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Merlin remembered the other children in his village being afraid of the dark.

They would whisper about the Bwca coming and snatching you up, dragging you back to their world beneath the earth. Or Gwyllon, spirits and night-wanderers giving a terrible fright, stopping your heart mid-beat in its chest. Like the old, cranky shepherd a few winters past. Bandits and raiders would appear from the murky shadows, with their axes and their swords, striking you down like a burst of wild thunder and lighting fire to your home.

Bad things happened when it grew dark outside. Without the comfort of a roaring hearth or a flicker of candle. But Merlin understood it differently—how could the bad things get you when they couldn't find you?

It seemed a wiser decision to try and hide.

His mother often had stories about his youth, about how she would find Merlin huddling face-down under her cot or a pile of tattered, ragged blankets. The cold, hungry dogs baying and howling in the distance, with lightning crashing, like a devastating omen of the netherworld rising.

One night, he had stuffed his ears with his tiny, pale fingers, curling into himself. Hunith would have either soothingly touched Merlin's hand and bid him to sleep, or extinguished the candles until the protective dark of evening graced every corner of their home. She would lay on the floor with him, calmly.

Merlin believed he grew out of it. And stubbornly so, he did.

Now everything could hurt him, and the dark wasn't always safe.

When his agitation was at its worst, Merlin would find himself longing for closed spaces. The wide availability for a body in the dressing cupboard, perhaps. His cot in Gaius' workshop didn't very well accommodate him.

Gwen didn't approve of his first choice—Morgana's bedchambers, when she discovered him half-asleep surrounded in silk finery and nearly folded.

He needed some place with restricted access, hidden away and small. It would be brilliant to clear his head for a while.

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It was going to be one of those nights.

Arthur could feel the headache dwelling behind his eyes, faintly thudding in rhythm to his hastening footsteps.

More and more, he had reason to suffer them. Morgana was insatiable in her hatred of Camelot and for his people. For him. In a fit of her blind rage, or maybe it had been calculated—simply done to bring suffering upon them—but, one of the out-lying villages now had been reduced to blackened cinders.

The kingdom was looking to him for answers. But none… were easy.

His guards shut the heavy, studded-wood door behind him. Arthur poured himself a goblet of barely warmed ale, glancing around his chambers.

A soft cough drew his attention.

He swallowed his mouthful, removing his lips from the goblet's rim. Another cough, just as soft as before, but Arthur heard it coming from the direction of his bed.

Or, rather, below it.

Arthur rolled his eyes good-naturedly. His fingers tugged at the front lacings of his cape, working them apart. Supposed he might be on his own tonight. "Merlin," he spoke aloud, pointedly at thin air. "Did you polish my armour?"

A voice answered, tonelessly, "Yes."

The red, bold-bright material slipped from Arthur's shoulders, as he paced the other side of the chamber and draped his cape mindfully against the back of a chair. Next came his gloves tossed a bit less mindful against the surface of the table. "Launder my clothes?"

"Yes."

"My boots?"

Merlin's voice edged towards blunt sarcasm.

"You could lick dinner off them, sire," he said.

The king gave a short, huffed breath of amusement, thankful Merlin was out-of-sight as the corner of Arthur's mouth visibly quirked.

"Very good," Arthur said. "Maybe you're not quite as useless as one might assume." He walked towards his own bed in long strides, silvery mail crunching metallic. Head tilting, eyes on the gaping, dark space of the stone floor. "Now… are you going to tell me what this is about?"

Silence followed. Not even a cough, or shift of limbs. Once or twice during these… Arthur usually thought of them as Merlin's incidences, he could hear Merlin grumbling or fidgeting.

"Are you going to be insolent every time I ask?"

"Probably," came Merlin's immediate reply, and the fact that his servant even willed the indifferent challenge was to be taken as reassurance.

Arthur sank down on his bed, knowing his presence was no hindrance. He looked straight ahead, hands clasped, soberly.

He could very well have Merlin thrown out. Forced out.

He could have done it the previous nights.

But never did.

"Is this about the fire at dawn?" Arthur asked, though already knowing in his heart. He shook his head, expression grave and taut. It couldn't have been anything else. Merlin had been present with the rest of his knights, yelling for the survivors to retreat, treating the wounded. A layer of grey ash clung to his sweat-glistening face, just like everyone else.

Despite being silently thankful for Merlin's company at the time, Arthur would have not wished anyone to behold such a horrific tragedy.

He exhaled. "Sorcery had been involved. My men did all they could."

"They burned alive. All of them."

Arthur's throat clenched at the memory of the screams, panicked faces.

"Many of the villagers escaped," he insisted with a scarcer conviction behind it.

"Children without mothers or fathers. Loved ones who are going to be looking for the rest of their lives in other realms for those already dead, thinking they got away," Merlin said, and if Arthur could have glimpsed him, he knew the frustration scrunching every line to Merlin's face. Watery, blue eyes. "Morgana got what she wanted. They suffered."

Arthur's palms slapped down on the bed.

"Merlin—" he said, voice dangerously low, but he couldn't truly be angry. The least of all at Merlin.

Merlin wasn't the king of these lands, who was meant to come to their aid in time. Put an end to the burning enchantments and rescue all the injured.

He let his spine bend forward, arms upright and fingers entwining. Arthur's lips pressed to his hands in contemplation. "Yes, my people did suffer," he whispered. "But we will not allow this grievance to remain as it is. Their homes will be rebuilt. Their dead will be honored, and their families given what they need."

Arthur's hand swept through his yellow hair, letting his muscles go lax.

"If you're going to insist upon staying until day-break, then I expect chores done early and breakfast. If I smell the tavern on you…"

A small, breathy laugh drifted into Arthur's ears.

"No need, I'll get an early start," Merlin said, feigning cheer as he climbed out from under the bed. His pale cheeks somewhat flushed. Merlin's eyes glossy. Arthur sternly ignored the damp streaks to a grinning face, as well as the damnable impulse to carefully push them away with the fat of his thumb.

"See that you do," Arthur murmured, roughly tousling curly dark locks as the other man clumsily rose to his feet and wrinkled his nose in displeasure.

"Gods, I'm not a child."

"You seem to forget that you have the mind of one," he argued back.

Merlin turned away with a budding, familiarly-wonderful smile.

"Good night, sire," he chimed out, and then stared down puzzled at his right shoulder, narrow-eyed, when Arthur's hand held it securely. Their eyes met. Merlin's face softened, revealing a slip of vulnerability. Already reading the question written to Arthur's mind, he offered a shrug.

"It helps me… get away." Merlin added, "Old habits for dark, quiet spaces."

"Am I to believe that—?"

"—yes, only your chambers, Arthur." He said, with a touch of embarrassment. "Don't think Percival or Elyan or the lot would take kindly to intruders."

"I can hardly blame them." Arthur's hand clapped him, misgiving his strength or emotion in the gesture, and nearly rattling Merlin's bone from his arm's socket. He stared evenly at Merlin. "Now get out before I have you in the stocks."

The deadpan in Arthur's tone went unacknowledged, as Merlin bowed his head and grinned. A bloom of shock and irresistible heat went up his chest. The other man cradled Arthur's hand and ran a closed mouth over his knuckles. Bumping affectionately to the gold royal seal.

Merlin ducked a fist to the head, laughing, finally disappearing out into the corridor with the king's guards suspiciously watching him but shutting the chamber-door.

The little imp.

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BBC Merlin is not mine. You can decide if this is pre-slash or simply their odd little friendship. No right or wrong answer. I'd love to hear your thoughts!~

kink-me merlin prompt:

"Arthur/Merlin

Merlin has the habit of hiding under Arthur's bed whenever he's troubled or needs to be alone. Arthur doesn't mind and is in fact used to it. Preferably set in Canon era."