A/N: Well...here it is. Somehow through work, illness, and ridiculous computer problems, I finally managed to finish this chapter. It's 3:00 in the morning and I have to be to work by 9:00, but I did it :) I bring you the longest final chapter I have ever written for anything, clocking in at more than 12,000 words! I really should have broken it into two, but in the end I didn't feel like it, and after failing to update not once but twice when I said I would, I think this was well deserved. Thank you so much for being patient and not bombarding me with angry messages. I'm very grateful.
Title: Of Twisted Morals and Human Weaponry
Rating: T for...well, a lot of things. Some language, some violence, the whole general situation, a bit of torture, etc.
Characters/pairings: The cast is as follows: Merlin, Arthur, an antagonist, two guards with names, and a few without. Merlin and Arthur are the main focus of this story. Oh, and no pairings. Only friendship here, though if you want to read more into it, feel free. Whatever floats your boat :)
Spoilers: Um...none, as far as I know.
Warnings: Abuse, a bit of torture, me being descriptive
What to expect: Bromance, introspection, angst, some whump, H/C, lots of drama, lots of worrying...oh, and some magic. Can't forget the magic :)
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin :)
There's so much I could say about this chapter, like how the last few sentences literally took me two hours to write because nothing would fit the way I wanted it to, but I think that instead of rambling on, I'll let the chapter speak for itself :) I had great fun writing this, and I hope you all enjoy it, and despite the fact that I know there are things I won't directly be covering, I hope that the end is still satisfying.
With no further ado, I bring you the final chapter to this story :)
"…I think we may want to take cover for now."
Arthur turned towards Rordan as the two guards began to slowly edge back towards the tree line. He had to push his hair away from his face in order to see them properly as the wind howled all around them.
"What for?" he asked. It was only wind—well, magic produced wind—nothing to be afraid of. It would die down eventually.
As soon as the words left his lips, the winds increased. It was almost enough to push him off his feet, but he quickly braced himself and stood his ground. However, a change in the intensity of the gusts wasn't the only thing that caught him off guard. Somewhere above them, up in the canopy of the forest, a sharp crack was heard, and in no time at all a large tree branch came plummeting down. It landed just a few yards away, smoke rising from its broken, blackened end as if it had been struck by lightning. In fact, the air itself almost seemed to be charged, much like it sometimes felt during a storm. He had been caught in enough while out hunting to know what it felt like.
Rordan's suggestion didn't seem quite so silly now.
"Come on!" the guard called, motioning for him to follow. Arthur wasted no time in making his way for the tree line where the trees were hopefully too thick and too well-grounded to be toppled. Each of them chose their own place to take shelter behind, and even though the wind only seemed to get worse with each passing moment, it didn't stop any of them from glancing back at the sorcerer who sat at the very center of it all.
With his eyes closed and his head in his hands, the prince couldn't help but wonder if Merlin had any idea what was even going on around him.
"Well," he heard Owyn say as the guard scratched the back of his head a bit sheepishly, "this probably isn't good."
Biggest understatement ever.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted, looking around the side of the huge tree he was hiding behind. He made sure he was at least facing the warlock before continuing in hopes that his voice would carry. "Take off the brace!"
He really wasn't all that surprised when Merlin didn't move a muscle, making no indication whatsoever that he had even heard the prince.
"I don't think he can hear you."
"Yes, thank you for that, Owyn." Because he never would've been able to figure that out himself. The guard only scowled at him a bit in response, though that ridiculous brand of amusement was still there as well (how anyone could be amused in a situation like this was beyond him, but he had long ago decided that it wasn't worth trying to figure the other man out. The last thing he needed right now was a headache).
Turning towards Rordan, the far more responsible one of the two, he asked the only question that he could think of but one that none of them probably had a direct answer to.
"What are we supposed to do?"
To his surprise, Rordan did have an idea.
"If Merlin can't do it himself, then someone needs to get over there and take the brace off for him."
That seemed rather plausible.
Somewhere close by, another two branches came tumbling down to the ground, their edges singed and blackened. In that same moment he felt a shock of something near his arm, prompting him to quickly pull it back and away from the open air, unshielded by the body of the tree.
Rordan's plan suddenly didn't sound so plausible anymore.
"How?" he demanded, because unless they wanted to either end up getting fried, flattened, or simply just blown away, there was no way the three of them could even get close to Merlin. There was just too much magic.
From the corner of his eye he caught sight of movement, and he turned to see what it was only to see Owyn attempting to move out from behind his tree. He managed to slide himself halfway into the open before something clipped his arm, forcing him back behind his cover.
"Damn," he hissed in obvious pain, gripping his arm where he had been struck. Arthur hadn't even been able to see what it was that had hit him. He was pretty sure that nothing had been there, but at the same time he was slowly starting to realize that that didn't actually matter. Magic wasn't always something that could be seen. After all, the force that had launched them across the clearing had been unseen as well despite feeling like a brick wall. Magic didn't require a visible, physical form to be felt.
"Are you alright?" Rordan called.
"I'm fine," the other man responded, attempting to wave off the concern. "It's not that bad."
Peering around the side of his tree again, Arthur tried to get a good look at Merlin. He edged himself out as far as he dared only to find that the warlock was still in exactly the same position as before. The prince began to wonder if he was even conscious or if he had somehow managed to pass out like that while his magic roamed free and unchecked. After all, if he had been awake and aware, then surely he would have stopped by now. There was no way Merlin would ever allow his magic to hurt the people he considered to be his friends.
For whatever reason, whether it be a loss of consciousness or a loss of control, the warlock wasn't able to stop.
He needed help.
As Arthur stood there trying to come up with something that he could do, he began to notice something. The magic-produced wind was blowing at an incredible rate, bending some of the smaller trees almost entirely in half to the point where he was surprised they didn't break. It was enough to toss his hair and to make his shirt billow out even without standing in it directly…and yet for some reason the sword at his side was still. Whereas everything else around him was being jostled and tossed, the sword and its sheath didn't move.
Curious, he edged just a little further out so that it would be directly in the wind, and even then it only shifted for a moment due to his own movements before falling still once more. He was fairly certain that wasn't supposed to happen. There was absolutely no way that piece of metal was heavy enough to not be moved by such a fierce wind. Logically it just didn't make any sense. He was pretty sure that he had never heard of a sword that was immune to wind.
…But he supposed that it was technically possible for a sword to be immune to magic. It was the only explanation he could think of, and it seemed to make even more sense after considering exactly who it was that he had taken it from: a weapons dealer who specialized in magic.
Of course. Leave it to that arrogant monster to have an abnormal blade.
Taking hold of the hilt, Arthur slowly drew his sword, and whatever doubts he may have still had about the nature of the weapon were wiped away once he saw the runes carved into it, glowing a soft shade of blue. Definitely a magical weapon, or at least a magic resistant one given that he felt absolutely no resistance as he held it despite the wind howling around him. Perhaps if he were to hold it in front of him, it'd be able to cut him a path to Merlin. He had no idea how wide a birth it created, but he was willing to take his chances. There was nothing else he could do after all, aside from just sitting back and waiting it out, and there was no telling how long that would take.
There was also no guarantee that Merlin would escape unscathed from such an extreme display of magic. If it were to continue to rage out of control until it ran out completely, what would happen to him? Honestly, he didn't know, and he had no intention of finding out. He'd get that brace off of him before then; Rordan had shown them all how to do it, and he was certain that he remembered the correct combination.
It was all a bit of a gamble, really, but he found that he didn't care. When had something like that ever stopped him before?
Taking a deep breath, he held the sword with both hands and positioned it in front of him before stepping out from behind his cover. There was only a brief moment of resistance before the area around him fell mostly still. He could of course still feel the wind in places, like along his shoulders, and if he shifted the blade, he found that the pressure would increase or decrease depending on how far away his body was from it. He was going to have to be careful.
With one more deep breath, he steadied himself and began to move forward.
"Arthur!" he heard Owyn call, his voice nearly getting drowned out in the roaring all around them; the sword could cut through the wind just fine, but it did nothing for the noise. "What are you doing?"
Ignoring the somewhat frantic shouting, he pressed onward. It was actually surprisingly easy to make his way across the clearing when he didn't have to worry about the wind shoving him back or the lightning hitting him (he still wasn't entirely sure if it was lightning or not, but he honestly didn't much care to find out). The closer he got to Merlin though, the worse everything around him seemed to get, but even when he could distinctly feel a good deal of force pushing against the blade, he kept going anyway.
Upon closer inspection, he found that he still couldn't tell whether Merlin was conscious or not. He was still just sitting there, unmoving, eyes closed, and gripping his head as if he had a headache while all the while that brace just continued to glow. He only hoped that the light wouldn't be enough to make it impossible to see the runes. If he couldn't tell which ones he was touching, he'd never be able to get it off.
The moment Arthur got within a few feet of the warlock, he very nearly fell on his face. In an instant all the pressure that had been bearing down on his blade disappeared, and the sudden loss of resistance was enough to nearly send him crashing to the ground. Luckily he managed to catch himself; he was pretty sure that if he had fallen, none of them would have ever let him live it down.
Gripping his sword with one hand, the prince knelt down by his friend and reached for his right arm where the brace was. The light coming off of it truly was bright, but it thankfully wasn't hot, meaning he'd have no trouble at all touching it. Before pressing down on the first rune, he took a look at Merlin and quickly decided that he had to be in a magic induced trance of some kind, because he very clearly wasn't unconscious, but at the same time he wasn't exactly aware either.
Touching the first rune that Rordan had showed them, he very quickly circled all the rest of them as well, being careful to get the order right. As soon as the last one was done, the brace snapped open. The light died almost instantly, and as soon as the metal was away from the warlock, the magic flowing from him erupted into one final burst of power. Had he not been so close to Merlin and thus still in the "eye of the storm" so to speak, he was pretty sure that he would have been tossed halfway across the clearing again…or flattened. With his luck, probably the latter.
As soon as the last burst of magic cleared from the air, Arthur watched as the warlock next to him finally began to move. A shudder seemed to run through his whole body before he slowly brought his arms down, his hands releasing the grip they had had on his head. Two eyes very carefully blinked open, looking a bit dazed at first until his vision cleared. The warlock first looked at his surroundings in surprise before his expression settled into one of confusion. It didn't last long though as he continued to look around, slowly putting the pieces together. Apparently he had been at least somewhat aware of what had been going on even if he hadn't been in a position to do anything about it.
"Merlin," Arthur called, startling his servant. "Are you alright?"
Merlin looked up at the prince first and then down to his arm where the two braces had once been. Arthur watched as he flexed his fingers, wincing just a bit when the muscles in his right arm tensed, but overall the damage didn't seem to be too bad. His skin was a little red around the area where the two braces had been, but aside from that he looked to be alright. In fact, he looked better than he had in a long time.
Apparently satisfied with his self-assessment, the warlock turned to him with a small grin.
"I think so." His voice sounded better too even though it was still a little hoarse. It would probably be back to normal by the next day so long as he didn't overdo it.
Offering a smile of his own in return, Arthur got to his feet so that he could sheath his sword only to find that the blade wasn't in the best of shape. Actually, that was probably an understatement. There were entire sections of it missing, areas here and there that looked like they had been eroded away. The metal that remained had also lost a good deal of its luster, and seeing as how even some of the runes had been damaged, he was pretty sure that it probably wouldn't be able to stand up to a magical barrage again. Even as he stood there watching, bits and pieces of it were crumbling away.
He was a little disappointed. He had had every intention of keeping it. A blade like that could have come in handy. However, if his father had ever found out about it…
"Well," he sighed, looking at the sword a bit regretfully as it continued to fall apart, "I suppose it's for the best." He released the hilt and allowed it to fall to the ground, watching as the metal continued to break and scatter. He really would have liked to keep it, but considering Camelot's rules against magic, it was probably better this way. The last thing he needed to do upon returning to Camelot was draw unneeded attention to himself given what he already intended to do. He was going to be harboring a sorcerer, after all. Hiding a magical sword would probably just be pushing his luck, which he really didn't have a whole lot of to begin with.
Yes, it was definitely better this way.
Casting his eyes along the ground, a reflection of sunlight got his attention. He moved just the few feet necessary to reach it before bending down and picking up two pieces of silver metal: the remains of the orihalcon brace. He took a moment to look at it, turning the two halves over and over in his hands. It seemed so small, so ordinary, so completely insignificant, and yet it had been able to cause such a great deal of grief and distress, of pain, of sadness. So much harm had been caused by so little a thing.
Perhaps it was true that it could be useful, that it could be beneficial, that it did have quite a bit of value for what it could do, but at that moment all Arthur saw in it was a reminder of a man who had tortured innocent people, who had treated them like objects instead of human beings. It was a representation of everything Barragh had been and all that he had done—its value was the last thing on his mind—and he could think of only one thing to do with it.
"…Arthur?" Merlin whispered hesitantly, his eyes trained on the prince, although he found them straying to the remnants of the brace that Arthur held in his hands. He did his best to try and figure out what was going through his friend's head, but for once the prince's expression remained stoic and unreadable, betraying nothing of his thoughts. His eyes were simply trained on the metal he was holding, and Merlin would have given almost anything in that moment to know what he was thinking about, because he would have been lying if he said that he wasn't the least bit fearful. In all honesty, he was worried about what the prince intended to do.
What if Arthur decided to keep it? What if he believed it could be useful? He wasn't sure what he would do if that turned out to be the prince's choice. Despite his belief in his friend and the kingdom he would one day build, he knew that if Arthur chose to hold onto that bit of orihalcon, a part of him would always be afraid that it might someday find its way back to him. What if, one day, Arthur realized just how incredibly powerful he was and grew to fear him? What if he decided to try and control him like Barragh had? He wanted to believe that the prince would never do that to him, but if he did choose to keep it, there would always be that question lingering in the back of his mind as to why.
He wanted Arthur to trust him, because his magic was and always would be for him and for Camelot.
In the end he needn't have worried. As it turned out, the two of them were a great deal more alike than he thought.
Fingers tightening around the metal in his hand, Arthur's expression changed to something akin to self-righteous determination as he drew his arm back and tossed the remains of the brace across the clearing…and right into the brook.
Merlin couldn't help but laugh.
Surprised at the warlock's rather sudden, mirthful outburst, the prince turned towards him. His servant was practically doubling over in laughter from where he sat on the ground. His voice still wasn't at its best, but it definitely seemed stronger, although it was obvious that he was trying to laugh as quietly as he could to avoid any unnecessary strain. For the life of him though, Arthur couldn't figure out what could possibly be so funny.
When the warlock looked up at him, grinning like the idiot he was, the prince couldn't help but wonder if Merlin was laughing at him. The look on the boy's face made it seem like he was indulging in some sort of private joke at Arthur's expense.
"What?" he asked a bit skeptically, but that smile only grew wider.
"Nothing," the warlock said, both sincere and amused at the same time. He was pretty sure that even if he asked again, he wouldn't get an answer. Whatever Merlin had found so amusing was obviously something he intended to keep just to himself (which really made Arthur wonder if he had somehow ended up as the subject of some personal joke). He quickly decided that in the long run it didn't much matter, but what did matter was the fact that his friend was still able to laugh like that. After everything that had happened, he was still able to show that kind of expression, and the prince was more than grateful for it. Despite all he had been through, he hadn't been broken.
Crouching down in order to get a better look at the warlock, he took in everything he could about the boy's much improved condition. Despite the fact that he still looked rather exhausted—and who could blame him after that rather incredible display of magic—he looked a great deal healthier than he had in a long time.
"You look like you're doing better," he said, a small grin crossing his face.
"I feel better," Merlin responded softly, giving a bit of a shrug. "Not great, but better."
Arthur watched as he rubbed at his arm a bit, his fingers brushing over the slightly red, damaged skin where the orihalcon brace had once sat. He also took in the other injuries that were still healing, and a thought suddenly dawned on him.
"Now that you have your magic back, can't you just heal yourself?"
Arthur blinked at him, surprised by the lack of hesitation and the sheer bluntness of his answer.
"Why not?" he asked, because honestly, why couldn't he? After all of that, how could there be anything he wasn't capable of?
This time Merlin did hesitate for a moment before glancing towards the ground with a slightly sheepish grin.
"I'm rubbish at it," he said.
This time it was Arthur's turn to laugh. He stared at the warlock for all of a couple seconds before he broke out in a fit of laughter, because really, just…really. Of all the things he had expected to hear—all the things he had expected to learn about Merlin and his magic—that hadn't been one of them. His servant was a powerful sorcerer, capable of things that most could probably only dream of, and yet even though he could topple a castle with his magic, he couldn't heal a cut. The latter sounded so much easier than the first, and yet it all sounded so very much like Merlin.
Even though he was still laughing a bit, he felt the urge to sigh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, because the whole thing just really was so very Merlin.
"Of course you are."
His servant clearly didn't find it as amusing as he did if the scowl on his face was anything to go by.
"It's not that funny…"
It definitely was (the fact that he looked more like he was pouting than scowling only made it more so).
Getting his laughter under control, the prince turned towards the voice just as Merlin had, watching as both Owyn and Rordan finally made their way over. Both men seemed rather relived that everything was over, although there was a good deal of amusement on their faces as well. Arthur quickly tried to school his expression into something a bit more dignified, but he got the feeling it was a losing battle. It was rather likely that the two of them had seen and heard everything that had just transpired (after everything that had happened between the four of them, it probably didn't much matter whether they saw him laughing like an idiot or not, but he was a prince. There was still some level of dignity that should be maintained).
With that perpetual smile on his face, Owyn glanced at the prince before once again addressing the warlock.
"Glad to see you're feeling better," he said. "Your voice seems to be returning as well." He reached out and ruffled the boy's hair fondly. "You really are something, aren't you."
Merlin tried to dislodge the hand on his head, albeit rather half-heartedly, attempting to muster the proper level of annoyance with his friend, but all he could do was smile at the action. He had long since learned to just accept such things. It was a show of affection, proof that he meant something to these people. He wasn't just a tool, wasn't just a sorcerer, and they had never allowed him to think any differently. In an otherwise dark world, confined and trapped and at the mercy of a madman, these two guards had stood by him and helped him even when they shouldn't have, even at great personal risk to themselves. He owed them so much, and now with his magic free and his voice finally returning, he could say the one thing that he had been longing to say ever since he had woken up outside of that dreadful castle.
"Owyn, Rordan," he called, making sure he had their attention. "Thank you."
Both men smiled at him warmly.
"You're more than welcome," said Rordan. "I'm just glad we were able to help."
Owyn clearly shared that sentiment if the grin on his face and the hand that was still ruffling the warlock's hair were anything to go by.
"So," the cheerful guard began in a manner that clearly indicated a change in subject, "how about we spend today resting and then head out for Camelot in the morning?"
That suggestion quickly earned him a confused look from both Merlin and Arthur, though it was the latter that decided to voice their obvious question.
"You're coming with us?"
Merlin couldn't tell whether the prince was just plain confused or a little hopeful at that prospect. It was nice to know that his two newest friends had also managed to grow on Arthur as well. He supposed that desperate situations could do that with people, but he would rather view it as a testament to all three of their characters, especially Arthur's. Little by little, the arrogant young prince that he had met during those first days in Camelot was slowly becoming a man who was more than worthy of his title. One day he would truly be a wise and compassionate king.
"Of course we are," Owyn told him, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Changing tactics (since it wasn't likely he'd get anywhere with Owyn), Merlin watched as the prince turned his confusion upon Rordan instead.
"Don't you have a family to get back to?"
It was a rather valid point. Rordan did have a family: a wife and a little girl. They had been the sole reason that he had obeyed Barragh for so long. He had truly taken a great risk in defying the man, and now that everything was over, he no longer needed to worry about them. He could actually go home to them and stay instead of only seeing them every now and then. Surely he wanted to.
To his surprise, the guard only smiled.
"They already know about the situation," he said, and not for the first time, Merlin couldn't help but marvel at the man's preparedness. If he had truly taken the time to deliver a message to his family amidst everything else that had been going on, then it was really no wonder that it had taken him so long to meet up with them. "I appreciate the concern, but don't worry. I'll go back once I see you both safely home."
"Thank you," said Merlin, seeing as how Arthur still seemed to be a little too surprised to respond properly. Whereas the warlock had spent over a month getting to know the guard, Arthur had only known Rordan for a few days. It was understandable that he wasn't quite used to the man's particular brand of kindness. While trapped in that castle, he had learned that many of the guards were honorable, noble men, even if only a handful of them had actually been born with that claim.
"Well," Owyn began with a cheerful chirp, "now that that's settled…"
The guard moved to Merlin's side before kneeling down next to the warlock, and without further ado, he reached out and pulled one of the boy's arms around his shoulders.
"Come on, Merlin," he said. "Let's get you back inside. You look like you might pass out at any moment."
He wanted to argue that no, he most certainly didn't, but when Owyn carefully got him up and on his feet, the world began to spin and a wave of both nausea and exhaustion washed over him. He couldn't help but groan at the sensation before shooting the guard at his side a slight scowl.
"Thanks," he muttered sardonically, which only seemed to make his friend smile more (he vowed to one day figure out just what it was that allowed Owyn to be in a constant state of amusement, because it just wasn't fair that he could find entertainment in just about everything).
As the guard turned the two of them around so that they could head back to the cave, Merlin's other arm was quickly snatched up by Arthur, giving him two people to lean on. He wanted to tell them that he was fine, that he could walk on his own, but he got the feeling that they wouldn't listen to him. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure if that was true anyway. While he had been alright just sitting on the ground, standing had brought a whole slew of problems. His whole body felt sore, his legs were shaking, and his vision swam. He was tired, more so in body than in mind, but he was pretty sure that that would follow shortly. In the end he'd probably end up wasting most of yet another day sleeping.
Once they reached the cave, his two friends led him over to where his makeshift bed was. He was about to tell them that he wasn't tired yet, but as it turned out he didn't need to bother. The two of them merely sat him down so that he could lean against the wall instead of trying to lay him out on the blankets. He was rather grateful, because if they had laid him down, he wasn't sure if he would have been able to sit up on his own. What little strength he had managed to get back was quickly waning. Apparently all that magic that he had released had taken a greater toll than he had thought.
With a quick goodbye and a promise to check up on him later, Owyn took off, leaving him alone with Arthur. The prince had taken a seat on the ground next to him, casually reclining against the wall. There was a rather thoughtful look on his face, as if he were mulling something over. He had learned to dread those looks. More often than not they led to the two of them ending up in trouble or Merlin being forced to do something that he really didn't want to do. However, something felt a bit different this time around. Whatever the prince was contemplating, he was clearly taking his time for once, and there was not a single trace of amusement on his face. He looked completely serious, and the warlock found himself wondering what he could possibly be thinking about.
"…Merlin," the prince suddenly began, breaking the silence and almost startling the warlock, "are you up for talking a bit?"
The warlock swallowed rather hard, because he knew what that question implied. A small part of him wanted to say no, because even though he didn't want to admit it, he was still hesitant to simply come out and tell Arthur everything. He had been hiding his magic for most of his life. It had become a habit, one that wasn't so easily broken. He also knew that if he did say no, Arthur wouldn't pressure him. The prince would probably allow him whatever time he needed, and it was for that very reason that he couldn't do it. This conversation was bound to happen eventually. There was no reason to put it off any longer than he already had.
Hesitating for a moment, the prince eventually pressed forward with what had most likely been weighing on his mind for days now.
"There are a few things I want to ask you about your magic."
"Alright." He owed Arthur his life. The least he could do was answer whatever questions he had. He certainly wouldn't be able to tell him everything just yet; he would likely fall asleep somewhere in the middle if he tried, but he could at least spend a few moments satisfying his friend's curiosity.
"When did you start practicing magic?"
Arthur, for his part, had thought about this long and hard. He had spent a great deal of time deciding on what to ask, especially what to ask first, because it certainly wouldn't have done to finally get the chance to ask something only to flounder around for an appropriate question. Originally he had intended to ask something along the lines of "just how powerful are you," but after that rather grand display earlier, he was pretty sure that he no longer needed to. Never before had he seen magic like that. Merlin truly was every bit as powerful as everyone had claimed him to be (and he was pretty sure that if he did ask, Merlin would take the modest route and downplay his abilities, and that was the last thing Arthur wanted from him right now).
"Depends on what you mean," Merlin said, his attention focused on his lap where his hands were twisting the hem of his shirt. "I didn't start practicing until after I came to Camelot, but I've been able to use magic since before I could talk."
He was surprised for all of a moment before deciding that somehow that just made sense. Owyn had told him that it was possible. Rare, but possible. Merlin had already proven himself to be anything but ordinary, so it only made sense that his magic would be the same.
"I take it that's not common."
"No. My mother and Gaius said that I'm…special."
That was certainly one way of putting it. "Incredible" or "one-of-a-kind" was another.
As Arthur sat there listening, it took him a moment for the full implications of that sentence to settle in. In hindsight, he should have already known, or at the very least suspected. After all, Merlin wasn't quite that good at keeping secrets.
"So Gaius knows. I suppose that makes sense." It really did, which was why he wasn't bothered by it. The physician was Merlin's guardian. Of course the warlock would confide in him. "Who else knows about your magic?"
For some strange reason, that question seemed to make him nervous.
"My mother," he said, but Arthur was already aware of that fact. Merlin had just told him that, after all. Besides, she was his mother. There was no possible way she couldn't know.
"Obviously," he replied. "Who else?"
The warlock hesitated, glancing up at the prince in a somewhat anxious manner. Arthur got the feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer.
Well, needless to say he hadn't been expecting that. In fact, he was pretty sure he was gaping like some gobsmacked idiot.
"What?" He didn't know whether his tone came off as displeased or just plain incredulous, but regardless of which it was, Merlin started rambling off an explanation.
"It was an accident. I didn't mean for him to find out. He overheard me when I enchanted his lance to kill the griffin." Merlin very quickly cut himself off, eyes wide as he stared at the prince like a deer caught in the face of a hunter.
"…What?" was Arthur's very intelligent, very flat, and undeniably incredulous response. Merlin didn't say anything. Apparently he believed that he had already said more than enough.
In the silence that stretched out between them, the prince tried to organize his rather jumbled thoughts. He began with what his servant had just told him. Apparently Lancelot hadn't been the one to slay the griffin. Merlin had, and without his aid, they probably all would have died. Lancelot had overheard him casting the spell and had obviously confronted him about it, and yet despite the laws of Camelot and despite the fact that he had only known the boy for a few days, he had chosen to trust him and protect his secret. He had also refused to take credit for something that the warlock had done even though Merlin obviously would have let him.
How many times had something like that happened? How many times had Merlin gone out and saved Camelot, saved him, without receiving any of the credit? How many times had he used his magic to protect them all when he could have been discovered and sentenced to death? Not only had he risked himself by accompanying Arthur everywhere, including into battle, but he had also been gambling with his life simply because of his method for fighting. Never once had he been safe even though he had been able to defend himself.
How many times had he gotten hurt simply to protect his secret? How many close calls could have been avoided if only he hadn't been forced to hide his magic? How many times would Camelot have fallen into ruin if not for the sake of his servant? So many things had happened to them; the two of them had been through a great deal together. How much of the truth was he missing? What was real and what was fabricated? How much had he only been there for half of, or perhaps even less than that?
"I take it that's not the only thing that I don't know the full story about."
The warlock gave a shaky nod, his eyes once again cast downward as he avoided the prince's gaze. He looked so unsure like that, so small and vulnerable, anxious, uneasy, guilty…the complete opposite of everything he actually was, and Arthur absolutely hated it. It was all just so unfair. From the day they met, Merlin had always been standing at his side, as his servant and his friend, but Arthur could pretty much count on one hand the number of times that he had done the same for Merlin.
It had to have been lonely. He must have been so lonely, being so overlooked and cast aside when he could do so many incredible things, when he had done so many incredible things. He had endured all of that all on his own. He had looked after everyone—Arthur, the people, Camelot—from the shadows, unaided, alone.
How many times had Merlin saved them all, forced to stand by himself, without once receiving anything in return for his efforts?
Just how many times had Arthur failed to be there for the warlock when he had never once failed to be there for him?
"I'm sorry." The words slipped past his lips before he could even think of swallowing them down. That was fine though. Once they were out, he found that he didn't want to take them back. They certainly didn't make up for anything, but it was a start.
He wasn't sure what he was expecting from Merlin, but he was pretty sure it wasn't the confused, guileless—bordering on almost gormless—look that he was suddenly receiving.
Could someone truly be that unassuming and forgiving?
"For what?" Apparently they could.
Everything. Honestly, he didn't even know where to start. Nothing would be adequate enough. There was really no way to say what he was feeling. He had never been very good at the whole "feelings into words" thing to begin with, so it was unlikely that he'd be able to get it right for something as complicated and important as this.
The look on his face must have given him away, because before he could even come up with an answer, Merlin was speaking again.
"You don't have to apologize," the warlock said, completely sincere. "It's not your fault that you didn't know. I grew up having to keep my magic a secret. Eventually hiding it just became a habit."
He could understand that. Self-preservation was an ingrained thing, even though he did occasionally question whether Merlin actually had any. He seemed far more concerned with the preservation of the lives that weren't his own. However, it made sense that hiding his magic would eventually become a habit, a reflex, a need…but still, he couldn't help but wonder exactly why it was that Merlin had never said anything. There were all sorts of reasons that it could potentially be, but he wanted the real one. It wouldn't really change anything, but he just wanted to know why. Was it really because of trust, or was it something else entirely?
"Not that it matters much now," he began, trying not to sound dejected or, God forbid, desperate, "but can I just ask… Why didn't you tell me?"
To his surprise, Merlin didn't hesitate with his answer.
"You're the prince of Camelot," he replied matter-of-factly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "and even though you don't always agree, I know you love your father. I didn't want to put you in a difficult situation like that. I didn't want you to have to choose, and…well…"
The warlock turned his attention downward again, his hands clenching around the material of his shirt, and in a voice that Arthur probably wouldn't have heard if not for the quiet of the cave, he said, "I was afraid…that you would hate me."
That hadn't been quite what he was expecting, but it pained him nonetheless to hear it. Apparently Merlin really had expected him to turn against him, to abandon him. In all honesty, he wasn't entirely sure what he would have done—circumstances would have likely played a large part in his reaction—but he did know one thing for certain. No matter what, he never would have turned Merlin over to his father. He was pretty sure that there was nothing his servant was capable of doing, magic or otherwise, that would allow him to just stand by and watch him die.
Forcing each word past the lump that was steadily growing in his throat, he asked the one question he almost didn't want an answer to.
"Did you believe I would have you executed?"
This time Merlin did hesitate. For a long while he just sat there, his expression pinched in a way that implied he was thinking hard about his answer. Perhaps that was better than an immediate response. It implied that he was truly taking it seriously, that his hesitation wasn't so much because he already knew the answer but feared telling the prince, but because he actually needed the time to arrive at it himself.
"…I don't know," he finally said in all honesty, and Arthur found his heart sinking at the response before Merlin continued. "At the very least, I thought you might banish me, and no matter what, I couldn't let that happen."
When the warlock finally looked up again, every trace of doubt and unease was gone, leaving nothing but a pair of earnest eyes and resolution in its wake.
"My magic is for you, Arthur. To protect you, to help you, so that you can become the king you're destined to be. Everything, all of it, has been for you."
Every word he said was spoken with absolute, unwavering belief, and Arthur found that that lump in his throat was now taking root in the center of his chest.
"Why?" he choked out, because he still didn't understand how someone could give him so much when he had done so little to deserve it.
"Because one day, you'll be the greatest king that Camelot has ever known. I know you will. And, well…" A small, familiar smile crept across the warlock's face as he glanced over at the prince. "Even though you're an insufferable prat, you're also my friend. It's not just about destiny or duty. Prince or not, I would gladly give my life for yours. I pledged my loyalty to you a long time ago, and nothing will ever change that."
As Merlin turned his eyes away again, smiling rather contently to himself, Arthur once again found that words were failing him. There was nothing he could say, no way to truly vent the feeling that was welling up in his chest. However, there was something he could do. For one moment, Arthur allowed himself to completely forget that he was a prince, that there were supposed to be boundaries and rules—because for the life of him, he just didn't care—and so before his pride could resurface and ruin everything, he reached over to his servant and did something that he had never done before.
He hugged him.
If he hadn't been so caught up and distracted by that strange warmth in his chest, he probably would have laughed at the way that Merlin tensed up in what could only be pure, absolute shock. The warlock was probably rather confused if nothing else. However, Arthur didn't regret his actions. There was nothing he could say that would ever make up for everything that had happened, that could ever properly express his gratitude, his desire for things to be different.
This was as good a start as any.
Merlin honestly wasn't sure what to do. He definitely hadn't been expecting this. A part of him had even been wondering for a moment if he had somehow fallen asleep during their conversation and everything thereafter was just a dream, but he was pretty sure that wasn't the case. He could still feel the pain in his back and the exhaustion that had been gradually creeping throughout his body, which meant that he was still very much awake. However, that being said, he had absolutely no idea what to do. His mind had yet to wrap itself around the fact that the prince of Camelot was actually hugging him. He tried to turn his head to get a look at Arthur's face, but his movements were rather limited due to the arms holding him in place.
He knew Arthur well enough to know that he wasn't one for displays of affection, even more so when it came to him. What could have prompted something like this?
"Arthur?" he called again, just as softly as before. The arms around him tightened just a bit, and this time they were followed by two words that he never would have heard had they not been spoken so close.
They were barely more than a breath, and yet the weight of them fell upon him like the heaviest of rain.
In that moment he understood, and as he finally raised his own arms, he found himself thinking that maybe nothing had ever really needed to be said between them at all…but that didn't mean they couldn't say it anyway. After all, that had never stopped them before.
Why let it start now?
"…Are you sure you don't want to—"
"But are you—"
"Merlin. For the last time, you're not walking."
Crossing his arms over his chest, the warlock tried to glare down at the prince, but judging by the look on Arthur's face, he was failing miserably. It just wasn't fair. No one would listen to him. It didn't seem to matter how many times he tried to tell them that he was feeling better—not a complete lie but definitely not the truth either—none of them seemed to believe him.
He knew that all of them were probably wondering why he was making such a big deal out of something that really didn't seem all that important, but he just couldn't help it. There was just no reason that he should be the only one on the horse while the rest of them walked. His wounds were healing. They didn't need to keep treating him like he might fall apart at any moment (and yes, somewhere in the back of his mind he realized how ironic it was that the one time Arthur wasn't treating him like a servant turned out to be one of the few times he was actually trying to act like one).
"Alright, I think that's everything," Owyn said as he attached the last of their supplies to the horse. He looked up at Merlin, grinning despite the glare that the warlock was still attempting to give. "Let's head out. We've got a long trip ahead of us."
"We'll take the lead if that's alright with you," Rordan said as he shouldered his own bag. "We know this land pretty well."
"Of course," Arthur replied, not allowing Merlin to say anything on the matter or the one that they had been discussing previously. The warlock begrudgingly realized that he really wasn't going to get his way, and so he merely sighed and prepared himself for a very long ride.
As the four of them set out, Rordan and Owyn walked a good few yards ahead of them, picking their way through the forest while Arthur led the horse along the path—something else that wasn't necessary, because Merlin could ride just fine on his own, but he knew that complaining wouldn't get him anywhere. The prince was stubborn, and if he wanted to keep pace with him by leading the horse by its reins, then nothing was going to change his mind.
So, instead of dwelling on the things he couldn't do anything about, he allowed his mind to drift a bit, getting lost in the quiet of the forest and the gentle pace of their journey. It had yet to fully sink in that after more than a month of being away, he was finally going home. After being kidnapped and whisked away, locked up and tortured, it was all finally over. Oh how he had missed his cozy little room, his bed, the sound of Gaius tinkering away just outside the door, the smell of herbs and potions and soup cooking over the hearth. He missed the castle with all its grand rooms and shadowy alcoves, the town and its markets, the surrounding fields, but more than anything else, he missed the people. He missed Gaius and Gwen, the servants, the knights, even some of the cooks, and he couldn't help but wonder if they had missed him too.
When he got back, the first thing he was going to do was apologize to Gaius. The second would be to hug Gwen. The third thing, however, would be to somehow find a way to avoid Uther's wrath, because the king would be angry, of that he had no doubt, but he wasn't entirely sure just who he would be angry at. There was every possibility that he would blame Merlin for everything that had happened seeing as how Arthur had gotten captured because he was out looking for his missing servant.
Leave it to Uther to completely ruin his day even while being an entire kingdom away.
"What is it?"
Shaking himself from his not-so-cheerful thoughts, Merlin looked down at the prince who was walking right along side him.
"What?" he asked, trying to pretend that everything was alright even though that wasn't quite the case.
"I can tell something's wrong. I don't think you've ever been this quiet before, even when you couldn't talk."
Merlin tried to scowl, but seeing as how the corners of his lips kept trying to twitch upwards, he knew that he was failing. In the end he merely sighed and told Arthur exactly what had been on his mind.
"I was just thinking about when we get back to Camelot," he said. "Gaius will probably be mad at me for making him worry like that, and I take it that your father might not be too pleased with you either."
Arthur couldn't help but smile as Merlin more or less implied that Gaius was like a father to him (nothing new there, really), but it quickly vanished at the mention of his own father.
"Not like that's anything new," he sighed. That had actually been a rather common state for the king as of late.
"What are you going to tell him?"
To be perfectly honest, he hadn't quite figured that part out yet. He knew exactly what he wasn't going to tell him, but at the same time he knew that he couldn't omit everything. However, he had no intention of letting Merlin take any of the blame for what had happened. Whatever story he decided to fabricate, he would make sure that his father understood that if it hadn't been for Merlin, he wouldn't have made it out alive (what he most certainly didn't need to know was that it was technically because of Merlin that everything had happened in the first place). After all, the king had believed him to be on a mere hunting trip when he had been kidnapped, not out searching for his servant, and he wasn't going to tell him anything otherwise.
"I'll think of something," he said before looking directly at the warlock. He needed to make sure that Merlin was paying attention before reassuring him. "Don't worry. No harm will come to you, I give you my word."
Merlin merely smiled in response.
"I never doubted you."
He still didn't quite understand how the warlock could place so much faith in him after everything that had happened, but he had finally decided to stop questioning it. There was no reason to. Instead he would simply do everything he could to one day feel like he truly deserved it.
"Arthur?" The prince looked up at the sound of his name only to find that Merlin had his eyes fixed firmly on the ground (or what he could see of it beyond the horse). "I don't know if I ever said it, but thank you for coming to find me."
"There's no need. After all, a good servant is hard to come by." He lowered his voice as he added with complete sincerity, "A good friend even more so."
The look those words earned him was completely worth it. Perhaps it wasn't so bad, swallowing his pride every now and then. He could learn to live with it if it meant being able to return even an ounce of what he had been given.
A thoughtful look crossed the warlock's face again, but this time instead of getting lost in thought and lapsing into silence, Merlin turned to face him with an expression that clearly looked like he had made up his mind about something.
"When we get back to Camelot," he began, his words coming out careful but firm, "it might be hard to have a proper conversation, and I'm sure you still have a lot of questions, so…go ahead. You can ask me about whatever you want. I swear I'll tell you everything—no more lies, no more secrets, whatever you want to know."
His reply was immediate. He had been waiting a long time, after all. He had had more than enough time to think about it.
"I want to know everything, from the very beginning." He wanted to understand all of it, to know the truth of just what had been done for him. He wanted to relive it all from Merlin's perspective, to see just what he had missed. More than that though, he just wanted to know about the ridiculous, impossible, obstinate, loyal, kind, foolish, complete idiot of a warlock that had decided to befriend the crown prince of Camelot.
Merlin knew almost everything there was to know about him. He wanted it to go both ways.
Merlin smiled down at him, and unlike the boy's attempted glare from earlier, this expression looked every bit at home upon his face.
And just like he had promised, Merlin told him everything.
He told him about growing up in Ealdor, about being told to hide his magic, and about a worried mother who had sent him off to Gaius in hopes that he could learn to better control his talents. He told him about those first few days and then the next few weeks, and then months upon months of things that he had done, of things that Arthur had done (and quite a few things he actually hadn't done), and of all the people that had come in and out of their lives that the prince hadn't been fully aware of. Merlin told him about every single incident, every quest, every threat, every beast and witch and villain that had ever set foot in Camelot and that he had chased away or removed by force.
Most importantly though, he told him about everything that he had ever done with his magic: all the chores he had cheated on, all the pranks he had played, all the times he had defended himself when no one thought him capable, and all the things he had protected. He told him about the sorcerers that he had bested, the monsters he had vanquished, all the lives he had saved as well as the ones that he hadn't. The warlock told him everything, leaving nothing out, and whenever Arthur interjected with a question or comment of his own, they were welcomed openly and honestly, and he couldn't help but wonder if perhaps he hadn't been the only one waiting for this moment.
They talked well throughout the day and then well into the night, and when the next day dawned bright and early, they picked right back up where they had left off. If their two companions were at all bothered by their constant chatter, they certainly didn't show it, and instead Arthur caught them both shooting rather fond glances at the two of them. He imagined they probably made quite the sight—the servant sitting atop the horse while the prince walked along side, talking and laughing and joking like old friends often did. It was a nice feeling to not be placed so far above everyone else, to feel like just another person, just a friend, unburdened and unhindered by things like status and protocol.
He knew that when they got back to Camelot, all of that would have to change. He would go back to being the prince and Merlin would return to being his servant—in appearance, anyway. There was no way they'd ever truly be able to go back to the way things had been, and in all honesty, Arthur was glad for it. Even if he still had to pretend in front of his father and the court, that was alright, because one day things would be different. When he became king, he'd make sure that Merlin stood at his side as an equal, right where he belonged, and that he'd finally be able to receive the credit he was due for the incredible things he had done. Court Sorcerer had a rather nice ring to it, after all.
They still had a long way to go, but they would get there eventually.
It had been two days now since they had set off for Camelot, and the morning of the third proceeded much the same way as the one before it.
"Alright, I guess it's time to pack up and head out again," Owyn said as the four of them finished off their rather modest but filling breakfast—mostly nuts and dried bread, but it was more than enough to last them the morning. "We'll reach the edge of the forest around midday, and from there it should only be a couple more days before we get to the border."
As Merlin began to help the two guards pack up their supplies, Arthur was quick to pitch in as well. It had become almost natural to him after so many days spent in their company. It wouldn't have felt right to just stand by and watch the three of them work, especially when Merlin still looked like he should be in a bed and not trekking across the countryside.
While the four of them continued to pack up their campsite, the prince directed his attention towards Owyn. Now that they were so close to Camelot's border, he decided to finally ask a question that had been on his mind for quite a while now.
"So," he began, only continuing when he was certain that he had the guard's attention, "what do you intend to do once this is over?" He already knew what Rordan's plans were, but he had never bothered to ask about Owyn's.
"Well…I'm not entirely sure. I mean, I suppose I could go back to my estate like a proper lord, but I'd really rather not. I'm sure it'll be fine without me. I know a few people who'd be willing to take care of it."
"If you don't plan on going back, then where will you go?"
"Good question. To be perfectly honest, I've actually been considering throwing my lot in with you two."
Both he and Merlin stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at Owyn who, like always, looked like he was enjoying himself immensely.
"You want to stay in Camelot?" He intended to only sound curious, but he got the feeling that he came off as more hopeful than anything.
"Well, sure. I mean, why not? Since I don't want to go home, I may as well. It's not like I have anywhere else to go, and besides…" He graced them both with a bright smile. "Camelot has you two, which means that it'll definitely be a lot more fun than my stuffy old estate."
"I hope you mean that in more of a 'you two are good friends' sort of way instead of a 'you two are good entertainment' way," said Merlin, although the slight smirk on his face made it seem like he generally didn't care which it ended up being.
"It's probably a bit of both, really, seeing as how they're equally true."
Arthur couldn't help but smile at that.
"Well, you're more than welcome to come with us," he said. He could always use another friend, and if his father would allow it, another knight.
The four of them continued to pack up their camp, chatting amiably with each other, but it was during their rather peaceful and almost routine activity that something rather unexpected happened. It began with the snap of a twig and the rustling of a few leaves and was followed by all of them falling deathly silent. After confirming that none of them had been the ones to make those sounds, Rordan and Owyn moved back from the tree line with Merlin while Arthur, having borrowed a sword from Rordan, crept towards the direction of the noise. It was most likely just an animal, but one could never be too sure.
Preparing to either defend against or chase away whatever had decided to approach their camp, he gripped his sword tightly and made his move.
Steel met steel, the resulting clang echoing throughout the clearing. Not even a second later, he found himself frozen in shock as he stared back at a familiar face that looked just as surprised as his own.
After just one more moment of standing there as still as stone, both knights quickly withdrew their weapons, and with a laughing grin on his face, the prince grasped the older knight's forearm and pulled him into a quick half-embrace. Both of them were grinning like they had just found a long lost friend.
"I can't believe it," the prince said, looking over the man before him to reassure himself that Leon wasn't just a figment of his imagination. "What are you doing here?"
"Your father sent us to find you," he replied. "The last I heard, you were being held for ransom."
Ah, yes, the ransom. He had kind of forgotten about that bit. Amongst everything else that had happened, that little fact had gotten rather lost in the shuffle. It all seemed so long ago even though it had only been a few weeks since Barragh had sent the demand to his father. Obviously the king had received it, and just as obviously he had managed to keep a level enough head not to send the entire army to retrieve him. Whether Leon and his men had been ordered to pay the ransom or not he didn't know, but in the long run it really didn't matter all that much. It was more than likely that they would have had to break him out either way; that's just the kind of man that Barragh had been.
"Well," he began, "as you can see, that's no longer the case."
"I'll send a few of the knights ahead to inform the king. The men will be glad to know that you're alright."
"How many of you are there?"
"Seven, my lord."
Seven… That would put their count at a total of eleven. He'd rather not travel in such a large group, especially since it would make it all the more difficult to talk to Merlin.
"We'll send five on ahead to Camelot."
"It's nothing personal, I assure you. I'd just prefer to travel light under the circumstances. Six is more than enough."
"Six?" It was at that moment that Leon finally seemed to take notice of the other people in the clearing, which Arthur found rather amusing. As it turned out, Owyn and Rordan had already been making their way forward and were just in time to greet the knight as he looked up to take everything in.
"Hello," Owyn said in greeting, one hand raised in a friendly gesture. The overly amused smirk on his face quickly earned him an elbow to the side from his counterpart, and Arthur had to try and restrain himself from laughing at the wounded look on the younger guard's face. When he looked back towards Leon, it became that much more difficult upon seeing the confused look on the knight's face.
"These two are Owyn and Rordan. They're part of the reason that I was able to escape," he explained. "I owe them my life."
Recovering from his surprise upon hearing those words, Leon moved forward and extended his hand to each man in turn.
"Sir Leon of Camelot," he introduced himself. "Thank you for looking after the prince."
"There's no need to thank us," Owyn said in a somewhat rare display of modesty. "After all, Arthur has done a great deal for us as well, and besides…"
Glancing over his shoulder with a smirk on his face, the guard directed everyone's attention to the remaining member of their group.
"He's the real reason why we're all still here."
It was rather difficult to describe exactly what happened after that, because Arthur was fairly certain that he had never before seen a look quite like the one that spread across Leon's face. Shocked didn't even begin to describe it. The prince had almost forgotten that it had been well over a month since anyone in Camelot had laid eyes upon Merlin. He couldn't help but wonder if his own face had looked like that upon seeing his servant again.
The warlock was very slowly making his way over, clearly nervous about the rather sudden encounter. Even though Arthur knew that he was on good terms with most of the knights, probably more so with Leon than some of the others, it was still sometimes difficult for him to know quite how to behave around them. Even though the two of them regularly disregarded it, there were many who had a hard time looking past one's station.
However, Arthur also knew that Merlin didn't give himself anywhere near enough credit when it came to the effect he had on people.
"Merlin…" he heard Leon call out softly, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
"Hello," the boy called back, his voice coming out a bit sheepish, a little unsure, obviously feeling rather anxious, but in the end it all proved to be unfounded. In the end, there had never been any reason for him to look so uncertain.
With a joyous grin, Leon moved right past the three of them and made his way to the warlock, pulling him into a quick, friendly embrace before ruffling his hair fondly.
"Merlin," he began, his tone every bit as relieved and jovial as he looked, "I knew we'd find you. Not Arthur, nor the knights, ever once stopped looking. It's good to see you. Are you alright though?"
Leon motioned to the bandages wrapped around Merlin's head, and Arthur could understand his concern seeing as how they made the warlock look a little worse for wear. The gash on his head wasn't healing anywhere near as fast as they had all hoped, and so much like the wounds on his back, they had decided to keep it bandaged if only to keep it clean. Most of his injuries didn't hurt anymore, but they were still very much a testament to everything that he had been through.
"I'm fine," the warlock told him, sounding more than a little surprised by the genuine concern and relief that he was receiving. Arthur couldn't help but smile as his friend struggled to come up with something to say amidst his confusion.
Leon playfully ruffled his hair again, but Merlin still seemed to be far too much in shock to be bothered by it.
"I'm sure the other knights will be glad to see you," he told him. "I doubt they'd admit it, but they've all been worried."
"Well then," began Arthur as he made his way over, finding much amusement in the rather lost and almost incredulous look on the warlock's face, "if that's the case, let's not waste anymore time."
Together, the five of them very quickly cleaned up their camp, and when it came time to leave, the prince found himself in an annoyingly reoccurring argument with his servant.
"Merlin, just get on the horse."
"No. I'd rather walk."
"Get on the bloody horse."
"We aren't going that far. I'll be fine, Arthur."
In the end, Merlin ended up walking, and it was probably a good thing too, because Arthur got the feeling that if he had been riding the horse, he likely would have fallen off upon finding the other knights. The moment the five of them entered the clearing, the six knights went up to greet their prince, followed by an exchange of pleasantries and introductions with the two men at his side, but upon seeing Merlin, everything else that needed to be said and done seemed to be forgotten in lieu of smothering the servant. He watched as his knights reverted from disciplined men into overly excited boys as they bombarded the warlock with smiles and questions, ruffling his hair and patting him on the back.
Arthur couldn't help but smile at the sight.
"You have good men," he heard Rordan say to him from where he stood at the prince's side. He couldn't help but agree.
"Yes, I suppose I do." He had always known that, but it had never seemed more apparent to him than in that moment.
As he stood there amongst his knights and his friends, his saviors, he allowed himself to finally take it all in, to look at everything that had happened, everything that hadn't, and everything that could. He thought about his father and his duty, about his knights and his people, about his kingdom and the future and magic…but more than anything else, he thought about himself and he thought about Merlin. He thought about everything they had been through, all they still needed to do, and what they would one day become. There were still so many things to talk about, so many truths for him to learn, so many pieces of their relationship that still needed to be fixed—still needed to be built—and far too many mistakes, far too many hardships, more than he would probably ever know. Even if he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it all, he would only ever fall short.
It wouldn't be easy. Nothing about it was going to be easy. So much had changed in so little time, and nothing would ever be the same again.
As he watched his knights fawn over the warlock, treating him like a comrade—like a brother—he couldn't help but feel like everything would turn out alright. Maybe not right away, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even ten years from now, but someday…
When Merlin turned to face him, hair a mess, eyes wet, and a smile brighter than any before stretching across his face, everything—every little thing that had felt out of place in his life ever since that day almost two months ago—suddenly fell back into place, and just like that, Arthur knew.
Even though everything around them may have changed, nothing between them truly had. He was still Arthur, and Merlin was still Merlin, and nothing—not laws or secrets, kings or madmen, not pride or status or magic—would ever change that. For the two of them, this was nothing more than a new beginning, and this time around he wouldn't fail.
One way or another, he would find a way to earn the trust that Merlin had so freely given him, and this time around they would stand together.
He knew they still had a long way to go, but that was just fine. He could wait, because one day they would get there. He was sure of it.
In time, they would be alright.
They would be alright.
A/N: Well, there you have it :) I would like to take this time to just say thank you. Honestly, you have no idea how much fun this story has been for me and how grateful I am to everyone who took the time to read it. I really do love writing, and this fandom has truly been a godsend for me. It's probably rather apparent that I lack confidence, but you guys have consistently made short work of most of those doubts. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed, favorited, alerted, and simply just read this fic. I'm glad I was able to share this with you :)
As of right now, I don't intend to write a sequel/continuation/sidestory for this fic (that being said, if anyone else wants to, go right ahead. All you have to do is ask). In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea when I'll be back again. I need to take a break from typing for a while and see if I can get my arm to heal properly, and after that I'd like to start the original series that I've been planning for the last few months. I really would like to give being an author a try :) I think I finally have the confidence I need to make the effort. I'll probably post anything I do write on fictionpress under the same name (don't have an account yet, but I plan on getting one) for anyone who's interested. I could always use the feedback :)
Fear not though. I doubt I'll ever be able to leave this fandom completely, because, well, I still rather adore it, but it may be quite a while before you see me here again. So that being said, thank you again for making this writing experience one to remember. I would love to hear what you thought :)
Again, thank you.
Until the next time!