Disclaimer: still not mine you know
A/N: So here it is, the final chapter. I've really enjoyed writing this and from what I could tell, with obvious exceptions *cough*anonreviewer*cough*, it's been really popular. I'm absolutely mortified to see it finish but I refuse to be held down and I've already got the first chapter of my next fic Upon Reflection, ready for posting. If you're interested please give it a look once I've got it up. Hope you're all enjoying the holidays and that you have a great new year. it's been great to share this with you guys ;)
Chapter Twelve: All At Once
Uther looked up from the table as the doors to the hall opened to reveal his son; visibly tired and struggling to walk, yet still managing to hold himself with the commanding nature that seemed to come naturally to all male members of the Pendragon family.
"Arthur!" Moving swiftly around the table he hurried over to catch the boy should he start to fall, silently celebrating in the fact that his son was awake. "Thank goodness."
A shaking, yet still strong arm raised to hold the King back while Arthur struggled to remain on his feet, still a bit addled by the sudden changes that seemed to have happened in his mind.
"What is it?"
Taking a deep breath the Prince drew himself up as straight as he was likely to get unaided and looked his father directly in the eyes. The air of authority his father had drilled into him was there, slightly beaten and broken which was understandable given his current condition but defiant and roaring like a lion in his chest all the same. "Why?"
"What are you-?"
"Why did you arrest Merlin?"
Uther's face fell, not quite morphing into anger as Arthur had expected. The King looked more confused than anything. "I had to, he stands accused of sorcery."
"On what basis is this accusation made?" It was with great difficulty that he kept the burning anger from his voice but he knew – he hoped – it wasn't his father's fault and anger would not help his case.
"Your recovery was nothing short of miraculous, Gaius said as much himself. The boy was alone with you." Uther's brow furrowed as the expected anger began to surface. "Clearly he used some form of sorcery to restore you."
"I fail to see how that act can be called a crime." Would he rather Arthur was still dying…probably dead by now actually…
"Magic is a plague upon our kingdom. It is our duty to protect our peop-"
"Merlin's my servant!" Arthur's shout cut sharply across his father and all those gathered behind him shied away, seeing something of the King in the cry. Even Uther was taken aback at the yell. "He doesn't have a single evil bone in his body. He has never shown anything but unbridled loyalty towards us and our kingdom."
Arthur's breathing was heavy from the anger that he'd given up trying to hold back. There was no feeling pity for his father when he was being this stupidly obstinate. Truly, magic was the one thing that could blind him to even the simplest of truths.
One breath became a bit too deep and he felt his strapped-up ribs pull slightly and he couldn't hold nor hide the wince it caused and Uther took a step forward.
"You should sit, Arthur."
His arms reached out, seeking to steady the shaken boy but they were batted away as Arthur struggled to straighten up, one arm clasped to the side of his chest. Shaking his head, Arthur turned his still angry expression up to meet his father's gaze. "Not until you listen to me."
"Merlin didn't do anything!"
"And how can you be sure of that?" His concern was momentarily forgotten as his son continued to defy him. "Don't you realise he's been manipulating you, using your position and your power to blind you to his true nature!"
"Sorcerers crave power. You taught me that. You honestly think Merlin would have put up with me-" he paused, trying to hide his slip with a cough. "Put up with being treated as a servant for so long if his intentions are truly as you say?"
As his father paused, Arthur knew he had hit on the right point to try and sway him. And maybe Arthur had a point. After all, the boy had been in his son's service for around a year now and of course he complained and moaned and messed up, more so than most servants, but he continued to turn up for work day after day and had never made any indication that he had any higher aims than that of his station.
"You think he would allow himself to be kidnapped...and tortured...by another...by another sorcerer." The lie came uneasily from his lips but Arthur knew, he knew, that the truth of what had occurred out in the forest would only serve to place himself onto the pyre with Merlin.
Sensing his son's unease, Uther's mask of indifference fell slightly. "Arthur?"
"I found him. The sorcerer. It took me a few days but I found him." Turning his head away slightly, Arthur's hand instinctively reached for his bandaged stomach as he spoke. "He was camped around half a day's ride from the outer edge of town. West, I think. Merlin was his prisoner, a hostage in case I decided to go after him after what happened during the investigation." He paused, taking a shuddery breath and trying not to dwell on how easily the lies were falling from his lips. "I refused to be intimidated by him and he attacked me." Trying to avoid looking too dramatic, he reached a hand to his head and tried to look pained. "I don't remember much after that."
When he looked back round, Arthur saw that he had convinced the silent consorts, still stood in their spots, all their eyes showing something akin to fear and determination or something. Arthur's focus wasn't exactly perfect right now. Still it wasn't them he needed to convince, and his father, whose gaze had at last left his son's face didn't look entirely sure.
"I don't know how I was saved, sire, but I swear to you, Merlin couldn't have had anything to do with it." Uther looked up as his son let out a light-hearted laugh. "He is the least magical person I have ever met"
And Arthur left it at that.
If there was anything he had come to learn when confronting his father it was the necessity to not over-press the point. If he continued his father would believe it to be more of a need to defy the King than to do what was right by whomever he fought for.
Minutes passed in silence, broken only by one of the scribes lightly coughing at one point and throughout the entire silence Arthur never turned from the King.
Uther saw the way, even when still half-wincing and quite clearly ill beyond the sense of standing unaided, Arthur managed to meet his gaze with an equal amount of fiery determination and refused to allow his current condition stand in the way of his point.
From the shadows towards the left, Leon, friend and loyal supporter to both father and son stepped forward. "Sire?"
"The charges are dropped." He was still watching Arthur who didn't make any form of response as his father spoke. "See to it the boy is released."
"Of course, sire." Bowing his head slightly, Leon began towards the doors, which were still open.
"Thank you, father." Arthur's mask fell slightly and he winced more than he had allowed himself to before but still managed to keep himself somewhat composed.
Uther merely watched his son before gently inclining his head. "You should be resting, Arthur."
Arthur's face was filled with respect and admiration as he bowed his head before turning to shakily make his way to the door. There was no chance he could even consider resting just yet. There was still something he needed to check.
He needed to check on Merlin. If he asked somebody, anybody, they'd tell him, but he would never truly believe them until he saw the idiot himself.
Once the great doors closed behind him, Arthur had been about to collapse as the adrenaline from facing his father drained away but Leon stepped, seemingly out of nowhere, to catch the Prince before he fell in a heap. Carefully, Leon lifted him so one of his arms were slung around the knight's shoulders and without even a word started off towards the dungeons pulling Arthur along with him.
The words were quiet and he wouldn't have known that Leon had even heard him were it not for the friendly smile that grew as they continued, slightly stumbling and slow in their progress but going faster wasn't much of an option at the moment.
Arthur was more than lucky to have a friend such as Leon.
It had happened.
It had finally happened.
Merlin had been accused of sorcery. He'd been arrested and sat in the chilled dungeons awaiting a wholly unfair trial that would see him ending up on a pyre like so many others before him. Except it hadn't been him – for once.
And he wasn't entirely sure what was going on, everything had got a bit muddled somewhere and naturally it was all Arthur's fault. Stupid prat.
Uther had arrived with Gaius when Merlin called and the King had ordered the guards at the door to arrest Merlin for saving Arthur; saving him damn it! Only, had Arthur been saved?
The guards had dragged a shouting Merlin from the room and proceeded to dump him in this cell where he still sat, which in itself was curious considering he stood accused of sorcery. The last two…maybe three days he'd been sat there with nothing but his self-deprecating brain to slowly convince him that he had imagined Arthur's steady breathing and the real reason he was still in the dungeons was because he was being punished for raising false hopes in the court.
It was taking all his courage to convince himself that Arthur wasn't dead as surely word would have reached him, even down in the dungeons.
Closing his eyes, he allowed his head to fall back against the wall behind him.
His broken arm had been throbbing on and off since he'd been thrown in here due to the bandages becoming looser from his restless shifting at night. Sleeping had been difficult when his head was still so busy with worry and confusion and the burning pain in his arm. Gaius hadn't been allowed in to change the bandages that kept his bad arm strapped tightly to his side and the linen was getting dirty. Were it a wound Merlin would probably worry about possible infection but as it was the only thing to fear was his bone setting wrong.
Presuming he lived that long, of course.
His eyes snapped open at the familiar voice; it had come from nearby, yet still somewhat distant; somewhere in the dungeons. "Arthur?" he barely whispered, not wanting the guards to laugh at him if he was imagining it.
There was some mumbling nearby and a shout of "Sire!" and Merlin scrambled to his feet.
"Arthur?" Wiping at his tired eyes with his good hand, Merlin watched, awe-struck as the door to his cell was swung open and there stood a dishevelled, tired, still-far-too-pale Prince of Camelot leaning heavily against Leon who stood beside him as a support.
The Prince was smiling. "It's alright now, Merlin."
It was Arthur.
Most definitely Arthur.
"You're-" Merlin stuttered.
Arthur was okay.
And so was Merlin.
More or less.
And that was the moment it all sort of snuck up on the servant. Everything that to this point had been glaringly obvious but he'd ignored for whatever stupid reason; to keep his mind from short-circuiting or panicking or exploding most likely.
The smile Arthur wore quickly fell as he saw Merlin's eyes begin to roll into the back of his head and rushed forward ignoring the twinge in his ribs and the indignant cry from Leon. He didn't get there in time and Merlin fell, his head cracking against the wall, which he hadn't moved far enough from, before sliding down it. Arthur knelt at his servant's side, grunting at the discomfort it caused and immediately pulled Merlin's head off the floor before yelling at Leon to run for Gaius already and hurry up!
"Merlin! Merlin are you alright!" he began tapping at the boy's face but stopped when he noticed the tears that were slowly and silently trickling from Merlin's clenched eyes.
He wasn't unconscious; he had been but the contact with the wall had been enough to bring him out of it rather painfully but that wasn't the reason for the tears and Arthur knew it as he helped Merlin up into a sitting position.
Seeing Arthur, perfectly alright – well maybe not perfectly – had taken away the main focus of his attention since he'd become all grown up again. And now, with nothing to distract him from how everything wasn't falling apart, the surprisingly normalcy of the situation had overwhelmed him. It still did now as he leant forward, gasping breaths between half-silent sobs.
Then there was the throbbing at the base of his skull from where he'd hit the wall and the horror-stricken realisation that Arthur was fine but he was still going to be killed by the King. Wasn't he? Even so, he was in a small dank room and his arm hurt and truthfully he was struggling to find a reason to stop the tears that were flowing a good deal more freely now as he scrunched his face up to try and stem them.
"Calm down, Merlin." Arthur's voice was reassuring and soothing but did little to slow down the tirade that was leaving his eyes. "It's going to be alright. Just try and breathe." Swallowing, Merlin took a half-breath before coughing and he felt a strong hand on the centre of his back. It patted him gently until his throat stopped feeling as though it was trying to kill him and the hacking ceased.
He took another few deep breaths, each sounding like he was on the edge of tears even though he was long past that point and Arthur laughed slightly.
"That's right, breathe. It's alright. Everything's fine.
"Everything's fine, Merlin."
Not ten minutes ago, Sir Leon had arrived in Gaius' chambers with urgent orders to attend to the dungeons and knowing full well what Uther had ordered for Merlin he had followed the knight as quickly as he could. Leon stopped outside the entrance, turning as he held an arm to indicate inside the cell and although initially obscured by the moving bars as he passed, Gaius' view was clear as he stepped just inside the doorway.
Gaius was still clueless as to what had occurred out in the woods. Merlin appeared to have little recollection but considering the distraction caused by Arthur's indisposed nature, the boy had been wholly unresponsive, holding a continuous vigil in the Prince's chambers. Once, the physician had walked in to find his ward curled in the corner having fallen asleep against the wall and slipped down to the unforgiving stone floor.
Whatever it was that had happened out there, it was obvious that it would be enough to leave both of the young men changed, although he couldn't say for sure whether it would end up being for the better or not. That was, at least, until his aged eyes took in the scene of the boys in Merlin's cell.
Both of them were towards the back of the room. Merlin was sat with his legs spread out before him his left arm still loosely bound to his side while his right was raised, his hand cradling the back of his head. The boy's face was lowered so no one would see the quiet sobs that were amplified in the otherwise silent cell. Arthur was knelt on the floor beside him, his left arm around Merlin's back, holding him forward and away from the wall behind him, while the fingers on his right hand were placed firmly on the boy's chest to hold him back from curling in on himself.
Merlin was almost leaning into the Prince's chest, seemingly comforted by the half-embrace while quiet reassurances were falling from Arthur's lips as he tried to soothe the young man in his arms.
Gaius watched in silence, not wishing to disturb the scene before him. The boys were known throughout the castle for their constant bickering, joyful banter and unyielding loyalty towards each other, yet there was something new within this outright display of friendship between the two of them.
There was no denying that whatever it was that had happened out there had only served to bring the boys closer together.
Merlin mumbled something about not having been crying but it was lost in the pillow he'd buried his face into and Arthur smiled to see his manservant back in his own room, where he belonged.
He pulled the small wooden door closed as he left and hobbled down the small stairway that led back down into Gaius' chamber to be greeted by the beaming physician. Leaning against the archway he hoped the old man wouldn't notice how close to collapse he probably appeared.
Gaius stepped forward offering an arm to the Prince who took it gratefully and slowly made his way across the room towards the door behind which Leon was waiting to return him to his chambers.
"You're very good to him, Arthur."
The blond seemed about to protest, his mouth opened to argue the point but snapped shut again with a sigh and a slight shake of his head, Arthur realised that any argument he might have would only end up being glared out of him by the physician.
"Someone needs to look after him."
Gaius couldn't help but agree. No one really ever noticed Merlin, since all servants were supposed to be invisible. Only ever noticed when they weren't there doing what they were supposed to and easily replaced should they fail to make the grade. Barely anyone other than the two men who were steadily making their way to the door even gave the boy a second thought. Then there was the foolish boy himself. The great many things that boy had given up, all that he had risked to help other people and never once thinking to spare a thought for himself. It was bound to become his undoing some day.
"Merlin has the rest of the week off." With a self-satisfied smile that wasn't arrogant or smug but rather carried a gentle contentment that Prince didn't think he had truly felt in years, Arthur stepped towards the door, carefully opening and trying not to topple himself over. "Beyond that he is not to enter my chambers until you deem him fit to return to service."
Still smiling, Gaius folded his hands and bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Sire."
The Prince was about to step through the door when Gaius spoke again.
"If I might ask, sire." As the young man turned, his smile had slipped and he seemed slightly guarded. "What happened out there?"
It was in that moment as all the memories, the thoughts, the fears, the pains that Arthur had seen passed before his eyes that the Prince that he would never tell anyone, not even Merlin what had happened. It was beyond their comprehension. To some extent it was beyond even his own comprehension, but he couldn't dare to hope they would understand.
"Make sure he rests, Gaius." The smile that had all but fallen away, grew back once again as he absent-mindedly patted the side of the door. "I'll be back this evening to check on him."
Then before Gaius could pull forth any more questions, he placed a hand on the shoulder of the waiting knight who immediately reached to support him back to his own chambers.
They could never know.