More Lovely and More Temperate
Really, it was ridiculous to think that he couldn't handle a bit of drink, just because he was a woman. Arthur was getting sick and tired of attentive and semi-petrified knights trying to pry him away from his ale. He was Crown Prince, damn it - or Princess, for now - and he could celebrate his twenty-first birthday as he sodding well pleased.
"You're embarrassing yourself," hissed Merlin, after the good Sir Gawain caught himself staring down Arthur's bodice, went red in the face, and staggered away from the table like a man in fear for his sanity.
"I'm enjoying myself." Poor Gawain. He was such easy prey.
"You're flaunting your breasts."
"Isn't that what they're for? Morgana flaunts hers an awful lot."
Merlin's face contorted in an interesting way, and he glanced around the hall as if to check for Morgana's presence. "I can't believe you just said that," he whispered fiercely, "and also, I can't believe you're competing with Morgana over... over this!"
"We've always competed, ever since we were children. Drove Father quite mad."
"I can imagine," Merlin muttered.
"And mine are bigger, anyway. They are, aren't they?" Arthur leaned forward, planting his chin on his hand in what he hoped was a coquettish manner, and causing his cleavage to do that thing it did that he didn't have a name for, but had made the ruggedly handsome Knight Ewan gape in a most un-knightly way. It was shocking what lechers his knights were, really. "Come on, be honest."
"They're - " Merlin cleared his throat, blinked, and very deliberately did not look at Arthur's chest. Spoilsport. "Listen. I'm not doing this anymore. If you want to sit out here and play the royal wench, you can do it all you like. I'm going back."
"What?" Why was Merlin getting so tetchy, anyway? It was just a bit of a lark; it wasn't like Arthur wanted all those men leering at him. "You can't do that. You have to stay as long as I say. You're my servant."
"And you're drunk." Merlin snatched the cup from Arthur's hand - bastard, he would not have been able to do that had Arthur been sober - and drank it down himself.
"Thief," accused Arthur, somewhat halfheartedly, because Merlin's throat in the midst of ale-gulping was an oddly mesmerizing sight. He'd never noticed it before; it must be Arthur's newly-acquired female body, taking undue notice of his manservant's stupidly prominent and unexpectedly manly Adam's apple. "Bring me another."
"Get it yourself," Merlin scowled, slamming the cup back onto the table. "Or get one of your suitors to do it for you."
So saying, Merlin stomped - no, flounced - out of the hall.
Hmph. What good were Adam's apples, anyway? Because obviously, despite the sex-changing curse that was currently casting its not entirely unpleasant pall over Arthur, Merlin was still the girly one.
"Not very servile, is he?" Wilhelm observed from further down the table. "For a servant, I mean."
"No," said Arthur, staring at the door Merlin had just flounced out of. "He's not."
For a servant.
That was just the thing, wasn't it? Suddenly, Wilhelm's slightly flirtatious smirk no longer seemed entertaining, and neither did the gleam in Ewan's eye.
In fact, the hall felt rather empty, now.
"I'm feeling sick," Arthur announced, and extricated himself carefully from his chair. He was usually well-coordinated when tipsy, but all those layers of petticoats and skirts weren't helping him any. Nor were his shoes, blast them. Useless heels. "I'm going back to my quarters."
A few of the knights came forward, then, clamoring to be his escorts for perfectly honorable reasons (you're tired, it's late, the wine) - as if Arthur actually was a girl, the idiots. He swatted them away like flies.
Did they think he couldn't take care of himself? Or that he was gullible enough to trust them with his virtue? Not after all the ogling they'd done tonight, surely. Fools.
His body might be a woman's, but Arthur could still crush all their hopes of child-rearing with a single well-placed knee. Had they forgotten that he was still Arthur? Or did breasts have amnesia-inducing qualities, heretofore unknown?
"Good night, my lady," said Ewan as he bowed - and Arthur privately reflected that he'd castrate the next fellow who called him that.
"Good night," Arthur answered sweetly, in his inescapably dulcet tones. He almost hoped that it would come to castrations; he hadn't missed the fact that throughout the feast, Ewan had taken up a rather cleavage-friendly vantage point behind Arthur's chair. True, Arthur had egged him on a little, but then, he'd expected Merlin to be more of a hindrance than he'd actually turned out to be. Pillock.
A pillock that was waiting for him upstairs, probably. Waiting and hating every moment of it.
Ewan sighed audibly when Arthur left, his bow transforming into a disappointed slump - while Wilhelm watched the departing sway of Arthur's hips with distinctly a wistful look in his eye.
Traitors. They really had forgotten who he was. Arthur couldn't imagine why he'd wanted to spend his birthday with them, honestly.
Not when he could be spending it with someone else.
"You're early," said Merlin, when Arthur finally stumbled into his chambers, his ankles practically tortured to death by Morgana's evil heels. He should've known that any sartorial assistance from his archenemy wouldn't come without a price. Ouch.
Arthur didn't reply to Merlin. He tottered forward and collapsed into the nearest chair, letting his legs fall open on either side of him. God, it was tiring crossing his legs all the time - not nearly as annoying as riding sidesaddle, admittedly, but at least he could view that as an athletic challenge. Wearing heels and crossing legs, though - well, it had seemed pointless, until Father had reminded him of his duty. Convenient or not, Arthur was the Princess of Camelot - for the time being, anyway - and he couldn't dishonor the Pendragon name by conducting himself unbecomingly.
Not in public, at least.
If Merlin noticed Arthur's unladylike sprawl, he didn't remark on it. He continued folding Arthur's clothes - the new clothes, the ones the seamstresses had fitted for Arthur just a week ago. There were few things more terrifying than being buried alive in a mountain of plump middle-aged women armed with giant needles, but Arthur had emerged from it feeling surprisingly cosseted and relaxed.
He eyed the dresses as Merlin tried to fold them. Most of them were made of some sleek, shimmery fabric that slipped out of Merlin's hands the moment he tried to grasp it - and, for once, Arthur didn't blame Merlin's clumsiness for that. It wasn't like Arthur was used to his new wardrobe, either. To him, it all looked like an indecipherable heap of sparkles and ribbons and lace.
It had been hard enough learning how to dress himself. ('No,' he remembered telling a disturbingly eager Morgana, 'I do not need a maid. I have Merlin.') Not that he'd let Merlin dress him, either, but Morgana didn't need to know that. Arthur was almost getting used to performing corset-related acrobatics every morning, and it comforted him immensely to know that Merlin wasn't there to laugh at him.
Even though the corsets did look good. Very good. Tonight's feast had proven that.
"So." Arthur slumped further in his chair, stretching his legs as far as they could go. Ah, bliss. "You were waiting for me."
"'Course I was. I didn't know if you'd be sick when you came back, or if you'd need a change of clothes, or if you'd - "
"If I'd come back alone?" Arthur smirked.
Merlin - still being a spoilsport, apparently - didn't reply. He frowned stubbornly at the dresses, and Arthur thought he wasn't going to speak at all, when he finally did.
"Why didn't you?"
It was almost too quiet to be heard. "What?"
"Why didn't you?" Merlin swallowed. "Bring... someone. Here."
Arthur considered passing a royal edict banning any unnecessary swallowing in male manservants, because there went the Adam's apple again. And... again. Oh, god.
This is preposterous, Arthur scolded himself. Just because you don't have it, doesn't make it desirable. And then his daft female brain had to bring up images of other things Merlin had that Arthur no longer did, and Arthur would've kicked himself for thinking that, except that he'd never hit a woman.
"Sorry, didn't quite catch that," said Arthur, dragging his eyes away from what had once been just another neck, and a particularly scrawny one, at that. "What did you say?"
Merlin threw the dress he'd been holding back onto the bed. "You know what? Never mind." He promptly turned on his heel, and started striding - no, flouncing - towards the door.
Good god. Not again.
"Wait." What was it this time? "Wait, Merlin."
Merlin halted. There was something in the stiffness of his back that meant he really, really wanted to turn around, but wouldn't unless Arthur asked him to. "Yes?"
"You can't leave." No, orders wouldn't work. It was time to play dirty. Merlin was the sort of servant that apparently reveled in lording it over his master, in being heroic and superior and needed, so... "I - I need you."
That did make Merlin turn around. His eyes were wide and shocky, and his mouth had fallen open a little; he looked like a remarkably unintelligent goldfish. "You... you do?"
"I always have. I need..."
Sod it. Now there was this expression on Merlin's face, not so much a stunned-goldfish one as a stunned-and-devoted-man-of-honor one, an I-knew-I-was-right-to-risk-my-life-for-you one, that somehow rivaled his Adam's apple in the effect it had on Arthur's body. Stupid womanly urges, Arthur cursed himself, refusing to admit defeat.
"I need you," Arthur said, and then lifted a foot, "to take off my shoes."
There was a moment of deafening silence. Arthur could see Merlin physically reeling back from it - taking in the once-again haughty tone of Arthur's voice - and Arthur almost felt bad about it, except that Merlin had to understand that he couldn't go around inciting random bursts of butterflies in Arthur's stomach simply by having that look on his face. It was a matter of decency. Surely Merlin would understand.
He didn't, apparently.
Merlin's eyes went flinty. "Of course you do. Forgive me for being so remiss in my duties, my lord." He marched back from the door and threw himself down at Arthur's feet, with all the seething rebellion of a child at the feet of a hated tutor. "Your shoes, you say? Take them off, you say?" His words were a jagged torrent. "Well, your wish is my command. Whatever you wish, my lord."
Arthur regarded him, mildly surprised by the outburst, but even more so by the terminology. "You don't call me 'my lady'."
Merlin snorted. "Why should I?" His hands were harsh on Arthur's ankles as they tugged open the frilly laces - bastard, didn't he know how much they hurt? "You're a man, no matter what King Uther says. 'Losing a son and gaining a daughter,' my arse. He's just waiting for you to change back."
"You don't think I'm womanly enough?" That stung, for some reason. For some demented reason, because obviously Arthur would never have felt that way had he been a man, although maybe he would've, because not being good at being womanly meant not being good at something, and Arthur had been trained to be good at everything. Since birth.
"Oh, you're womanly, all right. Made sure everyone knew that, didn't you?" A savage tug pulled one of the laces free, and Merlin all but yanked the shoe off Arthur's right foot.
"OW! Be gentle with the royal foot, you little - "
"Letting them fawn all over you," Merlin fumed, as if he hadn't heard Arthur's heart-rending cry of pain. "Yes, yes, you have curves now. As if that changes the fact that the curves belong to a giant prat."
A pretty prat, Arthur wanted to correct, but instead ended up saying, "A lady can't be a prat."
"What lady throws herself at men like that?"
Arthur bristled. "Are you suggesting that I'm a - "
"Don't make me say something that'll get me thrown in the stocks," Merlin snarled, "because heavens forbid that I get too busy having potatoes thrown at me to take off your silly silken shoes." Merlin yanked the other shoe off, too, and Arthur resisted the urge to hit the twit over his head. He'd only prove he was unladylike if he did that.
Instead, Arthur smiled - not nearly as sweet a smile he'd managed with Ewan, apparently, because instead of mooning appreciatively, Merlin only glared back. What, was he completely immune to Arthur's charms?
"You're such a boor, Merlin." Arthur was not pouting. He was not. "You haven't the manners to treat your prince with the respect he deserves, let alone the sense to treat your princess with the adoration she - "
"Is that a blister?" Merlin asked, and Arthur glowered.
"Can I not chastise my servant in peace, as befits a lady? Or shall said servant keep interrupting me?" Sod it, he really was going to hit Merlin. Which meant that he'd have to touch Merlin's head. Which had an awful lot of incredibly soft, incredibly messy, incredibly touchable hair on it. And what was wrong with Arthur's body, anyway, that it kept reacting to details like this?
"It is a blister," Merlin said, and all of a sudden Arthur was more aware of his left foot than he'd ever been in his entire life, because Merlin was touching it, callused palm to tender sole, and Arthur had had no idea that a woman's foot could be so soft and tender and sensitive, but - but -
"Tried to tell you," Arthur croaked, "to be gentle. But no, you wouldn't listen."
"Sorry," Merlin mumbled, and after a moment of mulish resistance, Merlin's shoulders slumped. He ran his fingers along the hot sole of Arthur's foot, leaving exceedingly disconcerting shivers in their wake, and all of a sudden, Merlin was looking contrite. "I'm a terrible servant, aren't I?"
"You most certainly are," Arthur declared loftily, and was taken aback when he saw Merlin slump even further. What, no retort this time? Merlin had always laughed off the servant thing. Even on the battlements, that day before Ealdor, Merlin had almost looked happy to be called a bad servant.
But it was different, now. There was something brittle in Merlin, something hurt and careful in the line of his shoulders, like a cloak of tiny ice-crystals that might shatter at a touch. Yes, that was it - only if Arthur touched this ice might it disperse, like frost did on window-panes or starlight on water.
Merlin was such a strange creature. So fragile and breakable and tremulously bright - particularly when he was sorrowful. Sorrow had an alarmingly transformative effect on Merlin's otherwise unremarkable face; it made Merlin's mouth soft and vulnerable in a way that was really quite devastating, and it made the line of Merlin's jaw somehow masculine and childlike at once, which made Arthur's stomach flip-flop like that of a teenaged girl's, and this really was a lot like -
Merlin didn't. He couldn't. Could he? He couldn't know what he was doing to Arthur. Because it was mortifying to think that Arthur was responding to Merlin's idiotic devotion the way Ewan did to Arthur's breasts. Because that was just wrong. Bad and wrong. It suddenly occurred to Arthur, in a nightmarish flash of insight, that had Merlin been the one turned into a woman, Arthur would very likely have disgraced himself and done something truly untoward to his skinny maidservant. (Merlin with small breasts and bony hips and in a serving girl's plain dress - oh. Oh, god.) It was horrifying to know, all of a sudden, what a thin line there was between misconduct and power - because even now, despite being the woman, Arthur felt dangerously inclined towards taking advantage of his servant. Who had to stop looking like that, damn it, or Arthur was going to do something very unladylike, indeed...
No. This had to stop. Arthur had to remind himself what Merlin was. He was not a servant, and therefore not someone that Arthur could use as he pleased. Merlin was - Merlin was -
"You're a horrible servant," Arthur said, hating that he had to say this, "because you're not. I mean, you are. But you're not."
Merlin glanced up at him quizzically; his eyes were still miserable, but his mouth twitched. "Have you been talking to Gwen? Because you sort of sound like her..."
"I mean," Arthur gritted out, hating Merlin even more, "that you're not. A servant. You're. More like a. You know."
After five agonizing seconds of disbelief, Merlin let out a soft chuckle. "Are you trying to make fun of me again? What do you need me to take off this time? Your - " and then Merlin stopped mid-sentence, blushing, and Arthur really didn't want to know how that sentence had been about to end. Except that he did, and that was what he didn't want to know.
"You're more like a friend," Arthur said fiercely, clamping his hands onto the armrests in order to avoid grabbing Merlin by the ends of his ridiculously pretty hair and shaking some sense into him. "Understand? That's why you're a horrible servant. Because you're not actually a servant. Except when you are. And then you're horrible."
Merlin gawked at him.
What happened then was, Arthur would later suppose, one of the most painful pauses of his life. He sat there, sweating like it was fifteen minutes before a joust, and sweating in a corset was almost as uncomfortable as sweating in armor, come to think of it.
"You're... You're serious?"
"And you're obviously deaf," Arthur snapped. His cheeks were going hot, he could feel them. This was humiliating. "Idiot."
"You're blushing," said Merlin, wonderingly. He had that goldfish expression on again - which didn't make him any less attractive, for some reason. Arthur noted, vengefully, that Merlin's head was still shaped like a turnip.
"Shut up. You are, too." He couldn't believe his face, betraying him like that. Who did it think it belonged to?
"No, I'm not," Merlin denied, and immediately blushed even harder.
"Yes, you are. And have been, for some time. Longer than I have, I might add."
Merlin choked. For a split second, Arthur was worried that the clod had just killed himself by choking on his own spit (a prospect that seemed strangely plausible when it came to Merlin), but then it became clear that Merlin was laughing.
"You... I can't...!" Merlin hunched over Arthur's foot, the one with the eye-catching blister on it, and laughed so hard that gusts of Merlin-breath warmed Arthur's toes.
Arthur flexed them; they brushed Merlin's hair. "Shut up," he said, absently. "Didn't I tell you to shut up? You're my servant. You shut up when I tell you to."
"So if I don't shut up when you tell me to, I'm not your servant?" Merlin's laughter had wheezed to a gradual halt, but his voice was playful and his eyes were still shining, and he was looking at Arthur again, really looking at him, in a way that was warm and close and really quite terrible for Arthur's composure. Were all girls this swoony, or was Arthur particularly unfortunate in being given a swoony body?
"No, you're still my servant. Just a horrible one."
"Hm." Merlin was smiling. Smiling, damn him.
Arthur sulked. He'd only gone through this whole rigmarole in order to better protect Merlin from himself, but it wasn't going to help any if Merlin was determined to sabotage Arthur's best efforts.
"Can't believe you," Merlin murmured, and he looked all relaxed and almost melty, like syrup or cream or something else that was eminently lickable and that Arthur was trying not to think about. "You make everything so bizarre."
Arthur made everything bizarre? But - oh, right. Arthur was the one with the breasts. That probably won the bizarre competition. "Well, you make everything - " he cast about for a word " - difficult."
"In what way?" Merlin was touching his foot again - was cradling it - and his hands when they curled around Arthur's heel were soothing and reverent and not rough at all. In fact, they were gentle in precisely the same way they were gentle when Merlin got him ready for matches, or tended to his wounds - but that hadn't caught Arthur's attention before, or at least, not to this degree.
"Every way," Arthur answered, but his mind was screaming, 'THAT WAY!', thinking specifically of the way Merlin was touching him. Arthur coughed. "My feet don't ache anymore, you know. You can let go." You had better let go, Arthur thought, if you want to escape this room with your chastity intact. Arthur wasn't completely drunk, but he wasn't entirely sober, either. A prince - or a princess - could only have so much self-control.
"You're lying," Merlin said blithely, as if impending ravishment-by-princess wasn't in the least bit frightening. "They're still hurting. I can tell."
"How can you tell? It's my body!"
"Because I know your body," Merlin said, then stuttered and quickly added, "because of the. Tournaments. And the. Um."
"My body's changed," Arthur pointed out. "You might not know it anymore."
"I think I do," Merlin murmured, quietly. "Some things have changed, but others - " His hand slid over Arthur's heel and up towards the ankle, curling around it briefly before moving on. "Well, your ankle is thinner."
"Of course it is," Arthur huffed, doing his best to ignore the fact that Merlin's sodding hand was sliding up his sodding leg, lifting the frilly edges of his dress on the way. "I'm a lady, not a bloody Valkyrie."
Merlin chortled. He didn't seem to know what he was doing, the pillock - but Arthur had to try very hard not to moan when Merlin's palm, so warm and work-roughened and big, curved under his calf. And kneaded it.
"Uh," said Arthur.
"You're still too well-built to be a lady," Merlin observed. "Calves like that don't come naturally. Not to women, anyway."
"Felt up many women's legs, have you?"
"Not really," Merlin muttered, and Arthur felt an unaccustomed flare of jealousy at the 'really'. "It's common sense, though, isn't it?"
It's common sense not to unintentionally molest your prince-turned-princess while you are both somewhat inebriated, Arthur's brain supplied, but his body did little more than quiver. He realized what was happening, dimly, and that he'd struggled not to arrive at this very point - but that struggle felt increasingly meaningless now, as Merlin's fingers feathered under his knee and made him gasp.
Merlin, too, appeared to have fallen into a sort of lull; he may have been preoccupied with mapping the differences of Arthur's new body, but he seemed entirely unconscious of the fact that he was straying - had already strayed - far beyond the bounds of propriety.
In a dazed corner of his mind, Arthur felt compelled to note that alcohol and manservants did not go well together. Or, rather, they went together too well...
"Soft," said Merlin, which happened to be the exact word in Arthur's mind, as he looked down at the fire-lit gleam of Merlin's hair. Merlin's thumb finished tracing its tantalizing circle around Arthur's knee, and then stroked upwards, up and up and - oh, god -
Did all women's thighs feel this vulnerable and receptive? Arthur felt so flushed, and so - so open - that he had to curl his toes in the cloth of Merlin's tunic. Merlin had shifted closer, somehow, with Arthur's foot against his chest and his arm all the way up Arthur's skirt - which was rucked up around Arthur's bent knees in a manner that was very convenient and would surely look indecent to anyone who walked in on them right now.
"Smooth," said Merlin, and Arthur wondered if Merlin was going to keep up his monosyllabic commentary on the state of Arthur's thighs.
It was so hot under the heavy fabric of his skirt and two petticoats, and he could feel his skin grow moist under Merlin's already-clammy palm. There was a strange, spiraling quality to the tension gathering in the pit of Arthur's stomach; it wove itself into a glistening, golden knot of something, something peculiar and ineffable and sharp, something exquisitely caught between pain and urgency, that rose and rippled outwards and made Arthur feel wet and desperate and slick.
Closer, Arthur urged silently, not thinking and not really wanting to think what he meant by that. Closer, damn you -
The tips of Merlin's fingers obediently brushed closer, but not close enough - not - not -
"Ah!" Arthur's limbs surrendered to a sudden, shocking, full-bodied convulsion - the kind that brought a fresh wave of sweat springing to his skin and tore an embarrassingly loud cry from his mouth. He curved, like a drawn bow, and hooked his leg around Merlin's stupid, charming, scrawny neck - and the next thing he knew, Merlin had fallen forward with his nose in the rustle of Arthur's skirt, and his hand had been knocked completely away from Arthur's thigh.
"Umph!" said Merlin, sounding just as shocked - before wrenching himself away and falling back on his elbows, wide-eyed and red-faced and very, very sober.
"Fuck," hissed Arthur, vicious with sudden wakefulness and the still-unsatisfied tremors of his body. He'd been so close, so damned close, and then he'd gone and ruined it.
Merlin seemed struck momentarily speechless. He gaped up at Arthur from the rushes, as if the sight of a disheveled and nearly-deflowered princess was one that he'd never even dreamed of. Swiftly replacing that expression of sheer astonishment was an expression of sheer terror, however, and one of such potential magnitude that Arthur felt the need to intervene.
"You did not know what you were doing," Arthur supplied, and Merlin jerked like a puppet on a string.
"B-but - "
"You didn't know, you were drunk, and I took advantage of my superior rank and of your daft, boneheaded - "
"But I - "
"Be quiet, Merlin, I'm trying to save you from a beheading." Arthur resumed: "Daft, bone-headed innocence, because you had no idea of the effect you have on my female body, which obviously has no taste and no sense of propriety, and you are not in any way, shape or form responsible for - "
"Wait," said Merlin, dizzily. He still hadn't raised himself up from his elbows, and Arthur was acutely aware of how takeable Merlin looked from this angle. "W-wait. I... I have an effect on you?" He appeared even more stunned by this revelation than he had by the fact that he'd just had his hand up a prince's skirt.
But Arthur was not talking about this. Merlin didn't need to know every little detail of Arthur's unhealthy fascination with gangly manservants. "You will now leave," Arthur said, and instead of adding, so that I may touch myself, he managed, "and never speak of this again."
"I have an effect on you," Merlin repeated, obviously still suffering from his special brand of selective hearing. Then, as if something had just occurred to him, he asked: "Did Sir Ewan have an effect on you?"
"What?" The very thought was so appalling that Arthur briefly forgot about the fact that he was still damp and tingly down there, and that Merlin needed to get out of here right now so that he could tend to himself. But - but - Ewan! Or any of those hypocritical knights! "Don't be absurd."
"Absurd," Merlin echoed blankly, and then a curious expression stole across his face. "Absurd," he said again, with an odd, incredulous smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Don't you dare dimple at me, Arthur thought, desperately. "If I'd wanted a parrot as a manservant, Merlin, I'd have bloody well employed one." Merlin - damn him - dimpled. Arthur shifted in his chair. "I thought I told you to leave."
"You did," Merlin grinned. "But you know me, my lord. When have I ever listened to you?"
"Horrible servant," Arthur said, heart beginning to pound. Those were his own words - his own words - thrown back at him, and it was just like Merlin to do that, just like the idiot peasant who'd refused to treat him differently because he was a prince, and who now refused to treat him differently because he was a woman. It was just like Merlin to refuse to call him a lady, but insist on calling him a prat; it was just like Merlin, always refusing to listen, always refusing to obey, always refusing to leave. Whether in mortal peril or in Gedref or in a monster's lair - always, always, always refusing to leave. "Horrible servant," Arthur repeated, and this time, his voice rasped.
Everything made sense, now - Merlin's gentle hands as they bandaged him after a joust, Merlin's ridiculous fit at the feast tonight, everything, everything. Arthur felt something in him judder apart - come together - knit itself into something tight and precarious and new. It was very nearly terrifying, except that it wasn't - because Arthur had known it all along. Or his body had, anyway, and had been reminding him of it until things came to this.
"Yeah," said Merlin, his own voice somewhat unsteady. He must've seen in Arthur's face a hint of Arthur's intent, because his lips parted, and he did that syrupy thing again; he went lax against the rushes, all the way from his head to his toes, and there was a lust-bright luminosity to his face that invited Arthur to drink his fill.
No. Not yet. "You're drunk," said Arthur, because he had to.
"Only a little bit," countered Merlin, his chest rising and falling faster than it had been just a moment ago.
"I'm taking advantage of you."
"No, you're not," countered Merlin again. "Um. At least. Not yet."
"Would you like me to?" Arthur was clenching the arms of his chair so hard that he was surprised they didn't break.
"Yes," said Merlin, breathlessly.
"You're hard," Arthur said, because Merlin was, because he had to be.
"Y-yeah," Merlin stammered, then gasped - because Arthur had just put his foot on Merlin's crotch, the very foot Merlin had caressed earlier, and Arthur pressed down on the erection he found there as if it were Arthur's property. Which it was.
"Say it," Arthur commanded, because he could feel it under the worn stretch of Merlin's breeches, against the arch of his foot, and just the hidden shape of it was enough to drive him mad. He felt crazed; reckless; hot. The words burned as they left his mouth. "You're hard. Say it."
"I'm - I'm - " Merlin seemed almost afraid, but Arthur knew what kind of fear it was - not fear of Arthur, never fear of Arthur, but fear of losing control. Too bad, then; Arthur was going to make sure he lost it. Arthur dug in with his toes, even deeper, and Merlin's hips twitched helplessly. "H-hard, I'm - fuck, Arthur, please - "
Perhaps it was the sound of Merlin calling his name; perhaps it was Merlin's voice, broken in a way Arthur had never heard it before; perhaps it was the fact that Merlin, who never asked for anything and never surrendered to anyone, was begging him. Perhaps it was all three. A fractured heat shot through Arthur's veins, sudden and feral as a curse.
In the blink of an eye, he'd launched himself off the chair and onto Merlin, hands fastened unerringly around Merlin's wrists, pushing them deeper into the rushes. It was downright weird, having his dress getting in the way of straddling Merlin as he wished - but all it took was a little hitch of his waist, and Merlin's eyes all but crossed as Arthur settled atop Merlin with his legs on either side of Merlin's hips.
"Gnuh," said Merlin, and then Arthur leaned down and crushed their chests together. "F-fu - what - you've really got - "
"Yes, I've got breasts," Arthur huffed, "not that you wanted to look before."
"I couldn't bear to - "
"Hm. Well, why don't you bare them, then?"
Merlin groaned. His wrists twisted within Arthur's grip, and Arthur let go, because he wanted very much to know what those devoted, peasant-rough hands would do. Sure enough, they flew to the fastenings on the back of Arthur's dress - which Arthur would've been more than happy to help with, except that Merlin didn't seem to need any help. The laces behind Arthur's neck were coming undone as if by magic; Arthur scarcely felt a tug of thread.
The jealousy from before flared up again, and Arthur grazed his mouth against Merlin's ear. "Do this often, do you?"
Merlin's hands spasmed on Arthur's back; the last of the laces sprang free. "Uh, no," he said. "I just - I'm used to undoing your stupid byzantine leather things, aren't I?"
"They're not stupid." And then Arthur realized something. "I haven't kissed you, yet."
The color rose in Merlin's cheeks - god, he really hadn't done much before, not if he blushed at something like this. He lifted his chin, as if in a dare, and Arthur tried not to smirk. "Do... Do it, then."
"No." Arthur shifted above Merlin, still chest-to-chest in what Arthur knew, from prior experience, was a tantalizing hint of bosomy softness. He wondered if all women felt that evil, and that delicious, doing it deliberately. Because they did do it deliberately; Arthur was very sure of that now. He did it again, sliding his cloth-clad breasts ever-so-lightly over Merlin's chest, and Merlin's breath hitched.
"No, I said." He blew gently against Merlin's jaw, and a minute shiver ran along Merlin's body - a shiver that Arthur instinctively echoed, his lips trembling against Merlin's skin. "I won't do it. You kiss me."
To Arthur's surprise, Merlin rolled his eyes. "Should've known," he muttered, gliding his own hands up Arthur's unlaced back, fingers dipping in-between the strips of silk to brush, in maddeningly glancing touches, patches of achingly bare skin. And maybe he had done this before, because it was a lot like a flight of very warm, very teasing butterflies across the length of Arthur's back.
I'm not a bloody harp, Arthur wanted to say. Stop playing me. But instead he said, in what he hoped was his most unaffected drawl: "Oh, you know something, do you? How shocking."
"Prat." Merlin's fingers had found their way to Arthur's nape, where they brushed Arthur's hair aside. "I should've known you'd still be a prat. Take off my shoes, Merlin. Tell me you're hard, Merlin. Take off my corset, Merlin. Kiss me, Merlin." He shook his head, his lips curving in that infuriatingly dimpled smile again. "You'll never stop giving me orders, will you?"
"Will you ever stop disobeying them?"
"Well," said Merlin, daring to affect his own drawl, "I might. If they're in my best interests."
"And is kissing me in your best interests?"
"I don't know," Merlin answered - the bastard - and grinned. "What do you think?"
"I think you're a horrible servant." Arthur was absolutely sure that he had never hated anyone so much, and that if Merlin didn't kiss him right now, he couldn't be blamed for hauling Merlin's breeches off of him and taking him by force.
"I know," said Merlin, and had the gall to chuckle as he cupped the back of Arthur's neck and finally, finally, tugged him down for a kiss. "I know."
Merlin's mouth was nothing like Arthur had expected.
Not that he had expected anything, because that would've been insane, wondering what his servant's mouth tasted like - but Arthur was still utterly unprepared for it, for the sheer unabashed greed of it, ale-sweet and heady and hot. Despite how shy and oblivious and foolish Merlin could be, his mouth was anything but - he kissed Arthur like he knew him, had been waiting for him, had known he would arrive. Merlin kissed Arthur as if he were the keeper of a secret, and Arthur was the secret, unspoken and sacred and indisputably his; he kissed with certainty and desperation and unbridled need, with a fierce possession that none had dared show Arthur before. There was no finesse to Merlin, but there didn't need to be - Merlin shuddered and opened up to him with a hunger so honest that it shook Arthur to his core, because Merlin had laid himself bare, and, in doing so, had bared Arthur as well.
This - this was - Arthur couldn't breathe, but he didn't care - Merlin was licking him clean, scouring him of the taste of anything but himself, the sour-sweetness of ale fading to the simpler, purer taste of sweat and salt and spit. For Merlin was pure, in a way that Arthur had never known and couldn't comprehend; he could only take what Merlin gave him and fight to give something back. Merlin's mouth was as lush as a summer forest, dark and mossy and damp, and there was a depth and a wildness to it that seemed somehow unfathomable, that seemed ageless and ancient and forlorn and young, and Arthur felt as though he were plunging headlong into some strange, shattering ecstasy, an abyss from which he might never return. Their lips were sore and swollen and yet they couldn't stop, tongues blind and seeking, and Merlin's hands were now on either side of Arthur's face and there was breath and heat and touch and sway, and Arthur was rocking atop him, helpless rutting circles of movement that Merlin rolled up to meet, and there was no stopping this, no curbing this, and Arthur wanted to take the fire of this and just let everything burn -
Arthur wrenched away, shock-dizzy and panting, vision gone nearly black from lack of air. He was scraping his teeth along Merlin's jaw, saying something, in low, guttural sounds that were surely unladylike and raving mad but that made Merlin moan anyway -
"Tunic. Off. Take it off, Merlin, fuck - "
And his fingers were at the hem of Merlin's tunic, its simple wool rough in his grip as he hauled it up, but Merlin was obviously still as uncoordinated and daft as always, because it took him several moments to catch on and help.
"Y-yeah, um, sure," Merlin said, voice cracking like dry earth under the sun, and then Arthur's hands were on it - on the sun, that is, because Merlin's skin was blazing as if with a fever, hotter than any earthly thing could possibly be, and when Merlin stopped tangling awkwardly in his own sleeves and threw his tunic aside, Arthur could finally run his fingers all the way up that thin torso and to the tempting, godforsaken Adam's apple that had started all this.
Arthur massaged it; Merlin squirmed. The sparse, wiry hair on his chest scratched Arthur's palms, and Arthur realized he'd brought them back down to Merlin's chest again, following the scorched red of his descending blush. Merlin's breath scraped in and out of him, slowing and deepening with every pass - but Arthur's own heart was racing within him, thundering away like a horseless carriage.
"Me," said Arthur, "me, too," and the words didn't even make sense to himself until Merlin reached for the his blouse again, undoing the last of the laces behind Arthur's back. He didn't remove it altogether, though, and Arthur huffed impatiently.
"Can I - can I really - "
Damn. Merlin had become coherent again - or what passed for coherence with him - but Arthur had no time to entertain Merlin's sudden and uncharacteristic attack of humility, the kind he'd never displayed even when strung up in the stocks.
"You can," Arthur answered, and when Merlin made no move, added: "You should."
But Merlin was too busy looking like he'd been hit over the head with a blunt object, so Arthur decided to indulge him just this once, and do the embarrassing deed himself.
Arthur lifted his shoulders to allow his blouse and his unbound corset to fall away, and then he was naked before Merlin, being seen in this strange female form as he'd trusted none other to see him, and it was. It was.
"Oh. My. God," breathed Merlin, and his voice raised goose-bumps along Arthur's skin. Merlin, the pillock, simply lay there and stared.
Arthur was vaguely aware of his nipples stiffening.
"Well?" he said at last, meaning to sound annoyed, but his question emerged more hesitant than anything else. "Touch me, you dolt."
Merlin swallowed. "All... all right." He raised his hands, shaky as an acolyte's before the Holy Grail, and then he cupped, palms warm and callused and wonderful, and the breath that escaped the both of them was loud enough to fill the room.
The fireplace crackled. Merlin's thumbs moved - a fraction, until they each brushed a nipple - and Arthur gasped as a spike of heat shot through him.
Merlin, for his part, was still looking at Arthur's chest like it was some sort of revelation.
"Having a religious experience, are you?" Again, Arthur meant to sound smug, perhaps even taunting, but his words emerged jagged with pleasure.
"I." Merlin looked stupefied. "I had no idea they did that."
"This," said Merlin, and circled Arthur's nipples again until they pebbled and hardened and peaked, and then Merlin did it again, the gorgeous bastard, and -
"Keep doing that," Arthur instructed, even though he was aware that he probably sounded like he was falling apart, and even though his mind had grasped Merlin's declaration with greedy little fists and triumphant flashes of insight that started with 'first' and ended with 'mine'.
But when had Merlin ever been obedient? Never, obviously, because instead of fondling Arthur's nipples like a good boy, Merlin let go, saying, "sorry, I have to," and then he was leaning up and kissing Arthur's breasts, and perhaps it was all right to disobey orders, it was brilliant, because -
"Fuck," Arthur said, head dropping and hair swinging forward to block out the firelight. And anyway, the fire was in Merlin now, in Merlin's tongue, in the little licks of flame that brushed Arthur's nipples and in the plush, velveteen kisses that took them in, one by one, and laved and suckled and nursed. A perverse thrill twisted Arthur from the inside out, gut-wrenchingly sweet, and he realized that it wasn't the rushes his fingers were tangling in, but Merlin's hair. And Merlin, damn him, kept sucking and sucking until Arthur's nipples were swollen little cushions, puffy and aching and wet. Arthur flinched - made a low, complaining noise - and Merlin moved, tongue swiping along the outer curve of a breast and then underneath, flicking up against the soft weight of it and the no doubt salty crease at its base, and up again along Arthur's breastbone in a sizzling stripe straight to his throat, saliva cooling and tingling in its wake, and -
"Stop," Arthur ordered, tugging Merlin's head away, and Merlin only gazed up at him with shining lips, looking filthy and beautiful and starved. And Arthur almost forgot why he'd stopped Merlin, why he'd had to, but thankfully, Arthur's vocal chords remembered, because -
"In you," Arthur was growling, "I want in you, damn it, but I can't - "
"Yes," was Merlin saying mindlessly, "yes," his hands suddenly on Arthur's hips and urging him on, because apparently his stupid manservant had already forgotten that this body was a woman's beneath the waist, as well, and that was enough to return some semblance of awareness to Arthur and to remind him of the very slippery predicament between his legs.
"I said I bloody can't," Arthur gritted out, regret and frustration jarring his voice.
"Wha...?" Merlin was just returning to coherence - slower than Arthur, as might be expected - and he blinked up at Arthur with eyes dark and dream-heavy, and really, had Arthur the ability to do so, he'd be in Merlin already.
"I can't. Fuck. You," Arthur explained, rocking harder against Merlin with every word, as if to prove his point. "Which is why you have to fuck me. Understand?"
Merlin's eyes began to clear; a stunned expression settled on his face. "What?"
Arthur didn't answer him. He reached down to undo Merlin's breeches, his hands embarrassingly clumsy; Arthur would never have done this to any other man, never, but the thought of letting Merlin go without having him was unbearable. Odd, erratic currents were sparking along Arthur's nerves and pooling between his thighs, resulting in an urgent, imperative demand of in - which was bizarre and completely unfair, because Arthur's mind wanted something else entirely, but it was something his current body just wasn't built for.
"W-wait," said Merlin, looking more confounded by the second. "Wait, Arthur - "
"I'm going to put you in me." Arthur's fingers found Merlin's erection and freed it, and Merlin whined in a way that very nearly undid Arthur right then and there. He'd never touched a man like this, never held - god, that was Merlin's - he was holding Merlin's cock, so hard and so aroused that it had to hurt, and Merlin had this half-terrified, half-eager look on his face that made Arthur want to take him apart entirely, to see what was left of Merlin when Arthur had claimed it all.
"We can't do this," Merlin was saying, hushed and tremulous and awed. "Arthur, we can't - "
"Why the hell not?" Arthur ran this thumb up the length of Merlin's erection; it wasn't unlike his own, when he still used to have one, because it lifted and twitched. Not so strange, after all.
"Because of the spell, and... What if - what if you're a virgin, now?"
"Well, we'll find out, won't we?"
"But it'll hurt!"
"I've been stabbed by a bloody sword, Merlin. I don't think this'll hurt as much."
"...can't believe you're comparing me to violent bodily assault," Merlin murmured, obviously gone delirious with lust. His hands hovered at Arthur's hips, as if they couldn't quite dare to settle, and Arthur sat up so that he could look Merlin in the eye.
"I'm the one assaulting you, here."
"Yes, yes, it's all you." There was a peculiar quaver to Merlin's mouth, like it couldn't decide whether to purse in worry or lift in a smile; the idiot, actually being afraid of hurting Arthur when the only thing that could hurt Arthur right now was not getting off.
"Need convincing?" Arthur wrapped his hand around Merlin, more surely than before; Merlin couldn't be expected to be comfortable with this if Arthur wasn't comfortable, after all. So Arthur steadied his grip - like he was used to doing this, like there wasn't a corner of his mind quaking in its boots at the idea of having that inside him. He stroked Merlin's cock, shifting so that he had it between his thighs, and drew a breath.
Now, Merlin's hands did clamp down on his hips. "We don't have to do this," he said, urgently, and Arthur could see how much it cost him to say that - with his ears flaming red and his cock pulsing desperately in Arthur's grasp. "You could change back tomorrow. And you could... do. What you want to do. What we both want to do. Arthur - "
"And what if I don't change back tomorrow?"
Merlin's hands tightened.
"Or the day after? Or ever?"
"That's not poss - "
"It is absolutely fucking possible, Merlin, and don't you dare tell me otherwise. That potion Gaius is brewing may never work, and you know it. I'm taking what I can get when I can get it. Will you deny it to me?" Sod it, his voice was shaking, now. Oh, well done, getting Merlin to think he was all right with this. Arthur tried to firm his voice - and failed. "Will you?"
Something in Merlin's eyes broke - softened or darkened or - Arthur couldn't be sure, but whatever it was, it made Merlin surge up from the floor and wrap his arms around Arthur, and it was humiliating that Merlin felt like he had to do this, but he let Merlin do it, anyway. For Merlin's sake.
"Doesn't matter to me," Merlin whispered in his ear, "what you are. You know that, don't you?"
Shut up, damn it.
Merlin's breath; Merlin's voice; Merlin being stubborn and insistent as always. "Arthur?"
"I hate you," Arthur said, muffled against Merlin's shoulder, and Merlin let out a startled laugh.
"What for, this time?"
For making me realize things I was never meant to. "For not shutting up." And then he kissed Merlin, as gently as he could, to belie his own words - and he was sinking down, down onto Merlin, taking him in.
The world split.
Merlin kept holding onto him, kept kissing him, even though Arthur could feel, against his thumb, the vein jumping in Merlin's jaw - Merlin was determined not to move, it seemed, and that was just fine, because Arthur was being cored like an apple, and it sodding hurt.
"Oh, fuck," Arthur gasped. His eyes were watering; he was vaguely aware of the fact that this thighs were trembling, and that a kind of dulled lightning was spreading out from the center of him, excruciating and blinding and hot. "Oh, fuck," he repeated. This was nothing. This was absolutely nothing, this was -
"Arthur." Merlin's voice jostled him. "Arthur, are you - "
"Fine," Arthur gritted, and had an incongruous flashback to the battering ram he'd commanded his knights to force through the great door of Crenwyn's castle, last year. He wondered if this was how the door had felt. "Oh, fuck."
"If you don't say something else," ventured Merlin, "I'm going to stop."
"You can't stop, you imbecile, because if you do, I will kill you."
"Right," said Merlin, weakly, "that's. That's good, then," and hissed, because Arthur was truly settled on him now, down to the proverbial hilt, and the shock of it reverberated through Arthur, fullness and heaviness and yes.
"Made it," panted Arthur, lightheaded. His skin felt thin and over-ripe, as if it might burst. The place between his legs was pulsing, liquid, pain-glossed. He shuddered, and some of that slick heat leaked out of him, around Merlin, oh god, because despite everything, his body still wanted to be fucked.
He blinked to clear his vision, and saw Merlin's jaw before him, tilted back and bruised in at least three distinct places, which meant that while Arthur hadn't known he was doing it, he'd bitten Merlin. Hard.
Merlin had gone utterly, completely quiet. He seemed to be quivering, or - or shattering, because his eyes were squeezed shut and his knuckles where white on Arthur's hips, and he looked terrified and gone, as if he was on the brink of death. Or rebirth.
"Merlin," Arthur said, and lifted up a little, sinking down again.
"Merlin," Arthur said again, the slide of Merlin's cock within him somehow surreal, like a sensation from another world, silk-hot and implacable and inevitable as the tide. His hips wouldn't stop rolling. "Merlin," he said, in the tone of an order, and Merlin opened his eyes.
For a moment, there was a flash of gold in them - feral as a lion's, inhuman, wild - but then it was gone, no doubt a trick of the firelight, and Merlin moaned.
"Trying - I'm trying not to - "
"Not to what?"
"- bring the castle down around us," Merlin finished, on a hoarse little laugh, and he sounded so lost that Arthur had to cup his face.
"Don't be daft, Merlin. You couldn't move that much."
"I could move the world," Merlin growled - and in a startling heave from what Arthur had always thought was a weaker body, Merlin had rolled him over and pinned him to the rushes.
The change in positions made them both groan. Merlin was really in him, now, by his own volition on with his own force, and it was -
"The only thing you've moved is me," Arthur pointed out, breathlessly, because he was apparently masochistic and suicidal and wanted to goad his manservant into splitting him in two.
"I did say," said Merlin, "the world - "
And before Arthur could decipher that, Merlin was fucking into him, again and again, and Arthur tossed his head back and yelled, because he could feel himself opening in a series of juddering, heaving gulps that had him clenching hungrily around Merlin's cock, clinging onto it with every inch of his being - and Arthur couldn't abide the thought of Merlin not in him, not even for an instant, which was why he locked his ankles behind Merlin's back and grabbed Merlin's shoulders and kept saying, whenever he could -
"Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, Merlin - "
And Merlin shook all over and thrust and thrust, his eyes closed once again and his face turned a little away, as if he was holding something in, holding something back - and Arthur couldn't bear it, so he kissed Merlin's temple and kissed his sweat-sodden curls and kissed his mouth and kissed his chin, and said: "Do it, do it, give it all to me, Merlin - give - "
And Merlin did, forcing Arthur's legs further back so that the skirt rumpled between them, lace chafing against Arthur's belly and nipples, and Merlin thrust hard, once, before pulling out and grinding against Arthur's hipbone and coming, groaning, "ohgodohgodohgod," and if Arthur weren't so shaken at the feeling of having another man's semen splashing onto his hip, he might've been grateful that Merlin hadn't come inside him.
"Please," Merlin was saying, "please, I have to," which didn't make any sense, but then Merlin was moving down Arthur's body, hands sliding under Arthur's skirt and rucking it up, ruffling in layers of petticoat until they'd pushed them all back, and saying: "Taste you, I have to taste you, I have to taste myself in you, Arthur - "
And that was when Arthur knew that Merlin could move the world, because Merlin's tongue was down there, licking him open, sucking hungrily and desperately and it was wet and sloppy and slick, and Arthur heard himself whine as he arched up, his fingers buried in Merlin's ridiculous hair, tugging and maybe tearing but he frankly couldn't care, because he was coming, too, waves of wracking, pulsing heat that felt shockingly like bloodlust, like destroying and breaking and taking, except that he was giving this to Merlin and Merlin was taking it for him, from him, buzzing moans sweet against the slick folds of him and tongue probing and tasting and hot.
"Stop," Arthur was saying, "stop," because it was starting to hurt now, a sharp, too-keen peak of sensation in the slobbering mess between his legs, and Merlin's tongue was right against it, up against that peak, and this time, Arthur was tugging on his hair to pull him away. "Stop," he said, "please," and Merlin was crawling up again, pressing kisses to Arthur's shoulders, whispering words that sounded a lot like "hush" and "Arthur" and "mine".
That last made Arthur blink, a little, and wake up to the reality of what they'd done - to the reality of being rumpled and soggy and downright ravished, in fact, dirty and fucked and complete in a way he hadn't ever been before, possibly because no one else had ever dared to use him with such abandon, even when he'd been a man. Merlin was still kissing him, his hair, his ears, his face, and Arthur shifted until they were mouth-to-mouth. Merlin tasted like Arthur, and it sent a frisson of desire through Arthur that was, at the same time, the most horrifying possessiveness he'd ever experienced. The thought of Merlin ever tasting like someone else - having someone else -
"Mine," Arthur echoed, and Merlin clutched at him and quivered and moaned.
The rushes had tangled up in Arthur's hair, and felt uncomfortable and strange and wrong, because he wasn't supposed to have hair that long, but the fact of Merlin on him and against him was somehow destined and comfortable and right, so Arthur could ignore the rest of it, and revel in the echoing pleasure still resounding through him. It was as if his body were a struck cymbal, and Arthur wondered whether all women were this sensitive even after they came.
"Are you all right?" Merlin asked, when he finally drew back a little, and Arthur fought the urge to knock him over the head for thinking that Arthur was a delicate damsel in distress. In sweaty dishabille, perhaps, but...
"Of course I am," Arthur replied, sounding more husky than indignant, and Merlin quirked a smile. Rebelliously, Arthur asked: "You?"
"I think I just died," Merlin said, and grinned when Arthur glared up at him.
"Glad to know it was such a good experience," Arthur muttered, and Merlin ducked against his neck and laughed. His breath was warm on Arthur's shoulder.
"I meant to say, died and went to heaven, but, yeah." Merlin looked flushed and flatteringly overwhelmed. "You really are amazing. That was. I can't even think, that was - I honestly wouldn't have minded it if the world had ended, right then."
"Good thing it didn't. Or we wouldn't be able to do this again."
"Again." A kind of wonder overtook Merlin's face, so Arthur reached up to touch it, to keep some of that wonder for himself. And then he hooked an arm behind Merlin's neck and tugged him back down again, for a single kiss.
"Hm." Arthur was sleepy - and also in urgent need of a bath - but the hair on Merlin's nape was furring so softly between his fingers, and Merlin was doing such a wonderful job of being a blanket. Arthur looked up at Merlin, who looked down at him, and suddenly, nothing about this seemed strange. Arthur's being a woman, or being deflowered by his manservant, or lounging about barely-dressed on the rushes. None of it seemed strange at all.
Merlin's eyes were a deep blue, desire-dark and joy-lit. He looked, Arthur reflected, hazily, very much like a pilgrim that had reached the end of his journey. The surety suited him. Arthur decided, in that very moment, that he would do everything in his power to keep it there.
"Shall your servant carry you to bed, Your Highness?"
"Oh, shut up," Arthur mumbled, incapable, at this juncture, of being appropriately needled by the suggestion - or by the hint of worry hidden beneath Merlin's gentle teasing. "I'm fine."
He did let Merlin carry him to bed, though.
For Merlin's sake.