A/N: Er... sorry for not posting this sooner as I said I would. I ended up getting monumentally distracted and today I was a bit busy.
There were bad dreams, as there would be, because you don't survive something so horrible and seemingly impossible without it echoing like manic laughter through the unconscious mind. It really was like with the Lamia all over again, even with it being Arthur the one to go through with his sinister promises of bodily harm instead of the knights, even if it was a faceless man reaching for Merlin instead of a reptilian monster. It was still the same scenario of failure after failure, compounded by bloodied bodies littering the floor and Merlin's blood being cupped in the hands of his king.
Merlin still woke with a gasp and a racing heart that made it difficult to breathe, as though a weight were pressing on his chest. He coughed both harshly and wetly into his fist when his lungs couldn't take it anymore. The coughing hurt, but it at least came with the benefit of reminding him how to breathe again.
There was a reason dark magic was not to be trifled with, Gaius had said, besides the obvious consequences Merlin knew too well from years of dealing with the likes of Morgana, Morgause and other magic users with a grievance. But then there were the consequences that had little to do with intended outcomes and more to do with "side effects." Some dark magics, Gaius said, were like filling a room full of smoke. You coughed and spluttered but as long as you managed to escape the room as soon as possible then the effects were brief. Breathe in the smoke for too long and the effects would be far more lasting.
It was the same with magic. The dark magic had been like smoke to Merlin's sensitivity, gradually weakening him with its filth and leaving him susceptible to all sorts of ailments. What had been a persistently dry cough had morphed into an actual illness. Nothing severe, Gaius had promised, but until it cleared up Gaius was quite insistent that Merlin rest for as much as possible. The dark magic may not have been a physical thing, but when it came to Merlin – being the magical creature that he was – it might as well have been, and he would need time before he was able to completely overcome the aftermath.
Magic may have been a tool, but even tools could be tainted. Too bad a tainted tool was merely weak and useless. Tainted magic tried to kill you without even trying.
Merlin gave up on any more attempts at sleep for the time being and hauled his aching body out of bed. Gaius wouldn't be happy, but it was almost morning, anyway, so no point in struggling in futility against something that wasn't going to change for days yet. They had only arrived home the day before, and Merlin had been asleep for most of it – except when he wasn't, when the dreams had become so vivid he couldn't tell them from reality, and he had sat awake in between, shaking and gasping while Gaius soothed him with reminders that they had all come home, safe and alive.
Except Merlin had yet to see anyone else from their party, not the knights, not Arthur. Resting, Gaius had said – especially Arthur who was suffering from a concussion.
Merlin entered the small chamber to see porridge bubbling in the pot on the hearth and Gaius no where to be seen. Merlin must not have gotten up as early as he thought. He made himself breakfast – being sure not to cough on it – and ate alone and in silence.
It made him uncomfortable, the silence, a part of him waiting for whispers to tickle his ear and fill his head full of dire portents.
Which prompted him to leave before he had a chance to actually eat. He didn't know why nor did he seem to care, just as long as he was somewhere, anywhere, with plenty of noise and that didn't send shiver after shiver down his spine.
Merlin opened the door and plowed forward. He collided with a wall of red cloth, and he would have stumbled back if it weren't for the iron grip cinching around both arms. Merlin immediately tried to pull away only for the grip to pull back, and panic ripped through him as though it had been ready and waiting, knowing that this would happen, certain that the nightmare wasn't over. Merlin struggled against the hold, pushing at the body that wouldn't let him go.
"Merlin! Merlin, calm down! Will you calm down!"
Merlin did, but not because he'd been ordered. He was overcome by wretched coughs, pulling at his rib muscles, robbing him of air and giving his attacker time to guide him to the nearest chair and sit him down. When the coughs passed, Merlin looked up and blinked through bleary eyes at Arthur – pale, concerned Arthur, displeased, a little shocked and not remotely sinister.
"All right, now?" he asked, trying to be stern but looking more than ready to hunt down Gaius right this second whether or not Merlin really was fine.
"I'll live," Merlin said. He winced at how much his voice sounded like he had gargled sand.
Arthur pursed his lips, nodded, and didn't buy a word of it. "Yes. Right. And you're shaking like a leaf because it's a bit nippy in here."
Merlin glared at him. "Actually, it is a bit nippy in here, if you must know. Now did you need something or do you simply enjoy blocking doorways and startling their occupants?"
"A headache remedy. My head hurts," Arthur said airly.
Now it was Merlin's turn to nod his head and not buy a word of it. "Yes, I see. So I'm assuming Gaius hasn't been by your chambers yet on his rounds which is odd since you are always the first he visits when you're in need of medication. He must have forgotten and, as usual, your impatience got the better of you."
Arthur rolled his eyes, then he winced and sighed. "Merlin, I am concussed, my head is killing me and I'm in no mood for your witless prattle. Is there headache medicine or not?"
"Gaius took it with him to give to you," Merlin said. He narrowed his eyes. "Arthur, why are you really here?"
Arthur shrugged. "I was bored, felt like walking about." He winced again.
"The quiet get to you as well?" Merlin said.
" Have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur said, looking anywhere but at Merlin.
Merlin, unlike Arthur with his headache, had the means and luxury to roll his eyes. It was foolish to expect Arthur to admit to anything trifling and unmanly as hating the quiet and staying awake because of bad dreams, so Merlin knew better than to keep trying. He gestured behind him instead.
And then they were sitting together, Arthur across from Merlin, stirring at his bowl of porridge (because he would have already had breakfast) while Merlin wolfed down his.
"Merlin," Arthur said, then cleared his throat, which meant he was about so say something that was clearly uncomfortable and that he normally wouldn't say in a million years if you could help it. "I wanted to... to apologize-"
Ah, the truth at last. Because Merlin knew Arthur, knew well his stubborn resolve and so knew it would have taken more than silence and bad dreams to send Arthur Merlin's way.
Merlin shook his head and said around a mouthful of porridge. "Don't."
Arthur blinked, bewildered. "Don't?"
"Don't apologize. It wasn't your fault. Possessed by an evil sorcerer king, remember? And you did fight against him – quite impressively, I might add, or I'd be dead. We'd all be dead. So don't torture yourself over what you have no reason to feel guilty for."
But Arthur, being Arthur, couldn't let it go. "I had us cut through the Valley of the Fallen Kings."
"You always have us cut through the Valley."
"Exactly! And this makes, what, twice, three times it's ended in disaster?"
"Yes," Merlin said dryly. "Because it's only when we're in the Valley that bad things happen. Never anywhere else – the main road, the side road, all the roads to our various neighbors. Nothing bad ever happens on them. Oh, wait, yes, I do believe bad stuff does happen on them, like all those bandit attacks and magical beasts and, oh, remember that witch last year that we thought turned Gwaine into a toad but had them switch places instead and we were all in a panic when your horse squashed the toad-"
Arthur huffed a breath and rested what was obviously an extra-aching head in his hand. "Yes, all right, I get it. Stop feeling guilty."
"Yes, stop feeling guilty. You didn't do wrong by us, Arthur. It was simply one of those... strange, horrible, spontaneous, very bad things that like to happen to us from time to time."
Arthur smiled at him. Mission accomplished, at least where misplaced guilt was concerned.
"And how are you really, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
Merlin reared his head back in mild indignation. "I told you-"
"Yes, you'll live. Sorry but that doesn't count for an answer. You look terrible."
"I have a cold, I feel terrible."
"How's your... um..." Arthur gestured vaguely. "Your back and shoulder. And... er... face."
Merlin rolled his shoulders gingerly, feeling the pull of his stitched skin. The bruises on his face were unpleasant but nothing he couldn't live with. "A bit uncomfortable, but it wasn't all that bad. I told you you fought impressively or it would have been a lot worse, believe me. And don't feel guilty about that, either. Your head?"
"I'm not feeling as forgiving," Arthur said with a scowl, rubbing the side of his skull. "Good thing I don't recall who hit me."
Merlin smiled back.
There was no banquet. It had only been two days since the incident at the Valley and Gaius was stern and unyielding in his insistence that the king, his knights and his manservant continue to rest and endure as little excitement as possible.
Arthur thought he was being overzealous. It wasn't as though one did much at a banquet other than sit, talk and eat. And it wasn't as though Merlin were going to be there, still neck-deep in his cold as he was, his already questionable grace made twice as questionable when he was ill.
But were Arthur to be honest with himself, the thought of sitting and talking even while eating – among lords and ladies who would have badgered Arthur and his knights for the tale of what had happened in the Valley of the Fallen Kings – had been about as appealing as falling asleep and dreaming instantly of said incident. It would have been nothing but an amusing story to them, a ghost tale punctuated by gasps at the appropriate moments, a bit of gossip to spread around the kingdom, disregarding it as the disgusting nightmare that it was.
This was not a tale Arthur wished to tell any time soon. He wondered if that made him weak. Gwen promised that it made him human. What would make him weak was thinking himself incapable of being affected.
She was right, as she always was. He was affected. They were all affected – king and knights and manservant. He saw it in Gwaine's unusual silence, Leon's wary looks, Elyan's stiff posture, the way Percival would attack the practice targets without mercy, and in the way Merlin flinched at every shadow, every movement. They all had their nightmares, their worries, their unfounded guilt. They weren't alone in this.
Which gave Arthur an idea.
He had the cooks prepare half the food intended for the banquet, had the servants finish cleaning the banquet hall and set all but one of the tables against the wall, out of the way. He also had all the windows opened and the festive banners and garlands meant for the banquet hung in place. He then gathered his knights and Merlin.
"What's this, then?" Gwaine asked, intrigued and already eying the platters of food set out on the single table.
"A celebration," Arthur said.
"For what?" Percival asked.
Arthur shrugged. "Do we really need a reason? No, you too, Merlin. Sit. No one's serving us today."
"We're celebrating the fact that we're still alive, aren't we?" Merlin said, taking a seat.
Gwaine chuffed. "If we celebrated every time we lived through some calamity we'd be as fat as pigs."
"I wouldn't argue having a banquet as often as possible," Percival said. He was already filling his plate and looking more bright-eyed than he had in days.
Merlin added with a smile as he filled his own plate, "I'm not complaining either."
They all filled their plates, all smiling, all far more relaxed than they had been in days. Merlin was right, though. Arthur couldn't really say it was anything but a celebration of being alive – being alive every single blasted day.
A/N: A big thank you to everyone who read and reviewed (because I'm terrible at responding to reviews, sorry for that). It means the world to me that people enjoy what I write. Fanfic may be an indulgence for me but it's so much more worth it when I know others are enjoying the end results as well.