A/N: Boo! Did you miss me? I missed you. Yep I'm back and with an epilogue just for you. Seeing as nearly everyone who reviewed asked for one I felt compelled. I do hope you enjoy. x
To The Victor
Merlin stood silently outside Arthur's door. It was early. The sun had barely shaken off the night. In his good hand he held the plate containing Arthur's breakfast. His other, still stiff and held together by Gaius' stitches, lay resting lazily in the sling that had been created for it.
The door in front of him was open, just a crack, but enough to make his heart sink. It had been like that yesterday too, and he was fearful it was going to forever remain that way.
Two days ago, he had decided to return to his duties. Well, in truth he had decided before then but two days ago was the first time he had managed to last a whole day without taking some of the potions Gaius had been plying him with, and actually wake up early enough that the physician was still asleep and he could sneak out past him.
It had taken longer than normal to get Arthur's breakfast that morning. All the kitchen staff and nearly everyone he met wanted to chat and wish him well. It was nice, flattering even, but all he wanted was to make his way up to this door and find Arthur.
The prince had stayed true to his word for the whole two weeks Merlin had been cooped up in his room; he hadn't seen Arthur once, not after that night. No one had, Gwen promised him when she visited. The prince had been keeping to himself. Merlin wasn't sure whether he believed her or she was just trying to ease his pain at the absence, which he couldn't hide.
When finally he reached this door on the first morning Merlin had found a problem. The door was closed and he had no free hand with which to open it. As his heart pounded in his chest he just stared at it, as if the power of his gaze alone would open it. It could have done of course, but what with the ever-present guards, now staring at him, it wasn't an option he could risk. His mind spun with a hundred different options, each as ridiculous as the others.
Eventually he had just tried to attack the handle while still holding the plate. It hadn't gone well. The plate had slipped; crashing to the floor with a sound that he was certain was only so loud because of the early hour.
The guard at the end of the hall, possibly the only person who hadn't wanted to chat with Merlin that morning, leapt forward in surprise but upon seeing Merlin fell back to the wall.
Rolling his eyes, Merlin instantly dropped to his knees and began to clean up the mess.
A moment later the door wrenched open and the sight he had been craving so hard was there in front of him, complete with bed hair and bare chest.
"WHAT IS ALL THIS...?" Arthur's angry shout, which had started inside the room, died quickly. "…Merlin?"
Merlin shivered as Arthur whispered his name breathlessly. He was lost for words as his throat dried almost instantly. His eyes caressed Arthur's skin in a path that his hands begged to be allowed to follow. The quickly fading restraint that held him back had them simply shaking instead. Arthur looked good. There was no way he could deny it. He felt as if he were seeing him for the first time again. The two weeks absence of this man in his life, the longest time since arriving in Camelot that he had been apart from his prince, seemed even more unbearable now that he was faced with what he had been missing.
All the small details of Arthur body that he had grown so used to, came rushing back with dizzying speed, in vivid colour, and with a strength of desire that rocked him.
From the broadness of Arthurs chest, to the curve of his hip bone as it disappeared into his sleeping pants and everything in-between called to Merlin with a Siren's voice. He found himself longing to reacquaint himself with each and every one of the scars littering Arthur's body. The knowledge that he had felt them beneath his fingertips before as he had dressed the prince, did nothing to sate his hunger.
Suddenly he realised that his desperate need to return to work harboured a much baser desire than he had let himself believe.
Fearful of betraying himself if he didn't, he dragged his eyes up to meet Arthur's wide ones, and time slowed so much that a single heartbeat felt as if it lasted a lifetime. Arthur's eyes were just as appealing as the rest of him, and silently they just starred at each other. Despite his distraction Merlin couldn't help but notice Arthur appeared as shaken by their reunion as he was; his mouth was open just a little, and his breaths seemed hastier than they needed to be.
"What are you doing?" the prince demanded, eventually shaking himself out of the stillness.
Merlin swallowed hard and moved to stand up the best he could. "I…I…" he stumbled as he attempted to remember which side of that fine line he normally walked was the appropriate one. Suddenly he remembered the plate, and held it out as a way of explanation. "… I was trying to return to my duties."
"Do you normally roll my breakfast around the floor before I get it?" Arthur hid a smile but not before Merlin saw it.
Merlin shrugged and fought against the wince that his body responded with. It may have been a while since he received his injuries but they still hurt. More so today after abstaining yesterday from all the potions Gaius had offered him, uncertain which one was keeping him asleep most of the day.
"I couldn't open the door." He moved his sling a little to draw Arthur's attention to it.
Arthur's eyes flicked down briefly before he turned away from him. "You can have light duties if you wish," he spoke quietly. "Bring me breakfast, but I don't expect to see you for the rest of the day."
Merlin had been crushed. "Yes..ssSire." the word had stuck in his throat as he tried to say it, that thin line looking thicker by the moment.
Yesterday had been a little different. Arthur was already awake, and dressed by the time Merlin had arrived with his breakfast, and the door was slightly ajar, easing his passage. Just as it was this morning.
Merlin sighed. He didn't want this, didn't want this mock return to his roll. He just wanted everything to be back to normal. He wanted to find Arthur still snoring in the morning, wanted to wake him with a self indulgent touch, to dress him, and perhaps most importantly to spend the day by his side.
Pushing the door slightly, Merlin stepped inside and found that yes, Arthur was up once more. He sat silently at the table and didn't even look up as Merlin stepped forward to place the plate on the table in front of him.
Arthur's gentle call came just as he returned to the door, and Merlin stopped instantly. Spinning he met Arthur's raised eyes eagerly.
"Yes?" he questioned when the prince hesitated. Anything, he wished in his head, ask me anything but to stay away again.
"I want you to stay close today," Arthur muttered half reluctantly as he turned to stare at his breakfast as if it were the most important thing he had ever seen. "Find me an outfit," he waved in the direction of his armoire. "Our guests are leaving today, and we must be suitably attired."
Merlin's heart leaped not only at the fact that finally Kay would be out of the castle but purely for spending a little time with Arthur. Perhaps things could go back to normal after all. Perhaps Arthur just needed a little time to forgive him, forgive him for being stupid enough to get hurt, forgive him fro losing to Geoffrey, forgive him for making him have to save him.
Those fragile hopes of Merlin's began to fade as the rest of the morning passed pretty much in silence. Arthur only just grunted his approval at the shirt Merlin picked out for him, before snatching it from his hand and throwing it over his own head.
Standing a couple a couple of steps behind Arthur out in the courtyard, Merlin couldn't help comparing this morning to the one when Kay had arrived. Then Arthur had been chatty, playful even, until Kay had arrived, and Arthur had sent him as far away as possible. Merlin had felt embarrassed and a little hurt. Now, although Merlin felt the same, Arthur's actions were the exact opposite. He was being moody and quiet, but as Kay moved along the long line of dignitaries, Arthur didn't mutter a word to send him away.
Fighting not to shy away as Kay approached ever closer, Merlin was determined to stay where Arthur had pointed. He felt a need to prove himself all over again to the prince.
Suddenly Arthur's hand reached out behind him and he gestured for Merlin to step closer.
Confused, Merlin did as he was told with a deep dread in his stomach. Maybe things weren't so different. Was he about to be sent away again with sharp words?
His fear couldn't be further from the truth; the moment he was in range Arthur's hand buried itself in his tunic and pulled him even closer. Despite Merlin stumbling Arthur didn't let go until Merlin found himself pressed tight against the prince's back.
Merlin's confusion was washed away as Kay's shadow drew over them. Arthur was showing him off. He was showing that he had won, that Merlin was still his.
Merlin sighed just gently. As much as he loved the feel of Arthur pulling him close, he wasn't sure if he wanted to be a trophy. His hesitance didn't seem to matter however. Kay seemed to be getting the message. His face screwed up with disgust as his eyes drifted over Arthur's shoulder for a moment and met Merlin's for the first time since their forest escapade.
"Arthur," Kay suddenly boomed, a false smile spread across his face, looking for all the word as if he was greeting his best friend. "What a shame our time has been so short, but I guess at least there is always next year."
Arthur opened his arms wide and pulled Kay into a friendly embrace. "Return again next year," he whispered in a tone so low Merlin had to strain to hear it, "and I will slaughter you in your bed. War be damned."
As the princes let go of one another Merlin was certain Kay had paled at least three shades beneath the now yellowing bruises that covered his face. Arthur's threat had been issued with such ice and promise even he felt a little shaken by it.
Kay moved away without another word, and was pressing kisses against the lady Morgana's hand within a heartbeat.
Although Arthur had already let go of him, and Merlin was free to step back at this point, he couldn't bring himself to. He felt important standing there next to Arthur, and he had missed it with a passion he hadn't truly realised until now.
Watching as the entire Lympne household began to mount up, Merlin felt the smallest touch of regret as Kay reached for his horse. As satisfying as it was to know Arthur had beaten Kay senseless for all he had done to Merlin, Merlin couldn't help but wish he had done something himself to get Kay back for all the trouble he had caused. Suddenly a naughty, childish thought occurred to him, and before he could shoo it away, he felt his magic lunge forward and act on his impulse.
Leather straps slid silently through buckles, and as Kay reached up to pull himself astride his horse, the saddle came undone under his hands, sending him backwards into the mud. With the saddle attached to nothing but his own hands Kay hit the ground with a bone shuddering thud, and a howl that could have woken the dead beneath their feet had the prince been born of magic.
Merlin couldn't help but snigger, along with half the assembled company, as Kay floundered, confused as to what had happened and flushed with rage for whoever had caused it. It was but a moment before he was descended on by a handful of servants fighting with one another to help him up, but the simple humiliation had been enough and was gratifying beyond belief.
Arthur's blood pounded to have Merlin pressed into him. It was wrong. He knew he should have been pushing him away the moment Kay had passed, but having held him at arms length for the last few days his resolve was wavering.
Turning his head slightly he allowed himself to look at his manservant rather than leave his eyes any longer on that which he despised.
Merlin looked pale, paler than usual if that was possible. He also looked a little ruffled, not perhaps outwardly, for his clothes were the same as ever, but internally. beneath that frozen face, and forced smile, Arthur could tell there was something going on. Desperately he wished to know what it was, to hold him tight and shake him until all his secrets came out, but his father was only a couple of people away, and Arthur had already risked too much in hauling Merlin close to him as it was. He didn't doubt if he tried manhandling his manservant further, his father's threat would be carried out by the end of the day.
Just as his heart began to ache he noticed the sun reflected in Merlin's eyes. The image took his breath away. Merlin's deep blue eyes seemed to change colour completely, shining a rich gold for the briefest of moments, just like they had on the tournament field all those days ago. His mouth dropped open, but before he could compose a sentence a shout and a cry pulled his attention. Kay was rolling on the floor, apparently having fallen from his horse.
As Merlin chuckled at the side of him, his moving chest sending sparks through Arthur's body, the prince turned away. He didn't care about Kay any longer, and he didn't want to be out here, scared to even share in the joke with his manservant for fear of his father seeing.
"Merlin," he snapped, turning with the intention of returning to his rooms.
"Sire?" Although he followed without missing a step, Merlin's voice waved as he answered and Arthur watched as flicker of fear cross the boy's eyes. He had seen that same flicker this morning, and he knew why it was there. Merlin feared Arthur was about to send him away again. He was right, Arthur had been about to, but the fact that Merlin feared it hurt Arthur deeply. Apparently he was not the only one suffering from their necessary estrangement.
Arthur shook his head as doubt nagged at him. He needed to do this. He needed to be alone, to have space so he could think clearly; not shot through with guilt, as if it was him who had broken Merlin's wrist, every time he even glimpsed that white slash of fabric cradling Merlin's arm. He needed… His reasoning failed him as he stared at Merlin's waiting eyes.
"Follow me," he spoke again, trying to keep emotion from his voice. "I have some business this afternoon you might appreciate."
The words had come easy, as truthful as they were, but Arthur quickly realised being in Merlin's presence was harder than he had been expecting. The boys face had lit up like a candle flaring into flame for the first time at his words, and he hadn't stopped grinning since. Arthur so far had managed to control his own urge to smile, not that it wasn't burning inside him. Just having Merlin there, around him, felt right. Even when they weren't talking or even interacting, just having Merlin in his room, in his presence felt more natural than when he wasn't. It just reminded him of what he was missing, and what he needed to give up.
Sat behind his desk Arthur gripped the edge tightly, and desperately tried to concentrate on the knight standing in front of him.
"Take it." He answered when again Sir Leon shook his head, and held out the scroll Arthur had just handed him. "Your actions have proved far worthier of the six months you requested, please take this with my gratitude."
Leon looked down at the scroll again. In it Arthur had drafted a request that the knight be kept on permanent attendance within the citadel. A request from the prince to the knight's captain was as good as a guarantee. It would mean no more border patrol.
Leon eventually bowed his head in acceptance. "Thank you, Sire." He smiled.
Arthur looked down, pleased, and then regretted it. The moment his eyes were no longer distracted he was once more concentrating of Merlin fidgeting excitedly on his right-hand side.
"Although..." Leon's hesitant voice snapped his head back up, and Arthur was grateful for it. "I would like it noted, I acted out of my loyalty for you sire, not for reward. What Kay was trying to…"
Arthur's hand came up. He didn't need anymore reminders of what Kay was trying to achieve, and instantly Leon stopped.
"I appreciate that, Leon," Arthur smiled, genuinely touched by the knight's dedication, "and it's the reason I have given it to you. Now go, and say no more on the matter."
Leon smiled and nodded once more before turning away.
Arthur bristled ever so slightly as Merlin moved away from him to show Leon to the door. As his servant leant in and whispered words, no doubt of his own thanks, Arthur felt a stab of jealousy at their easy show of friendliness. Quickly he smothered it with the knowledge that Merlin got on well with everyone, and that he was witnessing nothing more than that.
Still he couldn't help calling out as they lingered by the door, sharing more secrets and casual smiles. "Leon!" he called, a little impatiently. "Send George in on your way out."
Arthur smiled to himself as Merlin's face crinkled in confusion. He hadn't shared his plans for the afternoon with his servant.
When he finally arrived, the younger guard looked far more nervous in the prince's chamber than the older Knight had. His eyes flicked to Merlin, back standing at Arthur's side, again and again, as if seeking some kind of reassurance from his presence. Arthur could understand that. He often found himself doing the same.
"George," Arthur greeted, his voice harsher than it needed to be. As much as he understood George's wavering eyes he didn't like them any more than Leon's attention to Merlin. "I believe when you first agreed to take Merlin's place I promised you something. I want you to know I do not make promises I do not intend to keep."
George's head snapped to Arthur, and even Merlin shifted next to him.
"There," Arthur pointed to a small leather bundle at the end of the table. "Take it, it's yours."
George appeared frozen, his eyes only moving to where Arthur had pointed. After a moment Arthur waived Merlin forward and gestured for him to give the bag into George's hands.
Although Merlin did as directed, Arthur couldn't help but notice his wide eyes. The servant recognised the bag. It wasn't surprising really. Arthur had sent it to his chambers at first, as by rights it belonged to Merlin. It had arrived back in his own room before the end of the day
"Sire…I can't…I didn't do…" George was mumbling, his eyes transfixed on the contents of the heavy bag now in his arms.
"George!" Arthur snapped to gain his attention. "This coin is yours. It is the spoils of our competition. Take it and buy your house. You have done us great service over the past few days, and we would have you know we are grateful."
Arthur had spoken as 'we' many times in the past; 'we the court', 'we the pendragons', 'we the knights' but this was the first time he had spoken as 'we,' meaning him and Merlin. He liked it.
George's thanks were effusive, stumbling, over-emotional. If he were a knight Arthur would have snapped at him again, but he was only a guard, and it seemed churlish to rebuke him just because of his happiness.
Merlin seemed to sense his discomfort, however, and after only one forced smile on Arthur's part, he steered George back outside and away from the prince.
Arthur looked back down at the table as the men reached the door and George moved to hug Merlin. The display of affection felt almost taunting to Arthur for he knew it was something he could never do. Childishly he pushed the small pile of papers he had been working on, before Leon's arrival, to the floor.
Before he could even blink, Merlin was on his knees next to him, retrieving them. Arthur looked up at the door, confused. He hadn't even heard it close. When he looked back at Merlin he found the servant staring at him with an unflinching gaze.
"Why did you give George the money?" Merlin questioned.
Arthur stood up, an unreasonable anger pulsing just below his skin. "It is as I said. I promised it to him, and you didn't want it." He paused and turned back, watching as Merlin placed his papers on the desk. "Why didn't you want it?"
Merlin just shrugged. "What would I have done with it? It was hardly earned."
Arthur's temper boiled. How could Merlin think he hadn't earned the money? He had nearly died, what bigger sacrifice was there? "You could have sent it to your mother," Arthur argued with a point sharpened to wound. The comment worked perfectly and Merlin paled.
"I… she… I send her most of my wage," Merlin defended himself, "she lives well, she wouldn't want…"
Arthur couldn't stop himself from stepping towards his servant, instantly feeling bad for making him feel guilty, and reached a hand out to rest upon his shoulder. It had the desired effect. Merlin's babbling stopped so quickly his mouth still hung open when Arthur forced himself to speak again, softly this time, and voicing his true fear. "You could have left with it."
Merlin paled even further, and Arthur wasn't sure if he felt a tremble pass through the boy. "You want me to leave?" His question sounded hurt and raw.
"NO!" Arthur's response burst from him before he could stop it, and his fingers dug into Merlin's shoulder, fearful that the boy was about to disappear in front of him.
Frustration flared across Merlin's face before he tempered it with a deep breath.
Arthur fought against the urge to shake him. He had seen that restraint a thousand times over his years, people suppressing their true impulses before him, just because he was a prince. It had never bothered him as much as when he witnessed Merlin doing it, although to be fair that wasn't as often as it probably should have been. "No," he repeated softly and honestly, "I don't want you to go."
"Then what do you want from me, Arthur?" Merlin demanded, this time not hiding his annoyance. "I know you are still angry that I didn't win. You keep sending me away, and talking as if I should leave but when I offer to go…" He hesitated, and looked briefly to Arthur's hand still gripping him. "…you pull me back. I don't need your money to leave Arthur, just your honest word on it. Fire me now and I will not return."
Arthur dropped his hand from Merlin and turned away. His heart felt as if it were cramping in his chest. "My honest word?" he repeated, a half laugh in his voice. "My honest word is strangled by a crown. My wishes will never have voice. I do not send you away through anger, and I would not have you leave through choice. But if this is your way of resigning I acc…"
"ARTHUR no!" This time a response burst forward from Merlin, and before Arthur could blink, the servant was back in front of him, eyes wide and standing so close he was all Arthur could see. "Please," he implored. "I don't want to go anywhere. I just want…" His voice cracked, and Arthur's throat tightened.
"What?" the prince begged before he could stop himself. He could stand no more self-censoring from Merlin, he needed to hear the end of that sentence.
Merlin's eyes locked solidly on his, and he stepped even closer. Pressing their bodies together in a way that normally only happened in dark corners or during moments of danger. "I want…" his hand slid across Arthurs chest to rest where it had all those nights ago, "… to be here."
Arthur fought to keep control of his breathing. Merlin's words had a hundred meanings, most of which he couldn't even beginning to acknowledge. "Even if you get hurt?" His eyes flicked down to that flash of white. Guilt assaulted him as usual before his mind raced forward to the future, and all he needed to do to keep his servant safe, including the curtailment of this very moment. "Even If I hurt you?"
Merlin smiled softly, as Arthur's hands clasped over the top of his. "Even if this is my last breath."
"Father!" Kay called, as he raced through the forest and attempted to catch up with the front of their convoy. "Father." Gripping the reins of his horse tightly, Kay pushed the animal harder as he drew close. As fearful as he was of making another show of himself he was even more fearful of not righting the wrongs he had committed.
"Father," he spoke once more as finally he arrived next to the king.
James didn't respond. In fact he didn't even turn his head to acknowledge his son. Kay took a deep breath and continued nevertheless.
"Sire," he addressed him formally, hoping the title would carry favour, "I am sorry."
James continued to look forward. "Yes," he spoke eventually. "I would guess you are."
"I…" Kay stumbled. He wasn't sure what else he could say. "Next year I will bring a better knight," he offered. "We will win for sure. Geoffrey was a liability. I shouldn't have…"
"Geoffrey is the only thing you did right!" James snapped, his head whipping around to stare at his son. "With the tale of his son's disobedience and violence against you, Lord Blaze will be forced to add his lands to ours, in an apology that is worth a great deal more than yours."
Kay sat back in his saddle, a little stunned. Suddenly he understood why his father had not only agreed to his plan of using a knight against Arthur but had actually suggested Geoffrey for the job.
"You wanted me to be discovered!" he accused, a dangerous anger pounding through him.
James' eyes narrowed. "It was not by intent." His words were cold and calculated. "But It did no harm. Arthur is smarter than you gave him credit for. We are richer for knowing that."
"No harm!" Kay was positively shaking now, and his hand moved up to indicate his bruised face. "Arthur did this!"
"I know." James just shrugged. "His lies are about as good as yours. At least he had the imagination to create something better than falling out of a tree!" James laughed slightly at that.
Kay bristled at his father's mocking. "Next year…"
"Next year I will bring your sister or maybe your baby brother," James spoke over his son. "It would seem a child could give Arthur a better challenge than you."
"I have done as you asked. I have won every year," Kay argued. Although hurt by his father's harsh words, he knew that showing it would only make them worse.
James just laughed again. "My knights have won every year!" he corrected. "And even though you found a weakness this year, you could still not press it home. Instead you come sniffling to me with tales of his fist on your face. What did you truly expect me to do, go to war just because you're not man enough to stand up to Arthur Pendragon?"
Kay shrank into his saddle. His father's criticism, although not unusual, still affected him. "Why not?" he attempted to argue. "You are no friend of Uther's."
James actually pulled his horse to a stop and as a hundred others behind them attempted to do the same he just stared at his son.
"Friends?" he repeated. "Of course we are not friends. What do you think we do? Sit around discussing the weather, and how many times our sons have let us down since we last meet? We discuss our enemies, their weaknesses and their strengths, the whole time trying to determine those attributes in each other. If you could see further than your petty feud with Arthur, you would see Camelot is not ready to fall yet. One day it shall be ours, but I have seen too many die in failed attempts. We will take it when it is ready to be taken."
Kay was stunned into silence. This was the most his father had ever confided in him. So as much as he had let himself and his father down, the fact that it had led to this meant he could not bring himself to regret it. Besides, he could not think of a better way of getting his revenge against Arthur than to take away his crown. That was far better than just denying him his servant.
"I will earn for you Camelot's throne, father. However you wish me to behave, I am your servant." He lowered his head respectfully, vowing himself to the cause he could believe in.
James just stared at him before kicking his horse forward. "We shall see," he muttered. "If not, I am sure one of your brothers will."
Kay bit his lip at the taunt and allowed himself to drop back. He would not argue any further with his father, but he would also not let his veiled threat come to pass. He would spill the blood of his own kin to make sure he was the one to spill Arthur's.
A/N: and with that we are done. For good this time :(
I am aware the last chapter wasn't as popular as i had hoped and that a few people felt unsatisfied by it, so I really hope this one helps you out a little. My Merthur heart beats as strong as ever.
To answer the few that asked, yes there is always the possibility of a sequel. I'm not sure Kay (or James) is done with Arthur just yet.
What a ride this has been, what a rush, thank you for all your kind comments along the way. You have all made it worth while.
Take care everyone, see you next time PP x