For the first few weeks Arthur lived in a hotel.
The hotel room was too big, decorated in terrifyingly matched shades of beige. The only things that clashed with the decor were his belongings: strewn across the room, slowly migrating from two suitcases into the wardrobe and the bedside cabinet. Settling in.
The office was exactly like the home office, painted in the same scientifically chosen shade of total lack of colour, with the same bold yet nondescript prints on the walls. The city was a city, just like every city everywhere: a layer of glitz under the tacky touristy crust, a pool of filth on the bottom, and in the middle - people, normal and mundane, coursing steadily between home and work and their local.
Arthur didn't go to pubs. He went to the gym. He moved through his routine, working all muscle groups in turn till they burned and then past that, till his limbs went dead and listless, and then he drank his water, caught his breath and did it all again.
On Saturday night the hotel gym was almost creepily deserted. He was working his arms, slowly pulling down the bar, pleased with the way his biceps bulged against his t-shirt sleeves. A man stood next to him and watched for a while, wiping himself down with a towel.
"Looking good, mate," he said with a grin. He was tall, handsome, built like a real gym junkie. Perfect.
Arthur stared at the man's sharp jaw and sweat-slicked throat, and thought about getting up from the bench and following this guy to the showers, or even to his room, getting down on his knees and pressing his face against this man's groin, into the heat and the smells, mouthing at his hard cock, through his clothes at first, and then getting his lips and tongue on the hot skin.
Not yet, he reminded himself. He wasn't ready yet. He smiled tightly and looked away, and the man nodded and walked off.
On Sunday Arthur caught up with work and went out for lunch, and circled aimlessly around the city centre. The landmarks, as usual, looked a lot smaller and shabbier than on the pictures, and somehow it never failed to unpleasantly surprise him.
A sea of people moved all around him, each face like a wave - come and gone and replaced with another one in a heartbeat. And then, like a punch to the sternum, a pair of eyes suddenly locked with his, and he couldn't breathe for a moment, struggling to push out his chest against the familiar tightness of his t-shirt.
It was, really, quite a normal face, young and a bit thin, pretty. The man stared at Arthur as they walked toward each other, carried by the crowd on the different sides of the street. Arthur saw the man's big ears turn pink, and his lovely lips part a little. He felt his own face heat up, and closed his eyes, breaking the moment. Not yet, not yet.
On Monday he called his father and they talked business.
"How's the flat hunting going?" father asked.
"I've been too busy. You know. Settling in. I don't want to rush it."
"Just face it. You're staying in the hotel because you're not sure about this whole thing."
"I am sure, father. In my whole life I've never been this certain about anything."
"And yet you're not rushing to commit to this new life of yours. Have you even unpacked?"
Arthur kicked closed the suitcase that still held half of his wardrobe and shifted the phone to the other ear.
"Father, I'm committed. It's happening."
"Listen, A -"
"Arthur," Arthur said firmly as Uther trailed off. "My name is Arthur. You can't even say it, can you?"
"It's not as simple as it all seems to be in your mind."
"It's not in my mind. I'm Arthur, your son. Father, please, say my name. Call me your son, call me something."
"To be honest, I'm not sure what you are right now," said Uther and hung up.
On Tuesday Arthur took a long lunch break and walked into the first real estate agency he saw on his way to the restaurant.
He was still explaining his requirements to the agent when a harried-looking girl rudely butted in:
"Is it about rent? Percy, you promised! You know it's urgent!"
"Gwen... Oh, fine, have him," the agent sighed and relinquished Arthur to her.
"Would you consider a flat share?" she asked, smiling manically like a person driven to a brink of a breakdown.
"Definitely not," Arthur said.
"Oh, but I have the perfect flat for you, it's so central and nice, and very, very reasonable!"
"I don't -" he started and then he couldn't get a word it edgewise.
This wasn't the type of hard sale he was used to. Gwen blind-sided him somehow, overwhelmed his defences, maybe because she seemed openly desperate about this, the way people just couldn't afford to be about business. Suddenly he was nodding and staring down at the card with an address on it.
"I lived there myself for five years," she said, glowing victoriously. "You could be so happy there. Just take one look at it, please."
"Why did you leave, then?" he asked sullenly, wondering why he couldn't stand up to her. She grinned giddily and turned a cheap engagement ring on her finger.
"Me and my fiancée just moved in together," she said. "I used to share the flat with my best friend, and he can't afford it on his own, and I can't still pay my half, not with the mortgage. It's a bit of a dire situation. You would be doing us such a huge favour - but, really, I'm sure you'll love it."
He wasn't going to look at the place. The rent was stupidly cheap, which told him everything he needed to know without having to make a trip. But it was just a short walk from the office, and he remembered Gwen's pleading face and felt obligated to at least gather the facts and explain to her why he couldn't possibly live there.
He was buzzed in as soon as he rang, without questions. He frowned at the carelessness, walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. It opened right away, and Arthur felt as he did in rare moments of lucid dreaming, on the edge between reason and fantasy, when he was about to realise that the dream wasn't real.
It was the man from the street, the one with the eyes and the ears. He recognised Arthur, too, was gaping at him, dumbstruck. For a second Arthur suspected some elaborate set-up, but it couldn't be. He'd seen this man on the street, once, that was all. He saw thousands of faces every day. This was just the only one he'd remembered.
"I'm here to view the flat," he said. "Gwen sent me."
"Oh!" the man said with an awkward relieved laugh. "Right! 'Course! I'm Merlin."
He offered a hand for Arthur to shake. His fingertips were smudged in something black, greasy-looking. Arthur pointedly stared at them till Merlin followed his eyes, twitched and wiped his hand on his ratty jeans.
"Yeah, sorry, I was working," he muttered. "Come in."
Arthur handed him a business card - he had them printed as soon as he'd arrived here, and was still working through the first stack - and followed him through the cluttered hallway into the front room.
"So, um, lots of space as you can see, we have Sky and broadband and everything," said Merlin, waving his arms around in a series of aimless gestures. Then he glanced at the couch and lurched toward it, as if he was planning to throw himself over the clutter there and shield it from Arthur's eyes with his body.
It was too late, Arthur had seen it. There was an untidy pile of drawing paper, surrounded by pencils and sticks of charcoal or pastels or whatever they were. And on top of it all, still pinned to a board, was a sketch of Arthur's face.
Arthur walked over and picked it up. The drawing was big, large than life size, still unfinished. Merlin had been detailing the iris of the left eye when he was interrupted.
"It's not creepy," said Merlin behind his back. "I do it all the time, it's for work. I'm an artist. I just got my first big pencilling job, I need to study interesting faces."
"And you found me interesting," said Arthur, more amused than anything else. The face in the drawing was instantly recognisable, but still different, new. This was the face he hoped to see every time he looked in the mirror. This was what he'd searched for so many years, studying the lines of his jaw and his nose, the set of his eyes, wondering if it all fit together in a normal, ordinary face of an ordinary man.
"You have, the, uh. Bone structure," Merlin said vaguely. "It's true, I'm a professional artist, I have done colouring on four actual printed books, look, here is my name right there."
He pulled a thin book off a shelf and brandished the first page at Arthur.
"Actually, no, don't look, this one is better," he snatched the book away and opened another one. "Well, this part didn't print right. You know, purples. But, this. Pretty good, huh?"
It was a comic book, every page broken up inexplicably in uneven-sized little frames, littered with ludicrous speech bubbles. Arthur tried to look past the shapes and see only colours, but the latex-clad thighs and arses of masked characters were very distracting. Merlin's impossibly long fingers, splayed over the page, were distracting him even more.
"I guess you're not into graphic novels, that's all right," Merlin said and shelved the book. "Do you want to see your bedroom? Well, it will be yours, if you. Um. It's en suite!"
The bedroom was a decent size for the city, a double, though the en suite only had a shower cubicle, no bathtub. There were a few boxes stacked up by the window, next to the immaculately made bed.
"It's Gwen's stuff, they're still decorating - I can move it."
"No need," Arthur said.
"It's got a garden view!" said Merlin with a note of desperation.
"There's a garden?"
"Well. The people on the ground floor have some flower pots by the railing. You can see them from here, if you open the window and lean out a bit."
Arthur walked around the bed, thinking. This wasn't the kind of a lifestyle suitable for someone in his position. But his position was a precarious thing right now. Uther clearly still thought this was just a phase. Once Arthur went through with his plans and there would be no going back, his reaction could be - anything. He could fire Arthur and disown him. Arthur could find another job, but the rumours would spread, and his options would become very limited. It might be prudent to cut his spending and learn to live like this.
"I know it's not much, but it's quiet and it gets a lot of sun. We'll split the rent and the bills fifty-fifty. And I'll do all the cleaning," Merlin said, fiddling with his sleeves. "And I can cook, I'll cook for you if you like."
"That sounds fair," Arthur nodded, and Merlin's face split in a huge grin. Even his ears seemed perkier.
"You'll take it?" he asked, slightly bouncing on the balls of his feet.
It wasn't a very good idea, Arthur realised that perfectly well. He'd never even considered sharing a flat with a stranger before, and Merlin was a very odd duck. But, considering the changes he was about to make to his life, trying out a flat share didn't seem like such a huge leap of faith.
"Fine, I'll go get my stuff," he said.
"You want to move in tonight?"
"Is that a problem?"
"No!" Merlin exclaimed, dramatically shaking his head. "No! It's great! It's amazing! I'll call Gwen now, she'll have the papers for us tomorrow. I can't believe she's found someone so fast. She's great, isn't she?"
"She's very pretty," Arthur said reasonably. "Shame that you let her get away."
"Pardon?" Merlin asked stupidly.
"Well, she's engaged to someone else now, isn't she?"
"Oh, yeah, no, Lance can have her," Merlin laughed. "I'm gay."
He glanced at Arthur, a little challengingly, and Arthur had to stifle a smile.
"I'm gay too," he said, and that felt sweet like an exhale after a long held breath. He still hadn't told Uther that part.
"Great," sighed Merlin happily, smiling wider. "Um, I mean... We have that in common, we'll definitely get along! It'll be fabulous!"
"I'm not a fabulous kind," Arthur said. "I'm more into football than musicals."
"Oh, football is good," said Merlin agreeably. "David Beckham, little shorts, yeah. Oh! Lance, you know, Gwen's boyfriend, he plays football every Sunday in the park! You can join in, he'd love that."
"I might," said Arthur, imagining being a part of a real game, where the other guys didn't know who he was and didn't treat him any differently. Just the idea of it was exhilarating.
He went back to the hotel and packed, and it took no time at all. It was as if his possessions hadn't believed he was here to stay, just like Uther didn't, and were just waiting to jump back into suitcases, folding into them quickly and readily.
He was going to settle into the flat, truly and thoroughly. He was going to buy bed throws and scatter cushions.
He tried to visualise the flat, imagine the spaces to fill and the colour scheme to create, but he couldn't remember a single thing, not even the shade of the walls or the size of the windows. All he could think of was that sketch, and Merlin's face, the tense slope of Merlin's shoulders and his long fingers, smudged in graphite.
When he came back it was past ten, and Merlin still buzzed him in without asking who it was.
"We have to establish some ground rules," Arthur said, hauling his suitcases through the door that wasn't even locked. "If we get robbed because you can't be asked checking who's at the door, you're paying for all my stuff they take."
Merlin was lounging on the couch, sketching Arthur's hair. He bent backwards over the couch arm and smiled at Arthur upside-down.
"Hi, Arthur," he said warmly, as if he'd been welcoming Arthur home like this for years. "Got your keys. Do you want me to help you unpack?"
He handed Arthur a key ring with three keys on it. The metal was warm; Merlin must have had them in his pocket.
"No. I don't know what kind of schedule you keep," Arthur said, idly fingering the keys, feeling Merlin's body warmth leach out of metal into his chilled hands. "But I'd appreciate if you kept it down after eleven. I have an early start on weekdays."
"Sure," Merlin nodded. "I mostly sleep in late, but I won't wake up, you don't have to tip-toe."
"I definitely won't," Arthur scoffed and dragged his suitcases into the bedroom.
"If I'm still up when you wake up, I'll make you coffee!" Merlin called after him.
Arthur unpacked and showered, and then put on fresh underwear, all the stuff he wore during the day. It wasn't uncomfortable to sleep in, he'd done that plenty of times. He didn't think Merlin would be snooping around his room in the dead of the night or peeking under Arthur's blankets. But Arthur needed to rest, and he was tense and wound up, questioning this decision already. Feeling safe would help him relax. He thought about locking his room, but that seemed like an overkill.
The flat was a lot quieter than the hotel room had been. The traffic buzz barely reached here. For a while he heard slurred voices of people straggling out of the pubs, but by quarter past eleven everything subsided into a pleasant white noise of the night city, punctuated with occasional screech of tires and peals of drunken laughter.
He got into bed and stared at the dark ceiling, wondering if Merlin would stay up all night, as he'd said.
"Comic book artist," he said out loud. "Weird."
He woke up long before the alarm. The room was dark, but the light was on in the en suite bathroom. The door was open, and there was a strange woman standing there, holding a pair of kitchen scissors.
He bolted up in bed, clutching blanket to his chest.
"Oh please," she said. "I'm not after your virtue."
She leaned toward the mirror and hacked off a huge chunk of her long hair, cutting close to her scalp.
"Who are you? What the fuck - how did you get in?" he demanded.
"I have the key," she said. "I didn't know somebody's moved in already."
"But you saw me, didn't you?"
"Well, I was already here," she said unapologetically and cut off another chunk of hair, letting in fall on the bathroom floor.
"Can't you do this at home?" he asked, still too sleepy to come up with anything better to say.
"No, it's supposed to be a surprise," she said. "Just go back to sleep."
For a moment he was tempted to close his eyes and pretend it was all some sort of nightmare. He did have cheese for dinner, after all. If he went back to sleep, maybe she would disappear.
"Where is your shaver?" she asked and opened the cabinet door.
He jumped out of the bed, run over and slammed the cabinet shut before she could have a good look inside. She eyed him calmly, clearly feeling more at home here than he did. She was startlingly beautiful, even with half her scalp covered in uneven little tufts of shorn hair.
"Get out," he said.
"Fine, I'll use the other bathroom," she said and unhurriedly flounced off.
He stood by the mirror for a while, heart pounding. Then he rearranged the contents of the cabinet, stuffing everything conspicuous in the far corners.
Long black tresses of cut hair coiled on the floor tiles, sleek and shiny. He'd never had long hair himself, but looking at it still gave him the creeps, as if he was staring at a clump of dead snakes.
He put on his running clothes, locked his room and went out.
A long run through the unfamiliar empty streets cleared his head and made the encounter seem silly and whimsical, like something from a fairy tale. He jogged around, picking directions at random, checking his location on his phone to figure out routes for later.
He came back at dawn, sweating and energized, and showered, gingerly stepping over the hair spread on the floor. In the kitchen there was a warm pot of coffee, two slices of brown bread stuck into the toaster and a jar of Marmite sitting proudly next to it. The tiny table was set for one person, and a folded note stood next to the empty plate like a place card.
Sorry about that, I've talked to her now.
The fridge held two eggs, a near-empty carton of soy milk, some nasty non-dairy spread and a tub of houmous. They hadn't established the food policy yet, but the breakfast, such as it was, seemed to be meant for him. Arthur drank the coffee, put the Marmite back in the fridge and ate the toast dry.
"Get that crazy woman's hair out of my room," he wrote at the bottom of the note, unclipped his room key and set it next to the dirty plate. "If anyone but you has the key to my room TAKE IT FROM THEM. Lock it up when you're done. We need to discuss your visitors."
Then he put few twenties on the table and added: "And buy groceries. REAL BUTTER I mean it."
Around lunch Arthur got a text from an unrecognised number and opened it warily, expecting a sales pitch.
"It's Merlin," the text said. "Your room is clean and locked up. I'm shopping, do you have any allergies?"
"None," he texted back and saved the number, smiling to himself.
"When will you be home?" came the answer a minute later. "I'm thinking pasta bake."
"Around nine," he typed and pressed send, and then realised he had no real reason to stay in the office till late. No amount of overtime would make Uther see him as less of a disappointment right now.
He ditched work only forty minutes after official business hours were over, which he hadn't done in years, and walked home, shuffling his feet in the thin watery snow, watching his footprints melt through to the pavement.
He opened the front door of the building with his own key, enjoying the sense of belonging and ownership, even though he was only renting here. The door of their flat was unlocked again, and he made sure to release the latch and close it properly, preparing to grumble at Merlin about that. Once inside, he was instantly enveloped in warm, rich smells of home cooking, herbs, tomatoes, frying onions. He shook melted snow off his shoes and walked in, fighting a bizarre urge to yell "Merlin, I'm home!"
There was a naked man on their coffee table.
Arthur stood and stared, his jaw working uselessly. The man was sprawled bonelessly on his back, arms and legs hanging loose, touching the carpet. His head was tilted back, and his eyes were closed. He looked like a sacrifice laid out on an altar, a fit, eerily handsome offering to the ancient gods.
Arthur averted his eyes from the man's soft cock and poked him in the thigh with his briefcase. The man lazily lifted his head and smiled.
"Well, hello, Arthur," he said.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Arthur demanded.
"Sitting," said the man, still supine. "You're early. Dinner's not ready yet."
Merlin poked out of the kitchen and happily waved at Arthur with a spatula.
"Hey!" he said. "So you've met Gwaine."
"He was hard to miss," Arthur said. "He's naked on our coffee table."
"I put down a towel, obviously," said Merlin testily. "Let me just stick this in the oven."
He disappeared again, leaving Arthur with the naked guy who still hadn't moved, or even made any effort to cover himself or close his legs.
"Can't you take this to the bedroom?" Arthur asked. "Whatever it is?"
"His bedroom is tiny," said Gwaine. "Haven't you seen it yet?"
His smile was dirty, suggesting all the things Arthur hadn't really dared to think about.
"We're flat mates," Arthur said. "We respect each other's privacy."
"Enough slacking," said Merlin as he returned from the kitchen. "I want to finish this before dinner. Get in position, Gwaine."
Gwaine sighed and curled up, graceful and strong, like a predator or a warrior. He settled in a tense posture, torso coiled, head turned upwards, supporting himself on one arm. Merlin plopped down on the couch, grabbed his drawing pad and started sketching.
"Oh," Arthur said. "He's sitting for you."
"He's some sort of genius," chuckled Gwaine, holding the difficult pose with ease.
"Gwaine is a professional model," said Merlin distractedly and reached over to feel the knot of muscles at Gwaine's shoulder. The touch was brief and almost clinical, but familiar in a way Arthur didn't like.
"And before you ask, it does mean 'also a stripper'," Gwaine added with a wink.
"You're not," said Merlin, softly admonishing. "You did a few hen parties."
"Ah, yes, straight girls and their strap-ons," Gwaine grinned. "I really hope Gwen will hire me for hers."
"She can't afford you."
"I'd totally do her for free."
Arthur set down his briefcase and settled at the end of the couch. This was his front room, and if he was getting a free show, he was going to enjoy it.
Gwaine's body was flawless, not a scar or a blemish, not an ounce of extra fat, just lean, sculpted muscle. After Merlin was done with a pose he directed Gwaine into another one, arranging his limbs with gentle pulls and pushes. Gwaine's cock thickened at that, not quite getting hard; when Merlin left him alone and went back to sketching, the half-erection subsided again. Arthur watched it, as it pulsed minutely against Gwaine's thigh, watched the man's strong, long arms tremble slightly at the strain of holding himself still, and felt bitterly, angrily jealous.
"So," he asked. "Are you two an item?"
"Just friends," said Merlin quickly, busily shading.
"With benefits," Gwaine amended. "I come with a large benefits package."
"I've seen bigger," Arthur blurted out, unable to stop himself.
"You've seen nothing yet, sweetheart," Gwaine scoffed. Merlin kept his eyes on the paper, biting his lip.
"If you can't be friends, this is going to be difficult," he said.
"Fine, fine, we'll play nice," said Gwaine. "So what is it you do with your life, princess?"
"Don't call me that," said Arthur, blushing hotly, almost panicked for a moment. "I'm a financial consultant."
"How exciting. Are you a bit crap at it, then? Shouldn't you be able to afford something better?"
"This is a great flat, shut up," said Merlin miserably.
"I'm new to the city," said Arthur. "I thought it would be nice to have company."
Gwaine turned to look at him, and Merlin whined in protest and forcefully contorted him back into the position. Watching his beautiful hands move on Gwaine's naked body was nearly unbearable.
"I'm going to change," Arthur said and escaped to his bedroom.
He came out again when the smells of food became cruelly teasing. Merlin was setting the kitchen table, and Gwaine was getting dressed in the front room. Arthur gave his lean arse one last appreciative glance and sat down, waiting to be served.
"We're really just friends," Merlin said, ladling food onto the plates.
"I've seen how you looked at him," Merlin said quietly. "And it's all right, I mean that. I wouldn't mind, and he's amazing, he'd make you feel so good. Though he's not the type to settle down, but I don't know if you're even looking for something like that."
"Merlin, I'm not going to sleep with your fuck buddy, that would be just weird. Why are you pimping him out, anyway?"
"I thought you liked him," Merlin shrugged.
"He's an obnoxious arrogant git."
"Oh, I am," said Gwaine proudly, sauntering into the kitchen. "That's why you love me. Admit it, Merlin, you so have a type."
Merlin gave him an odd wide-eyed stare, and Gwaine shook his thick mane of hair and laughed.
"Fine, fine. Nice, civilised dinner. I brought some wine, let's open the bottle."
The food was delicious, warming and satisfying in the way the best restaurant fare never was. A bottle of wine was followed by another two, and somewhere in the middle of that Arthur had realised that Gwaine had been planning to spend the night. He made a feeble move to excuse himself, to give them privacy, but suddenly Gwaine snagged him with an arm over his shoulder and declared that they were going out, right now.
"I have work in the morning," Arthur slurred.
"Please," Merlin said, his eyes shining with drink and mirth. "It'll be fun."
It was that or lying in bed, imagining that every sound that reached his room was the muffled noise of their lovemaking.
"Go get my coat, Merlin," Arthur said.
They dragged him through several pubs, indiscriminately mixing drinks. Merlin was wobbly on his feet as they moved from one to another, trying to sing in adorably tuneless fashion. Gwaine hugged him tight to keep him steady, and Arthur trudged along, sobering in the cold just enough to start feeling morose.
Then they suddenly were in a club, wrapped in the body heat of the dance floor. Gwaine disappeared for a moment and came back hyper and jumpy, with his pupils blown wide.
"Want some candy?" he showed Arthur a few pills in his palm. Merlin reached for them and got his hand slapped away.
"You're a lightweight, my friend, and you've already had enough. Arthur?"
"I'm fine, I don't do drugs," Arthur said primly. Gwaine shrugged and stuffed the pills in his pocket.
The crowd around them was mostly male, and all of them looked impossibly attractive through the drunken haze in Arthur's head. Some guys were grinding against each other, kissing. In the dim corner away from the bar something was going on - there was about four men wrapped together there, moving in sync.
"There is a back room," said Gwaine. Arthur shook his head. The music was too loud, pounding at his brain from the inside.
Merlin was dancing like a dork, smiling and flailing. He was surrounded by men who tried to catch his eyes, some of them bumping their hips against him suggestively, but he seemed to be lost in the world of his own buzz.
"Where's the bathroom?" Arthur yelled in Gwaine's ear. Gwaine pointed toward the back.
"The glory hole's between the second and third stalls from the left," he yelled helpfully. "Seriously, go unwind a bit. I'll look after him."
Arthur pushed through the crowd and washed his face with cold water at the sink, sobering a little. He stared at the second stall for a while, jostled by the men brushing past him. He could unwind. It's been so long. He could do this with someone he wouldn't even see, someone who wouldn't see him, wouldn't touch him. It would be just that, a release, a sharp, pure pleasure.
But then he realised that the cock he'd be sucking could very well turn out to be Gwaine's, and he abandoned that idea.
He found his way back to Merlin and tried dancing for a while, pathetically self-conscious about every move.
"I think Gwaine's pulled," Merlin yelled to him. "We might as well go, he'll be..."
Just then Gwaine popped back next to them, waving his phone in triumph.
"What happened to that guy?" Merlin asked.
"Saved for a rainy day," Gwaine said. "Come on, kebab time."
They ended up in a painfully bright kebab shop, waiting for their order. Merlin was asleep with his head on the plastic table top, snoring softly, and Gwaine talked quickly and loudly, still buzzed from the drugs.
"Thing about Merlin," he was saying. "He makes friends so easily. With the oddest people."
"Yeah, I've noticed that."
"He told me about you. How he saw you on the street, and then you just turned up. He thinks it's destiny, he's a desperate romantic, really. That's where I went wrong, I know that now. I was taking my time with him, waiting to be sure and ready. And now the moment is gone, we're friends. And don't get me wrong, he's the best friend I have..."
"With benefits," said Arthur, tearing up a paper napkin in tiny shreds.
"Well, yes, but he - he's waiting for that grand romance. I don't know if that's you. I don't know who you are under all that stiff crust. What would it take to see the real you, I don't know. But I just want him to have what he needs."
"We're flat mates. I only just met him."
"You're fucking transparent, Arthur, you're not kidding anyone. Listen, if you miss your chance with him, you'll never forgive yourself."
Arthur looked at Merlin's sleep-soft face, the shade of eyelashes on his cheek, and shook his head.
"I can't," he said. "I'm not ready. I can't yet."
He desperately wanted neither of them to remember this conversation in the morning.
Their order arrived, and Gwaine softly shook Merlin awake, dropping a light kiss to his temple.
"Kebab," drawled Merlin sleepily, and tucked in.
"I'm genuinely afraid to check what time it is," Arthur sighed, stuffing his face with hot fatty meat.
Gwaine managed to call them a taxi, and together they dragged Merlin up the stairs.
"I'll put him to bed," Gwaine said. "Go sleep. I'll let myself out."
Arthur gave him a poorly timed friendly punch to the shoulder and staggered to his room.
The next day he felt awful yet strangely content. Mid-morning he took an extra coffee break and sent Merlin a text message:
"Sort of," came a reply half an hour later. Then, right after that, a picture message - a terrible, blurry shot of Merlin's puffy bleary-eyed face half-hidden by a coffee mug. Arthur stared at it for a good five minutes, grinning like an idiot, and set the picture as Merlin's caller ID.
He got home early again, because he was tired and wanted a quiet night in. Merlin cooked something with a lot of bacon, and let Arthur assume control of the TV remote. He'd finished and sent off the character designs for his comic book, and was tooling about with pastel chalks, creating bizarre, overlapping magical landscapes on paper.
"I want to write and draw my own story some day. I don't have much yet, just a vague idea. It's probably a children's book. It's about this boy," he pointed at a little bright-haired speck, lost among the menacing floral shapes in the rich green darkness. "Or maybe it's a girl, I'm not sure. They travel to this place, well, all I really know is it has these evil flowers. And it's mostly blue."
"I'll probably get fired," Arthur said abruptly. "Thought I should tell you. I have savings. Even if I don't find anything soon I'll be able to pay the rent for a year or two. Though we'd have to dial down on clubbing."
"We'll be fine," said Merlin serenely. "I should get my advance in a week. And they already said they'd consider me for another project."
He was curled up on the sofa, his chalks lined up on his stomach, his legs folded so he wouldn't take more than a half. His shoes were off, and his socked feet almost brushed against Arthur's thigh. Arthur stared at his long toes, imagining touching them, smiling inwardly at the silliness of the idea.
"So what happened?" Merlin asked. "With your job, I mean. You can tell me, I've been sacked so many times, I know there's no shame in it."
"Yes, Merlin, actually, there is, if you can't hold a job because you're a scatterbrained slacker," Arthur said. "But it's not about my performance. I work for my father. I was meant to take over as CEO when he's ready to retire. But I don't know if that's still on the cards. He... he doesn't approve of my choices."
"Being gay isn't..."
"Well, we know that, but good luck getting through to him. Anyway, there's more to it. I'm..."
Merlin was listening intently, open and accepting, and Arthur knew he should tell him. He should have told him from the start. He had to tell him before they became any closer, before the lie would grow huge and unforgivable.
And he couldn't. He had had enough courage to tell his father, even though it had meant risking everything he had: his family, his home, his future, forfeiting everything he'd been working and studying for. But he didn't have the guts to risk losing this warm spark in Merlin's eyes, this soft pull between them, the unspoken invitation in every glance Merlin gave him. Not yet.
"I'm dying for a cup of tea," he said and hit Merlin with a pillow. "Go make me one."
"You're so spoiled," laughed Merlin, digging his way from under art supplies. "Did you have servants growing up?"
"You know, Gwaine's dad is a Conservative MP," Merlin said. "When Gwaine came out, his family cut him off completely. And he's fine without them."
"He's a stripper."
"That's just a hobby. He's working for Burberry. If you get fired and my next book deal falls through, we can mooch off him!"
He pottered around in the kitchen, gathering biscuits on a tray, babbling something silly about sneaking into exclusive couture parties and living off canapés, when the door bell rang.
"Merlin, the door!" Arthur called.
"Well, get it!"
"It's obviously for you! It's probably more naked men or crazy women with scissors!"
Merlin ignored him, making a ridiculous tea-brewing stand. Arthur thought not to move, but then dragged himself up and pressed the intercom.
"Who is it?" he asked, determined to instil proper protocol.
"Freya," said a female voice. "Is Merlin home?"
Arthur buzzed her in and unlocked the door to the flat. If Merlin didn't want to see her, this would be a lesson against using Arthur as his personal porter.
Freya ran up the stairs, and pushed past him into the flat. She was pale and scrawny, and she'd been crying.
"What's wrong?" Arthur asked, shaken by the pure misery on her face. "Can I help? Did someone hurt you?"
"No, I'm fine, it's just," she drew a breath, struggling to compose herself. "It's just one of those days. Merlin?"
Merlin rushed over as soon as he heard her voice, and grabbed her in a tight hug. She sagged against his shoulder, loosening up in obvious relief.
"Sorry I didn't call," she muttered, burying her face in his hair. "I was afraid you wouldn't be home."
"If I wasn't in, you'd call my mobile, right?" he asked. "You'd do that, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," she laughed, hoarse from tears. "Yes, I'd do that. I promised I would."
"Good. I just made a cup of tea, literally just now. It's like I knew you were coming over."
He sat her down on the couch and fit a steaming mug between her hands, painted by the cold in blotches of red and blue.
"Hovis," he said, waving a biscuit at her. "Your favourite. I'll let you butter them, even though it's a sacrilege."
She stared down at her tea, stony-faced, faraway, as if whatever had her on the verge of tears a moment ago now demanded all her attention and she had none left to spare for them.
"We have real butter," said Arthur. "I'll go get it. Merlin, come help me."
He waited in the kitchen till Merlin joined him, looking ragged and dark-eyed with worry.
"Shouldn't we do something?" Arthur hissed.
"Like what?" whispered Merlin angrily. "I'd love to know what to do right now, yes! If I could just magically make it better..."
"I mean, if someone hurt her, we need to..."
"No. All that happened a long time ago. Now's just... a bad day."
"Oh," Arthur said and carefully peeked into the front room. Freya kept looking down into her tea, still as a statue on a gravestone, a little skinny angel with tangled hair. Fat tears were freely rolling down her face, dripping down into her lap, and she didn't seem to notice.
"Oh god," whispered Arthur. "This is a suicide watch, isn't it."
"Don't say that. I'm just here for my friend whenever she's scared of herself. That's all. Emotional support. We're going to stay up late, I think. Telly helps, so we'll be in the front room. It's not going to be pretty, so if you..."
Arthur looked down at Merlin's restless hands and shook his head.
"Please. You couldn't support a tray of biscuits right now. I'll hang out with you."
"Thanks," sighed Merlin gratefully. "It just kills me to see her like that. It'll be easier with you there."
They all squeezed into the couch, with Freya in the middle. Merlin snuggled up to her and started regaling them with tales of Gwaine's drunken misadventures in sleazy gay clubs. In the middle of a story involving a batch of mouldy weed and someone called Will she finally stirred a little, forcing a smile.
"I'm cold," she said in a tiny voice.
Merlin extracted the tea mug from her hands and started rubbing them. Arthur went to his room, got a blanket from his bed and spread it over all of them, and it was weirdly cosy, like some sort of childish game of building a house from pillows. When Merlin's voice went raspy, Arthur put TV back on, and unfortunately landed on a news report about disaster victims. He felt Freya tense up against his side, and began frantically flipping channels.
"Let's watch The Tick," said Merlin and dug out a DVD box. They sat through some exceedingly bizarre cartoon about a giant blue guy battling an evil moustache monster. There was also a fat neurotic sidekick character in white tights who shared a name with Arthur, but the cartoon seemed to cheer Freya up, so Arthur suffered that indignity in silence.
Freya smiled and laughed, and then laughed too much, till she started crying again, and then she leaned forward and vomited on their coffee table.
"Oh god, so sorry," she moaned, shivering.
"Don't worry," said Arthur and rubbed her skinny back as Merlin quickly cleaned up. "This table's seen worse. Just yesterday it had Gwaine's naked arse on it."
"On a towel, jeez," grumbled Merlin and made a fresh pot of tea.
Freya fell asleep first, slumped exhaustedly over Merlin's shoulder.
"You should go to bed, Arthur," Merlin whispered, softly stroking her hair. "You didn't get much sleep last night."
"Let's watch another one," Arthur said, reluctant to abandon him in case she woke up feeling worse. "I'm warming up to that fat Arthur guy."
"He can fly, you know," Merlin nodded seriously. "And he also used to work in finances, like you."
"What are you implying?" Arthur asked and threw an biscuit at him. "If anything, you'd be the sidekick."
Arthur woke up stiff and tired, but warm in a wonderfully pleasant way. He was tangled in their sweaty blanket haven, pressed flush against Merlin's chest. He stayed like that, not moving a muscle, inhaling the scent of Merlin's skin and listening to his even, deep breaths, till he remembered about Freya and carefully slithered off the couch.
He had to find her, before Merlin woke up and freaked out, and before it could be too late for her. He could go through Merlin's phone and make some calls...
Then he smelled fresh coffee from the kitchen and sat on the floor, gathering his breath in relief.
"Morning, Arthur, I was just about to wake you up," whispered Freya, entering the room with two steaming coffee mugs. She looked better; she'd showered and washed her hair, and she looked pretty and sweet, like a happy, healthy young woman. "The alarm in your room went off a few minutes ago. I'm sorry about yesterday. I feel so stupid right now."
"Don't," he said. "It's fine. You'll be there for Merlin if he needs you."
"He told me about you," she smiled. "It's so strange, you're exactly as he'd described."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"He was very generous in his description," she said demurely. "I've made breakfast, do you have time to eat?"
They had eggs on toast in the kitchen, Merlin still asleep on the sofa in his clothes. Arthur was getting shaky with lack of sleep, and he wanted nothing more than to call in sick and crawl back on the couch, into the warmth of Merlin's body. But that would just be weird.
"I feel quite protective about him," Freya said. "Well, it's a long story, but if he was straight, we'd probably end up married."
"If a guy likes cock, there's not much you can do about it," Arthur nodded, poking at his eggs.
"I think you'd be good for him."
He thought to protest and explain that it wasn't like that, but she must have seen him clinging to Merlin in his sleep.
"Gwaine thinks I'm boring," he said instead.
"No, I think you're like me," she said bluntly. "A bit broken, and not all the pieces fit. And you're afraid something might happen if you let go even a little. But that's the thing about Merlin. He can still see the real you, even like that. Even if you don't feel real and normal, he can teach you how to be. He did with me."
Arthur looked down at the table, almost feverish with fatigue, and felt like laughing, or crying, or throwing up.
"I'm not," he forced out. "This is just... terrible timing."
He was uncontrollably emotional all day, though the mood swings shouldn't even be happening anymore. In the afternoon he was struck by a terrifying thought and called Merlin.
"That woman," he said. "The one who was in my bedroom that first night. Is she all right?"
"In what way?" Merlin asked. "It's kind of up for debate in certain circles, but she's my friend, so..."
"In a way, have you spoken to her lately? I've just realised - she was cutting off her hair in the middle of the night, it's a worrying sign, isn't it? You should check up on her."
"Oh, no, Morgana's fine," laughed Merlin. "It was a surprise for her girlfriend."
"What kind of a shitty surprise is that?"
"You'll probably see soon. Hey, Arthur, I'm going out tonight."
"Finally some peace and quiet, I need to catch up on sleep," said Arthur, trying not to sound disappointed.
"If you get home by six we can have dinner together. I'm thinking mushroom risotto."
He was home at five to six. There was a body laid out listlessly on their couch. Thankfully, it was dressed.
"What's this?" he asked, not even surprised all that much. The man growled in his sleep and curled up tighter, blindly scratching at his face.
"That's Will," said Merlin from the kitchen. "He had a whitey, but it's all right, he'll sleep it off. Bad weed."
"Didn't you tell this story yesterday? Was it a prophetic story from the future?"
"Yes, it's one of those once and future stories, like Gwaine calling me at five in the morning because he doesn't know where he is and can't find his trousers. Or like a recurring story about Freya getting arrested for punching some guy."
"Yes, she does that. Come on, dinner's ready."
The risotto was a bit clumpy and wouldn't get high marks from a food critic, but Arthur loved it. It was generously infused with herbs, and had something uniquely comforting to the taste, like everything Merlin had cooked.
"I suppose I'll have to leave Will here with you," Merlin sighed. "I promised Morgana I'd show up tonight. He's going to wake up very grumpy in a couple of hours, but I've already popped out and got the Doritos, so you'll be fine. We can move him off the couch to my room, but he's pretty heavy, I'll need you to help me."
"Leave him," said Arthur generously. "I'll probably just go to bed."
"I don't really want to go," Merlin admitted, slyly glancing at him. "Besides, it's a hardcore gig. Last time we went I ended up with a split lip, and I'd rather not tonight. I have a gallery opening on Monday."
Arthur looked in disbelief at the fine, fair skin of Merlin's face, the delicate lines of his lips and cheekbones, and couldn't imagine anyone having the heart to hit him. But if that was a possibility, he wasn't taking the risk.
"I'll come with you," Arthur said.
"Really?" Merlin asked, lighting up like a Christmas tree. "I thought you were tired."
"I can't possibly miss out on a hardcore gig. I'm so into that thing," Arthur said, not really trying to feign excitement. "Besides, if we're trying to avoid your face being rearranged, then safety in numbers."
"You... want to protect me," said Merlin, grinning broadly.
"What if I do?" Arthur asked gruffly. "We're flat mates. We're a team."
"And you're very burly," Merlin nodded. "Yeah, sure, that's... That's great. Thanks."
Arthur flexed his hard-earned biceps, glowing at the compliment, and kept giddily thinking about it all the way to the club. Merlin was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with long limbs and big hands, but Arthur wasn't that much shorter, and he made Merlin look slight and skinny. Walking shoulder to shoulder to him, Arthur really felt burly, solid and heavy, well-built. A man to be reckoned with.
The club was a little darker than the ones Arthur had been to, and the music was different, though he couldn't tell exactly in what way. People were dressed with deliberate disregard for common sense and good taste, and most had really hideous hair. None of them looked like troublemakers.
"How did you end up punched in the face here, exactly?" Arthur yelled into his ear over the music. "Is there a fight club in the basement?"
"Will makes me mosh," Merlin yelled back mysteriously.
Merlin nodded to a group of people who all seemed to be wearing checkered Keds in different shades of pink and lime green, and made them scoot on the couch, freeing some space for Arthur to sit. Merlin curled up on the carpeted floor and rested his head on the edge of the seat.
"I pretty much grew up in here," he said. The music was turned down now, and there was an odd, tense sort of lull. "You know what my favourite thing is about the scene? That you don't need to worry about fitting in, whoever you are. Everybody's a bit freaky here."
"Don't you think it's just a different kind of a pose?" asked Arthur, eyeing a guy in sports blazer and black leggings printed all over in huge pink roses. One flower was stretched over the guy's package and looked rather distressed.
"Of course. But still, it's a kinder sort of world."
The canned music stopped, and the crowd stirred, pulling toward the scene. The band took their places, and a gorgeous blonde woman stepped up to the mike.
The music was strange, not the kind to dance to, not the kind to sing along, even though most of the audience did, and they knew all the lyrics. The woman's voice filled up the place, rising above the thrum of the bass and the wailing of the guitar. The sound was haunting, and it made Arthur shiver even though he could barely discern the words.
"My girl," said someone next to them.
It was his night visitor, Morgana. She was bald now, and her immaculately shaved head glistened in the stage lights. She was looking at the singer adoringly, absently petting Merlin's hair.
"Let's see, then," Merlin said, scrambling to his feet.
There was a fresh tattoo on the back of Morgana's head, twisting down to the nape of her neck. It was a complicated ornament of Celtic knots, and it was still reddened and covered in scabs, here and there, the worst of it clinging to spots of brighter colour.
"Beautiful," Merlin cooed, tracing the lines with his fingertips. "Love the design. Yours?"
"Morgana's a tattoo artist," Merlin told Arthur. "One of the best."
"All Merlin's ink was done by these hands," said Morgana, brandishing her hands adorned with heavy rings. "You may thank me now."
Arthur stared at the coils of tattoos around her wrists, and processed the information.
"You have tattoos?" he elbowed Merlin. "Plural?"
Merlin giggled shyly.
"Have you not seen them yet?" Morgana asked with a lewd grin. "Merlin, are you playing hard to get now? After all you've told me, this isn't what I'd expected."
"I'll kill you, I swear," Merlin muttered. "I'll tell Morgause about that thing."
"You wouldn't dare," she said coolly and moved closer to the stage, frantically waving at the singer.
"Is she, like, a groupie?" Arthur asked.
"They live together. Three years soon."
"What's that thing? Come on, if you have dirt on that scary woman, you must share."
"We kind of made out once," Merlin said, unable to contain a smug smile. "Or twice. She doesn't want Morgause to know, because Morgana loooves to judge bisexual people. Well, okay, it's kind of understandable, after Gwen left her for Lance. And Morgause had a fling with Cenred, but that was before her and Morgana even hooked up..."
"Are all of your friends totally weird?" Arthur asked, even though it was a but redundant at this juncture.
"No, just Cenred. And he's not really my friend," Merlin answered, not missing a beat.
The set ended, and the band got off the stage and effortlessly mixed with the crowd. The crowd was changing; brightly dressed people were leaving in droves. The ones that arrived to take their places mostly wore black and seemed to emphasise self-expression via facial piercings.
Merlin seized the moment in the commotion and hogged three huge armchairs in an alcove on the balcony. Morgana and Morgause joined them and took one of the chairs, comfortably wrapped around each other. Morgause's fingers were tracing the lines of Morgana's head tattoo, gently, soothing the healing scabs.
"So that's Arthur, then," Morgause said.
"That's me," Arthur agreed, wondering if Merlin held a conference call with everyone he'd ever met to announce the arrival of the new flat mate. Everybody already knew his name.
"Where's Will?" she asked. "It's not like him to miss his Friday mosh."
"He had a whitey," said Arthur, feeling cool and street-savvy.
"Again? Merlin, where does he buy that stuff?"
"I don't know! I think maybe he just sweeps it up from the floor somewhere. Remember that time when he was a freegan?"
"Oh yes, that was gross," said Morgana, pulling a face.
"Morgana, I wanted to ask," Arthur said. "Why did you have to cut your hair in my bathroom? I know, surprise, but you obviously didn't do the tattoo yourself. Couldn't you have it all done at the salon?"
"I could, but I had long hair since I was three. It was a transition. A certain mindset was necessary," she said. "I'm sure you understand."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, his throat suddenly dry. She gave him a wicked smile and leaned over to kiss Morgause.
A different band took the stage. The singer was male, leather-clad, with long messy hair. He had a short argument with the stage hand, kicking at the wires that weren't properly taped to the floor.
"I think we're getting back together," said Morgause, staring at him.
"What, like..." asked Merlin with a confused glance at Morgana.
"No, as a band. Obviously not like that. He's a cock."
"Stop saying 'cock' every time you see him," said Morgana. "Really, please do."
"But he's a cock. That's what he is. A cock."
"Stop saying 'cock' like it's a bad thing," said Merlin. "The cock-loving part of the group is mildly offended."
"I'm not even sure she means it as a bad thing," said Morgana sourly. "Even though Cenred truly is a cock, I have to concur."
The man leapt at the mike and let out a long furious growl. The crowd yelled in delight, and the music started, loud, fast, almost tuneless, the guitars screeching and groaning with the same abandon as the singer.
It wasn't anything new; Arthur heard that sort of thing many times, mostly when he'd switched to a wrong radio station by mistake. But now, being forced to sit and listen, he discovered some perverse beauty in the tortured cacophony of sounds. It was silly and unrestrained and full of life, and it was shameless, mindless, juvenile kind of fun.
Merlin was getting twitchy in his seat, tapping his feet to the ragged roll of the drum.
"Go, you want to," said Morgause.
"Oh, just for a bit," he said. "Come on, Arthur, you'll like it."
They dived into the very thick of the crowd underneath the stage, where the people weren't so much dancing as having deliberate seizures, throwing themselves upwards and at each other. They were pushed and jostled and shoved, pulled this and that way by the thick press of sweating, jumping bodies. Arthur tried to fight the movements of the crowd, to stand his ground and keep his balance and shield Merlin from the recklessly flying fists and elbows. Merlin grabbed him by the shoulders and jumped with the rest of them, tugging Arthur along into this senseless, crazy dance.
"Just! Go! With! It!" he yelled into Arthur's ear, barely audible over Cenred's throaty roars.
Arthur tried, at first matching Merlin's erratic movements, and then the madness of the crowd rolled over him like a wave, and he was jumping and yelling and shoving whatever was nearby, not caring at all what he looked like. Nobody was watching him, nobody could even see him in this pit of bodies. All he could to do was feel the wild pulse of music and the crowd, and go with it. All that mattered was how he felt.
His body came alive almost against his will, restless and wanting to move, and he let it do whatever it wanted. Merlin was right next to him, and they kept bodily bumping into each other, sometimes grabbing onto one another to stay upright. It was like being in a fight, but without anger or fear, or like playing football without having to think about rules and strategies. It was mad, physical, inexplicable freedom.
Someone fell down a few yards from them, and Arthur's stomach dropped. There were too many people here, and there were all wild with the music. The poor sod would get trampled, and this wonderful, stupid fun was going to turn into a tragedy. He rushed over to try to protect the fallen one, but the man was already surrounded in a pocket of relative calm, with many arms pulling him up and steadying him.
It wasn't as crazy as he'd thought at first, he realised then. The crowd wasn't just scary men with pounds of metal in their faces. There were plenty of women, jumping right along with them, similarly pierced and tattooed; there were tiny teenage girls and lanky boys in their first growth spurt, and everyone seemed to feel safe, elated and happy.
They danced till the set was over, and then staggered out of the club to gulp in some sweet, cold air.
"That was incredible," Arthur said. He was drenched with sweat, and it was all turning icy on his clammy skin, and even that felt great.
"You really are into this thing," Merlin laughed. "Shall we go home?"
"Shouldn't we see the girls home safe?"
"Oh, they're safe. They're staying for the afterparty, and we need to check up on Will."
Will was fine, if a little red-eyed. He was lolling about on their couch, working his way through the Doritos.
"Hi, Arthur," he said. "So how was the gig, Merlin, was it awesome? Did you represent? I'm never smoking again before gigs, I tell you."
"It was so fucking awesome," Arthur said. After all the yelling he'd done tonight his voice came out in a low growl, almost like Cenred's stage vocals.
"Oh, fuck me, I do believe Arthur the accountant has moshed," said Will. "Merlin, my man, you truly are a magician. Give it."
Merlin smiled proudly, and they performed a fist bump.
"I'm off to shower, I reek," said Merlin and left them alone. Will eyed Arthur thoughtfully, loudly munching on his crisps.
"Enjoyed that, did you?" he asked. "You look like you just had your cherry popped."
"It's all been an experience," said Arthur, feeling wonderfully mellow and in love with the whole universe. "I never thought this would turn out like this - I've just discovered Merlin has tattoos. Who'd have thought."
"Dude," said Will reproachfully. "Did you fuck him for the first time in the club's toilet? That's fucking skanky, have some style, man! You're so middle-class, I expected you to wine him and dine him!"
"No! Morgana told me - why does everyone assume we're fucking?" asked Arthur helplessly.
"There are subtle clues," Will said sagely. "Like the fact that you look at him like you want to swallow him whole. Or that he wouldn't shut up about you, Arthur this, Arthur that. Man, put out already, safe us all from this sickly sweet crushing stage."
"It's not - it's complicated. We're flat mates, for one."
"So what? If it doesn't work out, no big deal. He's friends with all his exes. You both need to get laid."
"He has Gwaine."
"Half the city has Gwaine," Will huffed. "Oh well, maybe it's for the best. I don't really want my boy to take up with some stuck up posh wanker. I'll be off, then. Hey, spot us a fiver for the cab."
"When you say spot, does it mean lend?" Arthur asked, handing him the bill.
"Oh come on, it's just a fiver, don't be a bitch," said Will and pocketed the money. Then he stepped closer to Arthur and peered into his face.
"There's something really weird about you," he said.
"Yeah, there is," Arthur agreed. "Maybe that's why I'm not rushing into things."
"Oh, big whoop, we're all bloody weird," shrugged Will and walked out.
Arthur slept through most of the Saturday. Merlin left for the day to visit his mother, and Arthur drifted around the flat alone, aimless and slightly at a loss. He read Merlin's comic books, slowly getting into the rhythm of the frames and the overwrought style of the writing, enjoying the bright, honest colours Merlin had blended into the story. In the afternoon he went out and bought a football kit, and then he called Gwen.
"I want to thank you," he said. "It worked out great."
"I knew it would," she said. "We should have dinner together, the four of us, like a double-date. There is a great place I know, it's Mexican-Latvian fusion cuisine."
"Of course it is," he said. "I expected no less. Listen, Merlin mentioned something about a football practice I might join."
"Oh, yes, Lance would love to! But I have to warn you, it's a bit - he coaches at-risk youths. They're lovely kids, though, once you get to know them."
The lovely kids were a beefy bunch of chavs who'd make a convincing line-up of suspects on a crime show. Arthur very nearly baulked, but Merlin was there, sat next to Gwen at the side of the pitch. They were surrounded by the girlfriends of the players, all of them bleached blondes who looked like they'd just collectively robbed an Argos, and talked to them, somehow finding something in common with that lot. Arthur squared his shoulders and joined the game.
The pitch was cleared of the snow, and though it sucked to get tackled on the frozen ground, he quickly got into it. At-risk youths played rough, but he enjoyed that all the more, and gave as good as he got. It felt great, like playing football did when he was eight or nine, when he'd been still perfectly at ease in his own skin and had had no idea that anything was wrong with him.
A tackle went wrong, and there was a pile-up of knocked over players. As they were all getting up, rubbing at the bruises, one of them soundly slapped Arthur's behind and said:
"Mate, fuck, you have arse like Beyonce."
Arthur bared his teeth and lunged at him, but Lance quickly caught him in a body hold, his grip careful but firm, practised on dozens of young offenders.
"Easy, easy," he whispered in Arthur's ear. "Stu, what would you do that for? How'd you feel if he did that to you?"
"I was doing him a compliment!" Stu roared, indignant. "I thought he was gay! Isn't that his thingie?"
He pointed at Merlin, who was watching the altercation from his spot, tense and confused, his cute beanie hat pulled low over his eyes.
"That's my friend Merlin, you know him," Lance said.
"Yeah, and he's gay! I thought that's how we know this one!"
"They're flat mates," said Lance a little uncertainly. "In a flat share."
"Oh," said Stu and extended a hand toward Arthur. "Sorry, mate. I thought you was gay."
"I am," said Arthur. Lance released him, and he accepted the handshake. "But why Beyonce, come on. If you had to talk about my arse, why not say it's like, I don't know, Tom Hardy's?"
"Like I'd know what some bloke's arse looks like," shrugged Stu, and then the ball was back in play, and they were running.
On Monday, as Arthur had remembered, Merlin had a gallery opening to go to. He left work an hour early and asked Merlin what was he supposed to wear.
"You're coming?" Merlin said, surprised. He was already slightly dressed up, in clothes that more or less fit and didn't have visible holes or paint stains.
"Am I not?" Arthur asked. "I kind of assumed I had no choice, based on the events so far."
"No, that's great, I'd really appreciate if you were there," muttered Merlin and awkwardly moved in for a hug. There was a commotion of limbs and badly times movements, and Arthur nearly aborted that ill-conceived idea, but they managed to put their arms around each other. Arthur patted Merlin's back, keeping some distance between their chests, and went to his room to pick an outfit.
"So is it a shmoozing affair, or do you actually have your works displayed in this gallery?" he asked when they walked through the snow-covered streets, their elbows brushing as they stuffed their cold hands in their pockets.
"It's not really a gallery, to be honest, just a pub putting up an exhibition. Maybe we'll sell something! I have three pieces up, and Freya, and Morgana, and my friend Gilli, you've not met him yet. We've invited some critics, we'll see who shows up. Will is doing a poetry reading."
"A poetry reading?"
"Yes, he's a poet, that's what he does."
"A professional published poet?"
"No, he doesn't do that, he thinks publishing industry is of the devil and it will consume my soul. He's mostly on the dole, though he writes lyrics for Cenred. They totally hate each other, but they think it's more punk rock that way. It'll be hilarious when Cenred gets signed up with a label and has to pay Will royalties."
The walls of the pub were covered in paintings, and people moved between them, nursing their pints with a sophisticated air, as if they were sipping champagne. Freya's pieces were half-surreal desolated landscapes, in gentle watercolour, but still somehow menacing, disturbing. Morgana's contributions were bold abstracts in primal colours, and Gilli, a quiet, awkward-looking young man, had done etchings of strange chimeric animals with long teeth and soft eyes.
And then there were Merlin's works, and Arthur didn't have to look at the labels to pick them out. The colours sang, drawing him in; he had no idea what the shapes were, and it was more powerful this way; it somehow meant more.
"I want to buy this one," he pointed at the piece in glorious, joyful shades of red. "To whom would I speak about that?"
"Don't be ridiculous, I'll paint one for you later," said Merlin and ran off to chat to some independent art blogger.
Then there was the poetry reading. Will raged on the small stage, gesturing furiously, spewing angry verses that seemed to stand against everything in the world simultaneously.
"I can't figure out if he's awful or too brilliant for me to understand," Arthur admitted quietly.
"That's his thing, exactly what he's going for," Morgana nodded.
"Shhh, I like it," Merlin hissed.
"I keep waiting for him to say 'cryptofashistic'," whispered Gwaine, and the whole gang broke into strangled giggles. Freya made an odd "ommm" sound and they all laughed harder.
"I don't get it," Arthur told Merlin.
"I'll explain later, I'll show you the episode," Merlin muttered. "Now hush, be supportive."
They applauded, and so did most of the audience. Will took a bow and joined them at the table.
"So Arthur, you're a part of the group now," said Gwen. "I think you're fitting right in."
"It's been interesting," he said. "Exploring the underbelly and all that."
"It's not underbelly, Arthur," Will told him. "Lance can show you the underbelly, the place under the cracks. The pink elephant cemetery, where dreams come to die. Oh hey, who's got a pen, I'm writing that down."
"Lance doesn't take tourists," Lance said. "It's not a fun matter, Will, people need our help."
"Arthur will volunteer," said Will. "He needs to assuage his middle class guilt."
Cenred leaned toward Arthur. His leather trousers creaked.
"If you want to really explore the underbelly, the dark and the wild," he said, leering at Arthur through his hair. "Just ask, and I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. I can teach you things about yourself you've never..."
"Oh, stop that, Cenred," Morgana said. "Has your new slave dumped you already?"
"None of your business, child."
"You're a bad dom, Cenred," said Morgause. "You know that. You're a bad, bad dom. You're an embarrassment to the scene. You should find a nice mistress and learn to submit, you'd be so much happier."
"You had your chance, baby," he sneered. "You had it and you let it go."
"You're such a cock," she sighed, staring at his leather-clad groin. "Such a cock."
"Fine, so, not underbelly," said Arthur to change the topic, because Morgana looked very unhappy. "What do you call it then, alternative culture?"
"It's the only culture," Will said. "By the time anything bubbles up to the top it's already completely irrelevant. It's out of date, dead, mutilated by the industry, it's an empty echo of the real, screaming, bleeding thing. The only art is made by the hungry children and the lost souls, in this fantasy sugar bubble of an ephemeral commune, and everything else feeds on it and spits out mirror shards of what could be if we didn't bleed out so fast, if we could ever finish the sentence."
"Shut up. You're making us sound like total smeg-heads," Morgana said.
"Because we are. And we know it and can't grow out of it, because this place where we do things for love and fuck all else, this is still the middle of all things."
"It's not underbelly," said Gilli from his perch on the windowsill. "It's the belly. It's what the city is, its real voice. It's what it eats."
"It's the belly of love," said Gwaine profoundly. He was sprawled across Freya's lap, and she was playing with his hair.
"The belly of love," Will grinned. "Yeah. High-five, my man."
"Wankers," Morgana sighed as they loudly slapped their hands. "God, you're so embarrassing. Arthur, would you like me to read your palm?"
"I don't believe in that stuff," he started, and Merlin nudged him with a knee.
"Give it a go," he said. "She has a gift, you'll be amazed."
Morgana pulled Arthur away from them, to a small empty table, and took his hand.
"So how does this work?" he asked. "Are you going to tell my past, present and future?"
"Yes," she said, studying the lines of his palm. "Well, kind of. Your past doesn't really matter to you, does it? You came here to start over."
"You can say that about almost everyone new to the city," he said. "No very impressive, as cold readings go. What about my present, then?"
"Not much. I could see more if you tried living in it. If you keep putting things off and waiting for the future, it will never come."
"Such a cop-out," he said, disappointed. "Where did you learn to do that, from fortune cookies? Even I could do a better palm-reading than that."
"You know, I'm still the same person without my hair," she said. "Do you really think it will work out differently for you?"
He flinched and pulled his hand from her hold.
"You saw something in my bathroom, didn't you?" he asked.
"I see a lot of things others don't," she said. "Do you want to hear about your future?"
"If it's going to be another vague piece of bullshit..."
"Okay, I can be more specific, if you prefer that. Tonight, between quarter and half past two, Merlin will kiss you. He'll look like a kicked puppy when you turn him down. You'll feel guilty, and that'll make you angry. You'll be cruel to him, and you'll feel awful about it afterwards, and you'll want to move out. Don't. Your friendship will survive that."
Arthur's hand felt cold where she'd touched it. Behind her the whole gang was involved in a slow-motion John Woo style gunfight with imaginary weapons. Will was miming hefting a bazooka; Merlin was on the floor, pretending to die in agony, laughing his head off.
"Who says I'll turn him down?" Arthur asked. His lips were numb, tingling.
"I'm rarely wrong," she said. "But I'd like to be in this case. You'd be good for each other."
After the pub had closed Arthur and Merlin walked home together. The snow started falling again, just a weak white drizzle; Merlin, tipsy and happy, tried catching flakes on his tongue. He'd sold a painting, not the one Arthur still wanted for himself, and so did Freya, and they all had a good night. Even Cenred stopped being creepy once he'd drank enough. Arthur held the memory of everyone's smiling faces close, and thought of becoming friends with them, of the future years of blundering through their strange lives together, shared birthdays and Christmases, Gwen and Lance's wedding.
He felt a touch of Merlin's cold hand, and Merlin's long fingers slipped between his. Arthur faltered for a moment and closed his hand around Merlin's, and they walked through the night like that, falling into step, watching their shadows cross on the snow.
"What time is it?" Arthur asked. Merlin pulled out his phone.
"Twenty past two," he said. "Knackered?"
They were almost at their house.
"Not really," Arthur said hoarsely.
They went up the stairs and into their dark flat. Arthur reached for the light switch, and Merlin caught his hand.
"Wait," he said.
They stood there in the pitch darkness, close to each other, breathing shallowly. Arthur's hand was sweating in Merlin's grip; they were both shivering, but it had been cold outside.
Merlin tentatively reached out a hand, tracing the lines of Arthur's face with light fingertips. He shifted closer, carefully shuffling his feet across their door mat, leaned in, guided by the touch, and kissed Arthur.
His lips landed at the corner of Arthur's mouth, and Arthur turned his head to catch them. Merlin's mouth was soft, cool at first, but then he opened up and their lips locked in a slick rush of heat.
"Oh God," Arthur mumbled around Merlin's tongue, kissing back, rusty and clumsy with desperation. Merlin's fingers were in his hair, stroking, cupping his head to pull him closer.
Arthur pawed at Merlin, everywhere, re-learning his body by touch, the sharp angles of his shoulder, the long expanse of his back, the soft skin at his throat. Merlin's mouth slid over his face, licking a line across his cheek, nipping at his jaw, and then they were kissing again, deeply, sweetly, and Arthur felt very sober, giddy and sure of himself, safe and home.
Then Merlin's hand slid down his front, and everything shifted, and Arthur was frozen in a sudden whirl of panic. He pushed at Merlin's chest and stepped back, crashing into the coat hanger.
"No," he said in a voice that didn't sound anything like his.
"Okay," said Merlin quickly. "Okay, sure, okay."
Arthur couldn't see his face, just a faint outline of him, curves of his ear sticking out of his hair. He couldn't tell if Merlin looked like a kicked puppy, but the thought was making him sick with guilt just the same.
"I'll just go to bed," said Merlin. "Night."
He quickly walked off through the dark flat; he crashed into the coffee table in the front room and hissed a curse, and then his bedroom door shut, and Arthur was alone.
He leaned against the coat hanger, weak and ashamed and still maddeningly horny. He stayed there till he got a hold of himself, and then went into his room.
He stripped down to nothing, taking off all his clothes, then his binder, feeling light-headed without its pressure against his chest. He took off his boxers and detached the prosthetic, and dropped it on the bed. Then he put on his bath robe and walked over to Merlin's room, and barged in without knocking.
Merlin was curled up on top of the bed cover, still dressed, staring into the wall with his jaws clenched tight. He blinked up at Arthur, uncoiling a little.
"Wow, your bedroom really is tiny," Arthur said. The bed was taking up most of it, boxes of art supplies crammed into every inch of empty space.
"It's fine, Arthur, I mean it," Merlin said. "I just - I don't know. There were all such jerks from the start, and I guess I believed them and saw something that wasn't there. It's okay."
"I owe you an explanation," Arthur said firmly. "And an apology."
"You really don't."
"I do," Arthur said and plucked at his belt with stiff fingers. It took him forever to loosen the knot; Merlin waited, wide-eyed, very quiet.
Arthur untied the robe and let it fall on the floor, and let Merlin see.
He'd never looked right, not in to himself, anyway. Now, after a few months on the hormones, he knew that he looked downright weird, like one of Gilli's drawings, something twisted and chimeric, stuck in between.
Merlin's eyes widened more for just a moment, and then he simply looked, not saying anything.
"I'm a man," Arthur said. "I didn't lie about that. It's just my body - but I'm working on that. I'm on hormones, and I'm going for the surgery, I'm having everything done, all of it. I'm getting all the new papers, birth certificate, uni diploma, everything. I'll be who I'm supposed to be. I'm just not yet."
"Okay," said Merlin softly.
"I can't ask you to wait. I want to, but it's not fair on you. It will take a long time. I don't even know if you - I mean, why would you wait? You could be with someone who doesn't need major surgery to be normal."
"Arthur, that's stupid," Merlin said. "Did you really think I liked you because I thought you had a cock? Seriously, you thought that about me?"
"You like cock."
"I like you."
"I have boobs," said Arthur. He felt shaky and hysterical, like he was about to start giggling uncontrollably.
"Well, I knew that," Merlin grinned. "You always wore that really tight t-shirt under your shirt, but I've been staring at you enough, I could tell it wasn't all solid pectoral muscle. I don't know, I think moobs are cute."
"They aren't... It will be better," Arthur said, fighting with all he had to stand still and not cover himself, his breasts and the empty place at his groin, the shaved patch of pubes where he'd attached the prosthetic. "It's already better - I could never build enough muscle before, and now it's so easy, and I have chest hair, and, okay, there will be scars, but..."
"You're cold," Merlin said. "Get in bed."
He shifted and peeled back the blankets, and Arthur crawled under the covers, relieved, hiding.
"I would have told you," he said. "But I wanted to tell you after. When I was done and ready. I didn't want you to remember me like this. And I don't want you to see all that's going to happen. It's several operations, blood, bandages, stitches, recovery in between. I have to heal up before they can cut in again and finish. It's going to be gross."
"I'd have absolutely hated it if you went through all that alone and only told me afterwards," Merlin said, slithering under the blankets with him. "You're such a dickhead, Arthur, seriously. I thought we were friends, if nothing else. A team."
He put his arms around Arthur and tugged him into a cuddle.
"Just let me," he said when Arthur tensed up. "I don't want to wait. I'll be there for you through whatever you need to do, but none of it would really change anything for me. I know it will for you. But to me you'd still be the same old Arthur."
"My dad thinks I'm crazy," Arthur mumbled into Merlin's shoulder. "As in, clinically insane. He put me in the hospital when I was sixteen. The doctors told him it's a textbook GID, but he's... He's a powerful man. He could have kept me there till I cracked and agreed to be a girl. He was going to. I guess he just took pity on me in the end."
"You'll be fine," said Merlin, holding him tight.
"When I told him I was doing it, he said he wouldn't have me making a spectacle of myself at the home office, so he shipped me here. He's not even seen me since I've started on hormones. He probably still thinks I'd change my mind and go back, like it's a phase or something."
"Well. Here is a good place to do this," said Merlin. "Me and my friends, we fail at many things, but come as you are is sort of our motto. No weird thing too weird."
"The belly of love."
Merlin chuckled and kissed him.
"I want you," he whispered against Arthur's lips. "But I'll wait if you need me to."
They lay together quietly. Arthur thought that it was probably close to three in the morning, and he had work tomorrow, the business week had just started. But none of that even seemed real. Nothing seemed real, except for the warmth of Merlin's body, and the way their legs fitted together, and the soft rhythm of Merlin's breath.
"Okay, you've learned my secret," Arthur said. "Your turn. I want to see your tattoos."
"Oh, all right then," Merlin said, readily pulling off his clothes. "But don't expect some deep insight into my personality or anything. Morgana was pretty much using me and Gwen as sketch pads when she'd been training."
"Gwen has tattoos?"
"Yeah, loads. Her back is like a collage from the Book of Kells. But you should see what Morgana did for Morgause. That's stunning."
"You're stunning," Arthur said soppily, watching Merlin bare himself.
Merlin had a woven ornament covering most of his right forearm, intricately detailed, dotted in rune-like symbols. On his left shoulder there was a crouching animal, stylised to look like a medieval engraving: some sort of grinning reptile, a gargoyle or a dragon. A bird of prey was spreading its wings in triumph over Merlin's shoulder blade; under his collarbone there was a line of a floral design, green shoots and small red blooms that looked as if they were weaving in and out his skin, growing through him. A swirl of water was tattooed around his ankle, and at his hip there was a bright splash of twisting colours, a small universe, just like something from one of his paintings.
Arthur touched and kissed all the tattoos, imagining that he could taste the lines where ink changed colours. He dragged his mouth over the coarse hair on Merlin's chest and his belly, kissed the white skin on his inner thighs and rubbed his cheek against the smooth hardness of Merlin's long, lovely cock.
"Can I?" he asked.
"God, I so hope you do," Merlin muttered and guided his cock to Arthur's lips.
He shook and twisted under Arthur's touch, impatient, demanding. But Arthur pinned him to the bed and took his time, sucking him slowly, slowly, savouring him. He stuck his hand between his thighs and came like that, hard, moaning around Merlin's cock filling his mouth. Later, watching Merlin arch off the bed, glassy-eyed with pleasure, his stomach and chest streaked with come, Arthur touched himself again and came right away. It was like pressing a button now; the hormones kept him horny all the time, but also did something to his clit that made it so easy to get off.
He flipped Merlin over and humped against his arse, palmed and squeezed it, stroked into the cleft, over Merlin's hole, feeling it twitch appreciatively under his fingers.
"I really want to fuck you," he whispered, biting Merlin's ear.
"Oh, oh, yes," moaned Merlin enthusiastically. "I have a dildo - wanna go through Gwen's stuff and see if she has a harness there?"
"Please, I have a cock," Arthur said. "It's in my room. Don't move."
He run through the flat naked, and as he was grabbing his stuff he caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. He looked dishevelled, his mouth bruised, his eyes stupid with joy; it's wasn't really his face, not the image of it he had in his mind. He looked like a handsome stranger, a lot more like that man Merlin had been sketching when Arthur'd moved in.
When he'd returned, Merlin was stretched on the bed with his legs splayed wide, industriously fingering himself.
"Pick one," said Arthur, brandishing his two cocks.
"Holy crap, put that monster away! That one."
Arthur geared up and knelt between Merlin's thighs, and they kissed for a bit, with teeth and tongues, both getting rough with anticipation.
"I'll fuck you with the big one some day," he promised, fitting his blunt cockhead into the slick rim of Merlin's hole. "I'll finger you for ages, make you come on my fingers, get you all good and stretched for me, and then I'll put it in, and you'll just take it."
"F-fuck," stuttered Merlin, grabbing at his hair. "Oh, fuck, yes, in, now."
Arthur pushed in, slowly, watching Merlin's face twist in pleasure, imagining what he felt like inside, soft and warm, his body clenching greedily at Arthur's cock.
"That feels really good," Merlin gasped, rocking his hips back to get more.
"Yes, it's quality stuff," Arthur said and slid all the way home.
He fucked Merlin steadily and hard, pushing in deep. Merlin was wild on his cock, writhing and pulling him closer, thumping his heels on Arthur's back.
"I knew you'd be so good," he groaned. "I knew, oh, Arthur, oh."
Arthur stroked him till he came and then kept going, in smooth, slow thrusts.
"I can do this all night," he said, enjoying the tiny quivers that rocked through Merlin's body. "I never have to stop."
Merlin moaned, arching into it, and his spent cock twitched again, filling out quickly.
Arthur wrung another orgasm out of him, just a small spurt of come into his hand, and reluctantly pulled out. He pushes Merlin's legs open and kissed the swollen edge of his stretched hole, and watched it slowly close around his fingers.
"Oh, what have I done to you," he said smugly. Merlin laughed and pulled him into a cuddle.
"Spooooooon," he drawled, fitting his back to Arthur's chest.
"I understand that reference," said Arthur proudly. "All right, sleep now. I have to get up in like three hours."
"I feel an urge to update my Facebook status," Merlin confessed, nuzzling into the crease of Arthur's elbow.
"Jeez, sleep. We'll tell everyone tomorrow."
"All right," Merlin agreed. "Haaa, I have a boyfriend!"
"You do," Arthur said, hugging him tight. "We're not going anywhere tomorrow night, by the way. We'll just stay in, sleep and fuck. In fact, we're not going anywhere all week, and no visitors either. Unless Freya needs us. Gwaine can find his own trousers for a few days, and if Will buys more duff weed, maybe he'll learn."
"What about Friday mosh?"
"Well, obviously we're going to that. And Sunday football. And we need to arrange a dinner with Gwen and Lance. Apparently it's Mexican-Latvian fusion cuisine, what the fuck."
"I know that place. It's this couple, she's Mexican and he's Latvian and they're both chefs and they just cook what they know and sort of swap ingredients. You know, herring burritos, fajita blinis."
"Oh my god."
"It's really tasty."
Arthur kissed the swirls of ink on Merlin's skin, still high on joy and pleasure. But he was already worrying, thinking about the future - his father, his job, the surgeries, what would Merlin's mother think of him.
"I wish I could offer you more," he said.
"Sleep, you dolt," Merlin grumbled.
"I want to tell you we'll be fine. Even if my father doesn't come around. I'm smart and well educated and it's not middle ages, there are laws to protect me. I should be able to make enough money to support us and your art. But I don't know. I wish I could at least promise I'd always be good to you, but I can't even do that. It will be painful and scary, and I'll take my frustration out on you, and I can be awful, I know that. There is so much against us. It will be fucking difficult."
"Whatever," said Merlin sleepily, warm and wonderful against him. "I don't care."