Day 11

Title: Day 11
Author: tarotgal
Fandom: Merlin
Rating: PG
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Disclaimer: Not my characters. I wish they were mine. I definitely don’t get paid for this.
Summary: Whose idea was it to hide?
Notes: Written during my 12 Ficlets in 12 Days in 2014 project for Anonymous

Merlin's hands were shaking along with the rest of him by the time he finished pitching the tent. His  fingers were so cold, the only thought in his mind were of warming them. He cupped his hands to his mouth and blew relatively warm air into them.

“Merlin?” Merlin spun in place to see Arthur standing there, head cocked to the side.  “What are you doing?”

“Trying to warm up.” He blew again on his hands. “It's cold out here.” The temperature had been dropping all day, and it felt twice as cold now that the sun was setting. Merlin was certain it would be below freezing tonight.

“Cold?” Arthur repeated. “You're brilliant, Merlin. However did you notice that it's winter? I'd almost forgotten. But, now that you've reminded me... how about a fire to warm us all up?”

'All' in this case was Merlin, Arthur, and six of Arthur's knights. Merlin was, of course, the only servant along on the quest, which had meant that every night he'd had to set up camp and every day he'd had to look after the knights' needs.  When Arthur had first mentioned the quest, it had seemed like a nice time. Merlin was always glad to get away from the castle and Uther's penetrating, oppressive gaze. Not only did he have to hide his magic from Arhur's father but he had to hide his feelings for Arthur as well. Arthur had been sure that, no matter how supportive of his son Uther claimed to be, he would not look favorably on Arthur falling for a servant... especially a male one.

So getting away for a little while had seemed like a great idea, even if it was wintertime. However, Merlin hadn't expected for Arthur to bring more than a handful of his knights along with him. The quest had been difficult (they had been searching the countryside for a supposedly magic flute), but being away from the castle and being so close to Arthur without being able to do much of anything about it.

“Hello, Merlin?” Arthur knocked lightly on the side of Merlin's head to snap him out of thought. “A fire?”

Merlin nodded with obedience, huffed into his cupped hands again, and then hurried into  the nearby forest for firewood.

As he walked along, picking up sticks as he found them, he realized he was sniffling. A lot. Without Arthur there to admonish him about it, his nose wanted to run freely.

Merlin knew he'd been fighting off a cold... fairly successfully, actually. Arthur hadn't noticed, at least. The teasing would never end, if Arthur knew. With any luck, he'd be able to have a quick bite of something warm one of the knights caught and go to bed in Arthur's tent, content and warm, and sleep off the worst of the cold before it had a chance to turn his nose as red as a strawberry.

Hah-Pittshhhhh!” Until then, he would just have to sniffle and sneeze when Arthur couldn't hear him.  Shivering with cold, Merlin hurriedly gathered as much wood as he could hold in his arms at one time. The sooner he got the wood, the sooner they would have a fire. And the sooner they had a fire, the sooner he would be warm and fed. And warm sounded spectacular. “hehh-Pxxtshhhh!

Nose running—and tickling—he lifted the top of his bandanna and hid the lower half of his face behind it. “hehh-Uhfschhhhhhh!” He rubbed his nose into the cloth, and the tickle in his nostrils died down to just a mild sneezy feeling again. And when he sniffed a few times, hard and wet, even that went away. With a renewed sense of accomplishment and the feeling that he would at least be able to get through the rest of the night, Arthur filled his arms with logs, sticks, and kindling.

When he got back to the clearing where they had set up camp for the night, Arthur and the other knights were sitting off to the side, talking. Merlin cast a quick glance in their direction, but Arthur didn't look his way. This was almost as bad as being back at the castle, having to watch every little thing he did. Although, back home, he had a warm bed and could borrow a a stack of handkerchiefs from Gaius. Here, all he could do was hunch over a pile of sticks and shiver and sniff as softly as possible.

They couldn't hear him from where he was. They couldn't hear him sniffle or clear his throat repeatedly, but they would hear him sneeze, if the tickle came back. So he pulled the red bandanna up to cover his nose and mouth again, to block any smoke from the fire that might set him off. With any luck, he'd get this job done fast then retreat to the tent.

Except the fire didn't want to start. Merlin smacked the two stones he had, producing all sorts of sparks, making them grow warm in his freezing cold hands. But none of the sparks were large enough to catch the twigs on fire, even when he moved left and bent over to block the freezing cold wind with his body. The sparks simply wouldn't catch hold of the wood. The fire simply wouldn't start.

Merlin glanced back over at the knights. Then he turned his back toward them. He sniffed a few times and cleared his throat. Then he whispered as clearly as possible, “Forbearnan.” As his eyes glowed amber briefly, a flame leapt from the pile of sticks on the ground in front of him. The fire was perfect, moving from the small sticks to the logs and settling there to eat away at the wood. At this rate, they would need more wood soon to last through the night. But, for now, Merlin was content to enjoy the warmth.

For the first time all day, his fingers didn't feel numb. He held his hands over the flames, flexing his fingers; they tingled, but no longer trembled with cold.

“Nice job, Merlin!” Arthur strode over and clapped Merlin on the back. “Didn't think you had it in you.”

Merlin looked up and over his shoulder, watching the glow of the flames against the man's fair, handsome face. He wasn't used to such public praise, and he had learned to appreciate whatever he could get. The memory of the touch lingered with Merlin, and he longed to retreat to the tent at once with Arthur.

“Since you finished that so quickly, you've got time to wash the saddles.”

Merlin's hopes shattered. “Saddles?”

“All that mud we rode through today. The horses are fine, but the saddles are still caked with it. You can't have the crowned prince of Camelot returning victorious after a quest with a dirty saddle, can you?”

Merlin shook his head.

“So while you're at it, clean them all off. You know where they are.” He gave Merlin's arm another punch to get him going and then waved over the knights to enjoy the fire with him.

Merlin pulled back and began to shiver, having been denied the warmth of the fire all of a sudden. He could feel his muscles beginning to tighten with cold again. But it wasn't until he had reached the edge of the clearing that he realized how bad a task he had been given. All of the saddles were covered in splashes of mud and grit. There was dried blood on a few and some powdery brown substance on another. Naturally, Arthur's saddle was the worst of the lot. He couldn't use magic this time or the others would suspect something had obviously be done, because it would take ages to clean all this off by hand.

And his hands were all he had at the moment—not even a bucket and brush. Of course Arthur hadn't considered that Merlin didn't have the proper tools for the job. All he seemed to care about was ordering Merlin around... and Merlin was beginning to think it wasn't all just to keep up appearances in front of him men. Suddenly, they were back to how it had been at the beginning, with Arthur having fun ordering him to do the worst tasks and Merlin having no choice but to obey.

Except now he wasn't sure how to best go about this. He could conjure some water up, certainly, but that still left the issue of the brush. And if anyone came over to inspect his progress, they would wonder how the saddles got so wet. Merlin sat down in the dark grass and wrapped his arms around his legs, bent at the knees. He rocked to stay warm as he contemplated the situation.

Only one solution presented itself in the end. So he pulled himself up, grabbed a saddle, and headed to the creek they'd passed in the woods just before stopping for the night. It wasn't so far back, but the woods looked different now that the sun had set. Each shadow held dark, ominous possibilities. Roots and stones stuck up, tripping him at every other step. And the creek seemed much further than he remembered. He only found it when he was ankle-deep in freezing cold water.

Merlin groaned and stepped back out of the stream, but the damage had already been done. He pulled off his boots at once, but the water had been high enough to rush inside, and it poured out of his shoes when he tipped them upside-down. He wiggled his toes to keep them warm and moving and rubbed the sleeve of his jacket against his feet to dry them as much as he could. But they were now wet, cold, and exposed to the winter air, and this made him shiver. He tried jogging in place, tried keeping his mind on the task at hand, tried rubbing his hands up and down his arms—but nothing was enough to drive the shivers away. In the end, he just put up with the shaking as he set the saddle down by the creek, knelt on the banks, rolled up his sleeves, and cupped water in his hands. He still had nothing proper to scrub with, so he took off his red bandanna and, after wetting it in the creek, wiped the saddle down.

It grew darker and darker as night fell around him in the woods. He used magic again to light the end of a makeshift torch, so he could at least tell when he had a saddle clean. But the process was slow-going. He traipsed back and forth, doing one saddle at a time, with his feet numb and his hands number, arms submerged to the elbows in the ice cold water. Not to mention the sneezing. Far from the others, he could sneeze freely, as needed. However, the first time he did so, he bent his head to rub his nose dry and remembered the bandanna was being used for cleaning. He didn't have a handkerchief on his person, so the best he could do was sniff and rub his runny nose against his sleeve. He didn't have Arthur hovering over him, but he was miserable, however you looked at it.

hehhh-Eh'ptshhhhhh!” And his cold seemed to be getting worse with each passing minute. When he'd started out with the first saddle, Arthur's, he had felt ill and stuffy, certainly. But by the time he was cleaning off the fourth, his nose tickled without reprieve and he was beyond caring about who might hear. “uhhh-HIKTschhhh! Hehptshhhhh! Hehh-IHschhhhhhhh! Uhhhhh...” He sniffed wetly and rubbed his nose into his shoulder, where his jacket was already damp. But his eyes didn't fully open and his mouth didn't fully close. It was only a minute until his next sneeze. “hehhhpTchhhhhhh!

He cleaned saddle after saddle, growing progressively colder and more tired as he went along. The last saddle certainly did not look as good as the first he had worked on, but he didn't care. He set the saddle down with the rest of the equipment, grabbed his cold and sopping boots, and headed straight for the tent.

“Merlin!” Arthur called, spotting him just as Merlin pulled the tent flap aside to go inside. “We're hungry out here. Care to cook something?”

The way Arthur had phrased that, it wasn't an order exactly, even if he had intended it to be one. He knew he was expected to go over and cook the meal. But he couldn't stop shaking. Or sniffling. And he was likely to give them all colds if he went over now. So he chose to pretend as if he hadn't heard and went right into the tent.

It wasn't much warmer inside, but at least it was out of the wind. His bedroll lay rolled up beside Arthur's. And though Merlin knew a spell that would unroll it at once, he didn't trust himself to say it now, not with his nose streaming like this, unchecked, and his head full of congestion. It was all he could do to undo the tie, spread it out, and fall on top of it. He shivered uncontrollably, hugging his arms to his chest, curling his legs and crossing them at the ankles.

“Merlin, what are you--” Arthur started, as he barged into the tent only a moment later. He sounded cross, but his voice died away for a minute. When it returned, it was full of concern only. “What's the matter with you?”

Merlin couldn't answer. His jaw vibrated as his teeth chattered nonstop. And his breath caught at once. There was a lot he hid from the world, and there was one very important thing he hid from Arthur. And, right now, he would have liked to have hid his cold as well. But that took far more strength and energy and will than he had left inside him. In one last, desperate attempt, he turned his head, pressing his nose into the bedroll, hoping that smashing his nose against it like that would quiet the tickles just enough for them to back off. “hehhh... ehh-ehhh...” As it turned out, it wasn't. “ehhh-INGshhuhhhh! Hehhh-Ehptschhhh! Keh... hehhhIhshhhhh!

“Bless you... Merlin?” Arthur sat down on the ground beside Merlin, leaning back against his own bedroll.  “Are you all right?”

Merlin turned his head and gave the Arthur an incredulous look... just before his head snapped forward. “ehhh-Hiptschuhhh!

Arthur seemed to understand how foolish his question had been. “All right, but is there something I can do?”

Merlin shook his head. It was hopeless now. “ehhhh-IhhhShuhhh! Hihkshhhhhh!

“Maybe there's some herb I can find? Something Gaius would give you if you were back home?”

This wasn't an entirely terrible idea. There wasn't anything out in the forest that would help his cold, of course, but he might send Arthur out on a useless search in the freezing cold. That would serve the prince right. It would also give Merlin a chance to utter some healing magic spells. But considering how bad things went every time he tried to use magic on himself, doing so now seemed like it would only end badly for him. And now that Arthur was here... and now that Arthur knew... Merlin found he didn't want the man going anywhere. 

“How long have you been feeling ill?”

“Th-th-th-th-this... bord... b-b-bord-dig.”

“This morning?” Arthur repeated as he reached over and gripped Merlin's shoulder. “And I didn't notice until now?”

The answer to that seemed obvious. “You w-were... b-b-busy. F-flute. Queh.-quest.”

“Damn it.” Arthur's hand rubbed Merlin's arm, then pulled back. The man took his glove off and palmed Merlin's forehead. “Unless I'm much mistaken, you're feverish.” He gave a single, soft laugh. “You're ill and miserable in the middle of nowhere and you're still trying to make me feel better about being such a... a clot-poll.” Merlin gave a weak smile. “You're a good servant, Merlin, but an even better friend. And it's time I treated you like one. Tell me what you need and I swear to you that you shall have it.”

Merlin sniffed, cleared his throat, and answered, “J-just... keep me warm?”

Arthur nodded with exactly the sort of resolve Merlin had come to expect from the crowned prince of Camelot. 

Merlin tried to get up, tried to reply, but his hitching breath made words an impossibility. “ehh-heh-heh-ih-heh-ihhh... ih-eh-Hetschuhhh!” Something warm and dry and unbelievably soft pressed against his nose, and Merlin opened his eyes to find Arthur sitting beside him still, holding a handkerchief to Merlin's nose. There wasn't time for thank yous. “ehhh-Ihptshhh! HehhKschhhh! H'ptshhhh!” Merlin refused to blow his nose, not wanting to use the handkerchief up so quickly, so he snuffled into it and opened his eyes to find Arthur had rolled his blanket out. He had also laid out his cloak, lined with fur. Nothing could have looked warmer or more inviting just now.

But when Arthur reached out to him, the crowned prince's hand recoiled instinctively. “Merlin! Why are your clothes wet?”

Merlin thought about explaining about sneezing into his sleeve, but he didn't have the energy. “W-wash-ing s-s-sad-dles in... in... th-the creek-k.” He gave a violent shiver on top of his normal shivers.

“Off with your clothes then,” said Arthur, decisively.

“T-t-too c-c-co-cold-d.”

“Well you're not going to get any warmer lying there in wet clothes.” Merlin couldn't move, apart from the shivering, but he didn't pull away when Arthur started to help. Item by item, Arthur stripped him down to next to nothing. Then he rolled Merlin over onto the fur. Somehow, Arthur had gotten out of his own clothes as well and, when he pulled Merlin close, he gave a start. “Your hands and feet are like ice!”

Merlin merely nodded. Teeth chattering, nose running, body shaking, he burrowed himself into Arthur's chest, the warmest thing he could find. But it wasn't nearly enough.

“Hang on...” Arthur worked some magic of his own, rolling on top of Merlin, then pulling the cloak and the blanket around them, wrapping them up tight and warm together. He curved his arms around, holding Merlin tightly in their cocoon.

It was still some time before Merlin actually stopped shivering. It seemed unusually quiet now, without the sound of Merlin's teeth clacking together. And when he sneezed, it sounded twice as loud. “ehhh-PTSCHHHhhhhh!” He expected Arthur to make a face or at least pull away. But Arthur didn't budge. He was still a heavy, strong warmth on top of and around Merlin. Merlin wiped his nose with the handkerchief gratefully.

“You could have told me,” Arthur spoke softly in his ear. “If I'd known, I wouldn't have made you clean those saddles.”

“It w-was my idea to keep up appearances in front of everyone.”  Merlin shivered again, and Arthur tightened the hug.

He tightened it again, squeezing hard, when Merlin tensed again with the need to sneeze. “huhhh... huh-IHptshhhhh!” Afterward, Arthur relaxed, but Merlin didn't. “hehh-Ihtschhhh! Hihhh-Kptschhhh!

Arthur waited for him to rub his nose then he placed a soft kiss on Merlin's warm cheek. “When we get back to the castle, I'm going to see you tucked into my bed under my warmest blankets and supplied with all the handkerchiefs I own. And, for a change, I'll wait on you.”

Merlin laughed. He knew he should not believe it, knew it would never come to pass, but the image was doing him some good. It didn't hurt to dream—or laugh.