Title: these are only walls to hold me here
Spoilers: entire first series
Warning: language, slash
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur (assumes established relationship)
Summary: Merlin felt his stomach lurch when he carefully and deliberately said, "Lad, I don't think I can save the arm." Not a tag but set a few months after 1x13.
Merlin sorted Arthur's shirts for the third time and considered whether Arthur would mind them being in order of colour, whether he'd prefer them to be ordered by thickness or whether sleeve length was the really important aspect of the whole thing.
Then he decided sod it, he was bored, and if Arthur would leave him hanging around the castle for five days at the mercy of a Gaius eyebrow, it was his own damn fault if his shirts weren't arranged to his liking. Which left him with exactly nothing to do in Arthur's rooms.
Finishing learning the dullest spell he'd ever seen had to be better than pacing, which was a space efficient way of stretching his legs and definitely didn't mean he was worried about Arthur.
And really, if he were being honest, it had only been four and a half days. Technically.
He'd expected the first three. Hunting trips were like that when Arthur was in a pissy mood and wanted to kill a lot of things in a corner of the forest far enough away to dull the desire to kill his father, Morgana, his horse or the never specific half of the court he claimed to detest that week.
Except, and this was just where the speech Merlin had prepared for the Pratigal Son's return started, he seemed to have forgotten that he was supposed to take Merlin with him. It was just fine if Arthur saddled his horse himself - Merlin heartily encouraged any sign of such initiative - and it was also fine if he decided to leave before dawn. Well, not really, because Merlin and sleep were quite fond of each other.
And kicking three or four of the newest knights out of their beds and leaving without so much as a note beyond gone hunting wasn't fair on Merlin, Uther or Merlin by extension of being unfair on Uther, which was his second point. Merlin and Uther ignored each other just fine, but it didn't really work if Arthur gallivanted off and left them to it.
Merlin supposed that Arthur thought he was being clever or some bollocks like that. He'd taken knights still smarting from their trials and afraid of Arthur like the market kids were afraid of a closed cupboard at night.
The fourth day was expected in a way that made Merlin give Arthur's empty rooms a particularly vicious glare in his absence. The fourth day had no purpose other than to show Uther that Arthur could do what he bloody well pleased and everyone else that Arthur was still Arthur despite the setting and rising of the sun.
By the fifth day, Morgana was stabbing embroidery like it was a strange and magical way of giving Arthur pins and needles, Gaius was taking pleasure in frying foul smelling leaves in a way that made them crackle, Gwen's mouth was set in a kindly disappointed way when she walked by Merlin in the corridor and possibly scariest of all, Merlin and Uther were dangerously close to agreeing on something.
A knock on the door sounded just as Merlin was beginning to get dizzy from pacing in a stupidly tight circle.
He dragged it open with a preemptive glare. The familiar spiel - no, his highness hadn't returned, no, he didn't know when he would be doing so and really, it'd be nice if everyone stopped looking so shocked about that - died on his tongue. Sir Something stood in the doorway and Arthur wasn't with him. Merlin knew he knew his name, but the man was covered in filth and blood and pale beneath it, which drove most of the thoughts out of his head.
Apparently opening Arthur's door from the inside often enough had transfered some of his powers of insensitivity.
"Show me where he is and please tell me that blood is yours," Merlin had blurted out before he'd given the thought even his cursory check for politeness.
The knight nodded and looked blankly between the room over Merlin's shoulder and the corridor. "He said to be taken to Gaius. And to find you-"
"Well, you've done that," Merlin replied awkwardly, shutting the door behind him. If Arthur hadn't gone and done something stupid yet again, he'd have tried to work out exactly what was making the knight hover like the crown prince wasn't in dire jeopardy.
"He said not to tell the king he was back yet," the knight finished in a low voice, casting his eyes around as if the walls would report him for treason.
That meant three things. Firstly, Merlin was going to learn the knight's name and make sure Arthur did the same. Secondly, there was a chance that Arthur had gotten himself into nothing more serious than a mess and wanted it cleaned up before Uther saw him. Or- the third possibility slammed into Merlin and hurled him through the corridors as quickly as his legs could move.
Or the idiot had done himself a proper injury and wanted Merlin to wiggle his fingers to make it less before his father saw it and they had to come up with a really stupid story when he didn't die.
"Sorry!" Merlin gasped out, turning and closing the door on the knight. His fingers went numb at the proof in front of him: Arthur had sent out everyone but Gaius and Gwen, lying on the table and looking like a bit of a wreck, blood soaked, sweat soaked and filthy.
"Morgana's distracting the king," Gwen murmured as Merlin stumbled across to the side of the table.
He nodded and picked at Arthur's sleeve, swallowing and looking up to Gaius. If Gaius or Gwen noticed his hand slipping down the table to clutch at Arthur's, they didn't mention it.
Gaius nodded to Arthur's exposed collarbone and shoulder. Merlin leaned against the table and
tugged the edge of Arthur's ripped shirt down and away from the wound, hissing and trying very hard not to think about how it looked like those vegetables the kitchen threw away weeks too late.
"What'd you say?"
Arthur's voice couldn't have been sleepier if it'd been one of those mornings: mornings after nights before, mornings when Merlin had to throw various pillows and then his clothes at him to shift him out of bed.
"Nothing," Merlin answered, keeping his eyes on the wound as he felt his abdomen press against Arthur's upper arm, "but it's probably what this arm would shout at you for messing it up again."
Arthur bit out a short laugh and let out a wince when Merlin used a fingertip to look inside the cut as delicately as he could. And really, he wanted to snap, why do you even hunt there anymore? It never, ever ended well. Arthur shot something he shouldn't shoot, got attacked by something that wasn't supposed to exist or someone inevitably ate a mushroom they shouldn't eat and sung like a girl until moonrise. Worse, if they managed to kill anything edible, they usually dropped it when they were running for their lives, trying not to die of laughing or because some idiot had handed it to Merlin for safe-keeping.
Merlin dragged his scattered thoughts back into sense when Gaius jerked his head towards the stairs. He quickly squeezed Arthur's hand before turning away; Arthur didn't react.
"If it's magic, it's done and left no trace," Merlin began, eyes darting between Gaius and Arthur, eyes widening and fingers curling around his door frame, "God, tell me it's not another poison bite from- whatever it was."
"Sit," Gaius ordered tightly, raising an eyebrow when Merlin made to protest. Gaius sat next to Merlin on the single bed, eyes fixed on the bottom edge of the window. "An infection in the wound, days old - completely natural and possibly just as deadly," he explained grimly. A note of something else entered his voice and Merlin felt his stomach lurch when he carefully, slowly and deliberately said, "lad, I don't think I can save the arm."
Merlin supposed he had to be less of a shite manservant than he'd once been; his first thought was an hour by hour revision of Arthur's daily routine to compensate for a missing sword arm and an immediate revision of the order of shirts in the cupboard. Arthur would still fight and he'd still kick the arse of most of the knights - he could already fight with the other arm anyway. It wouldn't change his head for court or his manners and that was the real tragedy of the thing, Merlin was sure Morgana would agree. Everything else they'd learn and Merlin could do and eventually it'd be a new kind of normal, if Arthur could survive to let it.
No, it really wasn't the end of everything, just a close and abrasive brush against it, one that filled his ears with a funny roaring noise and made whatever force had been stopping his hands from shaking sadly remiss in its duties. No, it wasn't the end of everything, but what it'd do to Arthur to come through it made something in his chest contract painfully and turned his vision white.
Gaius was shaking him. Gaius, who'd sat up in the rain, been alive again, the same way as his mother had gotten better and Arthur had never, ever died, not even once.
And Merlin remembered he didn't have to be better than a shite manservant because everything about that job other than serving Arthur until he died was temporary and they both knew that now, and the world hadn't ended with the telling of the secrets, either.
His body and limbs felt distant, numb and lined with lightning, Gaius' voice lost in the background as he left the bed and took the stairs in a step. Gwen blinked at him, hands tight around a bowl and a cloth she'd been pressing against Arthur's too hot forehead.
"Hot water," Merlin nodded, feeling his eyelids press shut and open in a blink, watching Gwen's expression shift to something too much like fear when she met his eyes. "We need hot water. Could you-"
Gwen nodded, sitting the bowl down too quickly and throwing a glance back over her shoulder as she left. And really, Merlin couldn't blame her. She knew something, enough to trust and to help, but not everything. And it was the worst code they'd ever come up with, considering he could set water to boiling if he glared at it and thought about Arthur at his most infuriating.
"If I meet a worse liar than you, I'm giving them some lands for their trouble," Arthur muttered, eyes glassy and amused. Merlin used his palm to catch Arthur's cheek when his head turned too far to the side. "It's the arm, isn't-"
"It won't be," Merlin broke in, not moving his hand as Arthur's eyes cracked open again.
Arthur swallowed, attempting a frown, and Merlin wondered briefly how he must look to put that shade of worry and apprehension into both Arthur and Gwen's eyes. All Arthur said, in a way both clear-sighted and delirious, was, "Oh, dear."
"I can make it work," Merlin replied, filling every word with weight and trust me and all the other things that would cover up how much it was also a prayer. Then came the really hard part, the part that was doubly hard because Arthur stared back, trusting him and hurting and delirious to the point of being a wide-eyed child. "I can't make it not hurt."
Arthur's eyes flickered to Gaius, who looked to Merlin.
"Anything powerful enough to get rid of the infection will get rid of anything to make you sleep or- anything else," Merlin explained, shaking his head and feeling his hands shake before he pulled himself back together.
Gaius moved to the side of the table, looking between them and drawing himself up as if it changed what he was about to permit to happen. "I fear you're about to confound nature's law," he put in softly.
Merlin fixed his eyes on Arthur's, returning his hand to against his face and tilting it to force him to look up. Arthur nodded.
Merlin had heard of events so traumatic people forgot them nearly as soon as they happened.
No spell could have told him what to do or how to forget it: rushing his magic through his fingertips and into Arthur's arm as if the thin layer of skin were no layer at all, burning through his system and veering dangerously near his still-beating heart, he lanced the infection from Arthur's body as he tossed and bucked on the table.
He wanted to tell Arthur not to bother trying not to scream or to struggle, but Merlin needed every bit of help to claw together the contradiction he was weaving by keeping Arthur alive and threading his veins with fire at the same time so in the end, he settled for something stupid and simple about how it would all be okay.
"Talk," Arthur ground out between harsh breaths and expletives, fist clenching around Merlin's other hand and toes curling, "say anything."
Merlin let out a breath and somewhere found an edge of a manic grin, holding onto the edge of the table and feeling his knees take on the solidity of Arthur's pillows. "I missed you."
Arthur groaned again, but this one Merlin could safely put down to disgust at him being a sap rather than the pain rolling through his body that Merlin could feel as tide upon tide of fire. "You got bored, then." Arthur even managed to sound just a bit smug, for which Merlin had to give him credit, despite how slowly the words came and how ragged his voice sounded. "You were asleep and I only meant to be gone a day. I was trying to be considerate."
"It was crap. Like your timing," he agreed with a nod that made things inside his head crackle and hit each other. "I had a whole speech for when you got back about how crap it was."
"We are-" Arthur leaned back and let his eyes close, lips curling despite the sweat at his temples and on his forehead, the sweat that already soaked his shirt, "-two sides of a coin."
Merlin had passed on that particular piece of dragonshit under extremely insistent persuasion, so he thought it both petty and ill advised that Arthur chose now to bring it up. Not only was Gaius standing right there, but Merlin was working a spell to save Arthur's life that he was pretty sure relied on him liking the bastard.
He was also unconscious, so Merlin would just have to add it to his speech.
Two days later, he knocked on Arthur's door and let himself in without waiting for an answer.
Arthur looked at him cautiously and for a brief, scorching breath, Merlin ached for the reprimand that didn't come.
"You've been avoiding me," Arthur said quietly instead, mouth quirked something that would have been a smirk if less had been at stake and less had been won.
"Um, not really. Maybe a bit," Merlin answered, sitting down Arthur's washing basket by the foot of the bed. It wasn't an explanation, but he couldn't explain: it'd been a storm again and he'd been the eye. And if he'd been the eye, surely the only way to keep everyone he loved from the circling wreck of it had been to hide in a dark corner of his room to let it pass.
"What you did-"
Merlin paused, crouched by the bed and hands over the basket, two socks that definitely weren't a pair in each hand. He looked up and blinked.
Arthur had been about to say something, but he thought better of it and shook his head.
After finishing his duties, he'd been about to leave, really, he had, when Arthur had given him a look.
Without protest, Merlin had moved carefully and slowly to climb in the bed from the other side, ignoring the way Arthur's eyes followed his movements and he frowned just enough to make Merlin want to be not doing whatever it was that was making him frown.
Merlin curled up on the very edge of the bed facing outwards until he swallowed and turned, reaching out one hand to within an inch of Arthur's healing arm and snatching his hand back at the last minute. He turned to stare at the wall again.
"One of these days-"
Merlin turned over in the bed and lay flat on his back, staring up at the blankness of the canopy, like the stars and the clouds and the other flaws that made the blackness of the sky interesting had been blotted out. He registered that Arthur was doing the same.
"-nature won't let you bully her into allowing what you want. I should have lost the arm."
It was poetic enough that Merlin estimated he'd spent at least ten minutes phrasing and rephrasing it, ten minutes that Merlin had spent trying to let his muscles relax in the familiar bed the way they usually did. Everything felt old, inherited and strange, his own body most of all.
He swallowed twice before his throat worked again. "Then I'll bully you into being careful instead."
Arthur threw him a look that was part amused and part something else. "Yes. Because that will most certainly work."
It was then that he realised what the look was, feeling it shudder into his awareness now he'd gotten a longer look at it, the one that Gwen had given him because she was entirely too smart and the one that Arthur couldn't seem to help giving him because he'd somehow learned Merlin.
It was fear, but not fear of him. Fear of the fall and the edge that they saw him courting.
And that made sense, he thought in a suddenly exhausted way, because he was beginning to lose the edges of the map. Arthur should have lost the arm and Arthur could have lost the arm and survived: Merlin had been the one to decree that he shouldn't have to.
He took a shuddering breath, feeling his heartbeat speed up in a reassuringly human way, and reached over the space in the bed to put a fingertip on Arthur's cheekbone like the sap he was. It hadn't felt so breakable - they hadn't felt so breakable - since the first time he'd reached over like this, when the wrong word and the wrong pressure in the wrong grip around their wrists could have broken it all.
This time, Arthur reached up with his good arm and put a thumb - solid, warm - on the underside of Merlin's wrist. He tugged, pulling Merlin against him and shifting the same arm to hold Merlin against his side as close to him as the last barrier of skin would allow. Merlin saw everything he'd been missing: the shadows under Arthur's eyes from pushing too hard already, the pleased quirk of his mouth that was still a little smug. He felt the edges and saw the traces of fading scars, old and new.
Then Arthur, already half-asleep, told him to shift his hip, it was stabbing him, and his toes were bloody cold, and Merlin laughed.