Actions

Work Header

When You're Not Watching

Work Text:

It seemed like Merlin couldn’t do anything right. Ever since he’d stepped foot into Arthur’s room that morning, he’d been yelled at, glared at and he was fairly sure Arthur had tried to hit him in the head with a boot. The boot had missed, but Arthur had definitely succeeded in pushing his head against the bedpost. Merlin reached back and touched the back of his head gingerly. There was a lump there that seemed to pulse and he glared at Arthur’s back as they rode through the woods.

If Gwaine noticed the tense atmosphere between them, he didn’t let on. He’d never stopped talking since they left Camelot, which was a feat in itself considering neither of them had answered him at all. It was impressive, really, to keep a conversation going with yourself for that long. Sometimes Merlin envied Gwaine’s way with words. Despite talking a great deal more than Merlin (Arthur would claim this was impossible), Gwaine never rambled about like Merlin tended to do.

“…and she didn’t know that I was under the cloak, obviously, she thought it was Leon. You should’ve seen her face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen…”

Merlin let Gwaine’s voice lull him into a sense of comfort. His words were like the lyrics to the melody of their horses’ trot, the rhythm of which made Merlin sway softly. Merlin rode to the right to side step a large rock and he caught a glimpse of Arthur’s face. He’d only seen his back for about three hours and for some reason he’d expected a very, very sour expression, considering how annoyed Arthur had been with him all day. But Arthur was grinning, his eyes dancing with mirth. A happy Arthur had never annoyed Merlin quite this much. When Arthur threw his head back and laughed at Gwaine, Merlin tightened his grip on the reins so much that his horse came to a near halt.

“Arthur,” he said, hurrying to catch up with the other two. “I think we should stop for the night, it’ll be dark soon.”

Arthur’s pursed his lips at this and seemed to attempt to control himself. It was never a good sign when Arthur tried to control himself.

“Surely you can manage another hour on the horse.” Arthur rode faster just to be a prat, it seemed. “Since I allowed you to come along to help this poor village, the least you can do is keep up.”

Allowed me to come along?” Merlin sputtered indignantly. “You threw a boot at my head when I asked if I could stay behind and help Gaius.”

“Honestly, Merlin. You should be more grateful.”

Merlin was at a loss for words, which was a fairly rare occasion. He let himself slip in behind Arthur and Gwaine again, hoping to be spared conversation until they set up camp for the night. Sometimes he honestly wondered why he stuck around. Destiny be damned, really, he could long ago have abandoned everything and adapted a life of studying magic in a cabin far, far away from Uther. Instead, he was living about five feet from Uther at all times, serving this royal prat of a prince.

It wasn’t that Merlin hadn’t accepted his fate long ago, but sometimes – like today – it just really didn’t seem worth it. He thought blissfully of a time when he lived in Ealdor and no one called him useless on a near daily basis. His magic had attracted some negative attention, yes, but it wasn’t like anyone would have burned him at the stake for it. This new arrangement really didn’t seem like an improvement, now that he thought it all through.

When Arthur finally stopped, Merlin was half asleep on his horse, causing him to accidentally ride past the other two and get his hair caught in a tree. He pointedly ignored Arthur’s raucous laughter as he picked twigs from his head.

“I was going to ask you to collect us some firewood, but I see you’ve already taken care of it.” Arthur grinned, looking infuriatingly satisfied. “That’s uncharacteristically efficient of you, Merlin.”

If looks could have set Arthur on fire, Merlin’s would have. Actually, his looks probably could set Arthur on fire, so he diverted his gaze and stalked off to find firewood after he had secured his horse. When he came back to the clearing, Gwaine and Arthur were setting up their tent for the night, so he sat down and started building the fire. He watched them talk lightly between themselves as they worked.

It wasn’t the first time Merlin wished he was on a more equal ground to Arthur. Merlin had never been good at knowing his place, but he envied the freedom the knights had with him at times. Merlin might’ve taken more freedoms than he should, but there was always the matter of this gaping hole between him and Arthur. In some ways, he was closer to Arthur than anyone as he dressed him in the morning and drew him a bath in the evening. However, Arthur was the prince of Camelot and Merlin was his servant. It was really frustrating that his best friend was someone he shouldn’t really call a friend at all.

While Gwaine and Arthur tended to the side of the tent furthest from Merlin, he sparked the firewood with a quick look and settled down next to it, enjoying the heat of the flames. He just wanted this day to be over and maybe tomorrow would be better. Maybe he wouldn’t do everything wrong and displease Arthur as much as he did.

As he prodded the fire with a branch, he felt some rustling in his hair.

“Did you bring the entire tree with you?” Arthur asked, his eyebrow raised as he picked another twig from Merlin’s head.

Merlin just glared at him in reply and began preparing their evening meal over the now bustling fire.

“You’re awfully quiet today, Merlin,” Arthur observed as he sat down by the fire. “Not that I haven’t dreamt of this moment since we first met, but it does make me wonder what you’re up to.”

It was pretty usual for Merlin to give as good as he got when it came to Arthur, but he found himself tired of this game. It was probably just because Arthur had been particularly eager with the insults and the mocking lately. They had gotten along so well only a few weeks ago. He still remembered the hunting trip they’d taken together where Arthur hadn’t berated him for stepping on twigs or scaring every animal within miles. Arthur had even spared a deer when Merlin must’ve looked particularly sulky. When he got home to Gaius he’d been exhausted, but pleased and actually quite happy. Then it had all gone downhill and Merlin found himself in what felt like an endless string of insults and mockery.

“It’s nothing,” Merlin said, handing a bowl of stew to Gwaine as he joined them.

An owl hooted in the distance and night was creeping up on them in their small clearing. If Arthur had stopped when Merlin told him too, they wouldn’t have had to eat in the dark.

“Are you thinking about how badly you messed up my riding gear this morning?” Arthur asked with a sideways glance. “Because you probably should.”

Merlin clenched his teeth and willed himself to not look at Arthur. Instead he stared out ahead, peering into the depths of the forest. It seemed almost like darkness was crawling along the floor of the woods until it embraced them within a small circle of flickering lights.

“Yes, sire,” he said quietly.

He was given a push to the shoulder and he looked up at Arthur, suddenly feeling completely exhausted.

“Seriously,” Arthur said, his voice no longer teasing. “What’s wrong with you? You never call me sire unless I’ve reminded you a dozen times.”

“I’m just tired.” Merlin finished the last of his food and put the bowl away. “It was a long ride.”

He thought Arthur might have looked guilty for a moment, but the expression was so fleeting that it might just have been a trick of the light.

“Go sleep,” Gwaine said, drawing a hand through his hair. “I’ll keep guard first.”

Merlin really didn’t have to be asked twice and he slipped into the tent, finding a spot as far away from Arthur as he could and curled up into himself. He knew Arthur was eyeing him suspiciously, but he promised himself that tomorrow he would be out of his funk. He’d let Arthur’s insults peel off him like usual and everything would be fine.

[---]

It grew apparent that everything wouldn’t be fine. It was almost sunrise and Merlin was keeping guard when a dark figure stood at the edge of the clearing and magic seemed to crackle in the air. He really didn’t need a sorcerer with an attempt on Arthur’s life right now; he wasn’t in the mood. Stumbling to his feet, he stared at the cloaked figure, unsure of what to do. He could use his magic quickly and hope that he could get the sorcerer out of the way in one swift move, but he heard rustling inside the tent and he didn’t really fancy being executed.

Keeping his eye on the tent, he made up his mind. Raising his hand, he cast a spell and then he started running. He needed to divert the sorcerer away from Arthur and Gwaine – not just to keep them safe, but to keep them from seeing him perform magic. The sorcerer managed to block his spell in time, but a rush of relief spread through Merlin’s chest when he realised the sorcerer was following him through the woods. Branches whipped him across the face as he hurtled through the woods to make sure he was getting far away from the tent. He felt the sting in his cheeks, but he didn’t care. Turning around to cast a spell over his shoulder, he knew he was in trouble when he felt his foot catch on a root and he fell forwards. On instinct, he used both his hands to catch himself and he knew it was all lost when the impact of the ground left him breathless for a few seconds. He looked up just in time to see the spell before it hit him, vibrating through his bones and ringing uncomfortably in his ears. As the sorcerer turned and ran back he wanted to cry out, both in frustration and possibly to warn Arthur, but not a sound came from his lips.

He heard yelling and sounds of battle. Arthur and Gwaine must have run after them – the bloody stubborn gits – and now they’d met the sorcerer as he ran back to the tent. Merlin tried to take a deep breath, but he realised he couldn’t. That made him want to frown, but yet again, he couldn’t. He realised he didn’t need to breathe. Panic flooded his chest as he tried to do anything, just anything at all. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even blink. All he could do was think, hear the muted sounds of distant fighting and see the ground splay out in front of him where he lay on his side.

The sounds stilled and he realised the fight must be over. He wondered if Arthur and Gwaine were dead now: killed by the sorcerer that he should’ve been able to take out. He had tripped and now Arthur might be dead. Maybe he did deserve to hear how useless he was day in and day out, it was quite obviously true. Who else had an important destiny to fulfil and protect and then got tripped up by a tree?

Merlin heard them long before he saw them, their footsteps pounding against the ground as they ran. He’d never been so relieved to see two dirty, bloodied figures come out of the shadows of the woods. Arthur was alive. He was fine, even though Merlin had tripped on a tree. Merlin wanted to call out to them, but he couldn’t. His chest began to run cold with dread. He’d been so preoccupied with Arthur that he hadn’t thought about the consequences of his own predicament.

The weight of the consequences hit him when Arthur looked right at him. Arthur’s eyes were wide and panicked, his mouth twisted in a grim grimace. Merlin realised he couldn’t move his eyes as Arthur fell to his knees in front of him and Merlin no longer could see his face, only his knees and his stomach.

“Merlin,” Arthur said breathlessly and Merlin could feel his hands on his shoulder, shaking him.

At least he could still feel.

Arthur’s breath was laboured as his hands were at Merlin’s cheeks, his neck and finally his wrist. It began to dawn on Merlin how he must appear to them. He couldn’t move anything, not even his eyes. There was no longer a need to breathe, and he couldn’t even if he wanted to. He was lifeless. Arthur! he cried out in panic, but the woods were silent.

“No.”

Merlin’s gut twisted when he heard the agony in Arthur’s voice. The hand on his shoulder was holding him a tight grip, digging into his skin.

“Sire?” Gwaine said, coming into Merlin’s line of vision.

Arthur got to his feet and stumbled with a clumsiness that Merlin had never seen in him before. He staggered towards a nearby three, pushing heavily against it with his right arm and seemed to struggle keeping himself upright. Gwaine’s calloused hand wrapped around Merlin’s wrist and then let him go as if he’d been burnt.

“Fuck,” he said, his voice hoarse. “There’s no pulse.”

Arthur dry-heaved, his face pale and ashen. There were no words for the fear and the pain that spread through Merlin as he watched the scene unfolding in front of him with an increasing feeling of helplessness.

“He can’t be,” Arthur said, his voice sounding strange and choked. “Check again.”

Gwaine’s warm fingers rested on his wrist and his other hand was placed over Merlin’s heart. His heart wasn’t beating, he knew that. Was he dead? Was his soul just lingering in his body, waiting to say goodbye to Arthur and Gwaine? If he could cry, he would have at this point.

Arthur was still in his line of vision, propped up against the tree as if it was the only thing that kept him standing. He seemed to be holding his breath as he stared at Gwaine’s hands. But Merlin knew what was coming. There was no way they could know he was still in there, because his body had no signs of life.

“He’s gone, Arthur.”

The cry of anguish that forced itself from Arthur’s throat pierced Merlin like flaming arrows, his entire body prickling uncomfortably and his chest exploding with a need to reach out and tell Arthur everything would be fine. Gwaine’s hands left him and the knight stood beside him, his right foot coming into Merlin’s view just as Arthur ran his clenched fist into the tree. Both Gwaine and Merlin watched in complete silence as Arthur gripped his sword at the hilt and lashed out at anything within reach. The sword sliced through branches and bushes as Arthur roared and growled with every move of his arms.

The helplessness that spread in Merlin’s chest was numbing, and yet a small piece of him watched in rapt wonder as Arthur’s face twisted in misery. He immediately felt bad about the little piece of him that felt warmed into the core of his soul. This wasn’t supposed to feel comforting in a twisted way, it was terrible and Arthur was obviously in pain.

“Arthur,” Gwaine said in a pleading voice.

This stilled the prince’s movements and he stood with his sword still gripped tightly as his chest heaved for breath. At last, the sword clattered to the ground and Arthur brought his hands up to run roughly across his face.

“Leave us.”

Gwaine walked out of Merlin’s field of vision without discussion. Maybe it was because Arthur’s voice broke in that really devastating way. As Arthur came towards him with slow steps, Merlin tried fighting himself out of whatever he was caught in. Maybe his soul needed to break free. Maybe he just needed to break a spell. It didn’t work, though, and he found himself pulled into Arthur’s lap, his head lolling back to bring Arthur’s face back into his field of vision. Merlin’s insides burned uncomfortably when he saw tears welling in those bright blue eyes.

“Damn you, Merlin,” Arthur said forcefully. “I haven’t cried since I was five and I was planning to keep it that way.”

Arthur’s fingers were in his hair, then, brushing it softly from his face and Merlin raged against the bonds that kept him silent.

“Merlin, I’m so sorry.” His voice was a whisper. “I’m even sorry for everything I didn’t know I should be sorry for. Fuck.”

The woods were eerily quiet around them as Arthur whispered his apologies.

“I made you ride longer today just to annoy you. I’ve been so rude to you lately. We were getting too close, I panicked. I don’t...I’m sorry. Merlin.”

Merlin wished with his entire being that he could look away at that moment. There was no way he could deal with the look on Arthur’s face and the fact that he was saying goodbye. He didn’t want to say goodbye – not now, it was too soon. Surely, it wasn’t supposed to end this way? Their destiny hadn’t even begun properly. Was everything going to fall apart because Merlin was a clumsy idiot? He was sure Arthur would say that he’d predicted their untimely end to happen that way all along. But then he looked up into Arthur’s face and he wondered how he could have ever doubted that Arthur cared.

Maybe it was because Arthur apparently couldn’t show any emotions unless the other person was dead. Merlin felt resentment at that. Couldn’t Arthur ever have shown Merlin a bit of affection when he was alive? He didn’t expect much. Maybe just a little hug, or a ‘hey, Merlin, you’re rather swell’.

“You idiot,” Arthur said softly, his fingers still running through Merlin’s hair.

Really? Was he really going to the insults even when Merlin was dead?

“You loyal, lovable, precious idiot.”

Oh.

It felt like a terribly inconvenient moment to have an epiphany, but he was having one anyway. Arthur’s insults weren’t insults, unless they were. That may have been a really horrible epiphany, but it made Merlin’s chest feel lighter. Arthur’s insults were his hugs. Merlin thought this was a terrible way of showing affection all things considered, since it would be hard to distinguish it from anger, but he could live with that. He could live with anything if he was actually allowed to live.

“Sire...Arthur,” Gwaine said, apparently unsure of how to approach a grieving prince. “We must leave so we may get Merlin back to Camelot before nightfall.”

Merlin felt Arthur sigh and then he was being carried, Arthur’s face now gone from his field of vision and all he could see were the tree-tops stretching towards the bright blue sky. He could feel Arthur’s warm chest, his heart beating and he knew that no matter what happened he was glad Arthur was alive. He couldn’t cry, but he could almost feel the tear on his skin as Arthur wiped the dried blood from the scratches on his cheeks.

[---]

The ride was uncomfortable and long. Gwaine and Arthur took turns riding with him and Merlin felt frustrated that he couldn’t move his limp body to help them along. He couldn’t close his eyes, so the woods blurred in front of him, making him dizzy. In a way, he supposed that was a good sign. If he was dead and his soul was merely lingering on, he didn’t think he would feel something as mundane as a head-ache. Not to mention that Arthur’s arm felt embarrassingly comforting.

Gwaine had tried closing Merlin’s eyes when they’d started riding as he muttered his name and something about finding peace. He supposed his staring eyes would get unnerving. His eyelids wouldn’t budge, however, and he’d heard Gwaine and Arthur’s hushed conversation about it. It made hope rise in his chest. Maybe they’d understand that not everything was as it was supposed to be.

Hope only peaked higher when Arthur looked down at him during one of their short stops. Gwaine was getting water from a nearby creek and Arthur bent down over Merlin, running his hand carefully over his cheek. Merlin could just barely see Arthur’s bewildered expression.

“He’s bleeding,” he said when Gwaine returned.

“He had those scratches when we found him,” Gwaine said, his face so close that Merlin could feel his breath on his forehead.

Arthur’s thumb ran across Merlin’s cheek and he held it up. Merlin could see it was glistening with fresh blood.

“I wiped the dried blood from his cheeks before we left,” Arthur said, his arm tightening around Merlin. “This is fresh blood, Gwaine.”

“Dead men don’t bleed, sire.”

“Not like this, they don’t,” Arthur said, peering down at Merlin, his expression unreadable.

Arthur and Gwaine didn’t discuss this during the last hours of their ride back to Camelot, which made Merlin unnerved. He didn’t know if they realised something was strange about his apparent death, but he knew that if they didn’t, he would be in big trouble. His life depended on whether or not they’d picked up on the signs, but he wasn’t allowing himself to hope too much. He had to face the fact that they might really think him dead and they might actually burn him alive.

It was only when Arthur carried him into Gaius’ room that Merlin allowed himself to hope against everything that Gaius would figure it out.

“Gaius.” Merlin could feel Arthur’s chest vibrate as he spoke. “Help.”

Merlin was laid down gently and he felt Gaius’ fingers on his wrist. He couldn’t see Gaius’ face, but he could only imagine what it looked like.

“He’s... he’s dead, sire,” Gaius said, his voice sounding feeble.

“I know,” Arthur said and Merlin tried to cry out in panic. “Except I’m not sure. I thought he was too. He was just lying there when we found him, his eyes so empty and his skin so pale. There was no pulse or heartbeat. But his cheek was bleeding only a couple of hours ago, Gaius.”

Gaius’ hand came up to his cheek, running his fingers along the scratches.

“Blood may leak even after death, sire, though it seems uncommon from such a small wound.”

Merlin heard Arthur move next to him and he could see the top of his blond head. If Merlin had a breath to hold, he would have held it.

“Gwaine couldn’t close his eyes right after we found him,” Arthur said and then lifted Merlin’s limp hand. “He doesn’t have the stiffness of death.”

There was a silence in the room after that and Merlin wished they would speak. He needed to know. He couldn’t take it, this uncertainty.

“I thought I was just clinging onto false hope, Gaius,” Arthur said and his honesty surprised Merlin. “Maybe I still am, but I’ve never seen anyone limp like this in death. It’s like he’s just sleeping.”

Relief flooded Merlin even though Gaius had yet to answer. If Arthur – gloriously stubborn Arthur – thought he might be alive, surely he wouldn’t be treated as a dead person just yet.

“You’re right, sire,” Gaius said and Merlin could finally see his face as he bent down to look into Merlin’s eyes. The hope in the old man’s gaze made his stomach flip. “What happened?”

“Merlin was on guard at the time, but Gwaine was awake and heard footsteps. When we came out of the tent, Merlin was running away with a person on his heels,” Arthur explained, his hand resting on Merlin’s arm. “Stubborn prat was probably leading them away from the tent, but we followed. Soon, the man came back in our direction. He was a sorcerer, but when Gwaine got a blow in, he fled.”

“This means that Merlin could very well be under a curse,” Gaius said, his voice steadier now.

Merlin had never in his life been quite this relieved. They were going to save him. There was no way they would give up on him now that they suspected he was alive. He heard books being propped open on a nearby table and there was a familiar sound of Gaius reading under his breath. Merlin smiled without actually smiling.

He suddenly felt a rush of breath in his ear and it tickled.

“Merlin?” Arthur said quietly against his ear. “Can you hear me?”

Yes. Arthur! Arthur.

It didn’t work any better than it had the last eight-hundred times he’d tried contacting Arthur through his thoughts.

“I suppose you would have already told me if you could answer. Not even you are that stupid.”

Ah. Arthur was insult-hugging him.

“Sire, you should get some rest.” Gaius was standing next to him again, is hand on his forehead. “You’ve had a long ride.”

“No, I’ll stay.”

“There’s nothing you can do for Merlin right now. There’s nothing to do until I find out what happened to him.”

There was silence for a moment and then Arthur squeezed Merlin’s arm before he let out a sigh.

“All right. But let me know immediately if anything changes,” Arthur said. “Even if it’s in the middle of the night.”

“I will, sire,” Gaius said, but Merlin knew he was lying.

It was strange not having Arthur there. For some reason, Merlin felt even more suffocated in his own body now that Arthur had left. It felt a bit like he was itching all over. Merlin was fairly sure he’d be having nightmares about this.

“What did you get yourself into this time, Merlin?” Gaius muttered, his fingers pressed to Merlin’s wrist.

Just lying there, alone with his own thoughts, was unnerving and strange. He had no concept of time now that he was no longer outside and could see the position of the sun. Gaius kept flipping through books and stopped only to prod some part of Merlin or to talk to him as if Merlin was awake. This was much appreciated, considering it was comforting to be talked to directly instead of just being the topic of conversation.

When Gaius said “could it really be that simple?” under his breath, Merlin hoped to all possible gods that it really was that simple. He listened to the familiar sounds of Gaius making a draught, the vials tinkling as they touched lightly. Why didn’t he ever appreciate all these familiar things? He knew one thing: he would never stop talking when this was over. Merlin imagined Arthur turning fitfully in his sleep as if sensing Merlin’s resolution and he felt like laughing.

Finally he felt a goblet being rested against his lips and Gaius’ steady hand cupped the back of his head and held him in place. The liquid slid down his throat and warmth spread through his body. He desperately hoped that meant it was working. It was barely noticeable at first, but then he felt his heart building up a steady beat. His skin tingled and he suddenly felt this terrible need to breathe. Trying to remember how he even did that, he parted his lips and heaved for breath, closing his eyes for the first time in hours. They were dry.

It had worked. Thank everything that could be thanked. He wriggled his fingers and wet his lips with his tongue. He moved his arms experimentally, slowly re-gaining control of his body. A wide smile spread across his lips and he laughed; the sound of his own voice was like the most beautiful music in his ears. He opened his eyes and pushed himself up, finding Gaius grinning at him. Their embrace was crushing and desperate. Merlin took several rattling breaths as he circled Gaius’ waist, pushing him close.

“Thank God you realised something was wrong,” Merlin said into Gaius’ cloak.

“Thank God Arthur realised something was wrong.”

Gaius held him at an arm’s length and studied him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m not hurt,” Merlin said, getting up to move around just because he could. “I’m just a little shaken.”

He walked around the room as Gaius prepared food, and he couldn’t quite stop himself from touching everything and marvelling at how he could make his fingers listen with a simple command from somewhere inside him. It was a wonder that he had never considered before.

“You must eat, Merlin.” Gaius put his food down by their table. “Sit.”

Merlin did as he was told and looked up at Gaius. “Don’t tell Arthur, he needs to sleep.”

“So you heard,” Gaius said, though he didn’t sound surprised.

“I’ve heard and seen everything.”

Gaius sat down opposite him and plated a bit of food even though he must have eaten earlier.

“That can’t have been pleasant.”

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Merlin said truthfully and met Gaius’ eyes across the table. He knew that Gaius understood.

They ate in silence as Merlin kept marvelling at how the food tasted on his tongue and how he could move all his limbs at will.

“What happened to me?” he asked when he pushed his empty plate away.

“A spell of living death,” Gaius said, looking grave. “It’s easy enough to cure, thankfully, but many cases are never discovered due to the nature of the curse. You were lucky.”

“I know.”

“Get some rest. Arthur will have to wait anyway.”

[---]

Merlin felt good as new the following morning, which was a strange feeling after having been unable to control his own body for an entire day. Interestingly, the only thing that hurt was the lump at the back of his head from where Arthur had slammed him into the bedpost. But even that was getting better and he only really felt it occasionally.

Arthur was still fast asleep when Merlin slipped into his room while balancing the breakfast tray precariously in one hand. Trying not to make a sound (because he knew how much Arthur hated being awoken by loud noises), he slid the tray down by Arthur’s table and went to open the curtains. Sunlight burst into the room and the beams danced across Arthur’s bed making him stir.

Merlin belatedly remembered that the last time Arthur saw him, he’d been dead (or as good as). Their eyes locked as Arthur slowly came to himself, his face groggy with sleep. A small, dreamy smile played on his lips. Merlin stood completely still until Arthur suddenly seemed to realise he wasn’t dreaming and jumped from the bed, backing away from Merlin.

“Merlin!” he exclaimed, his hand slipping across his face.

“Arthur,” Merlin said, his lips curling into a smile.

Grabbing clean clothes from Arthur’s closet, he handed them over to the prince without another word. Merlin shifted his weight from one foot to another, unsure of what to do now. He couldn’t help his steadily growing smile, though. It was simply just too good to be there.

“You’re...Merlin.”

“That’s right. Very good, Arthur.”

“Stop being a prat. You know what I mean.”

“Gaius fixed me well into the night.”

Arthur bristled at this. “I told him to wake me.”

“You needed sleep and so did I.”

Merlin reached out and took the clothes from Arthur’s hand. He dressed him without a word and Arthur just watched him. Merlin wondered what he was thinking behind those piercing blue eyes of his.

“What happened to you?” Arthur finally asked when Merlin had pushed him to a seat by the table.

“A spell of living death.” Merlin sat down across from him and stole a piece of bread from his plate. “I appeared dead when I wasn’t.”

“So you were alive the whole time?”

Arthur pointedly ignored that he’d taken food.

“I was trapped in myself,” Merlin said, wondering how much he should say. He looked at Arthur and remembered his eyes brimming with tears. “I could see and hear, but I couldn’t speak or move. I was trapped.”

Arthur recoiled and Merlin didn’t know what to say. He knew that he’d seen Arthur in a very private moment of grief, one that he wasn’t supposed to see considering he should’ve been dead at the time.

“You saw everything.”

“Yes.”

The figure across from him seemed to get smaller before his eyes. Arthur hunched over his plate and even though he ducked his head, Merlin could see the flush on his cheeks.

“You shouldn’t be so afraid to show people you care, you know,” Merlin said before he could stop himself. “It’s not weak, it’s just human.”

Arthur just glared at him, his jaw clenched.

“Even princes are human, Arthur.”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

“I don’t think I will,” Merlin said and grinned cheekily. “I quite enjoy talking again, actually.”

“I should’ve just left you there.” Arthur groaned unhappily as he bit into the loaf of bread.

“Probably,” Merlin agreed, but he swallowed and thought for the hundredth time that he was eternally grateful to Arthur and Gwaine. He could never say that to Arthur, though: Arthur would probably burst into flames from embarrassment.

As Arthur used the rest of breakfast to outline Merlin’s chores for the day, things felt oddly mundane and it was strange, but comforting. The only unusual thing was that Merlin caught Arthur looking at him intensely from time to time.

When Arthur had finished his breakfast, Merlin began clearing the table and Arthur turned around to find his sword. He had practise with the knights in only a little while and Merlin was meant to accompany him. Merlin looked at Arthur’s back as he picked up the sword, remembering how it had cut through branch after branch in Arthur’s fury. A bowl of honey crashed to the floor as his eyes were on Arthur and he swallowed heavily, looking down at the mess.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, his voice low. “You’re an idiot.”

You loyal, lovable, precious idiot.

Merlin smiled at the memory and straightened up, stepping over the mess he made on the floor. Arthur was giving him insult-hugs again, he could feel it. Knowing he was probably dooming himself to a day in the stocks, he snaked his arms around Arthur’s waist from behind and hugged him tight. Arthur’s body stiffened at the contact, but Merlin just rested his head against his back. The fabric of his shirt was soft against Merlin’s cheek and Arthur was warm and solid. Merlin smiled.

He knew it wouldn’t last long and he was right. His fingers were being pried from Arthur’s stomach and Arthur moved out of his grip. As Arthur turned around, Merlin resolved not to be embarrassed. He had nothing to be embarrassed about. Arthur was his friend and he had saved his life and Merlin wasn’t dead. If that wasn’t cause for a hug, then he didn’t know what was. He met Arthur’s gaze head on and refused to be apologetic.

But clearly the world as he knew it was ending because Arthur had just wrapped him into a hug that nearly crushed the life out of him. He was so caught off guard that he just stood there as Arthur’s arms wrapped around his back and Arthur’s head burrowed into his shoulder. Clearly, he was either actually dead or in his bed dreaming. When Merlin realised that he was in fact awake, he circled his arms around Arthur’s waist and closed his eyes, feeling like the world was wide open.

He held on until Arthur released him. Merlin only watched, a small smile on his lips, as Arthur gathered his things for the knight practise. As Arthur dumped the things into his arms, he staggered a bit, but managed to follow him to the door.

“Merlin?” Arthur said abruptly, his hand on the door.

“Yes.” Merlin’s voice was muffled.

“Don’t ever die.”

“Arthur...”

“I mean it.”

Merlin only nodded and at that moment it seemed to be enough for Arthur.