“Gaius,” Arthur called, knocking lightly even as he opened the door.
“Arthur!” Merlin crowed when he saw who had entered the room. Arthur froze, confused by the genuine elation in the man’s voice. Not that Merlin was never happy to see him, but usually when Arthur entered Gaius’ chambers, he was greeted with a sigh and a longsuffering “What do you want?”
Apparently standing still had been a bad choice, because one second Merlin went from being across the room, to having his arms wrapped around Arthur’s waist in a surprisingly firm hold.
“Merlin, what on earth are you doing? Get off!” He demanded, trying to pry the long arms away. Merlin just laughed and shook his against Arthur’s neck.
Gaius was watching the display, his eyebrow raised impressively high.
“Gaius, what’s wrong with him?” Arthur asked, searching for an explanation as to why Merlin was not only hugging him, but adamantly refusing to let go. “Is he drunk?”
“Oh, no, sire. Though I am afraid he seems to be acting as if he were,” Gaius said unhelpfully, while Arthur gave up on his struggles and began awkwardly patting Merlin on the back, thinking that maybe he was waiting for the hug to be returned. If anything, the seeming acceptance made Merlin hold him tighter.
“I’m trying out a new potion, sire, for balancing the humors of a melancholic person, but Merlin’s the only one I could test it on, and as he’s far more sanguine than most, it seems to have excited his blood more than—“
“Right, drunk off potion, got it,” Arthur cut in, afraid the physician might tell him more than he ever needed to know about Merlin’s humors. He looked down at the head of dark hair that was still pressed against his chest. “How long until it stops?”
“I don’t know. Though I am rather worried about the side-effects,” Gaius admitted.
Just as Arthur was about to ask what would happen, Merlin shoved away from him so quickly he almost lost his balance, but Merlin’s hands were still firmly placed on his shoulders, holding him at arm’s length.
“Merlin,” he said, about to start on how he did not approve of his manservant being so… touchy.
“Arthur,” Merlin replied, a large, almost manic, grin on his face. “You’re my favorite.”
“You’re favorite what?” Arthur sighed. He’d never seen Merlin drunk before, but he should have guessed he was an annoyingly happy one.
“Just… my favorite,” Merlin answered shrugging, and seemed to be about to hug him again, so Arthur stepped back, causing Merlin’s hands to fall away from his shoulders.
Immediately, the grin dropped from his servant’s face, his eyes going wide, obviously hurt. Arthur looked at him, gesturing vaguely behind him at the door.
“I really need to go,” he said lamely, watching as Merlin’s shoulders slumped sadly.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin murmured, eyes fixed on his shoes. “I shouldn’t have… sorry.”
Arthur was rather alarmed at this sudden shift in demeanor. He cast wide eyes at Gaius, silently asking for help, but Gaius was watching the scene play out with obvious fascination at the effect the potion was having on Merlin.
Merlin was still staring at the floor when Arthur looked back at him, his arms crossed over his chest like he was hugging himself.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, and the other man looked up hesitantly. “I just meant…” he trailed off, frustrated at the guilt he was feeling, even though Merlin was the one who was drunk and emotional and ridiculous at the moment.
“Please don’t go.”
And even Arthur couldn’t say no to that sad voice and those big blue eyes. So he sighed, nodded, and then went to sit at Gaius’s work table. Merlin followed, sitting next to him, and something about his expression reminded Arthur of dog with his ears perked up. Arthur laughed at the image, and Merlin’s face visibly brightened at the sound, a smile sliding easily into place.
“What’s so funny?” he asked, not defensively like Arthur was used to, but honestly curious, like he wanted to share in on the joke.
“I just imagined you as a dog, with your giant ears sticking up,” Arthur said, matching Merlin’s drunken candor without even thinking about it.
Merlin threw his head back and laughed as well, and the next few minutes were spent discussing what they would look like as dogs. Merlin’s smile never faded once.
After that discussion had run dry, and Arthur was examining a rather terrifying looking skull on Gaius’s shelf, Merlin’s head fell to the table with a loud thunk.
“Merlin!” Arthur cried in alarm, shaking his shoulder. Gaius rushed over, dropping the book he’d been reading, and quickly checked Merlin’s vital signs.
“Gaius, the potion, it couldn’t have poisoned him, could it?”
“He’s just sleeping, Arthur, a side effect of the potion,” Gaius said, looking appraisingly at his ward. “Just like if he’d drunk too much… I think less honey might do the trick.” He shuffled away, mumbling about how to fix the potion.
Arthur looked at his happily sleeping manservant, rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the last few minutes, and, after awkwardly patting Merlin on the head, left the room.
Arthur woke in a haze of heat and ragged breathing. Every inch of him ached and the soft material touching his skin felt like pinpricks. His head felt disconnected from his body.
When he tried to draw in a deeper breath, it caught in his chest and he spent the next few minutes trying to suck in air between coughs. Vaguely, he realized someone was holding his hand, squeezing it like they were holding him down while he tried to float away. Then something was pressed against his mouth and when he opened obediently, cool liquid slid down his throat. He breathed and the hand surrounding his relaxed.
“Sleep, Arthur,” someone said.
When he woke again, it was to discomfort rather than agony. The air around him was hot and he felt sweaty and groggy. He tried to lift his hand to brush the hair out of his eyes, but he found he couldn’t.
He lifted his head to look and saw Merlin, his hand wrapped tightly around Arthur’s, slouched forward with his forehead resting against the back of Arthur’s tan hand. He couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not.
“Merlin,” he whispered, his throat protesting. Merlin sat up, looking cautiously hopeful. When he saw Arthur’s eyes open, he smiled like he’d just witnessed a miracle.
“Hey,” he said, and his own voice was hoarse. Arthur wondered if it was from disuse or something else. Merlin’s eyes were red rimmed. He looked bone-achingly tired. “How’re you feeling?”
Arthur shrugged, but Merlin understood what he meant. He sent someone to fetch Gaius, and Arthur looked around, realizing for the first time there were others in the room. Two knights, a few servants, all standing respectfully in the shadows.
Merlin didn’t let go of his hand. In fact, he brought his other one up and surrounded Arthur’s completely. He absently brushed Arthur’s knuckles and fingers with light touches, traced the lines in his palm. It made Arthur tired, and he was almost asleep again when Gaius arrived.
Merlin stood when Gaius asked him to make some room. When he released Arthur’s hand, his fingers seemed stiff from staying in one position too long.
“Ow, Merlin,” Arthur hissed for the third time. He had gotten a minor cut on his forearm during training, and he was in the mood to complain about it, moaning about even barely there pains.
“Sorry,” Merlin said for the third time. Arthur could tell that he really was trying to be careful, but there was no avoiding the way the cloth stuck to the wound. It hadn’t bled too badly, which is why he had continued training, but the blood and sweat had dried in that time, making his shirt sleeve stick to the sensitive area.
Once his armor, mail, padded tunic, and under tunic were successfully removed, Merlin forced Arthur to sit on the bed so he could clean and bandage the cut. Arthur slumped, exhausted, where he sat.
“You should have told me right away, Arthur. No point in hurting if you don’t have to,” Merlin lectured. Arthur didn’t bother responding, he’d had this lecture multiple times. Merlin knew that Arthur would say something about learning to fight through the pain, just as Arthur knew that Merlin would go tense and quiet before whispering an apology that had nothing to do with the stinging ointment he spread on. Arthur had yet to figure out what he was apologizing for.
“Merlin!” Arthur snapped when the cloth Merlin was using to clean the wound caught on the raw skin.
Merlin threw up his hands in exasperation. “What do you want me to do, Arthur? Kiss it better?”
“Yes, Merlin, I want you to kiss it better,” Arthur said, his voice dripping with so much sarcasm he didn’t even bother to roll his eyes. Tiredly, he rested both elbows on his knees and put his face in his hands. He could feel a headache building in the base of his skull.
“Ok,” he heard Merlin say, and just as he was gathering the energy to ask what exactly Merlin meant by ‘ok’, and that if Merlin even thought about kissing him he’d have him arrested, he felt fingers close around his wrist, yanking his hurt arm out from under him.
His indignant yelp died half-way through when Merlin pressed his lips briefly against the red gash on his arm. It stung, a bit.
Merlin dropped his arm and looked at him, lips pursed and eyebrow raised. “Feel better?” he deadpanned. Arthur could tell by his expression that he had done it simply so that Arthur would stop complaining about things that couldn’t be fixed; a vague threat that Arthur would be punished with physical signs of affection if he continued.
“You’re so weird,” was all Arthur could think to say. Merlin smirked, gentle fingers already smoothing ointment over the wound.
“Always happy to help, Arthur.”
Arthur told Merlin that if he ever did that again, he’d be in the stocks for a week.
“I’m so worried,” Merlin said, rolling his eyes as he gathered Arthur’s laundry basket into his arms. “You know where to find me if you scrape your knee,” he called over his shoulder as he left the room. Arthur threw a pillow at the closed door.
Arthur wasn’t entirely sure how he and Merlin had ended up stuck in a cell in the dungeons of some duke’s castle. But, seeing as how his father and twenty of Camelot’s finest knights were sleeping upstairs, he figured they wouldn’t be there long.
“Arthur?” Merlin said. He grunted in acknowledgement. “It’s ridiculous how often we’re imprisoned.”
Arthur chuckled, turning his head toward where it sounded like his manservant was. The cell they were in was pitch black, there was not even a barred window to let in moonlight.
“Well,” he said decisively, “I’m going to sleep. I’m sure my father will be throwing that traitorous, and moronic, duke in this very cell in the morning, and I want to be awake to see it.”
He tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He heard Merlin shuffling about, trying to get comfortable. He bit back a yelp when he felt something warm press into his side.
“Merlin,” he asked, voice low but clearly conveying his annoyance. “What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to go to sleep,” Merlin answered, close to Arthur’s ear.
“Why don’t you go sleep in your own corner?”
“It’s cold,” Merlin said, his pout audible in his voice. Arthur was about to say that he wouldn’t freeze to death, it was only early autumn after all, when Merlin continued, “Besides, you are much more comfortable to lean against than a stone wall.”
“You are not leaning against me,” Arthur protested. Merlin seemed to take his command as an observation, and tipped his head onto Arthur’s shoulder in order to remedy it. “What are you doing?” he asked again.
“Sleeping,” was all Merlin said. He squirmed a bit, then settled down, his head still on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Merlin,” Arthur hissed. He didn’t get an answer.
“Merlin,” he said again. “Merlin, there’s no way you’re asleep already.”
He sighed and leaned his head back against the wall. He was tempted, for a second, to just push Merlin away, but if the idiot didn’t wake up enough to catch his fall, he would hit his head on the stone floor and, knowing Merlin, get a concussion or something. And the warm weight against his side was much less annoying than he thought it would be. He shifted, taking care not to move his shoulder, and went to sleep.
Arthur woke up with a face full of black hair and his arm dead from Merlin’s weight. He groaned when he felt the ache in his neck. Merlin stirred at the noise. Then there was a much louder noise, that of metal scraping against stone, and they both sat upright, blinking in the unexpected light of multiple candles.
Once Arthur could see clearly, he noticed his father and five knights watching the inhabitants of the cell with expressions varying from amused to annoyed.
“Father,” he said, jumping to his feet. His leg was also asleep, and Merlin, who had sprang up as well, had to steady him when it threatened to give out. He grimaced as he made eye contact with his father, preparing for the disapproval.
Uther just shook his head in exasperation and walked away.
This, Arthur thought, would be a very good time to die. Not because he had achieved everything he’d set out to do, or because he had reached the epitome of happiness and knew that he could never feel such joy again, but because he was in such excruciating pain that the prospect of another second of it made him want to break down and cry like a child.
Arthur had never been poisoned before. He’s been almost poisoned a disturbing number of occasions, but never had anyone actually succeeded in their attempts.
He was sure he was screaming.
He was also sure someone else was crying. Dimly, amongst the fire charring his skin and the acid burning through his veins, he could feel their tears falling onto his face.
It went on for eternity, and Arthur concluded that he was dead and this was his punishment for the wrongs he’d done in life. When the agony began to fade, he thought it was his body acclimating to the ever present torture in an attempt to endure this hell. Soon, though, the pain faded into an ache and Arthur became aware of things outside of his own mind.
The air smelled like earth and there were insects buzzing nearby. The light that filtered through the leaves of the trees was orange with the setting sun. He was damp from sweat. And someone was running their hands through his hair. They were shaking.
Arthur turned his head and found Merlin watching him. He looked heartbroken. And desperate.
“Hi,” Arthur croaked, his throat raw. From screaming, he knew. Merlin’s laugh came out like a sob. He reached up with one hand to wipe his eyes.
“Arthur, you-“ Merlin sobbed again and Arthur had to fight the instinct to look away, to tell him to stop crying. These tears were for him, after all. He’d put Merlin through whatever had just happened. “You almost died.”
“I know,” he said, because he’s not entirely sure he hadn’t died, if only for a moment. The hand that Merlin used to brush the hair from his eyes was shaking so badly Arthur felt the need to still it.
“You kept screaming. You kept saying you were sorry.”
Arthur hadn’t known that, but it makes sense. He had thought he was being damned. He didn’t know how to tell Merlin that, not when he was still breathing in shuddering gasps and his eyes were still bloodshot from tears, not when he’d looked so devastated when Arthur woke up. So he didn’t say anything, just closed his eyes. Merlin’s hands continued their rhythm.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked after several minutes. It wasn’t really that he minded it—the sensation was distracting him from the way his muscles cramped and his bones ached all the way down to the marrow—but it was making him tired, and he absolutely did not want to sleep. He knew, just like he knew he had screamed and Merlin had cried for him, that sleep would bring nightmares.
“I’m… playing with your hair,” Merlin said in a tone that suggests he would have been embarrassed if he had not spent the last who-knows-how-long listening to Arthur beg for death and forgiveness.
“It was the only part of you I could touch without it hurting.” Merlin’s voice was quiet and Arthur felt like he needed to say thank you, needed to tell him that everything will be all right, but he also didn’t feel like there was anything he could say, so he just reached up and wrapped one hand around Merlin’s wrist, pulling that hand away from his hair and settling it on his chest.
He held it there until he felt he could stand.