Title: Thrown Together
Disclaimer: No, I don't own Merlin. But I love him to pieces.
So this is what I've been working on whilst my other Merlin fic is on hold - I got distracted ^^' It's a one-shot, but because I didn't want to split it into chapters so it's a bit longer than your usual one-shot.
This is kind of a first draft-ish, since I don't have a beta, so I want to get people's reactions and their ideas about things I should change to make it better to read etc.
I really want this to make people emotional when they read it, so pile your emotions onto me when your done so that I know what I need to do better!
The best one around, the receptionist tells him with a smile, a big hit with the kids.
Pity I'm not a kid, he replies with a tone that signals that their conversation is finished. She purses her lips as he walks away, biting back the comment that she really wants to make – she knows her place, and it's more than her job's worth to get into a fight with a patient. She knows his type: he'd file a complaint faster than she could blink, and she'd be hauled into the office to face the wrath of Doctor Pendragon. She needs this job; she can't afford to lose it.
His shoulder is aching again. Scowling, he checks his watch for the hundredth time. Running late. Why did he expect any different? Cursing his father for making him come here, he strides over to the desk again, demanding answers, apologies.
He really doesn't want to be here, he tells her, choking on the smell of disinfectant and waiting for some old man to tell him that he needs to stop and relax and allow his body to repair itself, so will she kindly explain what is keeping Doctor Gaius?
She informs him patiently, her mouth in a firm line, that Doctor Gaius isn't available at the moment, as he's been called to an emergency on the other side of the city.
"But, not to worry, you've got an excellent replacement."
"When I was told my replacement was 'the best ', I didn't expect him to still be in training."
He doesn't bother to hide the insult he's aiming at the dark-haired youth trying to take a sample of blood from his shoulder with nimble fingers.
"Who told you that?"
He didn't take any notice of her name, so he says "the receptionist." At the reply, he could swear he sees the youth blush, but at that moment the needle goes into his shoulder and all taunts go out of his mind.
"I'm just good with the kids, that's all. They think I'm magical," the medic whispers conspiratorially, as the needle is pushed in deeper and deeper. "This could hurt a little, by the way." Arthur rolls his eyes as the stinging increases. Still in training, and a nutcase. He'll be lucky if he leaves with his arm still attached.
"And are you?" he asks through gritted teeth, sarcasm dripping from every word.
Suddenly the needle is out and there's a swab of cotton wool being held to the bleeding patch, the youth fumbling with a plaster that he can't open with only one hand.
The results will take a couple of days to come through, naturally – he'll have to come back again on Monday after his lectures, he realises with irritation, to talk through the results and do follow up tests. No exercise until then. He zones out at this point, as he's already heard it countless times from his father and has no particular desire to be subjected to it again as he has no intention of taking any notice of it.
"… and you'll obviously have to drink toilet water for the rest of the week."
He eyes the boy with indignation as his mind catches up with reality, and the boy matches his gaze with an equally serious face. Those eyes are a ridiculous shade of blue, and the way that they seem to be laughing at him-
He decides that he's finally had enough of this damned place, and abruptly moves towards the door.
"5:00pm, Monday," the youth calls after him, "Merlin."
It's only when he unlocks the door to his flat an hour or so later that Arthur realises that Merlin must be his name, and for some reason he is not surprised.
He turns his head, his arm once again bound and blazing an angry red from the many needles that have been forced underneath the skin.
"It's not like I want to be here-" He peers at the plastic label attached to the strap of her dress, the word there tasting strange on his tongue. "-Guh-wen-i-veeere."
Merlin looks up at her, his eyebrows raised in exasperation. This one's a bit of a prat, he mouths. Guinevere supresses a giggle, and Arthur doesn't miss the way Merlin stares adoringly into her face, drinking in every movement.
"I heard that, you know."
That comment finally earns him a genuine smile, and he reciprocates. It's a pretty cute smile. How did he not notice this before? She places his notes on the table beside him before leaving, telling Merlin not to give him too much trouble, and he watches as she goes, her dark curls bouncing as she walks away. Dragging away his gaze, he finds Merlin still looking after her, and waves a hand in front of the boy's face. He sniggers as Merlin cracks his elbow on the wall, groaning in pain.
"You like her."
It isn't a question, merely an observation. Merlin looks at him in complete surprise, stumbling over his words in a desperate attempt to deny everything the statement implies.
"She's cute though."
Merlin's smile falters only for a moment as he informs Arthur that, as nice as that is, it doesn't make up for the fact that he has been using that arm, against his doctor's instructions.
Arthur fixes him with that look.
Sighing, Merlin tells him to stop being so stubborn, as he'll only make his condition five times worse. Whatever that condition turns out to be.
He leans forward over the desk in the way that he's learnt to, the way the girls at home like. Gwen doesn't respond – if anything, she turns colder. This is something that he hasn't encountered before, and it interests him in a way that none of the girls at home ever did. He changes tack, instead complimenting her on the way she puts up with Merlin's chatter all day, and she tells informs him coldly that he's lucky that he has Merlin. He's the most caring person she knows.
The lilt in her voice when she says Merlin's name, her eyes cast down – he doesn't miss these details.
There's a stirring in his gut. Jealousy?
That's ridiculous. Arthur Pendragon is never jealous. Especially not jealous of a nobody who can't even qualify properly to become a real doctor.
He flashes her a smile and asks her what colour she would call her eyes.
She's not used to this kind of attention and decides not to reply, but her dark eyes shine. They don't stop shining as he tells her he's not from around here, and they move on to discuss the weather and the state of current affairs and where she's going on holiday. There are patients behind him getting irritable, and in the end she has to shoo him away. He returns a few moments later, sheepishly admitting that he hasn't actually made that appointment that he needs to, and she throws back her head and laughs, a melodious sound that echoes around the dingy waiting room. He thinks it's the most beautiful sound he's ever heard.
They don't see the hurt in the pair of blue eyes that watch from across the hallway.
He lies in bed, his eyes open. Turning slightly, his clock says two in the morning, and he's not surprised. With one hand clutching his throbbing shoulder, he reaches for the pills on his bedside table, groping for the familiar packet, and tries to rise above the pain.
He can't say the name without smiling, and that alone confuses him. Back at Uni, there are lots of girls clamouring for his attention – rich, high flyers that're top of their class, with looks to match, but he's turned every single one of them down. He can't put his finger on exactly why he finds this particular one so interesting – maybe it's the way she's not afraid to speak her mind, or the way she's so adorable when she gets embarrassed, or just because he knows his father won't approve, but he's drawn to her all the same.
He thinks of her laughing again, and makes a vow to ask her to dinner the next time he sees her.
Then he thinks of the way Merlin looks at her.
The pain in his shoulder intensifying, he begins to feel around for the pills with a bit more urgency, sending the glass of water off the side of the desk in his haste. It shatters on the carpet, water spilling everywhere.
"Where are you, dammit?" he asks the pills through gritted teeth, feeling his fingers momentarily brush the edge of the packet before it disappears again, slipping to join the broken glass on the floor. Cursing, he leans forward, slowly extending his injured arm until the tips of his fingers are brushing the debris on the floor, relying on his sense of touch to distinguish between danger and salvation.
Triumphant, he withdraws his hand and fumbles with the packet, feeling for the one pill that he's pretty sure he hasn't taken yet. All he is met with are empty indentations in the plastic.
The pain is getting almost unbearable now, and, cursing again, he slumps back into the pillow, defeated. His shoulder's on fire. The shops won't open until seven at the earliest, and there's no doubt that Leon's dead to the world – he can hear the snores from here. Some housemate he is.
Closing his eyes against the pain, he clamps his mouth firmly shut and waits for the morning to come.
It's a long time until the morning.
Merlin's getting a coffee from the machine when Gwen runs in. He's been here all night – one of the drawbacks of being a trainee – and feels that he's owed one, even if it's simply a cup of hot water with caffeine powder floating in it.
The look in her eyes makes him break into a run.
Merlin looks at his watch – it's five in the morning. Due to the fact it's a small hospital, out of the way, none of the other staff will be here for a couple of hours yet, and Gaius will need someone to drive him here – usually Merlin drives, but because he had to stay overnight, he realises with a clench of apprehension, Gaius isn't planning to come in this morning.
He desperately hopes that it's nothing serious.
There's only Gwen there to help Merlin – no one else has the proper training. One doctor, one nurse. They wheel the body into the emergency room and Gwen, ever efficient, runs to gather the required drugs to numb the pain and reduce the danger.
Merlin stumbles through the motions, like he's watched Gaius do a thousand times.
Heck, even he doesn't have the proper training, not enough. He's not an experienced doctor – he hasn't had to deal with anything on this scale before. It's Gaius that should be here, or Doctor Pendragon, or – or someone else, but not him. It's Arthur, laying there on the table. Arthur, who's actually a real person and not just a nameless body in a textbook.
When Merlin turns to Gwen, his voice asks for a syringe, but his eyes –
"I don't know if I can do this," they scream at her. It makes her heart clench, and she reaches out to him as she passes, placing her hand gently on top of his. It's trembling slightly.
She gives him the syringe, and her eyes give him the reply that he needs.
"Do what you can."
As if he would ever do anything less.
As the man in the immaculate suit turns to leave, Merlin looks at Gwen, his eyes wide with horror.
"You didn't tell me he was the son of Doctor Pendragon!"
The worried expression she's been wearing lately lifts for a moment as she smiles at his incredulity. It's all in the file, she teases, and you didn't ask.
Gwen visits him regularly, and he's thankful for it. They talk, sometimes, but it always dissolves into a debate of some form of another: about politics or the state of the world or how those with money should take more responsibility for their actions.
"You're an interesting girl, Guinevere."
He finds himself pushing a stray curl back behind her ear and she leans forward, almost involuntarily. He mirrors the action, and they stay there for a moment, frozen in time.
She has the most wonderfully dark eyes.
Then the moment is over and she blushes, mumbling apologies before excusing herself from the room.
Merlin's standing at the door, an eyebrow raised in question. The smile on his face doesn't quite reach his eyes, but Arthur doesn't notice, choosing instead to scowl at him furiously and threaten to have him sacked for invading his patient's privacy.
Merlin's his only other visitor. Whether it's because Merlin wants to or because he feels he has to is another matter, and neither of them are quite sure which of the two it is. Besides, it's Merlin's duty to make sure that his patient doesn't drive himself insane due to lack of intelligent conversation.
"Intelligent conversation? You idiot – you gossip worse than a girl."
Merlin merely laughs and tells him that he'd rather be a girl than a clotpole.
He doesn't know what a 'clot pole' is, but it's probably something insulting, so he complains profusely. To be honest, Merlin doesn't know either, so he simply turns his back on the man and walks out.
The next day his arm is aching again, and he tells Merlin in no uncertain terms that he expects to be released soon. Merlin tries to ignore the bite in his tone, calmly opening the window to 'let some air in'.
"Released? That's a bit ungrateful, surely – you make it sound like a prison."
The mixture of pain and drugs and disinfectant is making his mind go foggy, so really it's not his fault when he loses it and starts shouting at the medic – telling him that "you have no idea what it's like to be stuck in a place like this", and that "this injury is ruining my life", and that "you're not even a real doctor."
Merlin stands there quietly and absorbs it, listening to him raging about how he's a law student and he studies at the top university in the country and yet because of this stupid injury he's reduced to being stuck in a place where they obviously even let high-school drop-outs masquerade around as doctors. Merlin doesn't even react when he calls him the largest coward he's ever met, hiding from the serious decisions that need to be made just because he's 'afraid of taking responsibility'.
It's only when he asks Merlin what he was doing whilst he was dying, that the boy finally snaps.
"Where do you think I was?"
The question hangs heavy in the room, his tone silencing the onslaught of aggression, and suddenly Arthur realises that maybe he isn't so sure of anything anymore.
A couple of hours later, Merlin reappears, declaring chirpily that he's got to check the shoulder's mobility for the last time, then Arthur can be 'unleashed' on the outside world. He's definitely in the clear now – there's still swelling at the shoulder, but the limb should regain full mobility in the next couple of weeks, and the paralysis that they had feared seems very unlikely now.
"Look," Merlin announces brightly, "Your fingers are wiggling."
The happiness is unnerving.
"It was rowing."
Merlin doesn't follow.
"I know I should've stopped, but rowing is the one thing that makes me feel as if I can accomplish something, as if I'm worth something, and I couldn't give that up."
He feels like he needs to get this off his chest before he leaves, make Merlin understand why he keeps disregarding his orders. What is it about this boy that makes him feel like he has to justify his actions?
"I just feel like my father's always so disappointed in me – that's why I've got to get back to Uni, finish my course, win a few rowing trophies."
He sighs, using his good arm to run a hand through his hair, feeling thoroughly awkward. Merlin scolds him half-heartedly, telling him to 'stop moving!' before mumbling something about being sure that Doctor Pendragon is proud, even if he doesn't show it.
Arthur snorts, but feels slightly pleased all the same. "Thanks for putting up with me."
The grin that he gets is genuine. He watches the boy curiously, listening to his light-hearted chatter, and a question arises from the back of his mind.
"Tell me, Merlin, why do you do this?"
He's not sure what he means, but Merlin always seems to understand things without needing words.
The boy stiffens, abruptly getting up and walking towards the door, as if stung. Arthur looks after him, unsure of what he's done wrong but wanting to amend it before he leaves, a protest bubbling in his throat.
"Merlin, I –"
"I know it might be hard for you to understand, but I don't have any big dreams, Arthur. I'm just apprenticed to Gaius because he's my uncle, otherwise I'd be probably be working in a shop somewhere. But I'm happy like this – I don't mind it. I can support my mother, and I can help people to live."
When Merlin finally looks at him, those eyes are positively glowing, and Arthur could swear that, just for a moment, those eyes seem golden.
"If there's a chance that I can save a life, anyone's life, then I will do everything in my power to save them."
The boy walks away, whistling as he goes.
"Have a nice life, Arthur Pendragon."
He rings Gwen that night.
She wouldn't talk to him at first – oh, she'd heard his fight with Merlin, along with the rest of the hospital, and there were a number of things that she wanted to say to him. She sounds so commanding that he thinks it's best to just let her get on with it.
"Merlin saved you, Arthur," she scolds him, her voice surprisingly angry down the line. "He was scared but there was no one else and he did what he could."
Did what he could.
He can still hear those words echoing in his head, those words that had instilled so much fear into his heart even through the haze of pain and medication that he'd spent the night in.
Ripped tendons, repeated trauma, possible paralysis. Not enough time.
Arrived too late.
He'd awoken to Gaius and his father speaking in hushed tones at the corner of his bed – he knew that if his father was present, something must be seriously wrong. Leon told him later that there hadn't been any staff on call when they'd arrived, so when Gaius appeared an hour or so later no-one was sure if Arthur would make it through without any permanent damage as time was everything.
But he knew that Merlin had been there – Merlin was always there, so what had he been doing? He could've given him drugs, operated, worked his magic, anything. But no, Merlin had been too afraid to do anything of any real use, sticking his head in the sand until Gaius arrived. In those waking hours of uncertainty and fear, he had needed someone to blame and his blinded mind had settled on Merlin because he hadn't done enough.
But apparently he had, and Arthur had got it all wrong.
Gwen's voice is softer now, as if gently rebuking a child. "I know it's not like you two always see eye to eye, but believe me when I say that he does genuinely care."
They get talking again, but somehow the conversation swings back around to Merlin – Gwen rambles a bit about her childhood, and Arthur sneakily asks her questions that make her blush, and suddenly Merlin's back in the mix, appearing at the hospital during Gwen's first year of her internship with his big heart and equally big ears.
"I think that's why Merlin's reluctant to become fully qualified – it's not like he lacks the skill, but he'll feel personally responsible for every single person he can't save. The weight of it all would probably drown him."
And then Arthur asks her whether they could stop talking about Merlin for a moment and start talking about her, and she giggles before asking him in her most sultry voice, "What kind of things did you want to know?"
Even when he's put the phone down, he can't sleep. It's not from the pain this time – Doctor Gaius did an amazing job of bandaging him up, and the pain has all but dissolved, but there's a curious feeling in his gut that won't go away, something that he's not used to feeling.
It takes a while, but he finally identifies the discomfort as guilt.
The odd feeling in his stomach is still there the next morning and the morning after that, and the constant gnaw at his gut is making him irritable. Leon would suggest that they go to the gym, except that last time Arthur was in this mood he ended up not being able to stand the next day, so he wisely keeps his mouth shut and goes to visit his girlfriend.
Arthur doesn't notice him leave.
The part of him that's honourable and true is telling him to go and apologise. The other part of him – the upper class, lawyer part of him is telling him to stop being so stupid. Because, really, it is stupid – Merlin was just doing his job, what he was paid to do. Looking at the events with the cold, dispassionate mind of the lawyer he is, Arthur can see very clearly that there isn't much of a case to support this irrational desire to go back and apologise.
But who came to visit you in that hospital?
There are outlines of a bridge forming between the two of them, the foundations shaky, but there. As much as that kid annoys him, there's something about Merlin that makes Arthur want to try harder to make that connection. It could be the way that Merlin doesn't seem to care about his background, or doesn't judge him for his faults, or doesn't seem to care about his personality issues, but regardless, he decides to swallow his pride and go and apologise in the only way he knows how – inviting Merlin out for a drink. The mere thought of the boy drinking is enough to make him snort into his coffee – he's pretty sure that Merlin doesn't really get out much, and therefore the task logically falls upon Arthur's shoulders to induct him in the ways of the city life.
Really, he's not apologising, but doing Merlin a favour.
"I thought you were never coming back here?"
Gwen tries to ask the question in a tone that suggests indifference, but fails miserably, not being able to conceal the small smile that graced her face the moment she saw him step awkwardly through the doors.
"Maybe I found something worth coming back for," he murmurs seriously, looking her straight in the eyes with such intensity that she once again has to turn away, blushing furiously. Obviously, she can't imagine what that reason could be, and he idly plays with the cuff of his shirt, casually admitting that, actually, he needs to find Merlin.
She sounds so indignant that he has to laugh, hastily adding that he's planning to ask him out for a drink as a way to make things up between them. She's happy to hear that he does, in fact, have a heart, and confirms that Merlin's somewhere in the building.
"He's in the children's ward again today, but he should be on his break now. I'll take you to him if you want."
The staffroom's empty, but apparently Merlin is guaranteed to turn up soon due to his claim on the lone doughnut in the corner. Gwen's babbling again, and it's all very endearing, and Arthur finds himself staring at the way her lips move when she's talking.
There's another stray curl in front of her face.
"And Gwaine loves these doughnuts, so Merlin – "
He stops her midsentence, reaching out to tuck the offending curl behind her ear. Their faces are so close, their noses almost touching, and she looks so beautiful that this time he doesn't stop himself, his lips gently brushing hers. Her eyes are wide with surprise, but she doesn't object, so he takes that as encouragement, tenderly reaching an arm around her waist to draw her nearer before kissing her again.
There are footsteps behind him, followed by a hasty mumbled apology. Gwen pulls out of his embrace, looking over his shoulder with guilty, apologetic eyes, and Arthur turns to catch a mop of dark hair disappear swiftly behind the closing door.
This was not the way things were meant to go.
"Go after him, Arthur," Gwen breathes.
Arthur goes after him, a swirl of guilt and embarrassment and frustration, calling the name as loudly as his pride will allow. Merlin won't turn around, blanking the outside world as he's grown used to doing on so many other occasions, and for some reason this frustrates Arthur more than anything else.
"Would you just stop?" Striding forward, he grabs the boy's arm, roughly spinning him around so that they stand face to face. It feels like there's a chasm between them, silence filling the vast expanse, and Arthur suddenly gets the giddying feeling that everything he's been building is much more fragile than first thought.
"What do you want, Arthur?"
Arthur swallows, the words he's not used to saying clumping up on his tongue and refusing pass his lips.
I'm sorry, he means to say.
"I wanted to ask if you wanted to go out for a drink tomorrow night."
"Oh really?" Merlin looks up, his eyes smouldering with an anger and a hurt that seem to go much deeper than Arthur's own. "And you were just asking Gwen that, were you?"
"I don't have to explain my actions with Guinevere to you or anyone else." His voice is tight, strained, and Merlin mumbles something incoherent in reply. Arthur can sense that his one chance to make things right is slipping through his fingers, and he decides to change tack, his pride well and truly shattered.
"I like her, Merlin." His voice is so soft, it's almost pleading. "I know she's your friend, but I really do like her. Could you not at least give me a chance?"
Merlin twitches, and something inside just seems to snap.
"Is that what you rich law students do then?" Merlin hisses, "You strut around and insult people and steal their girlfriends, then invite them out so that you can laugh yourself silly when they get plastered?"
He wrenches his arm out of Arthur's grasp.
"I'm just trying to make amends!" Arthur shouts. He raises his fists then lowers them again, fingers clenching and unclenching. Why had he expected any different? He's known this boy for, what, a week? – and yet here he is, surrendering his pride on the off-chance that they might form some kind of friendship. He doesn't need this – he has plenty of friends already, ones of a much better breed than the one standing in front of him.
Merlin wonders what it must be like to live in Arthur's world, a world where emotions don't play a role and appearances mean everything. He realises that Arthur simply can't fathom someone as open yet complex as Merlin, so he hasn't even tried, ignoring everything that he doesn't understand.
Suddenly he can't find the energy, or the heart, to be angry any more.
His heart hurts with the knowledge that Gwen chose Arthur over him, but it was nothing but a dream. They're sibling, not lovers. He can't hate Arthur for making Gwen happy, and he can't fight with Arthur when the latter doesn't understand the reason behind the battle.
And so he buries his heartbreak and his betrayal somewhere deep inside, locking it away like he always does, like he's been doing for years.
"You're a prat, you know that, right?"
The voice isn't angry now, just tired. "Your treat?" The forced cheer in his voice is painfully obvious, but he plasters that ridiculous smile back onto his face and suddenly the world seems that little bit brighter.
Arthur snorts. His treat? "You're jok-"
"Great." Merlin flashes him a small grin, the matter settled. "I'll drop by yours at seven, then."
The boy spins on his heel, urging his feet to take him as fast away from Arthur as possible, from anyone. There's a stack of paperwork that he needs to file, some children in the ward who are always happy to see him – heck, maybe he'll even make a start on that thick volume that Gaius gave him last Christmas for a bit of 'light reading'. He just wants to be busy. Irritation flares up in his heart again, with Arthur its cause – not, this time, for stealing his girl, but for making him leave without taking that donut. He knows it won't be there when he gets back – Gwaine decided to turn up for work today, so nothing vaguely edible anywhere in the building is safe.
Arthur calls after him, his tone incredulous.
"You know where I live?"
The answer comes ominously echoing back down the corridor, somehow sounding wiser and more foreboding than Arthur thought it was humanely possible where Merlin was concerned.
"I know everything about you, Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur claps a hand to his forehead in exasperation, leaning against the wall whilst trying to hide a relieved smile.
Never try to befriend a doctor. It's all in the file.
Merlin's changes the colour of that ridiculous scarf that he's always wearing especially for the occasion.
"It's new – blue, different from the red one. I haven't worn it before. Exciting, right?"
Arthur comments that Merlin needs to get out more.
They run into one of Merlin's old friends in the bar and he makes the fatal mistake of challenging said Gwaine to a drinking contest. The man drinks like a well. It's no wonder that he's feeling surprisingly woozy as they bid farewell and begin stumbling across the darkened street that's blurring at the edges, Merlin proclaiming – quite in awe – that there's no one who holds their drink quite as well as Gwaine. Well, really it's Arthur that's stumbling – when the world starts to pitch over Merlin quickly grabs his hand, pulling him out of the road and back towards those lights that twinkle.
"Are you insane?" Merlin hisses, all blue eyes and tousled hair and stern 'sensibleness'. Arthur giggles at this new word and Merlin looks at him in confusion, those eyebrows raised to the heavens. Between the spasms he desperately tries to convey to the boy the hilarity of this new word, but his throat is burning and suddenly he's on his knees with Merlin laying a reassuring hand on his back whilst he retches at the side of the road.
"I am so not going to let you forget this, Arthur," comes the chuckling voice from above him.
His stomach emptied, Arthur slowly clambers to his feet, wiping a hand clumsily over his mouth. He's glad for the darkness that night-time provides, glad that Merlin can't see him properly whilst he's in this state. There's a mix of acid and dirt and alcohol in his mouth, and he spits, trying to rid himself of the foul tang.
"I should have you executed," he groans, taking a step forwards only to find his face in cold concrete once more.
"Of course Sire," Merlin retorts, "Would that be before or after you finish inspecting the floor?"
"I would make a great king," Arthur mutters, grabbing the boy's arm for support as together they begin the treacherous journey to the other side of the road. "And you would have to be my maid."
That last comment sends Merlin into fits of laughter, tears streaming from his eyes.
"That's it. I really do think that you've had enough drink for tonight – we need some coffee."
"Blimey Merlin," Arthur gasps, as they collapse in the well-worn seats of the only café ridiculous enough to be open at these early hours of the morning. "You must have a stomach of steel."
"You're just a lightweight."
That seems to sober him up.
"I'd like to see you challenging Gwaine to a drinking competition – remind me again what was it you were doing whilst I was proving my manliness? Oh, wait. You were drinking coke."
They talk like old friends – Merlin tells Arthur about his childhood and his worrying mother and not quite fitting in, and Arthur tells Merlin about his overprotective father who seems to think that wards full of dying people and stories of murder cases are good things to bring up a child on, and that constantly criticising his son was the best way to make him a better person.
Merlin puts down his cup, peering at him seriously from across the table. "So that's why you've got such a warped personality."
Arthur flings the remaining contents of his mug into the boy's lap, and is unable to remember a time when he's laughed quite so hard – Merlin squeals (like a girl), and shoots out of his seat like he's been branded with a hot poker. He jumps up and down, shouting something at Arthur about it being 'hot' and Arthur being a 'dollop head', but this makes him laugh even harder.
He's laughing so hard that he falls over sideways onto to the floor, causing both of them to collapse in giggling heap, trying to regain some composure. The couple at the table across the room watches them with distaste.
None of them could have foreseen the way that night would end.
There's a man, a desperate man, holding a gun with hands that are too stubborn to shake. He calls out to the inhabitants of that tiny café, rounding them up like sheep and screaming about money and threats and consequences. The people cower in their seats in fear, one making the mistake of voicing their terror. A bullet finds a shoulder and suddenly there's screams as the lone rebel slides down the wall, shrieks dying to whimpers as their captor turns his wild eyes on the rest of the crowd.
Whether down to fate or merely by luck, Merlin and Arthur aren't among the crowd – Merlin needed the bathroom, and Arthur needed to inspect his face; so now they're crouching behind the doorframe, backs pressed against the wall, praying for invisibility.
Arthur's phone is laying on the table a couple of feet away. A couple of feet too far.
If that back turns, they'll be shot where they stood.
He can feel Merlin shaking next to him, and he curses softly for dragging the boy into this situation. Arthur's relatively calm, used to reading about these situations and hearing about them in court, but Merlin –
Merlin is staring at the opposite wall, his mouth in a firm line, breathing heavily.
"You need to get to that phone."
Arthur exhales softly. "Your powers of deduction astound me."
"I can create a distraction. You need to get to that phone."
Arthur's head jerks in indignation, but those blue eyes stare at him with a hard resignation that screams rebellion.
"What kind of plan is that? That's not a plan – that's suicide. There's a fine line between being a hero and being plain stupid, and you've just crossed it. Wonderful."
Those eyes regard him with a seriousness that he's never seen before, and they inform him that there's nothing that he can say that will change this decision. They're wrong there – oh, there's a lot of things Arthur will say. He protests softly but furiously – it's too dangerous; it'll never work; they can both escape now, out the bathroom window. Don't be an idiot.
Merlin silences him with a phrase that will haunt him for the rest of his days.
"I can't let them die – I'm a doctor, Arthur, I save lives. That's what I do."
They flatten themselves even further into the wall, the harsh voice of the man with the gun barely perceptible over the roar of the blood in their own skulls.
"It's been a great night, Arthur," Merlin breathes, grasping his hand for the briefest of moments. It's steady.
"Do me a favour though?" Merlin closes his eyes, his knuckles white against the wall, a small smile playing on his lips. "Love Gwen for me? She deserves a good man."
Merlin is speaking like a dead man, and this scares Arthur more than anything else. He grips the boy's shoulder in way of reply, words not needed.
"Don't be such a girl, Merlin. We're both making it back tonight."
There's no question about letting Merlin carry out his plan. He's Arthur's responsibility. He takes the word 'Merlin' out of the plan and replaces it with the word 'Arthur'. He forgets that Merlin has a problem with authority.
Merlin takes one last deep, shaking breath –
And suddenly he's walking calmly out from behind the wall, towards the man with the gun. His hands are up, and when he speaks it's with the lilt of a child throwing all caution to the wind because he knows there's nowhere to run.
Don't do anything stupid, Merlin.
Seconds too late, Arthur reaches out to grab Merlin's arm. He gets nothing but a fistful of air.
"Sorry I'm late, just needed the loo. Bladder problem, what can I say?"
And suddenly the plan is rushing ahead and all that Arthur can do is slip into the role that he's been delegated. He hopes the idiot doesn't get himself killed.
The next few moments go by in a blur.
There's the rush of adrenaline, then an odd calm engulfs him, a soldier entering the battlefield. He knows, somewhere, Merlin is babbling, but his heart is too loud to hear it.
Something shifts in the air.
A glance at the figures. Merlin's face is blank. The man with the gun is in front of him, back still turned to Arthur. The gun is still at his side. If Merlin can keep it up for just a bit longer –
His fingers finally curl blessedly around the lifeline, and he's dialling the number before he's even back behind cover, unaware that the world has already begun to tip out of balance.
Destiny is screaming.
A single gunshot, that's all it takes.
He's not paying attention to the drama unfolding in front of him, relief at the plan's imminent completion blinding him to the other danger – on the phone, he doesn't see the change in the man's stance, doesn't notice the signs that he knows so well from studying umpteen cases of impromptu murder, that would have set alarm bells ringing in his head if only he was looking. He misses the tiny shake in Merlin's hands – the only indication of his terror, even though he's painfully aware that death stands before him and is running out of patience.
Merlin has known that this would happen all along. It is … fate, in a way – an inevitable outcome of a shambolic plan. Protecting Arthur from his own self-absorbed actions so that he lives to win another case.
He can see the desperation in the man's eyes, the pain, the anguish, the terror. He's lost his family, his home, his wife. The gaze of the man who finally pulls the trigger is one of a man who simply has nothing more to lose, and Merlin meets it with the gaze of someone who simply has everything to protect.
But even Arthur can't miss the shot.
Somehow Merlin's still standing, a small, surprised gasp the only sound to escape his lips, and Arthur forgets how to breathe. He dares to hope, just for a moment.
Those ridiculously blue eyes are staring straight past the man frozen in terror, flicking from side to side, as if searching for something. Searching for him.
Arthur steps out from behind the wall, hours too late, and Merlin's eyes find his.
They're filled with confusion and pain and a kind of defeated acceptance that he's only ever seen in the eyes of the wrongly condemned.
"Help me," they beg. "Help me, Arthur."
Arthur forgets how to breathe.
Why isn't he screaming?
Had it not been for the darkening stain blossoming across the boy's chest, he may have been able to kid himself that everything was fine, that the bullet had missed its mark, that Merlin was just having him on.
If he's hurt, why isn't he screaming?
Merlin's legs give way beneath him, but those orbs never leave Arthur's.
"Am I still a coward?" they ask from the floor, as the lids begin to fall.
Arthur's heart shatters.
The gun is thrown to the floor in horror, and the screams start up again.
"Oh God, you killed him!"
"He was just a kid!"
And the murderer looks at his hands in horror and stutters and moans that he didn't mean to do it, he was scared, it was the kid's fault for being so damn infuriating –
And all the while, Arthur is still trying to remember how to breathe.
The raving man is so wrapped up in his own stupidity that doesn't see the golden-haired man with the eyes as hard as stone retrieve the gun from the floor, moving with the cold, calculated purpose that only grief can bring.
He raises the gun with trembling hands, aims it point blank at the forehead of the man who shot Merlin.
"He wanted to be a doctor." His voice cracks.
And he squeezes the trigger, turning away at the terrified scream produced when metal meets bone. It's pathetic – Merlin didn't scream.
He's on his knees in an instant, pulling the limp body towards him as he mumbles something about stupidity and selflessness and understanding when no means no. His hand finds the place where the bullet ripped the flesh, and he falters for a moment, the blood spilling through his fingers.
"God Merlin, you never do anything by half, do you?"
And suddenly those eyes are open again, and a ghost of a smile is playing upon that ashen face.
But Merlin is alive, and the police are on their way, and Arthur covers up his terror in the only way he knows how.
"You just couldn't leave it, could you?" The words are tumbling out, scathing and reprimanding, and Merlin is wearing expression that's a cross between resignation and irritation. "You idiot. He had a gun and you had nothing, yet you go back anyway because of some stupid chivalrous code that obviously overrules your own sense of self preservation. That's if you even have any sense of self preservation. I told you that I'd go, I told you, yet you go anyway and you get yourself – you get yourself –"
Merlin grins weakly. "I wasn't about to let you sacrifice that large ego of yours – that's what Gwen finds so endearing, your big headedness. I wasn't going to make her cry."
And just like that, Arthur realises that Merlin knew that this was going to happen all along. All replies die in his throat and he just stares at him with wide eyes filled with a new respect.
"'M Sorry," Merlin breathes.
Arthur's reply is sharp and incredulous. "What for?" The guilt in his chest has an icy hold on his heart now, and won't let go. "I shouldn't have brought you here, this is my fault."
"For getting blood on your suit." He feebly gestures to where his blood is seeping into the light linen of Arthur's shirt, marking them both. "Hard to get out."
Arthur doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, settling instead for, "You'll have to buy me a new one later."
A grudging smile.
"'M glad to've known you, Arthur Pendragon. I would've liked to ... get to know you better." Merlin sucks in a grating breath, pain creasing his features once more as he struggles to get the last phrase out, stubborn as always. "I feel like … under dif'rnt circumstances we could've been friends."
Arthur chokes. "I –"
I feel like I've known you my entire life. I wish we'd done this sooner. I shouldn't have brought you here. I didn't want this to happen.
I'm sorry for everything.
"– I thought we were."
Merlin smiles, because he never needed the words to understand.
The minutes seem to last for hours, the other captives scattered. He's moved Merlin towards the edge of the room and now they're looking through the window at the sleeping world, Merlin slumped into Arthur's chest, Arthur with one hand supporting the boy and the other pressed to wound, still vainly trying to stem the flow of blood. They're both covered in blood. If it wasn't for the graveness of the situation, Arthur would be finding this very awkward. Merlin would be finding this hilarious.
He can't help wondering how much blood Merlin actually has to lose.
"You should knight me." Arthur looks up in confusion. " 'f you're king … then I want to be knighted."
The words are coming out slower now.
"And why would I want to do that?" he asks, amusement in his voice.
Merlin's eyes are finding it hard to stay open. "So you 'member me when 'm gone." He says the words with all the lightness he can muster.
Arthur's heart clenches. "Don't be stupid Merlin." The reaction is immediate, instinctive. "The ambulance is on its way – I've seen people with survive worse injuries than this. They appear in the witness box the next day."
They both want to believe him.
Merlin's sigh rattles in his chest, and speaks slowly, deliberately, looking Arthur straight in the eyes. "I'm a doctor, Arthur… I know."
He never slurs Arthur's name.
He shudders and closes his eyes, and for a moment Arthur's heart stops beating because the terror that shoots through him is raw and paralysing, and it takes all his self-control to stop him from breaking down there and then. Inside his head he's screaming, but he calms himself enough to concentrate on that tiny feeling underneath his bloody hand. Breathing. Merlin's breathing. He's still alive.
And still he won't let the tears fall, but it's hard. It's so hard. He's not a hardened soldier on the battlefield and this isn't a case he's hearing about in the court of law – he's a young man on a night out with his mate, and now that man is dying in front of his eyes because 'no one should be left to suffer', and that reality is tearing him apart.
"Arthur." Merlin's voice is small now, almost a whimper. "Arthur, I'm sorry."
And they both know what he means is, I'm scared, and Arthur doesn't know what to do. He racks his brains for something – anything to try and calm him down.
"When I was really young, my father used to tell me stories when I … had trouble sleeping."
Where did that come from?
Even in his state, Merlin has enough energy to produce an expression of complete disbelief.
"Doctor Pendragon? Tell you stories? I'm surprised he didn't eat you whole while you were sleeping!"
Arthur takes one look at those wide eyes full of disbelief, complete with sky-high eyebrows, and finds it completely hilarious. Despite himself, he lets out a snort of laugher, and Merlin laughs with him, weakly but truly, the spark returning to his eyes. If only for a moment.
He feels the boy spasm painfully against him and there's no hiding the terror in those blue eyes. Both of their eyes. Arthur searches for a distraction, smoothing down the collar of his shirt. An anxious twitch. His shoulder is beginning to twinge again, but he won't move from this position, afraid that he might shatter the fragile calm they have.
"I'll tell you a story Merlin," he proposes, his attempt at sounding casual falling spectacularly on its face.
"Do I get milk too, or is it just a biscuit this time?" The jibe lacks enthusiasm, energy, and Arthur feels so useless because that line sounds so wrong now that it doesn't have the barely contained laughter behind it. Merlin's staring at the floor by Arthur's shoulder, mouth in a firm line. Trying desperately not to let the pain overwhelm him.
"Just shut up and listen," Arthur scolds, cheeks reddening slightly.
And so he weaves him a story about a Prince who was selfish and arrogant and a peasant with gigantic ears and the heart of a knight, a peasant who saves the Prince's life over and over again even though he didn't have to.
"He had all the grace of an elephant, and all the magic of a dragon," he mumbles, his voice loud in the silence.
"I'd love a dragon."
"And one day they found themselves attacked by bandits, captured, and all the knights had fled. And the Prince was all tied up and about to be sacrificed, with his head to be put on a stick –"
"Not historically accurate."
The voice is softer now, less solid, and Arthur can tell he's fighting a losing battle. "Are you going to keep interrupting me, or do you want to carry on yourself?" He had meant it to sound exasperated, but it came out as more of snarl, panic adding to his words.
He carries on talking, but his fingers curl tighter around Merlin's shoulder as if trying to anchor him.
" – when the peasant steps in front of the bandit, taking the blow and saving the Prince. And the Prince manages to kill the bandit and get away, returning to his castle. So in the end, everything was good. A happy ending, right?"
The silence is so large and terrifying that he just wants to curl into a ball and scream, but he retains his composure in the way that he's been taught to. No man is worth your tears, his father's voice echoes in his head, not in your profession, nor in mine. Emotion is something that we cannot afford.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry Merlin. I'm sorry for everything – for Gwen, for being such a prat, for bringing you here.
His father had never really given good advice.
"Oh God Merlin, I'm so sorry."
He's sobbing now, and his anguish is deep and uncontrollable. Still Merlin doesn't move, and Arthur can't face that reality, pulling him closer and cursing every single thing that's happened to them since they met. Why is it that every single second that passes is tearing cruelly at his heart, yet he can't feel those shuddering breaths against his chest?
He's afraid of the answer.
But how does the story end, Arthur? What about the peasant – he got hurt, right?
He can see the blue light of the ambulance through his closed lids as they sit there, motionless. His lids are glued shut from the remains of his tears, and he's resting his chin on Merlin's hair. He feels hollow.
Noise filters slowly through his haze, and suddenly hands are everywhere – poking him, trying to help him up, trying to relieve him of his burden. He doesn't want to let go, but they talk in soothing voices, telling him that it'll be alright now, that everything will be fine. When he opens his eyes, he's that king of that distant land, where magic roams free and every story has the potential for a happy ending.
It's not a question, it's a command.
Merlin's hand is cold as it is taken away from him, the body limp and white. Arthur can't look. The paramedics have no such qualms – to them he's just another youth in the wrong place at the wrong time. One looks at him, sees his pretty face and thinks it's a shame, the other's seen too many to think anything any more. They're just doing their job.
Inside he's raging: kicking the walls, shaking the paramedics, shaking Merlin – telling him to wake up and stop being such an idiot; but instead he just watches. The blood is caked all up his sleeve, and when Arthur reaches to rub a hand over his face he's sure that he must be covered in it. It's funny that he's been in so many trials, watching without emotion as the event is described in meticulous detail, hearing the anguished cries of the victim's relatives as they relive years of pain, yet here he is, unable to deal with this.
Maybe he is human after all. Merlin would be pleased.
The younger paramedic turns back to him, a sympathetic look on her face. "Who is he?"
Arthur has to pause for a moment.
A guy I met three weeks ago. My friend. Merlin.
There's a lump in his throat that's suffocating him, choking him, and he can't get the words out. His hands are shaking and he looks at them, covered in Merlin's blood, and realises just how far they've come from that day when were thrown together. Like destiny.
"He's – he's just my doctor."