"Your 'friends' are not coming to the funeral," Arthur said flatly as he set an old kettle on the stove and fiddled with the dials until a red circle appeared on the electric stovetop. "You think he would have bought a damn electric kettle."
"Don't change the subject," Morgana snapped. "I don't see why it's a problem. They want to pay their respects."
"They didn't even know him!" Arthur turned around to glare at his half-sister. There was no way in hell he was going to allow her to bring her ridiculous group of friends to their father's funeral. He wasn't going to let her ruin the service, or their father's reputation, that way. "None of them ever even met him."
"Gwen met him."
Arthur's jaw clenched involuntarily. He hadn't stopped to think about exactly who would be included on Morgana's guest list. Truly, if there was anyone he wanted to avoid seeing at the funeral, it was Gwen. His relationship with his father had ruined his relationship with Gwen, and he didn't want to be reminded of that, or the thousands of other mistakes he thought of when he looked at Gwen, at his father's funeral.
"I don't object to Gwen being there," he finally said, turning back to the kettle. "She's your best friend and she actually knew our father. Everyone else is just... they'll cause a scene."
"Why would they cause a scene? It's a funeral, Arthur. They know when to be polite."
"They don't need to be there," Arthur said firmly. "You're just being dramatic." Actually, he rather felt that she was being manipulative and disrespectful, but he wasn't in the mood for that argument. He wasn't in the mood for this argument, either, but he had to put his foot down. The funeral was in the morning and he couldn't risk anything going wrong. There would be very important people at the funeral and he was going to stop at nothing to make sure they weren't offended by Morgana or her activist 'friends.'
"I'm being dramatic? It's a funeral. Anyone who wants to come and say goodbye should be allowed to do so."
"Say goodbye?" Arthur asked, incredulously. He turned to glare at her, crossing his arms over his chest. "They didn't know him! Besides, I'm sure most of them couldn't care less that he's gone."
"Actually, most of them are quite pleased. That he's out of office, I mean, not that he's dead. But that doesn't make them any different than all the other jerks who are going to show up. Politicians, lawyers, businessmen... none of them give a shit about Dad. They'll just be there for appearances."
"I'm a lawyer and I give a shit about Dad," Arthur said, his throat closing up. He turned away from her to watch the kettle. He knew that Morgana was just trying to upset him, to out-logic him, to get her way. Normally, he wouldn't have put up with it. But he was too tired and his emotions were too raw. He just wanted the argument to be over. He wanted to win and he wanted the funeral to go his way.
The kettle hissed unconvincingly and Arthur turned off the stove, mumbling about how the damn kettle didn't even work properly. He wasn't entirely surprised - their father had cut caffeine out of his diet years ago. The kettle was probably left over from his tea-drinking days, or maybe he had only kept it for guest use.
"You're his son," Morgana said as Arthur poured the boiling water into two mugs. The false sweetness in her voice grated on his nerves. "There's obviously a difference." Arthur said nothing and handed Morgana her tea. He hunched over the island countertop and blew into his mug, watching the ripples his breath created on the surface of the steaming liquid. "They're my friends," she continued quietly. "It's my dad's funeral. They just want to be there for me."
"You didn't even like the man," Arthur pointed out, too tired to pretend otherwise.
"No," she agreed. "But he was still my father. I'm not happy he died, Arthur. I had always hoped we'd make up sometime in the future... have a proper father-daughter relationship again. I wanted him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding."
"Stop," Arthur pleaded, rubbing at his watering eyes. "I don't even believe you and I'm still crying over it. Fuck."
"You're exhausted," Morgana said sensibly. "You need to get some sleep."
Arthur shook his head and straightened up to glare at his half-sister. "Do you have any idea how pissed off he would be if he knew that I let you and your terrorist friends crash his funeral? I mean, come on, Morgana. We're supposed to be honoring his memory and you want to invite a group of outspoken critics? What do you take me for?"
"I take you for a generally kind man with incredibly unfortunate beliefs and slightly misguided intentions."
Arthur flung his hands out in exasperation. "Oh, of course."
"He's gone, you know."
"Jesus Christ, Morgana! Yes, I know he's gone. That's rather the reason behind the whole funeral business, isn't it?"
"I meant," Morgana continued in her calmest, most soothing voice, "that you don't have to please him anymore." Arthur scoffed and hunched back over his tea. "I'm serious. He's not looming over you - over us, over everything - anymore. You can do whatever the hell you want and he's never going to say another rude, criticizing, unloving thing about you again. You need to start living your own life. I'm not saying that letting me bring a few close friends to my father's funeral is the first step, but... it is the right thing to do."
Arthur shook his head again, knowing he had lost the argument. He didn't have it in him to fight with her anymore. She was his only remaining family and he couldn't stand to have her angry with him - not right then, not the night before their father's funeral.
He knew it was reasonable for her to want her friends to come to their father's funeral. And if she had had normal friends, he wouldn't have argued with her. But he wanted to avoid humiliation and scandal at all costs, and the easiest way to do that was to ban Morgana's outspoken political activist friends from coming to the funeral. She ran a small but successful non-profit that pushed for radical social change in all the areas that Uther had been most conservative. Sometimes Arthur wondered if Morgana was so extremely liberal just to make their father angry, but even if that was true for her, it wasn't true for her co-workers or her friends. They would be genuinely and fiercely opinionated and the thought of having people like that in the same room as his father's colleagues made Arthur want to avoid the funeral like the plague.
However, the tea was already getting cold and he didn't have any more energy to argue. Morgana cleared her throat and Arthur knew that he would be seeing her friends at the funeral in the morning. All he had left to do was hope that they would stay away from the senators and the journalists.
"I'm going to lie down," Morgana said, reaching across the island to cover one of Arthur's hands with her own. "Promise me you'll get some sleep?"
Arthur shrugged and sipped at his tea. "I have to stay up a bit," he said into the mug. "Look over my speech."
"It's not a speech, love. It doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to be a robot all the time."
"It's a speech," Arthur said, feeling an uncomfortable tightness in his throat for what felt like the hundredth time that evening. "I can do speeches. What I can't do is say goodbye to Dad in front of the most important people in this city - hell, in this country. It's a speech and if you want to live long enough to see your stupid friends tomorrow, you had better not say otherwise."
Morgana patted Arthur's hand consolingly. "At least try to get some sleep," she said before standing. "I'll see you in the morning,"
Arthur watched as Morgana retreated into the guest bedroom with her mug. He heaved a deep sigh and looked around his father's apartment, wondering if he would ever be able to bring himself to live in it. It had been bequeathed to him, but he much preferred his own apartment. His apartment felt like home; his father's apartment felt like an office. It was too clean, too orderly, too perfectly decorated and arranged. It had always made Arthur feel uncomfortable, like he had to remain professional at all times, even though it was someone's home. He always felt slightly uneasy in this apartment, like there was some flaw with his suit or his diction or his posture or his teeth or his hair or his latest career direction... the list went on and on. Even without Uther Pendragon's presence, Arthur couldn't shake the feeling that he needed to be absolutely perfect in this apartment. The walls themselves were judging him.
No, he decided, he would not live here. He would sell the apartment and invest the money. That was likely what his father had intended him to do, anyway.
The morning was a dull blur of meaningless motions. Arthur had woken up, taken a shower, gotten dressed, and eaten a slice of toast before Morgana emerged from the guest bedroom, looking far more awake than he himself felt.
"Toast, again?" she asked, frowning.
"There's nothing else," Arthur said through a mouthful of crunchy bread.
Morgana opened the fridge and sighed. "There's eggs, cheese, onions, peppers... I'll make you an omelet."
"No, thanks. I'm not that hungry."
"Suit yourself." Morgana started pulling out ingredients, anyway. "You really need to learn how to cook."
"I manage just fine, thank you."
"Sure you do." She started cracking eggs over a bowl.
Arthur sighed and stood up from the island barstool. "I'm going to head over to the church. Is there anything you need me to do before I leave?"
Morgana glanced over her shoulder. "Why are you leaving now? We don't have to be there for another hour."
"Yes, but I can't stand to be in this apartment any longer than I have to, and we're going to be here all afternoon. Just make sure you clean up before you leave."
Arthur retreated into his room to grab his shoes and his jacket. When he came back out, Morgana was vigorously chopping an onion. He left without saying goodbye or even locking the door behind him. He felt overwhelmingly numb. He didn't feel sad, he didn't feel nervous, he didn't even feel guilty about not feeling such things. He just felt nothing. His tongue felt heavy and awkward in his mouth; his limbs felt unnatural and separate from the rest of his body.
In truth, he didn't know what he was supposed to be feeling at this point. He had never organized a funeral before. He had never even been to a funeral before. It had been several days since his father's death, and the reality was starting to sink in. He didn't really want to deal with the funeral. There were going to be a lot of important people there, people he would normally be tripping all over himself just to impress. But he didn't want to impress anyone, not on this day. He just wanted to go to work and distract himself, or maybe go to the gym and distract himself, or maybe even put on a bad movie or three and distract himself. Mostly, he just did not want to deal with everyone coming together to mourn his father's passing.
He took a taxi and had the driver drop him off two blocks away from the church so he could walk around a tiny park to kill time. By the time he made it to the church, Morgana was already there with Gwen.
"Arthur," Gwen breathed when she saw him approaching. She flung her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. "I'm so sorry."
Arthur forced himself to lift his arms and wrap them around Gwen's small, familiar waist. Her hair smelled of flowers and every horrible thing he had said and done to her. He hadn't seen or spoken to Gwen in almost six months, but now she was all over him. Her hair was in his face and her hands were in his hair and their bodies were pressed closely together.
Morgana turned away and Arthur could feel raw pain swelling up inside of him. He tried to stop it - he tried to control his emotions - but Gwen's warm touch was pulling it out of him. His hands twitched involuntarily on Gwen's back and she tightened her grip on him. Before he could stop himself, he was crying into her hair and holding her closer, practically suffocating her in his embrace.
"Arthur, Arthur," she whispered, pulling back and running her fingers gently over his face. She wiped his tears away and kissed both of his cheeks before lightly pressing her lips to his. "Just breathe."
Arthur took a deep, shuttering breath and stepped away from his ex-girlfriend. "I'm sorry," he said lamely, his voice hoarse as he tried to rein in his emotions.
"Don't apologize." She wiped at his eyes again and smiled sadly. "Do you have anyone coming for you?"
Arthur froze, suddenly hit with the realization that Morgana might have truly wanted her friends at the funeral just to comfort her.
"Um... well, Leon's coming..." he mumbled, somewhat embarrassed. He really didn't have many close friends. And he didn't exactly relish the thought of sobbing all over his oldest friend for the rest of the day.
"Good." Gwen fixed his hair idly, then stepped back. "Morgana's already spoken to the church people. She said there's not much for you guys to do except wait for people to arrive."
Arthur nodded vaguely. "Thanks."
Gwen gave him another sad smile and squeezed his arm affectionately before turning her attention back to Morgana, who was studying the bulletin for the service.
Arthur went up to the front of the sanctuary to examine the flower arrangements. He zoned out for a while, thinking about how much his father had hated flowers. As far as decorations went, Uther had much preferred art.
When Arthur turned back around, more of Morgana's friends had arrived and were standing with her in the back of the church. Morgana's closest co-worker, Morgause, was standing next to Morgana, their arms linked together. Next to Morgause was a very young looking kid with sharp cheekbones and huge ears that Arthur could see from all the way across the sanctuary. Next to him was another man with long hair who looked closer to Arthur's age. Yet another man stood between Morgana and Gwen, his arm wrapped comfortably around Gwen's back.
Something wretched and squirming settled in Arthur's stomach at this sight, but he swallowed down the feeling and made his way toward the group. When they noticed him approaching, everyone's expressions changed. All three of the new guys dropped their comforting smiles, and the one next to Gwen dropped his arm. Morgause frowned at Arthur as he reached their group.
"Arthur, these are my friends," Morgana said, gesturing with her free hand. "Merlin, Gwaine, Lance... you know Morgause."
Arthur nodded at them, but only the youngest one, Merlin, held out his hand for Arthur to shake.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said kindly.
Gwaine and Lance echoed their condolences, but Morgause offered no sympathy. Arthur wasn't surprised. The only other time he'd met the woman, she'd spent a very awkward fifteen minutes ripping into him, his father, and anything either of them had ever accomplished.
Arthur stood with Morgana's friends for a few minutes, mostly discussing the caterer he'd hired for the luncheon that afternoon, until more guests started to arrive. After a heated and whispered argument, Morgana went to sit with her friends, leaving Arthur to greet everyone by himself. He pulled down his emotional shutters, plastered an appropriately solemn expression on his face, and stood at the end of the center aisle to greet several hundred politicians, lawyers, businessmen, military personnel, distant relatives, and family friends. They all shook his hands, muttered words about how bad they felt, about how they had known the great Uther Pendragon, about how they were willing to bring him food.
When Leon finally arrived, he gave Arthur a long, warm hug that left Arthur struggling to keep his carefully managed emotions in check.
"Do you want me to stand with you?" Leon asked quietly as he stepped away.
"No," Arthur said quickly, rubbing his eyes quickly. "Can you sit with me, though? I'm up - up there, across the aisle from Morgana."
Leon nodded and patted Arthur's shoulder before heading toward the pew Arthur had indicated. When the line thinned out and the last stragglers were seated, Arthur walked down the aisle to join Leon at the front of the sanctuary. He could feel everyone's eyes on him as he walked and he tried to keep his gait natural and smooth, but found that he couldn't move in any sort of normal way when he was so self-conscious about it. After what seemed like an hour of hobbling and limping, he finally reached Leon and slid into the pew to wait for the service to start.
The funeral was slow and full of dreadful hymns that attempted to be uplifting but only succeeded in making Gwen weep loudly on her new boyfriend's shoulder. Several of Uther's co-workers, those that had known him the longest or those that were most important, went to the front of the church to say things about the recently deceased. Arthur didn't listen to any of it. It was meaningless to him. Morgana had been right - these people didn't care about his father.
When it came time for his speech, Arthur stood up from the pew and moved mechanically up to the front of the church. He pulled out a tightly creased piece of paper from his breast pocket and smoothed it out over the pulpit. When he looked up, there was an ocean of black staring back at him from the pews. He swallowed and cleared his throat, trying to center himself.
'Just a speech', he told himself as his fingers worried the corner of the paper. He cleared his throat again and glanced at Leon, who nodded slightly at him. Taking a deep breath, he avoided looking at Morgana or Gwen and began reading what he had written out over the past couple of days. He shared memories, pieces of advice his father had given him, and bits of Uther Pendragon's biography. He tried to say what his father had meant to him, how their relationship had formed his whole life and the way he interacted with every other person he knew. He tried to communicate what Uther had meant to him, how Uther had been as a father and mentor, what it had been like to grow up in Uther's immense shadow, and how it felt now that he was expected to fill his father's shoes.
As he read his speech, he listened to his words and regretted every one of them. He knew he should have been saying more about his father's amazing political career and all of the things his father had stood for and fought for and tried to do 'for the good of the people.' But he hadn't been thinking about that when he was writing, and now he felt entirely too exposed. He tried to think ahead and pick out parts of what he had written that he could skip over to make his speech shorter and more appropriate, but then he stumbled over his words and had to give it up.
When he neared the end, he glanced at Morgana and forgot what he had been saying completely. She was crying - actually crying - and wiping her eyes with a tissue. He could see her and Gwen holding hands, and Morgause's arm was around her shoulder.
Arthur stared at her, stunned into silence.
Leon cleared his throat and Arthur looked blankly back down at his speech. It took him a moment to find his place and when he continued, he felt like a robot. The words were coming out of his mouth without emotion or proper pacing. He didn't want to sound cruel or unfeeling, but Morgana's reaction had put a stopper on his grief. Seeing her fall apart like that - seeing her have honest, human emotions about their father's passing - had been too much. He had to shut down or risk openly sobbing in front of all these people.
"Thank you," he finished his speech lamely, folding up his piece of paper and shoving it back inside his pocket as he hurried back to his seat.
"Good," Leon muttered, patting Arthur's thigh as he sat down.
Arthur tried not to twitch away from Leon's touch. He hadn't felt this on edge since the night Uther had died. Every sign of affection that came his way made him want to cry, and just then, it was overwhelming. He didn't want to be pushed over the edge. He covered his face with one hand and took a few deep breaths, trying to control himself.
When loud, jarring bagpipe music signaled the end of the service, Arthur stood up and excused himself before anyone could approach him. He found the nearest bathroom and ran his shaking hands under freezing cold tap water.
"Fucking losing it," he muttered to himself, looking at his reflection in the mirror. He looked half-dead. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was far less neat than he thought it was - had he been running his fingers through it? His eyes and nose were red and wet. Frankly, he looked like a mess. The thought of all those people out in the sanctuary looking for him, wanting to tell him yet again how sorry they were about his father, wanting to offer any help they could, wanting to ask how he was holding up - the thought of them was making him feel sick.
He soaked a paper towel under the cold water and pressed it to the back of his neck. The door creaked open and he looked up, hoping against hope it was Leon coming to check on him.
It wasn't Leon, but it wasn't one of his father's colleagues, either. It was one of Morgana's friends, the young one with all the cheekbones. The kid paused, staring at Arthur with a frightened, caught look on his face.
"Um - sorry."
Arthur shook his head, unsure what to say.
"I just, um..." Morgana's friend, Arthur couldn't remember which name belonged to which person, glanced toward the urinals, then back at the door. "I'll wait," he said decisively before leaving.
Arthur let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. He tossed the paper towel in the trash and looked at himself in the mirror again. He fixed his hair, rubbed his eyes, and adjusted his tie. Nothing seemed to help. He still looked out of sorts. Giving up and deciding that maybe if he looked horrible enough, fewer people would try to talk to him, he left the bathroom and headed back to the sanctuary.
To his relief, most of the guests had left already. He knew that he would likely see them all back at his father's apartment in a little while, but it was still a relief to see such a small crowd. He did his best to be polite and gracious when people approached him with condolences. No one bothered Morgana. Arthur knew that almost no one knew who she was - she had removed herself from Uther's life years ago - but he couldn't help but be jealous of the way she was completely under the radar.
Finally, only Leon, Morgana, and her friends remained with him in the sanctuary. They divvied up the remaining flower arrangements and carried them out to various taxis to bring back to Uther's apartment. Arthur made sure not to make eye contact with the kid who had walked in on his breakdown in the bathroom. Arthur wondered how Morgana even knew this kid - he didn't look a day over twenty.
When they had all arrived back at Uther's, Arthur let Leon find a place for all the flowers as he went around and straightened every object he could get his hands on. The caterers arrived and busied themselves in the kitchen. Arthur retreated to his father's room and changed into a clean undershirt and button-down shirt. He had sweat through the ones from the morning as he had run around the flat, cleaning like a madman.
He ignored the knock on his door and didn't look up when the door opened after a few more moments of silence.
"People are starting to arrive," Leon said, hovering awkwardly in the doorframe. "Do you... want to come out?"
"Not really," Arthur said, standing up anyway.
An hour into the luncheon, Arthur found himself standing alone by the windows that made up most of one wall of his father's living room. His father's secretary had just walked away and, for the first time since he'd stepped out of his father's room, it seemed that there was no one else waiting in line to talk to him. He didn't mind because he really didn't want to talk to anyone else. However, with no one chatting his ear off about their favorite memories of Uther, he had nothing to do or think about. He stared down at the half-empty mug of cold tea that he was gripping tightly and sighed. He wished everyone would leave. Another hour of this and he was bound to have a very public breakdown. Caging up his feelings on such a stressful day was exhausting.
Arthur looked back up from his mug, hoping to catch the eye of some prominent lawyer or someone else he could talk to about anything work related, but what he found instead was Morgana's young, skinny friend standing two feet away.
"Um," the kid started, blushing as he held out a plate of cheese and crackers, "Morgana threatened to kick me out if I didn't bring you some food..."
Arthur took the plate and glanced across the room at Morgana, who was smiling wickedly at him. "Thanks," he said quietly. Arthur looked back at the kid and tried not to stare at his high, pink cheekbones. "You should have just taken the easy way out, though. I'd kill to be able to leave right about now."
"Oh, no, not the party. I meant she'd kick me out of her apartment."
Arthur stared blankly at Morgana's friend. What on earth was he talking about?
"I live with Morgana," he explained, his brow furrowed in what was probably a mirror image of Arthur's own confusion.
"Oh, I didn't... she never even said she was seeing someone," Arthur mumbled. He tried to think back over the conversations he'd had with Morgana in the past six months or so. Until Uther's death, they had been brief conversations, mostly over the phone. They had been closer before, but after Gwen had broken up with Arthur, he had taken a break from her strange life and her strange friends. She couldn't have been dating this kid for more than half a year and they were already living together? That didn't sound anything like Morgana. In fact, Morgana hadn't seriously dated anyone in years, as far as Arthur knew. Besides, this guy was way too young.
"Sorry?" the kid asked, leaning closer to hear Arthur better. Arthur locked his knees to stop himself from stepping back and away from this strange kid with the too-perfect bone structure who had just invaded his personal space.
"I didn't realize she had a boyfriend," Arthur clarified. "She never said."
Morgana's friend's eyes widened comically. "Oh, no. No, no, no. I just live on her couch."
Arthur frowned. "Why?"
"I'm just staying with her until I can save up enough money for my own place. It's hard to find an apartment, you know. Especially when you don't have a job, since you have pay first and last month's rent and the security deposit... it's like three months worth of rent right up front and I don't have that at the moment. So she's been letting me sleep in her living room."
Arthur shook his head and looked back down at the cheese and crackers he was holding. He knew that people struggled to make ends meet - he wasn't stupid. It was just that he had never been one of those people. Neither had Morgana, although she had a tendency to befriend every person in their city who couldn't afford rent.
"Sorry to hear that," he finally said, looking back up at the kid. "It can't be easy living with her."
"It's not so bad."
"Well, maybe you haven't noticed yet, but she's very particular about her things. Possessive, even. I tried to borrow a book from her once and she had me sign it out. Like a fucking librarian. You'll see soon enough. How long have you been staying there?"
"Nearly two months."
Arthur barely managed to arrange his features to conceal the expression of shock that had attempted to plaster itself across his face. "You've been sleeping on a couch for two months?"
"Nearly, yeah. On and off, though. I mean, sometimes I stay with other people. Mostly on the weekends, so she can have a bit of privacy. I'm trying not to overstay my welcome too much, you know. But all my stuff's at her place, so..."
Arthur glanced over at Morgana and then around the huge room filled with guests from his father's funeral. If there was anything that would have pissed off his father more than knowing that Morgana had invited her liberal friends to his funeral, it would be knowing that Arthur had let one of Morgana's liberal friends move into his apartment. Arthur couldn't shake the idea. He thought about what Morgana had said to him the night before - about living his own life. Uther Pendragon had been fairly heartless when it came to helping other people, but Arthur - no thanks to Morgana's outspokenness - couldn't help but be filled with sympathy when he heard about someone suffering. He imagined it had something to do with never having known his mother. He hadn't grown up with a soft, kind-hearted parent, so he'd had to make do with teaching himself how to treat other people. He had watched his father grow more and more solitary as years went by, and he had struggled not to go down the same path. His father had lost a wife and turned cold and bitter because of it. Arthur had lost a mother and always strove to make her proud, somehow. He still followed in his father's footsteps and took every opportunity his father had given him, and he would always be grateful for that. But he did wonder what Uther would have been like if he'd been just a bit more open to the plight of other people. Some days, when he grew bored of dealing with the stacks of divorce case files in his office, he wondered if he could have managed to be an improved version of his father, had he gone into politics instead of law.
"What's your name, again?"
"Oh, Merlin." Merlin smiled nervously.
Arthur looked over Merlin and frowned slightly. The kid was really far too skinny. He felt a sort of sad protectiveness come over him - the same feeling he got when he came across a three-legged dog in the street or saw a particularly small child at a divorce trial.
"Merlin," Arthur repeated. "Listen, if you're looking to move off Morgana's couch, I have a place you could stay for a while."
Merlin balked at him. "What?"
"My dad left me this apartment," Arthur explained, gesturing around the room. "I've no intention of living here myself, so I've got to sell it or rent or something."
Merlin shook his head quickly. "Oh, no. I could never afford this place. Probably not even if I saved up for a year."
"No, I meant you can stay for free. Someone should live here... it's just an expensive waste of space, otherwise."
Merlin blinked a few times, the expression on his face steadily changing from disbelief to shock. "Arthur, that's so generous. I don't even know what to say."
"Just say yes," Arthur said gruffly. He didn't want a huge display of gratitude. He just wanted to give the kid a place to sleep that wasn't Morgana's couch. "It's no big deal, honestly. I need a few weeks, at least, to sort through all his belongings, anyway. As long as you don't mind that I'd be stopping by on occasion to go through everything and start packing up..."
"No, no I wouldn't mind at all, of course not," Merlin said frantically. "You can do whatever you want - it's your apartment. Um... are you absolutely sure about this? I probably can't even afford the electric bill on this place."
"Don't worry about it. Seriously, I don't care. I just inherited a small fortune. The least I can do is let you stay here rent-free for a while."
"I - thank you." Merlin sounded overwhelmingly genuine and Arthur shifted awkwardly. "Thank you," he repeated.
Arthur tried to shrug it off. "It's no problem," he said, setting his coffee mug down on the windowsill so he could start eating the cheese and crackers. He wasn't hungry but he had to do something other than listen to Merlin thank him over and over again.
"You know, you're nothing like Morgana says you are. I never would have expected you to be so... considerate. Not to mention generous."
"Well, you've caught me in a rare mood," Arthur said dryly, trying not to be too offended. Morgana was truly infuriating sometimes. She always lectured him on how he needed to be less like Uther, but still seemed to group him and his father together in the same horrible categories. "Besides, she's family... we bring out the worst in each other. That's what siblings are for, aren't they?"
"I wouldn't know," Merlin said. "I don't have any. I have my best friend though and he's sort of like a brother. I guess you could say he brings out the worst in me. Well, no..." Arthur raised one eyebrow in amusement and continued eating the cheese and crackers while Merlin tried to work out what he wanted to say. "He's wears on my patience, is all. He's actually the reason I don't have anywhere to live at the moment."
"Doesn't sound like a very good best friend," Arthur commented.
"Well, we were roommates - we moved to the city together - but I had to move out because I could never get any sleep. He always had people over or was playing loud music or shouting at his video games or having loud and crazy sex. I'm a light sleeper, I guess."
Merlin looked far too young and innocent to be saying things like 'loud and crazy sex,' but Arthur tried not to dwell on that. "He sounds fairly inconsiderate."
"No, he's just... he's his own person. He does what he wants and makes no apologies."
Arthur nodded, thinking that Merlin's best friend sounded like an asshole. "Was he upset that you moved out?"
"Not at all. We knew going into it that it would be sort of rough. We're best friends but we lead reasonably different lives. I just probably should have thought about that a little more before I agreed to move in with him. Oh well... that apartment had rats, anyway. The worst I have to worry about at Morgana's is the occasional ant in the kitchen."
"Well, as far as I know, there aren't any rodents or bugs of any kind here. But there is a nosy old lady who lives a few floors down. She used to stalk my dad a bit. I think she's harmless, but don't be surprised if she comes around knocking and trying to figure out who you are."
"Noted," Merlin said, smiling. "She can't be any worse than Morgana's neighbors."
"Have you met the one with the cactus?" Arthur asked, rolling his eyes.
Merlin nodded sagely. "That guy gives me nightmares."
Arthur gave a pretend shudder of disgust, watching another one of Morgana's friends approach them. This man had long brown hair that Arthur's fingers itched to touch. Normally, Arthur didn't have a strong desire to touch another man's hair, but he was exhausted and this man's hair was truly beautiful.
"Found you," the man said, handing a coffee mug to Merlin. "It's wine," he whispered. He handed another one to Arthur, who took it cautiously.
"Um," Arthur said stupidly.
"It's from Morgana," the man explained before taking a sip out of his own mug.
"That explains it," Arthur muttered, setting the wine down next to his cold tea on the windowsill.
Merlin glanced uncertainly between Arthur and his friend. "It's a bit, um... inappropriate, isn't it? Sneaking wine at something like this."
"Go ahead," Arthur said, not wanting Merlin to think he had been offended. "I just haven't eaten enough today to drink that. I don't want to embarrass myself in front of all these people."
"They're just a bunch of stiffs," the other man said. "What do they matter?"
Merlin gave his friend a chastising look, but Arthur simply shrugged. "Some days, I feel the same way. Still, it's probably not a good idea for my career if I get wine-drunk in front of the city's most prominent lawyers."
"Is that who's here?" the man asked, his eyes widening as he looked around the apartment. "I assumed it was all... lobbyists or something."
"I don't think it's standard practice for lobbyists to attend senators' funerals," Arthur said, not entirely sure if the man had been joking or not.
"God, I hate lawyers," the man groaned before drinking more of his wine.
Arthur put a cracker in his mouth to stop himself from saying something. Surely this asshole knew that he was Morgana's brother, and that Morgana's brother was a lawyer.
"He doesn't mean that," Merlin said apologetically. "He's a lawyer, too."
Arthur didn't even try to hide his shock this time. Since when did Morgana befriend lawyers? And, truly, this guy looked nothing like a lawyer. He had longer - and prettier - hair than Arthur had ever seen on a professional, an unkempt beard, and what looked like a hand-me-down suit that didn't fit him properly at all.
"You don't have to look so upset," the man said, grinning widely. Arthur noted that his face was really very wrinkly when he smiled. "You don't even know what kind of lawyer I am."
"If you say divorce lawyer," Arthur started, but then Morgana appeared out of nowhere and swept her friend away before anyone could say another word. "See, that's what I mean," Arthur said as he watched them disappear. "She's very possessive of her belongings."
Merlin laughed. "If she hadn't taken him away, he would have just wandered off on his own eventually. Probably mid-sentence. He's a bit spacey. Brilliant, but spacey."
"He's not a divorce lawyer, is he?" Arthur asked cautiously.
"No, human rights lawyer. Are you a divorce lawyer?"
Arthur nodded and tried to spot the man in the crowd of guests. A human rights lawyer? Well, at least that explained why he was friends with Morgana. "What's his name, again?"
"That's Gwaine. He's, uh..." Merlin trailed off, smiling to himself.
"And the other guy?" Arthur asked before he could stop himself.
"What other guy?" Merlin asked blankly.
"This morning," Arthur explained, already regretting having asked about it. "With Morgana, it was you, Gwaine, Morgause, Gwen... and another guy. I wasn't really paying attention to names."
Merlin's face settled into a neutral expression and Arthur could feel his ears burning. "Oh, that's Lance."
Arthur nodded and finished the rest of his cheese and crackers, desperately trying to think of anything else to talk about.
"Here you are," Gwen's voice brought him back to reality. Arthur looked up to see Gwen and Lance standing next to Merlin. "You're very good at hiding."
"I'm not hiding," Arthur said, hoping they hadn't heard him asking Merlin about Lance. "I'm fairly out in the open."
"Don't contradict me," Gwen said affectionately. "So, how long do you have to play host?"
Arthur checked his watch. "Well, it's supposed to be over in half an hour. We'll see how many people actually leave."
"I'll kick them out, if you want," Gwen offered, smiling sweetly.
Arthur couldn't help but return the smile. "And how are you going to do that, exactly?"
Gwen nodded toward Merlin. "I'll get him and Gwaine to start making out. That should clear the room pretty quickly, don't you think?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. Gwen's favorite past time during their relationship had been annoying Arthur by constantly talking about gay men. Arthur knew it was a joke, but Merlin clearly didn't because he was blushing ridiculously.
"Why not me and Gwaine?" Lance protested. "Much sexier."
Arthur frowned slightly as everyone else laughed. He suddenly felt like he was the one missing the joke. He also found it very strange that Gwen's boyfriend would joke about kissing another man like that. He had never understood the jokes that Gwen or Morgana or any of their friends insisted on making about homosexuality. For him, it wasn't a funny topic. It wasn't even really a topic. It was just something that should be avoided, if not actively squashed, at all costs.
"You should come apple picking with us tomorrow," Gwen said.
Arthur blinked, startled at the suddenness and randomness of the suggestion. "Sorry?"
"We're going apple picking tomorrow. Probably pumpkin picking, too. You should come with us. You need to relax and get your mind off all this dreadful stuff. Come on, it'll be fun. Morgana's going... you can invite Leon, if you want."
Arthur looked around at the small group of Morgana's friends that had surrounded him. He didn't know any of them and he didn't relish the idea of spending a day apple picking with Morgana and Gwen. He doubted Leon would want to go - Leon wasn't the apple picking sort. He wasn't really the apple picking sort, either. He didn't generally do anything outside of work.
"I don't know," he said, trying to be polite. "I really need to catch up on work. I've gotten really behind the last few days. Tomorrow's Sunday, so I was going to use it to prepare for next week... try to finish up some stuff from last week..."
"Come on," Gwen said gently. "You need to do something fun."
Arthur sighed and glanced briefly at Lance before nodding. If he was honest with himself, he had never once regretted doing any of Gwen's "fun" suggestions. He just didn't want to be a third wheel or the odd one out. He didn't want to make Lance feel uncomfortable and he didn't want to be made to feel uncomfortable by Lance in return.
"Good," Merlin spoke up. "I'm going to buy some gourds. I'll decorate your dad's apartment, make it look it like fall."
Arthur couldn't help but laugh at this. His father had never decorated for any season or holiday. The most he had ever done was buy a small plastic Christmas tree for the corner of the living room, and that had only been when Arthur and Morgana were very young.
"Where does one even go for apple picking these days?"
"He asked like an old man," Gwen narrated for the group. Everyone laughed and Arthur allowed himself to smirk. "There's an orchard outside the city. Actually, if you're coming, would you mind driving some people? We've been having trouble working out the carpools."
"So, you're really just using me for the Benz."
Lance's eyes widened at this and Arthur bit down another smile. He loved his car, if only for the reaction it got from other people.
"No," Gwen said pointedly. "We would have used a taxi or borrowed someone else's car or something. We don't have to use your car if you don't want."
"It's fine," Arthur assured her. "I'll just have to go home and pick it up."
"We can meet you at your apartment tomorrow morning, if that's convenient."
"Of course," Arthur agreed. He hadn't planned on going back to his own apartment that night, but now that he had an excuse for it, he couldn't wait to get back home. He had been staying in his father's apartment for nearly a week. He missed his own things. And he missed his car - he'd been taking taxis everywhere for the past few days.
"Great." Gwen grinned at him. "We'll come over at 9:30."
"You don't need me to pick people up?" Arthur asked, not really wanting to do such a thing, but feeling as though he should offer.
"No, I'll just give them directions to get to your place on the subway."
"Good." Arthur smiled. "See you at 9:30, then."
Arthur didn't bother answering his cell phone when it rang just after 9:30 the next morning. He simply grabbed his keys, locked his apartment door behind him, and hurried down to the street to meet Morgana and her friends. There were two more people he didn't know, plus Morgause's creepy husband - Cedric or Cenred or Chad or something. Arthur could rarely be bothered to remember people's names. He could never bring himself to feel too badly about it, though, even when it became a bit of an awkward problem for his work.
"Arthur, this is Will and Freya," Morgana said in an unnecessarily business-like tone. "You can drive the two of them, plus Gwaine and Merlin, okay? I'll take the rest."
Arthur nodded at her as he waved hello to Will and Freya. They looked just as young as Merlin, and the girl looked even skinnier than Merlin, if such a thing were even possible.
"Okay, let's go," Morgana said, heading toward her car, which was double-parked.
"Are you going to give me the address?" Arthur called after her. She waved her hand dismissively as she slipped back inside her car. Gwen, Lance, Morgause, and the creepy husband followed suit.
"I've got directions," Merlin said, showing him a handwritten list of turns and road names.
"I just need the address," Arthur explained as he started walking down the block to where his car was parked. "I've got a GPS."
"I don't have the address," Merlin said, reading over the paper. "Just... directions."
"Did you look them up, or did Morgana look them up?" Arthur asked. Morgana was possibly the worst driver in the world, and her sense of direction was truly abhorrent.
"I looked them up," Merlin said, laughing. "I don't let Morgana look up directions."
"Good. This is me." He gestured at his car as he walked around to the driver's side. When he unlocked it, Merlin slid into the passenger's seat, while Will, Gwaine, and the skinny girl filed into the backseat.
"This is cramped," Gwaine complained, squirming around behind Arthur's seat.
"Don't mind him," Merlin said quietly as Arthur started the car. "He's really grumpy when he's hungover."
"I can deal with grumpy as long as he isn't going to blow chunks all over my car," Arthur said seriously.
Merlin glanced at the backseat and turned back around smiling. "Don't worry, he's asleep already."
Arthur nodded, waited a few seconds, and then cleared his throat. "So, are you going to tell me where I'm supposed to go, or what?"
"Right, sorry." Merlin scrambled for the piece of paper he had shoved into his pocket. He rattled off the first few lines of directions as Arthur pulled out of the parking spot.
"Mind if I smoke?" Will's voice came from the back seat.
Arthur stopped the car rather jerkily at a red light. "Don't you fucking dare."
"Whoa, geez. Calm your tits, I was just asking."
"This car cost a lot of money," Arthur said through clenched teeth. "I don't want it smelling like cancer." He couldn't help but be protective of his car. He didn't let anyone do anything in it - no smoking, no drinking, no eating, no wearing dirty clothes.
"I didn't know cancer had a smell," Will retorted.
"Please don't fight," the girl piped up. "It's too early."
Arthur switched on the radio, trying his best not to regret agreeing to this outing. There was a reason he didn't generally spend time with Morgana and her friends. It wasn't just because their politics disagreed with his own - it was because he rarely cared for their personalities. Gwen had been the rare exception. She had been exceedingly kind, but she also had never been afraid to call him out on his bullshit. Morgana could have made a living doing just that, but she was so cruel about it. Gwen had been gentle, yet still firm, and that had made all the difference. Arthur found it so refreshing to be around someone outside of his family who wasn't too afraid of him to stand up to him, and who did so without hatred. If he was honest with himself, which he hated doing when it came to Gwen, that had been the basis of their entire relationship. He had only dated her because he had never met anyone like her before. He had enjoyed their friendship immensely, and the sex had been good, but he had never felt anything deeper toward her. Their whole relationship had been one giant lie, and some days he really hated himself for it. In the end, Gwen had broken up with him because they couldn't reconcile their many differences of opinions. Gwen was as liberal as they came - that was why she was so close with Morgana. Arthur, on the other hand, could barely bring himself to care about politics. When he did, he usually sided with his father - for the sake of convenience and keeping up appearances. When he refused to change - because what few beliefs he did have were his own and why should he change when he didn't even love her - and she refused to compromise, their relationship came to a messy end. Arthur hadn't seen her since the break-up, but if her behavior at Uther's funeral and the luncheon were any indication, she held no grudge and still viewed him as a friend.
"I think you were supposed to take that turn," Merlin said suddenly, craning his neck around to look through the back window.
"Shit," Arthur muttered, flicking on his turn signal.
"You should just let me drive," Will said. "I'm an excellent driver."
"Fuck off," Arthur said. He had very little patience for cocky little shits like Will. He was undoubtedly like the rest of Arthur's least favorite of Morgana's friends - full of himself, pretentious for all the wrong reasons, self-righteous, and generally a cocky little shit.
"We're almost there," Merlin said awkwardly as Arthur made the turn he had missed. "Just a few more minutes..."
Arthur glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Will opening his mouth. He turned up the radio to avoid hearing whatever it was Will was saying and was rewarded with Gwaine shoving a knee deep into the back of his seat. He shifted, cursed under his breath, and tried to focus on the road. Gwen had invited him out to have fun, but so far the trip was anything but.
To no one's surprise, they were the first car to arrive at the orchard. Arthur called Morgana on his cell, but Gwen picked up and explained that they had gotten a bit lost and would hopefully be there in about ten minutes.
"In that case, I'm going to pee," Will announced. "Anyone else?"
"I'll come," Gwaine said groggily.
Arthur watched as the two of them headed toward the small market. "Who the hell invited that asshole?" he asked, unable to keep his frustration inside now that Will was out of earshot.
"I'm pretty sure he'd ask me the same about you," Merlin said, smiling slightly.
"Did I do something to offend him? Was driving him here a rude thing to have done?"
"He doesn't like corporate types," Merlin tried to explain.
"Or politicians," the girl added.
"Or anyone involved with the law, really. Policemen, judges... lawyers..." Merlin gave Arthur a tight-lipped smile.
"Who the hell does he like, then?"
"Musicians," the girl said thoughtfully.
Merlin nodded. "Yeah. Musicians, artists, writers... anarchists..."
Arthur stared incredulously at Merlin. He knew Morgana was liberal, but he had thought she had more sense than that. "Since when has Morgana hung out with anarchists?"
"She knows him through me," Merlin said quietly. Arthur wondered if Merlin was an anarchist - he seemed somewhat offended by Arthur's reaction. "He's the one I was telling you about yesterday, the one I used to live with."
Arthur did his best not to gawk. "Will's your best friend?"
"Yeah, I've known him my whole life." Merlin shrugged. "We grew up together. We don't always see eye-to-eye on things... I'm not one hundred percent behind anarchy, for example, but we're family by this point. We don't have much choice but to get along as best we can."
Arthur couldn't help but relate. "Sounds like me and Morgana."
"Except, you're actually family," Merlin pointed out.
"So we've been told," Arthur muttered. "Personally, I like to think she's part-demon or part-alien or something. Anything to explain the part of her that isn't part-Pendragon."
"She's not that bad," Merlin insisted.
"You didn't grow up with her," Arthur retorted. "Anyway, I think that's her car."
When Morgana's passengers unloaded, Gwen and Lance immediately tugged the skinny girl away to accompany them on an early morning hayride through some fields. Arthur couldn't think of anything he wanted to do less than go on a hayride, especially with Gwen and her boyfriend, so he turned down their invitation.
"She's a lot nicer than Will," Arthur commented as he watched the three of them leave. "What's her name, again?"
"Freya," Merlin said. "You're horrible with names."
Arthur shrugged. "I know."
"Anyway, you're just saying that because she's quiet."
"Quiet's a good trait," Arthur muttered as he saw Gwaine and Will emerging from the market and making their way back over to the group.
"You'll never guess what they have," Gwaine said, grabbing Merlin's elbow and taking him away without further explanation.
Arthur watched them disappear behind the market, then turned to look at Morgana, Will, Morgause, and the creepy husband. This was not going very well at all.
"How was the trip?" Morgana asked, breaking the heavy tension.
"He wouldn't let me smoke," Will pouted before Arthur could answer.
"I told you he wouldn't." Morgana rolled her eyes.
"Come on," Morgause said sharply, staring daggers at Arthur. "Let's go look at the pumpkins."
Arthur followed them over to an outside market that had over one hundred giant crates filled with every size, shape, and color pumpkin.
"What, we can't pick our own?" he asked, disappointed.
"Not the pumpkins, apparently," Morgana said, picking up a small one and holding it up next to Arthur's head. "You can pick your own apples, though."
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked, shoving the pumpkin away from his face.
"Comparing size," she said, setting down that pumpkin and picking up a bigger one. "I want to make a jack-o'-lantern of your stupid face."
"Very funny," Arthur said dryly.
"Come on," she said, putting the pumpkin back. "Lighten up."
Arthur sighed and stared down at a pile of pumpkins as she wandered off to find her friends. He wasn't having fun. He just wanted to go back to his apartment and catch up on work. He was going to have to work late every day that week thanks to this little excursion. Granted, he usually worked late three or four times a week, but he had hoped to be able to take it easy this week. A huge part of him wanted to dive into a pile of work and not resurface until all his feelings about Uther were well and truly buried. But another, smaller part of him knew how unhealthy that would be and was fighting to stay balanced. That was the part of himself that had convinced him to go apple picking, and that was the part of himself he wanted to squash like a fucking rotted pumpkin.
He walked around for a few minutes, wondering if Morgana would let him escape if he offered to pay for a taxi to take her friends back to the city, until he came across a crate of tiny colorful gourds.
They were disgusting.
They were misshapen, covered in warts, grossly colored, and some were even vaguely reminiscent of human genitalia. Horrifically deformed human genitalia, but human genitalia nonetheless. They were so obscenely hideous that he couldn't stop looking at them.
He reached for a relatively innocent-looking one and picked it up. It was pear-shaped with orange on the top and purple on the bottom. It had several warts that Arthur couldn't resist running his fingers over. These gourds made him want to gag.
"Oh, you found them!"
Arthur dropped the gourd in surprise and turned to see Merlin standing right behind him.
"Are you trying give me a heart attack?" he asked, willing his shoulders to relax.
"Sorry." Merlin smiled innocently and moved next to him to examine the gourds. "I've been looking for these."
"Why?" Arthur asked. "They're disgusting."
Merlin laughed and reached for the most phallic gourd in the pile. It had five or six different colors, dozens of warts, and was curved at an alarming angle.
"They're not disgusting, they're perfect. These are what I wanted to get for your dad's apartment. What do you think about this one?" He held the monstrous gourd out for Arthur's inspection.
"It's disgusting," Arthur said flatly. "They all are. Ugliest things I've ever seen."
"That's what makes them so great," Merlin said cheerfully, reaching for another one.
Arthur looked down at the large pile of gourds, trying to see their appeal. All he saw were warts. He wondered what his father would have thought about the horrible things having any sort of presence in his carefully styled apartment. An all-too-familiar feeling of sadness started to sink in and Arthur quickly halted his line of thinking.
"Where'd you run off to, anyway?" he asked, leaning down to pick up the gourd he had dropped on the ground when Merlin had surprised him.
"Oh, they had those - those things. Those cut-out things where you put your face in the hole and take a picture. Gwaine wanted to get one of me as Little Bo Peep."
"That sounds humiliating," Arthur commented, dropping the gourd back into the crate. He had to stop looking at them before he threw up or suffered any lasting emotional damage.
"It's just for fun," Merlin said, snatching up a few more of the offensive gourds. "I made him get a picture of me as Paul Bunyan, too. Here, hold these." Merlin shoved an armful of gourds at Arthur, who scrambled not to drop any. Then, he turned back to the crate to pick out more.
"How many of these are you getting?"
"A dozen," Merlin said, pointing to the sign on the crate. "Six bucks."
"Money well spent," Arthur muttered, turning away from the gourds and leaning against the crate. He eyed some large pumpkins nearby. "What are people even doing with these pumpkins?"
"Carving them, I expect," Merlin said idly as he sifted through the pile. "Or maybe making pies."
"Is it a lot of work, making pumpkin pie from scratch?" Arthur asked, staring suspiciously at a dirty, lumpy pumpkin.
"Well, it certainly takes longer than using the canned stuff. But it's not so bad. It's quite fun, actually."
"Somehow, I think we might have different ideas about fun."
"Have you ever made a pumpkin pie from scratch?" Merlin asked pointedly.
"Well, no, but-"
"Then you can't judge whether or not it's fun." Merlin straightened up, his arms loaded with more gourds, and grinned. "Come on, let's pay so we can put these in a bag."
Arthur followed Merlin over to the cashiers. "So, when do you want to move in?" he asked. "Clearly you've got all sorts of decorating plans."
"I'll probably just stick these on the windowsills in the living room," Merlin said, shrugging. "That's about as far as my decorating plans go."
"Oh." Arthur looked down at the gourds he was cradling. They really were hideous - there was just no way around it. "Anyway." He looked back up at Merlin, who was eyeing the gourds with what Arthur could only describe as joy. "You can move in today, if you want. Otherwise, it'll have to be pretty late in the evening this week or sometime next weekend. I'm going to be swamped with work in the next few days, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to come pick up your stuff."
"Oh, you don't have to do to that," Merlin said quickly. "Morgana said she'd drive my stuff over. There's not much of it, really. Just a few suitcases with clothes and books. She said she has a spare key, so... you don't actually have to be there, if you don't want, if you don't have time."
"I have time," Arthur said awkwardly. "Just not a lot of it."
"Well, I'll ask Morgana about it. It might make sense just to do it today, so neither of you have to worry about during the week."
Arthur nodded and dumped the gourds onto the cashier's table. Merlin paid for them, dropped them all unceremoniously into two plastic bags, and grinned at Arthur.
"Well, I'm done for the day."
Arthur frowned and took one of the bags as they walked out of the pumpkin market. "Aren't you going apple picking?"
"Well, I'll go with everyone, but I can't afford much more than this." He lifted up his bag. "These are all I wanted, anyway."
"He's lying," Will said, coming up between them. "He wants a pumpkin to carve and a pumpkin to bake and a whole truckload of apples."
Merlin laughed and opened his bag to show Will the gourds. Will praised their ugliness and trailed Merlin and Arthur as they walked back to Arthur's car to deposit the bags.
"I'll buy you some apples if you like," Arthur said when they started walking back toward the orchard.
"No," Merlin said quickly. "You've done enough, honestly."
Arthur shrugged. He really didn't care. He could spare twenty dollars to buy someone else apples. Will gave him a dirty look and Arthur rolled his eyes. Honestly, he was going to have to insist on a car swap on the way home. He had no desire to be stuck in a car with Gwen and Lance or Morgause and her husband, but anyone was bound to be better company than Will.
"Come on." Merlin nodded toward the indoor market. "Let's see what they have in here."
"I'm going to help them carry their pumpkin's out to Morgana's car," Will said, pointing at where Morgana and some of her friends were struggling to carry their purchases.
Arthur glanced over his shoulder as he and Merlin entered the market. "Why's he so nice to them?"
"Because he likes them," Merlin said simply. "Will's not big on pretending."
"You mean, Will's not big on politeness."
Merlin shrugged. "However you want to say it, yeah."
"He really hates me that much just because I'm a lawyer? I don't have anything to do with policy or any of that. Mostly I just sit around reading pre-nuptial agreements." Arthur walked over to a cheese display and picked up a large chunk of goat cheese. He smelled it and immediately put it back down. Who would eat something like that?
"He just dislikes the law in general," Merlin said quietly. "And he may be taking out some issues he had with your father... on you."
"Oh," Arthur said, picking up another wedge of cheese. He hated being compared to his father in that way, but couldn't deny that Will would probably hate him just as much even without Uther's shadow hanging over him. He might be more compassionate than his father ever had been, and significantly less political, but he was still fairly conservative, or at least moderate. Arthur wondered just how liberal Merlin was and if he would react along the lines of Will or Gwen if he ever realized what Arthur really thought of the politics he probably held so close to his heart.
"Ooh, yellow apples," Merlin said suddenly, hurrying away to the next aisle. Arthur followed him a few seconds later and found Merlin picking up and inspecting every single yellow apple. "The yellow ones are my favorite," he explained, turning one over in his hand. "It's hard to find good ones, sometimes. They get overlooked."
Arthur wasn't sure how a type of apple could be overlooked, or who exactly would be doing the overlooking, but he decided not to argue. "I like the yellow ones, too."
Merlin grinned at him and then held up two large, crisp-looking apples. Arthur felt his mouth starting to water slightly.
"My treat," Merlin said, heading toward the cashier. Arthur started after him, protesting, but Merlin held up his free hand. "They're twenty cents, Arthur. I can handle it, honest."
Arthur couldn't help but smile as he watched Merlin pay for the apples. Merlin tossed him one as they walked out of the market and Arthur bit into it quickly, trying not to think about how it probably hadn't been washed.
When everyone else returned from Morgana's car and the hayride, they set off toward the apple orchards. Arthur grabbed a large crate and wandered off on his own, not wanting to talk to anyone else and not wanting to be bothered about why he needed so many apples. He wondered how hard it would be to make apple pie from scratch. He had never cooked or baked anything more complicated than toast or canned soup. He had toast and cereal for breakfast every morning, ate out with Leon or by himself for lunch every day, and then ordered take-out for dinner every night. It suited him just fine and he didn't see the need to learn how to cook, no matter what Morgana sad. Their father had never cooked either - he and Morgana had grown up eating what Uther's personal chef prepared for them.
"You must really love yellow apples," Will said, appearing from nowhere.
Arthur shrugged. "So what if I do?"
"You know he's not going to accept those."
"Who, the apple god?"
Will grinned widely. "Ah, so you're funny. That's good. I like funny." Arthur rolled his eyes and turned back to the tree he had been picking from. "So how come you're all by yourself?"
"I could ask the same of you," Arthur muttered, grabbing an apple off the tree and adding it to his full crate.
"I came looking for you," Will said simply.
"Why, so you can ridicule me some more?"
"No, but I can do that if you like."
Arthur sighed and turned to face Will. "What do you want?" he demanded.
Will's smile faltered slightly. "I came to apologize," he said awkwardly. "I think I got the wrong impression of you."
Arthur blinked, thrown off by this. "What makes you say that?"
"Merlin told me what you're doing for him," Will explained, "and I wanted to say thanks." He held out his hand expectantly.
Arthur shook it, barely managing to balance the heavy crate in his other arm. "Why are you saying thanks? I'm not letting you move in."
"No, but Merlin's my best friend and he's been homeless for two months. So, I just thought, you know... I could say thank you for giving him a place to live for a while."
Arthur nodded, surprised by how genuinely grateful Will seemed. "It's no problem," he said. "Really, it's not."
"I know. But it's not something you had to do. Anyway, we can stop the cheesiness now. I still think you're an asshole, but it seems you do have some good qualities."
"Well, I still think you're an asshole, too, if that makes you feel any better."
"I can live with that." Will grinned and nodded toward the front of the orchard. "Come on, everyone else is already in line."
Arthur followed Will to the cashiers, paid for his apples, and then headed for his car with Gwaine, Will, Freya, and Merlin.
"Where do you guys want me to drop you off?" he asked, thinking he still might have time to fit in some work that afternoon.
"We're all going to Morgana's to carve the pumpkins and make pies," Merlin said, watching Arthur deposit his apple crate in the trunk. "You should come. You could probably make three or four pies with that many apples."
Will coughed pointedly and Arthur glared at him. "I don't know," he said, closing the trunk and walking around to the driver's seat. "I was hoping to catch up on work." He unlocked the car and everyone else piled in.
"Come on," Merlin said, punching Arthur's arm with the apple he was eating. "It'll be fun. You have to do something with all those apples. Besides, you'll be able to move me into your dad's apartment afterward."
Arthur started his car and said nothing during the drive back to the city. His passengers followed suit and stayed completely silent as they listened to the radio. Not even Will spoke.
When Arthur arrived at Morgana's, he parked and helped unload the pumpkins, gourds, and apples from his car. He left his crate of apples in the trunk, but carried one of Gwaine's pumpkins up to Morgana's apartment.
"Why do you have two of these?" he asked, watching Gwaine struggle with another one.
"This one's for Merlin," Gwaine grunted as he started climbing another set of stairs. Arthur wondered why Gwaine was allowed to buy Merlin a pumpkin, but he wasn't allowed to buy Merlin any apples. He hadn't told Merlin about the apples yet, but he knew Will was right - Merlin wouldn't accept them very easily.
When everyone had reached Morgana's apartment and was settled down with their coats off, Arthur saw that he and Freya were the only ones not wearing plaid shirts. He was wearing an old hoodie from his university, and she was wearing a long-sleeved dress. He looked around, expecting someone to laugh or at least point out how stupid they all looked, but no one else seemed to have noticed.
The plaid dress-code made up his mind for him - he was going to leave. Unfortunately, just as he was about to escape, Gwen caught him.
"Stop hovering near the door, Arthur," she called out from where she stood in the kitchen. "You're staying. Come on, we need help making the pumpkin pie."
Arthur cursed under his breath and headed toward the dining room table, where Morgana and Morgause were cutting two wide, flat pumpkins into even chunks.
"So... how exactly are we making this pie?" Arthur asked, warily eyeing the insides of the pumpkin. He had never enjoyed pumpkin carving, even as a child. The texture and smell and cold dampness of the pumpkin guts had always disgusted him.
"Take this." Morgana handed him a chunk of pumpkin and directed him to sit across from her. "Scrape out the insides and put the seeds in this bowl, and the rest in this bowl."
Arthur made a face at her, then started pulling off small handfuls of pumpkin guts. He sorted through each handful, taking out the seeds and depositing them into one bowl before dumping the remaining guts into another bowl. His hands were filthy within seconds.
"How come we're not doing it that way?" Arthur asked, nodding toward where Merlin, Will, and Freya were sitting on the floor by the couch and reaching their hands into the tops of their pumpkins to pull out the guts.
"They're carving theirs," Morgause said shortly.
"Right, but... it's all for the same end, isn't it?"
"The pie is made from this part," Morgana explained, pointing to the half-moon pumpkin piece Arthur was holding.
"Oh," Arthur said, lamely. He glanced down at the bowls. "Then what's this all for?"
"The seeds are for roasting," Gwen called from the kitchen. "The rest is for juicing."
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "You guys really go all out when it comes to pumpkins."
"Because they're delicious," Morgause's husband said, emerging from Morgana's bathroom. "What can I do to help?"
"Tell Arthur about pumpkin seeds," Morgause suggested.
Her husband grinned but said nothing.
"Do it," Will called from the floor. "Do it, or I will."
"I'll do it," Gwaine said, popping his head out of the kitchen. "They increase semen production so you have more powerful orgasms."
Arthur's mouth dropped open slightly and everyone else laughed.
"It's probably just a myth," Lance said, coming out of the kitchen to retrieve the full bowls from the table and replace them with empty ones.
"It's not," Will said, laughing. "Merlin's tried it."
Everyone laughed harder as Merlin blushed vividly. Arthur went back to scraping out his pumpkin. He didn't need to hear about Merlin's orgasms, especially when the topic clearly embarrassed Merlin.
"It was epic," Gwaine's voice came from the kitchen.
"Thanks, guys," Merlin muttered. "Real classy."
"You're the one who ate the pumpkin seeds," Will teased, but dropped the subject.
By the time Morgana, Morgause, and Arthur had completely stripped their pumpkin, Gwen and Lance had finished roasting the first batch of seeds, and Gwaine had made a few glasses of pumpkin juice. Arthur sniffed Morgana's glass and declined his own. Merlin, Will, and Freya were still pulling out and sorting their pumpkin guts, and Morgause's husband was just lounging around in various chairs. Arthur wondered how much hell would break loose if he suggested that the creep get a haircut.
Morgana and Morgause started taking the pumpkin chunks into the kitchen, so Arthur went into the bathroom to wash his hands. He did it twice before he was satisfied that there weren't any pumpkin bits under his fingernails, then went out to watch the disembowelments still happening near the couch.
"I can't believe you enjoy that," he said, sitting down on the couch and looking down at Merlin, Will, and Freya. "Doesn't it gross you out?" Will pulled out a handful of pumpkin guts and glared at Arthur. "If you throw that at me-"
"Go in the kitchen," Will snarled. "No one asked you to come over here and criticize us."
"Leave him alone," Merlin said, digging around in his pumpkin with a large spoon.
"How long will the pie take?" Arthur asked before Will could say anything else.
"Probably another hour," Freya said, placing the lid back on her empty pumpkin. "Maybe two if they don't rush."
"Do you mind leaving when it's done? I have dinner plans." Arthur wasn't sure where the lie had come from, but was glad that it at least sounded plausible.
Merlin glanced over his shoulder at the dining room table and Arthur followed his gaze. There was another pumpkin sitting under it, nearly identical to the one he had just prepared for cooking. It occurred to Arthur that they had really planned a whole day's worth of baking activities. He was about to take back what he had said when Merlin responded.
"Are you sure?" Arthur asked, ignoring Will's harsh glares. "You can always get Morgana to move you in, like you said earlier."
"It's fine," Merlin said, smiling slightly at him. "We can leave after the pie's done."
Arthur nodded and watched as Merlin finished cleaning out his pumpkin and then started drawing on it with a permanent marker.
"What are you making?" he asked, trying to move over on the couch to get a better view.
"Dragon," Merlin said, not moving his eyes from the pumpkin. "A fire-breathing one."
"I'm making your butt," Will said, pulling another permanent marker out of his pocket and setting it to the surface of his own pumpkin.
"My butt or his butt?" Merlin asked, tilting his head toward Arthur but still not taking his eyes off his pumpkin.
"Both of your butts. It's a double butt pumpkin."
"You are so mature," Freya teased. Will laughed, but Arthur agreed with Freya's sentiment.
"And what are you making?" Will asked.
"A butterfly," Freya said, smiling sweetly.
"It can be friends with my dragon," Merlin said, pausing to admire his work.
Arthur stood up and went to see what everyone else was doing, instead. Merlin and his friends really were very young.
In the kitchen, Morgana and Morgause were cutting the large pumpkin chunks into smaller pieces and dropping them into a large pot that was filled with water and sitting on the stove. Gwen and Lance were washing off more pumpkin seeds for roasting, and Gwaine seemed to be wrestling with the juicer.
"Do you need help?" Arthur asked, watching as Gwaine punched a wad of pumpkin guts into the machine.
"I need a new fucking juicer," Gwaine muttered. "Well, Morgana does, anyway."
Arthur nodded and observed the battle for few moments. "So you just... shove the stuff in there and it comes out as juice and you drink it?" he asked, still disgusted by the thought.
"Well, you're supposed to add apple juice and pineapple juice," Gwaine said, stepping back from the juicer with a sigh. "But I forgot to pick them up this morning, so it's basically just a waste of time. I'm just making pumpkin liquid at this point... I figure I'll take it home afterwards and add the rest later, but I don't actually have a bowl or pot big enough to make that much pumpkin juice, so... in the end... it's just a waste of time." He looked up Arthur and smiled. "But, at least I tried, eh?"
"So, what was everyone was drinking a few minutes ago? Pumpkin liquid?"
Gwaine shrugged. "Pretty much. It's not harmful, it's just not as tasty."
Arthur nodded, thinking that nothing with "pumpkin liquid" as an ingredient could possibly be tasty. The pumpkin smell in the kitchen was overwhelming and making his stomach churn in protest.
"Thanks for helping out Merlin," Gwaine said, returning to the juicer. "It'll be nice for him to finally have his own space."
"It's no problem," Arthur said, wondering if every single one of Merlin's friends was going to thank him for what he considered to be a very small favor. "Really."
"I know," Gwaine said, smiling over his shoulder. "But it's not anything you had to do. Plus, it'll get him out of Morgana's hair. I mean, obviously he stays with me on the weekends, but still."
Arthur didn't know why it would be obvious that Merlin would stay with Gwaine on the weekends, but decided not to ask. Merlin had said something about not living with Morgana on the weekends, though why anyone would automatically assume he was living with Gwaine instead was beyond Arthur.
"Glad to be able to help."
"You should come out with us tonight," Gwaine said, grabbing the juicer with both hands and shaking it roughly. "I'm taking Merlin out to celebrate."
"Is it his birthday?" Arthur asked, confused.
"No, to celebrate his new temporary home." Gwaine gave the juicer one last shake and it switched on with a loud roar. Arthur watched the orange liquid pouring out the spout and swallowed uneasily. "Well?" Gwaine prompted.
Arthur looked away from the juicer. "I'm actually moving him in this afternoon, as soon as this pie's done." He gestured toward the pot on the stove, which was bubbling vaguely as it started to boil the pumpkin pieces.
"That's fine," Gwaine shrugged. "We weren't going to head out until 9 or 10."
"Is he even old enough to drink?"
Gwaine raised his eyebrows and grinned. "How old do you think he is?"
"I don't know. 20?"
Gwaine let out a loud bark of a laugh. "He's 23, but I'm sure he'll be flattered."
Arthur shrugged. Apparently he was just as bad at guessing ages as he was at remembering names. It's not like it was a particularly useful skill, anyway. "How old are you?"
"28," Gwaine answered, tapping the juicer as it started whining. "You?"
"We're very old, aren't we?" Gwaine asked teasingly. "At least in this crowd. Anyway, you should come out with us."
"I can't," Arthur said. "I have to at least get some work done tonight. I'm going to drown in it tomorrow if I don't."
Gwaine nodded sympathetically. "Fair enough."
When the juicer started protesting again, Arthur left Gwaine to the battle and moved on to Gwen and Lance, who were munching on the first batch of roasted pumpkin seeds.
"Have some," Gwen said, shoving a handful at Arthur.
He took them warily. "I'm not sure," he said. "What do they taste like?"
"We put a lot of cinnamon on them," Lance said. "They're good."
"And they'll give you better orgasms," Gwaine called out over the whirring of the angry juicer.
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Go on, at least try them."
Arthur pulled a face but ate three of them anyway. He was pleasantly surprised to find that they weren't as disgusting as he had imagined.
"See?" Lance asked, smiling and tossing a few more into his own mouth. "They're good."
"They're not bad," Arthur agreed.
He left the kitchen with the rest of his seeds to see how the pumpkin carving was coming along. Freya had moved to the dining room table with hers and was poking tiny holes along the butterfly design she had drawn. Merlin was sitting on the couch, carving his pumpkin carefully in his lap, and Will and Morgause's husband were on the floor, hacking away randomly at Will's pumpkin.
Arthur settled down next to Merlin and ate another seed. He felt very out of place wherever he went and with whomever he tried to talk to. He didn't want to be around Lance, and he definitely didn't want to be around Morgause. Gwaine had been nice enough, but somehow he seemed slightly crass. Merlin was young and immature and somewhat strange, but at least he was polite.
"How's it going?" Arthur asked, holing out the pumpkins seeds. "Do you want some?"
"Yeah, thanks!" Merlin took most of the seeds out of Arthur's hand and shoved them all in his mouth.
"Slut," Will said.
Merlin rolled his eyes and continued working on his pumpkin. Arthur watched, amazed that such a tiny, flimsy knife was actually cutting through the hard pumpkin shell. The dragon Merlin had drawn was cute and cartoony - it was blowing fire onto a pile of wood and two stick figures were roasting marshmallows over it.
"That's quite a drawing," Arthur said. "I like it."
"Thanks." Merlin grinned at him. "Do you want to help?"
"I'd probably just mess it up," Arthur said, shaking his head.
"You won't. Here." Merlin picked another tiny knife off the floor and handed it to Arthur. "All you have to do is follow the lines." He shifted the pumpkin so it was sitting between them, resting on both their thighs.
"All right," Arthur said, sticking the knife into the pumpkin. "Just don't hate me if I manage to ruin the whole thing."
"You won't," Merlin said encouragingly. "It's not that hard. Kids do it all the time."
"I guess that's true." Arthur licked his lips and set to work, trying his best to keep the knife along the outline of Merlin's drawing. It was pretty tedious work, but Arthur didn't get to work with his hands very often, so he found himself enjoying it. By the time he and Merlin had carved through the whole picture and pushed all the pieces out, Morgana had come out of the kitchen to announce that the pumpkin pie only needed twenty more minutes in the oven.
"How long have we been doing this?" Arthur asked, picking at the dragon's tail.
Merlin shrugged. "I don't know, but Freya's done already. Here." He placed the pumpkin carefully in Arthur's lap. "I'm going to make sure all my stuff's ready."
Arthur looked down at the jack-o'-lantern. He hadn't carved one of his own in at least twenty years and was surprised that it could be fun for someone who was almost thirty. Unbidden thoughts of carving pumpkins with his children popped into his head and he pushed them away quickly. He hated to fantasize - his life revolved heavily around his work and he was fine with that. Every once in a while he could spare some time for a girlfriend, like Gwen or the ones before her, but things like wives and children were definitely out of the question, at least for the near future. He wanted those things eventually, but didn't see the point in planning for it now.
As he traced his fingers over the design, hushed thoughts flew through his mind about what it would be like to carve pumpkins with his own children, or what his childhood may have been like if Uther had been the sort of father to make jack-o'-lanterns. He did his best to ignore them.
When he looked back up from the pumpkin, he saw Merlin dragging suitcases out of Morgana's hallway closet. He stood to help and nearly threw out his back when he tried to pick up a small one.
"What the fuck is in this?" he asked, rubbing his back and trying to stand up straight.
"Books," Merlin sad apologetically. "I should have warned you."
Arthur kicked the suitcase. "You're damn lucky my father's building has an elevator. Otherwise your books would be staying here. Though I'm not sure how easy it'll be to get all these down to my car."
"We'll get them to help," Merlin said, pointing toward the kitchen.
Arthur helped Merlin wheel and drag his things over to the front door, then followed him into the kitchen to check on the pie.
"Is it almost done?" Merlin asked Gwen excitedly.
Gwen nodded. "It smell delicious. Morgana says you can have this first one since you're leaving."
Merlin's eyes widened ridiculously and Arthur couldn't help but smile. Merlin was like a small child. Or a very young puppy. He was just excited by anything and everything.
"I'm going to go ahead and take one down," Arthur said to Merlin, backing out of the kitchen.
Even without asking for it, Merlin, Gwaine, Lance, Will, and Morgause's husband all volunteered to help. With all of them carrying bags, it only took one trip to get all of Merlin's things out of Morgana's apartment and into Arthur's car.
"What are you doing with all these apples?" Gwaine asked, setting a small suitcase into Arthur's trunk. "Making pies for the whole city?"
"Yes," Arthur said flatly, closing the trunk.
Will coughed pointedly but Arthur ignored him and motioned for everyone to go back inside. When they opened the door to Morgana's apartment, they were hit with the smell of freshly baked pumpkin pie.
"Just in time," Gwen said, coming out of the kitchen and holding out the pie in her oven mitts.
"Oh, my God, it's like heaven," Merlin said, practically sticking his face into the pie. "Are you sure you want me to take it?"
"TAKE IT!" Morgana shouted as she emerged from the kitchen. "Take it or I'll hit you in the face with it."
"That wouldn't be so bad," Merlin teased. "Hot, but not so bad."
"No, you'd definitely get burnt," Lance pointed out. "That just came out of the oven fifteen seconds ago. Plus, it would be a massive waste of a delicious pie."
"Very true," Merlin said, grinning. "I guess I have no choice."
"I'll put some tin foil on it for you," Gwen said as she turned to go back into the kitchen.
Arthur opened his mouth to ask how they were going to transfer a pie to his father's apartment, but then Morgana flung herself on Merlin.
"I can't believe you're leaving," she said dramatically. "I might cry."
"You're not actually going to cry, though," Merlin said, grinning. "But I appreciate the sentiment."
"I'll miss you," she said, sounding serious. She pulled back from the hug and kissed Merlin on the cheek.
"I'll miss you more," Merlin said, kissing her cheek in return. "You have no idea what a lifesaver you've been."
"Of course, I do. I rescued you from the hell that is Will's apartment and from the bitter coldness of the streets. I know I'm a saint."
Merlin snorted. "That's one word for it."
"That's the only word for it."
"Get a room," Gwaine moaned.
Merlin laughed and kissed Morgana on the cheek one last time before fully stepping out of her embrace.
"Okay, I have to leave before you make me cry," Merlin said, grinning. "Where's the pie?"
"Here you are," Morgause said sweetly, handing Merlin the pie that was thoroughly wrapped in tinfoil. "It's warm, but it won't burn you."
"Thanks," Merlin said, taking the pie in one hand and giving her a one-armed hug with his free arm. "Would you mind grabbing the pumpkin?" he asked Arthur.
Arthur grabbed the jack-o'-lantern they had made off the floor and carried it carefully to the door. They made it out the door without too many more goodbyes, though Gwaine did invite Arthur out for drinks again.
Once they were in Arthur's car, Merlin carefully wedged the jack-o'-lantern between his feet and held the pie in his lap.
"Thanks again for doing this," Merlin said as they pulled away from Morgana's apartment building. "It'll be so nice to sleep in a bed during the week. Morgana's couch really isn't that comfortable."
"Well, my dad's bed isn't that comfortable, either," Arthur said. "But the guest bed's pretty decent. You can pretty much sleep wherever."
Arthur bit back a smile. "If that's what you prefer."
"Actually, I prefer the oven, but it's hard to find one big enough."
"Yeah, they just don't make giant ovens like they used to," Arthur said with a wistful sigh.
Merlin laughed and Arthur smiled to himself.
It took four trips for them to lug all of Merlin's bags, plus the jack-o'-lantern and pie, out of Arthur's car, up the elevator, and into Uther's apartment.
"I, um... I think there's another bag," Arthur said as Merlin collapsed breathlessly onto the living room couch.
"There's not," Merlin said, closing his eyes and flinging his neck over the back of the couch. Arthur paused and stared at Merlin's exposed neck for a few seconds. It was very long. And very thin. He could see every muscle, every tendon, every twitch of Merlin's Adam's apple.
"I think there is," he said, forcing himself to turn away and leave the apartment again. His muscles were aching but there was no way he was taking all those apples home with him.
When he came back up, his arms shaking with the effort of holding so many apples, Merlin was in the kitchen, cutting into the pumpkin pie.
"That's not a suitcase," Merlin said as Arthur dropped the crate onto the kitchen island and shook out his arms.
"No, but it's yours, anyway."
Merlin gave Arthur a confused look. "No, those are yours. I didn't buy any, remember?"
"Yeah, but I bought too many. I don't need them."
"I don't need them either," Merlin said, turning back to the pie.
"But I want you to have them," Arthur said quietly. "I can't possibly eat them all."
Merlin shrugged but didn't look up. "I'll take a few."
Arthur found a plastic bag and made a big show of picking out a dozen apples and dropping them into the bag. He placed the bag next to the crate and then went to stand next to Merlin.
"How's the pie?"
"Squishy," Merlin said, grinning up at him. "Have a piece."
"I'll get the plates," Arthur said, turning toward a cabinet.
"We don't need plates. Here's a fork."
Merlin handed Arthur a fork, then stuck his own right into the pie and started eating. Arthur watched for a few seconds, wondering why Merlin had bothered slicing the pie if he was just going to eat it out of the pan.
"Eat," Merlin said, knocking his hip into Arthur's side.
Arthur shrugged and dug into the pie. He expected to find it about as disgusting as the pumpkin liquid Gwaine had made, but instead found it to be absolutely delicious. It was soft and warm and somehow a perfect thing to be eating on a fall Sunday afternoon.
They ate almost half the pie before Arthur realized he had to leave before he gave himself a stomach ache or before he used up all of his time to catch up on work.
"Well," Merlin said when Arthur announced that he was leaving, "are there any rules?"
Arthur stared blankly at Merlin. "Rules?"
"For the apartment. Is there anything I shouldn't do?"
"Oh." Arthur thought for a few seconds. "Just don't let Will smoke inside. And don't bring back any wild animals to tear up the furniture."
"I think I can manage that."
"Actually, it's not my furniture, so you can pretty much do whatever you want with it."
"So, you wouldn't mind if I just... you know, used the couch as a toilet?"
Arthur laughed. "That's a bit extreme, but if you must."
Merlin grinned. "Is there anything you want me to do while I'm here? I could start going through stuff if you want. I don't know what you want to do with everything, but I could, I don't know, try to pack things up."
"Don't worry about it. Just enjoy the space. You can clear out which ever bedroom you prefer and dump all the stuff in the other one. You know, if you want closet space or... bookshelf space. Actually, if you see anything you want, you can... well, not take it now, but... you can call dibs, if you want. I'll come back sometime this week to get started on things. I'll bring you some groceries, too. There's not much here."
Merlin's lips grew very thin. "Arthur," he said seriously. "Please stop. You've really done enough already. I can afford a few groceries."
Arthur could feel his face heating up. "Look, I have..." He sighed and looked back down at the pie. "My father was very sick for a very long time," he said quietly, hoping desperately that he wouldn't start crying just from talking about his father's illness. "He never let anyone do anything for him. Please just let me do this for you. I'm not out to make you feel like a charity case or anything. I just need... I just want something to do with myself. And you're here, so..."
He cleared his throat and tried to look up at Merlin, but only got as far as Merlin's chest. He wasn't usually so open with people he didn't know - he wasn't usually so open with anyone, actually - but there was something about Merlin. They had only met the day before, but Merlin had already wedged his way into Arthur's life.
"All right," Merlin said quietly. "You can bring me some groceries."
"Thank you," Arthur said in his best business-like voice. "And you're keeping the crate of apples."
"I figured as much."
Arthur forced himself to look up at Merlin's face and was relieved to see Merlin smiling.
"I'll come in a few days, then," Arthur decided. "Probably Wednesday."
Merlin nodded. "See you Wednesday, then."
Arthur gave Merlin a tight-lipped smile, grabbed his bag of apples, and left without saying goodbye.
On Tuesday morning, Arthur finished off the last of his cereal. That evening, he stayed at work two hours late instead of his usual three, and the headed to the grocery store. Once he had picked up his regular items (cereal, bread, milk, orange juice, butter, jam, and a bag of baby carrots), he tried to decide what to buy for Merlin. He had never gone shopping for anyone else before. Presumably Merlin cooked for himself, but Arthur had no idea what to buy for that scenario. After wandering around for a few minutes, feeling absolutely ridiculous for being so clueless, he grabbed a box of pasta and a jar of marinara sauce.
After that, he decided to keep it simple. He bought some eggs, some frozen vegetables, and some more bread, milk, and orange juice. He'd have to get a shopping list from Merlin next time. Just as he was about to go to the register, he passed the cookies and grabbed a box of chocolate chip ones for Merlin.
Arthur couldn't help himself. Merlin so was skinny - he obviously needed to eat more fattening foods. He also got excited about the simplest things, and Arthur was looking forward to seeing his face when he saw the cookies. The way his whole face lit up when he smiled was ridiculous and, Arthur hated to admit, adorable. His eyes crinkled up, his dimples appeared, and his full, chapped lips stretched across his pretty teeth.
Arthur shook his head to clear those thoughts and got into a line. After he had paid and bagged his items, he loaded the groceries into his car and drove over to his father's apartment building. By the time he made his way through all the traffic, it was almost ten o'clock before he found himself outside Uther's apartment. He was stuck in the hallway, unable to decide if he should knock. It was technically his apartment, so he should be allowed in whenever he pleased. But Merlin was living there, so it was sort of his apartment, too.
In the end, Arthur decided to err of the side of politeness. He knocked and waited.
When nothing happened, Arthur realized that Merlin could possibly be asleep. Or maybe he was just out doing something - drinking with Gwaine, perhaps.
Well, it was his apartment. He unlocked the door and went to the kitchen to dump the groceries on the island. Before he could turn on the kitchen light, he noticed that the light in the guest bedroom was on and that the door was wide open.
He flicked on the kitchen light and then went to turn off the light in the guest bedroom - if Merlin wasn't here, the light didn't need to be on.
Once he reached the guest bedroom, he saw that Merlin was most definitely home. Merlin was sitting in Gwaine's lap up near the pillows, and Gwaine had his large hands splayed over Merlin's very naked back.
Gwaine looked up at Arthur's strangled gasp and froze mid-writhe, his eyes wide. Merlin turned to look over his shoulder and nearly fell off the bed in his attempt to dislodge himself from Gwaine's lap.
Arthur turned around and did his best not to run out of his father's apartment. He skipped the elevator and raced down sixteen flights of stairs, which left him completely winded when he finally collapsed into the driver's seat of his car.
He barely remembered to grab his groceries when he finally reached his own apartment. He had no recollection of driving home. He couldn't remember waiting at any lights or making any turns or seeing any street signs. He had made it home on autopilot.
As he unceremoniously tossed the milk and orange juice into his fridge, he wondered if he had run any red lights or skipped any stop signs. He was probably lucky not to have been pulled over for speeding. Hell, he was lucky not to have gotten into an accident.
When all his purchases had been put away, he shed his clothes and took a scorching hot shower. He stood under the spray until it grew completely cold and he was sure the entire incident was down the drain.
It was late and he wasn't hungry for dinner, but he drank two beers as he watched the news, knowing he would regret it in the morning.
By the time his eyes were stinging with the effort to keep staring at the television, it was past one o'clock in the morning. He crawled miserably into his bed and tried to think of nothing.
But it wasn't nothing. It was very clearly something. Not something that was happening for the first time, not something they did on occasion, not something they were just doing to get off. He had walked in on a meaningful, intimate moment between... between lovers.
They were lovers. Merlin and Gwaine.
Gwaine's hands had been so wide and sure on Merlin's back, guiding and supporting Merlin as they rocked together. And Merlin's long neck had been arched back, and Gwaine had been pressing wet, scruffy, open-mouthed kisses along the cords there. And Merlin had been moaning softly, practically humming with pleasure. And his hands had been in Gwaine's hair, holding Gwaine's head to his neck, because he clearly loved attention there.
And when Gwaine had looked up over Merlin's shoulder, and when Merlin had glanced over his other shoulder, their faces had been flushed and their lips had been swollen. There had been spots of color high on Merlin's cheekbones, emphasizing his bone structure and his feelings for Gwaine.
They hadn't been fucking in some lewd position. They hadn't been grunting or growling or biting or even thrusting. They had just been rocking together, rolling and twisting their hips to some private rhythm. They had been - Arthur hated to even think the words - making love.
Arthur turned onto his stomach, trapping his erection against the mattress.
He didn't sleep that first night, but he also didn't touch himself. He considered it to be a victory.
By the weekend, he was exhausted and ashamed of himself and not entirely sure he could go out in public anymore. He still wasn't sleeping, but he was touching himself - every night, all night. He sat on his bed for hours at a time with his laptop, watching gay porn videos on repeat until his alarm went off.
On Monday morning, he blocked every porn website he could think of, threw away his remaining lube, and drove to his office, where he stayed until almost midnight.
His spree was done and he was back to work - he hoped it would last longer this time. His previous efforts to "get it out of his system" had barely lasted half a year. When Gwen had broken up with him, he didn't leave his bedroom for anything other than work for three days. This time, he had allowed himself five whole days of his most horrible, shameful fantasies.
And as long as he never looked at Merlin or Gwaine ever again, he thought he would be able to control himself. He was Arthur Pendragon, after all. If he couldn't suppress this, then he would never get married and he would never have kids and he would never be everything he had wanted to be since he had been young. He would never be everything he was expected to be. And then what would his father say?
When Leon asked how his weekend was during their lunch on Monday, Arthur couldn't think of an answer. He couldn't even think of a lie. He simply shrugged and went back to eating his food, trying not to think about all the porn he had watched. He didn't want Leon to see him blush for no reason. He also didn't want to give himself an erection in the middle of a corporate food court.
"You should call Morgana," Leon said, moving past Arthur's lack of an answer.
"Why?" Arthur scoffed.
"She keeps texting me," Leon explained, pulling out his phone to show Arthur. "Something about the kid staying in your dad's place."
Arthur sighed. He had been ignoring her calls for days - he had had better things to do. But if she had resorted to texting his friends to get his attention, he was going to have to call her. He didn't want to know what else she willing to do.
"Who is this kid, anyway?" Leon scrolled through his texts with Morgana. "Merlin?"
Arthur shifted and stabbed his fork into his salad. "Just a kid. One of Morgana's friends. Needed a place to stay."
"Well, that was nice of you. What's he like?"
Arthur shrugged. "You know. One of Morgana's types. Scrawny, skiddish..." He bit his tongue to hold back the homophobic remarks he wanted to make, knowing Leon wouldn't care or be impressed by them.
"Your father would be proud." Leon grinned and Arthur forced a small smile.
He made his excuses about needing to get back to work early, dumped the rest of his salad in the trash, and then locked himself in his office.
He called Morgana, hoping to leave a message along the lines of "fuck off," but she answered her phone.
"Don't 'what' me, you're the one who keeps calling," Arthur said, sitting in his chair and swiveling around to look out the window behind his desk.
"You didn't let me finish." Morgana's voice was low and harsh. "What. Is. Wrong. With. You."
"Nothing is wrong with me," Arthur said, playing innocent. "Is anything wrong with you?"
"You need to go talk to Merlin."
"I've got nothing to say to him," Arthur said carefully, keeping his voice neutral.
"He's got it into his head that you're going to kick him out and he keeps calling me and asking if he can move back onto my couch."
"I never said I was kicking him out. I never said anything."
"You need to go talk to him."
"I've got nothing to say to him," Arthur repeated. "Let him fuck Gwaine. I really don't care."
"Bullshit," Morgana accused. "If you didn't care, you wouldn't be avoiding everyone."
"I'm not avoiding anyone." Arthur sandwiched his cell phone between his ear and his shoulder and started picking at his fingernails.
"Just go talk to him. I'm serious, Arthur. I'm not letting him move back in with me."
"How do you even know this kid, anyway? What's his story?"
"You could just ask him. You know, when you go talk to him."
"I'm asking you."
Morgana sighed into the phone and Arthur smirked.
"He volunteers with my non-profit."
"So he's political."
"We're all political. You're political."
"Don't remind me."
"What the hell is wrong with you? You sound like you're high."
"I'm not high. I'm just tired. I haven't been sleeping very well."
Morgana paused for a few beats before continuing with her story. "He volunteers with my non-profit," she repeated. "And he started bringing friends, Will and Freya, to volunteer with him. They're our new generation of activists."
"Fantastic," Arthur mumbled, setting one of his feet up on the windowsill to re-tie the shoelaces.
"They're good people, you know."
"If he's such a good person, why don't you give him a damn job?"
"If I had a job to give him, I would. He's brilliant and I would love to have him working for me, but I don't have any open positions. As soon as I do, the job's his, and he knows that. But right now, there isn't much I can do."
Arthur mumbled some nonsense under his breath, knowing it would annoy his half-sister. He felt a little childish, but he really didn't care. He didn't want to talk with her about this.
"What do you want from me?" he asked irritably when there were a few long moments of silence. "I'm giving him a place to live. Why should I have to do anything else?"
"Because you're a good person, too, when you let yourself be. All I'm asking you to do is let him know that you're not kicking him out."
"If I was going to kick him out, wouldn't I have done it by now?"
"I'm not making any promises," he said before hanging up. He turned off his cell phone, shoved it into a desk drawer, and went back to work.
Gwen called him the next evening. He was still at work and planned to stay as late as he had the previous night.
"Hello?" he answered his phone without looking at, assuming it was Leon calling to ask why he'd bailed on their daily lunch.
"Hi Arthur, it's Gwen."
Arthur set down the stack of papers he had been riffling through. "Hi," he said uncertainly.
"How's it going?"
"It's okay. I'm at work. What are you doing?"
"Arthur, it's nearly nine. What are you doing at work?"
"Working. What else would I be doing?"
Gwen sighed. "Look, you probably know why I'm calling."
"I could take a wild guess," Arthur said dully. "You want me to talk to Merlin."
"Well, I'm not going to, so you can save your breath."
Arthur closed his eyes against the disappointment in her voice. He knew he was being ridiculous - of course he knew that. But that didn't change the fact that he didn't want to talk to or look at Merlin ever again.
"What, Gwen?" he prompted when she stayed silent for a long moment. "Say it. Just say what you called to say so I can get back to work."
Gwen sighed and when she spoke it again, it was a soft, sad voice. "I don't see why you insist on being such a homophobe. We both know the truth, so why can't you just admit it? You don't have to be so stubborn."
Arthur waited a few seconds to see if she had anything to say, and then he hung up.
Another phone call woke him up the next morning. He jerked awake in a panic and grabbed his phone off the desk in front of him, not entirely sure where he was or what he was doing or what time it was.
"What? Hello? What?" he asked, trying to get his voice to work properly. It sounded very scratchy to him.
Arthur sat up at the sound of Gwen's voice. He blinked and realized that he was still in his office, still in the same clothes he'd worn the day before. He'd fallen asleep at his desk. There was sunlight coming in the window behind him, so he knew it was morning. He pulled his phone away from his ear for a moment to check the time. It was nearly seven forty-five.
He cleared his throat. "What?"
"Morgana just told me she went to your apartment last night and you weren't there. Where the hell are you?"
"I'm - um. It's none of your business."
"Arthur, I really couldn't care less if you've had a one night stand. Are you safe?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. No need to panic. Why the hell was Morgana looking for me?"
"Because I told her what I'd said to you and she thought you might have gone off the deep end."
"For accusing me of being gay? I'm not that crazy, believe it or not."
"Sometimes, it's hard to tell."
Arthur rubbed his eyes and coughed, trying to figure out if he'd have time to drive back to his apartment for a shower and a change of clothes before he had to officially report for work. He didn't live very far from his office, but he knew the traffic would make it almost impossible.
"Well, I'm alive."
"Very glad to hear it. Are you hung over?"
"No, I'm just a little groggy." He stood up carefully and tried to stretch out his stiff back muscles. "Are you with Morgana right now?"
"I'm on my way to meet her for coffee. She texted me to tell me she couldn't find you last night. She said you'd blocked her calls."
"Oh, yeah," Arthur said vaguely, just now remembering that he'd done that during his solitary lunch the previous day.
"Arthur," Gwen said very seriously, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Absolutely fine. There's not a thing wrong with me."
"Then why won't you go talk to Merlin?"
Arthur coughed again and grabbed his wallet before leaving his office, hoping no one had come in to work early and would see him sneaking out. He needed breakfast and he needed to pee.
"Let me ask you something about Merlin," he said as he made his way down the stairs to the lobby of his office building. "Why doesn't he have any money? Where are his parents? Why aren't they helping him out?"
"His mom can barely pay her own bills, let alone Merlin's. What does that even matter?"
"I'm just saying. I mean, if my kid was homeless, I'd help him out, you know?"
Gwen sighed into the phone. "She's poor, Arthur. There's really only so much she can do."
"What about his dad, then?"
"No one knows where he is."
Arthur rolled his eyes as he stepped onto the street and looked around, trying to decide which direction to go to pick up some food. "It's the twenty-first century. Someone has to know where he is."
"He doesn't want to be found and they don't exactly want to look for him," Gwen said shortly. "Why are you asking me all these questions? You could just ask him yourself."
"I don't want to. I'd rather ask you."
"You're going to have to talk to him eventually, you know."
"I know," Arthur muttered.
"He feels really bad about what happened," Gwen continued.
"I'm sure he does," Arthur said as he stepped into a coffee shop. "I had to bleach my eyes."
"He's worried you're going to kick him out."
"Jesus." Arthur bit his tongue to stop from cursing loudly. "I'm not kicking him out! What the hell did I ever do to suggest I would do that?"
"Well, you ran out and refused to talk to any of us for almost a week."
"That doesn't mean I'm going to kick him out," Arthur said, his eyes scanning the menu over the counter. "He doesn't have anywhere else to go."
"He's talking about going to Canada."
Arthur had to laugh. "What the fuck is he going to do in Canada?" he asked, stepping into line.
"He has a family friend up there he can stay with."
"Why wasn't he there in the first place? Why'd he live on Morgana's couch for two months if he had a place to live in Canada?"
"Because he wants to be here," Gwen said simply. "This is where his friends are. Besides, from what he says, this family friend of his is getting on in years. I don't think he wants to go live with an old man... especially not when he can stay at your dad's place."
"Well, I'm not kicking him out, so he doesn't even have to worry about it. Why does he have old man friends in Canada? Who the hell is this kid? I understand him less and less every day."
"It's a friend of his mom's," Gwen explained patiently. "I'm sure your dad had friends once upon a time, too."
"Ha ha," Arthur said dryly. "Hang on a sec." He stepped up to the counter, ordered, and paid before resuming his conversation. "Sorry. I'm getting breakfast."
"So I hear. Look, are you going to go talk to him or not?"
"Not right now, I'm not."
"Don't play games. It's too early for that."
"I'll stop by sometime this week," Arthur said impatiently. "Happy?"
"Extremely," Gwen said sarcastically.
"Good. I'm hanging up."
It was Friday before Arthur worked up enough courage to go see Merlin after he left work. On the way he picked up some more groceries, including a six-pack of beer. He drank one bottle on the drive over to his father's apartment, not caring about how many laws he was breaking or even about getting pulled over.
He made it in one piece and knocked loudly on his father's door, waiting diligently for Merlin to open it.
"Oh," Merlin said in surprise when he saw Arthur and the bags. "Hi."
Arthur nodded. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah, of course." Merlin stepped aside to let Arthur through the door.
Arthur went straight for the kitchen and began unloading the groceries.
"I'm not sure what you eat," he explained, pulling out cans of fruit and boxes of pasta. "You should give me a shopping list or something."
"I'll eat whatever you buy," Merlin said kindly. "Just as long as it doesn't have meat."
Arthur looked over at Merlin. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?"
"That's sort of what not eating meat is, yeah," Merlin said, smiling awkwardly.
Arthur shook his head and returned to unpacking the groceries. He didn't understand vegetarians. Gwen wasn't one, but she loved vegetarian food and had constantly tried to feed it to him when they had been going out.
"Thanks for the food," Merlin said when it was all put away.
"It's no problem." Arthur looked around the kitchen and then around the living room, trying his best not to look at Merlin. He saw the ugly gourds lined up along the windowsill and remembered the day Merlin had bought them. He had to admit that he had ended up enjoying himself that day, as much as he had been annoyed by some of the people they had been with. Helping Merlin pick out gourds and carving the pumpkins and watching Gwaine fight with the juicers had been entertaining, and exactly what he had needed on the day after his father's funeral. He had even allowed himself to think that he was making new friends. Merlin, for one, had been so open and so friendly. He had been funny and caring and interesting. Arthur suddenly remembered how much he had been looking forward to getting to know Merlin. And now here he was, barely able to look at the kid.
"I'm sorry about what happened the other week," Merlin said quietly.
"It's no problem," Arthur said again. He didn't want to talk about it. He just wanted to reassure Merlin that no one was getting kicked out of anywhere.
"It won't happen again."
Merlin sounded so guilty that Arthur had to look at him. His huge ears were burning.
"You're allowed to have him over." The words spilled from Arthur's mouth without forethought. "He's your - it's your apartment, too. You can do whatever you want."
There was a moment of silence as the blush spread to Merlin's high cheekbones.
"No, I mean... it won't happen again because we, um. He started seeing someone else."
Arthur blinked. "What?"
"He started seeing someone else," Merlin repeated. "Last weekend."
"He broke up with you?" Arthur asked, somewhat indignant.
"No. No, no, no. We weren't - that wasn't. Um." Merlin rubbed the side of his neck nervously. "We weren't dating. We did, once, a while ago, but not, um... we're just friends."
Arthur blinked again, trying to reconcile this information with all the assumptions he had made that night. They had seemed so intimate, so trusting, so in love.
"So, you, um... you're not... are you okay with that?"
Merlin frowned slightly. "What?"
"Are you okay with that?" Arthur repeated, not at all sure why he was asking. "With Gwaine just... seeing someone else?"
"Oh, that." Merlin shrugged easily, his blush starting to fade slightly. "Yeah. Like I said, we're not dating anymore. I just want him to be happy."
Arthur nodded, still confused. "When did you stop dating?"
"Maybe two... no, three months ago. We just, you know... we get along really well and everything, but we wanted different things." When Arthur said nothing, Merlin continued. "He likes going out every night and seeing people all the time and always having guests over his apartment and drinking himself silly as often as possible. I like those things sometimes, but..."
"But not all the time," Arthur finished for him, suddenly ready for this conversation to be over. Gwaine and Merlin had been fuck buddies, nothing more and nothing less. He didn't know why, but this information didn't make him feel any better. In fact, it only made him feel worse and more awkward and more unsure. "Look, Morgana and Gwen seem to think that you're on your way to Canada."
"Oh." Merlin smiled uneasily. "I just thought... well, Morgana told me how, um... how conservative you are, so I just thought it might make you feel, um, more comfortable if I... if I left."
"Left for Canada," Arthur said blankly.
"Well... yeah. That's where my..." Merlin trailed off and looked away.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Your what?"
"He's sort of like my grandfather," Merlin explained quietly. "He's friends with my mom. He paid for my college education."
"Why don't you ask him for money?" Arthur asked. "If he has enough to pay for four years of college, surely he can spare a few hundred dollars to help you get an apartment."
Merlin shook his head and looked sternly back at Arthur. "You don't understand. He doesn't have money, anymore. He's old and retired and he gave me his entire life's savings so I could go to the school I wanted. He paid for my degree and I can't even get a job. I can't ask him for more money."
"But you can go live with him?" Arthur asked, blown away by the raw emotion in Merlin's voice but trying to ignore it.
"I wouldn't tell him why," Merlin said. "He's getting on and my mom thinks he needs someone to look after him."
"So you're going," Arthur said, his voice low. He couldn't believe Merlin would be happy moving to Canada to take care of some old man.
"Not if you're not kicking me out," Merlin said. "I don't think he needs any help. He's a very smart man and he can take care of himself. My mom's just being paranoid. I'd rather stay here. I just thought it would make you uncomfortable."
Arthur shook his head. "You can stay."
"Thank you," Merlin said.
Arthur nodded once and then reached for a bottle of beer from the six-pack he had left on the kitchen island. "Have one," he told Merlin as he pulled out a bottle opener from one of his father's kitchen drawers.
Merlin took one and handed it to Arthur for it to be opened.
"You don't have to stay," Merlin said quietly, taking back the bottle after it was opened and staring down into his beer.
"I don't exactly have anything better to do," Arthur said truthfully.
Merlin looked up, his expression completely blank. "You don't mind?"
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but then he realized what Merlin meant. "No," he said, barely managing to get the word out and hoping Merlin would attribute his flushed face to the beer. "I don't mind."
"We could watch a movie," Merlin suggested, his face suddenly as bright and happy as Arthur had ever seen it. Arthur felt relieved that their awkward confrontation was over and that Merlin was back to his goofy self. "I just borrowed a bunch of DVDs from Freya."
"Okay," Arthur agreed, moving over to the couch.
Merlin joined him a minute later and set the box of cookies that Arthur had bought for him on the first shopping trip down on the coffee table.
"They're really good," Merlin said, sitting down next to Arthur. "I just can't finish the whole thing by myself. They'll go stale."
Arthur reached for a cookie as Merlin flipped open the giant DVD binder that was sitting next to the cookie box on the coffee table.
Arthur woke up on Saturday morning with a bad headache and a worse stomach ache. His more pressing problems were his full bladder and his incredibly stiff neck.
He sat up, shifted his legs onto the floor, and opened his eyes.
It took him a few seconds to realize that he wasn't on his own couch in his own apartment. He was still in his work clothes, though his suit jacket was in a crumpled mess on the floor next to his shoes. Merlin was nowhere to be seen, but Arthur assumed he had gone back to the guest bedroom to sleep on a proper bed like a normal person.
As he made his way to the bathroom, Arthur vowed to start getting more sleep. He needed to stop waking up in strange and unexpected places. Not for the first time, he wondered what his father would have thought of his recent actions. If Uther had ever found out that Arthur had accidentally spent a night at work, he likely would have given Arthur a long speech about the importance of maintaining an image - concern for Arthur's sleeping habits and general well-being would have been buried somewhere in his words, but Arthur hated reading between the lines.
After he had relieved himself, Arthur washed his face at the sink and tried to coax his hair into a more presentable state. He looked utterly ridiculous - he had huge bags under his eyes, his skin was deathly pale, and his unruly hair was sticking up in all sorts of unattractive directions.
There was a knock on the bathroom door and then Merlin burst in looking ten times more disheveled than Arthur.
"Sorry," he croaked, waddling to the toilet. "Have to pee."
Arthur left the bathroom quickly, not even allowing himself to think about looking back. He went into the kitchen, plugged in the toaster, and started pulling out slices of bread. He wasn't actually hungry, but he thought Merlin might be. He also didn't know what else to do. He knew he could leave but he didn't want to be rude. He also didn't want to go home. There was nothing to do in his apartment except work and avoid looking at porn. At least here he had the distraction of Merlin - Merlin and his amusing, befuddling ways.
"Sorry," Merlin said again as he emerged from the bathroom. "Nearly pissed the bed."
Arthur simply shrugged and dropped two slices of bread into the toaster. "What would you have done if I'd actually remembered to lock the door?"
"Luckily we'll never have to know," Merlin said as he took a seat at the island. "How'd you sleep?"
"Like a rock," Arthur said truthfully.
"Yeah, you seemed to be passed out pretty hard."
Arthur shrugged and took the seat opposite Merlin. "Sorry for crashing in the middle of the movie."
"Don't worry about it. I was barely awake for most of the first one, anyway. I'm surprised you lasted as long as you did. You looked like shit when you came over."
"Thanks," Arthur muttered, patting at his ruffled hair again.
"In a good way," Merlin added.
"How is it possible to look like shit 'in a good way'?"
"Sometimes shit looks really good."
Arthur burst out laughing as the toaster popped. Merlin stood to retrieve the toast, leaving Arthur to chuckle to himself at the island.
"What are your plans for the weekend?" Merlin asked, setting down butter and jam on the island. He returned a moment later with two plates, each with a slice of toast. "I put more in," he said, sitting back down.
"I don't have any plans." Arthur spread the butter and jam sloppily onto his toast and then took a loud, crunchy bite. "Do you have plans?"
Merlin shook his head. "I'm supposed to meet up with Gwen and Lance tomorrow for lunch, but that's it."
Arthur nodded and took another bite while watching Merlin slather butter over every centimeter of his toast.
"What's Lance like?" he asked, keeping his voice steady and casual.
Merlin shrugged and spooned out far too much jam, but spread it on his toast anyway. "He's nice. I like him a lot. He's really kind."
"That's good," Arthur said quietly. All he wanted was for Gwen to be happy - if she was happy with someone else, then he wouldn't have to feel so bad about what had happened between them. "What does he do?"
"He's a teacher," Merlin said through a mouthful of toast. "Fifth grade, I think."
Arthur nodded as the toaster went off. He stood to get the hot slices, a knot slowly tying itself in his stomach. Gwen and Lance were, quite frankly, an adorable couple. He could easily see Gwen being happy with an elementary school teacher. Suddenly, he didn't feel very relieved that she was happy - he just felt jealous. His ex-girlfriend had someone perfect for her, and he had no one.
"Do you want more?" he asked without turning around.
"Please," Merlin replied. Arthur put two more slices into the toaster, then brought the fresh toast back to the island. "Thanks," Merlin said when he dropped a slice onto Merlin's plate.
"So, I guess you don't..." Arthur trailed off, not entirely sure how to phrase his question, and even less sure that he wanted to ask it.
"You guess I don't what?" Merlin asked, scraping copious amounts of butter and jam onto his toast.
"...have a boyfriend," Arthur mumbled, picking at the corner of his toast.
"Nope," Merlin said, shrugging. "Sometimes I hang out with Gwaine and Freya, but other than that..." He smiled and took a bite of toast.
Arthur cleared his throat and began spreading butter on his own toast. "Do you 'hang out' with Freya the same way you 'hang out' with Gwaine?"
Merlin nodded, but waited until he had finished chewing and swallowing before he spoke. "Yeah, we dated in college. Me and Freya, I mean."
Arthur nodded slowly and focused on the jam for a few seconds. "So, you're... um."
"Fairly queer, yes," Merlin said, laughing slightly. Arthur blushed and took a large bit of toast to save himself from having to respond. "What about you?"
Arthur swallowed too quickly and a large piece of toast scraped his throat on its way down. "I'm not seeing anyone," he rasped before coughing loudly.
"Well, I figured that much."
Arthur shrugged and let the unasked question hang in the air between them. He wasn't going to answer it and he was pretty sure Merlin knew that. He didn't care what Gwen had implied - he was straight. He liked gay porn on occasion and he had, in an intense moment of weakness, let another guy give him a blowjob back in his university days - but they had never kissed and Arthur hadn't touched the other guy at all. He could appreciate why Merlin would be attracted to Gwaine and especially why Gwaine would be attracted to Merlin. But he never - almost never - acted on those sorts of thoughts and he wasn't planning on changing that at any point in his future. He dated women and had a distant future planned out that involved a wife, some kids, a dog, a house outside the city, and incredible amounts of money and success in his professional life.
"Do you want to come to the dog park with me?"
Arthur looked up from his plate. "What?"
"There's this dog park I like to go to. You should come with me. I'm trying to go as often as I can before it gets too cold."
"Dog park," Arthur said stupidly.
Merlin grinned. "Yeah. Dog park."
Arthur shook his head and stood to get the toast again. "You're ridiculous," he said, tossing both slices onto Merlin's plate.
"You don't like dogs?" Merlin asked, sliding one slice onto Arthur's plate.
"I like dogs," Arthur said casually. He pushed the toast back to Merlin. "I just don't see the point in going to a dog park if you don't actually have a dog."
"To watch the dogs," Merlin said, putting the slice on Arthur's plate and then setting the jar of jam on top of it to keep it in place. "It's good for people-watching, too."
Arthur pulled the slice of toast out from under the jam and placed it on Merlin's head. "I'll go with you, but only if you wear this hat."
Merlin sniggered and lowered his head so that the toast fell back onto his plate.
Arthur smirked as Merlin began buttering the slices and went into his father's bedroom to dig around for any clothes that might fit him. The only things he found that wasn't hideously ugly or too big was a pair of sweatpants he would never be caught dead wearing in public.
"I'm not sure about the dog park," he announced as he approached the kitchen island again. "I don't have anything else to wear."
"You could have worn my hat if you hadn't made me eat it."
Arthur bit back a smile and grabbed their empty plates. He deposited them in the sink and then put away the butter and the jam.
"We could always just stay here and watch more movies and get drunk," Merlin suggested.
"There's only one beer left," Arthur pointed out.
Merlin moved beside him and pulled a plastic bag out of the fridge. Arthur had assumed it to be Chinese or some other take-out food, but it was another six-pack.
"That's that, then," he said, closing the fridge. "What should we watch?"
After two and a half beers, Arthur was feeling somewhat silly. Merlin's tipsy commentary on the stupid comedy they were watching was infinitely more entertaining than the movie itself, and Arthur's stomach hurt from laughing so much. They were sprawled out on the couch, their legs propped up on the coffee table and the box of cookies sitting between them.
"Why don't they just - who the fuck wrote this?" Merlin asked exasperatedly. "This movie has stopped making sense."
"I think you're just drunk," Arthur teased, reaching for a cookie.
"I'm not that drunk," Merlin protested, putting one of his ankles on top of Arthur's.
"You're drunk," Arthur said. He kicked his foot to dislodge Merlin's leg.
"I'm not," Merlin insisted as he replaced his foot on top of Arthur's and reached across the couch to lay his arm across Arthur's middle.
"Merlin," Arthur grumbled in protest, pushing Merlin's limbs away. "You're definitely drunk."
"I'm not drunk," Merlin said stubbornly. He dramatically flung his arm and leg back over Arthur.
"You're such a lightweight," Arthur complained, shoving Merlin away again.
"You like it that way," Merlin said, replacing his limbs.
"I don't," Arthur said. He pushed Merlin away with a bit more force than was necessary and then put his own arm and leg over Merlin in an attempt to win the battle.
Merlin simply took Arthur's hand in both of his and began exploring it. He ran his fingertips over the back of Arthur's hand, then turned it over to trace the lines of Arthur's palm. When Merlin began stroking the length of Arthur's middle finger, Arthur took his hand back. He didn't like where that was going. He had thought it was an innocent, childish, drunken game, but it wasn't any of those things if Merlin was going to touch him like that.
He tried to turn his attention back to the movie, but found that he had no idea what was going on. There were new characters in a new setting and he struggled to find the context of the scene. By the time he had worked out most of what was going on, the scene was over and the movie had switched its focus back to the main characters.
Merlin moved the box of cookies from the couch onto the coffee table, and before Arthur could ask why that was necessary, Merlin was in his lap.
Arthur opened his mouth to ask what the hell Merlin was doing, but Merlin pressed a long, bony finger to Arthur's lips to silence him. Arthur rolled his eyes, unable to keep himself from smiling against Merlin's finger. Merlin really was a very silly drunk.
He looked up at Merlin's flushed, serious face and dropped the smile. Arthur had been told his entire life that his blue eyes were beautiful, but he couldn't think of anyone else's eyes that were as breathtaking as Merlin's. They were a lighter shade of blue than his own - a crisper shade of blue that suggested winter. Arthur gulped and glanced down at Merlin's lips. They were curling into a small smile.
Merlin pressed his finger into Arthur's lips for a second, then moved his hand to Arthur's shoulder. Arthur licked his lips, tasting cookie crumbs, and looked back up into Merlin's eyes.
Merlin kissed him and Arthur went very still, keeping his lips slack and his arms limp at his sides. His head was spinning and his fingers were twitching on the couch, but he fought to control himself. He wanted - no. He didn't want this. He didn't want to kiss Merlin and he didn't want to slide his hands up those skinny thighs to that slender waist. He didn't want to grip Merlin's sides or taste Merlin's neck or smell Merlin's hair.
He didn't want any of that.
Arthur pushed Merlin away and Merlin fell onto the floor, just barely managing to not bang his head on the coffee table.
"Sorry," Arthur said lamely.
Merlin looked up at him, disappointment written across his face. "Sorry," he echoed tonelessly. "Sometimes, I get a little too friendly when I drink in the middle of the day."
Arthur forced himself to smile. Merlin pushed himself off the floor and resumed his seat at the opposite end of the couch. They turned their attentions back to the movie, but Arthur could barely put for the effort to pretend to be watching it.
He wanted to go home and he wanted to drown himself in whiskey. He also wanted to shout horrible things at Merlin, but despite his beers, he was able to repress that particular desire. He tried to think of a reason to leave that would sound plausible and not like a frantic excuse.
"You've never kissed a guy?" Merlin asked quietly.
"No," Arthur said quickly, because it was true.
"Gwen should learn to keep her mouth shut," Arthur said harshly.
"-that you're a really good kisser," Merlin finished.
"I just wanted to see."
"Well, sorry to disappoint," Arthur muttered. "Look, I'm going to go." He sat up straighter and grabbed his shoes from beside the couch.
"You can't drive," Merlin said gently.
Arthur shrugged. "I'll call a taxi."
"Let me." Merlin pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called a taxi while Arthur finished getting ready. "They said-"
"I'll wait downstairs," Arthur said decisively. He left without saying goodbye.
When he got down to the street, he found that it was very cold out and that he was a bit more drunk than he thought he had been. He supposed that two slices of toast really weren't enough to prevent him from getting trashed on three beers.
The taxi came and he slid into the back seat and rattled off his address. He tried very hard to control his thoughts - he tried to watch the buildings and the pedestrians. But all he could really think about were the patches of heat on his neck. He could still feel Merlin's hands there, could still feel Merlin's fingers digging into his skin and teasing the nape of his neck and brushing ever so slightly against his hair.
He shivered and pulled out his cell phone to play a game to keep himself occupied.
When he finally reached his own apartment, he drank a large glass of water, took a very long shower, and then curled up on his couch with a bag of baby carrots and let himself get completely absorbed in trashy television. He watched women use coupons to buy over a thousand dollars worth of groceries for less than twenty dollars. He watched minor celebrities detail every minute of their lives for the constant cameras in their homes. He watched groups of young assholes drink themselves silly every night for the whole world to see.
He let his mind go blank.
All week, Arthur waited for the bomb to drop, but nothing happened. He received no concerned phone calls from Gwen, no threatening ones from Morgana. He did his best to convince himself that this meant Merlin hadn't told them what had happened, but he still worried. Maybe they all knew he would likely fly into a homicidal rage if they tried to talk to him about it.
By the time the following Friday came around, Arthur was sick of pretending. His nerves were on edge and he wasn't sleeping well, and even Leon seemed to know that something was wrong. He was finding it more and more difficult to get out of bed each morning. All he wanted to do was stay at home and let himself be paralyzed by fear and paranoia and - and all his unspeakable, unthinkable perversions.
Merlin hadn't just done that to see if Gwen had been right about Arthur being a good kisser. He had done it because he expected Arthur to kiss him back, had wanted Arthur to kiss him back. He had done it because Arthur had been letting his guard down around him, because Arthur hadn't answered his question about being "fairly queer."
But why should he have? Arthur wasn't queer.
Arthur left work early on Friday. He had never once done that, in all the years he had been working at this firm. No one gave him a second glance as he left, his heart beating frantically in his chest and his legs moving far too quickly to be casual.
He took a taxi to his father's apartment. He'd been using taxis all week because he'd been too paranoid to go back and get his car. But he didn't want to waste any more money on taxi fare and he didn't want to spend any more nights staring up at his ceiling and not thinking about what had happened.
He needed to talk to Merlin. He knew it this time, and he didn't need Morgana or Gwen or anyone else to convince him of it. For his own sanity, he needed to talk to Merlin.
It took Merlin almost a full minute to open the door after Arthur had knocked. His hair was dripping wet and he looked like he had barely managed to get his shirt on before opening the door. There was a towel wrapped around his waist.
"Hey," he said, a wide smile on his damp face. "Come in. Sorry, I just got out of the shower."
"Yeah, I can see that," Arthur said, looking down at Merlin's skinny legs.
"Let me finished getting dressed. I'll be back out in a minute."
Merlin disappeared into the guest bedroom and Arthur wandered into the kitchen. The oven was on, but there was nothing in it. There were two pots boiling on the stove - one was filled with pasta and the other was filled with broccoli and what looked like onion.
Arthur peeled off his suit jacket and tossed it onto the island before stepping close to the stove. He picked a wooden spoon off the counter and stirred the pasta idly, wondering what Merlin was making. If he was boiling the pasta on the stove, why in the world did he need the oven on? Arthur knew next to nothing about making food, but he was pretty sure pasta wasn't cooked in the oven.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asked, appearing behind him.
"Depends what you're making."
"Macaroni and cheese broccoli onion thing," Merlin said, stepping up to the stove and moving the wooden spoon from the pasta to the broccoli. He stirred it, then fiddled with the knobs on the front of the stove.
Arthur stepped back to look at the clothes Merlin had put on. He was wearing obscenely tight jeans - Arthur didn't even know how he had been able to get into them. They hugged his skinny calves and his slight thighs and his narrow waist and his small, round, extremely distracting behind.
Merlin coughed and Arthur snapped his eyes back up, relieved that Merlin was still facing the stove.
"Did you leave those boiling while you were in the shower?" he asked.
"The heat was on low," Merlin explained. "And I take quick showers." He put a lid on the broccoli, turned on another burner, and placed a third pot on top of it. "You can help me make the cheese sauce."
"Cheese sauce," Arthur said vaguely, watching as Merlin went to the fridge. He pulled out a stick of butter, half a gallon of milk, a bag of shredded cheese, and a stack of sliced cheese. "How does one make a cheese sauce."
"Like this," Merlin said, tossing a chunk of butter into the empty pot.
Merlin instructed Arthur to measure out two cups of milk while he added flour to the melted butter. Then he grabbed a whisk and stirred the clumpy liquid as Arthur slowly poured in the milk. Arthur watched Merlin's thin wrist flicking in rapid circles as he whisked the sauce.
"Cheese," Merlin said, looking up expectantly.
Arthur blinked and then looked down at the remaining ingredients that Merlin had laid out on the counter. He picked up the bag of shredded cheese and held it out to Merlin.
"Nope," Merlin said, smiling. "Sliced. We have to add half a pound."
Arthur unwrapped the stack of sliced cheese and pulled the first slice off the pile. "Um."
"Drop two slices in," Merlin instructed, still whisking.
Arthur pulled off another slice and dropped them both carefully into the sauce. Merlin poked at them with the whisk, pushing them into the sauce and then wiggling them around slightly. After a few moments, he began stirring again. When the first two slices had melted, he told Arthur to add two more.
This continued until the entire stack of sliced cheese had been melted into the sauce.
"Can you drain the pasta for me?" Merlin asked, still whisking the sauce.
Arthur looked at the boiling pasta. "Um."
"There's a strainer in there," Merlin said, pointing at a low cabinet with his foot.
Arthur dug around until he found a metal bowl with holes it in. He placed it in the sink and then glanced at Merlin. "Is that, um."
Merlin clearly tried to hold back his smile, but his efforts failed miserably. "I'm sorry," he said, laughing. "Morgana said you were useless in the kitchen but I didn't believe her."
Arthur glared at Merlin, grabbed the handles of the pasta pot, and carried it carefully over to the sink. He poured everything into the strainer and a cloud of hot steam hit him in the face.
"Thanks," Merlin said as Arthur stepped back to avoid getting his eyebrows singed off.
Arthur set the pot back down on the stove and watched as Merlin finished preparing the meal. He poured the pasta, broccoli and onions, shredded cheese, and cheese sauce into a pan in several different precise layers.
"Come help," Merlin instructed, grabbing two slices of bread and handing one to Arthur. He began tearing off small chunks of bread and sprinkling them over the top of the food, coating the cheese sauce in crumbs.
Arthur shrugged and began destroying his own bread. It reminded him of feeding birds in the park with his grandfather when he had been very young. Merlin finished before him, but he continued shredding the bread and letting it crumble between his fingers.
"Thanks," Merlin said, his hand ghosting across the small of Arthur's back. A shock of heat ran all the way up Arthur's spine to his neck and he straightened up slightly as Merlin grabbed the pan and slipped it into the oven. "Now we just have to wait," he said, grinning and setting a timer on his watch.
Arthur nodded and looked around at the mess they had made. "I'll start cleaning up," he offered, immediately blushing at how high-pitched his voice was.
Merlin disappeared for a moment and Arthur turned on the hot water, squirted some dish soap onto a sponge, and began cleaning out the pots they had used, one at a time.
Soft, folksy music filled the apartment and Merlin returned to the kitchen to dry the pots as Arthur finished cleaning them. Then Arthur started washing off the measuring cups and the rest of the utensils and tools Merlin had used.
"So," Merlin asked when Arthur handed him the whisk. "How have you been?"
"Fine," Arthur said automatically.
"I mean, with everything that-"
"I really don't want to talk about it," Arthur cut him off. "Actually, no, I need to ask you something. Did you tell Gwen or Morgana about it?"
Merlin stared blankly at him for a moment, and then his eyes widened. "No," he said, shaking his head. "No, of course not. They don't need to know about my stupid drunken antics."
Arthur nodded and went back to cleaning off a particularly large knife. "Well, good. Thank you."
"That wasn't actually what I was asking about," Merlin brushed past that part of their conversation. "I just mean, in general, you know... how are you? With your - your dad and stuff."
"Oh." Arthur passed the knife to Merlin and started cleaning off a wooden spoon. He didn't want to seem heartless, but he had been far too distracted with work and everything that had been going on with Merlin to dwell on the loss of his father in the last few weeks. His father's death hadn't come as a surprise and he had made his peace with its inevitability a long time ago. There was no doubt in Arthur's mind that part of him was still grieving and still distracted - he was sure he would be handling the whole Merlin situation differently if he was feeling less scattered - but that part of him was buried beneath more pressing, current issues. "I've been okay," he said simply.
Merlin nodded and took the spoon from Arthur. "Good."
When they were done, Arthur wiped his hands with a paper towel as Merlin dried off the cutting board. Then Merlin was behind him and Arthur froze.
Merlin placed his hands gently on Arthur's hips and pressed a single kiss to the back of Arthur neck.
"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice a mangled gasp. He felt Merlin smiling into his shoulder.
"Arthur," Merlin whispered in reply, his lips moving against Arthur's skin. His warm breath washed over Arthur's neck and down Arthur's collar and up into Arthur's hair. Arthur's mouth fell open as he shuddered.
Merlin pressed another kiss into Arthur's neck and Arthur tossed the paper towel into the sink before turning around. Merlin's hands fell away and Arthur tried to take a step back, but only walked into the kitchen counter.
Arthur could feel Merlin's eyes on him, could feel those endlessly blue eyes boring into him. He stared down at Merlin's feet, noticing for the first time that Merlin's socks didn't match, and tried to think of something - anything - to say. He tried to open his mouth but found that it was already open, and then he realized how loudly he was breathing. His breath sounded ragged and completely wretched, almost as if he had just been running sprints or maybe sobbing.
He closed his mouth and swallowed heavily. One of Merlin's hands drifted up and brushed against his arm. Arthur forced himself to look up into Merlin's face for a moment, but then his gaze fell back down to Merlin's mismatched socks. Merlin was staring intently at him, watching his every breath and blink. Arthur felt blown open and exposed.
He tried to rearrange his features into something other than completely torn, but his face turned out to be just as stuck as his brain.
Merlin's fingers shifted on his arm and he looked up again. Merlin was smiling slightly, his lips barely turned up but his eyes crinkling around the edges. Arthur's breath hitched in his throat and he looked away, but not before seeing Merlin's smile grow wider.
Merlin leaned forward slightly, his nose nearly brushing Arthur's. He licked his lips, his tongue brushing against Arthur's lips as well. Then, he licked meaningfully across Arthur's lower lip before slipping his tongue into Arthur's mouth to skim Arthur's bottom teeth.
Arthur gulped nervously and gripped the counter behind him, trying to work up the will power to walk away even as his cock started stirring. Merlin moved one hand into Arthur's hair and tugged on Arthur's lower lip with his teeth. Arthur let out a strangled huff in an attempt to repress a groan.
"Come on," Merlin whispered, pressing his hips against Arthur's. "Just-" He cut himself off by kissing Arthur again, encouragingly.
Arthur let it carry on for a moment. Merlin's lips were soft and wet, his hands were rough yet gentle, and his hips were just barely rocking against Arthur's. Arthur kept his hands on the counter and his lips completely slack, but he took in what it was like to have another man kissing him. He took in the smell of Merlin's shampoo and the taste of Merlin's tongue and the intoxicating slide of Merlin's crotch against his own.
And then he stepped away, out of Merlin's grip and toward the door.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, sounding sad and sorry and full of longing.
Arthur couldn't help himself - he looked back over his shoulder at Merlin and took in the sight. His eyes raked over Merlin's messy hair and tight jeans and red, glistening lips. He memorized Merlin's flushed ears and sharp cheekbones and softly curled eyelashes. He let his eyes drift down to Merlin's long, thin fingers, hanging limply next to long, thin legs.
He tried to turn away, to escape from the situation, but his heart was thrumming in panic each time he tried to move his muscles toward the door. There was a dull ache in his stomach, working its way up into his chest, and it was rooting him to the spot.
He didn't want to leave. If he was really and truly honest with himself - more honest than he ever allowed himself to be, even when he gave into his most hidden and guilty pleasures by watching gay porn for days on end - he had never wanted anything more than this, than Merlin.
"Arthur," Merlin said again. Arthur looked back up into Merlin's open, hopeful face.
"Fuck it," Arthur muttered and spun around, pressing Merlin into the fridge and kissing him roughly. Merlin's lips were eager against his own and he allowed himself to stop thinking and let himself do what he so desperately wanted to do. He moved his hands to Merlin's sides, but after a few seconds he slid them under Merlin's shirt and around to Merlin's back, touching the soft, warm skin there.
Merlin hummed into the kiss and dragged his tongue along Arthur's as he dug his fingers into Arthur's hair. Arthur groaned and leaned into Merlin, trying to get as close as possible. He wanted to wrap himself in Merlin - he wanted those ridiculous long limbs around him, smothering him, claiming him.
Merlin raised one leg slightly and hooked it over Arthur's thigh, pulling Arthur closer. Arthur gasped into Merlin's mouth and then had to pull away for breath. He thought he should be embarrassed by how hard he had gotten just from a bit of kissing, but then Merlin started sucking on his neck and his mind went blank again.
When Arthur could hardly breathe from the way Merlin was attacking his neck, Merlin escaped from his spot against the fridge and pushed Arthur against it instead. The back of Arthur's head banged into a magnet as Merlin's teeth grazed his ear. He let out an embarrassing noise and grabbed onto Merlin's soft hair.
"You've really never done this before?" Merlin asked, his voice hot and low in Arthur's ear. His hand slid down Arthur's front and cupped Arthur's erection.
Arthur gulped and shook his head. "No," he managed. Then, "Once."
"Tell me," Merlin said. He unfastened Arthur's belt and flicked open the button on Arthur's dress pants. Arthur struggled to keep his eyes open as Merlin's tongue went to work on his ear and Merlin's long fingers started unzipping him, moving at a ridiculously slow pace. "Tell me," Merlin said again, his lips pressed to Arthur's ear.
Arthur bit back a whimper as Merlin's hand slipped into his briefs and began stroking him with a sure, tight grip. He moved his hands down to hold onto Merlin's waist.
"Um," Arthur gasped when Merlin's hand twisted over the head of his cock. "Um. Once, in - at school."
"Go on," Merlin said, smiling against Arthur's neck.
"Just a blowjob," Arthur croaked out. Merlin's teeth raked over his Adam's apple and he gasped, gripping Merlin's hips more tightly.
"Oh yeah?" Merlin pulled back slightly and grinned widely at Arthur, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "Did you like doing it?"
Arthur shook his head. "Didn't do it," he said breathlessly as Merlin's hand sped up. "I didn't - ah - I didn't touch him or kiss him or anything. Just..." His mind blanked for a second as Merlin's fingers dropped down to his balls. "Just let him blow me," he finished, his hands grabbing for Merlin's hair to bring Merlin back for a kiss. Merlin allowed the kiss, brief and filthy, before he dropped to his knees, dragging Arthur's briefs down with him.
"Just so you know," he said, rubbing his hands gently over Arthur's thighs, "I don't do one-sided." Merlin's tongue flicked over the tip of Arthur's cock and Arthur gasped quietly, his hips pushing forward slightly and his hands grasping at air. "I fully expect you to return the favor," Merlin continued, looking up expectantly. He wrapped his hand around Arthur's cock and held it still, his grip getting tighter and tighter with each second of silence that followed.
When Merlin leaned forward to breathe down Arthur's cock, his breath a hot shock on Arthur's skin, Arthur nodded desperately. Merlin smirked, curled his lips over his teeth, and sank his mouth onto Arthur's cock.
Arthur snapped his mouth shut to stifle his moans. This was so much better than any other blowjob he had ever received, even better than the one he had gotten from the guy at his university. That guy had been drunk - Arthur had been drunk - and very sloppy. Merlin was skilled and confident. The grip of his hand was tighter than any girl's - his technique was much closer to the one Arthur used on himself. And his tongue - warm, wet, long, flexible, curious, demanding - was making Arthur's eyes roll back in his head.
"Fuck," Arthur breathed when Merlin slid back to suck roughly on the tip of his cock. He brought one hand to Merlin's face and brushed his fingers over one of those high, sharp, prominent, flushed, beautiful cheekbones. Merlin's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Arthur from his position on the floor. Arthur groaned at the sight and moved his fingers into Merlin's messy hair.
He tugged on it too roughly and Merlin moaned around his cock and then Arthur was there, gasping and squirming, his back arching off the fridge as he came onto Merlin's tongue.
Merlin licked him through the orgasm, letting the come pool on his tongue and then drooling it back onto Arthur cock, smearing it around with his lips. Arthur found it bizarre and somewhat disgusting, but undeniably hot. Everything about Merlin - his slight frame, his jet black hair, his big goofy ears, his sharp angles and perfect bone structure, everything - everything about him was hot.
Merlin licked Arthur's cock clean, then sat back on his heels, looked up at Arthur, and swallowed. Arthur groaned and covered his eyes with his hand as he tried to catch his breath. What had he just done? He didn't know where to go from here. He didn't think this was something he could walk away from. This wasn't some nameless guy in a dark room on a drunken night. This was Merlin - Merlin. Merlin who had taken him pumpkin and apple picking, Merlin who had let him help carve a jack-o'-lantern, Merlin who had shared pumpkin pie with him, Merlin who had decorated his dad's apartment with ugly gourds, Merlin who had taught him how to make cheese sauce. Arthur dropped his hand but kept his eyes closed as he listened to Merlin moving around nearby.
"Hey," Merlin said quietly, his voice right in Arthur's ear.
Arthur found Merlin's lips without looking and kissed him gently. "Hey."
He opened his eyes and saw that Merlin's skinny jeans and briefs were already pushed down on beautifully pale thighs. Merlin was stroking his own cock slowly, his eyes fixed on Arthur's flushed face. Arthur licked his lips and felt his softening cock give an interested twitch. Merlin's cock was long and thin and gorgeous, like all the rest of him.
Arthur wrapped one hand around the back of Merlin's neck and brought him in for a hard kiss. Then he turned, switching their places again, and pressed Merlin into the fridge. He pushed his other hand up Merlin's shirt to tug at Merlin's nipples, and Merlin groaned into his mouth.
"Arthur," Merlin moaned when Arthur's mouth moved to one of his large ears.
Arthur pushed Merlin's hand away and replaced it with his own, curling his fingers around Merlin's cock and giving it a sharp tug. Merlin's hips followed his movement, so he did it again, twisting his hand as it brushed over the head of Merlin's cock.
"Yeah," Merlin breathed when Arthur's hand started moving in a quick, steady rhythm. "Yeah, keep doing that."
"I wasn't exactly planning on stopping," Arthur muttered against Merlin's cheek before dipping his head to lick across Merlin's neck. Merlin sighed in pleasure and tipped his head back, elongating his neck and exposing more skin for Arthur to kiss. Arthur kept up a tight grip on Merlin's cock as he sped up his hand, and Merlin let out a low, needy, breathless noise and arched his neck further back. Arthur dragged his teeth along the straining cords on Merlin's long neck, then soothed his tongue over the same skin. He wanted to map every inch of Merlin's body, wanted to taste each pore and catalogue all of Merlin's reactions to his hands and mouth. Merlin was letting out strangled whimpers and moans, grabbing at the back of Arthur's shirt, and trembling all over as Arthur pulled him toward release. Arthur couldn't believe that he was doing this, that he was the one responsible for turning Merlin into a quivering mess. He had rarely allowed himself to think about what this would be like, but it was even better than he had fantasized. He felt powerful and sexy and wanted.
"Oh, God," Merlin whined when Arthur moved his other hand to roll Merlin's balls between his fingers. Merlin squirmed deliciously against the fridge, knocking several magnets to the floor.
Arthur grinned and sunk his teeth into Merlin's neck, sucking roughly and causing Merlin to tug at his hair. He hadn't ever been with anyone this responsive - the girls he had dated were always much more reserved - and it was driving him mad. His cock was already hard again, but he could have spent days driving Merlin wild like this. Merlin was breathing harshly, sucking in shallow breaths and shuddering out the air a moment later with a heaving sigh.
"Fucking sexy," Arthur murmured, moving his mouth to Merlin's ear and flicking his tongue inside once before grabbing the lobe with his teeth.
Merlin groaned low in his throat and pressed himself hard into the fridge, rising up on his toes and pulling Arthur with him. Arthur let his cock slide against Merlin's for one impossibly long and dreamlike moment. And then Merlin was crying out and coming all over Arthur's shirt.
Arthur licked Merlin's lips as Merlin fell apart, suddenly regretting that he hadn't been brave enough to do what Merlin had done for him. He wanted to taste Merlin's cock. Merlin's hand slid onto Arthur's face and they kissed sloppily as Merlin lowered himself and tried to catch his breath through Arthur's mouth.
Arthur loosened his grip on Merlin's cock but continued stroking it, his fingers playing in the sticky mess, until Merlin broke the kiss.
"Please," Merlin said, pushing Arthur's arm away. Arthur smiled and brought his hand up between them to lick at Merlin's come. Merlin helped clean off his come, smiling and gazing through Arthur's fingers as he licked Arthur's hand.
"Um," Arthur said when they had finished.
"Not too bad," Merlin said with a lopsided grin. "For your first time."
Arthur rolled his eyes and stepped away to pull his pants back up. His shirt was covered in come but he was still too horny to work out a solution. He tucked his persistent erection away and buckled his belt, trying to figure out what was going to happen next. He wondered if he should leave, if Merlin was expecting him to leave.
Merlin redressed himself and looked back up at Arthur with a giddy smile. "Come here."
Arthur stepped forward and let himself be pulled in for a long kiss. He wrapped his arms around Merlin's middle, holding on tightly and practically crushing Merlin against his own chest.
Merlin's watch started beeping and they broke their kiss reluctantly.
"Hungry?" Merlin asked. He dragged his swollen lips across Arthur's neck as Arthur nodded. "Good." He extracted himself from Arthur's arms, put on two oven mitts, and then took the pan out of the oven. He placed it on the stove and fiddled with the knobs until the oven clicked off. Arthur moved over and looked down at what they had made. The breadcrumbs were crispy and brown, the cheese sauce was bubbling, and the smell was making his mouth water.
"Get the plates?" Merlin asked, cutting into the macaroni and cheese with a spatula.
"Do you mind if I change first?" Arthur asked, feeling himself blush. "I'm not sure if I can eat that with, um." He gestured to his shirt.
Merlin laughed. "I think that's fair. Do you want me to see if I have anything that'll fit you?"
"No, I can just find... something..." Arthur said, gesturing toward his father's bedroom and heading in that direction.
He couldn't find anything remotely casual in his father's closet, not even an old t-shirt. He dug around for a few minutes anyway, trying to decipher his emotions. He wasn't sure if he was panicking or not, which led him to decide that he was in shock. As he mulled over his thoughts, he realized that he didn't feel especially worried or alarmed. He felt slightly numb - from the shock, he guessed - but mostly, he just felt satisfied.
Eventually, he took off his button-down and went back out to eat dinner in his undershirt. Merlin said nothing about his clothes, just smiled and handed him a bowl of the steaming macaroni. He could see pieces of cheese-covered broccoli sticking out between the pasta. For a vegetarian dish, it looked positively delicious.
"It's really good with sun-dried tomatoes," Merlin said, taking his plate to the island and settling down. "I just didn't have any."
"It looks good this way," Arthur said, sitting across from Merlin and grabbing one of the forks Merlin had gotten out.
As they ate, Merlin started asking questions about Arthur's job. Arthur did his best to explain what he did all day and why he enjoyed it, but he could tell that Merlin really didn't understand why divorce law would be interesting to anyone, though was putting in a valiant effort to listen to Arthur talk about it. He directed the conversation to Merlin's past and listened to Merlin recount his college experience as a literature major.
"It wasn't the smartest thing to study, all things considered," Merlin admitted, poking at the last pieces of pasta in his bowl. "But I learned a lot and had a really good time and I think I feel smarter for the experience."
Arthur nodded and smeared the remainder of his cheese sauce around in his otherwise empty bowl. "Well, that's commendable. That you studied something you love."
Merlin shrugged. "I suppose. You didn't study something you love?"
"Not at first," Arthur admitted, leaning back in the barstool. "I sort of started with divorce law to, um... piss off my dad. He was hoping I'd go into politics, like him. But, I didn't want to, so I chose a little corner of law that was on the complete opposite end of the room from anything remotely political. Turns out I actually enjoy it, but that's not why I picked it."
"Why didn't you want to go into politics?"
Arthur fiddled with his fork. "Lots of reasons. I'm not - I was never as political as my father. He was so opinionated and passionate and just... just full of hate. That's what it was for him. Politics were this, this thing that consumed him and filled him with so much hate. He was blind to other people's needs and feelings. I saw it happening when I was growing up I just couldn't even dream of putting myself in that position. I went along with most of what he said over the years, mainly just to avoid arguments, but generally... generally, I just don't care. It's hard to reconcile, you know, my father on one hand and Morgana on the other. Equally passionate, equally invested in their beliefs and their causes, equally insane. I really don't have that many political opinions. The two of them scared me off."
Merlin smiled guiltily. "I'm somewhat relieved," he admitted. "Morgana thinks you're some sort of Uther clone."
Arthur shrugged. "She's just as narrow-minded as our father was. Sometimes she doesn't observe everything she should."
"She's still brilliant, though," Merlin said, standing up and taking their bowls over to the sink. "As a business woman, anyway."
"I guess that's true." Arthur really didn't know more than he strictly had to about Morgana's organization. He preferred to stay away from her politics, which was probably why she assumed he had been more closely aligned with Uther's. That, and the fact that he had never once pretended that he disagreed with his father's conservative ways. He hadn't wanted to cause any problems - he didn't want what had happened between Morgana and Uther to happen to himself and Uther. He had loved his father very much, despite his father's many flaws. It had always been easier to pretend he cared and agreed than to say otherwise.
However, now that his father was gone, he could stop pretending and embrace his moderate apathy.
"Do you want to stay over?" Merlin asked, looking back at Arthur over his shoulder.
Arthur snapped out of his thoughts and glanced up at Merlin's innocent face. "Um," he started, already feeling heat rising up his neck. "I'm not sure I'm... quite there yet."
"We don't have to do that," Merlin said, turning back to continue washing their bowls. "We don't have to do anything. I just meant that I have some beer and some really shitty TV shows I wanted to watch. You can join me if you want."
"I think I could probably handle that," Arthur said, smiling. He was feeling amazingly content in that moment, and wanted nothing more than a quiet evening watching stupid things on TV with Merlin. He was somewhat amazed at himself - if he'd had to guess, he would have assumed he'd be crawling out of his skin by this point. He had just hooked up with another man. He thought he should be hiding in shame, but all he wanted to do was drink some beer and cuddle on the couch.
He wondered if he would have reacted this way with any other guy. Something about Merlin was so comforting and familiar. He barely knew Merlin, but Merlin himself was so sure and confident that Arthur couldn't help but feel the same way. Everything about this situation was foreign, but Arthur didn't feel that scared by it. He knew that feeling would come later, after he'd left this apartment and this bubble of happiness and returned to the real world - but until that time came, he just wanted to enjoy himself. He had rarely felt so free.
Merlin wrapped the macaroni and cheese pan in tin foil and put it into the fridge. He pulled out four beers and walked over to the couch with them, Arthur following behind him.
Over the course of three hilariously horrible shows, Merlin had moved from his end of the couch, into the middle, and then onto Arthur's cushion. He had his hand on the back of Arthur's neck and his mouth on Arthur's ear, breathing into it and licking across it and nibbling on the lobe.
Arthur had his hand on Merlin's thigh, squeezing it and rubbing his thumb along the seam of Merlin's jeans.
"Before this, um..." Arthur trailed off, distracted by Merlin's lips moving to the spot just behind his ear.
"Yes?" Merlin prompted.
Arthur closed his eyes against the hot breath all over his neck and tried again. "I just wanted to let you know that, um... I will most likely be a complete mess for some of this. And also that I don't really know what I'm doing. And I might, um... be a little terrified."
Merlin pressed a wet kiss to the side of Arthur's neck and then pulled back. He left his hand on the back of Arthur's neck, his fingers playing with the hairs at Arthur's nape.
"Do you still want to do this?" Merlin asked quietly. "I don't want you to feel obligated."
"I definitely don't feel obligated," Arthur said, clutching his beer with both hands and staring down at the bottle. "I'm just... I don't want to say 'nervous,' but..."
Merlin smiled and twirled his fingers in Arthur's hair. "I understand."
"I just thought I should warn you. You know, in case the next time you see me I'm a complete wreck."
"It's not like you're doing this alone," Merlin reminded him gently.
"True." Arthur took a sip of beer and then turned to look at Merlin. "You don't mind?"
"Nope," Merlin said happily. "Somehow, I think you're worth the drama."
Arthur laughed awkwardly. "You barely even know me."
"True, but you're cute and your cock is sort of glorious."
Arthur snorted. "What?"
"Come on," Merlin said, reaching out with his free hand and rubbing it across Arthur's crotch. "No one's told you that before?"
"Uh - no."
"Well, then you're just going to have to trust me on this one."
Arthur licked his lips as Merlin's hand moved away. "I - yours, too," he said lamely.
Merlin grinned and pressed a kiss to Arthur's temple. "Thanks."
Arthur leaned into Merlin and gave him a long kiss. Merlin pulled Arthur with him as he lay down on the couch, his hands scrambling at the back of Arthur's undershirt. Arthur reached out blindly to put his beer on the coffee table and then settled comfortably over Merlin, bracing himself with one arm so he wouldn't crush Merlin below him.
"Do you want to keep watching the shows?" Merlin asked pointlessly when they broke the kiss.
"Not really," Arthur mumbled, his mouth already on Merlin's neck.
"Good." Merlin wrapped his legs around Arthur's back and pulled Arthur up for another kiss.