Characters/Pairing: Arthur/Merlin. Or Arthur and Merlin. Depends on how you want to read it.
Summary: Merlin is bitten by a snake. Arthur tries to help. There is a magic reveal of a different colour.
Warnings: Utter cliche hurt/comfort fic. Icky medical details. Outdated medical procedures which should not be followed by anyone.
Disclaimer: These characters don't belong to me in any incarnation, and I am making no money from them.
Notes: Title is from Billy Bragg's song 'King James Version'. Originally written for the angst_bingo square: Septicemia / infected wounds except I totally missed any and all deadlines. Also, funny story, there's some personal experience of infected bite wounds in here.
One thing you have to admit about Arthur; he's fast. It's only a few seconds from the moment Merlin puts his hand on something that's moving, to the moment Arthur's upright and furiously slashing with his sword at a tangle of bushes. Merlin scarcely has time to blink before Arthur lifts his sword with two halves of a snake impaled on the tip.
"Arthur," says Merlin.
Arthur is inspecting the snake halves, which are still wriggling. The look on his face is a mixture of disgust and pride. Merlin would find it funny under other circumstances.
"Arthur," he says.
"Look at it, Merlin! I've not seen a serpent like this before. I wonder if there's a nest-"
Arthur directs his attention to Merlin and his face changes. "It didn't bite you?"
All Merlin can say is "Yes."
Arthur's sword drops, snake still attached. He's on his knees before Merlin, pulling out his belt knife. "Where?"
Merlin displays his right hand and the two puncture wounds right where the back of his hand meets his wrist. The skin around them is already beginning to swell an angry red. Arthur reaches to the hem of his own tunic and rips a strip from it; Merlin opens his mouth to protest but his throat is too dry to get the words out. Arthur wraps the strip of red cloth around Merlin's forearm, several inches above the bite marks, and ties it off with a savage yank; then he takes up his belt knife, bringing it close to Merlin's hand.
"What are you doing?" Merlin protests, trying to pull his hand away.
"Basic field medicine, Merlin. Honestly, for a physician's assistant, you really don't know anything, do you?"
"Merlin, just remain still. I know what I'm doing and I need to do it fast. All right?"
Merlin looks into Arthur's face, and sees that he's telling the truth, and nods.
"Hold still," warns Arthur. "This is going to hurt." He braces Merlin's hand on his own knee, holding Merlin's arm pinned down with his elbow and gripping his wrist firmly, and then he swiftly and steadily cuts two parallel slashes, one directly over each puncture wound.
It does hurt. Merlin clenches his teeth but he can't stop a tiny sound escaping, an audible wince. Arthur holds him in an immovable grip.
"Stay still," he says. "This bit's going to hurt more." And with that he drops the knife, raises Merlin's hand, puts his lips to the wound and begins sucking.
"What-" Merlin tries to wrench the hand away, but Arthur shoves his elbow downwards, trapping Merlin's whole arm against his own side, and continues to suck. His lips are a firm seal over the parallel cuts; Merlin can feel his tongue soft where it brushes against the sensitised skin.
His entire arm is beginning to hurt now. The strip of cloth is tied tightly enough that the forearm is throbbing; there's pain from the cuts and there's a horrible stretched, pulling feeling he's never known before coming from the place Arthur's sucking. Merlin's fingers are beginning to draw up against his palm.
"Arthur, that's - it really hurts."
Arthur glances sideways at him, but otherwise makes no reply, his cheeks working as he continues the suction.
Merlin's heartbeat is racing and his breathing coming rapidly. His stomach is churning, great roiling waves of panic and nausea fighting their way over him. He can't hold back any longer and lets out a sob, then another. Arthur's face tightens, but he keeps going. Merlin flails his free hand, trying to clutch at something, anything, but only comes up with one of the dead rabbits he'd been carrying. He can't bear to clutch it, feeling soft fur and loose flesh moving over bones, but he needs something to cling to and squeeze in reaction to the pain.
When Arthur finally stops, Merlin is jolted out of a tumult of pain and heat and fire. His head hurts and he's dizzy; at first he only realises Arthur has stopped sucking because his arm is finally free and he's not trapped up against Arthur's side any more. He looks down at his hand, engorged and darkened, and barely has time to fling his head away from Arthur before he's sick all over the rabbit carcasses. When he manages to look up, Arthur splashes his face with a waterskin and then holds it to Merlin's lips.
Arthur is gulping air, open-mouthed; there are traces of blood on his teeth and he looks a little green. Merlin somehow summons up the ghost of a grin.
"Did you swallow that?"
Arthur raises his eyebrows but says nothing.
"You swallowed my blood. That's disgusting."
"Believe me, Merlin, it was far more disgusting for me than it was for you."
Arthur rips another length from his tunic, which he uses to bind over the swollen mess that used to be Merlin's hand. He sheathes his knife and gets to his feet, looking from Merlin to the path back to Camelot, as if calculating in his mind how long it will take them to get back. "Can you walk, do you think? Or shall I carry you?" he asks, half-smirking.
"I can walk," says Merlin indignantly; but it's a struggle even to get to his feet, and Arthur needs to assist him, keeping carefully to his left side and avoiding the painful arm.
The walk back to Camelot is a dizzy blur. Merlin's vision is clouded and he trips frequently, would fall if Arthur wasn't supporting him. His whole body is trembling and hot, and every step jars him painfully. He's also thirsty, but the waterskin is empty now. By the time they're in the courtyard and Arthur is shouting, he can barely think or feel or hear anything through the pain and dizziness. There are more hands reaching for him, and then he's being lifted up and carried, jostled about. It's only when fingers prise his eyelid open that he realises he's been laid on his back in Gaius' chambers. Everything has moved into a cloudy twilight blur. Strong hands grip Merlin's shoulders; he smells blood and metal. He feels his eyelids getting heavy and hot.
"Stay awake, Merlin," says Gaius sternly. "Look at me."
Arthur watches as Gaius lifts Merlin's eyelid to peer beneath it and then pinches Merlin's ear. Merlin protests, struggling against Arthur's hands.
"How long ago did it happen?" asks Gaius.
"At least an hour."
"Good," says Gaius. "You did well, sire. If the venom were going to overcome him, it would have done so already and he would not have got here on his own feet."
"Only half on his feet," says Arthur, calculating, watching Merlin's eyes droop. "I almost had to carry him."
"Hey!" Merlin protests.
Then Gaius puts his hands on Merlin's swollen arm and unties the strip of tied cloth, and Merlin cries out. Gaius is stern-faced as he examines Merlin's hand, pressing his fingers gently on the swollen flesh. The skin is taut and angry-looking, splotched with red; the slashes Arthur had cut obscure the original puncture wounds, and their edges are puffy.
"What kind of snake was it?" Gaius asks.
"I'm not sure. It wasn't anything I've seen before."
"You're sure it wasn't an adder?"
"Definitely not. It was far too big. I killed it."
Gaius is touching Merlin's face.
"You have a touch of fever, my boy," he says. "I need to clean the wound and then cool you down. Sire, I will need someone to help, as Merlin himself cannot assist. Could you call -"
"I'll do it," says Arthur.
Gaius gives him the eyebrow. "Sire, perhaps Guinevere-"
"No, Gaius. I want to see this through. Besides, I need to know what to do in case I encounter one of these serpents again."
Gaius gives him a brief, shrewd glance. "In that case, sire, would you be good enough to fetch a bowl of hot water from the hearth?"
Arthur spends the next half hour or so working under Gaius' direction; refilling a bowl from the pot of hot water Gaius always keeps hot over the hearth and infusing flowers in it, pounding herbs in a mortar and then mixing them into a poultice with honey. He helps Gaius take off Merlin's jacket and tunic, and helps him clean the wound gently with watered spirits of wine, ignoring Merlin's flinches and the strangled noises that force their way between his clenched teeth. He watches as Gaius applies warm honey to the cuts and then holds the arm steady while Gaius spreads the prepared poultice over the swollen skin of Merlin's hand and forearm, and then he sponges Merlin's face and chest with cool water while Gaius covers the arm loosely with clean bindings. Throughout it all, Gaius talks to Arthur, telling him what he's doing. It has the dual effect of keeping up the polite fiction that Arthur's only here to learn about treatment, and preventing him from shaking Merlin, whose eyelids are drooping. He's still conscious but has gone worryingly silent since Gaius applied the poultice.
"Good boy," says Gaius, when Merlin has drunk down all of a yellowish-brown mixture that smells like rotting hay. "You can sleep now."
Merlin gives an indistinct murmur. Gaius draws Arthur away, towards the hearth.
"Usually I would bleed him for a fever," says Gaius, "but he would have lost some blood when you sucked the poison out, so I think that is not necessary. He must be kept cool and still." He touches Arthur's shoulder gently. "Sire, I would like to examine you now, if I may."
"Me? It didn't touch me."
"No, but you swallowed the poison from Merlin's wound, and you may suffer some ill effects."
Arthur suffers himself to be poked at and follows the path of Gaius' finger with his eyes when told to. He answers a lot of questions about whether he feels dizzy or hot or unwell and says, "No," to them all. It's not actually the truth. He feels shaken and his heart is beating fast; and he concentrates on slowing his breathing in the hope that it will help calm his body. Gaius orders him to drink a purgative; Arthur vomits up quantities of revolting dark mess for several minutes, wishing that he wasn't under Gaius' sharp eye while doing so; he hates the lack of control over his body, feeling that it makes him appear weak and vulnerable. Although he supposes that if he's got to be vulnerable in front of someone, his manservant and his physician are the two safest choices.
"I think that will do, sire," says Gaius at last. "Do let me know if you feel any ill effects this evening."
"I will," says Arthur. He looks at Merlin, who is still conscious but looking as if he might drop off any moment, and holds out the vomit-filled bucket with a raised eyebrow. "Empty that, will you, Merlin?"
"Certainly, sire," says Merlin, with a ghost of a grin. "I'll just float it out to the midden, shall I?"
Gaius takes the bucket from Arthur's hands with more force and a fiercer glare than Arthur thinks is needed. Gaius knows he's joking, surely.
"Thank you, Gaius," he says, and leaves without glancing back.
Arthur goes to his room, his throat burning and teeth on edge from sickness, to be served a rabbit stew he can barely choke down by a servant he will scarcely glance at. He falls into bed without ordering a bath or even taking off most of his clothes, and thinks that perhaps Merlin will be there in the morning.
Merlin's not there, and Arthur goes through his day without his normal quota of mingled affection and irritation. He resolutely does not send for word of Merlin, determining to let him rest. The swelling of his hand and wrist had been nasty; it's probably better to let him heal up a bit more before he tries to take up his duties again.
When Merlin does not appear on the second morning, however, he lets himself stride towards the practice field for all of fifty feet before his feet swivel as if of their own accord and feet carry him straight to Gaius' chambers.
He expects to find Merlin sitting up at the bench, cradling his hand and dawdling. When he enters, however, he's struck by two things. The room smells unpleasant, a slight miasma like rotten meat underlying and sharpening the usual herbal odours; and Merlin is still lying on the cot where Arthur had placed him, but now his face is pale and glossed with sweat, his hair sticking to his forehead. The blanket has fallen down to his waist and his arm is swathed in bandages. His eyes are closed.
"Sire!" Gaius turns from the hearth. "Forgive me. I had meant to inform you that Merlin could not attend you today, but -"
"What's wrong with him?" Arthur asks. Two days ago Merlin had been injured, yes, but this -
"I am afraid he has developed an infection, sire."
"He looks terrible," says Arthur, still shocked.
"He is running a fever. He needs to rest and to be kept cool."
"But he'll be all right."
It is a statement, not a question; but Gaius does not reply, and Arthur is hit by a sudden queasy fear deep in the pit of his stomach.
"Can I do anything to help?" he asks.
"Yes, sire. If you would be so good as to hold his shoulders while I re-dress the wound."
Merlin is awakened from a fuzzy, soupy half-dream by a stab of pain in his arm. He opens his eyes to find Gaius unwrapping his bandages. They're wet and he feels disgusted by the movement of the damp cloth on his arm.
"It's all right, Merlin. I am just going to re-dress your wound."
"All right," says Merlin, his voice thin and scratchy. He's hot, his throat is dry. Gaius stops his work for a moment and holds a cup of water to his lips. Merlin drinks eagerly until the cup is empty and Gaius removes it.
"Hold him," he says to someone who must be standing by Merlin's head. Strong hands grip Merlin's shoulders. His right shoulder bursts into a red shock of pain and he cries out.
"Just be still for me, my boy. I know it hurts, but you must remain still and quiet." Gaius unwraps the final layer from his arm and a familiar voice behind Merlin says angrily, "Gaius!"
"Arthur?" whispers Merlin, but he's not sure Arthur has even heard. He's still talking.
"What's wrong with him? Why does it look so bad?"
"His wound is poisoned, sire."
"Poison? But I drew the poison out. When I sucked the bite."
"This is not the venom from the serpent, sire. The wounds have become infected, as any battlefield wound may do."
"But it looks so..." Arthur's voice trails off. Merlin tries to turn his head to look, but Arthur's forearms are firm at each side. "Don't look, Merlin."
"It can't be that bad," protests Merlin, although he can feel that it is.
"I need to wash the cuts," says Gaius. "This will hurt, I am afraid. It is salt water, which will help to kill the poison."
It does hurt; it stings and burns. Merlin clenches his teeth together, stiffens his jaw, determined not to make a sound while Arthur's here, but it still hurts a lot. He can't see the wound, but he can smell it; he's seen Gaius treat enough infected wounds to know what they smell like, and this one smells as bad as any. In his imagination, his arm has swollen to the size of his whole body, bloated and bursting. Pain is red behind his eyelids as he clenches his fist, scrunches up his face.
Arthur sounds as if he's trying not to breathe, which means that he will make no sound for some time and then let his breath out in a great gust, ruffling Merlin's hair. Merlin would laugh if he weren't in so much pain.
"There," says Gaius. "Now I will apply a poultice to draw the poison out."
That hurts too. The poultice smells like honey and garlic; it's sticky and gritty and Gaius works it mercilessly in. Merlin can't help a few little sounds escaping him. Arthur's hands are steady on Merlin's shoulders, his grip immovable as stone; by the time Gaius has finished Merlin finds that he's turned his face into Arthur's forearm, pressing his forehead against it, breathing hard. The sweat is slippery between them; Merlin's so hot he feels he might smoke under Arthur's hands.
"That's the worst over with," says Gaius. "You can let go of him now, sire."
Arthur loosens his grip, but he stands beside Merlin while Gaius winds bandages about the arm, finishing off by immobilising it with heavy rolls of cloth at either side. The sharpness of the pain has dulled; it's now much duller, very hot and stretched-feeling. Gaius gives Merlin a cup of water again and this time it's got something else in it, something bitter that smells almost as bad as the wound did, and before he knows it he's beginning to sink back into a half-lit dreamworld.
"Get better, Merlin," he hears Arthur say, and he's not sure whether it's the medicine or the pain but it sounds absolutely sincere, with none of the half-mocking tone with which Arthur usually expresses affection. Merlin means to say something reassuring, but his mind is muffled and all he can stutter out is, "You too," before he feels the swampy cloudiness surround him.
"He will get better?" Arthur asks. It's really a question this time.
"I am doing my best," says Gaius. "I am keeping the wound clean and I have given him something to keep him quiet. Sleep is the best physician." He hesitates before adding, "If you would be able to send me some assistance, sire - a strong man every four hours or so, to hold Merlin still whilst I wash the wound - it would greatly assist me."
"Of course," says Arthur. "I'll see to it. Four hours from now."
Four hours later he's in Gaius' chambers. Merlin is asleep, a sheet drawn up over his body and his injured arm; Gaius is at the table, peering over his books. He doesn't seem surprised to see Arthur. He even smiles a little, although it's a sad smile.
"Thank you for remembering, sire."
Merlin protests feebly, eyes closed, as Arthur takes hold of his shoulders. He mutters "Stop, leave me 'lone," as Gaius unwraps the bandages, and cries out in pain and shock, jerking under Arthur's hands, as Gaius dabs at the wound to remove the damp clogs of pus and poultice. By the time Gaius has finished, there are tears on his face, which is red and distressed, his eyes screwed up. Gaius coaxes more potion down his throat. Arthur is impressed with Gaius' immovable calm as he goes about his work; he himself has found it far more difficult to steel himself against Merlin's pained cries.
When Merlin is dozing, head lolling onto Arthur's arm, Gaius mixes salt and water in a long shallow trough. He props the trough up on the bench before immersing Merlin's hand and forearm in it.
"You may let go of him now," he says gently. "I do not believe he will wake, and I feel it may help to soak the wound for some time."
Arthur releases Merlin's shoulders, taking a deep breath, and guides his head gently to the pillow. He looks at the arm properly. The initial punctures were destroyed by the cuts he'd made, but those cuts are now themselves almost obscured by the swollen flesh around them. The edges of the cuts are red and puffy, yellowish in parts, and there are red streaks creeping partway up Merlin's forearm. Gaius is working at the submerged arm, gently parting the swollen edges of the cuts to let the salt water in.
"How could it have become infected like this?" asks Arthur. "There has been so little time, and my knife was clean."
"It could be that some of the venom was left in the wounds," says Gaius absently, his fingers impartial on Merlin's arm, "or that the arm brushed against something dirty on the way back. Or even your mouth."
"Oh, yes. That is why human bites are just as dangerous as animal bites. People's mouths contain matter which can cause infections, so when you sucked the wound - "
Arthur reels. "Are you saying this is my fault?"
Gaius blinks and looks up at him properly, as if only just realising that he's there. His face softens as he sees the effect of his words.
"Arthur, no. You saved Merlin's life."
"You don't know that," says Arthur bitterly. "You don't even know what type of snake it was."
"Any snake which bites is dangerous," says Gaius firmly. "Had Merlin died - which is entirely likely - you would now be lamenting that you had not acted so swiftly."
"Can I do anything?" asks Arthur. He glances again at Merlin.
"If you can spare the time to keep helping me re-dress the wound, or to send someone else - "
"Yes. Of course."
For the rest of that day, and into the night, Arthur appears in the physician's rooms every four hours and holds Merlin's shoulders firm while Gaius washes the wound with salt water and drizzles it with honey. He's stopped using the drawing poultice now, explaining to Arthur that the infection is now progressed too far and that the gritty texture would irritate Merlin's abused flesh, rather than help it.
Merlin is hot to the touch now and doesn't fully wake, although he grunts and struggles, eyelids flickering, as Gaius unwraps the bandages, and whenever Gaius touches the wound - even with water - he struggles feebly and makes distressed moans which Arthur steels himself to pay no attention to. He's getting much weaker, though. Arthur doesn't have to hold him very hard at all any more. That's the hardest thing of all, that his strength is of no use now, that it cannot serve to help make Merlin better.
Gaius doesn't ask why Arthur comes himself every time, rather than sending one of his knights or even one of the servants, and Arthur is grateful. He doesn't have any words; they've all sunk down inside him and the only ones that float to the surface are the most superficial, the bare minimum he needs to get by. He doesn't stay, beyond the time it takes to clean and bind the wound and make sure some of Gaius' sleeping potion gets down Merlin's throat; he goes back to his room, washes Merlin's sweat from his hands and lies on his bed, staring at the canopy. He watches the day fold into night, and then the night give way to dawn, and he can't think. At dawn he rises and polishes his sword, thinking of Merlin's long fingers at work, sure and clever.
Arthur's seen men die before. He's seen men in agony from terrible wounds to the stomach, seen limbs removed to prevent the rot of flesh and then seen the men die anyway; or else they live, missing an arm or a foot, sobbing in agony at night with pain from the limb that has gone. Some men go mad. Others become grim, withdraw into themselves. The knights are usually pensioned off, back to their estates, to guide and govern their household and lands. Arthur rarely sees them again, except at the occasional grand feast.
He's never really thought about what might happen to a limbless servant.
As the sun's warm fingers spread across the ground, Arthur rides out to the part of the forest where they had encountered the serpent. He hacks violently at the bushes around, but no more serpents appear. The two halves of the dead one are still there. Arthur pokes them a little with his sword and then slices the rotting halves into several pieces before giving up on dignity and jumping on them.
He doesn't feel any better.
When he returns to the castle, he gives a few cursory orders to Leon before heading to Gaius' rooms again. The old man is in a chair by Merlin's bedside, his upper body slumped over onto Merlin's bed, fast asleep and snoring. Merlin himself makes no sound but his head is moving restlessly on the pillow. His face is pale and damp with sweat.
Arthur walks straight through and up the stairs into Merlin's room. It's surprisingly neat, as if Merlin has left to go somewhere else, but it's quiet and contained and is blissfully free of the foul smell of pus-stained bandages. He sits on Merlin's bed, which is narrow and sags beneath him. He pulls his feet up onto the bed and puts his face into Merlin's pillow. There's a faint scent, neither pleasant nor unpleasant but warm and human, and he burrows into it, chasing this tiny trace of Merlin.
Arthur wakes suddenly, unsure of what has roused him. He can't have slept long; the light in the room has not changed. He gets to his feet.
When he reaches the door of the room, he can hear Gaius talking. For a moment he wonders whether there is another patient, and then he hears the edge of terrible pain in Gaius' voice. Gaius is always calm with his patients. Arthur's heart lurches in his chest. Oh God, he's dead, he died without me, while Gaius was asleep. He can't move.
But then Gaius speaks again.
"Merlin, please try. Please, my boy. If there is anything you can do. If you can hear me. I cannot... I don't know if I am strong enough to do it alone."
The blood returns to Arthur's body in a rush. Not dead, not dead. But he pauses, still inside the door, looking down the stairs. He can see Gaius, see Merlin's pale face. This is too intimate a moment for him to intrude upon.
Gaius touches a hand to Merlin's cheek.
Merlin's face does not change.
Gaius sighs and presses his lips to Merlin's forehead, just for a moment; and then he moves back a little, puts both hands on Merlin's bandaged arm, squares his shoulders and says firmly, "Gehalge."
For the second time in as many minutes, Arthur freezes by the door.
Magic, whispers the back of his mind.
This is treason. He remembers the words of the witchfinder, and his father's confirmation that Gaius has dabbled in magic. It still shocks him. Gaius is the only magic user whom he knows to have escaped his father's justice, his father's wrath. Gaius is special. His father would never have permitted Gaius back into his confidence if he did not have absolute trust that magic was no longer a part of Gaius' life. His father trusts Gaius.
Gaius moves to the table, taking up a goblet, pouring water and adding something from a small vial into it. He holds both hands over it and intones something Arthur cannot quite hear. More magic. Arthur watches as he steps towards Merlin and slides a gentle arm under his head.
"Come along, Merlin. I'm just going to sit you up here. I need you to drink something for me, my boy."
Merlin murmurs something indistinct and lets himself be moved, weak and floppy as a newborn calf, until his head sags against Gaius' shoulder.
Part of Arthur is screaming at him, Treason! as he watches Gaius touching Merlin with hands which have just done magic (magic!) and holding a goblet of magic potion to Merlin's lips. He should move, shout, take up his sword. But he watches as Gaius coaxes Merlin to drink, as he gently lowers Merlin's head back to the pillow and as he tenderly brushes back Merlin's hair.
Arthur knows that Gaius has been with his father for decades; he has cared for Arthur himself since his birth, seen him through childhood illnesses and battle wounds; and for decades before that, Gaius has cured his father of illnesses and injuries too many to mention. Arthur wonders, suddenly, if Gaius has held this position for so long and has achieved so many successes with his healing because he has had magical aid. Perhaps his own miraculous survival from the Questing Beast's bite was less than a miracle, but more than medicine.
Gaius is unwrapping Merlin's arm now, evidently to see whether his magic has had an effect. Arthur pushes the door of Merlin's room open loudly and effectively, and strides equally loudly down the steps. Gaius' face turns to him, pale as the moon in the dim room.
"Sire," Gaius says. "I didn't know you were there."
"I know," says Arthur.
There is a long pause. Arthur's feet are still on the bottom step; Gaius' hand still hovers over Merlin's half-bandaged arm; their eyes are locked. The air between them is heavy with unspoken words.
"Is there any change?" asks Arthur.
Gaius' expression is carefully neutral; of course, Arthur thinks, he's had years to practice the art of dissembling. It's no surprise he's good at it. Gaius puts a hand to Merlin's forehead, arches an eyebrow and bends to look more closely.
"He's cooled. His fever has broken," says Gaius, and there is no mistaking the hope and joy in his voice; but Arthur notices that he does not finish uncovering the wound and keeps his hands on the bandages to prevent Arthur from seeing it. He wonders how many other things he's missed seeing over the years.
"Do you need me to help you?" he asks.
"I thank you, sire, but there is no need. The fever has broken, and that is a very good sign."
"He's getting better?"
Gaius smiles. "He's getting better. He will sleep naturally now."
"Well then," says Arthur. He hesitates. "Thank you."
Gaius meets his eyes. "Thank you, Arthur. For all your assistance."
Arthur nods. He feels as if he should say something - I didn't see anything untoward, your secret is safe with me, I won't tell my father - but his jaw is stiff. The words jump and chatter in his brain, trapped.
He can't resist walking by the bed as he leaves, to get a really good look at Merlin. He reaches a hand to touch Merlin's forehead. The skin is warm, but not overly so, and Merlin's chest rises and falls with deep, quiet breathing.
He settles for saying "Look after him," to Gaius as he leaves. There is no better way, he thinks, to imply I trust you.
"Always," says Gaius.
Merlin opens his eyes. The room is dark, but the fire which is always burning on the hearth is steady. His arm is by his side, still bandaged, but the pain has subsided and it's no longer hot. For a moment he thinks he's dreaming - how can it be better so quickly? - but then he moves the arm experimentally; it twinges and it's definitely tender, but there's no shock of pain. He lifts it, brings it to his lap, begins unwrapping bandages.
Gaius appears at his side.
"Merlin. How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine, I feel... fine."
"That's excellent news," says Gaius, and puts his hands on Merlin's. "Leave that for now, my boy. Keep it wrapped and it will heal."
"But it's better, Gaius. I can feel it. I don't know how..." Merlin's voice suddenly trails off.
"Best keep it that way," says Gaius.
Merlin forgets to unwrap and stares. "You used magic? On my arm?"
Gaius smiles, calm but somehow restrained.
"You may not realise this, Merlin, but you were very ill indeed."
Merlin remembers pain and heat; Gaius talking to someone over his head; firm hands holding him still.
"I... I think I do realise that," he says slowly.
"You could have died," says Gaius gravely. "I had to do something."
Merlin suddenly itches to see the results of Gaius' magic. He bends to unwrap his arm, and this time Gaius helps him. He exposes two barely closed slashes with dry, slightly shiny edges. There's no swelling, no red streaks up his arm, and no bad smell. He moves it, wiggling his fingers experimentally; it does hurt a little, but it's so little compared to the fiery agony of before.
He looks at Gaius and knows his heart is full in his voice when he says, "Thank you."
It's late into the evening when Arthur visits again. Gaius has gone to attend the King and Merlin is dozing quietly on his bed, arm still wrapped. He wakes with a start when he senses someone in the room and opens his eyes to see Arthur's face, serious and slightly uncertain in the dim light. Arthur crosses the room in two strides and sits on the bed.
"Gaius said I should keep it covered," says Merlin. "To help it heal."
To his relief, Arthur doesn't push, although he does give Merlin an intense look.
"I'm amazed to see you so much better already. Gaius is a very talented healer."
"The best," says Merlin loyally.
"Almost a miracle worker," says Arthur slowly.
"He's done many incredible things," says Merlin. "He knows so much about science, and herbs and things..."
He trails off. Arthur is still peering into his face, his scrutiny unnerving. Merlin feels uneasy.
"I'm all right, Arthur," he says. "I'm sorry I was... Gaius said you were here. A lot. And you saved my life too. Thank you."
Arthur gives him one last considering look; then, as if satisfied with what he sees, he nods firmly and straightens himself.
"Well," he says. "I had to make sure things were done properly."
Arthur smells of metal and salt and just a little of sweat. They are not touching anywhere, but Merlin can almost feel Arthur's warmth, the life in him, pulsing away. It makes him smile, and for once Arthur doesn't tease or frown or get suspicious but smiles back. The smile is genuine and warm and reaches his eyes, and it touches something pure inside Merlin. He feels safe and calm and very content.
It's late. The sky is black outside the window; they regard one another in the warm puddle of light from the candle. Arthur hesitates, and then puts a hand out, hovering over Merlin's hand as if he wants to touch him, before moving to his head and ruffling his hair a little awkwardly. The heel of his hand brushes gently against Merlin's face as he moves to blow the candle out.
"Get some rest," says Arthur. He closes the door, leaving Merlin smiling into the darkness.