It wasn’t the worst place he’d lived, but nor was it the best. There had been years when he’d ventured far from England—had found himself in Spain, Italy, China, walked the long white beaches of Buenos Aires and even climbed the strange monuments at Chichen Itza, waiting while the sun set to catch the glimmer of a shadow that might remind him of another place, another set of stones on a broad plain.
There had been years of wandering and years of standing still. Years of watching the landscape alter around him, tall buildings replacing the modest wooden structures of his youth, the walls of the castle at Camelot crumbling to dust, lost to history and the passage of time. He’d done his best to protect the kingdom he and Arthur had created together—had destroyed the Spanish Armada off the coast, deflected the worst of the bombs during the terrible Blitz. No one ever knew, and still people died, people always died. Children. Men. Women. And Merlin grew weary as Prime Ministers were elected and the world changed.
Now tourists visited the places that had defined his life, relegated to myth or worse, fantasy. No one remembered King Arthur as he was or Merlin when he was beautiful. If they thought Emrys odd or quaint with his long white beard and wizened face, it was because he reminded them of another wizard, a Gandalf or Dumbledore, from books Emrys himself had read and chuckled over.
How people misunderstood magic. For the young people that inhabited his building, it wasn’t a matter of fear at all so much as disbelief. He’d learned the hard way that to speak of magic in this time and place was a risk, especially at his presumed age (they didn’t know who he was—timeless, of the earth, the air, the sea, waiting). Some thought he was crazy, others humoured him and smiled politely, and so he hadn’t spoken of magic to anyone in years, or of Albion, or his long-dead and beloved King.
So he’d taken this flat in this corner of London and tried to remember why he’d been gifted this most horrible fate, to exist in this body for all of eternity without lover or friend, never sure what his father had once told him was true. He hadn’t understood then in the cave, when Balinor had said he’d always existed and always would; he hadn’t known the kind of loneliness that seeps into the bones and makes the body tired. He didn’t know then what it meant to live with a young man’s mind in an old man’s body, a body that would never die. Even in the days when he’d hidden his true self he had still had Gaius, Lancelot, Gwen, Gwaine—but they, too, were long dead. Like Arthur, his beautiful friend, who always remained the same in his memory, his words impossible to forget.
I don’t want you to change. I want you to always be you.
Oh, the irony of that sentiment now.
Years passed. If Merlin’s landlord wondered about his strange tenant, he never complained and gladly accepted the money Merlin conjured from blank sheets of paper. Things grew, if not happy, settled. He watched the young people move in and out of the increasingly run-down building, even befriended some of them. They came by his flat and brought him things he didn’t need, taught him how to use the computer that sat dustily on his desk, were conscientious of his threshold for noise, though he surprised them all by not ever complaining. He loved the sounds of parties and feet stomping up wooden stairs, loud calls and laughter. He began to feel less like a ghost.
And then one day a young man with golden hair moved into the flat upstairs.