A.N.: Hey guys! Sorry to keep you waiting longer than I intended. I was editing this chapter when I realized how much was missing from it and I nearly had to re-write the whole darn thing. This chapter is quite long, but it is the final chapter of this story and contains a scene between Merlin and Arthur that got me writing this whole thing in the first place, so I hope you like it.
Also, to all of you lovely reviewers out there, I just want to thank you all for hanging in there till the end. I know I was terrible at personally replying to everyone, but I promise I will write you all back now that I have this whole thing posted.
Anyhoo ... on to the finale:
Merlin sighed. It was the perfect place.
He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, his bare feet touching the water and lapping around his toes, but he just couldn't find it within himself to care. It was safe here … and quiet. That's probably what he loved the most about it. He could come here and think without anyone bothering him. There was nothing there that could hurt him – no fear, no hatred, no destinies, no princes, no magic - only peace.
The young warlock wasn't sure how he had ended up there, but he was certain he knew why. One moment he had been watching himself bleed to death, feeling nothing much pain and darkness creeping in and the next, he was there, sitting at the shore of his favorite place to come when he needed time to think. Nothing hurt anymore - at least not physically. His wounds had disappeared, and even though the pain of knowing that Arthur hated him for having magic had never left him, he was sure that his sudden recovery could only mean one thing: he was dead.
The fact that he was deceased really didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. Yes, his life had been short, but for the most part, it had been good. Since he was a little boy, he had always strived to be the kind of man his mother wanted him to grow up to be; kind, generous and faithful. And he always tried to be a good friend as well, doing his utmost to shield and protect his friends, first with Will and then with Arthur.
Even for all his trying though, Merlin had made so many mistakes. His friendships had only resulted in heartbreak - Will had died protecting him and his last moments with Arthur had ended with the prince hating him. Maybe that was why being dead wasn't such a bad thing. Perhaps this was his punishment for failing them or for ever thinking he was worthy of being their friend. He had let them both down and it only seemed fitting that he should die for his mistakes and shortcomings.
His thoughts drifted to Arthur again and he was filled with remorse. He never got the chance to tell Arthur about his magic as he had always wanted to when he felt the time was right - fate had stolen that moment from him and now he would never be able to explain anything to his former friend. But had he really been the kind of friend to Arthur that he should have been? Was it really all that surprising that Arthur had held such deep anger and loathing in his eyes towards Merlin? Whereas a real friend would have been honest, Merlin had instead lied to Arthur and hadn't trusted him enough to be include him with his secret. In hindsight, he should have, but he had been such a coward, worried that if had come to Arthur sooner and told him everything, that the prince still would have rejected him. But what if he hadn't? What if Arthur had grown to be a much better man than Merlin gave him credit for and had only shown such malice towards Merlin at the very end because he had kept such a secret from him.
He tried to put himself in Arthur's shoes and see things from his perspective. If their places had been reversed and he had been the one that had been lied to for years - he too would have been angry and hurt.
But did any of that matter anymore? Hi life was over and the mistakes he had made could never be taken back. All he could do now was let go, leave his life behind, and embrace what was to come in his afterlife.
And that was why he was grateful that he had ended up here after his death - it was here that he let Freya go, so it only seemed fitting that here would be the place where he would let everything else go as well. And it was getting close to the time for him to go.
Merlin watched as the sun sank lower, almost touching the horizon. It really was a beautiful sight as the bright red ball of light, made the mist around the island in the center of the lake appear to be glowing – it was almost like magic. He probably should have gone sooner, but he had wanted to see the sunset this one last time and now that nature had granted him this final wish, he knew the time had come.
Sucking in a deep breath of the misty air and closing his eyes, Merlin imagined what awaited him. Gaius had told him about Avalon and he had seen a glimpse of it once. It had been beautiful beyond words, but he had doubts that he was worthy of such a place after death. Either way, he had to go somewhere after this whether it be Avalon or not, he just wasn't exactly sure how he was supposed to get there.
He opened his eyes and stood, looking out at the lake. The mists surrounding the island in the middle of the water had parted slightly and he could make out the tops of trees and its silvery shore. All it once, he knew that he was supposed to go there, whether it was the way to Avalon or not.
Merlin frowned. How was he supposed to get there? He had no boat or other means to transport him to the island.
Maybe he could swim to it?
Merlin wasn't what anyone would call a decent swimmer - his skills in the water mostly focused on staying afloat and not drowning. The island seemed impossibly far from the shore and he had never tried to swim that far before. He would never make it.
But then again, he reasoned, if he got a cramp in the middle of the lake and drowned what would it matter? He was already dead, wasn't he?
Making the decision to quit thinking so much and just go for it already, he took a step forward and let the water come up to his ankles. It was cool, but not cold - refreshing would have been a good word for it and he let a smile slip onto his face. He took of his jacket and tossed it behind him and then started to strip off the rest of his clothes.
He then stopped before he could pull off his shirt. He wasn't sure he should disrobe completely, after all, he didn't want to be the one person to show up to the afterlife naked. Though it would make swimming harder, Merlin decided to keep his shirt and trousers on and then took another step deeper into the water. He faced the island, setting his gaze on his destination and soon he was up to his waist.
He thought he heard a voice, but it must have just been his imagination; he was the only one here. He kept going.
He was almost up to his neck and ready to start swimming when, "MERLIN! STOP!" echoed loudly across the water.
He wasn't sure he could believe what he was hearing, but he did stop and turned around just to make sure he wasn't going crazy. What he saw left his mouth hanging open.
Arthur? What the bloody hell was he doing here?
"Merlin, you idiot! Come back here right now!" The prince shouted.
Merlin swished around in the water, looking from side to side, more than little confused. Where had Arthur come from?
Bewildered, he said the first this that popped into his head. "What?"
Arthur cupped his hand around his mouth and yelled, enunciating his words slowly as if Merlin were a deaf simpleton, "I said, come here! Get out of that damned water before you drown."
Irritated and suddenly furious that an apparition of Arthur would show up in his afterlife just to order him around, Merlin trudged closer to the shore so the prince (who couldn't possibly be real) could hear him clearly, but he refused to leave the water. "Why should I? You're not supposed to be here! This is my afterlife" Merlin emphasized by slapping his chest. He pointed at Arthur, "You need to go!"
Arthur threw his hands into the air, "Afterlife? What on earth are you talking about? You're not dead – you're … stuck here, that's all. Your body is alive, but it won't be for much longer if you keep hiding out here. So, just come out of the water and talk to me, will you? It's hard shouting at you like this."
Merlin snorted, he couldn't believe the cheek of this not-Arthur. Why would an image of the prince come now of all times? Was this all some sort of trick to hold him back from moving on?
It didn't make any sense and it only made Merlin angrier at the fake-prince standing before him. "I am dead, Arthur – not that you care. Even if what you say it true and my body is still alive, what does it matter? I'll just be killed for having magic anyway and you know what? I think I'd much rather die here than be burned alive out there. So I'll save you the trouble - you won't have to worry your fat head about me or my evil magic anymore. I'll just stay here and you go away – problem solved." Merlin realized that it was ridiculous to even be addressing this false-Arthur, but on some level, it felt good to unleash some of the things he had always wanted to say to Arthur when he had been alive. He had always been too afraid to confront Arthur about his magic, but now that he was dead, it didn't really matter.
Arthur took a step back and to Merlin's surprise, the prince looked contrite and inexplicably sad. Arthur raised his hands, palms facing out in a placating gesture, "Merlin … I'm sorry … I'm sorry that I ever made you feel that way, but it's not true. I don't want that. Why would I come all the way here to bring you back if I was just going to kill you?"
"Right … You can't fool me." Merlin interjected, cutting off the fake prince, his voice straining over the lump forming in his throat. "You're not even Arthur. The real Arthur I know wouldn't do that for me. He hates me – I saw it in his eyes."
Not-Arthur, dropped his hands and his eyes, looking ashamed, "I know …" He admitted quietly before looking up again and meeting Merlin's eyes with renewed resolve. Seeing a raw sincerity there that had had never seen on Arthur' face before, Merlin felt a little taken aback by the prince's open expression of emotion.
"But I was wrong, Merlin." Arthur went on, his eyes pleading for him to listen. "I was angry and scared and didn't know what to do – I just didn't understand it all and it frightened me. But I've learned so much since then – things about you and magic that I should have realized before, but was too closed-minded to comprehend. Don't you see, Merlin? I am the real Arthur, and this is me, trying to apologize to you."
"Apologize?" Merlin scoffed then threw his head back and laughed at the absurdity, "Now I know you can't be real."
"Oh … that's it!" Arthur sighed and looked to the sky in exasperation. It was an act so very Arthur, that Merlin almost believed it was really him. And then the prince was striding towards him, wearing the annoyed face that the servant had come to know so well – it was some same face he wore when he called Merlin and idiot because he tripped over his own feet or said something he thought was stupid. "I'm going to prove to you once and for all that I'm real!"
Arthur walked straight into the water with a determined purpose until he was face to face with Merlin. He then tightly grabbed an ear and started hauling the surprised servant back towards the shore. "You feel that, Merlin? Is this real enough for you?" Arthur exclaimed.
"Ow … you prat! That hurts. Stop it! Ow!" Merlin protested all the way, his ear throbbing as Arthur tugged, not letting up on the pressure until the two of them were firmly on dry land. The prince pushed him into the grass and loomed over him, dripping wet and looking none too pleased.
Merlin rubbed his ear and glared, "What the hell was that for?"
"I had to get you out of the water and make you see that I'm the real Arthur and not just some figment of your imagination," Arthur growled,. "Now … you need to listen to me and quit being such a stubborn idiot. You are not dead nor is this your afterlife, Merlin. This is all just a dream that your mind has conjured for some reason."
Things began to click in Merlin's head, Arthur had certainly felt real enough and the way he was looking at him now was certainly very Arthur-like. Maybe he was telling the truth. What if this all was just a dream? Then again, that still left one very glaring and burning question that needed to be asked, "If that's true, how are you here? And what are you doing in my dream?"
Arthur began to pace back and forth as he explained, "I took some sort of potion that Gaius made so I could get inside this stupid, thick skull of yours and drag your ass back home. Right now as we speak, it's been more than a week since you … well … died … sort of ..."
"Sort of?" Merlin hadn't thought he could get more confused. Apparently, he had been wrong. "I thought you said I wasn't dead."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, "Well ... you were dead, but only for a few minutes. Somehow your magic brought you back and healed you. Yet, you still haven't really woken up. Instead you just lay there with all the personality of a turnip. But now I come to find out that it's all just because you've been hiding out here this whole time. Well … I'm sick of it, Merlin. I can't stand to see you that way anymore. I want you to come back."
Arthur stopped and looked down at his servant and Merlin looked up, their eyes connecting, "You don't really mean that." Merlin breathed.
"Of course I do."
"What do you mean, 'why'?"
"Why would you want me to come back? I. Have. Magic." Merlin emphasized. "I always have. You don't really know what I am. Hell … half of the time, I don't even know what I am."
Sighing, the prince sat down in the grass next to Merlin, his shoulder nearly touching his, "I know what you are, Merlin," he stated assuredly, looking out across the water. "You're not just a sorcerer … warlock … or whatever you call it. I know what you've done for me … for Camelot … and the only conclusion I can draw from all of that is that you're a good man … and an even better friend. You're the kind of friend I should have been to you all along. Besides ... it's not what you are that's important ... it's who you are. You are my friend and that's all that matters."
Merlin was silent. He didn't know what to say. He looked down at his hands and saw them blur as tears filled his eyes. Arthur had never called him a friend before and it was almost surreal to hear it now.
Arthur kept speaking while Merlin tried to process what he was hearing, "I know I'm rubbish at friendship and hardly worthy, but I'd like the chance to try and make it up to you and prove that I can change. So …" Arthur turned his face from the water to look at his friend, "Will you come back?"
Merlin just couldn't look at Arthur in the eyes and found a blade of grass to stare at instead. "I don't know … I've hidden all my life …kept secrets, told lies … will you still trust me?"
"With my life." Arthur admitted freely, "And I hope you would trust me with yours. You have my oath as Prince of Camelot that I will protect your secret will my life. This I swear to you."
Merlin shook his head, "I can't let you do that. Your father would kill you if he found out and if you were keeping my secret. You would be just as guilty of treason as I am."
Arthur plainly disagreed. "Perhaps I would be disobeying the law, but sometimes it's right to disobey when the law is wrong. In that case, it would be a far worse treason to my own morals if I betrayed a friend over the law."
Merlin looked at Arthur with his mouth open. Over the years since he had become the prince's manservant he had seen what honor meant to Arthur. He didn't give oaths lightly and always kept them. It was the knight's code and the prince would never go back on his word. To have Arthur swear that kind of loyalty to him - a low-born servant - was a rare thing indeed. Merlin didn't doubt Arthur's conviction and he felt a warm, tingly sensation spread across his chest like a great weight had just been lifted from it.
For many moments, the young warlock had no idea how to respond. But feeling that the mood had become to serious, Merlin felt a wry grin spread across his face and he just couldn't help himself from beaming, "Wow … just … I don't know what to say. That was probably the most … intelligent thing I've ever heard you say and really quite deep, you know … for a dollop-head."
"Hey!" Arthur bumped Merlin with his shoulder and then rubbed the top of his hair while laughing, "Idiot."
Merlin pushed him back, feeling lighter than he had in ages, "Prat."
Arthur looked more relieved than Merlin could ever recall, "Does this mean you're coming back?"
"I guess so …" He responded, ""I just have one question though."
"How do we get out of here?"
Arthur's expression grew grim, "Oh … I guess I should have had Gaius explain that part to me."
"You mean you don't know?" Merlin stared at Arthur incredulously. "Don't get me wrong. It's great that you came to get me and all, but I'm not sure I want you stuck in my head forever."
"Your mind hasn't exactly been a holiday for me either, you know." Defensively, the prince said, "I guess I just assumed that the potion I took would wear off eventually and I'd wake up in my body again."
"Sure, that might work for you, but how am I supposed to wake up?"
Merlin nearly fell over laughing at Arthur's fish-out-of-water face as he tried to come up with a good idea. That is until the prince reached over and squeezed an inch skin on his arm between his fingers.
"Ow!" Merlin exclaimed, rubbing his sore arm. "How is pinching me in my dream supposed to get me out of my dream, you nit?"
Arthur shrugged, trying to suppress a grin,"I don't know, but it was worth a shot."
Merlin glared, but as he did so, the prince began to yawn deeply and his eyes drooped like he was about to fall asleep were he sat.
"Arthur? You alright?"
He nodded blearily and swayed a little, "Just really tired all of the sudden."
Merlin's mind began to turn as a thought struck him, "The potion must be wearing off. Maybe you're falling asleep because you're waking up. What if in this dream things work the opposite of what they do when we're awake?"
Arthur rubbed his eyes, fighting to keep them open and losing, "S'nonsense." He slurred.
"It might be, but then again, maybe if I go to sleep here in the dream, I'll wake up too."
Arthur shrugged, his eyes slipping closed, "M'be. Try it."
Merlin was only just able to catch Arthur as he started to fall back into the grass. The prince pried his eyes open and grabbed Merlin's shirt, "Jus c'back, 'kay?"
"I will. I promise."
Arthur nodded and with a slight smile on his face, his eyes shut and his breathing evened out into a deep sleep. In the next moment, Merlin watched as his friend began to fade and then ultimately disappeared.
At first, Merlin panicked a little. Was this what was supposed to happen? Did Arthur make it back okay? He just didn't know and he wouldn't find out unless he could wake up himself.
"Here goes nothing." He muttered to himself as he lay back on the soft grass, trying to relax enough to make himself fall asleep. His thoughts kept drifting to Arthur, however, and it was difficult to find the peace he needed to sleep. Had he really forgiven him? Did he really want Merlin back? He seemed sincere and by the end, he had been sure that it was actually Arthur speaking to him and not just a figment of this dream, so what was he afraid of?
Merlin closed his eyes and tried to even out his breathing.
Maybe he was afraid of how things would change. Would they be for the better or for the worse? He wished he knew, it would make things easier. But maybe he didn't want to know. Maybe he would just have to accept that he needed to face the unknown without fear, that he could trust Arthur and his words of friendship. He hadn't really trusted Arthur before and that had been his greatest mistake, so maybe he needed to trust him now. This was his second chance - his destiny wasn't over yet and there was something good to back for.
He had to believe that he would see Arthur make it to the throne and maybe then, there would be hope for magic's return.
The wind gently swept Merlin's hair and the only sound he could hear was that of the gentle lapping of water against the muddy shore of the lake. He felt his limbs grow heavy, his mind began to drift off, and just before he slipped into the unknown, he had just one last thought about how beautiful a dream it really would be to go home again.
"Arthur? Arthur can you hear me?"
He groaned, and shifted. He wanted to fling his pillow over his head and just go back to the peaceful nap had been enjoying, but a hand was shaking his shoulder, insistent that he wake up.
"N'ah …" He mumbled, rolling onto his side.
"Arthur, you need get up. I must examine you."
Arthur rolled onto his back again and forced his eyelids open. As his vision cleared, Gaius' face came into view, hovering above him worriedly. "How are you feeling, sire?"
Brain fuzzy and thoughts muddy, Arthur tried to remember why he was lying on a hard bed and why Gaius was tending to him. He pressed a hand against his eyes and as he did, the memories came back in full force.
"Merlin!" He sat up, shooting forward like a bolt from a crossbow.
Gaius placed his hands on the prince's shoulders, "Easy, sire."
Arthur's eyes went directly to the bed beside him, "Is he …?"
"He's much the same. I haven't seen any change." Gaius replied, looking just as disappointed as Arthur was feeling.
"But …" Arthur protested, "I talked to him. It worked, Gaius! He was coming back. He promised."
The physician nodded hopefully, "Perhaps it will just take time for him to come around. After all, he's been in this state for quite some time."
Arthur hoped that was the case, but he was still anxious for Merlin to open his lazy eyes and for him and show him that his friend truly had returned. The idiot had promised and if he didn't wake up soon, he would just go back into his servant's head and kick him into next week.
Slipping off from the bed, Arthur went to Merlin's bedside, nearly stumbling as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Gaius was instantly by his side, grabbing his arms and offering a chair for him to sit on. "Take it slowly, Sire. The effects of the potion will most likely linger for some time."
"Thanks, Gaius." He replied weakly, keeping a close watch for any sign of life on Merlin's face. He sank into the chair, still incredibly tired and sleepy, but Arthur fought off his fatigue. He couldn't allow himself to fall back to sleep – not yet, not until he was sure Merlin would wake up.
Arthur's eyes drooped and his head dipped, but every time he caught himself starting to drift off, he snapped his head back up. He even tried slapping himself in the face a few times, hoping it would keep him alert. His head bobbing went on for some time until there was knock at the door.
"Come in." Gaius called and in walked Gwen, holding a plate full of food.
"Gaius, I thought you might like something to eat –" she stopped short, seeing Arthur beside Merlin and she stammered, "Arthur … I - I didn't expect you to be here."
All of the prince's fatigue was forgotten the moment he saw her. The last time he had seen her, she left in tears and it had been his entire fault. He had been a stubborn fool and he didn't know the right words to fix things between them. He never wanted to hurt her, but he had none the less and he needed some way to make it up to her.
Gaius seemed to sense that the two needed a moment to themselves and he excused himself, saying that he needed to fetch more firewood before night fell.
After setting the plate onto the table, Gwen stood awkwardly, playing with the hem of the servant's apron she wore, "I'm glad you came." She said softly.
"Me too." He replied, bowing his head. "I should have been here sooner."
"At least you're here now, that's what matters."
"All the same, I'm sorry, Guinevere. You were right; I was acting selfishly before." He looked up and met her eyes, finding forgiveness. She walked over to him and he took her hand, noting how they felt calloused yet soft at the same time. She was far stronger than she looked, but it was her compassion for others that made Arthur love her all the more.
"I knew you would come around." She said, squeezing his hand in return.
Arthur lost himself for a moment in the kind depths of her dark eyes. She smiled warmly and Arthur felt his face flush, extremities tingling.
"You two just need to kiss and get it over with already."
Arthur and Gwen spun as one and gaped at the source of the tired voice coming from the bed.
To her credit, Gwen recovered first and dashed to the bed, taking Merlin's hand. "Merlin! You're awake."
"Apparently." He muttered with a yawn, grinning at Gwen, "You two are loud enough to wake the dead."
Arthur shook his head, feeling nothing but relief, but doing his best not to show it. "That's not funny."
"Oh, c'mon … it's a little funny, and you know it." Merlin volleyed, his cheeky smile widening as he baited the prince.
Arthur never got the chance to send another barb back at his servant as Gwen swooped in and gave Merlin a tight hug. "I'm so glad you're okay. I've been so worried."
Wrapping an arm around Gwen, Merlin patted her back, "I'm okay, Gwen."
She stepped back, holding her friend at arm's length, appraising him with a big smile on her face. Arthur stepped in after that and smacked his servant on the shoulder. "Took you long enough."
"I'm sorry." Merlin apologized with mock sincerity, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to fall asleep inside a dream?"
Arthur snickered while Gwen looked at the two boys like they had lost their minds, "I've missed something important, haven't I?"
Crickets chirped merrily outside his window. It was as though they were telling Merlin how he should be asleep as Gaius had ordered instead of looking up at the ceiling, wide awake. But he simply couldn't sleep. His mind just wouldn't allow any more rest and soon he gave up even trying anymore. He shucked his blanket from his legs and wrapped it around his shoulders, swinging his legs from the bed and letting his bare feet touch the floor.
He was a little wobbly at first, which wasn't surprising given the fact that he had been lying in bed for more than a week, but he managed to find some kind of balance and made his way to the door.
Quietly, he crept down the stairs from his room and paused at the bottom, not wanting to wake Gaius. The older man looked to be blissfully asleep, so Merlin did what he normally did when he snuck out and used a bit of magic to tuck slumbering man deeper into his blanket. Merlin smiled softly as Gaius rolled over and resumed his reverberating snores. His mentor needed the rest; the past week seemed to have aged him considerably and thankfully, Gaius didn't so much as stir as Merlin snuck past him and slipped out the door.
Once Merlin had made it outside of the physician's chambers and down the stairs, he stopped and looked around. The entire castle seemed to be asleep and was eerily quiet. Normally, the halls were filled with bustling servants, proud knights or bored nobles, but at this hour, the corridors were blissfully silent and still. He took a step forward and ventured through halls, keeping his movements as soft as possible so as to not disturb the quiet.
He didn't really have any destination in mind except to find somewhere where he could see the stars and he soon found himself on the roof of the main keep, leaning his back against a parapet and looking up at the sky. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders a little tighter as a cool night breeze blew around him and stirred his hair. Keeping his eyes trained on the sky above, a grin lit up his face as he watched a shooting star blaze across the blackness. He did what his mother always said to do when that happened and made a wish – the same wish he always made: long life and happiness for everyone he cared about.
He sat there for some time enjoying the quiet until he heard footsteps approach. Thinking it might be a guard who would demand that he take a hike, (okay, so maybe technically, he wasn't supposed to be up there) he made to stand and leave before he was caught. Before he could make it to his feet though, a voice stopped him.
"No, no … don't get up on my account, Merlin."
Merlin looked up, more than a little surprised to see Arthur strolling towards him, also in his bedclothes and wrapped in a thin blanket.
"What are you doing here?" Merlin asked.
"Could ask the same of you."
"Yes, but you could hardly keep your eyes open just a few hours ago. I figured you'd be asleep at least until mid-day. Goodness only knows how much you like to sleep in."
Arthur made a non-committal sound as he backed up against the parapet and slid down the wall to sit beside him. "I usually only sleep-in because a certain servant of mine is always late since he's been sleeping-in too."
Merlin chuckled a little and then his features fell, his gaze dropping to his hands. Was he even Arthur's servant anymore? The prince sensed his change in mood and asked, "What's the matter? You look like your dog just ran away."
Merlin swallowed hard and couldn't face his friend, "Things aren't ever going to be the same, are they?"
Arthur sighed and looked up at the stars twinkling down on them. He was silent for several moments before he replied, "I don't know … probably not. But just because some things change, doesn't mean everything will. For instance, even though I know now that you're a powerful sorcerer –"
"Warlock." Merlin corrected.
"Warlock, whatever …" Arthur conceded, "Point is, you're still an idiot – I don't see that being different anytime soon."
Snorting, Merlin rolled his eyes, "And you'll always be a royal pain in the ass, but that's beside the point." He jabbed back, feeling better as he and the prince exchanged barbs. It felt right and close to normal, giving Merlin hope that the things that did change, only changed for the better. He still couldn't help but worry about one thing though.
"I'm not sure I should stay here in Camelot," he confessed.
"What? " Arthur turned and stared at Merlin, his features making his displeasure at that statement plain to see, "Why? I gave you my word that I would protect you and your secret."
Merlin sighed, "I know, Arthur. That's what I'm worried about. I mean it when I say that I'm happy being your servant until the day I die, and I will always watch out for you and protect you … but if staying here as your manservant means you running the risk of getting caught for harboring a magic user … then I would much rather quit and get as far from here as possible."
Arthur's eyes narrowed into thin slits and his face turned so red that Merlin swore he could see steam coming from his ears, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say and you've said some real doozies, you know that, Merlin? What do you think I am – a gossipy maid who can't keep anything to herself? Or maybe you think I'm a child and can't look after myself? Well … horseshit! If keeping your secret is a risk, then so be it. I'm a damned knight, for God's sake and I'm quite capable of choosing the risks I want to take." Arthur took a second to pause and catch his breath after his rant, then pressed on with a little less heat, "It's always your choice whether or not you decide to quit and run away, but that's the coward's way out and I know for a fact that you are no coward."
Suitably chastised, Merlin could come up with nothing to say for several moments, but then he grinned, half laughing at the prince, "So … you think I'm brave?"
Arthur's kept the scowl on this face, but there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. "I did not say that. I merely said you weren't a coward."
"Oh Arthur …" Merlin laid his hands over his heart sarcastically, and beamed a wide, toothy smile. "I'm touched, really."
Arthur narrowed his eyes and folded his arms across his chest, glaring and completely faking annoyance, "Merlin?"
"Hmmm?" Merlin replied, acting innocently.
"Shut up." Arthur demanded and then playfully slapped the back of his friend's head.
Chuckling, Merlin stood up and offered a hand to Arthur. The prince clasped his hand into Merlin's and allowed him to help him to his feet. Once they were both standing and facing each other, Arthur threw Merlin a questioning look, "So … have you decided?"
Merlin nodded, "Yes I have."
"And I choose to go to bed." He smirked, turning and walking towards the stairs while addressing the prince over his shoulder, "After all, I have to get up early so I can wake you up, get your breakfast, shine your boots and your armor, sharpen your sword …"
"Don't forget about my cleaning out my stables..." Arthur added wryly, catching up to his servant,"or tidying my room ... doing my laundry ..." He joined Merlin and they walked side by side down the staircase together, their voices echoing and bouncing off the walls of the otherwise silent castle.