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“What about Merlin?” Morgana asked, which was the question that ultimately ruined Arthur's life. 

“Merlin? Who's Merlin?” Arthur asked, injecting what he hoped was the right amount of impatience mixed with indifference. The truth was that he knew very well who Merlin was. Merlin was Morgana's odd friend from uni. He had become a social worker, and whenever he showed up at her parties he lectured Arthur about his privilege and the evils of the capitalist system and the ethics of greed that were destroying Britain, as though Arthur were solely responsible for the oppression of the masses. Everything he wore, ate and drank was ethically produced, fairly traded, organic and cruelty-free, and he was a better feminist than Morgana. He was completely ridiculous, really. 

He also had an extraordinarily pretty mouth, and Arthur now loudly expounded about tyrannical unions or the disaster that was the NHS or the rail system just so that Merlin would unleash some righteous anger on him and Arthur could watch his pouty lips curl in contempt.

  “You know perfectly well who Merlin is,” Morgana said. “You pick fights with him every time you see him.” 

“Oh, that Merlin,” Arthur said. He could practically hear Morgana roll her eyes on the other end of the phone. “Well, why should I want to take him? He's always prattling on about the revolution, for Christ's sake. He'd be more likely to try to lop off my head than go with me to Wales.” 

“Because he's your only option?” Morgana said sweetly. “Everyone else you asked said no, which is why you texted me in desperation this morning.” 

“That was not desperation,” Arthur sniffed. Arthur's dear friend Lancelot was marrying Arthur's ex-girlfriend Guinevere in some small village in western Wales at the weekend, and Arthur was going to be best man. His last relationship, with an extremely fit bloke named Percival, had ended a fortnight or so ago, and with it all hope of having an escort for the wedding. Normally, he wouldn't have cared about showing up alone, but since they'd ended things Gwen had always been concerned that he would end up lonely and unloved in his middle age in a flat with a dozen cats, and he didn't need her worry on his conscience when she should be seeing to her own happiness. Unfortunately, trying to find someone for a weekend in the hind tit of Wales on short notice had proven more difficult than Arthur had expected, and so he'd had to resort to his sister's tender mercies. “It was a simple inquiry.” 

“Wait, here it is,” Morgana said. “'Help me. Need date for Gwen and Lance's wedding. Require they be human and breathing. All else unimportant.'” 

“All right, so I'll admit it sounds a little desperate,” Arthur gritted. “Why would he want to go with me, anyway?” 

“His mum lives near to the village where they're having the wedding, and he says if you'll agree to take him there on Sunday for a visit, he'll come.” 

“Oh,” Arthur said, an odd feeling blooming in his chest at that. “Well, fine. As long as he understands I'm not asking him on a date.” 

“I think you rather are,” Morgana drawled. 

“All right, all right, I mean a real date,” Arthur growled. “Now are you going to give me his bloody number or what?”

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

When Arthur pulled up outside Merlin's flat to find him waiting at the kerb, he remembered one other important thing about the man: his wardrobe was a fucking disaster. He had on his usual uniform of faded jeans and dusty trainers: this time, they were topped by a bright green t-shirt that showed a fat, top-hatted cartoon capitalist taking great bites out of a globe. Doubtless he'd worn it just to piss Arthur off.

  “Oh god, please tell me you own a suit,” was the first thing Arthur said when he got out of the car. Merlin had only a shapeless duffel bag with him; if there was any type of formal wear in there, it was hopelessly creased. 

“There's actually a funny story about that,” Merlin began, which made Arthur groan inwardly. “I owned one up until last Thursday, but now I don't.” 

“And what happened last Thursday?” 

“One of my clients had a job interview, and I gave it to him.” 

“Gave. Not lent.” 

“Well, it was a perfectly decent suit, but it never really fit me, and – anyway. I don't wear suits all that often, and then you called and I thought I could find one down at this charity shop I go to in Covent Garden on our way to –” 

“Stop right there,” Arthur said, holding up a hand. “No date – I mean, nobody who is planning to be seen with me is going to do it whilst wearing a suit from a charity shop.” 

Merlin frowned and folded his arms. “I'm not going to spend a couple of hundred quid just so that we can maintain your class pretensions.” 

Arthur opened the boot of the Alfa and flung the duffel in. “The fact that you think a couple of hundred quid is sufficient to buy you a decent suit depresses me no end.” 

Merlin drew himself up. “Arthur –” 

“Don't worry about it, all right?” Arthur said. “I'll take care of this.” 

Merlin's jaw literally dropped. “You – what are you talking about?” 

Arthur shoved the boot closed, then walked round to the passenger side door and opened it. “Get in.” 

Merlin folded his arms. “You're a prat, you know that?” 

“I know. You've told me at least five hundred and sixty-two times before.” When Merlin continued to glare at him, Arthur sighed and said, “Look, this isn't – think of it as a thank you.” 

“A thank you? For what?” 

Arthur waved a hand. “For saving me from having my friends pester me all weekend. Believe me, that's worth a suit.” 

“What would they be pestering you about?” 

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, then realised he'd said too much already. “Nothing important. Look, can you – not fight me for a change? Just for –” he checked his watch “– the next fifty hours or so?” 

Merlin stared at him for a long moment, then finally relaxed his arms, letting them fall to his sides. “All right, fine,” he murmured, getting into the car. 

As Arthur shut the door, he realised this weekend was going to be the longest fifty hours of his life.

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

 

“Brian, I need a suit for a wedding, and I need to be out of here in an hour,” Arthur said to the manager of Gieves and Hawkes, a steely-eyed man in his fifties with a close-cropped beard.

“Of course, Mr. Pendragon,” Brian said smoothly, eying Arthur discreetly. “We have your measurements on hand, and I can see they have not changed since you last visited us.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “It's not for me, I'm afraid. It's for him.” He nodded at Merlin, who was standing just inside the door of the shop as though teams of needle-wielding ninja tailors might leap out at him at any minute. As Arthur watched, he poked disconsolately at the tie table, his eyes widening as his long fingers flipped over a price tag. 

“For – him?” Brian said, raising one eyebrow partway before he could remember himself. Expression turning bland again, he said, “Of course. I'll personally select a couple of options for the gentleman right away. Excuse me.” 

“Thank you,” Arthur said, just as Merlin came barrelling up to him. 

“Jesus Christ,” Merlin stage whispered as Brian headed off at a brisk pace, “the ties here are bloody seventy-five pounds!” 

Arthur snapped his fingers and headed back towards the table Merlin had just come from. “Oh, yes, you'll be needing one of those. Which one do you like? Suit's probably going to be a dark blue, so you're fairly safe with –” 

“Arthur, this is too much,” Merlin hissed. “There must be another place.” 

“This is my tailor, Merlin,” Arthur said patiently. “It's actually one of the more reasonable shops on Savile Row. And there's no other place where I can get you a suit off the rack and altered within the hour that won't make you look like a scarecrow.” 

“Oi, I am not a scarecrow,” Merlin said, bristling. 

“I didn't say you were a scarecrow; I said that the clothes you wear make you look like one.” 

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh, that's much better.” 

Arthur took a deep breath. Like it or not, he needed Merlin, and if he didn't want the man walking out the door in five seconds, he would had to fight his ingrained urge to say and do things that would make Merlin's nostrils flare. 

“I'm sorry,” Arthur heard himself murmur, and Merlin's head jerked up in surprise. “I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I wouldn't have asked you on this weekend if I'd thought you were –” he waved a hand as Merlin stared at him. “Erm. I mean, you're perfectly –” Oh, Christ. 

There was the sound of a throat being discreetly cleared, and both Arthur and Merlin turned to see Brian standing behind them with two dark blue suits and matching shirts that Arthur was sure would fit Merlin perfectly with only a couple of minor alterations. 

Arthur closed his eyes briefly, thanking whatever god was watching over him. If Brian hadn't arrived just then, Arthur probably would have begun waxing poetic about Merlin's mouth, and then he'd have to shoot himself and ruin Gwen's wedding. 

“Right,” Arthur said brightly, “why don't you go on and I'll find you a couple of ties?” 

Merlin watched him for another second or two, then turned to follow Brian. As Arthur returned his attention to the ties, he felt his stomach churn in a wholly unpleasant fashion. 

“Forty-nine and a half,” he muttered under his breath.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

  “I don't know about this, Arthur,” Merlin said from behind the curtain. 

Arthur passed a hand over his eyes. “Please don't make me come in there and get you.” 

“All right, all right,” Merlin sighed, sweeping back the curtain and stepping forward. 

Arthur lifted his head – which was starting to ache – and sucked in a breath. 

“What?” Merlin asked, concerned. “God, it's horrible, isn't it? Do I look odd?” 

“N – no,” Arthur croaked, hands gripping the arms of the leather chair. “You look – erm. Just fine.” 

What Merlin looked was completely fucking edible, but Arthur couldn't exactly say that out loud to Merlin, and certainly not in Gieves and Hawkes. The suit, as he'd guessed, fitted Merlin perfectly; only the trousers needed to be adjusted, and those could be taken in quickly enough. It certainly showed off Merlin's whipcord-lean body to full advantage, in a way that his usual outfits did not. Suddenly, Arthur wanted to drag Merlin through the shop until he had an entirely new wardrobe, but that would of course be impossible, and the result would probably be dangerous for Arthur's mental health. 

“Oh,” Merlin said simply, his expression a bit stunned. Turning, he studied himself in the full-length mirror. “Well, I suppose this is an improvement over my old suit.” 

“I suspected it might be,” Arthur drawled. “And the tie?” 

Merlin fingered the paisley bow tie that Arthur had picked out for him. “I like it. Thanks.” 

“Right, then, why don't you strip off and we'll be ready to go.” 

Merlin coughed and reddened, and Arthur realised too late how that had sounded. He could feel his own cheeks heat as he said, “I mean –” 

“No, it's fine, I –” Merlin jabbed a finger in the direction of the curtain. “I'm just going to go – erm, do that.” 

Arthur pushed himself to his feet as the curtain closed. “Hand out your trousers first. They need to work on them and I want to give them as much time as I can.” 

“Kind of you to think of the workers.” 

“Oh, shut up and get back into your revolutionary casual wear,” Arthur snarled. “Perhaps you can enlighten some proletarian seamstress about their plight with your t-shirt.” 

Merlin poked his head from behind the curtain, grinning. “No, that's all right. Wouldn't want you to lose your favourite bespoke tailor to a working class uprising.” 

“Very kind of you,” Arthur said, smirking. “Now hurry up.” 

Merlin stuck his tongue out at him, then disappeared behind the curtain again. 

“Forty-nine,” Arthur murmured, ignoring the warm feeling in his chest.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

After they left the shop, it was another hour before Merlin spoke to him again. Arthur concentrated on navigating their way through the traffic, but if he cared to admit it he felt a little stung. When they were finally driving along the M4 through the countryside on the outskirts of Reading, he heard himself blurting, “Well, are you going to give me the silent treatment all the way to Wales?”

“Hm?” Merlin asked, then shook himself as though emerging from a daydream. “Oh, I didn't want to talk to you while you were driving through London. The way we argue, I was afraid you'd get worked up and drive us into a Keep Left sign. Besides, I've been thinking.”

“About?” Arthur prompted, feeling oddly relieved.

  Merlin gave him a look out of the corner of his eye. “Not sure if I can tell you.” 

“Oh, for – never mind,” Arthur huffed. 

“Morgana says the bride's your old girlfriend,” Merlin blurted. 

“Yeees,” Arthur drawled, eyebrows rising. 

“And you're going to be best man.” 

“Please get on with it, Merlin,” Arthur sighed. “I beg you.” 

“Well, this isn't going to be – like Fatal Attraction, is it? You're not going there to break up the wedding or do something creepy involving boiled rabbits, right?” 

“Do I look the sort of person who would –” he glanced over at Merlin, who now had his own eyebrows raised “– oh, lovely, thanks a lot.” 

 
“Well, you've always been somewhat – combative,” Merlin said, clearly trying to be diplomatic now that he thought Arthur was a psychotic would-be killer. 

“Only with you, Merlin,” Arthur shot back in a low growl.  When the ensuing silence made him glance over, Merlin was staring at him, his cheeks pink again. 

Arthur cleared his throat. “Look, it's not anything like that. Lance – the groom – is my best mate from uni, and we all go back a long time. I broke up with Gwen ages ago, and we've always remained friends. When she and Lance got together, I was genuinely happy for them. They're well suited.” 

“Oh,” Merlin said, obviously surprised. “That's – erm. Nice of you.” 

“I'll have you know I am a very nice person,” Arthur said haughtily. Another glance at Merlin revealed his eyes dancing with mirth. “Shut up.” 

“I didn't say anything,” Merlin said. “That's what Morgana told me, and I'm starting to believe her.” 

Arthur's stomach tightened. “What did Morgana tell you about me?” 

“That you volunteered every Saturday to coach football with a youth at risk group.” 

Arthur's mouth opened and then snapped shut again without saying a word. He'd begun volunteering there after the party six months ago where Merlin had called him a selfish, self-involved prick. After he'd spent the rest of the weekend fuming about it, it had occurred to him that Merlin was perhaps not entirely wrong. It wasn't likely that Morgana had made the connection between the two events, but if she had, he prayed she hadn't told Merlin about it. “It's – erm – not that much,” he said finally. 

“It's more than I was expecting,” Merlin said, more softly than Arthur had ever heard from him. When he glanced over again, Merlin was smiling at him faintly, though his expression sobered a split-second after Arthur turned. “And so I decided to come with you.” 

Arthur drew himself up. “So what you're saying is that you had to be convinced I wasn't completely morally bankrupt before you'd agree to go on this trip.” 

“Essentially, yeah,” Merlin said pleasantly, poking him gently with an elbow. “Now I know there's a heart of gold beating underneath that prickish exterior.” 

Arthur ignored the warmth spreading from the spot on his arm where Merlin had just touched him. “I wouldn't go that far,” he murmured. 


“Well, anyway,” Merlin said, shifting in his seat, “it's good to know no bunnies will be harmed this weekend.” 

“Not by me,” Arthur said, though he kept an eye on the sides of the road for wildlife the rest of the drive.

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

Merlin stepped into the room and looked round. “Oh, this is lovely,” he breathed. 

“Not bad,” Arthur muttered; at least, he told himself, it was clean and a decent enough size, with a small couch and a desk with a flat screen television perched daintily upon it. The inn was actually the better of the two that New Quay had to offer; he'd have preferred to stay at one of the more upscale establishments in Aberaeron, but as one of the wedding party, the choice had been made for him. Damn, he'd forgotten to enquire at the desk if they had wireless internet service available. He supposed that was too much to hope for. 

“Not bad?” Merlin demanded. He gestured at the wide windows, which opened on a view of Cardigan Bay. “Look at that!” 

“Oh god, next you'll tell me you want to see the dolphins,” Arthur groaned.

Merlin spun to face the windows again. “That's right! It's been so long since I'd been to the coast I'd forgotten. I don't suppose we have time to go out on a boat.”

“I'm afraid not,” Arthur said, trying to infuse his tone with something like regret. “But I'm sure there's a shrine to Dylan Thomas nearby we can visit. Apparently he lived here for something on the order of five minutes, so of course they feel the need to celebrate that fact every year. Mind you, according to the local tourist literature I think Thomas has lived, at one time or another, in every small town in Wales. It's hardly much of a distinction.” 

“You're such an English cynic,” Merlin said, but his smile belied his words. “Well, I like it here, and that's that.” 

“Hmph,” Arthur said, making a show of stomping off to look at the bath. There was a shower big enough for two, he noted, trying hard not to visualise anything that two people could possibly do in there at one time, together, with soap and lots and lots of hot water running over every – 

“Arthur, can you come out here for a moment?” 

Arthur was only too glad to obey Merlin's request. “Right, what is it? Did you spot a whale or something?” 

But when he emerged, he saw Merlin turned away from the window, frowning at the bed. “There's only one – erm,” he said, waving his hand at the piece of furniture in question. 

“Yes, well,” Arthur said, straightening, “rest assured your virtue is safe. I only need you to pretend to be infatuated with me in front of other people.” 

“Right, I – sorry, what?” Merlin demanded, shaking his head. 

“All right, perhaps not infatuated; after all, I only broke up with Percy three weeks ago. Mildly besotted, then? Slightly arse over teakettle?” 

“Arthur...” Merlin began, shifting uneasily on the balls of his feet as though he might bolt out the door and try sprinting back to London. 

Arthur sighed. “Dear lord, did Morgana not mention this bit?” 

“No, and neither did you,” Merlin said, crossing his arms. 

“Right,” Arthur said, clearing his throat. “Look, it's not that big a deal. Gwen is – how can I put this kindly? – a mother hen. I'd planned to bring this fellow I was dating to the wedding, but we broke up a few weeks ago –” 

“Oh, Arthur, I'm sorry,” Merlin said. 

Arthur blinked. “Erm. Thanks, but it wasn't that – anyway. I thought I'd go stag, but Gwen started going on to me last week about how she was worried I'd never find 'The One', as though such a concept actually exists, and I realised I'd never hear the end of it if I came alone.” 

Merlin frowned. “You don't believe there's someone out there for you?” 

Arthur stared at him. “That's what you took away from that whole bit?” 

Merlin waved a hand. “Yes, right, you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend, fine, I can do that. But Arthur, not to believe in love –” 

“Oh my god,” Arthur groaned, burying his head in his hands, “you and Gwen will get along like a house afire.”

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

Of course, Gwen and Merlin became fast friends within thirty seconds of meeting one another, and spent an inordinate amount of time laughing and darting glances at Arthur. Arthur hoped the two actions weren't connected, but they probably were. At any rate, it was good to see Merlin finally enjoying himself on this trip, even though Arthur himself had had nothing to do with it.

  Lance clapped a hand on Arthur's back as he returned to the table, and plunked another bitter in front of him. “I like Merlin,” he said. 

“You like everyone,” Arthur muttered, falling on the new pint like a man dying of thirst.

“And don't get me wrong, I liked Percival, only – well, we all knew you weren't dating him for the size of his intellect.”

“That's harsh,” Arthur said. “But true.”

“My point is that he wasn’t someone you were going to spend the rest of your life with,” Lance said, more gently. “Someone like Merlin – well, I know you've only been seeing one another a short time, but I think this is something that could last.”

  “Not all of us are the hearts and flowers type, Lance,” Arthur murmured. “I’m glad that you and Gwen have found one another, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs – or wants – the fairy tale romance.” 

“I’m not talking about fairy tale romances,” Lance said. “I’m talking about having one person there for you at the end of the day who understands who you are.” 

Arthur could only grunt in response to that. After two and a half pints, he felt it was for the best. 

Lance nudged him gently with an elbow. “You may not think it, Arthur, but you deserve to be happy.” 

Arthur scowled at his beer. “Let’s focus on your happiness, shall we, and not worry about mine for a change? That’s the theme of the weekend, I believe.” 

“Okay,” Lance said softly. There was nothing in his tone to indicate he was hurt or offended, but Arthur still felt like shit. 

Arthur sighed. “Listen, Lance, I –” 

“Oh my god, Arthur!” Gwen exclaimed, sliding into the seat on his other side. “Merlin is lovely! Where did you find him?” 

“He’s a friend of Morgana’s,” Arthur replied, trying to resist the urge to bang his head against the table.  “We've only started dating. You're the ones getting married tomorrow, why aren't we talking about you?” 

“Because we're trying not to panic,” Gwen said, her smile brittle. 

“What's wrong?” Arthur asked. 

Lance waved a hand. “Oh, nothing much. Gwen's favourite aunt hates me. One of my cousins gave Gwen a tarot reading and is now convinced she's destined to end up in a convent. We still don't know if the flowers we ordered will arrive at the church on time tomorrow. And then there's the catered meals –” 

“Lance's mum is afraid there's a terrible risk of botulism.” Gwen said. 

“Cholera, actually,” Lance said absently. 

“Right, cholera,” Gwen sighed. “But by Sunday morning, we'll be on our way to Milan, and this will all be over.” 

“Aren't women supposed to look forward to their wedding day?” Arthur asked. 

“Not this woman,” Gwen said wearily, taking a sip of her margarita. “Why do you think we're having a booze-up at the pub instead of a rehearsal dinner?” 

Arthur peered at her. “You're not exactly making the case for love conquering all. You realise that, right?” 

“Oh, Arthur, very little of a wedding is about love,” Gwen said, clearly exasperated and more than a little bit drunk. “After six months of planning –” 

“Seven and a half,” Lance corrected. 

“– we've learned it's about two things: testing your resolve to actually want to spend the rest of your lives together –” 

“Turns out we do,” Lance said, smiling at her. 

“– and making our families happy –” 

“Well, as happy as they're capable of being,” Lance interjected. 

“– so that they can never pester us again. Not that they won't try, mind you, but that's what wedding pictures are for.” 

Arthur stared at Gwen. “I see you have this all worked out.” 

“I may write a book,” Gwen said. “To help others and save them from suffering.” 

“Very noble,” Arthur agreed, touching his glass to hers before taking another drink. 

“The point is that it's all worth it,” Lance said. “And I'd go through it a dozen times if it meant I could get to call Gwen my wife for the rest of our lives.” 

Arthur was shocked to see Gwen's eyes brim with tears. “What's the matter?” he demanded, worried. 

Gwen wiped at her eyes with the corner of her thumb. “That's the most romantic thing he's ever said to me,” she managed. 

This time, Arthur didn't try to resist. His forehead hit the table with a soft thudding noise. 

“Oh, stop that,” Gwen said, cuffing him none-too-gently on the back of the head. “I've seen the way you and Merlin look at one another; you're not fooling anyone.” 

Arthur's head snapped up. “I – I don't look any way at Merlin,” he spluttered. “What are you talking about?” He'd been keeping an eye on Merlin earlier, of course, because Merlin didn't know anyone and Arthur wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself. He was only being solicitous, a good host, and wait – “Wait, how does Merlin look at me?” 

Gwen laughed and wrapped an arm around him. “You're adorable, do you know that? It's lovely to see you so happy.” 

Arthur attempted his best scowl, but it was lost on Gwen, who only squeezed him harder. When he looked up, he saw that Merlin was walking towards them, a small, indulgent smile on his face. Well, good, Arthur thought; clearly he'd taken the 'pretend boyfriend' request seriously and was doing his best to play the part. And the warm feeling spreading through him obviously had to do with the beer and nothing else. 

“Having fun?” Merlin asked, leaning down closer to Arthur in order to be heard over the din of the pub. Arthur could feel the puff of Merlin's breath on his face; he'd been drinking something with ginger in it. 

“Oh, tonnes,” Arthur ground out, deliberately trying not to look at Merlin in a way that might be construed as interested or besotted or in any way at all, really, and fuck, perhaps he was getting a bit drunk. 

Lance sprang to his feet. “Take my chair, Merlin,” he said. “I want to sit over next to my wife-to-be.” 

“Oh my God, I'm going to be someone's wife,” Gwen sighed. 

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Surely this isn't a shock to you after six months –”  

“Seven and a half,” Lance said. 

“– of planning. Did no one tell you this was the end result?” 

Gwen shoved him gently, but considering his balance wasn't the best, it was enough to cause him to overbalance and bump shoulders with Merlin, who was now sitting on his right hand where Lance had been. “I forgot how much of a prat you can be when you're drunk,” she said, laughing. “Watch out, Merlin. Now you're seeing the other side of him.” 

“Oh, I already know he's a prat,” Merlin said pleasantly, and Gwen and Lance both burst into surprised laughter. 

“Thanks,” Arthur said, downing the last of his beer and turning to glare at Merlin. “Thanks a fucking lot.” 

“Don't feel bad,” Merlin said, leaning in. “You have some redeeming qualities.” And with that, he hooked a finger under Arthur's chin and kissed him.

As kisses went, it wasn't much, Arthur told himself, just a brief, dry press of lips that lingered for no more than a couple of heartbeats. There was no reason for him to feel like he'd been – rearranged somehow, as though several of his vital organs had decided to exchange places just for the hell of it.

  When he opened his eyes – and fuck, fuck, why had he closed them – Merlin was staring at him as though he'd sprouted an extra head. Marvelous; not only could he no longer get a date through anything short of bribery, he was now completely repulsive. 

“I'm going to get another drink,” Arthur muttered, and rose somewhat unsteadily to his feet in order to do just that.

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

Arthur awoke when something tickled his nose, making it itch terribly. He tried to scratch it, but something solid and a bit fuzzy got in the way, and his hand smacked into it before it could reach his nose.

  “Ow,” the solid and fuzzy thing said. “Wha' the bloody fuck.” 

Arthur jerked upright – or rather, he tried to – but something seemed to be pinning his other arm to the bed, restricting his movement. The weight shifted, and the next thing he knew Merlin's huge blue eyes were blinking at him from under a mass of rumpled black hair. That explained the fuzzy, itchy bit anyway, Arthur thought, ignoring the sensation of excitement mixed with panic at the realisation that they were in bed together and Merlin was half-lying on him. 

“Hey,” Merlin murmured, thankfully not opening his mouth very much to say it. If his breath was anything like the way Arthur's mouth tasted, it was for the best. “Morning.” 

“Morning,” Arthur said, taking similar care to keep his lips as close together as possible. He quickly took stock of their situation. Merlin was wearing a rumpled, soft t-shirt, though Arthur was topless. He couldn't quite tell if he was wearing shorts, but he hoped like hell that he was, because everything after the fourth pint was a hazy, indistinct blur. 

“You don't remember much of last night, do you?” Merlin asked, cocking his head at him. 

Arthur pursed his lips. “Of course I do.” 

Merlin's eyebrows danced about like deranged caterpillars. “Oh, really. Then I hope you remember that thing you did with your tongue, because that was brilliant. I'd like more of that tonight.” 

Heedless of morning breath, Arthur's mouth fell open in shock. “Erm,” he managed. “You – you want –” 

Merlin burst into giggles and buried his face against Arthur's shoulder. “Oh god, Arthur, your face.” 

“I don't see what's so funny,” Arthur muttered. 

Merlin lifted his head, still grinning. “I was having you on. Nothing actually happened last night.” 

Arthur frowned in confusion. “Nothing?” 

“Well, unless you count my helping you off with your kit and pouring you into bed, yeah. Nothing.” 

Arthur stared at him. 

“It's not that I didn't want to,” Merlin added hastily. “But honour forbade me from taking advantage of you in your inebriated state.” 

“Now who's being a prat?” Arthur growled. 

“Oh, come on. I didn't mean –” Merlin began, but Arthur had already had quite enough for one morning, and gently but firmly disentangled himself from Merlin's lean body. “Hey, Arthur, wait –” 

“It's late,” Arthur muttered, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and standing. “You want the loo first, or –” 

“No, you, erm, you go ahead,” Merlin said, his brow creased. Arthur nodded briskly and turned, hoping it wasn't obvious that his tail was tucked between his legs.

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

After an awkward breakfast, Arthur stopped by Lance and Gwen's room with Merlin in tow to discuss the plan for the ceremony.

“Just show up at one-thirty,” Lance said, shrugging. “That's pretty much it.” 

“One-thirty?” Arthur asked. “The ceremony starts at two, doesn't it?”

“All right, one forty-five,” Gwen said, waving a shockingly unconcerned hand.

“Won't there be rehearsals?”

“What is there to rehearse?” Lancelot asked. “All you have to do is stand to the side and hand me the ring when I ask for it. I'm sure your Oxford education will be more than adequate to the task.”

Behind him, Merlin snorted. Arthur shot him a glare, and Merlin sucked in his lips and bugged out his eyes.

“Arthur,” Lance said, placing his hands on Arthur's shoulders, “you are my closest and dearest friend, and I love you. You've been nothing but supportive of us, and knowing that you'll be there today is one of the highlights of our wedding. But half an hour ago the flowers showed up at the church, and Gwen was thus able to cross the last item off her massive spreadsheet, and we've decided that any cockups from here on in are destined to happen. We're officially done worrying, and you should be, too.”

“But it's only –” Arthur checked his watch “– half past nine.” What the hell was there to do in this town for four bloody hours? 

Gwen raised her eyebrows at Merlin, then shot a pointed look at Arthur. “I'm sure you two can think of something – interesting to do until then,” she said, as if reading Arthur's mind. 

“Yes, fine,” Arthur murmured, feeling his cheeks heat. “Come along, Merlin.” 

As he turned on his heel and headed for the door, he heard Merlin say, “Yes, sire!” He left the three of them giggling like maniacs.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

“Arthur, wait!”

Arthur slowed as he stepped out of the hotel and onto the pavement. The cool morning air carried a faint aroma of salt, and he breathed it in to calm himself.

Arthur felt a tentative touch on his arm. He stiffened, and it disappeared. “Look, I'm sorry,” Merlin said softly.

Puzzled, Arthur frowned and turned to him. “What for?”

“Well, for the stupid crack back there, first of all, but also – I didn't mean to mess you about this morning.” Rubbing at the back of his neck, he amended, “All right, maybe a little. But that wasn't fair to you. I mean, really you've been nothing but lovely to me this whole trip, and I – I don't know. I don't usually do things like that. For some reason, you bring out the worst in me.” 

You bring out the best in me,
Arthur thought, then blinked. Where had that come from? 

“Can I make it up to you?” Merlin asked. “Let me take you somewhere fun?” 

“I don't think we can get to London and back before the ceremony,” Arthur drawled. 

Merlin nudged his shoulder. “Oi, enough of that. People actually do have fun outside of London, you know.” 

Arthur pursed his lips against the smile threatening to form. “That's only because they don't know any better.” 

Narrowing his eyes in a mock glare, Merlin grabbed Arthur's arm and tugged. “Come along, Arthur,” he said darkly, and Arthur felt a small, unwanted thrill at the low tone. 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

 

“Now, come on, admit it. Isn't this fun?” Merlin said, grinning widely.

“Oh, oodles,” Arthur murmured, leaning forward to grip the gunwales of the boat.

“What's wrong?”

Arthur didn't answer right away; he couldn't. The water beneath them was very dark, as though it were bottomless. Which was ridiculous; it was a bay, for Christ's sake, how deep could it be? “I'm not very fond of being out on the ocean,” he finally croaked out.

Merlin's hand touched his back, fingers splayed. “God, Arthur, why didn't you say?”

Arthur clenched his jaw against the rising panic. “Because it's an irrational fear. And it's been so long – I thought I was over it.”

“Okay, you should – erm, look out at the horizon. I've heard that helps.”

“I'm apoplectic with fear, Merlin, not seasick,” Arthur gritted.

“Right, yeah, sorry,” Merlin babbled. “Shall I go ask if they can turn the boat around?”

Arthur grabbed hold of Merlin's arm. “No, I can do this,” he hissed. “Just – stay here.”

Merlin's free hand began rubbing slow circles over his lower back, and Arthur closed his eyes briefly at the warmth spreading from the simple gesture. “I can do that,” Merlin said softly. Arthur nodded and they stood together, gazing out at the water as the tour boat operator droned on about the natural beauty of Cardigan Bay. Arthur concentrated on the voice, and Merlin's touch, and gradually his overweening fear of capsizing and drowning faded, and he felt as though he could breathe again. Thank God the boat was only half full, this being not quite the height of the tourist season, and they had the stern to themselves.

“Can you sit?” Merlin asked after another minute. Nodding, Arthur fumbled for a seat on one of the benches, turning away from the water. Merlin dug in his pocket and offered an open package of Skittles; Arthur fell upon it like a starving man.

“Thanks,” Arthur murmured. “Silly of me, I know.”

“How long have you been afraid of the water?” Merlin asked gently.

“Since I was nine,” Arthur admitted, blowing out a breath. “I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – do you know it?” Merlin shook his head. “Well, there's this scene where the Nautilus – that's Captain Nemo's submarine – rams a warship and then dives to watch all the sailors on her drown. It horrified me, the thought of those men dying in the water, slowly sinking deeper and deeper as he watched...” Arthur shuddered, and Merlin put an arm around him as though it were something he did every day.

Arthur cleared his throat before continuing. “Anyway, I think I would have gotten over it on my own, only my father got it into his head one day that I should get over it on his time – after all, it was nearly sailing season – and so he took me out on his yacht and flung me into the water.”

Merlin's hand gripped his shoulder. “He what?”

Arthur chuckled humourlessly. “Yeah. As it turns out, I didn't go sailing that year – or ever again.” Just then, the constant hum of the boat's engine changed pitch, and Arthur fought against another burst of panic.

“Hey, it's OK,” Merlin soothed, hand shifting to make circles on Arthur's back again. “They're only slowing down. We must be getting near the –”

Suddenly, a huge grey shape leapt out of the water about fifty feet off the starboard bow.

“– dolphins,” Merlin finished.

As Arthur watched, another fin broke the water closer to the boat. He saw the curve of a smooth back, then the flip of a broad tail; the resulting spray reached some of the people near the bow, and they laughed in delight.

“You've nothing to worry about now,” Merlin said.

Arthur turned to look at Merlin, who was smiling at him. “How do you figure that?”

Merlin lifted his chin towards the water. “No matter what happens, you'll be fine. Dolphins save people from drowning.”

Arthur's only response was to blink at Merlin rather stupidly, because right at that moment he wanted nothing more than to kiss him. It wasn't as though he hadn't contemplated kissing Merlin before, but it was usually in the dark of his room, late at night when there was no one else there. The thought of kissing him had never come up in broad daylight, with Merlin close and available should Arthur suddenly decide to transform thought into action, with Merlin gazing back at him just as intently and – oh God – darting his tongue out to wet his full lower lip. Arthur's heart hammered from something other than fear.

“Would you look at that, ladies and gentlemen! A pair of them, surfacing right off the stern!”

And because Arthur's life resembled a comedy of errors more than a romantic comedy, every head on the boat swiveled towards them for a glimpse of sea life. Merlin and Arthur jerked apart as though they'd been caught doing something completely filthy, and they both turned to contemplate the marvels of nature.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The one advantage of spending the rest of the boat ride in a state of frustration mixed with giddy anticipation, Arthur reflected upon their return to dry land an hour later, was that he'd completely forgotten to be terrified of the water.

As for Merlin, he'd been behaving oddly since the near-kiss on the boat, or rather, he'd been behaving normally, in that he no longer put his arm around Arthur or asked him concerned questions about how he was feeling. Arthur told himself he didn't care; after all, he'd always hated being psychoanalysed about his relationship with his father. But as they left the boat, Arthur realised he'd voluntarily spilled his guts, without any real prompting from Merlin. What was it about Merlin that made Arthur want to tell him things he'd never spoken of, even to Gwen?

“Well, that was a disaster, wasn't it?” Merlin said with a nervous laugh. “Bet you won't be calling me to plan your next holiday.”

“It wasn't that bad,” Arthur said, shrugging. “I actually enjoyed myself towards the end.”

“You're in some kind of shock, aren't you?” Merlin said, eyes wide. Stepping closer, he laid a hand on Arthur's forehead as though checking his temperature, then held up his other hand and waved three fingers in front of Arthur's face. “Are you seeing double? How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Idiot,” Arthur said, his grin making a lie of his insult. He made a grab for Merlin's waving fingers, and as his hand closed around them, his grin abruptly died. Merlin gasped softly and they stood frozen for a long moment, their hands clasped together and Merlin's other hand still warm on Arthur's forehead.

“Oh, my goodness!” a woman's voice exclaimed, and the moment shattered into a million pieces. Arthur let go of Merlin as though he'd been burned and turned to see an older woman, probably a tourist, if the hideous t-shirt with the laughingly bad rendition of Dylan Thomas plastered across her chest was any indication. “Young man, you're not suffering from heat stroke, are you?”

“I don't think so,” Merlin offered. “It's only twenty-one de–”

“Because I had heatstroke when I visited Florida – that's in the United States, you know, gets very hot – and I recognise the symptoms.”

“That’s very – ah, kind of you, but –” Arthur began.

“Oh, not at all, lad, not at all,” she murmured soothingly. “You young people don't take proper care of yourselves, and it's a shame, d'you hear me?” She looked Arthur up and down in a fashion that made Arthur squirm, then took him by the hand, fingers laid across his wrist. “I must check for a pulse.”

Arthur stared down at her, completely nonplussed. “Look, are you a doctor?”

“Oh, no, no,” the woman said, waving her free hand. “Just a talented layperson. Unfortunately, the medical establishment is much too hidebound to recognise – hm, your pulse is leaping like a scared rabbit's.” Dropping Arthur's wrist, she began rooting around in her cavernous purse. “Now, where is my stethoscope?”

“Oh, for –” Arthur held up his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture. “Thank you, but I'm fine.” He jerked his head at Merlin in a gesture that meant we need to get the hell out of here; Merlin nodded fervently, and they turned and headed off down the street at a brisk pace.

“You say that now!” she shouted after them, “but heat stroke is a very tricky thing!”

It was only a few blocks back to the hotel, and when they reached it minutes later, Arthur collapsed against the wall, laughing. “God, that was –”

“Bizarre? Disturbing?”

“Terrifying,” Arthur said, passing a hand over his face.

“I'm sure she meant well.”

“In an oddly obsessive sort of way,” Arthur admitted. “And she was so – familiar.”

Merlin frowned. “Familiar? What do you mean?”

Arthur made a face. “The touching. I'm English – we're not accustomed to strangers putting their hands all over us. It seems suspicious, and possibly foreign.”

Arthur expected Merlin to laugh at his attempt at self-mockery, but instead Merlin's face fell, and he looked down at his shoes. Too late, Arthur realised what he'd said could be taken as a criticism of Merlin's earlier behaviour. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again when it occurred to him that he had no idea what to say. I liked it quite a lot when you touched me seemed a little too much information, especially if Merlin hadn't meant to offer anything but comfort.

Which he probably had, Arthur thought: it wasn't as though Merlin had shown any interest in him before this, and he'd made it clear he'd only come with Arthur for the free ride to his mother's. Arthur had been lost in a daze this morning, so wrapped up in himself that he might have completely misread Merlin's looks and touches as something more than they were. In fact, it was more than likely the woman back at the dock had more romantic interest in him than Merlin did.

“I'm hungry,” Arthur blurted. “Shall we grab a bite in the pub?”

Merlin blinked at him, then nodded. “All right,” he said, and Arthur shoved himself away from the wall and onto legs that were more rubbery than they had any right to be.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

After a brief lunch – a burger for Arthur and a salad for Merlin – they trooped upstairs to change for the wedding. Merlin had been uncharacteristically taciturn during the meal, and Arthur was beginning to – well, no, he was fully in the throes of gnawing doubt about what had happened earlier. He was now certain he'd misinterpreted everything, and Merlin was now searching for a kind way to tell Arthur he wasn't interested. After what Merlin had done for him on the boat, Arthur didn't think he could bear any more kindness, especially when it was coupled with a rejection, and oh God, they'd have to share a bed again tonight –

“Arthur?”

Arthur realised he was standing halfway up the stairs, unmoving, as Merlin looked down at him from the top. “Are you all right?” Merlin asked.

Arthur shook himself. “Fine,” he snapped, and suddenly, the answer came to him. All he had to do was to act like a prick, and Merlin wouldn't want to be kind to him. It was perfect.

Climbing the stairs swiftly, he brushed past Merlin, ignoring the electric thrill at even that simple contact. “You don't mind if I take the bathroom first, do you?”

“I –”

“Good.” Arthur shoved the key in the lock almost viciously, then pushed his way into the room without looking back.

 

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

 

Four hours later, the wedding was over and the reception was in full swing under beautiful blue skies. Everything had gone off beautifully, and there hadn't been a single hiccough in the proceedings.

Merlin was also no longer speaking to him, and in fact was currently dancing with another of Lance and Arthur's old friends from uni, Gwaine. Gwaine was a solicitor for some sort of charity – Arthur couldn't remember which one – and was disgustingly good-looking and charming. As Arthur watched, he flashed his disgustingly lovely grin at Merlin and then spun him round and dipped him. Merlin's joyful laughter wafted across the dance floor.

“Bugger,” Arthur muttered, to no one in particular.

“All right, what did you do?”

Arthur sighed and turned to a scowling Gwen. “The fact that you're able to sneak up on me in that dress is frankly astonishing. Have you ever considered a career in the SAS?”

“Don't try to change the subject. Have you and Merlin had a row? And if you have, why aren't you making up to him right now?”

“I like the way you naturally assume it's my fault,” Arthur muttered, taking a sip of the surprisingly good whiskey that had been passed around earlier.

“That's because I know you, Arthur,” Gwen murmured. “I wish you'd let yourself be happy.”

Arthur's jaw tightened. “Gwen, look –”

“Morgana called me this morning,” Gwen said conversationally. “She said Merlin was a darling, which I completely agree with, by the way. She also said, 'don't let him cock this one up.'”

“Brilliant,” Arthur said, his gut twisting. “Though I suppose she's right – after all, I'm not the one who married you this afternoon, am I?”

“Oh, love, you didn't cock things up with us,” Gwen said, laying a gentle had against his cheek. “It just wasn't meant to be. We both felt that, I think.”

Arthur looked out at the water. “Yeah,” he murmured.

“But you do have this terrible habit of – not valuing yourself highly enough.”

Arthur snorted. “You're in the minority on that opinion. Most would call me a conceited prick.” In fact, that was the last thing Merlin had said to him, about a half hour ago.

“Because that's what you want them to believe. But the people who love you know that's not who you really are.”

Arthur stared into his glass. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put a damper on your wedding.”

Gwen stood, then leaned down and kissed him softly on the forehead. “I'm not the one you need to be apologising to,” she told him, and then she was gone as quietly as she'd arrived.

Arthur looked up at the dance floor again, where the previous song had just ended. Merlin was still grinning at Gwaine, who doubtless had just finished saying something disgustingly witty. Really, though, Arthur admitted to himself, the best thing he could do for Merlin was to step back and let him get to know Gwaine. After all, he was one of those save-the-world types, just like Merlin, and anyone could see they looked ridiculously pretty together.

Another song started up, this one slower. It was one of Gwen's favourites, Chris deBurgh's The Lady In Red, and as Arthur watched, Gwen and Lance took to the floor, moving effortlessly into one another's arms. He felt a surge of affection for his friends; no matter his own opinions about true love, he was glad they'd found what they were looking for. They deserved every happiness in the world.

Despite telling himself not to, he couldn't help glancing over at Merlin and Gwaine, who were now dancing very close together. Arthur tipped his whiskey glass to his lips, then remembered he'd drained it already and set it down again. As they turned slowly, Arthur could see Gwaine's face, looking like a cat who'd got the cream. Arthur tried to tear his gaze away before he could see Merlin's face, but to no avail. He didn't want to see Merlin looking besotted and happy, didn't want to see that Merlin and Gwaine were absolutely, disgustingly perfect for one another –

Slowly, inexorably, Gwaine turned his back, and Merlin's face came into view. But Merlin didn't look besotted or happy; he looked miserable and lost. And then his gaze caught Arthur's, and they stared at one another for a long, breathless moment.

Before he knew what he was doing, Arthur was on his feet and striding towards the dance floor. He tapped Gwaine on the shoulder, probably a bit more forcefully than necessary, and Gwaine twisted his head round to favour him with a disgustingly knowing smile.

“Ah, Arthur, I was wondering when you'd pop by,” he said conversationally as he released Merlin and stepped back. Winking at Merlin, he said, “Good luck, mate.”

“Thanks,” Merlin said, smiling at Gwaine. Turning to Arthur, he held out his hands expectantly.

Instead of stepping into his arms, Arthur took Merlin's hand and tugged, leading him away from the reception and around to the far side of the inn, where a couple of teenagers in ill-fitting suits were puffing madly on clandestine cigarettes. When Arthur and Merlin rounded the corner, one of them choked in surprise and his cigarette flew out of his mouth.

“We weren't – this isn't –” the other one spluttered, flinging his cigarette on the ground and crushing it under his foot.

“Piss off, would you?” Arthur said pleasantly, and the two of them stared at one another, then scarpered.

“Pity you didn't get into teaching,” Merlin said, folding his arms.

Arthur bit back a retort, taking a deep breath instead. “Merlin, I –”

To Arthur's surprise, Merlin sighed and dropped his hands. “Arthur, look. I want to apologise.”

Arthur stiffened. This was exactly what he'd been dreading – the gentle letdown. “No, I'm the one meant to apologise to you,” he said hastily.

Merlin blinked at him. “Well, that's – thank you. I mean, you have been a bit horrid, but I can completely understand why.”

Arthur drew himself up. “You can? And what exactly can you understand?”

Merlin looked him straight in the eye. “When someone abuses your trust, you've a right to be angry.”

Confused, Arthur shook his head. “Hang on. Are you trying to say – you abused my trust?”

“Yeah,” Merlin said heavily. “And I'm really sorry.”

Arthur scowled. “Merlin, I have no bloody idea what you're talking about.”

Now Merlin was beginning to appear confused as well. “I thought that's why you were so pissed off – because I wanted to kiss you on the boat earlier. And then, to make matters worse, I nearly kissed you again on the dock.”

Arthur stopped short. “You wanted to kiss me,” he said.

“I know it was wrong, and I felt terrible about it. I would have been taking advantage of your emotionally vulnerable state, a state I had put you in, I might add, and it was –”

Arthur didn't hear any of the rest of Merlin's psychobabble, because there was a voice in his head singing he wanted to kiss me, he wanted to kiss me, he wanted to kiss me, as though he were a character in one of those hideous teenage musicals. He took a step closer to Merlin, who paused in his rambling.

“Are you done?” Arthur asked.

“Why?” Merlin asked, frowning in obvious suspicion.

“Because if you're still talking, it makes it harder to do this,” Arthur said, taking Merlin by his shoulders and hauling him in for a kiss. Merlin froze for a long moment, then seemed to go boneless against Arthur, winding his fingers in Arthur's hair and groaning softly into his mouth.

“I'm a bit confused,” Merlin murmured when they parted.

Arthur nuzzled along Merlin's jaw. “Merlin, I swear –”

“Oh, don't worry. I can live with a little confusion,” Merlin added hastily. “Have done ever since I first met you and couldn't decide if I wanted to shag you bowlegged or knee you in the bollocks.”

Arthur sucked on Merlin's earlobe and was rewarded with a full-body shiver. “That's surprisingly violent for you.”

“I think you might be rubbing off on me,” Merlin said, arching his neck sideways to allow Arthur better access.

“We live in hope,” Arthur murmured, hiding the grin he couldn't suppress against Merlin's skin.

Merlin kissed him again, then asked, “Do you suppose Gwen and Lance'll mind if their best man disappears early?”

“I think they'll be disappointed in me if I don't.”

“Well, we mustn't disappoint them on their wedding day,” Merlin said, grinning, and this time he was the one to take Arthur by the hand and tug him forward into motion.

 

 

 *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

And so it was that a little more than a day later, Arthur returned Merlin to the spot at which he'd picked him up on Friday afternoon. In that time, they'd:


  • shagged one another until they literally couldn't move for exhaustion; Merlin had fallen asleep half on top of him and Arthur had awoken with his neck bent at an unnatural angle and Merlin's knee in his (extremely overburdened) kidney and he decided he'd never felt better in his life;

  • grinned soppily at each other over breakfast;

  • driven to Merlin's mum's house, a cottage just north of Brecon Beacons near a village with far too many l's in its name, and Arthur had shifted from foot to foot like the nervous teenager he'd never been until she'd smiled at him and drawn him into a hug;

  • eaten a carefully prepared, fairly traded, cruelty-free lunch involving far too many tofu products that was nevertheless delicious;

  • kissed while they did the washing up, Merlin's soapy hands in his hair and the towel Arthur had been holding falling from his fingers as he wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist;

  • been cooed over by Merlin's mother when she walked in on them several minutes later, the dishes long forgotten; and

  • driven home to London with Merlin trying to stay awake and failing, finally nodding off against Arthur's shoulder.

 

“Merlin,” Arthur murmured, nose brushing against Merlin's hair. “You're home.”

“Mmmmhmmmm,” Merlin replied, slowly raising his head and blinking at Arthur with a dopey smile on his face.

“You have –” Before Arthur realised what he was doing, his thumb was tracing the faint red mark on Merlin's cheek. “A crease –”

Merlin leaned into Arthur's touch, and Arthur felt that strange lurching sensation he'd felt quite a lot over the last twenty-four hours. “Guess it's from this,” Merlin said, his own fingers tracing the seam of Arthur's windbreaker, then lingering on one spot, rubbing gently. “Think I drooled a bit on you there, sorry.”

Distracted by Merlin's touch, Arthur said, “It's fine. It's waterproof.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows and bit his lip. “Well, that's lucky,” he said solemnly, leaning in for a kiss. When they parted, he murmured, “My mum says you're a keeper.”

To his horror, Arthur felt himself blushing. He didn't blush, for Christ's sake. “Oh?” he said, in a pathetic attempt at nonchalance. “And what did you say?”

“Said she had excellent taste in men,” Merlin said, nuzzling Arthur's jaw, “and then she pinched me on the arm. Hard.”

“Serves you right, being cheeky to your mum,” Arthur said, closing his eyes. “I like her too, by the way.”

“Glad to hear it.” Merlin kissed him once more, then drew back and looked into Arthur's eyes. Arthur stared back, wondering if there were some magical words he could say right now that would make Merlin want to keep him forever.

Oh god, he thought in the next moment, I've become one of those romantic nutters. In the moment after that, he realised he didn't particularly mind.

“Can I take you out someplace?” he blurted. Merlin's expression fell, and Arthur's heart plummeted for his shoes.

“Wish I could, but I have an early day at work tomorrow. I was, erm, just thinking about ordering in a curry. I know it's not too exciting, but –”

“Oh, no, that's fine,” Arthur babbled. “I understand –”

“– I thought you might want to come up.”

“– if you want to be alone.”

They stared at one another. “Why would I want to be alone?” Merlin asked.

“I – I love curry,” Arthur said.

Merlin grinned at him, and Arthur's heart leapt back to its rightful spot and began doing something frighteningly similar to a tango. “Well, then,” Merlin said, “shall we?”

Trailing his hand down Merlin's cheek, Arthur smiled and said, “I'd like nothing more.”