It all started with that wretched hug. Actually, it wasn't a hug, and in the end Arthur would concede there was really nothing wretched about it either. Nonetheless, that was how it all started.
After Arthur had caught up with Merlin in the corridor and thanked him for his part in thwarting the troll, there followed an uncomfortable silence in which something of import maybe should have been said or done, but Arthur was at a loss as to what exactly. He decided on a slap on the back. Only Merlin seemed to have another idea.
"Whoa! What are you doing?"
Merlin jumped back. "I thought you were going for a hug."
"No!" With that, Arthur walked away hastily, leaving Merlin still standing there gaping.
Arthur thought that would be the end of it, but the hug-that-was-not-a-hug continued to nag at him. Like an itch that couldn't be scratched.
On a normal afternoon, Arthur would sit in on council proceedings while Merlin helped Gaius. People from the town with money could come directly to Gaius' rooms for their remedies instead of Gaius and Merlin having to visit them at their homes. This manner of open surgery was cheaper and preferable to those with more minor ailments.
So when the council meeting finished early, after bitter and heated discussions about the budget for the May Day procession of all things, (honestly, who cared?) and Arthur found himself unexpectedly at a loose end, he knew exactly where to find Merlin and thought he would pay him a visit. Merlin could be always be relied upon to lift his mood, with his inane chatter and his uncanny ability to fall over his own feet.
There was a line of townspeople outside Gaius' door, who bowed or curtsied as Arthur passed by, but he also noticed them shift nervously - likely worried their physician was going to be ushered away on more urgent business. It wasn't the effect Arthur wanted to have on ordinary people; making them anxious simply because he happened to be in their vicinity. He tried nodding and proffering a brief smile but he knew it was probably futile.
Inside, Merlin was tucked into a corner of Gaius' room, seated at a small table, while the physician attended an elderly woman. She was accompanied by a younger woman and a small boy who Arthur presumed was her son. They were on the opposite side of the room, which was arranged so that the patients could be afforded a modicum of privacy by a temporary screen, although it appeared Gaius was simply administering tonics to the old woman, while the other two waited.
Merlin looked up from his pestle and mortar and smiled openly.
"Hello, Sire. Is everything alright?"
"Yes, Merlin. I just came to check up on you, actually. I wanted to make sure you weren't lying around doing nothing all afternoon." Arthur spoke loud enough Gaius would hear.
"Don't worry, Sire. I keep him busy as much as I can," Gaius said fondly from across the room.
"Glad to hear it, Gaius. Otherwise, who knows what kind of trouble he'd be getting himself into? He seems to attract it, you know."
"Yes, I had noticed," Gaius chuckled.
Arthur approached Merlin, who was busily rolling his eyes and grinding some foul-smelling green concoction.
"Take a seat, Sire," Merlin said softly and pushed a stool out towards him. "I'm almost finished here."
Arthur sat down beside Merlin, angled so that he could see Gaius' patients but also so that he could turn in to speak to Merlin without being heard. The small boy was hiding in the folds of his mother's skirts. He peeked out and looked at Arthur, who just gave him a hard stare. The boy simply smiled back then ventured out from his hiding place and came towards the table where Arthur and Merlin sat. Arthur shifted uncomfortably. It looked like the snot-nosed brat was going to come over to him.
Arthur tried to look menacing. But he needn't have bothered because the boy walked directly round to Merlin instead and peered into the bowlful of crushed leaves.
"Do you want to have a go?" Merlin said.
The little boy nodded eagerly. Merlin scooped him onto his lap, wrapped his arms around the boy's waist and let him thump away at the green slime. Arthur watched - fascinated not by the boy, but by Merlin. He looked so thoroughly content and relaxed with this child, with his chin resting on the top of the boy's head, as he offered him silly words of encouragement. Arthur had almost no experience with children and quite frankly he found them scary and unpredictable.
He pondered for a moment the curiosity of the world, where it was quite acceptable to show a child, a stranger's child no less, such unadulterated affection. Arthur didn't miss being a child, but he couldn't help a tiny flare of envy for the little boy who had so easily been gifted with Merlin's attention. Then he berated himself for his foolishness and put it down to his sour mood.
Soon after, the boys' mother was retrieving her charge. "Come on, now Bryce. We're all done here."
Merlin let him down and ruffled his hair fondly. "Bye, Bryce. See you next week."
"Bye, Merlin. Bye, my Lord."
Arthur nodded and smiled half-heartedly. The boy's mother should really have wiped his nose - it was disgusting.
Merlin turned to Arthur after they left. "You don't like children, do you?"
"I do. I just didn't want to get covered in snot."
"Whatever you say, Sire." Merlin snorted but was, as usual, completely incapable of leaving it there. "You looked terrified. They don't bite, you know. The good ones don't, anyway."
"I was not terrified. It's just that children have no respect for personal boundaries."
"Oh," said Merlin, still smiling. "That is true, I suppose."
Arthur continued, chagrined. "One doesn't just climb all over the Crown Prince. One maintains a respectable distance."
"Ah, well, there you have it. I'm not a prince. No need to maintain a respectable distance with me." He grinned at Arthur and whispered, "You should bear that in mind, should you ever be in need of that hug."
For reasons he was at a complete loss to explain, Arthur found himself thrown like a novice rider at this suggestion. Merlin seemed to have found himself a perfectly nice niche in the business of improprieties; of being insolent and sometimes downright surly. And now he could add making Arthur blush to his repertoire, too.
Arthur should have come back with a quick retort along the lines of should he ever need a hug, which he wouldn't, Merlin would not be the person he sought it from. Only there was something that stopped him from saying it. Instead, he clipped Merlin around the ear and muttered something pointless about manservants and due respect.
The spring had proved to be dry, and the ground firm underfoot. It was perfect for the tourney, the first of the season, and Arthur was bristling with anticipation. The training with the knights had shifted emphasis, away from the table where they talked of strategy, and out to the field where they stretched and flexed and worked more determinedly on armed combat. Now Arthur was ready to put the training into practice.
A messenger poked his head through the entrance to the tent. Arthur's first opponent awaited him.
Arthur rolled his shoulders, centering himself with his increased weight. The chainmail and chest-plates chafed and there would be marks on his skin later, as there always were at the beginning of the season. But it wouldn't be long before he was wearing his armour like a second skin, albeit more cumbersome and heavy. How the beetle scurried in its carapace was a mystery, when a man could barely more than trudge in his shell of metal.
"There, that should do it," Merlin announced proudly, pulling the last of the buckles tightly and pulling Arthur from his thoughts. He patted Arthur across the shoulder. "Do you want your helmet on now?"
"No, under my arm." Arthur would survey the crowd, look his father in the eye, then he would stare into the eyes of his opponent, dispelling any lingering notion the visiting knight might have that he stood the slightest chance of defeating the Crown Prince of Camelot. That was the general idea, anyway. On the whole, it seemed to work - Uther had done a fine job of teaching Arthur the way of the intimidating glare.
Merlin followed like an eager puppy. "Now don't forget, I saw him practicing and he's left-handed, and pace yourself, don't go swinging out too soon; the flail is heavier and longer than your sword." He chattered on incessantly, from the tent to the field.
"Shut up, Merlin. I think I know what I'm doing." Arthur suppressed a smirk. He was supposed to be fired up.
"Alright, but I just want to say good luck."
"I don't need luck."
"Of course you don't."
Arthur shook his head. Then he heard the roar of the crowd as he began to make his entrance to the field, and all other thoughts disappeared. He could scarcely contain his excitement at being out in the melée again, the cheering pulsing through him until his muscles twitched, the thrill of the upcoming fight coursing through his veins.
Taking position, Arthur turned about, nodded and bowed, and put on his helmet.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Pendragon, the Crown Prince of Camelot fights Hector Mowbray, Earl of Norfolk, with the flail."
Arthur took a deep breath and clenched his fists.
A boy handed them their weapons. Arthur felt the weight of the handle, solid in his grasp; lifted it until the spiked metal ball was just off the ground, swinging slightly on the chain that anchored it to the handle.
There was no wind, no noise but the sound of his heart and his quiet breaths.
The bell rang and then there was nothing but the competition, the combat and the burning desire to win. With his line of sight visored into a thin slit, focused on his target, Arthur was completely in his element. His muscles would do his bidding, his sight would not fail him; his ears attuned to every clatter and groan and every telling chink and creak of metal and leather. Beyond the swing and swoosh of the flail, the twist of his body and the speed of his step, lay victory and Arthur would have it.
Hector proved strong, but lacking in finesse. Arthur was able to out-step his every attempt to swing at his body, as he swiftly anticipated the destination of the spiked metal head before it finished its whistling arc through the air.
Arthur kept his feet wide, his body low, and swung out shallow and fast. The head of the flail curled out then back in and around Hector's ankle and he was felled with a shocked cry, his armour likely a poor defence against the biting clench of the iron chain and the piercing spikes on the ball.
The rest of the match was over fast, as Hector hobbled back defensively, unable to keep his balance, and Arthur left the tourney field victorious after the first round.
He was met by Merlin, and they walked in silence to his tent.
Once inside Merlin said, "You were great!"
"He was an easy opponent, but it was a good warm-up." Merlin's enthusiasm was uplifting, even if misplaced.
He handed Arthur cool water to drink from a goblet, then proceeded to wipe his sweaty brow. While Arthur sat back, drawing in deep breaths and rolling out the aches in his muscles, Merlin set about making quick adjustments and repairs to his hauberk and armour. It had become habit, so routine and effortless the way Merlin assessed his needs as he sat regaining his composure in his makeshift retreat. At least in this situation, Arthur barely found himself calling Merlin an idiot at all.
They hardly spoke, well Arthur hardly spoke. Merlin was animatedly harping on about some knight or other and who said this or that and who wanted to sit with Arthur at the feast. Arthur was especially interested in this last part because he generally favoured sitting next to Morgana when he ate. Her conversation rarely induced stupor and if she really annoyed him he didn't have to worry that there would be dire repercussions from a swift insult.
"So, the Lady Isabel requests to be seated with me at the feast tonight?"
"That's what I heard from the head cook's niece who was talking to the stable-boy who tends Lady Isabel's father's horse, who overheard her father talking to one of his knights."
Arthur lost track of the source of this gossip, and wasn't fully convinced of its reliability, but he couldn't fault Merlin's loyalty in attempting a pre-emptive strike in averting him from indigestion.
"Well, Merlin, forewarned is forearmed. See if you can go and find out a little more of her temperament. Morgana or Gwen might know something."
"As you wish, sire." Merlin grinned as he readied Arthur to go back into the fray, and Arthur breathed a sigh of relief.
Round after round, day after day, Arthur bested his opponents.
The final went in Arthur's favour, after a close-matched duel with Sir Egbert of Northumbria. As he took his bow as champion to the King and court, Arthur turned to leave the tourney field in high spirits. He had earned his win with honour and was rightfully pleased with himself. His shoulders back, his head held high, Arthur couldn't hold back the smile that had spread across his face.
Ahead of him, at the exit, Arthur could see Merlin twirling Gwen around in the air. Their openly happy faces reflected the elation he had just felt as he struck his final blow. But as he reached them, Merlin stood sombrely to attention and Gwen curtsied demurely, congratulating him formally as he passed by. He nodded his acknowledgement, as befitted the occasion, immediately feeling less elated than he had just moments before. Even the sight of his father's applause now felt like limp praise and suddenly the ache in his muscles made his armour feel almost too heavy to bear.
Arthur wasn't given to twirling, screeching or whooping, not even in the face of victory, but he appreciated it in others. Only, it seemed they had no idea – Merlin and Gwen had no idea that their initial reaction had been a joy for him to see even if he wasn't a part of it, couldn't be a part of it.
As always, Merlin waited until they were in the tent for his chatter. "That last one was close," he said. He was breathless with his enthusiasm for dissecting the entire duel. Arthur just flopped himself onto the chair as Merlin set about dismantling the metal shell that covered his body.
Most of the buckles were behind him and he had to lean forward to give Merlin access. These days, after more than a year of practice, Merlin was deft. The movements of his hands were quick and economical. It was almost … elegant. Merlin's hands weren't feminine, but neither were they thick and gnarly, like those of most peasant men. As he went about his work, Arthur at first only felt the slight pressure of Merlin's fingers through his hauberk, but as each layer came away the insufficient sensation gave way to the comforting feel of Merlin's fingers on his exposed skin. Arthur shivered.
"Not long, now." Merlin used soft linen to wipe away the sweat and grime from Arthur's neck until he relaxed into the touch. "As I was saying, Gwen and I …"
Arthur stiffened at the recollection of Merlin and Gwen and their open delight at his victory. It made his stomach churn and the skin on the back of his neck bristle; he wasn't sure what or who he envied more. Not that he expected Merlin to go twirling him around or anything ... but he couldn't remember the last time he'd expressed that kind of unabashed joy, let alone share it with another. He swallowed futile thoughts of things 'not being fair' as if they were bile, but the bitter taste stayed in his mouth.
Arthur pulled away abruptly and barked, "Come on, Merlin, I haven't got all day." He hadn't meant to snap at him but he found himself impatient to get back to his chambers and get cleaned up.
Merlin, though, was undeterred. "I'm just … about … done." He proudly extracted the greaves and sabatons from Arthur's legs and feet and added them to the pile on the table. "There should be a bath ready for you in your room; I sent a boy to the kitchens to ask for hot water a while ago."
Arthur sighed and rolled his shoulders and leant forward to push himself up to stand, still feeling heavy despite the loss of his armour. But before he could leave the chair, Merlin put his hands on Arthur's shoulders and squeezed the tensed muscle. "You must be sore. I'll stop by Gaius' and get some salve." Just like that, Merlin could pull him back into his touch as if he were bound to do Merlin's bidding and not the other way around. Yet it was always for him, these things Merlin did, always to make him feel better. He ought to be more grateful, he knew that. The warm press of Merlin's fingers was reviving him already. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, and tipped his head back slightly.
Merlin spoke softly, as if sensing his exhaustion. "Why don't you go and get in that bath? I'll be up soon." It was enough to urge Arthur to move. He stood wearily as Merlin said, "You did really well out there today - really well."
Arthur raised his hand and gave Merlin a gentle push. "I did okay, Merlin. No need to be all silly about it."
Merlin shook his head and picked up Arthur's armour. "Go on go, before the water gets cold."
There was such tenderness in his voice, Arthur was certain he wasn't mistaken about that, it added yet more substance to the swell of emotions swirling through him. There was the thrill of the fight and pride from the win, already coursing through his veins, and exhaustion now it was over. But there was also a lingering sadness at the effect he'd had on Merlin and Gwen as he exited the tourney field. And now this, Merlin and his unbridled affection, and how he craved it. He wondered what it was, and all the immediate answers were preposterous and terrifying, because princes did not have feelings for servants. It simply wasn't done.
Now that the warmer weather was on its way, Arthur wanted to spend as much time as possible out in the fresh air. He barely needed an excuse to get outside: there were training sessions, patrols and of course, the hunt.
Today it was a clear, fresh day which was perfect for riding out on patrol.
Merlin was to meet him at the stables, after Arthur had had an audience with his father. The meeting had gone well and Arthur trod lightly with a spring in his step.
As he rounded the corner and came into eyeshot of the stables, across the courtyard he saw Merlin, already there, talking to Sir Perinore. Arthur was still too far away to hear what was being said, but Perinore's laughter rang out sharply into the morning air and echoed round the whole courtyard. Then, in the next moment, Arthur's stride was broken as he watched Perinore pull Merlin into an embrace. Perinore was patting his back, while Merlin clasped him tightly. It was over as quickly as it began, unlike the sudden pounding of Arthur's heart.
By the time Arthur reached the spot where they'd been standing, Perinore had already crossed the courtyard to where a young groom was holding his courser.
"Good morning, Arthur."
"Merlin?" Arthur waited impatiently for an explanation.
After a pause, Merlin said expectantly, "Yes?"
"What was that all about?" Arthur abruptly gesticulated in Perinore's direction, schooling the sudden rush of anguish that raged across his chest, afraid that there was something going on behind his back and Merlin was involved. It wasn't possessiveness, Arthur reasoned: it was his duty to oversee the well-being of his staff and it was Merlin's duty not to embarrass him or undermine his standing amongst his men.
"Oh, haven't you heard?" Merlin raised his eyebrows with his usual insouciance. "His wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy this morning. I was congratulating him."
"No. In case you hadn't noticed," idiot, "I've been busy with the King this morning. We did not receive word." Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, not wanting to betray what he could only describe as relief. He didn't want to dwell on what he had thought might have warranted such a public display of affection; he'd been caught unawares, that's all.
"Well, your horse is about to be lead out. There's time if you want to congratulate him now while I load up your saddle bags."
Arthur nodded, barely even registering that once again Merlin was speaking completely out of turn, as he headed purposefully over to Perinore. The man was beaming from ear to ear, the elation on his face as plain as day for all to see. Of course, now Arthur had a chance to draw breath, it was completely obvious that this was the look of a proud new father.
"I hear congratulations are in order?" Arthur grasped Perinore's hand and shook it firmly, his other hand clasping his upper arm.
"Yes, sire. I have a new baby son," Perinore said, shaking Arthur's hand so hard he thought he might wrench it from the socket.
"That's wonderful news. Are mother and baby doing well?"
"Yes, sire. Both are hale and hearty."
"I'm truly pleased for you. Does he have a name?"
Arthur couldn't help but smile for the proud and happy man before him; his mood was infectious. "A fine name, indeed. Shouldn't you be home with your wife celebrating this joyful day?"
"Well, I'm rostered for patrol today …"
"Perinore, it's not every day a man becomes a new father. Galahad can come with us today. Go home, and I don't expect to see you back here for two days, excepting war or natural disaster."
"Thank you, sire!" Perinore clasped Arthur's shoulders and looked so completely ecstatic Arthur was almost knocked over with the rolling tidal wave of his gratitude. Arthur was in awe and wonder of what it might feel like to have one's cup filled to overflowing with love like that.
As Arthur turned back around, Merlin was there with his horse, where he was just finishing with the last of the buckles. Merlin spoke softly, so that no one else could hear; the yard was steadily filling up as the party of knights prepared to ride out. "That was a nice thing you did." From where he was bent down Merlin looked up at Arthur as he spoke. Arthur could feel a slow warmth building on his face from Merlin's gaze.
After a pause, Arthur said, "It was nothing. We're only going on patrol."
"No, Arthur, it was something. You know as well as I his last baby was stillborn." Merlin stood up straight, gently placed his hand on Arthur's forearm and squeezed. "This will mean a lot to him and his wife."
Even through the linen and leather the touch took Arthur's breath away. He was blushing fiercely now and he knew it had nothing to do with the morning sun beating down on his face. He nodded at Merlin because a lump had just appeared in his throat, and he had a feeling his voice might betray him.
He wanted to turn this feeling over in his palm, examine it, look for what it was that made him search out Merlin, look for what was hiding just beyond his grasp, because there was something, he was certain now, and the thrill of finding it was surpassed only by the uncertainty that it wouldn't be what he had the rarest hope it might be. After all, there was no point in wanting what was already forbidden, if it was never going to be freely given anyway.
As he mounted his steed Arthur looked down at Merlin. His eyes sparkled in the sunlight and although he was still as pale as ever, he was radiant. Arthur felt his earlier cheery mood returning, just by looking at Merlin smiling for him and him alone. "I'll be back at sundown. Try to stay out of mischief while I'm gone."
"I don't think there's much mischief to be had doing laundry. Although, if Mary is in the kitchens …" Merlin said cheekily.
"Well, don't do anything I wouldn't."
"Boring day ahead then," he smirked.
The other knights were assembled and Merlin was already backing away, denying Arthur the opportunity to ask him exactly what that was supposed to mean. He pulled in his reins and watched Merlin walking back in the direction of the lower kitchen, his hair rising haphazardly in raven tufts as it was caught by the breeze. Merlin turned and waved before heading through the archway and out of sight. It was too late to wave back.
Arthur was already longing for the day to be over, so that he might come back and interrogate Merlin on how he had spent his day. In all honesty, he didn't care too much, so long as Merlin kept his chambers clean, laundered his clothes and brought him his meals in a timely fashion. And even when Merlin was slipshod with those tasks Arthur didn't mind all that much. What mattered more was that he could rely on Merlin to be there, at the end of his day.
The maypole was being erected in the town square, in more or less the same spot as was used for the execution platform. Arthur knew Morgana could see it from her window and felt some relief that for at least the next week or so there would not be the sound of the falling axe, the rush and snap of the noose or the crackle of flame to fuel her nightmares. Sometimes she looked so haunted he shuddered to imagine what terrors she must see in the night.
Arthur stood at the top of the steps at the main entrance to the castle and surveyed the fresh, colourful scene in the square below. The platform at the base of the pole was being adorned with fresh flowers and the ribbons that hung from its top fluttered like gossamer on the breeze. The square was busy with vendors selling pies and trenchers filled with meat and vegetables. The spicy aroma drifted up through the air making Arthur's mouth water.
The dancing would begin soon then the festivities would last throughout the rest of the day and into the evening. Merlin had the day off, so he could join in with the rest of the townsfolk. Arthur didn't begrudge him his fun, but he knew without him his own day would be a long drudge. Without Merlin to keep him entertained in the background, he would be wretched by nightfall.
Some musicians had set up on a small stage at the edge of the square and were warming up with a lively tune. A few of the townspeople were already assembled - their spots saved with tiny wooden stools or metal cooking pots, probably containing their picnics. Children ran about playing chase and a couple of maidens lifted their skirts above their ankles and skipped in time to the beat of the tambourine. For most folk it was a foot-tapping, ale-swilling, merry-making kind of day.
Arthur sighed and decided to go inside and wait to be summoned to the balcony, ready for the King to announce the start of the maypole dance. Just as he was about to push off from the wall where he leant, who should he see but Merlin bounding up the stairs?
"Merlin. What are you doing here?"
"Oh, nothing much. What about you?" Merlin shuffled around on the spot, his hands thrust deep into in his pockets.
"Just watching the pole go up."
"It's up. Fully erect." Merlin sniggered, but Arthur was too miserable. He watched Merlin's face fall as quickly as it had lifted and wished he wasn't the face of gloom, but he couldn't help himself. Now he was spreading it around like the pox, for good measure.
"I suppose I ought to head upstairs. I have to be there when my father announces the start of the celebrations."
They stood there, neither really looking at the other, neither able to stand still. It wasn't usually awkward like this, only when the what-should-come-next wasn't clear. Arthur had an impeccable sense of decorum and protocol, yet with a smile or a passing remark or now it seemed just by being there, Merlin was able to throw him off-guard and all sense of what he ought to be doing and what he wanted to be doing were as disparate as they were.
Arthur didn't move. The longer he stayed there the more uncomfortable he became, caught between wanting Merlin close and doing the right thing and letting him have time to himself. Only Merlin wasn't showing any signs of moving off either.
After what seemed an age, Merlin said tentatively, "I could come with you. Maybe you'll need me to serve you a drink or something?"
"Merlin, you get what, maybe three days off a year? Don't you want to spend today with your friends?"
Merlin shrugged then looked away. Arthur looked at the pale, sharp curve of his cheek bone, his jaw clenching, agitating the tendon in his neck. In profile like that, not grinning or back-chatting, just standing there, Arthur was reminded of something that he had been intermittently dwelling on for some weeks now. There was something about Merlin. Only now, he was beginning to form some kind of sense of what that was. The feelings were floating up from deep, deep down, still below the surface, out of sight and touch and taste, but they were there. There was no denying it.
Arthur swallowed hard. Merlin swallowed hard, too. He only did that when he was upset or when he wanted something. Merlin never asked for anything, come to think of it. Not that he should, but the thought struck Arthur, all the same. "I suppose I could use you, for a while, at least."
At that the grin broke out over Merlin's face.
Arthur grinned back like an idiot. Merlin was starting to be a bad influence … or maybe a good one.
As they turned to head in, Merlin placed his hand on the small of Arthur's back and gave him the slightest push. Arthur was somewhat taken aback at the gesture, but nonetheless felt bereft when Merlin's hand dropped back to his side as they walked together along the corridor.
Away from the prying eyes of the general public and the guards at the castle entrance, Arthur could relax, just for a few moments. They climbed the stairs and entered the final corridor, which lead to the 'small great room' that overlooked the town square. Looking around, just to make sure no one was about, Arthur side-stepped lightly into Merlin. "Merlin-no-friends," he teased.
Merlin regained his step, and retorted, "Bugger off, Arthur-no-mates."
"You can't talk to me like that."
"Yeah, yeah," but before Merlin had a chance to say anything else Arthur had him in a headlock and was busily knuckling the top of his head. Merlin let out an undignified squeal.
"Arthur Pendragon! What on earth are you doing?" Morgana: bloody hell's bells. How did she do that?
Arthur released Merlin, who proceeded to rub his head in indignation - far too melodramatically. Morgana looked fearsome; dark green silk and long raven tresses billowing behind her, like a warship in full sail. Gwen scurried behind her, almost running to keep up where Morgana simply glided.
"Morgana. How lovely you look. Merlin and I were just having a bit of fun."
She reached them and clasped Merlin's arm. "You don't have to take any abuse from him, do you understand?"
Merlin nodded pathetically.
Morgana sauntered past them with Gwen in tow. Arthur glared at Merlin, who shamelessly smirked back at him. Then, as they walked behind Morgana and Gwen, Arthur exacted his revenge by jabbing Merlin in the ribs.
The formal room was large enough for the attendant royal party and their servants, but small enough to be private and comfortable. In the centre of the room was a round table laden with a buffet of food and jugs of wine and ale. This was flanked by a trestle table on one side, surrounded by wooden arm chairs, and on the other by a selection of smaller chairs which faced an ornately sculpted fireplace, which was large enough to comfortably heat the whole room, even in the dead of winter.
The doors to the balcony were opened fully, allowing the lively sounds of the growing crowd to meander upwards to the solemn hush inside.
As Arthur went through the obligatory motions of formally greeting his father, the Chancellor, the Chamberlain and various other crusty old dignitaries, Merlin was left to retreat to the sidelines, with Gwen. Even from their lowly positions they would have a clear view of the square - much better than if they were down in the crowd. This assuaged some of Arthur's guilt as he positioned himself alongside his father and drifted off into a daydream. The speech and the maypole dance and the parade of the May Queen and May Princess went on with full aplomb and regalia, oblivious to the fact he wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention.
Sometime later, Merlin approached Arthur with a plate of food. "You must be hungry. I noticed you didn't eat your breakfast."
Arthur frowned as he recalled his barely-touched meal, left on the table in his chambers. "How …?"
"I'd been looking for you, before I found you on the steps." He handed Arthur the plate and backed away.
As Arthur looked down at the bread, meat and fruit, then across to the buffet table, he noticed Merlin had only picked him out his favourite things to eat. He wondered, momentarily, what Merlin liked to eat best. Because he realised he had absolutely no idea and for the first time that bothered him.
Of course, the rest of the day turned out infinitely better than Arthur ever could have hoped for. His father got uncharacteristically drunk and had to retire early. Arthur had never seen that happen before so he could only marvel at his stroke of luck. Then he decided he was going to make the most of it. After Uther left so did most of the other oldies, so Arthur summoned a couple of musicians up from the town square and everyone remaining made merry; servants and all.
By nightfall, Merlin was looking decidedly flushed and very cheerful. Arthur had plied him with wine because he had a notion that Merlin drunk had to be a sight. He was about the most uncoordinated person Arthur had ever met, so he couldn't imagine how entertaining he might be if he were inebriated. What he hadn't bargained for was Merlin being so absolutely appealing in his drunkenness. He was sat next to the man with the lute singing a song about his 'Young Sister' and something about cherries and by the time they were a couple of verses in, a few people joined in with them. It was a song Arthur didn't know, so he just hung back in the background. When Merlin sang the line, "She bade me love my sweetheart without longing," there were coos from the ladies. When he finished there was applause. Then Merlin fell off his stool.
After that, it was something of a blur. Merlin was pulled to his feet by Sir Egbert (when had he turned up?) which became a cue for what could only be loosely described as dancing. The room was certainly more crowded that it had been in the afternoon and Arthur was sure half of the party had only arrived with the newly filled flagons of wine.
The room was swaying with bodies and noise. Merlin was somewhere in the thick of it, his mop of black hair and his wide smile occasionally surfacing amongst the sea of heads that bobbed in time with the lute, pipe and drum. He looked like he was having the time of his life.
Arthur thought about pushing through the crowd to him, but then he wasn't sure what he planned to do after that.
Instead, he left him to what remained of his day off and went quietly back to his chamber. It had been a good day, really it had. It was just that he wished it wasn't quite over yet.
As Arthur settled himself between the sheets, he pressed his hand beneath the fabric of his unlaced britches. The wine had loosened the tight rein he usually kept on his thoughts and fantasies, letting them wander without censure, the memory of the party and Merlin's face flushed from too much wine still fresh and vivid. He wondered what thoughts and daydreams got Merlin hard, what made his cock weep with arousal. He wondered how he touched himself, wondered what he liked, wondered if he'd ever let another man touch him, and by this time it was inevitable; he wondered what it would feel like to touch Merlin.
Arthur's cock was already half-hard as he continued to coax the life-blood into it by pulling back his foreskin, curling his fingers around his shaft and rubbing his thumb and forefinger over the tip, into the slit and around the sensitive ridge of the head. He pushed his britches down and kicked them off, he spread his thighs and rolled his balls in his palm, ghosted his fingers over the loose, damp skin, and fantasised that Merlin did this too, while he was alone in his bed.
Arthur licked his palm and stroked soft and slow, just warming his skin to the comforting sensation of his touch, just teasing the parts of his cock that made him tingle, through his balls and low in his belly. If he speeded up now he would come soon, but he didn't want it to end too quickly, didn't want to put his thoughts of Merlin to bed, curled around his lonely dreams as he lost him to the pull of sleep. So he kept on slow, flicking his wrist over the damp head of his cock while his other hand cupped his balls.
It was a slow burn that crept up to his cheeks and spread the tingle of sweat behind his neck and over his chest. Arthur pumped faster, Merlin's name hidden behind his lips, but there all the same. Still, as he released his balls then pushed his hand beneath his buttock, ghosting his fingers over his hole, he gasped inwards. He wasn't ready to voice this thing he did, even in his mind, this thing he had never asked from a lover before, this thing he kept to himself, ashamed of what it might mean. But it was too good to resist, the feeling so intense, so he caressed his hole until his finger was pressed over its tightness and gasping with the pleasure, Arthur fisted his cock until he finally tipped over, Merlin's name still fighting to leave his lips as his arse clenched beneath his fingers and his come coated his fist and belly.
As he cleaned himself up, Arthur had to quickly dismiss the unbidden and unwelcome notion that by having left Merlin at the party, he might end up spending the night in the arms of a serving girl. If he dwelled on it he might never be able to fall asleep.
Within a week of May Day, half of court came down with colds. Gaius was run off his feet, which meant Merlin was busy, too, running here, there and everywhere with tonics and brews for the afflicted.
It was hardly surprising that the old man succumbed too and Arthur was temporarily assigned a new servant while Merlin did his best to pick up where Gaius left off, as well as take care of him.
A scullion had been loaned to Merlin to run the tonics and salves of wintergreen to the afflicted members of the castle. Arthur had only seen the boy once or twice before, but his carroty hair was unmistakable and now everywhere Arthur went he saw the boy running from room to room with his deliveries.
Arthur stopped him on his way back from the practice field. "Boy."
"Yes, Prince Arthur?"
"How fares Gaius, the physician?"
The boy shrugged and Arthur said more plainly, "Is he still ill?"
"When I was there this morning he was lying in his bed, sleeping."
"And what of Merlin: is he in good health?"
"Yes sire. He gave me a penny for my hard work."
Arthur smiled to himself at the thought. "Yes. He would do that."
"And are you returning to Gaius' rooms now?"
"No sire. I'm going back to the kitchens for my lunch. But then I have to go back later for the tonics to go in the night teas."
"Very good. You've been most helpful. You may get off to the kitchen for your lunch."
Arthur hurried to Gaius' chambers. He'd barely seen Merlin for days.
When he arrived the door was slightly ajar. He suspected it was so the boy could come and go without disturbing Gaius' rest so he pushed it open slowly, and crept in, just in case.
Indeed, Gaius was resting in his bed. Arthur could see him from the doorway and sitting beside him on a chair was Merlin. His hair was tussled and he looked tired. Gaius was propped up on pillows and Merlin was feeding him soup with the bowl cupped under his chin. The scene was quiet and tender.
Merlin took the bowl from Gaius and stroked his cheek with the back of his palm. Arthur suddenly felt that he had seen something which was meant to be private. The feeling twisted his gut. "Merlin," he whispered.
Merlin looked up, tucked Gaius in and came over.
"Arthur," his reply was warm and cheery, but the dark circles under his eyes told a different story.
"How is he?"
"Oh, he'll live." As soon as the words came out of his mouth Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. Merlin chuckled. "It's only a cold, Arthur. It's just, you know, he's old. It takes it out of you."
"Not so old I can't hear."
They looked over. Gaius was still reclined, but awake and alert. "Sorry, Gaius," Arthur said.
"You look tired." Merlin raised his hand and put in on Arthur's forehead. "You feel warm."
"I've just been outside, training. It's warm today." He realised he was rather sweaty and maybe smelling ripe. Not very respectful to turn up in Gaius' chambers this way, but he really wanted to see Merlin.
"Are you eating properly?" Merlin looked concerned as Arthur reflected on the half-eaten meals of the last few days. Merlin's hand was back, his fingers tracing the line of tendon in his neck and up under his jaw. Arthur winced; he hadn't realised that it was going to feel so sore, but at the same time couldn't help but tilt his head into the touch. Merlin cupped Arthur's jaw then reached up and swept his hair back from his forehead as he felt it again.
The action was unnecessary and clearly an affectionate gesture more than a diagnostic one but this really wasn't the time to be hungry for Merlin's touch, and the childish desire Arthur had to say but I want, I want, I want was too awful so he quickly batted Merlin's hand away and said, "Yes. You don't have to baby me, Merlin."
Looking at him, Arthur wondered whether Merlin was eating properly. Watching him moving around the room, picking up, putting bottles back on shelves, Arthur also wondered if Merlin's days as his manservant were numbered. Gaius wasn't going to live forever and Merlin was performing his duties almost single-handedly already. Arthur knew he should be happy for him; physician was an austere position in court, but he couldn't bear to think of the day Merlin's position as his manservant would be filled by someone else. It had dawned on him, these last few days, Merlin was irreplaceable for all the wrong reasons … or maybe all the right ones.
"I don't have to baby you? Really? There's a swelling in your neck. I suggest you go to bed. I'll be up to look in on you soon; I just need to get Gwen to sit with Gaius."
Arthur moved his head from side to side and felt the pressing ache spread through and down his neck. He could feel a headache coming on. There was nothing going on in the afternoon; too many people were sick and they didn't want to spread it further, so the council meeting had been cancelled for a couple of days. It wouldn't hurt to maybe have a lie down. Today's session had been particularly tiring, with their numbers so depleted. He said to Merlin, "See you later, then?" and considered that that had sounded needy, but he was already feeling too tired to care, too lonely and too desperate to keep it in.
Arthur made to leave, and as he reached the door Merlin said, "Arthur. Get that lazy manservant of yours to fix you a bath. You stink."
With that, Arthur couldn't help but laugh. Oh how the tables had turned.
It turned out Arthur did indeed have a cold.
By the time he reached his chambers, he was sneezing and could feel the thick fog of congestion building behind his nose and eyes. Geoffrey, the temporary manservant, had brought him his lunch and a large bowl of warm water that he might wash first. The poor boy looked run off his feet from lugging one bucket of water and then bringing a tray of food. Arthur wondered how it was that flimsy, clumsy Merlin was able to get a whole tub full of water piping hot without breaking a sweat. Maybe he wasn't quite as useless as Arthur had once assumed.
With that thought, he gruffly dismissed Geoffrey for the afternoon, washed all over, picked at his lunch and settled into bed. He could feel himself starting to doze when Merlin arrived. He sat up, at once feeling perkier.
"You are not allowed to say I told you so," Arthur said thickly after a sneeze.
"Alright." Merlin was looking around the room critically.
"In case you're wondering, Geoffrey is a quiet little mouse of a thing and quite boring. Your job is safe."
Merlin eyed the tray on the table, and brought it over to the bed. "Why don't you tell him you don't like ham?"
"I was saving it for you. You looked starved."
"I'll eat the ham if you drink this." Merlin handed Arthur a small flask. He could smell the mint and other familiar herbs, but there was a hint of something different. As he sipped at the liquid he recognised the taste as an infusion Gaius had been making for colds since he was a child, but this time there was something different, which he assumed must be Merlin's own take on the recipe.
Before long, the drowsiness caught up with him. He settled back onto a pile of pillows as Merlin straightened the covers then removed the tray.
"That's it," Arthur yawned, "I'm done for." He added, "Go if you like," which wasn't what he wanted to say at all.
Merlin glanced over at him and frowned, continued to fuss over the tray then proceeded to rifle around in the cupboard, until he eventually pulled out a crumpled shirt Arthur hadn't seen for some weeks. He watched Merlin tut as he put his fingers through a hole in the sleeve. "Shall I take care of this? I may as well, while I'm here."
"If you like. There's no hurry." It was then that Arthur recognised the shirt as one that he'd asked Merlin to mend some weeks ago. It was strange that Merlin should have the urge to take care of it now ... unless he needed a reason ... to stay. Arthur was hopeful, but wanted to be sure, so he ventured, "I could always get Geoffrey to do it."
"No!" Merlin sat down on the end of the bed and began to work. Arthur closed his eyes and felt himself falling into sleep faster than he had for days.
Arthur awoke sometime later feeling groggy and stuffy but not really ill, and wondering how long he'd been sleeping. He raised himself up onto one elbow and was surprised to see Merlin asleep at the end of the bed with the shirt for mending half- scrunched beneath his head. The poor thing looked wiped out. As Arthur shuffled to get a better look, Merlin didn't even stir and Arthur had no plans to wake him.
The sun must have been low on the horizon, as it broke through the windows in gently-sloping shafts of golden light. Even with the shade of the canopy, Merlin's face caught the edges of its glow, over the steep curve of his cheekbones and the sharp line of his jaw. Like this, he looked impossibly angelic, and the urge to kiss him gently, to touch the skin on his face and see if it was as soft and smooth as it looked, was nothing like his baser fantasies, but filled with just as much desire.
Arthur noticed Merlin's hands, work-weary and stained from grinding herbs. One hand was curled beneath his jaw and the other clasped a fistful of the shirt that had clearly not been mended. In that instant, as the light faded from the room, it dawned on Arthur as clear as a new day that Merlin, his Merlin had missed him, too. Merlin felt the tug of longing when he was without him, and it wasn't fanciful or vain to think it. Merlin craved to touch him, and sought it at every possible opportunity, unlike the way that Geoffrey cringed from it like it was the most undignified part of his duties. Surely, then, Merlin was a man who felt this passion spill into the full breadth of his emotions? The spark of hope belied the dullness that weighed his head and limbs from the toll of his ever-worsening cold. He reached out his arm towards him, just brushing his fingers over the edge of his sleeve as he said, "I'll have you back with me in no time."
He pulled a blanket over Merlin, who still didn't stir, and lay back down, feeling the drag of sleep pull him under once again.
The next time he awoke Merlin was gone.
It was two days later when Merlin returned to his prior duties. He breezed into Arthur's chambers with a cheery disposition, just as Arthur was coming to, already feeling much better after what had amounted to hardly a summer sniffle.
"Morning! I'm back!" Merlin announced, plonking a tray on the table with a clatter.
The sound rang out like music to Arthur's ears. He'd barely had a chance to focus his eyes on Merlin, who was in the middle of pulling back every curtain from the windows and the bed, as if determined to let the brightness of his mood reflect off everything in the room, when he was suddenly perched on the side of the bed feeling Arthur's forehead.
"I see you now consider yourself an authority on matters of my health. I'm not sure I approve."
"Well I'm all you've got for now. The walk is still too far for Gaius."
"You'll do I suppose, then." Arthur tugged at his sleeve, just to make sure he understood him.
"Good." Merlin smiled so brightly Arthur was spellbound and could only stare at him dumbly, until Merlin added, "Your fever's gone. Do you feel better? You look better."
"Right as rain and ready for that breakfast. I might venture out to the training field today."
"It's quite blustery out. Should make things more bearable than they have been this last week."
Merlin handed Arthur the platter in his bed and puffed the pillows behind his back. He looked less tired than he did a few days ago, and his infectious cheeriness was uplifting. "So what has you in these high spirits? Glad to be back?"
Merlin stood abruptly, after bending down to pick up one of Arthur's boots from the foot of the bed and put his hands on his hips. "You'd love that, wouldn't you? Thinking I'd been pining away for you, while I was run off my feet taking care of half of court, while Gaius was so sick I thought …" His voice trailed off then he added pointedly, "I'm just glad everyone is feeling better."
"Ah, so looking after me is the soft option? I'd better make sure I give you more challenging duties."
Merlin just quirked an eyebrow in response as Arthur set about eating his bread, which was like manna after days of hardly being able to taste anything and days more of having no appetite. He watched Merlin busy himself with nothing in particular - a skill which he'd honed to perfection, while Arthur's belly filled with sustenance and his chest filled with something like affection. Without thinking he added, "That Geoffrey was a dullard without a sense of humour."
"And I'm an idiot with a sense of humour?" Merlin was poking at the fireplace now, sending puffs of ashes over the hearth, because there was nothing like making more work for oneself, was there?
"Something like that."
"I never knew you thought so highly of me. I'm so lucky."
Arthur winked at Merlin and smiled. He'd never felt so bold, so confident he was reading things right. "You smell better, too. I smelt you when you plumped my pillows. Did you wash especially for me?"
Merlin coughed and headed for the windows. "This room could do with some fresh air. It's very dusty." He pulled at his neckerchief and Arthur couldn't help but notice that he looked a shade pinker than usual. Merlin approached the furthest window, released the catch with ease, pulled it open and secured the hooks over the rings on the inside casements. With each pane well beyond the height and breadth of a man, the air from outside gusted into the room at once, bringing with it birdsong and the crisp newness of a summer morning.
At the second window, the catch seemed to be giving Merlin some problems. He fiddled for a time but he couldn't seem to get it to budge. Finally, after much rattling and what sounded like swearing under his breath, the catch seemed to release and Merlin set about securing the far window to the casement.
But what happened next, how it happened, was something of a mystery. It seemed, as Arthur was in the middle of saying, "Be careful, there's quite a wind blowing out there," and, "in fact, maybe you should just shut that one again," a strong gust of wind blew in then sucked out with unexpected and brutal ferocity. It made the unsecured window swing back outwards with such strength that Merlin, slender and light and never too steady on his feet at the best of times, was whacked forwards from where he stood, by the full force of the slamming window.
Arthur thought Merlin cried out. But all he could be sure of was watching helplessly as he saw Merlin's feet, his boots, stumble and leave the floor, powerless to stop the inevitable, as Merlin fell headlong out of the window.
Arthur heard himself calling, shouting, "No!" even though it was no use. His breakfast platter hurtled through the air and crashed to the floor, while bedclothes were ripped away as he kicked himself free. He sucked in a breath as his feet hit the floor, not feeling the cold stone, knowing all the while Merlin had perished and he was going to see his broken body shattered upon the cobblestones. In that instant his heart shattered too.
His feet moved swiftly, but he was still two paces from the window when there was another almighty gust of wind and a flash of golden light and Arthur was momentarily pushed back, though he fought to press on. Then as quickly as it appeared, it vanished and Arthur reached the window. Frenzied and heart-broken, his eyes darted to focus on the distant ground below, only what he saw was Merlin's hands clinging white-knuckled to the bottom of the window-frame. Arthur dropped, fell to his knees, leaned out and grabbed at Merlin's forearms, looking down to see him frantically looking up, his eyes glowing golden, his legs scrabbling manically for purchase against the castle wall.
It was impossible to tell the order in which thought and impulse came to Arthur in that moment; one indistinguishable from the other. But he was able to utter just one word, one word that might hold in its asking the balance of life and death, of one dangling manservant at least, or the future of a kingdom. "Sorcerer?"
Merlin's arms, so slender yet strong, flexed within his grip, the soft warmth of his skin permeating into Arthur's hands and in his eyes now so desperately blue and pleading, was sheer terror. Arthur had seen that so many times before, on the battlefield and sometimes on the tourney field, yet in Merlin it was so much more intense. Arthur knew, as surely as he held onto Merlin, that whatever came next, whatever he did next would change his life forever. And yet, there was no decision, no choice that needed to be made. There never had been.
Arthur managed to gasp, "I've got you, Merlin. Come on, push up, do something."
Although Merlin was light enough, what followed was as if he suddenly weighed nothing at all. While Arthur pulled, Merlin was lifted up through the window and onto his feet, safe and in one piece.
There was a brief moment, maybe no longer than a few beats of Arthur's racing heart, where they stood frozen, close enough Arthur could almost taste the fear that rolled in waves from Merlin's trembling body. Face to face, they stared into each other's eyes; Arthur was unable to pull his gaze away and it seemed neither could Merlin. All this time, all those secrets and lies, were dancing around the periphery of Arthur's vision and now he could see them all so clearly, painted in shades of vivid blue. Arthur gasped loud enough he heard it, then, as if the blood in his body were suddenly charged with lightning, his eyes widened as his whole body tensed further still, with a final surge of resistance to the knowledge that suddenly filled his mind so full and fast it made him dizzy.
Arthur realised he was still gripping Merlin's forearm, still holding him tight enough he would surely leave bruises, so he released him and it seemed then that Merlin might crumple and fall again, but Arthur would never, could never let that happen, so he wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist and pulled him in close to his chest. Merlin in turn wrapped his arms around Arthur's neck, his face buried against his skin, clinging to him like he was still hanging on for his life.
He was trembling so hard that Arthur tried squeezing him tighter, as if he could smooth out the fury of his pounding heart, the urgent panting of his frantic breath, hot against his skin. He rubbed his hands up and down soothingly over Merlin's back, whispering over and over, "Shhh, shhh. It's alright, I've got you, I've got you," trying to infuse the words into Merlin's mind, into his heart.
When it seemed Merlin might be able to hear something beyond the panic that seemed to pulse through his body, when his breathing stretched into something softer and the sobs subsided, Arthur said gently, "Idiot. You didn't think I'd let you go over a little thing like that, did you?" He squeezed him tighter - hoping the embrace was enough, that Merlin would understand that Arthur was strong enough to hold onto him.
He heard Merlin let out a breath which was maybe a hint of a laugh against his neck, as he loosened his grip and his fingers found their way to Arthur's nape and teased the hair there. Arthur turned his head and kissed Merlin's temple, just a brush of skin against skin, to try to dissolve the last of his anxiety. Only, he realised that the racing heartbeat he felt was his own.
Finally, Merlin said, "You're not wearing any trousers." He pulled back, a new smile growing from the remnants of the fading fear that had painted his face in blotches of crimson.
"I was in bed." Arthur unhooked his arms and wiped a stray tear from Merlin's cheek. Next it seemed only fitting that he should sway back towards him and kiss the swollen redness of his eyes, feel Merlin's eyelashes flutter beneath his lips as he pressed soft kisses to his eyelids. He met no resistance, only the tender reply of Merlin's fingers twirling through his hair and the steady heaving of his chest. Then Merlin tilted his head and met Arthur's mouth with his own, his lips no less soft and pliant than Arthur had imagined.
Merlin did not slap, punch or tussle like other men. But what he did do as he was pressed between Arthur and the mattress was touch Arthur in a way no one had before. His kisses were open-mouthed, loud and wet and filthy, as he sucked at Arthur's tongue, his lips, his neck and his jaw, completely and unashamedly wanton. His fingers clawed through Arthur's hair and down his back, hard enough Arthur was sure it would leave marks, so that if there was ever any doubt in his mind Merlin sought no more than manly affection it was quite soundly and assuredly dispelled with this blissful sting.
Naked beneath Arthur, with his legs spread wide, Merlin rolled his hips up until his cock brushed against the hair on Arthur's belly and the hard line of his own cock, which in turn rutted and wept against the burn of Merlin's skin. Whilst Arthur felt the tingle between his legs and would have moved faster and harder until he was over and crashing, Merlin seemed to slow, his fingers pressing their way down in circles over the tight muscles of Arthur's back and the rise of his buttocks.
His breath was searing as he moaned against Arthur's neck, his heels dug creases into the sheets as he pushed up deliberately slowly against Arthur's every downward thrust, forcing him to counter more slowly too, all the while whispering, "Yes, so good, so good, you feel so good."
Arthur discovered that this sensation, this simmering just below the boil, was indeed so good, and that he could stay like this, slowly rubbing himself against Merlin, teetering on the cusp of pleasure for pleasure's sake and not yielding to the crescendo and crash of climax. He kissed Merlin's damp skin between determined thrusts, ventured a glance at him, revelling in the new sight of him flushed and sweaty and thoroughly debauched. As he kissed Merlin loosely on the mouth he felt the brush of Merlin's fingers, delving between the tight mounds of his buttocks, until they skated over his hole.
Arthur gasped and Merlin must have seen his eyes widen, felt his body tense, as he said at once, "Is that alright? It feels good, doesn't it?"
"Yes." Arthur sucked in a breath. "Are you sure you don't mind? You don't have to."
"I know, and I wouldn't do it if I didn't want to." He smirked and kissed Arthur smartly on the lips, assuring him with a more tender expression. "But that look on your face, like you're going to come any moment, it's so gorgeous, and when you do come I want to feel it in every possible way I can."
The honesty, the intimate words Merlin spoke sent a jolt, made his cock twitch. He'd only ever touched himself on the outside; never put his fingers in there. It was a threshold, another threshold he'd never crossed, as if there were degrees of what could be allowed and what could never be, whether in the privacy of his room or even his own mind. But Merlin, looking up at him like it was the most obvious thing to do next, had no such inhibition.
Arthur tried to sound casual. "Better get on with it then, because I'm not going to last."
So, Merlin pressed into him with every buck of his hips. Then, and Arthur would never have believed he could be surprised any more than he already had been this morning, Merlin's finger brushed against a spot inside him that made him gasp out loud, with startling pleasure. Merlin's eyes lit up in response and Arthur was blinded, had to close his eyes, until he was jerking his release over Merlin's belly, in a litany of yes, yes, yes. And no sooner had the last drops of come pulsed from his cock and he stilled for a moment panting, as Merlin was arching from the bed, his come sliding between them, wet and warm.
When they'd finally jerked through the last waves of climax they stilled. Merlin pushed back Arthur's damp fringe, the look in his eyes as soft and relaxed as the rest of his body, but for a trace, a lingering hesitancy in the hint of a frown. He rubbed his foot along the length of Arthur's calf as he said, "I've got some explaining to do, haven't I?"
"Yes. In time." He felt Merlin begin to tense beneath him and didn't want him to be afraid anymore, not of him. He rolled off leaving his leg draped over Merlin's, his arm resting on his chest, and with lightness said, "Can you get a wet cloth without getting up?"
"Of course. I suppose you want a drink, too, while I'm at it?"
"Mmm, and some bread. Since I never got to finish my breakfast."
"Well, it's nice to know some things haven't changed."
Arthur agreed, but was more glad and grateful for the things that had changed – more so than the smile on his face could ever convey.
Later, as the sun passed its zenith and light streamed in the through the stained glass windows so that illuminated colours danced brightly across the floor, Merlin left to help Gaius with a parting hug and bruising kiss. Arthur readied himself to get back out to the training field even though he could have stayed in bed all day, pinning Merlin down and learning every last thing that made him come undone. He would find him later, maybe corner him and push him into an alcove and find that spot inside his britches, just above his hip, that made him squirm and laugh. Arthur tightened his belt and ran his fingers through his hair, barely able to wipe the grin from his face. He wondered for a moment if anyone would notice and whether they would buy a flimsy excuse like he was simply feeling better after his illness and glad to be back outside. It took only a moment to conclude that he didn't care what anyone thought.
Arthur's heart leapt as he looked over his chambers, stripped and cleared of all the earlier mayhem, yet still buzzing and brighter, with a new and different light. So this was how it felt, to be so in love that nothing else mattered, no obstacle too great to stand in its way, nothing strong enough to hold it back. This was how it felt to have it returned, to know without a doubt that he was loved, too; so much that Merlin daily risked everything to be close to him.
Merlin might be the one with magic, but it was Arthur's feet that felt like they weren't touching the floor, as he took one last glance at his chambers before closing the door, leaving its secrets safe inside, where they belonged.