“With regards to the question of immortality...” Merlin reads aloud.
Julia, sitting across from him, snatches the paper back out of his hands.
“Oops, not that one,” she mutters, digging through her rucksack. “Sorry, that’s for Ethics. I meant to hand you—”
“What’s it about?” he asks.
“Perspective paper,” she explains absently. “What you’d do if you knew you’d never die—the whole concept is rubbish though—imagine even wanting to keep living when everyone you’d ever loved was gone. Why I even took that class…”
“That’s the beauty of the world,” Merlin tells her, leaning forward and accepting the proper essay she thrusts at him. “New people are born to replace the old.”
She fixes him with a deeply skeptical glare. “You can’t just replace people,” she says. “You think a person could...you know, find the ‘love of their life’ over and over again? What about siblings, parents...what’s there to keep going for, you know? At a certain point.”
“Is that what you wrote in your paper?” Merlin asks.
“It’s an interesting take,” Merlin says, pulling out a drawer and placing her essay in a stack to grade later. “You’re in Professor Young’s Ethics, yeah?”
She nods again, buttoning up her rucksack. “Sorry Professor, thanks for taking my paper.”
“No more late essays,” he tells her, even though this is the last day of classes. Can’t let it get too out of hand, or everyone will learn that he’s really a big softie at heart with a weakness for the tragically disorganised. Julia is a hopeless case and he loves her all the more for it. “See you bright and early.”
She slings her rucksack over her shoulder. “Why six?” she groans. “If you hadn’t just saved my arse, I’d call you the devil.”
“Devil or not, rest up,” he says, leaning back in his chair and smiling at her as she leaves his office.
Once alone, Merlin turns his thoughts back to the matter at hand: the deadline to decide whether or not he’s going to be taking sabbatical next year is fast approaching, and he can tell that the head of the department is not appreciative of his dithering. Of course, by sabbatical Merlin means he intends to do fuck-all for a year and magic up some documentation and research to make it look as though he’s actually been productive. But truth be told, he really is leaning in favour of teaching next year because he adores the students and the faculty and he’s also trying not to think too hard about how he’s reaching that point where he’s going to have to move again to avoid suspicion about the fact that he’s been a fresh-faced young professor for just a little too long.
Every decade or so—sometimes two if he likes what he’s doing well enough to press his luck— Merlin has to pack up again and start over. There is, of course, the option of allowing himself to age up a bit (with the wrinkles and the grey hair and whatnot,) but where’s the fun in living forever with creaky bones and a sore back? Also, the ageing back down is always a bit of a hassle magically-speaking—less enjoyable than it sounds, really—so Merlin usually just finds it easier to change it up with the location and keep himself the same. He can always look really old for a bit whenever he wants to, it’s just that if he does it for too long the liver spots and croaky voice become more stubborn to remove.
There was a couple hundred years back there that Merlin considers the golden age of immortality because the world was vast enough that it never got boring, yet anonymous enough that nobody questioned his absence too closely when he vanished. Right around, say...eighteen to nineteen hundred and fifty. Good times, those were.
Now, though, there is the problem of the internet. Which Merlin actually loves most aspects of—an entire universe of information right at his fingertips (all hail the glorious Wikipedia), ordering food online, World of Warcraft...but it also brings with it the fact that people expect him to stay in touch, even if he moves across the country. He can, in theory, just deactivate his Facebook and Instagram—that is, if they’re not obsolete within the next few years—but it does seem a bit unkind. There’s a certain amount of emotional detachment needed to essentially ghost everyone he’s got to know each time around, but he tries to do it as gently as possible and has the whole process down to a nicety by now. The internet just adds a new element, but Merlin is confident that after—God, what has it been? Eleven hundred years now?—he won’t be foiled by something as trivial as Twitter.
So, Merlin thinks, bringing himself back around to the more pressing problem of his employment status next year, that’s one reason for staying. Getting the most out of this brilliant teaching post while he still can.
The prospect of going and faffing about in Ireland or wherever else he can think of is tempting though. Within the UK, of course—Merlin learnt long ago that something about his magic ties him to ancient Albion because he’s fallen gravely ill every time he’s tried to leave, but there’s enough variety in Britain to keep things interesting. He always meets fascinating locals and learns new things—plus this will give him an opportunity to start looking into programming, which Merlin is considering as his next area of expertise because technology is the future, as he keeps hearing. Medieval history/literature/etcetera is always a good fallback, but he likes to mix it up with new skills every so often. Tragically, he occasionally picks something that falls out of fashion a few years later and becomes useless. Rest in peace, jazzercise, pennyfarthings. But programming doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so he figures it’s a safe bet. Also, he’s been wondering if he can combine coding with magic and personalise his iPhone interface that way. One for going.
His mobile beeps at him and when he pulls it out of his pocket to check why, he sees the time and realises that his office hours are over.
Jeremy: pint after work?
Merlin thinks a moment before replying. Jeremy is a new neighbour—a fun, flirtatious, new neighbour—whom he’s been sort of...hanging out with, for lack of a better term, for the last few weeks. They’ve played Counterstrike together after work, occasionally gone to the pub or the cinema. Sometimes to clubs too. Merlin is...not really sure where it’s going, and Jeremy doesn’t seem in any hurry to explain himself or take things in a particular direction; which suits Merlin just fine. He’s about to reply something along the lines of sure mate, see you at 7? when he remembers the stack of essays in his desk drawer and reluctantly decides that he’d best get cracking on those before final marks are due.
Merlin: sorry, too much work. Tomorrow?
Jeremy: Lucky kids
Merlin: haha, why?
Jeremy: i mightve finished uni if id been in ur lessons ;)
Merlin: nice one
Jeremy: but yeah, tomorrow’s grand
Merlin locks up his office, puts in his headphones and scrolls through his mobile for some good “tune out the sounds of the tube” music. He’s got leftover curry at home but he’s not really feeling like it tonight. There’s a new sushi place not far away from his flat that he’s been meaning to check into and thinks about ordering in, then remembers that the shrimp tempura always got soggy on the way over when he used to order from the Japanese restaurant near his last place.
He ends up sitting at the counter in the sushi restaurant with his stack of papers, trying to work while eating—which he learns is inadvisable for future reference. The countertop isn’t quite big enough for the papers, so he keeps putting them in his lap and half-forgetting about his food while he squints to read in the ambient lighting. Eventually he decides he’s being a bit rude, so he sticks the papers back in his bag and shovels the rest of his sushi in his mouth quickly so he can get back to his flat and finish up at his desk.
He stops to chat with one of the children from the family who lives in the flat next door to him. Alice, she’s called, and she sings him the chorus of I See the Light from Tangled six times in a row before her mother ushers her back inside and apologises profusely to Merlin for wasting your time, you must be very busy. Merlin assures her that he’s not, and that her daughter will undoubtedly be a musical prodigy, before he excuses himself into his flat and ends up settling in on the sofa instead of at his desk. Which is a big mistake.
He knows it’s a mistake because there’s the television right there as always. He tells himself it’s a mistake when he turns it on, and that it’s a mistake when... Oh dear, there’s Hermione slapping Harry’s hand when he tries to touch the Time Turner. Another Harry Potter marathon. It’s the extended editions too, with the deleted scenes. He tells himself it’s a mistake after the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. And then he accepts his fate halfway through Goblet of Fire and falls asleep on the sofa before Harry even leaves Grimmauld Place during Order of the Phoenix.
He wakes up in the middle of the night, sparing a guilty grimace for the stack of unread essays, before turning off the telly and going to sleep in his actual bed like a proper human being.
Of course, once he gets into bed, he starts thinking and can’t sleep. He scrolls through Tumblr for a bit, then checks his email on his mobile and yup, there’s another message from the department head about can you please give me a straight answer re: next term? And on impulse, even though it’s three in the morning, Merlin suddenly decides that no. No, he won’t be there. He’s taking a year off. He replies—foggy brain giving him the courage (stupidity?) to be so rash— presses send, and falls asleep almost instantly.
His mobile battery is nearly dead by the time he wakes up because he’s forgotten to charge it at all last night, and he spends the ride up to the university praying that it won’t die on him halfway there because he likes people in general, but he’s not sure he likes strangers on the tube at five o’clock in the morning. Belatedly, he realises that it would’ve been a good idea to charge up his mobile with a bit of magic before he’d left his flat, but he’s not about to risk a spell here and there it goes, battery dead. Silence on the tube. No Belle & Sebastian to keep him company.
He knows it’s a terrible bit of hypocrisy, but he charges up his mobile—in the usual way, not by magic—surreptitiously under the desk during the exam. Julia notices and gives him a scowl, and he shoots her his sweetest smile in reply.
“I’ll have your final paper marks up online by tomorrow,” Merlin tells the class as they leave. “It’s been lovely!”
Julia stops by his desk on the way out. “Are you teaching next term?” she asks in a would-be casual voice, but Merlin spots the nervous undertone straightaway.
“Er, no,” he admits. “I’m going on sabbatical, actually.”
“No, why? What more is there to learn about Medieval history?” she demands. “It’s not as if there’s going to be new information. You’re going to be bored and you’ll miss us and it’s not like King Arthur is going to come back from the dead and tell you his whole life story.”
Merlin raises his eyebrows at her. “You never know,” he tells her, certain he looks the picture of seriousness.
She glares daggers at him. “I’ll miss you,” she says finally, in a tone of voice that suggests she wants him to know she’s still cross with him, then leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
Merlin sighs, and fidgets with his mobile in his hands under the desk. Suddenly the idea of gallivanting about in Ireland is less appealing than it was at three o’clock this morning. Not because he’s going to miss Julia and the all others too much—though that’s certainly part of it—but because...well.
Like King Arthur is going to come back from the dead...
Perhaps, Merlin thinks, tapping his fingers against the screen of his mobile, perhaps it’s time to pay another visit to Avalon.