A/N: SPOILER ALERT FOR 3X13! Stop if you haven't seen it!
So….the last episode left quite a few loose ends, I feel like. Here's my way to tie them all up. Enjoy! Reviews always appreciated, of course. :)
Celebrations rang through the air several days after Morgana departed with Morgause. Arthur had declared a feast to celebrate the recapturing of Camelot, and the people rejoiced that the tyranny had ended.
Merlin felt slightly bemused as he watched people preparing for the festivities. Who would have thought that Uther would seem like such a benevolent ruler after the terrors that Morgana had inflicted? Though to be fair, Uther wasn't doing much ruling right now. He'd hardly been seen outside his chambers since the fateful day Morgana revealed her true allegiance. It was Arthur who held the people's loyalty and respect now.
That put a smile to Merlin's face every time he thought about it. Perhaps the prophecies were nearing completion. Perhaps Arthur was now the king he was supposed to be, or at the very least, fast approaching. He continued through the crowd, heading back up into the palace after grooming Arthur's horses. But his smile fell ever so slightly as he considered the other side of the coin.
Merlin was learning, certainly. He had just managed to defeat an entire immortal army, after all. But he couldn't help but feel like the trust between him and Arthur had just taken a significant step backwards—even if the prince hadn't realized it. There was a time not too long ago when Merlin had considerable hope that Arthur would accept him, should he find out the truth. But now…
Arthur had just lost someone he dearly loved to the "corruption" of magic. If magic could corrupt even a Pendragon, albeit an illegitimate Pendragon, what was to stop Arthur naming magic once more as evil? It was the same choice Uther had faced upon Ygrain's death: blame magic or blame himself. Arthur now had to choose: blame magic, or blame Morgana. Merlin feared the choice he would make.
His moments of melancholy went largely unnoticed, however. He still plastered a smile on his face—and for the most part it was genuine. Only Gaius knew the turmoil inside the warlock.
But everything aside, Camelot was safe once again. Arthur was safe once again. That's what mattered. Merlin had time to build up that trust again. And so he would, as many times as he had to.
"Merlin!" He turned to face the man who had just turned a corner and was walking down the corridor towards him. "Ready for the feast tonight?" Lancelot asked with a huge smile on his face.
Merlin returned the grin. "Absolutely. What fun it will be to stand at the royal prat's elbow and keep his wine glass full!" he said in mock elation. He'd meant it as a joke, but Lancelot's smile dipped into a slight frown.
"How do you stand it?" he asked softly. Merlin's smile remained in tact, but he didn't try to hide the slight sorrow he felt. Perhaps his joke had hit a little too close to home, even for him.
"It's the way it has to be," Merlin replied. "For now at least."
Lancelot shook his head. "It isn't fair," he muttered. He glanced around them to make sure they were alone. "After everything you've done, you should be the guest of honor, not a servant."
Merlin shook his head. "I'm happy to serve, so long as it's to serve Prince Arthur," he said honestly.
"Merlin," Lancelot began slowly, in a tone that told Merlin well before he spoke what the rest of his words would be. "You saved us all."
"I just did my part," Merlin protested. "That was all. I couldn't have done it without—"
"Merlin," he interrupted. The warlock became quiet. "You're not going to hear this from anyone else, so at least let me say it." Merlin obediently shut his mouth in silence. "Camelot is in your debt. Arthur may not realize the extent of your…contributions, but one day he will. Until then, allow me to thank you on his behalf." Lancelot bowed, very formally, making Merlin rather uncomfortable.
Merlin nodded solemnly when the man straightened, touched by his words and actions. "Thank you," he said sincerely. He offered a hand for Lancelot to shake, which the knight accepted gladly; clasping forearms the way the knights often did. "That means a lot to me."
With a last, sad smile, Lancelot continued on his way, and Merlin on his.
Unbeknownst to either of them, just a few moments after they left, a certain prince opened a door to enter the same corridor. After a moment's hesitation, he headed after Lancelot.
It took him little time to track down the newly-made knight. He caught up with him a few hallways away as the man headed towards the armory. (He didn't have a servant yet, and said he didn't want one, so he cleaned all his armor and weapons himself.)
"Sir Lancelot," he turned instantly to face the prince.
"Sire," he replied politely. If Arthur hadn't just heard that conversation, he would have missed the small degree of formality.
"May I have a word?"
Lancelot nodded. "Of course, my lord. What can I do for you?"
"Come with me, please," he requested, taking the lead to an unused guest room. He wasn't going to risk talking about this in the open. He didn't want to be overheard like Merlin and Lancelot had been. He'd go to his room, but he also did not want Merlin to hear this conversation.
Lancelot followed him and looked expectantly at the prince when he shut the door behind them.
"What did Merlin do?" Arthur asked bluntly.
Whatever Lancelot had been expecting, that wasn't it. His mouth opened slightly in surprise before he managed to once again compose himself. "Sire?" he asked in confusion.
Arthur was having none of it. "You said he saved us all. How?" he demanded.
Lancelot's eyes narrowed. "You were eavesdropping," he accused.
"Not intentionally. Now answer the question."
"No." Arthur's eyes opened wide at the flat denial. "You may be the prince, but that's between me and Merlin." Arthur could hardly believe what he was hearing. No one but Merlin ever blatantly refused a command from him.
"As a knight, you are duty bound to answer to me," Arthur pointed out.
"Then take away my knighthood."
Arthur stared at him. What had Merlin done that was worth such loyalty? Being a knight was all Lancelot had ever wanted.
Arthur shook his head. "No. I won't force your confidence," he said. "That's why I'm not going to order you. I am asking you. Will you tell me?"
Lancelot hesitated. Arthur pressed his advantage. "Please," he said again, "how did Merlin save us?"
Lancelot took a deep breath, praying to whatever gods might be listening that Merlin wouldn't skewer him for this. "We never went after the warning bell," he admitted. Arthur's eyes widened, but he didn't interrupt. He'd been wondering what had happened with the bells. "It was Merlin's plan. He was going to go alone. When I found out, I insisted I go with him."
Arthur waited, but it didn't appear Lancelot was going to continue. "What did you do?" he asked quietly.
Lancelot hesitated again. "We went after the Cup of Life."
Arthur froze at those words. The Cup of Life. They'd gone after the cup of life. Just like that. "Are you suicidal!" he demanded. "You two went after the Cup alone?"
"How could you be so foolish! You should have told me!"
"He didn't want you to know!" Lancelot shot back. "It was Merlin's plan, so it was his call to make. Not yours, and certainly not mine."
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, thinking through this new information. "Why didn't he tell me? I could have helped the two of you. Merlin certainly can't fight, you could have used an extra sword. You could have been killed."
Lancelot snorted, and Arthur got a feeling he was still missing a big part of the picture. "For all you tease Merlin, you're the real idiot." Arthur resented that, but he said nothing. "Do you have any idea how unswervingly faithful that boy is to you?"
Then something clicked in Arthur's head. Something that hadn't entirely processed before. "Merlin…was going to go after the Cup. Alone. Without you, without anyone…"
Lancelot nodded in confirmation. "That's why I went with him. I wasn't going to let him face that alone, and it wasn't my place to tell anyone else."
Arthur paused, trying to picture the infiltration. "Wasn't it guarded?" he asked, dumbfounded.
Lancelot laughed out loud at that. "Ya. That's a bit of an understatement."
Another pause, Arthur could see the confliction in Lancelot's eyes. "We snuck through the castle. It was difficult, but we managed to stay undetected."
"How did you know where they were keeping it?" he whispered, unsure why this was unsettling him as much as it was.
"He—the guards," he stuttered. "We figured it would in the most heavily armed room. It's wasn't difficult to find after a little snooping."
Again the hesitation. "Merlin drew the attention of the guards in the hall before I slipped behind them. When their attention shifted to me—as the greater threat—he did the same. We managed to get into the room and lock the door in a matter of seconds. They never saw it coming."
"That's it?" Arthur asked, a bit surprised. It was stupid and dangerous, but it seemed too easy, until Lancelot shook his head.
"There were even more guards inside. We were far outnumbered, and there wasn't a door we could simply shut in their faces." He paused again, taking a breath, as though he was remembering something very great. "They stood surrounding the cup, but they were unprepared. Merlin charged through, pushing passed them all recklessly. Before they had time even to raise their swords against either of us, Merlin just barely managed to knock the cup off the stand. The blood spilled out of it, and the immortal guards just…well."
"Exploded." Arthur finished.
"Did you not find it odd that the army simply vanished?"
Arthur closed his eyes, shocked at his own stupidity. "Of course I did," he answered. "But…"
"But you were too relieved to care why our good fortune happened."
"It only worked because our presence took them by surprise. If Merlin had hesitated even a moment, all would have been lost."
Arthur didn't know how to respond. At last he found his voice, asking yet again, "Why didn't he tell me?"
"Arthur…" There it was. That hesitation again. There was something Lancelot still wasn't telling him. Then his shoulders slumped, as though losing an inner battle. "I don't think he planned on making it out alive." Arthur's breath caught in his throat. "To bring you, would be to condemn you as well. And if he had told you, am I right in assuming there is no way you'd have stayed behind?"
That idiot had been protecting him. Him! Arthur Pendragon. Protected by a suicidal, self-sacrificing servant who couldn't wield a sword. What had Merlin been thinking?
They stood there in silence for several minutes. It was all Arthur could do to think. And try to process.
It had been Merlin. Merlin had shattered the Cup's enchantment. He really had saved them all. Every single person in Camelot—they all owed their lives to Merlin.
Lancelot hadn't been kidding.
"Now you know," Lancelot said after the long pause. "Only don't tell Merlin you know."
"Why ever not?" he demanded, with a sudden burst of anger. "First you don't tell me anything and then you say I can't even thank the loyal idiot!"
"He wouldn't want it," Lancelot said firmly. His eyes grew hard. He would accept no argument on this—prince or no.
Arthur, stubborn as ever, didn't care. "I don't care what he wants! He's my servant! I'll thank him if I damn well want to!"
Lancelot knew he would not get through to him. "Fine. Then do not share the extent of your knowledge."
It was Arthur's turn to hesitate. Then he nodded. He turned to go, but stopped. "Thank you, Lancelot. For telling me. And for protecting him."
"It is my pleasure, Sire."
Arthur went straight to his chambers, knowing Merlin would be there. As predicted, the unknown hero was scrubbing his floor. When he entered, Merlin looked up with that stupid grin of his.
"We've been away from Camelot for what, a week? How does everything get so dusty and dirty in so little time?" he demanded indignantly.
Arthur stared at him for a long moment. Merlin didn't seem to notice. He continued scrubbing away with a ferocity that left Arthur marveling. Merlin had saved Camelot, and now he was scrubbing the floor…
"Get up, Merlin."
Merlin paused in his work, brow creasing in confusion at his master's tone. Slowly he put the scrub brush in the bucket of soapy water, standing up and brushing the remaining suds off his hand.
Arthur continued to stare at Camelot's savior. He looked so…so Merlin-like. He was every bit as scrawny as always, his hair was rumpled, and his knees were soaked through from kneeling on the damp floor. Yet this man had saved everyone. And no one had a clue. With Arthur completely at a loss as to how to begin, Merlin looked more and more confused by the second.
"Arthur, are you alright?"
He was tempted to ask what he had asked Lancelet so many times in that single conversation: why? Why had he done it? Why had he not told anyone? Why did he not tell anyone now? But he knew the answers, even if he didn't fully understand them.
Merlin startled, but made no response. He waited. He knew something else was coming.
"I know you and Lancelot took the Cup of Life." Merlin's eyes widened. To Arthur's surprise, there was a fear there that he did not understand. It was more than fear of a scolding for disobeying orders, or for simply being so utterly stupid. There was genuine fear. Arthur chose his words carefully, mindful of his promise to Lancelot. "I don't know how you did it," something in Merlin visibly relaxed at those words, "but I know it was the two of you who emptied it, and destroyed the army."
Merlin was at a loss for words. "W—" he gaped, searching for a response. "How?"
Arthur smiled. "Lancelot. Don't be angry with him," he added at the look on his face. "I heard the two of you talking and practically forced him to tell me the truth. Even so, he didn't tell me much."
"But he told you enough."
"Yes," Arthur said after a pause. "He told me enough. And I thank you." The two stood there, staring at each other, one in awe, the other in peace. "Where is the Cup now?" he asked suddenly. He had no doubt that Merlin knew exactly where it was.
It was Merlin's turn to hesitate. "I have it," he said at last.
Arthur nodded. "Where?"
Another pause, before Merlin seemed to come to a conclusion. He looked very firmly into Arthur's eyes, and Arthur could see in them a hint of the wisdom Merlin showed every so often—between his bouts of being an idiot. "If you ask it of me," he said at last, "I will give it to you."
Arthur hadn't thought about this. What to do with the Cup now? Merlin did not want to give it to him, he could tell. He couldn't blame him. That much power…could any man be trusted with it? Could Arthur trust himself?
He trusted Merlin.
"No," he said at last. "Keep it."
Merlin looked genuinely surprised. "What?" he asked again.
"Keep it safe, keep it hidden. Let no one know you have it."
"You trust me for something so important?"
The answer was immediate. "I do."
Grim satisfaction set in upon the servant's face. Arthur wondered briefly if he had placed too great a burden on his shoulders.
But no. He had charged into a room full of immortal guards in order to take the Cup and end its abuse. Now it was Merlin's task to guard it.
"Guard it well Merlin. The Cup is in your hands now."