Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Written mostly in chemistry class. *sheepish grin*

I have a love/hate relationship with this show. On the one hand, it's brilliant. On the other, some of the characterizations drive me crazy. And what the heck is that Dragon there for anyway?

Anyway, not a new concept for the fandom, this story. But hopefully a new perspective.

A promise, given freely and gladly from one friend to another:

I will always find you.

An acceptance, puzzled, because certainty does not require such a promise, as if to say:

But of course: I know that.

A gesture, offered without expectation of reciprocation or acknowledgement:

No matter what, no matter when, I will always be by your side.

A question, truly not conceiving that it could possibly be any other way:

Well, yes –where else would you be?

And thus Arthur, the Once and Future King of Britain, passes from this world. Shortly thereafter, the old mage, Merlin, called Emrys, disappears.

For once, Merlin finds Arthur almost immediately. They are born in the same year (1996, if it matters), in the same little town in England, and they are placed into the same class in primary school.

Merlin remembers nothing until that first day of school, on the playground, when he turns around and looks right at Arthur –only to collapse in a faint the next second as he is bombarded with memories. He comes to the next minute to Arthur standing over him, yelling unhelpfully into his face while various children stare at him in shock.

"And if you don't wake up, you great idiot, I'll… I'll… I'll hit you with my shoe!"

Merlin blinks, staring up into frightened, blustering, familiar blue eyes and thinks, happily, Some things never change, before saying, "Oh. There you are. I've been looking everywhere for you." Then, "Shut up, you utter prat. I'm fine."

Once Merlin has appropriately groveled for both calling Arthur a prat and scaring the daylights out of the other boy, the bond is formed and their wonderful, beautiful, twisted, madcap, insane friendship begins all over again. It is, Merlin thinks in satisfaction, a Good Thing.

Uther Pendragon, Merlin discovers, is exactly the same, no matter which life he is living. The look Arthur's father gives Merlin when Arthur brings him home instantly sends Merlin back to Camelot, and he catches himself glancing around almost nostalgically for the stocks.

But Uther behaves, and he doesn't forbid Arthur from being friends with Merlin and he doesn't tell Merlin that he's a stupid idiot and (and this is Merlin's favorite part) he doesn't say. One. Single. Word. About magic.

Merlin goes home to his own father (praise be whatever power managed to arrange for Gaius to be in such a position!) and thinks to himself that, all things considered, he rather likes this new life.

They go to boarding school together, and there Merlin is reunited with Gawaine and Leon and everyone else. At first, Merlin worries that Arthur will no longer need him, that he will take his knights and have his adventures without his faithful mage. He withdraws some, trying not to intrude, slipping into his role of invisible servant so easily it almost frightens him. This lasts until Arthur comes stomping into their shared room in a fit one night, demanding to know who Merlin is and what has he done with Arthur's best friend?

Merlin is so flabbergasted (touched, shocked, gleeful) at being referred to his way, he can't even answer for a moment, giving Arthur time to draw breath and begin his rant anew.

"I don't know why you're acting like this –all quiet and, and… subservient, but I don't like it! This isn't how my Merlin acts. It's like you think you're going to do something wrong and I'll stop liking you the instant you make too much noise!" He stops suddenly, eyeing Merlin with a gaze that is inexplicably far too knowing, because since when does Arthur read Merlin's mind? "Is it because of the others?" When Merlin starts, he presses his advantage. "It is isn't it? You honestly think I'll stop being your friend just because we've made new ones? Like I was only your friend in the first place because I didn't have any others?" He says it incredulously, as though such a thought had never crossed his mind and Merlin ducks his head to hide his shyly pleased smile as much as to hide his embarrassment.

He'll never, ever tell Arthur, but the utter certainty he hears in the other boy's voice when Arthur says, "Not only would I hate to have to do without you, but I absolutely refuse to try," warms him down to his toes.

They turn sixteen, and Arthur has dates and girlfriends and Merlin is in a constant state of panic because his mind is on a continuous loop of trollavalonevilwickedfairygi rltrollenchantmentbewitchmen tTROLL! He drives Arthur crazy with his hovering, but he can't help it because he knows this story, he knows how it ends, and none of these girls are for Arthur. It's frustrating and irritating and impossible and when Merlin runs into Gwen in the library the night after they return from Christmas holidays, he sucks in a breath like he hasn't all year and asks, rather huffily, "What took you so long?"

She doesn't understand, but that's alright, because he introduces her to Arthur the next day and the instant their eyes meet Merlin can breathe again.

Uther isn't insane, Lancelot doesn't run away and get himself captured by a psychopath, Gawaine's vices are –more or less– on the up and up, and everything is flowing along quite well. Merlin even meets and exchanges a few words with Freya without a backdrop of blood and terror, which is, in his opinion, quite a nice change.

Morgana isn't even evil, which, Merlin decides, is definitely a plus.

No one is dying, no one is crazy, no one is being locked in stocks or sent to the dungeon every other day.

Everything, Merlin thinks happily, is perfect.

This, of course, is the point at which the Dragon shows up.

"There is," Merlin begins, very calmly he thinks, when what he really wants to do is shriek and flail his arms hysterically, "a considerable difference between a cave in the depths of a humongous castle and the basement of a boarding school." He looks up at the Dragon, blinking peevishly. "You do know that, right?"

Kilgharrah merely crosses his legs, a complacent look on his face. "It is convenient," he says.

Merlin throws up his hands. "For you maybe! What if someone comes along and wants to know why there's a hulking great dragon in the basement?"

Kilgharrah grins at him. "Well, you'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen. Won't you, Dragon Lord?"

Merlin glares at him before stomping off angrily, dragon-laughter echoing behind him.

Morgana's untapped powers worry him, just a little. Every once in a while, he'll catch her eye and see an amber flash, but when he looks again, it's never there.

Sometimes he wonders why only he remembers who they all used to be, but then he recalls poison and plots and a kind, gentle face suddenly filled with hatred and he thinks that maybe things are better this way.

When a brand new student is introduced at the school and Merlin takes an instant dislike to him, Arthur finds it slightly amusing. Friendly, cheerful, lovable Merlin has finally met someone he doesn't like? What's even better is that the poor kid hadn't done anything at all to deserve Merlin's animosity. In fact, if anything, he seems to be a little bit in awe of Merlin. It's odd, but, because Arthur is Arthur and this is Merlin, he shrugs and allows his friend to steer him in the opposite direction from the new boy. If Merlin doesn't like him, there's probably a good reason anyway.

It's not like Arthur cares anything for Mordred anyway.

The Great Dragon's head swings around in surprise as a frantic young mage comes flying into his basement lair. He is momentarily startled at how young Merlin is now, though, of course, he already knew.

Merlin gasps out an anguished "Morgause!" before collapsing to the ground, breathless with from running and fear.

Kilgharrah relaxes slightly. Morgause, they can deal with. Carefully shifting, rearranging his wings, he turns to face Merlin, putting what he hopes is a comforting look on his face.

"There. There," he says, a bit uncertainly. Merlin raises his head to peer at the Dragon in confusion.

"What?" he says.

Even more uncertain, the Dragon tries again. "Everything will be fine," he says, trying to sound firmly reassuring but not really succeeding.

Merlin's face scrunches up in a familiar fashion and Kilgharrah feels a moment of wistfulness for the old days.

"Are you," Merlin says, "trying to comfort me?"

"Am I doing it right?" the Dragon asks, somewhat anxiously, though he'd eat anyone who dared say so.

"No," Merlin says, looking slightly unnerved. "No, not at all, actually. Just, no. Don't. Really. You shouldn't."

"Oh. Alright," says the Dragon, somewhat relieved. Shaking himself, he says briskly, "Right then. Morgause. What's the problem?"

Merlin gapes at him. "What's the… she's here!"

"Yes," the Dragon says patiently, "I believe we've established that. But you have to remember, Merlin, that she doesn't recall anything from before. She is not evil."

"This time," Merlin mutters mutinously. The Dragon acknowledges this with a nod and continues.

"What is it, exactly, that Morgause has done to upset you so? This time."

Merlin squirms. "She… she just…" he gestures helplessly. "I don't know," he says finally, sighing. "I just… I just want to keep Arthur safe."

The Dragon sighs too, because, really, after all these years, he should expect this answer.

I hate giving pep talks, he grumbles to himself.

"Come on," Arthur says, giving Merlin his best puppy-dog look. "It'll be fun!"

"It will not be fun," Merlin retorts scathingly, resolutely not looking at Arthur. "It will be dangerous and terrifying and we'll probably get expelled and then your father will be angry and he'll blame me and throw me in the dungeon."

Arthur, opening his mouth to argue, stops short at that last line. "Huh? What dungeon?"

Merlin freezes, cursing in his head. "I mean…" Redirect, redirect. Distract, Merlin! "Look, aren't you at all worried about getting caught?"

As he had hoped, Arthur instantly leaps to the defense of his plan, spouting off in that earnest, enthusiastic style that had alternately inspired and cajoled an entire nation to follow a half-grown boy.

Merlin can't help but succumb to it, even as he breathes a sigh of relief for Arthur's ADD (he loves this century: finally, he has a name for Arthur's rabbit-like attention span). Sometimes, he feels awkward in this body; an adult mind amongst children, here in this boarding school of teenagers. But then, at a time like this, in something as simple as a bit of exploration into a forbidden area, Arthur will look at him, and it's all Merlin can do not to drop to his knees because this is his king speaking (invoking, coaxing, commanding) and it's Merlin Arthur wants at his side.

And, when he thinks of it that way, how could he ever want to be anywhere else?

(They don't actually get caught, this time, though Merlin does not have high hopes for the next.)

Graduation, and Merlin is barely paying attention, because, after all, when you've lived as many lives as he has, graduating secondary school is hardly a big deal. Nothing at all compared to, say, saving a kingdom a time or six.

The ceremony seems to be taking a long time, though, and Merlin impatiently shifts his shoulders back and forth to relieve the stiffness that's beginning to take hold. Next to him, Arthur elbows him sharply in the ribs and Merlin snaps his attention back to the Headmaster saying, "I now present this year's graduating class!" And then they were all standing and everyone was clapping and cheering, and they had to shuffle off the stage and into the crowd and be hugged and kissed and squealed over by various family members and so it was quite a while before Merlin and Arthur had a moment alone.

Arthur grins at Merlin, that irrepressible flash of white teeth that had never failed to warm even the coldest of visiting emissaries to Camelot.

"We made it, Merlin," he laughs, catching his slighter friend in a hug that lifts his feet from the ground. "We're finally free!"

Shoving lightly at the broad shoulders, Merlin mock-groans. "Put me down, you clot!" When his feet are once more on solid flooring, he grins up at Arthur with his own disarming smile and says, "Yeah. We did, didn't we?"

For a moment, he allows himself to be swept away by nostalgia, remembering every moment of this life and all the ones that came before it.

Arthur is still talking. "…And then we'll go into business together after uni. Not sure what we'll do yet, but it'll be great, you know it will be. And then I'll marry Gwen, and you and me will spend the rest of our lives –"

"Wait," Merlin interrupts, a bit bewildered. "We will?"

Not that he is objecting to the idea of spending their futures side by side –it was, after all, his intention in the first place– but he'd been expecting to have to convince Arthur about it. In all their past lives, Merlin had been the one to insist on staying close –though, come to think of it, Arthur had never protested. But never before has Arthur been the one to suggest such a thing to Merlin. It's unprecedented in their long, long relationship.

Arthur's face is equally bewildered as he says, "But of course."

Merlin's eyes narrow suspiciously. "You want me by your side? No matter what?"

Now Arthur looks a curious mixture of amused and smug. "Well, yeah –where else would you be?"

Merlin stares at his king for a moment and watches as those familiar blue eyes begin to twinkle at him in a way they haven't for centuries.

"Prat!" he exclaims, in what is most definitely not a shriek. Arthur laughs, loud and fully, smirking at him.

"Honestly, MER-lin," he sneers, and Merlin has never been so grateful (surprised, relieved, overjoyed) to hear his name pronounced in that way.

"You complete git," he says next, glaring at his best friend and king. "You knew? All this time, you remembered?!"

Arthur shrugs. "Well, not all this time. I started remembering sometime around when Morgause showed up at the school. Now that I think of it, I usually don't remember anything until around this age."

"Usually? So you always remember?"

"Yeah," says Arthur, smug.

Merlin scowls. "Why didn't you ever say anything? You left me to muddle through it on my own, thinking that no one else remembered our past!"

Arthur shrugs. "You always seemed to have things under control."

Dumbfounded, Merlin scowls at him wordlessly. Arthur barks another laugh.

"Oh, Merlin, come on! You aren't really angry, are you?"

He wants to be angry, wants to rant about years and years of diligence and pain and exhaustion. He wants to scold Arthur like he's done so many times before, when they were both older –older, but no less reckless. He wants to.

But he's looking at Arthur and Arthur's looking at him like that, and suddenly, it doesn't even matter that he's been keeping this from Merlin for so long and that Merlin's been thinking all this time that he had to muddle through it all on his own. It doesn't matter that Arthur is a prat and Merlin is an idiot and the Great Dragon is a complete and utter dastard. It doesn't matter, because history repeats itself (something Merlin knows better than anybody), and he distinctly remembers keeping a rather major secret or two himself in their first lifetime.

What do you know? Karma is an ungrateful witch.

Shaking his head, Merlin smiles ruefully at Arthur's anxious face and reassures his friend. "No, I'm not angry. I don't even know if I can be angry with you, right now."

And as Arthur's face lights up with joy, and he slings his arm over Merlin's shoulders and begins chattering away once more about their life and the new adventures they're going to have together ("And, Merlin, it's fantastic, isn't it, what they have in this century? I mean, there are machines that fly! What fun we can have here!), Merlin can't help but think that this is, indeed, a Good Thing.

Thus Arthur, called Pendragon, began the first of many new adventures, side by side with his best friend, the mage Merlin, sometimes called Emrys.

And the Great Dragon said, "Godspeed, my lords."

A/N: My first Merlin fic. I hope it wasn't too terrible.