Title: Would That I Could Die (For You)
Summary: This was Arthur’s curse, to live for Albion—such as she was as centuries wore on—only in her times of need. Merlin’s curse was to live for Arthur, who needed him even in endless, endlessly interrupted death.
Warnings: Major Character Death
Word Count: 917
Prompt: #193: Remembrance
Author's Notes: This ended up focused more on the grief than the tokens of remembrance as intended, but here you have it anyway.
Merlin’s fingers quivered as they stroked over the raised bronze lion, catching in the dip below its body before coming to rest on the twin fleurs-de-lis of the crown on which it stood. The medal shivered with his touch, gliding silently over the ivory lining of its case as it slid to match his tremble. Fingertips brushing at the edge of the cross pattée, he slipped one beneath to feel the engraved numbers and letters catch at sensitive skin. He didn’t need to read it, to trace it, to know what was written on the reverse: 15th NOV 2014.
It had been awarded posthumously, as most of Arthur’s medals had been. Even for the few he had received personally, instead of them being passed to Merlin as various degrees of next of kin (he had been Arthur’s brother and grandfather and cousin and father and uncle and fellow-orphan best mate and, most recently and unbelievably of all, husband; he’d never have thought it possible), Arthur never survived the war in which he earned them. This was Arthur’s curse, to live for Albion—such as she was as centuries wore on—only in her times of need.
Merlin’s curse was to live for Arthur, who needed him even in endless, endlessly interrupted death.
With a shuddering breath and a steadier hand, he carefully straightened the medal and lowered the top of its case, wine red to match the ribbon. V.C., it read in gilded bold, and this looked different from the last two even if the medal within was the same. Its lines were straighter, both in structure and lettering, and appealed to the aesthetic of the new millennium. It was not the box of fifty years before, nor had that been the same as the first, a century ago.
Arthur had received other awards and honors, had been recognized and lauded and even knighted several times until it fell out of fashion for a time. In every era he had graced, he had become known for his courage, leadership, and loyalty. In every too-short span of life, he had gathered men around himself like his Round Table, ready to serve and die with him despite his unclaimed crown.
Merlin, ever Arthur’s man, was always the first at his side when he rose from the misty Avalon, and the last to bid him farewell as his body sank back into the depths, and never between were they parted but that they could prevent it. The times between, when Arthur was gone and Merlin was alone, they could not prevent.
Kneeling at the lake’s edge, Merlin let the case with its cross float into the water and watched it drift until he lost sight of the smaller and smaller speck of it. It would join the others before long, resting at the bottom of the currents with its recipient. Arthur never carried them with him when he returned for his brief sojourns upon the battlefields, but Merlin needed to know that they, like Excalibur, waited with him.
The other box, heavy and bulky even in his oversized pocket, was the first that would stay with him as he spent at least a few decades as a hermit. There had been too much publicity over the investiture for Arthur’s medal and Merlin’s face, his real face, had appeared too often in too many places for him to comfortably live on unchanging in the public eye. He had had to vanish often enough, disguising his appearance or simply avoiding human contact until he was forgotten, but he never strayed far from where his heart lay unbeating.
He pulled out the black case and settled it on his knees, which still rested at the rocky water’s edge. Within, the two silver crosses—identical but in size—gleamed bright and new to represent a pain so ancient. It was an unfamiliar experience, in all his years of mourning, to be recognized from the outside for his suffering, his loss. Arthur may have earned the medal with his death, but it had been granted to Merlin for his own sake, acknowledging his sacrifice.
Removing the larger of the pair from its silk bed, he pinned it through the red fabric above his heart. He pricked his unsteady fingers to the point of bleeding, but when he got it fastened and looked down, the streak of crimson seemed to him an appropriate anointment.
Still in the presentation box, his eyes lingered on the miniature and he touched a wounded fingertip to its center, leaving a bloodied print across the EIIR at its heart. Then he lifted it carefully out, pressed a tear-salted kiss just above the blood, and cast it into the lake.
He stood, wiping his eyes with the clean side of one hand, and left the shores of Avalon. He readied himself to wait, hoping hopelessly that this would be the last time; that he would age, fall ill, die; that the next terrible conflict would break out soon and last forever; anything but his terrible eternity.
He would wait a long time before Albion called its king to rise again. When it did, they would meet at the lakeside and weep and embrace and take what solace they could in each other before destiny commanded one to die and the other to live. When they met, they both wore silver crosses, resting upon laurel wreaths, adorned with rose and thistle and shamrock and daffodil and the monogram of a long-dead monarch, marked with ancient blood.
End Note: The medals referenced are the Victoria Cross and the Elizabeth Cross