The thing is –
Here’s the thing:
Arthur doesn’t know what it is.
He tries – thinks that maybe if he can catch its reflection, the silhouette of it – if he can do these things, if he can wrest it down, smooth it out, then maybe he’ll finally know.
It’s like fire without smoke, light without the sun: it just is.
It’s like –
He thinks that maybe it’s just the pieces:
the fine, unstudied, clumsy grace of his hands, the fingers long and limber, the way his touch heats Arthur’s skin, or
the way his hair curls chastely around his ears, too long, long enough that Arthur wouldn’t be wrong to tell him to cut it (except he never does), or
the long lean line of his back, arcing with the sort of perfection that mathematicians could spend years looking for, shut up with their formulas and their numbers, and never, ever find it, or
the blue of his eyes, the sort of color that makes everything look brighter – the trees and the skies and the sun, the way Camelot seemed colder before he came here, as if only now it has been suffused with color, or
the way his sleeve rides up, revealing a wrist, delicate as a baby bird, and pale, pale skin, enough that the blue lacework of veins show through, translucent, or
the plush curve of his lower lip, and does it taste like honey, because Arthur wants to know, wants to sip the sweetness off him, wants to feed him honeyed words, wants to trace the shape of it, memorize it, can’t stop looking when they’re feasting, and he lets him have a sip of wine, and – honey, Arthur thinks – or
before battle, the sooty sweep of his lashes against his skin, the way he won’t look at Arthur, the way his hands tremble, the way his fingers knot in Arthur’s tunic, the way he carefully, reverently, slides Arthur’s chest plate over his heart, the way his wide-eyed glance says, you hold my heart, too.
Or maybe it’s not.
Maybe it’s more than that.
Maybe it’s the way Merlin binds his shoulder too tightly, doesn’t speak to him, the sardonic lilt of his breaths replaced by something harder, something more terrible, something like fear.
Maybe it’s the way he tells the councilors to get out, his fingers curling with spilled magic.
Maybe – maybe it’s the way he stretches out in front of the fire, the sharp planes of him folded up like origami, the fire glinting on his hair, haloing him in gold. Maybe it’s the way his hands are furled into fists at his heart, like he’s praying to gods that they both know don’t exist, never existed. Maybe it’s the way he never quite gives in to sleep, as if he’s clutching at that knife-edge where wake and sleep blur.
(Maybe it’s the way Arthur tells him to just get into the bed, Merlin, and
maybe it’s the way Merlin tilts his forehead against Arthur’s, the space between holding their words unsaid.)
This is what Arthur has always known:
loyalty (alone in Arthur’s chambers, Merlin kneeling before him, and the knights did this in the throne room, but the thing is, Merlin isn’t promising himself to Camelot, he’s promising himself to Arthur, to Arthur alone) and
honor (Merlin tucks him into bed with long, lingering touches, the rush of his breath hushed against Arthur’s ear, speaking a language that Arthur doesn’t know but thinks he understands, and this is the closest they’ll ever get, walking this thin line, because this is what they are, more than a kingdom and a crown, more than this world) and
love (standing in the northern tower at dawn, watching the day break, and Merlin comes up beside him, close enough that when Arthur reaches out, uncertain, his hand is immediately snatched up, and Arthur forsakes the way the night gives way to the gossamer gold of day – because Merlin’s smile has always, always been brighter than the sun).
Tell me a story, Arthur says.
There was a boy, says Merlin.
What was his name, Arthur says.
Don’t interrupt, Merlin says loftily. His name was—
Merlin, Arthur says. His name was Merlin.
Merlin’s hand stills in Arthur’s hair, his fingers threaded into it.
Merlin, Arthur says impatiently.
His name was Merlin, Merlin says dutifully. And there was a king.
Named Arthur, Arthur says, pleased.
Why not, Merlin says; he presses a smile into Arthur’s hair. And the king was the sort of king that councilors despair of: he seemed to have an allergy to his throne, he was always skipping council meetings in favor of going down to the lower town and buying bread for the children and helping with the calving even though he didn’t know anything about calving. He did things that were unseemly for a king: he sparred with the knights and he lowered the taxes even though it meant that he wouldn’t get to have those tarts that he liked so much.
He sounds awful, Arthur says sleepily.
Oh, he really was, says Merlin. He was especially awful to his manservant, Merlin; he’d bully him horribly and he called him names; he got him so drunk one night that, to this day, the very smell of beer is enough to make Merlin nauseous. He’d send Merlin’s mother terribly expensive presents, far too dear for a king to be sending to a mere subject, and he’d make Merlin wear horrible robes made of velvet—
They were lovely, Arthur says stubbornly.
Velvet, Merlin says. And they were purple. Anyway – he’d send Merlin to the stocks and personally supplied the fruit to the villagers from the castle kitchens.
I don’t like this story, Arthur decides. Tell me another one.
Oh, but I’m getting to the good part, Merlin says cheerily, thumbing under Arthur’s lashes. The king was basically horrible and obviously Merlin – who was a good and extremely handsome young man, I’ll have you know – did not deserve anything the king subjected him to.
But, Arthur says testily. Get on with it.
But, Merlin agrees. But, one day, the king uncovered Merlin’s terrible secret, because of course Merlin had a secret, these extremely handsome and good men often do. Merlin’s secret was that he was magic, and it was the sort of secret that sent men to the grave. And when the king discovered Merlin’s betrayal, Merlin was so sure that he’d send Merlin away. But do you know what the king did?
What, Arthur says, strangely eager for someone who knows how the story will turn out.
Merlin’s voice drops, low and private: The king said, I know, Merlin, you absolute idiot. And when Merlin asked him why he wasn’t sending Merlin away, the king – Arthur – pushed him up against the wall and said—
This is not one of Morgana’s tawdry romances, Merlin, Arthur says, going pink with an all-over blush.
Merlin says reprovingly, You wanted to hear this story.
Well, Arthur says, and twines his fingers with Merlin’s. I already know how it ends.
I love you, Merlin says, and quickly tucks his face into the curve of Arthur’s neck.
Arthur says, Is that the end of the story, or are you telling me?
And Merlin says, Both.
Here’s the thing:
He loves Merlin, fierce as the sea breaking upon the shore, never-ending as the sky soaring up from the horizon. He loves him like he loves Camelot, the way that there’s no start or end to this love, the way it just is, infinite and expanding. He loves the pieces of him and he loves the way the pieces are put together: the soft curve of cheek and the whole of him.
He loves Merlin.
This – this, Arthur knows.