Amy (such_heights) wrote,
Amy
such_heights

FIC: The Shorter Hours [Merlin]

The Shorter Hours
Merlin ; Merlin, Arthur (gen-to-preslash) ; PG-13 ; 6000 words ; spoilers for 1x13 ; for avendya
Merlin shrugged agreeably, self-preservation winning out over the truth of the matter.

---

The Shorter Hours

---

It was very early, and Merlin's room was suddenly full of a most exuberant Arthur.

"Get up, get up, come on, no point sleeping on a day like this!" Arthur said, and threw a shoe at his head.

"Nnnngh," said Merlin. "What do you want?"

"Merlin," said Arthur, in his best I could have you executed voice.

Merlin groaned and lifted his head an inch or two from the pillow with great effort. "Sorry. What is it you need, sire?"

Arthur started pacing all around Merlin's room, throwing stray possessions into cupboards and selecting relevant items of clothing to toss in Merlin's direction.

"I want you to get up and make yourself presentable. I am going riding and you will accompany me."

Resigning himself, Merlin sat up and grabbed a shirt that had landed on his elbow. "What's brought this on?"

Arthur flung open the shutters, and Merlin flinched, shielding himself from the sudden bright light.

"It's a beautiful morning, and considering that I shall be spending the whole of my day listening to wealth distribution reports delivered in Lord Edmund's most portentous tones, I intend to make the most of it while I can."

Merlin decided not to ask why he was required for such an endeavour, suspecting the answer was something along the lines of 'you might amuse me'. "Right then," he muttered, reaching for his boots, "bright and early horse riding it is."

Arthur clapped him on the shoulder and bounded from the room.

***


He had to give Arthur credit: it really was the most spectacular morning. The sky was a vivid blue, white clouds decorating the vista above them. Even the horses seemed in an unusually good mood - Colgrevance, who still hadn't forgiven Merlin for journeying to the Isle of the Blessed and back (twice), didn't try to kick him once as he approached with saddles.

Arthur was beaming, as though the whole dawn had been laid out in recognition of his own magnificence. He flexed his shoulders and smiled happily.

"You've healed up well," Merlin said. That was a relief - the last remnants of the Questing Beast's bite had been felt for some time, which was both a constant reminder of things Merlin was trying not to think about, and also an almighty pain - an injured Arthur was a uniquely frustrating Arthur.

"Yes," Arthur agreed, looking for all the world as though he wanted to do exercises to demonstrate his regained capacity for motion. "Fresh air, the open road - this, Merlin, this is the life."

"Not castles and court and princesses and things?"

Arthur waved a hand dismissively. "They're just trappings. Come on, saddle up, let's go."

They set off out of the castle. Colgrevance continued to be amenable, much to Merlin's surprise, carrying him along at a steady pace that seemed to have no danger of throwing him off onto the road any time soon. Arthur was speeding off regardless of Merlin's own progress anyway, so Merlin dug in his heels and did his best to catch up.

Once out into the woods Arthur dismounted and led his horse along by its reins, smiling to himself. "Yes, this is much better."

"You... brought me along for a woodland walk?" Merlin asked.

Arthur didn't dignify that with a response, just snorted and went further into the trees, Merlin traipsing after him.

They were forced to a halt on the path Arthur had selected by a thicket of vines and weeds. It proved to be yet another cause for high spirits in Arthur, who unsheathed his sword with glee and set to hacking back the overgrowth. This seemed to involve many more elaborate twirls and swishes than Merlin would have thought were strictly necessary. Once through, Arthur took his sword in his left hand and whirled it in high, swooping circles above his head.

"There, you see?" he said, grinning. "Fighting fit. That's good, means I can really put the knights through their paces tomorrow. You can't expect other people to accomplish things you can't manage yourself."

"Oh, I don't know," said Merlin. "You let me darn all your shirts."

"I'm sure I'd make an excellent seamsperson, if I put my mind to it," Arthur said airily. He grinned at Merlin. "Luckily for me, I have you to do it for me."

"I think I liked you better when you were an invalid," Merlin muttered.

"No, you didn't, you found me incredibly annoying."

"What? No, not at all, I--"

Arthur laughed. "Oh yes you did. No matter - that's what I like about you, Merlin, you're a terrible liar. Does mean I can't entrust you with state secrets any time soon, but still. You are an open book."

Inside, Merlin winced, but he shrugged agreeably, self-preservation winning out over the truth of the matter. Shame, really, because state secrets sounded exciting.

Arthur tethered their two horses to a couple of stumps (Colgrevance was beginning to look unimpressed again now, that didn't bode well) and proceeded to wander further into the trees. He looked so pleased with the whole of creation that Merlin wondered if he were about to burst into song. That was never a good idea; Merlin had had to serve at enough rowdy occasions with Arthur and his knights to be very familiar with the prince's idea of carrying a melody.

"Stop daydreaming," said Arthur. "You've gone all misty-eyed."

"You'll be late for council if we don't head back soon," Merlin pointed out.

Arthur looked unmoved by this fact, pressing forward into a clearing and kneeling down at the edge of a brook that ran through the trees, reflecting the green of the leaves as the water ran downwards.

"Well, it will all be my fault, I'm sure," said Merlin, sitting beside him.

"See? I knew I brought you along for a reason."

Merlin didn't bother to disguise his opinion of this.

"You insubordinate wretch!" Arthur said, and splashed water in his face.

Before Merlin had a chance to recover or mount a defence, he was drenched a second time, then shoved so hard he toppled over, sprawled out on his back. He took a moment to splutter indignantly. Then he caught sight of Arthur's face, looming over him and grinning, and gave up and laughed.

***


Never one to leave an idea unexplored, Arthur took to his new adventures in the forest in a big way, and Merlin was required every time. It was usually early morning, some time before Arthur was required to train his knights or dine with Uther or listen to affairs of the kingdom - time Arthur carved out that was entirely his own.

Arthur was younger in moments like this, unguarded and friendly with Merlin in a careless way, as though this was always how he was, that he always guided Merlin along paths with firm grasps on the shoulder and amused elbows at his ribs. It wasn't; Arthur was always so conscious of the world he was born into - the knights that expected both a leader and a brash, bright young thing, the people of Camelot who wrapped up all their hopes and placed them solely on his shoulders, and his father who wanted, expected and usually received a son who was more than human, striving to fit the role and the life of the future king.

Merlin didn't think about that, most of the time. Arthur was going to be king, yes, and Merlin could feel the greatness of that, tomorrow's promise stored away in his bones, but Arthur was frequently irritating, occasionally downright wrong, and when Merlin looked upon the exalted crown prince of Camelot these days, he only ever saw a friend.

"What do you think you'll do, when you're king?"

They were walking by a river, and Arthur was running his hand through the reeds that shot up from the bank. He looked surprised by the question.

"Rule wisely, I should hope," said Arthur.

"No, I mean -- didn't you ever think about it as a child, the orders you could make, things you could change?"

Arthur frowned. "I was hardly born a statesman, Merlin."

Merlin thought Arthur was rather missing the point, but he tried a different tack. "Well, all right - what about now? You know loads about court, about war and trade. Aren't there things you know you're going to change?"

Arthur stopped. "Are you going somewhere with this?"

"No -- I'm not trying to bend your ear, I'm honestly asking."

"Well, it's difficult to answer - so much rests on the changing times, the state of the world."

"Like magic?" Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded. "Like magic, yes. My father saw a war waged on his home by warlocks and sorcerers, and he acted accordingly."

Merlin wondered about that, wondered what had really happened to drive Camelot so far opposed to the magic that had once been a natural part of it. Gaius never wanted to say, he certainly couldn't ask Uther, and he wasn't sure that Arthur truly knew. "What about you, then?" was all he said.

Arthur shook his head. "Ultimately, nothing good ever comes of magic - I've seen that, we all have. But ..." Arthur hesitated, weighing his words. "But I would not see innocents executed - children, those who have meant no malice, only acted foolishly."

"Magic isn't foolish, not always," said Merlin.

Arthur sighed. "I understand you must have grown to see it differently - your friend in Ealdor, I know, and he saved your village, saved my life. But since you've been here, think how often you've seen magic bring death and destruction in its wake, the hatred of a few capable of hurting so many."

"Will, he --" Merlin hardly knew what to say, even with this opportunity to speak his own life under someone else's name. "He never learned magic, he didn't choose his gifts - he could move crockery before he could walk. So he knew he could never leave Ealdor - he couldn't come to Camelot, he couldn't bear to keep who he was a secret. No one should have to do that."

"It's not about who we are, it's about the choices we make. I can't allow magic to bring chaos into Camelot again."

Merlin wanted to protest, but he could tell the subject was closed. Arthur kept his peace, quiet and content, but Merlin felt uneasy. He'd always imagined he'd grow accustomed to keeping his secret life to himself, but as time went on the subterfuge bothered him more and more.

Still, it didn't really matter, Merlin had no justification to say a thing. There was no way he could put Arthur in that position just so he could assuage his own conscience. He'd take the most pressing secret of his heart to the grave if he had to.

***


A complacent peace settled over Camelot, born both of the lazy luxury of summer time and the sight of Arthur alive and well again. Merlin had always realised, rationally, just how important the crown prince was to a kingdom - lines of succession, the stability of the state, the prospect of the full force of Uther's rage and grief being unleashed at the death of his son - but Arthur was Camelot's heart and soul, too, and he hadn't known, not really.

It almost didn't matter about magic and destiny and the dragon's words still echoing in his mind despite their parting of ways - Arthur needed to survive, and no one could make that happen better than Merlin. He understood that now, and on his own terms, and he'd proved it to himself if no one else.

All the same, there was something to be said for knowing something so private and personal but so key to everyone - the fate of Camelot rested in Merlin's hands in no small way, though nobody knew it.

The kingdom went about its days happily, and Merlin rested, secure for the moment in his own position and Arthur's continuous presence beside him - or two steps in front of him and running ever faster, more often. Being Arthur's secret saviour was hard work even at the best of times, and the best of times never lasted as long as he'd like.

***


Arthur was surrounded, fighting off three attackers at a time, but he couldn't battle them all. Merlin ran towards him, but he wasn't fast enough, and an axe glinted in the sunlight before bearing down on Arthur, death certain in a matter of moments--

Merlin yelled himself awake, his heart pounding.

The dreams had started the night after the Isle of the Blessed, perhaps a transference from the lightning or the result of so much death and rebirth, and now Merlin dreamt of things before they came to pass, more and more as the months wore on. Each time, it took him to Morgana's chambers, where she would sit up, and sigh, and say that she already knew.

"Merlin? What on earth's the matter?" Gaius appeared at his doorway, harried and rubbing sleep from his eyes.

"Arthur," Merlin said, and he felt numb with it.

Gaius nodded and stepped away, his protests and potions a thing of the distant past now.

Morgana was waiting for him when he arrived, her face pale and her breath still steadying, Gwen's hand clutched tight in hers.

"What did you see?" she asked.

Merlin shook his head. "A blur, mostly - moving figures, a battlefield. And a blade bearing down on Arthur." He felt it again as he spoke the words, the sick certainty that Arthur was about to die.

Morgana nodded. "I could see his face, I've tried to get it down." She handed Merlin an open book, a page covered in a hasty sketch. "It's not much, but --"

A gaunt man with solemn eyes stared back at Merlin, haunting in its detail. Morgana's sight got stronger by the day, it seemed.

"What are we going to do?" Gwen asked.

"We'll stop it happening," said Merlin. He didn't know how or when this would come about, but he understood that this was his whole duty, and that he could stop fate and twist it to his will. Or die trying, at least.

"I'll come with you," said Morgana, and Merlin was only too happy to agree.

Merlin nodded, and Gwen got up to open the shutters wide as sunrise began to steal over the horizon.

***


The morning proved still and calm, and though Merlin, Morgana and Gwen all moved through the castle like watchful, wary ghosts, their fears remained unrealised for three more days.

When danger came, it was so sudden and escalated so rapidly that Merlin could hardly follow the line of events from the arrival of a frantic messenger to Uther's barked orders to Arthur and his knights riding out towards the fields Merlin had dreamed of.

Morgana wasted no time in saddling up horses and leading them both to the place, far ahead of the knights riding out of the main gates of the castle. Merlin could only hope she had a plan going past that, because Merlin didn't have much - they didn't know what, exactly, they were facing. The messenger had spoke of a legion of sorcerers, wreaking terror across villages, and Merlin didn't know what to make of it.

They rode out across the country, straight into danger, and Merlin had to wonder how on earth this had become his life. Morgana led them into the start of the forest, dismounting quickly and leaving both horses concealed by trees.

"Keep low, come on," she whispered and started to move towards the sounds of a group of people.

Merlin followed out after her, looking behind to note where the knights would be arriving from -- a broad path bisecting the open countryside -- observing the highs and lows of the terrain and the hidden places. Revealing themselves to Arthur could undermine everything, they'd have to keep hidden but in easy reach of him as soon as things started to go wrong.

There was a camp growing out of the forest, tents and flags and restless horses in more numbers than Merlin had feared. Morgana looked anxious next to him, and she crouched into a low dip in the ground, peering at the congregation before them.

"Sorcerers, all of them," she murmured, and Merlin could see figures moving, spells being cast, the air around them full of magic.

"This is organised," he said. "What do they want?"

She shook her head. "We'll have to stay here and find out." Her hand tightened on the hilt of her sword.

It didn't take long for Arthur to arrive, tall and unknowable underneath his armour the way he always was, the armour that Merlin had buckled around him only hours ago, his heart in his mouth.

"Arthur Pendragon." A warlock in long robes walked out into the middle of the ground between the two sides, and Morgana gripped Merlin's arm, recognition clear on her face.

"You trespass on the lands of Camelot," Arthur said. "The king banished you and your kind twenty years ago."

"Yes, he did. He killed our daughters and our sons and he drove us from our homes."

Arthur said nothing.

"Uther's reign will end one day, but that's scant comfort when he has a successor waiting, trained and indoctrinated."

Men and women stepped forward behind the warlock, and Arthur squared his shoulders, his knights tightening ranks behind him.

"This ends here." The man raised his arms, and Arthur drew his sword as magic burst out from every sorcerer, spells curling their way towards the knights.

"Oh no - Merlin, look!" said Morgana.

The knights were falling from their horses, hitting the ground on their knees, incapacitated. Arthur was outnumbered and alone. Morgana raced out from their hiding place with a battle cry forming on her lips. Merlin looked to the knights to see if there was anything he could do for them, something to give them all a chance of making it out of this unscathed.

He turned to see the whole battlefield, trying to see just how they were going to survive this. The sorcerers were organised, skilled and powerful, and Merlin knew he couldn't fend them off alone, and that the swords of a Camelot were no match for them.

There was movement beside him, rushing figures who came from nowhere, and this was just as he'd dreamed, the chaos and the battle closing in. Merlin ran towards Arthur, realising he was out of time. But as he raced after Morgana, who was fighting her way through single-handed, they were both too late. Arthur had taken an injury to his side, and as he doubled over, he caught Merlin's eye. The warlock raised his axe and brought it down on Arthur, about to slice through him with sharp, brutal metal.

Desperate, and shouting himself hoarse, Merlin thrust his hand out, all his magic bursting out of him, not controlled or contained.

The world stopped.

Every soldier was frozen in place, their faces contorted with expressions of war. Morgana was mid-swing, the thrusts of her sword sure and devastating. Merlin pushed through the unmoving battle until he found Arthur, whose face was frozen in the shock of seeing Merlin here.

Merlin grabbed Arthur's shoulders and moved him away from his death. Perhaps he could engineer the situation so Arthur didn't have to know, perhaps he could play the well-meaning but idiot servant, but perhaps was becoming interminable.

"Arthur," he said quietly.

Arthur started into life. It took him a moment to take in the stillness of the battle, the danger looming over his head, and Merlin's place it all. Once he'd registered it all, he looked at Merlin for a moment and then his gaze dropped to the ground, defeated.

"Arthur, please."

"Well, now I feel a fool," said Arthur.

"I never intended -- you must know I've never meant you harm."

"Merlin, I can't know this. I can lie to my father, I can hide what you are, but this isn't the first time you've saved my life with sorcery, is it?"

"No, it's not."

"This cannot continue, I won't see you risk yourself like this."

"You'd be dead if it wasn't for me," Merlin said, with a sudden rush of bitterness.

"Do you think I could bear to see you executed?" Arthur countered. "So, I'm certain Gaius would be grateful to have his assistant returned to him at last."

"Arthur, no, that's not -- I'm meant to help you, it's the only thing I'm supposed to do."

"You're not meant to be anything," said Arthur, his voice soft. "Just alive. If my father found you, I might not be able to save you, and I won't have you with me, putting yourself in the dragon's maw like that."

Merlin felt his world gently splinter in two, and there was nothing he could say. Arthur was looking around him again, astonished.

"All right," Arthur murmured eventually. "All right."

"We’ll have to do something about him," Merlin said, gesturing up at the warlock.

"Hmm," said Arthur, considering. "I think I'll leave him in your clearly very capable hands."

"Right." A vindictive streak in Merlin wanted to punish someone for what was happening to him, but he couldn't, not this time.

He tapped the warlock lightly on the shoulder, whose arm reanimated itself and completed that fatal swing. The warlock stumbled, and blinked, and stared at Merlin.

"I see Uther has a pet magician," he sneered. "Are you going to kill me, collaborator?"

Merlin looked the warlock in the eye, and shook his head. "I'm not Uther's," he said. "My name's Merlin, and I belong to Arthur."

"Is that so?" The warlock turned his piercing gaze to Arthur.

Arthur looked taken aback, but he sheathed his sword and nodded. "I am not my father, sir."

"I ought to run you through where you stand," the warlock replied, considering.

"I know that you could," said Merlin. "I know. But please, look --" he stepped forward and stuck his hand out. "My name is Merlin, I serve Prince Arthur."

"Merlin." The warlock rolled the name around his throat and nodded, though he didn't take Merlin's hand. "You've cast your lot with a merciless band, my boy. You think your prince won't cast you out tomorrow should he deem you to no longer be of use?"

"I know Arthur, I know he's a better man than that. You must have seen it too - he will be a great king one day."

The warlock sighed. "I have seen what may come, but at what cost?"

"At what cost would you stop it? Arthur, his knights, the men who fight here today - they have never wronged you, your quarrel is not with them. Don't do this, I'm asking you." With a confidence that Merlin didn't truly feel, he added, "Don't force me to stop this battle with force, I would not see more blood spilled." He felt magic cross his face as he spoke.

"You have a mighty defender, Arthur Pendragon," said the warlock.

"So it would appear," said Arthur, his voice strained.

The warlock laid his axe down at Merlin's feet. "This is not how I foresaw this day."

"We will have peace," said Merlin. "True, lasting peace, Arthur will see to that."

"I hope that you are right." The warlock turned to his companions, moving his hands until they began to stir from their frozen sleep. "Count yourself fortunate, prince, you owe your life to this man. As for you, Emrys - this has been an unexpected honour."

The sorcerers disappeared as one, vanishing skywards in billows of smoke as Arthur's knights began to rise unsteadily to their feet, looking wildly around them.

"Arthur!" Morgana rushed towards them, gripping Merlin's arm fiercely and hitting Arthur's shoulder in frustrated affection. "Thank God, thank God - what on earth just happened?"

Arthur was staring at Merlin. "I really couldn't say."

Arthur said nothing to Merlin on the journey back to the castle, and Morgana grew tired with both of their unwillingness to talk and rode off to join the knights, all of whom were as confused as she was, but at least willing to discuss it.

Mostly, Merlin felt numb, overwhelmed by the understanding that Arthur would be true to his word, that his time serving him was at an end. Arthur, who had watched him do battle with sorcerers, in words if not in deeds, while failing to grasp what it is was Merlin was trying to do. Merlin's fog of unhappy doubts carried him all the way back to Gaius's chambers.

"Merlin? What happened? Is the prince safe?"

Merlin nodded mutely.

***


Gaius didn't ask a lot of questions about Merlin's sudden change of employment - he thought he caught a glimpse of Arthur's handwriting amongst the papers on one of Gaius's tables, but next time he looked it had vanished.

Gwen sought him out the next morning, and she didn't say much either, but somehow she must have known -- channels of communication were always complicated here, but if there was something to be known, Morgana would find it, and if Morgana knew something, she always told Gwen.

Gwen sat him down on the steps and wrapped their arms together companionably. "I don't know what happened - maybe that doesn't matter - but I'm sorry. I think you were the best thing that happened to Arthur in a long time."

"I'm not dead, Gwen," Merlin snapped, too raw with this to mind his words.

"No, but it's all changed now, hasn't it? I'll have to deal with them both by myself."

She smiled at him until he laughed. "Yeah, all right, maybe you've got the worse deal."

"And you'll still see us, won't you? You're not going anywhere?"

Merlin looked over the courtyard, this strange and dangerous place that he had latched onto with all his heart, wanting so badly to make it into a home, a place he could belong.

"No, you're right, I can't leave you entirely alone to the mercies of the Pendragons and associated persons," he agreed, and Gwen rested her head on his shoulder, quiet and more comforting than Merlin had words to say.

Morgana, meanwhile, seemed furious with the world, Merlin included.

"You are both such idiots!" she informed him that afternoon. "I cannot possibly imagine what you could have said or done to deserve such a radical punishment - in fact, I am certain that you didn't."

"Morgana," Merlin said, dropping his voice low. "Arthur knows."

Her face fell. "Oh. Oh no. And he --"

"Won't do anything about it as long as he never has to see me again, apparently."

"I hate this," she hissed, "I really do."

"That makes two of us. Anyway, if you'll excuse me - Gaius wants to me to get ingredients for his evening brewing session."

Morgana let out a breath and stepped to the side. "Of course. Merlin -- thank you. You clearly kept your counsel for my sake, and you didn't have to."

"There's no sense in both of us losing out," said Merlin. "Arthur's safe, that's all that matters - I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Morgana looked at him sadly. "Yes, I know you would."

Working with Gaius was not unpleasant - however much of a show Merlin made to the contrary, there was something both soothing and fascinating about the subtle blend of ingredients that could be transformed into something healing. He walked the corridors of the castle handing out vials and poultices, and he tried not to think about the life he was missing more than he could help it. He caught snatches of news - Arthur bringing back magnificent game from hunting trips, new visitors to the castle who brought with them princesses with a noted interest in the crown prince - but nothing of substance, and he never saw Arthur himself.

After two weeks, he was almost used to it, but it didn't stop the dreams.

***


Arthur stood before his court, a collection of nobility from all over his mighty kingdom. There was a throne beside him, a crown set atop the head of a queen, and an advisor to the side, a figure Arthur looked to time and again as he issued pronouncements and orders. Merlin strained forward in his vision, but he couldn't make out anything at all.

***


A month into his exile, and Merlin woke up with a sudden, reckless idea. He crept out of his room and down to the stairs, making the familiar journey across the courtyard, past the guards and down to the caverns below the castle.

Merlin had hardly thought about the Great Dragon in terms more specific than anger and confusion since the day they had almost blasted each other to pieces. But everything was wrong now, and the idea of seeking out an old, often bewildering source of advice had gained a new appeal.

He half-expected to be met with flames the moment he stood on the ridge - instead, the dragon took its own time in swooping down to Merlin's level, and when it did, they looked at each other for a long, silent moment.

Merlin wasn't so sure of his rage now, because everything he'd once believed so strongly had been cast into doubt one way and another, and he realised now that the world was much richer and stranger than he had conceived on the day he'd had the audacity to sentence this creature to an eternity in chains.

He set his flame to the side. "Would an apology be a good place to start? Because I'm sorry, I really am."

The dragon considered him for a moment, and then a low rumble built in its chest until it said, "It is a start, young warlock."

Merlin laughed in relief. "You know, this destiny of mine, it really isn't going very well at the moment."

"It is the rare few who walk the straightforward paths in life," said the dragon.

"Yeah, I thought it'd be something like that," said Merlin, and truth be told he had rather missed the dragon's enigmatic wisdom. "But I can't save Arthur when he won't let me anywhere near him."

"Then you already know what you must do - what is it you required of me?"

"I can't win with you, can I?"

"We will speak again, Merlin," said the dragon.

"Yes, looks like we will."

Merlin nodded to himself, picked up his torch and made his way back to the upper levels. He wandered slowly through the courtyard, feeling in no particular hurry to return to his room, where all he would do was lie awake and wonder how on earth he could make things right with Arthur again. Short of somehow erasing a substantial chunk of Arthur's recent memories, Merlin really had no idea. It was all vastly unjust whilst also tinged with a heavy feeling of inevitably, and he knew that it wasn't Arthur's fault, that he'd acted with nothing but good will towards Merlin, which was more than he would expect given the circumstances.

The night was cold, and Merlin was struck with a new thought as he went back into the castle, feeling a need to go upwards and stand above all of this, if only for a short while and in spirit only. There was a set of stairs that Gwen had shown him shortly after he'd first arrived, a forgotten corner of the castle that led up to a quiet part of rooftop which Gwen said got very little use except from servants seeking a moment of solace. Merlin had found himself up there on a handful of occasions, and it had always brought with it a measure of peace.

He sat on the cool tiles of the rooftop and allowed his feet to dangle over the edge, stretching back to look at the stars. As a child he had always felt so small faced with these far distant glimmering lights, but now it was a comfort rather than a concern, the ability to sit back and consider the sheer vastness of the cosmos, and his own inconsequential place within it.

He opened up one hand and allowed a ball of light to fill it, reflecting the light of the stars above him until he had constellations swirling in his palm. He shut his eyes, not tired in the slightest, and let the hum of the universe wash over him.

He hardly heard footsteps behind him, only dimly noticing someone sit down beside him. When their presence finally filtered through his consciousness, Merlin snapped back to reality and turned to see Arthur watching him.

"You're not supposed to know about this place," he said.

"I have my ways. What are you doing?"

Merlin clenched his hand shut.

"I think we're past that point now," said Arthur.

"I'm --" Merlin didn't know how to explain it, so he held his palm up until an astronomer's model formed once more.

Arthur stared at it. "That's -- that's really very good."

Merlin shrugged. "I was bored, mostly. Gaius doesn't work me nearly as hard as you did. Have you found my replacement yet?"

"I have -- well, I've certainly considered beginning the search. I think I'll try and set myself a challenge, to find someone even more incompetent than you."

"Right, good luck with that, then."

"I hate this," Arthur said suddenly.

"In that case, could you stop being such a noble, damned --"

"Prat," Arthur supplied.

"Yes! Arthur, I've had a thousand chances to leave Camelot, I know what I'm risking. And there isn't a doubt in my mind that it's worth it. Serving you lets me help people, and if I'm careful, if I do what I can, I can save them, I can save you. It's worth it. Not to mention, I really don't want to spend the rest of my days dispensing ointments for unseemly rashes."

Arthur looked uneasy. "Merlin, what you can do - you can't deny that it's powerful. I've seen it at work, how can you promise that it won't get the greater part of you?"

"Because you can keep me in check, you can help me. I'd like that," Merlin said, and it felt like a confession. "This has all been -- completely mad, actually." He started to grin, though he wasn't sure why.

"How someone so intensely simple-minded as you managed to keep something like this from me, I shall never fathom," said Arthur, and they looked at each other for a moment before Merlin dissolved into helpless laughter and Arthur took advantage of the moment to shove him onto his side.

"Your face," said Merlin a little breathlessly, "there was this time, when I had to sneak some keys past you and you looked so bloody confused and honestly, it was the funniest thing I've ever seen--" he trailed off, laughing again.

"Clearly you are going to have to keep me better informed of these illegal adventures of yours," said Arthur sternly, though when Merlin chanced a glance upwards Arthur didn't look angry in the least.

"They say it's going to be a beautiful day tomorrow," Arthur said after a while. "I was thinking of riding out in the morning, if you'd accompany me."

Relief swept right through Merlin. He nodded, and the constellations continued to spin in the hollow of his palm.
Tags: fandom: merlin, fic, fic: merlin, pairing: merlin/arthur
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