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A Sore Spot

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It began a few weeks after the Yule celebrations. Snow had fallen thick and heavy, and the chill that filled the castle was felt by everyone. Gaius liked to spend his evenings huddled under his old beaver fur in front of the fire; Gwen slept on a narrow bed in Morgana’s rooms so she didn’t have to battle the snowdrifts every morning and evening, and the knights huddled around a fire grate, drank ale and roasted chestnuts whenever they could get away with it.

And Arthur… Arthur had a sore tooth. But he wouldn’t admit it.

When Merlin came in that day, he found the Prince even less willing to get up than usual. Arthur’s blankets were drawn over his head, and he hardly stirred when Merlin announced that breakfast was ready.

“G’way, M’lin.”

Merlin tugged at the blanket. “Come on, Arthur. Your father expects you in the great hall in an hour.”

“D’n’t wan’.”

“Yes, well, we all have our duties,” Merlin said in his best imitation of Gaius. Normally, that would have gained a reluctant smile at least, but Arthur merely grabbed the blanket and held onto it.

“L’mme ‘lone.”

With bodily strength and just a little bit of magic, Merlin wrestled the blanket out of Arthur’s hands. “What happened to you? Sire,” he added belatedly.

Arthur glared up at him, eyes dull with pain. His left cheek was fat and swollen, as if he were keeping a small, hard apple hidden in his mouth. “N’thing.”

But Merlin hadn’t been the court physician’s assistant for two years and learned nothing. “It’s the tooth again, isn’t it.”

The tooth, a particularly troublesome specimen, had acted up before, usually after feasts or bouts of drinking with the knights. Gaius had given Arthur concoctions of St John’s wort and sage, and had made some noises about a ‘prophylactic extraction’, which Arthur had preferred to ignore. Not that Merlin blamed him; pulling teeth was a bloody, unpleasant business, and could transform grown men into whimpering balls of misery. Grown women too, although the men were worse, in Merlin’s experience.

“Nooow,” Arthur said, the word turning into a pained groan halfway through. “It’s n’thing.”

“It’s not nothing. I can see that your cheek is swollen from halfway across the room.”

“Sh’t up, M’lin.”

“You need to go and see Gaius.”

“No!” Arthur sat up quickly, pushing the blankets to one side. He winced with pain at the sudden movement, but tried to cover it up by running a hand through his tousled hair. Merlin saw his fingers hovering momentarily over the swollen lump, as if he wanted to touch it and didn’t quite dare. “I d’n’t need to see Gaiush.”

“Yes you do.” Merlin began to serve breakfast, despite the fact that Arthur turned his eyes away in disgust. “That tooth needs to come out. It’s upsetting your humors, and may set your blood on fire if it isn’t treated. That’s really dangerous,” he added unnecessarily. “And it will stop hurting once it’s out.”

“It doesn’t h’rt,” Arthur said, his pale face and glazed eyes telling a different story. “’M not going to Gaiush.”

Merlin sighed. He knew when the battle was lost, but he couldn’t leave Arthur in this state. Uther wouldn’t be happy if his son showed up to a council meeting looking as if he’d been hit with a cudgel.

“Let me see.” Ignoring Arthur’s protests, Merlin gently caught the Prince’s chin in his left hand. “Close your eyes.”

Arthur did as he was told, though not without a put-upon sigh. Very carefully, Merlin rested his fingertips on the swollen area, which felt hot and tender to the touch. He could sense the bad spirits that had infected the tooth within, eating deeper and deeper until they reached the nerve endings. He could not draw them out altogether, but he could give Arthur a brief respite and put the pain to rest for a while.

Concentrating on his hand, he thought the spell.

Arthur sighed again, but this time it was a sigh of relief. “That’s... better. What did you do?”

“Nothing,” Merlin said quickly, letting go of Arthur’s face. “Just a trick Gaius showed me. Something about redirecting the pain through touch.”

Well, it wasn’t a complete lie. Gaius had showed him a number of healing spells.

“Good trick,” Arthur said and reached for his cup. His eyes lingered on Merlin with that strange expression, the one Merlin could never quite fathom. “Strange light this morning. For a moment, I thought your eyes had changed color.”

He chuckled, and Merlin grinned in response. “Funny how your imagination can play tricks on you when you’re not quite awake.”

“Yeah,” Arthur said. “Funny indeed. Now can I get some wine around here, or do I have to pour it myself?”

Merlin hurried to pour the wine, breathing a sigh of relief when Arthur let the subject rest. Maybe his magic, like his play-acting, was better than he thought, and his spell had healed the bad tooth. Merlin certainly hoped so.

###

Merlin’s magic could do many things, but Arthur’s sore tooth was a force unto itself and resisted its healing powers. The pain returned not long after the council meeting, and by the time dinner rolled around, Arthur was sitting hunched in a chair by the fire, a hand on his cheek and sweat beading on his upper lip.

Grabbing a blanket from the bed, Merlin wrapped it around the man’s trembling shoulders. “Arthur.”

“No,” Arthur grunted. “’M not goin’.”

“You’ll feel so much better, I promise.”

“I’ll h’ve a bloody great hole in m’ mouf. How’s that be’er?”

“The bad humors will be gone.”

“No,” Arthur muttered. “They’re in m’ jaw an’ m’ head an’ everywhere.”

Merlin drew up a stool from beside the fireplace and sat down behind Arthur, close enough so that they almost touched. Arthur’s muscles were tense as if he was anticipating a fight. Merlin blew on his hands, rubbed them once or twice and began to stroke down the hard planes of Arthur’s back in slow, deliberate movements. Gently, he pushed his thumbs into the hollow between Arthur’s shoulder blades and began a careful massage, his magic building up just enough warmth to make it seem natural.

After a while, Arthur sighed and allowed his shoulders to slump. His hand was still on his swollen cheek, but the trembling had subsided.

“C’n’t you do tha’ trick again, M’lin?”

Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s waist and pulled him close. “You know I can’t. All it does is postpone the pain, not take care of the diseased tooth.”

“B’t...” Arthur winced and drew a sharp breath. “Don’t you know ano’er trick... one that makes th’ pain go ‘way for good?”

Merlin shook his head against Arthur’s back. If he studied for many years, he might be able to extract the tooth through a spell, but as it was, he wasn’t particularly proficient in healing magic. And even if he were, he couldn’t very well knock Arthur out for the procedure... or tell him to close his eyes and ignore the magic. “I’m sorry. Gaius will have to pull it out.”

Arthur took a deep breath, and Merlin felt a shudder running through his body. “’M not a c’ward,” the Prince muttered.

“I know you’re not.”

“’S just... it hurts so d’mned bad already if I touch it ‘cidentally wif my tongue, and those instruments...”

There wasn’t much Merlin could say to this. Extracting an infected tooth was agony for the patient, and little could be done to relieve the pain. Sir Owain had flat out refused to go to Gaius, that time his cheek had nearly gone blue from the swelling, until his fellow knights had dragged him into the court physician’s chambers and held him down. The man had screamed and sobbed like a child during the extraction.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, and he really was. As the Crown Prince, Arthur would be expected to remain stoic in the face of any kind of medical procedure. Owain had been teased by his friends, but Arthur would be facing Uther’s disappointment and the council’s frowns and tuts if he let slip that he was merely human and as afraid of tooth-drawing as any other man. “If there’s anything I can do...”

“J’st stay f’r a wh’le,” Arthur muttered.

Merlin said nothing. Moments like these were few and far between. Like so many things between them, it was never spoken aloud, but he knew that he was the only person in front of whom Arthur could be just that – just a man who had his good and bad days, who liked to play a round of dice in the evening, whose belly tended to get slightly pudgy in the winter season and who was afraid of seeing a physician about a painful and humiliating problem. Who needed someone to hold him when he was miserable and hurting.

Arthur leaned against him, his head on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin brought his arms up to wrap around Arthur’s chest from behind, feeling the other man’s warmth against his body. Perhaps the infection had progressed already, causing a fever. The tooth would have to come out before sunset.

“And if I went with you?” he said very quietly. “Would that help?”

Keeping his eyes closed, Arthur let out a long sigh. Then he nodded.

###

Gaius’ instruments were spread out on a piece of linen, each of them spotless and gleaming. Gaius insisted on boiling his surgery tools in hot water before every use, which according to a famous Arab medical treatise was a necessary hygienic precaution. Merlin wasn’t too sure about the boiling, but at least Gaius’ instruments were clean, and not rusty and crusted with bodily fluids like the rough pliers used by the traveling barber-surgeons.

“If you would take a seat on this stool, sire.”

Merlin guided Arthur onto the seat Gaius had pointed out. Arthur was none too steady on his feet, having emptied an entire wineskin on his own. The alcohol would dull the pain... perhaps. It did for some people. Others seemed to feel every cut and poke twice as acutely after the wine. But it was the only pain-relieving remedy they had, and no one wanted to go without it. After the tooth was out, Gaius would tell Uther that Arthur had refused to accept any painkiller at all.

“Merlin,” Gaius said, raising an eyebrow at him. “If you would.”

Merlin knew what he had to do. It was part of his duties as a physician’s assistant to help with surgical procedures, and more often than not, this included holding on to the patient for all he was worth. If the patients were men and rather strong, Gaius sometimes fetched Percival to help, but he wouldn’t this time. This was bad enough for Arthur without being pinned to a chair by one of his own knights.

Sitting down on the bench behind Arthur, Merlin wrapped his arms around him – much like he had done in Arthur’s chambers, although this time, he was prepared to tighten his grip if Arthur struggled. Which he would. No matter how the knights liked to brag, no person could sit through surgery without stirring a limb.

“Sire,” Gaius said, almost apologetically. “If you could open your mouth.”

Merlin felt Arthur tremble against him. It might be fear, or sheer effort to keep any emotion hidden inside. Maybe both, and in the current situation, it didn’t really matter.

“It’ll be okay,” Merlin whispered through sweaty blond hair into Arthur’s ear. “Think of something else. Think of... me falling into that eel pond.”

Arthur’s shoulders shuddered against him in what might have been a weak chuckle. The Eel Pond Incident had amused the Prince to no end, and he loved doing an imitation of what Merlin had allegedly looked like, flailing around in the water. Merlin didn’t even deny it. Eels were nasty.

“Sire,” Gaius said again. He was holding a pair of pliers and something that looked like a silver candle-lighter with a very sharp tip.

“Close your eyes,” Merlin whispered. “Don’t look.”

Arthur did, leaned back and opened his mouth. Merlin looked at Gaius.

Be quick, he mouthed.

Gaius nodded, and didn’t point out that Merlin’s request was unnecessary. He always operated as quickly as he could... and more often than not, his patients lived to tell the tale. Not many physicians could make that claim.

The silver instrument went first into Arthur’s mouth. Arthur yelped, trying to get up from his stool, and only stayed where he was because Merlin hung on to him for dear life.

“No saving it,” Gaius muttered. “The disease has progressed too far. I’m sorry, your Highness.”

In went the pliers, and this time Arthur howled. Merlin had done this before with other patients, yet somehow, Arthur’s screams of pain were much harder to bear.

“Come on,” he panted, hanging on to the struggling man with all his weight. “Come on, Gaius.”

“I’ve got a grip on it,” Gaius said. “Hold him down, now!”

There was a horrible crack, and Gaius cursed. “It’s hanging on by a thread. Just one more, sire.”

Arthur was whimpering, trying to raise his hands in a defensive gesture. Merlin held on to him, muttering apologies and reassurances. A trickle of blood was running down Arthur’s chin, dripping onto the floor.

Gaius adjusted the pliers, and gave them another almighty jolt. Arthur wailed – there was no other word for it – and fell back against Merlin’s chest.

“It’s out,” Gaius said, breathing fast from the exertion. A thin sheen of sweat gleamed on his forehead. “Here. And about time, too, before it infected the other teeth.”

His own breath coming in short gasps, Arthur glanced at the tooth Gaius had dropped into a bowl on the table. It was bloody and discolored where the bad humors had eaten their way into healthy bone, spreading their foulness.

“I...” He coughed and spat a bit of blood onto the floor. “I think I’m going to-”

Gaius, who had pulled enough teeth to be prepared for all eventualities, grabbed a bucket and shoved it under the Prince’s nose, not a second too later either.

“That’s all of the wine, I think,” Merlin said, gently stroking Arthur’s back as he retched and heaved. “It’s probably better to be rid of it.”

Arthur remained hunched over the bucket for a moment or two, breathing heavily. Then he straightened up again, and Merlin could see him gathering his strength to present a picture of royal dignity... never mind the blood stains on his tunic and the tear tracks on his cheeks.

“Th-thank you, Gaius. G-good work.”

“Thank you, sire.” Gaius bowed slightly, then his expression became less formal. “I would suggest that you withdraw early today. Your humors were unbalanced by the infection, and you’ll need rest and relaxation to regain your strength.”

“I’ll take you to your chambers,” Merlin said. “And maybe have some soup sent up?”

“Here,” Gaius handed him a bundle of linen and a little pot. “A poultice to put on the wound, once the swelling has gone down. Maybe you’d better stay with the Prince tonight, Merlin, in case he needs something.”

Merlin managed to blush only slightly. “If you say so, Gaius.”

###

A snowstorm rose once the sun had set, howling like a hundred ghosts as it whipped around the many towers and turrets of the castle. Merlin had stoked the fire to a blaze, feeding it several dry oak logs that cracked and hissed as the flames consumed them. Arthur’s chambers weren’t exactly warm – a castle in winter never got warm, as such – but they were cozy, and under a heap of fur blankets in the royal bed, warmth was not that hard to come by.

Merlin had bundled Arthur off to bed, in his softest shift and with a scarf wrapped around his head to alleviate the swelling. Arthur had refused the soup, the watered-down ale, even the herb concoction Gaius wanted him to drink – all he wanted was to curl up under his many blankets and drowse the pain away.

Well, and he wanted Merlin by his side. Which was no hardship, given that there were few places Merlin would rather be on a cold, stormy night.

Wearing only a shift himself, Merlin lay spooned against Arthur’s back and felt his own eyes beginning to droop. He hadn’t felt that warm in... well, since the last time Arthur had needed him to stay the night. Which wasn’t that long ago.

“You should probably use the poultice,” he said sleepily. “Or you’ll look like a hamster in the morning, with your fat cheek.”

“I’m the Crown Prince, Merlin,” Arthur muttered. “You can’t compare me to a hamster.”

“If the shoe fits...”

“Shut up, Merlin. And do that thing again, would you?”

Merlin slipped his hands back under Arthur’s shift and began stroking, beginning with the chest and working way down to the belly. There would be nothing strenuous tonight, which was fine by him; he didn’t particularly want to move around and expose too much of his skin to the cool air. But he would be here when Arthur needed him, as he always was.

“There’s those fireflies again,” Arthur said in a drowsy voice. Merlin glanced up. A cloud of red and golden lights was hovering under the canopy, swirling like the snowflakes outside. Gaius had told him once about ‘spell residue’... magical manifestations after a particularly strong spell had been cast. They looked a lot like fireflies.

“Is the pain any better?” he asked.

Arthur nodded, almost asleep. “Mh-mh. Nearly gone. Keep doing that thing.”

Merlin kept doing that thing, and neither of them mentioned the improbability of fireflies roaming the castle in mid-winter.

As Arthur liked to say, no need to belabor the obvious.

The End