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God Save our Gracious Queen

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God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen, Send her victorious, Happy and Glorious, Long to reign over us, God save the queen-

The gag shoved between Merlin’s teeth is rudimentary at best. The fabric is filthy, sour across his tongue, prying his jaws open so wide that it clicks when he breathes. It leaves him stretched, aching, and there’s nothing he can do to alleviate the pain that shoots straight up through his skull when his teeth grind down on instinct.

They shoved the damned thing in there somewhere amidst his third rendition of God Save the Queen. Apparently not only do his captors lack basic manners and hygiene, they also have no appreciation for national pride.

He glances up through the thick dribble of blood that runs over his eye, searching out the brute at the far side of the room. The man is eyeing him critically, expression tight with agitation. With a terse grunt he nods towards the miserable fuck at Merlin’s side, and that’s all the warning he gets before the searing burn of electricity grips him once more. He bites down hard over the gag, teeth grinding into the fabric while he hums violently into the damp air.

O Lord our God arise, Scatter her enemies, And make them fall, Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On Thee our hopes we fix, God save us all-

The tune breaks when Merlin’s voice finally cracks over a muffled scream. His muscles twitch and spasm violently, his whole body locked up with agony. It’s his back that’s the worst; the constant rigid tension causing spikes of nauseating agony to creep up from base of his spine. All he can do is try not to think about it. He does everything he can to keep from focussing on the burning shocks that wrack his frame or the hard slice of pain from the old injury in his back. He clings to his training. He focuses on pushing all of his agony into the violent scream that tears apart his vocal chords.

The man at his side just isn’t making it any easier for him. Bastard keeps turning up the damned current; his whole body vibrating with the relentless, violent burn of electricity.

He can’t tell how long it goes for, but he desperately tries to cling to the song, his mind tripping over the familiar lyrics while he screams himself hoarse.

Thy choicest gifts in store, On…on her be pleased….Long may she…may she reign-

Enough.

As quickly as it began it’s over and his whole body goes limp, sagging against the hard wood at his back. He shudders uncontrollably and even with the current stopped his back is screaming in agony. That’s the thing with permanent nerve damage, doesn’t take much to set it off, and these gents have been doing their very best to leave him crippled.

He can hardly breathe through the gag. Really he’s starting to think that it’ll be the oxygen deprivation that gets him first. They shattered his nose hours ago, leaving it swollen and steadily leaking blood, so he’s got no choice but to suck in greedily through the edges of the fabric in his mouth.

The longer this goes on, the more the realization sets in-

There’s a good chance he’s going to die in this chair.

But at least it’s him.

At least it’s not his recruits, choking on their own blood in this dingy hole of a basement. There’re two of them left now, and only one will become the next Percival. Idly he realizes that they’ve signed themselves up for this much and worse; but Archie’s barely 20 years old, and Jasper has a baby girl back home. He’s more than happy to take the proverbial bullet for them. And really, he’s the instructor; it’s his fault for not clearing the room properly. And he’s beyond grateful that it’s not one of them in this chair…

Even more so that it’s not Harry.

It’s an irrational thought. Harry is the field agent after all, and a bloody good one. But when Merlin stepped into that room and those localized explosives went off, all he could think when the floor gave out below him was I’m so glad it’s not Harry.

Hey, are we boring you?

Merlin glances up though the blood and the thick swelling of his face, watching as the man from across the room slowly makes his way towards him. Out of the lot of them he’s got to be the biggest, burliest, hard cut under his thick black shirt. But he hasn’t so much as lifted a finger against Merlin. He just stood idly by, signaling his goons to pound his face in and throwing an occasional question his way.

It’s a struggle for Merlin to meet the man’s gaze. His one eye is almost completely swollen shut, and the other is blurred by the steady flow of blood down his face. Still, he gives the brute his best attempt at unimpressed, both brows raised.

“Still with the glaring.” The man shakes his head, crouching down to Merlin’s level. “And here I thought we were finally getting somewhere.”

Merlin refuses to look away, even when the bastard gets right up in his face, grabbing at his jaw with strong, calloused fingers. He’s already stretched to aching, and the bruising grip across his cheeks sends sharp sparks of agony up into his skull.

“Now, here’s what I’m going to do.” The brute jerks him forward by the hold on his jaw, bringing his other hand up to tap at the dirtied fabric gag. “I’m going to take this out, and we’re going to have a nice conversation. But-”

He tightens his grip and Merlin can’t help the grunt of discomfort that escapes him, the motion tugging at the swollen flesh of his nose.

But, I hear so much as a whistle outta you, so much as a hum, and my friends here are going to knock your fucking teeth in,” he gives Merlin’s head a vicious shake, his expression dark, “get me?”

Merlin just stares at the bastard, brows still raised. Seems he isn’t waiting for a response, already grabbing at the edges of the gag and yanking at it violently. It’s not pleasant, but Merlin forces himself to stay deadly silent through the harsh catch of fabric against his teeth and lips. He can almost taste the relief once the cloth drops to the ground, wet and heavy. There’s nothing he wants more than to gasp in greedily, his lungs screaming with the need for air…

But he’s a Kingsman agent, he doesn’t show that kind of weakness.

Instead he takes a slow, steady breath and works out his aching jaw, brows still raised.

“Feels better, doesn’t it?” The man at his front sits back on his heels somewhat, giving Merlin’s cheek a firm pat. “Now, I’ve done you a favour. Only polite that you do me one in return. So, tell us-”

He drops his hand down to curl over Merlin’s chin, giving his head another hard shake. “Where do we find those men you were with?”

Merlin keeps his gaze firm, expression shifting from defiant to cheeky as a wide, bloodied smile twitches across his lips.

He takes a deep breath, and he starts over again from the first verse.

God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen-”

The look of burning indignation on the man’s face is more than worth the violent crash of a fist against his cheek bone. His entire body goes slack at the contact, the force of the blow upheaving his chair and sending him sprawling across the ground.

His skull cracks hard against the ground, bile instantly flooding across his tongue and all he can think is: that’s a concussion.

Merlin knows well enough that passing out with a brain injury can be damn near a death sentence, but there’s no avoiding the hard spots of white that creep across his eyes. He’s helpless to stop his mind from plunging into nothingness, body going slack against the cold concrete floor.

Even as he slips away he clings to that one, lingering thought.

At least it’s not Harry.

---

Merlin isn’t certain what wakes him first; the cold chill biting at his bare, sweat slicked torso, or the sharp, unforgiving pressure at his back. His face is so swollen that he can only peel one eye open, blinking through a hard crust of dried blood.

It’s still the same, cold room; but he’s on the floor now, crouched up on his knees. He tries to bring his hands forward, to alleviate some of the strain on his shoulders; only to startle at the sharp bite of chain against his skin.

Before he can stop himself he’s yanking at the bindings, panicking when he finds the chain anchored somewhere high above him. His heart stutters violently in his chest and he grits his teeth, struggling to stay calm.

Ah! So good of you to join us.

Merlin jerks his head up at the familiar voice, his whole body tensing. He battles down the hard tremble in his lips, schooling his face back into a mask of calm.

The man comes to crouch at his front. He curls his hand over Merlin’s jaw, yanking his head back and regarding his swollen face with a grin. “Had a nice nap?”

Merlin tilts his head up enough to spit, blood splattering against the man’s crisp suit shirt. He grins, teeth stained crimson. “Incredibly refreshing.

The hand tightens over Merlin’s chin and he tries not to wince, smiling through the firm grip on his cheeks. “Big tough man.” The bastard coos, getting right up into Merlin’s face. “We’ll see what breaks first, your shoulders, or your resolve.”

It takes everything Merlin has not to give in to the sudden rush of fear. He clenches his jaw and breathes in hard, preparing for what he knows will happen next.

Sure enough the man nods to someone at his side and the entire room fills with the sound of gears turning. The chain around his wrists goes taught, dragging up so quickly that Merlin doesn’t have time to get his feet beneath him.

His arms are wrenched up behind him violently, a sharp line of agony shooting down his spine. The pain is so acute that he can’t stop himself from shouting, blood and bile coughing up between his dry, chapped lips.

I’ve got nothing to tell you.” He chokes out, words ripping from his throat when the chains tighten. With a hard scramble he fights to push up on his knees, trying to alleviate the vicious burn of agony that tears down his spine.

“We’ll see about that.”

Merlin’s shoulders are screaming, joints grinding with the effort to stay in place. It won’t take long before something gives. But that? That’s nothing compared to the stabbing agony that slams through his back. With each, steady click of the chain he feels his resolve start to crumble. He can’t distance himself from this. The violent burn of his nerves is too much, pain lancing up his spine and causing his whole body to jolt.

“Do what you want!” Merlin gags over the words and grits his teeth. He’s all the way on his feet now. His legs tremble violently with the effort to keep the pressure off his aching shoulders. “It won’t make a difference-

“Well, if that’s the case,” The man strolls around to Merlin’s back, sliding a hand between his shoulder blades, “I suppose we don’t have to keep you in one piece anymore, do we?”

Merlin’s got about half a second to brace himself before the man shoves forward, sending him sprawling. He’s barely got his feet on the ground as is, toes slipping out from beneath him and his body dropping, hard. The force of it wrenches his arms violently back and up, anguish slamming through his frame. For a few, heart wrenching moments his joints hold out, screaming in protest.

Then a deafening crack sounds and his right shoulder goes, sliding out of the socket with a nauseating pop. ¬¬

The pain is so acute that he can’t feel the anguish of his back anymore. Every inch of him is blinding white agony, his feet sliding uselessly against the ground. He can’t find his purchase. He keeps trying to get his weight beneath him, to take it off his shoulders before his left arm goes too; but he’s too far gone.

Vaguely he recognizes the hoarse sound that’s torn from his throat, bile dribbling down his chin. His lips are moving and he can only hope he’s not begging, because all he can hear is hard, white noise. His left arm isn’t going to last much longer, but he can’t even dwell on that. He’s too focused on the sharp, numbing agony of his dislocated shoulder where it’s wrenched up above his head.

Blearily he recognizes that the man is at his front again, sneering. He grabs Merlin’s chin and gives his head a hard shake, saying something that he can’t make out through the heavy clack of the chain and the hard rush of blood in his ears.

With all the strength he can muster Merlin slams his mouth shut over his scream. He peels open the eye that’s not completely swollen shut and grinds his teeth until they ache, forcing himself to meet the man’s twisted grin head on. He won’t break under this bastard’s hand. He won’t give him that satisfaction. Kingsmen are of a stronger make than that; he’s of a stronger make than that.

Merlin can feel his muscles start to strain in his left arm, the joint giving out under the pressure-

Then an echoing shot sounds through the room and the man releases him, snarling in pain. Merlin only just barely recognizes it for what it is, a gunshot; he’s in too much pain, his left arm’s burning, wrenched up too far.

Shut it down, shut it the fuck down now!

The words don’t even register until suddenly the machine halts and the chain stills above him.

The abrupt stop causes Merlin’s whole body to lurch. He can’t clamp back on the broken shout of pain that slips out of him, his toes scrambling for purchase against the floor beneath him. He just barely manages to get balanced on the balls of his feet, taking the slightest edge of pressure off of his back; but it’s not enough.

Merlin’s shaking too hard to keep himself upright and he knows, just knows he’s going to fall.

Sir!

Firm hands wrap around his waist, steadying him when his feet begin to slip.

Fuck, Archie, get a move on!

I’m working on it, I’m working on it!

Merlin still has the presence of mind to recognize his own recruits when he hears them. He sucks in a hard breath, cracking an eye open to glance at the body curled around his front.

“Jasper-” he chokes over the word some, trying to ignore the sharp scrape of anguish that slams down his back, “where’s Galahad?

The candidate glances up to him, seemingly taken a back that Merlin’s speaking at all. He can only imagine how he looks; face beaten to a pulp, arms stretched up behind him at an unnatural angle, burn marks marring his chest from where they’d taped the wires down.

“Sir, I-” Jasper swallows, adjusting his grip to help Merlin alleviate just a bit more pressure, “he’s working on our exit strategy.”

Merlin can read between the lines. He knows very well that Harry Hart is out in that damned hall mowing down every man he can get his hands on. Not that he minds, it’s just all so typical; so very Harry.

“Right then.” He croaks, just barely resisting the urge to heave all over poor Jasper’s front. “You lot mind getting me the fuck down from here?”

Sir yes sir!

Merlin can hear Archie working just out of sight, and he can only pray that the kid figures the machine out soon, because the pain is getting too much, and if he lets himself pass out now the shock just might kill him. He tries not to focus on the hard agony that claws its way across his shoulder blades. Instead he turns his attention to Jasper at his front, to the heavy rise and fall of the man’s chest against his own.

Then with a sharp noise Archie finally gets the mechanism to release, and Merlin’s whole body drops like lead.

Jaspers’ quick enough to slow his fall, but the sudden release of his strained limbs causes Merlin to let out a loud, broken shout.

Fuck.” His hands drop to rest against his back, but the motion only causes a fresh burst of agony to flair through his right shoulder, causing him to heave. With as much strength as he can manage Merlin leans off to the side, retching a thick foam of bile and blood up onto the concrete floor. “Jesus fucking Christ-“

“Sir, stay with us sir.” Jasper’s so careful to avoid Merlin’s aching arms when he helps the man back up to his knees. He keeps one hand on Merlin’s hip, the other coming up to press over his sternum. “If you pass out now.”

“M’not going to pass out.” Merlin manages to spit out through the tight clench of his teeth. Now that his shoulders aren’t in immediate peril of being rended from his fucking torso his back’s once again clamoring for his attention. Sharp spasms of pain lock up his spine, his whole face twisting in agony at each violent pulse. “Get me out of these fuckin’ chains right now.”

“S-sir yes sir!” Archie’s scrambles up at his back and sets to work a little too roughly for Merlin’s liking. He bites his lip, unwilling to complain if it means slowing the kid down, but Jasper takes that decision right out of his hands.

Easy.” He flashes his fellow candidate a look over Merlin’s back, his eyebrows raised pointedly. “Don’t do any more damage than they’ve already caused.”

“Right, right okay.” Archie takes a breath over Merlin’s shoulders and starts again. This time his ministrations are more careful, less severe, and in a matter of minutes the heavy chain drops away.

Merlin’s whole body seems to sag in relief, but the feeling is sort lived, hard agony spiking through him when his limp arms swings back around to his side.

Jesus.” He lets his head drop down against Jasper’s shoulder for a moment and sucks in hard through his clenched teeth. Only once he manages to blink back the hard flashes of white that splash across his vision does he finally sit back again. He meets Jasper’s gaze, his expression stern. “You’re going to have to reset it.”

Jasper doesn’t even hesitate, just offers him a calculated look and a nod. “Brace yourself sir, this is going to hurt-”

Stop.”

Merlin starts visibly at the familiar voice. He takes in a trembling breath and strains to look over Jasper’s shoulder with the only eye that’s fucking working at the moment.

Sure enough Harry Hart stands in the doorway, looking a bloody mess with his suit stained dark and his hair mussed down over his glasses. His expression is guarded, cold; but Merlin doesn’t miss the hard clench of his jaw when he strides forward, determined.

I’ll do it.

Archie immediately steps back at Galahad’s approach, standing at attention. Jasper isn’t so quick to move, eyeing Harry carefully before he turns his attention back to Merlin. “Sir?”

“It’s…it’s fine.” Merlin manages to choke out, blood dribbling down over his chin. He doesn’t look away from Harry, keeping his expression carefully schooled. “Stay close, you’ll have to help brace me for him.”

I can do it by myself.” Harry protests sharply, coming to a stop at Merlin’s front and edging Jasper out of the way.

“No…no you sure as hell can not.” With a hard, shaking breath Merlin glances up to Harry. He tries to keep his gaze focussed, but his vision keeps blurring out, the nauseating ache of pain wearing him thin. “I’m going to pass out soon Harry-”

“Not on my fucking watch you aren’t-”

Harry!” Merlin let’s all of the ache and frustration filter into his voice, breathing in hard through his nose. “It’s a fact not a point of debate. Just…just do as I fucking tell you.”

It’s enough to pull the man back from the blood haze that’s consumed him. He blinks down at Merlin, swallowing hard with the slow nod of his head. “Alright.”

“Jasper, behind me.” Merlin tries to keep himself upright on his knees when the candidate moves, his eyes still fixed on Harry’s body. “Brace me at the hips. Try not to touch my back-”

Sir.

Harry drops down into the space that Jasper had occupied, sliding right up to Merlin’s front and staring him down, unblinking. “You give the count.”

“Alright.” Merlin sucks in hard through his nose, clenching his teeth when Harry carefully positions his hands around the limp limb. “Alright.”

It takes him longer to find his composure than he’d care to admit. Harry doesn’t push him, just keeps jaw locked and his touch gentle over the steady swell of Merlin’s shoulder. Vaguely he can feel where Jasper’s come to brace him at his back, the recruit’s hands folding over his hips carefully.

This way, at the very least, he won’t bash his brains out when he passes out cold.

And it’s a when, not an if.

He’s already pushed his body well past its limits; knows all too well that he’s moments away from cracking completely.

One.” He spits out, his whole body trembling with the horrible anticipation of what’s about to come. He forces himself to stay focussed on Harry’s unwavering gaze, taking strength in his familiar eyes, in the hard set line of his mouth- “Two.”

One last trembling breath in and he screws his eyes shut tight.

Three!

The last thing Merlin remembers before his entire world goes dark is white hot agony and the sickening pop of his shoulder sliding back into place.

Then there’s nothing-

Just a sweet, blissful, void that wraps around him, threatening to drag him under-

And after fighting tooth and nail for so long, Merlin finally just lets go.

---

The moment Merlin’s mind claws its way back through the heavy cloud of nothingness he instantly knows where he is; doesn’t even need to open his eyes.

The smells, the sounds, he’d know them anywhere.

It is his med bay, after all.

With a choked grunt he tries to open his eyes, wincing at the hard pull of plastic, wedged up his nose. A sharp sense of discomfort floods him and he groans, blinking when his eyes start to water. His nerves are rubbed raw, exposed. Everything is too harsh, too bright, and even with all of his years of training Merlin can’t help but momentarily feel overwhelmed.

His left hand trembles violently when he tugs at the tube in his nose, dragging the long plastic out of him with a shuddering breath. It takes longer than he’d like, his shoulder protesting sharply and his stomach lurching at the sensation. After a long minute he tugs the damned thing free, sucking in air greedily.

His eyes water violently and he blinks, desperate to stave off the sudden flood of tears.

“Jesus fuck.” His voice is rough, dry, catching with a hard tug of pain. He tries to swallow but his mouth is too dry, lips cracked and throat scratchy.

He needs water, desperately.

He glances around, sharp pain still lancing through his brain at the bright, harsh lighting of the room. There’s a chair by his bed, and it’s clear that it’s been well used. A worn book rests on the seat; a familiar jacket thrown over the back. Merlin takes a second to try and place it before he gives up, his mind sluggish and slow.

He forces his gaze off to the bedside table. A clipboard balances on the edge of the smooth metal; his medical charts no doubt. Merlin goes to reach for it, only to realize that his right arm is pinned to his chest. He startles at the sight of the sling, his mind slamming violently back to that cold, dank room: to the heavy chains around his wrists, to the violent whirr of the machine-

His goes into a blind panic against his will, his whole body tensing and a violent spike of pain coursing down his spine. He grits his teeth together viciously and tries in vain to ride out the terror. Intellectually he knows he’s safe, that he’s as far away form that blasted place as he can get. Yet there’s no helping the way his vulnerable mind sinks back there, fear and anxiety ripping into him, merciless.

He’s dangerously close to hyper ventilating, white spots edging across his vision and a cold sweat blooming across his brow. The hard tremble in his left hand moves up until his whole body shakes, teeth chattering violently. His jaw aches at the motion, skin tugged tight by the steady swell of bruises. The pain’s just another reminder, stoking the memory, helping it drag him down down-

He struggles to sit up, all but consumed by the recollection of the sharp burn of electricity, the smell of seared flesh, the cold hard clank of the chain against his wrist-

Merlin.”

It’s the sharp, familiar voice that finally drags him back. He whips his head towards the door, ignoring the sharp nausea that fills him at the motion. When he finally blinks through the clouded haze of his mind he finds Harry standing in the threshold.

The relief that floods through Merlin is almost too intense to bear.

He sags back against the mattress with a wince, suddenly hyper aware of the searing pain that shoots down his spine. He grits his teeth at the sensation, but the panic doesn’t come again. Harry’s presence is immediately grounding; calming even when the man’s expression shifts from concern to barely contained rage.

Harry.” He manages to croak out, swallowing through the thick lump that wedges in his throat. He fights to force his mouth up into a smile, but the motion tugs on aging bruises. He’s left to struggle against a wince, breathing out through gritted teeth. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Harry doesn’t reply right away, his expression tight. Merlin can see the way his jaw clenches rhythmically, stress written across his features. After a long moment the Harry finally moves into the room dropping the door to swing shut behind him. “You shouldn’t talk.”

“I’ll speak if I fucking please.” Merlin manages to shoot back, shaking his head against the pillow behind him. He watches Harry through half-lidded eyes, trailing the man as he settles down in the chair at his side. “How long?

“Nearly two weeks now.” Harry replies, his tone curt and strained. He sets down the coffee he’d been holding and edges his chair closer to Merlin’s bedside.

Really?” Merlin can’t help the strained shock that filters through his tone. With the concussion he’d expected to be out for a few days at least, but weeks? The damage must have been worse than he’d originally imagined. “What’s my prognosis?”

Harry watches him carefully, his teeth grinding behind his pursed lips. “We can talk about that later.” He manages, his tone tense, sharp. “For now you should rest.”

“I’ve had more than enough rest for the moment.” Merlin goes to sit up some and Harry’s instantly on him, hands urging him back down against the bed.

“That’s debatable.”

“I’m not asking Harry.” Merlin winces over a sharp noise of agitation, scowling when he’s forced back against the mattress. “Tell me the damage.”

Merlin.”

“You tell me Harry,” Merlin starts to sit up again, motioning his head towards the clipboard, “or I’ll find out for myself.”

Harry stares at him, his expression terse, before he finally relents, sighing heavily. He scoops up the clipboard and hands it over to Merlin, clenching his jaw. “Arthur says you’ll heal.”

Good.” Merlin takes the clipboard with his good hand, squinting to focus on the page.

His vision’s a bit blurry, and as he scans his charts he starts to figure out why. The concussion he’d expected, along with the dislocation, separated shoulder, second degree electrical burns, and torn rotator cuff. The Cauda Equina Syndrome comes as more of a surprise. The damage those bastards had inflicted on his back managed to affect the nerve roots at the end of his spinal cord. He knows enough about the injury to recognize the risk of permanent damage.

He struggles to flip over the page one handed, but Harry catches on, leaning forward He clears his throat, swallowing through the sudden weight of discomfort that floods him.

“I’m going to, ah,” he shifts when he moves to set the charts back in Harry’s hands, “hazard a guess and say I ruptured my herniated disk?”

“You did.” Harry takes the clipboard and clenches his jaw, eyes narrowing. “Which is exactly why you never should have been in the field in the first place.”

Harry.” Merlin sighs, only managing to contain the roll of his eyes when his head protests sharply at the motion. This particular conversation is one they’ve had too many times to count. “I’m fine, my surgery results-”

Harry keeps his voice low, but his tone is wild, dangerous. “I don’t frankly give a fuck about the results Andrew-”

Merlin quickly hushes him, glancing around the room, his expression tight. “I told you not to call me that at work.”

It was a stupid risk” Harry ignores him completely. He pushes on, dragging a hand up over his mouth. “After what they did to you? You could have been paralyzed, or fucking killed Andrew-”

“But I wasn’t.” Merlin snaps, agitation winning over the steady ache of exhaustion that threatens to weigh him down. “I survived, I’ll walk again, I’ll heal.”

“And what, that’s supposed to make it all okay?” Harry’s not backing down this time, his voice raising and his body a hard line of tension.

“You may heal, this time,” Harry all but growls, fisting his hands in the sheets at Merlin’s side, “but what about the next, hm Andrew? You’ll end up killing yourself if you insist on carrying on like this.”

“We’ve had this conversation Harry, more than once.” Merlin glares at him, his jaw clenching. “You will not stop me from participating in my candidates field tests-”

“But it doesn’t have to be you.” Harry objects, expression fierce. “I don’t understand why you take these risks-”

“Because I’m cleared for it Harry.” Merlin’s struggling to keep his composure, a hard lump wedging in his throats. They’ve no doubt got him drugged to high heavens, he can feel the heavy cloud in his mind, the weighted sensation that tugs at his nerves. They leave him feeling groggy, emotional, strained. “I’m healthy and damned well capable enough-”

“You could send agents with their proposals, you could monitor the whole thing from here-”

Out of the fucking question Harry.” Merlin finally snaps, the force of the shout sending a sharp spike of pain up his spine. He grits his teeth and slams his eyes shut tight, struggling to fight the stinging burn of tears. It takes him a moment to overcome the urge to cry. He breathes in hard through his nose, mentally cursing the medication that tugs at his nerves.

Harry doesn’t say anything while he struggles for composure, but Merlin can feel the way that he tightens his fingers in the bedsheets at his side. With another shuddering breath he forces himself to look up, searching out Harry’s gaze. “I know you’re worried about me.”

With good reason.” Harry murmurs, but at Merlin’s sharp look he quiets, sheepish.

But,” Merlin continues, slowly shaking his head, “you have to know that what happened to me back then? There was absolutely nothing you could have done to stop it.”

Harry tenses, his jaw clenching like a vice. He looks like hes’ about to say something, to object, but Merlin doesn’t give him the chance.

“It wasn’t your fault Harry.” He tries not to sound as exasperated as he feels. With a hard sigh he reaches out with his good arm, giving Harry’s wrist a firm squeeze. “Yes, you were there back then. You were with me when that fucking blast took my back out for the first time. You were with me when Arthur pulled me as Gawain and made me a handler; made me Merlin. And through all of it you did exactly what you needed to do, you did your job.”

“I could have done more.” Harry objects, but his voice is losing it’s fiery edge, shifting to something softer, more reserved. “I knew the bomb was a threat, and still I left you.”

“Yes, you left me; you left a fully trained, fully qualified Kingsman agent to disarm a weapon while you rescued our mark. I made a mistake, and I suffered the consequences.” Merlin states firmly, his expression narrowing. “Your actions that day changed the history of our nation. Without you, Margaret Thatcher would have met a very untimely end. It would have been the first successful assassination of a British Prime Minister since 1812…is that what you would have wanted?”

“I wanted….no, I want to keep you safe.” Harry’s not looking at him now, glancing off to the side with that ridiculous mop of hair flopping down over his eyes. Merlin can understand why he’s scared. They’re still so young, and yet twice now Harry’s seen him at death’s door. He’s terrified of losing him, of being left alone, and Merlin understands. He’s a handler. He watches his colleagues, his friends, the people he loves, throw themselves head long into danger. He watches them do miraculous things, watches them save the world. Yet in the same breath he can watch them stumble and fall.

Merlin understands… because he’s scared too.

“Protecting me isn’t your job.” With a hard swallow he glances up to Harry, trying to meet the man’s gaze. He still has his fingers wrapped around Harry’s wrist. He gives them a squeeze, tightening his grip until he has Harry’s full attention. “I’m highly trained, and skilled. But like any Kingsman agent I make mistakes…and sometimes those mistakes cost me, dearly. But so long as I’m still standing, you know why I can’t quit.”

Harry’s jaw locks but he relents somewhat, offering Merlin the barest hint of a nod.

“What you’re feeling…I understand it all too well.” Merlin pushes on, rubbing his thumb over the back of Harry’s wrist. “Each and every time I hand you a mission, I do so knowing that I could be sending you to your death.”

That’s different-

“What, because it’s you? It’s the exact same and you bloody well know it.” Merlin snaps. “But I don’t ask you to stop, I don’t tell you to quit, and do you want to know why? Because it’s our bloody job Harry.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Harry snaps back, giving his head a hard shake. “Finding you down there, seeing what those men did to you-”

“I never said you had to like it. For fuck’s sake Harry, be upset, be scared, be downright fucking furious for all I care,” Merlin releases his wrist, gesturing pointedly at Harry, “but don’t you dare try to tell me I should stop. Because you know that’s not what Kingsman agents are about. I’ll do my job as long as I am physically able to; and if that job so happens to include field work while I’m training my candidates? Then so fucking be it. You have no right, with the amount of danger and bullshit you put yourself through every day, to tell me to do anything beyond be careful.”

For a moment it looks as though Harry’s going to argue, his expression sour and his jaw tense. Only then he just sighs, shaking his head and sitting back somewhat in his chair. “Fine.” He crosses his arms over his chest, motioning at Merlin with his jaw. “On one condition.”

“Oh?” Merlin raises both brows, sagging back against the pillow behind him. “And what might that be?”

I come with you.” Harry leans forward again, resting his elbows on the mattress at Merlin’s side. “When you take the candidates out on their field test, I’m the agent you bring. Every time.”

Merlin blinks, brows furrowing. “I don’t need you to babysit me.”

“And I’m not asking to.” Harry insists, shaking his head. “But if you want me to stop bothering you about this, to stop worrying over you all the time, this is my condition.”

“It’s not my choice.”

“I’ll have it cleared with Arthur.”

“You can’t keep me from my work-”

I won’t.”

Merlin watches him, struggling to stay focussed through the steadily building urge to sleep. “Alright.” He sighs and sags back against the bed. He’s too far gone to continue arguing, the pain finally taking its toll. “If Arthur approves, that is.”

“Fair enough.” Harry shifts closer, offering him a strained smile. “I promise not to coddle you too much.”

Merlin snorts, shaking his head against the pillow. “Somehow I don’t believe you.”

In the field, that much I can promise you.” Harry laughs a bit, the sound warming slightly. “Though for the next few weeks, I can offer no guarantees.”

For the next few weeks?” Merlin frowns, gritting his teeth when he shifts too much and his shoulder gives a violent throb.

Harry shakes his head with a smile. “With you out of commission, someone needs to man the med bay.”

“You don’t have to stay here for my sake.” Merlin states, but there’s no denying the warm, comfortable sensation that wells in him at the thought.

“I don’t have to.” Harry smiles, but doesn’t move from where he’s hunched over the bed. “I want to.”

“Oh.” Merlin manages, the word coming out slightly slurred. Their arguing has taken its toll, he’s starting to slip away again, black creeping along the edges of his vision. “They aren’t going to miss you in the field?”

“Not with Percival on the job.”

Percival…Arthur selected the candidate without me.” It’s a statement, not a question. “Which one?”

“Jasper.” Harry reaches out casually, resting a hand over Merlin’s thigh and squeezing there lightly. “He’s proved himself more than capable. You trained him well.”

“And Archie?” Merlin struggles to blink against the weighted urge to sleep that drapes over him, threatening to drag him under.

“He performed well, but he lacks the constitution for field work.” Harry states, watching him carefully as he fights to stay awake. “Arthur’s offered him a position in IT.”

“Has he now?” Merlin’s starting to feel dizzy, blinking viciously against the dark that steadily encroaches on his vision. “That’s…that’s good.”

Harry’s smile drops and he edges forward, bringing a hand up to smooth over Merlin’s bruised jaw. “You should rest.

“You’re probably right.” Merlin sighs, finally letting his eyes slip shut. “Thank you Harry.”

“For what?” Harry’s voice is quiet, distant.

“For being there for me.” He breathes out, sagging back against the bed, bringing his good arm up to grasp at Harry’s wrist, squeezing there firmly. “For staying.

He can practically hear the smile that quirks up Harry’s lips. The man shifts his grip on Merlin’s hand, raising it up to press his mouth over the knuckles in a soft, chaste kiss. “It’s no problem Andrew.”

I’ll stay as long as you need.

Merlin’s world is fading to black too fast for him to stave it off. He starts to fall under, the heavy weight of darkness dragging him down once more. Only this time he’s not afraid; the pain is still there, but it’s gone from sharp agony to a dull, manageable ache.

He allows himself to slip away, fingers curled tightly over Harry’s hand.

The last thought that filters through his groggy mind is that he’s okay, Harry’s here…

He’s safe now.

End