Disclaimer: not mine.

After the ordeal with the Witchfinder, neither Gaius nor Merlin can sleep.

A Smoke Horse and its Aftereffects

Dinner passed cheerfully enough, but after his ward retired to his room, Gaius found himself still wide awake, troubled. It was difficult to believe that at the same time the day before, he'd been locked behind iron bars, sprawled on hay and awaiting his death. Now he was safe, back home with Merlin, but this past week would not fade easily from anyone's mind.

By the time Merlin's door creaked open, Gaius had forced his restless pacing to calm. He had taken a seat at the table and was flipping haphazardly through the pages of an anatomy book as the boy slipped hesitantly into the main room.

Merlin settled wordlessly on the bench across the table. Gaius waited out the silence as long as he could bear before finally addressing his ward. "You went to bed two hours ago," he commented blandly. But of course, the state of Merlin's eyes told him everything that he needed to know about what the boy had spent that time doing.

"I thought maybe I'd come and study a bit. With you. If that's all right," Merlin finished lamely, eyes trained on his fidgeting hands.

"Of course." Gaius picked a few books arbitrarily and handed them across the table. "Why don't you look through these?"

Merlin nodded dumbly, opening the top book to a random page and gazing down at the words and sketches.

A little while passed in which neither of them spoke. Finally Merlin cleared his throat.

"I realized I didn't ask how you are," he admitted quietly. "You nearly died. Are you... all right?"

The honesty in Merlin's small voice was nearly painful to hear. "I'm fine, Merlin," Gaius soothed. "You know, I am an old man. We don't fear death the way the young do."

"But... not like that." The anger in Merlin's frown was only just tempered by his sorrow. "Not... executed."

"No, I hope not." Gaius smiled. "I hope- one day, when I know that you are ready to stand without me- I'll put in a hard day's work. I'll say goodnight to Uther, and Arthur, and Gwen. I'll have dinner with you- hopefully in your own house by then. Then I'll lie down on my cot and I won't wake up in the morning."

He'd meant it as a comfort, truly, but perhaps his words were not the best possible decision. Merlin sniffed fiercely and ducked his head down, staring glumly at the table.

"I'm sorry, Merlin," Gaius murmured gently. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"No," Merlin gasped. He lifted his head again, wiping a shaking hand across his eyes. "No, Gaius, I'm just- I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." He winced, briefly. "You nearly died because of me."

"Not for the first time," Gaius teased.

"No, but this time- this time was just foolish. It was pointless. I saw the smoke, and I made it into a horse to make me happy. It meant nothing. It would have meant nothing." He frowned again, but it was even less effective than before.

"At the risk of saying the wrong thing again, Merlin," Gaius began carefully, "you must understand. I stand for this kingdom. I stand for my king and my medicine and the people that I treat. But you- you are the only thing I truly care about. I'd lay down my life for you no matter what the circumstances. Although," he added, "if I had my way, they would be just a tad bit more exciting than a smoke horse and its aftereffects."

Gaius smiled, but Merlin couldn't seem to return the gesture. Tears ran thickly down his face.

"It's all right, my boy," Gaius murmured, pulling the stack of books from in front of Merlin and placing them carelessly on the floor. Merlin crossed his arms on the table in front of him then cushioned his head against them, hiding his face from view.

Gaius reached slowly across the table, resting his hand on Merlin's bowed head. It stayed cupped there a very long time, a steady presence for the boy who was spilling out days of tormented emotion, too old to let Gaius truly comfort him but too young to handle it all on his own. With his free hand, Gaius flipped idly through the book still open in front of him, reading nothing but hoping to provide at least the suggestion of privacy- like maybe there was some vague chance he didn't hear the sniffles and hiccups coming from under the protective blockade of Merlin's arms.

Finally Merlin began to quiet, and Gaius ruffled his hair a bit before taking his hand away. Creakingly, he climbed to his feet and retrieved a draught from his potion stores.

Merlin raised his head to see the bottle as it came to rest with a clink at his elbow. He sniffed, wiped his eyes, and frowned at it blearily. "Was'at?"

"Drink it, Merlin," Gaius commanded gently. Without question, Merlin retrieved the bottle and drained its contents with a grimace. "For a deep and dreamless sleep," Gaius explained. "I must say, the Lady Morgana takes it a bit more manfully."

"It's awful," Merlin remarked drowsily, working his mouth around in distaste. "It's like... fish and cinnamon." But already his eyes were drooping.

"You had better lie down, Merlin," Gaius advised softly. "It works very quickly the first time you take it."

Merlin nodded, his head bobbing as though he were caught up by a wave. He struggled lamely to his feet and allowed Gaius to put an arm around him and guide him back to bed. He crawled into it of his own accord, eyes nearly shut. There was no strength left in him to pull up the covers, so Gaius spread them over him.

A man as young as Merlin- indeed, Merlin himself, were he conscious- might think that there was much left to be said. Further discussion of loyalty, maybe. More apologizing, and more forgiveness. Gaius was content, however, to tug the blankets up a little further, blow out Merlin's candle, and finally get some rest for himself.