A/N: I usually don't bother much with disclaimers (since if I actually owned Merlin I would probably have better things to do with my time than write fanfiction) but this chapter has a direct quote that I know you'll recognize (I just couldn't help putting it in, it was too perfect). So here it is: Merlin is property of BBC, and the quote belongs to JK Rowling. Now on with the story!

Until the day he returned to Ealdor for his mother's funeral.

"So you see, my lady, if we increase the wheat production in the southeastern villages, it could be very beneficial for trade with-"

The councilman's monotonous voice was suddenly cut off by a resounding boom that shook the castle from floor to rafters. Gwen and the rest of the members of the round table jolted awake and began clamoring for an explanation. After a few minutes chaos, Gwen got everyone back under control and asked, in a voice that let everyone know that she wouldn't stand for any nonsense, "Does anyone know the meaning of this?"

"I think I do," said a half-amused voice from across the large table.

"Sir Gwaine?"

Gwaine stood, leaned on his cane, and smirked. "If I had to guess, your majesty, I'd say that Merlin's back. And he isn't happy."

"Understatement of the year," Leon muttered.

"With my lady's leave I'd like to go see him," Gwaine went on, ignoring Leon. "I'm sure you can continue your extremely fascinating conversation without me."

Several members of the council suppressed snickers, and even Gwen had to hide her smile before saying, "I suppose we might be able to make do. If it isn't Merlin, though, please report back with all due haste."

"Of course, my lady. I wish you the best of luck with your agriculture planning," Gwaine said, with a player's sweeping bow. Returning the glares of his fellow knights with an unrepentant smile, he left the council chamber in search of his upset friend. He knew that Merlin was the only thing, magical or natural, with the power to shake the ancient castle, so it had to be him, but it puzzled Gwaine as well. Merlin had left a week ago in response to an urgent letter from Ealdor. His mother had taken ill quite suddenly and was not expected to make it another fortnight. Merlin was supposed to have been gone that entire length of time- that he had returned so soon meant something must have gone wrong. For the first time in his life, Gwaine was glad that his peg leg made it difficult to walk places by himself. He was in no particular hurry to cross paths with an angry warlock.

When he finally made it to Merlin's chambers, he immediately knew his intuition was justified. A cacophony of bangs, slams, and curses came from the other side of the closed door. Stealing himself, Gwaine pushed the door open and peered in, not entirely sure what he expected to see.

It was certainly not the sight that greeted him in Merlin's chambers.

The room was a shambles, belongings strewn everywhere, the bed curtains torn down, and the table overturned. A large trunk stood open in the center of the room, and random items seemed to be flying into it of their own accord; Gwaine had to duck as a candlestick narrowly missed striking him on the head. Merlin himself, however, was nowhere in sight. Stepping a little further inside, Gwaine called out for his friend.

"Merlin? It's a good thing you're back, I thought I was going to have to fake a very embarrassing accident for Percival in order to get out of that meeting..." He laughed, hoping to draw Merlin out with his easy-going humor, but no answering chuckle met his ears. Instead, under the din caused by the flying objects, Gwaine heard a small noise coming from behind the dressing room screen. Dodging his way across the room, he peeked around the screen.

Merlin was no longer shouting, cursing, or hitting things. Merlin, the most powerful sorcerer to ever live, was... crying.

"Merlin?" Gwaine said quietly.

Merlin jerked, caught unawares, and immediately the flying objects dropped to the ground. He swiped an arm over his face and looked up at Gwaine with a terribly mockery of his usual cocky grin. "Hello, Gwaine. Come to see what a monster looks like?"

Gwaine felt as if he'd been slapped. Merlin was his best friend, one of the bravest, kindest, and most self-sacrificing men he knew. And he thought of himself as a monster?

"Merlin, my friend, you are rather a sight at the moment, but I wouldn't go that far yet. Although if I was judging by the state of this room..." Gwaine smirked at Merlin, trying to coax a laugh, but Merlin only managed a weak smile that was in no way genuine. Gwaine sighed, braced himself on his cane, and offered a hand to help Merlin stand. For a moment Gwaine thought Merlin might refuse, but then he allowed Gwaine to pull him to his feet. With a lazy flick of his wrist, Merlin repaired the bed curtains and they both sat on the bed. Neither spoke for awhile, but finally Gwaine couldn't take it anymore. "What happened?"

Merlin didn't look at him. "They threw me out," he whispered to the floor.

"What?" Gwaine asked, hoping he'd misunderstood.

"They threw me out. Of Ealdor," Merlin replied, brokenly. "My mother..."

"Your mother threw you out?!" Gwaine cried, outraged.

"No! No, Gwaine, let me, let me start at the beginning," Merlin said, still addressing the floor. His thin shoulders shuddered as he took a deep breath, then began his story. "You know I left for Ealdor a week ago. It was an awful journey; I ran into two sets of bandits, my horse cast a shoe, and there was a terrible storm in the southern hills that delayed me two days. I didn't reach Ealdor until this morning, and by the time I got there, my mother... my mother had passed on."

Merlin stopped, tears choking his voice. Gwaine, unsure, put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said, his words sounding weak and useless against the weight of his friend's grief. After a few moments, Merlin collected himself and went on with his story.

"I saw her, in the casket, when I rode in. The whole village was out, getting ready for the funeral. Small village like ours, everybody knew my mother. They stopped what they were doing when I came in, but," he paused and swallowed hard, "they didn't know me. Our headman looked at me and said, 'You're too late, son. Where's your father?'"

"Your father? You told me he died years ago, not long before we met."

"He did, and as far as they knew, I'd never met my father. They didn't mean my father, they meant... me."

Gwaine looked at Merlin, utterly perplexed. "But you just said they asked for your father, how-"

"Gwaine," Merlin said, finally looking up to meet Gwaine's eyes. "They thought I was my son."

"Your what? My God, Merlin, maybe I'd better give you more credit, I thought you'd never had a girl in your life-"

"Don't be an idiot, Gwaine, you know I don't have a son. But I hadn't been to Ealdor in almost 25 years, and when they saw me, they just assumed that since I couldn't be Merlin, I must be Merlin's son."

"Why couldn't you be yourself?" Gwaine asked. Deep down, he knew the answer, but he'd gotten so used to avoiding the issue that he didn't consider it a problem.

"Why couldn't- look at me! Just look at me!" he shouted, gesturing to his youthful form. "What kind of 47-year-old man looks like this? They didn't believe me at first when I said who I was, and when they did, they were afraid of me!"

"Well, you are, you know, the most powerful sorcerer in the world and all that. It might put people off just a bit..."

"Stop it, Gwaine, don't tell me you haven't noticed! Yes, I'm a sorcerer, I'm a sorcerer who hasn't aged one damn day since Arthur died! A sorcerer who only has to look in the mirror to be reminded of the day he failed his destiny, failed his best friend..." Merlin broke off as tears threatened again, this time more angry than grief-stricken.

"Merlin, it's not your fault-"

"Isn't it?" Merlin cried, standing. He was shaking with anger. "Don't tell me this is all normal, Gwaine! I grew up with those people, they were my friends, my neighbors, but when they finally understood who I was, they told me I was cursed and to keep away from them. They pulled their children away from me, like I would hurt them just by being there. They ran me out of town so that I couldn't even be at my own mother's funeral." Merlin's voice softened, so that Gwaine had to strain to hear the last words. "They said I must be a monster, and they're right, aren't they? I am."

Gwaine had always had a hot, fiery temper, but something in Merlin's voice, so full of despair, grief, and betrayal, made him feel ice cold. If the ones who had done this to Merlin were standing in front of him, Gwaine thought he could cut them down without a second's hesitation or remorse. He struggled to keep the emotion out of his voice as he said, "Merlin, if you say that about yourself again, I may have to hurt you. I never let anyone insult my friends."

Merlin looked almost startled. "But I'm, I'm-"

"You, Merlin, are my friend. I don't care about the rest of it. You can be a warlock and a Druid king and immortal and destined to save the world and an intolerably lightweight drinker, but none of that makes you any less my friend. It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Merlin looked at him skeptically. "You didn't come up with that," he accused.

"What? You think I can't make my own deep philosophical insights?" Gwaine asked in a parody of a deep scholarly tone. Merlin actually laughed, which brightened Gwaine's mood considerably. "Ok, fine, I read it in a book once, happy? The point is, whatever else you are, you will always be Merlin, and that is all I or anyone else in this castle cares about. It doesn't matter what Ealdor thinks. You belong here, and that's their loss. All right?"

Merlin could hardly believe what he was hearing. He felt Gwaine's words pierce the dark self-loathing that had filled his soul since he'd been cast out that morning. He'd felt like all the people in the world that cared about him had died with his mother, but now here was a man who was claiming him as his best friend. There was no way Merlin could express any of this to Gwaine, so he simply said, "Thanks, Gwaine."

"Eh, don't mention it," the knight said, his eyes dancing. "Really, don't. I got a reputation to protect."

"My lips are sealed," Merlin promised, then actually smiled.

Gwaine was glad to see his friend was recovered enough to have a sense of humor, but noticed that he was still shaking. When he looked closer, Gwaine saw that Merlin was pale, and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. "Are you feeling alright, Merlin?"

"Oh, I'm just a little shaky," the warlock replied, trying to be nonchalant. "I used a transportation spell to get back here. I shouldn't have; it takes too much power, and I left my horse and everything behind, but I couldn't stay a minute longer in... back there." He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "I'm fine, really."

Gwaine rolled his eyes. "Why can't you ever take care of yourself instead of everyone else for once? Into bed, princess." he ordered. Merlin made as if to protest, but Gwaine cut him off. "Do you know how many times I've heard you say 'Sit down, Gwaine,' or 'Don't overwork yourself, Gwaine' or 'You have to rest, you can't push that leg anymore, Gwaine'? Well, consider this revenge. Bed. Now."

Merlin wanted to argue, but he knew even better than Gwaine that he needed to rest. The use of so much power had left him drained, and together with the emotional turmoil he'd been through today he could barely stand up straight. With a half- reluctant, half-thankful smile, he got into bed as Gwaine stood to leave. Before Gwaine reached the door, though, he managed to bang his good foot on Merlin's trunk, still in the middle of the room. He swore and hopped crazily on his cane to keep his balance, while Merlin attempted to keep from laughing.

"You think that was funny, do you? Why is this damn thing out, anyway?" Gwaine grumbled, having regained his footing.

Merlin smiled. "It doesn't matter now," he said, almost to himself. His vague, anger-filled plans of running away now seemed terribly foolish. "I'm not going anywhere."

And he didn't. Merlin stayed in Camelot, by Gwen's side, as she ruled the newly-united land of Albion. Seemingly, things went back to the way they were, but Merlin never forgot his experience in Ealdor. Starting the very day he returned, he began to use his magic to gradually age his body, so that no one would ever run from him in fear again. While his close friends knew that Merlin was aging himself by force, as the years went by they became accustomed to seeing his older face.

He stayed and watched as Gwen brought her people through what would become known as the "Golden Age" of peace and prosperity. He watched as Leon, Percival, and the other knights of their generation retired from the battlefield, though most stayed on as trusted members of the court. He watched as Gwen herself began to transfer more and more of her duties to Arthur's young cousin Constantine, who did well and cared for the people of Camelot as his own. For 35 years Merlin watched, always there, always helping the people he was born to serve.

Until one by one, they began to slip away from him.