Recipients: oconel and nefernat
Warnings: Implied character death (although that’s really not the focus here, I promise)
Word Count: 3,230 (approximately)
Summary: For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love. Or, four discoveries that shattered Merlin’s world and one that didn’t, not really, when he thought about it.
Author's Note: Huge thanks to I_C for betaing this; to Train and their ridiculously catchy “Hey, Soul Sister” for the title; and to Carl Sagan for the summary and cut quotes. To oconel and nefernat: I took the one-word prompt of “moon” and ran with it, so I’m sorry if this isn’t what you were expecting, guys. I hope you still find it satisfactory.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.
It’s not long after Camlann that Merlin leaves Albion. He tries for a bit to stay, travels around the countryside for a few years and just looks, waiting like he’s supposed to find something in it. What he does find is that it’s too raw, all of it, no part of it far enough away that he could see it and not ache with the sense of Arthur he could already feel fading from the land. There’s a disparity between what he remembers these places as being -- Arthur stripped and wet, golden against the blue of the lake water in the middle of summer; Arthur sprawled out lazy in the field, grass hugging green and lush against the sharp cut of his body; Arthur silhouetted against the sky, sun bright on his hair and mouth curved soft and smiling as he looked at Merlin spread out beneath him -- and what he actually finds. Albion seems dulled somehow, rivers churning thick and trees groaning with the weight of the wind and all of it crawling on Merlin’s skin like too much. It really is, he realises, at least for now, too much for him to watch Arthur’s land tear itself apart and build itself back slowly, so slowly, seasons and civil wars and none of it like Merlin remembers it being with Arthur here.
He isn’t ready to feel that, time erasing Arthur and moving on, so even if it’s not a planned decision, Merlin goes. He stops in a port on the southern coast, air stinging heavy with salt when he breathes and waves lapping at his feet on the shore, the back of his mind when he tries to sleep that night. He doesn’t manage to sleep, but by the next morning, he’s managed to sell his horse and book passage on a ship for the mainland, somewhere that had never known Arthur in the first place.
He’s been around a long time, yes; doesn’t mean his decisions have to make the most sense, no matter what Arthur would say.
In any case, he leaves Albion for the continent, and it’s better. His feet grow sore from walking, and his thighs burn faintly from riding when he chooses to. He’s at his leisure here, a state he thinks he’ll be in for a long time, and while the thought of that still aches in his chest, it’s not as bad here as it was in Albion. Here, he has new things to discover, what’s to him an entirely new world to explore, life and land and people. It’s nice, and far better than he expected to find.
After a few (tens of) years of travelling, he comes to Italy. And while the rest of the mainland had been an unexpectedly successful balm, Italy takes him by surprise. He likes its hills, sloping and gentle and green in the midday sun, and he likes the way its nights are comfortably warm. He likes the wines that taste bitter and rich in his mouth, still sweeter than any ale Camelot had, and the oil that coats his fingers and lips when he dips pieces of soft bread into it.
But what makes him fall in love with Italy is its history. In Camelot, they’d known a bit of the Romans. He and Arthur had found remnants of them once on the return from a long hunting trip: broken walls and mossy bricks, scattered and fractured and completely dead. Here, though, he can see pieces of an empire, that same one that predates him and Arthur and everything he’s ever known, and it’s alive. It’s changed, streets repaved and buildings styled differently, but the remnants of Rome aren’t so much remnants as pieces, reincorporated and reinvigorated through their place in a city that is still changing and growing, teeming with life. It’s the opposite of what Merlin had feared seeing in Albion, the smooth marble of ancient columns tangible proof that history didn’t have to mean death or forgetting what came before. It fascinates him, enchanting and promising and hopeful in the way it makes the knot in his chest that he’s come to equate with Albion and, more importantly, Arthur unclench just a little.
It’s enough, he finds, more than. Enough that he’s surprised to realise fifty years later that every morning, he watches the sun come up from the same place on the same ancient hills, the grass worn newly bare under the spot where he stands.
Merlin guesses he’ll be staying a while, then.
The thing about gravity is that it really shouldn’t be a thing at all. Because, well. When Merlin thinks about it (and he does, quite a lot. Not much else to do on the stretch of road between the old wherever and the new one), it really, really shouldn’t be.
He’s heard and read about the theory, and it hasn’t done anything to change his opinion. It simply doesn’t seem to do much, see, just explains what everyone already knew. It’s a bit like Arthur when Merlin finally told him, heart and stomach knotted up and choking him, about his magic, only to see Arthur smirk and shrug, so? writ plain into every line in his posture and face. So?, like this wasn’t news, just a voicing of something he had known so long it was almost instinctual. Nothing special, if only because it’d always been there.
Merlin gets it somewhere on the road to Paris.
He’s walking, mostly because the French countryside is beautiful in a nondescript way, and something in Merlin feels like he should give it more of a chance to become memorable than his speed on horseback would let him. The road is dusty under his feet, dirt swirling around his ankles with every step. Overhead, the sky is a cloudless, clear blue, so bright it hurts to look at it. Merlin watches his feet instead, the sand he kicks up and the way his boots rise and fall and move him forward as he walks.
He’s not even sure why, but one step makes him stop short. His right foot hangs in the air, suspended, and something in Merlin’s mind clicks, massive and shattering. He stares at his foot, feet, both of them, but mostly the left one, still stuck on the road, and suddenly all he can think about is how it’s his only point of connection to the ground. He lowers his right foot gingerly, and having two points isn’t much better, except for how it is. It is because he gets it suddenly, he understands, the importance of the fact that there’s more holding him here than just those points of his feet on the road.
Merlin remembers Arthur asking him once about flying, and if he could do it. He’d laughed and said, Of course, and then he’d jumped and thought about moving himself up the way he moved a quill over to Arthur from across the room, just his eyes flashing gold and nothing but air beneath it. It hadn’t worked. He’d fallen back, stumbled when he landed unprepared on his feet, and Arthur had smirked. Good thing, too, he’d said. Who would I yell at if you floated away? But his hand had gripped Merlin’s tight like a tether, and Merlin had only smiled.
Now, he thinks about that, the pull of Arthur’s hand and both of them stuck inexplicably to the ground, invisible tethers holding them down. Merlin looks up at the sky and then down at his feet. He raises one cautiously, stupidly nervous even though he knows there’s something tying him here, something more than the one point of connection where his foot meets the road. He scuffs his raised foot, watches the kicked-up dust float and swirl on the wind before falling back down to settle on the ground, in the grooves of his leather boots. And he laughs because he understands, him and everything else, all of what’s here held safe and stable.
Merlin looks up at the sky, open and blue and boundless. The air shimmers a bit from heat, uncertain and wavering, a contrast to the solid ground under his feet. He laughs again, soft, and his fingers tingle as he jumps, just for the sake of feeling himself fall back down like he already knows he will.
Merlin’s villa in Rome is small. He’s trying to blend in, especially now that magic gets him attention of the unfavourable sort again, and something large and ostentatious isn’t what he needs. Or even what he wants, not when he’s always been one for practicality. A manor with that much space for one person would defy all sense of being practical, so he just doesn’t get one, simple as that.
His house is actually on the outskirts of the city, far enough away that the road turns from the inner-city cobblestones to dirt before it reaches his home. He has a small vegetable garden around the back and a smaller, slightly-lopsided chicken coop for the three hens he keeps. There’s a trellis on the wall covered in snaking grape vines, and a carved marble bench in the middle of all of this where he goes to read sometimes.
Merlin loves his garden and courtyard. The soil is different than what he vaguely remembers Ealdor’s as being. It’s thin and rocky, something that shouldn’t be good for growing but somehow is, and he’s managed to keep his pair of olive trees and other crops happy and healthy enough to give him something to harvest every year he’s owned this house.
He spends most of his time outside. The Italian sun has turned the skin on his neck and face and arms a deep tan in a way Albion’s never could, and he laughs to himself a little at the thought of how he used to burn pink after a day of riding. The wind, gentle but persistent, leaves his hair almost permanently tangled, and he keeps a small pot of salve for his cracked lips with him always. He has changed, muscles filled out in his shoulders and legs from all of his walking, from the days he spends tending his garden. When he looks at himself sometimes, he doesn’t see a stranger, but rather what he decides is a possibility. He thinks this man, the lean muscle and weathered skin of a farmer, is who he might have become had he never gone to Camelot.
It’s not alien, exactly, because he can clearly see himself in it. It’s another piece of who he’s finding he is, and he’s glad to have it.
When the nights are clear, Merlin lies out on his bench. The marble is cool under his back, no longer warmed from sunlight, and the sculpted legs are smooth and solid when he drifts a hand down to feel them. He stays like that for hours, just staring up at the stars and tracing out all the patterns and constellations he’s recently come to learn. He and Arthur knew some, or simply made up their own, but it was never so many as Merlin knows by heart now.
Some nights, Merlin indulges himself and chances using his magic. He fashions a telescope out of his own will and a rotted branch from his olive tree, his eyes glowing gold as he turns the wood to cold brass, the gnarled tip to a smooth glass circle. Merlin spends even longer looking at the planets, Jupiter and the four small spots of light he can see around it, Venus and Mars just brighter dots against fainter stars in the larger black of the sky.
Merlin thinks on these nights about the books he reads, the ones with theories almost as volatile and dangerous as his magic, damning. He hasn’t yet decided what he feels on the matter, the Earth as the centre or as simply one of many moving points. But he thinks about the Church that forces him to keep his power hidden, about the planets that carry the names of older gods and how he himself is living proof that there is more than one greater force, more than one way of looking at things. He looks at the pinpricks of light scattered through the sky, more than he or anyone can ever count, and he thinks about the chance of each one having other worlds, each one having new and distant places to explore if only they could look beyond themselves.
His fingers hold the telescope firmly, and when he lowers it from his eye, he can see himself reflected, already changed and further warped in the rounded brass. He thinks about alterations and new possibilities, and for just one minute, he closes his eyes and imagines he can feel the world shifting beneath his feet, realigning itself around new understanding and continuing in its regular, freshly-discovered motion. He smiles at the idea, and he finally knows which way he’d prefer.
Time, Merlin comes to learn, changes everything. Fashions, literature, knowledge -- Merlin has watched them grow and develop. He has seen the rise of civilizations, and the fall of them, countless civil wars and ruling families, everything impactful and impressionable and ultimately short-lived.
It has been years since he finally returned to Albion -- England now, he supposes -- longer still since his villa on the outskirts of Rome. He has lost his tan, skin faded back to pale now that rain is a more regular occurrence than sunshine. Merlin doesn’t mind so much. It’s nice, he thinks, to be able to look at the sky again without squinting at its sheer brightness, to see the way it extends so far it seems only a matter of time before it will swallow everything, the horizon and him and the solid ground beneath his feet. And it is even nicer to be back in this place that was his home for so long.
He finds it odd that he thinks that way, given that he has lived more years away from England than he has in it. No matter, he decides, and thinks that the memory of what this land was may be the one thing time doesn’t change.
It’s a bit strange to be back here, this place he left because he could scarcely breathe without aching for what it used to be. Merlin still feels that ache sometimes, when he lies in bed and stares at the ceiling the way he used to stare at the sky. When he lets himself think about it, he can feel his chest clench a bit, his hand tingling where he can remember Arthur gripping it so many times before.
Surprisingly, though, he finds that he’s often too busy to think about it, simply because he has so many other things to contemplate. Solar systems and cells, ancient creatures and the unimaginably gradual way everything developed from a single point. Merlin has watched humanity shatter its understanding of the world, its place in the larger picture, so many times. And every time, he has watched them piece it back together and move on, smarter and more aware and already searching for the next question to solve. It’s amazing, he thinks, and he finds himself far too often overwhelmed by the thought of how much his own knowledge has changed and readjusted itself in ways he would never have even dreamed, simply because this, everything he’s had the opportunity to learn, is so beyond anything he could have pictured then.
It’s funny, he thinks. When he first watched Arthur fall at Camlann, inevitable and vanishing, Merlin fully expected the next however many years until Arthur’s return to be agonising, painfully lonely.
In many ways, they have been.
In just as many ways -- galaxies and atoms, planets and the people clinging to them, slowly unearthing all the ways life doesn't make any sort of sense and watching it continue all the same -- they have been anything but.
If he’s totally honest, Merlin isn’t as shocked as he would expect himself to be when he realises that sometimes, he thinks of Arthur’s return and wishes for more time.
He’s let himself fall in love with science, with watching progress happen from his privileged vantage point, centuries behind him and possibly countless centuries still to go. And, again being totally honest, he’s so terribly excited for what new knowledge those centuries will bring him that he all but thrums with it, tension and anticipation wound tight in his chest right next to the ever-dulling ache of Arthur’s absence.
The thing is, though, that Arthur’s absence means more time to watch humanity grow and advance itself in so many ways. Merlin has watched the world shatter itself with war and violence and discovery, and he has watched it build itself back up again, greater than before every time. And he misses Arthur, still so much that it hurts when he thinks about it. But at the same time, he has ideas now, things he wants to do and things he wants to learn and all of them requiring more time.
It’s an impossible idea, but Merlin wants so fiercely to take Arthur to distant moons, to Jupiter’s Io. He wants to see what Arthur looks like being fucked there, ash in his hair and embers glowing on his skin and eyes bright like the stars Merlin has to imagine shining behind layers of atmosphere and volcanic dust. He wants to nip constellation patterns into Arthur's skin, Pleiades on the blade of his shoulder and Orion in the small of his back, all the heroes that predated even them mapped out across Arthur’s body in thumbprint bruises and small bite marks. And he wants to go through, after this is done, to every point on the cosmic map of Arthur’s skin and imagine the worlds around each one, whole flocks of them to explore and piece together, Arthur at his side, if they just give humanity enough time to get there.
Merlin wants this, all of it and more, and he thinks there’s a good possibility he’ll get it. People have come further than any of them could ever have imagined, Gaius’ idea of science so antiquated now that it’s laughable, and Merlin is confident that, given enough time, they’ll get to all those places he wants to be. He knows it, just as instinctively as he’s ever known anything, and he doesn't ache so much for having to wait on Arthur in the first place.
He thinks about wanting to take Arthur to distant stars, new centers to realign and shape themselves around. And he doesn't feel so bad for hoping, sometimes, for longer because he knows that Arthur, wherever he is now and whenever he finally comes back, will understand.
Mostly, this is because Merlin knows that Arthur’s natural curiosity surpasses even his own, and that Arthur will be beyond thrilled for all the chances he’ll have to see those new worlds, to see how much things have changed.
More importantly, however, it’s because Merlin knows that when Arthur does finally come back, and when they’re lying so close together it would be impossible to imagine them apart, Arthur will ask him what kept him busy for all those years. And Merlin knows that he will be able to look at Arthur and say, in total honesty, You.