A/N: And of course, I could not write this ending as a drabble. It got away from me.
I must apologize for the length between updates. I left for Air Force basic training at the end of February. Unfortunately I was medically discharged just this week for reasons I will not bore you with. Anyway, I am home now, and rather in need of something to do, so I'll be attempting to write more and to wrap up what I've already written.
Thank you all for all of the alerts, favorites, and reviews. It means a lot to me that you all enjoy what I write.
He spends several minutes in the corridor outside Gaius' chambers, composing a speech inside his head that will strike fear into his manservant. He's still angry, but it's less now that the boy has magic, and more that he's never trusted Arthur enough to tell him about it. Despite the logic of his knights, Arthur still can't quite get over that snag.
Finally he raises his fist to knock sharply on the door, startled when it swings open before he has a chance to do so. Gaius looks mildly surprised but recovers quickly and gives a slight bow. "Your highness. Is everything all right?"
Behind the old man, Arthur can see the back of Merlin's head, ducked over the table. "I need to speak with Merlin alone, Gaius." Perhaps it's the grave tone of his voice, but the physician pales suddenly. Still, he brooks no argument and simply nods, stepping out into the hall and closing the door softly behind him.
Arthur is prepared to yell, to pace and to rant and maybe to throw things. As soon as he sees Merlin he deflates. The boy is hunched over a bowl of soup he hasn't touched, his eyes glazed and vacant and ringed with deep shadows. He's pale and waxy and frail-looking beneath the thick blanket wrapped around his shoulders. The king is about to ask him if he's caught a flu when he notices the top edges of what look like spidery script peering over the edges of his tunic.
Merlin protests feebly when his lord is suddenly pulling at his shirt, but he falls quiet at the look of abject horror on the other man's face and looks away in shame.
Arthur can't find words for a moment; the writing is carved into his servant's flesh, covering a large portion of his chest and abdomen in looping script. Parts of it have already scabbed over and begun to heal, but around the edges infection still drains in green oozing lines, and there's blood smeared across several of the words. He sees Merlin glance away from him, his pale cheeks colored with embarrassment, and feels ire rising in his throat. "Merlin, who did this?"
"No one. I don't know." It's a fumbled, miserable lie, and Arthur won't accept it. Seizing his manservant by the chin, the king forces the other to look at him. Merlin keeps his eyes down.
"Merlin," Arthur cringes inwardly at the authority and barely-contained rage now leaking into his tone and hopes Merlin realizes it isn't for him, but for whoever dared to harm him in such a way. "Someone carved half a book into your chest. You must know who did it."
Merlin leans back, trying to free himself from Arthur's grasp. "She was going to kill you. I stopped her before she could." He nods, as if that's all the explanation needed, and falls silent, staring at the floor.
Arthur seizes the opportunity. "You stopped her with magic." It isn't a question, but he has to hold up his hand to block Merlin's protests. "No, hang on. No more lying to me Merlin. I know you're a sorc- warlock. And when I found out I was upset, but not for the reasons you think." He sits on the bench beside his servant and folds his arms. "I didn't understand why you didn't trust me enough to tell me."
With a sigh, Merlin lets his eyes fall closed, taking a moment to gather what little strength he has left. He's known this day was coming, but he's not entirely prepared for the void in the pit of his stomach, filled with terror that a man he considers his greatest friend is about to sentence him to death. "Arthur, I've lost count of the number of times you've advised me never to trust someone with magic, that magic is evil and must be destroyed." He lifts one spindly hand to rub his temples. "I am magic, Arthur. It's as much a part of me as blood and bones and breath. Without its influence and its strength... well..." He gestures at himself and slumps back against the table in exhaustion.
And Arthur sees it now, in the deadness of his friend's eyes and his pale skin and his skeletal frame; the intricate looping script on his chest is a spell to block his magic, and it's killing him.
Suddenly all of Arthur's anger has evaporated. "What can I do, Merlin? How can I help?"
Merlin notes that the King's hand now sits on the pommel of his sword and he smiles thinly. "That's not necessary. She's been dealt with, I assure you." The way he says it, in deadened tones thick with loathing, makes Arthur shiver. "I don't think she expected me to put up such a fight, but then they always do seem surprised that they can't sway my loyalty." He sighs, his lids drooping. "The spell is already fading. As long as the magic dies before my strength runs out, Gaius says I should make a full recovery."
Looking at Merlin now, Arthur thinks maybe that's not such a simple thing. The young man is clearly three steps from Death's door. As he's thinking it Merlin suddenly goes limp, crumpling in a boneless heap off the bench toward the floor. Arthur catches him before he hits the cold flagstones. Merlin's pulse is thready and much too fast beneath his fingers as he screams for Gaius and prays that this isn't the end of the most loyal friend he's ever had.
In the end it's a close thing, but Merlin proves once again that he's stronger than everyone gives him credit for. By the time he's conscious for more than a few minutes at a time the spell carved into his flesh has nearly healed and Arthur fears he may have quite a number of gray hairs he didn't have before.
The king has taken the time to study Merlin closely, embarrassed by the intimacy of his search but determined. His manservant is covered in scars, from the shadow of a severe burn on his chest to multitudes of slim lines and scratches and one particularly deep and painful-looking puncture scar on his lower back. He's always thought that Merlin came out of battle unscathed, but there is ample evidence to the contrary in front of his eyes, and with the knowledge comes a burning sense of gratitude. Arthur knows he'll be indebted to Merlin forever; the boy truly has saved his life more times than he knows.
It's nearly three months before Merlin can return to work. Arthur insists at first that he take a new manservant and give the warlock a proper position in the court, but he's refused very colorfully every time he makes the suggestion. Merlin seems happy to continue on in his role as servant to the King, and eventually Arthur lets the matter slide.
One cold morning in early winter, he is awakened early by a soft curse. He's about to ask if Merlin's all right, but stops himself at the last moment and instead opens his eyes just a slit.
He's been trying to catch Merlin doing magic since he found out about it, but despite assurances that he'll not be punished, the servant remains reluctant to openly perform any kind of magic at all. Gaius has assured the prince that a lot of it is because the smallest spells still manage to exhaust the young warlock, but Arthur feels it also has a lot to do with having to hide it for so long.
Arthur's curiosity is piqued when Merlin kneels beside the hearth without reaching for the poker. A few murmured words later and a flash of gold in the young man's eyes, and a cheerful fire is crackling in the fireplace, sending waves of warmth through the room.
"It's really not that exciting, is it?" Arthur jumps, his eyes flashing from the flames to his servant, who's sitting back on his heels with a self-satisfied smirk.
The king glowers as he sits up in bed, embarrassed at being caught. "I'll admit I was expecting something a little more spectacular," he jokes, then softens. "Gaius tells me you're still having trouble."
Merlin sighs and sinks down to sit cross-legged beside the fire. His eyes flash gold with no words and Arthur watches in fascination as the ashes swirl upward and coalesce to form a tiny dragon. The miniature beast hisses once, arching its neck and then crawls onto Merlin's arm, unfurling wings made of glowing embers to maintain balance. As it curls up on his shoulder, the warlock sags a little, leaning against the wall. "It's taking longer than it should to regain my strength, but as long as nothing major threatens Camelot in the next few weeks, I'll be fine." With a crooked half-smile he knocks too knuckles against the wooden wardrobe beside him; best not to tempt fate.
Arthur nods, still watching the little dragon with childlike wonder. With a flick of his fingers and a dazzling grin Merlin sends the small beast to Arthur. It lands on his knee, leaving ash marks on the blanket, lets loose a tiny roar, and bursts apart in a shower of ashy butterflies that flit out the window and disappear into the wind, carrying with them the last fragments of Arthur's anger. He reminds himself to thank his knights later as he climbs out of bed to start the day. And from the looks of the blue sky he can see out his window as Merlin turns him around to lace his tunic, it's going to be a good one.