I do not own Merlin.

It is my intention to alleviate the pain we felt (and still do) in the aftermath of the two final episodes of Merlin.

As much as I loved Colin and Bradley in 5.13, I will never forgive the producers for cheating us out of a decent ending. Yes, it was extremely moving, brilliantly acted and totally heart wrenching, but surely there had to be another way...

Now this short story starts with the infamous 'You are the bravest man I ever met' scene - one that also has bothered me for a long time. To begin with I am sticking to the episode as it is. But then, things take a turn.

I am not going to say that everything will be hunky-dory - what would be the fun in that? - but I hope you will enjoy a different slant on what happens in the end. If you love Merlin and Arthur, I think you will enjoy this!

And to make sure - you really need to have seen the show to fully understand this!

"I think you find that is everything, Sire."

Merlin smiled, but if Arthur had looked at his friend more closely he might have noticed that he was apprehensive. Merlin had been dreading this meeting all afternoon and now it was here, he felt a sense of doom hovering over him. Merlin's heart was heavy with the knowledge he had to tell Arthur. He had to tell him that he wouldn't be coming to Camlann with him.

It seemed his destiny was crushing him under its weight yet again. In fact, he felt such pressure on his shoulders he was genuinely surprised that he managed to stand upright and pretend normality to the man he would give his life for.

He hated having to part with Arthur and leaving him unprotected, but there was no other solution to his situation. Morgana had taken his magic and he had to regain it somehow. It was the only way he would be able to succeed in helping Arthur and keeping him safe. Without his magic, the essence of his being, he stood no chance against the witch and the prophecy that had shadowed his existence for the past year.

"Impressive, very impressive. Never seen work like it." Arthur tone was sarcastic, but his eyes were smiling, and he clearly enjoyed teasing Merlin about his supposedly unexpected efficiency. Of course, both of them knew full well he didn't really mean it in a derogatory way.

If Arthur was honest, he was glad about the innocent banter. His head was full of worry about the stance he was going to make at Camlann. He was well aware of the consequences should he not succeed. His concern was not so much about his own life – as a warrior he was used to look death into the eye, and he was ready to accept whatever fate held in store for him. But his thoughts were with his people, his knights, and yes…Guinevere. What would become of them if they could not stop Morgana and the Saxons?

"Not from you anyway," he added mischievously and grinned, feigning surprise.

'Thank you, Sire!' Merlin laughed nervously, but pleased. He knew Arthur better than himself and understood that in his own little way his friend was trying to complement him. And he realized that the banter kept him going while his mind was reeling with the uncertainty of their future.

"So what are you after?" Arthur asked, as he walked across the chamber to retrieve the map he had left on his desk.

"After?" Merlin was astonished at the question. Did Arthur really expect him to hope for special favours for the work he had done? Or was he just trying to keep the conversation light to skim over the uneasiness consuming him for the last few days?

"Come on, Merlin. You are the worst servant in the history of the world and now suddenly this!" Arthur was matter of fact when he said it, but deep down Merlin's amazing preparation dumbfounded him just slightly, and for a reason he could not put his finger on, it unsettled him.

Merlin's head sank. Guilt was eating at his insides and he was steeling himself to say what he had to. If Arthur had looked him in the eye that very second he would have noticed how bothered his servant was and how broken his eyes looked. The moment Merlin had been dreading was approaching faster than he cared for.

"Is it money?" Arthur enquired.

Merlin found it increasingly difficult to keep up the lightness of the conversation. He fixed his gaze on the table in front of him, his eyelids flickering nervously.

"No," he answered, his voice wavering in anticipation of what had to come.

"It can't be that. You've already won all of mine," Arthur teased again, oblivious that Merlin didn't respond in his usual irreverent manner. The previous night at the tavern had been most profitable for Merlin, and Arthur, being a competitive man, had not easily forgotten about his defeat.

"Time off?" the king enquired half-jokingly.

"Arthur…," Merlin attempted to speak, his conscience bearing heavier on him every second.

But Arthur cut him short. "It can't be that either. You don't … really do anything." Arthur smirked and finally noticed that Merlin hadn't given him any cheek back so far. How odd, he thought. What is wrong with him? Why does he not contradict me?

The same second he thought it Arthur had to smile to himself. What would I do without him? Arthur contemplated it for a second. Of course he wasn't referring to Merlin's skills as a servant or to the never-ending eloquent abuse he 'endured' from him. He has always been my rock. As Arthur mulled this over in his mind gratitude filled his heart, and a feeling that very much resembled brotherly love.

"I just wanted to make sure you had all you needed for your journey to Camlann." Merlin tried to keep his tone as casual as possible, while making his point subtly. However, the seriousness of his tone was unmistakable and gave him away.

Arthur looked up in astonishment. Why did Merlin sound so solemn? There was something wrong. He was sure of it now.

"For the days ahead," the warlock added, squeezing the words out as if it hurt him uttering them. He'd done his best not to just blurt the news into Arthur's face.

"Thank you." Arthur was touched for a second before the true meaning of Merlin's words hit him full force. His head shot up and a huge frown appeared on his forehead.

"Merlin what do you mean – my journey?" he asked, his voice betraying complete confusion.

Merlin who'd cleverly avoided facing Arthur full on so far, turned round slowly now. His Adam's apple was bobbing up and down frantically while he kept swallowing to keep his dry throat lubricated.

"I'm afraid I won't be coming with you." There, he'd done it. Voiced, what had to be said. A little sigh escaped his mouth, almost in relief he had finally come to the point. Now all he had to do was to wait for the unavoidable reaction.

Arthur shifted his head slightly to the right, unsure whether he had fully understood what Merlin had uttered while the frown on his forehead was growing in proportion with his bewilderment.

"Not this time." Merlin could barely articulate the words, each of them stabbing the open wound in his heart.

"I'm sorry I have an urgent errand to run for Gaius", he said, squeezing each word out of his croaking throat.

"Vital supplies I can't obtain here." The lie was sticking to his tongue like super glue and spitting it out wasn't an easy task. In the short time they'd had, it was all Merlin and Gaius had been able to come up with. Maybe it wasn't the best of explanations, but at least it was kind of plausible. Well, kind of.

"Vital supplies?" Arthur repeated the words completely mindlessly. What is he talking about? Why is he saying that? The king couldn't believe what he was hearing. Surely this was some kind of a misunderstanding. The excuse for Merlin's decision was so feeble it was almost painful to listen to, and what made it worse was that both of them knew it was exactly that … an excuse.

"Yes. It's not that I am ….," Merlin stuttered, and at that his voice died, just as his heart had done a few seconds earlier when he had seen the first signs of disappointment creeping over Arthur's face.

"No, no," Arthur said immediately, trying to shake off the hurt spreading inside his guts. He shook his head, doing his best not to feel utterly rejected and betrayed. He'd never forced any of his knights to follow him into the mouth of hell. He had preferred to give them a choice. But Merlin? It hadn't even occurred to him to ask, because he knew him too well. At least, that was what he'd thought until now.

"Fine," Arthur didn't want to be ungracious. No, how could he be after all Merlin had done for him over the years. Of course he had to give him the choice. Arthur's common sense rambled on giving him a few more good reasons why it was okay for him that Merlin wouldn't be by his side in the most important moment of Camelot's history. Arthur hadn't even considered it. No, he'd taken it for granted, not because Merlin was his servant, but because he was his friend and he had always been there supporting him, in fact he had often insisted on following Arthur when he had not expected him to.

"It's fine. I understand," he said trying to convince himself that he did. He didn't notice that he was shaking his head in complete disbelief at the same time. His reason was telling him one thing, while his heart made clear he was anything but fine about this.

Here was the man who had lifted his spirits more than once when he had fallen into the darkest of moods. It had been Merlin who had led him to the sword in the stone, given him courage and rekindled his self-belief when he had felt totally defeated. The man that stood before him had always, unfailingly, been at his side, and he simply didn't feel complete without him.

As Merlin stood frozen to the spot, Arthur faced him again.

"You know, Merlin. All those jokes about you being a coward," Arthur hesitated.

"I never really meant any of them." No, he certainly had not. There had been plentiful jokes about Merlin's courage over the years and it had become a standard topic of the banter they'd shared, but he had never knowingly meant any offence by them.

"I always thought you're the bravest man I ever met.' Arthur lips tightened as he said it, his voice sounding crushed and very vulnerable. It was true, although he had never voiced it like this before. Merlin had gone through the most dangerous moments with him, often without the help of a sword, usually unprotected by life-saving armour and certainly without any fighting skills to talk of. Yet, he'd never failed to follow him or shown any signs of being concerned for his own life. On the contrary, Merlin had always cared for him and others first and been more than selfless in many of his actions. So what made this time different?

Merlin gaped at Arthur, his chest heaving heavily under the burden of emotion bubbling inside him. This was unexpected praise, and he would have delighted in it any other time, but now it kept stabbing him like a dagger in the heart. Arthur had never acknowledged him like this before, and there had been many times when he would have appreciated such words of commendation. Merlin had long realized how hard it was for the king to voice his feelings. The fact he did it now was proof how badly affected he was by Merlin's news. His slender frame was trembling with the effort of suppressing the tears welling up in his eyes.

Arthur clenched his fists unconsciously as he suddenly hit him fully what Merlin's words actually implied. His refusal to come along surely could mean nothing else but that he was afraid. He was frightened to face Morgana and Mordred and so petrified of death he couldn't cope with the thought of leaving. He was so anxious he didn't dare to follow his king, so sure about their defeat he didn't want to sacrifice his life. Merlin was chickening out. There was no other explanation for it.

"Guess I was wrong." Arthur could not help saying, even though he was fully aware how much it would hurt.

The words reached Merlin, and he was sure the sting that pierced through his heart could not have been more painful if Arthur had run Excalibur through him. Merlin felt his insides crumble and turn to dust. After all those years this was one of the very few times when Arthur had openly given him credit for the role he played in his life, and then the precious compliment had been ripped away by the four little words he'd just uttered. The king's quiet, resentful disappointment pained Merlin more than any rage or fury could have ever done.

Merlin stared at Arthur, sensing the complete dejection and utter disbelief, so evident on his friend's face, and a lonely tear started rolling over his cheek. He had not expected this to be easy, but, foolishly, he hadn't expected to feel so utterly rejected. He also had not been prepared to be branded a coward.

That, he was not and never had been. Even if Arthur couldn't appreciate the full extent of his support, he surely knew him enough by now not to make such quick judgements.

The injustice of the situation was overwhelming, yet it was obvious he could say nothing else to justify himself without giving his secret away. He had no choice but to bear Arthur's scorn and leave it at that.

But what if this is the last time you'll see him? The little voice in the back of his mind rattled him. Merlin pushed the niggling thought away, and with his head low and heavy in resignation, he slowly turned and headed for the door. There was nothing to be added. He would have to be patient and wait to prove his worth, as he had done so many times before.

"I'd rather you told me the truth," Arthur uttered the words almost inaudibly just as Merlin put his hand on the handle of the heavy wooden door leading out of the king's chamber.

Will Merlin do just that? Or will he try to embark on a different path all together?

What do you think?

Your comment and ideas are hugely appreciated. Please review at free will! :)