A/N: Last chapter, folks.
Arty - Arthur Ectorovich Petrovin, he reminded himself silently, the thrill of that knowledge no less exciting the thirty-second time he remembered it - sat on the large four-poster bed of his new bedroom in Prince Uther's estate, seated across from his grandpapa as he looked down at the photographs that Uther had dug out of storage specially for him.
The crates that had housed them were coated with dust, and Arthur had to wonder if this was the first time Uther had opened them since arriving in France. There weren't many, of course - just a dozen or so, some framed, some not - but each one was precious to Arthur, his eyes ghosting over the faces that were so achingly familiar.
They had spent the last three days sequestered in the large estate, getting to know each other once again. Uther had listened with fond attention as Arthur told him stories of the orphanage, and of Gwen. Arthur had listened just as attentively as his grandpapa regaled him with tales of his mother as a young girl, and of his brother and sister as toddlers. He soaked it all in - he knew some of the stories, of course, from his "royalty lessons," but it was something else to hear them and know that this family was truly his.
To his relief, his memory was quickly returning, each small gesture or object seeming to trigger its own set of flashbacks, but he enjoyed hearing the stories from his grandpapa all the same.
Morgana had swept into the house on the second day, unable to keep herself away any longer after receiving Uther's letter. She'd pulled Arthur into a deep hug, surprising him with her tenderness, before pulling away to declare that a ball would be held in his honour. He'd watched with rather amazed fascination as she'd immediately set about making plans, allowing Gwen and Gaius - who'd accompanied her - only a few brief moments of visitation before cajoling them both into preparations for the guest list.
Gwen had been excited for him, as he'd predicted, but Gaius had hung back, silent. Surprisingly, Arthur found he wasn't as angry with the older man as he'd thought he'd be. It was Gaius' teachings and influence, after all, that had brought him to the doorstep of the comtesse, and following a heartfelt apology for his part in the deception, Arthur found he could no longer fault him. When Gwen had timidly questioned why his understanding did not extend to the case of Merlin, Arthur had cleared his throat and promptly changed the subject.
Now, with preparations for his re-entry into society underway, and every major newspaper on the continent teased with hints of his existence, Arthur had little else to do than to enjoy these long visits with Uther, feeling as if he were in a private world that extended no further than his bedroom door.
The prince sifted through the crates on the floor, pausing as he came across the picture he wanted.
"Your mother," Uther explained needlessly, handing him a new portrait of a pale, blonde woman holding a baby that Arthur guessed to be Owain.
Arthur stared at the portrait, his fingers brushing over their faces. It seemed cruel, somehow, to have the pain of not remembering his family replaced with the pain of knowing they were gone.
"They wouldn't want us to dwell," said Uther, reading his thoughts. "We've found each other after all these years, Arthur. They would want us to be happy."
He nodded, forcing a small smile as the older man got to his feet.
"You have your mother's eyes, you know," he continued, walking around his chair to a smaller box on the nightstand that had been brought up separately. "And her laugh, as well. She would be very proud to see the man you've become."
He bent, lifting the lid to reveal a thin gold crown.
"This was to be yours," Uther informed him, picking the crown up with two hands, "When you came of age. Which I suppose you have," he added with a small chortle.
Understanding the solemnity of the moment, Arthur stood, watching with reverence as Uther placed the heirloom on the top of his head. Taking a step back, the prince smiled again.
"I'd like you to wear it to your ball in two day's time," he said, guiding Arthur to the mirror. "It's time to remind the world who you are, and for you to take your place by my side."
Arthur stared into his reflection, swallowing past a lump in his throat as he nodded his agreement, though a peculiar loneliness swept through him. He was a grand duke - the last in a long line of royals - and after years of searching, he'd found his identity at last. So, why did he feel like the person staring back at him was a stranger?
In a corner of Paris, easily forgotten by all those who saw her, Nimueh stole inside a small house, stepping over the body of the previous owner. Scowling, she slammed down the newspaper she'd found, announcing the rumours of the grand duke's return to high society.
"A ball!" She screeched, anger making her see red. "They would celebrate the son of a tyrant?"
Fuming, a spark of power ignited the newspaper, causing it to burst into flames on the table.
It had taken a considerable portion of her remaining power to bring herself back from the empty plain of existence she'd been confined to, and even more to keep her there, but it was necessary. No longer would she rely on attacking the grand duke from afar. She would get him in person, alone, once and for all bringing about the fulfillment of her curse.
She'd been hiding out in the house for the past few days, well assured that no one would miss the man who'd lived there, reclusive as he was. Biding her time, she'd ventured out today only to find the announcement of the grand duke mocking her at every street corner.
"They bow down before him like sheep - just as they bowed before his parents!" she raged, knocking over the table. They were all the same. The nobles cared little for the lives they destroyed, their weak minds preoccupied with their extravagant parties and riches, bringing down judgement on any who cared to be different.
Looking down at the ashes of the newspaper, she scowled, a plan forming in her mind. She'd get him at the height of his glory; snatch away their precious grand duke from the very celebration meant to honour him.
Smirking, her eyes fell to the vial at her wrist, its power pulsing steadily. She couldn't afford to make any more mistakes. Arthur Petrovin would die the very next evening.
Merlin took a deep breath, steeling himself before entering the room.
"You sent for me, Your Highness?" he greeted evenly with a respectful bow, his eyes on the pale green wall behind the royal.
The prince stood near his writing desk, his face as expressionless as ever.
"Yes," he replied, his eyes narrowing appraisingly. "You're a rather hard man to track down, Gospodin Emyrov. I feared you had already returned to St. Petersburg."
"I'm just... putting a few final affairs in order, Your Highness," Merlin offered by way of explanation.
Truthfully, he hadn't been quite sure what to do with himself the past five days, wandering around Paris in a bit of a mope before finally resigning himself to the fact that he'd best return to Russia sooner rather than later. When the prince's messenger appeared at the bar he'd been frequenting, he'd considered skipping town early, but ignoring a royal summons from Prince Uther Frederick Alexander Vilhelm of Denmark seemed rather unwise, even for him.
Uther smiled politely, gesturing to a wooden chest on the desk. "And no doubt awaiting news of your reward," he commented, laying his hand on the top of the box. "Here it is - ten million rubles, as promised, to the man who reunited me with my grandson. Take it with my blessing. I can never fully repay the gift you have given me."
It wasn't for you, Merlin thought glumly. He straightened his shoulders, still unable to meet Uther's eyes. "I'm afraid I can't accept it, Your Highness."
"What's this?" the prince frowned, stepping forward. "You don't want the money? Then, what other service can I offer in repayment to you?"
He shook his head. If anyone had suggested two months ago that he'd willingly walk away from the biggest payday of his life, he'd have called them a liar and probably suspected them of suffering some sort of grave mental illness. Now, he felt like he couldn't leave fast enough, each second spent inside the estate unbearable. "It's not necessary, Your Highness," he said instead. "I'm only happy to have helped your grandson find his family."
He made to bow again, eager to take his leave, but the older man stopped him.
"Gospodin Emyrov - where did you get that box?" Uther's gaze was perceptive, though his tone betrayed nothing. Merlin froze, silent.
"You were the boy from the kitchens, weren't you?" he continued, trying to meet Merlin's eyes. "The one who got us out through the servant's entrance. You saved both of our lives that night, and you brought my grandson back to me after all these years, and yet you want no reward for your efforts?"
Merlin lowered his gaze, knowing he'd been found out. Shaking his head solemnly, he said, "No."
"Then what do you want?" asked Uther, sounding rather as though he knew the answer. Merlin looked over his shoulder at the door, uncomfortable under the royal gaze.
"Unfortunately, nothing that you can give me, Your Highness," he answered truthfully, remembering the betrayed look in Arty's eyes. He bowed quickly, unwilling to let the royal stop him this time. "Good day," he bid, opening the door.
Uther didn't respond, but his eyes tracked Merlin's exit, a thoughtful expression on his face.
Merlin closed the door to Uther's study behind him, turning only to crash head-on into another occupant of the hallway, both parties giving small exclamations of pain as they sprang apart. Cursing his eternal clumsiness, he apologised, "Oh, I'm sor—"
He cut off, looking up to find himself face-to-face with Arty, a dead weight dropping in his stomach. He'd been hoping against hope to avoid this confrontation.
"Hello," he said quietly.
Arty - Arthur, he reminded himself - was wearing one of the tailored outfits Morgana had bought him, a small gold crown upon his head. It suited him.
"Merlin," Arthur greeted coldly. "Here to pick up your reward money?"
He set his features, washing the emotion from his face. Just like any other con, he schooled himself.
"My business here is complete," he hedged dismissively, moving around the other man.
"Well, I hope it makes you happy," Arthur sniped, refusing to look at him.
The conman paused, his stomach twisting unpleasantly. He'd really made a mess of things, hadn't he? "I'm sure it will," he bit out, trying to sound disinterested and probably failing. Miserably.
"Young man!" From one of the doors of the hallway, Uther's chief attendant straightened his shoulders at his impertinence. "How dare you address the Grand Duke of Russia so informally. You must bow, and address him as 'Your Highness.'"
Arthur shook his head, "No, that's really not-"
"No, please," he interrupted coolly, lowering himself into a bow. "Your Highness."
The other man looked uncomfortable, staring ahead at the wall.
"I'm glad you found what you were looking for," said Merlin in a detached tone.
"Yes," Arthur said, seeming at a loss.
"If you'll forgive me, I have a train to catch." He bowed again - he certainly was getting his practice today, wasn't he? "Good day, Your Highness."
He turned, walking past the attendant, who was still glaring disapprovingly at him. He stepped up his pace as he neared the stairs, wanting nothing more than to be free of it all, but knowing he had one more stop to make. Rounding the corner, he refused to look back at Arthur, whose heavy gaze had followed him.
He found Gaius in another room of the mansion, busy straightening his collar and admiring his military dress in the mirror. Merlin knew it had been a number of years since his friend had worn finery such as this, but then, it had been a number of years since a traditional imperial-style ball had been held.
"You look good for an old man," he called from the doorway. Gaius turned, a pleased smile on his face.
"Merlin," he greeted warmly.
Merlin walked toward him, his coat over his arm and his smile a bit forced. He'd left Gaius a note at the hotel, explaining matters, but this was the first time he'd faced his friend since the ballet.
"Who else would it be?" he threw in for old time's sake, inspecting his friend's outfit with approval. "You're doing well for yourself, I see."
"It seems that the prince has himself a fine assortment of rare paintings, and would like to renew his interest in the business of collecting them. He has agreed to overlook my – shall we say, colourful – past in favour of putting my skills at detecting forgeries to good use." Gaius adjusted his collar again. "It would certainly be a relaxing change from my old career. There may be some use for an old relic like me, yet."
Merlin's smile was more genuine this time, pleased that his friend had found a place for himself.
"I don't suppose you'll be attending Arty's reception tonight?" Gaius asked, raising an eyebrow.
He frowned, looking away.
Gaius sighed, a pitying look on his face. "I really can't talk you out of this?"
The younger man shook his head. "'Course not. You know how stubborn I am," was the obligatorily impertinent reply, though it fell flat.
"Is that Merlin?" Gwen called from the next room. She rushed in, looking very pretty in a light pink dress that was - for once - free of charcoal smudges and dirt. Her smile quickly fell as she noted Merlin's attire. "You're not leaving, are you?"
"Yeah," he nodded, brushing his hair out of his eyes before frowning. "Thought you'd be mad at me."
"I was a bit at first," she admitted, "but Gaius explained everything. I can't say I agree with what you meant to do, but I know you were trying to do the right thing in the end." She paused, looking serious. "You should try and explain it to Arty."
"Nah. He doesn't want to listen. Best just to make a clean break of it," he said, sounding more sure of himself than he felt. "You sticking around?"
She blushed, looking down at her skirts. "Morgana's going to introduce me to some of the artists here. She showed my work to one of the art schools and they're eager to meet me."
"Really? That's great!" Merlin congratulated, a bit stunned. It seemed that everyone was finding their way in Paris. Everyone except me, that is, he thought bitterly, but he quickly brushed his self-pity aside, willing himself to be happy for his friends. "I'm sure they're going to love you."
Gwen's face seemed to crumple all at once and she rushed forward, sweeping him into an unexpected hug. Surprised, Merlin patted her back.
Just as suddenly as she'd started, she broke the embrace, her eyes wide. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to— it's just— I'll miss you," she finished sadly.
He smiled. "I'll miss you too, Gwen."
She looked back to the adjoining room, "I should probably go finish getting ready. Morgana's taking me out for lunch before the ball tonight."
Merlin's grin turned slightly teasing as she fought another blush. It seemed her relationship with the comtesse had not suffered in light of the recent unpleasantness.
"Well go on, then, you don't want to keep her waiting," he said, shooing her off into the other room. She waved, disappearing through the doorway.
Gaius smiled after her, his hands folded in front of him. "They're an unusual match," he commented idly, "But I think they'll do well together."
He rolled his eyes, perfectly aware of the message his friend was implying. "It's not the same, Gaius. He's where he's supposed to be."
"And what about you?" his friend asked archly, raising an imposing eyebrow. Merlin knew he'd miss that most of all.
"Me? I'm still searching," he offered lightly. He held out his hand, his smile rueful. "Look me up if you're ever in St. Petersburg again."
Gaius frowned, pulling him into a hug instead.
"You're making a big mistake, Merlin," he advised in a wise tone of voice. "Take care of yourself."
Merlin grinned cheekily, pulling out of the hug. "Hey, you know me!" he smiled, shrugging on his coat.
"That's what I'm afraid of," came the dry retort.
Uther's estate had been dressed up by an expert hand, Morgana's finishing touches easily making Arthur's reunion ball the event of the year. Guests had arrived from all over the continent - reporters and dignitaries alike - everyone chomping eagerly at the bit to see if the rumours of the rediscovered grand duke were true. In true Morgana style, attendees had been told to dress in the traditional clothes of the imperial court, the likes of which Arthur had not seen since his early childhood.
Tugging at the front of his tunic, Arthur turned the corner to the ballroom, finding Uther and the comtesse waiting for him. A curtain had been erected just behind the dais, separating them from the guests, who were already busying themselves with dancing and drink as they awaited Uther's official introduction of Arthur.
"Everyone who's anyone is here," Morgana remarked to Uther, having yet to notice Arthur's presence as she peeked out through the red velvet curtain at the richly-clothed guests. Swathed in a deep purple court gown with open sleeves and a dark red sash, the comtesse drew the gaze of every man and woman, and she knew it. "I never thought I'd live to see the beauty of Russia again. It's just like the old days I remember as a child."
"No," Prince Uther shook his head beside her, glancing out at the crowd with little interest. "The old days are behind us. These mark the beginning of a bright new future."
Arthur cleared his throat, announcing his presence, and the pair quickly turned to greet him.
Dressed all in white, with gold trimmings to match his crown and a pale blue sash running diagonally across his chest, Arthur was slightly uncomfortable in his new clothes, but somehow he knew he looked the part. Uther regarded him thoughtfully, a strange expression on his face.
Frowning, Arthur stepped forward. "Is there something wrong, Grandpapa?"
The Prince of Denmark shook his concern away with a small smile. "No, Arthur. Nothing is wrong." He moved closer, resting his hands on Arthur's shoulders. "It's just that you remind me so very much of your parents. They would have been proud to see you tonight. You truly are a Petrovin."
The grand duke glowed under the compliment, trying to keep his embarrassment off his face.
"You look very regal, Arthur," Morgana commented cheerily, moving to kiss him on the cheek. "Now, I suppose I'd better join the guests. They're growing quite restless without a hostess."
She parted the curtain, stepping out onto the dais. Arthur peered out after her, his eyes eagerly scanning the crowd.
"He's not out there," Uther informed him idly.
Arthur scoffed. "I know. Probably off somewhere blowing the reward money as fast as he can, the idiot—" he coughed, realising he'd spoken aloud. "I mean— Sorry, who's not there, Grandpapa?" he backtracked innocently, wincing inwardly at his screw-up.
Uther smiled knowingly.
"You know, you were born for this life, Arthur," he changed topics effortlessly, gesturing toward the impatient crowd. "When you were growing up, it was all I or you parents ever wanted for you. But now, I wonder if it's what you really want."
Arthur frowned at him, letting the curtain fall closed. "What do you mean? Of course I want this. Finding you - being here - it's what I've always dreamed of."
"No," Uther countered softly, "What you really wanted was a family. And you've found one. No matter what, you will always have me, Arthur. You will never stop being my grandson, regardless of whether you are the Grand Duke Arthur Ectorovich Petrovin or Arty."
Arthur's frown deepened. What was he getting at?
The prince placed a hand on his shoulder again. "He didn't take the money."
His eyes widened, surprised. "He... didn't?"
Uther smiled sadly. "Finding you again has brought more joy into this old man's life than I ever thought possible. The only thing that could match it would be seeing you happy."
Still reeling from the last bit of information, Arthur nodded numbly, unsure what to say.
Thankfully, it seemed that Uther was finished. Straightening his tunic, the older royal pushed the curtain aside.
"Think about what I said, Arthur."
The red velvet swished back into place, leaving the grand duke alone with his thoughts.
Merlin hadn't taken the money? All this time, Arthur had thought— And when he'd seen him at the estate that morning - Arthur frowned, trying to remember where in their encounter Merlin had confirmed he was taking the rubles Uther had offered but he suddenly couldn't recall. He'd let Arthur believe—
Arthur frowned, sagging against the wall, remembering the wounded look on Merlin's face after he'd punched him. He'd replayed that encounter again and again, searching for the bit of malice - the bit of devious scheming - that would confirm the accusations he'd levied, but all he'd found was the same big-eared doe-eyed idiot he'd always known. He couldn't decide if that made Merlin the world's best conman, or Arthur the world's biggest chump.
"Art— Arthur? Are you all right?"
His head jerked up to find Gwen standing in the doorway, worry evident in her gaze. He pushed away from the wall, waving off her concern.
"I'm fine. It's nothing."
A nervous grin captured her face as she moved more fully into the room.
"What do you think?" she asked, giving a small twirl. She was a vision in pale lilac, the skirts of her gown flowing prettily around her feet. Her unruly hair had been pulled back and twisted in a way that was actually quite flattering, though a curl still hung loose alongside her face, and Arthur rather believed she had pulled it free herself in an effort to make her reflection a little more familiar.
He smiled. "You look lovely, Gwen."
"Morgana picked it out for me," she blushed.
He raised both his eyebrows, barely containing the teasing grin that threatened to break across his face. "Did she?"
If possible, Gwen's face reddened further, her eyes ducking in embarrassment as she picked at invisible threads on the skirt of her dress. "She's rather lovely, isn't she?"
Arthur moved to stand in front of her, his expression turning serious. "I'm glad you're happy, Gwen," he said honestly, offering her a small smile.
"I'm happy for you, as well," she said, grinning brightly. "To think - two months ago, you were just an orphan from nowhere, and now you're a grand duke!"
His smile froze, reminded of Uther's words, but Gwen didn't appear to notice.
"Well, I'd best go in, I think," she said, smoothing her already pristine skirts. "Wish me luck?"
Arthur nodded, stepping back as she walked toward the curtain. "I'll follow you in a bit," he said, watching her go.
The curtain fell closed, leaving him to his thoughts once again.
The train station was busy, the line for tickets stretching back to the edge of the platform. Merlin sighed, shuffling his feet as the next person stepped up to the kiosk.
He should have bought his ticket earlier, but some part of him had been reluctant, hoping that maybe circumstances would change. After his trip to Uther's home that morning, however, he knew he couldn't leave fast enough.
In front of him in line, a pair of lovers clasped their hands, grinning at each other like love struck idiots. Merlin scowled, looking away. Why was it that when you were feeling miserable it seemed like everyone else in the world couldn't be happier?
The line moved forward as the agent hollered. Still a few spots from the front, Merlin pulled his cap down lower against the cool night air, patting his pockets for his new exit visa - a parting gift from Gaius, who'd declared it to be the last forgery he'd ever make. He groped around in his side pocket, his hand stilling as it met with a crumpled piece of paper instead. Pulling it out slowly, he found himself looking down at a sketch of him and Arty dancing.
He'd rescued the sketch from the trash bin at the hotel in a moment of self-pity, knowing he'd regret it later, and promptly forgotten about it. He stared down at the drawing, finding a somewhat fond smile working its way onto his lips at the smirk on Arty's face, perfectly captured by Gwen's hand. He smoothed out the wrinkles of the paper, his fingers lightly brushing across the two figures, the charcoal smudging his hand.
The woman behind Merlin nudged him impatiently, eager to move forward. Merlin looked up, startled to find himself the next in line, the ticket agent glowering at him from behind the gate. He frowned, looking back at the drawing in his hand.
The ball was in full swing, nobles and royals enjoying the freely flowing champagne and talented musicians, an earmark of any party Morgana threw. Gwen had attached herself to the comtesse's side, smiling nervously as she was introduced to three baronesses and a lord, Morgana's hand resting encouragingly on her waist.
Of course, all anyone wanted to talk about was Arthur. Morgana and Uther had decided to play things coyly, neither confirming nor denying his existence until the official introduction could be made, drawing out the suspense. Surprisingly, the guests seemed to enjoy this as much as an actual confirmation, and the tantalising bits of gossip Morgana spun out of nothing were quite entertaining.
Morgana was clearly made for this life - the way she charmed and toyed her way through the crowd was a marvellous sight to see - but she'd never once made Gwen feel left out, always careful to include her in any new topic of discussion. Gwen had found herself blushing heavily as the comtesse brought up her talent for art, prompting an extremely fascinating conversation with a Monsieur Signac, who admitted to being quite interested in younger artists.
It'd been the better part of an hour before Gwen realised that Arthur had yet to make an appearance. Frowning, she scanned the room for some sign of her friend, wondering if he'd slipped in quietly without waiting for his introduction, but he was nowhere to be found.
Relaxing her frown into a polite smile, she excused herself from a discussion on the latest Parisian fashions, citing a need for fresh air. Morgana's concerned gaze trailed her as she left, but she shook her head, assuring her that everything was fine.
A small handful of guests lingered in the hallway, more than a few couples searching for a moment alone. She made her way toward the back terrace, intending to duck around the side to where she'd last seen Arthur, wondering what was keeping him.
Finding the terrace completely empty, she sighed, carefully picking up her skirts so they wouldn't wrinkle as she walked along the garden path to the rear door. Suddenly, a glitter of light caught her eye. There, hovering just out of reach, was a small ball of light, flickering and blue in the sky.
The light was rather beautiful, and Gwen couldn't help but stare at it, entranced. There was something wonderful about it, the way it danced and sparkled before her eyes. Slowly, the light moved away from the French doors, beckoning.
'Follow it,' a voice seemed to whisper, and Gwen found herself walking as if in a dream, the light guiding her every step. She couldn't bear to look away, couldn't stand the thought of it disappearing from her sight for even a second. She needed to follow it. Needed to do what it asked, for something very bad would happen if she didn't she was sure.
Trailing back down the garden path - the party a dim memory behind her - she smiled dreamily, a small gasp of a laugh escaping her as the light gave an extra flicker of brilliance just for her.
Arthur sighed, looking out at the party from behind the curtain. Everything he'd ever dreamed of and more was waiting on the other side, but somehow he couldn't force himself to take the first step. How was it that years of waiting meant nothing to him now?
He watched the guests sip champagne, simpering laughter filling the ballroom as he thought back to what Uther had said earlier. Was this really what he'd been waiting for all these years: dull conversations with dignitaries, half his time spent worrying about standing correctly and dancing perfectly and never betraying his inner thoughts? In all the time he'd spent practicing royal protocol with Gaius and the others, he'd never envisioned having to make it a part of his daily life. And now that his memories were returning, he could recall many a ball spent uncomfortably dressed and bored out of his mind as he struggled to be respectful at his parents' wishes. He'd never liked the restrictions of protocol, or the heavy responsibilities placed on him as a member of the Petrovin line, but at the time he'd known nothing else. Now, however...
He frowned. He'd wanted to find his family, all right, but he'd never dreamed it would come with a royal price tag.
A soft clatter from outside stole his attention, and Arthur moved to the window, letting the curtain drop back into place.
Gwen was wandering through the moonlit gardens below, a vacant look on her face that made Arthur's hackles rise in concern. Frowning again, he headed for the nearest doors, stepping out onto the patio.
The rear gardens were a maze of pathways, running around a fountain in the middle, and ultimately leading to an exit at the far gate, the door nearly invisible behind the wall of ivy that had attached itself to the wrought iron fence. Taking the stairs down from the stone patio two at a time, Arthur trailed after his friend, an unsettled feeling in his gut. Something wasn't right about the way she was walking, her face devoid of any real emotion.
She didn't appear to hear him, the train of her dress dragging through the dirt on the path as she walked. Arthur's frown deepened - Gwen wouldn't ruin the dress Morgana had gifted her with so casually. He stepped up his pace as she neared the gate, her eyes fixed on the air just in front of her face.
The garden opened up onto one of the main streets of Paris, and Gwen wandered aimlessly, ignoring the automobile that honked and slammed on its brakes as she stepped in front of it.
Arthur's heart skipped a beat, truly worried now as he darted after her across the street, the angry driver cursing them both in French. "Gwen!"
He lost sight of her around a corner, the streets growing oddly deserted for that time of night. Rounding the corner onto Pont Alexandre III, he froze.
A hooded woman stood before him in the centre of the bridge, hints of a crimson dress spilling out beneath her cloak. Behind her he could see Gwen, a crumpled heap on the stone pavement.
"Greetings, young Petrovin," the woman hailed mockingly, her voice sending chills up his spine.
Arthur stepped forward, clenching his fists. "What did you do to her?"
"Nothing she won't recover from," the stranger replied carelessly, pale hands moving to grip the edges of her hood. "She means little to me. It is your own well-being that should concern you."
She pushed back the hood, long dark hair tumbling forth to frame cold eyes.
"You!" His eyes widened. The woman from his nightmare - she was real? His memory sparked and images began to fill in the blanks. Up until now, he'd avoided thinking about the night of the siege, but it all came rushing back to him in an instant. The woman - Nimueh - had been Owain's healer. And a sorceress... He frowned, thinking. She'd done something... A curse...
He shook his head. All this time, he'd been remembering her face without realising it.
"You were dead," he said with certainty, his mind replaying the memory that had haunted him. "I saw you fall through the ice."
Nimueh smirked, parting her cloak. "The benefit of selling your soul is that it makes it rather hard to die. What you saw was not what it seemed." As she spoke, she held her hand out before her, a ball of fire igniting in her palm. "I've waited a decade for my revenge to be complete, Your Highness. Tonight will end my suffering, and yours."
Her face contorted with rage as she hurled the ball of fire toward him. Arthur leapt out of the way as it exploded on the spot where he'd been standing, bits of concrete and stone flying through the air. He hit the ground hard, struggling quickly to his feet as she took aim again.
"Do not think I don't have the patience for this," she assured him, launching a larger ball in his direction. "I've waited ten long years. I don't mind playing with you a little longer."
He leapt aside again, trying to draw her fire away from where Gwen lay prone, his gold crown flying loose from his head to skid across the asphalt. This was insane. He was being attacked by a sorceress in the middle of Paris and not a single person was around to help him. Anger burned inside him as he took refuge against the large stone rail of the bridge. This particular sorceress happened to be responsible for his family's deaths.
Another fireball flew, Arthur's jump a hairsbreadth slower than he'd needed it to be and the entire bridge shaking as the place where he was standing broke loose from its foundations. The ground dropped out beneath him, Arthur's fingers grasping for purchase along the cobbled stone of the bridge, and he barely managed to grab hold. The slab of pavement hung at an angle, suspended only by the bent metal bars inside the concrete, creaking as they strained to hold it in place.
Nimueh's face appeared over the edge above him, a vindictive smile on her face as she watched him struggle to hold on.
"I expected so much more."
Merlin rounded the corner of Rue Bayard at a jog, his coat billowing in the cool wind that had come up out of nowhere. He set his jaw as he went, feeling both determined and vaguely ill for what he was about to do. He was still a few blocks away from Uther's estate when it suddenly occurred to him he hadn't put much thought into what he was going to say when he saw Arty. He couldn't very well show up uninvited at Arthur's re-introduction ball without any sort of plan for getting Arty to forgive him.
His brain was desperately trying to work out a beautifully-worded speech that wouldn't make him sound like a complete idiot when a bright light on the distant Pont Alexandre III caught his attention.
Venturing closer, Merlin's eyes widened at what was easily the most bizarre - and terrifying - scene he'd ever witnessed. A woman in a red dress was swirling in a pool of an unnatural red light, pieces of the semi-destroyed bridge around her feet, as she grinned cruelly down at—
"Arty!" Merlin gasped, breaking into a run at the sight of his friend dangling helplessly from a broken piece of the bridge, his grip on the stones obviously slipping even as he struggled to pull himself up. Giving no thought to what could have led to this strange show-down, Merlin put all of his focus on stopping the woman who clearly intended to "help" Arty fall.
He ran full out, his lungs aching with the unexpected effort - he'd get there too late! - as Arty's grip noticeably loosened. Any second, he'd lose his hold completely, plunging into the Seine below...
That can't happen, he thought, forcing himself to go even faster. I won't let it.
Arthur grunted with the effort, the muscles in his arms burning as the metal bars holding the hunk of stone in place creaked and bent, bringing the slab almost vertical.
"How brave you are," Nimueh taunted, an amused smile on her face. "Are you still trying to win?"
He felt his fingers slipping, watching as a handful of pebbles broke loose from the stone and rolled off the edge of the slab, plunging down into the water below. Feeling as though he'd just witnessed his own fate, Arthur redoubled his efforts, throwing his elbow higher up on the precipice, only to have the entire thing tip forward again, his feet dangling precariously beneath him.
Nimueh drew closer, looking pleased.
"I've waited a long time for this, Your Highness," she informed him, raising her arms. Something like electricity seemed to spark from her fingertips, making Arthur's hair stand on end as she poised to strike.
A metal pole swung out of nowhere, connecting solidly and sending her flying. To Arthur's amazement, Merlin's head appeared over the side of the bridge.
"That's twice I've saved you," Merlin said breathlessly as he scrambled down on his stomach to reach out a thin hand out to Arthur.
Struggling to reach him without losing his grip, Arthur grunted. "And here, I thought we weren't keeping score. What took you so long?"
"There's gratitude," Merlin strained, his fingers just inches from Arthur's own. "I don't know why I'm bothering. That big head of yours would probably just float, anyways."
Nimueh appeared over Merlin's shoulder, her face twisted in rage. Arthur felt rather than saw her power building again, the red phial at her wrist humming to life to envelop one of the winged horse statues that guarded the bridge.
"Merlin, look out—"
Arthur's eyes were as wide as saucers as the stone statue came to life, ramming into Merlin and catapulting him to the other side of the bridge.
"How dare you interfere again," sneered Nimueh, her focus now entirely on Merlin. Arthur took advantage of it, heaving himself up as best he could, his fingers raking across the broken concrete as he struggled to support his own weight. With a heavy grunt, he hoisted himself over the side, relieved to be on steady ground once more.
Merlin was still struggling with the former statue, trying to keep out from under its gigantic hooves. Arthur picked up a chunk of broken stone, throwing it at the distracted sorceress, who whirled around, blasting it to pieces.
"Did you think it would be that easy?" she intoned, fire in her eyes.
Arthur leapt out of the way of a lightning blast, scorching the stone where he'd stood a moment before. There was no way they could keep doing this. She was too powerful, and they had no way of fighting back. They needed a plan.
Behind her, Merlin had somehow managed to get himself on the back of the winged horse, the statue bucking wildly beneath him as he held on for dear life.
"Merlin, you idiot! Stop messing around!"
The other man scowled. "I'm a little busy!" he shouted, gripping the horse's mane. "A statue is trying to kill me!"
The horse took flight, still bucking as it soared higher and higher above the bridge. With one great twist, it knocked Merlin from its back, a startled yell accompanying his fall. Arthur watched in horror as he plummeted to the ground, hitting hard, and did not move again.
He raced forward, but Nimueh stepped in his path.
"Now there is no one left for you to cower behind," the sorceress hissed, raising her hand.
The air around him exploded, sending him flying. He hit the ground hard. Got to keep moving, he thought to himself, coughing up brick dust as he tried to get his bearings again. Across the bridge, Nimueh smirked at him. It was then he noticed the explosion had loosened one of the stone pillars above her. Arthur stood on wobbly legs just as a chunk of concrete broke off.
Forced to jump out of its path, the sorceress landed hard, the red phial at her wrist snapping free of its thin cord.
The vial skidded toward Arthur, who had a quick flash of memory of a similar phial skating across the ice, Nimueh running protectively after it. Inspired, he made a run for it, stopping the vial's path under his foot.
Nimueh drew herself up, incensed and fearful all at once.
"Give me that!" she demanded, her eyes burning red.
Arthur applied pressure to the outer glass, a soft crack accompanying the movement, and was rewarded with a pained cry from the witch as she struggled forward toward him.
"Is this important?" he taunted, new hope burgeoning within him. "You need this, don't you? You need it to survive."
He raised his foot and stomped on the glass, shards breaking off to shower the cobblestone, a vindictive smile on his face as Nimueh screamed in rage and doubled over.
"I'll destroy you," she vowed, her outer edges beginning to wither like dry paper.
"I was just a child, and you took my family from me," he told her, raising his foot again.
A second stomp shattered the glass almost completely, Nimueh crouching forward in pain as she cursed his name.
Arthur drank in her pain, the memories of the family he'd lost and the face that had unknowingly haunted his nightmares all these years flashing before his eyes. Setting his jaw, he raised his foot again.
"I hope you burn," he pledged, slamming his foot down.
Nimueh screamed, an unholy sound that made him want to cover his ears and hide. Fire seemed to burst from her skin, her flesh melting away before his very eyes. Arthur shielded himself from the brilliance of it, wishing all at once for it to be over.
And then it was. With one last screech of terror, she was gone, leaving only a patch of scorched stone to mark her former place, the vial beneath Arthur's foot grinding itself into fine sand that blew away with the breeze.
Arthur was left frozen for a moment, hardly daring to believe it was finished. His eyes washed over the wreckage of the bridge - wondering how he could possibly explain the damage - coming to rest on a still figure laying a few metres away. His stomach clenched.
He rushed to his side, his concern deepening when Merlin gave no signs of movement.
"Oh, come on," he said, swiftly checking him over for injury. "There's no way that fall did you in. Your head's too hard. You're just milking it now."
There was no response. Arthur felt something wrap around his heart and squeeze, fear stealing his breath. He forced out a laugh, willing a smirk onto his face even as his hands clutched desperately at Merlin's shirt.
"You're not fooling anyone, Merlin," he joked, giving the other man a quick shake. "If you don't get up in the next two minutes, I'm never speaking to you again."
Merlin's voice was weak and thin, but to Arthur it was beautiful. He sagged in relief as Merlin groaned, pushing himself up on one elbow as the palm of his other hand pressed against his aching head. Impulsively, Arthur pulled him into a hug.
"You're all right!"
"Ow! Watch it!" Merlin hissed under the strength of the embrace.
He pulled away immediately, embarrassed at his own actions. "Sorry, I—"
"Yeah, yeah," the other man winced, clutching his midsection. "I'm being a girl. We can't all manfully hide our pain, you know."
Arthur helped Merlin slowly to his feet, an awkward silence setting in as they remembered their last encounter.
"You didn't take the money," Arthur said softly.
"Yeah, I know," Merlin replied, a tinge of forced humour in his voice. "I think you've been a bad influence." His smile disappeared, replaced by guilt. "Look, about what ha—"
The press of Arthur's lips against his caught Merlin by surprise, but he adapted quickly, giving back as good as he got. Lithe fingers found their way to the back of Arthur's head, grabbing small fistfuls of hair as one of his hands found its way to Merlin's waist, gently running up to tease at the ribs he could feel beneath the fabric. Arthur felt the knot in his chest loosen.
They pulled back, a slow grin building on Merlin's face as they stared into each other's eyes.
"So, you two have finally figured things out, then?" Gwen inquired tiredly from a few metres away. Arthur gave a guilty jolt at having momentarily forgotten about her, but her expression bore no ill-will. Her once-beautiful dress was torn and stained with dirt, her previously upswept hair now a mess, but she appeared otherwise unhurt. In her hands was Arthur's gold crown, with hardly a scratch to show for it.
The sight of the crown seemed to bring Merlin crashing back to reality, his hands dropping reluctantly from Arthur's sides.
"You should be getting back," he said flatly, stepping back and avoiding Arthur's eyes. "They're missing their grand duke."
Arthur frowned, flashing back to his earlier conversation with his grandpapa. He knew what awaited the Grand Duke Arthur Ectorovich Petrovin back at Uther's estate, the predictability of royal life every bit as certain and safe as the factory job back in Russia. But what about plain old Arty? What sort of life awaited him?
Looking at Merlin's slightly swollen lips, he decided he'd rather like to find out.
Placing two fingers underneath his chin, he lifted Merlin's gaze to meet his own. Two pairs of blue eyes - one dark, one light - stared into each other.
"What if I don't want to?" he asked quietly.
If he'd had any lingering doubts about his choice, the surprised smile that lit up Merlin's face did well to vanquish them. Grinning like a schoolboy, he surged forward again, clumsily reclaiming the other man's mouth, happier than he could ever remember being. This was what he wanted. This and nothing else. Not crowns and titles, but the chance to wake up every day to Merlin looking at him with that infuriating mixture of affection and impertinence.
Merlin's mouth nuzzled against his, a happy hum escaping his lips as he wrapped his arms around him.
He'd forgotten their audience again, but this time he was far too happy to care.
His arms still wrapped around the smaller man - all skin and bones, he'd have to remedy that - Arty turned to Gwen, who'd been watching the exchange with a rather sappy look on her face, her hands clasped in front of her chest.
"Gwen, I have a big favour to ask of you."
Prince Uther was very quiet where he stood in his study, waiting as Gaius finished reading the note. They'd both been summoned from the ball by a rather insistent Morgana, her new companion in tow, her expression confirming what he'd already suspected regarding his missing grandson's whereabouts.
Gaius' smile was fond but sad as finished, looking up. "Well, I can't say that I'm all that surprised," he commented gruffly, handing the letter back to Uther.
He nodded his agreement. Truthfully, he'd half-expected this to happen - had encouraged it, even - but as a grandfather, it was still hard to let go after all these years of searching.
"I wonder where they'll go," Morgana said idly, sympathy in her eyes as she watched him.
Uther shook his head. "The note doesn't say."
He doubted the pair themselves knew where they were headed, but he knew with certainty that this parting was only temporary. He had not seen the last of his grandson, but he'd meant what he'd said - Arthur's happiness was paramount. Just knowing he was alive somewhere, content, meant more to Uther than any title ever could.
"I hope they're all right," Guinevere said mistily. "Wherever they go."
Morgana's hand found its way to her shoulder, comforting.
"I'm certain they will be," Gaius assured her with a kind smile. "If they don't drive each other mad first."
They stood in silence for a moment, the music of the ball below wafting up through the ceiling to accompany their thoughts. Raising a thin eyebrow in interest, Morgana turned to Uther.
"There's a ballroom full of guests downstairs waiting to hear how we found the grand duke. What will you say to them?"
Uther paused, his eyes hovering on the final words of the letter.
He spared his cousin a glance, resting the note in the box along with the gold crown young Guinevere had brought back with her.
"We didn't find a grand duke," he said softly. "He found himself."
Translations (for those that want them):
Thank you to everyone who's been reading! I hope you've enjoyed the ride. And another round of thanks to justicemischief for being such a great beta!
Keep Smiling! ;)