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Hard to Say Goodbye
Arthur opened the door and confronted a cloud of foul smelling smoke. He could just make out Merlin, hunched over a cauldron.
Coughing, Arthur made his way across the room, stepping past the piles of books and parchment, now neatly stacked; the carefully labeled vials; the bed, stripped of its blankets and pillows.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" he asked when he finally had a clear view of Merlin's face. "I thought you promised to give potion making a rest for a bit after that incident with Lady Isabeau and the bats."
Merlin scowled. "I didn't know they would be attracted to the smell. Besides," he went on, "this isn't magic. Sir Kay is ill. He has a fever and a bad cough."
"And you know what to give him for that?" Arthur surveyed the contents of the cauldron skeptically.
"Well I should, shouldn't I?" Merlin poked a ladle into the viscous liquid and stirred furiously. "I was his assistant, wasn't I? And no one else is going to, now that—now that—"
Grief and uncertainty over what to say tightened Arthur's throat. He should have sent Gwen to look for Merlin. "You know I'm interviewing applicants to find a new court physician, don't you?" he said at last. "I should have someone by tomorrow—I'm sure Sir Kay will be fine until then."
"So he'll just have to suffer in the meantime? All alone in his room, coughing." Merlin scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "Just because you've always had people running to tend to you—probably don't even know what it's like to think no one cares about you—"
"Kay isn't alone," Arthur cut in. "I saw him not ten minutes ago, and one of the maids was happily engaged in feeding him broth and putting a cooling compress on his forehead. So I really don't think you need to worry."
"Anyway," Arthur went on, as Merlin tugged futilely at the ladle, trying to free it from the thickening potion, "I thought you mostly helped Gaius fetch pots and things."
"I did more than that." Merlin abandoned the ladle and crossed his arms over his chest.
"I know." Arthur ventured a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "But I really think one drop of that stuff would kill a giant, not to mention Kay. I mean, the smell alone—"
"All right. You've made your point." Merlin shrugged off his hand and started up the steps that led to his own small room. "You can go. I won't poison your knights." He disappeared, although he didn't shut the door behind him.
Arthur hesitated, and then followed him. Merlin was sitting on the narrow bed, shoulders slumped. Arthur looked about the cramped, cold room. Merlin's things were still strewn all over the place, but now it seemed lonely somehow—knowing that Gaius was no longer in the next room fiddling with his experiments or researching the latest monster to trouble the kingdom. Arthur cleared his throat. "You don't have to stay here, you know."
Merlin picked at the blanket, unraveling the fraying edge. "I know."
Arthur tried to make his voice light and nonchalant but couldn't keep a slight wistfulness from intruding. "The chambers next to mine, for instance, are vacant and would be quite suitable."
Merlin was silent for a few moments, and then muttered, "The rooms on the other side of the castle are warmer."
Arthur managed an arrogant sniff. "I assure you, my intentions are perfectly honorable."
"Oh, really?" Merlin glanced at Arthur, and a smile briefly skated across his lips.
"Hmmm, perhaps not entirely." Arthur sat down next to Merlin, nudging him over a bit so there was room.
"I stayed because of Gaius," Merlin said, his voice low and serious once again. "I didn't want you to think that I stayed because I didn't want to—that I wasn't—"
"I knew that. I knew you wanted to be here to help him." Arthur shoved Merlin's shoulder with his own. "I'm not a complete idiot."
"You mean I have to revise my opinion of you?"
Arthur heaved a sigh. "Why I put up with you—a king's subjects usually don't go about insulting him."
"They do behind his back."
"Yes, but I'm sitting right here, Merlin. And you just implied a severe lack of faith in your king—who happens to me, in case you still don't realize exactly who I am—a severe lack of faith in your king's intelligence."
"You've certainly given me enough reasons to doubt it," Merlin replied, smirking. But then his smile faded, and he turned away. "Really, you can go. I'll be fine."
Arthur heard the catch in his voice. "You sure?"
Arthur stood up, certain that Merlin was crying. He didn't know if he should stay or do as Merlin asked. "Come find me if you—if you need anything," he finally said and left quietly, shutting the door behind him.
Merlin moved into his new chambers the next day. Arthur came to see him that evening and found Merlin sprawled across the bed staring up at the ceiling.
"So?" Arthur asked, gesturing at the room. "How do you like it?"
Merlin shrugged. "It's nice, I suppose."
"You suppose? Merlin, that bed is three times the size of the one you had before."
"I've slept in yours often enough," Merlin reminded him.
"True." Arthur wandered over and started tugging at the laces of Merlin's boots. "Shall we see if this bed is equally suitable?"
The bed proved to be quite adequate. In fact, Arthur didn't feel at all like getting out of the bed, so he stayed, Merlin's head resting on his chest.
"I miss him, Arthur," Merlin said quietly.
"Me, too." Arthur rubbed his hand down Merlin's back.
"I don't mean to dwell on it. Gaius—" Merlin's voice caught but he went on, "Gaius wouldn't want me to. It's just—"
"I know," Arthur murmured. He found Merlin's hand and threaded their fingers together.
"Will you…stay?" Merlin asked hesitantly. "Stay here, I mean. Tonight."
"Of course." Arthur shifted so that he was lying on his side, forehead propped against Merlin's. "Why don't you tell me about that time with the troll again. If you want to."
Merlin smiled, remembering. "Well, Gaius fixed this potion so that it looked and smelled exactly like the one she was using to make herself appear human. And then he made me taste it! It was disgusting. All because you wouldn't believe me in the first place. You have no idea what I went through…"
Arthur did because Merlin had told him many times before. But he listened again in silence, carding his fingers through Merlin's hair.
"And then Gaius and Leon and the rest of the council tried to get Uther to listen to reason. I felt kind of sorry for your father, though—I mean, he was so happy, but it was all a lie."
Arthur felt his own breath catch at that. He remembered only a handful of times that he had seen his father completely happy, his cares and burdens forgotten for a moment.
"It was Gaius who came up with the solution," Merlin went on. "And convinced you to go along with it. I'll never forget your face when Gaius mentioned an antidote." He muffled a laugh in the pillows, and Arthur poked him in the ribs.
Merlin emerged from the pillows with a sigh. "Gaius was always there to help me," he finished softly.
They lay quietly together for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Then Merlin scooted closer and slipped his arms around Arthur. Arthur could feel Merlin's tears, cool and wet against his bare skin.
Arthur held Merlin until the tears finally stopped, and Merlin's limbs relaxed into sleep. Arthur kept holding Merlin tightly, though, as other memories assaulted him. Aredian accusing Merlin of sorcery, and Gaius taking the blame. Gaius brewing the potion from the mortious flower as Merlin lay dying.
"Thank you, Gaius," Arthur whispered. "Thank you for protecting him."