Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.
Summary: Merlin keeps having nightmares about burning at the stake and-what do you know-burns himself one day while tending to a fire. Thankfully, Arthur is there to comfort him and assure him everything will be alright.
And he was burning.
Flames reared up on all sides, walls of impenetrable anger, they turned first his boots to dust and disintegrated his skin. He tilted his head towards the sky and watched the sky through choking swirling smoke. He bared his neck, an animal led to slaughter, and he gave himself up to the god and the land and the people who believed he had betrayed them all.
And he felt panic in this moment, panic smothered by a forced sense of peace, of resignation to this face of his. But he is grateful for the fire that incinerates his eyes, for he cannot see the folded figures of those who have put him upon this pyre.
He awakes in a cold sweat, his sheets tangled around the foot of his narrow bed, his nightclothes sticking to his clammy flesh. He sits up rather violently, a hand to his head, breathing heavily.
Just a dream! he thinks (shoutsyellsscreams).
He doesn't think about how, with a single misstep, it could quickly become a reality. Instead, he glances out the sliver of window at the still-dark sky and decides that he should try to get some sleep.
But sleep doesn't grace him with its presence. He spends the rest of the night with the blanket knotted in his fists, staring at the ceiling, until Gaius knocks on his door.
He dreads a day of chores on a few hours of sleep, but it's not like he hasn't done it before.
With a silent sigh, he gets out of bed.
No surprise, really; he's had three nearly sleepless nights filled with nightmares and thrashing and being strangled by bed sheets and waking up gasping covered in sweat. He's burning, always burning, each instance intense and real, like someone drops a lit candle on him while he sleeps. Even when he just dozes do the nightmares find him.
He's become slightly manic with the lack of sleep. Gaius had noticed, of course, and tried to force all sorts of sleeping draughts on him. The problem wasn't sleeping itself; Merlin could sleep, he could probably fall asleep right here, kneeling in front of the hearth in Arthur's chambers (though, not the best idea) it was what happened once he was asleep that was the problem. Gaius's draughts couldn't guarantee a dreamless sleep, and the ones that could were only supposed to be used in case of emergencies, for patients that were intense pain.
Merlin stifles a yawn. He decides that tonight he'll consult the grimoire and see if a magical cure exists for nightmares. If not, well. He's not that tired.
Using an iron poker, he stirs up the coals, trying to decide if there's life in this fire or if he'll need to add more fuel. The flames have gone lower than usual, he's been straying from the fire all day, tending to it as little with which he can get away, and he's wondering if Gaius is going to prepare dinner or if he'll have to nick something from the kitchen.
While he's thinking, he leans forward slightly, to turn up the coals in the back and he loses balance and how do these things even happen? He flails out his arms and drops the poker and his arm comes in contact with a few stray embers that have wandered to the front of the gate and he doesn't scream. Doesn't. Scream.
A gasp passes through his lips, nothing loud, just a sharp intake of breath. He stares down at his forearm, and he's still kneeling too close to the fire, the stone biting at his knees through his breeches. He trembles slightly, pain not yet registering, though the skin has darkened already. He smells the faint odor of burning flesh, or that could be the dinner he recently brought up for Arthur, but in any case, images of pyres and chopped wood piling high fill his mind and the pain finally registers and his vision clouds gray around the edges and no no I'm not a wizard you've got the wrong––
"How long does it take to stoke a fire, Merlin?"
His vision clears with a few blinks. Get a grip, he tells himself. "I. I. One moment, sire."
Arthur arches a brow, though Merlin can't see. "Everything alright over there? Have you forgotten how to tend to a fire? Even though you do it everyday, I wouldn't be surprised if you some how managed to mess up…."
Merlin hears a chair being scraped across the floor and a few muffled footsteps and move, you lardass, he's coming. But Merlin is still frozen to the hot stones, holding his arm away from his body.
"Merlin? Did you hear me? Or have you gone deaf as well?––" Arthur's own intake of breath. "Gods. Don't––don't just sit there!"
Merlin starts. "Oh, it's, it's fine, it's not too bad." But, for once, his heart isn't in it; his voice is thin.
Arthur shakes his head. "I didn't know injuring a limb could addle one's brain as well, but I suppose anything is possible with you." A sigh. "Get up, then."
Merlin can't. It's a mixture of the pain (which starts) and the shock, and he's rooted to the floor. He feels Arthur's arms under his own, pulling him somewhat to his feet and then plunking him down in the recently vacated seat. Merlin cradles his arm close to his chest but not touching. Arthur knocks around in the background, filling up a wide wooden bowl with cool water from a pitcher. He carefully carries it over and places it on the table beside Merlin.
"Let me see."
A half murmured protest.
"Merlin." A sigh. "Are we really going to do this every time you hurt yourself." (It's becoming a habit.)
Merlin swallows, not making eye contact with Arthur. There's a moment of hesitation before he finally hands over his arm. Arthur handles it with the utmost care, not poking or prodding, just looking. Part of Merlin's palm and a patch on the inside of his wrist has flushed and angry red. Arthur gently lowers his arm into the bowl without further irritation. He gets up and starts rifling around in a few drawers and cupboards. Merlin doesn't ask what he's looking for, but the relief from the water is instant. He still feels the dull throbbing, but it has lessened.
Merlin doesn't like burns. Burns hurt. A cut hurts too, yes, but it hurts and it hurts and then you wrap it and it stops hurting. Burns are absolutely rude. Even the slightest ones, from kitchen fires and hot pan grazes, make them selves known and loudly, shouting and shouting for attention. Wrapping helps, sometimes, but the best you can do is find cool running water and sit there until someone calls you away again. And then, shortly after, the burn is there again, calling and nagging and hot.
Arthur utters a quiet, yet triumphant, "Aha!"
Merlin tilts his head towards Arthur. "What have you got?" he asks.
Instead of answering, Arthur sits back in front of Merlin. In his hand, he holds a small container, which he promptly uncaps, and some waded up cloth. Inside the tin is a thin layer of a potent-smelling paste lines the sides and bottom. "There. I knew I had some left."
Merlin eyes it uneasily. "What's this?"
"Surprised you don't recognize it. It's Gaius's cure-all, for minor cuts and, as I recall, burns."
"How long have you had this?"
An impatient frown, with a dash of condescension. "Merlin."
"Just asking. You know, I could just, go to Gaius."
"You'd probably fall down two flights of stairs and get attacked by bandits."
"That seems rather unlikely."
"With you, nothing is unlikely." Arthur starts unwrapping the crumpled bit of cloth, which turns out to be several strips of bandages. "Gaius always sends a medical pack when we go on patrols."
Merlin makes a vague noise. Arthur pauses his bandage unrolling and takes a minute to really look at his manservant. Mottled shadows under his glazed-over eyes, head lolling a bit, looking very distant.
"Merlin, what's the matter with you?"
"You look a hundred leagues away, you've been absent-minded the past few days, dropping things, being later than usual. Just. Not all here. What is it, what's wrong? Is it your mum? Is she ill? Are you ill?"
"No, mum's––she's fine. Me too. I just. Haven't been sleeping a lot. Is all."
Arthur resumes his unrolling. "Gaius's potions not working?"
"It's not getting to sleep that's the problem."
Two neat strips of clean but slightly wrinkled bandages line themselves across the table.
Arthur lets out a quiet breath. "Nightmares?"
A short nod.
Merlin swallows around the knot in his throat. He doesn't want to tell Arthur but he hears himself speaking. "Burning. Always. Always burning."
Oh. Oh, "Merlin." Arthur's heart aches.
"I thought––I mean, you know, and that's––I thought it would stop but just, the possibility that someone could find out and I don't––I couldn't––"
Arthur is suddenly there, hands on his shoulders and Merlin realizes that he's gasping, hyperventilating like smoke is displacing the air in his lungs and the gray film threatens to cover his eyes, it clouds the edges of his vision and Arthur's room almost fades away, but Arthur is there, speaking words in his ear, "Breathe, just breath, it's alright, Merlin, just breath . . . ." and slowly he becomes okay again.
Arthur rubs his back in gentle circles. "No one is going to find out. I wont let anyone hurt you."
Tears slip down Merlin's angular face. "You can't promise that."
"God damn it, Merlin, I'm the crowned prince of Camelot and I swear, I will let no harm come to you. Okay?"
Merlin swallows and sniffs a few times before answering. "Okay."
Arthur moves his chair adjacent to Merlin's and with the utmost care, dries, applies salve to, and wraps, the burn. Merlin never cries out in pain, just grimaces occasionally. The bandage is tied in a small bow and when Merlin is allowed his arm back it is immediately curled close.
Arthur clears his throat. "Do you want to sleep in the antechamber tonight? I can have the bed made shortly, and I can send word to Gaius, if you like."
He watches Arthur throw the lit torch onto the pile of timber at his feet. The wave of heat is immediate as the fire quickly catches. He watches Uther whisper something in Arthur's ear and he watches a smirk work itself across Arthur's face. And then all is obstructed by flames.
He feels sweat drip down his back and gather at the small of his back. His skin is red already and pulling at the frayed rope which binds him to the stake does nothing. The flames at his feet quickly become unbearable and he screams: "You promised! Arthur, you promised!" And he can hear the crack of heat-strained wood and it sounds like Arthur laughing. His clothes are on fire and he is consumed, screaming and screaming and
screaming. Arthur falls out of bed before he's even awake and tearing into the antechamber where Merlin lays on the bed, screaming and thrashing and the dreams have never been this bad or lasted this long and Arthur is shaking him, gently and first but then desperately trying to wake him. "It's just a nightmare," he begs, almost panicking, not knowing what to do. "Merlin, it's just a nightmare." There's a hand on his face and he registers the brush of fabric before he's pushed forcefully off the bed, landing with a comical tumble on the floor.
Merlin's looking at him from the bed, eyes wide and crazed and Arthur thinks he can see the reflection of flames in them before Merlin lets out a sob that sounds like something inside of him has snapped in two.
Arthur holds him. Arthur holds him as he's never held another person before in his entire life and Merlin allows himself to be held, shaking violently and sobbing with his entire body.
"It was you," he says, barely coherent. "You promised. You swore." He pulls back and Arthur sees pure, unadulterated fear. "You held the torch."
"Merlin," he says firmly, but gently. "Merlin, I will not hurt you. Not ever. And if I can help it, I will let no harm come to you and gods damn it, Merlin, you will not burn. If you burn, then I will burn, and I. Will not. Let you burn." The bandage is unraveling on his arm and the irony could make Arthur start but he continues to hold Merlin, whose sobs have quieted. He trembles still, but not as violently as before.
Arthur presses his lips to the top of his head. "You will not burn."
After a time, Merlin's breathing slows and Arthur thinks he has finally fallen asleep, but he doesn't have it in him to detangle himself, for fear of waking him, of course. So, instead, he lowers both of their intertwined bodies to the bed and holds Merlin as he sleeps.
Arthur sleeps little that night, always there incase Merlin needs him.
At daybreak, he slips out quietly, rewrapping the burn carefully, before scarpering back to his own chambers. He dresses himself that morning and leaves with a glance back at the sleeping form in the antechamber.
Merlin wakes after midday, bleary eyed and groggy, heavy with so much sleep at once. He lies in a bed, which is not his and goes to rub his eyes when he realizes one of his hands is bandages and dully throbbing. He blinks and remembers stutteringly the events of the night before.
The memory of the nightmare is foggy and fragmented, as dreams are, but the aftermath is not. Arthur holding a torch and throwing it. Arthur telling him he wouldn't ever be hurt. Arthur holding him as he cried. Arthur holding him. Arthur.
He hears Arthur's chamber door open and close and Merlin quickly makes himself scarce on the far side of the bed. There's a bit of clattering from the main room before Arthur cautiously sticks his head into the antechamber.
"Oh, good, you're up. I was starting to worry."
They stare at each other for a moment, Arthur mildly, Merlin, eyes wide and gaping without opening his mouth. Merlin scrambles forward, launching himself at Arthur, hugging him, holding him close.
Arthur is taken aback. He surveys the manservant clasped around his waist and thinks for a moment. "Hello. Nice to see you, too."
Merlin looks up, eyes shining. "Thank you." He squeezes tighter.
Arthur wants to scoff. He wants to rotate his shoulders and sigh and smile boyishly and say, "For what?" but he doesn't. He gentle removes Merlin and sits next to him on the narrow bed. There's silence, for a little while, then, "I meant it."
Arthur turns, looking at him seriously. "I wont let anyone, anyone, hurt you. No one. Especially not me. Ever. You will not burn. Do you believe me?"
Merlin swallows. He bites his lip. He nods.
"Good. Now, are you hungry? I can have food brought up if you are––Merlin, what's wrong?"
The servant, the warlock, the young man with mussed black hair shakes his head. He blinks tears out of his impossible blue eyes. "Nothing," he says quietly. "It's nothing."
A/N: Goodness, it's been a while, hasn't it?
I think it would be easy to blame hiatus.2 on school and exams and The Real World, but the hiatus.2 has been fueled by a persistent lack of motivation to write anything, really. I thought I had broken out of it last time, but clearly, I was wrong. I didn't want to just drop off the face of the earth, or anything, and a part of me really, really, really wanted to just write already and update this damn thing, and then, well, this chapter happened. It's very long and a bit syrupy sweet.
I think this point is a good place to sort of end this (poorly updated, erratic) anthology I've been keeping. That's not to say I wont ever be updating or writing hurt/comfort oneshots (are you kidding? that's my niche) but perhaps they will come much fewer and far between (more than previously thought possible). Maybe I'll even part an Occupational Hazards Pt 2 and give it a less dumb sounded title. Maybe. summer is coming up and I have had the inexplicable urge to rewatch seasons 1-4 of Merlin and maybe while watching, some reserve of inspiration will be stirred up and I'll be writing frenzily (not a word) again. But, if not, I'll still be writing. It's what I do.
Thank you so much for reading, if you've been a reader since the first chapter one, or if you have just discovered this fic because it's 3 AM and you can't sleep. It's such a nice feeling to know that people are out there and reading and enjoying something that I've written. Really amazing. Thank you so much for over 100 reviews as well! (!) I still really can't get over that.
Again, thank you for reading. Feedback, as always, is appreciated, but never necessary.