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ever on and ever back

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Merlin pushes another boat into the water, flashing back to Lancelot and Elyan and too many of his friends. But Merlin can’t bring himself to set this particular boat ablaze. It’s too harsh, too final a farewell.

So he stands ankle-deep in lakewater and watches his life sail away until the fog swallows his shadow. His tears drip into ripples by his feet, but he hardly hears a sound.

*******

"The King is dead," Merlin tells Gwen, voice hoarse with failure. She swallows.

"Thank you, Merlin," she replies, at once both broken and strong. He can’t return her hug.

*******

"How did he die?" The chasm in Merlin’s heart has only grown wider.

Percival stares so deeply into his cup it seems he might drown.

"Morgana," he finally says. His fingers, viselike, curl around the drink in his hand.

And all Merlin can feel is a belated, empty sense of justice.

"His last words— he thought he'd failed you. He thought he'd failed the King." Percival's eyes squeeze shut, shoulders slumping.

He did, in a way, Merlin almost says, but that doesn't mean he didn't deserve better. "At least you were there with him," he says instead. "At least he didn't spend his last moments alone." Percival doesn't look at him, just nods, as if that comfort is enough.

Merlin knows that it isn't. It never will be. But there's nothing more to say.

*******

"The King is dead," Leon says. "Long live the Queen!"

"Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen!"

"Long live the Queen," Merlin whispers, and the chasm in his heart grows wider still.

*******

Three years later, Percival dies in battle.

"It's a miracle this didn't come sooner," Leon says quietly, once Merlin has set the boat ablaze. "He's been fighting recklessly for years." The since Gwaine, since the King goes unsaid. Merlin doesn't reply.

Leon retires from active duty the very next day.

*******

Gaius dies from the one thing Merlin could never cure: old age.

"You've done so well," Gaius says.

"Please don't leave me," Merlin says, vision blurred through tears.

He leaves anyway.

*******

Leon falls victim to the outbreak of red thrush fever. Merlin spends days combing Gaius's books in search of the cure, spends days more collecting roots and herbs and berries.

He's in time to save the city, but not in time to save his friend.

And isn't that how it always goes.

*******

Gwen offers him the royal seal when she's on her deathbed and Merlin is beginning to look like the old man he had pretended to be.

"There is no one to whom I'd rather entrust the kingdom," she says, graceful even at death's door. In this, Gwen is denying all the standards governing succession— but she has never been the most standard of queens.

Merlin shakes his head. But when she says, "And I'm sure Arthur would agree with me," he almost breaks.

"I was never destined to rule," he croaks through the sob building in his throat. "But it has been an honor, Your Highness."

Gwen nods, reaching a shaking hand up to his neck. "Thank you, Merlin." She smiles. "For everything."

All he can do is bow his head and surrender to the tears.

*******

“DRAGON,” he screams to the skies like he hasn’t for decades in a tongue that’s grown heavy in his mouth.

He doesn’t expect Kilgharrah to come. But he stands in the meadow an entire day just to prove himself right.

Merlin is alone.

*******

Finally, he leaves Camelot. He brings a staff, three robes, five books, and Gaius’s medicine basket. Everything else of value has already gone.

*******

He travels and heals the sick and travels some more. He discovers that fewer people trouble an old man than a young one, so he ages his body and creaks across Europe.

He only ever walks. He doesn’t know why he’s walking and he doesn’t know where, but going backwards is never an option. For fear of becoming his age, Merlin doesn’t let himself ponder the symbolism of physically being as lost as he feels.

*******

Centuries pass. Kingdoms rise. Tyrants kill. Heroes sacrifice. Kingdoms fall.

Merlin stays out of it.

*******

At some point, the days blur together. It is then, when time seems to both stretch ever on and ever back, that Merlin truly feels his age. And he wonders, as is only natural, if God ever stumbles under the weight of His infinite years.

*******

Merlin buys a small farm and starts growing turnips.

He can’t stay long, else the villagers will start to wonder how he’s so old and still so alive. Half a century later, he leaves.

*******

It becomes a pattern: buy land, settle down for almost too long, disappear.

*******

The world keeps changing, and sometimes Merlin loses track of all the lives he’s lived. He’s been a farmer, a carpenter, a teacher, a merchant, a beggar, a captain, and so many more.

And, once upon a time, he was a manservant. But once upon a time was a very, very long time ago.

*******

The twentieth century dawns, and the world, as always, is at war.

First they tell him to volunteer, then they tell him to enlist, then they tell him he’s been drafted. Whatever they may say, he knows deep in his old, ancient bones that this is not his fight.

Merlin stays out of it.

*******

As young men die on a battlefield built on a battlefield built on a battlefield, at the mercy of weapons not dissimilar to those from once upon a time, Merlin catches himself thinking, Now; maybe now.

He sits in a rocking chair and waits three decades, but his hope is only proved false.

He is still – as he has been for a millennium – alone.

*******

At some point, Merlin starts wondering about the point of immortality. He’s not immortal, not technically, but he’s immortal enough.

And he wonders if God would question the point of living forever if everyone He loved was separated from Him, instead of joining Him in white clouds that Merlin will probably never see.

Merlin, perched precariously on a rooftop, thinks He would.

*******

And then, on the 7th day of August in 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to a son. She and Prince William name him Arthur.

Merlin packs his bags and heads to London.

*******

This Arthur isn’t even a prince yet– not technically. His eyes are a mix of gray and blue, and his blond hair is dirtier than Merlin remembers. But it’s him. As soon as the first official press photos of the baby are released, Merlin knows, deep in his old, ancient bones, that it’s him.

*******

“This is boring,” Arthur whines at eight-years-old. “Why do I need to know all of this? Can’t I just– get someone to do my maths for me? I’m the Prince of England!”

It’s still difficult to believe, sometimes, that he’s really and truly back. Merlin smiles quickly, so quickly that Arthur doesn’t see.

“Not yet you’re not,” Professor Emerson says sternly. Merlin has been Arthur’s private tutor since he was a toddler. Before that, he was a part of the Duke and Duchess’s private escort as another hulking bodyguard in sunglasses. Before that, of course, he had been drowning in the what if never’s. “Besides, your people must believe you to be the capable young man that you are. And capable young men can do their own maths, don’t you think?”

Arthur blinks, his brow furrowed. “I suppose so,” he finally grumbles. “But I don’t like it.”

“And I suspect you never will,” Merlin replies cheerily. “Now, about that word problem…”

*******

When Arthur turns eleven, Marlin Emerson, the son of Arthur’s tutor, is invited to his birthday party for politeness’s sake. Professor Emerson has been a great mentor to the prince-to-be, after all. Arthur scowls, because he’d wanted the palace sleepover to be limited to fifty of his closest friends, and this Marlin certainly isn’t one.

“Let’s sneak some sweets from the kitchens!” one boy suggests at a quarter-to-midnight.

“I know a shortcut,” Marlin offers quickly, and he’s off before Arthur can think to ask how. As the fifty boys sweep croissants and cakes and tarts into the folds of their nightshirts, Marlin finds himself next to Arthur.

“Nice shortcut,” Arthur says through a mouthful of chocolate cake. “You’re alright, Emerson.”

Merlin quirks a brow. “Well. We can’t have our future king getting thin, can we?”

And the eleven-year-old Arthur stares at him, food half-chewed in his gaping mouth. Merlin doesn’t avert his gaze.

A beat. And Arthur throws his head back and laughs.

“Yeah, you’re alright, Emerson! You’re alright.” He grins, clapping Merlin on the shoulder.

And the chasm in Merlin’s heart shrinks ever so slightly.

*******

They’re twelve-years-old, twenty-four and thousands of years between them, and their favorite game is Sardines.

Arthur, as the future-King, almost always gets to hide first. And when he does, Merlin is always the first to find him.

“Oi, Marlin!” Arthur hisses. “You’re sitting on my foot!”

“Well, you might want to consider a larger cabinet next time! D’you really expect three other blokes to shove in with us?”

Merlin’s smirk lasts longer than Arthur’s scowl.

“Yeah, well– d’you have to be so bloody smart all the time?” Arthur retorts, playfully pushing at Merlin’s shoulder.

“Someone’s got to have enough brains for the both of us…” Merlin has just enough time to grin before Arthur’s got him in a headlock.

When their friend Leonard finally finds them in the last room of the seventh floor in the South Wing, they’re not even in the cabinet anymore; they’re wrestling on the carpet.

*******

Merlin had never felt inferior to Arthur in all his life. But he’d always been his manservant first, then his friend. Technically speaking.

The lines had blurred, of course.

But now, in this twenty-first century dance, Marlin and Arthur fall into friendship as complete equals. Arthur is still a royal, Marlin is still one of his subjects, but those titles seem to matter so much less now.

When Professor Emerson tells the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge of a lucrative job offer that would put him and his family three hours away, Arthur convinces them to let Marlin stay on with them at Kensington Palace.

Professor Emerson, of course, is grateful that Marlin need not leave his best friend; Marlin is ecstatic; and Merlin is the most hopeful he’s ever been.

*******

They spend the night before Arthur’s thirteenth birthday together– Marlin takes the trundle part of Arthur’s trundle bed.

After Marlin badly loses at Guitar Hero and claims to have let Arthur win all three rounds; after they’ve eaten their fill of Arthur’s favorite jelly donuts; after they argue about movies until settling on the first installment of The Hobbit; after Marlin insists on singing, “Happy birthday Jelly Donut Face!” at exactly midnight; they settle down and they turn off the lights.

And just when Merlin’s in the intangible state between sleep and consciousness, Arthur whispers, “Marlin, what d’you reckon’s the scariest thing on Earth?”

Being alone, Merlin almost says. Standing by, helpless, as everyone you ever loved dies right before your eyes and in your arms. Watching the world turn without participating in its rotation. Being alone. “Echidnas,” he says instead. “If their four-headed penises aren’t the most terrifying sight known to man, I dunno what is.”

Arthur snorts. “You’re bizarre, you know that?”

“Just another part of my charm,” Merlin whispers. The déjà vu tastes like thousand-year-old dirt.

“Right,” Arthur replies, sounding speculative instead of amused.

“Why’d you ask?” Marlin prods when Arthur stays silent.

For a while, all they can hear is each other’s breath.

Finally, Arthur whispers, “I just… sometimes I’m scared I won’t be a good king, you know?” Merlin’s eyes squeeze shut, and now he’s completely overwhelmed by the taste of dirt and ash and smoke. He doesn’t see Arthur shake his head. “It’s silly, I know – the monarchy’s basically only good for postage stamps–”

“That’s not true,” Merlin whispers with the strength of a thousand years. “That’s not true, and when you’re king, you won’t let it be true. You’re going to be–” he swallows. “You’re going to be a brilliant king, Arthur.”

And he’s said this, he’s said it all before, to a different Arthur in a different time and a different place. This Arthur is different, yes, but he’s just as arrogant and unsure and insecure as he ever was.

Arthur’s head appears over the edge of his bed, his face only a few inches above Merlin’s.

“You know,” he observes, “I do believe that was the first kind thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Merlin shrugs. “Happy birthday.”

“Yeah.” A soft smile flits around Arthur’s lips. “Thanks, mate.”

*******

A thousand years ago, Merlin had whispered, “I love you” to a dying man.

But a thousand years later, he isn’t the first of them to say it again.

*******

Marlin’s about to turn sixteen, and Arthur insists on getting him wasted.

Or, getting them both wasted.

Or, getting himself wasted, because Merlin is more millennia-old than sixteen-years-old, and Arthur is not. Arthur is sixteen and wasted; Merlin is almost sixteen and too old and only slightly tipsy.

“Truth or dare!” Arthur had exclaimed from within the circle of half-empty bottles in his bedroom.

“First date.” Arthur points at Merlin.

“That’s not how it works,” Merlin laughs, but Arthur doesn’t budge.

“First date, birthday boy! Come on, spill!”

Merlin shifts. “Hasn’t happened yet,” he shrugs. And it’s true– for this specific life of his, at least.

Arthur frowns. “First kiss, then.”

Merlin shrugs again. “Hasn’t happened yet,” he repeats.

“…Seriously?”

“Oi! I’ve been too busy looking after your sorry arse to do anything else, haven’t I?” Merlin tries for humor and lands on truth instead. It feels like the start of an earthquake.

Arthur is staring at him. “Right,” he says faintly. “Right.”

And Arthur kisses him, soft and sudden and too quick for Merlin to do anything but sit in shock.

It already tastes like a hangover.

When Arthur leans back, his face is flushed a deep red. “Right,” he repeats.

“Arthur–” Merlin tries.

Arthur hurries to his feet. “’Night, Marlin.” He shifts awkwardly for a few seconds before fairly jogging from the room.

“Fuck,” Merlin whispers.

“Fuck,” Arthur whispers, crumpled in the hallway.

*******

To say that Merlin hadn’t sometimes dreamed of this would be a lie.

But to say that Merlin had expected it in any way would be an even greater one.

*******

The night before Arthur’s seventeenth birthday is quiet and noticeably devoid of alcohol. They spend most of the night playing board games. Merlin suspects that Arthur lets him win at Checkers, but he doesn’t bring it up.

When Arthur grouches about being hungry, Merlin makes a crack about his weight on sheer instinct, and Arthur laughs, warm and surprised.

When their eyes meet, Arthur doesn’t avert his gaze.

*******

Sometimes, Merlin worries that Arthur won’t ever remember the life they once shared.

But he doesn’t let himself dwell in his fear for long. He lived a millennium without Arthur, and an Arthur that doesn’t remember is infinitely better than no Arthur at all.

And the chasm in Merlin’s heart is now more of a crack than anything else.

*******

Arthur turns 18 at 2:43 in the morning on 7 August 2031.

His first word is whispered and his first word is “Merlin.”

“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin manages. He feels prepubescent and ancient, he feels eleven and twelve and thirteen and sixteen and too, too old. “I wanted to tell you, Arthur– but you never would’ve believed me.”

“Right,” Arthur says. He sounds dazed.

Merlin has thought about this day for centuries. He had planned all of his words decades ago, when he’d been sure that Arthur would save the world from war or nuclear catastrophe. But in this moment, he’s forgotten it all.

“I died,” Arthur marvels quietly, waking from a dream.

Merlin nods once, twice, three times. “Yes,” he whispers. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m so–” And he’s twenty-six again, standing ankle-deep in lakewater, watching Arthur’s corpse disappear into the creeping fog. “There was nothing I could do,” he hears himself say, “I tried, I swear, Arthur, I did everything I could, but–”

A sob shivers through him. Suddenly, there’s a hand in his hair and a hand on his cheek.

“Shut up,” Arthur murmurs fondly. “Just shut up, Merlin.”

And their kiss tastes like the promise of a thousand years yet to come.

*******

(Their thousand years will begin with calamity.

Their thousand years will include a first “I love you.”

Their thousand years will not be easy.

Their thousand years will end in peace.)