A/N: Here we are. Finally, after 8 years … 8 long years … we've made it to the end. Even though I was thoroughly unreliable in getting this story out to you all in a timely manner, I enjoyed writing it so much, and I cannot even begin to thank you wonderful readers for sticking with me for such a ridiculous amount of time. This final chapter is dedicated to you. :)
Also, this is pretty important: I realized that I had made a continuity error (something quite prone to happening when you take nearly a decade to finish a story SMH), and so have made a pretty important edit to chapter 20, if you want to go back and read it. If not, I totally understand - what I did was make it to where Gwaine and Leon didn't find out that Arthur knows about Merlin's magic in the scene in Eir's chambers. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused!
Please enjoy, and I would love to hear your thoughts! :)
This Cold Land
Chapter Twenty-Two: Behind (Magically) Closed Doors
Arthur stopped trying to beat down the magically enforced door when he heard a shuffling sound behind him. He spun around, hand reaching for his dagger, and gaped when he saw Merlin sitting up, a blanket falling down from over his head.
"Merlin!" he shouted, far louder than he had intended, a mixture of shock, relief, and fear causing him to revert to anger at his shock. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"What do you mean, what am I doing here?" Merlin snapped back, sounding more like his old self than he had in ages. "It's my room. I was sleeping. You're the one who barged in here and started yell-"
It was obvious the moment that his sleepy brain caught up with the present. He stopped griping at Arthur and began gaping at him instead, his tired eyes glazed with fear, his breathing becoming more ragged. He dropped his eyes, looking more subservient than Arthur had ever seen him.
Arthur hated it.
"Why are you here, Arthur?" Merlin interrupted. His voice shook slightly, but other than that there was no emotion in it. It was almost as if he were… resigned. But resigned to what, Arthur couldn't fathom.
"Never mind that right now," Arthur hedged, gingerly taking a seat in the hard wooden chair bolted to the floor, a chair that he had occupied often when Merlin was so ill but had abandoned as soon as he woke up. A pang of guilt racked through Arthur unexpectedly. No wonder Merlin looked so broken. Arthur had found out his secret and then avoided him at all costs for weeks. Merlin must think that Arthur hated him.
Serves him right, a nasty little voice in the back of Arthur's brain hissed petulantly. After all, he hurt you too. Didn't trust you enough to tell you the truth, did he, and look - he STILL didn't trust you.
Before Arthur had taken this journey, before he'd sailed across the sea, before he'd met Astrid and seen magic used for nothing but helping others and protecting the innocent, it would have been much harder for Arthur to dismiss that nasty little voice. Now, however, though a part of him still ached that Merlin hadn't trusted him with his magic, he was able to shove the voice aside with the understanding of why Merlin hadn't told him. How could he have? Arthur's father condemned magic fiercely, and Arthur had never contradicted him, even echoed his sentiments throughout the years. Sadly, Arthur came to the realization that Merlin had a good reason to be afraid.
With that, Arthur felt much of the fear and tension that had been plaguing him for weeks melt away. It seemed silly now, avoiding Merlin like he was diseased, afraid of what - a conversation?
Merlin still looked like he was about to pass out from stress, so Arthur shook himself out of his own whirlwind of thoughts and offered Merlin what he hoped was a gentle smile. He made sure not to bare his teeth, because he didn't want to come off as threatening, but at the sight of his master smiling, Merlin looked doubly frightened anyway.
"What are you going to do with me?" he asked. To Arthur's surprise, he steeled himself, stopped trembling, took a deep breath, and looked the prince straight in the eye. It was like the terrified servant had been possessed by a brave warrior facing death on the field of battle. The strength in Merlin's eyes staggered Arthur for a moment. "Whatever it is, I'll accept it. I just ask that you hear me out, first. I know you hate me, but-"
Arthur picked up the closest thing within arms' reach - thankfully it was a pillow - and chucked it at his servant's head. Merlin sat there, stunned. A question lilting his voice, he said, "...sire?"
"You moron," Arthur accused, resisting the urge to throw the next thing his eyes fell upon - it was a quill, so thankfully he did not act on his impulse. "You absolute… absolute … clotpole." Merlin gaped, apparently at a loss for words (a miracle that Arthur would later look back upon as a comfort in times when Merlin wouldn't bloody shut up). Arthur continued, not even remotely finished. "You really think I hate you? And what's this idiotic 'fate' you're going to accept? If I were going to kill you-" Merlin stiffened; Arthur pretended not to notice, "-I would expect you to fight back, to escape, something! With the amount of power you have in that ridiculously weak frame of yours, it would be a disgrace not to fight back!"
Arthur then realized that Merlin's lower lip was trembling. "Merlin, could you not be such a -" (he considered saying girl, then remembered that Astrid was right outside the door and could probably hear him, and amended), "-I mean, could you not cry when I'm trying to speak to you? This isn't easy for me either, but there's no use weeping about it. And anyway, I told you, there's nothing to be afraid of; I would never-"
Tears were now trekking down Merlin's lean face, cascading over those ridiculous cheekbones like a waterfall over jutting rocks. "Merlin, I'm not… I don't …" Arthur glanced uncomfortably at the door, considering begging Astrid to open it, but then heard shuffling noises and turned around to see Merlin wiping his eyes with his sleeve, a smile forming in the midst of the tears. "Arthur, are you saying…?" He trailed off, as if afraid to speak the words aloud, as if refusing to allow his hopes to rise.
"If you would stop weeping for a moment, Merlin, and let me finish… For the gods' sake, you're a mess, aren't you?" But Arthur said it with no bite in his voice, only kindness. After all, Merlin had just found out that his master was accepting him, even with magic. Arthur would defy anyone to be in his servant's situation to remain in one piece emotionally.
"Merlin, when I first found out that you had magic, I was… angry. Hurt." Merlin lowered his eyes. "But it didn't take me long to realize that I was… I was wrong. And my father was wrong." Fresh tears flowed down Merlin's face. Arthur didn't acknowledge them. "Although it hurts to know that you kept this from me, I understand why. And I know, without a doubt, that you are not evil. You've stayed by my side through everything. If you have magic, it can't be evil." As an afterthought, mostly because he thought Astrid might be listening in, he added, "And Astrid's pretty fantastic too, I guess."
Merlin offered up a watery smile, very clearly overwhelmed. "I don't know what to say, Arthur. I just - thank you. For rescuing me, for accepting me, for -"
Arthur raised a hand to silence the servant. "It's done. You're safe, and we'll figure out a way to keep you safe back in Camelot. But now, there's something even more important that must be done." Merlin quirked his head to the side. "You're going to tell me everything."
Merlin paled even more (Arthur hadn't thought that was possible). His Adam's apple bobbed nervously. "Everything?"
Arthur smiled broadly, and this time he intentionally bared his teeth. "Everything."
He then turned from a fretting Merlin to the door and added, "But first, Merlin… do you think that you could do something about this damn door?"
"What's going on?"
"Can you hear anything?"
"Let me have a go!"
Everyone - save for Eir, who could care less about the drama unfolding in Merlin's cabin - was crowded around the magically enforced door, trying to listen in on the conversation happening within. Lancelot half-heartedly hovered in an attempt to conceal Merlin and Arthur's privacy, but it was obvious that he was just as curious as the rest.
Without warning, the door was quite literally sucked off its hinges and into Merlin's cabin, hitting the wall opposite it. All who were leaning their ears against it fell into the doorway. Merlin stood beside Arthur, his eyes glowing gold.
A hush settled over the formerly jostling eavesdroppers. Everyone stared, Leon in absolute shock, Gwaine and Lancelot in fear for their friend, and Astrid and Kol in curiosity. Arthur spoke.
"Merlin has magic, apparently." His steel-blue eyes scanned the lot who had tried to intrude on his private conversation, unimpressed. "Does anyone have a problem with that?"
Over the next week, Arthur visited Merlin's cabin nightly to hear more of the young warlock's story. It was a long one, with many surprises - some good, some, well, not so good.
Arthur still hadn't wrapped his mind around the concept of destiny and prophecy and "Once and Future King" before Merlin dropped another truth on him. It had taken two and a half hours to even sort of come to an understanding of the whole releasing the dragon and being the last Dragon Lord business. And even longer to address the "Morgana is a traitor because I poisoned her" mess.
But Arthur also heard of many times that Merlin had risked his own life, nearly been killed, put everything at stake for Arthur, to keep him safe. Because, as Merlin had so adamantly insisted, Arthur was a good man, and he would be the greatest king Camelot would ever know, and he would unite the land of Albion, and restore magic to the kingdom, and at first Merlin protected him because it was his duty, but now… Now, it was because Arthur was his friend.
Arthur could begrudgingly understand why Merlin did some of the more unsavory things he'd done, like release the dragon and poison Morgana - he'd truly felt he had no choice - and though the prince couldn't necessarily agree with those decisions and would have to come to terms with them in his own time and way, one thing he couldn't understand was how Merlin saw what he did in him. A friend. A hero. A king. A savior of nations. All that power Merlin had, the only one of his kind in so many ways, and he dedicated it all to Arthur. It was humbling in a way that Arthur had never experienced before. He had so much to live up to, but now, knowing that Merlin would be by his side as a friend, a protector, it suddenly felt so much more possible.
Merlin couldn't believe where he was now. It had taken his getting kidnapped by a band of ruthless Vikings and nearly freezing to death, but he stood beside Arthur now on the deck of a ship as the shores of Gedref slowly hazed into view. Home.
Arthur knew he had magic. He accepted it. His destiny was becoming fulfilled right before his eyes.
They'd spent many an evening talking, arguing a couple of times, finding common ground once more, and the two had decided on a few key courses of action.
First, Astrid, Kol, and Eir were to be offered asylum in Camelot for as long as they needed or wanted it. However, with Astrid's yearning for adventure, it was quite possible that she and her brother - and probably Gwaine with them, at least until he could return and be a knight for Arthur - would set sail to see more of the world in the near future. Merlin would miss his new friend, but was so glad to see him finally free and happy, with a family of his own. Eir had already set her mind to settling down in the lower town and opening a remedy shop of her own. Merlin hoped Gaius wouldn't mind a little competition. Lancelot wasn't returning back to Camelot, but he was going to stick around the outlying towns for a while in case Merlin or Arthur needed him for anything in the coming days. Arthur had said that was fine, but secretly hoped the dark-haired warrior didn't run into Gwen at any point.
Then came the even bigger issues:
"Even if this dragon says that Morgana is destined to become evil, what does he know?" Arthur had said fiercely. "You said that these Normos-"
"Nornir," Merlin corrected automatically.
"- whatever - you said that they told you that destiny is not fixed. So that means Morgana's isn't either!"
"Maybe," Merlin agreed cautiously.
"We'll find a way to fix her, to bring her back to us," Arthur insisted. "I'll show her that I know that magic isn't evil, that I am not my father. I'll offer her a future Camelot that she can believe in."
"I suppose it's possible," Merlin said, but this time, hope was in his voice.
And the other decision that they had made was much less inspiring, at least as far as Merlin was concerned.
"Things can't change right away, of course," Arthur had mused. "My father is still king, after all. But I'll do what I can to influence him, and in the meantime, I'll seek to sort any injustice against magic users in any way I can behind his back. And I'll help hide your secret from him, of course, Merlin."
"So does this mean I'm not to be your servant anymore, sire?"
Arthur grinned wickedly. "That would look suspicious, wouldn't it? I reckon you're going to have to stay my servant until I'm king. Then maybe, depending on your performance, we can discuss an upgrade."
"Court Sorcerer has a nice ring to it," Merlin offered.
Arthur smirked. "I'm sure it does. But until then, you'll just have to keep your cover as my servant. And in order to keep you safe, you must absolutely not use magic to complete any of your chores in the future, do you understand?"
Merlin had blanched. "I did half of your chores with magic anyway, when you didn't know!" he protested. "I'll be fine!"
"Oh, but I simply could not sleep at night knowing that you were putting yourself in such peril," Arthur crooned dramatically.
Merlin had huffed. Arthur had smiled.
"It's good to have you back, idiot."
Merlin chuckled. "It's good to be back, prat."
Now, as he stood on deck with his friends, men and women who had risked their lives for him because they believed in him and his destiny - even Eir, who had admitted to agreeing to help him because she had sensed his magic, and realized him to be Emrys - he watched the shores of Albion draw nearer, and he smiled, perfectly content for the first time in his life; the hell he had been through was nothing compared to the friends who had followed him in and brought him back out.
His destiny was unfurling before his eyes. He stood side-by-side with his best friend, his destiny, who now understood him for who he was and accepted him anyway. Of course there were many trials ahead, and the road to their destiny would not be an easy one. Merlin had done exactly what the Nornir had offered him the chance to do - he had seized control of his own destiny, remade the shroud of fate into something new - something that was his - and it was beautiful.
The starry, silent night was interrupted with the sound of Gwaine clearing his throat. "So, uh, Arthur… how do you figure on explaining to your father how you escaped from bandits and somehow came home with the servant who was stolen by Vikings?"
Arthur cursed. Merlin groaned internally. He knew they'd forgotten something.
"Hey Merlin?" Arthur ventured. "Know any memory spells?"
Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, Merlin's heart soared. Arthur had once again asked him to perform magic.
"Memory spells are tricky … but I bet we can get Gaius to whip something up to help."
"If he doesn't, I'm not defending your worthless hide from my father."
Merlin laughed. "I don't expect you to care about anything other than yourself, you prat."
There was no venom in their words. Abundantly clear was the fact that neither young man meant the words that he said, but the banter brought back a sense of normalcy, of friendship, and of hope.
They would arrive back in Camelot stronger than before.
Soon, they would be home.
A/N: And… fin! Oh my gosh, guys, I'm nearly crying! I can't believe that after all these years, I've finally finished this fic! I have enjoyed the entire ride, and again, I apologize for taking so long to finish it. Thank you for sticking with me. I hope the ending was satisfactory after this long wait. I certainly enjoyed writing it! :)
By the way, I'm starting to watch the series from the beginning again for the first time in years, so expect more Merlin fics from me in the near future!
Please let me know your thoughts! I'll see you all soon with another story!