~And this is how it ends, with something grand and something simple, because it will always be the big choices that set our direction, but it is the smallest of the choices we make that get us to the destination~
It was a bit of a blur, really, everything that happened between leaving with Gwen and finding himself standing in Gaius' chambers, nursing the left side of his face which would probably be discolored by tomorrow. His mind was a haze of half-formed explanations, pain, fear, anger, helplessness, all jumbled up with the sight of sallow skin and shallow breaths and the knowledge that all of this was happening because of him…
When Arthur had suddenly burst into Gaius' chambers with Gwen close behind, he had been very single-minded, determined to find his servant and not caring about anything else. It hadn't taken long. He had found Merlin lying on a cot in the middle of the room with both Lancelot and Gwaine at his bedside. The moment they had noticed the prince, Lancelot had looked away and Gwaine had glared at him, a look filled with anger and accusation, the two things that all of them had to be feeling but couldn't bring themselves to show (Gwaine had never had any such reserve).
Gaius had been at his table with a stack of books, flipping through pages with a weary look on his face. He had glanced up briefly only to acknowledge the prince before going back to his task, casting just one sad look towards his ward, and Merlin…
Merlin had just been lying there—pale, boneless, exhausted (the dark circles under his eyes looked like bruises), and each breath he took was short and shallow. The boy was silent and still, unmoving, unresponsive…lifeless.
Something that had been building up inside him over the past three weeks had finally snapped, and in that moment all hell had broken loose.
He doesn't fully remember what happened afterwards, only that he probably deserved what he got. He can remember yelling at them all, demanding to know what had happened, what was wrong, lashing out at all of them as if they were the ones responsible only for Gwaine to finally lose the tentative hold on his anger. He had punched Arthur in the face before yelling at him, saying he had no right because this was all your fault, you selfish bastard!
There had been even more yelling and another punch before Arthur had instinctively fought back, and he knows they broke some things and knocked over others, but neither of them had cared. There had been a lot of shouting and arguing (and so much hostility, so much blame) before Lancelot had managed to pull Gwaine away while Gaius yelled at all of them for behaving so foolishly and making such a mess, because none of it was going to change anything.
None of it would help Merlin.
Once all of them had calmed down enough to be rational, Gaius had explained as best he could what was going on. He had told them how Merlin hadn't been feeling well lately, losing more and more sleep, how his magic had been acting up, not doing what he wanted it to until he had simply given up on trying. Merlin had become despondent, pulling away from even Gaius, and eventually he had fallen "ill." It wasn't the right word, but it was the only one that fit, the only way to illustrate the fact that Merlin was unwell, his body fighting for a life that his mind was slowly letting go of.
The rest of the explanation made even less sense, because of course Merlin's situation would revolve around his magic, the one thing Arthur didn't know much about and didn't understand, and yet it seemed to be at the center of everything. Merlin's illness was magical in nature. His own magic was doing this to him in some misguided attempt to help him. The warlock had been in so much pain that it had simply reacted, and this was the result.
That was all Gaius knew for certain; he would have to look into it further, he said, but there was another truth hidden in his explanation, something that none of them were saying but that all of them knew.
Gwaine had been right in his accusation.
In the end, this was all Arthur's fault.
That was how he had ended up sitting in Gaius' chambers, watching his servant—his friend, damn it all—slip away and wishing he could change things. If only he could just go back to that day in the forest, make a different choice and save them all from this torture, from the hell he had put Merlin through. With just one choice he had managed to ruin everything. He had thought it was the right one, that there had only been two options: spare Merlin's life or see him executed. He hadn't even considered that there might be more to it than that, that there were other choices he could have made.
If only he could go back, do things differently…
But there was no going back, no second chances. He knew as much, that the past couldn't be changed. Even after being warned that something big would happen, that a choice that could very well change everything would have to be made, he hadn't been able to heed the warning, at least not properly. That young woman had sacrificed everything to warn him, and in the end he had failed. She had died in vain.
And now Merlin was dying too.
Gaius informed them that there was nothing they could do, that he would need to read further in order to find a solution and that Merlin was not likely to wake anytime soon, but they all stayed anyway. There were things all of them were supposed to be doing, matters to attend to, but it was clear that none of them cared. Even if Arthur ordered the two knights to attend training or to patrol the city, they would probably refuse, and there was honestly no reason for them to go when he wouldn't be going either. He wasn't going anywhere unless Gaius asked him to, because even though he had reports to read and people to meet with, an entire kingdom to look after…this was more important.
He had spent three weeks ignoring Merlin, knowing that something needed to be done but always putting it off, noticing that something was wrong but never asking. He had allowed this to happen—he had made this happen—and until they could find a way to fix it, he would stay with Merlin. He would suffer the silence and the looks and all the guilt, because he deserved it. He would deal with the disapproval of the court, with the reports that would pile up, and with all the rumors that this would likely create. It was a small price to pay.
The five of them stayed with Merlin all day, sending messages when needed, leaving only when necessary, and taking their meals together. They explained the general situation to anyone who asked, accepted the visitors that mattered, that cared, and turned away all those who couldn't understand, who thought they were all being unreasonable. It didn't take long for people to learn who was welcome within Gaius' chambers and who wasn't. Word always traveled fast in Camelot.
At the end of the day, with no solution in sight, Gaius finally sent them all away, and Arthur promised he would return in the morning. He wasn't at all surprised to hear the rest of them do the same.
The last thing he saw before walking out that door was something he had never wanted to see—the sight of a once hopeful mask crumbling away as Gaius closed the book before him, placing his head in his hands and giving in to the sheer helplessness of it all. His disheartened sigh came out as nothing more than a choked off sob.
That one heartbreaking image said more than any explanation ever could.
Arthur wasn't at all surprised when he couldn't fall asleep that night. He was even less surprised that the rest of them hadn't been able to either.
It became painfully obvious during the second day that despite all the tension between them, they were going to have to come to a compromise. Nothing would ever be accomplished otherwise, and so even though Gwaine still looked like he wanted to punch him and Lancelot kept giving him disappointed glances, the two knights kept their silence, and in return Arthur didn't try to make excuses for his actions.
In the end though, it was Gwen who finally broke the silent tension, passing the time by asking Gaius questions about Merlin and his magic, about all the things she was certain he must have done but had never taken the credit for, always passing it on to someone else or simply hiding the truth. For every question asked, Gaius gave an honest, detailed answer, and even though it was clear that he thought it would be better for Merlin to do this instead, he still launched into stories about his ward and some of the amazing, noble things he had done with his gifts.
It was in that time, sitting together around their friend's bedside, that Arthur learned just how far Merlin was willing to go for the people he cared about and just how much the warlock had truly sacrificed for his prince.
Days passed like that, each one more drawn out than the last, and with every day that came and went without any improvement, it only got harder to deal with everything else. They all went back to their duties eventually, just the bare minimum, and every time they finished, they would all go right back to sitting around, watching Gaius flip through every page of each new book, just waiting for something that became less and less likely to happen. No matter what they did, nothing ever seemed to change, and there was no solution in sight.
After the fifth day, Gaius stopped searching.
Before they knew it, another whole week had gone by, but it wasn't until the next morning that something finally changed.
…Only it wasn't for the better.
They were all sitting around Gaius' chambers, doing whatever they could to keep from being idle, when the gentle rhythm of Merlin's shallow breathing suddenly faltered, a sharp breath being taken when it shouldn't have been, followed by one much softer but no longer in time with the rest. They kept coming like that, softer and softer, further and further apart, until his chest was barely moving at all.
Instantly they were all at his side, the fear palpable between them as Gaius began to examine the boy, taking his pulse and listening to his breathing, his heart…and when the physician finally pulled away, it was with a grim, hopeless, and very resigned look on his face, as if he had expected something like this to happen, had been preparing for it.
Arthur barely recognized his own voice, so tired and quiet, tripping over just one word. The physician merely shook his head, unable to look at any of them as he gripped his ward's pale hand.
"I'm sorry…" the old man said softly. It was unclear who the apology was meant for.
All of them, perhaps.
There was another long silence before the man shook his head again, opening his mouth to say something but unable to get the words out. He swallowed thickly, and all of them could see the unshed tears threatening to spill over while he tried to find his voice. Just two more words, but they were ones that no one wanted to hear.
Two words, and suddenly the entire world seemed to be holding its breath.
Arthur clenched his fists at his sides, his nails digging into the skin of his palms, but the pain didn't even register, because this…this was so wrong. Everything about it felt wrong, because Merlin couldn't die. He just couldn't, not like this, not now, not after everything that had happened and everything that still needed to. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right.
How many more people had to be taken away from him until the world was satisfied? He had lost family, friends, so many people, and now…now he was losing Merlin, and Arthur knew he had no right to plead for his friend's life, for the warlock to be spared, not when he was the reason this was happening in the first place. What right did he have to ask for a life back that he had pushed towards death, to change his mind when this was a result of the choice he had made?
There had to be a way to fix this, to change things, because it couldn't end like this, with so much left unsaid and everything still broken around them. It wasn't supposed to end like this, because if there was a single person in all of Camelot (in all the world, even) who didn't deserve this, it was Merlin. He always looked out for everyone but himself, putting the lives of others first and never expecting anything in return for his compassion. He was a good man—loyal, selfless, kind, and so much braver than anyone gave him credit for, and yet no one had ever thanked him for any of it. More often than not his sacrifices went unnoticed and unappreciated, but he never stopped doing what he believed to be right no matter how much he might suffer for it—and Merlin had suffered, more than they would probably ever know.
How many times had he given a part of himself away, so willing and trusting, only to lose everything, to have his heart cast aside or torn away like it meant nothing?
And Merlin—stupid, unassuming, loyal, innocent Merlin—never said a word, never sought praise, never turned his back on a world that wasn't fair—no resentment, no greed, no hatred. He had simply kept going, kept trying, working towards an unseen goal with an unnatural amount of dedication and a smile on his face.
What could keep a person going like that, living through the fear and the loneliness and the pain?
What was it that he had believed in so unfailingly?
"It is your fate to be the greatest king that Camelot has ever known."
His mind froze, his thoughts stopping aside from the words echoing in his head, things that Merlin had said to him that had never quite fit, that had always held something more, something profound that he had never been able to place.
The answer to his question…
"Well, I know you. You're a great warrior. One day, you'll be a great king."
It couldn't really be that simple, could it?
"I'm happy to be your servant…till the day I die."
And just like that, Arthur finally got it.
All this time, all those years, and no matter how hard things must have been at times, Merlin had never left. Despite all the risks to himself, he had stayed by Arthur's side—served him, protected him, and not because he wanted something in return or was seeking recognition.
Merlin had stayed because he believed in him, in the kind of king—the kind of man—Arthur would become.
He had stayed because he had faith in Arthur.
And I threw that away.
The realization came like a crushing blow, leaving him winded and gasping, and he almost wished that someone really would hit him, because he sure as hell deserved it. What an arrogant, selfish fool he was. He had spent so much time being angry (being hurt) about the fact that Merlin hadn't trusted him when the warlock had actually given him something so much more than his trust.
Trust was something that had to be built and nurtured, earned through acts and reasons, but faith was something completely different, something that wasn't certain, a belief in what often couldn't be proven or seen. After everything that had happened, everything that had been said, and all that Arthur had done, Merlin had never once lost faith in him. He had kept believing, patiently waiting for a day where he wouldn't have to hide, where he would be accepted, all the while not knowing if such a day would actually come or if he would live long enough to see it.
He had spent all those years believing that Arthur would one day become someone he could trust with his secret, his faith in that future never wavering.
That bloody stupid warlock had dedicated himself to the son of Uther Pendragon, to a kingdom that would watch him burn without a second thought. Merlin had been protecting them all (and how ignorant he had been not to have noticed, because luck could only get a person so far, and his luck had only started bordering on miraculous after Merlin had stumbled into his life). They probably owed him their lives a hundred times over, maybe more, and he had never been thanked for any of it, but still he didn't stop. He had never once abandoned Camelot, its king, its prince…but Arthur…
Arthur had abandoned Merlin. "Traitor!" he had shouted.
In the end, who was the real traitor?
Merlin had accepted everything there was to accept about him, had befriended him despite his arrogance, his ingratitude, all of his flaws, and yet when given the same chance, the same opportunity, the same choice…Arthur had turned his back on Merlin.
The warlock was fading away because he had lost hope in being forgiven, being accepted for who he was, for what he couldn't help being, and if the world you believe in falls apart around you, then what is there left to hold on to?
They say—whoever they are—that hope is the last to die. Merlin had believed in him, and Arthur had let him down. He had caused so much pain, so much sorrow, and he knew what those looked like, what they could do to a person. He had seen them everyday in his father's anger, and he could see them now as well in the man's brokeness. He knew that hurt and fear, grief and loneliness, could build up and fester until they became an all-consuming loss, one that would eventually lead to either hatred and bitterness or a deep-seated sorrow and hopelessness, slowly eating away at a person until there was nothing left. Now that he looked at it, he could see that Morgana had succumbed to the former, had let everything build up until all that was left was bitterness and resentment, a hatred too deep to come back from.
When your world turns its back on you and there's nothing left but despair, you can either turn your back on the world or fall away from it.
He should have known that given the choice, Merlin would choose the latter, would allow himself to slowly fade away, holding on for as long as he could until there was just nothing left to hold on to. Despite everything, Merlin hadn't turned to anger or hatred, hadn't cast blame. Instead he had closed himself off, had allowed himself to fall into despair until the pain became so great that even his magic couldn't take it anymore, couldn't stand to watch him suffer. It was connected to him, so intertwined with his being that to pull it from his body would likely kill him, because Merlin wasn't just a sorcerer—he was magic—and so it only made sense that it would react this way to his pain, eating away at him just like everything else.
Eventually there would be nothing left.
Merlin was going to die. He was dying because he no longer had anything to hold on to, nothing left to hope for. Arthur had taken it from him without knowing, without realizing what the consequences would be. He had chosen to turn his back without meaning to. That was the choice he had made. It had never been about choosing to spare Merlin's life or not. Despite the severity of that decision, it had actually been an easy one (just the thought of watching Merlin burn made him feel sick). He had thought that was all there was to it, that his choice had been made and his vow kept.
He had been wrong.
If he really was the reason this was happening, the reason Merlin was letting go, then he would give him a reason to stay. He was going to fix this—he would fix this—and he wouldn't think about what might happen if he didn't, because Camelot without Merlin wouldn't be the same, would never feel like home again.
A few years ago he hadn't even known that Merlin existed, and now he couldn't seem to picture his life without him.
Arthur knew what needed to be done, what he would have to do, and it wasn't something that came easy. No one had ever taught him how to push everything aside and simply say what needed to be said, because he always had to be careful, had to control his words, couldn't appear soft or scared or weak. He was the crown prince of Camelot, and there were expectations to be met, standards to be upheld, always about duty and never about feelings. He wasn't supposed to care as much as he did and certainly not for a mere servant, but that was how things had turned out.
Merlin was his friend, and the boy needed to know that, regardless of how difficult it would be for Arthur to let down all his barriers, to say what needed to be said without trying to cover it up. He was going to have to risk damaging his pride, but when compared to everything else, it was really a small price to pay. Wounded pride would heal over time, but this… There would be no coming back from this.
If there was one thing he had learned from his life, from his father's life and everything in between, it was that once something was lost, you could never get it back. You could spend your whole life trying and only achieve a slight resemblance of what you once had.
Shattered trust, damaged pride, a broken relationship—they could all be repaired, built back up over time, but death was something permanent, where there were no second chances.
He wouldn't let it come to that.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur focused on what he had to do, shoving aside everything that didn't matter, letting the lingering sense of anger and hurt fade away, because this wasn't about him, and he had no right to feel either after what he had done. With nothing but determination and the desperation that came with the thought of losing someone important to him, he moved to the warlock's bedside. His sudden movement drew everyone's attention, but he kept his eyes on Merlin, afraid that if he looked away now, he would lose the only chance he had.
There was just one thing he needed to do first.
"Could you give me a moment alone with him," he began, his voice soft and tight, and he could practically feel the sudden tension in the air, knew that if no one else, Gwaine would have something to say about this, but he needed it to be this way, and if pleading was what it took, then so be it. "Please…"
It came out so very raw and thick with emotion that everything seemed to stop again, to freeze for just a moment as if the whole world was judging him, weighing his words and his intentions to decide if he deserved this (and he didn't, probably never would, but he would spend the rest of his life earning it if he had to).
He didn't look away from Merlin, but he heard movement, and from the corner of his eye he saw Gaius shift, letting go of his ward's hand and moving around the bed. He could feel the physician watching him, and so for just a moment he allowed himself to meet the man's eyes, and he could see the sorrow and the helplessness, the loss, the blame, but there was also a question there, as well as the tinniest spark of hope.
Arthur only prayed that his own gaze was as expressive, that Gaius could see everything he was trying to show, and there must have been something there that the physician felt he could trust, because he gave a brief nod before looking away and then ushering the others out of the room. It was clear they didn't want to leave, but since it was Gaius, all of them listened without complaint.
Lancelot and Gwen both looked back at him, their eyes pleading but also trusting, believing in him, and he probably didn't deserve it, but it was enough to push him forward. Even Gwaine, beneath the accusing stare, was showing just the smallest bit of hope.
When the door closed, leaving him alone with Merlin, he quickly turned his attention back to his servant, watching as the boy took each and every shallow breath, his chest barely moving. He knew that this would be his only chance to say what needed to be said, what he should have said from the beginning, but he didn't know how or even where to start. He had no plan, but he didn't have time either, and so he stopped thinking about it and simply let the words come out as they saw fit, ignoring his need for restraint, because this had nothing to do with upholding an image or being a prince and everything to do with being a friend. He didn't care if Merlin no longer saw him as one, if he resented Arthur, blamed him. It didn't matter.
He just wanted those eyes to open again. That was all.
"I know you can hear me," he said, his voice low and thick with everything he hadn't allowed himself to show before. "I know you're still there, somewhere, because I won't accept the idea that you're not. You're a lot stronger than anyone gives you credit for, Merlin, so you have to be there, because I have a lot to say."
He took a deep breath and allowed everything to wash over him, getting caught up and not caring that he was no longer in control. All of it had been building up for so long, but no more. Merlin had always been someone he could talk to without having to worry, someone who would listen to him, someone he could confide in, and he wasn't going to let that change.
"I…I'm sorry, Merlin. I don't really know how else to say it. I know you probably can't forgive me, and I'm not expecting you to. I don't deserve it, but I swear to you, I never meant for this to happen. I didn't mean to keep ignoring you, to make you think I wouldn't forgive you, and I never meant—"
He stopped, took a deep breath, cleared his head, and began again.
"No. No more excuses. This isn't about me. It should never have been about me."
Arrogant, selfish… If asked, he would have said he wasn't.
How ignorant he had been.
"I'm sorry, Merlin. I'm sorry I yelled at you, ignored you, and I'm sorry for every injury I caused. Even though you never said anything, I know I hurt you. You should have said something. You're rather good at that. You never let me get away with things, always letting me know in your own way when I'm being a prat. You always tell me what you think, so why…why didn't you—Merlin, why didn't you say something?"
No change, not even a twitch, and he couldn't stop the words. They just kept coming, every one louder than the last.
"You really are an idiot, aren't you Merlin? You never backed down before, so why—damn it, why didn't you do something? You're a powerful sorcerer, you complete idiot, so why didn't you do anything? How could you just let this happen? Why didn't you try harder or just make me listen, you…!"
A sharp, pained gasp, followed by a moment of complete silence where nothing moved, and Arthur felt like his heart might just stop…but then that soft, slow rhythm returned, and he found himself choking on the fear that had risen in that brief moment.
No more holding back, no more hesitating, no more distractions. His status, his pride, the law, magic, all of it be damned! He was not going to let Merlin die. That clumsy, sarcastic, ridiculous warlock was his friend, his best friend, the first real friend he had ever had, but he was also so much more than that, something that couldn't be put into words, and even if Arthur had to apologize a thousand times over in front of the whole of Camelot to repay the debt he owed, he would. He would do it gladly, would do anything asked of him if Merlin would just open his eyes.
Slowly the prince moved closer, lifting his arms and reaching out. He wasn't good at this, never had been, but he needed the connection. He very carefully placed his hands on either side of Merlin's face, gently turning the warlock's head until he was facing Arthur. He was so pale, skin cold to the touch, and it took everything Arthur had to stop himself from trembling at the thought of what it all meant. He swallowed hard and opened his mouth, trying to keep his voice steady, because if ever there was something that he needed to say, that Merlin needed to hear, it was this.
"Merlin," he began, praying to anyone that would listen that his words would get through, just please, please let him hear me…
"You once told me that the reason you left home and came to Camelot was because you no longer fit in, and that you wanted to find somewhere that you did."
He swallowed hard, his voice giving away everything that he had always known but had never let himself say.
"You do have a place, Merlin. You belong here. You belong with Gaius and Gwen, with Lancelot, Gwaine, and…me. You belong with me."
This was the only chance he was going to get, his last chance to save the closest friend he had ever had, and he was going to make it count. No matter what the cost, he wasn't going to let him slip away. His eyes burned at the very thought.
He couldn't let Merlin die like this—die because of him—afraid and alone and without knowing the truth. He pushed everything back, swallowed every last shred of pride, every fear of weakness, and simply spoke straight from the heart.
It wasn't easy.
But nothing worthwhile ever is.
"Please, I…I need you here, Merlin. I've been such an idiot. I didn't mean a word I said, and I'm sorry."
Incompetent, worthless, unwanted, useless…
"I honestly don't know why you believe in me, because right now I can't really see anything worth believing in. I've been cruel and unfair, and it's alright if you can't forgive me, because I don't deserve it."
Idiot, fool, liar, traitor…
"But I swear to you…I swear I'll become the king you said I'll be, the kind of man you believe me to be, even if it takes my whole life. I'll build a kingdom that we can all be proud of."
Sorcerer, warlock, servant, companion, confidant, adviser, protector, friend…
"When…when I'm king, you'll never have to hide who you are ever again. Until then, we'll keep you safe. You'll never be alone again, I promise, so please Merlin…please wake up."
His last plea echoed softly in the empty room, fading gently. There was a deep breath and a long exhale, a shudder and a soft sigh…and then nothing.
Everything fell silent.
There was nothing, and suddenly Arthur couldn't remember how to breathe.
It's so very easy to take for granted what's always there, because people only seem to notice something when it's gone. It's also nothing short of ignorant to believe that something will last forever, that things will never change. Everything has to end eventually. Sometimes all you can do is accept it and move on.
But this…the silence, the stillness, a heart so mistreated that it could no longer remember how to beat…
There was no way in hell Arthur was accepting this.
"No, no, come on, just…just listen to me, Merlin."
He grabbed the boy by the shoulders and shook him, ignoring the way those eyes remained closed, face slack and lips parted even though no air traveled past.
"You need to wake up. You need to breathe, Merlin!"
This couldn't happen.
"Please, I'll do anything! I'll apologize a hundred times over, for the rest of my life if that's what it takes! I swear I'll do anything you ask, give you whatever you want, but you have to open your eyes!"
Merlin wasn't allowed to leave.
"I know I've kept you waiting, but I'm ready to listen now! Please, just give me one more chance! Please, just wake up…!"
He doesn't remember when the tears began to fall and he doesn't care either, even as his voice fails him, his throat dry and his words raw. At some point his legs must have given out, because he suddenly finds himself kneeling on the hard floor, one hand still gripping his friend's shoulder, the other digging into a thin wrist, waiting for something that refused to return.
"…You can't leave."
It was nothing more than a broken whisper, quiet even amongst the silence.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything. I never should have let this happen."
It's my fault, all of it.
The grief, the guilt, the regret… He couldn't imagine living the rest of his life like this, poisoned by all of it, haunted by everything left unsaid.
He couldn't imagine living without Merlin.
"Please, I…I don't want you to go. I need you. You're the first person who ever accepted me for who I am, and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to finally say this."
There was no reason to hold anything back when he had nothing left to lose.
"Thank you, Merlin…for everything. I could never have asked for a better friend. You're…you're the best friend I've ever had, and I…I can't…"
I can't do this without you.
"Please, just wake up. Open your eyes. Please, Merlin…"
I can't lose you.
He kept forming the words even though he could no longer find the energy to say them, his whole body trembling, face pressed into the sheets to hide the tears he couldn't keep from falling.
He would have given anything to go back, to try again, do things differently, be a better friend, but he had already been given so many opportunities, so many chances to set things right, and he had ignored them all.
He had no right to ask for one more.
But he kept asking anyway.
It felt like he was drowning, the air too thick to breathe, and he was so completely lost in all of it that he didn't notice the gentle pressure beneath his fingers, his hand still wrapped tightly around a slender wrist.
There was one last beat of silence, one last heart-wrenching sob…and then the world around him released a collective breath—a deep, shuttering sigh that made his heart stop and his mind race. He shot to his feet, leaning over the bed and just watching as the boy below him took a deep breath, then another, falling into a steady rhythm while his pulse grew stronger and the color slowly returned to his face.
Merlin was alive. His heart was beating, his body breathing, and Arthur could almost feel the warm thrum of the boy's magic just beneath his skin, flowing just as naturally as the blood through his veins. There was a soft sigh, a quiet groan, a bit of restless shifting…and then two blue eyes blinked open, and everything slotted back into place.
For the longest time, Arthur couldn't find his voice. He simply stared at the warlock, hardly daring to believe that this was real (because life was good at giving him the things he wanted only to snatch them away), but then those eyes turned to him, their gaze soft and hazy from being closed for so long. There was a fondness there, a loyalty and respect that he didn't deserve, warm and kind, and it would probably vanish the moment Merlin came back to himself, when he remembered what happened.
One day Arthur would get it all back, and this time around he would make sure he had earned it.
For a while Merlin simply looked at him, blinking slowly, and when he finally opened his mouth to speak, his voice came out as nothing more than a breath, so soft that Arthur wouldn't have heard had he not been listening for it.
He could only nod—he was far too anxious to speak—waiting with baited breath for something to happen but dreading the moment it would.
He watched as those dark eyes finally opened a bit more fully, the haze lifting away…and in that moment, something in him broke. Those eyes hid nothing, and Arthur could finally see just how much damage he had caused, all the pain and the uncertainty, because with Merlin's returning awareness came the realization of what had happened to him. He clearly remembered everything that had occurred over the past few weeks if his expression was anything to go by. He looked tired, sad, and so very lonely and afraid, those eyes hopeless and pleading…
There was so much to make up for.
"Arthur," Merlin began softly, his voice a bit stronger but a little shaky, unsure. "I…"
"What is it?" he asked just as quietly, urging his friend to say what he wanted, and this time he would listen.
Arthur froze, his stomach twisting painfully as he stared at the warlock, unable to believe what he had just heard. Those two words said more than thousands of others ever could, and he didn't deserve any of it. He had been cruel and unforgiving, had practically tortured his friend, pushed him to the brink of death and then left him hanging over it. He had been so angry at Merlin for not telling him about the magic, for not trusting him with his secrets even though Arthur had done nothing to earn that right. He had never even said thank you for saving their lives that day, and he should have, because in the end Merlin could have let them die, could have kept his secret hidden and safe, but instead he had placed their lives above his own. He had saved them without a second thought, effectively putting his own life in Arthur's hands only for the prince to cast it aside like it meant nothing.
This isn't right. Nothing about this was right. It was all so twisted and wrong, and Merlin should have been angry with him, should be blaming him, but he wasn't, and Arthur didn't deserve to be forgiven for all the pain he had caused. He had been selfish and unfair, unjust, and the warlock had every right to hate him for it, but he didn't. There was no hate, no blame in that gaze, and he could feel his heart slowly breaking, because Merlin was looking at him with eyes so desperate and earnest, begging to be heard, believed, trusted. He still looked so tired and sad, so alone—small and frail despite all the power he had…and so very, very lost.
In an instant, Arthur realized that he would never deserve the chance he had been given, could spend his whole life trying and only ever fall short, because despite everything he had done and all the harm he had caused, Merlin had already forgiven him.
He had always been told that magic was supposed to corrupt, to twist the soul and destroy all that is good, but how could someone look at Merlin and see anything other than kindness? How could anyone ever think that the nature of magic was evil when Merlin was anything but? He was loyal, patient, brave, wise—the truest friend that anyone could ever ask for—and Arthur had nearly thrown that away.
He had almost lost Merlin.
It was time to give back everything he had taken.
Without a word, Arthur slowly sat down on the edge of the cot, never once looking away from those weary eyes, and he prayed he wouldn't see fear in them. The thought of Merlin being afraid of him hurt more than he would ever be willing to admit. He moved cautiously to keep from startling the boy, no longer knowing quite where they stood, because the space between them was both small and vast, still familiar but different at the same time.
He watched as the warlock regarded him a bit curiously and then tried to sit up only for the exhaustion to set back in, his whole body tired and weak from days of disuse. There weren't words to describe the look on his face, so dismayed and defeated, and the prince could feel his heart clench painfully in response. He reached out carefully, gently slipping his arm under the boy's back before pulling him up, bracing him, but even after the warlock was sitting on his own, Arthur didn't remove his arm.
Merlin was still just looking at him with that same expression, so open and desperate, waiting for either acceptance or rejection.
It should have been obvious by now. The latter wasn't even an option.
"You idiot…" he sighed, his voice nothing more than a soft breath of air, all fond exasperation and reverence. He gently pulled Merlin forward, one arm still wrapped around him, and despite never having done this before, it felt completely natural to just let the boy fall against him, to bring his other arm up as well. He guided the warlock's head down to rest on his shoulder, knowing the boy couldn't hold himself up yet, his strength gone, taken from him in more ways than one, and all the while Merlin simply complied, allowed it all to happen. Perhaps it was because he just didn't care anymore, but maybe…
Maybe it was because he still believed in Arthur, and with that thought in mind, the prince pulled his friend just a little bit closer. He felt the warlock shift a bit, gently pressing his face into the soft, rich leather of Arthur's jacket.
"I'm sorry," Merlin whispered again, voice muffled and broken but so undeniably sincere.
"Don't be," he said as he hugged his friend closer. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
He felt Merlin tense in his arms, and for a moment he was afraid that he had done something wrong until that breathless voice came again, quiet yet deafening in the silence.
"…You're forgiving me?"
All the air in his lungs, all the blood in his veins—everything left in a rush, and he found himself holding on tighter, trying to find purchase, grasping as if Merlin would suddenly be taken from him, because even if he lived a thousand lifetimes, he would never be able to earn what was being given to him so freely. Somewhere along the way, he had completely failed his best friend, because there was so much awe, so much reverence in those three words, and Arthur immediately knew that the warlock had been preparing for rejection.
Merlin hadn't thought that Arthur would forgive him, and the realization of just how much destruction he had wrought cut him to the bone, left him raw and bleeding. His eyes began to burn, his throat closing up, and it took everything he had to keep from shaking with the sheer humility of it all.
When he finally found his voice, it was nothing but a choked sob.
He had so much to make up for.
"…There's nothing to forgive."
And just like that, all the tension and the uncertainty drained away, and Merlin slumped fully into his embrace, sighing in absolute relief before his whole body started trembling, allowing all the built up stress—all the fear and the sorrow and the hopelessness—to pour out at once. He had been pushed and pulled so far, run-down and worn-out until there was nothing left, and Arthur was really no better, already at the end of his rope from days of sleepless nights and silent days spent waiting for something he had thought was lost.
They needed this, the reassurance, something worth believing in, because with everything that had happened and all that lay ahead, this was the one place that was truly safe.
So Arthur just kept holding on, offering what little strength he had left as Merlin finally let himself fall apart.
And he knew that it wasn't enough—it was nowhere near enough, because they both had so much healing to do, so much damage to repair, and everything was still broken, lying shattered at their feet.
It would probably never be enough, but…
With a quiet, heart-rending sob, Merlin brought his arms up and carefully wrapped them around Arthur, and when the prince didn't reject him, didn't push him away, the warlock pulled himself just that little bit closer…and held on tight.
It was a start.
A/N: Gods, I hope this wasn't an epic fail, and I pray that no one was OOC, because when writing something meant to be emotionally challenging for the characters, it can be difficult to gauge reactions (especially since Arthur hasn't really dealt with losing anyone in the show yet). A lot happened to Arthur though at the end of season 3, and so I imagine he would be rather emotionally taxed. I just hope I didn't stretch things unreasonably far.
There was so much I wanted to get across in this fic, and I fear I may have fallen short, but I sincerely hope not. It's funny though, because this whole monstrosity of a oneshot spawned from just a single piece of dialogue and a few quotes from a book about choices. I could talk for hours and hours about choices, because I adore inspirational philosophy, but I won't bore you people with the details. However, part of the anecdote at the beginning of this part did come from a quote by Dr. Shad Helmstetter's book "Choices." I just tweaked it a bit.
I could probably sit here and type for hours about this fic and the overall motivation behind it, but I think I won't, at least not here. Like I said before though, despite my fear of how it turned out, I'm extremely proud of this.
Also, I'll say this now, because I get the feeling I'll be asked at least once if I don't, but no, I don't plan on writing a companion piece from Merlin's POV or anyone else's for that matter. However, if someone else feels so inclined, go right ahead :) I don't mind. I would actually be quite honored.
Guess that's it. I hope you liked it. If you didn't, that's alright, because I know my writing style isn't everyone's cup of tea. Just please don't flame. I won't ask for reviews, cause I'm a horrible reviewer, but I do appreciate them, and I'd love to know what you thought.
Thank you for reading. Until next time!