in his life, one that would fade into the background like so many others, and he couldn't help but wonder when occurrences like these had become normal. There was probably something distinctly wrong with it all, but he could never be bothered to think on it further.

Not until now.

"One day, you are going to learn the truth about what happened tonight and what I imagine has happened countless times before, and when that time comes, you're going to have to make a choice."

The noblewoman—the witch, according to his father—had been sentenced to death, and Arthur had watched as the pyre was built, unable to look away but at the same time not really paying it much attention. This was something else that had become normal in his life, but it was something he would never get used to. He hoped he never would even though it would surely hurt less if he did, because it just didn't seem right to become accustomed to such a gruesome thing. He didn't want to look on in indifference, cold and detached.

He did not want to become like his father, not in this respect.

"I pray for your sake that you make the right one, because some things can't be taken back. You don't always get a second chance."

He had found himself wishing that it wasn't happening, found himself hoping that the girl would escape even though he knew she wouldn't. She had been calm and resigned when he had spoken to her, accepting of her fate.

He really hadn't wanted to be there when the pyre was lit, could barely stand the thought of it, and so when Merlin had come to him, asking if he would be needed during the execution (asking if he had to watch as someone was burned to death, a girl no older than himself), Arthur had told him no, that he wouldn't be needed. He didn't have to watch.

Arthur would never make him watch.

"It'll hurt at first, but don't act rashly. Don't be selfish, because there will be far more at stake than you know. Resentment and anger are slow, bitter poisons…but so is regret. All actions have consequences. There is always a choice, Prince Arthur, and the right one is often not the easiest."

He hadn't tried to get his father to see reason. He had known there would be no point, because this was one thing his father would never back down from. The king was blind to reason where magic was involved, and he had already decided the woman's fate, demanding that Arthur be present during the execution. He had wanted to say no, wanted to stay in the castle in the safety of his own room where he could look away if he so desired, where he didn't have to listen to the screams or the crackling of the fire.

"When the time comes, please be careful. Choose based on who you are and what you want to become, not what's expected of you. No one else can make your choice for you. The actions you take and the decisions you make will have a profound effect on everything and everyone you care about. They will define you."

He didn't want to watch, but in the end he did.

"There is always a choice, but once made you can not take it back, so please, sire…choose wisely."

In the end he had stood by his father and watched the young "sorceress" burn, because he owed her that much at least. While his father had looked on in grim satisfaction and vindication, he had silently paid his last respects to a woman who had done no wrong, who hadn't actually had any magic of her own, only a knack for reading the future and a desire to save her brother.

She had known she would die by coming to Camelot…and yet she came anyway.

"I know it won't be easy…"

That was the choice she had made.

"…But nothing worthwhile ever is."

~And this is where the beginning ends, where choices are made and a world falls apart~

"You need to talk to him."

He looked up from his desk, away from the reports that demanded his attention, his eyes falling on Gwen as the young woman stood in his doorway like she often did as of late. There was no reserve, no hesitation, just a storm of emotion in those dark eyes that spoke of disappointment and exasperation and something else he couldn't quite place, something that would probably get her reprimanded by most (because it wasn't fitting to look at the crown prince in such a way, for what right did anyone have to chastise him?).

He knew why she was there. Pretending he didn't probably wouldn't do any good. It was the same reason that had brought Lancelot to him earlier and caused Gwaine to glare at him every chance he got. It was why he was working his knights harder, keeping to himself more, and why all those who didn't know were forced to walk on eggshells around him, terrified of being on the receiving end of his suddenly short, cruel temper.

Gwen was there because of Merlin.

It was always Merlin.

"You're a sorcerer."


They had been out on a small hunting trip, a chance for him to get away and simply breathe for a while, away from the court and the council and all the responsibilities that come with it. There were meetings to attend, audiences to hold, reports to read, and on top of that there was training the knights, organizing patrols, and making repairs to the city (and then there were all the visits with his father, all the reminders of what they'd lost, and seeing the man so very broken only added to the stress he had to deal with). It was hard to remember the last time he had gotten a good night's sleep.

There was still so much left to do; the city needed to heal, but in the end so did he, and it was difficult to do so within the walls of Camelot, under so many watchful eyes, and so he had left for a few days, taking Merlin, Lancelot, Gwaine, and Gwen with him. He had intended for it to be a simple, relaxing trip, but he should have known that it would turn out like everything else in his life had a tendency to.

He couldn't remember the last time a hunting trip (or any sort of outing, for that matter) had actually been simple and straightforward. If there weren't bandits, there were mercenaries or assassins, sometimes sorcerers, and if not those, then some sort of magical (and occasionally non-magical) creature.

This time around it had ended up being the latter. Apparently they had gone too far into the forest and had stumbled upon a nest of serkets. All of them had quickly taken up arms, even Gwen, although they had made certain to keep her behind them, shielded by those who were trained for this.

Despite the severity of the situation and the slight fear they had all been feeling at the time, Merlin's intense reaction to the serkets had been anything but expected.

In battle, it was not uncommon for Arthur to find Merlin lying on the ground or standing behind a tree, clearly trying to stay out of the fighting directly but at the same time not running away. It was a strange mixture of cowardice and bravery, and even though he always teased the boy about being scared while they were out on some dangerous mission, he had never actually seen true terror on his servant's face.

That had all changed while facing the serkets. Merlin had actually taken a few steps back, eyes wide and panicked, his attention fixed on the oversized black scorpions and their obviously deadly stingers. Calling out to him hadn't done any good; he was well and truly terrified for once, and if the situation hadn't been so dire, Arthur would have taken the time to ponder his servant's reaction, because there had to be a reason behind it. Fear like that always had a source.

He and his knights had jumped into the battle, trying to keep the creatures away from Gwen and Merlin, the maid trying to rouse the boy from whatever stupor he had fallen into. The fight had actually been going rather well until one of the serkets managed to knock his sword away and another slammed its tail into him (though thankfully not the stinger), sending him crashing to the ground in a daze.

The events immediately following were all a bit fuzzy. Lancelot and Gwaine had been too far away to help him, caught up in their own battles while Gwen and Merlin had been off to the side somewhere. At one point Gwen had called out to him, her voice reaching him through the haze, and then suddenly a rather long and extremely deadly stinger had been hovering over him, preparing to run him through. He had tried to move away, to reach for some sort of weapon, anything that could have protected him…and then something unexplainable had happened.

The tail hanging over him had suddenly vanished, the serket it belonged to having been thrown into a tree, screeching in pain before its body crumpled into an unmoving heap.

For a very brief moment, everything had fallen still…and then another serket had tried to stake a stab at him only to meet a similar fate, its body sailing through the air as if some invisible force had simply smacked it away like a worthless bug.

And it didn't end there.

When the third serket had been flung into a tree, someone had gasped behind him, drawing his attention away from the creatures and towards Gwen and Merlin. Gwen's hands had been pressed to her lips in shock, her eyes wide as she stared at her fellow servant, and Merlin…

Arthur was fairly certain that he would never forget what he had seen in that moment for as long as he lived.

Merlin—harmless, idiotic, gormless Merlin—had just been standing there, his eyes filled with terror and desperation, the kind that often gave birth to reckless and unplanned actions, mixed with a deep-seated sense of resignation…

…And they were the color of molten gold, burning brightly against a backdrop of blue.

Without so much as a word, his eyes had flashed again, and more of the serkets had been thrown back. Some had managed to get up, and most of them had chosen to run away, saving themselves from a quick death. All it took were a couple soft-spoken words before the remaining few had burst into flames, screeching all the while until every sound had simply died away, leaving them all in a thick and deafening silence.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Even to his own ears it was a weak and obvious lie, one that only seemed to harden the look on Gwen's face. Part of him felt bad for being the reason behind it, but the rest of him was still too angry and exhausted to care right now, because no one understood. Not a single one of them could ever hope to understand what he was going through.

How were you supposed to deal with having everything you thought you knew unravel before your very eyes?

He could remember yelling at her, at all of them, feeling angry and betrayed, because none of them had reacted the way they should have, the way a person was supposed to react after being lied to by a friend for years.

"Did you know?"

He had accused all of them, earning him three completely different responses, all of them filled with annoyance in their own way, because by that time he had been yelling for quite a while and they had all grown tired of it.

Lancelot had been the only one of them who had known. It had been easy enough to tell simply by his reaction even though Merlin had immediately claimed that none of them had, that he hadn't told anyone.

Just one more lie on a list that surely bore hundreds.

"You know perfectly well what I'm talking about, Arthur. You can't keep avoiding this."

"Avoiding what?"

"All of it! Everything! Merlin wants to talk about this, but he's afraid to say anything because you've clearly been ignoring him. It's been over a week, Arthur. You need to talk to him."

He didn't say anything, because there really wasn't anything to say. He knew Gwen was right, knew that nothing had been resolved and that he needed to speak to Merlin, but until he could turn all his anger and the sense of betrayal into something that didn't feel like it might explode at any moment, he needed to stay away. He needed time to think until he could decide what to do, because in no way had he forgiven Merlin. There was a good chance he never would.

Trust was something that could easily be broken, and sometimes it just wasn't possible to restore.

He had told them all back in that clearing after a great deal of shouting on his part and pleading on Merlin's that he wouldn't say anything about the magic, that he wouldn't have the warlock arrested or even exiled. For a while Merlin had seemed relieved, perhaps even a bit happy about the whole thing…that is until Arthur had made it perfectly clear that he wanted as little to do with the boy as possible, choosing not to sack him simply because it would be a pain to find another servant and because doing so would earn him a lot of unwanted questions. He had too much to deal with already, and Merlin and his bloody magic had only piled more onto an already full plate.

He just didn't want to deal with it, and so he had convinced himself that ignoring his servant was for the best even though Merlin looked a little less hopeful, a little more broken every time Arthur chose not to acknowledge him or spoke in short, clipped off words that never hid his anger.

"Why are you being like this?"

The question was soft but still accusing, and he hated disappointing her but didn't know what else he could do.

"I trusted him," he said, hoping his voice carried the bitterness he felt instead of the hurt (it wasn't fitting for a prince to show such a weakness). "I gave him my complete trust when all he's ever done is lie to me. I defended him against countless accusations, and all the while he was probably laughing at my ignorance."

"You know that's not true. He's not like that."

"And how would you know?"

"Because unlike you, I actually talked to him."

"And how do you know that everything he told you isn't a lie? How can you even trust a word he says? He's been lying to everyone for years!"

"Can you blame him?" she yelled, effectively shutting him up with just the sheer desperation in her voice, a need to make him see what the rest of them apparently could. "Think about it, Arthur, what would you have done in his place? Would you have told someone a secret like that, one that could get you killed even if you had done no wrong? Merlin never confided in any of us—everyone who already knew simply found out—and I don't blame him for it. How could any of us ever hope to understand what it's like?"

"He could have told me! I wouldn't have…" I wouldn't have turned him in. He couldn't bring himself to say it, because he wasn't entirely sure if it was true. He wanted to believe it was, wanted to think that Merlin could have trusted him, confided in him, because Arthur had defended him so many times against accusations where magic was involved and even when it wasn't. He had saved Merlin from death, from abuse and pain, and from his father's unjust wrath time and time again, and yet Merlin still hadn't trusted him.

"Did you ever give him a reason to believe that his secret would be safe with you?"

He scowled at her, completely ready to list all the reasons why Merlin should have trusted him with his secret, but a memory from some time ago arose unbidden in his mind, his own words echoing back to him, cutting through his half-formed retort like a knife.

"I am indebted to you, Merlin. I had become…confused. It is once again clear to me that those who practice magic are evil and dangerous…and that is thanks to you."

And just like that, everything else rose to the surface—every time that he had said something to Merlin that would have pushed the boy further away, that would have convinced anyone that Arthur would never protect a sorcerer, no matter who they were or what they had done.

How many times had Arthur said something cruel and hateful about sorcerers or magic in front of Merlin, unknowingly stabbing the boy over and over again where it hurt the most?

"You know how dangerous magic is."

"My father has warned me about sorcerers like him. They will not rest until our kingdom is destroyed."

"You can not trust a single word a sorcerer says. You'd do well to remember that."

How many times had Merlin wanted to tell him? How many times had the warlock gathered his courage to say something, to expose his secret, only for Arthur to say or do something that destroyed every shred of confidence he had found? How many times had Arthur made it perfectly clear that he hated lying to his father in order to protect his servant, that his tolerance for doing so was running out?

How many times had he implied that Merlin didn't matter, that he was useless, expendable, worthless?

"Arthur? Thank you."

"For what, exactly?"


"Lying to my father to save your worthless hide?"


"If you ever put me in that position again, I'll clap you in irons myself."

There were so many times, so many small things that he had done that must have hurt Merlin—every time he had condemned someone for using magic, every careless comment made—and then there were also the moments where he hadn't protected Merlin, hadn't listened to him or believed him even though the boy had never actually been wrong when something was threatening Camelot. He always tried to warn Arthur even when his accusations could have gotten him put in the stocks or thrown in the dungeons or flogged, and even though Arthur rarely resorted to any of those, and never the flogging (just the thought of it made him feel a bit sick), he still never believed Merlin, not until he had his own proof.

But still…still, Merlin should have trusted him, should have believed in him.


A single moment broke through all the rest, one that explained exactly why Merlin hadn't told him.

"Arrest him."

When Gaius had been possessed by the goblin, he had accused Merlin of sorcery, and Arthur had been ordered to arrest him. It wasn't the first time that his father had ordered that of him, but this time…this time he had gone through with it. This time he hadn't let Merlin go, hadn't told him to leave Camelot, to save himself, and he couldn't help but wonder if things would have been different if he had found Merlin on his own, without the company of the guards. Would he have been able to drag Merlin to the throne room on his own and shove him in front of his father to receive judgment, knowing that to do so would be to sentence him to death?

Or would he have let him go instead, told him to run, spared his life?

The fact that he didn't have an immediate answer to that question hurt more than it should have, but the pain was there nonetheless.

Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because before he knew it, Gwen was speaking again, her voice having softened a great deal, but the disappointment was still there.

"Merlin does trust you, Arthur. He trusts you with his life, and that's because you earned it. Trust isn't something you're entitled to. I know you were raised to believe otherwise, but I'm sure you know better than that by now. You should never have thought that he would trust you with something like this, not when you haven't earned it and not when you're doing nothing to earn it now. You've been horrible to him ever since we got back when all he wants is to talk to you about this and for you to listen to him for a change."

Her expression fell into something tired and sad, and he would have done almost anything to change it, anything except what she was asking him to do, because he still had so much to think about. He didn't want to talk to Merlin. He wasn't ready yet. He wasn't sure if he could face him without doing something that he'd regret, still far too angry to act without being rash.

Gwen didn't seem ready to accept his answer though, her expression falling a little more with each admonishment.

"You've been so wrapped up in yourself and how you're feeling that you haven't even bothered to look at him. Are you so self-centered, Arthur Pendragon, that you can't see how much your silence is killing him? He's been keeping a part of himself hidden for so long, and now that he doesn't have to anymore, you insist on pushing him away, ignoring him. He has spent his whole life hiding, afraid of what would happen if someone ever found out. Can you even begin to imagine what it's like, living in a world that would have you killed simply for being born? Do you have any idea how lonely he must have been?"

Loneliness. That was actually something Arthur understood rather well, because that's what most of his life had been filled with even if he hadn't fully realized the extent of it until Merlin had stumbled into his life. He had always been surrounded by people, was never actually alone, but there was a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Even amongst others his own age, there had always been something separating him from the rest of them, something vast that no one had ever tried to cross, not really…except for Merlin.

People always saw the crown first and the man second. He was always told what he wanted to hear, was treated as if he were special, as if he could do no wrong. Bootlickers, the lot of them, befriending him and respecting him out of duty or ambition (and perhaps fear as well), hoping that it would get them somewhere one day. It had everything to do with what he was, not who, but Merlin…with Merlin it had always been the opposite. The crown didn't matter to him, it never had.

Merlin didn't care about birthrights or heritage. With him it was always a matter of who a person was, not what they were born as.

Even though he hadn't let the warlock explain and had mostly ignored his babbling and pleading that day in the woods, he had caught enough to understand that Merlin had been born the way he was, able to do magic before he could talk, condemned by Camelot's laws the moment he took his first breath. His magic had been with him his whole life. It had never been a choice.

Merlin didn't just have magic. For all intents and purposes, he was magic.

What must it have been like, growing up so close to Camelot's borders with a gift that could have gotten him killed? Hunith had to have known, and she would have cautioned him against using it, told him to hide it, keep it secret. He would have grown up isolated from the rest of the village, forced to pretend to be something he wasn't, something less than he was, unable to share such a huge part of himself. It had been just him and Hunith in Ealdor, just his mother that he could have shared his talents with, been himself around, and though it was a lot, it could never be enough.

He couldn't even begin to imagine what it was like, how lonely Merlin must have been, and he couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Merlin really hadn't had anyone to turn to, no one to support him, to guide him. The fear and the loneliness would have been overwhelming, could have easily turned into hatred and anger, a bitter malice that builds up and slowly destroys everything good and kind in a person.

Just like Morgana, his mind whispered.

Maybe Merlin would have turned out like Morgana, angry and bitter about the hand fate had dealt him and at the people who didn't understand.

If it hadn't been for Hunith, for his friend Will (and Arthur was certain that Will hadn't been a sorcerer, that he had simply found out about Merlin and had cared enough to protect him), for Lancelot, and for Gaius, would Merlin have lost sight of himself, been consumed by power and a desire to be known?

Could something like that still happen if Arthur continued to ignore the warlock, an act that may as well have screamed rejection even though that wasn't his intent?

Arthur slumped down in his chair, pointedly not looking at anything, especially not at Gwen, and he knew that he had lost. The anger was still there, as was the hurt, and all of it was still so overwhelming and raw, but he would never heal unless he dealt with the problem. He could only run away for so long. All he really wanted was for things to go back to the way they were, because as much as he didn't want to admit it, he missed his servant…missed his friend.

"Promise me you'll talk to him, Arthur."

"…I will."

In the end, he didn't really have a choice in the matter, did he? Too much was at stake for him to keep his silence.

"I will talk to him, I just…need some time to think."

It wasn't until a full two weeks had passed since that day in the forest that Arthur thought he might be able to face Merlin. They needed to talk about this, because he really did have a lot of questions and Merlin was the only one with the answers. The whole thing needed to be dealt with so that the world could return to some semblance of normal, because Camelot was dealing with too much already and this was one mess that could actually be cleared up.

The only problem was that Merlin had stopped trying.

After being ignored for almost two weeks, treated like an inconvenience (worthless, unwanted, a traitor), Merlin had stopped talking altogether, had stopped approaching Arthur unless he had to. It would have been so easy to brush it off and say that the boy was finally acting the way a servant was supposed to, but that would be an insult not just to him but to the rest of the servants as well, because no one should ever be forced into what Merlin had become. Where there had once been good-natured banter, energy, joy, and an insolence that was born more from a sense of companionship than defiance, there was now silence, resignation, and an obedience that had nothing to do with subservience and everything to do with giving up, losing hope, breaking.

There was no smile, no light, no words, just nothing but sorrow and a deep loneliness…and it was all Arthur's fault.

He had gone too far, pushed and pulled too hard in his anger, always yelling at Merlin even when it was uncalled for, even when he was just giving the boy chores, and at first Merlin had responded much the way he always did but with a subdued amount of sarcasm and a little more respect (and there had been fear too, mixed with the slightest bit of hope that everything would eventually return to normal if he could just hold on long enough). He had been trying to repair the damage on his own, one step at a time, while Arthur had just kept tearing things back down, had yelled in anger, glared with resentment, thrown insults and accusations and anything he could get his hands on, harder and faster and with the intent to punish, to hurt.

And Merlin…

Merlin hadn't done anything. He had taken it all, held on and dealt with it for as long as he could, and when it finally got to be too much, he had closed himself off. Arthur couldn't help but fear that he had waited too long to talk to Merlin, that it was too late to repair all the damage between them.

Some things, once broken, just couldn't be fixed.

You don't always get a second chance.

That was why when Merlin walked into his room and set his breakfast down, going about the morning chores without a word and a sad, tired look on his face, Arthur found himself unable to speak. He knew what needed to be said, how greatly he needed to apologize for every wound—physical and emotional—that he had caused, but he couldn't find the words, couldn't even open his mouth for fear of what he might say, and his pride certainly wasn't helping any, adamant about getting in his way.

It was completely ridiculous to be afraid of something seemingly so small and simple, but he just couldn't say anything, because what if it all went wrong? What if Merlin was actually angry with him and refused to forgive him for his cruelty? What if he decided that Arthur really wasn't worth waiting around for like this and simply left Camelot? What if it was too late and they could no longer go back to what they were?

What if he made the attempt to fix this only to find that he really couldn't bring himself to forgive Merlin?

It was stupid and illogical, but it was fear nonetheless, and it kept him quiet the whole morning and then for the rest of the day, and as Merlin took his leave that night, Arthur found himself wanting to say something only to choke on the words.

Tomorrow, then.

He would definitely deal with it tomorrow.

…Except he didn't.

Every time a new day dawned, he would prepare himself to say something while biting back his pride and convincing himself that apologizing wasn't a sign of weakness, and each morning he lost his resolve upon seeing Merlin's despondent expression, not knowing how to broach the subject. At night it would happen again, his courage failing him, and he could see the hope diminish a little more every time he stayed silent or spoke too shortly. It was uncomfortable, agonizingly so, and he wanted things to return to the way they were, where Merlin talked back and disagreed with him, where he would give as good as he got instead of taking the abuse and pretending it didn't bother him when that clearly wasn't the case.

Merlin was nothing more than a shadow of his former self—pale and sickly and worn-out, fading away a little more each day.

But as much as Arthur wanted things to go back to normal, he was still too angry and too scared of what could happen, and between going through reports, dealing with his father, and taking care of the kingdom, he didn't have a lot of time to just sit down with Merlin and talk or even figure out what he wanted to say, and so he kept putting it off, kept pushing it back, because there was always tomorrow. Merlin would always be there tomorrow, and so each day passed the same way, all of them slowly bleeding into each other, but every one would begin and end the same.

Despite everything, Merlin kept coming back. Merlin always came back.

Before he knew it, another whole week had gone by, and still nothing had changed.

Then one morning, Merlin didn't show up.

Arthur was in the process of getting dressed on his own, grumbling about being late and hungry, and was just reaching for his jacket when the door was thrown open, banging loudly against the wall. He turned to berate the intruder for startling him and mistreating his door, but the reprimand was lost somewhere along the way when he saw Gwen standing there, breathing hard as if she had just run through the entire castle, her eyes wet with tears. She was looking at him with such sadness and desperation, and he immediately knew that something was horribly wrong.

"Gwen, what is it?" he asked, not caring if he sounded concerned, because he didn't need to hide anything from her, especially when she looked about ready to break down into tears.

For a brief moment those dark eyes bore straight into his, and behind the concern and the immense sorrow, he was certain he saw just the slightest hint of blame.

At that moment he knew what she was going to say, and his heart stopped before the words were even out, his mind screaming at him for being such an idiot—such a bloody coward—for proving right every insult ever thrown his way and for earning each and every reproachful, accusing glare. He had been such an arrogant fool, and now it was too late, too late

He had waited too long.

No second chances.

"It's Merlin," she said, her voice breaking. "Something's happened to Merlin."