Title: All The Complexities
Warning: AU (modern), language, substance abuse, graphic imagery
Inspired by: One Real Thing by Anah Crow and Dianne Fox
Summary: The course of true love never did run smooth. Arthur and Merlin knows this all too well.
A/N: Please be warned that this isn't your typical Merlin/Arthur fic. The relationship is and will be shown to be somewhat different from the usual. It isn't disturbing, just different. All I ask is that you'll give it a chance and hopefully, by the end, you'll understand it and enjoy reading the fic as I've enjoyed writing it.
ALL THE COMPLEXITIES
I need you now
I'll show you how
You can take my hand and save me.
The Rock and Tide by Joshua Radin
The e-mail that came in on his Blackberry made Merlin's breath catch.
The party had started off with a shout of celebration as he watched the nominees announced for the award that would take place six months later. When Freya's name had been called in the list of five nominees for Best Actress, he had been so relieved. The grin that he couldn't hide flitted briefly across his face as his client bounded over to him with a squeal of delight.
He got the first hug, just like he got the first whispered "Thank you."
Her body felt small in his arms. 'So thin,' he thought. He remembered a time when he had been just as thin. Slimmer really. Emaciated from living off many different drugs and the alcohol that he had used to slate hunger and thirst instead of food. He had been skin stretched thin over bones, his stomach sunken, his eyes red most days. He remembered and a part of his insides cringed at the memory.
But Arthur had been there. And Arthur had saved him.
Unlike Merlin had been, she was beautiful and elegant in her petite frame. Her gown, tailor made for her and this party, fit her like a glove. Her smile, her laughter, the way she seemed to glow with happiness, made him want to pick her up and spin her around.
"Whether I win or not," she whispered for his ear only. "Doesn't matter. You're the best PR I've ever worked with. You're heaven sent."
But that was just semantics, and Merlin shrugged off the praise.
"Of course you'll win," he whispered back. "Don't let them see you sweat."
She laughed when he winked. Took his hand. She led him to a seat at a far table, waving away shouts of "Congratulations!" and smiling for the cameras that took her picture as she glided by. Never letting go until they were safely away. He was the only one, as always, who knew just how tight her grip was, just how much her hands shook when she finally let go, just how afraid and human she was, living in the constant spotlight.
"I should call Morgana," he said with a smile. "She'll probably want to know that she'll have competition for the Ten Most Beautiful, Most Talented Women, of the Decade, article that Vanity will be doing."
Freya laughed. "Morgana models. I don't. She just has to stand still for a few seconds and photographers start running towards her. I get rejection letters almost every day that says I don't have the right face, and my voice is all wrong, and that I can't act worth for shit. Besides, Morgana is in France. Filming in Quebec is nothing like being on a runway in Paris."
Merlin reached across their table to take her hand. He remembered when he had no confidence in his abilities. When he would have turned tail and ran as far away and as fast as he could from any opportunity, sure that he was going to fail.
That made him think of Arthur again. How Arthur had picked up his tiny pieces, scattered like glass, and slowly put him back together, one insane, crazy, messed up piece at a time.
What Arthur did for him, Merlin could never forget. Arthur was never, ever, far away from his thoughts.
Even as he sat across one of the most beautiful women he knew, his fingertips itched to dial Arthur's number. To hear his voice. To tell him how he had done something good, something right.
But Arthur was so far away. Married, and living in Australia. The other end of the world. It made Merlin's stomach twist at the loss. And the miles and miles of space and land and water that separated them felt like a fist clenched around his lungs.
Freya laughed at him again.
"Merlin," she chuckled. "Tell Morgana. Tell the world. I don't mind. I'm just glad to hear they didn't just dump my reel in the nearest bin and laugh their head off at my audacity to try for 'Best' anything."
Merlin sent the e-mail to Morgana as quickly as his fingers could type. One of her closest school friends was up for a prestigious award. She would want to know.
Freya is nominated for Best Actress! Found out tonight so she's celebrating. Don't worry, I'm not doing anything stupid. Don't tell Arthur please. Want to tell him myself if he'll let me. I know Sofia didn't want me to have his number after they got married. Maybe you can find a way for me to contact him?
Three years. That was how long ago Merlin had spoken to Arthur. Three insanely long years. Long enough for Arthur to move on with his life, not having to worry about the train wreck that was his best friend. Three years, for Merlin to spend putting his life back together the way Arthur had instructed.
Merlin had never been very good at doing the right things. If there was a sign in his life that said to go one way for happiness and prosperity, Merlin laughed, gave it one particularly adept finger and had gone in precisely the opposite direction.
But Arthur made Merlin listen.
Merlin hadn't always been like that. When he was young his parents had doted on him. His family had been the ground beneath his feet. And then his father died and his mother went away, leaving him with his uncle Gaius.
And for a time, Merlin had been happy. His life made sense again. He didn't feel like he was floating away untethered to the Earth. He had someone who was there, who would take care of him.
Until Gaius wasn't there anymore. Until he had to live with how sick his mother was.
"Merlin, your Blackberry." Freya pointed to where it laid on the table, a message flashing. "You want to get that."
Merlin did want to get it. It had only been a few weeks since he last saw Morgana, but he could already imagine her delight spanning the distance, transmitted gleefully in her response.
He was smiling when he opened the e-mail. He stopped smiling when he read it.
Glad you e-mailed. Thought you knew. Arthur left Sofia three months ago. Turns out she'd been cheating on him the whole time. Arthur went to visit her last month to tell her he wanted a divorce and they got into an accident. Sofia didn't make it. Nobody's heard from Arthur since. Thought he would have told you! Thought you would know what's going on with him. I'm in the middle of a photo-shoot but was planning to fly down to Australia end of this week to find out what's going on. Gwaine didn't know much either when he rang. I'll have him ring you.
Merlin felt his whole body go cold. He started to shake. He felt the phone slip the short distance from his fingers to clatter on the table. Felt like his insides were turning in on itself. The fist on his lungs travelled over to his heart. 'Oh god, oh god, oh god! Please. Please. Please let him be okay.' he silently begged.
Freya's voice broke his spiralling thoughts, and he tried to focus on her. Tried to see past the tears that clouded his eyes. Tried to stop shaking so badly it was making him dizzy. Tried to breathe, and breathe, because he had to keep breathing to think of a way to help.
"Merlin," Freya took his hand, her eyes going all sorts of worried. "Merlin what happened?"
He snatched his fingers from her grasp and grabbed the phone, typing back a quick response.
Stay where you are. Finish your photo-shoot. I'll meet you in Paris. I'll find him. I'll help.
He sucked in a breath he didn't know he was holding until the message was sent.
Then he sucked in another one to stop his mind reeling. And all the while he felt like he should be falling over. His touchstone, his rock, his Arthur, the one man who had kept him safe and sane for years and years needed him, was missing, and he hadn't known. He felt like his bones should have hurt, his heart should have bled, the world should have turned on its head.
'How could I not know?' he silently screamed at himself.
"I have to go," he breathed out to Freya when he could focus on her again. "I have to go find Arthur."
She looked confused. Maybe because he had mentioned Arthur's name to her only once in the two years since she had become his client. And before that, Morgana had probably mentioned her brother only once when she explained that Merlin had been her PR courtesy of her brother but now Merlin would be Freya's PR, courtesy of Morgana.
Freya looked confused because she didn't know about all the times that Arthur had saved him.
A part of Merlin wanted to scream it all out to her so that she could understand just how much Arthur had done for him without question and without asking for anything back. But he didn't have the time to say all that.
"He's my best friend," he said instead. "He pretty much kept me sane all through high school. And then in university he kept me alive. I owe him, God, I owe him anything. Everything! And now he's all...fucked up...and missing...and I have to help him. Because he helped me all the time. And now I have to go to Australia and find him. I can't let him hurt all alone."
And somehow, those words seemed to make sense to her.
"Do you want me to come with?" she asked softly, reaching out to take his hands. "Australia is near to New Zealand where we're filming next, which is perfect. I'll go with you, make sure you find him, and then fly over to New Zealand. It's no bother."
She was being so kind. Merlin couldn't bear it. He could hardly focus, he was so frantic inside. And she was all soft words and reassurance, and he didn't have the energy to be grateful.
"No." He shook his head. "It's a long flight from Canada to Australia. I can't ask you to do that! Not tonight anyway when you're probably knackered. You need sleep and to get your mind ready for the next bout of filming. I'll be fine. You don't have to be in New Zealand for another five days. I can't make you leave early to babysit me!"
She squeezed his hands. "It's not. It's fine Merlin. I can sleep on the flight over. You're an important part of my life. I would have no career without you. But you're my friend too, right? I don't want you being alone."
Merlin was grateful, and incredibly touched. He had so few friends left that just hearing that she considered him to be a friend, made him want to hug her and cry out his fears on her shoulders. But Arthur had taught him to be strong, to stand on his own two feet again, and going to find Arthur, seemed like one of the most important times when he had to be strong enough to do something this hard alone.
"Thank you," he whispered, squeezing back. "Thank you. But...but I have to do this for him...on my own."
It was the best and only way he could explain. He willed her silently to understand. And she did, because she nodded, released his fingers, and smiled.
"Alright, but you have to e-mail or ring me," she instructed. "Tell me if you find him and if he's okay. If he's so important to you like I can see he is, I want to know."
Merlin could only nod. Could only stand. Could only grab his blackberry with one hand, pulling her across the side of the table with his other hand, to crush her into a quick hug.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I've ruined your night. You look lovely and you deserve the nomination. Sorry my shit is getting in the way of your happiness."
And then he was leaving, fingers already searching for flights out of Quebec and into Sydney.
He found two. The first one was Quebec to New York with almost nine hours layover then nonstop to Sydney for twenty-two hours. The second one was Quebec to Chicago with a ten hour layover then nonstop from Chicago to Sydney. The New York flight left at 8:30am while the Chicago flight left at 2:45pm.
Merlin checked his watch as he jumped into his car. Eighty-thirty was seven hours away. It left only enough time to pack, rush to the airport and check in for his flight. There would be no time to sleep. But Merlin had spent days without sleep in his lifetime. One more sleepless night was hardly going to kill him. Not doing something and sitting around until the flight in the afternoon just might though.
Merlin booked the first flight as he sped along with the night traffic, one hand on the wheel and the other hand tapping away at his blackberry.
Even when he was standing outside his own front door, he still didn't feel like he could take a decent breath.
'Not breathing till I see him again,' he promised himself silently.
Six and a half hours later Merlin sat in the airport, waiting for his flight to start boarding.
Gwaine had called him for the third time when he sat down. They had finally been able to speak at length, with Gwaine explaining what he knew about the accident. He hadn't found out until a week after the funeral. Then Arthur hadn't spoken to anyone about any of it since. Gwaine had called Morgana and told her the news. She had immediately rang Arthur with her sympathies.
It was Arthur who told them both not to tell Merlin. Arthur didn't want to disturb Merlin's new life, he had told his sister. Merlin was finally back on track and he was not going to mess it up for him. He would tell Merlin himself when he was ready. But that was almost three weeks ago, and he hadn't rang Merlin. It wasn't as if Merlin knew how to get in contact with him, not after Sofia had been so adamant that she didn't want her husband near the rat-trap of drugs and booze that Merlin had become.
Arthur hadn't listened though.
One year into their marriage, Arthur was with Merlin sobering him up and getting him a good job and a life. Merlin, had been so grateful that this time, he didn't want to mess up Arthur's life. So he stayed away, and when Arthur stopped calling he shrugged away the disgust at himself and figured that Arthur was so much better off without him anyway.
Merlin's gut cramped at the thought of Arthur being alone in his pain.
Arthur was so proud. Had grown up with a father who was wealthy and well-known. Had never wanted of anything in life except maybe more time with his parent and his half-sister. Arthur was taught to be strong and to never show weakness, and to always win and to never let anyone get the better of him.
'That bitch,' Merlin thought, having to hold his breath to stop even more tears from forming. 'She couldn't just die in a corner alone. She had try to take him with her.'
And God, how Merlin wanted to scream at that unfairness.
Merlin grew up without much of a family. When his parents were alive his father was always busy and his mother was always too tired to do anything but lie in bed. It took Merlin a long time to realize that more than exhaustion drove her to curl into a ball at the side of her bed, tears leaking silently and continuously down her cheeks. Nothing he did as a child could make his mother smile for long. If she wasn't crying, she was shouting at him to go away. And later, after his father died, after Gaius was too sick to take care of him and his mother came back, for the brief months of overlap when they all lived together, Merlin had ran himself ragged trying to make her feel like she was a good mother. When Gaius died, his mother slipped away, as if she too died. As if a corpse laid on her bed, day in and day out, feeding on anti-depressants, not hungry and always, always so damn tired she couldn't even think she said.
Arthur had grown up with a family and family was important to him. And even though it damn near killed Merlin to force back the smile, he smiled when Arthur announced he was marrying Sofia, because Arthur was happy.
Now, Arthur had no family. He had no one left. Hidden away alone on a continent at the end of the world. His whole world going to pieces and nobody was there to see the strong, beautiful, man that he was to Merlin, fall and shatter. Arthur had no one to put him together like he had put Merlin back together over and over again.
Merlin wanted to crawl to him, on hands and knees, bump Arthur's knees with his forehead, and promise that he would never, ever, leave again.
'Please, please...' Merlin begged. 'Please be safe. I'm coming to fix you.'
Merlin met Arthur when he was twelve years old.
He hadn't know anything about Arthur Pendragon even though he, like many, had heard the Pendragon name. So when he first saw the blond boy walking the corridors of the school with an entourage, he had chalked him up to one more rich boy who was bound to make his life unpleasant.
Merlin had not been all that wrong about the older kids, and the wealthier kids, picking on others. This wasn't boarding school, and Merlin freely ran from any altercation that would result in him being beaten and bloody. But being the new student at a prestigious school, especially since he had been accepted on merits of his father's acquaintance with the principal of the school, soon caught up with Merlin.
Merlin was in the school yard, behind one of the buildings, sitting in dirt, scrubbing a line of shoes with spit and a piece of red cloth when he first met Arthur face to face.
Arthur took in the events with an impassive expression. In fact, he hadn't joined the line of boys tormenting Merlin. He had only leaned against the side of the building, sipping a bottle of water, keen eyes following the movements of Merlin's wrist scrubbing hard at the leather shoes, one by one, until he got to the end of the row.
Knowing what was coming next, though hoping otherwise, Merlin closed his eyes, keeping his head low.
He heard, rather than saw the group of boys advance. And he heard their laughter just before he felt the sting of pebbles as they kicked at the dirt, soiling the newly cleaned boots.
"Begin again!" One of the boys commanded.
Merlin didn't have to look down at his clothes to see that he hadn't faired much better than the shoes. He was worse that filthy. Taking the bus home was going to be a real pain. If he could have, he would have tried to make an escape to the school gate, but he had done that the day before and the boys, despite evidence to the contrary, were not stupid. Two of the older boys were waiting at the gate for him.
Merlin had ducked out of the hazing for almost two weeks.
'Third time's the charm then,' he thought as he shook out the cloth and began again.
Merlin hadn't seen Arthur move. Had no idea when the other boy had gone from being a sizeable distance away to standing close by. Close enough to watch, but not close enough to participate, Merlin noted, just before the cloud of dust and laughter came again.
Merlin had just enough time to save himself from choking on dirt, turning away from the shower of pebbles and dust, before the little group went quiet.
When Merlin turned back around and looked up, Arthur was standing there. He was pouring water over the line of shoes, taking care to get each shoe, but careful also not to wash the dirt away. A nice mix of dirt and water formed small rivulets of mud that slid down each. Merlin had to admire the brilliance of it even as he felt anger rise in him. Cleaning mud was not the same thing as cleaning dirt.
But Arthur hadn't meant for him to do any more cleaning. This Merlin found out once the bottle was empty. Arthur turned to the group of boys, all calm, quiet anger and spoke very softly.
"Get him to clean it again," he challenged with narrowed grey eyes. "Go on. Try me. I dare any of you to say the words."
When the boys all silently gathered up their muddy shoes and left, Merlin sat in the same place he had been sitting, a little dirtier, flecks of mud decorating the legs of his uniform pants, and a lot scared to meet the eyes of the boy who got older kids to walk away.
"Aren't you going to tell me your name?"
Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. So he closed his mouth and stared at his dirty fingers.
"I'm Arthur. I can make up a name for you if you can't bear to say yours aloud. I'm just not going to walk around whistling when I want you to come to me. Bad form, you know. Might give the wrong idea."
Merlin snickered. If the choice was between saying his name and being summoned like a puppy if he didn't, he decided the best option was to go with being polite. And even though he was still sitting on his backside in dirt at Arthur's feet, he wasn't too keen on being whistled at.
So he looked up, and up, and tried to match the smirk on the other boy's face.
"I'm Merlin," he spat out. "And I'm going home now, if you don't mind getting out of my way."
Merlin showed his boarding pass to the smiling flight attendant and made his way towards the plane.
Inside, the line of people before him stopped as those in front shoved their carry on in the overhead compartments. Merlin would have loved to travel first class all the way, but the flight to New York was only for little over an hour.
Merlin didn't know if it was wise to waste such a short flight on a first class ticket, but he couldn't imagine travelling the other twenty-two hours to Sydney in coach. So he had compromised. Coach first, then he was switching out his ticket during the long layover, for first class to his final destination. He had considered his options over and over as he made his way to the airport. He'd never been good with money. Never had enough of it to be good with it. And when he had it, he spent it all on getting high and getting wasted.
Arthur knew this. Arthur had helped him to set up a bank account when he got the job as Morgana's PR. Arthur had stipulated that he be paid an adequate allowance every month. It had been a relief for Merlin. He never had to worry about his money, never even had to think about it, and since Merlin was allotted only enough for food and rent and little expenses, he never worried about being extravagant. All he had to do in the beginning was to stay clean and stay sober for Arthur.
"Tell me if it's not enough," Arthur said to him, the day they stood outside of the bank with Merlin's new account info. "If you need more or you want to do something special one month, just tell me and I'll take care of it."
Merlin nodded, sure that if he had to starve one month to save for another, he would do just that. Arthur did so much for him already. He wouldn't be ungrateful and bother him any more than necessary.
But Arthur was always good at reading his mind.
"Hey," he said tilting his head to catch Merlin's gaze. "Hey, look at me."
Powerless, because Merlin could never stop looking at Arthur anyway, Merlin did as requested, biting his lower lip, ashamed that he was so damn transparent.
"If you need more, it's not a problem," Arthur reiterated. "Just ask. It's your money. I trust you with it."
Merlin wanted to cry. Wanted to shake his head and sob and ask Arthur to take it back, take back the words.
"You shouldn't," he said on a sob. "I could use it to buy something to snort. Or a bottle of tequila. I could get poppers and hide them and you wouldn't know that's what I needed more money for. You shouldn't trust me."
Arthur held his gaze steady. "I do though. You're going to be good, aren't you Merlin? You're not going to go out and buy drugs and alcohol. You've been clean for six months now, and you're not addicted to them you just wish you were because they make you forget and feel better. You've never needed them like addicts need them. So, you're going to stay clean. For me. You'll stay clean for me, won't you?"
Arthur reached out and pressed his palm to Merlin's chest. Merlin felt the heat from Arthur's fingers through his shirt. And he felt the bite of the ring that Arthur had given him, pressed into skin, branding itself against his heart.
Merlin had wanted so badly, so very badly, to do this one thing for Arthur. To have Arthur still be proud of him in another six months time. Merlin's whole body cramped with the desire to fall to his feet, cling to Arthur's legs and sob that he would try damn hard, even if it killed him.
"Merlin," Arthur said into the silence. "You'll be good, so I can trust you?"
"Yes Arthur," Merlin responded obediently.
And he bumped his nose to the side of Arthur's cheek, all needy and hating himself for craving the way Arthur's arms felt as they wrapped around him. He was all dirty and tangled up inside. Arthur shouldn't have to touch his filth. Arthur shouldn't have to be around him, helping him all the time. Most days he could help it. But some days he thought he'd happily beg Arthur for this simple connection. This simple hug. Even as he pulled away, afraid that he was contaminating Arthur with his needy, clingy, pain.
That wasn't the first time that Arthur had taken control of his money for him. When they were in school, after the day of hazing, and the month after Merlin started following Arthur around like a puppy anyway, Arthur had found out that some days, Merlin got waylaid and robbed of his daily allowance.
Merlin usually shrugged it off. It wasn't that money wasn't important to him. But money went so quickly from his grasp that he hardly ever got attached. Some days he spent it all. Some days he gave it all over to other boys who threatened violence.
"Merlin you can't not eat today!" Arthur snapped when Merlin had tried one too many times to get away with the excuse that he wasn't hungry. "You said you weren't hungry yesterday as well. I don't believe you've spent all day in class dining on education alone!"
Merlin rolled his eyes, turned away, and tried to act like it was not a big deal if he went without lunch again.
"Do you need me to lend you money?" Arthur asked gently.
Merlin's cheeks turned red.
"I'm not poor Arthur," he snapped. "I know you like to think I am, but my uncle is just fine financially, thanks. I'm not going home to bare cupboards if that's what you're thinking. I don't have your family's money but my family can afford to give me money for meals."
"Then where is this money!" Arthur challenged. "I don't see it. Is it invisible, Merlin?"
Merlin shrugged. "I had it, and now I don't anymore. End of."
"So it sprung legs and ran off?" Arthur snapped.
"No!" Merlin snapped right back. "It found a better pocket to occupy. Around ten o'clock this morning. Around ten o'clock yesterday morning as well. Right around that time on quite a lot of mornings actually. Don't make it into a thing."
"Fuck sake," Arthur breathed, exasperated. "Tomorrow morning, you find me before you go off to your first class. Give me your money. They can't take it from you if you haven't got any to give."
Merlin endured two days of some well placed punches before the guys who robbed him realized that all the hits in the world wasn't going to get him to cough up the quids. So they stopped. Possibly, it had something to do with Arthur getting suspicious on the second day and by end of day the boys were called into the Head Office over the loud speaker. Merlin didn't ask too many questions.
He showed up to the cafeteria and Arthur sat waiting, holding out food to him. Arthur always picked the food and Merlin ate it without comment or question. If there was any money left over at the end of the week, Arthur bought him a treat to take home for the weekend.
Merlin knew now that he lacked boundaries, and that this was why he had always needed to have Arthur around. When Arthur was around he could focus and follow instructions. And the chaos in his life unravelled into a clear path. Led by Arthur's voice, Arthur's gentle touch, Arthur's footsteps guiding him, Merlin felt safe.
When Arthur wasn't around, the walls fell away and darkness engulfed him.
Merlin shifted in his seat. Ten minutes into the flight, and already he felt like the particles that made up his body were vibrating apart. He hated flying. Had never been able to fly sober in his life.
Usually, he made sure to pick up a bottle of diphenhydramine and some valium, which he put in his carry-on and slowly fed off the entire flight. Since he couldn't have valium anymore, when he had to fly for his job, he took xanax instead. It wasn't any less addictive, but it had never been one of his recreational drugs of choice.
He hadn't the time to pack anything for this trip so he was crawling out of his skin by the first fifteen minutes. He felt like every muscle in his body was tense. The best thing he could do was to curl up into his tiny seat and close his eyes. His stomach protested the new position, and he felt his motion sickness kicking in. The xanax would have helped him to sleep, but since sleeping wasn't an option anymore, he would have to endure the short flight, tamping down the nausea.
As soon as he landed in New York he planned to buy a nice big pack of dramamine. A twenty four hour flight without drugs was not going to be an option. He just had to be careful not to take more than he should.
"Are you alright?" the lady beside him asked with evident concern.
He considered shaking his head. Considered, leaning across to her side of the divide and pointedly snagging her paper bag. He even considered ignoring her. But as she had asked nicely, without scorn or disgust, he smiled at her and nodded.
He knew what she saw. A decently dressed professional man, well groomed and well-kept, there was no reason to look down at him. 'Too bad,' he thought. 'Too bad she can't see the patchwork that's my insides.'
He wished Arthur was there. 'Shit! So fucking clingy'. He knew it was wrong, knew that Arthur was too good for him. He had no business wishing Arthur anywhere near the train-wreck that he represented. But Arthur would take charge and know exactly what to do to help.
Like the night Merlin found his mother lying in the bathtub, razor on the floor, and her wrists bleeding.
"Mum!" he shouted, as if he could shake her awake with only the panic in his voice. "Mum!"
The phone shook in his hand as he dialled. Six times he tried and it was only on the last attempt that he could hear the ringing on the other end.
His knuckles were white. The fingers on one hand fisted in his hair and the other hand clutched the phone like a lifeline. He felt his body start to shake with violent tremors, making him so terrified that he would drop the phone that he clung even tighter until the plastic squeaked in protest under his grip.
Merlin sobbed, because the words he wanted to say caught in his throat. And then he couldn't catch back his breath to make himself calm down long enough to speak.
He was crying out the words and it didn't help. Nothing would help. He was so sure that it was already too late.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice had an edge of panic, but mostly he kept it level. "Take a deep breath. Good. Now tell me slowly, what's wrong."
When the words came out, they were mixed with even more tears. Merlin couldn't concentrate on what he was saying, not knowing if he was even saying the right words that would make Arthur understand what his mother had done.
But Arthur understood, and Arthur knew what to do.
Merlin sat in the corner of the bathroom and rocked himself back and forth. He couldn't bear to look at her slumped figure. Couldn't see anything past all the red that surrounded her, almost swallowing her up.
He rocked and he cried. And then Arthur was there, holding him, holding him so tightly that he finally felt like he was weighted down and tethered to the Earth again. He clung to the arms that encased him in warmth, turning his face away when the paramedics rushed into the small room, slipping an oxygen mask over her face and strapping her to a trolley.
He was still shaking, still trying to gasp out sobs that tore their way up and out of his body, and the fear felt like it was drowning him, even after they were the only two people left in the house.
Arthur pulled Merlin to his feet, supporting him as his body felt too weak to walk.
Somehow they made it to the dining room where Merlin was allowed to collapse exhaustedly into the nearest chair. Merlin's mind spun with images after images of his mother. His mother laughing. His mother crying. His mother sleeping. His mother bleeding. His mother, disappearing behind her sadness more and more each day. He racked his brain trying to find out when she had spiralled so far that he hadn't seen it.
'Should have helped her.' The guilt was almost unbearable.
"Here." Arthur wrapped Merlin's fingers around the cup of hot tea. The heat beneath his fingers felt so good to Merlin that he wanted to get lost in it. "Drink. It will make you feel better."
Merlin drank, because doing what he was told made the most sense.
"I have to," he paused, then tried again. "I have to go to the hospital. When she wakes up, she'll want to see me."
He had no idea if this was true and it just made the panic in him rise more. Maybe she would want to see him. Maybe, but the more likely option was that she would scream at him for saving her from death's oblivion.
"Not tonight," Arthur responded softly.
Merlin shook his head in protest, knowing that whatever Arthur said next was not going to be something he wanted to hear. What he wanted, was his mother. And she was now lying half dead, alone in a hospital bed.
"I don't give a shit what you think I should do tonight," Merlin breathed out venomously. "I'm going to the hospital to be there when she wakes."
Arthur looked at him with that same quiet strength that kept Merlin grounded. When he spoke, he left no room for argument.
"She'll be high on medication and likely being kept sedated if she's not taken into emergency surgery right away. They're not going to let you see her until tomorrow morning. So tonight, you're going to just take a fucking breath, and try to sleep. You look like you're barely conscious right now."
Merlin had no words to fight such sound logic. Merlin felt like he barely had the strength to keep taking in air much less make his way stubbornly out the front door on his own. And if Arthur wasn't going to ring a taxi for him, then he was going to have to fend for himself. That was not something he was prepared to do.
So without another word, Merlin slumped over onto the table, arms crossed, and rested his head at the crux. He could still feel Arthur's eyes assessing him. He didn't know what the other boy saw, but whatever it was, it had Arthur pulling him to his feet and leading him into the living room.
"We'll sleep in here tonight." Arthur told him. "You sleep on the chair and I'll take the floor."
"No!" The one word ripped itself out of Merlin like a blade. "You're not to sleep on the floor. I can do that. What kind of host would I be to let you stay, on the floor?"
And then his words caught up and Merlin pulled away from the firm way that Arthur was directing him towards the biggest chair.
"You're not staying! Your parents will have a -"
Arthur cut him off calmly, "My parents think I'm out to visit Morgana at her mum's place. If I tell them I fell asleep there they won't think to ask questions. It's too late for them to call and check if I'm really there, and by tomorrow morning, it won't matter that I spent the night out."
Again, sound logic that Merlin couldn't argue with.
"I'll sleep on the floor though," he groused. "I don't want you getting your nice clothes dirty. God knows your shirt alone probably cost as much as my entire wardrobe."
Years later Merlin remembered that night.
He remembered it as he snuck into Arthur's dorm room in university, and into Arthur's flat when Arthur got into graduate school, and into Arthur's room in the year before Arthur met Sofia and got married.
During those so rare and precious nights, he would lie on the couch or spread a blanket on the floor and fall asleep, like that first night. Always waking up ashamed and guilty the next morning at how needy he was, and at how much he felt complete just knowing that Arthur was near.
Even when he was high. Even when he was drunk. Even when he couldn't remember half the night through a haze of partying and passing out, Arthur was true north for him. Somehow, he couldn't get himself to stop gravitating towards his best friend.
The first thing Merlin wanted to do when he got off the plane in New York was to kiss the solid ground.
As this wasn't an option while surrounded by airport personnel and frantic passengers anxious not to miss info on their flight, the first thing that Merlin eventually did was to rent a car.
Since he had at least six hours to waste before needing to return to catch his flight to Sydney, he scheduled two last minute business meetings. One was with a potential client, a start-up company that had revenue but needed good marketing. The other was with an existing client, an actress who had only recently switched from commercials and wanted help establishing herself in New York City.
When he made his first and most important stop to grab a box of dramamine at the drugstore, he texted Morgana, asking for what she knew about where Arthur had been staying. While he waited, he read the instructions on the back of the box, over and over.
Taking medication as directed was never a hard and fast rule in Merlin's household. Some medications he hadn't even known came with directions. When Gaius had been sick, he took as many pills as he thought he needed to alleviate the pain. And Merlin's mum either threw her anti-depressants in the bin, tried to swallow whole bottles of them if she got her hands on any, or refused to take them at all.
Merlin didn't even want to think on what he did when he came in possession of narcotics, poppers, or sleep-aids.
"God they can't be serious," Merlin breathed out as the recommended dosage sunk in. "One pill every four hours to a maximum of four pills in twenty four hours."
The only time he ever managed to take only one pill at a time of anything was when Arthur was holding on to the rest of them.
Merlin considered his options.
He would begin with one pill as instructed and see how the rest of the flight went from there. Which meant that it was probably a good idea to eat at some point between his two meetings. If he was going to spend a twenty-two hour flight on edge, he had to make sure that he didn't eat during the long flight.
Merlin's phone buzzed. He opened the text message from Morgana, studying the address that she gave him. As soon as he landed in Sydney, she wanted regular updates until he found her brother.
Merlin texted back reassurance that she would know what he knew once he arrived, but as soon as he found Arthur all communication was going to end. He intended to focus entirely on taking care of Arthur.
'Not going to let him go,' he promised himself as he made his way back to his car. 'I'll curl around his legs if I have to. Go where he's going. Make sure he's better.'
He had done something like that when he was fourteen, after Gaius died in hospital and after the second time his mum had attempted suicide and was finally sectioned.
It lasted only for two months as a pocket of time when Merlin was all alone with no adult in his life to look after him. Merlin had been so afraid of being taken into care that the only person he told was Arthur.
The trick, Arthur pointed out, was to not let anyone catch on to the fact that he was underage and living alone.
Merlin learned a lot in those two months. He had to keep the house and the yard clean, making sure that there was never any signs of neglect. He had to do laundry once a week, taking care to wear clean clothes and look decent when he showed up to school. And he couldn't be tired, couldn't look hungry, couldn't act like his life had gone to hell.
When he got to school each day, Merlin breathed in relief, because Arthur was there to take over the hard things.
Arthur took care of getting him lunch each day, of managing his money for him, of telling him what to do to get stains out of his uniform, and how to hide circles under his eyes. Sometimes Arthur would sit and comb his hair on the days when Merlin swore his body was falling asleep even though his eyes were open.
And every week Arthur gave him a list of things to buy when he went shopping. Then they would meet at Merlin's house and figured out how to stir-fry without oil because it was healthier, and how to wash blankets in the machine without flooding the basement, and how to pay the bills that came in the mail daily.
As much as his mother neglected things when she was lying in bed, she was always willing to give Merlin instructions if he asked. Not having anyone else taking care of the adult issues related to living on his own would have been a nightmare, Merlin knew, if Arthur wasn't there beside him learning them too.
Then every evening, Arthur would sit in the chair at the side of Merlin's bed, feet stretched out across to stop just short of where Merlin laid. And Merlin would fall asleep to the sound of Arthur turning a page as he read a book for class, or the sound of Arthur's pen scribble as he did his homework.
It was the closest Merlin ever came to the burning desire inside himself to curl like a cat around Arthur's legs and kiss Arthur's knees and calf and toes if he had to, utterly grateful to have Arthur so near.
The flight to Sydney went by in a blur.
About three hours into the flight, Merlin had all the flight attendants constantly gravitating towards his seat. They kept him fed on peppermint tea and ginger snaps. And since the seat beside him was vacant, one of the male flight attendants gave him a nice, gentle massage, until he fell into one of his many bouts of sleep.
He hadn't switched out his ticket for first class like he originally planned. Since the flight was going to be hellish no matter where he sat, his game plan was to keep himself only awake long enough for bathroom breaks.
It all worked out well once the flight crew made his acquaintance. Merlin was always good at making fast friends.
When he finally landed in Sydney, he had all their numbers, including the number of the pilot for some reason, because they all thought it was a pity that Merlin wasn't feeling well enough to go meet him personally. And even though one of the last major promises he made to Arthur was no more casual sex, Merlin took the pieces of paper anyway, so as not to hurt their feelings.
The apartment complex that Arthur was staying at looked like a hotel at first glance.
Merlin parked the car then checked the address one last time even though it didn't really surprise him.
Arthur became CEO of his father's company when Uther Pendragon died. It was what he had always planned to do when he got his MBA. Arthur had been wealthy his entire life, but Merlin could count on only one hand the amount of times Arthur allowed Merlin to really see what this meant.
To Merlin, Arthur was just Arthur, and they both liked it just fine that way.
Merlin wheeled the small carry-on sized suitcase that had been his only checked luggage, into the elevator and pressed the button for the penthouse condo. All the while, he texted snippy little messages to Morgana.
Got to the condo. Looks like the Ritz. I'm not that impressed to be honest.
This was immediately followed by two short, unambiguous words, which made Merlin laugh out loud.
His door looks like the entrance to Buckingham. Maybe I should ring the butler ahead of time, he typed next. Then, I've knocked and can hear footsteps. This is where I tell you to piss off. Will text back only if it's not him.
"Arthur!" Merlin called out, as he knocked again. "Arthur, let me in please?"
Merlin closed his eyes at the voice. It sounded gruff and cranky, but he knew Arthur's voice even in his sleep.
He rested his forehead again the door and tried to see if he could work out what Arthur was doing on the other side of the divide. When he heard shuffling, then the sound of another door slamming shut, he sighed, squeezed his eyes closed even tighter for a brief second then sighed.
His vision blurred with tears. It wasn't at the rejection. If Arthur didn't want him to come in yet Merlin didn't mind waiting. The tears was for the worry, and the relief that had formed a ball in his stomach. At least he knew Arthur hadn't done what his mum eventually managed to do. At least he knew Arthur was okay. Maybe not well, but safe.
Merlin pulled out his laptop from his bag then sent both Gwaine and Freya each a quick e-mail saying he had arrived and was in contact with Arthur. Then, he made himself comfortable on the floor and started working through all the business he had missed taking care of in twenty-four hours.
Three hours later Merlin heard the latch on the door click open.
He looked up from his laptop and listened again for further movement. But there was only silence. The wood of the door felt cold against Merlin's cheek. It felt smooth against his fingertips as he pressed his fingers against it. But he didn't push against it to gain entrance. Instead he waited, and when the ache inside of him grew to an almost physical pain he finally spoke.
"Arthur," he called out in a voice laced with emotions. "Please may I come in now?"
"Yes," Arthur called back, in a voice that was so tired it made Merlin shake and shake. "Yes, you may come in now Merlin."
Arthur was retreating into the bedroom again when Merlin made it inside the condo. He was just in time to see the door close. Merlin propped his suitcase near the entry, slipped off his shoes and looked around the beautiful, spacious, living area.
The place was a mess. Empty plastic cartons laid on the centre-table. Pillows, blankets, sheets laid strewn half on the couch and mostly on the floor. Nothing was where it should be. When Merlin walked into the kitchen there were dirty dishes mixed with half eaten food on the counter and on the table. And for some reason, there were at least four cups of tea stuck in random places, with varying amounts of tea still in them.
Merlin squeezed his nails into his palms, feeling like the Earth was vibrating with him. He had to take several gasps of breath to calm his racing heart.
He would take care of everything, now that he was here.
He carefully made his way across the apartment to the bedroom door, and knocked lightly on it.
There wasn't even a space of silence before the response came, "It's open Merlin. Come in."
Arthur looked no better than his apartment did. He was curled up onto the bed, his back to the door. The sheets and blanket were hanging, mostly off the bed than on. Arthur was draped in a bathrobe and what looked suspiciously like the bottom of his pyjamas, feet bare, hair a mess. Merlin could make out a growth of stubble on the line of Arthur's jaw and chin that was visible from his vantage point.
Arthur didn't move, didn't speak, didn't acknowledge Merlin's presence in any way as Merlin moved to approach the bed. Merlin's chest tightened with each step.
Until, Merlin's legs couldn't hold him up any longer. He slid down to the floor at the side of the bed onto his knees, resting back on his legs as he curved his back, bending his head so that only his forehead rested on the mattress near to where Arthur laid.
His fingertips tingled and Merlin had to, needed, to reach out. He knew he couldn't touch Arthur. Knew he wouldn't stop touching Arthur if he did, and Arthur wouldn't want Merlin to check him over everywhere for bruises and stitches and signs of the accident that had taken Arthur's wife away.
But Merlin wanted so much to feel that Arthur was alright, that he let his fingers find the edge of Arthur's pants, near Arthur's ankles. As quietly as he could, he let his mind and his body drink in the proof that Arthur was here.
It was the most he would allow himself to do. It was the only addiction he indulged in anymore, this overwhelming, burning ache to be with Arthur all the time. While they were continents apart for years, Merlin had felt like he was torn in two, his body on automation, his mind on his work, and the rest, everything else, attached itself to Arthur. It was all too much some days. It was like bleeding, like screaming, like only half existing, like knowing that this was where he belonged, wherever Arthur was.
And now, finally, finally being close to Arthur again, it all just made him fall even more in love with Arthur than ever before.