Here’s the thing: Merlin is really fond of wearing Arthur’s clothes.
Here’s the other thing: Arthur was not aware of this fact, not until he made a stupid mistake, and the truth was revealed to him.
It happened like this:
During an overnight hunt, in the dead of winter, Merlin, being the clumsy man that he is, managed to slip and tumble off a low bridge overhanging a frigid stream. Arthur had yanked him out, and he was relatively unscathed--simply freezing, teeth chattering and skin ghostly pale underneath his now soaked clothing. Arthur had wrapped his own thick coat around his manservants shoulders, and when they’d set up camp for the night, he’d given Merlin his spare set of clothes to sleep in. Merlin had accepted them easily, blushing as he’d slipped out of Arthur’s coat to change into the prince’s clothing.
Arthur’s things had been large on Merlin, the sleeves of the crimson tunic hanging down past his fingertips, trousers loose and baggy. Even Arthur’s socks on his feet had to be rolled tight around the ankle, to keep them from slipping off--and yet he’d looked happier than Arthur thought he’d ever seen him, his big ears tinted a bright pink, eyes warm and relaxed as he’d sat curled up in front of the fire, knees tucked against his chest.
When they’d returned to Camelot, Merlin had given Arthur his clothing back--all but the red tunic. Arthur supposed Merlin might have simply forgotten, his manservant was known to let some things slip past his mind, a trait that was for the most part endearing, except when it came to grave matters. But this was not a grave matter--this was just a tunic--so Arthur didn’t mention it.
Days went by, and Merlin seemed happier than ever before, something Arthur was equal parts confused and relieved about. His manservant was perkier, even in the evenings, when he usually grew sluggish and tended to yawn with every other sentence. Arthur asked him about it, late one night as Merlin was turning down his bedsheets, whistling a jaunty tune as he worked, as if it was not fifteen minutes past midnight.
“How is it you’re so energized at this hour, Merlin?”
“I seem to be sleeping better, these last few nights,” Merlin had answered after deliberating silently for several moments, shrugging his shoulders, and Arthur knew that tone--there was more which Merlin was not telling him. But it was late, and even if Merlin was not tired, Arthur certainly was. He’d not pressed further.
Two days later, Arthur had gone to Gaius’s chambers in search of his manservant, needing Merlin’s help to prepare a speech for an upcoming banquet Uther was arranging. It was technically Merlin’s downtime, Arthur knew this, and yet he went anyway, hoping that Merlin might help him regardless, if not as his servant, then simply as a friend would.
Neither Gaius nor Merlin were to be found in their chambers. Arthur had sighed, standing in the doorway of Merlin’s small room, wondering where he could possibly be. That’s when his eyes had caught sight of the red tunic-- his red tunic--the one he’d given Merlin to wear after he’d fallen into that stream. It was crumpled up on Merlin’s bed, only one shoulder and sleeve showing from where it was peeking out, tucked underneath the disarray sheets. Arthur had scoffed--it looked as if Merlin had been sleeping on it, and leave it to his manservant to be so heedless as to not even notice the garment had fallen into his bed. Arthur walked to the bed, plucking the tunic up with one hand, chuckling as he left Merlin’s room, then Gaius’s chambers altogether. By the time Arthur had returned to his own chamber, stuffing the tunic back into his wardrobe, he was already forgetting the whole ordeal, mind once again thinking about the speech he had to prepare, and wondering where Merlin could be so preoccupied.
When Merlin showed up to Arthur’s chamber later that evening, carrying his dinner on a royal silver tray, he’d looked upset, eyes dimmer, his whole body seeming taut, limbs rigid. Arthur wanted to ask what was wrong, because it was obvious something had happened, perhaps something to do with Merlin’s absence from his room earlier? But Arthur had thought it might sound girlish, for him to reveal just how attune he was to Merlin’s moods. In his own head, he could worry all he wanted, sure. But asking it out loud, letting Merlin hear the concern that would no doubt lace his voice. . . it wouldn’t do, no matter how much Arthur wanted to make sure Merlin was alright. He supposed if his manservant truly had a problem, he would tell Arthur about it, if he thought he could be of any help. So he just thanked Merlin for his dinner, and let him begin tidying his chamber, as he ate in conflicted silence.
One week passed like that, Merlin remaining upset, and Arthur could tell he was trying hard not to show it. He was tired all the time as well, back to his old ways and then some, yawning not just during the evenings, but in the middle of the day, mouth opening wide, eyes half-lidded and shoulders sagging. He looked downright miserable, and Arthur wanted nothing more than to help him, if only Merlin would tell him what was wrong. His heart ached, seeing Merlin in such obvious discomfort, but his pride kept him from reaching out.
Until Arthur caught Merlin doing something which slid all the answers into place, revealing more than the prince ever could have imagined.
He was returning to his chamber after enduring a Sunday dinner with his father and Morgana, something which Uther was always adamant about them sharing. He’s managed to excuse himself five minutes earlier than the week previous, a new record for him. He figured soon enough he could be cutting that time down even further. He was chuckling to himself, thinking about different excuses he could give in the upcoming weeks, when he threw open his chamber door, and there was Merlin, sitting on the edge of Arthur’s bed, in the middle of slipping a red tunic over his head.
His manservant froze, eyes going wide, arms stopped in their movements, the red sleeves only pulled up to his forearms. Arthur just stood in his doorway, puzzled at the sight before him, wondering what on Earth Merlin was doing sitting on his bed, dressing himself in . . . in . . . in Arthur’s red tunic . And that’s when everything fell into place, the confused fog that had filled Arthur’s mind for the past week lifting in an instant, replaced immediately with something different, something warmer. Something that made him shut his chamber door gently, made him pad across the stone floor to stand in front of Merlin, who just looked up at Arthur with a slightly scared glint in his eyes, arms lowered now, but the tunic was still halfway to his elbows. Arthur would not tolerate that fearful look, not for one moment, it pierced his heart in a way that pinched.
“ Merlin ,” he said, voice low and soft, because he wanted to make sure his manservant knew he was not in trouble. “Do you want to wear my tunic?”
Merlin’s eyes melted, his pale, naked shoulders dropping like they were weighted, and he nodded his chin, biting his bottom lip between his teeth. Arthur had to sit down beside him then, because he felt as if his knees would give out, rendered weak from Merlin’s unrestrained admission. He brought his hands, slowly, to grip the hem of his red tunic, fingers brushing Merlin’s bare skin, lifting it gently, maneuvering the piece to lift it over Merlin’s head, making him raise his arms up, before Arthur pulled it down, slipping it onto his manservants body. Merlin’s black hair was ruffled from the way the fabric had dragged across it, and his cheeks were flushed an adorable rose, his hands twisting into small fists at the bottom of the tunic, where it rested around his thighs. Arthur’s hands had moved to tentatively smooth the fabric over Merlin’s bony shoulders, and he swallowed all thick, at the warmth of them under his fingers. He looked over Merlin’s whole frame, at the way his tunic just swallowed him up, a clear reminder that this was Arthur ’s tunic.
“Is this. . . is this why you have been so on edge?” Arthur asked, because he realized that this was his pride unraveling--that all the reservations he held about revealing his intimate feelings for his manservant were slipping away, the longer he drew his eyes across the man before him. He met Merlin’s eyes again, and it was as if the last dam between them had fallen, because Merlin’s eyes flooded with tears, and his bottom lip trembled before he spoke, voice raw:
“I didn’t--I didn’t think you would notice--it just feels so good, but, but I can’t explain--”
Arthur’s hands slid from Merlin’s shoulders up to his jaw, gathering his face softly, thumbs rubbing over his sharp cheekbones, wet with tears.
“ It’s alright, Merlin. I’m not upset. I was just worried--so worried about you. . .” And Merlin laughed bitterly at that, despite his tears, eyes looking down, murmuring with disbelief,
“ Worried? About me?”
Arthur’s hands squeezed, forcing Merlin to look up again, gasping with the intensity of Arthur’s gaze, his face so close.
“ Yes , Merlin, worried about you , you idiot. You think I don’t notice when you’re in discomfort? You think it doesn’t break my heart to see you withering away in silence, because you can’t bring yourself to tell me what’s wrong!?”
He hadn’t intended to shout, and he could see Merlin cringe, eyes suddenly pained, something that only pierced Arthur’s heart deeper.
“ You didn’t ask.” His manservant said, so quiet Arthur could barely hear it, but it was the final blow which shattered Arthur’s heart, because Merlin was right. He had not asked. He had let his stupid pride stand in the way of Merlin’s happiness, and he was sorry beyond words for that. He wished he could go back and make himself see how dense he had been. But he could not. All he could do was make things right, right now.
“Tell me what you need, Merlin,” Arthur whispered, gaze sure and steady on his manservants’, their faces still so close, Arthur’s hands still holding his jaw tightly. Merlin’s mouth opened lamely, tongue brushing against his teeth, like he wanted to speak but couldn’t find the words. His eyes darted to Arthur’s lips, just for a second, but Arthur saw it, and it was the last push he needed to close his eyes and press his mouth against Merlin’s, to kiss him like he’d never kissed anyone else before.
Merlin melted against Arthur, sighing out a long breath through his nose, hot over Arthur’s cheek, while his hands grasped around Arthur’s biceps, fingers tightening in the material of the prince’s blue tunic. His lips were soft and warm, parting for Arthur’s without hesitation, and Arthur’s head swam when he tasted the sweetness of Merlin for the first time, his hands which cradled his manservants jaw sliding around to the back of his head, fingers grasping through his hair, pulling Merlin more firmly against him, tilting his head to kiss him deeper, to taste more of that heady sweetness.
Their thighs were flushed together, as they sat side by side on the edge of the bed, torsos twisted, chests colliding as their mouths drank each other in, desperate and wild in the way they couldn’t bring themselves to part even for a moment.
Arthur couldn’t fully believe this was actually happening, even as he lowered his hands to slip underneath Merlin’s tunic-- really, Arthur’s tunic --and slide over the soft skin of his belly, making Merlin shiver suddenly. Arthur just cupped his hands around his waist then, drawing his body closer, as his tongue slid against Merlin’s, his lips almost burning with the sensation of actually kissing this man who he’d coveted only in the secret place of his mind for years now.
Finally, after what felt to Arthur like a blessed eternity, he let himself pull back, let his forehead rest against Merlin’s, and their ragged breath mixed together in the small space between their lips, their eyes both still shut tight. Merlin had somehow been pulled onto Arthur’s lap, although neither man seemed to remember how, and his legs were both to one side of Arthur, his arms tight around the prince’s neck. Arthur’s hands were halfway up the back of Merlin’s ( Arthur’s ) tunic, pressed flat to his back, holding him firmly, keeping him from falling away.
“Does this mean I can wear the tunic?” Merlin laughed, and they both opened their eyes then, everything passing between them so intensely it made Arthur falter, made him hold his breath, lest he do something stupid and break the fragile thing that was their affection. But then Merlin laughed harder, steadier, and Arthur realized that the feeling was not breakable--it was strong, and sturdy; it bowed between them like a supportive beam, holding them up with ease. Arthur joined in with Merlin’s laughter, his stomach aching with how hard it overtook him, as his hands held Merlin tighter, Merlin’s head slipping onto his shoulder, until they were hugging fiercely and laughing wildly. Arthur wondered with amazement how he could have been so cowardly for so long--this was the most natural thing in the world, the easiest thing he’d ever done since taking his first breath.
“You can wear anything you want, anything that’ll make you happy,” Arthur said, as the last of their laughter ebbed away, and Merlin pulled back, raising his head to look at Arthur again. Arthur held him tighter, not wanting him to slip away, not even for a moment.
“ Anything? ” Merlin asked, smile bright as the Sun. Arthur nodded, and he kissed Merlin again, soft and simple, a giddiness rising in him with every gentle press of their lips.
“It helps me sleep,” Merlin mumbled as Arthur’s lips began kissing along his cheek, moving slowly, and Arthur paused, humming lowly, hoping Merlin would tell him more. “I had the best sleep of my life, that night on the hunt, wearing all your things--” and Arthur started to nibble at the curve of Merlin’s jaw, just under his ear, making his manservant stutter, Arthur’s hands squeezing his waist tighter. Merlin let out a tiny gasp, his eyes closed once again, and Arthur let his own slip shut too, as he suckled the soft skin, tongue darting out to soothe it. “--I thought that-- oh, that feels good, Arthur—” Arthur was biting at the edge of Merlin’s ear, and he stopped for a moment to smirk, speaking deeply,
“Thought what, Merlin?”
Merlin swallowed, continuing, as Arthur’s lips kissed over his ear once again.
“I thought that it was just a weird thing, because--because of the cold, or something, but when we returned home, I couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping without something of yours around me. . .”
Arthur’s heart swelled, his lips stilling, and he pulled back to see Merlin’s face again. He was flushed, and his lips were a deep red, bitten and tender, because of Arthur . He looked down again, seeing his tunic on Merlin’s body, and he bit his own lip in thought.
“And the thought of sleeping with me around you. . . holding you, just like this?” Arthur let his hands slide further up Merlin’s back, until the tunic was rucked all the way up, and Arthur could see all of Merlin’s pale stomach, his hands curving around his shoulder blades. Merlin let out a shaky breath, eyes growing wet again, and he said, almost like a sob,
“ Yes--please--yes, Arthur, God.”
After that, Merlin began wearing pieces of Arthur’s clothing almost every day, making Arthur’s heart swell with affection and warmth, seeing the man he loved wrapped up in one of his own tunics, or sweaters, or coats, or trousers. He knew that everyone understood, knew that there was no way to hide this. He was glad for it--he wanted it to be clear, wanted his love to be out in the open--he was proud beyond words that he was able to call Merlin his own. Arthur even began carrying around one of Merlin’s old neck scarves, a worn blue one, made soft from years of Merlin wrapping it around his neck. Arthur kept it tucked in his pocket, or tied around his belt, a symbol for all the kingdom to see; He belonged to Merlin, just as Merlin belonged to him. And every night, before going to sleep, Arthur would dress Merlin in his own soft sleep shirt and trousers, made from the finest royal fabrics, Merlin always going pliant and tractable under Arthur’s large hands, eyes misty, smile all dopey and wide.
Arthur couldn’t believe that this incredible man was all his. It seemed too good to be true, because things never worked out for Arthur, never like this. But then Merlin would crawl his way into Arthur’s arms, tucking himself up for the night, asking Arthur how his day had been, making him laugh and smile, his heart seizing up with more love than he’d ever felt before. He started to believe that he deserved Merlin, that he could have him, all of him, and that he could give all of himself to this man, too, without fear. He knew without a single doubt that Merlin would accept everything Arthur wanted to give him, take his heart and soul and everything in between--keep him safe, and warm, and above all else, loved.