Part of me has been putting off this chapter because I have nothing else written, or even planned, right now. My muse is refusing to co-operate. Looks like I'll have to watch some Merlin soon to get me back on track.
But for now, here is the final chapter. I hope you enjoy it.
Arthur sat by the fire, staring into the flames. The warmth washed over him, comforting. The longer he sat there, the deeper that warmth went, driving the last of the visions from his mind and soothing his soul. It wasn't a feeling he could put into words, nor did he have any intention of trying to. His men could see that, apart from a few bruises, he was uninjured. He wasn't going to tell them the damage hadn't been done to his body.
"Here." A bowl entered his vision and Arthur looked up to see Merlin offering it. Arthur took it with a nod but as his servant made to turn away, Arthur called him back.
"Why did you do it?"
"I wasn't going to leave you out here," Merlin said, his tone light. But his eyes were serious and when Arthur gestured for him to sit down, Merlin did so without argument.
"You decided to come alone, abandoning the knights? They would have kept you safe."
"Nothing happened to me," Merlin protested. He wouldn't meet Arthur's gaze though.
"It's their duty to protect me," Arthur said quietly, watching his servant. "Not yours."
"It's my duty to follow you around. Even if that means coming after you."
"Merlin-," Arthur broke off, sighing as he rubbed his free hand over his eyes. "You didn't have…I mean, you could have been-,"
His voice refused to form the words. If something had happened to Merlin while he was searching for Arthur, he knew the guilt would never leave him. He spent every day training his men to deal with all manner of situations. But it had been Merlin who had fled the castle in the night: Merlin who had tracked him down. Right now, Arthur didn't want to consider precisely how Merlin had managed to find him.
"I know," Merlin said softly. "But you're wrong; I did have to. And I wasn't hurt. Don't worry about me, Arthur."
Arthur knew what he wasn't saying; he should worry about himself instead. They had no idea what the mandrakes had done to him long term and Arthur suddenly felt cold, despite the fire. Merlin clearly saw his shiver as he stood up.
"Eat," he said, "I'll get some blankets. We should stay here for the night."
Arthur didn't argue. They had been planning to stop anyway. He also didn't protest that Merlin had given him an order and instead just started eating. The food was hot and rich and Arthur felt strength returning with every mouthful he took. Once he had finished, he glanced around. Merlin was standing by the horses, a blanket in his hand, but he was talking quietly to Lancelot.
Arthur shook his head and looked back at the fire. He didn't think he would ever understand his servant. But he knew that if Merlin hadn't found him when he did, Arthur wouldn't be sitting here now. His body might have survived Morgana's attack, but his mind would have shattered with only a few more hours in that room.
"Sire?" Leon crouched next to him. There was a blanket in his arms and Arthur knew that Leon had also noticed that Merlin was distracted. Arthur smiled softly as he took it with a nod. It would have been easy for Leon to reprimand Merlin, remind him of his duties as Arthur's servant. But, just like the rest of them, Leon had accepted Merlin for who he was and that he would do things in his own time.
"Arthur, I-," It was rare that Leon was lost for words, but his knight looked as if he had no way of expressing what was on his mind.
"I'm alright," Arthur said. Leon wasn't just his most trusted knight, he was one of his oldest friends. Arthur knew what it would have done to him knowing that his prince was missing.
"Are you really?" Leon asked and Arthur knew he wasn't fooling the man. He didn't feel well and knew it would be showing in his expression. Leon had spent too long ensuring Arthur's safety and well-being to be fooled now. But Arthur didn't want anyone other than Merlin knowing what he had experienced.
"I will be," Arthur said firmly, closing the conversation down. "How far from Camelot are we?"
Leon took the hint and started explaining their route home. It didn't really matter; Arthur knew he would get his bearings after a decent night sleep. But it distracted them both and for now, that was all that was needed.
It didn't take long, however, for Arthur to be unable to hide how exhausted he was. Leon broke off mid-sentence and smiled gently.
"Get some sleep, Sire."
"I'm not a squire anymore," Arthur protested, "you can't send me to bed."
"Of course not." A grin twitched Leon's face and Arthur smiled back, shaking his head in amusement. He knew the knight was right though; he needed his strength if they were going to cover enough ground tomorrow to make it home before their supplies ran out.
Moving away from the fire, Arthur spread his blankets before rolling up in them. Elyan and Percival were already asleep and Gwaine's hand was resting on his sword as he took the first watch, staring out into the night. Arthur saw Merlin glance around for him, then head his way and bed down close by. Anyone would think that he wanted to be on hand if his master needed him. Arthur thought it was more likely Merlin wanted to be close in case anything happened.
The thought amused the prince and he fell asleep with a smile on his face.
It didn't last long though. No sooner had he surrendered to sleep when a sneering face floated in his vision. Merlin's lip curled as he looked at the prince in disgust, his voice hollow and flat as he voiced his displeasure at Camelot's choice of leader, how weak Arthur was going to be-,
His name was enough to jerk him from sleep. Arthur blinked rapidly, ensuring the Merlin looking down on him was real. His servant smiled softly.
"It's me, Sire. The real me."
Arthur nodded shakily and looked away, not wanting Merlin to see how vulnerable he was feeling. But as a hand squeezed his shoulder lightly, Arthur knew there was no point in pretending. Merlin already knew.
Arthur pushed off his blanket. "I should take a watch."
"There's no need, Arthur, the others have it covered."
"They should take the time to get some rest." Arthur pushed Merlin's comforting hand away and stood up. He would not let this undermine him or break his defences. If they pushed the pace the following day, they could be back in Camelot by nightfall and he could deal with it behind the safety of his chambers' doors.
But he would not let his knights see how unnerved he was. Especially as it was neither his father nor Morgana that were haunting him the most.
Arthur stalked to the perimeter, feeling Merlin's gaze burn into him. He knew his servant was concerned, but there was nothing either of them could do out here in the forest. Arthur wasn't sure there was anything they could do once they reached the Citadel either, but he refused to think on that for now.
He relieved Elyan of his guard, thankful it was the quiet man on duty. Elyan surrendered his position with a concerned look but moved away. Gwaine and Leon both would have argued. Lancelot would have turned to Merlin for back-up.
Arthur had just taken up position when a noise made him glance back into the clearing. Merlin was picking up his blankets and, even as Arthur watched, he moved them closer to the prince again.
"What are you doing, Merlin?" Arthur sighed.
"You might need something," Merlin said, "so I thought I would make it easy for once."
"You? Make something easy?"
"It can be known to happen," Merlin said. He shrugged and climbed back under his blankets. Arthur smiled fondly, knowing that Merlin was ensuring he was close on hand. Not if Arthur needed a drink, or the fire stroked or some other mindless task. Merlin was staying close in case Arthur needed a friend.
The prince couldn't bring himself to send Merlin closer back to the fire.
"Get some sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow," he ordered. There was no point in them both staying away just because Arthur was afraid of what he would see when he shut his eyes.
Arthur only realised then just how exhausted Merlin was when his servant fell asleep without complaint or protest. Arthur wondered when he had last got some decent rest and his hand tightened on his sword.
No matter what approached their clearing that night, Arthur was adamant that nothing was going to disturb Merlin's rest.
It was the least he could do.
Merlin stared absently out of the window, a cloth in his hand.
They had been back in Camelot for two days, having arrived late the day after the knights had found them. They had all been exhausted after pushing the pace all day, but it worked. There were very few people around and they were able to slip into the castle virtually undetected. Arthur had dealt with the guards that had challenged them. Merlin wondered if the news had even spread that the prince had been missing.
But although he had slept deeply since, Merlin felt exhausted. It wasn't his own tiredness that was draining him, however, but Arthur's. He knew the prince wasn't sleeping and was refusing to admit to it. Merlin knew he had to tell Gaius and allow his mentor to deal with the prince, but it felt like betraying Arthur's confidence.
Then again, Merlin also knew that if Arthur thought he could get away with not admitting it, then he would.
He wondered where Morgana was now and whether she had recovered from his attack. He didn't know what he wanted the answer to be and that scared him.
A soft knock made Merlin start but Lancelot slipped into the room with an apologetic smile.
"How is he?" Merlin asked. Arthur had forbidden him from accompanying him to the training grounds, claiming that Merlin had other chores to be getting on with. Merlin thought it was more likely because Arthur wasn't up to full strength and was well aware that Merlin would notice.
"Slow," Lancelot admitted. Merlin had cracked and told his friend what Arthur had gone through. Arthur didn't know that Lancelot knew, and Merlin was aware that the knight would keep it that way. But he hadn't been able to handle the pressure of being the only one to know on his own. Someone else needed to be aware that Arthur's scars weren't physical.
"He's not sleeping, is he?"
Merlin shook his head. It was hardly surprising Arthur's reactions weren't up to speed considering the nightmares plaguing him.
"He won't tell me what he sees," Merlin admitted, "but I think I did something to him. He always has a wary look in his eye until I convince him that I'm really me and not some illusion."
"You didn't do anything to him," Lancelot said. "It was Morgana and the mandrakes. If he saw you, it just shows that he values your opinion."
"I'd rather believe he thought I was an idiot," Merlin muttered, although they both knew he didn't mean it. Merlin had waited so long for Arthur to take him seriously and now it appeared that was being used against the prince.
"Are you going to tell Gaius?"
Merlin made his mind up in that instant and nodded. "All Arthur needs is rest and his mind will heal. But if he won't let himself sleep, then our problems are only just beginning."
Lancelot nodded his understanding before disappearing. They both knew Arthur would be angry if he realised they were discussing him in his own chambers while the prince wasn't there.
Merlin had only just moved from his position by the window when Arthur stalked in.
"How was training?" Merlin asked, his voice false and bright.
"They were weak," Arthur said, sounding furious. He threw his sword down on the table and Merlin hurried over to help him take his armour off. He knew what Arthur really meant; he was weak and he hated it.
"They haven't trained for a few days," Merlin said carefully, "they just need to get back up to speed."
Arthur grunted and dismissed Merlin to fetch his lunch as soon as he was free from his armour. Merlin took his time, carefully putting it away in order to see what Arthur would do. It came as no surprise that he pulled his pile of reports towards him. Arthur felt like he had to catch up on everything he had missed while he had been gone, despite being exhausted.
Merlin slipped out. Instead of going to the kitchens, however, he returned to Gaius' chambers. He was in luck: the physician was back from his rounds and had time to listen to his ward talk.
Gaius grew grave as Merlin told him everything he knew about what had happened while Arthur was missing.
"The physical injuries are healing?" he asked, his hand straying towards his lotions. Merlin nodded.
"They never intended to hurt him, only contain him. It happened days ago, the bruises are starting to fade."
Gaius nodded. Merlin suddenly realised how old his mentor was looking and realised that Arthur's disappearance – and subsequently his own – had taken its toll on the old man. Merlin wasn't going to apologise though; they both knew he would have gone after Arthur as fast as possible, regardless of the consequences to himself.
"If I give you a sleeping draught, can you persuade him to take it?"
"I'll slip it into his drink if I have to," Merlin said. He ran a hand over his face. "Is he going to be alright?"
Gaius crossed the room and put a hand on his shoulder. "Yes, my boy," he said, "he's going to be fine. A few good nights' rest and the nightmares will fade on their own. He's making himself worse by refusing to sleep. He's going to be fine."
Merlin took heart from the physician's words and listened carefully when Gaius told him how much Arthur should take. He put the bottle in his pocket and hurried off to find the prince's lunch, wondering how he was going to convince Arthur to take a sleeping draught.
He pondered the question all afternoon. When he fetched Arthur's dinner, he still hadn't come up with an answer. He poured Arthur's wine, hesitated, and left the bottle where it was. He couldn't drug the prince without Arthur's knowledge, not when he knew it was an illusion of himself that was causing the prince all the problems. He wouldn't betray his master like that.
Once Arthur was changed for bed though, Merlin knew he had run out of time.
"What is it?"
"I spoke to Gaius today," Merlin said carefully. He knew that Arthur didn't want anyone else knowing what he had gone through. But he also knew that Arthur trusted Gaius and it was only his pride and stubbornness that had stopped him from telling the physician himself.
"You do live with him, Merlin, that would make sense."
"About you." Merlin ignored Arthur's sarcastic remark.
"You gossiped about your prince behind his back?"
"Oh don't be a prat," Merlin said, rolling his eyes at Arthur's tone. "I'm worried about you. We both are."
"You're not fine. You're not sleeping, you're barely eating! Keep this up and-,"
Merlin recognised the warning note in Arthur's voice but he didn't care. Not when it was the prince's health on the line.
"Then Morgana would have won," he said quietly. Arthur whipped around but Merlin pressed on. He pulled the bottle out of his pocket.
"Gaius says the nightmares will fade." He spoke softly, aware that Arthur hadn't actually admitted to them. "You just need a few nights rest first."
Merlin understood. It wasn't that the prince wouldn't, it was that he was afraid of what he would see if he allowed himself to fall into a drugged sleep that would be harder to wake from. Merlin stepped closer.
"Yes, you can," he said softly.
"You can," he repeated. "I'll stay with you. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. I swear."
Arthur's gaze was locked on the bottle and Merlin knew he was considering it. Merlin offered it up, sighing in relief when Arthur took it. He didn't mention the tremble to Arthur's hands.
"You'll-," Arthur swallowed. "You'll stay."
Merlin knew what it cost him to ask that.
"Yes, Sire. I'll stay."
He turned his back, giving Arthur some privacy as he took the tonic and climbed into bed. Then he pulled around a chair, intending to watch over his prince all night if that was what it took for Arthur to get some sleep.
But as soon as Arthur relaxed, Merlin knew he didn't need to worry. Arthur's breathing was even and his face was lax and relaxed. The potion was working and Merlin knew no nightmares would haunt Arthur's rest that night.
He intended to stay by his promise though. He would sit there all night, because Arthur needed him to. When it came to his destiny, there wasn't a lot that Merlin wouldn't do.
Watching Arthur sleep, Merlin felt the tension leave his own body. He could now admit what he had been refusing to acknowledge ever since he pulled Arthur from that tower.
He was going to be alright.
Morgana had lost. Merlin had no doubt that she would try again, but he would be ready for her.
He wasn't going to let anything interfere with his destiny. Not again.