The final chapter. The End.
It's over; I kind of can't believe it. 132 778 words later (excluding author's comments) and it's finished.
This chapter really gave me some trouble, it didn't want to come out of my head and maybe, a little bit, I didn't want to let it. I was going to write an epilogue but soon discovered it would be better without one so I didn't want to finish. But here we are, at the finish line.
I hope you like it. I really do hope you like the ending. I can honestly say I did my best, which is all I can offer. (Of course, doing my best involves the occasional spelling mistake, but you know what I mean…hopefully.)
This story…we've had some ups and downs, U.F.E and I. Had some disagreements about necessary content and pacing and such. But we got there. I'm feeling all nostalgic now.
It was good fun but I highly doubt I'll ever write a fanfic this long again. It's taken me over a year to write (I was writing it a bit before I started posting) and generally I disagree with spending a year to finish anything.
I hope you've had fun. I've really appreciated all the reviews and comments and critique, you guys kept me sane. So thanks, thanks a lot.
And now, without further ado,
The final chapter of Until Forever Ends.
Chapter 24: Merlin & Arthur
As Kilgarrah came down over the castle, lowering himself slowly onto the wall with great pounds of his wings, Merlin could see a few people making for the base of the stairwell that led up to where they were. He was grateful because he was rapidly approaching exhaustion. His head was aching where it had hit the tree and his magic felt a bit strange because he'd given some of it to Arthur; being so close to him was making Merlin's magic strain with the effort it took not to reach out and take back the part of it that had been given away.
Kilgarrah settled himself onto the wall and Merlin was slightly relieved that Arthur seemed too tired to notice the slightly alarming crumbling noise coming from the stone beneath them.
"You may get down now, Merlin," Kilgarrah said after a moment in which neither Merlin or Arthur moved.
"Is it okay if I just…wait until there's someone here? Just to help get Arthur down?" Merlin asked extremely hesitantly.
"I'm fine," Arthur protested in a thin voice.
Kilgarrah made an 'hmmm' noise which Merlin interpreted to mean that the dragon wasn't okay with this idea but would tolerate it anyway. As Merlin was thanking Kilgarrah Gwen and Gwaine raced out of the stairwell onto the wall.
"Merlin?" Said Gwaine, looking up at him.
"Arthur?" Gwen sounded worried as she looked at Arthur.
"Gwen," Arthur said, attempting a reassuring smile that failed somewhat as his eyes crossed.
Kilgarrah sniffed loudly and shifted his weight irritably at not being addressed.
"Kilgarrah helped me bring Arthur back," Merlin said hurriedly as Arthur swayed with the dragon's movement.
"What's wrong with him?" Gwaine asked, looking at Arthur. The tone of his voice showed that despite the pretence he so determinedly constructed he did care about his King's health. At least little bit.
"Nothing, he's just a little tired. I need a hand getting him down," Merlin replied.
Without needing to be asked twice Gwaine and Gwen hurried forwards, positioning themselves next to Kilgarrah.
"Kilgarrah, could you…? Just one more time?" Merlin asked, putting his hand on the dragon's side imploringly.
Kilgarrah sighed but lay down. He draped his forefeet over the wall and curled his tail around, looking very much like he was readying for a nap and not bowing down for the convenience of those riding him. Merlin knew he'd done this as an attempt to preserve his dignity and pride.
"Come on Arthur," Merlin said as Arthur leant on him, steadying himself as he swung his left leg over the dragon's neck.
"Yeah, yeah," Arthur said, sounding as irritable as Kilgarrah, "I'm fine."
"I'm just trying to help," Merlin admonished.
He perhaps sounded a little more defensive then he intended as Arthur turned his head towards him.
"Sorry," he said.
"No, it's alright," Merlin said, "down you go."
It wasn't a far drop and Gwaine and Gwen were able to steady Arthur before he fell over when he landed. When they stepped away from Kilgarrah Merlin slid down after them.
"Thank you," Merlin said, looking up to where Kilgarrah was gazing over the citadel with his usual imperious expression, "thank you."
He waited a moment but Kilgarrah didn't answer. However just as he was about to turn away Kilgarrah rumbled,
"You are very welcome, Merlin Emrys."
Merlin smiled warmly at Kilgarrah and then turned to face his King.
"What happened?" Gwen immediately asked, staggering because of Arthur, who was repeatedly saying "I'm fine" as he hung off Gwen and Gwaine's shoulders. Gwaine rolled his eyes for Merlin. Something in Arthur's vacant staggering appeared to have reassured the knight because there was a cheeky twinkle in his eye.
"He changed his…there was a bit of a magical…let's get him to Gaius, I'll explain it when we're there," Merlin said. At Gwen's anxious, demanding expression he added, "I promise you he isn't hurt."
Arthur chose that moment to announce, "My hand hurts," and waved his bandaged hand around.
"You were just saying you were fine," Gwaine said, looking over at Arthur.
Merlin saw Gwaine recognize the cloth on Arthur's hand but Gwaine's eyes didn't snap to Merlin's scar. When he looked up he had understanding in his eyes. Merlin sensed that Gwaine had read Merlin's forgiveness in the neckerchief wrapped around Arthur's hand.
"He'll be fine," Merlin said, stepping around them to hold open the door, "Come on."
To say Gaius was surprised to see Merlin enter the physician's quarters leading Gwen, Gwaine and a semi-conscious Arthur would be an understatement. Merlin had checked with his magic to make sure Mordred wasn't there before he had entered. Whilst the boy wouldn't have been able to do anything to Arthur Merlin knew it would make Arthur uncomfortable to be so exposed around the druid boy. Merlin spared a moment to wonder where Mordred had gone, what sort of activity had Hunith devised for him that would show him how to be kind.
Gaius shuffled forward as Gwen and Gwaine guided Arthur to the patients' bed and though he didn't have to, though half of him still wanted to go somewhere quiet away from all of these people, Merlin came forwards as well. Arthur was still sickly and weak and as long as he needed Merlin's hand to keep himself steady Merlin would be there, hand outstretched.
The fact that Arthur hadn't seemed to care about showing his weakness to Merlin had made him reel a little. Arthur had been trusting him for a long while now and Merlin had, in his own strange and sometimes backwards way, been trusting him well before forgiving him. Maybe he had forgiven Arthur before today, because Merlin certainly knew that he hadn't gone from mistrust and anger and fear to absolute forgiveness just because Arthur had hurt his hand. That wasn't how forgiveness worked. That wasn't how forgiveness should work.
No, Arthur being hurt had merely been the catalyst for Merlin to realise that he accepted Arthur's apology and to admit it to Arthur and, with much more difficulty, to himself. The admission had come in the heat of the moment but the understanding had not. It was better that way; it was no whim nor a spur of the moment decision.
It was real and lasting.
But even though he'd forgiven Arthur Merlin couldn't just go back to the way it was. That didn't mean his acceptance of Arthur's apology was less then completely sincere, Merlin understood that Arthur wasn't the man who would lead him to his death anymore. The wounds had healed but the scars remained.
Merlin touched his free hand to his throat, holding his head bowed so his fringe shielded his eyes from his companions.
He couldn't just forget but he didn't have to be haunted. Just as the solution to Arthur's injured hand was not to amputate his arm the solution to Merlin's painful memories was not to forget them. It wasn't a question of should he remember them but how he should remember them.
Arthur was trying to explain what had happened but he wasn't making a lot of sense due to shock and confusion. The others were listening to him and trying to understand him. Merlin knew they didn't want to ask him, fearful that he would feel harassed. As soon as he realised what his friends were trying to do for him Merlin realized he was okay with speaking.
And, opening his mouth, he spoke.
Arthur didn't know how long he had slept but when he woke he instinctively knew that it had been a long time. Opening his eyes he saw a foreign ceiling. Frowning, he realized he wasn't in his bed…he was in a cot. A big cot, admittedly, but it had wooden edges.
Shuffling his elbows onto the cot's edge Arthur levered himself up with much grumbling and moaning.
"Ow, what the…? What sort of…contraption…who…inflicted upon me against my-"
There was a thump. Arthur looked around and saw a book lying forgotten where it had fallen at Gwen's feet. She was leaning forwards, eyes on him, concern and relief warring for prominence on her face.
"Gwen! Why am I in…" Arthur looked around, "Gaius's room?"
"You got...magically drained or something…and you're hand…"
At the mention of his hand Arthur raised both, focusing on his right before he saw the bandage because of the stiffness he felt as he moved it.
"Ow, that's right, I remember," Arthur said thoughtfully, staring at his hand without seeing it as he recalled what had happened the day before, or a few days ago…or…
"How long was I out?" Arthur asked.
He pulled his eyes away from the clean white bandage to look at Gwen, who was still perched forwards on her chair.
"A while. You came back yesterday afternoon and slept all through the night and today's morning. It's just before noon now."
"Oh," Arthur said.
He reached up with his left hand and mussed his hair absently.
"Am I…alright?" He asked hesitantly, "I mean, I feel fine."
It was true, he did feel fine. His hand was a little sore but he'd had worse aches and pains from knights training. Gwen was one of the few people who he felt safe lowering his mask of imperviousness in front of. In fact, he probably trusted her with his health more then he trusted himself; Arthur was aware of a certain dare-devil aspect of his personality.
"Yes, you'll be fine," Gwen assured him, "Gaius just prescribed magic and bed rest."
Arthur raised a startled eyebrow and Gwen grinned at his surprise.
"Well…I'd prefer magic to this…" Arthur looked at what he had been resting in and, raising his other eyebrow, delicately said, "bed."
Hearing the insult in his politeness, Gwen laughed. Arthur looked at his bandaged hand as he remembered the clearing and the sword and Merlin.
"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asked and looked instinctively towards the door as though expecting Merlin to jump in, yelling 'boo.' (If Merlin had done that Arthur probably would've fallen out of his cot in shock, which would of course made him very angry.)
Gwen glanced impulsively at the door as well.
"Don't know. I think he left here around…midnight? Maybe?"
"Midnight?" Arthur rolled his eyes with mild exasperation, "why midnight? I mean not at bedtime, or at breakfast, midnight. Nobody does anything at midnight. Apart from Merlin…who leaves rooms, apparently."
"Are you grumpy that he was crying over your death bed?" Gwen asked.
"I thought you said I was fine!" Arthur yelped.
"It's just a phrase."
"Sure it is," Arthur said in a jokingly sullen tone. After a moment he resumed his normal voice.
"But seriously," he said, "where is that sorcerer?"
"I said I don't know, but if you eat your late breakfast, or early lunch, whichever, then maybe you can go look for him," Gwen said.
"I want to go now," Arthur said, sounding slightly petulant.
"Go ahead, but Gaius was the one who wanted you to eat something when you woke up and if you meet him and haven't eaten anything you might need that death bed after all."
Realising the logic in this Arthur agreed to eat before finding Merlin.
When he'd finished eating Arthur left the physician's quarters, wishing the dreadfully uncomfortable cot good riddance. Gwen offered to help him look but Arthur declined; he was quite content wandering the castle on his own. A few servants gave Arthur curious looks they would've never dared give Uther and Arthur smiled at them, recognising a few who he had seen talking to Gwen and Merlin in the past.
He didn't check in Merlin's tower room immediately, feeling somehow that it would be too direct. He need not have worried though as Merlin wasn't there. This did narrow down Arthur's search as Merlin's usual places were his room, Gaius's room and Kilgarrah's wall.
Arthur unhurriedly made his way to the wall.
Arthur swung the tower door open and stepped into the sunlight. With some surprise he realised Kilgarrah wasn't there. The castle staff were taking full advantage of Kilgarrah's mysterious absence and were conducting some rather rushed looking repairs on the damaged stone wall.
For a moment Arthur couldn't see Merlin as his eyes were distracted by the scurrying workers, but then as his eyes adjusted to the busy scene he saw a patch of stillness. Merlin was standing with his right hand on the stone looking out across the courtyard half way between Arthur and the majority of the workers. He was wearing what looked like neater versions of his old servants clothes; Hunith's work, Arthur guessed. Merlin's neckerchief was prominent in its absence.
Meandering towards him feeling both happy and a bit nervous Arthur gave Merlin ample time to notice his approach. Merlin's head turned almost imperceptibly in Arthur's direction when he was a few meters away and Arthur knew he had been noticed.
"Hi," Arthur said softly and leaned on the wall beside Merlin.
"Hello," Merlin said back, "I see you're out and about."
"Yes," Arthur looked across the courtyard as well, watching the everyday life that all of their battles were for. "I'm all rested up, just as the physician ordered. I still feel a bit…"
"Strange?" Merlin offered just as Arthur concluded, "tingly."
"Tingly?" Merlin repeated immediately, eyebrows shooting up.
Arthur looked at Merlin's face. He had felt safe doing so from a few meters away but up close he still felt a little awkward. Merlin had forgiven him but Arthur still feared if he looked at Merlin directly Merlin might notice something in his eyes worth hating him for. It was the obvious amusement in Merlin's tone that had made him look around with a de ja vu like a weirdly happy ache in his chest.
"Strange, yes, let's go with strange."
"No, you said tingly," Merlin smiled.
Arthur had forgotten how real Merlin was when he smiled. His black hair framed his pale face and happiness seemed to pour from his expression. Arthur smiled back.
"Yes well, cut me a break. I just recovered from a…a…whatever it was I was recovering from."
Merlin nodded; dropping the joke but Arthur he was shelving it away for future use.
The promise of Merlin mocking him in the future, a promise swelling with relief and hope and hard won triumph, made Arthur suddenly bold.
"Thanks for healing me and stuff," he said.
Merlin looked at him, mildly surprised by Arthur's suddenness.
"You're welcome; I don't mind healing you…and stuff."
Before he could stop himself Arthur had flicked his gaze from Merlin's eyes to the white scar on his throat. When he returned his gaze upwards he knew Merlin had seen him look. Merlin's expression was neutral but Arthur scrubbed a hand, his good hand, across his face and looked away.
He was used to these moods, sudden happiness followed by just as sudden a plunge, but just because he was used to them didn't mean he had to like them.
"Sorry," Arthur said gruffly, not sure if he meant for looking at the scar or helping give it to him.
"It's okay," Merlin said; voice quiet and sorry and sincere.
There was a pause. It wasn't awkward but it was heavy and cumbersome and Arthur didn't know how to weather it. He drew breath and started on a word but Merlin interrupted him.
"I forgave you Arthur, you don't have to keep saying sorry."
Arthur realised he had been apologising for more than a look; Merlin had known his own motivations before he had.
"How did you know I was going to say sorry?" Arthur tried to sound indignant.
Merlin gave Arthur a look that was half mocking and half understanding.
"You've changed Arthur, but not that much."
Arthur smiled again; Merlin's statement was actually literally false but Arthur knew Merlin meant it a different way. Arthur had changed a lot but there were some fundamental parts of him that had remained the same; his genuine wish to protect people, his desire to be loved, the compulsion to be, somehow, strong enough to hold all of Camelot on his shoulders or safe in his arms.
Merlin saw these parts of him, the parts of him that mattered.
What had happened, what he had done to Merlin, had not stripped Arthur of all that was good in him. Conversely, somehow because of the good in him Arthur had realised what he had done, a realisation that had stricken from him the illusion that blind anger could be justified, the illusion that because somebody else was thinking and reasoning meant that he didn't have to, the illusion that somebody hurting him meant that it was impossible for Arthur to hurt them in return.
Arthur would always regret what had happened, would always feel a deep horror that shook his spirit because of the reality of what he had been capable of, but he was wise now. Whilst courage and love and forgiveness weren't the sort of lessons that should need teaching he wasn't going to waste the lesson now that he had finally learnt it.
Arthur came out of his musing when he realised he felt something familiar. It was the thudding on his eardrums and rattling of his teeth that heralded Kilgarrah's approach.
"Ah, that flaming dragon is finally coming back. Maybe he can explain himself," Merlin said in mock irritation.
Arthur pounced immediately.
"Hey, you called the magic residue from a historical destiny-changing ever 'tingly,'" Merlin said, pointing a finger accusingly.
Arthur subsided with a good natured grumble.
Much to Merlin's surprise and consternation Kilgarrah returned carrying the sword in the stone. As the dragon landed in the once again rapidly evacuated courtyard Arthur and Merlin shared a baffled look and made their way down.
"Kilgarrah," Merlin called as they entered the courtyard, "What…why…?"
Kilgarrah's smug expression served only to perplex Merlin further. Merlin looked at Arthur for help.
"Kilgarrah, I'll have you know that stone attacked me yesterday, why have you brought it into my castle?" Arthur asked, eyeing the rock warily.
"The sound of cracked stone carries throughout the mountains," Kilgarrah said, one massive paw still leaning on the stone. "The rewriting of destiny is felt in the magic of the world, as a stricken rock shakes the ground."
Arthur looked at Merlin; Merlin shrugged.
"I sensed it when you changed your destiny, the world heard you, stone rewrote itself. Come and see what would have been your sword, O Pendragon King."
Merlin followed Arthur as he approached. As they drew closer Kilgarrah launched into the air, buffeting them with wind, and swung around to land heavily on the castle wall. Merlin smiled when he heard a worker swear loudly.
"See what your magic has done," Kilgarrah ordered.
The sword was the same; gleaming and stuck solid in the stone. However beneath the sword, carved into the side of the stone, was a clumsily but clearly written word.
"Your choice does not just affect your rule, Pendragon King, but the rule of all who will follow you," Kilgarrah proclaimed in a ringing voice; Merlin was certain all of Camelot must be able to hear him. "Excalibur shall remain; Temptation of a proven rule, of proving one is the chosen one. The rightness of a ruler shall not be governed by whether or not they can pull the sword free but if they can resist doing so."
Arthur had Temptation moved into the throne room. He wasn't sure if he would find somewhere better for it later but as it was it seemed fitting. Whenever Arthur, or any future King or Queen for that matter, sat in the throne of Camelot they would be reminded of the temptation of power and the power of temptation. He then asked Lancelot, whom Merlin had been joking with as the sword was moved, to form a committee or a group to record 'what had happened.' When Lancelot asked him what he meant Arthur simply said, 'Everything,' and Lancelot knew what he meant.
There wasn't a name for Merlin keeping his secret, betraying his secret and Arthur betraying him in turn. It seemed impossible to summarise the flight of Merlin and the death of Uther and the rise of Arthur in a few mere words without unforgivably simplifying them.
But there would be; there would be a name one day. One day they would find the words that didn't feel too small, or maybe then the memories wouldn't feel so large. Merlin knew that as time progressed he would heal, he would gain perspective. He had forgiven Arthur but he still hurt, the scar tissue was still new, unfamiliar and scary in its permanency.
There would be days where both he and Arthur hurt and they both raged and maybe Merlin would unfairly accuse Arthur of old injustices and Arthur would respond in kind.
But the scars would fade and the pain would as too and Merlin knew there would be days where they would all forget to remember what had happened. Even better, there would be days when they would all look back to the painful times and the memories wouldn't be so frightening because they would know that, in the end, they had all survived.
They had all survived and, through surviving, had become better people.
Through surviving, they could live.
::Merlin & Arthur::
With Arthur as the King and Merlin as the Court Sorcerer of Camelot in a world that was often hard and unfathomable both of them would always remember that out of all of the confusion and loss they had suffered at each other's hands it was only really forgiveness that mattered. Whatever came would be met with love and courage and the united strength of Merlin and Arthur, of King and Sorcerer.
Of them, together.
Nothing and no one but themselves could rob them of each other and neither Arthur nor Merlin were going to let their friendship go again. To that they were both holding on as tight as they could with both hands. Merlin and Arthur had surmounted the insurmountable together and the future did not frighten them.
The future would come bringing with it new dawns with new horizons and new nights with new stars and when it came Merlin and Arthur would rise, together, with open eyes and beating hearts to meet it.