Another story finished! :) I cannot thank you enough for the amazing support throughout this, it has truly meant the world to me to hear what you think. Thank you!
"How are you feeling?" Merlin moved slowly into the room, watching as Arthur opened his eyes to look at him. He had known the older boy hadn't been asleep, he had just been able to feel it. It had still taken quite a lot of effort on his behalf to banish the anger as he addressed the prince. He had never had someone willing to die for him before and the fact that it was someone he cared about just made it so much worse.
He couldn't remember much of what had happened after he had healed Arthur. The prince had passed out. The wounds might have been healed, but he had still lost a lot of blood and the sheer terror he had felt at the situation overwhelmed him. Merlin had been determined that he was going to help Leon help get Arthur back to the house, but he had only taken one step forward before he too had hit the floor. There was nothing wrong with him as such, just the exhaustion of using that much magic while confronting his own worst nightmare had got up with him. For the second time in only a few days, Leon had been forced to walk the horse back with both boys unconscious over her back.
Merlin had awoken as dawn had broken to find a frantic Hunith sitting by his bedside, watching him intently. Merlin had worried that she would have thought that he had tried to run away again, but her reassurances quickly put an end to that as she announced how proud of him she was for going after Arthur and remembering to get Leon first. Merlin didn't talk about the fact he had been face to face with Jarta again and watched the man die this time, and his mother didn't mention it. He was sure she knew, just didn't want to bring up the topic until he did.
Merlin had refused to stay in bed, wanting to know where Arthur was. The prince had still been asleep, but Leon had soothed Merlin's worries by saying how that was the best thing for him right now. For the entire day Arthur dozed on and off, barely having the strength to lift his head, let alone any other part of his body. The scowl on his face made Merlin realise that he hated this weakness, but when Leon told him that he shouldn't have wandered off then, Arthur hadn't complained.
It was then that Merlin realised just how angry he was with Arthur. The prince had been so determined to free the warlock that he had completely disregarded his own safety. While Merlin had been touched that Arthur cared enough to go to those lengths, he had also been angry. Mainly because it had driven home that he still wasn't in control of his own life, that someone else was making the decisions in regards to his magic. Gaius had told him quietly while they had been waiting for Arthur to wake up again that Arthur's hold over the magic would weaken if he returned to Camelot.
For the first time since they had been bonded together, Merlin found that he wanted the royal to go. At least that way, no one could try and use Arthur like that to get to him again, they would have no way of knowing about the link. But it would also mean that the magic was under Merlin's control again – within reason – and he would be able to live his life out normally. Just because the magic wasn't as strong as it had been didn't bother Merlin, it was still better than being stuck as a slave. It would mean for the first time ever, the decision would be in his hands. The realisation that he wanted Arthur to go had hit Merlin hard, but his mother had been there to gather him up and hold him close as he cried. Now that Arthur was awake again, Merlin knew that he had to talk to him.
Arthur shifted under the blankets and gave Merlin a weak smile.
"Better. Can you help me sit up?" Merlin nodded, moving across the room and moving the pillows as Arthur clumsily moved into an upright position before sagging back on them. It was scary how much colour he lost in that one movement and Merlin found that he was chewing his lip anxiously. Arthur caught sight of the action and grinned.
"You almost weren't."
"But I am. Don't think about what almost happened, Merlin, think about what did. You saved my life."
"No thanks to you." Merlin retorted sullenly, sitting on the edge of the bed and letting his hands pick at the blanket. "Why did you go out there?"
"I wanted to give you your life back." Arthur avoided Merlin's eyes as he spoke and the warlock blinked in surprise at the sheepish tone in Arthur's voice. He knew Arthur didn't mean that he had gone out there to get himself killed. He had gone out to return to his father, to be taken back to Camelot in order to let his hold over the magic weaken. He had tried to do what Merlin now wanted.
"I want to go home, Merlin. I know we said that we would have found each other again, and now we have this…who knows if we will ever truly be apart again. But this isn't my home any more than Camelot is yours. I'm needed there, and you're not ready to leave again, not after what happened last time. Surely it's better to at least try and see if Gaius' theory works? If the magic weakens, we never have to see each other again if we don't want."
Merlin studied the blanket intently, not wanting to meet Arthur's eyes. He was afraid of how the prince would see him if he agreed too readily. Arthur let out a soft laugh.
"You were already thinking the same, weren't you?"
Merlin shrugged, not wanting to admit that he had been trying to pluck up the courage to tell Arthur he had to go. Silence fell between them, neither boy knowing what to say. Merlin knew that this was going to be a different parting from before. They had been children then, unaware of the dangers that the world could throw at them. Arthur had perhaps been more aware than Merlin, but both knew they were protected. A bond had been formed, but that was it. But this time, they were actively choosing to go separate ways in an attempt to help keep the other safe. They had gone through too much to simply act as if nothing had happened and while that rested heavily between them, Merlin knew they couldn't stay in the same place.
"Where's Leon?" Arthur's quiet voice made Merlin blink as he realised that he had been slowly falling asleep on the edge of the bed while thinking about everything that had once again landed them in the same place.
"He's already ridden for your father's camp. He wants to get you back now. It's going to take them a couple of days before they arrive and Gaius says that you will be okay to ride by then."
Arthur nodded mutely and Merlin stood up. He couldn't bear this awkwardness in the room. Both had risked so much for the other even when they didn't completely understand what they were doing. Small talk was not something they could have any more.
Arthur shut his eyes again as Merlin left, and the warlock wandered through the house aimlessly. It was almost strange being home again after so long of wanting to be here. He could hear his mother just outside talking, and one glance showed that it was Matthew leaning on their face. He didn't know what would happen when he had to face the man after running from him, but Merlin was convinced that his mother would be firmly on his side now. That was for another day, however, for Merlin knew that he wasn't quite ready to face up to what he had done all those months ago.
"Merlin?" The voice made him smile and Merlin turned. He knew that Petra was feeling as out of place as he was, despite the fact that this was his home. She was standing in the kitchen, clearly keeping an eye on something for Hunith, but grinned as he came in.
"How are you feeling?"
"Free," Merlin admitted. It didn't matter that Arthur still had control of his magic, the fact that Jarta had been killed was enough for him to feel like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. For the first time in months, Merlin felt like a child. More than that, however, he had no desire to change that feeling. He was quite content with feeling young and letting everyone else deal with matters for once.
"I wish I had been there," Petra murmured, turning back to the pot and continuing to stir.
"Why? You were always the one who told me not to think like that, that it wouldn't help."
"I was just trying to protect you, Merlin. You are young, you have your whole life ahead of you. I knew that you would get away, you were always too strong. He knew that, he used to worry about it to me when you were asleep. But I had no way of getting out of there apart from being killed."
"I would have never have gone without you." Merlin told her anxiously, not liking the way that Petra was talking. Her eyes were filled with tears as she spoke and her hand was resting on her stomach. Merlin found his gaze locked on that hand and without meaning to, his magic stretched out. He knew enough of what Jarta had kept Petra around for to no longer be the naïve boy he had been when he left. His magic felt another spark of life in her and Merlin stumbled back, eyes going wide in shock.
"You're having a baby?!" He didn't hear his mother coming in behind him at that very instant, but tears slid down Petra's face as she nodded.
"Merlin, run along and help Matthew." Merlin started in surprise at his mother's voice, opening his mouth to protest when her hand landed on his shoulder. The grip was gentle but firm. But Merlin knew the touch and he almost melted into it. It was her way of saying she expected him to be grown up enough to know to do as he was told without protesting. His mother hadn't given him that look since he had been back, seeming to want to pander to her son's every need rather than enforce the guidelines she had tried to instil before. Realising that this sense of normality was what he had been waiting for, Merlin ran for the door, almost tripping over his shoes as he did so.
Just before he left, Merlin looked back to find his mother had her arms around a sobbing Petra. Knowing a conversation with Matthew was going to be better than that, Merlin left, carefully shutting the door behind him. Matthew hadn't gone back to his own property, but was instead sitting on the edge of theirs. To begin with, Merlin couldn't work out what he was doing until he saw the man bang at the small pole they had been using as a fence in order to try and get it to sit flat.
"Do you need any help?" Even to himself, Merlin's voice came out quiet and unsure. Matthew glanced over his shoulder and smiled.
"Couldn't hand me those reeds there, could you, lad?" Merlin tentatively did as he was asked, only relaxing when Matthew had taken them from him with nothing more than a smile of thanks. Merlin didn't know what he was expecting, but it was as if nothing had changed.
"Matthew, about before…"
"Before doesn't matter now, lad. You are home and your mother has her son back, that is all that matters." Merlin stared at the man, wondering how he could act so calm. Merlin had run away from him, he had used magic to stop the man from following him out into the forest. He knew Matthew well, knew that when it became obvious that Merlin wasn't going to be coming back the man would have blamed himself for not moving quickly enough to stop him.
"What are you doing?" Sitting down next to Matthew, he watched as the farmer began weaving the reeds through the poles.
"Making sure the wind can't just blow it over. Look, if I poke this bit through here and bend it back this way, it stays strong, you see?" Merlin nodded his understanding, biting his lip in concentration as he watched Matthew work. It was completely different to the type of work he had been doing for the last six months. It was about building a home, building a place of safety and ensuring that the outside world could be shut out if it all got too much.
"Now you have a go." Merlin started, not looking sure. As Matthew passed him a reed, Merlin smiled and concentrated hard as he tried to mimic what the man had been doing. It took him a few attempts to get it right, but when he did so, he found himself flushing with success.
"We'll get this done in no time between the two of us." Matthew declared, pulling another pile of reeds towards them and setting to work. He could do five for every one that Merlin managed to bend around, and more often than not, Merlin's then came unravelled. But the child didn't care. He was needed here, just the way the bandits had needed him as well.
Only here, he was loved.
Just as Merlin thought they would have run out of reeds, another pile dropped down next to them. Merlin glanced up to find a tired looking Arthur sliding a knife back into his belt.
"I found them by the river, I hope they are the right type."
"Perfect. Merlin, why don't you show Arthur how it is done?" Merlin made to protest. As a prince, Arthur would never have to sit on the ground and mend a fence. But his protests died when Arthur simply dropped down next to him, folding his legs under him. The prince picked up a reed and looked at Merlin expectantly.
"Like this," moving slowly and checking with Matthew that he was doing it right, Merlin proceeded to show his friend what needed to be done. The three of them worked in companionable silence for the rest of the afternoon. Merlin's yawns and the setting sun finally drove them inside to where Hunith and a calmer Petra were waiting with dinner.
Merlin didn't think he had ever slept as well as he did that night.
"Now, love, are you sure you have everything?"
"I never had anything to begin with, they didn't let me pack when they took me prisoner."
"Arthur!" Merlin grinned at Leon's reprimand. Arthur suitably blushed but Hunith just smiled at him fondly. Leon had arrived back at dawn, cantering into the village and causing quite a stir despite the early hour of the morning. The boys had been up though, and seeing him come in meant only one thing. The king was only a few hours behind and Arthur would be taken back to Camelot. Breakfast had been a quiet and terse affair. Despite both Merlin and Arthur wanting to get back to their respective lives and move on from what had happened, neither truly wanted to say goodbye to the other.
"Have you saddled the horses, Sire?" Arthur nodded again and Gaius and Leon exchanged looks before heading out of the house. It wasn't often that Arthur would be made to act as if he was just a squire, but both of the men who had had a hand in his upbringing more than his own father knew that the prince had been distracted. Merlin had been kept inside to help his mother and Arthur sent out.
They had both moaned about it, naturally. But it was the casual protest than any boy their respective ages would have made, nothing truly meant by it. To Hunith and Leon, that had been a sign enough that they were once again ready to be parted without anything drastic happening. Keeping them occupied had stopped them both thinking about the magic and therefore stopping it from playing up.
"Are you going to be alright without me?" Arthur asked in concern, looking at Merlin. He made sure to meet the younger boy's eyes in order to know whether he was lying or not, but wasn't even sure if that was needed. As much as the adults might have thought they weren't thinking about the magic, Arthur had found himself exploring part of his mind that he had never noticed before. It was as if a door had been opened, and every time he ventured close to it, he knew that he was sensing Merlin. Judging by the looks that Merlin had been given him over the last day, Arthur had a feeling that he was feeling it as well.
"I managed well enough before you." Merlin responded casually, and Arthur had to bite his tongue. How could he say that he didn't think that was true considering Merlin had ended up enslaved to bandits in front of the boy's mother?
"Are you going to be alright hiding this from your father?" There was true worry in Merlin's voice, and Arthur knew why. All the prince would have to do was slip up slightly and that would be it for the warlock. If it was mentioned that Merlin had been present during the kidnapping, Uther wouldn't hear anything more. Arthur always liked to think of his father as being a fair king, but he wasn't the same naïve boy from before. Even when he had first met Merlin, he had been afraid of the man. A tiny hint of that fear still remained after witnessing more than one person being burnt to death just because a rumour indicated they might have a flicker of magic running through their blood. Arthur had never truly made up his own mind – he knew what his teachings said and what his father told him, but not what he truly thought. Meeting Merlin had changed that. Seeing the most powerful warlock of his age reduced to nothing more than a slave had firmly planted the idea in his head that it wasn't the magic itself that was evil, it was whoever it belonged to that had the potential for evil.
Jarta had that potential. Merlin did not.
Arthur just hoped that he didn't either.
"I'll be fine. I've lied to him about things before." Arthur shrugged, trying to act as if it wasn't a big deal. He knew that his pretence was transparent though, for both Hunith and Merlin gave him concerned looks. Arthur swallowed, hoping that it didn't mean his father could see through his lies that easily. At least with Leon and Gaius not only knowing but being behind him on this as well it meant there was someone to keep the attention away from him. Considering how he had been behaving for the last few years, Arthur didn't think there would ever come the day where he wanted his father to look the other way.
"Not to save someone's life." Arthur swallowed, realising that he was forcing himself to live the same lie that Merlin was forced to live.
"I promise he'll never find out from me." He vowed. It was the only thing he could do. That, and hope that he had the strength to keep that promise even when things got tough. Besides, he wasn't completely sure what his father would do to him if he found out. It wasn't just Merlin he was trying to protect by staying quiet.
To his surprise, Hunith suddenly moved forward and pulled Arthur into a hug. Merlin shifted self-consciously behind them, clearly not knowing quite how to react. Arthur, however, practically melted into it, realising that he had never truly received a motherly hug before. At least, not since he had last been here. Arthur suddenly realised quite how much he was going to miss Ealdor again this time. Every time he came here, he changed.
A softly clearing throat made Hunith pull back and Arthur tried to find a way of wiping his eyes without Merlin seeing. Luckily, the younger boy was distracted by their new comer and let Arthur regain his dignity. Petra stood in the doorway, a small bag over her shoulder. Arthur stepped back and let Hunith go to the other woman, her movement almost forcing Merlin to approach the prince.
"How do you feel?" Merlin's voice was quiet and Arthur knew that he didn't want his mother to overhear. He smiled sheepishly.
"Like it's about to burst out from me without me knowing. You?"
Merlin didn't even need to answer verbally. Arthur could tell by the look on his face that he was feeling the same.
"Are you going to be alright with Petra leaving?" He didn't know precisely what was happening with the other woman, but knew that she was going to try and find her family again. Merlin shrugged.
"This isn't her home."
"What about you?" Arthur hadn't wanted to ask. He knew that Hunith had constantly been watching her son to make sure that he wasn't about to take off in the middle of the night again. It had been almost easy having someone watch him with Arthur, Gaius and Leon around. But now they and Petra were leaving and it would just be the two of them, Arthur had almost watched the worry intensify with each day. Merlin shot him a look as if to say he knew what was going through the prince's mind but then sighed.
"I'm home, Arthur. I know that now. You told me it took weeks for Gaius to get it into your head that you belonged in Camelot when you first returned? Let's just say I've had that same lesson, I know where I belong."
Arthur looked into Merlin's eyes for a long moment before nodding. Not only was the truth and acceptance shining within them, he could also feel through the magic that Merlin was telling the truth. He truly did feel like he belonged here now, and Arthur could ask for nothing more.
"Arthur, they're here."
Arthur swallowed hard at Leon's announcement, but took a deep breath. Merlin nudged his arm against the prince's and Arthur nodded in return. It was time to face the real world again.
"Arthur!" Everyone in the room bowed apart from Arthur as the King of Camelot once again swept into the room, despite it being years since he had last done so. His hands landed on Arthur's shoulders and he gave his son a small shake, staring deep into Arthur's eyes.
"Are you hurt?"
"No, Sire." Arthur made sure that he kept his voice steady and even, but he couldn't stop his eyes from flickering to Merlin as he spoke. The boy shifted on the spot and the prince made sure that he snapped his attention back to his father to stop Uther from looking around.
"You can ride?" Arthur nodded, knowing that his father would want to get away from here as fast as possible. It was entirely possible he didn't even remember this was the same house that he had collected Arthur from all those years ago. Arthur also knew that the man wasn't even being rude by wanting to leave, but that he wanted Arthur back under the protection of armed guards as soon as he could. The man's eyes ran over him, clearly assessing whether Arthur had been telling the truth or not before striding from the room. Knowing that he was expected to follow him, Arthur took a step forward. But before he could take another, Merlin stepped in his way.
"It won't be forever, right?" He muttered softly and the older boy forced himself to grin. Arthur didn't know the answer to Merlin's question, and he didn't want to lie. But he could say what was in his heart and what he believed in.
"No. We'll find a way. I have to go home though, until we can find a way for it not to react." Arthur kept his voice soft and quiet and made sure that he didn't mention specifically what they were talking about. Merlin nodded and stepped to one side.
"Thank you for saving my life." He muttered quietly. His voice was so soft that Arthur nearly missed his words altogether, only just catching them as he was about to leave. He stopped, starting in surprise. They had talked about the magic and Merlin knew what Arthur had done in order to be the one ending up in control, but never had he acknowledged the fact the prince had saved his life.
"Thank you for trying to save mine." Arthur murmured in response, practically fleeing from the house before things could get any more awkward. Leon was mounted, holding the reigns to Arthur's horse casually in one hand and Gaius was saying goodbye to Hunith. Arthur swung himself up in the saddle and his father nodded in approval.
"Move out." Gaius hastily mounted up himself as the horses began moving out. Arthur followed the others, but then reigned the animal back, twisting in the saddle to look back at the small house. This was the second time he had ridden away from here, and he couldn't help but wonder what series of events would bring him back again. In Arthur's mind, there was no doubt that he would be coming back. After all, he had control of Merlin's magic. It was taking a great deal of concentration on both of their parts for Arthur to even be allowed to leave, the magic desire its hosts to stay closer together than they were planning.
Arthur opened his mouth, attempting to call something back to Merlin. But the words lodged in his throat and Arthur instead just swallowed hard. What was he hoping to say? After everything they had just been through, saying a proper goodbye didn't seem like the right thing to do. Instead, he just stared, locking eyes with the warlock and the magic was telling him that Merlin was going through the same struggle.
Arthur looked back around at his father's call, nodding softly. With one final glance, he offered Merlin a small smile, turned his horse and quickly trotted after the others. This time, he didn't look back around.
Behind him, Merlin sighed. He knew that Arthur was going this time, that he wouldn't look back. The magic was already threatening to burst from him in order to keep him by his friend's side, and he could feel similar emotions coming from Arthur. They shouldn't make it any harder on themselves than it already was. But watching Arthur ride away made something in Merlin's soul tug in that direction and the warlock shakily leant back on the wall of the house, resisting the urge to simply go running after him. Gaius had said that the magic would settle, but it was so used to being controlled by another in close contact that it was going to take a few hours for it to get used to the idea that Merlin was the one in control again.
If he was honest, Merlin wasn't sure it was going to work. He regained control now that he wasn't close enough to sense what it was that Arthur wanted. It gave him his magic back, but he knew full well that should he ever cross paths with the prince of Camelot again, that magic would instantly react to Arthur and refuse to listen to Merlin until they were out of contact again. Running a hand through his hair, Merlin suddenly realised just how quiet it was.
Arthur was not the only one to have gone. Petra had slipped away while the royals had been leaving. His mother was watching him closely, but Merlin found that he just nodded. He had always known that the woman might have done something like that, it was not in her nature to say goodbye. But now it was just the two of them left and Merlin swallowed awkwardly. It was like they were back at the beginning again, but Merlin knew full well he was not the same boy he had been when he had stood in this support nearly seven months ago.
"I thought we would have stew for supper." Hunith started moving back into the house as she spoke, clearly wanting to give Merlin space. Merlin instantly began to follow her though, not wanting to stay out on his own. He murmured his consent and moved into the kitchen behind her, automatically reaching up to fetch the bowls. There were only two left on their small shelf now, the sheer number of people that had been living under roof meant they could never keep up with keeping the rest of them clean. But Merlin found he was smiling as he leant up to get them down.
This was how it should be. Just the two of them. This time, he had no intention of leaving again. Not until he was much older and ready to explore the world and the adventures it would offer him. But for now, he was more than happy to pass his mother the bowls and watch as she slipped an extra spoonful into his, her eyes and smile warm as she handed it back to him.
Who knew what the future was going to hold?
But Merlin knew that he was home.