**Author's note, I know this work is pretty short but it demanded to be written! The angst is a bit more subtle than my other stories. In my mind what I've written here is the 'negative' of the actual story (Arthur's experience). Merlin's words hint at what Arthur went through. By looking at Merlin's words you can see Arthur. In this final chapter, I suggest reading with an eye to Arthur's untold perspective. Let your imagination do the heavy lifting. If anyone wants to take a stab at writing this from Arthur's or Gaius' perspective, I would be flattered.
This is a new style for me, please leave a review!
Another bolt of agony crushed my head. My neck. Then I was gone again.
I've no idea if minutes or hours passed.
As I re-surfaced some time later, I realized that my eyes were open. Strange, that. I don't remember opening them but the darkened room quickly came into focus. Fuzzy and grey at first, muted colours and sounds. As my senses dialled up they shot right past normal and beyond—every noise was horrendously loud, faces and object throbbed with colour and motion.
I think I was throwing up.
I heard chocking and retching as loud as thunder in my ears—I am pretty sure it was me. Gaius was fussing frantically, he was trying hard, I know and he looked worried. He was talking, first to me—his eyes locked onto my own—and then to someone behind him, speaking back over his shoulder. I heard a hollow smash. A cup or plate thrown against the chimney perhaps? I could see Gaius' mouth moving, experienced the roar of sound, but the words were meaningless. Suddenly my throat was full, I couldn't breathe, I was reeling and spinning. With a swirl of motion and choppy movements, Arthur appeared at Gaius' side as though dropped there by magic; I heard the crack of his knees as they hit the plank floor beside me. I remember grabbing a fistful l of bedding, trying frantically to stop the spinning. My eyes were still open but the world started to fade again. Grey. Black.
Time passed I imagine.
I was burning up, on fire, unbearably hot. That is the next sensation I recall. I could feel the sweat-soaked bedding, wet and clinging above and below me. I think a cool rag covered my forehead. The pain behind my eyes was unbearable—there was absolutely no way I could have opened them. I decided to stay perfectly and completely still in the hopes that the pain wouldn't know I was awake. Silly, I know, but it made sense at the time.
It took a moment for me to notice that I felt a hand—no, two hands—grasping my arm. One on my wrist, one right beside it. I thought perhaps Gaius was sitting with me and then I recognized Arthur's voice. I don't know what he was saying—but his tone was demanding. Firm. Almost angry, but not quite. It was the tone he uses for things like "Merlin! Knock before you barge in here for the sake of all that is good!" or "Merlin, stay back!"…yelled over his shoulder as Arthur charges towards a savage beast or demon. Angry or simply urgent? I couldn't tell but my prince (and friend, truth be told) was definitely demanding something of me.
I felt his hands tighten, emphasizing his words, but I still could not understand them. I felt like I was letting him down. What ever it was Arthur needed from me, I couldn't do it. Couldn't decode his words, unable to move a muscle.
I think I stayed conscious as the next moments passed. Arthur's voice carried on, speech growing louder, then softer, then louder again. Rising and falling like the tides.
If I close my eyes even now, I can still almost feel his firm dry hands clasping arm. Two hands squeezing, asking something of me. Then one hand, its mate torn away for some other duty—perhaps to rub tired eyes or run through Arthur's untamed hair.
I felt like I had to move, to let Arthur know I was trying to listen. Putting the pain aside for a second, I tried to focus all my energy, every drop of 'ability' I had into opening my eyes. Pain crashed over me like a searing wave of lye. I felt every muscle in my body tense, neck and back arching—like a stick of green kindling bending over a knee.
From what Gaius has told me that was probably when the convulsions began. I am glad I don't remember that.
My next sliver of recall begins with a sensation of floating in the dark. After a few moments, I began to hear the fire quietly crackling, could hear someone, probably Gaius, flipping through the pages of a book. I carefully opened one eye and found myself lying on my side in near-darkness. I was bare from the waist up and shivering even though I felt so hot. My head was full of cinders.
I could hardly see (even moving my eyes hurt) but I was able to make out Arthur, sitting not more than a hand-span away. His knees were wedged right up to the mattress and for the life of me, I could not figure out what the prince was doing in our chambers.
The prince wasn't talking anymore.
Wasn't yelling at Gaius.
Arthur must have been very tired (maybe he'd had a hard day training with the knights? Or a run-in with his father?) because he looked completely spent. I can still see him in my mind's eye, slumped to one side in one of our rickety dining chairs, messy clothes and hair. His chest was moving with quick little breaths and one hand covered his eyes tightly—his finger and thumb pressing hard into his temples. A figure (Gaius?) came up behind Arthur and put a hand slowly and firmly on his shoulder. My mind could not sort it out. Then, I was gone again…
I seem to recall another flash—I am not completely sure where it fits in this narrative, so I'll put it right here. I was "aware" but contained completely within myself. Blind, deaf, mute. I could feel my body twitching and heaving. Seizing.
At this point I knew I was going to die. It feels so strange to write those words, I knew I was going to die.
It felt as though I was being held in place—held to this life—in a giant burning fist, squeezing my body, my neck, my head—like a blacksmith's vice. Piercing my burning skin, digging into my rigid muscles, crushing me. I should have been screaming in agony, yet I don't think I could, or maybe I was?
"This is it" I though as that brief moment of awareness faded and my body's fits seemed farther and farther away. A reflection of a reflection, of somebody else…
My next memory is one of fevered confusion. My life (and my role in Arthur's destiny) was at an end. The pain was less somehow—I wasn't trapped in my traitorous body anymore.
All I had to do was let go.
Let go and fall into the quite, merciful, painless black.
I could feel myself breathing. Short, shallow breaths with long pauses in between. I had to consciously take each one.
It was time.
Time to stop.
To stop fighting.
Strangely enough, the pain itself didn't scare me anymore. I took another sip of air and began tugging myself into the world for one last moment, one last taste. As the darkness beckoned, I took another breath and pushed death back one pace.
First, I felt my body. I was in an awkward position. I wasn't lying flat or on my side.
I forced in another breath.
Someone was holding me. Not gently…forcefully—significantly.
Then I became aware of the shuddering—but it wasn't coming from my limp form—whoever was supporting my body was shaking. My mind worked and spun before catching on the answer…
Arthur. My heart ached for him.
With another forced breath my senses expanded. I felt Arthur holding me up to his chest. He smelled of unwashed hair, of fatigue and anger, of worry and fear. I could feel the side of my face pressed into his rough shirt, the prince's hand in my hair. My eyes parted a hair's breadth and I found myself looking at Arthur's neck, pale and unshaven, his Adam's apple bobbed.
The shuddering…it was Arthur.
He was crying.
I felt his breath catching and snagging. Arthur tightened his grip, pressing me into his hitching chest and shoulder. I'd forgotten to breathe.
I wanted to let go. To leave the next breath un-taken. To be done with the senseless agony.
A moment passed.
My chest was heavy and still. My consciousness and vision started to blur at the edges. I couldn't feel my body any more, couldn't feel Arthur's shirt under my cheek, couldn't feel his harsh and stifled breaths.
The pain was completely gone.
I felt as though I was drifting deeper and deeper into a cool, clear well.
Just as the last of me began to wink out—the last glow of the last ember in a near-cold fireplace—I heard Arthur's voice. I think he'd been speaking all along. "Please Merlin…" his whisper was fierce and his voice strangled "don't go."
I'd never heard Arthur sound so shattered. I couldn't imagine what had happened to crush him so—but I needed to be there for him—that much was clear. I couldn't leave him like this.
For a moment, I panicked. I think I'd forgotten how to breathe. The darkness clawed at me.
Finally, my lungs complied with their orders and I took another little breath. I don't imagine anything changed on the outside, but on the inside my pain returned. It grew faster and faster, welling up, spilling over. The cool well had turned to fire.
I chose another lungful of air.
I would endure it. For Arthur.
I can't really describe what happened next. It was as though I was being poured back into my aching, stabbing, burning, lifeless body. Arthur was still trembling, choking on misery.
I suppose he thought I was going to die.
I suppose I almost did.
But I couldn't—not now, not when he needed me.
Laid over the pain I felt the prince's strong arm across my back, his firm hand holding my head. I heard Arthur's wordless murmurings and concentrated on each breath…it was hypnotic and soon I was gone again.
The next time I woke, I felt like death—as though I'd been trampled by a dozen horses and left to rot in the sun. I cautiously cracked my eyes open, the room was nearly dark. The windows had been covered—thank the gods.
Through blurry eyes I was baffled by the sight of Arthur—the crown prince of Camelot—sitting in front of me looking a royal mess. He sat hunched forward with his elbows on his knees and his eyes resting in his hands. I think he was almost asleep. His hair was dull and stuck up in every direction; his boots were missing and his clothes as rumpled as I'd ever seen them.
I wondered if he'd been in battle.
I must have made a sound because Arthur's head snapped up as if I'd jabbed him with a hot poker! In his eyes I saw exhaustion and relief.
Then I remembered him sobbing and torn.
I didn't know what had happened (and still don't, Arthur won't talk about it) but I wanted to apologize for not being able to help him. My throat ached and my voice was weak as I tried to say I was sorry. Arthur quickly held up a hand to silence me.
It seemed to take him a moment to get his own voice to work. I hoped he wasn't coming down with my sickness. When he finally spoke, his voice was a watery croak that didn't sound much better than mine! Arthur told me that everything was alright—but that I'd nearly scared the life out of Gaius and Gwen. He swallowed roughly. Once. Twice. Then he gruffly added that Gaius wanted me to just keep resting.
I still can't quite believe it but Arthur (in a very un-prat-like manner) told me to go back to sleep and that he would be there when I woke up. For once, I just did as I was told.