With hope in their movements, Gaius and Uther helped Merlin settle Arthur back onto the cool pillows. After hours of clutching Arthur, Merlin's arms and shoulders burned through to his thin bones.
"Sire. Merlin." Gaius spoke with a smile to the two exhausted men standing at Arthur's bedside. "The prince is very lucky to have you both. I do believe that he is on the mend. Baring another infection, I think Arthur shall live."
Merlin felt his knees buckling; his relief a physical thing. In a flash, Gaius' surprisingly strong hand gripped Merlin's elbow, lowering the boy gently. Merlin melted into the chair with relief.
The smile that graced the king's face was as real and genuine as Gaius had ever seen it "This is wonderful news! Amazing really." Uther's voice broke for an instant and he brought a fist to his mouth "I must tell the others." Then, he was gone.
Finding himself suddenly alone with only Gaius and an unconscious Arthur, Merlin's voice came high and fast. "Oh, bloody hell. He's going to live. Arthur. Arthur is going to live. He'll be alright Gaius. I told you! I knew it." His bitten-off laugh bordered on hysterical. Gaius simply listened, one hand on Merlin's hot shoulder. Waiting. Merlin's laugh turned to a cough. His cough to a sob. "Oh God. He was dying. Right there Gaius! Arthur…"
"Shhh. Shhhh my boy, Arthur will be alright."
"But. But, he almost…" Merlin couldn't continue. With a hand over his eyes Merlin finally gave in to his fear and guilt. There was no holding back the broken sobs that had threatened to choke him since the moment he lowered his bleeding master to the forest floor.
Arthur. His friend—he had very, very nearly lost Arthur.
After a moment, Merlin managed a halfway good attempt at control. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and stood. "There's no crying. There's no crying at such wonderful news. Right Arthur? Gaius?"
"You're right, of course Merlin. The news is good. But…" Gaius held up his hand to interrupt before the poor boy got going again "you must rest. I will stay; you will go home to eat and sleep."
Gaius' face was stern. He hated to be hard on the boy, but was doing it for his own good. He could only imagine the hell to pay should Arthur awake only to find Merlin keeled over from exhaustion or shock. "I will have the guards take you if I must."
Merlin knew when he was beat and gave his mentor a watery smile. "Alright. Alright. You win. Just give me a moment."
Gaius nodded and set about getting the fire going again. Glancing back over his shoulder the tired but grateful physician saw Merlin carefully tucking a thin sheet around his master, talking happily the whole time. Merlin's animated features became serious again, the shadow of what-could-have-been haunting his young eyes. Gaius looked back to the fire.
Merlin's forehead wrinkled for a moment, he glanced back at Gaius then turned back to Arthur. Letting out a shaky breath, he began "Great bloody hell Arthur." He paused so long anyone else would have thought the conversation was finished. Arthur waited. "I was so scared. I…I was such a fool to put myself in a spot where I needed rescuing. I almost cost you your life Arthur. Can you imagine?" Merlin shook his head roughly. "I'd never been able to live with that. Not ever."
Gaius grumbled from a chair by the fire "Merlin…"
"One more minute Gaius, then I'll sleep for a week if you want."
Gaius had his doubts.
"Anyway, Arthur. What I really wanted to say, well, you can never do this again. I'm not joking Arthur. You are Camelot's prince. You will be king. You must know better than to put yourself at such risk. Foolish, foolish risk." Merlin was as serious as he'd ever been, "You, Arthur Pendragon, are meant to be the greatest king Camelot has ever seen. And you know how I feel about the people of Camelot…" Merlin's grin was a bit stronger now "Arthur, you absolutely cannot abandon these people. Not ever."
Gaius' eyes snapped open as Arthur moaned.
"Sire." Gaius lay his hand over the princes'. "Just lay still, rest."
Arthur cracked his eyes open a slit and immediately regretted the move. Gods, he hurt. Everywhere. With a sluggish mind the prince slowly realized that the warm hand covering his own belonged to the loyal court physician. But…but, if Gaius was at his bedside, where on earth was Merlin?
In a rush, Arthur was assaulted by his own memory. Images and sounds as real as life smashed his tired mind.
The bear. Sir Kay. Merlin.
Merlin covered in blood, Merlin screaming Arthur's name!
With a pained jerk, Arthur closed his eyes, turning away. It would never do to come apart in front of Gaius.
The weakened prince's throat closed utterly.
"Sire? Arthur, are you alright?" Gaius' voice held the beginnings of worry. "Please, speak to me, are you having pain?"
Gaius' concern quickly built—over mere seconds Arthur's face had gone a sickly gray. His breathing turned harsh and fast. The physician grabbed Arthur's wrist; the prince's heart was speeding. "Sire!"
Gaius held his breath. A heartbeat passed. Another.
Arthur's voice was hushed and raw. Almost tender. Only one word escaped him. "Merlin."
Gaius was confused; the prince took Gaius' silence as an answer.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
Voice sticking in his throat, Arthur choked. His worst fear—realized. "He is dead then?"
Gaius leaned into Arthur's line of sight. "No! Sire!" The prince's eyes were a heartbreaking mirror of Merlin's hours earlier. "Arthur…look at me. Merlin is fine." Confused eyes blinked slowly back at him. "You saved Merlin sire. He is fine. Fine. I sent him to sleep!" Gaius smiled broadly.
No other words were needed.
The prince was suddenly weary beyond measure. "Sleep Arthur." Gaius held a cup to the prince's lips, giving him something for pain, fever and sleep. In a moment Arthur's breathing was deep and even.
Gaius shook his head and sat. He absolutely could not imagine either of the boys—arrogant brave prince or clumsy sweet manservant—without the other. He truly hoped he would never have to tell one that the other had been lost. Truly.
A few hours later, Merlin found himself back in Arthur's room. Although still not nearly rested enough, he had to come. "I can't sleep anymore Gaius, really, I'll just rest here."
Gaius said nothing—he wasn't a young man anymore and had no energy left to argue with his errant young ward.
Merlin sagged, physically spent and mentally elated, into his chair at Arthur's bedside. As he closed his eyes—just for a moment—Merlin made a mental promise to himself. He had been lucky this time. Lucky Arthur was strong. Lucky Arthur had survived. He would, he promised, redouble his efforts. Would to do anything in his power to protect his prince, future king, and closest friend.
Merlin vowed, if ever again a life needed to be given that life would never be Arthur's. Never.
Thank you for reading. I live for reviews, so please take a second and let me know how you found this bit of writing. In my little universe, this story takes place not long after How I Remember It and some time before the ultra-angsty Shuffling Destiny's Cards.