Y'all thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? I just needed to get the idea straight. But, with the entire thing written today, here it is.
E p i l o g u e
With spring's insistent rain falling from the heavens, it was by no means a good day for hunting. In fact, it was downright miserable, and Merlin said so.
"You think every day is a bad day for hunting," Arthur pointed out. "You hate hunting."
"Not as much now that you only have time once a year to drag me out here," argued Merlin. That was the other man's greatest lament; the hunts, patrols, and investigations were no longer his responsibility. Taxes, treaties, and matters of state were.
King Arthur took a swig from his water skin and held it out. It was filled to the brim in seconds. "If we get pneumonia," he said conversationally, "it falls to you to take the blame."
"Why?" Merlin exclaimed, failing to see how it could possibly be his fault.
"Because you're my adviser, and you didn't advise me not to go hunting when it's pouring and less warm than spring has a right to be."
Though he'd sooner die than admit it, Merlin secretly enjoyed these little ventures. While he was perhaps exaggerating the rarity of Arthur's hunting trips, the outings they took alone were few and far between.
"It's been a long time since it was just the two of us in the forest," he commented, not caring if Arthur called him a girl. "Do you remember the last time we traveled this far out on our own?"
"Parts of it," said Arthur dryly. "All I remember is something about a beast and an incompetent servant who turned out to have magic. The rest is a bit of a blur."
Merlin took a moment to make sure his next few steps sprayed Arthur's breeches with mud. "I don't think the servant was entirely useless," he said. "I'm sure he did the best he could with an irritating prince throwing things at him and insisting he clean spotless armor day after day."
"He wasn't completely useless in the end," Arthur admitted.
"Not completely? I'm pretty sure he saved your ungrateful arse more times than either one of you can-"
Merlin stilled, recognizing the look on the king's face and knowing that when Arthur told him to be quiet in such manner, it usually meant there was something bad to follow.
A rustling in the bushes caught his attention. He mentally ran through the lexicon of spells stored up in his brain, everything from healing spells to the quickest way to dispatch an animal of general magical origins. It wouldn't work on everything, but unless it was something really bad-
His thoughts cut off abruptly when a deer erected its head, making itself visible to the hunting party of two. Seconds later, it grunted in pain, an arrow in its neck. When it tried to run, Merlin held up a hand and said the words to quicken its passage. It collapsed on the spot.
"It's the humane approach," Merlin said firmly, while Arthur shook his head in resignation. They had had this discussion many times over. Arthur thought using his magic to bring down the animal was cheating, whereas Merlin maintained that it was going to die anyway and it was kinder not to let it suffer.
They sloshed through the liquefied ground, Merlin levitating the deer carcass invisibly behind them. It kept running into trees, causing Arthur to glare at him and whisper something about spells to muffle sound. Merlin pretended to be deaf and kept his face carefully blank.
"This is ridiculous," the warlock complained when the force and thickness of the rain became, if possible, greater. "I can barely see your head, big as it is, through all this!"
"That's just your age talking, Merlin," Arthur retorted. He was mere steps ahead of Merlin, yet his voice was almost lost to the downpour. "Next thing you know, you'll be completely blind and forget how to talk. Now, wouldn't that be a shame?"
Merlin's feet lost all traction with the mud, and he wound up sprawling face first on the ground. Arthur landed on top of him a heartbeat later, having had his legs taken out by the servant's fall. All the breath was knocked from Merlin's lungs.
"Need... to try... diet... again," he wheezed, pushing Arthur off of him and getting to his feet. "Really, this is idiotic. You do whatever you like, I'm going back to Camelot." He turned and ran straight into something solid.
It took him a few moments to squint through the curtain of water and process what he was seeing. No... surely not.
"What now?" asked Arthur impatiently, but then he, too, saw what Merlin was staring at. He gaped disbelievingly, which invited all the droplets on his face to roll into his open mouth. "What..."
"It's not some kind of miracle," Merlin assured him. "Although, magic is kind of like a miracle, and I definitely used magic to put that there."
"You did this?" Arthur sounded incredulous, which was unfair, considering he had literally seen Merlin move mountains. Sections of them, at least.
"Yes," said Merlin absently, "a long, long time ago..."
Now that he had returned to this spot, he remembered it clearly. He filled Arthur in briefly on the circumstances, and expected that a light of recognition kindled in the king's mind. Arthur, too, remembered that time in their lives. That small window of time when he simultaneously knew and avoided a certain truth about his manservant.
"So after all that, you decided the best place to put the sword was in a stone?" the king demanded quizzically. "If it's meant for me, why not just hand it over? I already knew about you and your tricks, and you still didn't think you should maybe mention at some point that there was a magical sword waiting for me in a forest somewhere?"
"I was preoccupied," replied Merlin sheepishly. "Besides, there was no need. You haven't had to kill any dead creatures since that day."
Arthur rolled his eyes and stretched out a hand, fingering the hilt experimentally. "You say no one can pull it out?" he asked, examining the nonsense runes on the blade. One of them disappeared halfway into the rock.
"No one," confirmed Merlin. "I sealed it in there myse-"
In one swift move, Arthur tightened his grip and drew the sword from its unresisting sheathe. He surveyed it in the best light possible for a second, then said, "Really, Merlin, that was pathetic."
Merlin open and closed his mouth. "I - it - everyone except you," he said, wishing he had known that before now so he wouldn't feel so stupid.
"Seriously! If you put it back, no one would ever get it out again. Except, well, you."
Arthur tossed him the sword - a dangerous move, had Merlin not expected something along those lines - and snorted. "Whatever you say." He walked away from the now swordless stone, leaving Merlin to splutter things like, "It's true," and, "You're a prat."
By the time they reached the tree line, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle, restoring both men's vision. Merlin held up the blade, which he had refused to give back, and read aloud the inscription.
"'Take me up,'" he said, and frowned as he turned it over and added, "'Cast me away.'"
"Cast me away?" Arthur repeated. "That sounds like a waste, if you ask me. Why cast away a sword with so much power?"
"It's because it has so much power. When you've finished with it, no one else can touch it. Someone will have to put it back where no one can find it."
"Back in the stone?"
"Back in the lake, I think. Back to Avalon."
Arthur nodded, but Merlin doubted he understood completely. When he used Excalibur for himself, he would learn why it was dangerous to have such a weapon exist for anyone's use.
Later that day, Merlin would realize that this was the last piece of his destiny to click into place. He had fulfilled everything the Dragon told him he had to. Arthur was king, magic was restored, and the sword of destiny was finally in the hands it was made for.
For the moment, he was content to keep Excalibur tantalizingly out of Arthur's grasp, choosing to untie his horse and set off at a gallop to the castle on the horizon. The Once and Future King and his loyal Court Sorcerer raced back to the place someone years ago had decided to name Camelot, but for which they had another word.
Just to clarify, the sword didn't get there quite in the same fashion it did in Series 3, because, well, I kind of murdered the canon Series 3 by having Arthur find out the truth, Morgana have a slightly different role, etc.
You may have noticed some references to things that never happened in the story or the series, and this was intentional. Why? Because I have... potential... plans for a sequel. There's no guarantee, because I have about a gazillion story ideas floating around, and I don't know which one to go through with. The sequel would be called Side by Side, and would take places about two/three months after the previous chapter. For now, I'm happy knowing this is done.
Thank you ALL for the support!