Merlin was, once again, being sent out to do Gaius’ job. This time it was a wave of illness in a town not far from Camelot, but Gaius was needed in the castle, so he was sending the next best thing. Merlin didn’t really mind having to help out when Gaius needed something done, but he wasn’t technically the castle healer, even if he lived with him. And, of course, there was the added bonus of Arthur being a pain in the ass any time Merlin had to do anything that didn’t involve him.
“I’m not letting you go alone,” Arthur insisted, for about the fourth time since Merlin had brought this up with him.
“Yes, you are,” Merlin said, “It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before, and there’s no point in you catching it and bringing it back to the castle with you.”
“What if it’s Morgana?” Arthur asked.
“Why would it be Morgana?”
“Why wouldn’t it be Morgana?”
“Because she has no reason to target a random village we’ve never been to?”
“Well, if it is Morgana,” Arthur said, “It’s not like you can protect yourself if something were to go wrong--”
“Thank you for your incredible confidence in my abilities,” Merlin cut in.
“--and I wouldn’t want to have to go through the trouble of finding a new manservant on short notice,” Arthur continued, ignoring Merlin’s interruption. As usual.
“Right, of course not,” Merlin said, lifting a single eyebrow, “Wouldn’t want to inconvenience you by dying, or anything.”
“Exactly!” Arthur responded triumphantly. “So I’m coming.” Merlin frowned, but let it slide. He couldn’t actually force Arthur to stay if he was dead set on following, as much as he might want to.
“Fine,” he muttered, “but don’t get in the way.”
Within the hour, they were on their way. From what little information Gaius had gathered, they knew that this illness wasn’t deadly, so long as the patient could get treatment. The problem was simply that this town was small enough that it didn’t have a proper physician who could handle what they were dealing with, so they’d sent word to Camelot to beg for help, and in turn Gaius had sent Merlin. He’d do what he could when they got there, maybe stay a few days to make sure the patients took a turn for the better, and then they’d go home. Easy.
Merlin knew it was something he could have handled by himself, but he was secretly pleased with the knightly entourage Arthur had insisted on bringing along. Sure, he didn’t necessarily believe this incident was Morgana related, but it was nice to have his friends with him anyway. They could be infuriating, but making this journey alone would be far less entertaining. They bantered back and forth around him as they rode, helping the time to pass far more quickly than it would have if he was on his own.
It was early evening by the time they reached the village, but not quite dark yet, which meant Merlin still had some time to get started. He got himself set up in the inn, but was gathering his supplies and heading out before the others had even finished climbing the stairs.
“Are you the physician from Camelot?” the woman that greeted him at the door of the infirmary asked.
“That’s me,” Merlin responded easily. She gestured him in and he stepped past her, looking around for a place to set down his supplies.
“We’ve been putting the patients up in the room just through there,” she said, nodding her head towards a doorway in the far wall. Merlin could hear muffled coughing from inside. She stepped up and opened the door for him, leading him through to the makeshift sickbay. The room was filled with beds, separated as much as they could be in the small but crowded space. The people laid up in them looked miserable; most were asleep, though fitfully, but the ones who were awake were shaky and coughing harshly. Merlin winced in sympathy at an especially rough sounding cough to his left.
“I’ll just get started here, if that’s alright with you,” he said to the woman. She smiled at him kindly.
“The sooner the better,” she said. “I have a bit of business to tend to, but I’ll just be in the front room if you need any assistance.”
“I’ll have more than enough assistance in about a minute, probably,” Merlin said. Just as he said it, the door creaked open again and Gwaine poked his head in. He turned back almost immediately.
“Found him!” Gwaine called behind him, and then the door opened wider as the rest of the knights piled into the room, followed closely by Arthur.
“See?” Merlin flashed a grin at the woman, who looked surprised at seeing so many people suddenly in her infirmary.
“Well, you won’t be needing me then,” she noted. “But don’t get too loud in here, many of the patients are sleeping, and they need the rest. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Merlin agreed readily. She smiled again and ducked out of the room.
“You could have told us where you were going,” Arthur grumbled as soon as the woman had left. Merlin shrugged.
“I assumed you could figure it out,” he said, “I mean, I came here to help with a plague. This is where the sick people are. It’s not too hard to put the clues together.”
Gwaine snorted from behind them. Arthur just rolled his eyes.
“Just tell us what you need us to do,” he said instead of quipping back, for perhaps the first time since they’d known each other. Maybe for once, he recognized that there were people who needed help more than they needed their bickering. At that realization, Merlin sobered up a bit too, nodding towards the patient just beside him. They seemed to have just woken up.
“Come help me see what we’re dealing with,” he said, turning to the patient. Arthur followed suit.
Over the next while, Merlin checked temperatures and handed out supplies. He directed Arthur and the knights to wherever he thought they were needed, and they let him take charge with minimal ribbing. They settled into an easy rhythm. By the time night had well and truly fallen, they’d made good progress. Even so, when Merlin looked up and took in the room, he knew there was so much more to do, and the sooner he could get it done the sooner these people would be back on their feet.
The knights filtered out slowly, heading back to the inn to get some well deserved rest. Gwaine clapped him on the back as he passed, muttering some joke about not staying out too late. Arthur stayed longer than the rest, hovering around Merlin and whatever patient he was working on, under the half-hearted pretense that he didn’t want to leave Merlin to walk back by himself. After another hour, though, even Arthur couldn’t hide his yawning.
“You’re no help here if you pass out on top of a patient,” Merlin griped at him. “Go back to the inn. I’ll finish up and head back in a bit.”
“Merlin--” Arthur started, but Merlin cut him off.
“Morgana isn’t here, she would have done something by now if she was. I don’t need an armed guard to walk to the inn, it’s barely across the street. Go. You’re useless if you fall asleep here, and I’m not about to carry you back if you do.”
“Well, that’s no way to talk to a prince,” Arthur muttered, looking mildly chastised, but there was no heat behind it.
“No, but it is the way you tell a friend to take care of himself.”
“Oh, coming from you?” Merlin chuckled at that, despite himself.
“Get out of here,” he said, “I’ve got more patients to tend to.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes and gave him a once-over, glancing between him and the door, as if debating whether it was worth it to do what he said. Merlin gave him a pointed look when he stifled another yawn. Arthur shot back a glare, mouth twisted in apparent displeasure at the thought of leaving Merlin to fend for himself, but eventually his exhaustion won out. He headed for the door, and Merlin relaxed a little. One stubborn patient put to rest, only a countless number more to go. He eyed the darkening room critically, lit a few candles, and got back to work.
The next few days passed in similar fashion. Merlin spent the day in the infirmary, stayed later than he probably should, and collapsed into bed for an hour or two of sleep before the cycle started again. The morning of their last appointed day in the village found Merlin stretched out in his bed, blinking awake to the sun and a steadily mounting headache. What he wanted to do, almost desperately, was roll over and go back to sleep. But he could hear someone moving in the room next to his, and he knew he had to get up and put himself together enough to get back to work. He groaned softly to himself at the thought, but pushed his blankets away and sat up anyway.
Even as he took a moment to rub at his forehead in an attempt to massage the pain away, Merlin knew he couldn’t spend too much time dawdling. There were still patients stuck in the infirmary who needed his help, and he didn’t want to leave them waiting if he could help it.
A quick knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts, bringing everything back into focus. He still hadn’t gotten out of the bed. He wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d been sitting there.
“Get up, Merlin, it’s morning,” Arthur called through the door. Merlin started to respond, but Arthur’s footsteps were already retreating, towards the inn’s tavern if he could hazard a guess. The knights were probably already there. Merlin forced himself up, trying to ignore the fatigue that slowed his movements.
By the time he’d gotten himself dressed, he felt better, if only slightly. The throbbing at his temples had faded to a more manageable ache, and he felt more awake now that he was up and moving. That was good, because he knew he had more work to do, and he didn’t want Arthur to catch on and worry him to death before he could finish. Besides, he was just tired. He’d finish up early tonight and get some sleep, and he’d be good as new for their ride back to Camelot. No big deal, and no need for his friends to worry about it.
He shuffled down to the tavern stifling a yawn. Percival looked up from shoveling what looked like egg and potatoes into his mouth when Merlin sat down.
“You alright, Merlin?” he asked, giving Merlin a once-over.
“Just tired,” Merlin deflected. He caught Arthur giving him a suspicious look out of the corner of his eye. He ignored it. He was fine, and he didn’t need Arthur trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing. The others seemed more than satisfied with his answer, digging back into their food eagerly. Merlin picked at his own food for a few moments, but decided in the end he’d rather get down to the infirmary and away from scrutiny as fast as possible.
“I’m heading back to the infirmary,” he said as he got up, offering no other explanation. He all but fled the room, wanting to get away from Arthur’s irritating scrutiny. The same woman from before nodded to him as he entered the infirmary, heading straight for the back room. The sluggishness he’d felt as he woke up was easily ignored now that he could give himself a task, and he got right back to work without a second thought. The knights arrived not too long after, and he pointedly ignored their glances as he directed them to where they should be working.
It wasn’t until hours later, when he thought about taking a break--just sitting down for a moment--that Merlin realized maybe this wasn’t just the lack of sleep getting to him. He paused briefly after finishing up with the man he’d been working on and glanced longingly at the chair beside the bed, wondering if he could just rest for a minute. He was so tired. His head was still pounding, and now that he was concentrating on himself, he could feel the itch that threatened a cough in the back of his throat.
“Merlin?” Arthur’s voice startled him, and he realized belatedly that he’d been staring at the chair for longer than strictly necessary. He shook himself out of it and forced himself to look up, catching Arthur’s eye.
“You sure you’re alright?” Arthur asked, quietly enough that the other knights wouldn’t hear it. The naked concern in his voice was surprising, for once not covered up by teasing insults or bravado. It threw Merlin off enough that he almost wanted to admit that he wasn’t; he thought that honestly, if he sat down right now, he might not get back up for a while.
He’d been pushing himself too hard. He was well aware of that, having stayed up helping patients well into the early hours of the morning nearly every night, barely stopping to rest. He wasn’t even entirely sure he’d eaten anything last night. He definitely hadn’t been taking the proper precautions to protect himself from the illness he’d been trying to treat.
Which actually made things make a lot more sense, Merlin realized when the cough threatened again. He must’ve caught it as he was working. Maybe that meant he should take it easy, like he would recommend to anyone else in this situation; but then again, he wasn’t anyone else. People still needed his help, and it’s not like he could transmit it to the patients anyway, because they already had it. So he could just keep working through it, right? It wasn’t that bad yet. With that in mind, he plastered on his best innocent expression and flashed a smile at Arthur.
“I’m fine,” he assured him, clearing his throat quietly to cover up a cough. As long as he kept his distance from Arthur and the other knights while they worked, they’d be fine too. He could still finish what he started, and he could rest later.
So Merlin ignored the fatigue dragging at him, pushing himself to stay focused and keep moving. He ignored the way his stomach rolled sickeningly when Gwaine suggested they break for a meal. He barely took notice of Arthur watching him, too intently concentrated on acting normal.
“Merlin!” Arthur called from across the room, forcing Merlin to look up. His eyes narrowed like he was analyzing him, and Merlin opened his mouth to respond, only to be caught off guard by the coughing fit he’d been forcing back all afternoon. He doubled over, feeling like he was hacking up a lung, and realized belatedly that maybe this was worse than he thought. He fought to get himself back under control, and by the time the coughing subsided, the knights had gathered around him with Arthur right up front.
“I knew you weren’t fine,” Arthur said. Merlin straightened and tried to shake his head in disagreement. He regretted it when his vision swam out of focus briefly.
“No, no,” he muttered, voice more hoarse than he thought he should sound, “I‘m okay, I swear.”
“No, you’re not,” Arthur insisted, “you’re burning up, and you’re an idiot for ignoring it.”
“That’s rude,” Merlin protested mildly. Arthur was right, though, as much as he hated to admit it. He’d been so focused on staying focused that he hadn’t even noticed how his vision had gone hazy, how his hands shook.
“Come sit down, you look like you’re about to fall over,” Arthur said, keeping a hand on Merlin’s arm when he swayed slightly. Merlin pulled back, though it was half-hearted.
“Arthur, I still have to--”
“No, Merlin, let the knights handle it.” Arthur guided him to a chair, and reached for the pitcher of water on the table next to it, pouring some into a cup he’d produced from somewhere. Merlin was finding it harder to keep up with what was going on around him.
“We’ve been watching you work for days now,” he continued, pressing the cup into Merlin’s trembling hands and coaching him to take a sip. “They know what they’re doing. They’ll finish up, and I’ll take you back to the inn and make sure you get some actual sleep.”
“Arthur,” Merlin practically whined, but there was no real force behind it anymore.
“No arguing,” Arthur said, as if reading his thoughts. “You clearly can’t take care of yourself, so I’m going to have to do it for you. I’m still the prince, so I will make that an order if I have to.”
Merlin sagged in the chair and resorted to just nodding. It was like everything he’d been pushing back had hit him all at once as soon as he sat down, and he found himself not wanting to argue the idea of resting. Arthur grinned at Merlin’s agreement and clapped him on the shoulder, nudging his hand to get him to take another drink of the water. He turned away to say something to Percival quietly, and then he was back, helping Merlin to his feet and back to the inn. By the time they made it to the room, Merlin was so exhausted he all but collapsed onto the bed.
“Thanks, Arthur,” he murmured, already half asleep.
“You’re too much trouble,” Arthur grumbled, but when Merlin cracked an eye open, he caught the smile on Arthur’s face. He huffed out a breath, settled further into the mattress, and let his eyes close again. He trusted the knights, his friends, to take care of whatever else needed to be done before they headed back to Camelot, and he trusted Arthur to take care of him until then too. With that thought in mind, he finally allowed himself to drift off into sleep.