A/N: Haha! See, I can do it! I can actually update within a reasonable time range! :) Honestly, I think it's because school's back in session that I can get back into an updating schedule, which I'll be sure to post on my profile within the next few days. I don't know why it's easier for me to keep up with writing when I'm busy with school, but I'm not going to question it. Now, here's the final chapter of our story, thank you ALL for your marvelous reviews, along with the story alerts/favorites! It's been a great ride! Enjoy. ;)
The first time Merlin woke up, it was to someone murmuring something softly and stroking his head with a cold cloth. He was disjointed and confused, but when his blurred vision cleared up somewhat to reveal Guinevere's worried face looming over him, everything came together pretty quickly. The ailing village, the journey, Lamia, the knights, and Guinevere – Merlin's heart sped up in anxiety as he remembered. Gwen had seen him do magic; she knew the truth!
He opened his mouth to speak, to try to explain, but Gwen would have none of that. She tutted softly, once more pressing a newly wetted cloth to his forehead. "Don't try to talk, you need to rest," she said.
"B-but you… you s-saw—" he managed to choke out past his swollen lips.
Gwen gave him an almost coy smile and a conspiring wink. "I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin. You're obviously delusional. And even if I did see anything, I think it's safe to say that after everything you've been through for Arthur and the rest of Camelot, that I can trust you."
Merlin clung to her words, his mind still trying to wrap around the notion that Gwen had accepted his magic, and even though there was sure to be some questions and explaining later, she trusted him.
Before he could fully comprehend how lucky he was to have a friend like Guinevere, he had fallen back to sleep.
The next time he opened his eyes, it was to a less delicate but perhaps more apprehensive face in his field of vision. "Gaius," said Arthur's voice, sounding tired and strained. "I think he's awake. What should I do? Should I poke him?"
Gaius's voice sounded from somewhere across the room. "Why on earth would you do that?"
Arthur's brow knit as Merlin blinked up at him, his head still swimming and not quite sure if he was dreaming or not. "Well, he's just… looking at me. I suppose it's a good sign, but it's a bit unnerving; is it… normal?"
Gaius's face entered Merlin's line of sight, worry and relief warring for dominance on his face. "Ah," he said, "Not to worry. He's just drifting in and…"
The third time Merlin woke up, he was more or less properly awake. He yawned, gasping in pain as he moved his jaw, which felt like someone had taken a hammer to it… or a fist. He shuddered as his memories of the Lamia encounter returned to him, mingling with the horrific nightmares that he had experienced. Suddenly not sure which was real and what was dream, he scrambled for a firm hold on his blankets, needing something to keep him grounded here, in the present, not stranded in those terrible memories.
He nearly jumped out of his skin as someone said his name. Groaning, he shifted his head so that he was looking in the direction that the familiar voice had come from, noting at the same time that every inch of his body felt like it had been bruised or cut in some way. Once his vision had cleared from the pain-induced spots, he managed to focus on Arthur who was sitting by his bed looking pleased and a bit bored.
"Ar…" Merlin tried to speak but he couldn't seem to get the words past his dry throat, let alone his aching tongue and lips.
Arthur grabbed a cup of water and helped Merlin drink a few sips, not saying a word as Merlin struggled to make even the simplest of movements, and Merlin was very grateful. When he could speak again, he was going to say something clever or funny or maybe even deep and profound to his friend and master, but instead he said, "You were going to poke me."
Arthur looked surprised and maybe even a bit sheepish for the smallest of moments before scoffing and saying in his kingly-let's-tease-Merlin voice, "No, but I seriously thought about it. I didn't know what to do; you were just…" He broke off, his joking tone ceasing. Merlin could tell that he was struggling with something, trying to make sense of everything that happened. It was one of those rare moments when his stoic façade couldn't hide everything. What had happened to his servant had shaken him up more than the king cared to admit; the way he kept glancing non-too-subtly at Merlin, almost as if assuring himself that his friend was there and alive, was evidence of that.
Trying to get Arthur's mind away from whatever melancholy road it was taking, Merlin finally managed to find something somewhat clever to say. "Don't you have a kingdom to run or something?"
Arthur snorted, but his smile, however small, was genuine. "Like I'd need your advice on how to do my job," he said, his eyes glimmering with a hint of mirth. "Although I've got a bit to say about how your duties have been lately, considering you haven't been in to work in six days!"
Merlin gaped. "six days? It's been six…" He trailed off. "Really?"
Arthur nodded, solemn again. "Yes. When Gaius and I found you, he treated you there and we stayed there for three days. It took us about a day to get back to Camelot, and you've pretty much been out since then. Gaius… he said it didn't look good for a while there, because you had a fever, but it went down. No infection, and he said the, er, blood you coughed up was from where you bit your tongue so… no internal injuries, at least. And you have a broken wrist, some broken ribs, and you're pretty much a walking bruise... well, you will be, whenever you're up and about again." Arthur's voice was straining to remain light but Merlin could tell that he was having just about as hard of a time dealing with this as Merlin was taking it in.
Merlin managed to smirk, trying to keep the atmosphere in the room as light as possible. "You're sounding like a regular physician, now, Arthur. Going to train under Gaius now?"
Arthur wrinkled his nose. "No, thank you. I think I've had enough of his potion-making for a lifetime while I've been down here. You won't believe some of the stuff he puts in there; it's disgusting; you'd better be glad I'm not going to tell you what he's given you this week…"
Merlin rolled his eyes and winced. "Yeah, I can only imagine."
There was a pregnant pause while both men became somber. Merlin winced again as his whole body seemed to pound in agony. He was about to speak again when Arthur beat him to it.
"Do you remember what happened?"
Merlin's breath hitched as he tried desperately not to think about it. "Where's Gaius?" he asked, hoping to change the subject. He didn't want Arthur to find out what had really happened because really, it wasn't the knights' fault. Sure, their attack on him had felt as real as if they had been doing it of their own free will and it had hurt, emotionally nearly as much as physically, but it wasn't their doing. Not really, though he did wonder if anything they had said or done had been prompted by a sliver of truth. He decided not to dwell on it.
Arthur wasn't fooled by Merlin's ploy. "He went to get some more ingredients to help with the pain," the king said. "And I'm sorry Merlin, but I have to ask. Do you remember?"
Merlin sighed and due to his broken ribs he felt like his chest was caving in. "Yes. But Arthur—"
Arthur's mouth was pressed into a thin line. "I already know, Merlin. Leon, Gwaine, and Percival paid me a visit last night. They told me the truth." Arthur's eyes were blazing.
Merlin's heart dropped. He'd hoped to ease Arthur into it, not wanting his friends to get into trouble for what wasn't really their fault. "Arthur, you have to listen to me. It wasn't them, not really, it was—"
"The Lamia, yes, I know," Arthur said testily. "I've already talked to Gaius about it." He chuckled darkly. "I think Gaius might've given the knights a piece of his mind as well when he found out, but later he said it was just the injustice of what had happened to you talking. He said even though it is hard to forgive them, he knew that they weren't acting of their own free will and wasn't going to hold them responsible any longer."
Merlin frowned. "And you… disagree?"
Arthur fumed. "They went too far, Merlin! They damn near killed you! Do you expect me to just give them a rap on the knuckles and tell them not to do it again? No matter what causes them, actions have consequences. I can't just let them get away with what they did."
Merlin felt tears pushing at the backs of his eyes because he understood how Arthur was feeling; it was unfair, he was hurt, and it hurt more than anything to know that the hands of his friends had inflicted this pain. He knew, though, that though their hands had acted, their minds had not been their own and he truly didn't blame his friends and didn't want them to blame themselves. "Arthur, when your father was enchanted by, er, Lady Catrina—" Merlin wasn't sure how safe it was to bring up Arthur's late father, especially when it came to his brief and horrifying marriage to a hideous troll, but Arthur just raised an eyebrow and waited for Merlin to continue, "—you didn't hold him responsible for the things he said or did to hurt you, did you? You didn't hate him for being controlled by an outside force."
"But it's not the same—"
"No, it's not," Merlin conceded. "The Lamia had ten times the power that the troll did. She took their minds and poisoned them against me, turning them into shells of themselves. They had no control of their actions."
Arthur looked at his friend for a long moment before contemplating, "I can never tell with you, Merlin – are you really as wise as you like to make me believe sometimes, or are you just gushing out nonsense and hoping that something you say makes sense?"
Merlin snorted. "Whichever makes you feel more comfortable, sire."
Arthur smirked. "Idiot."
"That's a stupid name."
"That's why I gave it to you, sire."
And Merlin knew that for once it was lucky that he was laid up in bed and bruised to no end, because even Arthur wouldn't throw something at him in this state. Mind you, he'd have to watch his step when he went back to work, but for the time being, he was content to lie back and watch Arthur stew.
Gwaine was the first that came to see him.
After three days in bed, Merlin had begun to eat more bland but solid food and had regained a bit of strength back. He was still in pain but able to walk around a bit with someone's help and his bruises had nearly faded. His ribs were still insanely tender and his wrist was of no use to him, but he was coming along rather nicely and that was when Gaius had deemed him well enough to have visitors besides the king who came by every evening after council to check on his servant. Each time he visited, it was under the guise of seeing if Merlin would be back and ready for work the next day, but each time when he left, he muttered to Gaius to not let Merlin try to get up on his own because heaven help him, Merlin was actually going to recover without any delays.
Merlin had been nervous about seeing his friends because even though he didn't blame them, the thought of being near them sent unwanted shivers down his spine. A small part of him was afraid that some of the Lamia's power still lingered, or that his nightmares had been the reality and they hated him… But he knew that was ridiculous. He had steeled himself for a difficult and probably emotionally taxing confrontation but had nodded emphatically when asked if he was sure he was ready for this.
"Merlin," said Gwaine, his eyes locked onto his friend's. His amber gaze was anguished and Merlin knew that he had been beating himself up about what had happened since he had realized what the Lamia had made them do. "I swear to you, I have never been so sorry for anything in my entire life." Merlin felt that this might be a little over the top and he wanted to cut Gwaine off with a serious "it's not your fault, I don't blame you," but he knew that Gwaine needed to do this, so he let him speak.
"The thought of me actually hurting you, I… you were my first true friend and you've always been loyal to me. I owe you my life, my friend, and I repaid you by nearly killing you. I know you'll never be able to forgive me, but I… I just wanted you to know. And if you want me to leave Camelot, I—"
Here, Merlin felt it was past the point where he could cut his friend off and did so without any guilt whatsoever. "Gwaine. I don't want you, or Leon or Percival, to leave, so just… don't say it. You're my friend and I know it wasn't your fault."
"No, Lamia infected your mind. You didn't do anything."
"I could have fought against her, stopped myself."
Merlin shook his head. "I've been reading up on Lamias. There's never been a case of a normal, mortal man breaking free from her hold. I don't know why she went for you all and had you gang up on me, but it was not your doing. In fact, even if you had managed to ward her off for a minute or two, the effort would have probably fried your brain. Gwaine, she was a creature of infinite magic and power; you had no control."
Gwaine still looked like he couldn't believe what was being said, almost like he wanted Merlin to be angry and yell at him. Merlin sighed. "I know you feel guilty, Gwaine, and I know that if she had used me, I would as well. But you've got to find a way to get past it, realize that you were not acting under your own volition, and that it's over, I forgive you, and you need to forgive yourself. And you better not leave Camelot, my friend, because I've already lost Lancelot and I don't want to lose you all, too."
Gwaine had looked like he was about to burst into tears as he stood up, clapped Merlin warmly and gently on the shoulder, and walked out, letting Percival know that it was his turn.
"I'm sorry, Merlin," said the normally quiet Percival. "I know Lamia had ahold of my mind, but still, you need to know that I meant nothing I did or said. I've only been in Camelot for a little over a year, but I know that you're a good man and friend and that hurting you was an act that cannot be easily forgiven."
Merlin grinned. "Wow, I don't think I've ever heard you say that many words at the same time before," he said. "What was that, like thirty?"
Percival couldn't help but smile along with him, knowing without it having to be said that Merlin forgave him; didn't even blame him, but Merlin, being Merlin, said it anyway.
"It's not your fault and I don't blame you, but if it'll make you feel better, I forgive you."
It was harder facing Leon than Gwaine or Percival. True, Gwaine was his closest friend out of the three, but that just made it easier for Merlin to know that none of what happened was him. Merlin felt more comfortable being himself around Percival as well, and even though he considered Leon a friend, he didn't know the older knight as well as the others.
Also, Leon had done most of the talking and had said some cutting things to Merlin, who couldn't help but wonder if any of them were grounded in truth. When the knight came in, head bowed and bruise on his face, Merlin said, "Arthur told me what happened."
Leon chuckled nervously. "Yeah, well, I deserved it."
Merlin shook his head. "Nah, it wasn't you." Was it? Part of him wondered if Leon did just view him as nothing but a bothersome servant, but it wasn't something he wanted to voice; he wanted to believe that everything had been the Lamia.
Leon shook his head. "Merlin, you are more loyal to Arthur than any servant. You are a good man, and you have proven to be a true friend and have helped our crowned prince become the king he is today. Anything that I said was entirely the Lamia. I haven't been around you as much as Sir Gwaine, but I still consider you to be a valued friend and want to apologize for what I did. I never, ever wished you any harm."
Merlin felt like a great weight had been lifted from his chest. "I forgive you."
"Just like that?" said Arthur after the three knights had left. Merlin had laid down once more, having sat up for most of his visits, and was about to drift off to sleep again. Even though he was much better, he still needed some rest to heal and the visits had worn him out, but Gaius had promised that he'd be allowed to return to work – with no heavy lifting or two-handed jobs, mind you – within the week. Arthur had popped by before he went to a meeting of some sort, just to see how things had gone, and had been a bit surprised at the ease that Merlin had forgiven his friends.
Merlin nodded sleepily. "Yeah. Just like that. I told you Arthur, it wasn't them."
Arthur sighed. "Yes, so you've said. And I've talked to them, let them know that since you're alright and will be back to polishing my armor soon, that I have no grudge against them, either. But for their sake – and yours – nothing like this had better happen again."
Merlin grinned tiredly. "You've so been worrying about me," he teased, knowing the king would deny it to no end.
True to form, Arthur snorted derisively and said, "Me? Worry about you? Please, Merlin, even by your standards, that's just a bit too far!"
A/N: Ta-da! It's finished! :) I REALLY enjoyed writing this and had fun playing on the title of the story in a more light-hearted manner at the end of the story. Hopefully it was all to your satisfaction, and thank you to EVERYONE who has stuck with me! ;) Please review one last time, okay? Love you all!