A/N: Here it is, the part you've all been waiting for… Arthur and Merlin's chat, the angst, the bromance, the conclusion to this three-part story. :) Be warned: here there be bromance and angst! This is a pretty long chapter… Please review and enjoy! :)
When It All Comes Crashing Down
Part Three: Not Alone
Arthur was exhausted by the time training was over. He had worked the knights harder than he had in a long time and by the time they were done, everyone was bone-tired. None of them complained – they rarely ever did – but that probably had something to do with the fact that they had come to learn that whenever Arthur worked them this hard, there was something weighing heavily on his mind. And since Merlin, who usually tagged along – sometimes just to set things up, even more often than not to be the target – was nowhere to be found, most of the men had probably realized that whatever was upsetting their prince had something to do with the clumsy, outrageously loyal servant.
The only thing that Arthur did before going to the physician's chambers to find Merlin's whereabouts was have a twitchy, nervous young servant help him out of his armor. As soon as the armor was off, he dismissed the boy and made his way to Gaius's chambers. He couldn't get that look in Merlin's eyes out of his head. Merlin had looked so sad, lonely, almost defeated. And that scared Arthur.
For reasons he was at a loss to explain, Arthur felt nervous as he made his way – making sure not to walk too fast although in actuality he wanted to break off into a sprint to try and shake off some of the nerves he was feeling – through the corridor. It felt strange heading to this part of the castle without having a wound or sickness that needed to be taken care of by Gaius or without the intention of calling Merlin an idiot and finding out why he was late for work. He knew that he was doing the right thing, going to Merlin not as demanding Arthur, but as… as a friend, but the idea was still daunting. What right did he have to be Merlin's friend, to ask what was wrong with him? Arthur normally didn't give Merlin's troubles the time of day, and now he was going to try and make – no, not make, ask – Merlin to open up to him?
Shaking his head in irritation at himself, Arthur was partially relieved and also a bit apprehensive when he reached the Court Physician's chambers. He stood before the door, staring blankly at the peeling wood as he realized that he had no idea how he was going to go about this. He had never approached someone – certainly not a servant – with the intent of talking to them as a friend. He had never had many real friends. Only those people that wanted to use his status and power to their advantage and sucked up to him in order to do so. He scowled. Bootlickers. He couldn't stand the thought of them now that he'd met Merlin.
Merlin, the one person that, despite his non-existent rank, never failed to tell Arthur how he felt and didn't back down. Merlin, the clumsy fool who couldn't put one foot in front of the other without nearly causing the castle to collapse on top of him, but would occasionally offer up a kind of wisdom that Arthur couldn't find in men twice his age. Merlin, the man that usually emanated good cheer, who smiled in the worst situation. Merlin, who was now so sullen and depressed that Arthur felt as if Merlin was no longer Merlin. Merlin, whose eyes, once so full of life, were now bleeding a sorrow that Arthur couldn't comprehend.
That was why he was going to find Merlin. That was why he was going to talk to him, to ask him to open up, to tell him the truth. Otherwise he feared that the old, cheerful and obnoxious Merlin would be forever replaced by this automaton, and that was something he didn't even want to consider.
Arthur took a deep breath and knocked on Gaius's door. Only a few seconds passed when Gaius opened the door, looking surprised and a bit relieved to see Arthur standing rather nervously on the threshold. "Sire."
Arthur cleared his throat. "Is Merlin here?" he asked, biting his tongue as he almost added on, purely out of habit, something about how the lazy idiot hadn't been at work almost all day.
Gaius sighed. "Yes, Sire. He is in his room, but I can't get him to speak to me. I must admit, it troubles me to see him this way, Arthur. He's never been this withdrawn before, especially from me."
Arthur scrubbed a hand over his weary face and cast a glance at the door behind which Merlin was apparently giving the world the silent treatment. "Do you have any idea what's bothering him, Gaius? He just stormed off today – I've not seen anything like it from him before."
A faraway look stole into Gaius's expression and Arthur knew then that Gaius had a very good idea of what was hurting Merlin but didn't want to tell Arthur – maybe he didn't feel it was his place to tell Arthur about what Merlin was going through or maybe he felt that he couldn't trust the prince. The latter thought stung but he shrugged it off. Gaius hesitated but finally responded, "Merlin has been through a lot lately, Sire. He is hurting more than you know. I do not know what information he will divulge to you – and it is not my place to do so – but what he needs now more than anything is a…" he trailed off, almost as if afraid to suggest what was on his mind.
Arthur already knew what he was trying to say and finished the sentence. "A friend." He offered the surprised old man a soft smile and nodded. "I know." It was his time to hesitate. "Can I come in, Gaius?"
Gaius looked startled but nodded mutely. "Of course, Sire." As Arthur nodded his thanks and moved across the small chambers to Merlin's even smaller room, Gaius added, "And Sire?" Arthur turned, eyebrows raised, looking every bit the prince he was.
Gaius smiled sadly. "Good luck."
Merlin was sitting on his bed, shoulders hunched, head down when Arthur slowly, quietly eased the door open and stepped into the small room. He had only been in here a handful of times, and each time it was because he was searching for something – once when his father had ordered the whole of the castle be searched and another when Merlin had been accused of sorcery by the Witchfinder. This was the first time that Arthur had ever been in here for any reason other than that and it struck him once more how tiny the room was.
Merlin didn't even look up when he heard someone enter but hunched his shoulders more and shifted his upper body so he was facing away from the door. "Gaius – I really don't want to talk," he murmured. "I'm fine."
Arthur snorted, "Oh really? Because you look like you're skipping out on work to me." Arthur bit his lip, cursing his insensitive words but they just seemed to slip out of his mouth naturally – sarcasm was the easiest way to speak to Merlin. It didn't involve any emotions or feelings or other awkward subjects at all.
Even as he spoke, Merlin jumped about a foot in the air and scrambled to his feet. "Sire." When he looked at his master, Arthur was shocked to see tear tracks down his face even though his eyes were dry. He swallowed, remembering Gaius's warning that Merlin was hurting more than Arthur could know.
"Merlin." How on earth did he manage to get himself into these ridiculously awkward situations? Arthur hated talking about girlish things like feelings with anyone, but Merlin was by far the most awkward to discuss them with.
They both started talking at the same time, Arthur bursting out, "I need to talk to you, Merlin," and Merlin stammering, "I'm sorry about running off earlier."
They both broke off, staring at each other. Arthur took control of the situation, one thing he was comfortable with, at least. "Me first," he said authoritatively, expecting Merlin to tease him, rebuke him, something but Merlin simply nodded sullenly and sat down, deep blue eyes meeting the tops of his worn-out boots.
Arthur sighed. This was going to be even more difficult than he thought. "Can I… sit down?"
The first sign of anything other than sadness showed on Merlin's unnaturally pale face – shock. "Are you okay, Arthur? You're asking me if you can sit – you are the prince, after all. You can do whatever you want." He didn't sound bitter or angry, just resigned.
Arthur slowly sunk down at the other end of the bed, tapping his fingers awkwardly on the shabby baseboard. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Finally, he turned to Merlin, who was staring at him curiously. "Merlin, I'm not angry with you for charging off this morning. I – I'm…" he struggled to admit the truth, "a bit… concerned for your health," he managed formally, sounding more like an indifferent physician than a concerned master or worried friend. Merlin cocked an eyebrow, so dark in contrast to Merlin's nearly translucent skin.
"I told you, Sire, I'm fine."
"Arthur," Arthur found himself blurting out before he could stop himself. Merlin stared. "I'm not here as a prince, Merlin. I'm here… as Arthur. Merlin, I would never in a million years tell you this before today, but you're scaring me." There. He had said it. Merlin was scaring the life out of him. He hadn't realized just how much until he had finally admitted it out loud, like he had just admitted it to himself.
Merlin snorted. "Scaring you?" he asked in a somewhat mocking tone. "The great Arthur Pendragon? Doubtful."
Arthur felt a tendril of annoyance creep into him but he tried to push it away. Merlin was hurting; upset, he reminded himself. "Merlin," he said in the calmest voice he could muster, "you don't know how hard it is for me to say this, so could you please save your cynicism for another time?"
Maybe it came out more agitated – or worried – than he had intended because Merlin's mouth opened a fraction and he just stared at Arthur, almost dumbfounded. Arthur took advantage of the blessed silence to speak his mind before he lost his nerve or regained his mind.
"Merlin – you look like hell," he commented, holding up a hand when an almost-indignant Merlin started to protest. "Let me finish, Merlin," the prince growled. "You have been moping about for who knows how long, you've lost so much weight that you don't even look like yourself anymore, and look at you – your skin is so pale you could be dead! And your eyes – Merlin, I have never seen such a look of desperation before. You look like you have died inside. You're obviously hurting, you're holding it all inside, and you are going to lose your mind before this is over if you don't talk to me!" Arthur yelled the last three words, a lump in his throat forming as he tried to convey to Merlin how important it was for Merlin to open up.
He jumped to his feet, as if he was trying to escape from the emotion and began to pace – not that he could pace more than a few steps in either direction because of the meager size of the room. "What could possibly be so terrible for you that you lose the will to eat? To smile? To live?"
Merlin's eyes twitched off the ground and he glared at Arthur. There was some emotion, at least, Arthur realized. Maybe all wasn't lost. "I haven't lost the will to live, Arthur. Don't be stupid." At the disrespectful retort, Merlin lowered his eyes again and bit his lip.
Arthur felt the rage bubbling up inside of him but it wasn't because of Merlin's words but rather because of his sheer stubbornness. "No, Merlin," Arthur seethed, causing Merlin to jump slightly and meet his eyes warily. "No, Merlin, you don't be stupid. Because what you're doing now – walking around the castle like a ghost, growing paler and thinner by the minute, refusing to smile, to laugh, refusing to be your annoying, bumbling, idiotic self, always going around with your eyes more lifeless than the grave – that's not living. So don't tell me you haven't lost the will to live. You may still be alive, Merlin, but you are not living. So don't give me those lies."
With shaking hands, Arthur erratically shoved his hand through his hair, wincing as he realized how dirty and sweaty his blonde hair was. He had been in such a rush to confront Merlin he hadn't bathed or changed clothes or anything. The rest of him wasn't much better – he was dirty, sweaty, and smelly. But he didn't care. He plopped down beside Merlin again, who was looking at Arthur with an unreadable expression.
"Merlin, I meant what I said. You are scaring me." Arthur laughed humorlessly, almost bitterly, wildly. "No. Scratch that – you are scaring the hell out of me. This isn't you, Merlin. I've never seen you behave like this before. What happened to the Merlin that loves life more than anyone I've ever seen? What happened to the Merlin that takes every opportunity he can to poke fun at me? What happened to the Merlin that always has some insanely, out of place, wise advice to give at the most crucial times? What happened to the Merlin that I know, my…" his breath caught in his throat. Could he really admit it out loud? He saw Merlin's questioning, depressed, withdrawn, deathlike face and he knew. His pride be damned. Merlin needed him. "What happened to my friend?"
The look on Merlin's face was most definitely worth it. He went from being confused to shocked to touched and then disbelieving, finally to a mixture of them all. Arthur might have laughed if the situation wasn't so serious. "Your… friend?"
Arthur grunted and stared at his grimy hands, suddenly more self-conscious than he had ever been before. "I've said it once – don't make me repeat myself, you deaf idiot."
A ghost of a smile appeared on Merlin's face. "Thank you, Arthur. You don't know…" he choked, eyes glistening as he fought to keep his composure. "You don't know how much that means to me."
Arthur nodded, meeting Merlin's eyes and saw the pure, raw emotion – sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger, and maddening, unrelenting pain – swirling in the azure depths. "Merlin, I can't stand to see you like this. It's maddening. This isn't you. But if you continue to hide whatever is causing you this much pain, you're going to continue to die slowly inside. Alone. Is that what you want?"
Merlin bit his lip and looked away. Arthur wondered if he'd gone too far and prevented Merlin from talking at all. But a moment later Merlin answered, "I don't want to be alone anymore, Arthur. That's just it."
Arthur wasn't sure what Merlin was talking about, but at least he was talking, so he went with it. "What do you mean, Merlin? You're not alone. You've got Gaius, Gwen, Mo—" he broke off, suddenly remembering that Merlin didn't have Morgana anymore. None of them did. She was missing, taken by Morgause. Perhaps alive. Perhaps not. Arthur felt the familiar pain associated with the girl that had become akin to his sister return and could see from the way Merlin averted his gaze and scrubbed at his eyes that her name struck a chord for Merlin too. "And me," Arthur quickly amended. "Not alone."
Merlin met Arthur's eyes again. "Yes, Arthur," he whispered. "Very alone."
Arthur didn't understand and told Merlin so.
Merlin shook his head sadly. "Arthur – thank you. But you don't understand—"
"No, I don't, you moron, that's what I just said!" Arthur exploded, done with Merlin's evasiveness. "But you know what, Merlin? I'm never going to understand if you don't get over your blasted stubbornness and idiotic determination to face life without anyone to help you! That's why you're alone – you won't let anyone in, won't allow anyone to help you. It's your choice whether or not you are alone or not. You have people that want to be there for you, but you don't acknowledge them. It's your choice!"
"NO, it's not!" Merlin exploded, leaping to his feet and spinning on Arthur, the raging emotion in his voice taking Arthur completely off-guard. "I don't want to be alone, Arthur. But I am alone, and I always will be! Because every single person that understands, who I become close to, who I think that maybe – just maybe – will make me not be alone again, is gone. Dead! Everyone I grow close to, dead… gone… Arthur, you cannot possibly imagine how it is to lose the only people that can ever even begin to relate to you! I am alone, Arthur, and I always will be."
Arthur stood in stunned silence. "Merlin," he whispered. "What are you talking about? Who died?"
Merlin laughed bitterly. "Oh, you've already forgotten, have you? What about the man that saved your life? My friend Will? In Ealdor?"
Arthur winced. That had been three years ago, it hadn't even crossed his mind that Merlin would still be grieving about the loss of his friend – a sorcerer, nonetheless. His thoughts must have been reflected in his eyes because Merlin recoiled, as if wounded.
"Will was a good man no matter what magic he may or may not have possessed. He saved your life."
"I remembered," Arthur protested weakly. "I just didn't… realize that his death was still so fresh."
Merlin glared at his master, his friend, for a few more seconds before shaking his head. "It's not. I still miss him. A lot. But… there's more. But I can't tell you, Arthur. I'm sorry. I wish I could. I really don't want to be alone but I don't have a choice."
Arthur was even more lost at Merlin's cryptic response. What could possibly be so bad that he felt he couldn't tell Arthur, who had just swallowed every ounce of his pride – something he was loathe to do and had come to him as a friend? "Merlin. You're not as strong as you apparently think you are. I'm sorry, Merlin, but it's the truth. You'll go mad if you try to go through this alone. Please. Is it about Morgana's disappearance? Was there… more to your relationship than met the eye? I know you fancy her. Did she return your feelings?" As hard as it was for Arthur to bring up the missing girl, Arthur decided that he was done being subtle. Merlin had to talk to him or Arthur would lose him to his own mind.
Merlin's eyes grew wide and his face even paler and he shook his head frantically. "No, no… Arthur, it wasn't like that… I… please, just leave it alone, Arthur." Arthur wasn't sure what to believe but the subject of Morgana affected Merlin far more and far differently than Arthur had suspected. He could see that Merlin was telling the truth – there hadn't been any forbidden relationship between the two – but there was something else associated with Morgana that was tearing Merlin apart.
He was about to protest, to demand to know what it was about Morgana that caused him such pain when Merlin interrupted. "Someday, Arthur. I promise. I'll tell you – but this is something that I haven't even come to terms with myself. I can't talk about it. I have to deal with it myself before I burden anyone else with it. I can't talk about it now. I can't." He was so frantic that Arthur found himself agreeing outwardly even whilst protesting inside.
"Fine. But Merlin, you said that everyone that understood you, nearly everyone you cared for, has died. I don't understand. Who could you have lost? And when…?" A sudden thought struck him. "Your mother, is she—"
Merlin looked touched by Arthur's concern. "Arthur, my mother is fine. She just can't possibly begin to understand the way my father would have." The last few words were so quiet that Arthur wondered if he had heard wrong. Especially since not too long ago, Merlin had confided in Arthur that he had never met his father.
"Hang on – you told me when we were on our way to find out what Morgause knew about my mother, you told me you'd never met your father and that your mother never spoke of him."
Merlin took a deep breath and a tear trickled down his cheek. "My father… I met him."
Arthur was stunned. When had this happened? And why hadn't Merlin told him about it? And judging by Merlin's reaction, the end results of meeting his father hadn't been good. "When…?" he let his voice trail off, knowing Merlin would understand the unspoken rest of the question.
Merlin's eyes filled with fear for a few seconds and then his shoulders slumped. "When the Great Dragon was attacking Camelot. I met him and he died in my arms the very next day."
Arthur was confused for the briefest of moments before the truth dawned upon him. He swallowed heavily, realizing the implications of what Merlin had just told him. Merlin was the son of a Dragonlord. If Uther ever found out, Merlin would be dead. And Arthur probably hadn't been the one to defeat the dragon…
He closed his eyes as the thoughts washed over him. He didn't care that Merlin was the son of a Dragonlord. He couldn't choose his parentage. Uther wouldn't find out, because Merlin wasn't going to die for something he had no choice in. And now wasn't the time to question whether or not Arthur was the hero he had thought himself to be when Merlin had told him that he had dealt the beast a mortal blow. Right now, the biggest news was that Merlin had lost his father right after meeting him, had had his father die in his arms, and had dealt with it virtually alone. Perhaps Gaius had known, but he had a feeling that what Merlin had just told him wasn't something Merlin liked to talk about.
The servant in question was shaking slightly as he waited for Arthur's verdict. Arthur swallowed again and slowly, hesitantly reached out and placed a strong hand on Merlin's shoulder. Merlin flinched and met Arthur's gaze. "Arthur – if your father finds out that Balinor was my father, he'll have me killed…"
Arthur shook his head, his heart breaking for Merlin. He had had no idea of what Merlin had been going through and hadn't even noticed the effects of his grief until it was almost too late. How he had convinced Merlin to tell him this – especially something this dangerous, even if Arthur had no intention of telling anyone that Merlin was the son of a Dragonlord – he still wasn't sure. "I'm so, so sorry, Merlin," he murmured.
Merlin apparently misunderstood Arthur's apology and thought that he was saying sorry for what he was about to do. He scrambled to his feet, panicked. "Arthur – please. I – I couldn't help who my father was. I didn't—"
Arthur grabbed Merlin's scarily thin arm and pulled him back down. "Merlin, don't be stupid – I'm not going to tell anyone. I'm just… so sorry you had to go through it. Alone."
Merlin's eyes were cloudy but he smiled weakly. "I didn't. Not really. Gaius tried to help, but he…" Merlin shook his head.
Arthur understood that there was only so much Merlin could tell to his guardian. As caring as Gaius was, he couldn't understand exactly what Merlin was going through. Arthur couldn't either, not really, but he hadn't been there at all for Merlin when it had happened – for heaven's sake, he had told Merlin that Balinor wasn't worth his tears! – but he resolved he would be there now.
Merlin's voice got even quieter. "And there was Freya."
Arthur didn't say anything at first. The way Merlin spoke the name, Freya, was wrought with grief and love and reverence and guilt. Arthur eventually found his voice. "Who was Freya?"
Merlin turned his head away. "Freya… was special." He didn't elaborate and his voice was slightly strangled.
Arthur took this in. He tried to figure out when Merlin could have had a special someone, but Merlin had never spoken of a woman to Arthur. But the truth was obvious. "You loved her."
Merlin nodded his head. "She was so beautiful, Arthur. Her eyes were dark but not the kind of dark that scares you – the kind of dark that offers peace and reassurance. And her hair was so long and dark… And when she smiled…" The wistful tone vanished, replaced by resigned sadness. "She had a hard past, more difficult than you would believe. She was an outcast, no one wanted her. But she was so kind, so understanding, she was like me… And she died." Merlin choked on a sob he seemed determined not to let past his defenses.
Arthur winced. He couldn't imagine how he would feel if Guinevere died – and Merlin had obviously cared for this Freya girl a great, great deal. Hesitantly, Arthur queried, "How did she die?" He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer but Merlin needed to get this out.
Merlin was quiet for a long time. Seconds passed, then minutes. Finally, when Arthur thought he was going to have to repeat the question, Merlin responded, "She was killed."
Arthur frowned, angry that someone had done this to Freya and by extension, Merlin. "She was murdered." It wasn't a question but Merlin answered anyway. And the answer was surprising.
"No. She wasn't. She was killed by a man with good intentions. A man who only saw her as a threat, who was trying to protect those that he loved. He… he didn't realize that behind her appearance, there was a beautiful human who loathed to hurt anyone, anything… She was killed by a good man who was only trying to do what was best. And I don't hold any resentment against him whatsoever." The way Merlin was looking at Arthur, a strange sense of peace simply radiating out of his previously distraught form, served to unnerve and comfort Arthur.
Arthur wasn't sure what Merlin's strange, disjointed story meant. There seemed to be a lot missing but as he opened his mouth to inquire about the missing piece, Merlin smiled – genuinely, this time. Arthur felt a joy, an elation fill him to the brim. Merlin was smiling.
"You were right, Arthur. It still hurts – bad, but I see now that if I never talk about it, it'll only make it worse."
Arthur was torn between further exploring Merlin's odd tale and leaving it for the time being. He smiled slightly in return, deciding that perhaps it was another story for another day. Right now, Merlin was looking more at peace than he had in a long time and Arthur wasn't going to question it or bring back painful subjects. Maybe later, like when they had that talk about Morgana…
Arthur grinned, then looked Merlin up and down, realizing that even though he was smiling a genuine smile, he was still deathly pale and extremely thin. His grin faltered and Merlin squirmed under the scrutinizing gaze. "What?" he almost whined.
Arthur gave him "the look" and Merlin clamped his mouth shut, looking decidedly uncomfortable. Arthur stared his servant down for a little while longer before addressing the problem at hand. "Now that you realize that you can tell me when something is, I don't know, tearing you apart inside, I hope that we will never have this little problem again." Merlin nodded, almost looking guilty. Almost. Arthur continued, "And you will never – ever – let it get to a point where you aren't eating. Do you understand, Merlin?"
Merlin nodded again. Arthur grinned again, this time a bit wickedly as he slipped almost seamlessly back into "prince mode" and into their usual relationship that he realized he had missed while Merlin had been so melancholy. "Now, Merlin, you are going to go to the kitchens, tell Betty that I requested my dinner early and that I am hungrier than a bear so I want double the food I normally get. And then you are going to take it to my chambers, where you will sit and eat until I am satisfied that you are no longer in danger of getting blown away by a gust of the wind. And you will not leave the table until you have eaten it. Is. That. Understood."
Merlin cringed. "Double?" he said weakly. "Arthur, that's a lot of food…"
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Well, then, if you'd rather skip a dinner more luxurious than you have ever had in your life – or ever will again, for that matter, then so be it. Since you ran out on me this morning, I have triple the work for you. My horses need mucked and groomed, my dogs need fed, my room needs cleaning, my clothes need washing, my armor needs polishing after that exhausting training—"
Merlin interrupted, his expression bordering on horrified. "On second thought," he announced, "I'm starved, let's eat!" Arthur clipped him upside the head and Merlin grumbled before wrinkling his nose. "On one condition, though – you let me draw you a bath before I eat. I do not want to have to force myself to eat when you smell like that, thank you very much!"
Arthur was about to make a sarcastic response but caught a whiff of his mud and sweat soaked body and nodded wearily. "Deal."
Merlin laughed and the two left the room and walked side by side through the physician's chambers, finally at peace. Just before he followed Merlin out the door, Gaius caught Arthur's eye and mouthed, Thank you.
Arthur nodded in acknowledgement and hurried to catch up with Merlin, feeling more optimistic than he could have dreamed this discussion with his servant would make him feel.
Little did he know, Merlin, a few paces ahead, was thinking along the same lines. In fact, Merlin was also reveling in the way Arthur had accepted the fact that Balinor was his father. It gave him hope – hope than when the time came for him to tell Arthur the truth – the full truth – that Arthur would be open-minded.
For the first time in a long time, Merlin felt confidence that he was doing the right thing in pursuing the destiny that the Great Dragon had told him about. Suddenly, the future of Camelot and Albion with Arthur as king became a plausible reality.
For the first time in a long time, Merlin was happy – genuinely, wonderfully happy. Even though his heart still ached for those he had lost, he was no longer alone. And that was the most wonderful realization that he had ever had.
A/N: There you have it, the end to this little tale! I sincerely hope that you enjoyed it; please review! XD