Until one by one, they began to slip away from him.

Gwen sat alone at her desk, struggling to focus on the report in front of her. Constantine had told her to rest, that he could take care of it, but being queen was a hard habit to break after 56 years. Besides, her mind was as sharp as it ever was. It was her body, so much more tired these days, that made the words swim before her eyes and the paper shake in her veined hands.

When a knock sounded on her door, she welcomed the distraction gladly. "Come in," she called. Upon seeing her visitors, she greeted them with her signature smile that was the one reminder of the girl she had been. "Merlin! Damien! Come in! How is Leon?"

"We have made him as comfortable as may be, my lady," said Damien, shuffling nervously. Gwen had to stop herself from glaring at the man; he'd replaced Gaius as court physician, and although he had performed his duty well for many years, often with Merlin's assistance, something about Damien had always set Gwen on edge. She thought it was probably the way he always looked so nervous. It was hard not to be annoyed by a man who looked at you like you might hit him at any moment.

"And?" she asked, shaking off her irritation. "How is he?"

Merlin and Damien exchanged glances. "He is... stable, for now, but very weak," the physician said finally, but he didn't meet Gwen's eyes. Gwen frowned and looked at Merlin, knowing he would give her the news straight out.

He did. "Leon's dying, Gwen. He has some time- maybe a week or two, maybe a month, but sometime soon..." Merlin shook his head. "I've sent for his son and daughter-in-law. They should be here, when he actually... goes."

"Is there nothing you can do?" the queen asked, her voice shaking slightly. In her heart, she knew the news wasn't entirely unexpected, and that Merlin would not have told her unless there really was no hope, but she had to ask anyway.

"I'm afraid not, my lady," Damien answered, looking at Gwen out of the corner of his eye as if afraid of her reaction. "He's lived a good, full life, but he's just too old, now. It's his time." He flinched out of nervous reflex, and Gwen felt an un-queen-like urge to give him something to flinch from. Perhaps Merlin did as well, for he flinched too, away from the physician.

"Very well. Thank you, Damien," she said once she could trust her voice not to betray her emotion. Damien bowed and gratefully left the room. Merlin remained, leaning on his staff, his long white beard trembling slightly. There was an odd look in his bright blue eyes; if Gwen didn't know better, she'd say it was fear.

"Merlin? Are you alright?"

He started, and immediately the odd expression disappeared. "I'm fine, I'm just worried about... Leon."

That wasn't what he'd been about to say, or at least not all of it, but Gwen chose to ignore this. When one of your friends was dying, you were entitled to odd emotions. Gwen herself had known this was coming, so she felt no shock or anger, but just a heavy sorrow that seemed to weigh down her already tired bones.

"Will you help me to the bed?" she asked. Like the servant he'd been, Merlin immediately took her arm and helped her out of the desk's seat. It still humiliated her a little that she could not walk well unassisted anymore, but it simply could not be helped. She was old; some things has to change, no matter how much she wanted them not to. Speaking of which...

"Thank you," she said, as Merlin's surprisingly strong arm deposited her on the bed. He nodded and seemed about to leave, but she quickly called out, "Merlin, wait. There's something... something I want to talk to you about."

He gave her a puzzled look but did come back and sat in a chair near the bed. "Yes?"

"You know I haven't been acting queen for several years now," she began hesitantly.

"And..." Merlin said, not entirely liking the turn of this conversation.

"And it's time- past time- to officially turn the kingdom of Camelot over to my successor," she said, trying to keep her composure. Even though she knew the words were true, they seemed to stick in her throat. It was so hard to give up what you'd spent your life working for. "Camelot needs a strong leader, one who can care for them long after I'm gone."

Merlin met her eyes for a long moment, taking in the news. Then he smiled, approving of her decision. "Constantine will be a great king," he agreed.

"Merlin," she said, her dark eyes meeting his blue ones. "I want you to be my successor."

"WHAT?" Merlin squawked, jumping up from his chair in surprise.
"No! Have you lost your mind? I- I'm a sorcerer!"

"The ban on magic has been lifted for over 50 years," Gwen said, glaring at him. "You know there's not a single citizen of Camelot who would hold that against you now."

"But I have no right to the throne!" Merlin said, panicking slightly. She actually seemed serious about this.

"As much right as I had as a lady's maid."

"But that's different! You married Arthur, you're a Pendragon now. I'm just a servant."

"Merlin," Gwen chided. "Even when you were a servant, which you haven't been in years, you know that wasn't true."

Merlin sighed. "Fine, maybe not just a servant, but I'm not a noble, Gwen. I have no right to the throne of Camelot. Constantine-"

She cut him off. "Constantine is a fine man, but he isn't like you, Merlin. You KNOW this kingdom. You know the people, from the lowliest servants to the highest nobles."

"Maybe once, but not anymore," Merlin mumbled.

Gwen continued as if he hadn't spoken. "You know more about running this kingdom than anyone. You were there when Arthur was learning what it meant to be a ruler. You've probably attended more meetings of state than anyone in this castle, first at Arthur's side and then at mine. You've been the most highly trusted adviser for me, for Arthur-"

"As I will be for Constantine," Merlin interrupted firmly. Gwen exhaled exasperatedly, but Merlin held up a hand to keep her from speaking. "Listen to me, Gwen. It was always my destiny to serve and protect Arthur. So I served him-" he swallowed hard, "and I served you both for your own sake and for his. And I would proudly serve Constantine for as long as he and this kingdom have need of me, but I cannot be king, Gwen. It's not who I am meant to be."

"But you could be, Merlin. The people love you," Gwen protested, her words bringing a sudden, unexpected pain to Merlin's eyes.

"They don't," he said, quietly but firmly. "At least... not the real me."

"Of course they do, Merlin, what are you talking about?" Gwen asked, bewildered. Merlin gave her a long, hard look, as if she should know the answer, but she simply stared at him, unable to grasp the message in his eyes.

"You don't get it, do you?" Merlin said, suddenly angry. He stood, took a small vial out of his robes, and quickly downed the contents. Gwen watched from the bed, astonished, as Merlin disappeared in a puff of smoke and was replaced with...

"Merlin?" she croaked, her voice breaking.

There he was, black-haired, smooth-skinned, beardless, and young. His clothes had transformed back into his old brown jacket, blue shirt, and red kerchief. He glared at Gwen with a face she hadn't seen in 35 years. It was like looking back in time, or at a ghost.

"Yeah, it's me, the same one you were talking to not thirty seconds ago," Merlin said bitterly. Even his voice was light and youthful again. "THIS is the real me."

"What... what did you do?" Gwen asked, unable to stop staring.

"All I did was take the aging enchantment off," he replied wearily. "This is how I really am, Gwen. You knew that."

"I- I did, but-" She couldn't finish the sentence. She had known. She'd seen Merlin exactly as he stood before her now every day for over 20 years. He'd told her when he decided to start making himself appear older, after his last, disastrous trip to Ealdor. In the back of her mind, she'd known that Merlin's changing appearance was his own choice.

But somehow, none of that information connected to the living, breathing, 24-year-old Merlin that stood in front of her now.

"You see, Gwen?" Merlin said, his soft voice breaking the brief silence. "I can't be king as long as I'm like this."

It took Gwen a moment to remember what they'd been talking about, and longer to apply this new information to the discussion. Once she'd gotten her thoughts in order, though, she didn't see what Merlin meant. "Why not? Camelot would have a wise, strong king on the throne for a long time to come. It's-"

"No!" Merlin shouted, unable to restrain himself any longer. He began to pace. "Gwen, nothing good would come of my becoming king. If I revealed myself, if I started going around like this again and told the people that I was going to be their immortal king, do you know what would happen?" He paused, but then went on before Gwen could say a word. "It'd be Ealdor all over again. People fear what they don't understand, and I don't want people to fear me, ever." He paused again, a pained expression on his face, obviously still hurt by his own people's rejection of him. Then he continued.

"If we don't say anything, and you name me as your successor as my "old" self, the council will never approve. Technically, I am older than you." He half-smiled, and the irony of that statement coming from his young mouth was not lost on Gwen. "They'll ask how replacing an old queen with someone even older will help Camelot remain strong. That is, of course, assuming they get past the fact that you want to put a peasant with no relation to the Pendragon line on the throne of Camelot. And even if you convince them to agree to that, eventually they are going to notice. They're going to wonder how an 80-year-old man can still be perfectly healthy 30 years later. There'll be questions, and whispers, and rumors that I'm cursed. That my unnaturalness" -he spat the word out- "is a curse on Camelot. They may even start to fear sorcery again, or think that I'm using some sort of dark magic." He caught his breath, and Gwen was astonished to see he had tears in his eyes. "I waited too long for magic to return to Camelot. I won't be the downfall of everything we worked to build."

Gwen stared, stunned by this speech. "I- don't know- what to say," she said brokenly. "You've thought about this before."

Merlin nodded.

"You're not going to stay," she continued, her mind putting the pieces together at last.

"I'll stay as long as I can," Merlin replied. "Certainly long enough to help Constantine settle in as king of Camelot. But I can't stay forever, Gwen." He sat and turned his face away. His next words were not meant for her, but she caught them anyway. "Eventually, there won't be anything to keep me here."

Gwen froze. In that moment, she understood Merlin's brief look of fear from earlier. For him, Leon was the beginning of the end. In time, she and their other friends would pass on, leaving Merlin... alone. Alone, and forced to leave his only home for it's own protection.

He would have to watch as everything he loved slipped away from him.

"Oh, Merlin," she breathed. He looked up, and his eyes looked so old and lost that Gwen had to hold back a gasp. She struggled off of the bed, forcing strength into her weakened body, and took a few laborious steps to wrap her arms around the young warlock. He stiffened, then relaxed, taking comfort from the embrace. They stood there as long as they could, but eventually Gwen's body couldn't take it anymore and she had to sit.

"Thank you," Merlin said quietly, as he helped her back to the bed. There was so much more he wanted to say, but he simply didn't have the words. Instead, he straightened and, with a distinct change in tone, said, "Shall I go tell Constantine the good news, then?"

Gwen felt a brief urge to protest, but it died when she met his determined face. He was right. He always was. "I suppose so."

He nodded, a pleased look in his eye, and reached into his jacket to pull out another vial. Instead of drinking it straight away, though, he looked at the potion, smiling ironically. "You know, when I first used this, I was so mad that I would look like some old hermit by the time I was 80. I never guessed that when I was actually 80 I'd look like this." He glanced down once more at his young body, then tipped the potion into his mouth. Instantly, Gwen was staring at the old, bearded man she was accustomed to seeing these past few years.

"I will never get used to that," she remarked, shaking her gray head.

Merlin gave a snort of laughter. "Believe me," he said, his voice low and gravelly again. "It's not any easier from this end."

Leon died just a week after Constantine officially took the throne. Percival followed a few years later. Gwaine managed to last a good while longer, saying that all that ale kept him young, but in time he, too, succumbed to old age.

Merlin stayed all that time, hiding the fear that grew every time one of his friends passed on, leaving him behind. As he had promised Gwen, he faithfully aided and counseled Constantine through the first few years of his reign, until it became clear that he was a wise and fair ruler, worthy to fill Gwen's place. Merlin was glad to be leaving the kingdom in such capable hands, and began spending more and more time at Gwen's bedside. Often she asked to have him sit with her with his true appearance- she told him that when she saw his younger form, it was easier to picture Arthur there, with them.

He was with her when she died.

Her death marked the end of an era, for both Camelot and Merlin. He mourned with the rest of the kingdom, and stayed to attend what would be known as the biggest funeral in Camelot's history. Once the ceremonies were over, however, Merlin quietly returned to his room and collected his pack and a small blue vial.

Nobody noticed when a raven-haired boy left the castle that night, prepared to wait the endless years alone until the day his king would return to reign once more.