The Yule feast had been even more exciting than usual this year. Everyone had been in good spirits, wine and laughter flowing freely, and the atmosphere bright with the collective joy of all the people present. Gwaine flirted openly with every noblewoman who crossed his path and they had all been sufficiently charmed by his roguishness, not at all offended when he moved on to the next. Percival and Elyan sat in the corner, sharing what must have been bawdy stories because they'd spent the night laughing heartily and jostling each other's shoulders, while Merlin blushed fiercely every time he noticed Arthur watching him and Leon shook his head, looking on in reserved amusement. Lancelot spun Guinevere around the dance floor so many times that Arthur had stopped counting after the sixth dance and stole so many kisses from her smiling lips that Arthur considered making a wager with the other knights about when Lancelot would ask for her hand.
Everything at the feast had been perfect, just as it should have been, with the exception of one small change towards the end.
As he and Merlin walked back to Arthur's chambers, the King couldn't help feeling extremely pleased. That the evening had passed without remark meant that Arthur's Yule gift to Merlin would stun him even more and Arthur was sorely looking forward to seeing the look on Merlin's face. Cupping the velvet pouch that was clipped to his belt, Arthur quickened his pace.
At the end of the feast, Arthur had stood up and made the obligatory closing remarks, and tried to contain his smirk at the look of confusion on Merlin's face as he watched all of the Knights, with the exception of Lancelot, bow discreetly and leave together. It was not the usual practice for anyone to leave the feasting hall before the King had taken his own leave and Merlin had sidled up to him to ask what was going on.
"They have some official business to attend to, Merlin."
Merlin had complained about Arthur giving the Knights work to do on the night of the Yule feast.
"Believe me, Merlin. They happily agreed to be of assistance to the Crown tonight."
Now they were walking back to Arthur's chambers and the puzzled look was still making itself known on Merlin's face. He drew to a halt, catching the sleeve of Arthur's tunic to get him to stop.
"Are you sure you didn't threaten them with extra training or some such thing," Merlin asked, "because I can't fathom a reason why any of them, let alone almost all of them, would want to be working tonight."
Arthur had to school his expression into something less suspicious before he could turn around and address Merlin.
"Honestly, Merlin, it was hardly a challenge to get them to agree. All I had to do was ask."
Arthur's answer obviously did not appease Merlin because his frown remained firmly in place. Stepping closer, Arthur reached out to take Merlin's hand and shook it lightly.
"Did they look like they were upset about it," Arthur asked, marking his victory by the exact moment when Merlin's face evened out as he considered.
"I suppose not," Merlin said, sighing. "So what was it that you asked them?"
"I'll tell you in a moment but first…," Arthur said, drawing Merlin closer and pouring all of his anticipation into a heated kiss. The suddenness of it didn't throw Merlin at all; he simply relaxed into it, tilting his head and parting his lips. Arthur let the kiss deepened until he felt Merlin's stance shift, felt him press close and grind against Arthur's thigh firmly. Then he pulled back, keeping the distance between them close enough that he could feel Merlin's heavy breathing against his lips, brushing a thumb across those lips to silence Merlin's protesting whimper.
"I have something for you," Arthur whispered, gripping Merlin's chin and pressing a teasing kiss to his lips while he used his free hand to unhook the velvet pouch from his belt. He cupped Merlin's jaw in his hand, letting Merlin nuzzle into the touch, before he held up the pouch to draw Merlin's attention.
"What is it," Merlin asked, his voice bearing that raspy breathless tone that made Arthur want to keep kissing him endlessly. Unable to restrain himself, Arthur swooped back in for another deep kiss before pressing the pouch into Merlin's palm.
"Open it and see."
He watched Merlin's pale fingers avidly as they teased open the mouth of the pouch.
"What is this, Arthur," Merlin asked, staring down at the ring of gold that sat in his palm. Arthur knew that it was slowly warming against his skin, having felt it himself several nights ago when he'd picked it up from the goldsmith. He knew how warm the metal could get.
"What does it look like, Merlin," Arthur said, unable to stop himself from teasing just a bit.
Merlin's unimpressed look warred with the expression of puzzlement that flitted over his sharp features as he hefted the ring in his hand and turn it over.
"It looks like a gold hoop," Merlin said, "but it's much too small to be a bracelet, and I doubt you would buy me one of those, but it's much too large to be a ring for a hand. So what is it for?"
"Let me show you," Arthur said, taking Merlin's hand and leading him further down the corridor until they were standing in front of his chamber door. Turning around, Arthur pressed another kiss to Merlin's lips, let himself indulge in having Merlin to himself right then.
Drawing back, he looked into Merlin's eyes, noting the anxiety and the arousal that he saw there.
"Do you trust me," Arthur asked, taking Merlin's lips again in a bruising kiss when Merlin just rolled his eyes and murmured "of course."
Reaching behind him, Arthur opened his chamber door and drew Merlin inside. He didn't bother turning around—he already knew what was behind him—and he wanted to see the look in Merlin's eyes when he saw it too.
He wasn't disappointed.
He watched Merlin's eyes roam around, taking in the softly candlelit room, before they nearly fell out of his head when they lighted on the four knights waiting patiently at the four corners of Arthur's bed, each clad in only his Pendragon red cape, each of their bodies accented by a familiar snatch of gold which glinted in the low firelight.
"Like what you see, Merlin," Arthur heard Gwaine say amusedly from somewhere behind him and tried not to laugh when Merlin spluttered and nearly swallowed his tongue.
"W-what? Arthur, what is this," Merlin asked, blushing furiously, his eyes flitting back and forth between Arthur's and the sight over Arthur's right shoulder.
"I thought that would be obvious," Arthur said, fighting a snicker when he heard Gwaine's rude snort of laughter. He wasn't nervous that Merlin would get upset—the man looked torn between slight panic and deep arousal, which was perfect—but Arthur didn't want to take the chance.
"I know what I'm looking at, Arthur," Merlin said, "and I'm certainly not complaining, but why am I looking at it?"
It was Elyan's turn to laugh this time and Arthur watched Merlin's eyes flit over to where Elyan must have been standing and linger a touch longer before coming to rest questioningly on Arthur's face. Arthur just shook his head; apparently he needed to take a more direct approach, although he wasn't exactly sure how that was even possible at this point.
"Look at the ring again, Merlin," Arthur said, nodding towards it was clenched in Merlin's fist, "and then take a good look over my shoulder."
Stepping aside, Arthur watched in amusement as Merlin's gaze dropped to his now opened palm and had to react quickly to stop Merlin from tripping over himself when realization finally hit him and he staggered backwards.
"Yes, 'oh'," Arthur heard Gwaine say, "you think we could move this along a bit? I'm feeling a bit of a breeze."
Leon, Percival, and Elyan all chimed in good-naturedly with comments about "delicate places" being "half-frozen" and Arthur watched Merlin's face flush even darker when Gwaine made a show of huddling close to Leon in an attempt to "warm" himself.
"Is this OK," Arthur asked, gently taking hold of Merlin's shoulders and bringing them face-to-face, "I've seen how you look at them when we train and I thought…"
Arthur suddenly found himself with an armful of Merlin and supposed that Merlin's tongue slipping in between his lips and Merlin's hard length against his thigh were answer enough. Slipping his arms around Merlin's waist, Arthur pulled him closer and deepened the kiss, letting himself get lost in Merlin's whimpers and the hot friction of Merlin's grinding against him.
"Oi! Princess," Gwaine shouted, "save some for the rest of us, eh?"
Arthur felt Merlin's huff of laughter against his lips and drew away slowly.
"So I suppose this one is for you," Merlin said, holding up the golden ring.
"Oh no," Arthur said, casting a glance over his shoulder to share a conspiratorial smirk with his Knights, "that one is for you."
"And I suppose you don't think you're going to need one," Merlin said, sounding thoroughly unimpressed why what he supposed was Arthur's arrogance.
"I know I won't," Arthur said, drawing Merlin nearer so that he could whisper in his ear.
"Because I'm just going to watch."