See Chapter 1 for warnings & info
Author's Notes: Our final chapter - a wedding, an expected tragedy, and a new beginning.
Arthur finally managed to snap himself out of the shock he was feeling. He glanced over the room and his eyes settled on Merlin. There would never be a better time to distract Julian and get his lover alone. Signalling one of the knights, the other man took his leave and darted toward Julian, who had just leaned in to converse with his slave.
"I had no idea," Julian said, clearly taken aback by Merlin's confession. "Hmm, that does explain why you're so fond of this place." He arched his brows. "I wonder why you never told me about this earlier?" Before the nobleman had a chance to delve further, he found himself distracted by a very comely knight.
With Julian's attention suitable drawn away, Arthur gestured for Merlin to join him.
Merlin's heart leapt, and he was at the man's side in a moment. Feeling a hand at his back, he glanced over to see that Morena had closed in on the other side of him, effectively shielding him from Julian's view if the man were to look around. He allowed himself to be led from the room without protest and didn't truly breathe a sigh of relief until they were free of the throne room. "He'll notice I'm gone soon enough." His thoughts were growing fuzzy again, and Merlin fought against the sensation as best he could. "He drugged me again, wants us to leave tonight..."
"You're not going anywhere," Morena answered at once. "Arthur, surely it's not outside the province of the crown prince to demand extra hands to help, especially with the king ill?"
Arthur felt a massive thrum of fear over the prospect of Merlin being snatched away from him again. Morena's words rang true, and the prince quickly found himself taking charge. Clearing his throat in order for everyone in the chapel-particularly Julian-to hear him, the prince proclaimed, "Merlin, you will aid Gaius for as long as it takes. Is that clear?" Julian glanced up, blanching at the arrogant pup's proclamation and knowing there was nothing he could do about it.
"Of course, Sire," Merlin answered just loud enough for the respectful tone to register with anyone who actually cared to listen. He looked up to see Julian glaring at them but knew that his best bet was to go forward as if he were simply doing as ordered. The young man offered his master a slight shrug of apology and then started down the hallway trailed by Arthur and Morena. As soon as they were out of sight, he breathed a sigh of relief. "Haven't the faintest where we're going."
"I suppose Arthur's chambers," Morena suggested as she glanced to her new husband for confirmation. "I had thought that we might have a small ceremony of our own... though perhaps the timing isn't the best now. Arthur, would you like to check on the king first?"
Arthur was torn, but quickly made a decision. "No, not now," he replied. "We might not have another chance like this." Hurrying his wife and his lover along the corridors and stairs, they arrived at the prince's chamber. Arthur had no idea how long Percival might be able to keep Julian distracted. Every second counted. Even with his royal command for Merlin to aid Gaius, the nobleman could very well disobey and leave the Kingdom with Merlin in tow. "Is there anything special we need for the ceremony?" he asked Morena once the three of them were safely inside the room.
"No. I thought something... simple." The royal wedding had been elaborate despite how short the notice had been before it happened. Everything was meant for the public. Between the three of them, Morena couldn't help but feel that something quieter and more intimate was appropriate. Reaching out, she took hold of each man's hand in turn. "I think we should say what we feel, state our commitment to one another. That's all." Morena began, her voice soft and gaze moving first from Arthur and then to Merlin as she spoke, "Life and love never happen as we expect them to, but I am blessed just the same. I have a child on the way, a kind husband who will help Albion grow into a land worthy of its place in the world, and a new friend who shares things I never expected to share with anyone. Whatever stands ahead of us, we can face it. This family will grow stronger, and our child," her dark eyes fell on Arthur at last, "will know love above all else."
If not for his father's sudden illness, this would have qualified as one of the happiest moments of Arthur Pendragon's life. His wife was with child, and she was filled with grace and unselfishness, allowing and accepting Merlin into their family without a second thought. "Yes, love above all else," he agreed softly. Arthur squeezed Merlin's hand, offering him support and encouragement. Julian would not be allowed to take his lover from the kingdom. No matter what it took, the prince determined to keep the sorcerer by his side always. "I vow to protect and serve you both," he continued, ticking his gaze between Morena and Merlin. "As well as our child." As far as he was concerned, the baby was as much Merlin's as it was his and his wife's.
"I wasn't sure I'd ever have my own family... apart from my mother, and... never like this," Merlin began haltingly. Knowing that might not sound complimentary, he soon added, "Never as perfect as this." There were tears in his eyes as he squeezed Arthur's hand and then Morena's. "I never thought I'd get this lucky." After Arthur left him in Robert's kingdom, Merlin had been sure that his chances for any kind of happiness had past. Instead here he was binding himself to the man that he'd fallen in love with despite how ridiculous they'd both been. "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that we're all safe and happy. All four of us," he added, dropping Morena's hand briefly to rub his fingers over her stomach with a smile.
The woman laughed and covering Merlin's hand with her own. "There. I honestly can't think of any better binding ceremony, can you?" Morena looked to Arthur and ventured, "We need to deal with Julian, but first... do you want to visit your father?"
Arthur's expression segued to one of happiness to solemnity. He felt a pang of guilt over forgetting about his father's predicament, even if he remained terribly hurt and angry over Uther's deplorable treatment of Merlin. "Yes, I suppose I should," he agreed, dropping his head with a sense of regret. "How do you intend to deal with Julian? If I had the authority, then I could simply demand he leave..." Arthur paused, and then focused his attention on Merlin. "...without you." Morena had been right about everything thus far. And the prince hoped she might have an idea of how tie up the final loose end.
Morena sighed and reached for her husband's hand. "Speak with Gaius, but if the king is ill... even if his illness is temporary... then you do have the authority, Arthur." She met his gaze and tried to convey the gravity of the fact without saying more. With Uther sick, Arthur would ascend to the throne. Sooner rather than later, Morena suspected that Gaius would realize the gravity of the king's condition.
Merlin felt his stomach twist with guilt. He hated hiding anything at all from Arthur after what they'd been through, but there wasn't a better way. There wasn't another way at all. If the three of them had any hope for happiness, Uther couldn't remain on the throne.
"Alright," Arthur agreed, drawing away from his wife and his lover. "I shall return the moment I know anything definite." He loathed the idea of leaving Merlin's side when had no guarantee of Julian not stealing the sorcerer away. However, he trusted Morena to keep him safe until he could return. Arthur only hoped that Sir Percival was doing a fine job of keeping the nobleman distracted... without being molested, of course. He made his way to his father's chambers, only to find a grave-looking Gaius and the king's tearful servant Theoden at Uther's bedside. "What has happened?" Arthur's heart sank, despite his hatred towards his father over his vile treatment of Merlin, a part of him still cared.
"You father-the king-he has slipped into a coma," Gaius explained as gently as possible.
Just hearing the words made Theoden want to fall apart. As it was, tears streaked down his cheeks, and even Arthur's presence wasn't enough to make him let go of Uther's hand. He held onto the man's fingers like a lifeline, as if he could somehow will Uther back to health through the touch. Theoden's gaze raised up to Arthur for a moment and then fell again. There was nothing the prince could do. If Gaius knew of no remedy, then Theoden knew no remedy was likely to be found. Though his throat was thick, Theoden couldn't help but ask, "Then... then the prince will take the throne?" he inquired softly.
The very notion hit Arthur terribly hard. This was not how he envisioned being be crowned King, nor how he imagined leaving things with his father. Gaius left Uther's side long enough to prod the heir apparent out his dazed state. "You must," the apothecary told him. Camelot could not be allowed to be seen faltering. And Arthur steeled his shoulders as he moved closer to Uther's bedside. He gazed down at the pale and sickly form of his father, feeling some of the hatred dissipating. Never would he be able to forget or forgive the atrocities perpetuated against Merlin. But, at that moment, he couldn't help feeling pity towards the man who had committed them.
"I will be a good king," Arthur declared, adding with a promise, "I will make Camelot proud."
Theoden drew back to give the king-to-be a moment with his father. He knew that it was necessary. Camelot needed a strong, whole ruler to survive, but it killed him to think that everyone was giving up on Uther already. When Arthur seemed finished, he ventured, "Sire, may I... may I have leave to attend to your father? If Gaius is willing to tell me what is best... I... w-would like to stay with him." Theoden knew that he sounded as miserable as he felt but was still proud of himself for getting through the whole of the request without crying.
Arthur almost refused the request, his first instinct was to allow Gaius to go on carrying for his father. However, the palpable sorrow in Theoden's voice made him change his mind. He had only ever seen such devotion from a servant in one other-Merlin-and it struck Arthur that this boy possessed genuine feelings for the King. It made the whole situation all the more difficult, especially considering how his father had treated his lover. "Very well," he agreed after a long moment of contemplation. "You may remain here for as long as you wish."
Theoden bowed low and couldn't hide the gratitude that shone in his eyes. His attention was at once refocused on the man who lay ill on the borrowed cot. Uther would likely never wake again, that much seemed clear, but until he woke or died, Theoden intended to keep vigil. It was the least he could do for the man he loved.
Turning back to Gaius, he requested of the older man, "If you would, gather everyone in the throne room. I'll will be there shortly."
Departing with one last glance at Uther's unconscious form, Arthur steeled his shoulders for the burden of ruling the Kingdom. He made his way back to his own chambers where he found Morena and Merlin still waiting for him. "My father," he began, his expression grim, "has been taken gravely ill, and I will have to assume the crown."
Before either of them could reply, there was a knock at the door. "Come in," Morena called, hoping it was Percival. She had sent for the man to see what Julian's status was. Perhaps if the man were inebriated enough, he could be coaxed into simply leaving the kingdom without Merlin in tow.
It was indeed the knight who appeared in the doorway. He bowed to Arthur and Morena, face grave after hearing the news of the king's illness. "My lady, Sire, I am afraid that... that there has been need to escort the Lord Julian from the court. He was a bit more forward than was polite," the knight said with a distinct edge in his voice, "and it was requested that he leave and consider writing his majesty a letter of apology before considering a return. I also have word that Sir Robert has not been found, nor Sir Henry." Percival offered Merlin a sympathetic smile. "I'm afraid he was sent to look for you, and no one's seem him since he left Sir Robert's estate, but... it strikes me that they can probably take care of themselves."
That was putting it mildly, but Merlin couldn't help feeling worried just the same. "Thank you," he answered before Arthur had the chance only to realize that wasn't exactly protocol no matter how grateful he felt.
"Sir Percival," Morena broke in to avoid anyone worrying over rules of etiquette, "if you would see that the other knights are assembled in the throne room? They are needed."
The man bowed once more and made his exit. It seemed that the rumors he'd been hearing were true. The king was dying, and Arthur would be stepping into his place.
Merlin tried to smile as best he could and reached out to run a hand over Arthur's arm. "I know this isn't how you wanted it to be, but you'll be a brilliant king, Arthur. No one could ever love Albion and its people as you do."
Merlin's touch had a calming effect on Arthur, who could not have been more tightly wound. He managed a warm smile of appreciation, murmuring, "Thank you, beloved." There no longer existed a reason to hide his true feelings despite the fact he and Morena were married. "Camelot shall be different, and I hope stronger because of it." Arthur sighed, raising a hand and caressing the sorcerer's warm cheek. "There is much to do-perhaps, too much. But, I can promise you this; Julian will no longer be of any concern. Tonight, you are free. And nothing shall ever keep us apart again."
"I know." Merlin had trusted that from the moment they were reunited. "C'mon, then, let's make you king." His tone was light, hoping he could bring Arthur up a bit given the somber mood of the room given the gravity of the situation. At the man's other side, Morena took Arthur's hand while he fell into step just behind the pair of them. It was odd but pleasant. Merlin found himself wondering what it would be like when the three of them traveling in tandem began to feel normal and average. He liked that thought, the image of the unorthodox little family they were creating. The crowd in the great hall looked bewildered, worried or resigned in turn depending on how much they knew of the situation.
As Arthur approached the front of the room, the knights closed in nearby along with Gaius while Morena and Merlin hung back to watch the ceremony. The woman's hand crept up to rest on Merlin's shoulder, and she gave it a warm squeeze as they stood together. Perhaps the court at large would never know how Merlin fit into their family, but she wanted it known from the start that he was indeed a part of it.
When Arthur had imagined assuming the throne, it had never been quite like this. He was supposed to be much older, and his father would probably have slipped away peacefully in his sleep. Instead, here he stood as if in the middle of a surreal dream. All eyes were upon him, looking towards him for leadership. And Arthur had no intention of letting anyone down. Not Merlin, or Morena and their child, and certainly not his subjects. Strength and confidence swept over him the moment he felt the crown placed upon his head. King Arthur Pendragon raised his hands, sweeping his arms wide as he addressed the crowd before him.
"We mourn for the loss of my father. Today, however, sees a new Camelot rise. No longer will we show fear of magic. Instead, we shall embrace it and know it to be good."
Merlin's breath caught. He had never expected Arthur to make so bold a proclamation so quickly. Despite the gravity of the event, the room soon buzzed with people murmuring their agreement or their confusion. His own eyes clouded with tears as he beamed up at Camelot's new ruler. He'd never doubted for a second that Arthur would support him and Morena and be a good king besides, but the man never ceased to amaze him. Feeling Morena's smaller hand sliding into his own, Merlin squeezed it. No sooner did the buzz begin to die down than a loud voice - he suspected it was Gawaine's - rose out, "Long live the king!" and the rest of the room followed suit, Merlin and Morena's voices soon joining the cry.