“So I’ll call you later?” Gwaine murmured, his voice low and smooth and seductive. He was standing far too close to Merlin, his hands shoved in the skinny boy’s jean pockets, practically groping him in the middle of the campus parking lot. It was downright obscene.
Merlin, the dense idiot, seemed to magically lose his usual modesty whenever the older boy was around, when Gwaine was touching him in that too-casual way or leaning close to whisper in his ear. Merlin would just giggle and blush and sigh like a bloody girl.
They were damn irritating, the pair of them.
“Ahem,” Arthur grumbled, clearing his throat in the universal sign for ‘if you don’t mind, I’m standing right here.’ Merlin barely even glanced up, throwing a distracted nod in Arthur’s general direction, eyes never leaving Gwaine’s easy smile, which was suddenly way too close to Merlin’s face, Arthur noted.
“Yeah,” Merlin replied, and Arthur couldn’t remember when his voice had gotten so husky. “I’ll…um, talk to you then.”
Arthur rolled his eyes at Merlin’s sudden inarticulateness. Arthur could never get him to shut his mouth for ten seconds at a time, but around Gwaine he seemed reduced to monosyllables and smiles.
“Alright, I look forward to it.” Gwaine grinned, slowly leaning down for a kiss that was closed-lipped, but somehow far too sensual—and far too lingering-- in Arthur’s opinion.
When they parted, Merlin looked a little dazed, his eyes unfocused as he watched Gwaine saunter across the parking lot to his car, a flashy red two-seater that made Arthur cringe at the vulgar lack of taste.
Arthur waited, hands crossed against his chest, tapping one foot in irritation. “Merlin,” he called, snapping the other boy’s attention away from the retreating figure. Merlin looked up like a deer in the headlights, as though he had forgotten that Arthur had been there the entire time, and had witnessed the whole ridiculous display. But instead of looking embarrassed he just flashed Arthur a dopey grin and seemed awfully pleased with himself. Arthur rolled his eyes and took off towards his car, forcing Merlin to scurry to catch up. It would serve him right to get left behind.
As they buckled themselves in Merlin was still wearing that foolish smile, and Arthur was tempted to check him for signs of head trauma. No one should look that brain damaged from one silly kiss. It was ridiculous.
“So,” Arthur asked pointedly, tuning the radio as they pulled out of the parking lot and off towards home, “do you want to hang out tonight? I just got that new video game you wanted to play, the stupid one with the dragons and knights and stuff.”
Merlin shook his head, looking out the window with a blank, wistful gaze. “I can’t tonight, Gwaine’s going to call later.”Arthur clenched his fingers around the steering wheel in an attempt to keep himself calm.
He had already told Merlin, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of his arsehole boyfriend. Gwaine was in sixth form, a year ahead of Merlin and Arthur. He didn’t play sports or get good grades or do much of anything, as far as Arthur could tell, except drive around in his ridiculous car and hang out with his ridiculous friends. And yet he still managed to be one of the most popular blokes in the damn school. Apparently it had something to do with his ‘bad boy’ image, though from what Arthur had seen so far, about 90% of it was an act. He was pretty sure Gwaine hadn’t actually done even half the things he was credited with, but as Morgana had so helpfully explained, that was entirely beside the point.
Arthur refused to believe it when Merlin had first come to him, excited and nervous, and described how Gwaine had actually spoken to him, repeatedly! He practically had hearts in his eyes as he recounted all their inane chatter. The two had free period together, and it seemed that somehow, over all the other guys and girls in the school, Gwaine had taken an interest in Merlin.
Merlin. Plain, goofy, clumsy Merlin. Merlin, whose idea of a party was ordering take away and watching movies all night with Arthur and Morgana. Merlin, with his ridiculous ears and gangly limbs and hair that refused to lie flat no matter how much gel he plastered on. Merlin was polite and smart and too trusting for his own good, a far cry from the beautiful and aloof crowd perpetually hovering around Gwaine. Arthur knew those kinds of people, the false friends and the hangers-on; his father’s wealth and influence meant he had been surrounded by them most of his life. And Merlin was about as far from that crowd as you could get.
From what Arthur had seen over the past month, Gwaine at least seemed to be genuine. Arthur had been waiting for disaster, to find out this was some kind of cruel joke, like something out of one of those ridiculous romantic comedies. He had been fully prepared to kick every arse he could lay his hands on.
But when they were together Gwaine seemed to be nothing but gentle and friendly towards Merlin, at least when Arthur was around. Still, Arthur wouldn’t let a few dazzling smiles disarm him so easily; he knew Gwaine’s type. Good guy or not, it was unlikely he would stick around for long. Merlin was far too trusting to look out for himself, so Arthur had to do it for him. That’s how it had always been, since they were five years old.
“That won’t take all night, Merlin,” Arthur continued, trying to pull his mind back to the present and away from thoughts that only led to grinding teeth and more lectures from his dentist. “You can still come over. Just talk to Gwaine afterwards,” he offered, trying to sound reasonable, rather than ready to punch the stupid git in his perfectly-stubbled face.
Merlin looked skeptical, but at least he was too oblivious to notice Arthur’s ill-concealed hostility. He simply shrugged and Arthur accepted that as acquiescence, driving straight on to his house.
They ordered a pizza and played that new game Merlin was so excited about, and for an hour or two it was exactly like old times, before secondary school or dating or Gwaine. Merlin hurled taunts and abuse at the game characters with a vehemence he rarely showed toward non-fictional beings (with the exception of the one and only fight he had gotten into in primary school, when someone had made the mistake of insulting Merlin’s mother.)
Arthur tried to enjoy it, tossing their usual banter back and forth, teasing Merlin each time his character got killed (he was hopelessly clumsy, even in the virtual world). But it ended all too soon when Merlin’s mobile rang, a stupid perky tone that he had chosen especially for his boyfriend.
Merlin paused the game and jumped off the couch like it was on fire, pulling the phone from his pocket and signaling Arthur to be quiet, as if he couldn’t take a hint. Arthur just sighed and waved Merlin off towards the empty kitchen. He didn’t particularly feel like listening in on another one of their dopey, content-less conversations.
“Hey,” Merlin answered, cradling the phone with both hands as if it might run away, and scrambling off towards the kitchen. Arthur hated the way his voice sounded, all eager and excited and nervous. It was a tone he hadn’t heard from Merlin in all the years he had known him, not even when he had gotten his first when they were ten. It made something ugly twist in his gut.
Arthur resumed the game, making a point of turning the volume up loud enough to drown out any possibility of overhearing Merlin’s conversation. If he had to listen to that unconsciously flirty laugh, the one Merlin used when he was nervous and didn’t know what else to do, he was going to throw the controller right through the very expensive flat screen tv.
It was no use; Arthur couldn’t even concentrate on the game, he was just wandering around aimlessly, hacking and slashing indiscriminately at whatever unfortunate creature crossed his path. It was oddly cathartic, but not enough to ease his irritation. He was so absorbed in his virtual killing spree that he didn’t even notice when Merlin returned, coming up right behind Arthur and leaning over the back of the couch.
“You really are shit at this,” Merlin said, close to his ear, making Arthur nearly jump. Instead he hid his surprise behind a scowl and set about slaughtering dragons with renewed determination.
“At least I don’t cry whenever I have to kill a dragon to level up,” Arthur retorted petulantly. Merlin merely snorted and slumped gracelessly over the back of the couch to sit beside Arthur, so close that his legs practically sprawled over Arthur’s lap. Arthur scowled and shoved the bare feet away with the controller, but Merlin didn’t seem to pay it any mind, settling in and making himself comfortable, like a very gangly cat.
“I didn’t cry, I just felt bad, is all. Why do knights have to kill dragons, anyway?” Merlin replied in a detached tone. This was one of their standard arguments, one they had carried on since their childhood games, and Arthur didn’t bother to respond. It was hardly the number one issue on his mind right now.
Instead he concentrated on the screen, because it was better than looking at Merlin, all loose limbed and relaxed and far too trusting, as usual. Arthur wondered if he was this unguarded around Gwaine. That wouldn’t do at all.
Arthur contemplated telling Merlin this, but before he could get the words out Merlin was sitting up, grabbing the controller from Arthur’s hands and pausing the game. Arthur turned to take it back but stopped at the sight of Merlin’s face. There was a tension in his expression that belied his sprawled posture.
“Something you want to say?” Arthur asked, in his usual direct manner. There wasn’t much sense in beating around the bush with Merlin. He would dither about for ages before getting to the point, and Arthur’s patience was already worn thin today.
“It’s…um…Gwaine,” Merlin said, casting his eyes everywhere about the room except at Arthur’s face. Arthur could see the blush starting to spread downwards from the tips of those giant ears. It was Merlin’s biggest tell.
“What about him?” Arthur asked, trying to sound neutral. They didn’t talk about Gwaine often, maybe because Arthur had let his distrust slip once or twice in a few untactful comments. They had come to a sort of truce: Merlin didn’t talk about his boyfriend, and Arthur pretended he didn’t exist.
“Well, this weekend…” Merlin continued, the blush spreading downwards over his cheeks as his hands fidgeted with the cuffs of his sleeves.
“For God’s sake, Merlin, what is it?” Arthur snapped, nearing the end of his patience. If they had to talk about Gwaine he wanted to get it over with, so they could get back to not talking about him, ever again.
Merlin took a deep breath before continuing in a rush, “His parents are going to be away this weekend and he saidIcouldstayover.” The last part came out in a breathless huff, and Arthur wasn’t certain he’d heard correctly.
“You, stay over at Gwaine’s? Alone?” he asked, feeling dread starting to pool in the pit of his stomach. But maybe he was wrong; he hoped he was misunderstanding this, because it sounded like…
“Yeah. Just us. So we could…you know,” Merlin raised his brows and waved a hand vaguely through the air, and if that was supposed to be a signal for sex it was the most bizarre one Arthur had ever seen.
“Are you mental?” Arthur asked, the words escaping before he could even think of holding them back. But then again, why should he? Because Merlin was clearly a few screws loose if he was seriously even contemplating this.
Merlin cringed, but tried to look resolute, finally meeting Arthur’s eyes with a determined stare. Arthur sometimes forgot how stubborn he could be.“I’m serious, Arthur, why shouldn’t I be?”
“Serious? About fucking Gwaine? Merlin, you don’t even know how it’s done!” Which really shouldn’t have been the first issue on his mind, but Arthur’s mouth was working faster than his brain, as usual. What the hell was Merlin trying to get himself into?
“I’ve looked at websites and things,” Merlin mumbled, gaze dropping back to the carpet, but his jaw was still set in stubborn determination.
Arthur gaped, but tried to move past the thought of Merlin looking at porn, because really, it was normal for teenage boys, but for Merlin? It wasn’t a thought he was ready to compute at the moment, and really not the main issue at hand. The heat in his chest was just shock, nothing more. He would file that away to consider later. Purely for the purpose of lecturing Merlin. Of course.
“Okay, fine,” Arthur conceded, hurriedly diverting that line of conversation, “but with Gwaine? Merlin, you can’t!” His tone was somewhere between incredulity and outrage, the way his father sounded whenever he scolded Morgana for some daring new act of teenage rebellion. It made him cringe, knowing how much he hated being on the receiving end of that tone. But obviously Merlin needed a little fatherly reprimanding right now, and who else would do it?
“What’s wrong with Gwaine?” Merlin snapped, eyes meeting Arthur’s with a defiant glare. “What’s your problem with him, anyway? He’s my boyfriend, Arthur, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. And this is what people do with their boyfriends.”
Arthur was momentarily dumbfounded by Merlin’s vehemence. He had disagreed with Arthur in the past, and the two had fought plenty over the years, over matters as stupid as sandwich fillings and as important as their future plans. But Merlin had never seemed so smolderingly angry before. Perhaps Arthur had finally pushed too far this time.
“Because,” Arthur explained, trying to sound reasonable, rather than giving into the hysteria bubbling very close to the surface, “he’s dated half the school already! He moves from one person to the next, like it doesn’t even matter. I don’t know what he’s told you, Merlin, but a guy like that isn’t serious about anyone.”
Arthur couldn’t tell if Merlin looked more likely to punch him or cry. Neither one had been his intention, but it was a difficult truth. Maybe Merlin fancied himself in love, and maybe Gwaine genuinely liked him back; but Gwaine was a player, and there was no way he could be serious about Merlin, not in the way Merlin obviously hoped. It was far better that he figure that out now, before he’d given Gwaine something he could never get back.
“You mean because it’s me.” Merlin said, his voice suddenly very small. The anger was still flashing in his eyes, but he seemed to have curled into himself, looking more hurt than defiant now. “You mean someone like Gwaine couldn’t be serious about someone like me. I know what people say, Arthur.”
Maybe Arthur had caught himself thinking that like that once or twice, but not in the terrible derogatory sense Merlin seemed to think. It made him feel a flash of protective anger, wondering if maybe someone else had said something to Merlin. He would crack their skulls if he knew who.
Arthur studied Merlin carefully. Somehow this quiet calm was even more cutting than his rage. Arthur knew how to respond to shouting, but this threw him off. He’d rarely ever seen Merlin like this, in all their years together.
“I didn’t mean that,” Arthur said, feeling the fight drain from him. Merlin still gazed at him reproachfully, now backed into the corner of the couch, as if physically cringing away from Arthur. It felt like the sting of a slap, even without any physical contact.
“Look,” Arthur continued, slipping into Big Brother mode (because despite Merlin’s protests, he was several months older, and that automatically made him the wise one). “It’s just, you’ve never done this before, Merlin. It’s a big deal, something you should be certain about.” Arthur could hear how much he sounded like a girl, but apparently his addled brain had been reduced to pathetic clichés. That didn’t make it any less true, but it sounded weak, even to his own ears.
Merlin was eying him warily, arms crossed defensively over his chest. “You’ve done it,” he said, voice barely above a whisper, and Arthur couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be an accusation or merely a statement of fact.
It was true, he’d had his fair share of girlfriends, and they had fooled around plenty. He had even fancied himself in love once or twice, though it always seemed to fade as quickly as it began. He didn’t regret it, but for some reason he couldn’t explain, he didn’t want Merlin to do the same. Merlin was different, Merlin was delicate, Merlin was precious, and the thought of someone like Gwaine touching him and whispering lies in his ear made Arthur sick to his stomach. Merlin deserved…something more.
“Yeah, I have,” Arthur said, trying to keep his voice stern, “which is why you have to trust me.” Maybe it was a low move, playing on Merlin’s loyalty like that, but it was the strongest card in his hand; Merlin had always trusted Arthur, no matter what.
“It’s easy for you to say, Arthur, you’ve had plenty of chances. But someone like me--”
Merlin never finished that thought, because without warning Arthur launched forward, his lips meeting Merlin’s with bruising force. It was more like a collision than a kiss, but Arthur was hardly aiming for finesse. If anyone ever asked, Arthur would staunchly claim that he did it only to shut Merlin up for one bloody second. Maybe it was because Arthur didn’t like where his thoughts had been heading, or the self-doubt in his eyes. Maybe he just wanted to prove him wrong.
Of course, none of that quite explained why he lingered, letting the initial clash gentle into something closer to a caress, his mouth opening fractionally to better fit around Merlin’s shockingly soft lips.
He didn’t realize his eyes had closed until he pulled back a few inches and opened them, only to find Merlin staring at him with round, astonished eyes. Arthur hastily pulled back further, making a show of straightening his t-shirt while Merlin continued to stare.
Merlin ran a finger experimentally over his bottom lip, as if checking for a mark or residue of some sort, some concrete proof of what had just happened. Arthur was equally incredulous, because if he didn’t know any better, he’d say he had just kissed Merlin.
A grin spread slowly across Merlin’s face, the kind of deep smile that made his eyes crinkle into tiny little slits. He didn’t appear to be ready to punch Arthur’s teeth out (as if he could), but Arthur had learned over the years that Merlin didn’t always show his anger in conventional ways.
“Your timing is bloody awful, Pendragon,” Merlin said, still grinning. Maybe kissing really did do something to Merlin’s brain, because he didn’t seem to be making any sense.
Arthur could only gape. “Uh, yes. No. What?” He was trying to follow Merlin’s train of thought, but that kind of coherency was beyond him at the moment. His lips were still tingling in a very distracting manner, and he wondered vaguely if maybe Merlin had been wearing chapstick.
“You’ve had eleven years, Arthur, and you choose this moment to kiss me? Now that I’ve finally got a boyfriend?”
His smiled had diminished somewhat, but he still didn’t look angry. He was watching Arthur expectantly, like a teacher awaiting an explanation from a recalcitrant pupil.
“Merlin, what are you on about? That was just…just…” he stalled, waving a hand through the air hopelessly, because, really, what the hell was that? He was trying to sound confident and blasé, like kissing your best mate out of the blue was totally normal behavior, but really, what the hell? Why did Merlin suddenly look so sure footed and pleased with himself when Arthur couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together? Had the world really turned upside down, switching about the natural order?
“You really are a dollophead,” Merlin said, shaking his head with a mock sigh. It was one of his old childhood taunts that Arthur hadn’t heard in years, not since they’d learned more choice phrases. Arthur wanted to protest on principle, because who was Merlin to be calling him an idiot? But there was no heat in Merlin’s words, instead a fondness that Arthur had long learned to take for granted, and something else too, something he couldn’t place.
“Shall we do it properly this time?” Merlin asked, already leaning closer, but Arthur was still too hopelessly behind in this conversation to even think of an answer. Merlin didn’t wait for one, in any case.
Merlin leaned forward and kissed him again; softly, experimentally. It made Arthur shiver, and his eyes drifted shut involuntarily. It was the most amazing kiss he’d ever had, which might sound all kinds of ridiculous and clichéd, but he couldn’t even bring himself to care right now. Because there was just something right about it, about the way they fit together. And maybe he’d thought about it before, imagined it every time he caught Merlin licking his lips absentmindedly, every time he sat too close, though he’d never before let himself dwell on it. Maybe he’d been waiting for this for a long time. Maybe.
Merlin pulled away again, searching Arthur’s expression through half-lidded eyes. Arthur knew he should say something meaningful here, something to brilliantly sum up all the dawning realizations whirling through his head, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead he blurted, “But what about Gwaine?”
Arthur could have kicked himself for bringing up that name at a moment like that, when Merlin was pressed against him and soft and pliant beneath his fingertips. Merlin blushed, his gaze flickering away briefly, but it quickly returned, that stubborn, determined look back in place.
“I’ll, uh, have to call him, explain things,” Merlin mumbled, like the very thought left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
“So, that means…you’re not staying at his place this weekend?” Arthur prodded, uncomfortable with Merlin’s vague answer. He didn’t think he was reading this wrong, but Merlin could be planning on calling Gwaine to apologize and beg forgiveness, for all he knew.
Merlin rolled his eyes and smacked Arthur lightly on the back of the head. “You’re such an idiot,” he mumbled, before leaning in to kiss Arthur again, brief but firm, a reassurance, a promise. It was the answer Arthur needed.
Arthur smiled into it, relieved to be back on solid footing after his world had been knocked off kilter. “So,” he continued, his tone teasing, “that means you’re free to stay here then?”
He had meant it to sound like any other invitation to hang out at his place, like they did almost every weekend. But with Merlin still half-sprawled in his lap the words seemed to take on an altogether different meaning, one that he found he was surprisingly okay with.
Merlin must have been thinking along similar lines, because he blushed to the tips of his ears. Arthur would have teased him about it if he didn’t look so bloody adorable. When had Arthur started thinking like that? Probably years ago, if he was honest with himself. But the introspection could certainly wait till later. For now Arthur was content to lean in for another lingering kiss.
For the moment at least it seemed Merlin was all his again, as he was always meant to be all along. So maybe from now on their activities might include a few additions to video games and crappy movies. That sounded okay.
In fact, it sounded bloody brilliant.
Monday afternoon Arthur found himself standing in the school parking lot once again, tapping his foot impatiently while he watched Merlin and Gwaine huddled together. He tried not to scowl too obviously as he watched them smile at each other.
Arthur had sworn to himself not to eavesdrop like some jealous idiot (which he kind of was, but whatever), though he couldn’t help but be curious when Gwaine pointed his chin in Arthur’s direction and Merlin elbowed him playfully in the ribs in return. Gwaine just smiled warmly and patted Merlin on the shoulder. Merlin said Gwaine had been very understanding about the whole thing, and there was nothing particularly intimate about their behavior at the moment, but Arthur couldn’t help but be on edge. But then Merlin looked over at him with that silly, happy grin, and Arthur tried to relax and smile back like he wasn’t about to have an aneurysm if they didn’t stop standing so close.
Merlin and Gwaine parted with a loose hug. Gwaine threw a smile and a manly nod in Arthur’s direction. Arthur nodded back, and it felt almost like making some sort of pact. Then Gwaine turned and headed off with his usual easy swagger.
Arthur had a momentary sense of déjà vu so strong it made his stomach drop to his knees. But this time Merlin’s eyes didn’t follow Gwaine’s retreating figure, instead immediately seeking out Arthur with a satisfied smile. He hurried over to join him again, casually linking his hand with Arthur’s as if it was the most natural thing in the world and they had been doing it forever instead of just a few days. He let his thumb trail over the back of Arthur’s hand in a reassuring motion that Arthur was already learning to relish.
Arthur tried to push all other thoughts away and focus on that warm hand in his, the reassurance that Merlin was right there with him. But he couldn’t help the curiosity pulling at the back of his mind, remembering those amused looks Gwaine had thrown in his direction, like the two of them were in on some joke Arthur didn’t understand.
“Merlin,” he asked, gripping the hand in his a little tighter, “what did Gwaine say?”
Merlin flashed one of his cryptic, impish smiles, the kind that Arthur had learned to look out for since childhood, since it invariably meant mischief.
“Oh, nothing important,” Merlin said, waving his free hand through the air lazily. “Just, congratulations.”
Arthur’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Congratulations for what?” he demanded, but Merlin just continued to smile to himself, dragging Arthur along by the hand.