"He's going to visit his mother," Arthur tells Morgana. "I feel suspicious that he packed all his worldly belongings and Gaius keeps sniffling."
"Mmm." Morgana and Gwen have been playing chess for hours. They're almost equally matched. "He worries for her. It's commendable he wishes to return home to visit her."
Arthur's eyes narrow.
"He wishes an extended visit." Arthur frowns, slumping in his chair. Morgana learned chess from Uther. He wonders if Morgana taught Gwen, and why. "A month at least. And it's two days travel, even by horse. The roads aren't safe."
"I'm sure he can take care of himself."
That she says that without irony tells Arthur she's hasn't been paying attention. The armory had reported that nothing's been taken, and Merlin's had the right to request anything he wanted since he entered Arthur's service.
"When does he leave?" Morgana asks, moving her pawn thoughtfully, as if she has no idea of Merlin's schedule despite the fact her maid, if not sharing Merlin's bed, spends enough time with him to make one wonder. He doesn't like it, but he's never worked out how to assert a right to decide whom Merlin spends what little time Arthur leaves him.
"Tomorrow morning." He can't help slumping, wrist aching from a bad blow from a less-than-competent hopeful that Arthur had nearly killed by sheer, stupid chance. He'd yelled for twenty minutes and stormed off the field before they could see how he was shaking. Training accidents are rare, but he remembers every one of them, from the first unexpected spurt of blood to the last rites.
You can't ever seek forgiveness for what no one will assign you blame.
"It's late," Morgana says finally, as Gwen takes her king. The two girls smile at each other, and Arthur looks away, wondering how she can take defeat like a gift. "Put the board away, Gwen. We'd best get ready for bed."
"Are you throwing me out?"
"Yes. Gwen and I need our sleep." Standing up, she looks at the door, and Arthur follows her with a sigh, because he doesn't want another fight tonight. "Arthur. He isn't leaving forever."
One finger touches his mouth; surprised, he stills. "Lie to me if you wish, but don't lie to yourself. Not everything has to be temporary, even for a king. Certainly not for you."
Merlin's waiting when he gets back, the room surprisingly warm the way it hasn't been in over a week. Arthur stares at the fire and wonders if he's supposed to notice or not.
"You didn't say you were injured," Merlin says, with the faintest trace of irritation, as if Arthur not telling him was yet another thing to add to the list of ways Arthur lives to make Merlin miserable. Very warm fingers peel back the cuff of his shirt, frowning as if a simple twist would write itself into the skin to read for his convenience.
Arthur pulls away because he doesn't want to. "It's nothing you need to worry about."
Merlin's hand hovers for a second, like he'd forgotten to lower it. With a nod, he turns back, and Arthur sees the cupboard is completely full. Apparently, his absence for all of today had reason after all. "In any case…" Merlin hesitates, poking at the fire unnecessarily. "Thank you for your leave to go. It means a great deal to me."
"I'm sure I'll hardly notice your absence." He's noticing already. Other people will try and take up the space Merlin occupies in his life and will fail so spectacularly that there will be no moment Arthur won't feel it. "Your sword and mail are waiting in your room. I know you can dress yourself, but request Gaius if you somehow cannot manage even that."
Merlin starts, turning to look at him. "I don't have--"
"There have been reports of bandits," Arthur continues, staring out the window. "And some animal that apparently is excessively attracted to horses' hooves. You might--"
"I will ride away very fast," Merlin says, but there's a trace of a smile in his voice. "Thanks for your concern."
"Going through this with someone else would be--" Arthur stops; there isn't a word for it. Unthinkable. Turning, he kneels by the cupboard, trying to remember which drawer he'd seen it in. Finally, he jerks open the smallest drawer, where he keeps his mother's jewelry, the simple ornaments of a knight's daughter before she became the wife of a king. He's never known what to do with them. Beneath it, he finds the ring, turning quickly and shoving the drawer closed with his knee. "Take this."
Merlin crosses the room, taking it with a curious look. The fact that Arthur's father hadn't been born to a crown isn't a secret; this is. Long before they were Pendragons, there were few roads that were safe from them. Arthur's bedded princesses who can trace their descent from Briton kings long lost to myth, and he wonders what they would think if they knew the face they found so fair was once worn by a slave who had helped drive Rome from Albion inch by blood-soaked inch.
"It will identify who--where you belong," Arthur says. "If you are taken, give them whatever they wish and that as well. They will know whom to ask for ransom." They won't know that they won't survive the night should this come into Arthur's hand, but they have no reason to. Camelot is four generations removed from the man who'd built a country on the bodies of his fellow Roman dead and memories are so very short, but some things still breed true. None of his line have ever given up anything they would claim. "Though lower their expectations on the amount I'm willing to pay."
Merlin grins, turning it once more to look at the clumsy, stylized crest, then nods. "Thank you."
He won't ask if he's coming back; it's beneath him to consider the unthinkable.