A/N: Sorry for the long wait for this final chapter, I hope you haven't lost interest in reading. This chapter was really difficult to write – I wrote and deleted far too many drafts, I find this version of Merlin doesn't come easily to me.
The Forest of Glaestig, where the charcoal-maker's hut was located, was quiet. The regular visits from a dragon had intimidated the small animals that once roamed, they'd moved to safer grounds, and the woods were eerily still.
It was early evening, not long before the time Kilgharrah usually arrived, and Merlin was late getting back to the hut, he'd half-thought about fishing in the creek not far away, but in the end, the effort of doing anything at all was too much. Instead, he'd sat on a rock, taken off his boots and dangled his feet in the water. He wasn't paying attention to the passage of time, or anything much at all.
Choices and actions, once a part of Merlin's everyday life, were now no longer something that came easily to him. The Crystal Cave would give him the answers he needed. He wanted to go there, to get these answers. Yet the very idea of the cave filled him with a sick sense of dread. He deliberated for days, and time and time again, he questioned his decision to go and postponed the visit.
The cave had caused nothing but pain to him before. What would it reveal this time, would it be things he did not want to see? What if it did show him only Arthur's unending hatred and persecution of magic, of him? Merlin didn't know if he'd be able to continue to follow his path if there was no hope any longer for a friendship between them. If it showed him this nightmare had come to pass, he doubted his ability to carry on. The visions in the cave always came true, there was nothing he could do to change them, that much he'd learnt.
He sat in silence beside the stream. He knew there was something wrong with him, he wasn't meant to be like this, but depression's hold on him was merciless, and his view of the world had changed. Once he'd been resilient, once he'd been able to face anything, but he couldn't any more. He was in his darkest hour and he feared the dawn would never come.
The sun was sinking to the horizon when he first noticed a glint of scarlet through the trees, off in the distance towards the top of a hill. The brief flash of colour was out of place in the forest, but it wasn't enough to dent his apathy, and he went back to staring aimlessly at the water lapping over his feet. But when he heard the thud of horses' hooves, he looked up, and a stab of panic darted through him.
His feet were wet, but he yanked on his boots and scurried away from the creek, branches scratching at him as he pushed his way through the undergrowth to hide at the edge of the tree line. His heart was racing in a furious, panicked rhythm, he didn't know what to do, because they were there, all of them, the ones he'd once called friends, less than a hundred yards away from him, near the hut. Why had they come?
He didn't understand. He shrunk back under the protection of the trees, crouching down. Percival and Gwen were holding the horses. Gwaine was examining what was left of the apple tree, already munching on some of the fruit. Leon was pacing up and down on the patch of grass where Kilgharrah always landed, his eyes on the ground. Elyan was leaning against his sword. Arthur was standing in the doorway to the hut, smoothing a scrap of red fabric in his hand, and Merlin recognised his neckerchief.
Arthur, why had Arthur come? The dull ache that had been Merlin's constant companion for so long exploded into a tangible pain, the realisation of what he'd had and lost, struck him anew. He couldn't breathe. He missed them all so much, he needed their friendship and acceptance, but it could never be like that again. When would it all end?
Merlin couldn't face them, not now, not ever. He didn't want his loss confirmed, he needed to pretend. He stumbled backwards over a dead branch, he was sure he hadn't made any noise but something alerted Arthur anyway, his head flew up and their eyes connected across the distance.
For one frozen moment in time Merlin was whole and happy and alive again, but then he remembered, and the bottom dropped out of his world, and irrational terror choked him. He spun around and began to run blindly, away, anywhere, he tripped over roots, and branches clawed at his clothes, he was desperate to escape.
It shouldn't have been a surprise, yet it was, when he ended up flat on his stomach on the ground, all the breath knocked out of him by the weight of the armour clad figure who'd tackled him.
He'd landed on a small rock, his hip stung, he twisted and struggled, but he was being held down, and a frantic voice repeated in his ear, over and over again, "Merlin, it's me! Stop, it's only me."
He couldn't fight Arthur. He stilled. His dirty cheek pressed against the hard ground and the damp tang of the earth swirled around him. Arthur's hands tugged at his shoulders, and Merlin didn't resist when Arthur pulled him up into a sitting position. Merlin's head hung limply, he couldn't look at Arthur, he was ashamed to be seen like this, broken and weak when he was meant to be strong.
Arthur released his grip on Merlin's arms, and sat back on his haunches, one of his hands coming to rest lightly against Merlin's bent knee. Merlin finally chanced a darting look at him, Arthur had an expression on his face Merlin had never seen before. Merlin couldn't comprehend it at first, but then he realised, Arthur was afraid, but how could it be? Did he know about the magic? Was this dread because of him?
Arthur's hand rubbed Merlin's knee. "It's okay, Merlin. Whatever it is, we'll fix it, I promise."
The discrepancy between the fear in Arthur's eyes, and his soothing tone, left Merlin confused. And the idea that Arthur was afraid of him was shattering. Merlin propped himself up and tried to say something because this was Arthur, and Arthur shouldn't be afraid of him, but the sound of others running up behind them left the words lodged somewhere in his throat. Their voices were a jumble of incomprehensible noise, Merlin hunched over further and kept his eyes fixed on the ground, Arthur issued a low-voiced command, and they left. It was quiet again and Merlin thought that maybe he could breathe.
"I've come to take you back to Camelot, Merlin. It's going to be alright." There was that strange note again in Arthur's voice, it puzzled Merlin, it made him look up again. The king's face was working with some emotion Merlin couldn't define, and now Merlin didn't know if it was fear or something else, and it frightened him, because now he'd lost this too, he couldn't read Arthur any more, he didn't know.
Arthur was waiting, and Merlin tried to think, tried to think of an answer that would be acceptable. He didn't know what to say, how to explain himself. He didn't want to. He'd barely spoken in weeks, and all the facile words that once slipped with careless abandon from his mouth were long gone. His voice was rusty from disuse, and he had to clear his throat twice before he could force the question out. "Why? Why are you here?" And then it occurred to him. "Is it Gaius, did something happen?"
Arthur's hand tightened on his knee. "Gaius? No. Gaius is fine, Merlin."
"Then why?" Merlin's face was shuttered, and he looked at Arthur's dirty hand on his knee, at his thumb brushing back and forth, and for a moment Merlin allowed himself to pretend Arthur still cared.
"Merlin ... we came to find you." Arthur hesitated, then ploughed on. "We were all ... concerned. Why did you run off like that?"
Merlin stared at him blankly and felt himself begin to shake again. He didn't want this. He didn't want Arthur here. But he owed him the truth, he owed him that much. Merlin whispered, "I had to. I can't do it any more."
Arthur's voice was strained, oddly choked. "Merlin, whatever it is, I'll fix it. Was it something I did? Did someone hurt you? Are you in trouble? Just tell me what it is, I'll fix it."
Why was Arthur being so kind, didn't he know about the magic? Merlin didn't understand. He said dully, trying to prepare himself, trying to prepare Arthur. "I'm sorry. But I can't do this any more. I'm not like you."
Arthur crouched down, his head only inches away from Merlin's, and his hand clasped Merlin's shoulder. "It's alright. It doesn't matter. Just come back to Camelot with me, we'll work it out, I promise."
But he couldn't. He tried to edge away. He was so tired of everything. Tired of the lies, tired of pretending the hurt wasn't there, tired of trying to be someone he was not, tired of having to be strong all the time, tired of waiting and hoping for acceptance when it would never, ever happen. He said so, almost inaudibly, "I'm tired, Arthur," and the king's hand brushed through his hair, and his fingers pressed against the back of Merlin's head.
Merlin almost leant into the touch, tears filled his eyes but they didn't spill, if he let them go now they might never stop. He wanted Arthur to understand. "I couldn't tell you, Arthur, not ever. And it's too late now, I can't pretend any more to be what I'm not, I have to go, so I can be who I am."
Arthur's hands on him tightened, he shook his head. "Merlin, you're talking nonsense."
Merlin tried to smile through the tears in his eyes. He had to tell him, then Arthur would leave him alone. "Oh, but for once I've told you the truth, Arthur. I'm not like you. No more lies. I'm not like you. But I couldn't tell you. Never. I know what you think of me, but I don't blame you." He stumbled, it was too difficult, and he called on his magic, willing it to give him the strength to get through this, to say what must be said. "Know that I would never hurt you. I'll still be around, you won't see me, but I'll always be there when you need me."
Arthur shook his head again and tried to speak, but Merlin didn't give him time, he shook off Arthur's grip and stood up, his legs shaking a little. It was all he could do to ignore Arthur's outstretched hand, but it was too late for that, it'd been too late years ago but Merlin hadn't known. Merlin took a deep breath, and closed his eyes, and prepared to deliver the death knell to their friendship, the proof, his truth.
"Arthur." He waited for a beat, for one final moment, and allowed the pulse of his magic to hum through him, a comfort even as it would condemn. When he opened his eyes they shone brilliant and true, but he had no illusions, it was the beginning of his end. He said quietly, through golden eyes, "Now you see me, Arthur. Now you know."
He didn't wait for a response, didn't wait to see Arthur's hand drop away, he didn't have the courage to face the end head on. Instead Merlin moved time, and in the blink of an eye he was nearly a hundred yards away. Another blink and he'd passed the point where the others were grouped, waiting and anxious.
Behind him, Arthur's reflexes kicked in and he began to run. Merlin glimpsed the frozen shock on Leon's face, but by then Merlin was well past them, past the hut on the far side of the clearing, several hundred yards away at the top of the hill. It was done now, he was free, but all he felt was despair.
He allowed time to resume once more, he could've held it off forever as he made his escape, but he didn't, because there was one more part of him he needed Arthur to see, another truth. He knew the dragon would be near, and Merlin may as well be hated for all the right reasons. He threw his head back and roared to the sky, "O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes. Geéfstan. Geéfstan!"
Merlin stopped, his hands fell limply to his side, he waited, and breathed slowly, in and out. Day was falling to dusk, and his silhouette gleamed with an unearthly radiance against the sinking sun at the top of the hill. He glanced behind him, just once, for the last time.
Arthur was still running, he'd made it as far as the hut near the others now. He'd draw his sword soon and Merlin didn't have the courage to watch the moment when friendship fell to hatred. He sat down very slowly and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs and dropping his head in his hands. He shut his eyes and wished for silence.
He felt the impact a few minutes later when Arthur bounced off the shield he'd conjured. He'd kept the shield well back, far enough away to ensure no one could be close when Kilgharrah landed. It stretched out in either direction of Merlin for several yards. He hadn't made it visible, but he'd made it soft. He couldn't help the mental and emotional hurt he'd caused Arthur, but he'd never injure him physically.
The sound of Arthur's shouts pierced his ears, and Merlin fisted his hands against the side of his head. He almost felt like he was watching himself from far away, alternately numb to what was happening around him, and then, when he heard Arthur, agony tortured him again.
There was another prod against his shield, he didn't have to turn around to know Gwaine had reached him, then he heard Leon, then Gwen. He wouldn't listen, he closed his mind to them and muffled their voices with an incantation that stuck on his tongue. He curled up tighter and hunched over, squeezing his eyes shut. He'd left them before, and now he'd do it again. This time they wouldn't try to follow.
He pushed his magic out, the shield rippled into gold, vivid and glowing now with the light of the dying sun behind it, and he allowed it to expand behind him into the trees, and high into the sky. He only reigned it in when he realised he'd let it stretch in all directions for hundreds of yards, and a part of him that wasn't inwardly screaming rejoiced in the waves of pure magic coursing through him, it felt good just to let it run unchecked, and to do what he'd been born for.
He was safe, because he was alone again. But he had one more thing to do. He kept his back to them, head bowed and hunched over, and his lips stayed still as he pushed words out to all of them, mind speech translated into verbal sound. His voice echoed around the clearing below.
"I'm so sorry, for everything." His eyes stung and his voice was dead. "I wasn't able to save your father this time Arthur, and I'm sorry. Please don't crucify all magic users because of what I failed to do. The fault was mine alone." He thought he heard his name shouted again and he tightened the silence spell. He only had the strength to say what must be said, then there'd be nothing left, he was running on empty now.
He stood up slowly, and waited. He wouldn't look their way. The shield rippled, they were all pounding on it now, did they want to kill him that badly? He wondered if there'd ever be a time when he wasn't a monster to them. He tipped his head up to the fading sky, then pushed the words out again, and grief hit him again as he said his final goodbye.
"I'm leaving now. Don't be afraid. Kilgharrah won't harm you."
He stretched a hand out to the hut below and used a simple summoning charm to pull his packs and the books to him. The shield rippled when he adjusted his magic to allow them to pass through. He wouldn't be back, he'd go to the Crystal Cave but then he didn't know where he'd go or what he'd do, he wasn't fit company even for the druids, he'd be alone.
The tears brimmed over, he wiped them away. He was sick of crying, and of being like this, of feeling hopeless and beaten. He knew he'd never fall like Morgana, but he'd gained a new understanding how hard it would have been for her, and he pitied her for the lonely life she too now led. Outcasts, both of them, but adversaries too.
Grief and despair consumed him, yet he had one purpose left to drive him, to be Arthur's servant, even if he was unwanted, even if it was from afar because he'd serve and protect him unseen.
And he had Kilgharrah, he needed Kilgharrah, they were the same.
A gust of air ruffled the long grass, and the dragon landed, his bulk sending vibrations through the earth. Merlin watched and waited, as Kilgharrah's golden eyes took in the shield, and those who were behind it. Kilgharrah was silent for a moment, and then he said guardedly, "Merlin, what have you done?"
Merlin couldn't hear them now, had they fled in terror when the dragon arrived, or had the silencing spell finally worked? He wouldn't look, he had to give them up. Merlin said quietly to the ground, "They're fine, Kilgharrah."
The dragon shook his head. "That's not what I meant. Your grief has clouded your judgement, young warlock. You have concealed your gifts and the secret of my existence for so long. Why this, why now?"
Merlin raised his head slowly. "Because it doesn't matter now, hiding, and pretending. It's finished."
Kilgharrah eyed him in thoughtful contemplation, then breathed out a warm gust of air, and Merlin felt the dragon's magic flow through him, mingling with his own. Merlin swayed slightly at the surge of power, unsure exactly what Kilgharrah was doing, but soothed by the feel of the dragon's magic. "I can't pretend any more Kilgharrah. I can't bear it. I know you understand that." He could be honest with the dragon, knowing Arthur and the others could not hear, the shield blocked sound both ways.
"Your pain and loneliness isn't endless, my young friend, and you will be stronger for conquering it. There will be light again after the darkness."
Merlin' mouth twisted, his sign of rejection a slight shake of the head.
Kilgharrah took in his expression, and his voice changed, firming. "Merlin, destiny chose you and the young Pendragon for a reason. Your fate lies together. You cannot escape it."
"I'm not trying to escape it, Kilgharrah." Merlin tried to shake off his lethargy, he didn't want to have to match wits with the dragon, not now.
"But you are. This is not like you, Merlin. You cannot go on like this. Why have you shielded yourself from your friends? And this shield is not for their benefit, or to keep me away from them, is it, Merlin? It's for you. It shields you."
A twinge of irritation throbbed within him, Kilgharrah hadn't questioned his actions at all the past few weeks, why was he starting now? He said resentfully, "I will do what I must."
"You need to hear them, Merlin. You are doing your friends a disservice when you make their decision for them."
Anger surged, the dragon's accusations were unjust. "You don't understand, Kilgharrah! I am magic. Their decision was made before I was even born."
Kilgharrah didn't agree. "How blindly you condemn then based on your own fears. Have you forgotten Lancelot? He did not hate, and he knew all of you, he was your friend. You are magic, Merlin, you are my kin, but you are still human, and you need them, more than you need me. Have you forgotten the prophecies? And I hear them. The young Pendragon is getting desperate, yet you will not allow him to be heard, you'll not even look his way. This conversation worries him. Look at him, Merlin. Listen."
But he wouldn't, he couldn't, and then suddenly he realised what Kilgharrah had said, they could hear him. He tensed, and he glared up at the dragon, now he knew what that gust of magic had been for. "You changed the enchantment on the shield? You have no right to do that." His fists clenched, but he couldn't hold onto his anger, the emotion was draining. "Please, Kilgharrah. No more. I just want to get away."
"But you need to talk about it, Merlin. The well-being of all of Albion is your burden, but you have the strength to carry it. Yet you cannot go on like this. I have allowed your silence for weeks. I have not challenged you. I've been your friend Merlin, I am your friend, and that's why I speak of such to you now. You cannot separate yourself from your destiny. It does not lie this way. You will always tread the same path as the young Pendragon. There is nothing either of you can do to change it."
Merlin couldn't think of the words to argue, and the thought that Arthur and the others would all be listening to this argument was too horrifying to contemplate. He said flatly, his tone a warning, "No more. You will take me to the Valley of the Fallen Kings."
Kilgharrah's sigh was that of a parent dealing with a recalcitrant child. "Why there, Merlin?"
"You know the answer to that as well as I do."
"Merlin ... you should not do this. The knowledge in the cave has never bought you peace."
"That's not why I'm going."
"Then why, young warlock?"
He wouldn't listen to the sounds behind him, he'd pretend they all weren't there. He said quietly, "Not for peace, I don't expect it. I ... I just have to know, Kilgharrah. Will it all be worth it, in the end?"
The dragon was silent for a long moment. "I understand." Kilgharrah eyed him thoughtfully and tried a different tactic. "Tell me who they are, Merlin. I know the Once and Future King, for his connection to you shines clear and strong. But who are the others?"
Merlin didn't want to think about it, to think about them, behind the shield. His tone was sharp. "No. I'm not discussing this any more. We're leaving, now."
"You're veering off your path, Merlin. This is not the right course to follow."
"No, Kilgharrah! No more!" Anger exploded unexpectedly, Merlin's magic crackled, and the sky rumbled in response. He swayed on his feet. "No more. Please. I can't."
Kilgharrah was merciless. "You may be magic, Merlin, but you are still only human. Without your friends you will find no joy in life. Did these few weeks teach you nothing?"
Merlin straightened his shoulders again, and eyed the dragon with an anger that still simmered below the surface. "Yes. They taught me that I cannot make mistakes because when I do they have devastating consequences. As you well know. And my burdens are always mine to face alone, Kilgharrah. Alone! That's how it always is. And so it must be."
"You cannot push your destiny aside, Merlin. The advice I give you is always right. You know that."
Merlin had no defence for that. "Be that as it may. But I'm magic. I cannot hide what I am any longer. And I cannot exist in Camelot any longer. It has to be this way. You will not argue any longer, you will take me to the Crystal Cave. I command you."
Kilgharrah dipped his head in a graceful bow. "Very well."
Merlin ignored the silence behind him, he wasn't going to even look their way as he left. He wouldn't, he couldn't. Kilgharrah might have allowed Arthur and the others to hear this conversation, but Merlin was glad he couldn't hear them in return. He picked up his pack and slung it across one shoulder, then bent down to pick up the books.
"If you are going to intervene, young Pendragon, now would be the time." Kilgharrah's voice was mild, and Merlin's head snapped up in horror. Then he felt a tentative hand on his shoulder, he jumped, and the books tumbled to the ground. He stilled in shock, hope and fear warring for dominance.
"Merlin?" Arthur sounded unlike himself, uncertain and unsure.
Merlin wouldn't turn around, he couldn't. His voice was nothing more than a whisper. "Don't." The easy tears betrayed him again and he dashed them away angrily with the back of his hand. He tried to shrug Arthur off but the king wouldn't be dissuaded.
Arthur's voice was low, almost pleading. "Merlin ... stop."
Adrenalin surged, Merlin's heart thumped, he didn't know whether to stay or flee. Why was Arthur being ... kind? Where was his anger? Why did he sound like he cared? It couldn't be true, this was where it had to end. Merlin shook. "I can't do this, Arthur."
But Arthur's other hand curled around his wrist and tugged him closer, forcing him to turn around. Merlin went blindly, and found his face squashed into the crook of Arthur's shoulder, the king's armour was cool against Merlin's chin. The shield glimmered golden in front of him, and he felt a pang of gratitude that Kilgharrah hadn't allowed the others through, Merlin could barely cope with this. He was shaking, he didn't know what to do with his hands, he wouldn't hug Arthur back, he couldn't allow himself to believe.
Arthur's words were a low hum in Merlin's ear. "I'm sorry, Merlin, this is all my fault. I should have known, I shouldn't have let it come to this." Arthur swallowed and added awkwardly, "And I won't lose you again."
Merlin trembled, he couldn't dare to hope, and the words spilled out helplessly, "I can't, Arthur. I can't." His voice broke. "I don't know what I'm doing any more. I don't know how to make it all right again."
Arthur pulled him closer. "Then I'll make it right. It's okay, Merlin. I told you, it's okay. I promise."
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, he wanted to believe, and Arthur sighed in his ear. "I'm only going to say this once, so you'd better listen. I trust you, I wish you'd trust me. I believe in you."
Merlin cleared his throat, his hands still hung limply by his side, he couldn't take this final step, to trust. "But it changes everything. I've changed everything."
Arthur shook his head and pulled back so he could meet Merlin's eyes. "You mean your magic, Merlin. You can say it. Yes. It changes everything, but it changes nothing."
Merlin wanted to be sure. "Nothing? How can you say that? I know what you think of magic. And that's what I am."
"I'm so sorry, Merlin. I wish I'd known. I wish I'd given you the opportunity to trust me. Because first and foremost, you're my friend, Merlin. My friend. I know you."
Merlin waited, would there be a qualifier? But Arthur was silent, and it was a slowly dawning realisation, Merlin knew he could believe. He blinked furiously. "That's it?"
Arthur's response was simple. "Yeah."
"But ... don't you want to know more? About ... uh ... the magic?"
"Yes. But not now. You're going to come back to Camelot, Gaius is going to check you over, Gwen's going to fuss over you, and when you've eaten and slept and you're feeling okay, then we'll talk, when you're ready."
Merlin was torn between crying and smiling, he felt the tiny sparks of his old personality flaring up again. His voice was almost steady. "So ... you realise you're hugging me?"
Arthur grumbled but he didn't let him go. "I'm only hugging you because you're such a girl, Merlin."
Merlin gave him a watery smile. They hadn't solved the world's problems, not everything between had been completely settled, he still felt like he could shatter if Arthur let him go, but for now it was enough. He relaxed, and his arms finally slipped around Arthur, returning his hug. It wasn't the end, it was the beginning of things to come.
A/N: There, done, I hope you liked it. This last chapter took me forever and a day to write. I'd like to think we'll see a more mature side to Arthur when Merlin's big reveal finally comes on the show, and it won't be so much about Arthur-being-angry-you-lied-to-me-for-years-about-magic-didn't-trust-me-yada-yada-yada, but instead he'll actually think about the reasons for Merlin keeping it a secret and act accordingly instead. I hope so, huh? But we'll see.
PS: Have you seen the deleted scene to 4.03 where Arthur has a conversation with Gwen about magic? Very very interesting.
PS #2: Reviews are better than Christmas presents. And they take far less time to wrap up. And they're free. Really.