I do not own Merlin
It started with little things.
Barely noticeable, and nothing to be worried about. First of all, he delayed the execution. There was no reason to, none at all. But somehow Arthur felt things would progress better if the sorcerers execution was delayed. Just a week, nothing at all. Just a week.
A mere week until Merlin was burnt at the stake.
The king sat in his chambers, staring into the courtyard where the pyre had already been built. He ignored the clenching of his heart upon seeing it, and knowing what it would do. Merlin had betrayed him. He had used magic, knowing the penalty.
He had to die.
But it surely couldn't hurt to give him extra rations?
So Arthur made sure Merlin was allowed an extra piece of bread. He was skin and bones, and a little extra food wouldn't do any harm.
It made the guilt a little less.
He had seen Merlin's eyes flash a brilliant gold, pushing an assassin against the wall. In seconds, the guards had seized the sorcerer, and dragged him away.
Arthur didn't hold a trial. He knew he wouldn't be able to look Merlin in the face.
There was only a week until the man he had once considered a dear friend was killed.
The whole caste seemed gloomier. Servants skirted round him like he was about to explode. Gaius faded away in his chambers. The knights were quiet and subdued. But most of all, the king fell into a morose mood.
He knew it would silly. To mourn a sorcerer. But in a way, he was grieving for Merlin's passing. The Merlin he knew. The friend, advisor, idiot and protector.
Now he knew where all those 'lucky' coincidences had come from.
But the king didn't dwell on them. Because why would an evil sorcerer save him? But however many times he examined the problem, he saw nothing but Mer- the sorcerer's guilt.
The next day he had the pyre taken down. To die by flame was a terrible thing. Maybe a hanging would be more appropriate? More humane.
So he ordered for the gallows to be constructed.
Nothing at all, not something to think on. He had been seriously considered removing the use of fire all together. Just because Merlin happened to be the first sorcerer to be found for some time... It made no difference.
Of course it didn't.
He spent the rest of the day sitting in his room, brooding.
Two days later, Gaius begged Arthur to let him see Merlin.
Grudgingly, the king agreed. Merlin had been like a son to Gaius. For them to talk one last time would do no harm. And the way Gaius had sunk into himself disturbed Arthur. Maybe seeing Merlin for what he truly was would help?
Because Merlin was just a sorcerer. Just another evil killer desperate for the fall of the Pendragons.
The very same evening, he asked the guards to give Merlin an extra blanket that night. There was a threat of snow, and Arthur had spent enough time in dungeons to know how cold they were.
Merlin had too. Often they had been together, alone, in the hands of some bandit or other. Or when the servant had been captured by a malicious enemy, and held as bait for the king...
Maybe they had been working together? Maybe Merlin hadn't been in any peril at all?
Five days until his friend died... Five days until the sorcerer died.
Three days later, he decided to visit the warlock. What harm could it do? He wanted to find out why Merlin had betrayed everything? How he could live with himself.
The servant was crouched in a corner of his cell, knees drawn up to his chest, and forehead resting on them. He looked dejected an forlorn, and Arthur suddenly wondered if the small prison rations were enough.
His old friend looked up at the footsteps, mouth opening in surprise upon seeing the king. He didn't get to his feet, watching Arthur suspiciously.
Arthur ignored the mixture of hope and hurt in his bright eyes.
He crossed to the bars, and stared at the sorcerer he had condemned to death. The questions in his throat died upon seeing the familiar face.
A face he had seen covered in blood, mud and grime. A face with expressions of devotion, fear and laughter. Merlin, clumsy, annoying, advising, trustworthy.
Arthur bit his lip, and turned away, marching stiffly back up the corridor, ignoring Merlin's plaintive cry for him to come back.
The next day he didn't go to the council meeting, instead staring at the floor. It was with a heavy heart, throat clogged up with sadness.
In some ways it was worse. In many better.
He ordered for Merlin to be released, and informed he was banished for the kingdom, to return on pain of death. He gave the servant until dusk the next day to leave.
He could not see Merlin die.
But he could not see Merlin again.
He spent the day in his chambers, ignoring the voices of his knights begging him to emerge.
The next day, sure Merlin would have left by then, he reluctantly appeared at the council meeting, trying to ignore the stares.
"Er... Sire. The, uh, sorcerer... He hasn't... left the dungeons." Leon said slowly
"He refused to leave."
Five minutes later, he was standing before Merlin's cell. Rage and hatred rose up inside him.
This was the stubborn, stupid Merlin he knew. The one he'd lost when Merlin's eyes flash gold.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
Merlin gazed at him steadily.
"If you don't leave, I will have you killed." Arthur said.
Merlin didn't move.
They stared at each other for a few long moments. Then Arthur left. He commanded the guards to allow Merlin to leave any time.
The next day he discovered Merlin was still sitting in the cells.
Grudgingly he gave a servant some orders to get a meal to the stubborn sorcerer. There was no point in having him starve to death.
He tried to decide that Merlin should be executed. But now he had given himself the hope that his old servant would survive, it was hard to take it away.
The next day he went down to the dungeons again, hands clenched and teeth set. It was time.
He had to choose.
Merlin was sprawled on the floor, mouth hanging open and legs twisted together in an ungainly fashion.
Arthur stared at him, wishing desperately he could forget everything. The magic. Everything.
He had spent most of his prince-hood with Merlin, and every moment of being a king, Merlin had been beside him. Helpful occasionally, loyal always. Trustworthy, dependable. A rock amidst an ocean of carnage, hatred and betrayal.
"Merlin." he said softy.
The young sorcerer started awake, scrambling onto his knees. His eyes were serious and considering.
"I have... I think that we could... make an agreement?" he said slowly.
Bargaining with sorcerers. Not a good idea. But he desperately wanted Merlin back. Enough to risk the whole kingdom. Merlin was a friend. His dearest friend.
He couldn't rule without him.
Merlin cracked a smile, wide and sincere.
"Thank you, Arthur."