Upon Thy Palm, Benediction
Hands were a woman's most charming feature. Not that there was anything less charming about... the rest of a woman's figure, but without a doubt, a woman's hands said more about her than anything else. In his many years of courtly life, Arthur had seen enough painted faces and false graces to sicken even the most patient man - and Arthur wasn't a patient man. No. Not in the least.
Which was why, he supposed, he'd stopped looking at women's faces altogether. He looked, instead, at their hands.
As a child, smothered by taffeta and lace and coddled against perfumed bosoms, he'd seen far too many arts employed to ensnare the future king. It was ghastly, really. Even when he was a child, there was scarcely a lady that didn't flaunt her wares before him. He'd gotten quite tired of the whole thing. Only his nursemaid had been decent enough to actually treat him like the brat he was - not that he'd ever admit it to anyone else, of course, but being treated like a brat had been the greatest kindness of his childhood years. He still remembered his nursemaid's hands. Soft. Warm. Always smelling of vegetables and cotton and other homely things - except when she was slapping him silly for taunting a knight, or twisting his ear for skipping a lesson. Oddly enough, they'd smelled even sweeter then.
Had any hands ever compared to hers? No.
Well, Morgana's hands were graceful. Strong. Poised. They spoke of a certain mettle, an indisputable character, which - when it wasn't being damned annoying - could be quite fascinating to observe.
Or so he had thought. And he'd have been happy to continue thinking that, because thinking about Morgana was healthy, half the court expected him to be thinking about Morgana - hells, half the court was thinking about Morgana. But recently, another pair of hands had caught Arthur's eye and had simply refused to leave his notice. A bumbling, stupid, awkward, clumsy, painfully bony pair of hands.
It defied understanding.
Firstly, they weren't even a woman's hands. Let alone a lady's. What business did his eyes have, lingering on a manservant's hands? A mere servant. An incompetent servant. Tardy, always late, always making mistakes, spilling the wine while pouring it and staining Arthur's finest doublet with boot-polish.
A servant's hands. Merlin's.
What was it about those hands? What did they tell him?
Secrets. Arthur watched them, quietly, when Merlin didn't know he was looking. Merlin's hands... Merlin's hands told stories. When he was talking, obviously, gesturing animatedly to one of the castle guards or to that petite laundress who kept mooning over him - but it wasn't just when he was talking. Merlin's hands told stories all the time, as if they couldn't be silenced, as if those bony fingers were the branches of a summer forest, among whom nestled birds of every variety. There were songs in those hands. Sudden exclamations. Startled flurries. Journeys up and down, as if of flight, abortive twitches that told of nervousness or exhilarated swoops that looked like birdsong. And something else. There was something else in Merlin's hands.
Arthur didn't know what it was, but it made him edgy. There were secrets in those hands, all right; he'd looked and looked, and had uncovered many of them, but others still remained withheld. He'd even gone so far as to come up with excuses to touch those hands - impromptu sparring lessons, teaching Merlin the grip of a sword and the heft of a shield - all of which had only left their owner exhausted and bruised, and Arthur even edgier than before.
There was no woman's softness in those hands. Callus after callus, knuckles reddened and rough, palms coarse with labor - they'd been smoother at first, but had quickly gained the distinctions of hard work, as Arthur had them plied to armor and polish and laundering. They felt - real, somehow - honest, in a way that really shouldn't have been mysterious, except that it was. Arthur wasn't used to honesty. It unnerved him.
But lately, those hands were quieter around him. As if a shadow had been cast on Merlin's inner forest, and those birds, once vociferous, had quietened.
This bothered Arthur most of all. Had Merlin noticed him watching? Was that it? Surely it wasn't... unnatural... to watch one's vassals at work. To make sure they got the job done. You missed a spot there, you forgot the damn sword, you pour wine like a cowherd pours milk, you pillock. That sort of thing. Didn't everyone do it?
But Merlin. His hands. They curled into fists, now. Held something back. Held their peace, their silence, as if that silence were silk that would slip at the first inkling of a looser grip. Merlin was - he was hiding something. From Arthur. From his master.
"Merlin." Enough was enough. It would look strange - yes, perhaps even unnatural - but Arthur had to know. And this was the only way he knew how to know.
"Yes, Sire?" Merlin paused in his sweeping - his utterly pointless sweeping, because the dunderhead was doing little more than redistributing the fallen rushes all over the sodding floor. Didn't he know how to do anything?
"Your hands." Arthur tapped the table. "Show them."
"Your hands, you daft twit. Show. Me. Your. Hands."
"Why?" Merlin set the broom aside, wiping his palms nervously on his breeches. "I'm not - I mean, why?"
"Because your prince commands you to. And when your prince commands you," Arthur explained patiently, as if to the slowest simpleton on earth, "you obey. Your hands. Show them to me."
Merlin gulped. Again, strange. Usually, he'd be taunting Arthur about being an arrogant prat, but now... "I'm not - hiding anything. Up my sleeve, or. I'm - I'm not. Stealing. Or anything. Why would you want to - "
"Merlin." Arthur's tone grew severe. "Your hands."
A beat of silence. Merlin fidgeted - fairly oozing discomfort - before taking a few hesitant steps towards Arthur. And then, after looking at Arthur and glancing away a total of five times, he held out his hands. Palms up.
"See?" A shaky laugh - but those hands were still silent. "Nothing there. So why - what, do you want to cane me or something?"
"Quiet." Arthur reached out. What he was going to do, he knew, couldn't be explained away as lordly supervision or a sparring exercise; he was going to hold Merlin's hands, but then, it was Merlin's fault for forcing him to do this. Stubborn idiot. Not simply saying what was on his mind, and forcing Arthur to such drastic measures...
The tips of Arthur's fingers tingled. They hovered in the air near Merlin's, as if hesitating to cross that last boundary - that last secret - and the air between their hands grew charged, as if by a quiet magic, a storm-signal.
Arthur closed his eyes. Opened them.
Unfurled his fingers a little more, until they brushed, a crackle of electricity, and Merlin gasped as Arthur took Merlin's hands into his own.
Skin. Knuckle. Palm. Thumb.
The blood in Arthur's ears thundered.
This was ridiculous. They were just a pair of hands. A servant's hands. But Arthur's touch grew almost reverent, and he didn't know why, but he found himself moving over the calluses and the dips and the rises of those palms as if learning a new landscape, an intimate geography, determined to excavate from it the cause of Merlin's silence. Over the thumb, now. Around to the index finger. Dipping in-between the fingers, where the skin was still tender, still untouched, still like a child's.
Merlin's breath stuttered.
"It isn't just the hands, is it?" Arthur asked into the silence. His voice was hushed, almost meditative. "You don't let me touch you at all, nowadays. Not at sparring, not at work, not as a jest, not as - "
Agony. Arthur heard it, in Merlin's voice, but first in Merlin's hands - which twisted within Arthur's grip, trapped animals seeking escape.
"You don't - you never - "
Arthur glanced up. Merlin was looking at him, really looking at him, for the first time in weeks. Arthur hadn't even realized that, until now. There was something strange in Merlin's eyes, something hot and tangled and pained, thorny as the darkest undergrowth.
"What don't I...?" He should be scolding Merlin for talking to him like that. For commanding a prince to be silent. But instead, he held onto Merlin's hands, and slid his own forward, until he was gripping Merlin's wrists. "What don't I do, Merlin?"
Merlin flushed. His ears turned red - suddenly, without warning, as if they'd been burned. His hands shook in Arthur's grip.
"What don't I do?" Arthur's voice was gentle, inexorable. He flexed his hold on Merlin's wrists, and his right thumb swept upwards, tracing a line along a tender vein. "What do you want me to do?"
"Oh, god." Merlin looked away from him. His breath rasped in and out of him, faster than before, and his throat bobbed as he swallowed.
Arthur, for his part, felt very much as if a spell were being cast on him. He couldn't move. Except for his hands, which abandoned their grip on Merlin's wrists and instead snaked upwards, fingers sliding quietly into the warm recesses of Merlin's sleeves, feeling out the sinew of forearm and the suppleness of skin.
"Please." Through the beating of his pulse, Arthur heard Merlin whisper that word.
One word. And Merlin's hands opened, like leaves battered by a summer downpour, trembling and weighted down with too much water and helpless to resist. They opened, Merlin's hands, speaking hands, with a rush of secrets louder than any Arthur had hoped to uncover, and they wrapped around Arthur's wrists, too, finally, taking, demanding, possessing.
Please, those hands asked.
And Arthur answered.