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It's Only Breathing

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For such a simple action so intrinsic to our being, breathing involves so much more than the eye can see: Air is pulled into the lungs through either the oral or nasal cavity, in which carbon dioxide and oxygen is diffused through the thin membrane of the bronchioles, where the oxygen will bind with hemoglobin to make oxyhemoglobin that travels throughout the body to distribute oxygen; reversely, deoxyhemoglobin—the deoxygenated heme—returns to the lungs to bind anew.


And even then, that explanation is simplifying it because that is what the human mind does. It simplifies the corporal potential and intricacies to a seven-letter word. And isn’t that stupid: to fatally place a label and limit the possibilities because the masses cannot comprehend more than?

Merlin thinks so, and as he watches the drawn inward curl of Arthur’s shoulders and slouched spine, the thought cements itself. There is a strong pair of lungs housed below those strong set shoulders, against that bowed backbone—Merlin knows—ones that can easily facilitate the physical demands of an athletic life; however, Arthur does not believe that anymore. He too has another label slapped onto his person. It’s a six-letter word: asthma.

He approaches Arthur’s bench, the red and orange leaves crunching steadily beneath his feet. He settles a gloved hand on Arthur’s shoulders as a greeting before he takes the seat beside him. The thermos he carries in his bag is for Arthur, and naturally he pulls it out for him. The squeaking noises the lid makes under his fingers as he twists does not bring the usual amused smile to Arthur’s face. Merlin hopes that the warmth wafting from the tea will bring his friend some comfort. He shoulder-bumps him genially, offering him the thermos cap cum cup.

“Here, it’s herbal,” he says. “It’s supposed to help you control your—” Merlin trails off, unsure if he should say it; if he were saying it to himself, he would have said bronchial inflammation or bronchospasms instead, but he doesn’t know if that will offend his blonde friend.

“Asthma, is it so hard to say, Merlin?” Arthur grumbles, but he takes the proffered cup anyways. He sips it and grimaces, but doesn’t comment. His face is flushed from the autumn air and the herbal steam. His skin is still pale, unlike his normal glowing tan, but that is to be expected of a person just recovered from pneumonia.

“You know I don’t like labels,” Merlin nods his head to himself as if to confirm it as the fact of the universe.

“They’re not labels, Merlin. They are universal terms used to clarify and generalise diagnosis, part of a universal language spoken by doctors and scientists alike. Besides, you declare yourself gay, and isn’t that a label?”

“I only do so to keep dollopheads from pushing their girlfriend’s girlfriends in my direction.”

It has happened many times before in the infancy of their friendship. Apparently, it used to be a male bonding thing among Arthur’s high school friends. He remembers Vivian vividly from the time when Arthur dated Sophia, both who insulted his fashion sense from the get-go. And Mithian fondly from when he dated Gwen, both who Merlin struck lovely friendships with.

Arthur flashes him a lopsided smile, but the man does not have the decency to look apologetic when they both know it’s him that is the dollophead. He returns Merlin’s genial shoulder-bump, telling him that Merlin loves those girlfriend’s girlfriends, even if they don’t have the right genitals. They share jokes, and hilarious memories of when Sophia threw a bitch-fit at the poor Freshy at Camelot University whom had enough of rooming with her, and flushed her cosmetics down the loo.

Two joggers run past them. Merlin feels Arthur stiffen beside him, and he turns his head to look at the emotions shifting along his face with the shadows cast by the autumn trees. His mouth is set into a firm line, his eyes trailing after the running figures, envious.

“It’s only breathing, Arthur,” Merlin says. Oh shit, he thinks after the words leaves him. Stupid, how could you forget?

Arthur’s fingers tighten around his cup as his gaze snaps back to Merlin, no longer containing self-contempt or longing, but instead anger and disbelief. He nearly slams the tea onto the bench space between them, uttering a clipped ‘no’ before he stands up to leave.

Merlin berates himself loudly, after Arthur is long gone. How the fuck did he forget that this isn’t ‘only breathing’ to Arthur, that without breath, he feels as if he lost a treasured part of himself? Ygraine Pendragon passed away when Arthur entered his first year at CU three years ago. Before her passing, Mother and Son went jogging every morning regardless sun, rain, sleet, or snow. And after her passing, Arthur continued their tradition. He always rejects Merlin’s offer to join him because their moment is that precious to him; to sully it with Merlin’s awkward limbs that has a tendency to flail about into tripping him and those around him is a revolting concept—even Merlin agrees in the end.

He throws an arm over his eyes as he tilts his chin to the sky, wondering what he can do to make it up to his friend.

-

 

Merlin sees Arthur a few days later in their Biology lecture, and thankfully the seat beside him is empty except for Arthur’s bag. He bounds over in ten long strides, twisting his body to pass a huddle of gossiping girls and guffawing guys. He swipes the bag from the seat, and sits his arse down with Arthur’s belongings in his lap. Arthur does not shift his attention away from his phone when Merlin does. That does not deter him though, so Merlin rummages around his messenger bag, pulling out a few pamphlets to slap onto the desk under Arthur’s elbows.

“Look here, prat,” the words whoosh out of him without hesitation, despite common courtesy dictating that he should instead apologise. But he has said ‘sorry’ so many times: through Arthur’s door, through Arthur’s voicemail, through Arthur’s email, through Arthur’s SMS. He is not going to say it again when he has Arthur’s attention. He points a long finger at one of the pamphlets, all of which informs on controlling asthma. “It’s not the end, y’know? There are athletes out there—Olympians too—that has asthma and does not let it inhibit them. I know you know; Morgana told me that the doctor told you.

“We can try, whatever is in these pamphlets. Just—let me run with you, help you. Please. I know it means a lot to you, that your mum means more than anything, but not doing anything won’t change anything. So—please, Arthur, consider saying yes?”

Arthur spares him a glance, but no more words are exchanged between them; their professor walks in, already shooting off statistics and elements of evolutionary genetics. Merlin still counts this as a win. It will only take a little bit more persuasion if Arthur is being stubborn. The man has heard his part, and it is up to him to take Merlin up on it. He leaves the pamphlets there, and turns to take out his notes before switching his voice recorder on. Professor Killigan’s words are hard to catch once he enters his ‘impassioned state of zen’, contradictory as it sounds; it is what he calls it.

-


Arthur knocks on his door two days later, in his exercise attire. There is a bulge inside his pocket. From the shape, Merlin knows that it is his inhaler and keys. Merlin’s irritation from waking up so early on a Saturday morning disappears at the sight of him. He blinks blearily and fumbles with the pamphlets Arthur pushes into his hands. They are the same pamphlets that Merlin gave him, the fucker. He gestures him into his flat with a wide-sweeping arm, swatting the Arthur in the backside as he passes with the pamphlet hand.

“About time you got your arse in gear,” Merlin jokes.

Arthur makes himself at home on his blue, suede loveseat. He toes off his sneakers onto the hardwood, tilting his head against the armrest to look up at Merlin.

“I talked to a specialist. And she says that I should agree with you, crazy as it might seem. She explained to me what precautions I should take, and directed me to some other sources to help us out,” he says as he pulls out a blue inhaler. Salbutamol. “I have to take this fifteen minutes before exercising, so I expect you to be cleaned up and ready to go in that time frame.”

Merlin smiles amiably, already walking towards his bathroom. As he moves past him, he brushes his hand into Arthur’s hair to muss at the soft locks in approval. Arthur huffs indignantly, swatting the offending limb away.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you, Merlin,” Arthur shouts after him, but when Merlin looks over his shoulder, affection softens Arthur’s frowning features. “Hurry up.”

Behind him, he hears the distinct puffing sound of the inhaler.

Merlin is glad that Arthur is trying to handle his new situation. Life won’t be all the same with asthma as a limitation, but life is about making do with what you got.

When Merlin is fresh and changed, Arthur already has his sneakers laced up, stretching in the entrance hall. He lets his gaze follow the smooth curve of Arthur’s arse, his strong thighs, his calves, the arch of his heels.
Arthur folds his torso flat against a leg easily, and holds the position.

"Stop gawking, and stretch Merlin. We don't want you cramping your terribly out of shape self." he repeats the motion over the other leg.

Merlin wipes his suddenly clammy palms against the dark fabric of his track pants. He hops over and begins a few rudimentary lunges, only to appease Arthur. Otherwise, he would not have bothered. The small grunts between Arthur's measured breathing is encouraging for a good start to the day.

-

 

It is not a good day, as Merlin had hoped. They choose to run around the block of

Merlin's flat to start up because Arthur refused to take him to Their park right away. Merlin should have had the foresight to realize that Arthur can't be ready when his body is not completely recovered from his recent illness, and when going down three flights of stairs as warm-up Arthur found himself winded. Arthur's face falls slightly as he held a hand against his chest, but he remains determined to see this through once he made his decision. He flips his hood up in defiance before running into the drizzling weather outside. Merlin follows.

They only circle around his building once before Merlin forces Arthur to stop when he feels him lagging, then hears his faint wheezing. Arthur pants air in and out through his mouth, which Merlin pointedly tries not to look at as he backtracks a little to stand at Arthur's side. He rubs soothing circles between the other man's shoulder blades. Arthur's body trembles beneath his fingers, and slumps against his side, with Arthur's head resting against the nearest shoulder.

"Hey," Merlin says, panic only at bay when Arthur's blue eyes lift to look at him. "You okay?"

Arthur nods, nose brushing against against the folds of his sweatshirt repeatedly like trying to get swallowed up. His voice is hoarse and words breathy as he replies between gulps of air.

"It feels hot, like it's concentrating in my throat and chest. I feel light headed, sort of dizzy," Arthur chuckles under his breath before murmuring. "It's sort of like getting high, yeah? Disorienting."

"You could be high off the meds? But it's more likely that it's a side-effect of the Salbutamol. We can ask your specialist later, okay?"

Arthur migrates to the crook of his neck, pressing his forehead into the heated skin.

"Yeah, okay. I just want to lie down, Merlin. This is just--just so fucked. I could run laps around campus before I'd feel a burn, and what the fuck is this: an eight of that?" he presses his lips into against Merlin, and the tremors ease a bit. Merlin suppresses a shiver as Arthur repeats his words. "I just want to lie down."

What can Merlin say to that? Arthur does not want to hear reassurances; he only wants results. So he gathers the man against him and walks sedately to the building entrance.

It is a short while later that Melin sees to Arthur under his duvet, and crawls in beside him. Under the covers, it is easy to hear the other's breath settle into a comfortable rhythm. The wheezing has faded to slight rasps. Arthur stares at him with heavy lids. Merlin reaches a hand forward to pat down his tussled hair. The morning sun shining on the golden strands left in awe, and he just did not need that at that moment.

"Not the most promising of starts, but we'll try again tomorrow. Perhaps we should go to CU
library to see what other techniques we can try before we call your specialist?" Merlin asks in the space between them. "it takes time, you prat."

Arthur grunts something that sounds along the lines of agreement and turns his back to him. Merlin knows that he is disappointed in himself. But that will come to pass soon, if Merlin has anything to do with it. He resigns himself to sleeping off the rest of his morning, and cooking for Arthur in the afternoon before his friend leaves.

-

 

This time Merlin goes to Arthur's flat instead because it is closer to the University. They both decide on briskly walking to the CUL. They must have made quite a site with their

competitive strides and occasional pseudo-ninja moves. Other students gave them a wide berth on campus, although Professor Greene joins them at one point, actually throwing origami shurikens at random passerbys. Why he had such things on his person, they did not know nor question for his fabulous hair would distract anyone from enquiring his eccentricities.

Camelot University's Library is a large church converted and expanded to accommodates shelves and levels of books and texts. Its head librarian is rigid bearded man by the name of Geoffery, whom did not appreciate the duo’s antics in their first year at the CUL. Merlin and Arthur, sans Greene, stops at the steps leading to the library entrance. Their faces are pink with laughter. Arthur is only rattling a little from the exertion, but he still manages a whoop of triumph seeing as he reached the steps first. He throws an arm over Merlin's shoulder and pulled his head down and forward to deliver a swift loser noogie. Merlin squawks indignantly under the brutal assault.

After a painful five seconds, They mutually paste on an expression of seriousness. Time to get down to business.

They both decide to forgo the internet because if they wanted to use that, they could have stayed at home. Between the two of them they gather an adequate pile of books ranging from ‘Asthma for Dummies Dollopheads’ to actual courseware. Diligently, they took notes of whatever they thought was relevant or useful.

Over the scritch-scratching of their mechanical pencils, Merlin feels Arthur nudge at his calves or shoes at random intervals. He nudges back while he whispers to him

“Oi, cabbage head, that is not productive at all. Quit your lording over me for winning. It was just a race.”
“You know, for someone who doesn’t like labels all too much, you have an awful amount of names to throw at some poor unsuspecting individual.”

Merlin stretches across the table to draw a stick man kicking another in the arse onto Arthur’s paper. If one looks suspiciously like Merlin and the other like Arthur, it is not his fault at all.

“It’s a term of endearment; hardly a label that determines you, Artie my lad.”

Upside down, he can read Arthur’s neat handwriting without difficulty. The bullet points and sub points are arranged precisely, each with their own margin.

  • Isolate allergens
    • to figure out what triggers the asthma
      • find out how to prevent exposure
        • eg. Take showers before and after outdoor activities
  • Ease temperature transitions because any shock to the lungs may trigger the asthma


etc etc. The list continues on into more details and other preventatives. Later on, Arthur tells Merlin that he will try figuring out what triggers his asthma, which is—when they discover within the next week—certain pollens. They don’t know which exactly, but that’s all they got on their own.

-


It’s been months of struggling through pacing Arthur’s progress from walking up flights of stairs to running laps around Merlin’s building to training on the treadmill to finally making rounds around Camelot’s local park, and balancing it with studying and socialising, but Arthur finally does reclaim some of his stamina. And when he reaches his goal at his mother’s park without a wheeze or fatigued feeling, Merlin feels a burst of pride and affection surge through him.

“Be my boyfriend,” he says without thought because he really did want that with Arthur whom he has grown so close to in their years together.

Arthur raises a brow after he wipes sweat from his temple.

“Now, is that another endearment or a label?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arthur,” Merlin snaps back despite the love he feels for the prat. “I’m just so proud of you, okay?”

Arthur looks at him closely, face serious.

“It’s only breathing, Merlin,” Arthur shoots his words from months ago back at him. It is not as acerbic as Merlin guessed it would have been should he ever imagined Arthur throwing his words back in his face. He says it like a fact that he has accepted. It is only breathing. But as Arthur pulls him in for a kiss, Merlin breathes a quiet ‘no’ against his lips. It’s not only breathing.