A/N: I really haven't got much to say. Thanks to my reviewers (and lurkers, I know you're out there)! This one can be read as either friendship or very light slash, whatever you'd prefer.
Disclaimer: Still not mine.
6. Incineration—to cause to burn to ashes
Merlin doesn't have the dreams every night, but they happen often enough that by the time Arthur finds him, the fear of fire is so deeply ingrained that there is no fixing it. He flinches at the smell of smoke, he gives candles a wide berth, he has to be coaxed near a lit fireplace, and the moment that it crackles or sparks his every instinct will be to flee. This makes things difficult in a time when electricity has yet to be invented, and it means that he lives in darkness as the sun goes down and cold when the winter sets in. He stays in at night, knowing that if he goes out the fires will be all around him in one form or another, glaring out at him from every direction. To the rest of the world fire is a bright, welcoming warmth, but he will choose cold darkness every time.
By the time that Arthur finds him, he is near twenty and coping well with what should be a crippling handicap. He should freeze. He should hate the darkness that is his constant companion after the sun sets. He should loathe the confines of his house, the only place where he can fully banish the fire that is everywhere in the outside world. But he doesn't. He wraps himself in blankets and furs when the cold sets in; he adjusts his schedule so that he utilizes every last bit of sunlight he is offered. And when he has no other option, he uses magic to summon cold glowing light that has no heat and no flicker, though he shows a certain reluctance to use magic, an instinctive kind of fear not unconnected to the fires that haunt his nightmares.
And then Arthur comes, battering right into his life with the absolute certainty that he is meant to be there, a man of higher rank, one on the other side of twenty-five and moving towards thirty, but things like age and rank seems to have no bearing on him. At first it's a rash of meetings—just coincidence, chance meetings, although later on Merlin will look back and wonder how much was actually chance and how much was Arthur cleverly manipulating circumstance—and then it seems as though Merlin turns around to find Arthur inserted in every corner of his life. Not that he's complaining, because he's certainly not. Arthur is bright and vivacious and warm, all descriptions that could be ascribed to fire. And maybe Arthur is fire, a living flame wreathed in a human body.
(But Merlin isn't afraid of him.)
After about a year, Arthur moves in with him. He says that it doesn't make sense for them to each pay full separate rent when they are together all the time anyway, but Merlin knows that's just an excuse. Arthur never flaunts how much money he has, but Merlin knows it's there all the same—it's spoken in silk linings on his clothing, in velvet, in gold accents, in the way he never hesitates at costs that make Merlin's head spin. Merlin knows that this is an empty excuse, but he doesn't question it. He does question why on earth Arthur would want to live with him.
"I—why?" He sputters when Arthur first broaches the idea. Arthur then explains rent and money and other things that Merlin tosses out the moment they are spoken, because they are lies and they aren't important anyway. He shakes his head. "No, I mean…I-there can't be any fire, Arthur. You know that. Once the sun goes down there's no light, not even a single candle. I suppose in your own room it would be fine, if I didn't know about it, but even the smoke can…there's no fire on a cold winter night either. Why would you want to live like that?"
Arthur just raises his eyebrows and levels a fond look at him. He gets those looks a lot, and has no idea what they mean half of the time. Being around Arthur in general is like that. Sometimes he knows exactly what the other man is like and how things between them stand, and then he does something that changes everything. "You live like that."
He folds his arms. "Because I have to."
"If you can, then I can too," Arthur says, and he diverts the subject before Merlin's mind has a chance to catch up and formulate a reply. The discussion takes on a tone of settled and Arthur moves in with him, and while he doesn't make a fuss over it, he does wait for Arthur to pack up and leave. He can't think why anyone would choose to live the way he does.
Instead, Arthur picks up the same kind of lifestyle that Merlin has, without complaint or hesitation, and takes to it as though he has always lived his life this way. Only a few times does Merlin catch him looking longingly at the boarded up fireplace, and on those few times Arthur just catches his eye, smiles, and piles on another blanket. Merlin hesitates to use magic, because it is one secret that he can't bring himself to tell, until Arthur trips over something one night and lands hard and he calls up light instinctively to check and make sure that the prat hasn't broken his head open or something like that. Instead he finds Arthur sitting grumpily on the floor, rubbing his foot with one hand and frowning at a small cut on the other. In the sudden light Arthur blinks and Merlin stands perfectly still, knowing that he has outed himself and waiting for some furious or panicked reaction. But Arthur just looks up at him and smiles and asks him to send the light closer so he can check the cut for splinters. He is completely unsurprised by the display of magic, and he never asks about it.
Merlin never asks him why he's not surprised, just like he never presses for the real reasons Arthur would want to live with him.
Then there is one night when he wakens from one of the nightmares—fire crackling around his legs, smoke stinging his eyes, the flames are coming for him, they will crawl up his body and consume and oh god it hurts—to find Arthur sitting on the bed next to him, shaking his shoulder and softly calling his name. He comes out of the vivid brightness of the dream into the comforting darkness and instantly raises a hand to dash away the tears he knows are there, embarassed. Arthur beats him to it, wiping the tears away with a slightly calloused thumb. Without a word, the man pulls back his covers and slides into the bed next to him, bringing him into the cove of his arms and holding him. Words choke in his throat and he buries his head into Arthur's chest instead, not crying, not speaking, just waiting for the flames behind his eyes to receed and leave him in peace.
Arthur never asks him what he dreams about. Never. Merlin tells him, eventually, in a halting voice, one winter night when the cold has chased away the sense of his flesh burning—"I'm—I'm being burnt. At the stake. There are villagers and they hate me Arthur, I don't know why, but they do. They tie me to the stake and they set fire and I burn. Aren't you not supposed to be able to die in a dream? But I always do. I burn, and it hurts and I—"—but Arthur never asks. And when he is told, he listens carefully and hugs Merlin tighter, but he isn't surprised, not by a single detail. Just like the magic, it's as though he already knows.
Arthur waking him from the dreams becomes common. He will wake from the flames and find safety in the man's embrace, and he won't dream any more that night. Eventually, Arthur stops sleeping in his own room entirely, just slides into bed with him at the end of their day and the dreams ease away, because Arthur is there to rescue him before they truly start. And while the fear of fire is always there, too ingrained to be healed, his nights are easier and his fears can be soothed by a touch from Arthur's hand.
And just as Arthur never asks about the magic or about the nightmares, Merlin never asks why some nights Arthur will hold him tighter and whisper I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry into his hair. (He already knows.)
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