“Where is he?” Arthur asks, not bothering to hide his displeasure. He gave Merlin a day off after the feast, not a whole week.
“He’s not well,” Gaius says, his eyes never leaving his work, some sort of a potion.
“The tavern again?”
“He is ill, Sire. Now if you excuse me, I need to attend to him.”
Arthur is taken aback by the tone of Gaius’ voice, feeling like a chastised child. He follows Gaius to Merlin’s bedroom. For a second, he thinks Gaius will close the door right in his face, but in the end he’s allowed to enter.
He was expecting to see Merlin pale and tired covered by a blanket or two, not to find him curled on his side, gripping the covers in one of his hands, his eyes shut, breathing laboured. How much pain is he in? What sort of illness is this?
Arthur watches in silence as Gaius coaxes Merlin to drink the potion. A few barely audible pained moans escaping his lips as he lies back down.
“What’s wrong with him?” Arthur asks.
“I wish I knew,” Gaius says, pulling the blanket up to cover Merlin’s shoulders.
“I’m fine. It’s nothing,” Merlin protests weakly, his words proven false not a second later by another pain-filled exhale.
“Is there anything I can do? Any herbs you need?”
“If you could carry him to the main room, warmth from the fireplace might do him good.”
Arthur nods and goes straight to the bed. Ignoring Merlin’s “I can walk”, he picks him up and takes a moment to adjust his grip. He’s surprised when Merlin’s tremors start to subside, his breathing evening out.
“The potion must have worked,” he says, carefully maneuvering Merlin through the door and quickly bringing him to the cot already pushed closer to the fireplace.
He takes a bit longer than is strictly necessary to settle Merlin on the mattress. The reluctance to let go is nothing new, but it doesn't mean it gets any easier with time.
“I'm fine,” Merlin says, meeting his eyes and offering a tired smile.
It's almost scary how he can read Arthur's moods, as if it's his second nature.
“You better be. The chores won't do themselves.” He gives a final squeeze to Merlin's shoulder and pulls away.
Merlin curls onto his side under the blanket. His skin turns ashen, few beads of perspiration appearing on his forehead. Gaius brings one more blanket to tuck around him before returning to his books. Arthur is reluctant to leave, so he approaches the table.
“Are you sure there's nothing more I can do to help?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder as Merlin fails to suppress a quiet whimper.
Gaius watches him contemplatively.
“Anything at all,” Arthur prompts.
“He hasn't eaten since yesterday morning. Honey water is the only thing he accepted from me. You could try to make him drink some more,” Gaius says, retrieving a kettle from its place close to the fireplace and pouring some of its contents into a smaller cup, handing it to Arthur who takes it from him and drags a chair closer to Merlin's cot. Only the mop of dark hair is visible, the rest burrowed under the blankets. Merlin's shivers are clearly noticeable.
“You need to drink,” Arthur says, trying for his usual demanding tone, but not sure if succeeding.
“I'm not thirsty,” comes a muffled reply, followed by a particularly hard shiver.
“I'll pour it down your throat whether you like it or not.”
“You should be nicer to me. I might be dying.”
“Don't even joke about that,” Arthur grits out, gripping the cup hard, feeling sick at the thought.
He listens to Merlin's heavy breathing, wondering if he will actually have to pour the liquid down Merlin's throat against his will, when Merlin shifts the blanket slightly aside and attempts to sit up. He collapses half way through with a huff of pain, swearing into the pillow.
“Useless as usual,” Arthur says, but means 'let me help you' and somehow Merlin understands and doesn't protest when Arthur sits him up and slides behind him to keep him upright.
The change is immediate, the tension bleeding out from Merlin's body, his tremors subsiding once more. Merlin's eyes slide shut and a relieved sigh escapes his lips. Arthur's happy that pain left Merlin's body, but... how?
“Gaius?” he calls out.
He doesn't need to say a word for Gaius to understand that Merlin's free of pain for the moment. Something shifts in his expression as he comes to some sort of a conclusion.
“Merlin, what were her exact words?”
Merlin mumbles something unintelligible.
“Merlin!” He pats Merlin's cheek, but Merlin only bats his hand away, growing heavier in Arthur's arms.
“What is going on?” Arthur asks, not liking to be kept out of the loop.
“I can't explain how, but it seems,” Gaius pauses, looking unsure.
“Just spit it out.”
“It seems your touch eases the symptoms of Merlin's ailment.”
That magic is behind all this is left unsaid, but Arthur isn't stupid. How did Merlin end up under an influence of a spell? And why? It doesn't make any sense.
“He's not going to tell us anything right now,” Arthur states. Merlin's eyes are barely open. He's moments away from drifting off to sleep. He licks his lips and Arthur is reminded of the original purpose of propping Merlin up against his chest.
“No sleeping before you drink,” he says and shakes Merlin awake. There's almost no force behind the movement, but it's enough to drag Merlin at least a bit closer to consciousness.
Gaius hands him the cup that was previously put aside on the chair and Arthur brings it to Merlin's lips. Merlin's hand covers his as he tilts the cup while Merlin downs its contents in one go.
“You have training with the knights and a council session. You're needed there more than here,” Merlin says, blinking more often than normally to stave off sleep.
“Haven't you heard what Gaius said?”
“There's no pressing matter,” Arthur says, his voice softer than he planned. “Besides, it's your duty to suffer through those boring council sessions with me,” he adds, looking away from Merlin's trusting expression before he can do something stupid like kiss his brow.
As it turns out, holding up a grown man turns quite uncomfortable sooner rather than later. Arthur's legs fall asleep sometime during the first hour and he feels tension building in his back. He's reluctant to move, afraid he'd pull Merlin out of his peaceful slumber.
And then there's the boredom. He's not used to sitting around doing nothing.
Gaius continues searching through his books. The grim expression never leaves his face which must mean he's no closer to finding solution than he was before.
Merlin shifts in his sleep, turning to his left side in Arthur's arms. Arthur hisses as proper blood flow is restored to his right leg. Merlin's hand settles atop of Arthur's, his fingers wrapping around it loosely. Shiver runs down Arthur's spine and he forgets to breathe for a few moments.
Arthur jerks awake, disoriented. It takes a moment before he remembers where he is and why. Gaius pulls his hand from Arthur's shoulder, undoubtedly what waked him.
“Any news?” Arthur asks.
Merlin's breathing pattern changes and he's starting to stir awake, a small frown on his face.
“I'm afraid not,” Gaius says. “But if you're planning to stay, it might be more comfortable for you to lie down.”
“I'm not sure there's enough space,” Arthur says.
It's one thing to sit with Merlin propped up against him, however it's completely different to cuddle together on the narrow cot. It's a new level of intimacy, so close to Arthur's fantasies it's almost terrifying.
“Are you admitting you're fat?” Merlin mumbles, squinting up at Arthur sleepily.
Arthur huffs out a breath of feigned annoyance and lies down, manhandling Merlin into the most comfortable position. He's not sure where to put his arm, his hand hovering awkwardly above Merlin's side until Merlin grabs it and pulls Arthur just a bit closer, settling his palm on his stomach. Arthur tenses, nearly pulling away before he catches himself and forces himself to relax.
It doesn't mean anything, he reminds himself. Merlin is tired and ill, it's only natural he's seeking any comfort he can get, especially considering the circumstances of their situation.
Arthur's thoughts shift towards the curse. It doesn't make sense for Merlin to become a target. What could anyone possibly gain from causing Merlin pain. He tries not to think about the possibility of the curse being deadly.
It wouldn't be the first time Merlin chose to protect others by taking the brunt of an attack on himself. And it wouldn't be the first time for him to not tell Arthur. Arthur never confessed, but he's aware Merlin doesn't always hide behind trees. He's seen Merlin hurt too many times, cold dread spreading through his veins every single time, and there were days when he could only guess what caused the dark circles under Merlin's eyes , why he moved so carefully to hide his pain.
He wanted to ask many times, but for all the courage he has on the battlefield, he's a coward when it comes to personal matters.
It would make sense if Merlin once again tried to protect Arthur from harm and somehow made the sorcerer cast the curse on him. If the timeline is right, that's what must have happened on the night of the feast. How nobody but Merlin noticed the potential danger, Arthur will have to ask Merlin once he's rested enough.
For now he's going to let go and enjoy the feeling of Merlin's sleep-warm body against him, pain-free and relaxed.
Arthur would never admit it, but the sleep might have been exactly what he needed himself. He wakes up refreshed and content, the latter undoubtedly thanks to Merlin's presence at his side.
Merlin has enough energy to walk to the table, Arthur never breaking physical contact, going from gentle hold of his wrist to pressing their sides together while Merlin eats a small portion of Arthur's purposefully too big lunch.
Arthur notices that while the pain is gone, Merlin's fever seems to have risen a bit more. Judging by the slight lingering of Gaius's hand on Merlin's forehead, he is also aware of the fact.
“We need to talk about what happened at the night of the feast,” Arthur says when Merlin is done eating.
He's met with silence, but doesn't fail to notice the silent communication between Gaius and Merlin. Merlin presses his lips together, his brows furrowing in thought. He realizes Merlin has been hiding some vital piece of information, maybe even from Gaius.
“You know who did this to you, don't you?” The tensing of Merlin's body is barely noticeable, but it's there. “Do you know what was done to you too?”
Merlin lets out a breath, staring at the table.
“There was a woman dressed as a serving girl. Nothing special about her. She tried to bring wine to the main table.” He pauses. “The wine was cursed. I wrenched the jug from her hands before she could enter the main hall, but some of it spilled on me.”
“How did you know the wine was cursed?”
“She seemed suspicious.”
“Right.” Still hiding something then. It might not seem like it, but Arthur has some measure of patience. He'll get the truth out of him eventually. “Did she say something about the curse?”
“You're going to regret it, that's all she said. Then she used some sort of amulet that magicked her away,” Merlin says, his gaze fixed back to the table.
“Do you think Morgana is behind this?”
“Probably,” Merlin shrugs.
“It still doesn't explain what the curse does.”
Uncomfortable silence fills the room. Merlin glances at Gaius as if apologizing.
“There are things that need to be said. Secrets I need to share with you,” Merlin says, pulling away slightly. “It's long overdue,” he adds as an afterthought, barely audible.
“What are you talking about?” Arthur asks, dread settling in the pit of his stomach.
“Merlin,” Gaius starts, but Merlin shakes his head.
“Could you leave us, please?” Merlin asks him. “Please,” he repeats when it seems Gaius is ready to protest.
Gaius walks around the table and squeezes Merlin's shoulder, earning himself a small sad smile from Merlin. Silence stretches as they wait for Gaius to leave the room.
“This isn't how I wanted you to find out.”
“Merlin, stop with this nonsense,” Arthur says, pulling Merlin up from the bench and leading him to the cot where he drapes a blanket across his shoulders.
“You need to know. There's no way around. I don't even want there to be another way. I'm tired of hiding.”
“No, let me finish.”
Arthur becomes even more aware of all the points of contacts between their bodies as Merlin leans closer, unconsciously seeking comfort. He's quiet for a moment, his hands clenched on top of his thighs.
“I have done many things in my service to Camelot. No, that's not right. I've done many things for you. My king. My friend.” The last word sounds so hesitant. It breaks Arthur's heart to hear Merlin so subdued. “I break the law by my sole existence. I've broken the law saving the lives of people of Camelot. Your life, most of the time,” he says with humourless laugh.
“You're delirious, aren't you?” Arthur says, terrified of hearing more.
“I wish,” Merlin says with a tired smile and meets Arthur's eyes for the first time since he started talking. “I'm a sorcerer. I have magic.”
“No,” Arthur says, “absolutely not. I would know.”
Merlin grips his hand, genuinely afraid Arthur will draw away. Words start to tumble past his lips. Words about magic, enchantments, mysteriously falling branches and convenient blows to the head. One after another, confessions pile, Merlin's voice breaking on more than one occasion, but never stopping. Many situations from the past start to make sense, but Arthur isn't sure how he feels about that.
The feelings of betrayal, anger and confusion are undeniable. He doesn't want to hear more. He stands up abruptly, unable to take any more. Merlin follows suit but doesn’t attempt to touch him again.
“I'm sorry,” he gasps out. “I didn't want it to end like this.”
“But why?” Arthur cries out. “Why are you here?”
“For you, only you.” Merlin's knees buckle under him and he crashes to the ground. Tears roll down his cheeks as he struggles not to collapse entirely.
“Why are you telling me now?”
“I've waited too long,” Merlin says, one of his hands pressed to his stomach. He coughs violently, blood staining his lips, few bright red drops landing on the floor. His arms give out under him and he slides to the ground.
Suddenly Arthur realizes he doesn't really care about what was said. He's not comfortable with the lies and deception, but he needs Merlin to live. He's not willing to lose his closest friend.
He pulls Merlin into his arms.
“Stay with me,” he whispers, lifting Merlin up and lying him down on the cot. “You're not allowed to die, do you understand me?” Merlin's brow is on fire, his breathing laboured, yet he seems relieved, even smiling faintly at Arthur before dissolving into another bout of coughing.
“Do you know how to break the curse?”
Merlin’s eyes close.
“No, don’t you dare. Merlin!”
Merlin blinks his eyes open, his gaze slightly unfocused.
“The girl… she said more.” He coughs again. “She said, good luck finding your true love. And even if you do find them, they won’t love you once they know your secrets.”
“You should have told us. There was time to…”
Merlin laughs, breathless.
“One last secret to tell.” His smile is soft, unguarded. His face relaxed. He summons a bit more strength to squeeze Arthur’s hand. “My king, my destiny, my love,” Merlin whispers with his last breath.
It can’t be. He should have known. Tears blur Arthur’s vision. For a few endless seconds, he can’t move, can’t think, can’t breathe, staring at Merlin’s still chest.
“No,” he yells, forcefully pushing himself out of his stupor. “How? How am I supposed to save you?”
He’s gripping Merlin’s shoulders hard, shaking his lax form.
“This is not… I refuse…”
He releases his grip and cups Merlin’s face in his hands instead.
“I love you,” he tries. “Do you hear me? I love you!” No reaction. “I love you,” he whispers, tears running down his cheeks and landing on Merlin’s chest. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles, pressing his lips to Merlin’s. “I’m so sorry. I love you.”
He tastes salt of his own tears, the metallic flavour of Merlin’s blood. Pulling Merlin’s body to his chest, he closes his eyes and buries his face in Merlin’s hair.
He doesn’t notice the golden glow that starts spreading from where his hands touch Merlin’s back. Not until he feels a weak exhale on his neck. Shocked, he pulls slightly away. By then, the glow has spread all over Merlin’s still form. The colour is returning to Merlin’s cheeks, the dark bruises under his eyes disappearing. Merlin’s breath deepens and if it wasn’t for his matted hair, the sheen of sweat on his brow and the dried blood marring his otherwise flawless skin, it would seem the past few hours have been just a terrible nightmare.
Suddenly, Arthur feels incredibly tired. It’s a struggle to even keep his eyes open, but he manages to shift Merlin a bit to the side and lie down next to him. He’s out like a light the moment his head hits the pillow.
When Arthur wakes up, Merlin is no longer beside him. Arthur sits up abruptly, worried he only dreamed about Merlin coming back to life. He relaxes when he spots both Merlin and Gaius sitting at the table. Merlin’s eyes meet his for a few moments, until he looks down, seemingly uncertain.
Gaius excuses himself to go check on his patients, but Arthur suspects he is simply giving them privacy to sort through the events of the past day.
Arthur gets up, walks towards the table and leans against it right beside where Merlin is sitting.
“How did you…?” Merlin lets the question hang, unfinished.
‘You know how,’ Arthur could say, but in that moment, words seem like a waste of time. Merlin is looking up at him expectantly so he simply leans down and slots their lips together. Merlin sucks in a sharp breath, his hand settling on the nape of Arthur’s neck. They kiss, unhurried, gentle, pouring all their love for each other into this simple joining of their lips. When they finally pull apart, Merlin’s private smile takes Arthur’s breath away.
“How about a breakfast in my chambers?” Arthur asks.
“It depends. Will I have to bring it from the kitchen?” Merlin smiles mischievously.
“I’m sure George will be overjoyed by getting another chance to serve his king,” Arthur says and pulls Merlin up from the bench. ‘And his consort,’ he wants to add, but there will be time to ask Merlin properly later.
After all, there’s so many firsts Arthur wants to do first.