Until six years later, when Gaius died.

"Merlin?"

Gwen cautiously opened the door to Gaius's workroom. It hadn't been used in years- Gaius had eventually become too feeble for the narrow, twisting staircase- but the place was still a mess. Books lay scattered on every possible surface, forgotten potions and plant clippings were strewn about the floor... and the door on the far wall was slightly ajar. Gwen smiled sadly and walked over to it. "Merlin, are you in there?"

No reply answered her call, but she gently pushed the door open anyway. Merlin sat there, dressed in his usual tattered brown jacket and red bandana, crying bitterly into his hands. Gwen felt an unexpected sense of déjà vu; seeing Merlin, in his old clothes, in his old room, was like looking back 11 years ago. Nothing had changed- not the room, not the jacket, not even Merlin. But that wasn't important at the moment. Right now, her friend was in pain.

Gwen didn't say anything for awhile, simply sat on the bed next to him and rubbed his back with one hand. He didn't seem surprised that she was there, but it could be that he wasn't really aware of his surroundings. Gwen wasn't sure how long they had sat there when she realized Merlin wasn't crying anymore. She reached into her purse, pulled out a pocket handkerchief, and held it in front of Merlin's face. He took it, wiped off his face, and blew his nose before handing it back to her. "Thanks," he said shakily.

"Not at all," she said. She put a hand on his shoulder. "That was a very nice speech you made at the funeral."

Merlin sniffed. "I had to say something. He was like a father to me, Gwen. He-" but Merlin couldn't continue.

"I know, Merlin," Gwen said. "And you were the best son Gaius could have wished for." Merlin looked up, startled, into Gwen's kind, sad eyes, and he was reminded that she, too, had lost her father.

"Does it ever stop?" The words were out before Merlin even knew he was going to speak. Gwen looked at him.

"Hurting? Not really," Gwen said. She gazed at an area off to Merlin's right, speaking to herself as much as to him. "At first it feels like the world is ending... and even after some time, when most memories bring more pleasure than pain, it still creeps up on you every once in a while..." She trailed off, but Merlin's voice brought her back to reality with a start.

"No, I mean... does it ever stop? All the sickness, and pain, and dying..." He nearly spat the word out, but even so it left a bad taste in his mouth. "So many, just... gone..." He slumped and looked down, not even sure himself what he was trying to say.

"I know it's hard," Gwen said, tears in her own eyes. She of all people didn't need to be reminded how many friends they'd lost, how many faces they would never see again. "But we do all die eventually, Merlin. And Gaius had it as good as anyone could hope for. He lived a good, long life, and he had you to take care of him."

"And I failed," Merlin said, adding silently, 'just like I failed Arthur.'

"Merlin, look at me." Gwen's voice was low and fierce. "You did not fail. You cared for Gaius as well as-better than- anyone possibly could. It was just his time, don't you see? He was old. We've all gotten older, it's just...part of life."

"For some people," Merlin mumbled. He finally looked up to meet Gwen's eyes. "Gwen, I need to ask you something, and I want you to answer me honestly, all right?"

"Okay..." Gwen said slowly, puzzled.

"Do you think there's something... wrong... with me?"

"Merlin!" Gwen said, shocked. "What do you mean, wrong with you? You are one of the bravest, kindest, most talented people I've ever met."

"No, I mean, er, thanks, but..." He swallowed. "How old do I look to you?"

"Well, umm..." Gwen said, caught off guard. "Actually, umm, you look great, you look..."

"How old?"

"Maybe... Early 20s? 23, 24, I'd guess." She studied him even closer, searching for signs of age, and becoming more and more intrigued when she failed to find any. "You really haven't changed much, have you? Not since-" but she cut herself off, realizing too late where that sentence was going.

"No. I'm starting to think... At the funeral this morning, I was trying to think of how it would be when it was my turn-"

"Oh Merlin, don't talk that way!" Gwen exclaimed, but Merlin just shook his head.

"Come on, Gwen, you said it yourself; we all die eventually. But I just... couldn't do it."

"Pardon?"

"I couldn't do it. I can't picture myself dying, Gwen. I used to be able to; there were several times when I was about to sacrifice myself for Arthur, but now... it's like a foreign concept. And all of you have changed but I still look like this..."

"I think you're reading too much into this, Merlin," Gwen said, looking slightly alarmed. "I don't think any of us can really picture our own deaths-I'd be more concerned if you could. As for the other thing... you're a sorcerer, maybe you just don't show your age like most people."

"Gaius had magic," Merlin muttered, obviously not convinced. Gwen sighed.

"I don't know, Merlin, but I don't think it's something you need to worry about, alright? Unless you're telling me you're some sort of all-powerful immortal or something-" she laughed, but the sound died in her throat when Merlin looked down without a trace of a smile.

"I don't know what I am," he mumbled. "I never have."

Gwen didn't quite know what to say to that, but it was obvious that Merlin couldn't be left alone in this state. "Come on, have you eaten yet today?" Half-pulling him up, teasing and cajoling, she managed to get him out of the room and into the presence of their friends among the knights. Eventually their companionship pulled Merlin out of his depression and he didn't mention his oddity to Gwen again, but that didn't mean he didn't think about it himself.

As years went by, he tried to convince himself that Gwen was right, that his lack of aging was nothing to worry about. That it was unusual but not unnatural. He pretended not to see the looks he got from the castle's residents- it was easier than one might expect, since his close friends never mentioned it or treated him any differently than they ever had. For 12 years, he ignored the whispers.

Until the day he returned to Ealdor for his mother's funeral.