Title: were it not that I have bad dreams
Rating: R (Mature)
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Comfort isn’t something that Arthur knows how to ask for, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something he needs. (Part 3 of the heaven and earth series)
Warnings: Deals with nightmares, references to the aftermath of torture.
Word Count: ~870w
Prompt: 386 Comfort
Author's Notes: Apologies for this being both late and completely unedited – NaNoWriMo is currently kicking my butt, lol.
The dreams don’t stop, afterwards. Night after night, Merlin wakes up to Arthur’s shortened breath, the sound of his own name like a tremor in the dark.
“Arthur,” he whispers in reply, unable as always is to resist a summons from that voice. “Arthur, wake up.”
When Arthur stirs, however, he keeps his eyes closed, his face buried in the crook of Merlin’s neck. It’s not the restraints that he fears now, or the memory of what was done to him that leaves him panting and hot with sweat, but exactly what it is he doesn’t say, and Merlin doesn’t know how to ask without breaking him open. The scrapes around Arthur’s wrists are gone, the marks of his captivity sunk beneath his skin and deep into his bones where not even Merlin’s fervent kisses can coax them out, and Arthur seems determined to pretend they never existed.
“You need to sleep, sire,” Merlin says each morning, brushing his thumbs over the purple bruises beneath Arthur’s eyes. “You can’t go on like this.”
“I’m fine, Merlin,” Arthur says, every time, but the look on his face says he knows that fine has long since become a relative term. “You worry too much. Stop fussing.”
Merlin worries just the right amount, as far as he’s concerned: enough for every lost hour since Arthur’s kidnapping, enough for every time he feared that Arthur would never come back. He worries for every brick and stone of the castle he shattered to bring Arthur home, and for the way Arthur falters sometimes when no one’s watching, the shadows that haunt his mouth and eyes.
He doesn’t worry about the men he killed to get there—they deserved what happened to them, every one.
There’s a pyre in the courtyard the day that Merlin finally understands, but even then it takes the sight of Arthur pushing past him, white-faced, and heaving the remains of his lunch into the privy before he figures out there’s something wrong.
“You’re afraid of me,” he says, when he reaches out to touch Arthur’s nape and Arthur flinches. “Arthur? Are you—is this because of what I did to Vortigern?”
Arthur shakes his head, but his white-knuckled grip on the window frame isn’t very convincing. He straightens slowly, years rolling over him like ashes, his gaze carrying a hint of the smoke from the fire.
“You have to understand,” he said, not looking at Merlin. “The whole time that I was there, I told myself there was only one thing I really had to lose—only one thing that they could take from me that truly mattered. I couldn't regret what happened to me so long as Camelot and the people I cared about would be safe.”
“And now you’re here,” Merlin says, voice softening with comprehension. “But there’s still a chance they could take it all from you. Because of me.”
Arthur nods, but doesn’t speak. The light from the narrow window highlights the bridge of his nose, his eyes, the line of his profile, and in the shadows Merlin almost fancies he can see the bruises again.
“Arthur,” he says. “I won’t let that happen.”
Arthur lets out his breath, and though his gaze is still on the courtyard he says, “I spoke to Sir Benedict yesterday.”
“Oh.” He’d been a member of Arthur’s rescue party, the first one down the stairs into the dungeon after Merlin had set the prisoners free. “Did he—?”
“He won’t say anything,” Arthur interrupts. “He knows you saved my life. But what about next time, Merlin? Or the time after that? I won’t be able to buy their silence forever.”
Merlin wants to kiss him. Steps up to do so, in fact, forgetting where they are and why they’re here until Arthur ducks his head away.
“At least let me rinse my mouth out first,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “Christ, Merlin.”
Undaunted, Merlin drapes his arms around Arthur’s neck and holds on, pressing his lips to Arthur's cheek and throat, curling his fingers into Arthur’s soft hair.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs in Arthur’s ear. “I couldn’t let them hurt you.”
“I know,” Arthur said with a tiny smile. “But who’s to stop them from hurting you?”
Later, much later, Merlin says, “Look,” and opens his fist, a golden butterfly spilling out and trailing luminescent dust as it flutters towards the ceiling. Others follow, each stream of flowering sparks bursting into wings as they hit the posts and bedclothes.
Arthur’s eyes are half-lidded, reflective as a cat’s. His mouth curves into a slow half-smile as he says, “Very pretty, Merlin. Is that how you broke into Vortigern’s castle—by distracting him with butterflies?”
“Prat,” Merlin says, snorting, and Arthur laughs and grabs his wrist, bringing Merlin’s hand up to his mouth. He licks at his fingers, sucking the soft mound below Merlin’s thumb like he’s trying to taste the magic at its source, and Merlin rolls onto his side and fits himself close against Arthur’s body, the two of them folded chest to chest like twin palms clasped in prayer. Comfort isn’t something that Arthur knows how to ask for, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something he needs.