Length: ~3400 words
Author's note: I've been lurking around the fandom for a bit, but this is my first foray into posting fic. Any comments, including con-crit, are highly appreciated.
Summary: There are cabbages that try harder to safeguard their own lives than Merlin does. At least cabbages have contrived to smell funny in order to keep people away.
Arthur feels a profound sense of déjà vu when Merlin bursts into the hall and snatches up the proffered bracelet and shouts that it’s poisoned. It isn’t a feast this time, just an offer of a gift from a former rival of the kingdom, and Merlin (unfortunately) isn’t wearing that very fine feathered hat, but otherwise it’s all the same. The determined look on his manservant’s face, the outrage on his father’s, the shock on those of the court. Though this time it isn’t exasperation at his servant’s idiocy that hits Arthur first. Instead it’s a sinking feeling that this is all going to go very bad, coupled with an awareness of the fact that the servant holding the jewelry has his hands encased in heavy leather gloves.
The rival – Arthur can’t actually remember his name, in this moment – is shouting, and Uther is standing up and shouting, and Merlin’s features are set in a grim mask as he speaks, quietly but with an unexpected authority that has him heard over all the yelling.
“It’s poisoned. I can’t tell you how I know, so I’ll just save you the trouble, shall I?”
Arthur opens his mouth to shout too, to say no, but Merlin’s already slipping the bracelet onto his wrist. There’s a beat of silence as everyone watches him. And then his skin goes a sickly, bruised shade of green everywhere the metal’s touched, fingertips and wrist and the back of his hand and base of his thumb where it scraped while he was putting it on. The look on Merlin’s face, as he crumples to the floor, is disturbingly triumphant.
The noise pours back in like a tidal wave as the room erupts. Gaius isn’t there, nor Morgana nor Gwen, and in the commotion no one notices the prince kneeling at the collapsed servant’s side. There’s a pulse, and breath, but he’s out cold. Arthur wants to wrestle the bracelet off Merlin’s wrist before it can do any further harm – the green has already spread across his hand, and begun crawling up his arm – but he doesn’t have his own gloves with him. And he won’t be able to do a thing for Merlin if he gets poisoned too, not to mention that it would be absurd to waste the idiot’s sacrifice like that.
He scans the room to find that the guards have already subdued the visiting party. Uther’s speaking to the nameless rival with cold fury, but Arthur makes directly for the servant with the gloves.
“You will give those to me,” he growls, and the guard keeping the man’s hands behind his back loosens his grip at the expression on the prince’s face. The servant doesn’t even try to make a run for it or put up any fight, just sheds the gloves quickly. He looks absolutely terrified.
The gloves are too small for Arthur. He can only get his fingers into their sheathes to the second knuckle, and his rage threatens to boil over at the added frustration as he tries awkwardly to wrestle the jewelry from Merlin’s wrist. The thing catches on the wide part of his hand and the green of his skin is turning purple and black like a bruise before Arthur manages to pull it free.
He flings the bracelet on the floor along with the gloves and barks orders to one of the servants cowering against the wall to bring it after him.
“Don’t let it touch you,” he adds, slinging Merlin’s limp form across his shoulder. The servant skitters after him as Arthur leaves.
It’s a run-of-the-mill poison this time, nothing mystical, no need to go riding off to distant caves in search of rare flowers. Gaius just needs a few ordinary herbs, and Gwen, who apparently hears everything and turned up shortly after Arthur walked in, takes off to collect them. Leaving Arthur with nothing to do. He almost wishes it was something rare and guarded, requiring a quest, just so he wouldn’t feel so useless. He sits by Merlin’s bedside for a few minutes, watching the progress of the discoloration on his skin. It’s slowed, since the bracelet came off, but his hand is the blue-black of the deepest bruises while the green has made it most of the way to his elbow.
“Should it still be spreading like that?” he asks Gaius. The physician is bustling about the room, gathering supplies, but he stops and comes to the bed at Arthur’s question.
“Yes, that’s quite normal. It will stop once the poultice is applied, I assure you.”
“And he’ll be alright?”
“Eventually, yes,” Gaius promises, the tone of his voice giving no indication that he has already answered this question at least three times in the last twenty minutes. “The skin will take time to heal, and he’ll have little strength in that arm for a few weeks, but I am confident that he will make a full recovery.” Catching the look on the prince’s face, he adds, “You did him a great service in removing the poisoned item so quickly.”
“You idiot,” is the first thing Arthur says, when Merlin finally opens his eyes. It has taken longer than it should have; Arthur has paced and sat and paced and now finds himself sitting again, his worry replaced by growing anger. He shouldn’t have to be worried, because Merlin shouldn’t have put himself in this situation at all.
They’re alone in the room, Gaius summoned to the king to explain the poison and Gwen gone to fetch more water. (Arthur suspects that by this point, Gwen knows “bring water” really means “we need a bit of privacy”. She went off for it of her own accord this time; if she’s making a point by leaving Arthur alone with Merlin, Arthur doesn’t want to think about it.)
“Sorry?” Merlin squeaks. His arm is still entirely the wrong color, and his voice is weak, and all that just makes Arthur even angrier.
“If you really want to kill yourself just say so and I’ll get my sword, you needn’t go through these theatrics in front of half the court-”
“I was protecting you!” Merlin protests. He tries to sit up, but winces in pain and sinks back down at the first attempt to put weight on the damaged arm. He doesn’t notice that Arthur winces a little too.
“You could have just said it was poisoned, you didn’t have to go and put it on and make a big scene about it-”
“Yeah, because your father’s always so quick to believe me-” Merlin looks confused, probably wondering why they’re fighting about this. At that moment the door creaks, letting Gaius back in, and relief is evident on Merlin’s face.
“Merlin! You’re awake!” Gaius exclaims.
Arthur jumps immediately to his feet. He’s awfully close to admitting that he is having feelings, and that those feelings are associated with Merlin, and he isn’t about to do that in front of a reliable witness like Gaius. “So he is. I have things to attend to,” he says, tone carefully neutral. And he strides out without looking back, leaving Merlin bewildered on the bed.
Arthur doesn’t return to Gaius’s chambers that day, or the next. He has plenty to keep him busy, enemies of the kingdom and all that, but the truth is that he doesn’t want to see Merlin all weak and hurt because it’s just going to upset him again.
The day after, he finds Merlin in his room when he wakes up. The damaged arm hangs in a sling. He has a jug of water nestled in the crook of the other elbow, his hand occupied with a plate of food, and is trying to shift the items onto the table without spilling anything. Arthur watches, almost holding his breath, until the task is accomplished, then clears his throat loudly.
Merlin startles visibly and turns. “Sorry, did I wake you?”
Merlin hesitates a moment, seeming to expect more, then awkwardly tugs Arthur’s chair out from the table and backs away.
“I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit useless until this-“ he shrugs the shoulder with the sling, “clears up, but-”
“And whose fault is that?” Arthur asks sharply. The anger’s back, overwhelming whatever else he might feel. Merlin frowns, considers.
“Well, you could say it was the fellow who actually did the poisoning, although I’m sure he was ordered-”
“Not,” Arthur cuts him off, “what I meant. Idiot.”
Merlin blinks. “Someone’s cranky this morning.”
“You could have died,” Arthur snaps, and Merlin just stares at him, the simple blank expression feeding into the prince’s fury. “What if it wasn’t something with a remedy this time?” He continues, volume rising. “What if it killed instantly? What if you barged in there playing the hero and ended up cold on the floor?”
“Better me than you,” Merlin says in a small voice.
“No! No it’s not! You could have just said something, it wasn’t like the other time, my father would believe you now after everything-”
“Why are you so angry about this? I’m your servant, remember, it’s my job to protect you-”
“It isn’t your job to die for no reason!”
“It wouldn’t have been for no reason, it – Arthur, why are you so angry?”
“Because you could have died,” Arthur says again, his voice softening now. “Putting that thing on was stupid and reckless and unnecessarily dramatic, and if you’d died-” he breaks off, no longer looking at Merlin, and finally rises to move to his chair.
“If I’d died?” Merlin prompts after a moment, quietly.
“Then I’d have been out a manservant, and you know how I feel about finding replacements.” The tone is that of his usual banter, but there’s an edge of strain underneath it.
“Right. Sorry. Couldn’t possibly inconvenience you like that,” Merlin says, voice light, but he’s watching the prince with interest when Arthur looks up.
“Just… take a little more care for yourself in the future, alright?” he says, serious again. “Saving my life’s all well and good, but leave out the almost dying yourself bit if it’s not too much trouble.”
Merlin gives a small nod, and Arthur promptly starts in on a rant concerning the state of his chambers, because enough is enough. That brings the usual stupid grin back to Merlin’s face, and the weight that had settled in Arthur’s chest when this whole mess began finally lifts.
* * *
Sometimes Arthur gets drunk at a feast. Only if all the important politics have already been sorted, and if he has no pressing engagements in the morning, and if his father’s attention is generally elsewhere. But sometimes Arthur does allow himself to get drunk at a feast, because he can and because it’s incredibly nice to sink into the state of simple dumb joy that results when all his usual concerns are forced to back down.
Sometimes Merlin gets drunk at these feasts too, because Arthur’s simple dumb joy is amplified when there’s someone to share it, and it’s not like Merlin would listen if Arthur told him to leave the wine alone anyway.
Sometimes Arthur slips away from the feast before it’s entirely done, beckoning Merlin with him, and they stumble back to Arthur’s quarters and share another skin of wine in private until they’re both smiling dopily and giggling and completely and utterly useless at everything. Arthur loves these evenings, even if he would never say so. One of them occurs a few weeks after the incident with the poisoned bracelet. Merlin’s arm has healed, much to Arthur’s unstated relief, and he’s been enjoying the opportunity to let loose for a bit.
Finally, with many hours gone on the road to morning, Arthur stands up from his seat dramatically, wheels around the back of the chair, and collapses into it again. He looks around, eyes bright with expectation, then frowns.
“Wait, tha’s not – tha’s not –“ His face crumples in confusion at the complete lack of change in his surroundings. Merlin dissolves into laughter. Merlin is probably slightly less drunk than Arthur, which is ridiculous given that Merlin’s a stick with arms and Arthur is, well, Arthur, but Arthur’s far too gone into the warm alcoholic haze to be bothered about it.
“Right, I think it’s time you got to bed,” Merlin announces when he’s got a hold of himself again, and gets to his feet with only slightly more grace than Arthur managed. He tugs Arthur upright and drags him – the prince isn’t resisting, exactly, it’s just that his feet have decided to chase each other in every direction except the one in which Merlin is trying to go – over to the bed. Arthur sits down heavily at the foot, humming quietly to himself, while Merlin goes about the business of getting his shirt off.
This takes far longer than it ought to, because Arthur keeps slouching against the bedpost and Merlin keeps giggling, but finally the thing’s off. The boots go a bit more easily, but then Merlin is faced with a conundrum in the form of Arthur’s trousers.
“Look, I don’t think we’re going to manage your- your-“ Merlin stops, snickering at himself, then tries again, gesturing vaguely at Arthur’s lower body, “your leg-wearing-things-“
“No, prob’ly not,” Arthur agrees pleasantly. “Maybe if I had a halfway decent…” He trails off and promptly flops backward across the corner of the bed. It’s very late, and he’s happy but he’s also exhausted, and the exhaustion is winning. His legs dangle over one end of the bed, and his head lolls against the edge around the corner, the bed post the only thing keeping him from rolling off entirely. “Good ‘nough,” Arthur mutters, eyes falling closed.
Merlin rolls his eyes. “No no no,” he protests, sounding altogether too sober now, “if you sleep like that, you’ll get a crick in your royal neck and I’ll never hear the end of it.” He reaches for Arthur’s hand and tries to tug him upright, but Arthur isn’t helping and Merlin’s grip isn’t what it could be so that accomplishes exactly nothing.
“Arthur,” Merlin whines. Arthur ignores him because he frankly doesn’t give a toss about his royal neck when there’s something soft under him and all his muscles seem to have turned to very heavy jelly. Merlin rolls his eyes again. He kicks off his own boots, climbs up onto the bed, and hooks his arms beneath Arthur’s shoulders so he can haul the prince into a more conventional sleeping position. After a good bit of grunting and muttering on Merlin’s part, and absolutely no contribution on Arthur’s, they end up with Merlin slumped against the pillows and Arthur slumped against Merlin.
“Tha’s good,” Arthur mumbles when Merlin stills.
“Right,” Merlin agrees, and starts trying to extricate himself. Arthur makes a disapproving noise and slaps lightly at Merlin’s thigh.
“Stop moving,” he says. “’m quite comfortable.” And he is. Despite the bony hips, Merlin’s lap forms a pleasant cradle for Arthur’s backside, and he finds that he likes the warmth of Merlin’s chest under him, and the feel of another person against his skin, and he’s had enough wine that nothing else seems remotely important.
“I’m thrilled for you,” Merlin tells him, “But I’m tired too and I’d like to get some sleep myself-“
“So go to sleep.” Arthur doesn’t see why this is an issue. They’re in a bed, they’re comfortable, Merlin even got his boots off and everything.
“What, here?” Merlin asks.
“It’s a bed, idiot, it’s what they’re for,” Arthur says, his tone somehow simultaneously indicating that he’s stating the painfully obvious and that he’s on the verge of unconsciousness. He’s out before Merlin can think of a reply.
Arthur wakes up with the sunlight heating the skin of his back. His head is throbbing gently, his neck stiff, and his right arm is half-asleep because he’s curled himself sideways against Merlin’s body and the appendage is pinned tight between them. And his face feels weird from being pressed against the coarse weave of Merlin’s shirt instead of the fine fabric of his pillows. And there’s a growing damp spot just beneath the corner of his mouth, not that Arthur would ever actually admit to drooling in his sleep. His legs are tangled with Merlin’s and his toes are cold.
And Arthur has absolutely no desire whatsoever to move, in spite of all of it. Merlin’s hands have settled themselves against Arthur’s hip and shoulder, and he can feel the slow rise and fall of Merlin’s chest as he breathes, the steady beat of his heart. He’s too warm where Merlin or the sun touch him, and too cold everywhere else, and his body aches with the vengeance of the wine, but at the same time he feels completely safe in a way he hasn’t experienced since he used to crawl into his nursemaid’s bed as a small boy.
Now there’s an image – Merlin as nursemaid, with a soft dress and soft bed and soft voice, holding him close and cooing gentle nonsense in his ear, soothing his fears with gentle hands against his back. Arthur can’t quite decide whether it’s completely hilarious or strangely appealing.
He shuffles himself onto his stomach, freeing his trapped limb. The motion provokes an incomprehensible murmur from Merlin, and as the pins and needles shoot up his arm, Arthur is struck by the hope that this isn’t going to get awkward when the other man wakes up.
They’ve certainly shared sleeping accommodations before, even pressed up back to back one particularly cold night out in the woods. But he can’t deny that there’s a difference between conserving body heat and insisting that one’s servant sleep in one’s bed because one is quite comfortable on top of him, thanks very much. It’s silly, though. He knows full well that Merlin cares about him; if the life-saving isn’t enough proof, he’s also got all those goofy smiles and soppy speeches and the assurance of every half-way sentient creature that’s ever seen them together for more than five minutes.
And Merlin should know that Arthur cares about him, too, even if Arthur isn’t about to admit it. There’s the reciprocated life-saving, for a start. And while Arthur doesn’t do soppy speeches, he knows he touches Merlin rather more than is strictly necessary, and drags him along on all kinds of excursions for absolutely no reason apart from a desire for his company, and lets him get away with absurd amounts of insubordination. (Not to mention the fact that the observations of half-way sentient creatures go both ways.) If all of that isn’t enough to make Arthur’s affection apparent, then Merlin really is an idiot.
And Arthur doesn’t actually think that Merlin is stupid, exactly. Painfully naïve, and seriously lacking common sense, and possessed of an absurdly underdeveloped self-preservation instinct, yes, but not stupid. (There are cabbages that try harder to safeguard their own lives than Merlin does. At least cabbages have contrived to smell funny in order to keep people away. Merlin smells like whatever herbal concoction currently dominates Gaius’s workroom and has a disturbing propensity for coming to Arthur’s aid in the most personally dangerous way possible. Arthur is still a bit unhappy about that bracelet thing, not that he will admit it.)
So Merlin shouldn’t be awkward about this. They’re friends, and sometimes friends get drunk and end up in bed together, and – and frankly, Arthur is done thinking about this. His arm feels normal again, and the other discomforts still present are inadequate to prevent him from falling back into a peaceful sleep.
The next time Arthur wakes, it’s because Merlin is moving. He’s got his eyes shut tight but he’s leaning off to one side, blindly groping for the bed curtain. The sunlight is falling directly across his face now, and if his head feels anything like Arthur’s does, Arthur completely understands why he wants the light blocked out.
“Maybe if you’d closed it last night we wouldn’t have this problem,” Arthur says quietly, grabbing for the curtain himself.
“Maybe if you hadn’t passed out on me like a great big sack of turnips I would have,” Merlin retorts, his tone equally soft.
Arthur needn’t have worried about awkwardness; within moments, they’re bickering like they always do, and the fact that they’re still curled up together becomes a pleasant but completely irrelevant detail.