sarj2490: I know this one took longer than usual—I wasn't completely satisfied with it, so I spent a lot of time tweaking it. I'm still not 100% happy, but I'm at least pleased enough to post it.
Desiree1717: I couldn't leave it here. :) It needed an epilogue.
Takebuo Ishimatsu: Thanks very much! I don't think you could give me a better compliment. :)
fairy goatmother: *hands you a tissue* Sorry! I had no intention of making you cry!
aigneadh: They've certainly got some stuff to work out. If I was going to let Balinor die, though, I felt like I had to cut the poor guy some kind of break. I was pretty mean to him in this. I really do like Balinor! Promise!
bookaddict27: I adored that bit about the wooden dragon in the actual episode. It's one of my favorite things in the whole show, so it naturally just had to make it into this fic. :)
Alaia Skyhawk: The part with the wooden dragon in the actual episode made me tear up too.
sesshouluver: Arthur will never admit that he cares. He just won't. But we know. ;)
mrlnfan: As always, I very much appreciate getting feedback. I do have to respectfully say, though, that I think a lot of your critiques are based on the idea that everything Arthur did was just so he could keep Merlin with him. If that were the case, I'd agree with you—that would be entirely implausible. However, Arthur was trying to save Merlin's life—not just keep him around because he liked his company. If Balinor had lived, Arthur was convinced Merlin would die. I also have to disagree about everything going back to normal: they've got a long road to making things right. Thanks for taking the time to review, though. Even if I disagree with you on some stuff, I do really appreciate it!
yarra: It wouldn't be an easy thing to live with—I certainly agree.
Rilain: Since Merlin just kind of is magic, I always wondered how much was instinctual. Like, when he was a baby, what did he do?
Laughy-Taffy the Grape: Maybe not quite to his senses yet, but they're working on it.
finn1013: The last and final!
"You haven't used it. The block on my magic. Not since..."
After two nights in the pouring rain—a four day hunting trip is always a lovely idea unless, of course, the two days of the return journey are terrible weather—most people would have ranked sleep as a high priority. Not Merlin, though. Never Merlin. He'd rather talk, and, apparently, he'd oh-so-conveniently like to do so just as sleep had almost looked nearly attainable.
Arthur just sighs.
"Has your brain recently become more addled than it already was, Merlin?" he asks with no real bite. "Go to sleep."
A few inches away, Merlin shifts a little where he's lying, and it's not long—a few moments at most—before Arthur feels an extremely insolent kick to his side. Well, not a kick, really. Perhaps just a poke. The point is, however, that Merlin possesses the audacity to kick his crown prince.
Arthur sighs again. It probably isn't a good sign that this sort of insubordination feels altogether normal.
"Do that again, Merlin, and you won't have limbs capable of functioning well enough for a third attempt."
There's more shuffling from beside him, and, for the love of—was that a soft snort he just heard? Did Merlin just snort at his threat? He has half a mind to turn over and give him a good smack on the head with a pillow, straight to the face, but-
"Part of me hated you at first, I think."
Well. Right. That's no to the pillow, then.
Sleep? It's not happening in the next century. Those words have him irrevocably awake, disturbingly in the same sense that he always is right before battle: nerves alive, every part of him hypersensitive. He'd known this was coming… eventually. Just not now. How could he ever have known it would be now, at a camp for the night, in a completely innocuous situation?
Probably he should have. This is Merlin.
"What are you on about?" he asks, staring up at the dark sky and wishing that he really didn't know the answer.
Merlin may believe he truly doesn't know; he may not. Either way, he at least chooses to elaborate: "For stopping me from saving my father."
Gaius had warned him that this would happen eventually. He'd given Arthur suggestions on how to handle it. Don't push him. The thing is, though, Merlin had seemed so normal. After Balinor died, he'd been back at Arthur's side after just a few days, and even if he hadn't been his irritatingly upbeat self right away—not for longer than Arthur cares to think about, actually—nothing about the way he acted suggested that he merited the kind of worry Gaius seemed to have for him.
Not at first. Then there had been the first time he flinched away from Arthur—just at a playful bump to the shoulder. Later, the moment he'd paled when he'd smelled smoke. Also, that instance when Arthur had asked him to do something with his magic, and Merlin had snapped at him, asking why he didn't just order it.
Tucking his hands up behind his head, sinking them into his bedroll, Arthur just waits now. Yes, he'd known this was coming, even if it had taken him some time to see the reality of it: Merlin is as loyal to him as he's ever been, but whether or not he understands why Arthur did what he did, up until now, he's still been reeling from it, trying to find ways to cope and make sense of it all. Gaius had seen it right away, but, Arthur thinks, clenching his fingers into his hair, he himself had taken a little longer.
Merlin had taken longest of all.
And now they're going to have this conversation. It's a little like that time he faced down the Questing Beast, honestly... and at least then he'd been able to theoretically stick that with a spear.
"I hated you for getting to decide," Merlin continues evenly. "I didn't hate you for what you decided—just that you got to, when it was my life—and my father's—being decided upon. I wanted to choose."
Logical. Still, Arthur squeezes his eyes shut. He can't shut out the world, but he'd certainly like to try. Merlin—he shouldn't have had to hurt like this. And that decision Merlin wanted? It's nothing wonderful, and if there is one thing Arthur doesn't regret about the situation, it's that he made the call—that Merlin is not the one who knows he could have saved Balinor.
At least he got to be helpless. Arthur—he let a man burn. It was what Balinor wanted him to do. No one saw any other way out of the situation… and, yet, he still made the decision. That can't be changed.
He can't help but be thankful that Merlin isn't the one who has to live with that.
"I never blamed you for his death. I just blamed you for not letting me stop it."
"That sounds a bit like the same thing, Merlin." His voice is steady. Good. His chest, though? It feels about like his horse is sitting on it.
There's another poke to his side, and as sharp and bony as it feels, Arthur doesn't even consider reprimanding Merlin for it. "It's not. I promise that it's not," Merlin murmurs.
Maybe it isn't. It's sort of like the difference between being the one to order an execution and being the bystanders who do nothing—who stop others, usually grieving family members, from doing anything. He's seen that. He can understand that. Is that what Merlin means?
"Do you still hate me?"
"No. But I sometimes still hate what you did."
He will never admit how much that makes his chest clench, his heart curling up like it's trying to hide, and no amount of rubbing will ease that tightness. But stopping Merlin from saying things like that—it's not an option. They'll never get anywhere if they're not honest. Damn it all, though, are they going to wear the scars of this for the rest of their lives?
"It's not like it sounds, Arthur."
He forces himself to unclench his hands. How in the world can that be other than how it sounds?
"You always resent something about a person," Merlin says quietly, voice soft and about as non-threatening as Arthur has ever heard it. This time, Merlin hasn't moved his foot away. Though, he's not prodding Arthur with it, but rather just letting it rest against Arthur's knee. I'm not pulling away he's saying silently, and it's enough to suddenly make Arthur very glad that they decided to come on a hunting trip that requires this sort of camping. "That's just part of any relationship. If everyone were perfect, they wouldn't be real. I might resent something you've done, but the reasons for why you did it, how you handled the aftermath—I admire you for those things. If there were never anything to resent, there'd never be anything to admire."
His throat feels dangerously tight. "Merlin—"
"I don't want to serve a perfect king. I want to serve a king who's real. No one wants to hear stories about a perfect hero, because there is nothing admirable in simply being perfect with no effort. They want someone who's flawed, who makes mistakes, but who fights against those things, because it makes the people hearing the story believe that maybe they can too. And, Arthur, sometimes I do hate that you forced me to let my father burn… but I always understand why you did it, and I'm loyal to you because you're an arrogant prat with a good heart who does his best, and who will die for what he believes is right if it comes to that. You're not perfect—you're anything but—but I believe that, even if you fail, there's something about you that will make other men want to be better… and that's the sort of thing that makes a great leader. The kind of leader you find in legends."
Somewhere along the line, Arthur's fingers have gone numb from how hard he's been pushing them into the ground. He has to hold on, though. Just has to. "I'm hardly a legend, Merlin," he replies with a shaky laugh.
Merlin bumps his knee into Arthur's again, imbuing the gesture with a backwards kind of affection that Arthur just closes his eyes against: how did they get this far? "Maybe not yet. But when you are? I'll make sure they all know what a prat you are."
The choked laugh that spills out of Arthur's mouth somehow rushes all the air in his lungs out with it, and when he draws in a new breath, it comes easier. And then he's just laughing, rolling over and tackling Merlin, laughing, laughing, laughing while Merlin laughs too. He's too skinny under Arthur's hands, and he's as easy to toss around as ever, but at least this feels right. Fabric strains and Merlin protests—normal—and, more importantly, Merlin isn't flinching away. He's not remembering the last fight they had. It's something, at least. A start.
"You are," he says finally, breaking off once he's got Merlin pinned and has sufficiently mussed his hair until Merlin is begging to be let go, "undoubtedly the worst manservant I've ever had."
"Sack me, then," Merlin snarks, rolling back over onto his own bed, voice still breathless with laughter.
His smile is wide enough that it's nearly painful. That—it should feel so good. But it does. It really, truly does. "No. Every legend needs someone like you. Far be it from me to deprive the history books of a good laugh."
Shifting up onto his elbow, Arthur glances down at the shape on the bedroll next to him. He can just barely make out Merlin's face in the dying firelight, and from what he can tell, Merlin doesn't look hurt or even particularly upset. He just looks… peaceful, all relaxed brows and small smile that pushes the skin of his cheeks up just enough to make him look healthier than he has in weeks.
Finally, Merlin turns over to look at him, and while the smile fades, the lack of stress doesn't. "We okay?" he says quietly, blinking slowly. Strange how his eyes catch the dying firelight, trapping it and managing to make it seem almost tame.
"I don't know," he replies slowly, holding Merlin's gaze as best he can in the near dark. "You tell me."
And then Merlin just grins. "Yeah," he says, laughing a little, "I think we are."
They have to be, yeah? Destiny and all that, right? That stuff Merlin is always harping on about. Maybe, just this once, he could be right. Of course, Arthur would rather smother himself with the bedroll he's currently settling down on again rather than tell Merlin that.
"You're yawning," Merlin informs him, though it comes out half muffled by a pillow.
"Well, if someone would let me sleep—"
He has half a mind to smack him. Perhaps that pillow he was considering earlier? Or maybe he'll order him to the stocks when they get back. Tell Gaius everything Merlin's said here so that he can properly analyze it and drive Merlin up a wall with his worry. Something. He'll do something, once he wakes up, once they get back to Camelot, because Merlin is his incompetent servant, and they're both going to be all right, so they'll just do what they always do, and, yes, that will be all right.
Maybe not easy, but all right.
For now, that's enough.