There was warmth. It wasn't coming from him; it was something intangible and invisible. He knew it was sunlight before he even opened his eyes, just as he knew it wasn't warming him at all. He felt frozen. Rather, the sun was heating up the droplets of water cascading down his bare skin and falling to the grass beneath him that almost prickled his flesh.
He could almost feel it—all of it. The touch of it was distant, like the press of a finger on a limb that had fallen asleep from a lack of blood circulation.
There was something else he knew: a sound—a word. A familiar word, called by an even more recognizable voice. His eyes fluttered open to the blinding light, but his vision soon adjusted to the figure crouching over him. It was Merlin; he knew that before he realized that word Merlin was repeating was his name.
"Ey kunt beleev't! Arthur!"
Arthur blinked rapidly, trying to make heads or tails of what Merlin was saying. It sounded like he had his mouth full, which Arthur wouldn't doubt, save for the fact that they were on the banks of a lake and he couldn't see a picnic blanket anywhere.
Hadn't Merlin been trying to get him to a lake? Arthur suddenly remembered falling to the ground in a clearing, the large tower on the lake's isle still shining in the distance. He remembered being pressed against Merlin's chest, being propped up by Merlin's knees, digging uncomfortably into his back, with Merlin's arms wrapped around him.
Merlin was calling his name then, too.
Arthur had told him thank you, the last thank you; the thank you they both knew meant I love you.
He'd said it because he thought he was a dead man, but it appeared Merlin had somehow succeeded.
He smiled, close-mouthed and sleepy, the only thing he could muster, and blinked some more in the sunrays. He still felt chilled down to his bones, but not cold. It was a numb sort of feeling.
He opened his mouth to say Merlin's name, to assure him he was all right, but nothing came out. The only thing that escaped him was air, not quite a breath. He realized at once that he wasn't breathing.
He shot up quickly, bypassing the worried expression Merlin was giving him along with more muddled speech. Arthur focused on his hands, splaying his fingers out. His skin was sheet white, lacking its usual tanned glow. Even the veins beneath his skin were pallid.
He looked down at his legs, which were similar in color to his hands on their tops, but he caught sight of the skin resting on the grass. It was bruised purple and red, a continuous contusion that discolored the entire back portion of his body. It reminded him of the cadavers at the State funerals he attended for knights and noblemen. It reminded him of the last time he saw his father's body before he was put away in the coffin.
Arthur tried not to panic. He tried to force in steadying breaths of air, but it felt like something was blocking his chest. He thought he might be sick, but he couldn't even retch.
"Whoa, whoa, Arthur," Merlin was saying, holding his hands out to catch Arthur in case he fell over. "S'alriht."
Arthur's eyes flashed to him, and something in Merlin's expression dropped but he quickly steeled himself. He was wearing the oddest clothes: blue trousers whose fabric looked rough and a thin shirt of some kind of colorful tartan pattern. Black shoes with dirty white laces and a blue star on the outer sides replaced his usual boots. He looked ridiculous. It disoriented Arthur.
Merlin turned away, reaching into a large leather messenger bag and taking out a blanket. He stood up and spread it out between his hands.
Arthur blinked up at him, still feeling lightheaded.
Merlin dropped his shoulders in a patient sigh and leaned down again to drape the blanket over Arthur's shoulders. He then walked around Arthur and grabbed him at the arms, hoisting him up. For a second, a sorrowful, guilty look passed over Merlin's expression, but he blinked it away.
Arthur tried to shout at him, to get him to speak clearly, but nothing came out. Merlin attempted to grasp him again, but Arthur slapped his hand away and instead wrapped the blanket closer around him. The numbness that overcame him wouldn't go away, which was rather alarming. Arthur didn't like any of this: not the cold, not the paleness of his skin, not Merlin's attire. None of it made any sense.
Merlin gave another patient sigh, and looked as though he was trying to remember something. Slowly, he said, "Arthur, gadewch i ni fynd."
Arthur was glad that Merlin was finally speaking sense, but his words seemed sterile, like he was trying to utter the phrase perfectly. Arthur was sure his skin would be crawling if he could feel it properly.
He let Merlin take him by the shoulder this time, and he turned around in the direction of the path, which lead upwards over a hill. The greenery soon turned into something flat, black, and hard. Something navy blue and reflecting the sun like metal whooshed across the stone bridge with a roar, snaking up the black road towards a row of homes.
Arthur was lucky that Merlin was clutching his shoulder when he staggered backwards.
The house Merlin had led him into was small, consisting of only one level with a few rooms, some larger than the others, and full of objects foreign to Arthur's eyes. However, he barely had time to focus on any of it. Merlin swiftly dragged him into the smallest room in the house, made of tiles that had long since lost their luster and stained white porcelain. The cracks between the tiles near the bath, which Merlin filled with hot water before making Arthur sit in it, were discolored by something once dark but now stubbornly faded.
Merlin took bottles of colorful gels from the bath's ledge and worked them into Arthur's hair and skin. It made Arthur somewhat warmer, and he thought he could feel sensation in his toes.
Arthur looked down at Merlin's hands as they worked. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and Arthur caught sight of a marking under Merlin's right wrist. Arthur grabbed it, and the suddenness of it must have taken Merlin by surprise because he gave a sharp breath. Arthur turned over his wrist to look at the marking. It was a tattoo, the silhouette of a dragon, two inches long and wide.
It was the Pendragon crest.
For the first time, Arthur was happy he couldn't speak. He wouldn't know what to say, anyway. Merlin didn't say anything, either, and gently withdrew himself from Arthur's grasp to continue bathing him.
Soon, Merlin washed the suds off his hands and stood up, unrolled his sleeves, and wiped at the line of moisture on his shirt. He started for the door. Arthur shuffled, ready to follow him, but Merlin turned around halfway again and held out his palm.
"Stae," Merlin said simply before leaving Arthur alone. He returned less than a minute later with a stethoscope, placing it in his ears as he squatted down next to the tub again. He touched the metal part to Arthur's chest, and Arthur tried hitting it away but Merlin slapped right back.
"Arthur," he said, sounding stern, so Arthur settled and let him concentrate.
Arthur watched Merlin for a few beats, taking him in. His eyes were searching the wall and his lips were in a small "o" shape as he listened to Arthur's chest. He looked unchanged, still with his hair as dark as the night and his skin the color of starlight. But there was something strikingly different about him, too. Arthur couldn't quite place it. Perhaps it was his eyes. They looked the same: a darker, nighttime blue around the edges with lighter bursts shooting out from the pupils so the irises looked like tiny supernovas. But maybe they weren't supernovas anymore. The contrast of colors now seemed more like rims of light around black holes.
Merlin gave a breath and retracted the stethoscope. He pulled it from his ears and grasped it tightly, his knuckles going as white as Arthur around it. He looked down at the dark red rug at his feet, appearing to collect his thoughts.
The bathwater sloshed as Arthur moved closer to the edge of the tub. He wanted to say something—anything—to take that look off Merlin's face, but he couldn't. He reached out his hand instead and gave Merlin's shoulder a squeeze and a shake. Merlin looked at him with the same guilty expression as before, but he tried to push a shaking smile to his face.
"Yoo dunt haf uh crayving fur hoomen brayns, doo yoo?" Merlin asked, and Arthur clenched his teeth, trying to keep his frustration down.
Whatever Merlin had said, he didn't wait for an answer. He reached into the water and pulled the plug out of the drain. Instantly, the water began to slurp and gurgle. Arthur watched him hoist himself up to tear a towel off the railing and hold it out in offering.
"Dri urself awff," Merlin said as Arthur stood up and grabbed the towel from him. "Eyl fhind yoo clohs."
With that, he was gone again, and Arthur heard his footfalls descend down the corridor. It made Arthur look down at his own feet, where the rest of the soapy water was curling around his ankles and disappearing down the dark drain. Arthur tried not to notice that his feet were now bruised and discolored instead of the back of his legs, and he began drying off his hair.
After wrapping the towel around his waist, he stepped out of the tub and towards the sink. He stared at the basin in confusion. Remembering what Merlin had done before with the tub, Arthur wrapped his fingers around one of the knobs and twisted it, cocking a brow as water filtered out of the spout and went right down the open drain. He twisted the knob again to stop it.
Then he looked into the mirror above the sink, which was a mistake. Only then could he see how pale he really was. His cheeks were sunken around the bones, and his eyes were dark and shadowed. His lips were purple. He closed his eyes against the reflection and turned away, but the image was seared into his eyelids.
He left the bathroom behind and started down the hallway in the direction Merlin had disappeared. Arthur found him in the bedroom, standing over an open drawer of a dresser with his back to the door. His shoulders were tight and in a line, and Arthur heard shaking breaths escape him. Merlin dropped the fabric in his fist back into the drawer in favor of placing his fingers to his temples to stifle a headache.
Arthur paced closer, and Merlin must have felt his presence because he picked up the clothes again and turned around. A grin that didn't quite reach his eyes was plastered on his lips. Then he made an unsure sound and held out the clothing, stepping closer. He helped Arthur into them. They were baggy and never worn, and Arthur thought they might have been soft.
Next, Merlin sat Arthur down on the mattress and said, "sleep," in an assuring kind of tone. When Arthur didn't move, Merlin took him by the shoulders and gingerly pushed him down to the pillow and sheets.
"Sleep," he said again with wide eyes, and Arthur got the message.
Merlin turned away again to leave the room, but Arthur grabbed him by the wrist, his fingers wrapping around the tattoo, and forced him back around. His eyes weren't pleading or angry, but he was certain Merlin understood that he didn't want to be alone in this strange place with whatever was happening to him, because Merlin nodded. When Arthur let him go, Merlin crossed to the other side of the mattress and laid down close on his side, facing Arthur. The proximity was comforting, even though Arthur couldn't feel it on his skin. It tickled the peripherals of his mind, and that was enough.
"Eyl maykit riht, Arthur," Merlin whispered as Arthur closed his eyes, "Ey prommiss."
Arthur fell asleep to the sound of Merlin's breathing.
Arthur couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't twitch his fingers or curl his toes. He couldn't move.
Something like this had happened to him once when he was a child. He'd woken up from a nightmare and couldn't move his body for what felt like a lifetime. Gaius had explained it was something that sometimes happened when one awoke from sleep before they were ready. It was some medical reason that Arthur was too young to understand at the time, and Gaius had given him a sleeping draft and left it at that.
However, the paralysis wasn't passing, as it had the last time. Arthur felt trapped in the darkness. He tried to scream, to rage, but he could not break free.
He heard Merlin saying something in that foreign speech again, and the sound of his voice soothed Arthur slightly, even though Merlin's tone suggested he was trying not to panic. Next, he felt Merlin's palm on his forehead, warm and clammy.
He could feel it. The touch wasn't numb, as it had been before. And suddenly Arthur wanted to cry out for a different reason. For joy.
Another word was whispered in a language only slightly recognizable to Arthur, but he didn't have time to place it.
He fell back into a dream.
Birds were chirping when he woke up, and the sunlight was kissing his skin as it filtered through the window. The sheets around him were starchy, but the mattress was soft. He groaned awake and rolled over into the empty side of the bed and blinked against the fabric. The window was open, and the breeze carried in the sweet smell of spring. Arthur breathed it in, letting it fill his lungs.
Memories of what had happened flooded back to him so quickly they almost drowned him.
He shot up in bed, taking in a few more deep breaths in and out. He found himself grinning into them, laughing softly.
He held out his hands in front of him to find that the color had returned to his skin. He stilled himself so that he was able to feel his pulse pounding in his chest. He let out another whoop of laughter and fell backwards on the pillows again.
"Merlin!" he yelled happily, and he instantly heard someone drop something from down the hall. The clashing noise was followed by hurried footfalls, and soon Merlin slid to a stop in the doorway.
Arthur propped himself up on his elbows to better look at him. Merlin's eyes were large and round, his mouth slightly parted in that stupid look Arthur knew so well. Arthur couldn't find it in himself to roll his eyes at the expression. He couldn't stop beaming.
Merlin seemed to shake himself awake. He rushed to the room and picked up the stethoscope from the dresser, rapidly setting it in his ears. When he sat on the mattress, Arthur felt it dip under the weight, and he let Merlin place the metal over his heart without debate this time. It gave Arthur a shock of cold that rattled his spine, but he didn't mind so much.
A grin cracked Merlin's features as he listened to Arthur's steady heartbeat. He breathed out something that sounded like, "Et wherkt."
"Beth yr ydych yn ei ddweud?" Arthur asked into a smirk, but Merlin only answered by letting out a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. He slapped his palm over his mouth, hiding his smile. He kept the metal placed against Arthur's skin, closing his eyes into the sound like it was music.
Arthur wrapped his fingers around Merlin's thin wrist, almost expecting to feel the inked skin raised, but it wasn't. He watched as Merlin's long lashes fluttered to the touch. His gaze swept up to meet Arthur's, dark blue on light. Merlin's smile faded as he searched Arthur's face, a soft, contemplative sparkle lighting his eyes. Arthur had seen that look before; he'dgiven that look before, but only when Merlin couldn't see it.
Before Arthur realized it, Merlin was on top of him, crushing their lips together hungrily. It took Arthur by surprise at first, and his eyes widened. He took in a sharp breath of shock, but all it did was fill him with Merlin's scent—green, like the earth on the breeze. Merlin had always smelled like that. And at least now he could understand Merlin clearly, no muddled words needed.
Arthur opened his mouth into Merlin's, realizing that he was hungry, too.
Starving, in fact.