The sunlight that woke him that morning, not like on a usual day, instead Merlin was forced into wakefulness by a cough that racked through his whole body, his chest aching with an almost crippling pain.
Blue eyes fly open, as Merlin tries to sit upright. He makes it only halfway before his arms give out, a level of weakness taking hold that he’s no previous experience of.
A glance to the right shows him it’s still night, the stars peeking through the clouds.
Coughing fit subsiding, Merlin collapses full back again his pillow, each breath wheezes noisily from his lungs, and his eyes are heavy, almost too heavy to keep open, so he lets them close.
Taking shallow breath, his tongue slips out, moistening cracked lips.
Concentration now freed from the struggle of keeping his eyes open, Merlin is able to turn his thoughts to the rest of his body.
Apart from the weakness that had already shown himself, Merlin feel unusually cold, like Arthur had been making him run around in the cold, without adequate clothing.
His heart is fluttering in his chest, like the wings of a trapped bird, it’s unsettling, serves only to make him feel anxious.
Rolling his head to the side Merlin peals his eyes open, staring at his closed door, almost willing someone - preferably Gaius to step through.
But of course no one did.
Heaving a deep breath, then regretting it not a moment later when it resulted in yet another bout of coughing, Merlin realises if he wants Gaius, he’ll need to get up himself.
With a what feels like a monumental effort Merlin rolls into his side. Once there he has to take a moment to let his heart calm, else he suspects his heart might explode.
He brakes himself as he prepares to sit up, already on edge over pain he has yet to feel.
Screwing his eyes shut Merlin makes his move, pushing up with both arm, his whole body is trembling, sweat coating his skin, but he succeeds.
Now all that’s left for him to do is to is to stand, that should be easy enough now, right?
It wasn’t of course, and the attempt very nearly has him face first on the ground, only managing to keep his feet by sheer luck.
Crossing the room takes him a long time, and when he finally reaches the door he’s all but folded forwards over himself, another bout of coughs tearing out of him.
He presses the palm of his hand against the flat of his door pushing it open, he gets only the smallest glimpse of the main room, lit only by the light of the stars before darkness clouds his vision and he falls.
Merlin’s collapsed form, is the first thing Gaius sees when he awakens the following Morning, his brain no comprehending at first what it is he is seeing. But the moment he does, his physician’s training springs into life and Merlin is no longer his surrogate son, but someone in need of his professional care.
Luckily Merlin had not taken a tumble down the short flight of stairs and instead is face down, cheek resting against one forearm, at the very edge of the top step, with the other arm hanging limbing over the top, his body half curled underneath him on the floor of his room.
Pressing his fingers against Merlin’s throat, Gaius takes the time to asses the rest of Merlin, quickly spotting the way sweat that has his shirt clinging to his skin, and sticking his hair to his forehead.
The measure of Merlin’s pulse is too fast, much too fast for someone unconscious. Carding one hand through dark hair, he pressed the back of his palm to Merlin’s forehead. The skin there is cold, though that’s not entirely unexpected given that his ward is lying on the floor, wearing only his flimsy sleep clothes in the middle of winter, but considering every other sign Gaius has good cause to believe Merlin’s suffering more than just the flu.
Bending even lower, though his back surely hates him for doing so, he presses he ear against Merlin’s back. The angel is not ideal, but even still Gaius can hear the telltale crackling rattle that is a sign of fluid in the lungs.
Knowing that he cannot leave Merlin simply lying there on the ground any longer, Gaius tries to wake him.
“Merlin?” He taps at one pale cheek.
But there is no response, not even the fluttering of eyelashes, and Gaius can only grow more worried.
Standing with a muffled groan, he decides that as Merlin will not wake, he needs help from someone stronger to move Merlin back into bed.
Leaning out his door, Gaius easily finds and waves down a passing guard, giving him strict instructions to bring the prince there as soon as possible.
Arthur hurries towards Gaius’s chambers as quickly as possible, his thoughts all but running wild as he conjures various scenarios as to what it could be that Gaius would need his help. The guard that had come to fetch him had known nothing as to the physician’s motives only that he had wanted him there immediately.
Reaching, the door, Arthur all but flies through it, demands already forming on the tip of is tongue, only to stall as he spots Merlin’s sprawled figure.
“Merlin! What happened to him, was he attacked?”
Gaius jerk his head round giving Arthur only the smallest of nods in greeting.
“No.” He doesn’t elaborate straight away, instead, collecting a few bottles from his shelves, whilst Arthur crosses the room. “He had pneumonia.”
“Pnemo-” Arthur starts his brain taking a moment to catch up with his mouth. “How?” A bubble of worry grows in his chest, he had seen many a hardy man struck down by the illness.
“I suspect it was yesterday, he took a tumble into a stream while out exercising the horse’s, though he assured me he felt fine before bed, clearly he wasn’t being entirely truthful.”
Arthur’s hand has come to rest on Merlin’s forehead by the time Gaius is finished speaking, frowning at the clammy feeling of the skin.
“The reason I called you, sire was so you can lift him back into bed, I cannot treat him while he’s on the floor like that, nor is it doing him any good.”
“Of course.” He’s pulling Merlin into his arms before his answer has even left his lips.
Merlin has always been easy to carry around, the servant never seeming to put on weight no matter how much food he pinches from Arthur.
Depositing Merlin back onto his bed, Arthur makes an effort to arrange the blankets around his form, tucking the edges in to keep out any drafts.
Within moments Gaius has joined them, the old man uncorking a vial.
“I need you to lift his shoulders.”
Arthur doesn’t even think twice at the fact he is being ordered around, moving straight off to follow instructions.
Settling his arm securely behind Merlin’s shoulders, Arthur finds himself balking at the way Merlin’s head flops forwards, chin resting against his chest.
In that position his breathing sounds so much worse, and without thinking Arthur uses his other hand to prop Merlin head upright, unable to stomach the sound of Merlin struggling for a moment longer.
He watches in silence as Gaius feeds Merlin to medicine, his eyes tracking even the smallest shifts in Merlin’s muscles, searching for any signs of improvement, though he know’s he’s being irrational, that these things take time to have any effect.
Once Merlin has consumed the whole thing, Gaius gestures for Arthur to lower him back down, and Arthur does taking extra care as he does so.
He turns to Gaius as he brushes the backs of his fingers down Merlin’s cheek. The gesture is strangely intimate, and normally something he would save for behind closed doors, but right now he couldn’t care less that Gaius can see him.
“He will be alright, won’t he, Gaius?”
The physician pauses a moment before delivering his answer.
“Merlin’s a fighter, he certainly won’t go easy, but it will depend on how deeply the illness has sunk into his lungs.”
His free hand clenches, and his eyes drop to Merlin's still face, taking in the grey rings which appear all but etched under Merlin’s eyes, that matches with dark hair, which is plastered haphazardly to his skin.
There’s a rustle as Gaius pulls Merlin’s blanket down, unknotting the ties on his shirt so he can expose the younger man’s chest, before he pulls out a strange device.
“This will allow me to better listen to his lungs, which will tell me how strongly the illness has taken hold.”
Arthur can only nod as he watches Gaius work, not realising that he is holding his breath until Gaius finally withdraws and it pours out of him in a rush.
“The crackling is widespread.” Gaius says, and Arthur feels his heart drop, assuming that means the worst. “However there does not appear to be any voids, which is a good sign. It means that air can still travel through his lung, just not as much as would normally.”
Feeling a weight lift from his shoulders Arthur turns back to Merlin, re-dressing him and covering him back up, knowing that keeping him warm is one of the few things Arthur can actually do to help.
“What do we do now?”
“Now? We must wait, and keep an eye out. Unless anything changes there is nothing else I can give Merlin to try and help without the risk of causing more damage. But if he wakes up then that definitely means he’s improving and at must less of a risk.”
“I understand. I shall stay here, so you can continue with your daily tasks.” The idea is firmly in his mind already, stay with Merlin in case the worst should happen and his condition deteriorate any.
“You couldn’t possibly do that sire.” Gaius starts to object.
“Nonsense, you’re already running late from your morning deliveries, and you know perfectly well that Merlin would only feel guilty if he knew you were neglecting your other patients to tend to him.” It’s a bit of a low blow, he knows, but Arthur would never be able to forgive himself if he left, especially with the likelihood that it was his orders that landed Merlin in this condition.
One of Gaius’s eyebrows shoots up, and Arthur has to look away lest he himself saying something he’ll regret.
“Well, if you’re sure, sire. Just make sure to have someone fetch me if he gets any worse.”
“Of course, Gaius.” He watches as Gaius takes his leave, refusing to let himself feel anymore guilt over his words, they needed to be said for the good of everyone.
He waits, listening to the sounds of Gaius moving about, until finally he hears the sound of the outer door closing as Gaius finally leaves, before Arthur leans in close to Merlin, bringing their fingers that he had threaded together once they were alone up to his lips, of he can lay a quick kiss to the back of Merlin’s knuckles.
“I’m not letting you leave me, you hear that, Merlin? You have to put up with me until we’re both old and grey.”
It’s sometime into the night when Merlin finally stirs, Arthur having drifted off a few hours ago, his head pillowed on his arms which are leant against the mattress.
Everything feels heavy, from his fingers to his toes, but somehow he manages to pull is eyes open, staring at the ceiling for a few minutes as his mind tries to catch up with everything. The last thing he can remember is trying to head out of his room to get Gaius, then nothing, so why is he lying back in his bed?
His throat feels incredibly dry, clicking when he tries to swallow. His lungs still feel blocked up, though maybe to a slightly lesser degree now, and the need to cough while still there is not as persistent.
Allowing his head to roll to the side, his eyes land on his companion. Blond hair is the only thing he can see, but it’s owner is someone Merlin could never mistake.
He opens his mouth trying to speak.
“...” His breath leaves him in a heavy puff but no words escape.
Brow wrinkling, he presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth, trying to generate enough saliva to allow him to make a sound.
When he tried again he almost manages to make a word, “Ar-t-ur” It’s quiet, but it’s good enough, as Arthur shifts, turning his head towards Merlin.
It clearly takes the prince a moment to register what he’s actually seeing as at first he simply stares blindly.
“Merlin!” He drops their hands which Merlin, realises only now had been entangled, and he suddenly feels bereft of the contact.
He wants to shot some witty comeback at Arthur, but he’s just too tired to manage it, instead he settles with rolling his eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that, you have pneumonia, Merlin. You could have died.”
Eyes widening and mouth parting, Merlin can only stare. He had thought it was merely a bad case of the flu, never something as serious as pneumonia.
“You’re still sick, but Gaius said if you woke up it meant that you would be able to recover.”
Merlin’s mouth closes with a light click of his teeth.
“I was so worried about you, you idiot.” Arthur’s head is suddenly in his hands, his expression completely hidden from Merlin. “Gaius told me that you took a fall in a stream yesterday and that was likely where you picked it up.”
Merlin twitches, remembering the icy feel of being consumed by the water, something he never wished to repeat.
“Damn it, Merlin you came to serve me dinner and draw a bath even after that as if nothing had happened. You need to take better care of yourself, you should have been the one having a warm bath, and getting to sit by a fire.” Arthur had lifted his head halfway through his speech, the fear in his eyes is clear to see and it slices at Merlin’s heart to know he’s the reason it’s there.
“I can’t lose you.”
The last words are said so quietly Merlin almost misses, them, but he doesn’t and even though he knows his voice is still shot, he has to answer.
“Sorry, I know.” Using as much strength as he can muster, Merlin lifts his hand, finding Arthur’s cheek, and cupping it. He lets his eyes slip closed as he feels Arthur press as kiss to the palm of his hand, before sleep claims him again.