Word count: 3289
Disclaimer: I do not own them, in any way, shape, or form.
Summary: They floated in front of him like butterflies.
Notes: Eternal gratitude to solar_cat for her excellent beta. Even if she took out half of my "ands". [grins] Comments and concrit always welcome.
The black was complete, soundless and void. Merlin drifted in it, and didn’t wonder why.
Sometimes he thought he could hear voices, but they were quite far away and indistinct. He tried to listen harder once, curious in a vague way, but when he did, pain drove him back to the quiet peaceful darkness.
Once, he thought he might have seen a face—a flash of excruciating light, a smudge of something that could have been skin, blurry through eyes that refused to focus—but then he tasted something bitter and wet, and gratefully let go again.
He stayed there for a while after that.
At some point, he realized that he was hearing voices again. This time, the words came through, garbled and warped like they travelled underwater, but understandable. Mostly understandable. They floated in front of him like butterflies.
“… will he wake?”
“…come away, your Highness…”
“…head wounds are…”
He couldn’t tell if they were in order, or what sense they made, or who was saying them. It didn’t seem all that important. Eventually, though, he started to feel the darkness receding; the pain started to swell and spread, taking away his peace with dagger strikes of red fire. As the pain spread, the voices became clearer, and he clung to them like a lifeline.
“…days, when will he wake up?”
“I don’t…very badly hurt, your Highness…here…”
Merlin heard someone moan, deep and agonized, and he frowned, annoyed. He couldn’t hear the voices talking anymore, the moans were too loud. He tried to say something, tell the unseen person to stop making a racket, but his throat wouldn’t respond.
Slowly, he realized that he was the one moaning. That was when Merlin got scared.
“No…” Something touched his head, and the world exploded. Merlin raced gratefully back into the darkness.
When the darkness receded the second time, there was no talking. Merlin waited until he was ready, feeling out the corners of his head and the boundaries of his body like he was exploring an unfamiliar room, blind and tentative, and then summoned all his strength and opened his eyes a fraction.
It was dark, but this was a normal darkness, a worldly darkness, lit with moonlight and a low fire. Gaius was sleeping on his cot, snoring softly. Merlin blinked at him, opened his eyes a bit wider, and let his gaze wander. Everything hurt, especially his head. He clumsily reached up and felt it, the lightest pressure sending sparks of pain through him. He stared at the ceiling, exploring the large, tight bandage with hesitant fingers, and didn’t have the energy to jerk when he heard a rustle.
He cast his eyes to the side and saw Arthur, sitting in an armchair, looking at him like he’d seen a ghost.
“Arthur,” he croaked, and god, what had happened to his voice? Arthur stood up.
“Don’t talk,” he said, and crossed the room to shake Gaius. “He’s awake, Gaius.”
Gaius startled and sat up, then immediately got out of bed and went to Merlin’s side. “How are you feeling?” he asked, taking Merlin’s hand away from his head and holding it. Merlin realized that his hands were cold. Then he realized the rest of him was cold. And hurt. Oh god, he hurt.
He tried to say something—cold, in pain, what in god’s name happened to me—but what came out was, desperately, “Water.”
It was Gaius who brought him a cup of water. It was Arthur who carefully eased one arm under Merlin’s shoulders and lifted him so that Gaius could help him drink. Merlin sucked greedily at the cup, spilling water down his chin and not caring in the least, and Arthur didn’t put him back down when the water was gone.
“What happened?” he rasped, and Gaius frowned.
“Do you remember the attack?” he asked, turning away to his bench and picking up a mortar and pestle. Merlin started to shake his head, then stopped when it hurt. Attack? He prodded his memories, but only found glimpses, flashes of color and sound that made little sense, like fever dreams. Gaius nodded, looking unsurprised at his confusion.
“It was a sorcerer,” Arthur supplied, looking grim. His arm was warm where it ran across Merlin’s back, and Merlin couldn’t help it, he leaned into the support. He felt light, like he might fly away. Arthur was warm, and he was so cold. “He appeared in the main hall during supper, threw fire at the high table. You…fell, and hit your head on the ground.”
Merlin frowned, slowly. That didn’t sound right. “I fell?” he said, uncertainly. He was starting to remember, more clearly—not the sorcerer, but the fire, he remembered the fire, remembered thinking that he had to stop the fire from reaching Arthur. After that, there was nothing but darkness.
“Is everyone all right?” he said after a while. Gaius added a few dried leaves to whatever mixture he was creating and continued to grind it fine. Arthur shook his head.
“Five knights died,” he said flatly, “defeating the sorcerer. And, of course you—you’ve been unconscious for three days.”
“Three,” Merlin echoed blankly. Gaius nodded briskly, and added water to the mortar.
“You had a skull fracture, a very small one,” he said calmly, and poured the mixture into a cup. “Here,” he added, “drink this. It will strengthen your blood.”
Merlin didn’t have the strength to argue, although very much wanted to. He drank the potion, which looked like mud and smelled like mud and tasted like fetid rotten mud. Arthur steadied him when he gagged. “Easy,” Arthur said quietly, and let Merlin drink a little more water, washing the taste away. Merlin leaned his head back against Arthur’s shoulder, grateful for the support.
“How did I fall?” he asked slowly, trying to remember.
Gaius looked at Arthur, and then shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t there, I’m afraid; I only saw the aftermath of the attack. Arthur was the one who saw it happen.”
“You tripped,” Arthur said wryly, although there was something odd in his voice. Merlin closed his eyes and groaned. Of course he had. Some rescuer he was.
“Great,” he muttered, and surprised a small chuckle out of Arthur.
“Come on, then,” Gaius said briskly, “let’s get you moving.”
Arthur gripped him tighter, which Merlin liked even though it made his head twinge with pain. “Are you sure?” Arthur said doubtfully, and Gaius nodded.
“Yes, absolutely. He’s been abed far too long. Come on, let’s get you up.”
It took both of them, but eventually Merlin was on his feet, swaying like a willow branch and holding onto Arthur’s arm for dear life. Gaius shooed Arthur away, and took Merlin’s arm.
“Go on, your Highness,” he said reassuringly, “I’ll get him cleaned up and settled back down. You can come and see him again later this morning, if you like. Get some rest now.”
Arthur hesitated, then nodded shortly and left, shutting the door behind him. Gaius sighed and looked at Merlin. “He’s been here almost the whole time,” he said quietly. Merlin blinked with surprise, and Gaius patted his shoulder gently. “You had us all quite worried, Merlin.”
Merlin endured being stripped to his shift and washed with a damp cloth. It hurt, in a distant all-over way, and he was sweating and hot and panting for air by the time it was done, but it was worth it to feel days’ worth of grime coming off, and the cloth was warm and gentle. A servant came in with fresh linen for the bed, and when Gaius let him lay back down the cool, crisp sheets felt good on his heated skin. Then there was a series of fresh new pains as Gaius removed the tight wrap on his head, placed a fresh poultice on the—oh god—incredibly painful spot Merlin could now feel on his forehead, and applied new bandages. Merlin gritted his teeth and tried not to make a sound until it was all over. It wasn’t very successful.
“Now, go to sleep,” Gaius said, and gave him a tiny cup to drink. There was a brownish liquid inside, steaming gently. It smelled utterly foul, and Merlin tried to push it away, but Gaius was relentless. “Drink it, Merlin. It’s a poppy tea, it will ease the pain and help you sleep.” Merlin sighed and gave in, although it was almost nauseatingly bitter and the reek made his nose itch.
“My skull?” he said after a minute. His head was pounding, poppy or no poppy, and the headache made him want to weep.
“It may only be some bone bruising,” Gaius said reassuringly, “but it will do no harm to treat it as a fracture. The damage is contained, so it is not worsening. It should mend within a few days, and in a fortnight or two I expect that you’ll be back to normal.” He moved around the room, blowing out a candle, banking the fire, putting away a jar of dried leaves into a cupboard.
“And…what about my magic?” Merlin asked softly, as Gaius was settling himself back to bed. Hehad tried to reach for it earlier, instinctively, but the effort made him gasp and flinch, the pain like a razor. He almost didn’t want to hear Gaius’ answer.
“I don’t think it is damaged,” came the reply, thoughtful. “I assume you were trying to use it when you fell, but this is a purely physical condition. Once your head heals and the headaches improve, you should be able to use your powers with as much ease as before.”
With that reassurance, Merlin let himself fall back into sleep.
Over the next few days, Merlin learned the true meaning of boredom, as Gaius absolutely rejected any attempt for Merlin to stand, sit, or turn over without assistance. He wasn’t even allowed to read, because it was too stressful. Merlin didn’t argue too strenuously, because when he tried to read behind Gaius’ back his vision blurred after a few minutes. He wasn’t allowed to leave Gaius’ quarters; not even to see Arthur, who didn’t come again for two days. He was grudgingly allowed to stand, with help, for just long enough to use the pot, and then put straight back into bed.
His memories of the attack never came back, but Merlin couldn’t stop wondering about that night. How had he fallen? His first thought was that he’d tripped over something, maybe his own feet, maybe the table leg; but that didn’t make sense. Arthur had been standing directly in front of him, he would have moved right past him to try and confront the sorcerer. Had Arthur seen him trip? Maybe the sorcerer had seen him running and hit him with something.
The castle was subdued. Two of the dead knights had been very popular, and a third had been Sir Owen, one of Uther’s oldest and most trusted guards. Uther, from what Merlin could gather from the servants cleaning Gaius’ rooms, was in a cold rage. Arthur, no longer at Merlin’s side, was riding endless patrols with his cohort to keep out of his way. There had been attacks of sorcery before—and likely would be again—but this one had struck deep and hard, and would not easily be forgotten.
The days passed, and Merlin could feel his strength returning slowly. The headaches, which required doses of poppy to control at the start, began to fade. Gaius switched Merlin to willowbark tea and ignored his grumbling. His magic came back to him at about the same rate. The day Merlin was able to bring the necessary pot over to his bed using his magic, he was so overjoyed he almost dumped it on his head. Gaius started letting him up out of bed; first to sit in a chair, then to walk slow circles around his room without aid, and finally to go out into the castle.
“Merlin!” yelped Gwen, when she happened to cross his path. She dropped the basket of clothes she was carrying and gave him a fierce, careful hug. “God, we were all so worried about you.”
“Well, thanks, I’m fine,” Merlin said, smiling at her, “I feel a lot better now.”
“Good, that’s brilliant,” Gwen said, and scooped up her basket again. She gave him a warm, harried smile, and edged past him, calling back, “It’s good to see you up and about,” as she hurried off.
Merlin watched her go, and then turned—too quickly, as it turned out. He felt a wave of dizziness, swayed and staggered and put out a hand, then yelped as his leg brushed against a stone bench.
Carefully, when the dizziness had subsided, he bent down and tugged up his leggings. On his calf, there was a fist-sized bruise edged with red and yellow. Merlin stared at it for a long time.
He made his careful way back to Gaius’ rooms, and lay in his own bed with the door closed. Then he took off his leggings and stared at it some more. It didn’t change.
It hadn’t been there before the attack, he was sure of that. He was clumsy, but not so much that he would have overlooked a mark covering half his shin. And he couldn’t have gotten it after the attack—he’d barely been able to *move* afterwards, much less run about incurring bruises. He hadn’t noticed before because, well, honestly, most of him hurt most of the time, these days. He poked it, and it felt tender and sore.
It…almost looked like he’d been kicked. Hard.
Merlin closed his eyes and lay back in bed. He lay there for a while, thinking, and then got up and went to Arthur’s rooms.
Arthur wasn’t there, but a servant Merlin didn’t know was laying out food and a bath. Merlin helped him finish, stopping twice to catch his breath—he really felt appallingly weak, and he hoped the feeling went away soon because it was very disturbing—then sat in a chair, waiting. He kept himself entertained by heating Arthur’s bath whenever it looked like it might get cold, and ate two pieces of cheese off of Arthur’s plate.
Arthur came in late, looking tired, his hair sweaty. He’d already taken off his chainmail, and he stopped short when he saw Merlin.
“Hi,” Merlin said, suddenly awkward, and got up. Arthur looked like he was going to argue, but Merlin started stripping off his tunic. It felt good to be doing something, anything, so normal, even if he had to stop once to grab the back of a chair, fighting dizziness. Arthur permitted him to work, giving Merlin indecipherable sidelong glances, and also permitted Merlin to take off his hose and boots, and sank into the steaming water with a grateful, tired sigh.
Merlin handed him a piece of bread and some cheese, then later had to shake Arthur’s shoulders to prevent him from going to sleep in the tub because despite his suspicions, he didn’t want Arthur to drown. “Come on,” he said, and tugged. Arthur stood, shedding water and yawning, and Merlin wrapped him in a sheet and then stepped back because Arthur was wet and golden and naked, and that was absolutely not a place where Merlin should be if he was going to keep his composure.
“Arthur,” he said slowly, as Arthur rubbed the sheet over his head, clad in a loose pair of hose and a linen shift, “when I fell down. Do you, I mean, do you remember…” Arthur pulled his head out from under the sheet and gave him a curious, oddly guarded look. Merlin took a deep breath. “Did you…trip me?”
Arthur blinked, then drew himself up, threw the sheet in the direction of the window and stalked to the table, every inch the arrogant princeling. Merlin might have been intimidated, but he felt the stirrings of what might probably be called anger starting to grow. “Arthur,” he said, louder.
“No, of course not,” Arthur said, which had to be the absolute least convincing thing Merlin thought he’d ever heard. Arthur couldn’t even meet his eyes. He picked up a spoon from the table and started to fidget with it.
“You did trip me,” Merlin said blankly. He hadn’t wanted to believe it until now. “I just. Why?”
Arthur didn’t turn around.“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Merlin stuck out his leg, bruise bared. “I mean *this*,” he said pointedly, and Arthur glanced around at it and flushed. “I mean—just tell me, Arthur, why?” That was the part he couldn’t figure out. A prank, maybe, yes—but this wasn’t a stick-out-your-foot-and-see-the-idiot-fa
“I had to—you were going to, to get in the way,” Arthur said defensively. “Look, what does it matter? What did you think you were going to do, take on a sorcerer with your bare hands? You should be thanking me for saving your life.”
Merlin’s jaw dropped. “Saving my life,” he sputtered. “*Saving* my—now listen, you intolerable prat, you did *not* save my life! I would have been fine! *You* nearly killed me!” He didn’t think he’d ever been this angry. Arthur looked like Merlin had grown a second head, and Merlin had to fight the urge to punch him, or turn him into something slimy, or drown him in his bath.
“Look, I know you would have liked to help me defeat the sorcerer, but, well. I don’t understand why you’re so upset, it wasn’t really that serious—“
“*Serious?*” Merlin yelled. “You *broke my head,* you bastard! You kicked my feet out from under me!” He had to choke down the golden fire that threatened to overwhelm him, and now Arthur looked angry, too.
“And what were you going to do?” Arthur demanded, “Tell me that! What were you going to do?” He stopped, breathing hard, and Merlin saw a muscle in his jaw jump. “For God’s sake, Merlin,” Arthur ground out, “my father was standing *right there*.”
Merlin stopped short, mouth still open to yell. All his anger had vanished, like it had never been. Arthur looked destroyed.
“He was right there,” Arthur repeated, almost soundlessly. His eyes were blue pools, shadowed. Merlin nodded, dazed. “I couldn’t let you do it. I had to stop you.”
“Yes.” Merlin said quietly, at a loss for anything else to say.
Arthur turned away and braced his arms on the table, head down. He didn’t say anything. Silence filled the room.
After a while, Merlin approached Arthur. He touched his shoulder gently.
“Thank you,” he said, and Arthur nodded faintly. He stood and turned around, too fast for Merlin to step away, and lifted a hand to touch Merlin’s jaw. Merlin shivered as Arthur cupped his chin, looking at him for a long second. He didn’t move. Arthur’s thumb rubbed slowly across his cheek. Merlin felt flushed, cold and hot, and dizzy. He didn't think it was from the accident.
He still didn’t move as Arthur leaned in for a kiss that was definitely not too fast or too shallow to set Merlin’s blood racing, and when Arthur pulled back, it left Merlin blinking stupidly, feeling like his feet had been kicked out from underneath him all over again.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. It wasn’t clear if he was referring to the kiss, or the fractured skull. Merlin supposed it didn’t really matter.
“It’s all right,” Merlin said, and meant it.