A/N: I know, I know. This was supposed to be out last night before the premiere. Sorry everyone. I was all ready to update, but a friend of mine had a family crisis and I was with her all night, so updating was not exactly on the forefront of my mind.
So! Here it is! Fourth and final chapter. Hope you like it!
"This is crazy," Gwaine repeated for the thousandth time. "What if he doesn't come? What if it wasn't even Merlin you saw?"
"It was." Arthur's answer was immediate and firm. "And he'll come."
"Why?" Gwaine argued. He didn't continue, but Arthur understood the unspoken addition to the question. After everything you did…
There was a long moment's silence as Gwaine continued his work, and Arthur merely stood there, brow furrowed as he stared at the ground. "Because he's a better man than me," he said at last.
Gwaine's hands briefly paused. "What will you do if he comes?"
There was another pained silence. "Beg his forgiveness," was the dark answer.
"King's don't beg."
"This one does." The answer was so instant that Gwaine couldn't help his eyes snapping to the monarch in surprise, but Arthur's head remained bowed. The knight studied him for a long moment, then finished tying the rope.
"I'll be hiding nearby in case this all goes wrong."
"No, you will not," Arthur stated firmly, eyes raising.
"Arthur, this is way too dangerous. He might not even know when you're in danger. This could have all been a huge coincidence."
Arthur shook his head firmly. "The smuggler incident was not the first time. He's been watching me. And he'll know you're still here. He'll know I'm not really in danger."
"Tying yourself to a tree in the middle of a serket infested forest with only a long knight for protection? Still sounds pretty dangerous to me."
"It's not enough," Arthur countered. "And even if it was, I'm not letting you put yourself in danger for this. This was my mistake. It's my responsibility to fix it. Not yours."
Gwaine stared again, eyes boring holes into the monarch who was currently tied tightly to a tree—no armor, no weapons. It was still an hour before sunset, but when the sun finally disappeared, the giant scorpion-like creatures would emerge. If Merlin didn't come, there was no chance Arthur would survive the night.
"Sometimes," Gwaine began, but stopped, and shook himself. "Sometimes I can see what Merlin saw in you."
Arthur smiled slightly. "Thank you," he said honestly. "That means a lot. Especially coming from you."
"Well," Gwaine said awkwardly. "I suppose I'll see you in the morning, then." He began to walk away, but Arthur's voice stopped him for a moment.
"Gwaine, if this doesn't…" he hesitated, then shut his eyes tight and forced the words out. "If I don't come back, please take care of Guinevere."
With a single nod, Gwaine was gone, and Arthur was left alone in the woods. Despite his assurances to Gwaine, the longer the hour stretched, the more nervous Arthur became. Guinevere was a single person—she could be looked after. But Camelot? What would happen to Camelot if her king did not return?
Merlin would come.
Merlin would come.
Those words became a silent chant in Arthur's head as the last of the sun's light finally dissolved into the grey of night, the moon and the stars vastly obscured by the trees.
The forest was calm for some time, as the day creatures settled down for the night, and the nocturnal beasts slowly began to stir.
Merlin would come.
It did not happen as immediately as Arthur had pictured. No swarm of serkets descended upon him the moment the sun left the sky. In fact, nothing descended upon him at all. With every passing moment Arthur's tension mounted. But as time passed, his tension gave way to frustration.
"Come on!" he shouted in anger. "I know you're out there! Come and find me!"
He wasn't even sure if he was talking to the serkets or to Merlin.
But when the brush at last rustled, he almost wished he'd held his tongue. The first of the giant scorpions emerged. It paused briefly at the sight of such a tasty treat so helpless, then scurried forward for the kill. Arthur clenched his teeth and shut his eyes as tightly as they would go. Come on Merlin!
An enraged hissing and a crash made Arthur open his eyes again—the serket now several feet away and just picking itself up from the ground. Arthur's mouth went paper dry. So Merlin was here after all. His heart thumped rapidly in his ribcage.
"M—Merlin," but the word was too soft and broken to be heard from any distance.
Another two serkets joined the first, and they all rushed at Arthur simultaneously, great stingers arched over their backs and ready to strike.
This time, Arthur forced his eyes to remain open—and sure enough, the creatures were thrust backwards by some great, invisible force.
They came in swarms after that. Arthur looked around frantically, but they lined every angle of his vision. Dozens of them. There was no pause this time. They simply threw themselves at their prey. Arthur braced himself. What if even Merlin couldn't defend against so many?
Then he was there. Later, Arthur could have sworn he went deaf throughout the short battle. He heard nothing but blood rushing in his ears. He could only see, as though in slow motion, the familiar dark-haired man thrust a hand forward and send some sort of pulse forward, blasting several of the scorpions backwards, before quickly turning and thrusting his second hand in the opposite direction. When he turned to take care of the serkets behind Arthur—out of his line of vision—Arthur caught a brief glimpse of eyes blazing gold and gulped at the sheer power that radiated from the man before him.
So it continued, all a blur until at last, all was still.
Merlin looked frantically around him, narrowed eyes searching all directions for more danger. When none appeared, he rounded on Arthur.
"Are you insane!" He demanded. "Tie yourself up as bait for the serkets, oh yes, that's a bloody brilliant idea!" Arthur opened his mouth to speak but was cut off. "Do you know just how much work I've put in to keeping you alive? And you were just going to throw that all away! 'Nope, sorry Merlin, but I've decided to die today.' And why? All to bloody talk to me! Why didn't you just look for me?"
"I did," Arthur finally managed to get those two words out, but Merlin didn't seem to hear.
"But no. Instead, you decide to have Gwaine tie you up and leave you in mortal danger. Which, I might add, I'm going to bloody kill him, too. Why he agreed to this is beyond me. I thought you both had more sense than this! But the two of you have reached a new level of stupidity in the time I've been gone."
"I did look for you," Arthur interrupted again, this time much more firmly. Merlin stilled, the fire instantly going out of him.
It was strange, really, for a man who had just displayed such amazing power, to now look so hesitant and unsure of himself. Even Merlin's stance was uncertain, knees bent slightly as though ready to bolt.
"We searched for weeks," Arthur informed him, a lump growing solidly in his throat. "But you were nowhere. I thought…maybe you didn't want to be found."
Merlin stared at Arthur for a long time, throat moving as though working up the courage to speak, but his mouth stayed stubbornly shut. He stood stock still as his options played through his head.
"I…was with the druids," he said at last. "They found me after I fought off the mercenaries and kept me hidden. I was in a coma for two months."
Arthur's eyes widened. "Two months?" he repeated.
Merlin nodded with his lips pressed in a thin line, the corners of his mouth turned white. "That's what you get when you force your magic passed a dampening potion on such a large scale."
Arthur's felt his tongue stick in his dry mouth. So all that devastation they'd seen…It had been Merlin. "We saw the aftermath of the battle," he said at last, picturing the blackened craters again, trying to fit together the missing pieces. "But we couldn't find any bodies."
"The druids built a pyre and burned them," Merlin explained. "At least, that's what they told me. Life is life, and death is death. It didn't matter who they were or what they'd done, not to the druids."
"So…" Arthur began, processing this new information. "All that time, when we couldn't find you…you weren't hiding from us—from me." Slowly, Merlin shook his head. "You were unconscious the entire time."
Merlin hesitated again. "And…and if you'd found me," he said slowly, "What would you have said?"
And the words that Arthur had been so ready to say stuck in his throat. He opened his mouth to speak but no sound emerged. There was so much he needed to say—so much he had to say—but none of it seemed good enough, now. A heartfelt apology, begging for forgiveness, a thank you. Such words seemed meaningless.
"Come home," was what finally emerged.
Merlin started at that. "Home?" he repeated, as though he had heard incorrectly. "You…you'd let me?"
"I'm sorry Merlin. I am so, so sorry. I know now what you were doing—what you've been doing. And I left you to die. I can't tell you how much I…." but his voice caught, and he couldn't complete the words. "Please, Merlin."
"But I lied to you," Merlin answered, still not quite processing what was happening. "For years I've lied to you."
"I never gave you a chance to tell me the truth."
"Arthur…" That whispered name, not heard uttered by that voice for months now, nearly broke the king. "You don't know what I've done. All the mistakes I've made…"
"Yes, actually," Arthur answered. "I do." Merlin's eyes widened, but then he sadly shook his head, clearly not believing the king. "Gaius has told me a lot since you've been gone, Merlin," Arthur explained. "I know about the dragon, and about Balinore. I know about everything that happened between you and Morgana. You told me you killed my father, though now I know exactly how and why that happened, too."
Merlin's face turned white at the listing of what he considered his greatest failings. "Can you really forgive me?" he asked numbly. "Can you really forgive me for everything I've done?"
It was then that Arthur realized his mistake. He'd assumed that Merlin had stayed away out of anger—that he had hated Arthur as much as the king now hated himself for believing the lies of Merlin's betrayal, for turning his back on his friend. But Merlin felt guilty.
"Merlin…there's nothing to forgive."
His eyes widened in surprise, but then darkened again. "Yes, Arthur, there is."
"Fine!" Arthur shouted, starting to grow annoyed. "Then I forgive you! But you forget the fact that I completely and utterly betrayed you! Not to mention the fact that I brushed off your father's death like it was nothing, killed the woman you loved, and all along have been completely oblivious to every pain you've ever suffered!"
Merlin shook his head. "None of that was your fault."
Arthur groaned his frustration. "Why don't you hate me!" he demanded at last. He didn't understand.
"You're my friend, Arthur," Merlin responded, as though that were obvious. "Or…at least you were. Are you?"
And Arthur wilted again. He still hadn't received an answer. "But can you ever forgive me?"
"Oh Arthur," Merlin's response sounded more like a response to a small toddler than to a king. "Don't you get it? I already have."
And Arthur couldn't help his relief bubbling up in a laugh that sounded quite properly insane. "Then yes, yes! Come home. I swear to never betray you again, my friend."
Merlin actually dropped to his knees in the weightiness of his relief, silent tears pouring from his eyes. He covered his face in his hands and took several deep breaths, trying to regain himself.
"Um…Merlin?" Arthur asked again.
Merlin lowered his hands and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Can you untie me now?"
And Merlin laughed. With a flash of his eyes, Arthur's ropes fell to the ground. The first thing the king did was rub life back into his arms, the second was pull his friend into a hug.
A/N: Yay! Complete. So, whatcha think? Hope it lived up to your expectations. There are still a couple other things I was hoping to include, but they just never made it in, considering this fic has already doubled from its originally intended length, but I think I like the way it turned out. I'd love reviews, as always. So please let me know what you thought!
Thanks for reading, everyone!