Well, this is it. The final chapter. Can't quite believe that this is over, nor the fact that I've managed to write it whilst posting as well, never used to do that. I cannot begin to thank you for the amazing support with this story. To all of those whom I can't respond to directly, thank you so much for your reviews, they never fail to make me smile. Everyone's do in fact, thank you so much. Also thanks to MightyMerlin for checking this for me and setting my mind at ease! Thanks!
And so, without any further ado...the final chapter:
"Can we stop yet?"
"Stop moaning, Merlin."
"Just admit it, we're lost."
"I know precisely where we are going."
"Just not how to get there." The last part was muttered in an undertone as Merlin glared at the back of Arthur's head before sighing. He never managed to stay annoyed with the prat for long, not any more. It had been six months since the whole ordeal, five since Merlin had been allowed back to work. The first week had been fine, the blood loss had got to him, along with the exhaustion and stress over the whole situation, and Merlin had slept the week away. Even Arthur hadn't had any sarcastic comments to make to that. The prince had kept randomly turning up, claiming he needed something from Gaius, but always leaving without it and spending the whole time watching his servant closely as if Merlin was just going to suddenly disappear.
The next few days after that had been alright as well, the secret warlock enjoying the time off and using it as a chance to study magic. He needed to know what had happened to him, what the Dreafela precisely was, so had hit the books with the hope of understanding. It wasn't as if there was much to find, but he did feel better for trying. But then he had just got bored. For days he wasn't allowed to do anything for fear of reopening any of the cuts, Gaius putting it quite bluntly that he was lucky to survive injuries like that. The only vaguely exciting thing that happened was when one of the wounds developed a slight infection and Merlin lost two days to a fever. He thought it had livened up the week, but the looks Gaius and Arthur were giving him meant his chipper mood was lost.
Simply put, Merlin was no good at sitting and doing nothing. He had never done it. There was always work to do when he was in Ealdor, and although he had dreamt of time off from Arthur and Gaius, being given it wasn't quite the same. He didn't know what to do with himself, and more than once found himself being marched back to Gaius' when he just "accidentally" turned up in Arthur's chambers and began to do things like make the bed the way he knew the prince liked it.
In the end, it was to save his own sanity and to stop his ward getting executed that Gaius allowed Merlin back to work. He claimed that the boy had healed enough, but Merlin knew he was just getting annoyed with things floating around the room every time he walked in. The warlock couldn't help it, he had just been so bored. After a slightly awkward start – both he and Arthur knew they had only gone through what they had because they had tried to help each other, just couldn't admit the words out loud – their normal routine had been established and things began to return to normal. Little did Merlin know that his return to work was the only thing that had managed to stop Arthur's nightmares.
But with his return to his duties, it meant that Merlin was once again having to run around after the young royal, whether he liked it or not. Arthur seemed to have developed a knack of keeping a close eye on him, even now, months later. Merlin suspected that Gaius had put him up to it, and whilst the servant felt like he should be offended, he was too touched by his guardian's concern to protest. Even so, he wondered how long it would take before they accepted he was fine. Six months was a long time.
Hence why Merlin was now trudging after his master on a damp and dull day. Arthur had wanted to get out of the castle, and in the way only he could, declared they were going hunting and then completely ignored his servant's protests. The deer they had been tracking had led them on a roundabout chase, hence their current predicament. Merlin had tried to tell the prince that they were getting further away from Camelot, but Arthur had just hissed at him to shut up the way he usually did when his servant interrupted a hunt.
"Arthur, please, my feet hurt. You don't have to carry all this stuff, can we just stop for five minutes?"
"Will you just..." Arthur paused from where he had been about to tell his servant to shut up as he glanced over his shoulder at him. Merlin blinked back, wondering what was going through the prat's head this time. Probably something to do with the stocks. What he wasn't expecting, was for Arthur to give in.
"Fine. If it will stop your moaning." It took Merlin almost a moment to react, he was too stunned. But then dropped to the floor with a relieved sigh, stretching his aching legs out in front of him. Arthur hesitated for a moment, before joining his servant on the floor. They sat in a companionable silence for a while, Merlin finally getting some feeling back in his limbs.
When Arthur climbed to his feet again, declaring they had to go as it was getting late, Merlin didn't protest. He hefted the equipment back into his arms and then began to get up. Unfortunately, it was really the wrong way around to do something, and his foot caught in a strap and the warlock began to fall. But before he even registered that thought himself, a hand caught him by the elbow and didn't let go until he was fully steadied again.
"You okay?" Arthur asked gruffly, concern shining out of his eyes that took Merlin by surprise. He mutely nodded, and the two of them stood in awkwardness for a moment, Arthur not letting go, until Merlin cleared his throat. Arthur jumped back as if burnt, and Merlin smirked, determined to get back onto more familiar territory.
"Why, you almost sounded like you cared there."
"Not a chance." Arthur shot back without missing a beat, the small smile on his own face making Merlin's smirk widen. "Don't want you dropping my stuff."
"Oh. Of course. Your stuff." Merlin caught Arthur's eye, and for a moment, they both just grinned. There was no point denying their friendship when they were around each other. Not after what they had been through to try and keep the other safe.
But then Merlin glanced around him and his smile slipped. He swallowed hard, something that was not lost on Arthur.
"I know where we are." The warlock whispered. This time, there was no teasing note in his voice, no sparkle in his eye. He tried to deny it, but his hands let out an involuntary tremble and he slowly put the equipment back on the floor. Subconsciously, his hand rubbed over one of the scars lining his arm. Arthur saw the action and looked around. Merlin could tell that he had guessed right by the way he suddenly paled.
The two stored the hunting gear under the safety of an old tree and pushed their way through the thicket. Sure enough, Merlin was right. He was certain he could sense the lingering presence of dark magic, and no sooner had Arthur hacked through a particularly stubborn nettle with way more force than was necessary – something that wasn't lost on his servant – the ruined castle came into view.
Merlin found his heart was thudding hard in his chest and he had to clench his fists together to stop his hands from shaking. He didn't know why he was reacting so badly, he had been through dangerous scenarios before. Being a magnet for trouble and servant to the Crown Prince (who was just as bad) had seen to that. But maybe it was because this time, he had been truly defeated. His magic had turned against him and almost cost him his life, something that he had never even come close to experiencing before.
Arthur glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, but the prince didn't say anything. What could he say, they had both nearly died in this place. Merlin felt a ghost of a smile flicker onto his face when he realised that Arthur was mirroring his actions though. The prince was rubbing across his wrist, where he too had a scar. The burn he had received when Merlin had forced the manacles open had gone, but both wrists now had a perfect band of white around the normally tanned skin. Merlin wasn't the only one who would forever carry a reminder of what they had gone through.
"Let's get out of here." Arthur eventually muttered, and for the first time ever, Merlin had no desire to disagree with his master. They almost ran from the area, grabbed the gear and kept moving. It was only when they had put at least a league between them and the place did Merlin feel the mood lift between them. Glancing at Arthur, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to not mention what had just happened. Neither wanted to admit to their insecurities, despite how obvious they may have been. If they didn't mention it, then they could pretend it didn't happen. Arthur had never been one to open up about how he was feeling, and Merlin had become too used to lying to be able to say it out loud easily.
"We should head back to Camelot, Sire, it's getting late." Merlin eventually muttered, scuffing his toe in the ground and avoiding eye contact. It had been harder going back there than he thought it would have been, especially as he wasn't expecting it. Arthur cleared his throat gruffly, but nodded.
The silence stretched on between them as the afternoon drew on. It wasn't uncomfortable though, simply happening because conversation was not needed rather than anything else. Merlin knew Arthur was as preoccupied with his thoughts as he was, and didn't want to say anything.
At least, he didn't want to say anything until another noise broke the silence. Feeling his magic immediately rushing to the surface (something that was still giving him a thrill after having it suppressed for a few days), Merlin glanced around him. For a moment, he could see nothing, until he caught sight of a small pebble rolling down a hill.
"I know." The prince hissed back, his eyes also fixed on the movement of the rock. "There are at least ten of them up there."
"How do you know that?"
"That's not the only rock to have fallen, it's just the first you've noticed." Arthur muttered, but Merlin was surprised to realise that there was none of his usual sarcasm in Arthur's voice, he was simply making a point.
"So what do we do?"
"Carry on as if you haven't seen anything. It might not be anything yet..." No sooner had Arthur spoken when the hill erupted in a flurry of movement.
"You were saying?" Merlin said with a grin, shrugging off his pack and the gear and kicking them over to one side. Arthur rolled his eyes at his servant and drew his sword with a flourish, pushing Merlin after the equipment with one hand, getting him into the safety of the trees before turning to face the attack.
Merlin leant against a tree almost lazily as he watched the bandits rushing down the hill. A flash of his eyes, and one of them tripped on supposedly nothing, not seeing the roots sink back into the ground as he went rolling down the hill and conveniently knocked himself out on a tree. Another had raised his sword above his head with a war cry, only to find that it was suddenly tangled in the vines hanging from the tree he was running under. As he tugged in confusion, Merlin grinned as Arthur easily dispatched another two. The prince may need help from his secret warlock, but even Merlin couldn't deny that he was good.
Unfortunately, Arthur had been wrong about something. The ten that had attacked were just the first wave, and even as the panting prince was attempting to get his breath back, another wave ran down the hill, at least doubled in numbers. Merlin began getting more inventive, taking two or more out whilst still trying to make it look like an accident. A rolling boulder tripped three, a falling branch stopped another two. But that still wasn't enough as another wave came running down.
"What the hell is going on?" Arthur yelled, glad of the "accidents" but knowing he couldn't keep this up. He was only in his hunting clothes, no armour present. And they had been walking all day anyway, he was tired. He glanced back over his shoulder at Merlin, and felt his breath catch in his throat.
"Behind you!" He shouted, his voice lined with urgency. Merlin blinked, and then began to turn, but didn't make it before one of the bandits struck him over the head with the hilt of his sword. Merlin turned back to Arthur, his vision weaving alarmingly. He could just about see the bandits pressing in on the prince and the look of concern on Arthur's face before the whole world went dark and he could just feel his body pitching forward. In a way, he was glad he was unconscious before colliding with the floor.
Merlin couldn't stop a flicker of alarm from crossing his mind. He felt himself return to consciousness, but it was still dark. Why was it still dark, could he not see..? But then the warlock rolled his head to the side slightly, and like a wave, calmness washed over him. It was still dark because it was late, especially if the bright flames of the fire was anything to go by.
"'Bout time," a somewhat cheerful voice commented, and Merlin blinked foggily. He forced himself to sit up, only to see Arthur watching him with ill-conceived concern. "Why did you have to go and get yourself knocked out?"
"Not like I meant to," Merlin whispered, leaning back on a tree and shutting his eyes. That had taken more energy than he apparently now had, something that Gaius was going to have a field day about. Thinking of Gaius made him open his eyes again, running them over Arthur critically, looking for signs of injuries. Arthur felt his gaze.
"I'm fine. No thanks to you."
"You always said that I was useless." Merlin muttered back, sighing again.
"True. But trees have a way of staying upright when you go and get yourself knocked out, it's most annoying." Arthur's tone was so casual and so laid back that Merlin found himself agreeing before he quite realised what the prince had said. He sat bolt upright, mouth going dry and heart beating fast.
"That's...that's n..nothing to do with me!" He stuttered, hating the fact that when Arthur turned his ever-cool gaze on his servant, Merlin felt himself going red. What was Arthur saying? What did he mean? Did he..?
"Course not, Merlin." Arthur drawled, only to then wink at his servant. Merlin was vaguely aware of his breathing speeding up. "But nice one with the guy knocking himself out, that was impressive."
"I don't...you can't...I'm not..."
"Give the guy a heart attack, why don't you?" Another voice cut through the conversation as Merlin bordered on hyperventilating. Suddenly, there was a pair of hands on his shoulders, someone giving him a small shake. "Merlin? Merlin, breathe, damnit!"
"Arthur, you're the only one who can calm him down. Why did you have to say it like that?" Merlin had a ringing in his ears, barely being able to hear what was being said. Until a sharp stinging sensation shot across his cheek and clarity suddenly reappeared.
"Did you just slap me?" He spluttered, gazing up at Arthur, who sheepishly lowered his hand.
"You were getting hysterical." Although his breathing was back under control, Merlin could still feel his heart thudding uncomfortably. Arthur was watching him closely, and as Merlin looked into his master's eyes, he swallowed hard. There was pure understanding shining out of them and Merlin felt his breath catch once more. Arthur knew. He could read it in the prince's expression, he knew everything.
"How long?" he whispered, ignoring the fact that there were other people around them. He hadn't even noted who they were yet.
"Four months." Arthur muttered back, his voice equally as soft as he sat down in front of his servant. "You weren't the only one researching what happened, the pieces of the puzzle kind of slotted themselves together. The books confirmed it, but I think I already knew. Deep down, I knew. Your eyes went gold when I was getting you out of there. Everything they went on about, wanting you, that you had something they wanted. It makes sense, but it took someone else to confirm it." Arthur's gaze flickered over to one side, but Merlin simply looked at the prince, barely able to think straight.
"What are you going to do with me?" Merlin had never felt fear as paralysing. Even when the Dreafela was sucking his magic from him, he had never been as crippled with terror as he was now. But he knew precisely why. Whatever Arthur decided, Merlin would accept it. He had never considered the fact that Arthur might have looked into what had happened in the same way that Merlin had, nor that he might stumble upon the truth.
"Arthur, I swear I would never hurt...wait, what?"
"Don't make me say it again, you idiot." Merlin simply blinked at his friend. Arthur wasn't going to kill him? He wasn't going to have him dragged in front of Uther and sentenced to death? He wasn't going to watch as Merlin burnt alive, having realised that a friend was a traitor and had been lying to him all this time. Arthur seemed to be able to read the confusion on Merlin's face.
"You saved my life. You knew what the Dreafela would do to you, you had been told, I know you had. And yet you still turned up, were still determined to come and get me out even though it would potentially cost you more than your life. How can I turn you in after that?"
"But the law..." Merlin trailed off feebly, his head reeling. When Arthur had demanded a hunting trip that morning, he never would have thought that it would turn out like this.
"Tell you what, if you get caught, I'll kill you myself. Oh, and if you do ever get caught, I know nothing, understand?" Merlin let out a shaky laugh, but found himself nodding. His mind was in a whirlwind, words were escaping him but he could feel the slight tears swimming in his eyes. Arthur had actually accepted him for who he was, and knew what Merlin had done for him. More than that, he had known for months and still kept his servant safe!
A hand dropped momentarily onto his shoulder, giving it a squeeze of reassurance before Arthur moved back to the other side of the fire. But even with the flames in between them, Merlin could see the small smile on his face.
"That's three silver pieces you owe me, Seb. Told you he would tell Merlin he knew before the year was out." Merlin jumped, properly looking around him for the first time since regaining consciousness. If his mind wasn't already still trying to process the last shock, he would have been completely stunned to see Sebastian and Adrian lounging around the fire with them. As it was, part of him just accepted it.
"What?" This time, he was ignored as Sebastian rolled his eyes and threw over some silver at his friend before turning to Arthur.
"How's your knee, Sire?"
"Fine, now." Arthur responded with a casual shrug, but avoided looking at Merlin. The servant however, sat up, frowning. Something didn't add up here.
"You only hurt your knee last month." Merlin said slowly, watching Arthur shrewdly as the prince shifted slightly under the gaze. Arthur finally lifted his eyes to meet Merlin's, shrugging.
"Like I said, I needed someone to confirm what I had read."
"You've been seeing these two? Sneaking out of Camelot to meet with known sorcerers? For four months?" Merlin was practically yelping, wondering whether this really was Arthur sitting in front of him or whether it was some spell or trick. Heck, he would even settle for a dream right now, it would make more sense than the Crown Prince of Camelot accepting magic.
"You don't have to sound so surprised. They seem to want to keep you alive, goodness knows why. Why do you think I planned a three day hunting trip that just happened to coincide with that witch hunter turning up without warning?"
"You knew he was coming?"
"Adrian saw the carriages and sent me a message to get you out of Camelot." Arthur said simply, as if it was no big deal. Merlin simply stared. His master and prince was working with sorcerers to keep him safe, keeping what he knew to be a warlock out of trouble.
"I..." For once, Merlin had no words, but simply could stare at the three men. It was supposed to be him protecting Arthur, not the other way around. And yet, there was a small part of him glowing with happiness inside. Arthur was watching out for him.
"They kept going on about destiny and how you couldn't die or I would." Arthur said flippantly, not meeting Merlin's eye as he threw a twig into the fire as something to do. "So for self preservation, I had to keep you out of trouble."
"Thanks." He meant it as a sarcastic comment, something that would get them back onto ground that he was more comfortable on, but it came out as far more sincere than that, especially if the way Arthur dipped his head in response was anything to go by.
"So...what are you doing here now?" Merlin turned his attention to the once noble who had made his life hell. Being back with the Druids, not having to hide, was doing him the world of good. He looked years younger, and the simple attire of the Druids suited him far more than the clothing of nobility. "And you should tell your father you are well, if you really want to protect me. He's making servants lives hell because he is worried."
Sebastian shrugged at the comment about his father, meeting Adrian's eye. Merlin knew that type of look, it was one him and Arthur often shared. Something that had been said before, where both knew what the other was thinking.
"Like the prince said, you aren't much help out cold, and there were a lot of bandits, you two stumbled straight into one of their camps."
"You came to help?"
"Prophecy." Adrian said simply, and Merlin nodded. He knew how important the prophecy was to the two men, the fact that they would have given their lives for it gave that one away. He had no more questions, his mind still struggling to catch up with the turn of events. He glanced across the fire at Arthur, who was exchanging sword techniques with Sebastian, and couldn't help but smile somewhat fondly. For the first time since he had met the arrogant prat, Merlin felt like he was truly watching the Once and Future King. Arthur had accepted him and the two Druids, meaning that he was well on the way to accepting magic as a whole. Maybe he really could be the one to unite the lands?
The fire was warm and comforting, and Merlin found that he was shifting himself into a better position now that his heart rate was beginning to finally calm down a little. He curled up into a ball, his eyes once more turning gold to all that looked at him. But this time, it wasn't the release of the extraordinary power held within him, it was simply the reflection of the flames. Magic wasn't needed at a time like this. All was perfect...he was surrounded by friends who knew the real him and didn't hate him for it.
Letting out a satisfied sigh, Merlin didn't even notice Arthur throw his jacket haphazardly over his servant. The emotions of the last hour or so caught up with him, and Merlin fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that he was protected.
Never before had he slept as well as he did that night.