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A/N: I promised myself I wouldn't do anything like this while my other Merlin fic was still on the go but unfortunately it's taken me a few days but I finally realised I'm ill and I decided I'd do some therapeutic writing to help me stop getting all upset (I don't react well to hospitals/doctors/medicine). I've spent the last few hours writing and come out with this and I was curious to know what other people think about it. Please review :)
Spoilers! it's based on a scene from the Darkest Hour part 2 so series 4 spoilers although they're fairly minor. Still, be warned, if you're not up to date there will be bits you don't know yet.
No sound graced the air but that of gentle breathing from the slumbering men and the soft crackling of the blazing fire set in the middle of the small hall.
Sat to one side, leaning back against one of the logs they had earlier used as seats, was Arthur. Contentedly, he watched over his knights having taken first watch, finding himself unable to sleep with the prospect of what the break of morning and the advance to the Isle of the Blessed would bring.
Although he currently lived as the Prince Regent and a warrior of Camelot and often he seemed brave beyond all other men, he was still a man himself. All being prince meant was that he had more fears to deal with along with those held by any other man.
He turned slightly as he heard a gentle shifting behind him, a smile slowly gracing his lips.
Even after everything the idiot had been through, Merlin was also still awake and leaning back against the opposite side of the log. For the last ten minutes he'd been shifting about as though he was struggling to get comfortable.
"You really ought to rest, you know."
Merlin scoffed. "Thanks but I think I've had enough rest today."
"Nearly dying doesn't count as rest."
"Yeah, well." There was a pause as Merlin shifted again. "I thought you might want some company."
With a half-laugh Arthur turned back to the fire and smiled. Trust Merlin to not think of his own well-being.
Slowly the smile fell away as he stared into the fire thinking of how close he'd come to losing a friend today. Except it was more than that.
The frozen fearful faces of everyperson who'd fallen victim to these creatures plagued his thoughts, while the screams of his people and the unholy screeches of the dorocha jumped forth in his nightmares. Every image, thought and fear was vying for his recognition and attention.
"It's going to be fine. Everything will be alright." Turning he saw Merlin carefully watching him and wondered how much of what he was thinking had shown upon his face.
Picking at the piece of bread he held in his hands, Arthur shook his head before reaching up to place a piece in his mouth. "I'm just tired."
Avoiding eye contact, the prince attempted to brush off Merlin's concern but felt the boy still watching him carefully. "You don't have to sacrifice yourself."
Turning, Merlin caught his eyes but Arthur avoided holding the gaze, looking away as soon as he could. "I have to save my people."
"I will take your place."
Throwing sideways glances at the servant, Arthur shook his head in protest. "Merlin-"
"What is the life of a servant compared to that of a prince?"
Merlin's voice sounded resolute yet hoarse, probably still recovering from his near-death experience. "Well, a good servant's hard to come by."
He leaned forward looking uncertain. "I'm not that good"
"True." Smiling at their banter, Merlin looked as though he wanted to continue the discussion but kept quiet. Most likely he had realised that there was little else to be said.
Despite the small distraction Arthur's thoughts once again turned to what he was planning to do in the morning. As such he recalled everything he was giving up and bowed his head.
"One thing." Although he looked at the fire before him he didn't see the flames, looking instead beyond them to the woman he wished he did not have to leave behind. "Look after Gwen. I want her to be happy in her life. She deserves that."
The flames reflected in Merlin's eyes and were matched with the blazing inner-determination he knew the boy to possess. "Don't worry, I'll make sure."
The two of them settled into an uneasy silence, Arthur entranced as he was by the flickering firelight that blazed before him and Merlin gazing into the darkness in the other direction. Once again, he found his thoughts going over how his servant had been only hours before.
"You really had me worried, you know."
He heard Merlin give a small laugh. "I know."
Slightly frowning he turned towards the boy behind him. "No you don't."
"I saw your face, Arthur." Merlin turned to him, an uncharacteristically solemn look upon his face. "When I left and when I came back." He turned away again. "I know."
The servant had spoken with a sense of finality that Arthur found he couldn't argue with, and it was clear he had a great opposition to the point.
Closing his eyes, he silently cursed himself. He had seen Merlin himself after the attack by the dorocha; he had seen its effects numerous times over on a great many people. How could he not expect there to have been some effect on his servant? Was it not true that he too was a man?
Clear though it was that Merlin didn't like thinking upon what had happened he confessed that the thought, the memory of that morning still lay fresh in his mind. The boy's harsh, shallow breathing; his worried, darting eyes…his ice-cold skin. As much as he tried to force it away, curiosity remained resolutely within his chest until he dared to venture the question.
"What was it like? For you?"
"Huh?" He caught Merlin's eyes and watched as realisation slowly grew within them. "Oh…" the boy lowered his head in seemingly quiet contemplation. "…Have you ever been so…upset that you just, kind of…" he paused, swallowing as he searched for the right word, "…hollow out? Like you just feel…empty. There's just nothing." Arthur watched as Merlin took a shuddery breath and closed his eyes. "Everything just sort of…stopped. For a moment I'd thought I was actually dead but…" as he trailed off Arthur began to regret asking this question, seeing how it seemed to troubling him to answer. "I had no strength. I mean, I wanted to move, I tried to move so often but I just…couldn't." he laughed weakly. "The spirit was willing but the body was weak." With a louder laugh he opened his eyes and turned to the prince. "I actually tried to hit you when you were putting me on that horse."
The smile quickly faded and Merlin turned away, lost in thought. Worried he may have gone too far, Arthur attempted a mild laugh.
"You do realise if you'd hit me I'd have found some way to make you pay."
"I was dying you wouldn't have done anything." Sure enough, glancing over he saw a smirk tugging at the edges of his servant's mouth but it didn't hold.
Arthur watched worriedly as he saw Merlin's eyes suddenly become empty and haunted. "Merlin?"
"It was cold. Really, really," he took a deep shuddering breath, "cold… I didn't think I'd ever know warmth again." Merlin looked up at him with those hollow eyes and Arthur shivered. "It felt like I should have been dead."
"Hey!" Reaching over he put a firm hand on Merlin's shoulder. "Merlin!" and like that the servant snapped back; all the life and energy that moments before had vanished from his eyes, instantly rushed back into them, filling them with a recognisable warmth, but an unmistakable fear still resided there. "You're alright. You're fine."
Taking a deep breath, Merlin turned in embarrassment. "Yeah." He laughed lightly. "Yeah."
Looking him up and down, Arthur tried to pick out signs that his servant needed sleep but was unable to find any. "I could just order you to rest, you know."
Merlin let out a hearty laugh at that, loud enough that one of the knights stirred although he didn't get up. Letting out a small snigger Merlin turned to the prince with a recognisable defiance within him that cheered Arthur greatly. "Yes, because I'm well known for doing as I'm told."
Unable to hide the smile his servant's response encouraged in him, Arthur tried and failed to scowl. "Sometimes I wonder why I put up with you."
Carefully, he took in the sight of the boy who should be dead sat behind him. Merlin was clearly shaken by what he'd been through, no matter how much of a front he put on. Arthur almost regretted asking but more than that he almost realised how close he'd come to losing the servant he'd come to rely on more than was probably acceptable in many people's eyes.
Either way he didn't care. "Merlin." The servant turned to look at him. "I'm glad you're here."
"I know, Arthur." A small, satisfied smirk grew on his face as he turned away again. "I know."