Author's Notes: This is my first complete Merlin fic. Un-beta'd so all mistakes are my own. Also, for this fic, we're pretending Arthur's mom died when he was around 7ish. Oh, and I rarely write in present tense so apologies for any parts where I slipped back into past. Enjoy :D
Please note there is major character death and angst in this.
A Whisper in an Empty Hallway
The first time Arthur sees Merlin, he's at the hospital to visit his dad.
As he walks up the receptionist's desk, the woman offers him a polite, "Just one moment, sir," and holds up a skinny finger before replying to the person on the phone. Arthur takes a moment to look over her petite figure – Freya her nametag read – before letting his gaze wander. The hospital is relatively small, but that's the point. In hopes of keeping the news that the great Uther Pendragon, head of Camelot Enterprises, had taken ill out of the papers, Arthur had chosen this hospital for that very reason.
On the right side of the main entrance are a few padded chairs with boxy shapes and a massive window a good ten feet long behind them. Sitting in the chair closest to the door is a gangly young man who had somehow managed to get his long legs crammed through the arms of the chair so that he could sit cross-legged. There's a shock of messy black hair atop his slightly cocked head and his eyes are bright as they stare straight at Arthur.
Unnerved by the unblinking stare, Arthur clears his throat and turns back to the receptionist. She hangs up the phone, offering him an apologetic and kind smile. "Sorry about that," she says honestly. "How may I help you?"
"I'm here for someone. Uther Pendragon?"
"You must be Arthur," she says brightly. "Yes, Mr. Pendragon was scheduled for a few tests this morning, let me just check if he's back in his room yet." Arthur nods quietly. Tests are good, he reminds himself, they lead to answers which lead to action. While seemingly not serious, whatever illness that's been plaguing his father is certainly wearing him thin. Arthur's spent more time covering for his father at work than he has actually doing his own job lately.
The harsh January weather is no help at all.
To avoid continuing to stare awkwardly at the top of Freya's bowed head while she types something on her computer, Arthur looks back over to the strange young man.
Who is still staring at him.
Swallowing tightly, Arthur shifts his weight just a bit then gives an uncomfortable little wave, unsure how to act under such steady scrutiny from a stranger.
The man's eyes just about blow out of his head, as though no one has ever waved at him before (which is really quite a sad thought and Arthur sincerely hopes is not true) and shrinks back a little. Arthur frowns, taken aback, but just as he opens his mouth to say something (what exactly he doesn't know yet) Freya speaks, bringing his attention back to the matter at hand.
"Yes, it appears your father was brought back just a little while ago. He's in room 236. Just go straight down that hallway, up the stairs, to the right and it's about half way down the hall."
"Thank you," he says, somewhat stiffly. She nods and dips her head back to her work. Arthur turns back to the strange chair man.
Arthur walks up to the chair and peers down at it as though perhaps the man is hiding somewhere in the faded blue fabric, but there's no trace of him. He debates asking the receptionist if she saw which way he went, she seemed nice enough, but he really doesn't know the man and a strange reaction to a wave is hardly call for stalking tendencies.
So Arthur turns and follows Freya's directions to his father's room.
A few days later, Arthur spots the same man leaning up against the wall next to the vending machine Arthur had in mind as a destination for lunch. Arthur glances at him, debates saying something, but there's a faint frown on the man's face and his eyebrows are drawn down in concentration like Arthur's presence is both worrisome and incredibly odd. So instead he clears his throat and walks up to the machine, hyper aware of the silent man not three feet from him. Feeling ridiculously self-conscious, Arthur picks the first thing that catches his attention, a bag of flavored pretzels and sticks his $1.25 in. After retrieving his lunch, Arthur turns to go on his way.
"Bye." It's a very strange tone, almost sarcastic, but there's no doubt it came from the man behind him. Arthur stops and peers over his shoulder. Once again the man's eyes widen and he stands up straight.
"Good-bye," Arthur offers cordially, incredibly unsure of what the peculiar man expects as a response.
"Wait!" the man calls out as Arthur continues on his way. The man comes up next to him (he must be incredibly stealthy because Arthur didn't even hear his footfalls) and looks at him eagerly. This close Arthur can see the man is much younger than he first thought. Though pale, his face is youthful with a very faint splattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks and his sea blue eyes burn with an inquisitive intensity. His face, his whole frame actually, is slender with sharp angles.
"Can I help you?" The eyes spark before something dark shadows them.
"Er…no, sorry, I…mistook you for someone else." Arthur watches as he walks away – his feet are still silent, does he weigh anything at all? It's a valid concern considering how thin he appears – and frowns in confusion. They weren't three feet apart before and the man had at least four or five minutes to get a good look at him. There's no way he mistook him for someone else.
It doesn't dawn on him until he's leaving that evening that the darkness in the man's eyes looked a lot like loneliness.
The man is lying on a bench with no back in one of the hallways, staring out a large window at the passing world. Arthur, laptop in hand, had been headed to Uther's room, which had become Arthur's makeshift office for the last few days, to keep his father company and get some work done. And maybe have another nice chat with his father's primary nurse, a sweet woman named Gwen.
The man looks very casual, like he's actually lying in his bed in his own room not on some random bench in a hospital.
Remembering the lonely look in the man's eyes last time, Arthur comes to the conclusion that the poor man must be visiting someone who's been here quite a long time, and probably will be here a long time. Arthur makes a snap decision and curves to sit down on the next bench over. Without saying anything, he pulls out his laptop and boots it up.
"Uh?" Arthur looks over at the young man, now leaning up on one elbow to see him better.
"Sorry, am I bothering you?" Something close to a delighted smile lights up the man's face.
"No! Not at all!" He scrambles into a sitting position on the end of the bench closest to Arthur and continues to smile. Even though Arthur's normally put off by overly-cheerful people, there's something very infectious in this man's grin.
"I'm Arthur," he says pleasantly, feeling as though that's the polite thing to do. The man looks so pleased, he's bordering somewhere between ecstatic and dopey. Arthur can't think of the last time someone was so happy to meet him.
"That's an interesting name," Arthur comments, with a good natured smirk.
"I like it," Merlin replies, completely unoffended, "my mum picked it." There's a hint of sadness that tells Arthur that Merlin's mother has either passed away or isn't long for this world.
"I'm sorry," he replies quietly, before adding, "my mum passed when I was very little." He doesn't normally offer up such personal comments but there's something very comforting about Merlin, something that draws Arthur to him.
Arthur wants to ask if it's his mum or someone else he's here visiting but Arthur's never struck up conversation with random people in hospitals before and isn't sure if it's proper or not. If Merlin asked, Arthurs pretty sure he'd be willing to tell about his father, even though he had a hard time telling his best mate Leon about it.
"I'm sorry," Merlin repeats. Arthur shrugs. It's been a while, the sting is lessened.
The conversation shifts onto Arthur's work, which he's not doing, and to Arthur's surprise and Merlin's credit, the younger man seems generally interested. The topic leads into Arthur's friends and eventually his life in general.
Merlin remains fairly quiet, but nods eagerly and presses him for more when Arthur hesitates or pauses. Chatting with Merlin is easy, though Arthur finds it a tad unsettling to have someone's attention focused so completely on him while discussing his life.
In the midst of Arthur's explanation of why Leon is better at advice while Lance is better at listening, Merlin flinches and goes a bit pale. He rises so suddenly Arthur's sentence ends very abruptly and strange half noises follow.
"What's wrong?" Arthur reviews his words in his head searching for something possibly triggering.
Merlin's eyes flickered back over to his and he gave him a reassuring smile. "Nothing. Just lost track of time. I need to get going."
"Oh…alright," Arthur says, even though he already misses the easy conversation. When had he taken to conversing so freely with strangers? "I, uh…enjoyed chatting with you." Merlin's eyes brighten.
"Yeah, me too."
"Hopefully I'll see you around some time," Arthur says awkwardly, not quite sure what salutations are appropriate for random people you'll probably never see again but just told half your life story to.
"I'm sure you will." Merlin gave him a parting wink before walking quickly away.
Arthur did see him again. And again. Merlin seemed to hang out in the most random spots. The water fountain, an empty corner, a window in some empty hallway. Arthur always managed to find him though.
Shameful though it was, Arthur found himself visiting more and more often, though he spent less and less time with his father.
Talking to Merlin was addictive though. The mysterious man never said much about himself, but he nodded and frowned in all the right places. Even if it was just listening to the details that made Arthur's day a good or bad one, he seemed hooked on each word. His laugh was cheerful and honest and alarmingly infectious.
Not only did the morose man seem less lonely, but Arthur found himself in lighter spirits as well.
"You look tired," Merlin says softly, eyes concerned. Arthur almost points out that these days Merlin isn't looking very good himself (somewhere between a faint cold to death wormed over) but decides not to. Merlin has shared precious little about himself and Arthur doesn't want to pry. He makes a note to keep an eye on the circles under Merlin's eyes and the occasional tremor in his hand to see if they get worse.
They're sitting at a little table in the cafeteria. Arthur's munching on a salad and a diet soda. Merlin wasn't eating when he got here and when Arthur offered to buy him something, he declined, so Arthur presumes he's already eaten.
"Someone leaked to the papers that the great business tycoon Uther Pendragon is apparently on his death bed with some awful illness you can only get in some faraway place." He glances up at Merlin's horrified face. "He's not! No, he's still getting better, but that's hardly an interesting headline. So I spent all day voiding calls and making press releases that told the truth but were still vague. It was just a long day." He takes a bite of his salad and stares deep into the leafy greens. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin's hand twitches forward, like he intends to grab Arthur's or at least give it a pat, but he doesn't.
Arthur wishes he would. Merlin's never touched him, never so much as brushed up against him, and Arthur finds himself wishing Merlin would. A friendly pat on the back or a fist bump or anything that might signify a switch from strangers who occasionally chat to friends.
There's perhaps a part of Arthur that would like confirmation that the figment like man who is always in the oddest places, doing the oddest things is actually real and not just something Arthur made up to deal with the stress.
Merlin gives him a sympathetic smile instead.
"Arthur, you look practically frightened. I'm not going to eat the poor man," Morgana assures him. Arthur nods as they pull into the hospital parking lot. He can't help the faint ball of anxiety in his chest.
Morgana had finally agreed to come visit Uther with him, but they both know it was really to meet 'this mysterious Merlin who somehow makes you less of a sour grump' (not his words). It feels odd though, like Arthur's spilling a long kept secret. Merlin is his and he doesn't want to share him with anyone. It's ridiculous and absurd – he hardly knows anything about Merlin! – but true nonetheless. Like a private joke between friends, he doesn't want to let outsiders in on the special person Merlin is.
They wander the hospital for nearly an hour before going to visit Uther. They take a good forty minutes (and another loop through the hospital) to get a snack. They spend another hour walking around ("got lost and couldn't find the exit" they tell the suspicious security man named Gwaine the fifth time they pass him as though the clearly marked, glowing red EXIT signs were far too hard to follow).
There's no Merlin.
Arthur's disappointed then feels guilty because maybe that means whoever he was visiting is finally better.
"You really like him, don't you?" Morgana observes as they finally leave after Arthur admits defeat. "You really wanted to see him and you're practically miserable that you didn't get to."
Arthur scowls at her as it starts to snow.
When he next sees Merlin, the other man is looking even worse for wear.
But he's there, in the corner, crammed next to the fake fern, so whoever he's here for is back.
"Merlin!" Arthur calls (he denies sounding like an excited school boy) when he first catches sight of him. He walks quickly (jogs as fast as his business loafers will go) over to Merlin. He smiles brightly and gets a feeble grin in response. Merlin steps out of the small space and into the bright light and Arthur's smile falters.
Merlin really does look terrible. His face is paler than usual, which is really a feat considering he normally looks about the color of a paper towel, and the circles under his eyes have grown to bruises. His eyes are dim, almost faded, and Arthur kind of suspects there's duct tape under his clothes holding him together because he looks about ready to fall to little Merlin pieces on the ground. He's clearly in need of a good night's sleep. Or twenty. Maybe a few years to be on the safe side.
"Arthur," he offers in a soft yet genuinely pleased voice.
"Hi," Arthur says gently. This no longer feels about him. Merlin looks sick with stress and worry.
Though Merlin never talks about who he's here for, Arthur's starting to think it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Despite how many times Arthur has denied it to Morgana, talking about things can help, at least for a little while. And talking to Merlin has seemed especially relaxing for Arthur so it'd be nice to pay a little of that back to Merlin.
"You want to grab a bite from the cafeteria with me?" What he actually means is, do you want to go sit down before you fall down and maybe consume as many calories as I can cram into your skeletal frame while we're at it? But that sounds a bit insensitive.
"Sorry, no. I'm…tired. Not much up to doing stuff. That's why I was hiding in the fern, being an antisocial creeper," the last line is meant as a joke, but it falls pretty flat. Pancake flat. It's one of the longest sentences he's ever gotten from Merlin, but it all rings hollow. Worry churns in Arthur's gut. As much as he wants to force Merlin to eat and rest, it's really not his place so he backs off.
"I know what you mean. Sorry for disturbing you," he adds guiltily. Merlin may mean it as a joke, but there was probably a reason involving being left alone for why he was practically buried in a plastic plant when Arthur found him.
"No disturbance," Merlin counters with a true smile that makes his face look much younger and healthier. "I'm always glad to see you. I'm just not up to much today."
"Alright, well, see you around." He's hesitant to go. Merlin looks like he might collapse as soon as Arthur turns around. But really there's not much more he can delay with.
With a heavy heart and a worried mind, Arthur leaves, heading towards Uther's room. Even the good news that his father is well on his way to recovery and should be able to leave soon is not enough to brighten his terminally dark mood.
On his way out, he passes an old man sitting on the bench he found Merlin lying on almost three weeks ago. The man is hunched forward, head buried in his hands, and his shoulders shake with grief.
Frozen by such a display of true agony, Arthur watches, transfixed for a moment or two before moving forward. He isn't sure what possesses him to do so, but he gently reaches out and rests a hand on the old man's shoulder. The man startles just a bit before looking up at him.
"It'll get better," Arthur says, still unsure of what exactly he's doing, but knowing it feels right. The man offers him a tired, wise smile. With a nod, Arthur goes on his way.
"Thank you," Merlin says faintly. For once Merlin is the first to speak when they see each other and those are the first words from his lips.
"For what?" Arthur can't recall doing anything worth thanking him for.
"Gaius. The other day? The old man weeping?"
"Oh! You knew him?"
Merlin gives him a nod. "My uncle, on my mum's side."
Arthur can recall wondering if Merlin's mum was the patient Merlin was visiting. How Merlin didn't want to speak with him that day, how the man wept as though there was no hope left in the world.
Then Merlin's mum was certainly who he was here for. And she was clearly getting worse, judging by their actions. Arthur knows the pain of having a parent in the hospital, only he has the reassurance that his father would get better.
"When I was younger," he starts even though he's never told anyone, not even Morgana or Leon or Lance or his father or anyone at all, before, "my mum always said spring will come. And at first I didn't get it, because of course spring will always come. That's the season after winter obviously. It wasn't until long after she died that I finally understood. No matter how long or how hard winter is, spring will always come. Everything bad always ends eventually."
Merlin's eyes are wet but they hold Arthur's gaze steadily.
"Spring always comes," Merlin repeats delicately, like the words might break on his tongue. Merlin opens his mouth to say more but gets cut off.
"Hello, Arthur!" someone says cheerily, shattering the moment. Annoyance flares in Arthur.
"Oh, hi, Gwen," he says distractedly as she walks by them.
When he looks back, the moment has passed, and Merlin is staring at the floor with an old pain written on his face.
For once, Merlin seems less than engrossed in what Arthur's saying. His eyes wander and dim while his face remains tired and relatively unemotional.
He looks weary.
Sometimes Arthur will almost swear that Merlin fades. Like his entire presence just diminishes until he's almost see through. As soon as he starts to notice it though, Merlin seems perfectly normal, presence wise. It's the oddest sensation, and, though Arthur knows his eyes are only playing tricks, it feels like Merlin is disappearing before his eyes.
As Arthur struggles to discern whether Merlin is actually listening or not, it suddenly occurs to him that maybe Merlin isn't visiting anyone at the hospital at all.
Maybe he's the one being visited.
Maybe Merlin is the patient.
He doesn't see Merlin the next time he goes. Or the time after that.
Then he does.
Taking the long way to his father's room with the hopes of running into Merlin, Arthur instead runs into the old man – Gaius – leaving one of the rooms on his right. When he sees Arthur, Gaius gives him a gentle smile then goes on his way. Curiosity shoots through Arthur's veins, an opportunity to see Merlin's mum or Merlin or whoever's actually in the hospital.
Arthur walks quickly to the door before his conscious can warn him this is not professional and is a complete invasion of privacy and peers through the long slant of a window.
His heart settles somewhere in his stomach and cold washes over him.
It's Merlin in the bed.
He's pale. Any paler and he'd be translucent. The only color on his body is the dark bruises on his arm from the IV. His eyes are closed and the sheets still crisply made, except for by his hand where someone had clearly held on.
There's a chart at the end of the bed but Arthur doesn't look, doesn't want to know what illness has been slowly taking Merlin from him this whole time, what illness is finally winning the fight for Merlin's frail body.
He sits down in the recently vacated chair and gently clasps Merlin's hand between both of his. The hand is soft, as Arthur always thought it would be, but unmoving.
So Arthur talks. Mostly about his day, just as he normally would. And he pretends that Merlin's eyes are open and bright and his mouth is smiling and laughing and everything is normal.
When he goes home, he cries for the first time since his father was brought to the hospital.
His father is released with a clean bill of health two days later.
Arthur still goes every day after work – even more than before – to sit with Merlin and hold his painfully still hand and tell him about his day.
His mind aches with the memory of the caring smiles and the honest laughter.
He wonders how long Merlin's been sick and why he never said anything. All those opportunities to unload some of the burden, share some of the pain and Merlin always stayed silent. Arthur would have gladly taken whatever weight he could from Merlin, given him any relief he could provide.
He wishes he could have known so he could have said something. Something simple maybe, a 'thanks for everything' or 'you're a good friend', or maybe something more true like 'you're amazing and kind and beautifully honest, you're special and somehow you've become my best friend and I don't ever want to lose you'. But he's pretty sure the last thing he said to Merlin was a story about a coworker and a 'see you around'.
So each and every day, when he leaves, he makes sure to tell Merlin how amazing and kind and beautifully honest he is, how he's special, and how somehow he's become Arthur's best friend and he doesn't ever want to lose him.
He tells him just in case.
In case Merlin can hear him.
In case he'll never get the chance to tell Merlin again.
There's no preamble, no sounding alarms, nothing.
One moment Arthur's talking about the pros and cons of an upcoming merger at work and then there's a harsh whine and a flat line on the screen.
He stares at it for a good minute or two before blinking in realization. He looks down at Merlin, who looks completely the same save for the missing rise and fall of his chest, then back up at the monitor. His hand tightens around Merlin's.
A nurse comes in, but Arthur hardly notices as she notes the time of death and begins to unhook some of the monitors. When she kindly says, "Sir?" and begins to remove the IV, Arthur just shuffles out of the way, still holding Merlin's hand.
He gazes over Merlin's limp form then suddenly lets go. This isn't Merlin, not anymore, and the room is far too small and he can't breathe.
"Arthur?" He looks up, startled, as he nearly bowls someone over in his rush to leave the room.
"Gwen," he acknowledges.
"I didn't know you knew Merlin." That's odd because Arthur can distinctly remember seeing Gwen at least once when he was chatting with Merlin. "I'm sorry for your loss," she says genuinely.
"I met him when I was visiting my father," he says in a flat voice.
Gwen frowns at him and gently grabs ahold of his arm. "Sweetie, Merlin Emrys has been in a coma for almost six months. A car accident. Killed his mother, I believe. It was quite sad really."
"No, I talked to him just a few weeks ago. He…was distant. But normally he smiled and laughed and…" he wasn't really sure who he was talking to now.
He walks home instead of taking a cab.
As the first showers of April fall from the sky the wind whispers in his ear in a familiar, soft voice.
Spring always comes.
I've seen the 'Spring always comes' saying in a couple different places, but it seemed to fit here - so apologies to anyone who has used that. I didn't mean to plagiarize!
Thanks for reading! Please review :)