Merlin was attempting to flirt. He had never really had the chance to learn the subtleties of this strangely difficult art in Ealdor. Yet, however little practice he’d had, Merlin was smart enough to understand that it was all going very, very badly.
The kitchen maid, Morag, had seemed happy and open to his somewhat oafish advances earlier in the week; now she was practically running for the hills when she saw him coming. She would colour up and murmur something about being needed somewhere – anywhere – far away from Merlin.
Merlin, being an understanding sort, decided that she was attempting to let him down gently and took it like a man.
“For God’s sake, Merlin! Take it like a man,” Arthur said when he saw Merlin moping around his chambers, attempting to clean. “You’ll find someone else.” He gave Merlin a stern look.
“How did you…?”
“I am the Prince. I know everything.”
Merlin highly doubted this and resented that holier-than-thou expression on Arthur’s face. Damn nobility. “Yes, oh Wise One,” he said with a roll of his eyes and left the room to get Arthur his luncheon.
Determined to find himself a pleasant young woman, Merlin became extra nice to all of Camelot’s female staff. Being Arthur’s manservant afforded him access to all areas. It was just a matter of finding the right girl. Gwen was off limits because, well… she was Gwen. He just wanted someone to have fun with. Flirting was enjoyable, as was kissing (despite his clumsiness), and the occasional more intimate encounter.
Yet, every time Merlin came close to anything approaching intimate these days, the other party would suddenly loose interest very quickly. Did he have bad breath? Was his neckerchief a little too… country bumpkin? It was confusing to say the least and a large part of him suspected that The Prince Who Knew Everything was laughing at him from somewhere in the shadows.
It was all rather irksome.
To make matters particularly irritating, Merlin kept finding evidence that his liege was getting a great deal of action. Sometimes it was a ring hiding in the folds of the bed sheets or a feminine shawl draped across a chair. Sometimes it was an actual woman – slipping out of Arthur’s rooms at dawn – and Merlin didn’t really need much of an imagination to guess what had transpired. Once he’d even found a pair of male riding boots that definitely weren’t Arthur’s; Merlin had shined the Prince’s boots often enough to know each pair intimately. The only intimacy he was ever likely to receive if his current rate of success was any measure.
“Enjoying yourself, my Lord?” Merlin asked one morning after seeing off the latest blushing maiden.
“Immensely.” Arthur looked at him for a moment, a smile on his smug face. “I’m irresistible, you see. Can’t be helped.”
“I’m just so very regal. People are always propositioning me.” He gave a heavy sigh, as though all that adoration was really quite a trying matter.
“How awful for you, Sire.” Merlin stomped out of the room, Arthur’s laugh following him down the corridor. Bastard.
One evening (during a feast where Merlin might have had too much to drink) he was getting wonderfully familiar with Enid, one of the washer women. Enid wouldn’t have been his first choice – or his fifth – but it seemed she was the only one willing to give Merlin a second glance these days. She was actually laughing with appreciation at his jokes and Merlin was feeling like king of the world.
He caught Gwen giving him a disparaging look from where she stood by Morgana, but ignored it. He knew his jokes were funny and so did Enid apparently. Though some of it might have had to do with the fact that she’d drunk double the amount he himself had consumed. But what did that prove, anyway?
As he leaned in to kiss the girl, she turned her head in a sudden fit of maidenly shyness, and his lips ended up mashing themselves into her plump cheek. She giggled in that annoyingly high pitch whine that was mostly heard by dogs. Merlin grinned in his best attempt at being suave and went in for a second time.
Just as he was nearing her lips again, Enid squawked. Very loudly. What was this girl’s problem?
“Melrin…” she slurred, flapping her hands at him. “I… I can’t.” Her smile was genuine but apologetic.
“You’re lovely but… I like my job,” Enid continued.
What did this have to do with kissing? She had to be making an excuse for some other reason…
“It’s because of the neckerchief, isn’t it?” Merlin asked, forlorn.
“What? No-o. Just don’t want to get in trouble. Not supposed to… Prince Arthur wouldn’t like –” she stopped suddenly as a shadow fell over them in their secluded corner. Enid’s eyes went round and she looked ready to faint. Or throw up.
Merlin turned around to see Arthur standing behind him, arms folded and a strange look on his face – both annoyed and sardonic. Merlin stood and he most certainly did not sway. Arthur was just standing crooked on purpose, to spite him.
“Interrupting anything?” Arthur said in a deceptively genial tone, but Merlin wasn’t deceived; Merlin could read Arthur. “I was wondering where my recalcitrant manservant had disappeared to and I find him drunk and – are… are you trying to be suave, Merlin?” There was a note of princely incredulity in his voice.
“’m not drunk,” Merlin insisted, which would have been more convincing if he hadn’t tripped over his own foot and found himself making friends with the floor. “And I’m naturally suave,” he continued with less conviction as he stared at Arthur’s feet.
“So I see.” Arthur scowled down at Merlin floundering on the floor, before glaring at Enid. He stared hard, eyes narrowing. The poor girl went from red to white to green in a rather impressive display of mortification.
“My lord.” She stood, swayed and curtsied to Arthur. “I apologise. I must leave – do beg your pardon.” Without so much as a backwards glance at Merlin, Enid disappeared.
“Kill joy,” Merlin grumbled, sitting up at last and leaning his head against the stone wall. “I was in with a chance there. Just wanted a bit of fun. Kissing, touching and all that…”
Arthur sighed dramatically. “Get up, Merlin. As much as your sex life thrills me in its most intimate details, I have need of you. Or I did. You’re completely useless to me like that. Who said you could touch the mead?”
Merlin, clutching the wall with deep concentration, repeated: “I just wanted a bit of fun.” He paused, looking at Arthur. “Why do you get all the glory and women? We’re – you and me – we’re like two sides of, you know… the same coin.”
“Nice analogy, Merlin. Very profound.”
“S’true! Dragon said…” Merlin waved a hand vaguely, but stopped abruptly as his precarious balance became threatened. Arthur frowned at his manservant; the boy was drunker than he’d previously thought. Blathering on about dragons? Not good.
“And yet this side,” Merlin hooked a thumb at his own chest, “only gets… gets, dirty washing! And… and… not dirty women.” Merlin bowed his head in defeat. “Why?”
Arthur sighed. “It’s the neckerchief.”
Merlin didn’t remember much the next morning, which was a good thing he supposed. If the pounding in his head was anything to go by he’d had a rather… interesting night.
It took him countless attempts to gather himself and stumble across the room to get dressed. Without really figuring out how it was he managed it, Merlin found himself in the kitchens hefting a tray full of fruit, freshly baked bread and a jug of water. He wondered briefly where Morag had got to and decided that she was hiding, which she’d taken to doing every time he showed his face in the kitchens. Merlin shrugged, pretending he didn’t care. Not really.
After a laborious climb up to Arthur’s rooms, in which he might have dropped a couple of grapes (nothing Arthur would miss), he found himself outside the prince’s door. Just as he raised a fist to knock, Arthur’s door opened of its own accord. Standing in the frame was Morag.
She sucked in a breath, eyes going round at the sight of Merlin standing on the other side of the door. “Merlin!” she half whispered, half cried in an oddly melodramatic tone. “What are you doing here?” She glanced behind her with a frown.
“I – well, I’m Arthur’s manservant?” He looked down helplessly at the tray in his hands. “Its morning and I always come by in the morning because Arthur can’t do anything for himself. I have to wake him, feed him, clothe him. Did you know he can’t even dress, or undress, by himself? But I guess you would know that now! Ha!” Merlin had no idea what his tongue was doing – it certainly wasn’t taking orders from him. If only he could shut up.
Morag’s face had turned crimson, eyebrows coming together in consternation. Before Merlin could apologise for his idiocy, the kitchen maid had fled down the hall and out of sight. Girls were always running away from him. Merlin pouted.
He wanted to stomp into Arthur’s chambers and be as obnoxiously loud as possible, but his own pounding head made him dismiss that particular line of torture. Merlin clenched his teeth. How dare Arthur? More to the point, how humiliating.
There was a groan from the bed and Merlin flung aside one of the bed hangings letting a shaft of cheerful morning light illuminate a decidedly naked Arthur lying on his front. The prince winced and shifted away from the light but didn’t wake. Clicking his tongue Merlin considered whether or not dumping the jug of icy water on the prince would be the more satisfactory payback, or just hitting him with it.
Suddenly Merlin had a very devilish idea and it was hard for him not to cackle with glee. Toeing off his shoes, Merlin stealthily crawled onto the bed besides Arthur and closed the curtains again. He had to be careful, he didn’t want to startle Arthur and ruin this perfect moment to get his own back.
Merlin settled besides the prince and held his breath a moment, listening for Arthur to show any sign that he subconsciously knew Merlin had invaded his bed. There was nothing. Arthur really could be a lazy sod when he felt like it.
Trying to control a wayward giggle, Merlin leaned towards Arthur and stroked a hand down his naked back. He was slow as he pressed carefully into warm skin, following the bumps of Arthur’s spine. There was a low rumble from the sleeping form. Merlin brought his hand up to the back of Arthur’s neck and snaked his fingers downwards again in a long luxurious swipe. He lingered a moment at the small of Arthur’s back.
The prince shifted a little at the touch. “Mmwat?” he muttered into his pillow.
Merlin said nothing, but continued to follow the ridge of Arthur’s spine. It was an oddly comforting gesture and Merlin liked the feel of Arthur’s skin under his fingers.
Without warning there was an almighty lurch from Arthur, who propelled himself as far away from Merlin as possible.
“What the fuck?!” Arthur cried. “Who’s there?”
Well, that was unexpected. Was Arthur actually… scared? Merlin always knew the man wasn’t much of a morning person, but this was a bit extreme. He pitied Arthur’s bed fellows if this was the reaction they received on the morning after.
Merlin took a deep breath and said in a high falsetto: “Oh, sire. You’re just so manly that I couldn’t keep my hands to myself!”
“I… what?” Arthur sounded less horrified, and more confused. “You’re… not that maid are you? Morag?” He sounded positively baffled and not a little wary. And Arthur complained that Merlin had drunk too much the previous night…
“Oh Arthur,” Merlin pretended to lament, voice still contorted into a hideous falsetto. “Don’t you remember our night of passion? It was like the stars falling, the earth moving, the sea –” Merlin was stopped short from his monologue by sudden blindness. Arthur had pulled the curtains open.
“Merlin? You’re in my bed.” Arthur’s face was stunned and a little blank, as though the realisation that Merlin had been sitting beside him while he was asleep (and stark naked) had rendered him completely insensible. “Why?”
“For a joke?”
It had seemed such a brilliant idea at the time. Crawl into bed with Arthur, pretend to be his latest conquest and embarrass the daylights out of the smug prat. Yet the only one embarrassed was Merlin; funny how that was always the way.
“You decided to molest me… for a joke?” Arthur’s voice was still deadpan.
“I wasn’t really molesting you, Sire,” Merlin said a little indignantly.
“Then what were you really doing?”
“Look, I was just pissed that you went and slept with Morag. You knew I was after her. Why can’t you leave just one girl for me in the whole of Camelot? It’s not like you couldn’t have anyone you liked just by asking!” Merlin huffed. Arthur’s eyes narrowed and his lips thinned.
“If you’re not scaring them off,” Merlin continued under his breath, “you’re wooing them yourself… greedy prat.”
“So you decided to molest me?” Arthur said very slowly and painfully.
“I was not – look, I only wanted to embarrass you for a laugh. I’m sorry.”
They sat in silence for a while. Arthur stared into the middle distance his face grave and unreadable. Merlin watched him cautiously.
“Well,” Arthur said at last, a grin spreading across his face “It was only a matter of time before you started to fall in love with me! Couldn’t keep your hands off, eh?”
Merlin rolled his eyes and got off the bed to start their morning routine. “Your ego knows no bounds, Sire.”
The rest of the day was uneventful. The only real annoyance was that Arthur kept making little side comments about Merlin’s love of his ‘handsome, aristocratic figure’. It was all said with a wide smile and normally Merlin would let it roll right off him – except that he couldn’t and all because of that smile. The thing was, it wasn’t a smile. It hadn’t reached Arthur’s eyes.
Merlin tried to ignore it but as the days passed Arthur’s fake smile got more and more forced until one evening Arthur couldn’t stand it any longer. He snapped at Merlin and told him to get out of his sight. It reminded Merlin of that time during the tournament and Knight Valiant, but this time Merlin had no clue why Arthur was upset at him. Was it him?
The strange behaviour started that morning when Morag had come out of Arthur’s chambers. Was Arthur in love with the kitchen girl? He hadn’t thought so at the time, not the way Arthur had reacted and seemed not to even remember her name. But Arthur was odd and he had been hung-over at the time… so anything was possible.
Gathering his courage Merlin approached Morag in the kitchens one morning. It was earlier than he normally arrived so that the girl wouldn’t have a chance to hide from him – again. Morag was talking to Gwen in a low but obviously anxious voice. Gwen had to keep patting the girl’s shoulder and whispering soft words of comfort. Morag turned pale when she saw Merlin and looked ready to run.
“Please, don’t go!” Merlin said desperately, a hand reaching out to stop her leaving. Gwen gave him an odd look. “I just want to talk to you, about… you know, that morning… when you, um, came out of Arthur’s chambers?”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Morag said stiffly.
“I’m sorry, but it’s very important. You see, Arthur’s been in a strange mood ever since. I was wondering if, um, something happened between you both? Have you had a little lover’s spat or… something?” This was all too embarrassing for Merlin really. He felt the blush start from his ears and work its way down to cheeks and then neck.
Morag was looking at him like he’d grown another head. “What are you talking about? Lovers? Me and the prince?”
“Well, aren’t you? I saw you coming out that morning and…”
“Morag, just tell him. He needs to know,” Gwen said gently, squeezing the other girl’s arm. Merlin was deeply confused. The kitchen girl took a deep, shaky breath.
“I am not Prince Arthur’s lover. He… he just wanted it to look that way. Prince Arthur asks the staff, the knights, and sometimes even the nobles, to play along in his game.”
“What game? Why would he do that?”
“It might have something to do with why he doesn’t want anyone getting too… friendly with you.” Morag and Gwen watched his reaction. Merlin was decidedly nonplused.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Oh Merlin!” Gwen cried. “Are you really so blind? Arthur has been frightening people away from you because –” she paused and took a deep breath, “because, he is head over heels in love and doesn’t want anyone else to have you. Merlin, you are the only person in the whole of Camelot who doesn’t know this.”
Merlin didn’t say anything, didn’t think anything, but just stared in utter astonishment. If it wasn’t for Gwen’s serious face, he would have laughed long and hard. He glanced in desperation at Morag.
“It’s true,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry, but we all had to avoid you, even though you’re so nice – Enid just got too drunk to really remember properly. Anyway, the Prince really cares about you.” Her face dropped. “Or he did.”
“Did?” Merlin asked faintly.
“He came to me the other day and insisted that I must… well, um… sleep with you.” Morag blushed and looked at the floor with a frown. “He said you loved me, he was certain of it. But I know you don’t, because… you care about him too.”
To say it suddenly all became clear, like he’d just been struck by a bolt of lightning from heaven, would be misleading. It was still confusing and fuzzy in Merlin’s mind and all he could really think about was getting to Arthur. When he got to Arthur it would all be fine – that much he did know.
Without another word Merlin left the kitchens and climbed the stairs and crossed several halls and climbed yet more stairs until he stood before Arthur’s door. Without knocking Merlin walked in and made his way to the bed. There was no sound coming from the other side of the curtains. For the second time within a week, Merlin found himself sitting beside a sleeping Arthur.
The prince was once again lying on his stomach but this time wore a pair of trousers and a little frown. Merlin’s heart was beating frantically in his chest, as though it was trying to escape. When you decided to give your heart to someone, Merlin mused, it seemed your heart was only too eager to leave. When Merlin’s fingers touched the familiar warmth of skin again, his stomach dropped and his breath caught. Arthur might have been a prat, but he was a beautiful prat.
Slowly, Merlin trailed his fingers down his prince’s back just as he had before. He was in no particular rush, wanting Arthur to wake up slowly. At stroke five Arthur murmured something that Merlin couldn’t quite catch, and at stroke seven Arthur’s eyes were blinking open.
“Merlin?” Arthur said in a sleep heavy voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Molesting you,” Merlin said with a grin. Before he could stop to think about it, Merlin darted in for a kiss.
Nothing happened at first, and then Merlin began to move his lips around Arthur’s, licking and sucking. The prince tasted of sweat and warmth and morning. It was a strange flavour but heady.
Arthur pulled back eyes wide and confused. “Are you… trying to be suave, Merlin?”
“Yeah. Is it working?”
“A bit.” Arthur sat up, rolling his shoulders and Merlin couldn’t look away. “What about Morag?”
“What about Morag?”
“Aren’t you… in love with her? You seemed rather upset earlier in the week when you thought we’d, um…”
“You are such a prat,” Merlin said affectionately. Arthur looked ready to hit him, so Merlin elaborated quickly. “I’m not in love with Morag, never have been, never will be. Just wanted someone to have fun with… to take my mind off liking you so much. ”
Arthur’s mouth dropped open, his eyes went wide but he said nothing. Perhaps it was a bolt of lightning from heaven, Merlin mused.
“I thought you knew everything,” he said. Arthur rolled his eyes.
“Did you really tell everyone to stay away from me?” Merlin’s eyes narrowed in mirth, a smile on his face. Arthur watched Merlin’s smiling lips with something close to elation.
“Maybe,” he said with amusement. Merlin laughed.
It was then that Arthur tackled him, rolling Merlin onto his back and kissing him urgently. Merlin kissed back, letting his fingers roam feely over Arthur’s skin. He didn’t think he’d ever get tired of this feeling; of being drunk on Arthur.
If Merlin had thought about it (which of course he’d never done) he would have assumed that Arthur made love like he made war – solemn, forceful and determined. Yet this, this was nothing of the sort. Arthur was so playful, gentle even. He could feel Arthur’s breath all over his body and the teasing vibrations from Arthur’s chuckles. It was exhilarating and fun. Hadn’t he told Arthur that he’d wanted ‘just a bit of fun’? If Merlin was honest, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d laughed more – his smile was so big it hurt.
“How do you do it?” Arthur asked later, the question a mix of wonder and exasperation against Merlin’s ear.
“Break me down. Unravel me. Pierce me.” There was a stunned little pause. It was strange to hear Arthur so unsure, so open. “Where knights with swords fail, you and your idiotic smile completely undo me. What is it about you?”
Merlin smiled. “It’s the neckerchief.”