A/N: So here we are, the last chapter! *sniffles* Anywhoo…I'm dedicating this final chapter to LiteratureFreak1, who has been kind and patient enough to leave a comment on each chapter. Thank you! You and everyone else who has read and commented kept my procrastination-prone butt moving! Hope this one doesn't disappoint =)
When Arthur caught up to him, Merlin didn't send Arthur back, as Arthur himself would have tried to. He just smiled, giving Arthur a grateful look. Arthur found himself smiling back and nodding, giving his unconditional support without a sound.
After a second of hurried walking, side by side, Arthur remembered the greave and the sword, both of which were still piled in Merlin's hands. He stopped Merlin with a light touch on his shoulder. As he looked at him, curious, Arthur gently took the greave from him and crouched, strapping it on Merlin's leg carefully. He then took the sword, buckling it around Merlin's waist with the same tender care.
As he stood up, their eyes met. Merlin's looked a bit wet as he squeezed Arthur's hand in thanks. Arthur squeezed back, and then the strange, yet lovely moment was gone. Merlin was striding along, in control of himself and princely once more, Arthur right behind, secretly proud of him in spite of himself.
As they reached the courtyard, Arthur found that he wasn't the only one who wouldn't let Merlin ride off alone. Gwaine and Lancelot, already mounted and armored, were there, along with…
"Gwen and Morgana." He looked at Merlin incredulously. "Fa-Uther let you bring Gwen and Morgana, too?'
Merlin had the decency to look sheepish. "No, not exactly…"
Understanding dawned. Going in the middle of the night instead of at first light, the presence of the girls and only two knights…"Uther said no, didn't he?"
"Yeah, and quite loudly, too." Gwaine answered for Merlin, touching one of his ears. "My ears are still ringing."
Arthur shook his head, unsure of whether or not he wanted to laugh out loud or scold. "Why am I not surprised?"
Merlin grinned at him. "Because you know me; I never take no for an answer." He passed Arthur to mount up on a caramel-colored gelding. Arthur sighed, shaking his head as he mounted up as well. Isn't that the truth.
Even with their immediate start, with short stops for rest and meals, it took two whole days to reach the village that Uther's advisors had pinpointed as the next target of Cenred's mercenaries.
"Something's not right." Lancelot said in a low voice as they approached.
"There should be people." Gwaine added. From the small rise just before the village, they could see right into the village proper, and the fields around it. Arthur's spine tingled. There was no one in sight, not even in the fields, though the sun was high in the sky.
They looked at Merlin, who opened his mouth to speak…But Arthur never heard what he said. There was a loud, earsplitting crack, and a force ripped him out of his saddle, throwing him like a rag doll over the left side of his horse's rump.
Chaos was instantaneous. As Arthur hit the ground hard enough to make his vision blur, the others scattered, Morgana and Gwen one way, Gwaine and Lancelot another, and Merlin-
"Arthur!" He dimly heard the boy yell. As he pushed himself up, he saw Merlin charging heedlessly toward him. The boy was crouched low in the saddle, urging his mount forward.
Arthur swore. "Get down, you idiot!" But Merlin ignored him. When he yanked his horse to a stop next to Arthur, Arthur grabbed his arm and pulled him down, hitting the horse's rump to make it move. As the horse galloped off, though, the arrows started.
Arthur swore again, grabbing Merlin by the scruff of his neck and dragging him with him as he ran for cover. Merlin cried out as Arthur dived behind a boulder sticking up out of the ground like the bone of a long buried creature. He looked over in alarm, to see Merlin cradling his arm, his sword forgotten beside him.
Arthur leaned over, pushing Merlin's hand away so he could see. There was no shaft sticking out of his forearm-thank God-just a thick, bloody line where an arrow's serrated, probably enchanted edge had grazed him. As he tried to tend to it, though, Merlin smacked his hand.
"Ow!" Arthur looked at him in shock. He was met with two orbs of steady, almost steely blue.
"I'm not helpless, Arthur. I can take care of this. Go see what's happened to everyone else."
He was right. But still, Arthur hesitated. The steely gaze softened. "Arthur, I'll live. I've known how to field dress wounds since I was ten." Funny, so had Arthur. He knew who Merlin's teacher would have been-a brilliant man by the name of Kai-yet it still was an effort to wrench his gaze from his friend's bleeding arm long enough to poke his head over the rock instead.
The hail of arrows had stopped. From the commotion to his right, all the battle cries and shouts of pain, Gwaine and Lancelot must have already made contact with their attackers. Across the way, to his left, in a small copse of trees, Arthur heard two terrified whinnies, and then two horses were charging out toward the commotion, riderless. Morgana was right behind, sword up, a vicious dark-haired angel of retribution. He didn't know Gwen had darted out of the back of the copse until she was ducking behind the rock with them.
"Arthur." She panted. Her eyes went wide. "Merlin!" Arthur's head snapped back around to look at Merlin. He had torn off a strip of his under tunic, somehow managed to wrap it around his arm, and was pulling it into a knot with his hand and teeth.
"I'm fine." He grabbed the hilt of his sword, pushing himself to his feet. "Stay here." And without giving either of them a chance to protest, he ran, sword in hand, towards the fight.
Arthur swore, getting to his feet. His stupid horse had run off with his only sword, his only weapon, and from the looks of it, they needed help. Even when Merlin joined the fray, it was obvious they were being pushed back. He hardly noticed that, though. All he could think was Merlin needs me.
He looked around wildly-and spotted the sword still sitting in its sheathe on Gwen's hip. "Gwen, give me your sword."
She looked at him, confused, almost incredulous. "But Arthur, you have no idea of how to use a sword!"
"Sword, Guinevere!" He barked, in his old prince voice. Some part of her-some deep, subconscious part-must have remembered his true identity, because she gave it to him, without another word of protest.
"Stay." He growled in the same tone, vaulting over the rock with a warrior's ease, hauling towards the fight. His focus narrowed; he was back in his element at last. He didn't charge straight into the thick of the fighting, though his emotions screamed at him to do so. He circled around…
That was the mercenaries' mistake, in the end: grouping up to concentrate their offensive, to push the two knights, the lady, and Merlin back. It left them vulnerable to an attack from behind, which is exactly where Arthur struck.
Arthur ripped through them like a blonde tornado, muscle memory instantly taking over as his body whirred through the motions.
That was the thing about mercenary groups; they were a strong force when it came to ambush attacks, but there was no solidarity in the group, and when surprised badly enough, they splintered like rotten wood-which is exactly what they did, as Arthur and his friends pressed from either side.
All the fight left them as they seemed to realize that, though their numbers were greater, they were losing, and when another group-a group of raggedy farmers armed with rusty swords, farm equipment, and sharpened sticks-burst out from the nearest village house, screaming like savages, the survivors broke apart and fled.
As Gwaine, Lancelot, and Morgana helped the villagers chase the scattered group off, Arthur looked around for Merlin, and could not suppress a sigh of relief when he spotted him, walking toward him. He was messy and sweaty, but other than the arrow graze, he was unhurt.
He cocked his head slightly as Arthur met him, a hint of his old goofy grin touching his face. "Now where would a manservant learn how to fight like that?"
"Private lessons." Arthur replied absently, too busy making sure his first assessment was correct to make up a better excuse. Although, it wasn't a lie; his first sword fighting lessons with his father and Kai had been private-the princeling had been their only pupil, after all, until Morgana came along and butted in.
"Private lessons." Merlin laughed lightly. "Right."
They were so busy grinning stupidly at each other-each relieved that the other was alive and unhurt-that they were unaware of the sorceress until Gwen half-shouted, half screamed, "Arthur!" But by then, Arthur was being thrown back, tossed into the air and slammed back down again.
As he stared up, dazed, a pale face with gold hair leaned over him. "So we meet again, Arthur Pendragon." She purred. "But this time, it seems I have the upper hand." And she did. Arthur's sword had been ripped from his hand, and the same invisible force that had thrown him now seemed to be sitting on his chest, pinning him down.
But as he gasped for air, something caught his attention: a white stone hung from her neck by a chain, dangling below her throat as she leaned. The wishing stone's twin.
"Sorceress!" Merlin shouted. "Leave him alone!"
The sorceress smiled down at Arthur, then disappeared. Arthur watched in horror as she reappeared suddenly before Merlin. He tried to raise his sword to defend himself, but yelped in pain and dropped it, as if the hilt had burned him.
Arthur closed his eyes reluctantly, searching his mind…There. He plunged into the magic, calling it to him. For a second, it rebelled-it knew Arthur wasn't its proper wielder-then he felt the shift in his mind. His eyelids flew open, his eyes flaring gold.
The force on his chest vanished, and the sorceress was suddenly yanked away from Merlin. Unlike Arthur, she managed to counteract the spell and righted herself. But as she snarled a spell that made her green fire appear, something flashed above her head, and she crumpled. Gwen stood behind her, Arthur's fallen sword in her hand. Its hilt had made the flash as it struck the sorceress. With a worried glance at Arthur, who was getting slowly to his feet, Gwen ran to Merlin, who was sitting on the ground, dazed.
Though it went against his wishes, Arthur limped to the sorceress first, ripping the stone from her neck while Gwen and Merlin were distracted. He pocketed it, then turned to go rescue Merlin from Gwen's smothering hug, a quiet smile of victory on his face.
Later, after the fanfare had died down (the people in town had been as grateful as the villagers, and had insisted on throwing an impromptu party in the street for their prince, knights and lady the second they arrived back, much to Lancelot and Merlin's chagrin.) Arthur was in the prince's chambers, helping Merlin out of his armor. He had insisted on it, though Merlin had all but ordered him to go to Gaius and have his ankle looked at.
As Merlin went to go take his bath, Arthur sat on the bed, absently fingering the cool stone in his pocket.
He had been waiting for this moment ever since this foolishness started (if not quite in this way) yet now that it had arrived, he was strangely reluctant.
He couldn't believe he was thinking it, but being a servant really wasn't all that bad. He flinched as he remembered serving the nobles. Okay, yes it was. But…
His thoughts were interrupted by Merlin coming back in. He jumped up, almost guiltily, but Merlin didn't seem to mind him being there. His shoulder brushed Arthur's arm slightly as he crawled into bed, pulling the blankets up to his chin.
He looked at Arthur as he settled down, a hint of the steel Arthur had seen before in his gaze. "Have that ankle checked before you go to bed. That's an order."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "It's an ankle, not a concussion. I think I'll live."
Merlin sighed, the steel leaving his gaze. "Arthur…"
"All right, fine." He huffed. He felt Merlin's drowsing gaze on his back as he limped around, blowing out the candles until there was no light other than the glow from the fireplace. He turned around. Merlin's eyes were already closed, but he could distinctly hear him mumble, "Good night, Arthur."
Arthur smiled, in spite of himself. "Good night, Merlin." Merlin rolled over, already snoring away. Arthur didn't leave; he looked at Merlin's sleeping face, once more fingering the stone in his pocket.
He knew the source of his reluctance-he was looking at it. Him, to be exact. In spite of it all, he had grown fond of this new, tougher, steelier Merlin. This Merlin, who didn't hesitate to act…Arthur felt the fingers of his other hand lightly touch his lips, an unconscious act as he remembered the kiss.
He dropped them immediately. Perhaps he was being unfair-the old Merlin had never been in situations like the one two days ago. Who knew, maybe there was a version of Prince Merlin in him, too.
But he knew he was being unfair in another sense. The dragon had been right-this was not how things must be. The burden of prince hood-and eventually kingship-was his, not Merlin's. This new Merlin had steel, but not nearly enough to suit what prince hood and kingship required, and lord knew, as Arthur did, that he was no more suited to be a sorcerer than Merlin was to be a prince. Especially if Merlin was called upon to deal with things like cursed wishing stones and their twins. Arthur shuddered. Yes, he would rather leave such things in Merlin's capable hands…not that he's ever tell the fool that, however.
He drew the white stone out of his pocket, and with a final glance at Prince Merlin's sleeping face, shattered it.
When he slowly came back to consciousness, Merlin was hovering over him. The other boy's relief was obvious as Arthur's eyes fully opened.
"You're awake, thank the gods." Arthur blinked slowly. He was lying on the bed, not the floor, as he originally expected.
"What happened?" He croaked. His mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton.
"You broke the wishing stone and passed out." A hint of an annoyingly smug smile was tugging at the young manservant's mouth. Arthur glared.
"Stop smirking at me."
"Yes Sire." Merlin replied, not at all chastened. He reached for a goblet, just outside of Arthur's field of vision. As he started to bring it to Arthur's mouth, Arthur caught a whiff of lavender. He wrinkled his nose.
"That's not one of Gaius's brews, is it?" He asked, the murkweed bulb episode fresh in his mind.
Merlin gave him a strange look. "No. It's water."
"Okay." He let Merlin put the goblet's rim to his lips, though he was perfectly capable of doing it himself. It gave him an excuse to look at Merlin, to study him. He was back to normal-as was he. It carried a price, though, Arthur realized. Merlin didn't remember what happened. The wishing stone's curse had been completely reversed, so, to him, none of it ever even happened. None, not even the-Arthur! He growled at himself. Stop being such a bloody girl!
Something must have shown up in his face, because Merlin leaned a bit closer, real concern written all over his absurdly pale face. "Arthur? Are you all right?"
But Arthur wasn't listening. Who didn't hesitate to act…Without giving himself any time to reconsider, he leaned up, brushing his lips lightly over Merlin's. When he pulled back, he noticed Merlin's eyes were closed. When they opened, he stuttered, "W-what was that for?"
Arthur leaned back on his pillows, a triumphant smirk on his face. "Payback."
Merlin gave him a look like he was seriously concerned for Arthur's mental health, but as he turned away, probably to fetch Gaius, Arthur glimpsed him touching his lips, a slightly dazed half smile on his face. Arthur's smirk widened as he settled back with his arms behind his head.
Perhaps the wishing stone incident hadn't been such a bad thing after all.
A/N: And end! *wipes eyes* Hoped you liked reading this as much as I liked writing it.