Arthur tucked Merlin into his arms, the master's chin resting on the damp and unruly hair of his beloved servant and friend. Head bent, shoulders shaking.
Gaius would never completely understand what exactly transpired next. Was magic involved? Had the prince's jostling had loosened Merlin's lungs at just the right moment? Or had hearing his master's tears had been enough to drag Merlin back from the other side? Just when it seemed all hope was lost, Merlin took another ragged little breath…
Arthur slowly looked at Merlin then to Gaius fearing that his mind and ears had played a cruel trick on him.
When he saw that Gaius too had heard Merlin's gasp, hope dawned on his face. As Gaius examined Merlin, still in Arthur's arms, Arthur hastily wiped his sleeve across his eyes and nose. With a loud sniff Arthur tried to re-gather his wits. With a smile Gaius pronounced that Merlin was breathing again! He was still on very thin ice, but breathing was certainly better than not! An aftershock, half sob, half laugh, bubbled forth from Arthur.
He was not embarrassed in the least.
For hours Arthur held Merlin upright, urging each little breath as Gaius puttered and applied his treatments anew. Very un-princely, Arthur knew. Through the night the Merlin's breaths became longer. He began coughing and shuddering fit to break. Although this frightened Arthur, Gaius said, no, the coughing was a good sign.
By morning Arthur was asleep in a chair, drooped and tousled looking. Gaius was lying in Merlin's room. For his part, Merlin—mercifully breathing—lay propped high on pillows, tucked in, and covered loosely in Arthur's best red cloak.
Arthur would go on to be king of Camelot and Merlin to be his friend and advisor. As a king, he would witness death, destruction, war, and pestilence. He would feel terror and despair, love, loss, guilt, and grief. However, never would Arthur suffer as he did on that longest of days. That brief moment when he had held Merlin, unbreathing, and knew he'd lost the most rare and precious person he'd ever known—that Merlin had suffered and died and it had been Arthur's fault—was the worst of his life. The memory did haunt him, waking him from nightmares well into old age.
None but Arthur knew the meaning behind the script he had inscribed on his forearm one year later, on the anniversary of what Arthur considered his second chance.
~for the want of a nail~
~the shoe was lost~
~for the want of a shoe~
~the horse was lost~
~for the want of a horse~
~the rider was lost~
Arthur never made that mistake again.