In retrospect, Merlin supposed he should have been grateful that Arthur had chosen to handle the whole matter in private. He was still a fairly new king, and it would have been easy for him to drag Merlin and his crimes before the entire court, or to bring Agravaine in on the decision, but he hadn't. Upon witnessing Merlin using magic to repair and charm his armour for safety, as he did every day, Arthur had all but picked Merlin up by the scruff of his neck, hauled him up several flights of stairs, and tossed him into Arthur's room. The young king commanded his servant to stay put, then left.
Now, as Arthur returned, a stony expression on his face, Merlin realized he wasn't about to be arrested by a battalion of guards or anything quite so dramatic. The king entered his chambers, shutting and bolting the door behind him before turning to level a glare at his servant.
"Arthur--" Merlin started, hoping to explain himself before anything else could happen.
"No," Arthur interrupted, shaking his head. "The only reason you aren't dead is because you've been here for years, and I know you to be anything but corrupt."
Merlin relaxed, but confusion overtook him quickly. "Wait, then why--"
"Stop. Talking." Arthur spat out from behind gritted teeth. "You have been loyal to me for years, and I will not see you banished or executed for this lapse in judgement you have shown. Instead, we will handle this situation privately, and you will be cured of your poor decision."
Trepidation sinking in, Merlin barely managed to keep himself from taking a step back. Remembering to keep quiet, he let the question show in his face instead.
Arthur held up a thin silver chain, dangling it in front of his long time friend. "This is a holdover from the days of the Purge," he explained. "My father used it to trap particularly wily sorcerers, but I have another use in mind." He paused, then held it out to Merlin. "Put it on."
Carefully, Merlin took the chain, draping it around his neck and settling it against his chest. There was a split second of nothing, then Merlin pitched forward and fell to his knees with a gasp, choking on nothing as his sense of his magic was viciously torn from him.
Ignoring the reaction, Arthur explained, "The chain is designed to remove magic from the wearer. You will keep it on at all times, and we will resume our normal routines. This way, I know that this power you've foolishly chosen to use will not corrupt you, and you will not be killed for making such an idiotic decision."
Merlin breathed slowly, trying to recover from the shock of having his magic torn away. He knew that it wouldn't work the way Arthur thought. The chain had been used before on sorcerers, and on them it would have done what it was supposed to. It probably would have hurt, but they would have been functional. Merlin was a warlock. He didn't use magic, he was magic. He'd tried to stop using his magic entirely once as a child, determined to be normal and spare his mother the worry, but his nature had fought back, refusing to let him eat, drink, or sleep until he let go and used it again. It had been miserable, and his mother had forbade him any such act again. This was different though. If he wore the chain, perhaps that would give him enough time to actually explain himself to Arthur. It had to be a good sign that the king didn't want him dead or banished. He hadn't even exposed the secret to anyone else. That had to mean something.
Making his decision, Merlin got to his feet, tucking the chain under his tunic and adjusting the neckerchief so it covered the rest. "Yes, sire," he replied quietly. "If that's what it will take to earn your trust back."
Arthur's gaze softened slightly, and he nodded once. "This stays between us," he warned. "I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea and doing something rash. Don't worry, Merlin. We'll get past this, I promise. You're dismissed."
Moving towards the door, Merlin took a deep breath to steel himself. They would get past it. He would do whatever it took to ensure it.
Merlin told no one of how fundamentally his life had changed overnight. Gaius asked if he was all right when he emerged from his room the next morning, clearly not having slept, but Merlin brushed him off and headed out to complete his duties.
When Merlin arrived in Arthur's chambers, balancing the king's breakfast in one hand while he opened the door with the other, he was surprised to see the king already awake. "Good morning, sire," Merlin greeted him, setting the tray down on the table and moving to lay out the king's clothing for the day. "Did you sleep well?"
"As well as could be expected," Arthur replied. He had laid awake a good portion of the night thinking, but inevitably fallen asleep, so no harm done. He narrowed his eyes at Merlin, who had dark circles under his eyes, and asked, "Did you even go to bed? Those bags are very nearly black eyes."
Merlin hummed noncommittally, avoiding the question. "You have a meeting in an hour," he informed the king, helping the older man into his clothes and then moving to adjust the curtains and begin all the other little morning jobs he did in the room.
Arthur just nodded, moving to the table to eat. As usual, the cook had been spoiling him, and he had a muffin and a half too many for a breakfast. Holding up the extra, he asked, "Hungry, Merlin?"
"Not particularly," Merlin replied honestly, not really paying attention.
"Are you sulking?" Arthur demanded, looking frustrated. "Because I hardly think you're in a position to be cross with me."
Merlin looked up at that, alarmed at the idea of having inadvertently offended the king, what with how precarious their relationship had suddenly become. "No! Sorry, sire, I'm honestly not hungry. I didn't mean to seem rude."
Arthur narrowed his eyes at the politeness, but let it go. Tapping at his neck, he raised an eyebrow in question.
Understanding his meaning, Merlin hooked a thumb under the chain and held it up so Arthur could see it, then let it fall back into place. This whole exercise was about regaining the king's trust, and Merlin was willing to jump through any hoops to accomplish that. Moving closer, Merlin hesitated before asking, "Is there any chance we could--"
"No, Merlin," Arthur shut him down. "Things are going back to normal, and we will not be addressing this issue again, am I understood?"
Sighing and nodding, Merlin turned away. He wasn't going to give up. If his lack of appetite and the complete absence of sleep was any indication, he didn't have long to try and change Arthur's mind, but this wasn't a situation to be rushed. He would just have to be patient and hope he didn't fade away in the meantime. He knew if he even tried to eat or drink in this state he would simply throw it up, which narrowed the time window he had available to him considerably, but that couldn't be helped. This was more important than his comfort.
"Will there be anything else, sire?" Merlin asked. Normally he wouldn't leave Arthur before he needed to, but it seemed best to give the king some space.
Arthur raised an eyebrow again, but shook his head. "No, you can go. I'll see you this afternoon, all right?"
"Of course." Merlin nodded and left the room, ideas swirling in his head about how he could possibly make the situation better.
Arthur spent the entire time between when Merlin left and when he needed to leave for his meeting brooding. He'd spent the better part of the night before doing the same thing, but he couldn't help that he had a lot on his mind. Merlin, a sorcerer! If he hadn't known the servant for years, he didn't doubt that he'd have had him arrested instantly. Instead, his first thought had been to make the problem go away and return to normal. Thankfully, his father had educated him on some of the mysteries of the castle vaults years before, and Arthur had known exactly what he could use. Now, Merlin no longer had magic, and everything could go on as normal. Merlin seemed a little out of sorts, but that was to be expected. Everything would balance back out soon.
There was a simmering rage about Merlin's lies that Arthur was keeping bottled up. No matter how angry he was, he refused to make any snap decision that he knew he would regret, which is why Merlin was not ashes by now or halfway to Ealdor. Arthur was beyond furious that Merlin had lied to his face, for who knows how long, but Merlin was still his best friend. Arthur couldn't quite let go of that, and he didn't see why he should have to. Obviously Merlin wasn't evil, so he can't have had magic very long. That meant Merlin could be saved from corruption, and Arthur had ensured he was. Everything else was irrelevant, because Arthur had saved Merlin from himself.
As he gathered his things and prepared to go to his meeting, Arthur prepared to face the world at large. Everything seemed different now, but Arthur was determined not to allow it to cloud his judgement. Things would proceed as normal. He would make sure of it.
When Gwaine ran into Merlin in the halls the next day, he nearly stopped dead in shock at how terrible his best friend looked. "Good heavens, Merlin! What on earth is the matter with you? I'd wager you'd a hangover if I didn't know better!"
Merlin smiled tiredly at his friend and shook his head. "It's nothing, Gwaine, I'm just a bit tired, that's all. I'll be fine."
Gwaine snorted. "Fine my arse. Is the princess working you too hard?"
Merlin shook his head. "Nothing like that, and you can't call him that, Gwaine, he's the king now!"
"I'll call him what I like," Gwaine retorted. "Look at you, you're practically wasting away. When was the last time you ate?"
Merlin sighed heavily and shook his head. "Gwaine, I have things to do. I'm fine, I promise. Shouldn't you be off doing knight things?"
Gwaine narrowed his eyes at his best friend, then shrugged sheepishly. "I am meant to be on the training grounds," he admitted.
Merlin grinned, shooing the knight off. "Go on then, I'll talk to you later, promise."
"I'll hold you to that," Gwaine warned before heading off towards training.
Merlin smiled sadly as he watched his friend go, wishing he could appreciate the concern as fully as he wanted. He could feel himself fading, but Arthur hadn't let him explain, and Merlin couldn't afford to lose focus. It was too important. If he didn't manage to sway Arthur, he'd be leaving the king undefended against an attack. Frankly he was lucky they'd gone two days without something terrible happening.
"Come in," Arthur called in response to a knock at his chamber doors, glancing up from paperwork to see Gaius entering, looking wary. "What can I do for you, Gaius?" Arthur greeted him warmly. He had no reason to suspect Gaius knew of Merlin's dalliance in magic, and a lifetime of trust to rely on in the case of the physician.
Gaius looked uncomfortable, and he was wringing his hands a bit. "I normally wouldn't go behind his back like this, sire, but I'm worried about Merlin."
Arthur sat up a bit, unsure what direction this was going in. "Worried how?" He hadn't seen much of Merlin since their confrontation. The servant was doing his duties quickly, then leaving as soon as they were complete, meaning Arthur hadn't seen his friend much at all for the past two days. Still, he was confident things would return to normal eventually.
"Sir Gwaine approached me with his concerns as well," Gaius offered. "He came upon Merlin this afternoon and assured me the boy seemed about to collapse, and he's not been much better when I've managed to see him."
Arthur's brow furrowed with confusion. "He's been more efficient than normal," the king pointed out. "When I've seen him he hardly seemed to be doing poorly." Granted, Arthur hadn't been looking that closely, but Merlin normally took so long to do everything that having him be prompt in his duties was a clear improvement, and didn't seem to imply exhaustion.
"He's avoiding me, sire, and he brushed Gwaine off too," Gaius urged. "Have you noticed anything? I don't believe he's been sleeping, and I've not seen him eat in at least two days."
That caught Arthur's attention, if only due to the memory of Merlin refusing breakfast the previous morning. "I will ask after his health when I next see him," the king promised. "Perhaps he's simply sulking a bit. We had a bit of a...disagreement, I suppose, a few days ago, but it was resolved. It's possible he's still a bit put out though." Arthur couldn't help but feel a bit concerned, and assured himself that he would investigate after Gaius' concerns when he next saw Merlin.
"Perhaps," Gaius allowed, although he seemed skeptical. "If you discover anything, please let me know."
"Of course," Arthur promised, tapping his fingers absently in thought as the physician left the room.
Merlin entered Arthur's chambers like a ghost, preparing the room for evening by memory, not paying attention to much of anything.
"MERLIN!" Arthur's voice finally broke through, and Merlin distantly realized that the king had called for him four times since he had entered.
"Sorry, sire. What do you need?" Merlin asked, not turning from his work.
"Look at me," Arthur insisted, frustrated. When Merlin finally turned to face him, he had to bite back a gasp. How had he managed not to notice the sheer exhaustion on his servant's face? Merlin looked like he hadn't slept in weeks, and he seemed smaller already, weaker, which was to be expected if he truly hadn't been eating. "What's happening to you?" He asked, his voice soft.
Merlin gnawed at his lip, unsure how to handle the sudden scrutiny. "Sorry, sire, I've just been distracted, and had some trouble sleeping. I'll be fine."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, not accepting the dismissal. "No, something else is going on. Do I have to drag everything out of you? When did you stop telling me the truth?"
Merlin clearly took that question to mean just as many things as Arthur intended, and he sighed, shaking his head. "Are you really ready to talk about this?" He asked, tilting his head to expose the tiniest hint of silver to make it clear what he meant.
Arthur's gaze darkened, and he shook his head. "No, Merlin. My answer isn't going to change. You can't dismiss new lies by dwelling on the old ones. We won't get past this if you keep trying to stay in the past."
Realizing he was getting nowhere, Merlin shook head head and said, "Then you should get ready for bed, sire."
Disappointed in his failure to weasel and answer out of his servant Arthur allowed Merlin to go through the nightly routine, determined to find a way to bring up the issue tomorrow.
Gwaine hadn't really meant to go back through the castle, but he was completely drunk and a little confused, even more so when he nearly tripped on a large mass laying prone across the expanse of the hall. "Geddup, mate," he slurred, poking at what seemed to be a body with the toe of his boot.
Bending a little closer, Gwaine realized with a start that the mop of dark hair attached to the body was Merlin's. Sobering in an instant, Gwaine turned the body over, laying a hand near Merlin's mouth to feel for breath. "Oh thank heavens," he sighed, realizing that at least his friend was still alive. "HELP! SOMEBODY HELP!" It was late, but Gwaine knew he wasn't in any shape to get Merlin all the way to Gaius' chambers in his inebriated state.
It was only when Arthur appeared behind him that Gwaine realized he was in the hall just down from Arthur's chambers. Merlin must have collapsed after leaving for the night. "What happened?" Arthur demanded, shock clear on his face.
"Dunno, help me gettim to Gaius!" Gwaine urged, standing and moving in unison with Arthur to pick the servant up, Arthur carrying the brunt of the weight.
They made it to Gaius' door in record time, Gwaine getting a hand free to bang on the door. It took a moment, but Gaius appeared in the entryway, sleep still in his eyes and confusion on his face. "What--Merlin! Come in, quickly! What happened?"
Arthur took all of Merlin's weight from Gwaine and moved into the room, setting his servant and friend down on the cot typically used by the ill who came to Gaius. "I heard Gwaine yelling - he was collapsed in the hall just down from my chambers. I have no idea how long he was there, or what happened."
Gaius immediately moved to investigate, tsking to himself under his breath with each observation. "What have you been doing to yourself, my boy?" He murmured at one point.
Gwaine had collapsed into a chair, the war between his worry and his drunkenness causing additional confusion. "Whas' wrong wit' 'im?" He managed to ask.
"Judging from the state of him, he's not slept or ate in several days, nor drank anything, from what I can see," Gaius explained, looking frustrated. "Sire, you said you would speak with him. What did he say?"
"He brushed me off," Arthur explained apologetically. "I could tell there was something wrong, but he wouldn't say." Arthur's brow furrowed, concern clear on his face. "What's happening to him, Gaius? Will he recover?"
"Merlin often skips sleep or meals," Gaius admitted, "but never so much at once or in a row like this, and he's usually doing it for a reason. This seems as though he's simply wasting away, and I don't know why!" Ignoring the concerned knight and king, Gaius wet a piece of cloth and moved to his ward, hoping to cool the boy's skin a little. He wasn't feverish, but Gaius didn't want to take a chance of him becoming that way. Intending to pat the cloth along Merlin's neck, Gaius removed the boy's neckerchief, then inhaled sharply, clearly shocked. "You foolish, foolish boy!"
"What? What is it?" Arthur moved in closer, seeing nothing that could have caused Gaius' reaction.
Gaius moved quickly, tearing the chain off of Merlin's neck and throwing it across the room in a rage. "Why would you wear that awful thing, Merlin?!" Gaius demanded of the unconscious boy. "I know you're smarter than that!"
Shocked, Arthur looked to wear the unimpressive chain had fallen, then back to Gaius. "What's wrong, Gaius? What do you think is so bad about that simple chain?"
Gaius whirled on Arthur, then stopped suddenly, as though keeping himself in check. "It's nothing, your highness. Some people have an allergy to silver, so perhaps that has been interfering with his system."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, understanding the lie for what it was. He glanced at Gwaine, only to see the knight had passed out. Realizing he had no reason to keep quiet, Arthur folded his arms and gave Gaius his most stern and kingly look. "I know, Gaius. About the magic."
Gaius breathed out slowly, nodding once in acknowledgement. Carefully, he asked, "Did you give him that chain, sire?"
"I did," Arthur admitted. "It seemed a good alternative to seeing him dead or banished, when I know the fool likely meant no harm in dabbling in such evil."
Gaius inhaled and exhaled a few times, then said, "Forgive me, sire, may I speak frankly?"
"Of course," Arthur agreed, surprised.
"YOU FOOLISH BOY!" Gaius raged, angrier than Arthur had ever seen him. "DID YOU EVEN LISTEN TO HIM, OR DID YOU DECIDE TORTURING HIM TO DEATH WAS AN ADEQUATE PUNISHMENT FOR SAVING YOUR LIFE?!"
Arthur stepped back in shock, eyes wide at the force of Gaius' anger. He had known Gaius his whole life, and never had he born the brunt of the physician's anger. He had seen the man be stern with some, and even forceful when necessary, but perhaps it was the paternal instinct in him that was coming into force now, causing him to yell at his king. Although, Arthur admitted to himself, he had asked for permission first.
"What do you mean, torture him to death?" Arthur demanded, not wanting to be cast as the villain. "The fool chose to dabble in magic! I found a way to take it away, so he would not become corrupt and I would not be forced to make a judgement on his life! I was saving him, Gaius! How dare you accuse me or something so cruel?"
"Because I never believed you capable of such ignorance, Arthur," Gaius stated frankly, his eyes still burning with anger. "Merlin is not a sorcerer, your highness. He is a warlock."
"What's the difference?" Arthur asked helplessly, bewildered by the situation as a whole.
"It means he was born with his magic," Gaius explained slowly, expression fierce. "He has spent his whole life hiding in fear, and did not discover a purpose for the sheer scope of his power until he saved your life for the first time so many years ago. Ever since then, he has been your shadow, protecting you from every threat that sought to take your life, and even a few against your father as well. Merlin has done nothing but be your friend, and in response you choose to attempt to tear away his very being from him. Merlin is magic, sire. He has not slept, ate, or drank since that chain went around his neck, because he cannot. Being without his magic is literally causing him to waste away."
Arthur listened with rapt attention, not entirely sure how to react. "You removed it," he pointed out unnecessarily. "Will he recover?"
"I don't know," Gaius admitted, the fight draining out of him. "I simply do not know. What I do know, sire, is this: Merlin allowed you to put that chain on, knowing he could not wear it for long without it killing him."
"Why?" Arthur found himself asking. "Why would he do that? Why not simply run, or fight, or argue?"
"Because Merlin cares for your well being more than his own," Gaius grumbled, giving his ward a look of frustrated fondness. "He likely believed it was the only way he could prove himself worthy of your trust."
Arthur was quiet, analyzing everything he had been told. He hadn't even known it was possible to be born with magic, yet he didn't doubt Gaius spoke the truth. The sheer horror of what he had done to his best friend began to descend upon him, and suddenly all of Merlin's quiet attempts to bring up the topic of magic over the past few days made sense. Merlin must had accepted the chain so he could have the opportunity to explain himself to Arthur, but Arthur had not allowed him the opportunity. Merlin knew the chain was killing him, yet he kept it on! Arthur took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
"Gaius, please, do everything you can." Glancing to the corner, where Gwaine was still dead to the world, he added, "If you can ensure my knight has not drunk himself dead, I would appreciate it. I have some important tasks to take care."
"Such as?" Gaius inquired, giving the king his notorious eyebrow.
Arthur took another deep breath, stooping to pick up the chain. "I have a relic from the Purge to destroy, and a council to convince."
"It's the middle of the night," Gaius pointed out mildly.
"First thing in the morning," Arthur amended. "I am going to repeal the death penalty for magic users. Every other aspect of the magic laws can be handled later, once Merlin recovers and we've had a talk, but I will make sure he does not have execution to fear when he awakes. Please, let me know as soon as he recovers."
"I will," Gaius promised, looking at Arthur proudly. For all his anger with the king he'd help raise, he knew the young Pendragon truly hadn't intended to harm Merlin, and he now was set on making things right. That made all the difference.
Merlin awoke in a haze, his stomach aching and his head throbbing. Blinking a few times, he realized Gaius was turned away from him, doing something with a mortar and pestle. "Gaius?" He managed to ask, wondering why his throat was so parched.
Gaius dropped everything and practically flew to his ward's side. "Merlin! Thank heavens you're awake. You had us all quite worried, you know."
"What happened?" Merlin asked, confusion still fogging his mind.
"You nearly got yourself killed thanks to the mutual stupidity of you and your king," Gaius harrumphed, glowering at the young warlock.
Memories flooded back, and Merlin winced at the thought of the chain forcing his magic from him. "What happened?" He repeated.
Gaius raised the eyebrow. "Do you have a head injury as well?"
"No," Merlin shook his head, "I mean, how did I end up here? Where's the..." Merlin waved vaguely at his neck, where he could tell the chain no longer was.
"It's been destroyed," Arthur said from the door. "My understanding is it wouldn't effect anyone quite the way it affected you, but I decided not to take the risk."
Merlin jumped in surprise, not sure what his expression was as he took in his king entering the room. "Why?" He asked, not sure what else to say.
Arthur took a deep breath, folding his hands together behind his back. "Merlin, you have been unconscious for five days," he informed his best friend.
Merlin sat up a little, not expecting that. "Five days?" he repeated incredulously.
"In that time," Arthur continued, ignoring the interjection, "Gaius has taken the liberty of explaining a few things I should have allowed you to explain when I first found you enchanting my armour. In response, the first thing I did was repeal the death penalty for the use of magic. Technically the ban is still in place, but only because I didn't want to approach the tangled mess that is magical law without a magical advisor."
Merlin blinked at him, not sure what he was hearing. "Wait, so I'm still not going to be executed, right?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "No one will ever be executed merely for having magic again," he clarified. "My intent is to have a system where magical crimes are punished just as any other."
"Why did you change your mind?" Merlin asked, still in shock.
"I wish it had been because I listened to you," Arthur said with a heavy sigh, "but I refused to give you a chance to speak, and you nearly died trying to get me to see the truth. Please, Merlin, promise me you will never again sacrifice your well being from my sake."
"Oh, I could never promise that," Merlin scoffed instantly. "That's practically all I ever do."
Arthur looked slightly scandalized, but he shook his head and groaned. "Fine, we'll address your lack of self preservation later. For now, you're going to rest and recover, then join me in rewriting the magical laws of Camelot. That is, if you can forgive me for nearly killing you." Arthur actually looked apologetic, which is why Merlin couldn't find it in him to be angry.
"It's my fault too," Merlin offered, shouldering the blame without even blinking. "I knew the consequences, but I didn't try to find another way to make you listen, and I should have. Perhaps all of this could have been avoided."
"You two would do well to find a better form of communication for the future," Gaius scolded, giving them each the eyebrow in turn.
"Yes, sir," Arthur and Merlin said in unison.
Turning back to Merlin, Arthur said tentatively, with a mock sternness, "Now, you stay in that bed and rest, all right? Can't have you screwing up your recovery like an idiot."
Merlin smiled, appreciating the king's effort to return to a sense of normalcy. "Of course. What kind of servant would I be if I left the royal prat to fend for himself?"
Seeing the look of relief that crossed Arthur's face, Merlin realized they would be fine. It might take awhile to fully recuperate from the stress, the lies, and the guilt, but they would make it. After all, Merlin had it on cryptic but good authority that he and Arthur were two sides of the same coin. It was destiny.