I've said this is a one-shot but really, I can actually see a way to continue this... whether or not I find the time is another matter entirely. Thank you soooooo much daily-chan for convincing me to get my ass in gear and edit this when I had it written ages ago (and because you sound in desperate need of cheering up and hopefully this will be enough fluff to at least make you comfy and cosy :))

This is, of course, for you omouto-chan.


The Art of Breathing

It was as though perpetual twilight had fallen over Camelot. Stores of grain harvested and packed for the winter were being double and triple checked daily to ensure no rain could seep in and the streets were permanently and dangerously slick with puddles, strewn about the place by indiscriminating rain that hadn't ceased for so long that the people were beginning to forget what a clear, sunny sky looked like. In every house the sound of dripping leaks in thatched roofs were impossible to hear over the torrent outside, the deluge beating against the walls with the force of millions of tiny arrows.

It was depressing; the world washed in deep blues and greens and darkness from the bruised clouds above. There was no childish cries and laughter because no children were allowed outside; mothers too concerned about the threat of sickness. Many children were too scared anyway; hiding in the arms of their parents as rolls of thunder and lightning made the ground rumble and the sky momentarily catch alight.

And yet, for all the silenced children and darkness and cold and hammering water, Merlin was content, because in this moment – sitting near Gaius who was dozing comfortably in his own bed but far enough away to feel secluded by the din and dark of the storm; so much so that he could easily allow himself to think he was the last human on Earth – Merlin could breathe.

For too long he'd been following the orders of a man whose show of feelings were so constantly shifting that Merlin felt as though he was grasping at something intangible as smoke in his efforts to understand him. His own feelings were confusing enough without being so unsure about Arthur's. Now, as the castle and its inhabitants rolled to a stop because of the relentless rain and the problems it posed for the completion of many daily activities, Merlin was given whole days to himself away from Arthur, who at Uther's command attended meetings with advisors and unfortunate messengers from other kingdoms as the future king was taught yet another nuance of what he was to inherit.

Too many times had Merlin needed to sneak away for moments of space while Arthur trained with his knights or rode through the streets, needing the time to collect himself and push his emotions deep down into the darkest corner of his heart so that he could have the time until they rose once more to breathe freely again; something he'd found increasingly impossible in Arthur's company. They always returned, the feelings; bubbles of furious emotion that refused to be quelled or ignored for long. Merlin knew he was in love. Knew that he loved Arthur. He also couldn't escape from the truth of the matter; Arthur was to be king and would need a queen and heirs and Merlin was... Merlin. He was bound by servitude and magic and destiny and might as well have been part of another universe from the man he loved because it would give him just as much chance of seeing that love reflected back at him.

The rain didn't depress him and nor did the colourless landscape that reminded him of his mother and Will and warm hugs by the fire and home. Truly, in this moment, he wasn't depressed at all. The rain that seemed to be meticulously hung like curtains around him felt almost protective – for all that they were strings of water, he felt as though nothing could get in or out of their delicate layers – and Merlin had been outside for so long that what had stung upon leaving Gaius dozing in a moment of afternoon weariness had left Merlin so cold so quickly that he felt nothing. He felt motionless and timeless and was grateful for the respite.

Where he sat on an oddly shaped piece of fallen tree just outside the city gates, Merlin was finally able to breathe and be completely alone. He wasn't one side of a coin out here, away from it all; he was a whole, untainted human being who depended only on himself. He was alone and protected and nothing mattered because he was safe here. Alone and so safe.

Of course such times rarely last as long as anyone would like and when Merlin heard a painfully familiar voice muttering and footsteps sloshing and crunching towards where he sat, he mourned with regret the loss of his solitude and watched, disheartened, as his protection; his flimsy curtains of water were disintegrated thoughtlessly and Arthur stepped through. Even with the wave of hopelessness brought by the sight of Arthur, Merlin had to smile, no matter how sadly, at the hair that dripped and flopped in the prince's face and the way he looked thoroughly disgusted by something as pure as falling rain. Merlin saw the moment Arthur noticed that he was being watched and was surprised by the sheer multitude of feelings that flickered across the prince's face, more open than it had been for quite some time. Merlin wondered later why it should have surprised him at all that, when clearly feeling abruptly adrift, Arthur chose to focus on his irritation.

"Just what do you think you are doing?"

Merlin was startled and it showed. He was sitting on a log in the rain, contemplating the serious things inside himself he never showed to anyone. He would have thought that at least the first two things were rather obvious.

"Umm," he began, at a loss as to how not to point out the obvious. "I'm sitting in the rain?"

"Bloody right you are! Why did you make me walk through that bog back there? There had to have been a dozen places closer to the gates for you to pick, but noooo-"

"Hold on, I hardly asked you to follow me; I didn't make you do anything!"

Arthur gave him a look that was usually reserved for the moments Merlin had said something supremely stupid.

"Right. Because I'd really let you walk around the forest on your own."

Now Merlin was giving Arthur the same look – though on his face it managed to simply seem politely quizzical – and said blankly, "what are you on about?" Arthur's face flickered to something so familiar it made Merlin want to laugh and cry and tear his heart out all at the same time and he stuttered the rather choked addition of "sire."

"There are all sorts of things out here and you can barely lift a sword, which is beside the point because you don't have one. Why would I let... my manservant out here alone?"

"You were worried?" Despite everything he'd been feeling mere moments ago, Merlin couldn't help that same old smile from creeping onto his face. The same one he'd wear when Arthur first made Merlin laugh or the first time he'd said they were friends.

"Uneasy. And only because you're so completely useless."

Merlin's smile was gone again so fast he wondered idly if his face had suddenly forgotten how to arrange his muscles that way anymore. Yes, he was useless wasn't he? For all that he had the future king of Camelot following him into forests out of concern – ahem, uneasiness – for him, he was utterly and completely worthless with anything more... with anything intentional. With the tasks he was given every day. With the feelings he pushed away and the love that hurt so much he almost wished he didn't possess the capability for it. Not when it was destined to be wasted and ignored.

Arthur noticed the change and his own manner changed too, melting into the intense worry that he'd denied and that Merlin couldn't really accept he was worthy of on his own merits. Arthur stepped forward with great sucking sounds as his boots threatened to stay in the mud rather than on his feet and sat beside Merlin on the worn wood, noticing the way his manservant stiffened at their proximity.

"You're not useless," Arthur said quietly, not really thinking that was the problem but unsure as to what he could say that would fix this. Merlin stayed quiet and stared ahead of himself into the middle-distance, eyes unfocused and wandering. Rain hit the both of them and while Arthur was still slightly warm from his many heavy layers and aware enough that it was a struggle not to flinch from the frozen water pelting him, Merlin was detached and didn't seem to notice as rain dripped from his hair and ran down his cheeks like tears.

Unable to stand the silent tension and the painful rain and the way Merlin was so still he looked not to be breathing at all, Arthur reached out and touched Merlin's shoulder, frowning deeply when Merlin flinched at the contact. Embarrassed at his reaction, Merlin's eyes fell to the ground and his cheeks probably would have flushed if the cold hadn't frozen the blood out of his pale face.

"What's wrong?" Arthur was forced to ask because nothing else came to mind.

Merlin still didn't respond for too long and when he did it was with an almost-whispered, "nothing."

Arthur had to fight not to get angry but his irritation was fierce. Something was wrong and he was incapable of doing anything about it until he knew what it was. He hated feeling so powerless and Merlin was purposely keeping it from him. Thus he was grateful that when he did reply his voice merely sounded intense with an edge of urgency.

"Tell me."

It was a command and Merlin didn't lift his head, feeling so exposed that, were he to meet Arthur's eyes, he might be left with actual wounds. "It's nothing you can do anything about."

"I don't care, tell me."

Merlin raised his head and looked him in the eye and Arthur was shocked by what he saw in Merlin. All of his insecurities and desires and crushed hopes lay bare at Arthur's feet; deepest feelings uncovered and painfully clear and yet, for all that, his face seemed blank and immoveable as stone. As though he had long since given up any hope of anything going right ever again and that his problems stemmed from dealing with the pain of it. And it looked so painful. The sheer ferocity of the longing in Merlin's eyes looked painful; Arthur couldn't imagine the agony of that longing going unmet.

"Merlin," Arthur lifted a hand, unsure as to what he would do with it, wanting to erase that look such that he would never have to see it again on a face as open and happy and carefree as Merlin's was supposed to be. It seemed the world couldn't be right if Merlin could wear such a look with the ease of slipping into a well-worn cloak.

Merlin's eyes dropped slowly and he took his time to collect himself before standing and turning and walking away, all his movements steady and automatic as though he wasn't in control of his own body as it took him on a line parallel to the gates of the castle; undecided between returning to the warmth it offered or walking further into the forest and disappearing forever.

Arthur followed at a distance without a thought, scarcely remembering a time he'd felt so hesitant. This was a pain so deep and profound that he couldn't fathom how Merlin could move or think or breathe whilst bearing it. Unable to stand the thought of him crumbling from the inside, Arthur took a few quick steps forward and grabbed Merlin's arm in a strong hand, just above his elbow; pulling him to a stop and jerking when Merlin's only response was to say, "Please don't," with a voice so unsteady it cracked. The pain was tangible and Arthur felt himself hurting from it too.

"Tell me," Arthur pleaded and when Merlin turned his face back to look at him Arthur saw that Merlin's response wasn't necessary. He could see there the regret and the pain and the love. So much love. And when Merlin couldn't stand the contact with eyes or hands anymore he tried to pull away and nearly slipped in the mud with his struggles before Arthur stepped further forward, into Merlin's space, and held the back of his neck in a strong, somehow warm hand and caught Merlin's lips with his own.

It was brief and Merlin stood frozen and damp and cold and warm and tingly and it was so wonderful. When Arthur pulled back and Merlin opened his eyes a little dizzily to look at Arthur's serious, steady, completely and utterly sure gaze, he shivered and fell back into his body, feeling the rain pierce him and Arthur's hand against his skin, seeming warm only because Merlin was so cold. And when Arthur pulled away from him, Merlin struggled not to whine at the loss. He was one side of a coin, the inhale to Arthur's exhale; he needed the contact and the assurance and Arthur, but then Arthur was pulling his heavy, fur-lined cloak from his own shoulders and tugging it around Merlin and then pulling Merlin as close to his own body as was physically possible and somehow he was just so warm.

They revelled in it, in their warmth and the contact and just held each other and nothing mattered here because they were alone and safe and so warm. It was only them and Merlin smiled – open, happy and carefree – into Arthur's neck. Only the two of them existed here and there was nothing outside the feel of their calm, steady breathing, the sweet cadence murmuring 'home' over and over in the space between heart beats and Merlin smiled. He could finally breathe.

Okay, hopefully this isn't too abrupt an ending and it makes sense and isn't rushed... I like the sentiment I tried to express but I'm not sure about the result. I can't remember for the life of me what I was listening to when I wrote this but it was edited to Samson by Regina Spektor which may well have affected the mood of it (it certainly enhances the mood of it when reading it back :)). I got the original idea from watching that scene in Pride and Prejudice (with Keira Knightly) when Darcy first proposes in the rain... oh he can be such an idiot sometimes... gorgeous though :)

Hope you feel better omouto!!! :)