During his first year as official Court Sorcerer, Merlin took on a self-appointed quest to prove himself worthy of the title. No one who knew him thought for a minute that he was doing it to prove something to the courtiers or to the rest of the Council. Since his first years in Camelot, Merlin made it clear to all that the only person at Court whose opinion of him mattered was Arthur's.
"You don't have go," Arthur said, watching Merlin pack his bags. "Even if you were the worse manservant I've ever had, you're without a doubt the best Court Sorcerer I've ever had," he said cheekily.
Merlin snorted a laugh and whispered a spell to create more space in his pack.
"That would be one of the nicest things you've ever said to me if I wasn't the only Court Sorcerer you've ever had," Merlin said, shaking his head in amusement.
The two lapsed into companionable silence after that, which was only broken by the sound of things slowly making their way into Merlin's pack. From his seat at the table, the King simply watched him with a considering expression on his face. When Merlin was finally finished and was closing up his back, Arthur spoke again.
"Where will you go," he asked softly. He had come closer at some point and his breath ghosted across the back of Merlin's neck.
Hefting his pack, made significantly lighter because of his magic, Merlin placed it beside the bed before turning to address closest friend. Arthur's eyes showed his concern but also his resignation. He wouldn't try again to change Merlin's mind.
"I don't know yet where I'll go. I'll just let the magic lead me. In its own way it led me here to Camelot so I know I can trust it in this."
Turning away from Merlin, Arthur crossed the room to his wardrobe and pulled a wrapped parcel from inside. Striding back over to where Merlin stood, Arthur pressed it into his arms.
"Take this. You'll need it for the journey back," Arthur said, his voice a bit gruff with checked emotion.
Merlin turned the parcel over and over in his hands. It was soft and gave way when he squeezed it.
"As your king, I will allow you this journey. It serves the purpose of establishing you at Court and will show your dedication to the throne," Arthur said, his tone similar to the one he used when addressing matters of state.
"What is this," Merlin asked, gazing at Arthur quizzically.
"But as your friend…," Arthur continued, reaching out to rest his hand on Merlin's cheek. His tone was wholly different now, softer and more intimate and Merlin found himself leaning into the touch.
"As someone who cares for you deeply, I would rather not be parted from you and expect to have you back at my side before this time next year. Take the time that you need, prove whatever it is you think you have to prove, and then come back to me."
Placing that parcel on the bed beside them, Merlin reached up to clasp Arthur's hand between his own, pressing his lips to the palm.
"Don't think you're getting rid of me so easily," he said, needing to lighten the mood before he lost his resolve, wrapped himself up in this wonderful man, and never left again.
"Good," Arthur said, stepping closer and pressing a sweet kiss to Merlin's forehead. "I would hate to have to take another to my bed during the cold winter months."
"Don't you dare," Merlin gasped, feigning insult and smiling to himself as he felt Arthur's chest vibrate gently with laughter.
"I would never", Arthur said, easing back to look Merlin in the eye. "I'll always wait. You can count on that. Just don't make me wait too long."
"I know how ill-tempered you can get without me around to keep you in order," Merlin replied teasingly, ducking the swipe of Arthur's arm.
Smiling softly, Arthur ruffled Merlin's hair. "On the solstice?"
"On the solstice," Merlin said, nodding.
"And not a day later," Arthur said, kissing Merlin's lips this time.
Merlin's supplies, his pack and the parcel from Arthur, sat packed in his and Arthur's shared chambers that night as the castle celebrated a feast to mark both the end of winter and to celebrate the beginning of Merlin's journey.
And so Merlin set out to see the world beyond Albion. Following his magic, he encountered new people and discover new creatures. His magic grew as he learned from his kin all over the world and he grew in his power, relishing the feel of new magic on his skin and in the air.
And on the first day of the winter, Merlin rode back home to Camelot and stood before his King, snow melting on the collar of an old-new fur-lined cloak.