It’s been a long day and Arthur is tired, the kind of tired that means his mind fades out and he moves through the evening in a fog of sensation. Merlin has drawn him a bath and he watches the pattern of the steam curling up from it, glinting copper and gold in the firelight, and then remembers to stand and let himself be undressed.
He’s not too tired to notice the warmth of Merlin’s hands, just a breath away from his skin. He’s pretty sure he could be dead and still not too tired to notice. Merlin removes Arthur’s shirt and then turns his full concentration to Arthur’s breeches, head bowed but unmistakeable—the curve of his skull, the shape of his ear could never be anyone else’s.
And then Arthur makes the mistake of allowing himself to watch, to look at Merlin’s clever fingers at work nearly right over his cock, and he stumbles back before his self-control slips.
“Arthur?” Merlin asks, frowning.
“It was taking too long,” Arthur says, almost at random. “I’ll finish it myself.” He gets his breeches and smallclothes off and steps quickly into the tub, drawing his knees up a little. The water’s the perfect temperature (Merlin, you idiot, he thinks, because his bathwater isn’t worth Merlin’s life) and he sighs in pleasure as he feels the tension of the day slowly start unwinding from around him.
When Merlin starts washing Arthur’s back it feels too good for Arthur to be sensible and say he’ll do it himself—he doesn’t want to; he wants to sit here surrounded by warmth as Merlin’s hands slide lower and lower and heat twists hard inside him and plummets. He tries to distract himself with supply lists, border patrols, anything dull and cold, but his thoughts are scattered and how much he wants Merlin is the only sure thing in the world right now.
Merlin pours water over his back, gently, washing away soap and fatigue, and Arthur shivers. “Too cold?” Merlin asks, sounding distracted, and the soap slips from his other hand and falls with a gentle splash between Arthur’s legs.
Arthur is frozen in surprise for just a moment, just long enough for Merlin to make an irritated sound and reach in for the soap, keeping his eyes averted.
“Just look—” Arthur starts, and then Merlin’s seeking hand brushes against his cock, fully hard by now, and Arthur’s fairly certain he loses all the breath in his lungs as pleasure lances through him, better than he’d ever imagined it because it’s real, and Merlin gasps and sits back on his heels, eyes huge as he stares at Arthur.
He didn’t even manage to get the soap, a distant corner of Arthur’s mind realizes.
“Do you want me to take care of that?” Merlin asks, unsteady, almost tripping over his words.
It takes Arthur a moment to realize what Merlin means, and then he recoils, sending water crashing onto the floor. “I’d never—absolutely not. That’s not part of your duties.”
Merlin’s face goes shielded, but he doesn’t rise to move away, and Arthur—Arthur knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help looking, especially not with so sharp a reminder: Merlin’s dark eyes and soft mouth, the bones of his wrists and the loose curl of his fingers, the—
“I didn’t think it was,” Merlin says.
—way the light and shadow play over his trousers, highlighting the tenting of cloth at his groin.
“Merlin,” Arthur says carefully, and he hardly recognizes his own voice. “What are you talking about?”
Merlin gives him a look which Arthur can’t quite read, something between exasperated and fond, with a hearty dose of disbelief thrown in. “Well, I was offering to—”
“But why,” Arthur says, because this is important, because he’s having a hard time focusing as it is, because he isn’t sure he trusts his control if Merlin starts talking about all the things he might have been offering to do and it isn’t because he wants to. The appropriate emotions to show right now are—well—there aren’t any, but dazed lust followed by hurt certainly wouldn’t be even if there were.
The look is almost pure disbelief now. “Because I wanted to,” Merlin says, very slowly, as if he’s explaining it to someone very stupid. (Arthur is starting to wonder if he qualifies.) “Though I’m not sure I do anymore, if you’re—”
“Yes, all right? I do, and I haven’t the least idea why because you’re completely infuriating, but…”
Arthur doesn’t scramble out of the bathtub, because that would be beneath his dignity, but he moves more quickly than he usually does and a little less deliberately. Merlin just stares, his eyes trailing up and down Arthur’s body, slow enough that Arthur doesn’t even feel chilled as the water drips off of him.
When Merlin finally stands, he’s the one who kisses Arthur first, apparently not caring at all that Arthur is still dripping wet. “Had to watch you every day,” Merlin says against Arthur’s throat, and Arthur gives up and holds him, pulling them closer together, aroused enough that he doesn’t mind the cloth of Merlin’s trousers between their cocks. “Dress you, undress you”—he pulls away, working his way down Arthur’s body, and that’s the edge of his teeth against Arthur’s nipple—“rub my hands all over your naked body…”
“Not all over,” Arthur manages. “I would have remem—”
Merlin drops to his knees, flicks his tongue into Arthur’s navel and that shouldn’t have been amazing but it is, and then he sucks Arthur’s cock into his mouth and Arthur forgets how to think, especially when Merlin’s eyes flutter closed and he starts making noises like he’s delighted, absolutely delighted, to be here.
Arthur has patience, and stamina, and self-control, but all of those are gone with coherent thought, and it’s an embarrassingly short time before he feels his balls tightening and says something, probably something incoherent, but Merlin pulls back just enough to say “Go ahead” and then returns to what he was doing, and Arthur does.
He can’t quite tell whether Merlin swallowed or used magic to clean up, but either way he wants to do this over and over again as soon as is humanly possible. “What do you want?” he asks, because whatever Merlin wants is what Arthur wants to give him, and Merlin leans back against the wall and says “Anything.”
This is important, this matters, and Arthur’s hands are shaking a little with more than just exhausted satisfaction as he undoes Merlin’s trousers and pulls Merlin’s cock out of his smallclothes. But it’s too distant, too physical, and on an impulse he leans in to kiss Merlin, tasting the bitterness of his own come in Merlin’s mouth, and Merlin moans into the kiss even before Arthur starts stroking him, holds tight until he shakes apart.
“Bed?” Arthur asks, a bit hesitantly, but Merlin brightens at that. “Just get out of those wet clothes first.”
And Merlin laughs, and starts peeling off his clothes.