Arthur had left the feast hours early, before even the dancing had begun; tournament evenings always ended early for him. He'd waved off Merlin's assistance, leaving Merlin somewhat at loose ends. Gella had invited him to the servants quarters for the first time since he had arrived for a less formal, though far more satisfactory, celebration of the prince's victory. Gertrude taught him the simple country songs she'd grown up with on her harp, but the ale they'd given him made it dangerous to try and learn to dance.
Merlin emerges into the shocking cold of the hall hours later and almost thinks he could be sober, still warm from the press of a serving girl in his lap and tasting her slow, ale-flavored mouth before they sent him away. It's later than he'd thought; even the night-guards are sleeping at their stations.
It's odd, he thinks, trying to navigate the winter-cold halls toward Gaius room, how the people he sees standing in expressionless attention behind their masters can be so different in the privacy of their rooms. Perhaps something to do with growing up in service, or the years of practice he's never had serving in the court. He knows they resent him sometimes, for taking a position that should have gone to one of them; apparently, serving a prince is something to be envied. He hadn't known that.
It's a secret world there, warmer than the formalities of court, and he's glad he could go tonight. They might never be friends, but at least they now accept him, and sometimes, he imagines that one day that might be enough.
It takes him three tries to acknowledge he can't find his key, and ten minutes of knocking before he acknowledges that Gaius' warning he remember his key or spend the night outside was in earnest. Frowning, Merlin wraps his arms around himself, trying to work out a spell that opens doors and then remembers how the bodice of someone's dress had come open in his hands and has to take a moment to breathe.
Right, so that's not going to work.
Leaning against the wall across from the door, Merlin tries again, but in the back of his mind, a voice pipes up, does he really want to try magic when he's seeing two doors? Merlin tries knocking one more time--Gaius can't possibly be able to sleep through that--but the door remains stubbornly closed and Merlin's freezing.
Trudging across the courtyard, Merlin considers going back to the servants' quarters, but his feet carry him up the stairs instead with a sudden memory of having his key while dressing Arthur this evening. He'd had it in his pocket, he's sure. It's hazy, but he thinks he can remember sitting it on the hearth when Arthur was muttering about being shown off like a prize ewe at fair and Merlin had laughed so hard he'd almost concussed himself against a bedpost.
Arthur hadn't been amused.
Hesitating, Merlin studies the door, nodding at a passing guard. His right to enter and leave at will has never been questioned, the key given to him by Arthur himself. It's taken him a while to understand what that freedom meant; not just servant, but guardian of what little privacy Arthur can find in a court that knows everything, everything, almost before it happens. It's a privilege he didn't expect, would never have thought to ask for; it surprised him, then, that Arthur would trust him that much. It surprises him now.
That key he never loses; fishing it from around his neck, Merlin considers he'd best add his own key on here as well, then opens the door, hissing in surprise when he shuts the door behind him. It's colder here than in the hall.
The shutters were left open, a glaze of ice beginning to coat the sill. With a sigh, Merlin makes his way over, looking out on a world gilded in silver, trees bowing beneath the weight of ice hanging like ornaments, snow coating the ground and making everything faintly unreal, not quite his familiar city and home. It's beautiful.
Merlin jumps, jerking the shutters closed and nearly tripping over his feet. "Ah. Good evening, sire. The window--"
"Oh." The bedclothes move sluggishly; Merlin can't imagine how Arthur can possibly be warm enough to sleep. Shivering, Merlin goes to the hearth, wishing he'd remembered to fill the bin so he could start a decent fire. "Christ, it's cold."
"I--can get some logs--"
"Don't bother." After a moment, a messy blond head pokes above the covers, looking at Merlin in sleepy bewilderment, neither particularly surprised nor particularly upset. He must have been sleeping very deeply. "What are you doing?"
"I saw the window was open from the courtyard?" Merlin can't quite make out Arthur's expression, but he can guess what it is. "I left my key, and Gaius won't let me in."
"Key, Gaius won't let you--oh. Stayed out past your bedtime, did you?" Arthur sits up more, then shivers; Merlin wants to tell him to get back under the bedclothes already, because Merlin's seen Arthur sick and that's a nightmare that Merlin would prefer never be repeated. Going to the cupboard, Merlin finds the extra blankets he brought in a few weeks ago, when the frost first covered the ground, and shakes them out. They're a little musty, but the heavy wool will help trap heat and they won't wake up to a frozen prince one day. There's really no way Merlin could explain that to Uther at all.
Going to the bed, Merlin spreads them out, fighting not to comment on the fact that Arthur's far too pale and that he really needs to cover up, please, for Merlin's sanity if nothing else. His shirt's come unlaced, and Merlin, used to the careful not-seeing-anything during the more formal acts of dressing him, isn't feeling terribly formal at the moment. He only hopes its too dark for Arthur to see his flush.
"Thank you. Now get your key and go to bed before you freeze," Arthur says, looking something between irritated and amused. Merlin bows elaborately to see the amusement win, and goes to the hearth.
No key. Right. "I--it seems to be--"
"Missing? Of course. Only you."
Merlin sighs. Servants quarters it is, and let them laugh at him. Provided all of them haven't gone to bed as well. Or ignore him. They may accept him, but that doesn't mean they will go out of their way for him. "I'll--"
"I'm not throwing you out to freeze to death." Arthur waves vaguely toward the other side of the bed. "Get in."
Merlin blinks. "Really?"
"No. I was just saying that to amuse myself before I send you to die cold and alone in the hallway. Yes, really."
Merlin may (perhaps) be (a little) drunk, but he's pretty sure he didn't hallucinate that, and even if he did, it's freezing. Stripping boots and tunic, Merlin takes a thoughtful second to consider his trousers and wonder--
"Merlin. I promise I will not be shocked by the sight of another man's body." There's a second of bedclothes shifting before Arthur sits up completely, looking far too amused. "Are you shy?"
"I--" Merlin's fingers tangle in the laces, face hot. "Sire--"
"Perhaps there are tentacles." Blue eyes wide with sincerity, Arthur glances down, eyes fixing on Merlin's suddenly-shaky hands. "I've heard peasants aren't like the nobility, but I hadn't realized it extended to their--"
"God," Merlin says, turning around, knowing he's blushing bright enough to light the room, "shut up. Sire." Forgetting the laces, Merlin jerks his trousers down, hears something snap, and resigns himself to the humiliation of walking through the castle holding up his breeches in the morning. Stepping out, every single inch of skin almost instantly freezes, and whatever scruples he might have had vanish with what little heat his body possessed. Crawling into bed, Merlin buries himself beneath cool wool and linen and tries not to shake himself apart, teeth locked together until his body slowly, slowly begins to warm the space.
Honestly, in this sort of weather, he's surprised Arthur doesn't share his bed with a convenient chambermaid. While Merlin can't believe it's ever too cold for sex, the warmth of another body would be motivation enough.
"Are you finished?" Arthur says, voice sardonic. Merlin slowly pokes his head out to see Arthur on his side, watching him with a slight smile. "You're shaking the bed."
"It's cold," Merlin explains, trying not to move so as to not touch any non-body-warmed space.
"Outstanding deduction. Also, it is night. Please, tell me more."
Merlin stretches by inches, claiming an inch of chilly linen at a time. It's a very nice bed, Merlin thinks contentedly, trying not to sigh in satisfaction. It's enough to make him pretend Arthur isn't a complete and utter bastard. "Thank you for the use of your bed, sire." Sincerity tended to throw Arthur off; he was too used to the servile obedience of the servants or Morgana's unbridled sarcasm, neither of which did him any good when dealing with other human beings.
"Where were you tonight?" Arthur asks. Before Merlin can tell Arthur how he has no say on what he does in him free hours, a cold finger traces the skin beside his mouth. Merlin stares. "Paint."
Paint. Paint. Oh. "Um." Merlin squirms and hisses when his foot hits cold linen. "Ah. Just. Um."
"Servants quarters must have been interesting tonight," Arthur says, rubbing his finger clean on the wool before looking at Merlin with interest. "And you smell of drink and at least three kinds of perfume. I'm shocked. Licentiousness isn't to be encouraged--"
"I wasn't licent--licenci--that!" Though maybe he was. There's a hazy space where Merlin vaguely remembers Gertrude and Ana both very close, and snogging on one of the pushed-back beds with--Mary, was it?--but-- "Not much," he corrects, considering. "And it was just ale."
"Really?" Arthur lifts his head, looking at him with a peculiar expression. "Interesting. How much did you have?"
"Only a glass," Merlin says, thinking carefully. "Perhaps two." How embarrassing. "Gaius always said I had no head for drink at all. It was nothing like what we had in Ealdor."
"Apparently not." Arthur says absently, watching him. "I suppose one can forgive the occasional indulgences of one's servants, even when they interrupt one's sleep."
Merlin feels himself flush again. "I--it was nice. They hadn't invited me before."
Arthur's expression changes briefly, a flicker of something that vanishes almost immediately. "You will have to get up at dawn no matter how your head feels," Arthur says, eyes closing. "Go to sleep."
Merlin doesn't find it hard to follow that order at all.
Merlin searches the room top to bottom as soon as Arthur's gone to do whatever knight-related things one does with weapons and far too much enthusiasm, but the key is nowhere in evidence. Frustrated, he finishes his morning chores (very little magic, headache far too painful) and considers the virtues of abstention.
Arthur's biggest problem to date, Merlin thinks darkly as he carries yet another load of suspiciously not-really-dirty clothing down the stairs, is an unaccountable fear of anyone, anywhere, suspecting he's capable of being other than a complete and utter prat. Merlin can't tell whether it's just that Arthur wants to set the lowest bar possible for expectations (not at all a problem) or someone once told Arthur princes are actually supposed to be complete idiots and he's doing his best to live up to it. And that best is very good indeed.
(Merlin still flinches from the memory of finding Arthur in the library, reading an actual book. The single horrified look had been followed by polishing everything that had ever or could ever be found in an armoury. However, Merlin can now identify by feel the difference between five different types of metal, so there's a useless skill he can add to his references one day.)
When he's done, he finds Arthur looking with moody discontent into the fire, as if someone just told him that all the problems in the world can't be solved with a sword and a bloodthirsty turn of mind. "Where have you been?" he demands.
Merlin counts to five in three languages before he answers. "Your laundry, sire."
"It cannot possibly take that long," Arthur answers, speaking with the wisdom of man who has never so much as cleaned his own plate. "Though this is you, so I suppose allowances must be made."
Merlin slow-blinks how very soul-destroying Arthur's criticism is and the weeping he will do into his pillow come nightfall. "Do you require anything, sire?"
Arthur hesitates, scowling, which Merlin correctly translates as: no, I did not. I was bored and you were not here to entertain me, requiring me to entertain myself, and my rank does not permit me to lower myself to knowing how to do that. "Practice," he says finally, and if he didn't pull that out of thin air, Merlin will wear that horrible feathered hat every day for a week. "I need someone to spar with."
"Wouldn't it be more challenging to go to the kitchens and shoot arrows into the barrel with the salted fish?" Merlin asks, not sure if he's being rhetorical or not. "Yes, I know, stocks for a week. Very well, sire."
Arthur frowns. "Your compliance is less satisfactory when it lacks that edge of fear."
"I can cry a bit in terror when you knock me down for the fifth time?"
Arthur nods agreeably. "That will do."
The key isn't in his room, and it's not in Gaius' workroom. Merlin tracks every stair he could have walked and every piece of clothing he has, but the key remains missing and even Arthur finally comments, in something very like wonder, "It's like magic, how it disappeared, isn't it?"
Merlin doesn't hate him at all, really. He reminds himself of that very carefully. Several times.
The second morning after The Night of the Key dawns with the encouraging sign of a truly unique day with Arthur unable to find a blue tunic that Merlin knows a.) Arthur hates and b.) looks terrible on anyone not eighty and rather portly. It was a gift, Arthur said piously, from an aging countess of Somewhere Very Much Not Here and therefore priceless with sentimental value.
Marion, one of the younger chambermaids, giggles when Arthur dragged Merlin down to the laundry to explain the tragedy (with embellishments of Arthur's own devising; yes, this will be a brilliant day). "First your key, now a tunic," she teases, brown eyes bright. "If you didn't have your head attached--"
"I would lose it, I know," Merlin sighs, wondering how far Arthur had spread the story. Taking the tunic she uncovers from a pile of linens, he looks at the creases, already knowing how he'll be spending his evening. "Thanks."
Arthur pushes off the wall abruptly. "Come along, Merlin," Arthur says, voice oddly sharp; when Merlin looks at him, though, Arthur's looking at the chambermaid with a pleasant smile. "I do hope you find that key, Merlin," he says, fingers closing over Merlin's shoulder. "I'll have to order a search of the castle otherwise. Gaius' workroom is easy prey for a thief if they were to find it before you did."
Merlin--hadn't thought of that. It seems ridiculously obvious in retrospect. "Oh."
"Thank you for your help, Marion," Arthur says, eyes flickering to the linens still tangled on the floor. "You'd best get back to work. Those are from the feast two days ago, aren't they?"
Marion frowns, looking at them. "No, sire. They were brought down this morning from--"
"Ah. Carry on, then." Arthur hesitates, looking her over. Merlin doesn't sigh, but it's a close thing. "I'll require your attendance in my chambers in an hour," he says. "If you are not otherwise engaged."
Marion curtseys, looking a great deal like someone who might kill and eat prior engagements raw and still bleeding if it proves necessary. "Of course, sire. As you will."
Merlin lets himself be hauled out of the room like a disobedient puppy, mostly because he doesn't want to add this tunic to his current mending schedule, which seems to have tripled in the last few days. Even in Ealdor, his clothes didn't fall apart this quickly. "I didn't think--Gaius has a lot of herbs he keeps. Some of them are--they can be dangerous--"
"Good reason not to tell everyone about it, then," Arthur says, sounding supremely unconcerned.
"I didn't tell everyone," Merlin says hotly. "I told you. And you have to go spreading it about the castle. Thanks for that, by the way."
Arthur pauses, looking at him thoughtfully halfway up the stairs. "I must admit, your incompetence does keep me supplied with many fascinating conversational topics."
Right. "So the entire castle knows I lost the key. And now your tunic." Merlin's sure the day could get worse, but he can't imagine how. "I'll have to tell Gaius," he starts, but Arthur shakes his head and starts up the stairs again, thankfully letting Merlin go under his own power and not by the collar of his shirt.
"Don't bother. Gaius workroom is too valuable to be plundered by idiots. I'll take care of it."
Merlin stares up at him. "You think your men will find it?"
Arthur looks back with a smirk. "Have some faith in your prince, Merlin. I suspect it will take no time at all to find it myself. Now go finish with my armor, if you would. I think I saw some rust."
"You did not."
Arthur just laughs.
The real horror is, he does find it. Merlin sets down the tray for the midday meal and stares at the key waiting for him with a sense of resigned doom. Picking it up, Merlin considers claiming this is another key entirely, to the fifth pantry to the right in the second kitchen, but then gives up and puts it in his pocket.
And if he suspects Arthur may have had it all along, he's very careful not to look it. Not at all.
"This means more practice, doesn't it?"
Arthur, sprawled in a chair near the fire looking uncharacteristically pensive, smiles slightly. "Many, many happy hours of watching you fall about this way and that. I'm quite looking forward to it. First, though, I want a bath."
Merlin puts the tray down harder than he meant to.
"A--bath?" Merlin looks out of the window to be sure of the time (this being noon), then at Arthur, who isn't actually prone to making stupid demands unless he's in that kind of mood. He doesn't seem to be in that kind of a mood. Well, a mood but not one where the funniest thing in the world is to tell Merlin to go and fetch him five kinds of ale just to watch him do it. "I--" It'll take at least an hour to heat the water, and then there's carrying it all up here… "Perhaps--"
"Before I eat, please."
Merlin takes a breath, trying to work out if Arthur's just being a prat or has actually become as stupid as he acts sometimes. "Sire--"
"Merlin, I gave you an order. It shouldn't take that long."
"Not unless you wish to delay eating until nearly dinner," Merlin snaps. "You know how long it takes--"
"I don't actually." Sitting back in his chair, the smile fades. "Humor me. How do you go about it usually?"
"I get the water," Merlin says slowly, because if Arthur's going to act like an idiot child, Merlin's going to treat him like one. "Then I heat it. Then I bring it up here. Then I pour it into what is commonly known as a tub…"
"Where do you heat it?"
"The kitchen. The cook says that's what the second hearth is for." Merlin hesitates, because Arthur's expression has moved from 'strange' to 'stranger'. "That's--not what it's for?"
Arthur's fingers tap a discordant rhythm against the arm of his chair. "Tell me about laundry."
Merlin blinks. "Tell you--"
"When I order you to do laundry. What do you do?"
"Clean it?" Is there an answer that isn't fairly obvious? "Heat water, sit about waiting for it to heat, add--wait. You've never complained before. I can't possibly be doing it wrong."
"The rushes, when you change them, I am going to make a great leap of intuition and assume you go pick them yourself. Fresh."
Actually, he had been doing that until Gwen caught him at it and showed him where they were stored. He'd felt rather stupid. "Of course not. Gwen told me where to--"
"Gwen." Arthur's voice is flat. "Who else explained your duties to you?"
"You." At Arthur's continued stare, Merlin swallows. "I--well, you did. And I asked where things where. When I couldn't--find them…" he trails off, wondering suddenly what he had forgotten to do. Arthur's never asks about his schedule other than to add to it when it amused him. "Did I forget--"
"No. You're dismissed for the rest of the day. Tell the steward he is to wait on me immediately." Arthur hesitates, looking at Merlin uncertainly for a moment, then shaking himself. "You may go."
Merlin blinks, feeling oddly hollow. Is he being sacked again? "Sire--"
Frowning, Merlin leaves, going to the steward's office first, where the man looks at him in alarm before nearly running Merlin over on his way out. Apparently, he takes the word "immediately" quite seriously.
When he gets to Gaius, he's sent out with a list of items to go find in his unexpected liberty. It's a beautiful day, so Merlin gets his coat and goes, ignoring the odd, hollow feeling to spend his afternoon in the great outdoors.
It only occurs to him later to wonder how Gaius knew to have a list ready.
For reasons that were best known to Gaius, there was a sudden need to relabel half his stores. Not that some of them hadn't needed it; the fading ink has more than once made Merlin nervous when he's told to fetch something from the cupboard, but sat at a table to write endless labels isn't exactly all that interesting.
"Yes," Gaius had told him placidly when Merlin came in, waving his bag of herbs threateningly, "Arthur told me you were at liberty today. I thought you might like some time outside the castle for a while."
"So just today?" Merlin had asked nervously. Gaius had rolled his eyes and pointed toward the table and Merlin decided that if Arthur had decided to sack him, he would at very least not give up the pleasure of telling Merlin to his face.
Dinner comes and goes without a summons or an irate Arthur showing up to ask what on earth he's doing, which oddly just makes Merlin more nervous. Gaius is no help at all, finding him all manner of things that need desperate attention immediately every time Merlin so much as looks at the door.
It's not comforting at all.
At nearly ten, however, there's a knock at the door. Gaius looks up briefly but shows no inclination to move, which is an improvement. Getting to his feet and stretching his hand, cramped from so many hours of writing, Merlin opens the door to see one of the chambermaids.
"His Highness the prince wishes you to attend him in his chambers," she says, looking anywhere but at him. Merlin tilts his head, trying to remember if she's the one who had been wearing the lip paint, but it seems in rather bad form to mention it, so he nods. Bobbing her head, she leaves quickly, and Merlin has a horrible moment to wonder if she'd regretted--
Merlin shakes himself, turning. "Yes?"
Gaius waves one hand toward the door. "You were summoned."
Right. That. "I had better--go then." Weirdly, though, he suddenly doesn't want to. Going out, he closes the door, hesitating before the stairs.
Not sacked. Not sacked. Not sacked at all.
Merlin hesitates, looking at the door uncomfortably before finally taking a breath and knocking.
Right. Not sacked. Not sacked. Not-- "If this is to tell me I'm sacked, I'm quitting first."
The chambermaid, currently involved in clearing the dishes from the table, looks up with a startled expression. Arthur looks at him blankly over his goblet.
"Sire," Merlin adds quickly.
"And good evening to you, Merlin," Arthur answers with a sigh. "You want to quit now?"
"If you've decided to sack me--"
"Then quitting would be rather redundant if I'd already decided--"
"Not if I say it first."
Arthur blinks, setting the cup aside. "Rather logical, all things considered." Setting the goblet aside, Arthur considers the contents with solemnity more due a peace treaty ending a hundred year war with heavy casualties on both sides. "You know, I think I'd prefer ale tonight."
Merlin doesn't flinch, but it's very hard. "Very well--"
"Mary can do it," Arthur says, voice oddly light. "That--what kind was it you had the other night, Merlin?"
"Rather strong, actually." Arthur looks at the girl. "Run along now."
Dropping a curtsey with her mumbled agreement, Mary takes the dishes and goes to the door. Merlin starts to go and open it for her, but Arthur kicks his knee. "Merlin. Do you dice?"
Merlin doesn't like where this is going at all. "Er. Not very well."
As it turns out, a hunt through the room doesn't turn them up, but it does unearth a dusty chessboard, and Merlin finds himself trying to remember the difference between a pawn and a castle with someone who believes teaching involves beating someone until in despair they improve or die.
"Chess," Arthur says, knocking over his king with relish, "is the game of kings, Merlin. Try this now."
Merlin takes the goblet as Mary hovers, looking a little red-faced after her sixth trip to the kitchens. "You realize this won't improve my understanding of this game," Merlin says, taking the cup and sipping the contents. "And no. It wasn't as bitter." Though he's certainly feeling the effects of the alcohol. Everything is pleasantly hazy, though it's not making chess any more comprehensible.
"Ah." Arthur takes the goblet and looks at the six jugs lining the floor beside them. "Hmm. How many kinds of ale does the kitchen have, Mary?"
Mary quails. "Ah, I think this is all, sire." Her eyes flicker to Merlin. "Perhaps--perhaps it was something else?"
"I think you could be right," Arthur says cheerfully, finishing the glass. "Perhaps you could find out and bring it to me, then?"
Merlin frowns. "Arthur," he says, as Mary seems to slump in resignation, "I can do it."
"You can't stand up right now. Or so that performance with your chair seemed to suggest. Which is why we are safely on a rug now. Your fall will be shorter. Mary, I believe I gave you an order."
"Of course, sire. My apologies, sire," Mary says breathlessly, turning to go to the door. Merlin watches her leave with a strong feeling of sympathy. He's had to do eight trips up and down those stairs before. It is not edifying. It does, however, build muscle. Or character. Or something. Gaius said so.
"Attend, Merlin." Arthur sets up the board again, looking far too pleased with the universe. "You will learn this or it's the stocks tomorrow for you."
"For a game?"
"A game of kings," Arthur says with a scowl. "One you should know. It's your job to entertain me. Winning against an opponent this utterly pathetic is not entertaining."
"You seem to enjoy it, though."
"Well, yes," Arthur admits, sitting back. "But I daresay eventually it will be less so. You move first. Attempt to do so without knocking over the other pieces."
Merlin cleverly moves the horse and looks up hopefully. With a pained look, Arthur shifts it over a space. Right. The strange one. "This game makes no sense," Merlin admits with a sigh, sitting back and taking the goblet Arthur offers. "I don't think ale will improve my playing, sire."
"It can't make it worse."
That, sadly, is true.
Arthur is taking his second castle thing ("Rook, for God's sake, Merlin." "That's a stupid name. It's a castle. See the turrets?") when Mary shows up, carrying a wineskin and looking very red and very, very tired. Merlin wonders how late it is.
"Sire," she says, offering the skin. Arthur takes it, weighing it in one hand, then looking up at her with an unreadable expression. Something about it makes her shrink further, looking away.
"Merlin, finish that," Arthur says, still watching her. With a sigh, Merlin drinks the rest of the goblet, already resigned to a headache, then hands it over, as the last time he tried to pour, there'd been a very unfortunate incident with his tunic, currently drying slowly by the window. Luckily, they're close enough to the fire that his shirt's enough.
Pouring the wine, Arthur takes a sip, eyebrows raising abruptly, then passes it to Merlin. "Is this it?"
Very carefully, Merlin reaches out, Arthur's fingers brushing his as he takes the cup; flushing, he takes a sip, then another. The rich, bitter flavor rolls over his tongue like liquid heat. "Oh. Yes. This is very good."
"Yes, it is. You have developed excellent taste." Arthur sets the wineskin aside. "How many trips do you take for my bath, Merlin?"
That's--an odd question. Merlin takes another drink (to delay answering so he can count, of course). "Seven or eight or so. Except when the water gets too cold before I finish."
"In winter, that would be very probable, wouldn't it? You can take the ale back now, Mary."
Mary curtseys, face flushed, then reaches for the first jug.
"Merlin, can you even sit up?"
Merlin almost answers he is, in fact, sitting up, but apparently, he's not. Panicking, he turns his head, but the goblet is safely in Arthur's hand. Merlin wonders when he took it. "I could," Merlin says carefully.
"But you won't. Do hurry, Mary. I wish to retire soon and Merlin, as you know, has no head for wine. I'd rather he didn't fall asleep so early."
Mary curtseys again, turning a new and brilliant shade of red before she goes to the door at a rather energetic walk. Merlin watches her with a sigh. "She's very nice," he says wistfully. "She always helps me find things I lose."
"It's a good thing she always seems to know where they are, isn't it?" Arthur says lightly. Merlin turns his head to see Arthur smiling at him. "You really have no head for any of it, do you?"
"My mother didn't care for it," Merlin explains. "She said it made one feeble-witted and prone to melancholy."
"Your mother is very wise." Arthur pushes the board aside, taking its place, goblet cradled in one hand. "That would explain why you could not tell the difference when someone gave you a cup and told you it was ale."
Merlin frowns. "So it--wasn't ale, then?" The wineskin seems to suggest this as fact. "Maybe she didn't know?"
Arthur grins; to Merlin's surprise, long fingers trail across his forehead, pushing back his hair. "Everyone is a fool for a pretty girl."
"I suppose." Merlin closes his eyes, trying to remember. "They were all quite nice."
"I imagine they were." Arthur's smile fades. "She was very nice. She gave you very strong wine and then took you aside and left paint here," Arthur's finger ghosts over the corner of his mouth, then lingers, "and reached into your pockets and found your key because you would never notice. It's quite well known, after all, that you have no head for wine at all."
Merlin stills, staring at Arthur, feeling something in his stomach twist that has nothing to do with wine at all. "Is that what happened?"
"They would have taken this," Arthur's hand slides in his shirt, picking up the other key, "but that they knew would get my attention. I suppose they assumed you wouldn't tell me you'd lost your own key, but you wouldn't be able to hide the loss of mine."
Merlin licks his lips; now that Arthur's said it, it seems almost ridiculously obvious. "Why?"
"A bit of fun, I suppose," Arthur says absently, playing with the key. "I daresay they didn't expect you to last this long with me, considering the handicaps you were working under. Though granted, your incompetence is legendary. Perhaps they thought this would tip you over."
"Oh." Merlin stares up at the ceiling, not sure how he feels now. "I thought they--I thought they liked me."
Arthur sighs, fingers shifting to slides through the chain. "There is nowhere free of politics, Merlin. You should know that by now."
Probably not. Yet--Merlin sighs, feeling a great deal less intoxicated than he had. "So I was stupid."
Arthur tangles his fingers in the chain, tugging lightly; reluctantly, Merlin follows, sitting up, steadying himself with a hand on the rug. "Yes. However," and Arthur's smile widens, "this has provided me with a great deal of entertainment. I do thank you for that. Sometimes, instruction is best achieved through example."
Merlin looks away, feeling himself flush sickeningly. "I'm glad I could be of service, sire."
Arthur twists the chain a little, and Merlin follows, feeling the bite of it on the back of his neck. "So am I," Arthur says, and Merlin jerks his head around, startled by the warm breath against his cheek. Arthur's much, much closer than Merlin had thought. "I'll stop now, if you wish."
"Uh." Merlin's not sure why that would need an answer at all; it seems fairly obvious. Mouth dry, Merlin licks his lips and Arthur follows it with his tongue, wet and soft, slicking his lower lip with slow, even strokes. Merlin's eyes close--this can't, can't possibly be happening--and lips follow, cool and a little chapped, asking with a air-light brush, and Merlin opens his mouth to the gentle insinuation of tongue, bitter with wine and several kinds of ale.
Merlin really, really wants to touch him, reaching for the warmth of his body, almost hot through the thin linen shirt, but-- "Can I--"
Arthur sucks in a breath when Merlin slides a hand under his shirt, tightening his hold on the chain to hold Merlin in place for a long kiss, then pulling back, "You can touch me however you like."
Merlin pushes up on his knees, balancing himself with a hand on Arthur's shoulder before straddling his lap, tasting Arthur's half-laugh, half-groan and wondering how on earth this happened. Arthur tightens the chain more, licking into his mouth, but the other is sliding up the back of his thigh, and Merlin shivers, though the room seems suddenly far too hot.
"I like this," Arthur murmurs, teeth precise on his chin, unwinding the chain enough to open a few inches of space between them before tightening again. "It keeps you where I wish you to be."
Merlin shivers when Arthur licks down his throat, settling in the hollow, warm and wet. "Like one of your dogs, sire?"
Arthur pulls back, mouth smeared pink, blue eyes bright. "Here," Arthur murmurs, following the chain with a finger, then replacing it with his tongue. "I could fit you for a collar."
Merlin's fingers tighten in Arthur's hair, surprised by the flare of heat that follows the thought. "Oh."
"I'll have the only key." Arthur mouths slowly up his neck until each word is breathed against Merlin's ear. "I'd like to look at you and know what you wear beneath those ridiculous neckerchiefs you seem so fond of."
"They're--" Merlin shudders as Arthur loosens the lacings of his shirt, sucking on each inch of skin as its exposed. "Not ridiculous."
"I'd like them better if they served this purpose."
Merlin blinks, leaning back, looking at Arthur carefully. "Is that what you want?"
Arthur pauses, thinking about it. "Perhaps. But only here. And only when you wear that and nothing else."
Merlin draws a shaky breath. "Okay."
Arthur lets go of the chain, cradling Merlin's face between his hands for a second, and Merlin gets a glimpse of surprise like the flare of a candle in darkness, then Arthur kisses him, slow and soft, and Merlin loses himself in the warmth of it, sweet and thankful all at once.
It's almost enough to ignore the opening of the door, and the startled gasp. Arthur pulls back, eyes narrowed. "I am going to have her killed," he says, so seriously that Merlin has to fight to control the urge to giggle ridiculously.
"You're dismissed," Merlin says, breath catching when Arthur's hand slides into the loosened lacings of his trousers, thumb brushing the tip of his cock. Christ. "Get the rest in the morning."
She hesitates, and Arthur turns his head, looking at her with narrowed eyes. "Can you not understand an order?"
"Yes, sire. Right away, sire." Dropping a terrible curtsey, she backs toward the door as if turning her back would end with a knife in her throat, fleeing out of the door and shutting it behind her.
"I see why you like giving orders," Merlin says thoughtfully. Arthur eases down his trousers, sucking softly on the side of his throat, then harder. Merlin shudders as Arthur's hand closes over his cock. "Oh God."
"Well done, though I prefer a bit more sharpness at the end, but not everyone is born to command." Arthur's attention shifts lower, breath hot against Merlin's skin. "Shall I teach you that, as well?"
Merlin has no idea what on earth Arthur could be talking about. "I--what?"
Arthur pulls back, giving him a sardonic look, then hands close on Merlin's hips and he's on his back, the warmth of the fire against his side nothing to the man hovering over him, looking pleased and faintly irritated both.
"Merlin," he says, raising himself on his knees to jerk his shirt over his head and stealing Merlin's breath along with any remnants of rational thought, "if you give any of the lower servants an order, they have to obey you. Especially for tasks involving stairs."
Merlin stares at Arthur, open-mouthed. "I--" Oh. No wonder Gwen always looked at him askance when he complained about the work involved in getting Arthur's bath. And the rushes. And the-- "No one told me."
"And Merlin?" Arthur reaches for Merlin's shirt, pulling it up and over his head in a single movement, then curling the chain between his fingers until Merlin was braced on his elbows with Arthur's knuckles pressed against his throat, "laundresses do laundry. That is why we call them laundresses."
Merlin's answer is swallowed by a kiss, Arthur's tongue thrusting into his mouth and stealing the words before he pulls back, eyes nearly black. The hand on his cock slows, then stops, loose and warm and Merlin arches, wanting the friction. "So," Arthur whispers, nuzzling his ear, then licking it with slow, luxurious strokes of his tongue, "do you think you can remember that?"
Merlin shudders, torn between pushing into Arthur's hand and the impossible laces of Arthur's trousers that seem to have taken on a life of their own. Frustrated, he jerks the laces and hears them snap, and Arthur's laugh turns into a choked gasp when Merlin pulls him out, hot and hard, tip wet and sliding slickly against his palm. "I--yes?" He's not sure what the question was, but obviously yes is the answer.
"Hmm. Perhaps a practical demonstration is in order."
Merlin's memory of Anything Not Right Now is hazy, but there's a faint sense of alarm associated with 'practical' and 'demonstration' in the same sentence. They seem to involve swords and a great deal of falling down. Arthur pulls back, sitting on his heels, looking far too pleased with himself. "Uh. Maybe?"
"Very well. What would you like me to do?"
Merlin digs his fingers into the rug, an entire universe of possibilities spreading wide like all the pages of the books in all the world opening at once. He forgets how to breathe before he's thought of thirty. "Gah."
"Not illuminating." Arthur knees Merlin's legs further apart, laces coming undone completely. The blue eyes flicker up and down his body leaving heat behind. Merlin begins to wonder if Arthur need do anything more complicated than sit there, washed in firelit gold and impossibly beautiful, like something out of a fairytale and not altogether real. "Perhaps a list of options would assist you?"
"Christ," Merlin whispers, struggling to sit up as Arthur murmurs, "I could use my hand, if you like. Or suck you, if you--" because one more word is going to kill him, and pushing his tongue into that wicked pink mouth is the only way to stop it, except--
"Fuck you, very slowly, on this rug, and then again in that bed," Arthur says against his jaw, voice husky and thick, and Merlin gets a frantic arm around him and pushes his cock against the silky skin of his belly, fair hair dragging over his cockhead and stripping away rational thought. "Or you could fuck me. Have you ever--"
"Shut up," Merlin says breathlessly, shuddering, and for a wonder, Arthur does, looking at him expectantly and not touching him at all. "I--I want--" Arthur crouching over him, opening him up slowly first with long, slick fingers and then thick, wet cock, Arthur spread out helpless and desperate beneath him, Arthur in any way he can get him. Shame is for people who don't have a crown prince in their arms promising a lifetime of filthy fantasies in a voice that could talk Merlin into coming without a single touch required.
"Your--" Merlin wouldn't last through trying to find the oil, much less-- "I want--"
Merlin stares at Arthur's lips, curled in a sardonic smile, and knows exactly what he wants. "I want your mouth," he manages, and has enough time to swallow his gasp when his back hits the rug, and that should hurt but God above he does not care, Arthur presses a hand to his chest, bends down, and swallows.
Merlin grabs for something stable--the entire fucking earth is moving and there's silky hair curling through his fingers and he forgets good manners, vision edged in black at the incredible, impossible feel of that hot, wet mouth wrapped around him. A dozen runs up and down stairs for twenty baths a day are perfectly acceptable if this is his reward.
Arthur pulls off with an obscenely wet sound, looking at him up the length of his body, then slowly licking around the head. Merlin can't look away. "I'll keep that in mind," he whispers, voice scratchy, hand curling around the base and taking Merlin so slowly he can watch every inch disappear between those swollen lips.
Merlin hears his own groans, indecently loud, and tries to strangle them, tries to look away, anything to keep some hold on--
Arthur pulls back, sucking on the head, dragging something out of him that doesn't sound human. "I hear you scream for me when I fight," Arthur breathes, mouthing down the side and over the big vein, leaving Merlin hovering on edge, frantically wanting more, strong hands on his hips pinning him down and unable to get it. "I liked it then and I want it now. Be as loud as you like."
Merlin couldn't stop himself if he remembered how, and Arthur sucks him in again, leisurely as a man enjoying a cup of very fine wine. Merlin starts to come in a wash of bright heat like falling into fire, back arching almost painfully, vision edged in amber and gold, going on for so long Merlin forgets what it was like not to feel like this.
He comes back with a thump, mouth still forming a single word, and he breathes it once more, tasting it on his lips, the sum and total of his world defined by one name. "Arthur."
He feels boneless and exhausted and utterly, painfully awake, Arthur's teeth moving up his chest in vivid, too-sharp sensations that makes him gasp weakly, and then Arthur kisses him, cock sliding wet and hot against his belly, mouth hard and unyielding and tasting of Merlin. Weakly, Merlin reaches for Arthur, and his wrists are pinned above his head, stretching him out beneath the heavy, solid weight of Arthur's body. Going limp, Merlin opens his mouth and his thighs, offering Arthur anything and everything he wants of him.
It seems forever and not nearly long enough, before Arthur groans, pulling away to pant hotly against his cheek, his jaw, eyes glassy and half-closed, murmuring, "Next time, I'm going to fuck you until you can't walk a single step," sucking a kiss high on the side of his throat, "and you'll spend your day in my bed and order others to do your duties while I watch," and Merlin shudders, because it's too soon to get hard again but his body wants to anyway.
There's a second of stillness, then wet heat between them, and Arthur buries his groan in Merlin's mouth, biting his lip and shoving his tongue inside and Merlin could have come again just from that.
After, Merlin gets his wrists free, holding them over his head to look at the ring of red circling them like cuffs before draping his arms across Arthur's sweat-slicked back, weakly sliding one knee over his thigh to keep him in place. It's uncomfortable and perfect and Merlin doesn't want to ever move again.
Eventually, Arthur does, rolling slowly to the side with a sigh. "I forgot how hard floors are," he says eventually, fingers sliding lazily through the come on Merlin's belly, spreading it across the skin of his hips and chest..
Merlin turns to look at him, blinking blearily. "'I've seen you sleep quite well on dirt with nothing but a blanket, in armour," he says, licking his lips, tasting drying blood. His cock twitches hopefully.
"That's not cold stone. And also not the point." Pushing up on one elbow, he grins at Merlin, a wreck of sweaty golden hair and swollen red mouth, soft and touchable and still impossibly beautiful. The slick hand on Merlin's belly slides down, cupping his cock possessively, and Merlin hisses, because it's too soon and that doesn't seem to matter much at all. Grinning, Arthur sits up, absently licking his fingers clean before getting to his feet, and Merlin lets himself be pulled up in a kind of dazed compliance, aware they're somehow still mostly dressed and neither of them thought to so much as take off their boots.
For a wonder, Arthur does know how to undress himself and Merlin too, and at some point, there's a wonderful mattress beneath him and Arthur curled big and warm around his back, cock half-hard and pressed against him. Merlin pushes back instinctively, his body torn between arousal and the drugging edge of sleep.
"Mm." Arthur's hand slides down over his hip, palm sliding the length of Merlin's cock. "In the morning, before you order my bath." Arthur hums contentedly against the back of his neck. "It's far more convenient for you to be here when I wake. I'm surprised you've been so remiss all this time."
Merlin turns his head slightly. "Here?"
Arthur trails light fingers up the still-sticky skin of his belly, fingers tangling in the chain. "That is why I gave you a key."
Merlin starts to grin, eyes heavy and closing already, lulled by the warmth of Arthur's body. "Oh."