From the author's desk: So here's the story behind this one-shot. One of my best friends got married Friday. Long story short, there's a part of me that's really insecure that his new wife (who is honestly lovely, by the way) will put barriers between us that haven't been there before. On top of that, it's the end of an era for us, in a way that I haven't really had a chance to process or discuss or anything. And it all finally hit me yesterday, after the day of the wedding when I had to say good-bye because I honestly have no idea when I'm going to see him again now. So I was emotionally fragile when I started flying home.
And then the song that the title and the story is based on came on my mp3 player, and I just started bawling right there on the plane and couldn't stop until the next flight, ESPECIALLY when I also realized how unresolved my 5x13 feels are and how terribly perfect this song is for Merlin and Arthur in all its angsty glory. So to deal with my raw emotions, and to deal with the two idiot boys, I finally wrote this.
As always, feedback is very much appreciated. And in this case, you may want to keep a box of tissues handy.
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.
This is What It's Like (Without You Now)
Nobody here knocking at my door
The sound of silence I can't take anymore
Nobody ringing my telephone now
Oh how I miss such a beautiful sound
Nothing to hold but the memories and frames
Oh they remind me of the battle I face
without your love, without you I drown
Somebody save me I'm going down
And I don't even know how I survive
I won't make it to the shore without your light
No I don't even know if I'm alive
Oh, oh, oh without you now
This is what it feels like
-Armin van Buuren, "This is What It Feels Like"
The citadel has never felt so empty, and Merlin never so incomplete.
He goes to Gaius first, who hugs him hard in relief that he came back and leads him over to Gwaine, who is still unconscious after what he sustained at Morgana's hands in her final act of cruelty.
He is thankful that, in some way, Gwaine is still with them and hopes that, this once, he won't lose someone else.
After that, he goes to visit Gwen. Her smile is sad and knowing, and her eyes fill with tears at the sight of him.
Merlin feels terrible, because he knows he destroyed the last tiny part of her that hoped Arthur would somehow miraculously come back with him.
When she finally lets go of him, she asks him to come and sit by her at the table in her room—she isn't using the chamber she shared with Arthur, which is just another reminder to him that he's not the only one still grieving—and pours him and herself a goblet of wine.
"I want to know everything you have done for us, for—for him," she requests haltingly.
They talk long into the night, Merlin recounting each and every adventure and misadventure. He makes her laugh and cry and shake her head and smile fondly and glare at him in frustration.
"I thought that sword looked familiar," she chuckles when Merlin tells her of how he convinced Arthur to pull the sword from the stone in the forest.
Merlin silently reminisces that it was only three years ago, too soon for Arthur to be—
He stops the thought immediately, and launches into another of countless many anecdotes about the things he's done.
When he finally finishes storytelling, they sit in silence.
The emptiness eats at him from the inside, because it would have been hours ago that Arthur would have come looking for him, giving him grief for slacking off and talking with Gwen instead of finishing his chores.
But no one comes for him now, and there is only silence where he expects to hear Arthur's telltale pronunciation of his name.
Over the next few days, Merlin helps Gaius look after Gwaine, and when he isn't doing that, he's answering the knights' questions.
"So did Arthur actually kill the dragon?" Leon asks him, and Merlin explains about his father, and becoming a dragonlord, and Kilgharrah and all the times the old dragon had come to his—and subsequently, Camelot's—aid.
"That means you really saved the dragon egg we went looking for, didn't you?" Percival asks him, and Merlin tells him about his battle with Julius Borden and hatching Aithusa.
As Merlin tells of his exploits to the knights, the stories spread to the townspeople, and now more than ever, Merlin finds himself the center of attention, asking him to tell of the things he's done.
They look at him like a god, eyes widening in wonder and astonishment and scrutiny. Some struggle to believe the truths he reveals, some seem to slot certain things into place in their minds, the missing details finally resolving their puzzlement.
They call him brave. They call him strong.
They call him good, and slowly, magic seems good to them too.
But no one calls him idiot with a roll of the eyes and a long-suffering sigh. No one calls him stupid with a teasing grin.
No one calls him dollop head, so that he can argue back that that's his word.
And again Merlin feels acutely aware of how incomplete he is.
Merlin remembers the sound of Arthur's clomping footfalls as he marched through the halls of his castle, and how after a few months in his service, Merlin had learned to keep up with Arthur's steady, rapid stride.
Merlin remembers how alive the citadel was with Arthur in it. Even at night, when everyone was asleep and he was sneaking around, there always seemed to be a sense of lightness, of life.
Now, because sleep eludes him, Merlin slowly wanders the halls at night. He passes the hallway where Arthur liked to run up the steps, the windows now pouring in gloomy silver moonlight. The balcony where Arthur and he sometimes used to talk, where Arthur liked to watch his kingdom with a thoughtful frown or fond smile, where he'd nudged and goaded Arthur into chasing after him like they were children, now seems forgotten. The armory, where Merlin spent hours polishing all that bloody armor and where Arthur gave him that first teasing knuckle-rub in his attempt to make Merlin smile again, and the training field, where Arthur taught him in his own brash way how to fight honorably and how to wield power and how to think strategically, still has sounds, but Merlin always finds himself waiting to be hollered at to fetch a blade or a target or to get off his lazy backside and finish polishing the boots and get the dents out of the blasted armor.
And as he turns corners, he finds himself looking back over his shoulder out of habit, so used to seeing Arthur looking back at him while trying to hide a sunny grin.
When he finally musters the courage to enter the great hall, Merlin's heart constricts at seeing the empty throne on the dais, the cool beams of moonlight casting the chair in a haunting silver glow. When he looks at it, it's almost as though he can still see Arthur, slumped with his chin resting on his right hand, the fingers of his left drumming idly on the armrest and his alert gaze wandering around the room in boredom. He recalls Arthur sitting rigid in his seat, his face neutral but kind while listening to the woes and requests and demands of his people. He remembers the annoyed glare that barely smothered his amusement when he caught Merlin goofing off to the side—narrowed blue irises boring into him from a corner of the eye, the stiffness in the smile that was suddenly razor sharp but still somehow teasing.
More than all of that, Merlin remembers the way he stood, tall and proud, bright eyes somber in the wake of his father's death and the burden he had to carry as a new king, the crown on his head gleaming gold in the streaming sun.
In spite of the tragedy of that time, Merlin remembers how proud he had been of Arthur, because Arthur had been right. It was the start of a new day, a new era. The beginning had been fraught with peril, but the years after had been golden like his crown, like Arthur himself.
He was the greatest king the land had ever seen.
And Merlin had been proud to serve him.
But there is no one to serve now, and again Merlin's heart clenches as the warm memory in his mind is washed away into the cold emptiness of moonlight and a throne without his King. There is no serious young man to make smile, no young King to guide, no friend to argue and tease, no brother to fight with and learn from.
Merlin feels more alone now than he ever felt before coming to Camelot all those years ago.
It takes much, much longer for Merlin to enter Arthur's chambers, and when Merlin does, his breath leaves his body in a ragged sigh, and his trembling legs give out from under him as he collapses to the ground.
Because everything is exactly as it was before he left. The laundry sits in a hamper in the corner. A jacket hangs over the changing screen. The bed remains unmade from the morning Arthur rode out for Camlann. Scrolls of documents spill across the desk while the inkwell and quill remain oddly organized and clean—a particular quirk of Arthur's that Merlin had never managed to figure out.
The onslaught of memories is overwhelming.
He can hear Arthur groaning, not ready to wake after another late night. Arthur rolling his eyes with a deadpan "Late again, Merlin," while he sits at his desk by the window, already hard at work. Hours spent together bantering back and forth, or working through individual tasks in comfortable silence, or chattering at Arthur about the castle's goings-on as the other man nodded and hmm'd and listened with half an ear. Arthur throwing goblets and plates at his head in annoyance, and Merlin pretending to listen for woodworm in hopes of stealing Arthur's keys. Merlin snatching pieces of food from Arthur's leftovers because he didn't have time for breakfast and Arthur shaking his head with a fond grin and a raised brow while ribbing him again for waking late. Merlin scrubbing the floors clean, only to have Arthur dump the water bucket over his head and scrub his face with the towel, and Merlin getting his just desserts when he doesn't tell Arthur he has stew in his hair. Merlin and Arthur and rat stew and arguing about the sense and honor in a tourney which Merlin still believes pointlessly forces men to fight each other only to get knocked out. Arthur and Merlin and shoulder punches and laughs and wrestling and groans at odd court outfits and heart-to-hearts about marriage and not being a prat and love and destiny.
Arthur and Merlin.
Merlin and Arthur.
Two boys who hated each other, who became men together, who became best friends, who loved each other as the brother they each never had.
A sob rips through Merlin, and somewhere inside him a dam breaks.
Kilgharrah and the prophecies and destiny and fate said they were two halves of a whole, two sides of the same coin.
Two lives tied irreversibly together.
So why is Merlin still here while Arthur is not?
Because Merlin knows the truth now. Merlin has always been and will always be.
And Arthur? He is the Once and Future King, is he not?
But Merlin understands now, finally, long after Arthur has been laid to rest in the heart of Avalon, with Freya and Lancelot.
Kilgharrah tried to tell him, but Merlin wasn't able to understand it then. That Arthur can only be here when he is needed by Albion, not by Merlin.
But to Merlin, Once and Future meant forever too, as did Emrys.
They are two sides of the same damn coin after all.
But all Merlin has left of his brother, his other half, are these hallowed halls that echo his name in the phantoms of Arthur's voice, a lonely throne without a king, and a tomb-like room so full of not King Arthur Pendragon, but just Arthur—the boy, the man that Merlin grew with, found purpose with, built a life and a family with—that Merlin doesn't know what to do with him gone.
Arthur gave Merlin's existence a meaning that made more sense to him than thrice-damned destiny and prophecy.
Without Arthur, Merlin is empty and incomplete and nothing.
"Come back!" he screams into the room, but picturing the glittering Lake Avalon in his mind, finally no longer able to take the silence where Arthur's voice should be. "Come back, you stupid, bloody prat!"
Because I need you.
"Please," he sobs brokenly. "You weren't supposed to leave me behind. You weren't supposed to die."
You left me, my brother. Why did you leave me here all alone?
"What am I to do now, Arthur?" Merlin hiccups. "Whose…whose s-s-stupid armor am I supposed to polish now? Who…who am I s-supposed to call a prat? Who…who's s-s-s'posed to u-use me for d-dumb thi-ings like target practice and c-call me idiot and try n-not to laugh wh-when I'm be-be-ing funny? I kn-know you told me n-not to be, but I know i-it's because you th-thought I was."
Merlin crumples in on himself, his body nearly curling into a ball. "Why couldn't you, j-just once, n-not do the n-noble thing and just s-stay s-safe?"
He bows his head, and his forehead is only inches from the flagstone floor.
"Why? Why couldn't I save you? Why did I have to let you die?"
Merlin continues to sob loudly on the floor of Arthur's room long into the night, a litany of "Please come back" and "I'm sorry" and "Forgive me" pouring from his trembling lips.
He doesn't know when he falls asleep right there on the floor, but the last thing he remembers of the night are the words "Help me, brother, please" falling into the still silence around him.
When Merlin wakes to an uncomfortable back ache the following morning, the sun is streaming through the window brightly, golden rays falling into his eyes as he remembers his dream from the night. A tall man was striding toward him through the doorway of the great hall, the hand of a child clutched in his hand, the rising sun at their back and setting their silhouettes aglow with warm light. The man whispered a message to him, but Merlin wasn't able to understand the words.
He did understand the following gesture, though, as the man held the child's hand out to him.
He was being asked to take care of the child.
Merlin has never been a Seer, though he has seen the future and the past through the crystals in the Crystal Cave and the Crystal of Neahtid. But he wants so much for the dream he's just had to be a vision of the future, for the man to have been Arthur, and the child to be a future heir of the Pendragon line.
He wants so much for the dream to have been a message from his brother, a new task to complete.
Arthur's final request of him had been to never change, to always be him.
To always be Merlin. Goofy, optimistic Merlin. Merlin who made Arthur laugh and used magic recklessly and who gladly gave his loyalty and his life to his friend, his brother, his King.
But Merlin doesn't know how to be like that without Arthur.
So he can only hope that the dream-child, if the dream-child becomes real, can help him find his way again.
Can help him be Arthur's Merlin again.
Outside the room, Merlin can hear the castle waking up, and tries to feel the sense of life that Arthur used to give to the place in the sun rays still pouring on him through the windows.
He prays that it's real, that Arthur heard him somehow, and did what he always does—be a noble prat after making Merlin suffer for a bit.
When Gwen finds him later that morning in the process of straightening up the mess Arthur left behind in the room, she is smiling widely even though there are tears spilling down her cheeks.
"I'm with child," she gasps out. "Arthur's child."
Once he fully processes what she has just told him, he immediately hugs her, tears pouring down his own face and into the queen's dark curls.
But this time, the tears aren't of sorrow.
Merlin wants to laugh, because he's sure now.
Arthur did for him what he always did best, in his own stupid, prattish way. What's more, he did it from beyond the barrier between their worlds.
Thank you, brother mine. You've given me what I needed, as you always do when I'm not the one giving it to you.
For the first time since Arthur's death and Merlin's return to Camelot, Merlin feels hope for the future flaring in his heart.
For his future.
The dream combined with Gwen's news this morning is proof enough.
The Once and Future King is destined to rise again from Avalon in the time of Albion's greatest need.
But Merlin knows that, come hell or high water—or in this case, two brothers separated by mortality itself—Arthur, just Arthur, will always be there for him.