The metal is cold and fragile between my fingers, much like the knot in my chest that seems to keep everything together these days. I hate how everyone handles me with care, as if I’d break at the slightest touch. I hate it the most from Merlin, who sneaks into my room as if his feet are socked instead of tied together by the shoelaces like they normally seem to be. From him most of all, I need the pretense of normalcy because if I see him look at me one more time with those heartbroken eyes, my resolve might crumble.
They don’t understand. No one does. No one knows that beyond the betrayal and hurt, there is relief. They don’t understand because I don’t allow myself to feel it very often. But now, with this bracelet –– the last thing left of her –– in my hands, I feel it threatening to spill over. I don’t have to marry. Not yet.
I loved her. No, not loved, love. I think everyone loves Guinevere, it’s impossible not to. So it wouldn’t have been such an ordeal to marry her. Especially since that meant I would have been able to distance myself from ––
The hand on my shoulder makes me jump, and Merlin misunderstands. I hadn’t heard him enter, but he pulls his hand away and swallows hard. His fingers twitch and I know what he wants, I’ve always known. Merlin thinks he hides so much, but the truth is, I know it all. I’m usually better at keeping him at arm’s length, with a remark on his tardiness or the state of him, but not today. Today I find myself staring at his mouth, watching how it forms the words, “I brought you dinner”. And again I can’t look away, so I nod. “I’m not hungry,” I say, like I always do but it’s out of habit, it’s because I have to say something or I’ll reach out and press my fingertips to the soft of his bottom lip.
He tries to tempt me with cheese and I look down to hide the smile tugging at my mouth. Merlin sees the bracelet there and leans closer. He smells of soap and the lingering scent of herbs that remind me of my childhood and how I liked being in Gaius’s tower, surrounded by all these mysteries.
“What’s that?” Merlin asks and his voice is rough.
“The guards found it in Guine––“ My voice catches and my fingers tighten on the bracelet. Merlin is so close I can feel his breath in my hair and the cold knot in my chest begins to unravel. “In Guinevere’s cell,” I finish hoarsely. I don’t know why I do it, but it feels right somehow. It feels like the answer. I slip the bracelet around my wrist and watch Merlin walk away, pick up an apple and polish it with his sleeve. My heart beats with renewed force, as if it’s been lingering in a perennial sleep and has just awoken. It hemorrhages warmth throughout my entire body and I can’t help myself. I can’t help rising to my feet and walking over to where Merlin stands hunched over with burdens he doesn’t trust me with, not yet. I want him to, but I know I have to deserve it.
He doesn’t hear me approach but his cheeks begin to flush when he sees me standing there. His eyes flitter with uncertainty and I know what this must look like. I know what he’s thinking but I can’t stop. I let it all show, how I want him, how I’ve craved him. How he destroys me every time he returns from doing something to keep me alive but that slowly eats away at him. I suspect he has made it his goal in life to keep me alive. At the cost of everyone else he loves.
“Merlin?” I say and I don’t mean it to be a question but the sudden overwhelming need to do this now, to give in, to let him know, is breathtaking. The array of feelings on Merlin’s face is myriad and every single one of them is for me. I take his sleeve, make him look at me, want him to know that this isn’t what he thinks this is. This isn’t me looking for solace. This is –– just me.
“Merlin,” I say again and this time it is no question. He moves back but I follow until he is pressed against the wall, where I imagined him so often and I can feel the need throbbing in my veins.
“Arthur,” Merlin protests. His breathing is shallow. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” I say, feeling giddy with how much I want this, how much I’ve always wanted this. Is this wrong? Was I wrong? Does Merlin not want this after all? “I don’t know at all, but gods help me Merlin, I want you.”
“Arthur,” Merlin breathes but I don’t give him time to think anymore. I close the distance until our mouths meet and it’s everything my kisses with Guinevere never were. I feel Merlin’s knees buckle and I hold him up, my whole body trembling with energy that has been held back for too long and is now fighting to be released. But I can feel Merlin’s brain work, I can almost hear his thoughts, how he wonders why I do this now, what my reasons are, and it nearly breaks me to think he’d do this for me because I need it. He doesn’t know yet, it is him I need. I will show him, over time. I kiss his eyes, his jaw, his neck. I tell him all the things that have been pressing down on me for so long, the words spilling from my mouth without intent. His hair is so soft between my fingers. I feel the gasp as I tug and I move to capture it from his mouth.
Merlin half sobs and then he’s gone, leaving me leaning with one hand against the wall, head hanging. The bracelet is gone too and I instantly understand why my walls had been torn down, because they snap back into place the moment the metal leaves my skin.
This time I hear him enter. I’m cold, standing by the window staring into nothing. This hurts, but I have to do it. I should never have ––
“I must apologize for my actions,” I tell him. “I don’t know what came over me, I ––“
“Don’t,” Merlin interrupts. He steps closer and it takes every bit of willpower not to go over and pull him against me. “Please.”
I stare at him, he’s flushed, biting his lip like he always does when he’s about to lie. So he worked it out. “This bracelet –– Gaius’s books ––"
I nearly laugh. These books of Gaius must be real treasures if they contain all the information Merlin has pretended they do all these years. He’s holding out the bracelet. “It –– it’s enchanted.”
He sounds so scared. I just want to shake him. I want to grab his shoulders and yell at him. I want him to trust me, to stop being afraid of me. If this bracelet does what I think it does, he must know. But he’ll tell me when he’s ready so I go on pretending, just like him.
“It makes someone want their true love,” he continues, not looking at me. “To want only their true love, and forget everything else.”
And there it is.
Merlin still won’t look at me, as if he’ll find me embarrassed, or angry, about him finally knowing. All I feel is a sense of sadness, that maybe I was wrong and Merlin doesn’t feel like I do. “I owe Guinevere an apology,” I say. “If it wasn’t for this bangle then she might, she would have chosen me.”
“She would,” Merlin agrees and I can’t make out if that sigh is made of the kind of relief I have been feeling.
“But I wasn’t the one she truly loved,” I tell him carefully, still unsure of where this is going. “So even if she had, would we have been happy? Would she have gone to him, eventually?” I take a deep breath. It’s too late to back out now, not that I want to. This is it, I need to know. I can’t go on pretending about this. “Gods know it’s not easy, even if you love someone, when there’s someone else. Someone else who’s everything to you.”
It’s as open as I can be and still give Merlin an out, if he wants it. He risks a glance at me and I see the breath catch between his lungs.
“Arthur,” he says very softly and the meaning in that one word makes my head spin. “It’s returned, you know. It has to be, it’s ––“
He can’t finish, because I am there, my hands folding around his face, taking him in, so I can remember this moment, no matter what the future brings. I pull him close. “Merlin. Merlin, I’ve tried so hard, for so long, but –– it’s hard, keeping a secret like this. You don’t know.” I leave it hanging, for him to do with as he pleases.
“I think I’ve got some idea,” he says with a gentle laugh and I smile into his neck, so he can’t see me. At least this is one secret out of the way. Maybe this means that soon, he’ll trust me with the rest.
“You know I can’t ––. I’ll have to marry. One day. It’s my duty to Camelot.”
I want to bite my tongue for those words to come out now, but maybe it’s for the best. If Merlin still wants to back out, he can without being too broken. For me, it is too late.
“I know,” Merlin says and I tighten my grip when he doesn’t move away. “I know.”
Our kiss folds around all the pain the future will bring, all the betrayals from the past. It encompasses the hurt and broken hearts and people lost and when my hands slide beneath Merlin’s shirt, when I press my face against his neck and feel his fingers tremble against my skin, our kiss spirals down to this one moment in time, holding all of that at bay. For now.