Arthur didn’t know when it was that he first started noticing Merlin’s hands. It may have been that first time Merlin had helped him with his armour, the way his long fingers fumbled and knotted in the straps and laces, incompetent and flustered. It may have been when Merlin held the poisoned chalice up in front of the court, his hand wrapped around the goblet, unwavering, his pale skin a light contrast against the gold. It may have been in Ealdor, when Merlin worked alongside his people, strong and certain, but trembling when adjusting his own vambrace before the battle.
Over the years, Arthur watched as Merlin grew into himself, and his hands became sure when fastening Arthur’s armour and steady in the face of danger and dragons. In the midst of the most unfathomable trouble, Merlin’s hands remained steady, even when using them to wipe away his own tears, tears he didn’t know Arthur had seen. There was confidence there, and strength, and though Merlin played the fool, bumbling and idiotic on occasion, his hands told a different story, showed a different side to Merlin that only the observant could see.
The truth was that Arthur couldn’t remember when he first noticed them but at some point, he had come to rely on Merlin’s hands, the comfort he felt when Merlin smoothed down his tunic, the pride that welled when Merlin clutched the reins of his horse to ride out by Arthur’s side and defend Camelot, the security he felt in the smooth, methodical way Merlin sharpened his sword.
In light of that, it was easy for Arthur to see when something was wrong.
Merlin looked exhausted as he bent over Arthur’s armour. Arthur knew Merlin had been helping around the castle, making repairs, cleaning, assisting Gaius with the wounded as well as attending to his own duties as Arthur’s manservant. He was exhausted, as were most of the residents of Camelot. That was not the problem.
Arthur had watched Merlin polish his armour for years and now, as Merlin scrubbed the breast plate with the polishing cloth using the tips of his fingers, lightly, instead of his normal strong slow strokes with the heel of his hand, Arthur knew something was off. It was disconcerting.
“Merlin,” he said, from his chair by the fire, where he was supposed to be reading restoration reports instead of watching his manservant, “what are you doing?”
Merlin looked up and gave Arthur a cheeky smile. “Dancing a jig.” He went back to his task, adding more oil to his rag, before ineffectually dragging it across the metal.
“You can’t ignore me, Merlin,” Arthur said, stretching out and pressing the toe of his boot to Merlin’s leg.
Merlin flicked him in the ankle and winced. “Obviously, not.”
Arthur noticed then, the way Merlin tried to subtly flex his hand, testing it.
He hid his concern under a huff and a roll of his eyes. “Well, you’re appropriately surly but you’re still doing it wrong.”
Merlin hummed and ran the cloth tentatively over the pauldron. “Yes, Arthur, because you know so much about polishing armour.”
“You’d be surprised. Come on, Merlin, you can’t fool me.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“You’re trying to hide it.”
“I’m trying to finish my chores at a reasonable hour so I might try and get some sleep tonight,” Merlin said, hotly. “Interruptions by stubborn princes notwithstanding.”
“Merlin, come here,” Arthur said with a gesture of his hand.
“I’d rather finish this…”
“It was not a request.”
Merlin stood with a grumble, lanky limbs unfolding. Head down, he reluctantly shuffled forward, until he was standing at Arthur’s spread knees. Arthur straightened, gently took Merlin’s wrist in his hand, rubbed his thumb over the thin skin there and turned Merlin’s hand over, palm up, his knuckles resting gently in Arthur’s fingers.
Arthur was expecting maybe a bruise or a scrape but not this. Merlin’s palm was raw, littered with torn skin and broken blisters. Arthur gasped. He grabbed Merlin’s other wrist, flipped it over quickly. The other was just as bad.
Merlin grimaced and weakly tried to pull away.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled. “What is…how did…how did this happen?” he demanded.
Merlin shrugged. “It’s not that bad,” he answered, avoiding Arthur’s question.
Arthur made a distressed sound in this throat. “Not that bad? Men lose hands over these types of wounds!”
He leaned closer, noted the redness, the dried blood, the raised white skin of blisters. Arthur knew these kinds of wounds, had seen them before in squires too foolish to wear gloves when handling a sword. He pursed his lips, contemplative, wondering when Merlin had wielded a sword long enough to warrant such damage and if Merlin had more of a role in the saving of Camelot than he had let on. He’d ask if he thought he’d get a straight answer. He could demand it, bully Merlin into answers to questions that had been building for years, but Merlin looked weary, fragile, and Arthur couldn’t.
He sighed and softly placed his own hand over Merlin’s, felt the heat radiating off Merlin’s skin. “It has to be painful,” he said more to himself than Merlin. “I have salve.”
“Arthur, you don’t have to.”
Merlin tried to tug his hand away, but Arthur tightened his grip on Merlin, his thumb and fingers encircling his wrist firmly.
“I have salve,” he said again, the only thing he could say. He stood, spun Merlin around and pushed Merlin into his chair. “Stay there.”
Arthur went to his cabinet and pulled out a jar of salve Gaius had given him when he had received burns from the dragon. He also pulled out an old, soft linen shirt.
Merlin was watching him warily as Arthur crossed the room. He knelt at Merlin’s feet and Merlin looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“Arthur,” he said softly, “please, don’t.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
Arthur uncorked the jar, the strong, stinging smell of the balm wafted between them. Arthur dipped his fingers in the viscous liquid, pulling out a large dollop.
“Hands on your knees, palms up.”
Merlin did as he was told without complaint. He still looked cautious, like he would bolt out of his seat any second if provoked.
Arthur gently slid his hand under Merlin’s, cradled it before gently applying the salve. It was cool on Arthur’s own fingers and he wondered how it felt on Merlin’s overheated skin.
He looked up, studied the underside of Merlin’s jaw as Merlin’s head tipped back and his eyes fluttered closed. Arthur dutifully rubbed the salve into the wounds on both hands as Merlin let out soft sighs.
Once both palms were sufficiently greased, Arthur tore the shirt into strips.
“You should have told me,” Arthur said, wrapping Merlin’s hands, carefully.
Merlin shrugged. “It seemed small in comparison to everything else.”
“Never think that, Merlin. You are important to Camelot.” Arthur shifted awkwardly. “And to me.”
Merlin studied him, blue eyes sharp despite their weariness. “Thank you,” he finally said with a tired albeit brilliant smile.
“Maybe someday, you’ll tell me the story about how you got those.”
Merlin’s smile tempered until it was only a bitter twist of his lips. “Someday, Arthur.”
Arthur nodded. He squeezed Merlin’s knee then stood.
“Go get some rest. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Merlin stood. “Goodnight, Arthur.”
Arthur watched Merlin as he left, the stark white of the bandages almost matching the colour of Merlin’s skin.
Arthur settled back into his chair. Merlin’s hands may have been injured, but they would heal, under Arthur’s watchful eyes. They would continue to work, to comfort, and maybe one day, Merlin would feel safe enough to tell Arthur about the power inherent in them.