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Part I. Past (Not So) Simple

 

The thing is – and Merlin will always remember this – he met Arthur first.

Granted, it wasn’t particularly romantic. Merlin was late, because his flatmate stole his alarm clock again, and the morning promptly went to hell. Merlin barely had time to brush his teeth and shove himself into a half-presentable suit before he had to dash out the door, trying to bite into an apple on the run. The tube had never been as slow as it was that day, and by the time Merlin resurfaced, the only thing he could think of was that he really didn’t want to be fired on the first day of Expo.

He ran across the street, hardly even sparing a glance for the traffic, when there was a loud whine of tires and some incredibly rude driver splashed him with muddy water.

“Hey!” Merlin yelled, outraged, the ice-cold water soaking his trousers almost mid-thigh. “Can’t read the bloody speed limit sign, you moron?”

A window slid down, and there was a flash of blond hair and an angry expression. “Look where you’re going, you idiot! I nearly ran you over!”

“Yeah, well, whose fault is that? The sign’s right there, mate!”

“I’m not your mate!”

There was another muffled curse, and then the car wedged back into the traffic, carrying its angry driver with it.

Merlin lost another fifteen minutes in the entrance queue because someone had grabbed his pass by mistake. By the time he got to the Avalon stand, Gwen was already giving out flyers and smiling charmingly at the visitors.

“Nice of you to show up,” Gwen said out of the corner of her mouth, smiling ever-brightly at potential customers.

“Sorry,” Merlin breathed out, shoving his messenger bag under the desk and slapping a badge on his lapel. “If I let you off a bit early and close the shop on my own, will that make it up to you?”

“It’s not that,” Gwen said dismissively. “It’s just – you missed when our new stand-neighbour came to say hi.”

“Huh?” Merlin blinked, confused.

Then, as he followed her gaze, he saw an obnoxiously bright exhibit across the lane. Gold letters on the red banner read Camelot Enterprises. Under the banner, a stack of flyers in his hand, was Merlin’s rude driver.

“Isn’t he gorgeous?” Gwen whispered dreamily.

Merlin took in the mildly tussled blond hair, broad shoulders, and narrow waist; the prominent jawline and noble profile; and the steely glare in the chilly blue eyes that were staring right back at him.

Fuck.

“Yeah,” Merlin sighed. “He certainly is.”

Gwen beamed happily, and Merlin felt his heart clench tightly in his chest in sudden premonition. The smile he gave Gwen was watery, but she didn’t seem to notice.

 

--

The Expo lasted a week, and by the end of it, the three of them had become fast friends. Arthur never really apologised for the splashing incident, but Merlin couldn’t stay mad at him when Arthur brought him and Gwen coffee the next day, having obviously braved the way back to Starbucks. It saved Merlin from having to drink the horrible concoction that passed as coffee in the exhibition centre, and Arthur’s insolent smile was incredibly hard to resist.

So Merlin hadn’t really tried to.

The three of them struck an easy accord, chatting whenever there was a lull between visitors. Arthur was a student, like Gwen and Merlin. Gwen was working as a promoter on the exhibition because it was a fun way to meet new people; Merlin, because he believed in the environmental solutions Avalon offered; and Arthur, simply to earn a few extra credits for his CV. It all led to a lot of teasing going every which way, and in a couple of days, it felt completely natural for Merlin to grab a sandwich for Arthur when he went to get lunch for Gwen and himself, or to have Arthur take a look at his homework (Merlin being hopeless at business administration).

So when, on the last day of Expo, Arthur smiled at them a little uncertainly and offered, ‘We should meet up soon, yeah?’ before promptly typing Merlin’s and Gwen’s numbers into his phone, Merlin felt a little like floating. Arthur smiled at both of them, but his eyes lingered on Merlin… in what probably was misdirection. It hadn’t come up in conversation yet, but, judging by appearances, Arthur was straight. Merlin only bit his lip and prayed that maybe that ‘straight’ was with a side of ‘a little bit bi-curious.’

For the first time in his life, talking to Gwen was a little awkward. From the delicate blush on her lovely features, shy smile, and slightly hushed tone, it was clear that Arthur had made quite an impression on her as well.

Merlin tried really hard to be the supportive best friend he’d always been, but he couldn’t help the tugging sense of unease coiling in his gut. Gwen wasn’t the only one that Arthur, the gorgeous prat, had managed to impress.

Merlin had always been a little on the shy side where personal relationships were concerned. He flirted and joked easily with his friends, but on the pull he was a bit useless, never knowing what to say or how to act. Unless he was drunk, and then it was just embarrassing.

He had been in exactly one relationship until that point, and it didn’t even count for much. It was simply what happened when you discovered that you and your best mate were both gay. At some point, you simply swapped the moniker ‘friends’ for ‘boyfriends’ and occasionally did certain things together because you were both sixteen (seventeen, eighteen) and horny. It didn’t require much work, or at least no more than simply being friends did. There were no dates – just hanging out and fooling around. It was a relationship, but it also sort of wasn’t.

Since coming to uni two years ago, Merlin had been asked out a few times, but for some reason they’d never led anywhere. And the occasional one-night stand following some party where people drank their weight in alcohol always left Merlin with a crippled memory and a general sense of disgust with himself.

Gwen teased him for being the ‘last romantic on Earth,’ and Merlin couldn’t think of anything less cool. But he wasn’t consciously waiting for some pre-destined romance or something – he was just unlucky in love. And frankly, he didn’t see how Gwen, who frequently caught eyes and went out with a new bloke every few weeks, was doing any better.

At first, Merlin was surprised that Arthur, who seemed to embody everybody’s wet dream, would be so persistent about sticking to him and Gwen. But, as they got to know each other a little better, things became clearer in retrospect.

Where Gwen and Merlin seemed to be always surrounded by a whirlpool of friends and acquaintances, Arthur was a loner, though not exactly by choice. Giving a great first impression wasn’t his forte, to which Merlin could personally attest. And, while Arthur enjoyed kicking ball with his footie mates, he admitted to Merlin once that he wasn’t all that keen for their company outside the pitch.

“All they ever talk about is footie and birds,” Arthur said once, rolling his eyes.

Which, of course, wouldn’t be a problem here. Whenever the three of them got together, no one could predict what they’d be talking about, but the topics were always extremely engaging. Gwen was usually the designated mediator, because Merlin and Arthur seemed to have an opposite – or at the very least different – opinion on practically everything, from international politics to food choices. As they were both stubborn and unwilling to concede, they argued fervently and with gusto about it all –

Except for the things that really mattered.

On some things – the most important, the most intimate things – they seemed to be in perfect agreement. Discovering it felt new every time. The way Arthur would look at Merlin, as if Merlin had given him some unexpected but very wanted gift; the way they would both go quiet all of a sudden, avoiding Gwen’s questioning looks; the way Arthur would smile, just barely, nod, and look away. Merlin would clear his throat and say something silly, changing the subject, and Arthur would mock him with more zeal than usual, and everything would spin forward, away from the moment.

Through Merlin and Gwen, Arthur was gradually pulled into a larger group of friends and settled there with remarkable ease, as though he’d always been part of their merry company. He struck an easy friendship with Gwaine; already knew Leon and Morgana; engaged in philosophical debates with Elyan; and challenged Percival to an occasional arm wrestling match, sometimes even winning.

Still, Saturday nights were reserved for Arthur, Merlin, and Gwen. The three of them would go out for drinks or films or just crash at somebody’s place with crisps and homemade popcorn and a James Bond marathon. Arthur would try to speak along with the film, anticipating lines; Merlin would try to hurt him; and Gwen would threaten to send them both to different corners, unless they behaved. It would last for as long as five minutes sometimes, after which Arthur simply couldn’t help himself anymore, and the cycle began anew.

Life was good.

 

--

About six months after the Expo, Merlin and Gwen finally managed to pull resources and get a place together, something they’d been working towards for the past couple of years. It ended up being a nice two-bedroom flat with a small but cosy living room and a bathroom big enough for an actual lie-in bathtub. Gwen was ecstatic, and Merlin not too far behind, because, even if the rooms were on the shadowy side, the kitchen was bathed in glorious sunlight in the mornings, setting the mood for the day ahead.

Arthur crashed on their couch more often than not on Saturdays, and every few days on weekdays. It was often enough for Merlin to learn that Arthur wasn’t a morning person; that he was adorably grumpy when just woken; and that he would compliment Gwen’s coffee any time of the day, but in the mornings, he demanded Merlin make it in a tone that was nothing short of commanding. Merlin indulged him, rewarded with the look of bliss on Arthur’s face when he took his first sip. After the third cup, Arthur started grinning softly, and when the cup was empty, he was ready to face the world again, which he expressed by shoving Merlin playfully into furniture to show his appreciation.

They bonded over things neither of them was in the habit of sharing. Arthur’s mother died in childbirth, leaving him with her noble features, golden colouring and a vague sense of guilt to be carried around through his entire life. Merlin’s father took off when Hunith told him she was pregnant.

“She always said it was a shame I didn’t know him,” Merlin said, glancing at the bottle of tequila he and Arthur were about to finish. It had started as a commiseration session regarding their ever-mounting workload. Merlin had no idea how it had come to this. “But you know what? I’m glad I never knew him. Who’d want to know a bastard like that?”

“You don’t mean that,” Arthur intoned thoughtfully, with a hint of doubt in his voice.

“Yeah, I do. The man was a jerk.”

“Still. He’s your father.”

“So?”

Arthur didn’t answer. After a while, he said, “People keep telling me it’s a shame I never knew my mother. And it is. I wish I did. But sometimes I think...”

“What?”

Arthur’s face contorted, as if he was having a hard time to find words. “Well, I don’t miss her. You can’t miss what you never knew. Sometimes I think I only wish to have known her, because my father is – well, because he is—”

“A tyrant?” Merlin supplied gloomily.

He hadn’t even met the man, but he’d seen Arthur in the aftermath of the father-son conversations plenty of times. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and Arthur always reverted to his űber-prat mode for days afterwards.

Arthur glanced at him sharply. “He’s my father, Merlin. Shut up.”

It was unfair, since Arthur had started it, but Merlin didn’t say anything, just sighed and reached for the bottle.

Arthur was one of those people whose whole life had been planned for them before they learned to walk and talk. For some reason, it bothered Merlin immensely. He hated that Arthur just rolled with it.

“It’s not your place to interfere, Merlin,” Gwen told him once when he complained. “It’s Arthur’s life. He can make his own decisions.”

“That’s just it. If this goes on, he won’t be making any.”

But Merlin did shut up on the subject, at least until the next time. He didn’t want to push Arthur away when seeing him was slowly evolving into becoming the highlight of Merlin’s day.

Arthur had an annoying fondness for unusual sports, sometimes of the extreme variety. He tempered his ambitions somewhat for the sake of his friends, but still insisted on dragging Merlin and Gwen around with him whenever he discovered a new fancy or wanted to share an old one.

Gwen was afraid of horses and Merlin wasn’t at all fond of wall climbing, but Arthur wasn’t to be deterred. He was willing to be chivalrous and excuse Gwen from an occasional riding excursion, but he showed no such mercy for Merlin. When Merlin complained that he wasn’t actually a sportsman and his arms and legs couldn’t withstand as much strain as Arthur’s, Arthur dragged him to the gym and insisted on being his personal instructor. Merlin only went along in the hopes of gaining enough muscle strength to kick Arthur’s arse once and for all, but even he realised that it was completely unrealistic. Arthur just laughed and made a bloody schedule for him. He never missed a training session, and Merlin groaned and cursed but had no choice but to show up.

When Gwen wasn’t too overloaded with coursework, she cooked, and Merlin and Arthur traded conspiratorial winks behind her back like naughty children whenever something didn’t taste quite right. She always caught them on it, and they all laughed, Merlin cleaning his plate to show his appreciation, and Arthur plying Gwen with compliments that usually revolved around ‘Some bastard would be lucky to have you.’ Gwen beamed at them, placated, and they all got a bit drunk on Arthur’s wine. He usually brought a bottle or two with him, trying to pass them off as cheap. Neither Merlin nor Gwen was fooled, but they let him get away with it, because it was the way Arthur was: people he liked would only have the best.

Throughout it all, Merlin was aware of a certain undercurrent running through their interactions.

Gwen liked Arthur. As in, really, really liked him. And she wasn’t acting in the same hyper-exuberant manner as she had when she had first met Merlin and developed a crush on him.

With Arthur, she was unhurried and meticulous in her approach as she studied him, working around her attraction to see if she was right to give it away. Merlin could practically see her taking mental notes whenever Arthur revealed something new about himself or acted in a particular manner. As far as Merlin could tell, Gwen’s conclusions were more than favourable.

Arthur could act like a complete prat sometimes, and he wasn’t just a little bit self-absorbed, but underneath it all, he was a good, solid person. He was generous, kind, and caring, even if he didn’t always know how to show it, and Gwen was smart enough to see past that. His future goals were set, and he was working studiously to reach them, but didn’t lose sight of a more human side of life. He was passionate about what he was doing, but not to the exclusion of everything else. He was the first to offer help whenever someone got in trouble.

He was, simply put, great boyfriend material.

They had never discussed it openly, but Merlin knew Gwen well enough to see that she was letting go of her defences one by one, surrendering to Arthur slowly but surely. Gwen wasn’t the kind of person to rush into anything; she was perhaps the most level-headed person Merlin knew. She worked her way to acknowledging her feelings for Arthur, no sooner allowing them to bloom than she determined they wouldn’t be misplaced. It was an incredibly adult approach, and Merlin envied and respected Gwen for the amazing self-control and reason she was showing.

Sadly, Merlin himself had no such compulsions.

From the moment he had first touched Arthur – almost a year back when they first shook hands – all Merlin wanted was to touch him again, to touch him more; to be closer to him in every way imaginable. He was attracted to Arthur before he liked him; he admired him before he really knew him; he invented ways to make Arthur laugh, because Arthur didn’t look like the kind of person to do that often, before he had any idea about what made Arthur sad in the first place.

He fell in love with Arthur before he determined for certain that Arthur could be attracted to blokes. He fell in love because it just happened while Merlin wasn’t looking, quick, powerful, overwhelming – and so very, very wrong.

Arthur was straight; Merlin knew that now. But it was too late to put a leash on his stupid emotions.

Merlin knew Gwen must have suspected something. She knew him pretty well, after all, and there was something in her eyes when she looked at him sometimes that made him blush and look away.

They never talked about it, though, as if having struck a mutual agreement. It was a kind of silent rivalry that wasn’t, really. Neither of them did anything to stake a claim on Arthur, and Arthur himself seemed completely oblivious and content with the status quo.

Or so Merlin thought – until, one day, Gwen knocked on his bedroom door, dressed for a night out.

“Shit,” Merlin swore, glancing up from his laptop. “It’s film night, isn’t it? Sorry, I lost track of time. Think Arthur can wait a few more minutes?”

“Well, actually, Merlin...” Gwen was blushing as she slid inside the room, staring at her feet, and looking more nervous than Merlin had ever seen her. “You, um, you didn’t go with us the last time—”

“Yeah, I know.” Merlin winced. “Sorry about that. That bloody chemistry test was kicking my arse. What did I miss?”

“Not much. I mean, it was a good film, but…”

Merlin frowned. “Gwen, what is it?”

She couldn’t meet his eyes. “Well, we – that is, Arthur and I – we, um, we had a good time the last time. Not that we don’t have a good time when you’re there, obviously! But it was, well, different. And um, Arthur, when he rang earlier, he sort of – well, the way he asked if you were coming tonight, I just got this impression that – that—”

“That he doesn’t want me to come,” Merlin finished for her. His throat felt suddenly tight. “Gwen. You and Arthur – is this a date?”

She glanced up at him for a moment and blushed, looking both guilty and elated, and finally nodded. “Yes.”

“Oh.”

“Shit. Merlin, I’m so sorry.”

Merlin stretched his lips into a smile. “Don’t be silly. What for?”

“Well—” She bit her lip, looking miserable.

“Gwen,” Merlin said firmly, clasping her arm. “It’s a good thing. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?”

She nodded, smiling softly. “It has. We – we didn’t know how to tell you.”

And fuck, that hurt. Almost more than the fact itself, although of course not. Who was Merlin kidding? Arthur was straight; Merlin knew that. He knew this was coming. He shouldn’t be feeling as if someone had just stabbed him through the heart.

He managed another smile; he would never know how. “Well, you know me – not the sharpest pencil in the box.” He forced out a chuckle. “Sorry I was your third wheel for so long.”

“Oh no!” Gwen reached out to squeeze his hand. “No, Merlin, it’s not like that! We’re friends, aren’t we? Of course we hang out together, and we will, nothing will change. We’ll still have our film nights and pub nights and all. Just – not tonight.”

“Right. Well, I’m not going to consider myself automatically invited anymore” – he softened the words with a grin – “and if you want my company, you’ll tell me. Deal?”

Gwen nodded, grinning back. “Deal.”

“Okay, then. You two have fun tonight. And Gwen? If you need me to make myself scarce when you get back, text me or something, yeah?”

She blushed furiously and smacked his arm. “Merlin!”

He laughed. “What? We’re all adults here, and somehow I don’t peg Arthur for a monk.”

“You’re – incorrigible.” But she was grinning. “And anyway, he lives alone, so I’m pretty sure when it comes to that, he’ll whisk me off to his.”

“Oh. Right.” And Arthur probably wouldn’t hang around their flat so much anymore, now that his reason for being here could just come to him. Merlin mentally shook himself and pulled on another grin. “Go on; you can’t keep your Prince Charming waiting.” Gwen giggled. “And tell Arthur if he breaks your heart, he’ll answer to me.”

Gwen’s smile turned sweet and amused. “I’m sure he’d be terrified.” She ruffled Merlin’s hair. “Don’t stay up too late; you need sleep.”

He gave her a cheeky grin. “Yes, Mum.”

She leaned in to press a quick kiss on his forehead, and disappeared in a cloud of anticipation and tantalizing perfume.

Merlin slumped against his desk, shaking all over.

He should have been ready for this. He should have been ready from the very beginning.

He wasn’t.

He sat there for a very long time, motionless, not bothering to turn on the lights when the room became too dark.

He lay, sleepless, in his bed for hours. He didn’t hear Gwen come back.

 

--

The next time Merlin saw Arthur was three days later when he came home to find Arthur drinking tea in their kitchen.

“Where the hell have you been, Merlin?” was Arthur’s eloquent greeting. “Are you done with ditching us on film nights?”

“Um.” Merlin glanced at Gwen, but she was busy with the dishes. Arthur’s eyebrow was still demanding answers, and Merlin grabbed his arm, pulling him out of the kitchen. “I didn’t ditch you,” he hissed. “I just thought you’d be eager for some time alone.” He nodded back in Gwen’s direction.

Arthur looked puzzled for a moment, and, for a glorious split second, Merlin entertained the thought that Gwen had it all wrong, that Arthur wasn’t really interested in her that way. But then Arthur cuffed him on the head, and grabbed the back of his neck tightly, smirking.

“When I’ll want some time alone with Gwen, Merlin, I’ll tell you to get lost, believe me. Now, are you done being a girl?”

Merlin scowled at him, pretending to take the insult to heart, and shoved him off. It quickly dissolved into a roughhousing match (Arthur was doing most of it), until Gwen came out of the kitchen to mock-scold them.

After that, things went back to normal in a way that surprised Merlin.

He thought Arthur and Gwen would spend all their free time together now, especially as their relationship was in its infancy. But Arthur still hung out around their flat as much as before, and when Merlin tried to make himself scarce, Arthur wouldn’t stand for it. They still went out a lot, both with their friends and just the three of them.

In fact, the only difference to their routine was that Arthur and Gwen now kissed hello and goodbye, and occasionally cuddled in front of the telly. Some nights, Gwen would walk Arthur home when he left, sharing a blushing smile with him, their fingers entwined.

The first time it happened, Merlin went out shortly after and walked a few blocks to a grim-looking, poorly lit pub at the end of the street where no one would care to cut him off if he had too much.

His relationship with alcohol was an odd one. There were times when just a whiff of a barmaid’s apron would make him burst into song, as his friends would helpfully point out. But there were other times, ones that nobody witnessed, times when he could drink an entire bottle of whiskey by himself and not feel a thing. The last time it happened was after his mother’s funeral.

The second time was now.

Not that he did drink that much, of course. He couldn’t afford to make himself ill, not this time. If he did, Gwen would ask questions, and that was something Merlin couldn’t allow to happen, ever.

It was ironic how these things went. The man he was in love with was in love with somebody else, and, as if that wasn’t enough, Merlin had lost his best friend, in a way.

“Boy trouble?” the barmaid, Mary, asked him, peering down at him over the counter.

Merlin didn’t ask how she knew his preference. He didn’t hide anything, of course, but he also wasn’t the type to wear rainbow wristbands or unicorn shirts. He wasn’t even that big on skinny jeans.

It took Arthur a while to figure it out, which he only did after he saw Cenred drunkenly crowding Merlin against a wall at Morgana’s party, not kissing him so much as trying to eat his face. (Cenred was one of the one-night stand mistakes with an unfortunately good memory and some kind of genetic disorder, disabling his ability to grasp that ‘no’ meant no.)

‘So. You’re a poof, then,’ Arthur said after chasing Cenred away. He wasn’t looking at Merlin as he spoke.

Merlin swallowed, heart beating in his throat. ‘Yeah. That a problem?’

Arthur’s response was painfully slow in coming. ‘No,’ he said at last. ‘As long as you don’t expect me to sign up for any rallies. I get enough of this shit from Morgana.’

It wasn’t the most enthusiastic response, but Merlin couldn’t be picky. He had only known Arthur for a few weeks then. It had been good enough.

He looked up at Mary and tried to smile. “Could say that.”

“Want to talk about it?”

He pursed his lips, glancing along the bar to where a middle-aged man was sitting, smoking a pipe. He was gazing steadily at Merlin in a way that was unnerving and familiar. There’d be no name calling; most likely, Merlin wouldn’t even see where the blow came from.

He shook his head, looking back at Mary. “Not really.”

She stared at him for a moment longer, then nodded. “I’ve seen you helping old man Simmons with his groceries a few times. You’re the decent sort, lad.”

It was the way she said ‘the decent sort’ that made Merlin want to curl into himself. It wasn’t a compliment. It was sympathy; the ‘sorry for your loss’ kind.

Merlin nodded absently, and she poured him another drink without a word.

 

--

It wasn’t the fact that Arthur was dating Gwen so much as the way he was doing it that was driving Merlin steadily insane. If they were acting like any other self-absorbed couple, Merlin would have hurt for a while, then gradually adjusted, and then probably moved on. As it was, he couldn’t see any of that happening.

All of a sudden, he found himself spending more time with Arthur – more time alone with Arthur – than ever before.

“But Gwen—” Merlin tried to protest the second time she refused to join them for a wall-climbing exercise. “You can’t keep ditching me forever. He’s your boyfriend.”

“That’s right, he is. So he’ll understand.” Gwen patted his shoulder before returning to packing her bag. “Morgana invited me for a weekend at that new spa centre. After the kind of week I’ve had, Merlin, do you really think I want to be climbing walls?”

“But—”

“I’ll see Arthur on Tuesday. You two have fun.”

It was a pattern, Merlin realised soon after. Now that Gwen and Arthur were an established couple, Gwen didn’t see the point of going the extra mile to impress him. It gradually became apparent just how many of Arthur’s preferred activities weren’t on Gwen’s favourites list. She would listen curiously to Merlin describing his day with Arthur afterwards, but would show no wish to join them the next time around.

Arthur seemed to take it in stride, not at all surprised or upset at this turn of events – looking mildly relieved even, as though Gwen’s presence put certain limitations on him enjoying himself fully. He acted as if it was to be expected; natural.

It was only Merlin who was left confused. In his mind, two people who were dating didn’t do it by proxy if they had a choice. And he certainly didn’t feel happy about that proxy being him.

Merlin loved Gwen. For her sake, for Arthur’s sake, he was trying hard as he might to overcome his feelings for the latter. He wanted to be happy for them, without the bitterness his unrequited emotions stirred.

But Gwen and Arthur weren’t cooperating with that plan at all: Gwen leaving the two of them alone more often than not, and Arthur being more needy than ever, claiming all of Merlin’s free time for his own.

Not to mention that Arthur, who had always been a little on the touchy-feely side with people he knew and trusted, was now more tactile than ever around Merlin, as though permission to touch Gwen more freely had somehow applied to him, too.

In addition to the usual amount of roughhousing, Arthur would now often walk across campus with his arm slung around Merlin’s shoulders or his waist, finding it infinitely amusing – pleasing, even – when people mistook them for boyfriends. He’d wrap his arms around Merlin in surprise hugs when he was having a good day. He’d ruffle his hair, and pull at his ears, and grab his arm, shoulder, or neck whenever he wanted Merlin’s attention.

All of it was doing a stellar job of driving Merlin crazy.

He didn’t want to make it a big deal, dreading the explanations that might be required of him, but the situation was steadily getting more and more intolerable, culminating in Merlin waking up one morning cradled in Arthur’s arms.

Gwen was out of town for a week, and Arthur and Merlin stayed up late, sprawled on the couch, drinking beer and watching Transformers. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, in the harsh light of morning, Merlin felt nauseated and absolutely terrified.

Arthur was spooning behind him, his arms wrapped snugly around Merlin’s waist and his knee wedged between Merlin’s, his nose pressed under Merlin’s ear, warm lips against his neck.

Merlin shuddered. It was an eerily perfect moment – this was all he ever wanted, everything he could dream of. It was also something he could never have, something that belonged to someone else. It wasn’t Merlin’s fault, but he still felt like a pathetic, desperate thief whose only moments of bliss were stolen ones.

Arthur murmured something in his sleep, his hold tightening reflexively; his lips pressed an unconscious, sweet kiss to Merlin’s neck, and Merlin felt his eyes sting sharply. He had never wanted to die more than he did at that moment.

He didn’t know how he managed to extricate himself without waking Arthur. It might have had something to do with the fact that Arthur had drunk most of the beer the night before. Merlin stood beside the couch, watching Arthur’s sleeping face frown in displeasure at the sudden absence of heat.

At that moment, Merlin knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would never be able to move past this. No matter whom he’d eventually settle down with, no matter how many lovers he’d take – Arthur Pendragon was it for him.

And Merlin could never have him.

 

--

Winter faded into spring in much the same fashion. Merlin could say with certainty that he saw more of Gwen and Arthur than they saw of each other, but that didn’t change a single thing. It wasn’t his hand Arthur was holding as they headed to the pub to meet their friends; it wasn’t him to be whisked away for a romantic weekend on Valentine’s Day. It would never be him, no matter how often Arthur tackled him in the gym or grabbed his arm during a particularly exciting scene in a film they were watching.

Merlin didn’t know how things could possibly get any worse, but they did. Gwen’s application for an extended internship with UNESCO was accepted. She left for South Africa in the middle of May to be back by the end of September.

Merlin managed to qualify for a spot at the WWF, which meant he’d be staying in London. Arthur, of course, was working for his father’s company as he did every summer.

Merlin’s life as he knew it was promptly going to hell.

Internships were nice, but Merlin did need to eat, so he took up the evening shift at a coffee shop. Almost every day, barring some unforeseen circumstances, Arthur would drop by after his own hours, sitting in a corner with his laptop, working quietly as he waited for Merlin to be done. If it was a slow evening, he’d migrate to the counter, chatting with Merlin and drinking whatever ‘mistakes’ Merlin managed to make that day.

He’d walk Merlin home; they’d order takeaway and sometimes beer, and spend the night watching whatever there was on telly, too tired for anything more strenuous. Arthur would often spend the night on the couch (Merlin couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t sleep in Gwen’s bed, which was much more comfortable) to be off to his own place in the morning for a change of clothes.

There would be, of course, nights out with Gwaine, Morgana, and the rest of the gang. Arthur’s hand would rest confidently at the back of Merlin’s chair, their knees brushing under the table every time Arthur moved. Arthur would order drinks for him, tricking Merlin more often than not out of paying for them. The more buzzed he got, the more affectionate he became, treating Merlin as his personal life-size care bear, manhandling him every which way and ignoring Merlin’s feeble protests.

Someone was bound to notice something sooner or later and someone did. Merlin’s only warning was some bloke’s loud cursing as Morgana burst into the loo after him, lifting an imperious eyebrow.

“Out.”

The guy muttered something like ‘Crazy bitch’ under his breath, but didn’t hesitate to vacate the premises. Merlin was just happy she stormed in now and not a minute earlier when he was still holding his dick in his hands.

“Listen to me, you little weasel,” Morgana said, crowding Merlin against the sink.

She was obviously drunk. Merlin was under no illusion that she liked him – she had always been Gwen’s friend – but she wasn’t normally openly hostile toward him.

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing with my dear step-brother, but you better keep your paws off him,” Morgana hissed in his face. “If it occurred to your little demented brain that you can steal him from Gwen when she’s not here, think again. You can play house with him if you’re that pathetic, but don’t forget for a fucking second. He’s hers. And if you do anything to jeopardise Gwen’s happiness, I will destroy you. Got it?”

Merlin had never experienced a stronger urge to punch a woman in his life than he did just then. He shook her hands off his shoulders none too gently, feeling suddenly fed up with this whole three-ring circus he had never signed up for.

“Maybe you should tell that to your brother,” he spat, brushing past her and out of the loo.

He was suddenly so angry he was shaking with it. It didn’t matter that they weren’t at a gay club; it didn’t matter that Merlin was rubbish on the pull. He caught the eye of a bloke leaning casually against the bar and made a beeline for him.

In a minute, they were on the dance floor. In a couple of more, the bloke’s hands were stuck in the back pockets of Merlin’s jeans, his tongue becoming intimately familiar with the back of Merlin’s throat. Merlin ground against him furiously, propelled by his anger and frustration and all the pent-up grief at the unfairness of it all that he had been carrying around him for so long.

His head fell back, his eyes fluttered open for a moment. Through the music and the twirling lights and the swaying mass of bodies, Merlin caught Arthur staring at him, eyes narrowed, lips pressed together in a straight, angry line. There was reflected anger and pain written all over Arthur’s face.

Betrayal.

Fuck you, Merlin thought viciously, turning away. He slipped his hands under the hem of his dance partner’s shirt teasingly, lips sliding wetly up his throat, tasting sweat and stubble.

“Take me home,” Merlin whispered to the bloke, whose name he never bothered to find out. “Let’s go now.”

He didn’t have the strength to glance back.

 

--

Arthur didn’t show up, text, or call Merlin for three days straight. On the evening of the fourth, Merlin found him sitting on the steps of his building when Merlin came home from work.

“I brought beer,” Arthur said. “And bloody Twilight. I figured you didn’t deserve better.”

Merlin let him in.

The beer was mostly gone by the time Arthur finally spoke up, staring at the screen as if sparkling vampires were impossible to turn away from.

“Some warning would have been nice.”

Merlin didn’t bother to even sit up straighter. “Fuck you, Arthur. I’m not your bloody girlfriend for you to keep me in check.”

Arthur pouted. “I didn’t say you were. It’s just – picking up random strangers? Really, Merlin? Have you no self-esteem at all?”

“Why d’you care?”

“I don’t.”

“I can tell.”

“I don’t bloody care, all right? Shag whoever you want.”

A bitter, hoarse snort was ripped from Merlin’s chest. “I can’t.”

“What?”

“I can’t shag who I want. Are you fucking blind, Arthur?”

Arthur stared at him, hurt and confusion warring in his eyes. Suddenly they went wide. “Merlin—”

“Oh, get over yourself.” Merlin stood up abruptly, swaying just a little bit. He needed more sleep and food. Less beer. Certainly less Arthur. “I’m going to make tea; you want some?”

Arthur was silent for a moment. “I think I’d better go.”

Merlin turned away with a shrug. “Suit yourself.”

He didn’t hear the sound of the door closing over the noise of the kettle.

 

--

Arthur turned up at the coffee shop a week later. He sat at the counter, complaining about the day he’d spent at the office. He acted as though nothing had happened, and Merlin wasn’t going to look the gift horse in the mouth.

They were walking home when Arthur nudged Merlin’s shoulder with his own. “Do we have a problem?”

Merlin thought about it, and shook his head. “Not unless you make it one.”

Arthur glanced at him sideways, biting his lip. “I won’t if you won’t.”

“Works for me.”

Arthur lifted his arm in a habitual gesture, then lowered it, as if having remembered. And then, decisively, he lifted it again and slung it over Merlin’s shoulders.

“I missed your inane prattle.”

Merlin snorted. “Yeah. Same here.”

“So. We good?”

Merlin looked at him. He wanted to say no; he really did.

He couldn’t find it in him. “Yeah,” he sighed. “We’re good.”

Arthur’s responding grin was blinding.

Merlin was truly and utterly fucked.

 

--

Gwen returned in the middle of September, looking thinner and more glowing than ever. It took one week for a happy, downright peaceful look to settle on Arthur’s face. Whatever madness had overcome him during the summer, it was truly and completely gone now.

They settled into their old routine, but with a few notable changes. Arthur still came by a few times a week, but Saturday nights were now reserved for double dates with Leon and Morgana. The only time Merlin spent any quality time with Arthur now was every other Sunday, when Arthur would pick him up and herd to whatever vaguely dangerous adventure he had planned for the day.

The arrangement seemed to work for everyone. Well, it didn’t really work for Merlin, but, as he knew that nothing really would, he took whatever he could get. He had a feeling it wasn’t going to last.

It was during a riding excursion on one such Sunday that Arthur was quieter than usual. Merlin looked at him carefully, but didn’t prod. Arthur looked like he was working something out and, much as Merlin was tempted to make a joke about Arthur hurting himself with too much thinking, he managed to refrain.

“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” Arthur asked at last. “With Gwen?”

Merlin suppressed a sigh, petting his mare’s mane absently. “It doesn’t matter what I think, Arthur.”

Arthur looked at him, uncertain. “You’re my friend, Merlin. Probably the best I’ve ever had.”

There was such odd, fragile vulnerability in Arthur’s expression that Merlin had to look away for a moment.

Well, wasn’t that perfectly fucked up?

“Arthur,” Merlin said slowly, carefully. “I don’t know exactly what you’re asking, but Gwen is the best thing that could ever happen to you. The best thing to happen to anyone, really. She’s the kindest, smartest, most lovely person I know. I have no idea what she sees in a prat like you, but she loves you. If you let her go, you’d be the stupidest person alive.”

The way Arthur was looking at him...

“Is that really what you think?”

Merlin gritted his teeth. “Yes, that’s really what I think. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Arthur bit his lip and nodded, staring at the distant horizon. The way back to the stables was quiet, and Arthur didn’t even notice when Merlin beat him in their usual end-of-the-walk race.

Merlin groomed Betsy the horse with precision and care, taking the time to murmur a few thank you’s into her ear. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be seeing her in a while.

 

--

On Christmas Merlin did what he hadn’t done in nearly four years – he went back to Ealdor. Gwen and Arthur were going to Paris.

Merlin had spent the last two Christmases with Gwen and her family, so he wasn’t surprised when Elyan rang him, relaying a message from his mother.

“She said to tell you we’d be happy to have you,” Elyan said cheerfully. “If you don’t have any other plans, that is. Gwen and Arthur promised to stop by for a couple of days on their way back. We can all go back to London together.”

For a moment, Merlin could just see the dinner table, with Gwen’s parents beaming happily at their daughter who found such a perfect match. They’d be talking about grandchildren in no time at all, asking Merlin’s opinion on the names…

“Thanks, mate,” Merlin said, trying to sound grateful and not sarcastic. Gwen’s parents had always been nothing but kind to him. “But I do have plans. Please give your mum my love. Oh, and actually, could you take my present for them when you go?”

Merlin’s plans were nothing short of emergency. He would have preferred to stay right where he was, but knew that he couldn’t with Gwen around. She’d be concerned and worried and might go as far as cancelling her own trip if she got wind that Merlin would be alone on Christmas. That would simply not do, and Merlin wracked his brain for possible options. He had to make it believable.

The truth was that, after Hunith’s death, he no longer had a home in Ealdor. The house was sold, as per Hunith’s will, to pay for Merlin’s education, and Merlin didn’t have any other family left. There was only Will.

They’d parted amicably enough, as people do when there’s nothing separating them except for choosing different paths in life. Will still sent him stupid emails regularly, and Merlin called every now and then. He’d planned to go see Will his first Christmas in London, but Will had written that he’d met someone, so Merlin had cancelled the trip, not wanting to intrude.

Desperate times, though, called for desperate measures, and Merlin dialled Will’s number, praying for the conversation to bring as little embarrassment as possible.

Which, naturally, was utterly unrealistic where Will was concerned.

“You mean to tell me,” Will hissed, “that all this time you didn’t show your ugly mug in Ealdor because you didn’t want to spoil my honeymoon or something?”

“Er… Something like that?”

“Merlin, you freaking idiot. Do you know what kind of grilling I had to endure every Christmas from my dear ol’ ma? She tortured me, asking what the hell I could have possibly done to make you forget all about us. Jesus, mate, what is wrong with you? Ma loves you. Pretty sure she likes you better than me, anyway.”

Merlin sort of knew that. Not the better part, obviously, the other part. Louise loved him just as much as Hunith had loved Will.

“I didn’t want to crash your time with Ewan,” Merlin muttered weakly. “It can’t be fun for him to share your house with your ex.”

“Merlin, you stupid shit – you’re not my ex, you’re my best mate. The fact that I used your body to learn which bit goes where—”

“Oh, dear God—”

“—is inconsequential.”

“Wow, big word. You sure you can spell it?”

“Oi, fuck off. You sure you like your nose the way it is? Shut your gob, then.”

Merlin was grinning. “How could I survive for so long without the joy of your enlightened conversation?”

“Beats me. Listen, I’ll be doing a supply run next week anyway. Pack your bags; I’ll pick you up before you get another stupid idea like spending bloody Christmas alone.”

Merlin opened his mouth to say thanks, but Will had already hung up on him.

 

--

Going back to Ealdor was bittersweet, but less painful than Merlin imagined. When Will drove past Merlin’s old house, he couldn’t help but tear up just a little at the sight of bright windows and two kids building a snowman in the front yard.

“They’re decent folks,” Will said, noticing Merlin’s expression. “Four kids. Big family.”

Merlin nodded, throat too tight to speak. Big family. The house always did seem a bit big for just him and Hunith, but it was home.

Christmas was quiet. Louise was visibly happy to see Merlin, but, unlike her son, she had always been a bit on the quiet side, her questions always tactful, never prying. Merlin liked Ewan immediately, and they spent a great deal of time talking about things that both found fascinating.

“He’s a bit like you,” Will told Merlin late into the night, when it was just the two of them on the rug in front of the fireplace, slowly devouring a bowl of eggnog. “Always with his nose down some book. Less of a dreamer than you, though.”

Merlin lifted a shoulder awkwardly. “I’m not a dreamer.”

“Oh, really? Then why’d you come crawling here like that bloke who had his wings melted from flying too close to the sun?”

Merlin snorted and shook his head. After a while, Will sighed.

“Hey, Merlin? You’d tell me if there was anything at all I could do?”

Merlin looked up at him, forcing himself to hold Will’s eyes. “Yes.”

Will stared at him a moment longer, then rolled his eyes. “Once a shitty liar, always a shitty liar,” he mumbled, pulling himself up to his feet. “Goodnight, Merlin.”

“Night, Will.”

He only went to bed when the fire had finally gone out.

 

--

The ring was big.

The stone was impressive enough for a princess, and Merlin wondered if Gwen felt like one. He often caught her twirling the ring on her finger, as if making sure it was still there.

“Congratulations,” Merlin said, and Gwen hugged him so tightly there was no air left in his lungs.

Arthur’s handshake was a little more reserved, but still heartfelt, the clasp of his hand firm and the palm a little on the wet side.

“So when is the happy day?” Merlin asked.

Gwen and Arthur exchanged looks. “End of June,” Gwen said. “Merlin, we – we couldn’t decide—”

“We both wanted you for our best man,” Arthur told him.

“But, um” – Gwen bit her lip – “I don’t think that a dress would suit you, and Morgana is throwing us an engagement dinner. I, um, I sort of asked her. You’re not mad at me, are you?”

“Oh, yes, Gwen, I’m devastated that I won’t get to wear a dress,” Merlin joked and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“Well, in that case” – Arthur clapped him on the shoulder – “you’re all mine. I do hope you won’t lose the rings, Merlin. And your speech had better be well-rehearsed.”

Merlin laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He had to sit there and listen to them telling him every little detail of their week in Paris, both of them bright-eyed with excitement, holding hands and kissing frequently, as thought they couldn’t help themselves. By the end of the night, Merlin’s face was hurting from the effort of keeping a smile on his face.

“You two carry on, don’t mind me,” he said at last, when he couldn’t take it any longer.

Finally alone in his room, he didn’t bother with the lights, staring unseeingly into the darkness. He stupidly thought it would hurt less. He stupidly thought he could bear it, could just be happy for them, and feel no regret.

He felt like the last person on Earth, being jealous of his best friends’ happiness, but he couldn’t help it. He was human and he was in pain.

Will was wrong about him, though – Merlin wasn’t always a shitty liar. It was an acquired skill, and he put a great deal of work into it.

He was sitting at the long table in Morgana’s dining room, toasting Arthur and Gwen along with all their friends and smiling, even laughing the whole meal through, as though he was just as happy as they were. Maybe if he could keep the act long enough, it would become reality, and he wouldn’t have to tear himself to pieces anymore by pretending.

“Well, now that we’re saying goodbye to the last bachelor in the group—” Leon started with yet another toast.

“Not the last one,” Arthur interrupted, his arm wrapped around Gwen’s waist, eyes on Merlin. “There’s still Merlin.”

And for some reason, it was funny, because everyone laughed.

“Merlin’s hopeless,” Gwaine said, clapping Merlin’s back. “He’s too pretty to settle down.”

“Oi,” Merlin protested weakly.

“No, really, mate. I think Gwen is the only person who didn’t dump you after a couple of weeks. Considering you fancy blokes, that’s saying something.”

“She’s a saint, our Gwen.”

“Aw, stop it, you lot.”

“We should probably just adopt him as our collective child.”

“Hear, hear. We should make a schedule or something.”

Merlin didn’t remember what he said to that. Something witty about how their collective parental skills wouldn’t be enough to impress a toddler – or something along those lines that made everyone laugh again before returning to the subject in hand. What he did remember was Arthur’s eyes drilling into the side of his face all throughout that. Merlin couldn’t look at him. He was certain that Arthur could see right through him, and Arthur’s pity might have been just one drop too much.

Later, as the general conversation split into bits and pieces, Merlin slid out into the garden. His hands were shaking slightly as he searched his pockets for a cigarette. The first draw came like a gulp of life.

“Do you have another?”

He jumped a little and turned to see Gwaine’s date, Elena. His shoulders slumped in vague disappointment and relief.

“No, sorry. I don’t really smoke.”

“Me neither.”

“We can share?”

“Sure.”

She took the cigarette from him and took a couple of draws sharply, business-like, before giving it back. Merlin tasted no lipstick and liked her more immediately.

“They were rude, you know,” Elena said as the cigarette changed hands the second time.

“I’m sorry?”

“Back inside, when they said, when they didn’t even remember—”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry. I’m new here, and it’s none of my business. Maybe it’s what you guys do. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“It’s okay. They – mean well.”

She looked at him a little incredulously.

Merlin sighed. The cigarette was gone, leaving a nasty taste in his mouth, but he felt calmer. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. It’s no big deal.”

She pursed her lips. “You deserve better.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“No, but – everyone does.”

They were silent for a while, listening to the loud voices and laughter seeping from inside the house.

Elena was right, Merlin thought faintly. Enough was enough. Everything he didn’t want to believe in was becoming uncomfortably real. Undeniably so, like the ring on Gwen’s finger.

This wouldn’t ever be Merlin’s happily ever after. It wasn’t even his story. He had hoped it would become one, he’d waited…

He wasn’t born for the spotlight. He might have brought Arthur into their little circle by the hand, but now Arthur was their prince, their darling. Arthur was someone they had been waiting for. Merlin was the quirky best friend – Arthur might still want him there out of habit, but, strictly speaking, Arthur didn’t really need him anymore.

It was time to face reality.

Elena shivered in her translucent, gaseous blouse, ill-suited for January chill.

Merlin smiled at her. “You’d best get back inside.”

She tilted her head to the side curiously. “What about you?”

Merlin shrugged. “Better dash before I’m stuck with driving duty. My driving skills are atrocious, I’ll have you know.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Worse than Gwaine’s?”

Merlin laughed. “No, probably not. You take care of him, okay?”

She grinned. “It was nice meeting you, Merlin.”

“You too.”

Nobody caught him picking up his coat and scarf before sneaking through the backdoor. It was for the best, or so Merlin reminded himself as he walked steadily up the road toward the bus stop, blinking away the rain that couldn’t decide if it wanted to become snow.

 

--

The wedding was what a wedding between two eerily gorgeous people was supposed to be.

Merlin stood beside Arthur, watching Gwen walk down the aisle with her father. She looked magnificent in her fairytale princess wedding dress, smiling shyly at Arthur, who was beaming at her.

Merlin was smiling, too. He hadn’t forgotten the rings; he knew the text of Arthur’s vow by heart in case the excitement would make Arthur stumble; he’d rehearsed his own speech to perfection. He even bought a new suit at Gwen’s insistence, although he didn’t let Arthur pay for it. His present was at the reception hall, in the pile along with the others: he’d spent a great deal of money on charity on their behalf so that they could start their life together with a good deed.

Over the last six months, Merlin had done everything required of him in his capacity as best man and best friend to both Arthur and Gwen. He had also been quietly busy finalising his own plans, of which, he hoped, no one was aware. His plane ticket was a reassuring weight in the inner pocket of his jacket. It was the only thing that kept the smile on his face and prevented him from curling into himself in some dark corner with his arms wrapped protectively over his stomach.

He’d really hoped he’d be a bigger man. His mother would have been so disappointed in him if she saw him standing there, hoping for the roof of the church to crumble down – anything for Merlin not to have to watch Arthur marrying someone else.

Merlin really wouldn’t be winning any best friend awards this year.

Arthur’s hand brushed his – a searing-hot, fleeting touch. Merlin looked at him. Arthur’s eyes were a little on the frightened side.

“You okay?” Merlin whispered.

Arthur’s mouth moved, but he seemed to be unable to produce a sound.

Merlin squeezed his hand quickly and smiled. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine, Arthur.”

Arthur swallowed and nodded, visibly calming under Merlin’s gaze. Merlin gave him another reassuring smile and nudged him subtly to face his fiancée.

The ceremony was beautiful, and nobody forgot their vows. Merlin was in some kind of daze. From the moment Arthur and Gwen were pronounced husband and wife, Merlin felt as though he was moving underwater, too slow and half-deaf for the weird, distorted wail in his ears. He moved on wooden legs to hug Arthur, Gwen, even Morgana. He knew he probably looked absolutely fine from the outside, but he did it as if he wasn’t even there.

It was the strangest thing he had ever experienced, almost as though he was watching his own body from a distance. He could see himself smiling, but couldn’t feel it. He laughed and talked and answered questions, and couldn’t hear a word of it for the life of him.

He gave his speech and people laughed, but he wasn’t pulled back into himself until he was dancing with Gwen, trying not to get in the way of Arthur and Morgana.

Gwen was beaming at him. “Thank you for everything, Merlin. You’re the best friend ever.”

He shook his head, feeling like a slow-motion film had suddenly started rolling at normal speed. He smiled at Gwen vaguely and shrugged. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You’ve always been there for us. When my dress wouldn’t fit; when Arthur’s father said all those horrible things; when Arthur had his accident and wouldn’t let me see him. Merlin” – she stopped dancing and clasped his arms tightly – “I don’t think we’d be here tonight if it wasn’t for you. Thank you.”

Merlin swallowed. He couldn’t quite look her in the eye, and his smile was wry. “Yeah, well… You’re welcome.”

It was some time later, after he had long retreated into the safety of a wall bench, when Elena appeared in front of him, looking prettier than Merlin had ever seen her.

“May I have this dance?” she asked.

Merlin laughed softly, despite himself. “I’m not really that big on dancing. In fact, I’m quite hopeless. I only danced with Gwen, because well, it’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, pulling him away from the wall by the arm. “I’m hopeless, too. We can scare people together.”

Chuckling, Merlin allowed her to tug him to the edge of the dance floor. He had become quite fond of Elena in the past few months.

“So,” she started, looking up at him with shrewd eyes. “Why do I get the feeling you’re about to run?”

Merlin lowered his voice instinctively. “Because you’re smart? And it’s not running. It’s a strategic relocation.”

“Hm.” She bit her lip. “How far?”

Merlin sighed. Why not? “Hamilton.”

“States?”

“Canada. Gaius – he’s my academic adviser – he asked his colleagues for me. There’s a post-grad spot open at Mac. I applied and, I guess, I’m good enough.”

“You’re really leaving then?”

“Yep. I actually have a plane to catch later tonight. Gwen still thinks I’m looking for a new flatmate, but the lease runs out next month, and I’ve talked to the landlord. If someone turns up tomorrow, they can have it.”

“You really thought this through, huh?”

He shrugged. “I sold my stuff; everything I won’t be taking with me, that is. My paperwork’s in order, and well, I don’t have any family here, so…” He trailed off, trying not to look into the middle of the beautifully decorated hall where Arthur was dancing with Gwen again, gazing into her eyes.

“Well,” Elena intoned quietly, drawing his attention back to her. “I’m going to miss you, but I guess – good for you. Though I have to say, I didn’t realise you could be this stealthy. Nobody knows, do they?”

“Nope.” Merlin shook his head and grinned helplessly. “I suppose even I can be subtle when life makes me.”

Elena gave him a strange look and then suddenly slid her arms to lock them behind his neck, pulling his head down. “You’re a brave man, Merlin,” she whispered. “A very strong man. I don’t think I could have… Gwaine was smitten with Gwen, too, you know. If that was him there right now and not Arthur, I’d have lost it. I could never be as – as composed as you. I don’t know how you do it.”

For a moment, Merlin closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers.

He didn’t ask how she knew. The truth was – it wasn’t even that difficult to see. He could never be that subtle. All one had to do was look; take a bit of an interest in him. Just a little bit, mind.

But Elena was the only one who did, and that was another reason why Merlin never told anyone he was leaving.

What would be the point, really?

Somehow, their awkward dance mutated into a slightly clumsy but heartfelt hug. Elena sniffed, wiping her cheeks, and Merlin felt his own eyes stinging. He couldn’t afford it. He had held on for the entire night – for the last six months, for God’s sake. He couldn’t afford to lose it now.

He pulled away.

“Write to me, okay?” Elena ordered, straightening his tie for him. “Please, Merlin. I won’t say anything to anyone, but if you don’t write to me, I’ll borrow Gwaine’s hunting dogs and come looking for you. Just a warning.”

“Okay.” He let out a choked laugh. “You take care, El. Gwaine really doesn’t deserve you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t I know it.”

When Merlin was certain no one was looking, he sneaked out of the reception hall. As he walked outside, he pulled out his mobile, spared it one last glance, and dropped it into the nearest rubbish bin.

His lungs constricted as he raised his hand and whistled.

A passing cab made a beeline for him, and Merlin smirked wryly. He had never been able to pull off that trick before, too touchy about his dignity. It was ironic that having nothing left to lose would make for such a great confidence booster.

“Heathrow, please.”

“It’s going to cost you.”

“I know.”

He really didn’t care that much. It was the price of freedom.

 

Part II. Present Imperfect.

 

Three years later

 

At some point in life, Merlin will look back at the years he spent in Canada and smile. He will always insist that the decision to move there was simply a step in advancing his scientific career, but certain people – very few people – will know that it was much more than that.

He crossed the ocean desperate for some healing, but had found himself instead. He discovered that permanent heartbreak wasn’t a fatal condition, even if it felt like that sometimes. He could live with it, and be – not happy, perhaps, but content. In the end, it was almost worth the desperate pull of longing he felt toward the friends he’d left behind.

Whenever someone asks him about that time, Merlin thinks about the quiet, friendly town with welcoming smiles and children everywhere. He thinks about long hours of work in the lab; about his boss, Professor Nimueh Blake, formidable and somewhat creatively challenged but essentially fair; about geeky jokes with his colleagues, a bizarre international bunch, most of whom spoke French better than English and all of whom wanted to save the world from itself.

Merlin thinks about meeting Jon, and the way Jon simply froze in place the first time he saw Merlin, staring at him in some kind of daze. Merlin will always remember how flattered he felt, embarrassed and giddy and hot all over. He’ll remember the initial awkwardness, the entirely unsubtle courting, long mornings in bed on bank holidays, and Jon’s mischievous smiles as he trailed his lips down Merlin’s stomach.

Merlin’s scientific career does advance amazingly in those years, giving his legend credence. In trying to avoid thinking about Arthur, Merlin basically lives in the lab, pouring all of his unrequited passion into his research. He is the only one surprised when it brings around the unimaginable distinction of being published in Nature while only being a grad student. It also gets him spotted on the Avalon headhunters’ radar. They send a brilliant young woman called Freya to attend the defence of his thesis as his three years at McMaster run out, and she makes him an offer he really can’t refuse, even if it means going back to England.

But that’s not all Canada was for him, and Merlin will always remember the other things, too.

He’ll remember the long sleepless nights he spent staring at the ceiling, thinking of Arthur and Gwen, hoping to gods they were happy, because someone had to be. Excruciating morning runs – desperate attempts to tire himself out. Late night swims; burning pain in exhausted muscles, his body fighting back, changing, striving to accommodate.

Thoughts. So many thoughts he’d rather not have had.

He’ll remember every one.

Jon’s eyes – beautiful and caring and completely the wrong colour. Sleeping pills on the first Christmas Eve; excessive alcohol on the second. Hands trembling with the desire to dial the familiar number, firmly engraved into his brain, just to listen to the cool, grouchy voice say ‘Hello.’ Being kissed at midnight on New Year; turning away to hide the unwanted tears.

Resentment. Guilt. Crippling realisation that, in the entirety of his lifetime, he’ll only fall in love once.

Learning to accept it.

Canada gives him himself in a way Merlin never suspected he would ever have. He comes back to England, smiling into its misty welcome, comfortable in his own skin for the first time in his life. He used to envy Arthur his confidence – something his friend had been born with. It took Merlin a long time to attain his own measure of it, to shape it after himself, but he’s there at last. He can’t help but enjoy the feeling.

Merlin hadn’t talked to Arthur in three years; hadn’t talked to any of them, really, except for Elena and, because of her, Gwaine. He’s not completely out of the loop, even though it took a long while before he managed to ask Elena about how the others were doing.

Merlin knew that Arthur had quit his job with Uther and started his own business shortly after Merlin had left. Within a year, quite a few of Uther’s clients realised that they rather preferred the more humane and adaptive approach of Round Table Consulting to the rigidity and conservatism of Camelot Enterprises. It helped Arthur’s new company to stay afloat long enough for the word to get around and for the new clients to start trickling in.

Merlin shook his head at the news, and grinned. If anyone could make a start-up survive in that kind of economy, it figured that it would be Arthur.

His marriage didn’t do quite so well.

Gwen and Arthur drifted apart quietly, almost unnoticed by any of their friends. Merlin pieced it together both from Elena’s carefully-worded emails and occasional phone calls and his own deep, intimate knowledge of these two people that he began to suspect he alone possessed. For some reason (the schism with Uther the likely suspect), Arthur had become what he used to swear he’d never be – a workaholic, married to his work, keeping an entire wardrobe in his office in case he didn’t make it home.

And Merlin knew Gwen. He knew she would have tried. She would have been supportive and always there for Arthur. But Gwen was a strong, independent woman who knew her own worth. She wouldn’t force herself on someone who didn’t appreciate her. She would offer, but wouldn’t insist, her pride and dignity telling her that she deserved to be happy.

Merlin remembered many a time spent trying to knock some sense into Arthur. He’d talked and yelled and taunted and fought Arthur in what was undoubtedly a graceless, ugly manner. But Arthur needed that sometimes. He was too stubborn for his own good, too much of a prat on occasion, and it had always been a struggle with him, a bloody war, a constant push-pull that drove Merlin up the wall but was worth it – always worth it – in the end.

Merlin thought, he hoped that Gwen would be this for Arthur; that she’d take his place when Merlin was no longer there. He hoped that Arthur’s love for her would make him listen, would take him further than his irritation with Merlin ever had.

For some reason, it didn’t happen, and that, to Merlin, was unfathomable.

According to Elena, the divorce took them all by surprise, but it was amicable enough. They formalized it a year and a half after the wedding, just before Christmas. Elena only saw Gwen once after that, before she left for Indonesia to teach the kids in Jakarta English. The two of them had never been close, and Gwen normally wouldn’t be saying those things to Elena, but Merlin wasn’t there and Morgana had always been a poor listener.

Sometimes it felt like living with my brother again,’ Gwen told Elena as they stopped for coffee. She was waiting for Elyan to take her to the airport. ‘And sometimes it was as though we were two complete strangers sharing the same flat.

When Merlin first heard the news, he was so upset and distraught that he nearly booked a flight back to London. Jon had to sit on him, almost literally, to stop him from walking out on everything he’d managed to build. Merlin worked himself up into a frenzy, and Jon finally had to slap him.

You can’t keep rushing to fix them whenever you think they’re broken, Merlin. They’re two grown up people, and you’re not responsible for whatever’s happening to them. You can’t keep telling them how to live their lives. It’s arrogant, and wrong.’

It was. Merlin couldn’t deny that. But he also couldn’t help but feel the enormous, crushing weight of guilt pressing him down to the ground. He’d been their best friend and he’d walked out on them. They needed him, and he – he deserted them out of his own selfish need. He betrayed them, because he couldn’t get a grip on his stupid, hopeless, completely inappropriate feelings.

He came to realise, eventually, that Jon was right. Merlin had as much right to get on with his own life as Gwen and Arthur had to decide what to do with theirs. Maybe they could have used his support, but, ultimately, it was up to the two of them. There was nothing Merlin could do about it, and he knew that, but he still couldn’t quite forgive himself.

He even broke his self-imposed code of silence and sent an email to Gwen, but she had either changed her address or was ignoring him, which was probably only fair. Merlin didn’t write to her again, but he heard she was quite fond of her work in Indonesia. If her public Facebook photos were any indication, its bright, sunny air suited her far better than the ever-rainy England.

Merlin thought about contacting Arthur. For weeks and weeks, he thought almost of nothing else, but he couldn’t do it in the end. He had no idea what he could possibly say.

The impossible intensity of his emotions had faded gradually over Merlin’s last year in Hamilton. His thesis research had reached its crucial stages and Merlin’s mind was consumed with work. At some point, he became much more concerned about staying friends with Jon, who was – as Merlin realised after almost two years of near-complete obliviousness – much more in love with him than he let on, knowing Merlin wasn’t as invested. It was bittersweet in the end, but Merlin managed, even if he couldn’t help but wonder why he had the worst possible timing on Earth and a heart as dumb as it was stubborn.

Eventually, all the speeches were said, the bags were packed, email addresses were exchanged along with promises to write and send over new mobile numbers. Jon drove him to the airport and kissed him one last time, smiling and breaking Merlin’s heart just that little bit more.

But England was waiting, and England was home, and Merlin had only wanted to work for Avalon since sixth form. It would be nice to be living in the same city with Elena again – even with a constant flow of correspondence, Merlin missed her more than he had realised. (The case of ice wine hidden in his luggage was proof enough of that, considering Merlin hated sweet wines with a passion.)

He had a window seat and leaned against the glass as the plane took off. He was filled with gratitude and serenity and a silent vow to come back sometime to this quiet, friendly place that had given him so much.

For now, though, he was going home.

 

--

Merlin has been in England for almost two months now, and he still hadn’t seen Arthur. Somehow, between settling in his new flat and adjusting to his new job, he’d managed to run into almost everyone else, minus Gwen, of course. He’d even seen Morgana, who gave her best impression of not recognising him at first.

But somehow, he never saw Arthur, until tonight.

It’s Elena’s birthday and Merlin can’t help a grin, looking around Godwyn’s restaurant – almost unrecognisable with all the thematic decorations and people. Gwaine obviously still knows how to throw the best parties.

Merlin has already given his present to the more-than-tipsy birthday girl, said hello to a few people he knows, and been introduced to a few more he doesn’t. He’s smiling, pleasantly relaxed, and contemplating getting another drink when he sees him.

Merlin can’t help it. His heart makes a stuttered, broken flip inside his chest, and he feels momentarily rooted to the spot, staring.

Arthur is sitting at the bar, his navy blue suit still impeccable, but his tie loose, shirt opened at the collar. His shoulders are slumped forward, and he’s staring unseeingly at the couple of empty shot glasses in front of him. Somehow, in the middle of the oppressively optimistic Latin dance music, waitresses dressed as exotic dancers, and all the merry guests, Arthur looks cold, miserable, and alone. Merlin’s heart seizes at the sight.

Barely feeling the floor beneath his feet, he walks forward, summoning a smile. Teasing has always been the best way to coax Arthur out of his brooding mood. Merlin wants to believe that that much hasn’t changed.

Merlin stops beside him, leaning in to be heard over the music, and prays to every god he knows that Arthur doesn’t punch him in the face the moment he sees him.

“Why so sad tonight, Your Highness?” Merlin purrs around a smirk he can’t hold back. He’s so happy to see Arthur, he’s giddy with it. “Can a handsome stranger buy you a drink?”

Arthur looks up with a start, and his eyes grow wide, jaw dropping. “Merlin?”

Merlin nods, grinning, the drumming of his pulse almost deafening. “Hi.”

Merlin.”

“Long time no—mnphh!”

Arthur is out of the chair and pulling Merlin into a tight, bone-crushing hug so fast that Merlin barely has time to blink. But Arthur lets him go almost immediately, leaving Merlin shaken and bereft.

“I'm sorry,” Arthur mutters, suddenly hoarse. “I'm sorry, you surprised me. I – it’s really good to see you, Merlin.”

“It’s really good to see you, too,” Merlin says, still grinning and clasping Arthur’s arm. Arthur winces, but smiles finally, if a little uncertainly, the look seemingly foreign on his face. “Elena didn’t tell you I'd be here tonight?”

Arthur shakes his head. “I didn’t even know you were back in England.”

“Oh.”

“When did you come back?”

Merlin shrugs, glancing away. “A few weeks. Settling in, you know? I wanted to call, but—”

“It’s not really your thing,” Arthur finishes, a muscle tensing in his jaw. “Saying hello – or goodbye, for that matter.”

“I wanted to call,” Merlin repeats quietly. “You don’t know how many times.”

Arthur looks at him sharply. “Then why didn’t you?”

You know,’ Merlin wants to say. What he says instead is, “I'm sorry.”

But Arthur isn’t willing to let it go. His eyes narrowed with startling intensity. “Merlin, you just – disappeared. Was it something I did?”

“No! God, Arthur, of course not. I'm really sorry – you know how I am… still an idiot.”

He smiles, but Arthur isn’t buying it. Merlin feels every bit the bastard he is when he says hastily, “I heard about Gwen. I'm so sorry.”

Arthur grimaces and glances away, finally pulling back from Merlin’s hold. “You know,” he says after a pause, “the first thing I thought after she told me she was filing for divorce was: ‘Merlin is going to kill me.’”

Merlin can’t laugh at that, even though it’s expected. “Are you alright?”

“It was over a year ago, Merlin,” Arthur says dryly. “I'm fine.”

Testing his words, Merlin looks his fill. Arthur is the same, but – different. It’s hard to pinpoint the change, the imprint of the time elapsed that doesn’t show in any obvious way. Arthur is as painfully beautiful as ever, if a little thinner, but there’s a certain tightness about his features that hadn’t been there before. Merlin has to suppress the impulse to reach out and smooth the tense, edgy lines with his fingers.

“So,” Arthur says, and Merlin starts. He hasn’t realised that while he’s been staring at Arthur, the scrutiny has been returned in full. Vaguely, he wonders what Arthur sees when he looks at him now. “How long will you be staying?”

The casualness of his tone is was almost brittle, sending another pang of guilt through Merlin’s body.

“I'm here to stay. You know I never actually saw myself as someone with a future in fundamental science; I always wanted to work for Avalon. Besides, the private sector pays more.”

Arthur doesn’t return his smile, still studying Merlin through narrowed eyes. His expression is closed off, and suddenly Merlin can’t quite believe that this is the same man who just hugged him on impulse.

“Well then,” Arthur says finally, “I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”

The dismissal hurts, even though Merlin knows he deserves it. Arthur has never been one to forgive easily, and he has every right to be wary of Merlin.

Part of him says that this is good. Having Arthur back in his life is a bad idea; it could only lead to more heartbreak and pain. But Merlin has never been good at listening to that part that he suspects is his self-preservation instinct. Somehow, it’s always saying the right things, but never manages to make them sound convincing, or at the very least tempting.

The simple truth is, he’s missed Arthur. Not his friend Gwen’s boyfriend Arthur that Merlin had an obscene crush on. Not the love of his life Arthur who went and married someone else. He’s missed Arthur – just Arthur, the closest friend Merlin has ever had; a decent if somewhat spoiled bloke, whom Merlin, above and beyond everything else, simply likes.

Merlin had given it up willingly that one time. Now, he’s determined to fight to get it back.

“I was wondering,” he says, conjuring up an easy smile, “that climbing wall thing that you liked to go to on Sundays – does it still exist?”

Arthur blinks, clearly taken off guard. “I – have no idea.” He chuckles. “I haven’t been there in ages. Since you left, probably.”

“Wanna go sometime?”

Arthur takes the longest time to answer. “Leave me your number,” he says at last. “I’ll call you.”

Merlin smiles. He hoped Arthur would say yes, but right now? He’s happy enough Arthur didn’t said no.

 

--

Arthur takes a week to make good on his promise. The moment they see each other, Merlin feels strangled by the awkwardness that settles over them like a vast, thick cloud. He doesn’t think it was that bad when they’d first met, even, and it’s painful, the way they both try to act as if it’s not there.

Merlin strips out of his button-down to put on the climbing harness. He looks up to find Arthur staring at him. Merlin frowns. “Something wrong? I know I’m a bit rusty... Did I mess up the locks or something?”

Arthur blinks. “What? Uh, no. No, you’re fine.” He steps closer and does a perfunctory check of the clasps and locks on Merlin’s gear. His eyes linger on Merlin’s shoulders, trailing down his arms, his chest, and stomach. Merlin suppresses the urge to squirm as he watches a pinched line of puzzlement appear between Arthur’s eyebrows. “Have you been working out?”

“Um.” Merlin flushes a little. “I might have taken up jogging. And swimming. Back in Canada, I mean. Not since.”

Arthur hums and shakes his head. “I’d say it’s not at all like you to do that much sport,” he says with a small smile, “but I guess I don’t really know you all that well anymore, do I?”

“Of course you do.” Merlin rolls his eyes and grins at him. “Race you to the top?”

He sprints toward the wall, hearing Arthur sputter and huff out a surprised laugh behind him. “Oh, you’re so on, Emrys.”

They’re both rusty, but Arthur has been doing this for much longer and, since there’s no universe in which Merlin would be the more athletic of the two, Arthur beats him by a good two meters.

“Show off,” Merlin grumbles as Arthur graciously gives him a hand up. Arthur laughs like a delighted five-year-old, and Merlin can’t help but join him.

Just like that, the awkwardness dissipates. They drift to a nearby pub for a very late lunch, and Arthur talks almost eagerly, telling Merlin about his company. He starts factual-dry and almost formal, but Merlin’s keen interest coaxes his true feelings onto the surface soon enough. Arthur’s tone is laced with enthusiasm and almost incandescent pride of his creation – a steady certainty that he’s doing it for the people. It makes Merlin smile, because that’s exactly how he feels about the new atmospheric filter he’s working on that he’ll tell Arthur all about some other time.

If it also makes him fall just a little bit more in love with Arthur, well. There’s nothing new about that.

Merlin doesn’t really want to push, but he also doesn’t want Arthur to think that this was some kind of one-off for Merlin. He waits a couple of days before phoning Arthur to ask if he wants a repeat performance. This time, Arthur agrees immediately. He still sounds rather aloof, but Merlin has long learned to interpret Arthur’s true feelings by what he does, not what he says.

Arthur texts him on Thursday on week three, asking if Merlin would like to grab dinner. Their offices, ironically enough, aren’t that far apart from each other. Arthur spends the entire time bitching about a difficult client and lets Merlin talk him out of selling everything and going into seclusion somewhere in Tibet.

They go out for lunch next Tuesday, where Arthur valiantly turns off his mobile to better mock Merlin’s food choices. Merlin executes his revenge by not telling Arthur about the long-term effects of maté which Arthur insists on trying ‘since you dragged me to this hippie greenhouse you mistook for a restaurant, Merlin.’ When Arthur calls him at 2 a.m. that night, artfully constructing whole sentences out of expletives, Merlin just grins and hangs up.

They slowly settle into a routine of sorts: lunches on Tuesdays, dinners on Thursdays, and some kind of physically exhausting venture on Sundays. It’s comfortable, nice, and Merlin doesn’t think twice about it, happy to have Arthur back as a friend. It’s so sensible, almost feeling grown-up.

However, when, a few more weeks in, Arthur finally caves and lets Merlin drag him to the pub with the rest of their friends, the ethereal utopia Merlin has constructed in his mind shifts precariously. At first, he doesn’t understand why everyone is trying (and failing spectacularly) not to stare as Arthur trails in after Merlin toward their table. He just feels Arthur stiffen next to him, listening to a chorus of greetings.

“I’ll get the drinks,” Arthur mutters and takes off, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

“What was that all about?” Merlin demands, flopping down into a seat the moment Arthur is out of earshot.

Percival shoots him a bewildered glance, Leon is still sitting with his mouth slightly open and blinking, Elena is shell-shocked, and Gwaine seems unusually pensive.

“Arthur hasn’t gone out with us in...” Gwaine starts, and trails off, glancing over at Elena helplessly.

“At least a year,” she supplies. “Not since your promotion.”

Gwaine snorts. “And then he only turned out for the first toast before he was off.”

Merlin looks around, confused and strangely defensive on Arthur’s part. “So what, he’s not welcome anymore or something?”

“No!” Elena blurts out hastily. “Of course he is, Merlin, it’s just that—”

“How the hell did you manage it?” Leon asks, staring at him. “I’ve been nagging him—”

“We all have.”

“—and wheedling, and all but begged him to take a break, to remember he has friends, even, but he just wouldn’t budge.”

“He was always ‘too busy.’”

“So what the hell did you do to make him come?”

Merlin shifts uncomfortably in his seat, flushing under the scrutiny as everyone stares at him. He looks down and shrugs. “I didn’t really do anything. I just asked if he wanted to come.” He glances around the table. “Can we please not make it a thing?”

“Yeah, no, absolutely.” Elena nods, nearly knocking over her glass in her earnestness. “You just surprised us, that’s all.”

Gwaine huffs out a disbelieving laugh. “That’s an understatement.” He claps Merlin’s shoulder. “Well done, you.”

“Well done what?” Arthur sets the drinks down and drags a chair from another table, wedging it in next to Merlin’s.

“The experiment I’ve been stressing over,” Merlin says, giving everyone a narrow-eyed look. “I finally nailed it.”

“Really?” Arthur looks up with a grin – genuine for the first time since they’d walked in. “So the cow poop is really going to save us?”

“No; that idea tanked.” Merlin laughs. “But at least we can rule it out now.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Thank God.”

“Cow poop, Merlin? Really?” Gwaine smirks. “I can’t believe they pay you in real money and not, like, Monopoly chips.”

“You just can’t get over the fact that I get to be creative and unconventional and be wealthy because of it,” Merlin shoots back, but his heart isn’t in it.

There’s a tall beer glass in front of him, and Merlin suddenly can’t get over the fact that Arthur remembers his preference for white beer. He glances sideways slowly, only barely listening to the mock debate Gwaine and Percival have started.

Arthur doesn’t look back at him, but there’s a soft hint of a smile curling in the corner of his mouth.

“Thank you,” Merlin says quietly after a while.

Arthur doesn’t turn, only nod, and Merlin smiles into his glass.

Sometimes, it’s really that simple.

 

--

Arthur takes him to his new country club. He got the recommendation from one of his business partners after it became impossible for him to be a member of the same club as Uther any longer. He didn’t elaborate on the subject, and Merlin didn’t ask for details, but eventually he gets the impression that Arthur likes his new club better, mostly because of its no discrimination policy. Arthur doesn’t play golf or polo, but he does love riding, and Merlin is happy Arthur’s able to continue doing so.

It doesn’t stop Merlin from complaining about having to get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, though. Arthur has to practically load him into the car, throwing a quilt over him and shoving a venti-size coffee travel mug into his hands. It smells delicious, and Merlin snoozes on happily, inhaling the rich, caramel-scented aroma.

He’s at that stage of barely-awake when talking seems like too much effort, but fortunately, Arthur doesn’t seem that intent on conversation. He catches some leniently cheery morning show on the radio, and they both snort at the cheesy jokes and some night-shift-DJ-going-crazy moments, rolling their eyes at each other.

By the time they arrive, Merlin feels awake enough and even mostly human again. Arthur gives him a short tour, impatient as always to get to the stables – or maybe unusually impatient even for Arthur, as Merlin realises in retrospect.

“Surprise,” Arthur says, nudging Merlin toward one of the stalls.

“Oh my God.” Merlin stares at the beautiful brown mare, at its soft, neatly trimmed mane and a bright white spot on its forehead. “Arthur, is that—”

“Betsy.” Arthur nods, grinning. “I knew you’d remember her.”

“Hi,” Merlin breathes out in wonder, reaching out only to have Betsy neigh softly and nudge his hand with her head. “Oh God, it’s really you, isn’t it? Hello, girl, you gorgeous, gorgeous thing. But Arthur – how?”

Arthur rubs his neck and turns away, moving to walk out his own horse. “I thought if anything would entice you into going all that way out of London, this would.” He shrugs. “It wasn’t that hard, transferring her. She’s not a – she’s a good horse, but she’s not all that valuable. You like her because you have no sense at all about horses.”

“He doesn’t mean it,” Merlin says, petting Betsy’s neck as she turns to look at Arthur, as though understanding every word. “He’s just being a prat.”

An over-the-top generous, crazy, big-hearted prat, Merlin adds mentally, busying himself with the horse so as not to succumb to the impulse to do something insane, like maybe kiss Arthur senseless. He feels a little choked up and warm all over.

“Let’s see if you’re as pathetic as I remember,” Arthur shoots at him with a smug grin before heading outside.

The ride invigorates Merlin as he races after Arthur, laughing, enjoying himself immensely despite the light mist. He’s forgotten how well Arthur looks in his saddle, how natural it is to see him in this environment, away from the constricting clutches of business deals and office walls.

He can’t really help himself, so it’s no wonder that Arthur catches him staring.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Merlin shakes his head quickly. “Just thinking.”

“About?”

“Just, um... the presentation I’ve been working on. Sorry. My boss says my style is too much popular, too little science. I just don’t see why I have to make everything incomprehensible to anyone but the experts.” He shrugs hurriedly. “It’s been on my mind.”

“Well.” Arthur smiles softly. “Your boss does have a point. I’m not saying you should change your style – I like it – but yeah, I do see where he’s coming from.”

“What do you mean?” Merlin frowns. “Wait a second – when have you ever read anything of mine?”

“I read your Nature article. When I didn’t really get it, I read your thesis as well.”

Merlin pulls on the reins and stares. “What?”

Arthur stops his horse, too, reluctantly, and lifts an eyebrow.

“Why would you do that? When?”

Arthur looks at him calmly. “I was never much into science, so, I admit, I struggled with it. But I was interested, too. I think you’re really on to something. I’m not an expert, of course, but—”

Arthur.”

Arthur looks down at his nails, cocks his head. “I was bored.”

Merlin lets out a shocked laugh. “You don’t read Nature articles when you’re bored, Arthur.”

“No,” Arthur says, suddenly sharp. “I used to have this friend, a best friend, you could say, I suppose. I don’t form attachments to other people easily, so I’m a bit dim on the whole mate classification business. But yeah, there was this bloke, and I used to call him when I was bored. Or sad, or happy for that matter. He was really annoying, but he had this weird tendency to make everything better.”

“Arthur—”

“And then one day, he was gone. Phone number disconnected, email discontinued, not even a Dear John note, and all I had – all I had of him were his bloody scientific articles in a language that might be Martian, for all I care!”

Arthur’s voice rings loudly in the stillness of the clearing, wet leaves whispering softly around them.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispers.

Arthur’s horse dances nervously under him, its tail swishing. Arthur’s thighs tense visibly as he quickly reinstates his control.

“You know what I hate most about you leaving, Merlin? I didn’t understand it at all at first, but I think I do now, and you know what? I don’t blame you.”

 He fixes Merlin with a steady look that gives nothing away. “But I do hate that you didn’t trust me enough, didn’t believe in me enough, to at least give me a chance. I just really, really hate that about you.”

He digs his heels into the horse’s sides and sprints off, setting an alarming gallop that Merlin has no hope of following.

 

--

On his way back, Merlin thinks about Betsy the horse. He thinks about Arthur’s PA, about how his name is Simon, how he has a fondness for white hydrangeas, and how Merlin knows all this because Simon had actually sent him flowers. Apparently, Arthur had cut his insane work hours, and somehow, his PA deduced that it was Merlin’s doing.

He thinks about how Arthur never screws up Merlin’s coffee order. How he scowled at the photo of Merlin and Jon the first time he came around Merlin’s flat. How he laughs at Merlin’s jokes when he doesn’t want to – and Merlin can always tell that Arthur really, really doesn’t want to, but laughs anyway, helplessly, his eyes going soft, his whole frame relaxing.

He thinks about the horse again, and it’s fucking with his head.

 

--

Kieran comes out of nowhere. Well, not true, strictly speaking, since he’s apparently Percy’s childhood friend who just moved into town. In a broader sense, though, he’s utterly unexpected, and, sitting at their usual table at their favourite pub, Merlin feels ambushed.

Kieran is... more than a little bit attractive, if one is to put it mildly. He’s dark-haired, with the brightest pair of green eyes Merlin has ever seen. His features are striking without seeming artificial, his smile as ready as Gwaine’s but much less filthy; there’s less of an edge to him and more breed, albeit in a different way from Arthur. He speaks in a low voice that has everyone listening, and his accent is doing strange things to Merlin’s insides.

Their little circle rarely welcomes newcomers, and most of them are galvanised by Kieran’s presence, though not all of them seem happy about it. Vivian starts to simper and bat her eyelashes the way they haven’t seen her do to Percy in a very long time, while Percy himself just seems amused. Elena nearly swoons, and Gwaine’s greeting is vaguely reminiscent of a snarl.

Merlin smiles cautiously, not knowing what to make of any of it, and is surprised when Kieran just stares at him, his smile turning from polite to blinding. Leon clears his throat, and Merlin jumps, startled and blushing furiously, and isn’t surprised when Kieran chooses to sit at his other side, across from Arthur, who still hasn’t said a word.

The conversation is more lively than usual, with Gwaine and Percy teasing Kieran, good-naturedly and not, while he gives as good as he gets. From the way he keeps glancing at Merlin every now and then, taking his wrist at one point to check the time, Merlin thinks that there could be something there, if he plays his cards well.

He knows his limits. It’s not going to be something it couldn’t be. As poetic as it sounds, Merlin’s heart has been off the market for the last six-odd years, and he knows by now that the circumstances are unlikely to ever change. However, his heart isn’t all there is to him, and he’s still young enough to go for it. It’s been quite a while for him, and he’s beginning to feel a little touch-starved as it is. Besides, sex is always a little better after a break – a bit like rediscovering it all over again.

Not to mention that Arthur treated him to nearly a week of distinctly nervous silence. Merlin could go for it if for no other reason than to reassure Arthur that he’s not still pathetically pining after him, weighing on his conscience. (Merlin still is pining, and it is extremely pathetic, but Arthur doesn’t need to know that.)

“I’ll get the next round,” Kieran says, lifting himself up with a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.

They wait until he’s well out of earshot to explode with a flood of comments and impressions that have Merlin alternately laughing and flushing with embarrassment.

“Oh, shut up; I’d dump you in a second if I thought I’d have a chance of tapping that,” Elena snorts at last, nudging Gwaine away with her elbow. “But, fortunately for you, he didn’t have eyes for anyone but Merlin.”

“I hate to admit it, but she’s right.” Vivian pouts. “Don’t know what he sees in you, though.”

“I do.” Elena beams at him. “Hey, Perce, he’s a decent bloke, yeah?”

Percy nods, grinning, and winks at Merlin. “He’ll treat you right.”

“You should totally get in there,” Leon says authoritatively.

Merlin glares at them, amused and awkward. “God, would you lot shut up?”

“Really, Merlin, live a little,” Gwaine says, smirking, but his eyes are unexpectedly kind. “You’re not planning to spend the rest of your life alone, are you?”

“No, I...”

But Merlin trails off, and suddenly none of it is funny anymore.

He peers around him, meeting their hopeful, encouraging gazes, and feels a little sick. It feels as if they’re asking him to promise them something he knows he won’t be able to deliver. “Look, I’m just – not good at this kind of thing, okay?”

Great. Now they’re looking at him like he’s a lost puppy. Even Vivian’s expression is vaguely sympathetic.

“We can teach you,” she offers, sounding sincere for once, even if she doesn’t realise how presumptuous she’s being. “Give you tips and stuff.”

“He doesn’t need it.”

Merlin winces, turning to his right. Arthur has been silent for so long that Merlin has almost forgotten he’s even there.

“I’m sorry?”

Arthur looks at him. “You want to make a lasting impression, Merlin? Just do what you normally do.”

“Which is?”

Arthur gives him a smile that makes Merlin’s blood freeze. “You know, the usual. Moon over him in silence for years. Do everything to make him happy, but don’t ask him about what he wants, and don’t expect him to love you back. They never do, do they?”

“Stop.” Merlin blanches. “Arthur, just shut up.”

“Oh, but you can make it even better, can’t you?” Arthur’s face is twisted, ugly now as he leans forward. “You can get so close to him, become his friend, keep at it until he can’t imagine his life without you, and then fuck off without a by-your-leave or a note taped to the fridge so that he’d be as miserable as you are. Hurt him the way he hurt you. You’re really good at this kind of thing.”

Merlin can’t breathe for the sudden flood of hurt and betrayal. He can’t hear anything for the rush of blood, roaring in his ears. To be exposed like this in front of all their friends, to be slapped over the face with it...

He pushes off the table unsteadily. “Fuck. You.”

“Merlin,” someone calls after him, but he can’t look at who it was. He can’t look at any of them.

He dodges Kieran, who seems confused by Merlin’s speedy retreat, but Merlin doesn’t care anymore, his momentary attraction evaporating.

He pushes out the door and lets the city swallow him.

 

--

He doesn’t mean to have an emo self-pity fest in the rain, he’s too old for that, but it happens anyway. He’s never been a good thinker when his emotions run high, and for the longest time, he simply walks at a hurried, brisk pace, without knowing what he’s doing. Then, as he starts to cool down, it comes back to him in a rush, and he wants to kick himself.

Like a complete moron, he’d forgotten his coat. It’s November and it’s pouring. His shirt is soaked through, and he’s shivering, rivulets of icy water sliding freely down his back and his hair plastered to his forehead. In his haste to get out, he gave no thought to the fact that Arthur usually drives him home when they’re out together. It’s such a foregone conclusion that the others don’t even offer to share a cab ride anymore.

He looks around finally, for the first time in what feels like hours, and realises that he has no idea where the hell he is. He’d just walked, and walked, and walked. He wasn’t terribly familiar with this part of town to begin with, and now he’s quite hopelessly lost. He reaches into his pocket for his mobile, but it’s not there.

Merlin starts to laugh. There’s just nothing else to it.

He makes his way home eventually, teeth chattering and fingers and toes going numb. The shivers now come over him in waves that resemble convulsions, and the wet cotton of his shirt makes him feel as though he’s cuddling with eels.

He punches in his code by nothing short of a miracle and all but falls through the door of his building, revelling in the sudden absence of rain. Inside, in the warm quiet, he can hear himself wheezing a bit, and shakes his head at himself in disapproval.

He walks up the stairs toward his flat and finds Arthur sitting on the floor by his door.

“Jesus, Merlin, where the hell have you been?” Arthur demands sharply, pulling himself off the floor in one quick, steady motion. He’s holding Merlin’s coat and mobile in his hands. “It’s been hours. Fuck, you’re frozen. Honestly, how much of an idiot can you be?”

“A g-great deal, ap-parently,” Merlin stammers, trying to fit the key into the lock.

Arthur swats his hands away and opens the door for him. “Get inside.”

Arthur more or less manhandles him into the shower, the tepid water too hot on Merlin’s skin, and Merlin allows it. He can’t fight with Arthur, with whatever it is, right now. All he cares about is getting the feeling back into his limbs. Maslow and the ancient Egyptians would be so proud.

When he finally steps out, he feels insubstantial and too heavy at the same time. He finds Arthur in the kitchen, digging through the cabinets.

“You don’t have any normal tea in here, do you?”

“What do you want, Arthur?”

Arthur’s entire form slumps. He crosses toward Merlin hesitantly, a searching look on his face. “I’m sorry.”

Merlin sighs and shakes his head. “Could you please leave?”

“Merlin—”

“I’m really tired, Arthur. If you want to tell me more about how pathetic I was, ‘mooning over you in silence’ for years, can we do it some other time? Though, for the record, I didn’t choose for this to happen to me, okay? You’re an arsehole, and if you think I enjoy being in love with you, you’re stupider than I always thought you were. And I’m not sure that’s even possible.”

Arthur’s face goes through an abrupt transformation. “Enjoy?”

“What?”

“You said, ‘I enjoy being in love with you’ – present tense. Merlin, are you—”

Merlin groans, pressing his hands over his face. “God, just get out. Please.”

Arthur smiles in a wavering, almost tentative, eerie way.

“I’m sorry,” he says, stepping forward, “but I can’t.” He backs Merlin up against the wall and leans closer. “I really, really can’t.”

Arthur’s lips are hot and heavy on his, the kiss anything but tentative. Merlin gasps and tries to push him off, but Arthur just presses against him harder, his tongue chasing away the startled protest and plunging in to scribble something fierce and fiery on the roof of Merlin’s mouth. Merlin wants to fight him off, means to even, but his knees go weak and wobbly treacherously, and he has to grip Arthur’s shoulders to stay upright. Arthur gives a triumphant little grunt at that, and shoves his hand into Merlin’s wet hair, fisting a handful and pulling roughly to change the angle, making the kiss impossibly deep as he hunts down every last bit of breath Merlin has.

Merlin has never in his life been kissed like that, all searing heat and consuming intent to dominate, sharp with teeth, rude with tongue, and completely, utterly intoxicating. His nails scrape against the wall behind his back, an edgy reminder that he’s not supposed to want this.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he demands shakily, when Arthur finally pulls away if only for a moment, still staying close.

Arthur bites down on his lower lip gently, surprising another gasp out of Merlin. “And you call me stupid.”

He goes back in, but Merlin wedges a hand between them and shoves Arthur back, panting. “I’m serious, Arthur.”

Arthur smirks. “I can see that.” He rakes a hand through his own hair in an attempt to sober up. His eyes zero in on Merlin’s lips, and he groans. “Fuck, you look...”

“The hell are you – what is this, Arthur? The fuck are you playing at?”

“I’m not playing at anything.” Arthur sighs. “Look, you’re right. I’ve been an arsehole, and there’s no excuse, but I got so mad watching you flirt with him. You looked so fitting together, so bloody perfect. I’m sorry.” Arthur looks tortured. “If I were a real friend to you, I would have told you to go for it like everyone else did, like you did for me and Gwen.

“But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”

He cups Merlin’s face with his hands so gently that it makes Merlin’s breath hitch, the touch both hungry and reverent, thumbs skimming over his cheekbones and ghosting over his lips. The way Arthur is looking at him is twisting Merlin’s insides into tight knots. When Arthur speaks, it’s a whisper.

“I’m not you, Merlin. I could never be as selfless as you.”

Merlin starts to shake. This is all too much after the kind of night he had, after everything he’s been through with Arthur.

“If – if you’re trying to say what I think you’re trying to say—”

“You know I am. You know me better than anyone.”

“Then it’s impossible,” Merlin insists desperately. “You’re – you’re straight. If you weren’t – you’d have said something before. You wouldn’t have married Gwen.”

Arthur drops his hands and steps back, a short, hoarse laugh falling from his lips. “Oh, yeah, completely straight.” His eyes rake over Merlin from head to toe in such a blunt, searing once-over that Merlin staggers under the heat wave of tightly coiled lust. “Which is why every time I see you, every single time you walk into a room, I start looking for a convenient surface to bend you over and fuck you stupid.”

Merlin doesn’t have it in him not to blush, but he fights for control. He’s an adult, damn it. “That doesn’t prove anything. Do you want to fuck Gwaine?”

Arthur’s lips curve. “No. But, then again, I don’t want to do it with Elena or Viv, either.”

His smirk is dangerous and unnerving as he steps forward again, and Merlin would have stepped back if he wasn’t up against a wall already. “But maybe you’re right,” Arthur murmurs. “Maybe it’s just you. Crawled under my skin to drive me crazy, like a bloody poison, and I can’t get rid of you. I’ve never felt this way about anyone in my life, anyone at all, except for you.”

He leans closer, hot breath ghosting over Merlin’s face as he speaks slowly, half-gentle, half-threatening. “You – have no idea – what you do to me.”

Merlin swallows and licks his lips, painfully aware of Arthur tracking the motion. “Apparently not.”

Arthur groans and presses his forehead against Merlin’s for a moment, breathing him in, before stepping away abruptly, putting some distance between them. Merlin draws in a breath cautiously. His lungs ache. He’s also hopelessly, painfully aroused.

“There are things you don’t know about me, Merlin,” Arthur says in a voice that sounds more like his usual one. His back is turned, and Merlin can’t see his expression. “All my life, there have been – expectations. Criteria I had to fit to be what I was supposed to be. Straight-A student, excellent at sports, with friends who were, first and foremost, proper. And I tried really hard to be everything my father wanted me to be. He was all I had, and I loved him. Even when I didn’t agree with him.”

Arthur’s shoulders droop, and Merlin clenches his fists to fight the impulse to move closer and drape himself over Arthur’s back. Arthur rarely spoke about matters so deeply personal in the past. Even now, having severed ties with Uther, Merlin knows how difficult it is for Arthur to accept his father’s many faults.

“When I was growing up, homosexuality was considered an abomination under our roof.” Arthur shakes his head. “There was a time when I believed in that.”

Merlin chokes on air.

Arthur turns around slowly, his eyes glinting with unshed tears. “You want to know why I married Gwen, Merlin? Because I was an idiot. I was so obsessed with labels and what people would think – what my father would think – that I never figured out which one of my best friends I was really in love with.” He gives Merlin a pleading look. “We were always together, the three of us, and it was easy to tell myself that what I felt was for Gwen.”

For the life of him, Merlin can’t think of a single thing to say. Arthur shakes his head softly, a self-deprecating smile twisting his lips.

“It all came crashing down on me at the wedding. Gwen was walking down the aisle, walking toward me, and all I could think about was that I never in my life wanted to let go of your hand.”

Merlin closes his eyes against an upsurge of vertigo. “Stop,” he pushes out hoarsely. “Please, Arthur, just – stop talking. Give me a moment.”

He needs air, space. His own flat seems to be strangling him.

Merlin’s used to dealing with huge chunks of new information, with blocks of compressed data, on a regular basis, but this is too much. Too much, too emotional, hitting too close to home. He isn’t sure how he’s supposed to be feeling.

Uther. Of course. With Arthur, it always comes back to his father, one way or another – Merlin should have remembered that. He’d met Uther twice and hated him. The man is a bigot and a bully, and there was a time when Arthur fit in the second category as well, but he grew out of it. Uther never had.

But Merlin didn’t realise exactly how bad it was. Things are beginning to make a horrifying amount of sense now – things he could never explain before.

How Arthur liked so much to be mistaken for Merlin’s boyfriend, as if trying it on like a new coat, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t real. How Arthur would go out for dinner with his father and then all but ignore Merlin for a week, even when they were in the same room, while being chokingly attentive to Gwen, and how he’d always be apologetic afterwards. How Arthur would be all poised, civilised, and indulgent when people flirted with Gwen, but how he’d instantly turn up the rude and obnoxious the moment someone so much as smiled at Merlin. At the time, Merlin had thought Arthur was just being a dick, and it had never occurred to him to ask why.

“Did Gwen know?” Merlin asks suddenly, because it’s been like having a wasp sting in his side all these years, thinking that Gwen might hate him.

Arthur looks at him gloomily, his shoulders lifting in a tired, helpless shrug. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know when she knew. Sometimes I think she knew all along, and sometimes not until the end, but yeah. She did.” Arthur sighs – a long, frustrated sound. “We really tried, you know. We didn’t just – we really tried, Merlin. Gwen is a lot like you, actually, and there was a time when I was convinced that we’d make it. But, ultimately...”

“What?” Merlin prompts when Arthur is silent too long.

Arthur holds his eyes. “She wasn’t you.”

“She’s better than me,” Merlin grunts, defensive on he doesn’t know whose part. “She’s ten times the person I am.”

Arthur smiles softly. “Maybe. But it doesn’t change anything. Not for me.”

Merlin shakes his head, his mind reeling. “But Arthur, you’re saying – what you’re saying is—”

Arthur is suddenly right in front of him again, peering into his eyes intently. “I think you know what I’m saying, Merlin,” he murmurs against Merlin’s lips before kissing him again; it’s light and fleeting, but it feels like a seal.

“Yes. The answer to your question is yes.”

“I didn’t ask you anything.”

Arthur grins and presses another kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Yes, you did.”

 

--

He wakes up in that uncertain, interim hour between night and morning. For a moment, he can’t understand why he’s so disoriented when in his own bed – but then everything starts coming back in jolting flashes. The pub; the walk; Arthur.

Arthur. Arthur. Arthur.

Merlin groans and rolls out of bed, a bit woozy. His flat is a little on the cold side, and Merlin shivers in his thin pyjama bottoms and a tee as he creeps barefoot into the living room.

The telly is whispering softly, on the verge of being mute, casting a rainbow of colours on the walls of the otherwise-dark room. Arthur asked if he could crash at Merlin’s the night before, being too tired to drive. He’s not sleeping now, though – he’s propped up on the couch in a most uncomfortable position. He hasn’t even taken his suit off and is staring at the telly, mindlessly flicking through the channels.

Merlin stands in the doorway, watching. Arthur doesn’t look tired – he looks exhausted. There’s something in the tense line of his shoulders, in the way he squares his jaw and blinks too often, eyes red and dry, that makes him look out of this time, something ancient and perpetual – a soldier at the end of a long campaign, when victory and defeat begin to blend and lose meaning.

“What are you watching?”

Arthur starts, jumping half-off his seat. “What – Merlin? Where are you going?”

And Merlin knows suddenly, why Arthur isn’t sleeping. Why he picked a position in which it would be impossible for Merlin to get to the front door unnoticed.

Merlin’s throat constricts painfully, and he has to swallow before he can speak. “Nowhere. Something woke me. Why are you up?”

Arthur sinks back into the couch slowly, his eyes still on Merlin, wary. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Merlin nods; he didn’t expect another answer, anyway. It’s ironic that, for years, there have been things left unsaid between them – so many vital, important things. And yet, life seemed less complicated then than it is now, with so much truth and raw honesty they have only just shared, everything out in the open.

Merlin’s mum had been very fond of romance novels. She kept them in the loft of their old house, stacks and stacks of little paperbacks with whimsy covers. One summer, when Merlin was particularly bored, he skimmed through half a dozen of them, mostly digging up dirt to tease her about later. He was twelve years old and still thought that fancying someone was the funniest thing ever.

He’d become disappointed very quickly. The books were all the same – pages and pages of bad dialogue and unrealistic situations until someone finally said ‘I love you.’ It was like a password, a ‘sesame’ of sorts, after which characters went straight to the happily ever after.

It seemed so incredibly easy.

He walks over to the couch and lays a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur looks up at him and slowly leans into the touch, the tension bleeding out of him.

“Sorry I woke you.”

Merlin cards his fingers through Arthur’s hair, trying not to notice the way Arthur sits absolutely still, as though afraid of scaring the touch away.

“Come on,” Merlin says, before his heart decides that breaking all over again is a great idea. “Come to bed.”

He turns away, avoiding Arthur’s gaze.

In the bedroom, Merlin slides back under the duvet and watches through half-lidded eyes as Arthur undresses, folding his clothes with absentminded meticulousness. Arthur is down to his t-shirt and boxers when Merlin can’t keep his eyes open any longer. The bed dips, a gush of cooler air creeps in, and then there’s silence.

Merlin doesn’t know how long he actually lies there, unmoving, until he finds himself rolling over into Arthur’s waiting arms. Arthur gathers him close, and, after a bit of shuffling, they settle comfortably with Merlin draped half-over him, his face tucked into Arthur’s neck.

“Think you can sleep now?” Merlin murmurs.

Arthur presses a kiss to his forehead. Merlin can feel his smile. “Yeah.”

“Good.”

He doesn’t remember falling asleep.

 

--

Sunlight is streaming through the windows when Merlin is woken up by the warm whisper of kisses being trailed down the nape of his neck.

“Good morning,” Arthur breathes softly into his ear, nipping at the earlobe gently.

Merlin squirms a little, a low, rumbling noise brooding in his chest and threatening to escape. He grins. “Yeah.”

Arthur is plastered behind his back, one brave hand sneaking beneath the waistband of Merlin’s pyjama bottoms. Merlin hisses as it wraps around his half-hard cock, stroking slowly, but with intent.

“Someone’s feeling sure of himself.” He shifts his hip, giving Arthur better access. The movement makes him realise that Arthur’s hard length is pressed against his backside, and a thrilling jolt runs through Merlin, leaving him wide awake. “Wow. You’re—”

“Been waiting a long time for you to wake up.”

“Sorry.” Merlin is grinning, pushing back as Arthur holds them closer together, his hips setting a measured, sleep-glazed pace.

“I hope you won’t be,” Arthur says, the motion of his hand speeding up.

Merlin moans. “You’re very – good at that.”

Arthur’s teeth nip at his shoulder. “Keep talking.”

Merlin grinds back, groaning softly in frustration. “Expecting much this early in the day, are we?”

“Oh, but you have so much to tell me.”

Merlin can feel him so incredibly well through two layers of fabric, sliding between his cheeks with infuriating precision. It’s too much and not enough at the same time, and the combination is a delicious, maddening tease.

God, Arthur. What?”

“Everything you like. Everything you want me to do. You’ll have to teach me, Merlin. I’m – ah – a novice at this.”

His hips begin to snap, his hand speeding up and closing in tighter. Merlin moans and grabs Arthur’s hip to get some kind of balance as he pushes back and forth, drunk on Arthur’s mere presence.

“I think we’re – good – for now,” he manages, teeth clenched with the effort of staving off the inevitable. “Plus I’m sure – that you’re – a quick – study.”

Arthur lets out a low growl in response, and then there’s no more talking – just hazy, heated motions, and Arthur’s lips on Merlin’s neck. He nuzzles his way down Merlin’s nape, nipping and kissing sloppily, distractedly, burying his face in Merlin’s hair as though he’s high on the scent of his skin, can’t get enough of it.

Merlin laughs as he comes – Arthur topples him into it with a clever twist of his wrist, and it’s such an Arthur thing to do that Merlin can’t help it. It shakes through him, the laughter, powered up by his orgasm, and he trembles in Arthur’s arms as Arthur finds his own release not a moment later.

It leaves Merlin breathless and grinning like a lunatic, the annoyed noises Arthur is making only fuelling his hilarity. That is, until Arthur twists him over and shuts him up with a filthy, open-mouthed kiss.

“You’re impossible,” he mutters as they part, Merlin still beaming up at him.

Hands carding through Arthur’s tousled hair, Merlin pulls him back down. “Evidently, you love it.”

Arthur kisses him silent, but they are too sleepy to make it last. The kiss dissolves instead into lips pressed together, unwilling to lose contact, and mischievous tongues wandering.

“We should probably—”

“Yeah.”

“Clean up.”

“Mhm.”

“Merlin, come on, don’t fall asleep. We should...”

They don’t.

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

'Present Tense' by argen7

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Part III. Future (Im)Perfect.

 

They wake up a couple of hours later. Merlin tries to be a good host and let Arthur shower first, but they end up under the spray together, and things happen that don’t specifically pertain to washing. Merlin is taken aback by Arthur, because the transition from his usual ‘Sex is nice, but I don’t get all the obsession’ self to an extremely inquisitive, pushy, and seemingly insatiable creature is a lot to take in.

Not that Merlin is complaining.

Later, Merlin makes breakfast while Arthur makes coffee. They talk about things like football and Merlin’s inability to keep his driver’s license. They take a walk later – really, a poorly disguised venture to get some things from Arthur’s flat and bring them to Merlin’s. Arthur only leaves once for his own place during the next week, and then they decide without deciding to never do it again.

They talk more – not at breakfast, and not while walking through the for once sunny streets, but they do talk eventually about everything that matters.

Arthur opens up about his childhood, and they have their darker nights during those confessions. Merlin ends up hating Uther even more because of what Arthur reveals and because he can’t talk about his father without getting completely pissed first. Arthur has zero tolerance for hangovers, and Merlin nurses him through every one with a lot of patience and mental cursing.

Merlin tells Arthur about Jon, and Arthur breaks only one plate by accident.

The next morning, Merlin’s back is covered in lovebites, his hips wear finger-shaped bruises, and he doesn’t really fancy sitting down for the rest of the day, but it’s all good. He tries not to show Arthur how much he loved it, but Arthur sees right through him anyway, and if he’s a little rougher sometimes from then on – well, they don’t have to talk about it.

Despite Arthur’s words, Merlin worries about them coming out. But the first time they go out on pub night in their new capacity, Arthur seems to take perverse pleasure in kissing Merlin stupid in front of their friends and then glaring, as though daring any of them to comment. No one really does just then, but, once the shock wears off, they all do, and it’s not all sunshine and kittens.

Leon has long conversations with Arthur in hushed tones; Elena worries sick about Merlin; Gwaine scowls a lot and is uncharacteristically quiet. Percival looks stunted, as though not quite certain about which of the two he might need to punch. The only purely positive reaction they get is from Vivian, if her ‘This is the first time you two have done something remotely hot’ comment can be considered such.

Things are a bit strained for a few weeks. However, as time unfolds, Arthur doesn’t suddenly announce it was all some sort of belated experimentation on his part, and Merlin doesn’t make a run for it overnight. Eventually, their friends relax into acceptance, realising that they have been referring to them as ‘Merlin and Arthur’ for much longer than they have actually been Merlin and Arthur.

It helps when Elena catches them during one of their quieter, more private moments. Arthur’s insecurities flare up sometimes; he becomes needy and wants to just hold Merlin and listen to him speak softly about things neither of them would give voice to in the harsh light of day.

“He really does love you, huh?” Elena says quietly to Merlin afterwards.

Merlin just nods. Arthur rarely says it, and never as a “hello” or “goodbye” as some couples do, but every time counts. With the stigma of banality associated with the words, with the past relationships he’d had, Merlin has never had the luxury of it being said to him, for him, casually or otherwise. He never asks for it, but every time he hears it, he can’t help the quickening of his pulse or the way he suddenly can’t hold Arthur’s eyes.

“You’re such a girl,” Arthur would murmur, but it’s barely even teasing, because there’s too much emotion in his voice – too much affection, fondness, and fragility, as though he’s a little afraid of the power Merlin holds over him simply by being himself.

 

--

The first time they’ve had a real fight it’s about something stupid. Arthur is in the ‘make it or break it’ stage of negotiating with a new client, and Merlin is in the final round of a Very Important Experiment. They are both worn thin with stress and fatigue, and that night it all becomes too much.

Merlin doesn’t remember who starts yelling first or what it’s about – something about forgotten takeaway or coffee filters or something equally trivial. Arthur is in his prima donna mode, and Merlin doesn’t have the patience to tease him out of it, instead snapping something hurtful and ugly. Arthur retaliates in kind, and it dissolves into a mess of shouting until Merlin storms out.

“Go ahead, run!” Arthur yells after him. “It’s what you always do when it gets tough, isn’t it?”

The next time they see each other, Arthur says, “I’m sorry.”

Merlin shakes his head. “No. You were right.”

Arthur kisses him. “Let’s not do that again.”

They stick to it, for the most part. They do end up mired in it again at some point, but at least they have the consolation of it being about a real issue.

Uther eventually decides to save his son from his ‘abominable lifestyle’ by throwing women at him, and Arthur entertains it all for a while in the hopes of finding the means to reconcile with his father. Merlin is on the reconciliation train, but not if it has to be like this.

They spend a whole month apart, both of them utterly miserable. When Arthur does come back, it’s in a quiet, defeated way that almost hurts more than the split itself. Their sex has always been an emotional rollercoaster, but the way Arthur makes love to him that night has Merlin shuddering and in tears by the end of it, taking him forever to come down.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers at last. “I don’t have anyone else, Arthur. I’m sorry if I’m not enough for you.”

“It’s not that you’re not enough, Merlin,” Arthur says, fingers playing gently, distractedly with Merlin’s hair. “It’s that sometimes you’re almost too much.”

But even as the words fall from his lips, he’s tugging Merlin closer, arms wound tightly around his frame and showing no intention of letting go.

 

--

They go riding every other weekend and find a climbing wall halfway between their offices, which makes it an ideal spot to meet up for workouts a couple of times a week. Merlin is gradually becoming faster, and Arthur starts joking about looking for another kind of sport that they could both do so Merlin wouldn’t have it so easy.

Merlin cooks. He likes it and is getting better and better at it. Arthur is absurdly proud of his creations and makes Merlin blush every time they have friends over.

They throw a Christmas dinner for their friends that first year, not knowing that it will become a lasting tradition. Merlin runs ragged in the kitchen, sending Arthur out to the supermarket and calling him every few minutes in mounting panic at having forgotten yet another ingredient. Merlin had never known Arthur to be a patient man, but, wonder of wonders, Arthur doesn’t snap at him once, even though he has to go back to the shops at least three times.

Life goes on. Leon and Freya are getting fairly serious much to everyone’s delight, but it’s Elena and Gwaine who beat them to making a life-altering announcement. Arthur still looks stunned as they leave the house.

“We’re having a baby,” he intones, clearly in shock.

Merlin grins. “Yeah. Though technically it’s Gwaine and Elena’s, so hopefully it won’t be too hard on us.”

Arthur gives him a look that Merlin doesn’t get at all.

Not until the next day, when Elena camps in their living room, talking about things like ultrasounds, cots, and names and tries to get Merlin’s opinion on lactation.

Merlin walks into the kitchen, his eyes wide. “Arthur. We’re having a baby.”

Arthur pats his shoulder. “Well, technically—”

“Oh, shut up.”

 

--

Two weeks before Easter, Merlin is walking home from Elena’s studio when a shadow crosses his path. The cruel irony is in the fact that the contents of his wallet that night isn’t worth the stab wound he receives, but the tosser who jumps him clearly doesn’t care.

Merlin wakes up in the hospital, where a very strict-looking woman, Doctor Mithian, explains to him how lucky he is for the knife to not have harmed any vital organs.

“Where’s my boyfriend?” Merlin asks, feeling slightly stoned on the painkillers. “Did anyone call my boyfriend?”

Doctor Mithian gives him a hard look and leaves without offering any kind of answer.

Several days later, Arthur takes Merlin home and pushes some papers at him. “I need you to sign these.”

Merlin flicks through them and his eyebrows go up. “Civil partnership? Arthur, you always said—”

Arthur’s hand squeezes his shoulder painfully. “They wouldn’t let me see you, Merlin. They wouldn’t tell me anything. I thought – you have no idea how many horrible things I thought while I waited there. I can’t go through that again.” His fingers skim over Merlin’s cheekbone gently.

“I can’t lose you.”

The ceremony itself isn’t anything like the one three years ago with happy friends and family members. It’s pure formality and it looks it. Arthur brings Leon as his witness. Merlin asks Freya. It’s the four of them and the officiant in a tiny, poorly ventilated room. Merlin is still recovering; the lack of air makes his head swim a bit.

Arthur doesn’t even kiss him and goes back to his office immediately after, taking Leon with him, acting for all intents and purposes as though he couldn’t care less.

Merlin didn’t expect champagne and flowers, but he must still look a little baffled, because the officiant tells him kindly: “Public demonstrations might be... difficult for some. He was probably just nervous.”

Merlin nods faintly, thinking that Arthur has never looked less nervous about anything in his entire life. He murmurs a quiet thank you and lets Freya drive him home.

Arthur comes home late, inquiring after Merlin’s health with an aloof air, as though he barely knows him. He moves around the flat in brisk, aborted motions, tense and brittle as if a single unplanned intake of breath might shatter him. Merlin watches him, biting his lip raw. He doesn’t know how to help.

“We’re kind of married now,” Merlin says as Arthur slips into bed next to him later. He doesn’t know how to begin to unravel this, and levity is what he does best. “So it’s a boredom fest from now on.”

The room is quiet and dark.

Arthur wraps his arms around Merlin carefully, fingers grazing the scar on Merlin’s ribs. “Okay,” he says simply, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s shoulder. “Okay.”

There’s a strange quality to his voice, and his eyelashes are wet as he buries his face in Merlin’s neck.

“Hey.” Merlin twists in his arms to kiss him. “Arthur, it’s okay; I’m all right. I’m here. I love you.”

Arthur groans and kisses him back, frantic and messy like a fifteen-year-old thinking he won’t get another chance. He’s crying through it, shaking, hurting Merlin a little bit as his hands wander and grab mindlessly, seeking for something – anything – to hold on to. There’s no pride left, and Arthur’s a broken mess of lips and tears, scared out of his mind, burying his face in Merlin’s hair, crushing him in his arms.

“Arthur. Arthur. Love, I can’t breathe.”

“Sorry.” Arthur lets go a little bit. “Sorry. I’m sorry. God, Merlin, I’m so sorry.”

“Shh, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.”

It takes them a while to quiet down to sleep.

In the morning, Merlin wakes up to find Arthur still clutching him a little too tightly to his chest. Merlin’s arm cramps, but as he tries to move it, Arthur lets out a low growl in his sleep that sounds very much like a petulant ‘Mrrrrrrrrrrl’n.’

Merlin smiles softly, kisses Arthur’s chest, and rearranges them. He settles down before Arthur can actually wake up and complain.

 

Epilogue. Anywhere, Anytime.

Strangely enough, Merlin has always been fond of airports. The very particular architecture; the ‘airy’ feel to them; the way they are somehow more than a glorified bus stop. When he was a child, he’d thought of them as gateways to everything new and bright, to numerous strange lands and adventures. The romanticism has faded along the years, lost somewhere between invasive full-body scans and endless queues to passport control. But there’s still something about it that makes him feel at home in this busy hive of activity, the bodiless voices speaking a multitude of languages that leave a seductive taste of change on his lips.

Arthur is endlessly frustrated by airports, which is why he’s sitting next to Merlin, running an endless stream of complaints about everything from too-strong coffee and the general insanity of Charles de Gaulle to the group of American tourists being too loud at the table next to theirs. Merlin hums in response every now and again, but mostly his attention is captured by the presentation he’s editing on his laptop (which is, unsurprisingly, another reason for Arthur to complain).

They’re waiting for their flight to Tokyo. Merlin is taking part in a three-day scientific conference, after which they plan to travel for a few days, see Mount Fuji and some ancient monasteries. Merlin is excited about the trip. Both he and Arthur tend to work too hard, and while they have occasional weekend-away breaks, a holiday is a whole different matter. It took a lot of planning and a lot of help from their friends to make it happen.

It takes a while for Merlin’s preoccupied mind to register that Arthur has gone quiet. He looks up to see Arthur staring somewhere with a strangely constricted look on his face.

Merlin follows his gaze and freezes.

There’s no mistaking her even from a distance, even after all the years they haven’t laid eyes on one another. She’s going down the escalator, smiling softly to herself and wearing a bright yellow dress and sandals. Her hair is gathered in a playful ponytail, and a backpack is slung over her shoulder, making her look like an exchange student. If anything, she looks younger, and more radiant, than ever before.

As they watch, she walks into the arms of a tall, dark-haired man waiting for her. They kiss sweetly, beaming at each other, making it obvious that they’re hopelessly in love. Merlin has to stifle a nervous laugh, because the man is drop-dead gorgeous, and if Gwen ever decides to share with the planet how she does it, the world will be at her feet.

The man lifts Gwen’s hands to his face, and the harsh electric light bounces off the golden band around her finger.

Merlin looks at Arthur, who seems unable to tear his eyes away until Gwen and her husband walk away toward a souvenir shop, holding hands.

Arthur swallows. “She’s happy.”

Merlin’s heart sinks as he hears it. He reaches to put away his laptop with slightly unsteady hands. “Yeah,” he says. “She is. Gwen is a very, very happy woman. Sorry, I need the loo. Be back in a few, yeah?”

He barely makes it out of the cafe before a familiar hand grabs his elbow, spinning him around, and then Arthur’s pressing him against the wall, ignoring the looks they get from passersby.

“I have no idea,” Arthur growls softly, “no clue whatsoever how, after all this time, you can be such an incredible, unbelievable idiot.”

“It’s a gift,” Merlin mutters. “I just—”

Arthur kisses the rest of it off his lips, swallowing down every protest and licking away every doubt. Merlin is purring by the end of it, wishing they were back home in their bedroom.

I am a very happy man, Merlin,” Arthur breathes into his ear. “I’m just glad she’s happy, too.”

They are scolded (rather leniently) for making a public display, but Merlin fails to feel chastised. Once onboard the plane, Arthur – always a nervous flyer – promptly falls asleep with his head on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin stares out the window, listening to the captain reading off a list of announcements.

“...and for those of you interested. We’re moving away from the Prime Meridian toward the International Date Line, so, from a certain standpoint, we’re flying toward the time.”

Merlin looks down to where Arthur’s hand is wrapped around his wrist and smiles.

He’s never heard anything more fitting.