Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
It was hard to believe.
It wasn't as though she hadn't had time to adjust. To prepare. After all, Merlin had been in jail for weeks and weeks, and they'd known all along that banishment was more than a slight possibility. No, it hadn't exactly been a surprise.
But it didn't feel real. None of it did. Even when he'd been in jail, she'd had access to him. In fact, she'd had such easy access to Merlin that she had seriously considered talking to her husband about security measures in the dungeon. No doubt Merlin was…helping things along with his magic, but still. It wasn't as though she was his only visitor. He hadn't gotten all of his contraband from her.
Fortunately, he'd received a lot of it from her. If she hadn't exercised her more creative muscles, Merlin would have been starving to death, sleeping on the floor, cold, and drunk for most of his stay. Although she still hadn't figured out which of the knights had taken the initiative to supply him with curtains. Even she hadn't thought of that. Unfortunately, none of Arthur's finest warriors were willing to admit that he was the one most inspired to aid in the interior decoration of dungeon cells.
A pity. Keeping account of the accumulation of Merlin's donations was one of the most fun parts of her occasional and all-too-brief visits with the young man. Seeing all of his smuggled comforts made it easier to live with the fact that he was wallowing in jail for no reason.
Well, maybe there was a little reason. But Guinevere firmly believed that character and context ought to outweigh crime, at least in cases such as Merlin's. Merlin! Arthur may have been unwilling for far too long to so much as approach Merlin to question him about the circumstances of his sorcery and consequent concealment, but he'd known Merlin's character. That ought to have been enough…
What was it with men and pride? Gwen admittedly bore her own share of the inconvenient inclination, but it always seemed so much stronger among the opposite sex. Of course, her belief was largely based on Elyan the knight and Arthur, so it was entirely possible that all men weren't partially defined by their senses of pride.
Oh, Arthur. Her life would have been so much easier if she hadn't loved him.
Or Merlin, for that matter, if in an entirely different way. If only Guinevere had been able to really, truly choose sides. It would have been so easy to take Merlin's; after all, whenever she saw him, he was unchanged, save for an increasing pallor that grew with every day spent below ground. It was Arthur's character that had seemed to take such an ugly turn. It had been very unattractive.
But Merlin was a criminal. There was no denying it. Merlin certainly wasn't bothering to try. So Guinevere could not begrudge Arthur's difficulties. All in all, it was an awful situation, and she could understand why he might blame Merlin for it. It was easiest and, worst of all, the most just.
If only Merlin had seemed like a criminal! Gwen had made trips to the dungeons before—sometimes as a deliverer of food, sometimes to survey a prisoner, sometimes as a prisoner—and the people that she saw within the cells almost always looked like criminals. Dirty and scowly and altogether shifty. Merlin had not.
It was those blue eyes, she'd decided. They were too pretty to imagine to be full of hate. He just had such an innocent and lovely face. Like he could do no harm and would be shocked to hear it suggested of him. Guinevere honestly believed that if Merlin had been left to a jury of his peers who'd not actually seen him doing magic, he would have been acquitted within fifteen minutes of deliberation.
Poor Merlin. It was all so hard to believe.
And poor Arthur as well. She wasn't the only one struggling with the unreality of the situation. He'd begun to miss Merlin before the young man had even announced his intention to leave. He'd miss Merlin very much, and Guinevere was willing to bet that the feeling was mutual. It was very sweet, in a sad sort of way.
But it was easier to blame Arthur. Especially considering how ridiculously he'd been behaving during Merlin's last day in Camelot. Proclaiming for all to hear that Merlin was not leaving, despite the young man's direct statement that he would be gone by dawn, all but hiding in his own castle to avoid Merlin, acting particularly high and mighty around everyone else to try to cover for the fact that he was so very scared.
Well, Gwen was scared too. But she didn't strut around the castle shouting at people just because she could. Her sympathy for Arthur's struggles was not exactly at its high point when he stopped by to visit her chambers in the hours before the dawn that lead to the confirmation of Merlin's flight.
Guinevere hadn't needed to see an empty cell or vacant chambers to know that Merlin was gone. For one, she believed him when he flat out stated that he'd chosen exile over incarceration. And there was no way that she could have possibly doubted Merlin's sincerity when they had said their farewell, only an hour or so before Arthur came stomping in to continue the charade that Merlin was still somewhere within the castle. No, she knew that Merlin must be an adept liar to have survived so long at Arthur's side without his magic coming out. But there was far too much brutal honesty in his eyes when he had come to see her that last time for her to have any doubt that he would be gone by the time the sun rose.
She had watched the sun rise. She had stayed in her seat, wrapped in a blanket and staring out her open window at the courtyard, where she had been sitting when her husband had entered, where she had remained as the sun climbed up into the sky, from whence she had not moved even when she saw Arthur riding out of the castle gates on a black horse that was not his own, unescorted, and before almost anyone else was even awake. And she sat there still, even hours later, still in her nightclothes, remembering that last meeting between herself and Merlin…
"Merlin, please don't go."
Merlin shook his head patiently, and Guinevere had the impression that he'd been through this conversation more than a few times over the last day. "I've been banished, Gwen. I don't have much of a choice."
Guinevere's patience was somewhat less absolute. "You have not been banished."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "What, like I was going to choose to stay in the dungeon for the rest of my life? No thanks, Gwen. A month was enough."
She chose not to think about the conditions in which he had lived for the past month. It made it much easier to be annoyed at him for choosing an option that did not nominally involve permanent imprisonment. "Just wait, just for a little bit. He'll get over it and stew in his own pride and you'll be out by spring."
"I can't." Merlin's confidence had something of a quaver in it. Guinevere had the impression that he was not so much reconsidering his decision to leave so much as he was wishing that he could make himself do so. Oh, what she would have given for a third option!
"He's mad, Merlin. That's all. It'll start to fade away the first time that he hears a joke about brass over breakfast or about the chemical properties of soap over his bathwater. Trust me, a day or two with a devoted servant, and he'll be begging you back with a raise," she answered, trying to imbue her words with as much assurance as she could muster. She was mildly impressed with herself; but then, it was not a difficult statement to believe. Surely Arthur would not have been able to endure an unnecessarily difficult life with the solution living in his dungeons.
Merlin smiled. "He's had more than a day or two. He'll probably get fat from being overfed and quiet from a lack of yelling all the time and stop losing so much hair from having to fret over the state of his armor every morning, but he'll get used to it. You both will."
Guinevere shook her head, not so much disbelieving as unaccepting. "Are you really going?"
This time, his confidence did not quaver. "Yes."
Somehow, the certainty in his voice gave her something of a shove into the pragmatic state that would be the only way in which she could handle this with any dignity. "How can I contact you?"
It looked as though this was another question that Merlin had heard many times since he had begun his farewells. His voice was so carefully controlled that she knew that this was a planned response. "You can't."
Well, he could be as carefully controlled as he wanted. If this was to be their final meeting, she would not allow him to go quietly. "Merlin—"
His voice was even. "Gwen, you can't. Even if I wanted to give you a place to write me, I don't know where I'm going yet. Not exactly."
That was his excuse? How unintelligent were the people who had received this answer before her that they could not counter it? "But you can write me from wherever you settle and then I'll know where you are and I won't have to worry."
He did seem to have to begin to personalize his argument. She finally felt as though he was speaking specifically to her rather than spouting a pre-written speech. "Gwen, I can't. I'm truly sorry, but I can't. It's the same reason that I couldn't tell you about my magic. I would not put you in that position with Arthur. There may come a day when he wants to find me again—for good or for bad—and it can't happen like that. I don't want you to have to lie to him or for me, and I will not be found. Not until the time is right."
Well, that was a load of nonsense. Who did he think he was, the castle sage? For all that he complained about Arthur's high and mighty voice, Merlin seemed to have a version of his own. But affection does a great deal to soften arrogance. "Merlin, don't go."
Merlin groaned. "Gwen—"
She stood and put her hands on her hips, ignoring the fact that she was in a nightdress and dressing gown and perhaps not cutting the most intimidating figure at the moment. "I know I'm not behaving like a queen, and I don't care. And that's why you can't leave. I'm not a queen to you. You're the only one who still treats me like you did before my coronation."
He snorted. "You want to be treated like a servant? I think that you might be forgetting some of the finer points of the job."
Guinevere sighed angrily and began to vent. This may not have been the time or place for a bit of whining on her part, but she didn't care. It was early, and one of the people that she loved most in the world was leaving her behind. She would whine all that she wanted, and he would listen, damn it! "No, but I want to be treated like I didn't receive a personality transplant the moment that the crown touched my head! It's like Gwen ceased to exist as soon as there was a Queen Guinevere. And you don't do that. Even Arthur does. It's not in him to see his wife as a servant. For his whole life, he had specific ideas about what kind of person is a queen and what kind of person is a servant, and there was never any room for overlap. It's not easy for him to reconcile the two."
Merlin's voice was quiet. "He tries."
"I know. But you can."
He shook his head again, firmly. "I wasn't raised to expect that any woman that I marry would become royalty. I wasn't even raised to expect that I'd be able to marry. Not where I lived. Arthur and I have very different perspectives on life. He's been being lectured about the importance of fathering an heir since before he knew exactly what fathering an heir involved. I wouldn't have had anything particular for anyone to inherit, really. That's why Arthur and I together made a whole—it doesn't matter."
Guinevere stared at him in a combination of admiration and exasperation. "Even now, you defend him? After all that he's put you through?"
Merlin looked down at the floor. "He did what he had to do. And Gwen, he hated every minute of it. I meant it when I said that it doesn't matter, any of it."
Guinevere stamped her foot, a gesture that would have embarrassed her if she hadn't been so caught up in her protest. "It does matter, Merlin! You matter. To me, to Gaius, to Arthur, even if he doesn't want to admit it right now. Oh, Merlin. Don't you see how you'll be missed? And to say that I can't even know where you are?"
And she sat down at her table and covered her face with her hands.
Merlin looked at her for a long time as she wept. He didn't interrupt; it was as though he understood that this was the first that she'd actually broken down, and all of the tears of the past four weeks were all pouring out now. She needed to cry, and she accepted with silent assent as he began softly rubbing her back, just as her mother always had when she had cried as a child. Which of course just made her cry all the harder, but it was good. It was cleansing and healthy. Dimly, she thought that men should cry more often. It was better for the soul.
Who knew that Merlin would have so much in common with her mother? Well, he had always behaved somewhat wifely toward Arthur. Not that either of them would have admitted that. She supposed that they wouldn't have wanted to question whatever it was that made their strange relationship work.
Reflecting on the nature of Merlin and Arthur's bizarre friendship began to sober her. It was difficult to be hysterical and ponder with any seriousness the layers of that issue.
As she began to calm down and her shoulders finally stopped shaking, Merlin nodded, sniffing a bit himself as he took his hand from her back. He seemed…altered. As though none of this was going as he'd intended. She was too drained by the sudden outburst of emotion to question it too deeply as he spoke. "Hand me that candle, will you, Gwen?"
She looked at the table at which she sat, where there was a single candlestick with a half-burnt white candle sealed in with melted wax. She'd blown it out hours ago, when she'd lain in her bed with the optimistic hope of falling asleep. Having gotten up, she hadn't bothered relighting it. She could brood just as well in the dark as she could in the light. So she passed the cold white candle over to Merlin, her hands still somewhat shaking from her torrent of tears.
Merlin took it from her and examined it closely, not looking up as he began to speak again, very quickly. "Alright, Gwen. I meant it when I said that I hadn't decided where I was going. For another thing, I really don't want to put you in a position where you have to keep such a massive secret from your loved ones. Trust me, I can tell you from personal experience that that's basically the task from hell. But there is a way for you to write to me."
Gwen blinked rapidly, her eyelashes bunched together in random wet clumps. "But you said that you didn't know where you were going. You literally just said that. I'm emotional, Merlin. I'm not an idiot."
Merlin smiled at that and looked up at her for a moment. "There are ways, Gwen."
He turned back to the candle, his forearms curved around it so that she did not have a good view of just what he was doing. She saw a brief flash and heard the hiss of flame and knew that Merlin had lit the candle. She was just about to ask him where he had gotten the matches when she heard him murmuring a few words in a strange language that she didn't understand.
Of course. Magic. She still wasn't entirely used to the idea. Even then, hearing about it was one thing. She hadn't been there on the day when Merlin had thrown a sorceress into a fireplace and conjured a room of fire that had apparently blown Arthur's mind to the extent that he wouldn't shut up about it for weeks, but she accepted the stories as true. After all, even Merlin wasn't denying them. So she'd heard and believed.
But seeing it was a whole different prospect. She felt as though she was dreaming the very strange sort of dream that always seemed to come to her on the nights after she'd had too much wine. It felt so unreal. There was a puff of smoke of a strange sort of bluish color, and she knew that Merlin had blown out his little flame.
"Alright, finished." He passed the candle back to Guinevere. It was completely cool and the wick was white, waxy, and clean, as though it had never been lit. But it was already burnt halfway down and the drips that had cooled to its sides were still visible…
Merlin grinned at the look on her face. "Still not used to magic, huh?"
Gwen laughed shakily. "Not exactly. Why did you give me a candle?"
"Because, Guinevere, any letter than you seal with the wax from that candle will…find its way to me." Merlin looked very pleased with himself, and Guinevere couldn't help but laugh again. But how on earth could he guarantee that he would receive a letter when it hadn't been properly addressed? Was he taking advantage of her lack of knowledge about magic to trick her into no longer pestering him about giving her a way to contact him? And how on earth had he done that?
Then she looked down at the candle, believed, and decided to forgo asking how. It wasn't very big…
"I won't get very many letters out of this, Merlin! Could you magic me a bundle or two?"
Merlin laughed. "Trust me, Gwen. You could burn that candle until the end of days and it won't melt all the way down. Don't worry about running out of wax. You can send me as many letters as you can write without wearing out your wrist. Be sure to let me know when the first of your dozens of daughters are born."
She smiled, a little sadly, down at the candle, then held it up to the faint moonlight that trickled in through her windows. She had to be sure that she knew what it looked like, exactly. If she accidentally mixed it in with all of the other candles in the castle, she could have something of a difficulty on her hands. Then she noticed something. "Merlin, it's purple!"
He laughed again. "Yes, Guinevere, it's purple."
He smiled again. Considering that the nature of this conversation was hardly the most cheerful, she had to wonder if he was just enjoying speaking to someone who was not his jailer or his petulant king. But it was nice to see him smile and to hear him speak in a voice not hushed by necessity. "Already learning not to ask how. You know, you could give your husband lessons in accumulation of knowledge."
Even Guinevere could hear how much she sounded like Arthur just then. She blushed.
Merlin did not seem to notice. Perhaps he was so accustomed to hearing his name uttered in frustration that he just tuned it out by now. "I made it purple on purpose for you, Gwen! I know that it's your favorite color. Also, I know for a fact that Arthur is not a fan of purple. He prefers having his Pendragon red. Yells at me every time one of your candles gets mixed in with yours. You know, now that you two live next to each other and have the adjoining chamber, all the candles are delivered together, and it is not my fault if a few purple or red wander into the wrong chamber…"
"Merlin." Her voice was softer this time, although the frustration remained audible. It seemed far fonder in the lower tone, and she was glad.
Merlin certainly did not seem to mind. "Ah. Yes. Anyway, if this candle ends up in Arthur's room or hands, he'll give it back to you. Or send whoever his new servant is. Probably after throwing a hissy fit or two. He claims that it makes his room look too girly…it's just embarrassing. I mean, even when he runs out of candles in his room and sends me over to your chamber to steal some—sorry about that, by the way—he makes sure that I only get the white or gold ones. He would actually rather try to work in the dark rather than have purple candles."
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest and nodded conspiratorially. "Yeah. It's a good thing that he doesn't actually do more work, or his eyes would be going by now. He'd basically an overgrown child with sword skills."
Guinevere smiled at Merlin's picture of her husband. "It is kind of pathetic."
He let out a low whistle. "You married him."
They laughed together for a moment, very sadly. Then Merlin stood up. It was time for him to leave, and she knew it. He didn't say anything as he started to gather up the bags that he'd assembled, packed with the meager belongings that he'd be taking with him. With a pang, Guinevere noticed that prominent among them was the bag that she'd given him for his birthday. It looked as though it was a good thing; it was crammed so full of items that there was no way that his old bag would have held together. He also had another bag that looked to be stuffed with clothing, a leather flask, and a staff with a crystal on the end. It didn't look like any walking stick that she'd ever seen. She opened her mouth to ask what on earth that was before she thought better of it. Something about it…the gem would have been beautiful if it weren't so sinister, somehow. There seemed to be an aura of danger around it, and she was already worried enough about him. She didn't need to know of even more danger that he would carry with him. After all, if he got himself killed, how would she ever even know? She could write him as many letters as she liked—dead men tended to be poor correspondents. Then something occurred to her.
"Wait, Merlin. How will I send my letters? Do I give them to someone? Is a magic bird summoned by the wax or something?"
Merlin raised his eyebrows until Guinevere suspected they could not go any higher. He was probably giving himself a headache with the effort. " 'Is a magic bird summoned by the wax?' Wow, Gwen. Wow. Arthur really is rubbing off on you. Not in the smart way. Do silly theories come with the crown?"
Guinevere glared, not least because she hadn't realized how silly indeed the question had sounded until she'd said it aloud. She may not have known much about sorcery, but magic letter-carrying birds summoned by wax seals seemed somewhat farfetched. "Merlin, really. How do I send them?"
Merlin grinned with such confidence that he seemed almost charming. There was something…rakish about his expression that Guinevere had never expected to see in him. It was a good thing that he hadn't ever looked like this during his first year in Camelot; Guinevere's crush might have been a bit slower in its fading. Arthur Shmarthur!
Guinevere laughed silently at herself and waited for Merlin's answer.
It was not long in coming. "Oh, just toss one out a window somewhere. I imagine that it'll find it's way to me."
"But how will-. Oh, never mind. Will you write back?"
Merlin hesitated, and Gwen began to prepare a lecture that would certainly guilt him into at least sending a few lines her way every now and then. Catching the look in her eye, Merlin hastily answered. "When I can, I will. Don't give me that look. I promise! But I'm going to make it so that no one can open any letters except for you."
"You mean that I'm the only one who can break the seal for the first time?" She was beginning to get used to this whole magic thing. It actually seemed pretty handy.
Merlin shrugged, and she wondered if he was happy at all to have been blessed with such handiness. "Sort of. You'll be the only one to break the seal, and I'll make it so that the wax reseals every time that you fold it up. I don't want you to get into any trouble by it coming out that you're still in contact with me. This way, anyone who might stumble upon a letter won't be able to read it. But…I kind of need a favor to make it work."
Guinevere began to grow suspicious. His tone of voice made the "favor" sound less than appealing. "What do you need, Merlin?"
He gave a sort of preemptive wince and what was clearly supposed to be a conciliatory smile that was distinctly less rakish. "I need a lock of hair for the spell to be specific to you."
Guinevere stared at him. That's what it was about? "Of course you can have a lock of hair. Hand me those shears, will you? Honestly, I thought that you were going to ask for my right hand or first born child or something."
Merlin laughed. "Who will be a daughter, no doubt."
Gwen smiled. "I certainly hope so, just for the look on Arthur's face. But honestly, Merlin. Did you think me so vain? Hair grows back. And I have plenty of it."
Merlin shrugged, looking both sheepish and amused. "I think that I'm just conditioned to asking Arthur for bizarre favors that seem completely nonsensical, and I feel like he would have put up less of a fuss if I'd demanded his right hand or first born son rather than cut off any of his hair. Trust me, of the Camelot monarchy, you're not the one who I'd accuse of vanity."
Guinevere shook her head fondly, thinking of her husband as she snipped a small lock of her hair off of her head and handed it to Merlin, feeling somewhat strange. He began to pocket it when she put out a hand to stop him.
"Wait. Let me see." She used the commanding sort of tone that she'd been trying to develop since becoming queen. Apparently, an accommodating voice was not typical of a monarch.
Merlin did not seem particularly swayed. "What do you mean?"
She was undeterred. "I want to see how you do it. You're my friend, Merlin, and according to you, magic is a huge part of who you are. I want to see you do it. I want to see what makes you you."
Merlin smiled, looking very touched. "I can do that."
He laid down his bags and walked over to a bracket on the wall of her chambers and plucked out another half-burnt white candle before coming back to sit at her table once more. "Sorry. I have to steal a candle."
Guinevere waved the apology away, a strange sort of excitement washing over her. She'd never really seen magic before, and this was Merlin. This was certainly not going to be any evil or dark sorcery.
Merlin began to focus on his task. He withdrew one hair from the lock and wrapped it around the others, tying them all neatly together with an astonishing precision that she would not have expected Merlin to be capable of. Then he stood the candle up on end, muttered a word, and Guinevere gasped as it sparked to life, the blue fire that she'd suspected when he'd lit her candle earlier blazing up more brightly than she could have imagined when seeing it unobscured. From the grin that began to sneak across his face, Guinevere couldn't help but suspect that he was showing off a bit. She couldn't blame him; from the impression that she'd gotten, precious few of Merlin's friends had been particularly keen to see him doing magic. Dealing with the knowledge was one thing; dealing with the sight, she imagined, could take longer to accept, no matter how much they would have valued his friendship. A return to status quo seemed to be the most common destination yearned for by the knights who were still willing to speak to him.
But this was Merlin. And she watched, fascinated, as he held the bundled lock of her hair over the blue flame and allowed it to catch fire. She bit down a warning that he would burn himself if he didn't drop the burning hair. He knew what he was doing far better than she did. She heard him begin to mutter unidentifiable words again; this time, there was a longer stream of them, uttered in such a strangely melodic tone that he sounded as though he was singing a beautiful song to which no one else knew the words. She'd heard Merlin sing before, and his voice was generally not to be described as "melodic" in any sense of the word; but this was so lovely and thrilling that Guinevere could equate it to nothing other than the most entrancing of songs. Tears pricked at her eyes again, but she was not sad.
Pure white sparks began to jump up from the burning hair; as Merlin said his final word in that language that she had never heard before, there was a poof as a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke emerged from his hand. When it cleared away, she saw that all remnants of the lock of her hair were gone. Merlin's hand was unscorched. Laughing at the look on her face, he blew out the candle and tucked it away in his pocket.
It was also purple.
There were a few moments of silence before Gwen said a quiet "Thank you."
Merlin looked surprised, more than anything else. "For what?"
Guinevere raised her eyebrows. Were the magic fumes going to his head? Her motives should have been obvious. "For showing me your magic."
And then Merlin began to laugh. He did not stop for a long time.
Guinevere was just confused. "Why was that funny?"
Merlin wiped his eyes, streaming from what she presumed was his laughter, and looked suddenly exhausted. "Because, Gwen, you are probably the first person in my whole entire life who has thanked me for doing magic. It's usually 'what was that?' or 'be careful that no one sees you' or 'magic is evil' or 'burn the sorcerer.' Not always directed at me specifically, mostly because I somehow got away with lying about it for all these years, but still. I've never been thanked."
That made Guinevere very sad. She'd thought that he was underappreciated before the whole ordeal.
"Stupid Arthur," she said.
Merlin laughed again, and Guinevere only hoped that he'd contain himself this time. After all, Arthur was just next door, and she had the distinct impression that Merlin was planning on avoiding meeting the king once more before he left the castle. She wasn't sure if either of the men could have handled that. "Yes, stupid Arthur, indeed, Gwen. Take care of him, will you? He's going to need you more than ever now."
She nodded with as much seriousness as she could. "Without you, you mean."
Merlin nodded right back at her. "Yes. And yes, I know how arrogant and presumptive that sounds."
Guinevere shook her head. "It doesn't, somehow. Well, maybe a little. But it is true. Even after this month, I think that Arthur still doesn't know how much he needs you around."
Merlin looked as though he almost disagreed with her but was not quite sure how to express it, and his tone was light when he answered. "Hopefully my lack of enthusiasm for my primary duties as a servant will soften the blow."
Guinevere smiled, sadly. "I don't mean as a servant."
He nodded, very slightly. "I know. Just…look after him. I know that you already do, but…it's on you, now, Gwen. You're the closest one he has left, after I'm gone. And I truly am sorry for that. He can be…a handful, let's say."
She did not respond for a few moments. "You don't sound mad at him."
"I'm not," he answered, very sincerely.
She snorted. "Why not? I am."
Merlin leaned forward on his elbows. "I know, and that means a lot to me. Really, it does. But I think that he did the right thing. Plus, I told him to do it, so I'm actually kind of smug about the whole thing."
Guinevere narrowed her eyes. He had better not mean what she thought he meant. "You told him to do it."
He seemed to correctly interpret her change of expression. His next words seemed very carefully chosen. "Not directly. I sort of…guided him to do it. I was very sneaky, if I may say so myself."
Guinevere's words were somewhat less carefully considered. "How can you be so flippant about this? I don't care if it was your idea. You're leaving forever, Merlin! You're not coming back! Can't you at least pretend to be upset?"
Oh, she had better not start crying again.
But then there was that rakish grin on his smile again. "Come on, Gwen. You don't really think that I'll be gone forever, do you? I think that Arthur and I just need to be apart for a while. You know, codependence isn't healthy for men of our power."
The sudden threat of further crying extinguished by his expression, she rolled her eyes. "I can hear the 'smug' coming out."
Merlin shook his head. His rakish grin seemed suddenly very serious. "I mean it, Gwen. We'll be better together someday if we're apart for now."
She nodded, looking down at her smooth and uncarved table. "You think."
"I hope." Merlin put his whole heart into those words. She knew it.
"This is a big gamble, Merlin."
He matched her movement and nodded back. "It wasn't easily made, you can trust me on that. I'm just…counting on coming back."
She couldn't imagine herself taking such a risk. "You think that Arthur doesn't mean what he said right now? That he's not a man of his word? I think he'd double banish you if he heard you say that."
Merlin chuckled, and she felt suddenly and irrationally ashamed of questioning Merlin's faith in Arthur. "No, I know that he is. But I also know that he's a man of his heart, as much as he would try to deny it. Prideful as he is, he'll always choose what is right over what is easy. I'd be dead now, you know, if he wasn't that sort of man."
Guinevere couldn't argue with that. If Arthur wasn't that sort of man, she wouldn't be his wife. She'd still be banished. Or she would have been killed immediately after her betrayal had come to light. Yes, there was no denying that Arthur was that sort of man.
And she suddenly felt much better about Merlin's exile and its projected permanency.
Though she still felt plenty annoyed with Arthur. Optimism or not, she'd still have preferred if Merlin wasn't leaving in the first place.
Merlin seemed plenty resigned. "One last thing, Gwen. Could you just—I don't know, keep me updated on what goes on in Camelot? Not just the people, but…you know, I've helped to avert a lot of crises over the years, even if no one could know. So if my help is ever needed, if there are ever emergencies that can't be overcome by sword and shield, send me word. I'll be back, death penalty or not."
She blinked incredulously. "You expect me to call you back to your death?"
A strange look crossed his face. He suddenly looked so much like Arthur did when he was preparing to ride out on a mission of some sort. The same confident determination and surface stoicism. "Gwen, if I were to die upon a return to Camelot, trust me, it wouldn't be through execution. If you can find a fire that could burn me or an axe that could behead me or a crossbow bolt that could pierce me as I stand before a crowd, knowing that I'm to be killed, then I'll deserve to die. Otherwise? I'll die naturally or in a battle. So don't worry about me."
Yes, he definitely sounded like Arthur. "Being smug again."
But he was still so very much Merlin. "Don't make me set your room on fire."
She couldn't help but smile. "Please don't. Arthur already harps on about the one that you made in his council chamber. I'll never hear the end of it if you do it again."
He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Alright, I'll behave. But promise me, Gwen. If Camelot needs my help—or any help, no matter how hopeless it might seem—send for me. I'll be back as soon as I possibly can. And I have ways of traveling that don't take very long."
He was firm. "Promise me, Gwen. Don't make me take away your candle. You must keep in touch. And let me know how everyone gets on. Even Arthur. Especially Arthur. But the others as well. I have to know, or I'll go mad. I'm leaving Camelot, but I'd rather not leave all of the people in it. Not entirely. Please promise me, Gwen."
Who knew that he could make such touching speeches? Merlin was just full of surprises. Guinevere did not have the heart to refuse him. "Fine. I promise. But you must promise to look after yourself. I don't care what you say, please don't try to tempt fate with pyres or axes or crossbows."
Merlin rolled his eyes, and the mood seemed suddenly much lighter. "Oh, don't talk to me about fate. I have a long-standing grudge against fate. But I'll promise, if that makes you feel better."
It did, somehow. She knew for a fact that Merlin had been lying for more than six years, ever since he had arrived in Camelot. His word should have counted for nothing. His promises should have been discarded immediately. She knew that. But she believed him. Surely he didn't want to die. He'd made that clear when they'd had their whispered arguments about his escaping the dungeons. He wasn't going to escape, he'd say, but he wasn't going to die. He sounded so sure, and she'd believed him then as well.
And he hadn't, had he? He hadn't died.
She shook herself back into the moment. Merlin was picking up his bags and staff again, and she had no doubt that he really would be walking out of her door this time. So, without thinking, she stood up, walking over to Merlin and embraced him with the weight of all of the love and friendship and comradery that she'd grown to feel for him over the years.
Which was apparently so weighty that Merlin nearly tipped over with her momentum and the uneven distribution of heaviness added to him by the two stuffed bags strapped to his body. So it was with a laugh and a sniff that Guinevere stood back, put her arms on Merlin's shoulders to steady him and keep him upright, and bid him a wordless goodbye.
Sparing her one last glance, he looked almost casually over his shoulder and grinned that rakish grin at her once more, for just a moment, and she felt a chill—or was that a thrill?—run down her spine. Standing there, on the threshold between her bedroom and the corridor that would lead him out of the castle and into banishment, temporary or not, he shrugged. He looked so very much like he had that first day when she had met him as he stood, locked into the stocks and facing a frenzy of fruit with a goofy grin on his face and a twinkling in those oh so blue eyes of his. He was still the Merlin that he always had been, and Queen Guinevere of Camelot felt so much relief wash over her as he opened his mouth to say his farewell that she could not help but smile.
He nodded at her with all of the respect and affection in the world, looking so knowing that it felt ridiculous to doubt him.
"Until we meet again."
And Merlin smiled.
Really the end this time. Sort of. There will be a sequel soon, but it won't be a sequel so much as a Part 2. This story was basically one half of the whole. After all, Merlin and Arthur have a destiny together! How long can they really stay apart? I have parts of it outlined already, so it shouldn't be too long in waiting.
This would have been up a few days ago, but my browser closed when I was editing it on , and I was so annoyed with it that I didn't feel up to rewriting for a while.
Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who has read. This was the first fanfic that I've ever written that wasn't the result of a lost bet, and it's been an intimidating and fun experience. I'd love some final reviews, just to know how everything went, through to the end.