Length: ~2500 words.
Summary: Dance lessons, in four beats.
Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a piece at the kink meme, for the prompt 'dancing - in particular, fic to go with this pic'. Apologies for the blazingly anachronistic styles of dance.
Arthur’s been contriving flimsy excuses to get his hands on Merlin practically since they met. Because Merlin’s annoying, because he’s strangely pretty, because when Arthur pushes him he pushes back, and there’s only so much verbal sparring one can engage in before the blood sings for a physical outlet. This has been going on for the length of their acquaintance, but it has only been increasing since Arthur realized he’s actually unreasonably fond of the idiot. This, though – this takes the cake.
“Tell me, Merlin, do you know how to dance?”
Merlin frowns at him, wary, and Arthur’s already delighted. “What possible reason could you have for caring?” Merlin asks.
“The midwinter ball is coming up-”
“The midwinter ball is in a month,” Merlin protests.
“-and it would hardly do for the prince’s manservant to make a complete laughing stock of himself on the dance floor,” Arthur finishes.
“I think I’ll be far too busy following you around with a wine jug for that to be much of a concern,” says Merlin dryly. Merlin has long since ceased to display any sort of enthusiasm for the events which Arthur
“Nonsense, Merlin. The ball is a celebration for everyone. The servants take shifts, and I shall be fetching my own drinks for the evening. And you haven’t answered my question.”
“Do you know how to dance?”
“There were some folk dances we used to do around the bonfire at midsummer…”
“I suspected as much. Hardly fitting for the court of Camelot. It seems that it falls upon me to educate you. Come here.”
Merlin stares at him blankly.
“You. You’re going to teach me to dance.”
“Who else? Gaius has his hands full as it is, and I assure you, you do not want your instruction falling to Morgana.”
Merlin considers this for a moment, looks vaguely terrified, and reluctantly comes forward. Every line of his body screams trepidation and defensiveness, and Arthur briefly considers assuring him that he won’t bite, but where would the fun be in that?
“Put your left hand on my shoulder, and give me your right,” Arthur tells him instead. He takes Merlin’s right hand in his left, and settles his right at Merlin’s waist, halfway between his hip and the small of his back.
“Hang on, why do I have to be the girl?” Merlin demands.
“I should think that’s obvious,” Arthur says smugly. But Merlin glares and starts to pull away, so Arthur sighs and adds, “You must learn to follow before you can hope to lead. Once you have some command of the basics, we’ll try it the other way around, alright?”
Merlin relents, mollified. “Fine.”
“Now, have you any idea of the steps of the waltz? No? I didn’t think so. It’s really very simple, just a count of three…”
Of course, Merlin has no sense of rhythm, is terrible at following Arthur’s directions, and routinely trips over his own feet. This is more or less what Arthur expected, and he does his best to be patient in between bouts of teasing Merlin mercilessly. (There’s a delicate balance to be struck; too much teasing and Merlin will stop taking it in stride; too much patience and – well. There are limits to Arthur’s patience, and he’s quite happy to behave as though those limits are far more easily reached than they in fact are.)
Arthur also does his best not to pay too much attention to exactly how close they are, or the way Merlin’s cheeks are slightly flushed with frustration, or how right it feels to have Merlin in his arms this way. (It’s a friendlier sort of contact than they usually engage in, and more prolonged; yet again Arthur congratulates himself on the cleverness of the ploy.) He won’t pretend (not to himself, at least) that his motives here are entirely altruistic, but it won’t do to get distracted. Though all this is half messing Merlin about and half an excuse to touch him, Arthur does also want to actually teach Merlin something.
After about half an hour, when Merlin can manage to follow him semi-competently at a slow pace, Arthur decides it’s time to move on to line dances, not least because his hands are itching to pull Merlin in closer, and that will force more distance between them. Better that way.
When Arthur finally puts an end to the lesson, he’s gratified to find that Merlin’s a little more flushed than the exertion of the dancing calls for. He won’t do anything about that, it could well be a purely physical reaction rather than a sign of interest on Merlin’s part anyway, but regardless it’s comforting. As is the small smile playing about Merlin’s mouth as he makes his escape.
It becomes routine, after that. Any afternoon when Arthur’s free of duty, (and Merlin’s excuses about Gaius needing him are clearly fabricated,) they practice. And for all his grumbling and grousing, Merlin does gradually improve, and even seem to enjoy himself a bit … so long as Arthur doesn’t seem to notice that he’s having fun. It’s a game like so many of those they play – the way Merlin will do nearly anything Arthur asks, but only if Arthur asks rather than orders; the way Arthur will save some of the fruit from his lunch for Merlin, but present it by lobbing it at his head more often than not; the insults loaded with affection; the constant complaining about one another that really only means they’re constantly speaking of one another. It’s a game, and Arthur won’t be the one to change the rules.
“Who do you even think is going to want to dance with me, anyway?” Merlin asks one afternoon, while Arthur is trying to beat the rhythm of a farandole into him. (They have no music; Arthur just counts off measures as necessary, or hums a tune when things are going a bit better. He could certainly requisition a minstrel, but he’d much rather keep these sessions between the two of them.)
Me, Arthur thinks, but what he says is,
“Guinevere, for one. She quite likes dancing.”
“How would you know?”
“I frequently dance with her at these balls, once the formal portion is over.”
“Why would she dance with you?” Merlin asks. The implication is clear – Gwen could surely do better. Maybe she could. Morgana undoubtedly thinks so.
“Because I ask her to, and unlike some people she does not feel the need to be perpetually contrary solely for the sake of being contrary,” Arthur says. Merlin snorts. “I ask her because she is pleasant company. And it annoys Morgana.”
“Is there anything you wouldn’t do to annoy Morgana?” Merlin asks, grinning now.
“Perhaps, but I haven’t found it yet. Speaking of which – Morgana will surely demand that you dance with her as well, and for the same reason.”
“Because I’m pleasant company?” Cheeky bugger.
“Because Morgana will endure anything, even your incompetent flapping – honestly, Merlin, it is a small hop, we are not attempting human flight here – in the name of annoying me.”
“And why would her dancing with me annoy you?” Damn. Merlin’s doing the big innocent eyes, too, so it’s clear Arthur’s been caught out. It’s a game, between them, but sometimes Arthur suspects that he and Merlin aren’t playing by precisely the same guidelines. (Or Merlin’s cheating, or he’s just better at it than Arthur is – though the latter is not to be contemplated.) Arthur doesn’t have an answer prepared, and the truth isn’t an option, so instead of saying anything he stomps deliberately on Merlin’s foot. By the time the ensuing argument about who’s at fault has run its course, Arthur’s safe.
It’s been one of those stupid exhausting near-death days, all blood and anguish barely worth the final victory, and at the end of it Merlin, weary to the bone, wants nothing more than to fall into his bed.
So he’s understandably not exactly thrilled when, after Arthur’s eaten supper and dressed in his nightshirt, the prince says,
“Before you go – dance lesson.” (Arthur knows he shouldn’t ask, it’s far too obvious, but Merlin nearly died today and the midwinter ball is in two days, and after that Arthur won’t have an excuse any more, and he just needs-)
“You have got to be kidding me,” Merlin says. “Arthur-”
“Please,” says Arthur, something strangely soft in his expression. “Indulge me.”
So Merlin groans and rolls his eyes, but steps up to Arthur, arms raised. Arthur takes Merlin’s hand in his, wraps the other around Merlin’s waist – but instead of berating him for his posture, as usual, Arthur tugs him in until they’re pressed chest-to-chest, legs slotting into place so their knees don’t knock. He doesn’t name a dance or any steps, just shifts his weight and hips slightly back and forth, so they’re swaying together, and sighs into Merlin’s ear.
“Shut up,” Arthur says, gruff, and slides his arm a little more snugly around Merlin’s waist. The nightshirt’s a clean one, the fresh smell contrasting the slight musk of Arthur’s skin. He’s warm, and solid, and Merlin doesn’t exactly mind this curious display, even if he is a bit baffled by the intimacy of it. This falls outside the usual boundaries that govern their interactions, and Arthur seems well aware of that; not entirely comfortable with it, but driven to it regardless. So Merlin concedes, and quashes his impulse to pester for an explanation. When Arthur doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t make any other move, Merlin tentatively slips his arm around Arthur’s shoulder, almost like an embrace, and sways with him. Given the day they’ve had, he’s glad to feel the thump of Arthur’s heart behind his ribs, to hear the gentle huff of his breathing.
After some time – Merlin loses track of it, caught up in the moment, at ease despite the strangeness of it – Arthur releases him with obvious reluctance and says, quietly,
“Thank you, Merlin. You may go.”
“I’m glad you’re alright,” Merlin blurts, and almost regrets it until he’s rewarded by a soft smile.
“Likewise,” Arthur tells him.
At the midwinter ball, Arthur has to admit that his work has paid off. Merlin’s certainly not a fantastic dancer, but he manages to comport himself with something resembling dignity. He partners with Gwen several times, with Morgana once – while Arthur’s with Gwen, naturally, and it’s a wonder no one trips given the number of significant looks being traded amongst the four of them during that dance – and once each with two or three other servant girls Arthur doesn’t know. He’s smiling or laughing every time Arthur sees his face, and that warms Arthur’s heart even more than the strong wine warms his belly.
When the festivities have concluded, in the small hours of the long night, and they’re both a little drunk, Merlin follows Arthur back to his chambers. He’s still grinning stupidly, and a tad unsteady on his feet, but Arthur is too so they’re leaning on one another more than anything else. (Perhaps occasionally they sag against a wall all slumped together, or Arthur paws at Merlin’s shoulder to keep his balance, or their faces fall a little too close to one another in their snickering, but even so it’s only to be expected in light of the wine.)
“You know,” Merlin says, while he’s tugging Arthur’s boots off, “I half-thought it would turn out that you taught me everything wrong just for a laugh.”
“Yes, well,” Arthur says, gesturing vaguely with no particular intent. “I wouldn’t do that to the poor women.”
“No. Did you enjoy yourself, then?”
“Yeah,” Merlin says. He gets to his feet, dusts his knees off, and looks at Arthur appraisingly. “I did. It was nice. Although…”
“What?” Arthur asks, not sober enough to be worried by the gaze. He removes his belt, shucks his tunic off, and then Merlin says,
“Felt like there was a bit missing, though.”
“Yeah. You spent all that time teaching me – didn’t you want to see what I learned?”
Arthur blinks at him, about to explain that he saw very well what Merlin learned – and then Merlin bows at the waist, extends his hand, and says,
“May I have this dance?”
Oh. The ball’s over, and Arthur’s stripped to his trousers, and Merlin’s asking him to dance. Oh. Maybe not only the drink, then.
Arthur puts his hand in Merlin’s, rises, and lets Merlin manoeuvre them into position, Merlin leading. Merlin’s hand is warm on the bare skin of Arthur’s back, and he moves in close, as close as they were the other night, sharing breath that smells faintly of the wine. It’s midwinter and the room’s a bit chilly even with the fire blazing, but Arthur doesn’t notice. Arthur doesn’t notice anything except Merlin, crowded into all of his half-hazy senses.
Merlin’s always been a little bit taller, though the difference in their heights is more pronounced now, with Arthur barefoot and Merlin still in his boots. Arthur dimly recalls that this was true the other night, too. He suspects he ought to mind, perhaps, but he doesn’t. (When they were young Morgana hit her growth spurt first, and towered over Arthur for a few months; he complained loudly, of course, but he also felt very safe tucked in under her chin that one night when something long forgotten frightened them both and they curled around one another in the dark.)
“Don’t step on my toes,” Arthur says, because he feels he should say something, and those are the only words he can seem to manage.
“I won’t,” Merlin promises. He doesn’t.
They move together for a little while, and Arthur’s acutely aware of everything – the stubble dusting Merlin’s jaw, the proximity of his body, the rustle and shift of Merlin’s clothes against Arthur’s naked torso, the steady rhythm of his breathing. He doesn’t think, doesn’t allow himself to think, just wraps himself up in the sensations and instinctively follows Merlin’s guidance as he steers them slowly around the quiet room. (Merlin really has learned something; there’s a sureness to his steps that wasn’t present even a week ago.) It’s cosy, comfortable, and though Arthur’s feet ache and he’s quite tired, he would nevertheless be content to carry on this way indefinitely.
And then Merlin goes still. Arthur steels himself for the loss of contact, but instead of pulling away, Merlin turns his head to the left, twists his wrist slightly, and brushes his lips over Arthur’s knuckles. Then he leans back, just enough to see Arthur’s face, the question clear in his eyes. Merlin’s laid out the gambit; it’s up to Arthur to play into it, or not.
“Oh,” Arthur says. It isn’t much of a choice. “Tell me, Merlin, do you know much of kissing?”
Merlin smiles at him, bright and happy. “Try me,” he says.