Word Count: 1442
A/N: Written for comment_fic but rapidly outgrew the character limit. Future fic.
Summary: On the battlefield, Merlin's power grows.
The air crackles with power and lightning. It's strong enough to chill the blood and steal the breath from Arthur's chest, but he struggles to remain calm. Aloof. Merlin stands at his side, at his right hand, with one arm outstretched towards the oncoming army.
The destruction is terrible and terrifying. Skin sizzles and flesh burns. Smoke hangs heavy over the battlefield. This is cheating, a quiet voice whispers in the back of Arthur's mind. This is wrong.
This is a massacre.
The advancing army don't stand a chance.
When it's done, when he's finished, Merlin looks at Arthur with eyes stained with gold. It doesn't fade like it usually does. "Am I done?" he asks, exhausted. Arthur can see the way it pulls at his shoulders.
Before he can answer him, Merlin sways on his feet. His eyelids droop and Arthur has time to ask, "Merlin?" then he has to dash forward to catch the sorcerer before he falls into the trampled mud at their feet. Merlin feels as if he weighs nothing, at first. He certainly won't be fighting any more battles for them today. His face is pale and his forehead is clammy when Arthur dabs his hand against it.
He mutters under his breath as he heaves Merlin into his arms and curses at how ridiculously heavy he suddenly is. "We need to get him inside," he orders. There is nothing to fear in this war now with the enemy obliterated, but if Merlin doesn't recover then there is no telling what might happen in the next confrontation. Arthur can't pretend that's the only reason he's worried but he'll try, if he has to.
Stumbling with heavy feet he doesn't know how he manages to get Merlin to the medic's tent but he does – and Gaius is there, waiting. The physician shouldn't be out at war, but where Merlin goes he follows: nobody argues.
"He shouldn't do this to himself," Gaius says worriedly as Arthur places him down upon the cot at the side of the tent.
The implicit criticism is, you shouldn't allow him to do this, or even, you shouldn't order him to, but Arthur knows that Gaius would never dare to talk to his king in such a way. That's a relief: he couldn't stand to hear it, not now, not when Merlin lies so pale and sickly before them.
"Will he be alright?" Arthur asks.
"It's too early to tell." Gaius is already moving around his tent, shuffling from place to place as he gathers ingredients. Arthur wishes he knew more about this obscure science, if only so that he could understand and help in any way possible. Standing at the foot of Merlin's bed, he is helpless.
As the king of Camelot he hasn't felt useless in years. There is always something to be done: someone to negotiate with, to fight, or to threaten. A deal to be made; a spell to have cast. Arthur is used to solutions, not waiting.
Gesturing towards a seat near the cot, Gaius says, "You may wait if you wish."
Arthur sits down: as if he could go anywhere at a time like this.
He gives orders from his position at Merlin's side. It's easy enough. There's nothing to fear, not yet, though he imagines that it won't be long before replacements arrive – another army to face down. There will be real fighting this time, not the brute force of Merlin's magic to force a victory for them. The air is still heavy with the scent of burned flesh. A few of his soldiers have vomited from the stench and Arthur has to admit to feeling rather queasy himself.
Hours have passed before Merlin stirs, groaning. His eyes only open for a moment before he moans unhappily and closes them tight again.
"Wake up," Arthur says, hiding his relief with a layer of irritation. He nudges Merlin's leg with his foot. "You've been asleep all afternoon. You're truly the laziest court sorcerer Camelot has ever had."
"I'm the only one you've ever had," Merlin mutters. He rolls unhappily onto his side. "What happened? Did it work?"
"Yes, it worked," Arthur replies tensely. A strong part of him wishes that it hadn't. He doesn't want to view Merlin as a weapon – and he certainly doesn't want enemy nations to see him in that regard. That makes him a target. "You fainted like a little girl afterwards. It was ridiculous."
Merlin snorts, looking as sleepy as he does when he wakes up beside Arthur on a Sunday morning. "Let's see you do any better," he challenges, eyes opening now as he smiles.
Arthur's eyebrows rise: not from the challenge itself, but because of the colour of the eyes making it. They swirl with rich gold, a colour that a dragon would be proud to hoard. Usually it fades. This time it won't, Arthur can tell.
"Sire?" Merlin asks, beginning to sit up before he groans as if he's going to throw up. Arthur's hand on his shoulder manages to force him to lie down again before Gaius can come over to scold him. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing," Arthur says with a wave of his hand that is apparently far from as dismissive as he wants it to be. Merlin scowls at him in a way that he's sure would be extremely threatening if Merlin were at full strength. "Your eyes."
"My eyes are wrong?"
"Your eyes are gold."
Merlin's face forms a frown.
"I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," Arthur reassures him, though he knows nothing of the sort. Magic, like medicine, is not his area of expertise. It's not even Merlin's: Arthur gets the impression that Merlin makes up most of what he 'knows' as he goes along. He has the power of a god but the experience of a toad.
"I felt it," Merlin admits. "When I cast that spell, I felt something… Something in me – break? It was as if it had been walled away all this time but now I'd unleashed it."
"Which means what, exactly?"
Merlin shrugs. His head dips and he stares at his hands for a few moments. "I'm not sure. Maybe it'll fade soon."
Arthur nods hopefully. A change in eye colour shouldn't disturb him this much, but his father's distrust of magic is still instilled deep within him even though he fights it for Merlin's sake.
"This may not be a bad thing, you know," Gaius says as he approaches. Arthur tries to pretend that he isn't startled to find that the old man has been listening to them all this time. "This was the most powerful spell you've ever cast, wasn't it?"
Merlin nods. "I've never felt anything else like it," he confesses.
"Perhaps you are beginning to reach your true potential, my boy," Gaius suggests with an encouraging smile.
And Arthur has seen Merlin conjure storms and lightning; he has seen him fight off evil, both human and supernatural; and he has felt Merlin's power coursing through him in the dead of the night when they are alone in his chambers, skin on skin. When he is buried within Merlin, that power washes over him and it's almost too much to take. To know that there is more there, that even the limits he has seen so far are not limits at all… Perhaps that is enough to terrify even the king of Camelot.
"Does this mean that my spells will stop going wrong?" Merlin asks. When he smiles, the gold of his eyes shines.
Arthur reaches for his hand and holds on a little tighter than necessary as he says, "It probably means that your mistakes will be more spectacular than ever. We should all run for cover."
"Hey, I'm ill. You should be nice to me."
"Since when has that been a rule?"
Merlin's smile doesn't cease. It's normal and hasn't changed, even if his eyes have. "Since I said so, sire."
He tumbles over the words a little and Arthur can't help but hiss at him to make fun of his mispronunciation. The tease causes Merlin to grab him by the front of his chain-mail shirt and pull him down, their lips meeting and their right hands still tightly clamped together. Gaius gives an awkward cough and mutters something about having to fetch an ingredient from another tent, but Arthur hardly hears him as he presses closer, closer, closer to Merlin.
His eyes might have changed but Merlin still kisses the same – needy, desperate, and utterly demanding. It's all the proof that Arthur needs to know that his Merlin is still in there, buried beneath the gold.