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Touch Me (When I'm Afraid to Ask)

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"I thought you were going for a hug . . . "

"No."

"No."

Such a simple conversation, ten words, barely worth remembering. There were plenty of other things Merlin already had to remember – like new spells, when exactly to bloody wake up in order to get Arthur out of bed on time since he appeared to be late every single time, or, well, new spells, and yet . . . these few words uttered barely a week ago had been playing on a loop in Merlin's head for days.

Why were they so important? Well, first of all, he really had thought Arthur was going for a hug and then suddenly he wasn't? Second of all, it made Merlin wonder – if he and Arthur weren't yet at the stage of their friendship that allowed hugs (which, as Merlin assumed, must have been the highest stage for Arthur), was there anyone else that Arthur was at that stage with? Because Merlin had been in Camelot for literally two years and he ought to have noticed if Arthur had a better friend than him, right? Or did Arthur even have such a friend? Such an overly friendly knight that he'd known since childhood?

Merlin pondered that as he gathered Arthur's shield, mace, dagger, sword, helmet, spear and an extra dagger in his arms, carrying them over to the training field. He really ought to make more trips and carry fewer weapons to make it easier, but he really wasn't that kind of person, plus, Arthur was rarely willing to wait that long.

But really, if there was such a knight, Merlin must have already met him . . . unless he was on some super secret quest somewhere deep in the forests of Camelot, a quest of which should he tell another soul he'd have to kill them. . . Arthur liked to exaggerate sometimes about all the sorts of quests he sent his knights on.

"Merlin, we don't have the whole day! Hurry up!" A familiar voice yelled at him from distance. Merlin pursed his lips, pressed the weapons closer to his body so that they wouldn't fall – he'd never be able to pick them up again – and he made his way towards Arthur at a slightly faster pace.

"Here you go, all the killing tools a knight could need."

Arthur rolled his eyes – he looked annoyed. "You forgot the axe?"

Merlin groaned.

And thus, the training began.

As per usual, Arthur swung his sword at all his opponents, one by one, using one weapon after another, all while looking like he was the mightiest knight of them all. (But judging by the smile on Merlin's face, he really couldn't argue.) He was up against Sir Leon, Sir Gydeon, Sir Gordon, and that new knight that (after the incident in the tavern) no one called anything other than Sir GroinFace. Yeah. Poor guy.

Merlin shook his head. There just had to be someone that Arthur had known longer than Merlin that would prove his theory that he and Arthur simply just weren't there yet. Because if there wasn't such a knight, then maybe Arthur never hugged anyone ever and Merlin couldn't accept that, he needed that hug. He wasn't sure why, but he just needed it. Maybe it was because he was so affectionate with everyone and frequently hugged Gaius and also Gwen, and then there was Arthur who never accepted a hug from Merlin nor ever initiated one himself – it almost felt like a challenge of sorts.

But as the days went by and the more he observed, there really was no proof at all – Arthur barely touched anyone, only ever shaking hands with his knights and sometimes, on rare occasions, patting their shoulders. He might have known them, but they weren't his friends like Merlin was.

That thought put a smile on Merlin's face.

Because, well, he'd never seen him touch them the way Arthur touched him. He'd been noticing the touches lately – after thinking so much about the almost-hug, he'd become more aware of them. And there had been plenty.

Arthur would pat his shoulder and then leave his hand there – be it intentionally or unintentionally, he never did that with any of his knights. He also liked to ruffle Merlin's hair when he least expected it ("Would you stop it?" "I'm only doing you a favour, Merlin, you really ought to get a comb." "I can't when I spend my days running after you!"), or he'd just grab his hand or forearm all of a sudden and drag him somewhere to talk to him (yeah, usually to complain about his unfinished chores).

All of this made Merlin realize – he was probably the furthest Arthur had ever come in becoming close to something or showing – god forgive – affection. Yeah, there was still the whole bit about frequently throwing various objects at him, but that was just Arthur.

But really, what if there was such a person that Arthur trusted more? Although Merlin hadn't seen a proof of it in the past few weeks, what if there just was one? . . . Or maybe he was just jealous of someone who never existed . . . Merlin wanted to shrug and accept that fact that he'd probably never know, and that he should drop the subject and stop thinking about it, but honestly, the idea of Arthur willingly giving him a hug had started to show up in his dreams. That was the moment Merlin decided to do something about it.

The idea came to him one morning when he was watching Arthur train with his knights, as usual. He was swinging his sword left and right, training a relatively new knight who held his own sword and tried to block Arthur's every blow.

And he did! After like twenty tries. Merlin was surprised to hear Arthur laugh, and even more surprised when he saw Arthur quickly approach the knight (Merlin's eyes focused on Arthur), clasp hands with him (Merlin frowned with suspicion) and then step even closer, giving the knight a short hug with their clasped hands between them and a single pat on the shoulder (Merlin's jaw dropped).

No, that was it. He needed proof. Why would Arthur give this sort of very-manly-two-second-half-hug to a knight he'd barely been training with for two months, and refuse to briefly hug Merlin after having known him for two years? Was he avoiding him? But why would he avoid him when evidently, all the other very-obviously-NOT-accidental touches were okay? What kind of logic was that? (And yeah, okay, logic and Arthur didn't usually go well together, Merlin knew that, but still.)

Merlin shook his head and closed his mouth, already working on a plan. He'd only get so far with merely observing, he needed to take action.

And so it began – the hunt for a hug from Arthur. The next afternoon, Merlin was already waiting in front of Arthur's chambers, rehearsing his lines: Arthur I had such a really bad argument with Gaius, and I feel so awful, I'd really appreciate a hug right now. And he imitated Arthur's voice in his head: Well, Merlin, I'm not usually that kind of person, but of course, we're friends after all. Merlin smiled as he imagined the scenario and his reply: Thank you, Arthur, you're not such a prat after all.

Then he scratched his head. Why did he get the feeling that this would so not go according to plan? And besides, why was he even doing this? Why couldn't he just drop it? Why was he so desperate for a hug, specifically from Arthur?

So many questions that needed answers.

Nevertheless, he opened the door with a knock, which was his first signal to Arthur that something was wrong – he just hoped Arthur would notice it.

"Merlin?"

Merlin went inside and didn't reply, just sort of shrugged. Arthur was standing by the window, holding a few papers in his hands, looking at him. Then he frowned and returned back to reading the papers, saying: "I never expected you'd learn to knock, Merlin. Should I expect you on time tomorrow morning?"

Merlin sighed. "Don't count on it."

Arthur paused - Merlin could see that from the corner of his eye as he went for a broom to start sweeping the floor. He'd made sure that his reply was completely devoid of his usual lightheartedness and banter-like attitude, to subtly let Arthur know that he wasn't in the mood for jokes.

It worked of course.

Arthur put the papers away and went to stand by the table instead. "What's the matter with you? Did you lose your favourite neckerchief?"

Merlin quickly looked down at his neck to see that – yes, he was wearing one, and then glared at Arthur. "No," he told him. Then his frown softened. "No, Gaius and I had this big argument and I just feel really bad about it now."

Technically, it wasn't even a lie, Merlin and Gaius had an argument almost on a daily basis, but none of them were really any big that would result in Merlin coming here to seek Arthur's consolation.

But that was exactly what Merlin was hoping for.

He prepared to hear the lines that Arthur was supposed to say in his imagined perfect scenario: Well, Merlin, I'm not usually that kind of person, but of course, we're friends after-

"People fight all the time, Merlin, don't be such a girl, finish sweeping my floor and then get out of my way, I've got a lot of work to do."

-all.

Merlin pursed his lips. Of course it didn't go according to plan, so f*ck the plan then. Merlin never stuck to any plan ever anyway.

"Well I'm sorry, but maybe instead of insulting me for once and expecting me to work literally all the time, maybe you could have a little sympathy and actually hug me or something."

Arthur looked up at that. "You want me to hug you?"

Merlin shrugged as if he hadn't been really serious. "It would certainly make me feel better."

He saw Arthur swallow. Then he laughed at him. "I can't possibly be seen embracing my manservant, Merlin."

"Um," Merlin looked around the room slowly, "who's here to see you? We're alone and the door's closed."

Arthur seemed nervous all of a sudden. "You can't be serious."

"Why not?" Merlin shrugged again. "It's not dangerous or anything, it's a normal thing that people do, you know? It's not like you'll turn into a girl all of a sudden just because you decided to sympathize with your friend and show him your support."

"That's ridiculous, it doesn't even make sense. I'm not scared of turning into a girl."

Merlin raised his eyebrow. "Prove it then."

Arthur fell silent. He swallowed again, looked left and right – as if looking for a miracle that would save him somehow, but nothing happened. His eyes landed back on Merlin. He cleared his throat.

"This is ridiculous," he repeated. But nonetheless, he made his way over to Merlin, who'd set the broom by the wall and sat down on Arthur's bed in the meantime. When Arthur sat next to him, all Merlin's expectations suddenly rose to the surface – Arthur gave him a very brief mini-hug with a single pat on his back – and they all died instantly.

Was that really all Arthur could muster?

"You call that a hug? I barely feel any better!" Merlin complained. Wow, either Arthur was like really emotionally constipated and didn't think it was manly enough to share a hug with a friend, or there was only one other explanation – he really did want to share that hug, but was too emotionally constipated and didn't think it was manly enough to actually ask for it. Either all that, or it was actually Merlin who was desperately trying to get Arthur to touch him somehow. Merlin really couldn't tell anymore.

Arthur rolled his eyes and pressed his entire weight into Merlin's body unexpectedly, throwing his arms around Merlin's back and squeezing and- yeah, he wasn't letting go. Was that a good sign? It probably was.

Merlin found himself smiling as he returned the hug and completely melted into it, suddenly realizing that maybe it really wasn't Arthur who needed this, but actually, it was him. He let the smile widen and closed his eyes.

This was nice.

"Thank you," Merlin mumbled into Arthur's shoulder. Surprisingly, he felt Arthur's hand go up and down his back and suddenly he got shivers. This was far more intense than what he was prepared for. But he forced himself to act cool about it. "This is actually really kind of you." And then he didn't stop talking, as per usual. "I really don't understand why you'd avoid doing this, I've seen you hug the knight yesterday."

He felt Arthur tense, but the prince wasn't letting go. "Merlin, stop talking."

But Merlin didn't stop talking, as per usual. "And you spend a lot of time with them, so I guess you do that often, but then when I thought you were going for a hug the other day after the whole troll-lady Catrina incident, you suddenly said you weren't and like I really don't get this, do you hate hugging because you obviously don't hate this and-"

"Would you shut up-"

"I don't want to pressure you into this if you don't like it, but I didn't even expect something like this, and yeah, okay, sure, I didn't even have that fight with Gaius, I was just testing you if you were willing to give me a hug, but I thought it would be just a friendly short hug, although obviously something more than what I saw between you and the knight yesterday-"

He felt Arthur's pulse quicken and he realized now that Arthur appeared to have stopped breathing.

Merlin stopped talking.

And then he started again.

"Are you okay? You don't even seem bothered by the fact that I just lied to you in order to get you to hug me, which is really weird now that I think about it." Arthur wasn't answering. "But obviously you're like this hug, yet you were avoiding it, so maybe you just didn't know how to ask or-"

"That's not why I avoid it!" Arthur suddenly gritted through his teeth.

Merlin pulled away just in time to see Arthur's completely red face, his eyes glued to Merlin's lips.

Then it clicked.

"Oh. Ohhh."

Merlin didn't know what to do. There he was, sitting on Arthur's bed with Arthur sitting right in front of him, their knees touching and the reason why Arthur had been avoiding giving Merlin even the briefest hug hanging between them like a suspended sword from the ceiling. (Probably. Merlin was bad at similes.)

He had no idea what to do or say.

Because it was really quite obvious.

Arthur had been avoiding any deeper physical contact with Merlin because of the fear that he might not be able to control himself – a fear that had now become reality.

Suddenly, Arthur stood up, still red in the face, and strode over to the table – then to the window – and back to the table.

"This is ridiculous," he said yet again. "I've already told you – I have a lot of work to do and you're only distracting me with your . . . " Arthur trailed off, his hand half gesturing to Merlin and his eyes lost somewhere on Merlin's face.

He looked down and let his arm drop. "You're dismissed for today."

Merlin sat there, still trying to comprehend what had just happened. Arthur was in love with him – that bit was obvious – what appeared less obvious to him was the fact that he was also in love with him, and he had lost hope on his feelings ever being reciprocated such a long time ago that he'd actually almost forgotten he ever had them. But they were still there, albeit well hidden, and they had just all been pulled right to the surface by the mere touch of Arthur's fingers on his back.

He looked up and saw that Arthur was looking out of the window – probably trying to forget this ever happened, ignoring the fact that Merlin was still in the room.

But Merlin wasn't about to leave, oh no, not after he'd just found out that he actually had a chance with the Once and Future King himself, aka the very attractive royal prat that he'd had to bathe for two years for God's sake.

No. This was it. This was the moment that he'd been unconsciously waiting for, and he'd go for it.

He stood up and strode over to where Arthur was standing, mimicking the prince from earlier. Arthur sighed loudly. Merlin ignored him and grabbed his shoulders, spinning startled Arthur around and then grabbing his head.

"Ok, listen," he told him, "If you don't want to ever do that again and want to continue avoiding me, that's fine, but just know that you're not the only one who has feelings."

Arthur's eyes seemed to have disconnected from his brain since they did whatever they wanted – and landed on Merlin's lips again.

And then Merlin went for it.

He smashed his lips into Arthur's, squeezing his head between his hands, and kissing him. Gosh, finally. He was like 90% sure he was doing this wrong (99% now, actually) as he'd never actually kissed anyone before, but he tried not to care. His worries completely melted away when Arthur grabbed his hands, put them down from his ears and instead put them around his shoulders – all while still kissing Merlin. His own hands then found their way into Merlin's hair and the other one found its place on Merlin's back, and yeah, Merlin was now 100% sure that what they were doing was 100% right.

When the kiss ended, Merlin took in a deep breath which managed to get Arthur to laugh.

Wow.

Wow.

What a day, huh.

"So," Arthur smiled at him, his face still kind of red and definitely leaning in for another kiss – when Arthur put his finger on Merlin's lips. "What did you say about you lying to your prince about having an enormous argument with Gaius?"

Oh.

Merlin grinned. "Well, technically I didn't say enormous-"

Arthur raised his eyebrows at him, (you know, that kind of expression that made Merlin question his entire existence) and grinned.

Yeah.

Merlin was sure that this day was far from over.