“This is a bad idea,” Merlin hissed as he followed Arthur closely down the darkened hallway.
“It can't be a bad idea, it's my idea,” Arthur said. “Did you forget who I am?”
“How could I, you're the royal pra—ouch!” Arthur stepped directly back onto Merlin's foot. His boot heel dug in harshly, which proved Merlin right entirely. “Prince. I was going to say royal prince,” Merlin gritted out as he valiantly resisted the urge to dig a knuckle into Arthur's back.
“Of course you were,” Arthur said sweetly, fake and unapologetic. “Now be quiet, we're almost there.”
“I am being quiet! And why are we sneaking around the servant's passageways? Actually, why didn't you let me lead, I probably know them better than you. There was a faster route back there, if we'd gone to the left.” Merlin tried to string as many complaints together as he could while whispering, hoping to annoy Arthur into answering.
Arthur didn't bother to respond, just pulled up short and held out his arm to press his forearm against Merlin's chest to stop him. He peeked around the corner and Merlin could see the faint torchlight from the hallway ahead flicker against Arthur's neck. The shadows cut softly over the tendons. He blew out a breath to try to focus.
They had a “mission” or whatever Arthur wanted to call it, and while nothing would happen to Arthur, Merlin would no doubt have to clean some smelly forgotten dungeon if they were caught. Unfortunately his breath fluttered the short, wispy hairs curled around Arthur's ear, which was entirely distracting. He pressed forward against Arthur's arm until Arthur turned back and gave him a nudge.
“Alright, let's go,” Arthur said, then grabbed Merlin's wrist and dragged him quickly across the hall, past a few doorways, around another corner and into a shallow vestibule that they barely fit into.
He was close enough for Merlin to easily kick, or to reach a hand out to touch the pulse beating fast in Arthur's neck. Arthur let go of Merlin's wrist and took a moment to...count? The stones? What was he doing? Then he bent his knees slightly and shoved his shoulder hard against a large stone set off center in the narrow vestibule wall.
“Um, Arthur...” Merlin started to say, then abruptly stopped and gaped at the wall. A muffled gritty grinding sound came from somewhere overhead. Then the wall in front of Arthur started to move. It opened about six inches inward, exhaling a musty gust of wind that made Merlin's nose tingle. He couldn't see inside of wherever the door had opened because it was pitch black. Merlin had never seen a place so utterly dark.
Arthur grinned at him. “You were saying something about wanting to lead?”
“Oh no,” Merlin said, and did kick him lightly in the shin when Arthur made to grab at him, “Absolutely not. This is your adventure. I'm just a hapless servant.”
“A quest, Merlin, and my loyal servant should be willing to go first. It wouldn't be right at all if I, the crown prince of Camelot, had to deal with, oh I don't know, stepping on any dead rats,” Arthur said, smiling the whole time, his eyes dancing with cruel laughter as he grabbed at Merlin's shoulders again.
Merlin shoved weakly against his chest, not because he couldn't push harder, and not because he was worried about hurting Arthur if he did, but because Arthur was only wearing a loose tunic and Merlin knew from experience (because Arthur never let him turn this specific tunic to rags and instead forced him to patch it) that it was worn soft and thin and folded closely to Arthur's frame. It was a little too small because he'd had it, as far as Merlin could tell, since he was much younger, before Merlin came to Camelot at least. Arthur's chest was broad and stupidly muscular and if Merlin shoved any harder he'd have to experience the terrible ordeal of feeling the planes of Arthur's chest under his palms and—even worse—his equally stupid beautiful heartbeat.
Merlin had a love-hate relationship with the tunic.
He also wasn't sure anymore what kind of touching was okay. Things had steadily been growing—not exactly different, between them, because Arthur acted mostly the same (pompous, spoiled, and insufferably handsome especially when he was being kind or smart or saying something actually quite hilarious and a little mean) and Merlin felt exactly the same towards Arthur as he always had (that is to say—ugh, whatever it was that twisted like a honeyed knife in his stomach when he saw Arthur for the first time since morning after a long day running errands for Gaius).
This thing between them had been growing into more of whatever it had always been.
Like, if he wanted to shove Arthur back, spread his hands flat against Arthur's chest and push him against the wall, maybe surprise Arthur with a strength he always held back because otherwise he didn't know how to separate his body and his magic, if he wanted to use that moment of surprise to lean in close and tuck his nose under the lock of hair that curled right under Arthur's ear, then move his hands down to cage Arthur's hips as he mouthed at the hinge of his jaw, probably biting a bit because he was annoyed at being dragged out of bed after midnight to go on a kitchen raid just because Morgana had dared Arthur....if he and Arthur had exchanged three relatively chaste kisses total since last week and hadn't talked about it at all because somehow it just seemed to keep happening—could he do that? It was too much to try to parse in the moment.
He settled for elbowing Arthur in the stomach as they tussled in the too-small vestibule, Arthur going oof in a way that should not have been endearing, then rubbing at his stomach and laughing quietly.
“Fine, fine, since you're such a coward,” Arthur said before he shoved the stone door open wide enough to slip through. He disappeared uncomfortably fast into the near-liquid dark.
Merlin immediately followed him, straining his ears against the silence for any sound. Only Arthur, several paces ahead of him, breathing steady. He let his vision slide away, it was useless anyway, and beckoned his other senses, all of them, forward. His magic hummed quiet and firm through him, tickled his earlobes, the tip of his tongue, his fingertips. It was cold in the passageway but he could feel warmer air sliding above them. No strange scents, just the dry earthy sharpness of stone that always left a metallic-rain taste in his mouth. Arthur's boots scraped on the ground.
“Merlin,” Arthur said suddenly, his voice tight, and Merlin quickly coiled his magic up inside him. Everything dulled which was a bit disorienting.
Arthur huffed out an annoyed sigh but he sounded relieved when he said, “You're quiet as a mouse—are you so scared of the dark you're holding your breath? Come on, hurry up.”
Merlin felt Arthur's hand at his wrist again, tucking up under his sleeve, grasping a bit too hard. He expected Arthur to pull him but he didn't—he kept their same pace, so their arms hung between them. All of a sudden his magic uncoiled and flooded his senses again, but it wasn't the air temperature and stones he felt. It was the callouses on Arthur's hands, the press of a few rings warmed by his body, the minute shift in pressure that matched when his steps rose and fell. It was a strangely heady sensation in the damp cold of the pitch-black corridor. It was also very annoying because his magic always wanted to do things for Arthur, was always surging and snapping to trace every scent on a hunt or burn arrows to ash in battle.
Merlin glared at the barest glow around the wrist Arthur held until it reluctantly faded back inside of him. Arthur loosened his grip a little and his forefinger tapped the bump of Merlin's wrist as he said, “We're almost there.”
“Almost there” was completely untrue, because how would Arthur even know, it was clear he'd never snuck into this particular secret passageway before. Unless he had. Unless he spent evenings traipsing around the castle, discovering dark passages with potential traps, in which case Merlin's job of keeping Arthur alive and un-maimed just got a lot harder. Nope, he decided, not going to think about it.
Unfortunately, the long walk down the dark hall gave his mind ample opportunity to review, in painfully embarrassing detail, the last few times they had been this close. Specifically: the three kisses that were haunting Merlin to the point of absolute distraction. They seemed to be the only thing he could think about which was dumb because up until that first kiss he had a very busy and interesting and sometimes harrowing life that involved thinking about plenty of things that weren't kissing Arthur. Well. That weren't memories of kissing Arthur, at least. Half-asleep imaginings didn't count. Neither did fully awake moments of weakness, like when Arthur executed a particularly fluid and brutal dodge-swipe-disarm on the training field.
The first kiss happened when they'd both been a bit tipsy. It happened...accidentally? Arthur hadn't eaten much that day so the wine affected him more than usual. Merlin got caught in a very brief drinking game with Gwen and a few other servants after Arthur and the rest of the court nobles had finished dinner. Merlin had quickly declared himself a loser after one cup because he knew he couldn't hold it, especially against Gwen. Arthur had already seen himself to his chambers so Merlin didn't realize Arthur was tipsy until he swayed in to turn down the bed and get things ready for the morning. Arthur was struggling with his clothes and Merlin laughed at him while helping.
“You should do that more” Arthur said, the words fumbled and relaxed, half muffled as he finally got out of his tunic.
“What, undress you?” Merlin's head felt like the ocean.
“Yes,” Arthur said, then frowned, “No. You do that all the time. I mean laugh,” he brought his hands up and pawed at Merlin's face, trying to push his mouth into a smile. Merlin did laugh then, because it was ridiculous, Arthur was so tipsy.
“You're ridiculous,” he said through Arthur's hands clumsily playing with his cheeks, “you're so tipsy. Come on, to bed.”
“Alright. That does sound nice,” Arthur said then dropped his hands to Merlin's shoulders, tugged him forward, and kissed him easily. “Good night,” he said, then turned around and flopped onto the bed.
Merlin had barely registered what happened. Somehow he got himself to his room and into bed. By morning he had decided the whole thing had been a simultaneously extremely boring and extremely thrilling dream.
The second kiss was three days later. They were completely sober and it was late in the day. It was sort of his day off from Arthur, the day of the week Gaius had requested Merlin always be available to help him make rounds of the patients in the lower town. Merlin was exhausted and anxious. One of Gaius's patients they'd been treating for a month, a young girl, wasn't getting any better. She wasn't getting worse but Merlin didn't like how Gaius's words to her family had gone from, “It should be no time at all before she's back running around,” to, “We'll do what we can for now. Have patience.”
Merlin had holed himself up in one of the greenhouses, which was where Arthur found him nearly an hour after supper had already started. Usually Merlin met him beforehand to help him get ready and told him about his day with Gaius. He had lost track of time, though, and had been steadily spiraling over any remedy his magic might be able to provide.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur had asked, annoyed. “I had to tell my father you weren't feeling well—he keeps asking why I don't just sack you. Now Leon wants to bring you soup.”
“Sorry,” Merlin said, and meant it. He had missed Arthur. Seeing him now made everything feel...more right. Like the reason Merlin felt out of sorts now was because Arthur hadn't been with him before. “The rounds were hard today.”
Arthur came over and sat next to him on the bench he'd folded himself onto. They were quiet for a little bit and Merlin gradually started to feel more solid, more stable.
“It'll be alright,” Arthur said suddenly, a bit uncertain.
Merlin sighed. He thought of that tipsy kiss, how Arthur had done it like it was so normal, like it was the most natural thing in the world to kiss Merlin good night.
The last of the sunset came through the greenhouse. Everything glowed a rosy blue, and it was like the light and the glass walls held together a moment where that tipsy kiss was normal again. It was warm and safe, the potential for another of those moments stretched like soft, pliable dough. Butterflies erupted in his stomach and he let his head tilt onto Arthur's shoulder.
“Or, it won't,” Arthur continued, “And you'll figure it out. We'll figure it out.” Merlin nodded against his shoulder, butterflies still dancing inside him, tickling his throat.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, and Merlin lifted his head to look at him. Arthur looked back for a long moment before leaning down to kiss him, soft and simple. It was very different from the quick peck when they'd both been tipsy, but it still felt so—easy. Normal. Merlin cupped his hand around the back of Arthur's head, tilted him so the angle was a bit better, and it all clicked into place. Arthur pressed against him, let Merlin guide their pace, and when Merlin nipped lightly at Arthur's lower lip before pulling away, barely, Arthur huffed a laugh that fanned over Merlin's mouth. Pleasure jolted through him, dispelling the butterflies and leaving simmering heat in its wake. Arthur kissed him again, just once, and leaned back.
“Come on,” he said, “If you're lucky, Leon really did set aside soup for you.”
The third kiss happened two days later. He wasn't actually sure if it counted? (It probably counted.) Merlin had been slacking off reading in Arthur's room though it wasn't really slacking off because his magic was scrubbing the floor, polishing Arthur's boots, and sweeping out the fireplace. He was waiting for Arthur to get back from a mid-morning counsel with Uther. Gwaine had given him the book the last time he'd snuck in to visit, and Merlin had just got to a rather interesting part where the maiden slayed a many-toothed beast and revealed herself to be a pageboy to the dashing, injured knight, and if he knew Gwaine, which he did, then this scene was about to turn—Arthur slammed the door open well before Merlin anticipated him back, and Merlin was so surprised that he didn't even have to think about telling the broom and brush and polish to stop. Everything dropped at once, including the book which he kicked under the chair.
Merlin scrambled to his feet, half a dozen bizarre and improbable excuses at the ready, his ears burning from the chapter he'd been reading. Luckily Arthur was too frustrated to notice. He stormed in and threw himself into his desk chair, angrily digging through a pile of parchment.
“I was just—”
“He is so! Frustrating!” Arthur yelled at the quill he was aggressively shoving into the ink bottle.
“Right,” Merlin said, creeping his way over from where he'd been reading. He carefully nudged a rag to slide across the floor behind him and over the book hidden under the chair. He leaned his hip against Arthur's desk, wincing at the hard scratch as Arthur wrote furiously. “Do you...want to talk about it?”
Arthur immediately threw his quill onto the table not caring how the ink splattered across whatever he'd been writing. The letters were jagged and illegible.
“He is a stubborn, unyielding man! He thinks he knows best about everything. When was the last time he was in battle? When was the last time he did a tour of the castle's holdings? Who trains with the knights every day and parlays with the landholders and reworks the taxes for the farmers in a bad year? I do! You think he'd at least listen to my opinion!”
“Well, actually, you don't rework the taxes,” Merlin said thoughtfully. Who did, for that matter? Arthur stared daggers at him and Merlin held his hands up placatingly. “But you did receive all those who came to speak to you on it last year. That was very, um, very important and. I'll stop.”
Arthur sat back heavily in his chair and rubbed the heel of his hands over his eyes. “I just wish he'd discuss rather than decide some things. He asks what I think but he's already made up his mind. It makes it feel like—like it's all a test, and every time what I think doesn't align with his decision, I've failed him.” He sounded worn out, threadbare.
“Hey,” Merlin said, tugging at Arthur's wrists until his hands lowered. Arthur looked at him blearily. “The king does listen to you. He values your opinion, and your experience. You haven't failed him, or anyone. Failing him might not be too bad anyway, if what he wants is against what you know is right.”
Arthur's eyes narrowed and his mouth started to curve into a sharp smile. “Treason,” he said, his voice low and still a bit brittle from his anger, but tilting into the familiar pattern of their banter. “Careful who you say that to.”
Merlin shrugged and smiled back. “I know this total prat of a prince who's gone behind his father's back before to do the right thing. If he can get away with it, I'm sure you can."
“Pft,” Arthur said, his head thunking against the chair, his eyes crinkling in amusement, his anger and frustration washed away. “This prince of yours sounds rather smart to me. A bit disobedient, but I hear he's got a bad influence encouraging such roguish behavior.”
Merlin eyed Arthur's neck, helpless to the muscles flexing lightly as Arthur spoke, the long stretch of it on display with Arthur's head tilted back. “Hm,” he said, distracted, “Yes, I suppose that's something I like about him. His disobedience, and his loyalty. Terrible temper, though.”
Before Arthur could say anything back he leaned down, hands tightening around Arthur's wrist for balance, hip digging into the desk, and placed a chaste kiss below the knot of Arthur's throat.
Hearing and feeling Arthur's sharp little intake of breath was exhilarating. He felt in a daze. Merlin kissed again, then moved to the side, mouthing down to the firm muscle where Arthur's neck and shoulder met. His jacket covered most of what Merlin wanted, but he just opened his mouth wider and pressed his teeth hard through the fabric. Arthur made a high-pitched, airy noise that raced like lighting down Merlin's spine. He worked his way back up, across Arthur's throat, his magic flowing hot through him, his mouth alight.
The control he had now with Arthur's throat under his tongue tripped against another mouth, a different creature, with its teeth sunk into something soft and fluttering. And then Arthur swallowed and Merlin was completely mesmerized by the feel of it and knew neither of them were anything like whatever primordial fae shadow that ran through both of them—Merlin through his magic and Arthur through his birth.
Merlin kissed his way up to right under Arthur's ear and sucked lightly. Arthur panted into his hair, warm gusts, the faintest ah!, and Merlin had to pull away because if he didn't now he might not be able to ever. He sat back, not all the way, and took Arthur in. His neck was blossoming red, his pupils blown, he slouched a little in his chair—and he looked entirely at ease and completely flustered all at once. Good, Merlin thought, a bit nonsensically, that's good.
Arthur took a deep breath then playfully shoved Merlin's hip, Merlin's hands still wrapped around his wrists. “Disobedient and loyal, hm? I know someone who fits that description.”
It suddenly caught up to Merlin what had just happened, what he'd done, what Arthur let—no, invited him to do, encouraged him to keep doing. He coughed awkwardly and desperately tried to think of a way out while also wanting to continue.
“Ah, well. Right.” He dropped Arthur's wrists quickly. “Come on then, you've got drills at half past.”
Later, Arthur grinned at him stupidly between drills, sweaty hair plastered against his forehead. He was gracious enough to not outright laugh when Merlin tripped and spilled a bucket of water all over himself, distracted by the lingering red mark he could barely see under Arthur's ear.
They'd been walking maybe five minutes down the dark passageway but it felt both much shorter and much longer, with Merlin's mind happily supplying the near-exact sense memory of how Arthur's skin felt against his lips. The near-exact was what drove him crazy. On the one hand, it was more than enough to make him want to crawl into a cave and never come out. He could be a hermit. Hermits were kind of cool. Mysterious, at least.
On the other hand, he needed to feel it again immediately, right now, preferably forever. That would be difficult if he hid in a cave.
Faint, narrow lines of light appeared over Arthur's shoulder. Arthur let go of him and Merlin saw his silhouette block some of the slats of light. A heavy thunk, a rusty wood-metal-stone scraping, and then the door swung open into a large pantry with a high window.
The section of the kitchens they stepped into was quiet and steeped in the scent of herbs and spices. All around hung herbs tied cleverly into rows and laid out on wooden racks, strings of garlic bulbs, bunches of dried flowers. A door to the main kitchens stood open allowing warm, dry air to circulate; the furnaces and fires out in the main areas tossed dim light into the room. It was too early by a few hours for the bakers but Merlin knew there could still be a cook or servant about preparing a sauce or slow roasting meat. The kitchens were never really empty, no matter the time of day.
Arthur moved into the room cautiously, listening for any sound on the other side of the open door. Merlin plopped himself down on a stool at the large work table in the middle.
“Arthur, what are we here for?”
“You already know—Morgana challenged me to nick something from the kitchens.”
“No, I mean what are we here for? Why did I have to come along?” The adrenaline from the hidden passage was wearing off, he was strung tight from their closeness tonight, and muddled over how things in general hadn't really changed from all the kissing except for, you know, all the kissing. Now he was genuinely rather tired and wanted to lie down and stare blankly at the ceiling until he fell asleep.
Arthur didn't even bother to look at him. He moved about, picking up a few jars curiously, looking into cloth-covered baskets. “Obviously Morgana wouldn't believe me if I came alone. For whatever reason she finds you more trustworthy. If you say I did it, she won't question it.”
That was...actually very true. “Okay. So why do you have to steal?”
Arthur frowned and turned to him. “I'm not stealing. These are the castle kitchens. They're my kitchens.” Merlin tried very hard not to thunk his head down on the work table. He settled for leaning tiredly on his elbows instead.
Arthur walked over, arms crossed, frowning at him. “Have you noticed that Morgana always manages to get those little caraway tarts no matter the time of year? Even though they're only served on Beltane?”
Merlin had noticed, because Morgana often shared them with him, no matter the time of year, as they were both fond of the sharp spicy-sweetness.
“No,” he lied, “What's that got to do with anything? Surely you could just ask the kitchens to make them for you.”
“Morgana doesn't get the tarts because she tells them to, Merlin. She gets them because the kitchens want to give them to her. Morgana said I could ask but that would be cheating because I'd be—pulling my rank, or some rubbish. She said I'd probably die on the spot if I had to ask for something nicely instead of 'ordering someone about' for it. Which is patently false, I ask you nicely for things all the time.” Merlin said nothing and Arthur had the gall to look annoyed. “I do!”
“Sure, sure,” Merlin yawned, giving in to let his head rest against his arms on the table. He looked at Arthur sideways. “You asked very nicely tonight when you grabbed my ankle and pulled me out of bed.”
Merlin expected Arthur to flick the back of his head but instead he blushed, cheeks flushing. It was incredibly amusing and incredibly enrapturing.
“Anyway,” Arthur said, glaring, “she told me I'd never get caraway tarts outside of Beltane unless I managed to take some from the kitchens, but that there was no way I could do that without being caught. And here we are.”
“Here we are,” Merlin muttered into his arms. “Why didn't you ask the kitchens to make you some, nicely, then tell her you got them on your own?”
“I'm not a liar, I have honor.” Arthur said, sounding both offended and disappointed. Merlin didn't even bother to address the contradiction of stealing and honor, nor did he point out that Arthur lied to Morgana all the time. Morgana always knew anyway and it was a matter of her mood whether she'd let him get away with it.
“So, where are the tarts?”
“Definitely not in here. Let's go look in one of the other pantries. I know there's been a batch in the past day because Morgana shoved one into her mouth right in front of me. Crumbs everywhere. Completely disgusting, she'll never marry.”
Merlin sighed and thought about Gwen and Morgana sitting close to each other in the bright afternoon light of one of the sewing rooms as he passed by on an errand, knees bumping, their embroidery forgotten as Morgana made a joke about swordplay coupled with a truly outrageous gesture. Gwen had snorted (adorably) from trying to hold in her laughter. Marrying wasn't going to be a problem for her, he thought, but kept his mouth shut.
It was warm and smelled so nice in here. His eyes were already closed, his head pillowed on his forearms. “You go. I'll keep lookout.”
Arthur did flick the back of his head then. When Merlin didn't move he pushed at his shoulder, jostling his head. Merlin batted him away but Arthur was merciless, prodding at his neck, tugging on his neckerchief, until Merlin finally lifted his head, glaring, and half-shouted, “Aghh—would you—ugh—!”
He grabbed at Arthur's hand, his thumb digging into Arthur's palm with his fingers wrapped around the back. Arthur went entirely still next to him. Merlin realized they were very close. Arthur had been leaning against the table, leaning towards Merlin to prod at him, and hadn't expected Merlin to suddenly sit up. They stared at each other, neither moving, Arthur not pulling his hand away.
“There you are,” Arthur said, which didn't make any sense.
“You've been,” Arthur used his free hand to tap his temple, “Up here all night.”
Ah. Merlin hoped Arthur hadn't noticed. He shrugged, trying to be casual. “I don't know what you're talking about, other than my lord waking me up in the middle of the night to drag me through the castle.”
He said it as rudely as he could, which, to his credit, was pretty rude, even though part of that had been a lie. He hadn't actually been asleep. He'd been trying very hard to not think about all the kissing, and when it might happen again, and if it meant anything which obviously it did, he wasn't stupid, he just didn't know how much it meant, but more importantly, could he make it happen again or should he just wait, because what if it never did?
He wasn't an idiot about the fact that what they did had weight to it, but he was apparently an idiot about worrying it was never going to happen again because Arthur was looking at him in a sort of unfocused way, or more specifically, was focusing in on Merlin's mouth as he whined.
“Always complaining,” Arthur said, leaning towards him a bit, not sounding the least bit bothered. If anything he sounded smug, like he was proud of himself for being annoying. Merlin's face heated up, and he knew he was turning blotchy red. Now? He thought a little hysterically, are we going to kiss again, now?!
Arthur finally tugged his hand out of Merlin's grip and surprised Merlin completely by putting the back of it against Merlin's forehead.
“You alright?” Arthur asked. His gaze drifted away from Merlin's mouth to the rest of his face. “You look a bit flushed. If you really don't feel well—”
“No!” Merlin blurted, because of course Arthur would pick now to be all nice and considerate. He wasn't sick, he was just—a bit shy! There, he said it! To himself! Sometimes Arthur made him shy and it was horrible and lovely! “I'm fine! It's fine!” He didn't even know what it was. Tonight? The past few days? All of it?
Arthur looked at him, considering something. He didn't pull his hand away. He just flipped it over so his sword-calloused palm rested against Merlin's forehead and then slid his hand up to push Merlin's bangs away. He ducked his head down a bit to look directly at Merlin. Merlin hated (loved) that look. It meant Arthur was paying attention. That he was figuring something out. It was a bit overwhelming to have it entirely focused on figuring out him. But—it felt nice, too. The part of Merlin that always wanted Arthur's notice, that always grasped towards him, felt weighted, anchored, by Arthur's attention. He couldn't help but shift, though, eyes darting between Arthur's ears, his chin, his neck—no, no, look somewhere else—the soft-sharp cut of Arthur's cheekbones.
Arthur took a half step forward and Merlin automatically moved away. Except he couldn't move away because he was sitting at the table, so he moved until his back was against the edge of the table so he could lean away. Only...he didn't lean away because he actually didn't want to, he just didn't know what to do next, so he let himself press against the edge of the table and fully face Arthur who moved to be directly in front of him. He parted his legs just a bit, an invitation if Arthur wanted it and a restless throwaway movement if Arthur didn't.
He held his breath as Arthur stepped into the space between his knees. Arthur's hand slid from Merlin's forehead into his hair, his fingers wiggling against the unruly curls and god it felt incredible, it felt amazing, and Merlin let his held breath out all in a rush. He meant to ask what is this and are you sure and will you do that again but nothing came out as Arthur cradled the back of his head in his stupid huge perfect hand.
They were so close. Merlin could feel Arthur's body heat from where Arthur's hips touched the inside of his knees. If Merlin leaned forward, Arthur's arm, the one that reached out to Merlin, would fold easily between them. Arthur kept his other hand at his side, slightly behind him, and Merlin realized suddenly that Arthur was doing that so he wouldn't close Merlin in. Arthur was—Arthur was waiting. For him. He was—he stared intently at Merlin, but he was nervous.
This was the first time they'd done this so slowly, had anything approaching a conversation about it even though neither of them had said anything. It felt like a conversation, though, the way their bodies moved in response to each other. But maybe that was what Arthur was waiting for.
“It's fine,” Merlin said again, keeping his voice steady, trying to sound confident. “Arthur, it's fine.” He could be talking about the flush that still burned on his face and now spread down his neck, or he could be talking about. This. Them. The kiss that hadn't happened yet that was making Merlin jittery with anticipation and desire and too many things to name and would he just do it already?
Arthur tilted his chin up, looking proud and soft and a bit scared all at once and said, “Fine isn't good enough, Merlin. I hold a higher standard than that.”
God, Merlin loved him, he really did. What a dolt. An absolute cabbage head, and the bravest person Merlin knew. Some of the anticipation running through him calmed and Merlin suddenly found this whole thing to be very hilarious. They'd been careening towards this moment from their first meeting in the markets when Arthur had chased him around half a dozen stalls and Merlin had let Arthur tug harshly at his arm and press close against his back.
“Merlin,” Arthur said and started to lean away, started to slip his hand out from Merlin's hair, and Merlin rolled his eyes and pulled Arthur forward by the shoulders, tugging him down and stopping him inches away. Arthur's hand tightened in his hair.
“Ask me again,” Merlin said, feeling wild with power in a way he'd never before.
When Arthur shut his eyes and breathed, “Kiss me?” so quietly that Merlin barely heard it, something rushed through him like a river, like a rainstorm, like wind barreling down a mountain and the moon glinting sharp through the clouds. It was the first time Arthur had ever asked him for anything—really, truly asked, not the type of asking that was a command or an expectation, though honestly Merlin didn't mind those either. He liked that he could anticipate what Arthur might want, he liked that Arthur trusted Merlin to support him and challenge him when needed.
But hearing Arthur ask for something, hearing Arthur ask for him because—because when he said kiss me as a question it meant “I want you” and it meant “do you want me?” like Merlin had a choice. As if he could have packed their previous kisses away and every moment before and since spent daydreaming about a life with Arthur, about what that could mean body and soul, and say, that's all, thanks and Arthur would accept it, like Arthur had a space somewhere inside him, a world where Merlin was going to say no.
He pulled Arthur the rest of the way to him and kissed him, slightly off center so that Arthur's bottom lip pressed against the seam of his mouth.
It wasn't a great kiss. Arthur was frozen, tightly wound, as if he didn't actually expect to get what he wanted. Merlin was overwhelmed and overthinking, trying desperately to find the headspace that had washed through him when he'd kissed Arthur's neck at the desk, when Arthur had kissed him in the greenhouse. Those had felt natural, normal, almost lazy. This kiss felt inevitable in a bit of a frightening destiny way, terrifying because it was an inevitability they had chosen. It had become them choosing each other. And he realized, all at once, that they had chosen each other, in different ways, many times before. Scraps of new futures unspooled in Merlin, his magic singing and surging, he didn't even have images, just an overwhelming sense of possibility, potential.
At the same time he was trying to remember how to kiss which he honestly didn't really know very much about to begin with, wondering why Arthur hadn't responded yet, if he should move his hands from Arthur's shoulders, if he should pull himself away, what he should do to get Arthur to stay.
So, it was a very mediocre kiss. Until Merlin felt Arthur's shoulder's drop and shift under his hands and Arthur's whole body loosened. His other hand which had been tucked primly behind his back reached up and rested against Merlin's neck. Arthur pressed a thumb against his jaw and Merlin opened his mouth like a lock to a key against Arthur's bottom lip, Arthur nudged forward, his lip caught for a moment against the edge of Merlin's teeth before Merlin opened a little wider, and it went from mediocre to oh my god very quickly.
Arthur stepped closer, his hips against Merlin's thighs, broke the kiss, and let his forehead lean against Merlin's. Merlin could feel the warmth of him everywhere, against his mouth, his legs, his neck and in his hair where Arthur's hands were, his arms and chest and stomach and spine.
“Again,” Merlin said, and let his eyes slide open a little right as Arthur did the same and they caught each other's gaze for a second and Arthur made a nearly inaudible noise before he ducked back down and wow, yes, okay Arthur's eyes had been dark in a way Merlin had never seen before.
The next kiss was spit-slick from Arthur's bottom lip having been in Merlin's mouth and the slide of it made his fingers tingle, pleasure sparking in his palms. It felt so good, and they were hardly even doing anything, he wanted to never stop, he wanted to keep kissing, he wanted—he had said again but he realized what he really meant was more.
Well. Merlin had taken the initiative plenty of times in his life. He ran headlong into danger on a weekly basis. When it came to Arthur, his body always seemed to move a second before he realized what he was doing. Was that so different than what he did now, which was to curl his leg and hook his heel around the back of Arthur's knee, knock his ankle against the joint so that Arthur's leg bent and he stumbled, the hand at Merlin's jaw suddenly gone and hitting the table behind him as Arthur caught himself, closer now, trapped between Merlin's legs.
Their kiss broke as Arthur steadied himself and laughed, saying “Merlin!” against his mouth with fond admonishment that made Merlin's stomach tumble like a pebble in a stream. Merlin looped his arms around Arthur's neck and tilted his head up, kissing Arthur again, more confident now, letting himself get swept into it. The hand in his hair tightened when Arthur leaned closer as they kissed, their chests nearly touching. Merlin let out a pleased sigh and Arthur pressed in the rest of the way.
It was intoxicating. The angle was harsh with Arthur leaning almost directly over him. His neck was going to ache and his back was already stinging from where the table dug in, but he didn't want to stop—he actually wasn't sure he even could. The angle also made it a bit hard to keep up, he was running a little short of breath, so he let his jaw relax, let his mouth open against Arthur's, let his back arch further. Arthur took the invitation by first swiping his tongue along the silky, wet inside of Merlin's bottom lip then hesitantly touched their tongues together.
Arthur rarely hesitated about anything. Heat jolted through Merlin and unfurled low in his stomach and he made a horrifically embarrassing sound directly into Arthur's mouth, which only caused Arthur to make a horrifically embarrassing sound directly into his mouth, which was oh, yes, beyond anything Merlin would have imagined, and his imagination was not an insignificant thing. He completely lost the thread of the kiss so the only thing he could do was pant against Arthur's tongue which was still in his mouth. It was all a really weird and really amazing feedback loop of things that shouldn't be hot but were. Merlin made a sort of helpless mmf and Arthur pulled back again scarcely an inch, both of them breathing hard. Merlin knew his mouth hung open foolishly, and Arthur was somehow completely glazed over but entirely, sharply intent.
“Are you just going to be useless about this?” Arthur said, though it didn't have the same effect it usually did with one hand buried in Merlin's hair and his body squeezed tight between Merlin's legs. Or. Hm. Maybe it did have the same effect.
“Thought I'd make you do some work for a change,” Merlin said, aiming for nonchalant and failing completely. It didn't matter; Arthur could never resist a challenge.
“Do some—? Oh, really,” Arthur said. The only warning he got was a narrowing of Arthur's eyes before the hand holding his head up? back? disappeared and he had to quickly tighten his arms around Arthur's neck as Arthur slid both his hands under Merlin's thighs and hoisted him up onto the table.
That was. Huh. Wow. Oh no. It was extremely attractive that Arthur could do that. Merlin long ago accepted there were parts of him that were shallow and very easily swayed by Arthur's displays of strength. Anybody would be! Everyone was! It was just appreciation of—of something. Judging from the exceedingly smug expression Arthur had on, and the flush that had come back to blaze full force on Merlin's cheekbones, ears, and neck, he had been found out.
“Right,” Merlin said in a high, thready voice. “Well then.” He wiggled a bit, acting like he was getting comfortable. Sitting on the table made him a little bit taller than Arthur, which was much nicer for his neck. No table digging into his back, either. Arthur's waist hit at his knees now, too, which was much nicer because he could wrap his legs around easily.
He looked down at Arthur (and that sparked a feeling he was going to examine later) and said, “Get to it,” as imperiously as he could. It was a test, almost, to see how far gone Arthur was—if he'd let Merlin get away with this.
Arthur was, apparently, quite far gone, because he only untucked his hands from under Merlin's thighs, moved one to thumb at Merlin's hip through his trousers. His other hand slid up Merlin's spine, then back down, as he said, “Oh, shut up,” and splayed his hand against the small of Merlin's back, fit right to the curve of it, and kissed him again.
By now they'd mostly gotten the hang of it, though while Arthur kept his hand pressed against Merlin's back and hip, Merlin's hands couldn't seem to keep still. He tugged at Arthur's hair to guide Arthur closer, to speed him up and slow him down, and Arthur let him be greedy and controlling. He skimmed his hands up and down Arthur's arms, spread his fingers against the wide breadth of Arthur's upper rib cage. When he felt Arthur's chest expand under his palms as Arthur took a sharp breath, something entirely new lit up in Merlin and he couldn't help the eager curl of magic that raced from his fingertips and sunk gently and delightedly into Arthur.
He didn't even have time to panic about it when Arthur laughed against him, said, “That's not fair play,” thinking Merlin must have tickled him. The feeling of Arthur laughing while kissing him, still holding him tightly, was dizzying. When was the last time he'd seen Arthur so happy? So relaxed? Showing so much of himself?
The laugh seemed to loosen one final knot and their kisses grew more heated, stranger but somehow even more lovely. Arthur kissed him hard and slow and with so much purpose. He yielded to Merlin as often as he led and Merlin realized it wasn't yielding, not exactly, not for either of them—it was exploratory. Shared. They were equal. As the tip of his tongue traced the soft ridges on the roof of Arthur's mouth, he was flooded with an image of a rippled sandy beach at twilight, and it was a revelation he had no words for. Arthur pressed his teeth lightly against his tongue and Merlin had no idea what they were even doing anymore, if this was even still kissing, this type of touch, and trust, and longing fulfilled.
Just as Merlin leaned back, pulling Arthur with him inch by inch, trying to get him to maybe join him on the table, Arthur jerked away and stared wide-eyed at the open doorway of the herb room. His mouth looked tender, his eyes bright in the low light, and Merlin was a second away from grabbing him and tossing him on the table himself.
“Someone's here,” Arthur hissed, a second before Merlin heard the clattering on the other side of the wall and saw the doorway glow brighter with an approaching lamp. Arthur swiftly unhooked Merlin's ankles from behind his back and yanked Merlin off the table, steadying him for only a second before grabbing his arm and dashing back to the hidden passageway they'd come through. Arthur had just shut the door when, peeking through the slats, they saw a kitchen girl enter the room. Merlin was equal parts stupidly turned on from making out with Arthur on the table, and a bit queasy with the rush from Arthur suddenly shoving him back into the passage. It made him very confused which is the only reason why he opened his mouth to start whispering a spell that would tip over something in another room, hopefully enough of a distraction to get the kitchen girl out. He was barely a word in when Arthur clamped his hand over Merlin's mouth and pressed tight against him, pinning Merlin to the wall knee to shoulder.
“Don't. Make. A sound,” Arthur breathed, barely audible, his head still turned to peer through the gaps in the door.
Merlin glared at him even though Arthur couldn't see it, which was probably good because he doubted his glare looked anything other than what he was: still stupidly turned on, the panicked adrenaline fading fast and a sort of giddy annoyance and courage taking its place. He turned his neck until Arthur moved his hand to the wall by Merlin's head.
I won't make a sound then, Merlin thought. It was the easiest thing in the world to close the scant space between them and press a damp, open-mouth kiss to the junction of Arthur's neck and shoulder, like he had that day at Arthur's desk. He still remembered the small noises Arthur made, would be haunted by them for the rest of his life, and was determined to lure them out again. Arthur's whole body went taut and Merlin wrapped both arms around his waist before he could pull away, though Arthur didn't. A few of his fingers slipped under the hem of Arthur's tunic to rest against warm skin. The woman in the herb room moved about, clattering quietly as she collected what she needed.
Taking it as permission, Merlin kissed his way silently up Arthur's neck and back down, flicking his tongue out every other kiss, pausing to nip at the hinge of Arthur's jaw which made Arthur swallow hard. Merlin could feel the muscles working against his mouth. It wasn't until he pressed his tongue flat and dragged it up, Arthur's barely-there stubble rasping against his tastebuds, that Arthur finally let out a sound, a punched out little ah!, a beautiful echo of the one he'd made days ago.
It was all too much and not enough. Merlin did it again and Arthur's hand slid from the stone at his head to grip the back of his neck, keeping Merlin there, pressing down, and Merlin took the hint and bit lightly, then harder, sucking a mark at the base of Arthur's throat the way he'd wanted to at the desk. A high collar shirt would cover it. The tunic he was wearing now certainly wouldn't. He was rewarded with a low hum right against his ear then Arthur shifted, kicked Merlin's feet apart and slotted a leg between his. Merlin's forehead dropped heavily onto Arthur's shoulder and he saw sparks behind his eyelids. He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from making any sound. It was absurd that this felt so good.
“She's gone,” Arthur whispered, thigh still wedged against him and hand still resting on the back of Merlin's neck. Merlin lifted his head and stared blankly into the dark.
“The kitchen maid, she left.” Arthur sounded a bit short of breath and his voice was a little uneven. Merlin tipped his head back against the wall and grinned. He could just barely see Arthur's face in the narrow shafts of light coming through the door slats.
“Insolent!” Arthur half-whispered, half-shouted, then he reeled him in by the neck, kissed him for a long moment, then pushed him back. “Come on,” he said roughly, drawing away and unhooking Merlin's arms from around his waist the same way he'd done his ankles. He laced their fingers together before spinning around and marching off, Merlin stumbling behind him back down the dark passage.
“But what about the caraway tarts?” Merlin asked though he definitely did not care about the caraway tarts. Maybe a little. It didn't matter, Morgana would share with him either way. He was a bit peckish, was all, from the running about and the kissing and the hiding.
“Are you kidding? Is your sense of humor really that atrocious?” Arthur didn't slow down one bit. “The caraway tarts. You were about to have me on a table! And then in this godforsaken passage! And you're asking about the tarts?!”
“That's the whole reason we went!” Merlin said, now feeling a bit indignant. Arthur talked like Merlin was the one who had hoisted him up and pressed a thigh between his legs. He'd done his fair share, but still. He was also starting to suspect that maybe the tarts weren't the whole reason Arthur had dragged him out of bed to traipse around on a secret adventure.
Arthur's hand tightened on his. “I am not some—some fling, Merlin. I already told you, I have higher standards than that. You might be satisfied but I certainly wouldn't.”
Ah, there it was. Arthur's vulnerability couched in a hidden question disguised as an insult. Merlin went from bemused and slightly irritated to his heart aching and slightly irritated. What was Arthur even worried about? As if Merlin could ever want anyone but him. As if he rather only do this once (or five) times and be done with it. As if he would ever be done with Arthur.
They must nearly be at the entrance to the passage.
“I wouldn't either,” he said. His heart beat hard though it was nothing he hadn't already said to Arthur, shown him, in a hundred different ways. And because he could never shut up when it mattered he found himself saying, “I mean, objectively it'd be hard to do better than you. What's the next step, the king? No, no—please forget I said that. I didn't say that. Anyway, that doesn't matter, what I mean is, you really don't think I'd do all this with you if I didn't—if I also—if you. Arthur, you're—” everything, he wants to say, you're everything, “This is terrible please make me stop talking.”
Arthur's hand loosened slightly and he let out a harsh breath. “You'd have me in a pile of hay if I let you,” he said, the biting, vulnerable edge from before replaced with something lighter, fonder. Proud and sarcastic and self-satisfied.
“What's wrong with hay?” Merlin asked, relieved into playing along. “It's soft. Beds are made out of hay. I don't see much difference between the two.”
Firelight warmed a curve up ahead and then quite suddenly they were out of the passage and back in the small alcove. Arthur peered around the corner with his fingers still laced between Merlin's.
“Of course you don't, you've got no taste. And my bed certainly isn't made out of hay.” The hall was apparently clear because Arthur led him out quickly. “Even you wouldn't mistake it.”
“I wouldn't know,” Merlin said, trying to sound forlorn and pathetic but in a kind of seductive way. He thought it might work. A little. Arthur snorted at him.
“Liar. I've caught you napping in it more than once.”
Merlin didn't have much to say to that because he had been caught napping, drooling all over Arthur's impossibly soft and smooth pillows. They were moving quickly through the castle now and it was nothing like the careful prolonged journey on the way to the kitchens. Arthur was being efficient and a little reckless. They were, very obviously, headed up to Arthur's room.
“I suppose you'll have to remind me,” he said instead, proud of how his voice wavered only a little though he lost out to the heat climbing up his cheeks.
Finally they reached Arthur's wing of the castle, then his hallway, then his door. Arthur stopped right in front and turned to face Merlin for the first time since pressing him against the passageway wall. He eyed him slowly and Merlin felt that simmering heat again, low in his belly and chasing up his spine, felt it mingle with sparks of anticipation and desire.
“I suppose I will,” Arthur said, then opened the door and pulled him inside.