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in, out

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The forest stretched and loomed around them, withered bark and unforgiving branches towering like a jungle of knives and sharp edges. Thick moonlight sent angry shadows dancing across the wood, and Merlin jumped at each breeze whispered like a cast curse. He felt sticky humidity coating his skin, the back of his neck, still warmed and viscous from the heat of the flames he had put out. Across from him, Arthur’s soft, stuttered snores accompanied the quiet of the night.

Merlin let out a breath through his nose, undid his neckerchief with deft fingers to relieve some of the air’s wet press of suffocation. Folded the red swatch of fabric into a neat square. Unfolded, then folded again. Bunched the fabric in his hand, flexed his fingers and tightened them into a hard fist. Rubbed a corner between his thumb and forefinger, the frayed material gentle against his callouses.

He focused on the faint— but steady— in-outs of air swirling across Arthur’s lips, kept eyes trained on the slump of Arthur’s shoulders, and stubbornly tamped down the fear searing up his throat. Arthur was dying— again. And it was up to Merlin to rescue His Royal Pratiness— again. Nothing new, nothing they hadn’t successfully dealt with before. Hell, not months ago Gwen had sent Arthur to his deathbed, leaving Merlin to single-handedly drag the—too trusting, too careless— idiot back to the land of the living.

The Questing Beast, the Eye of the Phoenix. He’d done it, he could do it. Just as a younger Merlin had cradled Arthur’s listless form in his hands and begged the rumbling sky to take him instead, had dripped rain between Arthur’s lips and sent lightning down from the heavens and started his own storm. But experienced as he was in the business of saving Arthur’s life, voices still clamored and screamed and split Merlin’s head, voices throwing daggers of prophecy and Mordred and destiny.

Merlin squeezed his temples between two thumbs, struggling to calm his breathing and steady his heart rate as his traitorous brain flashed, again, the vision of Mordred slicing through Arthur, carving into him like wood, like venison. Blood flooded his tongue as he bit down, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. He blinked them away, looking at Arthur, at the hint of red teasing around the break in his mail, the opening of his wound. He wondered if he looked hard enough, whether he could see the gleaming silver tip of the blade burnished in dragon’s breath breaking blood and flesh, beating an inexorable path to Arthur’s heart. But breath still gusted in Arthur’s lungs and warmth still blushed across his cheeks and he wasn’t dead, not yet, wasn’t going to die, not now, not this time.

Arthur’s form stirred, shifting slightly to the side, and he let out a small grunt. Merlin gave a sharp intake of breath, pressing the back of his hand across his mouth to belatedly still the noise. Did Arthur hurt, moving around in sleep? The hard patch of dirt, the rough biting bark, the forest a bedroom and a log for a backrest. It couldn’t be comfortable, not on a normal campaign and especially not when Arthur had a sword-shaped hole cut through his insides. His head hung too low, chin almost brushing his armor, his limp arms bent awkwardly at his sides.

Merlin briefly debated. Arthur could rest perhaps twenty more minutes before they had to continue their trek towards Avalon, and Merlin didn’t want to risk waking him up now. But reason and facts and logic had always flown out the window when it came to Arthur, so Merlin vowed to be gentle and lightly treaded towards him, placing himself quietly at his side. With hands on Arthur’s arms, he tenderly eased Arthur’s weight off the dead tree trunk and onto Merlin’s chest, letting Arthur’s reassuring warmth slump against him. Arthur hummed at the repositioning but remained otherwise steeped in sleep.

With Arthur secure in his hold, Merlin relaxed a fraction more, thumbing the leather of Arthur’s gloves, resting his cheek against Arthur’s hair. He could feel the beat of Arthur’s heart, tapping a pulsing rhythm against the sweltering humidity. The night wrapped itself in tight folds around them, darkness chasing out the words that bubbled on Merlin’s tongue.

“I won’t let you die, Arthur.” The words melted on his lips like fresh snow, barely a whisper, barely a breath, caressing the top of Arthur’s head. “I won’t.”

The world, for its part, gave no indication that it had heard, silence still swirling through the thickets, interrupted only by resulting leaves and Arthur’s soft sounds of sleep. Emboldened by the reticence, Merlin continued.

“Everything. Only for you.” And Merlin held Arthur close and breathed and prayed to every God he knew to just please, please let him keep Arthur like this, heart full and pumping blood and keeping him soft and warm.

Merlin. Such a girl.” Arthur’s weakened murmur drifted up towards Merlin, and he jolted a bit in surprise, eyes flitting open wide.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.” But he couldn’t bring himself to regret letting Arthur rest in his arms.

“‘s fine. Barely awake.” He sounded pliant, words slurred with sleep and coming out in light puffs. “And I trust you.”

Merlin nodded once, sharp. “I won’t let you down.” Because he would move the earth and the sun and all the stars, just so Arthur could stay and see and live and breathe.

“Hey.” Arthur jostled a bit, angling his face to direct his speech at Merlin. “Might be my time.” He sounded resolute, firm, every bit the brave, stupid king for whom Merlin had cooked and killed, cut and cleaned. Interrupting Merlin’s bitten protest, Arthur continued, “Not me, Merlin. Trust you with Camelot.”

“Camelot’ll have you.” Merlin gave Arthur a gentle squeeze. “You won’t die. You’re my destiny.” But really, who cared about destiny? Because if destiny said that Arthur had to die, then fuck fate. Fuck it all. But how could Merlin tell Arthur that he was the sea and the mountains and the water that ran from lakes to rivers? The green that painted the land, the blue that fluttered in wisps across the sky. The spring and the summer and the fall and the winter. Everything. Everything.  

Arthur just huffed out a small laugh, threaded his fingers through Merlin’s. Merlin gripped his hand, pressed a light, tentative kiss to the crown of Arthur’s head. He let out a noise of contentment, leaning into the touch.

“Go back to sleep. We still have a bit of time.” Merlin scooted backwards so that Arthur’s head could fall against his chest. Arthur hummed in agreement, pillowing himself against Merlin and clasping Merlin’s hand between his palms. Soon, he grew heavy with unconsciousness.

Merlin listened. In, out. In, out. Arthur breathed, so Merlin lived.