Arthur’s hair ran water into his eyes and he couldn’t see. His hands felt frozen, but not more so than Merlin’s chest beneath them, and the panic that had first sent him into the flooded river was rising like a bubble in his throat.
“Damn it, Merlin!” Arthur slapped his fringe from his face and yanked his second glove off, dropping it from his fingers and his memory as he took Merlin’s whitened face in both hands. His hands shook, he could see the tremor snaking into Merlin’s body. Arthur’s teeth clacked together.
A hand descended onto his shoulder and he smacked it away. Whichever knight it had been backed up hurriedly, crunching through the brittle winter layer of leaves.
Aside from the unbelievably strong shivering due to Arthur’s hands, Merlin did not move.
“God—” Arthur spun, scrabbling for the cloak he’d literally ripped from his own shoulders when the rock Merlin had been standing on had given way. It was too far off, a red, crumpled heap at the feet of Sir Galahad. But warm. Dry. “Give it to me!”
Galahad was always quick. He bent and snatched the cloak off the ground, already moving to Arthur’s side. Arthur grabbed the heavy material and flung it over Merlin, tucking it down with sharp jabs of frozen fingers. Merlin’s head lolled in the leaves and righted again.
“My lord,” Gawain said, “you’re going to freeze to—”
“I’ll break your arm, Gawain, so help me.” Arthur’s teeth nearly butchered the words with their chattering. But Gawain stilled. Arthur could only concentrate on the bluing lips before him, the wan skin growing grayer and grayer. “Merlin! Breathe!”
He wasn’t. He just… wasn’t. Arthur’s hand fisted up before he could think. He smacked it down onto Merlin’s chest and Merlin’s head swung sideways again, a horrible puppet on fraying strings. Arthur caught his own moan and forced his curling fingers straight. Slapped Merlin’s cheek hard.
He’d never been this scared. And that was enough to send his teeth chattering on their own, without the icy flood waters, without the lump lodged in his throat. Merlin had gone into the river on a rock that should not have been loose, should not have tipped, for god’s sake, they’d all stepped on it while crossing! Arthur’s face was a mass of past-numb pain, his chest made of ice. But Merlin wasn’t breathing, wasn’t—
“Merlin, no.” So soft. No one else could have heard it. Arthur blinked, and then all he could see was the muddy swirl of melt-off, sweeping him almost off his feet even as he jerked free of his chainmail and flung it—somewhere. Into the river. The armor would have yanked him down just as surely as the water itself. Merlin had not surfaced, and the current was so strong, Arthur’s legs disappearing to numbness as he ducked under and flung his arms around, arms which he could not feel, and he knew, he just knew Merlin was already out of his reach, already down the raging torrent, when he snagged something, he couldn’t feel what, but he gripped it and yanked on it, and pushed up out of the water with his skin afire, a thousand nettles jabbing through him. And pulled Merlin after him.
Arthur’s breath raced in and out without his say. He couldn’t get enough oxygen, he couldn’t stop shaking. Merlin’s lips were going slowly purple. The veins stood out blue beneath skin that looked nearly translucent. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist and then could not relax his hold. His fingers clenched on their own and stayed there, clamped like claws around Merlin’s arm.
His clothes were beginning to freeze into ice. “Y-you—” Couldn’t speak. Someone grabbed his arm again, hauled him back, and Arthur jerked around, more of a fall than an attack, and slammed his fist into a leg that crumpled. He was released, new fire pumping desperately through his body, trying to stave off the dark ice. Arthur dropped back over Merlin, one hand still cinched at his wrist, the other arm a quivering pillar keeping him up. Last night he had been here. Two nights before that. Two nights before that. Arthur’s brain swam through a mire that made no sense, memories of warmth and Merlin’s pink, open mouth, sweat and panted breaths and laughs and now there was nothing but cold and ice and winter and approaching death.
“Breathe!” Arthur bit out, teeth nearly breaking against each other. He snatched Merlin’s chin, shoved his thumb between chilly lips and pried Merlin’s mouth open. “Breathe,” and then he breathed for him, a pitiful gust of air from his lungs to Merlin’s. Merlin’s chest barely moved and Arthur had to lift his head and struggle for air of his own. His sight went fuzzy and then cleared, and he bent back over Merlin, huffing another, stronger breath between Merlin’s lips.
Merlin’s chest rose infinitesimally, and Arthur felt his own air forced back against his lips through Merlin’s nostrils. He reached and managed to pinch Merlin’s nose closed, fingers knotted with cold, and forced a third breath into Merlin. Come on. Merlin. Come on.
Merlin did not move. The colour of his lips darkened, the hue of a deep bruise. Arthur wrenched a handful of Merlin’s tunic and shook him right off the ground with one yank. Bent again and forced so much air between Merlin’s lips that he slid sideways with dizziness.
Merlin jerked. His eyes popped open and he arched, a terrible, wracking cough erupting from him. Water dribbled out of his mouth in liquid streams and he lurched again. Arthur grabbed him and then fell to the ground, dragging Merlin onto his side with him. Merlin retched against frostbitten leaves, eyes squeezed shut, hair sticking out in sharp black icicles. Arthur’s vision blurred.
His hand was still locked around Merlin’s wrist when he passed out.
The cold was gone when he came to. Arthur swam in a haze of heat, the heaviest of weights atop him, pressing him back toward sleep. His mind lurched feebly in the direction of fear, but he couldn’t understand why. The familiar smell of burning wood entered his nostrils. The smell of his own sheets, his pillow. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open, everything was so dark.
He remembered and his hand jerked out, smacking into a warming pan still dangerously hot with the coals inside. Arthur battled with the weight atop him, mounds of quilts. Orange light that should have been warm blinded him instead and he fell to his right, half out of bed, mercifully shielded from another warming pan by the blankets. The metal thumping against his thigh. Someone’s voice sounded, and Gwen was there, hands gripping his shoulders, so cold after the intense mantle of heat. Arthur pulled back but another set of hands was on his back, someone behind him, and Arthur thrashed, and didn’t realise he was speaking until someone answered, “He’s all right, he’s all right! Arthur!”
Gaius loomed over him, blocking Gwen out. Arthur stared up dumbly, forgetting to breathe until his body reminded him. Then he seized Gaius’ arm and said it again. “Merlin.”
Gaius covered his hand with his own. Squeezed. “You saved him.”
The Healer’s gaze remained, as if waiting for Arthur to bolt again; then he nodded to his left. Arthur turned and saw the cot next to the fire, which literally roared, it was built so high, spilling heat into the room. Only Merlin’s head was visible. The sweat on his forehead stood out, a bright flicker in the light. Arthur mouthed his name again. He could taste the river water in his mouth. On Merlin’s lips. Gaius bent into his view— how long he’d been staring at Merlin’s unmoving form, Arthur didn’t know— and then suddenly Arthur could see the sweat on Gaius’ face, too.
Gaius smiled. Looked over at Merlin long enough for Arthur to follow and see the steady rise and fall of the other’s chest. Then looked back. “All right, Gwen. Let’s get that fire down again.”
They shut the door and left them in silence after Gaius had assured himself of Arthur’s senses. Half the blankets now sat, folded neatly on the floor. The fire was a low flicker, casting flowing shadows up the walls. Arthur pulled himself free of his bed and the remaining quilts. The floor felt as an iced over river under his feet and he staggered upright in an attempt to get free of the damned chill again, too quickly, falling bodily against Merlin’s bed before pulling himself up onto it and wrapping his arms and legs around the sleeper. Like him, Merlin wore nothing under the blankets. Just body heat. Arthur buried his nose in Merlin’s hair, heart hammering with vague terror, and didn’t remember much of the hours he spent lying awake with Merlin in his arms.
His stupor broke when a hand moved in his hair. Arthur jerked upright, taking Merlin’s hand with him. Merlin’s breath left him in a hiss, his whole body tensing with Arthur’s movement. Foggy dark eyes gazed up at Arthur. The coals sputtered in the hearth, and Merlin’s body was a warm wall along his front. Arthur grasped for the whole, sighting tangled hair and flushed cheeks. Pale lips. He tugged the covers down until he could grab for Merlin’s arm and pulled it free of its warm cocoon. Merlin’s fingers tensed in his hair, pulling tight.
Arthur stared at the whitened skin of Merlin’s wrist. Only the faintest trace of veins echoed there, ghosts under the skin. Arthur stared at the pulse thumping visibly, and then at his claw-like fingers, clutching once more. He must have made some sound because Merlin worked his wrist free and laced their fingers together, then squeezed so hard the pain jolted Arthur out of his panic.
“Arthur,” Merlin rasped.
Arthur turned and kissed Merlin hard, urging his mouth open, breathing into it, tonguing into it, half-tasting the tell-tale river, the icy snarl of winter. Merlin was slow to follow, letting out a weak sound. He clutched Arthur’s head and forced him back. “Stop, what—?”
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s hand and pressed his mouth there instead, in the center of his palm. His hand shook; this time it wasn’t the cold. He looked down and saw Merlin staring at him, face slack, face still, just as it had been at the flood’s edge. Arthur’s eyes stung and he dropped his head, shoulders trembling, nose pressed into Merlin’s chest, unable to do anything but shake and shake and try not to let the rest of it through.
“They told me you—” Merlin’s voice had been mangled by the ice. He stopped, and Arthur completely froze, unable to think because thinking led him to what should have been the result of the fall into the river.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, almost a question, afraid. Arthur’s adrenaline surged, the familiar lilt of Merlin’s tone steeping into his ears. He rose up and kissed Merlin again, gripping his nape and dizzy as hell, but he needed—
“You were dead, you were—” he managed between the meeting of their mouths. “I couldn’t…”
Merlin gasped his name, hands clutched at his shoulders. Arthur insinuated his leg between Merlin’s, addicted to the heat and the movement, frenzied for it, and settled between Merlin’s open legs. Merlin let him, moving almost dazedly until they fit, and Arthur had that heat that he’d come so close to losing, the intelligence he knew so well still there in those eyes, still in this world and not the next. A tear slipped free. It dropped onto Merlin’s face and Merlin stopped attempting to speak.
“I need you.” Arthur recognised his own voice. Cracked. Guttural like the pain in his chest. He shook Merlin without knowing he’d done it, light and tense. “I need you.”
The last word broke.
Merlin’s face morphed frighteningly, jaw clenching, eyes blinking a rapid rhythm. Arthur touched his lips, pale but alive with blood again, not bluer than the northern ice floes. They weren’t words he’d thought he could speak, not even words he knew he wanted to speak, not until now. The gift was massive, fragile and here in his arms, likely not earned at all, and it scared him so badly.
The faintest glimmer in Merlin’s eyes caught the firelight. His hand squeezed Arthur’s shoulder once. Again. He opened his mouth and said, “I…” On the verge of tears.
Arthur eased up and covered the sound with his own lips, slid up Merlin’s front with his whole body, the need to be the strong one again flooding his senses. But he wasn’t ready, and the result was desperation, the fumbled movement of their bodies. Merlin moaned and lifted his legs, clenching his thighs at Arthur’s hips. Arthur pressed closer, sucked into the heat and the smell of Merlin’s body, all proof that he had succeeded, he hadn’t lost Merlin at all. Half of him disbelieved it; Arthur sobbed free of the kiss and thrust hard against Merlin, one hand tight at his nape. Merlin arched into him, ankles locking at his back, head straining against the pillow. Arthur kissed his chin, sank his hand into Merlin’s hair, and thrust again, heat beating into both his palms, the dampness of sweat flickering there. Merlin caught his cheeks in his hands and resumed the kiss, breathing hard into Arthur’s mouth, a give and take of air that was familiar, and so much better than what it had been there by the river. Merlin shook, breath rasping as it caught, as Arthur moved again. The sound Merlin made was helpless and full to the brim.
Arthur’s face felt damp. He could taste salt between their lips, the only form of water he could face just then, and clenched his eyes shut. Pressed their cheeks together, their noses and mouths and then their foreheads, and clung, and moved until it was nothing but a single, long, hot shudder against Merlin’s body. Into Merlin’s body.
Merlin writhed against him, legs so tight around his hips that it hurt. When he fell back, gasping on the sheets, mouth slack, Arthur caressed his face, unable to stop touching. As if he would lose the life thrumming there in Merlin’s skin if he let go.
Hands closed over his. Not stopping the movement. Just following. Accompanying. Arthur pressed his face into the damp, warm crook of Merlin’s throat and breathed. Finally, he let his hands still against Merlin’s face.
Merlin said nothing. He just held Arthur, one hand woven into the tangles of his hair. His chest rose and fell rapidly beneath Arthur’s. In and out, in and out. Arthur swallowed and nodded. Kissed Merlin’s chest, and nodded again.