Rating: very R
Wordcount: 12990 *looks sheepish*
Summary: Arthur wakes up changed and that changes everything else.
It took a long time the next morning for Merlin to go into Arthur's room. He stood outside it for a good five minutes before he could force himself to unlock it, knock and then enter, uncertainty churning uncomfortably in his stomach.
Arthur was over by the window again, staring out at the courtyard, and he didn't even look in Merlin's direction as Merlin set his breakfast down and stepped hesitantly forward.
"Did you do this?" Arthur said, still not turning and Merlin frowned.
"Did you do this to me?" Arthur bit out, finally turning with a set, cold expression on his face.
"Did I what?" Merlin said, his voice rising. "Are you insane?"
"Answer the question," Arthur snapped back. "Did you do this? Is it some game you're playing, making me –"
"No, I did not," Merlin shouted back, drowning out Arthur's clipped words, suddenly so furious it felt like his entire body was clenched with it, "and I can't believe you are even asking that, you bastard! I'm not evil and I'm not cruel and if you really think I could do that to anyone, to you, then," and he stopped shouting and swallowed, too tired and hollow to find the energy and finished quietly, "then you really don't know me at all. Sire."
Merlin spun away from Arthur's pale face and fled the room, not able to stay there a second longer. He ended up sitting on the steps down into the courtyard and staring sightlessly out at the walls. Arthur was a shit and a bastard and the biggest fucking idiot in the land and it would serve him right if Merlin let him stay as a girl.
Merlin wasn't taking him any bloody lunch either.
He finally got cold and dragged himself miserably back to Gaius' rooms.
"Ah, Merlin, there you are at last," Gaius said far too cheerfully as Merlin went in. "I think I've found a cure for Arthur."
"Great." Stupid Arthur. Merlin had thought Arthur trusted him, even with magic.
"Merlin? Are you all right?" Gaius asked, peering at him in concern. "I thought you would be more excited."
"Arthur is a bastard," Merlin muttered, folding his arms on the table and slumping down to rest his head on them.
"Fighting again?" Gaius said in an amused tone that Merlin really didn't care for. This was not funny. "Well, I expect he'll be less of a bastard once we've turned him back, hm?"
Merlin snorted. He wouldn't bet on it. Though Arthur might stop being so weird and be normal again. "So where is it?" he asked and Gaius passed him a loose sheet of paper, torn and stained at the edges. "Doesn't seem that hard," Merlin said when he'd read through the incantation written on it. "I'll go say it at the giant wanker and then we're done."
"Or maybe you should practice first," Gaius said firmly, catching Merlin's arm as he went to stand. "I got a duck," he said, nodding to a basket on the end of the table and Merlin sighed and sat down as he lifted a female mallard out. "It will be nice and obvious if it works."
Merlin nodded obediently and read through the spell again before he concentrated and spoke it aloud. This was going to be easy.
Five minutes later he was throwing up into one of Gaius' larger bowls
"Gaius, that can't be the right spell," he said when he'd finished wiping his mouth and staggered back, trying hard not to look at the twisted body of the duck on the table.
Gaius looked nauseous as well. "But it has to be," he protested. "It's the only one we've found that talks of transforming living creatures. 'Change the path of nature'" he read out from the page, "'Twist the form of life to thy will, mother to father, sister to brother'. And that part did work: the duck is now male."
"It's also dead!" Merlin said. And it had sounded like a painful death too. No matter how angry Merlin was at Arthur, he wasn't going to do anything like that to him.
Gaius nodded in miserable agreement. "I suppose we'll have to keep looking, but I really can’t think where else. My volumes are exhausted, and you have found nothing either."
"Maybe we're missing something somewhere," Merlin said. "If we just knew who cast it…"
"But there are too many options," Gaius said, sighing. "And I'm not sure how much longer I can keep Uther away from Arthur."
"Would it really be so bad if he knew?" Merlin asked. "He'd send the knights out searching for the sorcerer, wouldn’t he?"
"Yes, but they'd be just as likely to pull in some poor hedgewitch as the one responsible," Gaius pointed out. "And I think that Arthur's instincts to tell no-one were right. I am by no means sure how Uther would react. You know that he is less than rational about magic. He could even refuse to believe that it is Arthur, and that would not be good at all."
"No," Merlin agreed, hunching at the thought of Uther's likely reactions. When he thought about it like that, it was amazing that Arthur had taken Merlin having magic as well as he had.
He was still a git, but maybe Merlin would take him some lunch after all and make sure that he was all right and not all broken like the poor duck. He was deeply glad now that Gaius was always so cautious.
Merlin was just going to open the door and shove in the food so he could double-check Arthur was still alive, but as soon as the door swung open, Arthur's arm shot out and pulled him in and Merlin yelped in shock and had to right the tray with magic as Arthur slammed the door shut behind him.
He wasn't even sure Arthur had noticed because he was staring so hard at Merlin's face. Merlin tried to pull away, but Arthur didn't let go of his arm.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said quietly but in the firm voice he used to give commands and Merlin blinked and nearly dropped his lunch again. "I don't think you would do that," Arthur went on, going red under Merlin's gaze but not looking away. "I think being shut up here is making me crazy."
"You think?" Merlin said sarcastically but his heart wasn't really in it.
"I trust you. With my life," Arthur said, letting go and looking down. "And I apologise for my hasty words."
"I… thank you," Merlin said. He wanted to ask Arthur what was going on with the touching but he was too relieved at getting this much to risk pushing Arthur away again. Arthur nodded once and took the food off Merlin, his shoulders relaxing.
Merlin stood there awkwardly for a minute and then turned to go.
"Is… have you or Gaius found anything at all?" Arthur said and when Merlin turned back he looked so hopeless that Merlin went back and sat down.
"There was something, but… the duck died," he said reluctantly. Arthur's brow wrinkled in confusion and he had to explain, "I was practicing."
"Oh," Arthur said, fiddling with an apple. "Maybe I should get used to these walls," he said with a grim smile and Merlin tilted his head enquiringly. "That's what we royals do with unwanted female relatives," Arthur explained bitterly. "Lock them away, so they don't cause trouble."
"But surely your father wouldn't…" Merlin said and trailed off at the twisted smile Arthur was giving him.
"I'll have no place in the court. Can't risk my challenging the new heir, and I cannot leave my father's control for the same reason, in case some choose to follow me or use me to make a challenge. Or perhaps I'll be married to whoever my father chooses in my place to reinforce their claim. Noble women are just pawns, sold to the highest bidder," Arthur finished, looking ill, and Merlin shook his head.
"No wonder Morgana gets so angry," he said and Arthur nodded.
"I wouldn't have let that happen to her," he said. "But it looks like we'll share the same fate."
"No you won't," Merlin said, reaching out and wrapping his hand around Arthur's wrist. "I won't let it be like that. If I can't turn you back – and I haven't given up on that anyway – I'll get you out and we'll go somewhere new where no-one knows us and your father can't reach."
Arthur twisted his hand so that he was holding onto Merlin's wrist as well and nodded. "Thank you," he said and then let go and Merlin drew his hand back. He wasn't sure what to say now so he just nodded in return. But Merlin was more determined than ever to get Arthur back to being a man.
"Eat your lunch," he said firmly, getting up. "I'm going to go and keep trying." Maybe he could alter the spell they'd found somehow; all his power had to be good for something.
Merlin stood in the corridor for a minute after he'd left, wondering where he could start. He'd need some more ducks, or maybe something less endearing like a rat. He even considered asking the Dragon, though Merlin didn't think he could trust whatever it told him.
He turned to leave and jumped at finding a knight coming along the corridor towards him, one of the visitors.
"You there, you serve the prince?" the knight said in a commanding tone and Merlin nodded.
"How does His Highness? Any better?"
"Better than he was," Merlin said cautiously and untruthfully, "but he still continues sick."
"He must be in need of some conversation of worth by now," the knight said, smirking in his beard and reaching towards the door and Merlin moved to block him, thankful he'd heard Arthur lock the door as usual behind him.
"I'm sorry Sir Knight, but Gaius has ordered no visitors for fear of spreading the sickness."
"Still? And after all this time, you are the only one to see him?" the knight said, frowning but stepping away. "Strange."
Merlin blinked at him with his stupidest expression. "It is the physician's order."
"Well, he must emerge eventually. One hopes that this mysterious ailment does not have any lasting effects," the knight said staring at Merlin and looming over him. "Sickness can change a man, they say."
"His Highness seems the same but with pustules," Merlin replied shifting out and away and refusing to be rattled. Arthur could loom much more threateningly despite being shorter than this man. The strange knight stared at him some more and then turned on his heel and left.
Merlin watched him go thoughtfully, cast a quick spell to lock Arthur's door magically as well as with the key just in case, and went in search of Gwen, finally finding her coming back up from the market.
"Merlin! How is Arthur?" she said with a pleased smile and he smiled back absently.
"Oh, you know Arthur. Arrogant, demanding and annoying," he said.
"I meant is he better?"
"A bit, yes. Listen, have you seen much of the visiting knights?" he asked, taking the basket she was carrying off her and walking back by her side.
"I suppose," Gwen said, "They've been dining in the hall with everyone else."
"Who's the one taller than me, with black hair and a beard and the crest of a bear?" Merlin asked.
"That's Sir Grimmic," Gwen said. "Why?"
"Oh, no reason," Merlin said, realising Gwen was looking at him curiously. "He just spoke to me about Arthur and I wondered who he was."
"You as well?" Gwen said sounding surprised and Merlin turned and raised his eyebrows. "He asked Morgana whether she'd seen Arthur the other day."
"What did he say, exactly?" Merlin said, catching her arm and frowning.
"Nothing much. He just mentioned that it was strange that Gaius wouldn't allow someone as close as she was to Arthur to visit him, and wasn't she worried. And something about not being able to know how Arthur was doing but just trusting his care blindly to a mere servant, like you were just nothing," Gwen said, her tone getting annoyed at the end. "I mean, you are a servant, but you're not exactly mere, I mean everyone knows Arthur and Gaius trust you and even Uther has stopped saying you're mentally afflicted."
"Was that it?"
"Yes, I think. Morgana told him that Arthur was in the best care possible because you were completely loyal and devoted, and that Gaius had said there was no danger so she saw no reason to worry, and then he left." Merlin stopped walking to think and Gwen stopped too. "You don't need to frown like that you know, I think it is sweet how you look after Arthur. You shouldn't be embarrassed," she said and Merlin started out of his thoughts and grinned at her.
"It's not sweet, it's self-preservation to stop him annoying me to death," he said and Gwen gave him an indulgent smile. "I should get back," he said and handed her the basket back before taking off at a jog to see Gaius.
"How would Uther choose another heir?" Merlin said as soon as he got in the door and found Gaius staring moodily at a glass alembic.
"If Arthur stayed like this. How would someone else get to be king?" Merlin said, sitting down and leaning forward.
"Well," Gaius said, "he would have to be a knight, proven a leader of men in battle. And in Uther's favour, of course, which would probably prove to be the hardest test. Why?"
"We've been assuming that this was about someone attacking the kingdom," Merlin explained eagerly. "But what if it's just about usurping Arthur?"
"I think it was Sir Grimmic," Merlin said. "He was lurking outside Arthur's room earlier and Gwen says he was dropping hints to Morgana about no-one seeing Arthur except me."
"That's a little thin, Merlin," Gaius said dubiously and Merlin waved his hand impatiently.
"No, don't you see? He doesn’t know if it worked or not, and he's trying to find out. Seriously Gaius, he was acting really suspiciously."
"Well, it is certainly an interesting theory," Gaius allowed. "And from what I have heard, the man is ambitious. He's also been fighting raiders down on Camelot's borders for the last few years, in fact he's probably one of the knights most experienced in battle."
"I'm going to search his room," Merlin said, smacking his hand on the table decisively and standing up.
"For goodness sake, be careful," Gaius called after him, but Merlin was already half way down the stairs.
He tracked Sir Grimmic down, eventually finding him showing off his archery skills. It seemed like he was setting up an impromptu competition, so Merlin should be safe for a while.
It wasn't quite as simple as he'd hoped though. Merlin had got in the room easily enough, but Sir Grimmic had a lot of bags and Merlin had to search them all and check there were no hidden pockets. And then there were his clothes, and armour, and every nook and cranny in the room that was even remotely feasible for hiding anything bigger than a woodlouse.
And really, Merlin hadn't actually been expecting to find a nice, obvious big book of magic like his own, but finding nothing at all was extremely disappointing. He'd been so sure he was right.
He sank down on the end of the bed in frustration and fell backwards, letting his head tip back off the edge – and saw the corner of a piece of parchment tucked into a crack underneath the windowsill. Merlin rolled off the bed so fast that he only narrowly avoided landing on his head and he crawled over and tugged the corner out. It was folded over and over, but when he opened it out, Merlin recognised it instantly. It was the same incantation Gaius had found. But there was an extra passage at the end that Gaius' copy didn't have and he grinned in triumph as he read it through.
This was it. He'd found the way.
An hour later, Merlin sidled quickly through Arthur's door, locking it again as soon as he was through, and turned excitedly to tell him the news. "Arth-oh" he said and just stared.
"You know, I'm pretty sure we had that conversation about you knocking," Arthur said after a pause, but Merlin hardly heard him over the thundering of his pulse because Arthur was on his bed, naked from the waist down and one hand tucked down between his legs.
The afternoon sun made Arthur's bare legs almost glow, the one nearest Merlin raised slightly so he couldn't quite see what Arthur's hand was doing, but Arthur was flushed and a little bit sweaty and Merlin thought his mind might have just broken from how badly he wanted to touch.
Arthur tipped his head back on the pillow with a sigh and then sat up, swinging his legs down as though he was going to stand, but by the time his feet touched the floor Merlin was in front of him on his knees, utterly transfixed by the tangle of dark blonde hair at the apex of Arthur's thighs. He wasn't even sure how'd he'd got there; it might have been magic because Arthur said "Merlin!" in a scandalised tone, though whatever else he'd intended to say died off in a gasp as Merlin leaned in and nuzzled Arthur's thigh.
Arthur tensed, strong muscles twitching under Merlin's lips and for a moment Merlin was sure that he was going to be pushed away. But Arthur relaxed instead and Merlin kissed his leg softly and stroked his hands up the back of his legs. He trailed his mouth slowly up to scrape his teeth against Arthur's hipbone, getting a shiver in response, and then kissed a meandering line across to just above Arthur's mound. Arthur's scent was intoxicating and Merlin just wanted to breathe it in for a while, but his hands were sliding up the inside of Arthur's thighs and Arthur was letting him in closer and it wasn't enough: Merlin had to taste as well.
Arthur gave a kind of gasping moan when Merlin licked him, and Merlin could see his hand fist tight in the bedclothes, so he did it again, and again. Slow and soft, teasing over and around and Merlin was drowning. There was nothing but Arthur, the musky-salt taste and smell of him, the softness of skin over firm muscle under his hands, the groans and cries he made as Merlin touched him.
Arthur fell back onto the bed and Merlin could feel him pressing into Merlin's mouth and hands, hips rolling up and down. He caught the pattern and followed it and Arthur made a completely wild noise and grabbed onto his head, legs tensing against Merlin's shoulders as Merlin pressed harder and faster. Arthur shook all over and froze in place but he didn't let up the pressure on Merlin so he didn't stop until Arthur suddenly went limp all at once and released him.
Merlin sank back onto his heels and panted in a counterpoint to the ragged breathing he could hear from Arthur. His mouth felt swollen and wet, he was shaking and sweating and all he could see was Arthur spread naked and so beautiful before him. He pressed his hand hard against himself and closed his eyes with a groan, trying to regain control.
His eyes flew open again with a gasp as Arthur hauled him to his feet and Merlin braced to be thrown out again. But Arthur was pulling at the laces on his breeches and he shoved them down and wrapped his hand around Merlin and Merlin clutched at him as his knees tried to collapse. The way Arthur stroked him felt so good, so incredible, and Merlin moved helplessly, thrusting into Arthur's fist as Arthur stared intently into his eyes. Merlin wanted to kiss him so much, but he didn't dare in case Arthur turned away again so he stared back instead until he had to close his eyes against the sensations.
It was too much, too good, and Merlin bit his lip and dropped his head onto Arthur's shoulder to muffle his desperate moans as his hips bucked in a release that felt like it melted his entire body, tingles running from his fingers to his toes.
Arthur had to hold him up afterwards because Merlin's legs simply refused to work, and after a minute he heard Arthur give an impatient sounding sigh before he was abruptly shoved onto the bed.
"Well. That was messy," Arthur said in an odd tone. Merlin turned his head with an effort and found Arthur looking down at himself and he blushed at realising he'd just come all over Arthur's hip. Arthur walked off behind his screen, still glancing at his hand and when he came back out after a minute he was back in his breeches and carrying a wet cloth. "Here," he said, tossing it over and Merlin caught it with another blush and cleaned up too, wriggling back fully into his own breeches and lacing them back up hurriedly afterwards.
He thought about leaving but Merlin wasn't sure he was capable of moving yet and Arthur didn't seem to be angry or upset like before, just quiet. He walked back over and sprawled on the bed next to Merlin, staring up at the ceiling, and Merlin twisted onto his side to watch him. He looked… peaceful, but not entirely happy. Like he did when he'd made up his mind to do something hard, and Merlin wished he hadn't seen that look on Arthur's face often enough to recognise it so easily.
And Merlin was a complete idiot because he knew exactly what could make Arthur look happy again and he'd totally forgotten all about it.
"Arthur," he said quietly. "We did it. We can turn you back," and Arthur twisted his head to stare at him, an uncomprehending look on his face.
"I can fix this," Merlin said again, gesturing at Arthur and Arthur sat up in a swift movement.
"You can?" Merlin nodded. "Are you sure?" Merlin nodded again, wondering if Arthur had suddenly developed a mental affliction. "Why the hell didn't you say so right away?" Arthur shouted.
Merlin couldn't help giving him an incredulous look at that, because there was really no way Arthur should have expected coherent thought from Merlin after walking in to find him touching himself, and Arthur went red and threw a pillow at his head.
"So what are you waiting for?" Arthur snapped in a tense voice and Merlin dislodged the pillow and shoved it under his head.
"It turns out the object of the spell needs to drink a certain potion to avoid fatal injury in the change," Merlin said. "Gaius made it as soon as we found out how, but it needs to brew overnight. First thing tomorrow we're going to test it on some animals and you should be back to being Prince of Camelot again by lunchtime."
"Oh," Arthur breathed, falling back on the bed again and closing his eyes. "It's not permanent."
"A potion?" Arthur asked after a minute. He still didn't look happy and Merlin frowned because he'd been sure this would do it.
"I found the recipe in Sir Grimmic's room," Merlin explained. Maybe Arthur just couldn't let himself believe it yet.
"Grimmic," Arthur repeated, sitting up again and looking angry. "My wineskin had a leak during the hunt the day before… this. It ran completely dry. He very generously offered me his, and I never thought anything of it because he'd been drinking from it all along."
"He thought it all out," Merlin agreed.
"The bastard. He wants to be king," Arthur said in a growl. "He can be king of the fucking worms in the graveyard when I'm done with him."
"What are you going to do?" Merlin asked, sitting up too. "Are you going to tell your father?"
Arthur glared at him for a moment. "No. I don't want to explain what happened," he finally said. "But he'd deserve it if I did." Merlin pulled an uncertain face and Arthur frowned. "What? Do you think he doesn't?"
"I think that he didn't kill you, or try to," Merlin said slowly. Arthur rolled off the bed and paced over to the fire to lean against the mantel.
"I'm hungry," he said after a few minutes. "Go get me some food."
Merlin sighed and got up as well. He recognised that tone; there would be no more conversation just now. And he was hungry as well.
Arthur was silent after he'd eaten too, but he told Merlin to stay when he tried to leave, so he spent the evening wandering about tidying and cleaning and mending bits of Arthur's clothes and armour while Arthur watched every move he made like Arthur was trying to memorise him.
By that point Merlin had decided that he was never going to understand what went on in Arthur's head. He'd thought Arthur would be excited about changing back, not brooding. He didn't know why Arthur had touched him the other night or why Arthur had pushed him away afterwards, and he didn't know why Arthur hadn't pushed him away today, and he didn't think asking about any of it would be a good idea.
Merlin knew why he'd acted like he had. He would do just about anything for Arthur, no matter what and no matter whether Arthur was a man or a woman. He was always still Arthur and Merlin had always been drawn to him. And it would be all Merlin's fault if things were ruined simply because he hadn't been able to resist temptation.
Midway through the next morning, Merlin was back in Arthur's room and handing over a vial full of dark green liquid. He'd seen some of the things Gaius had put in it and he was really glad it was Arthur who had to drink it and not him. Though it thankfully didn't smell of much.
"This is it?" Arthur said, lifting it up to the light to study it.
"That's the one," Merlin said and handed over a second vial. "And this one is a sedative to drink after."
"Why?" Arthur said turning to look at him and raising an eyebrow.
"Well, we're not sure that it hurts exactly, being changed, but the chicken made a right racket when we turned it into a cock and the rabbit went completely nuts, so I think it probably feels really weird at least."
"Why didn't I wake up when Grimmic did it then?"
"The animals all passed out immediately afterwards," Merlin said with a shrug. "You probably never got fully awake."
"Ah," Arthur said, studying the vials again.
"Are you ready?" Merlin said.
"Of course I'm ready, Merlin, I've been ready since the day it happened," Arthur snapped back. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," Merlin said confidently. Arthur studied him and nodded once. He set the vials down on the bed behind him and stared at them for a moment.
Merlin was just about to ask if he was all right when Arthur turned around, grabbed him fiercely and kissed him. It was hard and desperate and once Merlin got over the shock he tried to make it gentler, but Arthur wouldn't let him.
It ended as abruptly as it began when Arthur suddenly shoved Merlin away again. He staggered back, and Arthur snatched up the vials, downed them one after the other and lay down on the bed with his back to Merlin before he could even catch his breath.
Gaius' sedative worked quickly and Arthur had already relaxed into sleep when Merlin gathered his wits and walked closer to the bed. He took one last look at Arthur as a girl, closed his eyes and spoke the spell.
There was a muffled whimper from the bed and then silence and Merlin opened his eyes again and looked back.
There was Arthur, back to normal. No breasts, no round hips, the crown prince of Camelot restored.
Merlin gave a shaky sigh and went to clean the room while he waited for Arthur to wake.
He was down to polishing Arthur's boots for the second time when there was a rustle of blankets and he looked up to find Arthur stirring, his eyes open.
"How do you feel?" Merlin asked, walking over to the bedside as Arthur sat up and looked down at his own body.
"Manly," Arthur replied and gave a short laugh and Merlin smiled back. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome, sire," Merlin said cheerfully. He watched Arthur get off the bed and stretch, and bit his lip. He had to say something, he had to. "Arthur, about before, what happened…" he started, but Arthur turned quickly and threw up a hand.
"Nothing happened," he interrupted and Merlin stared at him.
"No," Arthur commanded. "We are never speaking of any of this again."
Three days after Merlin had turned him back Arthur was on the practice field and fighting Sir Grimmic. He'd been all ready to go charging off to break Sir Grimmics's head the very first day, but Merlin had eventually persuaded him that would look a little odd considering how ill they'd been telling everyone he was. Well, when he said persuaded, he meant he'd barred the door magically and had a five minute yelling match with Arthur about discretion and being stupid, but by the end Arthur had agreed to keep up the fiction of his illness long enough to be believable. What that had apparently meant to Arthur was spending the rest of the first day on the battlements and the whole of the second in the forest, but Merlin supposed that was the best result he could have got.
Grimmic was actually a very good swordsman. Merlin knew enough from watching all this time to tell that and it wasn't surprising that he'd beaten Camelot's knights. But the way Arthur was fighting made Grimmic look like a clumsy novice.
It was a little bit terrifying and Merlin didn't want to watch because he wasn't sure what Arthur was going to do, but he couldn't look away. It was over quickly anyway; two minutes in Arthur disarmed Grimmic, knocked him onto the ground with a shoulder charge and then kicked him over onto his back. He stood poised over Grimmic, sword at his throat and Merlin clenched his fists in worry. But Arthur just said something, too quiet for anyone else to hear and walked away.
Grimmic stared after Arthur with a strange look on his face, but Merlin couldn't take the time to watch him because Arthur had strode straight past him and back towards the castle and he had to jog to catch up.
By the time they reached Arthur's room, Merlin was out of breath from how fast Arthur had been walking. Arthur halted in the middle of the floor and glared at the wall and Merlin moved in to help him out of his spaulder.
Arthur tensed as soon as Merlin touched him and Merlin swallowed but kept going. They never had spoken about what had happened when Arthur was a woman because the two times Merlin had tried, Arthur had gone so white and unhappy looking that Merlin couldn't bear to carry on, despite how much he wanted to understand.
Instead they were in some strange approximation of normal where Arthur went tense whenever Merlin got too close in carrying out his servant duties, but he kept letting Merlin get close anyway.
"What did you say to him?" Merlin asked as a distraction and Arthur frowned and clenched his fist, making it harder for Merlin to undo that vambrace.
"I told him that I knew what he tried, and that if he ever showed his face in Camelot again I would return the favour and neuter him before I killed him," Arthur said in a near-growl.
"Well, that explains the disturbed look on his face when you walked off," Merlin said, and tugged off Arthur's mail shirt as Arthur raised his arms. He took the second when Arthur's eyes were hidden by the mail to admire the strong lines of Arthur's chest and shoulders and then pulled the mail off completely and turned to lay it on the table with the rest of Arthur's armour.
"Good. Fetch my jacket," Arthur said shortly and Merlin headed for the wardrobe. By the purest chance, he glanced in the polished mirror next to it as he lifted Arthur's red jacket out and caught Arthur watching him. Not just watching, staring, and Merlin stopped short because for the last few days Arthur had only given him quick glances and spent the rest of the time looking anywhere else.
And the look on his face… it was sad, but more than that it was the same look he'd seen in Arthur's eyes when Arthur had touched him that last time, and Merlin suddenly realised what it was: not just intense, but longing.
Longing for Merlin.
He must have made some sound in surprise because Arthur jumped, his eyes flying up to meet Merlin's in the mirror before he hastily looked away again, all the expression wiping from his face.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked turning around.
Arthur crossed his arms and stared at the floor. "You can go now," he said but there was no way Merlin was going to do that, not when things were finally starting to make sense.
"Arthur, look at me," he said, crossing the floor to stand right in front of him, but Arthur stayed stubbornly staring down.
Merlin reached out his hand and tried to tug Arthur's head up, but when that didn't work he cupped the back of his neck instead, stroking gently just under Arthur's hair. Arthur went very still, but he didn't pull away and Merlin had thought all this time that Arthur was uncomfortable because he didn't want Merlin to touch him. He was starting to hope that it was for quite the opposite reason, and he really hoped that he was right and that he wasn't about to make things even worse.
"Please," he asked very quietly and Arthur finally lifted his head. He was obviously trying to keep his face blank, but Merlin had long practice at reading Arthur's expressions. This one had some fear, and some resignation, but mostly it was sheer, naked want and it made Merlin shiver. "Ohh," he said in an enlightened tone and Arthur swallowed.
"I… apologise for, for my inappropriate –" he started to say and Merlin stared at him in disbelief and stuck his hand over Arthur's mouth.
"Arthur, you idiot. Shut up," he said, smiling at Arthur's immediate frown and then Merlin took his hand away, leaned in and kissed him.
Arthur tensed so much that it was a bit like kissing a block of wood to start with but Merlin didn't stop. He just kept kissing and it wasn't long before Arthur relaxed and kissed back. It was nothing like their previous kiss; this one was slow and sweet, but it was just as devastating and Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur and hung on.
It stopped being slow and sweet fairly soon after that, when Arthur pulled Merlin in even closer and took over, but it wasn't like Merlin minded and he gave as good as he got until he was rubbing up against Arthur's hip, feeling Arthur gloriously hard against his own.
"You idiot," he said again, pulling away to breathe and laugh at the same time. "It was you I wanted all the time."
Arthur grinned back, looking happy for the first time since the whole mess had started, and dragged Merlin over to the bed before tumbling him down on it. And it was all so easy suddenly, nothing fraught like before, both of them free to revel in touch.
The last coherent thought Merlin had for a long while was that this was the first time he'd ever been grateful for someone plotting against Arthur.