Disclaimer: Merlin doesn't belong to me.

Spoilers: Series 1 & 2.

A/N: This was written as a LiveJournal merlin_santa gift for kirstielovely.

FEVER

Streamers of light fell from the windows and dust motes played in their midst, dancing, sparkling. It was a performance that deserved a string quartet. Arthur shivered and pulled the blankets tighter. Not that he could've coped with a musical accompaniment; his head was already pounding and it wouldn't take much to ignite it to explode. Unless his side beat his head to it. And it surely was a worthy contender. Though, really it was burning, not pounding, burning and pouring out flame into his veins, spreading, and sapping his strength. Damn, he was hot. Arthur rolled onto his back and flung aside the blankets, sweat beading on his forehead. Beneath his white tunic, his chest rose and fell rapidly.

Merlin was conspicuous by his absence. Though, Arthur did wonder if perhaps that was because he'd sent him off on some errand. After all he did do that rather a lot. It was his job to order his manservant to do things, or rather it was Merlin with the job, not him. The only difference here was that Arthur usually remembered telling Merlin to do something. Arthur rolled onto his side again. Maybe he'd sent him to get more water. He was thirsty. But no, there was a cup next to his bed. Arthur half-heartedly reached out a limp arm towards the cup. Too far. He flopped his arm back down, defeated.

The door clicked open. Arthur rolled all the way over to face the doorway. Too fast. His head thundered, blazing heat behind his eyes. He groaned weakly, squeezing his eyelids shut.

Arthur felt a hand, cool and tender, against his forehead. He blinked and looked blearily up into Merlin's beautiful, concerned face.

"You're getting worse."

Well, obviously. He could've told Merlin that. And really, he was the authority on the subject, being the one, well, subjected to it.

Merlin perched on the edge of the bed, hip against Arthur's sheet-entangled knee and fingers smoothing back his damp blond hair.

"I'm going to fetch Gaius again."

A whimper tumbled from Arthur's lips as Merlin moved away. Oh damn, that was girlish. How embarrassing. As if he didn't feel weak and pathetic enough.

"I won't be long." Merlin bent over and kissed him on the lips, Arthur's mouth slow to respond and really not doing a very good job at all. It might've been better to not bother trying.

Then Merlin hurried away, and Arthur was left alone. And he felt it keenly. He wanted someone to be nearby while he felt so ill. He felt strangely vulnerable and needed someone to be with him. As if Merlin could defend him from anything. But, no, it wasn't really that. He wasn't afraid of a physical attack, he was afraid of getting even worse. Just someone to be there. Merlin most of all.

Arthur stared at the door, waiting for it to reopen and deliver Merlin back to him. His vision went wobbly, the door handle seeming to jump about over the wood, everything going a bit fuzzy. Heat swept through his head and nausea rose to strangle his throat. His eyes ached and their lids felt heavy, so he let them close.

Perhaps he'd feel better in the morning...evening...afternoon...whatever time meant later. For now he would just drift on the sea of grey, the cloud, the wilderness of fog...no point resisting, there was nothing to resist against, just swirling greyness...

"Arthur?" A hand took his. "Arthur!"

His consciousness rose slowly, emerging back out of the fog.

"Mrgh?" Hmm, that hadn't really sounded like a real word. Not that he knew what he'd tried to say, anyway.

Another hand pressed against his forehead, this one elderly and kind, but not with the tenderness of Merlin's. Sweet tenderness, sweet embrace, to lie in Merlin's embrace forever...

Fingers prodded around his eye, pulling at the lids, drawing his mind back again. Arthur blinked until finally able to focus on Gaius's face. The elderly court physician looked distinctly worried, which was never a good thing. Physicians were good when they were beaming and declaring wellness, but with a brow so furrowed it looked deep enough to plant potatoes and a mouth so unsmiling it was almost a frown itself, well, then physicians were not bearers of good news, but there would be dire need of their services.

Arthur felt a draft of air and shivered. He then felt a stab of pain, and his hand flew to his side and collided with Gaius's. After weakly raising his head and assessing the situation – Gaius had pulled back the bed sheets and was now untying the bandage around his middle – Arthur let his head sink wearily into the pillows and resigned himself to some painful poking.

Gaius inspected his wound and bathed it and applied more of the thick, obscure-smelling salve he'd put on it earlier...whenever that had been...when they'd got back and Arthur had practically collapsed off his horse in the courtyard and then Merlin had Gaius pounce upon him at the earliest opportunity.

He really could've done with the physician in the forest. Quick application of Gaius's salve could've stopped this from happening. But the Black Mountain of El Clare where there lie nasty beasts was no place to go taking an elderly court physician. The distance alone would've been too much for the old man, even Merlin had moaned incessantly. Well, not incessantly, that was unfair, but...er...almost incessantly...ish.

The wound really was hurting. It was complaining ferociously about Gaius's attempts to help. Perhaps it didn't want to heal, perhaps it wanted to kill him...it felt like it.

At least Merlin was there. Arthur closed his fingers tighter and Merlin squeezed reassuringly back.

He'd really felt like he was going to die from the Questing Beast's bite and Merlin hadn't been there much. Or not that he could remember, anyway. And he fuzzily remembered Gaius, and his father, and Gwen visited, so really he ought to remember someone as important to him as Merlin. But no, Merlin hadn't really been there until the end, when everything was clear and he was sore but out of bed. And then Merlin had been downright weird and he'd never found out why, just been relieved when Merlin strolled in again the next morning albeit late.

Gaius was talking and Arthur focused to listen. "...tincture to try to bring his fever down. Stay with him."

Stay. Arthur's crushing hold on Merlin's hand wouldn't give him any choice.

"Are you all right?" Merlin's panicked face was close to his. "Are you in pain?"

Arthur forced his hand to relax its grip. The fog was rolling in, swirling, smothering. He smiled. "I love you."

That seemed to panic Merlin further, but the fog was thickening and blocking out the sound of his anxious cries, Arthur falling away into the grey.

Arthur was never really there again after that. Sometimes he almost touched lucidity, but never quite broke out of the grey. Floating in the fog, he caught glimpses of things, some real and some not. He understood that the pain and weakness were real, but he didn't always feel them.

Sometimes Arthur was afraid. Nothing was clear, nothing made sense. He was lost. But he was never truly alone, for Merlin was always there, close, safe. Even when he couldn't open his eyes or hear or comprehend touch, he still knew Merlin was there. He could sense him in a way he didn't understand.

Mostly everything was blurry and grey, yet every so often there was a flash of bright colour and he saw something. Once Merlin was stood before him dressed in fine clothes, a modest crown upon his head, and Arthur knew their nameless love was no longer a secret.

Sometimes he felt so ill he whimpered. Often a cool cloth pressed against his skin, but it could do little. Voices sounded soothing, but he rarely caught the words. Once Merlin muttered in what didn't even sound like English. The bright flashes of colour that brought images continued. He saw a blue orb of swirling light as he strained to reach a yellow flower, all seeming familiar, but he couldn't remember why and didn't understand the significance.

Time passed with hours missing.

A point came when Arthur felt oddly still. He was close to the surface, bobbing calmly on the grey sea, and he could hear reality.

Merlin and Gaius were talking, discussing that he'd apparently stopped sweating. This according to them was a bad thing. Arthur tried to ponder why that would be, but was distracted by Gaius's next words.

"Tonight will tell." The physician sounded tired and grave. "By daybreak he'll make a final turn one way or the other."

Ominous.

Merlin spoke quietly, "His skin looks ashen."

How morbid. Ashen, like ash, like he's already dead. Was he going to die?

Arthur heard Merlin cry and he thought his own heart would break. He didn't want Merlin to hurt so, certainly not because of him. But there was nothing he could do.

He listened to sobs shake through his lover, wails of soul-deep anguish tearing forth. The sounds of wordless agony.

Arthur was falling...

Falling...

Falling down through deep water. It swirled around him, heavy and endless. The light above grew fainter and there was nothing else except dark water. Then, there in the gloom something glowed gold. A sword lying in the sand. Arthur reached out for it, struggling through the water. His head pounded, his chest tight and begging him to take a breath. There wasn't enough energy left in his limbs, he could barely move them. He wasn't going to make it. All around him was darkness, no light reached this far down into the depths. He couldn't see anything, he couldn't move. His lips slackened, water poured in. He was drowning.

A hand. Pale and feminine, approaching through the water.

Arthur felt himself being pulled upwards. There was a rushing sound in his ears, cool air on his face and then firmness beneath his body. He rolled onto his side and coughed the water clear, desperate to draw air into his lungs.

Far away someone called his name.

Finally, Arthur looked up. In front of him a beautiful lake glistened in the sunlight, surrounded by a forest and away in the distance towered snow-capped mountains. He was lying on the lake's bank and beside him sat a girl. She was about his own age and pretty with dark hair loose about her shoulders and wearing a fine purple and blue dress.

Arthur dragged himself to his knees, tired but not hurting. Everything was unexpectedly clear. He felt like he actually was somewhere, not drifting in fog. But he had no idea where this somewhere was.

"Where-"

The girl pressed a finger against his lips.

"There's someone who wants to speak to you." She removed her finger to point.

Arthur turned to look and saw another woman standing further along the bank. Despite the distance, he recognised her.

She was his mother.

He went to her. Ygraine Pendragon was wearing a golden dress and looked identical to the image Morgause had conjured to turn Arthur against his father. She wore the same golden dress and her blonde hair was decoratively pinned up in the same way. Arthur tried to feel afraid, but couldn't even manage distrustful. Morgause wasn't there, this wasn't magic.

A voice calling his name seemed like it was carried to him on the wind, but the air was still. It nudged at the edge of his attention.

Arthur's mother smiled and spread her arms, and he fell into her embrace.

"Mother," he breathed.

"Arthur, my son." Her arms wrapped tightly around him.

Arthur drew back a little so he could meet her tearful blue eyes with his own.

"Was..." He swallowed. "Was it real...was there any truth-"

"Hush," Ygraine said, softly. "That doesn't matter. Arthur, listen to me."

Arthur bit his lip and forced his tide of questions back.

"You must trust Merlin," his mother said, earnestly. "Even when he lies, you must trust in him."

"I do. Though, I don't know why." He smiled wryly.

"Arthur, there are things to come... Secrets that..." Her elegant brow became troubled. "Even when your head won't want to love him, your heart still will. Let it."

Well, that was unsettling. "Ok..."

The voice came again, calling his name. It sounded familiar.

"You must go." Ygraine smiled, despite the fresh tears in her eyes.

"I don't want to." So often he wished to spend just one moment with his mother. Now he didn't want that moment to end.

"Can you really do that to him? Can you really bear to leave him?" She tenderly brushed back a wayward strand of his hair. "Abandon your future together, your place in destiny?"

Arthur felt torn and confused. His mother took only a single step backwards, yet seemed suddenly distant.

Arthur... The voice reached him more clearly now, calling him back from this place of beyond.

Merlin.

Arthur, please...

He closed his eyes, felt his surroundings fall away, and strained to hear Merlin's begging voice.

"Arthur..."

Arthur followed Merlin's voice, allowing himself to be pulled back, to return to him.

~End~