We got to hold on to what we've got, it doesn't make a difference if we make it or not. We got each other, and that's a lot for love. We'll give it a shot. Bon Jovi

.***.

Merlin stood off to the side as he watched the sparring. Arthur liked to end each week thus, by fighting anyone who wanted to informally, on the playing field. Anyone who had the time would wander by and watch, for their Prince at top form was truly a wonder to behold as he swung and pierced, driving away the oncoming foes.

Merlin clenched his fists every time Matthias got too near to Arthur. If he saw even the slightest hint that the other man would make good on all his threats and lunge at the Prince, he would have used magic, and to hell with the consequences. As long at Arthur was safe, Merlin thought he would be able to bear anything.

What was it he'd once said? I'll be happy to serve you until the day I die. And he'd meant those words with every fiber of his being. His destiny was to stand on the sidelines so that he could help form one with a greater destiny. And did that not make him great, too?

The hard clang of metal on metal still made Merlin cringe even after all this time. He forced himself to keep watching as Matthias and Arthur circled each other, one blow following another. At one point Arthur stumbled over a defeated opponent's broken shield. Anyone else, anyone who was truly only sparring for the fun of the game, would have paused and let the Prince regain his footing.

Matthias seized the opportunity and, in a move so fast even Merlin couldn't follow it, pinned Arthur to the ground. Then the dark-haired knight took off his helm and crowed, "Oh! I've bested you now, my old friend!"

"Only on the basis of luck," Arthur harrumphed genially from his position under Matthias's boot. "Help me up, would you?"

But Matthias didn't, not right away. He kept his boot on Arthur's chest, his sword on Arthur's throat. He smiled, that odd smile that Merlin knew so well, the one that was off somehow, as if a non-human was trying to approximate the expression and had gotten it nearly right.

The tip of the sword cut along Arthur's throat, leaving a thin trail of blood…

Leon stepped forward, and there was a slither of blades as the other knights took their swords halfway from their sheaths…

And Merlin watched, breathless, as the man he loved was like a helpless butterfly, pinned beneath a cruel giant. And he watched as Matthias looked up and their eyes locked. This was all for Merlin's benefit, of course. Another way of reminding him who had control in their relationship. Merlin may be the warlock, but Matthias had the power to take away all he held dear.

Before Leon could get more than a step out of the rank, Matthias sheathed his sword and held a hand out to Arthur. "Good fight. Old friend." Matthias said, hitting Arthur's shoulder.

And then, because Matthias was cruel, he yelled, "Merlin!" And what choice did Merlin have? He saw how betrayed Arthur looked as he trotted at the call of another man, but he had to. He had to. He was doing this for Arthur. He was doing this to spare his friend – his love.

Leon patted Arthur on the shoulder as Matthias walked away, Merlin trailing along after him.

.***.

Arthur hadn't been able to find another servant. He just couldn't bear the thought that the situation would be that permanent. So he'd taken to dressing himself, fetching his own breakfast from the kitchens, putting away his own weapons.

He passed another one of the rooms where he knew some of the knights kept their shields and such when he heard the sniffling. Arthur was a far cry from the cruel man his father was. He'd often come across younger servants who'd been teased by older ones, or had been punished by the sometimes harsh disciplinarians of the older servants. Once he'd even carried a ten-year-old to Gaius because he'd been set upon by a group of visiting knights.

So though he had about a thousand other things he could be doing, he went into the room fully expecting to find some six- or seven-year-old curled up in the corner, nursing a bruise. Already he was reaching inside his jacket for the apple he knew he'd put there this morning. It's amazing what some food could do.

But, "Merlin?" He asked, forgetting for the moment that he and Merlin were fighting, that Merlin had betrayed him. It was as if the week hadn't happened, and he'd come across his servant curled in a ball on the floor. His servant. His Merlin, who should never be hurt.

"Arthur!" Merlin wiped his eyes with his sleeve and scrambled to his feet. "I'm sorry!" He made to squeeze past the Prince and out into the corridor, but Arthur caught his arm. Merlin screamed, and that changed everything.

"What's wrong?" And though he meant to sound annoyed and angry, he only sounded worried when he reached for Merlin's arm and gently, so gently peeled back the cloth.

"Is this why you were crying?" Arthur asked, trying to modulate his voice so the disgust he felt at the sight of the torn and bruised flesh didn't scare the servant.

Merlin was about to say that he wasn't crying, but what was the point? "Matthias isn't leaving. He just told me."

"Ah." Arthur backed up, rubbing the back of his neck. He was torn between bandaging Merlin's wounds for the sake of an old friendship and stalking out for the sake of his pride and hurt feelings. "And that makes you…unhappy?"

Merlin snorted, and for a second looked so like the boy who used to tease him that Arthur felt that old pang in his chest, the one that went beyond friendship and into true love. "Nothing gets passed you, sire."

"But I thought…"

Merlin looked away, rolling his sleeve back down to cover the mangled flesh. "It's not the first time you've misinterpreted something right in front of your eyes."

"Merlin…" Arthur murmured, reaching out to him. He pulled up the servant's shirt, examined the bruises and cuts there, tried to hold back the anger. "Why are you staying with him?"

"Why haven't you thrown him out, even though you knew that this was happening to me?" Merlin demanded, equally angry. "I'm a servant! I can't go around making accusations against nobles. You're a Prince. You actually have power." So do something. Help me.

Merlin didn't say that last part, but he didn't have to. Arthur stared at the wall with a mulish expression, one that Merlin was used to looking at whenever Arthur turned over a particularly difficult problem. "I can't just kick him out. There are laws of hospitality, you know. He's a guest at Camelot."

This revelation made Merlin hang his head. He didn't know how he could endure another night with Matthias. Already it was difficult to walk, and Matthias had been getting more violent these last few nights, beating and hitting him as often as anything else.

Arthur had never in his life seen such abject despair, and yearned to reach out to Merlin. He stayed his hand, though, and drew back stiffly. "Will you be able to get back to the castle?"

"Yes, sire." The sire, and the fact that Merlin wouldn't look at him, made Arthur feel off-balance.

"Go to my chamber. Do not open the door to anyone but me. With any luck I can have Matthias gone within the hour."

Arthur had been willing to overlook some of the harsher things Matthias had done to him as a child. It had been years ago, and people change. Even when he first entered the kingdom, when he noticed some of the old tendencies when Matthias had spoken harshly to the young boy who'd cared for his horse, reducing the lad to tears.

But when it was against Merlin, all bets were off. When Merlin came to him for help, showing those bruises (and Arthur felt a deep disgust rise in him at the memory of the skin, almost completely stripped away) and crying. Crying! Merlin didn't cry. He wasn't good with a sword and he tripped over his own feet, but he was neither a coward nor soft. He didn't cry.

And so as Merlin left Arthur knew that he had to get rid of Matthias, and quickly, lest Merlin be lost to him forever.

.***.

Provoking Matthias wouldn't be the hard part. The hard part was making sure the king would come by at the right moment to banish the other noble. For that job, Arthur sent Percy, the knight who'd told him about Matthias and Merlin in the first place.

"I need you to lead the king down to the courtyard in five minutes. Got it? Tell him anything. Anything. Just make sure he goes."

Percy, who had an inkling this might be about Merlin, who he saw slip into Arthur's chambers not ten minutes before, only nodded, already trying to figure out how a knight of little consequence might get a king to follow him. He ran up the stairs to the castle even as Arthur let out a deep breath and turned to face Matthias, who had regaling some of the younger knights with tales of battles Arthur very much doubted he'd won.

"Matthias!" Arthur called, trying to sound as if he didn't despise the man with his entire being (and why the sudden change? Because of Merlin? Because he'd seen the marks on Merlin's body? Was it so easy to manipulate Arthur's emotions? Apparently so, because the more Arthur thought about it the madder he became. No one hurt his Merlin. No one.) "A word?"

Matthias extracted himself from the group and loped over to Arthur, his easy grace coming across in his loping stride and arrogant expression. Arthur found it hard indeed to swallow the bile that was rising in his throat.

Out of respect for an old friendship, he decided that he would give Matthias a chance. One chance. "I need you to leave Camelot." He said quietly, so as not to cause a scene.

Matthias's eyes flashed, angry and red. "And why this sudden change of heart?"

"I cannot have anyone who abuses their power inside of these walls." Arthur said, struggling to keep his voice calm and even, remembering how all his tutors growing up had reminded him over and over to reign in his temper.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Matthias said, turning to go. Arthur caught his arm, squeezing it hard enough to bruise. He hoped it would bruise, anyway.

"Merlin."

"Is a servant, and so is probably a liar." Matthias turned to go again but now Arthur couldn't do it. His famous temper came to the fore and he lashed out, pinning Matthias against the wall.

"Temper, temper," Matthias clucked even as his head bounced off the cold stone. "What would our tutor say, old friend?"

"I am not your friend. I never was."

"Ah. I remember the first time you denounced me," Matthias said, his words calm and soothing. That was how he operated, after all. So charismatic, so charming you didn't want to believe that he could be capable of the crimes he was constantly accused of. "After that hot day when we swam in the stream together. But you liked swallowing my hot -"

Arthur bellowed and slammed him against the wall again. Now the young knights were standing up, uncertain. "You're a bully and a coward!" He hissed through his teeth.

"And are you really any different? I've seen you look at the servant Merlin as well. Do you not wish you could be the man I am, and order him to your bed?" Matthias grinned, the smile distorting his otherwise perfect face into something ugly. "You are no better than me."

"You're a monster." Arthur spat, remembering the bruises, the cuts, the lines from a whip or a belt, the tears that poured thick and fast down Merlin's face. "And if you don't want the whole kingdom knowing who you are you will leave now."

"I think I'll stay," Matthias said silkily, "I haven't finished with the serving boy yet. You do know that I only chose him because I saw how your eyes follow him around the room?" Matthias reached up a hand and stroked Arthur's cheek, sending cold shivers down his spine. "I prefer blondes."

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur spotted his father looking supremely annoyed at being led down to the courtyard by a bumbling knight. So he did what he had to do. He choked Matthias until the other knight had no choice but to strike out.

And strike out he did. Arthur heard his father's bellow as he fell to the ground and the world went dark.

.***.

Night had fallen long before by the time Arthur got to his chambers. His head was still aching despite the remedy Gaius had concocted for him, but he was too happy with the outcome to really notice the pain. His father had banished Matthias from Camelot, with the promise of death should he ever come back into the kingdom.

Because, Arthur thought wryly as he climbed the steps to his chamber, a man may abuse a servant to within an inch of death, but God forbid anyone punch a Prince. Granted, it had been more than a punch. Matthias had hit him over the head with the pommel of his sword, which explained the large bump on Arthur's head.

He shouldered open the door and stopped short when he saw Merlin on his bed, running one hand back and forth over the covers. His heart leapt into his throat. This is what the whole debacle of an afternoon had been for. Arthur was literally speechless at the sight of his servant.

When he heard the door creak, Merlin looked up and smiled shyly. "I saw Matthias leave," the smile turned to a frown as Arthur walked into the light. "Are you hurt, sire?"

"Just a scratch. I wish I'd given Matthias more, but I was in a hurry." Arthur cocked an eyebrow. "I hope you cleaned your wounds."

Merlin shook his head. He'd been too worried about what a hot-headed, angry Arthur might do to attempt anything as delicate as cleaning the various cuts on his body. Arthur sighed and picked up the bowl of water that lay on the table, coming to sit next to Merlin on the bed.

"Thank you, sire." Merlin said quietly.

"Arthur, Merlin. Always Arthur." Arthur cleaned the cuts so delicately it made Merlin want to cry. The Prince was treating him as if he were a precious thing made of glass.

"Arthur," Merlin said, swallowing, because he earned Arthur some explanation, "I never wanted to…but he was threatening to hurt you…"

"He did the same just now." Arthur growled, deliberately avoiding Merlin's gaze even as he washed a cut on the younger boy's forehead, "Threatened you. It's his MO."

"I know you were hurt when you found us…it was a betrayal to you."

"I shouldn't have said what I did. I was angry."

"I should have tried to explain myself!"

"And I ignored you all week even though you were hurt!" Arthur finally locked eyes with Merlin and noticed he was smiling faintly. "What?"

"I think we're both trying to apologize for something that was just a lot of…jumping to conclusions." Merlin touched his newly bandaged side. "Thank you. Arthur."

Arthur could take it no more. Not the eyes, not the way the dark hair fell across the face, not the soft voice. He leaned forward and kissed Merlin. Desperately. Wanting to convey months of pent-up emotion into the action. Wanting to erase his past wrongs. Wanting to atone, to amend, to move forward. Wanting to love.

But when he pulled away Merlin looked so shocked, so…sad. And Arthur's brain jumped to another conclusion – Merlin had hated Matthias, and rightly so, the man was spiteful and cruel. But perhaps he also didn't like men, and thought that what Arthur had just done was unnatural. Perhaps he hated Arthur now, for the kiss, for daring to love another man.

Except when Merlin next lifted his eyes it wasn't anger or loathing Arthur saw in those orbs. It was uncertainty, and pain. "Arthur…please don't."

"I'm sorry if I scared you," Arthur said, grabbing Merlin's hand and clutching it desperately. "And I swear, I think I have it under control. You won't be bothered by my feelings again. I just couldn't bear it if you hated me."

"Hated you?" Merlin looked so puzzled that he ended up laughing. "Arthur, I just don't understand why you want me. I'm…" Merlin looked around, as if the right adjective would swoop out of the sky. "I'm a servant of little consequence. I'm…" he laughed a little, a hysterical giggle, "I'm clumsy, and frightfully thin, and now I'm damaged goods. Matthias -"

"You are no less of a man for what Matthias forced you to do," Arthur said gravely, "And I swear to you now on the soul of my mother that I will never do anything to harm you as he did. I could never hurt you."

"I can't help you," Merlin said, taking his hand away from Arthur's and hunching in on himself. "Why would you want me?"

"You're ridiculous, Merlin," Arthur said, exasperated. He took Merlin's fingers and kissed them one by one. "I love you. Okay? Is that what you needed to hear? I'm ridiculously, over-the-moon, completely and totally in love with you."

Merlin laughed, looking happy for the first time since Matthias had stepped foot in Camelot. "I love you too, Arthur. Completely."

Arthur kissed Merlin again, and though there was tension there (it would take months until Merlin would let Arthur touch his body, and a full year before they could lay in the same bed together. Strange, how fast and deep one person can would another…) Merlin reciprocated as best as he was able to. And then he felt Arthur's lips shake under his.

"What?" Merlin asked, smiling because Arthur was smiling.

"Gwen will be upset. She bet we'd get together on Tuesday."

Merlin smiled a little bit, eyes gleaming. "I think I can keep the secret for another few days if you can, sire."

"Say 'sire' again." Arthur demanded.

"Sire."

"Merlin," Arthur said, nearly groaning with pent-up desire.

They couldn't have kept their relationship a secret for another few hours. Not even if their lives depended on it.

.***.

the end.

sorry it took so long to put up this last chapter. it was going to stretch into two but...eh, we wanted them to get together. they deserve that much. thank you to everyone who reviewed. we hope you liked reading this as much as we liked writing it. these two are amazing together. and arthur does the right thing in the end, as he always does. that's the important thing, isn't it? what you do at the very end...