"Not Unscathed" by ellijay
Summary: Companion piece to "As Cold As Any Stone" – Gap filler dealing with what happened to Merlin from the end of "The Darkest Hour Part 1" on through the scene by the water in "The Darkest Hour Part 2"
Author's notes: A big thank-you to Vegetables-will-have-their-revenge (I had to put hyphens in there so the document editor would stop being stupid and deleting it when I had it as one long word) for doing a read-through on this and catching the annoying nits for me. I was thoroughly mortified that I'd misspelled Gaius's name throughout "As Cold As Any Stone," so hopefully there won't be any embarrassing silliness like that this time. Feel free to point it out to me if there's anything there, though. I always like to improve, however minor the point may seem.
Chapter 1 – "Improvising"
Of all the things for Merlin to do, the blasted, self-sacrificing, brave, impulsive idiot had gone and thrown himself at a Dorocha. It had been so unexpected and sudden that Arthur couldn't quite bring himself to believe it had happened until he and Lancelot rolled Merlin over. He was still and silent, staring empty-eyed at nothing, frost and ice dusted across his face. He was dead. After all the insanely dangerous things they'd faced together – curses and sorcerers and all manner of deadly creatures, even an immense, fire-breathing dragon – it was an incorporeal, nightmarish thing of fear that had done Merlin in.
He and Lancelot lowered Merlin carefully back to the ground, then Arthur stood and turned away, fighting the urge to yell or bash his fist against the wall. If only he could get his hands on the Dorocha, he'd throttle every last one of them. He'd slash them to bits with his sword until there was nothing left but shreds of mist. Oh, he'd get them in the end – that was the purpose for this journey to the Isle of the Blessed after all – but what he wouldn't give to take out some small measure of revenge right here and now.
"He blinked," someone behind him said, the voice astonished and disbelieving. It took Arthur a moment to realize it was Gwaine.
"What? That's not possible." That was Elyan.
"I'm telling you, he blinked. Look, he just did it again."
What could they possibly be talking about? Arthur stood perfectly still for a handful of seconds before the meaning of the words finally came clear to him. He turned slowly, his heart hammering with sudden hope. It made his chest hurt, almost more than the agony of seeing Merlin frozen and so startlingly dead. It was dangerous, this desperate feeling, because if Gwaine were wrong, if it was some trick of the light or merely the residual twitching of the recently dead, something inside him might just break.
He was at Merlin's side in an instant, almost without thinking. He had to see for himself, to know what was true. "Merlin," he called out as he gripped his servant's shoulder, barely holding back a gasp at the cold seeping out of him. "Merlin. Can you hear me?" His voice was shaking, but he didn't really care who heard or judged him for it.
Nothing. No blinking. No movement at all. Arthur sat back on his heels, pulled off his gloves and tossed them carelessly aside. Then he held his bare hand over Merlin's parted lips, wanting so badly for there to be something there, some slight gust of life. Wait. Had he imagined it? No, it was there. Not warm. A stirring of something cold, but that should be expected, shouldn't it? There was ice on his face, after all.
He pressed his ear to Merlin's chest. He probably should've done that first, but a lurking sense of dread had held him back. No heartbeat was a finality he didn't want to accept, especially now that he'd cast aside the certainty of death. Please, please, please, anything but silence. After a moment he heard it, faint and slow, an unsteady thumping. A distinct sign of life. It was there. He didn't dare move for fear it would fade, but it remained, a little stronger now.
"Ar … thur?" The voice was so quiet, such a faint and drawn out whisper, that he wasn't quite sure he'd actually heard it. He sat up slowly, worried that it might have been nothing more than the wind made into his name by his own desperation.
But no. There was awareness in Merlin's eyes, unfocussed and muted, but it was there nonetheless. Life, refusing to give up. Arthur couldn't help but think it was beautiful, not that he'd ever, ever admit that to anyone. He was surprised he'd even thought it, but intense relief could make people do ridiculous things.
He wanted to crow in delight. Yet again, Merlin had triumphed over seemingly impossible odds. Luck of the foolish and reckless. But then his servant's eyes slid slowly closed.
"No." Arthur's voice was firm and steady now, though he didn't know how he'd managed it. Maybe Merlin would take that single word as an order to stay. Please, just this once, listen to me. "Merlin." That's your name, idiot. Answer it.
He brushed gently at Merlin's cheek, swiping the ice and frost away, then laid his hand flat on the side of Merlin's face. No response, even to patting and gentle slaps. "Come on, you idiot. Wake up." He said it quietly but urgently, talking to himself as much as Merlin. He'd resort to slapping him in earnest if he had to, but he didn't want to do that. It would be ungrateful. Merlin had saved his life, after all. Yet again. Even though he'd teased Merlin when he'd claimed earlier that he'd saved Arthur numerous times before, he knew it was true. He'd come to believe over the years, in fact, that there were many more occasions of Merlin putting himself in jeopardy for the sake of others than he would probably ever know about.
Silence. No reaction. Arthur was reconsidering hitting him, because if that didn't get a response, probably nothing would, but then Merlin took a long, slow breath through his nose. He held it for a moment, and then he finally exhaled, a painful and shuddering sound.
"What is that?" Merlin whispered, his voice trembling, whether with cold, fear, confusion or something else entirely, Arthur didn't know and didn't particularly care. Merlin was speaking, actually talking, and it was… Never mind what it was. It was good.
"What is what?" That was Lancelot's voice. Arthur didn't look up, though, keeping his eyes fixed on Merlin, feeling absurdly as though he'd slip away again if there wasn't as much as possible anchoring him here – touch, sight, sound, hope. And need. He definitely wouldn't ever admit that last one to anyone, not even on pain of death.
"Something … on my cheek," Merlin muttered. It seemed a great effort for him to speak. Well, of course it was difficult. His entire face must be numb.
"That's my hand," Arthur replied. Just a plain and simple fact. Nothing to be embarrassed about, even though it could be seen as a gesture of caring. If Merlin could feel it and it was giving him something to tether himself to the here and now, his hand would stay where it was.
"It's hot," Merlin replied, his brow creasing slightly.
"You're cold," Arthur said, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It was almost like a normal exchange, if not for the seriousness of the situation.
"It hurts." There was a slight bit of tension in Merlin's face, as if he was trying to turn away but couldn't manage it.
Arthur reluctantly pulled his hand away. Only then did he notice there was an ache deep in his palm, the kind of feeling you'd get when holding something frozen, like snow or winter ice. How could Merlin be so cold and still alive?
"We need to get him warmed up," Lancelot said matter-of-factly, but there was definitely a strong undercurrent of concern in his voice. "He could die from the cold alone."
Arthur nodded, still not wanting to look away from Merlin, but he forced himself to do so. He needed to know what their resources were. Percival was holding the single torch still left to them, but it was near to guttering out. Merlin had dropped the firewood he'd been gathering before the Dorocha attacked, but there were a few timbers scattered here and there in the room they were currently in, and the door was wood besides.
"Gather those timbers," he commanded, gesturing towards the area where he and Merlin had been hiding, so futilely, such a short time ago. Elyan and Leon immediately obeyed. Gwaine was just standing there staring, but Arthur didn't have the time or energy to deal with that now. "Tear the door apart if you have to. We can light it with the…" The last, flickering bit of fire faded. "…torch. Damn it!" Now they were left with just the glow of the full moon flooding in through windows and chinks in walls. And the Dorocha were still outside, although their screams were now fading. Maybe they'd been satisfied by Merlin's sacrifice.
"Sorry," Percival muttered, as though it were his fault the torch had gone out.
"Never mind," Arthur replied impatiently. They'd just have to think of something else. Dawn couldn't be that far away.
"He might have the flint with him," Lancelot said suddenly, going through the pockets of Merlin's jacket. At least now Arthur could see the rise and fall of his servant's chest. His breathing was erratic, though. Shallow breaths were interspersed with longer, deeper ones that seemed to be causing him discomfort judging from the way his face was twitching. If a warm hand on his face hurt, Arthur could only imagine what it must be like for him to be drawing air into his lungs. The room was chilly, but it was still warmer than Merlin.
After a moment of searching, Lancelot shook his head. He seemed oddly resigned, as if he'd known the flint wouldn't be there. Maybe he'd seen Merlin put it away in his pack earlier but was grasping at the possibility that he'd gotten it out again and put in his pocket for whatever reason.
Arthur's thoughts were spinning, trying to work out another option to solve the current problem, when Gwaine finally spoke up. "Well, then," he said, clapping his hands loudly together, the sound every bit as startling as the apple had been. "We'll just have to use the body heat method. I'll volunteer since it's my idea." He strode over to Merlin and motioned for Arthur to move away.
"What are you talking about, Gwaine?" he asked in confusion, but he stood up and shifted aside even so.
"Oh, sorry, I forgot," Gwaine said as he took off his cloak and dropped it to the floor. He followed that by pulling his chain mail over his head, continuing to speak as he did so. "Being the crown prince and having to be respectable and all, I suppose you've never had a woman in your bed on a cold winter's night. Don't answer that, by the way. I really don't want to know." He was undoing the ties on his padded jacket now, and Arthur was beginning to wonder how much further he was going to disrobe. This was getting a bit awkward, but if it was going to help Merlin…
That was as far as Gwaine went with removing his clothes, though. He stood a moment, considering, then said, "Probably two of us would be better, one in front, one in back, give him as much warmth as possible." He knelt and spread his cloak out on the floor next to Merlin, then said to Lancelot, "Help me move him over, on his side."
Arthur stood and watched, understanding now what Gwaine was doing. He scratched uncomfortably behind his ear. It was a good thing there were only knights here, and trusted ones at that, because this might set tongues wagging otherwise.
The jostling roused Merlin again. He didn't open his eyes but said in a strained voice, "No. Stop."
"We're trying to help you, Merlin," Lancelot said gently.
"Not me. Help Ar…" The name caught in his throat and he couldn't get the rest out. His face scrunched up a bit, likely either in pain or annoyance at his voice failing him. Possibly both.
"Arthur's fine, Merlin. You saved him."
Merlin sucked in a sharp breath and let it out again just as quickly. "Good."
"Rest now. We'll take care of you."
No answer from Merlin. Apparently he'd found out what he needed to know and was content. Arthur felt an upwelling of guilt. This shouldn't have happened at all.
Gwaine and Lancelot went back to maneuvering Merlin onto the cloak, which took a fair bit of effort since Merlin had gone completely limp. Arthur had to firmly tell himself not to think "dead weight". He'd probably fallen unconscious. That might be for the best.
Once Merlin was lying on his side in the center of the cloak, Gwaine laid down next to him, behind his back. He pulled open the front of his quilted jacket, presumably to allow his own body heat to pass more readily to Merlin, then scooted himself over to press his entire front side right along Merlin's body. He immediately pulled away a bit, though, and exclaimed, "By all that's blessed and holy! I've never felt a person that cold. Would someone please lend me a piece of clothing for the sake of my future children?"
There was a snort of amusement. Arthur wasn't sure who'd made it, but it was Percival who stepped forward and offered his cloak. Gwaine took it and stuffed most of it into the space between the middle of his body and Merlin. Then he wriggled until he was flush against Merlin's back, his knees bending to match Merlin's legs and his arm going under Merlin's and wrapping around his chest. "We're going to have to take this in turns," he said, a quiver in his voice. "I don't think there's enough heat in my entire body to thaw him out." He seemed determined to try, though, and pushed himself even more firmly up against Merlin. "So who wants the other side?"
"I'll do it," Lancelot said quickly, immediately standing and removing his cloak. He also took off his chain mail as Gwaine had, then stood there with his head tilted to the side, looking perplexed.
"Oh, for…" Gwaine muttered. "Has no one here but me ever been with a woman before?"
"I have," said Percival offhandedly.
"Really?" Gwaine said as he raised his head and looked over. "You and I need to have a visit to the tavern later, mate. You've been holding out on me."
"Gwaine…" Arthur drawled in exasperation.
"Ooo, someone's touchy," he teased, but he left it alone beyond that. Wise of him. He put his head back down and returned his attention to Lancelot. "Your back to Merlin's front, lover boy. Right up against him, as close as you can get. Don't be shy."
A bit of color crept into Lancelot's cheeks, but he did as Gwaine instructed. The three of them were soon settled into a bizarre but very comfortable looking… Arthur wasn't sure what to call it. Embrace? Now his own face was getting a bit warm. Maybe he should just stop thinking about it.
"Cover us up, would you, princess?" Gwaine said with a wink and a nod towards where Lancelot had left his cloak on the ground.
Arthur glared at him but did as he was asked. As he crouched down and spread the cloak over them, he noticed that the frost and ice were already beginning to melt from Merlin's face, small droplets of water forming and running down his skin. Arthur could still sense the cold clinging to him, though, like unseen mist, as if some small part of the Dorocha were still there, refusing to let go. Probably the sign of thawing was simply because the air wasn't quite freezing, and now there were warm bodies next to Merlin, lending an aura of heat.
Since a course of action had been settled upon, and it seemed plausible that it might actually succeed, Arthur's concern for Merlin turned to annoyance at Gwaine, for both his brash sense of humor and the way he was glibly ordering everyone about. He felt the sudden urge to take back control of the situation. "The minute either of you starts to shiver," he said firmly as he rose back up to his full height and pointed a stern finger at Gwaine, then Lancelot, "someone else will take your place. All of us need to stay as strong as possible." He added to himself that it wasn't just for the quest, but for Merlin's sake as well.
"Percival, you'll be next," Arthur said as he looked around at the others. "Then Elyan, then Leon, then me." He wasn't sure why he named himself last. Probably an automatic decision because he was the prince, and the prince always went either first or last, depending on the situation. At least this prince did. Part of him had to admit, though, that he would be grateful if dawn arrived before he had to take his turn, because if Merlin woke up and found Arthur curled up against him, there would be no end to the teasing he'd endure from his manservant later. He'd put up with it, though, if it meant that Merlin was there to be the thorn in his side that he worryingly not only tolerated, but sometimes actually enjoyed.