The engine ceasing all vibrations with scarcely a sound, the car rolls to a halt smoothly. Rain cascades from a charcoal grey sky, water droplets clinging to the marble portico in oblong beads like glass crystals. They dot friezes and line colarins. They wet corbels and shine mouldings. They fatten progressively, before falling down with light echoing pings.
The door opens and a big lack umbrella fans outwards, shielding him from the worst of the downpour.
His body unprotected by the shield of canvas, the valet stands rigid. His livery dampens at the shoulders and his sleeves drip, rivulets starting at the cuffs, but his face stays impassive as he says, “Your Highness.”
Arthur wants to tell him they can share or at least ask him to get under cover, but he knows that would only cause a scene, create embarrassment, get reported, so he doesn't. He merely nods and ducks under the umbrella. In three steps he's into the side lobby.
At a jog Owain clears the staircase and strides over to him. “Your highness,” he says, “His Majesty is still in a meeting but will be seeing you shortly.”
Arthur shakes hands with him. “I'll wait.” Not that he has any other choice. If there's one man on earth who can dictate Arthur's comings and goings that's his father. “Thank you, Owain.”
The red carpet runner is soft under Arthur's soles. The baluster shines under his palm. The steps are steep in the way of ancient buildings. With Owain leading the way, they come up at a clop, climb two floors, and stride along a long corridor flanked by rounded archways and hung with gold-framed paintings. They cut into narrower, staff-only passageways wainscoted in white and stalk past alcoves showcasing plinths on top of which marble statues pose.
As they direct their steps towards the east wing, Arthur tells Owain, “I trust everything's looking up for you.”
“Yes indeed, sir.”
“And how's the married life?”
Owain slows in his tracks and his voice, otherwise carefully modulated, shows a hint of surprise. “It's fine, sir.”
If Arthur had to go by tone alone, he'd have to surmise that Owain isn't so keen on his spouse, or that he finds the experience underwhelming. But Arthur's by now learnt that staffers won't tell him how they really feel; they won't share their triumphs and disappointments with him. They won't even trade small jokes or be anything other than formal. Though it pained him in his youth, Arthur's, of course, got used to it. His father would say it's just the way of things, part of a protocol that ought to be respected. He'd say there should to be some divide between them and others, otherwise the monarchy would have no cause to be. For his part Arthur always tastes ashes in his mouth when he fails to connect with his people. “I'm glad it is.”
They get to the ante room to the King's cabinet. The doors are wide, lacquered white, with golden handles. They're also closed. “If you could but wait a moment, Your Highness.”
Arthur inclines his head and Owain knocks and enters.
With Owain gone, the anteroom is silent. The windows are shut so no wind stirs inside it. The heaters pour forth hot blasts of air and the carpets warm the room to boiling pitch. Arthur chokes in the closed sultry air. Travelling upwards, his fingers find the knot of his tie, but they don't loosen it. He knows better than that. Keeping up appearances is his father's motto. He's just slipped the offending hand in his pocket, when Owain issues from the cabinet, easing the door into a locked position. “The King is finishing with the Lord Chamberlain and will see you in a few moments, sir.”
The cabinet is exactly as Arthur remembers it. It's not as large or decorative as the state rooms and doesn't face the Mall but the private gardens. Green-tinged light seeps in past the sashes, brush stroking the room emerald. The plaster, with its mint tones, reaches the ceiling up to the white stuccoed cornices, which whorl away into corners cut with geometrical precision. Gold tiles domino their way across the fireplace's header in a game of squares chasing each other out.
As Arthur enters, the secret door at the opposite end of the office, one made too look like a burnished mirror, swings shut, revealing the back of a man's frame. “I trust Lord Monmouth is fine.”
“He is,” Father says without rising from his desk. “I wager you're not here to talk about him though.”
Arthur moves to the chair, waits for his father's nod to sit, and only then sinks down. He adjusts his trousers with a sharp tug so they don't tighten at the thigh and crosses his legs. His back muscles strain though and he can't seem to mould himself to his seat. “I, well, no, sir.” Arthur licks his lips. He's sweating, his palms damp, the collar of his shirt digging into perspiration-soaked skin. “I was wondering if you had an answer to give me.”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Father says, pursing is mouth. “It's a no.”
“Father, I--” While Arthur's told himself to come prepared for any answer he might receive, his hopes shatter with a loud crack at father's words. He knows he should use diplomacy now, wait father out, make his point in the most rational way possible so as to persuade him, but the words come out all the same and he can't stop them. “You can't mean it!”
Father holds up a hand. “You have finished your short term commission, you won't take another secondment.”
“Father--” Arthur speaks though his ears ring and his face burns with a brittle indignation that chips away at his self-respect. “I obeyed when you said I wasn't to see active service abroad--”
“And rightly so.” Father's face stiffens into a frown. “Parliament wouldn't have it. You'd have been a liability to your men and the nation.”
“I did it by the book.” During his early years in the military Arthur watched countless of his men go on tour and take part in combat operations from which they failed to return. All the while he sat safely ensconced at base, on home turf. The memory still hurts. Its implications cut deep. He's to be thought willing to put himself before others when he wants nothing better than to share in his men's fate. But he's swallowed his pride; he's made himself pay no heed to the comments. All for the chance to stay in the corps. “I've always done what I was told. I've always obeyed.” Sometimes reluctantly, he must admit. “I know my safety is a question of national security. I know sending me to war zones would only complicate matters. I accept that we can't double the size of our units just to protect me. But I need to work.”
“You can still work.”
Arthur doesn't really see how. His family has always taken an active role in the military. It's always been accepted. Anything else has consistently been discouraged. “How?”
“There are ways.” Father smooths a hand in the air.
“We both know I cannot take part in any commercial enterprise.” If it was funded by foreign capital, Arthur would be seen as betraying his nation. If it was a domestic concern, Arthur would be rumoured to be taking sides. “And politics is out of the question.”
“You could double up on your representative duties.” Father's tone is level, but there's an eagerness to his body language that's detectable from a mile away. He leans forward, his eyes fire, and a smile sculpts his lips. “Because of your captaincy, they've been reduced, but we can always increase them.”
Arthur can't say he's keen. “I think I can do more with my life than shake hands and smile for the camera.”
“So you refuse a representative position?” Father squares up an eyebrow, his eyes flashing underneath.
Arthur says, “Yes. Yes, I do. Categorically.”
A tendon stiffens in father's neck, just above his collar. “You realise you will have to take up the mantle from me at some point or other.”
“Yes, I do.” Arthur gets that nowadays a Prince is nothing more that a walking and talking publicity board. He sees he will have to become that in time. “But I want to make myself useful first.”
“And you don't think working on behalf of your family is that?”
Arthur has many an answer to that and none of those are ones Father would like. “I never said that.”
“Still you refuse to invest time in your role as prince.” Father's lips whiten a notch. “When it's your primary function, when you know everything else is minor compared to the honour of your position.”
Knowing he can't tackle Father on that head, Arthur says, “Many in our family have dedicated their time to the military before me.”
“True,” Father says. “Though they always gave up their hobbies when called to fulfil their duties.”
“I can do that in time.” Arthur's hopes find new furrows to sink their roots in. “Just let me sign up for a second stint in the military.”
“No.” Father's shoulders drop. He rests his back against the chair. “But if you really want to work on something, I have another solution.”
Arthur doesn't think he's going to like any compromise Father's got ready for him. “What would that be?”
“You're a qualified military pilot,” Father says. “And you have a civil pilot's licence from your rather wilder days.”
Arthur doesn't need to be reminded of them. He's ashamed of them to the marrow. He wishes they could be erased from his record, but understands they can't. He's got to live with the memories of his wild child days and make up for them. “Yes, and that's why I'm useful in the .”
“With your qualifications,” his father says, “you can become an air ambulance pilot.”
Arthur's breath catches with the surprise of it. “A what, pray?”
“You heard me.” Father's brow goes heavy with lines. “It's still dangerous and not what I would personally want for you, too menial a position. But it's good publicity for the monarchy, and not quite as risky as being packed to Afghanistan.”
Arthur's never thought of such a prospect before and doesn't particularly want to. He's sure there's a catch somewhere. Father's never that straightforward. Besides, Arthur's committed to sticking to his guns, to staying by his men's side. He owes them a duty, which is more than an obligation created by paperwork. It's a pact of sorts between people. That he can't betray.
“You'd be saving lives.” A muscle twitches beneath Father's eye in a little nervy spasm. “You always go on about the importance of the RAF. This'd achieve much the same results while guaranteeing your safety.”
“Father, I wouldn't be the one saving lives.” He would love to, but he knows what he can and can't do. “The doctors would be doing that. I'd be carting people around.”
“Perhaps you haven't parsed the nuances,” Father says. “I'm not really giving you a choice here. It's either the air ambulance service or taking on full ceremonial duties.”
“Father, anyone can cut ribbons and give speeches.” Cousin Morgana might do it. Uncle Agravaine is good at philosophising in magazines. “I need to make a difference.”
“I gave you a choice--” Father compresses his lips. “Make it.”
Given the two options, Arthur knows there's no contest. “The ambulance service.”
“Good. We'll make sure PR spins this in the best light possible, the Saviour Prince, or some such piece of click-bait.” Father opens his desk diary. “You're dismissed.”
Though Arthur wants to argue further, he realises it won't help. Perhaps, if he serves a stint with the ambulances, Father will grow more lenient towards him and allow to sign up again. Being politic comes hard though. It's like a weight on his conscience, like giving up on his ethics, on his men. He's not a child anymore however. He's already made one mistake today. He's already betrayed his inability to stay cool headed once. He's got to learn to fight his parent on his own turf, and that takes patience. “Father.”
By the time Owain has escorted him into the courtyard the rain has cleared and a rainbow dissects the sky in two.
Merlin's eyelids weigh a ton apiece, there's grit in his eyes, and his thoughts have slowed down to an inchoate trickle. He floats; he dissolves. When his head slips off his hand and he nearly crashes his chin on the desk, he stands up. Oh, no, this won't do. It's what, nine in the morning? Maybe not even that. He's still got two hours to go before he's done with his shift and two hours is by any reckoning a long stretch. He may have clocked twenty-two hours already, but that's no cause for sloppiness. It costs lives. Needing to work himself up to alertness, he stretches, squeezes the bridge of his nose, and pads over to the coffee machine.
In the tray there are no pods left, so Merlin searches the steel cupboard above his head. No capsules hide in there either. “The bastards,” he mutters, “they've finished all the sodding coffee.”
On his quest, he slips his nails under the metal rim of the jar sitting by the microwave oven and uncaps it. It's empty, its bottom shining bronze, a few grains of mocha clinging to the metal surface like a dusting of earth. “Right.”
Determined not to be thwarted in his mission by the likes of Gwaine, notorious caffeine inhaler, he rifles the cabinet's top drawer. A lone tea bag lies in the empty spoon compartment. Suspecting it's ancient, he smells it. A herbal aroma wafts up his nostrils, but he still can't tell whether the sachet's contents are past their expiry date or not. Either way he supposes that he won't get food poisoning even if they are. The odds are too low. Decision made, he dunks the teabag into his chipped mug, the one that's strictly his and even has his name stamped across its front, and places it under the hot water dispenser.
The mug is half full and already steaming, when Gwen's voice wafts over the radio. “Helimed 54, this is Helimed Centre.”
Merlin leaves the mug under the dispenser and rushes over to the desk. He picks up the mike. “Helimed Centre, I hear you.”
“Roger, Helimed 54,” Gwen says. “We have an adult male trauma casualty, trapped in one of the Dan yr Ogor caves.”
Merlin's blood runs cold. When he was in year eleven his science teacher, Mr Lanval, took Merlin's class to those caves. It's an entire system of them that runs for seventeen kilometres, with dozens of narrow passageways and echoing chambers. To this day part of the cavern network hasn't been fully explored. Finding an accident victim in there will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. “Got it, Helimed centre, I'm on my way.”
At a run, Merlin grabs his kit and helmet, leaves the signal station behind, taking the stairs down two at a time. With both hands he pushes the panic doors open and lands on the tarmac. The rotors of the red and green EC135 are already turning, blasting air down wind. Lowering his chin and strapping up his uniform jacket, Merlin gets to the base of it.
Gwaine's already there, trauma bag in hand, helmet off. “Ready for Finna's last adventure, Merlin?”
Merlin quirks an eyebrow up at Gwaine, climbs into the helicopter and straps himself down. He puts on his headset and speaks into the microphone. “Hey, Finna, is this really your last run?”
“Yes,” Finna says, eyes on the centre console gauges. “Officially retiring tomorrow. We're having a party tonight at the hangar to celebrate.”
“So we'd better not lose this one,” Gwaine says, slamming the clamshell doors of the helicopter shut. “We wouldn't want Finna to go down in history as that pilot with the last unlucky round.”
“Oh gau i fyny, Gwaine,” Merlin says.
Finna snorts into her mic. “I subscribe. Shut up.”
Finishing the take-off checks, Finna acknowledges the ground crew, gets their permission to take off, pushes up the throttle, pulls back the cloche, and gets them airborne.
The helicopter's blades thump in the crisp morning air, chopping their way through the sky. As its tail swings around to the right, the aircraft tilts, then stabilises.
“So, Finna,” Gwaine says, as he leans forward into his seat. “I hope there are cartloads of the good stuff at this retirement party of yours.” As he always is after take off, Gwaine gets green about the gills, but he doesn't act as though his one step away from puking, though he must surely be. He smirks rather, waggles his eyebrows, rubs his hands together. “You can have as many Jaeger bombs as you like when you've got as good a doc as Merlin around.”
Merlin shakes his head at the view. “You know, not even I can patch up a liver as far gone as yours.” In fact Gwaine's as healthy as a horse, Merlin knows, or he wouldn't have passed the fitness tests required to be an EMT. But Merlin's not become a doctor to encourage people in their binge drinking habits.
Finna says, “Don't worry, Merlin, there's only beer on the menu. Harder for the inveterate drinker to get alcohol poisoning from it.”
“Ah.” Merlin spreads a palm over his chest. “A woman after my own heart.”
“Oh gau i whatever, Merlin.” Gwaine sticks his tongue out at him.
Merlin muffles his laughter into his fist. “How many times do I have to tell you? It's gau i fyny.”
They fly over stretches of green countryside grazed by sheep. Fields dot the land in squares of emerald and gold and streams curl grey and silver along the lay of the range. To the east of Pen y Fan red sandstone peaks rise. They fill the entire starboard view, a series of brown snow-capped elevations climbing towards heaven in a jagged belt.
Though the task that faces him is serious and grim, Merlin looks and his breath catches with the beauty of what he sees. It's ancient land this; his home turf. It's rugged and bold, inhospitable and rough. And yet it has a charm of its own. It's in the sprawling roll of its hills and the severe height of its mountains. It's in the depths of its wells and, yes, even in the darkness of its meandering caves.
Perhaps that's why their casualty got there in the first place; maybe he was enticed by the mystery of the Brecon Beacons.
Bringing the EC135 down, Finna lands in a clearing circled by trees. Both Gwaine and Merlin release their monkey straps. While Gwaine reverses the front passenger seat to get the gurney, Merlin slides open the hatch, and tells, Finna, “Keep the engines running and the rotors turning.”
After he's hit the ground, Merlin strides over to the two people standing at the margins of the clearing. One of them is a man. He wears a combo of jeans and wellingtons, a plastic-cased ID card pinned to his chest. The other is a young woman. Though her helmets and goggles are off, she's in full spelunking gear.
The man advances and shakes Merlin's hand. “You're the Air Ambulance doctor, I presume. I'm Mike Antor, the conservation warden here at the Dan-yr-Ogof caves.”
“Sefa Williams.” The girl is pale, russet sand streaks one of her cheeks, and her hair sits wetly on her skull. The skin under her eyes is green-hued. “From Bangor University. I'm finishing my PhD in geology. I'm a spelunker too and...”
Merlin would like to be nice and polite but he knows that time's of the essence when it comes to emergency calls. “You're not the one who had the accident then?”
“Oh no.” Sefa bites her lower lip and looks over her shoulder. “That's my professor.”
“Can you get me to him?” Merlin asks, looking to Gwaine to make sure that he's got the stretcher at the ready. “Are you willing to go back in there?”
“Of course.” Sefa turns around and starts heading south towards the thick of the vegetation.
Picking up his gear, Merlin trails her. In his wake comes Gwaine with the stretcher. They follow a path overgrown with tussocky weeds, red earth poking in between. In places plants grow over the path in arches and ropes. Myrtle bushes poke out of the shadows and mosses sprout between the stones, making the track slippery.
Mike Antor starts speaking. “The accident took place in the wild caves away from the showcase area.” He steps over a fallen branch. “We only allow insured, expert cavers in there. Of course Professor Balan is one. He's an eminent researcher as well as an expert spelunker.” He dabs at his forehead with a Kleenex. “Who'd have thought he of all people'd have problems down there.”
Smearing the red rock in patches and clumps, moss and lichens pave the entrance to the cave. The river Lynfell issues out of its mouth, its currents bubbling outwards. With Sefa and Antor leading the way, Merlin and Gwaine hop down a rock and wade inside. The water is chilly, decidedly colder than the air temperature, and Merlin makes a mental note of it, putting hypothermia among the list of ailments to watch out for.
Water trickles through the roof of the cave and drips from it in steady drops. Over the millennia it has carved the rock face into hollows and dips, into fantastic angles smoothed round by erosion. Their lengths jagged, cutting, stalagmites and stalactites bud out of surfaces.
“This way,” Sefa says.
They go down the visitor path. It's nicely illuminated with light fixtures shedding a reassuring yellow glow along the darkest corners of the cave. Signs point the way to the main attractions, mapping the cave system out. The place looks safe enough, but accidents, Merlin knows by dint of experience, can happen anywhere.
Knee deep in water in some places, they move downstream, and come across a railed metal bridge suspended above the lake. A small tunnel half-filled with water stretches out before them, a spring cascading around them.
“The tourist trail ends here.” Antor grabs the rail in a white-knuckled grip. “From here on it's tougher going.”
The path narrows to a series of tight passageways. They're no more than thirty inches in width and very low. Though this tract has been clearly cleared, they have to continue at a crawl, head and elbows brushing stones.
“It's deeper in and to the south.” Sefa looks to the quadrant of her compass. It glows in the dark. “Professor Balan was collecting pyrite gipsum samples from corridor twenty-two A when it all happened. I made a record of it.”
Past a small narrow chamber, a passageway stretches out ahead of them. At its bottom a man lies in a sprawl over and under a mound of rocks. He's resting in a shallow pool of water, which stagnates in a hollow.
“Professor!” Sefa runs over to him.
Sharing an oh-shit look, Merlin and Gwaine rush after her. As Gwaine puts down his trauma bag and stretcher, Merlin kneels by Balan's side. There's too little light to see by, but even so Merlin must start his assessment of the patient. There's no waiting for optimal, hospital-like conditions to present themselves. That's emergency medicine for you.
"What do you make of it?" Gwaine asks.
Merlin shines his pen torch in the patient's eyes. His pupils are both larger than normal and deviated to the right side. Having ascertained this, Merlin pockets the torch, and palpates Balan's skull. It feels neither bruised nor swollen and there are no step offs in the bone indicating fractures. “Professor Balan, do you know where you are?”
“In corridor twenty-two A,” Balan says. “P-past the Cathedral Cave.”
Merlin seeks Sefa's gaze to establish whether the answer's correct. When she nods, he asks his next question. “Professor, can you tell me what day it is?”
The Professor scoffs, but he answers, “Wednesday.” At Merlin's eyebrow cock, he adds, “The fifteenth of October.”
“That you remember of did you ever loose consciousness, Professor?”
“Only for a moment,” the Professor says, his voice laboured. “A second. N-no more.”
Merlin puts pressure on the patient's hand and the patient winces. Merlin tells Gwaine, “Grade three concussion, patient reacts both to pain and verbal stimulation.”
Gwaine finishes taking Balan's vitals. With a frown on his face but no inflection in his voice, he recites them out loud, “Temperature’s ninety-five point five. Blood pressure systolic: ninety over sixty. Heart rate one hundred BPM.”
While the patient's temperature may be due to a mild case of hypothermia, Merlin doesn't believe the remaining stats tally with the diagnosis. There's something wrong here and he's got to be quick to find out what. “Professor Balan, are you experiencing any pain anywhere?” He knows this is a wild stab, but he'd better ask in case he bypasses an easy answer.
The Professor pants. “My leg hurts.”
Merlin shifts and moves the torch closer to the patient so it sheds light on his left leg, which is clear of rockfall debris. Without even a word from Merlin, Gwaine shears through the man's reflective trousers. In close proximity to the lower tibia a large bruise extends. It's purple coloured at the margins, prune in the inner layers, and black at the centre. Around it all tissues are tight and swollen. Putting on surgical gloves, Merlin feels the area. It's lumpy, warm.
The Professor screams, “Don't touch me there!”
“Suspected fracture of the lower tibia.” That might account for his patient's state of shock, Merlin thinks, as he roots in his bag for a splint. “Professor, are you allergic to anything?” When the Professor, trembling, paling, shakes his head no, Merlin tells Gwaine, “Hydromorphone, 3 mg.”
In a thrice Gwaine has the syringe ready and the needle pierces the skin.
The Professor has barely sighed, his head lolling forwards, when the portable monitor beeps with frantic insistence.
“Merlin,” Gwaine says, reading it. “BP systolic sixty over forty. Heart rate one hundred and ten BPM.”
With a trembling of the eyelids the Professor loses consciousness.
“He's in shock,” Merlin says, his own heart missing a beat at this complication. “He must be bloody bleeding somewhere.”
Gwaine searches Merlin's face, his own furrowed by several creases. “We have no MRI, Merlin.”
Hoping Balan's not bleeding internally, in which case it's game over in the circumstances, Merlin searches the patient for wounds. Barring minor scratches his arms are whole. “Come on, come on.”
“Oh my God,” Sefa calls from behind them. “Is he dying? Is he?”
“Torso's clear.” Sweat breaks on Merlin's forehead. “Gwaine, shine a light over his legs!”
Gwaine lifts the torch.
A few stones weigh down a portion of Balan's right thigh. Cradling them in both hands Merlin removes them and tosses them aside. Out of the flesh of the Professor leg a bone protrudes through jagged pink flesh. Blood spurts dark around it in splashes and puddles. “Found the laceration!” Merlin shouts. “I need light. More light, Gwaine.”
The cave groans and Merlin's words get drowned.
As rock falls, Merlin covers the patient with his body. “Out, everybody out!” he shouts.
A small boulder crashes onto a stalagmite, shattering it, debris raining everywhere. A section of another takes out the torch lying on the ground. The cave goes darker.
Antor says, “We've got to go! Now!”
Sefa's soles screech on the stone floor. “No, I can't leave him alone!”
A fine rain of shingle falls over Merlin.
“Go, all of you!” Merlin yells.
Sefa sobs. “I can't!”
“You'll be dead if you don't.” Antor's voice has lost its steadiness. “Come on!”
“Oh, blast it.”
The quick tramp of footsteps tells Merlin Sefa and Antor have taken off at a run.
Standing, Gwaine says, “What about you?”
“I'm staying.” There's no other choice. If Merlin leaves, their patient's dead.
Gwaine squats back down.
Merlin wants to point out the dangers of staying. Even now trickles of sand issue from fissures in the cave's celling and come down the shaft in showers, collecting in mounds around them. The sand itself is orange and yellow, thick grained, small bright pebbles mixed up with it. It dusts Merlin's hair and falls into his eyes. The grit buried in it rises in the air and clings to the back of Merlin's throat and climbs up his nostrils. If it's like this now, God knows how long the roof will hold. Gwaine mustn't risk it.
Just as Merlin opens his mouth to speak his objection, Gwaine grabs the pen torch from Merlin's pocket and points its beam at his face. “I'm not letting you play hero by yourself, mate.”
Merlin curses. With the patient's as critical as he is, Merlin can't waste anymore time persuading Gwaine to go and the bastard knows it. “Sod it, give me light.”
Directing the pen torch's beam at Balan's leg, Gwaine says, “With pleasure.”
The light is too feeble to allow Merlin to see much of anything. He can make out the bleached whiteness of the bone, the dark crusts of blood that surround the wound, but he can't tell where the blood's spurting from. Making a quick calculation based on a rough estimate of the patient's weight, Merlin says, “Give him six cc of Propofol.”
Gwaine's eyebrow snaps up. “You want to do emergency surgery on him?”
“Yeah,” Merlin says. “I must see where the blood's coming from or he's a goner.”
Once Gwaine has administered the anaesthetic and started pumping oxygen in Balan's mouth through a mask, Merlin starts on him. With a retractor, Merlin widens the wound. “It's the tibial vein. It's bleeding but I can't see the rupture point.”
“I can't give him oxygen,” Gwaine says, squeezing the ventilator's bag, “and hold the torch at the same time.”
“I know.” Merlin grits his teeth. “There's too much fucking blood though.”
“Easy, Merlin. Take it easy.” Gwaine makes a low, comforting burr of his voice. “Take your time.”
Wiping at his forehead with his elbow, Merlin says, “The one thing I don’t have.”
The monitor beeping loudly in his ears, Merlin searches the path of the vein with his fingers. The latex of his gloves goes red. His hands lose purchase. Blood squirts out, welling over the rims of the wound and staining the ground dark. “Shit, shit, shit,” Merlin mutters, sweat stinging at his eyelids. “Shit.”
“Merlin, BP fifty over thirty.” Gwaine gives the ventilator one hefty pump.
“Crap.” Since the worst has come to the worst, Merlin grabs the tibial vein in his hands to try and stop him bleeding.
“Yeah, I think... I think I've found the sodding rupture.”
Gwaine tuts. “Language, doc, language.”
Breathing in and out to stay calm, Merlin places swabs around the tract of punctured vein. “Pass me a Schwartz, Gwaine.”
Reaching over, Gwaine searches their kit bag, rips open a sterile pack, and passes him the object. “There.”
With it, Merlin clamps on the vein. He passes a length of umbilical tape around the blood vessel and tightens it around it. The vein stops squirting blood. Dabbing at the remaining fluid, Merlin assesses the situation. The bleeding has stopped, but that doesn't mean Merlin can transport the patient like this. He's by no means stable and any little movement may cause the tear in the vein to open again. Merlin needs for his repairs to hold a while longer, preferably to last as far as the closest hospital, and for them to be able to withstand some jostling. He clips the torn area with vicryl and sutures the rupture with pale surgical thread. When he's worked the last length of suture nylon in, he removes the clamp. “Vital stats?”
“BP's climbing, heart rate normalising.” Gwaine whistles. “You did it, you fucking madman.”
“Thank fuck,” Merlin says, his body has gone as soft as overcooked spaghetti, and his heart will never beat as steadily as before again. “Let's splint the Professor up and strap him onto that gurney of yours, shall we? The sooner we get him to hospital, the sooner I'll be able to relax.”
When his eyes first adjust to the bright daylight flooding the mouth of the cave, Merlin knees almost buckle with joy.
Far behind them a crash causes a thundering roar to travel on the air.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am especially honoured to stand here in front of you on this unique occasion, the opening of the new wing of the Dozmary Museum,” the Curator reads out. “This new wing, which will be dedicated to new artists who have left their mark on the landscape of our community, is a joint venture by the City, our patrons -- His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Lothian -- and the Shalott Foundation.” The Curator dips his head and turns the page of his speech. “This enterprise was conceived as a step into the future, a window towards innovation. It has been developed with a view to usher in an era of challenging creations, to facilitate the exchange of vibrant thought, and to foster tight-knit collaborations between artists and art insitutions." The Curator turns his face away and coughs into his fist before reprising. "We very much hope that by adding a quality space to host tought-provoking, experimental exhibitions, we shall be able to attract international patronage. Similarly, we seek to stimulate the interest of a wider public in visiting our Museum, not only to see special exhibitions, but also to take in its unique and beautiful permanent collection..."
Arthur looks to his mobile. The screen is at minimum brightness, the icons pale, but Morgana elbows him in the ribs all the same.
Morgana hisses. “Put it away, Arthur.”
Arthur inspects his mobile one last time: no push notices pop up. With a sigh, he pockets it. “I need to check it from time to time.”
“What do you need to do that for?” Morgana's words stab out like bullets. “Read your paramour's latest texts?
“No.” He makes a face at her. It's probably childish and he should restrain himself in public. But with Morgana he can't help himself. She makes him act like a colicky toddler. “If you must know, I'm awaiting the results of my final flight test.”
“I thought you already were an accredited pilot.” Morgana sidles closer so she can whisper.
“Yes, of course I am.” Morgana should keep up, really. Arthur doesn't get why she hasn't understood how the military works. “But this is different. This was a specific examination for air ambulance pilots.”
Morgana frowns in the direction of the dais the Curator is still droning on from. “I thought you didn't want to become one.”
Arthur tuts under his breath. “Nobody wants to fail.”
“Let me get this straight--” Her eyebrow arches into a perfect curve. “You don't want the actual job but you don't want to get a fail mark either?”
In his military career Arthur never got one. If he thinks about it, he also did rather well at school and later excelled at university. “Yes,” he mutters. “Forgive me for holding myself up to high standards.”
“That makes no sense.” Morgana's lips barely move as she whispers that.
“I'd rather be in the military.” Arthur knows any sort of explanation is futile, but he indulges Morgana all the same. “I still don't want to disappoint.”
“You're a basket case, cousin.”
Arthur means to retort, when the Curator says, “His Highness, the Prince of Wales, will take a moment to explain this to you.”
The words jostle Arthur into paying attention. Past the thickness of a pair of glasses that has slipped down his nose, the Curator looks at Arthur. One of his hands points to the free space beside him.
In his wings Arthur's bodyguards move forward and Arthur falls into step between them. The crowd parts for him and he climbs the dais. Having shaken the Curator's hand, he steps behind the ledger upon which the mike stand is mounted. Once he's in position, he swipes his gaze around the auditorium.
The floor is large and dotted with dancing statues standing on plinths and under glass cases. In between them people stand, milling about with their champagne glasses in hand. The men wear sombre greys, the ladies silk suits of various colours, pearls beading their necks. Journalists have taken the first row, their gazes levelled at the dais, their cameras and phones angled at it. A multitude of light props and microphone stands wave in the air. Above them, donors pack the balconies. They give onto the lobby, one of them per floor, a glass railing separating the crowds from the void.
As Arthur taps the microphone, flashes go off in his face. “It gives me great pleasure to be here today.” More cameras pop and click and Arthur has to blink not to get floaters. “The more so since it's my first public outing since the army kicked me out.” That garners a laugh and Arthur's shoulders slope as tension seeps out of him. He smiles, his face smoothing of lines. His hands stop sweating and he no longer rifles his pockets for the speech he'd written. “But it's certainly not a throwaway jaunt.” He makes his gaze fall on his audience. “As an art history graduate, I cannot help but have a hands-on interest in the doings of the Shalott foundation and of the Dozmary Museum.” As his speech progresses, the flashes die down and journalists only record him using their Dictaphones. Speaking becomes easier then. The words roll out of his mouth with smoothness, with conviction. “That is why when the proposal was first made to me I was eager to participate.”
A murmur of approval issues from the crowd. It rises like a buzz from the back and spreads across the whole room.
Arthur feels the attendees' interest in what he has to say. It pulses off them in waves and feeds itself to him. It warms him because he's aware he's not making that big of a difference. That he's not saying anything special. He's only a mouth-piece and yet he can sense their support. “I was eager because of my love for the arts. I was eager because this is a way of honouring my mother's legacy--” His phone vibrates in his pocket and Arthur is sure this is the answer he's been expecting. He wants to know whether he's passed. For some reason, he feels a burning desire to have done so, to have proven his mettle, to have shown that he can help people. But he understands he can't indulge in his desire to read his mail now. He's aware of how much he owes the people who have gathered here to learn about the new museum wing. To him it might be another duty, though a dear one, but to the museum staff it certainly means something. To the showcased artists it's more than a venue; it's a way of finding a voice. To the patrons it's a cultural highlight. He respects that. So he continues on, “And I was eager on behalf of the artists who will see their works exhibited here.”
When he's done with his speech, he welcomes Morgana to the podium. "And now that my esteemed cousin has finished boring you, let me talk about poetry in motion."
She takes over from him with more flair than Arthur displayed and more natural charm. Before long she has the room hanging from her every word. She's self-assured, arch. She's the centre of attention, the core of a bubble that she anchors with her performance. She's theatrical and larger-than-life. Always wry.
While she speaks, Arthur is escorted to the lobby.
Journalists crowd him. They asks questions in groups and then one by one. As they note down everything he says, Arthur talks and talks. He touches upon light subjects and upon impactful ones. He expands upon his speech and makes comments of a more personal nature. As soon as he hints at those, reporters start in with even more queries. Arthur has given them fodder to speculate upon and should have expected it. It comes with the turf. But the volleys overwhelm him all the same and his ears take to ringing. It's up to his secretary, Howden, to fend them off.
It's a full hour before the attending staff escort Arthur out. The car is waiting for him. Since he's on a royal engagement today, they've taken out the dark blue Bentley Continental, the Flying Spur. It's plate-less, fresh off a wash, its varnish gleaming in spite of the weather. Its chrome bumpers and hubcaps glint like swords.
When the chauffeur opens the door for him, Arthur slinks into the back seat. He lets his body relax from shoulders to calves, his muscles yielding, the knots in them progressively giving. Head against the rest, he pinches the top of his nose with his fingers.
The car leathers creak when someone takes a seat right next to him.
Arthur bolts upright. “For god's sake, Morgana, haven't you a car of your own?”
“Yes, of course I do.” She cocks her head at the black armoured car idling behind Arthur's.
“Then why in God's name do you have to hijack mine, Bluebeard?”
“Because--” Morgana's lips tilt. “I want to know if you made it.”
“I haven't even had the time to check myself.” Arthur doesn't need to ask what she's talking about. They're both aware. He wants to have a look too, but he's not sure he wants to share his probable failure with Morgana. She's not really as evil as he made her out to be when he was a child. That was nothing but immaturity talking. But she'd probably still gloat, at least a little. “I'll do that later.”
Springing forwards, she dives towards him. Her hands are in his pocket before he can so much as go on the defensive. His phone in her hands, she says, “You can have no secrets from me.”
Arthur bristles. “This doesn't fly, Morgana.” They're family but there are limits. “It's a violation of privacy.”
“You sound like Uncle Uther.” She scrunches up her nose.
“It's no joke.” She ought to grow up and understand that. She shouldn't have a free pass to act as she wants. “There are rules.”
“So you don't want to know how you did?” She thumbs at his phone and makes wide eyes at the screen. “Oh my. Oh dear.”
Arthur leaps forward. “Give.”
Though Arthur tries to pry the mobile out of her hands, she keeps it firmly in her clutches. “It's quite funny, your result.”
“Yes.” Arthur says, forcing her fingers open one by one. She's has a bloody death grip on the thing. “I'm sure seeing me miss the mark is such a riot.”
“No.” Opening her palm, she drops the phone. It clatters to the floor. “I thought it was funny that the Prince of Wales is to be packed off to work on a Welsh air ambulance service.”
“What!” Arthur bends over and fumbles for his mobile. “What did you just say?”
“I said--” She pokes her nose up in the air and pokes her jaw out. “That you made it.”
By the time Arthur's retrieved his phone, she's slammed the car door closed.
A hand cups his shoulder and Merlin wakes. His brain is still fuzzy with sleep, his vision blurry with it, his thoughts sluggish and slow. His limbs have got heavy with the aches and pains of the day. His skin feels tender in places; sore in others. Judging by the tightness of it, bruises must be blooming along the length of his back. Even his face stings. There's a patch to the side of his right eye that twitches in waves. It's more than a little bothersome. He supposes the day's adventure has left its mark on him. All in all, he'd rather not have to live through another outing such as the one at the cave.
Gwen has knelt by his side. She smiles a tender smile that softens her eyes and puts a dimple on her cheeks. In the half light seeping in from the door to the break-room, it looks ethereal. “I wanted to let you sleep, but God knows you'd have my hide if I had.”
Merlin scrubs his palm down his face and looks around. “What time is it?”
“Nine,” she says. “Look, if you're still conked out, Finna will understand.”
“Oh no.” He sits up, puts his feet on the floor. “I'm not missing her farewell party.”
Festoons hang from the hooks poking out of the hangar walls. They come in a barrage of different garish colours that blind the eye. Lanterns bob from cables. Some of them are garden ones, fat, rounder at the centre and slimmer at top and bottoms. Others come in the shape of flower blossoms, with ivory petals cut out of papier maché, and a cream centre mimicking pollen. Merlin has a suspicion someone nicked them at a wedding. Brushing the still rotors of the helicopter stationing under it, a giant disco ball dangles from the ceiling, revolving on itself, casting silvery lights on the improvised dance floor.
“Gwaine has had a hand in the decorations, hasn't he?” Merlin would stake a limb on this.
“How did you know?”
“Let's say they have a flair to them that's got Gwaine written all over it.”
“He chose the music too.” Gwen sways to it.
It's a rather loud mix of disco music from the nineties, all synths and energetic peppy rhythms. It's brash and in your face; all refrains. It gets you moving, nodding your head to it. Whether they loathe the soundtack or not, the party goers are all spinning to it. Doing a cross between the Macarena and the Electric Slide, Gwaine's on the table, limbs aflail. A couple show-dances across the room, swift on their feet, their bodies twining and separating with a precision and an agility that has an edge of assurance to it, of professionalism. In spite of the noise and the frantic tempo, others move cheek to cheek. Merlin supposes it's just an excuse to snog and cop a feel in spite of the frankly unhelpful music choice. Merlin understands completely. If he had someone to be close to, he most definitely would canoodle too.
“Care for a twirl round the, erm, hangar,” Gwen says, her smile hesitant until Merlin accepts.
She's a good partner. A goofy expression plastered on her face as she two-steps and shimmies, she doesn't take herself too seriously, not like the two dance champs now doing the Rumba. She doesn't resent him for getting his moves all wrong, or for not being as good a dancer as she is. When he steps on her toes, she only says his name, the vowels of it soft on her breath, and it barely sounds like a telling-off. When the song's finished and Gwen's waltzed off with a paramedic who's still in his uniform greens, Merlin takes Bronwen for a spin. She chats more than she dances, but has more innate rhythm than Merlin does. They talk shop; they talk politcs. They move as they do. They eat popcorns out of a shared red and gold carton with utterly greasy sides. When Merlin's into his second beer, and mostly because of the alcohol accretion, he makes himself look silly by doing the typewriter move, elbows up and legs partially bent. Derian, the big bulky pilot who always takes the light MD Explorers out, laughs beningly.
“Are you going to replace Finna now that she's retiring?” Merlin shouts at him over the din of the music.
“I hope so.” Derian's as loud as Merlin was, but his voice seems to come from the depths of his hefty chest. It's so broad Derian looks more like a wrestler than a pilot. “I'd really love to try my hand at the EC135.”
Merlin's heard none but good things about Derian, so he says, “I hope you get your wish.”
When he's so sweaty he gets thirsty, Merlin approaches the buffet table. It's a long one, covered by a plastic table cloth chequered in patterns of white and red. Bowls form a row at the centre. They're full of a peach-coloured punch in which orange slices float. Creased sheets of tinfoil wrap several plates. Mini sandwiches speared at the centre by a toothpick carpet the uncovered ones. Gherkins, short and fat, still swim in the pickle juice. Merlin ponders forking one, but changes his mind and fills up a cup with punch instead.
Wandering across the hangar, he sits on the helicopter's skids, legs bent, glass cradled between them, the cabin door open behind him.
“Tired?” Finna places her foot on the skid.
“Had a long day.” Merlin drinks from his glass. The punch tastes overly sweet and a sugary residue sticks to his lips. He licks at them. “But I'm having fun, I swear.”
Finna sits next to him and touches a hand to his face. Her fingers are light on the contours of the scratch he butterfly-stitched himself. “You should learn to look after yourself.”
Merlin winces. “I just had a close brush with gravel, Finna. It's nothing serious.”
“When it took you so long,” Finna says, dropping her hand, “I really thought something had happened to the two of you.”
“We're fine.” Merlin doesn't feel it, but he's sure that with an aspirin or two he'll get better in the morning. There are, after all, definitive perks to being a doctor. Self-prescribing is one. “Gwaine is a stubborn arse and shouldn't have stayed, but we're both fine.”
“You know, I like being an active person.” Finna looks into the distance. “But after today I can't say there's not a part of me that isn't looking forward to some quiet.”
Merlin frowns. “I thought--”
“That I loved my job?” Finna squares her shoulders and quirks her eyebrow. “I do. Flying's always been a passion of mine. I've always wanted to fend the skies. And, believe me, when I first told my father he wasn't a happy chap.” Her mouth twists with the memory. “But a pilot gets attached to her team and watching them run risks, tremendous ones, takes a toll.”
“I--” Merlin doesn't know how to apologise, how to make up for that, how to relieve her of a burden he put there in the first place. He wishes Finna hadn't worried for him, but then again she wouldn't be Finna if she hadn't.
“It's all right, Merlin.” She places a hand on his shoulder and leans close. “It's been a pleasure working with you.”
Throat a little thick with emotion, Merlin's about to say something to that, when Gwaine claps his hands at them. “Oi, Merlin, stop hogging Finna. She owes us a speech.”
“Speech, speech.” The other party goers tamp their feet. “We want a speech.”
Winking at Merlin, Finna stands. “All right, all right.” Hands in her pockets, she saunters over to Gwaine. Gwaine unfolds a plastic chair and invites her to mount it. Finna gives him a hard look, but then she climbs onto it. “You want a speech?” she asks. “Fine, fine. You'll have one." She clears her throat. "I started piloting when a lot of you where still in your nappies.”
Laughter meets her words.
“In fact I became an air ambulance pilot in the grim old days of Thatcher.” Groans greet her words. “And in spite of government interference I was proud to. Proud as a peacock, in fact. In those days there weren't many air ambulances gadding about in the skies and there weren't many women behind the cloche either. But I made it. We made it, though thick and thin. Through cuts and closure threats. Through disasters and personnel restructuring. Our PM wanted to privatise us – she'd have privatised hell, I'm sure, if she could've – but never succeeded. As a result I kept my job. Here at Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust I've thrived. I've had my successes. I've been, humbly speaking, honoured. Years later I can say I'm well pleased with my track record. I leave now with my heart full of memories. All of them are precious. Most of them are of my colleagues.” The party goers go 'aww' at her words, and she waves her hand about in a cutting motion to shut them up. She blushes though. “Which doesn't mean I won't come visit you and pester you at your jobs now that I've more free time.”
As Merlin listens, he can't help but sense the hollow in his heart. Finna's been on his team, or rather he's been a part of hers, ever since he started, fresh off his PHEM sub-speciality training. The niche she's leaving empty won't be refilled. Whoever comes after her won't replace her, won't mean the same to him as Finna does. It will be impossible for them to. With a heart that is more heavy than it should be after the day's success with Balan, Merlin toasts his retiring colleague. “To Finna!” he shouts, sytrofoam cup held high.
“To Finna,” the room echoes.
The conference room opens opposite both the hall and a suite of offices in which clerical staff works. It's small and square. Plastic chairs placed at some ten inches behind several sets of folding desks provide the seating space. Unlike the communications centre, which has monitors, computer and radio stations, this area is starker and much more simply accoutred. One wall has a board with a white surface. Marker pens fill a ledge placed under it. A pull down screen hangs on another. At the other end of the room a projector sits on a prop, directly opposite the main desk dominating the dais.
When Merlin gets to it, the space is empty. By and by personnel trickles in. Derian, for once out of his pilot uniform, comes in with a diminutive paramedic who's all smiles and giggles. Drea Merlin thinks her name is. They're clearly flirting, their gazes merging, their laughter soft but with an edge of a thrill to it. When she gets a chair, Derian makes sure to seat himself on the desk coupled with it, his arms crossed, his body angled towards her, one of his feet on the ground. Aithusa comes in with Bronwen. Upon seeing Merlin, she holds her palm up and waves it this way and that. Merlin returns the gesture. In their wake a gaggle of paramedics saunters in, a few doctors following. Gwaine is the last one to trickle in, leaving the door open beside him. No one bothers to close it.
Once everyone's inside, Gwen and William Deira take places on the dais.
Gwaine, who hasn't taken a seat yet, sticks his hand up and says, “Hey, bosses, why the sudden meeting?”
Gwen smiles and arranges a pile of papers on her desk. “All in good time, Gwaine. All in good time.”
When it becomes clear no one else is coming, William clears his throat. “Right,” he says. “Right. We're here today to discuss a couple of issues.”
“The first one will require a vote.” William shuffles sideways. “The second is a hiring announcement.”
“As for item one,” Gwen says. “Some of you have probably heard about Balmor. As for those who haven't, I'll fill you in. Balmor is a tailoring specialist based in Swansea. Now Balmor has pledged to support Welsh Air Ambulance services by making a sizeable donation and supplying three years’ worth of uniforms for its staff.”
William picks up the stack of leaflets sitting at the edge of his desk and distributes them. “Last June we approached Balmor about purchasing uniforms from them; however, after an initial meeting it turned out that they wanted to support us with this sponsorship deal.”
“I don't see what's the problem,” Gwaine says, conning the leaflet from corner to corner. “They want to give us free new uniforms, right? I propose we say thank you and start wearing them.”
Gwen stands and leans against the desk. “It's not so simple, Gwaine.” She catches a nod from William, who's at the end of the room. “We'll have to put things to the vote and there are issues.”
“More specifically,” William says, as he finishes distributing leaflets and rejoins Gwen, “you'll have to decide whether you're okay with wearing their logo or not, which would be a non-rescindable part of the deal.”
“Do we have to decide this now?” Bronwen asks.
“No, you have three weeks to make up your minds,” Gwen says. “In the meanwhile study that informative leaflet well. It explains the situation fairly exhaustively.”
“Good.” Gwaine jumps upright and pockets his print out. “Meeting's done.”
“We said two items, Gwaine.” William holds up two fingers.
Gwaine plunges back into his seat. “I suppose I'll have to say goodbye to that frappuccino calling my name.”
“You'll have it later,” Gwen says, with a sigh. “Now for item two.” She pushes off the desk and stands taller. “As we hinted before, we intend to make a hiring announcement.”
Merlin slides to the edge of his seat. He thinks he knows what this is about. There's little else it can actually be. He zeroes in on the back of Derian's head.
“As you all know,” William says, scratching at the side of his face, “Finna Thomas retired a few days ago. She left a vacancy obviously.”
Tearing his eyes off the girl he was flirting with, Derian sits straighter, placing both hands on his desk.
“We would like to announce that we have found a replacement.” Gwen clears her throat. “Clearly, we've given this quite a lot of consideration and sounded our financers and patrons.”
Merlin wrinkles his face. He wonders what backers have got to do with deciding who gets hired.
“Knowing how hard replacing Finna would be--” William catches Gwen's gaze and the two of them share a nod, “--we've sifted quite a lot of CVs.”
Gwaine drums a rhythm off the top of his desk. It's like the soundtrack to a jingle, like the introduction of a new musical guest on some kind of late night show. “You're making quite a production of this. Come on, spit it out. We already know anyway.”
The edges of Gwen's mouth falter and push sideways. She rocks on the balls of her feet and says, “As William was trying to explain, we widened our search as much as we could and went through quite a few CVs and personal records. And in terms of flight experience coupled with a tested ability to respond well in stress situations, we found we had only one choice.”
From row to row a murmur goes around the room. Muffled by the shield of slightly open palms, people lean in to whisper, to exchange comments, which they make more or less loud on the basis of how discreet they are. Gwaine, funnels his lips to whistle and makes big eyes at Merlin. Derian's grip on the rim of his desk gets white-knuckled.
William says, “Maybe some of you'll have heard that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales recently left the army.”
The intensity of the murmuring in the room grows exponentially until it becomes a steady drone.
“What most of you don't know,” Gwen adds, “is that he applied to become an air ambulance pilot.”
“As we have no obligation to publicise applications--” William picks up a folder and puts it back down. “-the news was kept confidential. But the truth is he applied with us, among others. He passed all the tests involved with flying colours and just proved the best candidate.”
“In short.” Gwen gives William a sideways grin. “His Highness will be joining us as our new EC135 pilot.”
Hands shoot up in the air.
Springing off his chair, Derian stands up and leaves the room, muttering a curse that echoes down the hall and back to them.
Gwaine curses loudly, shaking his head in sympathy. Someone shouts for Derian to come back, come on, mate.
Merlin says, “Gwen, William, I think we all share the same respect for the board of trustees and for HR, on whose behalf I think you speak. But I have to question the choice.”
“Merlin.” William looks to the doorway, shifting noisily from leg to leg, then starts again. “Merlin, please, look, um.”
Her eyebrows converging, Gwen bites her thumb.
“I'm just trying to make a point that concerns us all.” Merlin is being reasonable here and he should be allowed to express his opinion. “I'm sure the Prince of Wales is an excellent pilot.” Being no fan of the royal family, Merlin hasn't followed his exploits. He has no idea if he's some sort of flying ace, a Red Baron reborn, or not, but he concedes that the RAF doesn't licence just anyone. “I'm fairly certain he's flown quite a lot and tests well.” None of which exactly matters, Merlin wagers, when compared to other concerns. “But let's be honest here. Do we want all the attention that would come our way with him being part of the team?”
William swipes a hand down his face and shakes his head. “Merlin--”
Gwen hip-nudges William and says in a low voice, “We should let him speak.”
“Yes, maybe.” William makes bug eyes at Gwen. “But, how's it going to sound!”
“I know.” She bites her nails. “Still...”
“Oh, let him.” Hands on his hips, head down, William turns to face the headboard.
With a push, Merlin gets to his feet. Since he can't address William and Gwen's got her head down, he speaks to the room. “I'm not into rubbishing a man I don't know--” Merlin has his ideas about the monarchy, but they really don't belong here. “But imagine what his presence among us would do.”
One of the girls in the back says, “Oh, I know exactly what it'd do. He'so hot, he' going to make my hormones soar EC135 high.”
Laughter follows the comment. It's easy, companionable laughter, rippling and joyful. It carries and carries until the atmosphere in the room is lighter by degrees.
It makes Merlin want to smile too, to participate. It's hard for him not to want to. These are people whose moods he's shared for a long time; whose ways he has by now meshed with. After a fashion they're his extended family and he wishes he could be in on the joke. But when he remembers his point, he ploughs on because that matters too. “His presence would disrupt our routines, shift the focus from the patient to him.”
Asking for attention, Gwen holds a finger up. “He's finished his training course. He knows how to deal with patients.”
“Theoretically, yes.” Merlin's going to assume that's true. “I'm confident he did his homework.” At least Merlin hopes so. He vaguely remembers reading about the Prince's scapegrace days, so he's not overly optimistic, but he is willing to assume those are past him. Crossing fingers and all that. “But even if he does know how to react in emergencies, there will be so many circumstances in which he won't be able to control what's going on.”
“What do you mean?” William frowns.
“Well, for one,” Merlin says, counting items off his fingers, “I'm assuming he'll have a security detail.”
“Yes.” Gwen inclines her head. “But we've reached an agreement as to their presence during missions.”
“Will they want to fly with him?” Merlin asks. “Will they try and crowd the ambulance?”
“No, they stay off it.” Gwen taps her finger on the folder William left lying on the edge of their desk. “We reached an agreement.”
“But they're going to hover around here at base?”
“Erm, yes.” William strokes his beard with thumb and forefinger.
“And does your agreement include the press?” Merlin asks, pushing up an eyebrow. “Because I don't see how it can.”
Voices tangle together in commentary. Doctors and medics murmur among themselves. Along them the pilots nod agreement and voice their doubts.
Seeing as his colleagues are getting his drift, Merlin goes on. “Imagine this scenario. There's an accident on the motorway. Immediate assistance required. We rush on site. While we have to get to the patient--” Merlin's experienced hundreds similar situations. “--maybe one that's stuck under a heavy vehicle, we have to fend the press off the Prince. How's that for a nightmare situation?”
“I've asked them to stand down.” The man who says the words has just strode in with his head up and his shoulders rolled back. He's tall and blonde, with a wide chest, and a chiselled jaw. He has on a tailored grey suit, the crease on his trousers sharp enough to cut a finger on, and a crisp white shirt buttoned up to the neck. He wears no tie, but he has shining leather brogues. Overall the look is so Savile Row the ensemble doesn't look dressed down because of the lack of ornaments. “My PAs have reached an agreement with the press; they won't follow me around while I'm on shift.”
It doesn't take much after that for Merlin to recognise the man who's talked to him. Merlin has, after all, caught sight of the Prince of Wales on the telly countless times before. It's also fairly easy to process the tone of authority his message is infused with. There's a finality about it, a confidence, that irks Merlin like an itch he cannot scratch. Is he supposed to bow his head and accept the new status quo? Is he meant to fuss and scrape and say 'yes, your majesty'? He's a free man and he won't. Oh no. He stands up taller then and pushes two steps forward so that less space lies between him and Prince Arthur. “A question for you, are freelancers going to abide by it? Are paparazzi? What if they don't?” Through the years Merlin's seen more than one unauthorised image of the royals splattered across the first pages of various less respectable publications. At least he doesn't think that that topless picture of the Duchess of Lothian that surfaced on many random tabloids last May was in any way sanctioned. That doesn't say much about the power of the monarchy when it comes to gagging publications. Not that Merlin's ever really wanted the press silenced by a group of almighty VIPs. His sense of ethics revolts at the notion. “How about our patients' privacy? Can you guarantee it's going to be respected?”
His eyes flattening at the corners as if with pain or shock, Prince Arthur sucks in a breath. “I...” He moistens his lips and shakes his head. Though his mouth opens, he doesn't start talking again. He seems thrown by Merlin's invective, wrong-footed by it. He cocks his head, studies Merlin with a focus so intense it reflects in all his features. His nostrils pinch and his pupils constrict. In spite of his youthful golden boy looks, his forehead gets more lines than a progeria patient's. At last he says, “I'm going to serve them to the best of my abilities and make sure whoever infringes on their rights pays for it.”
“And what about the operation?” When the Prince of Wales appears confused by the question, Merlin specifies. “We're doing something good here and a lot of it is done by dint of hard work: doctors taking extra shifts, paramedics donating their weekends, hospitals lending us equipment. If you join us, our whole set-up will mean something else. We'll be the Prince's outfit. A show horse and nothing more.”
Gwen hems. “While that may be true, His Highness' presence on the team might garner us some fresh donations, some new sponsors.”
And that's the rub. That's why they're hiring him, Merlin thinks. “I see.”
“We'd be able to buy new equipment,” Gwen says, holding Merlin's gaze. “That's going to save lives.”
“Let's not forget that His Highness is the best pilot we've interviewed.” William straightens his bow tie. “Out of hundreds.”
“Our aviation experts say so.” Gwen cups her hands together, as if in prayer.
“I can't even object to that, can I?” The whole arrangement rubs Merlin wrong the wrong way, but he can't swear His Royal bloody Highness isn't a flying maverick. He has rather zero proof to the contrary. And he can't say his presence won't prove beneficial. Still, even the mere suspicion of underhandedness gives him the hives. “I mean how do I even begin?”
While Merlin spoke the Prince had locked his jaw and gone red in the face. But his words come out level when he speaks next. “I may not be what you expected,” he says, holding himself stiffly from head to toe, his features hardening into a mask of detached coldness. “I may not be someone you like brushing elbows with--” When Merlin makes to object, Prince Arthur raises a hand and stops him from speaking. “--but I'm going to commit to the cause and the patients.” His shifts his gaze from Merlin to the rest of the staff. He squares his shoulders then, planting his legs wider outwards. “I could make lots and lots of promises here. I could dazzle you with a nice speech. I have teams of people who can write well-argued philippics at my beck and call." His eyes engage the staffers'. "But the truth is they'd only be empty claims.” He pauses, lets the words sink in. “In all honesty I can only say that I'm going to give you my best.”
Someone in the back claps. Gwen and William move to flank Prince Arthur. And even Gwaine laughs and says, “I'm almost convinced. Well, I'd be if I wasn't a republican.”
Tension still flies high within Merlin. It makes him clench his fists at his side and stand with his chest sticking out. It crackles at his temples, speeds his heartbeat, and makes of his mouth one thin line.
It must be oozing off him in waves because Prince Arthur stares at him in response. He does so in such a pointed way it must be involuntary; no one gawks like that while meaning to, not unless they're very young or rude. And yet there Prince Arthur is, head cocked to the side, gaze directed at Merlin, eyes slitted as if to make out some hairline crack on the surface of him. First he takes in Merlin's face, as if that can offer a solution to the puzzle he presents. Then he takes in the rest of him in a close, unsubtle study. At last he zooms in on Merlin's eyes. As he does, Prince Arthur's lips push together and he thrusts his tongue hard against his cheek, so it bulges. Slowly, he goes red about the neck; skin flushing by degrees. He must be conscious of that too, because he fiddles with his collar, widening the gap between skin and fabric. But that doesn't stop him from looking, or his eyebrows from knitting together, furrows forming in the space above his nose.
By then they're out-staring each other, the awkwardness of it volleying between them, thick as a brick, and so palpable the room falls in an embarrassed hush that sucks all noise out if it.
Having rushed headlong into it, Merlin and Prince Arthur are now trapped in the pause, in the stalemate before the big battle.
Quite honestly, Merlin wants to stop this absurd stand-off, rewind everything so they can hash this out differently, have this confrontation unspool in a way that doesn't put them both in the limelight. More importantly he wishes that the discomfort pricking at his insides would just lift. He's looking forward to falling back into the ease of his routine, the certainty that is his job. Above all, he wants to stop feeling like he's so out line, like he's done something wrong. Because he hasn't. He's simply made an objection many people would have raised in his stead. In a perfect world Prince Arthur wouldn't make him feel guilty because of it. He wouldn't contest his reasonable point. He wouldn't hold his gaze like a scorned fury or let his mouth twitch as if he was ever so angry. And he wouldn't be studying Merlin as if he were a very interesting specimen of lepidoptera.
At the end of the day Merlin wishes he could just laugh it all off. But something inside him stops him; a stupid urge that tells him not to be the first to yield makes him stand and posture like a complete and utter idiot. His mother would most certainly say he's as stubborn as a donkey and as ill-mannered as an oaf. But he not as gentle as his mum, bless her. At heart he's still the lad who worked up old Mr Simmon's ire to a froth. Well, one day he'll become meeker. Maybe. When he's old. Merlin's still on a confrontational high that stiffens all his muscles as if in preparation for a fight, a verbal act of war, when Prince Arthur ducks his gaze, lowers his head, pinches his lips together as if he's tasted sour lemons, and says, “If you'll excuse me.”
The soles of his shoes slapping the floorboard in an echoing thunderclap, he stalks out of the room like a man on a mission.
“Well, I for one don't mind having my own McDreamy on the workforce,” the girl from the back speaks again, rattling a sigh at the end of her sentence.
“But wasn't the bloke a doctor and not, you know, a pilot?” Gwaine waggles his eyebrows.
“Doesn't matter,” the girl says. “It's the possibility of a work place romance that does.”
One of the paramedics chuckles. “Princes don't marry commoners.”
“I'd make do with fucking.”
Gwen and William both step in at that. The former makes a noise deep in her throat, the latter claps his hands together to stop them from egging each other on. “Come on, a bit of respect.” The giggles don't die down. “Seriously.” When the two of them have managed to get all the laughter and commentary to die down, William adds, “So what do you all say to him?”
Judging by the approving comments his colleagues speak, Merlin knows he's just been outvoted.
By now the score is fifteen-thirty and the match has been uneventful enough, with both contenders displaying an equal amount of skills and not pushing for a specific advantage. Hitting the base line, Leon Kent serves into the far corner. To get at that Greg Lamorak darts forward, reaching with his all body. He rescues the ball, volleying back like a cannon. He gets the point. Thrown by that, Leon double faults and it's a while before he rallies. There's a lot of back and forthing then, the players hopping behind and beyond the service line, diving for balls they chase to the centre mark, and hitting a few outs. When even the audience seems to have lost interest, Leon marshals his forces. Tossing the ball high above his head, he ups his score. After that it's a deuce, ad in, deuce, until Leon gets away with a match point again.
When the change-over break starts, Arthur walks to the table Ranulf is sitting at, glasses in hand. Stretching his arms outwards over the table's roundel, he hands him his. Ranulf's glass is three quarters full with an Aperol Spritz in which an orange slice sits, ice cubes encrusting the bottom of the vessel. “They didn't have mint leaves.”
“Better luck next time, Penders,” Ranulf says, knocking down some of his Spritz. “Mmm, it's decent.”
Slitting his eyes against the sun, Arthur sinks into his own chair. He takes a sip of his absurdly green Kiwi Envy and sighs. There's too much gin in it and too little elderflower. The ratio is all wrong but it's not the worst specimen of the drink he's ever knocked down. “Mine too.”
“So who are you betting on?” Ranulf cocks his head at the clay court extending past the terrace. “I'm quite curious.”
“I haven't been following the action close enough.” Arthur is slightly biased in favour of Leon but that's because he was at Cambridge with the man and knows how committed he is to training hard. Though today's not his day, the sport's his passion. That Arthur has no doubt of. However, Arthur's insider information still doesn't supply him with all the knowledge necessary to make an informed wager. “My mind wasn't on the tournament. Been training hard.”
“Ah, I forgot.” Ranulf watches the players. Leon sits in his chair, feet on the rung, emptying a bottle of Highland Spring into his mouth. His rival hops in the corner, swiping his racquet this way and that. “You have a new commoner job.”
Arthur presses his lips together and tilts them sideways. “Come on, Ranulf. I trained hard for it.”
“Pardon me for pointing this out,” Ranulf says, slinging his arm over the back of his chair, “but you don't sound too enthusiastic.”
“It's just that--” Arthur doesn't mean to say this. “I'd have loved to go for another secondment.”
“You're not being straightforward now.” Ranulf tuts. “That's old news. Something else is bothering you right now.” He bores his eyes into Arthur. “I can sense it, Penders.”
Arthur hasn't planned to and finds the mention of it distasteful to his own ears, but the words come out all the same. “Fact is, this air rescue thing, it wasn't what I wanted to do, but I made myself work hard. I passed all the examinations and read all the books and yet there was this doctor--” Arthur relives the moment, the punch in the gut sensation he felt as Doctor Emrys – as he learnt the guy was called – went on and on about how Arthur wouldn't be a welcome addition to his ambulance team. “He expatiated – at length – on the downsides of my joining in. He was so dead set against me you have no idea.”
“Really?” Ranulf shakes his head, hinting at a chuckle. “Who's even this chap though?” He shrugs up a shoulder in a gesture that makes his polo shirt ride up above his biceps. “I mean who knows him? Where does he stand in the pecking order? Why is he in a position to judge you?”
Squinting into the distance, Arthur looks away. He drums his fingers along the stem of his glass. It tinkles like chimes on the wind. “I looked him up.” Arthur couldn't refrain. He doesn't know whether he did it to punish himself, dedicating his time to someone who dislikes him, or to prove to himself that Emrys had no leg to stand on. Either way the first chance he got he wrote his new colleague's name into Google. “He made consultant in seven years, finished his training with a PHEM sub-specialty in record time and he's ended up in the papers for saving people at risk of life and limb time and again.”
“If ending up in the papers is a measure of success...” Ranulf chuckles. He looks at Arthur through eyes slitted by laughter. “...then you, my friend, have reached the very apex of it.”
“Except that's not what we're talking about, is it?” The club crowd ohs and claps at something that happened in the court when the game reprised. Arthur has to wait for the noise to die down before he can speak again. “We're not talking about fame.”
“Even so this chap sounds awfully conceited.” Ranulf runs a finger along the rim of his glass, collecting the frost. When he's circled it all, he rubs his fingers together. “Who's he to say you're no good?”
Arthur grimaces. “Someone quite good at what he does.” The stories Arthur read about Emrys resonate with him. He can't get them out of his head. When he questioned his co-workers, they all sang his praises. “Someone kids look up to for saving their parents from a crumpling building.”
Ranulf places both elbows on the table and leans forward. “Penders, you know you're an alright fellow, don't you?” He ignores Arthur when he makes a face. “No, you absolutely are. Now I don't know this person, but whoever talks poppycock about you, is an absolute shit, alright?”
Arthur doesn't know whether to be persuaded. On the one hand, Ranulf's partisan stance buoys him. However blind, his loyalty is morale boosting. No doubt about it. It makes him want to stand taller and feel able to dismiss all criticism. But on the other, he gets that putting on blinders won't help him any. He'd only be the spoilt brat Morgana accuses him of being. “Fact is he's got a point.” Arthur lifts his shoulders and shows both hands. “I'd just finished promising my new team-mates that journalists wouldn't interfere with my duties, when I found gaggle of them right at the gates of the headquarters building.”
“I hate journalists, such clod-hopping riff-raff.” Ranulf clacks his tongue and his lips arch with disgust. “So what did you do?”
A standing ovation takes place. Bodies cluster around the terrace tables and hulk over the stands built around the court.
Arthur waits it out. “I talked up the Welsh Ambulance Service. Said they were heroes. Asked for some privacy on behalf of my colleagues.” His mouth sets. “And you know what happened?”
Ranulf nudges his shoulders upwards.
“Dr Emrys passed by.” Arthur clearly recollects the cold look Emrys sent his way while Arthur was being besieged by reporters. He even shook his head. Arthur's positive he knows what was going on his mind at the time. It was written all over his clenched features. “It was like a confirmation of his predictions.”
“Well, it does.” What if those bloody reporters really cause a ruckus, what if they genuinely end up endangering someone Arthur's meant to save? Arthur'd be responsible. Through and through. “It really does.”
“You know why that is of one hundred percent no importance?” When Arthur moves his head from side to side, Ranulf adds, “Because you'll prove them wrong.” He smacks his lips together. “And get this Doctor Whatever fired.”
“Look--” Arthur holds a palm up. “I don't like him either.” Emrys might have been making an honest case of his stance, but his words have chipped away at Arthur and the sting has scored cuts on the surface of him. They've embittered him against the man; given him an itch taking the shape of pique. He just knows that Emrys thinks him lacking, wanting, not up to scratch. And that hurts. At this point Arthur only wants to stop thinking about him. And yet he can't stop his thoughts from revolving around him, going on in loops on the subject of him. Yet every time Arthur considers him, he gets completely worked up, guts clenching, chills making his head swim, blood heating so much his face flames. He should stop this. It's not a particularly healthy attitude to have. It's a pity too. There was enough good sense and fire in Dr Emrys, a passion for his job, to have made Arthur appreciate him. Well, in another world. “But I don't think he should lose his job only because he spoke up against my enrolment.”
“You're more forgiving than I'd be.” Ranulf relaxes back in his chair. “And if you want it that way fine. As for myself, I'll be cheering you from the sidelines, waiting for you to blow them out of the water with your piloting skills.” Ranulf smiles. “And wishing a pox on Doctor Whatever.”
“Ranulf.” Arthur rumbles the name.
“You know what.”
Ranulf shoves himself deeper into his chair, shoulders up. “Well, why can't I wish this common upstart into the gutter where he belongs?”
“Because that's not fair?” Arthur always strives for that, for a measure of open-mindedness.
“All right, all right, Penders.” Ranulf makes a shield of his fanned hands. “I'll just be hoping you make a success of your job.”
Arthur hoists his cocktail glass up. “I'll drink to that.”
Arthur has just finished his instrument check and ticked the last item off his chart, when he gets his strip alert. Lobbing the chart at the other seat, he puts his headphones on, toggles the mic and talks with both Air Ambulance Services and Air Traffic Control. Once he's got all his instructions, he rogers them and prepares the EC135 for flight.
With most of the diagnostics done, he goes on to start up. Because he knew he might have to fly at a moment's notice, he has most of the switches set, so all he needs to do is snap them on. After he's flipped the battery controller, he tests the auto re-ignition mechanism, sounds the warning lights, ensures the throttle is in cut-off, and depresses the starter button, introducing fuel in the tank.
Having waited until the correct N1 set-up is on, he cranks up and engages the main rotors. They start purring in his ears, making a noise that braces him with its familiarity, with its known regularity. It's like home. When the blades go steady, he links the throttle and collective controls, then pulls in the collective, watching out against over-torquing the main transmission. As used to choppers with combats specs as he is, he must guard himself against failing to operate simpler air craft.
The rotors are picking up speed, when Gwaine Jones and Dr Emrys hop into the back cabin.
“Go, go, go,” Dr Emrys says. “We've got a code blue.”
When they've strapped themselves down, Gwaine says, “So what do we call you: your Majesty, your lordship, or Pippi Longstockings?”
“Gwaine.” Dr Emrys hisses that, but with his mouth close to the microphone his warning sounds loud and clear.
Arthur adjusts his grip on cyclic and collective. “Arthur's fine.”
“As long as you're sure we're not ending up in some kind of high security prison for crimes against the Royal Person, I'm quite alright with calling you 'mate', mate.”
“Gwaine,” Dr Emrys says. “Come on, let's try and be professional here.”
Gwaine's words echo through the radio system. “I was just taking sides, Merlin. You should be flattered; you're my pal of choice here.”
“Well, I know what I said.” Dr Emrys' seat gives a squeak that means he's shifted. “But let's all try and be respectful of each other.”
Arthur ought to agree. He should welcome this peace offering, say that he can brush off their first meeting, offer an olive branch. He should create the best environment for them to work in. But resentfulness roughens his edges and instead of mediating, bridging the gap, he clams up. He clamps his lips together and stares straight ahead, past the lenses of his aviators and into the sun. He doesn't like it; he doesn't like the choice he's making and what it says about him, but he can't quite help himself. For some reason he doesn't want to poke at he can't keep the annoyance at bay or let his walls down, ease the tension. If he were a better man, he'd get over it fast, crack a joke, and let bygones be bygones. Instead he focuses on his piloting.
Twisting the grip controls, Arthur increases the speed of the main rotor and eases up the collective, raising the swash plate assembly. As a result, the rotor blades speed up, thumping the air like a pugilist's punches. Depressing the left foot pedal, he ups the lift and gets them higher.
As they fly northwards, towards Llanfyllin, they follow the contours of a gentle incline covered in tossing grasses. They trace their way up a shimmering torrent whose waters bounce over rocks, its bed shelves climbing upwards in twists and turns. Yellow coltsfoot grows along its banks and briny sedge gleams in the wind. The EC’s blades roar their roar of power, the noisy clatter scaring away birds, making cowherds look up from the fields, causing farmers to tilt their head backs and search the sky. The din scatters thought into a pleasant blur, relaxing Arthur and sending him some place where everything fits, his body merging with the controls, the world around him, the moment.
Banking the EC, Arthur heads up towards a swatch of heathland before before diving into a valley that rolls deep and green. Arthur scans his chart, looks at his displays, and throws the helicopter into a steep right turn that gets them hovering over the eastwards corner of a gulley.
“Are we there?” Gwaine asks. “I can't see a thing.”
“Yes.” Arthur dips the EC on Gwaine's side so that he slams sideways. “I'm sure you can see our destination.”
“Yes.” Gwaine swallows loudly. “Thank you for the abrupt manoeuvre. I can see the cottage now.”
Arthur rights the helicopter, lowers it. They swipe past a wattle and daub house with a straw roof and small window. Another building, squatter, squarer, with no openings but the one under the eaves, stands away from the first and must be – or have been – a barn. Those two are the only constructions for miles and miles. No wonder they needed a helicopter ambulance up here. Fighting against the hefty pull of dynamic roll-over, Arthur decreases altitude. As the EC gets closer to the ground, reeds bend and grass shakes.
“Let's go,” Dr Emrys says, once they've nearly touched down. The straps of his harness snap home. “Quick now.”
Gwaine says, “Aye, aye, Major General, sir.”
The blades are still spinning when they hop clear of the helicopter. Carrying a gurney between the two of them, they jog towards the house. At its threshold two people appear: a stocky man, his hair glinting silver; and a woman with a long skirt that snags in the breeze worked up by the EC. Dr Emrys coming in first, they vanish into the house. Arthur catches movement behind the front windows, a flashing past of colour, a blur of shapes, but the glass is thick and the distance considerable, so he can't tell who's who.
As he waits for his colleagues to come back, Arthur checks the fuel gauge and the direct current electrical system, zeroes the trim tabs and SPED transponder readings. Everything being fine, he gives his new NOTAMs a read. He's got optimal VFR weather both in the area and en route, but his FDNs show a testy wind at twenty five knots, which might give them a bumpy ride. He's just plotted a new route that should spare them the worst of the weather, when Gwaine and Dr Emrys emerge from the cottage, carrying a gurney. A man is strapped to it. He has an oxygen mask placed over his mouth and nostrils, and a drip Gwaine holds aloft shoots a clear liquid in his veins. Thermal mylar blankets cover him.
Between them Gwaine and Dr Emrys secure the patient into the back of the EC. This time around Dr Emrys and Gwaine don't strap themselves to their seats. Arthur doesn't like carrying untethered civilians about; he can't help but think that's an accident waiting to happen. The notion itself makes him jittery, raising the short hairs on the back of his neck and tensing his jaw, but he understands how medical personnel must stay mobile at all times.
“I've reassessed,” Dr Emrys tells him once he has his comms on. “Patient was worse off than Helimed Centre thought. It's no simple transient ischaemic attack. He needs a specialist stroke unit. We're taking him to the Royal Glamorgan.”
“Roger,” Arthur says, as he lifts the EC135 into the air.
“Glamorgan, here's helimed 54, we have an incoming for you,” Dr Emrys says, “Male TIA patient, sixty-four, AVPU scale below five. GCS score thirteen. BP systolic: one hundred and seventy. Respiratory rate: nine; heart rate: forty-five. Patient is hypoxic and fibrillating.”
“Oxygenation, airways and ventilation secured.” Gwaine shifts about. “IV access stabilised.”
Through his headphones Arthur hears the triage doctor at the Glamorgan speak. “Here Glamorgan, Helimed. Keep him stable. We're expecting you.”
When Glamorgan kills the communication, Dr Emrys says, “Easier said than done.”
“Don't worry, Merlin. This man couldn't be luckier. He's got the best doctor.” Ease exudes from Gwaine's tone. “So do I give him Warfarin?”
“No.” Dr Emrys' voice takes of the stamp of authority. “That would increase his risk of bleeding, which is something we don't want, considering he just had a stroke. Give him ten mg quindine, IV shot. We'll try and stabilise him with sodium blockers.”
Correcting course, Arthur veers southwards. He concentrates on flying, on the wind resistance he encounters, on minimising the fore and aft rocking of the aircraft. Even so he can't help listening in on what's going on back in the cabin. He pays close attention to both nuance and tone, to what is being said and how it's being said. He tells himself it's because he wants the best for the patient, because he wants to know that he's doing fine. But he also burns with the need to do this well, to not let anyone down. To prove bloody Emrys wrong.
“Portable CT scanner results,” Gwaine tells Dr Emrys. “And it doesn't look good.”
“No.” There's a harshness to the syllable that's startling. “Imaging is pretty telling.”
“So it's what I think it is?”
“The TIA didn't come first.” Dr Emrys' voice tightens. “The tear did. It caused blood to seep into the artery walls and split its layers.” Emrys' sounds pensive. “It must've formed a haematoma that sent sent blood clots circling around Mr Grogan's body. The stroke only followed.”
“Shit, I was praying for a minor ischaemic episode.” Gwaine says. “It seems, though, that no one up there is actually listening to my prayers.”
“Apparently not.” Dr Emrys moves about, leaning over the patient to read more stats. “There's worse. We have a case of cerebral hyperfusion on our hands. If we don't do something quick, it will soon turn into something permanent.”
“Crap.” Gwaine grunts the invective out. “Shit, Merlin. How long do we have?”
“Not long.” Dr Emrys hums. “Less than ten minutes I'd say.”
Normally Arthur wouldn't interrupt a doctor attending to his duties. His go-to remedy for all ailments being aspirin, he's aware he knows nothing of any medical science. But in this case he needs to speak up. “Dr Emrys, I must tell you we're going to encounter some high wind en route. I wanted to avoid it.” Arthur supposes even Emrys, who's no pilot, will see why he saw the need for that. “So I altered course. It'll take us at least fifteen minutes to get to Glamorgan.”
“Right, great, his brain will be pickles by then,” Dr Emrys says. “I'm performing an embolectomy.”
“What!” Gwaine shrieks. “You want to do that on a sodding bloody chopper!”
“Yes.” Dr Emrys pulls on a fresh pair of gloves. “Either that or the patient won't have any functioning brain cells to speak of by the time we land.”
“Fuck, Merlin.” Gwaine grabs something Dr Emrys throws at him. It looks like a surgical apron. “That's brain surgery we're talking about here.”
“I know.” Dr Emrys positions himself at the other side of the gurney. “Have you any better ideas other than delivering a zombie patient to Glamorgan?”
“We're doing this.” Dr Emrys hooks the patient up to a series of machines that beep loudly. “Arthur, I need you to pay attention now.”
Arthur's hands tighten around the controls. “Yes.”
Dr Emrys prepares the patient, baring his throat, and covering the exposed patch of skin in a fine powder he got out of a sachet. “I need you to be the ace they say you are.”
If this was yesterday, Arthur'd point out that Dr Emrys doesn't believe he's really good. He'd tell him he knows what Dr Emrys really thinks of him. It's been between them ever since his hiring announcement. Hell, Arthur listened to all his complaints live, trying to mask his hurt and resentment, trying to win people over by sounding more rational than he was. He thought he'd been so transparent, so see through, and shame had burned his skin right off. But now he can't bring himself to say it. Dr Emrys' tone and the import of his decision stop him from making a peep. Wrong moment and all. “I can try, but I told you, it's blustery today.”
“I need you to make this ride as smooth as a Sunday walk.” Dr Emrys moves a series of instruments about. They glint and catch the light so they're visible from the cockpit. “I need you to be beat the wind, Arthur.”
As if to belie the possibility, the helicopter banks against the air currents, causing the world to swivel around them. Arthur squeezes through a cloud wall and the blast of the gale hits them head on. The EC's props crack; the fuselage rattles. It shakes at the very core, the helicopter's body creaking. The motion jars Arthur's insides and works his teeth together. Arthur fights it out. Using his feet on the rudder bar, he manoeuvres the stick to steady the chopper. “This is the best I can do,” he says through gritted teeth when the EC stabilises.
“All right, Gwaine, give him five mg of heparin,” Dr Emrys' intake of breath is so loud it travels on the ether. When Gwaine is done injecting the substance, Dr Emrys says, “Okay, I'm starting.”
“Fuck.” Gwaine shakes his head but he doesn't abandon his position. “I don't like it.”
“If this goes tits up,” Gwaine says, “we'll lose our licences and end up in prison. ”
Dr Emrys' head snaps up. “At least I'll know I've done all I could.”
Gwaine laughs loudly, a savage burst of sound. The pitch of it carries on the radio system. “If something ever happens to me I want you to patch me up, you madman.”
Dr Emrys' huff gets breathy. “I never want anything to happen to you.”
There's something about the raw honesty of the pronunciation, about the sentiment behind it, that sends a jagged spike through Arthur. He doesn't think anyone has ever spoken about him that way, with such tenacity of feeling, with such sheer unbridled affection, and for the span of a second he wishes someone had, that this were about him. Of course that's silly. This is not what he's here for. He's here to do his job and save a life. So, brow crumpling, he focuses on sailing through the next patch of turbulence as steadily as he can, the collective juddering in his hand.
“Okay, patient's sedated,” Dr Emrys says. “I'm making the incision.”
“Talk you way through it.” Gwaine sounds “You know you can do it.”
Dr Emrys breathes. “I'm at the carotid sinus point, a centimetre under the internal.”
A gust of wind shakes the EC. Arthur reduces pitch into auto-rotation, slowing down to a sixty-five knots cruising speed.
“Arthur.” Dr Emrys says his name in a tight whisper. He adds nothing more.
I know, Arthur wants to say, can't help the bleeding bumping. Instead he nearly breaks his thumb trying to keep the collective from shuddering and jumping within his grip. It hurts bright hot, but he grits his teeth and keeps it level, cushioning the head of the stick in the soft hollow of his hand. “This--” His molars grind. “--is the best I can do.”
“Keep doing it then, Arthur.” As the EC stops pitching sideways, Dr Emrys sucks in another breath. “I'm extending distally over the course of the vessel.”
Gwaine says, “Do you want me to clean up the blood?
“Yeah.” Dr Emrys pauses in his tracks; even his breathing sounds muffled, hushed, as if he's holding a breath in the pit of his lungs. “I'm deepening the incision through the subcutaneous fat, dividing the media layer and exposing the intima.”
“Blood pressure's high but steady, Merlin, my man,” Gwaine tells him. “You're doing well.”
Dr Emrys exhales. “Arthur's doing okay too.” He clacks his tongue. “I'm protecting the carotid now, inserting a sling around the artery.”
“Good, that's good.”
“I'm almost done shielding the artery.”
“Merlin,” Gwaine says, “sorry to bother you on your fine spree, but BP's through the roof. You've got to hurry, mate.”
“God knows I don't want to add to fuel to the fire.” Right now Arthur wouldn't want to be Dr Emrys for the world. If this goes wrong, they've got a dead patient on their hands, and with Emrys being the one calling the shots, the responsibility here is mostly his. “But I've just got new METARs and wind speed is increasing to thirty-nine knots.”
“Which in layman terms means?” Gwaine asks.
“A gale.” Arthur's already bracing for it. “A gale.”
“Great.” There's a wobble in Dr Emrys' voice. “I'm making a small transverse arteriotomy over the sinus and under the external.”
“BP systolic two hundred.” The words rush out of Gwaine like a storm. “Our Mr Grogan is fibrillating like a bag of worms doing the tango.”
“I need five mm of epi, IV push.” Dr Emrys' tone is steady now, firm. “And pass me the Fogarty.”
Plastic rips; metal tinkles. “Here.”
Arthur doesn't tell Dr Emrys his transponder readings indicate they're moving closer to the turbulence area, his map showing red rather than green or yellow. He supposes that wouldn't go over well. If there's one person Arthur mustn't upset, it's the one with the surgical apparatus in his hands. To avoid going in low G, he speeds up the rotor disk and uses the left cyclic to counteract the rightwards roll that's got the EC bumping all over.
For a short moment he wishes he didn't have a man undergoing a surgical procedure right there in the back. He's used to taxing army boys around, lads who won't complain about a bumpy ride, buoyant men accustomed to every sort of mishap, to war even. Compared to his RAF bygones, this is a completely different experience. Back then he had only to carry out the orders he got and stand fast by his men. Once that was accomplished, he was fine. He'd done his duty. This operation involves higher levels of responsibility, of accountability. They've got a life in the balance; a human being is completely dependent on them, one with a family and loved ones that will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. That is nerve-racking in ways that are hard to fully process. But he's chosen this, made himself answerable for the bloke fighting for his life in the back cabin, and he refuses to let him down. He won't disappoint his new colleagues either. Whatever they may think of him, they deserve his utmost commitment. Especially Dr Emrys. He's entitled to Arthur's best for trying to save his patient against these batty odds. If that doesn't warrant Arthur's very best, he doesn't know what does.
“Catheter in!” Dr Emrys shouts. “Directing it towards the blood clot.”
“Good boy!” Gwaine says. “Fucking brilliant man.”
As turbulence hits the EC, the aircraft pitches and rocks. Surfing the currents, Arthur gets the cyclic between his knees to hold steady and corrects with the collective, leaning back with all his might, his tendons sticking out and his muscles working against the frantic quivering of all controls.
“Got to the distal embolus,” Dr Emrys says, a pop sounding right into his mic. “Clamping.”
“Blood pressure lowering. Systolic one hundred and eighty over one hundred and thirty,” Gwaine says. “HRs gone from one hundred and sixty per minute to one fifty. Patient's still arrhythmic but normalising.”
“Clot's gone,” Dr Emrys says, looking at his stack of monitors, a huge smile splitting his face in two. “Oh God, we made it.” He slaps a hand to his forehead. “Shit, we really made it.”
“You did it, my man.” Gwaine claps Dr Emrys so hard on his back the noise echoes through both their mics. “You made it.”
Ten minutes later they land safely on the hospital roof, rotors still kicking. The emergency team, whose members shelter inside an overarching set of transparent doors, rush forward at a duck. They wear gloves and scrubs that plaster themselves to their bodies with the breeze, white clogs, but no surgical masks. They meet Dr Emrys and Gwaine midway across the landing pad. Hair up in tufts because of the currents stirred by the EC, Dr Emrys shouts something at them, the roof top wind coupled with the blast from the chopper drowning his words. He's probably giving them the patient's vital stats, offering a run down of the procedure he performed. The doctors listen, speak in return, one, a balding man past his middle-age, scowls. He gesticulates, speaks again, his voice carrying even if his words don't make it across, menacing. Merlin explains some more and the dismayed doctor quietens. With nods the Glamorgan staff whisk the patient off, pushing the gurney into a glass fronted lift, taking Gwaine with them.
When Dr Emrys makes it back to the EC, Arthur's already at the foot of it. Emrys startles, arches an eyebrow at him. He looks tired, with a grey face and pockets under his eyes. His shoulders have collapsed and one of his hands trembles, so he pins it to his leg. There's a scratch on his cheek. It's scabbed over and days old already. Arthur's heard on the grapevine that Emrys got it performing some kind of valiant stunt in a cave, saving some kind of bonkers professor who got himself stuck in it. It will fade in time too but right now it helps make Emrys seem ready to keel over. “We need to talk.”
“If it's about what I did up there--”
“It is,” Arthur says and when he sees Emrys' face fall and get lined, he adds, “It's not about your decision making. I think you made the right call.”
Emrys tips his head sideways in a silent question.
Arthur pockets his sunglasses, looks down, shifts his weight, and runs a hand through his hair. “I know we started off on the wrong footing. You had a point and I resented that.” He makes a point of gazing at Dr Emrys. “I resented you.”
“I'm sorry.” Dr Emrys' eyes go wide. “ I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I'm still afraid of what the press can do. I'm still worried. But that's not on you and you were good up there. Without you--” Emrys licks his lips, bites at the side of his mouth. “Without your piloting chops, I'd have killed that man.”
“No you wouldn't,” Arthur says, shaking head and hands. He's starting to get an inkling of how fucking good Emrys is. “But that's not the point. The point is what happened up there, what you did... That took guts.”
“That was my job.”
“No, getting the patient here in one piece was your job.” Arthur's studied all the guidelines before sitting for his tests. He's quite well-versed in them by now. “You did more than that. You risked your job and your livelihood to make sure that that man--” He lifts his chin in the general direction of the lift the patient disappeared in. “--has a shot at more than being brain dead and that takes, as I said, quite a lot of courage.” He feels a restriction in his throat. “Merlin, you went above and beyond and that matters.”
“I--” Emrys goes red, a little cross-eyed, stammers. “Well, I--”
Gwaine returns at a jog. “Sorry, the loo was a trek away and I really had to go and spend a penny.” He rolls his weight from side to side and winks. “So patient's in the stroke unit, receiving doctors are satisfied our Merlin did good, and we've not torn each other's heads off. So do we get a pat on the back and get back to base?”
“Yes.” Arthur appraises Merlin one last time. He's got his head down and his shoulders braced upwards, his fists balled at his sides. The pose moves Arthur, makes something crack behind his ribs. So as not to think about it, Arthur backs towards the cockpit. “We're flying back to base.”
Merlin tugs at the weeds that have been loosened by the recent rains. They're tussocky and green, sturdy, with long roots covered in soft russet earth. As they come off, they drip thick grains of soil. Their blades are thin at the rims, sharp; they have opened a variety of slim cuts along the length of his fingers, from the base of his thumb to the tip. Even so Merlin doesn't mind the sting. It's not something that's at the forefront of his mind and he'll see to the gashes later. For now he's getting ahead. Before supper time he'll have done most of the garden. And if he can manage his shifts with Gwen, he'll be able to come round again next Sunday and plant some proper plants. Besides, he enjoys the simplicity of physical work. It soothes the mind. At the thought he hums with pleasure, shaping his lips into a round to whistle a melody he heard on the telly once, the strains of it warbling out of him. As he works, he piles the weeds up in a mound at his side. He's careful not to uproot the shoots. They're green and tender and will one day become delphiniums and pimpernels and Easter lilies.
The sun is hot on the back of his neck, stinging at his nape. He leans forward and grabs the bottle of sun screen he left on the deck chair.
“I told you you'd bake,” Freya says, over Anlawd's tired babbling. “And it'll be all my fault.”
Merlin drops the bottle onto the garden table and turns around. Since seeds latch onto his trouser legs, he brushes them off and stomps around so as to shake off the last ones. “I offered.” Merlin shrugs. “So it'd be my fault if it's anyone's.”
“We both know why you did it though,” she says, shifting Anlawd in her arms. They boy's grown bigger as of late; his legs have lost the puffiness of babyhood and his knees and calves show their outlines with much more sharpness. They're bent now so his knees can find purchase at Freya's waist. “And we both thank you.”
“You don't have to.” Merlin moves forward, dropping his shoulders, shuffling arms and legs. “I did it as much for myself as I did it for you.”
Freya's face softens. “Not true.”
“I have a highly stressful job, Frey,” he says, searching the ground with his gaze. “I need some good mucking about in the garden to relieve all the tension.”
“You did it for him.” She resettles Anlawd's weight and the boy turns his face.
Merlin puts a hand on the boy's head. When Anlawd moves into the touch, Merlin's heart contracts and his breath comes a little short. There's such trust there, such simple instinctive faith. There's nothing quite like it. Affection gushes out of Merlin in droves. He knows he shouldn't say it aloud, not in front of the child, but the words bubble out him. “Sometimes I wish he was mine.”
Freya studies his face, taking her time with it. Her lips lift in a gentle smile. “It wouldn't have worked out.”
They both know that. They remember what it was like. Projecting that into the future is a no-go too. You can't go over trodden ground again and expect the final outcome to be somehow different, especially with so many vital elements from their original configuration missing. It's done with and thinking otherwise would only hurt what they've got. But Merlin's only human and at the bottom of him is a longing for solidarity, love, that punches holes at the pit of his stomach, at the confluence of his heart. So sometimes Merlin just thinks about it, how it would have been like and sometimes those dreams have a golden sheen to them.
“Anlawd loves you.” Freya puts him down and the boy goes over to kick at the weed mound Merlin made. “That's what matters.”
“He misses his father.” Merlin does too, not everyday perhaps, and not when he's at work and very busy, but on occasions like this when he's with Frey and Anlawd, he does think of him. And oh god that's one wound that's never really closed. However long it's been, it's still there, fresh and bleeding. If he were to diagnose himself, he'd call himself critical. “It's natural.”
“He's not projecting his love for his dad on you, if that's what you mean.” Freya squeezes his hand. “He may be young but he knows a friend when he sees one.”
Merlin nods, swallows a little thickly. “I'll go finish my weeding.”
“I'll go put Anlawd to bed for his nap,” Freya says. “He's knackered after all the running around he did with you this morning.”
While Merlin finishes weeding the garden, Freya brings Anlawd upstairs. She throws open the window of his room and leans out, waving down at him, before ducking back inside. Meanwhile Merlin stuffs his weeds in the bin liner, knots it closed, then washes his hands at the pump. He scrubs dutifully, the way he would if he had to do surgery, and the dirt comes off him in crusts. When he's done, there's a lagoon by his feet and a lizard with big eyes and a missing tail scuttles past. He smiles at it but by then it's vanished into the hedge bushes.
Freya appears by the open French windows. “I'm making you some tea.”
Merlin wipes his hands on his jeans. “I'm so thirsty ll have two.”
In the kitchen she bustles with the kettle, her back turned to where Merlin sits at the table. She dunks tea bags in their respective mugs, taps at their rim with her nail, and makes a count of five under her breath. When enough time's elapsed, she prods at each one one with a spoon, lifting them out by the string and throwing them away. Bearing the mugs, she spins round. She gives him the one that was Daegal's. “So how's life been at work?”
Merlin runs his thumb along the side of the mug. He finds the chipped spot at the rim where the enamel shows unpainted and remembers how the crack got there. He and Daegal had been watching the tennis, the Ivanisevic-Rafter match, shouting at the telly, elbowing each other, generally flailing on the sofa. Merlin must have reached his arms outwards or thrashed about. He must have done something. He can't be sure now. Either way he hit Daegal. Since Daegal had been about to bring the mug to his lips, he crashed face first into it. Cursing a blue streak, Daegal cupped his lip, which had split, and was bleeding. Merlin leaned forward to help and Daegal doused him with the tea and they both laughed until Freya came in, took in the scene, and then chortled irresistibly too. “You know how it is.”
“Mmm,” she says, drinking her tea in slow and careful tips. “I also know you. You wouldn't give it up for the world.”
Merlin chuckles, feels his eyes go small with the mirth of it. “Eh, I don't know.”
“It's your life blood,” Freya says. “You live for it.”
“Yeah, you're probably right.” After a day on call sometimes Merlin gets tired to the bone and so close to shut down it's not funny. But when he wakes up in the morning, even after a tough day, one that's left him shaking with the pain of having failed one of his patients, he's never considered not going in again. He's only one man and may only be able to do so much, but his skills are of use to people and he'll always choose to put them at their service. He would feel remarkably emptier if he went for a different kind of job, maybe sitting it out in some quiet country surgery. “I feel like I should stick to my calling.”
“I've never doubted that,” she says. “Not even then.”
“Which means you know me better than I know myself.” He watches her react, sees the knowing smile on her face, the faint lines of amusement around her eyes and feels himself warmed. It's a lot to have, this innate understanding. He wishes he could have done more for her; he wishes he could have turned back time for her. But he doesn't have that power and things are the way they are, unchangeable. That's the toughest lesson you can learn in life. Sometimes you get no do-overs and, for all the sorrow that brought him, she's the one who's had to bear the brunt. Those are wounds he can't heal in her. Because looking at her calls to the fore too many emotions, he stares at the window that opens behind the table. It's overgrown with honeysuckle not yet in bloom and sunlight filters through both vine and glass tinting the air green, like a seascape.
She stirs the spoon in the mug and says, “I hear there's been an addition to your team.”
“You heard right.” Merlin rolls his eyes. He's not serious but he wants to see her smile and teasing her seems just as good a way to achieve that as any. “I hadn't pegged you down as a Daily Mirror fan.”
“Cer i grafu,” she says though there's no real hostility to her tone. “It's right everywhere. I couldn't have missed it if I wanted to.”
“I know.” Over the first two weeks of Arthur's employment, journalists stalked the airbase night and day. Since they had no reliable information as to Arthur's shifts, they just camped in their minivans outside Llanelli airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of their prey. It's died down since but Arthur's exploits still make headlines from time to time. “I had to fend off a reporter who wanted the scoop on my opinion of the Prince of Wales.”
“And what did you tell them?”
Merlin nudges up a shoulder. “I suppose you can imagine.”
“Yeah.” She scrunches her nose up. “You were downright rude, were you?” She grins. “So what do you really think of him?”
“Well--” Merlin has a hard time putting it into words. Working with the man has changed things and Merlin has barely had time to tell himself how, to understand the ins and outs of his own reactions. “Not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” she says. “Not so bad? That's all you have to say?”
Merlin drinks some of his tea. Freya does it exactly the way he likes it: with little to no sugar and just a splash of fresh milk. “He's a good pilot. I owe him quite a lot.”
“Oh now you'll have to spill.” She cups the mug between her hands as if to seek out its warmth.
“Well, there were a few situations he shone in.” Merlin says, going over them. It's easy picturing himself aboard the helicopter. He's used to being on it, to the rush of unfetterdness that comes with it. Arthur's piloting is smooth, expert; it makes of flying a pleasure. “Without him a fair few patients wouldn't have made it.”
“I'm glad he's a good pilot; few can succeed Finna.” Freya's face exudes warmth as she says the name. “But I wonder, what do you make of him as a man?” She pauses, her brow contracting a little. “I mean that's always the point when one discusses figureheads, isn't it?”
“We're not in the Middle Ages, Frey.”
She kicks his foot under the table. “You know exactly what I mean though.”
A smile blooms on Merlin's cheeks and plants divots in them. “Okay, all right.” He bares his palms at her. “I'll fess up.” He licks his lips. “At first I wasn't too happy he got on the team.” Journalists have been at the fringes of their rescue missions one or two occasions and even though it's only from time to time that doesn't mean it's not concerning. When he's working, Merlin needs to be on at all times, concentrating, and those people tear his focus to shreds. “But now I think he's got a lot to offer.”
“That's still not a personal impression, Merlin,” Freya says. “You're withholding information.”
Freya is probably right. Merlin does prefer caution, wants to be circumspect, feels as if he's walking some kind of tightrope that sends his heart choking under his ribcage. Usually that's not always the case with him. But with Arthur... With Arthur Pendragon things are different. They started out on a sour note, but since the Llanfyllin stroke case Merlin has come to think that some of their mutual wariness has dissipated. There's been a little shift on the axis of their relationship, an altering of it. Arthur made an overture to him and Merlin recognised it as such. And while it wasn't life altering, it had power. Merlin deems that conciliatory move a heart-felt gesture, a courageous one. Arthur tried to bridge the gap between them, and Merlin could tell at the time he was putting himself on the line, risking something, be it just his guardedness, his ability to walk away from their confrontations with his pride intact. Merlin can appreciate it. But because he does, Merlin doesn't want to cling too staunchly to the notion of Arthur's innate uprightness, just in case he has to reassess again, and find him not quite so nice after all. It'd be more hurtful now, after he started being persuaded. To Freya he says, “I don't know him that well yet, but I think--” He trails off. Words to describe Arthur Pendragon don't come easy to him; the man lives in a sphere whose parameters Merlin doesn't understand. “But I think he's all right. A good bloke.”
Freya reaches her hand out and squeezes his. He senses her understanding of the matter, of him. “Coming from you, it's the greatest praise.”
Merlin wants to reply, wants to say she shouldn't build him up so much, but he can't because Anlawd tugs at his trousers. How he can have stolen downstairs without anyone hearing, Merlin doesn't get, but then again children can be sneaky.
“Couldn't sleep,” Anlawd says, shifting sheepishly from foot to foot. “Won't you come an' play?”
Merlin shares a look with Freya.
She cups her mouth and arches an eyebrow. “You don't have to, really, Merlin.”
So he's facing Anlawd, Merlin turns in his chair. “You want to play?”
As Anlawd nods, his fringe bounces. For a moment he sucks on his thumb, but then he looks down, and clasps his hands behind his back, tilting his head back and pressing his lips together. “Mmm.”
“Then I suppose we should.” Merlin tickles Anlawd's sides and he laughs. “I think we should start right now. What do you say to that?”
Once again Anlawd bobs his head. When Merlin grabs him by his middle and lifts him off the floor, he gives out a high-pitched giggle that intensifies as Merlin lumbers him face down into the garden. When he puts him down, Anlawd squeals and starts to run about, nearly running pell mell into the bushes and streaking under the lemon tree. Merlin chases him around, making a point of only catching him when he wants to be caught. Otherwise, when Anlawd just wants to run free, he huffs and puffs and pretends not to be able to get him. During their chase their clothes get grass-stained and dirt burrows under their nails, but they don't stop till the sun has come down and a new chill has coated the air.
By the time Merlin gets home he's somehow bone tired, which says something about his inability to just take a day off and relax, but he's looking forward to a new day on the job, a new day on the helicopter.
The air cracks with thunder and the wind batters the windows. The sky is fat with bulky black clouds, intermittently lit up by lightning flaring yellow against the blackness of the smudged horizon line. With the air pregnant with static, the atmosphere nearly pulses. A heavy rain comes down and washes the landing strips clean, turning them into rivers, glimmering bright with the shine of water.
“Air traffic control has shut us down,” Gwen Smith announces to the roomful. “At least for as long as the weather stays like this.”
Gwaine drops the magazine he was reading onto the coffee table and it sprawls open on a centrepiece featuring a leggy singer in a sexy pose. “Good, let's be off to the base bar.”
“We're still all on call.” Gwen Smith holds a finger up. “In case the weather changes.”
Merlin wanders in from the next room but one. With only a short sleeved t-shirt and reflective trousers, he's not wearing his full gear. As he moves, the muscles in his arms flex. A tan line shows below the hem of his sleeve, indicating he's spent quite some time outdoors during his weekend off. His face, too, has lost some of its pallor and the lines of tiredness that were there a few days ago have been sculpted out. Arthur wonders where he's been to get that tan, what magic cure worked on him to bring on that change.
“What were you on about?” Merlin says, as he sits on the edge of a chair, legs braced wide, hands joined together.
“Going to the base bar,” Gwaine says. “Since we're grounded...”
Head cocked in a questioning tilt, Merlin looks to Arthur. “You really think the situation is not going to change on us?”
As he's pulled into the conversation, Arthur's eyes flare. “I'm not Control, so I can't be certain.” Merlin doesn't stop looking at him; his gaze stays firmly, unwaveringly, on Arthur and it energises him into a more detailed answer than he would otherwise have given. “But I've read all the area forecasts, all TWEBs, and, what we're dealing with here are crosswinds.”
Lines criss-cross Merlin's forehead. “Cross winds?”
“Winds that blow across the strips not down them,” Arthur says, hoping he's explaining this well enough. Merlin seems to be listening intently so perhaps Arthur is. Or maybe he's making no sense and that's why Merlin has to concentrate so hard. “It's harder to take off like that, especially in wet weather. Besides, with light aircraft you can easily blown off.”
“And you reckon those conditions won't change later today?”
“All things considered--” Arthur weighs the matter. He has years of flying experience on his side. “--I think the situation is not likely to change in the next two hours or so.”
“So it's a no go.” Merlin smiles at Arthur, eyes trawling him. “In that case I say yes to the bar but no to any alcohol.”
“I agree,” Gwen Smith says, “provided we consider ourselves strictly on call till our shifts actually end.”
Gwaine rakes himself to his feet. “I can deal with that.”
The bar has a modern decor with white-washed walls, slender chairs and white topped tables. The floor is tiled with ice-coloured floorboards. While generic pop music blares from speakers hanging in corners, a large vidscreen placed over the price board features flight and airport updates. A wide crescent shaped counter splits the room in two at the bottom and airport employees sit along it, perching on tall stools, munching on complimentary peanuts.
Gwen takes a table by the window that overlooks the tarmac. Dust and rain spatters begrime the single pane, but the runways are still visible as they stretch out towards the end of the airport's perimeter.
“So do we all agree Princess Goldilocks is getting the rounds?” Gwaine shifts his gaze around the group. “After all he gets all that tax payer money.”
“Wow.” One of the paramedics whose name Arthur doesn't remember yet cups her mouth. “That was direct, Gwaine.”
“Gwaine,” Gwen Smith says. It's just one word but it makes Gwaine duck his head.
Arthur, for his part, winces. He sincerely hopes nobody feels compelled to jump to his defence. He doesn't need that kind of help and can sort this type of situation out all by himself. Gwaine's not the first to have implied he's a parasite living off his 'subjects'. Newspapers pioneered that opinion -- probably in his grandfather's days -- and a slew of other people have also weighed in on the subject thorough the years, starting with his fellow students at Cambridge, his RAF comrades and ending with protesters. So it's not as if Arthur does not understand where the idea comes from. He does. But every time he hears it voiced, he can't help but tense, feel small. Short of a referendum abolishing the monarchy, being royal is something he cannot change about himself. Since he doesn't want to let on how much the accusations shame him at the core, he lowers his head and roots into his pockets for his wallet.
“I'll get it,” Merlin says, placing his hand on Arthur's shoulder. His touch is light but assured, his palm bracingly warm. “It's been a while since the last round was on me.”
With a smile, he walks to the bar. The others place themselves around the table. Arthur takes a seat too tough he chooses to perch on the outermost chair. By accretion other people join in. One of the paramedics' friends saunters over and kisses his friend on the cheek. A fire service officer also comes over and straddles a chair. The last to join is one of the bartenders. She's just finished her shift. She waves to Gwen and introduces herself to Arthur as Angharad. She tells him how honoured she is to have a chance to meet him, blushes, and keeps on smiling at him even after the introductions are over. As Gwaine rolls his eyes heavenwards, Gwen invites her to sit down at their table.
By the time Merlin comes back with the drinks there are more people around the table than he must have expected and no more chairs. The beverages aren't enough for everyone. Though they all say it's okay and that they'll share, Merlin smiles, lines crossing the skin around his eyes, and says he'll go get more.
When he does come back, the conversation has shifted from a discussion of the seating arrangement, to the weather, to Arthur's intention of donating his salary to charities. It's Gwen who mentions that, addressing Gwaine nearly head on, but it's Angharad who runs away with it and starts saying how good and generous Arthur is.
Arthur stiffens, reddens, and grows overall quieter. When Merlin gets there a new sensation stirs inside him. It's a strange but consistent sense of awkwardness that pricks at his skin and ties him up in knots. Arthur remembers how it was between them but a few weeks ago; the initial bad blood among them. After all Merlin feared from the get go that Arthur's presence would derail all their activities, change the scope of their mission, and this unconditional praise is nothing but a symptom of that. Arthur is quite enjoying the peace, their newly acquired understanding, and doesn't want to endanger it. So he waves Angharad's words away.
Merlin, however, doesn't tense. His face doesn't darken with any shadow. His mouth doesn't twitch with irritation. He passes on the extra drinks, takes a chair from another table, straddles it, and tells Arthur, “Really? If you haven't thought of any specific one, I can help. I have a list.”
“Our Merlin is very active when it comes to charities,” Gwen Smith says. “He and Daegal were in the thick of it. Poster boys for charities.”
Merlin lowers his eyelids, his smile falters a bit, and he downs his mint sherbet as if it were vodka. But then his face smooths out again and it's as if no cloud crossed it in the first place.
Even if he can't quantify the ways in which it is, Arthur wants to ask what Merlin's swift and evanescent mood change was all about; he finds that it's of the utmost importance to know. But he realises he's not close enough to Merlin to be able to ask freely. He also sees that he shouldn't put that question to him when so many people are around. It would seem too much like the breaking of some fragile bond of trust. Maybe one day... In the meanwhile Arthur shifts the conversation back onto what he knows to be safer ground. “I haven't settled on anything yet.” It's not exactly true. His PR team has mailed him a ten page list of options. But Merlin doesn't know that and Arthur'd rather have Merlin's opinion than a spin doctor's. Merlin is, after all, and without a doubt an excellent physician. “So fire away.”
“I'll suggest the Happy Faces foundation then. That should come first.” As he thinks, Merlin's brow lightly furrows. “I make a point of going and helping at least once a month because they're just so committed and well organised. You should see the difference they make.”
“I'm sure they do.” Arthur can tell based on the passion oozing from Merlin's voice. “Who else? My salary can go further than that..”
Merlin bites his lower lip thoughtfully. “Well, then I'd say go for the Carmarthenshire Children Centre too then. My friend Freya – she used to be one of us – works there and says they can always use some donations.”
“Wait, I'll get this down--” Arthur says, slipping his pen out of his pocket and writing on the back of a visiting card someone or other gave him.
“What,” Merlin says, his voice steeped in laughter. “You're actually using pen and paper?”
Arthur laughs. “What else should I be doing?”
“I don't know.” Merlin heaves up a shoulder. “I thought you'd be all for technology.” He eyes Gwen's mobile, which lies face down on the table. “You can afford it. Besides, you're a pilot. Gizmos have to be your thing.”
“I'm a pilot because I love flying.” It's the best sensation Arthur's ever experienced, a soaring of the soul, a freedom of the spirit. It's unparalleled. Only the best sex beats it and it must be fantastic to even compare. Well, at least in Arthur's experience of it. He should take Merlin with him, maybe on a biplane, to show him the real beauty of flight. “Because I love the camaraderie of the corps and because deep down I wanted to be just like my grandfather.”
“Your grandfather?” A deep wrinkle comes between Merlin's eyes.
“My mother's father,” Arthur says. It's common knowledge for some, but somehow Arthur doesn't think Merlin is a monarchy buff. He just can't imagine him being one. “He took part in the battle of Britain.” Arthur shouldn't say it since it sounds like he's boasting about a family member, but he nonetheless adds, “And I wanted to be like him.”
“That's not a bad role model to have,” Merlin says. “Did you ever get to meet him?”
“Oh yes.” Arthur clearly remembers being led into a big, luminous study. Bookcases lined it and uniforms were on display behind glass panels. Inside a drawer of his huge desk his grandfather kept his war medals. At the time Arthur couldn't tell them apart. They were just colourful bits of medal trimmed with ribbons. Having inherited them, he now knows now they're a Victoria Cross and a Distinguished Service medal. Grandfather had shown them to him and talked about the meaning of war and courage and defending the weak. At the time Arthur didn't understand everything his grandfather told him. But he's remembered the words, and growing up he has come to see how important his message was. It's one he still steers his life by. “He had my mother rather late. In his fifties. So he was already pretty old when I got to meet him, but meet him I did. Several times.”
“I'm glad you got that chance.” Merlin smiles and it lights up his eyes. In that moment they look lighter than they've ever done. “I can tell it's an important memory for you.”
“Yes.” Arthur scratches at his neck with the top of his pen, looks downwards at his hastily written note, which he can barely focus on, then repeats, “Yes, it is.”
“Hey, what are you two in cahoots about?” Gwen Smith asks.
“Um?” Arthur rubs the back of his head. “Merlin was telling me about the charities he supports.”
“The list is probably a mile long,” Gwen Smith says. “If you really want to decide, you've got to get Merlin to take you to one of his rounds for the Glamorgan Health Charity.”
“Or on one of his bucket collections,” Angharad says. “He's famous for them.”
“But don't let him rope you into running a charity half marathon.” Gwen shakes her head at Merlin. “You'll hate the treadmill, you'll hate him, and you'll hate your life.”
“Noted,” Arthur says, though he almost wishes Merlin would invite him out to do something like that. He's fresh out of the RAF after all and still fighting fit. He could contribute. Help Merlin out. Help the charity out. “Seriously though--” He shifts his gaze back onto Merlin. “I'd be glad to come with.” He coughs into his fist. “If you don't mind, of course.”
“Why should I mind?” Merlin's expression brightens. “Those charities need people like you.”
Arthur wants to ask what sort of people Merlin means but realises that that would be like sounding Merlin out on his opinion of him. Though he'd love to, he can't bring himself to actually get the words out. So he shifts the conversation back to general topics. Merlin seems almost disappointed. A flicker of melancholy runs over his face. He lowers his gaze, locks hands on the table and hunches his shoulder.
Arthur feels his face heat and he resettles on his chair. “Anyone wants more drinks?”
While they have a nosh and get more drinks, the weather doesn't improve. The storm makes itself heard in roaring rolls of thunder and flashes of yellow lightning that burst like salpeter far into the distance. At one point the rain pours down so thickly they can't see the runways for all the watery steam rising off them. Though they're still grounded, the group at the table dwindles. As shifts end, people leave. In the end only Gwaine, Merlin and Arthur are left.
Gwaine peeks at his watch. “Two minutes till the end of our shift.”
Merlin relaxes into his chair. “I think we can safely call this one a no major crisis day.”
“At least for us.” Gwaine twists his lips.
Merlin gives him a complicit half smile.
They order more drinks. Since this time their shift's over, they get beers. Gwaine finishes his quite quickly and starts on a second. Merlin savours his in slow sips, eyes at half mast, sinking lower and lower in his chair. It's good watching him unwind. Merlin's always at the ready, more so, perhaps, than some RAF pilots Arthur's known. It must be reassuring for his patients and it's bracing for his team mates, but it must take a toll on him. Arthur wishes he could see more of this, of him being at ease, at peace.
Slowly, they empty their drinks and don't talk much. Gwaine's the first to go, claiming he needs to get home and have a kip. Merlin pats the hand Gwaine puts on his shoulder, lifts his glass to him and says, “See you Tuesday.”
Gwaine disappears with a wave. Arthur and Merlin are left alone.
Merlin says, “I suppose you're going too?”
“Not if you're staying.” Merlin turns the glass around by the handle, breaking a series of condensation rings and forming new ones.
Arthur says, “I'm staying.”
“No evening engagements in sight?”
Arthur huffs a laugh. “You're making my life sound more glamorous than it is.”
“Am I?" Merlin's lips set in a smile.
“Yes. Most definitely.” Arthur's perhaps not being a hundred per cent truthful here. He decidedly leads the kind of life most would dub smart. He's avowedly rich, courted by the world elites, and he does reap the benefits of that. It's not necessarily the kind of life he always wants to lead and these aren't values he holds on to, but it's nonetheless true that his habits aren't exactly the same as those of the general population. He's aware that Merlin knows that too and they're on the same page here. Merlin's only teasing. “My night is going to be pretty boring as far as nights go.”
“No clubbing with socialites then?”
Arthur's deeply aware of his past. It made the papers. But that's neither here nor there at the moment. It's not what he wants to focus on; it's a side of him that's in the past and most certainly not the facet of him he wants Merlin to see. “No. I'm looking forward to a quiet evening at mine.”
“Just like me then?”
“Just like you.”
“In that case we can have another drink.” Merlin rises to go to the bar.
Arthur stops him with a hand on his wrist. Merlin's skin is hot, the bones underneath are palpable. “You got the first and second round.” Arthur knows why Merlin did, but he doesn't wish to bring it up. “It's only fair.”
“Okay.” Merlin's features ease into a smile and the slits of his eyes get thinner, surrounded by lines. “You're welcome to spend your money on me.”
Since Arthur forgot to ask Merlin what he wanted, he gets another one of those he was having and a pint of bitter for himself. When Merlin sees what he got, he swaps their glasses. He beams, sucks in his upper lip, and takes a swig of Arthur's drink. Then he switches them again.
“Ah, so you acknowledge I have superior taste.”
“No, never.” Merlin watches him as takes slow sips of his drink. His eyes have flattened at the corners and the edges of his lips have turned up.
Arthur doesn't drink much. He toys with his glass, drums his fingers on the table top, moves in his seat. “Did you really mean it?”
“What'?” Merlin's face creases.
“To visit one of those charities with me?”
“Of course I did,” Merlin says. “I think it will be mutually beneficial.”
“How?” Arthur asks.
“Well.” Merlin twirls his glass. It's heavy and not suited for wild gesticulation but Merlin doesn't let any liquid slosh out. “Obviously your donations would help them. But they can help you too. Give you a cause, a reason to fight. I know they did me.”
Arthur senses there's a story there. “Helped you?”
“Immensely.” Merlin drinks and presses his lips together as if he's tasting the dregs of his lager on them. “You've no idea how much.” The shutters fall on his face. “I think they'd do you good too.”
Arthur doesn't press; doesn't dig. He's felt the walls go up in Merlin. “And you care about that?”
“Of course.” Merlin sends him a sideways glance, takes a deep pull of his beer, and lowers his gaze. “Of course I do.” Head bent, he drinks some more and his upper lip glistens. “God, I think I'm a little tipsy.”
Arthur leans forward in his chair. “You should perhaps stop drinking then.”
“Yeah.” Merlin pushes his glass away and palms his forehead. “Yes, you're right.”
“Come on.” Arthur stands. “Let me get you home.”
Merlin tilts his head back, blinks. “You?”
“Yes,” Arthur says.
“Don't you have bodyguards waiting for you?” Merlin asks, his eyebrows joining. “Won't they say 'no'?”
“They'll get it.” Arthur hesitates for a seconds, but then he catches Merlin by the nape of the neck and steers him out of the bar. “Besides, ours is a very undemocratic outfit. They do what I say.”
Though Afallach and Bedivere scowl when they see Merlin, Arthur says, “We're dropping my colleague home.”
During their drive over night falls, and headlights spear through the night, their beams illuminating the landscape in silvery lines, highlighting crooked trees, battered guardrails, chunks of fields, and, as they near Swansea, the urban road, the buildings that line it.
Merlin doesn't fall asleep, Arthur doesn't think, but he's not fully awake either, his features relaxing, his body slumping. So as not to disturb him, Arthur puts on headphones and relaxes into his seat, listening to music that vibrates in soft purrs right into his ears. The driver keeps the car steady as it coasts along a series of country roads that separate Llanelli from Swansea. When they get into town, Arthur places his hand on Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin lives in a white detached building with wide sash windows, demi-lune upper level oriels and stone chimneys. A small overhanging canopy runs under the eaves. It's simple, neat, clean. Nothing grand. Arthur has no idea whether Merlin owns the entire house or only a flat in it. Maybe he rents. Arthur doesn't ask; he only listens to the instructions Merlin gives his driver.
“That's my house over there.” Merlin leans forward but there's too much of a gap between front and back seats for him to be able to lean on the former. "You can park over here."
The car purrs to a stop.
“So it's good night.” Arthur tells Merlin.
“Right.” Merlin bites his lower lip, moistens it. “Right, yeah.”
Before Merlin can reach for it, the driver opens the door. Merlin looks at him, mouth parted in slight incomprehension, then he stirs. When he exits the car, he walks a few paces, turns around, and says, “Thank you, Arthur.” He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “For the lift."
Merlin lingers a second before turning round and disappearing into his building.
Arthur sits on the service stairs facing the perimeter fence. There's gravel between him and the gate and it shines in the sunlight like pebbles in a river bed. Here and there tufts of grass grow, sucking in the shiny brightness. It's as they're absorbing as much of it as they can after the past days' storms. With unseasonal stubbornness, they sprout along the line between tarmac and rail and poke upwards around stones and pebbles. A few have lifted a slab off the runway track, tilting it steeply.
Merlin pushes open the panic door. When he lets it go, it bounces back. At a trot he gets down the stairs and sits down next to Arthur. “Here,” he says, handing him a sandwich. “I thought you'd be hungry.”
Arthur looks at the sandwich and then at Merlin. Surprise gives way to a smile that puts twin little hollows in his cheeks. “Thank you.”
Lifting the top slice off his sandwich, Merlin takes a look at the ingredients. “Argh, cucumbers,” he says, replacing the bread. “I should have known.”
“Do you want mine?” Arthur holds up his piece of panini. “I'm pretty sure there are no cucumbers in it.”
Merlin says, “Nah, they're in yours too, believe me. Cucumbers lurk everywhere here.”
“Do they?” His eyes pinch up when he grins.
“Yes, don't let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security,” Merlin says. “They chop them up so fine they're practically under cover, but they're there.”
“I see.” Arthur scrutinises his own sandwich, gives it a bite, munches thoughtfully. “As an ex RAF man, I must say, I praise stealth.”
“I'm sure you do.” Though he's not particularly enticed by it, Merlin nibbles at his sandwich. “Isn't that why you were hiding out here?”
Arthur looks over his shoulder and at the emergency door, then back ahead. “I wasn't hiding per se.” His lips bow downwards. “It's just that people tend to be... very vocal around me. Enthusiastic. They get worked up and want my attention and I get that. They see it as their opportunity to get to meet this curious personage who routinely pops up in the papers. But on my end it can get... draining. I'm one man and they're... quite a few.”
Merlin wraps his sandwich back into its transparent film. Tomatoes and lettuce pieces bulge out of it. “I think that's my cue to go.”
“That wasn't what I meant.” Arthur has reddened and his eyes bulge a notch. “It wasn't an invitation for you to go. I apologise if it sounded like one.” He searches the surroundings with his gaze like a deer caught in headlights. “That wasn't my intention at--”
Merlin eases himself back down. “Arthur, I'm not offended.” Maybe in the beginning he would have read Arthur's behaviour as a sign of his aloofness, of his willingness to draw a line between himself and his co-workers, of his thinking himself better than them. Now, he he doesn't believe that to be the case. “Sometimes you need a break from all the sound and the fury.”
“Very poetic of you.” Arthur's lips curve upwards at the corners.
“Oh toss off.” Merlin rolls his eyes. “I was trying to show you I get it.”
Merlin moves his head up and down.
“And do you?”
“Not really.” Merlin values honesty. “I've never been on the receiving end of automatic positive bias.”
“I don't believe you.” Arthur concentrates his gaze on Merlin. “People instinctively like you.”
“I--” Merlin's trying to sort out his answer, when his pager beeps. He takes it off his belt and reads the message that appears on the tiny text screen. “We've got a code red.”
“Right.” Arthur's face empties of expression.
They both take the stairs up at a lope, bin their lunch, cross the hall, and jab at the lift's button. In the dispatch room they meet Gwen. She puts down the radio receiver and tells them, “A helicopter crashed in Glasfynydd Forest.” She hands Arthur a sheet of paper. It's the print out of an aviation chart with arrows pointing to a tiny area circumscribed by low-altitude points. “These are the Robinson's last known coords.”
Just as Gwaine rushes over, Arthur takes it it from her. He reads it and says, “When was this taken?”
“Ten minutes before the Robinson went down,” Gwen says. “It was the aircraft's final automated position report and its last transmission using the ACARS system.”
“You realise that it could have crashed anywhere in a radius of...” As he calculates, Arthur's forehead scrunches up. “...fifty kilometres. At least if that's the last known fix.”
Gwen makes a blank face.
Once Finna explained to Merlin how fixes work. They're waypoints defined by electronic beacons, intersections of navigational points. If he knows, it's obvious that Arthur should too. Even so he's really surprised Arthur can calculate so fast. He supposes that's the difference between a pilot and a doctor, but he suspects that's not entirely true either. Even among pilots Arthur shines.
“Does that mean we're well and truly buggered?” Gwaine's eyes narrow with worry.
“Yes, Gwaine,” Arthur says. “That's what this means.”
Once they're on the EC, Arthur performs his customary safety checks and then looks backwards to make sure that Merlin and Gwaine are buckled up in their four point safety harnesses. When they are, he flips switches and starts the helicopters turbines. The blades rotate slowly at first and then with more momentum, until they blur in a whir of movement. By now they're ready to take off and Merlin hears Arthur talk to the air traffic controller over their headsets. He confirms their call sign, make and destination. He says, “Llanelli, here Helimed 54. We're on a rescue mission to Glasfynydd Forest, Llanelli.”
Once they've got their all clear, the EC135 shudders and shakes its way off the ground. It rises to a hundred feet then turns northwards. The helicopter blades feed the breeze and roar. They chase away birds and scatter them. About ten miles north of Llanelli it veers eastwards, away from the coastline and towards the interior. The helicopter passes over expanses of scrub-land stippled with gorse and over rising patches of thickening vegetation.
As they fly, Gwaine and Merlin brace against the turbulence and share worried looks. They both know what kind of task lies ahead of them and they're both aware this is going to be no ordinary one, no walk in the park. Crashes almost always involve serious, near-fatal injuries; sometimes mortal ones as well. Victims are to be expected. And though as members of an emergency crew they know deep down what they're in for, the truth is that you can never really prepare.
Of one mind, Merlin and Gwaine go over their equipment and check each item one by one.
“Defibrillator works,” Merlin says, testing the machine. “Batteries charged.”
“Thomas Packs ready.” Gwaine checks the shelves. “Monitor bags full.”
“We have...” Merlin says, opening a locker, “...four bags of O neg.”
Over the radio, Arthur says, “Heading 060 to intercept the 180 degree radial of the Llanelli VOR and flying inbound over Glasfynydd.”
As Arthur looks for a place to set down, the helicopter circles above the tops of trees, its skids touching the upper branches, bending them, dragging them till they snap back into place. It goes round and round over patches of forest, swathes of green and brown that quiver with the currents the EC stirs. Its lights shine over the woods, bouncing off trunks, highlighting the caps of spruce.
“Can't see the wreckage,” Arthur says, “can you?”
As much as he squints, Merlin can't. With its ancient conifers tangling together, this patch of forest is too dense to allow anyone to see anything from above. “Not a thing.”
“Right.” Arthur dips the EC sideways, so they soar over the Usk, its grey waters snaking forwards towards the treeline. “We're landing.”
After Arthur's aerially reconnoitred the area, the EC sets down along the outer margins of the Usk reservoir, its cements slopes containing a body of murky water, heather growing on both sides of the sump. Undoing their safety belts, Merlin and Gwaine scramble for the gurneys.
“I'll come with,” Arthur says into the radio.
“What?” Merlin's head snaps up.
“You'll have to locate the wreckage.” Arthur scrambles out of the cockpit. “I've army training.”
Merlin's not sure this flies. “Gwaine?”
Gwaine's shoulders move upwards. “You're team leader, mate.”
Arthur says, “It's not against the rules and you know it.”
It's true; theoretically, Arthur's correct. Many moons ago Merlin was given the same manual Arthur apparently read. But before this they've never had a pilot serve as an acting paramedic. Though they're all trained when it comes to first aid, they're not bona fide EMTs. Finna, for one, never left the EC her entire career long. Merlin's not heard of many pilots that do. But Arthur's not Finna, is he? He was in the military, has got combat search-and-rescue training, and he can probably, therefore, triangulate better than her. If there's someone who can help them find the crash victims, that's him. “Okay, all right. Come with.”
At a jog, they coast the reservoir and make for the thickening line of vegetation. Shrubs give way to proper gorse-spotted moorland, which transforms into a wood. Like a fence hemming the forest in, trunks cluster together. The lower branches of oaks and elms writhe overhead while underbrush whispers in the wind at ground level. Leaves crunch underfoot and the smell of wild flower is ripe on the air. Bracken grows in the shifting shades and slippery banks of moss coat the skeletons of towering pines. Because of the previous days rains, mud covers the path in rivers. Southwards, high bluffs crested with silvery flowers rise, while straight ahead the woods thicken.
It's as if nature is fully untouched here. Merlin can't even imagine where the Robinson may have ended up. “What do you think?” he asks Arthur.
Arthur kneels, places his map on the boulder, and palms a compass. “They must be around here,” Arthur says, applying a set of mini callipers to the chart. “There's no other way.”
“Are you sure?” Having none to lose, Merlin doesn't want to waste time. The victims must get treatment fast; if they don't, their odds of survival will wane. The golden hour is no myth. “If you're wrong, we'll be moving away from the crash site.”
“Which will slow us down,” Gwaine says, already on Merlin's wavelength.
“Yes.” Arthur looks at the map with pursed lips. “There's no other place they can be.”
“Okay, all right, I trust you.” Merlin believes deeply in those words.
Trees strangling the path, they go up a slope. Arthur's the first to get to the top of the knoll. Spurred by a sense of foreboding that permeates all his senses, Merlin gets there second. Once Gwaine has joined them, Arthur takes his bearings again. He scans the map, then their surroundings. He murmurs low under his breath, muttering coordinates, before studying the path ahead yet again.
With thick walls of shrubbery fencing it in on either side, the track narrows yet again. Branches interlace overhead, darkening the route, mottled sunlight spearing trough knots of leaves. Shadows move this way and that and the path dims as it splays forward. Merlin can't always tell where he's putting his feet.
“The Usk runs eastwards, and the wreck can't be there because there are no growths around the basin. We'd have seen it from above. We move westwards, toward the heart of Glasfynydd.” Arthur starts first, starting at a march-like trod.
As Merlin skids down the path, Gwaine gives a shout. Merlin pivots and sees Gwaine roll past him and crash to the bottom of the track.
“Gwaine!” Merlin shouts, going after him.
The soles of his boots lose purchase and he very nearly bowls downhill too. By throwing his arms out, he manages to retain some balance and centre his body. When he no longer feels like he's on the verge of falling, he completes his descent at a controlled slide.
When Merlin gets to him, Gwaine pulls himself to a sitting position. Mouth in a twist, he groans. “Shite, my ankle.”
“Let me have a look,” Merlin says, batting Gwaine's hands away from around his boot.
“I can walk.” Gwaine keeps on grimacing, breathing through his nostrils. “Just give me a second.”
“Nonsense.” Merlin undoes the laces of Gwaine's boot and pulls it a quarter off. He feels the ankle. “You took a nasty tumble. It might be broken.”
“It was all that bloody mud.” Gwaine gasps. “I went down like a lead balloon.”
Merlin presses his fingers into the flesh surrounding Gwaine's tibia, then along the fibula. There's no tenderness there and neither is there any around the fifth metatarsal. The area around the navicular bone seems swollen, but not overly so. “It's not broken,” he says at last. “But it's a bad sprain.”
Arthur retraces his steps. “What happened?”
“Gwaine fell.” Merlin sinks back on his haunches and looks up at Arthur. “He'll have to wait this out.”
“I can move.” Gwaine grits his teeth. “Just help me up.”
“No.” Merlin looks to Arthur. “It's you and me.”
Gwaine grabs a trunk and tries to lever himself up. “But--”
Merlin cuts Gwaine off before he can finish that sentence. “No. You can't walk on that. You'd only do yourself harm.”
“It's nothing.” Gwaine's standing now, but not putting his weight on his injured foot. “You'd power through worse to save those people and you know it!”
Merlin has always taken risks, that's true. There's no point denying it. He has no wish to and Gwaine knows his past well. But that has no bearing on this. When Gwaine wanted to chance it in the cave, Merlin let him. But Gwaine's current proposition is neither wise nor helpful. “Gwaine, you'll hurt yourself.”
“Again if this was you, you wouldn't care.” Gwaine points a finger at him. “You'd grit your teeth and do it. I know you have before.”
“Why can't I make the same choice as you, Merlin?” Gwaine asks, chin up. “I'll tell you why. You think you're protecting me. You think you're shielding me the way you couldn't with Daegal. But I'm not him and I'll do this because I can't sit by and not help.”
Merlin's spine goes stiff, his heart wrenches, and his eyes pinch up from the pain. “That's not the point.” He has a hard time talking past the stone lodging in his throat. He has to fight not to sink into a well of memories that bruises him to the core. “That's never going to be the point.” Merlin's not likely to ever forget what happened; it's marked him in ways that cut too deep for him to be willing to examine. “You're staying.”
Gwaine's nostrils flare. “It's up to me to decide whether I'm willing to go through with this or not.”
“Merlin, Gwaine,” Arthur says from behind them.
Merlin hoists up a palm. “You'll slow us down,” he tells Gwaine. He knows he's being ruthless and doing this to Gwaine is like planting a knife in his own heart. God, he wishes he wouldn't have to. He wishes he could always be at peace with Gwaine. But needs must; he has no choice. “You can't come. Wait here.”
Gwaine curses, but Merlin turns around, picks up both gurneys and sweeps past Arthur. So as not to be able to hear Gwaine's loud curses, he marches fast, his breath coming in bursts.
At a jog Arthur catches up with him. “Hey, Merlin.” He breathes between words. “Merlin, what was that all about?”
Merlin avoids Arthur's gaze, makes of the path ahead the focus of his attention. “Nothing.”
Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder, wrenches him around. “That wasn't nothing. You look distraught.”
Merlin knows his eyes are wet; he knows he's tensing all over. His frame quivers in an attempt to rein all the strain in. He feels as though he's skirting breaking point, as if he's just shot himself in the heart and he's bleeding out fast. God, why did Gwaine have to rake it all up? Why did he have to be so stubborn? But so much concern spills out of Arthur's gaze, Merlin feels less stranded, less wounded. He breathes in deeply, lets his feelings subside. His shoulders slump. “I'm fine.” When Arthur nocks an eyebrow, Merlin adds, “And we need to be quick.”
Arthur's gaze doesn't waver off him. It bores holes in Merlin. There's something unconvinced about his expression, but then he says, “Okay, all right.”
They continue pushing into the forest. The air is calm, cool, and damp, and a thick layer of leaves cushions their steps. A variety of different trees and bushes crowd together with firs towering above thick patches of pine and juniper. Along the trail the ivy bushes interweave with dried dogwood ones, blocking the way in tangles that function like hedges. The further they go, the more overgrown the track gets. At one point they take to walking in single file, the gurneys at their side, their bags hitting their flanks as they go. While in the distance animals rustle through the undergrowth, their breath echoes loudly in the forest.
As they weave through the copse-wood, leaves and sticks snag on their clothing. Branches whip them in the face and back. Merlin's sporting a variety of scratches. Arthur must too. As much as they want to press on at a fast clop, they have to slow, can't do anything but. At last, however, the trees thin and a clearing opens.
The wreckage lies in a splintered heap where the plane hit the ground. The cockpit is crumpled and scarred, the fuselage tilted on its side. The right skid is still in one piece, sticking up in the air. But the tail assembly and the tip of the horizontal stabilizer rest at opposite ends of the clearing. The left landing gear has sheared off and speared a tree right in the middle while the tail section has cracked at the centre and dangles by a few cables.
Arthur rushes to the cockpit and waves the smoke away. He kicks at stray metal pieces and gets to the pilot. “He's dead,” he says, after he's felt his pulse point. He squints into the fuselage. “I can't see the passengers.”
Merlin scans the clearing. Chunks of metal smoulder as they lie on the ground. Long pole-like objects drive holes into the earth, while two wide seats rest bottom up on the ground. Merlin's gaze veers away from them. “There,” he says, pointing to two bodies lying in the grass. “They're there.”
As Arthur goes to check on the other, Merlin rushes towards the first.
Dropping gurney and kit, Merlin kneels by a little girl. She can't be older than ten or eleven. Her body lax, her curls covering her face, she lies with her cheek pressed into the earth. A bow has come undone among her tresses. It's big, pink, with a face stone in the middle. There's precious little blood on her. A cut on the arm, which bleeds sluggishly, another on the leg that starts from under the knee and reaches the ankle. Her chest has completely caved in; her ribs bent inwards.
Forgoing the goggles, Merlin slaps gloves on. He touches his fingers to her wrist. Her pulse is but a thin thread.
From across the clearing, Arthur shouts, “This one's breathing.” He says something low to the patient. “Merlin, you've got to get over here! She's alive!”
“I've a child here.” Merlin's lungs hollow. They're brittle, so brittle right now. “I've a child here.”
“Merlin!” Arthur's voice is hoarse with his shouting. “Her breathing's getting erratic. I don't know what to do!”
Merlin bends over the girl. She's breathing but it's a bare rattle.
Merlin roots into his bag, wraps the cuff around the girl's arm, and reads the display of the digital sphygmomanometre.
“You don't need any readings.” Gwaine limps into the clearing. “With a devastating injury like that, she's a code black.”
Merlin looks up and shakes his head. “She's just a child.” A long push of air that hurts in the chest comes out of him. “She deserves a shot.”
“I'll give her palliatives. I won't make her suffer.” Gwaine hobbles forward and with a grunt goes on his knees at Merlin's side. Squeezing his arm, he says, “Go save that woman.”
Merlin's heavy with sorrow for the girl. He flounders with it, as if it's undoing the architecture of him from the inside, but he tamps it down, makes himself go cold, hard as stone. That's the only way he can do this. “Look after her.” Merlin knows how much Gwaine cares for his patients. He wouldn't have dragged himself here in the shape he's in if he didn't. For his sake, Merlin wishes he hadn't. Because of the rules, Merlin had rather Gwaine had stayed put. Yet he can't help but admire Gwaine's dedication. It's one of the reasons Merlin deems him one of best paramedics around. And he has a magic touch with children. “Please.”
Gwaine clamps a hand on his shoulder, looks into his eyes, nods, then puts on gloves.
Picking up his kit and gurney, Merlin rushes over to the other trauma victim. It's a woman in her forties, unconscious. A piece of metal has gone right through the column of her neck and pierced her cheek.
“Bloody hell.” Merlin's rarely seen such a grave penetrating trauma case. “Critical airway.”
“What do I do?” Arthur asks, looking to Merlin out of rounded, panic-stricken eyes.
“Oxygen.” They must ensure oxygenation or this woman will die soon. “Use the bag as best you can.”
As Arthur applies an oxygen mask to the patient.
Merlin connects her to a portable monitor, and prepares his surgical instruments.
“Not sure you can hear me,” Merlin tells his patient. He has scant hopes she does, but he knows that if he were the one at the mercy of a doctor, he'd like being talked to. “But I'm starting a procedure that will help you breathe.”
As he pumps oxygen into the woman, Arthur asks, “What now?”
“I need a scope, Miller, narrow tube,” Merlin says.
Arthur scrunches his forehead at him. “What?”
“Gwaine,” Merlin yells. “We need you over here.”
“I'm done.” Gwaine pats the girl's hand. He jogs over. “What do you need?”
“An intubation kit.”
Gwaine passes him a laryngoscope. Raising the patient's head and tilting it back, Merlin inserts its blade into her mouth. Shifting the Miller to the right of the tongue’s midline, he pops the tongue to the side so he can see what he's doing. He sees pink tissue, blobs of saliva, more soft flesh. It all looks alike. Turning the handle of the blade at a ninety degree angle, he advances the Miller right down to the epiglottis and rotates it back. He's so close to the vocal cords, he can nearly see them, but the head of the Miller bumps against the chunk of metal that's perforated the patient's neck. “Can't intubate.” Merlin starts sweating. This is bad. So fucking, fucking bad. “Gwaine!”
“Attach the bag.”
Gwaine inserts the ETT, inflates the cuff, and ventilates. “How's it going?”
“This bloody metal chunk's in the way,” Merlin says, trying to work the Miller past it.
“Do you want the stats?” Gwaine pumps the bag.
“Oxygen saturation seventy,” Gwaine tells him.
Merlin puts on the stethoscope. He auscultates the patient's stomach first. There's no gurgling. He moves the chest-piece. The bronchi aren't getting any air. He has failed completely. “Poor ventilation across both lungs.”
“So what now?” Arthur asks, switching his gaze from Gwaine to Merlin.
“Since I can't intubate and I can't ventilate," Merlin says, drawing the only possible conclusion. “I need her to get her oxygen another way, or she's dead in the water”
Gwaine says, “Oxygen saturation is lower at sixty-five per cent.”
Merlin had no different expectations. “She needs a tracheotomy.”
“Pre-oxygenation measures?” Gwaine flicks him a look.
“Let's induce aenaesthesia,” Merlin says. “Give her Thiopentone and Suxamethonium doses.”
“How much?” Gwaine roots into his kit.
“Thiopentone, two hundred milligrams.” Merlin runs the numbers in his head. “Suxamethonium, one hundred milligrams.”
Gwaine rips out a plastic piece and gets a syringe out. To Arthur, he says, “Pass that bottle.”
Arthur's hand swipes past two bottles before settling on the right one at Gwaine's nod.
Uncapping the bottle with his teeth, Gwaine fills the syringe. “Given,” he says, once he's injected the patient.
Merlin's bending over their med kit to get Griggs and guide wire, when the patient somersaults. Her eyelids flicker, her body rises, she gurgles and chokes and gasps, “Where's M--”
“Shit, shit, shit,” Merlin says, dropping everything. “Put her under, Gwaine.”
Gwaine injects her. “Given her a shot of Ketamine.”
While they wait for the aenaesthetic to act, Merlin bends over the patient and tells her, “You're going to pull through. I'm going to make sure you do. Okay? All right? But you mustn't be afraid.” Merlin understands she can't hear him, but this helps him too. It helps him do his job. “Gwaine?”
Time to begin then. Merlin palpates the thyroid, cricoid and suprasternal notch through the skin. Below the inferior edge of the thyroid cartilage, he finds the indentation of cricothyroid. Arteries cross it on both sides, a tracery like a map. From left to right, the innominate pulses blue at the level of the thoracic inlet. It throbs under Merlin's fingertips like the wings of a hummingbird. It's not a steady thread, rather a faltering one, but it's there, and that buoys Merlin's spirit. The isthmus of the thyroid gland lies across the second to fourth tracheal ring. Once he's isolated the area, Merlin says, “Give her one per cent Lidocaine with a 1:100,000 Epinephrine solution.”
Gwaine sucks the contents of an ampoule into a syringe, then pushes the needle into the patient's arm. “Lidocaine administered.”
“I'll be starting the tracheotomy then,” Merlin says, making a vertical incision along the bottom border of the cricoid cartilage. Blood wells bright red, like so much ink, and Gwaine wipes it away for him with a white sterile wipe. “Performing a dissection of the pre-tracheal tissue.” As he watches, muscle and adipose matter part under his scalpel, blood issuing in streamlets and droplets. “Pushing the thyroid isthmus downward.”
Gwaine eyes their monitor. “Merlin, oxygenation's falling.”
Yeah, he realises. It's all going tits up. Because of that, because of his fear of failure, Merlin's heart drums in his chest, in his ears and in his temples. It beats louder than the wind and overrides Gwaine's voice. He takes a breath. Sweat weighs down his eyelids. He blinks, lifts his gaze and meets Arthur's.
Arthur looks thrown, out of his element, a little green about the gills too. Like most civilians he stares away so as not to look at the surgical cut, at the baring of the body's innards. It's a gut reaction, an instinctive recoiling, that Merlin doesn't get, but then again he's always wanted to be a doctor.
While hesitance shines clear in Arthur's face, there's also something earnest, steadfast in the way he takes in Merlin. He nods at him, as if he's sure that Merlin can save his patient. It's some sort of blessing, some sort of vote of confidence. He gapes too, as if he's lost in wonder about the mechanics of what Merlin's doing. In that he resembles a trainee. When Merlin proceeds, he smiles too, as though Merlin's got this in the bag, but his smile has a tentativeness about it, a quirky softness that's at odds with Arthur's military bearing so far.
Having no time to suss the meaning of that, Merlin concentrates on the procedure. “The larynx is stabilized,” Merlin says, “I'll start with the bronchoscopy.”
“Need the bronchoscope'?” Gwaine clears his throat.
“Yes.” When Gwaine hands the object to him, Merlin pushes into the opening he made. “Path is clear. Needle, please ”
Gwaine hands him a sterile one.
Placing the needle at the inferior edge of cut, Merlin directs it into the tracheal lumen. “Needle in.”
“Amen,” Gwaine says.
“Is it done?” Arthur asks.
Merlin wishes it were. “No. A few more steps.” He withdraws the needle while keeping the cannula in place. He pushes in a stylet. “8FR dilator.”
Gwaine shuffles closer, passes him the Blue Rhino. “There you go.”
With the dilator Merlin widens the gap between skin and lumen. “Quick, quick, quick, tube.”
Tearing at the plastic, Gwaine unsheathes a fresh tube and gives it to him.
With hands that move in a dance he knows by heart and could perform blind, Merlin inserts the tube into the incision, draws back the bronchoscope and lets Gwaine secure the tube.
“Holding the trach in place,” Gwaine says.
“Tie the strap around her neck, will you?” Merlin nudges Gwaine's shoulders. “We don't want it to shift.”
“Arthur, give us a reading,” Merlin says, wishing he could dab his forehead, but unable to with gloved hands drenched in blood.
“What?” Arthur's eyes go big. “What do you want me to do?”
“Gwaine's busy, give us a reading off that thing.” He points with his chin at the monitor.
“Bagging!” Gwaine says, pumping air into the patient.
“Oxygen and saturation 70%.” Arthur's face crinkles at the screen.
“I'm getting air.” Gwaine whoops. “You did it, mate. You did it.”
“We're not in the clear yet.” Merlin isn't looking forward to the next hour. “We've got to transport her first.”
“I'm getting an eighty per cent here,” Arthur says, gaze wavering between Gwaine and Merlin, tone and look uncertain. “Am I even reading this right?”
“Yeah.” Gwaine says. “Sats's steadying.”
“Okay, let's brace her.”
When ventilation has been secured and they're certain that air is circulating in both the patient's lungs, they brace her neck, and put blocks at her sides. Since Gwaine's ventilating, it's Merlin and Arthur who lift their patient onto the gurney. For good measure, they strap her too it, too.
“Ready to go?” Gwaine asks.
“No.” Merlin slips off his bloody gloves, and drops them. They fall among a cluster of trampled grass blades. With legs feeling like jelly and ears ringing, he wobbles over to the other crash victim.
The child lies immobile in the grass. Though her chest's mangled, if you only looked at her face you'd say she was sleeping in the sun, the way Anlawd does when he's conked out from mucking about all day in the garden with Merlin. But hers is not a simple nap. She's not resting from too much play-time. Merlin forces himself to take her in, this girl he's let down. Her face is relaxed, her features smooth, bearing no trace of pain. Merlin hunkers at her side, takes her pulse, places his ear to her mouth, and eventually shines a light in her pupil. “She's dead.”
“You couldn't have done anything to save her,” Gwaine says, as he and Arthur move the gurney bearing their patient towards the forest path. “She was practically already dead.”
Merlin closes her eyes. “Yeah.” He exhales hard. “Yeah.”
Though the patient's BP freefalls during transportation, they steady her with a bag of O neg. From then on she keeps on an even keel, requiring only minimal intervention to stop her from worsening. The flight over to University Hospital proves more uneventful than many in Merlin's career. The sun shines, there's precious little turbulence, and clouds with funny shapes scuttle past.
If that child was still alive, she might have liked them. She might have pointed out that one of them resembles a fish, a sole with its flat boy, and that another looks very much like a roaring lion, paws up. Anlawd does that from time to time, likes spinning stories out of natural elements, roping him in in his games. But unlike Anlawd, the little girl's past all that now and Merlin can only hope she saw a friendly cloud before she died, that it comforted her, that she wasn't scared. Alternately, Merlin finds himself wishing she was utterly unconscious and had no moments of lucidity, that all the drugs Gwaine pumped her with worked.
When they get her to the University Hospital Trauma Centre, Merlin debriefs the receiving team. “Patient is female, mid-40s,” he says, as he helps the hospital's nurses push the gurney. “BP is forty. Surgical airway was established at crash site.” They turn a corner and sweep along a white-washed corridor that looks endless. “There's apparent haemostasis. I gave her 30 milligrams of Ketamine to put her under and she was transfused with a bag of O neg.”
The Trauma Team leader, a silver-haired consultant with a keen face and gaze, says, “You did good. We'll take it from here.”
Merlin clings to the gurney, says, “I, um--”
Before the Trauma Team leader can tell him to bugger off and let him do his job, the patient grabs Merlin's hand. Her eyes are wide, full of horror. She opens her mouth, but no sound issues from it. She tries to tear the tube at her throat away, though the nurses grab her hands and force them down flat.
“Don't do that, dear,” a nurse says.
“Help here,” another shouts.
The patient tries to speak. No words come out, but Merlin can read her lips. 'Where's my daughter?' That's what she says.
Merlin stops short. His heart cracks. He swallows his own breath. Tears wet his face. He shakes his head.
The woman on the gurney thrashes.
“Let's put her under!” one of team doctors says. “Come on. Fast.”
They inject her as they move, pulling the stretcher past a set of swinging doors.
Left alone, Merlin takes a few steps, leans against the corridor wall, forehead against the plaster, closes his eyes and cries. When that doesn't undo the knot in his chest or warm the chill in his marrow, he kicks the wall. It doesn't hurt, not a little bit. He has sturdy boots on. They have reinforced tips and hard rubber soles. He punches the wall. His knuckles sting and get red. H bites his lower lip. It's not enough though. Not enough to make up for all the pain is given today, for the child who will not live and for the mother who will mourn. He pulls his arm back for another try, when a hand wraps around his fist.
“No,” Arthur says, as he bends Merlin's arm behind his back and crowds him against the wall.“You're not doing that.”
Without even knowing what exactly he's denying, Merlin shakes his head.
“I'm not letting you do that.” Forcing Merlin's arm further back, Arthur murmurs the words in his ear. Merlin tries to wiggles free but Arthur adjusts his stance, pushing their bodies closer. He doesn't let go of his hold, keeps Merlin's hands pinned to his back. “You can kick me or punch me, do to me whatever you want. But I'm just not letting you get on with more of that.”
Merlin doesn't get why Arthur's saying that. Merlin is a doctor, and harming people is against all the fundamental tenets he goes by. Besides, Arthur's worth ten-thousand of him. Why would Merlin ever hurt him? It's just... no. The idea of it makes him feel ill. “I--”
“You're stopping this,” Arthur tells him. “You saved a life today and that's a miracle in and of itself. You lost a patient, true. But you'll have to take that in stride. You'll have to because it happens. You can't control it and you can't come undone every time you lose someone. You can't because it'd be a pity.” Though Arthur's grip doesn't gentle, his tone does. He huffs in his throat. “It'd be a pity because you're bloody good at what you do, magnificent even. You're one of the best doctors I've ever seen in action and you have no idea of the astounding gift you have.” When Merlin stops tensing, Arthur's hold eases. “But you're not God, Merlin.”
“I never said I was.” Merlin croaks. His lips taste like tears.
“Right.” Arthur moves his head and his breath fans Merlin's neck. “Then why are are you blaming yourself for things you couldn't have helped?”
“If I'd got there sooner maybe...” Merlin's voice's weak, subdued.
“So Gwaine was lying.” Arthur shuffles his weight from foot to foot. “When he said that type of injury was a code black, was he lying?”
“No.” This is in no way on Gwaine. Merlin will have to talk to him, mend things with him. He doesn't want to be at odds with him and their row in the forest... Merlin was out of line with him. But none of what happened is something Gwaine was in any way responsible for. “No, he wasn't.”
Arthur sighs. “Then why are you taking it all upon yourself? Why do you make it your fault when it isn't?”
Merlin has no answer. He wishes he had a handle on this, but evidently he doesn't. And there's pain inside him, like a punch to the midriff, and all his lashing out can't contain it. He doesn't know how to tell this to Arthur. He doesn't know how to explain any of this even to himself. So he doesn't clarify. “Are you letting me go?”
“Do you mean to do something stupid right next?”
“No.” Merlin swings his head from side to side.
Arthur huffs. “God, Merlin.” He lets go of Merlin's hands but his chest stays plastered to Merlin's back. Their clothes rustle together. “I'll trust you not to act stupidly then.”
Merlin bobs his head, licks his lips.
“You need to be in shape if you want to save people.”
Merlin is deeply aware of that. “Yeah.”
“And I won't stand by and let you shoulder burdens that aren't yours all alone.”
Turning around, Merlin leans against the wall, his body depleted. But even through the wall of tiredness, through the haze of today's loss, Arthur's message sinks in and it lights a spark of interest inside him, of warmth. Tilting his head back against the wall, Merlin asks. “Why?”
Pressing his lips together, Arthur shakes his head. There's anger in his eyes and something else. Righteous pity perhaps, a banked fire in any case, one that blazes outwards. He palms Merlin's neck, lets the imprint of his touch burn a second or two, then drops his hand and walks away. “We're taking off in two minutes.”
As Arthur disappears down the hospital corridor, Merlin gapes.
Arthur looks at his double on the front page. They've chosen an old photo of him, from his university days. It's an official Buckingham Palace release. In it he's smiling at the photographer, his gaze direct. His smile is polite, not too big, without any teeth showing. His expression doesn't match it, doesn't fit it. With his shirt open at the neck and his pose studiedly casual. The image was studied to make Arthur appear approachable, a man like many other, a man of today. Despite its intent, there's something cringe-worthy about the likeness. Arthur can't tell what. There's something equally disturbing in the kicker they chose for the photograph. It says 'Prince Arthur's heart of gold'. Then in smaller but bold letters the caption reads, “Royal donates sixty thousand pounds to woman he rescued.”
Just as the doorbell rings, Arthur tosses the newspaper away from him. Before Arthur can react, stand, Afallach has ushered Morgana in.
“Can you tell me what this is?” she says, clipping over to him in her high heels, while brandishing a newspaper bearing Arthur's picture on the front page.
“It's terribly tasteless.” Morgana scoffs, stabbing the page with her index finger. “It makes it sound as though you're capitalising off this poor woman losing her daughter!”
Arthur knows he'd better get a word in now, or he won't be able to once Morgana gets rolling. “That's actually my opinion too.” As he remembers first finding out, he clenches his teeth hard. He's rarely felt so keen to punch someone in the face as he did then. “That's why I mean to consult our team of lawyers. I mean to sue.”
“So you didn't release the accompanying interview?”
“Of course not!” Arthur doesn't understand why Morgana keeps expecting the worst of him. “They used mostly only old sound-bites.” He winces. “They did have something new to latch on though. I found them waiting for me at Llanelli. They already knew about the deaths and it looked like they wanted to ask Merlin, probably thinking they could get something juicy off him.” There was no way Arthur could have warned Merlin then, told him to keep away from the news-hounds If he spoke then, he would have sounded like some kind of controlling puppet master. “I had to get them off him--”
“Off Merlin?” Morgana's eyebrows join together and the skin between them furrows. “Merlin as in your colleague Merlin?”
Arthur doesn't know to what extent he should publicise Merlin's feelings. “He had just lost a patient.” He eyes the newspaper. “He was upset. I didn't want him to have to field questions because of me.” In that moment Arthur had only wanted to help Merlin out. “So I gave them what they wanted.”
Morgana bins the newspaper she carried in and sits across from him. Once she's laid her bag on the floor, she begs Afallach to get her a cup of tea. Afallach blushes, nods, and disappears down the stairs. To Arthur, Morgana says, “Wow, so you acted as this Merlin's knight in shining armour.”
“Hardly.” Arthur shakes his head. This is not a laughing matter. “What I did didn't help. It only fed journalists' thirst for scoops and that article, the way it is couched as though I'm the hero of the hour, is sure to make Merlin think badly of me.” Not to mention the poor woman to whom he offered the money. She'll think he did it as a publicity stunt.
“Why would he think badly of you?”
“Why do you think?” Arthur huffs. “Why did you come all the way to Wales for?”
Morgana's mouth opens slowly. She snaps it shut quite quickly. “Never mind that. I'm sure you can explain it was none of your doing. That you didn't ask for your name to be splashed all over random tabloids front pages, that you weren't trying to milk those deaths for publicity.”
Ever since he saw the article, Arthur has been hoping Merlin would understand. That he'd see those vultures ran with the story without his consent. But he's not sure he will. Merlin has no first-hand experience with that kind of reporter; he doesn't know how they can twist a story to suit their needs. Besides, the write up on him is so tone deaf to the suffering of people, listing Arthur's good deeds and expanding on his off-topic past love life, it makes Arthur appear in an abysmally bad light. Someone like Merlin, who's all for the plight of the common man, is bound to take a stand against him. At the thought Arthur winces. “I don't think I should be trying to persuade him. He's got other fish to fry.”
“Of what kind?”
Arthur's about to field that question, when Afallach comes back with Morgana's tea. Instead of serving it in a mug, as he usually does when he's handing drinks to his colleagues, he's dusted up an old enamel cup decorated with a rose motif. It's small and dainty and Arthur's sure he doesn't even possess such a thing. Where Afallach got it from is anyone's guess. Arthur himself has no idea and he rents the place.
Afallach says, “Your Highness.” Then he stutters out a few more words mostly dealing with his choice to serve Morgana's tea plain because he didn't know her tastes. “I can fetch milk and sugar if you'd like though, ma'am.”
Morgana smiles more sweetly than she's generally wont to. “Thank you, Afallach, that was very thoughtful of you.”
“So you won't be needing anything else, ma'am?”
“No, thank you.” The folds at the sides of Morgana's mouth extend outwards. “I appreciate your attentivenesses. You can consider yourself at leisure to go.”
When Afallach has left the room for the back garden, which he guards by dint of standing tall by the French windows, Morgana leans forward on her perch. “You were talking about your colleague just now,” she says, showing she has little intention of letting the subject go. “You said he had other things to think about besides your contretemps with the rags.”
“He's...” Once again Arthur isn't sure he should make Merlin's current emotional status known abroad. He decides to be middle-of-the-road truthful. “As I said he took what happened badly.” Arthur understands why. That girl was so young: had so much to look forward to. Her death tears at the heartstrings. It really does. But to Merlin it's worse than an event to be mourned; it's a failure to be indicted for. It's personal in an intimate manner. Then again Merlin pours his heart in what he does. It's more than a job to him; the passion he has for it is worthy of all respect. More than than even. In spite of all the heartache it brings Merlin, Arthur wouldn't want to change him for the world. But that doesn't mean he wants him to grieve as he does now. “We've been off duty this past week and I have it from his close friends at work...” Not sure whether he should try and contact Merlin himself, he'd merely got in touch with those who were sure to be up to speed about him. “And he's not doing too well.”
“In that case you should pay him a visit--”
Arthur wishes it were that simple, that it were that easy for him. But it's not. Every time he contemplates the notion, and he has without any prompting, he just gets cold feet. He loses all purpose, gets angry at himself as a result, but just doesn't go. “Morgana, I don't think I should.”
“A friend is in need,” Morgana tosses back, her tongue clacking as she does. “Tell me how lending your support could possibly be wrong?”
Arthur doesn't think it would be. But Merlin could take it as an intrusion on his privacy, and Arthur's reluctant to bypass any of the walls Merlin might have put up. He understands about them too well to try to. Without some sort of emotional shield he couldn't possibly have navigated court life, survived the attacks of the press, weathered the snide remarks of anti-monarchists. In short, he just doesn't intend to stomp all over Merlin's reserve. The more so since he really doesn't want to undo all the progress he's made with Merlin since they first met. It's not easily quantifiable, he thinks, but it's there, and reverting to their previous positions would be more than simply awkward. It would entail pain, a loss, and it's not one Arthur wants to undergo. “Maybe he's not ready to welcome anybody.”
“Nonsense.” Morgana slams her tea cup onto its saucer. “He needs a good friend to make it out of his funk.”
“I'm not that intimate with him.” Arthur's neck reddens. “I mean, I don't think I'm in any position to--”
“Don't be a coward, Arthur.” Morgana tilts her chin up. “And have the courage to do the right thing.”
Pushing off the sofa, Arthur walks a distance away from Morgana, placing his hands on his hips. Eyes on the carpet pattern, which he doesn't truly take in, he stares ahead. As thoughts and uncomfortable emotions churn inside him, he frowns. Morgana leaves him to it, doesn't say anything. It's a bit cowardly of her Arthur thinks, especially after she's stirred up this bubbling of feeling, but he doesn't tell her. That would equate to letting her win. After a while he says, “So were you trying to seduce poor Afallach?”
“Oh you're just impossible.” Morgana throws her hands up in the air. Thankfully, her cup's on her knees. “This – this is completely and utterly useless.”
Arthur remembers the address well, so it doesn't take much for him to explain to his chauffeur where it is they should go. The chauffeur blinks twice, asks if this is a scheduled outing, and if he ought to warn security, but Arthur shuts him up with a sour look and the words 'that won't be necessary.”
The house is exactly as Arthur remembers it, white-fronted and clean. The door, he can now see in the daylight, is painted blue. A milk container and a pile of letters sit on the steps. It looks like a few days worth of mail.
Arthur exits the car and slams the door shut. He's halfway over to Merlin's, when a woman gets out of the building. She's slim and dark-haired, with a frail grace about her. As she moves, her skirt, a long flowing garment with a flower pattern, billows around her legs. As she prepares to cross the street, she moves to put on a pair of sunglasses, but then she spies Arthur and, instead of moving over to the opposite pavement, she continues on the side she's on. With a purposeful stride, she intercepts Arthur.
Preparing himself to fend off the attentions of this unknown, Arthur stiffens.
The woman says, “You're Prince Arthur.”
Since there's no point denying, Arthur says, “Yes.”
“You must do something.” She tips her head back at the house hulking behind her. “He's so low, and I can't do anything to help.”
“I'm sorry?” Arthur feels he's missed a vital part of this conversation.
“Merlin,” the woman says. “I can't seem to find a way to get through to him and he worries me.” She bites her lower lip. “I thought perhaps you might connect with him.”
Arthur's starting to see through this, but he needs more elements to judge. “You've been to see him?” Of course, she has. She must have come out of his place.
“Yes.” She nods, her face smoothing of some of the worry lines imprinted on it now that Arthur's showing he understands. “I'm sorry if I made no sense just now. Yes, I'm just fresh off visiting him.”
“And you think I can talk him round?” Arthur doesn't think that will work out. “If you can't, Miss--”
The woman cups her mouth. “Oh, I'm sorry. Freya, it's Freya.”
Arthur shakes her hand. “Freya, if you can't, I don't see how I can.” Arthur would love being the one who really helped Merlin. Both because Merlin deserves all of the support of his friends, and because Arthur would feel stoked at having made a difference. “You're close to him--” She has to be Merlin's girlfriend. He can't be positive, but he has the look of the kind of girl Merlin would like, beautiful and sweet. “I'm not--”
She takes her hand in his; hers is so small it barely fits around Arthur's. “He speaks so well of you. He went on and on about what good a pilot you are and what a skilful navigator, how you always keep your cool on the direst missions. You should have listened to him singing your praises.” She smiles. “Honest, he says you were the only good thing to happen to him that Wednesday.”
A burst of warmth, an uplifting shock of energy, travels through Arthur. It's a buzz that grasps him wholesale. It encompasses his whole body with a vital energy that's like a thrill. Eyes growing bigger than he wants them to be, a smile blooming on his face, Arthur sidles, tousles his hair. It takes a while for him to erase all signs of surprise, and pride, from his face. When he's sobered, he says, “I'll try and talk to him, but--”
“I know, I know,” she says, “you can't promise anything.”
“I wouldn't go so far as to try.”
“No, no, I understand that.” She twitches a shoulder up. “Just give it a go, please?”
In response Arthur can only promise he'll do his best, that he'll try and cheer Merlin up. He doesn't say all that he thinks; he doesn't mention how much Merlin's suffering grieves him deeply. That it affects him in way he didn't foresee before, setting the world completely awry. He doesn't tell her that in spite of that he has some sort of unshakeable faith in Merlin, in his ability to pull through. He doesn't give a voice to the current of feelings that churn inside him. Mostly because they make absolutely no sense and he's not sure how he could possibly convey them to Freya. She'd think him more than moderately unhinged. Besides, they're private. Instead, he exchanges some brief small talk with Freya.
Though there's an air of quietude about her, she's sunny and kind. Her eyes slitted against the sun, she smiles at him throughout, and she never asks him any private question Not once does she mention his position. She doesn't single him out as a VIP, as a strange pop culture phenomenon. When they part, she shakes his hand again and wishes him good luck and a very good day.
When Merlin answers the door, he doesn't look very presentable. With hair crowding his forehead, he's overdue a hair cut and he hasn't shaved. The shirt he wears is of a grey faded with use and a hole lurks a few inches above its hem. Merlin's bottoms, a pair of jeans so washed out it must have been laundered a thousand times, barely hangs from his hips. He's barefoot. “Arthur,” Merlin says, when Arthur's presence registers with him. “I wasn't... I didn't...”
Arthur points with his thumb over his shoulder. “If you're busy, I can come back another time.”
“No.” Merlin pulls him in by the arm. “I was having a beer in the back. You can join in.”
The door closes after Arthur. “Are you sure I'm not disturbing?”
“Yeah.” Merlin gives Arthur a soft, but slightly exasperated glance. “Come on, please.”
The main room serves as lounge. A wall to wall bookcase occupies one side of it. On the large base unit sits a large flat screen TV. It's been muted but it's tuned to an all news channel. In between this area and the kitchenette a wide canvas sofa sprawls, bare of cushions. Open Tupperware containers rest on the kitchen worktop instead of on a shelf or in the fridge. Mugs – three – vie for space with them. A few more drown in suds in the sink. By the sofa books pile up in tottering array while in their vicinity magazines sprawl. They're open face down, their covers ear marked and creased. Overall, the place isn't as tidy as Arthur expected it to be. He'd thought doctors must hate chaos and be therefore orderly, but it doesn't look as though Merlin subscribes to the notion.
“It's nice here,” Arthur says and he's not lying. It could be neater, true, but it's clean and it's lived in. “I like your taste.” It's minimalistic, simple, down to earth. No piece is an antique; everything is functional. A few prints cover the walls and a few postcards stay pinned to the kitchenette's whiteboard. A life in a nutshell. “A lot.”
Merlin stares into the fridge. “You're taking the mickey, aren't you?”
“No, why should I?”
Merlin gestures with a Corona bottle. “I don't know, maybe because you're used to fancier hang outs?”
“I won't say that I'm not.” That'd be silly. Arthur's long since learnt not to equivocate about the ways he's different. Playing it as though he were just your run of the mill lad has never won him any true friends. And he wants to be honest with Merlin, feels a basic need to. “But places like this are much more comfortable.”
“Want to try my bed?” As Merlin goes over his words, he colours. “With its broken springs? I mean, it's really, really bad and I should probably buy a new mattress, or at least new pillow, but you get the point.”
“I, um, get the point.” Arthur shuffles in place.
“Come on,” Merlin says, shaking his head and muttering low to himself. “Come on out.”
Merlin's garden is a pocket of wildness fenced in by a six-foot tall wooden picket. Its slabs are unpainted, plain. Inside their confines plants run amok. Beds of daisies encroach on king cups and both are dwarfed by weeds and grass patches grown too tall. While it's clear those plants were chosen by a flower connoisseur, it doesn't look as though they're carefully tended. Too many of them are strangled by thistle for it to be true. The only neat patch is the one by the garden chairs. Dog roses climb a trellis, carpeting it pink and purple, wide viridescent leaves weaving around its posts.
Sitting in the chair furthest from the French window, Merlin passes him his beer.
Arthur grabs the bottle by the middle and takes a seat at Merlin's side. This way they're both facing the fence.
After a silent spell, Merlin tells him, “Did Gwen ask you to check on me?”
Arthur peels the bottom part of the beer label off the bottle. “No.”
Merlin raises an eyebrow at him.
“She honestly didn't,” Arthur says, taking a pull of his beer. When Merlin continues to look sceptical, he adds, “I wouldn't have come on my own steam, true.”
Merlin's shoulders bunch up, and he faces away. “Yeah, I didn't think you'd have.”
“I wanted to--” Arthur wishes to convey how much he did and yet he doesn't want to show that raw side of him. It's one he doesn't want investigated. “But I didn't think I'd be welcome.”
“You thought I'd toss you out on your arse?” Merlin's mouth twists, knocking back glugs of beer. “Not my style.”
“No.” As he looks for words to explain, Arthur squints in the distance. “I believed you'd think I was intruding, overstepping.” The idea of being told he is still pains Arthur. “I wasn't sure I had enough grounds to interfere.”
“Enough grounds?” Merlin tips his head to his side and fixes him with a searching glance.
“Of friendship.” Arthur's voice is little more than a rasp. He drinks so as to relieve his throat's dryness.
“Mmm.” Merlin toasts him. “I'd like to think you have... enough grounds.”
As Arthur's chest goes restrictively tight, he chokes on his own breath. He drinks and the beer in his mouth tastes a little sweeter on his fourth pull. After a pause made of a long chain of moments, he asks, “But how are you doing really?”
“So, so.” Merlin lifts the bottle to his mouth. “Because of our week off, I've had time to think.”
Arthur isn't sure that's good. “And what conclusions have you come to?”
“That life can be miserable--” When Arthur moves to object, Merlin hastens to further explain. “But I have to accept it.” His eyes tip up at the outside corers. “I know I'm basically quoting you--”
“Not claiming copyright on that pearl of wisdom.”
Merlin chuckles. “Even if you're not, what you said helped a great deal.”
“Did it?” Arthur's words that day were nothing more than a rather wild stab at making Merlin stop hurting, an attempt to make him better. There had been little forethought to them and less planning. He'd just wanted Merlin to be all right. “I could have been wiser.”
“Maybe,” Merlin says. “But you were direct and you set me thinking.”
“And I acknowledge that I reacted badly.”
Arthur doesn't believe that's entirely the case. Merlin's once again punishing himself. “It was tough. Watching her die. Anyone would have lost it.”
“But I'm not just anyone, am I?” Merlin says. “I'm a doctor.”
“I was in the army.” The memories have been fading. Arthur hasn't exactly forgotten a single day of his service and he's still in touch with his men, but ever since he started piloting ambulances all his RAF days recollections have taken on the patina of time. They're a little more used, a little more blurry. “I was told again and again I must expect to witness death if I saw action.” Not that Arthur did. “That I should be ready to accept the death of my comrades as well as civilian casualties. The truth is I'm not sure I would have.”
“You think I'm asking too much out of myself?” Merlin's brow draws thoughtfully. “Is that it?”
“I think you've got a lot of feelings...”
Merlin grins. “Now you're pulling my leg.”
“Am I though?”
Leaning his head back against the trellis behind him, Merlin shakes his head. “Okay, all right. I'm a bleeding heart, not a rough, tough, save-the-world type of guy.”
“Perhaps not.” Merlin is just so much more than that. In the RAF Arthur met many would-be Rambos, and, barring a few, most are stuck up braggarts. Merlin's worth a thousand of them. “Not exactly.”
“Anyway,” Merlin says, his eyebrows drawing together as he explains what he means, “I know I am and I can change that. When I go out there, I must focus on my patients. I must keep a clear head.”
“You could choose not to do it.” God knows Arthur would rather be partnered with Merlin, fly with him than with any other doctor, but he has to be honest with him, state all the possibilities. For Merlin's sake. “You could do something else.”
“No.” Merlin's lips clamps together. “There's one thing I'm good at. I've always known what it was. And I'm not giving up on it. I owe it to... people.”
“Other doctors could take over from you.” Again Arthur wouldn't be keen; he'd be slow to trust someone other than Merlin, but if it did Merlin good, he'd happily put up with it. The man does deserve a break. “There's no shortage around.”
“I know.” Merlin nods. “But as I said, I promised.”
Arthur senses the magnitude of that promise, the history underlying it. Since they're having an honest chat here, he prepares to ask, but Merlin stands. He throws his empty bottle in the bin liner, then says, “Since you're here, I hope you'd care to, I don't know, stay and watch tonight's football?”
“I--” Arthur stands and nearly sets the chair toppling backwards. “Yes, I'd love to.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin's lips edge into a smile. “You didn't sound too convinced there.”
“Positive.” Arthur straightens his chair. “I like tennis more, but I'm also okay with football.”
“Tennis?” Merlin's smile expands.
“Too posh?” Arthur's heard that one before.
“Actually, I was going to say it's my favourite sport.”
“Really?” They both walk into the house, and Arthur waves his hands about as he talks. “One of my friends from uni is a semi-pro player.”
“You're a lucky bastard, aren't you?” Merlin turns on the telly.
“Not in all things.” Arthur drops his gaze. He clears his throat. “But in some instances I definitely am.”
Leaving plenty of room for Arthur to join him, Merlin sits on the sofa. “Only some? You're a prince, you're handsome, and you've got out-of-this-world piloting skills. What more do you want?”
“Out-of-this-world?” Arthur's eyes widen and he grins a completely unplanned grin. “Is that what you think?”
“I do.” Merlin nods. “Told you, you're systemically lucky.”
“Well, if you think me so blessed, why don't you share some of that?” The idea strikes Arthur like lightning. It energises him as though it were, too. “Why don't you come watch Leon play?”
Merlin snatches a surprised breath, then smiles wide. “Really?” When Arthur nods, Merlin's eyes narrow at the corners, tiny lines expanding outwards. “Yes, I think I will.”
Since it's started, they watch the match. None of them has a particular affiliation, so they decide to support a team each. They crow when their team scores a goal, and they throw curses at the telly when corners and penalties are assigned. They're both very loud, more for the sake of it than because they have a stake in how things go. Merlin assures him that's all right. It's fun this way. It's how it should be. Plus, nobody can hear them because his closest neighbour is on an extended holiday on the continent.
During half time, Merlin orders pizza. His is a concoction of cheese, pesto, nuts, and anchovies, that's on no menu. Arthur goes for a much more ordinary choice. When they arrive, the cartons smell heavenly, and Arthur's mouth waters more than it's ever done at an official banquet. So they both can have a taste of each, they swap halves. Arthur can't say Merlin pizza isn't unusually tasty.
To mop up the sauce they've spilled, Merlin uses paper towels and, when those finish, bits of torn tabloid pages.
Arthur spies his own nose among the fragments. “Is that me?”
Merlin makes a face and says, “Yeah, that's you.”
“It's one of those articles about me donating to the crash victim, isn't it?”
“I didn't give it that thorough a read,” Merlin says. “It might be.”
“I want you to know--” Arthur takes in a big breath. “--that I wasn't trying to use to woman's tragedy for my own ends, to look good in the eyes of people or--”
“I know.” As he finishes cleaning up, Merlin gives a half shrug. “Those hacks are proper ghouls.”
“I'm sorry I brought them to your doorstep.” Arthur frowns deeply, sticks his lips together and outwards. “I'm sorry they ran that story on me. If I could have helped it, I would have stopped it, made sure they didn't use that poor woman's sorrow.”
Merlin's face softens; he sets his fingers on Arthur's pulse point. They're hot, like brands. “Hey, I know that's not on you. I know what sort of person you are and that you would never sic the press on her. I'm actually quite in awe of what you did for her.”
The words etch a nick in Arthur's heart, make it swell. “You honestly think it was a good idea?”
“A brilliant, wonderful, touching idea.” Merlin smiles. “If everyone was a bit more like you... “ He lets out a breath, and his lips twitch into an almost smile, which is marred by his scowling at the paper. “It's not your fault they have no morals.”
Arthur swallows thickly. His pulse speeds up in leaps and jumps. He vibrates with a hum of contentment. However, the praise makes him pink up too and awareness of his reaction pricks at his skin and makes him look everywhere but at Merlin. Evidently sensing Arthur's discomfort, Merlin brings his hands together in a brisk clap, stands, and marches into the kitchenette, where he drops napkins and cartons in the rubbish. “Fancy swapping Coronas for Belgian micro brews?”
They have more beer. Merlin has a ready stash. Arthur has fun arranging bottles on the floor by colour. Tallest and darkest first. Merlin just rolls his eyes at that and says he's weird. “Just pass the next one, will you?” He makes bug eyes at the label. “I don't actually know where this one's from. I might have a fancy Narnia like wardrobe in my bedroom that leads to beerland.”
“So it'd what,” Arthur asks, “smuggle beer in without your consent?”
By the time the match is over, they're both a little sozzled.
Merlin babbles, talks about this and that without paying too much heed to what he's actually saying. It's an interesting mash of comments verging from hotbed politics – he insults the Conservatives – to personal opinion on the best antiseptics – he favours Neosporine.
Arthur stares at him far too much be polite; with a pointedness that's rather too keen. He tells himself he should stop, that he should put an end to it, because it just doesn't do. But Merlin doesn't notice; he just natters on and on in a voice made husky by tiredness. Though he yawns and his eyes get shiny with fatigue, he proposes watching some more television. “Come on; you should stay. You should definitely, definitely stay and make mulch of your brains by glaring at that screen way more that the doctor recommends.”
For some unfathomable reason they decide to marathon silly James Franco movies that make not a lick of sense.
As the films progress, Arthur's body goes heavier and heavier and his eyelids weightier and weightier. His attention span diminishes little by little too. If asked, he's not sure he could tell what was going on on screen. Or what time it was. Or exactly where he was. Well, that's bad. He ought to know. Security, it matters somehow. A flick of his eyes tells him. He's at Merlin's. The TV is blaring on but the street had grown inordinately quiet. The film titles are rolling, the lights are down and Merlin himself is sleeping.
The temptation to suit his breathing pattern to Merlin's is quite strong.
When Arthur wakes, the air is so crisp and bright, Arthur can tell it's dawn. Early morning RAF reconnaissance flights have taught him to recognise the particular hues of sun up. So it's the twentieth. The twentieth, God, shit. He moves, licks his lips, the taste in his mouth south of sour, as it well might be considering he didn't brush his teeth after their pizzas.
While Arthur becomes more and more alert, Merlin sleeps deeply, his head on the back rest, his mouth parted, his brow utterly relaxed. He looks serene, at peace, and Arthur's glad. In fact, the sight brings him a jolt of contentment to him, a stab of light-heartedness.
He'd stay and enjoy it, wait for Merlin to wake, but he's got to go.
Knowing he really must hurry now, he stands, stretches. Merlin mumbles, shivers. Arthur covers him with the quilt lying on the floor. It's patchwork and missing some of its fringes, but it's serviceable. When Merlin's shielded from all drafts, Arthur steps back. Merlin mutters some more but doesn't wake.
In search of a makeshift morning drink, Arthur walks to the kitchenette and stands by the fridge. Though he should just get himself a shot of juice and go, he pauses.
There's a photo pinned to the fridge's front panel: it shows three young people in air ambulance uniforms, standing with their arms on each other's shoulders, threaded together in a human loop.
A younger Merlin's at the centre; he grins in a guileless, youthful way, the likes of which Arthur's never seen before. The girl on his side is definitely Freya. In the picture she has shorter hair, but there's no mistaking her. She has the same sort of ethereal beauty she sports now. On Merlin's right a young man with brown hair is feautured. He has a toothy smile, a lean physique, but his shoulders are pulled all the way back, as though he's a soldier on parade, a strongman just put to the test. Arthur's never seen him at Llanelli. He has no idea who he is. He senses, however, he's Merlin's good friend. Something about the pose, the ease with which they all tangle together, suggests that.
Feeling ill at ease studying the photo, Arthur takes his eyes off it, and opens the fridge, drinking a swill of milk right from the carton.
After he's done with that, he tears some notepaper from a pad, writes a few lines, then sticks the note under a magnet. It's round and metal. It says IBIZA in coloured block letters. The message reads: 'woke early, have 'royal' duties involving boring octogenarian Scottish lord, did not feel I should wake you. Thank you for the lovely evening. We should do it again. A.'.
Slipping his shirt tails back into his jeans – he's no idea how he got so rumpled – he leaves the house. Blinking owlishly at the sunlight, he speed dials his security detail he says, “Pick me up at 212 St Helen's road. Yeah, Swansea. I'm in--” Holding the phone to his ear, he turns slowly round and smiles at the blue door guarding the building behind him. “Swansea.”
Merlin's calves seize, there's a bruise on his forehead, and all his torso muscles scream. His legs move leadenly up the stairs and down the corridors. The ache in his bones is a buzz that hums low-key throughout his body and presses on his skull, his scalp. He looks to Arthur to see if he shares Merlin's tiredness. There's a determination to his gait, a briskness, that's typical of him. His shoulders are back and there's no bend to his spine. But his eyes have slitted with fatigue and he opens and closes his hands in a gesture he uses when he's had to fist the cyclical too tight. Come tomorrow, his hands will probably be smarting. Merlin needs to prescribe him something for it. A cream may be the best option, Ketropofen maybe, less overall impact on the body, and it won't interfere with Arthur's ability to pilot.
He's about to propose the idea to Arthur, when Gwen crosses their path. “Good job, boys,” she tells them. “Great rescue.”
“Thanks,” Merlin says, with a smile. He saved three people today, but he's not sure one of the three will make it. Merlin knows though that he's done his best and that it's out of his hands. He'll check with the hospital tomorrow, ask after his patient, but for today his duty's been seen to. “That means a lot.”
“Same,” Arthur says. “Thank you, Gwen.”
Striding past them and calling over her shoulder, Gwen says, “Hey, it was all you. You were the brilliant ones.”
In the changing rooms, Merlin drops his rucksack, then sits on the bench. While Arthur unzips his fatigues, Merlin pulls off his boots, placing his feet square on the floor. “I know you must be knackered, I am too, but I was wondering if you have it in you to be on the road a little longer?
With a shrug, Arthur peels off the tee he wears under his uniform. The top part of his fatigues hangs off him, while the trouser portion still clings to his legs. Even so his chest is bare. Though his abs aren't overly defined, muscles stack strong along his pectorals and arms. The heft of his shoulders is wide, suggesting power, and his stomach is flat, reined in by sinew. As he flexes to put his shirt away in his locker, the definition of his torso gets highlighted. “What were you planning?”
His face flushing with heat, Merlin takes his eyes off Arthur and looks down. “I, um--” He jiggles his leg. “I half promised Freya I'd visit the Children Centre tonight after my shift.” Merlin walks to his own locker and rifles inside it. “I was thinking I'd go after all.” Merlin unbuttons his reflective jacket and removes his shirt in one pull. He turns around then. “And since you said you did want to visit a charity...”
Arthur is in briefs only now. When he sees Merlin looking, he drops the toiletry bag he had in hand. He picks it back up, balances his weight on one hip, then the other. At last he straightens, sticking his chest out and positioning his legs wider apart. “I'd love to come.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin knows he mustn't drop his gaze again. He asked a simple question; one the answer to he cares about, and he doesn't want this to turn awkward. However much it flays his skin right off, however much it sears, he looks. “I thought... It was a long day for you.”
“It was for you too and you're going.” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Why shouldn't I join in?”
“You piloted a chopper.” Merlin can't imagine how much focus that takes. While Arthur has got it in spades and is a consummate pro, it still must take its toll. “You must be done in.”
Arthur's mouth tilts upwards on one side. “And you didn't perform that intra-whatever--”
“Intra-osseous access.” Merlin smiles. One day he'll teach Arthur all about it, illustrate the ins and outs of it. Medicine does have a beauty about it. Though its uses are highly practical, there's still a world of wonder in it, of magic, the magic of healing. He wants to share that with Arthur. He'll enjoy doing so enormously.
“Yes that,” Arthur says, “and you didn't pull off two fracture reductions as two angry motorcyclists looked on.”
“Who told you about the motorcyclists?” Merlin's already asked that, when he figures out the answer to his own question. Gwaine, it must have been Gwaine.
“That's not the point and you know it.” Arthur doesn't shift his stance, doesn't try to dress. He merely stands there with his shoulders set wide, his torso out, as if he's so certain of his position, he can show it with his body, the proud and easy stance of it.
Since Merlin doesn't even know why he's putting up objections anymore, he lets his shoulders settle into an even keel and says, “Okay, come with. I was merely trying to make sure you got some decent amount of sleep.”
Arthur smile and it's wide and guileless; it gives a slant to his eyes and makes them shine, serves to make him appear happy, a notch amused. He doesn't address Merlin's latest remark. He only stands taller and taller; his lips tilting further upwards. He's scarcely done grinning, when he says, “Let me shower first.”
A low building that sprawls around a street corner houses the centre. The upper floor windows are glazed, while the lower ones are clear. Stickers and placards have been glued to them so that bunnies hop over a rainbow grass and letters chase each other across the panes in multi-coloured arcs.
A jolt shakes the minivan as Merlin cuts the engine. “So, ready?”
“It can't be that bad, can it?” Arthur cocks his head to the side.
“No, but it does require a lot of focus.” Merlin opens the MPVs' door but doesn't exit. “Warning you.”
The glass doors reflect the glow of the street lights, the flash of passing headlights shining through like ghosts in the night. They walk in carrying two boxes of medical supplies held shut by lengths of brown packing tape. They're big and heavy, but not entirely unwieldy.
Freya meets them halfway down the corridor. “You're here!” she says, her voice going alto. “And you brought reinforcements!”
Merlin looks sideways to Arthur. “He made the bid. Wanted to come. Couldn't say no.”
Arthur lowers his head and coughs. “Merlin was kind enough to ask.”
“Well, we're all grateful,” Freya says, wresting the box off Merlin. “How many are there?”
“We've got a vanful of medications.” Merlin follows her into one of the offices. Two desks face each other in the middle of the room. Shelves circle the walls, which are only bare on the south side, where charity posters with upbeat messages hang. “It's parked in front.”
Freya deposits the box on the floor by the desk's feet and catches the keys he dangles. “Thank you. You were brilliant.”
“When it comes to access to expensive meds the NHS can't afford, you've got to guilt trip the rich and powerful.” Heat creeps up Merlin's face. He eyes Arthur. “I wasn't referring to, ehm, you.”
“No, I know.” Arthur nudges him in the shoulder. His lips curl upwards. “But you should have said. I've many rich and powerful friends I can rope into helping.”
With a relief that lightens his chest, Merlin laughs. Arthur keeps smiling in his face and Merlin can't help but think they're all right, that they've past most hurdles, that this is a relationship worth having, the developments of which he's looking forward to with a thrill that settles in his bones.
Freya hums. “I, um, wanted to ask a last favour of you.”
Merlin looks Freya's way. “You know you can ask me anything.” When it comes to her, it's completely and utterly true. Both because he knows he can trust her judgement, and because she deserves all his support. “I'll do it.”
Arthur bows his head and takes a stroll round the room, giving the desk Freya and Merlin stand by a wide berth. He approaches the window instead, looking out at the pavement and at the muted glow of the street lights lining the back street.
Freya says, “There's a little girl who has Cooley's. Her dad had to run off because he works two jobs and he can't afford to get in late. You know, for fear of being given the sack. She got counselling earlier, but she's still a little scared about tomorrow's transfusion.”
“Oh, I see.” While Merlin has met all manner of patients in his medical experience, children are always more touching, their sickness more heartbreaking. However clearly irrational the thought is, because kids will fall ill just as adults do, there's a part of him that still suffers more when a young one is involved. “Of course.”
“Mia's six and a half and they found out about her anaemia when she was a babe in arms.” Freya's eyes go down to half mast and she sighs. “By now, of course, she's used to the whole process. It's just that she's a little tense and I was wondering if you could keep her company for a while. I'll relieve you in an hour or so.”
“Freya, you don't have to explain. I'm okay doing that.” Merlin wonders how he can take the child's mind off tomorrow. He supposes he'll find a way when he meets her, when he gets a feeling for her as a person. “How about you, Arthur?”
Arthur turns away from the window. “Yes, yes, of course I'll be happy to be of assistance.”
At the answer Merlin can't help unfold a smile, both at the formality of it, and the generosity of it.
Mia's room is on the third floor. It has a bed and medical supplies but it doesn't look like a hospital space at all. The walls are three different colours. Toys lie everywhere, on the bed, on the chairs, on the floor. A very low, child-sized table stands in the middle. It's Smurf blue; animal shaped chairs surround it.
The girl herself sits at it with her back straight, a colouring book open before her. She's desultorily filling in the legs of an elephant whose tusks are up. As she works, they turn bluer and bluer. She seems to be entirely focused on her task, completely taken by it. Since she's not aware of him, Merlin appraises her. She's on the tiny side for her age and pale too, her skin translucent and verging on grey in places. Those are symptoms of her Thalassemia Merlin was expecting to find. Otherwise she seems fine. No other tell tale sings of her illness are apparent. Her eyes show no sign of jaundice and her bones don't look fragile or in any way abnormal.
When she looks up, Merlin says, “Hi, Mia, I'm Doctor Emrys and this is...” Merlin supposes even six-year olds know who Arthur is, but he doesn't want to put any kind of awkward pressure on the girl so he adds, “...my friend, Arthur. We were told you wanted some company.”
While still chewing on her crayon, Mia looks up. “Hi, Doctor Emrys.” She slides her gaze over Arthur. Recognition plays on her face. “Hi, Arthur! Are you the prince from the telly?”
Arthur's eyebrows climb, his cheeks fill with air and he sends Merlin a helpless look. When Merlin shrugs, he says. “I suppose I am.”
“So you're like Prince Charming from Cinderella but you're real and not a cartoon.” She tilts her head and squints in thought.
Arthur reddens a little and his mouth forms words that don't come out. At last he splutters, “I'm real enough; otherwise I don't think I have much in common with, well, Prince Charming.”
“You're as pretty,” Mia says, as she continues colouring in her book. “But I know you're different.” She finishes doing the elephant and moves over to a cat. As she puts down her blue crayon and picks up an orange one, she hums. "Are you here because of tomorrow?”
Merlin sits across from Mia. The chair is too little and his body doesn't fit in it. His legs are up to his chin and he doesn't really know where to put his elbows. “Mia,” Merlin says, “are you nervous about it?”
She blows air through her mouth, bends over the print, and sings under her breath. There's no melody to her tune. “Dad and Freya say I mustn't be. I am a bit though.”
“Your dad and Freya are right,” Merlin says, seeking her gaze. She doesn't lift her head from the drawing, but he knows she's listening because her crayon's moving more slowly and she's going over and over the same spot, till the cat's tail is glossy with layers of colour. “You mustn't be afraid of the transfusion because it's going to make you well.”
“But there'll be another.” Mia looks up. Her gaze is steadfast and much more serious than a child's ought to be.
That lodges a pebble right into Merlin's chest. It's hard and jagged and it makes him hurt when he breathes. The worst of it is that she's right too. Merlin wishes it weren't so, but short of a magic cure, or a transplant, she will have indeed to undergo more. He hasn't seen her chart and he doesn't know the specifics of her case, but he's aware that that's something that will stay true. Still, he must make her understand just how important treatment is. “Yeah. I'm not going to lie to you.” Child or no, Merlin refuses to. She needs to see in order not to be afraid. But you will need them to live a long and healthy life, to stay strong, and that's what you want, right?”
“Yeah.” She nods her head repeatedly. “But I still don't like it.”
“You don't have to,” Merlin says, “but you must stick with it.” When it comes to Thalassemia, management is important. Learning routines, taking one's meds religiously. Having a positive outlook. Of course good doctors with an ability to manage the illness are a must too. “You see why.”
“Yeah.” She looks him in the eyes. “It's to make me better.”
“Yes, exactly,” Merlin says. “It's like eating your veggies. You may not like them, but they're good for you.”
“Okay, all right.” She puffs her cheeks. “Transfusions are like broccoli.”
“That yucky, eh?” Merlin grins. “So are we fine about tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” She wags her head. “I'm all right with it.”
“Great.” Merlin high-fives Mia.
Mia gets slightly shifty-eyed. “If I promise not to be scared...” She closes her colouring book. “...can Arthur tell me a story?”
“Of course.” Merlin seeks Arthur gaze and Arthur smiles and nods. “What story would you like him to read?”
Arthur makes big pleading eyes at the girl. “Maybe another? I haven't, er, watched that yet.”
“What, you didn't get a private viewing at Buckingham Palace?” Merlin kicks Arthur's foot with his. They're sitting close enough that he can do that with ease. But even if they weren't, he'd have tried to reach out in some way, maybe by meeting his eyes or miming a few words to him.
Arthur's eyes dance as he says, “Shut up, Merlin. Even princes aren't thick as thieves with Disney.”
“What, they're snubbing you.” Merlin makes himself pout. “And you so pretty you fit their mould.”
While Arthur splutters, Mia supplies him with a copy of some kind of tie-in novelization. The cover is bright and colourful. It features a couple of princesses and some kind of anthropomorphic snowman. Arthur takes the book hesitantly. “This is...”
“The story.” Mia watches Arthur keenly. “Even if you don't know it, you can read it to me.”
At first Arthur goes pink all over. The reddening spreads from neck to face with remarkable speed. He paws the book as though it were some mystical object. He toys with the spine in jerky movements. He caresses it as if the gesture can ward off its contents. Before he starts turning pages, he clears his throat three times, and makes a few other noises. Then he starts reading. At first his tone is stiff and so choppy the narrative is hard to make out. But as he goes on, Arthur's blush recedes, his voice evens, and his stance in the chair relaxes. Before long, he's reciting the dialogue and changing his pitch according to character and events. Head in her hand, Mia listens rapt. Merlin himself can't quite take his eyes off Arthur either.
The smile Arthur wears now is a clear sign of enjoyment. The shine in is eyes is more of the same. And the cheer he's spreading is almost palpable. Mia is grinning and nodding in places, asking Arthur to go over a certain part again and again. In spite of having done so more than once already, Arthur humours her.
It's heart-warming watching her, observing the worry and care lift from Mia's face, while seeing mirth and happiness spread in Arthur's. In a ricochet it stabs Merlin in the heart too. A measure of it lodges in one of its chambers and stays there, spreading in his blood stream push by push and heartbeat by heartbeat. This is something worth fighting for, warring for. Mia's happiness, Arthur's ease with himself. This is a moment, Merlin feels it in his chest, that has some resonance, some depth. Merlin checks with Arthur to see if he's experiencing the same, if he senses the import of the moment too, but Arthur's caught in it, eyes on the page, lips in a tilt, hands in the air to accompany his descriptions, so Merlin lets him at it and enjoys the interactions between Arthur and Mia.
Freya comes in half an hour later. “Sorry it took me so long.”
“I think Mia was well entertained.” Merlin nods his head at the girl and Arthur.
“I can see that.” She puts a hand on Merlin's shoulder. “If you're tired, you can go home now.”
Arthur lifts his gaze to her. “May I finish the story?”
“Please, yay,” Maya says. “More story.”
Freya inclines her head. “Of course. We all want to know how it ends, don't we?”
Later, as they walk towards the minivan, Arthur tells him, “Is she going to be all right? Mia?”
Merlin lets out a breath, hunches his shoulders. “What she has is a serious condition, and if left untreated it is life-threatening.” Looking down, he toys with the MPV's keys. “But she's under constant medical care, having transfusions and undergoing chelation treatments. Given that, her prognosis isn't necessarily grim.”
“Heart disease from iron overload is the leading cause of death when it comes to her type of Thalassemia,” Merlin says, meeting Arthur's concerned gaze dead on. “But as long as she follows her program, she does have a good chance of survival.” Merlin rattles out a breath. “Which is after all no more and no less than what a lot of us can expect.” With his job, and his past, Merlin's learnt not to take any opportunity for granted. Life never is. “Isn't it?”
Arthur bobs his head. “You and Freya are doing a great job here.”
“I only contribute once in a while,” Merlin says. “It's Freya who's the wonder.”
“It must be very comforting.” As he strolls ahead, Arthur looks to the opposite pavement.
“The kids love her.” It's easy for them to. Freya's that open, that steady, that reassuring. It's just something that's in her. In spite of all her pain, the rotten luck she's had of it, she shines. “That they do.”
“I meant for you,” Arthur says, scratching at the side of his face with his nail. “Having her as a partner.”
“For the charity?” Merlin stops at the van and fits the key in the lock.
“That and...” Arthur circles the minivan to get to the passenger door. “As your girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend?” Before sinking into his seat, Merlin takes his wallet out of his back pocket, and shuts it into the glove box. Then he puts the key into the ignition. “She's not my girlfriend.”
Arthur slams the door at his side. “I thought--” He squares his feet on the mat, gazing at them, at the knotting that is their lacing. He frowns at them as if Gordias tied it himself. “You're so close, it seemed like you were together, that's all.”
Merlin brakes halfway into reversing. “We're not a couple, honest.”
“I see.” Arthur slips his sunglasses out of his pocket. Though it's night, he puts them on. “It was a vibe, I got.”
Merlin continues backing the MPV closer to the edge of the pavement, then wheels the steering wheel nearly all the way left. “I won't say I don't understand why you did.” There are some things you don't forget after all, ones that stay with you life long. “Frey and I were together.” They'd been so young. It had happened before everything else did, when the geography of his life was still largely unmapped.“But it ended a long, long while ago.”
Drumming his fingers on his thigh, Arthur says, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry.”
Merlin merges into traffic. “She married someone else.” Merlin doesn't know why he says it, why he shares that. It just seems important that Arthur should be made aware. “Seven years ago.”
“Oh,” Arthur says. “I was labouring under the impression she wasn't, you know, hitched.”
“She married someone who was very dear to me.” Merlin isn't ready to go into specifics yet, to touch upon all the ways in which that affected him, how he still bears the scar of all that happened. He feels that he will tell Arthur, that he will share. It will be right. In spite of his cool princely exterior, Arthur can connect with people, he can touch their hearts, just as he did today with Mia. He may be awkward about it. He may sometimes blunder about it, the aura of his social position coming between. But he does get affected. He does relate, love. Nobody can tell Merlin Arthur didn't feel for Mia today. Merlin just knows it. Similarly, Merlin thinks Arthur will get his past, will understand Merlin, when so many haven't. But tonight is not the night for it. It comes after a long day and he's tired both in mind and body. Soon, he'll tell all soon. “He died two years ago.”
Arthur takes off his sun glasses. “I'm awfully sorry. I-- God, I shouldn't have mentioned that.”
“It's no secret.” Though no one at base speaks of it, it's not because he's made a request it should stay private. Gwaine even hinted at it quite recently. “You shouldn't feel sorry for asking.”
“I do regret causing you any pain.” Arthur presses his lips together and tiny lines start from them he's keeping them pinched so hard. “I never meant to, believe me.”
“It's fine, Arthur.” God, Arthur should really stop beating himself about the head with this. It wasn't even a mistake and Merlin mentioned his past willingly, of his own accord. If he hadn't wanted to, he'd have circled round it, or told Arthur to mind his own business. Honestly, Arthur may be out of touch when it comes to facing ordinary people's struggles, but he never deliberately sets out to hurt anyone. On the contrary, he meaningfully strives not to do it. “No harm done. I'm fine.”
“Are you sure?” Arthur moistens his lips, looks to Merlin with a question in his eyes, a look of vulnerability worked deep in them. “I mean, I hope you're not trying to shrug it off so I won't feel bad about it. I think I have enough morals, enough of a sense of what's right, to cope with a telling off.”
“Arthur, I'm fine.” Merlin steers the car onto the motorway.
“You don't need to be nice to me because I'm a prince,” Arthur says. “That would be wrong and...” He lets out a breath. “Not what I want from you at all.”
“I'm not being nice because of who you are,” Merlin slows the car into a turn. “I'm the one who wanted you off the team, remember?”
“Yeah.” Arthur's eyes round not of good humour, satisfaction. It's almost as if he finds their butting heads funny. “I remember that.”
“See,” Merlin says, looking away from a set of headlights that nearly blinds him, before glueing his eyes back to the road again. “I'm hardly likely to lick your boots.”
“So we're okay?” Arthur purses his lips. “I didn't overstep?”
“You didn't.” Merlin's heart bleeds for Arthur, for his kindness. God, Arthur, he's quite something else, isn't he? “You were being a friend.”
“Fine then.” Arthur sinks lower into his seat, legs at a sprawl, and arms crossed. “I'll, uh, am glad we're okay.”
Because they're driving faster now and it suits their pace, Merlin puts on the radio. The song choice isn't brilliant. It's mostly a collection of top forty tunes Merlin doesn't hate but doesn't love either. He switches to Radio Four, and gets swept by a radio drama, so he almost doesn't hear Arthur when he says, “Leon is playing next week.”
“Oh, great,” Merlin feels the buzz on his skin because he knows what question will pop up next. His tiredness lifts and gives way to a buzz of expectation that pebbles his skin, electrifies his body, and sends his stomach flipping. “Is he expected to do well?”
“Yeah, I think he is, yeah.”
“Great, that's great.” Merlin taps on the steering wheel, the rhythm doesn't match that of the song on the radio but rather echoes the humdrum beat of his heart.
“Would you like to come with?” Arthur says, eyes on the road, body angled towards Merlin. “I have tickets. Fine ones too.” He talks faster, loses some of his perfect diction. It stays strangely old-fashioned, and yet it becomes more jumbled. “There'll be body guards and I know that's not many people's idea of fun, but if you're interested.” Arthur trails off. “In the tennis, I mean, then I think you should come. No pressure--” He rests his palm on his trousers. “But it would be lovely if you decided to.”
Merlin lowers the radio's volume and says, “I'll be happy to come.”
“Really?” Arthur sits straighter. “You can turn me down.” His eyes flare a notch. “It. You can turn the offer down.” He turns around in the seat. “If you don't like being watched over, looked at, all of that, which does come with the turf of being seeing with me, then I'd get it.”
“No.” Merlin doesn't care about Arthur's bodyguards, or how many people will be looking his way. Ordinarily he would. He's not one for showmanship, but he's already looking forward to spending more time with Arthur, to the proposed outing, and all the things that can spark from it. It's been a while since he last felt like this, since he experienced this kind of easy headiness, and he wants to plunge right into it. No second thoughts. No regrets. So yeah... “I'll be coming.”
“Yeah.” He smiles at the road, though traffic's thickening and he's aware it'll take them hours to get back now.
“Good, great.” In a rustle of clothes on leather, Arthur repositions himself in his seat.“That's great.”
Merlin continues grinning at the road. “It is – a fair little bit.”
Photographers surround the car, circle it on all sides. They hold the lenses up to the window, their lights flashing. They snap pictures and thrust their microphones against the limo's blacked-out windows. Cutting their path off, they slam at the vehicle's bodywork. The politest ones, those who choose not to throw themselves under their wheels, scribble furiously in their notebooks or tap fast at their phones. Some reporters herd the driver as he exits the car. They only back away when Arthur's team of bodyguards follow after, standing round the car like towering colossi.
As Arthur waits for them to fend some of them back, Arthur palms his forehead and tells Merlin, “They must have guessed I'd be coming. I mean Leon is my friend.”
“It's fine, Arthur,” Merlin turns around in the seat, places him palm on Arthur's knee. He soon drops it, but the touch is firm, steadying for as long as it lasts. “When I said I'd come, I knew it would be like this.”
Arthur doubts it. Even he didn't know it would be so crowded today, that they would shout so, be so worked up. Though he's a prince, the press doesn't really follow him about twenty four seven. It isn't always there. When world news gets grim, they focus on that. When some international star visits the UK, Arthur can breathe a little more freely. If they can't fathom where he is, Arthur then enjoys more freedom of movement. “Today is particularly bad.”
“They can't take this from you,” Merlin says. “We're here to enjoy the day, watch your friend's match and relax. So let's just do it.”
Arthur flares his eyes, nods. That's what he wants. That's exactly what he's striving for. He's looked forward to this day with a measure of anticipation that's made him sleep less and pace about more. Questions about what this is and where it can lead have been at the forefront of his mind for days and only his job has grounded him. Merlin and his focus. Merlin and his capacity for hard work. Merlin and his desire to heal and fix everyone in so far as he can. And now he just wants to see where this goes. And Merlin's right. Irrespective of the press, he ought to go for what he wants. He can't control its members anyway. “You're not unwise.”
Merlin's eyes thin into slits that tilt upwards at the corners. “Are you implying you don't generally trust my judgement?”
Arthur makes wide eyes at Merlin, smiles. “I would never dare. You're team leader.”
“Fine.” Merlin snorts. “Now you're implying you only ever listen to me because I'm your boss.”
“You're not my boss.” Arthur elbows Merlin in the ribs. It's not something they indulge in often, this ribbing, not when they're so tense at the job they can scarcely take a moment to breathe. But it comes easy now. It flows. And Arthur's not questioning any of it. He's questioned relationships enough to last him lifetimes. “And technically you're my subject, so I'm the boss.”
“Oh I forgot we lived in the thirteenth century, your majesty,” Merlin says, going for the car door. “Not all the water in the rough rude sea
can wash the balm from an anointed king, right eh?”
They have seats in the Royal Box. They're high up and comfortable, wider than others, with more leg room and a great view on the action. Arthur could have gone without that. Up here they are at the centre of attention. More cameras are going to be aimed his way than they are on the players. But they're good seats and he wants Merlin to have a good time, to have something he can't ordinarily have. If this is using his privilege, Arthur hopes Merlin will understand.
At first Merlin does seem like a fish out of water. Aware of all the eyes on him, he sits at the edge of his seat, back rigid, eyes strictly on the court, away from the crowd and murmuring gossipers. He doesn't talk much, he doesn't laugh. But by and by he eases into a less strained position, comments on the action, claps and leans in to talk low into Arthur's ear.
It's good then. Merlin proves knowledgeable about the game, more so than anyone Arthur's ever met. People usually tell him they want to see the tennis with him because they're aiming for some of the perks associated with Arthur's presence, the prime seats, the VIP treatment, the opportunity to be seen. Merlin knows the history of the sport, is aware of what constitutes good tactic, and is a fan of great play.
The match they're watching is an instance of that itself. It starts well for Leon. Standing to the left side of the centre mark, he serves a flamboyant ace that scores him a point right off the bat. That he's off to a good start with a 15-0 score is clear, but Leon's rival, a Russian who grunts a lot, responds well, going for 15-15, and then 15-30. “Your friend had better watch out.” Merlin leans in and tells him, his breath tickling Arthur's neck as the words fan out of him. “I hope he doesn't lose his nerve.”
“Why?” Arthur says.”You're supporting Leon?”
“I'm all for your friend.” Merlin looks down to the court. The grass is short and trim, showing signs of trampling only in the spots the players tread harder. “I want you to have a good day.” This time he turns around and beams at Arthur. “The best.”
Arthur doesn't say that though he wishes Leon well in his career, he's not so dead set on him winning today as all that. He's got no special commitment to the cause. Though he'd like for him to, Arthur's expectations for the day won't be lowered in case of his defeat. What does put a stitch under his ribs, what binds Arthur's heart in tight cords are Merlin's words, the import of them. In spite of their simplicity, they're among the most touching and honestly meant Arthur's heard. Barring a precious few, people want things from Arthur, favours, a social leg up, notoriety. Those who just want him to be happy are few. Arthur wouldn't even count his own father among them. Even Father needs Arthur to be a certain way – a role model, unimpeachable, a good aristocrat – for his own ends. Merlin instead doesn't act as though he wants Arthur to be anything other than who he is.. “I--” Arthur feels the tight not in his throat. “I'm having it. The best day.”
Merlin turns. There's something gentle in his eyes, perhaps fond. He says, “I'm glad.”
Once they've said that, the conversation stalls. They both shift in their seats at the same time. They both clear their throats. They watch the game unfold. Leon has has two break points of his own. Hitting a winner that's right on the line, he gets a definite advantage. His Russian rival checks in and gains a point, but it still looks good for Leon, especially when he scores with a down-the-line ace. The match continues with another set. But the Russian is on by now and it's break point.
“Great game,” Merlin says, biting his nails. “Riveting.”
At first Leon holds his nerve, and puts away a waist-high ball that sat up in mid-court. It's a deuce. Merlin claps and Arthur climbs to his feet and strikes his palms together. When Merlin sees him, he stands too and together they cheer Leon on.
With a backhand Leon crunches down the line. His next snowflake-soft drop shot grants him an advantage.
As the match progresses, that doesn't stay true, and Leon doesn't maintain his edge. The Russian keeps his wits about him, scrambling, going for his shots with undaunted determination, breaking Leon's serve to even the score, and eventually taking the third set. Over the next ones, Leon slows down. When he can, he massages his legs, stretches. He winces when that doesn't seem to help. Using Leon's inability to run at full tilt, the Russian, initially under gunned, disrupts Leon's rhythm, hitting moon balls and then going for unpredictable winners. He even serves an underhand slice to bring Leon forward and then just passes him. These techniques vex Leon so much that his game begins to unravel.
"He's trying to break your friend's concentration,” Merlin nudges him to say. “He's really sly.”
“You're not wrong.” Arthur watches on.
By the fourth set Leon has lost his cool. Nonetheless, the Russian staggers in the fifth set. He fights on against his opponent with quite a lot of good will and finally reaches 5-3 with Leon serving to save the match. At match point, though, Leon misses his first serve, and the Russian walks staggeringly close to the service line for a second serve. Leon double faults.
From then on it's downhill for Leon. The Russian has another first serve up his sleeve and gets a triple match point. Leon nets an easy volley. With sill two match points to go it could end up either way. But the Russian takes his time, goes about it calmly, seeks out openings in Leon's game. Leon is long with a backhand return. And the Russian finishes with an ace.
“I'm really sorry your friend didn't win,” Merlin says, as Arthur's bodyguards herd them away from the stands. “I hope you aren't too let down.”
At the moment, Arthur isn't. He's too concerned with Merlin, with having the rest of the day turn out fine, with having the ramifications of it be hopeful for the both of them. He'll make it up to Leon for this slight betrayal, even if it's only in his own head.
As his bodyguards clear a path for them in the corridors under the bleachers, Arthur tells Merlin, “Do you want to go home now or, er--” Arthur scratches his neck. “--would you like to have a drink?”
“Yeah.” Merlin says, walking now with a spring to his step. “Yeah, I'd like that. The drink, I mean.”
The roof top bar is an open terrace overlooking the centre court. A golf course extends to the east, while central London with its skyscrapers glinting in the distance sprawls in the other direction.
While Arthur goes for champagne. Merlin gets himself a bottled beer. The champagne comes to Arthur in a coupe with bubbles gathering at the bottom and an olive perched on top. “I know, very posh of me,” Arthur says. “But I like champagne.”
“I actually do too,” Merlin says, drinking from his bottle. “I just like beer better.”
“I honestly like beer too.”
Merlin smiles. “I know. You drank me out the other day.”
“Hush.” Arthur's lips curve upwards too. “I scarcely did. Besides you made an inroad too.”
“Very true.” Merlin tips the beer bottle and drinks from it. “It's nicer drinking in company.”
“A lot of things are nicer in company”
“Yeah,” Merlin says, “good food, good drink, games of chess, sex.”
Arthur's breath stops at the mouth of his lungs and they choke for air. His heart pulses blood in his veins at a speed that causes a blush to darken his skin. His brain blanks of thought. In his head he's got this down pat. He knows what to say, how to say it. But the gap between idea and performance seems insurmountable to him. He just can't unfreeze, move his facial muscles, come up for a rejoinder. Bloody hell, when did he get so awkward, why can't he be smooth and suave and direct? Why can't he be the man his PR team project him as? He wishes he were, for in that case he'd already have charmed Merlin. It's just as well that Leon joins in, saying, “Arthur, really glad you came to see me.” He grins. “Wish I'd won to give you something to see, but c'est la vie, I suppose.”
Arthur shakes hands with Leon and introduces him to Merlin.
“I see,” Leon says, pumping Merlin's hand quite vigorously. “You must be Arthur's new boyfriend.”
Merlin catches Arthur's gaze, his eyes slit, and his eyebrows arch. He places his elbow on the table and he covers his mouth with his palm. His shoulder nudges upwards.
Answering is left up to Arthur. “Merlin is my doctor.” When Arthur rethinks his own words, he understands why Leon is rounding his eyes at him. “My team leader at work.” While that's true, he knows how much this comes short of the truth, how much it doesn't address the churning of emotion that stirs in him, how it doesn't explain the nature of Merlin's presence here, its raison d'etre.. “And my good friend.”
Leon perches on a stool and says, “Ah, Arthur's mentioned you.” He hails a waiter. “Just the other day he was saying what a brilliant doctor you are.”
Arthur had rather Leon hadn't mentioned that because now Merlin's looking at him with marked intent, with all his focus on Arthur, the way he is when he's got a patient on his hands, like nothing else matters and nothing could ever take all his attentiveness away. That's exhilarating. It's mood lifting, day-brightening. At the same time his reaction to Merlin's mood is not something he wants Leon to notice, not before he himself has de-tangled what it means to him. He suspects he knows. He's too pleased at the attention, something inside him is unfurling and gladdening him far too much. He wants to stand tall and proud; he wants to perform some great feat and he wants to bask in his new connection with Merlin, what it says about him. Merlin's approval certainly matters, because it comes from a person whose judgement, values and, morals he respects. But he doesn't want to explore that in front of Leon. In his own heart tough, well, that's quite clear.
Merlin speaks in his stead. “Well, then I suppose I should mention in return that Arthur is actually brilliant in the cockpit." He launches into a description of their latest flight. Winds had been high, Arthur admits it, and their flight was a bumpy one. But Merlin makes it sound as though Arthur pulled off a miracle. He describes how Arthur flew so close to the top of Carnedd Llewelyn and how he flew so steady that Gwaine and Merlin were able to lower themselves by rope and get close enough to the injured person who needed rescuing. Without Arthur, Merlin maintains, the accident victim couldn't have been saved and they could well have died themselves.
“It takes a lot of trust,” Leon says, watching both Arthur and Merlin. “To dangle yourself off a moving helicopter.”
“Yes.” Merlin sweeps his head in an up and down movement. “But then again I trust Arthur with my life.”
That statement takes Arthur by surprise, works his heart off his moorings and speeds its beating by a hundredfold. He's proud of that, that something he's done has contributed to both saving a life and rising in Merlin's esteem. It's something meaningful that he'll always remember, a good thing he did, an action it was definitely worth leaving the army for. He wants to thank Merlin for his words, which he'll store in his memory for a long time, when Leon's friends, and by way of him Arthur's, join them.
They commiserate with Leon over losing, talk tennis and other sports, and mention other sportsmen they know, formula one champions, swimmers, polo players. Having gossip to broadcast, though it's clothed as information sharing, they go on and on about them. When that's covered, they involve Arthur in conversation about his bygones, include him in jokes that leave Merlin out. They're about Arthur's past at Cambridge, Arthur's former lacrosse team mates, about the people they used to see a lot of back in the day. “Do you remember that old baggage, what was her name, Mab? May? Mary? Anyway she so clearly wanted into Arthur's trousers. Wanted to become princess. Little did she know Arthur was enamoured with that champ boxer. What was his name again? She stood no chance. Poor silly cow. As if someone like that could ever bag a prince.” Alistair looks for confirmation from the rest of the company.
Nobody says anything though a few group members laugh. Arthur's not sure whether they do because they find Alistair's comment funny or because they don't know how else to react. Merlin drops his eyes, stiffens and toys with his empty beer bottle. He orders another and keeps his lips tightly pressed.
Arthur pushes his glass aside and says, “Will you lay it off with the classism, Alistair!”
Leon grimaces. “Arthur's right, Ali. It's highly off-putting.”
“It was only a bit of a joke,” Alistair says. “Poking fun at an old friend. I'm sure Maddie would laugh too.”
Back in the limo, with the motorway whizzing past them, headlights bathing them in their glow, Arthur tells Merlin, “I apologise on behalf of my friends. They were rude. There's no other word for it.”
“They were. They were quite nasty in fact, devaluing people because of their backgrounds.” Merlin's face gets hard angles it's never shown before. “But it's none of your fault.”
“You must think badly of me for putting up with them.” Come to think of it Arthur doesn't understand how it could have let it happen, why he didn't cut those people before. He doesn't often see them, true, but he does countenance them from time to time. “I'm sorry.”
“Arthur, you're not responsible for what those blokes said,” Merlin says. “Anymore than I'm responsible for what Gwaine says.”
It's a false equivalence and they're both deeply aware. Gwaine may at times be quite in your face and thoughtless about what he says. Though his quips may sometimes grate and he can ruffle feathers, he's never one to mean harm. Alistair and his cronies on the other hand are the kind of people who delight in putting down others. They've just shown that. With their sarcastic remarks and well modulated voices they bring others to their knees. “I' don't like what they did in there. I don't like the way they act. I hope it hasn't soured the evening for you.”
“I'll not be chomping at the bit to meet them again,” Merlin says, “but the match was good and the rest of the company was fine.”
At Merlin's smile something under Arthur's ribs shifts and hope pulses bright inside him. “So you're not keen to put an end to it?”
“As a matter of fact, no.” Merlin brushes his leg with his. “I'd like for it to continue.”
At this point it's a question of taking a risk, of daring. If he doesn't, things will go back to normal. Tomorrow he'll check in at work and he'll pilot, and they'll be friendly, but Merlin won't get quite as close as he is now. Won't drift so near as to skim the possibility of intimacy. They'll be colleagues, no more than that, acting on guidelines that keep them apart, separate entities, yet brushing near. Despite them, Arthur will want him like a fibre gone from his heart, like a thirst that's always with him, like a need that that always simmers, that seeps out in bouts of watching Merlin, dancing close to him, memorising him. Him and his his slow blooming smiles, him and his passion for his cause, him and his commitment. His big heart that takes on every challenge bravely. If Arthur wants to connect with him, he's got to make a play for him. “Come to mine,” he says. “I can get rid of them.” Realising how obtrusive their presence might be, he nods at his bodyguards. “I promise.”
“You don't need to exile your security.” Merlin edges closer. “I'm in with them or without them.”
At his place Arthur gives his detail precise instructions to get out of his hair, not to enter his flat at all. They can guard it from the outside as much as they want. He categorically forbids them from tapping him, listening in, or otherwise bugging any of the rooms. “Whatever you've got in there, I want it to be off, all right?”
His bodyguards share a look, one makes as if to object, but Arthur draws himself up. He knows how to exude authority when he wants to. He knows how to make a show of power. He can't tell whether he's learnt that from watching his father act or if it comes natural to him, but at the end of the day people tend to respect him when he pulls rank. He's going to use that.
In the kitchen, he makes Merlin a drink. Merlin said he likes champagne so he mixes him a concoction based on it and spritzed with lime and fresh orange juice. When Arthur turns around with his glass in his hand, Merlin places his fingers on his wrist and lowers it so Arthur's forced to put down the beverage.
With a step Merlin gets close, chest to chest. He radiates warmth, a wall of it that seems to come right from the core of him. Angling his head, he reads Arthur's expression before leaning so close their noses brush, so that he can taste the breath off Merlin's mouth. “Am I wrong?” he asks. “If I'm wrong I can--”
“No.” Affection settles beneath Arthur's breastbone like a lead-stone. A pricklier sensation, all thorns and want, crackles down his nerve endings, as if he's downed wires and they're now sending his heartbeat spiking. “You're not wrong at all.”
Merlin dances closer still, gets toe to toe with him. He places a hand on Arthur's shoulder, one on his elbow, and kisses him. To meet the kiss head-on, Arthur grabs the lapels of Merlin's jacket and lifts his chin, all the whispered second guessing of himself that goes on in his brain falling silent the moment they touch. The hammering of his heart increases. The pang that grabs his chest magnifies, so he lets himself go, coaxing Merlin in turn.
With the softness of an exhalation, Merlin's lips open. They touch tongues, they trade shallow rubs of the mouth, then they kiss deeply, with a depth of touch, with a passion, that leaves Arthur breathless, that hurts in the chest like an endless chasm, that makes his knees buckle. For want of more of it, Arthur clutches the back of Merlin's head, palms the nape of his neck, reels him in so he can kiss him till he's short of air and full of an emotion that grows and grows the more they stand there and trade tongues like two teenagers.
Touching the chest Merlin squares up to him, Arthur slides his palm across it, down Merlin's belly, to his flanks, grazing their hips. It's a lot. It's a charge of static that drives through his bones. His body. It drives all air from Arthur, snuffing it in his throat.
As they kiss on, Merlin cups his cheek with his palm, and when the kiss goes shallow, he doesn't draw fully back. He presses his lips to Arthur's again and again in butterfly touches that Arthur feels like a tonne weighing right on his soul.
Merlin's stubble burns his cheeks, but Arthur can't be any better, having shaved only in the morning, so he rather revels in it. Burn or no burn he can't get enough doing this, so he touches his mouth to Merlin again and again. Merlin sweeps his tongue along the length of Arthur’s lower lip and Arthur makes a choked noise in his throat. His head spins with the beginning of thoughts, sensations, bright and stabbing, a bubble of them that blooms deep in his gut and warms him. It's all in this kiss, in the slow strokes of the tongue that Merlin gives him, which melt Arthur's spine at the base. For his part, Merlin releases a series of hitched breaths Arthur can sense. As tit for tat for Merlin driving him crazy, Arthur licks into Merlin's mouth and curls one arm around his middle, tilting his head back with the splay of his free hand. They both push and pull, grab at each other, glance hand down backs, round past the jut of a hip.
“Merlin.” Arthur murmurs the word against Merlin's lips. “We should perhaps move it to the bedroom.”
“I have nothing against that,” Merlin says, kissing his face, his ears, breathing hard against his neck. “I'd be lying if I said I didn't want sex now.”
That sentence sends Arthur reeling. It's what he wants and needs. Plain and simple. He doesn't equivocate; he doesn't pause. He says, voice a rasp, “Yes, yes this way.”
As they move towards the stairs, Arthur pushes Merlin's jacket off his shoulders, drags his shirt up his torso, and gets it off him.
In the bedroom, he puts his lips to Merlin's neck, roams them up the line of his tendon, sucking in between. Tilting his head to the side, Merlin closes his eyes and sucks in air, sharp and rattled. Arthur undoes Merlin's belt, pulls it off, unbuttons the buttons of his jeans, and palms him through his underwear. Merlin throws his head back, hisses through clenched teeth.
Laying Merlin down on the bed, Arthur kisses his mouth, his jaw, the vertical length of his throat, till he skims the base of it, dragging his lips along his clavicles, mouthing at his shoulder, the line of it. Merlin raises his chin, baring his neck, and lets his fingertips slide down Arthur's nape.
When Merlin pulls him close, Arthur crawls on top of him, bending low to lock their lips, stretching one of Merlin's arms out so its tendons go taut and twinging their fingers together. As Arthur touches him, Merlin opens his mouth to him; his fingers card through strands of Arthur's hair, curling at their base, his thumb caressing a spot beneath Arthur's ear that makes Arthur tremble, causing his frame to go tight with lust. Because of it, he slides his tongue deep in Merlin's mouth; Merlin's fingers grapple for purchase at Arthur's hip, slip in Arthur's sweat, get it again.
"Off," Merlin says, back arching into a bucking motion. “Take your jeans off.”
Fumbling with them, Arthur lowers them a little, not much past the hips, enough for Merlin to slip a hand in the gap between shirt and trousers, for him to splay his fingers across the small of his back, and lower still across his buttock.
They undress as best they can then, taking off each other's bottoms in a slide of fabric, a snap of buttons. When they're naked, they tangle together body to body, legs twisting one around the other, torsos fitting, cocks touching, sliding side by side and snagging tip to girth. They both leak at that; they both close their eyes.
Turning into each other's embrace, they lock their bodies together, kissing open and raw, in the space between their mouths, in the pauses between their breaths, hands roaming down each other's backs, along the rise of flanks, and the length of cording thighs.
Belly to belly, they touch and pet, cup and knead, graze skin with the pads of trembling fingers. Still helplessly knotted together, they roll on the bed, till Merlin ends up on top, breath coming fast, a little short, syncopated. “Turn around,” he says.
There is nothing Arthur wants more. When Arthur lies belly down, Merlin sits on top of him, rubbing his cock against Arthur's arse. At the contact, Arthur releases a hitched breath. When Merlin's weight settles over him fully, it looks as though Arthur will never have enough air, as though his heart will never unclench from the tight knot it's fisted in right now.
Humming, Merlin bends to nip at Arthur's nape, nuzzling there right next. In a spasm, a reflex action, Arthur curls his fingers around a fistful of sheets. The moment Merlin hints at entering him with a forward roll of his body, Arthur sobs into the covers, his hands tightening their hold on the bunch of fabric.
“I need something,” Merlin says. “Can't do it like this.”
Arthur has no words. His body is locked in a quivering of muscles, a shaking of the frame. Need is sublimated in sweat, a tidal wave of warmth, a frantic heartbeat. He can scarcely talk he wants this so much. He's so touched by this, in places that go behind the physical, that words escape him. So he only says, “Nightstand.”
Reaching over, Merlin grabs for the drawer next to the bed and yanks it open, pulling out a condom, lubricant. Snaps of caps and latex rustles drift over in a cacophony of sound. When he's done, Merlin reaches for him and tugs Arthur's hips up upwards. He touches him with one finger. He drags it round and round, till he pushes it in, wetting Arthur with the substance it's streaked with, then dragging it in and out, till he's got a rhythm going, rubbing Arthur inside, and Arthur only wants to push back on it, on the fire-lighting dullness of it, on the burn stabbing marvel that this is. In that moment Arthur wants to dissolve for the lust of it. He wishes he could undo himself in a cloud of friction, of purposeful bearing down on the blunt pleasure of it. Down and down till he flares inside. Till he galvanises on the electricity of it. He fights past shivers, past dry throatedness to ask for it, what he needs.
Merlin bows his head to kiss the breadth of his shoulders, skimming his hand up and down Arthur's spine, using his legs to spread Arthur's knees wider.
Heat floods Arthur from gut, to marrow, to skin. His cheeks go hot, the flame of it spreading to his forehead, to his ears, to his neck.
Tip first, Merlin pushes in, the head of his cock nudging past muscle. Arthur wishes he could have felt the snag of flesh on flesh, Merlin's hood drawing back and slipping against the rim of Arthur's skin, the warmth of his naked cock. But he knows he can't ask for it, not the first time round, not yet. But he stashes the desire for it, for all of Merlin, as he is, for the next time round, for the time he's got enough of Merlin, for when he's intimate enough with him, to be able to just lay it all out with him.
Through gritted teeth, Arthur pushes out a breath.
Adjusting his grip on Arthur's hip in a fan of fingers, a digging in of nails, Merlin pauses. The lingering touch trails fire along the lie of Arthur's spine and Arthur has to draw a slow, deep breath so as to stop his lungs from catching fire, his muscles from going taut, himself from orgasming. When Merlin's at the right angle, he nudges further in. With every inch he sobs, hands flexing around the grip he has on Arthur. One of his hands covers Arthur's on the bed, arm fanned out.
Shifting his weight, Merlin bottoms out, cock snug inside Arthur's till there's no scope for movement, no advance, only a strange unity of flesh, a slotting in of them in a knot that's more than body parts. From then on out, Merlin moves slowly, rocking in and out, working himself deeper in, the warmth of him, the power of him a live keepsake for Arthur.
The solid mass of Arthur – bones, sinew, guts– liquefies in a pool that gushes outwards from the inside, atomising cogs that come from the splintering of him. Looking for a measure of coolness to soothe the burn, Arthur, places his cheek against the sheets and closes his eyes, mouth parting in syncopated gasps, a sing song of wet sounds he wants to bite down but can't, a song Merlin echoes with his stifled sobs, with the slapping rhythm of his thrusts.
Lips sliding along the top bump of his spine, nuzzling the patch of skin where the shortest strands of his hair grow, Merlin slows his movements to a lull, to a respite of slow strokes that shallow out. His rhythm breaks soon, becomes all long in and out motions that Arthur almost can't take. They're good, they're like an undoing of the body, of the soul, they're like sparks under skin, in the sky he can see when he closes his eyes, lids heavy with sweat. He's so taken with it all, Arthur squeezes down on Merlin's fingers, says his name, grunts out sounds that aren't even words, that never would have the coherence of such.
Snapping his hips, Merlin slides in and out faster, the push and pull quicker, erratic. It still has a meaning to it, a precision. Merlin still gives it to him, all this pleasure that blooms to searing point, an opening up of bliss. Hands sliding up Arthur's flank, knees outside Arthur's thighs, legs in a tangle, Merlin flips them so they're both on their sides. With the move he slips out, slots free, but with the guiding help of his hand, Merlin drives himself back in. Flexing, he gives a few more thrusts, he rolls his hips forward and forward in snatches that move them centre stage on the bed, that are beyond pleasant for Arthur. Merlin's belly hot against the small of Arthur's back, his hand more so as it rounds Arthur's hip, Merlin plasters them together; his leg on Arthur's an anchor in a world of fire.
Panting hard, Merlin uses his hands to lever himself, rocking blindly, till his breath goes the way of his tempo, hurried, on the verge of implosion. He gives one hard thrust, then pulls out, takes his condom off, his cock spurting come between Arthur's cheeks, the upper part of Arthur's thighs, strings of it leaking downwards.
Before Arthur can shout, vocalise a yes, a yes to his desires nearly coming true, Merlin turns him round. He buries his head in Arthur's lap, lips nibbling round the base of his cock, nose brushing coarse, wiry pubic hairs, the hardness of bone, before sucking him in by the tip, and pulling in harsh wet passes.
With it Arthur trembles so much it must be visible. Pangs cross his gut. His insides go hot; his heart moves in inchoate movements. He comes in ropes of come that string from Merlin's mouth when he pulls off.
They come apart, both lying flat on their backs, hands on their bellies, chests rising and falling. Staring at the ceiling, head tipped back, Merlin wipes at his mouth with his arm, says, “That was the best I've had in a long, long while.”
Arthur cocks his head, watches Merlin's profile, the sharpness of his nose in the starkness of the moonlight bathing him. “I don't believe you.” Not that they didn't click, which explains the frantic goings on they just took part in. But Merlin's good in bed, so good he can break hearts, he certainly did Arthur's. Arthur's not sure he came by that by way of abstinence.
“You don't believe in your own prowess?” Merlin's lips edge outwards in a smile.
“It's not that.” Arthur knows how he is in bed. He's not yet made anybody unhappy though he hasn't always found something quite like this in sex, such a moment of perfect slotting together, of matching. “I think you're not entirely a stranger to, you know.” It's something about the confidence Merlin exhibited and not about the way he acts towards people. In his interactions Merlin maintains a certain reserve that stays with him despite his big smiles and friendly gestures. Looking at him, watching him connect, you'd never say he was as he is in bed. “Tell me if I'm wrong.”
“Maybe when I was younger,” Merlin says, his words coming out slowly, in a daze. “I did a bit of that. But lately I haven't done any of it. Before you--” Merlin's stomach caves in with an intake of breath “--before you I hadn't had sex in a year, maybe longer.”
“Why?” Merlin is good looking enough, young and strong. Arthur feels an attraction to him that sits like a lodestone in his chest, bright and powerful. Surely others must have felt it too. Must have made a pass. And if Merlin was moved enough to make a go for Arthur, then he must have found other people to his liking. Since he's not averse. Or maybe he's picky. “Weren't you feeling like sex?”
“I'm coming out of...” Merlin trails off, runs a hand horizontally up and down his belly. “A hard period. Well, a hard six years really.”
Arthur turns on his side, props his head on his hand. “If you want to talk about it...” Arthur feels hesitance asking that. If this were him, he's not so sure he'd open up. Doing so feels like waiting for a broadside to catch you in the chest. But he wants to help out, know Merlin, make him happy. If his words can help, then he will offer them up. “If you don't want to though...”
“No, it's fine,” Merlin says, his countenance showing a thoughtful softness about it, like a reverie of intent. “I've been meaning to.”
“I told you my best friend died, didn't I?” Merlin shifts his gaze on to Arthur. It's still open, full of a will to make a connection.
“Freya's husband, yes.” They were in the van when Merlin told him. Arthur remembers it clearly, not only because he tends to recollect everything that relates to Merlin, but because it was the day Arthur asked him out, which led to this, so it was a pretty important event in Arthur's books. “He's the one who died, right?”
Merlin nods and his nostrils flare. “He was more than just a friend to me.”
“Come again?” Arthur isn't really sure he's got the workings of this relationship Merlin had with Freya and her husband down pat.
“Freya was one of my first big loves,” Merlin says, voice sounding distant, but not at all hollow, rather fraught with affection, pain, laced with a heaviness reserved for important facts. “I met her during my foundation year. We were still undecided as to which specialty we should go for, still wondering about what the future held for us. But we had this intense relationship. It was... burning. As a lot of young people, we were very much in each other's pocket. At the time I thought we'd marry, have children, that that was how my life would go.”
Arthur places a hand on Merlin's hip. His touch is tentative at first, but when Merlin sighs and leans into it, folds into it, he palms and kneads with method, with a drive to learn, to have a bit of Merlin, a slice of him that's his. Maybe he shouldn't, maybe it's too much too soon, but his body goes for that without any solicitation from his brain. It's like an instinct. “What changed?”
“We both met Daegal,” Merlin says. “He was full of talent and promise. He was the one with the clear plans and the level head. We both fell for him, Frey and I.”
“Oh.” Arthur isn't certain he should ask. He senses sorrow in Merlin's voice, in the burr of it, in the coil of his body, in the tightening of his muscles. “And then Freya went off with Daegal.”
“Not initially.” Merlin's eyebrows twitch together. “It's not so easy. These things are kind of complicated.”
Arthur inhales. “You don't have to tell me.”
“I want to,” Merlin tells him, catching Arthur's bottom lip between his own. He smiles right in his face, gaze tender, fettered with affection, but flinty with faith in Arthur. “I trust you with it.”
Arthur moves his head in assent. “Say nothing that brings you down.” As much as Arthur's curious about Merlin, as much as he wants to explore his past as that of the dearest friend, he doesn't want him to go over what sounds like painful history. In spite of his own need to get to know Merlin, the last thing he wants is to sadden him. “You don't owe me.”
Merlin shrugs. “We were all very honest with each other, put it all out there, talked a lot.” He licks his lips. “I wanted him. I wanted her. The same was true for Freya and Daegal was game.”
“You were all three together?” That's the only conclusion to be drawn from Merlin's words..
“Yeah.” Merlin runs his hand up and down Arthur's arm, from elbow to shoulder. “It worked for a while. There were no hindrances. There was a lot of love and passion all around. But then things got tricky. Freya and Daegal developed more of an intimacy between them, more of a complicity.” Tracing patterns on Arthur's skin, Merlin's fingers move around the length and girth of his bicep. “I backed away, left them to it, entirely on my own. I wanted to try out new paths, see how they worked out for me, if I'd be happier that way. If that was the right thing for me. Took a six month course in Paris. When I got back Freya was two months pregnant.”
“That must have been tough.” If this had happened to Arthur, he'd be more than mildly broken. “Finding out you were excluded.”
“I wasn't. Not before I left and not after. They wanted to make it work too.” Merlin lifts his eyes to Arthur. “For a while we went back to our old pattern. It might even have turned out fine too, there was this core friendship at the base of it, but we'd drifted apart. In a thousand imperceptible ways. I loved them both dearly. I truly did. And they loved me back. It just wasn't the perfect fit.” Merlin's gaze softens on Arthur. “Those things have to be.”
“So what?” Arthur hopes it wasn't too hard on Merlin, that he isn't still suffering.
“I made myself step back.” Merlin's eyelids come down in a veil of charcoal. “It was hard at first. But it made sense. It was the right thing to do, you know.” His voice becomes dreamy, anecdotal. “You have to go for the perfect thing for you, have the courage to chase it. In that case chasing it meant getting out of a situation that was rather good but not... not a hundred per cent right.” He hums softly and it's almost a lullaby. “After a while I dated again. Quite healthily too. I watched Anlawd, Freya and Daegal's boy, grow up. They still were my family. I was on the outside but I was happy with that. It was working in this new way.”
“So what brought on the shift?” Arthur asks, wondering why Merlin stopped dating, stopped having romantic partners. “Between now and then?”
“Daegal died,” Merlin says and his voice is pure shards. “And it was my fault.”
“I don't believe you.” Merlin's got a heart of gold, is conscientious, thoughtful of others. That would simply never happen, Arthur knows. He refuses to believe it. He quells all second guessings, all questions borne of fear, of mistrust. Though they darken the horizon of his mind, they're surely beneath him. “So tell another one.”
“We were on call,” Merlin says, rattling out a breath. “There was a fire in a building. There were people inside needing medical assistance. The fire brigade lads told us not to go in, they hadn't cleared the area.” Merlin's nostrils widen, the grip he has on Arthur's arm tightens. “I heard the screams, Arthur, I heard the screams. The cries for help.”
Arthur knows Merlin enough to be able to tell what happened next. “So you went in.”
“I told Daegal to stay put,” Merlin says. “But he didn't listen.” Merlin buries his head in Arthur's shoulder and kisses it. “A support beam came down.” Merlin stops breathing for a moment, and then all of his air fans out. “He didn't make it.”
“Merlin--” Arthur squeezes Merlin's arm.
“I was there,” Merlin says, eyes squeezed shut. “I was the one who saw to him. I tended to him. I couldn't save him. Thousands of calls, so many rescues, and I couldn't do anything for him.” His voice breaks. “He was a young father, a husband, a man I'd loved a lot, my dear friend, and I could do nothing.”
“You didn't have the power to.” Arthur believes Merlin's one of the best doctors around. If he couldn't patch Daegal up, then nothing short of divine intervention could have. “It's the same all story, isn't it. Sometimes you lose people and you have to accept it.”
“Yes, that's my issue isn't it?” Merlin's lips twist. “We've talked about it, I suppose. But that's why it's been hard. Accepting fallibility.”
Arthur doesn't know how he'd react if their roles were reversed, maybe the same way as Merlin, asking too much of himself, never coming to meet his own impossible standards. “And that's what made you stop looking for relationships too.”
“Ever since he, well,” Merlin says. “After him I didn't feel like looking for attachments, for love, for sex even.”
Arthur wants to ask what's changed, what made him make a move here and now, but he doesn't dare yet. They're still too new. And Merlin sounds fragile, extremely so, and he doesn't want him to dwell on any of that. “Hence your self-imposed celibacy.”
“I just couldn't.” Merlin kisses Arthur, soft and then deep, desperate. “I just didn't have it in me. I suppose I was afraid of trying, of letting myself go.” He chuckles but it's none too merry. “I love a lot when I do.”
The space beneath his ribs hurting for Merlin, Arthur cups Merlin's nape, palms a shoulder, fits his palm round it. Because he lacks the words to help, to make it right, he just gives all his support in the only way he knows how. “Are you better now?”
“I think so,” Merlin says, inhaling deeply, drawing back to look Arthur in the eyes. “I've had enough of being an emotional coward. I've had enough of hiding.” Though his eyes have a sheen to them that speaks of stormy emotions, he smiles. “And when your heart tells you to, when it finally gets to beat that much faster, when it starts acting up again as it did before it all started, when it feels like you're impossibly young again, it's sort of a sign. And when your gut and your head and your instinct all tell you that you should chase after it, this big emotion, then you have to make a play for it.”
Arthur should let Merlin back away, give him time, give him space, allow to let this be casual, give up on the sex maybe. He should be the friend Merlin needs. He should let the thing between them develop on the basis of that. But he's half head over heels, he thinks. He wants Merlin too much. He has a wish to know the intimate workings of him; he has a longing for his heart, his affection, his love and passion. He wants him in ways that speak of staggering physical need. He wants to lock them in one and not come up for air for days. And though he oughtn't be selfish, he oughtn't press, he says, “I'm all for you making a play.”
Merlin's lips crease and his eyes twinkle, the heavy shadow that was in them lifting, like a star bust of pure unadulterated joy. It all seems easy then, the more so when Merlin says, “Kiss me again, player.”
The covers rest at Arthur's waist, covering his legs, his groin, fluttering under his navel.
Merlin traces his hand in broad swipes down his chest, then says, “Favourite pastime?”
Arthur puts on a mock frown. “This.”
Merlin kisses him on his sternum, around his nipples, flattening his lips around them, running them along the line that leads from upper chest to navel. Arthur's body is smooth, carved, like a chiselled statue, but without a statue's cold perfection. With its small shortcomings, the little scars, the occasional blemishes, it's been written on by events, by life, by sunshine and heat. There's more to it that that too. Arthur's a discovery in terms of everything. He tastes like salt in places and a little sweet in others. He smells like motor oil from the EC, like sandalwood from his shower oil, and the tart green apples he’s been eating recently.
Over the past week Merlin has come to love this combination, come to know it in a way that goes past the perception of the senses and becomes instinct, second skin. Tenderness blooms in him as his awareness of it increases. It balls up in Merlin's chest like a big light that radiates warmth. It expands till it envelops him from head to toe. His heart scampers up his chest and a breath-steeling feeling creeps up his chest. It makes him want to be with Arthur in all ways he knows. With his body and with his head and everything that comes in between. Planting one soft, small kiss on his chest after the other, Merlin trails down to his belly button. “I'm serious.”
“I don't know, flying.” Arthur strokes Merlin's hair. He does this in soothing motions, with some easy ruffling of his hair. “Horse riding. Playing Lacrosse. Visiting old churches by night.”
“Come again?” Merlin guesses he gets the whys and wherefores of the first three, but the last one comes across as wholly unexpected.
“I read art history,” Arthur runs his fingers through Merlin's hair, cradles his neck. “I just like wandering in churches when no one's by.”
“Why?” Merlin gets the allure of art, the beauty of studying it in all its majesty. The idea of exploring it by night is a little less common, he wagers.
“It's stupid.” Arthur reddens.
“I promise I won't laugh.” Merlin would never do that. He knows Arthur has his pride. He understands how it works. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Idiot.” Arthur pulls Merlin on top of him, so they're torso to torso again. “I just think that if you roam a place at night, you can connect with it better.”
“Plunge back in time?”
“I'm not that romantic,” Arthur says, taking Merlin's face in his hands. “I just like understanding things.”
Merlin has an idea. but he'd rather sit on it than tell it Arthur now. Some surprises are good for the soul. “Okay, right,” he says, “Right.”
“I admire it better without distractions,” Arthur goes on, as if this is very serious and he needs to elaborate carefully. “So I prefer nightly visits.” He nudges a shoulder into a shrug. “It helps with me being who I am. No one taking sneak pics of me instead of the architecture. It's just a thing.”
‘Favourite place then,’ Merlin says. ‘I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
“Well, if you promise to,’Arthur sounds rather pleased with the idea of that, ‘then I will.”
Opening his mouth a little against the warm skin of Arthur's stomach, Merlin smiles. He feels a little prickling of embarrassment as he thinks of the tale he's about to share, but it dies down in the wake of the comfort that comes to him from his and Arthur's relative positions, this lose embrace of theirs. “When I was little, my mum used to take me to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.” When Arthur's eyebrows join together in confusion, Merlin realises the reference is rather obscure. “It's a navigable aqueduct. You can sail along it in a narrow boat.” Merlin remembers how it had felt like, the wind in his hair, the water bubbling by, the view opening up to him on one side, so he could see stretches of green that went as far as the eye could roam. “The rail is low and you can see all the way into the countryside, it's so beautiful. When I was young I thought it was a right adventure.” He used to imagine the canal was rapids and he was Indiana Jones. That the boat they were travelling on would capsize and he'd swim upstream and he'd dash into some wonderful adventure, one that would change the world around him, morph the map of it from something known to something unknown. “Year after year I'd beg her to go.” Arthur probably won't get how such ordinary a place could mean so much for Merlin growing up. But he means to share it. “Highlight of my childhood.”
“I suppose now's my turn,” Arthur says, smiling at the ceiling. “The place I love most would be this little church in Les Beaux de Provence. I wrote my dissertation on it. I spent six months in the littlest village perché Southern France has on offer. It sprouts out of lush countryside dotted with rock that's carved out into staggering shapes by wind and erosion.” Arthur's voice grows fond. “There's a castle looming on top and houses built out of the same rock as the plateaus. They sprout around at its base like outcrops. You have to get very close to realise they're not a part of nature but man made buildings.” A smile tips his lips up. “It's all very quaint. Legend has it that sorcerers and evil spirits inhabit the caves and crevices.”
“It sounds as though you absolutely adore the place.” There's no mistaking Arthur's tone, his waxing lyrical, Merlin reckons, not once you take in how much Arthur smiles and how wide, how much his eyes glint. “And quite a lot too.”
“I went there in winter,” Arthur says, “off season it's got 200 hundred inhabitants at most.”
Merlin's from a relatively rural area but even he can't imaging that. “Wow, that's smallish.”
“Its surface area isn't.” Arthur lifts a shoulder, kneads Merlin's in return. “But you don't get to meet that many people.”
“I bet not.” Merlin sniffs his way into a smile.
“The residents, those that don't depend from outside tourism--” Arthur's hand plays at Merlin's flank. “--are mostly old people.”
Merlin lifts his face and their eyes meet. It seems to him that Arthur's relaxed, at ease. There's no tension to his muscles as there is when he's at work, when he's in public, or thinks he should perform well, be a good role model. That's all right with Merlin; he wants more of this restfulness from Arthur, this serenity, so he asks on. “And you like old people?” He nudges him with an elbow.
“Shut up,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes. “I like the fact that they don't care about who I am. They've seen so much and lived such long full lives, they don't care if I'm a prince or a pauper. If my facd was on papers they don't buy or on the screens of TVs they don't own. They don't give a rat's arse about me being royalty. It's so refreshing.”
“Come on.” Arthur kisses his shoulder. “You know what I mean.”
“So you hobnobbed with all the old farmers."
Arthur bites his ear, runs his teeth along the top curvature of his arm. “I spent the best months of my life in that village.”
Merlin wishes with all his heart that Arthur could have more of that in future. He knows how unlikely that is. With the King growing older, Arthur will take more and more of a public role as heir to the throne. When the time comes, he will step into his shoes and that will mean less and less leisure to be carefree in. Merlin's heart breaks over that. It goes so very tight and he almost doesn't know how to deal with it but for a strong determination to make it easier for Arthur, to make sure he never makes Arthur feel as if he's a title and not a man. As if he's only a figurehead scarcely meant to have a life of his own. Though the notion fills him with a strange pain that starts under his rib cage and expands outwards from there, he's aware he may not be at Arthur's side when he does become king. But that doesn't mean he doesn't mean to help him feel fulfilled now. “That's a nice memory to have.”
Arthur shuffles in the bed, turns his face towards him, and his eyes go to a tilt with softness. There's hesitance in his intake of breath, like a rush of fire that blazes inwards, before stuttering outwards. There's more of the same in the momentary tightness that makes his lips small, in the rounding of his shoulders into a narrower arc. But the gentle, sweet aura wins out over all of that, when he says, “I can think of other fairly good moments too.”
“Mmmm.” Arthur focuses his eyes heavenwards, giving them a roll. “Maybe one or two involves you.”
“Really.” Merlin makes a face.
“I don't know.” Arthur digs his fingers in Merlin's arm. “Ask me again when I've had you again.”
“How about making more?” Merlin says. “How about I cook you the best breakfast you've ever had?”
“Are you sure you can live up to that?”
Merlin isn't. But that is not something that he believes will matter. He throws on a shirt a pair of boxers. They're yesterdays, but short of going back home, there's little he can do about that. In this outfit, he marches on into the kitchen. It's beautiful, all chrome surfaces, and supplied with the latest gadgets. Merlin has no idea what half of them do, but that doesn't stop him from taking a lot of them out, lining them up on the worktop and upending them.
“I don't think that works how you think it does.”
Merlin isn't particularly confident either. The gadget has a pointy end and a rather vast array of buttons. He can't tell what any of them does. When in doubt Merlin prefers not to try his luck. “I'll go with this one.”
“Do you even know what that one does either.” Arthur saunters close.
Studying the object, Merlin says, “I think it's a waffle maker.” The cooking grid is certainly shaped the way the end product should look like. “I'll make you waffles. That's it.”
Arthur looks doubtful. “I'm afraid I don't know how to.” He studies the item, lifting its lid, and checking the electrical cord. “Are you sure you don't want me to ask Afallach to nip by the closest Waitrose?”
“Waitrose?” Merlin wings an eyebrow.
“They sell these fantastic seedless grapes.” Arthur reddens a bit and fiddles with the collar of his Lacrosse team shirt. “They're really good.”
Merlin chuckles. “Whatever happened to living a normal life?”
“I don't think grapes are particularly recherché,” Arthur says, going a little cross-eyed at that. “They're actually simple fare.”
“I didn't mean the grapes,” Merlin says, plugging the maker to the wall. “I meant the dispatching of your poor bodyguards.” When the the red light switches itself on, Merlin's sure the tool is indeed working. “And your go to choice of supermarkets.”
“What's wrong with Waitrose?” Arthur asks, brow furrowing.
“Nothing,” Merlin says, sticking his head in the fridge in search of ingredients he can use to make waffles. “Ah, I see eggs. Do you think you need eggs for waffles?”
“Not sure.” Arthur moves next to him so he can look at the contents of the fridge as well. There's not much in it, but he's still grinning at the emptiness for some reason. “We might try different recipes. One with and one without and one with...”
“Strawberries,” Merlin says, taking a packet from the freezer. “These are surely not fresh but healthier than any other option.”
Since they really are going by trial and error, they make different batches, pouring the ingredients Arthur does have into a bowl and adding different quantities of yolks, sugar and milk. When they have the batter done, they ladle it onto the the grid. As the mix bakes, they lower the top over it and wait. The first time around the waffle sticks to the grid and comes apart when they try to rake it off. It occurs to them they should have oiled up the waffle maker's surface. So they spray some oil onto it. Merlin doesn't even ask why Arthur has spray oil, he just showers the griddle with it. The second time around the waffle breaks in two just as they move it onto a dish. It's no great loss, however, because they bite off a piece and it turns out they were way too generous with the sugar. “You'd need to get instant blood sugar tests if you ate that.”
“If you say so.” Arthur grabs him by the neck and forces his head under his armpit, ruffling his hair. “You must be right.”
Merlin doesn't fight it, has no intention to. He grins into it, smelling the earthy smell of Arthur, enjoying the solid mass of him, and waits until Arthur releases him. When he does, Merlin straightens himself. But it's more for show, to make a lot of what's just gone down, to tease Arthur, than because he was put out by Arthur's antics. As he cooks, Arthur keeps nudging him in the ribs, elbowing him in the sides, spanking him with a spoon. Merlin retaliates in kind. At last Merlin gets a third batch ready. This one is actually good. Not too sweet, not too hard, and it comes unglued pretty easily.
They eat at the kitchen table, facing each other. As they munch, they smile, cheeks full, lips tilted. Washing down their food with instant coffee, they talk some more. They don't say anything that matters; it's just small talk. But Merlin laughs over his food, nearly chokes on it because of the laughter, and gets tears in his eyes because of both. His chest goes light, his lungs so full of air, he's nearly drunk on it, and his mouth tilts in a smile that just won't fade.
When he's cleaned the plate, he says, “Our shift only starts in a few hours, right?” Merlin asks, placing his fork and knife flat on his dish.
“Yeah.” Arthur puts the last of his waffle in his mouth.
“So I was thinking...” Hope flutters big in his chest, gets his heart contracting tightly. “...Maybe we could spend that time together.” Merlin cautions himself, tells himself he's not ready for this much emotion, for the ache that it brings. But he wants it right now. He wants the small pangs that grow inside him. He wants that queasy feeling coming from his stomach flipping. He wants the energy coursing right under his skin to continue to electirfy him. Besides, he wishes to have more time with Arthur, and now seems like as good a time as any. He hopes his plan works out too, because he'd like to give Arthur something, some joy, something to remember him by, most of all some good moments, grounded in reality. Arthur deserves endless strings of them. It occurs to him that Arthur's not a common man at all. “Unless you've business to see to first.”
“No,” Arthur says, picking up his mobile and typing some sort of message on it. As he does it, he frowns, and murmurs under his breath, the more so when messages start to ping in, but then he turns his phone off and lies it face down on the table. “I'm completely free.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin thinks all those strange goings on with his phone show that he is not. But then again he can't be positive. “You know I do get who you are and what sort of duties you have.” It's true that Arthur's being in the limelight is not always pleasant. In the past week Merlin's had to sneak around more than he ever did when he was sixteen and trying to buy alcohol at the seven eleven, which he would drink at his then – and first -- boyfriend's. But Merlin would never change Arthur for the world either. He's been shaped by that limelight as much as he has by his father or the schools he attended. Someone at some point made a good man out of him. That's something Merlin knows how to value and not to interfere with. “I can get out of your hair.”
“No.” Arthur lifts his head, so he can square gazes with Merlin. His lip comes out and his eyes take on a very serious, earnest expression. “I have time for you.”
With its battlemented tower and stone structure, St Teilo looks more like a keep than a church. Or so it's always seemed to Merlin. When he was a kid, he thought the ghosts of knights haunted the place. His opinion was based more on fancy than fact. He's never been good at history, and the gravestones slanting at improbable angles from the tower side probably led him to believe in all sorts of creepy stories. “My mum used to take me here too.” It was her idea of sightseeing after all. Taking him to nearby, affordable places was her way of giving him a holiday. Given that she couldn't afford anything else, Merlin wasn't only grateful. He was happy. “She read about the place a bit.” She used to surround herself with piles of informatory leaflets she'd keep either on the table or in empty coffee tins, the old fashioned ones that had as many bumps as smooth angles. “She said it was built on the site of a fifth century hermit cell.”
“And you thought to bring me here?” Arthur asks, eyes flaring with wonder, with a softness that rounds them.
Merlin lifts his shoulders up to his ears. “I know it's not particularly grand. And it's probably made precious few art books. But I thought you might like it.”
Arthur turns round. “Of course I do.” He faces the church again, squaring his shoulders to it. “It's beautiful. Majestic. I absolutely, well, love it, and--” He lumbers close, touching sides with Merlin. “I thank you, for even thinking of taking me here.”
“I didn't do much of anything.” Arthur is giving him more credit than he deserves. “It's so close to base. It was just a little detour. And I was hoping it'd be up your street.”
“It is.” Arthur touches his hand with the back of his. It's a glancing touch, but it doesn't feel throw away. For as long as it lingers, it's energising. “It's...” Arthur shakes his head at the bulk of the building, touches his palm to his heart. “It's one of the most beautiful churches I've ever seen.” He meets Merlin's gaze. “In fact, it's the most structurally sound, awe-inspiring, perfect church I've ever seen and I'm quite in love with it, with all the ways it works for me, with all its... angles. And quirks. And its depth.” He takes a big breath and his gaze becomes fonder. “In fact I would go as far as to say that this church is it for me.”
“Well, if it was such a hit with you,” Merlin says, brow knitting at Arthur's vehemence, “why don't we go inside?”
The interior is wide, simple, almost bare of arches, the naves tall, made from a solid block of limestone. Arthur's voice echoes as he says, “That font is twelfth century and look at that hammer-beam cross section.” He points at the oak roof. “It's likely just as old. I'd have to study it more closely to be able to say, but really, the odds are high.” Nose up in the air, Arthur wanders every corner of the church. He walks the naves, roams the chancel, goes down dark steps that lead into a mouldy crypt. He explores every nook and cranny wearing such a big smile Merlin cannot doubt he's truly happy, without a care. Arthur just nods and murmurs to himself and then shares a comment at the top of his voice. When he remembers he's in a church, he hushes himself, but his delight is palpable.
Because of that something in Merlin shifts. It cracks his ribs and injects itself in his heart and in his veins. It hurts subtly, and in places he can't identify. The fissure places are there but he can't spot them. He doesn't want to either. For all of the jangling of pain they bring, they also shock him with waves of deep-seated joy, a kind of euphoria, a washing of elation, that makes him wear a smile so big it matches Arthur's.
If he still wears that smile when they check in at work, that's alright by him. His job is grim enough that starting it like this gives him an extra gear. And though Gwaine asks, and Gwen sends him a probing glance, he's not prepared to share this with the world. Not yet. He wants it to be his for a while longer. Because it scares and thrills him, because it's a new part of him he needs to know more about himself, because it's changing his life in ways nothing has in a long time. While he's going to be private about the reasons why, he's not hiding how he feels. As he mounts the EC, bag at the ready, gurney strapped safely behind him, he's still wearing his comfort on his face.
The EC circles the disaster area twice. Leaning out of the open doors, Merlin surveys it. Part of the bridge has collapsed, leaving the other half dangling precariously mid-air. Girders and deck beams have broken in two, steel arms poking out of sliced off cement blocks like twiggy arms. Jarred out of position by the crash, the spandrel braced arches have come apart. The collapsed section of the overhead has flattened two cars and two other passenger vehicles; a couple of Jeeps have gone into the river. One car perches right on the rim of one of the bridge chunks, its doors open, its windscreen fragmented. On the second half of the bridge, which now stands lower than the other, one of the victims lies. Around them, the asphalt's fractured, cracked and pocked with large holes, deep scar lines and depressions. Glass and stray metal parts litter its length.
Gwaine says, “Ignore anyone who's been thrown into the sea. They coast guard will look after them.”
Merlin nods grimly. God knows he'd like to help anyone in trouble. But prioritising will save lives. Making a concerted effort not to think about those he can't assist, and clearing his mind of all thought, he says, “Okay, get me onto the sunken side of the bridge.”
“No.” Arthur's voice sounds dry over the radio. Strained. “I'm not.”
“I clocked a patient.” At this distance Merlin can't tell who they are, but he can see they're in dire straits. “I must help them.”
“Again no,” Arthur says as he flies over the bridge for the second time. “I can't land you there in safety.”
“I can lower myself.” They did this before, when they rescued a patient from the top of Carnedd Llewelyn. There's no reason why they shouldn't be able to pull it off again. “And get to the victim.”
“You can't.” Even from the cockpit Arthur's aviators glint in the morning light. “That section of tarmac isn't stable. It might collapse like the rest of the bridge did. I'm not letting you down in these conditions.”
“Do I get a vote in this?” Gwaine asks, looking from the accident scene to Merlin.
“No.” Arthur's voice dry, bare of feeling.
“Yes, of course.” Merlin nods at Gwaine.
Lines furrowing the skin above his nose, Gwaine frowns at the cockpit, then shakes his head. In a low tone only Merlin can catch, he says, “What's with him today?” Louder, he adds, “I think if we're quick about it, we can do it. Just rope us down. I'll bear the gurney.”
“I can't do that.” Arthur veers left, sharply away from the collapsed structure. “I'm not letting you go on a suicidal mission.”
Merlin's ribs fracture around his heart; his blood turns to sand. He doesn't want to do what he's about to. He doesn't want to go against Arthur in any imaginable way, but he needs to. He must. There's a person's life in the balance and he'd never forgive himself if he didn't even try. “I countermand that.”
“What?” Arthur's voice snaps over the radio.
“I'm team leader.” Merlin is after all. He should take responsibility. Whatever Arthur is to him, however much his feelings for him have grown bigger than his own frame, he can't let Arthur do what he wants in every instance. “I'm taking Gwaine's advice on board.”
“Gwaine!” The laughter that issues from Arthur's throat isn't sincere. “Please, he wouldn't know what prudence is if it stared him in the face.”
Merlin's heart breaks at that. He was the one who opened Gwaine up to this kind of attack. If he hadn't quarrelled with him when Arthur was present, this wouldn't be happening. There would be no rift in the team. The moral accountability for this is his. However muh he'd like to though, he can't smooth things over in a moment. It'll take time and patience and a few honest conversations between the three of them. For now he's got to regain control of the situation and do so before it gets out of hand, before his team stops being a unit. “Arthur, lower us. That's an order.”
Arthur doesn't say anything. At first he flies straight ahead, towards the horizon line and the open sea, where orange and blue meld together in a perfect violet strand. But with a few muttered words, he turns the EC around, so they're once again flying over the accident site. Once they locate the exact position of their casualty, Gwaine and Merlin step into their harnesses, checking each other's ropes just to be sure.
One he's secured one end of their tack to the rappelling hook, Gwaine verifies it holds by tugging on it twice. Merlin does the same, giving it a few hefty pulls to make sure it's not likely to disengage or fray.
'Okay, I'm off now,' Merlin yells into the radio. Beneath the belay, he hooks his descender onto the rope. Within seconds he has clipped it into his harness. With the helicopter blades whipping thunder overhead, he tells Gwaine. “Ready to go.”
Gwaine and Merlin climb out the door, and start lowering themselves. As he abseils downwards, Merlin threads the rope through, sliding down fast, but at a controlled speed. Gwaine follows close.
After he's touched ground, Merlin disengages himself. As Gwaine releases himself from his own equipment, Merlin rushes over to the patient. From up close he can tell it's a young man, probably in his early twenties. He's blonde haired, pretty much like Arthur, but his build is completely different, slight and twiggy whereas Arthur's broad and powerful. Even so for a moment the illusion's powerful, and it causes Merlin's heart to lurch in his chest, his skin to cool, and his head to swim.
Gwaine's the first to get to the patient's side. He places his fingers on his throat. “Can't get a pulse like thid,” he says, before leaning close. “But he's breathing.”
Merlin hurries over, deposits his kit bag down, squats by the patient. “That's a start.”
“It looks like he fell from up there.” Gwaine gazes upwards, at the other half of bridge that looms over them, a portion of archway cut short as it reaches outwards. “And landed down here.”
“Okay, we need to roll him.” Merlin can't work like this, with no airway access, and no way to check the patient for frontal injuries. “Come on.”
“Right on.” Gwaine matches gazes with him, bobs his head.
“Yeah, so we're rolling on three.” With Merlin at the patient's head and Gwaine shifting to his side, they align the young man's head, neck and back. “One, two, three.”
When the patient's back rests on the tarmac, Gwaine says, “Are we there?”
“Yeah.” Merlin breathes in relief. They've taken step one towards putting this young man to rights. Hopefully. “Well done.”
“Pulse 120, ” Gwaine says, running the first tests. “Resp's 24.”
“Patient has an obvious head injury.” There's blood at the back of his head and somewhere under his curls Merlin knows a cut lurks. If the young man's lucky, he's received no major trauma. If he isn't... Well, better not to think about that yet. Better go at it step by step. “Pupils are equal and react to stimulus.” He switches off the light of his portable pen torch. “I'd say he's a four.” Merlin continues feeling the patient's body for injuries. He places his thumb into the hollow between the young man's clavicle and trapezius while the knuckles of his index and middle fingers tease out the muscle line and pinch. “Central pain response negative. E1, V1, M1, GCS3.”
“So he's in a nice little coma, eh,” Gwaine says, eyes darkening.
“Abdomen's tender,” Merlin says, palpating the area. “Detecting a fullness in the top right quadrant.”
“That too.'” Gwaine looks him in the eye, twists his mouth. “Shit, this boy is really messed up.”
Merlin has no confidence their patient can survive long if he doesn't make it to a trauma centre quickly. He still makes him go through procedure though. Hurrying unduly has never saved anyone. “Patient has a major head wound, intra-abdominal injuries, and an open tibia. The sooner we get him hospital care, the better.”
“Okay,” Gwaine says, “let's focus on getting this fella to hospital.”
“Gwaine, prepare collar and blocks.”
“At the ready.” Gwaine lines both sets up. “Can you take the pelvis? I'm a bit busy at this end here.”
“I need you on the shoulders.” Merlin shifts along the length of the patient's body. “I can get legs and pelvis.”
“Can you lift first, please?” Gwaine says as he takes a hold of the patient's shoulders. “I need to hit the gym again.”
Merlin licks his lips, nods, prepares to lift. “From the head. Lifting in three - one, two, three.”
Synchronising themselves, they heave the patient onto the gurney. Thankfully, they've had long practice at this and they manage the transition smoothly, in one single heave that doesn't jar the patient at all. “Right, let's get this transfer going.” Merlin unhooks the radio from his belt. “Arthur, I need you to fly round again and air-lift us.”
Arthur's reply comes quickly. “Will be there in exactly one minute.”
Arthur's not wrong in his assessment. When Merlin and Gwaine look up, the EC rumbles into sight, its rotors moving fast. It hovers above them, spinning on its own axis. Ducking under the downdraught, Gwaine grasps the dangling rope and hooks himself and the gurney to the safety harness.
Gwaine and the patient are midway up, when Merlin hears the wail. Looking for its source, Merlin searches around with his gaze. He sees nothing, no other accident victim, no other injured person, but he's sure of what he's heard.
“Merlin,” Gwaine says into their radio. “It's your turn, mate.”
“There's someone else here.” Narrowing his eyes so as to study the distance, Merlin scans the area. “They sounded like they were in pain.”
“Merlin.” Gwaine's voice is laced with concern. “There's no one else down there.”
“No, I know there is.” Merlin's ears haven't fooled him. His hearing is quite perfect. Strong in that knowledge, Merlin takes a step away from the bridge ledge he's on and walks towards the mouth of it. “I must find them.”
“Merlin.” It's Arthur this time, sounding tight, his voice low-pitched, undertones of emotion colouring it. “That bridge is not safe.”
Merlin advances. Debris litter the carriageway; rubble scattered around the four points of the compass encumber it. Chunks of cement, pointed lengths of steel, and broken glass shards skitter away when he kicks them with his boots. Lighting up the afternoon, motor oil patches spark little fires around those cars the collapse has turned upside down or sideways, their smashed windscreens raining glass in fine trickles. Shining his pen torch inside them, Merlin establishes that all passengers are dead. Still Merlin heard what he heard. He's positive.
Arthur barks into his earpiece. “Merlin, have you heard me? Come back up.”
As he walks towards the rail, Merlin spots a flash of movement. “Give me a few seconds.”
Between two cement blocks that were part of the guard rail, a child hides. He's covered in dust, his face smeared with dirt. He holds his arm limply to his chest. From the angle his elbow sits at it's clear it's badly broken. “Hey.” Merlin squats by the boy, lips tilting into a helpful smile. “Were you hiding out here?”
The boys gives his head half a shake.
“I see,” Merlin says, scooting closer. “But I bet you got scared. That's normal, you know.”
The boy makes big eyes at him.
“Will you let me see to your arm?” Merlin can't set it right now, not the way it should be, but if he examines it, he'll be able to tell the receiving doctors what kind of fracture they're dealing with. “What do you think?”
The boy scuttle backwards. In doing so, he jars his arm, so he cries out.
“Okay, that's a no, then.” When dealing with little boys tact and patience are necessary. But that doesn't mean he can let his other patient wait. “Arthur.” He places the radio close to his mouth. “Fly to St David's and deliver our first casualty.”
“You can't stay on that ruddy bridge,” Arthur snaps into the radio. “It's this close to giving way.”
“I've got a child here.” Merlin lowers his voice to a dead serious burr, but smiles at the kid so as not to frighten him. “I can't move him right now.” He'll need to do some coaxing first. “But you need to take our coma guy to hospital.”
“Merlin.” The word is punched out of Arthur. “I can't leave you there.”
“Yes, you can.” Merlin's heart breaks over Arthur's struggle. He sees how hard it is for the both of them, for Merlin to ask, and Arthur to do. He gets it. But he can't allow that to change his course of action or admit as much over the radio. He can't be anything other than professional and get this done, get Arthur to do what's necessary. “You must turn around and save that man.”
For a beat there's no answer. “You can't ask that of me.”
“Yes.” Merlin closes his eyes, swallows. “I can. Because I know how much you really want to help people.”
A loud breath sounds over the radio. It's a quick, jerky puff of air that might be mistaken for static but isn't. “I'll be back for you and the child in a few minutes. Mark my word.”
Merlin watches as the EC turns round, banking away from the coast and towards the interior. It soon becomes too small to track. With its disappearance, Merlin feels a tug on his heartstrings, a small pang that lodges bright in his chest. Knowing he can't think about that now, that he must focus on the job at hand, the little boy, Merlin approaches him. “Will you let me touch your arm?”
“No.” The boy presses his lips together till they become white. “Hurts.”
“Right.” As a child Merlin broke a few bones. He did so by climbing trees and going on adventures with his next door neighbours. They never used any prudence. They never made allowances for it. Because of that tendency to act rashly, he remembers clearly just how painful a fracture can be. “Will you let me give you something for the pain? You'll feel better.”
The boy nods.
Having rooted in his kit bag, Merlin prepares a syringe. “You're not allergic to any meds, are you?”
The boy says, “No. Mum says no.”
“That's good.” Merlin's staying away from morphine and codeine and is giving him Tramadol anyway. “That's great. We'll sort you out in a few.”
“Where's my uncle?” the boy asks, without making any other peep as the needle pierces his skin. “I want to know where he is.”
Merlin places an ice bag against the boy's swollen joint. “Your uncle?”
“I can't see him anymore.” The boy looks past Merlin and towards the edge of the bridge.
Given the tell tale action, Merlin's quick to connect the dots. “The young man we just airlifted, is he your uncle?”
The boy wags his head in decisive swipes. “Uncle D.”
“And where are uncle A, B and C?” Touching his wrist, Merlin feels the boy's distal pulse so as to make sure that there's no vascular involvement. When Merlin finds it's not only there but quick and strong, he sighs with relief. At least so far the boy's in the clear. “Can you tell me how that works?”
“It's uncle Dan, stupid,” the boy says, smiling a little smile. It's wan, but it's there and that's what counts.
“I see.” Merlin checks for ulnar nerve damage. “Sorry. I'm quite slow sometimes.” Merlin touches the boy's hand and tells him, “Can you squeeze my fingers?”
The boy's grip is weak, almost not there. There must be some damage there. Given the boy's inability to extend his elbow, he must be suffering from some dysfunction of the triceps lever. There's no other explanation for his lack of strength, for his inability to command his movements. Having established that much, Merlin lets go of the boy. Since the analgesics must have set in, he splints the his arm. The child cries out, but Merlin distracts him with lots and lots of talk. He learnt the trick when he was doing his A&E rotation back in F2. In those days he had a lot more responsive patients than he does now. He soon got used to talking their ears off as a way to ease their nerves. The habit's stuck. Anyway it seems to be working now, this many years later. During the course of their chat, the boy tells him his name. It's Finley, but he doesn't like it. He'd rather be a Finn like the Star Wars character. That Finn's cool. Has Merlin watched the new movie? Upon asking he learns Merlin's name too and says that's even an odder one than his own. Merlin can tell the pain killers are seriously kicking in. “Your uncle is in good hands,” Merlin eventually tells Finley. They're in the vein of confidences anyway. “They're carrying him to hospital and they're being very quick about it.”
“And that will sort him out?”
“Hopefully.” Merlin can't promise miracles, but he can't tell it like it is. Not only are the staff at St David's excellent, but Arthur and Gwaine are fantastic in any emergency. If he was ill, he'd want those two take his case on. “Getting to him fast is important.” Explaining this to a child isn't easy, but Merlin's always believed in kids' capacity for understanding the most complicated of concepts. It all depends on how they're put to them. “The sooner you treat someone, the better it is for the person.”
“Are you going to get to me quick too?”
“Yes.” Whatever happens, whoever's toes he steps on, Merlin's going to follow up on this kid himself. This he swears. “In a few weeks you're going to be as right as rain.”
“That long?” The boy's eyes water.
Knowing that the pain must be making a come back, Merlin tries to soothe the boy. “Yes. That long. But then you're going to be fine. Believe me, I know.”
“Because you're a doctor?”
“Because I broke this bone here.” Merlin points to his Ulna. “Twice. And this other one.” He taps his Radius. “Once.”
“And you're fine now?” Finley asks. “It doesn't hurt anymore?”
“No, it doesn't.” Merlin lifts both arms. “I'm perfectly okay because I had good doctors.”
“Am I going to have very good doctors too?”
As they wait for the EC to reappear, Finley burrows close to Merlin. Merlin holds him lightly so as not to touch the broken arm. While they sit, the bridge groans and moans. Parts of tarmac detach themselves and fall into the sea below. When a chunk of it goes, rebars jostle free, and slide forward and into the water. But the sides of the structure seem to hold.
Merlin doesn't move, and Finley, with his broken arm, shows no will to either. Hoping the area they're in stays stable, Merlin talks on and on, taking his mind off the fragility of his perch, the potential dangers of the situation. He hopes they're not many, because he's got this child's fate to think about. He's thinking how Finleys' protection is now on him, when the EC reappears back on the horizon. It banks southwards, steering out towards them.
Once the EC hovers over their position, Gwaine lowers a gondola. Merlin straps the boy to it, flashes him a smile, reassures him, then gives Gwaine the thumbs up. As they lift him, the rope system oscillates in the wind, but the harness holds perfectly.
The boy is halfway up, when a rumble tears the air. A hairline crack whiplashes forward, splintering the tarmac under Merlin's feet.
Merlin dashes forward, but the hairline split follows him, the bridge collapsing behind him. Sprinting fast, pumping arms and legs, Merlin makes for the mouth of it, but the ground gives under him. Air wooshes around him and he falls. Flailing his hands, he grabs onto a jutting girder. Though steel bites into his palm, he holds on, legs dangling in the void. For a moment his head swims, and he goes cold, light with the sudden transition, with the swooping sensation entailed in the fall. Before he can let go, he gives himself a shake, centres himself, and clings.
Looking downwards, he establishes the situation he's in. Some thirty feet below him the sea churns. They waves aren't tall though and he might risk letting go, diving, but if he does there's no guarantee he'll break the surface whole. Broken bones might be the least of his worries then. Death is a definite possibility.
Because his arms are bearing his whole weight, his muscles start to burn, his sockets to feel the strain. If he keeps dangling and doing nothing it'll only get worse. “Right,” he mutters. “Do something.”
The pounding of the surf and that of his own heart mixing together, they deafen him to all other sounds. The sun blazes on his back; sweat trickles down his face, but he doesn't let that stop him. With a heave, he levers himself up, positioning his knee on the outer rim of the bridge. He's about to climb back onto the structure when another slab of cement gives way and he plunges back down, dangling one armed from the bridge's end.
Biceps burning, triceps in a lock, Merlin hoists himself up and seeks purchase with his fingers. He manages to gain a few inches. The muscles in his legs bunch and his arms strain as he pushes himself higher. His elbows come to rest on the tarmac. By now he's panting hard. Legs free-milling in the void, Merlin understands that now is not the time to rest. He must make a last effort and gain the bridge's level surface. Or what's left of it. He's putting all his weight on his arms and making an effort to climb, when someone grabs him by the arm.
Merlin looks up. “Arthur,” he says when he recognises him against the glare of the sun.
“I've got you.” Arthur groans as he lifts Merlin. “I've got you.”
Merlin wants to yell at Arthur, tell him to climb back on the EC and save himself. But he can't do that. Any time he wastes is time spent actively risking Arthur's life. The sooner they get away, the better. Though his heart goes to cinders at the mere thought Arthur might die here and now, he forbids himself from thinking, from considering that, and only reacts. Thanks to Arthur's help, he clears the edge of the bridge with his knees, then climbs onto it more fully. He draws a big breath, lifts his gaze to Arthur and says, “Run.”
First though, Arthur palms Merlin's shoulder, pats his body as if looking for injuries. When he finds him whole, he starts on his feet.
He's got to a standing position, when a chasm opens under his feet and he goes down.
Because of the numbness that envelopes his skull, Merlin doesn't know what he yells, he only knows he cries his lungs raw before he launches himself forward. Arthur's slipping down, but Merlin grabs one of his hands at the very last moment. With the move Merlin's shoulder almost wrenches itself out of his socket, but he stops Arthur's descent.
“I'm going to haul you up.” Though his shoulder burns with such an intensity that shows he's likely tearing something, Merlin will never let go. Even if he has no choice but to go down as well, he won't loosen his grip. “Just don't let go of me.”
“Merlin, you can't,” Arthur says, meeting his gaze, steadfast and honest. “I weigh more than you.”
Though his heart's breaking and his eyes are veiling with tears, he focuses on Arthur, because he's the one who matters now, the one for whom Merlin bears this great emotion balled up inside him. He can't let go. He can't go through that kind of loss. At the mere ghost of it he's already wilting and dying inside, his soul a stunted nub. Fear gnaws at him, shrivels him to nothing, but he clings, he clings desperately, because he can't envision any other action, any other path. “I can and I will.”
Lowering his body so he's lying belly down on the ground, he pulls Arthur. In a tearing of muscles and tendons, he manages to lift him partway, but pieces of gravel go loose and he's afraid he'll plunge them into the emptiness if he wriggles too much.
"Merlin, you can't lift me," Arthur says. “There's no shame in giving up.”
No shame in... Fucking hell. Does Arthur even get what he's saying? He's not only sacrificing himself; he wants Merlin to kill him, to make the choice to let go. What Arthur doesn't understand is that there would be no living for Merlin if he ever did that. He knows that hell. He knows it intimately. He won't go through it again. Not for as long as he has a choice. “You're joking, right.” Merlin refuses to lose Arthur. If it's the last thing he does, he'll make sure Arthur gets to live. “I'm going to do something else.” It comes out as more of a grunt than as words, but Arthur's eyes glint with understanding.
Letting go of his hold on the bridge end, Merlin slides forward. He reaches for Arthur's forearm and heaves with all his might.
“Merlin, please.” Arthur's eyes go round and very bright. “Let me go.”
“Just reach upwards when I lift,” Merlin says, refusing to listen to Arthur. “Okay?” Merlin can't bear any other outcome. He needs to get that through to Arthur. He needs Arthur to see much he means to him, how much this matters to him. if he doesn't, Arthur's the type to give up. “Please, try for me.”
Arthur reads his expression. Something in it must have moved him, because he clamps his lips and nods.
Just as Merlin hoists him, Arthur reaches out. Thanks to that effort, Merlin pulls him up and over the bridge's edge. When they've got up to the lip, they sprawl out and pant. As soon as they've caught their breath, they rake themselves up, and run towards the stem of the bridge. “The EC's over there.” Arthur mills his arms in the air to point. “Come on before the entire thing collapses.”
As they run, the bridge goes down. In a cloud of dust they throw themselves into the EC.
Merlin's tapping the pen against the form. He's half-filled his report. The upper section is neatly compiled. His lines are legible and his handwriting neat. The lower one is full of half-scrawled words that make no sense upon re-reading. In an attempt to clear his vision, Merlin squeezes his eyes, rubs his face in his hands, then blinks.
“If you insist on writing in the dark, you'll get blind, doctor.” Arthur enters and turns on the light.
Merlin narrows his eyes against the glare of the bulb. When that's not enough, he shields them with his palm. “Writing in the dark once is hardly likely to give me vision impairment.”
Arthur turns a chair around and straddles it, placing both hands on the top rail. “You're writing today's report, aren't you?”
“I have to.” Merlin balls the form up. It's no good anyway. “Gwen said it could wait until tomorrow, but I need to have it down when it's all fresh in my mind.”
“I see.” Arthur rubs at a spot behind his ear. “There's was something I wanted to ask you about that...”
Merlin goes to the fridge, takes a Thermos, and empties its remaining contents in his mouth. Albeit cold, he needs the comfort of coffee for this conversation. When he sits back at the table, he's a bit more awake, if not at all ready. “Arthur, I--”
“No, listen.” Arthur shows him his palms. “This is important.”
Merlin gives Arthur a nod. He supposes he can postpone this. It's better that way. The pain is strong enough as it his. Merlin doesn't want to face it yet, make it any more real than it is. That mortal blow can wait. “Go on.”
“I know you have to write a truthful report,” Arthur says, “and I respect that.” He licks his lips. “I want you to know that I would never want you to betray your notion of honour.”
Merlin isn't entirely sure what honour's got to do with this. “Come again?”
“All I ask is that you don't mention how close I...” As he chooses the right words, Arthur frowns. “...how I had a close call.” He gestures for Merlin to wait, to listen. “If he knew about it, my father would put a stop to this. He would have me choose another job. I can't allow that to happen.” He leans forward in his seat. “Partly, it's because I--” He goes red from neck to face to forehead. “I think we make a good team. An effective one. We work well together, or, well, so I think.” As he spells it out, he gets even more crimson. “But also because in all honesty I don't really want to go back to the army. This stint here... Well, it's taught me a lot. About how I can make myself useful, how I can make a real difference.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, and by now he's almost got to bite back the tears. Arthur's got so much courage and such a sense of justice, it's really insane that he thinks he's being underhanded now. Not when his purpose is so pure, really lofty. God, but Arthur's so kind-hearted. “It's okay really.”
“I want you to know that I get how this is not a light matter.” The furrows on Arthur's brow deepen. “I get how omitting that part will play on your conscience. But I just need my involvement to be hushed up. Because I want to continue being able to help. And I think this is the right place for me. For me to give my contribution.” He meets Merlin's gaze and his is full of purpose, hope, and determination. “You see how mine is not a light request. It's not a piece of whimsy and it's not a tantrum. I've thought and thought about it and I do need you to gloss over my... well, my mishap.”
“I don't want you to get kicked out, Arthur.” Merlin's voice gets croaky. He has a hard time speaking his throat's so clogged. “But you realise yours wasn't a mishap.” Arthur's playing it down frays Merlin's nerves. “It was much more than that.”
“Nothing happened,” Arthur says. “You're fine. I'm fine.”
Merlin shakes his head. “The fact we're okay, well, it was sheer luck.”
“I'm trained and you're trained.” Arthur's expression is very tense, very alert, his mouth thinning and his facial muscles pulling, hollowing his cheeks. “Those are the risks of the job.”
“Not really.” Arthur can't be lying to himself to that extent, Merlin thinks. He must see. He's definitely aware of what nearly happened. “Arthur, you landed the EC at the mouth of the bridge and came to get me.”
“I saw you go down.” Arthur's face goes pallid, his eyes get shadowed, haunted. “I couldn't not help.”
Merlin gets that. If their positions had been reversed, he'd have moved heaven and earth to save Arthur. But that's not the point, is it? The point is what Merlin's heart can take and what it can't. “Arthur, you nearly died because of me.”
Arthur's mouth opens in denial, disbelief, outrage. “I had to get you. You can't ask me to stand there while I watch you die.”
“The same's true for me.” Merlin hopes Arthur understands how much he means to him, how he's penetrated the fissures in his soul at astounding velocity, and filled them with a lightness that knows no comparison. He wishes Arthur could see the inside of him and see how Merlin's heart beats for him with a steadiness that gives him purpose. “I can't watch you die.”
“You didn't.” Arthur reaches out atop the table and covers his hand with his. “I'm here.”
“Am I wrong in thinking--” Merlin swallows thickly. “--that given a similar set of circumstances you wouldn't hesitate to risk your life again?”
Arthur's gaze snaps upwards. It goes from their linked hands to matching Merlin's own. “I'd give my life for yours.”
That statement slices through Merlin like the blade of a knife. Maybe it's the utter simplicity of it, maybe it's because Merlin believes Arthur in a way he wouldn't others, but the words do lay waste to him in a way few others can. “I can't.” Merlin looks away, bows his head, dabs at his tears. “I can't let you.”
“It's not a matter of letting,” Arthur says, squaring his shoulders.
“I get it. I get you.” Merlin understands Arthur's a daring, generous soul. “But I must do what I can to prevent that from happening.”
Arthur sucks in a breath and his eyes go big. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I can't be with you.” Those are the last words Merlin wants to say. He actually wants to take them back, have them unsaid. He wants to reach out to Arthur and draw him to him, breathe in the smell of him, and never let go. But if he indulged, then there would be nothing stopping Arthur from doing something stupid the next time around. “We can't be together.”
Arthur hisses, his shoulders go small. “What no, why!”
“You know why.” Arthur must have come to know Merlin well enough to see his reasons.
“I'm not him.”
Merlin doesn't stop himself from openly crying. Holding back the tears would be too much of a monstrous effort. “I know. I know it's different. But it's not that different either.” At the end of the day, even with different jobs, Arthur's in the same boat Daegal once was, contractually meant to risk his life. “I can't go through that again.”
Arthur's jaw clenches. “What about me?”
“You're going to be fine, Arthur.” Arthur doesn't need him to fulfil his potential. He'll become a great king, a brilliant figurehead. He's already a good man, stepping into his father's shoes will only make him one fully-rounded great guy. “I'll always wish you well.” And hold you dear, and watch over you, he thinks, but does not say. Arthur would see that as a proof of Merlin's weakness, of Merlin's unshakeable feelings for him. He'd be right. “I promise you that.”
“So I'm what?” Sending his chair rattling backwards, Arthur stands. Hands on his hips, shoulders squared for battle, he looks around, surveying the break room as if he doesn't know it like the back of his hands. “Am I supposed to take it standing? Am I supposed to lose you and accept it?”
Merlin gets the reasons behind Arthur's retort. He feels the same way as he does about breaking up. Arthur's the most beautiful thing that has happened to him in a long time, after all. But being with him also means opening himself up to the danger of loss. And that's something his battered heart can't take, not if his goal is surviving, keeping a hold of his sanity. “I can't live fearing I'll have to mourn you.”
“You' won't have to." Arthur thumps his chest as though to prove his strength, his imperishable nature. “I'm here. I'm here right now. won't be there if you drive me away.”
“Maybe not.” Merlin nods at his own words. “But then you'll be safe.”
“That makes no sense.” When Arthur realises that that line of reasoning isn't persuading Merlin to change his mind, he changes tack. “And what about me? You're risking as much as I am. More. Today you put your life on the line for that boy. Am I meant to take that in stride too. To bear it?”
Merlin doesn't point out that his solution would solve that problem too. It's too petty and it's not what he wants to say at all. If this is one of their last intimate conversations, he means to pour his heart out in all the right ways. “Because you're braver than me.”
“Not true.” Arthur moves his head from one side to the other in a cutting motion. “Not at all true.”
“You are.” Merlin has no inkling as to why Arthur can't see that, that he's worth a thousand Merlins, but so it is. “In your heart you are.”
“So this is it?” Arthur asks, broadening his stance, widening his shoulders. “I get no say? We don't discuss it? You just decide this for the both of us?”
Merlin's aware that if he does discuss it he'll fold, change his mind, end up doing what Arthur wants because it's what he wants too. He's not fooling himself. Deep down he knows the truth of it. Equally deeply he senses that if he does concede to Arthur, if he goes back to such a tight-knit relationship as the one they were starting to enjoy, he'll suffer immeasurably. He must shield himself from that. “I'm—” His voice breaks and he puts a finger to his mouth to stop the quivering of his lips. On a deep intake of breath, he adds, “I can't go on like this.” Invite all that suffering, allowing himself to be torn again. If the worst ever came to the worst, he'd be powerless to react. He'd be finished. “I'm so sorry, Arthur.”
“You're not.” Arthur's eyes blaze with a hurt so deep it looks fathomless. “You're not sorry in the least.”
“Arthur--” Merlin doesn't know why he's pleading. He's got what he wanted, he's disappointed Arthur in such a way there's no going back.
“No.” Arthur flattens his lips. “This, you-- you're heartless.”
Merlin wishes he were. If he was, this wouldn't hurt so much. He doesn't protest the accusation though. Maybe if he hates Merlin, Arthur will walk away more easily. “That's fair.”
“Right. You're right it is.” As Arthur goes out, he slams the door.
Merlin buries his head in his hands.
Pounding the ground with his feet, Arthur keeps the tempo of the music wafting into his ears. Pumping arms and legs, he goes faster and faster, till sweat covers all of his body and his hair's drenched. Perspiration dripping from his elbows and from his nose as well as his eyelashes, he looks ahead, head tipped up, so it won't get into his eyes.
Afallach is the first to stop. “Must we...” He doubles over as he pants. “Must we go on much longer?”
Arthur stops in his tracks. When he realises where they are – some six miles away from the flat – he feels some compunction on behalf of his bodyguard. “No, we don't.” Arthur's exercised enough for the day and is on duty starting at four. He'd better go home and have a shower or he'll never make it. All in all he doesn't particularly feel like getting into work today. Putting on a professional face seems impossible. Seeing Merlin again looks like an ordeal. He hasn't set eyes on him since the bridge and Arthur can scarcely bear being so close again, seeing his face most of all. He has no idea whether that's because he'll hate it and that'll sour everything or because he'll love it in spite of everything. Either way he's not keen on crossing paths with him. He won't be so petty as to ask to change teams, but working side by side with Merlin today won't be easy. Rather it'll be one of the biggest challenges he's encountered so far. That doesn't mean he should punish others though. “No, it's enough, we're going back.”
When Arthur enters his flat, he finds Morgana. She's pacing up and down, her arms crossed. When she swings round, she totters for a second on nearly vertiginous heels. Once she's got her balance back, she says, “There you are.” She turns her nose up at the state he's in. “You haven't answered any of my calls. It's been days.”
“I know,” Arthur says, towelling some of the sweat away. He still needs a shower, but perhaps Morgana will give him less of the gimlet eye if he does mop away the worst of the offending bodily lather. “I wasn't in the mood to.”
“You weren't in the mood to?” She taps her fingers on her arms, her nails clicking and clacking. “You weren't in the mood to answer my twenty frantic calls?”
Arthur points a finger at his sister. “That's exactly why I didn't pick up. The last thing I need is frantic anything.”
“You scared me, Arthur.” Morgana's face goes terribly earnest. “I didn't know what had happened to you.”
Arthur slaps his towel onto the sofa. “If anything had happened to me news-hounds would've pounced on it.”
“I know.” Morgana's shoulders drop a little. “But I worried all the same – and you ignored me.”
Arthur isn't in the mood to discuss this. “I need a shower.”
“Arthur, you need to talk to me!” Morgana makes a beeline for him.
Arthur sidesteps her. “I told you, Morgana, I mean to shower.” Whatever she says, he'll not have a heart to heart with her. “I don't care if you're standing there, I'll just strip.”
She widens her eyes. “You wouldn't.”
She's partly right. Arthur normally wouldn't. Not in front of her. But the truth is he wants her gone. He wants to have no confidential chat. Most of all he doesn't wish to be made to fess up about Merlin. That's something that's too new, too raw, and to private for him to share. But Arthur's in the kind of emotional shake-up guaranteed to make him act in a way he normally wouldn't. So he takes his top off and then shakes off shoes and trousers. By the time he's started on his briefs, Morgana's gone in a clutter of heels.
The rush of the shower kills all his thoughts; the warmth of it drives some heat into bones that have felt cold ever since his confrontation with Merlin. In his room he changes into his uniform. He could do it at work. Usually he always does it at work, but with Merlin around he doesn't want to unpeel any layer. He doesn't think he can take it, not if they're meant to change together.
It's silly. After a life in the military he's used to hanging around naked comrades while in the buff himself. But with Merlin it would only remind him of moments that had a different purpose, a different intent, instants that have ingrained themselves in his memory as precious recollections.
Though he knows they won't happen again, though he would refuse to have them occur again, he can't help still being moved by them. Which is why he can't possibly put himself in a vulnerable position when it comes to Merlin.
At work he runs into many familiar faces. Though he doesn't feel like it, he greets everyone with a kind word. Partly because he can't be rude to people without a scandal happening. When it comes to royals, snubbed folks are quick to run to the newspapers with tales of untold rudeness meant to prove some major moral failure. It's also because he doesn't want anybody to guess what's happened between him and Merlin, neither their coming together, which nobody should know about, nor their falling out.
Gwaine's the test. If anyone's likely to have put two and two together, that's him.
“Ah, Arthur,” Gwaine says, giving him a slap on the shoulder as he crosses paths with him, “cooled down, have you?”
Arthur stops short and goes so rigid his jaw clicks into place painfully. “What do you mean?”
Gwaine looks at him as if he's grown two heads. “You were a bit jumpy on our last mission. I was wondering if you'd calmed down a bit.”
Arthur can't tell whether Gwaine knows about his relationship with Merlin or not. Not on the basis of so little. But since there's a chance he only means Arthur was flighty on their last outing, he goes for a non-committal answer. “New day. New me.”
“That's what I wanted to hear.” Gwaine's stance eases. “Good lad.”
“Aren't you coming?” As far as Arthur's aware, Gwaine's on shift too. “I mean we're on in ten.”
“Just going to grab some munchies,” Gwaine says, pointing in the direction of the hall the vending machines are located in. “I'll be with you in a thrice. Merlin's already in there.”
Right, exactly what Arthur wanted, a tête a tête with Merlin right after their break-up. This one is going to be painful. “Right thanks.”
Leaning over a document he's filling in, Merlin sits with his back to a table. As he scribbles, he bites the eraser perched on top of his pencil. Because of the way he's positioned, he looks like he's all angles, extremely lean, yet not so much so as to make one think him wasting. The line of his biceps shows as he flexes his arm, as do the quads in his legs, which are solid and spindly at the same time. All in all, he still looks great, as beautiful to Arthur as he is impossible to reach out for. And isn't that a pain on top of all the other ones?
When Merlin hears him trample in, he looks up. He's pale about the face, gaunt-cheeked, but he's still smiling, at least until he realises that it's Arthur's who's facing him. Then his smile falters. His shoulders tensing, he sobers, sits up. “Arthur,” he breathes out, a deer-in-headlights look on his face.
Arthur feels like he's about to break down. He feels like he's been pulled in all directions, drawn and quartered by Merlin's gaze falling on him. He can't let that show though, refuses to bare his emotional side to Merlin. He's already done it once and suffered for it. He won't plunge into the same trap again. Whatever storm rages inside him, he can fake with the best of them. He's been trained to sell an unflappable image from birth. “Merlin.” He steams over and deposits his bag onto the table. “Had enough downtime?”
“More than.” Merlin appears a little wrung out as he says that.
Arthur wants to talk. He wants to start a chat, tell Merlin about his week so far, to discuss his feelings of helplessness and sadness, to share with him. But he can't. You don't tell your ex how pained you are by his absence. You're not meant to. You're supposed to get over it on your dignified own. So he doesn't say anything. He only watches Merlin's shoulders drop, sees his gaze wander away from him, and focus sadly on the poster adorning the opposite wall.
He's saved from doing anything stupid by Gwen entering. “Merlin, Arthur, we've got a code blue.”
Merlin jumps off the table. “What sort of emergency?”
“Young man wounded in Rosehill Quarry park,” Gwen says. “They meant to send an ambulance over, but there's a strike with hundred of protesters marching. They can't get to him in any way.”
“We're on our way,” Merlin says, taut, serious, focused on the job at hand. He oozes professionalism like the Saxe-Coburgs drip old-world stateliness. “We'll get him to hospital in under twenty.”
Arthur tears off towards the helicopter. When Gwaine and Merlin jump on, he's already got the rotors running. Before he's fully off the ground, he has the radio on and he's communicating with emergency services. “Here Foxtrot Hotel, we have a major trauma, Helimed 54. Gunshot wound.”
“Heard that in the back?” Arthur says, as he veers towards the coordinates he was given.
Because the radio is powerful, Merlin's voice sounds incredibly close when he says, “Got it.”
Arthur suppresses a shiver at the false intimacy the radio system creates. Merlin isn't whispering in his ear and he won't ever again. It's only an illusion fashioned by air waves. Besides, any longing for such closeness will only weaken Arthur. He doesn't need Merlin. On the contrary, he should be quite furious at him for the way he dumped him. Merlin was so cold, so unfeeling. So bloody selfish. Arthur can't allow himself to desire him. “Good, because we're going to be there in two.” Arthur has no doubt Merlin will be ready. He's a consummate professional, after all. But he still wants to put a stinger in there. “If you can make it, that is.”
Voice taut, Merlin says, “Ready at your go.”
Gwaine snorts into his mic. “Hey, princeling, are you joking?” Incredulity does strain Gwaine's tones. “We both know Merlin's always raring to save people.”
Arthur can't object to that so he doesn't. “Over the area. Prepare to lower yourselves.”
Even though he means not to watch over them, Arthur strains to see overboard. He needs to know that Gwaine and Merlin are landing safely. He doesn't stop clutching hard at the controls until after they've touched ground. His heart lightens when he watches them rabbit forwards.
As Arthur flies over the incident area, he sees Gwaine and Merlin rush towards a prone man, gurney between them. Over the radio he hears Merlin says, “Bullet hole is in the right lumbar region.”
“Where's the exit wound?” Gwaine asks.
“Somewhere. We'll look for it in a second.” Merlin's sounds measured, focused. “Give me the stats first.”
Gwaine reads them out quickly. “Sats are 82, going down. BP 110 over 95. He looks stable.”
“Stable's good.” Merlin must have said that between gritted teeth, because the message doesn't ring too clear to Arthur. “But his saturation levels concern me.”
“Do I bag him?” Gwaine asks, clearly hanging from Merlin's every word.
“Yeah, go ahead,” Merlin says. “I want to get him to hospital as quickly as possible.”
Arthur's fairly confident that Merlin will get his patient to safety as soon as humanely feasible, so he scopes the park for a suitable landing ground. Fortunately only a few trees hem the area in. Otherwise it's pretty much a wide common with low grasses. Perfect for an approach to landing. He's moving his craft east of the football pitch, when Merlin says, “Gwaine, hold him down.”
“If he thrashes like that, I can't do that and my job.”
“Okay, all right.” Merlin's breath come fast, short, as if he's exerting himself. “Arthur, we need a hand down here.”
“I can land safely.” Arthur surveys the patch of common he intends to touch down on. “Are you sure you need me?”
“Positive.” Merlin's voice meshes with the cries of the victim, whom he half soothes even as he speaks to Arthur. “Get down here.”
Arthur can't really do anything but, not only because Merlin's team leader, and as such has a right to order them about, but because he can't leave Merlin in the lurch like that. It's an instinct stronger than he is. Though that won't change how things are between them, this is a natural reaction to him, one he can't put a stop to. It doesn't mean he's going soft on Merlin. It won't happen ever again. But this he must do. For Merlin. For the patient.
Once he's lined up with the spot he's chosen to land on, he pushes down on the collective and starts his descent. In a nose-down dive, he uses the pedals to keep the EC steady, correcting as he goes.
Touching down, he skids a little, pointing the nose southwards, keeping the cyclic up to maintain the rotor disc flat while holding the collective. After he's lowered it, the EC comes to a stop quickly.
Jumping off it, he runs to the spot Merlin, Gwaine and the attack victim are at. Wind short, he makes it and kneels at the head of the patient.
“Hold him down.” Blood drenches Merlin's latex gloves and the side of his goggles. His expression's grim. “Take his hands.”
“Got him.” Arthur watches as Merlin works and though the situation is dire – a flailing patient and little time to get him to the trauma centre – Merlin moves with forethought, his gestures quick but in no way hurried, thoughtless. This grounds Arthur in the certainty they're going to make it. It steeps Arthur in admiration. Merlin's qualities shine through for him like a bright beacon. He's lost a fine man, if a heartless one. “Do what you have to.”
“BP?” Merlin asks.
“110 over 95, and stable.” Gwaine looks to Merlin.
Lacing his thumbs along each side of the mask, Gwaine slides his fingers behind the victim’s jawbone and pushes down on the mask, lifting his jaw and tilting his head back. “Bagged with one hundred per cent oxygen.” Gwaine indicates the mask the patient's wearing. “But his numbers aren't improving.”
“I'll just check if there's anything obvious obstructing the airway,” Merlin says, as he tilts the patient's head back. “Just give me a second here.”
“Got anything?” Helping the patient breathe while Arthur holds him down, Gwaine inflates the bag. “Tell me you do.”
“Nope.” Merlin winces. “Can't see a thing. There's blood in here as well.”
“What do I do?” Arthur's rarely felt so helpless. He's got to quiet down a thrashing man, who's getting more panicked the less he can breathe.
“Just keep doing what you're doing.” Merlin shifts his attention back to the patient. “Gwaine, I need IV access, stat.”
“Upcoming.” Gwaine roots in his bag.
Once Gwaine's done setting up a drip Merlin says, “Okay, put up a bag of O neg for me, please?”
“On its way.” Gwaine has the sac ready before Arthur can blink.
“I've got him on a catheter,” Merlin says, his hands moving quickly over his patient's body and spitting out a plastic piece belonging to the contraption he just used. When he's done, he addresses the wounded man. “Hey, can you hear me?” When the patient blinks at Merlin, he goes on. “I'm Doctor Emrys and we're taking you to hospital. Can you hold in there just a couple minutes more?”
The Patient makes big eyes at Merlin and groans.
“Patient responsive to verbal stimulus,” Merlin says. “His eyes are open and focused; can recognize and follow eye movements. That's E4 for me.”
“Aye, captain.” Gwaine grunts that more than says it.
“Patient is in a state of panic, V3.” Merlin shuffles forwards on his knees. “M4 response to pain, Glasgow Coma scale 12.”
“Sats are steady, but not the best,” Gwaine says.
Arthur looks from him to Merlin.
“He'll probably hold till we get him delivered. If not we can chest drain him on the EC.” Merlin takes the new info in stride, nodding to himself. “Okay, before he loses too much blood, let's have a look at the at the other side. Maybe we'll find that exit wound.”
“Scooching down.” Gwaine suits words to action.
“Let's have a look.” Cutting at his clothes, Merlin leans close to the patient. “Gotcha. There's a small exit wound consistent with a gunshot. He's not bleeding profusely and I can see no evidence of a haemorrhage. Likelihood bullet is out but we're leaving that for the trauma team to deal with. Since he's somewhat stable, let's just collar him, put him on the gurney, and move him to the EC.”
A shadow moves over them. When Arthur looks up it's to see a man standing over them. He's young, so much so that a goatee struggles to grow on his chin. He's got a baseball cap on his head, a gun in his hand. “Stop it,” he says. “Let him die.”
Merlin gazes upwards. His eyes round with surprise but his body doesn't otherwise betray a reaction. His shoulders stay wide in an open display of calm. His torso doesn't angle away from the trajectory of the gun. “I can't do that.” Probably so as not to startle the gunman, he stops reaching for the collar he was trying to grab. “I'm a doctor. I can't stop attending a critical patient.”
While Arthur admires the sentiment, he finds it the most foolish thing one could possibly say to a gunman who's probably already shot someone. “Merlin--”
The gunman shifts his weapon onto Merlin. “Go away and I won't shoot you.”
“But you'll shoot him.” Merlin leans over his patient, his body an imperfect shield. “I can't let that happen.”
“Move away!” the gunman shouts, the weapon trembling in his hand. “Move away now!”
Merlin stays rooted to the spot, just as Gwaine does.
Arthur sweats cold. His heart stops with a kick in his chest. He's been trained for situations like this one. They don't let you out of the RAF without having instructed you as to how to react when under threat of fire. But none of those lessons apply here and now. Because it's not just him in danger. He can look after himself just fine; he once enrolled knowing the potential risks to his well being. This involves others. Though he's had to look after his fellow airmen before, it's not quite the same either. He loved them to the last one of them, always meant to make sure they were fine, but he was never intimate with them the way he was with Merlin. He never fell asleep with them in his arms. He never was inside them. He never let them get under his skin in way that altered him in the manner Merlin has. That's why he can't cope with anything happening to Merlin now. Prompted by a storm of feeling, he reaches an arm out, placing it in front of Merlin. It's a stupid action, one that won't shield Merlin and one that is only bound to startle their aggressors. But he's acted before thinking it through and there's no undoing it now.
“Step away from him!” the gunman's hand trembles and his weapon shakes with it. “I don't want to kill you, but I will if you don't let me finish my job.”
“And then what?” Merlin's voice has gone quieter, gentler, non-challenging. There's still a keenness in his gaze fit to cut diamonds, but that doesn't influence his tones at all. “I'm dead, my patient's dead, and you live out your life in prison. Is that what you want?”
“I'll end up in the nick all the same,” the gunman says, his eyes getting wider and more bloodshot by the second. “So what bloody difference do it make, uh? I'll just be rid of the bastard.”
“It'll make a big difference.” Merlin meets the gunman's gaze dead on. “For one because I'm going to save this man and if I do you won't be guilty of murder.”
“I still shot him down.” The gunman steps back, then forwards, his fingers hovering on that trigger. “They'll get me for that.”
Gwaine reaches over to grab at a spent needle.
Arthur's no idea what he wants to do with it, probably stab the gunman, but he still makes a subtle sign no with his head. If that goes wrong, they're all dead.
Fortunately the gunman's too frantic or too doped to notice.
Gwaine drops his makeshift weapon.
“You're young.” Merlin looks profoundly earnest when he says that, trustworthy. “You've got your life ahead of you. Do you really want to waste it on this man?”
The gunman wavers, lowering his arm. “I--”
“Think about yourself,” Merlin says, arching an eyebrow. “Think about the justice you want to do yourself.”
The gunman's eyes flash. He ups his gun. His finger pulls at the trigger, but doesn't move it all the way back.
Arthur's convinced the madman's going to shoot. Heir to the throne or no, he's preparing to place himself in front of Merlin, when the gunman curses, tosses the gun away and takes off at a run.
Gwaine skids off to get the pistol. “How the hell do you engage the safety on this cursed thing?”
“Give,” Arthur says, toggling the lever to off. “I'll radio the police.”
While Arthur does this, Gwaine and Merlin busy themselves over their patient.
“Hyper-resonance on the left side,” Merlin says, auscultating the wounded man. “I suspect a pneumo.”
“So that was why we couldn't get better sats,” Gwaine says.
“Chest drain kit, please.” Merlin puts away his stethoscope and shows his empty hands to Gwaine.
Gwaine hands him the kit.
“I'm going to put in a chest drain to relieve the pneumothorax.” Merlin cuts away the patient's shirt. “Give him 20 mg of ketamine, Gwaine.”
“Making an incision along the upper border of the rib below the intercostal space.” Blood wells under Merlin's scalpel. “Directing the drain track over the top of the lower rib.”
“Do you need me to put a finger in?” Gwaine asks.
Inhaling sharply, Merlin shakes his head. “Inserting the clamp into the muscle.”
Gwaine smiles wide. “And we're back on track to saving this fine lad.”
“Spreading clamp.” Merlin puts his finger in the hole he created. “Track is in place. Coming onto the rib and angling it.”
Grinning at Arthur, Gwaine says, “Our Merlin is a master when it comes to chest drains. Real magic.”
“I'm into the pleural.” Merlin wriggles his finger round. “I can find no
“At least some little luck is on our side.” Gwaine studies the goings on keenly.
“Mounting chest tube on the clamp and passing along the track and into the pleural cavity.” Merlin's starting to sweat now. “Inserting tube along the anterior axillary line, behind the pectoralis major.”
Arthur looks to Gwaine with a question in his eyes.
“We're nearly done.” After having matched gazes with Arthur, Gwaine shifts his attention back to the patient.
Arthur can't say he isn't relieved. He wants to have this be over with, so his adrenaline can go back to normal levels. So he can be sure they're all fine, that there are no more risks to run. For himself he can bear anything, but the others... The others should be as safe as possible.
“The tube is connected to the seal.” Merlin threads some thread through a surgical needle. “Suturing.”
“Could've done that for you.” Gwaine nods at the surgical tools Merlin's using. “Always overachieving.”
Merlin methodically weaves the thread around both cannula, which immediately fills with blood, and flesh, then he tapes them both in place. When he's done he grabs a hold of the collar. Together with Gwaine he collars the patient. Once they're done securing the wounded man's neck and spine, they pull the gurney close.
“Come on, Gwaine, grab on,” Merlin says. “Arthur, keep ventilating him while we move him.”
Arthur's been told how to do that while he was on his qualifying course, but even so his heartbeat takes a little leap at the notion. “How many ventilations?”
Merlin sends him a smile. “Easy. Just one every five seconds.”
“Right.” Arthur grabs hold of the ventilation bag and starts squeezing.
On his side, Gwaine takes a hold of the patient. “Ready when you're ready.”
“On my mark.” Merlin and Gwaine bob their heads at each other. “Three, two, one.”
Between them Gwaine and Merlin place the patient on the gurney. “C-spine is protected and taken care of.”
When they've strapped him carefully, they start moving. While Arthur ventilates. Merlin and Gwaine carry the stretcher at a trot. Fortunately the patient's not heavy, rather a short and lanky youth, and that allows them to get fast back to the EC. Once they're at its foot, Gwaine takes over ventilating for Arthur and Arthur climbs back into the cockpit. Once he's got the rotors running, he asks Gwaine and Merlin, “Everything fine back there?”
“Yeah.” Merlin's assent comes in the tones of a sigh. He soon rallies, because he sounds much more spirited when he adds, “Takes us to Singleton Hospital.”
Thanks to clear skies, Arthur flies there in record time and they have the patient delivered in under four minutes. While Arthur guards the EC on the roof, Merlin and Gwaine disappear into the building together with the trauma team.
With them gone, Arthur allows himself to bury his head in his hands and lets his shoulders collapse. He breathes in and out twice but that does nothing to make him feel okay. Something sits wrong with him, tension knotting tendons and muscles, squeezing his heart into a pace not its own. With what's happened today, it's no wonder he should feel as he does. Even so he wishes he could collect himself. But there's no doing that, not when he can picture how it could have gone down had the gunman actually shot. It would be Merlin on a gurney. Merlin pale and lifeless being ventilated by bags and machines. Merlin the one doctors would be crowding around. God, he came so close.
Arthur's biting off a sob, when Merlin and Gwaine reappear on the roof. He rights himself out of his slump, fishes for his sunglasses, puts them on, and sets his jaw out. By the time his colleagues are on board, Arthur deems himself the picture of professional ease.
“Lord, what a shit day,” Gwaine says as he straps himself to his seat.
“Agreed.” Merlin sounds wearier now, as if the fight's gone out of him now he's got no patient to attend to. “Take us back to base, Arthur. Take us back.”
Arthur has no objection to that. In fact, he wishes they had no more calls today. He's given it his all, both emotionally and physically and he just wants to spend a couple of days on a deserted island with no gunmen in sight. Barring that, he just hopes for a quiet end of shift. Taking off to a hover, and transitions to forward flight. Steering eastwards he makes for Llanelli, moving over webs of streets and motorways, over the roofs of commercial buildings and private houses, over commercial parking places, cars shining multicoloured under a steady sun.
Before long they're back to base, the EC in its hangar, Gwaine off to the bar for a punch of caffeine.
Merlin's at the base of the stairs to the inner building, when Arthur, who's just finished his post flight checks, jogs up and calls out to him, “Hey, Merlin.”
Shoulders down, Merlin turns around. There's no light in his eyes and his cheeks have hollowed further. He doesn't say anything, he just moves his gaze to Arthur. For a second he looks more wide eyed, hopeful, but it's just a fleeting expression, because he just reshuffles on his feet, and his face once again loses any semblance of a happy cast. “Yes?”
“You did well.” Arthur licks at his lower lip. “Out there you did well.”
“Thanks.” Merlin ducks his head.
“I mean you acted like a trained soldier.” Which is not exactly what Arthur had meant to say. But then again before starting this he hadn't known what sort of message he'd wanted to convey. He'd only meant to speak to Merlin. “Which is admirable. I mean it's good behaviour considering you're not...” He swallows. “...a soldier.”
Merlin looks up, glances at Arthur, a frown on his brow, then moves his gaze just an inch or two to the side of him. “Thank you. I... thanks.”
It's hollow praise and they both know it. Saying what he did is not even the reason Arthur stopped Merlin. “You're welcome.” Arthur steps forwards, then backwards. “I--”
Once again Merlin shows a reaction, a flaring of the nostrils, a sharpening of his gaze. “You?”
“Nothing.” Arthur's floundering for words and anyway he'd promised himself he would let Merlin be. It was what Merlin wanted, after all, the reason why he'd rebuffed Arthur. It'd be only wrong of him to press himself on Merlin now. It would only make it harder on Arthur, stop him from putting this in perspective. His affair with Merlin was nothing but a fling not meant to last. Arthur should remember that and attempt to cut off Merlin more and more. “Nothing. I meant nothing. I, um--” He edges backwards towards the hangar. “I'll be doing a post flight check on the EC.”
“Haven't you just finished one. Oh, but I see.” Merlin adjusts the strap of his rucksack. “Not coming to the break-room then?”
“No.” As he keeps backing away, Arthur points backwards, then places his hands on his hips before dropping them. “No, I won't.”
“Okay.” Merlin glimpses away, at the side of the stairs. “See you later then.”
“Later.” Arthur says it so low and so choked Merlin's bound not to have heard.
It doesn't matter anyway, Merlin's stomping upstairs and has already half vanished in the stairwell.
Music dances on the breeze. It comes from an old stereo-set placed on a back shelf surrounded by discarded tools and empty bottles. The stereo itself is one of those '90s contraptions with big integrated side amplifiers and an adjustable aerial. Dust covers it too, which indicates that it hasn't been used in a while. Though the notes come out with a bit of a tinny quality to them, it does his job passably well. That the sound isn't disco-proof doesn't seem to matter much, because people are still gyrating to it.
Gwaine comes up to Merlin, “I must admit that I hadn't pinned you down as party tippler.”
“That's because I'm not.” Merlin kicks the can of beer lying at his feet. It's true he's emptied it of contents, but it's only his second and that in no way indicates a tendency to alcohol binge. “I'm at a party, Gwaine, what am I supposed to do but give in a little?”
“You could dance.” Gwaine nods at the couples before sitting on the lowest rung of the stair leading to the tree house, like Merlin has. “You could nosh some. You could hit on someone.”
“I'm not in the mood.” That statement falls far off the mark. He isn't just a bit down. He's lost, adrift, purposeless. There's a sadness that tears at his heart day after day, gnaws at it till nothing but bloody stripes of flesh and muscle remain. Every day he wakes to a knowledge of regret and an equal understanding that he'd done what he had to. That understanding can't undo the sweetness of regret but it can temper it. “I only came because it was Finna.”
“I don't think you're doing her a huge favour with that long face of yours.” Gwaine grimaces at him. “Try and cheer up. Or at least make a show of it.”
“You're right, you're right.” Finna has every right to a nice party, with guests who, if not all happy, are at least not trying to sabotage her do. “I'll—uh.”
Arthur and Gwen saunter into Finna's back-garden before Merlin can finish that sentence. At that Merlin's breath sticks in his throat. Pain washes over him in waves of new keenness. He'd thought he'd got used to it. To seeing Arthur, dealing with him, being around him, seeing his face, which still does things to Merlin, which is still inexpressibly dear. But he hasn't, not in the least. The way the sight of him stops his heart more than proves it. Even if he's weathered a mission with him, being with him in an informal situation is till like a punch to the most tender area of his belly. “What's he doing here?”
“Same thing you're doing.” Gwaine rounds on Merlin, eyes narrowed. “Since when you've got a beef with the Swan Prince?”
“I've no problem with Arthur,” Merlin says.
“Because from where I'm standing I was the one who had a bit of a tiff with him.” Gwaine chews at the side of his mouth. “Unless there's something I don't know?”
“Don't be silly.” Merlin stands. He needs a drink, be it one of alcohol free ones Finna keeps for those of her guests who prefer not to cloud their senses. As an ex pilot, she's sensitive to those things. “You're talking rubbish.”
Aware of Gwaine's intense scrutiny, Merlin walks away. He moves counter to the dancing people, cutting a path out for himself, avoiding bodies grooving this way and that. Bumping in a precious few however much he zigzags, he can't avoid the occasional elbow in the ribs, or stepping over toes. Nonetheless he gets to the refreshments table scarcely any the worse for wear. He's upending empty cans of cola in search of a full one, when a hand lands on the same one he wanted, touching his into the brgain. He looks up and then his whole palm burns. “Arthur.”
“I'm sorry, I--” Arthur says. “I was getting a coke for Gwen. I must have miscalculated.”
Merlin steps aside, gesturing at the table. “Feel free.”
Arthur advances but then retreats. “If you wanted something, you should.”
Merlin's too much in a turmoil to care much about getting a drink. His mouth might be getting parched, but he knows that's not a symptom of thirst, not when his heart's double flipping in his chest, and not when his thoughts have scattered, dissolving in a pure surge of feeling. “No, I--” Not knowing what to say, finding that words would only fall short of his meaning, Merlin adds, “I don't need a drink.”
Cocking his head, Arthur looks at him strangely, as well he might, given that Merlin is at the refreshments table. But then he smiles. It's not a smile he flashes Merlin, it's an inward one, a private one. “I'll take this--” He weighs a can in his hand, then points backwards with it. “To Gwen. Who wanted it. I'll just...”
“Do.” Regret right now overwhelms reason. Memories come flooding back in, relating to Arthur's smile, Arthur's quirks, Arthur's earnestness, and Merlin, for the life of him, can't remember why he broke them apart, why it was so important. Eventually, reason does come back to the rescue. He's able to trace back in his mind his original train of thought. He did this to protect them, to cut things off before his feelings for Arthur could take such seed he couldn't extricate them from the weave of him, to shield himself from a loss that would be unbearable. Arthur is so dear that losing him for good, to death, would put an end to Merlin too. “She... she deserves it.”
Arthur quirks an eyebrow, but steps away without vocalising his thoughts.
Well, that was awkward, Merlin must admit. But at least it's done with. He wants a normal relationship with Arthur; he wants to have interactions he can look back on without feeling his skin burning off his frame. But he supposes that that won't be possible, not in the near future, when their memories of intimacy are still so fresh. But if they could work towards something else, maybe not the closeness they once had, because that brought on heartache, but a rapport of sorts... Is Merlin capable of that? Of reverting to something similar to friendship with Arthur?
He has no answer for that, but his longing for it takes his breath and breaks him up in a thousand constituent parts. Hope fills him and then fells him. He feels so much for Arthur that any non superficial relationship with him would remind him of something he holds so dear, he feels he can't survive without it. He either does it all, goes all the way, or takes no risk. In betweens are impossible when it comes to them.
“Merlin,” Gwaine says, hands on his hip, face close to Merlin's, knit in scrutiny. “Something's going on. You're being weird.”
“What, no!” Merlin's laugh sounds fake even to him.
“You are.” Gwaine's face darkens. “All this denial... It's a clincher.”
Merlin pivots away.
“Is it stress?” Gwaine asks, grabbing him by the arm and turning him round. “Because if it's stress, you can't work.” His voice softens. “We can ask Gwen to give you a few weeks off.”
“Gwaine.” Merlin takes Gwaine's hand in his and clings tight. His work is vital to him, the threat of it being taken away makes him tremble with near fear. “Gwaine, I'm fine.”
“I don't know, Merlin, my man,” Gwaine says, “that attack the other day scared the living daylights out of me too.” He gives a loud snort. “I mean it's not every day that your job turns into a less than friendly rendezvous at the OK Corral. I get it. If it's that, you should definitely take a step back, talk to a shrink.”
Merlin has almost completely forgotten about being held at gun point. He didn't sleep that well the night it happened, but has since put it out of his mind. Maybe thinking about Arthur every moment of every day has helped him put the incident in perspective, rationalise it. Whatever it was, that's certainly not Merlin's problem and he doesn't want his job taken away because of a misconception. “Gwaine, I'm fine, really.”
Gwaine holds his gaze. “That's exactly what people say before they have a breakdown.”
“I'm not having a breakdown.” At least not a mental one.
“Can I help?” Arthur steps in with the smoothness of a bulldozer. After he's glowered at Gwaine, he sends Merlin a concerned look.
Gwaine lets go of Merlin and turns round to Arthur. “I hope you don't think I'm manhandling Merlin.”
“I just think your conversation just got too heated.”
The last thing Merlin needs is for things to be misunderstood this way, to have his team, one he's proud of, come apart. “It's not what you think.” He rounds on Gwaine. “It's not what either of you thinks.”
“It looks to me as though Gwaine was being a bit too rough,” Arthur says, eyes wide and full with emotion. “I won't have that.”
“Oi.” Gwaine looks stunned at the accusation, his mouth hanging open. “I would never harm Merlin. He's my pal.”
“Nonetheless.” Arthur's expression hardens.
Merlin is grateful to Arthur for still looking after him in spite of the figurative oceans between them, but he doesn't need any of that and he doesn't want any accusations levelled at Gwaine. “Arthur, please.”
Gwaine smacks a hand across his forehead, his eyes nearly bulging out of his sockets. “Now, I get you. Your moods.” He stabs his thumb in the air in Merlin's direction. He does the same with Arthur. “And yours.”
With Arthur and him being over, Merlin doesn't want Gwaine to guess. He'd ask questions and each question would cut too deep. They would remind him of a happiness he can't have back. They would put him in mind of a love he cannot get over. “Please, Gwaine, I'll explain, just not now.”
“There's little you've got left to explain,” Gwaine says, gaze switching from Arthur to Merlin. “I'm not a kid. I get it mighty fine.”
“I acknowledge it openly.” Arthur's voice is firm and decisive. “There's no need to hide--”
“Arthur!” For himself, Merlin has no wish to hide anything. It's true that all questions will be painful, like fire under skin, but he can bear that now's the cat's out of the bag. He's a big boy. Besides, Gwaine's mischievous but never malicious. Any joke he might aim at Merlin would be well meant in the end. All Merlin's concern is for Arthur. For him a fling would mean being splashed on the front pages of more than one rag. It would be a scandal. It would also be for nothing because they're not together anymore. It would do all the damage without any of the perks. Merlin doesn't want that for him. “You can't.”
“I can and I will,” Arthur tells him with a pointed glance that softens the more he looks. “It may be in the past but I don't intend to hide like a thief in the night.”
When put like that, Merlin can't really raise any other objection.
“So I was right?” Gwaine looks from one to the other of them again. Then, shoulders in a slump, he adds, “But you're done.”
Merlin knew that talking about it would flay him open. But the experience of it is exquisitely more hurtful than any prediction might have suggested. Eyes getting heavy with a sheen of tears he doesn't mean to shed, he says. “Yeah.”
“I didn't want it to be so.” Arthur's voice comes out as croaky, but he's audible enough. He drops his stance though, his shoulders collapsing. His eyes mirror Merlin's, getting laden with tears that don't trickle down his face. “I was against it. But I accept it for what it is. I even--” He gulps. “Understand some of it. What I'm not is ashamed.”
“Well, I see you've got axes to grind.” Gwaine backs away, hands held up. “I'll leave you to sort it all out while I--” He ruffles his own hair. “Exit stage left.”
“Merlin, I--” Arthur starts.
Merlin says, “Arthur.”
“Look, I'm sorry about the Gwaine thing.” Arthur places a hand on Merlin's shoulder and gets him walking. “I didn't mean for him to guess. If I could, I would have safeguarded your privacy with all that I had.”
Trying to ignore the thumping of his heart at Arthur's touch, Merlin says, “I've never questioned your morality.”
“I can't be certain of that.” Arthur looks down at his shoes. The laces of one are undone, but he doesn't stoop to tie them up. “But I had to make sure you were fine.”
Arthur's sense of chivalry is something Merlin doesn't doubt either. If someone's in need, Arthur will step in. His choice of jobs – The RAF first, ambulance piloting later – is revelatory if nothing else. “Arthur, I don't suddenly think you're a bad person just because--”
Arthur makes a noise in his throat. “Sometimes I think you must.”
With a hand glancing off his frame, Merlin stops Arthur from advancing, and says, “Arthur, what I did had nothing to do with what I thought of you.” How highly. “It may be a coward's action, but it was self-preservation.”
“You're not a coward.” Arthur looks down, juts his lips. “Don't let anyone ever tell--”
“Arthur,” Gwen calls out from among the crowd of party goers. She's got a newspaper in her hands. From the splash of red on its front page it's clear it's The Sun. “I've just got this from Drea.” She points at their colleague. “It's about you, Arthur.”
Arthur snatches the paper from Gwen. Reading over Arthur's shoulder, Merlin makes out the words:
Exclusive: Ex Con Nearly Kills Heir to Throne
They come and get him not ten minutes after he's shown the news. It's two bodyguards, or so they purport to be. They're as tall and buff as Arthur's usual detail, cut out of the same mould, wearing the same brand sunglasses. But these ones aren't mere protection commando. There's something about their adherence to protocol, their tight lipped behaviour, their no-nonsense attitude, which singles them out as something else. Arthur has them down as MI5. Involving Five seems a bit too much for him. He's at a party not in trapped in the midst of some terrorist action. Given the ridiculousness of the situation, he wants to tell its minions to kindly sod off.
But they frog-march him towards a car idling outside Finna's and he can scarcely talk to Merlin, respond to his plea for understanding while the minions act as they do. It's not as if he could supply much clarification either. He doesn't get it himself, not past the obvious, but he really wants reassure Merlin, let him know that no one's going to storm the party. Him and his team are going to be fine no matter what happens to Arthur now. But he can't. No matter how much looking back he does, how much Merlin seeks him out amid the gaggle of bodyguards clustering around him, how much he prods at the people around him, Arthur can't go back and talk to him. The wall of guards a as well as an arm to the elbow stop him. He'd have to deck the Five agents and he has a notion that, military training or no, he wouldn't come out on top. Besides, he would only cause a scene.
They bundle him into the car. With two bodyguards in front and two in the back, he's squeezed in.
When he asks where they're taking him there's no answer.
When he tells them to take them back to the party, they tell him, “Your plans are cancelled for the near future, Your Highness.”
“What!” Arthur is a prince; he can do outrage quite well. “You can't take executive charge of my life!”
“You'll find that our our orders come from above.”
“That's preposterous!” That can only mean one thing. One Uther Pendragon is involved. His father is his king, that's true, but that doesn't mean he has power to hold him captive. Those kind of prerogatives no longer pertain to royals. “I insist on being brought back to the party.” He didn't manage, after all, to say goodbye to Finna, or to talk to Merlin. The latter failing weighs heavily upon him, like a boulder to the chest. He has the feeling that if he'd only got to say more they might have gained some kind of understanding, one that would have made their parting less bitter, one that could have mended some things. “I demand to be taken back.”
“Can't be done, sir,” the new bodyguard says, staring straight ahead.
In spite of his protests, they don't take him home, but to a safe house. Arthur's never been in one before and finds this particular lodging to be dismal and quite oppressive. There's plenty little furniture around, nothing that can hold his attention in any guise, and all of it white. While there's a television, no channel has been tuned, and there are no telephones nor any other communication devices.
In the hopes of calling Merlin, to explain, hear his voice, make it clear that he didn't wish their conversation to be cut so short, not in that moment, Arthur takes out his mobile. But the new bodyguard takes his phone from him and turns it off. “Sorry, sir, state security.”
Alone with his thoughts, Arthur spends the rest of the evening pacing up and down. When he gets too tired to do that, he sinks on the nearest sofa with his head in his hands. He stays in that position for he doesn't know how long, thinking about the mess he's in.
The news leaking means that he will be bothered by the press indefinitely. He will be hounded by them till he releases some kind of interview, a statement of some sort, till at the very least he concedes and surrenders a part of himself. His father will tell him off, recriminate, the more so since Arthur held the information relating to the attack back. That part will make him furious. He won't cut Arthur off, because he can't, but he will make it as hard on him as he conceivably can.
What frightens him more though are the repercussions for the heli-ambulance team. Journalistic attention will make them a victim of newshounds. That notoriety will impact their ability to perform their jobs well. They're going to suffer for it. Merlin too. With his love for his profession, the care he puts in it, Merlin's the one who's going to bear most of the brunt. God, Merlin's going to hate it. He's going to feel the impact of the media storm the most. He's going to hate Arthur. And though their break up speaks of a lack of love on his part, Arthur has never believed Merlin literally hates him. He might now.
The thought freezes his marrow.
He dozes off and sleeps badly for most of the night, his rest broken up by fitful nightmares that make no sense. He's up at six. He's still in yesterday's clothes, but then again he didn't even make the bed. He doesn't smell ripe yet, but that's a small victory considering the way he passed the night. He's about to nip into the shower, when the new bodyguard sweeps round the corner and into the room. He doesn't look like he's slept at all and, if possible, the lines of his face have become more set. With that jaw, he could probably grind stones and draw sparks.
“We're scheduled to be at Buckingham Palace at ten hundred,” he says. “Please, do hurry, sir.”
His elbow on the mantelpiece, his fingers touching his forehead, his father stands by the fireplace. When Arthur comes in, he straightens, drops his hand. “Arthur.” When he says that, his voice gets a tough edge to it. “I'd rest on convention and ask you to sit, but, frankly, I'm not in the mood.”
That doesn't bode well, Arthur feels. Father has always been a stickler for formalities. On his guard now, Arthur adopts his battle stance, legs planted wide and shoulders pulled all the way back. “Yes, sir.”
“I've heard that you recklessly risked your life.”
“That's not true.” Arthur takes a step towards his father but stops at a glare from him. “I didn't put myself in danger. The incident merely happened.”
“It merely happened.” A muscle in his father's face jumps. “I see.”
“That's how it was, sir.”
Father taps his fingers on the mantelpiece then turns around. “You put yourself in danger the moment you chose the profession you did.”
“We both knew it.” Father was aware of the dangers of flying as well as the next man. That Arthur dealt in emergencies was also known to him. “That was a given.”
“I thought the only risk you'd run was flying that contraption,” Father says, displaying his old navy bias. To him ships are secure and whatever has wings is a death trap. “I didn't for moment believe you would run into that class of criminal and be held at gunpoint.”
Arthur doesn't follow. “You were fine with me being in the RAF.”
“For a time. Because duty calls for it and because tradition makes it unavoidable.” Father nods. “You've been exposed to danger long enough, however. That was why I wanted you out of the RAF. You've chosen another risky profession. This incident proves it. It's up to me to put a stop to it.”
“What!” Arthur can't believe his own ears. “You can't do that!”
Father turns around. “Watch me, Arthur. Watch me.”
“Father!” Arthur grows cold at the idea of all that he would be leaving behind, a profession that fulfils him, colleagues he appreciates, Merlin among them, who means so much to him, who's changed his life so dramatically, taught him so much about the values of courage and altruism. Of true valour. How you don't need to be in the armed forces to wield it. “I can't ditch my job like that!”
“You absolutely can.” Father shifts objects from one end of his desk to the other. “And will.”
“They'll think me a coward.” His colleagues, Arthur's sure, won't. They know what he faces daily, what challenges he must put up with. But the press is sure to support that line of thinking. They'll have a field day with Arthur's spinelessness. “They won't let it go.”
“We'll weather it like we've weathered all crises prior to this one.” Father centres a deadly stare on him. “There's no reason to think the press will behave any differently than they have before. They'll play this issue to the bone and then when there's nothing left for the public to chew on, they'll let go.”
“And in the meanwhile,” Arthur says, “my name will have been tarnished.”
“In a couple of years it'll all be done and dusted.” Father's mouth twitches with distaste. “We'll have our press office deal with it.”
“I can't live with my good name torn to shreds.” Arthur can accept being called lazy, privileged, he can be okay with being painted as a snob. But he resents being called a coward. He can't abide people thinking he has no courage. He's always tried to be strong, to show his mettle, and to have it unacknowledged or questioned comes as a blow. “I won't.”
“You will have to.” Father's features relax a notch. “Bad publicity has never killed anyone before.”
But for Arthur's self esteem of course. “Father, it'd be a serious hit for the Royal House as well.”
“I don't doubt it--” Father allows that with a nod. “But we've managed to survive being of German stock during WW2, we'll get over this.”
Arthur can't accept Father's decision. On it rests more than Father can ever begin to suspect. Not only has Arthur found an aim in his job, something to fight for that has equal importance as his previous career. But he has also found a team of people he can't let go of. They're people, starting from Gwaine down to Gwen, who mean the world to him. He hasn't formed bonds such as he has with them with anyone else before. Merlin, too. They might be over. It might be awkward. But Arthur's never worked so well with anyone else, never trusted anyone so deeply, never admired anyone so much. That side of Merlin takes his breath every day. That's irreplaceable. Going for something else doesn't bear thinking about. “I don't intend to--”
In spite of the protestations of the usher, the door flies open, and Morgana storms in, brandishing a tablet. “You've got to see this.”
Father stands. “I don't remember summoning you.”
“I invited myself.” As she looks up, Morgana's eyes flash. “You have to see this.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur's glad Morgana's interrupted this interview with Father. It couldn't have ended well. Still, Morgana's intervention remains as surprising as it comes out of the blue. “Is this necessary?”
“Very.” Morgana props the tablet up, opens a file, and shows them a video. “Watch it.”
It's a one of those BBC I-player extracts; it's a morning news excerpt, with a crawl running at the bottom of the screen and a journalist talking into his mic at the centre. The image pans away from him and some footage airs. It's of Arthur, showing a collection of pictures from his past, and then close ups of the newspapers that reported his dust-up with the gunman. As this collage unfolds on the screen, a voice describes the events leading up to the media hoopla. Then the interview goes live again.
This time the journalist focuses on the person who's appeared next to him. It's Merlin, his cheeks unshaven, his eyes a little bright, as if from lack of sleep, two gouges under them that make the bone structure in his face appear sharper, etched by a scalpel. His shirt, a chequered black and white one, is open at the collar. A sliver of white tee shows underneath.
“So, Mr Emrys,” the journalist says, lending his mic to him, “can you tell us what led up to the brouhaha featured on all national newspapers?”
Merlin bobs his chin. “We were on a call. We were giving a code blue patient our attention, when we were threatened by the person responsible for the shooting.”
“Forgive me for asking--” The interviewer looks into the camera. “--but that seems to confirm the version the papers are putting out.”
Merlin nods again. “I'm not saying that that story isn't true. I'm saying that the spin that was put to it changes the light things should be viewed from.”
Arthur says, “Turn the volume up.”
Morgana swipes a thumb along her tablet. “Here.”
The journalist's voice sounds clearer, when he says, “And how's that?”
“The wrong emphasis has been given this,” Merlin says.
Father snorts at his words. “As if a threat to the life of the heir to the throne can be treated as anything other than a serious occurrence.”
Merlin's voice drones on. “While any threat to Arthur worries us all – me – deeply, the press isn't looking at the matter of real importance here.”
“And what would it be?” the journalist asks.
Merlin hums and bites his lip. “Arthur's role in our team. The assets he's brought to it.”
“Can you clarify?” The journalist makes an attentive face at this, cocking his head as if he's waiting expectantly for Merlin's next words.
“Without Arthur fewer people would be alive now.” Merlin gazes into the camera. It looks as though he wants to make a point. “A lot would have received a worse service. A very many would have been more scared in their moment of need.” Though it doesn't look as though he has to collect himself, Merlin pauses. “The team too would have been the worse off without Arthur. I myself.” Ducking his head, he lightly shakes it. When he looks back up, his gaze pierces the lens. “I myself would have been a poorer person. I would have learned less. I would have had less of a good mate. I would have lost so much.”
As Merlin speaks on, Arthur feels lanced to the bone, cut to the quick. He hadn't thought he still mattered to Merlin, that he'd left a mark. Neither had he believed Merlin to be on such friendly terms with him still. But he's coming to Arthur's defence, making a public statement, limiting his own privacy by so public an act and all to help him. Arthur half wishes he hadn't let them infringe on his life and half rejoices in his choice, his gesture. It shows care on Merlin's part and that care produces warmth in Arthur, a feeling of a kind that oozes through him, making his insides tender. It unmans him completely.
“Morgana, turn off this nonsense.” Father waves his hand at the tablet, avoiding to touch it.
“It's not nonsense,” Morgana says. “It's how much Arthur matters to these people, how pivotal his role was with the team. He ought to hear it.”
“Let him then.” Father throws his hands in the air. “It won't change how I feel about this ambulance pilot lark. Arthur's to stop.”
God Merlin, he's really come through for him, at such a moment, and in spite of all his fears as to Arthur's risk taking. Arthur can sense what toll that must have taken on Merlin, what a monumental shift in attitudes that must have involved. The fact he's speaking out at all is an act born out of Merlin's devastating goodness, of his kindness. Time and again Merlin strikes Arthur as one of the best men he's ever meet, one of the best he'll ever cross path with. Merlin has left an imprint of him with him that, in spite off everything, will never fade. Should they drift apart, Arthur will never stop remembering him. But then again perhaps... Perhaps they won't. Perhaps Arthur's darkest imaginings don't match with reality. A feeling floods him that hurts right in the heart.
"Uther, will you stop being so dictatorial." Morgana scoffs. "It's really ridiculous in this day and age."
"You're my niece, Morgana, and I'm putting up with things from you I wouldn't accept from a stranger, but you must stop interfering in matters that don't concern you."
“You know what.” Arthur turns to his father. “I don't care to hash this out. I have much more pressing business–“ Life changing, Arthur deems it. “--to attend to.”
Without adding another word, he stalks out of the room.
Merlin has never seen the like of it. He's been a doctor a while and this is decidedly a first. “Patient is impaled at three points.”
“But the lucky fella's got a pulse,” Gwaine says.
“Yeah.” Stranger things happen every day, after all. “We can't put him on a gurney until the fire brigade gets on the scene.” To shift their patient even an inch, they need them and their tools. “So we're going to have to stabilise him right here.”
“On a farm?” Gwaine asks, eyeing the heap of dung towering not too far away from them. A bird hops on top of it, beak down, as if in search of a meal. “Where it's all terribly unsanitary?”
“I see no other solution.” Merlin has considered the situation from multiple angles and that's all he can come up with. Their patient is pinned by tractor blades. Trying to remove them without the appropriate equipment would only cause more damage than has already been done. Not doing anything on the other hand would amount to admitting defeat, to letting their patient die. “I suggest we start.”
“Always following in your footsteps, Merlin.” Then under his breath, Gwaine adds, “Where the angels fear to tread.”
“Gwaine, I need an intubation kit, please,” Merlin says. When Gwaine passes it to him, Merlin starts intubating. Before long Gwaine has the patient bagged and breathing through his mask.
“No chest movement on the right side.” If they don't hurry the fire brigade won't have any person left alive to rescue, Merlin deems. It's a grim situation through and through. “Shock with distended neck veins, reduced breath sounds, deviated trachea. I'm going to do a needle decompression to relieve the tension pneumothorax.”
“It's your call, mate.” Gwaine looks at him from under raised eyebrows.
It always is, Merlin thinks. He may have Gwaine around and the ability to radio any trauma team of his choice, but, ultimately, on the field, the responsibility is his. His are the life and death calls; he's the one who can save or kill. Before he can get lost in that grim, panic-inducing train of thought, he busies himself with the patient. “Placing the needle in the second intercostal at the mid-clavicular line.” He goes slow, making sure he can see what he's doing. Given the shadow of the tractor arching over them, it's not that easy. If worst comes to worst, he'll ask Gwaine to shine a light on the area he's treating. “Puncturing through the pectoralis and the parietal pleura.”
“Heart rate's 125, BP is 78 over 55.” Gwaine calls the stats. “Sats are 80%.”
“Removing the needle and leaving the catheter in place.”
With a toss of his hair, Gwaine looks up. “I've set up a drip access on the left.”
“Okay.” The patient is ventilated and decompression is taking place; that's good in Merlin's books. They just need to take a little step further to make sure the victim's stable by the time the fire brigade team arrives. “I want you to shoot him some of O pos via catheter and work a trauma line in.”
“Working on it as we speak.”
Merlin shines his pen torch into the patient's eyes. “No eye opening and no verbal response. Glasgow coma scale is a sound five.”
“Anaesthesia?” Gwaine asks.
Merlin makes swift calculations. “Give him 100mg Quelicin.” He shakes his head to move his fringe out of the way of his eyes. “Just to stay on the safe side add 250mg of Trapanal as well.”
Just as their patient stabilises, the fire brigade team arrives, disgorging from a sizeable van, which is furnished with a ladder and fire hose. “Where are we needed?”
“Can you lift that tractor?” Merlin says, pointing at the elephant in the room. It's unmissable after all. The fore part of it looms over them in a precarious shield, while its rear sticks to the mud of the field.
The captain, a man whose name tag indicates he's called Muirden, looks at the contraption that's got their patient pinned and says, “We'll be at it a while. Can you work around us?”
Gwaine laughs. “Merlin here can work in any conditions. Hail, sleet, or fire. Even if the fires of hell were burning under his feet, he'd be saving people by hordes of devils with pointy tails. A right miracle, he is.”
“Well, in that case.” Muirden turns his attention to the tractor. “Come on, boys, we've got work to do.”
“Nice and gently, please, guys,” Merlin tells the fire brigade folks. If they move too quickly, and his patient gets jostled, they'll be in for a nightmare, torn arteries, shock, flat-lining, the works. To Gwaine he adds, “I'm going to try a formal thoracostomy, starting with a trauma line.”
“We need to get him off this tractor,” says Muirden, directing his boys.
“Just, please, remember not to move the spikes inside him,” Merlin says as he palpates the carotid and inserts a finder needle in the skin, staying lateral to the artery. A trickle of blood indicates he's in the jugular. “We don't want nasty accidents.”
“Dismantling it would be best,” one of the younger firemen suggests, “those parts are rusted in.”
“Merlin, we've been ten minutes at it.” Gwaine eyes his stopwatch.
Grimacing, Merlin withdraws the needle, the renters with a Sledinger. Removing the syringe, he starts feeding in the wire. With the Eleven, he makes an incision to the side of it. “I know. I know.”
“We have five minutes more and that's tops.”
Advancing the dilator on the wire, Merlin keeps his hands as steady as he can. “I'm doing this as fast as I can.” He looks to Muirden. “Now if we could just disentangle the patient?”
The fire brigade officer seems to be talking a propos that, when he says,“We can cut, but there could be some movement.”
Pushing the catheter over the wire, Merlin finishes establishing the line. “Just watch out, will you? I don't want the tractors blades to dance a reel inside him.”
“Get the cutting gear!” the Captain shouts. “Let's dismantle the sodding thing.”
Knowing that he has to focus on the medical side of things, Merlin says, “I want a bag of O pos and one of fresh frozen plasma.”
“Coming,” Gwaine says, as he finishes reading of the patient's vitals. “Saturation level is 83%, heart rate is 100 and BP is 89 over 65.”
“Thoracostomy's completed.” Careful not to contaminate his gloves, Merlin wipes at his forehead with his elbow.
“Gave him the plasma and the blood,” Gwaine says, sweat bathing his own forehead.
Muirden comes over with a chainsaw. “I count three spikes. Am I right?”
“Correct.” Merlin makes way for the fireman.
“Ready.” Muirden applies the chainsaw to the section of tractor blade protruding from their patient's chest. He doesn't seem to mind the blood and the mess that present themselves to him. “Watch your eyes.” He starts the machine. “Cutting.”
Metal clangs and sparks fly as Muirden saws into the blades, cutting into them by following an oblique line. When the chainsaw blade impacts a thicker section of metal, Muirden sets his teeth and the chainsaw roars. “Can you get a hand on that spike, doctor?”
“I, um--” Merlin's not sure he can do what's required of him. This isn't exactly his daily fare. He has no practical notions regarding either tractors or chainsaws, but he makes a grab for the blade and pulls. The blade is sharp, but he's careful not to let it cut in his gloves. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah.” Muirden nods sharply, hand on the saw's handle, then moves to the next blade. “Shall we do it again?”
Looking up at the tractor arching over them, Gwaine says, “Look, shouldn't we prop this thing up first?”
“No time.” Muirden turns on the saw again. “It'd take my boys ten minutes to secure this thing in place.”
“Well, I for one am moving away from under it.” Gwaine scoops up his kit and scoots backwards. “Merlin?”
“Can't.” He wraps his palm around the second of the blades Muirden is cutting into. “Got to help.”
As Muirden slices into the third blade, the tractor groans above them. When Muirden pauses, Its metal frame settles with low-pitched but powerful noises. When he starts again, it screeches. And then, before Merlin can start on the third blade, the tractor gives a roar, and its bulk comes down.
Letting the chainsaw go, Muirden throws himself at Merlin. The impact of Muirden's body on his is a shock to the solar plexus. As he rolls, Merlin's knees, shoulders, and elbows repeatedly hit the ground. He smarts everywhere and then his chin impacts an earth clod and he sees stars.
The shower pounds on his back and splashes on his shoulders. It envelops him in a cloud of dewy steam. It rains on his head and flattens his hair on his scalp. It cascades on his calves and drizzles on feet turned red from the warmth. Merlin lets it wash away the patina of sweat sticking to his body, the dirt and grime covering his face. His cuts sting and he narrows his eyes, but it's alright. The warmth of the water soothes the aching feeling that has rooted itself deep within him and relaxes his muscles.
Closing his eyes he goes back over his day. Blood seeps into brown earth, metal half-moons dig deep into the soil, into flesh. A grey, lax body lies under the weight of heavy-duty machinery. An arm pokes out, a foot stuck in a brown boot to which earth still clings in grooves. With a groan, he turns off the water and grabs a towel. He has it barely round the hips, when the doorbell rings.
Forgoing slippers, he pads barefoot across the living room. Bracing for the blast of cold air he'll face, he opens the door. His hand falls off the handle when he sees Arthur. Arthur looks a little red in the face, his shirt impeccably white, and he's breathing rather hard, as if he's run all the way here. “Arthur,” he says, admittedly rather unintelligently. “I--” Thought I would never see you again, he means. I was sure they had bundled you off and shut you somewhere I could never reach. To this moment he doesn't know if that notion ever offered relief from the love torture he constantly suffers or if it caused only ocean depths of grief. What he adds is at least a little bit more diplomatic, “It's a surprise.”
“Uh, I know.” Arthur looks back and at the street. The usual armoured car isn't idling kerbside and there's no trace of his security detail. Then his gaze centres on Merlin again and his face falls a little, his eyes rounding, taking on a patina of concern. “You look--”
“Not ravishing eh?” Merlin says, touching the sorest parts of his face. It hurts. But he's sure that if he stops poking at it and if he takes a couple of aspirin he should be right as rain in a couple of days.
“Never that.” Arthur sucks in a breath. Shifts. “I meant... What's happened to you?”
Merlin makes way for Arthur to enter. Walks him to the kitchen. “I lost a patient.”
“And a gallon of blood it seems.”
“Tea?” Merlin asks, because he's afraid, terribly afraid, of asking Arthur why he's there at all. How it's possible he's here. What it portends. His presence is, for good or bad, a powerful shock to Merlin's system. “I knocked my face about a bit.”
“No, thank you.” Arthur waves a hand when Merlin shows him the pack of Sainsbury's fair trade teabags he's got stashed in the cupboard. “How did it, you know, happen?”
Merlin knows Arthur means his face. He could equivocate, but he's tired to the bone, he hurts in every place he can think of, and he has no patience for farces, for manners. “A tractor nearly fell on top of me, a kind fireman saved my life. He couldn't save the patient, whom I--” It smarts and galls. It was entirely avoidable and yet it happened. If he had thought ahead, if he had carefully planned against the eventuality that took place, then maybe that poor farmer would still be alive now. God, what an idiot he is. “I lost.”
“I hope you know it's none of your fault.” Arthur steps closer, crowds him against the base of the cupboard. “That it could not be avoided.”
“You weren't even there.” Arthur should have been but he wasn't. He can't know what went down, how it panned out. Merlin can't describe it to him without breaking down. “How can you possibly think--”
Arthur takes Merlin's face in his hands, lifts his chin up. “I just know you.”
Lashes fanning up, Merlin looks Arthur in the eyes. He sees faith in them, he makes out compassion in them, a tender light that makes every ache in Merlin subside, become secondary. Moving closer, he raises his chin. His nose touches Arthur's cheek.
Arthur cocks his head to the side and Merlin's lips graze his mouth. He recentres and their noses brush together. Emotion closes Merlin's throat and his heart folds in on itself. But he doesn't ask, doesn't speak. He shifts on his feet and that brings their mouths on a collision course again. Merlin nurses from Arthur, nuzzles each lip and sucks them into his mouth one at a time. When Arthur's tongue touches his, Merlin knows there's no going back.
When Arthur dips his tongue in, Merlin gets swept off his feet. The ground opens under him and he's in a precarious balance, about to totter into some kind of abyss. He can't name it. He doesn't know whether it's a chasm of love or lust, but he suspects the former. A deep well of feeling that inveigles him, drowns him, with no bottoming out, with no plateau, ever. There's only this drunken soaring, this weightless flight.
As Arthur moves his mouth over Merlin's, a noise works through him, a hot slide pushes up his spine and burns his nerve-endings. He needs more; he needs to make it real, to let it burn under skin, to scorch him clean.
Clenching his fingers at the base of Arthur's hair, Merlin pulls Arthur closer, pushing his tongue fully into his mouth. Arthur meets that with a stroke of his own, and shock curls around Merlin's tail bone.
All Merlin wants right now is sex with Arthur, no questions asked. His instinct is base, primal; it flares in his body like a steady flame, it drives him forwards with the urgency of an electric lash. Fighting the urge to melt into Arthur's embrace, into his body, become part of him, he only tastes him with his mouth, smells him with his nostrils, feels him with his skin.
Grabbing Arthur by his lapels, he pulls him more deeply into the kiss. With fumbling hands, he tries to take off his jacket, to undo the Windsor knot of his tie. But his grip isn't of the best and he doesn't succeed.
Intercepting one of his hands, Arthur says, “Easy.”
Startled by the word, so simple, so full of different meanings, Merlin's eyes snap open. “What?”
“You have me,” Arthur says. “Easy.”
Arthur strips off his jacket himself, loosens his tie, unpicks the buttons of his shirt. And then his mouth's on Merlin's again in a kiss that parches Merlin's lungs of air. As his tongue pushes into Merlin's mouth, his fingers card into Merlin's hair, twisting around the short strands of it to hold him in place.
In spite of what they've gone through, where they are, there's no feeling each other out, no hesitation, no hints of a tease. This is fast and raw and breathless and can only lead to sex, to intercourse, to the undoing of them both in it. At the notion, something blazes out of control within Merlin and his cock goes up so fast between his legs it's almost dizzying, breath-taking. A motion of the body that comes without any input of his brain, without his say so.
With a tug Merlin unknots the towel still around his hips. His cock bobs free. Briefly, Merlin looks down. It's fatter and red, a bead forming at the tip, pale, glossy. It's entirely ridiculous and he feels it in his bones, but Arthur looks at him, with eyes made wide by this moment in time, by want, need, and Merlin loses his awkwardness and steps closer again. Wrapping his arms around Arthur, he pulls him against his own body, so that they're pressed together from chest to knees. At the gesture, Arthur runs his hands down Merlin’s back, lingering on each notch with a scrape of fingers, with a pass of his palm, cupping his arse, jerking his hips forward so Merlin can feel him the outline of his cock too, can sense how he's hardening.
Suckling on Arthur's bottom lip, Merlin gives it a nip with his teeth, then licks deep into his mouth.
Roving away from Arthur's mouth, Merlin's lips graze Arthur's jaw, Arthur's neck. He nips at tendons; sucks at the tender patches of skin he finds in between. “Merlin.” The sound is little more than a groan, something that comes from a parched throat.
Sliding his lips along Arthur's then moving off them to graze the side of his face, Merlin says, “I can't think. I can't be afraid.” Though he is, vastly. He's teetering on the verge of collapse, of an about-turn in his life, and this feels both like the best thing he's ever done, and the most stupid. But, as he told Arthur, he's not in the right frame of mind to parse this, to understand it.
Arthur continues stroking him with broad swipes of his hands, pressing close with his hips until Merlin has to give ground and step back till he's shored up against the wall. Still kissing him, Arthur strips of the rest of his clothes, till he, too, is naked.
There's a moment, a mere succession of seconds, during which they look one another in the eyes. They're both panting, their chests are both rising, their gasps filling the air around them. They both nod at the same time, they both lean in and start to kiss again.
Merlin strokes his tongue against Arthur's, flicks it against his. He's missed this. However short a time they had together, Merlin's missed this like a lost limb, like the key to his heart. It's everything to him—everything he’s been continuously trying not to wish for. Having it it this moment seems both fleeting, an illusion, and like the realisation of a dream. One he couldn't name before without his whole life outlook crumbling down, but a nice chimera nonetheless.
Getting more heated, they push and prod each other. Arthur kneads his haunch. Merlin runs a palm along the length of Arthur's flank, evoking a deep shiver, one that sets off a tremble. It jars their kiss, pulling it off-centre so they're not touching lips, but cheeks and chin, and the base of each other's nostrils. Merlin can hardly breath anymore. All is air is caught in his lungs, at the base of his chest, and he inhales mouthfuls just to keep himself from getting fully reeling.
“In the drawer,” Merlin says, wrapping a palm around Arthur. It's a glancing, off touch that goes from base to tip but is badly angled. “You can find supplies in the drawer.”
Like Merlin's Arthur's breath catches, but he moves. Without letting go of him, he reaches out and fumbles into the container. He makes a grab for the right tube. One-handed, he pours some of the contents onto his palm. With his hand fully wet, he takes Merlin in his palm. He pulls with fast jerks of his hand. It burns and it lights lights behind Merlin's eyes. For every twist of Arthur's wrist, Merlin loses an inch of his soul, of himself. He sobs, and feels his heart race. When it seems as though it must stop and crack in two, when it looks like his body is about to give up, surrender the struggle for the next breath, the next heartbeat, he comes in a couple of steady washes of come.
Turning him around so Merlin faces the wall, Arthur steps close once again, till they're plastered to each other and Merlin can feel Arthur's cocks slide between his legs, wet at the tip, smearing Merlin where it touches.
Rolling his hips against Merlin's back, Arthur spreads his legs so he can snuggle between them. Merlin turns his head till he can feel the strain. Tangling their tongues together before thrusting inside each other's mouth, they make the kiss deep. Arthur stutters his lower body forwards, but he's not inside and all he does his push the blunt length of him between Merlin's thighs. Even like this, it's good. Merlin can't help but want Arthur to feel like he felt, to be be as dazed with physical joy – a kind of happiness that stems in the body and makes it sing – as Merlin is.
Opening his mouth over his nape, Arthur slicks him up with his fingers. Merlin cries out with the penetration, goes slack jawed, panting against the wall.
As Merlin leans his head against it, Arthur sucks and bites along the length of his shoulder, along the block of muscles that sits under it. He runs his hands up Merlin's flanks, grips hard at the jut of his hip, and moves. He does it in short arcs that push him all the way inside and get him nearly sliding out, movements that make Merlin feel the glide of flesh, the quality of it, the hardness and the softness of it.
Stroking himself inside, Arthur makes soft noises, stoppered noises. He's sticky at the belly and his body is a ball of warmth, a mass that radiates heat and solidity, strength, vitality. Its presence undoes Merlin, modifies his core functions, teaches him to be different, new. It causes Merlin to burst with possibility, with hope, with a newly made fervour that wasn't there before.
His hips never faltering, Arthur touches him everywhere he can reach. He palms Merlin's shoulder and squeezes his side, his hand. He scores his cock inside him in slow, burning passes that make Merlin full to burst. With each passing second, Arthur's rhythm gets more erratic and, knowing he's closer, Merlin turns once more for another off-centre kiss that is nothing more than a between mouths knot of tongues.
Straining, Arthur latches onto his lower lip, traps it between his lips first, his teeth second, then he gives off a little strangled sob. His hips give an infinitesimal forward jerk, and he flattens his body against Merlin's, front to back, their hands joined, Merlin's flat against the wall, up above his ears, Arthur's fingers twined with his.
Even though Merlin feels the splash of come, they hold the position, their breaths coming fast, their chests filling rapidly. Arthur lets go of only one hand first. The point of his nose finding soft skin, he nuzzles Merlin's shoulder. He puts kisses to it, small ones made of a pressure of the lips. As his breathing slows, he releases Merlin's other hand, but he stays body to body with Merlin. His cock softens but, because of their position, it doesn't slip out.
Merlin reddens. He ought to have done this before, thought about what this means for them before. But he's at the end of his tether, an emotional wreck, and, when this started, he couldn't stand dealing with his inner demons. So now here they are, facing what they've done, this latest act of theirs, and Merlin's fear comes back in a new wash that chills him.
“We should talk,” Arthur says, stepping away from him.
The cold hits Merlin wholesale. The lack of Arthur's body shielding him from the draft, his state of nakedness, his emotional awareness of the situation make him feel it to the marrow. Merlin dips his head and shakes it. The soles of his feet slapping the tiles, he turns around. “No.”
“You don't want to--” Arthur's jaw tightens.
Merlin tilts his head up and back. “I want to go to bed--” He's had quite a day, after all, one that saw him nearly die. He can't think, can process facts or emotions. When Arthur's face clenches and goes shuttered, he adds, “I hope you don't mind joining me.”
“No.” Arthur moves his hands about, toys with cupping himself now they're both purposelessly naked. But he doesn't. He stands taller, legs far apart. “I don't mind at all.”
The mattress is soft and takes the shape of the sleeper. The headboard is tall, buttoned, wall-mounted, shaped out of light grey leather. The sheets are flannel, tartan, grey in colour too, with charcoal hemming at the sides, same as the pillowcase buttons. They're smooth and feel new, though a bit scratchy if compared to silk linens. The shadows are long and smooth across the wall where the curtains are drawn; the light is a soft yellow where they are parted. It showers the chest of drawers on top of which an old photo of Merlin and friends sits. It gives the pictures on the walls a glow that glints right off the glass frame. Bright beams of gold cross the ether and an orange slant sections the bed off from the carpet.
With a yawn he cushions with the palm of his hand, Arthur stretches. He turns on his side and watches Merlin. He's on his back with one hand under the pillow, the duvet kicked off. Legs stretched, one foot sticking out over the mattress' rim, Merlin breathes heavily, in the pattern of sleep. It'll be a while before he wakes.
Arthur stands. He pulls back his shoulders, extends his arms above his head, walks to the window. The street is getting busy. Mums push prams along the length of the pavement. Delivery vans deliver goods at shops' door. School buses collect children at a street corner. Newspaper pages flit about in the wind. It looks like any other road in urban Wales.
Moving away from the window, Arthur picks up the photo frame on the chest of drawers. The picture is 20x25 and large enough to show both people and background. It's been taken by the seaside, Arthur reckons, by a pier, seagulls in flight, their wings outstretched. It features Merlin himself, younger, fresh-faced, with hair swept across his face. With him are Freya, Gwaine, another young man Arthur believes to be Daegal, and two girls in nurse uniforms. They're all wearing big smiles and some, namely Freya and Gwaine, are eating sugar lollipops, the coloured kind that features whirl inside whirl.
Arthur picks up the photo and runs his thumb over it, when Merlin says, “Aberystwyth, 2006. It was a nice day. Windy as hell, but the gale chased the clouds and the sun shone all day.”
“Nice pic,” Arthur says for fear of treading the wrong ground, of causing memories to surface Merlin'd rather be rid of, not think about. “One to treasure.”
“Yes.” Merlin pushes the duvet away and sits on the bed with his feet on the floor and facing the wall. He massages his thighs, his hand curl tighter around the mattress' edge, and he pushes off. “That's why I keep it there.”
“I would too.”
Merlin opens a drawer, rummages in it and picks up a pair of boxers. Bending, he pulls them up his legs. “Want a fresh pair?” He eyes Arthur. “I realise we're not the same size but I could scrounge something up.”
“Is there a joke in there?” Arthur loses his smile.
“No.” Merlin hands him a pair of boxers. They're chequered and the elastic's soft. They're going to fit Arthur. “Honest to God.”
Arthur puts the boxers on, shifts in place, rubs his hands together.
“I'm ready to talk if that's what you want,” Merlin says. “Only, mind if we do it over a cuppa?”
Merlin opens another drawer, gives Arthur a long-sleeved tee with three buttons, then marches out. He doesn't bother with either slippers or socks so Arthur does without too. Tripping over a tennis ball escaped from its perch in a basket, Merlin rights himself and makes for the kitchen. Rubbing his eyes against the grit of the night, he fills the kettle and turns it on. He upends two mugs, a Leicester one and a plain chipped one. He takes the chipped one himself. They don't talk, not till the kettle switches itself off and there's water and tea bags in the mugs. As the tea infuses, Merlin sits down, wrapping his leg around that of the stool. “So that chat we had to have...”
Approaching the table, Arthur says, “What you said.”
Merlin's eyebrows bunch over his eyes. “What I said?”
“In that interview.” Apprehension squeezes Arthur's chest. It's not fear. He doesn't feel that, but Arthur goes chilly as if he were taken with it, same effect. The answer Merlin gives now is going to be a game changer. What makes or breaks Arthur. He feels like glass showing cracks, one stone hurled and the whole edifice will come down. It's a type of vulnerability he doesn't intend to show, but he's has an inkling it will seep through. “When you said...”
“I know what I said,” Merlin says, pushing away his mug away.
Arthur's throat closes, but he must speak. It's now or never, after all. “Did you mean them?” Given that Merlin's face twists with outrage, Arthur corrects course. “What do they mean for us?”
“That I want you back on the team,” Merlin says, balling his fist and pressing it against the counter. “That we must find a way for you to get your job back.”
“Of course that's what you meant.” Arthur's shoulders bow.
“I mean it,” Merlin says. “You belong on the EC.”
The helicopter, right. As much as Arthur wants to fly it again, that's not what's on his mind right now. Arthur can't understand whether Merlin is pulling his leg or if that's all he meant, all he's ever meant. “I--”
Merlin bins the water-fat tea bag and takes milk from the fridge. It's a big carton, soy. He doesn't put it back in. “You?”
Arthur tries to picture how the next five minutes will be like. He can either keep the truth to himself, share breakfast with Merlin, albeit one that'll stick in his gullet, and go back home -- wherever they deem it to be right now. Or he can be honest, make a clean breast, and see what happens. He was so ready yesterday, after all, and nothing has changed. No reason to think that. Hints point quite to the contrary. For once he knows what he'll say before he opens his mouth. “I was wondering if perhaps you had said what you said because you'd changed your mind about us.”
Merlin puts down the sugar canister's lid with a thud that almost cracks it. “I didn't know, all right! When I was speaking out to that journalist all I was conscious of was a desire not to see you suffer.” He palms his heart. “I was confused and scared and aware of the injustice. That made me rage actually.” Merlin shakes his head. “But you can't think, even for a moment, that I would have slept with you if I didn't feel anything at all, Arthur.”
“You were quite stressed out,” Arthur says, relief flooding him in progressive measures. “You might have--”
“No, Arthur, no!” Merlin sobs, dips his head, two fingers to it as if to stem a headache. “Yesterday I was tired and unable to string words together, true. And I still don't know where this'll get us, but I didn't do it randomly.” He breathes out. “I've missed you too much for it to be random.”
“You missed me?” Arthur feels like a great weight has been taken off his chest and he can breathe for the first time. “Honestly?”
“A lot, yeah.” Merlin tries for a smile and though it's sheened by tears it's quite a powerful one.
“Only a lot, eh?” Arthur holds his head up.
“I was cutting my nose to spite my face,” Merlin says, getting closer to him till they're standing chest to chest, no furniture between them. “It was stupid. I may die, you may die, it's part of the condition of being human.” When Arthur makes as if to speak, Merlin silences him with some pressure on his flank. “I accept that for my patients. Which is easier, isn't it? It's not about me, not ultimately. I must come to terms with it being true about me as well. I can't control what happens. I can only live the best life I can.”
Arthur cups Merlin's skull. He doesn't mean to initiate anything, but he does want to have Merlin close. “Does that life include me?”
Cupping his face with his open palm, Merlin smiles and leans in to kiss him. His lips are soft over Arthur's, dry after a night spent sleeping, not drinking. His touch is gentle, the push of his lips in no way insistent. But it causes Arthur to stagger under the weight of an emotion that reduces his mass to ash, that razes his consciousness to nothing else but this moment, this act.
Stifling a noise in his throat that Arthur echoes, Merlin takes control of the kiss. His jaw flexes into it; his lips top Arthur's, trapping Arthur's between them. Arthur sucks in a harsh breath that lightens his thoughts, robs them of meaning. His lips slide open and Merlin nudges his tongue in. It's sweet, and slow, and each stroke of Merlin's sends powerful shivers down Arthur's spine. They chase down nerve endings, through his skull and through his arms.
With slow motions of his hand, Merlin combs Arthur's hair back in a gesture that's like a caress that moves Arthur into the kiss. Merlin licks at the tip of Arthur's tongue, at some of its length, before pulling back. Prior to withdrawing, he touches his mouth to the seam of Arthur's lips, puts pressure behind the touch. Then he steps backwards. “Is that answer enough?”
“Yeah.” Arthur thinks he would prefer no other. “I think it is.”
“Good that I can still explain myself.” Merlin's lips twist at the corner.
“Your ability to express yourself is quite crappy, Merlin,” Arthur says, pulling him back when Merlin turns around. He kisses his head, right in the middle of the scalp, where strands of black hair tickle his nose. “Thank god there's other ways.”
“Shut up, will you.” Merlin shakes off Arthur's hand, which was ruffling his hair into a state of disarray. “And let's have some tea.”
They hand each other their mugs and drink. At the same time they laugh.
“It's cold, isn't it?” Arthur says, smacking his lips together in distaste.
“It's shitty, isn't it?” Merlin turns his nose up.
“Tell you what.” Emptying it, Arthur sets the mug in the sink and lets water run into it so as to clean it of the worst residue. “Why don't we go out for breakfast?”
“I want doughnuts,” Merlin says. “Or Jasmine scones.”
“They're for high tea.” Arthur bundles Merlin into the bathroom so they can shower and dress. “Sapskull.”
“You'd know, wouldn't you,” Merlin says as they walk into the bathroom. “Okay, I want Nutella sticky buns then.”
“Shut up, and turn on the shower.” Arthur strips off his underwear.
As the shower head powers up, Merlin grumbles. “I'm only complying because we're doing this together.”
Arthur pulls Merlin with him in the shower cabin and kisses any further retort away.
Why Prince Arthur Should Go Back to Search and Rescue
The monarchy, it's no secret for anyone, has a merely ceremonial function these days. The king has the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament. He appoints and dismisses the Prime Minister. He can declare war and make peace, and command the armed forces. On paper it looks like he has quite a lot of clout. But, let's be honest, politics is made in Downing Street, and the King only acts in accordance to election results and the wishes of the elected PM. In short, he's not a free standing agent, no more than your average Tom, Dick and Harry. (Though conspicuously richer.)
Is it any wonder that the general population feels that he's no more than a puppet in fancy clothes? That the upkeep of his role only costs the nation in terms of tax and expense? Let's not forget that the royal family enjoys state protection, a veritable bevy of bodyguards shields its members from any form of lurking danger – and the upkeep of their various homes – veritable palaces all of them – is shelled out by the average Briton, again in the form of taxes.
Let's have a look at the numbers.
As the royal household kicked off the trend for austerity and dramatically increased spending on the upkeep of its abodes, over the past two years the cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer has risen by nearly seven percent, doubling the rate of inflation. The King’s official expenditure from the Sovereign Grant, the amount released from the public purse each year to finance the monarch, increased to £37.7m - a rise of £2.9 compared to the previous year.
It's quite a lot.
Now unless we resort again to a revolution – we can choose either the native or French model – , this won't change.
Sir Dunstan Balan, keeper of the Privy Purse, said that the latest public figures meant public funding of the monarchy had fallen by four per cent in the last two fiscal years once maintenance costs were subtracted. He said: “We take our responsibility to run as efficient an operation as possible. The monarchy gives back as much as it receives. In terms of tourist income, charity donations, and wages paid through the Sovereign Grant, the Royal Household pays back and brings in more that is spent on it. Royal aides reiterated the £36m cost of the monarchy for the last financial year was equivalent to small change and was “value for money”.
It may not exactly look like that to us but that's not the point. The crux of the matter is that, since the state developed more democratically, we have come to expect a return for our contributions. We have come to take for granted certain rights. Given how the public's happiness is linked with the fate of our Sovereign this seems pivotal to the monarch-subject relationship. Briefly, the ways in which the Monarchy gives back to us are of vital importance for its continued existence.
In such a framework Prince Arthur's work as an air ambulance pilot was key. As emergency services staff, he offered help to the general population. He used his skills to lend a hand to those in need. He gave back something of what he took. We're not talking about the salary he waived and donated to charity; we mean the lives he saved every day on his rounds of duty. Those are priceless.
In retiring Prince Arthur from his ambulance service duty, the monarchy is telling us it's not interested in the well being of the public. It's telling us its interests are paramount and that the lives spared are of no consequence.
While the concern for the Prince's safety – which is on our money – is real and methods should be developed to ensure it, pulling him from all action sends the wrong message. We, as citizens – as subjects – don't matter much.
With the Prince of Wales retired from duty, the crown is telling us that our lives mean less than the time it takes to devise a good security plan. It tells us that we're not on its horizon. We are nothing.
In view of this piece of information, how should the public react? How should it treat the senders of this news? Should the public be as loving towards the monarchy as it once was? Or should it perhaps reflect on how much of a one-way street their supposedly reciprocal relationship is?
If the crown deems that reciprocity important, then Prince Arthur should resume his duties. His role at the heart of the Welsh Ambulance service should become once again a signifier of mutuality. Should the Monarchy deem the effort too steep, it would be telling us we're not worth any expenditure of time and grey matter. The very structure of society would be threatened.
King Uther should think well about his next step.
From The Independent edition of the 14/10/20-
The leaves in the trees are crisp and brown, the sky a murky grey, but it's not threatening rain yet. Houses splash colour in between the tree line. Benches line the park avenue, some green, some a rusty brown, a lot of them littered with empty cans or crisp packets. In the grass fat brown squirrels play, toying with nuts, chasing each other, pausing in their games to observe humans, cheeks bulging, before scuttling away again, up a branch. As the breeze ruffles it, water from the pond gargles.
Afallach and Bedivere, back on duty since the hoopla with Five, walk one behind, one ahead of Arthur and Merlin.
Doing his best to ignore them, Arthur says, “So would you like an ice cream?”
“Yes.” Merlin inhales the breeze. “But I'm buying.”
“Can't you let me do the...” Arthur's sight converges ahead. “...the boyfriend thing?”
“I could ask the same thing.” Merlin turns with a smile that slits his eyes and folds the skin under them.
“You haven't let me do that much.” Arthur's shoulders go up. “Not at all actually.”
“Buy me things?” Merlin knocks shoulders with him. “That's because I want a normal relationship.”
“I am the Prince of Wales.” It's sort of an unalterable fact about Arthur. “I can't change that.”
“I'm feeling like pistachio,” Merlin says, rooting in his pockets for small change. “Perhaps with a sprinkling of nuts on top.”
“Sometimes your non sequiturs baffle me.” Arthur's hand glances down Merlin's back as they walk.
Merlin chuckles deeply. “You love my non sequiturs.”
Arthur breathes deep, fills his lungs with air, then says. “Yeah. I do.”
They buy their ice creams from a van and eat them on the go. Merlin stains his shirt and says he's lucky he's to change into his uniform later or he'd have to walk about looking all disgusting. Arthur lords it over him about his superior ice-cream-eating technique, when he gets a splash of chocolate on his front. Then he has to listen to Merlin crow, insisting that all men are very fallible when it comes to cones.
At his, Arthur rids himself of Bedivere and Afallach and sits Merlin on the sofa. For a while, they pretend to listen to a tennis match on the radio, but then they scoot closer and closer and before long Merlin's mouth's on his, kissing him only with the fat of his lips. They do this till they're lips tingle with it, then Merlin ghosts his tongue along the fold of Arthur's lips and Arthur opens up to him. Then they're trading spit, their tongues slipping against each other in under passes and over passes. Arthur's moving his whole body into it, when the French doors swish open and Father appears.
He raises his hand and his bodyguard fall back a few steps, relegated to the garden, much like Arthur's.
Arthur and Merlin spring apart.
“Turn the television on,” Father says, expressing a sentiment he's never voiced before. He hates the contraption. “Quickly, Arthur.”
Arthur doesn't point out that they're at his place, and that Father should have warned him before coming. His visit is so unprecedented, Arthur is at a loss for words. Never before has his father taken upon himself the burden of a social call. He's visited hospitals, attended charity events, and inspected regiments, but he has never set foot in another person's residence. It's Buckingham Palace with him, all the way. “Yes, sir.”
At a touch of the remote from Arthur, the telly blares on. “Which channel?” Arthur asks.
“Sky 1,” Father says.
“Well, I for one--” A woman being interviewed leans into the microphone. “--think that he should go back to his job.”
“Why do you think that?”
The woman answers, “Because he was good at it.”
This time it's a middle aged man's turn to speak. His hair is greying at the temples, which shows when he turns to answer the question. “I agree with The Independent. He should do something useful.”
The montage that follows is quicker. A girl says, “Hey, I do my job, he should do his.”
“I feel that it would only honour the Royal House.” This comes from an old woman.
“I've worked as a medic for twenty years,” another interviewee says. “It's a great job. I've never flown but I trust the drivers on my team with my life. He should go back to his job.”
“We need more qualified personnel, not less.” This is the opinion of the Welsh Air Ambulance Trust.
Gwen says, “We'd love to have Arthur back.”
Father makes a gesture and Arthur mutes the volume.
“Vox populi, it never does to contradict it,” says Father. In a sweep of his coat, he pivots on his feet. He gives Arthur's flat a once over then lets his eyes linger on Merlin. “You can go back to your job.”
In a swish of outerwear, he's gone.
Merlin and Arthur look at each other. Merlin's the first to shake out of his surprise and crack a smile. “Was he...” He stares after the spot vacated by Father. “Is he serious?”
“I've never known Father to joke.” Arthur smiles. “So yes, I supposed I'm back on.”
“That's great Arthur!” Merlin's almost jumping in place.
“I know!” Arthur can't believe he's got everything he's ever wanted. A man he admires deep in his bones, a chance to go back to his job, and a future that looks promising. “I'm the luckiest man on the planet.”
They come together in a fierce embrace.