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Intricacies of Love (Or A Lack Thereof)

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There's no need to worry when

You see just where we're at

  Just please don't say you love me

'Cause I might not say it back

- “Please Don’t Say You Love Me” by Gabrielle Aplin

The argument started right after Arthur’s bath during the heavy minutes that always followed the trailing of Merlin’s soapy hands across Arthur’s shoulders, his neck, his hair, his chest. Everything felt heavier tonight, the gravity between them tugging skin toward skin--organs, bones, blood, all pulsing with want.

It never amounted to anything. Arthur was too bound up in duty, too aware of his position of power, and too afraid of his own feelings to act on them. And Merlin...Merlin was bound up in destiny. Afraid of what he didn’t feel--couldn’t feel. Because he knew something Arthur didn’t.

And wasn’t that the understatement of the millennium. Their entire relationship was built on Merlin knowing things and Arthur being kept in the dark, with Merlin always shoving him deeper and each push twisting a wrench in his heart.

But tonight, something was different. Perhaps it was the fact that they had survived another close brush with death only an hour before. Perhaps the rush of adrenaline gave Arthur a different brand of courage than he usually had. Perhaps Merlin’s relief at keeping his king alive another day made him less cautious about his appreciative glances, less wary of being found out.

He was completely unprepared when Arthur’s lips met his, and yet at the same time, it felt inevitable, as though he had known this would happen if they continued like this long enough. Arthur’s lips moved against Merlin’s unresponsive ones, and Merlin’s chest constricted so much it hurt, throat burning sharp with revulsion. Any attempt to swallow down his discomfort failed, and he sensed something shatter inside Arthur when he turned his face aside. Still, Merlin couldn’t lift his eyes from his feet.

“Arthur...”

“I thought...” Arthur started. He shook his head, taking a quick step back. “My apologies.” His voice was hollow as he said, “It won’t happen again. I don’t know what came over me.”

Merlin did look up then, more afraid of Arthur’s self-loathing than he was of confronting his own feelings--or lack thereof. “Don’t, Arthur,” he said. “Don’t...punish yourself for this.”

Arthur wouldn’t meet his eyes, staring just past him like he did when he was addressing an audience in the throne room. “I behaved inappropriately and abused my station.”

Merlin wanted to groan at this noble, ridiculously good man whom Merlin had hurt so many times, often without Arthur even realizing it. “You didn’t--” Merlin let out a little huff. “Arthur, you know I’ve never cared about your station. If you ordered me to kiss you, I’d call you a clotpole and you’d tell me to muck out the stables. I’d have the stablehand do it, of course--since that’s actually part of his job--and you’d never be any the wiser.”

Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but then his eyes narrowed at Merlin’s admission.

Not wanting him to think too much about that last part, Merlin hurried on. “It’s obvious I think you’re attractive. You’d have to be even more of an oblivious prat than you already are not to notice that.”

Arthur’s lips twitched toward a smirk at Merlin’s admittance but at the last second morphed into something childish in confusion instead. “Then why did you pull away?”

Merlin released a frustrated whine. He hated this. He hated hurting Arthur. He hated that so many parts of himself were unexplainable to the people who meant the most to him. He hated feeling like a monster for things he couldn’t change. “I’m just...not built that way,” he said eventually.

Arthur gave a quiet scoff and turned away. “I’ve seen you go home with Gwaine after many a night out, Merlin. I think he would beg to differ.”

Merlin threw his hands in the air. “The problem isn’t that you’re a man, Arthur. I’d be more than happy to fuck you if you asked, but that’s not what you want.”

Arthur let out a strange laugh. “And you know what I want, do you?” He didn’t give Merlin a chance to answer. “Everyone, my entire life, has made it their mission to tell me what I’m allowed to want. Now I finally get up the guts to say how I feel, what I want, and you think you know better. Because King Arthur could never want something other than the path his father laid out for him.” Arthur’s rant was gaining momentum, and Merlin’s teeth ached with every word. He needed to cut in, to tell Arthur what he meant, to get him to understand. “King Arthur could never have desires of his own. He could never love a servant, and a man at that--”

“I can’t love you!” Merlin interrupted, louder and more abruptly than he meant to.

Arthur stopped his monologue in its tracks, face pinching and melting in turn as he fluctuated between trying to remain unaffected and letting himself be wounded. “Right.”

Merlin gnawed at his lip for a moment, trying to decide how best to explain. “I want to. I’d do anything for you, Arthur, you have to know that. But I was there when you turned down marriage to Princess Elena--when you went against your father for a chance at true love--so I know that what you want is something I can’t give you. I just don’t...feel that way about--”

“I understand,” Arthur said in a sharp voice.

-- anyone, Merlin mentally finished. He swallowed, hating the silence. Awkwardly, he repeated, “I...I can’t love you--not like that.” He gave a half-shrug, doing his best not to inspire pity. He didn’t think he could handle it from Arthur.

Arthur didn’t respond, fingers curling into a fist and then relaxing. His eyes drifted to the window instead of toward Merlin, but Merlin could see the inflamed tint to his lids that meant he was holding back his pain.

As the minutes passed without comment, Merlin grew more and more restless. He didn’t want this confession to change things. He didn’t want to be the reason a wedge was constructed between them. But there was a part of him, a rebellious, weary, angry part lodged somewhere between his magic and his aromanticism that didn’t want to feel guilty either. Finally, he said, “If that’s all, my lord--”

“You’re dismissed. Goodnight, Merlin.” His voice wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t warm either. More than anything, he sounded tired. Merlin knew the feeling.

“Goodnight, Arthur,” he sighed, slipping out the door.

~

But you want what I can't give to you

Your hands are grabbing while my hands are tied

I can't love you how you want me to

I can't love you how you want me to

- “Bite the Hand” by boygenius

~

A few hours later, Merlin rolled off of Gwaine and onto his back, staring up at the ceiling as he caught his breath. “So Arthur told me he’s in love with me.”

“Shit,” Gwaine said breathlessly. “How did he take the rejection?”

Merlin sighed, rubbing at his head. “He said he understood, but then he stood there for a long time looking angry and just...dismissed me and said goodnight.”

Gwaine snorted. “Sounds like the Princess alright. It’s gotta be better getting rejected by someone who rejects everyone though, right?”

Merlin grinned crookedly and lifted up on his elbow to look down at Gwaine. “That makes me sound very popular.”

“Ah, and for good reason,” Gwaine murmured, running a hand along Merlin’s hip.

Merlin slapped his hand away. “Stop distracting me.”

“We’re still discussing the Princess? What more is there to talk about?”

Merlin chewed at his lip, studying the embroidery on the blanket crinkled around Gwaine’s waist. “He kissed me.”

“Oh?”

“It...wasn’t the worst thing in the world,” Merlin tried.

“I’m sure Arthur would be thrilled to hear such resounding feedback.”

Merlin pinched Gwaine’s nipple. “Oi! I’m being serious here.”

Gwaine exhaled long-sufferingly, dropping his head against the mattress. “Carry on then.”

Picking at a loose thread in the sheets, Merlin said, “I just--well, maybe I was wrong about everything. Maybe I’m not incapable of love. Maybe I could love—no, do love--Arthur.”

“Of course you do, Merlin,” Gwaine said gently. “You love Arthur, and Gwen, and Elyan, and Gaius.” He forced himself up so he was looking at Merlin again. “Leon and Percival, your mother and Camelot.”

“And you, you wanker,” Merlin said, irritated. “But I mean like, love love.”

Gwaine’s lips twitched. “You do, do you? Tell me again about that kiss.”

Merlin’s stomach twisted at the memory of Arthur’s lips against his, of the besotted look Arthur gave him as he leaned in, of the way Merlin felt more out of place in that moment than he did in years of being a sorcerer in Camelot.

Gwaine snickered at whatever he saw on Merlin’s face.

“I could tolerate it!” Merlin protested indignantly. “I could! If I just...shut off my brain while it happens and pretend I’m somewhere else!”

There were tears in Gwaine’s eyes now as he laughed beyond his air supply.

“What?” Merlin demanded. “What’s so funny? I could do it!”

Gwaine ceased his laughter with much effort, a few stray chuckles making their way past his restraint. “It’s not supposed to be a chore, mate.”

“I know,” Merlin grumbled.

Gwaine’s eyes turned curious, peering into Merlin’s like he was trying to read something in their depths. “Maybe you just don’t like kissing.”

Merlin perked up. “Is that a thing?”

“Sure. The same way some people don’t like sex or romance or apples.”

Merlin considered this. Maybe he could feel romantic love after all, just without true love’s kiss. Sure, what he felt for Arthur didn’t seem like what everyone else said love was, but maybe Merlin was just overthinking it. He certainly cared about Arthur in a way that was different from the way he cared about other people in his life. Arthur was his destiny, the other side of his coin, his Once and Future King. And if his king loved him and wanted Merlin’s love in return, then Merlin could give it. Not counting trivial things like sausages at lunch and a clean horse stall, Merlin would never deny his king anything.

“I’m sure Princess would be willing to keep his lips to himself if it meant going on romantic picnics with you and sending love letters and getting married--”

“What?” Merlin said, shaken from his thoughts by the nonsense coming out of Gwaine’s mouth. “But I don’t want to do any of that.”

Gwaine gave him a fond look. “You don’t say.”

Merlin opened and closed his mouth several times. “You think I’m being stupid.” When Gwaine didn’t correct him, he groaned. “People can change, can’t they? You said you used to think you only liked women, but now--”

“Lots of people change their minds about love and sex, yes,” Gwaine said. “It’s not stupid to question how you feel. It’s stupid to try and force yourself to feel something out of some misguided sense of duty or loyalty.” Gwaine shoved him lightly. “Arthur has enough people killing themselves to please him without you trying to start, yeah?”

Merlin huffed, but a smile was playing at his lips. “His head’s too fat already.”

“Exactly,” Gwaine said, pinning Merlin’s wrists above his head. “Now how about we stop talking about High Royal Pratness and do something we know you like.”

Merlin cracked up at Gwaine’s attempt to change the subject back to sex and nodded. It was hard to feel conflicted and guilty about Arthur when he had Gwaine’s reassurances in the front of his mind. Not to mention Gwaine’s cock in his arse.

~

It's so easy to laugh to myself

And pretend that I could love you but I can't 

- “Don’t Ask Me To Explain” by of Montreal

~  

Arthur was brooding. He didn’t like brooding, no matter how much Merlin and Gwen teased that he did, but sometimes there was simply nothing else he could do. After years of what Arthur thought was romantic tension rising between him and his manservant, he had finally confessed his feelings and been brutally rejected. For God’s sake, Merlin hadn’t even said something conventional like, “Arthur, you’re the king and I’m a servant. It would never work between us.” No, he had said the most heartbreaking words Arthur could imagine: I can’t love you.

What did that even mean? Not, “I don’t,” but “I can’t”? What about Arthur was so unlovable that Merlin characterized it as an impossibility?

So Arthur was brooding. Which, quite naturally, turned into self-loathing. He was staring moodily at a spot on the far wall with his chin balanced on his knuckles when Gwen came into his chambers.

“I came to get your plates,” Gwen said, peering at him with concern. “The cook said Merlin never brought them back to the kitchen.”

Arthur nodded, hoping she would just take them and go. She didn’t. It wasn’t even her job anymore to handle dishes or laundry or other servant tasks since Arthur had made her the embassador for the common people, but she still picked up the slack when the other servants fell behind. Each time Arthur called her on it, she just told him she liked to keep busy. They both heard what went unsaid: that Lancelot’s death hung around her like a dark cloud whenever she wasn’t elbow-deep in the washing up.

“Did something happen between you two?” she asked hesitantly.

“I kissed him,” Arthur said, feeling like a blacksmith hammer was pounding his heart into dust. “Told him I loved him.”

“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen said. “I’m so sorry.”

Arthur looked up helplessly. “Is it so obvious that he doesn’t love me back?”

Gwen tilted her head to the side and took the seat across from him. “Well, you’re clearly miserable, so that would have given me a clue even if I didn’t already know about Merlin.”

Arthur nodded morosely. Then, slowly, he processed her words and repeated, “...know about Merlin?”

“If I didn’t already know that he--” Gwen furrowed her brows. “What did he say to you exactly?”

“That he can’t love me.”

Gwen nodded, looking like she was waiting for him to go on.

Arthur frowned. “That’s it. That’s what he told me.”

Gwen blinked. Then she blinked again. “He told you he can’t love you. And nothing else?”

“Why? What should he have said?”

Gwen reached over and took Arthur’s hand in hers, clasping it tight. “Arthur, Merlin doesn’t love anyone like that. He just...can’t feel that way about people.”

Arthur’s frown deepened. “Is he cursed?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Did Hunith drop him as a baby?”

“No,” Gwen said, hitting him lightly on the back of his wrist. “Merlin’s not broken. Everyone experiences love differently. Some people love their friends and their families, others their partners. Some love their hobbies or their jobs, and some people don’t feel love at all. It’s not something that needs fixing, and it’s certainly not a curse. It’s just the way people are.”

Arthur wasn’t sure that made sense. How could someone not feel love and just...be fine with that? And still be a good person? Arthur could understand if sorcerers didn’t feel love and it made them evil, but surely if that was what Gwen meant, she wouldn’t be acting like it wasn’t a problem. “So Merlin...”

“Loves you as a friend,” Gwen finished. “A great deal, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Arthur still felt lost. “But he’s sleeping with Gwaine. Doesn’t that mean he thinks of him as more than a friend?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Arthur, surely you know that people can have sex without being in love with each other.”

“So what you’re saying is...” Arthur started slowly, proud to have finally worked it out, “Merlin is a slut.”

This time the smack Arthur received was much more impressive. “Arthur, don’t call him that! You’re not even trying to understand.” She sighed and sent him a pitying look. “Merlin may not be interested in true love’s kiss, but he cares about you a lot. You could stand to put in some effort.” Picking up Arthur’s plate of uneaten food, she stood. “Give some thought to what I’ve said, but just so you know, I really think you should talk to Merlin about this.” With one last sympathetic glance, she left the room.

Arthur dropped his head into his hands. And brooded. It was warranted, he was fairly sure.

~

Everybody loves a little different

Everybody’s heart’s pretty much a mess

Everybody loves a little different

Doesn’t mean I love you any less 

- “For Me” by Dearlie

~  

“So,” Arthur said when Merlin finally managed to wake him up the next morning. “I talked to Gwen.” There was something pointed about the way he said it that made it seem like he was hinting at something. 

Merlin stuck his head out from behind the wardrobe door to give him a bemused look. “All right...” Gwen was a valued member of his court. It wasn’t particularly newsworthy to have spoken with her. 

After their uncomfortable conversation the night before, Merlin had been dreading the awkward avoidance of eye contact this morning--or worse, the simmer of hurt or anger in Arthur’s eyes--but so far, the king had been more or less his usual self, if a bit more thoughtful. Perhaps Merlin had gotten lucky and Arthur was choosing to forget last night ever happened. Merlin thought he deserved some good luck after the awful hand he’d been dealt by fate.

“She...explained some things,” Arthur continued. He was sitting on the edge of his bed when Merlin came back with his clothes for the day. “About you.”

...not so lucky then. Merlin pulled Arthur’s sleep shirt up over his head, taking a few seconds to stealthily ogle his king’s chest. “Oh?”

When the shirt came off of his head, Arthur’s hair was sticking up at thirty different angles. “She told me you’re a slut.”

Merlin, who was trying to push Arthur’s bare chest out of his mind with maximum effort and quite certain it showed on his face, flushed to the tips of his ears. “She did not,” he squawked. “Gwaine maybe, but Gwen would never.”

Arthur grinned crookedly at him. “All right, she didn’t say that. But she did tell me you can’t love me the way I love you.”

“Yes?” Merlin said, confused once more. “I thought we established that last night.”

“No, we didn’t, you idiot. You didn’t tell me it applied to everyone. You just said you can’t love me.” Arthur made a face that, if he were not the king, might have been called a pout. “Excuse me if I took that a bit personally.”

Merlin crumpled in understanding. “Arthur...”

“I understand now, I think.” He frowned. “Well, mostly.”

“I’d be happy to explain better, if you’d like,” Merlin offered. His eyes flicked back to Arthur’s chest involuntarily, and he added, “Shirt first.”

Arthur’s lips quirked up as he took in Merlin’s flustered appearance. Taking the shirt from Merlin’s hands, he tossed it aside, eyes raking up and down Merlin’s frame. “No kissing,” he said slowly. “That’s the rule?”

Merlin’s mouth went dry. This was a bad idea. Arthur was in love with him. They hadn’t discussed things properly. But also...

With Arthur sitting before him, ready and willing, Merlin wasn’t sure he was capable of doing anything other than nodding. So he did. “Not on the mouth,” he added after a moment.

Arthur’s hands came up to Merlin’s hips, tugging him forward until he stood between Arthur’s thighs. “So this is acceptable,” he said. His eyes flicked to Merlin’s crotch, and he added smugly, “Agreeable, even.”

Merlin’s mouth curved into an almost-smile. Oh, to hell with it. “It is.” He stepped closer so they were pressed against each other and placed his hand down that oh-so-tempting chest, dragging it lower and lower until he reached Arthur’s waistband. He caught Arthur’s eye in question, and the desire in them made him dizzy.

Arthur nodded.

~

You say love is blind

But that's just some bullshit right there

'Cause I'm looking in your eyes

And they're burning fire

Sex on my mind

And that's what you want...

 

Wish I could tell you that I love you but I can't...

Wish I could tell you that I want you more than that

But this is not a love song 

- “Not A Love Song” by bülow

~

Gwen smiled widely when she saw Arthur later that day. “I take it you worked things out with Merlin?”

Arthur knew he was bouncing in an embarrassing manner, but it took him a moment to realize she was actually referring to the marks on his neck. His hand flew up to cover them, and he cleared his throat. “Yes, we did. Thank you for explaining things to me last night, Guinevere. Your, erm, service to the crown is appreciated.”

Throughout training with the knights and the Round Table meeting afterward, Arthur couldn’t keep his eyes off of Merlin. Merlin seemed to be having the same problem, although the water he spilled down Arthur’s white shirt was a bit too convenient to excuse as a distraction-driven accident.

Arthur’s depression from the night before felt so far away today that he could hardly even remember what he had been worried about. So what if he and Merlin couldn’t share true love’s kiss? That was fine. Arthur could do without, especially if Merlin made a habit of doing that thing with his tongue somewhere much more pleasurable than Arthur’s mouth.

The ‘love’ thing was a bit harder for him to grasp. But what was so good about love love anyway? Merlin was his best friend, he was loyal, and he found Arthur attractive. Surely given all of that, Merlin’s dramatic claims about not being able to feel some special kind of love weren’t that important.

“Merlin,” he said when the meeting was finished. “Clear my schedule for tomorrow and prepare a picnic.”

Merlin bobbed his head and said, “Yes, sire,” before dropping a tray of goblets and creating a terrible racket.

Arthur thought it was rather unfortunate that this clumsy display only brought an affectionate smile to his face.

 

The next day, Arthur was bemused to find his Round Table knights and Guinevere saddling up along with Merlin in the courtyard.

“What are they doing here?” Arthur asked under his breath.

Merlin glanced at him in surprise. “You said we were taking the day off for a picnic.”

It took everything in Arthur not to hit his manservant around the head. “I meant just the two of us.”

Merlin gave him a strange look and mounted his horse without another word, trotting off to chat with Gwen.

Arthur grumbled as he climbed onto his own horse, cursing himself for falling for an idiot instead of someone sensible like Leon or Guinevere.

 

Over the next few weeks, Arthur made fourteen other attempts to court Merlin that Merlin somehow either averted, misconstrued, or completely ignored. The sweets he sent, Merlin offered to each patient who stopped by the physician’s chambers, saying they were gifts from the king to his people. The love notes he wrote were returned to him with smiley faces and corrections to his grammar. The flowers he picked and left for Merlin he found tucked behind the ear of every servant he passed--or in one instance, taken outside and burned, which Arthur watched from his window, gaping.

He was starting to think they needed to have a conversation soon, but he didn’t even know where to begin. Merlin still had sex with him (no complaints there), and they got up to their usual banter, but whenever Arthur tried to put in an effort toward something more, Merlin shut it down with what seemed like sheer obliviousness. It was maddening, and Arthur was going to get to the bottom of it.

 ~

Am I ready for love?

Or maybe just a best friend

Should there be a difference?

Do you have instructions?

- “Turning Out” by AJR

~

Inviting Percival to join them was Gwaine’s best idea to date, Merlin decided as Percival collapsed half on top of him in Gwaine’s bed. He was thoroughly fucked out, and it took him several minutes to work up the mental faculties to say, “I think Arthur is trying to kill me.”

Gwaine lifted up his head from the other end of the bed. “I thought you two worked things out.”

“I thought we did, too,” Merlin grumbled. “But he’s been acting really weird lately, and yesterday, he left hemlock in my water cup.”

Percival’s brows furrowed against Merlin’s chest. “Isn’t hemlock poisonous?”

“Extremely.”

Gwaine brightened in recognition. “Is that what you were burning yesterday in the courtyard?”

Merlin confirmed that it was.

“Mate, the Princess isn’t trying to kill you,” Gwaine said with a cackle. “He’s trying to court you.”

Merlin’s stomach dropped. “He isn’t.”

“That picnic the other day when he clearly wanted time alone...”

“I told him not to,” Merlin said weakly. Arthur wouldn’t try and court him, would he? Surely not after Merlin and Gwen both told him he wasn’t interested in love.

“Sending you sweets...”

“I explained everything,” he protested. The sweets had been for the patients, not Merlin, he was sure. Well, pretty sure.

“Leaving flowers in your room...”

“That was an attempt on my life, not a romantic gesture,” Merlin said, this time with certainty. He had survived enough of them to know.

“Mate, why would he try to kill you?”

Merlin opened his mouth and then shut it, unable to voice the concerns circling through his head. Because I’m a sorcerer in Camelot. Because I’ve lied to him for years. Because Morgana’s betrayal was my fault. Because I released the Great Dragon. Because I was the sorcerer who killed his father. Because--

There were too many “because”es to even narrow it down.

“Should I ask what’s going on?” Percival said.

Gwaine climbed up the bed, making Merlin squirm from the elbow that dug into his side, before flopping down facing Percival. “The Princess confessed his undying love for Merlin, and Merlin turned him down because he’s just too sexy to go for something boring like romance--”

“Gwaine,” Merlin objected with a laugh.

“--and now they’re fucking, but the Princess seems to be overstepping Merlin’s boundaries.”

“Or trying to kill me,” Merlin added helpfully.

“Sure, mate, if it helps you sleep at night.”

The concerning part was that it might. He quite preferred murder attempts to courting or wooing. “I thought he understood,” Merlin said, feeling oddly betrayed. He never would have agreed to do anything with Arthur if he had known his king would try to make it into something it wasn’t. Wasn’t that Merlin’s concern from the start? Why hadn’t he worried more about that earlier? Oh right, because then Merlin had let his dick do his thinking instead of his head.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make him pay for it in training tomorrow,” Gwaine said, patting Merlin on the cheek.

“I don’t want him to pay for it,” Merlin said helplessly. “He’s not the one who--” He broke off, avoiding Gwaine’s eyes.

It was Percival who pressed, “The one who what?”

The one who’s a freak, a sorcerer, a loveless monster, he thought to himself. Aloud, he just whispered, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Percival’s eyes latched onto his, and he said roughly, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Merlin.”

Merlin shook his head, tears pouring down his face. “I can’t feel the things I’m supposed to--things other people do. I’ve never loved anyone before...at least, not love love--”

“I don’t feel love at all,” Percival cut in.

Merlin sniffled. “You...you don’t?”

Percival shook his head. “Not for friends or pets or sword fighting.” His shoulders shifted in a vague impression of a shrug. “I feel loyalty, and happiness, and gratitude, but love? It just doesn’t make sense to me. But I don’t think that makes me broken.”

“Of course you’re not broken,” Merlin reassured him. “You’re one of the best knights in Camelot, and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with you. Everyone just...experiences things differently.”

Both Gwaine and Percival gave him pointed looks.

“Oh,” Merlin said dumbly. 

Because of course there wasn’t anything wrong with him. He had never felt incomplete or broken before--not until he added his lack of romantic attraction to the list of ways he had failed Arthur, unconsciously combining it with his lies and his magic and his countless deadly mistakes. 

But this wasn’t a mistake, and his heart skipped a beat at the unconditional support of his friends who had reminded him of that fact.

“Love is overrated anyway,” Gwaine said with a wink, ducking down to take Merlin’s cock in his mouth.

Letting his head fall back against the mattress, Merlin had to agree.

~

Never been in love

And it's all good

Not the only one

Feeling like they should

Maybe one day, someday

But no, I ain't in a rush

I say whatever, don't care that I've never

No, never been in love 

- “Never Been In Love” by Will Jay

~  

“I think we need to talk,” Merlin and Arthur said at once. Arthur politely gestured for Merlin to go first.

“Are you trying to kill me? Merlin asked. It wasn’t the most subtle approach, but he figured some things were best dealt with directly.

“Am I... what?”

“Hemlock,” Merlin said in answer. At Arthur’s blank look, he said, “You put it in my water beside my bed?”

Arthur grimaced. “Flowers, Merlin. I meant to be giving you flowers.” Realization struck gradually. “That’s why you burned them. But why couldn’t you just put it in Gaius’ stock?”

“Because they were wilted, and harvested wrong, and also poisonous.”

Arthur looked relieved. “That’s very good to hear.”

Merlin’s eye twitched. “So you are trying to kill me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arthur said cheerfully. “I’m simply relieved because I thought you hated your flowers, and now I’ve discovered that you didn’t.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I liked them,” Merlin grumbled. It seemed Gwaine was right that Arthur didn’t want him dead. Merlin was less convinced, however, that Arthur was trying to court him. After all, Merlin had given Morgana flowers, and that had been purely friendly, and Gwen was always giving people flowers. Then again, Gwen had kissed him that one time, so maybe her gift of flowers hadn’t been all that platonic after all, and Arthur certainly believed that flowers were romantic if his accusations about Merlin and Morgana were any indication, which meant...which meant--

Merlin’s head hurt.

Arthur seemed to be struggling to work out a conundrum of his own. “So you burned the flowers because they were poisonous,” he said. “That’s a fair excuse. And even handing out your sweets and inviting the whole Camelot army to our picnic can be put down to your usual obliviousness. But the love letters?” He crossed his arms. “I’m waiting for an explanation.”

Merlin frowned. “Was my criticism too harsh? I tried not to be too nitpicky, but you won’t believe how hard it is to leave the errors alone when I know they’re there.”

“I didn’t expect you to correct them, Merlin.”

Merlin gave him a horrified look. “Was I just supposed to deliver them like that? You didn’t even say who they were for!” When Arthur was courting Gwen, he had wisely asked Merlin to handle the love notes for him. It was ridiculous, of course, but Merlin rather hoped his king would reinstate that tradition soon for the sake of whoever they were addressed to. 

Arthur gaped at him. “They were for you, idiot!”

“So you are trying to court me!” Merlin gasped, pointing in accusation. To the detriment of everyone, Gwaine was right, and Merlin was so very wrong.

“What the fuck? Yes, Merlin, it wasn’t meant to be a puzzle!”

Merlin threw his hands in the air. “You’re not supposed to be courting me, you prat!”

“Why the hell not?”

“BECAUSE I’M AROMANTIC, ARTHUR, I SWEAR TO GOD--”

“I SAID I WOULDN’T KISS YOU! WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”

They glared at each other for several seconds, breathing heavily. While Arthur slipped from indignation to desperation, understanding slowly dawned on Merlin.

“Okay, we definitely need to talk,” Merlin said. He slumped into a chair at Arthur’s dining table, and Arthur reluctantly joined him. “You...” Merlin started. “You seem to be under the impression that we’re in a romantic relationship without the kissing.”

Arthur nodded slowly.

“But I don’t want that. I don’t want love poems or romantic picnics or hand-holding or exclusivity. Because none of that makes sense to me, Arthur.” Merlin huffed as he tried to figure out how to word this in a way that Arthur would understand. “Romance... baffles me. It feels forced and bizarre and uncomfortable--and so does everything associated with it. Kissing bothers me, yes, but it’s because it reminds me of what I can’t feel and don’t understand, not because I’m just randomly against kissing.” Merlin chewed at his lip. “Does that...does that make sense?”

Arthur looked at him for a long time, mouth pressed against his clasped hands. Finally, he leaned back and dropped his fingertips to the table. “I’ve made a fool of myself, haven’t I?”

Merlin’s lips quirked up. “Your grammar was a bit embarrassing, yes. And the flower-poison mix-up was...regrettable...”

“All right, all right,” Arthur said irritably.

“But I should have explained what I wanted. It’s not your fault for misunderstanding my boundaries when I didn’t make them clear.”

Arthur tried for a weak smile but failed. His gaze fell to his hands. “So where do we go from here?”

“Well...” Merlin kicked Arthur’s foot lightly. “I’d like to be your friend.”

“Friends,” he repeated, sounding flat.

Merlin trailed his foot higher so it was brushing against Arthur’s inner thigh. “And I’d like to fuck you into that mattress.” Red crept up Arthur’s neck, and Merlin added archly, “With your consent, of course.”

“Right,” he said, voice cracking in the middle in a very undignified manner.

Merlin let his foot drop back to the ground, needing Arthur to understand before they got distracted and screwed everything up again like last time. “And I’d like to stand by your side as you become the greatest king Albion has ever known.”

Arthur looked up, eyes flicking around Merlin’s face as though gauging the honesty in his words. “No romance,” he said carefully.

“No romance,” Merlin repeated.

Arthur gave a slow nod. “I think I can live with that.”

  ~

You don't need to love me

To let me help you through

You don't need to confide in me

I've got crap enough for two

You don't need to answer

I'll know before you do

But hear me

And believe me

That you don't need to love me

The way that I love you 

- “You Don’t Need To Love Me” from If/Then

~

“Something on your mind, sire?” Leon asked, seeing that Arthur had hung back after their Round Table meeting.

“Merlin,” Arthur said in answer.

After a short pause, Leon sat at the table beside him. “I was under the impression that things were going well between you two.”

“They are,” Arthur said honestly. Ever since their last discussion, they had slipped back into their normal rhythm--teasing, roughhousing, and saving each other’s backsides, now with the added benefit of having sex whenever they had a minute alone. But lately, Arthur had come to the realization that he had promoted all of Merlin’s friends to a higher status while Merlin was still his servant, and it was starting to nag at him. “I want to do something to show him I care.”

Leon cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Um, romantic gestures aren’t really Merlin’s thing, sire.”

“For God’s sake, did everyone know about Merlin except for me?”

“Not everyone, sire,” Leon reassured. “Merlin and I just have a lot in common in that regard.”

Arthur glanced up in surprise. “You’re...” He struggled to remember the word Merlin had used, “...a-romantic as well?”

“And asexual,” Leon said. He gave Arthur a knowing grin. “From what I hear from the knights in the armory, Merlin isn’t.”

Arthur snorted. “No. He’s certainly not that.” Although Arthur knew now that being…aromantic didn’t automatically make Merlin a slut, he was fairly certain the term still applied--bestowed with utmost appreciation, of course, and never in the presence of Gwen. “I just…want him to know he’s important to me.”

“He does know, sire.” More cheekily than he usually dared, Leon said, “He wouldn’t put up with you otherwise.”

Arthur’s mouth curved up at the edges despite his troubled mood. “He won’t let me marry him, I gather.”

“Um, no, sire. I’d guess not.”

“That’s probably for the best. He wouldn’t know the first thing about being royalty.” Arthur twisted his mother’s ring in thought.

“Might I make a suggestion?”

Arthur gestured for Leon to go ahead, and when his knight finished, a smile spread across his face.

Now he just had to figure out the perfect way to present the news to Merlin.

~

Romance seems like a means to an end

Maybe I don't need a lover, I just need the friend

Who carried my weight when my back was sore

I don't need a lover

I don't need a lover 

- “No Lover” by Jetty Bones

~

A few days later, Arthur dropped down on one knee. Merlin gaped at him, pointed accusingly, and said, “No. Absolutely not,” before walking away, leaving a crowd of witnesses to spread rumors all across Camelot.

 

The second time, Arthur waited until Merlin’s back was turned before descending to his knee. This gave him a few extra seconds to start his speech (“Merlin, you are my most trusted friend and the bravest man I know--”) before Merlin yelped and fled from the room.

 

The third time, Merlin noticed Arthur dropping to one knee before he reached the ground and dragged him right back up, an action that ended in the two of them shuffling blindly into a pile of armor and swearing loudly until they managed to untangle themselves.

 

The fourth time—

Merlin followed Elyan into Gwaine’s room and narrowed his eyes, stopping a few feet past the doorway. “This. Does not look like the foursome I was promised.”

Arthur was kneeling on the bed with Gwaine, Percival, Leon, and Gwen sitting around him. Offering an apologetic smile and a wink, Elyan said, “next time,” and joined them.

“Have you all lost your minds?” Merlin asked. He gestured nonsensically at Arthur. “You’re enabling him.”

“He isn’t proposing,” Leon offered helpfully.

“Whatever he’s doing, it got Leon’s stamp of approval,” Elyan said, “so we decided that meant it was worth helping out.”

Merlin’s gesturing arms wilted as he took in Leon’s honest expression. Arthur could be an idiot sometimes (most times) but Leon understood better than anyone what it was like to feel alienated by romance. If he thought this was a good idea, then perhaps Merlin could afford to hear Arthur out.

Looking bewildered and a bit insulted by Elyan’s comment, Arthur said, “I am your king. Surely my word is enough--”

“Sire, you nearly poisoned him--”

“THAT WAS ONE TIME!”

“Anyway,” Gwaine interrupted with a roguish grin, “you’ve been avoiding the Princess like a plague, and things tend to make more sense on my mattress, so here we are. Take it away, Princess.”

Arthur rolled his eyes at the nickname and said, “You heard the man, Merlin. On the bed.”

Eyes still narrowed, Merlin climbed on. He leaned back on his heels, waiting expectantly. Although this wasn’t what he had hoped to be doing on Gwaine’s bed this evening, he couldn’t deny that his curiosity was starting to win out over his dread. 

Arthur’s eyes locked on his. “Merlin,” he said slowly, “you are my most trusted friend and the bravest man I know. You have walked with me into battles that couldn’t be won and come out the other side with me in victory. You have listened to my hopes and fears and deepest regrets and offered counsel when I needed it most. And while I hope you know just how much you mean to me, my actions have not always reflected that. Tonight, I hope to remedy that oversight.”

Gwen was looking proudly between them, and Leon wore a respectable smile like the noble knight he was. Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival, meanwhile, exchanged lewd gestures guessing at the potential ‘remedies’ Arthur might be referring to.

Arthur ignored them all, gaze intent on Merlin. “I know you would not take my offer of marriage were I to give it, and I expect that other traditional gestures would be as unwanted as they are unnecessary. Instead, I offer you a position at my side at the Round Table--where you should have been all along--”

“If His Royal Highness hadn’t had his head up his arse,” Gwaine interjected helpfully.

Arthur elbowed Gwaine without breaking his composure and finished, “--as Camelot’s First Advisor.”

Merlin’s eyes widened and then prickled with tears. “Arthur, I...that’s--” His tongue was as stunned as the rest of him. After years of saving Camelot in secret and being told that his opinion only mattered when it was convenient for someone else, Merlin had given up hope of ever being recognized publicly for his true role in Arthur’s life. He had even convinced himself it didn’t matter to him--that it didn’t matter that everyone still saw him as a bumbling servant because his destiny was so much greater than him. But now, with Arthur kneeling in front of him and offering him an alternative, he realized how wrong he was. How much he still wanted-- needed --to be seen. “You really mean it?”

Something soft and raw flitted across Arthur’s face before resolving into his usual kingly confidence, with a hint of a smile just for Merlin. “Yes, Merlin. The position is yours--if you want it.”

“Of course I want it, you prat.” Merlin surged forward on the mattress and pulled his king into a hug. 

Arthur froze for a moment, unaccustomed to such displays of affection, but then his arms wrapped around Merlin and a warm sigh left his lips. Cheering and whistling, everyone else piled in, with Gwen and Elyan hugging Arthur and Merlin in the middle and Percival, Gwaine, and Leon making up the outside ring so they resembled an exultant, many-limbed beast. 

Merlin still had his secrets and his lies, and he knew they would weigh on him until the time came for his magic to be revealed. But with a new position in his future and his friends wrapped snugly around him, Merlin felt more seen than he had in a long time. In that moment, he could say with absolute certainty that whatever romance was, he wasn’t missing anything. This, right here, was more than enough.

~

Life’s too short to worry about things that we got wrong

So hug all your friends and let them know

You’re not letting go

I’m not letting go

- “Hug All Ur Friends” by Cavetown