Over the course of a few months, Arthur slowly became aware that his manservant had an addiction. To what, he didn't know, but he was determined to find out.
It started around the time Guinevere became queen. The entire week after her coronation, Arthur happened to notice that Merlin had shadows under his eyes. For that first week, he attributed it to lingering effects from the siege of Camelot. Everyone was left feeling exhausted after the horror of Morgana's takeover and the excitement of the wedding so soon after.
Merlin, however, seemed not to recover when everyone else did.
Arthur tried everything. At first he started shortening Merlin's list of duties, afraid he might be overrunning the man too soon. When that did nothing, he tried piling on the chores instead, slipping laundry and armor that wasn't even his into the workload. Merlin complained—no change there—but did it anyway. In fact, he always got things done before dark. Clearly it wasn't his job that deprived him of sleep.
"You need to keep Merlin out of the tavern," Arthur told Gwaine one day, frowning across the training field to where Merlin, instead of polishing Arthur's breastplate that was actually Leon's, sat with eyes half-closed, head in his hand.
Gwaine swatted his arm with the flat side of his blade. "What are you on about? If he spent any less time in the tavern, I'd say he's forgotten where it is."
"So he hasn't been sneaking off to get drunk every night?"
"Haven't seen him once."
Well, that was disappointing. If Gwaine hadn't seen Merlin in the tavern, then Merlin hadn't been there. It should have been a relief to discover that his manservant wasn't an avid alcoholic, but that drop-kicked Arthur all the way back to square one. He no longer had anything to go on.
Suspiciously, the first time Arthur noticed any improvement in Merlin's persistent downtroddenness was in the days following the winter solstice feast, during which no less than three of Arthur's guests turned out to be an assassin in disguise.
The next morning, Merlin bounded into Arthur's room with a perkiness that made the king want to kill him. Finally, he thought groggily, glaring at his manservant's ridiculous grin.
Within a week, the bags under his eyes were back.
So Arthur assigned himself a mission: he would watch Merlin to the point of stalking him, he would find out what the problem was, and he would fix it.
Naturally, since a king had only so much free time, he enlisted the help of his knights as well as other various informants to ensure maximum success/stalkage. Percival, Leon, and Elyan (not Gwaine; Arthur had a sneaking suspicion that Gwaine wouldn't be completely honest in this endeavor if it didn't suit him to be) agreed to tail him during training sessions. George vowed to watch the man like a hawk while he performed some of his servant duties. He performed admirably, so admirably that Arthur had to tell him to ease up because he was alarming Merlin. Arthur himself made sure to spend all his free time at his servant's side.
Therefore, it could not be said that any effort was spared to see what Merlin got up to on his own. The disappointing truth was that he didn't get up to anything.
And all the while, he seemed to grow more and more tired, and worse, he became increasingly agitated and short-tempered. He'd taken to snapping at Arthur instead of the usual banter and joking around.
"I stood outside his room for an hour," Elyan insisted after Arthur badgered him to know how thorough he'd been. "Believe me, he didn't leave. He got in his bed and stayed there. It's the same every night. Although I'm telling you, he scratches his arms like a madman in his sleep."
It seemed the universe was against Arthur and his goal. That is, until on one brisk, windy, altogether hellishly cold day, he finally found his opportunity.
No one with any sense dared to venture out in the frigid air of the coldest day in remembered history. Arthur secretly enjoyed the prospect of a whole day he could spend cozied in his chambers with Guinevere.
He kept his arms wrapped around his wife while Merlin prodded the pathetic fire until it roared. "You're welcome to stay, Merlin," Guinevere invited. Arthur shot her a disapproving look, one she didn't receive since his head was resting on hers. "I'm sure your room must be freezing."
Merlin shrugged, sparing barely half a glance in their direction. "I'm sure you two want to be alone," he said pointedly. "Is that all, then?" He scratched at his neck.
"Listen to the man, Guinevere," Arthur interrupted, kissing the top of her head. Guinevere craned her neck to scowl reprovingly at him. "It's just as easy to build a fire there as it is here."
She turned back to Merlin, but he was already gone, the door closed quietly behind him. She pulled away and frowned.
"What's the matter?"
"Did you see his eyes, Arthur?" Guinevere seemed genuinely upset. Trust Merlin to be a problem on the one day when Arthur had an excuse to do nothing but spend time with his wife. "It's like he's not slept in a week. What do you think is wrong with him?"
"Loads of things," Arthur replied by instinct. She pushed his chest playfully. "I've noticed it too. I'm working on it, I promise."
She wasn't reassured, he could tell, but she let it go in favor of more pleasant ways to spend their time.
No one else came in the room until lunch. Arthur made sure to keep track of the sun's position through the window so he'd be prepared for someone walking in. By the time the door opened, he and Guinevere were halfway through a stack of tax reports, which Guinevere had somehow convinced him would be a good idea to accomplish while still in bed.
"Ah, Merlin, there you are," said Arthur without looking up.
"With regret, Sire, it is I, not Merlin," said George, striding swiftly to the bed with two heavily-laden trays balanced in his hands. It was impressively graceful, much more so than Merlin could have managed. It irritated Arthur to no end.
"Where's Merlin?" he demanded.
George observed the situation with a shrewd eye and determined that the best move was to set the trays on the covers in front of the two monarchs. "I do not know, Your Majesty," he apologized, bowing. "I am led to believe he has other duties to attend to."
Arthur snorted. "Merlin? Other duties? If I know him, he's in bed snoring loud enough that I'd hear him if I went in the corridor." Privately he hoped that was the case.
With another deep bow, George left them to eat and work, the latter of which got neglected for the former. Nevertheless, when that was finished, they delved straight back into sorting out the proper taxes from the blatant frauds.
"I thought they'd never end," remarked Guinevere when they finally reached the last report. It was the first time she'd had to sit through the endless tedium of so many pieces of parchment, and Arthur couldn't blame her if she never wanted to do it again.
"I'd tell you it gets easier," he said, "but I'd be lying. It's hell."
She laughed and curled herself closer to him. "I'm willing to suffer through it," she said, leaning in for a kiss.
"Hold that thought," Arthur murmured, grabbing the two trays that still sat at the foot of their bed. "I'll move these."
He moved to set them on the table near the door, but something in the window caught his eye. Someone had idiotically braved the cold and was tramping through the knee-deep snow with a purpose, heading away from the castle. It was unmistakably Merlin, red neckerchief and black hair billowing violently in the wind. He wore nothing more than his usual clothes.
It occurred to Arthur that this would likely be his only chance. In a heartbeat, his mind was made up.
"Keep holding that thought, Guinevere," he said, striding to his wardrobe and fishing for his warmest coat and cloak. "I have an idiot to catch up with."
The weather was aggressively unpleasant. It was bad enough inside the castle, outside of the fire-warmed comforts of his own chambers; the moment Arthur's face met the wind, he ceased to feel anything except the sharp sting of it against his cheeks. The hood on his cloak refused to stay up, and he eventually caved and left it down, though his ears throbbed in protest.
Merlin's tracks weren't hard to follow, simply because they were the only tracks. It had been snowing since dawn, and no one else was foolish enough to venture outside into the bitter cold. No one except Arthur, but he was only following the original fool.
It wasn't snowing any longer, but the wind tossed up whirlwinds of the existing layers, throwing them to freeze against Arthur's exposed skin. He shivered and considered turning around, but curiosity and determination drove him onward.
Merlin had a good head start on him, enough that Arthur hadn't actually seen the man since the glance in the window. However, it was pretty clear that his only destination at this rate could be the Forest of Ascetir. Why Merlin wanted to go there now of all places, Arthur had no idea. He assumed it had to do with his addiction. Did Merlin have a stash of something there? Was there a girl that Merlin kept meeting in his spare time. He dismissed that idea; no girl would be so eager to see Merlin that she dared brave this weather.
The edge of the forest, when Arthur reached it, was kind in that it provided a windbreak. However, it allowed Arthur to regain feeling in places that had previously been numb, and it hurt like nothing else. He shivered, silently cursing his manservant for being the worst person ever.
Merlin was still nowhere in sight, but his tracks were plain as day. If the man didn't want to be caught, he did a terrible job at covering himself. A blind man could have followed the lead. Arthur weaved his way through the trees, rubbing his arms for warmth, mind and heart racing at the possibilities of what he could be about to discover.
Nothing could have prepared him.
He found Merlin in a clearing, which should have meant the return of the horrific winds. He half expected to find a nest of empty bottles and a drunken manservant freezing to death in the snow, too high off his head to even care.
Instead he found Merlin, kneeling in a perfect ring of green grass and cheery flowers—a few lilies and tulips, but mostly daisies—surrounded by a glow that seemed to radiate warmth and sunshine. He had his head tipped back and his eyes closed as though basking, and the shadows under his eyes were gone. Outside of that little bubble of summer, everything was as normal. There was a hard edge where the sunshine-y glow touched the gleaming crystals of snow that threatened to blind with the reflected light.
"Merlin?" he exclaimed, and the whole thing shattered.
Merlin's eyes snapped open. The sunshine and grass and flowers disappeared, though there was still a barren circle where the snow no longer sat. "A-Arthur," he croaked, and though he'd seconds ago been healthier than Arthur had seen him in a long time, he now looked more terrified than Arthur had ever seen anyone look.
Arthur, for his part, was stunned. His brain was simultaneously on hold and working at a million times its normal speed. This was it, then? This was what had Merlin looking like the walking dead? This was what Arthur had been trying to find out for months?
"Arthur," Merlin said again in a low voice, "I can... I can explain."
It was those shaky words that brought Arthur to his senses.
"No, Merlin," he said firmly, but not unkindly. In fact, it came out surprisingly gentle. "I understand now. You couldn't help it. It's not your fault."
Merlin's eyes widened. "How did you—?"
"Magic is an addiction," Arthur continued, still in that horrible soothing voice that an adult might comfort a three-year-old with. "I've been wrong to punish those who use it; I should have been looking for a way to help them."
Merlin's relieved expression turned to one of perplexity. "What—?"
"It's okay, Merlin. I'm going to help you get over this. You can go back to living a normal life. Gwen and Gaius, they can help."
It took ages for the light of comprehension to dawn on Merlin's face. "Oh!" he gasped. "No, Arthur, you've got this wrong. It's not an addiction. I'm not addicted to magic."
"Of course you're not," said Arthur, moving close enough to place a hand on his friend's shoulder. "No, you don't have to accept that yet. But you'll see, I swear to you. I won't let it take over you anymore."
Becoming annoyed, Merlin pushed his hand away. "I'm serious, Arthur! I was born with magic. Saying I'm addicted to it is like saying you're addicted to your eyes. You use them a lot, yeah, but you sort of have to."
That didn't fit at all with the neat little picture Arthur had painted in his head of how this worked. He'd come here to catch Merlin harboring a secret addiction, and damn it, he'd found it, no matter what Merlin said to convince him otherwise. "I've seen you these past months, Merlin," he said, "clearly staying up at all hours of the night. Probably to practice magic, am I right? That's why you've got those bags under your eyes—well, not now, obviously—and that's what's been making you so unpleasant. Give it a few weeks without, and you'll be good as new, I promise. You won't have to sneak around anymore."
"Are you blind?" Merlin snapped. "Not doing magic is what's made me so exhausted, Arthur! Ever since we got rid of Morgana, I've been trying to limit myself, do as little as possible so no one would find out. Then I noticed how awful it made me feel—tired, itchy, cranky—and I thought, 'Oh, I'll just do a trick or two before bed at night, nothing big, just enough to get by.' And then suddenly you and the knights are everywhere, walking me to bed and standing outside my door as if I don't realize anyone's there, so I can't even do one little spell to make myself feel better. Do you have any idea how hard it is to be made of magic and not be able to use it at all ever? That's why I had to sneak out here, Arthur. Not to feed some stupid addiction, but to keep my magic from crawling out of my skin because I have to keep shoving it down!"
Arthur blinked, considering all of that in his personal assessment of the situation.
"This would be a lot easier if it was an addiction," he told Merlin.
Merlin cracked a hesitant smile. "I could lie to make you feel better," he said. "But a lie isn't much of a lie if you know what it's covering, I guess."
It was then that Arthur noticed that he was still bloody freezing.
"Can you do that thing again?" he asked tentatively. "That... summer-y thing? With the sun, and the... warmth."
"The magic, you mean."
Arthur flinched. "Yes, well. The thing that might possibly ward off frostbite for a fair bit of the future."
"Just to clarify," said Merlin. "If I make you feel like you're by a fire right now, will you promise not to light me on fire later? You know, when you're done trying to convince yourself I'm under the influence of some deadly addiction and not in possession my own free will?"
"Just make the damn sunshine, Merlin," growled Arthur. Merlin's answering grin was almost as bright as the sudden glow that enveloped them both and erased the freezing temperatures.
It was sort of remarkable, Arthur didn't admit to himself. Grass grew and flowers bloomed right before his eyes. This time the daisies were even more dominant than before, whiting out the little patch of summer in winter that Merlin was uncomfortably swift at producing.
"Why daisies?" Arthur asked, not wanting to think about anything more profound or important than Merlin's flower preference for the time being. He didn't really want to know Merlin's flower preference either, to be fair, but not talking meant thinking, and thinking meant thinking about this.
Merlin shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think about it. It just happens, and I guess daisies happen more easily than other flowers."
Arthur didn't argue the logic, or the fact that there wasn't any. "Ah," he said sagely, sitting cross-legged beside his servant in the patch of white flowers. The toe of his boot touched the frosty snow that encircled them. He pulled it back hastily, brushing the powder away; he wasn't quite ready to face the cold yet. For now he'd sit in this bubble isolated from the rest of the world and pretend everything was as warm as it was here.