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Heart Strings (A Remix of Our Lives)

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Merlin touched the tip of his finger to his wrist and played with the string tied around it as he tried not to let the immense boredom show on his face.

Leaning into Mithian’s space, he whispered, “I can’t believe you tricked me into this.” She shushed him urgently, swatting at him, as the bride took slow, gliding steps up the aisle to the low sound of cello music. Merlin was about to speak again when she stepped right past them and Mithian elbowed him in the ribs.

“Ow,” he hissed.

“Serves you right.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry for being bored out of my mind at the wedding between people I’ve barely even met.”

“Yeah, well.” Mithian patted his arm. “Open bar, sweetie.”

Merlin hummed. There was no use in lying: that was exactly why he’d agreed to be Mithian’s plus one in the first place. There was also the fact that weddings were well known to be a place to meet people. Lonely people who had just been reminded of their eternal singlehood, or happily single people who had just been reminded of their freedom to sleep with whoever the fuck they wanted.

“Marjory looks thrilled to be married,” he said, looking at the bride’s extremely serious face as she turned to face her bride.

“Morgana.”

“Really? I’m a hundred percent sure you said Marjory.”

Mithian looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Oh,” Merlin said when Morgana’s face split into a wide smile as she took her almost-wife’s hand. “Alright, she looks happier now. Looks like she’s actually doing it of her own free will.”

“Before you make an arse of yourself, the other one’s Gwen.”

“How do you even know these people again?”

“We went to uni together.”

“You only went to uni for a year.”

“So? Still managed to meet people while I was there, Merlin, it’s not like I was only there for an extended weekend.” Mithian grabbed his wrist and squeezed. “Now shut up, I want to see my friends get married without your nattering in the background.”

Merlin rolled his eyes and relaxed back in his seat. Admittedly, the couple were kind of cute. They were beaming at each other, holding onto each other’s hands so tightly that it almost seemed painful. The way they looked at each other felt so unbearably intimate that a rush of guilt flared through him, prompting him to avert his eyes.

It was only then Merlin noticed the cellist to their left. He was curled around the cello, his head bent and his blond hair falling across his forehead, his arms sturdy and muscular where they moved fluidly in time with the music he created. His fingers pressed down on the strings with precision.

The cellist’s entire body swayed as he played, the bow moving in fluid motions. Merlin watched his hand move in quick flicks, creating a brief vibrato. And then he stopped entirely, his arm coming to rest around the cello as if hugging it, his hand splayed over the dark wood. The cellist looked up and broke into a beaming smile as he peered over at the couple, and Merlin pressed the tips of his fingers into his thigh.

He was unnaturally attractive. There had to be something superhuman about that. And that fucking smile, wide and toothy, changing his entire face into something ridiculously endearing. With that smile, there was a certain humanity in his attractiveness that only served to make Merlin’s chest ache a little.

Merlin hated attractive people. They were frustrating, and rarely available, but something about the fit cellist made him oddly approachable. And there was nothing more dangerous to Merlin’s emotional well-being than attractive, but approachable people.

Mithian’s breath tickled his ear and he jumped. “There’s a little bit of drool…” He batted her hand away as she tried to press a thumb to the corner of his mouth.

“Oh god, shut up,” he whispered, ignoring her muffled giggles. “I hope they bought a whole vineyard, because I’m getting fucking sloshed.”

Mithian shushed him again as Morgana began to say her vows and Merlin forced himself to look at them, only briefly letting his attention turn to the cellist who had his eyes glued to the couple.

“Are you crying?” he whispered as Mithian ran her fingers over her cheek.

“I will maim you.”

“Fair enough.”

Merlin left her alone for the rest of the ceremony, even that time she sniffled really loudly. If he zoned out a little, he didn’t feel like he could be blamed. He was happy for the couple, he truly was, but there was only so much enthusiasm he could muster for someone whose name he barely knew.

It was only when the couple turned to walk out together and the cellist started playing again that Merlin perked up, eyes glued to the fingers pressing down on the strings.

***

“Well, cello to you, my friend.” Merlin waved his bottle of champagne in greeting.

The cellist stopped in his tracks and turned towards Merlin, his mouth opening and closing again.

“Chello,” Merlin said. The cellist’s hair was even blonder than Merlin had originally assessed.

“Please.” The cellist held his hands out in front of him, palms down. “Please don’t say that joke again.”

Merlin laughed into his champagne, trying not to think about how he probably wouldn’t be acting like a fool if he were slightly more sober.

“Okay, mate, no more cello jokes, I swear. Want a drink?” Merlin nudged the chair next to him with his toe and found one of the clean glasses he’d nicked from the bar.

The cellist hesitated for a second before he gave a crooked smile and slipped into the seat. “Only to make sure you don’t drink it all. Pretty sure you’ve had enough.”

“Such a hero,” Merlin said, sloppily pouring champagne into the cellist’s glass. “Gonna nominate you for the Steve Rogers Award Of Outstanding Heroics.”

The cellist shook his head and fought a smile. He sipped at his drink instead of answering, leaving them in a fairly uncomfortable silence. Merlin was really bad at those, and as such, he just couldn’t be blamed.

“I saw the way you fondled that neck,” Merlin said. “It was some quality neckfondling.”

“Oh my god,” the cellist said, swallowing back champagne with difficulty. He looked at Merlin with raised eyebrows before he turned his gaze away. “You should see what I do with the f-holes.”

Merlin snorted and hunched forward. “Ow! You fucker! I got bubbles up my nose, Jesus Christ.” His shoulders shook.

The cellist laughed, whole-heartedly and slightly silly-sounding. “Do you wanna have a go at trying something with the pegs?”

“I’m so damn sorry I started this.”

“I do believe I warned you.”

“Yeah, well, not quite enough, I think.”

“I think maybe you’ve had a bit too much to drink,” the cellist said with a significant look.

“And I think you haven’t had enough, Mr. Neckfondler.”

“I usually go by Arthur, actually, it’s so much easier. I only use Neckfondler for official things.”

Merlin laughed, pressing his glass to his cheek. “Well, Arthur. I’m Merlin.”

“Hello there, Merlin. Nice to meet you.”

Merlin tipped his glass in response.

“So how do you know the sickeningly happy couple?” Arthur asked, looking over at where they were dancing some absurd routine that looked like a mix between YMCA and the chicken dance.

“Oh, I don’t. I’m intimately familiar with the open bar, though.”

Grinning, Merlin rubbed the bottle lovingly.

Arthur tipped his head. “You saying you crashed my sister’s wedding?”

“God, I wish. That sounds really exciting. I wish I were someone who crashed weddings. No, I’m Mithian’s plus one.”

“Ah, she the redhead?”

“No, the brunette over there flapping her hands like a chicken on drugs.”

“Right, right.”

“So, your sister?”

“Yeah, the one in the wedding dress with the crazy eyes.”

Merlin shook his head and snorted. “Wow, she must be really grateful to have you as a brother.”

“Half.”

“Half grateful, then.”

“Well, I did play my cello in public for her. And that never happens.”

“What, you keep that amazingness to yourself?” Merlin said, appalled. “How dare you?”

Arthur’s cheeks went pink and he rubbed at the skin above his collar. “It’s just a hobby.”

“You’re amazing. Even if it’s just a hobby.”

A small smile spread over Arthur’s lips. “Thanks.”

The earnestness in his voice somehow made Merlin’s stomach flutter stupidly and he briefly wondered what noise Arthur would make if Merlin sunk his teeth into those lips.

“But Pachelbel, though. Arthur, really? Couldn’t have found a more cliché alternative?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Fuck, I told Morgana not to go with Pachelbel but she threatened bodily harm.”

“You should’ve made a mash up. Snuck in some Thrift Shop.”

“She would’ve murdered me in my sleep.”

This is fucking awesome,” Merlin said in an oddly deep voice, his inhibition having drowned somewhere in a sea of alcohol.

“Right. Yeah, I’m gonna consult you the next time I play a wedding. Thrift Shop and Pachelbel.”

“Hey, at least it’s not Blurred Lines.”

“Fuck, can you even imagine? At a wedding of all things.”

Merlin laughed, looking over at Mithian dancing with Morgana and Gwen, her smile wide and her hair bouncing on her shoulders.

Arthur seemed to notice where his attention went. “You been dating this Mithian for long, then?”

“Oh, Jesus, no.” Merlin gave a slightly hysterical laugh. “We’re just friends.”

“Sorry, mate. Maybe you’ll get your shot tonight. You know how people get at weddings.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes and leant his arm onto the back of his chair. The alcohol buzzed under his skin. He was in that good zone where he was so drunk he was just happy, but not drunk enough to get maudlin. Arthur was watching him with the corner of his mouth upturned.

“You know,” Merlin said, and put his glass on the table. “I thought, maybe, my outrageous flirting with you had been a little over the top, but clearly I haven’t been obvious enough.”

Arthur looked stricken for only a moment before his smile grew into something that sent Merlin’s pulse racing unevenly. “I was really just making sure. Mithian looks like she wouldn’t save on the punches.”

“Smart man.”

“Come on,” Arthur said and grabbed his hand before Merlin could even wrap his head around what was happening.

He was pulled out of his seat and he made a futile grab for the champagne.

“The bottle,” he protested, and Arthur laughed as he dragged him between the tables.

“Leave it, you lush.”

“Hey, that got me through this entire reception, I’ll have you know. It’s been good to me.”

Arthur turned and grinned at him. “I promise your mouth will be otherwise occupied.”

Merlin nearly swallowed his own tongue.

As they left the reception, he was oddly aware of Arthur’s fingers linking with his, their palms brushing. Arthur’s grip tightened as he led them down the hall and Merlin almost tripped over the carpet in his haste to follow. Arthur stopped by the coatroom and Merlin peered back over his shoulder, still able to see the dance floor through the open doors.

When he turned back, Arthur had his eyes fixed on him, a small smile on his lips. Arthur loosened his grip on Merlin’s hand, his thumb running over the back of it before letting go entirely. He stepped backwards over the doorstep into the coatroom, holding Merlin’s gaze.

It might have been an odd moment to be struck, again, by how gorgeous Arthur was, but as he stood there in the middle of the coatroom, both challenging and vulnerable at once with his eyes full of promise, he was beautiful.

Arthur took another step back into the room and Merlin moved, too, as if there was a rope between them pulling him into whatever this was. When Merlin closed the door behind himself, Arthur’s smile widened into something wicked that sent Merlin’s heart into a fierce rhythm.

In two long steps, Arthur was crowding into his space, his hand coming up to cup Merlin’s neck. His thumb brushed back and forth over the curve of Merlin’s jaw.

“You make good choices,” Arthur said.

“Well. I like to think so.”

“Since you’re so good at this choice thing, I have one more thing to ask.” Arthur paused, tightening his fingers at the nape of Merlin’s neck. “Which coat do you want to make out on?”

Letting out a surprised burst of laughter, Merlin swatted at Arthur before settling his hands at Arthur’s sides. “I’m sure yours would like to see some action.”

Arthur’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Such altruism.”

“That’s a big word, Arthur, I’m impressed. Are you going to keep it up with the big words or are you going to use your mouth for much, much more favourable things?”

Arthur seemed to aim for his own coat as he pushed Merlin back into the row of them, but in actuality they just ended up buried between them all with Merlin’s back pressed to the wall. Their noses bumped, and Merlin let out a puff of laughter that was quickly swallowed by the hungry press of Arthur’s lips.

Merlin was unable to breathe for a brief moment, brain numbed by the weight of Arthur pressing him to the wall and the softness of his lips. He was surrounded by Arthur and it was, quite frankly, fucking brilliant.

His fingers tried to curl into Arthur’s suit jacket, but the fabric was impossible to get a grip on and he slipped his hands in under the jacket instead. With his fingers wrapped into the shirt, the heat of Arthur’s skin was palpable.

Parting his lips under the kiss, Merlin pressed himself close, too lost in it to care if he was being completely shameless. The sound that Arthur gave in response was barely a moan, maybe more of a sigh, but it made Merlin’s chest feel achy and raw.

Even as Arthur licked at his upper lip and Merlin shook slightly under the feeling of it, unease settled in his stomach. Not because it was wrong or uncomfortable, but because it didn’t quite feel like a casual make out session in a coatroom between two strangers should.

Overwhelmed, Merlin broke the kiss and dropped his head against the wall, ignoring the dull pain that spread at the impact. Arthur smirked at him with kiss-red lips before dipping his head to place open-mouthed kisses along his jaw. Overly aware of his every breath, Merlin squeezed his eyes shut as Arthur’s lips left a slick path down his neck.

Merlin was unbelievably hard, not helped by Arthur spreading his lips over Merlin’s neck, sucking bruises into his skin. He wondered if he’d see them there in the morning, red-purple marks marring his neck.

The thought made him moan, the sound deep and wrecked and Arthur let out a soft moan against his skin.

God, Merlin was so fucked.

He fumbled at Arthur’s shirt, pulling it out from the waist of his trousers, and pushed his hands under it to slide across Arthur’s heated skin.

Arthur’s breath stuttered against his neck.

The quiet sound of that breath was so loud in his ears that Merlin almost didn’t hear the exasperated, “Oh, for fuck’s sake” before Arthur stiffened against him. He kept his face buried in Merlin’s neck, his mouth pursed against the skin.

“I can’t believe you’re making out in the coatroom during my wedding, Arthur, I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“Morgana. Little busy here.”

Merlin opened his eyes when Arthur lifted his head to look towards the door. Due to the coats Merlin could only see half of her.

“No, that’s not going to work for me. It’s my wedding, I decide what goes. And you’re not doing this today.” Morgana crossed her arms over her stomach.

“You make it sound like I do this all the time.” Arthur looked at Merlin with wide eyes. “I really don’t.”

“That’s… oddly comforting, actually.” Merlin smiled stiffly, his cheeks heating.

“Arthur, sorry to ruin your moment and everything, but you’re literally the only family I have left and I want you to come dance with me.”

Arthur sighed, resigned.

“Oh my god, go,” Merlin said, pushing at his chest. “Your sister will only get married once. I swear I won’t be offended.”

“I don’t know, if Gwen has any sense she’ll run for the hills,” Arthur muttered, moving away from Merlin with some reluctance. His hands lingered on Merlin’s hips. “Fine. Lead the way to the festivities.”

Merlin pushed his way out of the coats in time to see Arthur give him an apologetic smile before moving past Morgana.

“Well,” she said, pursing her lips. “Thanks for coming to my wedding.”

“Oh yeah, well. No problem? it’s been… great.”

She raised one eyebrow at him. “I bet it has.” She winked at him, cracking a small smile before she moved away from the door and headed down the hall. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Arthur, tuck your shirt in!”

***

“Surprise!” Mithian threw her arms out, nearly hitting Merlin in the face, when Elena opened the door wide. A low hum of chatter came from inside the flat.

Elena looked stunned for a brief second before she broke out in laughter. “I invited you, Mith. I’m pretty sure this is the opposite of a surprise.”

“But did you expect me to look this good?” Mithian gestured at herself. “Oh, and did you expect me to bring this?” She grabbed the bottle of wine from Merlin’s hands and shook it from side to side.

“This is actually a fraction more expensive than the wine I expected you to bring.” Elena peered at the bottle. She shared a look with Merlin and rolled her eyes. “Come on in, you guys.”

“Did you start drinking before you even left the house?” Merlin said as he followed Mithian inside.

Her hair slid down her back when she turned and looked over her shoulder, winking at him. “What do you think?”

“You need to look after her better,” Elena said when Mithian slipped out of her jacket and moved further into the flat.

“Of course.” Merlin raised his eyebrows. “When she’s being trouble, she’s my friend.”

“I wasn’t the one who said we should sit at her lunch table in 8th grade.”

“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?”

“I’m just telling it like it is.” Elena closed the door to the hallway and put a hand on Merlin’s back to push him ahead of her. “You guys are late. I reckon everyone else has shown up. Except possibly Gwaine.”

Elena’s living room was more or less filled to the brim, people sitting in every available spot. Spotting Freya across the room, Merlin waved, seeing her face light up in response before she was pulled back into her conversation with Percy.

“We didn’t really know if this was a house-warming thing or not,” Merlin said as Mithian squeezed in to sit on a sofa between two blokes. “Wasn’t sure whether to bring more than the wine.”

Elena reached over someone’s head and put the wine on the table. “The wine is more than enough, don’t worry. Hey, Lance, scoot over.”

“Oh my god,” someone said and Merlin looked up, confused, as he sat down in the spot opening up for him on the floor.

Merlin’s eyes went wide. “Morgana?”

“Wait, you know my neighbours?” Elena said, confused. She looked between the two of them.

“Hey, I was at their wedding two weeks ago.” His gaze swept over the room. “Is Gwen here?”

“She’s in the bathroom.” Morgana turned to Elena, apologetic. “We didn’t know you then. We would’ve totally invited you.”

“But you know Merlin?”

“Oh, no, we know Mithian.”

“This is extremely weird.”

“But it’s a fucking godsend,” Morgana said and pushed her hair behind her ear. “I’m so chuffed you’re here.”

“Who, me?” Merlin said.

“Arthur’s been sulking for two weeks. He only started talking to me again two days ago.”

Merlin straightened up, his pulse suddenly racing. Shit, he really wasn’t prepared for that.

“I’m so confused right now,” Elena said and leaned forwards to find her glass of wine. “Who the hell is Arthur?”

Ignoring her, Merlin peered around the room. “He’s here?” He couldn’t spot Arthur anywhere.

“Yeah, managed to convince him to come.” Morgana looked incredibly pleased with herself. “Now he can stop blaming me for all this, thank god. He’s out on the balcony with our mate Leon.”

“Oh, the blond one?” Elena looked out at the balcony. “Damn, Merlin.”

Merlin tried to seem unaffected, ignoring Elena entirely. How much of a twit was he going to look like if he shot to his feet and sprinted out onto the balcony? They didn’t need to know that he’d thought about Arthur pretty much nonstop for two weeks, and that he’d gotten extremely close to have Mithian ask Morgana about him.

After being interrupted mid-snog, they hadn’t made any attempt to get back to what they were doing. Merlin had figured it was just one of those things where they got swept up in their flirting, but then the moment passed. Except, in hindsight, the moment never really seemed to pass. And yet, Merlin wasn’t going to be one of those needy people who obsessed over a snog. He wasn’t.

“Just go, oh my god. I get tense just looking at you,” Morgana said, and took a big sip of wine. “Do it before I threaten bodily harm.”

“Alright, fine. Fine!” Merlin got to his feet when Morgana opened her mouth again. He waved his hand in her direction. “But only because you’re nagging me about it.”

“Whatever makes you feel better, sweetie.”

“I’m going to need to be updated on this down to the smallest detail,” Elena said as Merlin moved away, zigzagging between the people on the floor.

When he reached the door out to the balcony, he could see Arthur leaning over the railing and it stopped him in his tracks. Merlin’s hand paused on the door handle as he watched Arthur take a sip from his bottle, head turned towards a tall bloke with a ginger beard.

Shit, he couldn’t just stand here like an idiot. Morgana and Elena were watching him like really scary hawks, without a doubt, and if Arthur for some reason looked over his shoulder and saw him, things would get embarrassing really fast.

He was overthinking this.

He pressed the handle down and swung the door open, stepping out onto the balcony before he could change his mind. There was no place to linger and hide, so he closed the door behind him and moved up next to Arthur by the railing. The bloke with the ginger beard looked at him for a brief moment.

“—says he might quit the team.”

“Why on earth would he quit the team? Have you talked to him?” Arthur said, and Merlin felt immediately awkward. Was he going to have to announce his presence? Christ.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Ginger Beard said. Leon, Merlin suddenly recalled. “He’s not talking a whole lot of sense lately.”

Arthur looked different out of a suit. He’d been damn fit in a suit, too, but the jeans were doing it for Merlin. The red jumper was amazing on him too, just tight enough to remind Merlin of how the muscles of Arthur’s back had shifted under his hands.

Hi, I’ve been thinking about faceplanting on your crotch for two weeks, how’s it going?

Yeah, perhaps truth was a bad thing to open with if he wanted to appear relatively sane. He was still running through a number of absurd alternatives when Arthur seemed to notice they had company and turned, his expression questioning.

Watching Arthur’s face change made Merlin’s stomach flip and turn with wonder. Arthur’s eyes widened in recognition, before they narrowed into a smile, the corners of them crinkling as Arthur’s lips spread wide on his face, so wide it looked nearly painful.

His voice was bright and happy when he said, “Merlin!” and straightened up, absentmindedly running his free hand down his jumper.

Merlin tried to get his tongue unstuck. Heck, he tried to get his brain unstuck.

“Merlin,” Leon said with recognition. “Ah. I’m…” He paused and pointed towards the door with his beer. “I’m gonna check on Morgana.”

“Didn’t recognise you without a cello between your legs,” Merlin said before he could think it through. Leon paused by the door and Merlin’s cheeks went hot.

Arthur hid a smirk behind his bottle. “I’m pretty sure that’s not what I had between my legs the last time I saw you.”

“Jesus Christ, at least let me get out the door first,” Leon said, and scrambled inside with a curse.

As soon as the door was shut with a click, Merlin let out a breath. “Hi,” he said, leaning onto the railing.

“Hi.”

“Did we permanently scar your mate?”

“He’ll live,” Arthur said. “You want a beer?” He leaned down and picked up an unopened bottle that was propped up against the railing.

Merlin accepted it with a, “Cheers.”

When he settled in next to Arthur, their arms almost brushing, Merlin relaxed. The view from the balcony was nothing much, but the weather was the coolest it had been in a while, and the streets below were calm. Merlin took a big sip, waiting for the last bit of awkwardness between them to fall away.

As much as Merlin had thought about Arthur, and even embarrassingly fantasised about meeting him again, it was really hard to know what to say to someone whose tongue had been doing really, really nice things to his mouth and, by connection, to the rest of him as well.

At the wedding he’d been deliberately flirting, talking to Arthur with the intent of hooking up, and now he didn’t know what his intent was. He glanced at Arthur out of the corner of his eyes, letting his focus settle briefly on his sharp profile.

“So, what you been up to, Merlin?” Arthur said, turning to give him a look.

“Oh, you know.” Merlin fought to sound casual. “Crashed another wedding, snogged some other musicians.”

Arthur tried to keep a straight face, but a small twitch of his lips belied him. “Ah. I’m glad you’ve been keeping busy. Can’t have you waste away at home.”

“What about you? Played for any other willing audiences?”

“No, I pretty much only play for the next door neighbours.”

Turning towards him, Arthur rested his elbow against the railing and gave Merlin a measuring look.

“What are we doing here exactly?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s like we’re stuck in an endless loop of jokes. And I still don’t even know your last name.”

Merlin tipped his head to the side, not knowing what to say to that. It was true. All he’d known to say to Arthur from the start had just been silly things – superficial things, really.

Eventually, he said, “Do you want to know my last name?”

“That too.”

Ducking his head, Merlin smiled. “I feel Morgana’s eyes burning into my neck.”

“You wanna head out? I was pretty much guilted into coming here anyway.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “I actually have tickets to the film screening at the Somerset House tonight.”

“Really?” Merlin said, eyes wide. “You were gonna blow off Somerset House for this?”

“Only to make up for ignoring Morgana for days. Had to pay for that somehow.”

“She said it was weeks.”

“Oh, she would,” Arthur said, glaring in the direction of his sister. “Morgana and her bloody big mouth.”

Merlin laughed.

Arthur seemed to hesitate for a moment, his lips pursing briefly. “It’s not too late to go. If you want.”

“Are you kidding? Somerset House beats this by a mile.”

The beaming smile he got in return made Merlin’s hands prickle and he smiled back, feeling dazed and stupid.

He barely had time to put his bottle down on the floor before Arthur gripped him around the wrist and pulled him back inside where Merlin nearly stumbled over the people seated on the floor.

“Shouldn’t you tell Morgana you’re leaving?” Merlin raised his voice above the chatter as Arthur steered him in a wide arc around Morgana and Elena.

“As if she hasn’t been following us obsessively already.”

When Merlin looked in her direction, she stared back at him, unbearably smug, and yeah, it was probably a good idea to avoid the fuck out of that. He ducked his head, careful to avoid eye-contact, and focused on the weight of Arthur’s hand around his wrist.

***

The courtyard at Somerset House was packed with people when they got there with minutes to spare. They’d taken a detour to Arthur’s flat to get the tickets and a bag with whatever they could think of bringing. The DJ was still playing music even five minutes before the film was due to start, so Merlin slowed down to survey the area.

“Do you want to see if there’s any space up front?” Arthur asked, lifting his bag to avoid hitting people in the head.

“I’d rather have some space around us than sit close to the screen. It’s probably packed up there.”

They weaved through the people already seated in search of a spot that was big enough for them to spread out a little. The film was just starting when Arthur finally found an available circle of space, put down his bag and pulled out the blanket. They spread it out over the ground as the title flashed on the screen: Love. Magic. Destiny.

“This is moving very fast for a first date.” Merlin crouched down onto the blanket and smiled up at Arthur when he rolled his eyes. “I can only take that title as a hint.”

“Right. You do that, Merlin. I didn’t even know I was bringing you. You want this one or this one?” Arthur held up the two pillows they’d brought and Merlin reached out to grab the one that looked most padded.

The sky was darkening and when the screen flashed bright with an image of a sun-filled landscape, it illuminated the entire courtyard.

“Have you ever been before?” Arthur said once he’d settled and pulled out the snacks they’d taken from his cupboards, as well as the bottle of wine. “Ah, shit, we didn’t bring glasses.”

“I think we’ll be fine. You’ve had your tongue in my mouth, I think –“

“You make it sound like I just stuck it in there. I’m pretty sure yours was in mine too.”

“Yeah, fine, Arthur, the point is… that I think we can stand to drink from the bottle.”

Arthur passed it to him, their fingers brushing for a moment so quick Merlin thought he’d imagined it. “You do the honours then.”

“The honours of unscrewing the cap. I’m flattered.” Merlin sat cross-legged and placed the bottle in the space between his legs. “And yeah, I’ve been once, but it was years ago.”

Resting his arms on his bent knees, Arthur turned his eyes to the screen. “I come every year, actually. It’s just nice. Even going alone is good.”

Merlin hummed. “Been wanting to come back.”

Both of them fell quiet, then, their focus on the film that sent flickers of light across the crowd. Merlin took a slow sip from the bottle of wine, following the dialogue for a moment, eyebrows knitting together.

“What the heck is this film even about?” He said, voice low.

“How should I know?” Arthur stole the bottle from his grip to take a swig. “You talked over the entire beginning.”

“Oh, I did?”

“Yes, you. You’re impossible.”

Merlin rolled his eyes and let Arthur have the final word, focusing instead on trying (but failing) to make sense of the film. It was warm enough to not be too cold in his hoodie and it wasn’t even overcast. Around them, people were talking in hushed voices even as they watched.

The couple ahead of them were lying down and Merlin couldn’t for the life of him understand how they could see anything on screen, but he didn’t know if it even mattered. The muted sounds of laughter came from somewhere close, and Merlin felt oddly content in the middle of this crowd, the walls of Somerset House framing them.

He looked over at Arthur, following the line of his jaw with his eyes before dropping his gaze to his fingers. They were resting loosely on the neck of the bottle, long, but thicker than Merlin’s own. Merlin watched, a little mesmerised, as the hand resting on Arthur’s knee moved to scratch at his wrist, pulling back the sleeve of his jumper a little.

His heart skipped oddly when he saw a glimpse of something red against the pale skin of Arthur’s wrist. He made an aborted movement to reach over, only just catching himself.

“What’s that on your wrist?”

“Oh, that. It’s just a bracelet of sorts.” Arthur pushed back his sleeve a bit to reveal a red bracelet. “I made it way back. That’s a cello string from my first cello braided in with the leather pieces.”

Merlin grinned, pulling back his own sleeve. “I’ve worn this as long as I can remember.” He fiddled with it. It wasn’t as nice as Arthur’s. It used to be a single string, but when it broke, Merlin had tied it together with new ones, until it had become a patchwork of strings in varying shades of red. “My mum can’t even remember when I got it. I’ve asked, but she says she has no idea.”

Arthur laughed, looking a little surprised. “Morgana’s always said I’m the only one sentimental enough to make a bracelet and wear it forever.”

“I think you need to stop listening to Morgana.”

Snorting into the back of his hand, Arthur shook his head. “Don’t let her hear you say that, she’ll never talk to you again.”

Merlin shrugged. “I’d deal.”

“I like your bracelet, or whatever it is.”

“It’s a mess compared to yours,” Merlin said.

“No, I like being able to tell you’ve lived with it, you know? All the bumps and the knots.”

“Are you going to go all deep on me now?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Arthur said solemnly, and Merlin threw his head back as he laughed, even as he tried to muffle it to not disturb the people around them.

“Well, thank god.”

Merlin pulled his sleeves up over the back of his hands and accepted the wine bottle as Arthur held it out.

“I’ve no idea what’s going on,” Merlin admitted. “You?”

“Not a single clue.”

Merlin snorted and reclined onto his back, moving his pillow to rest under his head instead. The low hum of chatter lulled him into an odd sense of comfort and he looked up into nothing as he listened to the conversation on screen.

“Oh,” he said. “They should show Clue sometime.”

“Shit, that would be everything I’ve ever wanted.”

Merlin laughed, but it died in his throat when Arthur’s fingers slid over the back of his hand. His heart beating loudly in his ears, Merlin turned his palm up and let Arthur link their fingers together.

***

By the time they found a cab, Merlin was a little woozy from the wine. He was at that point where his mouth felt all prickly and strange, but not yet at the point where it felt like his legs were controlled by someone else. He let Arthur pull him into the backseat, and Arthur only let go of his hand as he struggled to co-ordinate himself into place.

Merlin slumped against Arthur’s side and turned his cheek into his shoulder, nuzzling a little against the soft fabric of the jumper.

“’s was nice,” Merlin muttered.

Arthur gave his address to the driver and slipped further into the seat, making it easier for Merlin to rest his head on his shoulder.

“Yeah, it was.”

“D’you do this with all the blokes you pick up at weddings?”

“You really don’t hold your alcohol well,” Arthur said, and laughed. It made his shoulders shake and Merlin raised his head to avoid the worst of the jostling.

“Probably should’ve warned you about that.”

“I’m pretty sure I should’ve guessed.”

As Merlin didn’t answer, and his eyes fell shut, it went quiet around them and Merlin nearly dozed off. He might even have slept for a brief moment before Arthur pushed at him. “We’re here, come on. I’ll make you tea when we get up.”

Merlin didn’t even bother to point out what an abysmal invitation that was. He just let Arthur lead him up the stairs to his flat while whispering in the quiet of the hallway, push him inside and present him a steaming cup of tea.

“You’re nice.” Merlin smiled.

“Oh boy,” Arthur said.

“You are! I think maybe you think you aren’t sometimes. It feels like you don’t. But you are. Nice, that is. And you wear a string from your first cello around your wrist.”

“I’m not quite sure how those two are connected, Merlin.”

“They are.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Merlin cupped his hands around his cup of tea, breathing deep and inhaling the smell of peppermint. “Thank you.”

“It’s only tea.”

“No, for taking me to Somerset House,” Merlin said, looking at Arthur’s hands instead of his face. “To see Love. Magic. Destiny. even though I still have no idea what it was about. It was terribly confusing, wasn’t it?”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for coming with me and getting drunk on half a bottle of wine.”

“You’re the worst.”

Arthur just hummed, hiding a smile behind his cup.

Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was something else entirely, but slipping into Arthur’s bed was easy. Finding a space next to Arthur happened all on its own, like it was muscle memory. Merlin tucked himself close, eyes closing as Arthur’s arm settled around him.

He thought there was a dry press of lips against his temple, but he couldn’t quite decide if he’d imagined it before he fell asleep.

***

“You’re crushing me,” Merlin muttered before he even realised he was, in fact, awake. “Hmph.”

He flailed when Arthur somehow made himself heavier, pressing his face into Merlin’s chest and making a strange (adorable) rumbling sound.

“How did I get here?” Merlin said, even as he circled his arm around Arthur’s shoulders.

He knew how he’d gotten there in the simplest sense, of course. He hadn’t been quite that drunk. But he didn’t know how he’d gotten from ogling Arthur playing the cello to whatever this was in the span of no time at all.

“Hungry,” Arthur said into his chest, his voice gruff with sleep.

When he looked up at Merlin, his eyes were bleary and his hair rumpled in a stupidly cute way. Arthur was squinting, his nose scrunched up, and a warm curl of affection hit Merlin so suddenly that he pushed Arthur off with so much force, he nearly toppled over the edge of the bed.

“Food,” was all he said when Arthur glared at him.

The cups they’d used last night were still sitting on the kitchen table, so they just rinsed them out and made fresh tea and toast. It was all a quiet affair, but Merlin was strangely comfortable with it. Often, Merlin couldn’t stand silence for long, but he felt no particular need to fill this one with anything.

Unfortunately, that only lasted until Merlin had swallowed the last bit of toast and realised that he didn’t have much reason to stick around. He’d, for no apparent reason, stayed the night and now he’d had breakfast, and he didn’t exactly know if Arthur wanted him to hang around all day.

Arthur was still nursing his tea, swirling it around in his cup, and nothing about him gave Merlin any clue on what to do next.

He cleared his throat and Arthur looked up, face questioning.

“I guess I should get home.”

“Right.” Arthur sat up straighter and put his cup down. “Yeah.”

“Thanks for letting me crash. And the tea.” Merlin looked down at the table. “And also the toast.”

“Hey, no problem. Uh, did you leave anything in the bedroom?”

“No, I think I’m fine. I should just…”

“Yeah.”

Merlin got to his feet, awkwardly, and nearly toppled the chair over.

Arthur followed him out into the hallway of his flat, waiting quietly as Merlin toed into his shoes. When Merlin looked up at him, his hands buried into the pockets of his hoodie, Arthur’s eyebrows were drawn together and he looked distant.

It was stupid, but Merlin wanted to stay. He wanted to bury himself in Arthur’s arms and push his face into Arthur’s neck, inhaling him, and he wanted to eat many breakfasts in comfortable silences. He wanted that terrifying feeling in his chest that he’d had in the coatroom at the wedding, the one that bowled him over and left him turned inside out.

Last night it seemed simpler. Maybe he was making it more complicated than it needed to be. Maybe—

Arthur’s hands were big and warm against his cheeks when he kissed him, lips pressed to the corner of Merlin’s mouth. Merlin gave a muffled sound of surprise, his mind coming to a grinding halt, overwhelmed by the warmth of Arthur’s mouth.

He squeezed his eyes shut and let himself lean into Arthur just like he’d wanted to, his mouth opening into the kiss. When Arthur pulled back, he followed, not quite willing to let go. Arthur snorted and gave him another swift kiss.

“Hey, I just realised I can’t go yet,” Merlin said, his lips tingling as he opened his eyes. “You still don’t even know my last name.”

With his arm around Merlin’s shoulders, Arthur pulled him out of the hallway, nearly toppling him over in the process. Arthur’s arm tightened around him until he was almost in a headlock, and Merlin pushed at him, laughing.

“Jesus, Arthur, what the hell?”

“Why were you even leaving in the first place, you idiot?” Arthur said, letting up a little. “I thought I’d done something during the night to freak you out.”

“I don’t know, I just didn’t know if you wanted me to stay. I mean, I’d already gotten drunk and invaded your bed.”

“Get those shoes off again, you’re not going anywhere. Moron.”

Merlin twisted himself out of Arthur’s grip until his hand was only resting loosely on his shoulder, and jumped on one leg, then the other, to get his shoes off. “You sure know how to make a guy feel special.” He took off his hoodie too, leaving it crumpled on the floor.

When he straightened up, Arthur was looking at him intensely and Merlin stilled, watching as Arthur’s hand came up to cup the back of his head, threaded into his hair. Arthur closed the gap between them, the kiss all tongue and no patience at all. His bracelet brushed against the skin below Merlin’s ear.

Merlin’s fingers curled into Arthur’s t-shirt, dragging him closer as he licked at Arthur’s upper lip. There was a faint taste of tea still on his tongue.

“We should’ve just done this at the wedding,” Arthur said when they broke apart and Arthur dragged them towards the bedroom. “Or, at least we should’ve just done this at Elena’s.”

“Right there on the balcony? Sounds like a good show.”

“Yeah, should’ve just fucked you right there. They could’ve watched if they wanted to.”

Merlin laughed, even as he flushed hot and his cock twitched. “Are you saying you only wanted to get in my pants? I’m deeply wounded, Arthur. Deeply.”

Arthur dragged his lips down Merlin’s neck, breath hot and wet on his skin. He hummed and pressed his teeth into the curve of Merlin’s shoulder, the pressure of them sharp, but not painful.

Pulling away a little, Arthur grabbed the hem of Merlin’s t-shirt and pulled it up over his head, tossing it aside as he traced one hand over Merlin’s ribs. Merlin sucked in a breath on instinct, his heart running too fast. When Arthur moved his fingers, too light, on his skin, Merlin squirmed and laughter burst out of him, involuntary and ridiculous.

“This really isn’t going the way I pictured it,” Merlin said.

“Would it help if I did this?” Arthur raised his eyebrow in question before he wrenched his own shirt over his head and popped open the button on his jeans. It messed up his hair, and strands of it stood from his head, all static.

Merlin reached out and hooked his fingers into the waistline of Arthur’s jeans. “That does go a long way.” He pushed the zipper down, his knuckles brushing the outline of Arthur’s hard cock.

He wasn’t sure if laughter was supposed to be such a big part of sex. It never had been before. By rights it should make sex feel sillier. But Arthur laughed when Merlin pushed him down onto the bed and Arthur bounced, making his dick flop a little ridiculously. And then again when Merlin nibbled at the skin of his stomach, soothing it with his tongue.

It didn’t make it less important, it just made him happy. He grinned so hard his cheeks hurt, even as he nuzzled against Arthur’s cock, his hands pressing into Arthur’s thighs. The strange pressure in his chest was back, like a ball of tension that expanded out and out, making space where there was none to make. Overwhelmed, Merlin turned his face into the groove of Arthur’s hips.

Arthur’s hand ran through his hair, tentative. “You OK?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine, it’s not—“

Merlin didn’t know what it wasn’t. Or what it was. The ball of tension seemed to reach out, grabbing for something, and he couldn’t… he didn’t know if this was what it was supposed to be like, or if he was suffering from some unknown disease. Maybe this was what a heart attack felt like.

“It’s OK. Me too.”

Merlin looked up at that, eyebrows pulled together in confusion. “Really?”

“Yeah. It’s weird. But I really want—I just—“

And then Merlin didn’t really even care what this was. Because he really just needed it, whatever it may be, and if Arthur did as well, if Arthur too felt like this, then they would just descend into madness together.

He licked his lips, leaned in and took Arthur’s cock into his mouth, hollowing his cheeks as he slid down. It was heavy on his tongue, the taste of it exactly what he wanted and he closed his eyes, humming in content.

Arthur said something he couldn’t catch, muffled words that made Merlin look up. He found Arthur with his head thrown back, his chest moving noticeably as his fingers twisted into the covers of his bed.

Merlin always felt a rush of power in situations like these. He was the one making Arthur’s breath catch and his hips hitch. It made him feel high on the power he held, on the way he could make Arthur’s body react with the flick of his tongue, or the hollowing of his cheeks or the vibrations of his hum.

The moan, strangled and desperate, that Arthur gave as Merlin dragged the flat of his tongue along the length of him, made little shivers of excitement move across Merlin’s skin. He loved the way Arthur arched into his mouth and the way his entire body twisted, as if it was bordering on too much.

Arthur angled his hips until his thigh pressed against the side of Merlin’s head, his head turned into the covers. His mouth was open, his breathing loud and harsh, and Merlin really just wanted to draw the orgasm out of him, wanted his thighs to tighten around his head.

But Arthur started pawing at his shoulders until Merlin reluctantly let go and sat back, licking his sore lips tentatively. Arthur looked up at him with glassy eyes, a pleased smile spreading over his lips as he stretched, his muscles moving fluidly and his cock bouncing against his stomach.

Merlin nearly swallowed his tongue, and embarrassingly enough started coughing even as his dick twitched.

“Shut up,” Merlin said when Arthur laughed. His lips were swollen, and he looked down at Arthur’s cock, slick with his spit.

“You’d be terribly bored if I shut up, Merlin. Don’t wish such horrors upon yourself.”

“You’re such a tosser.” Merlin jabbed a finger against his side, watching Arthur squirm. “I’ve managed twenty-five years without you, I’m sure I’d deal.”

“But now your life has meaning.”

Merlin flopped down next to Arthur, slinging an arm over his eyes. “Oh, god, I regret everything.”

A warm hand splayed over his stomach, thumb rubbing back and forth over his skin. “I think your dick disagrees.”

“Well, we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, to be honest.”

When Arthur didn’t answer, Merlin lifted his head to see what was going on. Arthur was just looking at him, his eyes dark and uncomfortably intense. Something in Merlin’s stomach went tight with tension, the light-heartedness bleeding out of the moment. He licked his dry lips, and spread his legs just a little, just enough for Arthur to notice.

The corner of Arthur’s mouth lifted minutely before he turned to fumble around in the drawer of his nightstand. Merlin felt too hot, burning up from somewhere inside, and he reached down to grip himself tight, giving a couple of pulls to take the edge off. His eyes fluttered shut for a moment and when he opened them again, Arthur was looking at him, wide-eyed.

“Keep going,” he said, voice hoarse.

Merlin’s fingers twitched around his cock and he moved his hand again, slowly, pushing his feet into the bed to ground himself as his nerves came alive with the relief. He choked on a moan when the blunt tip of Arthur’s finger, slick and gentle, pressed against his rim.

His legs spread open on instinct as he pushed back into Arthur’s touch, his back arching when Arthur’s finger slid inside. Merlin liked being spread open, always had, but this was already too intense, the burn of Arthur’s fingers impossibly good. He was filled with so much pleasure it was like it had nowhere to go, expending his rib cage and his chest, as if rearranging him to make room for all of the things he felt.

Everything narrowed to the fingers curling a little inside him, pushing up and in with exactly the right force, and Merlin pressed his head back into the bed. He no longer managed to keep the grip on his own cock, and his hand curled at his hip, useless.

He squirmed when Arthur’s fingers were replaced by the blunt head of his cock, pressing inside so maddeningly slow that Merlin let out an impatient sound. Merlin’s legs opened wider as Arthur bottomed out, pressing Merlin into the mattress with the weight of his body, warm and solid all along Merlin’s.

Merlin clutched onto his back, wrapping his legs around his hips, the feeling of Arthur’s skin on his making his mouth dry. He was full. His chest was full, and his arse was full, and his heart too. He didn’t know how to let it out, how to release some of the pressure so it didn’t feel like he was going to burst.

He buried his face into the curve of Arthur’s neck, letting out a muffled whine. Arthur’s breath was hot against his ear, and then Arthur moved, sending shocks of pleasure through every part of him as Arthur’s cock pulled out, every gorgeous bit of it sliding along his skin.

“Oh, god,” Merlin said, mouth open in harsh breaths.

Arthur hummed, his tongue flicking at Merlin’s earlobe. And then he pushed in again, deep, faster than before, and Merlin’s legs shook, his spine turning to liquid. He moaned, too loud and too eager, but he didn’t care, he just didn’t. Pushing his hips up to meet Arthur, he spurred him on.

Merlin cried out, his back arching, when Arthur rocked into him, hips rolling faster. There was a tinge of desperation to Arthur’s hitching moans. Merlin held onto him, unable to do much else as Arthur’s cock filled him over and over.

The rhythm changed, turned lazier and less steady, and Arthur lifted his head and leaned in, hovering above Merlin’s lips. For a moment, their mouths barely brushed, so fleetingly that it was almost nothing, and then they were locked in a kiss that was filthy and open-mouthed, Arthur’s tongue licking at the roof of Merlin’s mouth. He nudged at Merlin’s arm, pushing it up over Merlin’s head. He locked their fingers together, and the strings around their wrists touched.

A jolt of energy sang in Merlin’s chest, something new, something that didn’t have anything to do with Arthur’s cock buried to the hilt. He gasped for breath, breaking the kiss, as something unfamiliar swirled in his chest, overwhelming, too—

Everything changed. The colours around them, the light, the smells. He felt like himself, but not, and when he opened his eyes, Arthur too, was different. It hit him, bit by bit, absent year by absent year. Flashes of memories pushed through the haze of his pleasure, taking him back so far it made him dizzy.

And then it was all clear, all his history, all of their lives, all they’d ever been, together and apart. His eyes widened, and he choked out a soft, “Arthur” as he buried his free hand into Arthur’s hair, knowing it once belonged under a crown.

His eyes fluttered shut again as he heard Arthur speak, in another tongue and another time.

"Come now, Merlin. We're already bound to each other in this life and the next, aren't we? And if we weren't, I'd have it so."

Merlin bit back a sob as he came between them, clutching Arthur so tight that it had to bruise, had to mark him somehow.

”All right. Let's make sure of it, then," said Merlin from a long time ago, the Merlin who was still him. Merlin’s head rushed, his heart pounding so hard he could barely hear anything else.

It was only then he found enough focus to look up into Arthur’s face, finding him wide-eyed and stunned, his mouth open and his eyebrows pulled together. He continued to fuck into Merlin, his rhythm erratic. Arthur’s hand was nearly crushing his, the strings around their wrists still pushed together and Merlin was overly aware of them against his pulse.

He moaned softly when Arthur gave a sharp thrust and then shuddered. His eyes closed and a long, deep groan rumbled through his chest.

They existed outside of time itself.

Arthur’s grip on his hand loosened, and Merlin brought it down to move over Arthur’s back. Merlin felt almost weightless, as if the laws of the universe didn’t apply to him anymore. He closed his eyes, fingers brushing over Arthur’s warm skin, and slipped into the memories like he’d slide into a lake on a warm summer’s day. He eased into them, letting them come to him instead of running after them.

“I guess you were right,” he said, eventually, when Arthur showed no signs of communication.

He was met only with silence for a moment before Arthur sighed against his neck and said, “About what?”

“The lifetimes.”

Merlin threaded his fingers into Arthur’s hair and pulled at it, urging him to look up. When their eyes met, Merlin smiled, wide and unbearably happy. Arthur leaned in and kissed his smile, lips pressed to his upper lip and then his lower, before kissing each corner.

It was unbelievable that they were here. Arthur was no longer king, and Merlin was no longer magic, but the threads, the strings, tying them to the world were magic enough.

“This is mad,” Arthur said, his hand shaking a little as he ran a thumb across Merlin’s jaw.

“Yeah. It’s mad. Good, though?”

Merlin wasn’t uncertain, not really, but Arthur’s fond smile put him at ease anyway.

“Yes. Good.”

Humming, Merlin nuzzled against his cheek. His head was filled with another lifetime, even as the soft bed dipped under his back and the numbers of the alarm clock on the nightstand shone blue.

“I’m filthy,” Arthur said, suddenly, and Merlin stifled a laugh. “You should draw me a bath.”

“Oh my god.” Merlin huffed. “Is this how it’s going to be?”

“Of course it is, Merlin, it’s like you don’t even know me.”

Merlin did end up pushing Arthur aside and clambering out of bed to find a cloth to clean up with. He even slid it across Arthur’s stomach, softly, before cleaning himself.

“For old time’s sake,” he said when Arthur raised his eyebrows.

Arthur laughed when Merlin settled down next to him with Arthur’s arm around his shoulders. Putting his lips to Arthur’s chest, he pressed himself close and slotted his leg between Arthur’s.

He remembered the words in the mist, all those years ago. Choice is illusion. And he smiled into Arthur’s skin, because he knew the words had never been true. He chose Arthur once and then many times over in a lifetime, and he would choose him again, over and over, until there were no choices left to be made.