By the time he had teamed up with the one that looked like a very young Tristan, and the one that looked like Bedevere, if Bedevere had been a changeling, or, at least, vaguely fey, he still had not found Merlin.
It turned out young Tristan and fey Bedevere knew a man who looked disturbingly like a friendlier Bors, and before Arthur knew it the four of them had decided they would work together, even though he still had not found Merlin.
All his usual twentieth-century tactics failed him. The personals in the major national newspapers (HIS MOST EXCELLENT EXCELLENCY SEEKS IDIOT FOR FAILING SPECTACULARLY AT EVERY TASK), which he had to use his food money for (he detested being born without excess capital), yielded nothing. Even the news-camera trick, in which whoever turned up first found some signalling mechanism (a t-shirt emblazoned with Excalibur Lives!, in this case) and hung around news crews, craning his or her neck to get into the shot and therefore on television, had no effect. No late-night phone call, no scruffy individual dragging her or himself onto Arthur's porch, saying, "God, people who pick up hitchhikers, I tell you," and shuddering.
Arthur would admit—only to Merlin—to a certain degree of confusion regarding the purpose of this particular run of his life, but though he was uncertain what it was he was supposed to be doing, he was fairly clear on the point that he was not supposed to do it without Merlin. So when the fat man in charge showed up with a fifth man in tow—this one looked nothing like anyone Arthur had ever known—and declared the search over with, Arthur only pretended to go along with it. In secret, however, he terrorised the new guy with tales of disgrace and loss of dignity, and when friendly Bors, fey Bedevere and young Tristan wondered what had made New Guy leave, Arthur shrugged sadly, reassuring them that he'd find them a replacement.
The fat man in charge had just begun scouting for another of his clearly misinformed choices when Arthur got a letter. He had begun to consider that Merlin might have been born in a different country, an extremely rare but not impossible occurrence, when it arrived, forwarded by one of the newspapers that had printed his ads. Underage in fucking Mississippi, it said, and so Arthur took action immediately, paying a man who knew a woman to pretend that they knew Merlin. The man said something to Bors, who said something to Tristan, who rang his mother, who rang the woman, and before Arthur knew it, Merlin was there, looking ridiculous and sheltered behind a woman with a soft bob haircut, but there.
"You really turned out funny-looking this time," said Arthur, while Merlin's mother introduced herself to Tristan's mother. He snickered as Merlin shot him a dark look and put half of a donut in his mouth, probably to stop himself from calling Arthur something colourful, because he was supposed to be a young man of good background.
"Arthur," he said evenly, in a voice that sounded like it should in no way be coming from his small, pink mouth. "The thing is, this body does eventually grow out of this. I know this for a fact. You, however," he said, jabbing a finger towards Arthur's midsection and spraying sugar everywhere, "Well, let's just say that I have seen things in your future that would make a grown man cry."
Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but at that moment they heard,
"Come on, y'all, we're going to try doing it together!" from the living room, and Arthur looked heavenward.
"God, I really hope Tristan is going to grow out of that nasally voice."
"His name isn't Tristan," said Merlin, evenly, "and no, he's not. But it'll kind of grow on you."
Arthur hummed disbelievingly, but did not say, No it won't, because Merlin was almost always right about this kind of thing.
"Will you ever cease to behave like someone who was born with three mutant left legs, and had one haphazardly chopped off at birth?" Arthur screeched.
He had found that his ability to screech had really improved since being reborn into this body.
"Hey, man, lay off him already," said Bors, raising a placating hand and standing protectively between Arthur and Merlin.
Arthur ceased to advance threateningly towards the other end of the room, but almost started up again when Merlin grinned cheekily behind Bors' back.
"It's just that this is important," said Arthur, at a slightly lower-registry screech. "He knows that. You all know that. One misstep on the field is enough to lose a knight his life," he finished soberly, almost as if his mouth were disconnected from his brain.
Bors quirked an eyebrow at him, and Bedevere gave a kittenish sort of giggle, raising his fingers to his mouth. Tristan said,
"Dude, get a grip, yo. I know all that Escape from the Planet of Robot Monsters has made you feel like someone's going to shank you on the street, but nothing's gonna happen if he falls over in practice. He's getting better anyway, dawg."
"Oh, shut up," said Arthur, because Tristan was so young that there was no way he would have known what an Atari was if Arthur hadn't shown him, and he resented his own cultural teaching (now with extra dawg) being thrown back in his face.
"From the top!" said the man at the front of the room, and Merlin—whose weird-arse eyes and pointy teeth and soft cheeks showed no sign of the receding funny-lookness that Merlin kept prophesying would take place—shuffled his feet and looked at the ground and blushed and said,
"I'm sorry. I'll try harder."
Fey Bedevere looked at Arthur as if he'd just murdered a herd of baby unicorns, and Arthur sighed, resigned. Merlin, the little bastard, shot him a wink while no-one else was looking, and Arthur promised to find a way to inflict incredible pain on him without any of the other three being the wiser, preferably soon.
Merlin really did try harder, though, and two weeks later it looked as if he might not be responsible for everyone else's deaths when it mattered. The man who had been training them proclaimed them ready, and Tristan went out and bought some overalls in celebration. He wore them with wifebeaters and looked like a disturbing cross between an underage construction worker and a rentboy when he did, but Arthur, just as Merlin had predicted, had developed a soft spot for him, and so he bought him some white sweatbands to complete the outfit.
"Hey, thanks, man," said Tristan softly, squeezing Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur laughed and said,
"Yeah, whatever, kid."
Merlin, who was having his hair dyed by his mother in the sink, shot him a fond look that somehow managed to say, You loser. Arthur drew up to his full height—remarkably unimpressive, he'd admit—and said to Merlin's mother,
"I'll finish up, if you like."
She smiled at him gratefully and went to wash her hands, and Arthur upped the peroxide content of the mixture and worked it quickly through Merlin's hair, announcing, gleefully,
"Hey, I'm done," when he was.
The look on Merlin's face when he looked in the mirror was one of the greatest pleasures of Arthur's many lives. Arthur had managed to give him hair that was almost white, and paired with his light eyes and his soft features, it made Merlin look as much like an alien as before, except weirder: an albino alien, even.
"Grown. Men. Cry. Arthur," he gritted out between clenched teeth as he towelled his hair dry.
Arthur only laughed, but three months later, when the woman came to do his hair and gave him braids, Arthur felt supremely uneasy.
When they piled the braids on top of his hair and gave him braces, Arthur smiled tightly. When they handed him the purple goggles and perched them on his head, he went to the room he shared with Bors, locked himself in the bathroom, and allowed himself to give a little horrified sob. No tears escaped, however.
Merlin, to his credit, simply turned up, looking as much like an albino alien as ever, and said,
"Hey—I'm fairly sure we're going to get a chance to make more of our own decisions in future."
He held Arthur close, one arm wrapped around his shoulders, and they both sat against the sink until Tristan's mother came to get them for dinner. Merlin pressed a soft kiss against Arthur's temple, then a softer one against his lips, and said,
"Hey, Merlin," said Arthur, stopping him as they were on their way out the door. "This life— I mean, do you think that—"
"I'm pretty sure this is one of the ones with no express moral purpose, Arthur," he said in his strangely deep voice.
"God, I'm going to go cra—"
They heard the sound of Bors and Tristan and Bedevere trampling down the hall, and Tristan hooted,
"Come on, already, you two, what are you doing in there?" and Bors pounded on the thin wall of the corridor as Bedevere laughed his odd, high-pitched laugh.
Arthur felt an intense rush of affection for the three of them, so young and so alive, and Merlin gave a little shrug, as if to say, It's not all bad, is it?
Arthur thought of Merlin saying, You can act as much like a fool as you want this time, Arthur, and of how he had made the most of that opportunity since.
"No," Arthur answered out loud, and they stepped out in the hall.
Years of battles—in Camelot, yes, but in hundreds of locations since then, in the middle of great wars and petty bar brawls alike—could have never prepared Arthur for this life.
He became used to the sound of small explosions behind and to the left of him, to the bright flares of light and fire every night, and slowly but surely overcame the impulse to throw himself to the ground when he saw or heard them. The screaming—the wailing, the crying—took him much longer to acclimate to, but he was fairly certain Merlin was working some form of dampening magic on it, because after a while he almost began to think it was normal.
The alternative was that he was going prematurely deaf, which he did not like to think about. His knees already hurt enough for seven lifetimes of being older than everyone around him.
They were always on the move—at first with Tristan and Merlin's mothers, and then just Tristan's. They spent a lot of time huddled in inappropriate housing and too many nights in cold rooms, but Bors and Arthur did their best to huddle the other three together, sharing blankets. The look in their eyes—in Tristan and Bedevere's, with their wide blue eyes and their secret, curving smiles that betrayed how happy they were at their successes, no matter how many cold nights they might have to put up with—was enough to make Merlin and Arthur pretend to be just as happy.
Neither of them said it, but the others' wonder made them both feel young again.
Two years in Arthur got a talking-to about despoiling Merlin from Bors, and he tried to laugh it off with a little off-beat humour, but Bors grabbed him by his garish shirt and said,
"He's only nineteen. And from Mississippi, man. And if you hurt him…"
He looked fierce, as proud in bearing as the actual Bors ever had, and Arthur patted him on the arm. He did not say, He's seen a million deaths and as many births, or Never give up your integrity, Bors. He just said,
"Hey—he started it."
Bors' eyes flashed, and Arthur continued, hurriedly,
"And I would never hurt him. Never. I— I love him."
Bors' face softened, all at once, and Bedevere, who had been pretending not to overhear from where he was curled up in an armchair, jumped up and hugged Arthur, jumping up and down a little with his arms around Arthur's waist.
Bors laughed, a deep sound that you might expect to hear emanating from a giant stuffed toy, and Arthur laughed with him. The three of them stood there, arms around each other, looking out of the window at the stars.
When Tristan and Merlin showed up, Tristan ducked his head into Bedevere's lap, and Bedevere stroked his soft curls back from his face. Merlin's eyes went almost liquid at the sight of them, and he wormed his way between Arthur and Bors, holding Arthur's hand and smiling up at Bors.
"I really love you guys, you know?" said Bedevere, and though no-one answered him, though no-one said, Me too, Arthur hummed an assent and the others answered by falling deeper into each other, curling together like stray puppies in a small box.
The purpose of this entire ridiculous life—the windsuits, and the lime-green satin, and the piled-up braids—all became clear around the time that Tristan decided he was in love with Bedevere.
Tristan began coming to Arthur's room at awful times in the night to deliver long treatises on the precise blue of Bedevere's eyes, or on the softness of his hair or the cut of his jaw, and Arthur would close his eyes and wish (by crunk, how he would wish) he hadn't lost the gift of sleeping with his eyes open sometime between the 1754 birth and the one in 1818.
In the dark, Tristan insisted plaintively that it would have to snow in March before his love for Bedevere faded—or something akin to this, anyway; Arthur didn't always succeed in registering exactly what was being said—but in daylight he only got brasher, louder. He wore stupid(er) t-shirts and baggier jeans and took to hounding Bedevere incessantly. Arthur would admit to some concern at freaky-deaky working its way into Bedevere's vocabulary, and he would agree that some teasing was certainly necessary, but he felt much greater concern at Tristan's courting tactics, which were making Bedevere shy and withdrawn.
"I just don't know what to do," Tristan would say, curled against Arthur's side while Merlin slept on, oblivious, next to them. Merlin and Arthur, Tristan insisted, "like, met when he came to Orlando, and then in like, Germany, you guys like, realised you were totally in love, and that's amazing, but it was easy for you guys, because everything was so new and exciting between you, right?"
On the other hand, he and Bedevere, he whined, "have known each other like, forever, like, four freakin' lifetimes, and how are we supposed to leave like, Joey and Wayne DiSalvo behind, you know?"
Arthur sighed and scratched his stomach.
"Kid," he said, "You've just gotta trust me when I say that four freaking lifetimes is nothing."
Tristan was oddly reassured by the strangest things, and he looked at Arthur intently and said,
"Really," murmured Merlin sleepily from where he was snuffling against Arthur's shoulder. "Now get out, Justin."
"Sheesh, okay already, Lance. You don't have to be such a jerk about it, yo."
Arthur blamed the sleeplessness, and Merlin's delighted response to Arthur's insistence that twenty-nine lifetimes had passed like nothing—they really hadn't, but Arthur knew when to shut up and take happy, intense sex like a man—for the fact that he and Merlin didn't cotton on to what was wrong at first. It wasn't until Arthur tried to start monthly payments on a Ferrari (in secret, having snuck away from Merlin while the rest of them were recording; he had a reputation for being incredibly, if understandably, tight with his money, not just in public but with the rest of them, and he couldn't have it crumble) that he realised anything was wrong. When his card was declined, he began to reason that they really weren't being paid enough for this shit—the wet-alley videos, and the leather pants, and Merlin's white sleeveless shirt with the bedazzled star—and then, suddenly, he realised that they really weren't being paid enough for this shit.
"Merlin," he shouted as he burst into Bedevere's crappy apartment, and then, when everyone turned to look at him, "was a great wizard of his time, if a weird-looking one, what with the beard and shit, am I right?"
He took particular pleasure in describing him as a wizard, which Merlin really hated, for some reason.
Tristan grinned at him, and Bors smiled, and Bedevere gave a tiny quirk of his lips from where he seemed to be cowering to prevent further shouting overtures from Tristan.
"Merlin," he said, much more quietly, when Bors was ordering pizza and Bedevere and Tristan were watching TV, "that fat fuck is robbing them blind."
Not us, because if they really needed it they had material wealth put away all over the shop, and flexible documents with which to retrieve it, and not us because it was the other three—the three gawky, carefree, other three, laughing stupidly from the other room in Bedevere's tiny apartment—that they were clearly there to protect. While wearing purple goggles, even.
Arthur summarised his sneaky trip to the Ferrari dealership when he was supposed to have been taking Merlin's pet ferret to the vet ("God, I hate you sometimes, Arthur") and then what he had found ("I hope the dealer laughed in your face when you couldn't afford it") and then what he thought that meant ("We are taking this fucker down, Arthur, if it's the last thing we do"). Then Merlin looked into it, or hired someone to look into it, because he was pretty shit with numbers, despite this life's appearances. After that it was only a matter of thinking about how to break it to the others (and about how to avoid running over to that fat fuckface's house and murdering him in cold blood, because Bedevere actually cried when he heard).
The downside was that Merlin had to pretend to fall off a stage while faint, which made Bedevere cry again, but the upside was that this made Tristan stiff-faced and angry, seemed to make him grow up in two days flat, and as Arthur sat by Merlin's bedside, pretending to be sick with worry, he heard Tristan say, in a soft, quiet voice,
"Hey, have you eaten yet? I'll take you to dinner, okay?"
(The other upside was that Arthur could break into a house unnoticed, and that Merlin could be stealthier yet, and that once the trial was over, and they had wrenched young Tristan and friendly Bors and fey Bedevere from Lou's fat, stinky, wretched grasp, no-one would know who had left four dead goats dressed in lingerie in Lou's bedroom, and Lou would never know why, for the rest of his life, it felt as if he suffered from terrible haemorrhoids, though the doctors insisted this was not the case, and recommended psychological treatment instead.)
Arthur bought his mother a house, and then, because he could, he bought her another house still. Then he hired Martha Stewart to outfit a cabin in Minnesota in flannels, so that Merlin could run around setting things on fire in dragon-shapes to his heart's content.
Bors had a child who laughed like Morgana once had, when she thought no-one was looking: cackling and unrestrained. Merlin bought her every toy she wanted and every toy she didn't, and Arthur pretended he wasn't the one scouting the internet for yet more things to buy and leaving the print-outs for Merlin to find.
Best of all, Arthur stopped having late-night visits from Tristan, whose muscles had begun to look like something Arthur would not have been half-ashamed of in any knight. (By contrast, Arthur continued to cultivate a soft underbelly, but Merlin merely rested a warm hand on it when they slept, and didn't tease him about it overmuch.) He wrapped around Bedevere like a shield, like a sword-arm, and Bedevere looked happy enough to burst, and certainly happy enough to break out a mad song about, as far as the rest of them could ascertain, orgasms lit by the unearthly glow of computer screens.
Bedevere insisted it was about friendship and self-discovery, which was roughly the same thing, Arthur supposed.
They wouldn't live and travel in cramped quarters forever—this Merlin had already prepared Arthur for, knowing how displeased he tended to be by change; he had already begun speaking about some hare-brained scheme for afterwards, "because space is the last great frontier, Arthur," waggling his eyebrows and evidently trying to distract him. Arthur let himself be kissed, and did not care that Merlin's attempts at diversion were obvious.
They would not stay like this forever, but neither would he ever have to give any of them up: not friendly Bors with his laugh and his warm heart, not fey Bedevere with his kindness of spirit or his flyaway hair, not innocent-faced Tristan, with his talent or his loyalty or his ability to make Arthur remember what youth meant again. Merlin hadn't had to assure him—this one thing, Arthur had known—that this knotted thing between them would last forever.
Arthur could have done without the colour-coordinated pork-pie hats, but he doesn't think he would have traded this for the world.
"CLEVELAND! PLEASE WELCOME…" he heard blared from the speakers on stage, and he jogged a little in place, trying to remember what the first note was. In the shadows behind him Tristan pulled Bedevere in for a short kiss, love and reassurance. Bors grinned, and Merlin rolled his eyes—his lovely eyes, which he had finally, truly grown into, just as promised, with the alien nowhere to be found—at Arthur, mouthed, "Ready, sire?"
Arthur gave him a rueful little laugh, patted the four of them as they got ready to run out.
They smiled at him.