Prompt: 104. Fate worse than death. (Written for the Merlin Tournament of Champions as part of Team Reincarnation.) I added numbers for chronological order in case it's too confusing. XD;. Inspired by Bongcheon-Dong Ghost and His Face All Red. Because I am a horror story addict.
"Yeah. You believe?"
He shook his head.
"No. There are no such things as ghosts."
"Oh." The boy opposite him fidgeted. "Well, that takes a bit out of my ghost stories."
"Is that what this is?" He shifted, taking in the surrounding darkness and the campfire that the two of them sat in front of. "Telling ghost stories?"
"...It won't work if you don't believe."
"Maybe I don't believe because I think there are things worse than ghosts."
The boy leaned forward, curious. "What kind of things?"
"People. Maybe we're the ghosts and the things that scare us are the living."
The boy pulled back, disappointed in the response.
As the boy huffed and crossed his arms, Merlin smiled.
Lancelot knows that something is going on, but he isn't quite sure what. Something secret between Guinevere and Arthur, something strange between Arthur and Merlin.
(Something between himself and Guinevere.)
He remembers little bits and pieces. Dreams of past lives and that bright shining hope of a better future, bloodied and dulled through one war after another. There is something about this latest life; something guilty.
He asks Guinevere about it sometimes, but she doesn't meet his eyes when she says, "I don't know."
Arthur felt like he grew up with Merlin. It felt like growing up with an invisible friend because Merlin was very good at not being seen. He was almost like a ghost, except he didn't believe in ghosts.
Uther didn't believe in ghosts either, and dismissed the notion as nonsense when Arthur asked him if maybe there were no ghosts in the world because they were the ones who were ghosts.
Merlin had suggested it. Arthur believed him.
Except Merlin never showed when Uther was around. He never showed up when the serving staff were around, either. Arthur would have thought himself delusional if it weren't for the fact that, other than himself, some of his friends could see him, too.
Lancelot. Gwaine. Leon. Guinevere. Elyan. Percival. He knew that Morgana saw him as well, because his sister paled each time she tried to deny it. She was a terrible liar.
When Arthur had grown up, Merlin started to tell him stories, just like how Arthur had constantly tried to entertain the man with stories when he was a child.
Stories about the past; about kings and princes, castles and monsters.
"You can't escape destiny." Merlin said at the end of each story. They would lie entwined in bed, and Arthur would realize that he wasn't the one Merlin was looking at. Not really.
"It always catches up to you. Always finds you."
There were stories of drowned children and hatred, of war and destruction, of love and betrayal. And while underneath it all there was a story about the shining light of Albion, it was buried beneath such atrocities. Whatever great things King Arthur had done in his time, it didn't make up for those tales. Whatever great kingdom Camelot had been, it was a kingdom built upon a mountain of corpses.
"I waited thousands of years to find you again." Merlin would tell him. "After this... I might have to wait thousands more."
It sounded worse than being a ghost.
Once, Arthur cupped Merlin's face and said, "I'll break destiny."
Gwaine remembered perfectly well (at least the first life), and didn't question being alive. Being one of Arthur's knights was an honour, but it tended to end in shortened lifespans and possibly gruesome deaths. He was just glad for the chance to see everyone again, to fall in love, to drink himself stupid.
So he didn't understand when one day Arthur had come into work drawn and haggard and said that they wouldn't be seeing Merlin again.
Of course Gwaine questioned it. He felt it his duty to question just about everything Arthur did.
"Did he finally decide that you were too much of an arse to stick around?" He joked, and was startled as Arthur just shook his head, refusing to rise up to the taunt.
His king (because Arthur would always be king to him) remained subdued and (dare he say it?) mournful for that day and the next, until the day after when Merlin finally returned.
"Knew nothing could keep the two of you apart for long!" Gwaine said, slinging an arm around Merlin's shoulders. He grinned happily at the pale man, always glad to see him.
Merlin smiled back at him. "Arthur's a prat, but he can't get rid of me that easily."
Behind them, Arthur was pale as a sheet.
This time around, it was Morgana who handed Arthur Excalibur, because the sword had been kept in their family for generations and generations. Theirs was a lineage that could be traced back to King Arthur.
The irony of the statement didn't escape her.
"You'll need this." She said to him that day when they were both nineteen (because this time around they were twins, but nowhere closer than they had been the first time. She had enough the first time; she wasn't going to get drawn into his destiny again if she could help it). The sword was still beautiful, still brilliant and untarnished with time, still as sharp as ever within the folds of carmine velvet. "The sword that can kill anything, alive or dead."
Arthur looked skeptical. "No one uses swords anymore, Morgana."
She held the fabric gingerly, delicately, knowing that no one but Arthur was meant to hold the weapon within. Even an accidental brush of her fingers seemed sacrilegious.
"You will." She said, because she had dreamt it. "You will."
Guinevere was the first to know, but then, she always knew him too well.
Her eyes were wide and fearful the morning he went into work quiet and without his usual coffee.
"What did you do?" She whispered, sticking close to him as they walked the giant halls of the corporate building. "Arthur. What did you do?"
"What I should have done long ago," He hissed back at her, and damned if she hadn't been ready to punch him for that.
She shook her head, and grabbed at his arm, but he shook her off.
That night, he ended up on her couch telling her everything. After he had spoken his last word, he fell quiet while she watched over him, sleeping deeply while she wept.
Two days later, Arthur stopped sleeping.
You can't escape destiny.
Elyan didn't know anything about previous lives or destiny except for the fact that growing up, his sister had always known. Then he met a group of friends (best friends) who shared her view, and he believed completely.
But it still felt like something he wasn't really a part of because he couldn't remember it. The thought of Merlin's longevity was unnerving, but he was nothing if not gracious and the thin, smiling man grew on him.
"You're going to change the world." Merlin would say to all of them frequently, wholeheartedly.
Lately, he had stopped saying it.
Lately, for some reason, he wouldn't turn his eyes in Arthur's direction. It seemed odd, considering their many disagreements usually ended up with them closer than before.
He thinks he remembers that.
It was Leon who followed him, because that was what Leon did.
He watched Arthur stumble away from the party and away from everyone else into the night, and knew that something important had happened and he missed it. The biggest clue had been from Merlin.
"We're the ghosts, Leon. We should have died long ago, but we're still here. We're the dead, and it's the living who fear us."
Merlin had smiled that sweet smile which contradicted the gravity of his words, and turned in a direction facing away from Arthur.
Then Arthur left, and Leon followed him; past the streets and away from the bustling metropolis into a humbler neighbourhood nearing the countryside. There was a park there, a park dense with trees and a lake.
And, Leon found to his shock, a cavern.
Much like Camelot.
And there, shining in the dim lightning and embedded in stone, was Excalibur.
Bright. Gleaming. Dripping red.
A hand reached from the dark and grabbed at his coat; startled him.
"Leon," Arthur called out, because of course he had known that Leon followed. His eyes were wild. "Leon, you understand, right?
"It was because I didn't want us to leave him again. Because it was the only way for him to escape destiny. Leon, I did it because it was best."
Red and bright and fresh, Leon realized that there was something embedded between the stone and sword.
Startled, betrayed blue eyes.
Dark hair and pale skin, frozen in stillness.
Arthur couldn't go back.
"Last week," he told Leon down in the cavern where a week ago, he had bloodied himself wrenching away from destiny. "I killed him. He won't stop looking at me.
"...He's still here."