A/N: Here it is, the final chapter. I enjoyed writing it. I hope it lives up to your expectations!
The usual disclaimer: BBC, not me
Arthur and Merlin had been walking for a while. Merlin had many questions, but he was going to force Arthur to make the first move. Arthur had a lot to say, but wasn't sure how to begin. And therefore both were silent.
"I hurt you," Arthur finally said. It wasn't a question.
"I never meant to. I swear, Merlin, I was planning to call you back to Camelot." Arthur sounded as if he were pleading for his friend to believe him.
Merlin kicked at a loose stone on the path. "Why didn't you, then?"
"I started to. Honestly, I did. I went to Gaius and talked to him about magic, and about you. He helped me with those last nagging doubts about magic corrupting good people. We talked about how I could break my father's laws and not feel like I was betraying him. Gaius really helped me with that." They had reached a clearing, and Arthur sat down on the grass. Merlin followed suit. "All I had to do was set up a couple of escape plans in case you got caught, and then I'd write to you and you'd come home."
"What changed your mind?" asked Merlin. When Arthur didn't answer, Merlin began to get annoyed. "Come on, Arthur. I knew you might not want me back. I didn't expect it, but I knew it might happen. But what really hurt, what I couldn't understand, was why you didn't tell me the reason I couldn't return to Camelot. All you said was 'I'm sorry.' Well, that's not good enough, Arthur." Merlin's voice began to rise with his anger. "I needed to know. Was it because you couldn't betray Uther? Was it because you were afraid of me? Were you worried I'd get caught? Was it because I'd lied to you all that time and you didn't trust me anymore? Why, Arthur?"
Arthur looked at Merlin with such a bleak expression that Merlin stopped talking. Something had happened, and it must have been bad. "Arthur," he said quietly, "I'm your friend. Whatever happened, I'll understand. And if it needs it, I'll forgive you."
"In the first five days after you left," Arthur began, unable to look at his friend, his voice barely above a whisper, "there were three executions. The first was the next morning at dawn, a woman who secretly made and sold love potions. A dissatisfied customer turned her in on the guarantee of amnesty," he said bitterly. "By law, the customer was just as guilty for buying the potion, but by betraying the 'sorceress,' he got to keep his head, while she lost hers. That same afternoon, a Druid was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. My father sentenced him to die the next morning. I argued with him about it, more than I should have." Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes at the memory.
"You were thinking of me," said Merlin. Again, not a question.
"Druids are harmless. They practice good magic, I am certain of it. I have argued in favor of the Druids before, and lost every time. I always knew when to stop. But this time, I didn't. I kept trying to convince my father he was wrong. He was in a rage, but I kept at him. It wasn't until he threatened to charge me with speaking treason that I finally gave up. But I didn't attend the execution, so Father was still furious with me."
"You haven't always given in," Merlin reminded Arthur. "You helped the Druid boy escape that time. You mustn't forget that."
Arthur smiled ruefully. "Oh, it got worse," he said. "Two days later, a twelve-year-old girl named Rebecca was accused of being a witch. She was a little different from the other children, and they used to make fun of her and call her names, that sort of thing. One of them thought it might be funny to call her a witch, and it caught on. It reached the attention of a few of the guards, and they arrested her."
Merlin listened in growing horror. He had been an odd child, often singled out for name-calling and other abuse. He could see where this was going, and it was unthinkable!
"One of the children actually had a conscience and told one of my knights what had really happened, and he told me," Arthur continued. "I tried to tell my father, but he wouldn't listen. I went to the other children, trying to get at the truth, but most were afraid of getting in trouble for lying about her. I managed to get the real story out of two more of them, but it did no good. My father insisted she die at dawn." Arthur drew a ragged breath. "Coming so soon after the Druid, there was no way Father was going to listen to me. The more I tried, the less he listened. I should have gotten someone else to plead her case, Sir Leon, or Gaius. She may have had a chance with one of them. But all I did was get her killed." Arthur put his face in his hands.
"You did the best you knew how at the time," Merlin said, trying to comfort his friend.
"No," answered Arthur sharply, looking Merlin in the eyes. "I didn't. I went too far, and Father had me arrested and locked up in the dungeon for speaking treason. He said I would stay there until I recanted my position to the entire court. When I refused, he…he left me chained to the wall, said if I was going to act like a common traitor he would treat me like one."
Merlin felt tears prick at the corners of his eyes. "You gave in then, didn't you?"
"No," said Arthur quietly. "Not then. When he came to me the next morning, I refused to speak to him at all. So he told me that he had decided to let the witch burn instead of having her beheaded. I raged at him, she was a child, she wasn't even guilty of anything, he couldn't burn her – but he stood firm. The only way to save her from the flames was for me to recant. So I did. I…I knelt in front of the king and the entire court and I begged for forgiveness."
As Arthur spoke, tears began to roll down his face, but he ignored them. "I said I had been wrong about magic, that all sorcerers were evil and must be eradicated from Camelot without exception. I thanked my father for showing me the error of my ways and begged to be allowed in his royal presence once more. And every word hurt, Merlin. I felt like my soul was being torn out of me."
Arthur swiped a hand angrily across his wet cheeks before continuing bitterly, "And he said… he thanked me for finally admitting how wrong I had been, but it would take some time before I could earn his trust again, and that I could start regaining it at the execution that morning. And he led me onto the balcony, and they brought the poor little girl, Rebecca, out to the block, and they got her ready, and my father turned to me, and he said, 'You do it, Arthur.' And I felt so numb, I just raised my arm, and dropped it, and the axe came down and she was dead. I killed her, Merlin. I killed an innocent twelve-year-old girl. I haven't opposed him about sorcery since, not at one single execution. Gods, Merlin, I've turned into my father!"
Merlin reached for Arthur and held the now sobbing prince, just as Arthur had done for him all those months ago. Merlin shed his own tears as well, his heart aching at his friend's humiliation and grief and pain. When they both finally quieted, they lay down side by side and watched the clouds floating and shifting overhead.
"I couldn't have you come back to Camelot, Merlin," Arthur finally said. "After what I'd done, what I'd had to say to the king and his court, I felt like I'd betrayed you along with that child. I felt such guilt. And I knew I wouldn't be able to keep you safe if you got caught. So I made you stay in Ealdor. I couldn't tell you why; I was too ashamed to tell you what I'd done, what I'd become."
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," answered Merlin, watching a sheep cloud change into a bunny. "You did what you had to do. I know what Uther is like on the subject of magic. Once he'd made up his mind that she was going to die, nobody could have saved her. But you kept her from the flames, Arthur. You had to pay a terrible price to give her this gift, but it was the right thing to do, for both you and her."
Arthur sat up halfway and looked furiously down into Merlin's face. "Gift! I murdered that little girl, Merlin. How dare you call it a gift?"
Merlin didn't move, but calmly continued watching the clouds shift. "Did you know that some people with magic can communicate without talking?" Ignoring Arthur's bemused look at the sudden change of topic, he continued, "We can speak by thinking, mind to mind. Sometimes, in distress, strong sorcerers will send out their thoughts so powerfully that almost anyone with magic will hear them."
Merlin sat halfway up to face Arthur, mirroring his pose. His voice became hard. "Do you know how many executions have happened since I arrived in Camelot? Some of those killed were strong users of magic. And I heard and felt them die. I know what it feels like to be beheaded, and I know what it feels like to be put to the flames. Trust me, Arthur. You gave that child a gift!" Merlin flopped back on the ground. There, a cloud that looked like a dragon. Terrific. Just what he didn't need.
Arthur had paled at Merlin's words. "You can feel them die? Just like it's happening to you?"
"Some of them. Not all. I'd been working on spells to block them out, when I left." Yup, still a dragon. He watched it until it changed into something completely unrecognizable. Much better. "You know, Arthur, there's something else you said that's completely wrong. You have not turned into your father. Not even close!" Merlin spoke carefully. "Your father does what he does because he truly believes he is right. Afterwards, he feels satisfaction. You did what you did because you no longer had a choice. Afterwards you felt guilt and remorse. You are not your father, Arthur."
"Perhaps," conceded Arthur after a moment. "You know the assassin you saved me from in your dream? It was Rebecca's father. Uther had him hanged. If I could just have saved her, he'd still be alive, too. They'd still be a family."
Merlin sat up. "Arthur, you have to let this go. It wasn't your fault. There were many things that contributed to a horrible tragedy. If you keep the guilt all for yourself, it will destroy you."
"That's what Gaius keeps telling me, too," Arthur admitted, still staring at the sky. "I think the reason I haven't been able to let go is because I needed to tell you what I'd done. I became complicit in my father's hatred of magic, Merlin. I need to be sure you don't hate me for that."
Merlin smiled. "I could never hate you, Arthur. Resent you occasionally, call you a prat, sure, but never hate you." He hesitated. "I think of you as my brother. Don't take this the wrong way, okay, but I love you, Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur sat up as well and looked seriously into Merlin's eyes. "I told my father that you and I are as brothers, also. He told me he already knew." He sighed. "Things have been different between him and me. After that execution, he stopped pushing me so much. We fought some, but not as hard. And then after the banquet when you saved me, we had a terrible fight, our worst ever, but eventually we came to an understanding. It's like we're finally beginning to be able to talk to each other."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?" asked Merlin.
"Yes, very," said Arthur. "He's begun to listen to my opinions, not just dismiss them out of hand because they aren't his. I think he's finally realized I am an adult." Arthur began to chuckle. "Gaius sat us face to face and told us we were not to leave the room until we had sorted things out. Can you imagine anyone else talking to the king that way and getting away with it?" Merlin laughed at the thought. He certainly wouldn't have tried it – he liked his head where it was, thank you! Arthur continued, "If I'm lucky, he might just start listening to my opinions again – but really listen this time. I think I can even keep you safe now, if it comes to that." He took a deep breath.
"So, Merlin, best friend and brother of mine," said Arthur, standing up, "how about coming home to Camelot with me and being my manservant again? I'll even raise your wages!"
Merlin rose too, and smiled. "I'd like that, Arthur, brother, best friend, and royal prat – under one condition."
"Hey, I didn't call you names!" protested Arthur. He looked at Merlin through narrowed eyes. "What's the condition?" he asked suspiciously.
"Help my mum and me finish making the bread," said Merlin with a mischievous grin.
"Oh, no, no, no, I can't do that! Remember Gwen and the chicken?"
Merlin swung his arm up and around Arthur's shoulders. "You want me, you make bread. It's called blackmail." They started walking back to Merlin's house.
Arthur groaned. "All right. And then you'll come home with me?
"Then I'll come home with you. Hey, did Uther really let you come all this way alone?"
"No," grumbled Arthur. "He has decided I'm no longer invincible. He sent two knights to protect me," Arthur scoffed. "I ordered them to camp about three hours away and wait for my return. But you know what that means, right?"
"You still have Whisper? You're going to ride him back to Camelot?"
Merlin was confused. "Yeah…"
"Well," beamed Arthur, "between here and the knights, it'll be just two good friends, out for a ride, just for the fun of it."
Arthur was rewarded with Merlin's biggest ear-to-ear grin, and finally he felt that all was right with the world.
Final A/N: When I started writing this story, it had been many years since I had attempted to write fiction of any real length or substance. It was so long ago, the internet didn't exist yet. (Yeah, I'm that old.) If it had, and there had been sites like this, maybe I would not have stopped writing in the first place. The support I've received from all of you – from those who have left reviews, alerted, favorited, messaged, and even the huge number who simply lurked – has been overwhelming. I was incredibly nervous when I posted the first chapter, and now I am in the middle of writing two more stories with other little plot bunnies hopping around for attention. So thank you, all of you, for reading, supporting, and helping me in the beginning of what I hope will be a new (rediscovered) part of my life.
As always, concrit welcome