"Kay's spending an awful lot of time with Gawain. Do you think his motives are pure?"
Merlin's leant against the wall, out of the weak sunlight, while Arthur spies on his people from the balcony. His people, that still sounds strange.
"I suspect his motives are anything but," Merlin says with a laugh.
Arthur has often been accused of being slow, but he's not stupid.
"Kay's never shown an interest in men before." Arthur is the one who'll quite happily chase anything and everything, sometimes just for the chase itself. Kay has always been picky, has always chased - but never caught - some dream of a girl that meets his high standards. Arthur has been accused of having no standards at all, beyond 'breathing' and 'clean.' But he can't quite picture his brother beneath another man - and, oh, now he wishes he hadn't tried.
"Maybe he's sick of you stealing his women," Merlin says slowly, as if he has a right to call Arthur out on every poor decision he's ever made.
"He could have said something." It's a simple answer, if not a good one, or a fair one.
"Or perhaps he could steal one of yours." There's a flavour of something there which might be teasing or mockery. It's hard to tell with Merlin.
"He could try," Arthur says with a smile, though he knows that would never happen. Kay is far too noble. A better man than him sometimes, Arthur thinks knowing that is almost enough. "Besides they're all mine already, surely." Arthur keeps his face entirely straight. "Everything in the realm is mine."
"Everything?" Merlin has an eyebrow raised, smiling, waiting for Arthur to say something stupid. It's an expression he thinks he shall be forced to become used to. Because it seems Merlin would far rather you learnt the lesson from the ground, than catch you before you fell.
"Yes, everything is mine, naturally. I can take anything I like, surely that's the point of being king."
Merlin says nothing, too amused to call him wrong, or too good at reading Arthur already. He's not sure he likes either option. Merlin is impossible to predict - Merlin is impossible in general.
"Don't wheedle, it's unbecoming in a king."
It's another sting of chastisement, like Arthur is a game piece on a board, to be used, or not, rather than a person. Sometimes he wonders if Merlin cares at all, if absolutely anyone would have done. Any head to drop a crown onto.
Arthur's hand reaches out and digs into a loose edge of belt, ring clanking on metal. He steps into Merlin's space for once. The kiss is clumsy and crooked, and Arthur thinks he shall blame that on Merlin, who always makes him feel a dozen years younger than he is, makes him feel like he knows nothing at all. Merlin's face is rough under his other hand but it's warm. He's a living, breathing man after all. He shouldn't be so surprised by that, but he is.
There's a stillness to Merlin, as if he's not sure how much to let Arthur have. It goes on for long enough that Arthur has to wonder, dizzily, if Merlin is going to end up in his bed, and exactly what he plans to do with him when he gets him there. If Merlin will find a way to punish him for it - and then everything stops, space widening between them.
"You can't have that," Merlin says quietly, with a slow head shake.
"Why not?" It seems a fair enough question. "I've done everything you've asked of me," Arthur says firmly, irritation making the words harsh. He can still feel the faint echo of pressure against his mouth.
"So you have," Merlin agrees.
"Do you ever do as you're told?" Arthur wonders out loud.
Half of Merlin's mouth is smiling. "It depends what I'm told to do."
"You're exhausting," Arthur tells him. An accusation breathed out, while he finds the edge of Merlin's sleeve, curling more of it beneath his fingers. Tempted to try and pull him in closer, almost certain Merlin won't let him. You never want anything quite as much as that which you can't have.
"And you're petulant. It's a bad habit."
Arthur tilts his chin up. "How am I supposed to be a good king if my needs aren't met?"
Merlin catches his wrist and takes him back two steps, lets his body thump into the wall, cloth scratching on stone.
"What are your needs, Arthur?" Merlin asks quietly, slowly. "What do you hope to do with me, if you catch me?"
Arthur's knuckles scrape the wall when Merlin leans closer, breathes against his open mouth.
"I'm not a man to be fucked and then discarded, like a tavern wench."
Arthur forgets how to play games, he forgets what he's supposed to say, Merlin is heavy, teeth a flash of sharpness in his half-open mouth. He has the eyes of a man who's seen too much, done too much. Arthur is sure Merlin could burn him if he wanted to. He could make it hurt, could even make Arthur want it, make him need it. Fear wrapped around lust like a braid.
The look in Merlin's eyes, something quiet and wild, makes him think he'd be lucky if he survived it.
"You should stick to the women at court." Merlin's thumb trails a line of fire on Arthur's wrist, before tightening. "I think you'll find their timidity more to your liking."
Arthur is very sure that Merlin is wrong.
He thinks it shows in his face, and Merlin's fingers curl hard enough to bruise. Arthur stares back, challenge, or dare. Yes, his face says, I accept, I can be a king on my knees. But then his wrist is released, it falls against his thigh.
"Your needs come second to the realm," Merlin reminds him, again.
"What about your needs?"
Arthur gets nothing for his question but a smile. As infuriating as all the rest. There's a tilt, not even close to anything that might be a bow, and then Merlin is drifting towards the door.
"Are you not part of the realm, Merlin?" Arthur says, before he disappears from sight.