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For the Long Haul

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200 years since Arthur's death, and Merlin was getting tired. Tired of waiting, tired of the same routine, tired of living. But there was nothing he would do except keep waiting, keep hoping for a time when Arthur marched back into his life. Kilgarrah had said it would happen, and Merlin clung to a sliver of hope, no matter how small it was. He could change his lifestyle, and he did, many times over, but he always got bored in the end, or had to move on when people started getting suspicious of how he aged.

He had to travel to stay protected, if his secret was to stay secret. It didn't take especially long before others started to suspect the man who aged so slowly you might think he didn't age at all. But Merlin could see it; he saw the first lines appear around his eyes, the first grey hair suddenly visible amongst the rest. That one hair had taken almost 200 years to grow in, and if he stayed in one place too long he knew he'd be tried for sorcery. So he travelled, reinventing himself in every new Kingdom or village. Word spread quickly as people gossiped though, and he had to be extremely careful to completely change his story between the places he settled. Sometimes, if he didn't plan to stay long, he'd make a potion to completely change his appearance, but it was exhausting to keep it up.

When Arthur had died in 537AD, Merlin had stayed near to Camelot for as long as he could bear it, offering advice to Gwen should she want it, and helping Gaius when he grew too old to manage by himself. When Gaius died however, he decided it was time to leave. It hadn't been sudden, the old physician had caught a disease from one of his patients, and he'd remained bed-bound for weeks. Merlin had looked after him, trying to nurse him back to health. He offered to use his magic, but Gaius had refused it, insisting that if it was his time, he was happy to go; he had lived a long life, and he left no regrets but that magic had not been brought back to Camelot.

So when Gaius was gone, Merlin was too. He'd arranged for a new physician to come to the castle, and he'd packed up the day after they arrived. He went wherever his feet took him, taking on the names of people from his village for a while or people he met on the way, until there came a place where he wanted to stop.

It didn't take long for the Saxons to return, and Merlin did nothing about it. They invaded Britain, and they stayed, bringing new ideas and a new language. Merlin lived a quiet life, working for food and lodge for some years, then when he felt like it, he uprooted and moved to a new place. He enjoyed his life, making friends wherever he went and having nothing holding him back from moving on until he found a place he might want to actually stay.

His routine was interrupted however, when the vision first came to him. At the time he was working quite contentedly as a pot-washer in an inn, and he got along well with the owners and other workers. They paid him a fair wage for the work he did, and he would always have a place to stay if he needed it. They knew him as Alfrec, a name he took from another traveller he had once met. The kitchen he worked in was modest; a fireplace in the far corner to keep the cold at bay, a paved floor, a simple window on the back wall above the sink, knives on racks hanging from the ceiling, bundles of vegetables and pots scattered along the work surfaces, and cheerful workers Merlin could honestly call friends.

The majority of his time was spent at the sink, scrubbing and piling for the drier to quickly wipe off the water and stack them away. He could see out the window, and the day that would shatter his life as it was boasted a bright evening sun beating tirelessly down onto the green grass around the town. There wasn't a wisp of a cloud in a sky or a whisper of wind to rustle the few trees he could see. It was a very pleasant summer's night ahead, in Merlin's opinion. He had just been handed another large pile of plates and bowls, and gave a good-natured sigh of resignation, coupling it with a grin.

"Nothing to be done, Al. You could always clear out the bedpans if you want a change of scenery!" Joked the young woman who cleared the tables.

"Er, no thanks." He replied, flashing her a grin, and set to work. The splash of each plate entering the water added to the general noise of the kitchen; the quiet, cheery undertones of chatter, the sound of metal against wood as food was prepared, the clatter of plates being put down ready to be taken out to customers. The customers themselves were rowdy and loud, audible through the stone walls and door that opened and closed every time food was taken out.

But it was familiar and sometimes the staff would even join in singing when they played well known songs. Merlin smiled to himself as he washed up, letting his thoughts wonder far and wide. Drifting through the briefly open door came a laugh he'd known a very long time ago, and he paused in his washing, straining to hear it again.

As if by magic, he was suddenly sitting by a campfire in the middle of a forest, stars twinkling high above, barely visible through the canopy. The plate that had been in his hands was gone, replaced with a mug of tea. There seemed to be tents nearby, and blurry figures shifted around the crackling fire, the low hum of their voices pleasant to his ears. He was warm, and stared peacefully into the flames, watching them dance before him. He whispered a spell, and sparks flew in the shape of a dozen butterflies. No one seemed to notice and he allowed himself a private grin. He didn't feel out of place here, as if it was where he was supposed to be, rather than in the inn's kitchen. Someone sat down next to him, but he didn't turn around. When the person spoke however, Merlin froze.

"You know, last night I had the weirdest dream." It was a voice he would never forget, and though he desperately wanted to turn around, he couldn't move, as if some unknown force held him captive. He filled with joy and disbelief, hoping beyond hope that this wasn't some trick, and he was hearing what he thought, or rather, who he thought. His eyes pricked with tears, and he let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.

"Really?" He tried to say, but it came out as more of a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Really?"

"You told me you were a sorcerer, and you made the sparks from the fire into a dragon."

Merlin's heart sank like a stone and his chest constricted painfully. "Oh? What happened then?" He said breathlessly, careful now to avoid looking at the newcomer, wondering if he was about to be sentenced to death.

"We went for a dragon ride, I fell asleep by a lake, and woke up freezing cold." He said, bemused. Merlin couldn't lift his lips to anything remotely resembling a smile, but he could hear one in Arthur's voice. He'd missed it so much he could hardly bear it. And then something snapped inside of him, releasing him from its grasp. He turned his head to face the man, tears shining in his eyes and wearing a smile that spoke volumes of the hope he felt, but all he saw was a fading after-image of a man with blond hair and a red shirt, white teeth flashing in a grin.

His smile slipped slowly from his face and his heart shattered, much as it had two hundred years ago on the shore of the Lake of Avalon. His chest and eyes burned, and he could feel the warmth of the fire draining from his body. He'd missed that smile, those eyes, that face, more than words could say. He wished with all he had to spend just one more day with the man he loved. The man he had just seen fading right in front of him. He knew Arthur would never return, but still he hoped.

He closed his eyes in bitter disappointment, tears finally leaking from the corners and running down his cheeks. He didn't even notice. When he opened his eyes again he was stood back in the kitchen, and everybody was looking at him, though he wouldn't have been able to say what he'd done to warrant it. He could feel his hands shaking, and tried to steady his uneven breaths, but it wasn't working. He could feel himself starting lose control but could nothing to stop it.

"Al?" Asked a cook -a large, kindly man- tentatively. "Are...are you ok?"

Merlin gave a hollow laugh that lacked any trace of humour. His knuckles were white where he gripped the edge of the sink. He stared intently at a knot in the wood, trying to force back the tears and the fear that he was about to lose control of his magic for the first time since he had left Ealdor all those years ago. Taking another deep breath in a futile attempt to steady himself, he looked towards the man who had spoken. He had a thick black beard, with worry etched into every line on his aging face.

The kitchen was eerily silent, with all activity apparently having stopped to see if he was okay. The only sound was the customers in the next room. He wanted to tell them 'yes, of course I am, don't stop working on account of me, there are people to feed!' but he couldn't seem to find the words. A breeze rustled the trees outside and extended chilly finger through the glassless window to caress the back of his neck. He shivered, unsure if it was just from the cold or from what he'd just seen. Merlin realised he hadn't given a proper answer to the question.

"No." He said simply, and even just that one syllable shook. He could feel the pressure building inside himself, and knew he had to get out. The cook's frown deepened, and he took a step forward. Merlin held up a hand, panicked. "No!" He said again. "I...I need to leave." But it was too late. He remembered the flash of teeth from only a moment ago, and let out a hoarse groan of sorrow. His head started to pound, and when he tried to swallow he couldn't. It all became too much to bear, and he collapsed to his knees, letting go of everything.

The room around him exploded. Cutlery flew into the air, flour burst from the sacks against the walls, and people screamed, covering their faces with their arms. The hanging racks rattled and the floor shook in time with Merlin's heart-wrenching sobs. Plates cracked where they sat, a few slipping from the counters and shattering into pieces on the hard floor as water sloshed out of the sink, leaving puddles on the stone. Merlin knelt, hands covering his face, unaware of all that was going on around him.

"Alfrec!" He heard distantly. It didn't really register. The ground continued to shake slightly, and Merlin continued to hear nothing of what was happening across the kitchen. His breathing was short and erratic, his heart beating out of time and far too loud. "Alfrec!" The voice called again, more urgently, and closer. Merlin looked up blearily, tear tracks marring his cheeks, his vision blurry and his irises gold. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked to his right, where the cook stood looking down at him calmly. "I'm here for you, you can get through this." The brown eyes were compelling and Merlin willed himself to take back control.

It was difficult. He felt like a tiny fish in a raging ocean, unable to find his bearings or make sense of much around him. He hadn't lost it in such a huge way for so long, and he wasn't sure he even could reel it back in.

But he tried. He tried as hard as he could to slow his heart, to compose himself and still his shaking fingers, to concentrate on the calm but firm grasp on his shoulder, staring into the eyes high above him. The sunlight reflected in them, turning them into pools of chocolate with deep gold flecks around the iris. He concentrated on the strength that was so obvious in those eyes, the shade shifting from umber to bronze and back again every time they blinked.

With more effort than he would ever have thought it would have taken, Merlin took a deep breath and stilled the quaking around him and inside him. He let the air out, stilling the flour still floating in the air so it looked like time had stopped. He never looked away from those eyes that seemed to lend him the strength he needed.

He took another breath and let everything being held still drop straight to the floor, covering everything in a layer of white powder. There was complete silence in the kitchen, but the rowdy noise from the main inn could still be heard leaking through the doorway, bawdy songs rising above all the chatter as the evening starting getting into full swing. Evidently the guests had noticed nothing.

"I'm so sorry." He whispered, finally looking away from the cook, instead taking in what he'd done to the kitchen. Plates were shattered and knives, forks, and spoons were scattered across the whole room. The hanging racks swayed slightly with residual energy, and the staff were standing up from where they'd taken cover, all with a light dusting of flour in their hair and on their clothes. All were staring at Merlin in shock tinged with a modicum of fear. His knees were starting to hurt against the uneven, freezing floor.

He took a shaky breath and stood, the cook finally letting go of his shoulder. "I'm sorry, I haven't lost control like that in a very long time." He looked at the cook, a contrite and apologetic expression on his face. He got a small nod of acceptance of the apology in return.

"Regrettable as it may be, I want no trouble with the authorities. I think it would be best if you leave." Merlin swallowed, a wave of exhaustion crashing over him. He closed his eyes and nodded demurely, taking off the apron he wore. "But er, any chance you could fix the plates before you do? We're expecting quite a full house tonight."

Merlin tried to smile, but doubted it came across as anything remotely resembling a smile at all. He looked down at the smashed and cracked plates, whispered a spell, and they fixed themselves. Another whisper had them flying into a pile on the counter, waiting to be washed and used again.

He left quietly after that, handing the apron to the cook on the way out. It was taken without a word, only the smallest smile of thanks and regret, and Merlin didn't look back as he went out the back entrance of the kitchen, beginning the lengthy walk back home.

He walked slowly, numb to everything around him. His head was still aching, and the dull thud of the earth against his soft leather shoes created a monotony that lulled his thoughts. It took perhaps half an hour to get home at the pace he took, and he was glad he knew the way so well. If he hadn't spent every ounce of energy he had on not breaking down again rather than watching the beaten dirt path that led to the edge of town, he had no doubts there would have been disastrous consequences.

He felt the heat from the early evening sun beating down on his exposed neck, felt every stone left on the path, heard the birds chirping in the trees in the hedges nearby. But nothing tugged him out of his reverie, and he paid no attention to anything on the road or around him. It was lucky no one was travelling into town, or they would have been more than likely to crash into one another.

When the stone walls and slanted thatched roof that Merlin called home came into view, he gave a sigh of relief and rubbed his face. He felt wetness from tears still falling down his cheeks, gone unnoticed as he walked. He reached his front door and pushed it open, grateful of the privacy home offered. Locks were rare, and only for the rich, which Merlin was far from being. It was a modest, typical house for peasants of the time; it would look rather like a barn to modern day people, with four falls, a slanting thatched roof, and no windows save for one by the door. It was a single room, and had a hearth in the centre with a smoke hole that could be covered when it rained to the left above it. It was simple, but was plenty for Merlin -it was more than he had had in Camelot.

Once inside, he shut the door and sank down against it, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to ignore everything. All he could see behind his lids was an afterimage of the hallucination or whatever the hell it was, as if it had been branded onto his retinas. He gave an angry cry and opened them again, staring through watering eyes at the wooden beams far above his head.

There was a wet snuffling at his right hand and he gave a shaky smile. "Hello, Balinor." He said quietly, his voice closer to a croak than anything else. He lifted his hand and stroked the dog's head slowly, letting the long fur run through his fingers. The animal's presence was the most calming thing that could have been there, and in less than ten minutes he felt more like himself than he had since leaving work. Balinor lay at his side, breathing steadily and looking up at Merlin with large brown eyes. His tail thumped gently on the hard earth floor, and Merlin sighed, leaning his head back against the door. His own breaths were coming easier, and a tightness in his chest he hadn't quite realised was there had faded a little. Dogs really were wonderful creatures.

"Well Bal, looks like we're going to be moving. Again." He added with a tinge of sorrow. Balinor whined quietly, and Merlin smiled. "I know, I liked it here too. But I wasn't careful enough, and now we have to move on." He said regretfully to the border collie. He was trained as a herding dog, useful for if they stopped at a farm for a while to work, and otherwise made a good companion on the road. Whenever possible, Merlin enjoyed having a dog with him; it stopped him brooding too much over his apparent immortality by giving him a playful distraction and reason to keep on going.

He knew the others at work wouldn't report him for what he'd done, but he also knew he would have to get out of town relatively quickly, just in case someone got a little too drunk and started telling tales. It could definitely wait until morning, however. He travelled light, kept what money he had hidden in the house. At that moment however, he wanted food and rest, and the comfort of Bal close by; he'd had a long day.

With a last, heavy sigh, Merlin dragged himself to his feet and went further into the house to find some food for both himself and the dog. Bal jumped happily at his heels, looking lovingly up at his master. Merlin diced some leftover meat into smaller pieces and summoned a couple of bowls from a shelf too high to reach. Filling one with the meat, he placed it near the water bowl he kept in a corner for Balinor.

He relit the fire on his way back past. For himself, he added a couple more vegetables to the pot over the hearth, making a stew in a way many did at the time; with a base almost always left in the pot with some more nutrients and texture added when it became a little bland. Meat was expensive, but rather than subject his dog to the vegetables, Merlin bought what he could afford and gave most of it to Bal.

As the broth heated to a boil, Merlin sat on a stool next to the low, crackling fire and went back over what he'd seen earlier. He wondered if it would ever happen again, and what it meant...was it a prophecy? Or was it just a hallucination? Maybe his brain had at last started aging too fast to regenerate itself. He wouldn't be surprised, he was hardly a young man anymore, even though he only looked around thirty. He seemed to age five years every hundred from what he could tell, which was pretty useful for getting jobs. His brain was still as good as ever though; he'd never had problems before.

He sighed and finished off his meal. Tomorrow he would leave, and he had to pack. Clearing away his bowl and spoon, he went to find his travelling bag and started to fill it with the bare necessities. Who knew how far he'd have to travel? He didn't have a horse, so he was limited to what he could take on foot. The little food he had was wrapped up and packed, along with a bowl, cutlery, hunting knife, and some clothes. He put the bag down by the door, laying his sword across it, and his bow and arrow. When Arthur had been alive, he'd been a lousy shot and lousier at swordmanship, but he had to fend for himself out here and still keep his magic secret. So he'd practiced. And practiced. And practiced, until he could properly defend himself and catch a meal.

His bedroll would be done in the morning, along with Balinor's bed (a few old blankets Merlin no longer used). With a heavy heart, Merlin decided it was time to settle down for the night. He got ready for bed and pulled the covers over him; it may be summer, but nights still got cold in houses with no glass windows or insulation. He whistled to Bal, who obediently settled on his own bed and closed his eyes to sleep.

Merlin followed suit and soon exhaustion took over, pulling him into a deep, dreamless sleep.