One of his earliest memories is kissing the steward's son. They're six and playing in the garden when Arthur brushes his lips against his. He doesn't mean anything by it, not really. It’s something he’s seen courtiers do, and in that moment he just wants to try it. The other boy pulls back in surprise and laughs, and Arthur laughs with him and then does it again.
When his nurse catches them at it she's horrified, and leads Arthur back to his rooms with a firm grip on his arm. He doesn't see the steward or his son in the castle again after that, and he knows that he's done something wrong but he's not quite sure what it was. He's seen children playing like that before and no one had put up a fuss. But maybe the rules are different for him. He's the prince, after all, though he's not quite sure what that means, yet. He doesn't play like that again, not with commoners and especially not with other boys. He focuses on his swordplay and his studies and doesn't know enough about friends to realize that he hasn't got any. His father is pleased.
When Arthur is thirteen he squires for his father on his first campaign. Before they leave, Uther pulls him aside and talks to him about women, and camp whores, and bastards, and shame. He doesn't say anything about men at all, so Arthur knows that must be even worse. Hot prickling fear crawls up his spine, and an uncomfortable sweat breaks out over his body. He nods and doesn’t say anything at all.
Arthur trains with his knights and they treat him as one of their own. They're not careful around him like they are around Uther, and Arthur is privy to their bawdy talk, and finally old enough to understand it.
Their talk of tits and cunts holds no fascination for him, and they laugh that they cannot make him blush. Perhaps they think he's experienced, that he gets as many women as he wants simply by virtue of being the prince. He doesn't say anything one way or the other and they take his silence for confirmation, clapping him on the back with pride.
They joke about what men do together - buggery - like it's something dirty and foul, a perversion of the flesh and of the mind. Arthur grows even more ashamed just for the wanting of it. He shudders to think what they would say about him if they knew, and resolves that they never will.
There's a stable hand named Alam that takes care of Arthur's horse. He's older than Arthur, though not by much, has an easy sort of grace about him that Arthur envies. His hair is red and his fair skin is freckled and his eyes are the green of young grass, warm and clear. In the heat of summer he walks around the stables bare-chested, sun-kissed skin glistening with sweat. Arthur tries not to look, not to want, but he's sixteen and his blood runs hot and he's not as strong as he wishes, not as subtle as he thinks.
One evening he returns from a ride and the stables are empty of everyone but Alam, who narrows his eyes and smiles as he takes Arthur's reigns.
"Anything else, m'lord?" he murmurs honey-sweet, and something about the way he says it makes Arthur think that maybe he means anything at all. Arthur's breath catches in his throat and his heart begins to race and Alam looks at him still, inviting him closer.
Arthur can't even begin to know what it is he wants so badly, but he thinks, maybe, all he has to do is lean forward and Alam will show him. He sways a little, almost presses forward into Alam's heat, and then the shame and uncertainty rises through him and lust turns to fear.
What if he’s misunderstood, and Alam turns him away in disgust. What if he doesn’t and someone sees, and tells. What if Alam is just playing a trick, looking for something to hold over Arthur so he can get a better position, or gold, or power. How can Arthur trust him, anyone, with something like this.
"That will be all," Arthur says after staying silent too long, and he doesn't think he imagines the look of disappointment that passes over Alam's face.
When Arthur is seventeen he feels like he's burning up from the wanting.
His father starts talking about marriage prospects more and more frequently, discussing nobleman's daughters and foreign princesses the same way he might discuss commissioning a new doublet.
Arthur had known all along that he would be expected to marry and produce an heir, had accepted the fact – but suddenly it rankles. Perhaps it’s the realization of how little choice he’ll actually have in the matter, or perhaps it’s that before long he’ll be married to a woman he has little care for without ever having had a single taste of what he really wants.
By then Arthur is in charge of the city watch and he knows Camelot better than he knows his own reflection. He knows every inn and tavern and brothel, knows which ones are particularly discrete, which ones cater to noble clientele.
After an especially awful council meeting Arthur dresses in simple clothes and a dark cloak and sneaks out of the castle by moonlight. His steps are sure as he strides across cobbled streets into a much seedier part of the city. As he gets closer to his destination he feels his stomach sinking with a mixture of fear and want and uncertainty, but he's determined to see this through. His steps don't falter even as his breathing becomes quick and shallow, panicked even to his own ears.
He doesn't take off the hood of his cloak when he enters the brothel, doesn't even need to speak to the woman standing at the bottom of the stairs, letting his gold speak for him. She gives him a room number and a key and points him in the right direction with an oily smile.
Suddenly Arthur is standing in front of a door without quite knowing how he got there, and his hand is shaking as he fits the key into the lock and quietly walks inside.
There's a lithe young man lounging nude on the bed that dominates the room, and he's the only thing Arthur sees. His hair looks soft where it curls around his ears, his bronze skin glistens in the candle-light. His eyes are half lidded as he drinks languidly from a pewter goblet and watches Arthur with vague interest. "What’ll you be wanting, then?" he asks, his voice husky and low.
Arthur shivers involuntarily, his fingers tightening over the key he still holds in his hand. This is the moment he finally gets to sate his want, maybe the only moment he ever gets. And here, with - with a whore - it won't matter that he's never done this before, that he barely even knows what he wants, much less what to do. Surely this boy has seen all this before, surely Arthur isn't the only frightened noble to have graced his room.
The young man must see his uncertainty, or maybe he's just tired of waiting because he stands up and slinks over to Arthur. His only adornment is a delicate sapphire-studded chain around his waist and Arthur stares at it, entranced. He can’t even bring himself to look lower, his eyes locked to the light playing over the rough stones. "Let's get these clothes off, hm?" the young man says, and suddenly Arthur comes to his senses and takes a fearful step back.
What was he thinking? What if the boy recognizes him, if not now then later, while Arthur's riding through the city on patrol? His duties have taken him to stranger places before. And even if this place, this whore, is discrete, no amount of discretion will be enough to hide the crown prince's perversion.
The boy stops, frowning uncertainly as Arthur backs away from him. Arthur can barely believe how stupid he's been; coming here was a risk he shouldn't have taken. He shakes his head a little desperately, wanting to apologize but not wanting the boy to know him by his voice, and flees.
He narrowly avoids a patrol on his way back to the castle, his blood freezing in his veins as he imagines what it would have been like to be caught by his own guards, how he could have explained his presence in this part of town.
Once he's back in his own chambers he lets himself release a single harsh sob at the unfairness of it all, of his duty and the desperate wrongness within himself, and rips off the cloak to toss it into the fire. It's foolish to want, and a prince can't indulge in such things. Arthur takes a deep breath and, for the first time in his life, gives up.
By the time Arthur's eighteen he's gotten good at not looking, not dreaming. He doesn't want quite so badly anymore.
And then Merlin shows up and ruins everything.
Merlin is a joy, a nuisance, a friend, a slow persistent torture.
No one’s ever spoken to him the way Merlin does. He’s not afraid of Arthur’s temper, or strength, or title. He jokes with Arthur, prods him and teases him and soothes him – always somehow knowing which it is that Arthur needs. He stands by him in the face of danger and boredom both. He's always there, and Arthur feels like he's drowning.
Mostly it's not so bad. Mostly Merlin is an exasperating menace, acting clumsy and foolishly loyal and getting himself into trouble to boot. These are the times Arthur's too busy saving his neck to spare it a second thought. Only, during their short-lived quiet moments Merlin is so lovely that Arthur can barely breathe for wanting.
Merlin's hands seem to linger tantalizingly on Arthur's skin when he dresses him or worse - undresses him - and Arthur has to distract himself by calling Merlin names and assigning endless lists of chores. Merlin’s hands are impossibly soft for a servant, his fingers long and straight and elegant. His lips are plush and inviting and his eyes always sparkle with mischief. He wants Merlin to leave, to never leave, to stop touching him, to touch him again, more, everywhere.
Sometimes he thinks Merlin wants him too. He catches glimpses of it in the way Merlin turns away, embarrassed, while Arthur's in his bath, or how Merlin glares at visiting noblewomen who Arthur pretends catch his eye, or how gently Merlin's fingers run over the line of his shoulders as he gets Arthur into his feast clothes - supposedly to straighten the line of his tunic. Merlin gives this task more care than Arthur's seen any servant give it before, and somewhere deep and secret Arthur hopes that Merlin simply wants to touch him.
Merlin is the only one Arthur can trust with his desire, the only one who wouldn’t use that information for his own personal gain. He wouldn’t be needlessly cruel. But he might not understand, might turn away in disgust. He might not ever look at Arthur the same way again, and that is too painful to contemplate. Arthur needs him too much to take that risk.
A lifetime of silence can only breed more silence, and Arthur hides his wanting as best he can.
Arthur dislikes Gwaine instantly. If he’s honest with himself, he knows that it’s because he envies Gwaine’s easy manner, how utterly unconcerned he is with what people think of him, his bravery in going after what he truly wants. If Arthur is even more honest with himself, he knows it’s mainly because of the way Merlin looks at Gwaine – proud and adoring.
He shouldn’t be surprised when he comes across Gwaine pressing Merlin against a wall in a dark corridor, whispering into his ear. He shouldn’t be surprised, but he is at how much he hates Gwaine in that instant. He wants to storm over there and rip Gwaine away, but nothing in Merlin’s loose easy stance, his thighs cradling Gwaine’s hips, his flushed cheeks and fluttering lashes, suggests that any of this is unwelcome.
“…so it’s like that, is it?” Merlin asks in a husky voice that sends a shiver down Arthur’s spine.
“If you’d like,” Gwaine answers, sucking a wet kiss behind Merlin’s ear. “You don’t seem the type to turn down some easy fun.”
“Are you calling me a slag?” Merlin asks with a laugh, fingers curling into Gwaine’s hair, answer already given and received.
“Only in the best way possible,” Gwaine says into his neck.
“And what if I’m waiting for my one true love?” Merlin asks.
Gwaine pulls away and stares into his eyes. “You’ll be waiting a long time, darling,” he says in a tone that sounds like pity. “No sense in being celibate the whole way, is there?”
“I suppose not,” Merlin murmurs, and then they’re kissing wantonly. Gwaine slides his hands lower and Arthur can’t see what it is he’s doing but Merlin moans and arches up against him. Arthur is harder than he’s ever been in his life and he wants to stay and wants to go and most of all he doesn’t want them to see him. He leaves, stricken, and goes to the practice field even though it’s an hour after sunset.
He stabs and slashes at a practice dummy until well past midnight and his arms are aching and his tunic soaked through with sweat. He hopes that Merlin isn’t waiting for him in his rooms, and is immensely disappointed when Merlin isn’t. He bathes quickly and drops into bed exhausted. He cannot sleep, unable to keep his mind from repeating Merlin’s needy moan over and over. Wondering what it would be like if Merlin were moaning like that for him.
Arthur doesn’t know what to do. He wants and fears by turns, and through it all Merlin is there and Arthur can barely look at him. Gwaine leaves and it’s a blessing. Arthur doesn’t know how much longer he could have borne his presence without throttling him.
It’s obvious now that Merlin won’t find him repugnant, and won’t spread rumors, and won’t hate him. Arthur’s not afraid of his father as he once was; he’s the finest fighter in Camelot and has the respect and loyalty of all his men, regardless of who he may take to bed. And yet-
He’s spent so long hiding, trying not to want, knowing not to ask, that he doesn’t know how to ask anymore, for anything at all.
He stays silent, and the want eats away at him until he feels sick with it.
During a banquet a few noblemen joke about a foreign lord and his desire for a male servant. They joke about his cuckolded wife and his fearful household but most of all about his perversion and his foolishness – for why would a lord want a servant? Someone so obviously lesser, and bearing a cock as well. Why, when there are so many willing cunts around?
Arthur grits his teeth and fights back the angry flush that spikes sharply through him. He prays that they don’t notice, that they don’t see. They mustn’t know. He stares straight ahead and dares not look at Merlin. He hopes they’ll stop but they don’t. They keep going, oblivious, jokes upon jokes slathered in cruel laughter. He excuses himself from the table and strides away, not even realizing that Merlin’s followed him until he’s back in his chambers and Merlin’s there with him.
He sits in his favorite chair and stares into the fire, trying to ignore Merlin puttering around. He pours himself a glass of wine while Merlin’s busy doing something somewhere else, and drinks moodily.
“Arthur-” Merlin starts, using his I-know-you-won’t-want-to-hear-this-but-I’m-going-to-tell-you-anyway voice.
“Stop,” Arthur says quietly. To his surprise, Merlin does.
The quiet doesn’t last very long at all. “You shouldn’t listen to them,” Merlin says uncertainly. “How could any of them understand-“
“Merlin!” Arthur says, suddenly frightened of what Merlin’s going to say next.
"You've been acting oddly for a while now," Merlin continues, "ever since you saw me with Gwaine."
It's a wonder Arthur doesn't die on the spot, what with the way his heart is trying to escape from his chest. He feels a cold sweat breaking out and his gut sinks. He'd thought they hadn't seen him but here it is, and Merlin's known all along.
He feels a bit faint but suddenly he realizes that Merlin's still speaking, saying, "I thought you were angry, or maybe disgusted with me, but that's not it, is it?"
Merlin pauses and Arthur can't bear to look at him.
"All this time I thought maybe you wanted-" Merlin continues, "but you never said and I... But you do, don't you?"
Arthur finally gathers the courage to look up into Merlin's face and is surprised by the determination in his fierce blue eyes.
"Do you want me, Arthur?" Merlin asks.
Arthur's mouth is dry, his hands shaking. He doesn't want to say no even though he knows he should, though in that moment he can't seem to recall exactly why. He licks his lips uncertainly. "I..." he says, his voice coming out reedy and weak. He can't recall a time he felt more paralyzed with fear.
Merlin takes a hesitant step forward, still holding his gaze. "I think you do," he says, "only I need to hear you say it. Please, Arthur."
Arthur exhales a shuddering breath. He's never said what he wanted out loud, barely even thought it. But this is Merlin - beloved, loyal Merlin - and surely Arthur has nothing to fear from him.
"Yes," he whispers.
Merlin's eyes widen and his lips part around a soft gasp. Before the rising panic can overtake Arthur completely Merlin is straddling his lap, hands at the back of Arthur's neck to pull him into a kiss.
Arthur inhales sharply with surprise, shocked at the feel of Merlin's lips sliding against his own, punishingly hard. He's never done this before, has no idea of how to act, or move, or where to put his hands. He slides his arms around Merlin's waist, gripping his sharp hips tightly as Merlin moans and sinks his hands into Arthur's hair to tilt his head to a better angle.
There's a sick churning in his gut, lust and dread mixed into a tight heavy mass that weighs him down and makes it hard to breathe. He's sweating already, hot and hard and uncomfortable, and even Merlin's eagerness does nothing to ease his uncertainty. Things between them have shifted into something uncharted and it'll never be the same, it will be a mistake. What if someone hears, or sees, or knows? It feels like falling from a great height; it feels like madness.
Maybe in an effort to soothe him Merlin pulls away briefly to press a soft kiss against each of his eyelids - and when had he closed his eyes? Merlin tilts his head to the side, slides hot sucking kisses along Arthur’s neck while he gasps in huge gulps of air, trying to catch his breath.
"Arthur," Merlin whispers, "it's all right, shhh." And Arthur realizes he's making pained whimpering sounds into Merlin’s shoulder. He slides his hands up Merlin's back to hold on tighter and Merlin moans, practically melting against his chest. He's impossibly hot in Arthur's arms, body taut and trembling. "Come on, Arthur," Merlin groans desperately, and then grinds their bodies together in a languorous slide, rubbing his hard cock against Arthur's belly.
Arthur gasps again, and grips him by the hair to pull him back and look him in the eyes.
Merlin’s pupils are huge, his face flushed, his lips parted as he pants breathlessly. He shifts restlessly against Arthur, shameless and unafraid. “Please, Arthur,” he murmurs, and in that moment Arthur stops thinking and pulls him into another kiss.
Merlin is liquid fire in his arms and Arthur is burning, suffocating, falling. He groans when Merlin's hands find their way beneath his tunic, so viscerally different from any touch he'd received before.
His hands clutch uselessly at Merlin's hair and neck and back, and even though Merlin's practically writhing against him Arthur is too shy to bring his hands lower. Suddenly Merlin's sliding out of his lap to kneel between Arthur's thighs and frantically tugging at his laces. Even the light accidental brushes of his knuckles against Arthur's cock make him gasp and strain upwards.
Arthur's mind is already swimming in a scalding haze of arousal and he moans loudly at the shock of Merlin's mouth enveloping his cock. He'd never dared to want this, to even think of it, and now he finds himself staring at Merlin's lips pulled tight around his length.
"Merlin!" Arthur gasps, his hands tightening over the arm rests of the chair until his knuckles are white. He's shaking as Merlin sucks him at an enthusiastic unrelenting pace, and it's a struggle to keep himself from thrusting up into Merlin's welcoming mouth.
Arthur may be the greatest warrior in the land, but when it comes to the arts of love he is untried and new. Soon - much too soon - he manages to gasp out "Merlin! I-" before the pleasure overwhelms him and he begins to come. Merlin pulls away to stroke him through it.
Even as Arthur stares down at him in wonder, still trying to catch his breath, Merlin presses his face against Arthur's sweat-slick stomach. He frantically pulls at his own laces before shoving his hand, still wet with Arthur's come, into his trousers and bringing himself off with quick harsh strokes. He shudders and bites off a moan before stilling, breathing hard.
The room feels hazy, the fire far away, and all Arthur can hear is a faint buzzing, all he can see is the top of Merlin’s head resting on his hip. He raises his hand to brush his fingers slowly through Merlin’s hair and Merlin shudders again before relaxing against him. They stay like that for several long moments as their breathing settles, and then Merlin shifts away from him and looks up into his face.
“What you saw with Gwaine…” he starts, and Arthur can’t help but frown. “That was just a bit of fun,” Merlin continues. “We didn’t mean anything by it, really. But I- I want this, with us, to be different.”
“Yeah?” Arthur asks, hardly daring to believe his luck.
Merlin’s blushing as he turns his head to look away. “Yeah,” he whispers. “As long as you… as long as you want that too.”
This time, the word comes easier to his lips. Arthur finds himself smiling as he says, “Yes. Please.” The tension around Merlin’s eyes and lips melts away into a brilliant smile, and Arthur runs a finger carefully down Merlin’s cheek. “Only I… I don’t quite know what to do now.”
“Now?” Merlin asks with a laugh. “Now you take me to bed, and we do all this again.”
Arthur finds he isn’t quite so afraid anymore.
At twenty-five Arthur is a King in his own right. His knights stand at his back and Merlin stands at his side, where he belongs. There is no more need for silence, and finally Arthur feels strong and safe. Now he understands what it means to be King. He rules with trust and love; Camelot prospers and Albion kneels before him.
Merlin smiles and whispers, "Sire..." as Arthur takes him to bed, and all Arthur sees is the golden dawn that will rise above them, and Merlin's eyes as they narrow in a smile when he says, "...for you? anything."