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The Land of Counterpane

Chapter Text

 

“When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.”

-Robert Louis Stevenson, The Land of Counterpane

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Arthur lies, examining the crack on his ceiling. It’s familiar to him, the shadow, the depth, the indent. Outside the room there are lunchtime sounds. The bread bin rolling open, the fridge door thudding, the sound of a knife on a shopping board. Sandwiches. And the hiss and pop of the gas being lit. Arthur explores the sore ulcers in his mouth with his tongue. They're healing, but they're still sore enough that he's not going to be getting a sandwich. Soup, for him.

In the kitchen, there's humming — the new help, Hunith, recognisable by now. The floor outside the bedroom door creaks, someone stopping there, shifting. Then the handle turns down and the door opens slowly. Arthur watches. When the door finally swings all the way in, it reveals Merlin, mud on his knees, peering curiously inside. Merlin ventures into the room and wanders around, looking at all Arthur's things. He comes to a stop by the bed and looks at Arthur. Arthur looks right back.

 

“Hullo,” Merlin says. “I'm Merlin. Why are you sleeping?”

 

“I'm tired,” Arthur says, blinking at Merlin.

 

“Oh. Why are you in the dark? Shall I open the curtains for you?”

 

“No. The dark is so I can sleep. The light makes my head hurt.”

 

“Okay. Are you sick? I sleep with the curtains shut when I'm sick, in the day time.”

 

“I was sick. I'm better now.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Merlin looks around again, at the big armchair, the desk. At the plastic toy people, the box of Legos. He heads over to Arthur's bookshelf and plops down on the floor, touching the glossy spines. They're all sorts of colours, all of them looking new and shiny. Merlin's books are not like this. He does have some new shiny ones but not this many.

 

“Shall I read to you?” Merlin asks. “These are books. I have some, too.”

 

“All right,” Arthur says.

 

Merlin pulls a book off the shelf at random. He mutters about the blue colour on the front, running his fingers over the smattering of silver bits, and nods decisively, going back over to the bed. He stands, setting the book on the cover by Arthur's knee.

 

“Have you read this one?” Merlin asks.

 

“No,” Arthur says.

 

It's one of the new ones his father got him for when his head stops hurting and he can read again.

 

“Okay, I'll start at the very start then,” Merlin says, opening the pages.

 

Arthur notices that he starts at the page where the author writes nice things about the people who helped write the book, but he doesn't point it out. Merlin clears his throat and frowns at the page. Then he turns over two more.

 

“Ah, here we are. This is a good one. What's your name?”

 

“Arthur.”

 

“This is a good one, Arthur. I know this one. Okay. There was once a king called Vortigern. He was a really important king and was king of lots of lands. He wanted everyone to know how important he was, and so he planned to build himself a fortified castle on the top of the highest hill so everyone all around would be able to see him and know he was important.”

 

Arthur says, “I don't think that's the story in that book.”

 

Merlin turns the page, licking his finger but still accidentally turning two, ignoring Arthur’s question. Arthur watches.

 

“Okay. So, Vortigern set about measuring all the hills in his lands. He send out knights to do it, that's how important he was. He didn't have to measure his own hills. They used, um, they used tape measures. Sir William found the tallest hill and rode back as fast as he could to tell Vortigern.”

 

Merlin licks his finger again and turns the page. Arthur turns onto his side so he can watch better.

 

“Vortigern set about building his castle, and he built it really fast — in a single day it went up. That's how important he was. But then, the next morning, the castle was gone!”

 

Merlin covers his mouth and looks at Arthur with wide eyes over his hand.

 

“This happened lots and lots of times. Each time, Vortigern built more and more good foundations, but it always vanished. So, he sent out his knights to find the wisest man. Sir William found him, wandering in a neighbouring kingdom. His name was Merlin, like mine, and he was a magician. I can't do magic tricks yet, but my uncle promises to teach me. I'll show you one day, okay?”

 

“Kay,” Arthur says.

 

Merlin looks around and notices the book where it's slid, pages turning. He picks it up and flicks through, making a sound when he finds the right place.

 

“Merlin comes to help with the castle building. He examines Vortigern's hill, and when he's done he suggests Vortigern build somewhere else. Vortigern explains about the measuring tapes, though. So Merlin tells him to build again and stay the night. When night comes, there's a rumble, and the hill shakes and shivers, and castle falls down. The hill opens up! Wide open. Cracking like an egg. And inside there are two dragons.”

 

Arthur yawns. Merlin turns a couple of pages.

 

“They're fighting. A red one, a white one. Fire and teeth, and Vortigern's men run away. Vortigern and Merlin stay, though, and watch. And Merlin tells about the dragon of England and the dragon of Wales. I'm from Wales, Arthur, so I'm the red dragon. You can be the white because you're English.”

 

“My mother was French,” Arthur says.

 

“Oh. There isn't a French dragon, though, so you have to be the white one.”

 

“Merlin!”

 

Merlin startles, and the book goes flying off the bed. Hunith's standing in the doorway with a tray, glaring at the boy. Merlin slides a guilty look Arthur's way.

 

“Um,” Merlin says.

 

“I told you to stay in the garden to play,” Hunith says, stern.

 

“I was looking around,” Merlin says, “and I found this boy. Look, Mum, he's here. He's Arthur, and his Mum's French, and he's sick but getting better, and he has the curtains closed to stop his head hurting, and I was reading him a story.”

 

“That's very nice of you Merlin, but I don't know if Arthur wanted a story.”

 

“I asked,” Merlin says, nodding earnestly, and turns back to look at Arthur. “Didn't I ask, Arthur?”

 

Arthur doesn't answer. He doesn't want to get in trouble; he wants his soup. Merlin scowls at him.”

 

“Come on, Merlin, out you come. Sit in the kitchen until I finish up here, okay?” Hunith says, chivvying Merlin out of the room.

 

Merlin goes with ill grace, sending a last scowl Arthur's way before vanishing. Arthur can hear him stamping in the kitchen. Hunith comes over to the bed and sets the tray on the side table.

 

“Do you need help, love?” Hunith asks as Arthur sits slowly up, resting against the pillows.

 

“No, thank you,” Arthur says, politely.

 

Hunith sets the tray across his knees and then leaves him to it. Arthur listens to Merlin the rest of the afternoon, but he doesn't come back into the room. Hunith brings Arthur supper as well, and then she leaves. Arthur listens to her cleaning up in the kitchen and talking quietly to Merlin (“I can read, Mum, I can, right?' 'You're getting there, my love. Take your time”), and then he hears the back door snick quietly shut and the house settles around him, silent and still.

 

When his father's not home Arthur's looked after by one of two people. His mother's brother, Agravain, who Arthur does not like at all, or Gorlois, his father's friend. It used to be Vivienne, but then she died, and Gorlois quit his job to look after his daughter. Arthur doesn't mind Gorlois, but he doesn't like Morgana much, and Gorlois brings her along. Agravain just sits in the living room or noses around Uther's office, but Gorlois sits with Arthur, and if Arthur's well enough, he carries him through to the living room or out into the garden when it's warm.

 

Arthur's in the armchair by his bedroom window, a blanket around his shoulders, beating Morgana soundly at Snakes and Ladders when Merlin comes poking around again. Morgana's little green plastic piece is clutched in her pudgy fist, her face crumpling up in dismay as Arthur tries to make her land on the long snake, which is where she's meant to land.

 

“You have to put it down, stupid,” Arthur says, frustration getting the best of him.

 

Morgana's face goes from crumpled to stubborn, and Arthur, in a practise long learnt, slides out of the chair to dodge the little plastic game piece. Morgana yells in anger and upturns the board, and that's when Arthur notices Merlin, standing between the door and their table. Arthur notices him because a dice hits him in the head, and he says “ow.” Merlin rubs his ear where it hit and watches Morgana in fascination, her wild hair and flying fists and enthusiastic anger enrapturing him.

 

“I hate you, Arthur Pendragon!” Morgana shouts, shoving Merlin and storming out.

 

Arthur gets back into the chair and grins at Merlin.

 

“Uncle Gor's going to make her come back and tidy up,” Arthur tells Merlin.

 

“Who was that?” Merlin says, gazing after Morgana, sounding far too awed for Arthur's liking.

 

“That's Morgana. She's stupid, and she's small. She's only six.”

 

“She was awesome,” Merlin says, coming over, picking up the board and pieces. “Is she always like that?”

 

“Yes,” Arthur snaps, crossing his arms and looking out of the window.

 

Merlin takes Morgana's seat and sets up the board again. He passes Arthur the dice and smiles invitingly, so Arthur throws and starts the game off. Gorlois comes through halfway in and looks around.

 

“Oh, hello, Merlin. You found your way in here, hm? Your mum's after you, you know,” Gor says.

 

“I know,” Merlin replies with blithe disregard for his mother's search.

 

Arthur admires that. He moves his piece onto the ladder and slides up. He sits back, his head against the chair wings. He droops. Merlin watches, confused, as Arthur seems to fall asleep.

 

“Arthur?”

 

“Mm?”

 

“He's just tired, Merlin. He's still recovering from his last bout. Come on, darlin', back to bed.”

 

Gorlois lifts him, scooping him up in strong arms without any trouble, and carries him back, blanket and all, to the bed. Merlin follows and watches as Gorlois tucks him in and moves around shutting the curtains.

 

“All right, Merlin, let's go find your Mum.”

 

They leave, and Arthur dozes, but can't get to sleep properly. He listens to Morgana having a tantrum, Gorlois's big, rumbly voice a soft undertone. Merlin's laughing in the kitchen and Hunith's making bread. Merlin quiets, and Hunith starts singing. The door creaks open, and Merlin tiptoes in.

 

“Do you want me to read some more?” Merlin asks, whispering into the dim room.

 

“Don't you want to go play with Morgana? You said she was awesome,” Arthur grumps.

 

“No, I played with her.”

 

“Kay,” Arthur says, grudgingly. “You did play snakes with me, so okay. You can tell more of the story.”

 

Merlin gets the same blue book as before and perches on the edge of the bed, paging through until he finds the right one, the one with loads of writing.

 

“Okay,” Merlin says, “so Vortigern had just seen those dragons.”

 

Arthur soon discovers that Merlin has a rich store of myths and legends, ranging from Arthurian to Gaelic to Greek, and he rolls them out for Arthur. Merlin draws on stories his mother's told him over and over, and from the books he gets from the library, and from storytelling events Hunith takes him to, and from everywhere and anywhere. He devours stories, and having a rapt audience to retell them to is great- he can be like one of the storytellers, bringing everything to life.

 

By the time Arthur's better and back at school, he's spent enough time with Merlin that when he sees the familiar ears on the playground, he goes and invites Merlin to sit with him and his friends for lunch. He cajoles Merlin into making up a story about them all, and the footie lads adopt Merlin as a team mascot before the end of the week.

 

The next time Arthur's ill, Uther can't get either Gorlois (in France on a family holiday) or Agravain (“I'm so sorry, Uther, I'm just swamped”) to come care for him. Uther does it for a day, soothing Arthur's fever-dreams, wiping up the random tears that come with the delirium, cleaning up vomit and sweat. But halfway through the second day, he storms into the kitchen where Hunith is working.

 

“Mrs. Powell, I would like to expand your duties and offer you a pay rise,” he says.

 

Hunith nods carefully, and half an hour later when Arthur throws up again, it's Hunith sitting with him, holding the bowl under his chin, wiping away his tears. Once Uther's dealt with that “disaster,” he leaves them to it, and he never knows that Arthur cries out for him or that Arthur's tears are partly because it had been soothing to have his father close.

 

Hunith is perfectly capable, though, and she's caring. And once Arthur's on the mend, fever down and vomiting rare, she lets Merlin come and curl up with him while she does the rest of her work. The first day, Arthur's too tired to do anything except sleep and sweat out the fever, so Merlin tells him stories about the stars, pointing at the ceiling to show Arthur where to look when the sky’s above him.

 

Merlin’s only allowed to stay with Arthur for half an hour because Arthur’s supposed to be resting. Merlin slips back in, though, tiptoeing into the now-darkened room. Arthur’s curled up under the cover, but he’s not sleeping. Merlin sits on the floor by Arthur’s head, cross-legged, head tilted.

 

“Mum says you’re too sick for stories,” Merlin says. “Is that true?”

 

“Yeah,” Arthur whispers, “too tired.”

 

“Oh. You’re always sick.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why?”

 

Arthur wakes up a little, and he carefully sits up a bit on his pillows.

 

“I have Hyperimmunoglobinemia D syndrome,” Arthur says, proudly.

 

“Huh,” Merlin says, “I thought it was probably something like that.”

 

“You don’t even know what it means,” Arthur says.

 

“It’s a sickness,” Merlin says breezily. “HD, like that person my Mum reads. Poems. Uh-huh, that’s it.”

 

“No it’s not,” Arthur says, lying down again and curling in on himself.

 

“Does HD hurt?” Merlin asks, getting up on his knees, elbows on the mattress.

 

“HIDS,” Arthur says, “you can call it that.”

 

“Uh-huh, yeah, that’s another way to call it. HIDS. I suppose it is more common.”

 

“And, yeah, it hurts. I’m tired.”

 

“Story?”

 

“I want to sleep,” Arthur says and presses his face into his pillow to hide tears.

 

Merlin pats Arthur’s hair and sits quietly, trying to remember the long words, sometimes whispering to try them out.

 

The next day when Merlin comes into the room, Arthur's sitting up against a fort of pillows, listless but mostly awake. Arthur grins when Merlin pokes his head in, and he holds up a book he was trying to read. This one has a turquoise cover, and Merlin climbs up onto the bed and takes it, examining it carefully. It has a picture of children on the front, and inside the letters are big and blocky. Merlin nods and turns to chapter one.

 

“This one,” he tells Arthur, “is about a man called Robin Hood.”

 

Arthur laughs, because the book is “The Children of Noisy Village” and definitely not about Robin Hood. Merlin looks at the front cover again and nods.

 

“I know, I know, it doesn't look like Robin Hood, right?”

 

“It's not Robin Hood! Can't you read the title? You really can't! You actually can't read.”

 

“Except, this is the secret stories, the ones no one else knows,” Merlin says, ignoring Arthur's interruption.

 

Arthur's intrigued by that so he stops himself laughing and pays attention. Merlin gives him a very serious look and starts in on the story of Robin Hood, Little John, and the dragon who lives in the caves, sitting on a pile of treasure.

 

When Merlin comes the next day Arthur shows him the model dragon he has and the knight, and they turn the duvet into a landscape of hills, and the knight and Iron Man (Merlin points out that Tony Stark wears armour, just like a knight) search for the dragon as Merlin tells the story of Sir Arthur and Merlin the wizard.

 

Two boys sit, one in bed, talking. the one in bed has some toys, the one beside is telling a story, which is despicted in the backround where a knight on a horse is slaying a giant snake, a castle behind.

 

Merlin brings school work with him sometimes, and Arthur has to catch up with that once he can focus again, but Merlin still comes, and he even helps with some of it, so it's not so bad. One of the homeworks is to write about a weekend, so Arthur makes up a quest that he and Merlin went on and writes that out. Otherwise he'd have to write about lying in bed, sweating, which Merlin says is boring. Arthur suggests Merlin read that story out loud, but Merlin insults Arthur's handwriting and refuses to even try.

 

It takes Arthur a week, this time, to recover, and even then he's weak. Merlin stays close to him at school, and Arthur gets cross and shouts at him about not being a mother, and they have their first fight in the middle of a maths class. Merlin bursts into tears and runs out, unable to keep himself together in front of the audience at the same time as shouting and being shouted at. He runs to the nurse, Alice.

 

“Hello, Merlin. Oh dear, what happened? Come on, never mind. Have a seat up here with me, let's get you some tissues.”

 

Alice gives out cuddles when you go to her crying, and Merlin really likes her hugs, so he makes sure to keep on going until she gives him one. Sometimes she even takes you back, behind the little office, into the room with the bed, but not usually if you're just crying. Merlin stops crying and tells her about Arthur being horrible to him and how he was just trying to make sure he didn't have to go back home and how it's not fair, and then he cries again. Alice explains that Arthur probably would prefer a friend than a nursemaid, though she doesn't put it quite like that.

 

She watches Merlin sniffle his way through a lollipop and a packet of tissues, assessing. She decides to tell him that he can be caring and look after Arthur, but he has to realise that Arthur might not want to feel like he needs looking after.

 

“Arthur's ill a lot,” Alice says. “He probably feels tired of being an invalid. When you look after him like this, it makes him into one. He knows that he's going to be sick again in the future, and he probably wants to make the most of the times when he can be ... well, not sick.”

 

“But he didn't have to shout at me,” Merlin says, lip sticking out stubbornly.

 

Alice smothers her laughter and the urge to bundle Merlin up in another hug. He's one of her cuter kids, with the big ears and the big eyes and such a crooked, beaming smile when he chooses. He's also one of the sweetest kids, always bringing her scraped knees and bruises, sitting with whoever's hurt while she sorts them.

 

“No, he didn't need to shout. I just want you to understand why he might have shouted. I'm not trying to tell you that what he did was right.”

 

“Oh,” Merlin says, looking sadly at his lolly stick and then up at her, hopefully.

 

“No more,” she says, “you'll rot your teeth. Now, why don't you sit in here until break, have a bit of a rest from your friends? There are some books on the shelf, and you can sit up here with me while I do paperwork.”

 

Merlin has a look at the bookshelf. They're mostly picture books and he feels, at seven, that he's a little old for such things. He finds one chapter book, a Roald Dahl with a nice picture and a yellow cover, which he chooses. He sits up with Alice and runs his finger over the words, deciphering the letters and making up the story from the pictures inside.

 

When the bell goes, Merlin stops reading and listens to the thunder of feet, the loud shouting of the older kids, the wailing of a little kid who probably fell over. Someone comes in with a scraped knee, and Merlin sits with her and shows her the pictures in the book while Alice puts on a plaster.

 

Arthur, correctly guessing Merlin's whereabouts, comes striding in with maths homework for him. He bites his lip and shuffles his feet until the girl with the scraped knee has a plaster firmly in place, her tears turning into hiccups. Arthur sneaks around behind Alice while she's busy and inches open her drawer, plucking three lollies from the stash. He pockets two and slips the third into the girl's hand as she leaves.

 

“Arthur Pendragon,” Alice says, turning on him, “those lollies are not yours to give out.”

 

Arthur pretends contrition, and Alice lets him get away with the two in his pocket, assuming one is for Merlin. She watches Arthur shuffle about in front of Merlin and not quite apologise, until Merlin gets over his confusion and sulk and accepts the apology Arthur almost gave. They leave thick as thieves, and Alice watches from the door as Arthur hands over the lolly in great excitement. Merlin giggles and sticks it in his mouth, patting Arthur's shoulder in thanks.

 

Arthur gets three months without illness this time, and he and Merlin get used to fighting. Arthur gets pretty good at apologising without actually having to apologise, and Alice's stock of lollies sometimes mysteriously gets smaller. One day, though, Merlin comes in holding Arthur's arm, looking worried. Arthur's face is pink from embarrassment, and he's crying, holding his stomach. He's trying to keep it secret from Merlin that he didn't just really need the bathroom when he bolted from class.

 

“Hello, Arthur,” Alice says, “what happened? Come sit on the bed and let's see what we can do.”

 

Alice and Merlin nudge Arthur towards the bed, to door between the two rooms wide open. Arthur shakes his head emphatically, and his eyes go wide with worry. Merlin tries to make him sit, but Arthur refuses. Merlin looks imploringly at Alice.

 

“He won't say what's the matter. He went to the toilet, and we have to go in twos so I went with him, and then he was just crying, and so I brought him here, but he won't say why he's crying,” Merlin says, still holding onto Arthur's arm.

 

“Ah,” Alice says, frowning, “I see. Merlin, would you please wait in the office for a bit? You can have a lolly and read a book. Or you may go back to class, if you'd prefer.”

 

“I'll wait,” Merlin says, and retreats to the outer office.

 

Alice shuts the door and then moves around the room, finding the spare set of clothes she has for Arthur, and a towel.

 

“If you need the bathroom, you know where it is,” Alice says. “Do you need help cleaning up?”

 

Arthur shakes his head, taking the things she hands him and retreating to the small bathroom. Alice puts a new plastic cover on the bed and sets it up so Arthur can lie comfortably. Arthur cleans himself, wiping the mess off his legs, scrunching up his dirty underwear and trousers and putting them in the plastic bag Alice gave him.

 

Merlin's allowed in briefly to see him, and he lies on the bed with him and hugs him. Alice allows Merlin to stay while she makes the phone call to Gorlois after checking the list to see who's on call this week for Arthur, but then she makes him go back to class.

 

“What's the matter with him?” Merlin asks, worry radiating off him. “Is it really bad? He keeps on crying. Arthur never cries.”

 

“He's fine, Merlin. It's just a bit of an embarrassing symptom,” Alice says.

 

Merlin frowns, thinking that over. Then his eyes widen.

 

“He has diarrhoea?” Merlin whispers, “Oh no, he had an accident. That happened to me in nursery once. Poor Arthur!”

 

Merlin tries to go back into the room, but Alice stops him.

 

“You'll see him later, and you can tell him it's okay then. Right now Arthur needs some rest, and he needs some time to be a bit less embarrassed.”

 

Merlin goes back to class and sets about making up really, really excellent stories for Arthur.

 

This time, during the first days of fever and stomach problems, Arthur wants nothing to do with Merlin. He doesn't like anyone except Gorlois coming into his room and hides under the covers when Morgana or Merlin or Hunith come in. Merlin's left no choice but to play with Morgana instead. When Arthur finally lets him in, Merlin scrambles into the bed and wraps his arms around Arthur.

 

“It's okay,” Merlin says. “That happened to me once, too. Next time you can just tell me and don't have to cry, okay?”

 

Arthur blushes bright red and tries to shove Merlin away, but Merlin clings on.

 

“Get off,” Arthur says.

 

“Nope. I'm cuddling you. You have to submit to the mighty Cuddler Merlin.”

 

“Just... don't squeeze,” Arthur says, cautiously.

 

They lie still for a moment, then Merlin starts to giggle, and it's infectious. Arthur's stomach's still too sore to really laugh.

 

“I'll squeeze it all out,” Merlin whispers, tightening his arms just a little and giggling some more, “like a Play-doh machine.”

 

Arthur laughs, holding onto his middle, pressing his forehead into the pillow.

 

“Stop,” he says. “Just, get on with the story.”

 

“Okay. So Robin Hood has just met the red and white dragons, and Merlin's worried that he'll wake them. Vortigern is dead—”

 

“Yeah, Zeus got him.”

 

“And Cuchulain got Zeus. Oisin took Maid Marion to Tír na nÓg to gather troops, and King Arthur had gone to look for his knights. Who shall we follow today?”

 

“Tell me about Sir Lancelot,” Arthur murmurs. “I like Sir Lancelot.”

 

“Right,” Merlin says, “because he's the best of the knights. He's my favourite, too, even though he never gets the grail. Sir Lancelot, when we left him, was sunning himself on the top of Lady Elaine's castle, and they were eating strawberries and just getting to be best friends when there was a great knocking on the front door. A knocking that shook the castle from its foundations to his tallest tower.”

 

Merlin tells the story of how Lancelot defeats the giant with the aid of a mysterious knight, who unmasks himself as Arthur only once the giant is defeated and Elaine's lands saved. Elaine wants Lancelot to stay, but he says he cannot, as his king has called him and has need of him. He promises to return one day, but he must ride away. Lancelot's just galloped away from the castle, leaving Elaine sorrowful and weeping, when Arthur throws up all over him.

 

“Oh,” Merlin says.

 

Arthur gasps for breath, then throws up again. Merlin gets out of bed and goes to get Gorlois, calling for Hunith, too. Arthur gets sick a lot that week, and Merlin gets vomited on twice more before his stomach settles. And then it turns out that Arthur had a bug, not just HIDS symptoms, and Merlin gets the bug and gets Arthur back by throwing up on him.

 

It's in the middle of a game of knight vs. dragon, they're kneeling on the bed opposite one another, Arthur voicing the dragon. Arthur leans forwards, and Merlin opens his mouth to be the knight, then throws up all over Arthur. It gets in his hair and everything. Merlin bursts into tears as more and more comes up, all over Arthur's bed, and Arthur has to go get Hunith, appearing in the kitchen covered in vomit.

 

Hunith and Gorlois, when the boys are both asleep in Arthur's bed (a plastic bowl at Merlin's side), laugh about it, laugh about how friends that throw up together stay together. Gorlois decides that Merlin better stay away from Arthur until he's not infectious, though, and Hunith takes him home while he's asleep. Morgana's also sent away to her cousin Morgause.

Arthur's resting on the sofa in the living room while Gorlois does some freelance consulting work at the coffee table, the TV tuned to endless cartoons. He asks where everyone is, listless and tired.

 

“Merlin's at home, Morgana's with Morgause. Merlin has the bug, and Morgana probably does, too, so you're quarantined, darling.”

 

“I'm gonna be so bored, Gor,” Arthur says, sadly.

 

It's only two days before Merlin's allowed back, but Arthur exhausts his collection of DVDs, gets fed up with TV, tired of the internet and has resorted to actually reading books. Merlin comes back in his pyjamas with a stuffed toy rabbit and climbs into bed with Arthur.

 

“You need to tell me a story this time,” Merlin says. “I was sick.”

 

“I know. You puked all over me,” Arthur reminds him.

 

“Oh, yeah.”

 

Arthur gets the “Pure Dead” books off the shelves and over the next week they work their way through, Arthur reading out loud (“because, Merlin, I know how to read”). Technically they're well enough to go back to school, but the bug's doing the rounds, so Arthur can't go in, and Hunith decides Merlin could use the break as well. On Sunday night, Merlin's allowed to sleep over, and he pulls out a red book to prove that he can read. Merlin tells the story of how Sir Lancelot comes to Camelot, and Arthur dreams of knights in shining armour and billowing red cloaks — of a place where monsters are real.