Waking is slow.
Not unpleasant, just slow.
His limbs feel heavy, his eyelids more so, but it isn’t a bad kind of heavy. It’s a sleepy, delightfully warm kind of heavy, that makes him nestle into the blankets further, makes him want to slip back into a deep slumber and never wake up.
Perhaps he should take sleeping draughts more often, if this is how pleasant they make him feel. Or perhaps that’s just because he actually feels rested, for the first time in years.
He yawns, jaw cracking, slowly blinking his eyes open to early afternoon light. Gaius is reading at the table, glasses perched on the edge of his nose, a thick tome open before him. He winces internally, knowing the scolding he’s likely to get from his mentor, at his appearance the night before, as he stretches, sits up, though he keeps the old blanket wrapped around his shoulders for comfort. At the noise, Gaius turns to look, eyes softening.
“Merlin. How are you feeling?” He shrugs, throws on a small smile as easily as putting on Arthur’s armor, clearing his throat.
“Better. Just… a rough patch.” He winces as Gaius raises his eyebrow, his classically intimidating stare wilting him down.
“Seemed like quite a bit more than that.” He shrugs again, not meeting Gaius’s eyes. “Merlin…” He can hear the exasperation in Gaius’s voice, tinged with fondness.
“I didn’t mean to wake you. Did… were there any errands, you needed help with? I’m sure tending to me used up some of your supplies. Meant to get around to it earlier, but…” He trails off, breath hitching as Gaius’s hand cups his chin, tipping his head up to meet his eyes, the touch so soft and warm it nearly paralyzes him.
“You took a draught with no protest, m’boy. You can’t possibly think I’ll be fooled into thinking you’re suddenly alright.” For a moment, he holds out, then his whole body slumps, a tired sigh escaping his lips.
“Just another night terror. A… a bad one. I just… I need something to do, Gaius. I can’t keep just sitting around. I know I’m not back at full strength yet, but if I don’t do something then I’m going to go mad!”
“Alright. Here,” Gaius pulled away, rummaging through his papers, before handing him a small piece of parchment. “these should be simple enough to collect, and none are too far from the edge of the city. But if you start feeling weak at all, you come right back.”
“I will, I promise. I… thank you.” The relief at having something, anything, no matter how small to accomplish eases the weight on his chest, makes some of the tension fade from his shoulders.
“Of course, m’boy.” He doesn’t protest, as Gaius pulls him into a tight hug for a few long moments, before shooing him out the door, calling after him to be careful not to push himself. He smiles, stepping out into the sunshine, feeling better already.
He knows he isn’t alone.
He’s known it since he stepped out of Gauis's chambers and headed out with the basket, since he passed through the gates and out into the fields, felt the presence following behind, from a distance, like a shadow.
It doesn’t worry him, in fact, it’s quite endearing, really, both that Gwaine is keeping an eye on him and that he thought Merlin wouldn’t notice.
To be fair, he doubted anyone else would notice. The boisterous knight could be quite stealthy when he put his mind to it.
It is a bit funny, that Gwaine is out here protecting him, when most anything that comes his way he can handle with barely a thought, but still, his steady thrum in the background of his magic makes it easier to breathe.
He lets his mind wander, as his hands do the work, absently humming under his breath, as he picks the nettles, runs a gloved hand against the grain to remove the stingers, pulls off the leaves.
Soon the last of the knot in his stomach undoes itself, the sun and fresh air easing the final vestiges of the night before, and he just relaxes, sitting in the field, under the sun, he just… breathes.
He takes his gloves off, letting his hands dig into the grass, closing his eyes, feeling safe, perfectly safe, because Gwaine is still right there, and he won’t let anything hurt him, as he lets himself bask in the feeling of warmth and sunlight and life, the wonderful feeling of so much life teeming around him, every stalk and blade of grass and buzzing insect teeming with magic that sings in his bones.
He doesn’t open his eyes as the footsteps approach, a shadow brushes over him, the slight crunch of old grasses as another body lowers himself down to sit beside him.
“You left Princess in quite a state. Nearly tore the castle apart looking for you before Leon suggested checking your actual living quarters. Didn’t help that Gaius sent him away, said you were recovering, that you knew where to find him, when you felt like it.” His tone is light and conversational, but he can feel the undercurrent of… of something.
“so. You here to drag me back to the castle, then?” he blinks open his eyes in time to catch Gwaine's shrug and lopsided smile.
“Nah. Couldn’t care less what you’re up to out here, really, just thought… you shouldn’t be alone.” Their words from that first overwhelming conversation come back to him, that he isn’t alone, he doesn’t have to do this alone.
He thinks he’s starting to understand, what that meant, as he leans against Gwaine, who slings an arm haphazardly over his shoulder, pulling him closer, not saying anything else. Not asking, not pushing, not expecting anything, just… just being there, just offering his presence, offering to stand guard, offering to be the protector so Merlin doesn’t have to, ready to leave if he asks.
He doesn’t want Gwaine to go.
He turns his head, burying his nose against Gwain's chest, breathing in the summer scent of him, warmth and mead and armor polish, shivering slightly as Gwaine presses a kiss to the top of his head, carding a hand through his hair that has him melting moments later, trembling slightly from the unmitigated warmth of the sensation.
“Are you alright, Merlin?” Gwaine asks lowly, some time later, disrupting the light doze he’d fallen into, not quite asleep, just a hazy veil of calm and sleepy and warm surrounding him.
He opens his mouth to reassure Gwaine, to say he’s fine, nothing's wrong, before he thinks better of it.
He doesn’t have to do it alone. He doesn’t want to, not today, not right now.
So he closes his mouth and thinks about the question, tries to puzzle out the answer. And Gwaine just waits, patient and still, except for the hand still softly running through his hair.
“no.” he whispers, waiting for the scorn, waiting for the warmth to leave, ready to be rebuffed. Instead, Gwaine's arm tightens around him, and something warm and thick is draped around him, Gwaine's cloak, he realizes.
“Alright. That’s alright, mate. What do you need?” He nestles closer, letting out a snort of laughter as Gwaine simply pulls him onto his lap, his legs stretched out perpindicular to Gwain's, his head now tucked below Gwain's, his nose in the crook of his neck, the knight's arms around him firm and comforting and safe, the cloak creating their own little bubble of reality.
“Just…just this. For a while longer. Gaius said… I'm not used to gentle touch. Makes it warmer.”
“Gods, Merlin, is that why you’re always so cold?”
“Well. You just stay right here, mate, right with me, and I'll keep warm enough for the both of us.”
It’s late, by the time he returns to the castle.
They’d sat in the meadow for a long time, before he mustered the desire to move, and even then, Gwaine wouldn’t let him go far, keeping an arm around his shoulders, slipping a hand into his, gently bumping into his side to steer him one way or the other, any little touch he could manage, he did.
He leaned into all of them. He didn’t want this warmth to go, he didn’t want this afternoon to end, it was so… nice.
Walking through the market, letting Gwaine’s chatter and bartering and flirting fill his head, chasing away any of his own thoughts, laughing and joking as he failed miserably at bartering, though all the shopkeepers seemed in on the joke, greeted him by name as he asked after their families and farms and houses.
Gwaine sweeping him behind him, surreptiously wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, squeezing his hand when he tensed, when something reminded him of something unpleasant, or when the crowd was too loud, or when a startling noise made him jump three feet in the air, and Gwaine ushered him into a quiet side street, speaking softly until his heart had stopped hammering out of his chest.
Letting himself be… cared for, cared about, those words ringing in his mind the whole day, ‘you don’t have to do it alone.’
He can’t do it alone, anymore. He can’t, or it will break him like Morgana says it will, and he doesn’t know why today is the tipping point, but it is. It is, and he can’t bring himself to pull away from the attention Gwaine is giving him, can’t find it in himself to say he doesn’t deserve it, can’t deny himself this warmth that he needs.
Still, his steps falter, as he climbs the stairs, anxiety churning in his stomach, because he’d vanished the night before, he’d spent the whole day avoiding Arthur, not actively, but he didn’t seek him out, either, and despite the knowledge that Arthur would never, never, hurt him, he’s still… afraid.
Afraid he’ll be angry. Afraid he’ll cast him aside, say he’s not worth the trouble. Afraid he’ll tell him to just get over it, already. Afraid he’ll tell him to go away.
They weigh down his steps, as he pushes open the door, hovering on the threshold, head low and gaze trained on the floor.
He hears the soft footsteps approaching, a soft exhale of breath, frozen as warm arms come around his waist, pulling him gently forwards, against Arthur.
“Merlin. My Merlin.” Arthur murmurs, and he folds into the embrace, burying his head against Arthur's chest, wrapping his arms around the back of his neck, not saying anything as Arthur just slowly rocks back and forth, holds him close, lets him breathe.
“M sorry. I shouldn’t have left like that, I scared you, I know I did-"
“Shhh.” Arthur draws back slightly, resting a finger against his lips, and gods, he doesn’t understand how Arthur can look so soft, how his eyes can be that warm and full of love, for him, of all people.
“You don’t have to be sorry. There’s nothing to apologize for, love. I'm proud of you.” His eyes widen just a bit.
“For what? I ran away.” Arthur shakes his head, smile soft.
“no. You took care of yourself, Merlin. I couldn’t help you, the way that you needed, so you went to someone who could. You didn’t run away, love, you ran to somewhere you knew you’d be safe. You let them help you, Merlin, that’s why I'm proud. Doing that is a struggle, for you, but you still did it. That’s important, that’s so important, and I will never be angry if the person who makes you feel safest isn’t me, or if you don’t even want to see me. You know what you need better than anyone, Merlin, I'm just glad you… you acted on it.” He shivers as Arthur tucks back his hair, his hand lingering against his face, caressing his cheek, no doubt feeling the heat from his soft blush, unable to tear his gaze away from Arthur's eyes.
He realizes he’s been silent for too long when Arthur’s eyes soften, his head tilts slightly in question, his touch gentling further as he softly strokes the sweep of his cheek bones.
“I just… still can’t believe this is real.” It comes out smaller than he means it to, his voice trembling.
“Oh, love.” He gasps, as Arthur kisses him, deep and slow, before melting into it, knees shaky as they finally part, their foreheads touching, Arthur’s arms around him protectively. “I’m never letting go of you, never again.”
“That’ll make life awfully difficult for you, I imagine.” He mumbles, feeling Arthur’s soft chuckle.
“Not really. You’re always just two steps behind me anyways. Wouldn’t change much. Wouldn’t change it if I could.” He hmms at that, and Arthur pulls back slightly, a small frown on his face.
“You know that, Merlin, right? I would never want anyone else by my side.” He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t quite meet his eyes.
“Merlin?” His shoulders hunch just a little, as he pulls away, one arm wrapping around himself in a hug, so cold now, without any touch.
“Sorry.” He mumbles. He gets swept into another hug, tighter than the previous one, closer, and he feels oddly like crying.
“No. I’m sorry, love, I’m sorry for not showing you just how much you mean to me earlier. I’m sorry for hurting you so much, without even realizing. I would be lost without you, Merlin, I truly would. I love you so much. I love you so much, and I will never get tired of telling you that, whenever you wish to hear it. Even if you’re sick of hearing it.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. I… I still have trouble believing it.”
“I know, love. And that’s ok, too.” His laugh sounds suspiciously like a sob.
“when did you become so kind?”
“When a certain warlock stumbled into my life and made me see sense.” The laugh this time is more solid, realer, as he smiles up at Arthur, who takes the opportunity to kiss him again, quick and soft, filling him with warmth and a lightness that chases away the last of the doubts in his mind that he means it.
“Thank you, Arthur.” He murmurs, laughing as his king sweeps him off his feet, carrying him to bed, refusing to let go of him, so he rolls his eyes and uses his magic to pull back the covers. Even then, Arthur doesn’t let go, whispering to him about how beautiful his eyes look, gleaming gold, making him blush and hide his face against Arthur’s neck, feeling his smile when he doesn’t try to argue.
He lets Arthur fuss over him, tuck back his hair, pull up the covers, tug him close until they’re hopelessly tangled around each other, one of Arthur’s arms hugging him close, the other buried in his hair, his face against the crook of Arthur’s neck, his hands pressed against his king’s chest, relaxing with every inhale and exhale he feels.
“I love you, Merlin.” He hears it on the edge of sleep, and smiles, nuzzling closer.