"Gone? Just like that?"

Arthur was dumbfounded. He and Merlin had their fights and spats before, but he had never just up and left the castle with no word given, no warning.

The small voice in his head spoke out, Yes, but you've never raised your hand to him before have you? Never spoke down to him before, not seriously. You've finally played your king card and look where it's gotten you.

"But...he'll be back, right? I mean, you're here, his position is here..."

I'm here...

Arthur shouldn't have felt so surprised at the sentiment. Merlin had always intrigued him. From their first meeting, Merlin had always stated his true opinion, had always been honest with him, regardless of Arthur's kingly (or at the time princely) status.

Merlin had started as nothing more than a puzzle to be solved, a simple manservant. Now, years later, Merlin proved his loyalty, wisdom (though he would never admit that to his face), and true friendship.

Gaius surveyed the emotional king.

The old physician felt torn. On the one hand, Merlin was much like a son to him. Gaius had never felt so much for a person. When Merlin came to him, Merlin was ashamed of who he was and so eager to learn and please. Now, Merlin had found a niche in the castle and fully embraced his destiny, no longer running from it. He only desired to see Merlin happy and healthy.

On the other hand, Gaius had watched over Arthur since he was a baby. When he was younger, he was "Uncle Gaius" who had healed his bumps and bruises. Gaius had, until this point, been incredibly proud of the man Arthur had become.

Don't forget, he's not the king you had hoped for right now. He needs a little help from Uncle Gaius, one more time.

Clearing his throat, Gaius interrupted whatever inner diatribe Arthur was having with himself.

"Sire? If I may offer some words of advice, if you are amenable to hearing them?"

Arthur looked stricken.

"Gaius, you know I trust your advice and opinion, just as my father did. You need not ask permission to give advice."

"Well, I believe that courtesy was once extended to Merlin, sire, and you see where that has gotten him, your majesty."

Hurt and shame colored the king's face. He looked appropriately abashed and nodded his acknowledgement of Gaius' rebuke.

Gaius continued.

"Perhaps, sire, you should listen to what Merlin has told you. He has never lied to you, never led you astray. You know he cares for you deeply. He is trying to help you. I know how lost you have been since Gwen's betrayal."

Arthur couldn't help the dull ache that spread through his chest at the name of his former fiancée. He was startled to find that the once sharp, overwhelming sense of betrayal and loss had dulled down, leaving only a vague outline of hurt on his heart-a near distant memory.

"Sire-Arthur. Do you remember all those times you came down here when you were younger? Right after those horrid fights with your father? Do you remember what you said to me? You said, 'I will never be like him. He never listens to anything I say. I will always listen to those around me.' You've lost your way Arthur, you've let grief and hurt overtake your natural ability to be a kind and generous king. The incident with Merlin aside, you have been, and I will be speaking frankly sire, you've been a complete idiot. You've tossed members of this staff out of Camelot like you toss out the morning garbage. You've ignored all sense and reason from advisors around you. You've opted to sit and stew in your loss instead of bucking up like the king you are and protecting your kingdom. Do you not see this?"

Arthur looked broken.

"I do, I do see this. But I don't know how to break out of it! I see and hear myself doing these things that are so out of character for me. I feel like my emotions are always simmering on the surface, ready to boil over at a moments notice. I see how much I'm hurting people, but I can't stop. I-I don't know how Gaius. I just feel so lost. My father is dead. The people of Camelot are unsure of my leadership abilities. I feel like I'm warding off assassination attempt after assassination attempt. I'm about to break, Gaius, I can feel it."

Then, softly, "And I'm not sure anyone will be there when I break. No one to pick up the pieces and put me back together."

Gaius' demeanor softened in understanding.

"Arthur, you are a great and kind man. It's true, the fates have not been particularly kind to you. But you will always, always, have me to fall back on. More importantly, you will have Merlin. He will come around, eventually. But Merlin needs to see that you deserve his trust and devotion. Prove to him that you are the king he believes you to be. And if you break Arthur, that's okay. I promise, we will pick you up."

Arthur raised his head to look at his oldest and most trusted advisor. Though Arthur would have sworn it was dust in his eyes or the byproduct of one of Gaius' chemicals, his eyes glistened with unshed tears and unexpressed emotion.

"Thank you, Gaius. I will endeavor to be better. I will show Merlin that I am the man, the king, he believes me to be, that you believe me to be."

And, with a comforting squeeze on the shoulder, Arthur and Gaius became king and physician once more.

"If you see Merlin, if you hear from him, tell him..."

Tell him I miss him already. Tell him I want to be a better king for him. Tell him I appreciate his friendship and devotion more than he will ever know.

"Tell him I'm sorry and to come home."

With a flourish of his ever present red cape, Arthur left Gaius, who had a pleased smile on his face.

Merlin had never been more grateful for his time spent as the whipping boy for Arthur and his knights when they went outside the safety of the castle.

Percival had taught him the fastest way to chop wood for fire. Elyan had taught him how to outwit predators. Leon, ever the practical one, spent his time explaining the shortcuts and paths of the forest which would lead to safety. Gwaine, speaking from experience, taught him which berries and plants were poisonous (Gwaine never did finish that story...).

With a pang, Merlin remembered all that Arthur had taught him. None of it relevant to camping. No, Merlin thought, best not dwell on things best left unthought of. At least for now.

Leaving the castle-leaving Arthur-had been one of the most difficult things he had ever done in his life. But, no matter the lingering sadness in his heart, Merlin knew that he was doing the right thing.

Merlin surveyed his camp. It resembled the camp he had helped set up for Arthur and his knights so many times, only much, much smaller.

Merlin took a moment to savor the sound of silence, the lack of needy knights and a hungry king.

With a note of satisfaction, Merlin realized how completely free he felt. He had started his blazing fire with a flick of his hand. He had caught a rabbit with the soft whisper of words. Here, alone in this forest, Merlin was completely free to be exactly who he was.

It was invigorating.

If Arthur could see me now...

Once more Merlin closed off all thoughts regarding his king. The sting of Arthur's slap still burned. The bite of his words still rang in his ears.

It all seemed to close in on Merlin at once.

Looking around at the darkening forest and his small camp, Merlin had a sudden bout of absolute self-doubt and terror-heavy emotions indeed.

What have I done? I just turned my back on my king-on my friend. The way I spoke to him! I abandoned him and our destiny. I abandoned Gaius and my friends. What was I thinking?

What exactly was his plan? Live out in the woods until word of Arthur's reformation had reached him? Hope that somebody would talk sense into the brooding king?

Leaving the castle had served no purpose, other than shock value perhaps. Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I need to go back. Arthur won't survive more than a week the way assassins have been finding their way into the castle. No, tomorrow I shall return. But things will definitely be changing...

With that thought, Merlin began plotting. Arthur would be completely blindsided by the changes Merlin had in mind for Camelot and for Arthur.

A/N: I am so sorry about the delay between chapters. Just started Christmas break, so resettling back at home! I've decided to drop the Mithian/Gwen triangle and just make that a completely separate fic one day, along with my crack!fic and potentially a post-ep in the works after this weeks episode. REVIEW PLEASE. I'M LOVING the reviews I've received so far! THANKS!