Author's Note: This was going to be a one shot but the second part has gotten longer than I thought so I thought I'd get the first part (the five times he was too late) up and upload the second part (the one time he wasn't) when I finish it (later tonight or tomorrow). This is definitely an angsty Merlin POV, the second chapter will be happier but ye be warned about this part.
Spoilers: Very little specifically from the series itself, definitely no episode specific spoilers
Disclaimer: Not mine!
Five Times Merlin Was Too Late...
Merlin was aware in every incarnation. It was the one boon the residents of Avalon had allowed him when he struck his deal. Numb with grief and weary from the effort of escorting the dead royal from the battlefield where he had fallen at Mordred's hand to the mystical lake deep in the woods, the warlock had desperately grasped at the chance they gave him. They said that it might never happen, even they could not control such things, however they could ensure the king would continue to be reborn until the end of time.
Merlin would be given the gift of knowledge, he would know who he was and what his purpose was in every new life. His magic would still flow through his veins and help him on his quest to reunite with his master, but he was warned that time would alter his gift. No matter how powerful the people of Avalon were, they could not make it so the king was also aware. Merlin knowing his past was dangerous enough that more shifts in the timeline would inevitably cause certain disaster. There was hope, the Bear could awaken to who he was, Merlin's presence would allow the king to regain his memories and become the great leader once again. His awakening would set in motion the return of Camelot in whatever incarnation was possible in the future world.
This was the hope that kept Merlin going, even through near misses and tragedy. The knowledge that it was up to him to restore his beloved kingdom burned, knowing that out there somewhere was his king unaware and unprotected.
He refused to recall the last words of the people of Avalon. They had told him he was always welcome in the mystical land, that if he tired of his quest, if he lost hope, he could return to Avalon and they would allow him to slip into eternal peace. It was tempting sometimes, the thought that he would never have to awaken again, but he could not be separated from his king forever and so he would continue on for as long as necessary.
The first time he came close to Arthur was barely fifty years after the King's first death. It seems that while Avalon's promise of the king's rebirth was true, not every generation had someone worthy of the royal, so Merlin was forced to wait until he felt that pull that told him the king was once again in the world. He felt it faintly four and a half decades after the most painful moment of his life, and just before he had given up hope that the people of Avalon had been able to keep their promise. It was a small glow in the back of his mind, like banked embers there was little light but the warlock felt it.
He followed that feeling all over the now broken lands of Albion, shattered soon after Camelot had fallen. It was five years before Merlin found the source of the fire in his head. As he grew closer the flames of the connection grew until he could almost hear the roaring in his head. It was strongest in a little village, so like his own Ealdor his heart twinged. He entered the outskirts midday, a strange old man in a worn cloak, ratty neckerchief still present around his neck. He looked around, at faces worn with hunger and the oppressive hands of the warlords who had taken over parts of the former golden kingdom. There was sadness in their eyes, but hope still lingered. The people of this village had not been broken yet, and the warlock wondered if that was why his search had led him here. It was only minutes after approaching the village that he saw the child. He knew instantly that it was Arthur, the golden hair and light blue eyes were just a little off color and it was a child of barely five years, but Merlin saw the king he had once been shining out of the babe. Tears filled the old man's eyes, he would not be forced to traverse the world forever in search of his king, reunited within his lifetime he would not even need the promise of reincarnation that Avalon had given to him. Taking a moment to observe the happy child Merlin considered his approach. Obviously the child's parents would not simply hand their offspring off to a doddering old man. He had no idea how to convince them but even if he had to live in this out of the way village, he would not leave the child, not now that he knew who was behind the grey-blue eyes.
The planning distracted Merlin and he missed the shouts of horror as men on horseback rode into the village square. They had marks on their face, bastardizations of the peaceful Druid's tattoos and the warlock looked on frozen in horror as the lead rider pulled back his hood. His hair was now grey but his eyes the same icy blue that had frightened Merlin, even when their owner was a mere boy. Mordred lived, having escaped the battle in the confusion following his mortal blow to Arthur. Merlin stuck out his hand, to protect the boy or kill the sorcerer he was not sure.
But he was too late, Mordred struck down the now crying child without uttering a sound, and then he turned in the stunned warlock's direction. Merlin heard the spell as he conjured it, could have stopped it easily but he was frozen in grief. He had let Arthur down, again. Had let him be killed before he even had a chance to know himself, to know who he truly was. Tears fell from the warlock's eyes as he fell to the ground, struck by Mordred's spell. His dying breath was a plea to Avalon to respect their bargain even through his failure. His last thought a promise to his king to find him again, as long as it took, he would reunite them and bring back Camelot.
Merlin grieved anew at the memory of his first failure. It was always harder when Arthur was a child. He wondered if that was why the magic started to draw him to the king later in the unaware royal's life. There were a few times he saw Arthur as a babe, but they became few and far between. It was harder to find the king in his childhood as time went on. Especially in the centuries after his first death when magic still held the land. In those times the cult of Mordred flourished in the devastation of a broken land. Hate and anger fed the cause and Merlin spent too much time fleeing for his life and missing his chance to find the king. It was hard to live like that, constantly on the run. Merlin began creating magical caches all over the land, in forests and caves, protected from discovery and filled with supplies and money, they insured that he would not need to waste time looking for provisions or employment when his days were meant to be spent looking for his king. It was harder still to discover he had just missed the king's death, but the worst was when he was forced to witness it, helpless to intervene once again.
These times were more difficult for Merlin than ever. The church was on a bloody rampage against heretics, fueled by an even bloodier queen. Her hate for those who opposed the church was on par with Uther's hatred of magic, and just as unreasonable as her father had been the one to open the chasm between the churches. It was a time full of unrest and plotting, but it was also a time of heroes. Those people who refuse to see their neighbors burned even though they prayed to the same god. Some neighbors informed on each other yes, but many saved their friends at great risk to themselves and their own families.
Stories like that gave Merlin hope that the king was in this generation somewhere. It was a common thread among his reincarnations. They may have slightly different hair, strangely colored eyes and the men were not all 'fighting fit' as Arthur had called it, but they were all fighters. Not the bloodthirsty kind that lived for the kill, but the kind of fighter who fought for a cause. They were all heroes in their own light, his famous courage always lived in the veins of his newest body. None grew as famous as the king, the time for that had past, but each embodiment of the Bear was deserving of that name and upheld the honor that had made Camelot a legend still sung about in this age.
Merlin's network of spies rivaled that of the monarchy now, not a cult as Mordred's few remaining followers still were, but his network knew of him and of his strange mission. It helped that although Arthur changed form in every incarnation, Merlin remained the same. It was eerie perhaps, constantly seeing himself growing as an identical child into an identical man. Some small changes occurred as was the natural order of things, scars were never the same and his hair changed with the fashion, but anyone who had known the Merlin of old, would easily pick him out in a crowd. This allowed him to maintain his helpers, those at least that could deal with his sudden reappearance years after his death, in a child's body. The spies were getting better, the few who remained with him.
They found Arthur young this time, not yet twenty years of age. Merlin was a tad ahead of him, older than the king by a few years this time. This Arthur had already made a name for himself, shuttling heretics out of the kingdom under the noses of the Queen's men. Before Merlin could get to him, to be at his side as his protector once again the man was caught. Betrayed by one of his own to those whose job it was to sniff out heretics his sentence was swift and deadly. The warlock raced to the village his spies had gotten the name of, wearing out three horses in his mad rush to make it in time to save his king.
But he was too late. The pyre had been lit and as he crested the hill, the man who would be king's anguished screams rang out in his ears. Too far away to be seen as anything but an anonymous rider on a horse, the warlock's sobs burst out of him. He had seen up close the death of those Uther burned at the stake and he knew the pain would be unbearable. Desperate to do anything to ease the suffering of his king he stretched out a hand and uttered a phrase that would stop his friend's heart. The moment the man's eyes closed a final time, Merlin turned his horse around and rode into the forest. He screamed his rage at the inhabitants of Avalon, disbelieving that they would allow him to get so close when the only way to help his king was to quicken his death in such a way. He yelled until his voice grew hoarse and the tears stopped flowing. Anger at his failure ripped at his gut as he lay in the forest waiting for some reason to get up again, something to show him that there was hope.
That had been a dark time, even for him. His grief had paralyzed him and it was many generations before he even tried to look for the king again. He could not bear to continue the search when all that waited at the end was more regret and pain. It took ages before Merlin was willing to enter the world again. It took time to rebuild the network he had created before, and even longer to learn to navigate the new world that seemed to have jumped ahead in the time he was away. He knew that he needed something to convince himself this world was worth saving, and his work as a nurse in a military hospital gave him some small hope. Yes, it was terrible to see the young men in such terrible conditions, but he also got to hear the stories of matchless bravery that they carried with him. Those stories reminded him of the knights of old and kept him holding on to what had become a very tenuous grip on reality.
He was a surgeon in the hospital, and a damn good one at that. The position was his way of honoring Gaius, though the old man would probably laugh at the thought that the clumsy boy had grown into a sure-handed surgeon. He was good at it and he was a good teacher. Countless lifetimes later, Merlin was still that castle servant at heart and his high standing at the hospital was a bit of a wonder to him. He was glad for it, it was a good job and it allowed him to keep an eye on the armed forces. He had not felt the twinge of Arthur in a while and that surprised him. Times of war more than anything else seemed to herald another incarnation of the king. He refused to believe he had run out of chances, he had to believe Arthur was still out there somewhere or he would fall back into the deep depression that had haunted him for centuries.
Months into a war that some feared would never end he had the opportunity to go to a field hospital closer to the front lines. He felt a strange pull in the pit of his stomach when the head of the hospital asked him and Merlin took that as a sign this was one step closer to this life's Arthur. He accepted and was thrown into one of the bloodiest times in his memory, which with the lives he had lived was truly saying something. Patients came to him in shreds, ripped apart by enemy fire until they were barely recognizable as men. He waded through blood day in and day out, still feeling the tug in his gut that said this was where he needed to be. Growing numb to the pain around him Merlin fought to feel something, raging against the war that was claiming so many young lives even as he sewed them up and sent them back to the front.
As painful as the carnage was, he was a witness to the courage and bravery of the men around him. Stories of comrades running through heavy fire to pull back friends into trenches, or tales of rescues that breached enemy lines were everywhere. Merlin kept a keen ear on the storytellers, waiting for the mention of the blue eyed, blond haired hero he was searching for. It came one day, from a man lying on his table. They were running low on anesthesia and had taken to only knocking out the most severely wounded. The others, unfortunately, had only local numbing agents and sheets to block out the fact someone was cutting on their flesh. Merlin found that talking to them while he worked was in no way a distraction for him and kept their minds off what he was doing.
Adam was the young man on his table's name. A nasty gash that almost completely separated the man's calf muscle caused by flying shrapnel in one leg and a bullet hole in the opposite thigh had rendered him unable to walk. As the surgeon sewed him up the young man told of how when his injuries hobbled him he was still fifty feet from the trench, a distance equivalent to a thousand miles for the crippled soldier. As Adam described his commanding officer's daring rescue of his wounded man, Merlin's heart clenched and then leapt for joy. His captain's name was Arthur, not always the case in his reincarnations, blond hair, blue eyes and stubborn as a mule. The warlock tried not to chuckle at the description of his stubbornness, as the fire burned bright in the back of his mind, awoken at the man's description to confirm what Merlin already knew, Arthur was here and at last close and alive. The surgeon had to stop himself from rushing, the man who told him that the captain was here in the hospital deserved his best care.
After he finished stitching the young soldier up, he informed the nurse he needed to see someone and was taking a break. Rushing to the stairs Merlin could barely contain the glee that was threatening to burst forth rather inappropriately. On the landing ten steps away from the level he knew Arthur was on, Merlin's heart dropped out of him. The fire had ceased to burn as quickly as it had flared to life barely a half hour before. Disbelieving that he had once more gotten so close only to lose his king again he burst into the operating room.
But he was too late. His eyes immediately were drawn to the second bed in, a mop of blond haired stained a rusty red showed at the top of a freshly covered corpse. Ignoring the stares he stalked to the gurney and tentatively, fearfully drew the sheet back. Tears blurred his vision as he saw the face of his friend and lord staring back up at him. The visage was as close to the original as he had ever seen it and that tore at Merlin's heart. Mumbling some nonsense about how the man was an old school chum, the surgeon raced outside to vomit in some bushes. Was his friend's near identical appearance to the dead king a sign that this was supposed to be the time they found each other? If Arthur had been on his table would he have survived? Too tired to rage at the immortals of Avalon he turned his anger inward. He was becoming too lazy in his quest, jobs and lives getting in the way of what used to be an all-consuming quest for his king. That line of thought was quickly abandoned as a nurse he often worked with hesitantly peeked her head out the outer door. He was known to be unshakeable and he could not imagine how his reaction had gone over with his colleagues. Her hopeful face and gentle words reminding him he was needed, made him guilty for his previous thoughts of abandoning this life. Yes, Arthur trumped everything, but just as much as Merlin wanted to find Arthur still worthy of his crown, he himself needed to stay true to who he was and so he could never turn his back on the world for as long as he was needed. Assuring the nurse he would be right in, he turned back to look at the stars one more time. Renewing his vow to find his king and restore Camelot he headed back inside to continue the fight in this life, even as his hope at ever being able to accomplish his task waned.
It was not always a close call. Merlin was not sure which was worse, being seconds away as Arthur lost his grip on life, or knowing that he failed to even find the king this time around. He never wished to see the last seconds of his friend's life, often Arthur's death was violent, a reminder of his first death by Mordred's hand. However, even when he was too late to save the king, he could often ease his passing and knowing he helped even a little bit, gave him comfort in his grief. Sometimes though, he only knew of Arthur's death after it had happened, and the unknown details of the moments surrounding the king's death haunted his nightmares as much as the face of the dead monarch that was seemingly imprinted on the back of eyelids.
It was a quiet day when Merlin found out. A businessman in this lifetime, he had his calm days, in between the blitzkrieg attacks on London, life went on as much as possible. It was a true testament to the stoic nature of the British people that they carried on, stepping over the rubble from the destruction of last bombs on their way to work. It was all they could do really, in the face of uncertainty, routine offered comfort that was hard to find.
He was breakfasting in his nook, he loved having a nook, when he had the sudden urge for a walk. He fought it, knowing this was not a walk to find a healthy Arthur. The pit in his stomach grew, he had hoped so much that this Arthur still lived, the embers in the back of his mind emitting no flames but not extinguished either. It was too much to hope for, that this Arthur was escaped the war. He was not sure he would even want to find an Arthur that would sit out when his country needed him. Sure his king was enlisted somewhere, he always scanned this list of wounded posted around the city, hoping he would spot a name on this list rather than the much longer casualty list. This time, as his feet pointed themselves to the closest lists, he knew which one the name he sought would be on.
Dragging his feet he finally stood before the list, his eyes closed in a childish attempt to delay the inevitable. Opening his eyes on a sigh, he scanned the list until a name popped out at him. He had been a member of the Royal Air Force, an officer unsurprisingly, decorated as well. Merlin was shocked at how numb he was to the name, reading it over and over, it's similarity to the original's mocking him. Arthur P. Drackon. He wondered idly what the P. stood for before shaking his head. Killed in combat, they couldn't afford many details, the lists were long enough as it was. The man's hand shook as he tried to block out images of burning planes and their pilots trapped within and unable to escape the flames. He could not bear to think that had been Arthur's final moments, having saved him from the flames once before, he did not wish that fate on anyone.
The numbness stayed with Merlin all day, his eyes glassy with unshed grief. People skirted around him on the streets, as if unwillingly to get too close to the despondent man. Even the sirens that warned of an air raid could not shake the frozen man. He wandered, evading the guards out to get everyone under cover. The bombs started and all Merlin did was look to the sky, the planes were eerily reminiscent of the Great Dragon's attack on Camelot and it was that memory finally tore a sob from his lips. Collapsing to his knees, the warlock grieved the thousand losses that single name represented. Hearing the whine of a bomb Merlin could not even be bothered to raise his head and so another life ended, his dying breath a plea for clemency from Avalon, a plea for hope in the next life, hope that would be a balm on his withered and weary soul.
His magic had faded, as Avalon had warned. It was not completely gone, but more like a lit candle than the raging forest fire it had once been. What stayed the same was the burning embers in the back of his mind that flared whenever Arthur's newest form was close. This was what kept Merlin warm and shielded him from the dark memories that seemed innumerable to the weary warlock. It had been so long, he had lost so much and the cold, lonely rest Avalon promised had grown more desirable. Whenever the thought of the sweet sleep of oblivion grew too tempting Merlin reminded himself of all that Arthur had done for him. His king and his friend had sacrificed his life, a royal life for his servant's far too often for Merlin to give up now. He comforted himself that Arthur would do the same for him, would brave generations and enemies unimaginable to the original duo to be reunited with the other man, two sides of the same coin, forever. The worst lives then, were the ones, not where Arthur died painfully or violently, but the ones where Arthur truly lived, happily ignorant of the pain his friend endured.
Merlin was middle-aged, a rare enough phenomenon for him. Rarely purposefully, his life often ended once Arthur's did, and they both had not made it past thirty in a long time. This life had been a quiet one, Merlin was a curator at a museum, having decided to try college once again and glad that his hacking skills made it easier and easier to erase information from previous incarnations. He rarely went by Merlin nowadays, the legend of Camelot still existed in a bastardized form, though he stopped trying to correct people when he ended up in a loony bin after pointing out several fallacies from first-hand memory. He was Mark now, but he looked exactly like he had during all of his lifetimes and photos were becoming annoyingly prevalent. He avoided them whenever possible but bureaucratic nuisances were something he simply had to accept to live in modern society. So he learned computers and how to use them to make sure no one ever connected the dots, different identities were common even among upstanding citizens but he had a close call when an old photo of himself from WWII surfaced. Aliases he could explain away, but looking identical to someone from thirty years ago was hard to get around.
It was while he was gathering the location of the photograph to destroy it that he came across Arthur's newest incarnation. He was exactly as Merlin had imagined the king might look if he had survived Mordred's terror. His features still strong in middle age, a kinder version of Uther with the same blue eyes and the Pendragon genetics strongly visible thousands of generations later. Merlin drank in the likeness of his king, wanting to memorize his face all over again, his friend was alive and well and this time they could be reunited. The Bear would awaken and Camelot would be restored to it's former glory. Catching himself before he got too carried away Merlin read the article the picture was from and frowned unconsciously.
The man was definitely Arthur, a business man and philanthropist, friend to all. His many good deeds were celebrated in the article which discussed a large donation to the museum's medieval exhibit. It was very Arthur, Merlin knew, and not what caused his frown. The last paragraph was the culprit, delving into the man's personal life.
It said he was happily married and the father of three. A smaller picture inset into the text showing him smiling with an arm around a woman very similar in features to the Gwen of old; Merlin never had asked the people of Avalon if their gift of rebirth extended to others, his mind had been so focused on the king. Rereading the paragraph his frown deepened. Arthur's children ranged from 15-7 and apparently adored him. They too were pictured, smaller, perfect hybrids of his wife's obvious grace and his chiseled features. The reporter had loved the family, the glowing words in the end of the article making that apparent.
Merlin was almost gasping as he reread the paragraph for a third time. It felt as if a metal band had constricted his lungs and was preventing him from drawing breath. It should not hurt this badly, his friend being happy, but oh how the obvious joy on his king's face cut at his heart. He would never regret Arthur's happiness, it had allowed him to bypass the early death so prevalent among his incarnations but Merlin felt abandoned. He knew it was silly, Arthur had no idea who he was, could not know of his friend's endless quest to reunite the two, but that did not mean it did not hurt to know that what he had worked so hard for was not needed now.
The man scanned the article again, desperate to find the detail he had glanced over before. There it was, an announcement of a picnic open to the public to unveil another of the man's charitable works, a play area for children at a local park. It was happening even as Merlin was stuck at his computer in his lonely flat. Ripping off a scrap of paper the dark haired man frantically scribbled the address, his hand shaking so badly he had to scratch out a few words and rewrite them legibly this time. A quick detour to his closet to grab a coat and Merlin was out the door.
He heard the picnic before he saw it, laughter and children's happy screams as they raced around the new equipment hit his ears just as the smell of the food made his mouth water. He tried to relax his face into anything other than a frown as he came up to the picnic, trying to look as though he belonged, if only they knew how much he really did belong at Arthur's side. He fingered the two headed coin in his pocket that he had picked up as an inside joke with himself, yes he is pathetic, at a curio shop a few years back. His memories were not as sharp as they used to be, although much sharper than they had the right to be after so many lifetimes but he still vividly recalls the two forces in his life who had both mentioned him and Arthur as two sides of a coin.
Shaking his head to clear away the bittersweet memory of his mother, he scanned the crowd, zeroing in when he saw photographers. Skirting the edges of the crowd he came to rest beside a large tree that he patted fondly as it reminded him of the forests of old. He was so easily distracted today and he knew it was because he was in denial about the choice he was going to have to make.
A laugh rang out over the sounds of children playing and Merlin's head whipped towards the sound. A true laugh from Arthur had been a gift indeed, even during the golden days of Camelot, he too often bridled himself from such pleasures, believing foolishly that it was not proper conduct for a king to guffaw at a friend's joke. Tears sprang into Merlin's eyes to see his friend so happy and alive in the rare light of a sunny day.
A chill down the warlock's spine alerted him to the arrival of the decision point. He could go forward, it was obvious from the other strangers who wandered the man's way that this Arthur welcomed chit chat from those he did not know, or he could stay away. He knew what choice he wanted to make, he wanted to end his quest now, the goal within reach for the first time in so long. They could reunite, Arthur would awaken to his true self and Camelot would return in all her glory. His wife might even be the embodiment of Gwen, Merlin could not resist the temptation of imagining the reunion with his fellow servant.
But he was too late. Merlin was not the idiot the prince, and later king had always claimed him to be, though the later times were clearly in jest both men knew how valuable the warlock advisor had become to the ruler of Camelot. He knew that if this Arthur awoke his life would shatter, especially if the wife's similarity to Gwen was coincidental there was no way she would understand, or likely believe the man's destiny. If Arthur claimed his heritage now, he would most probably lose his wife and children, people would call him mad understandably enough but no less daunting to a spouse and children who's husband and father suddenly called himself a king of old. The only other option was to walk away, Merlin would have to move as well, knowing Arthur was so close and yet so completely out of reach would tear him apart. As he reached his decision and moved to leave he must have caught the man's eye. Fearful that any interaction would awaken the man he had just decided to let lie, Merlin used his magic for the first time in several lifetimes and thanked the Old Religion that it worked to cloak him from the blond man's sight. Now that he could observe unnoticed, Merlin tortured himself by watching the man who would have been king blink with confusion before turning to catch his child as the little one launched herself at him. The loving family reunited for a few more pictures and their happiness at once cut and soothed the warlock. Unable to watch any longer for fear it would break his resolve the man turned and walked away from his destiny, glad for once that he knew another chance would come in another lifetime and content to let this Arthur live, as so many others had never gotten the chance to.
AN: yeah angsty :( this note is mostly to say that I have no idea if they posted casualty lists during the war in London but it suited my purpose so sorry if that historical inaccuracy deeply offends you. In case it was confusing, the normal font was a Merlin in each of the times in between the sections of this chapter while the italics are his memories of specific incarnations.