You can chalk this down to post-Christmas blues combined with failed New Year's resolutions. Enjoy.
Thanks to my wonderful beta VHunter07 who is amazing and keeps me writing. Much love and thanks.
And don't say I didn't give you fair warning.
Merlin staggered across the uneven ground, his legs shaking violently beneath him. He knew he wouldn't get far but he didn't mind. He didn't have far to go.
"Arthur?" He tried to shout but his strength was failing him and the word was little more than a breath of air. His foot caught a clump of grass and he dropped to the ground. The sudden movement hurt less than he thought it should have, but he was too tired to try and process that information.
Somewhere in the distance he could still hear swords clashing, but they no longer held any fear for him. Morgana was at last dead and without her the mercenaries wouldn't stand a chance against the might of Camelot's army. Somehow, this thought didn't hold much comfort.
He had seen the betrayal and pain in Arthur's eyes when Merlin had revealed his true self: Emyrs. For half a second, understanding flowed between them, and the warlock felt like he was drowning in the hurt he could feel emanating from his master... his friend. He understood the hurt, the anger, but he hadn't been expecting to see the fear on the king's face. That had cut him more deeply than anything else Arthur could have said or done.
With idle fascination he watched as a scarlet drop of blood ran through his fingers and fell into the trampled grass. The pain from the gaping hole in his stomach was fading now that he had stopped moving, so much so that he just wanted to give up then and there. But he persevered, and tried to scramble to his feet, gasping through the agony. He couldn't die now. Not with Arthur hating him.
As soon as he was back on his feet, he forced himself forwards, heading in the vague direction where he had last seen Arthur. The fog and smoke made it hard to be sure. For all he knew he was going in completely the wrong direction but he had to try.
"Arthur!" He tried again, his voice still weak. But to his immense relief somewhere in the distance there was an answering cry. With renewed vigour he began to drag his weary body towards the sound.
As soon as Arthur came into view he almost dropped to the ground in relief. He took another few steps in that direction before he caught the look on his king's face. It stopped him cold as he felt his heart flutter lightly in his chest. It was an expression of hatred.
'How foolish can you be, Merlin? Of course he hates you. You killed his father. You killed his sister. Magic killed his mother. Everything he had has been stolen from him by magic... including you. You really expected anything else?' The thoughts descended on him, crushing and painful. He couldn't cope under their weight and he felt his knees give out. Somewhere between upright and the ground his eyes slid shut and when he relocated the nerve to open them, he saw Arthur's face swimming above him, torn with uncertainty.
Merlin felt something in him shift, a deep well of hurt and disappointment burying itself within his heart. He was going to die that much he knew – always had – but he had always hoped he would die loved. He didn't want to end with Arthur's hate. It hurt too much to bear and his heart bled.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice was twisted with emotion. He sounded slightly like a lost child who had no idea what to do. The warlock blinked slowly, trying to relocate his nerves but they seemed to have deserted him. He trembled, his muscles giving into spasms as their life force bled away.
"Arthur," he whispered. He was too drained to make his voice carry. The king remained standing for a moment longer, then with a slight groan of discontentment he dropped to his knees beside his servant. Merlin knew he had to get the words out now; there would be no later for him. "Morgana's dead. Camelot is yours and no one can take it from you now. You-" He was cut off as blood found its way into his throat, choking him. He coughed violently, agony tearing through him, blacking out his vision for a good minute and a half. When the gasping subsided, he saw Arthur reaching out to him.
"Merlin?" He asked again. The warlock said nothing. He didn't want to hear this; his condemnation in his final hour. Too much, too hard.
"Please, don't." His voice shook violently, breaking. "Just... Let me sleep." Arthur blinked slowly for a second, then a strange grin slipped onto his face.
"When do I let you do that, you idiot?" His voice was aimed at light and teasing but the stress was obvious. "I'll get you to Gaius. He'll know what to do." With that, he reached out to try and lift the skinny servant but Merlin tried to squirm away. The movement was agony, for both of them. Merlin's pain was more physical than Arthur's, but both suffered the mental agony.
"Arthur. You know that isn't going to happen," the warlock had never sounded so old. The voice didn't fit the youthful face and the king bit his lip.
"There must be something," he insisted.
"Why do you care?" Merlin hadn't meant to say it aloud. If Arthur was going to ignore the blatant truth then for his last moments he was happy to oblige. But he had to know. The hate was there, he could see it deep within the king's eyes, betrayal and loathing. So why was he trying to save him?
Arthur looked slightly like someone had slapped him. Pulling back, a strange expressionless mask graced his face as he hid his emotions from the world.
"Because no matter what, I feel I should give you the chance to explain the lies." His voice was hard as ice and this time the hurt bled through. "Whatever your objectives you've saved my life in the past and you earned the right for a fair trial."
Merlin's mind was twisting itself into knots. The king – his best friend – was here saying that he might hate him (a thought which burned more than any of the wounds throughout his body) but he was willing to let him explain. It was more than he would have ever asked for but it would never be enough. Arthur was not going to forgive him, that much was clear. Even if he survived for a trial to be heard and if he was then cleared, he would never be Arthur's friend again. It hurt like death.
"Would it matter?" Speaking was getting harder, burning his throat. He coughed again, fighting valiantly against the pain. Arthur didn't answer. "I'd explain but I haven't time. Ask Gaius," the words falter as unwanted tears pool in his eyes. He doesn't want this, to show Arthur how much pain there is, to know how badly he's hurting. The king despises weakness and the warlock refuses to be the cause of further hatred.
"I'll get help. You can tell me yourself." The king seemed almost... worried? It didn't fit with the anger in his tone.
"Arthur. Whatever you want to believe," he paused to gasp in breath. "I only ever tried to protect you. I always have." He felt his consciousness slipping and he felt himself beginning to tire of the fight.
"But you have magic. You want Camelot to burn."
"Magic yes. But that does not make Camelot my enemy. It is a place of hope. It's my home. I would never harm a friend of Camelot." It was the truth but Arthur looked torn.
"It doesn't make sense."
"It never does." Merlin offered a grim smile. Everything was slipping now. His vision was almost gone, all he could see was Arthur's bright blue eyes gazing at him, alive with emotions. He couldn't feel much anymore beyond the pain. Every nerve within him was on fire, blazing with each breath, each heartbeat, growing weaker as his life bled into the wasted earth. This battlefield would be the last thing he knew. "Ask Gaius, and try to ignore the riddles. You'll understand eventually."
"How can you be so sure?"
"An old friend told me my future once. My destiny. You. He didn't tell me about this part though. Maybe if he had I wouldn't have come. I like to think that I would have. Trust in your destiny Arthur, like you always have. It can't lead you astray."
"How is that you're wise even when you're dying Merlin?" His voice was joking but there was an overwhelming amount of sadness in the question. The warlock attempted a laugh, then coughed as more blood choked him. He was shaking again and he closed his eyes against the pain. "Merlin?" Arthur called, his voice a little too close to terror. "There must be something you can do!"
"There probably is. But I can't. Too hard to focus. And I won't try."
"Not even magic, Merlin? If you can defeat Morgana then you must have at least some skill with it. Heal yourself." That pulled the warlock from the fog in his mind and he stared at his king in blatant shock. This had to be a trick.
"No." He wasn't even sure if he had said it but the word came out of his mouth all the same.
"What? Why not?"
"I don't want to die. But I think I already have. What am I living for now? Prison? Exile?" He didn't say it but they both thought it: execution?
"We'll work it out. Heal yourself." He paused for a moment, then as Merlin watched something within him broke, and he hunched in on himself. "Please. I don't care what it takes, but please heal yourself. I need you around, Merlin. I need your help."
"Morgana's dead, Arthur. You won't need my protection anymore." It took a lot for the prince not to scoff at this thought, that frail little Merlin would protect him, but when he thought of the friend, the advisor, the magic, he realised just how much he had been saved. Not only from the countless enemies but from his own arrogance and self-righteousness.
"I don't want your protection, you idiot. I want you. You're my friend, Merlin and even with the magic, I don't think that'll change. You need to live, because I'll need you. Now more than ever." He didn't know what to do, what to say. He felt like he was drowning, so lost that he didn't know which way was up. All he knew was that whenever he had felt like this in the past, there Merlin had been, a pillar of support, never asking for thanks and rarely receiving it.
"Arthur..." Merlin was touched and he felt a brotherly love filling him, forcing the pain away briefly to give him a few moments of clarity. He saw the king's face twisted with worry and he drunk in the familiar features with relish. For the first time he was able to properly examine his friend and with blessed relief he saw that he was unharmed. He didn't know if he would have coped if Arthur was dying too. "I can't. I'm sorry."
"What good is magic if you can't save yourself?"
"My magic was never for saving me," Merlin pointed out, trying not to sound as terrified as he felt. "It was for saving you. Something, I would point out, it's very good at." Arthur smiled, tears building in his eyes, though he strove not to let them fall.
"What do I do, Merlin?" His voice trembled and he reached out again to his friend, supporting his torso, his free hand hovering over the gash in his stomach. The wound was ugly, the edges appeared to have been burnt. "What happened?"
"Morgana. She said..." He paused, gauging Arthur's state. "She told me that you were dead. She told me about how she had killed the knights, made them suffer. She was... imaginative. It was enough of a distraction to get past my shields." Suddenly all his muscles tensed and he moaned slightly as fiery pain flared through him. Arthur was panicking and the warlock tried to search for a way to reassure him. "Arthur. It's alright."
"None of this is alright, Merlin. Don't say such nonsense." A lone tear streaked down the king's face. They both pretended that it didn't exist. The warlock sighed, a small smile on his face. If this was the end, then it wasn't so bad. The pain was fading now, his best friend was at his side and he was going to die loved. It might not been the best ending but he had faced far worse. To die fighting for Camelot was more honourable than burning on his pyre.
"Thank you," he murmured, his breathing softer now. His eyes flickered closed.
"For what?" Arthur was almost sobbing now, tears flowing freely, unrestrained. The words choked with the pain as his heart throbbed for his friend.
"For not hating me. You have no idea how much I've feared that. More than the pyre. More than the pain. I was terrified of dying hated. Thank you."
"Always, Merlin. How could I hate you? You've saved us all. I swear Camelot will not forget your sacrifice. Or your goodness. They will know the truth and your kind will be free. On my word as king, magic will be recognised for what it is." With those words, Merlin felt his heart soaring, but at the same time, he felt a lump obstructing his throat. His destiny was fulfilled. He didn't need to fight anymore; he was done.
"I can't tell you how much that means." Another thought suddenly occurred to him. "Ask Gaius about Freya and Will. And Balinor. Remember my loved and give them the glory they deserve. For me."
"Of course. You're the bravest man I've met, Merlin. From the bottom of my heart I thank you." He was shaking, sobs wracking his frame, and he could feel all his strength and courage crumbling as Merlin's breathing faltered. "Be at peace."
The words penetrated the fog in Merlin's mind and he recognised them as the farewell they were. He wished he could find his mouth again to return the gesture but he was too far gone. The pain had vanished now but he could still feel his king around him, hear the sobbing and he could sense the overwhelming love. This was enough. This was all he had ever wanted.
"My love." The voice was soft, and it floated to him with the smell of strawberries and fresh fields. Turning, he saw Freya. His Freya. Smiling at him with a joy that he had missed in the many years since seeing her last.
"Freya." Her smile widened, and she reached out a hand to him. He took it, feeling the soft skin beneath his palm. He felt like he was home, and he realised that now he was. He was finally free.
So I may, or may not have cried as I wrote this. No one will ever know. I don't really know where it came from, but here it is. I hope you liked it on some level. Please comment and tell me what you thought.