Thank you to those who pointed out that I had accidentally uploaded part 10 in lieu or part 9 - it's sorted now and everything's in the correct order.
The Best of You
Arthur wakes to a low, throbbing pain at the front of his head and a cold emptiness that he's never felt before. He whimpers slightly, a quiet noise that he hopes nobody hears but he knows that Merlin will. Merlin knows exactly what he's feeling.
But he can't feel Merlin.
He forces his eyes open despite his body's protests and immediately regrets it – the light shining in through his windows is bright and harsh, and then there's warm hands on his arms and neck and soothing voices that he can't quite make out.
"What happened?" he whispers, because his throat hurts even though he can't remember damaging it, and finally recognises the touches on his face.
"Try and stay still," murmurs his advisor, but he can't see him because his eyes are squeezed shut again. "You took a bad blow to the head."
"My father? Is he alive?"
Merlin is silent for a beat too long and Arthur curses that for whatever reason, he can't sense what the warlock is feeling. His eyes crack open and he looks up, and distress wells up within him. Merlin's face is bruised and battered and there's a long cut from his temple to his mouth. His eyes are gold.
"Merlin, tell me what happened."
The other man seems to consider refusing his request but then his face crumples and he clambers up onto the bed beside Arthur, helping him sit up. The Prince's body is aching, a bone-deep ache that he usually only encounters after a long day training.
"You were knocked out by the spell that I used against the druid. And without the shield, you would have been killed – so I fought them, properly. Spells and death and destruction, ones that would burn your tongue if you'd tried. I was drawing on your strength – but you were connected to the magic still. You know what's been happening; we can feel it when the other one uses magic. This was no different."
Arthur's hand goes to Merlin's face as his advisor shudders to a halt in his recounting, inspecting the gash. It looks as though it's been healing for several days now. He realises that Merlin is shivering and his hand drops.
"Go on," he says roughly, staring past Merlin and out of the window. It's started to rain.
"I used a spell that I never should have. It's one that I've only ever read about – I didn't even know if it would work. It obliterated every druid in the room. It was a strong spell, too strong. I should have known better."
"What are you not telling me?"
Even though he can't get a grip on Merlin's emotions, he knows that something's wrong. He's always known when something is wrong with Merlin, but for the first few months, he had dismissed it. He's been wishing for a while now that he hadn't.
"I took your magic from you."
And then Arthur understands the emptiness, the chilling blank space where Merlin should be inside him, souls alongside each other. Now he knows what's missing, it's as though a black hole has opened up within him, drawing him in. He knows without a doubt that he's been at peace these past few months and now it's all being ripped out from beneath him, and his world is going to crumble. Then he feels Merlin's hand on his arm and realises that he's forgotten to breathe. His head is spinning.
"Why?" he chokes, unable to say much more because this is too much to deal with. He feels alone. He feels wrong.
"My magic was too much of a strain for you – it was too powerful. Your body couldn't handle it, it was never designed to, and so I had to take it away from you. It would have killed you," Merlin admits quietly, and Arthur has no idea what emotions are running through the warlock. He never will again.
"But you can put it back? You can put it back, Merlin, can't you?" he asks, and he knows that he sounds desperate right now, but he can imagine few things worse than living without Merlin connected to him by magic. It's unthinkable.
"No. I don't know if you could take it, and even then, I wouldn't know how."
Arthur has nothing to say to that. He only got his gift in the first place because Merlin died and of course he never wants that to happen again, ever. So there is no way to get his magic back, and if Merlin has no ideas, then there really is no hope. This is how he's going to be again. Cold and empty and alone. His father will be glad at least – and there, in his selfishness, he's forgotten to ask about Uther and Morgana.
"Tell me that my father is alive and well, Merlin. And Morgana, too, and everyone else."
"They're both OK. Your father is in shock, but that's to be expected. Morgana is only talking to Gwen but she's fine. A few guests were caught in the crossfire."
They're simple statements, blunt and unforgiving. Arthur winces. This isn't how Merlin is supposed to be. He shifts on the bed and his hand brushes his advisor's but there's no flood of warmth, no spark of magic, and his heart sinks.
"How long have I been asleep?" he asks, because the cuts on Merlin's hands aren't ones that he recognises but they're not fresh, either. He would have noticed them before the banquet – he always does.
"Three days. Your body was worn completely worn out. I'm sorry."
Arthur blinks, and then turns his head sharply to look at Merlin. The rain is pounding down outside, making it darker than it should be, and Arthur only just notices the shadows beneath the warlock's golden eyes.
"This isn't your fault, Merlin," he says slowly, and the other man shrugs, staring at where he's twisting the bed sheets in his hands.
"It is, though. I had to take your magic because I didn't stop and think about the consequences of what I was doing."
"You did the right thing. We probably would have all been killed."
Arthur reaches out and grabs his hands, which are wrenching at the cloth violently, and holds them still. His skin is warm, but not magic-warm. Arthur pushes down a pang of despair.
"You saved my life, again. I'm always going to be in your debt. And now, so are my father, and Morgana, and most of the people in Camelot."
"I could have killed you."
Arthur smiles, a slow smile, and settles back against the headboard.
"You're always trying to protect me," he says wryly, watching the rain pour down. "And you're always succeeding. But you're going to mess up every now and then, Merlin. You're only human."
"I can't afford to mess up though. I can't let you die."
"Then just promise me that you'll not put yourself in danger for me. I'm not worth dying for."
He looks over at Merlin, and feels something clench around his heart because the look in his advisor's eyes can't be mistaken for anything else. It makes him feel unworthy.
"You are. I've proven that. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and I'm making no such promise."
Arthur sighs, because he knows that he's not going to get anywhere with this. He's quite happy now to just sleep, because apparently Merlin was right about his body being worn out – but it seems as though his advisor isn't quite finished.
"I can tell you one thing though. I love you more than anything else in this world and no matter what, I will stay by your side. I don't care if you have no magic. I'm not going to leave you."
Arthur nods slowly, taking in Merlin's determined expression, and his eyes begin to drift close. He's tired. They're pressed together, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip and his head drops sideways to land gently on Merlin's shoulder, and he thinks he feels his advisor turn and press his lips to his hair. Their hands are twined together between their bodies, and the Prince is content. He doesn't need magic. He just needs Merlin.
Arthur wakes slowly in the morning, warm and content, and pushes his face into Merlin's hair before drifting back to sleep.
Somewhere deep within him, a spark flares and begins to glow gold.
Has someone taken your faith?
It's real, the pain you feel
The life, the love you'd die to heal
The hope that starts the broken hearts
Thanks for reading, keep an eye out for the sequel being posted sometime in the next week.