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Painting By Numbers

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In 1951, Palmer Paint introduced the first ever Painting By Numbers kit. Each one of the twelve million boxes sold declared: a beautiful oil painting the first time you try!

Gwaine got one for Christmas when he was eight. The little plastic pots filled with colour and a runny, clear liquid which required shaking before use delighted him. The numbers and guidelines did not, and he drove his mother to many a gin and squash by ignoring them and painting whatever he wanted over the top. He neither ended up with what the box said he should nor something his mother wanted to hang on the wall, but he found the resultant splodges beautiful, and since then he’s always steered clear of painting within other people’s lines.

Perhaps that explains why – twenty years later – he’s sitting waiting in an art professor’s office, and instead of reading a book or playing Angry Birds on his phone, he’s spinning round and round on the chair. The bookcase blurs into a Monet of indistinct colour and shape, and just as he lets his head loll to make the most of the dizziness the door opens. He scrabbles for the edge of the filing cabinet to bring himself to a giddy halt, fixing a suitably respectable grin on his face. Where he’s expecting to find a wizened old biddy with a wrinkled neck, pearls, and a hundred borrowed opinions on Bosch there stands a young bloke – mostly hat and coat and curious eyes – a couple of books on the Renaissance clutched to his chest.

“Hi,” the young bloke says, clearly unsure whether he’s allowed to laugh or not, “you’re Professor Armitage?”

“No. Sorry to disappoint,” Gwaine says.

“Damn, I’ve been trying to track them down for weeks.” Cheeks pink with coming in from the cold, he edges in, leans on the desk, and juggles the books against his chest before setting them down, tugging off his hat and ruffling thick, dark hair into his eyes. “I just need a stupid form signed.”

Gwaine’s gaze falls over the Cubist lines of his face and pallid colour of his skin to find itself temporally enraptured by a mouth on loan from the Pre-Raphaelites. The guy glances at him, like he can tell he’s being watched with less than casual eyes, and his lip just twitches into a hint of smile Gwaine’s sure would be lovely in full effect.

“Forge it for you, if you want,” Gwaine says. “In my disreputable youth I had quite a sideline in phony doctor’s and parents’ signatures. I’m sure I haven’t lost my gift.”

The guy laughs and looks away, shaking his head. Then he looks back, one eyebrow lifted in curiosity, eyes lit up with mischief. He unbuttons his coat, revealing a blue jumper to his knees which can’t quite conceal a coat-hanger frame, and produces a folded A4 page from his inside pocket. He meets Gwaine’s eye, and bites his lip in consideration.

“This is probably illegal,” he says.

“There’s no probably about it. You could always try again later, if – ”

“Term’s nearly over. I’m getting pretty desperate,” he says, and holds the sheet out, expression dancing with challenge. “Go on, then.”

Gwaine thumbs his chin, trying to hide a smile at the fuck, you’re cute burgeoning in his head. He takes the form, unfolds it, the warmth from being tucked snug into a body radiating enticingly from the paper to his fingertips. He scans the text, leaning on the desk in some kind of faux professor pose.

“So – it says here that your name is Merlin, and you want to take a mooch through the library’s antiquity stash?”

“Inspiration for my dissertation.”

“On?”

The guy lifts a book from his small stack.

“Giorgio Vasari – ”

“Ah, a devotee of Italian Gothic and frescoes.”

“One who can’t afford a trip to the Santa Maria del Fiore, so a rummage in the basement through his volumes is as close as I’m going to get.”

“Well, then, I’m happy to oblige, Merlin,” Gwaine says, over-stressing his name to lodge it in place in his head. “Just need something to – ”

Gwaine rustles through the papers littering the desk until his fingers fall on an essay with a messy scrawl of a moniker on the top sheet. He reaches for a pen, cradles it loosely to reflect the loopiness of the scrawl, and goes over the movement in his head: the upstroke on the A, the talon-like hook of the g. He rehearses it in the air before he draws the words Professor S Armitage in one flowing line with just a little tick of a flourish to cross the t and the f.

“There you go.”

“That’s – ” Merlin says, taking the paper and staring at it, a crease between his eyebrows. He looks from Gwaine’s signature to Professor Armitage’s side by side and – even if Gwaine does say so himself – it's indistinguishable.

Delinquent was the word my teachers most often used,” Gwaine says, and Merlin laughs, quick and shy.

“How did you – you didn’t even practice.”

“It’s mostly nerve, forgery. The trick is not to copy the individual letters, but to imagine the motion of the person’s hand as they wrote the whole word.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Merlin says, tucking the form into his pocket. “Chances are in a couple of months I’ll need a second income.”

“Art history student?”

“Worse – I’m doing fine art too. Gave me delusions of having a professional career, so when I graduate I’ll be looking for a garret to starve in and avoiding messages from my mother about how I should have done accountancy.”

“Mothers,” Gwaine says. “Why do they all think being chained to a calculator is the route to happiness?”

“Square root to happiness, surely?”

“Oh, very droll.”

Merlin grins – it is very, very lovely – shifts, glances down at him, eyes lingering on the glimpse of chest the opening of Gwaine’s shirt reveals with a light pricking of interest.

“So – why are you waiting for no-concept-of-time Armitage?” Merlin says, lifting his gaze back slowly. “I’m guessing you’re not a student.”

“I’m Gwaine,” Gwaine says, and he offers his hand. Merlin takes it with a surprisingly strong grasp, his fingers cold, a bit dry, and peppered with rough calluses. “I’m a travelling paint salesman.” Merlin’s eyebrows jump, amused. “I’ll have you know it’s a real thing,” Gwaine says, swinging a little on the chair, giving Merlin his best winning smile. “My friend and I have this whole line of organic eco paints and brush cleaners. He’s more science-y so he makes them, and I charm art departments into buying them. It was only because of the Industrial Revolution paint started being made with petrochemical by-products – for your man Vasari it was all plants and clay, so really what we’re doing is just taking paint back to where it came – ”

“That your entire sales pitch?”

“Pretty much. You want samples? I’ve a very fetching crimson today.”

“No thanks, but – sounds cool,” Merlin says, meeting Gwaine’s eye with perfect seriousness. “There’s a cave in Denmark that was painted hundreds of years ago with ox blood and it still looks perfect. I always wanted to go and see.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“Too little money, too little time,” Merlin says, and looks down at his feet. “Or maybe I’m just making excuses. I always put off things I’d really like to do in case they don’t measure up to how they are in my head.”

“Oh, well that blights us all if we’re not careful.”

“What’s the answer?”

“Leap of faith every now and then,” Gwaine says, “and trust that wherever your feet land is where they’re supposed to be. Even if they’ve landed in a puddle of disappointment you still jumped, and you can step out of it any time and jump again.”

The corner of Merlin’s mouth hitches into something that’s almost a smile. Gwaine goes to say something else to keep it there and see if he can make it blossom into another grin, but a bell rings.

“Shit,” Merlin says, pushing off the desk as the ceiling vibrates with the weight of dozens of pairs of feet stampeding down the stairs. “I’ve got to go – I’ve got a lecture on Surrealism right on the other side of campus, and last time I tried to make a sorry-I’m-late-melting-clocks joke it didn’t go over as well as I hoped.”

“No worries,” Gwaine says, and adopts a melodramatically put-upon tone. “I’ll just go back to dejectedly spinning on the chair.”

Merlin tugs his hat on and peers at Gwaine from under it, gesturing to the door with a breathy laugh at nothing.

“I – er – I hope Armitage shows up to hear your pitch – it’s a good one. And thanks for the forgery. It’s going to save my life.”

“Any time, Merlin.”

Merlin pauses on the threshold, fingering his book, lips switching from side to side.

“You know I could steal anything from the library’s collection, now,” he says, head cocked.

“Yeah, but – you seem trustworthy.”

“Do I?”

“Your face is honest. Amongst other things.”

Merlin sniffs a laugh, and on the back of another smile he’s gone. Gwaine waits until the door at the end of the corridor swings closed before digging his heel into the carpet and spinning round on the chair again. The blur changes, no longer a mishmash of books and office but all Merlin – a cobbled guess at how he might look really, really laughing, all fogged and soft-lit like something from a daytime soap.

Fuck, Gwaine thinks. That’ll be a sketch of crush on some art student, then, on the previously blank pages of my heart.

He lasts ten more minutes, and then – a bit too dizzy – he gets up and flirts with the woman on reception until she tells him where he might find a lecture on Surrealism taken by a humourless professor.

*

Gwaine peers into the amphitheatre of a lecture hall through the window in the door. Most of the students tap away on laptops, barely listening behind their designer specs and studiedly off-centre haircuts, but Merlin’s at the back with a notebook, bouncing the end of a pencil off his lip. Gwaine squeezes in with a squeak of hinge, and drops down the stairs to his row.

“This seat taken?” he whispers, and Merlin looks up, startled.

“Oh – hi. No.”

He moves his bag onto the floor, smiling and sneaking little glances from underneath eyebrows high with surprise. Gwaine slides in next to him, sinking back on the seat and pretending to be listening as a woman at the front with a piercing voice and knee-high red leather boots jabbers about Dali’s dead brother. Gwaine hooks his elbow onto the arm rest, nestles it just against Merlin’s, pulse hitching when Merlin doesn’t move away. He glances at Merlin’s notes. Instead of writing there’s a drawing of a wall where the words this is bullshit rain down in faux-graffiti script while a Banksy-esque doodle of Merlin hangs himself from the t.

Gwaine rubs his chin to keep from laughing, and after a tedious bunch of waffle about self-fashioning, the lecturer flicks off the lights. The projector whirls, clicking through some obligatory and unnecessarily pixelated examples of Dali’s work (Alice in Wonderland, wrong order), and as the professor starts wittering about dualism Merlin leans in.

“I thought you said you were a paint salesman?” he whispers.

“I am. I was just thinking about what you said about never doing what you want and
– well, I’d always really wanted to know more about Surrealism so I decided to take my own advice.”

Merlin’s eyes glint, unconvinced, but he leans in closer, turning and rearranging his Bambi legs so his knees brush Gwaine’s thigh.

“There are better people than her to fill you in,” Merlin whispers, shooting a conspiratorial glance at the stage. “There’s this guy in my other class who actually met Dali.” His breath flutters against Gwaine’s hair, and Gwaine watches his fingers toy with his pencil, stomach coiling at the thought of what they might do with him. “He’s, like, ninety, and he has this story about one time, in return for an interview, Dali made Brian Sewell get on his knees and wank until he cried. Only time Brian Sewell ever did anything I thought was interesting.”

Gwaine sniffs a laugh, and they watch a couple of slides whizz by, staying close. A loose, hazy fantasy – this one distinctly less daytime and more like grainy porn – flickers in Gwaine’s head: running his hand up Merlin’s leg, him squirming in response and trying to stay quiet as Gwaine teases him to the point of madness through his jeans. He eases in to Merlin’s ear, catching a whiff of his shampoo – woody and fresh like a forest in the rain.

“This is a flimsy façade,” he says, and lightly taps Merlin’s knee.

“You didn’t come for the Dali?” Merlin says, and Gwaine can’t tell if he’s a really good actor in the name of a flirt or he’s genuinely surprised.

“Truth is you were just a bit persistent in my memory.”

“For all of half an hour?”

“I could tell you were a sticker,” Gwaine says, and Merlin dips his head, bites his lip and makes it flood white. “You want to get out of here and do something?”

“I’d blow this off in a heartbeat, but I’m working after. I won’t be done until late.”

“How late?”

“Half eleven.”

“That’s not late,” Gwaine says. “How about I pick you up and take you to some seedy bar after you finish?”

Merlin swallows, gaze flitting over Gwaine’s face as he considers it, all breath and warmth and huge, curious eyes. He fidgets with his note book, scrawling on the bottom of the page and slowly tearing the strip off. He winces comically at the noise, and pins the scrap to the armrest with his finger. With a deliberate brush Gwaine takes it, and reads the words call me later? and a number. By way of reply Gwaine squeezes Merlin’s arm.

“If you get some inappropriately flirty text while you’re at work, don’t worry. It's just the pervert poltergeist in my phone,” he whispers.

Merlin laughs, low and hushed, and Gwaine backs away, grinning at him in the dark.

*

Gwaine:
We still on for tonight? It’s Gwaine the travelling paint salesman if that sways your answer any.

Merlin:
Sure :). You know The Wounded Unicorn?

Gwaine:
..?

Merlin:
On Church Street. It’s a magic-themed pub. Don’t laugh.

Gwaine:
Wouldn’t dream of it.

Gwaine:
Actually, will you permit me a small titter?

Merlin:
Come before we close and I’ll make you a cocktail and you can laugh your arse off at my uniform.

Gwaine:
Tell me you don’t have to wear a horn?

Merlin:
And a tail. There’s this old guy who comes every Wednesday and brings me sugar lumps sprinkled with glitter. He makes me neigh for him. Shit gtg. Boss found me hiding in the cellar.

Gwaine:
Giddy up.

There’s no reply, and Gwaine sets his phone down on the counter, looking at their conversation for a second while Jon Snow drones in the background about fuel poverty. Leon ambles over with a bowl of noodles and leans on the worktop, poking at them with a fork.

“How’d it go today?”

“Estimable Professor Armitage never showed,” Gwaine says, disentangling the end of a noodle, drawing it out, and dropping it into his mouth.

“Then why are you smiling? This morning you were sulking like a sitcom teenager when the gas bill arrived.”

“What can I say? I’m mercurial.”

“I’ll give you that on occasion I want to cover you in sawdust because there’s something toxic about you.”

Gwaine goes in for another noodle, and quick as a viper Leon smacks his knuckles with his fork, making pain ping along the bone. Gwaine tuts and shakes his hand, and Leon glares, his frayed cardigan and fuzzy hair – which spills out from underneath a fairly ludicrous stripy hat – only denting its efficacy slightly.

“Forecast says snow’s on the way tonight,” Leon says.

“We agreed, no heating until Christmas,” Gwaine says. “Although – I was going to say – if tonight you fancied staying at Percy’s on account of this place rivalling Greenland for the lowest recorded temperature that might fit with my plans.”

“I knew it. You’re not mercurial, you met someone.”

“Either way my thermometer’s on the way up.”

Leon starts twirling up a fresh knot of noodle, and while his fork’s occupied Gwaine grabs the end of one and sucks it up – at least until the other end reveals itself to be wrapped around a prong and catches. Gwaine grins, and Leon rolls his eyes.

“This isn’t Lady and the Tramp,” he says, but he lets Gwaine have the noodle, anyway. “Who is he?”

“His name’s Merlin. He’s very lovely.”

“Well as long as he buys you dinner so you keep your mitts out of mine.”

“He’s an art student, so – ”

Gwaine’s phone buzzes and lights up, the little window declaring:

Merlin:
That’s just mean. Here I am, working my hooves to the bone….

Gwaine smiles, fingers hesitating over the reply button.

“How many times do you have to text someone in one night to appear needy and over-eager?” he says.

“Depends how good-looking you are. Neediness can be off-set by a spectacularly good nose,” Leon says. “I’d say in your case fourteen’s your limit.”

“Really? You can calculate – ”

Leon raises an eyebrow in a clear: no, of course not.

“So what’s it worth?” Leon says. “Me making myself scarce tonight so you can be needy and over-eager with your art student?”

“My undying love and gratitude?” Gwaine says.

“Sorry, that’s not the answer I have on the card.”

“Next time Percy stays over I won’t shout helpful instructions through the wall.”

“Done. You want the rest of these?” he says, pushing the bowl towards Gwaine.

“Thank you kindly.”

“Well, younger man and everything,” Leon says, “you’ll need to keep your strength up.”

*

The Wounded Unicorn turns out to be a grove of a place. Students litter the tables, groaning under the weight of cheap cocktails named after mythological fairies, and hundreds of fake plastic plants fail to conceal the rough, concrete ceiling and the bare brick walls. Gwaine picks his way to the bar, feeling a bit like a cracked oil in a sea of fresh new watercolours, but he forgets it instantly when Merlin looks up from the pint he’s pouring and brightens with a grin.

“Hi.”

He’s not actually wearing a tail, but his t-shirt is at least two sizes too small and clings to a narrow chest and a dip of waist so enticing it takes Gwaine a second to realise on the front there’s a severed unicorn’s head. Merlin turns to clatter coins into the till, and emblazoned across his shoulders streak the words: at the Wounded Unicorn we’re always horny. Gwaine stifles a laugh and leans on the wood, four dozen texts neither of them really has the nose to offset softening his thoughts when Merlin ambles over.

“You’re doing well,” he says, waving over his t shirt. “I expected hysterics.”

“I never joke about a decapitated unicorn, Merlin. It’s bad luck, I’m sure of it.”

Merlin fingers the tap in front of him which declares Hobgoblin Best Better above a picture of a pissed witch, eying him with a wry smile.

“What can I get you?” he says.

“Whatever you recommend.”

“I recommend going somewhere else, frankly.”

“Hey! Merlin, do you want the sack?”

The voice comes from the end of the bar, where a blond guy with a stiff shirt and a stiffer upper lip looks up from surveying a spreadsheet with an affronted glare. Merlin raises his hands in apology, but rather ruins it with a smirk.

“That’s Arthur,” Merlin says, with a jerk of his head. “Owns the place. And the entire chain, actually.”

“There’s a chain? You mean there are Wounded Unicorns all over the country and I never noticed?”

“They’re not all unicorns – there’s Squiffy Griffins and Merry Mermen and Get Your Drag-On cabaret bars. It’s student places, mostly.”

“Quite an empire, then.”

“Yeah. Hey Arthur, this is Gwaine. Guy I told you about?”

Arthur quirks an eyebrow by way of greeting and goes back to scribbling on his notes.

“Friendly,” Gwaine says.

“There’s no room for hospitality in the hospitality industry these days,” Merlin says, low and private. “Just a lot of plastic plants and awful puns.”

Merlin turns away and grabs a couple of bottles from the display on the back of the bar. From a squat, round one he pours a generous measure of red-ish liquid, then adds a splash from frosted glass, topping it up with a spritz of lemonade from a gun under the bar and finishing it with a bright green straw.

“Fancy a Puck?” Merlin says, with a sly raise of eyebrow as he sets some pink fizzing thing on the bar in front of Gwaine. Obligingly Gwaine mouths the straw, and sickly lemonade and schnapps wash on his tongue, followed by a fierce aftertaste of raspberries and a slight burning sensation.

“That’s – ” He loses whatever adjective he was going to ascribe it to a cough. “This is payback for my pony jokes, isn’t it?”

Merlin grins and backs away down the bar to serve a clutch of girls wearing baby-blue rugby tops. Cross-eyed, the first one tells Merlin she wants three Feel My Titanias and a Tinkerbell End, and Gwaine watches him move between the optics, the ice bucket, and the taps with little spins, all angles and yet somehow graceful as he tosses jokes at them while they wait, utterly charming and yet apparently unconscious about the effect he has.

While he works they chat about the jukebox’s affection for Bruno Mars and the variously slaughtered state of the customers, and at half eleven Merlin herds the last of the patrons – one of the girls who got separated from the pack and is crying her mascara into a proper Alice Cooper face – out of the door and into a taxi Arthur paid for on the quiet to get rid of her. He buzzes about collecting the remaining glasses and loading them into the mouth of the washer, and that done he sidles over to Arthur, who’s frowning at the optics. A hand on his arm and a hushed conversation – Merlin tilting his head and Arthur gurning a grimace, then relenting – and Merlin grins.

“I’ll just get changed and then I’m all yours,” he says, and bounces off the door frame and into the office.

The tune on the jukebox dies as Arthur hits a switch behind the bar, and in the quiet Gwaine fiddles with a flyer for burger and beer night declaring: dinner needn’t be a pickle, why not get your hands on our baps?

“Merlin designed that.”

“Oh, really?”Gwaine says. “He’s multi-talented, then.”

“It’s rather more he’s so desperate for money he’ll do anything, even pen pickle puns.”

“Not sure where I planned to take him is up to scratch. ”

“He holds his drink like a fourteen-year-old girl, so he’s unlikely to care,” Arthur says, getting his foot caught on the mop bucket Merlin abandoned and swearing at the door. From beyond it Merlin tells him he should have looked where he was going and that he can hold his drink perfectly well, thank you very much, and if Arthur remembers he’s not the one who fell over and skidded face-first down a bowling lane at the Christmas party because they’d had too much mulled wine. Arthur huffs and shoves the mop onto the wall, doing a little dance with it until it stays put. “Good luck with him. You’re a braver man than I.”

Arthur meets his eye with a forced smile which prickles the back of Gwaine’s neck. He opens one of the tills and starts counting the notes with a look that suggests if Gwaine interrupts he’ll lose a bollock.

Gwaine rests on the bar, one foot lifted up behind him like a stork, and when Merlin reappears he’s pulling his coat on over a checked shirt – not as tight as his work t shirt but enough to denote effort and thought.

“Ready?”

“More than,” Merlin says, digging his hat out of his pocket and tugging it onto his head. “ ‘Night, Arthur.”

They slip out of the door, and wind races up off the pavement to meet them.

“Wow, that’s – ” The cold knocks the words out of Merlin’s mouth, and he hugs his sides, grimacing, and glances up at the sky. “You think it’s going to snow?”

“My flatmate seemed to think so,” Gwaine says, smiling as Merlin turns round, walking backwards to look at him with no concern about whether a manhole or the kerb lies behind him. “Maybe I’ll buy you something on fire to warm you up.”

“Oh, we do these Breathe The Dragon cocktails,” Merlin says, every word packed with the same enthusiasm a six year old might have for a new toy, “black Sambuca on fire – every time someone orders one there’s at least one minor singeing.”

“Lucky for you I know the trick,” Gwaine says, and makes a grab for the front of Merlin’s coat to steer him out of the way of a woman walking her dog. Merlin spins, dodges her and her yapping terrier, muttering apologies and hopping out of the way of the lead. Gwaine laughs and turns him the right way, hooking a hand under his elbow to keep him there. “Eyes front, Merlin.”

Merlin bumps Gwaine’s chest with his arm and doesn’t move away again, grins at himself, and Gwaine wonders what Merlin would do if he just grabbed him and shoved him against a wall because hell, that’s what he wants to do – what he’s wanted to do all evening.

“As I was saying,” Gwaine says, “and pay attention because this is vital safety information – you have to put your hand over the glass until it sticks to your palm. Creates a vacuum, and that puts the fire out, because – well, I think it has something to do with a triangle but I can’t remember what. I mastered the technique but not the theory.”

“That how you do everything?”

“Pretty much.”

“Bodes well,” Merlin says, and meets his eye askance before scanning the star-splattered sky and the streets washed with people on their way home. “I always liked this, going out when everyone else is limping to bed.”

“That how you ended up working in a unicorn pub?” Gwaine says, and pulls Merlin closer, rubbing his arm a little to keep him warm.

“Just needed a job, only I wasn’t qualified for anything. I was in there arguing with Arthur about what kind of qualifications does a person need to wash up and a fight broke out between rival rugby teams. I helped him separate them – or tried to – mostly I got elbowed in the face, and after he stopped shouting at me for bleeding on the floor he took pity on me.”

“I don’t think he likes me much.”

“It’s not personal. He’s having a rough time.” Gwaine waits for him to go on, and Merlin buries his hands in his pockets and his chin in the collar of his coat. “His dad’s ill. When we met, Arthur was just assistant manager – now he’s running the whole chain.”

“He’s pretty young for that kind of responsibility.”

“Yeah, he is,” Merlin says, with a sad little smile.

Down the street a siren blares, and a fresh whip of wind makes Merlin shiver theatrically and say maybe something on fire after all.

*

Inside the bar’s rough, red walls they make their way to where the surly girl who owns the place skulks, rearranging the shot glasses into a castle. Merlin’s eyes widen as he takes in the furniture – all eclectic styles like it’s been stolen from a dozen different skips – and the irregular-haired regulars sitting in small clusters, talking animatedly above the psychedelic soundtrack, swapping anecdotes from rock’n’roll and performance poetry. A couple of them call out hellos and beckon him over, but Gwaine waves them off and leads Merlin to the bar.

“It’s like a speakeasy,” Merlin says, leaning in.

“That’s why I like it. What’ll you have?” Gwaine says, pointing to the chalkboard where the words Today’s Specials have been struck through and replaced with the words: Ask for whatever the fuck you want. You’re a grown-up.

“Surprise me. Nothing with cherries.”

A couple covered in tattoos and piercings who were canoodling in one of the alcoves gets up, and Merlin taps Gwaine’s arm and gestures to it before going over to claim it by chucking his coat over the back of the sofa. He piles the glasses strewing the wrought iron garden table into a neat stack, and Gwaine eyes his arse and the way it sits snug against his back pockets before Merlin turns and brings the glasses to the bar.

“Looking for another job?”

“Habit,” he says, with a little mutter of a laugh, and goes back over to the tiny squashy settee.

He pulls off his hat, and curls one leg half under himself, fingers tapping along to The Sonics on his knee. Gwaine orders, and after a brief conversation of eyebrow raises with the girl behind the bar while she mixes – not like you to bring someone here – mind your own business, you – goes over clutching two different cocktails.

“You looked like a man in need of a Smokey Margarita.”

Gwaine places a tall glass full of lime and tequila on the table, and throws himself down next to him. Merlin pushes at the mist on the glass from the ice, prodding it until his finger squeaks, his lip caught between his teeth. Up close the sparse light from the candle shoved into a gin bottle on the table makes deep relief of Merlin’s cheekbones, transforming him from cute to downright exquisite. Gwaine pictures himself tasting the shadows, and then realises he’s probably staring with a tinge of what Leon calls his Afghan puppy with a cartoon steak expression. He gestures to Merlin’s glass.

“No measures here so don’t drink it too quick or you’ll be on your arse.”

“I’m already on my arse. I’m sitting down,” Merlin says, with a sly grin, and he lifts his drink and slurps, wincing a bit at the noise he makes and then making a wide-eyed face.

“Better than the Fancy a Puck?”

“You want to try?”

He offers Gwaine the glass and they swap and sip and swap back, and Merlin laughs at nothing, like he did in Armitage’s office. Gwaine suppresses the word adorable and rubs at his jaw, then runs a hand through his hair, leaning back on the sofa so he doesn’t drag Merlin into his lap and scare him off with an overly-familiar grope.

“So,” he says, “we need something to talk about. I think you should tell me about your work.”

“You saw,” Merlin says, with a little confused huff. “I make cocktails, I wash glasses, I pour drunk girls into taxis – ”

“I meant your real work – your art.”

“Nothing much to say there.”

“Must be nice to be so casually brilliant.”

“Who says I’m – ”

“Me.”

“You haven’t seen – ”

“Yes I have. On my quest for Armitage as a last ditch I stopped by the studio.” Merlin tilts his head and mugs a non-verbal question, befuddled. “I couldn’t resist a nose around and there were three pieces in there with real flair – an oil painting, some metalwork, and in the corner someone had worked magic with stone,” Gwaine says. “If I were a betting man, my money would be on you being the promising sculptor.”

“How on earth did you work that out?”

“Power of deduction. It’s a week to Christmas and everyone else is counting down the days like they’re already in a turkey coma, but you were fresh from the library with a bunch of really dull books and desperate to find a way to break in for a peek at some even duller ones. So desperate, in fact, you let a stranger – who by anybody’s definition is dodgy – talk you into criminal activity and then let him take you out. If that doesn’t say crazy but brilliant artist I don’t know what does.” Merlin laughs, a faint waft of pink high on his cheeks. “So that just left narrowing down which stuff was yours. You don’t have any burns so you don’t weld – I’m intimately familiar with the smell of turps and you, thank god, don’t have it – and then there’s this.”

Gwaine reaches for Merlin’s hand and slips their fingers into a loose twine. His pulse quickens at the first real touch of skin on skin, and he runs his thumb up to Merlin’s nail, picturing the sculpture – this intricate, twisting, spiral of a thing – jagged at the bottom before smoothing out into elegant lines. His breath caught just looking at it, and the sketch of his crush on Merlin had become inked, right then and there. Slowly he traces Merlin’s knuckles, the patches of hardened skin, the dents in his fingers made by tools, breath catching just the same at the thought of him working on it enough – wanting it to be perfect enough – to leave permanent markers on his bones.

“Dead giveaway,” he says, and the quiet hoarseness of his voice perhaps is one too, indicative that he’s already in a bit deeper than he usually is on a first date. Or a fifth. Not that he usually gets that far.

“I’m not as skilled as I’d like to be,” Merlin says, just as quietly, curling his fingers tighter so the pads rest on the back of Gwaine’s hand, his thumb just scuffing Gwaine’s.

The Sonics barrel to a halt on the stereo, and some winding, slower tune slinks across the air, words about a crossroads and betrayal over a baseline that pulses like the rhythm of a long, slow shag. Gwaine can’t tell – at all – if it’s that heightening the moment, or if it’s just the way Merlin’s touching, light but certain, delicate but deft. Either way his stomach whirls like someone’s swilling a paintbrush in it.

“You want the good news?” Gwaine says. “You’ll never be as skilled as you’d like to be.”

“How’s that good news?”

“Because if you’re always striving to be better – if there’s always a gap between what you think you’re truly capable of and what’s happening with your hands, you’ll never settle, and because you never settle, you’ll never be mediocre. You’ll probably be miserable – ” Merlin laughs, and Gwaine lets go of his fingers to see if breaking the physical connection severs the feeling, and lifts his glass. “ – but that’s what drinking’s for.”

“Voice of experience?”

“Oh, no. I’m just your run of the mill alcoholic paint salesman.”

“Doubt that.”

Merlin’s knee nudges his, casual but sending a spiral as acutely twisting as his sculpture through Gwaine’s body. Gwaine rests his elbow on the back of the sofa, and Merlin sinks into the cushion, inching closer, his gaze intent enough to make Gwaine imagine an invisible join-the-dots bubble drawing magically around them in the air. Merlin smiles, and for the first time in a really fucking long time Gwaine wishes he had something to draw with to try and make it his.

“You paint,” Merlin says.

“I dabbled, once upon a time.”

“Nah, you were more serious about it than that.”

“Working in a magic theme pub’s gifted you the ability to mind read, has it?” Gwaine says, and Merlin squints at him with mock scrutiny which after a moment doesn’t feel very mock at all. “What gave me away, then? If I smell of turps that fucking lingers.”

“Everything,” Merlin says quietly. “You knew exactly who Vasari was.”

“Maybe I learnt that in a pub quiz.”

“Don’t buy it. He’s not exactly the Lady Gaga of the Renaissance.”

“Who’d you reckon is?”

“Michelangelo,” Merlin says. “He thinks David is so edgy, like no-one ever sculpted a guy in laurels with his cock out before.”

“Naturally Machiavelli’s Madonna,” Gwaine says, “pretending he’s really into it because he doesn’t want to seem past it, but secretly seething – ”

“And Petrarch is Cher,” Merlin says. “Somewhere rocking in the corner – gutted that he did it all first and better and no-one cares, but unable to express it facially because of all the Botox.”

Gwaine laughs, and Merlin presses his lips together, pleased with himself.

“Why did you stop painting?” Merlin says, poking at the brown, caramelised hole of an old cigarette burn on the velour.

“Lack of talent.”

“And the real reason? I can read your mind, remember.”

Merlin peeks up through his fringe, and a dozen flippant answers and easy lies flash through Gwaine’s head. Like a meteor shower, though, they flare and dwindle, and the urge for Merlin to see his sky for how dark it really is thunks in his stomach with the same kind of unavoidable insistence as the impulse to do reckless, foolish things when he’s drunk.

“My dad’s been weed food since I was a kid, and then last year my mother died,” he says.

“Oh,” Merlin says, and his fingers stop their worrying at the burn. “I’m sorry.”

“You needn’t be – we hated each other to hell and back. Was mostly a relief when she did the decent thing and left me alone.”

“Then why did you stop painting?”

“No-one with any drive or spark has the kind of family you find in washing powder adverts. Art – it seems to me it all comes from the same place, this dissatisfaction with the amount of love in your life, anger about it, sadness about it, and the desire to do something so spectacular it proves to the people who should’ve loved you and didn’t that they got you really fucking wrong,” Gwaine says. Merlin nods, and Gwaine knows that he gets it, gutturally. “And when that goes away – ”

“Past doesn’t go away. It still happened.”

“Ah well, you didn’t specify my answer had to make sense,” Gwaine says, and afraid he’s made everything far too serious Gwaine bumps Merlin’s wrist. “When you’re famous, what bullshit will it say on your Wikipedia page about your past and its influence?”

“Um – abandoned by his father and raised in a village in the middle of nowhere by a mother with a penchant for social justice, Merlin’s struggle to fit in shows up with tedious regularity in his work, despite his best efforts. You?”

Life on a caravan park with a heavy-drinking mother and a series of good for nothing step-fathers proved insubstantial inspiration for a career of any note, although did gift Gwaine an unwavering appreciation for a home which doesn’t rock and alert everyone in a hundred metres to his nocturnal activities.” Merlin chuckles, crinkle-eyed, and Gwaine pokes his thigh. “You’re not supposed be amused by my tragic upbringing.”

“Sorry. Guess the caravan explains your travelling paint salesman ways at least.”

“Not really – it was a static,” Gwaine says, and for some reason Merlin thinks that’s so funny he nearly chokes on an ice cube.

When he’s recovered, Merlin segues into asking how a person goes from living on a caravan park to selling eco-mentalist paint, and Gwaine tells him the tale of him, Leon, and the disused ballroom they both found themselves in: Leon the public schoolboy whose investment-banker father had ended up on the wrong side of embezzlement charges and left him holed up in there on some false legalese about dwelling rights; Gwaine breaking in one night to get out of the rain and Leon letting him stay because there was nothing to steal and he wanted the company. He tells anecdotes about Leon sitting around while he painted, getting high on cheap white spirit and whatever else they could lay their hands on until they’d drunk and smoked everything they could afford and came to the sober realisation they needed to find something to do with their lives. Merlin chuckles, sitting closer and closer until Gwaine can smell the sharpness of citrus on his breath and see all the different colours in his eyes: the wash of dark denim blue; the slight flecks of sky; the tiny, tiny spot of hazel just to the side of his pupil, like a lost moon. When he finishes talking he realises both their drinks are gone and he’s told Merlin things about himself it usually takes people years of knowing him to piece together for themselves. There’s comfort in Merlin still looking at him with soft, curious eyes like he’s just pencilling in the details, rather than joining them all up into a picture of how fragmented a soul he’s sharing his space with; edge, too, the reckless reel of spilling it all and allowing someone close enough to see the emptiness which remains when all the funny stories are gone.

“You want another?” Gwaine says, quietly, hooking his finger into the lip of Merlin’s glass. “Or – we could go back to mine, if – ” Merlin swallows. “I could pretend I have etchings to look at if that’ll spare your blushes.”

“What are etchings?”

“I don’t know, but I’m fairly sure in the whole history of everything, no-one has ever accepted an invite back somewhere and actually wanted to see them.”

“What if I’m the exception?” Merlin says, running his finger around the top of his glass until it butts up against Gwaine’s. He draws over it slowly, all the way to the back of his hand, and it’s a tiny thing to make Gwaine’s heart turn feral in his chest, but it does. “What if I come back to yours and then I’m crushed to find you don’t really have any?”

Gwaine lets his hand slide away to trace a lazy pattern on the back of Merlin’s neck, and Merlin looks at him, the air thickening around his softly coy gaze. Gwaine ignores the well-worn line that goes I’m sure we’d find something to take your mind off it, but leans in anyway because Christ, he wants to see if that mouth feels as soft as it looks. Merlin’s lips part and Gwaine hesitates – just to prove to himself that he can – so close Merlin’s tiny inhale of expectation pulls cold across his skin. Like he means to catch it, Gwaine touches his lips to Merlin’s. Merlin presses into the kiss a bit too fast, his nose squashing somewhat awkwardly against Gwaine’s cheek, but then he smiles and mutters some sort of apology against his mouth and moves back in at a better angle. His tongue just flickers out to taste Gwaine’s lip before retreating, and so the rest of him doesn’t get the same idea Gwaine slips his fingers into the soft tickle of Merlin’s hair. Merlin shifts closer with a tiny huff of pleasure, and their tongues find each other, but just as things are getting interesting someone wolf-whistles and Merlin pulls away, dropping his head to Gwaine’s shoulder and sniggering.

“Shall we get out of here?” Gwaine whispers, stroking his nape to draw him out.

Merlin nods, and reaches for his coat.

*

Outside a light dusting of snow waits, already covering the cars. Great big clumps drift down from a rolling duvet sky, and Merlin sticks out his hands and watches as the snow lands, enraptured like a child with a snow globe who has no idea how the white stuff got inside. His eyes are so bright and full of life Gwaine can’t help but pull him into a kiss by his collar. Merlin flails, arms hesitating before coming to wrap around Gwaine’s neck, and Gwaine holds him tight and lets out a tiny laugh against his mouth. At first it’s all pretty soft and chaste and Gwaine thinks maybe Merlin’s shy, but then his arms tighten and he presses closer and they a trade hot, slick kiss while the snow falls. Gwaine’s lungs turn heavy with cold and Merlin, the thought of someone so brilliant and lovely wanting to do this with him, and they break apart for breath and share a blue cloud. Merlin’s eyes are grinning, his nose a bit pink, and they give in to the urge for another kiss, this one slow and so fucking deep Gwaine feels it in his toes.

Eventually amongst mutters about freezing to death they walk down the road, clinging to each other’s arms and slipping on the ice. On the corner the yellow flashing lights of a gritting lorry make soundless fire in the sky, and there’s enough snow to make a ball with, so Gwaine grabs a handful up and tosses it at Merlin. He splutters, affronted, and throws a compact ball he was apparently already preparing back, darting out of the way and sliding with a whoa on the pavement. They carry on the fight, not caring it’s gone two in the morning as they skid and call each other names and mock each other’s throws, the draped quiet of the snow stealing them a moment from the world as perfect and contained as any trapped in glass.

Numb with cold, his hair damp and stuck to his forehead thanks to Merlin’s surprisingly accurate aim, Gwaine jogs down the fire escape which leads from the pavement to the entrance to his flat, unlocks and pushes the door open. Merlin follows, ducking inside. Shaking the snow out of his hair Gwaine turns to close the door, half a phrase about the state of the place and sorry about the lack of heating on his lips, but before he can utter them Merlin gathers him into a kiss, fingers pressing frigid lines onto his face, tasting him in sigh-drenched pecks and longer swipes of his tongue. There’s a flicker of fourteen year old fervour in it, like this isn’t merely a prelude; Merlin would be happy kissing him all night. Slightly less innocent ends in mind, Gwaine kicks the door closed and unhooks Merlin’s buttons, exploring the snugness between his shirt and the silky lining of his coat, warming his hands as he feels a path over the bumps of his ribs and around. Merlin writhes against him, tiny protest noises turning eager as they slip out of his mouth, which is so deliciously warm and keen Gwaine only pulls away so he can nose up to Merlin’s ear and whisper:

“Welcome to my humble abode.”

The salty, woolly scent of Merlin’s hair giddies his thoughts and he nibbles the lobe brushing his lips. Merlin sags like someone’s just kicked him to the back of his knees, catching himself around Gwaine’s neck, and Gwaine thinks they’re both a bit too swoony for grown men but hopefully they can blame it on the drink. He slips Merlin’s hat off and stuffs it into his pocket, and Merlin looks at him with large, glassy eyes. He picks a snow-damp strand of hair off Gwaine’s cheek, and he’s so fucking sweet about it Gwaine can’t help but smooth his hair down too, then ruffle it up again into a kittenish fuzz before slipping his hand to the warmth inside his collar, thumbing back and forth.

“So where are your etchings?” Merlin says, glancing around, one eyebrow slightly cocked.

Gwaine resists the urge to see the place with Merlin’s eyes: scant, tatty furniture and bare walls which speak of a life spent everywhere and nowhere and only ever minus figures in the bank. He tightens his grip, pressing close so Merlin can feel how hard he’s getting – like being turned on makes up for all his failings.

“In the bedroom. On the ceiling. That’s where everyone keeps them.”

Merlin swallows and meets his eye, and before he can have a second thought about what the fuck he’s doing with a travelling paint salesman who lives in a basement on the worst street in town, Gwaine nips at his lip, playful save for the little groan which accompanies it. Merlin kisses him, a twinge of nervy intensity in it, and with two dull shushes they both get out of their damp coats and leave them to the floor.

Gwaine reaches for Merlin’s belt and leads him to his room. There, he goes to turn on the light but thinks better of it, because his bedroom is arguably worse than the lounge. For one, there’s not a bed in it, just a mattress on the floor with a couple of aging duvets in mismatched colours – a violent blue and red stripe like toothpaste and the other dirty green – and for two, the lack of under-the-bed space means he had nowhere to kick all his crap to hide it and it’s making an installation called Endless Piles of Shit on the floor.

“It’s – ”

“Cool,” Merlin says, voice thin and a bit high. “I like sleeping on the floor.”

Gwaine can’t tell if he’s being kind or if he means it, but his breath’s fast and his cock’s interested and in five minutes neither of them will give a fuck if it’s Kensington Palace or a garden shed as long as they’re horizontal. They take a step towards it together and then another, this time covering each other’s mouths and necks in kisses, and distracted Merlin trips on a shoe and stumbles into the chest of drawers, fingers curled against Gwaine’s shirt to take him with him. He makes a kiss-muffled, “Ow,” against Gwaine’s lips as they come to rest, all cross-eyed and pouting at the end of Gwaine’s nose, and Gwaine laughs but thinks: fuck, you’re charming, even when you’re clumsy.

A breath that’s gratifyingly close to a gasp spills out of Merlin’s mouth as they connect again, stomach to stomach, cocks just brushing, and Gwaine slides his hands down over the small, firm hump of Merlin’s arse, manoeuvring him tighter against him. Merlin gives out a surprised noise as he squeezes, fingers settling and tugging in his wet hair, and Gwaine mouths at his neck then kisses the front of Merlin’s shirt, sinking to a crouch. He lifts Merlin’s hem, exposing a crevice of pale skin and a dark trail of hair, and drops a kiss to the denim covering his hip where he bumped it. Almost chair-spin dizzy with the sight of Merlin’s cock caught pointing the way from his zip to his navel, he nuzzles against the worn, thin denim, undoes the skin-flushed metal of Merlin’s belt. He pops the button beneath, and slides to his feet at the same time as slipping his hand inside, elastic of Merlin’s boxers tight on his wrist. He collects Merlin’s mouth in a kiss – or tries to – but Merlin slackens to a groan as Gwaine’s fingers work over him.

Gwaine grins against his cheek, and Merlin’s hips stutter into his touch. He presses his forehead into Gwaine’s before fisting his hair, making the damp, straggly ends draw a shiver up Gwaine’s spine. Stiflingly tight inside his own jeans Gwaine walks him back against the wall, pressing his cock into Merlin’s hip, Merlin so fucking hot and eager against his palm. He mutters a tiny fluttered moan, and Gwaine undoes the first buttons of his shirt one-handed, kissing his collarbone as he exposes it to make up for the freezing air with his mouth.

“Feel free to join in any time, Merlin,” he murmurs. Merlin looks at him, dazed and doe-like, and then fumbles with his buckle, hurries a kiss to Gwaine’s mouth but it’s mostly frustrated huff. Gwaine laughs and nips at his chin. “I was just teasing, Merlin. I don’t mind if you want me to do all the work.”

With his free hand he unbuttons his own shirt until it’s sliding towards the floor and catching on his forearm, capturing Merlin’s lip in a proper kiss again, coaxing with his tongue, his fingers matching the rhythm on Merlin’s cock. Merlin’s breath turns ragged, skull falling back against the plaster with a dull thunk. Gwaine nips at his neck and draws his fingers up quickly, and Merlin gives one big squirm onto his toes and what would be away were it not for the wall.

“Sh – ”

The rest of the word turns into a sharp, whispered inhale, and ordinarily Gwaine would think he’d made Merlin’s control shatter and he was about to find himself on his back, but Merlin’s hand covers his and holds it still.

“What?” he says. “You – you change your mind?”

Gwaine’s heart canters at the thought, and Merlin meets his eye, a tiny pucker of a frown between his eyebrows, his breath loud and short, expression saying he doesn’t know whether to stuff Gwaine in his mouth all at once or run away. He removes his hand fairly purposefully and rests it on Gwaine’s chest, just over where his pulse leaves heavy footfalls on his ribs.

“I just – it’s new. Very new.”

“New? Because I’m new, or – ” Merlin swallows and rolls his eyes, and it takes Gwaine half a dozen heartbeats but then: “You’re not – Merlin, are you a virgin?”

The word sounds ridiculous on his lips – he can’t have uttered it in relation to anything but that damn Madonna song in years – but Merlin screws his eyes shut, his mouth pulled into a forced grin turned grimace. He lets out this tiny, wobbling, high noise of reply, and Gwaine’s thoughts free-fall through the night, trying to see it all in the light of the question. With horrible, sickening clarity he realises of course, of course he’s a virgin: it was all there in his shy kisses and his sweet nervousness and his stumbles and this – it was all over this, because if he’s honest, none of this has really gone the way he thought going out with an art student would. Inelegantly all of his thoughts crash land on the word:

“Shit.”

Merlin drops his head onto Gwaine’s shoulder with a slap. He stays there, sagged between Gwaine and the wall for what feels like an era – and Gwaine’s heart just carries on stupidly thunking, his hand still in Merlin’s pants, his thoughts empty of everything but this useless fucking fuckity hell and a vague not-plan to take Merlin back to the lounge, make him a cup of tea, and pretend this wretched, awkward moment never happened. Against his skin Merlin’s face twists with a fresh wince, and he grumbles like an injured tiger cub.

“You must think I’m such a loser.”

“To be honest, mostly I’m just really, really aware I have my hand on your dick,” Gwaine says. Merlin gives a short, hot snigger, peers out – lost and terrified and pleading with him to be kind. Were Merlin anyone else Gwaine thinks he’d probably joke: so that’s where you’ve been all my life. A monastery, but affection curls in his veins at the sight of him and dumbly he just wants to make this all right. “Hey, it’s – ” Still have my hand on his dick. “I’m just going to move this into more neutral territory for a second.”

With a twang of elastic Gwaine shifts his fingers, and once his hand’s free his shirt slides to the floor. In the wake of the noise the whole world seems to have gone quiet, and the cold now they’re not all over each other goosebumps his skin, but he doesn’t think that’s the reason his insides feel braced for a shiver. Everything – even the way he’s breathing – feels precarious, balanced on the idea that this is the moment he decides to either turn his sketch of a crush into something full colour or rip it into pieces.

At first he hadn’t thought about Merlin as more than a Friday distraction, but at some point between texts or jokes about the Renaissance or maybe even snowballs, more crept in. He started to think about this gallery in Vienna which houses nothing but fakes and watching Merlin be all baffled and amused by them, going to that cave in Denmark he’s always wanted to see and him touching the walls with awe, or heading to Royston Cave where the carvings on the walls have been mused over by pagans and knights alike and talking about ley lines and who the fuck hollows out and paints a beehive in a rock. In his head it’s not a sketch of a crush anymore but a vague plan for a series, and it takes more than an unexpected case of virginity to lay waste to that. He touches Merlin’s side, scuffing the rough plaid with his palm, wanting to run his hand to Merlin’s heart to see if it’s pounding like his. Merlin dips his head, his fingers tightening on Gwaine’s stomach where he’s still clutching at recalcitrant buckle like if he lets go he’ll fall off the world.

“Sorry.”

“Hey – no. Whatever bullshit thing you think I’m thinking, I’m just surprised,” Gwaine says, and leans right into his ear to brush the words: “because you’re very, very sexy, and talented, and lovely.”

Merlin meets his eye, tentative and disbelieving, like someone has drawn his pupils with a quick scribble of charcoal. Gwaine touches his chin, hoping he’s being reassuring or something in the rough colour palette of it.

“I’m a moron. I should have realised,” Gwaine says.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Looking back, yes. Problem is I wasn’t looking back, I was thinking about – ” Gwaine tries to swallow down the unbidden images in his head, the ones where Merlin’s a wanton nymphomaniac, and wonders if it would make things better or worse if he rearranged his jeans. He thinks about Leon’s baked polenta and how they’d agreed it tasted exactly like two year old washing up sponge to try and damp down his erection. “ – well, that doesn’t matter. So,” he says, with forced gusto. “You want to – ” Hell. What do you do with someone when you bring them home in the middle of the night and you’re not going fuck? Damn, this is probably why people have etchings – as a backup plan. “ – watch TV? I could make tea? Or – whiskey. I think a whiskey and a really bad late night film is just what – ”

“I didn’t want you to stop,” Merlin whispers, and he pecks a kiss to Gwaine’s mouth, leaves his lips there while he murmurs: “I want to do whatever you do. I wouldn’t have come here otherwise.”

Merlin coaxes him into a proper kiss – just nudging his lips open, then slipping his tongue into Gwaine’s mouth. At first he’s cautious as if he expects to be pushed away like an irritation, but when Gwaine doesn’t he shifts up off the wall to press them together, kiss sloppy and desperate and a fair bit more persuasive than polenta as far as Gwaine’s cock’s concerned. His fingers stray over Gwaine’s crotch, shaking a little but actually managing to undo his buckle this time. They hesitate on the zip, and faintly Gwaine remembers what it was like: desire and doubt tangled together until the only thing in your head’s a gritted Jesus fucking Christ of determination, fear, and knee-wobbling lust; rolling inexorably forward seeking more and more of that spark-bright terrifying, exhilarating sensation like a marble in a valley with no fucking clue how lost it could get until it tips over a cliff and plummets with no way back up.

Gwaine gently eases away, and Merlin chases him, mouth open and eager for another kiss until Gwaine puts a hand on his chest. Merlin looks at him, starkly wanting and confused, and the next moment has a chasm in it while Gwaine desperately tries not to imagine those eyes flaring with newness and awe as he shows Merlin what it’s like to do every single thing it’s possible to do with another person. He does picture it in spite of his efforts, and he tries to say something very sensible like, hey, no rush. You only get to do this stuff for the first time once, so how about that movie and a whiskey and a snog thing? but however much Leon says he has the hair of one he’s not actually an Agony Aunt, so instead it comes out as a broken:

“Merlin – ”

“I’m so, so sick of not having sex,” Merlin whispers, like he really can read Gwaine’s mind. “Yeah, I might not have really kissed anyone before – ”

Seriously?”

“Well – a friend when I was a kid and a girl when I was fifteen but not, you know, properly.” Merlin sighs, and rolls his eyes. “I’m not completely naïve, though. I watch porn, I’ve got toys – I thought I could bluff, and you said that thing about leaps of faith and trusting where your feet land so I figured – yeah, why not? But then you were everywhere with your lips and your hands and your stubble – god your stubble – why did no one warn me about that? I got – lust baffled.” He glances at the ceiling, but then looks back and gives Gwaine’s belt a firm tug. “But I liked what you were doing. I liked it way too much, actually, and I figured I could either say and maybe you’d want to sleep with me anyway, or not, and one day I’d find you’d amended my Wiki page to include, ‘also comes in twenty seconds and may actually be the world’s worst shag.’ And maybe it’s stupid to be vain about a reputation that doesn’t even exist yet but I guess I am.”

Merlin’s expression wilts, and a laugh is out of Gwaine’s mouth before he can stop it. Merlin grins – sheepish – and then he’s sniggering and punching Gwaine’s shoulder. To humour him Gwaine takes a little step of a wobble, and Merlin grabs his waist and pulls him back. On a whim of affection borne up by Merlin having actually listened to something he said, Gwaine lifts a hand to the back of his neck and draws him in, scuffing a kiss to his temple. Merlin wraps his arms around him, the smell of him – all woody and warm and already familiar – unfurling in Gwaine’s nostrils. They stay there breathing against each other for a moment, and the space between his ribs which only exists when he inhales hollows, because fuck. Gwaine’s thoughts scramble around like a panicking woman in a cartoon being chased by a mouse because whatever they do, whether they fuck or just curl up and kiss, Merlin will remember this forever, and who’s he to insinuate himself in someone’s head like that? He sells paint and lives on stolen noodles and says really stupid things about leaping into puddles of doubt and disappointment. Merlin shifts in, lets out a noise that’s equal parts contented and worried, and it whacks the thought with a broom because Merlin knew that when he said yes to coming here and this of all choices is his to make.

“Ok,” Gwaine says.

“Ok?”

Gwaine cradles his head and lifts it up.

“Ok, I’m glad I know, but – it’s fucking freezing in here, so you want to get in?”

He glances at the mattress and Merlin nods. Gwaine kisses the corner of his mouth, and Merlin’s soft breath of a sigh makes his insides swirl. He turns Merlin into a proper kiss, and it’s different to before, less nervy and the sensation more acute.

“Not the world’s worst, far from it,” he murmurs, and Merlin smiles against his mouth, offering him morsels of real kiss, just lightly sucking on his lip before flitting away, teasing with just the tip of his tongue until Gwaine’s restraint is as strained as his cock. “You must be a prodigy. You’re really getting the hang of this.”

“That’s so fucking cheesy, Gwaine.”

“Shut up. You liked it.”

Merlin laughs and presses back for another kiss before retreating enough to glance down at his clothes.

“So – um – should I..?”

“Here.”

Enough of the buttons of Merlin’s shirt are open to get it over his head so Gwaine tugs it up. Merlin helps – the kind of help which means he gets stuck – and when he emerges after a joint yank he’s sniggering and dishevelled of fringe. Underneath he’s less lanky than he seemed, working with stone gifting him some definition of his own. Gwaine’s cock gives a twitch of approval as he walks his fingers down Merlin’s soft, flat stomach, and finding no real doubt in his eyes Gwaine guides him back towards the mattress with the open fly of his jeans. He drops onto the spongy springs, fishing down the side for the switch which dangles on a cord.

The room lights up with mini paper lanterns in a variety of garish reds strung along the wall, and Merlin toes off his boots and follows him, laughing, his hands flitting to his sides like he wants to hide but doesn’t want Gwaine to see him do it. Gwaine lifts the duvets and sits, propped on his hand. When Merlin doesn’t move he rolls his eyes and taps his thigh in invitation for Merlin to get in his lap. Earns him another laugh, and with a slight wobble Merlin arranges his legs to straddle Gwaine’s hips and sinks down, grinning. Gwaine pulls the duvet up around his shoulders, dick aching beneath the heat and weight of him and far too much tight denim, and when he’s all tucked in Merlin rests his hands on his chest. With huge eyes and quick breath he traces the contours with the rough pads of his fingers, leaving a web of intricate and maddeningly meagre tingles on Gwaine’s skin which sink and tangle around his innards.

They ease into a light snow fall of a kiss, gentle and quiet, and then Merlin rocks against him, getting the angle just right with guileless instinct. Their tongues meet, and they both stiffen, the flurry turning into hasty fingers in Gwaine’s hair and frenetic movement, a blizzard suddenly whipping up from calm. Gwaine shifts down the bed, lying flatter, draws Merlin down with him – or means to, but Merlin’s not really paying attention so he loses whatever balance he had and their mouths bump and miss. Gwaine grins at the thought that apparently messy and clumsy is the way Merlin does everything, and grinds his cock up into the heat between his legs, watching as Merlin’s eyes widen and a tiny grumble of a groan falls out of his mouth.

“Nice?”

Merlin smiles and works his hands under the pillow. Delicately he kisses Gwaine’s neck, fleeting and retreating, hips sliding up and down in a gentle but insistent rhythm. He presses his tongue over Gwaine’s pulse and inches down, sucking lightly and then more when their cocks brush, even though there are still layers between them. Gwaine’s spine squirms like it’s trying to curl into a ball, but he just splays his palms and lets Merlin just do that, shift against him and kiss, and bit by bit the tension in his body melts until he’s going by feel, chasing what he likes, doing more of what inspires Gwaine’s breath to change too. Now he’s not over-thinking everything actually he’s pretty damn hot.

A nibble right on the spot on his neck that makes him wibble and Gwaine cracks and rolls Merlin onto his back, settles between his knees, nuzzling the side of his neck and drawing in a nose full of woody aftershave mostly worn off and just a hint of warm, sour beer-smell from the pub. He eases away to look, and with his face washed with red-ish light from the lanterns Merlin’s more Cubist than ever. He traces the line of Merlin’s eyebrow and down his nose, just rubs a thumb over lips which earlier he’d imagined doing all sorts of things. Merlin replies by fingering his stubble and then dallying a touch along his shoulder, watching the way his hands fit like he’ll try and sculpt him later from memory. He’s smiley and earnest, and quietly they fit back together. Merlin’s kiss opens up for him, deeper and calmer than before, but this one does feel like a precursor, like Merlin wants more, like he really did come here to do anything Gwaine wants. Some thick feeling to do with being trusted sticks to the roof of Gwaine’s mouth like peanut butter.

There’s a distorted reflection of symmetry to it all. Back in the mists of time when Gwaine was all cockiness and no idea, he lost his virginity to an older man he barely knew. Wildly different circumstances – fifteen and drunk on vodka he stole from his mother he’d literally stumbled into the guy. They smoked outside the van he was renting, and the guy made him laugh and think stupid teenage things about rescue and escape. Gwaine remembers he tasted of fags and cough sweets, and the parallel burn of cock in his arse and carpet-like caravan seating, but not the guy’s name or even the vaguest shape of the rest, a blank until an awful fight when he got home which left him with a scar on his chin as a memento of the whole sorry thing. Maybe it wasn’t so different to this – him and Merlin, a chance meeting, stumbling into each other, but Gwaine doesn’t want to be a taste and a wince of a memory, and he thinks he should probably say something to the effect of: this, just this, tonight, but all that peanut butter trust has his tongue clogged.

Merlin’s palms skid on Gwaine’s back, leaving tingles all the way down his spine, and Gwaine thinks they’ll just do and be; Merlin stopped him once and he’ll do it again if he wants. He moves his hips in an echo of what it’d be like to fuck, and Merlin’s breath hitches but his fingers dig in like he really can hear his thoughts and he’s saying yes. Together they create a rhythm Merlin likes, one he likes so much his kiss gets forgetful and his fingernails just rasp at Gwaine’s skin, and maybe it’s the memory of the first time loitering in his cells but his stomach gets all tight and wishy-washy like he’s never had his hands on someone else’s body before, either.

A push on his waistband alerts him to Merlin trying to get at his arse, and when Gwaine lifts up enough for him to get his hand between them Merlin undoes his zip and looks at him with such urgency and longing it makes his mouth go dry. They peel each other out of what remains of their tangle of clothes, and Merlin’s hands are steadier than his but thankfully he’s too busy stealing a look at Gwaine’s cock to notice. Gwaine means to take it slowly, to settle gently and cover Merlin’s body with enough tiny kisses to make his entire body hum, but apparently there is something of the wanton nymphomaniac about him and Merlin grabs his hand and pulls him back on top of him, meeting his mouth with a rough, demanding kiss. The heady rush of there being nothing between them hits them both, and they find a way to fit, making a hot, sweaty hollow beneath the duvets as they grind against each other, sensation building and redoubling in their whimpers and cut-off groans.

Things get abruptly more serious with Merlin’s feet curling around Gwaine’s legs, heels insistent as they scrabble to keep him moving against his cock. Gwaine catches the intensity of it and thinks stupid, senseless things about wanting to turn Merlin’s universe inside out, to make him feel like the stars are burning in his stomach, kisses him, all breath and tongue, lifting Merlin’s knee up about his waist, running his fingernails through the hair on his thigh, just hard enough to leave fire-like tingles streaked across his skin. Merlin’s breath turns increasingly snatchy and his kisses flounder over ear and cheek and back to his mouth, own fingers clawing at his hair and his arse and the sheet as he shifts up against him, trying to find release. When it happens it’s with a muttered fuck I’m gonna, a gasp and a flood of warmth and damp between them, and at the thought he’s the first person to ever make Merlin do that, a tight edgy feeling slithers down Gwaine’s back.

He lifts off enough of get at his own cock, not bothering with teasing or pretence, just wanting to get there as fast as he can. He kisses the top of Merlin’s arm for some sense of connection while he jerks himself off, his breath ragged against Merlin’s muscle and some vague picture in his head of Merlin and his sculpture and the shape of his mouth. Merlin licks at his ear, kissing and nibbling all wet and eager, and on a wave of unexpected urgency Gwaine comes over his own fingers, burying the noises he makes in Merlin’s hair.

They lie with Gwaine slumped and sweaty against him for a long, thick moment, Merlin’s chest franticly trying to get enough air. Concerned that he’s too heavy Gwaine shifts away. Merlin’s hair is impressively rucked and he has the heel of one hand against his forehead like it’s stuck. Gwaine kisses him noisily and Merlin splutters some kind of half-laugh kiss thing against his mouth in reply, and then swallows and looks at the ceiling and maybe the universe and sounds a word that never happens.

Gwaine flops onto the pillow, tugging the duvet they partially shucked off up, ignoring the rapidly-cooling spunk on his stomach and getting rid of that on his hand. Merlin carries on staring at the ceiling, hand still holding in his brain – and gently Gwaine eases it away to twine their fingers into a hold and pulls it close enough to kiss his knuckles. He lets Merlin have a moment, and then another one, and kisses his cheek. Merlin turns into it, mouth warm and tongue loose and he sighs a groan which reverberates Gwaine’s lips and grins stupidly against them.

“I’ve got to ask,” Gwaine says. “How has this never happened for you before?”

“Dunno.”

“You’re a fucking art student.” Merlin swallows, and Gwaine realises maybe he sounded harsher than intended so he kisses Merlin’s nose and his chin and his cheekbones, hoping to soften it. “You’re not religious, are you? I can’t be doing with self-flagellation and wittering about going to hell in the morning.”

“Lived in a small village, moved here, met Arthur,” Merlin says, voice all fractured. He disentangles their hands and turns towards Gwaine, settling close to stare at his mouth. “Hated him. Then realised mostly that was because he wasn’t in love with me.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s fast-forward through the two awful years of beyond pathetic pining and the ill-advised confession sponsored by tequila – ” He pauses, sweeps Gwaine’s still-damp hair off his neck somehow finds the spot beneath which always makes Gwaine go insane with his thumb. Gwaine swallows, part post-orgasmic wibble and part jealous twinge. “ – and we’re going to pretend the months and months of listening to The Cure and being melodramatic and drunk never happened and that I handled rejection like a grown-up.” Merlin’s gaze lifts to his. “If you’re wondering why I didn’t just do it with some random guy in the toilets with my jeans round my knees – well, truth is, I wasn’t after rose petals and the promise of forever, but I’m just enough of a romantic that I wanted it to be someone I liked enough to look in the eye.”

His fingers play and his eyes stay, and it’s hot and scary as freaking hell.

“What happens now?” Merlin says, quieter than a whisper. “You want me to go?”

Something in Gwaine’s vital organs collapses, and Gwaine kisses his forehead, lets his lips loiter there probably long enough to render his answer unnecessary.

“No. It’s snowing, so you best just give me a cuddle and fall asleep,” he says. He settles back against the pillow, offering his arm, and with a quick pinch of his lips together against a smile Merlin curls onto his shoulder, knees just bumping Gwaine’s. “If you get lucky I’ll wake you in a bit with a blow job and make you think your brain’s going to turn inside out.” Merlin laughs, and shifts a bit closer. Like this he’s a bit like a warm bag of elbows but it’s nice. “I’m not joking, I’m very good at it. It’s the real reason I gave up painting, to spend more time on the one thing at which I am a true artist. It’s a shame I can’t make a living out of it, really.”

“You could.”

“Yeah, but – the one time I tried that I felt entirely the wrong kind of seedy.”

“You – ” Merlin lifts his chin to look at him. “You are joking? You never – ”

“When I was seventeen a guy in a nightclub offered to pay me a tenner to get off with his mate. I’d just drunk the last quid I had to my name so I said yes because his mate looked all right when he pointed him out – only naturally I was looking at the wrong guy. To say the intended recipient of my affection looked like a turtle which had spent its entire life with its head in a vice and had been recently released and taken to a very affordable optician would be... well, unkind but accurate. We got as far as a grope on the dance floor before I realised I really wasn’t drunk enough to do it, and I refunded his mate six pound fifty. I reckoned just over three quid was about fair for a dance and a hard-on and I bought as much Jack Daniel’s as I could with that and slept in a bus stop. Woke up eye-to-eye with a kebab thinking this is it. This is the low point of my life. I’m a failed prostitute and a drunk and on a level with discarded fast food.”

Merlin laughs, and Gwaine wraps his arms around him and tucks him under his chin. He wonders if Merlin can hear his heart beating too fast at the thought of how wrong he’d been that night, that there was so much worse to come, but if he can his fingers just use it as the rhythm for a dance across his sternum. Gwaine kisses his hair and feels a bit like a man who can’t swim and just found himself in the middle of an ocean clinging to a buoy.

They stay like that, and eventually Merlin’s fingers halt and his breathing flattens to a slow, even rhythm. Another moment and he kisses Gwaine’s jaw and murmurs, “Goodnight,” in a way that suggests he’s been rehearsing the word in his head. Gwaine closes his eyes and smiles, the faint red glow from the lights making shapes behind his lids. He drifts into a foggy pondered half-picture, Merlin sitting on the floor not looking at him, his legs crossed and his lip squashed between his teeth, reading one of his very dull books on frescoes. Gwaine’s sneaking peeks at him, careful not to tip him off, charcoal quick under his fingers as he tries to capture his ankle and the curve of his spine, thinking if he can get Merlin just right, he’ll finally have found peace.

*

When Gwaine blinks his eyes open to turn off the lights there are six inches of snow huddled at the bottom of the window and he has Merlin’s shoulder blades under his nose. The lanterns are still on but the room has the bright glare of morning, reflected in a sharp, brisk cold everywhere he’s not draped in both duvets. With a shiver he pulls the toothpaste one higher around them, and at first he thinks Merlin’s asleep, but his hand clenches under the pillow, bringing it under his cheek. His eyes are trained on the small collection of sketches BluTaced to the wall, and Gwaine kisses his shoulder to let him know he’s awake. Merlin glances up at him and smiles in a way that’s really excessively lovely.

“Who’s he?” Merlin says, indicating a scrap of paper with curled edges and a doodle of a boyish yet imperious face.

“Leon. Flatmate. Science guy. Former ballroom squatter.”

“The guy with him in this one?”

“That’s his Percy. They met in the supermarket when Leon was trying to put back a pineapple I nicked.”

“You stole a pineapple?”

“I was going to make poor man’s pizza.” Merlin lifts an eyebrow. “Toast, squeeze of ketchup – you can steal those little sachets loads of places but for ease I’d do it in the supermarket cafe – add a slice of cheese and the topping of your choice, in this case what would have been pilfered pineapple if Leon hadn’t caught me and had some attack of conscience. Prickled myself for nothing.”

“Tin would have been easier to swipe.”

Gwaine blinks at him because he never thought of that, and Merlin goes back to staring at his collection of drawings, moments he snatched from his life and liked enough to keep. Gwaine’s ribs tighten around a swollen, thumping heart, and for a horrible second he pictures Merlin saying something about it being a good job he gave all that up because the proportions are all wrong and the angles are awkward and his style is utterly generic.

“He’s cute. They both are, together.”

“Won’t last,” Gwaine says. “They’ve nothing in common besides being unfeasibly tall.”

“Really? They look happy,” Merlin says, and his eyes go back to them as he reaches out to just touch the lines. “You said you’d given drawing up.”

“Did these before.”

“So they looked happy more than a year ago and they’re still together and you think it won’t last?”

“All right, all right, it’s just wishful thinking,” Gwaine says. “Leon’s sickeningly in love and one day he’s going to realise it and move out and I can’t afford this place on my own. That’s why I’m such a cunt when they’re both here and why I drew them on the sly. Jealous.”

Merlin's smile blooms into a chuckle. Gwaine snuggles into the cosy back of his neck, a bit embarrassed by the ease with which Merlin makes the truth spill out of his gob. He wraps an arm around Merlin’s chest and pulls him close, kissing the line of his shoulder, working his way to his ear, pressing his hard-on into the curve of Merlin’s arse. Merlin sighs, and for a moment he closes his eyes and inches back into him, but then his face washes with a thoughtful seriousness.

“What?”

“I barely know you,” Merlin whispers.

“You feeling weird and slutty?”

Merlin laughs, and turns his head to peer at him. Then the rest of him follows, and he tucks himself into Gwaine’s body, cock hard and pressing against his thigh.

“Why, are you?” he says, and kisses Gwaine’s chin with a cheeky nip.

“I’m a ball of recrimination and self-hatred,” Gwaine says. “But – actually that’s nothing to do with you. In fact I think you might be the cure.”

He means it as a joke but it doesn’t sound at all like one now it’s out of his mouth. He looks down, thinking: shit, because this kid, this fucking kid, has him spewing things best left unsaid. Merlin fingers his jaw, lifts him back up, and edges into a kiss – hesitant, at first, but then really warm and soft and slow, arm wrapping around Gwaine’s neck, pushing into his hair like that’s where his hands belong. After the first close of their lips together none of Merlin’s unease remains, and that makes Gwaine’s leech away too, and before he knows it things have turned heated and they’re shifting against each other in a way that’s not casual but heading for the same place they reached last night.

Gwaine’s stomach twists at the thought, and he runs his hand up Merlin’s leg, presses him back, kisses the muscles in his neck and moves down, leaving a damp trail on his collarbone and through the smattering of hair on his chest. He drags his stubble over Merlin’s nipple, watching as he presses his head back into the pillow and arches up with a delightful guttural groan. Gwaine does it again before capturing the soft skin in his mouth and sucking, and Merlin’s fingers find his shoulders and give a little push down. Gwaine meets his eye with a question.

“You said something about making my head explode..?”

“Precocious.”

“Apparently.”

Grinning with the thought Gwaine shrugs under the duvet and kisses Merlin’s stomach, mapping the valley of it, drawing his tongue in swirls and swoops until Merlin’s breath turns not just hitched but gaspy, his legs tense and his noises pleading. Merlin’s taut cock bobs on his stomach, and Gwaine gives it a tiny kiss, then a small exploratory lick, knowing he’s being a bit of a bastard about it but unable to resist the urge. Merlin lifts the duvet and worms under it with him, trapping them both below the blankets in semi-dark where everything’s shadows and each breath feels like a secret. Gwaine thinks he’s going to say something but he doesn’t, just looks at his cock and Gwaine’s mouth, lips parting audibly and making anticipation prickle at Gwaine’s nape like he’s the one who’s never done it before.

Gwaine shifts between his knees to kiss the inside of his thigh, moving up, knowing Merlin’s watching, his heart thunking double quick time because of it, his blood cawing as he noses up to his balls. He steadies his cock with his fingers and gives him one light, long lick before he takes him in his mouth. The noise Merlin makes is a bit like a startled roar – and to hear it again Gwaine slides his lips around the head to give it a wet suck before sinking back down. Merlin’s fingers twist in the sheets and his feet scrabble for purchase to push up into his mouth, and Gwaine lets him for a moment, and then slides off and works his way along the shaft with his tongue, little licks before pressing flat, tonguing the tight curve of his balls.

Merlin’s entire body writhes, legs falling open, and Gwaine rubs Merlin’s stomach with a flat palm, desire curling in his own gut as he shifts against the mattress to sate the demands of his cock. He runs his hands over Merlin’s hips to where his mouth is, slips a thumb over skin wet from his spit. Gwaine just lightly touches his arse, and Merlin lets out a needy little moan, contracting around the touch. Gwaine moves away shooting up a look of apology, but Merlin holds his gaze, and then fumbles down for his hand, guides it back. Gwaine’s chest is fucking frantic but he does it again and pushes in a little further, and Merlin murmurs and his hips shift for more.

“You want me to do this properly?”

“Fuck, yes.”

Gwaine throws off the duvet to get to the drawer, ferrets around inside until he finds lube. Merlin emerges and looks at him, face red and sweaty and his hair positively scarecrow-esque, but his eyes are awed and lusty and Gwaine’s cock fucking throbs at the sight of him. He can’t get his fingers slick fast enough, and consequently it takes him twice as long as it ever has before. He drops the tube and fits himself tight to Merlin’s side, nudging Merlin into a kiss. It’s hot and gaspy with anticipation, and just when Gwaine thinks maybe this is too far too fast and he should say something a bit Agony Aunt Merlin whispers:

“Hurry up, I’m sure.”

“Have I mentioned that mind reading thing you do is fucking disconcerting?”

Merlin answers him with another kiss, and Gwaine gives Merlin’s cock a quick sweep and then moves beneath it into the warm crevice between his legs. Merlin bends his knee, and with his heart somewhere around his tonsils Gwaine slides one wet finger over his hole. Merlin’s back arches, pushing a startled and not entirely pleased noise out of his mouth. Gwaine presses a soothing kiss to his cheek, but Merlin shakes his head and just says:

“Cold. Really cold.”

Gwaine grins, kissing him, tongues meeting as he just presses inside Merlin’s body. Merlin stills, then exhales and pushes onto his finger. Gwaine swallows, his thoughts absent and his focus entirely on the feel of Merlin around him, and he withdraws a little before inching back in, taking it slowly until Merlin relaxes and starts to move with a tiny but steady rhythm. His head falls to the pillow, and Gwaine covers his neck and his chest with kisses, licking at his nipple. Merlin swallows loudly, his stomach flinching, and the close, slick slide of his finger makes Gwaine ache from his bellybutton to his balls.

Merlin drops a hand to his arm, curving around the muscle to cling, and Gwaine starts to fuck him a little faster, a little deeper, the gasps of response curling up to gnaw at the pit of his stomach like they’re his own. Merlin’s fingernails dig in, and Gwaine looks up. Merlin’s got his other forearm over his eyes, but his mouth’s open and his Adam’s apple’s bobbing in little gulps of air. Just as Gwaine’s thinking he’s the sexiest thing he’s ever seen the lube squelches and Merlin laughs, tightening up around him, and Gwaine almost comes then and there because fuck.

Instead he shoves the duvet down and rearranges himself so he can get his mouth on Merlin’s cock. It’s not the best angle but still it’s not long before he’s a bit delirious with the dual sensation of Merlin filling his mouth and his finger apparently driving Merlin near to distraction, Merlin’s legs trembling and incoherent little fuck fuck fucks falling out of his mouth. His hands fist on the sheets as his body squirms in tighter and tighter little movements, and it’s only a moment until Merlin comes with a sharp cry and a shudder that rolls from his hips up his spine, his arse pulsing around Gwaine’s finger. Gwaine sucks gently on his cock as he softens until he whimpers, swallowing before he slips off to wipe his mouth and his hand on the sheet and crawl up Merlin’s limp and rather sweaty body.

Merlin meets his eye with a breathless, shaky:

“God.”

Gwaine kisses him through a startled and almost hysterical laugh, Merlin murmuring grateful little nothings and sliding against his lips, imprecise and drowsy and all jittery with new sensation. Gwaine can’t tell if it’s the kiss or the thought of how Merlin feels which makes his cock nudge insistently at Merlin’s hip, but either way with surprising guile and none of his usual clumsiness Merlin eases Gwaine back against the mattress, all over his neck with kisses and touches as he slides a hand to Gwaine’s dick. Breathing hard and fast, his fingers float up and down maddeningly, skimming the sensitive head, and then tightening on his shaft. He’s way too tentative, the sharp point of arousal just to the left of what Merlin’s doing, but not wanting to shatter the mood with a word Gwaine shifts up into Merlin’s hand, showing him with his hips the rhythm he likes. Merlin gets it. A few more strokes and then he pulls off and grabs the lube, and when his fingers return it’s better – so much better – for a little slide and a lot more confidence.

It’s not the most technically competent hand job he’s ever had but Gwaine’s so turned on it doesn’t really matter that it’s a stagger upwards to the point of no return rather than a beeline for it, and when Merlin bites and licks that damn spot on his neck knowing that’s the thing that’ll send him over the edge, his stomach curls up tight, anyway, and Gwaine comes, panting and grateful as anything.

For a moment they just lie there in an awkward, hot tangle of elbows and knees and various fluids, and then Merlin lets out this kittenish rumble, slides off Gwaine’s shoulder and hides his face in the pillow, muttering something that’s broken and goes can’t – believe – did that.

“You feeling weird and slutty now, Merlin?”

Merlin laughs, muffled, and shoves at him with a limp, flaily hand. Gwaine catches it and bites at his arm, and Merlin peeks out, his eyes bright and his face very pink. Gwaine inches in until they’re nose to nose and there’s nowhere to hide.

“You want to have a shower?” he says, and he sees uncertainty flash through Merlin’s eyes. “I’m not trying to get rid of you. I meant with me. You know – we cover each other in bubbles and then we act surprised when we’re feeling each other up against the tiles.”

Merlin smiles, all quiet but very, very real, and nods.

“Just need a minute,” he murmurs, “for my legs to start working again.”

*

“What do you want on your toast?”

“What are my choices?” Merlin says, and leans on the counter wearing one of Gwaine’s jumpers, his hair damp and in his eyes.

“Nutella, marmalade, jam – apricot variety, honey, or you could go avant garde with ketchup and mustard.”

“Nutella.”

 

Gwaine throws a spoonful on his toast and spreads it with the back of the spoon, and indulging a whim about how nice it would be if they tasted the same as well as smelling the same he adds it to his too. He slices it all into lopsided triangles, and pushes the plate towards Merlin. Merlin bites his lip and toys with the corner of one piece, shifting his weight and looking at him like he’s in a life drawing class and he wants to draw the person in front of him in detail but keeps accidentally meeting their eye and losing his nerve. Gwaine slides a mug of tea towards him, and Merlin gives a little huff and says:

“I’m trying to think of a subtle way to say it but I can’t, so – what happens now?”

Gwaine lifts a toast triangle and shoves it into his mouth.

“You eat it, Merlin.”

Merlin grumbles around the toast but takes a bite anyway, rubbing the crumbs off his lips and nodding appreciatively.

“I meant – ” Merlin waves vaguely between them, and tilts his head.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” Gwaine says, reaching for him and dragging him in by his hip.

“Why? You’re the one who’s done this before.”

“Yeah but – in case you haven’t figured it, I’m not big on rules so there’s no way I’m going to draw guides for you to follow. Don’t ever think you have to paint within someone else’s lines,” Gwaine says. “You make your own mess according to the whims of your soul. You did last night, and this morning, and – ” He leans into Merlin’s ear to whisper: “ – I like it.”

Gwaine places a kiss on his cheek and then goes back to his own toast, and Merlin looks at him in this way Gwaine can’t unpick.

“Paint me a picture,” Merlin says, “of what – right now – you’d like to happen.”

His gaze has a directness to it that’s at once earnest and merely softly curious, so Gwaine takes a bit of his toast and plays along.

“All right. We’ll stay here for a bit, watch it snow and drink tea and eat toast. Then I’ll walk you home.”

“Walk me home?” Merlin says. “It’s like three streets.”

“So imagine how bad I’d feel if you slipped on ice and died, and I wasn’t there to save you because I couldn’t be arsed to walk three streets.” Merlin sniggers and rolls his eyes, poking at his chipped mug. “When we get there, we’ll do that annoying thing where neither of us wants to say goodbye so we keep talking shit. We’ll kiss on your doorstep, and then you go inside and do that thing they do in films where you slide down the back of the door grinning your face off and maybe doing one of your little laughs. And I – ”

“You do a weird dance thing on the pavement,” Merlin says, words pitching around a smile, “and lose your footing, and this old woman looks at you like you’re nuts, so you act all casual and when you’re round the corner you burst out laughing. Then what?”

“We both play it cool for – oh, hours maybe, and then I cave and call because I have less than no willpower, and I say, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and you say – ”

“Working,” Merlin says, with a wince and a shrug. “I always work Saturday night. Arthur needs me.”

“Right, so I say, ‘Fancy coming round when you finish?’ To which you reply – ?”

“ ‘All right, then.’ Maybe I’ll grab a take away on my way over?”

Gwaine smiles and lets it happen in his head: Merlin on the doorstep in the snow in his ridiculous work t shirt with a plastic bag full of containers.

“You bring noodles and they’re my favourite, and because it’s freezing we eat them in bed – before, during, and after we try some things you always fancied from all that porn you’ve apparently watched – which I want to hear about in great detail at some point, by the way,” he says, and Merlin grins. “On Sunday we don’t get out of bed until lunchtime, and I take you to the pub where Percy’s a chef for lunch. You meet my friends, and they adore you, and you’re impressed because I know a chef with a very kind disposition, and you love his – ”

“Roast potatoes. I can’t resist them.”

“ – and I steal your Yorkshire pudding because I’m a pest like that, and Leon gives me a stern look like, why are you being yourself? Don’t you know how annoying you are?

“But luckily for you I think it’s cute,” Merlin says, with a little swing of his hips, all coy before he meets Gwaine’s eye, steady and serious. “And I want to come back here with you again but I have so much reading – ”

“I don’t mind. I know it’s important. I call you to say goodnight and we have a sleepy conversation about nothing and you fall asleep with your phone in your hand.” Not willing to leave it there Gwaine runs ahead. “Before we know it, it’s Christmas, so you’re – ?”

“With my mother. And you’re – ”

“With Leon and Percy and a bunch of other urchins, so we don’t see each other again until – ”

“Boxing Day?” Merlin offers. “We go to the cinema to see a cheesy blockbuster.”

“We argue about what sweets to get in the queue and jostle just to touch, and when the lights go out we’re all over each other and we miss the entire film.”

“The week after that we go to a gallery,” Merlin says. “We stop and stare in front of all the same things, which we both thinks means something, but neither of us says so. About then, we come back here and you – ” He looks up and grins, all crinkly and embarrassed. “ – well, fuck my brains out?”

“In a gentle and romantic way.” Merlin laughs into the neck of Gwaine’s jumper, and Gwaine’s heart gives a small leap. “After that you start spending more time here than you do at your place. You bring all your books over and make a sort of nest with them at the foot of the sofa, and I think you’re adorable when you’re concentrating. In the evenings you scribble and you type and I sit with you and pretend I’m reading the paper, but actually I’m drawing sketches of you, only I don’t want to admit it because that you’ve inspired me to draw again seems like an admission I’m not quite ready to make.”

“And I know you’re doing it,” Merlin says, “but I don’t say anything. I just wait for you to tell me.”

Gwaine dampens his lips, and he knows he shouldn’t but it’s all too easy to keep indulging in this daydream.

“One day,” he says, “we’re joking around about the guys you live with – ”

“Girls. I live with girls.”

Girls, then, girls you live with having forgotten what you look like, and I say, ‘why don’t you move in?’ And you say – ”

“ ‘That’s a bit fast, isn’t it?’ ” Merlin says, and stares at his feet.

“I make a nervous joke about your course being nearly done and if you’re going to be a starving artist, why not learn from someone who knows all the tricks?”

“My friends think I’m insane for even considering it,” Merlin says, “but eventually I decide that I’m an artist, and what’s the point of that if I don’t do something reckless and hasty every once in a while?”

“So we do it,” Gwaine says. “Leap of faith and all that, and we’re both scared as hell but we know it doesn’t really matter if we get our hearts burnt because, well, paint is just pain with a t on the end. And I know you sculpt but I couldn’t do a cute spelling thing with that so let’s just pretend.”

Merlin looks up, and this huge wall of feeling which wasn’t there before kicks Gwaine in the stomach, like everything they just described has already happened in more than words and they’re not here after one night but on the brink of a dwarfing commitment.

“You’ve given that a lot of thought,” Merlin says.

“It’s just a rough draft. We can rub it out and start again. No-one gets it right the first time – I mean you’re not supposed to, are you? There’s always splodges and mistakes and – ”

“They’ll be the best part. It’s only when you splodge you find out what you really want to create.”

Merlin goes back to his toast. Gwaine takes a bite of his, too. It turns huge and dry in his mouth because he’s waited his whole life for someone who thought that. His spine bristles, and this frail wash of fear runs over the top of everything they just drew in their heads, because he’s never wanted anything like he wants that, and he’s not sure – at all – that it’s not going to slip into the gap between what he wants to make with his hands, and what he has the skill for.

*

“Not bad for your first time.”

Gwaine wraps his arms around Merlin’s waist, and he leans back, all reedy and tired, his fingers falling to Gwaine’s wrist. He rests his head against Gwaine’s, rolling the bony bits of their skulls together, and murmurs a non answer, watching as the gallery empties of everyone but their friends and his mother. Leon and Percy are in the corner having a very in-depth conversation about humus, and on the biggest sculpture – this huge baroque thing with little individual frescoes depicting various alienated figures all united but not knowing it – sits a yellow sold tag, the piece supposedly bought by an anonymous collector Gwaine knows is secretly Arthur making amends for a heartbreak years ago. Outside snow trickles down in clumps the size of a child’s fist, and Merlin watches it – or maybe their reflection – as Gwaine nuzzles his shoulder and says:

“Didn’t I tell you it’d be all right?”

Merlin smiles, closes his eyes, and just leans, and it’s glorious.

It’s taken three years. There have been mistakes: a fight about Arthur and a dozen little ones he can’t even remember the cause of; they’ve broken up twice and fallen back together in pieces to build something new; they’ve lived on rice and frozen peas for weeks on end and they’re on the blacklist for four different electricity companies; and it’s only a tiny gallery and Merlin still works in The Wounded Unicorn but he’s leaning and it’s snowing and it’s nearly Christmas again, and in the moment there’s nothing else Gwaine wants in the world.

“What you thinking about?”

“Nothing. You?”

“Same nothing, probably. What do you want to do now?” Gwaine murmurs. “Paint me a picture.”

“We’ll walk home in the snow,” Merlin says, and turns in Gwaine’s arms. “We’re halfway there when you think it’s cute to start a snowball fight – which you lose – and as undefeated champion I demand a really epic kiss. When we get in, we fall into a glass of red wine face first, and you pretend to write me a new Wikipedia entry and make me believe I’m not a hopeless, talentless fool.”

“Done. I’ll get the frame.”

Merlin laughs and knocks their foreheads together, then gathers up a fistful of Gwaine’s jumper and pulls him into a kiss, the moderately epic sort.

“You could have changed,” Merlin says, tugging on a splatter of yellow paint.

“I got into it. Beside, it’ll wash out. That’s the beauty of eco paint – in fact, just one of its many virtues over traditional oils.” Merlin lifts an eyebrow. “What? I believe in my product and a true salesmen doesn’t have an off switch.”

Merlin kisses him again, deep and smiley.

“I’m going to say to goodbye to everyone and find our coats,” he says.

Gwaine watches him, watches other people pull him into hugs and tell him well done, and he blushes and bats them off, his eyes darting back to Gwaine for reassurance. Gwaine just grins at him, and for the first time in a long time he thinks about that Painting By Numbers kit he got when he was eight.

On the box they made claims about painting something beautiful – use our colours and stick within our lines and it’s easy – but even as an eight year old he’d known beauty would never lie in prescription and following the rules, but by doing something from the heart and the gut and the soul over the top. He thinks about this splodge of a thing he and Merlin have made: an abstract which more than likely makes very little sense to anyone looking at it. But when he skived school because he just couldn’t stand it and stole into galleries; when he hid amongst the paintings at fifteen with his heart in tatters, knowing his mother would never look at him and care; when he sheltered in them at twenty-five and tried to figure out what to do with his life; when they were his refuge from grief he didn’t understand, it was always the abstracts he liked best. He liked to squint out a meaning of his own, pick out the emotion of the strokes, and bumble his way into a reading entirely, idiosyncratically his.

Maybe it’s the slowly-falling snow and the rosy hues of retrospect making him sentimental, but he thinks of that night – that first night with Merlin – in all its messy imperfection. He can’t explain it, but to him it always looked beautiful, precisely because they didn’t paint it by numbers: they splodged what they wanted, and made something only they would ever understand, and to him it always looked just a little bit like love.