A/N: Hey, guys. Long time no see, right? Um, so I want to apologize profusely for the lack of updates for the past few weeks. I blame two things: my crappy immune system and Sam and Dean Winchester. Yes, I have finally been sucked into Supernatural and have been watching episodes in all my spare time. I literally watched five seasons in just over a week. I've still got season 6 to go, but I don't have it right now, plus I REALLY need to get caught up on my stories. :) So once again, I'm sorry! But don't worry, not even the Winchester brothers will ever be able to take Merlin and Arthur's place in my heart. :D And, uh, final chapter here… So, here's hoping you guys haven't left me yet… please review and most importantly: ENJOY. ;)
The Visiting Prince
Chapter Seventeen: Banished
The next time Merlin woke up, he knew before he even opened his eyes that he wasn't alone. He could sense another presence in the room, but whether it was due to his powers or the tingling feeling of someone's eyes on him, he didn't know. He felt his gut roll in anticipation. Obviously, someone had found him passed out in the courtyard and had brought him here – wherever here was. The last time he had struggled his way to semi-consciousness, he hadn't been aware enough to try to figure out where he was. Now, though, he was feeling substantially better – he was still in pain and there was a biting, aching hunger in his stomach, but both feelings were muted considerably.
Before he attempted to actually open his eyes, Merlin let his other senses take over, careful not to let whoever else was in the room with him know he was awake. He could feel something soft but firm beneath him. He was lying on his side, he realized, and he was on a bed – the softest bed he had ever slept on. He felt like he was lying on a cloud. Under his head was a soft, feathery pillow and he could feel soft sheets caressing his aching body and the weight of a heavier blanket covering him up.
He could smell something that took him a while to place; it was a musty but not necessarily unpleasant scent, one that he was well enough accustomed to by now. Disuse. It was the smell of something that had been put out of use, something that was locked away but still well cared for nonetheless. He could hear the sound of light breathing somewhere to his right side; he couldn't believe he hadn't noticed it before, or maybe he had and hadn't registered it, and that's why his subconscious knew someone was there.
And he could taste the coppery, sour taste of blood – not overwhelming or pungent, but it was still there, lurking in his mouth, along with another, much less pleasant taste that said he had been sick recently. He swallowed back bile at the thought, suddenly a strange mixture of relieved and apprehensive that he didn't remember anything or what was going on. Only that Edmund had moved on to Stage Three, a stage that Merlin hadn't been sure he would be able to survive without revealing his magic and turning Edmund into something quite unpleasant.
But now, it seemed, his senses were telling him that he was on the mend, somewhere out of the way but clean and safe, on a bed that felt like air. So whoever had found him, it couldn't be that terrible, could it? He couldn't answer that, terrified that this was all just another trick; Edmund making him feel secure so that when Merlin finally gathered the strength – heck, the courage – to open his eyes, his spirit would be crushed at seeing there really was no hope after all.
He lay there silently for several moments before letting out a weak sigh, alerting whoever was with him that he was awake. He heard a soft shuffling noise, the shifting of fabric and creak of wood, and then a voice – a voice that Merlin recognized even through the foreign emotions running through it. Even with the guilt, the worry, and the sadness, there was no mistaking Arthur's voice – and it had the tiniest of a tremble to it. Merlin wondered disjointedly what had happened to make Arthur sound so unsure of himself as he said Merlin's name.
Merlin cracked his eyes opened, hissing at the dim but painful light that filtered through his eyelids. He heard Arthur's anxious intake of breath and resisted the urge to just close his eyes and melt back into oblivion again. Besides, his curiosity had been peaked. He wanted to know where he was, what had happened to him, where Edmund had gone, and why Arthur was watching over him when he had blatantly stated that Merlin was not his problem.
So with a groan, Merlin opened his cerulean eyes all the way, ignoring the pain the flickering candlelight inflicted on his head. His eyes moved lethargically around until his vision came into focus and he nearly jumped and fell out of the bed when he saw another face looming over his, light blue eyes filled with poorly masked concern. "Arthur, what the hell—!" Merlin yelped weakly as his master leaned back, smirking, and crossed his arms over his broad chest.
"I see you finally decided to rejoin the land of the living," Arthur said prattishly, except his tone wasn't nearly as obnoxious as his words.
Merlin blinked owlishly and tried to push himself into a sitting position, pleased to find that while he was still very weak, it didn't feel like every bone in his body was broken at the effort, either. Arthur jumped in instantly to help Merlin sit, propping him against several pillows. Merlin eyed the prince warily, not sure he trusted this new, caring Arthur. Then he thought about the hell of the past week as Edmund's servant and decided he'd take anything – even freakishly nice Arthur – over what had been. He didn't know where Edmund was but he couldn't find the courage to hope that this all might be over.
This was why instead of asking the question that burned at the forefront of his mind – "Is Prince Stuffy Stafford gone?" – he chose another query, potentially less dangerous. "What happened?"
Arthur eyed his servant critically, the look on his face softer than Merlin was used to – almost like the expression he adopted when he was watching Guinevere, but thankfully much less sappy – and he said, "What's the last thing you remember?"
Merlin thought back, cringing at the mental images that sprung forth as a result of Arthur's question. Hunger, pain from multiple lacerations and bruises, the sound of flesh striking flesh, the smell and taste of his own blood in his nose and mouth... Coming to the realization that he simply wasn't strong enough to go on like this on his own, at least without his magic, knowing that he couldn't use his magic, and taking the only avenue he could think of – going to the Great Dragon for help. Although what Kilgharrah could've done, really, besides swoop down and gulp the self-righteous, abusive bastard up, Merlin wasn't sure. He didn't know what he'd been thinking, going to a dragon for help against the Prince of bloody Stafford, but he hadn't been in his right mind. He had just needed help and he hadn't wanted to get Gaius or Gwaine or Gwen or, heck, even Arthur in trouble, even if the prince had abandoned him.
Which brought Merlin back around full circle as he once again found himself trying to figure out why Arthur was here with him, obviously so worried and taking care of him, when he had made it abundantly clear that he didn't give a second thought to his servant. Instead of answering Arthur's question, Merlin licked his dry lips hesitantly and managed, "Why are you—?"
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was tinged with impatience but seemed to be filled with more exasperated affection. "Shut up; I'm asking the questions here." Merlin noticed that Arthur kept his voice low and whispered but didn't comment.
"Um… I remember… Stuff—um, I mean, Prince Edmund. He was…" Merlin trailed off, fighting back a shudder of dread that threatened to rack his too-thin frame. He'd lost way too much weight since he'd been handed over to Edmund. "Well, he was angry. And he…" He brought his right hand up to his swollen face and neck, bile itching at the back of his throat as he remembered Edmund beating him mercilessly with his fists. He noticed thick, crusted welts around his wrists and his mind was whisked away, back into the closet where Edmund had left him, tied and gagged, after doing a number on him.
Arthur made a disgusted noise at the back of his throat and cut Merlin off with a wave of his hand. "Yeah, I get it," he said, the anger radiating off of his skin.
Neither man said anything and an awkward, though not entirely uncomfortable, silence fell into place for several minutes.
Then – "Where are we?"
Arthur's eyes were clouded. "Morgana's old chambers."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat. "Wh-what? But they're – the king – we'll—"
"Relax, idiot," Arthur ordered tersely, his tone booking no room for argument. "No one knows we're here and they won't unless you get all worked up and start making noise."
Arthur snorted. "Because people might get suspicious if they hear your idiotic blathers coming from a room that's supposed to be empty!"
Merlin stared at his master blankly. "That's not—"
"I know," Arthur acquiesced. "Idiot."
Fifteen minutes later, Merlin was fairly well caught up on just about everything that had happened since his unfortunate – or maybe, considering where he was right now and how there was no Prince Edmund in sight, not so unfortunate – collapse in the courtyard.
Arthur had been the one to find him, sprawled out unconscious on the ground. Arthur's voice had choked a bit here but both he and Merlin pretended that it didn't. Maybe on another occasion, Merlin would call him out on it, but after everything that had happened and the guilt-ridden expression on Arthur's face, Merlin found that he couldn't bring himself to do it. No one had been around, so Arthur had scooped Merlin up – "I had to carry your bloody dead weight all through the castle like you were my bloody bride!" Arthur had griped, but his eyes had been distant and Merlin found himself wondering how light he really had been – and taken him to the only place he knew would be safe from all prying eyes, because no one in their right minds would go into Morgana's old chambers. Merlin had asked what that said about Arthur, but the prince had called him an idiot and told him to shut up and Merlin, wanting to know the rest of the story, had complied.
No one, Arthur told him conspiratorially, not even Gaius, knew Merlin was here. Merlin protested, insisting that Gaius would be worried sick and that Arthur should go tell him now. Arthur had pointed out that the more people, even trusted people, that knew, the bigger chance there would be that Edmund would find out. And as much as Merlin hated leaving Gaius out of the loop, Merlin couldn't argue with Arthur's logic.
Arthur had gathered what supplies and food he could without being conspicuous and made sure the corridors around Morgana's room were cleared before he went to tend to Merlin, always locking the door behind him. Merlin had been surprised to learn that Arthur had been taking care of him by himself and although he'd done a rather terrible job of correctly wrapping and bandaging Merlin's injuries, the servant was touched.
Now, as Merlin shifted painfully on the bed, he turned his blue eyes to Arthur's face pleadingly. "How long do I have to stay here?" He was nervous about being illegally in his once-friend-now-enemy's chambers and wanted to get back to Gaius and to his old life as soon as possible.
Arthur smiled. "Our visiting prince's last days in Camelot are approaching swiftly. And I daresay that when he is gone, Father will have no problem re-assigning you to your old master."
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief. "Never thought I'd be so happy to serve a prat like you," he grinned.
Arthur laughed, but then grew serious. "Merlin, I'm –" He broke off, grimacing, before sucking up his pride for once and pushing on, "I'm sorry."
Merlin's eyes widened. "I'm sorry? What was that?"
"I'm not repeating myself. Idiot."
"You keep using that word," Merlin couldn't help but jibe. "But don't worry, it's okay. I won't judge you because of your limited vocabulary."
"Shut up, Merlin." A beat. "I mean it, Merlin. I was trying… trying, oh damn it all! I was trying to protect you, Merlin, and I ended up making things worse. I thought if I acted like I didn't care that I could get Edmund's attention away from you, but it didn't work. I only ended pushing you away and causing you more pain. I—"
Merlin was more than a little overwhelmed at what was a sincere, albeit nervous and rushed, apology from Arthur, and he finally cut the prince off, never having been one to care much about propriety. But then, that's what had set this whole thing off, hadn't it? "Arthur, you don't have to apologize," Merlin said, his heart lighter than it had been in ages. "If I hadn't been so focused on myself, I would've realized that you and the knights were just steering clear because you were trying to protect me."
"I swear, Merlin, I'm never letting you serve another noble besides me again, priorities or not! Merlin, you almost died because I couldn't, because I didn't, and Edmund is a sick son of a-"
"Trust me, I know," Merlin agreed, deciding not to make Arthur suffer from his inability to talk about his feelings any longer. "But what's done is done, right? When Edmund finally leaves—"
He was interrupted as there was a knock at the door. Both men froze, Merlin shooting Arthur a near-panicked look. But Arthur simply winked and held a finger over his lips, signaling for Merlin to be silent. Merlin raised his eyebrows but did as he was told. The pounding on the door got louder, the handle rattling frantically. Merlin looked at Arthur anxiously but when he saw that Arthur hadn't so much as twitched, the calm, almost smug look on his face, still there, he fell quiet and still, trusting Arthur to know what he was doing.
There was a crunching sound and Merlin jumped, causing his bruised ribs to jolt painfully, but his whimper of pain was hushed by Arthur's firm but not painful hand covering his mouth. Arthur glared, warning the servant to be quiet. The door shook again as someone kicked it with all their might. Merlin knew who was there, the only person angry – and stupid – enough to charge at a forbidden door with such rage. Merlin's heart pounded and Arthur slowly removed his hand. One more shudder and then – "Oy! Whaddya think you're doing?" The voice was oddly familiar but Merlin's muddled brain couldn't place it at the moment.
"My property, a runaway, is in there!" Edmund's grating voice screeched from the other side of the door and Merlin found himself retreating into his mind, the only thing keeping him rooted to reality the man sitting in a chair beside the bed, a strong hand on Merlin's trembling shoulder.
"That's the Lady Morgana's chambers! No one is to go near her rooms unless—"
"I swear, I'll kill you if you don't get out of my way—" Edmund was definitely beyond reason now, so angry at being outwitted that he wasn't thinking straight.
Another voice joined the mix, this one cold and almost shaking with anger. "You dare to try and enter a room that has been forbidden; my Morgana's chambers? And to threaten one of my personal guards? You have betrayed my trust, Prince Edmund. You should be happy that I have just signed the peace treaty, or I would challenge you myself. As it is, I want you out of my kingdom now, and if you ever try to invade my Morgana's space again, you will regret it."
"—Is in agreement," the visiting king's voice chipped in. "King Uther gave you free run of the castle; the only room he banned was this one, and for reasons that you know are personal. He is the king of Camelot and your authority here, and you've embarrassed yourself, me, and your kingdom!"
The voices faded away as they began to leave, but Uther's voice rang out one last time. "You, guard, check and make sure the room is empty." The footsteps receded.
Merlin, reeling from what he had just heard, felt his heart pound frantically as a key was inserted into the lock and the door swung open to reveal a guard standing in the doorway. The man pulled off his helmet, revealing long, fluffy brown hair, and Merlin gaped as Gwaine winked at him and then Arthur. "Bloody brilliant idea, leading Stuff-It to the room and getting him busted for invading Uther's beloved room," he grinned. "And planting me as the 'guard' who sends for Uther? Smart as hell."
Merlin gaped at Arthur. "So Gwaine was in on this whole thing? And you came up with all that?" he asked the prince.
Gwaine snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. I did. That's why it's so bloody brilliant." He winked at Merlin, the simple gesture conveying his apologies for treating Merlin like he didn't care and the relief that he was alright. He turned on his heel and left, closing and locking the door behind him, off to tell Uther that the room hadn't been touched and to confirm that Edmund had just been encroaching on Uther's sacred property and had no legitimate reason for doing so.
"I told you it was his last day here," Arthur said, smiling.
"Thanks," Merlin breathed.
"Let's just get you out of here while my father's distracted," Arthur said gruffly, turning away before peeking out to check the hallway, finding it clear like he knew it would be.
"Come on, Idiot, let's get you to Gaius."
Merlin grinned as Arthur helped him up and out of the bed, watching with an idiotic grin on his face as the prince struggled to make the bed back – something he was terrible at – and finally allowing Merlin, although weakened and hurting, to smooth out the covers like only a servant could.
"Hey Arthur," said Merlin after they were safely away from Morgana's chambers, Edmund, and Uther, on their way to the physician's chamber.
"What?" Arthur snapped a bit irritably but resigned to his fate, having known that Merlin's exhaustion-induced silence wouldn't last for long at all.
Merlin chuckled, wincing and for once looking forward to one of Gaius's terrible painkilling potions. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you have a really terrible taste in friends."
Arthur's face was etched in guilt for a moment before he took notice of the light tone in Merlin's voice. "Yeah, well," he replied in his prattiest voice, "maybe so." He then glanced at the thin servant he was supporting, the man that had gotten injured and hurt for him, taking it all without comment so that Arthur and Camelot would be safe. He knew who his real friend was, and wasn't going to make a mistake like this again. "But, hey, what does that say about you, then, eh?"
And through the pain and stress of the past few weeks, Merlin simply smiled.
Because Arthur – stubborn, obnoxious, pratty, condescending, patronizing, overbearing Prince Arthur – had just overcome his pride and admitted that Merlin was his friend.
Prince Edmund may have been a lost cause, Merlin realized, but with rising spirits, he decided that there was much more hope for Arthur, after all.
A/N: Ahh! Totally can't believe it's over! I didn't actually plan on ending it this chapter, but the story just kind of flowed. ;) As for Merlin, I felt like he didn't get to use his magic enough to defend himself in the story (but for good reason), but I want him to get his own chance at retribution using his powers… hee hee… so be looking for, in the near future, a one-shot Merlin fic called something along the lines of "Retribution" … because there Merlin shall take his revenge!
Thank you all SO much for your continued support and reviews! You don't know how incredible you are! :) Please review one last time and give me your thoughts!