Of all the people that Merlin could be in love with, there are worse ones to pick than Arthur Pendragon. He likes to remember this fact when he’s dressing Arthur in the morning. Sometimes Arthur’s undershirt slips up against his skin and Arthur makes a little noise like a sigh only quieter and Merlin’s cheek is against Arthur’s skin for just a moment. Then, while he’s fixing the scabbard in place, Merlin is pretty sure if he doesn’t turn his mouth against Arthur’s stomach and kiss - make a hot wet spot with his breath that says please, he is going to die.
Later, when he’s lacing Arthur’s boots and his fingers are shaking a little. He has to breathe slowly to forget the image of Arthur half-naked and sleepily commanding when he catches Merlin stealing keys for somewhere shady at two o’clock in the morning. Merlin reminds himself that he could be in love with Uther or Lady Cath whose two husbands and three lovers all committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. The thought is never as comforting as he hopes.
The thing is, being in love with Arthur is like homesickness. It waits; quiet in the back of his mind, a thought that inconspicuously minds it’s own business, until some twist of luck wrenches it to the forefront of his thoughts and suddenly he’s drowning. He’ll be going along just fine, with the fondness, the lust small and true and easy. Or maybe he’ll even be annoyed with Arthur, because he isn’t listening when Merlin insists, for example, that Oh my God, Arthur, your step-mother is a troll and he might temporarily convince himself that he is so over Arthur.
But then it’ll sweep across him, when Arthur tilts his head a little and laughs at Merlin like he’s never met anyone else who could make him laugh so sweetly or he’s sitting in the kitchens on a slow afternoon and listening to Gwen describe Arthur, tall and lit from behind by the sun flashing off of his men’s swords as he gives the townspeople back their tax money, so terribly noble.
He reminds himself that Arthur deserves as much love as he can get, whether he knows about it or not. He reminds himself that it can’t last forever, it’s just a crush, no matter what it feels like now.
But it sure does feel like a lot.
Of all the people that Arthur could be in love with, there are worse ones to pick than Merlin. He likes to remember this fact when Merlin wakes him up in the mornings. Merlin is tired too, and the light is the colour of the golden plums the Princess of Media sent as a peace offering the month before. Wake up, Arthur. I haven’t got all day. Gaius wants me to clean out the salamander pit and there’s a hunt to prepare for, and Gwen wants me to dust the top of Morgana’s wardrobe because she can’t reach… That’s what it sounds like. Though Arthur distantly hears Merlin say all these things, when he first opens his eyes and is met by the sight of Merlin’s bottom lip, wet and heavy, all he can think of is the taste of those plums, warm, soft and honey perfumed but with the skin sour enough to make his jaw ache. He is sure that if he bit into Merlin’s lip he could find the same taste there.
He could be in love with Morgana who would probably eat him alive within six weeks, or Lady Beldry, the most notorious social climber the court has ever seen. At least he knows the Merlin is completely unattainable and could never ever happen. A man and a servant. Dear Lord. If miraculously Merlin did somehow want him too, and they were even so much as caught holding hands, his father would disown him, and probably throw him in the dungeons before Arthur could even scrape together the words for denial.
Being in love with Merlin, Arthur muses sometimes when he patrols the borders of the Castle town for the Tuesday morning shift, is sort of like having a splinter; the really small kind that’s hard to see because it’s just a brown line on the pad of his thumb. He can forget about it but it’s always a slight stinging ache on the edge of all his thoughts, never completely out of sight. And like a splinter, he might knock into something that will bring the pain, or rather love, back full force so he has to stop himself from gasping out.
Unfortunately, that happens all too often. Arthur might do something really stupid that he knows is going to come back to bite him later, like tell his father in front of the whole court that he won’t send more knights out to the wheat fields to take tithes because they’re already stretched too thin and it scares the farmer’s families when the army rides through. He frowns all the way back to his room, after being sent out like a child. There is Merlin, staring absently at the table.
He turns around, all genuinely surprised to see Arthur there, the idiot. Who else would possibly show up in Arthur’s rooms? Then, Merlin says something ridiculously perfect, like “I heard about what you said to the king. I think…” He usually turns his eyes to the floor at this point, which he should always do around the prince of Camelot but doesn’t, of course. “I think that’s really decent of you. Sir Kay says he’ll be able to visit his wife now, since you aren’t sending them out. And I remember the tithes from when I was little. It was scary. It’s really…good of you.”
Arthur just looks at the top of Merlin’s head and thinks, Shit, I am so in love with you. Stupid Merlin, who not only manages to say just the right thing without even trying, but also cares about the same things Arthur does.
Perhaps things could have been left at that, except then Camelot floods.
It’s a really bad flood. The kind where people die from walking around for weeks in the stagnant water filling the floor of their house and eating moulding food. It’s a crisis – much worse than Arthur having a terrible wound that won’t heal or Gwen being kidnapped. It’s like every single person in Camelot has been kidnapped and held for ransom by fate or their own misery.
They do the only thing they can. King Uther declares that everyone, the whole city, will travel to the holdings in Tintagel.
It’s a difficult journey. Tintagel is not exactly close. They send a messenger ahead to warn the tiny working village and the lord steward of the region that they are about to be hosts to the population of a metropolis; a dirty, hungry, tired, and very, very wet population.
The entire ordeal might have been particularly disastrous except that everyone is so glad to be out of Camelot that it’s more like the Great Procession from when Arthur was sixteen and he’d just been named the heir to the throne and he was deliriously proud of himself. It’s kind of like that, only not as good, because of the aforementioned dirty-hungry-tired-wet-ness, but also better, because he feels like he deserves it when mothers holding children to their chests ride their donkeys up next to his stallion and smile and thank him. For what, he doesn’t know exactly, but he’s done things to be thanked for now, unlike when he was sixteen.
When they’re a full day’s ride from the castle they stop for a week and everyone hunts like mad and tries to get their wagons and carts and children back into working order so they might not be to big of a burden. Arthur and Morgana head the operation, regal and doing their best to be patient and kind, while Uther prowls around his tent like an old angry lion. It hadn’t been his idea to go to Tintagel and anyone who knows him at all can tell he isn’t happy about how well it seems to be working out.
On the last day, before they set out, Arthur is sprawled on his bedroll watching the sunset, while Merlin turns the rabbits cooking over the fire. Most everyone is off minding their own business, finishing up a few final things before they pack up. Even Gwen and Morgana have retreated away to Morgana’s camp.
Arthur is talking aimlessly about a little girl who gave him a flower while he was checking if her parents had brought enough bedding to make a camp as there weren’t enough houses in Tintagel for every family to be quartered, and about how he managed to take down a 12-point stag in yesterday’s hunt, and he stops because he realises that Merlin has ceased to even make any appreciative “mmm” or “ah” noises for a while. He sits up to look at him. Merlin is staring at Arthur with a glazed look.
“Are you…er…okay?” Arthur says, fearful that he is about to get himself into some sort of sensitive discussion.
“Mm? Oh, yes,” Merlin replies, tearing his gaze off of Arthur to poke at the rabbit again. “I’m fine.”
Arthur really wants to leave it at that, but now he’s absolutely sure that Merlin is not fine. Steeling himself, he probes further, “There is nothing bothering you at all.”
Merlin looks at him with that wry absent upturning of his lips that makes Arthur feel as though he’s said something stupid, God forbid. He lies back down so Merlin can’t see the offended expression on his face, lost to the shadows of the fire.
“Really,” he says, softly, after a minute.
Merlin sighs, and comes over to sit next to Arthur’s sprawled form. He kneels like servants should do, sitting back on his heals and looking down, but he’s looking down at Arthur and it sort of defeats the whole purpose. Arthur absently notes that his eyelashes are atrociously long.
“When I was ten,” Merlin says slowly, “There was a flood like that in Ealdor. A whole season’s crops were destroyed, and we knew we were going to starve in the winter, and that half of us would be dead by the next spring. It was just a fact. There wasn’t anything we could do about it. The people who lived next to us - their faces; they looked like the people of Camelot did. Completely hopeless. Except you’ve sort of fixed it. I was just thinking that I wished you had been there. I know that doesn’t really make any sense, but I feel like if you had been there you could have fixed it.”
Merlin leans forward and places his palm, flat in the middle of Arthur’s chest, where the pendragon crest would be if he were wearing his formal tunic. He whispers: “You always fix things.”
The back of Arthur’s throat stings and Arthur is sure that there neither has, nor ever will be anything that he wants more than to kiss Merlin right now. He clenches his fists by his side, takes a deep shaky breath and watches Merlin’s hand rise and fall. Their eyes fall together, and meet. This time Merlin takes an unsteady breath.
“We can’t,” Arthur says, voice so very low.
Merlin’s face looks liquid smooth when he says, “I know.” He touches two fingers to the middle of Arthur’s forehead, and then stands up to his feet in an uncharacteristically graceful motion. “I know.”
There is some rustling in the bushes and Gwen comes bursting through, as if to underline this thing they just established. Here is the thing they want and cannot have. Here are the reasons why.
“My Lady wants to know if Your Highness wants to use her bathwater. It’s still warm right now.”
Arthur coughs mournfully, and staggers to his feet, “Yeah,” he says, “I suppose I had better.”
Tintagel is a lot of good things. It’s dry, for example. The locals are incredibly gracious about the thousands of people they’re suddenly expected to care for. It’s very beautiful, being more of a trading castle than a fortress like Camelot.
However, one thing that it is not is large. There is plenty of good land to be built upon, and the castle itself was constructed so that further levels and rooms could easily be added, but as is, the castle consists of two bedrooms on an upper level, a great hall, a dining hall, some storage rooms, and a kitchen.
The Lord of the castle, is, of course, prepared to give the King his own bedroom, and the second to Arthur, but Arthur shakes his head immediately, and urges Morgana to take the second room instead. It’s the noble thing to do, what is expected of him, but the people all smile and whisper to each other when he offers it, like his graciousness is a personal achievement.
If they hadn’t had to bring the townspeople with them too, the servants could have all been quartered on the people of Tintagel, but as is, the servants, court, Lord of the castle and now Arthur all lay out beds in the dining hall and great hall every night and sleep together in one great room.
It doesn’t matter much to Arthur one way or the other. In his opinion, a bed is a bed.
The real issue is that Merlin is not sequestered away in Gaius’s rooms, or even the antechamber anymore. Now he is expected to lay his pallet at the foot of Arthur’s bed. Too make matters worse, ever since the night by the fire, Arthur literally cannot spend five minutes without thinking of Merlin’s face, saying I know as if nothing had ever hurt him as much as not being with Arthur, or his hands when he dresses him in the mornings, now always lingering and gently brushing against the inside of Arthur’s thighs as he smoothes the linen.
At dinner, Merlin tilts his neck and leans very close when he pours Arthur’s wine, whispering small things too him as he does so, like Gwen says Morgana’s in a mood tonight, watch your back and have you seen the way Lord Merit eats his corn. Suspiciously like a pig. I suspect enchantment. Though considering his snout, sorry, nose, I’m not sure if he’s a pig that’s been enchanted to be Lord Merit or Lord Merit has been enchanted to be a pig, and worse, I like you in red.
Two weeks into the stay Arthur pulls Merlin into the potato storeroom at midday and slams the door closed behind them.
“You have to stop it, Merlin,” Arthur says, angrily.
Merlin throws his hands up into the air in exasperation. “Whatever have I done now?” he asks.
“Quit…flirting with me,” Arthur pauses, and stares sullenly at the floor, adding, “This is hard enough as it is.”
For a moment, Merlin’s face looks soft but as he contemplates the full weight the demand, he pulls himself up straight and defiant, “I’m not flirting with you. If anyone here should stop flirting, it’s you Arthur.”
“Me!” cries Arthur, affronted, “What have I done?”
“Um, excuse me, I cannot believe you even asked that. Yesterday when I was helping you on to your horse you felt up my bum! And then you winked.”
“I was just…”
“And whenever you give me orders you say them all low and growly right next to my ear so I can feel your breath on my neck!”
“But I…” Arthur stops. He leans against the door and slides down until his arms are braced against his knees. “You don’t understand how hard this is. You don’t understand how much I want you and how much I can’t. Do you remember Sir Felix? He was excommunicated and exiled for kissing his footman. Just one, closed mouth kiss.”
“I do understand, Arthur,” Merlin says, dropping to his knees and looking at Arthur, “I really, really do understand. But I don’t know how to stop, especially knowing you’re thinking the same.”
Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, “Neither do I.”
After Arthur accosts Merlin in the potato storage room, it’s easier for a few days. They can’t help catching each other’s eyes across the hall and pausing, trapped by their own want, but Merlin is more conscious of how close he stands when he serves Arthur at dinner, and Arthur at least stops telling him to go groom his horse like what he actually means to say is please, if you would take off all your clothes.
Then on Friday before the evening feast, Merlin is helping Arthur get rid of his armour after training with the Tintagel soldiers. Merlin removes Arthur’s vambraces, and, like always, the third buckle sticks, so he shifts to brace his body up against Arthur’s, leaning into his hips, maybe just a little more than he has to, and Arthur pulls away, looks down for a second, and when he looks up again at Merlin, his face is disgusted.
“Just let me do it,” Arthur says, wrenching his arm away.
“What? No, Arthur-” Merlin starts to say, confused.
“I think you meant sire.” Arthur pauses, face still frozen in austere dislike, “And you shouldn’t meet my eyes when you address me.”
Merlin feels his face crumple, and even though he sort of hates himself for it, his hands shake as he pull them into his chest, “Sorry,” he hears himself say quietly, before he remembers that when Arthur is really horrible he’s not supposed to show that it bothers him at all.
“Aw, fuck,” he hears Arthur mumble under his breath, and then all the sudden, Arthur’s arms are around him, warm and big.
“What the hell, Arthur,” Merlin says, turning in Arthur’s arms, “I am so confused. You are hugging me now.”
Arthur briefly drops his head onto Merlin’s shoulder. He sucks air in through his mouth quickly, as if bracing himself, and pulls away.
“I’m sorry, Merlin. I thought maybe if I was…really awful, you’d stop…liking me. But I don’t think I can do it. I’m really sorry.”
Merlin gives him that look, the one he’s pretty sure Arthur really hates, that he hopes says Yes I’m not the only idiot in the room, thank-you-very-much. Then Merlin sighs.
“Nice try Arthur, but unfortunately, I managed to fall in love with you back when you were a total ass, so it’s doubtful that continuing the behaviour is going to make me fall out of love.”
Then he turns quickly and walks out of the room, trying to make his footsteps seem self-assured and angry. Despite his best efforts, he can’t help glancing back as he turns into the hallway and catching sight of Arthur standing stock still in the middle of the room, his hands frozen in the air, and one vambrace hanging comically away from his wrist. Just when Merlin’s out of the doorway, Arthur murmurs, “Love?”
Merlin hears him and has to frown furiously to stop himself from smiling.
That is the way things go for the next three months, everything spirally slowly down into a deep dark pit of want want want. There doesn’t seem to be anything either of them can do about it. They decide to try to stay apart for a while. Arthur dresses himself in the mornings and Merlin only sees him at the evenings feasts, where they avoid eye contact like catching sight of each other might infect them with a disease. But apparently absence really does make the heart grow fonder. They try spending so much time together that they’ll get sick of each other, and Merlin sticks to Arthur like a burr, following him from knight practice, to meetings with the King about how the waters are receding in Camelot, to patrols. That tactic really doesn’t work.
At night, they are all packed into the hall like ship cargo, with Merlin near enough to touch four or five other people, including Arthur.
Then the Indian summer hits, strangely late, and they have two weeks of sweltering heat in the middle of November. Everything sticks to everywhere and Merlin sluggishly pulls himself around, unable to do much more than stare at the tiny curls on the back of Arthur’s neck when the humidity makes his hair misbehave, and the way the sweat drips over his arms when he holds his sword tightly.
He honestly feels like he is going to die. The sexual tension is as thick as the hot-wet air, and that is how Merlin finds himself back in the potato storeroom, crying like a teenage girl for no reason other than the fact that cannot breath for all the wanting.
“Merlin?” Gwen says, pushing the door open, and staring at him in surprise, bent over, hunched up, sweating, with tears rolling down his cheeks. “Umm…are you okay?”
“I’m going to die, Gwen.”
“What?” she says, suddenly looking terrified, and rushing into the room, kneeling down next to Merlin, “Oh, my God, what happened. Is it a disease? When did you find out? Are you- ”
Merlin wipes his nose with his sleeve and huffs a half-laugh. “Not literally, Gwen. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, then why are you crying? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry before, not that you don’t, of course. There isn’t anything wrong with crying, I just…haven’t seen you cry?”
“I am crying because I’m a complete idiot, Gwen.”
“Oh,” she says, “Well, I don’t think that’s true.” She leans forward and hugs him, like his mother used to when he was small, smelling of herbs and lavender, soft and female. He sighs and thinks about things that are easy, and tucks his face into her dark hair, hiding there for a moment.
Arthur is outside sharpening his sword when Gwen comes stomping up to him, a determined expression on her face, which looks suspiciously like the one Morgana gets sometimes when she has really properly made her mind up.
“Good morning, Guinevere. Can I help you with anything?” Arthur asks, putting on his best polite smile.
“Yes, Your Highness. Yes, I think you can.”
Arthur becomes afraid at this point.
“I would like to know why I just found Merlin crying in the potato storeroom.”
“Crying?” Arthur asks, suddenly very worried, “What do you mean? Why is he- ”
“Yes. And I think it’s something to do with you. I want to know what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Arthur cries, defensively, “Did he say I did?”
“No,” Gwen replies, her defiant stance melting away. She looks down sheepishly, “No, I don’t really know…”
“Well, it’s alright. Do you know where he went?”
Gwen shakes her head. “He was still in the storeroom when I left.”
“Oh, well, I’ll go see what I can do.”
Gwen looks a little surprised by his willingness to help, but Arthur doesn’t dwell. Mainly he’s just worried about Merlin. He sheaths his swords and drops the cloth onto the wooden bench he's been sitting at and walks towards the storeroom.
Merlin is still inside. No longer crying, but staring blankly at the wall, fiddling with the potato in his hands.
“I hear that you have turned into a thirteen year old girl, Merlin,” Arthur says by way of greeting, dropping down to lean against a burlap sack.
“Oh,” Merlin mumbles, looking up. “I see that the gossip wheel managed to stay intact despite the floods.”
“Guinevere yelled at me for making you cry.”
“Well, good,” Merlin says, a small smile touching his face, “Someone ought to be. In my weakened state, I can’t be expected to keep up with all the putting you in your place that needs to happen to keep your head the right size.”
“It’s too hot, and I am too in love with you,” Merlin says, staring at him sullenly, “That is what happened.”
Arthur lets his head fall onto the sack of potatoes behind him, “I think that I'm done hoping it will go away.”
“So what do you intend to do? Kill me?” Merlin says, sarcastically.
“No,” Arthur replies. He surges forward in a shockingly fast motion, and knocks into Merlin, throwing him back onto the bed of potatoes, bruising them both in the process and locking his lips onto Merlin’s. Merlin sighs and opens his mouth immediately, yielding and so easy to lick into that Arthur doesn’t know why he ever thought this wasn’t worth it. They shift and because nothing can ever be simple for Arthur a huge barrel of potatoes, disturbed by their movement, comes crashing over.
“Shit,” says Arthur, as he scrambles to his feet, pulling Merlin up behind him. There are footsteps in the hallway outside.
“Oh no,” Merlin says loudly, “Our efforts to assist the cook with bringing potatoes for dinner has been foiled by unstable stacking.”
Arthur glares at him. “Smooth.”
Two kitchen maids peek in through the door.
“Effrythin’ all righ’ in ‘ere milord?” says the older of the two.
“Yes, certainly,” Arthur says stiffly, “As you heard, we’re just helping out. You know.”
“Yesiree!” Merlin says enthusiastically behind him.
“Allrigh’y,” the maids chime together. They give Merlin a suspicious glare and set back out into the hallway, and leave the door wide opening behind them.
“Oh God,” Arthur says, dusting off his jacket, and turning to do the same to Merlin. Merlin meets his gaze, and smiles brilliantly, too bright and happy to be anything real, to be anything that Arthur can keep. Merlin catches Arthur’s wrists and holds them still while he presses a chaste kiss to Arthur’s cheek.
“See you,” he says, and disappears out the door in the opposite direction from the maids.
Arthur just stands there, frozen in place. Waiting. Like he always is for Merlin. Like he’s not alive unless Merlin is in the room.
The trouble with Tintagel is always the same. It’s too small and too crowded, and so even though Arthur has decided not to fight anymore, to just let himself be in love with Merlin, they can never do anything about it. The potato storeroom is only empty so often, and soon enough they’re spending enough time trying to make-out in there that people get the idea it’s Arthur’s office and drop in to have chats. They try the meat storeroom but it is really hard to feel sexy pressed up against the rear end of a cow, and the wool storeroom is always full of children spinning thread.
Instead they spend most of their time watching each other.
On Sunday afternoon, they ride out to the coast with Morgana and Gwen.
Arthur teaches Morgana the latest he’s learned sword fighting and she critiques him as he goes through a battle dance. Gwen and Merlin set out lunch. While they’re eating, Arthur knows that he is sitting too close to Merlin but he can’t make himself care. After they finish, Morgana drags Gwen off to put their toes in the water. Arthur lays back and twists in the sun, smelling, to Merlin, like heated metal and bergamot. Merlin watches him for a while, and when he looks up again, all he can see of Morgana and Gwen are too brightly coloured dots in the distance, flowers growing a few fields away.
After a moment of indecision he lays his head on Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur rolls so that his hands bracket Merlin’s hips.
“I want to touch you,” he murmurs into Merlin’s ear, rough and sweet, like the angular edges of sugar.
“Yeah,” Merlin replies, a little breathless.
“One of these days, I swear.” Then they can both hear the girl’s voices again, so Arthur rolls off, but he keeps his hand in Merlin’s until the Morgana’s words are distinct and when he pulls away completely, Merlin can almost taste Arthur’s reluctance to let go in the back of his throat.
The next day a scout returns from Camelot to say that the heat wave has dried up the floods enough to return. Unlike the mass exodus out of Camelot, Uther sends people home at a slow trickle, first a band of knights, and then a few more able, wealthy families who volunteer to clean up parts of the city, and then two weeks before the everyone else is set to head home, all the palace staff leave, under instruction to return the castle to proper standards for the arrival of the court.
Arthur doesn’t really think much of it until maybe the third day, and he feels ridiculously depressed, standing with the remaining knights and telling them in a terribly lack lustre voice, to do the drill again, that he realises he misses Merlin. This is, in fact, possibly the longest time they’ve ever been a part since Merlin first came to Camelot.
After that, he’s absolutely terrible to be around. Insufferable, and he knows it, but he can’t help it. Some sick part of him even likes that fact that anyone who spends more than twenty minutes in his company leaves looking like they just found out that their cat died. If he can’t be happy, if he can’t have Merlin, than no one else ought to be happy either.
Morgana corners him the night before they leave Tintagel while he’s idly wiping a cloth up and down his sword and remembering that other time he was doing the same thing that ended up with Merlin’s mouth against his.
“Look,” she says, glancing around to make sure no one is around to overhear, “I know that you miss Merlin, but I swear to God, if I get one more soppy noblewoman crying on my shoulder about how you told her that her dress makes her look fat I’m hold you responsible for the murder that is sure to follow. Homes are destroyed and it’s going to be a very hard winter. I need your help keeping people happy on the way home.”
Arthur doesn’t really register much of what she says after I know you miss Merlin.
“What?” he asks, his voice pathetically small and nervous.
She peers down her nose at him, and Arthur swallows thickly. “You thought I hadn’t noticed that you’re a lovesick fool, Arthur. You thought I hadn’t noticed?”
She allows a small smile to reach the corners of her mouth and pats him on the shoulder carefully. “Don’t look so terrified. It’s not that obvious. I….I had a dream about it once.”
Arthur screws up his face into a half-laugh, half-frown. “You think I’m letting a servant into my pants because you had a wet dream about it? Really, Morgana, that is reaching new lows.”
“Seriously, Arthur. It wasn’t that kind of dream. It was a long time ago. Before we even knew Merlin. You’re older in the dream. King. It was just you and Merlin, sitting together, at the beach at Tintagel. I realised when we were there earlier this month. And in the dream I saw you and I thought, oh, Arthur and Merlin are in love.” She pauses and looks up at him, smiling brightly, with sharp, white teeth, “And also, I caught you kissing him goodbye in the potato storeroom.”
Arthur can’t really argue with that. He’s the first person Morgana ever told about her dreams. He remembers being fourteen and willing to believe Morgana if only because of the way her hair brushed her waist when she walked, long and entrancing. It seems right to him that this feeling in his chest for Merlin, tight and bright like a small star caught between his lungs, should be predestined and set in stone before he and Merlin even met.
He hates himself for asking it, for asking in the small voice he does, but right before Morgana stands to leave, Arthur says, “And you don’t think it’s…disgusting?”
“Oh,” Morgana says face falling into something almost like pity, and Arthur would have hit anyone else who looked at him that way, but he doesn’t, because it’s Morgana, “Oh, of course I don’t. Of course I don’t.”
She brushes her hand once through his hair, and Arthur closes his eyes and allows her to be his older sister, like she always tries to be, for just one moment.
They arrive home late, darkness already thick over the city for an hour or more. The town, as they walk through, looks worn around the edges and the streets are unnaturally clean, but nothing is as terrible as Arthur feared. The windows of the castle are all lit, a quiet celebration. Arthur goes up to his room to change, feeling stupid about the way his stomach is sort of squirming in his excitement to see Merlin, so it’s really terrible when he opens the door to his room and no one’s there.
It’s clear that Merlin has been there. The candle in the window is lit and the ruined rug has been replaced. All the tins which had been filled with water from the leaking roof are gone, and there’s even a bowl of fresh fruit on the table, but the thing he wants to be in his rooms is not. It makes Arthur suddenly doubt everything. Maybe Merlin doesn’t care that much after all. Perhaps Arthur has built up his memories into something that wasn’t quite as big as he thought in the last two weeks. His throat grows tighter and tighter and his jaw more and more clenched, until he draws the curtains of his bed back and sees the sheets are mussed.
He sits down and presses his face into the pillow and smiles, slowly when he breathes in Merlin. The idiot has been sleeping in his bed. Arthur laughs a little and hugs a pillow to his chest, briefly.
It’s ridiculously late when everyone finally gets down to the dining hall, but it’s so good to be home, and to have everyone there, even Lady Cath and Lady Beldry, and Lord Pig, or whatever he’s called, that the servants don’t look tired as they serve the food. Uther toasts to the end of the floods and to returning home, and everyone applauds. Merlin appears to serve the wine. There is a smudge of mud under his chin where he always forgets to wash.
Arthur beckons him forward to serve as soon as it’s polite.
“I’m so sorry,” Merlin says softly, into his ear, “I was out collecting herbs. I didn’t even know you were back until fifteen minutes ago. We only knew you’d be returning today or tomorrow.”
“It’s alright,” Arthur replies charitably, and not wanting to betray how hurt he had been at first. He turns his face into Merlin’s neck and breath him in, the purified, condensed form what he’d pressed himself into on the bed.
Merlin turns to pull away, but Arthur grabs onto his wrist under the table and holds him fast.
“I missed you,” he whispers.
Merlin catches his eye and his mouth crinkles into a please smile he tries to hide in his sleeve, “Me too,” he whispers.
When Merlin pulls away a second time, Arthur lets him go but his hands still seem to sting where he was touching Merlin, and they feel desperately empty. He looks blankly at his wine glass, feeling he ought to drink it as fast as possible so Merlin has another reason to bend into him like that.
He gets as far as the soup course and his third goblet of wine thinking, before he cannot take it anymore, oh my God.
He stands up abruptly and throws his napkin onto the table. The whole table and all the servants turn to look at him, and he suddenly realises exactly how abnormal what he has just done is. “Oh, er, I think…I need to go now.”
He makes a run for it. Vaguely, he hears Merlin saying, “I’m terribly sorry, I think he may be a bit, uh, travel sick. I’ll just…go see to it.”
Arthur takes the steps up to his bedroom two at a time, not looking behind him even as he feels the heat from Merlin’s body at his back like a fur cloak, and hears Merlin ask nervously “Are you okay. What was that?”
Arthur doesn’t answer. Then he throws the door open to his chambers and wrenches Merlin in behind him, using the motion of pushing Merlin into the door to slam it closed. “What are you do- ”
The rest of Merlin’s words are lost into Arthur’s mouth as his presses the long lines of their bodies together, panting sharply into Merlin’s neck when he has to stop kissing him to breath every now and then. “Oh, oh, oh,” Merlin says, and he keeps making the noise but slightly differently every time so Arthur wants it again and again, to know what it’ll sound like next.
“Can we…please have…sex now?” Merlin asks, breathing hard against Arthur’s collarbone when he pulls back to rest for a moment. Arthur turns to meet his eyes, and their faces are so close that Merlin feels like they must be bleeding into each other, at the edges.
“Yes,” Arthur says, suddenly laughing, bright, colourful laughter like he hasn’t in such a very long time, “Yes, we most definitely can.”