A/N: After watching the series finale, I had to write this. I had to write my own version of what happened next. Watching it, the first time, I mostly shouted at the TV so bad that my brother thought I was having some sort of mental breakdown. Watching it again, I've realized that some parts of it were brilliant, but still, I had to write this to try to make sense of it all.
Summary: One day, he didn't want to be silent anymore. He wanted to remember, he wanted the world to remember. On that day, he picked up a pen and started writing. Once upon a time, there lived a great king...
Merlin was wet. It was his first thought when he woke up, that he was soaking wet and cold to the bone. He felt the mud against his face, and for a fleeting second, he didn't remember, he wondered, what the hell had happened. Then, his stomach turned, and he retched in the grass.
It was over. Everything was pointless now, wasn't it? He had failed, he had failed his destiny, he had failed his one greatest friend, he had failed all of his friends, really, who had counted on him to protect the King. He felt bile rise in his throat again as he thought of Gwen, of Gaius, the knights. They had all counted on him, Merlin, to bring him back. Alive. That was how this was supposed to happen, that was why they all had approached him over the years, with warnings of Mordred, Morgana and Camlann. And yet, even while knowing the prophecy, he had not been able to stop it.
If only he had not lingered in the Crystal Cave, caught up in that heart-to-heart with his father. If only he had went to find Mordred first, before stopping the rest of the battle. If only he had thought to call Kilgharrah sooner to take him and Arthur to Avalon, then maybe...
Tears of desperation and frustration poured down his face. How could he face them after this? Gwen, Gaius, Gwaine, Leon, Percival, the other knights, the Kingdom? How could he tell them?
It was the worst day of my life. It was the day that the world lost the greatest King, and man, that it has yet seen. It was the day I lost my best friend.
Somehow around dawn, he must have dozed off again, still in the mud (he hadn't felt worthy of rising out of it, he had felt that lying there, cold and wet, was all that he deserved). He awoke, cold sweat covering his face, the image of his dream seeming almost tangible. Gwen, her face red and shining with tears of worry.
Merlin swallowed and wiped his brow with his sleeve. He had to go back. No matter how hard it would be, he owed them that. They needed to know.
This wasn't just about him. He didn't have time to feel sorry for himself. It wasn't just his life, his heart that was broken. So many more hearts were about to be, and the least he could do was be strong for them, help them rebuild. When, if he had only done what he should have, none of this would have happened.
The days, and years, that followed, I never became the same person I had once been. I carried the grief with me, as I still do to this day. However, I did my best not to show that to anyone. There were so many that needed me, my friendship, my guidance. And I owed them that, because I had robbed them of the one they really needed – him.
She was the first. Of course she was the first, the most difficult. As soon as he entered the courtyard, she was running toward him, asking the panicked question with her eyes. One look at him, and she knew. He didn't have to say it. Maybe that was lucky, because the lump in his throat was so large he wasn't sure he could have managed a single word. If he had been forced to open his mouth, he was sure he wouldn't have been able to do anything that needed to be done. He wouldn't have been able to catch Gwen's shaking body in his arms before her knees hit the ground, to lead her gently back inside, away from prying eyes, to hold her while she sobbed.
The people never saw the Queen break, they never saw her cry. It was only that one time, with me, that she fell apart (and probably a hundred times in her own chambers that none of us knew of). She was a great Queen. She remained strong for her people. She knew she had to lead them now, so she did, without hesitation. She never pretended that she didn't miss him, but she never showed them the hopelessness, the fear, the desperation. For them, she instead created hope, hope for a new and better future. A future of union and peace.
He met Percival when he was making his way back from Gwen's chambers, after she had finally cried herself into a restless sleep. One look told Merlin that the news had already spread, and he wouldn't have to say it this time either. Percival looked hollow, as though he hadn't slept for days.
"How is she?" he asked, his voice coarse, his eyes pained.
Merlin shook his head. Percival nodded, understanding. It was what was to be expected. Her husband was dead.
"I can't believe it," Percival muttered. "Arthur..."
Merlin nodded shortly. He knew.
Then, forcing himself to do what he had promised himself, take responsibility, he asked; "Has anyone told the others? Leon, Gwaine?"
Percival flinched, then swallowed, as if to steel himself. "You – you don't know then?"
A shock of dread shot through Merlin, one he could have sworn he would never be able to feel again, because the worst had already happened, he had already lost his best friend, but what if, what if he had lost another as well?
"Who?" was all he could manage to gasp.
Percival sighed, and looked at the floor. "It's – it's Gwaine. It was Morgana. She – she tortured him, and he – it was my fault. We shouldn't have gone after her, we both knew her magic was too powerful. But, we wanted to try, to help..."
Merlin felt as if the whole room was spinning. Not Gwaine. Not Gwaine too. Not his best friend, and his second best friend, not both of them. He had thought that it was already over, that he couldn't possibly feel any more loss, but he had been wrong, so very wrong.
He could barely take in what Percival was saying until he somehow heard how badly his voice was shaking and forced himself to look at him. Percival looked so guilty, so small. Merlin knew exactly how he felt, and he somehow found himself putting a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"It wasn't your fault," he whispered.
"I should've saved him. I got there, but I wasn't fast enough, it was too late..."
"It wasn't your fault," Merlin repeated, surprising himself with how level his voice came out when he on the inside felt like curling up into a ball on the floor and screaming his lungs out. "You tried."
He needed to make Percival believe that. He knew all too well just how badly Percival needed to believe it.
The knights stood by their Queen, just as loyally as they had stood by the King. They helped her rebuild the Kingdom and keep the peace. Anyone who questioned her right to the throne (not that they were many), had them to answer to. Sir Percival, Sir Leon and I were her closest confidantes. We were the only ones she told of the future heir mere days after Arthur's death. We were the ones who supported her also as our friend, the pregnant widow, not only as our Queen.
"Merlin!" Gaius met him on the threshold and immediately wrapped his arms around him.
For a moment, Merlin wondered if Gaius had heard, or if he would have to tell him. But he felt Gaius' arms cling to him, holding him tighter than he would have if this was just an ordinary I'm-glad-you're-alive-hug. This was more than that. Gaius knew.
Against his will, Merlin felt himself beginning to tremble. He tried to push Gaius away, knowing he couldn't do this without breaking down. And breaking down was not an option anymore, he had decided that when he finally rose out of the mud this morning. But Gaius wouldn't let go. He only grasped Merlin's shoulders tighter, and now he could feel it, all the exhaustion, the grief, how lost he was now. And, worst of all, the guilt.
Gaius. He was a great physician, and he taught me more about magic and medicine than I can explain. But it was more than that. He taught me about how to use it. Not just the spells, but when not to use magic. It was an even more valuable lesson. He taught me how to be a man.
He was the only one I didn't always stay strong for after it happened. I tried, but it was usually no point, since he saw right through me. Perhaps the others did too, but he was the one who didn't let me get away with it. He was also the only one I would have allowed to see my tears.
Unfortunately, he passed away about a year after Arthur. He only met the prince as an infant. He never got to know the sweet boy, and later great man, that was James Arthur Pendragon. I tried my best to fill that role for James, the one that Gaius had filled for me. I continued to live in Gaius' chambers, taking over his position as court physician, and spending most of my spare moments up at the castle with Gwen and her son.
I told him the stories of his father. When he was young, I told him of the adventures, the dragons, the sword fights, the good against evil. When he got older, my stories matured with him. By telling him of his father, I tried to teach him everything Arthur and I had learned together. About loyalty, friendship and bravery. About duty, but also that certain things mattered more than duty and laws. About standing up for what you believe is right, but also about opening your mind to question what you have always been taught. About humility and being able to admit when you have done wrong.
I also told him the parts of the stories his father never heard, about my magic. Thanks to his mother, he had grown up in a world where magic was no longer outlawed, but cherished, if used for the right purpose. He always laughed when I explained how I had time and time again used magic to save his father, right behind his back, and he had never had a clue. When he was six, he proudly claimed that if it had been him, he would have figured it out much, much sooner.
I loved James. I would say that I loved him like a son, but since I have never had one, I cannot know what that is like. I can only know that I have never cared for anyone more that I did for him – well, perhaps once, and that was for his father.
When I first heard that Gwen was expecting a son, I vowed to myself to be there for him, because it was my fault that his father could not.
When I first looked at him, wrapped in blankets at his mother's chest, that vow didn't matter anymore, because even if I had never made it, I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else for the world.
Long after Camelot had fallen, and everyone whose grandparents might remember anything about those times were long gone, Merlin had stopped speaking of it. Because no one remembered anyway, and no one understood.
He had been silent a long time. Why bother getting close to anyone when he knew they would soon be lost, and he would, once again, be the only one left.
He had also stopped trying to affect the way the Kingdom was run. Why bother to try and help any side when war seemed to be the only thing on anyone's mind; war of money, war of religion, war of land. It wasn't like the wars they had fought, for freedom. To him, this was just one never-ending war.
Then, one day, he couldn't bear to be silent anymore. He wanted to remember, he wanted the world to remember. He wanted them to understand what the Kingdom could be like. On that day, he picked up a pen and started writing:
Once upon a time, there lived a great King, who fought for justice and peace in his Kingdom. He fought for his people. He loved his people, and would have lain down his own life for any of theirs. To him, it didn't matter if you were a prince or a servant. To be knighted by him, it was your loyalty that mattered, not your birth. Around his Round Table, everyone was equal.
He was a King who married the girl he loved, despite being firmly advised against it. He was a man who knew that she was right for both him and the Kingdom, and didn't care if he by choosing her would, as some said, lose the respect of the people. Instead, by marrying a servant girl that would turn out to be a great Queen, he gained further respect from most.
This King, this man, was my best friend. His name was Arthur Pendragon. I am going to tell you our story.
A/N: The whole James story is sort of going on writing itself in my head. It wouldn't all fit in here, but if anyone's interested I could post some story focusing more on that period of Merlin's life, James' childhood and growing up?