The kiss is both familiar and foreign at once. The feeling of warm, pliant lips under his own is something he knows and enjoys on a basis that Morgana claims is much too regular. The taste of alcohol and the sound of a thumping bass enveloping them are also comfortably familiar in a way they probably shouldn’t be. Even the feeling of long fingers clutching at his shirt and a breathy moan he feels more than he hears are elements of kisses he’s had before. That’s where the familiarity of it all ends rather abruptly, though. The body he’s pressing against the wall is sharp, angular and all pointy limbs everywhere. There’s this strange edge to the kiss that makes him press even closer into the body trapped under him and it makes his head spin. His skin is raw from the slight stubble that slides against his chin. There’s this feeling in his chest that is so large, tingling, strange and unfamiliar that he doesn’t even know how to wrap his head around it. It must be the drinks mustn’t it? He knows he shouldn’t have downed that last shot, but he needed to beat Morgana. Damn it all.
He moans softly into the kiss and it surprises himself so much that he pulls back a bit, but slender fingers reach up to keep his head in place. They slip into his hair and his scalp tingles where they touch. Those fingers and the person they belong to are the most unfamiliar and unsettling thing about the kiss. It tastes like Merlin, it smells like Merlin, it is Merlin. He’s kissing Merlin – his best mate who is always wrong about everything (well, he clearly is, since he likes Matt Smith better than David Tennant and he doesn’t think Sherlock is getting it on with John) and whose books always lay around on the floor so Arthur can run toe-first into the sharp edges of them. Merlin is achingly familiar, but not in this way. He’s never known Merlin like this: heavy breath and searching lips, his curious tongue making Arthur’s heart stutter and his cheekbones sharp under Arthur’s thumb.
And Arthur is drunk. He’s so very drunk and he doesn’t know which reactions are from the alcohol and what’s because of Merlin. He suspects a lot of it is the alcohol, because he doesn’t think he’s ever felt light-headed from a kiss before and that really strange feeling of heat in his stomach is weird too. For a while he’s scared he’ll never remember how to stop licking indulgently into Merlin’s mouth, but then someone waves a glow-stick in their faces and in the harsh, green light they break apart. Arthur only takes in Merlin’s plump, thoroughly kissed lips for a moment before they both bolt in opposite directions.
They avoid each other the rest of the night, which is strange considering they’re usually attached at the hip. When Leon and Morgana eye him suspiciously and mouths Merlin’s name, he just shrugs and yells over the music that he thinks Merlin got off with some guy. He really doesn’t think about Merlin at all as he dances through the crowd with his hand in the air and he certainly doesn’t think about Merlin when he falls headfirst into bed at 4 AM in the morning.
“Code red,” he says into the phone, his voice barely audible and gravelly in a very discomforting way. “Code fucking red, Morgana.”
He looks at himself in the mirror and wonders if he might be getting too old for this, considering he looks as if he's been dragged through a hedge backwards.
“What’s Code Red again?” she says, sounding way too cheerful and awake for his liking. “That’s not for having to bail you out of jail, is it? I can never remember.”
“Bailing out of jail is Code Disinherited, obviously. You need to remember these things.”
“Fine, fine, I will.” She tries to sound annoyed, but she’s clearly grinning. He can hear it. “So, Code Red?”
Arthur attempts to change out of last night’s rumpled clothes that reek of stale beer while holding the phone in place against his ear. He gives up and turns on the speakers instead, discarding the phone on his bed.
“Code Red is I have a huge bloody problem and we need to talk,” he says, pulling a red jumper over his head.
“And you didn’t consider that maybe I got lucky last night and have entirely different things to be doing right now?”
“Well, no,” she admits and he grins. “Leon is blind as a bat.”
“I’ll be at the café in ten.”
“Fine.” He can almost feel her glare through the phone. “But this better be a gigantic problem or I’ll give you one.”
When Morgana puts a cup of cappuccino on the table in front of him and sits down with an eyebrow raised expectantly, he feels even more lost than he did when he woke up. His head feels as if it’s split open and the hangover is really bad enough, but he has memories: really confusing, really uncomfortable, really hot memories. He groans and lets his head slip down onto the table, not caring that he probably looks like an idiot.
“Arthur, what on earth is going on?” Morgana even sounds worried now and she should be. She really should be.
“I snogged Merlin,” he mutters into the table. “Last night. Fuck.”
There is a long silence and he waits for her to gasp in shock and pull him into a hug before helping him to figure out the mess he made.
“Is that all?” Morgana says instead and he looks up indignantly.
“What do you mean: is that all? Yes, it’s all and it’s more than enough, thank you!”
Morgana rolls her eyes and reaches out a slender hand to pet his arm softly.
“It’s just that everyone thinks you’ve been doing that for months already.”
He just stares at Morgana in surprise, frowning at the thought that their friends had discussed this behind their backs.
“Well, we haven’t,” he says, suddenly feeling oddly vulnerable knowing that his and Merlin’s relationship has been the object of scrutiny.
“It’s hardly the end of the world,” she says, her face softening a bit. “You just had a drunken snog. It happens to everyone.”
Morgana has just touched the core of the issue, but he doesn’t know if she realises it. He swallows and looks out the window without focusing his eyes on anything in particular.
“Was it though?” he says, shrugging a bit. “I don’t know what it was. What if it gets awkward now? Does it mean we…”
He trails off and waves his hand as if it can explain everything for him.
“Just talk to him.” Morgana sighs. “Why do you have to make everything so difficult? Just ask him what it was and then go from there. You’re such a dolt, Arthur.”
He glares. “Thanks, that’s very comforting.”
For a few moments they just drink coffee and Arthur tries to imagine a conversation in his head. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to talk to Merlin when he doesn’t even know what happened or how he feels about it himself.
“I can’t just ask him,” he says after a while, downing the last of his coffee. “What if he doesn’t even remember it? You know he can’t hold his alcohol.”
“When I’m telling you to start using your brain, this is not what I mean,” Morgana says, looking pained. “Stop over thinking.”
Arthur will never admit that he whines miserably at that.
When Merlin calls, Arthur is very prepared to have the talk even if he doesn’t quite know what that entails. He grips the armrest on his sofa tighter than he’d like to admit and inhales deeply before answering.
“She’s here!” Merlin whispers desperately at the other end of the line.
Arthur’s eyebrows rise as he realises that they will, apparently, skip over the subject of yesterday as if nothing happened. Hell, for all he knows, Merlin might not even know that something did happen.
“What? Who is?”
There’s some rustling on the other end and Merlin breathes heavily into the phone. “Gwen!”
“Are you hiding from Gwen?”
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“I’m not looking at you like anything, we’re on the phone.”
“I know how you’re looking at me, Arthur. You can’t fool me.”
Arthur rests his forehead against his hand, propping himself against the armrest and bites back a sigh.
“Gwen isn’t the enemy,” he says, his lips twitching involuntarily in amusement as he pictures Merlin huddling under the counter at the book shop.
Merlin scoffs. “She is when she wants to take me to the gym. Do you know how much I hate sweating? Gwen never used to like the gym; I blame Morgana.”
“When in doubt, always blame Morgana.”
“I don’t want to spend my afternoon sweating on treadmills!” Merlin whispers desperately at the other end.
It’s really strange how many calls between them have Merlin whispering from some sort of hiding place. It seems to be a coping technique Merlin is especially fond of.
“Just tell her you have other plans,” Arthur suggests, trying to sound serious and sympathetic.
He can hear Gwen calling Merlin’s name and Merlin swears under his breath.
“You know I’m a terrible liar! Oh God. We’re going to run on those evil machines until I’m completely delirious and then I’ll fall off one and it’ll fall on me and then I’ll be dead, Arthur.” Merlin’s voice is barely audible as he rambles. “I’ll be dead. And you’ll have to hold a speech at my funeral about how I died from being crushed by a treadmill.”
Arthur can’t keep the laughter back this time and he knows Merlin currently looks very affronted that Arthur could laugh at his misfortune, which only makes it all funnier.
“You don’t have to lie,” he says eventually. “You’re coming here to watch TV with me right after work. You just forgot that I told you yesterday.”
“But you didn’t tell me yesterday,” Merlin protests.
“Yes, I did. Very, very quietly.”
There’s a pause on the other end before Merlin exhales a breath. “You’re a lifesaver, Arthur. Literally.”
As Merlin hangs up, Arthur realises that everything is now more complicated than he wanted them to be. He’d hoped, in a way, that Merlin would bring it up even if it’d be uncomfortable. At least that way he’d know that Merlin remembers. The fact that Merlin completely skipped over it can mean any number of things. Maybe he wants to talk about it face to face, maybe he doesn’t even remember, or maybe he’s planning to ignore it all together. Arthur rubs tiredly at his eyes and wonders if he should just bring it up himself when Merlin comes over.
Everything is too normal between them and it catches him off guard. Merlin’s elbows are poking him in the ribs as they always do when they curl up on the couch to watch TV. The only thing that’s really different is that Arthur can’t stop thinking about the angles of Merlin’s body in a very inappropriate context and also his damn tongue. Curse that tongue.
“Stop hogging the chocolate,” Merlin says and elbows him on purpose this time.
Arthur wiggles away, only to find that he’s stuck in the corner of the sofa.
“Get those murder weapons away from me!” he cries, shielding his face with the bowl of chocolate as Merlin taps his elbows together as if it’s some kind of threat. “And stop distracting me, I want to watch Torchwood in peace.”
Merlin rolls his eyes and yanks the bowl of chocolate out of his hands. “We’ve seen this episode at least four times.”
“Yes, well. You distracted me so much the other four times that it’s basically like watching it for the first time.”
“You’re such a drama queen.”
Arthur eyes him incredulously. “Yeah, I’m the drama queen, Mr. Treadmills-will-kill-me.”
Merlin settles down next to him now that he’s got the chocolate and Arthur can’t help but notice how close they are, even if there’s plenty of room on the sofa. Their shoulders are brushing and their thighs are pressed together, distracting Arthur more than Merlin’s talking has ever done.
“In all seriousness,” Merlin says just as Jack shoots an alien in the head, “I’m glad you’re here to save me when I call.”
Arthur swallows heavily. “Anytime, mate.”
It’s a bit embarrassing how Arthur often skips lunch in favour of getting some extra work in. Whenever he admits to this, Gwen always looks at him with a frown and tells him to take care of himself, and Morgana occasionally yells at him for being irresponsible, but Merlin is the only one who’s ever taken the matters into his own hands.
When Merlin shows up at the door to his office with two boxes balanced in his arms, Arthur knows from experience that putting up a fight will get him nowhere. He tried fighting in the beginning, but Merlin would simply sit at Arthur’s desk and talk incessantly until he’d driven Arthur out of his mind. It had been a bit of a turning point in their friendship, considering Merlin hadn’t been very talkative when they first met (which is just a ridiculous thought now, considering Merlin talks so much that Arthur can’t even take him to the cinema for fear of being thrown out).
Merlin smiles hastily when he slips inside the office, pulling up his usual chair. His eyes doesn’t linger on the spectacular view of London as it usually does, though, which makes Arthur feel a bit on edge. Arthur always denies that they’re creatures of habit when Gwen kindly points that out to him, but maybe she’s right.
“I can just buy something in the cafeteria, you know,” Arthur says as Merlin puts a box of homemade lasagne in front of him. “You don’t have to make food for me.”
He would lie if he said he didn’t like having food made for him, though.
Merlin’s lips pull into a half smile as he looks up at Arthur. “Oh, I made it for myself, don’t worry. There’s just no way I can finish all of it alone.”
Arthur can’t help but glance up at the computer screen and tries to sneak in a few discreet mouse clicks while Merlin is focused on finding the forks he brought. He gets as far as clicking on the email from Leon before Merlin has stabbed him in the arm with one of the forks.
Before Arthur can protest, Merlin holds up his hand. “No. You know the rules. This is lunch time.”
“Come on,” Arthur begs, sinking petulantly back in his chair. “Just one email to Leon.”
Merlin looks at him sternly. “I don’t think Leon will die if you take twenty minutes off to eat.”
Arthur relents with a massive sigh. “Fine.” He grabs the fork and opens the box, not voicing out loud exactly how much he wants that bit of lasagne in his stomach despite his complaints. Inhaling the lasagne more than he eats it, he only slows down when he feels Merlin looking at him expectantly and he remembers the continued lessons in basic social skills Merlin is trying to give him. He swallows and puts the box down.
“So, how’s your day been?” Arthur asks, feeling ridiculous and formal, but he’s rewarded by a beaming smile from Merlin.
“It’s been great.” Merlin swivels his chair back and forth like he tends to do. “That new Discworld novel is still flying off the shelves and Gaius keeps having to restock. It’s brilliant!”
Arthur hums encouragingly in reply and he has to stop himself from smiling because it’s all just so achingly familiar in a way he never really appreciates. It’s strange how kissing Merlin has somehow made him aware of how fragile they are.
“You should read it,” Merlin says between bites. “I’ll bring a copy for you next time.”
Leaning against the desk, Arthur looks at him with an amused smile. “Are you allowed to give out freebies like that? You’ll drive Gaius out of business.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “Obviously I bought a copy for my own and I’m lending it to you. Prat.”
“Maybe I’d consider reading the books you give me if you butter me up first instead of insulting me,” Arthur suggests, scooping out another bit of food. “Come on, how about an ode to Arthur Pendragon?”
Merlin scoffs so violently that Arthur almost thinks he’s choked on his lunch.
“I would, but if your head gets any bigger you’ll be spending the rest of your life tipping forwards.”
“You just can’t find anything that rhymes with Arthur.”
“Here’s my mate, Arthur. He’s hot, durr,” Arthur suggests and Merlin starts laughing so hard he’s leaning out of his chair, folding in on himself.
“Let’s see you do any better,” Arthur says, trying to sound indignant even though he’s soaking in the way Merlin’s odd tinkling laughter fills the air around him.
“Okay, okay. Let me think,” Merlin says and he immediately shifts into an expression of focus. He’s swivelling back and forth, his shoes tapping against the wheels of the office chair. “Ode to Arthur, he’s a prat. Dumb like fur, that’s where it’s at.”
“Really, Merlin,” Arthur says, his lips twitching. “That’s what you’re going with?”
“My finest work, if I may say so.”
“That’s a sad thought.”
Merlin smiles and scratches his neck absently. “I guess we should be glad I’m just selling the books and not writing them.”
Laughing at that, Arthur closes the now empty box and leans back in the chair, very secretly savouring the small break in his tedious work. It’s not like he’ll ever tell Merlin that their lunch breaks is the best thing that ever happened to his work life, because that would just be embarrassing and sappy. It doesn’t stop it from being true, though.
The quiet moment quickly shifts from being comfortable and companionable to being oddly strained. Merlin’s not meeting his eyes and Arthur’s breath kind of stops him his throat. Looking down at his fingers, Merlin exhales a breath. “Arthur?”
Arthur hums in reply and Merlin looks up to meet his eyes. The look in them makes the nerves on Arthur’s skin pulse in that really odd, prickly way as he realises that Merlin is going to bring up the incident.
“I...there’s... ah, yes.”
“Uhm. Merlin, those aren’t words that create a sentence,” Arthur says helpfully.
“Yeah, I was just...You, yes.” Merlin blushes so red that Arthur feels a massive wave of sympathy. Maybe he should jump in and say it so Merlin doesn’t have to? But then again, the thought makes every word in the English language disappear from Arthur’s own head.
“Arthur,” Merlin begins again and Arthur stares at him in a way he knows is way too intense. “I...I’ll bring that book for you.”
They both know that’s not what Merlin was going to say, but Arthur suspects they’re both too relieved to draw attention to it. Arthur jumps at the chance to avoid the topic and agrees, saying, saying he’ll totally read it when he has time even though Merlin always has to wrestle him into reading his recommendations. It isn’t until Merlin has cheerfully waved his goodbye that Arthur can breathe normally again.
He knows he probably shouldn’t be looking at Merlin as intensely as he is, but he thinks there’s some merit to the idea that if he stares hard enough he’ll somehow be able to read Merlin’s mind. If anyone had asked Arthur a week ago what superhero power he’d like to have, he would have said invisibility, because honestly he’s just that shameless. Now it’s clear, however, that mind-reading is definitely the superior superpower, if only because it could keep him from going completely insane.
When Merlin looks at him with widening eyes, he snaps out of it and realises that nearly everyone around their table at the pub is looking at him and clearly someone had asked him a question while he was trying to break into Merlin’s head.
“Uh, what?” he says, trying to locate whoever’s been talking to him.
Gwaine and Percy are talking amongst themselves at the end of the table, but Leon, Morgana and Gwen are all staring at him and Arthur really doesn’t like the look Morgana is giving him. She’s smirking in that really knowing way that he absolutely hates because it means she thinks she knows something even when she doesn’t.
“I asked if you thought Uther would sack Valiant,” Leon repeats, leaning a bit closer to Arthur, even though Arthur can hear him just fine.
“I doubt it,” he says, willing himself to look away from Merlin’s cheekbones. “Dad gets on better with Valiant than he’s ever gotten on with me, so I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.”
Morgana wrinkles her nose. “The last time I had lunch with him he sounded almost in love with the guy.”
“But he cocked up that Henderson deal just last week.”
“Yeah, I know.” Arthur grimaces slightly at the thought. “I was there for the cleanup and the endless amount of overtime.”
Leon puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. “At least we appreciate that you’re cleaning up the messes Valiant keeps making.”
Arthur can’t help but agree with the unspoken criticism of his father. There was a time where he’d been proud – excited even – to work for his father’s company, but he’s grown increasingly aware of the gaping flaws in the way Uther runs his business. Trusting guys like Valiant is only one of those flaws.
“You should quit,” Merlin says and looks at him with those impossibly blue eyes. “It makes you miserable.”
Smiling crookedly behind his glass, Arthur cocks an eyebrow at him. “Got a job waiting for me at the book shop, do you, then?”
“We could start our own!”
Merlin’s suggestion sounds much too earnest and the way he lights up makes Arthur want to say yes to everything Merlin suggests as long as he can keep looking like that. The thoughts that form in his head are full of the two of them stocking books in some small, intimate shop with shelves from floor to ceiling filled with dust and history and personality. It should be a ridiculous idea, but instead it makes him feel happy and that is an utterly terrifying thought.
“Next round’s on me,” he says, moving from the table just so he doesn’t have to think about how owning an old book shop with Merlin suddenly seems much more alluring than the career he’s worked for his entire life.
Tom behind the bar is tapping their beer when Morgana sneaks up behind Arthur, making him jump when she leans in and whispers in his ear.
“You’re going to burn a hole in Merlin’s head.”
“Shut up,” is all he can muster in reply.
She laughs, resting a hand lightly at his back.
“I think maybe you should try to talk to Merlin before everyone starts wondering why you’re undressing him with your eyes.”
“I’m not undressing him with my eyes,” Arthur says indignantly, feeling a blush of shame creeping into his cheeks.
Morgana shrugs. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“It’s not... You don’t understand.”
She reaches over and pats his hand.
“Of course I do,” she says, smiling brightly. “You like Merlin, but you don’t know if he actually likes you back or if he was just drunk.”
Arthur’s heart seems to beat in his ears and is his face on fire, or is he just imagining it?
“You’re so full of shit, Morgana, that’s just –”
“All you have to do is talk to him, Arthur,” Morgana interrupts, picking two pints of beer up from the counter. “It really is that easy.”
Taking several deep breaths, he tries to calm his thoughts before he manages to fit the remaining five pints in his arms and carry them to the table. He sits down and Leon passes the glasses around. Merlin’s eyes are on Arthur and he avoids them for a reason he can’t quite explain.
“You don’t actually have to quit your job and start a book shop with me, you know,” Merlin says, downing the last of the beer he’s been nursing before accepting the new glass. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried about anything,” Arthur lies, leaning back in the chair. “I’m always completely cool.”
Leon snorts loudly and Arthur turns to glare at him.
“I’m sorry,” Leon says, coughing slightly. “Yeah, he’s always completely cool.”
Merlin grins into his beer and Arthur feels like hitting them all in the face, especially when he sees Morgana and Gwen huddling together, glancing in his direction briefly. He gets this overwhelming feeling that Gwen knows and he wonders if it’s Merlin or Morgana who told her. All of this is giving him a headache. Or maybe that’s the alcohol, but isn’t it a bit soon to be hung over?
“Why would you want to start a book shop with Arthur anyway?” Leon asks and Arthur’s attention turned away from Morgana’s gossiping. “He barely reads the The Sun.”
“I don’t read The Sun,” Arthur says, affronted.
Merlin’s face lights up as he laughs, his whole expression open and beaming. Arthur rather loves how laughter changes Merlin’s face. His eyes go from being wide and consuming to two tiny slits surrounded by wrinkles of laughter at the corner, just as his lips spread wide and take over half his face in a ridiculous grin. Arthur feels that, maybe, he’s given this a bit too much thought.
“Arthur doesn’t need to read,” Merlin says, the ghost of his laughter still on his face. “I only need him to dust the shelves, it makes me sneeze.”
“He also needs me to carry things. He has puny arms.”
“You got a cramp in your arm just from reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Arthur points out, grinning when Merlin sputters indignantly.
“Boys, boys,” Morgana exclaims, leaning closer. “Stop flirting for a moment and back me up here.”
“We’re not –” Arthur stops talking as Morgana glares in his direction.
“It’s obvious to everyone that Lance is clearly in love with Gwen, right?”
“Yes,” everyone says in unison, including Gwaine and Percy who had been engrossed in a rugby discussion up until that very moment.
Gwen blushes so red that Arthur almost feels sorry for her, but the way her eyes shine tells him that she’s not actually that bothered.
“Oh, stop!” she says, her hands coming up to cover her burning cheeks. “He is not. If he was, why hasn’t he said anything?”
“Yeah, Arthur, why hasn’t he?” Morgana says pointedly and in that moment he can’t remember a time when he hated her more; not even when she told Uther about the secret porn stash in his closet.
Arthur swallows and shrugs noncommittally. “Maybe he doesn’t know how you’ll react.”
He avoids looking at Merlin, even if it means he has to look at Morgana’s stupid, grinning face. Why does he confide in her again?
He gets his revenge when he stops next to her on his way to the toilets. Leaning his hand onto the table, he bends in to whisper into her ear.
“Maybe instead of focusing on everyone else’s love lives, you should focus on how you can’t seal the deal with Leon.”
Her eyes darken and she glares at him as he skips off to the men’s room.
The kiss is uncomfortably familiar, really. The body pushing against him is plump, soft and it smells of some sort of flowery concoction. He doesn’t quite know how he ended up snogging Sophia, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe it’s karma for being mean to Morgana, or maybe it’s because Merlin’s blushing ears made his heart swell oddly and it made him panic. All he knows is that even though it seemed like a great idea since Sophia is hot and he’s been trying to snog her for months, it feels really fucking wrong. It’s about as sexy as kissing his old cat Snuffles, actually, and isn’t that just a nauseating thought?
He pulls back and stumbles a bit, his limbs uncoordinated and slow from the alcohol he’s been throwing back all night. Petting Sophia’s hair awkwardly, he avoids her lips as she leans forward again. His eyes connect with Merlin’s over her shoulder and he feels like someone just punched him in the gut. The look on Merlin’s face as he watches them makes Arthur want to throw up, because he’s never been able to stand seeing Merlin hurt and knowing that he’s the reason for it makes him feel sick.
Pushing Sophia away, he stumbles forwards only to find that Merlin is gone. Drawing a hand shakily over his face, he realises that he at least found out that Merlin remembers. There really was no mistaking the look on Merlin’s face and guilt begins to gnaw at his insides. It really is bloody stupid of him to go snogging someone else just days after he snogged Merlin, isn’t it? Even if Arthur hasn’t been able to figure out what it meant, it obviously wasn’t nothing.
Sometimes Arthur wonders if Morgana is right about him. Maybe he really is a huge moron since he finds himself in messes like these. He curses at himself as he looks for Merlin, knowing that Merlin is hiding somewhere because Merlin is always hiding. It’s what he does. It doesn’t even take Arthur that long to find him sitting curled up on the toilet in the middle stall in the men’s room. Arthur forgets how to breathe when he sees tears glistening on Merlin’s cheeks just before Merlin hurriedly wipes them away.
“I didn’t...” Arthur begins, closing the door to the stall behind him. But he doesn’t know how to continue. He didn’t what, exactly? He didn’t kiss Sophia? Because he definitely did that. He can’t say that he didn’t know there’s something between him and Merlin because he knew that too, on some level.
“Oh, God, it’s not about you, Arthur.” Merlin squares his jaw.
That would be a relief if Arthur doesn’t know that’s blatantly untrue.
“You really are an appalling liar,” he says, but there’s no humour in his voice. It feels wrong to make light of anything at the moment.
Merlin sniffs in reply.
The stall is cramped and there really isn’t much space between them. Arthur finds himself standing with his arms hanging awkwardly by his sides, feeling as if he doesn’t know what to do with any part of himself.
“I panicked,” Arthur blurts out, looking at a spot above Merlin’s head. “Back there. I panicked. It’s really stupid and I don’t... I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Merlin looks small sitting with his knees tucked against his chest and when he looks up at Arthur with large eyes, Arthur has this really embarrassing urge to hug the breath out of him.
“I understand,” Merlin says, giving a small, wry smile. “You really don’t have to explain anything. I know.”
“You do?” Arthur looks at him under raised eyebrows, for a moment wondering if he’s actually managed to make himself understood.
“Yeah.” Merlin unfurls himself and stands up, pushing uncomfortably close to Arthur as he moves towards the door. “No hard feelings. I just need some time.”
Arthur reaches out and runs a thumb across Merlin’s cheek, but freezes in place when Merlin looks like a wounded animal backed into a corner. Of course Merlin wouldn’t understand what he meant, because Arthur barely even knows himself what the fuck he means. He shouldn’t really be this worried about what Merlin thinks about him snogging Sophia and he certainly shouldn’t feel this guilty about why Merlin looks so fucking heartbroken in the way that makes Arthur want to ram his fist through a wall. All he knows is that he does worry and he does feel guilty, but he doesn’t know what it really, really means and he doesn’t know where that leaves him.
“Merlin,” he starts, but then Merlin has slipped out of the stall and disappeared. And Arthur thinks that might even be for the best, because he has no idea what he was going to follow up with.
Arthur sighs into his phone, burying his head into his pillow and groans. “Code Red,” he mutters and presses the heel of his hand against his temple.
“Oh god, what now?” Morgana says at the other end and he hears ruffling of sheets.
He looks at the clock and winces. “Sorry. I woke you.” And he is sorry, in a way; except that he’s selfish enough to not care that it’s early when he has such a huge fucking problem.
Morgana’s voice is oddly gruff with sleep when she curses at him and he laughs slightly.
“I snogged Sophia.”
“Yes, well, nothing new in the life of Arthur the dollop head, then.”
“In front of Merlin.”
He hears her sharp intake of breath and even that makes the knife twist around in his wound of shame and guilt. It doesn’t really matter that it’s a wound he can’t quite explain, it still hurts.
“Jesus Christ, Arthur, what is wrong with you?” she exclaims, and when even Morgana is surprised at the degree of which he manages to mess up it’s probably really bad.
“I think I was dropped on my head as a kid.”
“I think this is one thing you can’t blame on Uther.”
“How very dare you take that option away from me.” He will have her know that everything can be blamed on his father some way or another.
Groaning, he curls in on himself on the bed and slaps his pillow over his head, wondering if there’s a way to stay there in total darkness somehow.
Morgana mutters something under her breath that he can’t catch and he thinks she might be talking away from the phone, but then suddenly she’s there again. “Did you at least talk to him?”
“In other words, you said a bunch of shite that didn’t make any sense so nothing’s actually been worked out.”
He really wants to violently disagree with that, but it’s hardly wrong.
“We were kind of talking past each other, I guess,” he admits, trying to recall their short conversation. “I didn’t understand what Merlin was talking about either.”
“Look, Arthur,” she says and she sounds so exasperated that he’d find it funny if he wasn’t feeling the same way, “you really need to figure out what’s going on between you two right now or you’ll mess it up. And I don’t just mean that you’ll never have glorious, sweaty, gay sex, but that the friendship you guys have managed to somehow find despite you both being utter morons, will suffer.”
Arthur sinks into the pillows, swallowing heavily because he knows she’s right and all of his usual avoidance tactics isn’t going to work on this one.
“And Leon agrees.”
He starts and removes the phone from his ear to stare at it. “What do you mean Leon agrees?”
Morgana laughs so loudly he can hear it even though he’s holding the phone eons away from his ears.
“You kindly reminded me that I had yet to bang Leon, so here we are. Say hi, Leon!”
“Oh god.” Arthur groans. “And you told him about me and Merlin?” He feels kind of betrayed at this. Morgana might think it easy for him to call and whine, but it’s really the result of years of mutual trust.
She laughs a little at that. “Arthur, dear. No one needs to be told anything about you and Merlin, except, apparently, you and Merlin.”
Arthur flops over on his back and groans unhappily, staring up at the ceiling and wonders why everyone else seems to have such a firm grasp on his own life when he doesn’t.
She hums softly in reply.
“I don’t know what’s going on, right?” he says, his heart feeling heavy. “I kissed him and it felt all right in that really soppy Hugh Grant-film kind of way. But he’s my mate and how do you tell your mate that you want to sit on benches with them while Ronan Keating sings When You Say Nothing At All?”
“Does this mean I’m the girl with the large teeth and Leon is that Welsh guy with the appalling clothes?”
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly and sounds like she means it for once. “Look, I know it’s probably really weird. But you at least have to find out how Merlin feels about all of this. It’s not going to just go away on its own, that’s not how it works.”
“I can’t just stop drinking instead?”
“God, no. I can’t be the only one who drinks myself under the table, that’ll just be sad.” Morgana sounds so horrified that he can’t stop himself from grinning.
They’re silent for a while, both of them just hanging onto their phones and letting their thoughts run away with them. At least that’s what Arthur hopes she’s doing.
“Fuck,” he says after a while. “Why am I the one who has to bring this up? Why couldn’t he say anything?”
“Because you’re both utter pillocks. One of you has to be the lesser pillock and it might as well be you.”
Arthur mutters into his pillow before he takes a deep breath and pushes himself out of bed, trying to ignore the dull ache behind his eyes.
“Plus he’s Merlin,” Morgana adds. “You know better than anyone that he’s irrationally afraid of confrontation and that he’s as shy as a baby deer. I mean, he didn’t even say a word to you for two weeks when you first met, he just blushed and tried to bury himself in his own hair.”
Arthur laughs at the memory, and yes, he does know that Merlin really is shy as, well, a baby deer. Or another skittish animal: perhaps a goldfish. Are goldfish shy or is it just that they can’t really acknowledge your presence?
“And you’re this guy who holds presentations for dozens of important business men. When you meet people you launch into conversation immediately. I think it’s only fair that you man up and do this so poor Merlin doesn’t have to.”
“I hate you,” Arthur says, pulling clean clothes out of the closet.
She sniffs. “Of course you do, dear. You hate everyone who’s right when you’re wrong.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Goodbye, Morgana.”
The last thing he hears before he ends the call is an indignant “you’re fucking welcome” and he smirks, throwing his phone down on the bed behind him. Looking at himself in the mirror as he gets dressed slower than usual, he tries to calm his stupid, racing heart.
Today he’s reassessing this idea, though, as he can hear Merlin having a conversation on the phone that Arthur finds eerily similar to the one he just had with Morgana. Now that he’s standing in the hallway, he doesn’t know if he should announce himself or just wait, but if he waits he might be caught listening and that would just be kind of bad, considering the circumstances.
“I don’t know, Gwen,” Merlin says, biting the nail on his thumb. “I’m just being stupid. It’s not like I own him. He was just drunk.”
Arthur frowns and fiddles with the hem of his jumper, trying to figure out what to do. It’s rude to interrupt conversations, but he doesn’t think he should listen to this.
Merlin suddenly laughs humourlessly. “Oh come on, Gwen. The man is fucking gorgeous and he’s also straight. Very straight.”
Wait, what? Is Merlin even talking about him? Arthur supposes he is straight to anyone he hasn’t corrected in that assumptions, and that’s basically no one. It’s not like he has any experience dating men, because he’s never really acted on the few crushes he’s had and Morgana is the only one who knows he had that crush on his father’s colleague back when he was eighteen. Swallowing heavily, he knows he has some clearing up to do.
“I think my straightness is fairly debatable,” he says loudly, making Merlin jump from the sofa, flailing so violently that his phone slips out of his grip and slides across the floor.
“Merlin?” Gwen’s voice says from the floor.
Merlin looks like a deer caught in headlights as he picks up the phone with shaking hands and says, “Crap, sorry, Gwen. I have to go.”
They both stand frozen in place, facing each other, in Merlin’s tiny, messy flat. Arthur finds his head to be terrifyingly blank. How do people do this? In films it always seems so simple. They just make one of those heart-warming speeches and then everything’s just fine, but where do those speeches even come from? Arthur can’t even seem to remember how words are formed right now.
He blames Morgana for making him see so many Hugh Grant films, because that’s really all he can think about right now. What do these people say in situations like these? He wonders if Merlin can read the panic on his face.
“I’m just... uhm...a boy standing in front of...a boy.” Oh god. Is he really quoting Julia Roberts? He can’t say that, what the fuck is he thinking?
He shuffles, looking down at the floor as he flushes red in a way that he can’t remember the last time he did.
“I mean, uh.” He stops, trying to think of something Hugh Grant might have said that he can actually apply to this situation. “There’s got to be a way back into...love. Fuck, no.”
When he looks up, Merlin’s look of terror has disappeared and his lip is curling into a half-smile that makes Arthur’s fingertips tingle. He didn’t even know they could do that.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, moving towards him with slow movements as if not to scare him away. “What are you on about?”
Giving a massive sigh, Arthur rubs at the back of his neck and looks at Merlin sheepishly.
“Fuck if I know,” he admits, wondering if his heart is going to burst out of his chest as Merlin stops in front him with a slightly concerned look on his face. “I’m trying to say things, but it’s... I don’t have the words.”
It sounds ridiculous to his own ears, but Merlin nods almost eagerly, his eyes bright.
“I know what you mean,” Merlin says and Arthur thinks that maybe miracles do happen after all. “Maybe you don’t have to say anything if you don’t know how? Maybe you can show me.”
“Show you?” Somehow Arthur has never considered that possibility.
Arthur looks at Merlin as he weighs his options, letting himself study the sharp lines of Merlin’s face, the wildness of his mop of black hair and the long column of his neck. In a way, there’s a lot he wants to say, but that he can’t put into words – at least not right now. And maybe Merlin will understand it anyway, or maybe it can wait.
Stepping forwards, Arthur cups Merlin’s face gently in his hands, scared that any sudden movements will send Merlin running for the hills. And that’s a bit ridiculous, considering Merlin isn’t actually a skittish animal, even if he looks like one with those large and expressive eyes staring at Arthur in something that resembles wonder. That look breaks something inside Arthur that he can’t put his finger on and the next he knows he’s closed the distance between them and ghosted his lips over Merlin’s in a touch that’s barely there. Arthur closes his eyes to the steady hum of excitement that he realises he’s been craving since the night at the club. He’s hovering over Merlin’s lips: touching them, but only barely. Merlin exhales a breath that makes Arthur shiver slightly and he thinks he hears an impatient noise that Merlin can’t quite suppress.
Arthur smirks slightly, wondering why they’ve been trying to do all this talking when this is what they could be doing all along. Threading his fingers into Merlin’s hair, he cups the back of his head and takes in the sweet feeling of anticipation one last time before he melds his lips to Merlin’s, kissing him with every ounce of frustration and desperation he’s felt the past days. Merlin seems to go boneless under his kiss and leans into Arthur, clutching his fingers into his shirt. That almost sickening rightness is there again, clicking into place somewhere inside Arthur in a way that terrifies him and calms him all at once as he presses into Merlin’s open-mouthed kiss.
“So...not straight, then?” Merlin says breathlessly and Arthur is severally insulted that Merlin is even coherent enough to break the kiss and form words right now.
Catching Merlin’s lips again, he tastes Merlin languidly with his tongue. He hooks one arm around him, pressing them closer together. When Arthur pulls away from the kiss again, Merlin tries to follow.
“Answer enough for you?” Arthur asks, his voice low as he nuzzles against Merlin’s cheek.
“Fair enough.” Merlin’s breath ghosts across Arthur’s ear. “You could’ve told me, though.”
Arthur dips his head and presses his lips softly to the exposed skin of Merlin’s neck. “What happened to ‘just show me, Arthur’?”
At the last insult, Arthur grins into Merlin’s neck and laughs, biting back the comment he wants to make. For a moment he wonders if his laughter has offended Merlin, though, as Merlin is untangling himself from their embrace and Arthur is overcome by the thought that he doesn’t know what he’d do if Merlin rejects him...and that thought is fucking scary. When he can see Merlin’s face, though, he’s smiling and raising an eyebrow at Arthur.
“What are you just grinning at me for?” Arthur says, trying to quell his doubts. “Going to recite some of your fantastic poetry again?”
“Oh, that’s it,” Merlin exclaims, rolling his eyes. “I really need you to shut up now.” Merlin’s palms connect with his chest, and despite the fact that Merlin really does have puny arms, Arthur is flailing rather ungracefully as he’s tipped onto the sofa.
He stares up at Merlin, planning to make another remark, but his ability to think like a normal person disappears when he sees the predatory half-smile on Merlin’s face. Fuck. Arthur closes his eyes as he feels his jeans going suspiciously tight, only having the time to wonder if this intensity of emotion is even normal at all before Merlin is straddling his hips. Arching shamelessly up into the body pressing him down, he can’t really seem to care that this is complicated. Maybe complicated is just the way it has to be. In fact, if complicated feels this good, he should have gone with that all along.
Merlin really does succeed in shutting him up for quite a while, which anyone would see as quite a feat in itself. Arthur is totally lost in how Merlin nips at his collarbone, how his fingers brush across his skin and how the weight of Merlin feels pressed against him. It consumes him how Merlin makes these little gasps and that when their eyes meet it’s almost shocking because there’s so much in the looks between them.
He doesn’t know what prompts him to say it, but it might be the realisation that he wants Merlin’s fingers to run down his naked torso for the rest of the foreseeable eternity. Whatever it was, though, it surprises even himself.
“Tell me about the book shop,” he says, his hand splayed out on Merlin’s naked back as he rocks his hips.
Merlin raises his head, abandoning his previous endeavour of kissing his way from Arthur’s jaw to his collarbone. “Is this your idea of dirty talk?”
“I was... I was just joking about that, you know.” Merlin buries his face into Arthur’s neck, perhaps to hide his expression.
“I don’t think you were, though.”
“Please,” Arthur says, a bit appalled to hear himself beg, but if the state of his erection is anything to go by, it won’t be the last time he does that.
Merlin sighs against his skin and his fingers begin tracing lazy circles against Arthur’s ribs.
When he speaks, his voice is soft and almost timid in a strange way. “It’s a corner shop. There’s one section for new books and one for the vintage ones we can get our hands on. In one corner, there’s a little nook where people can sit down and read if they want to and there are a lot of comfortable cushions and tea.”
Arthur smiles, bending forwards to kiss Merlin’s shoulder. “What’s it called?”
“I like that.”
“Yeah, I ... I thought about that for a while,” Merlin says, his voice quivering with an odd tension.
Cupping Merlin’s face, Arthur pulls him into a languid kiss, hoping that the tactic of showing rather than talking will work again. Maybe it does, since Merlin seems to relax against him, answering the kiss with the warmth Merlin puts into everything he does.
Arthur could have said it was perfect and it would be both a truth and a lie. There was awkward fumbling as they attempted to get out of their jeans and Arthur was so painfully hard that he was reduced to the stamina of his teenage escapades. He would’ve been embarrassed by that if it wasn’t for the fact that Merlin’s hand wrapping around both of them made his head spin and body arch almost painfully. He came so hard his vision blurred and he had no time to feel embarrassed about how quickly it happened because all he could do was stare in awe as Merlin fell apart above him.
And now, as Merlin’s tucked against his side on the small sofa and Arthur’s hand is nearly asleep under Merlin’s torso, he thinks that it hardly matters if there are imperfections in an otherwise glorious picture. If anything, it only makes it more real.