Title: sometimes when I fall asleep (your eyes close)
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur, Gaius
Summary: Arthur’s manservant has been unconscious for days, the victim of a curse that had been meant for the king, but sometimes in his sleep he wanders into Arthur’s dreams, calling for his lost prince, and his voice lingers.
Word Count: 1000w
Prompt: 304 Saviour by ObsidianSerpent
Author's Notes: Title inspired by Neruda's Love Sonnet XVII. pelydryn77, I wrote part of this back when I was working on your birthday fic, ironically enough. Thanks for all the h/c prompts ;)
The cries start up again in the middle of the night.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice, sharp and plaintive, echoes through the royal bedchamber. “Arthur, where are you?”
Roused from the depths of an uncertain sleep, Arthur is halfway out of his bed before he remembers what he’s doing. In the alcove, Merlin’s voice tapers off and the sobbing begins, a sound that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of Arthur’s neck.
It’s not really Merlin, of course. Arthur’s manservant has been unconscious for days, the victim of a curse that had been meant for the king, but sometimes in his sleep he wanders into Arthur’s dreams, calling for his lost prince, and his voice lingers. Arthur scrubs at his face and closes his eyes, trying not to hear what is essentially a dying man’s lament. Gaius has assured him that the manifestations are nothing to worry about, likely a side-effect of being so close to the curse when it was cast, but at times he suspects they must be more than that. Merlin sounds so lonely it breaks Arthur’s heart, especially since he knows this is all his fault.
He never should have agreed to let Merlin go with them.
By the second week, Merlin has taken to sleepwalking in a more literal sense, and Arthur wakes one night to a shadowed figure in the corner of his room, curled in on himself like a frightened ghost. Arthur escorts Merlin back to the infirmary on unsteady feet, feeling like the worst kind of coward as he closes the door on his manservant’s frantic calls. He hasn’t slept properly in days—he’s not sure how long they can go on like this, but Gaius insists that he will come up with an antidote soon. It’s only a matter of time.
According to the physician, the curse is a simple but effective one: a sleeping-sickness, designed to torture the sleeper with bad dreams and keep them from their proper rest. Yet there is something in the way he won’t meet Arthur’s eyes that suggests it is not so straightforward. Why is it Arthur alone that Merlin searches for? And why is it Merlin’s voice that jolts Arthur awake out of dreams of his own death, night after night?
“Clearly, it is because Merlin fears it, sire,” Gaius says, when Arthur asks him such questions. “The curse forces him to live through a nightmare again and again. I expect you're feeling the echo of his heartache, nothing more.”
Arthur has no doubt that some of this is true, but he's living his own nightmare now, and Gaius will not confide in him those details which are necessary for the world to make sense. The next night, when Arthur is again woken by Merlin’s voice in his head, he doesn’t return him to the infirmary as he usually does but crouches in front of him, a chill running down his spine as he looks into the closed eyes and vacant face of his erstwhile manservant. The man could be dead.
“Merlin?” he questions softly, unsure whether he ought to try and wake him. It has never worked so far, but perhaps, if Arthur can get through to him… “Merlin, can you hear me?”
There is no response. Merlin is crying without seeming to pause, a low keening noise emerging from the back of his throat, and, as it always does, a rush of pure loneliness sweeps through Arthur like a flood, making him catch his breath. Before he realises what he is doing, he’s inching forward, no other thought in his head save that he has to let Merlin know he’s not alone.
He can feel the individual bones of Merlin’s ribs as he picks him up and cradles him in his arms. Merlin has always been too skinny, all soft mouth and sharp angles, but a diet of mostly broth has whittled him down to the essentials: the clever, long-fingered hands, too clean for a servant; large ears; the fast-shut, ever-moving eyes. He barely makes a dent in the mattress when Arthur lays him on the bed and draws the covers over him, and he doesn’t so much as stir when Arthur brushes the hair out of his face.
“You’re still an idiot, you know,” he whispers, like it’s a secret. He slides back under the covers next to Merlin, hesitating a moment before moving closer and slipping an arm across the other man’s chest. Merlin huffs softly at the contact, and for an instant Arthur thinks maybe he has woken up, but his eyes are closed.
Some time later, the door to his chambers opens with a loud squeak and a groan of hinges. Arthur blinks awake at the noise, confused and bleary-eyed, and Merlin mutters in his sleep beside him, one hand grasping for Arthur’s shirt.
“Rest easy, sire.” The old physician’s voice is soft and slightly choked. “I only wanted to see where Merlin had got to. I should have known he would be here.”
Arthur sits up anyway, vaguely aware of the picture he must present and feeling defensive in the way that only embarrassed royalty can. “I couldn’t just leave him,” he says, knowing full well that that was exactly what he’d done every other night. “I just—it was only for a night.”
“I know, sire.” For some reason, Gaius looks as if he’s trying not to smile. “I had thought—it was a long shot, but it seems he’s all the better for it. Look.”
Merlin is frowning a little at the sound of voices, showing more awareness now than he has in weeks. Arthur’s eyes widen as he feels Merlin stretch, eyelashes fluttering like he’s just coming out of a natural sleep. When Arthur shakes his shoulder and whispers, “Merlin,” he slits one blue eye open to glare at the prince.
“I was sleeping,” he says, as if they could possibly have overlooked it. “What did I miss?”