crazy you, crazy me
We are all like astronauts
The little prince I want to please
Nevermind your habits absolutely
You encourage me
- "Infinity" by Merrick
Merlin is all touches. Pats, pokes, slaps, flicks, taps, smacks, cupping, soothing, everything.
Arthur finds it to be a little too… personal, at first. But hasn't said a thing about it.
Because, honestly, how much more harmless can Merlin get?
It is unnerving, though.
Every day, helping Arthur into his clothes, Merlin smoothes out the wrinkles, pulls gently at Arthur's sleeves, brushes lint off his shoulders, fingers the embroidery at Arthur's collar if he is particularly distracted, and when all of that is finished, he gives Arthur a light pat on the chest. As if saying, well, that's that. Now go get it all dirty so I can wash it again.
It's personal. His previous menservants were never this… familiar with him. But damn it if Merlin couldn't be – didn't will himself to be – more different and more difficult than anyone else Arthur has ever come across.
And because Arthur notices the touches, notices the presses and the squeezes and the tugs, he can't not think about them.
The more he thinks about them, the more he catalogues them in the archives of his memories, wondering, predicting what Merlin might do in the future, and still ever so surprised with what happens next.
Arthur begins analyzing each touch. And that's when he's in trouble.
And there is a point, for Arthur, where trouble becomes too much.
And Arthur hears the touches now, perhaps even before he can feel them, the scrape of Merlin's nails over that patch of pilling fabric, the pick-pick-pick of his fingers on stray threads at a seam, the caress of his hands – tshhh – over the new woven belt around Arthur's waist as he ties it with spindly fingers.
And Merlin is humming under his breath, puffs of air hitting Arthur's chest as Merlin nibbles lightly at his lower lip, concentrating.
Merlin brushes his hands down Arthur's arms to straighten out the tunic before his hands flit upwards to pat –
Merlin jumps a little at the harsh words, hands flying up to hover near his own bony shoulders, and brow a startled frown.
"I'm sorry, sire," he exclaims quietly, for once respectful of Arthur's title. "I didn't mean—"
"Stop it. Stop pawing at me. Do you have any concept of personal boundaries? Christ!"
"Wha – ?" Merlin begins.
"Just shut up. I'm done for the evening. You may go."
Merlin looks worried, and very confused, and maybe a little hurt, judging by the curve of his lips.
But he leaves anyway.
And then, Merlin is nothing.
Instead of fond bumps with a shoulder or nudges with an elbow, he's "Good morning, sire," and "Yes, sire," and "Would you rather enjoy poultry or pork, this evening, sire?"
Which is different. Arthur agrees inwardly that it should be nice, this agreeableness, but it really isn't.
Because Merlin is uncomfortable now. And perhaps the touches were familiar. Merlin trusted Arthur – was relaxed and secure around him – and that was what made Merlin click (or pat or poke or prod, in this case).
Of course Arthur knows the irony in analyzing the reasons why Merlin doesn't touch him anymore, when Arthur told him implicitly to stop doing it.
In fact, it makes him feel worse knowing he really is at fault for Merlin's… whatever it is that is happening.
Arthur tries being nice.
"Good morning, Merlin," he mumbles quietly.
Or, "Thank you, very much," he says after Merlin refills his glass.
Or even, when Merlin trips over Arthur's armour, which he's typically left in the middle of the chamber, and yanks a drape off the wall in his haste to catch balance, "Why don't you take the rest of the day off? You seem…"
Merlin just looks at him in that way he does – almost incredulous but still grateful – and leaves before Arthur can just get over his own weirdness and blurt out an apology. For the other day. For everything, anything, really, so Merlin will –
Arthur lets out a frustrated groan and re-hangs the drapery himself.
It's after three nights of tossing and turning – and really, Arthur has slept like a rock during times of siege and famine, but he can't sleep because of such a stupid thing as Merlin's lack of jovial insubordination? – that Arthur finally breaks.
Merlin is tucking Arthur's tunic neatly into his nicest belt, somehow avoiding coming into contact with the skin of Arthur's stomach as he drags the linen beneath the buttery leather.
It is before a special feast in honour of some such family from some such allied province of which Arthur hasn't bothered to remember the name, and the thought of finding out again leaves him completely when Merlin sticks his tongue out of the side of his mouth briefly while cinching the laces on Arthur's cuffs.
"All done," Merlin says quietly, fingers twitching and brow furrowing as he aborts an attempt to pat Arthur on the chest like he used to. "Yes, my lord?" he asks when Arthur, for a moment, looks like he's been slapped if not provoked to cry.
Arthur looks away. "I – nothing."
"Have a nice dinner, sire," Merlin mutters and begins collecting Arthur's day clothes and putting them in a sac to take to laundry.
If Arthur could pace in the middle of a fine banquet, he would at this moment. He feels rather stupid – no – completely stupid for dwelling on this, but he misses –
Merlin arrives only a minute or so late and spends the evening pouring Arthur his wine but otherwise remaining as silent as a servant, which is what his job has always been to do, but it doesn't sit well in Arthur's stomach. Thus, Arthur barely touches his food and rushes back to his room when the opportunity arises, Merlin at his heels, obedient.
"Make ready for bed, please. I don't feel like entertaining anymore, tonight."
Merlin just removes Arthur's red jacket before reaching for his belt, but Arthur grabs his outstretched hands and pulls Merlin toward him and into a hug.
Merlin practically squawks, obviously startled, but otherwise remains rigid in Arthur's embrace. That is, until Arthur just squeezes him harder and buries his nose in Merlin's shoulder. Then he hesitantly wraps his arms around Arthur's waist and squeezes back.
"You're a terrible servant," Arthur begins, voice muffled in the edge of Merlin's tattered neckerchief.
Merlin tenses, but Arthur squeezes him round the middle again.
"You're a terrible servant. You ignore the codes of conduct. You're lazy, clumsy, and defiant."
"What are you talking about? I've been nothing but good for weeks!" Merlin exclaims over his shoulder.
Arthur grins. "And you're my friend."
"Gerroff!" Merlin grumbles and then, finally listening, stills.
"No," Arthur begins. "I'm going to continue to hug you because I am – "
"A prat," Merlin mumbles half-heartedly.
"Because I am sorry. Also, you are very surprisingly comfortable."
Merlin apparently gives up after this, because one arm disentangles itself and cups the back of Arthur's head, those spindly fingers that he's missed so much curling through the soft hairs at the nape of Arthur's neck. Arthur has a hand fisted in the threadbare fabric of Merlin's own tunic, and the other arm wrapped almost fully around Merlin's ribcage. Merlin is thin, but warm, and his breathing calm and comforting, and Arthur successfully pushes his pride and any other obstacles away, for now.
"So, what you're trying to say is that you want me to go back to being what, exactly?"
"Lazy, clumsy and," Merlin pauses dramatically. "Defiant?"
Arthur shakes his head quickly as they share a late night carafe of warm cider. "By all means, stay obedient. I would just like to – ah – remain friends. Instead of whatever's been going on."
Merlin grins cheekily. "You just want me to touch you again."
"Don't be absurd," he chokes into his goblet. His face feels hot and he barely resists the urge to cover his cheeks.
"It's alright, Arthur," Merlin laughs, using his given name for the first time in three weeks. "I won't tell anyone."
"That is not what I meant."
Merlin chuckles and pours Arthur another goblet-full. "Oh, so what was that twenty minute hug about, then?"
Arthur gulps his cider and avoids Merlin's eye, which is why he isn't prepared when Merlin takes his goblet from his hands and leans forward, pressing chapped lips to the corner of Arthur's mouth.
"I've no concept of personal boundaries, remember?" Merlin says against his cheek, and Arthur's eyes flutter closed for a moment before he nudges him with a gentle push of his hand.
Merlin smirks, his eyes twinkling and far too blue, too close.
"I won't tell," Merlin repeats.
"Shut up," Arthur says automatically.
Merlin kisses him again.
And again, Merlin is all touches. Sometimes, he is kisses. Embraces, hugs, squeezes, nuzzles, pinches, even.
And he's utterly insolent, but Arthur can't do a thing about it. He wouldn't anyway, because it's sweet in a way. Endearing, especially when Merlin ignores his chores to curl up to Arthur in the mornings, pointy nose nudging his temple and chilly fingers flitting across his cheek, chest, belly.
They are friends again, and more.
It's personal, familiar, tender, and Arthur for once, doesn't mind so much.