Warning: Teensy vague spoilers for several episodes, season 1. Blink and you’ll miss them.
Summary: Arthur knew his mouth was open. He knew it and was too affronted to care. “You can’t just put my hands anywhere, you know.”
Disclaimer: The realm of Merlin does not make me any money.
Author’s notes: Written for this kinkme_merlin prompt.
A Persistent Curiosity, or Why Merlin is So Bloody Fascinating
He wasn’t going to ask. Well, obviously. Because he didn’t ‘ask’ for anything that he wanted. And he wasn’t going to order it because that was an appalling, repulsive idea and he was better than that. Arthur had maimed people with whirling maces in order to avenge the very implication of that.
Ergo, it wasn’t going to get done. That was all there was to it.
Except he really, really wanted it, in a whingy-child sort of way.
Arthur was good at whinging. He’d damn well whinged masterpieces when he was still small enough that his father had to hide a smile while attempting an irritable lecture. And call Arthur experienced and worldly, but he’d never actually entered into sexual activity with a single person for extended periods of time like this, and he had started wondering about the other side of the fence from the instant Merlin had first scrabbled his shirt away and arched into him, and god, Merlin had the most exquisite stomach, and his body, of course his body and hands and all that, but his stomach was just incredible, all lean and taut when he fought not to come, rippling with each shiver, heaving in and out when air was hard to come by, and Arthur had kissed and licked and sucked at that soft, vulnerable stomach more times than he’d actually fucked Merlin, which was quite impressive, really. Arthur was excellent at fucking, and that wasn’t vanity at all, it was a fact. He’d practiced the elements of it in an almost scientific manner on himself until the first girl had come along and shown him that thinking through kissing was truly an effective tactic. It had been his first ever kiss, and she’d lauded him for it, surprised to learn that he’d not had previous kisses. And then there were other, more provocative girls, and Arthur’s libido had liked them quite a bit, and then, then, then there were the boys, and oh god, that was like coming home after a long campaign, that was an art form all by itself, and he had learned it. Damned if he hadn’t found his element; he’d made a point of becoming an expert at it.
Besides, princes had to have multitudes of skills, didn’t they? Arthur had not seen the point of shorting himself, especially when it felt so good from his point of view, too.
Merlin was not the first to show him that much of that pleasure came from ensuring that his partner also had an enjoyable experience. But Merlin was the first to make Arthur try for a spectacular experience every single time, and that took a lot of effort. Much like picking up his first lance after a year of nothing but archery, only a month before a jousting tournament that he couldn’t skip. Muscles he’d forgotten about, movements that had fallen out of memory just a bit, and an enormous deal of exertion. But Merlin’s wordless, broken gasps when he arched at the end was worth it, the silky, sensitive skin of Merlin’s belly was very worth it, and the open-mouthed kiss Merlin barely had the strength to press to his throat when he shuddered down off the pinnacle was very, very worth it.
The fact that Merlin did all of this while Arthur was thrusting inside of him, fast or slow, deep or shallow, hard or teasing… It sparked that curiosity that always managed to get Arthur tangled up with banshees or dunked in a lake or responsible for his entire country’s drought, and though Arthur knew princes were all about sacrifice and decreeing what they would or would not pay attention to, this was a fucking persistent curiosity.
Only it wasn’t ever going to come to fruition. He had his reasons.
One was that he knew it would hurt. He’d seen it in previous lovers’ faces— in Merlin’s face, if he was going to be perfectly blunt, the first time he’d pressed into him, as slowly as was humanly possible, what with Merlin’s mouth and stomach and the way he forced out Arthur’s name, but it was still there because… well, their bodies weren’t naturally ready for that sort of sex. It took preparation to be ready. Merlin’s body hadn’t been entirely there, and Arthur still had pangs about whether or not Merlin had actually been fully along for the ride that night.
But actually, that was a ridiculous reason, because it was obvious by the way Merlin climbed over him in the mornings, sleepy and murmury and hot, or the way he tugged Arthur into the cradle of his hips while sitting cheerfully on his table next to the remains of dinner, or the way his teeth clamped down on his own lip when he worked himself open and slid down onto Arthur and then, then leaned down and sucked Arthur’s tongue into his mouth and kissed him like he was more expensive than gold, more precious than rubies, more exalted than heaven itself… Well. It was pretty plain that Merlin enjoyed his end of things quite a lot. And truthfully, though Arthur knew he was good, he hadn’t thought he was that good. Merlin’s reactions had a way of making his throat catch against the air he happened to be inhaling.
But he couldn’t ask. He… couldn’t. The very same air that caught in his throat refused to bolster the words when the time inevitably arrived again and again, until Arthur was forced to turn away, feeling too hot under his clothing and incapable of looking Merlin in the eye. Because surely… surely Merlin would think differently of him. Surely the light in which Merlin saw him would change in some way, and Arthur needed the emotional twinge Merlin kept gifting him with, needed it so much that he wasn’t willing to risk its existence even the slightest bit.
Except Merlin was a blasted observant individual at all the wrong times. Not when Arthur needed him to be, oh no. Not when, say, a gauntlet needed to be spotless or his saddle was tilting just a tad too much to the right. No, he liked to turn on that particular skill when Arthur was flat on his back and inside Merlin, or about to be flat on his back and inside Merlin, or upright and pushing Merlin down to the bed with intent to be inside him, or hesitating just for an instant— a bloody instant, that was all!— before backing Merlin up to the bed so all the inside-Merlin business could get rolling… and then Arthur just couldn’t face that knowing look. How Merlin managed to look knowing concerning things he knew nothing about was a giant, disgusting mystery.
But the most sinister part of the whole scenario was that Merlin only asked for more information when Arthur’s defences were absolutely down. Often enough, it was when Arthur’s innards had just split apart into a million sparkling motes and he’d flopped down atop Merlin, as boneless as ever he could be and wanting nothing but the smell of Merlin’s skin filling his nostrils. That always made the next time a little more awkward than it could have been. But it also happened when Arthur was just meeting Merlin’s eyes, all their clothing still on and the bed unmussed, Merlin’s hair a frumpy snarl atop his head from Arthur’s restless fingers, and Arthur reaching, touching Merlin’s face with one hand, cupping and smoothing with his thumb, the first touch of many to come.
“Going to tell me what it is tonight?” Merlin asked. His lips moved against Arthur’s palm and the tone of his voice was a little similar to ‘I’ve just finished scouring the hearth.’ Arthur’s throat reddened immediately. He snatched his hand from Merlin’s face, feeling burned in that old, familiar, stressful way, and turned, loping to the chair and collapsing into it. Or he would have, only there were fingers grasping his wrist and dear god, Merlin was not strong enough to hold him in place like that, only apparently Arthur wasn’t himself— again— because he couldn’t exactly get his arm free while still appearing to be nonchalant. Merlin even tugged him back, turned him with a canny jerk, raised that self-same hand, and put it right back on his own cheek.
Arthur knew his mouth was open. He knew it and was too affronted to care.
“You can’t just put my hands anywhere, you know,” he gritted out instinctively. Merlin’s eyes dimmed just a little, and the space between them grew. Just a little.
Just a lot.
“I didn’t mean that,” he sighed, and Merlin was alert all over again.
“Then what’s wrong? Have I done something you don’t like, because really, Arthur, you do have to tell me these things. I don’t read minds, it’s frowned upon.”
Arthur opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. “Don’t burst out like a ripe boil. That’s frowned upon.”
Apparently Arthur was the one frowned upon then, if Merlin’s expression was anything to go by.
“I’m fine.” Arthur chose his most harassing tone. He always collected himself better when he could distract everyone else. “No, you haven’t done anything. And stop looking at me like I’ve just stomped on your new herb garden.”
Merlin’s face shuttered even more. He sat up, clapping his hands lightly on his knees. And then got up and slapped the duvet straight where it had dented beneath him. “All right. If you won’t… All right.”
Arthur’s lungs froze, just for an instant, and his body nearly forgot what it felt like to breathe freely. So stupid, how important breathing became when he couldn’t manage to make it happen. It was over in a blink, but Merlin’s expression stayed, singed to his sight, and Arthur heard the real words, even as Merlin went around to the side of the bed, turned back the covers, and kicked his shoes and trousers off.
The idea that he wouldn’t confide in Merlin, that he’d close him out first, was coming through very clearly, and it hurt somewhere deep, more shameful than his embarrassment at the curiosity hovering utmost in his mind.
“Merlin.” He moved around the bedpost, took Merlin’s arm gently, and Merlin stopped. “It’s not you. I swear it’s not. All right?”
“If you’re unhappy with this,” Merlin began, not looking at Arthur, his hand gesturing toward the bed again.
“Do I look unhappy?” Arthur cut in, incredulous because really, Merlin was truly melodramatic, a bleeding heart sometimes, for god’s sake. “Did I ever? Merlin. How in the world could you possibly interpret unhappiness?”
Merlin’s mouth twitched just a little. He still wasn’t looking at Arthur, but his face had relaxed that little bit. He sat down on the mattress and tugged the blankets up over his knees. “S’right. You do look uncommonly happy. Lately.”
Arthur snorted. “I’m always happy. I’m the prince. I’m in want of nothing.”
“Not at night, anyway,” Merlin snickered, and Arthur felt it before he could figure out what it was he was feeling, but suddenly he knew he looked different, realised he was probably looking rather hunted, because Merlin abruptly decided the bed wasn’t where he wanted to be at that moment and heaved himself back out of it without much on below the waist, his left leg tangled in the sheet. Merlin kicked it off while simultaneously heading Arthur’s direction, and Arthur thought that in the very near future, he was going to be picking his head-knocked manservant up off the floor and trying to get his eyes uncrossed and his nose to stop bleeding. Only Merlin didn’t fall; he moved around the bed in a surprisingly agile fashion, and Arthur actually stepped— not scrambled, no indeed— back in order to buy more time to stop looking like he’d just skewered himself somewhere inappropriate with his dinner fork.
“You aren’t, right?” Merlin asked, his voice notably tight. “You aren’t. Wanting for anything, I mean. At, at night. Because—”
Arthur lunged forward and grabbed him and shut off his talking by kissing him deeply and messily and gracelessly. Merlin was suitably stunned when Arthur pushed him back, and Arthur took the opportunity to say, “God, Merlin. No. No. And no. No?”
He raised his eyebrows pointedly at Merlin, and the other man blushed and gripped his wrist. Arthur congratulated himself on yet another distraction-related victory.
He should have known better. Because Merlin always attacked when his bloody, bloody, stupidly designed defences were down.
“Because you look as if you are wanting for something,” Merlin said bluntly.
Arthur stared, frustrated all over again because Merlin wasn’t supposed to be capable of this sort of guile, not at the expense of the prince of Camelot’s nerves, gleefully rocking him off balance just so he could have the truth out of him. Selfish, selfish. And maybe Arthur was being a little unfair and melodramatic all on his own, but the principle of the thing was sturdy, he knew it was.
Besides, he wasn’t even ready to tell Merlin he thought he had an unnatural and slightly perverse obsession with his ghastly pale tummy. How could he possibly, possibly…
“You’re right, Merlin, of course you’re right—” Because this was what he was best at after all, wasn’t it? “—I couldn’t be having the time of my life at all, could I? I must be wasting away with boredom, pining for something better, day in, day out, because god knows you couldn’t possibly be able to make me more than contented, more than happy, no, damn well exhilarated!”
Merlin’s face went red and he rolled his eyes, looking away. “Yeah, you don’t have to be sarcastic.”
“Maybe I do, if only because you have this irritating habit of underrating yourself, Merlin.” Especially when it comes to me.
“Okay, so it’s not about me.” Merlin threw up his hands. “That means it’s about you.”
All right, then, not the way Arthur had planned for this discussion to go. Merlin had another disturbing habit: always pinpointing an important focal point and then worrying and prodding and bothering and picking at it until it ceased to cause unrest. Or it went and solved itself out of pity for Arthur. Ordering Merlin to shut up and show some respect had ceased to be effective now, all things considered.
“Look, I’m fine.” Arthur turned and pulled off his surcoat, tossing it onto the table. “The kingdom is intact, the castle isn’t falling apart on everyone’s heads, I’m healthy, you’re healthy, everyone’s happy. It’s nothing.”
“What, compared to all that?” Merlin’s tone was well on the side of not-deferential-enough-for-one’s-prince’s-e
“Leave it alone, Merlin.” Arthur jerked a hand through his hair. His skin felt taut and too dry, his muscles jumping in tiny, ungovernable twitches. He was suddenly overly hot again, and he yanked his shirt laces open, nearly snapping the soft leather thongs.
“Is that a royal order?” Merlin asked simply.
Arthur shut his eyes and rubbed at his forehead. “No.”
He heard Merlin come closer, and he knew Merlin was reaching to touch him, right before the hand settled on his upper arm.
“Arthur.” Merlin’s hand rubbed up and down once. “Come on. It can’t be that bad. Can it?”
Arthur turned around slowly, and… and how in the world, indeed. How was he supposed to look into those mountain-blue eyes and tell Merlin that every single one of his conquests had placed him firmly into a specific role, so often that he hadn’t imagined differently until very recently? The women, well, that entire situation was pretty much common sense, considering where he put what and the ‘wheres’ that were available. But the men’s idea of where and what had been steadily repeated, not allowing for any sizable step away from their idea of Arthur’s ultimate role, both in bed and in life.
And now Merlin, with his heady gasps, his eyelids sinking shut, his fingers clutching anew with each of Arthur’s slow thrusts inside him— Neck arching back as if he couldn’t hold his head up on his own, not when Arthur was doing that to him. Looking like he thoroughly, unapologetically, blasphemously loved it, and Arthur… no, something deep down inside Arthur needed to know what it was he’d done to receive that full-bodied capitulation to the very act of sex. To him.
It had never really mattered with the others, and maybe that was why he’d always been so blissful about it. Arthur had known then that he’d been ceded control, and willingly. But he’d never wondered at what exactly he’d done to make it happen.
“Oh, it’s bad.” His voice cracked a little; convincing humour just wasn’t in his repertoire tonight, it seemed. It couldn’t be helped, and Merlin had already noticed, by the way his nose wrinkled. “It’s horrible. Catastrophic, really.”
“Good, I was beginning to think you were getting bored with me.”
Arthur had no idea in hell what sort of expression he shot Merlin, but his lover’s contrition was obvious. “All right, staying away from the jokes,” Merlin muttered. He sighed. “You are bored. Aren’t you?”
“Merlin, I just bloody well told you I wasn’t!”
“Yes, but you’ve got that look you get. Don’t think I haven’t been able to pick it out for years.”
“Well, maybe you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Arthur griped. He pulled his belt free with a vicious jerk and flung it at the table.
The room was quiet for several long seconds. Arthur didn’t dare turn around; he didn’t know what he would see, or not see, and he wasn’t strong enough to chance either right at that moment. Merlin’s eventual movement, again closer to him, came as a soft shiver in the room’s very air. Arthur felt his shoulders tensing, right up to the instant Merlin’s hands settled.
“You know when I decided to stop underrating myself?” Merlin asked. His tone was gentle.
Arthur shook his head.
“When I told you.”
He didn’t have to clarify. These days Arthur could feel Merlin’s magic in the room beside him, like a third person… a second Merlin. Arthur shuddered responsively, and his hand rose all on its own, covering Merlin’s fingers where they curled over his shoulder.
“Maybe not overtly,” Merlin continued. It sounded like he was speaking to Arthur’s back. “But inside, I stopped. Somewhere. I tried really hard. It’s a tough habit to stifle, and I know I still…” He sighed, and his fingers tightened. “But you made it feel like… a stupid thing to do. You accepted me and I had to, sort of, accept myself. If that makes any sense.”
His grip changed under Arthur’s fingers, and Merlin came around, guiding Arthur to meet him halfway. “It’s not just trusting you, but trusting in you, because your judgment is solid, and you judged me much more than adequate. As I was. Am.” He stepped closer, brushing the tips of their noses. “Arthur, I can take anything you can throw at me. You have to know that.”
The truth was, Arthur didn’t know, not until that very minute. It had never been about what Merlin could or couldn’t take; Arthur knew how strong Merlin was, and he’d since learned not to underestimate his friend, because, obviously. But right then he believed the words, because it was very hard not to while looking into those eyes.
His problem felt pathetic there, side by side in his head with Merlin’s revelation of sorcery: he, Arthur, stumbling over reinventing his sex life. The two didn’t equate, and Arthur was starting to feel like a fool.
“I’m…” He forgot what it was he set out to say. But he wasn’t sure it was another distraction anyway. Merlin touched his cheek with his thumb, and something surged in Arthur, something that said, Oh. Well. Fuck it all, then.
For a second, he did.
“It’s… a bit complicated,” Arthur started. He gestured, because his words seemed to like that, and they tended to come flocking. “Not sure it’s what you’re thinking it will be, anyway.”
Merlin just nodded, not breaking their eye contact, and Arthur thought that if he couldn’t confide in Merlin, Merlin who had unleashed his darkest secret for Arthur to either ravage or embrace, then who could he confide in? Not only that, but he knew Merlin’s body as well as his mind now, knew it so well he’d traced it behind closed eyelids while on the verge of sleep.
He wondered if they should take a seat for this, perhaps call down for ale and sweetmeats and all the proper luxuries. It was such a funny thought that Arthur smiled, and Merlin’s lips twitched upward, and then Arthur felt all funny again, worried and nervous and not willing to expose his tender underbelly.
But now Merlin was waiting, holding lightly to his arm, and… well, he’d just said he would try. Or maybe he hadn’t said it, but he felt like he had.
Best just to plunge in. Peel the soiled bandage away from the skin it clung to before the nerves caught on.
“So. When we…” More gesturing. “There are times that I, when we two… Merlin, I often feel when we… share a bed…”
Oh, it sounded so stupid, especially since the amount of time they actually just shared a bed was resoundingly outstripped by the amount of time they shared a bed. Arthur clutched his head with both hands.
Merlin exhaled. “Careful, Arthur,” he murmured on what could have been a light laugh. “You’re making me feel I may be inadequate.”
Arthur snapped his head up, glaring. “Merlin, you are anything but inadequate! You obviously haven’t been— hold on, when I speak, when I utter words, are you actually ever listening, or are they just sort of sideswiping your enormous ears and sailing off into the distance? If you were bloody inadequate, don’t you think I’d have mentioned it sometime before, oh, maybe because I’m the bloody prince and I don’t settle for ‘inadequate’? Why on earth do you think I keep taking you back to my bed? Because it’s not out of pity, or a sense of duty, let me inform you.”
“That was a compliment, then, somewhere, I suppose.” Merlin’s mouth held a devilish curve.
Arthur threw his hands up and stalked away. Then he stalked back and jabbed a finger into Merlin’s chest. “You are bloody well adequate. If anyone’s told you that you aren’t— then I don’t want to hear about it! And there had better not be anyone else to judge, Merlin. Because you look like— I can’t even describe what it is you look like, so that should do well enough! You’re stunning, there, that’s what you are. When we’re sharing a bed, you’re just— You know what it is? I can see how plainly you’re enjoying it, enjoying every damn thing about it. Like you couldn’t ever stop! Like I’m making you feel the most— amazing— It looks bloody fascinating, that’s what, it’s, what’s happening to you, so don’t ever infer that you’re inadequate!”
Merlin’s eyes squinted nearly shut, and Arthur stopped talking. The amusement had gone from Merlin’s features, and now he was studying Arthur, peering at every nook and cranny of his face, it seemed. Arthur heaved a breath and let it out. Merlin spoke.
“So, I’m fascinating.” It was a statement. Arthur glowered at him, and Merlin’s nostrils flared. His eyes went a little bit wider. “Or… what’s happening to me is.”
Merlin’s hand settled again on Arthur’s arm, and Arthur felt the heat swell up his shoulders and over his throat. His mouth dried up and he tried to step back, but Merlin stepped with him, gawking at him like he’d just made the discovery of a lifetime.
“Yes, you’re fascinating,” Arthur snapped, desperate, and pulled his arm free. But Merlin backed him up with his body, right to the foot of the bed, and he had to stop or be pushed back onto it. It struck him that knowing bodies as well as minds went both ways, and that he was an idiot for never considering that before. “Merlin—”
“You know you can ask me anything,” Merlin interrupted quietly. Arthur turned away, flushing even hotter, but Merlin cupped a hand at his nape. “Arthur.”
He wasn’t going to voice it, and Merlin had better well get that through his enormous ears this time. He couldn’t stand to be looked at differently, not by Merlin, and it sounded so stupid, that Merlin would look at him differently considering that Arthur had never looked at Merlin differently after shagging him straight through his own mattress, but… he had. Oh, he had. Merlin had changed completely for him after that night, the colour of his skin in the light, the way his voice sounded when he spoke, even the way he blinked. It all went deeper, it was all more fragile and more enticing, and strangely, more of an enigma.
But that wasn’t how he imagined he would change in Merlin’s eyes. Arthur knew what he was supposed to be, to look like, especially to others. There weren’t any exceptions, no matter how wistful he might want to feel, and regardless of how many times Merlin tsked and waved a finger at him as if he were not part of the most elite class in the land, Arthur knew there was still something of the awestruck behind Merlin’s expression. There were things people expected; he’d seen it in dozens of eyes just before they rolled up or fluttered shut, just before mouths opened in gasps or moans, just before that first touch, even. And he’d risen to it, he knew that now if he hadn’t then. It felt unsettling to leap off that cliff now.
“It’s not really a question, Merlin,” Arthur said, slowly, because to speak faster was to reveal the way his insides were quaking.
“Tell me, then.”
Arthur pushed him away. Finally. “Merlin, for god’s sake. No one tells you anything.”
He was far more relieved than he expected to be. It was a little hard to walk steadily, and he only made it a step before Merlin grabbed him again, dragging him to a halt. “Tell me why I’m fascinating. I want to know.”
Arthur looked at him sharply. “Sorry, I’ve forgotten. My mistake.”
“Shall I tell you why you’re fascinating, then?”
Arthur snorted. Waved Merlin off, and kicked one shoe free, batting it under the table with a swipe of his foot. “Don’t bother. I know all that.”
“Because you never know when you’re entitled to want something. Not really.”
Arthur turned slowly and stared at Merlin. “My god. You’ve actually forgotten who I am.”
Merlin was already shaking his head, doing some gesturing of his own. “Of course you’re entitled as the prince. Not what I meant. You never realise when you are entitled to want something. It’s not about Camelot or your people, or even your father. The really important things come up, and you, Arthur, not the crown prince of Camelot, let them slip by without even asking after what interests you.”
“If you’re not happy, I want to know,” Merlin cut through, as cleanly as a silver stream.
Arthur couldn’t locate his voice. He swallowed, mere inches from Merlin again, and Merlin held his gaze.
“I’m not unhappy, Merlin,” he murmured at last. Merlin lifted his chin, accepting silently, but Arthur knew he was waiting. And maybe his nerves were more frayed than he’d thought, or maybe they’d both been at this avoidance-persuasion thing for too long that evening, but what rose up in Arthur’s throat wasn’t anything even close to shyness. It was frustration.
“Just leave off!” Arthur snapped. “Why is it you always, always assume I’m suffering from excruciating inner demons? My god. Can’t I simply be curious? Or is that against magical protocol?”
He enunciated hurtfully, to showcase the expanse that he felt sometimes lay between them: Merlin in control of elemental forces and Arthur still unable to completely wrap his mind around it, even when he happened to be watching Merlin wield his power. Their balance had shifted drastically months ago, and as much as Arthur knew he didn’t resent Merlin for it, some days… It was just harder to remind himself of his own power, his own prowess with a weapon, with a word, with a gesture. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to remind Merlin how it felt to feel impotent.
Of course, Merlin managed to miss that entirely.
“And what is it that you’re curious about?” Merlin asked serenely. Arthur grimaced, wrapped his hand around the nearest chair’s headrest with intention to shove it until it toppled violently to the floor, and then changed his mind and spun on Merlin instead.
“If you really want to know,” he growled, lifting Merlin bodily and yanking him into his embrace, “then stop—” He kissed Merlin hard on the mouth. “—bloody—” Bit his lower lip. “—well—” Prized Merlin’s lips open with his tongue and thoroughly plundered his mouth. “—talking.”
Merlin inhaled sharply, his hands threaded firmly in Arthur’s hair. His face and throat were a deep red flush, and his parted lips brushed over Arthur’s again and again, almost-kisses that fell away as they both searched for air. Arthur caught his mouth once more and made it last, feeling Merlin’s arms tighten around him, his fingers clench against his scalp. He backed his lover to the bed and dropped him onto it, then crawled over him, hooking his fingers firmly at Merlin’s beltline. With a tug, he bared a pale smidgeon of Merlin’s hip, bent over it, and pressed his lips there.
“Not talking,” Merlin breathed out. He bumped Arthur’s nose playfully with his own once Arthur pulled up even with him again, and Arthur grinned down.
“We’ll see how long that lasts.” He was back in a space he knew thoroughly, Merlin’s scent and heat wafting against him, filling his head and making him too warm, mixing with the familiar smell of his sheets and quilts and the seared wood from the fireplace. He wound his fingers into Merlin’s hair, fisted gently, and kissed Merlin open and panting again.
Merlin helped him remove his shirt and breeches with a skill that had Arthur thanking all the gods, old and new, for the exhaustively long time spent training Merlin how to clothe and unclothe a member of the royal family. It was all, all worth it, every last reprimand, every single dented gauntlet or torn piece of fabric. Because Merlin made it effortless now, not using magic at all, and Arthur liked it that way. Merlin’s hands on his bare skin, Merlin’s hands baring his skin bit by bit, were wonderful.
He wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, or how. Or even what led up to it. He remembered Merlin’s hands spread wide on his chest, thumbs stroking, maneuvering Arthur upward and back with lazy force. Merlin kissed him, a heady, breathless press that made Arthur shiver and give way, letting Merlin move him however he had a mind to. But it wasn’t even then, it was… sometime later, with Arthur on his back, deep in lush sheets with Merlin atop him, and wondering how he’d got there.
Hard to think about that, what with the tender clasp of Merlin’s hands on his face. He loved those hands. Loved them. Almost as much as he adored Merlin’s stomach. He reached, settled the back of his hand against the hot skin of Merlin’s abdomen, stroked his thumbnail across it, and Merlin pulled away with a gasp.
That was when Arthur’s mind cleared enough to take it all in.
“I’m…” he said ineffectually, and reached up to wrap his hands around Merlin’s upper arms. Merlin halted without fuss, looking down at him attentively. Arthur cleared his throat. “Well.”
“Been here before,” Merlin murmured. He sounded so unconcerned. Ridiculous, because Arthur was getting very concerned.
“Of course we’ve been here before,” Arthur snapped, and instinctively tightened his grip on Merlin, sorry for the flash of feeling. But Merlin just tilted his head and reached up, fingering Arthur’s fringe. Arthur could feel them breathing together, a mindless match of inhales and exhales. He’d not even noticed they were doing it, and it took the edge off of his nerves. Merlin continued to play with his hair, tucking strands aside, and Arthur felt the thudding of his heart ease a little.
“Arthur,” Merlin started, and Arthur had to turn away.
“Don’t think I’m so keen on this,” he muttered. Merlin guided his face with the tips of his fingers until they were looking at each other again.
“I’d love it if you told me what ‘this’ is.”
Arthur glared. He had a mind to heave Merlin right off of him; one good buck of his hips would do it. “You bloody know what. I can read you, too, you know.”
Merlin bent and kissed him on the lips, sweet and reassuring. Arthur ignored it for about three seconds and then gave in. He let his hands climb to cup Merlin’s nape, to sidle across his shoulder. Merlin ended it with a tiny peck on the corner of Arthur’s mouth, and then stayed there, their faces close, fringe brushing fringe, and sighed against Arthur’s mouth. “I know. I’m sorry.”
They were quiet. Arthur felt the easiness stealing closer again. Merlin gripped his shoulder and rose up to look him in the eye. “If it’s about other… you know, other people finding out, you have to know I would never—”
“For god’s sake, Merlin.” Arthur pushed him up, away, and shut his eyes. Covered his face with his hands and just stayed like that, breathing noisily between his fingers. Merlin’s weight was a comforting familiarity against his hips and the outsides of his thighs, Merlin’s hands a gentle heat where they rested on his chest.
“Arthur?” It was soothing and secretive, not at all proprietary. “This won’t be something you regret.” Merlin bent close to Arthur’s ear and whispered, “I’ll make sure of it, I promise.”
Arthur swallowed. He could feel his teetering gaining momentum, and the unsteadiness surged up within him, the moment when all it would take was a couple spilled words, agreement and relief and permission, and he would go along with it until the flow ebbed again. He wanted to, it had never been as strong as then. The waves were eroding the rocks, and he could just say yes, yes, Merlin, do this for me, I want it. They were already there, weren’t they? All he had to do was just…
“If you promise.” His voice broke a tiny bit at the end. Arthur refused to redden; he was not a teenage boy anymore, even if he might sound like it now and again. Merlin traced his lips with one finger and then his thumb, and Arthur held still.
Until Merlin moved again. It was to kiss him, and the kiss was deep and intent, firm enough to open Arthur’s mouth immediately, to garner a surprised groan from down in his chest somewhere. He curled up against Merlin, wrapping his arms around him and molding their mouths together to revel in the taste of it. Merlin kissed him with messy abandon, seeking diligently and without a proper plan at the same time, and Arthur loved this, he loved it when Merlin kissed like this. Arthur had to admit to being a kisser, a holder and a cradler, and Merlin… Merlin suited him well indeed. Merlin liked to be touched, he liked to be fondled and clasped, he liked to feel hands on him and fingers tracking over him, and he loved to chase those hands and fingers with his own, following their path as if trying to recall the feeling of them everywhere at once.
Arthur was a bit addicted to the feeling of Merlin’s fingers all over him, too, so it all worked out rather well. Just then, for instance, Merlin’s hands were tracking down his sides in slow, sensuous sweeps, full-palmed and pausing for a languorous grip every few seconds. Arthur shuddered; it was just the beginning, his body had long since become accustomed to letting Merlin ready it for what would come after, and Arthur knew the build would be deliciously slow, the end a long time coming. Merlin skittered his nails playfully over Arthur’s ribs and Arthur curled up again, clenching his stomach and stuttering out of the kiss with a cough. Merlin had his mouth again in seconds, his hand cupping under Arthur’s thigh and caressing. Arthur lifted his leg a little, pressing to Merlin’s side and groaning, catching him closer. It was getting a little harder to think, and Arthur remembered the sensation of nervousness, some worrisome thing to which he ought to give more of his attention, but it was all fairly vague, somewhat like the feeling he got on mornings when he had not scheduled training, waking abruptly and nearly springing out of bed before remembering that he wasn’t late for anything.
Merlin flexed his hips against Arthur’s, a pointed, lengthy grind, and Arthur pulled free of the kiss, panting, blinking. Merlin’s lips touched down on his throat, nuzzling each time Arthur swallowed. Arthur tightened both hands in Merlin’s hair and drew him up. Kissed his forehead.
“Well, then?” he asked breathlessly. Merlin met his eyes for a long, long moment. Then he smiled.
“Don’t worry,” Merlin whispered. He pushed up, settling his hips further back, and leaned over Arthur. “I’m not rushing this.”
Arthur frowned, feeling the new heat climbing into his cheeks, the protestation that he wasn’t worried, Merlin, you utter arse on his lips. But Merlin’s hand had shifted under his thigh in a gentle slide, and then Arthur couldn’t escape the fact that he had indeed been worried. When Merlin’s finger actually breached him, he lifted his head and shoulders nearly off the bed, grabbing onto Merlin’s other wrist, because Merlin had had his fingers in him before, certainly, Arthur was no stranger to that, but this time he knew the ultimate outcome was going to be completely different. It was enough to make his throat cinch a little too much. Arthur fought the lump down and stared hard at Merlin. Merlin stared right back.
Arthur’s jaw began to hurt; he made himself relax until he’d stopped clenching his teeth. It must have taken several seconds, but Merlin did not move in the slightest.
“All right, go on, then.” He couldn’t help it if he gritted it out. He hadn’t meant to. He just couldn’t figure out how to make his voice sound normal. Speaking at all, and clearly, was accomplishment enough.
But Merlin touched his free hand to Arthur’s cheek, his other fingers still inside him, and kissed him gently on the lips. Again. Arthur’s tension faded; he knew Merlin’s mouth, his tongue and his taste, and there was absolutely nothing unfamiliar about them. He found his hand gripped by Merlin’s, and their fingers wound together gradually as Merlin lipped at his mouth, nosed his cheek, tendered Arthur’s tongue with his own. When Merlin finally moved the fingers of his other hand, a steady, gentle rub and stroke, it was just a burst of elation on top of the kiss, pulling another moan out of Arthur— oh god, he really was in love with Merlin’s hands, here was the proof all over again— coaxing the languid arch of his back and the tightening of his knees at Merlin’s sides.
He could come like this. They both could; Arthur had put it to the test several times, often enough with Merlin voiceless and panting beneath him, atop his quilts even in winter, untouched save for those few fingers inside but shaking like he was being fucked senseless. Merlin’s eyes were almost silvery when they rolled back, lashes flicking shut and opening again; Arthur’s spine was building heat; it roiled down low, cinching tighter and tighter with each kiss, each stroke inside Merlin’s body.
And now he was the one being stroked, only he couldn’t… really… concentrate on it because Merlin was such a bloody talented tosser when it came to distracting him. Merlin’s mouth had meandered down from his lips, lazing its way over his chin and dipping avidly into the arc of his throat. Merlin took the scenic route once he reached Arthur’s chest, lipping and sucking and, from time to time, simply pressing his mouth softly to Arthur’s skin. Arthur could feel the ticklish brush of his eyelashes over his flesh, especially at his ribs and just at the hollow where his arm and shoulder met.
Arthur discovered that Merlin liked his stomach quite a lot too, but it was when Merlin reached the hollow of his hip that he halted altogether and just… God. Arthur clamped his mouth shut, blinked up at his bed hangings, and writhed there in a stupor made out of Merlin’s lips and tongue, Merlin’s fingers playing against his skin and sending quakes through his muscles. Arthur tensed, on the verge over and over again of yanking away, pulling free of the savour and the torment.
“Bloody— Bloody hell, Merlin, go on.”
Merlin caught his eye, an assessing look, and then added another finger, whispering. Arthur saw his eyes gleam like amber, and he felt the easing of the spell, the gentling of the stretch even as it sharpened and pricked. He ran a hand frantically down Merlin’s arm, finding his wrist, wrapping his fingers around it, then letting go and searching, desperate, unable to find whatever it was he needed.
Finally Arthur just clutched at Merlin’s shoulder and jerked him close, right against him, exhaling sharp and fast. He hitched a leg around Merlin’s hip and yanked him down as far as he could, feeling the intense heat where their bodies met, low at their hips. “Come on— Merlin—”
He heaved up to take Merlin’s mouth, kissing hard and messily. Merlin nearly collapsed into it, his pupils blowing wide and surreal, ringed once more with blue. He moaned, a rumble somewhere in his chest, and Arthur’s arousal shot nearly over the top. He gasped, and Merlin pushed away. “Only if you’re ready,” he breathed into Arthur’s ear.
“Merlin, I’m fucking ready!” Arthur hissed. He had no idea if he was ready, but he knew what came after this, knew it from the other side, and, god, he needed it, he… “Just…”
Merlin nodded. Right then, it was the only thing Arthur could see. Merlin pulled his fingers from Arthur’s body and cinched their hips together, Arthur’s legs lying across his thighs. Then he lifted a hand and caressed Arthur’s forehead. “It’s going to hurt.”
“Don’t want to hear that,” Arthur managed. Merlin’s eyes flared at the same time as he pushed into Arthur, and Arthur couldn’t help it; he tensed completely, the pain was so abrupt and strange. Not… not incapacitating, no, he knew incapacitating pain and this was not it, but— it— Arthur shut his eyes and bit into his lips, clamping them together between his teeth. His hands ached, he was clutching the blanket so tightly. It was only the beginning, he knew it was, but it felt so alien, so… Arthur remembered to breathe and gasped, eyes flying open, to find Merlin bent close, watching him intently.
He heard it, but it took another voicing of his name before he found the wherewithal to answer. “Yeah.”
“If it’s too… Just say and I’ll…”
Arthur’s laugh broke from him in a short, breathless burst. He reached and twined his fingers in Merlin’s damp hair. “I’m fine. Merlin.” He spread his free hand over his left shoulder, fingertips brushing the old, deep scar there, a worse hurt, much worse and still the bringer of vague nightmares. “I’m fine,” he repeated, locking Merlin’s gaze.
Merlin nodded slowly, and Arthur nodded back. Still, Merlin remained motionless as Arthur breathed in and out, trying to reach some realm of almost-comfort. It was amazing people repeated this at all, seeing as the first time was such a mind job. He squeezed his eyes shut one more time, opened them so quickly that spots of darkness momentarily flooded his vision, and looked up at Merlin again to discover darkened blue fixed solely on him.
And then, there, he absolutely knew why people repeated this. It was gone in a heartbeat and then there again just as quickly, and Arthur opened his mouth, overwhelmed, without having anything to say.
Merlin bent and touched their noses together. God, he did have a thing for noses, didn’t he? Arthur smiled tightly, feeling two-thirds back to his normal self, and nudged Merlin’s nose more forcefully.
Merlin actually smirked at him. The motion of his hips was slow and circular, and Arthur inhaled and swallowed hard, his teeth grinding together at the discomfort… no, that wasn’t the right word, it wasn’t. This was… All right, so there wasn’t a fucking word for this when it was all put together, and no sense fighting to find one. Arthur squeezed Merlin’s waist with his legs. Couldn’t really help it.
“Here,” Merlin murmured, and Arthur felt a warm hand close around the underside of his right knee. “Feels a bit better if you… when...”
Merlin guided his leg gently up, dropping one shoulder and hooking Arthur’s knee over it. The entire event was a mirage of shifting deep inside Arthur where things didn’t tend to shift, and he could not help the quickness of his breath, the way he dug his fingers into Merlin’s arm, or the way he just couldn’t keep his head up anymore. He let it fall back onto his mattress, blinking fuzzily at the bed hangings again until Merlin stilled.
And it did feel better. Less of an odd angle. Or something. He wasn’t sure if he could define it and he still didn’t really give a fuck if he could, anyway. Merlin rolled his hips again and discomfort was no longer even close to what it all was, because Arthur’s skin had set itself to tingling again. “God. Merlin.”
Merlin smoothed a hand down Arthur’s bare thigh and didn’t stop moving. At first, Arthur just let him, glad not to be spinning aimlessly off in random directions any longer, relieved to be somewhat grounded again and somewhat enjoying this— no, really enjoying this, actually, because… God, reasoning was just stupid, and Merlin was going too slow.
He lurched up and pulled Merlin down, feeling the burn in his back as their positions bent his waist in new, exciting ways, but it was all so much more with Merlin panting hard in gusts that tripped over his cheeks and lips, his chest expanding and contracting rapidly just above Arthur’s. He grasped at Merlin’s hips, urging him forward, and watched in fascination as Merlin’s expression crumpled, his lips going white where his teeth worried them, sweat dripping down over his temple. Merlin gasped once, razor sharp, and locked into stillness so abruptly that Arthur knew: He was sending Merlin careening out of control, and Merlin was fighting hard to keep from flying off in every direction himself.
Arthur slid an arm around Merlin’s side, hand sweeping up his back, feeling all the valleys and arcs of bones and heat and heaved breath. Merlin leaned down and kissed him soundly, a little desperately, and Arthur thrust upward, triggering the catch in Merlin’s breath and a new, faster rhythm. The ache was bothersome and serene at the same time; Arthur fisted his hand against Merlin’s back as a deeper place was hit, roiling the desire back to strong, steady life in his belly, flowing right over the now-vague discomfort like boiling water over ice. He had to stop, just for a second, and when he did, Merlin’s head dropped right onto his chest and stayed there, fringe brushing damply with each harsh sigh over Arthur’s skin.
“Cheers, Merlin,” Arthur managed. He shut his eyes for what felt like the hundredth time, and when he opened them, Merlin’s head had come up. His expression was curious underneath the need and lust. “Giving me… so much say in all this,” Arthur finished. He gestured at their joined bodies.
“Arthur,” Merlin gasped. He combed shakily through Arthur’s hair. “You’ve always done this for me. Every time.”
Arthur looked up at him, his mouth slack. Merlin halted for just the briefest of seconds and touched his nose gently against Arthur’s temple.
“You didn’t know,” he breathed, very softly.
It wasn’t a question. Arthur still felt uncomfortably filled. He grimaced and raised his arm up over his face. “Shut up, Merlin.”
He felt Merlin’s palm meet his, the length of fingers to fingers. Merlin pushed his arm from his face until it fell to the bed above his head, elbow cocked, and wove their fingers together, tighter than before. Squeezed firmly.
“You have no idea how good of a lover you are,” Merlin murmured. He looked Arthur in the eye, and his free hand gripped Arthur’s thigh gently. Reverently.
“Stop talking, can’t you just… My god.” He turned his face away, wanting his arm back, wanting to halt the flush that he knew was adding to his already pinked skin. Merlin shifted slightly, pointedly, and Arthur groaned at the wave of sensation that flowed through his body.
“You like it when I talk.” Merlin’s tone nearly lost itself in its lowness, and Arthur shuddered, on the edge of pain all over again, but then Merlin took their movement and followed it, and Arthur gasped, pressing his head back into the pillow and squeezing his eyes shut. He grabbed for Merlin, urged him forward, and Merlin’s hand clenched hard, fingers snapping tight around his own. Arthur gripped back, sliding his arm wide and taking Merlin’s with him, too itchy to stay still, needing all the motion he could get, it just wasn’t, wasn’t enough. Merlin’s other hand fixed itself on the outside of his thigh, a sure, warm clasp, slightly trembling for all that. Arthur felt a kiss brush over the side of his mouth.
He felt like his insides were being pressed in the most delicious way, like his blood was too heavy for his veins but still racing through them. His heartbeat worked in his ears, a dizzying thump-thump-thump. “Come— Come here.” He grabbed Merlin’s elbow, slid up to clutch the arc of his shoulder, and pulled Merlin to him one more time. The change was immediate, painful, and so good. Arthur heard Merlin whisper words, caught the glint of gold through his fuzzy vision, and the ache inside him slithered out and away in smooth, ebbing currents until it was made more of warmth and being too full, and his fingertips started to feel a little numb, and Merlin kissed his mouth. Arthur kissed back, frantic, licking Merlin’s tongue into his mouth and thrusting against him until Merlin choked, grabbed hold of his wrist and forced his other arm onto the bed along with the first. His abdomen tensed visibly as he renewed his thrusts, and Arthur let his mouth drop open, too in love with the moment to care what he might look like.
“Mer…” Too hard to finish the name, but Merlin got it. He leaned forward, eyelids drooping. Even the gold shine looked hazy, as if Merlin were fighting to keep himself in the here and now. His cheek brushed Arthur’s, the angle bending him uncomfortably, but there still wasn’t enough of that to make it worth stopping, not with that golden gleam, god, always there— “Do that,” Arthur managed, right into Merlin’s ear. “Anytime you… want—”
Merlin let go of one wrists and smoothed his hand along Arthur’s cheek, his palm and all five fingers turning to a hot weight against his skin. Merlin’s fingertips went into Arthur’s hair and he kissed Arthur with near abandon, seeking air even as he did it, and then lifting, rising up just enough, and thrusting again.
It was the endless thud right into the center of him that did it, the way Merlin’s fingers were sweaty between his own and slipping, grasping, squeezing and tensing with each thrust. And the way Merlin arched and grabbed hold of him instead, between their two bodies, but without ever letting the fingers of his other hand drift from Arthur’s face. Arthur fell over hard, and he fell far, a floundering that was voiced in not-pain-not-heat-not-pleasure, but yes, pleasure, oh god—
It took him a long time to ride out his orgasm. Arthur panted, unfocussed and weary and needing more air than he was getting. Merlin’s body rocked his as he continued to thrust into him; Arthur clenched his legs high about Merlin’s middle— the knee over Merlin’s shoulder had slipped down, he didn’t know when, he didn’t care, he didn’t mind that he didn’t care— and manhandled his lover as fully into his embrace as he could, and then clung as Merlin cried out into his shoulder and came. And didn’t think there was any way he knew of to define that feeling.
Oh, but… he did want to be able to define this, all of it. It hurt, rather more than he’d anticipated, to realise that, like with everything else, he couldn’t. There wasn’t a word, not one that hadn’t lost its full meaning already by being overused. Arthur swallowed, too hard, leaving his throat aching, and for a second, he felt like he might fly off into… something. Something overly emotional.
But then, he was always overly emotional when it came to Merlin. He supposed he ought to find the trend disturbing, but he couldn’t be bothered anymore. It wasn’t as if Merlin didn’t repay him in full. He’d never doubted what he saw in Merlin’s eyes in the dimness of his firelit rooms, which was odd, because he’d not thought of himself as terribly trusting, not for a while, at least. In the haze of sex, he’d often found himself thinking that he owed it to Merlin to be overly emotional, that girls had all the fun in bed precisely because they were allowed to be cuddlers, and damn it all, Merlin’s sides and belly and cheeks felt bloody good against his own, especially when they weren’t in fact having sex, so, damn it, he was a entitled to be a little emotional.
His body caught up with him, a sharp ache, and Arthur winced, opening his eyes to figure out why the fuck it was all jumping on him now. He found Merlin moving, carefully, caressing his face and whispering soothing things as he pulled free of his body. Merlin went slowly, but it hurt, it stung and burned; Arthur gave up trying to hide it and bit his lip till it was over, held his breath until Merlin had dropped back to the bed against his side and not on top of him, and was still cupping the side of his face. Arthur blinked upward and breathed as slowly as he could. Stretched his legs cautiously, letting them sink to lie flat on the bed. The ache was weaker, not so much there now that Merlin was no longer inside him, it felt much better than he’d expected—
And he was going to be bloody sore in the morning.
Arthur groaned and rolled half away from Merlin, then stopped and flopped back. Merlin eased over him in what was almost a sinuous shiver, one arm tucking him into the joint heat of their bodies, the same leg slipping between his own and anchoring there. Merlin’s mouth pressed to his temple, lifted in a tender kiss. Pressed again, kissed again, and went on that way.
Arthur pulled Merlin close down upon his chest and just breathed, until Merlin pushed up, took his face in both hands, and looked him right in the eye.
“Are you all right?”
Arthur’s first instinct was to look away. He made himself defy it, holding Merlin’s gaze. “Better than you were our first time, I think,” he whispered.
Merlin’s lips curved in a fleeting smile. “Don’t you ever think that you hurt me, Arthur.” He kissed him tenderly on the mouth, and it was lengthy enough to ease Arthur out of his own turmoil.
“Good to know,” he whispered as Merlin’s lips drew back from his, their exhalations mixing. He wasn’t even sure Merlin heard.
“Going to—” The golden glow was back, Merlin’s hand cupped the curve of his hip, thumb splayed widely across the sensitive skin at the hollow, and Arthur felt the ache inside him fade even further, like warm air billowing up and out, losing its heat that much faster. Merlin’s eyes shut, his fringe hiding his face from view. “Can’t make it all go away,” he murmured, apologetic. “It has to go somewhere. Change into something else.”
Arthur drew his chin up, and Merlin’s eyes opened. “It’s fine, Merlin.”
He hoped his other meaning was coming across: that it really was fine, all of it. Merlin, this ache, the fact that he was insanely glad it had happened this way, with this person… How he himself felt now that it was done.
“Not nearly as emasculating as it might have been,” he muttered, and then stared at Merlin, wishing he’d shut his mouth much, much sooner. But Merlin just quirked a smile at him and stroked one hand down his side, making him shudder helplessly.
“Arthur, the day you are emasculated is the day your father throws in the towel and becomes a travelling bard.”
Arthur snorted at the image, because really, picturing it was half the fun. Merlin’s smile grew, and he went back to his favourite pastime: nuzzling his nose gently into Arthur’s throat. Cheek. Chest. Anywhere else that occurred to him.
“Do you think it makes me less?” came to Arthur’s ear. Just curious, nothing indignant. Arthur raised his hand and stroked it through Merlin’s sweat-damp hair.
“No,” he said, as certain about it as he’d been about not giving Merlin over when he’d learned of his manservant’s special talents.
Then how could it ever make you less? Merlin did not say it, and Arthur shut his eyes and kissed the side of his head fervently for that, because Merlin was too compassionate to ever shove this in Arthur’s face, even though Arthur had basically and inadvertently just shoved it into his. The thing about Merlin was that he understood, saw past the surface of trite things, and gave back the opposite.
Arthur opened his mouth to whisper, to say thank you. And shut it again slowly. Turned his nose to Merlin’s hair and breathed deep. Clutched him close.
“You’re welcome,” Merlin murmured. And then Arthur did say thank you, perhaps too many times, into Merlin’s hair and throat and ear, but he wasn’t counting. Merlin ended it with a kiss that became an embrace. When he finally pulled back, Arthur saw the new emotion in his now-blue eyes with some shock.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered, his voice cracking on the second word. “For trusting me enough.”
“Merlin,” Arthur snorted a bit belatedly, “trust has never been the issue with you.”
The clench of Merlin’s arms around his middle conveyed everything Merlin wasn’t voicing, and Arthur’s throat got a little too warm to do anything but swallow.
He cleared his throat as soon as the air around him had stopped feeling so thick. “Will, wasn’t it? Your first time, I mean.”
Merlin’s hand splayed languidly against his back, pressed between his body and the bed. He nodded into Arthur’s shoulder, and then raised his head. His fingers played with Arthur’s fringe as if they couldn’t help themselves. “Yeah. Yeah, he was.”
Arthur looked at him for another long moment. “Is it a good memory?”
Merlin nodded, still fingering his hair. “As good as it was possible to be.”
“I’m glad.” And damn his throat for insisting on constricting. But he got it. Pain was part of this deal, and he was glad Merlin couldn’t change all of the ache. Half of him wanted to be able to feel it.
Merlin just stroked his face, then let his hand run up and down along Arthur’s side over and over, gazing at him, his eyes tracking over him like he wanted to look at everything. Merlin’s throat worked visibly once or twice, but Arthur didn’t press for the words that weren’t being spoken aloud.
“I don’t recommend riding tomorrow,” Merlin said suddenly. Just like that, he was grinning, and Arthur huffed out a breath.
“Cancelled,” he muttered, flinging an arm over his eyes with a sigh. “Absolutely, completely, utterly cancelled.”
Merlin’s hand came to rest with lazy heat in the middle of his chest. Arthur felt the brush of his lips on the skin just above. “Good,” Merlin whispered. He settled his head down on Arthur’s chest, and Arthur smiled into the crook of his elbow, unable to stop himself.