Title: The River Styx
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, random OC sorcerer
Summary: Despite Merlin’s screams, Arthur makes the payment.
Warnings: angst, reincarnation, slash, kissing, dubious deals
Word Count: 977
Author’s Notes: thanks to everyone who set up this third prompt, it was fun to write!
The sorcerer stands in front of Arthur, offering the cup.
In the distance, he can hear Merlin’s voice, shouting spells at the men who block the entrance into the abandoned castle ruins. They lived here once, in their first life, as manservant and prince, court magician and king. Now they coexist side by side as immortal being and mortal soul.
For a moment, Arthur considers rejecting the deal, walking away and back to Merlin where they can sleep together in the same bed. That’s the wonderful thing about this century; they can’t be sentenced to prison or executed for what they share.
Yet then he flinches, remembering how Merlin risked his life again to prevent Arthur’s premature death. “It doesn’t matter,” his lover says nonchalantly when Arthur brings up the danger. There is a faraway look in his eyes, too sad and too contemplative. It makes Arthur feel as if he’s lost Merlin to an enemy he can’t fight, “I can’t die, no matter what wounds I bear.”
But you can still get hurt, Arthur wants to say. You still have the scars on your skin. Every time I see you again in my next life, you’re older, farther away, you have more scars I’ve yet to know about!
But he says nothing, because they’ve argued about this before and Merlin never wants to linger on what his lonely (eternal) existence is like, instead he smiles and makes jokes as if he is still the castle fool. But he is anything but; Arthur knows this better than anyone. And yet he can’t make Merlin see his own worth.
He remembers holding Merlin at night, fingers tracing over the ragged lines that the warlock has acquired in Arthur’s name. Every time he is reborn and he recalls his previous lives, he feels great pain that he has missed so much of Merlin.
Merlin is older the longer they continue into time. When he thinks that Arthur isn’t looking, he stares into the distance, wordless pain and battles in his eyes. Sometimes Arthur is shaken awake by Merlin twisting in his sleep, crying and screaming for them (it could be anyone, from Uther Pendragon to a warlord from Japan to the crusaders) to spare his king, to take his life instead. At other times, Merlin will jump at any noise and when Arthur confronts him about it, Merlin might mumble something about the Great War (which he missed, as opposed to World War Two) or the Korean War (another one he missed) or a battle from long ago, one of the unnamed assaults on a village in the middle east or a massacre in Africa.
It makes Arthur want to hide Merlin away from the rest of the world, shout at the fates to take this path away from Merlin and let him die a mortal man with Arthur. But then Arthur doesn’t want that (because it would mean Merlin would really die and he can’t have that happening, no, not ever.)
And so he asks what it would take for him to live forever too.
The first time he brings it up, Merlin drops the china he is holding and it shatters on the floor. They both scramble to clean it up, Arthur telling Merlin to stop being an idiot and let him get the broom while Merlin insists it will be fine, grabbing the shards with his fingers. Arthur snaps at him and Merlin snarls back, saying, “Just leave this alone, I can handle it myself!”
They don’t move.
Slowly, Arthur speaks, barely concealing the frustration inside, “Do you mean picking up the broken china, or living forever?”
His partner’s shoulders sag back and he suddenly looks ten years older than his eternal twenty years of age. “Arthur...”
“No,” he says sharply. “Merlin, just, why don’t you...?”
Why don’t you want me to live with you forever? What you hiding? Don’t you love me? But he doesn’t say that, only clenches his fists.
“Arthur, please, listen,” Merlin looks distant again (and Arthur hates it, wants to be able to read Merlin like his own reflection again but...), “immortality is my cross to bear. You aren’t meant for this burden. And even if you did find a way to gain it... the price would be too high. I won’t let you pay that.”
“But,” he wants to argue. Merlin silences him with a pained look.
From then on, any more discussions are closed in the same way until Arthur stops asking.
But he does not stop looking for answers.
Now he is looking at his mirror image, facing him on the surface of the liquid in the cup. The sorcerer looks impatient. “Hurry,” he says, “drink it.”
Merlin is getting closer. “Arthur, don’t take it! I’m not worth it, just stop, please!”
He stares at the potion. This is it, once he drinks, he will be immortal, and he will be with Merlin forever. It’s for Merlin’s sake after all.
No, he thinks, as he raises the cup to his lips. This isn’t entirely for Merlin at all, but for himself, so that he won’t have to cross over to the world of the dead alone (looking for a hand that isn’t there), so that he will not have to reawaken in a new life and wonder if Merlin has drifted from him (never), wonder if Merlin has gained new scars for him (always), wonder if Merlin might realize that Arthur is not a worthy king and abandon him (“Never, Arthur,” Merlin whispers every night when he kisses his prince’s brow, “never, can’t you see?”)
But is it worth the price?
He pictures a future with Merlin smiling at his side (doesn’t see what Merlin always sees, battlefields and death in every aspect of time) and thinks, yes.
And despite Merlin’s screams, Arthur makes the payment.