Disclaimer: Nothing is mine. Well, a little bit, but nothing important.
Author's note: So I am a huge, HUGE Merthur shipper, and I've wanted to write a fic about them for ages but couldn't get the inspiration. Then out of the blue I thought of a phrase, and then a paragraph, and then suddenly there was a story and 3 hours of my life had vanished. So yes, this was written all in one go, which isn't my usual modus operandi, but then again my favourite of all my other stories was done this way too so here's hoping for a repeat result.
Oh, and I know this isn't an overt piece of shippy fluff. I don't know why that happened. You'd think after all the tease of the show that will of course come to nothing, I'd want to go in the other direction. I guess subtlety is just ingrained in their coupleness for me now.
Beneath Stars, Between Heartbeats
Merlin liked stars.
He liked the way they glistened and changed in minute detail against their inky backdrop, such a contrast to the lifeless depictions he had seen in so many paintings and drawings. Stars were not to be captured in art. For Merlin, stars were to be seen as real and whole things, or not at all.
The stars were out in full force tonight.
The grey blanket of cloud that had cloaked the sky for much of winter had slowly drifted in and out and finally away over the past few weeks, culminating in this brilliantly illuminated night. Merlin was not one to miss an opportunity, and so he came to be standing on the Albion Castle battlements as at a little past midnight, smiling like he hadn't done in days.
"Stars?" Arthur said, disbelief and more than a note of condescension in his voice. His spoon was poised over a bowl of soup, having made half the journey to his lips and then found itself coming to an abrupt halt. "You're trekking out to some field to look at stars? Why not just walk out your front door and tilt your head up? Same effect." He lifted the spoon the rest of the way to his mouth and found that the soup he had previously collected had dribbled out while he was talking.
"Not the same," Merlin replied, not looking up from the boot he was polishing on the other side of Arthur's chambers. "I like the peace out there. You need peace to look at stars." Merlin caught himself. He realized this conversation was heading down the path of making him look like a sap, and he didn't need Arthur mocking him any more than usual.
"Stars," Arthur said again, this time more to himself. His spoon swirled the dregs at the bottom of his bowl. "Well, if that's how you want to waste your time…"
Merlin put the now clean boot down next to its pair and got up. "I wouldn't expect you to get it," he laughed. "Your boots are done."
Arthur barely glanced at them. His gaze had wandered to the window.
"Right, well, I'm off."
Arthur looked up at Merlin. "Have fun," he said dryly.
Merlin unfolds his blanket, and allows himself a moment to gaze across the walls and down over the courtyard, the gardens, the fields and roads and huts and houses, the intricate lay of the town that unfolded slowly out onto the land. He stills finds himself from time to time caught in the wonder of city living.
And then he sits down in the middle of the walkway, leaning on hands pressed firmly into the ground and face angled towards the sky, and lets his eyes drink in the sea of tiny lights that litter an unblemished sky.
This is good, he thinks to himself in the darkness and the silence, away from work and dragons and secrets. But he feels even stronger, just for a moment, how nice it would be to have someone to share this with.
And then through the quiet night, as if in answer to his thoughts, Merlin thinks he hears distant and quiet and maybe a little hesitant footsteps coming up the closest stairwell.
"All the same…"
Arthur's voice stopped Merlin in his exit. Merlin turned from the door, eyebrows raised, to see Arthur on his feet and leaning on his chair.
"You shouldn't be going out to a field on your own in the middle of the night. I can't help it if you're daft enough to want to stare at the sky, but I don't want you getting yourself into trouble." His voice had lost the snarky edge it had before, and seemed almost concerned. Arthur realized this, and added brashly, "Knowing you, Merlin, you'd probably fall into a ditch and get stuck."
Merlin laughed despite himself. "You want me to take an armed guard, then? Protect me from the big scary night monsters?"
A grin flickered across Arthur's face, though he tried to hide it. "No. I'm suggesting a change of venue."
Merlin hears someone clear their throat behind him, and shifts so as to be able to see who is there, not that he really needs the visual confirmation.
Arthur comes to a halt before him.
"Hi," he says, without elaboration or movement.
Merlin waits for a few moments, but nothing is forthcoming. He decides to engage. "So, you suddenly felt the need to engage in some time-wasting?" he says teasingly, smiling benignly up at the interloper. "What happened to walking out the door and tilting your head up a bit? It's the same, isn't it?"
"Merlin," Arthur responds, "I think it would take me the same amount of time and effort to get to my front door as it would to get up here." He shifts his weight. "I just wondered what you were doing, that's all."
Merlin spreads his arms out wide and falls gently back onto the cold stone beneath him. "I'm doing what I said I would be doing, Arthur. I'm watching the stars."
Arthur takes the opportunity to sit down, beside Merlin. His posture remains stiff as he glances at the ground-strewn boy beside him. "Ah," he mutters, and his gaze lifts towards the sky.
"There's a place along the battlements." Arthur half-sat half-stood against the edge of the table. "If you take the stairs adjacent to the armory in the west wing you can get up there easily. It's quiet and scenic, and won't allow you the opportunity to get into such a scrape that would prevent you from showing up tomorrow. I need my sword polished, after all." He grinned at Merlin. "What do you think, star boy?"
Merlin wondered first if disagreeing would get him anywhere, and then if he actually wanted to disagree anyway. He had been a prolific star watcher back in his village, but he knew the land there. Stumbling around a dark and unfamiliar field in the middle of the night was probably not the best idea, and as much as he hated to admit that Arthur was right, even if only to himself, there were some dangerous ditches, and shrubbery, and creatures on the hunt.
"Fine," he sighed. "I'll use your battlements. This time."
He turned to leave again, missing the small but pleased smile that crept over Arthur's face.
"Do you do this a lot?"
Arthur's voice breaks the short silence that lay upon them. Merlin shifts slightly, but his eyes never move from their star-fixed gaze.
"I used to, back home. I haven't since I got here." Now his head raises up slightly and he looks at Arthur. "You don't look very comfortable."
"I'm not," Arthur mutters. His neck was starting to hurt.
"You're going to get cramps in the morning," Merlin states matter-of-factly, allowing his own head to lie back onto the stone. Arthur wonders why he isn't suggesting a solution.
"You're the one who seems to think this is a valid activity," Arthur snaps, and Merlin grins to himself at both the Prince's discomfort and his apparent need to see this through.
"Arthur, take a moment to note the difference between us, would you?"
For a few seconds, Arthur wonders if Merlin is taking a dig at him. Then it occurs to him that he is merely referring to their respective positions. Arthur sighs.
"Fine," he says, stretching his arms out to his sides and lowering himself back onto Merlin's blanket. He wriggles in a very un-princely way and tries to make himself comfy. A locke of hair falls into his eyes, and he raises a hand to swipe it irritably out of the way.
"Stop moving," Merlin says, exasperation clear in his voice.
Arthur debates breaking into a flurry of activity, just to further aggravate Merlin, but decides against it. He sighs, and lets his arm fall back to his side. His hand rolls slightly and brushes Merlin's fingers, coming to rest against the boy's wrist.
To Arthur, the night sky could have vanished and he wouldn't have noticed. Instead, all his attention is on the physical contact that seems to be causing him a violent surge of unexpected and indecipherable feelings.
Arthur feels his heart speed up, and tries to will it back to normal. It resists.
Seconds pass and Merlin doesn't move his hand. Arthur wonders if pulling his own hand back now would seem awkward, and chooses not to.
He realizes, if he stays entirely still, that he can feel the beat of Merlin's pulse mingling with his own. More dinstinctly, he can feel his own blood's erratic pounding, and wonders if Merlin feels it too. If he does, he isn't showing it. Merlin's heartbeat is calm and steady, a perfect reflection of the boy that lies beside Arthur now, his focus entirely on what he initially set out to do: star-gazing.
So Arthur takes a leaf out of Merlin's book, and lets his thoughts drift away from the heat and confusion racing through him, threatening to overwhelm him, and into the giddy lightness of his surrounds. He can see and hear and smell and feel night, silence, and the pinpricks of light spread across the black sky. As his heart rate slows he begins to lose the ability to discern which heartbeat is Merlin's and which is his own.
It was Merlin who stopped this time, his hand pressed lightly on the doorknob.
"You know, Arthur," he said, looking back over his shoulder, "I think a bit of star watching would be good for you. You should try it some time."
"Goodbye Merlin," Arthur replied pointedly. Merlin shrugged and let himself out; Arthur watched him go.
"Nice night," Arthur murmurs. He knows he didn't need to say it, but he wanted to anyway.
"Yes," Merlin replies. He sighs a content sigh, and he stretches his fingers and allows them to rest over Arthur's. Arthur smiles.
Their separate pulses melt into one.