Merlin thinks the new stable hand is giving him looks. He maybe he catches him once or twice while they're tending to Arthur's horse after a hunt, either on each side of the flanks, chatting easily and exchanging glances over the animal's back. Easy glances, mostly friendly, but perhaps a few linger, he thinks—their shared little smiles turning soft around the edges until a ripple of muscle or the mare's quiet whinny interrupts and embarrasses them, and after that they don't look up at all.
Or at least that's what it's like for Merlin. And he's glad for it, welcomes it, because the stable hand is lovely and only a year older than him. Has a wide mouth with a smile that folds into his cheeks, a chipped tooth, bright eyes, his hair almost curling—almost red. He jokes by grandly articulating certain words, and when there's a royal feast sometime into the second month of his employment Merlin sneaks him in through the kitchens. They linger at the back of the great hall, watching the music and the dancing while getting quietly drunk off Arthur's wine. They laugh, make fun of mostly everyone, and at the end of the night—after Merlin asks his master if he'd like some 'wore mine?', after he is sent away with the promise of punishment come dawn—Merlin leans into his friend's side, lets him navigate the both of them toward the stables. Swaying down to sit on bale of hay, the boy tells Merlin it's been a great night. Merlin tells him that yeah, that he's great too, and leans in for a kiss.
The boy turns his head. He remains still, lets Merlin take his time figuring it out, lets him pull back blushing and awkward, too drunk to take this as seriously as he wants to.
"I thought—" Merlin starts. The stable hand cuts him off with a quick,
"I thought . . . " He trails off, tries to concentrate. Frowns, glances at some saddles, a lamp hanging from one of the loft's wooden beams—quick and distracted before, "You looked at me?"
"Mate," the stable hand says, shrugging. "I really didn't."
"Oh," Merlin says, grimaces, and turns his head away. Makes his face as ugly as he can to keep some drunken emotions at bay. His hands are running nervous tracks up and down his thighs, chafing his breeches to his skin.
"Listen," the stable hand tries after some time. He sounds uncomfortable. "You really ought to be more careful with . . . I mean, you're an all right fellow and all, but you know how people are about . . . you know. I'm not gonna tell, or anything, but just—find yourself a nice girl, yeah? And if not, then at least try to be more—"
"I—!" Merlin swallows, closes his eyes for a moment, then turns to look at the boy again. It's hard to focus properly, seem dignified with the vague confusion of faltering sobriety, but he tries all the same. "I am," he continues, voice deeper. "I am careful. And I know, I do know. I just—I thought. I thought for sure, this time, I thought I . . . " He purses his lips painfully. The death grip he has on his knees loosens and his hands slip to the hay. "I don't do that. I've never—before. I honestly thought that . . . "
The stable boy sighs, deep and loud, as though at a loss. He runs a hand through his hair, scratching at the back of his head, says, "You are all right, though," to make it better. It doesn't make it better, not really, and after a uneasy silence the boy gets to his feet. His face is dark in the shadow of the courtyard, the folds of his shirt catching the stable lights in half circles and lines. He hesitates, almost walking away, then squints at the castle for a heartbeat. "Maybe you should go somewhere. Discreet like, yeah? Get it out of your system. Not go . . . " He gestures haplessly. "You know."
Merlin swallows as he nods. The stable hand doesn't move, is still staring at him—awkwardly concerned—so Merlin gives him a weak smile, fixes his eyes on something in the distance. A guard rotation by the main entrance.
"Well," the boy starts on a breath. "I'll see you, I s'pose."
"Yeah," Merlin says, voice breaking, not looking up properly. He thinks about the suggestion, about tonight, about the heat of the stable boy's shoulder—the stubble on his cheek—and his heart shrinks a little further into itself.Done, he thinks. No more. Not ever.
It's a fine resolution, at first, one that seems all too easy to keep to for a whole of two weeks. But in the end it takes embarrassingly little to help it all come tumbling down: no more than a single day. A long, stormy day. A day with Arthur on the training fields, shouting at his knights through the rain, hair sticking to his forehead—shirt sticking to his chest. Physical training day. Armour rusts in rain, Merlin was to understand. The knights would have to build up their stamina running about in the mud, occasionally slipping but quick to get to their feet again—muddy and exhausted, picking up right where they stopped.
Merlin sits on an empty sword rack under the narrow awning outside the armoury, breathing hard, his hands sweating. He keeps them fisted at his sides and doesn't take his eyes off the field.
When Sir Leon jogs over to him with a smile, gives him a friendly wink as he leans across to reach for dry towel cloth hanging from a hook behind the rack, Merlin doesn't know what's happening for a second—leans back in panic, eyes wide, heartbeat high in his throat. Leon's shoulder brushes his, and now Merlin's shoulder a little wet too.
Leon dries his hair like a dog, grinning madly. When he tosses the towel back and Merlin catches, a bit dumbfounded, he says, "What a day, eh?" before running back to the field, laughing howling at the rain. Arthur shakes his head at him, fighting down a smile, gestures him to join the group again.
Merlin clutches the cloth. He doesn't think to let go for a long time.
And then the rain stops and soon after the training does as well, and Arthur needs to get out of his muddy clothes. Arthur needs to dry, needs a good fire going in the hearth, a bath drawn, a supper and a drink and Merlin needs to do all these things with a foggy head about him, through desperately fumbling hands. Arthur complains but Arthur always complains, never sends him away, makes him sit around and listen while he complains some more about things that aren't Merlin—like his knights or his duties or Morgana and her new dress, who let her buy that dress, who in their right minds would let her walk around the castle like that? It's simply not decent, is what. And Camelot is, if anything, a pillar of propriety.
He says this while eating an apple in bath, naked, pointing the fruit at Merlin to make a statement. There's still a bit of mud in his hair, and Merlin's throat is thick, his is mouth thick, the air he's trying to breathe—thick.
That night he sits on the edge of his bed, head in his hands—fingers slipping, nails scratching at the base of his neck for a lack of better distractions, repeating to himself that, I will not. I. Will. not, I will—
But he does, he does as so many have done before: reluctantly and bashfully, unable to stay away, overall too bloody horny to function.
It's a busy night. The tavern—a narrow building wedged between two rundown houses in the lower town—is in constant movement. People are walking up and down the staircase, from the bar to the tables and back, in and out the door—voices shouting whenever someone forgets to close it and a gust of wind whooshes in and makes the fires stutter. There are card games and dice games and drinks, candles in red glass casings, boar heads hoisted up on the walls—their tusks catching the flickering light in a terrifying play of shadows—and Merlin, from his quiet little corner in the back, has absolutely no idea what he's doing.
He wants to go back. Wants to stand up and walk out but doesn't want to call for attention, doesn't even know whether he's been here long enough—whether it's considered odd, coming and leaving after just one sip of ale. Maybe people here notice that kind of thing, call you on it. It would seem like that kind of place.
And then again he sort of also doesn't want to go back. He wants to actually do this—or at least something like this—but doesn't know how to go about it. He knows the establishment is up the first flight of stairs, has no idea how to get there. There are men swaggering up and down and lingering against the railing, talking to girls with painted faces, but Merlin thinks that at least they know what they're doing—are probably known here, have been here far too often, and maybe you have to be invited? Perhaps there's a procedure he doesn't know about, someone he's to ask about it before just walking up those stairs and what if he just goes for it, just stands up and makes for the stairs and then someone stops him? A hand to his chest, a 'no, love, not you', and all the heads in the tavern—turning to look at him, eyebrows pulled together in mild disgust, shaking their heads in wonder. What's he doing here? A kid like that, what's he even thinking? Must be something awful. Disgusting, like. Must be a—
The back of his neck is hot, embarrassment colouring a flush up to his face at the thought alone. He gets to his feet, looks down as he shoulders his way through the crowd, using the heavy tankard in his hand to make a path—push people aside while mumbling apologies.
He gets to the bar, sets the tankard on the counter and makes to slip away when a quick hand grips his wrist, keeps him in place. A barmaid, not very tall but certainly strong enough, nods at his drink and juts her chin at him in a sharp gesture.
"Haven't finished your drink," she says, still holding on.
Merlin gives a nervous attempt at a smile. Shrugs.
"My brewing not to your liking, then?" she continues, and she looks far too menacing, far too rough in these surroundings and Merlin can imagine the harm that could come to him of insulting someone in this place, the kind of noise that'd make. So he hurries to deny, shaking his head and opening his mouth a few times over before managing a choked,
"Saw you looking," she interrupts, then nods again—at the corner where Merlin stood before. "Perhaps there's something else you're needing, yeah?"
Merlin tries to pull back his hand, has to repeat the movement twice—put more force into it before the woman loosens her grip, laughing, leaning into the bar. "S'all right, sweets," she says. "It's what we're here for, innit?"
He takes a wobbly step back into the crowd, grimacing instead of managing a smile. "I've—I've got to . . . "
"Up the stairs," she tells him, leaning further over the counter with a grin. "First door on the right is almost done s'far as I know. Won't take long, now. Lovely girl, really, will treat you well and proper. A little babe like you, wouldn't want to throw you to the sharks on your first time, would we? No, first door on the right, yes, just . . . " she points at the vague direction of the stairs, glances up at where the first floor would be but trails off on turning back to Merlin, the smile shrinking on her face as he takes in his panicked expression. "Or . . . " she starts again, a contemplative moment later, hand still halfway up—pointing finger curling in. "Or not, hm. Perhaps . . . perhaps a lovely lady is not what you need at all, is it? How about . . . " The grin is back, now slow and amused. "How about a sweet young man, eh? A nice young fellow, nothing wrong with that, I say. Absolutely nothing wrong with . . . . As long as you've got the funds, that is."
Merlin nods jerkily, suddenly, unsure why. She hadn't asked him a question. But he's a bit frightened and nervous and his reactions are not to be accounted for at all. The barmaid just smiles some more and nods softly in return, says,
"Second to last door on the left, sweets." And then, by way of goodbye as she flips a towel over her shoulder, takes his tankard from the counter, "Don't be too wicked, now."
The second to last door on the left is closed. He's not going to knock, but apparently he's not supposed to. There're short benches between the doors, on either side of the hall, most of them occupied. Men, some drunken, some uppity, some in a cloak and some with a lady already in their lap—talking, laughing loudly, voices pitched low in a seemingly mocking way. Merlin takes his seat across the door, glancing about frantically every few seconds and feeling faintly ill—sweaty, misplaced and somewhat criminal. He wrings his hands together, swallows, contemplates leaving for the umpteenth time and then—
The door opens. A short boy in a long shift leans half out the room and peers down the hall before noticing Merlin. He looks lean and easy in his skin, movements careless and loose, and when he smiles brightly at Merlin and says, one hand still on the door handle, "Give me a minute, blue eyes?" Merlin's nerves melt down to a simmering jitter in the pit of his stomach.
He nods, dumbly, gives a shakily wet smile and the boy bites his lip, quirks his brows before slowly closing the door. Merlin's heart thuds heavily. He gets to his feet, fumbling off his neckerchief because for some reason he feels it'd be rude to keep it on when meeting a stranger, and stands there waiting before the door—worrying the cloth in his hand, breathing unevenly and fighting down an anxious smile. He almost takes a step forward when a door left to him opens, so skittish he momentarily thinks it's the one before him that opens—confused for a second. But it's just the next room over, a woman in a loosely laced dress letting out a man, grinning generously as her client pulls her in by her waist—one more time in the doorway, nuzzling her neck as she pushes him off, giggling. Off with you, she tells him, and Merlin looks away then—licks his lips, stares at his feet. It's an awkward reminder of what this place is about.
The man is made to leave. Merlin can see him out of the corner of his eye, pleading with the woman once more as she shakes her head in good nature and then he's flipping his hood over his head, starting down the hall with an unsteady wobble to his step. When he passes—with a grumble, not a greeting, face shadowed and turned away—he sways a bit, shoulder crashing into Merlin's. They both stumble slightly, Merlin gripping the man's arm until he steadies, and the man takes a step back—hand up as though saying, all right. Got it. I'm all right.
Merlin breathes out a shaky smile and the man looks up, the orange light from an oil lamp flickering over his cloak—the blue hood, the familiar features. His fringe is damp and sticks to his forehead, to his cheek, eyes are wide before they turn wild. Merlin lets go immediately.
Arthur looks sickly. He opens his mouth, closes it, clenches his jaw. Merlin cannot do anything but stare, frown. It's a puzzling situation to take in, and he's not really understanding right away so it takes him a heartbeat—Arthur? What? Arthur?—then, oh.
His frown lifts, expression blank, and Arthur shakes his head—once, whether in confusion or automatic denial—before turning, still uneven on his feet, and hurrying away. Thudding down the stairs, shoving his way through the scattered crowd, the displeased sounds of the people, detached 'Oy!'s and 'Watch it!'s, floating up from the bottom of the stairwell.
Merlin isn't sure how long he stands rooted to his spot, slowly narrowing his eyes at the end of the hall where Arthur disappeared. He's still somewhat dazed, mind reeling when a hand to his shoulder urges him to turn, his attention pulled to the boy at his side.
"Hello," the boy says, a good smile on him as his hand slips from Merlin's shoulder to his elbow—tugging. "You coming?"
Merlin opens his mouth to say something without having a single coherent thought to convey, ends up just breathing in loudly. He glances down the hall one more time, then swallows, nodding distractedly. The boy hums his approval, leading them back into the room, and Merlin has to close his eyes when they pass the doorway as to not pull back, just to wait in the middle of the hall for a little longer, see if perhaps Arthur will reappear.
"Nervous?" the boy asks when Merlin closes the door behind them then slumps against it, releasing a tight breath. The question sounds vaguely amused, like a well-worn tease, and apparently no answer is expected—the boy lets go of Merlin's arm, fingers tracing the back of his hand, before turning and walking toward the bed. He stops by the small nightstand, the only other piece of furniture there beside the single chair by the hearth, and washes in hands in a small bowl of water.
"You can put the money over there," he says, jutting his head slightly in the direction of the fireplace. Merlin needs a moment to process, to mouth a hesitant 'oh' to himself and cross the room with uncertain steps—worrying over how much coins this would cost, if he has enough with him or maybe too much, and winds up fumbling in his pockets, sweaty hands making it hard to do anything. In the end he dumps the content of the one pocket on the hearth's stone frame, keeping the rest. He turns to see the boy watching him with a fond little smile, stalking over slowly. Merlin instinctively presses himself back against the fireplace.
"You are lovely," the boy says, making it sound like the subject had been open to discussion up until now. His hand skids over the back of the chair when he passes it, drumming fingers, and Merlin keeps his clammy fists at his side.
The boy is quite close now, and suddenly Merlin is all too aware of how he's not wearing trousers—only that shift, long and white and threadbare. "First time, blue-eyes?" he asks, smiles, gets no answer. Then, "The very first?"
Merlin stares at the chair, tries not to think about how much he's blushing—red, flustered blotches of colour down his neck, the sides of his face. He tries not to think of much at all. The boy comes to stand closer, right in front of him, tries to catch his eye with a quiet, "Aw, you little babe," and then there are hands at his breeches—unlacing, touching, all too sudden and all too quick and Merlin can only gasp and squirm as he's told that this is—
"—going to feel brilliant. Just close your eyes, don't worry too much, and let me . . . " he trails off into a breathy huff of a laugh at Merlin's choked grunt of a noise when his fingers slip past the undone laces, starting stroke his vaguely interested cock into hardness. "Oh, yes," the boy adds, pace slowing—making Merlin bite his lip, clutch at his shoulder with one hand. "Good, isn't it?"
Merlin, his eyes closed and head tilting back, can only reply with a sharp intake—hips bucking up as the boy adds a whispered conclusion of, "Someone else's hand."
And Merlin's mind is already a jumble of thoughts, of impressions from this long day and strange night and just the mention of someone else, their hand, all this while a warm and damp palm pumps up—down—fingers trailing under the head, at the base, so much unlike his own touch and so wonderful—just that gets the links crossed all wrong, and the next thing it's Leon's hand, then the stable boy's, then Arthur's—Arthur's in the rain and in Merlin's bed and against a wall and in a bath, Merlin in his lap as Arthur works him with one hand and feeds him an apple with the other, easy, laughing, pressing a kiss to Merlin's neck when he can't manage to bite—his jaw going slack, too distracted by his—
"Oh god," Merlin groans this, eyes snapping open, gripping hard at the boy's shoulder. The boy hums some kind of laughing agreement, pressing closer—moving in, slotting one leg between Merlin's. He's shorter than Merlin, a lot shorter, his eyes are huge and dark and his hair parts at the wrong side and now all Merlin can see is Arthur's face, pale and terrified, staring back at him from under his hood, and—
"Oh god," he wails, makes a weak attempt to still the boy's hand, clamping onto his wrist. "No, please, I—"
"No?" the boy repeats, quiet and still amused, not believing him. His smile curves against Merlin's neck. Merlin grunts, only half in frustration, and he wants to not stop, he wants to keep on doing this and more and everything he's never done with anyone, hasn't been able to, hasn't found the person who'd do it to him, but then again—then again, Arthur, Arthur panicking, Arthur running and seeing Merlin here, and Merlin seeing him, and Arthur in a bath, Arthur after practice, Arthur angry or happy or sad, devastated, tired when he wakes up in the mornings with squinty eyes and creased cheeks and—
"Stop." He catches the boy's hand. Takes a breath. Pulls it away. "I—I'm sorry, I—" Another breath. He licks his lips nervously, fingers fumbling, shaking as he tries to do up his laces again—still hard, uncomfortable. "I can't. I—I have to—"
The boy looks at him, eyebrows raised, gaze flicking back and forth between Merlin's eyes. Trying to understand. Not insulted or upset, just . . . curious, like, Oh. And, That's odd.
". . . to go," Merlin finishes on an exhale. "Have to go." Then, twitchily rubbing the back of his hand to his brow, "Sorry."
The boy stumbles a step back when Merlin walks past him, holding his breeches up awkwardly. He couldn't do the laces up completely.
He doesn't look back when he makes it to the door, out the room, is still breathing hard and uneven—sweat cold on the back of his neck, heart hammering too close to the caging of his chest.
Merlin isn't sure what he expects to do or find as he storms out into the cold street, has nothing but a vague notion of running back to the castle—of finding Arthur, somewhere, somehow—of solving some kind of issue, of clearing the air and trying hard not to feel like he's a second away from sobbing.
In a confused moment of disorientation, still with his momentum from running outside, Merlin turns on his spot—looking around, breath puffing visibly in the autumn night. The houses are crooked in this part of town, a little too high, leaning on each other dangerously. Some windows are still lit, some voices still echo from behind doors—happy or shouting over the sound of water being poured out from a height onto the pavement, or that of a cat in heat, or distant footsteps slipping over cobblestones. Laughter. Horses. There are very little clouds, the moon is too bright, and Merlin feels a sudden wave of oncoming nausea—swallows thickly, trying to figure out which way to go.
He goes for left, changes his mind. Retraces his steps, goes right, passes an alleyway with a dark figure leaning face-first into the wall, changes his mind again. Stumbles back, realises he forgot his neckerchief back at the establishment, doesn't know what to do. He's relieved of that choice when the figure follows him out of the alleyway, doubling his pace when Merlin staggers away in a frazzled jog, making it into run but he's not fast—not enough, not for a lot of things—and then he's simply stopped in his tracks by a hand grabbing the back of his jacket, pulling before slamming him into a wall. It hurts, it hurts a lot and he's already halfway into forming some words of protection when he's spun around, pushed back into the wall again—two fists twisted tightly into the fabric of his shirt, a seething face close to his.
"You followed me," Arthur hisses, teeth clenched.
"No," Merlin replies immediately, a pant, hands coming up to push at his shoulders. Arthur doesn't let go, shakes him instead—shoving him into the wall again.
"I'm not!" he cries, tries to push at Arthur again. It's pointless, and he's pressed harder into the wall—stone digging into his back. He puffs out a tight, frustrated breath. "I didn't follow you. I didn't even know you that you . . . "
"Yeah," Arthur barks out a hollow, humourless laugh. "And I'm supposed to believe that you just happened by? Just chanced upon this lovely corner of Camelot," –his hands wring harder into the jacket, not minding the way Merlin tries to pry them off— "in the middle of the bloody night?"
"Let me—!" Merlin grits out, all but clawing at Arthur's grip, and when he looks up to meet Arthur's gaze—close and angry, nostrils flared, mouth curled into an ugly snarl—he can't help the sudden lash of anger, and the words are out before he knows it. "So you're the only person in existence to ever fathom to come here, s'that it? No one but Arthur. No one but Arthur could ever have—needs like . . . to . . . "
"You have no reason to be here. No reason. This is a filthy place, Merlin, no one who could help it should ever—"
"I have all the reason!" Merlin protests. "As much as you, if not more."
"Are you being funny? Are you trying to be funny? I am the—" He stops. Bites his lips, baring his teeth, then glances around—lowers his voice. "I am the prince. Putting on this—cloak and coming here is the only way I can ever—until I—" His words catch in his throat, and that little bit of weakness only serves in making him angrier. When he speaks again, it's forced through a tightly clenched jaw. "Who else has that excuse? Who isn't free to pursue to their heart's wish, tell me? Bloody well who?"
Merlin doesn't reply at once. He stares for a moment, short of breath. Then, "Have you been drinking?" he asks quietly, because he can and because the smell of Arthur's breath is telling enough—because scathing accusations is all the defence he has, considering the path he's going for with the quickly addition of, "Or are you just purposely obtuse?"
Arthur inches his head back. "What did you just call me?"
"Who else, Arthur? Who else?" He drops his hands from Arthur's wrists and they slip down, arms hanging, swaying awkwardly by his side. His body pressed back, neck tilted at an uneasy angle, chin close to his chest as he tries to look straight at Arthur. "There are not," he continues. Swallows. "There are not only woman up there, are there?"
Arthur frowns at him, mad and confused and not getting it, and Merlin isn't sure why he's so keen on driving this suicidal point home when he adds, "Women are not the only . . . . Some—some people, men, they . . . " He can't finish, half chokes on it, and concludes with a weak, "I mean. You know this. Arthur. You know that . . . "
"What," is Arthur's reply, a good silent moment later, "does that have to do with any . . . "
They've chosen a dark bit of street to do this, the houses opposite not offering much to illuminate the brick behind them into something more than variation on black, the colours of their sleeves more than muted shades of grey. There are no candles in windows here, only somewhat further down, and the light from the bar—seeping out as a strip of light from under the door.
So when Arthur's realisation dawns, Merlin only sees snatches of it. His face is far too deep into the hood of his cloak, the shadows too soft to distinguish the finer lines of his expression.
The general gist of his reaction comes across pretty well, though, when he lets go of Merlin with an abrupt push, stepping back unsteadily, standing in the middle of the street—catching more light this way, the gleaming white of his wide eyes, the down-curve of his open mouth, visible.
Merlin tries not to slump, tries to stand taller—even to fix his jacket, straighten it, but finds his fingers too slow and stupid with the wild pulse of his heart to manage the job. It isn't silent out, not close, but he can hear Arthur's breathing almost as well as he can his own.
It's a long time before either of them speaks.
"You—" Arthur starts, frowns over his words, tries again. "You're—?"
"No! I—I'm—" Merlin isn't doing any better. He takes a breath for the last delay he'll get, and settles for a confession in the form of, "I don't bother anyone. Really, I—I keep to myself, I don't . . . I came here." He shrugs, initial anger making way for embarrassment, worry. He looks down when he says, softly, "I didn't follow you."
Again, Arthur is silent. When Merlin chances a glance in his direction, he seems a bit lost—looking about, unsure, catching his breath. Perhaps trying to retrace moments in his head, fit Merlin into them properly, like he is now, memories from the past two years—this and that and what some things might've meant, things that Merlin hadn't meant at all but that now probably seem all wrong and uncouth and Merlin is close to panicking just watching him like that, hand rubbing at his forehead, grimacing and—
Merlin freezes. "No?"
"No. Just—you're not. Are you? You're not. You're not like—no. It just doesn't make any sense, you can't—be. That. Because I've seen you, with, I've seen—" he stops, clearly wondering what he's seen. Arthur blanches, Merlin loses his ability to breathe properly, and frantically tries to make it better with a desperate exclamation of,
"If you're worried about—That I look. At you. Well I don't. I swear, I don't, I really don't, I make it a point not to ever. I mean, I know it's, well, when I have to, with undressing and—"
"Oh, god!" Arthur digs the heels of his hands to his eyes with a sudden movement, shaking his head slightly.
"No, I—but I don't, see, so you—"
"Stop. Stop talking."
"No." Arthur moves his hands into his hair, pushing back the hood. "This," he earnestly says to his boots, "never happened."
Merlin opens his mouth, says nothing. Arthur glances up, eyes determined when he tells him that, "We have never had this conversation. I've never been to this place, and you most certainly haven't, and none of this—" He pauses, gestures distractedly to underline his statement, "ever happened. Ever. Are we clear?"
Merlin stares at him. He's aware of the pathetic question in his frown, the slump of his shoulders, the momentary thrill of having told someone—barely felt through the fright and spectrum of negativity—ebbing away already, and whereas a second ago all he wanted was to go back and have this not happen at all, now that Arthur is suggesting it, the objection sits heavy and low in his chest.
"Are we, Merlin? Yes?"
Merlin almost says something, accompanies it with a half-shrug, and ends up sighing out the verge of a protest with an unclear nod. "Yeah," he says, barely breathing it, and Arthur wants to keep his gaze—do that intimidating, mind-gazing thing he does, but it's too hard in this situation, too awkward, and he turns away quickly enough.
"All right," Arthur says, a beat too late, looking down the street. It's unclear who he's saying it to, what for, and it's the last thing Merlin hears him say for some time—the walk back to the castle longer than it's ever been in its silence.
Arthur strides briskly ahead, Merlin a good twenty steps behind him.
The courtyard is empty when they cross it. The guards are dozing, the torches not as bright as they were hours before, and as they make their way up the stairs, inside, their footsteps echo softly through the empty corridors.
Arthur is still well ahead of him, faster in his pace, and Merlin doesn't have either the courage or energy to keep up—add a skip to his step, match his pace to Arthur's. He wonders idly whether he could go back to Gaius', sleep in a bedroll on the floor of his old room. Arthur probably won't stop him. He wonders whether doing that would officially constitute as overreacting, dramatising, but it's hard to believe that when looking at the tense line of Arthur's back creasing in and out of shadows as they pass the half-lit walls, and the nervous rhythm of his walk, and the fact that the few times Arthur looks back at him it is a quick, sharp glance—anxious, immediately snapping back.
When they reach the chambers Merlin locks the door as always, shuffles to his antechamber in a forced, determined line. Arthur is at the table, back to him, trying to shove his belt out of its loop—making a poor job of it, his cloak still on. Merlin doesn't comment, most definitely does not offer help, and quietly slips into his room—closing the door behind.
He wants to sigh of relief. The alone-finally kind of relief, the moment-to-recompose kind of relief, but it doesn't really come. All his sentiments offer him is a thick throat and a dull, twisting ache. He scratches at the side of his face, the nervous gesture turning into a flat-handed rubbing of his forehead, fingers over his eyes.
"Fucking hell," he whispers to himself, thinking, what a shit night.
There's still some cold water in the basin on the table by his bed, and he knows he tossed a washcloth somewhere in the direction of the small wardrobe earlier that day, a tattered thing that needed washing, but he can't be bothered looking for it now. With a sigh he starts toward the nightstand, toeing off his shoes in the process, already taking off his shirt—movements slow and tired, his arms feelings a tad too long. Elbows somewhat too inconvenient. He uses the shirt to wash his face, dips a sleeve into the water, scrubs over his brow—the line of his hair, down. Pushes the fabric over his eyes, pauses, sighs again. He can hear Arthur move in the other room, push a chair out of the way, open a closet door. Rummage. Close it.
It's not often these days that Arthur gets ready for bed without him. Merlin takes a moment to appreciate how that'll probably change now, how a lot of things will probably change now, and his exhaustion mixes with a sharp sense of embarrassment and worry. He holds the shirt to his face with two hands now, listens as the sounds in the adjacent room quiet down to silence, his breath warming the wet cloth by his mouth. It calms him, so much that when finally lowers the shirt and turns to see Arthur standing at the door, arms crossed and leaning against the post, he actually stumbles back into his nightstand—making the basin wobble dangerously, clutching his shirt to the centre of his chest.
It takes a long moment of wide-eyed staring before Merlin manages a breathless, "God, you scared me."
Arthur pulls his shoulders in something that could be either shrug or just a sign of discomfort. He's in his sleeping tights, shirtless the way he likes it—gets hot during the night, Merlin knows by now. Always pushes off his blankets, kicks away the sheets, the back of his neck hot with the sweat of deep sleep. Merlin used to think they were nightmares, woke up because of it, padded into the main room in confusion—half asleep himself as he pulled the sheets back over Arthur. They'd always be on the floor the next morning anyway, and Arthur would complain about the fires he left burning through the night.
Merlin glances sideways, asks as casually as he can, "How long have you been standing there?"
Arthur replies to something else entirely. "You can't really know though, can you."
"The . . . " Arthur sets his jaw, frowns. "You know. That. That you'd . . ." he trails off, lets the implication linger, staring down at his feet.
"Oh." Merlin doesn't know what to say to this, how to react or what Arthur thinks he could get from it, so he settles for a weak shrug and a, "I dunno."
"But—Girls. I mean, they're—" he stops himself. "Have you even tried it?"
"With a girl?" Merlin asks, quietly, flushing at the uneasiness of the question itself—this conversation, his half-clothed state. He really, really doesn't want this to happen. He says, "No."
Arthur exhales, a near laugh of relief. His arms uncross themselves, dropping to his sides as if he's exasperated. "Then, Merlin!" he says. "Then you don't know! It doesn't mean that you're—that you're not. It's—"
"No," Merlin cuts him off, voice rising like it's a question or a plea. A uncertain correction. "No. I haven't done it with a boy either. I haven't done it with . . . " He licks his lips, tightens his grip on the shirt. Arthur says nothing this time, and Merlin continues, "I just think that—that if I were given the choice that I'd probably always choose a . . . boy. But—I dunno. It just feels like that." He adds a light shrug to it for good measure, attempting a bit of a hapless smile.
Arthur just looks at him, eyes impossibly dark in the dim light. Merlin's smile stretches into a grimace. "Does," he starts, voice not quite as steady as he'd hoped. "Does this mean everything's different now?"
"Yes," Arthur says, glances down. Scratches a nail to the wood of the doorframe. "No. Maybe."
"Oh." Merlin gives a wobbly breath of a laugh. "All right. That's . . . clear."
Arthur looks up at him from under that same, low frown, says, "So you've never done it. With anyone. Ever."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"But you haven't," Arthur insists, stupidly stubborn. "You said you hadn't."
"Well, yeah. Guess I haven't, then."
"Yes, Arthur. I guess. Obviously I thought by now I'd be able to answer that differently, but after tonight I guess . . . yeah. I guess not." He spreads his fingers in a small wave of a gesture, something to convey the helplessness of it all. "It didn't happen and I wish it had and there's nothing I can do about it now, so. So."
"You wish it—what? What're you—?" But he's confused for only a small moment, maybe having forgotten the brothel, the situation they found themselves in, where they bumped into each other. Merlin waiting to go in, Arthur making his way out, and now he's putting it all together—clear on his face, the slightly reproachful pull of his lip turning into something more wide-eyed and bashful. "Oh," Arthur says, quiet. "You . . . "
"Almost." Merlin tosses the shirt on the bed now, a small excuse to not look at Arthur when he adds, "Couldn't, in the end. Not with you and your—face. All in shock like that, out of bloody nowhere. Could hardly . . . well. Anyway."
Arthur waits a beat, then, "You're going to go back?"
Merlin shakes his head. "Spent all my money now, didn't I?" His lips thin in a wryly amused line. "Rather stupid in retrospect. Saying it now it sound so . . . oh, hell. It really seemed like a good idea at the time." He huffs at himself, rubs his knuckles to his brow—his fingers over his eyes, the bridge of his nose. "God, that's pathetic."
After silently watching Merlin for a while, Arthur's only comment is, "It'll be all right."
Arthur shrugs. "Well," he says, pushing himself off the doorpost. He seems reluctant in some way, thoughtful, regarding Merlin with a certain hesitance. Merlin offers him a slight smile in reply, a half nod and a mumbled,
Arthur acknowledges this with a jerky nod, pausing for a moment as if to return the sentiment—but doesn't. He purses his lips and walks back into his room, not bothering—or remembering, even—to close the door. Merlin watches as he disappears into the large chambers, tries hard to not give the sinking, bitter feeling collecting at the base of his throat any kind of name. He swallows once, twice, exhales a breath he didn't know he was holding—then shrugs himself into standing straighter, making toward the door with every intention of closing it for the last time tonight.
He makes it as far as two steps when Arthur appears at the doorway again. Merlin stops, suddenly, and Arthur stops as well—as though in surprise—but only for a heartbeat, and then he's walking into Merlin's room, briskly, fixed and determined and more than enough to make Merlin retrace his steps, edge his way around the nightstand and only stop when his back meets the wall.
"Arthur?" he tries, suddenly frightened. He doesn't know what this is, but it looks possibly violent to him. Abruptly he thinks he wouldn't put it past Arthur to have changed his mind in that half a minute he was gone.
But then Arthur does stop at the mention of his name.
He stops in the middle of the room, jaw clenched, fists at his side, a frown pulling down his brows—conflicted. Merlin considers saying something else, find a way to pacify him, but by the time he opens his mouth it's already that much too late and Arthur's in movement again, getting closer and with only a few strides he's standing in front of Merlin—slightly short of breath, expression stormy and intention absolutely unfathomable.
With a strangled breath Merlin tries to press back into wall. Arthur looks angry, he thinks, but the message doesn't seem to transfer quite as clearly and his heart starts doing curious things in trying to get higher up his throat because Arthur's close now, too close, bare chest a few inches away and Merlin can feel the heat of it, the human proximity and it's messing with his head, unfairly so, making the blood pump heavily to his temples.
Arthur is looking down. His breath brushes over Merlin's collarbone, uneven with every exhale, and Merlin shifts just as Arthur seems to have made a decision of sorts—brings up his hands as though touch Merlin's chest, palm his ribs, but then changes his mind halfway in. Fists his hands mid-air, brings them back down. Looks to his side.
"How much," he starts, voice tight, wrecked, "did you pay tonight?"
Merlin doesn't reply. Can't do much, really, other than breathe far too loudly—short pants of anxiety, his lungs stuttering with each take.
Arthur won't let it go. "How much?" he repeats, looking up.
"Savings," he manages, quietly. Arthur keeps his gaze level, though, dark and tight around the mouth and Merlin has to add a quickly estimation of, "I . . . think a month's wages, or . . ."
Arthur lifts his head only to shake it, small and brief, his irked disapproval showing. "Merlin," he says it like a reprimand, and without a warning reaches for the laces of his breeches—hands at once quick and frantic, fumbling with the knots, roughly trying to get them undone. Merlin barely has the time to process, confused and vaguely aroused, and between choking out a noise of surprise and the moment he grabs Arthur's wrists to still them there's perhaps a little too long of a pause.
"Ar—Arthur." He tries to tighten his grip on his wrists because Arthur doesn't stop, just pulls some more with a grunt of frustration. "Arthur! Arthur what the hell are you—"
He stops, abruptly, gripping Merlin's wrists in turn only to push them away with a bit of a struggle—hold them at a painful angle for a moment before letting go with a short huff.
"I'm a man, aren't I?" he asks. "That should suffice. That's what you want."
"You can't—" Merlin gets cut off by Arthur's hands, back at his laces, knuckles brushing over his groin with every single tug and— "Christ, you can't just—"
"Shut up." Arthur pauses, looks up at him. He's blushing all the way down his chest and looks as close to embarrassed as Merlin's ever seen him. Hair a mess, eyes wild, jaw stubbornly set. "Let me."
And Merlin—Merlin is only human. Human and exhausted and has gone in and out of this state of arousal far too many times today, other days too, most days of his teenage years overall in all honesty and every single bone in his body agrees that there is no way to turn this opportunity down, that it's time, has been time since forever. And while some weak protests are still being made from the hazed backgrounds of his mind it's nothing compared to the sharp as fuck presence of Arthur's thumb pressed to the side of his erection through his breeches, tracing a short path up, down, waiting for Merlin to give in and he does, far too easily he does, slumping back against the wall—breathing through his nose, biting his lip. He fists his hands at his sides.
Arthur holds his gaze for a long moment, something dangerously feral about him—eyes flickering down over his neck, chest before he turns his attention back to the tangled laces, the previous frenzy now replaced by a slow, purposeful approach. He gently pulls at the leather straps, loosening them, fingers easily brushing back and forth and Merlin's head swims with it, turns thick with anticipation, has him bite back a whine—force down an involuntary hitching of his hips.
And then Arthur quits the laces and simply palms him through his breeches, squeezes, stroking once to test the waters. Merlin bites down harder, hums high and keening in his throat, hands twitching at his sides. Arthur doesn't comment on it, only places a flat hand to the wall over Merlin's shoulder for leverage—pushes the other one down his trousers, fingers messily skimming over his cock.
Merlin's jaw slackens and he doesn't make a sound this time, inhaling with a gasp as Arthur's hand fits around him—pumps up once, rough with too much friction, swipes a thumb over the head, using the precome to smooth the way down. Merlin tries to stay with, be as aware as he can of what's happening but his mind stutters madly at the thought of his come on Arthur's hand and he hisses, twists up, turning his head sideways—eyes closed. Arthur leans closer as he goes for a slow stroking pace, and even without seeing him move Merlin is all too aware of exactly how near he is and mindlessly presses the side of his face to Arthur's neck, breathing him in. He smells of sweat and of other people, of the soaps Merlin picked out for him and at that an unbidden memory resurfaces—Arthur in bath, Arthur naked, Arthur looking and talking to him in the sloshing murky water, his hair wet at the base and sticking to his nape. This Arthur, this flushed skin, the very same and Merlin groans, starts fucking up into Arthur's hand in earnest, holding on to Arthur's braced arm for balance. It's good, so good and he faintly wishes it could be more, though can barely concentrate on the idea when Arthur presses his lips to the shell of his ear and asks, hoarsely, whether this is—
Merlin has nothing coherent to reply with, and Arthur distractedly mouths down to his earlobe. "Does this feel good?" he breathes, twists his grip, rubs the knuckle of this thumb below the head. Merlin can only pant wetly against his neck, boneless, grunting softly to the bucking rhythm of his hips.
"God," Arthur says, lips brushing over Merlin's neck. "You really like this."
Yes, Merlin likes it. More than likes, more than enjoys, more than a lot of things—a whole other realm of adjectives and he's close, getting closer with every frantic heartbeat, tries to open his eyes, headily nuzzling against Arthur's neck and twisting his face down, wanting to see before he it's over. With his forehead pressed to Arthur's collar he stares at the blurry movement of the hand inside his half-open breeches, glimpses of red and swollen head of his cock—Arthur's fingers around it, over it, the sight pressing down on his lungs, making him hot in the face. He can feel the muscles of Arthur's shoulder moving under his cheek, his arm in constant motion and he looks away, eyes settling instead on Arthur's own breeches. The leather straps are stretched tightly over the unmistakable bulge, the minute hitching of his hips matching the pumping of his hand.
Without so much as a thought Merlin trails his hand down from where it's clinging on to Arthur's arm, tracing a light path over his chest, his ribs, following the dip of his hipbone before cupping him through his trousers—just like Arthur'd done to him, squeezing lightly and rubbing at the evident hardness beneath.
Arthur's hand falters for a moment, stutters, and he muffles a groan against Merlin's neck—biting down lightly on the muscle of his shoulder. Merlin tightens his grip, rubs harder, heart fluttering madly in his throat when Arthur starts riding into his palm. He immediately wants more, immediately more and brings another trembling hand to Arthur's breeches—intends to unlace him, get at that skin, that warmth but Arthur stops him.
It's sudden and almost jarring, how quick he is to take his hand off Merlin—using it to grab his wrist, pushing off the wall enough to grab the other one as well, holding Merlin's hands away from him in much the same way as they stood when Merlin was the one trying to get him to stop.
He's gone too far, he realises. Hadn't even thought of it, hadn't even made the connection. He just wanted to touch, thought Arthur would welcome it too and hadn't—hadn't all though that—
Arthur looks at him. His pupils are dilated, eyes dark and thrilling even though the situation should be absolutely terrifying. He's breathing hard, mouth slightly open, gaze darting down over Merlin's body for a split and then in a flash Merlin's arms are over his head—wrists pinned to the wall, Arthur's face a breath away. Merlin makes a small sound, vague protest and surprise at the sudden arch his back is forced into, the cold pressure of the stone to his shoulders—the back of his hands. Arthur only pushes at the hold he has on him, fingers digging in to the pulse of his wrist, mouth tightening ugly at the press.
Merlin struggles once, soundlessly, but it's not heartfelt and Arthur doesn't look like he's about to let go. He gives in the best he can, with a short huff and a tilt of his head, leaning it against the wall—blinking up at the ceiling, his chest heaving with stuttering, irregular breaths.
They stand there for far too long a moment, Arthur staring at him in this close proximity while he stares up, tongue feeling dry and heavy in his mouth as he tries to swallow around the suffocating feeling of it. He notices out of the corner of his eye how Arthur's hard gaze flickers away, distractedly, once and then twice and then stays down—scanning his chest again, his collarbones, the protruding lines of his ribs—the dip between that goes down to his navel.
Arthur lets go of one wrist, holds the both of them in one hand and slowly, slowly, he feels his way down Merlin's arm. Over his elbow, the muscle below, following the goosebumps to the base of his throat. He's watching his hand as it moves further over Merlin's chest, tracing the flat curves of his pecks, and when Merlin hisses at the brush of a thumb over his nipple Arthur's eyes snap back—looking up at Merlin, locked in restraint, his expression stormy with want. He keeps it level, moving in, pressing his chest to Merlin's—a hot hand rounding his hip to the small of his back, dipping below the waistband of his breeches, pushing them down.
They go easily, pool at his ankles. Arthur bites his lip, his hold on Merlin's wrists loosening before he lets go, hand dropping to the side of Merlin's neck as he slots their legs together. Merlin's mouth falls open at the friction, Arthur's clad thigh rubbing hard against his erection and with his hands free he grabs at the back of Arthur's neck, fingers sliding into his hair to clutch and Arthur—Arthur buries his face in Merlin's shoulder and moves, gyrates, rubs himself off against Merlin's leg.
It's a little bit too much, too fast because all Merlin has to do is buck up just so and his cock skids wet and hot to the skin of Arthur's belly and Arthur makes this sound, this noise that rumbles against his neck, throat, pushing harder against Merlin. They groan together, overlapping, each in turn, Arthur's hand squeezing hard at his backside and Merlin's fingers restless, wild through Arthur's hair—one leg inching up, wrapping around Arthur's, pulling him closer and Arthur chooses just that moment to open his mouth and lick—to suck at the join of his neck and shoulder and with that Merlin's coming, holding on, messily riding it out into the crook of Arthur's pelvis.
He babbles, grunts things he can't remember a second later, dazedly running his lips to the high line of Arthur's cheek and it takes forever for him to come down—getting there slowly, Arthur gently letting him get back to his feet, extracting himself. Merlin barely notices, runs his hands down Arthur's chest as he steps away, not thinking beyond how good skin feels on his fingers. Through the haze of the moment he notes that Arthur's still hard, keeping his somewhat undone breeches up with a hand, and so he reaches out—means to help, to give, have some more of this kind of fun but Arthur takes another step back and another, wobbling as he goes.
This wakes Merlin up enough to frown, look up. Blink slowly.
Arthur is looking at him, taking him in. He shakes his head once, to himself, tearing his gaze away—closing his eyes, opening them to stare at the small window on the opposite side of the room. It takes a moment for Merlin to realise he's shaking.
He tries to say something. Tries for a quiet, "Arthur," but his voice won't quite work anymore, too gravely and thick, and it comes out sounding far too choked. He's faintly aware of being naked, standing with one foot on his discarded breeches, but the realisation hasn't sunk in yet and now he's just a bit confused, still fighting against the lingering haze of his climax. He takes a feeble step toward Arthur, hand outstretched, hoping.
Arthur gives him a sideways glance, looks to his hand. He seems strangely shy for a heartbeat, uncertain, starting toward Merlin then catching himself—stepping back, turning toward the door, stopping. Trying another step, stopping again.
"Shit," he says, heartfelt, back to Merlin. Then, without much of an explanation, crosses over to the bed and sits down on the edge with a tortured sigh—burying his face in his hand, elbows resting on his knee. He takes a deep breath that hitches halfway in and he jerkily lowers his right hand—the one Merlin knows he used on him. The other he pushes into his hair, lowering his head with a grimace.
The muddle of Merlin's mind starts to settle. He feels tired now, his chest dully aching at the sight of Arthur, at the fresh memory of him being far closer than this. He doesn't feel easy in his skin anymore, not like he did moments ago, and when he takes the few steps toward the bed he's all too conscious of it. But Arthur isn't looking, still facing down, not giving the slightest sign of acknowledgement when Merlin sits down next to him, hands folded awkwardly over his lap. The mattress dips at the weight, and Arthur opens his eyes—doesn't look up. Stares at the ground.
"Arthur," Merlin starts, again, without intention of finishing. He doesn't know what else to say.
"That was stupid," Arthur tells him, hoarsely.
"No." Merlin isn't sure it isn't, but it had felt so good he can't think much beyond that.
"Yes," Arthur insists, voice breaking. "Yes, Merlin. That was very st—"
Arthur stops. Tenses. Merlin's laid a careful hand between his shoulder blades, fingers twitching a little, expecting to be shrugged off.
He says nothing. Flattens his palm, feels the line of Arthur's spine. The heat of his skin, the humanity of it, slowly moving up—two fingers circling the knobbly jut of his spine at the base of his neck, brushing over the soft hair above it.
"Merlin," Arthur says it again, broken, and it's quieter this time. The hand in his hair slips down the back of his head, fingers running over Merlin's, holding on, and Merlin thinks of very little else when he leans in to press a small kiss below Arthur's ear, right to the soft give of his neck.
Arthur catches him, holds him there with an abrupt grip. A silent moment passes between them, Merlin's lips still at Arthur's neck—Arthur holding on to his arm, face turned just enough to breathe against Merlin's cheek once, twice, then—
Then it's hard to keep track of exactly what happens, how, the order of things getting blurred when Arthur pulls him to him, puts his hands all over—touching, wanting more skin, frantic with need now that there seems like they're definitely not going back and Merlin settles in his lap first, lets him run his hands down his back and kiss his neck—his chest, shoulders—before the balance tips over when Arthur tries to get out of his breeches and they make a stunted decline into the bed, not helped at all by the man's unwillingness to detach himself from Merlin's collarbone, biting and sucking and dipping his head to lick a wet path down to a nipple, breathing hot and then cold, catching it between his lips.
Merlin arches into it with a harsh gasp, rolling them on their sides, letting Arthur slip a thigh between his legs—letting him grind his hard cock against his leg, desperately rutting, muffling his quiet moans into his chest. Merlin goes with it, goes with the drunken frenzy at first but then to calm him, carding fingers through his hair, tilting his face and murmuring, "Arthur," into the blonde mess. "Arthur, easy. Arthur." Touches his back, rubs a soothing line, and, "easy."
Arthur slows, his hold clutching to the small of Merlin's back. He shudders, nuzzles up to the skin below Merlin's jaw. "You feel so good," he says, repeats it mouthing to his neck, tongue hot over Merlin's adam's apple. "I—never thought you'd—"
"Your hands, I—" is all the coherency Merlin has in reply to that, Arthur's touch straying low—over his backside, stroking, squeezing, all the while sucking open-mouthed kisses to his pulse-point, and— "God, your mouth."
"I want," Arthur starts, swallows. Noses the line of Merlin's neck. "Want—I—"
Merlin, breathless, only manages a weak, "What." And again, leg climbing higher over Arthur's thigh, "What, Arthur."
"I don't know," he says, but his hands have stilled—thumbs poised between Merlin's buttocks, over the crease. He edges them down, going in slowly, and Merlin can feel his face heat up—blood thrumming thickly through him at the suggestion alone, the idea. And with that thought in mind he rocks back into the touch, making both their breaths stutter as Arthur's fingers briefly—accidentally—skim over his hole.
"You can—" Merlin inhales sharply as Arthur's thumbs chance another careful touch. "You can—I. Behind the bowl, there's a—" He licks his lips, cheek pressed to Arthur's temple, trying to keep his voice steady as he adds a quiet, "I touch myself. Like that, sometimes, I—There's a bottle on the nightstand, you—could—"
Arthur lifts his head from the crook of Merlin's neck, face so close it's blurry—their noses brushing, breaths mixing.
"It feels good," Merlin tells him, feeling the heat of his words on Arthur's lips.
"You want me . . . " Arthur trails off, distractedly moving his mouth over Merlin's, barely a caress. "You want me to—"
"And you're sure you—"
"Christ," Arthur says, and Merlin's already lying back down, giving him room to reach over behind them to the small table—the little groove of space between the bowl and the wall, hiding the vial he keeps there. Arthur fumbles for it at first, movements too wild as he looks for it, pushing the bowl aside—making the water slosh over the edge. He curses and Merlin smiles, shakily, presses a kiss to the stretched-taut line where shoulder meets chest. He makes to turn, then, to lie on his stomach just as Arthur finds the bottle, but realises too late that he's still lying on Arthur's left arm and on the shift accidentally rubs his half-hard cock the to crook of Arthur's elbow—has to pause, bite his lip, lift to let Arthur extricate his arm.
But Arthur doesn't. He laughs, not for humour but sheer breathlessness, settles back down on the mattress only to move over Merlin—taking the opportunity to palm his cock, fondle it with a murmured, "Fuck, Merlin," to his hair, pressing his body all along his side—draped half over his back, nuzzling down to the nape of his neck. Merlin can't quite help the whimper that escapes him at that, hips off the mattress and pushing himself into Arthur's warm grip, face buried in a flat corner of a pillow.
"Hold still," Arthur tells him, a whisper behind his ear, hand sliding to his waist. It's a brief, gentle touch before Arthur lets go, pushing himself up on one elbow—settling the hand fisted around the small vial at the dip of Merlin's back. "All right," he says, to himself more than anyone, and, "all right," shaping his mouth to Merlin's shoulder, breathing, kissing, fumbling with the cap of the vial. Merlin squeezes his eyes shut and pressed to the fabric of the sheets, lifts up just a little—resting the slightest weight on his knees, holding his breath when Arthur holds the vial to the small of his back and lets the oil pool.
It's a little cold and expected but still wet, dripping down like something obscene. Arthur's hand disappears for a second and when it's back he's all fingers and barely contained impatience, following the path of the oil and slipping down Merlin's crack, rubbing back and forth over the little hole and Merlin can only rock into the starting rhythm of it—jaw slack, face hot with faint embarrassment and sharp, sharp arousal buzzing headily in his ears. Arthur is softly cursing, a chain of profanities whispered to top of his spine as he dips in—a slick finger, in and out, drawing out a whimper before doing it again, circling the tight muscle with a nail and then he's back with two, pumping in a few times then slowing, letting Merlin do the work, ride himself on Arthur's fingers—moaning, crazy with it and unable to keep still, twisting his face in the sheets.
Arthur encourages him, licks between his shoulder blades, up his neck, bites the shell of his ear—sucks on an earlobe, adds another finger. Merlin's on his knees now, completely exposed and shameless as he grinds down on Arthur's fingers, panting for more, anything more, and yes, and fuck, and Arthur, and fuck me, please, Arthur—fuck—
Arthur groans and bites hard on his shoulder, bucking, rutting up against his thigh, desperate and wild and Merlin tries to move into it—wants that, wants it bad, tries to twist his head around to look at Arthur but can't even get that far—manages only to flatten his cheek to his pillow, staring at Arthur's hand, propped up close to his face for balance, through half-lidded eyes. He nudges the wrist with his nose, kisses it, delirious, and behind him Arthur stops—pulls out of him, voice absolutely wrecked when he starts with a vague,
"Yeah," Merlin breathes, not even a sound. It's enough, though, enough for the both of them—in their state, this far gone and mad for each other's heat, the feel, and Arthur doesn't even need more than a second to shift, to change the angle—line up, press in slowly and it's big, feels absolute huge and too much, too fast and Merlin hisses, clenched, jaw tight and—
"Shh," Arthur hushes to the base of his throat, draped over him, all along his back—one hand running up and down his trembling thigh, soothing. "Easy, darling."
Merlin tries to breathe, to calm, exhaling harshly through his nose—gritting out a vague, "I am—not your—"
"I know," Arthur says, keeps on stroking his leg, pressing soft kisses to his neck and he would seem calm, would make the perfect impression of serenity were it not for the trembling, the shuddering breaths, the wild heartbeat of his chest, pressed close to Merlin's spine.
Merlin swallows, eases up fractionally—swallows again. He's concentrating on Arthur's hand again, moves to feel it against his cheek—nuzzles at the palm, weakly, mouths at the pinkie. Arthur lets him, tracing Merlin's lip in answer, and Merlin kisses it—swirls his tongue around it, sucks it into his mouth. Arthur groans, hips hitching forward, sinking deeper into Merlin—eliciting a sharp gasp. Blindly, Merlin reaches back for Arthur, finds his thigh—pulls at him, closer, the message as clear as it would ever be and the next thrust in still burns, still hurts more than it doesn't but it also feels like nothing else, brilliant and painful on the third, and on the fifth Merlin's moving with it, sucking on Arthur's fingers, moaning around them—biting down gently until the sensation is too good and he can only fuck back onto Arthur's cock, mouth open, Arthur's spit-slicked fingers hooked on his teeth, lips, moving in over his tongue.
From there on it doesn't take much and Arthur slamming in and grunting softly to the line of Merlin's hair, one arm wound tightly around his waist—quickly finding his cock, aching, leaving wet trails against his stomach at every thrust of Arthur's hips. He strips it quickly and at a brutal pace, off-rhythm, brokenly chanting Merlin's name and then coming, and coming, hot and hard and groaning against Merlin's sweaty skin—riding it out with hitching thrusts, grip slowly slackening on Merlin's cock. But Merlin can't let him, not now, and pushes himself to his elbows—Arthur's dead weight heavy over him, but not heavy enough to keep him from reaching down and wrapping his hand around Arthur's, guiding it over his erection, jerking himself off through Arthur's touch. Arthur makes a small sound, chest expanding unevenly, damp forehead pressed to the dip between Merlin's shoulder blades—tightens his hold minutely, the most he can manage, it seems, still deep within Merlin, still reeling. He opens his mouth, then, sucks a light kiss to the knob of Merlin's spine and Merlin bucks into his sweaty palm—the tight circle of both their hands—and comes, hard and messy all over their entwined fingers, his stomach, the sheets—clenching around a gasping Arthur, a strangled emotion stuck high in his throat.
He goes down the moment he slumps, elbows giving way, sprawling over his bed—Arthur heavy over him, sounding a hiss at the movement, but Merlin barely registers. It sounds faraway, a thick cotton wall between him and everything else, mind still high on the act, on the sex, on every single touch exchanged. Arthur pulls out at some point and Merlin cringes, grimaces into the pillow for a moment—protests with a quiet groan—but the pain ebbs away quickly, and then he's sighing, exhausted, dozing. The low rumble of Arthur's voice barely gets to him, a vague question, a clammy, shaky hand to his back—going up, brushing the hair from his face, and again the question, something—something—
"—all right, Merlin?"
He opens his eyes, blearily looking at a sweaty-faced Arthur. "Are you?"
Merlin hums, hoping that'd be enough for now, closing his eyes again. Arthur whispers something else he can't decipher, and for a while Merlin's still aware of the hand on his face, stroking, combing through his hair. But the sleep is immediate and heavy, and it could be a minute or an hour before the next time he wakes again—a wet touch bringing him to. A cloth, he realises, thoughts far too blurry. He cracks open a tired eye, quietly watches Arthur clean him, feels it when he runs a wet piece of cloth up his spine, down, between his buttocks. Merlin frowns at this, mouth tight at the sharp pain, and Arthur mutters an apology—stops what he's doing, gingerly wipes at his thighs, then leans back to drop the cloth on the floor. Merlin thinks he recognises his shirt.
Arthur settles back on his side, occupying what little room the bed provides with Merlin taking up most of it. He doesn't feel like moving, though, not much, comfortable as he is, silently observing Arthur. The man looks far too worried for what they've just done, far too conflicted and busying his mind with things that Merlin can't help but feel don't matter at this point. He means to put this into words, but ends up simply bringing up a hand to Arthur's face—trying to physically smooth out the lines of concern. The action itself seems to soften him somewhat, and as Merlin continues to trace over his brow—the curve of his nose, cheek, jaw, fingers drunkenly slow in their movements—Arthur sighs, speaks with Merlin's thumb on his chin, says,
"What did we do?"
Merlin grins, sleepily. "Had sex."
"Don't smile, Merlin, this is not—" He stops, has to fight down a tugging smile of his own as Merlin pushes a finger next corner of his mouth as he talks, pulling it up in a mock-grin. "No," he insists, still smiling. "No, this is not—funny in any—"
Merlin puts his hand over his mouth. Arthur raises his eyebrows, like he's putting up with him, like it's a bit of a joke after all and Merlin takes away his hand, slides it to the back of his neck—pulls him down, closer, shifting to his side and nudging their noses together, tilting up to get at Arthur's mouth. Their lips barely touch, a light testing of waters, feeling their breaths on each other's skin and it might've taken longer, this cautious, lingering moment but Merlin already felt this should've happened a while ago, didn't want to wait at all and so nuzzled at Arthur's cheek as a shy warning before catching his upper lip between his own.
Arthur makes no fuss about kissing back. He answers the pressure, lightly sucking on Merlin's bottom lip—a playful grazing of teeth to the soft inside—and then opens his mouth as Merlin tilts for a better angle, their tongues sliding together, hot and intimate and bliss, Merlin thinks, bliss, heart skipping at the thought of Arthur's mouth alone, of his tongue dipping deep in, stroking and rubbing and sucking, swallowing moans and—
"—wait," Arthur stops him, breathlessly, pulling back with a hand to Merlin's chest. "Wait."
Merlin looks up at him, confused. His fingers are still tangled in Arthur's hair.
"We—" Arthur starts, pauses. He licks at his swollen lips, frowns again. "We can't . . . " he trails off, distracted by what seems to be Merlin's mouth, which feels as red and kissed and Arthur's, skin still burning a little from Arthur's stubble. But when Arthur leans in again Merlin's the one to stop him with a huffed laugh and a,
"No, no." He mirrors Arthur's hand on his chest, putting his own over his collarbone. "What is it we can't?"
"Nothing," Arthur assures, nudging his cheek with his nose, trying for another kiss.
Merlin instead brushes their cheeks together, smiling. "Nothing?"
Arthur hums, mouthing at the corner of his lip, and halfway into a kiss Merlin adds a, "We can anything, then?"
This stops it again. Arthur tenses, pauses. Pulls back marginally, dry lips sticking to Merlin's, then inches his head back still. "We can . . . " he starts, glances up at Merlin. "Something?" It's an awkward question, too serious for the hour of night, for the privacy between them, and so he changes it—shyly, pressing their foreheads together, saying, "I don't know." Then, "Perhaps . . . quietly, we can . . . "
Merlin cuts off whatever would've followed, pressing his mouth to Arthur's in a claiming kiss for a long moment—just that, lips to lips, closing and opening with the faintest pull of suction, but that changes too when Arthur slides his hand from Merlin's chest up to his neck, cupping his jaw, coaxing his mouth further open, deepening the kiss. It gets a little dirty, then, slack jawed wet, smacking sounds between them and quiet, keening moans, Arthur slowly lying back and Merlin following—bracing over him, straddling his hips, never breaking the kiss for long. He'd pull back a little and Arthur would follow, nipping at his lips, tugging him back down, thumbs stroking soundly over his cheeks. It's nice and soft and makes him genuinely happy to be there, like that, to be there with Arthur until—
"The sheets," Arthur murmurs against his lips, "are filthy." Then, when Merlin huffs a laugh into the kiss, breaking it, "Just so you know."
Merlin sighs, slumps a little. He brushes their lips together one more time then sits up, looking down at Arthur. "Your bed is clean," he says.
"So it is," Arthur replies, pushing himself up—wrapping his arms around Merlin, quietly burying his face in the crook of his neck. Merlin settles his hands on the back of Arthur's neck, idly playing with the hair at his nape. They stay like that for a while, neither saying much, letting the silence sink.
Arthur kisses his neck, whispers, "Silly." Then, with another kiss to his shoulder, an even quieter, "Darling."
Merlin rests his head against Arthur's, blinks tiredly at the room. The window on the other end is slightly open, and whereas the night is still at its darkest—not even the shadows of the turrets discernable in shade—the rolling chirp of some nocturnal bird still sounds clearly across the empty courtyard, echoing. Merlin closes his eyes and threads his fingers through Arthur's hair, breathing, lightly holding on to what he has.