A/N: Here it is – the end! I'll warn you now that it's long.
Thank you so much for all the reviews. You're all brilliant for taking the time to let me know what you think and I appreciate each and every one of them. I know there are a few people who are disappointed with some aspects of what happened in this story, but all I can say is that I wrote this story the way I saw it. I can't please everyone, so I just had to please myself and hope one or two other people might like it too. Having said that, it turns out I'm a little thin-skinned when it comes to this kind of thing!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the end to the story. I'm going to be working on some ideas which flow on from Watching the Girls Go By next and I'm looking forward to writing something light and airy! Thanks again for the reviews; they've meant a lot to me.
Chapter 20. You have magic
"Arthur, stop! You're going to hurt yourself. This is...Arthur, please!"
He could hardly hear Gwen's words over the rushing of blood past his ears and his heart hammering away in his chest. He hurt from head to foot, as though he'd been riding hard for a week, but he had to move. He had to get to Merlin.
Free from his covers, he planted his feet on the ground. His head spun as he pulled himself upright.
"Arthur. That's enough," Gwen's tone was strict now, desperate. He felt her touch his arm through the thin fabric of his bed-shirt. There was confusion written on her face as she stood looking up at him, the early morning sunlight framing her face in a cloud of gold-lit curls. "Please, Arthur. Lie back down."
His voice sounded raw even to his own ears. He reached out and placed a hand on Guinevere's shoulder to steady himself.
"Merlin? He's resting, Arthur. If you need anything I can..."
"I need Merlin," Arthur broke in obstinately. He let go of Gwen and began to walk around the bed, his eyes on the door. The skin of his bare feet stung against the cold stone. Merlin. He staggered and stopped. The name was ringing in his head and he didn't know...He couldn't believe...
Arthur shook himself, trying to clear the fog in his head and forced himself to continue towards the door.
"Arthur, you can't go out there," Guinevere cried, and there was something in her tone that made Arthur turn to look at her. She was wringing her hands, her expression pained. "Uther...he's put guards out there. He doesn't want you leaving the room, Arthur."
Even through the numbness, the disbelief, those words felt like a slap to his face. His father had lost faith in him. They might never speak again about what had passed over the last few days, but they'd never trust each other again either. It had been too much for Uther; the magic, the truth.
He'd never felt so thoroughly sick in his life. Arthur felt his insides lurch and it was only with a quick and painful movement that he was able to reach the chamber pot before his stomach emptied itself, leaving him retching pitifully.
Guinevere's hand was on his head, stroking his hair as if she could wipe away every problem. And for a moment he was tempted; tempted to try to forget for a while, to give in to his weary body, to his father...to Merlin's lies.
But that last thought lit a fire within him and he shook himself free from Gwen, pulling himself back upright. He looked quickly around the room and his eyes fell on his sheathed sword lying on the table. He walked to it in a few quick strides, drew it with one well practiced movement and made for the door, determinedly ignoring Guinevere's pleas and the horrified look on her face.
The two guards on the other side of the door startled when he pulled it open, their eyes moving quickly from his face to the sword in his hand. They exchanged glances before the one on the right spoke up.
"I'm sorry, Sire, the King has..."
"Get out of my way."
"We can't allow..."
Arthur lashed out before he'd even thought about it. He needed to see Merlin and they were in his way. Simple. He disarmed the first, grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed him into the wall. As that man crumpled, he struck out at the second, weakening his grip on his sword with a solid blow and hitting him in the face with his clenched left fist. He was walking down the corridor before the man even hit the ground, his sword tight in his hand, Guinevere running along behind him.
Merlin was lying still in his bed, his eyes closed and the fingers of his right hand running thoughtfully along the edge of his blanket. He could hear Gaius moving about beyond the door, clinking glass vials and moving books. Outside, sounds of the city drifted up towards his window. Everything had settled back to just as it had always been, except...except it hadn't.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling above him. He felt almost dizzy as he thought about it; of the fact that he'd let Morgana and Morgause go free, that he'd laid himself bare to both of them, that soon he would have to go to Arthur and tell him the truth. Merlin clenched his bottom lip between his teeth. He didn't know what would be worse; telling Arthur he had magic, or telling him he'd let them both go free.
Anxiety rushing through him, Merlin lifted a hand and ran it roughly through his hair. Now, back in Camelot, morning light shining through the window just as it had every day and would for every day to come, he wondered what he had been thinking in that black forest clearing. He thought of Morgana, close to death, limp and pleading. He'd let her go free. He'd saved her again, even though it meant releasing Morgause as well. For the life of him he didn't know how she kept this hold over him. He'd been so determined, so ready to right his previous mistake.
But there had been something about the way she'd said his name, begged for his compassion. Something that had given him a glimmer of hope, though he found it hard to believe now in the stark daylight. She'd been in so much pain and when she'd asked him for help he'd seen her as she used to be, vulnerable and honest. He'd felt so...sad. That after everything, after all the struggles and pain and laughter...he couldn't let it end like that.
And while the thought of his decision to spare Morgana sat uneasily in his stomach, the memory of his silence towards Arthur was roaring in his ears, berating him. Condemning him. He thought of the look on Arthur's face after Morgause's attack on his soul, of the burgeoning enlightenment in his eyes. How different would the outcome have been if they had walked into that clearing united by the truth? What if they...
The sound of the outside door being thrown open knocked him violently from his contemplation. He lay frozen in his bed, knowing even before the words came.
"Where is he?"
"Arthur, you shouldn't be..."
"Where is he, Gaius?"
"Sire, Merlin is resting. You need to calm..."
"You've known all this time, haven't you? You've known and you've said nothing!"
Merlin couldn't breathe. He gasped for air as he strained to hear. Awkwardly, he pushed himself up from his pallet. He heard Gwen speaking, pleading with Arthur to stop, asking for an explanation. His head whirled as he stood up straight and walked forward gingerly. Footsteps sounded in the room beyond.
He reached out his hand and pulled open the door. Arthur was within reaching distance at the bottom of the steps, his eyes fixed on him and his sword clenched in his hand. He was dressed in only his bed-shirt and breeches and he looked both haggard and furious. Despite himself Merlin backed up, unable to stand his ground.
The Prince took the stairs quickly and then they were both standing in Merlin's room, the space too small for the pair of them, the air insufficient.
"You have magic."
The words sounded surreal coming from Arthur's lips. Merlin opened his mouth and closed it again. So many times he had imagined this and yet no words would come. He looked back at the familiar eyes before him and saw a coldness there that he had nearly forgotten.
"Say something!" Arthur's roar came suddenly and Merlin felt himself jump inside his skin.
Arthur registered his eyes flicking helplessly towards the sword and he cast it away with a frustrated growl. Its clatter rang around the room and did nothing for Merlin's nerves. Arthur advanced further, until they were only inches apart, looking even more threatening without his weapon than he had before, if that were possible. Merlin fought to swallow the lump in his throat. He could see the muscles in Arthur's jaw clenching.
"It's been years, Merlin. We've been...like this, for years and yet you've kept this a secret from me. Through everything. These last few days...I needed..." Confusion had passed briefly over Arthur's face and he shook away it now to gaze at Merlin accusingly. "There's been magic everywhere, Merlin, coming from every direction. You didn't think it would help for me to know? You didn't think it might be pertinent? After everything...Merlin, I had a right to know this! How could you not have told me?"
"How could you not have known?" Merlin shouted back, sudden rage and indignation filling every inch of his body. "When I fought back Morgause, when I came to you when she was taking you away...How could you not have seen me in that? I saw you looking at me afterwards, Arthur. You knew, I know you did! And it's not as though that was the first time I ever used magic around you. If you weren't so busy thinking I was a complete idiot you would have seen it years ago."
Arthur shook his head. "Don't blame this on me, Merlin." His voice was weaker and his face pale. "You could have told me whenever you wanted to."
"It wasn't that easy! If I'd told you at the start you would have had me arrested..."
"That was a long time ago, Merlin."
"And these last few days," Merlin persisted, "we didn't know how you'd react. I didn't know if it was for the best."
Merlin looked across at Arthur and felt all the anger seeping away even as he fought to hold onto it. The Prince looked...defeated. Merlin couldn't argue this any longer, not when he barely believed it himself. "I've wanted to tell you for the longest time. It just never..." he sighed. "I didn't want you to hate me, Arthur."
The Prince didn't hold his gaze. He looked away, towards the window with its view over Camelot. When he spoke, his tone was quieter still. "What happened at the end? What happened to Morgana and Morgause?"
Merlin swallowed deeply and then let out a long, steadying breath. "I let them go." He paused, ready for a reaction, but there was none and so he rushed on. "I don't know why I did it. To save Morgana I had to let Morgause go and...I don't know. I couldn't let her die like that Arthur. I just wanted it over. I wanted us all to be safe. I'm sorry."
Whatever reaction he had expected from the Prince it wasn't the stone-cold silence which took grip of the room. It made Merlin nervous and he found himself talking rapidly, finding the words he'd always wanted to say.
"Arthur, please...I know this looks really bad, but I swear, I would never...I should have told you, I know I should have told you but it was so hard." Arthur was still looking away, his face turned towards the light. Merlin gasped and fought the stinging sensation at the bridge of his nose. His voice was shaky and desperate. "I told you once that I would be happy to serve you till the day I die, and I meant it. Serving you and helping you protect Camelot...Arthur, that's what my magic's for. I would never use it against you. You have to believe me. You have to."
The two simple words were spoken so quietly Merlin nearly talked right over them. As they sunk in all he could do was bite back the pleas which were on his tongue and stare in wonder. Arthur believed him. He trusted him. Merlin had never felt relief like it. Letting out a short, disbelieving laugh he found himself taking a step towards the Prince.
"Arthur, thank you. You have no idea..."
He stopped when Arthur turned back to him; stopped his steps, stopped his laughter. The Prince was looking at him with those cold, hard eyes again. Looking through him. Merlin felt the lump rise up again in his throat.
"You need to leave. I know you're not a threat to Camelot, but that's not enough. I want you to pack your things and go. Now."
"Don't argue with me, Merlin. It won't change anything. It's too dangerous for you to remain here and I...I have no use for you."
Merlin laughed again, shaky and panicked. "No use for me? Arthur, you don't mean that."
It was the Prince's turn to laugh, low and bitter. "What would I need you for, Merlin?" he spat. "If I have a mind to be lied to and deceived, there's always my father...or Gaius, apparently. Maybe I could even track down Morgana."
Merlin could feel the tears pricking his eyes and he fought them back as hard as he could. "That's not me. I'm your friend, Arthur. I know it might be hard..."
"I've kept nothing from you, Merlin!" the Prince exploded, anger lighting up his weary features. "I've been more honest with you than I have been with anyone my entire life. I know I've never said it, but I thought we were friends." His face contorted itself into a bitter smile. "But it wasn't really anything, was it? Because the whole time, you were keeping this from me. I trusted you more than anyone and you couldn't even trust me enough to tell me who you are!"
Merlin couldn't stop them now. The tears brimmed in his eyes and spilled over to run quickly down his cheeks. He didn't care.
"I want you gone."
And the Prince turned, unsteady but moving quickly, and disappeared through the doorway. Merlin stared after him, suddenly utterly alone.
Arthur stared unblinkingly through the window, the part of his forehead which was leaning against the glass numb and uncomfortable. The rain had just stopped and stray beams of sunlight were hitting the stonework of the buildings opposite. Guinevere was talking, but he wasn't listening.
He'd met his father in the corridor outside his room on his way back from Gaius' chambers. They hadn't spoken but it was evident Uther had been informed of his son's 'escape'. There were a number of guards walking a respectful distance back from him and Leon was at the King's elbow, cautious and watchful. Arthur had been painfully aware of the fact that he'd left his sword behind in his haste to get away from Merlin.
Father and son had both stopped in their tracks upon seeing each other. Arthur fell back on his training and did his best to push down the emotion which was bubbling up inside him and put on a mask of cold indifference. Uther had been less successful, and his inner tumult had been easy to read. Arthur had nodded sharply and continued on, walking past the small group and slipping into his room. His father hadn't followed him and there had been no reposting of guards outside his door. It appeared they had come to some sort understanding, but Arthur was worryingly unsure of the terms. He pushed the thought aside.
Now, more than two hours after he'd left Gaius' chambers, Guinevere staring in utter shock, he still couldn't shake the image of Merlin's tearful face from his mind. He clenched his jaw together tightly as he thought of it, of the mumbled petition the young man had made as he had turned and walked from the room, of the look on Gaius' face as he'd hurried past him. He closed his eyes and breathed out deeply through his nose.
"I don't know how we didn't see it," Gwen was saying, her tone completely mystified. "I mean, it makes sense, now you think about it, but I never would have guessed..."
Arthur's breath fogged the window near his lips. Now you think about it. Now he thought about it he couldn't imagine how he had ever thought Merlin had been anything but a sorcerer. His outrageously inexplicable survival in situations where, by rights, he should have been killed ten times over; his occasional forays into unexpected wisdom; the multitude of times when Arthur had looked back at Merlin, saw him looking at him with that impish little quirk of a smile and thought to himself, exactly what is it I'm missing here? Now he knew what it was he'd been missing and he felt...he felt...
"Stupid. Why am I so stupid?" He bumped his forehead solidly against the glass and scrunched his eyes together tightly.
The last thing he had wanted when he spoke was for Guinevere to come to him, but by the time she'd risen and walked the short distance to stand behind him, he was incredibly grateful to be able to lean back against her.
"You're not stupid, Arthur."
She sounded calm and reassuring, like a mother. She kissed the top of his head.
"I should have seen it," Arthur sighed. "I don't know how he kept it from me for so long."
It was so easy to see it now, in hindsight, and it was humiliating beyond belief that it had taken Morgause and her cruel magic for him to understand what had been going on under his nose for years...to understand Merlin. But if it hadn't been for her, for the message she'd sent him before the bond broke completely, he wondered now if he would have seen it after all. Merlin had been right. In the forest, after that wall of energy had raced past him, beating back the ice-cold grip which had begun to pull him apart, he had looked at Merlin and seen something. Cenwig had distracted him but Arthur wondered if, had the bonds been completely broken in the forest, he would now have been sitting here in his chambers, putting the pieces together for himself. Or, perhaps, Merlin would have come to him and confessed his secret willingly?
But something inside him revolted at this, at the extension of the benefit of the doubt. He didn't want to think the best of Merlin, to believe that he had been only moments away from honesty. Arthur was too angry; too hurt. He cringed at the realisation.
"How did we end up like this?" he muttered, melancholy gripping him tightly. "Everything's falling apart."
"It just seems that way," Guinevere answered. "Too much has happened too quickly. But things will settle. Time will pass and you'll get used to life again."
Arthur wondered how he was going to get used to not having Merlin around. When he'd first met the ridiculous youth who had swiftly been appointed his manservant, he never would have guessed that it would be possible for him to depend on someone as much as he had grown to on Merlin. With a strange combination of irreverence, ineptitude and utter loyalty, Merlin had made himself oddly indispensable. Now he was gone.
"I won't get used to it," he insisted. "I don't want to. I want my father not to have lied to me my whole life and not to have been ready to kill me when he thought I'd taken up magic. I want Morgana to be my father's ward. I want her still be the girl I grew up with not...not whatever she is now. And I want Merlin to be the incompetent idiot who trails around after me and never seems to get his head around the whole 'servant' idea."
His outburst was met with silence and Arthur felt Guinevere close behind him, her hands resting on his shoulders. He got the distinct impression she was choosing her words carefully.
"Do you think...do you think Merlin was tricking you?"
"Of course he was tricking me!" Arthur cried, swivelling around on his seat and looking up at Guinevere. "I'm fairly sure I would have remembered if the words 'by the way, Arthur, I'm a sorcerer' had ever come out of his mouth."
"Yes, but do you think his nature isn't what he presented it to be? I mean, when I think of Merlin I think of someone who is friendly and caring and devoted. And if that wasn't an act (because I can't believe that it was) then he still is all those things."
"And a sorcerer," Arthur finished.
"And a sorcerer," Guinevere confirmed quietly.
Arthur sighed and ran a hand back through his hair. When he'd awoken, with Morgause's message ringing in his ears, he hadn't been able to see anything but the deceit; Merlin's part in this grand scheme of lies and treachery which seemed calculated to bring his world down around him, to pull the rug swiftly and brutally out from under his feet. But his anger had tempered since then. Guinevere's words were true and now, rather than furious, he found himself simply confused. The motives behind Morgana and his father's deceptions were selfish but Merlin...even now he could not question Merlin's loyalty to him. Merlin had thrown himself against Morgause's magic and saved him. Merlin had always stood by his side.
"You should hurry."
He looked back at Guinevere. She was smiling a little as though she found it amusing that she could read him so easily.
"If you leave it much longer you might not be able to find him."
He gazed at her only a second longer before jumping to his feet and beginning to search frantically for some clothes.
Over the last few minutes he had been beginning to worry that he might indeed have left it too late, or that he'd made a wrong choice somewhere along the track. When he'd ridden out of Camelot he'd turned his horse towards the path which would lead in the direction of Ealdor before coming to a sudden halt. After staring down the path for a while he'd pulled around and taken off quickly in the opposite direction. If Guinevere had been had been right and his servant was still the man he'd always thought he was, he knew there would be no chance Merlin would head home to his mother in disgrace. He'd be walking off to a destination unknown, attracting trouble at every turn.
Arthur had continued on without stopping to look in the tavern he passed, though the rain was threatening again. Any traveller with any sense would have sought shelter on a dark and tempestuous day like this...but common sense was not something Arthur had ever credited Merlin with before, and he saw no reason to start now. The Merlin he knew – hoped he knew – would have allowed himself to get soaked to the bone rather than stopping for shelter: he would have seen some sort of poetry in the elements matching his frame of mind. Arthur was confident that was the kind of sentimental rot which would appeal to Merlin's flighty sensibilities.
However, as the clouds closed in again and his body – abused and exhausted by Morgause's magic – cried out in protest, there was still no sign of Merlin and Arthur was beginning to question his judgement. Maybe he had Merlin all wrong. He could be miles away in the opposite direction by now. He might never find him. He might never have known him in the first place.
Then there he was. At first all Arthur could see was a dark head bobbing along over the slight rise in the road, but he knew it was him. He urged his horse on and Merlin came properly into view, a small bag of possessions hung over his shoulder, his head bowed. Arthur felt a rush of nerves which overwhelmed even his relief.
He continued on until he was right behind Merlin. The idiot had moved over to one side of the path upon hearing him approach, leaving space for him to pass, but had never turned to see who it was who was coming towards him. What if he'd been a bandit? Hadn't Merlin learnt anything? Arthur rolled his eyes and moved his horse on until Merlin must have been able to feel its breath on the back of his neck. The young man let out a growl of frustration.
"What is your problem?" he shouted, turning sharply. He seemed poised to say something else, but as he recognised Arthur atop his horse, he froze, shocked.
"We need to talk."
Merlin's lips twitched in that way they did when he was trying to suppress a smart-mouthed comment they both knew he was going to say anyway. "Don't you think we could have done that before I'd walked for three hours in the pouring sodding rain?"
Arthur refused to smile, but it took some effort. He swung himself down from his horse and faced Merlin. The young man was drenched, his hair stuck in flat clumps against his pale skin. He was watching Arthur with cautious eyes.
"So, you're a sorcerer."
Arthur hitched up his eyebrows questioningly.
"I was born with it," Merlin explained. "I was using magic before I could talk."
"Then what in heaven's name possessed you to come to Camelot?"
Merlin squinted a little as he looked across at Arthur. "Do you want the long version or the short one?"
Arthur looked up at the gathering clouds. "Short."
"Destiny," Merlin answered simply.
It was one of those moments when Arthur didn't know what to make of him. What kind of answer was that? Frustrated, he shook his head.
"You've been lying to me since we met."
"I know." Merlin's expression was unreadable. "In the beginning it was the right thing to do, but somewhere along the line it stopped being right and I didn't notice until it was too late. Then I was stuck and I didn't know how to fix it. The longer I waited for the right moment to tell you the worse it felt and the more lies I had to tell..."
Merlin's voice drifted off and they both stood in silence. He was no longer meeting Arthur's eye, his arms crossed protectively over his chest. Arthur looked up again at the clouds and wished that the right thing to say would suddenly occur to him.
"I am sorry, Arthur." Merlin's eyes were glassy and bright. "I'm sorry I never found a way to tell you. And for letting Morgana and Morgause go. I know it's made things...difficult."
Arthur shook his head. "I couldn't..." He thought of Morgana, of her thin body pierced with Cenwig's sword and her blood flowing freely. His sister. "I would've done the same thing. We'll just have to be ready for them. At least it's out in the open now."
He must have sounded particularly despondent because Merlin looked him straight in the eye as he spoke.
"Things will calm down, Arthur," he said, using that confident, knowing voice Arthur had heard a few times before, as he unwittingly echoed Gwen's words. "I know it will be hard with your father. You know too much for things to be like they were before, but at least now you can learn to accept him for what he is. You need to remember you're your own man. You don't have to make the same mistakes he did...You can make brand new ones all of your own. You've a talent for it."
Arthur looked up at Merlin in time to catch the cheeky twinkle in his eye. He was giving him that cautious half-smile, testing the waters. Arthur couldn't hold back the grin which twitched at the corners of his mouth. Instead, he reached out and swatted Merlin around the head.
"Come on," he announced, assertively. "I'm tired. We need to get home so you can draw me a bath and fetch my dinner."
Merlin, for once, acquiesced with good grace and they turned and began walking side by side. Arthur led his horse and listened for a while to the steady trudge of their footsteps. It felt as though something had been set right. Something good had come of all this mayhem.
"So, are you any good?" he asked after a while, to be met with a confused look. "With your magic. Are you any good at it?"
"I get by," Merlin responded, edgily.
"Right, but can you, I don't know...lift things up in the air without touching them?"
"Yeah, I can do that."
Arthur thought for a moment. "Well, can you change the temperature just by thinking about it? I could do that."
Merlin fixed him with a disbelieving frown. "Arthur, are you trying to make this a competition?"
Arthur shrugged. "I'm just asking," he said, innocently.
"Yes, I can do that too," Merlin supplied, with careful patience. "I'm actually rather good."
A brief silence extended.
"Have you ever grown a magic garden inside?"
Merlin snorted with laughter. "Well..."
"Have you?" Arthur persisted.
"No," Merlin admitted. "I haven't, but I could if I wanted..."
"But you haven't done it," Arthur laboured, smug in his victory.
Merlin sighed. "No, Arthur."
That seemed to be enough to provoke Merlin. "I've destroyed a powerful priestess of the Old Religion by drawing down a bolt of lightning from the sky," he snapped. "Did you do that with your magic, clotpole?"
"You did what?"
"Destroyed her," Merlin repeated, obviously taking pleasure in Arthur's shock. "Right after I saved you with water from the Cup of Life, incidentally. Not looking so clever now are you? The only thing you destroyed when you had magic was a venison sandwich."
"Shut up, Merlin."
The pair walked on a short way, but Arthur couldn't help sending a few glances Merlin's way.
"What?" Merlin snapped.
"Just trying to imagine you being competent at something. Typical, really. The only thing you're actually good at and it's outlawed on pain of death," Arthur observed, with a small grin. "I still don't get what you're even doing in Camelot."
"Keeping you alive," Merlin muttered.
Arthur opened his mouth to protest but something pulled him up short. "We've got a lot to talk about, don't we?"
"One or two things," Merlin conceded.
"Well, my head can't take any more of it today. It can wait."
"Silence is golden," Merlin agreed, drawing a stern glare from Arthur.
They walked on for a few minutes without a word being spoken, but it was Arthur who eventually interrupted the quiet.
"What about magicing a deer out of nowhere? Can you do that? I could do that."
Merlin threw back his head and laughed. Arthur, grinning ear to ear, shoved him in the shoulder hard enough to knock him into the ditch at the side of the road. Another heavy, cleansing rain broke out across the fields.
A/N: I really hoped you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for reading.