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Now I Will Unsettle the Ground Beneath You

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Merlin dreams in vivid colour. He has since he was a child. His mother would always ask him what he dreamed about and his reply was always the same: red, orange, gold and blue. Sometimes it was one colour, sometimes a combination. But it was the constant dreams about them that led towards his first set of crayons, then pastels, then paints. Hunith always jokes that he was born with a paintbrush in his hand, but the thing is? He can't ever remember not drawing. It was always in the drawing that the colours took shape: orange became flame, blue became sky, the gold and red some sort of emblem and Merlin's dream-world turned from a shade into actual, tangible things.

Painting is what makes Merlin feel like he's alive. He's always had a sense of foreboding, a sense that he's displaced. The dreams, the paintings, they've always felt like pieces of a puzzle he hasn't quite managed to make fit. He's always felt like something’s missing, something big that he’ll know as soon as he finds it, but until then he’ll never feel comfortable or settled. He thought coming out would fix it, but it didn't at all. It’s part of why he loves painting so much, his own space where he can pour all that ill-feeling into his work.

He wonders what could possibly be going through his head lately, because he's painting dragons with alarming regularity, and not the cuddly type of dragons from that ridiculously cute movie that Gwen dragged him to with all the Vikings with Scottish accents, either. No, these are the big, nasty, not at all cute, fire breathing types of dragons with razor-sharp claws and destruction in their eyes. Merlin wonders what a psychologist would make of it, what deep-seated reason there is for Merlin painting canvas after canvas of death and destruction and carnage.

Gwen thinks he just needs a break. Thinks that being cooped up in a musty, dirty studio all day is probably warping his mind.

"And anyway," she says over coffee and croissants that she drops off for him before her shift at the Women's Centre, "you haven't had sex in ages, Merlin, and you normally have a lot of sex. Not that I'm trying to say you're a slut or anything, because I swear you're not, but—"

"Gwen—" Merlin says around a mouthful of flaky, buttery croissant.

"Sorry, sorry. Just ignore me, I'm an idiot." She looks so concerned that she's offended him that it's impossible to be annoyed. Anyway, she's right, as much as he hates to admit it. There has been somewhat of a drought lately.

Merlin doesn’t normally do the whole ‘scene’ thing. It’s not that he’s one of those self-hating, wants-to-appear-straight poofs. It’s just that it’s not his thing, usually. He’s just as happy having a beer down the Admiral Duncan or The White Swan, and copping off with some bloke who isn't dressed head to toe in glitter and leather and doesn't look like he's spent every waking hour of his life at the gym.

Lately though, he's hardly left his studio long enough to cop off with anyone, a fact that obviously hasn't slipped his best friend's attention.

Gwen tilts her head to the side like she always does when she's thinking. "Oh! I know! You can come with me to this dinner thing I have on Friday. It'll get you out, and I won't have to worry about dodgy old men spiking my drinks with Rohypnol, or anything. Perfect!"

She kisses him on the cheek, and before he can even ask, "What dinner thing?" she's yelling, "I'll pick you up at 7!" and she's out the door.

Merlin sits for a minute, mouth wide open, still not really sure what just happened. He wonders if this is what it feels like to be hit by a very sweet, very well-meaning whirlwind.

***

Dinner, as it turns out, is one of those ghastly Table for Six things, where three single men and women turn up with the hope of hooking up with each other. Merlin thinks even if he was straight, he'd find the concept utterly horrifying. He keeps repeating, “here for Gwen, here for Gwen, here for Gwen,” to himself, like a mantra.

He feels restless. Itchy in his skin. He wants— something. He doesn't know what, but a shag would be a great start. He wishes he could meet a nice bloke. Or a not-nice bloke. He'd settle for one with the personality of a mungbean right now, as long as he has a cock.

"I can't believe you talked me into this," he hisses at his former-best-friend. "The blonde one just tried to grab my arse while I was bending over to pick up my serviette!"

"I'm sorry, Merlin, but given the other two men haven't turned up, you're the only shot she thinks she has."

"Well, that's unfortunate given I'm gay!" Merlin stage-whispers, but unfortunately it coincides with a lull in the conversation, and it sounds like the entire restaurant drops their cutlery all at the same time.

"Ah, I can see how that might be a problem—" The voice is deep and accented, and when Merlin looks up he sees it belongs to a bloke who wouldn't be out of place walking the runway at Fashion Week. The guy next to him is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous too, all big brown eyes and perfect bone structure.

"Is this a dream?" he whispers to Gwen. "Am I dreaming?"

She laughs. It turns out Gwaine and Lance, the two visions who sit down on either side of Merlin, are the other two singles. And also friends. Merlin is tempted to ask if their friendship comes with benefits, and if so, can he watch, but he decides to try and maintain some semblance of dignity.

Merlin is halfway through his third glass of cheap red wine when Gwaine leans over and says, "I hadn't finished what I was going to say, you know."

"Oh?"

"Yes, I was going to say, that I can see how that might be a problem for the girl throwing herself at you. But it works just nicely for me."

Merlin swallows, hard. He doesn't dare to get his hopes up at Gwaine's easy flirting, he's probably like that with everyone he meets. He turns his head to compose himself and sees Gwen, happily chatting with Lance. They seem to have hit it off in a remarkable way for one of these blind date type situations. It's like they've known each other forever, judging by the easy way they've come together. The blonde girl looks like she might stab Gwen with her fork. The ginger is too busy scarfing down the complimentary breadsticks to even notice.

"You mean, uh, more girls for you?" Merlin asks, turning back to look at Gwaine, who is sprawled in his chair, staring at Merlin with a very smug grin on his face.

"Not exactly. No."

Merlin swallows a mouthful of wine down the wrong way and coughs violently. Gwaine thumps him on the back, but his hand lingers there. Okay, so Gwaine is cruising him. Hard. And Merlin thinks maybe he really is dreaming after all, because while he doesn't tend to cop off with mingers, he's never had someone as stunning as Gwaine try it on with him, either.

"Your friend?" Gwaine asks, gesturing to Gwen.

"Best friend," Merlin says, once he's taken a huge sip of water. He's deliberately looking at Gwen when he says it, and not at Gwaine, because he really doesn't want him to see just how much Merlin is blushing right now.

"You ever—?"

"Once," Merlin admits, and he turns back to see Gwaine grinning like mad. "Back when I still referred to myself as 'questioning', which was ridiculous really, I'd been blowing boys in toilet cubicles back as far as Year Eleven."

Gwaine laughs and says, "Would it be wrong if I told you that makes me kind of hot?"

"Pervert." Merlin grins, and he can't help noticing that Gwaine is staring at his mouth. "Anyway, it was horrible, really. Both of us promised never to go there again. And yeah, that was my one and only foray on the other side of the fence."

"And you've been mates, since?" Gwaine takes a sip from his wineglass, and Merlin nods.

“You know," Merlin says, "your name means Little Hawk in Welsh."

"And you know that, because?"

"My mother's Welsh. She named me after a bird, and she had this book of Medieval Names and what they meant. I don't know why, I've just always remembered it."

Merlin really doesn't know how or why that particular memory had stuck with him, but as soon as Gwaine had introduced himself, he'd had that image in his head, the hawk circling.

"It's interesting," Gwaine says, his mouth very close to Merlin's ear, "that we're both named after birds, given as how neither of us are particularly partial to them." He laughs, throwing his head back, and that gives Merlin a great view of his throat, which is lovely and long and really needs to be bitten quite a lot.

Gwaine is so unlike Merlin’s usual type; he obviously uses his gym membership more than once a year, and he’s got that whole male model thing going on. And he looks like he’d be utterly bloody filthy in bed from the look of those eyes of his and those lips and the way he’s leaning in to whisper against Merlin’s neck. Yes. Good god. Really filthy. And not at all subtle. Oh well, subtlety is grossly overrated, anyway.

“I’m really bored,” he says. “I only came because the git's normally too shy to even speak to a girl he doesn't know, but looks like your mate is the exception to the rule. I’ve got a nice bottle of scotch back in my flat that I’ve been dying to open. We could go back there if you want?”

“Uh,” Merlin chokes out. “Well, maybe I should just check with Gwen first." And anyway, he wants to say, are you really hitting on me or is it just my hopeful imagination? Because I don’t normally get offers from blokes like you, and if you do want to shag me, you’ll be the hottest man I’ve copped off with that isn't y'know, in my dreams.

Gwaine presses his lips against the shell of Merlin’s ear, and Merlin can feel warm breath on his skin and it’s almost too much, too hot. His trousers are so incredibly tight right now and he’s really surprised he hasn’t burst out of them.

Gwaine sighs and Merlin struggles not to whimper when he growls, “I want to take you back to my place and shag your brains out, Merlin, I’m sure Gwen will understand.”

So. Not his imagination then.

“I.” Merlin swallows. Hard. “Okay then. But don’t be, y’know, disappointed that I don’t have abs like you, or anything.”

“First thing, Merlin. I get the feeling that nothing about you could ever disappoint me.” He looks directly at Merlin’s mouth as he says it, and Merlin suddenly feels naked.

“And the second thing? Nobody has abs like mine.” Gwaine, the arrogant prick, pulls back and honest to god winks at him.

“Okay then,” Merlin says, folding his arms in front of his chest. “Let’s go, you fucking egomaniac.”

Gwaine throws his head back and laughs, full and open-mouthed, and it’s the most gorgeous thing Merlin thinks he’s ever seen.

***

Gwaine, in addition to being gorgeous and fuckable, is also, Merlin discovers, rather rich.

His ‘flat’ as he referred to it, is actually a gorgeous two bedroom house in Knightsbridge that looks like it would cost more in monthly rent than Merlin would make in six months of selling paintings. He feels decidedly out of his element, and could do with that drink anytime now thank you.

“Here.” Gwaine comes back from the bar holding two tumblers with two fingers of amber-coloured liquid in each. Merlin can just about guarantee that the scotch is incredibly expensive. He looks down at his worn boots and his clean but very faded jeans and at the threadbare Daft Punk t-shirt he’s wearing, and he feels awkward.

“You’re nervous,” Gwaine comments, and lets his finger brush Merlin’s as he passes him the glass. Merlin blushes and Gwaine just raises an eyebrow as if to say: See? Told you.

“Not nervous,” Merlin says around a mouthful of liquor. It’s so smooth and he can feel it spreading warmth through his body, making his chest and throat burn a little. “It’s just that. I’m not really used to being around—”

“Money?” Gwaine asks, but it’s not really a question.

Merlin nods, “I’m not exactly flush, y’know? And my mum and dad, well, I grew up in a pretty rough area. I guess I’m lucky enough to have gotten the opportunities I did with Arts College and all that. But this,” he waves his hand, gesturing around the room, “is just another world. I just feel a bit— out of place. Is that weird?”

Gwaine laughs, “Not at all. And I’m not laughing at you, just. Wondering what your reaction’ll be when you meet my other friends.”

Merlin stares at Gwaine. Friends. Meet my other friends. He’s only known this guy for how long, and he’s already planning future meetings with his friends? Merlin’s surprised though when it doesn’t bother him at all. It’s strange, this warm, familiar feeling he gets when he looks at Gwaine. Like it isn’t out of the ordinary at all for this man he’s just met to be so familiar with him.

“Your other friends,” he repeats, out loud this time. “Um, well, that’s nice and all, Gwaine, but wouldn’t you like to shag first before you decide this is worth more than one go?” Merlin pauses and polishes off his drink. He hangs onto the empty tumbler; he feels so unsure of himself and his surroundings, but it gives him something to concentrate on. Something tangible that isn’t strangely familiar feelings about this incredibly hot, rich bloke that he’s only just met.

Gwaine downs his drink in one hit, grabs Merlin’s glass from him and deposits both empty tumblers on the coffee table nearby. Merlin stares at his empty hand for a minute, before Gwaine leans in and brushes his lips over Merlin’s jaw line. Merlin shivers at the barely-there touch and it’s so much softer than he was expecting, it feels like a tease, and he wants more.

Merlin gets his hands in Gwaine’s unruly curls. So soft and lush that he just wants to bury his fingers in them and play for hours. But Merlin doesn’t want that now. Right now he wants that mouth on his, wants that stubble scraping against his skin. Gwaine groans and looks up at Merlin, his eyes dark and full of want.

Merlin kisses him then. Harder than he means to, his lips pressing firmly against Gwaine’s and opening his mouth on a sigh to let Gwaine kiss Merlin back the way he wants, wet and open. Gwaine tastes of expensive alcohol, and he smells musky and smoky. Merlin thinks to himself that it’s been a very long time since he’s gotten off with anyone real, and it shows from the way he’s getting so turned on just from a kiss. He pauses and steps back a little, panting.

“Take off your clothes,” Gwaine growls, “want to see you.”

“You first.” Merlin smiles wide as Gwaine shrugs his shoulders and slowly, teasingly slowly, pulls his shirt over his head.

***

He is the most beautiful thing Merlin's ever seen when he's like this. Strong and powerful, all golden hair and blue eyes and swathed in red. His hands are strong and they grip his hips so hard that Merlin knows there will be bruises later, in the shape of those knowing fingers.

Their bodies slide together, miles of skin slick with sweat, and Merlin wants to say, "Take me, all of me, anything. I'm yours, my lord."

Long, sword-callused fingers push into him and Merlin spreads his legs, wanting and wanton and never wanting it to end.

When Merlin jerks awake, it takes him a moment to realise he is not in his own bed. His forehead is soaked with sweat and he's achingly hard. He's had this dream, or variations of it for years now. Always the same man: blond and blue-eyed. Regal.

Gwaine is fast asleep, one arm thrown over Merlin, and he can't help but wonder why, when he's in bed with such a gorgeous bloke, he's dreaming about someone else. Someone who isn't even real.

***

Merlin doesn't do boyfriends, but within a week of dinners and movie outings and lots and lots of sex, he decides that Gwaine is definitely his boyfriend, and he's quite happy with that fact.

It's bizarre really. He's never felt quite as at ease with anyone as he does with Gwaine— well, except Gwen, but she doesn't count because he's known her nearly his whole life. Gwaine— he's— well it's been a week and Merlin feels like he's known Gwaine almost as long as he has Gwen.

It's the same, oddly enough, with Gwen and Lancelot. More so, actually. In less than a month, Gwen's chucked in her own flat and has moved in with him. Everyone thinks she's mad, but Merlin understands. It's like she and Lance are soulmates or something. He'd always thought that Gwen had been waiting her entire life for the right man to come along, and Lance was clearly him.

Merlin doesn't feel like Gwaine's his soulmate by any means, and he's not moving in with him any time soon, but he's more than happy to be in a relationship with him. And that in and of itself is a remarkable change. Yes, he tells anyone who'll listen, I do have a boyfriend, actually. A sexy, gorgeous, rich boyfriend who makes me feel like I'm the luckiest bloke in the world.

Gwaine seems to think the same about Merlin, too. After they've been together a month, he tells Merlin about Hamish. He'd been in Gwaine's class at Eton, though not one of his circle of friends. Gwaine had come out of the closet for him, come out to his mum and his friends and they'd been happy for years. Or so he'd thought.

"I'd been in Cardiff for Easter," he says. They're on the settee, with Gwaine stretched out, his head resting on his hands as Merlin sketches him. He'd make a gorgeous sculpture, all hard lines and muscle and bone structure. Makes Merlin wish he'd paid more attention in sculpting class.

"Go on."

"Came home a day early, didn't I?" He looks wistful, an expression that Merlin's never seen on him before. "Bedroom fucking reeked of sex, and they were at it. Him and fucking Oswald, the wanker. I'd known him my whole life, Merlin, he was like a brother to me: him and Lance and Arthur and Leon, it'd always been the five of us."

"That's— fuck Gwaine, that's just fucking horrible. They both deserve each other, by the sounds."

He drops his sketchpad and climbs into Gwaine's lap, kisses him softly. Merlin feels like a hand is clenching his heart and squeezing when he looks down at him. He's used to Gwaine laughing and joking and flirting, and this hurt version of him is just a little heartbreaking.

"They do at that, Merlin. They do at that." Gwaine grins and wraps a leg around Merlin's holding him in place and they make out slowly, lazily, for hours.

***

I will kill you, Emrys. But first I will make you regret ever being born. I will take him from you.

Merlin wakes, breathless and panting, cold sweat clinging to his skin. He can still see the child's face, those huge eyes full of hate and anger,and it makes his skin crawl just thinking about it.

Emrys. Why does that name sound so familiar?

He paints him, this boy who spoke to him without speaking. And he can't help but feel his blood run cold when the child stares back at him from the canvas.

***

If I ever start doing things like that for you," Gwaine whispers, "please just kill me. Put me out of my misery, okay?"

They're out at dinner with Gwen and Lance and the sight he's so agitated over is Lance pulling out Gwen's chair for her to sit down in, waiting till she's seated before he sits down himself, basically acting like some sort of Victorian gentleman with the way he's treating her like a porcelain doll.

Merlin whispers, "Don't worry, I think Lance is the only man in the world who doesn't realise that chivalry is dead. As long as you're as happy sucking my cock as I am yours I think we're good."

Gwaine's hand slides up Merlin's thigh under the table and Merlin realises he probably shouldn't have mentioned cocks at all.

It is strange though, looking at Gwen and Lance, the way they are together. They've known each other for such a short time, yet he's never seen her more comfortable with any man and he's certainly never seen her allow herself to be handled with kid gloves.

What he said was true, though. Lance seems like he belongs in another age.

***

After they've been dating for four months, and with excessive hounding from Gwaine, Merlin finally relents and agrees to meet his ridiculously wealthy, horribly posh friends. It's insane that he's been putting it off for so long, really, given they're friends with Gwaine, and Gwaine is someone that Merlin finds it very easy to talk to and spend time with, and really, what harm could it do?

But Merlin still has a tendril of doubt in his stomach. There's no guarantee that he won't dislike Gwaine's mates: they could just as easily look down on him as a complete and utter pleb, throwing their upper class weight around and making him feel completely inferior. Merlin doesn't think that Gwaine would intentionally keep company with people who exhibit that sort of behaviour, but there's no way of knowing beforehand.

Regardless of the doubts he's having, Merlin decides it's time, and Gwaine invites him to a dinner party at his friend Leon’s house in the country.

Not exactly the gentle, non-threatening meeting that Merlin had in mind. Country house. Dinner party. All words that incite a sort of dread in Merlin's mind.

Gwaine tells Merlin that Leon’s parents come from old money, and when they died in a car accident, he inherited the lot including the summer house in Santorini, the apartment in New York, and the aforementioned country house in Buckinghamshire. Merlin doesn’t even own his own flat, so he finds the concept of all this wealth and worldwide property utterly surreal.

"See now I'm just not sure," he says, picking idly at a thread on the bedspread, "it'll be a bunch of you rich wankers and me. You'll probably do nothing but talk about the economy and fine wines and it'll be so boring I'll want to top myself. The phrase 'dinner party' doesn't exactly fill me with excitement, you know."

Gwaine cuts him off with a kiss. "Merlin, have you ever known me to talk about the economy? And it won't be some stuffy old dinner party; we'll probably be barbecuing sausages, or what have you. When I say 'dinner party' it generally means beer and vodka and shots and whatever horrendous concoction Arthur decides will get everyone drunk the fastest and a bit of food if you're lucky."

"Arthur?" Merlin asks, blinking.

"Oh yeah," Gwaine throws it away just like it's an afterthought, "Leon isn't really my richest friend," he reaches over to the bedside table and hands over a framed photo. It's weird, he's looked at all the photos there, but he really doesn't recall this one. Merlin guesses he must just not have paid close enough attention to it.

The photo is of Gwaine, Lance and two other boys in Polo uniforms, laughing. It's a few years old and both Gwaine and Lance look a lot less hairy, and a lot younger.

"That's Leon," he says, pointing to the gangly bloke trying to pull Gwaine up. He's attractive, in a normal-looking sort of way, and really tall. Taller than Merlin. But it isn’t him that Merlin's eyes fix on. It's the one on the other side of Lance: blond and lean, his mouth wide open and his head thrown back, laughing like his life depended on it. Merlin knows that face. Arthur Pendragon. Heir to the Pendragon fortune and title, and It Boy extraordinaire.

"You," he struggles to speak, "know Arthur Pendragon?"

Gwaine shrugs. "He's nothing special, you know. Just another spoiled rich brat who drinks too much and does too much coke and dates too many models. But I swear he's the most fun to be around and a great bloke to have on your team. You'll love him. Well, as much as anyone can love a complete ass, of course."

By the way Gwaine is grinning affectionately, Merlin guesses that he doesn't really think Arthur is an ass at all.

He keeps staring at the picture, at Arthur's full-throated laugh, the gaudy ring he wears on his left hand. He has a brief, oddly vivid image of that ring: smooth and cold against his skin, as Arthur strokes his hand over Merlin's cheek. He leans in and bites at Gwaine's jaw to distract himself, scraping teeth over stubble, but he can't unsee the image and it feels like a punch of lust to his gut.

It wouldn't be the first time his cock had shown an interest in Arthur Pendragon. Merlin, for all his insecurities about the rich, had always had this rich boy kink. He'd never acted on it, never had the opportunity to, but there was something about the twist of Arthur's arrogant mouth, and it had featured in many a fantasy when Merlin was a teenager, watching footage of him drunk and coked-up outside Runway or Tramp, hanging off whichever scantily-clad model or actress was his girlfriend du jour.

And well, yes, maybe Merlin had bought that copy of Flaunt that had that insanely raunchy photo shoot he did; lying on a picnic table wearing an Armani suit with no shirt, cigarette in between his lips, and a hand on his crotch, looking like every fantasy Merlin had ever had. But that doesn't explain why he's thinking about it right now, or why his cock has taken a sudden interest in a man he hasn't thought about in at least a year, or—

"Merlin?" Gwaine shoulder taps him, shocking him out of his train of thought. "Where did you go?"

"Sorry," Merlin kisses his neck, banishing thoughts of spoiled brats with blond hair from his mind, "Thinking about my next painting. What were you saying?"

Gwaine rolls his eyes and repeats, "Arthur. Decent bloke once you get to know him. Well. Sort of. Anyway, you'll see."

"I haven't said I'll go yet." Merlin closes his eyes as Gwaine rubs a hipbone with his thumb, then traces the crease from hipbone to cock. It's a cheap trick, trying to get Merlin to change his mind whilst distracting him like this.

It wouldn't be so bad if Lance was coming, Merlin adores him after all, but just his luck, Lance is taking Gwen to meet his parents in Manchester that weekend. Merlin's very happy for them of course, ecstatic for Gwen that things are going so well, but why couldn't it have been another damn weekend?

Gwaine sucks at the base of his neck. Bastard. He knows that's a sensitive spot for him and Merlin inhales quickly, trying to ignore Gwaine's smug grin. He's starting to run out of excuses in his own head as to why he doesn't want to go. And part of him really does want to go: to meet Gwaine's friends, to have a weekend away in the country, it's been a lifetime since Merlin spent any time in the country. There are many reasons that Merlin can think of and none of them should have anything to do with Arthur Pendragon, but Merlin's hit with a sudden need to know what Arthur looks like when he's with his friends, relaxed. When he isn't playing billionaire playboy, just eating and drinking and having a good time without the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Merlin can't understand why he suddenly cares so much about someone he's never met.

And anyway, who needs Arthur when he has his own rich, completely fit and utterly filthy boyfriend in his bed? Gwaine is a wank fantasy in his own right, and Merlin lets his eyes travel slowly over Gwaine's body, taking in every inch of skin, every perfect muscle.

Merlin pushes Gwaine back into the pillows and straddles him, pushing his wrists above his head, breathing, "Make as much noise as you want, Gwaine, I dare you," before going down on him and not thinking about Arthur Pendragon even for a second.

***

The field is dry, desolate, charred and covered in blood, and the bodies of the fallen.

Merlin cradles the man's head in his lap. He knows this man, his king, is dead. But he can't let him go. Not yet.

Merlin kisses him once. A gentle, chaste kiss, so unlike the others they've shared, and he weeps as the soldiers take his love's body away.

Merlin wakes and raises his hands to his face to rub his eyes. They come away wet.

He paints until daylight starts to stream through the windows.

***

There are, Merlin thinks, advantages to having a disgustingly rich boyfriend. It's hard not to be impressed when Gwaine shows up at Merlin's apartment in his Saab convertible, designer sunglasses framing his face and the wind blowing through his hair. It has the combined effect of looking like Derek Zoolander filming a Pantene commercial. It's a little ridiculous and incredibly ostentatious, but it makes Merlin smile.

"Nice to see you packed light," he says, eyebrow cocked, pointing to the large suitcase Gwaine has in the back. It's Louis Vuitton, and god only knows how expensive. Merlin throws his own generic duffle bag in to share its very expensive air.

"A man never knows how many pairs of shoes he's going to need," Gwaine replies and it makes Merlin laugh.

He gets in and kisses Gwaine, soft and wet before pulling back, whispering, "You are the biggest queen I have ever shagged in my life."

Gwaine blows him a kiss, and once Merlin has buckled his seatbelt, they take off. Merlin texts Gwen to let her know he's gone, and gets an enjoy :) back from her.

Merlin has, for his sniping, packed more for himself than he ever would have had he not been sharing living space with some of the richest men in the country. He even splurged and bought himself some new jeans and a couple of clean t-shirts, and he has boots and trainers for good measure. If his mother could see him, she'd probably keel over from shock. It's been a long time since she's seen him wearing anything that isn't covered in paint, but he figures that it'd be poor form not to at least make a little effort. After all, it's not like he's label bashing or trying to pretend he's something he's not. It's just— Gwaine kind of makes him want to make the effort.

"You know," Merlin shouts over the Queens Of The Stone Age blaring over the speakers, "I have actually seen the size of your penis, you didn't necessarily have to show up in a car that screams compensation."

"Ah, you love it." Gwaine flashes him one of those filthydirty and charmingasallhell smiles that are just not fucking fair. "You know Old Mrs Jones from number 12 is right now calling everyone she knows to tell them that lovely Merlin from next door's taken up with some mysterious, rich man with truly devastating good looks."

Gwaine is too bloody charming for his own good, and Merlin can't help himself from smiling fondly and shaking his head at the playful arrogance of the man as they head down the A10.

They stop in Lambeth for a bottle of water and to fill the car up. It may be a gorgeous car (which Merlin would never admit out loud) but it also guzzles petrol at a great rate.

Merlin rubs his eyes, trying not to doze off. It's been a long time since he's had a decent night's sleep, and it always seems to catch up with him mid-afternoon. The dreams are becoming more regular, and they're much more vivid than they've ever been before. Less muted and abstract. He's starting to see faces where there used to be only shadow, and he feels like if he tried hard enough, he could almost touch—

"You know," Gwaine says, interrupting his train of thought, "there's someone coming who you should talk to about your paintings."

He yawns. "Paintings?"

"Yeah." Gwaine reaches out and lays a hand on the back of Merlin's neck, pulling him in for a kiss. Gwaine never cares about propriety, or homophobic aggression, or pissing people off. That's what you get when you're privileged and built like a brick shithouse, Merlin supposes. "Morgana, Arthur's half-sister'll be there. She's very keen on art; you should let her see some of your stuff."

Merlin tries not to bristle. He knows Gwaine is only being his normal, friendly self, but Merlin wants to just throw a hissy fit, tell him he doesn't need some rich patron, especially not some society princess, and by the way he was doing fine before he met Gwaine anyhow, so what business is it of his? But that would probably be a lie, since Merlin hasn't sold a painting in months, and he wouldn't be working part-time in a bloody arts bookshop if he was doing that well.

So he bites down the inflated sense of pride that seems to be attacking him, and grits his teeth, remarking, "That'd be great."

"You know me," Gwaine says, "I know nothing about art. I can barely tell a Van Gogh from a Paint By Numbers. Morgana does, she's been treating artists as her pet projects since she was a teenager."

"But," Merlin says, looking out the window as they drive off, "I mean— you say you don't know anything about art, so how do you know I'm any good? You might be wasting your friend's time, you know."

Gwaine shrugs, "I could be, sure. But I do know what your painting means to you, that it's the most important thing in your life. That's good enough for me, Merlin. "

Merlin thinks, and not for the first time, that he really doesn't know what he did to deserve Gwaine coming into his life.

***

Leon's place has very little in common with the word 'house', and more in common with words like 'mansion' and 'palace', Merlin thinks. He spends long minutes in awe, a smile plastered on his face as he gazes around the grounds taking in the amazing gardens, the pool, and the lake.

It has its own lake. Of course.

"Gwaine, you bloody poofter!"

The only times that anyone has called Merlin a poofter, he's ended up getting a fist in the face. But this time, the affection behind the word is obvious, so Merlin doesn't flinch. Much.

The owner of the voice is tall and athletic and when he gets closer, Merlin recognises him from the Polo picture. Gwaine launches himself at Leon and the two end up on the ground, enacting some public schoolboy bonding ritual that looks like either wrestling or dry-humping.

"Ignore them," a distinctly feminine voice remarks from beside him, "it's all very manly and extremely tedious."

Merlin turns around to see an obscenely beautiful woman, dressed in your typical new Sloane Ranger uniform: black leggings, ballet flats and a boho-print shirt. If it was colder, he's certain she'd be wearing one of those Stella McCartney wrap cardies. Morgana LeFay is even more stunning in person (because Merlin's seen her in a hundred different articles, and his mum reads 'Hello!' religiously), her black hair swept into a ponytail and her porcelain-white skin completely free of make-up.

"You must be Merlin," she says, and he puts his hand out to shake hers, but instead she pulls him into a hug. "Nice to finally meet the boy who's been keeping Gwaine away from us."

Merlin grins and maybe blushes a little and that makes her clap her hands gleefully, "Oh you are precious!" She stands back with her arms folded, looking him up and down. "You look like an artist, too. I should like to see your paintings, I think."

She links arms with him, and they walk over to where Gwaine and Leon are lying, panting on the grass.

"Gwaine, he is adorable," she says, grinning wide. "I can see why you've been keeping him all to yourself, but I think we're going to be great friends and maybe I'll steal him away from you for a bit, hmmm?"

Merlin adores Morgana on sight. She's beautiful, regal and yet completely down-to-earth and welcoming. And again, he's hit with this feeling, that he knows her. But it must be because he's seen her grow up, her whole childhood on display, just as Arthur's was. The scandal that rocked the family of the 7th Duke of Westminster, Uther Pendragon, two years ago, when the young socialite was discovered to be his daughter, and not the daughter of his long-time business partner and friend Gorlois, the 18th Duke of Norfolk.

"As long as you give him back, Morgs," Leon says, breathless, and strides over to Merlin, shaking his hand vigorously, "it's great you could make it, Merlin. And don't worry; if you can survive more than a week with this Welsh git, you can certainly survive a weekend with all of us."

"It's— uh— great to meet you both," Merlin stammers. He does feel overwhelmed, and while Leon is incredibly friendly, he is also incredibly posh, and Merlin still doesn't quite know how to relate to someone who owns property all over the world and calls the incredible house they're standing in the grounds of, "a place to get away for the weekend." He isn't intimidated, it's just — so bizarre to him. And Morgana, well, he doesn't even know where to start with her: it's difficult to make smalltalk with someone who he's seen growing up in magazines and newspapers and is pretty damn near royalty.

He feels much happier when Gwaine, who is rich, but not at all posh, comes up close and puts an arm around him. He feels grounded.

"Such a shame DuLac couldn't be here, he's been a monk lately, I hear."

Gwaine laughs. "Well, you haven't met the lovely Gwen. He's ridiculously smitten. It's really quite revolting."

"I shouldn't have minded meeting her. Bit more oestrogen around here might be nice for a change."

Merlin smiles at that. It does feel a little testosterone heavy.

"Where's that good-for-nothing brother of yours?" Gwaine asks, his nose pressed into Merlin's neck. Merlin feels his stomach coil around itself.

"Half-brother, thank you very much," Morgana spits, her eyes narrowed, "and he's having a sleep. It's hard being him, you know."

"Oh yes," Merlin says before he can catch himself, "the endless feasts, the servants picking up after him, the models, all that running around the countryside dodging paparazzi. So very hard being— Oh God, ugh, I mean. Oh God, please forget I said that, I'm really sorry!"

Morgana roars with laughter, "No, you're right, Merlin, and bless you for having the bollocks to say it. Oh I am keeping you!" She pauses. "Though I would probably have used the word party, rather than feast, but I guess those are feasts of a sort, aren't they?"

Merlin's still a little shell-shocked, and he turns around to Gwaine and mouths, "Sorry."

"Merlin," Gwaine half-whispers, "she's right, you know. Arthur may be our friend, but he is probably the most privileged wanker in the world. For what it's worth, we all blame his father for that, he's really a decent bloke once you get to know him. But regardless, Morgana's already made it clear you're one of us. That means you get free reign to abuse Her Royal Highness as you see fit."

"I am," Leon remarks, "revoltingly sober. Let's get you two settled and get to the boozing, shall we?"

Merlin thinks alcohol is a fantastic idea. At least if he puts his bloody foot in his mouth then, he'll be in less cognisant company. And maybe alcohol will relax him enough to not be obvious about the fact that Arthur Pendragon makes him completely, irrationally nervous.

***

Leon's house has nine bedrooms. Nine. Bedrooms. Merlin wants to comment about why on earth a man would need a country house with nine bedrooms, but he's distracted by how insanely comfortable the bed he and Gwaine have is. It's like sleeping on pockets of air, encased in a perfectly firm outer mattress.

"I'm not moving," Merlin says, his head pushed into the mattress. Gwaine is hanging things in the wardrobe, but Merlin just stays there, looking back over one shoulder. "I mean it. You're going to have to carry me forcibly to get me to move."

"That can be arranged," Gwaine grins, and Merlin feels his stomach flip. He knows that grin.

"Nope," he flips over on the bed and leans back, elbows crossed behind his head, "there will be no sex. I'm saving myself for marriage, you know."

Gwaine nods mock-seriously, "Of course, and here was me thinking you were a complete and utter cockslut who only needs the hint of an excuse to roll over for me."

"Nooooo," Merlin teases, shaking his head, "that is my evil twin who comes out to play when we are not in a lovely house, with very posh people who don't need an excuse to disapprove of your bit of rough trade. I am very pure and very chaste and not at all interested in your washboard abs, your perfect bum, or your gorgeous, gorgeous cock."

Gwaine laughs very loudly and there's a thump on the wall.

"Oh great," Gwaine sighs. "The Princess is next door. I'd recognise that thump anywhere."

"About time you got up, your highness," he yells, "quick, before someone drinks all the booze!"

"And that someone would be you, of course." Merlin pulls Gwaine in for a kiss, biting his bottom lip when he pulls away, and trying to ignore the horrible, gnawing fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Come on." Gwaine gets up and pulls a protesting Merlin up with him. "You'll have plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with this lovely bed, later." He grabs Merlin's arse in both hands and rubs their crotches together, before grinning wickedly and backing away.

"I hate you," Merlin groans, because he is completely horny now, and it's all Gwaine's fault. He hopes he can will away the erection he's sporting, but with Gwaine acting like a raging nympho every time he comes anywhere near him, Merlin doesn't fancy his chances.

They make their way down to the kitchen, which is bigger than Merlin's kitchen, living room and bedroom put together. Morgana is preparing a batch of what looks like Cosmopolitans and there's a giant aluminium tub full of beer and ice on the bar.

"Cocktail, Merlin?"

Gwaine grabs two and knocks them back, wipes his hand across his mouth and grabs another one, then gestures to Merlin that he's going outside for a smoke.

"No manners," Merlin sighs, "but what can you do?"

"Put him out of his misery," comes a voice from behind him: deep and resonant, and Merlin knows very well who it is before he even turns around. Arthur.

"Oh, it lives!" Morgana exclaims, "Merlin, this is Arthur. He's harmless really as long as you don't get too close."

She picks up her cocktail and goes outside to join Gwaine and Leon, ignoring Arthur's two-fingered salute.

Merlin turns to face him, and feels his stomach completely drop to the floor. Arthur is, as Merlin already knew, beautiful. Incredible eyes and mouth and the kind of jaw line that screams "breeding". He looks like he's been sleeping: hair rumpled and face unshaven and Merlin can't stop staring. Seeing him on telly or in magazines is nothing like seeing him in person. He's absolutely fucking perfect.

"So. You're the painter?" Arthur asks, condescending tone in his voice. Merlin can't help but feel that "the painter" should be capitalised, like The Gardener or The Servant. What a surprise that Arthur Pendragon, future Duke of Westminster, is a complete and utter prick.

"My name," he snaps at him, reaching for a beer and uncapping it, "is Merlin."

"I know," Arthur says, softer, less arrogant. His eyes trail down Merlin's body and up again. It makes Merlin feel completely exposed. "Arthur Pendragon."

Merlin rolls his eyes, "Yeah, well. I wish I could say it was a pleasure."

He wants to apologise as soon as he says it: nerves making him defensive and snapping at Arthur like they're going into battle: lower middle class against upper class. But all Arthur does is smirk, and it makes Merlin not want to apologise at all.

"It's not then?" Arthur asks, one eyebrow cocked, mouth curled into a smirk. "So we're not going to be best friends, Merlin?"

Condescending bastard.

"Not likely," Merlin bites out, "I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass."

He's so pretty. Shame he's such an arsehole.

"— come on."

Merlin lunges for him, but he doesn't stand a chance. He’s too quick for Merlin, and he twists Merlin's arm behind his back. Merlin can feel him right there, and he hates that he's helpless under this man's hands. If he was allowed to, if it wasn't so dangerous, he could crush this beautiful, smug arsehole with just a wave of his wrist.

"I'm going to have to throw you in jail for that."

"Why? Who are you, the king?"

"No. I'm his son. Arthur."

Of course. He'd have to be the prince, wouldn't he? Because Merlin's life isn't complicated enough. Arthur holds him there; arm held tight, twisted. Merlin can feel Arthur's breath on his face, and he hates him. Hates that he can't do anything but take whatever Arthur gives him.

Merlin has to hold onto the bench so he doesn't fall over.

He's never had a waking dream like this, and it was more real than anything he's ever dreamed before. It felt like— Like he knew Arthur. Knows him. It's not possible.

Arthur clicks his fingers in front of Merlin's face, "Uh, am I boring you?"

"No more than usual," Merlin replies, but he's not really listening. He's trying to just hold on to what he thinks are probably his last threads of sanity.

"Than usual?" Arthur looks about as confused as Merlin is at having made the comment.

"Well, I've known you less than five minutes and I'm already bored," Merlin says, taking a sip of his beer, "so it's probably a sign of things to come, don't you think?"

Arthur laughs, his head thrown back. "You're really kind of a wanker, aren't you?"

"That's funny, I was about to say the same thing to you," Merlin retorts.

"Oh for— let's start again, shall we? Gwaine'd never forgive me if I didn't at least make an effort."

Arthur puts his hand out to Merlin, and when their hands touch it feels like a current through his whole body. Merlin whispers, "your highness," and it makes Arthur jump back as if he's been burned. It feels so shockingly familiar, the warmth of Arthur's skin against his, the uttering of the honorific. It doesn't feel wrong, and yet Merlin doesn't know why he said it at all.

"Did you? Was that?" Merlin doesn't actually mean to say it out loud, but he does and Arthur's skin looks ashen and pale.

"I." Arthur stammers, "that was. We'd. Uh. The others." He grabs a beer and makes for the door, wiping his brow, not looking back. Merlin rubs at the palm of his right hand, he can still feel Arthur's touch and it feels like electricity. He wishes he knew what the hell was going on. It's too strange and not strange at all.

He grabs a beer, and takes a few deep breaths, before following Arthur outside.

***

When Merlin reaches the pool, he can smell it: the gorgeous smell of freshly charred meat. Leon is standing by a huge barbecue grilling sausages, steak and chicken pieces. He announces that he's very proud he's managing to do the cooking all on his own, and that he's given Cook the night off.

Merlin still can't believe he's staying in a house that has servants. Servants, for god's sake! Why can't rich people just learn to pick up after themselves and do their own cooking? It's not like their lives are that busy and important. Look at Arthur. He's probably never worked a day in his life. He's had people do everything for him since the day he was born. It's no wonder he has such an inflated sense of self-worth.

Merlin loses count of how many beers they all drink waiting for dinner, but the more he drinks the more pliant he feels, and he can't help climbing into Gwaine's lap, mindless of how it looks to anyone else. He's not usually this comfortable and uninhibited in front of people he's just met and he figures it must be the alcohol.

He's grateful for the way the beer is making him loose and warm when Arthur starts ranting about how misunderstood the upper class is.

"All I'm saying is, I just think life would be much less complicated if one were poor." Arthur drains yet another beer, and Merlin tries very hard not to look at the long, elegant line of his throat as he tips it back to swallow. "I mean, just think how easy it would be, just having to worry about having food on the table."

Merlin coughs on his beer. "Excuse me?"

"Oh. Sorry. I forgot that we had a tortured, starving artist in our presence." Arthur is slurring terribly, and so fucking condescending that Merlin wants to hit him.

"You're being rude, Arthur," Gwaine says, lighting another cigarette and leaning back in his chair, "can we have a break from your epically stupid, oh excuse me, Uther's epically stupid rhetoric on the class system for one night?"

Arthur lights a cigarette and Merlin doesn't mean to look, but he does, and he can't help but notice the way Arthur stares back: focused and intense. It makes his skin prickle.

"Something wrong, Merlin?" He asks, taking a drag, and making smokerings, and Merlin has to look away rather than fixate on the way Arthur's mouth forms the 'O' and the way he tilts his head back, baring his throat as he exhales.

"Not at all," Merlin replies, finishing his beer in one swallow. "Just thought someone as superior as yourself wouldn't indulge in such a filthy habit."

Morgana pours them all another shot. Merlin's lost count and he's getting very, very drunk. He wants to say about a million more things to Arthur right now, but he's too busy staring at the way he wipes the back of his hand over his wet, full mouth as he finishes the shot.

Arthur's skin, his body, feel so good under Merlin's hands. Smooth and hard and it takes all of Merlin's willpower not to linger, not to enjoy. He needs to be good, needs to be skillful and focused, because if Arthur really feels that Merlin isn't doing a good job? Well. Merlin couldn't bear the thought of not being Arthur's servant, his protector.

It's funny how quickly Arthur has become the centre of Merlin's universe.

Thanks to Gwen, he gets it right this time. Hauberk, Gorget, Pauldron, all the way down to the Vambraces. Arthur gives him a nod of approval, and it makes Merlin feel elated.

He looks magnificent. Noble. Royal. Like he could take someone apart just by looking at them.

Merlin wants.

He shivers. He tries to cover it up, but it's a split-second too late, and Arthur catches Merlin.
The look that flashes across Arthur's face is dark. Possessive. Predatory. His hands grip the edge of the table, and it's lucky that the others are busy, because they miss all of it.

Merlin doesn't miss it. He knows. He really doesn't know why he does, but it seems as inevitable to him as breathing.

The man he's been seeing in his dreams for years. The one he sees every time he closes his eyes; whose hands feel perfect on his skin, whose mouth he prays he'll dream of every night.

Arthur.

***

He sees himself in chains, manacled to the wall in a wet, dark cell. In front of him, a man wearing black leather gloves is pressing a red-hot poker against his side. It hurts, Gods it hurts, and he tries to yell, but only breath comes out.

"Soon," the man says, and he sounds like he's enjoying this, like he'd be doing this to Merlin even if he didn't have to, "you will pass out from the pain. You're suffering, Merlin, and I can take that away so easily. Just tell me where he is and it'll all go away."

Merlin shakes his head, his lips forming words that are no more than breath, "I won't. Never."

"Oh Merlin," the voice is familiar, soft and feminine. It curls around him, the sound, and he tries to move away from it, but the pain is too great and he's trapped. Her mouth is on his ear, lips warm and seductive.

"Get away from me," he chokes out, and she digs in with her magic, pain searing through him like she's plunging knives into his flesh.

"Tell us where he is, Merlin," Morgana says almost sweetly, "and I'll make it stop."

"Fuck. You."

"I'm losing my patience, Merlin," she warns, the sweetness gone from her tone. "Tell me where my brother is, or so help me, I will flay you alive. Where. Is. Arthur?"

Merlin wakes with a start, muffling the screams he wants to make. He's sweating, hair plastered to his forehead and he's finding it hard to breathe. He needs to get up, go for a walk, anything to throw off the memories of the dream. Gwaine's arm is slung over his belly, and when Merlin moves it, he mumbles and rolls onto his other side, leaving Merlin to slip out of bed, unnoticed.

He grabs Gwaine's cigarettes and lighter, padding downstairs barefoot. The staircase connecting the kitchen to the second level creaks a little as he descends it, and he inhales sharply, hoping it doesn't make enough noise to wake anyone up. He needs to be alone right now.

The dreams are nothing new of course, he's been having them his whole life. But the dreams he's had recently,: asleep and awake, they're different. They feel like memories, like they really happened. Merlin can't help but wonder if all the dreams he's had since he's met Gwaine have been the same. And what he saw tonight, it actually fits. His mother had never been able to tell him where the scars came from, the stripes on his back, the marks at the base of his throat, or the raised circular shapes on his side and belly. But he thinks he knows where they came from now.

What it means, he can't say. But he does know that he knows them, instinctively: Arthur, Morgana, there may be others too. But it's Arthur that started these revelations, and Merlin can feel him in the air, in his blood, and all he knows is that he needs to get as far away from Arthur as he can, right the fuck now.

This whole thing is crazy. But it also makes sense of something that Merlin's struggled with his whole life. He doesn't think this is the first time he and Arthur have met: in fact, he's sure of it. And it sounds so completely mental that he wants to pretend the shared touch that felt like a shock through his whole body, the dream he just had, the sex dreams, wants to pretend they never happened.

He sits down, legs dangling over the side of the pool and lights his cigarette. It's a full moon, and the water looks absolutely beautiful, reflecting the light. It feels peaceful.

Merlin takes a long, slow drag. He doesn't smoke very often, and only ever if he's drinking. But he needs it right now. Needs it to ground himself, and remind himself of who he is and who they are. He's pretty sure Morgana's never tortured anyone in her life, and while she bickers with Arthur, he's sure she'd never want to— his gut clenches tight at the thought of it.

"Is this a private party? Or can anyone join?"

Merlin tries, he really does, but can't help the sharp intake of breath that he makes when he hears that voice, and looks up to see Arthur, standing against the arched entrance to the pool area with a bottle of champagne dangling in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"What are you—?" Merlin feels his chest tighten, his calm completely shattered. "What are you doing, Arthur? It's four-thirty, shouldn't you be, I don't know, asleep?"

"I could say the same thing of you, you know." Arthur takes a drag of his cigarette, and exhales, slowly.

"Yes," Merlin says quickly, trying not to focus on the lazy, seductive way Arthur is speaking, "but I'm pretty sure that you haven't even been to bed, and you are drinking what I assume to be ridiculously expensive champagne from the bottle, so—"

"Merlin, are you my father? I'm pretty sure you're not; he's a lot scarier and a lot less pretty than you."

And that? Is just not fair.

Arthur walks over to him, and Merlin can't look away. He's so casually arrogant, hips swinging slightly as he saunters and Merlin is suddenly struck with an incredibly vivid image of Arthur, smirk on his face as Merlin carried him from a banquet after drinking too much wine.

Arthur's arm is around his shoulder, his face pressed up against Merlin's cheek, and it's too close, he's too close and too hot, and it's like every dream Merlin's had since the day he first met him. He can't be around Arthur when he's like this, because it makes him want things he shouldn't want.

"Merrrrlin," Arthur slurs, as Merlin throws him down on his bed, "You're so good to me, Merlin. Such a good bad servant."

Merlin tries to pull away, but Arthur has him by the wrist and he rubs the pulse point with his thumb.

Arthur's voice shocks him out of the dream, flashback, whatever it is: "Want some?" he asks, offering the bottle to Merlin as he sits down.

He takes the bottle. It's Krug. Of course it is. Only Arthur would drink such expensive champagne from the bottle like he's a homeless man drinking in the street from a brown paper bag.

Merlin takes a sip, and while he feels like an utter wanker, he has to admit it tastes better than anything he's ever had before and he drinks again, taking a bigger gulp this time. He can already feel the alcohol starting to warm his blood.

"Not bad," Merlin says, attempting to sound as nonplussed as possible. He takes a drag on his cigarette and looks up to see Arthur staring rather obviously at his mouth.

"You'd probably prefer Baby Cham, wouldn't you?" Arthur takes one last drag of his own cigarette and flicks it away, chasing it with a massive swig of champagne, probably a quarter of what's left in the bottle, Merlin thinks.

"You are an absolute arse."

Arthur shrugs, "So I've been told. Since when have you been a smoker? I distinctly recall you telling me it was a filthy habit last night.”

"Yes," Merlin admits, "and it's a filthy habit I regrettably indulge in from time to time. I wasn't expecting to see anyone."

"Yeah well." Arthur passes him the bottle, says, "I was having a spectacularly bad nightmare. When they happen, the only cure is getting stinking drunk. Well, that or exceedingly good sex."

Merlin bites his bottom lip and tries to tamp down the heat he can feel in the pit of his stomach. He feels like he's cheating on Gwaine just from this: from being alone with Arthur. He closes his eyes for a minute, concentrates on his breathing, then asks, "Do you have them often?"

When Arthur doesn't reply, Merlin opens his eyes. Arthur is staring at him so unflinchingly, so intently, that Merlin feels naked.

"All the time," Arthur says, voice low. "Every night, Merlin."

"I have bad dreams too," Merlin says, half-whispering it as if that'll make it any less true.

Arthur nods, and finally, finally looks away. "This one," he says, putting the bottle down next to him, "was about you. Someone was hurting you. Torturing you. Morgana—"

Merlin reaches for the bottle and tries to ignore the pounding in his chest. He and Arthur appear to have had the same dream, and that is really, really fucked. There is no way that is in any way normal.

"You don't look all that surprised," Arthur says, head tilted to one side like he's studying Merlin.

Merlin takes one last drag on his cigarette and flicks it aside. Doesn't answer, doesn't even look at him. He can't. Can't even entertain the notion, because if he lets Arthur in right now, he doesn't know if there's any going back. When he looks at Arthur, Merlin finds it hard to breathe, and he just. Can't. He will not be the second bloke in Gwaine's life to betray him with one of his closest friends.

"Merlin—" Arthur starts.

Merlin holds a hand up, cutting Arthur off. If he doesn't leave now, if he doesn't walk away then he knows that Arthur is going to kiss him, and Merlin will let him. Because he wants to. He has since the moment he saw him, in Leon's kitchen, and maybe long before that too. It's so wrong to be thinking it here, with Gwaine asleep in the bed they're sharing, and it makes Merlin's stomach roil with guilt.

"I think I should say goodnight, Arthur," Merlin says, and gets to his feet. He's still not looking at Arthur, but he can feel his stare crushing him with the weight of it.

"Stay," Arthur says, his voice hoarse and almost unrecognisable.

"I can't." Merlin walks away from Arthur, not looking back.

***

Merlin doesn't sleep at all, he just stares at the minute hand going around and around for hours on end. He's too wired to sleep, too anxious, and he's afraid of what he might see when he closes his eyes. He's also afraid of what Arthur is going to do, what his presence means. But Merlin wants to find out what Arthur knows, too, whether they're seeing exactly the same things like it appears they are. Whether Arthur's been having dreams about Merlin all this time as well. He needs to know, every nerve in his body is crying out for it, but he's petrified of what it will mean once he does.

Maybe he's just delusional. That's far more likely than the alternative, surely.

Whatever the outcome, he gets the distinct feeling that Arthur Pendragon is going to turn his life completely upside down and inside out, even more than he already has.

Merlin tries not to look at Arthur when he comes down to breakfast, but it isn't quite that simple. Not when he sits, deliberately (even though there are scads of empty seats) opposite Merlin, and keeps trying to catch his gaze. Arthur looks gorgeous: blood-red Lacoste shirt and jeans, and when Merlin looks under the table, he's barefoot. That shouldn't do things to Merlin's cock, shouldn't make him hopelessly aroused the way it does.

Arthur looks amazing in red. He always has.

Merlin shouldn't know that. It's fucking insane.

He tries to ignore Arthur, focusing instead on what Gwaine is saying, but he can't shut his brain off, and when Arthur reaches across the table to grab the salt, Merlin can't look away, mesmerised by Arthur's fingers curled around the salt shaker: long and elegant and strong.

I know what you feel like, Merlin thinks, the way you feel inside me. He has to bite his tongue to stop himself from moaning.

Merlin feels his face fill with heat, and he tries to distract himself by picking at his breakfast, by brushing a kiss on Gwaine's cheek. It doesn't work. Merlin is so completely, utterly fucked.

"You all right?" Gwaine asks him, concern colouring his words. Merlin can't help wishing that Gwaine wasn't such a considerate boyfriend, it makes what he's feeling towards Arthur so much worse.

Merlin nods. "Just tired. Couldn't sleep last night."

"Ah," Gwaine says, grinning, "hungover, hmmm?"

Arthur announces that the only sure-fire hangover cure is a game of touch rugby. Merlin wants to say something sarcastic, something to make Arthur bite back at him, but right now he thinks giving Arthur attention of any kind is completely fucking dangerous, innocent or not.

They don't have enough players for a proper game, not when there's only four of them plus Merlin, and so Leon calls in his next door neighbour, Percival, who is a complete fucking god, of course, and a couple of the female staff who flirt with Gwaine shamelessly.

"I don't like sport," Merlin whines, and Leon laughs at him.

"You be shirts," Arthur says to Leon and his team which consists of Merlin and the two girls, "We'll be skins."

Arthur pulls his shirt off slow and teasing, and Merlin wants to cry. His body isn't as ripped as Gwaine's, he doesn't spend as many hours at the gym, but he's lean and muscled in all the right places. His shorts are slung low on his hips and Merlin can see the dip of his hipbones. He wants to run his tongue along them, slow and wet, and see if he still has what it takes to make Arthur frantic with lust.

It's hot, and Merlin can see how sweaty Arthur is, rivulets of perspiration trailing down his forehead and off the tip of his nose. His hair is dripping with it, and his chest is dotted with moisture. Merlin's eyes rest on Arthur's nipples, a smattering of hair surrounding them, and he wonders what Arthur would do if Merlin bit them, just gently, scraped his teeth over them.

"Merlin!" Arthur yells, and Merlin jumps about a foot in the air. "For God's sake, stop daydreaming and come over here."

It's been a long time; a very, very long time since he's heard Arthur order him around like that.

Gwaine grabs Merlin from behind, presses his mouth into his neck and laughs. "It's all right, Merlin. I don't mind if you look. We're all immune of course, but The Princess does have his charms."

"I like your charms better, " Merlin says, spinning around and kissing Gwaine hard on the mouth.

Despite having Leon and his very athletic female servants on the team, Merlin feels that the deck is definitely stacked in Arthur's favour. He has Morgana, who, stripped down to her sports bra and jogging bottoms is probably the fiercest player in the whole game. Percival's legs are so long that he's unstoppable as soon as he gets the ball, and Gwaine is, well, in ridiculously good shape. And then there's Arthur: driving his team to try after try, yelling at them to play harder and faster until Gwaine finally snaps.

"It's a fucking game, Pendragon, we're not going into war!" Gwaine's jaw is set and his hands are clenching at his sides and Merlin's worried that this is all going to go horribly sour.

Everyone stops and watches. Arthur runs a hand through his hair and strides across the field until he's inches from Gwaine. The two of them are in each other's faces, and the tension is electric.

"That's your problem, Gwaine," Arthur snarls. "No fucking commitment. You always were an undisciplined waste of space."

Arthur has been hard on Gwaine. Much harder than usual, and much harder than the rest of the knights. He keeps making him do the drills over and over, picking at him when there's technically very little wrong with what he's doing, Merlin suspects.

No, this isn't about the drills at all. This is about Gwaine dragging Merlin along to the tavern when Merlin should've been working, and being hungover for training. Arthur is angry, and unfortunately for Gwaine, it means being yelled at and shamed and made an example of in front of all his fellow knights.

"Don't you ever," Arthur hisses between gritted teeth, "waste my time like this again. And don't think you can rope my servant into your self-destructive behaviour, either. Grow up, Gwaine. Do you want to be a knight, or not?"

"Yes." Gwaine is trying very hard not to lose his temper. Merlin can see it in the line of his jaw, the way his shoulders are tight and tense. Arthur is really getting to him.

"Yes, what?" Arthur's grip on his sword is so tight that Merlin thinks it might just be possible for him to crush it.

"Yes. Sire."

So that's it then. Gwaine too. It's really little wonder that Merlin felt so fond, so quickly, and Merlin wonders if Gwaine has any idea about any of it.

Gwaine is seething, but Morgana steps between the two of them, whispering something that Merlin can't hear. Gwaine nods and storms over to Merlin.

"Fucking Arthur and his issues," he complains, "so much for a nice casual game of touch, hmm?"

Merlin shakes his head. "Are you two all right, or do you need to be separated?"

Gwaine snorts. "I'll be fine. Arthur, however, is in a horrendously foul mood. I'd better go steel myself."

He winks and runs back to Morgana and Percy, blowing a kiss at Merlin as he goes.

Merlin laughs, he knows he shouldn't, but he can't help it and he looks over to the side of the field where Arthur is, water bottle clutched in his hand.

He's sweating profusely, tension evident in his body, and Merlin can't help but stare at the line of his back, the way the muscles move under the skin. Arthur snaps his head around and catches Merlin looking. It's like he knew instinctively, that Merlin's gaze had been fixed on his. He nods, once, almost curtly, before upending the entire water bottle over his head.

Water runs down Arthur's nose, drips off his hair and he shakes his head, excess water flying everywhere. Merlin's transfixed on him, the way it trickles off his chin and down his neck. There's a drop on his lower lip, and he chases it with his tongue, his gaze holding Merlin's as if he can read exactly what he's thinking.

It's too much, and Merlin mumbles something to Leon that sounds like "Got to— I'll be back in a second," and runs inside the house. Arthur doesn't follow, thank god, and neither does Gwaine, and soon he's locking himself in one of the many bathrooms he has to choose from, shoving his hand in his trousers and wrapping it around his cock.

He's so hard already that it's going to be over quickly, and Merlin strips his cock with hard, fast strokes, thumbing the wet head and biting his lip to stop himself from groaning Arthur's name.

Merlin comes with his eyes closed and he pictures himself on his knees: begging Arthur to come on his face.

He doesn't waste any time, just wipes himself clean and goes back out to join the others on legs that are shaky as hell.

"Game's over," Arthur mutters, sulkily, "time for drinking."

Arthur always did hate it when his men didn't take things as seriously as he did.

"What's wrong?" Morgana whispers at him when he goes outside for air. "Did Arthur do something to upset you, Merlin? He was out of line with Gwaine."

"No," Merlin replies. "I mean he was, but I just had to take a break."

"Why? Is there anything I can do?"

"If I tell you to mind your own business, are you going to jab a red-hot poker in my side?"

Morgana laughs, somewhat hysterically. "What the hell are you on about, Merlin? Have you gone mad?"

And that would be another one of those conversations that would have been better in his head and not spoken aloud.

"I probably have," he admits. He doesn't add that it is all her brother's fault. And probably hers, because while he doesn't know exactly why, she's as present as Gwaine and Arthur in his dreams or flashbacks— no. In his memories. Merlin wonders if he really is going crazy, but if he is, then why does Arthur seem to remember things too? Why does he act as if he's known Merlin before?

It is crazy, but Merlin knows it's happening nonetheless.

Morgana clicks her fingers in his face. "Hello? Are you there? Merlin, what is going on with you and Arthur? I'm not blind, I know my brother better than anyone."

"Half brother," Merlin says, grinning, and Morgana smiles back, but it doesn't reach her eyes.

"Was he particularly awful to you? Oh. It was that crap he was spouting last night about the poor, wasn't it? He really can be an utter pillock, I know, but he isn't always like that."

Merlin nods, adds, "It's really okay. We just had a difference of opinion, Morgana. Seriously, it's nothing to worry about, it'll be fine. And don't say anything to Arthur, okay? I was upset, and now I'm perfectly happy."

"All right," Morgana says, squeezing Merlin's hand. "Just don't be too hard on him, Merlin. He may be a complete wanker, but he's a good man, and I think he really likes you. He may not show it, but he does."

"I know," Merlin says. "He’s always been a good man." He purposefully ignores the rest, because, yes, he's aware that Arthur likes him. A little too much.

Morgana narrows her eyes. "Always? What a strange thing to say. Have you had some encounter with Arthur that I'm not aware of?"

Merlin just shrugs and laughs and changes the subject by commenting on the way Percy keeps looking at Morgana. It distracts her from her far-too-intuitive line of questioning long enough for Merlin to find Gwaine.

***

Merlin is the first one up the next morning. He had decided to get an early night while the others were drinking till god-knows-what hour. He hadn't trusted himself to be around Arthur when there was alcohol involved, so he piked early, saying he had a headache. If truth be told, he doesn't really trust himself to be around Arthur when he's sober, either.

He puts the kettle on to boil, dropping a teabag into the huge bucket of a mug that is probably big enough for two people Merlin's size.

"Morning."

He jumps at the sound of Arthur's voice, and scalds his hand with a splash of boiling hot water.

"Fuck!" Merlin hisses under his breath, not wanting to wake anyone up. He run-walks over to the cold tap and puts his hand under the cool running water. "It's always a good idea, Arthur, not to creep up on someone while they're pouring boiling water. It has a tendency to burn."

"Sorry." Arthur is behind him now, so close that Merlin can almost feel his breath on the back of his neck. He gets his hand under the cold water with Merlin's, holding it in position there, and Merlin shivers.

"I—" Merlin stammers, "I'll be okay now."

"Will you?" Arthur's voice is almost dreamy, hypnotic in his ear, and Merlin can feel Arthur's lips resting on his earlobe. He knows he should tell him to fuck off, should push him away and go back to Gwaine who doesn't ever fuck with his head, and is gorgeous and sexy and so good to him.

But he can't.

"I've thought about this," Arthur whispers, mouth so close to Merlin's now, and it makes Merlin's belly roll over with liquid heat, "nearly every day since I first met you."

Merlin sighs, can't stop himself, and Arthur is right there behind him, his swollen cock pushing into Merlin's arse. Merlin can't help himself grinding back against it, just a little, but not little enough for Arthur not to notice.

"Gods, you want it, don't you?" Arthur breathes, almost-wonder in his voice. "Not tonight, Merlin, but we'll get there. I just. I want to taste your mouth. May I?"

"Yes," Merlin hisses, and Arthur is spinning him around, strong hands on his arms and holding him there as he lowers his mouth to Merlin's, brushes his lips there and follows them with his tongue.

"You remember, don't you?" Arthur asks, but it's not really a question. He turns off the tap and dries Merlin's hand gently with a tea towel. He doesn't let go. "You remember that kiss."

Merlin nods, and turns around to face Arthur.

"This is— really, really wrong."

"I know." Arthur sounds like he really believes it, too.

Merlin can feel Arthur's fingers pressing into his skin, and he wants to just give in.

He hears a yawn then, and sees Gwaine coming down the staircase. He pulls his hand away from Arthur's, and when he does, Arthur trails his fingers slow and feather-light along Merlin's palm before he lets go.

***

Gwaine wants to leave around two to hopefully miss the traffic, so Merlin takes a walk down to the lake. Gwaine doesn't ask to come along, which suits Merlin just fine, although he feels horrible for not spending more time with him. He wants to make it up to him somehow, try to assuage the guilt he has for spending so much time thinking about Arthur, and he can't wait till he and Gwaine are back in the city, away from complications and nothing to concern themselves with but each other.

Merlin ignores the doubt that creeps into his mind at the idea that he'll ever be able to forget Arthur long enough to be the loving, faithful, dutiful boyfriend.

He takes his sketchpad with him, and sits, cross-legged on the grass, watching as the ducks splash around in the water. There's one that looks different to the rest of them, it's striped black and one of its legs must be hurt from the way it's limping. Merlin finds its solitude, its uniqueness, absolutely beautiful.

"Gwaine said you'd be here." Arthur's voice is soft and low behind him. "We need to talk."

"What about?" Merlin asks, not looking up from his sketchpad, and he thinks to himself that he is the biggest fucking coward that ever lived.

"You know what about." Arthur sits down next to him, and he sounds exhausted.

"But that's the thing," Merlin says, putting his sketchpad down beside him, "I don't."

"You're an appalling liar," Arthur says, his eyes narrowed and fixed on Merlin, "you always were."

Merlin moves to stand up, but Arthur grabs his wrist and pulls him back down. Merlin loses his balance and falls on top of him, Arthur's hips pressed against his and their faces so close that Merlin can feel how rapid Arthur's breathing is.

"I know what you taste like," Arthur whispers, "and you're lying to yourself if you say you don't know why. See, I remember you, Merlin. I've been remembering quite a lot, actually. And I know you have, too. I can see it on your face every time you look at me."

Merlin wants to give in to this so badly, wants to turn his head ever so slightly so that Arthur's mouth is on his. He can feel Arthur is hard underneath him, and there's no way that Arthur doesn't know that Merlin is too, so hard that he's aching with the need to just touch.

"Remember that time I dragged you into the armoury?" Arthur says, his voice raw and tight. "You'd been serving me at dinner, and all I could think about was kissing you, but father wanted an inventory because someone was stealing weapons—"

"Arthur. Stop." Merlin groans, because he can't hear any more of it, he's only so fucking strong, and Arthur is lifting his hips, rubbing his crotch against Merlin's ever-so-subtly.

"I pushed you up against the wall and held you there. You kept complaining that someone might come in, someone might see, but you loved it, didn't you? Loved to think what would happen if someone found us, you begging and moaning like a bitch in heat. God, Merlin, love how fucking responsive you are, you don't even know what you look like, do you?."

Arthur's face is pressed against Merlin's cheek and he's panting out, short huffs of warm breath. Merlin wants to give in, wants to just let himself grind his hips against Arthur.

"I want to remember it all," Arthur whispers. "I need to. Need to know everything."

"No." Merlin jerks away from Arthur, gets to his feet. "This is wrong, Arthur. You know what it would do to Gwaine, and I can't— I won't do that to him. No matter what I—"

Remember. He's starting to remember. And he knows now that's what the dreams have been his whole life, memories of a past he wasn't ready to know about. He isn't crazy at all; the puzzle is starting to take form.

Merlin wants Arthur more than he can possibly bear, and now that he remembers some of it, he wants to remember everything. But Gwaine's already been betrayed by one friend, and Merlin can't be responsible for putting him through that again, no matter how undeniable the pull between him and Arthur is.

"I know." Arthur says, his voice thick with something that sounds an awful lot like regret.

Merlin makes the mistake then of looking down at him, and he can't unsee how beautiful Arthur is: leaning back on his elbows, all blond tousled hair and long, elegant neck. Merlin's hit with an image then, like a punch to his gut: Arthur, wearing that white, open-necked tunic that always drove Merlin crazy; his lips swollen and kiss-bruised and his hands on Merlin's head, tangled in his hair as he thrusts into Merlin's mouth.

It's too much to even be near him, too much to look at him, so Merlin picks up his sketchpad and heads for the house, determined to get as far away from Arthur as possible.

When he and Gwaine leave, Arthur is in his room with "a headache" according to Leon. Merlin's grateful of it because he doesn't know how to be around him anymore, but his chest aches with his absence, nonetheless.

Morgana hugs him tightly, after she and Leon walk them to the car.

"It's been such a pleasure, Merlin." She smiles fondly. "And don't think you can get rid of us now that you're part of the family."

No, Merlin thinks, apparently I can't get rid of any of you at all. Ever.

"I'll call you soon and set up an appointment to come and look at your paintings," she says.

Merlin nods. "Absolutely, that'd be grand, Morgana. And, uh, tell Arthur I hope he feels better soon."

Merlin looks away. He can't risk her seeing the guilt etched in his face; Morgana always saw too much.

***

Gwaine is chatty on the drive home, and if he notices that Merlin is a lot quieter than usual, he doesn't say anything.

They end up at Gwaine's flat, because Merlin's washing machine is on the blink, and he needs to do a load before meeting Gwen tomorrow for lunch.

Merlin sits on the sofa, drinking tea, Gwaine's head on his lap, and drifts off to sleep.

He dreams of Gwaine the first time they met: fearless and gorgeous, throwing himself in the middle of a barfight to help save two men he barely knew. And because it was fun. Merlin had been floored by this ridiculously handsome drifter who had taken a knife for Arthur without so much as a moment's hesitation.

When he wakes he grabs Gwaine by the hair and kisses him: rough and fast. They fuck right there on the floor, Gwaine pressing Merlin's wrists above his head and Merlin tries to focus on him: dark hair and stubble and perfect body; he doesn't want to see blue, almond-shaped eyes, golden hair and a sharp jawline when he comes.

***

The trouble with repressed memories is that they tend to appear at the most inconvenient of times. They have this nasty habit of appearing in the middle of a meeting with a prospective buyer, or sex with your boyfriend, or when you're sitting on the tube next to a disapproving old woman who sneers at you.

It's been a week since Merlin and Arthur connected. He keeps wanting to say met, but that would be grossly inaccurate. He's known Arthur for hundreds of years, that much is clear. But he can't help wanting to know more. Everything.

There are still so many things he can't remember, and it's like a connect-the-dots picture where some of the dots are missing. There are things he knows of course: he knows that he loved Arthur. Loves. Needs. Wants. Present tense and past tense and everything in between. He knows that he was Arthur's servant, that Arthur was the only son of a King and a fierce warrior, and that Morgana betrayed him, wanted him dead. He knows that all of them: Leon, Lance, Gwaine, even Gwen were there too. He's seen them all in the images he gets hit with constantly, but Merlin doesn't know the rest, the substance underneath, or why they've all come back together like this.

He wonders if painting is the key to unlocking it all. Merlin is painting his fingers raw most days, but unlike before where the images were unclear, distorted half-memories, it feels like the painting is fuelling the memories, not the other way around. The image appears in his head, he paints it, and then the flashback happens. It's like clockwork. His studio is littered with canvases, and it all looks so familiar that he can almost taste it. Maybe if he just keeps painting he'll remember every detail, every memory. He desperately needs to remember, it's all he can think about.

***

Guinevere and Lancelot leave in the middle of the night, and Merlin doesn't get to say goodbye to them. Arthur had given them a chance to leave before anyone else had been told. He knew the rest of the court would not offer the two of them the same leniency and they would be in danger once the court discovered what he had: that their queen had been found in the arms of Arthur's first knight.

Merlin doesn't see Arthur cry or rage. After all, he can hardly blame Gwen for seeking comfort with another when he had done the same. But Lancelot's betrayal—that is what crushes a piece of Arthur's heart, and he is never the same.

***

Merlin almost doesn't pick up when Morgana calls, but he'd be lying if he said he didn't want to hear for himself how Arthur is, where he is, whether he's as much of a mess as Merlin is. Merlin hopes that he isn't the only one who can't think of anything else. He hopes that Arthur is as twisted up inside, as confused, as he is. He hates how selfish that is, but he finds it hard to care.

"Merlin, I've missed you!" Her voice feels so grounding to him, so familiar, and it gives him something to hold onto. Gwaine has that effect on him too, but it's different, he isn't sharing his bed with Morgana wishing he were sharing it with someone else. Sometimes Merlin wishes he could be cold and heartless and fuck the consequences, but he just isn’t that person.

There is so much scar tissue there between him and Morgana and so much that she's done to hurt them all that Merlin hasn't even remembered yet. But she can't help any of that now, and Merlin just wants her in his life, regardless of the things she's done. She's not the same person she was back then, and Merlin doesn't want to hold this Morgana accountable for all the mistakes she made in the past.

They've all made dreadful mistakes, after all.

"I've missed you too," he admits. "It's only been a few weeks though, are we pathetic?"

"Not at all! I told you I was keeping you, didn't I?"

He laughs. "Yes, well, I'll hold you to that. What's going on?"

"I thought," she starts, "if you're not too busy that is, that I might pop in and see your work. I've been dying to see it after all, and I get to see you in the process, which is a wonderful bonus. When are you free?"

Now. And bring your brother.

"Uh, anytime really. That's the beauty of working in your own flat; you get to entertain people whilst elbow-deep in paint any time of the day."

Morgana's laugh is infectious. "Well, I do have the afternoon free. How about I come and see you in an hour or two, and then take you out for dinner?"

"That, uh, that sounds perfect." Merlin would normally argue, say he doesn't need charity, that he'd be just as happy with a curry from down the road, but he hasn't eaten in hours, and he's ravenous. If Morgana wants to spring for steak, or seafood or what-the-hell-ever, he doesn't have a problem with that at all.

"Couple of hours'd be great, actually. Gives me a chance to tidy up a little bit. It's not every day I get FHM's Sexiest Woman Alive round to mine, you know."

Morgana giggles. "Oh stop, you'll make me blush with embarrassment! And anyway, I wouldn't have thought FHM was your type of magazine at all. Attitude, maybe. Or that Australian one, what's it called? Red?"

"Blue," Merlin says, "but I am rather partial to red." He wants to slap himself for saying it out loud, it's so cheesy. At least he didn't say: "I mostly like it when your brother's wearing red. Or, y'know, nothing." He may as well have, for all the pornographic visions he's getting, just thinking about Arthur and the colour in the same sentence: Arthur in his cloak, dragging Merlin into an alcove to kiss him fiercely, or in his red, open-necked shirt, head thrown back as Merlin sucks him—

Morgana's voice shocks him out of his fantasies: "All right, well I'd better run if I'm going to make it to, God, Stoke Newington of all places, Merlin."

"Well, I wanted a loft in Soho, but unfortunately some of us were blessed with the peasant's gene instead of the landed gentry's."

"Oh touché," Morgana says. "See you soon. If I don't get lost, that is!"

The line goes dead and Merlin realises he forgot to ask her about Arthur. It's probably just as well, the last thing Merlin needs is a visceral reminder of just how fucked he is.

***

Morgana looks out of place in Merlin's very plain, very basic flat. She arrives at the door in Chanel sunglasses, her hair in a bun, and a black ensemble with knee-high spike heel boots that make her look like the world's most glamorous cat burglar.

"Look what I found!" she exclaims. "He was moping around his apartment like a wounded puppy, so I thought I'd bring him along."

Merlin's heart hammers in his chest as she steps aside and Arthur looks up at him through his eyelashes. He looks every bit as fuckable and gorgeous as ever, and the fact that he's incredibly pale, with big dark circles under his eyes, doesn't make him any less attractive. On the contrary, it makes Merlin want to take care of him until the colour comes back into his cheeks.

"My sister," Arthur says, deliberately ignoring Morgana's protests of 'half only fucking half, goddammit!' "is a harpy who refused to leave me in peace. I was perfectly happy on my own, but she turned up on my doorstep begging me to come into the middle of bloody nowhere to see, in her words, 'that lovely Merlin'. I mean really, I'm scared I might catch something just by being in this place."

"Yes, if you're lucky. It's called a personality."

Arthur sneers at Merlin, steps forward, and grimaces at the state of Merlin's front door. It's dusty, true, and the paint work's chipped, but Merlin doesn't really care. It's comfortable enough to sleep and work in. It'll do.

Merlin can't help but notice the way Arthur is staring at his mouth as he brushes past him, almost touching his shoulder he's so close. Merlin swallows, trying to tamp down the massive surge of lust that's boiling underneath. His jeans feel uncomfortably tight all of a sudden and he hopes Morgana doesn't notice.

"Don't mind him, Merlin. He just gets tetchy when he hasn't been laid in more than a week. It's been eight days and he's gagging for it," she stage-whispers.

Merlin stares at Arthur, and the look he gets makes his thighs turn to liquid.

"Sometimes I wish I had a muzzle," Arthur says, still staring directly at him. "Do me a favour and hurry up and show her the damn paintings, Merlin, before I commit sororicide in order to get some bloody peace."

There's something in the way Arthur says his name, the way he stresses the first syllable, that makes Merlin think of lazy summer days, lying around in sun-kissed grass and Arthur stripping him slowly, kissing every inch of uncovered flesh.

Merlin shivers at the memory, and Arthur cocks an eyebrow, mouth turning up at the corners. Smug bastard.

"Yeah, well, let's go upstairs shall we?" Merlin asks, ushering Morgana upstairs with him, and ignoring Arthur. He can just stew for a minute, Merlin thinks, serve him bloody right for turning up and turning everything inside out.

Morgana spends long minutes gazing at his work, going from the painting of the Dragon that Merlin sees in his dreams, to the painting of the hand thrusting Excalibur out of the water, to the countless paintings involving the man who Merlin knows now, is Arthur.

"Gorgeous," Morgana says. "Your use of colour is breathtaking, Merlin."

"It's always been about colour for me," he admits. "It's just organic."

Arthur snorts.

Merlin glares at him, "Did I say something funny, your highness?"

Morgana laughs, but Merlin can see the change in his face, the measured way in which Arthur swallows, the way his jaw tightens.

"Not at all," Arthur forces out, through gritted teeth. "Just— save me from bloody artistic sensibilities, will you? You're all so precious and misunderstood." Arthur mimes swooning with his hand over his eyes.

"My God you're an insufferable tosser," Merlin says. "This from the man whose life's work includes posing for paparazzi, fucking supermodels and snorting the entire GDP up his ridiculous bloody nose? Oh, and—"

"Oooookay," Morgana cuts in. "Let's just try and be civil for five sodding minutes, can we?"

Her phone rings and she looks at the display. "It's Uther. I should really take this. Do try not to start a class war while I'm on the phone, will you?"

She ducks out of the room, and Arthur grins. He's not angry, he's playing with him and Merlin can't decide whether he wants to kiss him, or kill him. Maybe both.

"Why are you even here?" Merlin asks, walking over to his most recent painting, for no other reason than to get some distance between him and Arthur. It doesn't last long, he can hear Arthur's boot heels click-clacking on the floor towards him, making his whole body tense.

"Because you wanted me to be." Arthur's voice is close, and Merlin turns back to see Arthur standing directly behind him.

"That's your ego talking. I never did." Merlin tries to make his voice even, but Arthur is right there and they're so close it's almost claustrophobic.

"Tell me to go, then," Arthur whispers, his lips on Merlin's hair. "Go on, Merlin. Tell me to leave, and I will."

Bastard. Merlin wishes he were that strong. Wishes he could tell Arthur to stay away from him, because even thinking about him throws Merlin completely off-kilter, let alone having him here like this, breathing Merlin's air. The desire to touch him is almost unbearable and Merlin is aching with it.

"This is an interesting painting," Arthur says, smirk evident in his voice, "when did you do that?"

It's the painting of Arthur, well, dream Arthur, anyway. The features are indistinct, but the red and gold on his chest is a dead giveaway: the Pendragon crest.

Merlin thinks of lying, but Arthur knows him too well. "The night I met Gwaine. We went back to his place, and—"

Arthur grabs his shoulder and spins him around. "Don't. I don't need to hear any more."

Merlin can see Morgana from where he's standing, which means if she turned around she would see them. It's the only thing stopping Merlin from reaching out and touching Arthur, running his fingers over his skin.

"You asked."

"Yeah well." Arthur bites at his bottom lip, and Merlin can't help staring. "Now I'm un-asking."

"But it was you," Merlin whispers, "the first time I dreamed about you. That night. I'd never felt anything like it, it felt—" It felt like he was on fire. Just like he does now.

"I know," Arthur interrupts, almost curtly. Merlin sees Morgana, flipping her phone shut, and he realises that's the reason that Arthur's cutting him off.

Merlin forces himself to look at Morgana, tearing his gaze away from Arthur's. Safer that way, after all. Morgana looks tense, unsmiling, so he guesses that things with Uther didn't go well.

"Merlin, I am so sorry, but I'm going to have to postpone our dinner engagement. Uther has an opening he needs me to help with, apparently there's an eleventh hour crisis and there's no caterers and— do you hate me?"

Merlin can feel Arthur's gaze on him, heavy as lead.

"Not at all." Merlin smiles kindly. "Next time. I'll hold you to it."

She smiles back at him, "Your work is outstanding, you know. I have a small gallery I think it would look perfect in, and I know they'll love your paintings; they're a sucker for that whole medieval, old-world thing."

"You're too good to me." Merlin hugs her and she squeezes back. "Thank you. Seriously, it means so much, Morgana."

He remembers then, what she looked like as she died, what she said to him. The apologies spilling from her lips, the way she begged for forgiveness, her tears mixing with his. He'd wanted more than anything to save her, and he will never forgive himself for his part in it. He has always regretted pushing her away when she needed someone most, when all she wanted was to feel like she wasn't alone.

"I'm so glad we met," she says, and he swears he can see tears in her eyes. Maybe he and Arthur are not the only ones who remember what they were. "Okay, Arthur, let's go. Better not keep our father waiting."

"I— I think I'll stay here," Arthur says, not looking at Merlin. "Someone'd better make sure this one has food, he's a walking advertisement for malnutrition as it is."

"Are you sure?" Morgana looks at Merlin, intently. "I'm concerned that you two might kill each other if you're left alone long enough."

"We'll be fine," Merlin says around the lump in his throat. "Besides, Gwaine's coming around in a bit; he was planning on joining us for dinner."

"Perfect." Arthur sounds like he's pouring on as much fake-cheer as is humanly possible. "Gwaine's borrowed something very important to me, and I'd rather like it back."

Merlin snaps his head around to look at Arthur. His eyes are dark, pupils dilated, and Merlin feels dizzy. The neck of his t-shirt feels tight and constricting around his throat, and he's flushing from head to toe. He has to turn away, it's too much, he feels naked under Arthur's gaze.

"All right then, fantastic." Morgana kisses Merlin's cheek, then Arthur's. "I'll talk to you both later!" And with a wave of her hand, she's off, trotting down the stairs. Merlin waits there, breathing hard, until he hears the door slam downstairs.

When he turns to face him, Arthur's no longer there. He's moved across to one of the other paintings, and has his back to Merlin, his head tilted to one side like he's studying it very hard. It's the most recent one: a hand grasping a chalice.

"Do you remember?" Arthur's voice is cracked and broken, "Because I do."

"Tell me." He knows he shouldn't encourage any of this, but he can't help it.

Arthur turns to face Merlin, swivelling on the balls of his feet. His expression is completely unguarded; pain and want and nothing held back, and Merlin wonders if he looks the same way to Arthur right now.

"You drank it," he says, every word dragged out, like it's being forced out of him, "for me. Because you couldn't let me die. Always fucking sacrificing yourself for me, Merlin, whether I wanted you to or not. Well, I couldn't let you die either."

"Arthur," Merlin exhales, and it sounds like a prayer.

It's all the permission that Arthur seems to need. He stalks across the room towards him, and Merlin doesn't move. Can't. He's frozen, and he hopes that Arthur knows that Merlin isn't standing there immobile because he doesn't want—

Arthur reaches for him, like it's painful for him not to, and Merlin leans in to the touch. Arthur's fingers are on his skin, and it feels so familiar, feels like everything he's been craving for god knows how long. A week, years, centuries. Arthur's touching him everywhere, fingers skating over his lips, hands on his cheeks, in his hair, just grabbing at him like he can't decide where he wants to touch him the most.

Merlin gives in then, forgets about Gwaine and anything logical in his brain telling him he can’t, that he shouldn't do this. Just gives in and gives up and lets Arthur in.

"What do you—" Merlin swallows, throat so dry it feels like ash, "you can have anything, Arthur. Anything you want."

I'm yours, my lord.

"Your mouth, Merlin," Arthur groans, "I need to—"

"Yes," Merlin says, grabbing Arthur by the hips and holding him there, fingers hooked in his belt loops. "Do it. Please."

Arthur's mouth is hard and wet and insistent, and Merlin wonders, as he kisses back, how he's managed to live without this for so long. This isn't a tentative, tender kiss between two people who don't know each other, it's frantic and desperate and full of lust and years upon years of waiting and wanting. Merlin is vaguely aware that Arthur is walking him back, his lips crushing Merlin’s, Arthur's tongue in Merlin's mouth and when they hit the wall, Arthur gets his thigh in between Merlin's and holds him there.

"I can't—" Arthur manages in between kisses, "I can't think about anything else. Fuck, Merlin, I just want—"

"Everything." Merlin latches his mouth onto Arthur's collarbone and sucks, hard. "You want everything, don't you?"

"Yes."

"God, Arthur. Me too." And Merlin does. He wants to kiss Arthur like this for hours, kiss until they both can't breathe. He wants Arthur on his knees, his mouth on Merlin's cock, he wants Arthur's cock too, wants to fuck himself on it: mouth, arse, he doesn't care.

He wants to bind himself to Arthur like this. Lose himself in him. Make Arthur see that he doesn't need anything, anyone else.

And that's when Merlin hears a key turn in the lock downstairs.

"Shit. Gwaine."

Arthur pulls away. His hair is completely messed, up, his mouth is red and swollen, and he has a love bite darkening on his collarbone. He looks like a sex fantasy come to life. He smooths a hand through his hair, and adjusts his rumpled shirt.

"Hey!" Gwaine yells from downstairs.

"We'll be down in a minute," Merlin yells back, trying to keep his voice even.

"You look," Arthur pulls Merlin's shirt back into place, and rubs a thumb over his mouth, "good enough to eat. Might want to do something about that, though." He points to Merlin's crotch with that ridiculous patented Arthur-smirk plastered on his face.

Merlin groans. He's ridiculously turned on, so hard he aches with it, and he can't bear the idea of not touching Arthur. But Christ. Gwaine. It's all so completely fucked, and he's never felt so conflicted in his life, want and need and joy all mixed up with guilt so strong that he feels ill with it.

"You realise," Arthur says, "that this may well be the most uncomfortable dinner ever. And, well, speaking as someone who endures my father's company on a regular basis? That's saying something."

Merlin laughs, but there's no warmth in it.

"Better go down and see your boyfriend."

Arthur pushes Merlin in the direction of the stairwell, a warm, strong hand on his lower back.

 

***

Dinner is every bit as uncomfortable as Merlin would've expected. For him that is. Gwaine doesn't seem to notice anything is the slightest bit wrong, and he and Arthur slam back shot after shot of Patron, laughing and reminiscing about the 'good old days' of Eton and this person and that person whose names are all double barrelled and horribly posh.

Merlin is, quite frankly, more than a little shocked that Arthur's attention seems to be focused on Gwaine and not on him, when Merlin can still feel those hands on his body, and the imprint of his lips on Merlin's own.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he takes it out, staring blankly at the message on the screen.

you could try being more distant, Merlin, it isn't completely bloody obvious that something's wrong, or anything

maybe I'm incapable of pretending I'm not screwing around on my partner quite as well as you. i mean, you've had the practice and all he sends back, and watches as Arthur receives the text message. Watches his face fall. Merlin can feel his chest tighten with guilt, he didn't want to hurt Arthur, didn't want to dredge up— that.

I'm sorry, he texts back, that was uncalled for

Arthur's jaw is set, and Merlin wishes, not for the first time, that he'd learned not to just open his mouth like that. Centuries upon centuries and he still hasn't learned tact.

"Need to go take a slash," Gwaine slurs. He's a lot drunker all of a sudden, and Merlin smiles fondly. For someone who has as much money as Gwaine does, he's completely lacking in class.

When he's out of earshot, Arthur shakes his head, tension obvious in every muscle, hisses, "Fuck you, Merlin. I should walk in there right now and tell him everything."

Merlin had forgotten how ice-cold Arthur's anger always was. How hurt he gets, and how cruel he becomes to compensate.

He remembers how hurt Arthur was when he found out about the lies, the magic. How he'd told Merlin to get out of his sight, that he never wanted to look on his face again, that even seeing Merlin made him sick to his stomach.

"I'm sorry," Merlin whispers, "I wasn't thinking. I was just— jealous, I guess?"

Arthur laughs then, not cruelly. "Jealous? Of the fact that I was speaking to Gwaine? Merlin, that is completely ridiculous. Even for you."

"Not like that," Merlin says, playing with a frayed thread from his pullover, "jealous that it seemed so easy to sit here and act as if nothing'd happened when all I can do is think about you touching me. That's all."

"God, you're an idiot," Arthur says, fondly. "If you think this is easy, you should see the inside of my head right now."

Gwaine takes that moment to return from the bathroom, stumbling on very shaky legs.

"I think," he slurs, "you may need to take me home and put me to bed, Merlin. Tequila is evil and horrible and bad and I don't feel very well."

Merlin shakes his head, and stands up, wrapping his scarf around his neck and grabbing a hold of Gwaine.

"I'll get this," Arthur says, slamming back his last shot and grimacing. "Go and put this lightweight to bed. We'll talk later." His last sentence is weighted with more than Merlin can think about right now, but he nods and walks Gwaine out to the car, not looking back at Arthur, even though it feels like agony not to.

***

By the time they get to Gwaine's flat, he is barely standing, and Merlin half-carries him into the lift. It's only one floor, but Gwaine is five foot eleven of solid muscle, and Merlin is not in the mood to be flattened, thank you very much.

"You're so good to me, Merlin," Gwaine mumbles, as Merlin gets him inside. Gwaine falls back on the sofa, and Merlin groans. He pulls off Gwaine's trainers, and unbuttons his jeans.

"You're so good to me, Merlin. Such a good bad servant."

Merlin shivers and tries to shake the memory off.

"C'mon, you can't sleep here." He pulls Gwaine upright. Merlin feels about as far from good to Gwaine as is humanly possible. If there is a hell for cheating boyfriends, Merlin is headed straight for it.

He gets Gwaine down to his boxers, and tucks him into bed, a large glass of water on the bedside table, and within seconds, Gwaine has rolled onto his belly, his arms spread out on the mattress.

Merlin feels like he's being flayed, pulled in too many directions and something's going to have to give. That something is probably going to be his sanity, at this rate. He wants Arthur, doesn't want to hurt Gwaine, wants all his memories back, knows that some of those memories are going to be brutally painful, and he doesn't know how to balance any of it.

He strips down to his underwear, and switches off the bedside lamp.

When he wakes up, Gwaine is snoring heavily. It takes Merlin a moment to work out why he's awake, but the vibrations from his phone clue him in, and he can see the display flashing, lit up with Arthur's name. He knows he shouldn't answer it, for one thing it's three o'clock in the morning, and for another, there really is no good that can come of it. But he's no more likely to resist the pull between him and Arthur, than he is able to resist breathing.

"Hello," he manages, half-whispered and raspy, as he pads out to the living room on bare feet. "Arthur, do you know what time it is?"

"Late." Arthur's voice is lazy, drawling.

"Are you drunk?"

"Very."

"High?"

Arthur laughs. "Oh yes. That too."

Merlin shifts a cushion behind his head as he lies back on the sofa. "Where've you been tonight?"

"Dunno," Arthur says, "Some friend of a friend of a— well, she wasn't very good, whoever she was. She wasn't— you."

Merlin inhales sharply, through his nose. "Did you—?"

"I let her blow me," Arthur admits, "and all the time I was thinking how her mouth isn't anywhere as good as yours. You have such a pretty mouth, Merlin. Prettier'n any girl's."

"Arthur—"

"I can still taste you, you know." Arthur's voice is deep, rough, bordering on very dangerous, "can still taste you in my mouth. I can't stop thinking about you. Want to— you can't even imagine the things I want to do to you."

Merlin can imagine quite a bit.

"Want you to suck me." Arthur's breathing is hitched and his voice wavers on the words. Merlin knows he's touching himself, can tell without having to see, and it makes his cock throb and his throat dry up.

"Arthur," he groans, and he doesn't even think about whether he should or not, just gets his hand inside his own underwear, not stroking, just there, resting against his cock.

"Do it," Arthur orders. "Touch yourself. For me."

He whimpers, but he doesn't hesitate, just wraps his hand around his cock and starts to stroke. Slow, hard strokes which feel so agonisingly good that Merlin wants to cry.

"I remember, you know," Arthur says, his voice like honey in Merlin's ear. "That first time. The way you pushed and pushed until I slammed you against the wall in my chambers, fucked you there like you were some little harlot who couldn't even wait to lift her skirts and bend over—"

"I remember too," Merlin says, interrupting him. "You— Uh— You were trying to be so noble. So worried about abusing your position when really, that's exactly what I wanted. Just wanted you to— uh— throw me down and—"

He's close now, so close, the memory firmly in his head, the image of Arthur frantically pulling off Merlin's breeches and fucking him with oil-slick fingers and cock, fucking him against the wall because they both wanted it so badly they couldn't even get to the bed: Merlin naked and Arthur still mostly clothed, hands all over Merlin and mouth like a brand on his skin.

"I wish I was there, Merlin," Arthur croons in his ear. "I'd bend you over the arm of that ugly sofa, fuck you slow and tease you, make you beg for it harder and faster. I wouldn't care that Gwaine was in the next room, asleep, I'd let you make as much noise as you wanted to."

"Arthur, Arthur," Merlin moans as quietly as he can, driving his hips forward and back, fucking his hand faster and rougher.

"Yeah, Merlin, do it. Want to hear you when you fall apart for me, want to hear my name on your lips when you come all over yourself."

"Oh God. Fuck."

"Yes," Arthur moans. "Together. You and me."

Merlin comes with his hand in his pants, and Arthur groaning obscenities in his ear, while Merlin's teeth bite into his bottom lip to stop himself from screaming.

He makes sure he’s gone the next morning by the time Gwaine wakes up.

***

They’ve been at it for hours: sticky, wet and sweaty. Arthur has pushed all the furs and bedclothes onto the floor and has Merlin’s wrists pinned above his head.

“Don’t move,” he hisses, his fingers skimming over Merlin’s hole: come-slicked and used and Merlin can’t help it, groans and rocks his hips forward, trying to get Arthur to put his fingers inside.

“Gods, you really can’t get enough of it, can you? You love me doing this, fucking you anytime I want to.”

“Please,” Merlin begs, “I can’t. I need.”

“Yes,” Arthur bites his neck, whispers against it, “I know exactly what you need. I always do.”

“Merlin? Did you hear a word I said?”

Merlin blinks, and tries to focus. He’s sitting opposite Gwen and there’s a puddle on the table, where he’s knocked his glass of water over.

“Shit. Sorry, Gwen. Really sorry, I just—” Merlin can feel heat staining his cheeks and the back of his neck, and his jeans are tight.

“Drifted off? Yeah, I can see that. What is going on with you lately, Merlin? You seem so distracted. Is that boy of yours keeping you up all hours shagging your brains out, or something?”

Merlin mops up the puddle with his serviette. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Gwen shakes her head at him, smiling, then goes on to tell him about Lance and how he’s been really distant the last few days and she thinks he might be having an affair. Merlin just scoffs and tells her he really doesn’t think Lance is the type to have an affair, and he wishes he could tell Gwen what he knows, that Lance has never been anything but faithful to her, now or then. That her falling in love with Arthur broke his heart, but he never once felt angry or bitter, and he never stopped loving her.

“Just talk to him, Gwen,” Merlin tells her. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

“You’re absolutely right,” she nods. “I’m acting like a kid, aren’t I? I’m just going to go see him. Right now.”

They go up to the counter to pay, and Merlin can feel his legs are still wobbly from the memory of he and Arthur, and— Christ, it would be lovely to go ten minutes without thinking of Arthur fucking Pendragon and as a result, having a respite from the erection that seems to always be present when he thinks about him.

He catches the tube in a daze, images in his head of Arthur’s hands and his sex-rough voice telling Merlin what he’s going to do to him, and kisses that last for hours, and he almost misses his stop.

As soon as he gets in the door he’s running up the stairs to the loft, getting canvas and charcoals and paint and brushes and just laying it all out on the floor. He gets to work and he can feel the room spinning as he sketches rough lines on the canvas.

When he comes to, he’s covered in paint, his hands are chafed and he can’t recall how long he’s been at it, but it’s dark outside and Merlin’s sure it was hours ago that he got home.

The canvas isn’t just covered in rough lines now, the painting is fully-formed. It’s Arthur, lying on his back, naked. He’s perfectly muscled, golden, and glistening with sweat, his thighs spread and his hand wrapped around his cock and his teeth on his lower lip, a blissful, wanton expression on his face.

Merlin doesn’t get up, he just rolls over and gets his jeans open, shoving his hand inside. He fists his cock fast and hard, the image of him on top of Arthur, hands on Arthur’s chest for leverage as he rides him slow and steady, burning the backs of his eyelids.

When he comes, he tries not to say it, tries to resist, but it's inevitable, and he spills into his hand groaning "ArthurArthurArthur" and wanting him so badly he can barely breathe. It feels like an ache, not being able to touch him then and there, but when he puts his hand on the painting, on Arthur's chest, it gets better.

He falls asleep right there on the hard floor and dreams of Arthur’s hands on him, his fingers touching him softly, reverently.

***

He hasn't spoken to Arthur for a week now, not since the debacle that was dinner with Gwaine and the thing that happened after, otherwise known as the best phone sex Merlin has ever had.

Oh, and of course there was the small matter of the kiss. Merlin is trying very hard not to think about that, because every time he does he gets a little dizzy and a lot turned on, and thinking about Arthur's lips is pretty much a sure-fire way to encourage flashbacks in the middle of selling a customer a large coffee-table book of Monet's most famous works. Nobody needs to see Merlin, with a raging hard-on under his jeans, dropping an incredibly expensive, and incredibly heavy, hardcover book on his foot.

He often wishes things could just go back to normal, to the way they were before Arthur appeared in his life and turned everything upside-down. It's getting harder and harder for Merlin to remember what it felt like to wake up and not have his first thought be of Arthur, or to go to bed at night not wondering where Arthur was, who he was with, what he was doing.

It's just like it always was: Arthur is the centre of Merlin's universe, and every waking minute is spent fixating on him. If he isn't thinking about him, he's painting him, or dreaming about him, and Merlin thinks he might quietly go insane if this keeps going for much longer.

It's unthinkable, though, not having Arthur in his life. It makes Merlin's chest ache even entertaining the prospect. The thought of not being able to see Arthur just isn't an option. Now that Merlin can remember, to forget would be absolute fucking torture.

Merlin hasn't touched himself with such obsessive regularity since he was a teenager. He's always enjoyed sex, hell, loved it even. But with Arthur occupying his thoughts 24/7, it feels more than that: like a compulsion, a drug. He's lost count of the number of times he's thrown himself at Gwaine just so he can sublimate his feelings for Arthur, and he feels completely horrible over it, because it's never Gwaine's face he sees when he comes. Not anymore. Merlin needs to find a way to break things off with Gwaine, because this isn't him. He isn't the one who cheats, the one who can't control himself.

Merlin barely recognises himself these days.

The painting of Arthur, the one that looks more like pornography than art, sits on an easel, covered with a white sheet. Merlin is working on a new one: it’s not fully-formed yet, but he can see the images coming together, the red and gold mixed with gold and white and his stomach aches just thinking about it. Arthur and Gwen on their wedding day. So happy, so full of hope, and Merlin always knew that what Arthur and he had was different, that Arthur didn’t love Gwen in the way he loved Merlin, but it didn’t hurt any less knowing that, not when he could see how happy they were.

The night of the wedding, Gwaine had comforted Merlin with his stupid, bawdy jokes and far too much mead, and he’d fallen asleep on his shoulder, murmuring over and over just how much he didn’t need King bloody Arthur and his stupid crooked smile, and he'd had plenty of offers from plenty of men, thank you very much.

He had awoken the next morning to a terrible headache and Arthur looming over the two of them. And from that point on, Arthur had treated Gwaine with little more than barely-concealed disdain, and he didn’t touch Merlin, barely looked at him for days.

There’s a knock on the door, and Merlin rubs a hand over his face, trying to shake himself clear of the memory, jogs downstairs, and opens it.

He’s not at all surprised to see Arthur standing there, looking as tired and strung-out as Merlin feels. He’s unshaven, and he looks like he hasn’t slept in days. He looks inhumanly, ridiculously beautiful.

“We really have to stop meeting like this.” Arthur tries for a smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Well, since you’re here—” Merlin says, gesturing for Arthur to come in, and he doesn’t even know what to say next, other than “shut the door behind you.”

Merlin walks into the living room, not looking to see if Arthur’s following him, because he knows he is. Can feel it.

“Do you want a drink, or something?”

“No.” Arthur is barely audible. “No, I don’t want a drink Merlin, I want—”

Merlin leans against the breakfast bar, his back to Arthur.

“I didn’t sleep with him,” he says, his voice ragged, “on your wedding night. Gwaine. I didn’t—”

Arthur sighs, and Merlin swears he can hear hundreds of years of pain in that one breath.

“Why didn’t you— Merlin, why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” Merlin says, surprised at the bitterness in his own tone. "You just assumed the worst of me, Arthur."

He feels Arthur’s hands on his shoulders, turning him around to face him. He looks like he’s been punched repeatedly, wounded and exhausted and Merlin can’t handle this. He doesn’t want Arthur to carry more weight. He has enough to— he just has enough.

Merlin puts a hand out and touches Arthur’s cheek, his thumb stroking up and down the length of his cheekbone.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have. It was just such a mess back then.”

“I know. I'm sorry too.” He sounds so tired, and Merlin wants to take all of it away.

“Can’t stop thinking about you, no matter how wrong it is to.” Merlin puts his face to Arthur’s neck, rests his lips on the pulse point and murmurs into his skin, “I need you, Arthur.”

Arthur grabs him then, so fast that Merlin barely has time to process it, one hand around Merlin’s waist, and the other in his hair. Arthur’s mouth is on Merlin’s, wet and hard and insistent, and Merlin just opens for him on a whimper as Arthur pulls him against his body.

“God. Want you,” Arthur breathes into his mouth, “need to touch you, Merlin, I can’t think of anything else.”

“Yes,” Merlin says, pulling away and trying not to focus on how sexy Arthur looks, lips red and used. He can feel the hard edge of the breakfast bar pressing into his back, and he wonders if he’ll end up with a line of bruises there, bruises he can press his fingers into and think of this, of Arthur. The mere thought floods his belly with liquid heat.

“I don’t even know where to start,” Arthur admits, laughter colouring his words, running his fingertips over Merlin’s mouth. Merlin parts his lips and lets his tongue flick out, catching the tips of Arthur’s fingers and moaning around them.

“Oh, you little— fine, if that’s how you want to play it.” Arthur growls and pulls his fingers free of Merlin’s mouth, unbuttoning his jeans and getting his hand inside to wrap around Merlin’s cock. ”God, you're just dying for it, aren’t you?”

Merlin groans as Arthur starts to fist his cock, slow and torturous. Arthur’s hands are smooth now, no sword calluses or old scars, or ragged nails, just perfect, soft skin wrapped around him and he’s teasing Merlin, keeping his hand loose so that he’s barely touching him.

“Please,” Merlin begs, “I need—”

“Oh, I know what you need,” Arthur says, his voice sex-raw and filthy, “fuck my hand, Merlin. You know you love it.”

“Such. A. Fucking. Narcissist,” Merlin pants out, but he does it, thrusts his hips forward, driving his cock into the now much tighter circle of Arthur’s hand, and it feels glorious. Arthur’s eyes are so dark, so intense, and the way he’s looking at Merlin— Christ. It makes him feel utterly exposed seeing the pure want on Arthur’s face.

“Oh Christ, Merlin,” Arthur chokes out and Merlin isn’t going to last much longer, not with Arthur looking at him like that while Merlin fucks Arthur’s fist. Arthur grabs Merlin by the back of his neck and kisses him forcefully, wet and open-mouthed, shoving his tongue inside with no finesse whatsoever. Arthur’s kisses were always like this: rough and hard and claiming. Possessive and wholly consuming.

Merlin doesn't know how he's managed to live without this, and he pulls back, both hands holding Arthur's face, his thumbs swiping over his kiss-slicked, swollen lips.

“Watch,” he barely manages to get out, and Arthur’s mouth falls open, watching Merlin as he comes apart, orgasm hitting him with so much force he feels faint and he holds on to the edge of the breakfast bar to steady himself as he paints Arthur’s hand and his own chest and chin with his come.

He grimaces. “Ugh. Now I’m going to have to wash that shirt.”

Arthur smirks, “You could just take it off.”

“Perve.” Merlin grins back, and strips his t-shirt off, throwing it on the ground. He knows he must look an absolute picture, jeans undone and cock hanging out. Shirtless. Like a twink for hire. He drops to his knees in front of Arthur, and unbuttons Arthur’s trousers. He can’t help but grin at Arthur's sharp inhale, when he realises what Merlin’s doing.

“Been wanting to do this for weeks,” Merlin says, and his voice sounds raw and broken. “Ever since I first saw you.”

And that’s not even half the truth. It’s been years since Merlin started fantasising about getting on his knees for Arthur Pendragon, the centre of all of his filthiest fantasies, and that doesn’t cover it either.

Merlin has been wanting to do this for centuries. Ever since he lost him.

But it’s too much to think about that, too painful, so instead, Merlin just takes out Arthur’s cock and lovingly licks from tip to root and back again.

Arthur is watching him, and Merlin doesn’t take his eyes off him as he opens his mouth and takes Arthur's cock all the way in; slow and wet, until his nose is pressed against Arthur’s belly.

“Oh fuck, Merlin,” Arthur groans, and throws his head back, exposing that throat that Merlin wants to kiss and lick and bite.

Merlin grabs Arthur’s hands and puts them on the back of his head, hoping that Arthur knows what he means by the gesture. It’s such a strange feeling, having to learn that unspoken language again, having to learn each others bodies again, like they haven’t done this hundreds of times already.

But Arthur smiles down at Merlin like he knows, and Merlin opens his jaw wider, lets Arthur thrust into his mouth with utter abandon. Arthur’s fingers are twisted in his hair, and Merlin's jaw is aching from Arthur fucking his mouth like this and god, he loves it. Loves the sharp almost-pain-edge that it gives him. It feels so good, and he can’t help it, he moans around Arthur’s cock, and he can feel himself starting to get hard again just from this, from the feel of Arthur's cock in his mouth, the smell and taste of him and all the gorgeous noises he's making.

Arthur is mumbling nonsense now, thrusting erratically and Merlin knows he must be close. Merlin pulls off, nearly all the way, still looking up at Arthur. He knows he must look completely wanton: mouth red and used, chin wet as he stares up at him through his eyelashes. Merlin grins and slowly takes Arthur's cock back in, inch by inch, tongue tracing the vein on the underside, as he moves forward.

“Fucking hell, Merlin,” Arthur grinds out between gritted teeth, “you're a wet dream, aren’t you? Jesus.”

Only for you, he wants to say. Only for you.

Arthur comes with a harsh, bitten-off cry, gripping Merlin’s hair painfully tight.

Merlin’s jaw throbs and his throat hurts, but it’s a good hurt, and so very much worth it when he looks at Arthur; dishevelled and fucked-out. He looks like sin, and Merlin wants to do it all over again.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, but he doesn’t answer it, he already knows who it is, and it makes guilt coil tightly in his belly, bitter and wrong. They've crossed the line now, he and Arthur. Really crossed it. It's bad enough snogging and indulging in phonesex, but touching him like this, getting on his knees for him, seeing Arthur's face when he makes him come— that's something so much worse.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Merlin says, his voice ragged. He gets to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Arthur tucks himself back in and he looks about as worried as Merlin feels. “I. I really don’t know. This is a bit of a mess really, isn’t it?”

Which of course is the Pendragon way of saying that everything is completely and utterly fucked. Which it really is.

***

The reason for Gwaine’s call, Merlin later finds out, was to discover if Merlin would be free for dinner the next night. It’s Lance’s birthday, and because he's been away for work so often, Gwen hasn’t yet met all of his friends, so Gwaine figured it would be as good a chance as any for a dinner party.

Merlin doesn’t know if he wants to be there when Arthur meets Gwen for the first time. Seeing her with Lance, well there’s no telling how it’s going to affect Arthur. Merlin wonders how fresh that pain still is, underneath all the scar tissue. It has to hurt, can’t not, regardless of how at peace Arthur was with their relationship in the end. The betrayal wasn’t just Gwen’s after all, and Merlin is sure that Lancelot’s betrayal hurt more, wounded deeper.

But there were other betrayals back then too, one perceived and one actual, and Merlin will never forget the look on Arthur’s face when he made that assumption about Merlin and Gwaine. Merlin would have been lying if he’d said that he’d never considered it, but he never would have gone through with it, not ever. If he’s honest, it still stings a little to think that Arthur was so quick to believe that Merlin of all people would betray him.

But it’s Arthur, and he was betrayed so often, by everyone in his life. It’s hard to fault him for not having faith, and for believing something that was spurred on by his own guilt for marrying Gwen when he loved another.

“You look— concerned, Merlin. Anything I can help with?” Gwaine asks, wrapping his arm around Merlin’s waist from behind. Merlin hates that he’s doing this to Gwaine, pretending that everything’s okay when it’s not, but he knows that he’s going to have to end it and soon. Gwaine deserves more than this: another boyfriend who's fucking one of his best friends behind his back. It makes Merlin ill just thinking about it.

He doesn't want to think about just how much it's going to hurt Gwaine when he finds out about Arthur. It's easier to pretend that he isn't in the middle of a love triangle almost exactly like Gwen, Lance and Arthur's if he doesn't even let himself entertain the notion.

“Nah. Just thinking,” Merlin replies, and he doesn’t pull away when Gwaine kisses his neck, though he really should.

The intercom buzzes, and Merlin flinches when he hears Arthur’s voice.

“Sorry,” he says, pulling away from Gwaine, “I guess I am a little— I don’t know. Anxious.”

“Grab yourself a drink and relax, Merlin, you’ll scare the guests.” Gwaine smiles, and Merlin thinks that yes, alcohol is probably the only thing that’s going to get him through this evening, and he knocks back a glass of champagne by the time Arthur walks in the door.

He looks unbelievably handsome: black peacoat, cashmere pullover and jeans that probably cost more than most people’s weekly rent. Merlin 's throat goes dry.

“Is that champagne you’re drinking, Merlin? I never thought I would see the day.” Merlin can hear the bloody smirk in Arthur’s voice as he walks over to him, and it shouldn’t be as attractive as it is.

“Yeah, well, I knew you were coming so I figured that getting very drunk was a necessity, don’t really care what I’m drinking as long as it gets me plastered.”

Merlin refills his glass and tips it towards Arthur, before taking a sip and licking the champagne from his lips, slowly. Merlin grins when he sees Arthur swallow.

Arthur pours one for himself and leans in, whispers, “It’s not nice to tease, Merlin,” and licks the shell of his ear, quick and subtle, before walking away to talk to Morgana, evil expression on his face.

Merlin should’ve known better than to try and play any game with Arthur Pendragon. He’s always destined to lose.

Lance and Gwen arrive soon after, and to his credit, Arthur doesn’t look terribly affected when he sees Gwen face-to-face for the first time. He kisses her on the cheek when introduced, and offers to fetch drinks for the two of them.

It’s just after they toast Lance's birthday that Lance nervously announces his and Gwen's engagement.

Merlin deliberately doesn’t look at Arthur.

“Are you okay?” Merlin half-whispers, noticing that Arthur is on his fourth drink and his cheeks are a little flushed.

“I’m fine, Merlin. Why wouldn’t I be?” He shrugs, and pours himself another glass of champagne, and nobody else would even see it, but Merlin can’t help but notice the way his hand shakes when he picks up the bottle.

Merlin rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Stupid, emotionally repressed wanker.

Gwaine chooses that moment to come back, pulling both Merlin and Arthur into an awkward hug. Merlin wonders if Arthur feels as rotten as he does.

"Did I interrupt something?" Gwaine asks, grinning madly.

"Just your boyfriend being as hopeless a commoner as ever," Arthur says, stepping back out of Gwaine's embrace.

"Oh you can fuck right off, your highness," Merlin bites back, trying not to stare at the way Arthur's head tips back, baring his throat as he drinks his champagne. Watching him with Gwaine there makes him feel even more of a filthy cheat than he already is.

"Well I must go mingle. You two enjoy your sexual tension," Gwaine says, laughing, and though Merlin knows it's a joke, his heart feels like it's going to pound out of his chest.

Gwaine kisses Merlin, soft and slow, tonguing his mouth open before he pulls away. Arthur looks away, his jaw visibly clenching.

"I think I'm going to go and mingle,too," Arthur says, sounding more than a little bitter. "Lovely to see you as always, Merlin. Gwaine." He nods to them both before refilling his champagne flute and walking away.

***

He spends the first course trying not to look at Arthur for any sign of emotion, because really, it feels almost like he’s intruding, even though it’s Arthur and Merlin knows him better than he knows himself most days. Unfortunately, Merlin’s about as subtle as an anvil to the head on a good day, and he’s now very drunk, so of course Arthur catches him every time Merlin looks at him, his only reaction that bloody arrogant raised eyebrow .

“Excuse me,” Merlin mutters to no-one in particular and walks on very unsteady legs to the bathroom.

He isn’t surprised when Arthur grabs his arm and pulls him into one of the spare rooms, locking the door behind them.

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on, Merlin?”

“Uh—” Merlin leans against the back of the door, feeling decidedly not sober.

“Oh fine,” Arthur snaps, “you’re freaking out because of Gwen aren’t you? You think that it’s bothering me in some way being in the same room as her?”

“Well. I. Yes.” Merlin stammers. “Actually, yes. It’s Gwen, Arthur. And, well, I remember very well how you reacted when she left.”

“Merlin, I'll be okay. I am okay."

"Right."

"To tell you the truth, I'm a little more concerned with wanting to punch Gwaine in the face for kissing you in front of me." He looks sheepish, and Merlin can't help grinning.

Arthur continues: "It really is different this time with— she found him first. Mostly what I'm feeling is just regret, and my father always said regret was a waste of time, one thing that he and I agree on.”

“I wish I’d found you first,” Merlin says, so soft he can barely hear himself.

Arthur touches his cheek, gentle and tender, and Merlin leans into it, turns so his mouth grazes Arthur’s hand.

Arthur shivers. “Jesus, Merlin, what are you doing to me?”

“I could say the same thing to you. You drive me absolutely barmy.”

“You have no idea,” Arthur says, his mouth on Merlin’s, “how badly I want to fuck you right here. In his fucking house. God, Merlin, that makes me the worst friend in history. But I can't help it, I can't—”

"I know," he says, cutting Arthur off, biting back what he really wants to say, which is along the lines of "Fuck. Yes. Please Arthur, just do it. Fuck me right here.”

Merlin can't believe they're doing this, can't believe that either of them are capable of doing this to Gwaine. It makes him feel like a piece of shit, fucking around on him like this in his own house with one of his closest friends, but he can't fucking stop.

He shivers when Arthur pins his hands above his head and kisses him, slow and deep, then sinks to his knees and sucks Merlin’s cock until he comes down Arthur’s throat.

“Next time,” Arthur says, “I want to hear what you sound like when you’re not holding back.”

Next time. There's not even a question that there will be one.

Arthur comes with Merlin’s hand on his cock, Merlin’s mouth pressed into his neck.

When Merlin comes back to the dinner table, Morgana looks at him, like she’s trying to read him. He eats his Beef Wellington in silence, looking up briefly when Arthur walks back in, but he does his best to ignore him for the rest of the meal. He can feel the heat of Morgana’s gaze on him, and he doesn’t want to think about what she knows, or thinks she knows.

They’re unwinding in the sitting room, drinking coffee and nibbling on homemade shortbread, when Gwaine’s mobile starts ringing. When he takes it into the kitchen to answer it, Merlin chances a look at Arthur. He is sprawled on the sofa, head thrown back and laughing at something that Leon’s just said. Merlin loves the way Arthur laughs, it’s just like he is with everything else: fierce and committed and nothing held back. It’s very easy to love Arthur; how could anyone not? He’s like a force of nature, and after all this time, he still takes Merlin’s breath away.

He knows he has to do it now, has to break up with Gwaine, because not being with Arthur, having to keep seeing him in secret behind Gwaine's back, it's unfathomable. It's better to hurt Gwaine now than for him to find out some other way. Merlin doesn't want to lose his friendship, it's too important to him.

Merlin hears Gwaine before he sees him. There’s a loud crash in the kitchen, and Merlin jumps up, runs in to find Gwaine on the tiled floor, just sitting there.

“Gwaine?” He slides down the wall to sit next to him, “What’s wrong? What was that noise?”

“Phone. Threw it across the room.” Gwaine looks like he’s just gotten the worst news of his life, and Merlin lays his head on his shoulder, waiting for Gwaine to decide he’s ready to talk.

“It’s my mum,” he whispers, like it’s too painful to say it out loud, “she lost her job a while back and she's been really struggling. It's bad, Merlin, sounds like she's going to lose the house and her lawyer, who she can't really afford anyway, says she should file for bankruptcy.”

Gwaine's mum had met his dad when she was working as a housekeeper in one of Cardiff's swankiest hotels. His parents had never approved, and when Hugh Fletcher-Jones had died in a plane crash ten years after Gwaine was born, they had brought their very expensive lawyers in, leaving his mum with next to nothing. Gwaine's education had been paid for by them, a condition of the deal Eva made with them, which is a fact that Gwaine had only discovered when he came home from University. His mum has been struggling to make ends meet ever since, but things have just been getting worse and worse every year.

"And you're only telling me this now?"

"Well, I know you've been having your own problems, Merlin, the nightmares and such. You're always having trouble sleeping, yeah? Plus I didn't know it was as bad as it was, I get the stoicism from my mum, you know."

He grins, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

Merlin's chest starts to ache. The mere thought that Gwaine's been holding off talking about his own problems when Merlin's been screwing around with Arthur— it makes him sick to his stomach.

"Next time," Merlin says, softly, "don't worry about me, all right? I'm okay. Really."

Merlin leans into him, kisses him gently. Which is (of course) the moment that Arthur decides to check on the two of them.

Because Merlin’s life isn’t already buggered beyond all imagining, or anything.

***

Merlin hasn't seen or spoken to Arthur for two days. Soon after Gwaine received the phonecall on Friday, Merlin had rounded everyone up and told them all the news. Arthur had known already of course, after interrupting the two of them in the kitchen, and his face had been drawn and ashen as Merlin had told the rest of the group.

Gwen and Lance had offered to stay behind to clean up while Gwaine had retreated to the bedroom. Merlin had known that there was no way he was leaving Gwaine in the house alone though, so cleaning was really the only thing that would help take his mind off everything and he had sent Gwen and Lance on their way. It hadn't just been Gwaine on his mind of course; Arthur had been taking up space in Merlin's brain too, like always.

He'd looked so defeated when he'd left, and Merlin had wanted nothing more than to hold him and kiss him and tell him everything was going to be okay. But that would have been a lie. Everything is far from okay.

Merlin's been so caught up in his own guilt, the huge weight that's been pressing down on him, that he hasn't really stopped to think about how it must be affecting Arthur. Merlin's only known Gwaine for mere months in this lifetime, whereas Arthur and he have been friends for years.

And then of course there's the reality that this situation presents. There's no way they can tell Gwaine about their relationship. Not now. And the implications of that are too horrible to think about.

Gwaine leaves for Cardiff on Monday morning to help his mum with the house, and when he kisses Merlin before heading through the departure gate and tells him he's so lucky to have him and that he'll miss him, Merlin feels like the worst person in the world.

He calls Arthur soon after and tells him they need to meet, his heart hammering in his chest.

They arrange to meet at The Lion, which is less than a mile from Merlin's studio. He'd like to pretend that the meeting place is coincidental, but it isn't. Merlin doesn't trust himself to be alone with Arthur, and he doesn't trust Arthur right now, either, so a busy, noisy pub is probably the safest place for the both of them.

Merlin's already halfway through his pint when Arthur arrives wearing designer jeans and a white button-down shirt, Armani sunglasses and stubble framing his face. He looks fucking gorgeous and Merlin digs his fingernails into his thigh to try and distract himself from just how much he wants to trace the stubble with his tongue.

As Arthur walks across to the bar, Merlin can see a group of girls pointing and giggling at him. After he gets his beer, he turns around and removes his sunglasses, flashing them a grin. It's the trademarked Arthur Pendragon grin, the one that he's been practising his whole life, the fake one that doesn't reach his eyes.

"I can see you're being as discreet as ever," Merlin says, shaking his head. "And don't you think you're a mite overdressed? Your sunglasses probably cost more than most people's entire outfits in here."

Arthur snorts. "Merlin, just because you decided to throw on an outfit that makes a garbage bag look fashionable, don't take it out on those of us who like to take a little more pride in our appearance."

"There's nothing wrong with my appearance!"

"Mmmm." Arthur's eyes travel over Merlin's whole body. "I know."

Oh fuck you, Arthur.

"So," Arthur says, taking a large drink from his pint and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, "you wanted to talk. Go on, Merlin, talk."

Merlin's stomach cramps up and he laughs, humourlessly. "I don't even know where to start."

Arthur nods. "Yes. Well, it's all a bit of messy, isn't it? Gwaine and his mum and all."

"Messy," Merlin repeats. "That's one way of putting it."

Arthur's expression is almost blank, guarded, and Merlin knows this Arthur. This is the Arthur who shuts down because it hurts too much not to. This is the Arthur who refused to talk about Morgana for years after she betrayed them, who pretended she didn't exist, and who spent hours, practising drills in the rain and crying when he thought no-one was watching.

"Well we can't— can't keep on like this I suppose," Arthur says, and it sounds like he's forcing the words out.

"Arthur, please," Merlin begs, under his breath, "don't shut me out like this. I don't think I could bear it, not again."

"Well what would you have me do?" Arthur hisses. "You want me to bare my feelings, Merlin? Do you want me to tell you that I don't think I can do this, walk away from you, if I don't shut you out? God, it's all I can do not to reach across the table and touch you."

Merlin's only heard Arthur like this one other time.

"Don't leave," Arthur begs, his voice cracking. "I don't want you to."

"I know." Merlin tries to keep the waver out of his voice. He doesn't succeed. "But you have a duty, Arthur. To the kingdom. To your wife."

"But I don't— Merlin—" Arthur reaches out to grab him and Merlin steps aside.

"No, Arthur. Not tonight. I will not be the man that stands between you and your heir."

Merlin walks away, and the back of his throat tastes like tears.

"It won't be forever," Merlin says, trying to sound like this isn't tearing him apart. "We just— we can't do this to Gwaine now. Not when everything else in his life is— "

"I know," Arthur cuts him off. "I know, Merlin. It's just fucked is what it is."

"So noble," Merlin says bitterly. "Why do we always have to do the right thing? Why can't we fucking think of ourselves for once, Arthur?"

Arthur puts out his hand to touch him, but Merlin flinches away. He can't do this, can't feel Arthur touching him or he won't be able to walk away.

"Because you're you, Merlin." Arthur says, soft and almost inaudible. "And I'm me, and we'll never be anything else."

"I can't believe I have to lose you again."

"Merlin—"

"No." He says, getting to his feet. "I can't, Arthur. I need to go. Don't call me, okay? Not for a while."

Merlin can't believe he manages to walk away without his knees buckling, but he does. Walks out of the pub and away from the love of his life, and he manages to get home before he doubles over and cries until his throat hurts.

He lies there for fuck knows how long, could be hours, just staring at the minute hand going around and around on the kitchen clock and trying to focus on that and not the fact that everything in this room makes him think of Arthur.

When he closes his eyes, he can feel Arthur's hands on him. The way his fingers know every inch of Merlin's skin, know what it takes to make him sigh and moan and beg. His mouth, full and soft and arrogant and the way he makes Merlin irritated one minute and enamoured the next. It feels like Arthur's really there, and it's not until Merlin's eyes open that he realises that he's not.

He drags himself to his feet and trudges up the stairs to the studio, opening his MacBook.

The first email Merlin sees is from Gwen.

From: Gwen [mailto:gwen_89@gmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, 4 September 7:37 AM
To: Merlin
Subject: Invitation

Merlin! Where have you been? I miss you so much! How is Gwaine? Lance said to tell you that he is sending some money to help. It's not much, but every little bit helps, right?

Invite is attached, could you cast your artist's eye over it and let me know what you think? I'm not sure about it, and we have to sign off by tomorrow.

Love you, Gwen :)

PS: Can you believe I thought Lance was having an affair, and really he was just trying to work up the nerve to propose? I swear I am the luckiest person in the world.

Merlin thinks that Gwen probably is the luckiest person, because she managed to find the love she was destined to be with for all eternity and not fuck everything up in the process. He wishes he could say the same.

He writes back almost straight away letting her know that Gwaine is doing okay, his mum is going to be just fine, Gwaine's got it well-covered, but Lance is a sweetheart and yes, the invite looks wonderful.

It's a matter of months until the wedding. Merlin thinks it'll probably be best if he avoids Arthur until then. Being around him, seeing him, Merlin's already proved that he isn't capable of doing that without giving in to the connection between them, and he won't do that to Gwaine. Not again. It's best if he just cuts Arthur out of his life for as long as possible, give them both a chance to cool off while he can work out what he's going to do about Gwaine.

He shuts the lid, grabs his acrylics and a blank canvas and starts painting.

***

Arthur's eyes are ice-cold and Merlin feels like he can't escape his gaze.

"I just asked you for an explanation, Merlin." Arthur demands, advancing on him, venom dripping from every word.

"I— I can't give you one." Merlin gasps as Arthur grabs him, his hands clenching Merlin's forearms.

"How?" Arthur sounds like he's choking. "How could you do this to me?"

"Arthur," Merlin starts, but he doesn't know how to finish what he's begun to say.

"Get out of my sight," he spits out. "I mean it. I don't want to see your face."

"But Arthur—"

"I mean it, Merlin. Get out now, or so help me I will—"

Merlin doesn't want to hear Arthur finish.

When Merlin comes to, there's a sketch of his own face looking up at him and the paper is wet with tears. Merlin's blackouts are becoming a regular occurrence now. They've been getting more frequent, more regular ever since the day in the pub when he walked away from Arthur.

He remembers everything now: the magic, who they were to each other, and how hurt Arthur had been when he finally had seen Merlin's magic for himself.

Merlin can remember so clearly the day that Arthur forgave him. He remembers it like it was only a day or two ago: Arthur dropping to his knees in his chambers and begging, pleading Merlin to promise that he would never get caught, that Arthur couldn't bear to watch him burn.

They had held each other afterwards, just lying in bed together and Arthur's hands mapping Merlin's body like he didn't want to stop touching him.

Merlin can see his phone sitting on his desk and he feels like his fingers are burning with the need to call Arthur. Instead, he tamps it down and calls Gwaine to check on him.

But the need doesn't go away, and when he tries to sleep, it spreads through his body from the tips of his fingers to his elbows. Merlin's never needed like this before, it's pure and frightening and like it used to be when he had magic coursing through his body. He isn't in control of this at all.

He gives up on trying to sleep, taking his duvet and pillow up to the studio, and dumping them in the middle of the floor, just in case the need to sleep arises. It doesn't.

Instead of painting, he checks his emails. There are ten or so Google Alerts with the keywords "Arthur Pendragon", and yes, he really is that much of a pathetic stalker.

The first link he clicks on is some tabloid clip of Arthur outside The Ritz in Paris. He's glassy-eyed and having trouble focusing, and he's wrapped around some gorgeous, leggy model, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He looks like he's been partying for days; unshaven, shirt unbuttoned, and dark circles framing his eyes which are all pupil. Seeing Arthur like this: awful and terrifyingly beautiful at the same time, makes Merlin ache right down to his bones.

Merlin isn't the only one who's falling apart.

***

Time passes like he's in some vacuum, and Merlin barely notices one day become the next. He doesn't sleep much at all and when he does his dreams are always of Arthur holding him, touching him. When he wakes it's like something has been ripped away from him.

His days are full of memories and painting and reading about Arthur. But over the last few weeks, the headlines have changed.

He no longer sees "Playboy Pendragon Headed For Rehab?" in his inbox, but "Arthur Pendragon Cleans Up Act, Starts Foundation For GLBT Youth"

Arthur is growing up.

He can only imagine how Uther is going to react to that. It's one thing having a drug-fucked playboy of a son . It's accepted that young, rich, and gorgeous goes hand-in-hand with parties and clubs and all the vices that the common man can't afford. However, it's quite another thing for the future Duke of Westminster to be championing issues that will invariably cast aspersions on the sexuality of said future Duke. That will not be going down well at all.

Merlin on the other hand, couldn't be more thrilled. Arthur is becoming the man, no, the ruler that Merlin was proud to serve until the day he died.

He remembers the first time it really hit him. He'd always admired Arthur for his bravery, his skill in the arena, and the way he risked his own life for others. But it was in Ealdor that Merlin saw his first glimpse of the leader, the man who would inspire loyalty and sacrifice. The king whose men would follow him into war, follow him gladly and lay down their lives for him, without hesitation.

Merlin saw Arthur go from the boy who believed they would lose, to the man who led the peasants of a village he had never seen before into battle. He had made them believe then and there that if they died, they did so with honour and nobility. And as Arthur had thrust his sword into the air, Merlin's skin had prickled with it— the undeniable pull of this man who would become King.

He clicks on the interview that Arthur has done with Tonight, and within seconds, it's like he's back in Ealdor. Arthur is charismatic, beautiful and fearless, and he answers the questions about his years of partying with complete honesty.

"So, Arthur, I have to ask. What brought about this complete transformation?"

"Well, Fiona—" Arthur adjusts his cuff-links and smiles. It's like a punch to Merlin's stomach to see him like this: capable, professional and utterly charming. "A friend recently made me remember that money and power are worth nothing if other people are suffering. It's something I'd forgotten, but thanks to him I'm starting to take a little more responsibility. I can't say I've completely changed, I haven't turned into a monk, but I do want to put some of this privilege that I've inherited to good use."

"Your father has been known to donate to some organisations that have, shall we say, less progressive views regarding gay youth. How is he reacting to your new foundation?"

Arthur's smile doesn't even fade, he just takes a breath and says, "Well, if we all agreed with our parents, Fiona, it would makes us carbon copies now, wouldn't it? My father and I have always enjoyed a healthy debate, and I doubt very much that will ever change."

Which of course, is a very diplomatic way of saying He is not, in the slightest way, happy.

Merlin's fingers shake as he shuts his laptop. He can't watch Arthur anymore without it hurting too much to look at him.

***

It's been six weeks since Gwaine left for Cardiff and therefore six weeks since Merlin walked away from Arthur. He knows this only because of the date on his mobile phone.

Gwaine calls every few days, and Merlin does his best to keep the exhaustion and depression out of his voice. He's going to be in Cardiff for another couple of weeks, just until he's sure his mum's settled and secure and Merlin doesn't want to think about what's going to happen when Gwaine gets back to London.

He doesn't leave his studio. There's a shower there, which is just as well because Merlin doesn't want to know how badly he'd be reeking if it weren't for that. He's not really eating, but when he is it's pizza straight from the box. He hasn't shaved in days.

The painting he's working on is the same one he's been working on for the last three days. Blood and bodies, but no faces yet. The canvas is huge, spread across the floor, and Merlin doesn't think he wants to know what memory this is that he's recreating.

He loses consciousness now with alarming regularity, falling into the memories to the extent that he isn't aware of what it is he's painting or drawing, and when he comes to it isn't like he's had a memory at all. It's like he's lived it.

He wonders if his eyes are gold when he paints; he thinks they probably are.

***

Merlin tries to stop him, but Arthur won't hear a word of it.

"I can't just leave my men there to die, Merlin! That would make me a miserable coward, and I just— I can't—"

"He will kill you, Arthur." Merlin's voice is starting to crack, "He'll kill you and I won't be able to stop him. Gods, do you understand what you're asking of me letting you do this?"

"Yes," Arthur says, barely audible. "I do."

Mordred has cast a binding spell on him that makes it impossible for Merlin to cast any spells whatsoever or to be anywhere near the battlefield. Arthur will be walking to his death and there isn't a thing Merlin can do to stop it. But Arthur being Arthur, the thought of fleeing, of leaving his men to die alone, it's unthinkable, and Merlin knows that. But it doesn't make it any easier.

"Then go," Merlin forces out. "Go and die, Arthur. Leave."

He turns away, because he's sobbing now, and he doesn't want Arthur to see him like this.

"I'll find you," Arthur whispers into his neck, and kisses him there. "You hear me, Merlin? I will find you."

Merlin doesn't turn around again until he hears Arthur's voice outside the tent, rousing his men for battle.

When Merlin wakes, he can't move. His muscles are so fatigued that he can't even lift his hand to brush the hair back from his eyes. His brow is damp with sweat and he's crying, his throat hoarse with it, and even though he barely has any voice, he manages to cry out Arthur's name before he blacks out again.

Arthur's body is still warm when Mordred lifts the binding spell, letting Merlin run onto the field.

His magic returns to him in such a rush that it makes him stumble: sheer energy thrumming through him, his skin alive with it.

"Have you come to kill me, Emrys?" For a moment, he sounds like the frightened child that Merlin had met all those years ago.

"I will kill you, Mordred," Merlin says, flatly. "But not today."

Today all that exists is Arthur.

He walks past Mordred, not even looking back, and drops to his knees in front of the body. Arthur looks so beautiful, just like he does when he's asleep, but Merlin knows he isn't sleeping this time. He kisses Arthur's forehead and whispers the prayer that Hunith had taught him all those years ago, the one that assures the fallen their safe passage to Avalon.

"Go on, Mordred," he says, the words thick and cloying in his mouth. "Run back to Morgana and tell her that her brother is dead."

"But—"

"Go!" The ground shakes and Mordred flees.

Merlin brushes a soft kiss across Arthur's lips and the skies go black.

Merlin wakes to pounding. His head throbs and he can't lift it, but after a minute or so, he realises that it is the downstairs door, his front door. Someone is banging on it.

"Merlin!" God. Arthur.

Merlin wants to yell, tell Arthur where he is, but when he tries to form words there is only air. He can't speak, can't move, can't do anything to tell Arthur not to leave.

He loses consciousness again.

***

He wakes to cool, gentle hands on his face, and he feels himself being lifted.

"Arthur?" He manages to breathe out.

"Shhhh. Don't talk, just let me—"

Merlin melts into Arthur, and lets sleep, real sleep, take him at last.

***

He feels himself being pulled out of slumber like he's drowning and someone is pulling him out of the water. He doesn't feel achy or sore now, just tired and a little drugged.

"You're awake."

Merlin opens his eyes, slow and sluggish, and sees Arthur sitting in a chair next to the bed. He looks drawn, so tired and Merlin wants to reach out and touch him so badly that his body aches with it.

"How did you get in?" He manages to croak out. His voice is still patchy, but at least there is more than just breath.

"Broke down the door," Arthur says, grinning. "I'll buy you a new one."

Merlin laughs, but it sounds hollow.

He doesn't bother asking Arthur how he knew to come; the connection between them is so strong that his magic has to be involved somehow, even completely unconsciously.

"When I saw you lying there, I thought—" Arthur is no longer grinning.

Merlin swings his legs around so he's sitting on the edge of the bed, ignoring Arthur's protests. He doesn't feel bad at all, it's like everything that was wrong has all gone away. His body is no longer hurting with need and loss and it's clear that the absence of Arthur, along with years of repressed memories fighting their way to the surface is what's responsible for making him so horribly ill and exhausted .

"I saw you die," Merlin whispers. "In Camlann. I held your body until it was cold, and cried and cried until I couldn't anymore."

"Merlin—" Arthur stands, his hands gripped tightly by his sides.

"They're not just memories, you know," he says, cutting Arthur off. "It's like I can feel them with my whole body. It's why I have to paint them. It's almost like—"

"Like you're living them again."

Merlin nods, and stands up to face Arthur.

"I felt you calling for me," he says, his hands reaching for Merlin, like he can't stop himself. "Felt you pulling me in, and I couldn't— couldn't stay away any longer, Merlin."

"Then don't," Merlin says. "I don't want you to. Never did."

He knows it's wrong, knows he shouldn't be letting Arthur in like this, but he can't keep doing this, trying to push him away, trying to deny the connection. His body aches with trying to resist it and he's just so tired. It's unbearable.

Arthur grabs him then, his hands on Merlin's arms, holding him there and just looking at him, like he's trying to memorise every inch of him.

They don't say anything: no smart back and forth banter, no serious conversation about what they're doing. They just stare at each other, silent and still for long, long minutes. There's so much between them right now: pain and loss and grief, Merlin can feel the weight of it on him like lead.

"I can't lose you," he whispers, as if saying it out loud is too difficult, "not again. Don't go, okay?"

"Not planning on it," Arthur says, gently. He raises one hand to Merlin's face and traces the outline of Merlin's mouth with his thumb.

It's a jolt to Merlin's cock. His body's on fire, flushed and prickly, every nerve ending begging for Arthur's touch. Merlin's so hard now that he aches, and the want is almost crippling.

"I need—" he says, almost breathlessly.

Merlin doesn't even have any time to react before Arthur is slamming him against the wall next to the bed.

Arthur just stands there still, his hands on Merlin, panting hard. His eyes are so dark, so intense, and he looks hungry. He inhales sharply, and something flashes across his face that looks an awful lot like abandon, and then he's pushing Merlin into the wall with his hips, crushing his mouth against his and kissing him, hard and frantic, his hands on Merlin's cheeks, holding him still for Arthur to kiss deeper and deeper. Merlin feels his stomach bottom out just from the kiss, and when Arthur pushes his thigh in between Merlin's, rubbing up and down the length of his cock, Merlin groans and grabs at Arthur as he kisses him back, fiercely.

"Couldn't stop thinking about you, Merlin," Arthur says between kisses, "had to— Christ— had to touch myself all the time, felt like a fucking kid again. Couldn't get through the day without it."

"It hurt," Merlin admits. "Hurt that you weren't here, that I couldn't see you. My body ached."

"Yes," Arthur says, his hands touching Merlin everywhere now, skimming over his face, his neck, his arms, like he's trying to refamiliarise himself with Merlin's body.

"I want—" Merlin pants, holding onto Arthur with his hands fisted in Arthur's shirt, like he's afraid that Arthur will disappear if he lets go. "I want you to fuck me. Can't wait any more."

"Yes," Arthur growls. He throws Merlin on the bed, knocking the bedside lamp to the floor in the process and smashing it in the process.

"Caveman," Merlin says, laughing. Arthur grins, but he doesn't stop, doesn't waste any time getting rid of his clothes, ripping his shirt off so that buttons fly halfway across the room and getting his jeans and boxers off like he's trying to win some sort of race. When Merlin moves to pull his shorts off, Arthur grabs the neck of Merlin's t-shirt and rips it down the middle.

"Christ," Merlin chokes, "you really are taking this alpha male thing seriously, aren't you?"

Arthur helps Merlin pull his shorts off. "I just can't wait," he admits. "Wasted too much time already. You feel so fucking good, Merlin. Missed this so much."

"Oh god, I love you," Merlin blurts out, before he can stop himself, and the look on Arthur's face is shock followed by need so strong that it almost makes Merlin flinch seeing it.

"Lube. Condoms. Now," Arthur barks out, and Merlin just points to the top drawer next to the bed. Arthur reaches out with one hand and grabs a condom and tube of lube. It looks so awkward it makes him laugh a little.

"You could, you know, use both hands," he offers.

Arthur shakes his head and looks embarrassed. "Can't. I don't want to stop touching you. Ever."

Something twists in Merlin's belly. "I know," he says under his breath, moving up the bed so his head's resting on his pillow.

Seconds later, Arthur is opening Merlin with slick fingers, pressing into him. This isn't romantic, or tender, like a first time usually is. But this isn't a first time. They've done this hundreds of times, hundreds of ways before, and they need this right now: rough and fast and desperate. Need each other in ways that are truly scary if Merlin thinks about it for too long.

"Fuck," Arthur swears under his breath as he fingerfucks Merlin even deeper. "So damn tight. How are you still so tight after all this time?"

"Hurry up," Merlin demands, "you don't need to be gentle. I can take it, you know."

"Oh yes," Arthur says, dirty grin on his face. "I know." He has three fingers inside him now and Merlin can't help but groan at the feel of it: long, thick fingers filling him and opening him up for Arthur's cock, grazing his prostate every time Arthur pushes in deeper.

"Please," he begs, "need your cock, Arthur. Now."

"So demanding," Arthur says, pulling his fingers free. "I should teach you a lesson about not having ideas above your station."

"Like you ever could," Merlin pants.

Arthur bites at Merlin's thigh, adds, "Don't tempt me, Merlin."

Merlin wants to tempt Arthur every day for the rest of their lives.

Arthur rolls the condom on, slicks himself with lube and pushes right in. Not gently, not conservatively, just shoves the entire length of his cock inside Merlin and it's so tight it's painful, but Merlin doesn't care.

Arthur doesn't waste any time setting a rhythm that's so fast and hard that Merlin's head hits the headboard each time Arthur fucks into him. It's so unbelievably good: rough and fast and hot and the two of them are sliding against each other, slick with sweat. Arthur looks amazing: his hair plastered to his forehead and so much power in his body. He looks so focused and intense, concentrating so hard on fucking Merlin within an inch of his life. He kisses him on every forward thrust, biting and sucking at Merlin's lower lip; it's so good that Merlin wants to scream, and he drops his hand to his cock, fisting himself with long, rough strokes.

"So fucking good," Arthur grinds out.

"Missed you, Arthur."

"Me too," Arthur admits, "and if you ever tell anyone I said that? I will kill you."

Merlin laughs. Typical.

Arthur grabs Merlin by the hips, pounding into him now with increasing speed and intensity. Merlin thinks he could quite easily die right now, and die very happy, too. He lets go of his cock, not able to even move while Arthur is fucking him so frantically. Arthur thrusts in one last time and yells, "Fuck, Merlin. Jesus fucking Christ," before coming inside him.

It doesn't take Merlin long to follow him, Arthur's lube-slicked hand stripping his cock. He comes pathetically fast just from Arthur's hand touching him, and the way he is looking at Merlin.

Arthur rolls off him, onto his back, and knots the condom, throwing it into Merlin's rubbish bin. Perfect aim of course, like Arthur ever does anything that isn't perfect.

Arthur lays back down, and long minutes pass where he doesn't even move, just inhales and exhales, over and over. His face hot and sweaty against Merlin's skin. He feels amazing, perfect.

Merlin kisses him then, slow and wet. It's as if the edge has been lifted now and it feels like they have all the time in the world and no complications, nothing but the two of them just lying there, kissing, skin to skin.

It isn't true of course. There are so many complications and while it's lovely to pretend that what they're doing isn't hurting anyone, it is just that: a pretence. He pulls back a little and just looks at Arthur. There's so much there between them that the air feels heavy with it.

"I could really use a shower," Merlin says, breaking the silence. "I stink."

"I can go one better than that." Arthur gets up and pulls Merlin in, kisses him slow and wet and tender. "We'll go to my place."

***

Arthur's flat in Mayfair is one of the most beautiful places Merlin has ever seen. If he'd thought Gwaine's place was impressive, well. Not that he wants to think about Gwaine right now of course—that way lies madness and guilt, and he and Arthur have plenty of time for that. Later.

They both stink of sex, and Merlin probably hasn't showered in a couple of days, but according to Arthur's instructions he brings a change of clothes and pyjamas. He did question why he couldn't shower at his own place, but Arthur just smiled knowingly and said "You'll see." He hasn't seen the outside of his own place in weeks, so it's probably time for a change of scenery anyway, and this place is so beautiful that Merlin feels like he's staying in the most expensive hotel in the world.

The entrance hall is huge and wood-panelled and he feels like he should be very quiet, like it's a library.

"Give me five minutes," Arthur says. "Take a look around if you want. No-one's here today, I sent the staff home."

"Posh wanker," Merlin teases. He flashes a grin at Arthur, who gives him the two-fingered salute as he wanders off down the hall.

The drawing room is massive too, and has an impressive collection of books and beautiful furniture, including a writing desk and a massive leather chair. Merlin loses track of time as he takes in the room: the portraits of Arthur's father and mother hanging on the wall along with a family one of Arthur with Uther and Morgana, and a few candid shots of Arthur on his desk.

He jumps when he hears a noise behind him and turns around to see Arthur leaning in the doorway, completely, gloriously naked, and his hair wet from the shower. He crooks a finger and beckons Merlin to follow him down the corridor.

Merlin can't help but stare at Arthur's arse for the entire length of the corridor: it is truly spectacular. Always was.

Arthur's bathroom is just as impressive as the rest of the house: large and pristine white with a huge shower and bath, both definitely big enough for two people. The bath is full, and Arthur had obviously been busy drawing it while Merlin was looking around.

"Oh," Merlin says, realising what Arthur has been planning this whole time. "I see. Well I suppose this is a little nicer than my mould-ridden shower."

"Let's get these clothes off," Arthur says, ignoring the quip and unbuttoning Merlin's jeans. He pulls them down past his hips, and Merlin's underwear along with them. Merlin just stands there, not even moving.

"Merlin? Is something wrong?"

Merlin shakes his head. "Just— can't believe I'm not dreaming, I guess. If I am, I don't want to wake up."

Arthur traces the line of Merlin's cheekbones with the pads of his thumbs, it's an incredibly tender gesture and it makes Merlin's chest feel tight.

"You're not dreaming, Merlin," Arthur says, kissing him once on each cheek, quick pecks of kisses, followed by a much longer one that he lavishes on Merlin's mouth.

"Good," Merlin says, trying to keep the waver out of his voice. "Good." He strips his t-shirt off and gets into the bath.

"Lean back and wet your hair," Arthur tells him.

Merlin mock-glares at him. "I can actually work out how to have a bath all by myself you know, your highness, I've managed for twenty-two years just fine without you telling me what to do."

"Stubborn bastard."

"Dollophead."

But he does as he's told and leans back, getting his hair thoroughly wet. Seconds later, he hears the water splashing and feels Arthur pressed up behind him. Merlin leans back against his shoulder as Arthur massages shampoo into Merlin's scalp. It smells like lime and coconut; it's probably very expensive. Merlin can feel the tension of the last few weeks uncoiling with every stroke of Arthur's hands.

"You have lovely hands." He concentrates on the way Arthur's fingers are pressing into his scalp, working the knots there and he whines when they stop.

"Rinse," Arthur whispers into his neck, and Merlin moves forward enough to be able to tip his head back and rinse the shampoo from his hair.

Arthur's hands are coated in bodywash now, and he drags them over every inch of Merlin's skin, starting with his throat.

"Mmmmm." Merlin just lies back on Arthur, closing his eyes. "You're pretty good at this for a spoiled brat who never had to do a thing for himself."

"Oi!" Arthur splashes water in Merlin's face. "If you're not nice to me, Merlin, I shan't finish."

He smiles and concentrates on the journey of Arthur's hands. His cock goes from half-hard to fully erect within seconds when Arthur's soapy hands brush over his nipples and the trail of hair leading down to his crotch.

"Oh," Merlin says, all breath. "Oh. Arthur."

"Are you going to be nice?" Arthur asks in that profoundly irritating, patronising tone, which he punctuates by dragging his finger down the length of Merlin's cock.

"Yes, you utter—"

Arthur pulls his hand away, and Merlin wants to cry.

"Yes, yes, okay? I'll be nice. Honest!"

Merlin groans as Arthur strokes him so light and gentle that it's absolute torture. Bastard.

"Please," Merlin begs.

Apparently that's all Arthur wanted to hear, because his hand encircles Merlin's cock and strips it with long, hard strokes of his hand as he whispers: "After this, Merlin, I'm going to lay you out over my sheets and fuck you all night . Make you scream for me, like I used to."

"Oh god," Merlin groans, pushing his hips forward, driving his cock into Arthur's fist. It doesn't take long: he's already so sensitised and after maybe half a dozen long, slow, strokes, Merlin is coming into Arthur's hand, biting his lip.

"I thought I'd lost you," Arthur whispers, his face pressed into Merlin's neck. "I couldn't bear it— not after finding you again."

Merlin sits up and turns around, so he's facing Arthur. He looks so broken, so wounded, and Merlin wishes he could just take it all away. He kisses him once, lips brushing gently, and Arthur whimpers, and holds Merlin, one hand on the back of his neck. Arthur deepens the kiss, and Merlin feels like every inch of his mouth is being explored, discovered again.

"I love you, Merlin," Arthur murmurs as he pulls back, and the look on his face is so open, so completely unguarded that Merlin feels like he's invading Arthur's privacy just by looking. "I didn't think—"

"Shhhh," Merlin says, touching Arthur's mouth with his fingers. "I know."

Merlin kisses him again. It's like he's come home.

***

When Merlin wakes up, it takes him a moment to register as to why he's in a bed that isn't his. A huge, extremely comfortable bed which has linen that has probably been washed more than once a week. Then everything comes flooding back: Arthur breaking down his door, the sex that followed, coming to Arthur's, bathing, a handjob in the bath, more sex which left him wrung-out and sore, and finally sleep in the most comfortable bed that Merlin has ever had the pleasure of waking up in.

Oh and the small matter of Arthur telling him he loved him. All in all, an eventful day and night

He knows he should feel guilty for doing exactly what he promised himself he wouldn't do, that is: seeing Arthur, sleeping with Arthur. Not just that, he's happy and no matter how happy Arthur makes him, he can't pretend this is a victimless crime. It isn't.

Merlin reaches out for Arthur, but he isn't there, and he sits up, rubbing his eyes, trying to focus. There's an almighty crash, and Arthur yelling "Oh for fuck's sake!" followed by more crashes, which Merlin registers as pots and pans. Arthur must be in the kitchen, then.

The kitchen. Oh. God no.

Merlin gets up as quickly as he can and throws on the robe Arthur left out for him.

He hears another five or so expletives before he makes it down the end of the corridor, following the clanging and Arthur's voice until he reaches the hugest kitchen he's ever seen.

"This house is too big," Merlin complains, "what if it had been an emergency? The place might've burned down by the time I got down the bloody corridor!"

"This is an emergency. Cook isn't here and I thought it would be easy enough to make breakfast, but— bloody hell, I really am not cut out for this, Merlin."

Arthur's a mess, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, flour in his hair and on his face, and he looks so pathetic that Merlin can't help walking over and kissing him.

"You don't belong in a kitchen," Merlin assures Arthur. "Just, I don't know, go and read the financial section or something and I'll try and make something out of this mess."

"Spoiled, arrogant brat with the brains of a donkey. That's what you called me once, didn't you?" Arthur is pouting now, and it shouldn't be funny, but Merlin can't help himself. He doubles over and laughs so much that it hurts.

"You should have seen yourself," Merlin manages, "you were so wounded. Oh stop pouting, you massive drama queen. You may be useless when it comes to the culinary arts, but you have other talents."

"That's very true, Merlin, thank you." Arthur grins as Merlin picks up the bowl containing some kind of flour, egg, milk concoction that now resembles lumpy paste and throws the whole thing in the rubbish.

"You're welcome." Merlin looks through Arthur's fridge to see what he has and pulls out spring onions, tomatoes, cheese, eggs, milk and butter.

"The newspaper, then," Arthur quickly says, looking very confused and frightened by the array of ingredients.

Merlin nods and shoos Arthur away as he sets to work, cracking eggs into a large glass bowl he finds in one of the ridiculous amount of cupboards in Arthur's kitchen. Cupboards, he'll bet a thousand pounds, that Arthur has never opened.

In the time it would probably take for Arthur to read the financial section, Merlin puts together a semi-decent omelette and serves it up in the breakfast room along with some juice. He refrains from commenting on the ridiculousness of even having a breakfast room, because there are many, many things about the upper class that Merlin will never understand.

Arthur looks at him like he's a genius for making an omelette and when they've finished eating, he drags Merlin back into the bedroom, stripping the robe off him as they go.

Merlin rides Arthur, sucking on the fingers Arthur shoves in his mouth, and watching his face the whole time.

He falls asleep with Arthur wrapped around him like he doesn't want to let go.

***

When Merlin wakes the next morning, he has to pinch himself to make sure this isn't all some wonderful dream that he's been having. It's been like this for two days now, and he's always scared to go to sleep at night just in case he wakes up on the floor of his studio, sick and alone and not to put too fine a point on it, wanting to die.

But this time, Arthur is there when he wakes up, his hair adorably messy. He is staring.

"You're a creeper," Merlin mumbles. "You're one of those creepy stalker types who watch their victims when they sleep."

"You should be so lucky," Arthur points out. "Not all stalkers are this devastatingly handsome, you know."

"Oh bugger off." Merlin hits him with the pillow. "Seriously. Your ego is bigger than your's, Leon's and Gwaine's houses put together."

Arthur clears his throat, "Speaking of Gwaine—"

"I think I need a shower."

Merlin doesn't wait to hear what Arthur says next, just strides down the corridor till he reaches the bathroom and turns on the shower. He knows this is a conversation that they have to have, but he isn't ready for it. Not yet. He isn't proud of himself either, he feels like a fucking coward.

When the water's warm enough, Merlin steps in and puts his face under the spray. Arthur's shower has the best pressure of any shower he's ever been in, of course, and he doesn't even register Arthur joining him until he feels his body pressing against Merlin's from behind.

"Sorry," Merlin says, turning to face him. Arthur soaking wet is something that Merlin has no defence against, and he bites his lower lip, hoping the hint of pain stops the erection that's threatening to distract him.

"I just— I know I have to face him, break it off. But not yet, yeah? I just want this time for us, Arthur. I'll deal with Gwaine when he gets back."

Arthur nods. "I understand. I do."

"Okay then."

Merlin runs a hand through his hair, and he can see Arthur's eyes follow the movement. Merlin leans back against the glass wall of the shower, and watches Arthur as he moves in, crowding Merlin with an arm on either side of him.

"Have you ensorcelled me, Merlin?" Arthur hisses in his ear, and runs his tongue along the line of Merlin's jaw.

"You know I haven't, you utter— oh—"

Arthur presses his groin against Merlin's and it feels divine, wet cocks sliding against each other, and Merlin loves this, but it isn't enough. Not nearly enough, and he wants something he doesn't even know how to ask for.

"I'm clean," Merlin breathes into Arthur's mouth, his tongue dipping inside. "I get myself tested all the time and Gwaine and I've never done it, not without—"

Arthur kisses him hard, sucking on his tongue with abandon.

"Really don't want to hear about you and Gwaine." He rests his hands on Merlin's hips, thumbs rubbing circles on his hipbones. "I've been tested too. After Leon's. Felt like I should, didn't know why. I do now."

"Please," Merlin begs, his hand on the back of Arthur's neck, pressing his forehead against Arthur's.

"Yes," Arthur moans, his kisses getting increasingly fast and desperate. "Turn around, Merlin, fuck."

Merlin turns around to face the glass and Arthur pushes him against it. He holds Merlin's wrists above his head, and whispers:

"Keep them there."

Merlin hooks his fingers over the top of the wall, and tries to stay upright, not let his knees buckle, when Arthur pushes two slick fingers inside him. Merlin rocks back against Arthur's fingers and god, he's still so sore from the non-stop shagging over the last couple of days, but he doesn't care that it hurts, not one bit, instead he's pushing himself back, trying to get Arthur's fingers deeper inside him.

"You ready?"

Merlin nods, and braces himself against the wall as Arthur pushes in. Christ, it's so good having nothing in the way, just Arthur's cock moving inside him, slow and deep, hitting his prostate on every thrust and his mouth on Merlin's neck, tongue chasing the droplets of water.

"You feel so amazing, Merlin," Arthur pants. "So fucking good." Arthur's hand clutches a handful of his hair and pulls Merlin's head back, his mouth fixed on Merlin's neck and sucking bruises into the soft, wet skin as he fists Merlin's cock.

It's too much, and Merlin feels like his body is being assailed; Arthur's mouth and cock and hands, and he can't help it, he comes hard and far too soon, spilling into Arthur's hand.

"Fuck," Arthur swears under his breath, and there's something about hearing words like 'fuck' in that cultured, cut-glass voice, it's a complete turn-on.

"You close?" Merlin asks, breath still ragged and erratic and he feels Arthur breathe his affirmations into Merlin's skin.

"Do it," Merlin groans. "I want to feel you come inside me, fill me up."

"Oh shut up," snaps Arthur, and Merlin laughs, grinds his hips forward and back in time with Arthur's thrusts, and when Arthur digs his fingers into Merlin's hip and pulls his head back to kiss him; dirty, wet and open-mouthed, Merlin knows it's all over.

Arthur sinks his teeth into the meat of Merlin's shoulder and comes, pulsing wet deep inside Merlin. He rides his orgasm out, pushing deeper inside Merlin, still fucking him, panting out filth and nonsense into Merlin's skin that he will probably try to pretend he didn't say, but they're branded into Merlin's flesh, and nothing, no-one can take that away from him.

Arthur pulls out and turns Merlin around, pressing him back into the wall, his hands everywhere.

They kiss until the water runs cold.

***

Merlin knows they can't stay like this forever, trapped in some bubble of sex and love and memories like the world outside doesn't exist. But it's still a shock when the bubble breaks and everything comes crashing down.

If Morgana is surprised to see him: brewing coffee in Arthur's kitchen when she bursts through the front door and down the corridor, she doesn't really show it. She always was very good at hiding things though: emotions, thoughts and plans were all kept secret and Merlin thinks that given she isn't in any way stupid, she can guess what is going on.

Particularly when Arthur comes in from the bathroom, white towel wrapped around his slim hips.

"Jesus Christ, Morgana!" he yells, "What are you doing sneaking into my house at arse-o-clock?"

"Lovely to see you, too, dear." She flashes him a fake-smile, and kisses him and then Merlin on the cheek.

"It's been far too long, Merlin," she says. "We really need to talk about those lovely paintings of yours."

Merlin bites his bottom lip. He's pretty sure that only about a third of his paintings right now are fit for public consumption.

But he finds himself saying, "Yes, of course. Just been really busy, y'know?"

She hugs him tightly. When she pulls back, he sees her eyes flick down to the base of his neck. Right where he has a very large, very dark lovebite, courtesy of Arthur Pendragon, future Duke of Westminster.

"Yes," she says, eyes darting from Merlin to Arthur and back again, "I imagine you have been. Well, I was going to take Arthur out for breakfast, but I suppose you'd better come along too, precious."

"Oh," Arthur says, tentatively like he's been thinking very carefully, "it's Saturday?"

Morgana laughs. "Must've been one hell of a bender for you to forget which day of the week it is, dear brother." She glances at Merlin, eyes narrowed like she's thinking, and Merlin feels like he's being weighed and measured.

"Morgana and I always have breakfast on Saturdays," he explains, "I'd just— forgotten."

He looks up at Merlin with apologies in his eyes. Merlin gives him a little wry smile, then glances at Morgana again.

"Well hurry up then, Arthur." She claps her hands and points him towards the bedroom, "whilst I'm sure The Mirror would love to catch a glimpse of you in your state of undress, I must say that I don't share their sentiment. Go and get decent, hmmm?"

"So bloody bossy," Arthur complains, casting a surreptitious glance at Merlin as he walks off down the corridor.

Merlin doesn't look at Morgana, just looks down at the cracks in the mug in front of him.

"Merlin—" her voice is soft and placating.

"Really hungry now," he says, trying to change the subject, not wanting to look at her or acknowledge anything that she may or may not know. "Think I'll have bacon and eggs. Yeah, bacon and eggs and maybe tomato and—"

"Oh Merlin. Darling."

She reaches a hand out to him across the breakfast bar. Merlin looks at her then; her eyes are fathomless and sad.

"You've remembered, haven't you?" she asks, her thumb rubbing calming circles on his wrist. "Both of you. I could feel it, you know. The weekend I met you."

"Yeah," Merlin whispers. "I thought you might have."

"When are you going to tell Gwaine? Merlin, you can't carry on like this behind his back, it isn't right."

Merlin feels his jaw clench and he turns away from her.

What do you know about what's right, he wants to say. Since when did you ever do the right thing? When you betrayed us? When you tortured me for days? When you stood back and watched your brother die?

But none of it matters now. Not really. This Morgana doesn't deserve his hate.

He turns to look at her. "I don't know. I was going to tell him before, but then the thing with his mum happened and fuck, Morgana, I tried to get Arthur to stay away, tried to stay away from him, but I—"

"I remember, you know," she says, soft and husky, like a secret. "How it wouldn't have mattered what I did to you, you would have refused to give him up. I could have flayed the skin from your body and you would have taken all of it, stupidly sacrificing yourself for him."

Merlin shuts his eyes, trying to will the image away of Morgana's hands on him, magic slicing into him, the most unimaginable pain that left him cut and bleeding, wrists rubbed raw and bruised from the shackles that held him up while Morgana tried to break him.

Arthur had come for him, of course. Stupidly sacrificing, as she called it. And that was the first time Merlin had seen Morgana hesitate, had seen the pain and confusion and the hesitation when she had her brother on his knees, her knife to his throat.

Morgana's hesitation had been long enough for Arthur to destroy the altar and the spell binding Merlin's magic to her, allowing Merlin to subdue Morgana. Arthur had released him from his shackles and Merlin had collapsed in his arms; hurt and exhausted and drained from the magic.

"Perhaps there are some memories that we shouldn't be dwelling on," Arthur says, leaning against the door frame.

"Perhaps," Morgana says, breathlessly. She stands there for a moment, composing herself, and forces a smile. It looks like the same fake-smile Arthur uses in the same sorts of situations.

Like brother, like sister.

***

His phone rings halfway through breakfast. It's Gwaine.

"Miss me?"

Gwaine sounds more cheerful than he has in quite some time. Merlin's relieved, even though just hearing his voice ties his stomach up in knots. He gets up from the table and wanders outside, not looking at Arthur or Morgana.

"Course I did." Merlin thinks he does a pretty good job of keeping the waver out of his voice, but his hand is shaking. "How's your mum doing?"

"She's wonderful," Gwaine says, and he sounds like sunshine. Merlin feels torn between smiling and throwing up.

"So, guess where I am?" Gwaine's tone is cheeky, and Merlin feels a wave of affection for him, making his chest tight with guilt.

"My psychic powers aren't switched on yet. Not enough coffee," Merlin teases. "Where are you, then?"

"Sitting in my car outside your place. Apparently you are not there, though." Merlin can hear Gwaine's grin down the phone, but it's doing nothing to calm the wave of dread that's building in the pit of Merlin's stomach.

"I'm— at breakfast with Morgana." Half the truth at least. Better than nothing. Merlin thinks that maybe if he tells himself that enough times, maybe he'll start to believe it, too.

***

Gwaine looks exhausted, but gorgeous. But then he always looks gorgeous, really, and Merlin hugs him, hard. He'd be lying if he tried to pretend he hasn't missed him. If Arthur didn't exist, Gwaine would be the perfect boyfriend: sexy, smart, funny. God, he was the perfect boyfriend, and it isn't his fault he's not Arthur.

"So, how have you been?" Gwaine asks. "I feel like I've been so wrapped up in everything that's been going on with me Ma, that I've barely given you a second thought. I'm sorry, Merlin."

Oh fuck you, Gwaine. Fuck you for making this so much harder.

Merlin hadn't been intending on doing this now. He thought he might wait until Gwaine was back and settled, but Morgana's right: it isn't fair to let Gwaine believe that Merlin is happy being with him. Not when the truth is that Merlin thinks of Arthur nearly every minute of every day. He can't keep stringing him along while he and Arthur are playing the infidelity game and making a fool of him.

"I've been— Gwaine, we need to talk."

Gwaine's face clouds over. "I don't know if I like the sound of that."

Merlin swallows and takes a deep breath.

"Well," Gwaine says, after Merlin has told him he really likes him, but just isn't in love with him, "I'm not completely stupid, I knew you weren't happy, Merlin. I guess I just thought that maybe it wasn't to do with me."

Merlin swallows, hard. "I wanted to say something sooner, I just— the thing with your mum happened, and the timing was atrocious and besides, I didn't know how you'd react, if you'd hate me, or what. I couldn't bear for you to hate me, Gwaine."

Which is why Merlin isn't breaking the news about Arthur yet. It's too much, and if Gwaine's going to hate him, then so be it, but he isn't going to let that happen before Lance's wedding. Lance and Gwen deserve at least a moment of happiness that has nothing to do with any of this.

"I'll be fine," Gwaine says. It isn't much, but it's a start. "It just wasn't meant to be. Not like we were soulmates or anything, was it? I'd rather be your friend than nothing, after all."

He wraps Merlin in a hug, and Merlin wants to just hang onto him forever like this, pretending everything is safe and simple.

***

"But Merlin, I don't understand," Gwen calls out from the changing rooms. "You were so happy. Gwaine is— he was, perfect for you. What happened?"

Where to even start. While he wishes he could tell Gwen, because she'd at least help him get his thoughts in order, he can't. No-one can know. Not yet. Merlin would have thought that breaking things off with Gwaine would have made things at least a little easier, but he's still no closer to feeling like his life is under control. Having the wedding to think about at least gives him a brief respite from thinking about Arthur and their situation every second of the day, but invariably thinking about Gwen and weddings leads back to Arthur anyway, so he's pretty much buggered no matter what.

"Are you ready yet?" Merlin asks, bouncing from one foot to the next. There were times when he really felt that perhaps he had missed some kind of gay gene, and that he should maybe return his toaster oven. Waiting for Gwen trying on the wedding dress she's had on layby is one of those times, he just doesn't enjoy waiting around for hours and cooing over pretty things. But it's Gwen, and he's hardly seen her lately she's been so busy, so he's doing his duty.

"I don't know," Gwen whines, sounding annoyed and pathetic at the same time.

"Gwen, get your arse out here now!" Merlin bellows, banging on the changing room door. "That woman with the blue hair will be back soon, and she already thinks I'm a bloody pervert as it is. Just show me the sodding dress so we can go."

She walks out of the changing room and Merlin feels like his heart stops beating.

"Merlin? What's wrong?"

""The circle is open but unbroken. May the peace of the Old Ones go in our hearts. Blessed be."

"Merlin?" Gwen rushes over to him as his knees buckle and he loses his balance, falling onto the carpet. "Are you okay?"

He looks up and takes a deep breath, tries to slow his heart rate back to normal.

"'m fine." He stands up, rubbing his knee. "You look—"

"Oh God." Gwen looks at herself in the full-length mirror. "You think I look pants, don't you? It looks just awful on me, doesn't it?"

"No," Merlin says, soft and a little bit sad, "you look—"

Like you did back then: happy and beautiful and in love.

"Lovely, Gwen. So very beautiful."

"Really?" She twirls a little, and she looks like she wants to believe him, but she doesn't know if she should.

"Really." Merlin hugs her, gently. "I think it's perfect."

She smiles, and kisses him on the cheek. "I have a favour to ask you, Merlin. You don't have to say yes, but I'll be absolutely over the moon if you do."

Merlin scowls, trying to think what it could possibly be. "What is it?"

"I was hoping," she blushes and looks at the floor, "well, you know Dad's dead and Elyan can't get back to England until the day before, which doesn't leave much time, so— Oh sod it. I was hoping that you might give me away?"

"Oh, Gwen." Merlin hugs her, tighter this time. "I'd love to. Thank you."

She looks ecstatic, and Merlin is filled with nothing but love for her. She's gotten her happy ending, and this time nobody had to be hurt in order for it to happen. It feels so right, like something is finally clicking into place and happening the way it was meant to.

If it can happen for Gwen and Lance, maybe, just maybe it can happen for him and Arthur too.

"I am so sorry about Gwaine, love," she says, kissing his cheek again. "I just want you to be happy."

"I am," Merlin says, "I will be."

***

The problem with having a clandestine affair with one of your boyfriend's best friends, well, one of the problems anyway, was that when said boyfriend and yourself called things off, it was next to impossible to see said man with whom you have been having the clandestine affair. Why? Because the boyfriend, now ex, usually wants to drown his sorrows with his best friends, one of whom of course is the clandestine sex partner (and also reincarnated body and soul of your former King and lover, but that's by the by) in question.

It's like a Shakespearean comedy in the flesh, only not at all funny.

There's also the matter of being so caught up in each other that getting discovered is a real possibility, case in point, Morgana popping in and finding them together. And given that neither of them are ready to spill the entire truth to Gwaine yet, they figured that some distance was necessary.

In other words, Merlin hasn't seen Arthur in weeks.

Luckily, this particular absence isn't like the soulcrushing separation that led to Merlin collapsing on his studio floor, feverish and ill. It's different now. Possibly because the memories have all come to the surface and Merlin isn't having hours-long blackouts where he wakes up shivering and covered in paint and sweat.

No. That's all been unlocked, and while he hasn't seen Arthur for longer than either of them are comfortable with, he can feel his presence, their connection, it's not like he's trying to deny it.

He feels uncomfortable in his skin though, and although he's been keeping in touch with Arthur by email and text, he knows he won't be completely right again until he's touching Arthur and Arthur's touching him. It's pathetic really, their co-dependence.

Lance's stag do is supposed to be a very civilised night. He's suggested a nice meal and maybe a few drinks with "No bloody strippers, Gwaine, you hear me?"

But everyone knows with Gwaine and Leon in charge, it isn't likely to go as planned.

They start off with dinner at Arthur's, which is a disaster from the start. As soon as he sees Arthur, Merlin feels like his heart stops, and apparently he isn't the only one freaking out, because even when the doorbell rings, Merlin and Arthur can't seem to stop staring at each other. Merlin wants to reach out to him, run his fingers along the line of Arthur's jaw. Being so near and unable to touch him seems wrong. But Gwaine and Lance and Leon arrive soon after, and Merlin has to look away.

It deteriorates from there. Everywhere Merlin turns, he's reminded of all the places Arthur's kissed him, all the surfaces he's been pushed up against, and Merlin's knees twinge when he looks at the rug in the dining room, the rug that Arthur had fucked him on in front of the fireplace. Merlin's knees had been horribly chafed for days.

He shivers, and Arthur catches him, the corner of his lips turning up into that insanely hot and completely irritating smirk that Merlin both loves and hates in equal measure. Gwaine comes over and hugs Merlin, his hand lingering on Merlin's lower back, and Arthur's face changes, not so much a smirk, more like he wants to strangle Gwaine with his bare hands.

Gwaine steps back out of the hug. "I was really looking forward to seeing you, I've missed you , Merlin."

"Missed you too," Merlin admits, because he has. "Is this going to be awkward?"

Gwaine grins, "Nah. I think we'll be just fine. Friends, right?"

"Yeah. Friends."

They sit down to a dinner of lobster, steak and champagne. It's ridiculously posh, and Merlin is a little out of his depth with the whole lobster thing. Arthur is sitting next to him with Leon on the other side and Gwaine and Lance opposite, along with a bunch of Lance's other friends that Merlin hasn't met, scattered around the large table. Merlin is sure Arthur planned it that way on purpose.

"Here." Arthur grabs Merlin's hand and puts it on the claw cracker, surrounding it with his own hand and whispers, "now squeeze."

He cracks the lobster claw and pulls out the meat with the tiny fork. Arthur grins, and pulls his hand away, letting his finger slide against the back of Merlin's hand.

They're halfway through the lobster course when Merlin feels Arthur's hand slide under the serviette in his lap and press against his cock. He jumps, bangs his knee under the table, and whips his head around to glare at Arthur, who is quite innocently sipping his champagne and engaged in conversation with Leon about the Premier League and how Arsenal were in good shape for the season and Chelsea and Man U'd better look out.

All this, while rubbing the heel of his hand up and down the length of Merlin's cock.

Merlin shifts his chair backwards suddenly. "Excuse me, please, I have to go to the loo."

He pulls his jumper down so it's mostly covering his crotch and leaves them all to it, heading for the bathroom. He stands there, staring at himself in the mirror, running a hand through his hair, whispering, "Fuck."

"I don't think we have enough time," Arthur says, closing the bathroom door behind him. Merlin hadn't even heard him open it.

"Oh, I bet you think you're bloody hilarious, don't you?" Merlin glares at him in the reflection, not bothering to turn around.

"Usually, yeah." Arthur puts an arm around Merlin's waist from behind and presses his lips into his neck. "You look so fucking good, I couldn't help it. Had to touch you. It's been weeks, Merlin."

"Well next time it might be better not in a room full of people," Merlin hisses.

Merlin can feel Arthur's cock pressing into him from behind and he tilts his arse back against it, hates himself for it, but he just can't help himself.

"Christ, I wish we could—" Arthur digs his nails into Merlin's waist and Merlin tries his hardest not to whimper. "But we'd better head back."

He spins Merlin around and kisses him once, wet and rough.

Merlin nods, waits for Arthur to leave and heads back to the table three minutes later.

***

The club that they end up at is one of those places that if Merlin wasn't with the boys, there's no way he'd be allowed in. The clientele is Arthur's It Crowd, all Sloanies and soap stars and pop singers and he feels completely out of place.

Gwaine gives him a smile and a squeeze. "It's okay, Merlin, we won't stay for too long."

"Hey," Merlin protests, "it isn't my night. Whatever Lance wants to do is fine with me."

"Lance is getting completely pissed if the display at the bar is anything to go by."

Gwaine puts his hands on Merlin's shoulders and turns him around to see Arthur, ordering a whole line of shots. Gwaine walks the two of them over to join the others, keeping his hands on Merlin's shoulders. Arthur looks up and Merlin can see him clench his jaw.

"Come here, Merlin," Arthur says, low and dangerous, and Merlin has no idea what he's going to do.

Arthur grabs a shot and says, "Tilt your head back and open your mouth." He tangles his hand in Merlin's hair and pulls it back, lifting the shotglass to his mouth. Arthur pours it down Merlin's throat in one go, while his fingers grip Merlin's hair. Merlin's trousers are too tight to be at all comfortable, and he kind of wants to kill Arthur.

When Arthur pulls Merlin's head back up, Merlin can't help but notice that he is staring at Merlin like he wants to eat him. They stare at each other for what seems like minutes before Arthur yells, "More shots, DuLac!" Arthur turns his back on him and it's like he can breathe again.

By the time they've all had four or five shots each, Merlin is well on his way to very pissed indeed. When Gwaine pulls him onto the dance floor, he goes willingly, letting Gwaine move him like he's a puppet, boneless and pliant.

After Gwaine gets carried away, dancing with a group of girls next to them, Merlin feels heat at his back, and he knows without looking who it is.

"Come with me," Arthur whispers, his tongue flicking out and wetting the shell of Merlin's ear.

Merlin just nods and lets Arthur drag him into the VIP toilets. There's an attendant there, and Arthur gives him a fifty pound note, tells him to take a break. Arthur probably doesn't need to pay him, it's clear the attendant knows who he is, and is probably used to catering to the whims of the filthy rich and famous. He just nods and says, "Leave the door unlocked when you leave, if you don't mind, Mr Pendragon." And with that he's gone.

Arthur locks the door behind him and walks into Merlin's space, crowding him against the wall, with a thumb on his mouth, pushing ever so slightly inside.

"Been dying to touch you all night," he purrs. "Having to watch fucking Gwaine with his hands all over you. Drove me absolutely insane."

He gets one hand in Merlin's hair and the other on his waist, fingers tugging on his beltloop and he pulls Merlin in, kissing him hard until Merlin pants for breath.

"Want to watch you," Arthur says, pushing Merlin towards the bench to face the mirror.

Merlin gasps as Arthur unbuttons his jeans with no preamble whatsoever and gets his hand on Merlin's cock, starting a teasing rhythm with long, slow strokes that leave Merlin desperate for faster and harder.

"Love watching you fall apart," Arthur whispers in his ear, resting his mouth there, scraping the shell with his teeth. "Did you like it? Having his hands all over you?"

"Of course not, you utter— Gwaine always flirts. It doesn't mean anything, Arthur."

Arthur's hand stills. "Did you moan when he fucked you, Merlin? Did you call his name? Tell me."

"Possessive wanker," Merlin grinds out.

"Do you want me to stop?" Arthur sounds positively evil when he's like this, and Merlin wishes it didn't turn him on so much, but it does.

Arthur takes his hand away, and Merlin wants to cry from the sheer frustration of it. Usually he'd put up a fight, try and show Arthur that he isn't just some toy to be played with, but right now all he cares about is getting Arthur's hands back on his body and he doesn't care about his pride.

"Please, Arthur," Merlin begs,"Just— touch me."

"Wouldn't you rather have Gwaine?" Arthur hisses, and Merlin knows what this is all about. He still isn't over it, the jealousy that reared its head when he thought Merlin had slept with Gwaine on his wedding night. It's still there, Merlin guesses, whenever Arthur sees the two of them together.

Merlin rolls his head back, whispers, "I only want you."

"And what am I to you, Merlin?"

"You are my lord."

"Fuck," Arthur swears under his breath.

He sounds so out of control, so desperate that Merlin repeats himself, "You are my lord. Always."

"I am, aren't I?" Arthur groans into the back of Merlin's neck. "God, you're unbelievable, Merlin." He pulls Merlin's jeans all the way down and shoves two fingers into his mouth. "Get them wet. Jesus. "

Merlin sucks Arthur's fingers like he would his cock, sliding all the way down to the base and pulling all the way up, scraping them with his teeth.

"That mouth," Arthur groans. "It should be illegal, Merlin. Christ."

He pulls his fingers free of Merlin's mouth and shoves them inside Merlin's hole, not gently at all, but Merlin loves it, loves that burn that always comes with not enough prep. Arthur bites the base of his neck, obviously not caring who sees the marks, and whispers, "Watch yourself."

Arthur pulls his fingers out, scrabbling to get his trousers undone and pushes Merlin down on the bench, kneeing his legs open wider and shoves into him with one. Smooth. Thrust.

Merlin watches the two of them in the mirror, and seeing himself like this: wanton and desperate, it should be shameful. It isn't though. He doesn't care, he just gives into it and thrusts his hips back and forth, fucking himself on Arthur's cock. They both come embarrassingly fast and Merlin watches it all in the glass, Arthur's hands gripping his hips hard enough to bruise as he comes inside Merlin, his face so incredibly beautiful and open that it takes Merlin's breath away.

Arthur drops to his knees and cleans him afterwards, licks him slow and thorough, and Merlin drives himself back onto Arthur's tongue, shamelessly. He's never been a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but Arthur has always brought this out in him: made him not care about being wild and frantic, whorish. Arthur licking and sucking his own come out of Merlin's arse is possibly the filthiest thing he's ever done to him, and Merlin loves it. Loves him.

When Arthur gets to his feet again, his mouth wet and used, it's all Merlin can do not to throw him against the bench and kiss and rub and suck and do it all over again.

He's addicted to this, to Arthur, and he doesn't ever want it to end.

***

The week leading up to the wedding, he doesn't see Arthur at all. He spends all his time working on the finishing touches of the painting which is Gwen and Lance's present.

It's the first non repressed-memory induced painting he's done in months, but when he looks at it, it could just as easily have been the Lancelot and Guinevere he had known centuries ago. The photograph he's based the painting on is one he had taken of the two of them soon after they'd met. They were deep in conversation when Merlin snapped it, and Lance was reaching out to Gwen to brush away a stray eyelash from her cheek. The look in his eyes is one of utter devotion and love, and anyone who wasn't blind would be able to see it. It's a look that Merlin has seen in Lance's eyes so many times in the past, and it's almost frightening in its intensity.

Merlin recognises it in Lance, because it's the way Arthur looks at Merlin when they're alone.

He doesn't want to have to hide it any more. It's exhausting having to try and maintain the facade when all he wants to do is shout from the rooftops that he loves Arthur Pendragon.

He doesn't know how Gwaine is going to react. Merlin would be very surprised if there isn't a lot of damage done to Gwaine and Arthur's friendship, given the way Oswald betrayed him, but they're just going to have to deal with whatever arises when it does. Keeping their relationship a secret makes it sordid, makes it wrong, and Merlin hates that. Regardless of how sexy the whole fucking in secret thing can be, it also makes him feel hollow inside every time, like there's a part of Arthur he isn't allowed to have, that's shut off from him.

Merlin is tired of he and Arthur being each other's dirty little secret, and it has to change.

After the wedding.

***

The chapel is a very uneven mixture of Gwen's family and twelve or so friends, and Lancelot's huge extended family and large group of mates made up from his Doctors Without Borders colleagues, his Eton 'brothers' and possibly every person he has ever met in his life, judging by the numbers.

Gwen, having no family aside from her brother, and a devoted but small circle of friends, has inherited some of Lance's lot on her side. It isn't like Gwen or Lance give a toss about tradition anyway, and Merlin's glad of that, it makes him giving Gwen away look a little less stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb.

He'd seen Arthur at the wedding rehearsal, but aside from surreptitious glances, he hasn't had any contact with him at all. Arthur hasn't come anywhere near Merlin, and even when Merlin has a conversation with Leon right next to him, Arthur doesn't so much as say hello.

It's not like it was before, but he can feel his blood calling out to Arthur. That need way down deep in his bones, and it's not made any easier when he sees Arthur in his wedding suit. He looks beautiful, elegant and so, so flawless.

Merlin's heart sinks when he sees the woman on Arthur's arm. He's seen her with him in various tabloids, all long legs and fake hair and tits and about as drop-dead gorgeous as Arthur is. To see them together it's like they were made for each other: rich and tanned and pretty and perfect.

He knows she's there for appearances only, because Uther is there and Arthur wouldn't dare not bring along his Beard Du Jour when Daddy is on the scene. Yes, Merlin is bitter. Very, very fucking bitter and it's completely irrational, but he's hundreds of years old, and if Arthur thinks Merlin is going to be forced back into the closet on account of Arthur's daddy issues, he's got another thing coming.

Not that their relationship is still anything but secret, but Merlin's been trying to tell himself that's temporary. Hard to do that when the source of Arthur's emotional unavailability and every single one of his insecurities is sitting in the fourth pew back, engaged in polite but very animated conversation with Arthur's "girlfriend".

He sneaks two glasses of champagne with Gwen and her bridesmaids before the ceremony, and feels better for a little while.

It's a beautiful ceremony, and Gwen looks radiant. Lance looks— well he's Lance and perfect, but Merlin's eyes keep drifting back to Arthur, he can't help himself. Morgana catches him at one point and she looks really, really pissed off.

She grabs him after the ceremony, her gorgeous emerald-green sheath dress such a contrast with the porcelain white of her skin.

"What the hell are you doing?" she hisses at him in a whisper. "Merlin, if you ruin Gwen and Lance's wedding I swear I will cut vital parts of your anatomy off. I mean it."

"Are you high?" Merlin whispers back, "Morgana, you know what Gwen means to me, and Lance too, what possible reason would I have for ruining their wedding? Besides, you might be wanting to speak to Arthur about ruining the wedding, he's the one who brought the posh totty pap fodder."

Morgana takes a deep breath. She looks like she's counting to ten, or possibly twenty.

"Merlin darling, I know you wouldn't intentionally ruin the wedding, but if you continue to stare at Arthur like a wounded labrador, you are going to. Do you want Gwaine to see you? Because the jealous girlfriend act is a little bit obvious, don't you think?"

"I know."

"I can't help but notice you haven't told him about you and Arthur yet, by the way. After you said you would, too."

She raises one immaculately shaped eyebrow and Merlin sighs.

"I couldn't, Morgana." He looks down at his feet, more than slightly ashamed. "But I am going to. After the wedding. He deserves—"

"Yes," Morgana says, her tense face morphing into something a little more friendly and a little less I will chop you into tiny pieces with my mind, "he deserves a lot more."

She walks away from him, towards Lance's family. Merlin massages his temples with his thumbs, he has a really horrific headache coming on, and they have the photographs and the bloody reception at Leon's house to get through yet.

***

The photograph session is horrible. Keeping with the non-traditional theme, Gwen has Merlin in the dual roles of Father of the Bride and the male equivalent of Head Bridesmaid, which means he is in a great many of the wedding party pictures, along with Leon, Gwaine and Arthur. Merlin despises photographs anyway, and having to maintain this false happiness and ease while he can feel the tension coming off Arthur in waves, well it's excruciating, to say the least.

He finds Gwaine in the banquet room, leaning against a wall, looking like the most gorgeous gatecrasher ever, with the hipflask he's been hiding in his inside jacket pocket. When Merlin had asked him during the photography session why he was sneaking drinks when surely Leon had enough alcohol at the house to drown a large country, he'd pulled Merlin in and whispered in his ear:

"Have you missed the fact that Uther Pendragon is here? The only remedy to having to endure His Royal Arseholeness is alcohol, and lots of it. You've never had the pleasure of meeting him, have you?"

You think this one is bad, Merlin wants to say, try dealing with the one who wants to burn you at the stake.

Instead he just shakes his head.

"Lucky you. And those photos. I thought it was never going to end." Gwaine hands Merlin the hipflask, adds, "If I had heard say cheese in that fucking smarmy voice one more time I was going to go Sean Penn on that bloody photographer."

"I think I would have paid to see that." Merlin takes a long belt from the flask. It tastes like lighter fluid and he struggles not to choke at first. Merlin likes the feeling it gives him, though; the alcohol warming his body. It's pleasantly relaxing, so he takes another drink even though it might possibly be the worst idea to be drunk here and now.

Gwaine has always been a terrible influence on him, and when he hands the hipflask back to him, Merlin grins, wide and inviting.

When Gwaine grins back at him, that flirtatious grin that even now makes his belly fill with heat, Merlin drops his gaze. It's easy to forget when Gwaine is smiling that there is anything wrong, but Merlin needs to remember just how much still needs to be said and what a mess everything is. It doesn't need to be made worse by drunken flirting because he's angry and jealous.

When Gwaine turns away to talk to Elyan, Merlin feels a hand on his lower back, and warm breath in his ear. Arthur.

"You look lovely in that suit," he says, and Merlin wants to punch him, because this is the first time Arthur has spoken to him all day.

"Don't you dare." Merlin can feel his blood pressure rising as he hisses through gritted teeth at Arthur, turning around to face him. "For one thing, I am trying to do the honourable thing at this bloody wedding and not moon after you, like, what did Morgana say? A wounded labrador."

"Tell her to mind her own fucking business. I would." Arthur's voice curls around him, smoky and sexy and Merlin can't help wishing that Arthur didn't affect him quite so much. He wants to be mad at him, but Arthur doesn't make it easy.

"No. She has a point." Merlin glares at Arthur, when he sees Arthur take a step closer. "Can we speak about the blonde thing that's been draped all over you and the fact you've been ignoring me?"

"You can't. Be serious." Arthur sounds like he's mocking him, and it makes Merlin's jaw clench tight. "You're jealous of Serena? That's absolutely ludicrous, Merlin. Are you ten years old?"

Merlin's chest burns with anger. Apparently Arthur does make it easy to be angry with him, after all. He bites out: "Thanks, Arthur. Yet again, you prove yourself to be the most insensitive prick that ever walked the face of the earth. Well done."

He doesn't even bother looking to see whether the expression on Arthur's face shifts as he walks away.

***

Merlin gets steadily drunker and drunker throughout the reception. The swigs from the hipflask combined with the copious glasses of champagne that get drunk and refilled through the speeches leave Merlin feeling decidedly out of control. He tries not to look at Arthur when he gives his speech, but he can't help it. He looks so gorgeous, his tie undone and his hair ruffled and all Merlin wants to do is push him down and kiss him and forget about how hurt he is at the way Arthur has ignored him and pushed him aside because of his father's demands on him.

His legs start to give out when he polishes off the glass of Glenfiddich 30 that Leon's given him, slamming it back as if it's a shot of tequila and not a glass of really expensive scotch.

"I think I need to lie down," he says, addressing no-one in particular, and stumbles away from the multitudes of guests dancing embarrassingly to Friday, in the direction of a bathroom, or bedroom, or in fact anywhere that isn't there.

On his way out he sees Arthur, deep in conversation with Serena, and he knows he shouldn't, should just take his drunken arse away, but Merlin's about ten thousand miles south of sensible and logical now, so he finds himself walking right up to them, and barging into Arthur's personal space.

"I don't think we've been introduced," he slurs, eyes terribly unfocused as he shakes Serena's hand. "I'm Merlin."

She smiles, shakes his hand and she's polite, but Merlin is pretty sure she's wishing she were anywhere except with the embarrassingly-drunk-in-public idiot who's not letting go of her hand.

"Merlin—" Arthur warns, in that hideously patronising tone that makes Merlin feel like he's still a servant.

"I'm just saying hello, Arthur. Anyone would think you were ashamed to be seen with me, or something."

Arthur shakes his head, mouths "excuse me" to Serena and drags Merlin by the arm to one of the upstairs bedrooms. Merlin lets himself be led, Arthur's much stronger than him, and he's so drunk he feels like a wet noodle, so resisting is definitely not on the cards at this moment in time.

"Sit down," Arthur says, pushing him down onto the bed. "Seriously, Merlin, couldn't you have picked a more appropriate time to have a drunken meltdown? Perhaps when there are less people around?"

"Oh of course," Merlin drawls sarcastically, "it's not proper, is it? Not when Daddy and all your very important friends are here. And you're always proper, aren't you? Weren't proper when you were being a drunken, coked-up manwhore, but that's okay with Uther, as long as you're not a poof, isn't it?"

Merlin looks away and he nearly jumps when he feels Arthur's fingers, cool and soothing on the back of his neck.

"I'm sorry," Arthur says, so softly that Merlin almost doesn't hear it. "I shouldn't have ignored you, Merlin. I'm an idiot. I just thought it would be easier than—"

Merlin turns back to face him, and puts his fingers on Arthur's mouth, silencing him.

"I'm the idiot," he groans. "I shouldn't be acting like such a bloody teenager. I just— I've been through this before, watching you with someone else, watching him control you, Arthur, and it just— it scares me to see it all happening again."

Arthur nods. "I understand." He pulls Merlin in, a hand on the back of his neck. "I would tell them all to go to hell if I thought I'd lose you, you know."

"I know," Merlin whispers, "but you don't have to. Just— don't push me away, Arthur. I couldn't bear it. Not again."

Arthur kisses him, murmurs "I'm sorry" against Merlin's lips and when Merlin deepens the kiss, Arthur pushes him back onto the pillows, and straddles his hips.

Arthur's been drinking too, and neither of them have the sharpest of reflexes, so when the door opens, they don't catch it, too wrapped up in each other, too drunk, and Merlin doesn't even notice Gwaine until he is grabbing Arthur and pulling him off Merlin.

"What the fuck?" Arthur gets to his feet and pushes Gwaine, hard. "Would you care to explain the reason for throwing me across the room?"

Merlin sobers up almost instantly, the adrenaline kicking in as he watches the two of them.

"You know I would defend you to the death, Arthur." Gwaine is red-faced, angrier than Merlin's ever seen him. "But taking advantage of someone who's too drunk to even stand up? That's a new low, even for you."

"Even for me?" Arthur laughs, but it's cold, bitter laughter and he points to Merlin, asks, "Does it really look like I'm taking advantage of him?"

"Yeah," Merlin says, breathlessly, "he's really not, Gwaine. Appreciate you defending my honour and all, but— not really necessary."

Gwaine looks confused, like he's trying to process what they're both saying and Merlin can see the moment it registers. His jaw tightens, and Merlin can see him grasping his hands at his sides, balled into fists.

"How. Long?" he asks, words clipped and abrupt.

"It's been—" Merlin stops when he sees Gwaine's glare.

"I'm asking you, Princess." Gwaine steps forward into Arthur's space, spits out, "How. Long?"

"The week after Leon's," Arthur starts, "but we didn't—"

Gwaine hits him, and Arthur barely flinches. He just stands there and takes it like he feels he deserves it and worse. Merlin wishes that Gwaine had hit him instead, because he deserves it more.

He stands up on shaky legs and walks over to him. "Gwaine. Please. Let me—."

"Don't talk to me, Merlin," he warns, his voice quaking like he's barely holding it together, "just— don't."

He slams the door behind him as he leaves.

"Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck." Arthur slams his fist into the wall over and over, until Merlin grabs his arm and stops him. Arthur's hand looks red and raw, and Merlin thinks it's highly possible he might have really hurt himself. If Merlin hadn't stopped him, Arthur would probably have broken something.

"That could have gone better," Arthur says bitterly, sliding down to the floor.

Merlin joins him, sitting crosslegged next to him. They don't touch, just sit there for what feels like hours; Merlin with his head in his hands, biting his lip to stop himself from crying.

***

He finds Gwaine in his favourite bar, a tiny Irish hole-in-the-wall around the corner from his apartment. When he walks in, Sean looks relieved, like Merlin walking in is the answer to all his problems.

"He won't leave," Sean hisses at Merlin, "I had to cut him off about two hours ago, but he just sits there mumbling about 'destiny'. Has he finally gone mad, Merlin? Has the drink driven him mad?"

Destiny. Merlin feels his stomach tie itself in knots. He knows. Gwaine knows. Merlin shouldn't have been surprised that if he and Arthur and Morgana had, why shouldn't some of the others have started to remember, too?

"I'll just go see if I can—" he trails off, walking over to Gwaine's barstool.

Gwaine, to his credit, doesn't punch Merlin when he sees him. In fact, he gestures to the empty stool next to him and beckons Sean over.

"No," Sean says, flatly, before Gwaine can open his mouth. "You, Taffy, are cut off."

"It's not for me. It's for him." Gwaine points to Merlin. "Besides, I'm bloody well sober now, you Irish tosser."

"Mind if I breathtest you, then?"

Gwaine gives him the two-fingered salute, and Sean just rolls his eyes and pours Merlin a Guinness. Merlin sincerely doubts that he should be consuming any alcohol at all for the next year, but hair of the dog and all that.

"Thanks, Sean." He tries to take out his wallet, but Gwaine pays for it instead.

"What are you—?"

"Just sit down, Merlin." Gwaine grabs him by the arm and pulls him back down to his barstool. "We need to talk."

Merlin sighs, noisily, rubs his eyes and turns to face Gwaine's stare. "Yeah. We do."

"I get it, you know," Gwaine starts. "I know the two of you are all—" he waves his hand around, and Merlin bites his lower lip. "All destined and all that bollocks," he says, stealing Merlin's beer while Sean isn't looking. "But you should've told me, Merlin. Months ago."

Merlin nods. "I know. I tried to stay away from him, Gwaine. When you found out about your mum. I thought I could just control it, but—"

Gwaine roars with laughter. "You thought you could control it? Merlin. Sometimes I swear the term 'Villiage Idiot' was coined with you in mind."

"Oi!" Merlin hits him on the shoulder. "I happen to be highly intelligent, you know. I have depths."

Gwaine pats him on the head. "Of course you do. As deep as a rain puddle, you are."

Gwaine is smiling, and Merlin can't help but be intensely relieved that Gwaine is just as uncomplicated and unable to hold a grudge as he always was. He always loved that about him, his ability to react in the heat of emotion and get over it just as quickly. Gwaine is a whirlwind with candy floss at the centre.

"I'm still a mite pissed off," he says, as if he can read Merlin's thoughts, "but the two of you are just— bloody ridiculous. Fucking Princess, it's always the same with him, isn't it? You're both so single-mindedly, insanely obsessed that nobody else stands a chance."

Gwaine sounds almost wistful, and Merlin finds himself wishing that he could have been enough. It's always been like this with Gwaine: he was always perfect in every way except the fact that he wasn't Arthur

"I'm sorry." Merlin squeezes Gwaine's shoulder. "You're amazing, Gwaine. If I'd met you first back then we would have been perfect. But he's— well, he's Arthur."

"Story of my life." Gwaine sighs. "Always the knight and never the prince. Hell, at least we had some fun, right?"

Merlin puts a hand on Gwaine's shoulder. "I'm really sorry for lying to you. I didn't mean for any of it to happen, any of it."

But he's grinning, and it takes Merlin a minute to realise that Gwaine is staring at some bloke down the other end of the bar. He's dark-haired, with tanned skin and green eyes and he's blushing, but not backing down by the way he's staring back.

"So," Merlin says, smugly, "how's that broken heart coming along, then?"

Gwaine laughs and hugs him. Gwaine always did give the best hugs. Merlin is so grateful that Gwaine doesn't hate him that he can hardly breathe.

"You can tell Pendragon that he can meet me for tennis on Wednesday. And he'd better be ready to get his arse handed to him, too. I have a score to settle."

Gwaine is smiling; wide and open, and Merlin loves him fiercely.

He leaves him there after he finishes his pint; flirting shamelessly with at least three people at the same time who he will probably take home with him, and Sean pouring them all pints grudgingly. Merlin's incredibly lucky, he knows that. He could have very easily lost the best friend that anyone could ask for, and he's confident leaving Gwaine there, knowing he hasn't.

***

When he arrives at Arthur's house the next morning, it takes Merlin a good fifteen minutes to convince David, Arthur's head of security, that although Arthur has decreed he doesn't want to see anyone, that doesn't extend to Merlin.

"He's in a right sulk, Sir," David tells Merlin, while playing with his iPhone. "Said he didn't want to see anyone, but I suppose you're not just anyone, are you?"

Merlin smiles. He thinks about reminding David for the umpteenth time, as he waves him through, that he hates being called 'Sir', that it makes him twitchy and uncomfortable, but Merlin thinks it's probably futile. He'll just call him that next time anyway.

Arthur looks miserable when he comes to the door. He hasn't shaved, and his hair's sticking up at odd angles, and he's wearing pyjama bottoms and an old t-shirt that looks about three sizes too big for him.

"You smell," Merlin says, wincing. "When was the last time you bathed?"

Arthur cocks an eyebrow at him, his arms folded. "Why are you even here? Shouldn't you be with Gwaine?"

"I'm sorry," Merlin says, slowly, like if he draws the words out long enough, he might just understand what is going on in Arthur's head. "What the hell are you going on about now?"

"You ran to him," Arthur says, stepping back so Merlin can actually come in. "Left without even saying goodbye and took off after him to god knows where. I assumed—"

"Are you completely off your rocker?" Merlin is practically shrieking, and he hopes that the sheer volume shocks Arthur into realising how ridiculous he's being. "I couldn't find you afterwards. And yes, I went after Gwaine. To apologise. Do you not think we owed him an apology?"

"He hit me." Arthur pouts, and he sounds about five years old.

"Yes, and I'm sure he meant to do that. Look, you nunger, Gwaine is my friend. Our friend. I wanted to explain things and make sure he didn't hate the both of us. He doesn't, for the record."

"What on God's green earth is a 'nunger'?" Arthur has that ridiculous sneer on, the one that makes him look like his face is made of rubber and someone's pulled it the wrong way.

"You are," Merlin snaps back. "And yes, I made it up. It suits you."

"So you're not getting back together?" Arthur asks, and he looks so pathetic that Merlin can't help but kiss him, hands on his cheeks.

"You are demented, you know that?" Merlin breathes against his lips. "As if I would ever walk away from you, even if I could, you complete and utter tosser. Not even you dying could make me choose anyone over you. Do we need to discuss your abandonment issues? Or should we just get straight to the shagging?"

Arthur presses his forehead to Merlin's. "I'm an idiot, I know. I just— it's you, Merlin. You drive me around the bloody twist, you know."

Merlin just grins. "Come on, your Royal Neuroticness. Let's take this to the bedroom."

He walks Arthur backwards down the corridor until they get to his room, the two of them stripping their clothes off as they go. Merlin wonders if by the time they're done and he goes searching for his errant socks and shoes and t-shirt, whether they will still be there. It's doubtful though: Arthur's housekeeper, who is so efficient that she's never even seen will have magically washed and dried and folded said pieces of clothing and left them in a neat pile.

By the time they reach Arthur's bed the two of them are naked, and Merlin drops to his knees and kisses up the inside of Arthur's thigh until he reaches his cock, which is already hard and wet and twitches when Merlin brushes his lips over the head.

"Love the way you taste," he whispers, his voice ragged already, and he flicks his tongue over the precome beading on the slit.

"Merlin," Arthur sighs, and Merlin pushes forward, taking Arthur's cock all the way in, his hands on Arthur's thighs, feeling the shift of muscles as Arthur starts to thrust gently in and out of his mouth. Arthur's hands rest on the back of his head, stroking his hair, not pulling or twisting and this is different. Sex between them has always been weighted with other things, with the knowledge of their betrayal, their guilt. Merlin had never felt like they could just relax and give into each other, really take their time. It's different now, more free and with so much less baggage and it's just them.

"I'm going to," Arthur groans out, and Merlin pulls off just in time to let Arthur come on his mouth and chin and throat.

"Oh," Arthur says, full of wonder. He drags his thumb through the strands of come on Merlin's mouth, smearing it over his lips and smirking when Merlin opens his mouth and licks at it. Arthur pulls his thumb free and runs his hand down over Merlin's chin and throat, then pushes his fingers into Merlin's mouth. Merlin lets Arthur fuck his mouth like that: slow and deep. He should feel perverse for doing it, taking Arthur's fingers like that, tasting his own come, but he doesn't. Arthur makes him want to do things he would never even have contemplated with anyone else.

Merlin nips at his fingers as Arthur pulls them out, a little too hard judging by the way Arthur gasps and glares at him. He just shrugs and gets to his feet.

"I want—" Arthur starts, standing up too. He presses himself against Merlin, and it's so good, the two of them together like this, slick skin against skin and Merlin mouths Arthur's jaw, humming encouragement for him to continue. "Want you to fuck me, Merlin."

He steps back a little. Arthur's face is flushed, red staining his cheeks and his eyes are so dark, so intense, that it takes a minute for Merlin to be able to even think. Arthur wants him to— God.

"Are you sure?" he asks, searching Arthur's face for any hint of ambivalence. "You've never wanted that before now."

"I'm sure. Feels like— feels right."

Merlin can feel his heart hammering in his chest and his throat's completely dry.

Arthur grins then, that fucking annoying self-satisfied smirk. "You'd better be good. Have you ever—?"

"Oh fuck off," Merlin replies, "yes I have. Not as many times as I've been fucked of course, but—"

Arthur's smile drops a little, and he puts his hand on Merlin's mouth to silence him. "Not. Another. Word. I don't want to know, Merlin." He kisses him, possessive and deep, Arthur's tongue in his mouth and his hands on Merlin's hips, grinding their cocks together. Merlin can feel that Arthur's getting hard again, already, and he pulls back, his lips just resting on Arthur's as he whispers, "Okay. Yes."

Arthur is so responsive that it takes all of Merlin's resolve not to come instantly, when the two of them are finally there; in bed, pressed against each other while Merlin works two fingers inside Arthur. It's overwhelming, heady, and he'd never dreamed that Arthur would ever ask for this. Trust doesn't come easily to Arthur, given the amount of times he's been betrayed by the people he loves the most: Merlin included.

So this. Giving himself over to Merlin like this is almost unbelievable.

"Merlin," Arthur barks at him, "do you think you could perhaps save the wistful longing for another time, perhaps when you don't have your fingers in my arse? I'd very much like to get fucked before I die of old age, if that's all right with you."

"Yes, Sire," Merlin says, quite without thinking, and he doesn't miss the fact that Arthur's breathing quickens at the honorific, or the way he moves his hips forward, forcing Merlin's fingers deeper inside him.

"Do it," Arthur groans. He doesn't say please, Arthur Pendragon would never beg for anything, but Merlin can hear it in every breath, feel it in every shift of Arthur's muscles.

He just nods, and pulls his fingers free, lines up and pushes inside. Inside Arthur. Christ. It's incredible, really, and it takes Merlin a minute to process it. He looks down at him, teeth worrying his lower lip and pauses.

"Why did you stop?" Arthur's teeth are gritted, and Merlin doesn't know whether it's from pain, or anger, or both.

"I'm hurting you, aren't I?" he frets. "We can stop if you want. I can pull out if it's too much."

Arthur glares up at him. "Merlin, if you pull out, I promise you I will kill you with my bare hands. Get all the way in me, right now."

"You're not—?"

"Merlin—" Arthur sounds like he's about to make good on his promise, so Merlin nods and pushes all the way inside. Arthur is so hot and tight and Merlin feels his chest constricting with the intensity of it as he pulls back again, pulling almost all the way out. Arthur's head's thrown back, neck bared and sweat pooling in the hollow of his throat, and when he rocks forward, fucking deep into Arthur, he runs his tongue up Arthur's neck, tasting his salty-sweet skin.

"You feel—" Merlin breathes out, "unbelievable, Arthur."

He speeds up his thrusts, lips on Arthur's throat and face, laying soft almost chaste kisses there, until Arthur laces his fingers in Merlin's hair and pulls his mouth to his. Arthur always kisses like he's trying to claim land for fucking Camelot, and Merlin lets himself drown in it, lets Arthur fuck his mouth like Merlin is fucking his arse: fast and hard and relentless.

His orgasm hits him like a carcrash: fast and hard and Merlin's gasping for breath, fucking Arthur through it, rough and hard now, and Arthur's hands are grabbing at Merlin like he doesn't know where to touch him, like he's frantic with how good it feels and Merlin gets his hand between them, fisting Arthur's cock with fast, savage strokes. Arthur comes and Merlin presses his forehead to Arthur's, whispering promises into his skin. They lie there like that for ages, Merlin still inside Arthur,and the two of them pressed against each other. Long, long minutes of silence where the only sound Merlin can hear is their shared breathing and the ambient noise from outside.

"Okay." Arthur breaks the silence, and Merlin pulls out, slow and as careful as he can. "I can see why you enjoy that so much."

Merlin smiles, shakily says, "Yeah," and collapses next to Arthur.

Arthur puts his hands behind his head and turns to face Merlin. "Of course, you could do with some improvements. But that's only natural. Not everyone can be me, after all."

Merlin groans and hits Arthur with his pillow. "You're absolutely bloody insufferable, you know. I don't know why I put up with you."

"I do," Arthur says quickly, "it is because I am devastatingly handsome, exceedingly rich and my cock is not only large, but highly skilled."

"Oh for the—" Merlin slaps a hand to his forehead. "I give up."

"Don't," Arthur says, sounding suddenly very serious. "ever give up."

Merlin kisses him then; this amazing, insufferable, perfect, flawed, hero of a man, and he can't imagine ever being without him. Doesn't want to think about the years that he mourned him, or the years where he didn't even know that he existed.

Wasted time. So much wasted time.

Merlin doesn't have flashbacks to the life they shared before, now. He doesn't dream of Camelot either asleep or awake, and neither does Arthur.

They don’t need old memories now to know who they are to each other. They are making new ones.

 

THE END

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