The fire was dying, but Merlin couldn't bring himself to tend to it. He wasn't sure how he'd ever move from this hard stone floor again.
How many hours had passed since he'd found himself here? He simply couldn't remember. How many days since Gaius had become ill before succumbing to the disease this very night?
Merlin shut his weary eyes. He'd grown so tired of crying, yet it seemed he could think to do nothing else. Before retreating here, he'd considered going into the forest, for there he could truly be alone; solitude was, for the most part, what he thought he needed. But he'd just enough sense through a haze of grief to remember how cold the outdoors would be this far in winter. It had already been late into the night when Gaius died.
To look back now, Merlin knew why he'd chosen this place to hide away. The only other place he had to go was his own bedroom, and it was too close to the physician's- which he currently had no desire to see again. It was here that he spent most of his waking hours, and it was a safe place, generally. That offered him some comfort.
He'd known he couldn't be alone forever, but all the same felt that his space was being invaded when Arthur entered his chambers at last.
Though knowing he must be a sight, Merlin turned a little to face the king.
A terrible sight, he amended. That look on Arthur's face- the sheer pity; he'd never seen that before.
Breaking the silence that Merlin had become so used to, Arthur spoke to him in a whisper. "I'm so sorry, Merlin."
The servant returned his attention to the vaguely glowing embers in the hearth. Why did Arthur feel he had to talk? There was nothing he could say that Merlin wanted to hear.
As silence fell again, he wondered what the king expected from him. Was he not justified for making no reply? Should he leave Arthur's chambers when here was the only place he could find peace? He would ask if Arthur wanted him to leave, if only his voice wouldn't sound so horrid.
Arthur placed another log in the fireplace, taking care to re-light it properly. Merlin was almost sickened by the sight; it was so utterly wrong. The king had never lit his own fire- Merlin always did. This was such a strong echo of Merlin's grief; of Gaius' death; of the sudden and painful change that had happened without Merlin able to utter a word in protest.
When he'd finished, Arthur sat down beside his servant, observing him. Merlin turned away, uncomfortable with being studied so closely and embarrassed by how grief-stricken he must appear. But ever-persistent, Arthur laid a hand on his farther shoulder, turning him back. Summoning the courage to meet his eyes, Merlin found himself both surprised and disturbed by the intense concern he found there.
Arthur slightly shook his head. "Oh, Merlin, you look awful," he whispered, without a trace of the usual humor.
The wizard couldn't have explained how those simple words threw the balance, but his tears resurfaced without warning. His face found Arthur's shoulder and he cried even harder than before, wrapping his arms tightly around his friend.
He never knew how long they sat there, but in that time Arthur never once let go, holding strongly onto him all the while.
Finally, the king drew a deep breath and said, "You should get some sleep, Merlin."
Again facing that dilemma, Merlin held onto him harder. "…I can't go back there," he explained in a tearful voice.
Arthur nodded. "Okay," he answered gently. "You'll stay here, then."
Merlin said nothing as Arthur eased himself away and went to pull back the covers on the bed. The wizard couldn't help but think of all the times that he'd done the same for his master. To have Arthur taking care of him was a nice change, if still a strange one. He couldn't have gotten used to it, but felt certain it wouldn't last anyway.
Arthur made fluffing one of the pillows a loud process- something Merlin noted with the first touch of pleasure he'd had in what felt like forever.
While Merlin was as tired as he'd ever been, sleep refused to come to him. He wondered if Arthur might still be awake as well, but lying turned away from the king on the very edge of the mattress, he couldn't tell. Then at last he felt movement echo through the bed, and once close beside him, Arthur peered over Merlin's shoulder at his face.
"You're not asleep, are you, Merlin?" he asked the wizard, his voice not only soft, but groggy as if he'd just awoken.
"No," Merlin breathed back shortly, eyes fixed on the far window.
He felt Arthur's hand pull the blankets up to his neck and then settle on his shoulder. He didn't say anything; he seemed to know he didn't need to. But he shifted a bit closer, where his head could rest against Merlin's back, and his hand never moved, as far as Merlin knew, for the rest of that night. That wretched night that had been so full of tears and pain and emptiness- the kind that could only come from losing someone close-, yet when Merlin looked back on it, he came to feel the gratitude more than the grief.
In that kind of darkness, he would later think, how could my heart have healed without the care of my best friend holding me together?