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Standing in front of the mirror, Merlin puts on his tee. It's white, short sleeved, tight fitting, without a wrinkle. He tucks it in his uniform trousers and pulls up the zip. Shirt fitted to his body, he leans over and grabs his bulletproof vest and pulls it on. He tightens the straps one by one. When he's done, he tests his reach and ease of movement. It's just fine. He can move with ease. Just to be sure, he adjusts the topmost strap, rotates his arm, and nods to himself.

With a flip of his wrist, he opens his drawer, and takes out his gun and holster. He checks the gun first, ejecting the magazine. The bullets are all present and correctly lined up one by one in the compartment. After pushing the slide back, he makes sure there's a round in the chamber, too. He closes the slide, clicks the safety on and encases the Glock in its holster, which he secures around his upper thigh.

He's about to put on his shirt, when the door opens and closes behind him.

“You're not going to shoot me,” Arthur says, walking in with such a light tread he could almost be padding barefoot. “Are you?”

“I'll have you know I've rather good aim, so no matter how much you startle me and how much I may want to, I'm not going to off you.” Merlin smiles wanly, slowly turns around. “You know that's not my job.”

“No.” Arthur leans against the low table, his hands behind him, his feet crossed. “No, that's not it.”

Merlin shifts his weight. “So,” he says, for lack of a better topic to broach. “Ready for today?”

“No.” Arthur ducks his head. “Absolutely not.”

“I'll be protecting you, Arthur.” Merlin knows that he's not omnipotent, that he can't single-handedly ensure Arthur will be fine. But he will do his best as he has always done. That hasn't changed. “We'll get over this hurdle too.”

“That's not what I mean, Merlin.” Arthur looks up, and there's an intensity of concentration in his eyes Merlin's never spied before. “I--” He rolls back his shoulders. “I don't want you there today.”

“What?” Merlin would never shirk his duty, never opt out of protecting his charge. He will never let Arthur face any sort of danger without him there. “Stop joking. You know I'm going to escort you all the way through that parade. Even if it kills me.”

“That's it, though.” Arthur drums his fingers on the table's rim, looks at him from under partially lowered lids. “It could very well kill you.”

Merlin flexes his shoulders. “That's my job.” Merlin knows it and Arthur knows it. “That's what I agreed to when I enlisted and what I kept on subscribing to when I chose close protection. It's my duty.”

“I relieve you of it.” Arthur straightens, stiffens, an eyebrow climbing.

“I'll only stand down,” Merlin says, tipping his head back and holding his chin up, “if you do, too.”

“Call off the parade, you mean?” Arthur says, eyes rounding. “You know I can't do that. With my father’s reputation plummeting after his latest speeches, I have to step into his shoes, mitigate the damage he’s caused.” Arthur widens his stance. “It's as much my duty as Prince as it's yours as SO14 to gear up--” He eyes Merlin's holster and as he does his eyes slide down Merlin's body, “--and stand in the line of fire.”

“In that case.” Merlin bumps chests with Arthur. “I'll be there too.”

“I can't ask you that.” Arthur's gaze dips downwards and then back up again. “I know how foolhardy you are and how ready you are to step into any fray—”

Between one breath and the next, Merlin's heart misses a beat, contracts painfully, and he can't help but say words that would be far too revelatory to anyone but Arthur. “Only for you.”

Arthur sucks in a sharp breath. “Yes, that.” He makes febrile gestures, smacks a hand against his thigh. “It’s because you say things like that that I must ask you to step down.”

“You know I can't,” Merlin says, stabbing a finger at Arthur's chest. “Now more than ever, not with the threats on the royal family. On you.”

Arthur's jaw sets until it becomes a hard line. “They might mean nothing.”

Merlin narrows his eyes and studies Arthur's face. Apart from the tightness etched on it, it's unreadable. That tells Merlin everything he needs to know. “You don't believe that! You know how dangerous it's going to be and that's why you want me out of harm’s way.”

Arthur looks away. The lighting paints shadows over his face, highlighting his brow and the outward push of his lips. “I can't ask you to die for me and that's the end of it.”

Merlin huffs. “You're not asking.”

“Merlin.” Arthur's gaze moves onto him and his face goes taut with strain.

Merlin shifts his weight from one foot to the other, lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. “Who says anyone’s going to die, huh?”

The next breath Arthur takes is loud. “Ever since my father made friendly overtures to Sarrum the threats from Duir have rained in.”

Merlin knows that. MI5 debriefs him twice a week at minimum, but credible threats like this mean he is briefed daily, sometimes twice or more. Duir is, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar name for him.

“Arthur--” Merlin starts.

“It's just—“ Arthur talks over him, then stops and moistens his lips. “It's just that, as accustomed as I am to your fusspot presence--” Arthur's facial muscles darken into a frown. “Asking you to be there, embroiling you in a problem that’s not of your making, especially now when it's so dangerous, it seems callous, dishonourable even.” Arthur raises his gaze to match it to Merlin's. “You don't owe me your life.”

It’s a noble sentiment, but at times like this, Merlin thinks Arthur's painfully naive. The whole reason Merlin's been hired is because he has thus far been quite successful at staving off potentially mortal threats involving his assignments. He's gained that recognition because he's put his life on the line more than once. It’s what he’s always wanted to do – has always felt that he couldn't just stand by and watch – and that's most certainly the reason why he's been put on the crown's payroll. But he doesn't want Arthur to see it like that, because if he did, Arthur would most certainly exercise all his pull to get Merlin taken off this job. And that simply cannot happen.

Merlin busies his hands with double-checking Arthur’s vest, smoothing the straps as he had just done his own. He'll wear jacket and waiscoat over it; it will virtually disappear from view. It's enough to know that it's there.

When he's finished he straightens, rights his head, and says. “I'll be by your side today, watching you like a hawk.” Merlin makes himself smile, huff, slap Arthur's back, anything to lighten the mood. Arthur doesn't push him off with a roll of the shoulder and he doesn't direct his eyes heavenwards. He doesn't put any space between them, or pull rank as he sometimes still does when they've got too close and it feels like there are no barriers between them, the way it is at night when Merlin's off duty and maybe they're just a little bit in their cups. And that absence of brusqueness, in and of itself, is more scary than any request Arthur might make or any order he might bark. He meets Arthur’s eyes and gives him a sharp nod. “We're in this together.”

 

****

Helicopters circle the area, their rotors rumbling like thunder, lifting an artificial wind in their wake that raises dust and street litter. They come and go, disappearing behind the façade of stately cream-colored buildings, moving out of sight for just as long as it takes to walk a hundred yards or so. Police radios chirp short messages and an assortment of short, garbled mechanical noises.

Standing behind crush barriers, crowds line the road. Every few hundred yards a cluster of policemen stand, shoulders pulled back, hands clasped together, fingers itching to reach for Taser and baton. Army vehicles stand sideways on the road at intervals, men in camo gear flanking them, weapons out and at the ready.

Moving at the same pace as the procession, Merlin walks ahead of Arthur, slightly to his right. He's got an eye out for the crowd – taking note of any movement that seems too brisk, too sudden, too unaccountable – and an ear tuned for any noise that's out of the norm, too loud, too reminiscent of weaponry.

With the mob moving in waves – shifting, diminishing, surging, calling out to Arthur, chanting – it's not an easy task. But Merlin keeps his focus.

He searches the mob in sections, dismissing fake threats, accounting for the possibility of real ones, always on the lookout for strange, tell-tale tics, behaviours indicative of murderous intentions. He can't tell which kind of conduct is actually normal in these circumstances, what kind of reaction multitudes ought to have to a parading prince trying to make nice to counter angry public opinion. So he just considers every movement suspicious until it's proven otherwise, his finger a twitch away from the trigger. If he tries to keep this up too long, it might drive him crazy, but he can live with that. Better strung out than with the notion he's not paid enough attention, not done enough, failed Arthur. Ultimately, it's Arthur's life on the line here and Merlin doesn't mean to risk it any more than is necessary.

His muscles bunch with the tension of it and he grips the butt of his semi-automatic tight, willing himself to relax.

“The crowd is thicker closer to Whitehall,” the SO14 commander says in Merlin's earpiece. “And more unruly. Watch out for that.”

“Roger,” Merlin says, weapon at the ready.

With that warning in mind, Merlin sticks somewhat closer to Arthur, matches his every move, like a ghost, like his shadow. But it seems almost superfluous. The pack of onlookers is indeed denser, louder. Protesters shout abuse, mostly directed at Arthur's father, some of it at Arthur himself. Arthur takes it to heart, Merlin can see. It's in the clench of his jaw and in the dimming light of his eyes. At his best Arthur doesn't look like this. He shines. He projects confidence, pride, even good humour. But his present reaction can't be helped now, not in the situation they're in. You'd have to have very thick skin to be able to ignore the insults, and the crisis they betray. He understands Arthur now, he does, in a way he once wouldn't have thought possible, not when the gap between a prince and a recruit seemed so insurmountable. Even so, he wishes Arthur could know some relief, could smile again.

There's no quick solution to the present quandary, not with the King firmly entrenched in his position and Arthur stuck in the middle. All Merlin asks for is for some reprieve. Actually he looks forward to unwinding tonight, enjoying some down time so they both can forget about all of this, at least for a short while. He wants them to feel more like humans again, instead of the puppets borne by the currents of politics.

When he's off duty, he will drop by Arthur's, have a glass of wine with him – Arthur's taught him the perks of that beverage – and make sure Arthur lets his guard down, relaxes. When this is over, when Arthur's comforted, he will allow himself to chill out too. To think the ordeal over.

But it isn't over yet. Arthur must still be seen to fully take part in the event, to see the schedule through, to ensure the day turns into a diplomatic success for the monarchy. Everyone's watching, after all. Merlin knows that it will be easier to protect Arthur during the speeches, when Arthur is finally in one place and not moving through these undulating crowds.

News vans with camera crews dot the thoroughfare. Photographers hold their cameras up, flashes nearly blinding Merlin in the bargain. He pushes his earpiece a bit more firmly into place. The reporters call out to Arthur, on the lookout for a photo opportunity.

Arthur will sometimes stop. He's been trained to interact with his people, knows it's all part of the bargain. He’ll grant the tabloids some fodder, make sure the monarchy gets better press, but what he seems to enjoy more is a chance to connect with his people. When he does approach the crowd, however, Arthur knows enough to make Merlin's job easier. He never gets too close to the bystanders, never gets behind the crowd breakers. He shakes hands but it's a swift motion, perfunctory, one not allowing too much contact, too many potential ins. Unless it's a child, of course, because then Arthur lingers with them, high fives or fist bumps them, kneeling or squatting so he's on their level.

Merlin appreciates Arthur for that; he truly does. It takes a soft heart to be able to spread cheer among the children the way Arthur does. But Arthur's tendency to be so open with them doesn't make Merlin any less jumpy. Kids are kids, but someone might use them, and you just never know.

Throughout, Merlin bites his lip, tenses, hovering close enough that he can protect Arthur if something untoward happens. But nothing does.

They've almost come to the end of their route, a hundred yards or so between them and the building Arthur's to be whisked into at the end of the procession, when Arthur flashes him a smile.

Merlin wants to return it, to say something to the effect of 'hey, we've made it', but suddenly, his skin prickles with unease, a sense of foreboding that stabs him right in the gut, takes his breath. It's likely only because of it that he notices.

It's nothing more than a blur, a shot of colour dashing past, but the suddenness of the motion has Merlin moving. To cries of protest, a man shoulders his way among the crowd. He elbows a path through the crush of bystanders and gets to the front, jumps the barrier.

Arthur is his target and doesn't even know it. He's looking at another section of the crowd, mouth framed in a smile. Merlin could aim, take the attacker down, but the man's already raising a gun, and there would be no saving Arthur.

At a run, Merlin dives in front of Arthur. The pain is dull but takes his breath. His legs don't even go out from under him. While the shooter is tackled to the ground, Merlin stumbles round to face his charge.

It's then that Arthur turns, takes him in. He frowns deeply, then his gaze dips lower, at chest height. He dashes forward then, grabs Merlin by the forearm, a hand at his waist. “Merlin,” he says.

Merlin wants to tell him not to worry, to please not look like that, with eyes shadowed with a pain Merlin wants to wash clean. But when he speaks nothing comes out. Pain flares much brighter then, like a punch to the heart, a wrench to the bones. His undershirt dampens, his body goes cold, and his legs finally give.

“Merlin!” Arthur goes onto his knees with him, then when Merlin slumps on the ground, he cradles his head. When Merlin spits blood, he looks wildly round and shouts, “Someone get paramedics here! Now!”

Merlin clutches at Arthur's arm, says, “Don't.”

“Anybody!” Arthur's fingers curl around Merlin's nape. They're warm, like a log fire. “Merlin, you've got to hold on.”

“Don't think I can.” Merlin's words come from far away, from a distance even he can't plumb. They don't belong to him or he doesn't belong to himself. There's fire in his chest, he can't breathe, and his spine is curdling with a deep-seated cold. He's seen enough action in his life to know what this means. “I—” He licks his lips. “I don't regret it, even f--” He shakes, his body rising with the pain. “For a moment.”

Arthur's jaw-line sharpens, his grip on Merlin becomes tighter. “We'll talk about that stupid stunt you just pulled another time. Now you just concentrate on breathing. You hear me, Merlin?”

Merlin does as Arthur asked, sucks in much needed oxygen. Mostly because he wants to last long enough to tell Arthur what matters most. “Don't ever--” Another breath, this one sharp. “Don't ever.” God, why is it so hard to speak? Why can't he let this out? He promises to let go without a fight if only he can say this. On the next lungful, he rushes the words out. “Don't feel responsible, okay?” This...” He bunches the fabric of Arthur's jacket in his fingers. “T-this was... This was my c-call. My--”

Merlin's vision blurs and when it swims back into place Arthur's shaking him, shouting his name, twisting away from the security guards trying to manhandle him away. A ring of camo-clad soldiers has formed around Arthur, blocking him and Merlin from view.

Arthur's voice is hoarse when he half yells, “Get your hands off me, or I swear you'll regret it.”

“Your Highness.” Merlin distantly recognizes that voice. It's familiar, or at least the tones are. Lancelot? Daegal? “Your Highness, please, you can't stay here. It's too dangerous.”

“Lay another finger on me and I promise you you'll be short of a job.”

“Arthur, go.” Merlin feels it when Arthur slips back into place, lifting Merlin, pulling him closer. “Do as...” Merlin's lips feel swollen, his tongue stuck to his palate, slurring his words. “As they say.”

“You must be joking.” Arthur smiles but it's a pale attempt at one of his usual smirks. “No one bosses me around. It's belied anyway by the veil of tears filming his eyes. “I'm the ultimate bully, aren't I?”

Merlin's ears begin to ring and he's not sure he can properly hear anything, let alone his own voice, but he guesses it's his problem, that his senses are failing him, and that Arthur can instead make out his words. “I--” As the next wave of lancing pain hits him, fisting his lungs into dry dust, Merlin grimaces. “I never believed that, not -- not even when I said it.”

Arthur squeezes Merlin's hand. “It's okay if you meant it, Merlin. I forgive you. To be honest, there's nothing to forgive.--” Arthur pauses then. “Actually, you did right telling me those things. You've been...” Arthur blinks. “Quite a good friend.”

A surge of agony makes Merlin moan aloud. Arthur starts shouting again, but Merlin can't sort out what it is he's saying. His vision darkens at the edges. He can only see Arthur and a swathe of sky, then everything goes black, and neither Arthur nor the clouds are visible anymore. He can only hear indistinct noises, like waves lapping at a shore. Some words do make it to him.

“Pulse 160, BP 90 over 60, RR 40,” a woman says, placing something's on Merlin's nose and mouth. “He's in hypovolemic shock.”

Merlin can't tell what that means, doesn't even have the wherewithal to care. Arthur, he told Arthur, didn't he? Not everything, but some of it, and the most important part of the message came through. Because Merlin believes this is the end for him, but Arthur's going to stay behind and he can't blame himself. Mustn't. Though he'll try. He will...

“At my three, lift.” The person who says that hovers so close Merlin can feel their breath on his cheek. “One, two, three.”

Merlin feels the jarring in his bones; feels like he's leaking, and not just blood, but the very essence of him. He's dust and he's water. He's nothing, scattering in the wind, seeping into the soil, plunging somewhere deep and dark, hurtling through that darkness at a dizzying speed.

He lands somewhere hard and groans.

“You're going to make it, mate.” Someone squeezes his hand. “We're going to make sure you're fine.”

Merlin can't even return the grip. He makes an effort to open his eyes, and when he does he's not sure whther what he takes in is real or if he’s dreaming. Either way, he sees swirling lights, shape shifting in a blur of movement, hears the rotors of a helicopter. He wonders which blur is Arthur. He’s not one of the green blobs. Maybe he's the splash of grey behind them? Merlin reaches for him, or what he thinks might be him, hand stretched out. He wishes he could do more, sit up maybe, but his body's heavy, and not his at all, not the way it is, disobeying every command he gives it.

The grey splash dashes forward, says, “Merlin.”

But someone says, “We're flying him to St Thomas', Your Highness.”

“Right.” Arthur's voice sounds different, hollow. “Right. You're right. Just, do your best. As if it were me on that gurney, alright?”

They jostle and jolt Merlin, push him up and to the side, and that unleashes a wave of agony that drowns him under.

 

****

 

Pain flares in his chest and takes his breath. It weighs on his body and batters him down. It waxes and wanes, then surges again with surprising new strength. With a rattle he sucks in air, blinks his eyes open. Lights dance around his field of vision, glow brighter, before coalescing into a mass of unresolved whites, that little by little take shape. He's looking at whitewashed walls, one alike the other, and at a side portion of window.

Tubes run into his arm and into his nostrils. They're transparent, a notch rounded, anchored by plasters at forearm level. Merlin gives his arm a lift but it doesn't budge until he's worked himself into a sweat over it. With a prolonged groan, he pushes upwards, against the cover and in the direction of the pillow. Lancing pain works its way through his body and his vision swims but he's sort of sitting now, which is the objective he meant to achieve.

Arthur, who was sunk in a chair, upper body slumping over the end of the bed, rights himself with a snap. “Merlin, you're awake.”

Merlin supposes he is. The world feels at a remove from him, far away and somewhat flimsily built. “Yeah.” The word comes out with a belaboured breath. “Yeah.”

Seeing Merlin’s slumped posture, Arthur jumps up from his seat and fiddles with the controls until the head of the bed is raised. “How are you feeling?

“Okay.” All things considered Merlin's alive, after all. It'll have to do. “Unless--” He rasps a cough. “You-- you're not a dream, are you?”

“No.” Arthur's eyes fill with unshed tears. “No, I'm not.”

“Uh.” Merlin's glad Arthur's not. He wants to reach out and touch him, make sure he wasn't hurt, that he's not some kind of vision. “Good.”

Arthur slumps back in his seat. “Merlin, do you remember what happened?”

Merlin botches a nod. “Are you okay?”

Arthur snorts, looks away. “You have the gall to ask that!” He starts on his feet and paces away from the bed, hands on his hips. “You're really going to ask me that?”

Merlin lets out a breath. “What? Are you--” He coughs. It rattles in his ribcage, upsetting his insides. “Are you angry?”

Arthur whirls round. “Of course I'm angry!” He squeezes the bridge of his nose. “Look at you, Merlin. Just... Seeing you like that. He used Kevlar-piercing bullets. I thought your vest would stop… but there was so much blood… and you looked… Have you any idea what that’s doing to me?”

“I had to.” Merlin has no other explanation for what he did. It’s just that simple to him, the only option. Protecting Arthur is an instinct. “I couldn't let you take that bullet.”

“And so you took it for me,” Arthur says, shoulders sagging. “That was crazy, stupid, and nothing I wanted.”

Merlin's heart clutches and the machine monitoring its rate gives off an alarming sound. “I'd do anything for you.”

Arthur strides over, leans over him, and takes his hand. “Merlin, don't say things like that.”

“But--” Merlin wants to speak, needs to. “I…”

“You ought to rest.”

Merlin wets his lips and shakes his head no. “I'm sorry you felt... bad about it. I didn't want to burden you with...” He trails off because the only words that come to mind are 'my death' and that's not something he wants to mention, not when Arthur's already so rattled by Merlin's actions. “But I couldn't stand by.”

Arthur squeezes his hand and says, “I told you again and again that's not your job, Merlin.”

“And I’ve told you again and again… that you have a very wrong notion… in your head of what close… protection is all about.” His chest is aching after such a long string of words, but he needs to get through to Arthur. Needs him to understand. “None.”

Arthur's eyes widen; his nostrils flare. “Regardless, don't do that again,” he says. “There’s no question. It’s an order.”

Merlin says nothing about that, because any agreement would be a lie. “Did they catch all the people behind the attack?” he asks instead.

“No, Merlin.” Arthur kneels at his bedside. “That's not what we're going to talk about.”

“It'd help, knowing you're safe.”

“I'm safe enough.” Arthur locks his fingers with Merlin’s. “But that's beside the point. How safe can I be when you do things like this to me?”

“I--” Merlin takes a breath, makes sure his thoughts are in order before he speaks again. It's not easy to collect them and find a way to present them in a sensible manner, for they mostly scatter. “You wouldn't have been to blame. My-- my choice.”

Arthur's voice rises when he says, “How can I get it into that thick head of yours? It's not about the burden and it's not about moral accountability.” Arthur's gaze softens. “It's about you, Merlin.”

Merlin frowns.

“I don't intend to witness your death.” Arthur runs his thumb along the side of Merlin's hand. “Because--”

A nurse comes in. “Ahh,” she says, “the patient's awake.” She gives Merlin a warm smile and nods towards Arthur with just a hint of deference.

Arthur pushes to his feet but doesn't let go of Merlin's hand. “Yes, I meant to call for you.”

“It's all right,” the nurse says, walking over to Merlin's bed and reviewing his chart, making some notations. “We wouldn't have missed this anyway. How are you feeling, Mr Emrys?”

“Sore, knackered.” And that only'd the beginning, but Merlin's not about to admit that. He's fairly confident that if he does she’ll send him back to drugged oblivion. And he can't allow that; he needs to finish this conversation with Arthur. “Not one of my better days.”

“Are you going to get Sir Robert?” Arthur asks. “My team asked for him specifically.”

“Sir Robert will check on Mr Emrys tomorrow,” the Nurse says, replacing the chart and rounding the bed so she can inject something in Merlin's drip. “Mr Emrys is in the best of hands, Your Highness.” She slides Merlin’s hospital gown down to inspect the wound dressing on his chest, guiding a hand along the edges of the bandages before pulling the gown back into place. “You can rest assured.”

“Well, that's as it may be.” Arthur's face sets into a gathering of taut lines, his voice raising in volume. “But I'd still like--”

Merlin tugs on Arthur's hand.

“Sir,” the nurse says, meeting Arthur’s gaze. “I'm not sure this kind of talk is appropriate in Critical Care.”

Arthur's body stiffens and he stands up straighter. “You're right.”

“The patient needs to rest.” The nurse puts both hands on the foot-rail of Merlin's bed and arches an eyebrow. “I think it would be better if you let him sleep and came back another time.”

“Right, yes, right,” Arthur says. He steps away from the bed, releasing Merlin’s hand.

Merlin doesn't want Arthur to go. Though his lids are getting heavier and his thoughts fuzzier, he doesn't want to sleep. He's slept enough and so deeply he's frankly not looking forward to a repeat experience. Being that knocked out is no fun. “Don't go.” He scrambles for Arthur's touch. “There are things I've got to say to you. That I didn't... That I didn't get to say.” And they are the ones that matter most. “I don't want to--” Breathing bloody hurts. “I don't want to miss out on the opportunity.”

The nurse makes a noise, cocks her head to the side and coughs into her fist.

Arthur lowers himself so he can speak low, for Merlin’s ears only. “Don't be an idiot. I'll be here tomorrow after you've rested.”

A stab of panic hits Merlin low in the gut. “Arthur.”

“No.” Arthur's mouth flattens into a thin line. He wraps his hand around Merlin's again. “We have all the time in the world.”

Merlin says, “But--”

“No buts.” Arthur kisses Merlin's forehead. “I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.”

“Arthur.” As Arthur makes to leave, Merlin tightens his grip on his palm. Without the drugs he probably wouldn't be doing this, but he feels immensely breakable, exposed, the canvas of him about to shatter, and he thinks Arthur knowing might ease some of that, put him to rights again. “I--”

Arthur stops fighting to get away and meets Merlin’s gaze. He sucks in a breath, his eyes widening in a kind of wonderment Merlin isn't sure he can interpret. Arthur places a hand on his shoulder, safely north of all the bandages, studies Merlin's face with an intent that's quite palpable, and lowers his mouth to his. It's a brief press of lips on lips, a fleeting touch imbued with warmth. It could mean so many things, most of which Merlin can't sort out right now, drugs be damned. But Merlin's pulse skyrockets, as indicated by the machines, and his heart swallows his chest, so that his breathing shallows and he loses it a little bit, sinking into a sea of sweet confusion where he feels no pain.

The nurse clears her throat. “Your Highness, Mr Emrys was in surgery but two days ago.”

“Right,” Arthur says, squeezing Merlin's shoulder gently before stepping back. “I-- I'm sorry that was uncalled for.”

“Arthur, it’s fine,” Merlin says, his voice as harsh as pebbles.

“No.” Arthur shakes his head. “You've been out of it for two days.” Arthur's voice rises to a shake. “You were unconscious for that long! How can I--” When Merlin's brow puckers, his tone and expression softens, and he loses his frown, his pout. He grazes his fingers along the length of Merlin's and adds, “I should let you sleep.”

Merlin wants to protest. He wants to stay alert, remain awake, make Arthur stay, where Merlin can keep an eye on him, where no harm can come to him, so close that Merlin can finally tell him everything that's on his mind. But his thoughts are slowing and he's sagging under the weight of pain and a tiredness he can't shake off. “What have you given me?” he asks the nurse.

Her only response is a gentle smile. “You need sleep, Mr Emrys. Your body has taken a massive hit and that's the best way for it to repair itself.”

“Heard the nurse?” Arthur says, one eyebrow raised. He tries for a smile, scratches at his temple. “I'll be back bright and early tomorrow.”

“You don't do bright and early.” Merlin's lids are closing, and he's fairly sure he's slurring his words. “You just don't.”

Arthur touches his foot and says, “Sleep, Merlin.”

Comfort spreads through Merlin like a blanket, and he stops feeling pain; only the warmth works through him. “Tomorrow,” he says, and lets himself fall asleep.

 

The End