Rating: G, Gen
Summary: Merlin is sick and Arthur checks up on him... not because he's worried, of course.
A/N: Just some friendship fluff and Merlin H/C. Takes place in season four.
Because Someone Has To
Arthur often joked that Merlin was a man who could attract trouble in his sleep, but he hadn't meant it literally. A person wasn't supposed to be problematic when bed-ridden and sleeping for most of the day, and that included people like Merlin. He was a servant, and a sick servant was meant to be the burden of his fellow servants, or family, or care-taker or whoever bloody well else there was that was not royalty and not meant to worry about these things.
But Gaius was gone, off treating some ailment that had broken out in a nearby village. And Arthur wanted to say this was all Gaius' fault when he'd assured Arthur that Merlin could take care of himself, but he'd also asked Arthur if he could assign someone to check on Merlin from time to time; to make sure he ate, make sure he was taking his medicine, and so on. He had looked hesitant and uncertain, but the village and its ailment had been calling, and Gaius was not a man to say no to treating an outbreak, neither would Arthur have let him.
Arthur may have also, perhaps, been a bit hasty in assigning Roger, the twice-as-boring duplicate of George, who as it turned out didn't much care for Merlin. Gwen was quite furious about it, as though it was Arthur's job to know whom disliked whom among the staff. But it wasn't as though it were obvious Roger had been shirking his duties. Arthur had seen him bring food up to Gaius' chambers. How was Arthur to know he was leaving it on the table without actually fetching Merlin to come eat it? And the only reason Gwen had found out was through good timing - she had walked in on Roger leaving the food then leaving the chamber, with no fetching Merlin in between.
Arthur would have happily given in to Gwen's demands to be the one to care for Merlin – that she was queen be damned – but apparently an ailing aunt was not long for this world, and Gwen and Elyan were the only kin living close enough to see her off while surrounded by blood relatives, queen and knight with duties be damned.
Gwaine was handling patrols in the west, Leon the south, Percival looking into a situation involving an outbreak of rather annoying poultry thieving in the lower town, and the rest of the staff busy preparing for the harvest feast.
And Arthur was left wondering how much of a little girl was Merlin that he couldn't fend for himself, sick or not? And why the hell wasn't Merlin better? It had been three weeks since that enchanter had spirited him away after Merlin, that idiot, stepped in front of a spell aimed at Arthur. It had only been three days long that the bastard had had him. How long did one need to get over magical captivity before they were relatively self-sufficient again?
Arthur decided that it was really Merlin at fault. He shouldn't have let himself get kidnapped and... do whatever it was he had done to get away from the sorcerer, whatever it was, which Arthur had no idea what it was because Merlin refused to talk about it, as though it frightened him to do so. He had been shaken up, rather bruised, with a nasty burn on his arm and shoulder...
It was still all Merlin's fault.
Up until Arthur marched into his room to tell him as much (not to check on him, of course, because someone had needed to and he hadn't been in the mood to assign anyone else to the task. Not that Arthur had been worried, not one bit) and couldn't. Because Merlin, blast him, had struggled upright in his bed, supporting himself on shaky arms, his eyes large and bright and glazed with sickness as they stared at Arthur in such alarm that Arthur felt guilty – guilty! - for intruding. Intruding on a servant. But the collar of Merlin's night-sleeve had slipped down a disturbingly bony shoulder showing off collarbones you could shelve tiny trinkets on, and he was pale enough to out-glow the moon. Then he said, in a voice hoarse from ill-use and small with unease, "Arthur?" And Arthur no longer felt guilty, he felt like a complete ass.
Which Arthur had to go and make worse by demanding, "What the hell is wrong with you?" in a tone normally reserved for when Merlin had done something idiotic. Arthur hadn't meant to say this, or sound like that, but he was startled, disturbed, and growing increasingly annoyed that Merlin seemed, in fact, to be getting worse.
And of course his words had the undesired affect of making Merlin turn another shade white (which really shouldn't have been possible) while gaping in confusion like a dying fish, and instead of becoming annoyed like healthy Merlin would, his trepidation increased until it was verging on outright panic.
"I... what... I didn't.. Arthur..."
It made him seem so blasted breakable. Arthur quickly shook his head and held up his hand. "I meant what is ailing you this time? Last time I saw you Gaius said you had a cold and you certainly didn't look this bad off." Although last time Arthur had visited Merlin – about three days ago when he had still been under the impression that Roger was looking after Merlin - Merlin had been fast asleep and buried under a heap of blankets. In fact, this was the first time since Merlin was dismissed to recuperate that Arthur had walked in on him awake.
"Oh," Merlin said, deflating, attempting to pull his shirt back onto his shoulder and failing. "It's nothing. To worry about, I mean."
Arthur folded his arms – the "I don't buy your complete tripe for a moment so quit trying" stance. "Yes, I see. You wasting away to skin and bones is absolutely nothing to worry about."
Merlin shrugged his bare shoulder, which he tried for a second time to cover, then a third, and finally gave up.
"At least tell me you've been eating," Arthur said.
"Um," Merlin said thoughtfully, but sick as he was, it made him look more like he'd had one too many of the vile concoctions Gwaine dared to call mead. "Yeah. I have. I know I have. Probably not a lot, I haven't been all that hungry. But there was food on the table, sometimes, and I had a bit of that. Didn't really sit well, though. I think I'm supposed to have soups but there's only been cheese and bread."
Cheese and bread? Chese and bread? Roger was going in the stocks.
One of Merlin's arms finally gave out on him, but he forced it to force him upright, his pointy elbow locked in mounting futility.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Come on." He didn't wait for Merlin to ask what he was doing, or about to do, or wanted him to do. Arthur went straight for the bed, wrapped the arm with the wayward sliding sleeve around his shoulder, and hauled Merlin to his unsteady feet. There was a sickening difference between seeing someone thin as a twig and feeling them as thin as a twig, the ribs pressing into Arthur's palm, the knobs of the spine digging into his arm, the lightness of the body. Though Merlin's legs were merely putting up a good show of walking, Arthur's sword was more of a burden to carry than Merlin. Arthur carried Merlin with ease down the stairs to the table and set him on the stool. He then trotted back up to the room and fetched one of Merlin's blankets (the castle's blankets, in point of fact, most likely provided by Gwen), the thickest one, and once back downstairs draped it over Merlin's shivering shoulders.
"What are you doing?" Merlin finally asked, and with some good old Merlin flavored annoyance.
"Making sure you don't die on me," Arthur said with equal annoyance.
One thing Arthur loved about being king was that there was no shortage of someone roaming the halls he could give orders to. In this case, a pair of guards passing by, who he sent to the kitchen with an order of chicken soup, bread and water. A passing maid he had go and tell George to prepare a warm bath in one of the guest chambers nearest Gaius' chambers – of which there were plenty.
When Arthur returned to the chamber, he busied himself lighting the dead fire in the hearth, a task he would have ordered a servant to do if Arthur hadn't needed a distraction. They were at an impasse, he and Merlin – a verbal standstill in which there was nothing to talk about that wouldn't make either of them uncomfortable. Arthur still wished to know what had happened between Merlin and the sorcerer, how Merlin had gotten out of alive, but asking always brought such a pained, hallow look on Merlin's face as well as the sudden inability to speak, so whatever had happened, it hadn't been good; the kind of not good that you could handle but barely and where time to sort it all out in one's head was not a request but a requirement. As much as Arthur wanted to know, he understood too well the traumas in life that came with demands that would be met or else. Whatever had been done by Merlin or to Merlin, he would talk about them when he was ready or never speak of them again, and for Arthur to begrudge him that would only make him a hypocrite.
The spell that had pulled Merlin away into the enchanter's grasp had been meant for Arthur. It could have been him sitting at a table, sick and half-starved and battling demons in his head. Whatever had happened, whatever had been done, it had been done for Arthur.
Gaius had once talked of those who sought to protect Arthur, that he would one day learn all that they had done for him. Or that they were doing for him, in this case. And Arthur had never thought about it. No, he had thought about it - as a king seeking allies, swelling with the pride of knowing there were those who saw the hope and peace Arthur wished to bring. He had thought in terms of the kingdom more than himself, of fellow warriors fighting the good fight.
Not servants leaping in front of spells, taking on the burden of mental and physical torments that had been meant for him. It was... humbling, warming...
Then Arthur looked at Merlin, huddled and thin and shaking, and it was sickening. Arthur had no idea what to do about it, what to say. Because knowing Merlin, he would just jump in front of the next spell pointed Arthur's way, and the next and the next...
Lords, when had Arthur stopped thinking of Merlin as a cowering little girl and started thinking of him as a self-sacrificing idiot too bloody loyal for his own good? Arthur would have reprimanded Merlin for sacrificing himself – wanted to – but he doubted Merlin would listen, and doubted even more that now was the time, not when Merlin had acted fit to jump out of his skin simply because Arthur had walked through the door. Merlin didn't need a reason to stress, not at the moment, anyway.
What he needed was meat on his bones and to get over this damn illness.
A maid eventually arrived baring a tray, saving Arthur from his endless flame-stoking to keep busy. He now had something new to occupy himself with – making sure Merlin ate as much as he could. When Arthur was satisfied (not happy, not with a quarter of the bowl still full, but it was better than nothing) he coaxed the bread on Merlin while waiting for George to arrive. It wasn't a long wait (Merlin had taken his sweet time eating the soup), and Arthur had George help him carry Merlin to the chamber and awaiting bath.
Merlin was confused – which was to be expected, Arthur hadn't warned him. Then he was enthused – because he didn't have to say it out loud that he had been in need of a bath, the smells coming off him said it for him. Then he was mortified – because he needed help undressing and, unlike Arthur, was only used to a physician being present when ever he bathed, and physicians were used to seeing people naked.
Naked and skinny and incredibly bashful about it, in Merlin's case. But Arthur couldn't blame him for it. His ribs looked like the keys to some deranged instrument for goodness sake, and there were bruises not quite yet faded into obscurity. It made Arthur glad for Merlin's sake that he had dismissed George once he had helped get Merlin inside. No one liked being seen at their most vulnerable, and the more witnesses there were the worse it was.
Arthur aided Merlin in easing himself into the tub. The rest Arthur more than happily let Merlin handle by himself (much to Merlin's relief, as well). But Arthur remained nearby, keeping his patience in check while Merlin to his time washing up, and glancing at him now and then to make sure he hadn't fallen asleep and slipped under the water to his doom.
Then Arthur remember that he hadn't brought any clothes for Merlin. But George, bless his brass-loving and boring hide - was waiting outside the door.
Merlin was clean, and dried, and dressed, and looking thankfully less like someone with one foot in the grave. Arthur and George supported Merlin all the way back to his room and back to bed.
"Get as much rest as you can, Merlin. Dinner is in five hours and I plan on making a return to ensure you eat every bite."
George cleared his throat. Arthur huffed. Oh, yes, the banquet. "Four hours, then."
Merlin ducked his head, pretending his soul focus was getting comfortably in bed. But Arthur knew he was pretending because the man was rubbish at trying to hide a smile.
Well, let him smirk and think what he wanted, because Arthur planned to see to it personally that Merlin ate every meal, was drinking plenty of water, was comfortable and warm and not doing anything foolish while sick. And Arthur would continue to do so until Merlin was back on his feet and polishing his armor.
Not because Arthur was worried. Far from it, of course. It was merely because someone had to do it, that was all.