It had to be his hands, Arthur decided one balmy afternoon while Merlin folded his tunics, prattling to a silent room. Merlin's hands, unlike his insufferable need to talk, were very straight and long-fingered, and not at all chatty. They wound silently and softly around the downy rouge velvet of Arthur's favorite tunic, turning it in on itself so the seams fell together down the middle. He pulled the sleeves together with intent, blue eyes flashing over Pendragon red—the reddest red ever—before sliding the pair through the valley in between his pointer and middle fingers.
Somewhere in all this, the crown realized he was staring, promptly looking away and refusing to admit this fact to himself. He did, however, allow himself to speak. "Merlin," he lilted on the name, cutting the manservant off mid-inconsequential-sentence, "you should start doing my laundry more often."
Merlin did not hide his rolling eyes. He was unafraid of royal punishment—at least, anything worse than the stocks—coming from Arthur. Arthur knew and had yet to tell his father, so Merlin figured a little sass couldn't hurt. "I already do it once a week, sire." He set the bright tunic down with the rest of the prince's clothing.
"You do not!" Arthur objected. "You piddle around with Gaius and that mad dragon while Guenevire picks up your sorry work and does it herself!"
The prince saw a half-ashamed look cross Merlin's face. Merlin trailed his fingertips along the scarlet tunic with an absentminded upset in his eyes. "Oh, Gwen."
Merlin's action did things that Arthur would rather not speak of to Arthur's body. His eyes shot open with the sigh and the stroking, and an odd prickling at the back of his neck sprang up automatically. The crown prince stopped breathing for a single, tiny moment. "Y-yes. Poor Gwen. It must be hard for her to clean up after both me and Morgana, but she does it—and a right lot better than you, I should say."
The manservant smiled slightly. "It can't take much to do better than I do," he admitted. Arthur theorized that Merlin must have been thinking about his own room, which had looked like a sty the last time he saw it…and the first…and nearly every time in between. Nevertheless, his focus on the clothing of the young Pendragon was admirable, as was his inability to notice Arthur's small stutter. No matter how clever he worked up to be during times of duress, Merlin knew when to be ignorant.
As if reading his thoughts, Merlin looked up from the pair of breeches lain out in front of him on Arthur's table. "You…did you stutter?"
Arthur found it in himself to scoff. "No, I did not. Princes, my dear manservant, do not stutter."
Merlin looked at him in disbelief. "You did. You just stuttered. The great Arthur Pendragon stumbled over his words," the boy cried in a burst of melodrama. "I never thought I'd live to see the day!"
"Shut up, you great oaf. Work." Arthur turned from Merlin and sulked in his cherry oak chair, the back of his neck burning with mortification.
Merlin did as instructed, for once, though the knowing smirk on his face didn't leave. What he knew, though, wasn't exactly clear to Arthur and that made him uncomfortable.
He couldn't know of what didn't just happen. How could Merlin know that Arthur most definitely was not starting to notice that pretty much all of Merlin was like his hands, slim and lithe and upstanding and miraculous? How could he possibly assume Arthur was not admiring the fact that Merlin had dirt under his fingernails, calluses on his fingertips from hard work? He couldn't, in any way, know that the porcelain shade of his skin was driving Arthur ever so much insane, because it was definitely not happening.
You prat, a voice that sounded strangely like Merlin echoed in the littlest corner of his mind. Yes, it is happening, and you LOVE it. Something warm unfurled in his stomach at the coaxing. You think your servant's attractive. Which he most definitely is.
Arthur looked stealthily over his shoulder, catching the insane blue of Merlin's eyes as he dropped his gaze back down to his work from the prince, cheeks flushing slightly. Arthur felt his face scrunch in slight confusion—was there something on his face?—before realizing how striking the blush actually was against Merlin's skin.
Just in case, the prince brushed a hand along his own cheeks, and was a little surprised to feel his own cheeks warm. He internally cursed himself. What in the world was causing him to act like such a girl?
Him, stupid. It's Merlin.
Arthur guessed this was probably right. Merlin was a good servant and, dare he say, a good friend much of the time. He'd saved Arthur single-handedly more times than he can even remember, and Merlin had really only been around for five or six years. And this wasn't even counting the number of instances Arthur had, albeit grudgingly, burst into laughter at the jokes of the servant, or the number of times he'd seen Merlin perform with more grace under pressure than he could ever hope to muster.
Merlin was admirable. If he wasn't such an imbecile, Arthur might say that he was even fitter to be king than Arthur, than Uther himself.
Arthur felt an intense affection unwrap in his chest like a cloaked woman coming in from the cold looking back at his manservant. Merlin was definitely something, including the whole magic thing.
It wasn't as if Arthur hadn't suspected it. The crown prince was lucky, but not so lucky as to survive everything that came his way. And no foolish manservant had ever been so lucky as Merlin.
When Arthur got the solid evidence once and for all, it did make perfect sense. There was an ogre, and an axe, and another near death experience for him, and Merlin's face was wide open and terrified, the golden ore of his eyes fading back into blue and filling to the top with anguish.
"I…I'm so sorry, I couldn't…" Merlin cried, absolute horror causing his voice to shake like the limbs of a dead tree. "I couldn't let you die!"
Arthur was trembling himself, hands on knees, watching sweat and blood drip from his nose and just feeling stale cavern fall air filter into his lungs. It was probably the best air he'd ever tasted.
Merlin wasn't having as easy a time as Arthur with the breathing. He fell to his knees, huffing and choking out of fear. His vivid blue eyes looked at Arthur pleadingly, tears starting to stream their way down his face. "Please, I'm sorry, Arthur. I am so, so sorry."
Arthur leaned backwards, letting himself collapse onto his behind. Merlin was looking at him as he'd never done before—like Arthur was the one who would sign his death warrant. Everyone looked at him like that but Merlin, and while it took some getting used to in the beginning, Arthur had come to even like it. He didn't like the way Merlin looked at him now, desperately and fearfully, and with an appalled certainty. "Please, please please….."
"Merlin," Arthur said lowly, and the younger man's eyes shot up at the call. "Calm yourself. Calm, friend." He reached out his hand to rest on Merlin's shuddering shoulder. "Breathe."
Merlin followed his orders in haste, so unlike usual that Arthur knew this was different. Merlin feared for his life when, in all reality, he needn't do that at all.
The stick of it all was that Arthur could barely hear Merlin's cries over the sporadic, thrilled beating of his heart in his ears. The organ was having its own little celebration in his chest, and that changed everything.
Arthur had been trained to hate magic and everyone who dabbled in it from birth. Surely this would have to be the same. But right now, Arthur was so enthused about still being alive that he couldn't try to do anything but be grateful for what Merlin had done.
They sat shaking together in the cavern, bloodied ogre prone and unresponsive only a few feet away, for a few moments. Merlin breathed just as deeply as Arthur, sure that these would be some of the last gulps of air that he would get.
The pair surfaced to a gleaming field of grass and wild daisies, making the split they had just experienced between worlds make one or the other feel like a dream. Neither tried to mount their horses, both preferring to stare out at the sun and let their thoughts race at alarming paces.
Arthur tried his hardest not to look at Merlin when he issued his first command. "We should be going."
Merlin's voice cracked. "Yes."
A vain, disgusting flame of hope sprung up in the young warlock's chest as he chanced a glance at the prince, seating himself in the saddle. Perhaps he would be more merciful than his father. But the light was snuffed out with a heavy conviction. Hope would only prove painful in the face of death.
Arthur couldn't stop the horror mounting. He knew, watching Merlin out of the corner of his eye, that if his father discovered the boy's power, the fact that he had saved Arthur's life wouldn't mean much.
Merlin had never been untrustworthy before. Lazy, yes; incompetent, of course; but never a liar. Except when it came to this little huge secret.
He understood, theoretically, why magic powers would need to be kept under wraps in Camelot. But he never, ever considered that one so close to him, with such a connection in his life, would be able to live without revealing himself. It did not seem within the realm of possibility.
The crown prince finds that his own voice is rough when he tries to speak again. "Why don't you trust me?"
To Arthur's dread, Merlin almost starts to cry once more. "I could either lie or be executed."
"Well, you're a fool."
"What?" Merlin looked scared.
"You're a fool. I'm the prince. I must be the most trustworthy man in the kingdom."
A little silence is swollen thick between them, the only sounds coming from the horses. At last, the warlock's frown twitches northward faintly. "Are you now?"
Arthur nodded. "Yes. I mean, clearly I am the best at all things secretive. Any great strategist is." He cast a gaze over at his friend, waiting.
Merlin meets his eyes, blue on blue—for a second, there's hesitation.
Then he smirks. "You're the best at being prattish, too, aren't you?"
It hadn't been a big fuss when they returned to Camelot, most likely because of the fact that Arthur had vowed to himself that his father was wrong this time. Magic couldn't be evil through Merlin; the man was clumsy enough with his own two feet to prove that any bad magic would at least be poorly aimed, or like a punch from him, hardly painful.
Arthur didn't speak about Merlin to his father. Or to anyone else for that matter.
He knows that it was a noble thing to do, and rather appreciates the fact that Merlin knows it and he holds something over the servant's head, seeing as the 'prince' card had never really worked before.
Now, Arthur didn't really want to hang something over Merlin. He had decided—not telling him, of course—that his manservant was really becoming something more like a friend now. And, as he watched Merlin be capable and appealing over his shoulder with furtive glances, he had no desire to ever order him around again.
That went away when Merlin licked his lips, concentrating on the task of folding and sorting. His tongue was bright pink and stole out of Merlin's mouth like some species of snake, overtly enticing.
Arthur swallowed, so loud it almost echoed around his chamber. He imagined unspeakable actions occurring between him and Merlin right there on the table, the clothes he'd worked on flung to the floor in excitement. Goosebumps stood at attention when he started thinking of Merlin's mouth, his sneaky tongue colliding with Arthur's. In his mind's eye, Arthur saw himself ordering Merlin into complete submission, and watched Merlin being altogether enthusiastic to do what he was told.
The prince bit his bottom lip so hard it broke skin. "Ow."
Merlin spoke again, quietly. "Are you alright, sire?"
Arthur touched his mouth gingerly, despising himself for being such a fool while looking at the blood on the tip of his middle finger. His chest was tight with something dark, lungs protesting when Arthur spoke. "Fine." It was such a transparent lie that he knew Merlin wouldn't be able to ignore it.
Muted footsteps preceded Merlin's appearance by Arthur's side. "What is it?"
Arthur wiped the embarrassing blood on his tunic. "I bit my lip," he admitted.
The manservant gave the prince a look. Arthur could already see the monologue Merlin prepared in his mind. Imagine—the crown prince of Camelot falling to a bitten lip! What a scandal that would be. And why am I not surprised?
But he didn't say any of that, a fact that Arthur was grateful for. Instead, once the humor had faded a bit from his eyes, he motioned for Arthur to lean closer to him.
Arthur did, breath short, and watched Merlin's hands as they inspected the cut. His whole body tingled with something just short of insanity with Merlin touching his lips like that—with Merlin touching his lips at all.
The warlock's eyes liquefied into gold, and Arthur's already-tingly mouth mended and became entirely too sensitive for his own comfort. When Merlin's eyes changed back to normal, he grinned at his work, thumb gliding over Arthur's lower lip like it was nothing.
Arthur's eyes opened wide when Merlin began to pull his hand away. Without a thought, he caught his servant's wrist tight in his grasp, so firm that Merlin winced in discomfort. "Is something—"
"Don't," Arthur cut him off, tugging Merlin's hand closer to his face in wonderment. He touched Merlin's fingers lightly, like an inspection, before pressing his lips to the tip of each digit.
Good God. He even tasted like magic—magic and attitude.
Arthur remembered himself with startling clarity seeing Merlin's hand go limp between his fingers. He let go of the fair-skinned wrist as if it had scalded him. "S—Sorry, I, uh, I just." Arthur tried to escape from Merlin's eyes, standing up from his chair in such a hurry that the room spun faintly. "Excuse me." The prince raced for the door to escape his own chambers.
A strong shove from behind almost sent him careening into the wall. Arthur spun around to see Merlin staring angrily at him, chest heaving and fingers clenched. "You idiot!"
The prince looked at him. "Excuse me?"
Merlin didn't seem at all phased. "You idiotic, imbecilic, stupid, brainless dolt!"
Arthur's mouth fell open in outrage. Merlin was not that thick, was he? Arthur was the prince. "How dare you—"
"How dare I? How dare you! You can't just do that!" Merlin was screaming by now. "You can't just look at me like that and kiss my fingers and then walk out like nothing happened, you bloody idiot!"
The friends glared in silence for an immeasurable second, blue versus blue.
Then Arthur spoke words he never thought he would. "Maybe you're right." He crossed the room, to where Merlin stood at the foot of the grand oak table, and forcefully carried out the kiss that he had been imagining all day.
It was more or less what he expected—a lot of elbows and bickering. But Merlin's mouth also fit so right and blisteringly hot against his that Arthur more or less couldn't think at all.
A necessity made itself obvious sooner or later, and that happened to be air. The pair pulled away from each other with anxiety, lips swollen and tongues tired. Arthur looked at Merlin somberly, knowing that he could easily just brush the act off as an accident, a hiccough between friends. That wasn't what this was, at least not to Arthur.
He realized soon that he didn't even remotely have to worry about that, at least if the humongous dark pupils of Merlin's eyes were any indication. The latter grinned at him and licked his red lips with that devilish tongue.
Arthur was stunned at the predatory look. "Never really thought of you as a hunter, Merlin." Not that he was complaining, especially not when Merlin backed Arthur up to the table, pushing him back-first onto piles of laundry Merlin had just spent hours working on.
Merlin climbed over the prince, straddling his waist as if he was a horse and not a beautiful golden-haired man. "I only really track infuriating young princes," he quipped, dark hair falling over his eyes as he slanted over Arthur.
"Those must be hard to come by," Arthur breathed with a chuckle. "How many have you taken?"
"Not a one." Merlin placed his lips on Arthur's neck, right below his jaw, and Arthur made a noise he wasn't proud of. "Yet."
Later that afternoon and for many afternoons that followed, Merlin used his magical, mystical hands to do just that.