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It was just a little sting, at first. Like a wasp was hiding on the other side of the blade when Merlin felt for the edge, and the sudden pain in his fingers was its sharp protest at his approach. But no blade that dull should produce even the slightest scratch, and the wrongness of it had Merlin reeling. Swirling protectively, his magic fizzed with alarm as he hurried to set the swords down, pasting on a false smile and hiding the trickle of blood against the red of his shirt when he turned to greet the knights. They had something they weren’t supposed to have, and Merlin could not let himself get caught messing with it. Not without a plan to keep them from using it in the melee.

They were gruff and exceptionally rude, of course. No matter that Merlin was actually snooping in their things. It’s not like they could prove he wasn’t just tidying up the place, and anyway, the way they left things strewn all across the desk, he would’ve been doing them a favor.

But his cheeriness was an act, and he dropped it as soon as the door shut on their accusing glares. That blade had done something, something that made his magic feel like it was getting tugged on, stretched, thinned out. Something that deepened the pain in his hand to an ache, lengthening down his palm like the drag of a knife. In the privacy of an alcove off the main hall, dim torchlight illuminated the change. It was the wound itself spreading, under Merlin’s skin, dark bruising colors sliding along the pathways of his blood towards his wrist.

As he stared, breath catching on a strained hiss, the purple haze slipped along the underside of his wrist bone and curled itself there. Its languid pace did nothing to prepare Merlin for the bolt of pain that shot up his arm when it completely encircled the bone. Dizziness caught him by surprise, and then his knees were reverberating with a dull ache as they connected with the gritty stone floor. If his fall made a sound, he couldn’t hear it over the incessant ringing that had sloshed its way into his skull.

Get a grip, he thought to himself forcefully. You’ve faced so much worse than this. Gaius will know what to do.

Fingers scrabbling at a wide seam in the flagstone wall, he heaved himself to his feet. The magic from his wound — because, yes, it must be magic, mustn’t it — had passed his wrist and was snaking along the inside of his forearm, leaving tendrils off to either side like malevolent roots digging their way into muscle and skin. Merlin scrunched his face at the thought, shoving his sleeve back down, and set off with a lurch towards the Physician’s quarters. He refused to think of what an analogy of roots would mean for the flesh they were growing in.

It didn’t take long before he had to rest again. A pair of knights had brushed by him, the sound of their approaching footsteps unable to make it through the empty symphony still firing off between his ears. He’d waved and offered an apology that he could only hope didn’t come off too loud or too strained, but the unexpected pressure on his injured arm had him nearly stumbling to the floor in the middle of the hall. What had before been an ache was now a burn, a hot, wriggling tension reaching into the workings of his elbow that made him feel sick to focus on but woozy to ignore.

Instead, he focused on his breathing. In and out, as blood soaked through the edge of his sleeve where it was pressed to the wound, leaving a spotty trail in the dust. Merlin wouldn’t have even noticed if he weren’t already looking down, staring at the ground as he dragged one foot in front of the other.

He had to get to Gaius, back to the waiting safety of his room and easy comfort of Gwaine’s presence. He had to. Then he’d be alright. Then he could warn Arthur. But — he winced as his arm twitched painfully, the magic wrapping itself around a tendon with a vicious pull — it was still far away. Too far, he thought darkly, doing his best to push away images of his entire body covered in the puffy discoloration.

And he couldn’t get caught like this. The reason for that was fading from his thoughts, but he still felt the imperative strong and clear. He couldn’t get caught.

When the next alcove presented itself, he staggered to the back wall, hiding behind a dark crimson drape. The color turned his stomach, and he looked away to take stock of himself. His chest was tight, breath coming in gasps even as he tried to smooth its rhythm; his thoughts more muddled by the minute, filling up with the same ringing, crashing emptiness that had already taken his hearing.

And when Merlin reached for his magic, hoping to find aid in a couple charms for fortitude and a clear mind, he found a nothingness the like of which he’d never experienced before. A groan rumbled in his throat, frustrated and desperate. Eyes squeezing shut, he resisted the urge to thunk his head against the wall. His vision was already swimming enough, even behind the darkness of his eyelids.

It was like being slowly, methodically removed from himself — as the enchantment burrowed ever deeper towards his core, his mind spun away from him like cotton comes undone under coaxing fingers. Even the realization that he couldn’t cast a spell caused only minor alarm. Merlin’s dwindling energy was centered instead on his breath. That, too, became shallower and shallower. The flickering light he could sense from the hall was fading fast. His last remaining sensation was a stabbing, swelling pain entering his chest from the shoulder. His mouth opened, but he had no idea whether he’d cried out.

Then everything was black, and Merlin had gone somewhere not even the pain could follow.

 

--

 

Gaius was being too careful. Or, possibly, not careful enough. Whichever way it was, Gaius was wrong, and Gwaine just needed to work himself up to going after Merlin. He paced the small pathway of the Physician’s quarters.

The physician, bending over a bottle of odd-colored plant bits, sighed. “Gwaine, Merlin performs chores like these every day. There is nothing unusual about him being a little bit late.” When Gwaine’s only response was a deepening frown, Gaius continued, “Maybe Arthur caught up to him and gave him something else to do, or he could just be in the kitchens for a snack. I’m sure there is no reason to worry.”

“There is reason,” Gwaine interrupted. “Merlin told me those knights gave him a weird feeling. You said yourself that that one noble is different from what you remember. Something doesn’t feel right.” He chewed on his lower lip and quickened his pace, feet itching to stop making his figure-eight turns and carry him out into the corridor after his new friend instead.

After two more loops, back and forth with the door taunting him at one end, Gwaine couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going.” Striding towards the door, the relief of finally making a decision starting to settle his nerves, he hardly paused for a flashy grin when Gaius called after him.

It didn’t matter that Gwaine could get thrown in the stocks for nosing around some visiting noble’s quarters. He’d suffer it gladly, and more, to make sure nothing bad had befallen Merlin. He was a good man, and had already proved himself a good friend, and in Gwaine’s experience — well, it was like he’d told Merlin. Not that he’d love it to come to that, but those were the types worth dying for.

Good thing Merlin had given him a quick tour of the castle already, so Gwaine had a rough idea of where the knights’ room would be. He grabbed the corner of a stairway to pull himself around with a swing.

He’d just have to find the right room, and if Merlin wasn’t there anymore, those rotten nobles would tell him where he’d gone.

Gwaine’s steps slowed so he could give a friendly wave to a passing serving girl, for once trying to avoid attention rather than attract it. As soon as she rounded the corner behind him, he picked up the pace again, hurrying through the musty corridor with hardly a glance around him.

If Merlin was there and they’d done something to him — anything — so much as a single word out of turn — Gwaine’s hands flexed into loose fists. He’d make sure Merlin was okay, first, of course, and then —

But their crime, it seemed, was not to be something so small as a word. Gwaine tripped to a stop, heart thudding loudly as it swung between worry and anger. The stone beneath his dusty boots was dotted with tiny splashes of blood, leading away down the corridor. Merlin.

Before he knew it, Gwaine was running, following the tell-tale tracks. All thought about what might have happened had fled, leaving only determination in its wake. Something had happened. And Gwaine hadn’t been there. But he was about to be.

It took only a few minutes to realize it, but when he did, Gwaine kicked himself for the mistake. The drips of blood on the floor were increasingly dried and brown as he went — older tracks, not fresh ones. Because he’d been going the wrong way.

He’d passed Merlin somehow without even realizing it.

Following the gruesome trail back the way he’d come, looking wildly around for where Merlin could be, he forced himself to think rationally. There weren’t any rooms near where the trail ended, so Merlin must have hidden in one of the alcoves off the side of the hall. The thought of why Merlin was hiding, and the state he must have been in to not notice Gwaine pass by, made his stomach turn. He ran faster.

When he reached the end of the trail, what he had at first assumed must be the start, Gwaine wasted no time ducking into the nearest shadowed space behind a thick velvet curtain. He could see now how it had been tugged slightly closed, how the blood picked up on the other side, and how, slouched in the darkest corner, was Merlin’s huddled form.

Dread grabbed at Gwaine’s pulse as he inhaled sharply, pulling Merlin to a seated position and tapping insistently at his cheek. He was pale and cold to the touch, with a sheen of sweat catching the dim light across his slack features. The blood that had led Gwaine to him had come from a small slash wound across Merlin’s fingers, and Gwaine felt a small measure of relief that the damage wasn’t as bad as he had thought.

Except — except. That kind of blood loss doesn’t make a person pass out. Especially not someone as strong as Merlin.

“Merlin? Hey — come on, wake up for me, alright? Merlin?” He said quietly, still tapping at Merlin’s cheek. There was a knot in his throat when he tried to swallow. Still no response. The fabric Merlin liked to keep around his neck was getting in the way of taking his pulse, so Gwaine let his head rest gently back against the wall to undo the knot with both hands.

What he saw underneath dropped ice into his gut. Ugly purple bruising formed a blotchy web under Merlin’s skin, wrapping around one collarbone and the cords of his neck to provide a view of inner depth that Gwaine would never wish to see on the body of a friend (or, for that matter, an enemy). He scrambled to pull the shoulder of Merlin’s jacket and shirt down, following the strange pattern as it dug into all the small pieces of his shoulder and the muscles of his upper arm.

And for the second time that night, Gwaine realized he was coming at things from the wrong end. He put a hand to Merlin’s neck to feel for his pulse, but let go of his shirt to roll up his cuff. Still blood-soaked, it left streaks on the skin of his hand and wrist, but not enough to disguise that this was where the damage began. The mottled color was deepest in his palm, just out of sight from where Gwaine had checked the wound the first time.

He could make out every bone in Merlin’s hand, almost white in between the deep splotches of purple-blue and maroon sunk into his flesh.

Merlin’s pulse was weak, but it had stayed steady while Gwaine looked him over. Safe to move, which was good, because Gwaine was desperately out of his depth. He used the loose bandana to tie firmly around the small gash that cut across several of Merlin’s knuckles. In places where the cloth was wrapped only once, the blood was already staining the blue fabric a ruinous purple. Gwaine ignored it and lifted his friend carefully — ignored the way Merlin’s breath was so slight it nearly rattled in his chest, the sickly tinge to his skin, the way his eyelids fluttered open but closed again, unseeing, as soon as he was settled in Gwaine’s arms. Ignored all the frightful images his mind couldn’t stop producing of what that thing growing inside Merlin must feel like.

“Okay, see? Back to Gaius now,” he murmured against Merlin’s damp forehead, taking off as fast as he dared through the halls. There was no slowing down to avoid causing alarm this time; in fact, the less any passerby got a look at them, the better. “You’ll be alright, Merlin. Right as rain. Just a little papercut, eh? That’d just be embarrassing to get laid up by something like that.”

As he took a stairwell downwards three at a time, Merlin let out a barely audible groan. The first sound he’d made since Gwaine found him, and suddenly the levity wasn’t helping anymore. “Ssh, you’re okay,” he found himself whispering, “I’ve got you and we’ll be home soon. Just hold on for me, yeah?”

By the time they reached Gaius’ quarters, Gwaine had attracted a number of curious stares but none who cared enough to question or follow him. He kicked open the door with one foot, calling ahead breathlessly for help. “Gaius! Something happened. I don’t know what it was or who did it,” he continued, laying Merlin down on the cot Gaius gestured swiftly to, “but take a look at his hand.”

After the briefest of pauses, Gaius went to work. Brows lowered into a frown of heavy concentration, he had Gwaine fetch various bottles scattered across the crowded shelves, jars that made him gag when the lids came off, and plenty of clean bandages and fresh water. When he returned with the last of it, and Gaius didn’t immediately send him out for something else, Gwaine jumped on the chance to check in. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“I don’t know,” came the terse reply.

Gwaine swallowed, the tangled knot of nerves in his chest tightening further. “Is there anything else I can do?”

Laying out a final stretch of bandage, Gaius let out an exhale and turned to face him directly. “I’m afraid not. But —”

“Then I need to be going,” Gwaine said, heading for the door as his previous convictions returned all at once. He’d bet anything it was one of those bastard knights that did this to Merlin, somehow, and they were going to regret it.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Gaius said, a sharpness to his tone that Gwaine hadn’t heard before. He paused, turned. “You can get revenge later. We still don’t know what’s wrong with him, and we have no proof of who did it. If you go barging in there now, what do you think will happen? Do you expect Merlin to thank you when he wakes up to find you executed for attacking noblemen?”

“I’ve got to do something, Gaius.”

The old man stood, matching his gaze and his tone in gravity. “What you need to do is stay here. I have books that might be able to tell me what these symptoms mean, but I can’t be watching him and reading them at the same time.”

“But he needs —”

“He needs you here,” Gaius interrupted, compassion softening his tone. He briefly put a hand on Gwaine’s shoulder as he passed by, stepping up on a rickety-looking ladder to search for the right books.

With a guilty, restless churning like two stones grinding against one another in his gut, Gwaine swore and tossed himself into the seat at Merlin’s side. It wasn’t until he reached out to readjust the blankets that he realized his hands were still speckled with his friend’s blood, a macabre reflection of his own mind, the bits that were currently thinking loudly at him, What if I’d gotten there sooner and I should have gone with him in the first place. He hurriedly grabbed one of the clean towels he’d fetched for Gaius, dampening it in water to wipe his skin clean.

Merlin looked almost peaceful, now, like this. His hand was properly dressed and there was a loose gauze covering over the — the markings, so the only visible symptoms were the sickly paleness to his skin and too-slight rise and fall of his chest with each breath. Hands clean, Gwaine reached out and raised one side of the blankets, avoiding the bandages while trying to provide as much warmth as he could. From there it was a small gesture to card Merlin’s hair out of his face. Tentative, he let the backs of his fingers rest on Merlin’s cheek for a moment, stroking once along his cheekbone with the pad of a thumb before removing his hand.

“What’d I say, Merlin,” he murmured. “Got you all cleaned up, Gaius is gonna find a way to fix this. And until he does,” a tiny smile broke through despite himself, “provided I don’t get banished first, I’ll be right here.” Gwaine paused, scooching his chair closer, and settled in to wait. “Feel free to wake up anytime.”

 

--

 

When Merlin did awake, it was to a pounding headache. His first sensation was, accordingly, surprise, considering his head was one of the few things that did not actively hurt before he passed out.

The world swirled in a mess of tangled shapes and colors under half-open eyelids, and he had the stark feeling of falling before suddenly finding himself lying back on a cot in Gaius’ chambers. Still feeling a wave of vertigo, he shut his eyes again and breathed evenly until it passed.

A cloth pressed to his forehead, warm and rough, trickling water down his temples. He blinked his eyes open, waiting for the room to stop spinning with a dry swallow.

“Merlin?” Gwaine. He felt himself smile, the concerned face of his friend peering down at him from beside the bed. “Gaius, he’s awake,” Gwaine called excitedly, and in a moment Gaius’ serious face joined Gwaine’s above.

“Here,” he said, pressing a sweet-smelling bottle to Merlin’s lips, “drink this. It will help clear your mind.”

“Thanks, Gaius,” Merlin managed once the bottle was empty, his throat less raw and headache already receding. “What the hell happened? Last thing I remember I was checking on those visiting knights, and then —” He jerked, trying to sit up against Gwaine’s hands that had appeared on his chest, keeping him from going upright. “My arm, what — what did you do? How long has it been?” he asked, shock and wonder turning to worry as he turned his arm this way and that in the afternoon light.

His skin was clear of any marking, no internal bruise pattern or swirling discoloration. Merlin shivered at the memory of it sliding among his muscles, clutching his arm to his chest against the phantom pain. But all that remained was a single bandage on the inside of his middle finger, and the thin raised lines that indicated a well-healing cut across the rest. And when Merlin reached for his magic, feeling for the edge of his power like reaching out a hand for a friend, he felt the answering rush clear as day. It was through his sigh of relief that he noticed the odd look Gaius and Gwaine were giving one another.

“You first,” Gwaine said. “What exactly do you remember? Did those bastards attack you?”

Merlin winced, squirming into the bed and wishing they’d let him sit up for this bit. “No, I uh — did it to myself by accident. They’ve got enchanted swords, they look dull but —” He sat up straighter, the rest of the last few days he could remember falling into place. “Arthur! He’s in trouble, those swords must be meant for the melee. He’ll never see them coming.” Pushing back the blankets, he tried again to rise and swing his feet down before both Gwaine and Gaius stopped him.

“It’s alright, Merlin. The melee was yesterday, and Arthur’s fine. What their swords did to you was enough evidence to place the knights in the dungeon for a few days, we just needed to confirm what happened.” Gwaine grimaced. “The knights claimed they had nothing to do with it, but with your testimony perhaps Uther will see reason. It’s only because of Arthur that they were banned from the tournament at all.”

Arthur was safe after all. Merlin relaxed slowly back against his pillow, his speeding heartbeat reminding him that his body wasn’t totally recovered. He nodded gratefully. “So what about —” he gestured with his arm, “what did it do to me? How’d you fix it?”

And there it was again, that strange little look. Merlin’s stomach jumped when he recognized it: it was the same look that he and Gaius exchanged when one of them was about to lie to cover up his magic.

“Fetch us some fresh bread from the kitchens, would you, Gwaine? Merlin should eat something plain to settle that tonic,” Gaius said after a moment. The knight nodded easily, standing and looking down at Merlin with soft eyes. At the shift, Merlin realized that one of his hands was resting on Merlin’s shoulder, and had been ever since he woke up.

His lips quirked as he bent closer, pressing his lips briefly to Merlin’s forehead. “It’s good to have you back with us,” he murmured, then gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and left the room.

Warmth bloomed in Merlin’s chest, nearly — nearly — overtaking the cold worry over why he’d been sent away so overtly, what the two of them might be hiding.

Gaius took a seat where Gwaine had been, grunting as he lowered himself into it using the side of the cot. “The sword that cut you was enchanted, Merlin, but it wasn’t designed to do what it did,” he began, then rephrased. “It wasn’t designed to fight against magic users. The enchantment they are forged with is meant to conceal, to injure in the way that someone would least expect it. When Gwaine snuck in to get a look at the weapons, he recognized them as swords that appear dull but are actually extremely deadly.”

He sighed. “Normally, that would be enough. But when the enchantment attacks a magic user, even with the smallest cut…” Trailing off, Gaius indicated Merlin’s bandaged finger.

“It attacked my magic,” Merlin finished for him, nodding. It made him vaguely ill to think back too closely, but it matched up with what he had experienced. “How did you stop it? My power is completely back to normal now.”

A deep breath. “We had to do a cleansing ritual. And Merlin...”

“We?” There was clearly something Gaius didn’t want to say. It wasn’t like him to beat around the bush for so long.

Gaius nodded. “I didn’t tell him, but Gwaine is not quite as thick as he acts. He figured out you have magic.”

 

--

 

The kitchens were loud and hectic after spending a long, quiet night at Merlin’s side. Gwaine wasn’t even in the mood to snag anything as he dodged platters and people, going straight to the rack of cooling bread loaves and picking up a pretty golden-brown one that was cool enough not to burn his hands. Tearing off a corner, he paused by a window in the hall and chewed thoughtfully.

He’d never had a friend who was a magic user before. Or at least, not that he knew of. Growing up outside Camelot you meet all types, and he was grateful not to have the biases he might have had otherwise. He’d even been friendly with Druids before, though never so close as to witness a ritual firsthand like he did yesterday. A cleansing. It had been beautiful, and felt like nothing Gwaine had ever experienced. He’d acted as a conduit, they’d said, and for those long minutes with strange new energy coursing through him, it was like...seeing in color for the first time. There was a whole new layer to the world, a strange place that he’d been given brief access to. He wondered if that’s what it was like for Merlin, if he felt like that all the time.

Gaius still hadn’t actually confirmed it, but his behavior since Gwaine brought it up made him sure he was right. When he was in the circle, one hand clasped to a beautiful stranger’s on his left and one to Merlin’s injured hand on his right, he could feel Merlin’s presence with him. He was a part of the circle just as much as the Druids were, his power — his magic flowing through Gwaine right alongside theirs.

And he’d been surprised, sure. After all, what business did the manservant to the prince of Camelot have being a powerful sorcerer? But he wasn’t surprised about Merlin. As far as Gwaine was concerned, Merlin could be whatever he well liked.

With a final glance around the grounds outside the window, Gwaine pushed off the wall and headed back to Gaius’ quarters. He just hoped Merlin would believe in him as much as he did in Merlin.

“Room service, my lords,” he called cheerily when he arrived, rapping on the heavy door with his knuckles.

“Come on in, Gwaine,” Gaius called from inside, and passed him at the doorway once it opened. “I’m going to report to Uther now that Merlin is stable.”

Nodding, Gwaine waited until the door was closed behind him to return to what had been his seat for the last several days. “I got a bit peckish,” he said with a shrug, handing over the bread with several chunks taken from one end. As he’d hoped, Merlin chuckled, now sitting up in bed and looking decidedly healthier than he had earlier.

“So,” he started, sprawling a bit to relieve the tension in the room. “Anything you want to ask me?”

Merlin snorted, an undercurrent of fear cutting it short. “I think that’s my line, Gwaine.”

“I mean,” he shrugged, “sure. I do actually think I need to ask you one thing.” Casting about for the right question, he let his features set in a slight frown — cheering people up, helping them relax, now that was something Gwaine was skilled at. “Do you ever have to wear a pointy hat? Because personally, I think you look better without.”

Merlin stared. And then laughed — Yes! — shaking his head disbelievingly. Gwaine grinned broadly, waiting for Merlin to set the tone next.

It didn’t take long. “So you’re really just — okay with this?”

“Yep.” Gwaine reached over and pinched off another piece of bread. “Is that okay that I’m okay with it?”

Another baffled laugh, and then Merlin was setting down the bread, sitting forward on the edge of the cot, and reaching for him, pulling Gwaine into a warm embrace. “It’s really okay,” he said from over Gwaine’s shoulder, and he found himself basking in the careful happiness radiating from him.

“Show me something?” he asked hopefully as they parted, unable to deny that he did, actually, have a whole lot of questions he wanted to ask. When the time was right.

Merlin’s eyes went wide. Gwaine didn’t know who else he’d told, besides Gaius, but he couldn’t imagine there were many people he got to share his magic with. He smiled, small and excited, before holding out an empty hand. With a slight flash of gold in his eyes, the chunk of bread in Gwaine’s hand flew to his. Gwaine gaped as Merlin giggled and tossed it back to him.

“Do that again,” he said, amazed. Merlin did, tossing it back to him once more.

The day before, Gwaine had felt his power during the ritual. He knew it was the kind that could move the earth, split the skies. Impressive, spectacular, amazing things. And yet, he was glad that this is what he got to see first — the smallest, simplest little spell, used for nothing but fun. He rolled the bread in his palm, now a little squished into a ball shape.

“I know you didn’t choose to tell me,” he found himself saying. Merlin’s features sobered. “And I’m sorry you didn’t get that freedom. But thank you for sharing it with me.” Lifting his gaze, he forced himself not to smile and joke, letting the moment stay serious for a little bit longer. “When I found you, Merlin...it wasn’t good. Even if you didn’t want to be around me after I figured it out, if that was what it took to make you better, I’d do it a hundred times. And your secret is safe with me, no matter what.”

Merlin seemed to take his words to heart, nodding slowly and reaching out to gently grasp Gwaine’s hands in his. “Thank you, Gwaine. It’s an honor.”

They got a long, quiet moment of understanding, watching each other with soft smiles as Gwaine threaded their fingers together where they rested on the bed.

It was interrupted rudely by loud, stomping footsteps outside the door, Uther Pendragon throwing it open a moment later. Gaius followed, as well as Arthur and Guinevere, who both hurried over to check that Merlin was really doing okay. Gwaine caught Gaius’ gaze, giving him a cheeky shrug to indicate that their conversation went smoothly, before turning back to Merlin, who was currently being thoroughly squished by Gwen’s arms.

The air still felt sweet with potential, a warm fluttering of maybe one day that remained where Merlin’s fingers had laced with his. And for now, he had a true friend — finally, someone worth sticking around for.