Greetings all! This little fic is an alternate version of the events in one of my older ones (For the Want of a Nail). Thank you for reading. Reviews feed me.
Not one whit.
Gaius did not care one whit that it was a fine fall morning in Camelot.
"Merlin. You are sick. You have been sick for a month, at least." He raised a hand to keep the warlock from interrupting, "You are not getting better, no matter what you try and pretend. How can you even consider a hunting expedition?"
His foolish ward gazed unsteadily into the droopy pack at his feet. The boy looked ghastly, hunched at the breakfast table. Limp as his empty bag.
"I have to. You know I have to." Merlin's voice was quiet but determined. "If you want to help, tell me what to pack, my brain hurts." Merlin mumbled.
"You do not have to, that's what I am telling you. I am the physician and if I say you are sick, Arthur will understand." Well, the prince likely would not understand, but at least he would listen Gaius hoped.
"No," Merlin stood "you know Arthur. He'd probably pick today to get himself captured by bandits, roasted by some magical creature, or arrowshot by a drunken hunter. I'm alright, really. Just help me pack a few things. Please?"
Gaius had been right.
It was no surprise to Merlin. His adoptive father was right more often than not. Although it had been a lovey morning, the afternoon had been horrible. His chest ached miserably and he'd coughed his throat so raw, he tasted blood. He would consider himself lucky if he managed not to vomit a great bloody mess onto his boots.
Sweat crawled coldly between his shoulder blades and Merlin promised himself that next time he'd take Gaius' advice. But he knew he wouldn't.
Gods. He felt like death.
At least he'd managed to ensure the hunt was unsuccessful. With his constant hacking, he hadn't even had to resort to magic. He had no urge whatsoever to add fowl and game to the already unwieldy pack of supplies he'd been allotted to haul about. The damnable load seemed to grow heavier with each step. Yes, he was definitely sick.
Even better, the ungodly cold rain that had made them turn for home hours ago had changed to heavy wet snow. Fantastic.
One foot in front of the other Merlin. That's all he had to do.
He was drawn momentarily from his bout of self-pity by a surprised squawk from Gwaine. He couldn't help but laugh. His mate was still covered by the remnants of someone's well aimed snow missile. With series of warbling cries and guffaws, a volley of snow and slush whooshed overhead. He normally would have joined in, but not today—he knew beyond a doubt that if he put down his pack he'd be too tired to get it back on again.
Merlin found himself plenty occupied just trying to keep his feet.
Smiling at his motley crew, Arthur finally spotted something worth hunting, a bush bristling with fat pigeons. Just as he held up his hand to get the attention of his troop, his ungainly manservant was pelted with a snowball and with a bitten off yell went down in a loud heap.
The birds were off in a heartbeat.
"Merlin! Have I ever told you that you are the worst servant I've ever had?"
With his typical good humor the boy righted himself. "Yes, I believe you have sire, but never hurts to hear it again."
Then Merlin was back to hacking and coughing fit to break. Arthur went back to pretending he hadn't noticed. What was the point calling attention to his weakness? There was nothing to be done for it but head home and they were already nearly there.
Arthur's morning fire had long since grown cold—the place was freezing. Merlin's sweat- and snow-soaked clothes were icy and made him jump whenever they brushed his hot skin. Cold and wet. Gaius was going to have his head.
"Cold as a witch's heart!" Arthur noted. How he'd know that was beyond Merlin, Arthur looked pretty snug bundled into his warmest cloak.
As he turned from his task at the hearth, a cloak dropped unceremoniously over his head.
"I see the cold hasn't improved your coordination Merlin." Arthur laughed.
"It hasn't improved your manners either I dare say" Merlin quipped. Arthur might be a true arse, but the cloak felt wonderful and he gratefully pulled it around him, shuddering. "I'm keeping this tonight Arthur."
Before long, he had the fire roaring.
As Arthur gazed into his wine, Merlin sat on his haunches, warming his hands by the fire and trying to slow his noisy breathing. "It's not my fault you know. The pigeons. Leon threw an ice ball at me."
Arthur smiled "Yes, yes, clearly the decorated knight of Camelot is responsible for the world's clumsiest servant slipping for what must be the hundredth time."
"Yup." Merlin glanced over his shoulder at the prince. He looked to be drying out pretty well. His eyes drooped like a great sleepy toddler that didn't want to miss anything. What would come next he figured was the prince pretending to be magnanimous as all hades by sending Merlin on his way when really, Arthur just wanted to get to sleep.
"Nonetheless, that was quite the day. Merlin, why don't you call it a night early?"
"You're sure sire?" He was in no rush to get home and wanted to sit by the fire a few minutes more. Cold, cold, and more cold. He hated it.
"Of course I'm sure, you're soaked, go home Merlin."
"Thanks then, goodnight." He headed for the door.
"Night Merlin." Just as he'd rounded the bend, Arthur bellowed him back.
"Can you stop at the kennel and make sure the hounds are covered? It's bloody freezing."
No shit it is freezing. "Of course, good night."
Merlin poked his head around the corner yet again "Yes…" Though he was in no particular rush, all this back and forth was making him dizzy and he struggled to keep a sarcastic quip in. Maybe it would be good to get home and lie down for a piece.
Arthur was smiling "Goodnight Merlin."
He stood, dripping wet, trying madly not to cough, tasting blood in his mouth and he couldn't for the life of him stay annoyed with Arthur. "Goodnight Arthur."
Gaius breathed a sigh of relief. The breath-cloud hung above his face before slowly rising to the roof.
Merlin was home. The boy's coughing rang out clear in the dark cold air.
He snuck one shaky hand out from under his blanket and pulled his sleeping cap down farther. With an old-man huff that reminded Gaius of his own grandfather, he rolled stiffly towards the wall and tried to go back to sleep.
Although Gaius never really had futuresight, certainly not like Morgana, on very rare occasions he found himself standing on the edge of slumber and looking out not across the darkness of sleep, but into one potential future.
Scared the pants off him every time and this night was no different. He was assaulted by a nightmare vision.
Merlin was sicker than Gaius had ever seen him. Deathly ill.
Gaius was awake. He was asleep. Trapped. Before his closed eyes, Gwen hovered over a motionless Merlin. His dear boy was white as snow.
Arthur stormed into the room calling out in pure fear. "Is he…" although ghost Arthur couldn't continue, his question was plain to Gaius. Is he dead? Is Merlin dead?
No! Gaius' yelled. No one heard him because he wasn't there.
Gwen's spirit went on, speaking to an anxious-looking Arthur. "He is resting sire." She tenderly touched her cloth to Merlin's mouth. "But…Gaius is no longer able to wake him m' lord."
His head filled with wheezing, gasping, dying breaths.
Gaius knew not.
As he struggled to wake himself from the nightmare vision, he last saw Arthur. The prince sat at Merlin's bed (deathbed, Gaius' fear whispered). Arthur shook his head roughly; his eyes were red with tears that refused to fall. With his thumb, Arthur touched a bead of blood from the corner of his charge's dry lips. Gaius' heart broke as Arthur tenderly placed his hand on Merlin's hitching chest.
The ghostly prince's features began to crumple and his breath to catch.
Thank you for reading! Review…please?