Characters: Merlin, Gaius
Summary: Tag to Le Morte d'Arthur. Merlin didn't used to fear storms.
A/N: Just some Gaius and Merlin father/son bonding.
Merlin had been around three, maybe four, when he remembered his first thunderstorm, wondering with childish terror if the growling sky and lashing rain were somehow his fault.
"It's just the sky having a grumble," his mother had told him as she held him in her arms and rocked him, the sky raging with guttural roars. "It can be very tiring for the clouds, having to carry all that rain."
She had never feared the storms (except when Merlin would talk about magicking them away, or wrapping the house in silence so they wouldn't have to hear the thunder. But that had been a matter of him using magic in a way that would have been noticed, not a matter of the weather) so Merlin had learned not to fear storms as well.
Then he had used the storm – those same roiling clouds and that thundering anger – to strike Nimueh down. He had called upon nature's fury and used it to restore balance to the world, saving one life and ending another. And it was for that reason that Merlin should have regarded all rainstorms full of thunder and lightning as an ally or an old friend.
Instead of sitting up in bed, flinching with each flicker of lightning, jumping every time the thunder cracked or the wind rattled the shutters of his window. A storm should have been nothing to him. Nothing. But what his mind knew his body ignored, as though it honestly believed that what waited outside was no act of nature, but a beast wailing and gnashing for blood.
And it was ridiculous. Childish. Stupid. He was bloody nineteen years old with power over life and death and nature itself. There was absolutely no reason to be afraid…
But lightning pulsed, the thunder following not far behind, filling his head with the memory of those same jagged lances of light ripping through the sky and tearing Nimueh apart. It made the raw, bandaged skin over his breastbone throb, and his heart stuttered like a frightened bird trying to escape its cage.
It was such an angry storm, battering the castle with its winds, its thunder vibrating Merlin's bones like it was trying to get in and get revenge for being used for such violence. It was as though the storm were more than just a storm, as though the very world had magic and was going to show Merlin that while he may have mastered the power of life and death, he was still just a puny little flesh and blood creature subject to the whims of the elements.
Or subject to the whims of someone with greater magic than his own.
Merlin snorted in derision. No one was as powerful as he was, the dragon had said so.
The lightning flickered almost blinding, and the thunder followed like an enraged scream. Merlin's heart beat so hard he could barely breathe, his muscles so tense his limbs seemed locked in place.
Because what if it wasn't a storm? What if, at the very last second, between one heart beat and the next, Nimueh had found a way to survive by making herself one with the storms? What if that was no storm, but the fury of a high priestess of the old religion?
The wind shrieked through the gaps of the shutters. The next flash of lightning was brighter, leaving spots dancing in Merlin's eyes, and the thunder was deafening, filling Merlin's skull with its pressure and noise until he thought it would explode. His heart skipped too many beats, and like a rabbit having heard the hounds, he bolted from his bed, out of his room and into the main chamber.
Only to stop and stand there, not knowing where to go or what to do, his brain racing through the few spells he had thus far managed to memorize but finding none that would protect him from a high priestess wearing the skin of a raging storm. Another lightning flash and another explosion of thunder, and Merlin flinched back, choking on a yelp that died into a whimper. His hip collided with a table, and a glass vial tipped over, rolled from the table's surface, and crashed to the floor in the jagged chime of shattering glass.
At Gaius' age, sleep often came swift, easy and like a rather heavy blanket on a cold winter's night – next to impossible to shake off until it was time to naturally wake. It had been some time since Gaius had woken prematurely due to some noise or change in the atmosphere, not even the furious growls of thunder currently shaking the tower enough to get that heavy blanket of sleep to move.
So Gaius was more surprised not because he'd been woken up at all, but to be woken up by what had sounded like glass shattering on the floor. If anything should have gone unnoticed in his sleep, it should have been the tiny tinkle of glass.
But glass had shattered, ripping him snorting and snuffling from his dreams. He blinked sticky eyes in the gloom, his vision constantly being compromised by the endless flickers of lightning. A window pane must have shattered was all he could figure. Except were that the case, there should have been the sound of shutters banging against the walls, the lightning twice as bright now that there was no barrier against the light and rain pattering on the floor.
All Giaus heard was the rain still beating against whole glass and the thunder. But in between the thunder was another noise – a noise that, as a physician, Gaius knew all too well.
Ragged, unsteady breathing.
Except he had not patients.
Gaius' hands fumbled over the small table by his bed until they found his flint. He struck the stones against the wick of the candle until the sparks caught and the candle flamed to life. He squinted against the light, turning to face the intruder. He immediately sighed in relief.
It was only Merlin.
"Merlin," he croaked, his voice still thick with the remnants of sleep. "Merlin, what on earth are you doing up? Please don't tell me you accidentally turned your chamber pot into a rabbit again."
Merlin said nothing. He stood there, his stiff back to Gaius and his face toward the shuttered window. Gaius frowned.
"Merlin?" He rose and approached his ward, but even standing right next to him Merlin didn't react. Up close, Gaius could see how rigid he was, every muscle wound taunt, and if the boy kept this up he was going to have a terrible back ach in the morning. Then Gaius touched his shoulder.
Merlin's whole body jolted and his head whipped around to stare with wide, terrified eyes at Gaius. His face was near white, it was so devoid of color, and his features drawn tight with fear, deepening the angles and shadows of his thin face.
Gaius' heart immediately began to race in rising panic. "Merlin, what is it?"
Then the thunder cracked like a breaking bone. Merlin's head snapped away from Gaius to land that terrified gaze on the closed window. Gaius, knowing immediately what was wrong, nearly laughed.
"Oh, Merlin, don't tell me you're afraid of a little old thunderstorm?"
But either Merlin wasn't listening or couldn't bring himself to respond, and the next rumble of thunder increased Merlin's breathing to the point of hyperventilating. This was no simple matter of uneasiness. Merlin was utterly terrified, and if he breathed any faster he was going to pass out.
"Merlin," Gaius said. He took Merlin's face in his hands. "Merlin, look at me." Then gently applied enough pressure to the cheek and jaw to coax Merlin's head into turning. Merlin's eyes, however, refused to follow.
"Merlin," Gaius said with a bit more force.
Merlin looked at him, but whether he was actually seeing Gaius was another matter.
"Keep looking at me," Gaius said when more thunder rumbled. "That's it. Listen, Merlin. It's all right, you're safe."
"What if we're not," Merlin said in a small, quivering voice. And the longer Gaius held on to his face, the more Gaius could feel the minute shivers in the boy's too-tense muscles.
Gaius moved his hands from the boy's face to his shoulders, and with more of that same gentle pressure eased Merlin toward the bed. Once there, he pushed Merlin down until he finally gave in and sat, albeit impossibly stiff, on the edge. The shakes were unnervingly more pronounced in his shoulders.
"Merlin, I need to you calm your breathing," Gaius said. He sat down next to Merlin, and placing his hand on the shivering back, rubbed a slow, steady rhythm over his spine for his breathing to have something to follow.
"That's it," Gaius said when Merlin's breathing began to follow that rhythm. "Now tell what it is you think is wrong."
Merlin swallowed in a tight, choking way that, for a moment, made Gaius wonder if he should get the bucket. He refrained when Merlin didn't start to gag.
"What if…?" Merlin said in that same small, uncertain voice. "What if Nimueh isn't gone? What if she's…" the thunder cracked. Merlin gasped, cringing, as his head whipped wildly around as if frantically searching for something.
"What if she's in the storm," Gaius finished for him, raising an eyebrow.
It was such a child-like notion that for a brief, heart-stopping moment Gaius wondered if Merlin had somehow managed to revert himself mentally back to when he was four, five or six – an age with the right amount of naivety, dread and imagination to be able create something at once both whimsical and terrible. De-aging spells for both the mind and body were just as possible as aging spells, and Merlin had shown a penchant for sleep-casting on occasion, although nothing as drastic as mentally reverting himself to a child.
No, this was no childish dread. Merlin honestly believed what he was saying with every fiber of his being.
And it hit Gaius with a reminder so strong it was like a fist to the gut how young Merlin was. It did not matter the raw power contained within him, that it was only four days ago he had called upon the very elements raging outside, defeated a high priestess of the old religion and mastered life and death. It did not matter that he was to be the most powerful warlock that ever lived.
Because at the end of the day, Merlin was still just a child. A little older and a little wiser thanks to recent circumstances, but still a boy trying to find his way in a world of deadly magic and the threat of execution should he ever be discovered. He had gained mastery over something powerful, but he still had so much to learn and understand.
And it was only days ago he had called upon that raw power within him. Only days ago that he had ended Nimueh's life when she had tried to end his. Only days ago that his mother had lay dying a terrible death (but miraculously healed when they had returned, well enough to make her way home two days later with three knights to escort her per Arthur's orders); days ago that Arthur had been dying from the poison of the Questing Beast; that Gaius had given up his life for this boy only to get that life back. The burn Merlin had received on his chest, while no longer oozing, was still raw and tender, like a cruel reminder of both what had happened and what had nearly happened.
Merlin had been through so much the past few months since he had first arrived in Camelot. Possibly too much for a boy from a small village, who had never known such violence and such power. Who was only now starting to realize what he was capable of and not knowing whether to feel awed or terrified by it.
The thunder growled, not nearly as volatile as before but enough to make Merlin jump and tremble. Gaius wrapped his arm around the bony, shaking shoulders and pulled the boy against him. Merlin not only let him but let Gaius take all of his tense weight.
"Merlin," he said. "I may not be the most powerful being in existence, or even all that adept at magic, to be honest. But I am, at least, blessed with an insatiable curiosity, and I have done enough research on matters of magic to know that not even a high priestess has the ability to turn herself into clouds and lightning."
"Control it, then?" Merlin feebly argued. "Even in death?"
Gaius chuckled softly. "Even if such things were possible, she would be a fool to try, considering what happened last time. No, Merlin. This is merely a very loud storm. You could probably chase it away with a flick of your wrist – although you had most certainly better not, if you know what's good for you. People do tend to notice things such as rapidly departing storms."
The beginnings of a small smile twitched at Merlin's lips, the shakes diminishing. The next peel of thunder was low, more like a great beast clearing its throat rather than a beast roaring. It still made Merlin flinch, but in a tired and distant way as though his body were reacting merely out of habit, but otherwise losing the energy to care. Exhaustion was rapidly replacing terror, making the muscles increasingly pliant as though Merlin's bones were turning to liquid. But Gaius knew by the sporadic shakes that still shuddered through Merlin from time to time, and the way he continued to flinch with each roll of thunder, that words of reassurance weren't going to be enough. He patted Merlin's shoulder, then fetched a sleeping draft from the shelf. After Merlin had swallowed the liquid without complaint, Gaius guided the boy up the small flight of stairs to his room.
The sleeping draft wasn't a strong one – just enough to help Merlin relax – but it worked quickly and the moment Merlin was in bed, he was out like a snuffed candle. Gaius tucked him in, and while doing so felt a rush of such warmth and affection that he smiled even while his eyes watered. He parted the collar of Merlin's shirt and tugged down the bandages just enough for a peek at the wound, raw but healing. He then sat on the edge of the bed and brushed Merlin's hair back, reluctant to leave until he was absolutely certain the storm wouldn't wake him. The thunder grumbled and complained, but Merlin remained blissfully asleep.
Gaius continued to linger. He wondered with some apprehension if this is what it meant to be a parent – this conglomeration of overwhelming love dancing with the dread of what pains and sorrows the future had in store for this boy; this all-encompassing need to protect while knowing it would not always be possible.
And yet Gaius wouldn't have it any other way, to be honest. You did not have joy without pain, but the joys always made the pain worth it. And Merlin was so very much worth it.
The thunder was a distant echo, now, like a petulant child muttering complaints. Merlin continued to sleep, soft and relaxed and breathing easy. Gaius placed a kiss on Merlin's head, as any father would for their child, and went back to bed.