Word Count: 2,172
Notes: Despite the apparent soppy title, this is a bit angsty :)
Summary: Merlin loves Arthur. He knows that, it’s like the sun rising in the morning, or the lake freezing in winter, just part of the natural order of things. But…
Merlin can’t remember if it was always like this. It seems like he’s been here, lived here, all of his life. Ealdor is a dream, rosy with the passing years, but he’s not even sure if his memories are to be trusted. He tries though, he loves remembering climbing trees with Will as a boy, coming back with skinned knees, laughing madly, and being fed pottage on their return. “That’ll stick to your ribs,” said Hunith, although it never had.
The light shines brightly here, through the high wide windows of Arthur’s bedchamber, there’s a criss-cross pattern on the bedspread that Merlin’s just smoothed down. He’s beaten the feathers of the mattress into some kind of a shape and then dressed the bed again, sheet, coverlet, bedspread, bolsters, in fine linen and wools, velvet for best, the outer layers, and he bites his lip as does so. This is so like dressing Arthur, in the mornings, back when everything was fresh and new, every morning like that first one, Arthur standing with his arms outstretched, and Merlin fumbling with the unfamiliar layers, lacings askew, and Arthur patient sometimes, irritable at others.
Except that things aren’t like that now, not really. Merlin’s breath still catches, but it’s not through worry he’ll fail to dress Arthur correctly. Now, it’s because Arthur may grab his hand, may take his chin and turn to face him, slide his tongue along his lips, and then push inside. Merlin won’t stop him either, couldn’t if he wanted to, his heart beats faster when Arthur’s there, when Arthur takes the time, the trouble, shows him how much… how much he cares.
It’s not that Merlin doesn’t believe him. Of course he does, Arthur is surprisingly discreet, but there’s a softness to his eyes when he gazes on Merlin from across the Great Hall. When Merlin steps forward to pour him wine, a finger will glide up the side of the goblet, will gently brush Merlin’s thumb as he steadies the cup before pouring from the jug. It’s discreet, but sometimes, if Merlin’s not careful, the frisson of contact will make him jerk, and he may spill a drop or two, and then Arthur will smirk. The worst of Arthur’s nature is not completely lost, even with Merlin. Perhaps especially with Merlin.
Merlin, in fact, will have to bite back a ready comment, a reply destined to have cutting consequences, because they’re in public, because the King will undoubtedly notice, and Merlin will be in trouble – again. He imagines that Arthur might get fed up of sneakily watching from a window, as Merlin is pelted with rotten fruit, but no, it doesn’t seem to get old. He’d like to get Arthur back some day, see how he likes it. Perhaps in winter, when the snow falls, because Arthur almost certainly won’t be expecting it by then. People tend not to throw snowballs at the Crown Prince. Although, to be fair, Merlin supposes that Arthur isn’t going to be that easy a target. It’s all that training, he’s got a fantastic eye, good coordination, and Merlin will no doubt get pummelled right back, snow down his neck, everything, and Merlin’s lips curve into a smile as he thinks about it. It’s a beautiful picture.
But the sun is shining for now, and Merlin loves Arthur, with a sort of sick feeling in his belly, like the one you get if you eat too much fruit in autumn, and his hands are sweaty, and he longs for… He doesn’t even know for what, because his room behind Gaius’ chambers is getting dusty, he sleeps with Arthur at least five nights out of seven, here in this room, beneath these beautifully smooth sheets, that he takes for washing, and changes himself, whenever he feels like it. He sleeps tangled around Arthur, under him, on him, and he wakes up with Arthur blinking into his eyes, and smiling, before turfing him out and calling him lazybones and dolt. He doesn’t mean it, Merlin knows, it’s just their way. Merlin will give as good as he gets, in private anyway, and if he hasn’t called Arthur a prat for a while now, well, he doesn’t want to get boring, now does he?
Everything through Arthur’s windows seems so transparent. In Ealdor, the whole village couldn’t muster up the glass that Merlin looks through now. He stares down into the courtyard and the people look so small, so far away, or maybe it’s Merlin who is distant. The glazing itself is held in lead fitments, and the criss-crossing pieces look like bars on a dungeon door, but more delicate, more refined. Merlin knows that, he’s seen Camelot’s dungeons, where the bars are thick and rusty. Arthur would never permit anything rusty in his chambers, not his armour, not a pot, or pan, certainly not the bars on his windows. At least Merlin doesn’t have to clean them.
But Merlin can count his blessings, really he can. Arthur knowing his secret, for one. For months he’d worried, he’d dissembled, he’d had Gaius lie for him, all to prevent his magic becoming the final sin that kills him. For months Merlin had shivered every single time Uther walked past him, a delicious shiver, half fear, half daring, and Arthur had begun to look at him askance, had even pretended to misunderstand the reason, just to get Merlin’s outraged denials. Merlin doesn’t think he was serious. He hopes he wasn’t.
And then one day, one ordinary day, they had been hunting, and they were attacked – and how safe can Uther call his kingdom when that’s a normal ordinary day? Of course, the beast had been magical, and after the gryphon, Merlin has a feeling for those creatures now, a certain taste in the air, a certain tingle at the back of his throat. It’s as though Merlin wants to talk to them, somehow, in a language he only half remembers. It didn’t stop the beast though, as Merlin recalls – a salamander, that spat fire from its eyes – Merlin looked it up afterwards, the smell of Gaius’ potions and pills astringent in his nostrils, dust lit up in the sunlight, and it’s a wonder that he doesn’t associate hunting trips with medicines, not counting the herbs he brings back on occasion, and Gaius isn’t grateful enough.
The revelation of his magic had been ordinary, in its extraordinary way. The beast had spat, and Merlin had protected. The glowing golden dome that he’d conjured might have been a bit flashy, he’ll concede, but Arthur was busy throwing up his own shield to protect his eyes at the time, so Merlin had thought he hadn’t spotted it. Merlin loves Arthur, but it’s not as if he’s the most observant man in the world. Comes of sticking his nose up in the air all the time, Merlin has been known to remark. Arthur has also been known to cuff the back of his head. But this time, the magic really had been too blatant, and even Arthur had noticed.
Merlin looks around Arthur’s bedchamber, and contemplates what he can do next. He’s cleaned Arthur’s armour, he’s swept the floor, he’s emptied the chamber pots, and he’s made the bed. There are the stables, he supposes, but Merlin is strangely reluctant to leave. Instead, he stays by the windows, huffing his breath onto the glass, and drawing abstract patterns with his finger.
Arthur had kept him waiting, before he told him he knew. Merlin remembers now that Arthur had been distant, but not awful. He’d been prattish, of course, but nothing special. He’d been… a good actor. It gives Merlin confidence actually, because now he knows that Arthur can stare down anyone, including Uther, all cool and calm and regal. Unless he’s angry though, Arthur finds it harder to hide that, and Merlin both hates and loves Arthur when he’s angry, because he tends to take it out on Merlin, which can also be good or bad. So Merlin likes to consider Arthur during that time, when he hadn’t revealed what he knew, because it means Arthur couldn’t have been that angry about Merlin’s magic. Merlin would have noticed that. He must have been… something else.
Sometimes Merlin lies awake at night, his arm over Arthur’s side, fingers tucked into his warm belly. Sometimes Merlin lies there and wonders what Arthur did feel, what he thought about in those days, why he still welcomed Merlin into his bed, all the while hiding a secret as big as Merlin’s. Merlin wonders if Arthur had been… disappointed in him. Or, even worse, hurt. He doesn’t like the thought that Arthur had been feeling those things, and yet Merlin didn’t know. Didn’t have an inkling. He doesn’t like to think about the other possibility that’s crossed his mind. That Arthur could have been indifferent.
Merlin warms Arthur’s bed. They laugh together, in private, Arthur makes him wear stupid hats, he tickles him unmercifully. But he also has no qualms about giving Merlin work, he doesn’t acknowledge him in public, he… Merlin cleans the window with an impatient sleeve. There must be something more to do here. He looks around, his hands on the diamond panes, pressing against the glass.
Merlin loves Arthur. He knows that, it’s like the sun rising in the morning, or the lake freezing in winter, just part of the natural order of things. His mouth goes dry when Arthur walks into a room. The smell of the oil that Merlin uses on Arthur’s chain-mail can give him inappropriate reactions. It’s just the way of things.
But he can’t say anything, any more than Arthur can. That’s also the way of things. Merlin is jostled on the staircase sometimes, by buxom wenches mostly, but sometimes also by the occasional stable-hand. He knows he’s gossiped about – impossible not to be in a castle as large, and yet as intimate, as downright claustrophobic, as Camelot – and he knows there are jealousies. There are plenty of other servants who would like to be in Merlin’s place, in Arthur’s bed, to whisper in his ear and curry favour. Merlin’s given up trying to explain it’s not like that, because Arthur doesn’t listen to him, that he has no power at all. No-one seems to believe him, except maybe for Gwen.
Merlin doesn’t mind. He’s never had many friends, courtesy of an upbringing that had his mother paranoid about magic, and about who might know, or might see. He’s used to being alone, it doesn’t bother him. He likes to be here, in Arthur’s room, because it’s a haven. That’s it. A sanctuary of sorts. A haven filled with a prat who moans if his bath isn’t ready, who drags Merlin into it fully clothed, to laugh at him, but a haven still.
Merlin looks down, and wonders if Arthur would like the floor polished. Whether Merlin will have the time to finish it before Arthur gets back from training. He leans on the window again, the metal of the casements digging in, the glass smooth. Merlin wonders what else will make Arthur happy.
Because Merlin thinks that Arthur cares for him. He thinks that Arthur knows how the other servants feel. He thinks that Arthur knows he has few friends outside of their intimate circle, and Merlin thinks that Arthur knows how precarious his position is. Merlin thinks that Arthur knows all these things, but he doesn’t have proof. He assumes. He assumes many things.
Each diamond-shaped pane of glass is very small; if Merlin knocked one out, he could get his hand out of the window, but nothing else. His fingers would feel the fresh, free air, his palm would be tickled by the breeze, but nothing else would fit. He would be trapped behind all this expensive clear glass.
Arthur knows Merlin’s secret, but he won’t tell, because he cares for Merlin, he’s fond of him. Merlin would like to think he might love him back, but he can’t ask. He can’t upset… the equilibrium. He can’t upset…
Merlin is a powerful sorcerer, but that’s nothing. That’s a handful of leaves blown into the air. Arthur… Arthur knows everything about Merlin, he knows his secrets, he knows his weaknesses, he literally holds Merlin’s life and death in his hands. Merlin stays with Arthur five nights in every seven, and then Merlin goes back to a dusty cold bed, and he lies awake wondering if Arthur will call him back to his side in the morning.
It’s a privilege to live here, to share Arthur’s bed, his life. And Merlin loves Arthur so very much, with a sort of sick feeling in his belly, as though he’s been stuffed with sweetmeats like a prized pup – and he wishes he could stay. He wants to throw snowballs at Arthur when the winter comes, he wants to curl up with him before a roaring fire, but…
Love is a funny thing, a fragile thing. Merlin wants his to survive.