He could hear his King's voice, authoritarian and commanding, no doubt giving the appearance that he had everything under control. But Merlin had seen his eyes and observed his restlessness. This was not the kind of hunting trip Arthur had imagined. There had been too much going on in the last few months. Uther plunge into madness that left him killing several people, and finally his suicide. The betrayal - could have ended in the destruction of the world and had cost hundreds of people their lives.
Merlin smiled as he closed his eyes. He was tired and giving in. Falling asleep sounded like an excellent idea. The best ever since they had left Camelot.
A few feet away, Arthur was barking at an unhappy person who had demanded something from him. The thought that Merlin would have to take care of all the letters and speeches himself, which otherwise fell within the King's remit, amused him unduly. But that was probably due in part to the herbs that continued to work their way through his bloodstream.
Someone shook him before backing away again. Merlin blinked and saw Gwen.
She waited until he lifted his head and rested it against the tree, then stepped closer. "Hey. Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
Merlin nodded slowly. "How's your throat?" he inquired, hearing the hoarseness in her voice despite his daze.
Gwen lifted a shoulder. "I'll live," she said. "I see Arthur left you his precious cloak."
He felt his smile widen. "Mhm. Well, I wash it quite often so-..." The rest of his words were lost in a huge yawn.
Gwen chuckled. She bent down and touched his forehead with her fingertips. His skin was clammy, but reassuringly not feverish. "Hey," she began. "Why don't you get some sleep? You've earned it. You saved me. You know what? I'm going to sit with you. Arthur and Leon can take care of everything else on their own."
"Do you know if Gwaine is alright?" Merlin asked after a while.
She had assumed he had fallen asleep. Gwen opened her eyes again - when had she closed them? "He's fine, considering the circumstances. I saw Leon freshly bandaging his wound. They were arguing about whether we should go back home...you can probably imagine where this is going."
A dirty hand with torn, broken, dirt-encrusted fingernails - so different from Merlin's normally tidy hands - slipped through the gap between them. Gwen intertwined their fingers until she could be sure he was asleep.
Arthur remained silent on the ride back to Camelot. That had to be the longest period of time she had ever gone without hearing him speak a word. Often enough, Gwen spotted him looking back at her, and somehow she found the strength to smile reassuringly each time.
She almost envied Merlin for being able to sleep now. Every time Gwen closed her eyelids, she was back in the forest. Felt the beast's heavy weight on her, saw his drooling grin while the fingers dug painfully into her throat.
She gulped and gazed to the side. Soon the monotonous green became too much and Gwen feared getting sick for the first time in her life.
She jolted out of her thoughts and blinked at Arthur, who had half-turned in his saddle to look at her.
"Oh, I didn't notice."
"Percival will look after Gwaine, keep him company until Gaius arrives. Merlin should be watched for, so I'll stay with him. But I don't want to leave you alone either." Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose. "That's why I thought we could spend the time together. That's okay, isn't it?" he added.
Basically, she was grateful for it. She often felt left out. Gwaine had Percival. Leon... found his amusement with Morgana. And she had the strong impression that something was brewing between Merlin and Arthur, though she wasn't sure what to call it.
"Yes, of course, it's okay." Gwen dismounted her horse and squeezed his arm. "But do you think Merlin's okay with it?."
"He'd probably invite you to stay too if he were awake." Arthur smiled. "Would you go ahead and open the doors?" he asked. "I'll see if I can get him awake enough so he can take the stairs on his own. He'd probably kill me if I carried him."
Gwen nodded and winced slightly as a tugging went through her tired muscles. She braced herself onto the wall until she regained her balance, covering the moment of weakness.
"Gwen? The door?"
Arthur's question made her realize she was just standing there, playing with the hem of her dress. "Already on my way." Gwen's legs were back under her control and she walked quickly up the stairs. She held the door open while Arthur maneuvered Merlin into the Castle, Merlin's arm draped over his shoulders and his own around the younger man's middle, murmuring words of encouragement and praise as Merlin sleepily put one foot in front of the next. His eyes remained half-closed.
As soon as the two were inside Gwen ducked past Arthur and hurried up.
A small eternity passed before Arthur and Merlin finally appeared at the top of the stairs. Merlin was much more awake by now, and looked at her, but didn't ask what she was doing here as he walked past her, some of his weight still shifted to Arthur's, slowly and with his torso unnaturally stiff so he could spare his badly bruised ribs. Gwen sighed. Then she followed the two men down the hall.
Arthur had already maneuvered Merlin into the bed and was currently kneeling in front of him to remove his boots and socks. Merlin kept his head down and seemed to be watching him. Perhaps he was also listening to what Arthur was saying to him. It was too quiet for her to understand from her position in the open doorway.
Gwen crossed her arms in front of her stomach. She had the feeling of bursting into something that was not meant for her eyes, nor her ears. With a quick decision, she turned away and walked into the side room.
Gwen stared in the mirror at the dark red bruises on her neck. They looked somehow unreal.
There was a knock on the door. "Gwen?"
"Yes?" She turned away from the mirror. "I'll be ready in a second."
"You'd probably like to clean yourself. I've left clothes by the door for you and a towel, too." A brief pause. "Gwen..."
"Yeah?" She leaned against the bathtub, expecting one of Arthur's usual remarks, but there was none.
"I'm glad nothing happened to you." A strange mixture of sadness and relief resonated in his voice.
This was unexpected. Gwen reached out and pressed her hand flat against the door as if the touch would get through to Arthur; as if it was she who needed to comfort him.
"I'm sorry for what happened. I made so many mistakes..."
The words were so soft that Gwen almost couldn't hear them. She grabbed the handle and opened the door. "Arthur..."
He was no longer there. At her feet was a bundle of a towel, a tunic, and breeches. She bent down to pick them up and went back into the room. Placing the towel on the table, she began to peel herself out of her dirty clothes. She saw that both the tunic and the breeches must have been Arthur's - at least they were clearly cut for a man -.
She washed her face, rubbed it dry as best she could, and ran a hand through her hair in front of the mirror. That would have to do for now. She yawned. What time was it, anyway? Noon? Afternoon? She was supposed to be hungry, but the mere thought of food made her nauseous.
Her arms and legs felt pleasantly heavy as she pulled on the breeches - the laces knotted at the side so they wouldn't fall right back off her hips. Then she slipped on the tunic. It was loose, soft from frequent washing. She hung up the damp towels and stuffed her dirty clothes - except for her boots - into a corner.
Then she went into the main room, where she was most likely to find Arthur. She was shivering now, and surely he could give her a blanket to make herself comfortable on the chair.
Arthur wasn't there. Instead, she regarded Merlin, who was sitting half upright in bed, with several pillows behind his back to relieve the pressure on his bandaged ribs and make it easier for him to breathe. Otherwise, he was dressed like herself - in a tunic and breeches.
"Hey," he rumbled, with a charmingly wry smile, as she stepped up to the bed. "We got matching outfits."
"Arthur's going to get jealous about being left out." She eyed him.
It was almost normal that he looked pale and gaunt these days, and walked around with dark shadows under his eyes. But now his face seemed completely bloodless, except for an ugly bruise across his cheekbones and a laceration on his forehead, just below the hairline. As Merlin tilted his head back, she saw the thin, blood-red line stretching across the front of his throat. At first glance, it appeared he was wearing a red cord around his neck. Then she realized it had to be a scratch...or more likely a cut. What had they done to him after she had been able to make her escape?
"You know, he offered to keep an eye on both of us."
"Well, there's room for two in the bed," Merlin said with a touch of his characteristic dryness in his voice. "Let's really give Arthur a reason to be jealous."
She laughed, shuffling to the other side of the neatly made bed and stretched out on the mattress. It felt good. She sighed as her whole body relaxed. Merlin turned his head to her.
"I don't usually end up in bed with a man so quickly," she admitted, pressing her face against the cool pillow. How was it so soft? And smelled so good? Or was that just the exhaustion speaking?
"Me neither," Merlin whispered beside her.
Surprised, she opened her eyes. Gwen had certainly not expected an answer. A smile spread across her lips. "Except with Arthur?" she asked.
"Except with Arthur." Merlin screwed up his face as if he had bitten on a lemon when he realized what he had just said. The herbs were probably stronger than intended.
"Don't worry," Gwen whispered back. "I won't tell him." She picked up her pillow and moved a little closer to him. "Where is he, anyway?"
"Went to Gaius." Merlin yawned and he blinked sleepily. "To see if Gwaine is alright."
Merlin reached out and she accepted the silent invitation, snuggling next to him, careful to keep enough distance from his damaged ribs. His fingers brushed over her hair, her shoulders, not intrusive, not unwanted. His light touches reminded her of her childhood, of days spent sick in bed, and her father's cool hands caressing her to sleep.
She was still thinking that she needed to tell him how nice it was to lie here with him, with no expectations, no obligations, that it just felt good to lie next to him. But Gwen fell asleep before she could get the first word past her lips.
Arthur hung his cloak over one of the chairs and kicked his dirty boots off his feet. He had been too distracted by keeping Merlin on his feet to worry beforehand about possibly leaving dirt all over the place. This sort of thing didn't usually bother him. It did bother Merlin, and oddly enough, Arthur found that it made it more important to him.
His eyes fell on Gwen's dress. Maybe he should wash off the stench of blood, death, and failure too. There was a bloodstain on his breeches from the man he had threatened to torture. Gwen's blood was on his right sleeve. If he looked at it, he felt very much like taking off his clothes and burning them.
No, he had time later to attend to his own sensitivities. As a compromise, he rolled the sleeves up to hide the bloodstains on them.
Only now he noticed the two people on his bed.
Gwen had snuggled up next to Merlin, and he could make out just enough of her face to see that she was smiling. The Warlock seemed to be asleep as well. Good. He wouldn't disturb them but would stay close by in case either or both of them had bad dreams. He knew, especially from Merlin, that his memories often vented themselves into nightmares.
Before he could leave the chambers again, Merlin coughed. "Arthur?"
"Hey." He sat on the edge of the bed. "It's all right. You can go back to sleep," he declared, careful not to wake Gwen.
"Gwaine?" Merlin asked, a little hoarsely.
"He's fine. Gaius and Percival are taking care of him. How about you. Do you need anything? Are you hungry, or would you like me to get you something to drink?"
"No food." Merlin swallowed as if he had to fight nausea. "But water sounds good."
"Alright, give me a second," Arthur promised and disappeared once again.
Merlin was still awake when Arthur returned. He took a seat on the edge of the bed again and wordlessly offered him a jug full of water.
Merlin greedily drank a few sips, then handed it back to him. Arthur put it on the small side table next to the bed.
Suddenly, Gwen mumbled something in her sleep, turned on her other side so that her back was to Merlin, but didn't let go of his arm. She pressed Merlin's hand to her chest like a child would a favorite cuddly toy.
"Is this okay?" Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Or do you want me to remove her hand?"
"No, let her. It doesn't bother me." Two red spots appeared on Merlin's cheeks. "I don't mean... not because I'm... touching her... there."
Arthur chuckled softly and leaned over to kiss him on the forehead. "Maybe it's better if your hand isn't where it is right now when Gwen wakes up, no matter how innocent you think you are."
Of course, that didn't stop Arthur from imagining him in his bed, and the one or the other look of Merlin showed the same attraction and interest. Maybe they should definitely do something about it - when everyone involved was awake and healthy.
But now, as his gaze slid over the bruises on Merlin's bare arms and the indicated line below his Adam's apple, and the dark fingerprints on Gwen's tender throat, a desire bubbled up inside of him to barricade the door and protect them.
It wouldn't stay that way for long. He had almost lost knights before. And he would probably send Merlin and Gwen into dangerous situations again, too, even before their bruises had completely faded. It was a risk they knew, otherwise they wouldn't have stayed. Even if nobody could have prepared them for the fact that this danger might come from every corner.
"Stop thinking so loud. I can't sleep," Merlin muttered. His hand moved over the mattress beside him - he himself sat in the middle of the bed, Gwen lay on his other side - room enough for a third person.
He plopped down next to Merlin and bent down to brush a strand of hair from Gwen's forehead. Then he shoved his arm between Merlin and the pillow. With a soft sigh, he rested his head against Arthur's shoulder. His whole body relaxed noticeably. It said more clearly than any words how much Merlin trusted him.
"Better?" he asked, amused.
"Much better," Merlin exhaled. "Now let me sleep."
"Of course, idiot." Arthur kissed his temple again. Maybe their hunting trip hadn't been a complete disaster. He had brought them all back alive, though not without bruises. And unless he was completely mistaken, he had opened the first crack in their emotional armor.