He is in Caerleon when he hears.
The buzzing marketplace hums around him with words he cannot fully care about because they do not have the name ‘Arthur’ in them. It has been a few months and he wonders if things will get better, if the waiting will just become a part of him and seep into his veins until, when he bleeds, he can see Arthur’s name in the red. He wonders if the guilt will wash away, too. Because a letter and an unmarked presence in Camelot surely doesn’t correct his selfishness. The selfishness that comes from the pit of his stomach because he can’t, he can’t possibly live where Arthur lives the strongest when he is not there.
When he is buying his herbs, he overhears a young lady next to him mention the word ‘Camelot’ and his head spins. Camelot is not a place people normally hear about in morning gossips, not since the ban for magic was uplifted, so he listens.
“Did you hear the news from Camelot?” the young lady asks her companion.
“The Queen has given birth to the late King Arthur’s son.”
And Merlin flees without taking his herbs.
He disguises himself a visiting physician because that will cause less hassle. Ever since Gaius died, there has been no shortage of physicians from neighbouring kingdoms that want to swear their allegiance to the Queen. They let Merlin hold him, after he has told lies and deceit, even if he knows Gwen –for she will always be Gwen to him, never Guinevere- will let him back into the walls without a second thought. He wonders if she can tell, when she stands a few feet away from him as he holds her son. He wonders if Leon can, as he holds position as Gwen’s second-in-command and consort.
But, then, as he looks down on Arthur’s son, he begins to wonder if they see as much Arthur in this baby as he does. There are a few differences; the darkness of his skin and hair, the smile that hasn’t developed yet, but he is here. Arthur.
In the boy’s eyes that look up to him expectantly, in his cheeks that Merlin remembers caressing right before the light went out of his eyes; in his blood, in his life.
Merlin gives his diagnosis and tells the Queen the boy is perfectly healthy and that he looks like his father.
“Did you know him?” Gwen asks and Merlin regrets it.
Because he did. He probably knew Arthur more than she ever did, more than anyone ever did.
“As well as anyone knew their King,” he answered.
When he leaves the room, he runs. He runs because how can a place hold so much of Arthur in its walls yet not have him there?
The son grows like his father, feared and loved for being the best soldier in all the lands. The son learns to love like his father, gets married and rules a kingdom like his father. The son gets a daughter and is elated and names her Freya for some unknown, godforsaken reason that makes Merlin laugh until he cries when he finds out, and then a son who he names Arthur and Merlin properly cries then.
The son grows and lives and loves and fights and Merlin, though sometimes far away, is never far behind.
During the Middle Ages, Arthur’s descendant conquers an army.
When the Renaissance rolls around, Arthur’s descendant paints and falls in love too many times until his own descendants scatter all over the world and Merlin can only watch over so many.
The mid-17th century sees Arthur’s descendant –a young man- who has lost his power and name and place in the world. Until he falls in love with a beautiful man and he is restored to his rightful place as a good ruler of a small city.
Their love reminded him of his and Arthur’s in some ways. In their trust and their bond and how their conversations were never shielded from one another until Merlin realizes. He realizes that if someone asked him if he was in love, he would answer that he had been in love with the same man for years and years and it only took him a few hundred years to figure it out.
He is careful not to loudly interfere any of Arthur’s descendants’ lives. They are not Arthur, their lives are not intertwined with his and he should not make it so. But sometimes he talks to them. He disguises himself as an old man and listens to their whines and complains and tales and stories, he is their friend and they begin to let him into their lives but not so much that he feels like he needs to leave; he is a stranger who poses advice to them so they can live the best life they could possibly have.
He lets himself be their guardian angel because, even if they are not Arthur, there are still parts of him that endure, and he wants these children to endure. To be safe and happy and great in all the ways that they can be. They are no longer kings or queens or rulers in their own right but no one is ever incapable of great things. Merlin just makes sure that they know that.
He has not forgotten his own life. He watches over Arthur and the lake and his descendants to the best of his ability but he cannot forget who he is. His world was Arthur and it still is but Arthur wouldn’t have wanted him to sacrifice the great things he could’ve been or seen or done for the great things both of them are destined to do when he comes back. So he tries –to the best of his ability- to build a life of his own.
He is a soldier at one point and he fights so courageously he is known for it. He starts writing tales of his own life and of Arthur’s. He travels all over the world and leaves traces of legends that will outlive them all in the soil he walks on and the air that he breathes. He does so many great things until he is a great thing himself. He is something people remember when he leaves and he is happy for it.
A few times, he tries to love. He kisses people for the fun of it and let them into his bed just to ease the ache in his chest until he realizes it doesn’t work. He knows who he’s meant for. All these lost souls that he has imprinted on are looking for the same thing he has known for centuries and he is blessed and cursed for it.
He gets lonely sometimes, more often than not, and a few times in the long days of his life, he takes up a child. He raises them as his own and the ache dulls a bit. They know about his magic and are not surprised when he outlives them but it only hurts more for him when it happens.
But he doesn’t say goodbye to them because they might meet each other again. Instead, as an old friend taught him, he says thank you.
It is the 21st century in Nottingham, England and he is in the Queen’s Medical Centre. All this time and he ends up back home doing what he did centuries ago: healing. He still looks after Arthur’s descendants to the best of his ability but they are scattered and sometimes he feels like giving up. He is a nurse and he has made a home here. He doesn’t go by Merlin, he goes by Geoffrey and he has a flat not too far from here. He has friends and is a young intern here. To others, his life is just beginning but he feels so old inside.
He is called into the delivery room to observe the delivery but something happens. After the child is born, the mother does not wake up. The baby wails and cries for a comforting touch and the doctor shoves him into Merlin’s arms as they try to resuscitate the mother.
He is small, the baby boy, and he’s perfect. Blue eyes and fair skin; with hands reaching up to him. He feels attached to this child, more than he’s ever been to any of his own children. It almost feels as if it is his. Like, really his.
He doesn’t want to let go when the doctor tells him to. And he especially doesn’t want to go outside and be there when the doctor tells the father that the mother of his child is dead. But he has to.
The father is sitting outside, head down and distressed. He is young, just twenty-one, like his girlfriend was. Just twenty-one and he has a bigger responsibility than he’s ever had before. Like Arthur.
Merlin doesn’t see when the doctor tells him but the father just drops down onto a chair and starts crying. The doctor leaves and Merlin wants to hit him. For all his lives and long years, he knows how this feels and it doesn’t dull away when it becomes a regular occurrence. So Merlin tries to offer him solace.
“Would you like to see your son?” Merlin asks.
The man looks up and he is there. Arthur. Not in the way that he is in all his descendants but he is fully, properly there. He is here, in front of him, breathing in the same air as he is and he is breathing. When the man hears him, it looks like the Arthur Merlin couldn’t save. He is here and wrecked but he has that little smile playing around his lips because it’s alright. But this time, it’s Merlin who can’t breathe properly.
He shields it, as he leads Arthur –is his name even Arthur now?- to his son. This is more important. They can wait. Merlin’s gotten used to it.
The baby boy is still there, still perfect and Merlin still feels an indescribable longing for him. His hand accidentally brushes against Arthur’s when they look at the same perfect thing and Merlin almost collapses because of how much he’s missed that. Arthur seems confused for a second and Merlin hopes but the look disappears. What replaces it is a strength that he’s gotten used to seeing and has missed seeing for the longest of times.
“What will you name him?” Merlin asks because he’s allowed this.
“I don’t know,” Arthur says. For some reason, he can see a smirk on his face. “Maybe Leon.”
“He kinda looks like him, doesn’t he?”
“Tell me, Merlin,” Arthur says, turning to him, “do you know how to change a diaper?”
“Don’t you, sire?”
“I fear I’m hopeless in these matters, Merlin.”
“Well,” Merlin curls his fingers around Arthur’s, “it’s a good thing you’ve got me, then.”
Arthur grips on his hand tighter. “A very good thing, indeed.”