It had been three days. Three days of absolutely no sleep and constant worry.
“You have to rest, sire,” repeated Gaius, sounding utterly exasperated.
“I won’t leave him,” replied Arthur. Again. He’d lost count how many times they’d had that exact exchange since Arthur had brought Merlin to the physician’s quarters.
The door opened behind him, but Arthur didn’t even turn around.
“How is he?” asked Gwaine.
The knights seemed to take turns with coming to check on Merlin, though Arthur suspected at this point they came to check on him, too.
“There hasn’t been any change,” said Gaius.
Gwaine gave no more than a grunt in response. A hand settled on Arthur’s shoulder and Gwaine put down a plate in front of him.
“Food, princess, or you’ll be passed out when he wakes up.”
It was quite possibly the only argument that would work at the moment. And it did work. Arthur didn’t argue, silently picked up the fork and began to eat.
At some point, Gaius went to sleep in Merlin’s room, leaving Arthur alone with Merlin’s still, unconscious form.
What if he never wakes up? The thought felt like a knife to the gut. Like the knife that had put Merlin into this state. All because that stupid prat had paid more attention to Arthur than his own opponent. As always. It drove Arthur mad.
And it wasn’t like Arthur hadn’t ever pointed that out before either. They argued about it every time they returned from, well, anywhere. And Merlin would insist that he’d be fine, that it was his job—his destiny—to protect Arthur, and Arthur would argue right back that, magic or no magic, even Merlin could get hurt—and now it had actually happened and if Merlin didn’t wake up Arthur wasn’t sure he’d ever forgive himself for continuing to allow Merlin to accompany him.
He ran his fingers over Merlin’s pale face, then gripped his hand a little tighter. Merlin had to wake up. He had to.
* * *
Arthur must’ve fallen asleep, because the next thing he became aware of was someone whispering his name. The voice sounded tired and parched, as if—
Arthur shot up, suddenly wide awake.
Deep blue eyes, still half-closed but only half, looked back at him.
“Arthur,” whispered Merlin, giving him a weak smile. “Were you sleeping he—“
Arthur kissed him.
Merlin made a surprised little noise, before melting under Arthur’s touch and parting his lips to deepen the kiss.
Arthur pulled away, earning himself a pout. “Never do that to me again,” he breathed, resting his forehead against Merlin’s. “Never ever, do you hear me? I thought I’d lost you.”
“I’m fine, Arthur.”
“You very nearly weren’t. Gaius said if the knife had been an inch further to the side, it’d have pierced your lung and he couldn’t have saved you.” Arthur gently cupped Merlin’s jaw. “I can’t see you die, Merlin, please. Don’t make me watch you die. You can’t keep prioritising me over yourself in the middle of a battle.”
“That spell would’ve hit you if I hadn’t deflected it,” croaked Merlin, his voice still weak.
Arthur reluctantly pulled away and got a glass of water. He made Merlin drink the entire thing before replying, “You could’ve healed me.”
“I told you I’m not that good at healing spells,” Merlin retorted. Arthur guessed it was probably just a habit by now for Merlin to keep arguing.
“Well, I’d bet you’re still loads better than me because guess what, I can’t do any healing spells at all!”
“It’s my job—“
“To protect me, yes, I know. But don’t you understand, Merlin? If you get hurt, I’m hurt as well. So if you want to protect me, protect yourself, too, clotpole.”
“That’s my word.”
“Fits you perfectly.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, but Arthur could see his lips twitch as he failed to fully suppress a smile. “Fine, I’ll try to be more careful.”
Arthur gave him another soft kiss. “Thank you.”
Merlin looked a little dazed, smiling goofily. After a few moments, he seemed to come back to himself and raised an eyebrow. “Are we going to talk about that?”
“Talk about what?” asked Arthur innocently.
“You kissed me. Twice.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
Merlin’s face fell a little. “If you say so, sire.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and leaned down once more, giving Merlin a third kiss. “There’s nothing to talk about because it’s simple, Merlin. I love you. And I’m never letting you out of my sight again.”
The smile Merlin gave him could’ve replaced the sun. “If you say so, sire.”
Arthur couldn’t resist—he kissed him again.
When they finally broke apart, they were both a little breathless.
“You should rest some more,” Arthur whispered.
“You’re one to talk, how long since you slept? In your bed,” Merlin clarified quickly just as Arthur opened his mouth to tell him that he’d been asleep only minutes ago.
“Three days,” Arthur admitted reluctantly. “I think.”
“Arthur! Go to bed!”
“I won’t leave you,” he insisted stubbornly.
Merlin gave an exasperated sigh, then shuffled to the side, wincing slightly as the movement jostled his bandages. “Fine, get in then.”
Arthur didn’t need to be told twice. He joined Merlin on the bed and wrapped his arms around him, careful not to cause him any pain.
Soon enough, they were both comfortable, and an immense tiredness overcame Arthur. Now that Merlin was awake, his perpetual tension was finally leaving him—and it left him exhausted.
He was already nearly asleep when Merlin whispered, “Arthur?”
“I love you, too.”