TITLE: A Time to Break

AUTHOR: finn1013

SUMMARY: Takes place a few months after 4.03 The Wicked Day. Haunted by recent events, Merlin takes action. Sad!Unhappy!ReallyNotCoping!Merlin. Angsty!Arthur. GetToIt!Gaius. No slash. Will be just a few chapters.

SPOILERS: up to 4.03, The Wicked Day

DISCLAIMER: Merlin is not mine, belongs to the BBC

A/N: I had to write this, it wouldn't leave me alone. I almost wasn't going to post it as I'm slightly embarrassed by its over-the-topishness, but what the heck, the internet is anonymous anyway and it's not like I have to own this fic in RL. Reviews are so appreciated **big puppy eyes**, but if you don't like it no sticks and stones though, huh? On that happy note, on with it ...

He'd tried, he really had, and although he was an expert at pretending, he couldn't do so any longer.

Merlin was still. He sat huddled on the edge of his bed, a mirror cradled between his hands, staring at the face that appeared in it. The mirror was opaque and brittle around the edges just like him, yet in the centre where it mattered it reflected him perfectly. He stared at the face and it stared back unblinkingly, it never changed, this facsimile of him.

Merlin was silent. He watched the face hour after hour, night after night, until his limbs cramped up and he was ready to drop from exhaustion. Sometimes he didn't sleep and saw the sun come up. He stared. The face always looked like him, like he'd always looked. But it wasn't him, he was different now.

He didn't notice the chill air of the midnight hour drifting in the open window and leaving its harsh bite in the room. Merlin concentrated on the image in the mirror, but no matter how hard he tried the face gave him no clue, he still couldn't see exactly where he'd gone wrong.

He ran a finger slowly around the rim of the glass. The edge was sharp and it pricked the tip of his finger, and a tiny drop of blood smudged his reflection. He hardly noticed. He'd been lost for hours again, and the damp air had settled in his clothes as he tried to recognise what Arthur had said he'd become.

He'd been watching the mirror for months. He'd started the night after Lancelot's death, and continued with more fervent intensity when his arrogance and stupidity had culminated in Uther's passing, Arthur's pain, and the fruition of Morgana's long awaited plans.

He wanted to know but the facsimile of him in the mirror held no answers. Each night the face was the same, it had been months, and it never changed. He hadn't understood at first, but he knew it for what it was now, it was evil. Him.

At first he'd thought evil appeared only when his eyes were gold, but then he'd realised when his eyes were blue he still felt the same inside. Empty. Alone. Guilty. Wrong. An idiot, but never a good one.

He shut his eyes, he couldn't look any longer.

He'd made up his mind weeks ago. His room was tidy, his chores were done. It was past midnight, and he was tired in a way that left him empty in spirit, but that feeling was normal lately. The pain was like a knife wound to the gut, killing him little by little. He put the mirror aside and stood up slowly, bones creaking like an old man, like he was Dragoon again.

He still believed in his destiny because it was the only thing he had left to cling to, but he couldn't do it this way, not any more, not when he didn't trust himself, or his motives, or his judgement. The consequences were too disastrous when he got it wrong.

He'd continue to protect Arthur, but it would be from afar now. He had to get away, somewhere where he'd be alone, where he could quietly break into little pieces. The pieces had started to fall after Lancelot's death, but now they were shattering at a greater rate, he had to go now before he fell apart completely and the jagged edges injured everyone he cared about.

He lit a candle. The conversation with Gaius would be short because he had nothing left to give. He'd wanted to avoid it, but he found he couldn't write an explanation in a note when he couldn't understand himself, after three attempts he gave up, throwing the scribbled bits of parchment into the fire where they twisted as they burnt. He watched the paper die in its pyre, then gently shook Gaius awake.

"What is it, Merlin?" His mentor woke with a snort and a grunt, and Merlin felt the faintest trace of something that once would have been a smile flitter across his face.

The dark circles beneath Merlin's eyes made his face haggard. "I'm leaving, Gaius. And I'm not coming back."

"What? Merlin!" Gaius fumbled with his blankets and sat up.

Merlin was calm, and it was easy to be calm because he didn't feel much any more, the pain and hurt and devastation was buried too deep. He tried to explain but it came out as a jumbled rush of words, Arthur would always come first, and this was putting Arthur first. Merlin had made the arrangements, he knew it'd all go smoothly, could Gaius tell Arthur in the morning?

Young Peter would take over as Arthur's manservant, Merlin had been discretely showing him what to do, and the boy knew just what Arthur liked for breakfast, how hot to make his bath, and where his favourite clothes were kept. Geoffrey of Monmouth's nephew was born to be an administrator, he'd love writing speeches and perusing reports, he'd do a better job than Merlin ever had.

And Arthur had friends, real friends who didn't go around lying to him or killing his father, friends who were true like Gwaine, Leon, Elyan and Percival. He had Gwen, she'd been the rock for Arthur to lean on during the months following Uther's death. And Arthur would continue to put his trust in Agravaine because it made him happy to think he still had this blood link left, Merlin knew it was misguided but surely his uncle was no worse than what Merlin was after what he'd done, no worse at all.

Merlin had thought of it all. Arthur didn't need him. He was king now, and he'd be a good one. He didn't need Merlin, didn't need someone like him. Evil could not be a friend. Staying would be counterproductive, if he knew the truth of Merlin's betrayal he'd never bring magic back to the land.

The candle flickered. Merlin stared at the shadows playing on the wall as Gaius tried to argue, his face crinkled with sleep and age, hair wild and sticking out everywhere as he stood in his thin nightshirt, clutching Merlin by the shoulders.

"Merlin, please ..." Gaius refused to allow him to go, refused to accept the excuse to tell the new king, that Merlin's mother was ill and he'd had to leave suddenly. Gaius threatened to go to Arthur there and then, to put an end to all this foolishness. So Merlin had done something he should be ashamed of, but wasn't. He'd spelled him, put Gaius into a sleep so he wouldn't wake until the morning.

And then he left.

Merlin avoided the guards with the stealth of long practice, shouldering his pack and bedroll and the heavy pile of books he'd knotted together as he stumbled through the main gates. It was dark, but the night was clear, and even as he left he felt a lessening of his tension, and he knew he'd made the right decision.

He didn't take a horse because he didn't own one, but he didn't mind the walk. It felt good to be in the night air, at one with the land, knowing he'd be able to call on his magic if he had to defend himself because he could, now that he'd be alone. He hadn't planned where he was going, but it wouldn't be to Ealdor, just in case Gaius sent someone to look for him.

He was barely ten minute's walk from Camelot when the dragon found him, his bulk crushing trees as he landed in a gust of air and flapping wings.

Merlin stopped in his tracks at the edge of the new clearing. "Kilgharrah? What are you doing?"

"I sensed your suffering, young warlock. And I came."

Merlin dropped his head and swallowed past the lump in his throat. Leaves drifted down from the flattened trees and settled at his feet. He stared at them, the leaves had died with the tree but they were still green and looked so alive, did they even know they were dead?

Merlin's voice was a faint thread of sound in the night. "It's all gone so wrong. I don't know what to do any more."

And he didn't. He'd thought his grief was bad when he'd poisoned someone he'd called a friend, and when he'd lost Balinor. But Lancelot was the only friend he'd had who'd known and accepted all of him. To top that loss off by causing unbearable pain to Arthur while effectively killing off his own chance to ever be accepted for who he truly was, was too much to handle, and the pretence of making it all seem fine all the time was unbearable.

The dragon said quietly, "Tell me, Merlin."

But he couldn't. He couldn't talk about anything, the words were there somewhere but they were stuck and he didn't want to pull them out, because thinking about it hurt too much and verbalising made it all too real. Because this time it really was all his fault.

He'd spoken of his intentions about the Isle of the Blessed to Lancelot, but if he'd kept his own counsel then his friend wouldn't have known what he'd planned to do and made the ultimate sacrifice. And he'd tried to rush Arthur into legalising magic by holding him to ransom and making him bargain his father's life. Even if it had worked, and Uther's life had been saved, the ban on magic lifting would not have come from Arthur's heart. Forcing Arthur to compromise his beliefs had been cruel. Merlin damned himself for what he'd done, and the results were no better than what he deserved.

He sat down on the forest floor, drawing his knees to his chest. The grass was damp and it soaked through his clothes. "I've thought about it for a long while, Kilgharrah. I have to leave. I didn't want to make it a selfish decision." He picked up a leaf, twisting it in his fingers. "And I haven't. I've done what's best for Arthur. I can still protect him, but it's better that I do it from afar now."

Kilgharrah was gentle. "Then I will not try to change your mind, my young friend, for that's not what you need from me right now." The dragon peered down at him for a long moment. "Will you come with me, Merlin?"

Merlin nodded, Kilgharrah lowered his head and Merlin climbed up on the dragon's back, taking his packs and the books with him. Once he was settled near the dragon's head, the huge beast reared back and lurched into the air.

Despite himself, Merlin felt the familiar exhilaration, no matter how many times he'd do this he was sure he'd never grow tired of flying with the dragon. The rush woke him up a little, he'd been existing in a world where he'd been numb for so long. He laid his cheek against Kilgharrah's scales, feeling gratitude and something close to peace, and shut his eyes.

He let Kilgharrah guide them, thinking of nothing but the fierce rush of wind on his face, the smells of the night, and the freedom of being in the air and away. It was only when his hands were numb with cold that the dragon flew down again, landing beside a small rock ledge which Merlin recognised as the place where he'd recovered from the serket sting a long time ago.

Merlin was shivering and exhausted, he curled up on his bedroll, trembling uncontrollably from the cold and the demons plaguing him. He pulled a thin blanket over his shaking form. His eyes were closing as the dragon set fire to a pile of large boulders, the warmth was immediate and Merlin fell asleep to indigo flames dancing across his eyelids.

And that was how he spent the first seven days. Sleeping dreamlessly, waking only to eat something Kilgharrah had roasted for him, then drifting back into the blissful state where he had no responsibilities and he didn't have to think, where nothing existed at all.

It was the sun and hunger that woke him on the eighth day. Kilgharrah was nowhere to be seen. Merlin sat up in his pile of blankets, smiling as he saw the huge apple tree that had been deposited beside him on the rock ledge. Dirt still clung to its roots.

He picked an apple off one of the branches and crunched on it as he waited for the dragon to return.

It had been five days since Merlin had gone, and there was still no trace of him anywhere. Sick unease was a constant fist in Arthur's belly. He hadn't even been angry even when he'd stormed into Gaius's room that first morning to search for his eternally late manservant, but all that changed when he found the physician in a sleep that he couldn't be woken from for several hours, and Merlin's room too clean and empty.

The new king had led a patrol into the woods before noon that first day, and it had taken no time at all to find Merlin's tracks leading off the road and into the bushes, only to stop where there were three flattened trees and marks on the ground that Arthur could not make head nor tail of despite all his experience.

It had been Leon who uneasily suggested that the gouges in the earth and the damage done to the trees could have been done by a dragon, if such a beast still existed. The horses shied away from the area nervously. Arthur had thought about it, and worried, because there was no sign that his manservant, no his friend, had walked out of the clearing, no sign at all.

There was no sign of him anywhere. He'd not been to Ealdor, they'd looked there the third day, Arthur telling himself that it was a king's duty to visit his neighbours, and if Ealdor was on Cenred's land it didn't matter because Cenred was dead and the squabble over the succession meant his borders weren't being patrolled. It was Camelot's duty to check on the welfare of Ealdor's citizens. But all Arthur had managed to do was leave behind a very anxious and worried Hunith.

"He doesn't want to be found, Arthur."

Arthur stared in disbelief at Gaius. "How can you say that? There's something wrong with him, he'd never go off like this, never."

"He had to go, sire."

"But why? What happened to him? You know more than you're telling me, Gaius. What is it?"

Gaius shook his head sadly. "He's upset, Arthur. And it's not my place to tell you why."

"Please, Gaius?" Arthur was ashamed of the crack in his voice, he'd not been so close to breaking since his father had died. "I need to know if he's okay. Can you tell me that much?"

Gaius's face was troubled and he looked away. "I fear I cannot do that, sire. I do not know."

Arthur clenched his fists.

A/N: What do you think? Too sad? OOC? I can flesh out a few more chapters but this one won't be really long.