Camelot slept in peace, just as he had always wanted, just as he strove for with every breath he took. The skies weren’t nearly as solemn, the clouds roiling with the impending storm, but those weren’t what kept Uther wandering around the citadel. Even the guards he encountered weren’t aware of his reasons. To them, this was a semi-regular ritual, explained away as their king’s continued diligence and devotion to his realm.
The truth wasn’t nearly as altruistic. He roamed the corridors because this was one of those nights when he loathed his empty bed. His body yearned for something he no longer had, for the warmth and sanctuary Ygraine had blessed him with all too briefly. He didn’t care about the sex. Enough women had offered themselves over the years, but beyond admitting them into his chambers for a scant night in his arms, he hadn’t indulged in carnal desires since losing Ygraine.
What he longed for was the intimacy, the heat of flesh pressed to his, the ability to fall asleep with the knowledge that he wasn’t truly alone.
He wouldn’t find it in the citadel halls, but perhaps the constant activity would force his exhausted body to finally sleep.
Near the front stairs, the whisper of footsteps drove him to a halt. They weren’t his and far too light to belong to one of the guards. Slowly, he crept forward, all senses alert to unriddle who the intruder might be. When only a corner separated them, he burst around it, prepared to confront their nocturnal guest.
He came face to face with wide, startled eyes that gleamed for a moment before lashes dipped to hide them. “Merlin? What are you doing out at this hour?”
Merlin kept his head ducked, his hands knotted behind his back. “I had to run an errand for Gaius, sire. I’m late returning, that’s all.”
The excuse was viable, ably put, but something about the stiff set of the young man’s shoulders warned Uther it wasn’t necessarily truthful. “He can’t be expecting anything at this late hour.”
“No, nothing like that. I had to make a delivery. Of an elixir. To someone in the lower village.”
More plausibility. But as Uther weighed Merlin’s story, his gaze was caught by the luster of pale skin illuminated by a distant torch far behind Merlin. It outlined the sharp line of his cheek, casting a ghostly sheen to his already fair complexion, and for a moment, Uther couldn’t breathe. The superficial resemblance to Ygraine was a knife to twist in his chest.
When he didn’t speak right away, Merlin looked up at him through his lashes. A frown immediately creased his brow. “Sire? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Uther replied automatically, then because it felt so wrong to lie in that moment, “No.”
Merlin waited for clarification that never came. “Do you need Gaius? Is that why you’re out?”
“Not Gaius. I wonder…”
He’d never taken a man to his bed before. When his knights chose each other’s company on quests, he turned a blind eye and allowed their freedoms, but the notion had never really appealed to him. But now, with this slim young man, so eager to help at the oddest of times, the notion of turning him away seemed foolish. He wasn’t interested in sex, after all. A body was a body.
“Come with me.”
Without waiting for an answer, Uther turned on his heel and marched briskly back to his room, trying to pretend he wasn’t frantically listening for Merlin’s scurrying steps right behind him. He kept his head high throughout the journey, not once looking back, not until he entered his chambers and realized Merlin hovered on the other side of the threshold.
“Enter. And shut the door behind you.”
Merlin obeyed—he really was so good at that, Arthur was a fool to complain as much as he did—but lingered near the door with his hands behind him.
“Nothing I’m about to tell you leaves this room,” Uther ordered.
“Of course not.”
“Not even for Gaius’s ears.”
A hesitation this time. “If that’s what you wish.”
Certain that at least his privacy would be respected, Uther sagged in relief. “I have difficulty sleeping.”
“Oh!” Merlin brightened. “But Gaius does wonders—”
“What I need can’t be found in any medicine he might provide. I require…company.”
“Oh…” Merlin’s cheeks reddened when his gaze flickered momentarily to the bed behind Uther. “I’m not sure how I can help. Arthur’s never asked for my aid to find him—”
“I can find my own partners, thank you very much,” he snapped. When Merlin flinched, however, he took a deep breath to soften his tone. “That’s not what I’m looking for. I just want someone to hold.”
“Then that should be even easier—”
“I want you, Merlin.”
His bluntness banished Merlin’s flustered nature, leaving him gaping at Uther in disbelief. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s very simple. You sleep here tonight. I’ll hold you. Tomorrow, you can slip away before Arthur requires your service. What’s so difficult to understand?”
He found the words more easily than he imagined. “A woman would have certain expectations, even a serving girl. And if you were to return to your quarters now, you’d be likely to waken Gaius, which will put him in a horrid mood for all of us to bear tomorrow.”
Merlin chuckled. “You’re right about that. But—”
“I trust you. You’ve proven yourself an ally to this family, time and time again. I owe everything to you for saving Arthur’s life. There’s nobody else I would entrust with this secret of mine.” But it took only a glance at Merlin’s face to know Uther still hadn’t satisfied the answer he required. Turning away, Uther gripped the bedpost to find the strength to make the final confession. “You remind me of her. Your skin. Hers was…perfect. Not a day goes by where I don’t miss her.”
The truth stung. It made him feel weak. How many years had gone by since her death? He should’ve been able to go on without having to seek out a substitute, just to get a good night’s sleep.
“How would you like me to do this, sire?”
The soft acquiescence in Merlin’s tone lanced pain he hadn’t realized seared through him until it was absent. “Take your shirt off.”
He did his best not to watch as Merlin rounded the end of the bed, tossing aside his neckerchief to let it puddle on the floor before pulling his tunic over his head, but Uther’s attempts were futile, his movements clumsy as he toed off his shoes. Doubt crept in at the butterfly bows of Merlin’s shoulder blades. He was all angles, hard where women were soft. Perhaps this would be fruitless, but Uther knew he had to at least try.
Though he would normally sleep in only his shirt, Uther kept his trousers on as well, better to assure Merlin he meant nothing sexual in this. He slid under the blanket, remaining tense as Merlin did the same, then touched his bare shoulder.
“Roll over,” he said quietly.
The tension was not only his. Merlin turned his back to Uther and laid on his side, but the quick throb of his pulse in his neck was more than visible.
Gently, Uther slid his arm around Merlin’s waist. Though he anticipated the taut muscles, the heat bleeding from Merlin’s skin was a surprise. He tugged without thinking, molding around Merlin’s lanky form, and felt his own body yield.
Sleep would not be a stranger for long.
As his eyelids grew heavy, Uther tilted his head forward to busy his nose in the longer strands of hair at the young man’s nape. Merlin smelled of Gaius’s chambers, earthy and exotic, with the clean aroma of sunshine undercutting each note. The scent added to Uther’s languor, relaxing parts of him that rarely saw peace. He kept waiting for Merlin to change his mind, to find some reason to deny Uther this succor, but none came. Merlin’s breath remained slow and steady, his spine gradually curving into the mattress to join Uther’s embrace.
Uther drifted into the sleep that had been denied him. Before he dropped off completely, his lips moved over Merlin’s hair, not as a kiss but for something far more important.
“Thank you, Merlin.”