The spilt water pools across the threshold, spreads and trickles under the welcome mat, soaks the carpet, Arthur's feet. Broken glass glitters wetly. Arthur takes a deep, bracing breath; he looks up.
He says, 'No,' and slams the door in Merlin's face.
He changes his socks upstairs, carefully removes the tiny shards of glass caught in the material.
It's a spring day outside; afternoon sun filters through his windows. There comes the smell of cut grass, fresh leaves. There is the dog-eared copy of his current book, left on his pillow, half hidden under the unmade duvet. There are his discarded clothes from the night before on the floor at the foot of the bed, not yet made the journey to the basket. There are the pieces and components of his life, slotted together to fit perfectly, the way he likes it, wants it.
Arthur holds his hands to his thighs until they stop shaking. His fingertips pick up cloth imprint and he rubs them together, testing. He closes his eyes and counts to ten.
It's been a while and he forgets. Three long years since Arthur last saw Merlin and Arthur forgets that Merlin is an unstoppable force to whom no is just another meaningless word and locked doors are only momentary inconveniences. He's there, in Arthur's living room, when Arthur gathers the courage to go back downstairs. His shoes are off, placed neatly beside Arthur's by the front door and he's browsing Arthur's many bookshelves, peering into the prints hung on the walls. He turns as Arthur stops in the doorway, hands in his trouser pockets with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a brown leather jacket tucked into the curve of one arm.
Arthur is breathless at the sight of him.
His heart skips, flutters, at the dark, neglected fringe that covers Merlin's forehead, the thick fan of lashes against his skin. The pale expanse of his throat.
Arthur thought he remembered the blue of Merlin's eyes but there they are, in reality, so much more brilliant than what was committed to memory.
Arthur first meets Merlin when he is twenty and Merlin sixteen.
They're looking to extend their little crew of two and Marco presents Merlin to Arthur like a grand prize.
Merlin doesn't look his age; with his scrawny limbs and eyes that seem too big for his face under a heavy mop of loose curls, he looks younger, too young to be introduced to Arthur like this. Arthur says so, glares at Marco, who just holds up his hands and shakes his head, looking severely aggrieved.
'Don't even start. He's the one who found me. Kid's older than he looks.' Marco rolls his eyes at where Merlin is perched on a chair, in a shirt two sizes too big. 'And he's good.'
And he is, good. Arthur can't help but stare as Merlin demonstrates, hacks his way into Marco's firewalls and tricks the system with barely any effort. He's done in under five minutes and sits back in his seat with a bright grin. He asks for a drink.
Arthur swallows. 'Fine,' he tells Marco. 'He'll do'.
It was almost a year before trouble catches up to them. In their line of work, it's not always the experience that matters, but the skill.
However, the experience does a lot to help with other matters.
'Oh,' says Merlin, from where they're crouched in the shadows of a mostly full skip, out of sight from the police invasion.
'Well, fuck,' says Arthur, as he watches the closest thing he has ever had to a mentor get tucked not-so-gently into the back of a police car. 'You just had to try for the dee oh dee, didn't you.'
Merlin stays quiet, just bites his lip and watches. His eyes are bright with fever or panic, the stretch of his throat tense as he cranes his head to look. Arthur snatches him back as he leans out too far and drags him away from the scene.
'What do we do?' Merlin asks; for the first time since Arthur has known him, he sounds afraid. 'Arthur, what do we do?'
Arthur shoves him into the car. 'I teach you how not to get caught.'
They were together for years after that, growing, learning—about the work and about each other. It seemed for moments that they would always be together, inseparable. But Merlin doesn't belong in this new life, that much is clear. From his clothing—jeans a tight contrast to Arthur's casual drawstring trousers—to the way he stands in Arthur's kitchen—wary, forever expecting an attack from all directions. His eyes dart across the room in a way Arthur finds far too familiar and disturbing and there is a break in the silhouette of his shirt that sets Arthur's teeth on edge. Arthur slots the kettle into place and leans one hip against the countertop. He folds his arms and raises an eyebrow; he will not be the first to speak.
Merlin quirks his lips then looks down, a wisely withdrawn expression of amusement. When he breaks the silence, it is to say, 'I have a job.'
Arthur's heart catches on a beat. He doesn't know, doesn't want to think of what he was expecting. Surely not this: the first words to fall from Merlin's lips after so long an absence a simple, bland statement of fact. Arthur rejects its offering, refuses to accept it as enough.
'And?' he says.
'There's a place for you on it.'
Arthur's surprised by the sound that he makes, rough and bitter like a knife in the gut. 'I don't want it.'
'You haven't heard what it is yet.'
'I don't need to.'
Merlin lets himself smile this time and Arthur can't tell if it's real or simply bravado; Merlin's too far away, has been for too long. 'It's a two-man job, on site,' Merlin continues despite Arthur's disinterest. 'I need you for this, Arthur.'
Arthur has to swallow back a laugh, fight the impulse to pinch himself. He can't decide if this is really happening or if he has finally gone crazy, snapped from one moment of separation anxiety too many and has actually begun to hallucinate Merlin standing in his kitchen. It's the only possible explanation, after three years of silence. Surely not even Merlin would think this reasonable.
Of course, Arthur has always doubted the word reasonable existed within Merlin's lexicon.
'I've quit, left the business, if you'll recall. I've got a life here.'
'Right.' Merlin's mouth twists, showing the first signs of displeasure. 'Right, your life with the white-collar couples and their children and pets and law-abiding desk jobs.'
Merlin bites out the last words as though they physically hurt him. It's not entirely impossible, Merlin has always hated normalcy—one of the main points that drove them apart in the end.
'I like it.' The kettle's long boiled by now and Arthur turns his back on Merlin to busy himself with making a cup of tea. 'I find I enjoy getting up in the morning a lot more when I don't have to worry about people trying to kill me.'
Merlin snorts. 'You always were boring in that aspect.'
'It's simple self-preservation,' says Arthur, wondering how it's come to this, feeling hunted in his own home. 'I don't hack anymore.'
Merlin throws up his hands. 'As a favour, then. Come on, Arthur, for old times' sake—'
Arthur cuts him off, slamming his mug onto the countertop. Hot liquid splashes everywhere, burns his fingers and his palm, stains the surfaces brown. He hisses as the pain hits but he's almost too angry to feel it.
'What old times, Merlin? They can't have meant very much judging by the way you just up and left without a word. Three years. You didn't call or show your face. You couldn't even let me know, just once, that you were still alive.'
Merlin glares, mutinous. 'You're the one who left.'
'Not you. I left the job. I never. Left you.'
Merlin's breath stutters, just short of what he wanted to say. He stares at Arthur, eyes wide and mouth parted, looking so shocked that Arthur can't help but believe that Merlin, Merlin, of all people, thought Arthur capable of choosing to leave their—them.
'I never left you, Merlin,' he says, feeling the fight flood out of him. He slumps back against the kitchen counter. 'I wanted you to come with me.'
'You never said,' Merlin accuses.
And he hadn't. Arthur never thought it would come under question. His loyalty to Merlin was never something he held lightly. The job, the life they had, he could give it all up but only because he thought Merlin would still be there in the aftermath. Arthur swallows against the lump in his throat, disappointed, angry.
'Doesn't matter now, does it?' he says. Merlin sighs. He comes nearer, closing the distance Arthur has made sure to leave between them. There are new lines on his face that Arthur does not remember, dark circles under his eyes that become evident as he approaches. There is a knotted white line cutting diagonally across the skin just above the curve of Merlin neck that Arthur was not there to prevent; Arthur's hand is outstretched, reaching towards the scar before he even realises it's happening. Merlin's skin is hot to the touch and he stops moving, drawing in a breath as Arthur pulls aside his collar to get a better look.
'Amsterdam, eight months ago,' says Merlin, voice low and deep. 'Security caught up with me.'
Arthur meets Merlin's eyes, something very much like regret burning through him. Merlin licks his lips, takes another step into Arthur's space and lays a hand on Arthur's arm. He tilts his head down, far enough for Arthur to feel a burst of warmth against his skin. 'Please, Arthur. Just one more. I need you. I don't trust anyone else.'
Arthur lets his head fall forward with a sigh, lets it rest onto Merlin's bony, familiar shoulder. Even after all this time, he can't say no.
Working with Merlin is as infuriating as it is exhilarating. As good as he is, as effortlessly brilliant in his line of work, it is not something that translates well into words and conversation. Arthur long ago learnt to read between the lines, the non-verbal quirks and habits that shroud Merlin like an invisible cloak.
Slowly, as they drink the pots of tea Arthur continually makes and sit facing each other across the table, he pieces together missing time. He hears all about Amsterdam and Maine and Oxford, about the excitement of running through the streets of Moscow under cover of darkness to escape overzealous men armed with too much firepower and not enough sense. Memories come back one by one, some unintentionally lost and some deliberately forced away, and he slots them away again, carefully.
Merlin sits uneasily, an incongruous figure against the pale walls of Arthur's kitchen, thin, muscled arms propped up against the grey of the breakfast counter. His hair is longer than Arthur has ever seen it, curling over his ears and collar in a messy, heavy mop that actually makes him look his age, for once. No longer the precocious child genius with a thirst for danger. He's all grown up now—a strong, sly man of twenty-six with faults and merits in spades. Arthur has known him for seven of those years, plus another three of estrangement. Unexpectedly, he feels old.
'When do you plan on going in?' Arthur asks, curling a finger through the handle of the mug.
'The database will be moved in a month. We need to fly in and set up in the next couple of weeks.'
Arthur wonders where the anger has gone. It seemed so ever-present, so deeply sunk into his bones and flesh through the years of constant indulgence that there were moments of melodrama in which Arthur thought it would surely consume him and drive him mad—to live without Merlin is one thing, to live without Merlin, knowing Merlin voluntarily walked out, is something Arthur never thought he would get past.
'What would you have done if I said no?'
Merlin flashes his dimples in a smile. 'I was hoping you wouldn't.'
'I haven't touched a computer in three years.' Arthur takes a deliberate sip of tea and watches as Merlin's knuckles turn white.
'How can you stand it?' Merlin asks, sounding horrified.
'I'm not like you. It isn’t everything. It gets easier after a while.''
It’s true. The first few weeks, months, were a blur. Too much nervous, static energy building up in his fingers and his brain with no hope of release. Arthur thought he would die of it if he didn’t die from missing Merlin first. He thought it best to be cut off entirely, lest temptation overwhelmed him—no web connection, no phone, or even the feel of a keyboard under his hands. It wasn't easy, but Arthur doesn't live in the information systems like Merlin does. It was at first a means to an end that became an easy addiction. With time, Arthur took up smoking, reading, replaced one addiction with another and for a long time he barely felt the itch.
Merlin, in the same situation, would be lost without hope. Codes and numbers are how he interprets the world; computer systems feel more like home to him than a house like Arthur's. He's at his best when he's hooked in. Merlin always seems a little lost when separated from his electronics, as though he left a vital part of himself behind. Arthur used to love watching him work—the quiet intensity, the furious speed of his fingers on a keyboard. Merlin can break and bring down walls at an astonishing, easy speed that left Arthur breathless and gaping. It was beauty in its own way. Arthur never quite compared.
Merlin presses his lips together but doesn't add anything more. It's a topic they have covered very well before in tensely worded debates and—toward the end—screaming fights.
'It's a nice house,' Merlin says, awkwardly; a peace offering. 'I like what you've done with it.''
Arthur snorts, knowing that houses, to Merlin, don't come in various degrees of well-kept, but rather are either habitable or not. Merlin's never cared much for the aesthetics.
'It was the first thing available. Then it grew on me, I guess.' Arthur has to fight the automatic smile at Merlin's self-conscious, sceptical gaze over his surroundings. Merlin is predictable, if nothing else. He looks more comfortable, somehow, now that the sun has set and darkness curls in corners.
Merlin nods once. He looks as though he is waiting for Arthur to speak, but Arthur can't guess what he's thinking and they just sit. The silence, after hours of talking, balloons between them until it fills the room with unease. Merlin makes his excuses eventually, leaving Arthur at the kitchen table, to go back to his hotel room.
Arthur stays there, well into the night, fingers wrapped around a cold mug.
The sky takes an overcast turn as Arthur makes his way to Merlin's hotel. What sunlight manages to break through is watery pale, leaving fleeting patches that barely make an mark. Arthur hates days like these, stuck halfway between brightness and gloom, when the light is lonely and so unassuming. These days make him feel restless, unable to focus.
Merlin, as usual, has booked himself into the flashiest hotel he could find with no concern for conspicuity. Arthur hands his car keys off after pulling into the front and lets the concierge direct him to Merlin's room on the sixth floor. As Arthur stands in the lift he rubs his palms against his jeans, scraping away the nervous sweat there.
'Just one job, Arthur,' he says to himself. In the mirrored walls of the lift, his eyes glitter with a frantic, anticipatory light. 'Get a grip.'
Merlin already has everything set up. There's a laptop open on the bed, a loose coil of silver cables placed next to it.
'Why don't you try it out, get reacquainted?' Merlin suggests, swaying forward and nodding toward the laptop, looking like an overeager dealer.
Arthur certainly feels like a lapsed junkie.
He sits at the edge of the bed, aware of Merlin's insistent gaze staring into him, feeling all the more nervous for it. He tugs the laptop toward him, runs his fingers over the keyboard. There it is, the tickle of feeling, strange electric sizzle of it up his spine. Three short taps of keys bring up a command window. Arthur sucks in a sharp breath.
'Don't tell me you've forgotten how,' says Merlin. He sits down and straightens out the coil of cables, plugs one end of it into the laptop port.
To anyone who knows what they're doing, hacking is just a game of logic and rules and carefully picked apart threads, of treading lightly and hoping to stumble across the right pass-code and not one that will bring security slamming down on your head. It's sending constant reassurances to the system once you're inside, convincing it you belong, that it wants you there.
Arthur's good at it, his logical brain picking through code paths with ease. He was good when he met Merlin, but after—after hooking in with Merlin and realising the things he could do were simply baby steps in comparison—he got better.
He watches Merlin link in to the system. He never got used to it, even after seeing it on a daily basis for years. Now he has to make a conscious decision not to wince as Merlin tilts his head and slots the other end of the cable into the jack merged into the skin just behind his ear. As much as Arthur loves and depends on technology, he will never understand how Merlin can stand to have that thing in him. Merlin had it inserted when he turned twenty-one, a birthday present to himself. Arthur had sat with him, letting Merlin squeeze his hand through the pain until his fingers tingled and went numb.
He remembers the rush of emotion, so similar to what he feels right now. It makes his mouth go dry.
Merlin watches him. 'Show me,' he says, then closes his eyes. Arthur sees the exact moment he connects, his spine straightens and his face goes slack, draining of all tension and emotion. This is Merlin hooked in. As always, Arthur is hopelessly frightened for—of—him.
The laptop bleeps at him and another command window pops up. Merlin's words flow across the screen. Think you can keep up?
Arthur takes a deep breath and starts typing.
Merlin runs circles around his enquiries, shuts down lines of his code like they're nothing at all.
Arthur's fingers cramp from not having done this for so long, and his best efforts don't even seem to challenge Merlin. At his current rusty skill level, going up against Merlin is rather like banging his head repeatedly against a brick wall—painful and ineffectual. He pulls his hands away from the keyboard and tucks them under his thighs; they're shaking. He takes a moment to just look. Merlin's fingers twitch on his thighs, as though nobody told his fingers that they weren't needed for the job anymore.
It takes a while for Merlin to disconnect. He has to pull his thoughts from the system, separate what's him and what's code. Arthur watches the flickering of Merlin's eyelashes as he slowly comes to.
'Well,' Merlin says, as he pulls the cable from his neck. 'It's a good thing we still have time. You're going to take some work.'
Here is what Arthur doesn't understand.
It's not just the network that Merlin loves, it's the danger—the having to constantly be on guard, the heavy metal of a weapon tucked into his waistband. Their lives started with the hacking but that's not where it ends, not once they got deep enough. Merlin likes the running, the hiding, the intricate web of pretence and false information that keeps him alive, where one, tiny slip could cost him everything. Merlin thrives on it; his eyes grow brighter with the thrill.
Arthur hates it.
They'll fall to it one day. A disgruntled, wronged party or an unsatisfied client, or even just a misunderstanding that results in Merlin being caught in the crossfire.
So Arthur got them out. Manoeuvred behind the scenes until there was an opening, a chance, for them to slip away without notice.
Only problem is. Merlin didn't take it.
Arthur's learnt a thing or two about addiction: if you're lucky, sometimes you spend enough time away from it to realise how destructive it is.
What characterises the following days is this:
Arthur's aching fingers, Arthur's burning eyes, Arthur's helplessness at the—
Invocation of old and new memories: the charm of Merlin's smiles, the spread of his limbs, the shadows of his face when he falls asleep slumped over in a chair. The way Merlin eats as though he has always been starved, carelessly and ravenously, the way Arthur slowly begins to forget why the hell they were separated in the first place because all he can see and think of is—
The brightness of the days in comparison to those that came before, the frightening ease with which past quarrels are forgotten. The copper-tinged taste of regret as he watches Merlin's careless, unimpressed sprawl and thinks how easy it would be to reach out and touch, claim the pale expanse of skin for his own again. This leads Arthur to find out—
Yet another thing about addiction:
sometimes you're not so lucky and one taste can drag you right back down again.
'Do you ever think about it?' Merlin asks, toward the end of their last day of prep. 'What it would be like to come back?'
'Never,' Arthur lies.
No job goes completely smoothly, this much Arthur has learnt from experience. The mishaps can be big or small but in the end the only things that guarantee success are good timing, and a great deal of luck.
Lucky for Arthur and Merlin, they have always had plenty of both.
Arthur spends a lot of time watching and standing guard as he keeps security busy and Merlin rifles through electronic systems, dead to the world. They are slotted into a small room packed wall to wall with boxes and filing cabinets. Whirling circulation fans sit behind venting along the bottom of all four sides and provide a constant background hum that would almost be comforting if Arthur didn't find it so very irritating. His laptop is propped up against his knees, the pistol Merlin insisted he keep placed carefully next to it. He watches the stuttery glide of Merlin's eyes under their lids, the flicker of shadows on his skin. The bruise-blue of lost sleep has finally faded from his face but the new lines remain, spidery and accusing, around the corners of his eyes, around his lips. Arthur wonders how Merlin can possibly want to do this forever, knows that forever isn't a word often used in this line of work.
Alarms ring through the building and in the distance come the sound of pounding feet and shouting. Arthur and Merlin run through still clear corridors and stumble into the stairwell, not wanting to risk being stuck in a lift. They're on the twenty-third floor. Merlin throws himself around the corners, saved from breaking his neck by a hand clenched around the banister. Clean and peaceful living has left Arthur unaccustomed to running for his life and his lungs and legs burn with disuse not even halfway down, leaving him trailing behind. So much so that Merlin finds the time to roll his eyes and grab Arthur's hand, lacing their fingers together and carrying on running just like that, no safety hold on the banister, just free fall.
Spring is a heated, wet season in this place. The smell of exhaust and street vendors blend into a humid, powerful blanket over the city without even a wisp of wind to shift it. They burst out onto the dark street with guards close on their tail. The sound of heavy, though barely moving, traffic is further assault to their senses but Arthur tugs Merlin straight into it, weaving through the cars until they reach the other side of the road and diving into the night stalls and Saturday crowd.
As they pass an accessories stand Merlin throws a few coins onto the counter and grabs a hat. He turns, grinning, and jams it down over Arthur's head, tucks as much of Arthur's hair under it as he can.
Back in their hotel Merlin throws his head back and laughs. They're both head-to-toe in dust, looking wildly unkempt, the product of fleeing the most tenacious group of hired security Arthur has ever had the misfortune to meet. But Merlin hasn't gained a new scar and Arthur's heart will probably slow to its usual speed some time in the near future. Merlin laughs and doesn't stop laughing, head tilted and eyelids heavy, mouth curved, all pale skin and dark smudges, red lips and boyish charm.
Arthur can't help it, he really can't. He can't stop himself from pulling Merlin close and kissing him, close mouthed but insistent, working Merlin's lips open to hear him sigh into the smallest of spaces between them, Arthur, and then pressing him back, down, into the bed. Merlin sinks into the pillows without protest, quietly watching, letting Arthur peel him out of his layers, touch hesitant fingers to his chest and arms, his belly and thighs, touch his lips to the smooth bumps at Merlin ankles—the quiet worship, all the more startling, now overdue by distance.
Merlin trembles as he comes, not making a single sound, only shaking as though he's falling apart. Arthur holds a hand to Merlin's heart to feel it beat to escape, presses down to hold it, hold Merlin together. He breathes in the hot scent at the curve of Merlin's neck, mouths the damp skin there, steady on, beautiful boy, steady on.
Rational, calm conversation about Important Things is often something that only happens to other people.
Five in the morning finds them in an almost empty airport. Merlin stands half-turned from Arthur, his attention directed away to the departure boards. His flight is a half hour before Arthur's. His hair is still messy from the hurried shower, standing semi-dry on end and looking invitingly soft. Arthur tucks his hands into his pockets.
'What next?' Arthur asks, speaking at the back of Merlin's neck, eyes lingering on the fresh red scratches just along the hairline. He doesn't remember making them. He wonders if they have started to sting yet.
Merlin looks back, shrugs a shoulder slowly. 'I have another job lined up.'
Arthur has a feeling that if he lets Merlin get on that plane, they will never meet again.
Arthur has a spare room and plenty of space. Arthur even has some of Merlin's old clothes, tucked away in boxes.
Arthur says, 'I think your flight's boarding now.'
Everything is just as he left it. It's a surprise. Arthur feels as though he has been to battle and come back defeated.
The mundanity of suburban life is almost offensive in comparison but he carries on.
Merlin calls him four days later, in the evening. Arthur gets Fairy liquid all over the phone in his haste to answer.
'Have you checked your account? I transferred you half of the payment,' Merlin says, breathlessly. Arthur can tell he's running.
'Where are you? What're you doing?' asks Arthur.
'Oh, don't worry about it. Nothing I can't handle. So, money. Did you check?'
'No computer, remember? I'll take your word for it.'
Merlin makes an annoyed noise that is quickly drowned out by what sounds like gunfire and Merlin's special brand of inventive cursing.
'What was that?' Arthur shouts. 'Merlin, are you being chased by people with guns? Why are you on the phone?'
Merlin ignores his questions, runs some more. He must duck into some cover, because the background noise cuts out abruptly and Arthur can only hear Merlin's breathing. Merlin says, 'I wanted to ask before I—you said you didn't leave me, right?'
'Of course I didn't leave you. Idiot,' says Arthur.
'After I'm done here, can I come over? See you?'
Arthur peels the phone away from his ear to stare at it. And dimly, he hears Merlin's teeny voice ask, 'Arthur, are you still there? Can I?'
Arthur puts the phone back to his ear and smiles.
He wakes up to the sound of someone breaking into his house.
He's fallen asleep on the sofa, watching reruns of old police procedurals. There's a stiff ache in his shoulder. It's raining outside, a constant sound of soft pitter-patter against the windows and, above that, there comes the sound of the locks being jimmied open.
When he first moved in, Arthur had a fleshed out security routine: deadlocks, alarm systems, all products of occupational paranoia. They were quickly narrowed down to the absolute essentials after life in suburbia turned out a lot less hazardous than Arthur expected. Now, he rarely does more than a cursory check for windows left open.
He gets up, quiet in the flickering glare from the TV, and carefully approaches the hall. He pauses by the living room doorway, peering out through the frosted glass in the front door. He laughs at what he finds.
Arthur folds his arms and plants his feet in front the door. He is waiting as it swings open in a wet misted gust of wind.
'Forgotten how to knock, I see,' he says.
Merlin looks up sheepishly, hair and clothes plastered down onto his skin, looking only a step or two above drowned-rat status. Arthur still feels his heart swell. He feels twenty feet tall.
'The last time I knocked, you slammed the door in my face. Thought I'd go for the assertive route today,' says Merlin.
'If you want to stay here, you're going to have to work on your manners.'
Merlin grins. 'My manners are much more acceptable when I'm dry.'
Arthur lays down the change of clothing on the bed, carefully smoothing away wrinkles set after years of storage. Merlin shuffles up in his bare feet, clothed in a towel and not much else, still dripping water. He lifts up a corner of faded blue cotton.
'I wondered where this disappeared to.'
Arthur flushes despite his concentrated efforts not to. Merlin offers up a small, pleased smile. And he still knows Arthur well, really, because he doesn't say another word, just steps up and tucks two fingers into the front pocket of Arthur's jeans, tugs him close. They kiss, carefully, just breathing in the feel of each other. This isn't something that's lost so easily. Merlin's mouth is minty from the toothpaste but underneath it all is something that Arthur could never attribute to someone else, something magic that has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with the sense memory of having done this very thing thousands of times before. Merlin skin is hot under his hands and Arthur can't help but press his fingers in, into the muscles of his shoulders and his arms, just to confirm he's actually here.
Merlin moans, careless and unashamed, driving into Arthur everywhere he can reach, as though he can find his way to Arthur's core through sheer physical force. His kisses are wet, lined with teeth, biting and catching on Arthur's tongue. Arthur can barely breathe and think for it, shocked out of his comfort lull and grappling with balance.
'I don't want you to be gentle,' Merlin says, syllables lazy and drawn, voice muffled against Arthur's mouth. 'Okay? Don't be so fucking gentle.'
Arthur isn't. He just tips Merlin onto the bed, taking advantage of his pliancy, the almost instinctual melt of his body once Arthur has his hands on him. Merlin sprawls on the sheets, arched and gasping, red flushed all across his chest. He's a wild thing, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, a creature of air and will. And Arthur—
Arthur was always his to have.
Arthur wakes up.
The morning is a pale glide of light on his skin, offering no warmth, only overwhelming loss as he turns. Merlin is not there.
Arthur buries his burning face into the sheets, takes a deep breath; another smell, another night he'll have to cling to through memory. 'Dammit, Merlin,' he whispers into the pillow.
Footsteps behind him, a shuffling on the carpet. And Arthur scrambles up to see Merlin walk in, bruised fingers and knuckles an odd contrast around the curve of the mug. His hair is a disaster and he's wearing Arthur's trousers, unbelted and threatening to slide off at any second. He asks, 'What have I done now,' feigning irritation until he gets a good look of Arthur's face. Then his lips gathers in a silent O and he goes quiet, comes forward until his knees hit the mattress.
'I was just getting tea,' he says, accusingly.
Arthur nods, not yet trusting himself to speak.
Merlin just gazes at him, eyes unusually serious. He asks, 'You're sure that was your last job?' And Arthur hovers in indecision, unsure how to respond and whether there'll be a wrong answer. In the end, he just says, simply:
'This is home.'
'Maybe—maybe this is selfish of me, but I can't give it up. And…I can't give you up. I tried—' Merlin swallows. His shaky breaths burst across Arthur's shoulder as he struggles for words. Arthur doesn't dare move, can only split his gaze between the tremble of Merlin's mouth, the flutter of his lashes. 'I tried and it didn't work.
'I'm a selfish person, Arthur,' Merlin whispers. 'But I'm honest. With you. And maybe sometimes I'll leave and go away for a while, but I promise you this: I'll come back. I'll always come back. This can be home for me too, if you'll have me.'
There's a glow starting in Arthur's chest, as sure and brilliant as the fiercest midday sun. He feels it gather, feels it burst from him, edging them both in gold so bright that the shallow light of the morning has no hope to compare.
It bursts out and strikes across the lazy streets, the redbrick houses.
It bursts out; too vast to contain.