Merlin would never be able to close his eyes again.
Every single time Merlin had tried to take a break for himself, Arthur ended up bumbling into another category of disaster with his sword swinging and dumb, stupid face lighting up with challenge.
The danger just happened to stumble upon them, for once, while the knights and Merlin were making the journey back to Camelot after a sickness outburst in a border town. Arthur and a couple of his most select knights—Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival—had volunteered to travel with Merlin to reassure the townspeople and provide comfort. Merlin was the only one actually doing the difficult bit, like always. Gaius suggested, and Merlin agreed, that Merlin was needed in case the plague—which had unusual symptoms if the woman who had petitioned Arthur was to be believed—turned out to be more than a standard illness.
Indeed, Merlin had found a poultice bag radiating a dark energy in the town’s well and had quickly disposed of it.
He and the knights left the town lauded as heroes, but Merlin grumpily wondered why the knights were so praised when all they had done was lug blankets to and fro and talk with the townspeople.
That last bit was a little uncharitable, but Merlin was on edge. An abandoned poultice bag with no sorcerer or sorceress guarding it? It didn’t seem likely, and Merlin, for the first time in his life, was concerned that he hadn’t had to fight anyone.
That was why, when Merlin had tried to lay his head on his horse’s neck for two seconds, trying to gather his thoughts, and he heard many someones thrashing through the forest, a small part of Merlin was relieved.
At last the world made sense again.
But that was also why Merlin would never be able to take a break.
Because currently, a sorceress and ten of her cohorts were shooting spells and swinging swords at Merlin’s friends.
The cacophony of battle rang through the forest as the setting sun dappled the forest with orange light. Arthur was shouting orders at the knights, encouraging them and sending them in the appropriate directions. Merlin’s chest felt tight as he watched Arthur work, dodging and sweeping and leading.
Merlin tried to shake the thoughts from his head as he scanned the scene, looking for the sorceress—the biggest threat to Arthur and his friends.
Movement behind a tree caught Merlin’s eye as the woman—young, only a little older than Merlin, perhaps—backed away from the scene. Her gaze caught Merlin’s, and she smiled a slow, lethal smile.
Merlin didn’t even hesitate.
He ran after her, legs pumping, heart thumping, eyes trained solely on her as she cackled and ran.
“Merlin!” Arthur’s voice shouted somewhere behind him, but Merlin knew that he couldn’t slow down and he couldn’t take his eyes off of the sorceress. So, he kept running.
Merlin dodged branches, leapt over logs, and tried to avoid the brambles tugging at his feet. The sound of fighting grew fainter and fainter before the sorceress stopped in her tracks and swung to face Merlin.
Merlin’s magic hummed underneath his skin, ready to defend as Merlin slowed his pace and stopped altogether.
They stood, barely ten meters apart as their chests heaved and they waited for the other to make the next move.
“You will never mean as much to him as he means to you.” The woman said simply, and Merlin was taken aback. Of all the threats and warnings he expected to come from the woman’s mouth, this wasn’t one of them. The sentiment stung sharply before Merlin tried to shrug it off.
It’s a distraction, a voice in Merlin’s head warned, and it sounded a lot like Arthur. Merlin lowered into a fighting stance, his magic singing as he prepared for an attack.
“You know nothing,” Merlin said, mouth twitching into a smile as the woman scowled deeply.
A great crashing came from Merlin’s left and halted the spell the woman had begun chanting. Arthur, sword in hand, emerged from the dense foliage.
“Are you going to make a habit of chasing dangerous witches with no weapons?” Arthur grated between clenched teeth as he shot Merlin a glare.
Merlin was about to make a sharp retort when movement behind Arthur caught Merlin’s attention.
One of the woman’s companions was hidden behind a tree, and he reached into his cloak. Time slowed down and, Merlin had the presence of mind to realize, he wasn’t sure whether his magic was doing it or if panic had made time clot together.
A flash of metal caught the dappled light of the forest and Merlin didn’t have time to think. A thin, sharp dagger as big around as a broom handle was poised at the tip of his fingers. His eyes, burning with anger and hatred and vindication, settled on Arthur’s back.
“Arthur!” Merlin called, but he knew, deeply and instinctually, it would be too late. Merlin had spent years watching Arthur train and knew exactly, down to the half-second, how fast Arthur’s reflexes were. He had seen Arthur run drill after drill and fight countless of men, to the death and for sport.
Merlin knew that Arthur wouldn’t be able to move. His back was turned, he wouldn’t have enough time he wouldn’t have enough time, he wouldn’t have enough time—
Merlin broke out into a sprint, lunging forward, catching Arthur’s shoulders as he turned around, placing himself between the assassin and Arthur and—
Merlin watched as Arthur’s face morphed from concentration to confusion to annoyance in the span of seconds.
“What’s the matter with you?” Arthur asked, quirking his brow as Merlin held tightly to Arthur’s shoulders. Merlin frowned, and tried to inhale, but choked on a cough. He opened his mouth, trying to speak but his mouth was sticky and full and he felt warm, warm, warm, warm spilling down down down down…
The world tilted on its axis a little bit, and Merlin leant into Arthur’s body. Why was the world tilting?
Arthur’s face shifted from annoyance to horror. Merlin hadn’t seen that look on Arthur’s face in a long, long time and decided at once that he didn’t like it very much. He needed to protect Arthur from falling down; with urgency, Merlin thought that’s the only thing he needed to do and he needed to do it right now. Merlin leant into Arthur harder, hoping that his presence would comfort Arthur while the world shook. His legs felt weak. Probably from all the forest-shifting.
Behind Arthur, the sorceress was gone and Merlin knew that the man behind the tree probably was, too, or else Arthur would not still be at his side when danger was so close. Arthur would be charging around, trampling through the forest, swinging his sword wildly, Merlin thought with derision. Arthur doesn’t have time do stand here with me.
Then, suddenly, blindingly, unimaginable pain exploded along his back, racing across his shoulder and settling on the right side of his chest. Merlin tried to cry out but he choked again on the warmth in his mouth and coughed raggedly, red speckling Arthur’s armor.
Oh, Merlin thought fuzzily, I’m bleeding.
He looked down, trying to find out why he hurt so bad, and found the point of a dagger protruding from his chest. Its scarlet metal glinted sinisterly in the light of the forest. Wet, red metal? Merlin tried to think of a blade that was red and wet, but his brain slowed to a stop and most of his thoughts with it.
Hm, Merlin mused, before his legs stopped working.
Time got a little fuzzy.
Merlin found himself on the ground, but didn’t remember how he got there. His arms didn’t hurt with impact, so he hadn’t fallen, but his back and front still blazed in agony. The pain paralyzed Merlin so entirely that he couldn’t even open his mouth to scream.
Arthur’s bright eyes were right above him, so close, so close, so close, and Merlin tried to hold his next cough inside of him because he wasn’t able to breathe but Arthur would give him triple chores next week if Merlin coughed crimson in his face.
Arthur’s lips were moving.
“…lin! Talk to me, Merlin!” Arthur turned his head away, looking up, past Merlin’s head. “Gwaine! Leon! Someone!”
Merlin felt peeved. Couldn’t Arthur see that Merlin was in pain at the moment? If Merlin felt like talking, he would very much be talking at the moment, thank you. However, Arthur looked very scared, and Merlin felt panic in his own chest well up at Arthur being afraid. Merlin need to say something, to comfort him. Merlin opened his mouth, and tried to force sound out, but all that came out was more blood.
Merlin barely had time to turn his head to the side before he was spilling the contents of his throat—blood so dark it was almost black—onto the leafy floor underneath him with wheezing, hacking coughs that rattled Merlin’s skull.
Oh, Merlin thought.
That doesn’t seem very healthy.
Merlin’s mind was swimming.
Focus, Merlin, focus, his mind cried. We’ve been injured! Stay alive! What do we do to stay alive?
Hm, Merlin pondered, head fuzzy, ears still ringing. He tried to flick through his memories of Gaius telling him how to care for the wounded. Merlin knew that there was something he needed to do if he was bleeding, but every time he grasped onto the thought, it was gone again, like a wisp of vapor.
A gust of wind rattled the blurry leaves far above Arthur’s head, and Merlin shivered. He tried to shiver, anyway, but his limbs had lost the coordination to do something so graceful and specialized. Instead, he twitched violently in Arthur’s arms, shuddering and jerking wildly. Arthur tightened his hold on his shoulders, saying something.
“…most here, Merlin. Don’t you…” Arthur’s voice was so shaky that Merlin’s brain decided it didn’t want to try to hear the rest. Merlin’s chest ached from where Arthur was pressing down heavily on it.
Realization dawned on Merlin.
Yes! Of course! Gaius said that he needed to apply pressure to where he was bleeding to staunch the flow of blood.
Merlin raised a shaky hand to his mouth, and pressed down.
Yes, he was bleeding a lot from there.
Now that that was taken care of, Merlin tried to focus on his surroundings.
Arthur was shivering above him—wait, no, he was quaking. Arthur was shuddering so hard that Merlin was afraid his bones were going to snap or shift out of place. One hand was pressing sharply onto the right side of Merlin’s chest and Arthur had an arm underneath him. Arthur’s other hand was pressing into Merlin’s back, over his right shoulder blade. Merlin’s left side was pressed into the metal of Arthur’s armor and his right side wasn’t touching the ground at all, Merlin now realized.
That was very kind of Arthur, but Merlin’s right side wasn’t hurting at all now, so he was really fine. In fact, it was the only warm place on Merlin’s body right now, since it had gotten so cold in the forest.
Merlin was taking care of his wound, just like he was taught. He shifted his hand over his mouth so prove the point, hoping to remove the look of pure terror on Arthur’s face. Merlin was saving the day, all by himself—again.
But Arthur wasn’t paying attention to Merlin, like always. He was scanning the forest, looking for something, but Merlin didn’t know what he could possibly be looking for. Merlin moved his hand not pressing down on his mouth to tug at Arthur’s hand on Merlin’s chest.
“I’m fine, Arthur,” is what Merlin wanted to say, but he forgot that his mouth was blocked. When Merlin tried to move his hand, his throat spasmed, and black blood bubbled through Merlin’s fingers. Arthur’s eyes widened even further, and his face contorted in an expression Merlin’s brain was too fuzzy to figure out.
Arthur shifted Merlin in his arms, and Merlin’s head spun unpleasantly.
“HELP!” Arthur suddenly screamed, so loud, so deep, so piercing that Merlin winced sharply, and his head took another spin. Merlin tried to shoot Arthur an unimpressed look, but was distracted by the fact that Arthur was very filmy and fuzzy around the edges.
Merlin tried to reach up and check to see if Arthur really was floating away, piece by piece, but the side of his head was solid. Light blond hair caught the light, and Merlin pressed it down against Arthur’s scalp—just to keep it there. Just in case.
Arthur was so warm.
“Merlin, you are the most foolish man I’ve ever met. Why on earth would you do that? You are not going to die for me. Not here, not ever, not now.” Arthur said, voice cracking on the last word, and his voice was very breathy, like he had just come back from a week’s worth of drills. Warm drops of rain landed on Merlin’s face.
Merlin sluggishly tried to catch a look of the rain but it was still sunny. That didn’t make sense. Merlin looked at Arthur, wondering if he was seeing this, too, but Arthur’s face was drawn up in a sob, lips pressed together tightly, so tightly that his mouth was only a slash on his face. Merlin caught a glimpse of falling gold, lit up by the golden light coming from the tops of the trees. Drip, drip, drip drip drip drip drip—
They were coming from Arthur, and Merlin knew that they could be nothing but tears.
Why was Arthur crying?
Arthur never cried.
The last time Merlin had seen Arthur cry was when Uther had died. When Merlin had unintentionally sped the man’s death and watched the life leave his body—a great exhale and then slackness.
Nobody was dying now, so why was Arthur crying golden tears?
“—‘ve got so much to do, don’t think you’ll be getting out of it this easily. I need you to clean my chambers and I need you to whet my sword and…and I need you to collect wood for the fire and—“ Arthur choked, and Merlin watched with bleary eyes as Arthur’s throat spasmed underneath the skin of his neck. “I need you…I need you.” He said, over and over again, but Merlin wasn’t paying attention anymore.
The jerk of the lump in Arthur’s throat was concerning. Just in case Arthur could be bleeding, too, Merlin removed his hand from his own mouth.
Merlin would not let anything happen to Arthur, even at his own expense. Plus, he had been staunching the flow of blood pretty well, so a few seconds for Arthur wouldn’t hurt.
Merlin’s hand was streaked red and orange with the smears of his own blood as he struggled to lift his hand to press to Arthur’s shaking lips. Merlin’s other hand, the one on Arthur’s head, he let go limp. This one was the one that really mattered, he thought, as he held his gory fingers to Arthur’s mouth, leaving trails of red on Arthur’s face.
Arthur’s eyes were unnaturally bright as the sun caught the wetness there and made the tracks on his cheeks glow with an unnatural light. Arthur’s hair caught the sun, his eyes caught the sun, his cloak caught the sun, Arthur was the sun.
Bright, bright, so bright.
Merlin smiled, a big, toothy, grin as he looked up at Arthur the Sun, his King, glow and glow and glow. Merlin was keeping him safe, Merlin would always keep him safe.
“Arthur.” He said, still smiling, blood clogging the word and making it sound like a croak and not the promise—the oath, the vow, the covenant—Merlin wanted it to be.
But the blood kept coming, spilling over his chin and down his shirt and Merlin felt himself falling asleep as Arthur opened his mouth and made an unintelligible noise. Merlin couldn't help but surrender to sleep, feeling his eyes close and his mind drift away.