Arthur doesn't find out that he lives a mere block away from destiny until his father, in a fit of pique, informs him that it's about time he starts paying his own way for a change and arranges for - that is to say, orders - him to take an internship with one of the local businesses. Arthur is nineteen, and it's his first job, which would be a little embarrassing except that he's never really needed one before, and anyway, he's 99% certain this latest responsibility kick is actually just Uther's way of spying on the competition. The worst thing about it, apart from the humiliation of having to get up at seven every morning on summer vacation, is that he has to catch the tube one station over from his usual stop if he wants to be on time; an inconvenience which quickly becomes the crowning indignity because - as he soon finds out - that particular neighbourhood happens to be the home turf of one very annoying old tramp called Merlin.
The fact that the man actually introduces himself as Merlin is Arthur's first clue that he is certifiably insane. The second clue comes when the surly git grabs Arthur's arm in the middle of the street immediately afterwards, staring into his face with what look to be tears in his eyes and pressing a carved dragon brooch into his palm, with a sound that Arthur deliberately doesn't think of as a sob.
"Arthur," he says, beaming brilliantly and gormlessly into Arthur's face. "You're back."
Arthur is not, and has never been what you might call a coward, but being accosted by an agitated stranger on his first day of work strikes him as one of those things that anyone would find deeply unsettling, even if said stranger hadn't inexplicably known his name. He tries to give the brooch back, but the old man actually cuffs the back of his head and growls at him, a few sharp words in a foreign language, all sibilants and gutturals, so Arthur says, "Er, thanks, I guess," in a bemused sort of way and puts it in his pocket, and prays he'll never see the old man again.
In this, however, he is doomed to disappointment. No matter what route he takes to work that summer, the old tramp is there, lurking in a recessed doorway or behind a rubbish bin, or - once - halfway up a lamp post, snarling at pigeons. Worse still, he seems to have taken it upon himself to harass Arthur every chance he gets, offering him a handful of uncooked rice and calling it a tasty snack, or shoving a crown made of empty toilet-rolls and dripping with rainbow-coloured glitter onto his head when he's running late, or - on one particularly memorable occasion - pinching Arthur's wallet and playing keep-away with it, hiding it up his sleeve and pulling it out from behind Arthur's ear until Arthur is hard-pressed to restrain himself from physically assaulting the man out of sheer irritation.
He's deceptively spry, for such an old man. His hair is white and he has a straggly sort of beard that always looks well-cared for in spite of the fact that he seems to be entirely homeless, but when he teases Arthur - and there can be no other word for what he's doing - it takes the younger man considerable effort just to keep up with him. And Arthur plays football, for goodness sake! It's not as if he's out of shape. Yet Merlin is still too quick for him, and something at the back of Arthur's mind tells him he ought to know why, except, of course, how can he? Merlin is probably some sort of jacked-up P junkie, that's all. That would explain everything.
When Arthur's internship comes to an end, along with the summer holiday, he thinks for certain he's seen the last of the annoying old bastard, and refuses to admit that maybe he's a little bit sad to be going back to Oxford, lack of glittery headdresses and wallet-stealing shadows aside. He packs slowly, resisting the urge to walk down to Merlin’s station one last time, and says goodbye to his father with the kind of brittle politeness that has been the hallmark of their relationship since his mother died. He tells himself that’s the end of it, and he should be glad, only its not even half a week later before he's coming out of his dorm room and catching sight of a familiar figure darting out of view behind one of the collegiate buildings, and he realises with heart-pounding certainty that he hasn't seen the back of his elderly tormentor quite yet.
Merlin is everywhere. How he knows Arthur's timetable is beyond him, but as summer slips away into autumn and the Michaelmas term picks up steam, Merlin dogs his footsteps like a particularly impatient ghost, as if determined that Arthur will not escape him merely by virtue of attempting to get an education. It’s ridiculous, Arthur knows. He should call the police; should tell one of his father’s flunkies and have the old man arrested. He should definitely not encourage the attention, subtly, accidentally, by sometimes ordering two coffees instead of one or leaving his totally-not-bought-on-purpose extra sandwich on one of the park benches across the street, where he knows Merlin likes to lurk. And he absolutely positively shouldn’t start laughing the way he does when Merlin, apparently driven to further heights of insanity by Arthur’s record-breaking stint in the depths of the Bodelian, acquires a bunch of oranges from god knows where and begins juggling them to pass the time, sitting atop an old fire hydrant across the street from the library.
Arthur shouldn’t do any of these things, and yet he does, and he doesn’t feel more than the slightest bit guilty about any of it. Merlin may have a serious mental affliction, but he seems perfectly harmless, and if he wants to spend his time hanging around watching Arthur argue precedent with Percy or track down obscure case names with Gwaine, well, it’s a free country, and nobody’s stopping him.
Of course, Arthur isn’t always so tolerant of Merlin’s antics, because if Merlin has a singular talent it’s for getting under Arthur’s skin the way no one else - save perhaps his step-sister, Morgana - has ever been able to do. When he’s not stealing Arthur’s keys or tying his laces together (Arthur knows that was him, although he has yet to figure out how he did it), he’s looking at Arthur with that disturbingly penetrating gaze, as if waiting for something to happen, like he’s expecting Arthur to suddenly break into song or grow a second head at any moment. It’s unnerving, that’s what it is, and what’s worse is the old man always looks so disappointed afterwards, when he has stared into what feels like Arthur’s very soul and still failed to find what he’s looking for.
"What do you want?!" Arthur finally bellows at him, leaning against a lamp post late one evening while the old man dances ahead of him, humming nonsense to himself and wearing Arthur's stolen gloves over his ears, and Arthur doesn't even want to know what that's about, thank you very much. He'll have to buy himself a new pair tomorrow. "Why are you stalking me? What did I ever do to you?"
Merlin stops, turning to look at him with bright blue eyes that sparkle in the lamplight. For one strange moment that Arthur will deny until the end of his days, he looks not so much crazy as sad, and very, very lonely.
"I - I'm sorry," Arthur says, suddenly awkward. He's not sure what he's apologising for, exactly, because Merlin is stalking him and it has been a very long day, but the fact remains that the old man hasn't actually done anything to harm him. That he knows of. Yet. "Only, I don't understand. Why do you keep following me?”
Merlin looks at him, tilting his head like a bird and smiling a funny little smile that makes his eyes crinkle up into a mass of wrinkles at the corners.
"When have I ever done anything else, sire?” he says, cryptically.
Arthur huffs, his breath a white cloud in the cold air. “I’m not a king.”
“No? Well, maybe not,” Merlin peers at him, with eyes that are not in the least myopic. “It has been a long time. I might be mistaken.”
It’s probably because it’s nearly midnight and Arthur’s hardly been sleeping at all these past few weeks, driven to distraction by assignments and bad dreams, but something about the way he says it makes Arthur catch his breath, and look a little more closely at the wrinkled face. It seems recognisable in the oddest of ways, like a reflection in the disturbed surface of a pool; familiar, and yet not.
“Do I know you?” he asks. His heart is beating thick in this throat, his hands curled into fists at his sides. There’s an edge of something in the air around them, something expectant, something — something —
“You did once,” Merlin says, his voice distant. “But not anymore.”
And he’s gone before Arthur can think to ask what he meant.
He doesn’t show up the next day, nor the day after that. Winter comes on and the first snow starts, and Arthur doesn’t even realise he’s worried until Gwen puts her hand on his arm and asks him what’s wrong.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Arthur says, too quickly. “I’m fine. Why do you think something’s wrong?”
“Arthur, you’ve just read the same paragraph five times,” she says, smiling sympathetically up at him. “I was watching you. And you keep looking out the window with that frown on your face, like you’re thinking really hard about something. And it’s obviously not promissory estoppel.”
Arthur sighs. She’s right, of course - she usually is - but it still takes him a moment to retrace his own thoughts.
“I’m worried about Merlin,” he says finally, wincing even as he admits to it. Merlin is a grown man and probably three times Arthur’s age, and from the state of his clothes he must be used to living rough. It’s not as if he’d want Arthur’s help, even if Arthur felt obliged to give it. Which he doesn’t. Much.
“That old tramp who’s been following you around all semester?” Gwen asks, sounding surprised. “Why, has he done something? He hasn’t threatened you, has he?”
“No, it’s not that.” Arthur shifts uncomfortably, because occasionally Merlin does threaten to push him into a puddle or something, although he never has. “I just haven’t seen him around for a while, that’s all.”
“Perhaps he’s given up,” Gwen suggests. She leans her elbows on Burrows’ Casebook on Contract and looks at Arthur. “I’d have thought you’d be pleased to see the back of him. You always complain about how much he teases you.”
Arthur doesn’t know how to explain that he doesn’t think Merlin knows how to give up, leastways not on him, and that he’s pretty much resigned himself to being stealthily pelted with snowballs every winter for the rest of his life, so he doesn’t try. Instead, he says, “It’s getting awfully cold out, that’s all. I don’t like to think of him sleeping out in the snow, at his age.”
Gwen, being Gwen, is immediately upset. “Oh my gosh, Arthur, you don’t think he’s sleeping rough, do you? He did seem awfully old, and if he’s as dotty as you claim — well, anything could have happened!”
She gets up at once, contract law forgotten, and bustles Arthur out into the freezing night air, dragging him by the hand towards the local homeless shelter. Arthur lets her do it, warmed by her willingness to enter into his concerns, and the two of them end up spending the evening spooning soup into bowls in a steaming kitchen alongside a man called Lance, who is honestly far too good looking to be real and appears instantly smitten with Gwen, to her delight. Arthur peers into every grizzled face he sees, ignoring the tentative attempts at flirtation beside him, but Merlin is nowhere to be found.
It’s a full month before Arthur sees Merlin again, and for once he’s the first to make contact, gripping Merlin’s bony wrist as the old man shuffles around a corner, half an hour before Arthur’s last class is due to let out.
“There you are!” Arthur exclaims, stupidly relieved and unable to hide it. “I thought you must be dead in a ditch somewhere.”
Merlin blinks at him, looking startled. “And I thought you were supposed to be in class,” he says, his voice gravelly. “Are you skiving off again? You’ll never make partner by thirty at this rate.”
“That was one time,” Arthur says, annoyed in spite of himself, and letting go of Merlin’s arm. He scowls at the old man, noting the frost-lined beard and the dark shadows under his eyes. “And for your information, class was cancelled because of the snow, so I’m done for the day.”
Merlin seems different somehow — tireder, perhaps, his back more stooped and brittle, and Arthur feels his annoyance draining away, leaving behind something surprisingly like affection.
“Have dinner with me,” he says impulsively. “Go on. You look like a stiff breeze might knock you over, and I don’t want that on my conscience this close to Christmas break.”
Merlin’s eyes search his face at that, apparently trying to determine whether he’s being serious. It’s a bit like being x-rayed by Professor Dumbledore, and Arthur tries to pretend he doesn’t notice, though he will admit to being relieved when Merlin finally looks away.
“All right,” he agrees. “But you’re buying.”
They end up sharing a packet of hot chips on the bench outside Arthur’s college, Merlin perched up on the back of the seat with the newspaper clutched in both hands, steam rising from the hole he’s torn in the corner. He’s wearing Arthur’s gloves, he notices, and the sight makes Arthur smile in spite of himself.
“Where have you been, anyway?” he asks, the taste of vinegar sharp on his tongue. “It’s been ages.”
“Don’t tell me you missed me,” Merlin says, smirking. It makes him look like some kind of demented Santa Claus, and Arthur tells him so.
“Oi!” Merlin cuffs him. “Did no one ever teach you to be polite to your elders, you dollophead?”
“That’s not even a word.”
“It’s my word,” Merlin says, sounding petulant. “It’s always been my word.”
“Define it, then.”
“In two words? Prince. Arthur.”
Arthur stops short, feeling a frisson of something down his spine that isn’t the cold. Merlin keeps eating, licking his fingers and looking stupidly smug, apparently unaware of what he’s just said. Perhaps he really is mad, Arthur thinks, but instead of fear he just feels pity, a nagging sort of ache in his chest that really isn’t at all appropriate to the situation and is entirely Merlin’s fault.
“Pass the chips,” he says finally, not knowing what else to do. “Or didn’t your parents ever teach you to share, Merlin?”
It’s another pointless argument that brings it all to a head, only a few days after the start of Trinity when the snow has set in with a vengeance, and the roads are black with ice. Merlin shows up after Arthur’s first class like clockwork, popping out of the snow like some especially persistent form of jack-in-the-box and looking alarmingly fragile, as if he’s slowly being whittled away to the bone.
“You look awful,” Arthur blurts, unable to help himself. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Merlin says, shooting him a gimlet glare that would have looked ridiculous even if his nose wasn’t turning slightly purple. “It’s not exactly fun and games, you know, hanging around waiting for you.”
“Why are you waiting for me?” Arthur asks, although by now he knows better than to expect a straightforward answer. True to form, Merlin merely squints at him.
“I suppose that means you haven’t remembered yet.”
“Who you are. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened already. I always thought you’d be aware of it from the beginning.”
Arthur sighs, and does what he always does when Merlin’s madness becomes unignorable; he ignores it. He digs through his pocket for some spare change and holds it out to the old man.
“Here,” he says. “Buy something hot. You look like you need it.”
But Merlin, unexpectedly, knocks his hand aside, the change spilling onto the snow at their feet.
“God damn it, Arthur,” he all but shouts, shoving at Arthur’s shoulders with surprising strength. “I don’t want your damn money, you prat, I want you, I want — Kilgharrah never said — you’re supposed to remember, damn you. I don’t want to have to do this alone.”
There are actual tears in his eyes, now, spilling over onto his cheeks, his hands clenched into tight, white fists and his entire body shaking. Arthur takes a step back into the street, more out of shock than anything, and then everything skids abruptly sideways as his foot slips on a patch of ice and he goes down, hard, and Merlin is shouting his name and someone is screaming, and then several impossible things happen at once.
When the world rights itself again, Arthur is being helped to his feet by a very white-looking stranger, who seems incredulous that he isn’t more badly hurt.
“Did you hit your head?” he keeps saying, turning Arthur’s face from one side to the other. “Did you break anything? Oh my god, I’m so sorry, the two of you just came out of nowhere and the ice — I thought for sure you were a gonner, except then he — “
Arthur’s head is throbbing, indicating that he probably did hit it at some point, and everything seems too loud and too still and too sharp, as if he’s seeing everything clearly for the first time. His stomach feels horribly unsettled, like he’s about to be sick; and when he sees Merlin he is sick, all over the pallid-looking stranger’s shoes, and the man catches at his shoulders and says, “Oh,” and then, “I’m Mordred, by the way,” and Arthur closes his eyes again because fuck, he knows that face, and he thinks perhaps he needs to lie down.
Merlin is cremated, and his ashes scattered in the quad close to Arthur’s dorm, which Arthur is fairly sure the university would disapprove of, so he doesn’t tell them. He feels entirely numb as he watches the little grey flecks swirl and scatter in the chill breeze. He hasn’t slept properly since it happened, plagued by nightmares he now knows to be memories, even his sleep infected with the realisation of just what he has lost, but he doesn’t feel tired so much as resigned, the weight of his destiny pressing in on him now that there is no one to share it with.
He isn’t sure if Merlin has been waiting all this time, since his own death so many centuries before, or if he too had been reborn after years of absence, and had merely come into his memories earlier. He hopes for the latter — anything else would be too cruel, and he refuses to believe that this is the last time they will ever see each other. In which case, all he has to do is wait in turn for the wheel to come around again, and hope that next time, he won’t be so dense — and Merlin won’t be so annoying — and that untimely accident won’t rob them of their reunion before it has properly begun. He tells himself he can live with that.
It comes as no surprise to him to realise that the others — Gwen, Lance, Percy, even Gwaine — are familiar to him, and it is comforting to know that some things never change. Even Mordred and Morgana, once he gets past his own feelings of rage and guilt, have a place in his life again, happy and whole in this incarnation as they had never been before, and he vows to himself and to Merlin’s memory that this time, this time he will make sure they stay that way.
Spring arrives; the snow thaws. Arthur passes his examinations and returns home for another summer, although this time he does not protest when Uther mentions that he might want to get a job. It’s strange, seeing his father again; Uther is still driven, still vigorously diligent in his pursuit of what he thinks is right, but his edges are softer now, perhaps as a result of having Igraine in his life for longer — she had died when Arthur was thirteen. Arthur finds himself looking at the former king across the breakfast table and wanting to laugh, insanely, at the picture he makes in his neatly-pressed business suit and extra-strength bifocals. How absurd it all is, after all that struggle and urgency, to think they end up here.
On his first day of work, he walks the familiar route to the tube on auto-pilot, half watching out of the corner of his eye for a shock of white hair and a goofy smile, which is probably why he runs into a young man just coming out of the station, knocking him back into the railing with a startled yelp that reminds him of an injured puppy.
“Hey,” the man exclaims, voice rising. “Watch it, you prat!”
“Sorry,” Arthur starts to say, then freezes, staring into a face that, were it a few decades older, perhaps, and half hidden behind a straggly white beard, he would find breathtakingly familiar. Without thinking, he reaches out and grips the man’s shoulder. It is solid to the touch, robust and warm under his palm.
“Merlin,” he breathes.
Merlin lights up, his entire face splitting into the broadest, most ridiculous grin Arthur has ever seen.
“Hello, Arthur,” he says, his eyes shining as he folds the king into his embrace. “I see you found me again.”