It's been a fair few years now and Merlin's powers don't seem to be good for much but whoring any more. He sees Arthur around (follows him around), mostly on sports teams (he started off three-day eventing, polo, fencing, but now it's football, rugby, cricket), once or twice a politician, an actor once as well. He's been a lot of things; sportsman, mayor, cult-leader, general ... people will follow Arthur anywhere.
Merlin does, for a start. He knows he probably shouldn't.
They're always close to each other, but they actually officially meet up only every decade or so, sharing their stories, keeping eyes and ears peeled for Nimueh, Mordred, anyone who could ruin this unstable idyll they have, and they screw hot and lonely up against a wall in some back-alley, and they go their separate ways.
It's been centuries since Merlin knew what it felt like not to have the itch in the back of his skull that told him that Arthur wasn't there. But they're better apart. When things throw them together, that's when the world starts going wrong. Or it might be the other way around, Merlin doesn't know.
They tried sharing a house once, in Pudding Lane, London. 1666.
That was the last time.
Gwen is around somewhere too, usually nursing or feeding the hungry or chaining herself to railings for the vote. Sometimes she's a housewife, sometimes she's a teacher. She's never a mistress. Never a mother.
Morgana's been a queen at least once, they know that, but she fled to Europe sometime during the Renaissance and hasn't come back. Merlin thinks she might have been Catherine the Great, but Arthur doesn't think Catherine was quite insane enough.
Arthur wouldn't know, though. Arthur never moves. Merlin thinks there might be something keeping Arthur within England's borders, but he doesn't know if he wants to know what.
All he knows is, where Arthur goes, Merlin follows. Never together, but close.
Time gets confusing when you live through enough of it. Merlin always knows what now is, when he is now, but his memories are jumbled up, and he's never sure, really, if he's remembering something that happened or something that will happen, when he thinks back. The main thing he remembers is how he felt, and where Arthur was, moment after moment after moment in this stupidly long life they've had.
He knows some of the legends about them, the stories that hold them here because no-one stops telling them. One of them says he goes through time backwards, and sometimes he thinks that might not be too far from the truth (though most of them are ridiculous, painting him as wise and Gwen as faithless. Arthur's the only one they ever get even close to right). Perhaps there is no progression of time, just everything at once, events in whatever order your mind can make of them. He feels like he goes backwards in every direction, really, if you define backwards as the antithesis of progress.
He doesn't want to know what progress is like if Arthur isn't part of it.
Arthur's troops march through town, black boots shining mirror-bright, and Merlin, who never learnt to fall into step with anyone, wanders carefully down the streets behind them. Arthur's eyes are sad when he inspects his men - he knows that somehow, something always keeps him from going with them. Something wants to keep him in England. Merlin watches him from the pavement, knowing Arthur will manage despite his disappointment. He used to lead armies to victory with wounds bleeding out through his chainmail; he can do this.
Arthur makes some minor speech in some minor by-election, the drizzle slowly soaking his blond hair and his pinstriped suit, and Merlin is at the back of the crowd, watching that perfect face mouth words it's mouthed for centuries as the language changed around it but the meaning stayed the same - I will lead and you will follow, you will love me and you will hate me but I will not steer you wrong. Trust me. I can lead you to freedom. Housewives love him, and miners trust him, he kisses babies and clasps hands and greases palms. Merlin hasn't talked to him in about twenty years, this time, but he still follows him, still watches him.
Arthur plays a game of football, and Merlin is in the stands, maybe scouting for custom, maybe not. But he's there. He's there when Arthur gives the half-time pep-talk, is the most important thing, and he can see the belief in Arthur's sweat-soaked men.
Merlin is hungry for it all.
Once, he wanted to see Arthur unite the country and lead it to some nebulous yet glorious destiny. He'd been so sure Arthur had a future, the future. That he held it in his hands. But he hadn't known just how much future there would be.
Arthur does well - he has that way about him, that air of command. That hasn't dulled over the years, and people are still people. Arthur has never had to change tactics.
Merlin has. No-one sees magic these days. Merlin used to command so much respect and fear amongst Arthur's people, after he'd been set up as Court Sorcerer; it was heady. It was a rush. These days he garners as much belief and awe and trust as he can from playing bedroom games, games for money. He doesn't need the money, he needs the look on their faces as they spend themselves over his sheets and between his thighs. He can help them along with it, a trickle of power here and there. He can know what they want. It's the only outlet he has for it these days, anyway.
Gaius never told him, if he even knew, the price of destiny and legends and dragons. The price of being anchored to the earth, the price of being tied to people's dreams, is that they never let go. They took Arthur and threaded him through people's minds, and they took Merlin and they dragged him alongside, they took Gwen and Lancelot and Morgana, they took everyone Arthur ever met, and tied them to him.
So the once and future king is here and now a bureaucrat, here and now a football player, here and now a sergeant, and his queen relives the lives she could have had if she'd never heard of Fate, and the warlock hides in plain sight and trades the magic of life and death itself for faceless pleasure and nameless pay.
Somewhere in the Nineties, Arthur holds up the FA cup, and Merlin hears the roar of the crowd through the thin walls of the men's bathroom, and over the grunts of the man behind him, and he smiles into the toilet stall wall.
Somewhere in the Sixties, Arthur salutes his troops as they embark, and Merlin's hiding in shadows and deciding they need to have their once-a-decade drinks tonight, because he has to pull that despairing look from Arthur's face.
Somewhere in the Eighties, the drizzle doesn't stop, and Arthur's had five coalminer's children to hold. His eyes meet Merlin's over the heads of the crowd, and he smiles, and just briefly, the sun comes out.