"This is a cave, Arthur!"
"Oh Merlin, so dramatic! Cave... inn... they're virtually the same thing," Arthur grins with that glint in his eye which manages to simultaneously worry and please Merlin at the same time. The king doesn't tend to grin like that very often these days. There isn't much to take pleasure in. Even Gwaine's mindless idiocies failed them to the point that the knight rarely did much else than his duties.
The satisfaction of having prompted a smile from the king quickly dissipates as Merlin remembers the issue at hand. He crosses his arms, "I'm not sleeping here," he scoffs.
"Stop being a whinge, Merlin. Look," Arthur waves in the general direction of the floor, "Firm ground to rest on," he gestures to the roof of the hollow, "and a shelter from the rain. What more could you want?"
As if coordinated, a fat droplet plummets from the ceiling onto the king's face. Merlin stifles his giggle––he's not going to let Arthur think he's been convinced. A shiver runs down the his spine and he huddles tighter into himself. The winters seem to be getting more and more unbearable as the years go by, "It's cold."
Arthur groans, too tired to tease his manservant any further. Patience seems to be rationed as of late. Not just for the king, but for everyone. The gloom of Morgana's death seems to sweep over the entire kingdom. The ugliness of who she transformed into doesn't easily erase who she once was, the darling of Camelot. Swiftly, Arthur whips off his cloak and throws it at Merlin, "There. Now will you please stop complaining and just get some sleep? If we're to reach Ealdor by the evening, we have to leave at first light."
He unties his scabbard belt, setting it down and attempts to seek out a dry spot to sleep on the damp ground, finding only a small space against the back wall, hardly enough to fit two men. It's not like we haven't slept in worse, Arthur thinks, remembering an uncomfortable night involving a dead rabbit, tight hanging net, limbs intertwined so closely it felt like they were extensions of each other. A fond memory from times long past. What would he have done if there wasn't a rabbit wasn't trapped between them? If there was less distance, if their faces were mere millimetres apart, if they'd felt each other's breath on their faces. What would he have done then?
Merlin's voice startles him from the wanderings of his mind, "You know Arthur, you still haven't given me back that cloak I gave you,"
The king pivots to face Merlin, wrapped adorably in his cloak, only his unkempt tufts of hair and twiggy feet poking out from the scarlet fabric, "What cloak?"
"The only blue cloak you have?" The king feigns confusion.
Merlin huffs and rolls his eyes, the king can be ridiculously childish at times, in an irritatingly endearing way that makes you forget that he's the leader of an entire kingdom, "The one that you keep wearing to your hunts and getting dirty and then never returning because it needs to be washed."
"Oh right, that one," Arthur laughs sheepishly, tugging at the back of his hair, "It's dirty,"
"Yes, I bet it is."
"Wait a minute, you know I'm the king here, right?" Arthur grabs his scabbard and throws it on the dry space as Merlin follows him.
"That's what they tell me,"
"You can't talk back to me, Merlin. That's treason."
"If you were going to arrest me every time I committed 'treason', Arthur, I'd be long gone by now." Which was true enough, Arthur figures, as he takes Merlin's satchel from him and throws it next to his own while Merlin tries not to trip on the cloak or the slippery rock.
"Perhaps I should have, then," Arthur mutters, settling himself down next to the cave wall. Merlin pauses a moment as he realises that the tiny space next to Arthur is the only remaining hint of dryness left on the cavern floor, "Arthur!" he exclaims in dismay, "How on Earth am I going to fit here?"
"Oh shut up Merlin, you're scrawny,"
"I'm not that scrawny!"
"You're just going to have to make it work, then, aren't you?" Merlin's eyes are blazing now, and he's not amused.
"Arthur I didn't ask you to come to Ealdor with me, I could have come on my own; I've come to Ealdor a hundred times already. If I were on my own, perhaps I wouldn't have to sleep in a cave in the middle of who-knows-where on the soaking ground," Arthur should be furious at his manservant's words by now, but Merlin's cheeks are turning pink to match the cocoon of cloak around them in a way that Arthur can't help being charmed by, and it doesn't sound like he's slowing down at all to give the king a chance to butt in, " In fact, I'd probably be there already, in dry clothes and with a full belly. So if you don't move over right now, you prat, and give me the side of the wall, I'm leaving."
If the cold wasn't making Merlin breathless enough yet, that mouthful of a rant definitely did, and looking––rather wide eyed in either shock or awe, even he couldn't tell which––the king couldn't bear to be mad at him. Not managing to muster up any more than a tired chuckle and an "Okay, okay... calm down Merlin," as he shuffles himself away from the wall and lets Merlin pull himself over into his place.
Merlin gets grumpy when he's tired, and it had been a long day. This is enough to convince Arthur to let his manservant off, just this once. In reality, Arthur knows that 'just this once' has happened at least six times in the the past two months alone. Clearly, Merlin isn't as feeling as nonchalant about his sister's passing as he tried to let on. Sighing, Arthur removes his jacket and folds it into a pillow and wriggles down onto his side. He pushes himself as far away from the slimy moss as he can, digging his back into Merlin's. The unexpected contact, which is not unpleasant in the slightest, draws out a silent gasp from the king, which he hopes was drowned out by the sound of the pouring rain outside.
"Arthur, you're squishing me,"
"Oh would you stop complaining?" Arthur grunts. He spins himself around so that he's facing Merlin's back, draped in his own cloak. His breath hitches as he imagines Merlin huddled under the hill and valleys of red made my the fabric. The sheerness of this shirt under it, so sheer and wet that it might as well not be there at all. He tries not to think about the paleness of his skin, and the goosebumps that must be all over it in this freezing cold. He lets out a breath he didn't realise he was holding and with it, a shiver.
Merlin feels, no, senses, Arthur's head near him. He goes as still as a stone. They're so close. But not close enough. The distance is excruciating. He feels the king's shudder and realises his privilege––not so much a privilege, but a barrier. Darn cloak. "You're cold," he says, as bluntly as he can muster.
"What? No I'm–" Arthur is cut off by another shudder.
Arthur watches as his servant struggles to unwrap himself from the cloak. Should he refuse? He is the king, after all, perhaps he does want the cloak. But these thoughts are not what appear at the forefront of Arthur's brain. Skin. As he sees is skin. Skin everywhere. So close. So damn close. "Here, take it."
It does have goosebumps, his skin. A hell of a lot of them. And he's shuddering like a flag in the wind, "It's fine, Merlin. You need it more than me."
"You're the king. Gods forbid, I get arrested. Isn't that right, Your Highness?" Merlin throws the cloak to Arthur, who seems to be fixated on something on his back. His now almost bare back. He shifts himself, moving himself back, ever so slightly, closer to Arthur. Not close enough.
Gods, Arthur. Pull yourself together. It's Merlin. Your manservant. The king clears his throat, "We'll share," he announces, as nonchalantly as possible and throws the cloak over the two of them, shifting closer still, his arm arching over Merlin's shuddering body, touching ever so slightly. He can count the goosebumps now. One, two, three four, five... if he moves his head just a tiny bit more...
Arthur's hair feels soft and inviting on Merlin's back, as if enticing him, and his breath––hot and cold at the same time. Not close enough. One small movement and it'll be his lips. Without thought, Merlin seizes the king's wrist where he's holding the cloak over them, bringing it into himself in an embrace. Or into a trap? He pushes himself back into Arthur, feeling both bodies yield to the touch. Merlin keeps Arthur's hand, strangely warm, clasped tightly in his own, pressed against his chest.
Skin. SO much skin. Arthur lets Merlin push his body into him. He lets his back press into his lips. At least that's what he tells himself. He's only avoiding resistance, not participating. You can't be participating if you don't have control. And Arthur has no control, none at all. Only his body does. Only his lips. Only his hands, his chest. And so he lets his arms wrap around Merlin's stomach pulling him in tighter, closer. He lets his lips wander all over his back, searching for the skin, skin, more skin under his shirt.
Merlin feels Arthur's lips running all over his back, as if they're searching for something lost, desperate to find it. And they do, as Arthur's mouth finds itself immersed in Merlin's shoulder. Merlin forced his lips to stay closed as to not make a noise, and a deep breath is all that he allows to escape. He dares not turn back, he can't face Arthur, not like this, but he wants more. Closer. Closer than close. He lets himself bask in the darkness of the night and the secrecy of the pounding rain outside the cave. He wonders what this means, all of it. This fire is his heart, what will it amount to?
Arthur lets his lips, and hands and legs and body and the flame in his heart take control. He lets himself forget everything. For Him. For His skin. For His touch, he'll let himself forget the whole world.
And under warmth of that crimson red cloak, in that small cave, on that rainy night, the two flames finally collided. And no one could have guessed how much damage it would cause.