The first thing that stimulates Merlin’s awareness is the feeling of deep pressure and neutral warmth swathing his entire aching body.
Next, he recognizes the sound of voices nearby. If he can just concentrate on their words and what they mean…
“How about… Bradford?”
“I hate that.”
“You look like someone who would like that name.”
“Well, I don’t...”
Merlin’s eyelids are a hundred tons apiece. Lifting them takes several tries.
The world is one wide, greasy fingerprint, but Merlin cannot lift his hands to his face to try and clear his sight.
The voices continue in their conversational tone.
“Your suggestions haven’t been that great, either.”
“Better than yours.”
“And anyway, why should I seek naming advice from a man called ‘Martigan?’”
“Hey! It’s not like I named myself.”
Merlin blinks until fuzzy edges start to sharpen and shapes are again their own separate forms instead of one massed blur.
The sun is setting outside and the light is dim, but Merlin can still see Arthur and Martigan standing a few feet away from him, facing each other.
Arthur is holding a small bundle wrapped in one of his shirts. The red one he likes so much.
Once it fixates there, Merlin cannot tear his gaze away from the bundle the prince rocks in his arms ever so gently.
Arthur turns slightly in his direction, freezing when his eyes meet those of the sorcerer’s.
Arthur’s hair is sweaty and flat against his skull, his face tear-stained and the skin under his eyes dark. The baby he is holding is wrinkled and blotchy.
It is the most beautiful, perfect vision that has ever graced Merlin’s eyes.
He wants to reach for them, but he is paralyzed.
Arthur carefully sits beside him on the floor, looking at Merlin as if the sorcerer has just bestowed upon him all the riches of the universe and crowned him its king.
He pulls back the bedroll, freeing Merlin’s arms.
Pain and fatigue make the warlock feel as if he is moving underwater.
Martigan quietly leaves the cave.
With a strength that he must have borrowed from Arthur, Merlin sits up and allows the baby to be placed in his lap. The weight of it strikes him.
The baby shifts slightly in its sleep, a hint of movement Merlin can feel against his chest and arms.
And that’s when it hits him.
This is real.
Merlin looks at the living human being he is responsible for with an unpredicted mixture of tenderness and horror.
Merlin looks at Arthur with his feelings writ large on his unguarded face.
Arthur just kisses him and then the baby.
“Our little boy,” he sighs, the pride in his voice unmistakable.
Merlin runs his finger across the baby’s forehead, the skin like flaking paper. Little white blemishes are freckled across the entire tiny body underneath the light dusting of downy hair. The eyes are swelled shut, the mouth slack in sleep.
Arthur leaves Merlin’s side for a second (in which the young “mother” almost scurries frantically after him), returning with a cool, wet sack. He pulls out a tin canister from inside.
“You’ve spent the last ten hours in some kind of trance,” he explains, “Martigan went into Brightwood to find milk for the baby. He bought it from a recently pregnant woman. We should feed him every two to three hours.”
Merlin doesn’t respond. Arthur is hardly making any sense to him.
“We’ll have to keep buying milk from new mothers until the baby is weaned off,” Arthur continues, oblivious, “It’ll be easier around five or six months when he can start eating soft, pureed foods. Some women continue giving their children breastmilk up to two years of age, but it should be fine if we stop it at one year. At least, that’s what the Brightwood woman told Martigan. She was on her third child and they were all still alive, so I guess we can trust her judgment. We’re going to have to find a nursemaid in Camelot. Gaius may have some useful information… I won’t be able to speak to him directly, but you can… Oh, and didn’t the mason’s wife just have a child two months ago? I forget her name, but…”
Merlin lets Arthur’s words fade into background noise. He wonders how long this feeling of having a head stuffed with cotton is going to last. For one awful moment, he wishes it was just he and Arthur again. They didn’t have enough time to just enjoy each other. Everything happened so fast.
He doesn’t know how to be a parent.
The only thing he is good at is magic. But, what good is magic when the baby cries for something and Merlin cannot figure out what he needs?
He’s going to ruin Arthur’s dream of this perfect family.
Arthur will start to hate him. The baby will reject him.
“…And the Brightwood woman said not to put him on his stomach when he sleeps. If we swaddle him, we have to make sure it’s not too hot or too tight. When you hold him, make sure to support his head and neck. Yes, what you’re doing there… We should wash him with a damp cloth until that stump falls off, which could take between one and four weeks…”
Arthur leans over to stroke the baby’s cheek while he blathers on, his hair tickling Merlin’s nose. The scent triggers a memory of lying in the prince’s bed at the peak of night, Arthur path-tracing the dips and curves of Merlin’s collarbone with his tongue. Arthur whispering in the dark how he never knew anything could be this perfect.
Merlin has this incredible urge to press against Arthur now, wrap his arms around his sturdy frame and hide his face against his chest.
But, he can’t. His arms are already full.
Merlin can feel the stinging beginnings of tears and the growing pressure in his throat that warn he is about to cry.
He passes the baby over to Arthur as if it carries the plague. The prince, who accepts his son carefully (mindful of supporting the head and neck), is still talking as if Merlin is actually listening.
The sorcerer rolls onto his knees and uses the crags in the wall to scrabble up to his feet as if he is some kind of rodent or insect.
Arthur is just noticing Merlin’s lack of attention and alarming behavior when the new “mother” pushes hard against the wall to propel himself away from the pair on the floor, stumbling towards the cavern’s entrance.
“Merlin?” Arthur’s voice is the definition of confusion.
Merlin wobbles and stumbles as he tries to escape. He keeps his head low and his eyes fixed on his feet as they try to navigate the rocky terrain. His hands are thrust forward, prepared for the smallest misstep that would take him down.
“Merlin!” Arthur hisses, trying not to wake the baby. “Where are you going?”
At this, Merlin chances a glance up so he can answer that question for himself. The sea is west, so that leaves him north or south.
Turning, he notices Arthur’s horse is standing quietly a few meters from the cave.
Merlin staggers towards it, unaware he is whimpering low in his throat until the horse turns its head in his direction and starts pawing the sand nervously.
Merlin makes it about five steps before his feet fuse to the ground and the sudden disruption of his body’s inertia has him flying forward to land heavily on his stomach. The shock of soreness that throbs through his trunk and limbs forces him to stop fighting the losing battle and he falls still, face down in the sand. He doesn’t even bother lifting his head to ease his erratic breathing.
This inability to move his feet feels just like when Martigan bound him with magic the day they first met.
But, Martigan is not here.
And the only other person who could possibly know any magic…
“Merlin, what…” Arthur trails off when he sees the warlock flat on his face, unmoving.
Merlin snuffs pitifully, grit prickling at his nostrils. He feels Arthur caress his back with firm strokes.
“You haven’t eaten all day,” Arthur says to the back of Merlin’s head, “After everything that you’ve been through, you really need something in you. You’re probably dehydrated, too. I’m sure it’s making you feel disoriented and… not yourself.”
Merlin takes mental inventory of his body. At the very least, he is a little thirsty.
“It’s also time to feed the baby again,” Arthur adds stoically.
Merlin wishes the hand on his back would push him down until he is just a Merlin-shaped sand lump that the tide will take out at dusk.
Martigan returns close to an hour later.
Stepping into the cave, his mercenary skills allow him to track the location and determine the activity of three separate beings within seconds.
Arthur is sitting cross-legged by a small fire, his head down.
The baby is lying across his lap, sleeping.
Merlin is sitting slightly apart from the two, staring into the fire as if he is waiting for it to engulf him.
“I bought more milk while I was in town,” Martigan announces in a tone as subdued as the scene before him.
Arthur looks up at him, still as beautiful and dignified as the first time Martigan met him, but now with an almost imperceptible bleakness in his blue eyes.
“Thank you,” he says neutrally.
Martigan’s still not quite sure where they stand.
Their relationship probably will never evolve from anything greater than reluctant business partners, especially when Martigan can’t help how, even now, his gaze fixates on the dark-haired sorcerer.
Merlin, who he hasn’t really seen since he used magic to patch his bloody abdomen back together, doesn’t even look up at his statement of good will.
Casting a slightly wary glance at the blond (who has resumed looking down at the baby), Martigan approaches Merlin slowly and sits near him.
“I would ask how you’re doing, but I’m not sure if the question is stupid, but well-meaning or just stupid.”
Merlin lifts his eyes from the fire to look at Martigan, the flames reflecting a golden light that reminds the merc of the times the sorcerer had used magic to destroy monsters and escape his own clutches.
“Can I see my handiwork?” Martigan asks.
Merlin blinks slowly at him long enough for the merc to start wondering if the heat at his temple is not actually from the fire’s warmth.
Merlin leans back a little, pulling up the clean shirt Arthur had wrapped him in after the birth.
His stomach is flat and appears unmarred.
Even though there is no mark to indicate it, Merlin touches himself at exactly the same place Martigan had slipped the dagger into the yielding flesh, a long arc above his pubis that had looked like a bloody smile.
In the corner of his eye, the mercenary sees Arthur is now looking at them.
Martigan didn’t live to be almost forty by being a simpleton. He knows he’s on a fine line here and he resists the urge to reach out and touch Merlin where he had just touched himself.
“I had no idea I was capable of conjuring those spells,” Martigan says, shaking his head in genuine wonder. “The vast majority of that book is at a level beyond my abilities.”
“It’s like I was never pregnant,” Merlin says softly, the first words he has said aloud since that morning.
“No, Merlin,” Arthur corrects, sounding as if he has two babies, “You were most definitely pregnant. I’m holding the proof right here.”
Martigan speaks again before the awkward tension following that statement makes the cave air too thick to breathe in.
“I’m amazed at your body’s ability to handle the birth. I think that trance you went into was actually normal… I mean, normal for this situation. I don’t think you would have survived had you stayed conscious. When I cut through this one layer, all this fluid just started flowing out of you…”
“That’s enough, Martigan,” Arthur speaks from the other side of the fire, a clear warning.
“Merlin should know what happened,” the merc counters, turning to the warlock again before the blond shuts him up permanently, “The baby started… glowing from inside you. I could see it before I even made the first cut.”
“He probably had an idea of your skill level,” Arthur insults in a way that is not meant to be taken lightly.
“Hey. Mercenary/lowly sorcerer. Not physician,” Martigan defends himself.
Arthur gently sets the baby on the folded up bedroll and then stands to retrieve the pack he brought with him.
He pulls out a sack of coins and tosses it at Martigan, none-too-gently. It hits the merc’s chest with a disruptive jangle.
“The rest of your payment,” Arthur says as if he is addressing one of those women of easy virtue.
Martigan holds the coins as if Arthur has handed him a sack of rubbish.
He glances at Merlin so quickly, it is barely noticeable.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” the merc begins, “I would like to stay here for the night and leave in the morning. I’ve been here and back from Brightwood twice today and it's late. I need to restore my energy.”
“Our transaction is finished,” Arthur says, already gearing up to resume their earlier confrontation if need be. “I am… appreciative of your assistance today, but-”
“Let him stay,” Merlin says quietly and it is clear that this is the final word on the matter.
The prince’s jaw clenches, but he says nothing.
When Arthur prepares their bedding, he makes sure it is as far from Martigan’s as possible in the small grotto. Once he puts the baby down in a thick pile of clean clothes next to his and Merlin’s bedrolls, he has to help the half-comatose sorcerer up from beside the fire and in between the warm coverings.
When he slides in beside him, Merlin accepts his body against his eagerly, clinging to the prince as if he wants to crawl inside him and never come out.
Arthur is at a loss.
He has to figure out the cause of the sorcerer’s disturbing behavior.
And he has to do it before their baby starts to realize half his world is missing.
Continue to Part VII
Go back to Part V
Notes: I know this is probably not what people were expecting (Merlin being a "bad" mother), but I promise that it all comes together in a good way. I don't know how to write a story without a happy ending. I'm sorry if this bothered anyone. Forgive me? *looks hopeful*