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How to Say I Love You in Six Days

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Monday

It was entirely possible Arthur was going to throw up.

He blamed Morgana, of course. If she hadn't somehow talked him into finally telling Merlin that he was kind of completely in love with him, and sort of desperately wanted to get into his pants, then Arthur wouldn't have written that idiotic poem and slipped it into Merlin's locker before their first class.

And now Merlin wasn't there, and Arthur's stomach was churning and his heart was pounding in his chest and he kept having to wipe his hands on his jeans.

Where the fuck is he? Arthur thought, glancing again at the door. Class was going to start any minute, and if Arthur had to wait much longer to see Merlin’s reaction he was certain he was going to die.

A hand clamped down on his shoulder and he flinched, twisting around to blink at the person assaulting him.

Gwaine snorted out a laugh, sliding into the seat on the other side of Arthur. "What's got you all jumpy? Oi, we're not having a test today, are we? 'Cause I didn't study."

Arthur let out a breath. "No, there's no test. And you never study." He shifted in his seat, trying to keep one eye on the door.

"Very true," Gwaine said, glancing from Arthur to the door. His gaze landed on Merlin's empty desk and a smirk bloomed across his face. "Ah. Right. Today's the big day, then."

Arthur's head snapped back around, eyes going wide. "What? What are you talking about?"

Gwaine raised an eyebrow. "Morgana," he said with a shrug, and really, that was all he needed to say.

Arthur was pretty sure he actually growled, but just then the bell started to ring and Merlin skidded into the room. He dropped down into his desk, bag landing on the floor beside him; his face was flushed and his hair was a mess, and Arthur kind of wanted to kiss him very badly.

"You're late," he pointed out instead, amazing himself at how calm his voice sounded.

Merlin shook his head and waved his hand in the general direction of the door, breathing hard. "Made it before the bell stopped. Not late."

Arthur snorted. "Technicality. You're lucky Professor Annis isn't here yet."

"Do you have a pencil?" Merlin asked, ignoring him. "I didn't have a chance to stop by my locker and grab one."

Oh.

"Um. Sure," Arthur said weakly, leaning down to dig through one of the compartments on his own bag. His heart had just sunk into his stomach, because if Merlin hadn't stopped by his locker before class then he definitely would after, and that meant Arthur would be with him when he found the note.

Yeah, he was definitely going to throw up.

"Here," he said, thrusting a pencil in Merlin's direction, unable to look him in the eye. This was bad. This was so, so bad.

"Thanks," Merlin said, and looked like he was about to say something else when Professor Annis strode through the door and he snapped his mouth shut.

Arthur let out a small breath, relieved, and for the rest of class he used the pretense of taking notes to avoid looking at Merlin. When the bell rang an hour later, his notebook page was filled with random bits of the history lesson, several panic-induced curse words, a few quickly drawn comics, and some of his own berating thoughts about the poem in Merlin's locker.

"So I was thinking," Merlin said, leaning across the aisle as the rest of the class began to file out. Arthur quickly closed his notebook, keeping his face perfectly blank. "We should go see that new action film at the cinema this Friday. I've heard it's awful."

Arthur laughed; he couldn't help it. Their Friday night 'boy-dates' (as Morgana so lovingly called them) often included bad films, and it never failed to amuse him how gleeful it made Merlin.

"Okay, as long as we can go to that new pizzeria afterwards."

If Merlin didn't laugh in his face when he read the poem, that is.

"Deal," Merlin said, grinning.

Arthur shoved his book and notebook into his bag and slung it over his shoulder as he followed Merlin from the classroom. His stomach was in knots, and his hand clutched so tightly at his bag's strap that his knuckles turned white. Merlin was chattering away, like usual, and it was all Arthur could do to pretend to pay attention.

It hit him suddenly that he could turn around and walk away, get lost in the crowd of students in the corridor, maybe duck into a nearby bathroom and hide in a stall for the rest of the day. It was incredibly tempting, but even as the thought crossed his mind Arthur knew he could never do it; he wasn't the type of person who ran from things, and it would – at the very least – confuse Merlin if he just disappeared without a word.

"Hey, did you do the Biology homework?" Merlin asked when they reached his locker. His eyes were focused on the lock as he spun it around, stopping on the correct combination of numbers. "I had some trouble with question twelve, do you think – ah, fuck."

Arthur swallowed hard, the knots in his stomach now a horrible twisting hotness. "What is it?" he asked warily, shifting to peer over Merlin's shoulder.

The entire inside of the locker was soaking wet, and the sticky sweet scent of carbonated soda wafted out.

"Fuck," Merlin repeated, reaching in and pulling out a notebook. Or, what used to be a notebook. The pages were now brown and swollen with liquid, the words that had been written on them a blur of ink.

Arthur wrinkled his nose at the mess. "What the hell happened?"

Merlin tossed the notebook back inside and then reached in again, this time pulling out a wad of loose paper so completely soaked it was impossible to tell where one piece ended and another began. Arthur's breath caught in his throat as he stared at it; the bright red ink of the pen he'd used to write his poem to Merlin was right on top, the words illegible.

It was an odd mixture of relief and disappointment that made Arthur's shoulders slump, and to his surprise the disappointment was sharper than the relief.

"Ugh," Merlin said, dropping the paper back into the locker; it landed on the bottom with a dull plop. He wiped his hand on the bottom of his t-shirt. "I forgot I left my Coke in here Friday afternoon. It must have exploded or something."

"It had to have done it this morning," Arthur said, poking at – something. He wasn't entirely sure what. "Everything would be dry by now otherwise."

Merlin scowled and slammed the locker door shut. "Doesn't really matter, does it? I've still got to replace everything."

"I'll help," Arthur said, and then, "Shut up, Merlin," when Merlin went to protest.

"Arse," Merlin muttered, but he didn't argue. Sighing heavily, he continued, "Mind if I borrow that pencil the rest of the day?"

Arthur rolled his eyes and slung one arm over Merlin's shoulder, guiding him away from the mess of a locker and toward their next class. "Don't be ridiculous, of course you can. If you play it right, Mr. Gaius may even let you out of that Biology homework."

He glanced over his shoulder at Merlin's locker as they walked away, thinking about his disappointment over the ruined poem, and knew he'd try again.

*

Arthur hung up with the flower shop, a grin on his face. It was possibly even more sentimental than a handwritten poem, but if it got Merlin to realise how Arthur felt then it was worth it. He touched the messages icon on his phone screen and typed out a text to Merlin.

picking you up in the morning. be there at 7.

It didn't take long before his phone chimed with an incoming message, and Arthur opened it immediately.

uh, ok. why?

Arthur grinned and dropped his phone on the bed beside him, picking up his pen to start working on an essay due next week. Let him wonder.

Then again, pissing Merlin off might not be the best way to lead up to a confession of feelings. He picked his phone up again and typed out another message.

because you're shit at getting to school on time.

There, that would be good enough. And in the morning he'd get there around the same time as the flowers, declarations would be made, and then maybe he could snog Merlin stupid like he'd wanted to do since he was fourteen.

His phone chimed again, and Merlin's message was a single word: arse.

Arthur snorted, and turned back to his essay.

 

Tuesday

Merlin opened the door with a (completely fake, seriously, Arthur knew him well enough by now) glare on his face. "Remind me why I'm friends with you?"

Arthur grinned and held out a Styrofoam cup of Merlin's favorite Starbucks coffee. "Because I'm handsome, charming, and always bring a peace offering?"

Merlin held the glare for a few more short moments before it disappeared and he grabbed the coffee, rolling his eyes. "One out of three is terrible, I hope you know."

"Better than none," Arthur said cheerily, and Merlin gave him an odd look.

"What's with you? You're usually, like, the opposite of a morning person."

Arthur didn't get a chance to answer before Merlin's mum appeared from around the corner, a vase of colorful flowers in her hands. His breath caught in his throat; he didn't know anything about flowers so he hadn't specified what kind, but those had to be them.

"Good morning, Arthur," Hunith said, a happy smile on her face. "Merlin had said you would be picking him up for school."

"Yeah, sometimes he needs a bit of looking after."

"Hey!" Merlin protested, and Hunith laughed.

"Well, I can't really argue with that," she said, eyes bright with humor. Merlin huffed but was too busy with his coffee to say much else. Hunith set the vase of flowers on a nearby foyer table, fussing with a few of the blossoms. "Do you like my flowers, Arthur? They were a lovely surprise this morning."

Her flowers? Arthur's heart sank.

Well, shit.

"They're lovely," he said, voice far more strained than he would have liked. "Was, uh. Was there a card?"

"Strangely, no," Hunith said, leaving the blossoms alone to pick up her purse from the same table. Her voice was filled with amusement when she continued. "I must have a secret admirer."

Arthur could see Merlin scowl behind his coffee cup, and smiled weakly. "Must have."

Checking her watch, Hunith frowned slightly and then glanced up at Merlin, guilt flashing across her face. "I had to pick up a second shift tonight, is it alright if –"

"It's fine, Mum, I can stay with Arthur tonight," Merlin interrupted. He turned to Arthur belatedly. "If that's okay, I mean."

Arthur gave him a look. "Of course it is."

Hunith smiled at them both, clearly relieved. "Thank you, Arthur, you're such a sweet boy."

She gave him a quick hug and Arthur blushed, glaring when Merlin sent him shit-eating grin behind Hunith's back.

"Bye, Mum," Merlin said, accepting her kiss to his cheek before she breezed out the door. He turned to Arthur as soon as they were alone, eyes wide and innocent. "Ready to go, sweet boy?"

"Ha-ha," Arthur said dryly, and when Merlin just laughed he pulled him into a noogie and dragged him all the way out to the car that way.

(And then went back to get Merlin's backpack for him, just because.)

*

Arthur wasn't expecting Morgana to be home that afternoon, and as soon as he saw her curled up in an armchair, idly flipping through the pages of a magazine, his stomach dropped to his feet.

"What are you doing here? I thought you were at uni."

Morgana looked up, eyebrows raised, but whatever retort she might have thrown back at him died on the sharp curl of her mouth the second she saw Merlin behind him.

"Oh, hello, Merlin," she said, voice overly sweet. "Here to spend some quality time with my brother?"

"Morgana!"

"Uh," Merlin said, glancing at Arthur with an odd expression on his face. "My mum had to work tonight and I'm staying over so she won't worry." He paused, and then gestured in the general direction of the kitchen. "I'm, uh, just going to go grab something to eat."

He disappeared down the hallway, and Arthur stared after him for a moment before turning a thunderous glare on his sister.

"What the hell was that? Are you trying to humiliate me?"

Morgana blinked innocently at him. "I was trying to help, actually. I know you, Arthur; just because you agreed that Merlin should know your feelings about him doesn't mean you'll do a very good job of telling him."

"I'm doing just fine on my own, thanks," Arthur snapped, scowling deeply.

Morgana snorted. "Sure you are," she said. "I guarantee you haven't come right out and said the words, so what have you done?"

Arthur's shoulders tensed and he crossed his arms. "None of your bloody business. I'm well aware of your opinion on the matter, so just leave it, okay?"

Morgana raised an eyebrow again and then shrugged, turning back to her magazine. "Suit yourself, baby brother."

Arthur stared warily at her for another moment, but when it became obvious she was now ignoring him he turned and made his way to the kitchen. He didn't need her help, damn it; it wasn't his fault the poem had been ruined and the flowers had been mistaken for Hunith's. He just needed to think of something else, something that he would suck up his courage for and give to Merlin himself.

"Your sister is still scary," Merlin said from where he was sitting on one of the barstools at the center island. "I always feel like she's going to try to slit my throat with one of those fucking long fingernails."

Arthur laughed, reaching over to snag half the sandwich Merlin had made. "She's irritating, but she's not that bad."

"You say that now, but when you wake up one day in a pool of your own blood you'll have to admit I was right."

"Okay, Merlin," Arthur said with amusement. "If that ever happens I'll make sure you know you were right."

"Good." Merlin nodded and picked up a pickle from his plate, taking a big, crunching bite. "Hey, do you have any more of that fancy-shmancy imported dried fruit stuff?"

Arthur waved at the pantry door, shaking his head at Merlin's excited expression. "You're like a bottomless pit. Is there anything you won't eat?"

"It's not my fault I didn't get a proper breakfast," Merlin's voice called from the depths of the pantry. "All I had was coffee!"

"It was good coffee, though," Arthur said, and grinned when Merlin just huffed in annoyance.

A minute later Merlin shouted in triumph and emerged with a bag of the dried fruit, already ripping it open. "I want to become rich just so I can have this any time I want."

"Why do that when you can just come here to eat it?" Arthur asked, and then continued without thought, "That's the whole reason it's even in this house."

Ah, shit. He hadn't meant to say that.

Merlin's brows drew together in obvious confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Er," Arthur said, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Nobody who actually lives here likes that stuff. I just…make sure we always have some because I know you do."

"Oh." Merlin glanced down at the package of dried fruit, a weird expression on his face. When he looked back up he was smiling almost shyly, which completely threw Arthur because Merlin was never shy. "Thanks."

Arthur shrugged. "It's no problem."

Silence fell, unusually awkward, and Arthur had to look away from Merlin's gaze, heat infusing his cheeks.

"Right," Merlin said after a moment, sounding bright and cheerful, and the tension dissipated a little. "Wasn't I completely kicking your arse at Zombie Hunters 3 last time I was here?"

"Hey!" Arthur said, laughing despite himself, and the rest of the uncomfortable awkwardness disappeared. "I was catching up to you and you know it."

Both of Merlin's eyebrows shot up, incredulous look on his face. "The hell you were. You're just a sore loser."

"Care to prove that?" Arthur asked, putting every ounce of challenge in his voice that he could. "Loser does the other's homework."

"You are so on."

 

Wednesday

Arthur woke up twenty minutes before his alarm went off. Groaning loudly, he rolled over onto his back and shoved his pillow over his face, wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep and stay that way. He could hear soft snores coming from the other side of the room, and it took him a few confused, sleep-fuzzy seconds to remember that Merlin had stayed over.

Frowning, Arthur shoved the pillow off and sat up, staring at where Merlin was sprawled across the cot he always used when spending the night. His hair was mussed, and both his t-shirt and his pajama bottoms had twisted as he slept, exposing the soft-looking skin of his stomach and the sharp jut of his hipbones. Arthur swallowed, half-hard cock swelling even further, and slipped from his bed as quietly as he could, grabbing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from his dresser.

Fortunately, Morgana had left the night before to return to uni, and his father was always gone before Arthur got up for school, so the short walk down the hall to the bathroom wasn't nearly as embarrassing as it could have been. He turned the shower on and stripped down, stepping under the hot spray and letting out a quiet sigh.

He was so, so fucked.

The entire thing was turning out to be one giant train wreck. Arthur had tried twice now to tell Merlin how he felt, and both times he had been fucked over by the universe. And the thing about it was, he knew he was going to try again, and then again and again if he had to.

Maybe he was some sort of emotional masochist and hadn't even realised it.

Scowling, Arthur looked down at his now fully-erect cock. "This is your fault," he muttered, which, of course, was blatantly untrue. His dick may have reacted to Merlin before he had realised why, but he knew damn well it wouldn't have without the underlying emotion there first.

Giving up, Arthur reached down and wrapped his hand around himself, not bothering to hold off or tease a little. He didn't have much time, and he wanted to be finished before Merlin woke up and the potential for awkwardness skyrocketed.

Leaning one arm against the tile wall, Arthur let his eyes drift closed as he stroked himself, steady and sure, fingers tight. He thought about Merlin, sprawled across Arthur's bed rather than the tiny cot, about himself pressing sloppy kisses to Merlin's stomach, curling his fingers under the waistband of his pajamas and tugging them down far enough to get his mouth around the hard cock underneath.

Arthur came with a choked-off groan, thick white liquid pulsing out and landing on the bottom of the shower. He watched, breathing hard, as it mixed with the water and disappeared down the drain, the thrum of pleasure flowing just beneath his skin.

After a moment he straightened up and rinsed his hand off, reaching for the shampoo bottle. That was when his stomach suddenly rumbled, and his eyes widened as it hit him. He'd been the reason Merlin missed breakfast the day before, and now he had the perfect opportunity to make it up to him. And okay, yeah, maybe Arthur had never cooked before, but honestly, how hard could it be?

He rushed through the rest of his shower, drying off and dressing as quickly as he could without injuring himself. As he passed his room he could hear his alarm going off and Merlin cursing loudly, and couldn't stop a huge grin from splitting wide across his face.

Once he reached the kitchen he stopped and looked around, not really knowing where to start. "Okay," he said, rubbing his hands together. "You can't cook food without something to cook it on, so…where are the pans?"

It took him a full five minutes to find a skillet, another three to find a spatula, and he had no idea how long to locate the eggs in the refrigerator. He cracked three of them into the skillet and then frowned at the tiny white specks that appeared. That couldn't be right, could it? Were raw eggs speckled? Well, it didn't much matter, because the yolk was already running and the specks mixing in. Shrugging, Arthur flipped on the correct flame and turned to hunt down the bread for toast.

When Merlin walked into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, hair still wet from his shower, Arthur couldn't even appreciate it. The room was filled with smoke from where the toast had nearly caught on fire, the eggs were somehow half-burnt and half-runny, and the sausage he'd dug out was still raw and waiting on the counter. He winced at the shocked look on Merlin's face, and continued to wave around the dish towel he'd found to try and clear the smoke.

"Arthur," Merlin said, picking up the spatula and poking at the ruined eggs, "what the fuck?"

Arthur scowled and threw the dish towel down on the counter, picking up the plate of blackened bread and dumping it into the garbage bin.

"I was trying to make you breakfast, obviously," he snapped.

"Okay," Merlin said slowly. "Why?"

Grimacing, Arthur turned and picked up the skillet, the contents joining the toast in the bin. "Because I made you miss it yesterday and I was trying to be nice."

"Oh."

Merlin's tone is odd, and Arthur's stomach twists as he glances back at him. He's not expecting to see the soft expression on Merlin's face or the happy little smile curling his lips.

"Well," Merlin said, reaching over to gather up the uncooked sausage and stick it back in the refrigerator. "It's the thought that counts?"

Arthur snorted, and then started coughing as he inhaled smoke. "Right," he forced out. "The thought."

Merlin just smiled. "Come on," he said. "We can stop somewhere and grab something on the way to school."

It wasn't what Arthur had wanted, but it would have to do. He tossed all the dirty dishes into the sink while Merlin ran back upstairs to grab their backpacks, and threw one last glare at all of it before walking out to meet him in the foyer.

Merlin handed over his bag and then, to Arthur's complete shock, leaned over and very nearly pressed his nose to Arthur's neck, breathing in deeply. Arthur froze, breath hitching as his skin prickled with goosebumps.

"You know," Merlin said when he pulled away, eyes filled with teasing light, "the smell of burnt toast will never quite be the same again."

Arthur spluttered, laughing despite himself. "You are such an arse."

"It's very fetching on you," Merlin said, eyes wide and placating. "You could make it your signature scent."

"You are the most ridiculous person I have ever met."

Merlin just grinned.

*

That afternoon Merlin had a meeting with Mr. Gaius about his grade in Biology, and Arthur waited for him out in the car park. He'd laid his front seat back as far as it would go, and had the air on full blast and his iPod earbuds in. The knocking on his window almost didn't register, but when he glanced up at the dull sound it was to see Elena waving at him. Arthur grinned and pulled his earbuds out, not bothering to lift his seat as he opened his door and climbed out.

"Waiting on Merlin?" Elena asked, leaning against the side of Arthur's car. Her voice was light and playful, and it made Arthur flush because after Merlin she was his best friend and was well aware of his feelings.

"Yeah," Arthur said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Mr. Gaius wanted to talk to him."

Elena winced and nodded, and then said, "So I got a text from Morgana yesterday," and it was such a complete one-eighty that it took Arthur a moment to realise what she probably meant.

"Bloody harpy," he muttered, scowling when Elena snorted in amusement.

"You don't even know what she said," she pointed out, raising her eyebrows. "She could have been asking for makeup tips or something."

Which was complete bollocks and they both knew it.

"Right," Arthur said dryly. "What did she want, then?"

Elena gave him a rueful smile. "She said you were trying to finally be honest with Merlin and asked me to help. Not really sure what I could do, though."

"I don't need any help," Arthur said, voice flat and annoyed. "And if she doesn't start minding her own business I'm going to dig up her old diaries and publish them on the internet."

Elena grinned. "Yeah, I thought you'd say something like that. Don't worry, I'm going to stay out of it, but I will tell you that I'm happy you're finally doing something other than pining your life away."

"I wasn't –" Arthur started to protest, but at Elena's expression he cut himself off. There was no point in denying it, really. He sighed. "Might as well give me some sort of 'advice', or Morgana won't leave you alone."

"Hmm, this is true," Elena said thoughtfully. She glanced down at her watch and startled a little. "Oh, I'm late for something. Tell Merlin I said hello!"

For a moment Arthur thought she was going to run off without actually trying to say anything advice-worthy, which wouldn't have been any kind of surprise considering, but instead she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.

"Seduction," she whispered into his ear. "Make him hot, bring him off. There'll be no doubt about how you feel."

And then she was gone, taking off across the parking lot with nothing more than a wicked smile tossed over her shoulder. Arthur gaped after her, not entirely sure he had heard correctly. Seduce Merlin? It definitely wasn't a new idea, but as much as Arthur wanted to he wasn't sure it was really the best way to go about this whole admitting-of-feelings thing. What if Merlin didn't want to be seduced, and things just ended up even more awkward and humiliating for both of them?

Arthur sighed, rubbing one hand over his face. He was driving himself crazy trying to get his feelings out there, but that didn't mean Merlin would feel the same. It was a distinct possibility – one that had been lingering at the back of Arthur's mind since he made the decision to do this – that he was doing nothing but making a complete fool of himself.

"Was that Elena?"

Arthur jumped, twisting around to see Merlin just reaching the other side of the car, backpack slung over one shoulder.

"Um, yeah, it was. She said to tell you hello."

Merlin looked amused. "She couldn't stick around for two minutes to say it herself?"

"She mentioned being late for something," Arthur said, and then grinned. "Or maybe she saw you coming and was just trying to avoid you."

"Ha-ha," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. He opened the passenger door and plopped down in the seat, shoving his bag onto the floor.

Arthur slid into his own seat, lifting the back up again, and was just about to shift into gear when he glanced over and saw the tight, unhappy expression on Merlin's face.

"Hey, what's wrong? You're not that upset about Elena, are you?"

"No, of course not," Merlin said, giving him a look that clearly said stop being an idiot. He sighed, leaning his head back against his seat, and Arthur tried very hard not to stare at the line of his throat. "Mr. Gaius said the only way I'm going to pass Biology is if I take an extra credit test and make a perfect score. He gave me a lecture about being smart but not putting enough effort into my work, blah blah blah. All I know is that I have until Friday afternoon to cram an entire term's information into my head."

"You are smart," Arthur said, flushing when Merlin looked over at him in surprise. "And you probably know more than you think you do. Look, I'll help you study, and then when you get that perfect score we can declare the pizza and movie a celebration."

"And if I don't get a perfect score?"

"Consolation."

Merlin grinned. "Okay, it's a deal. You help me study, and Friday night will be my consolation prize."

"Celebration," Arthur corrected, and then glared when Merlin broke down laughing. "You are a horrible person."

"Whatever you say, Arthur."

 

Thursday

By the time Thursday night arrived, Arthur was getting a little desperate. Merlin had been frantically studying for his test since the day before, and was so stressed he probably wouldn't register a declaration of love if Arthur shouted it directly into his face. He hated seeing Merlin this way, and a big part of him wished he could take the test instead.

Although, Arthur did have to admit that seeing Merlin's hair so messy because he kept running his hands through it was kind of (okay, a lot) sexy.

"Oh god, I can't do this," Merlin said for the thousandth time. They were sitting on the floor of his room, books and notebooks and paper spread out all over the place. "I'm going to fail. I shouldn't have taken a break to eat dinner, I should have kept studying –"

"Merlin, that's ridiculous. You have to eat."

" – I'm going to have to stay up all night, it's the only way –"

"Uh, sleeping is kind of necessary, you know."

"Arthur," Merlin moaned, and oh, hell, now was not the time for that kind of reaction from his cock. "I'm not going to survive this. If I keel over in the middle of this test, tell my mum I love her."

Arthur laughed, he couldn't help it. "Stop being so bloody overdramatic. You've been studying for two days straight, you know this stuff."

Merlin looked at him then, eyes a tiny bit wild and hair sticking up in all directions. "I don't. I don't know any of it. Oh god, I really am going to fail."

"You're not –" Arthur sighed and shook his head. "Okay, that's it. You've studied enough, it's late, and this is going to stop now."

Merlin blinked. "But –"

"Quiet," Arthur commanded, and began gathering up the scattered studying materials. Merlin watched him, mouth slightly open, as though he couldn't quite comprehend what Arthur was doing.

He stacked everything neatly on Merlin's desk and then rejoined him on the floor – except that instead of sitting across from him like he had been, he sat behind him, legs on either side of Merlin's hips. He was very, very careful not to sit too close, but all the same this wasn't a usual position for them.

Merlin twisted around to look at him, eyes wide and wary. "What are you doing?"

"Helping you relax," Arthur said. "Now turn back around."

It took a few long seconds, but finally Merlin did as he was told, fingers plucking nervously at his jeans.

"Not really sure how this is supposed to help – oh."

Arthur grinned, hands working gently at Merlin's shoulders. "What was that?"

"Nothing," Merlin said, head dropping forward. "I didn't say a thing."

"That's what I thought," Arthur said smugly, thumbs moving in circles on either side of Merlin's spine.

His hands slowly moved down, rubbing along the tense muscles in Merlin's back, working the knots loose. Merlin's t-shirt bunched under his fingers, and Arthur wanted to pull it off and feel his warm skin, maybe drop a few kisses here and there. He couldn't though, and a hollow ache bloomed in his chest at the thought that maybe he would never be able to.

Merlin suddenly groaned, long and low, and pulled his knees up to lay his head on them, circling his legs with his arms. The sound went straight to Arthur's cock and he swallowed, remembering Elena's words from yesterday. Seduction, she had said.

Hesitantly, he started moving his hands back up, one still massaging and the other trailing behind more lightly, fingertips dragging straight up Merlin's spine. Merlin's breath hitched and Arthur shifted just a little, moving an inch or so closer. He placed his hands back on Merlin's shoulders, fingers brushing against Merlin's neck as they moved. Holding his breath, he slowly slid one thumb over, rubbing it just under Merlin's hairline, and then scraped his thumbnail across the visible knob at the top of his spine.

Merlin shivered, making a soft, choked sound, and Arthur barely had a chance to register it before he was suddenly clutching air. He watched as Merlin scrambled away, flush high on his cheeks, and felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.

"That was," Merlin started, clearing his throat. "That was definitely relaxing, thank you."

"You're welcome," Arthur forced out, voice hoarse, unable to stop staring even as Merlin's eyes flitted all over the room.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence and then Merlin finally looked at him, giving him a small, tight smile. "I think I can sleep now," he said, and paused, tongue darting out over his lips. "Good night, Arthur. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Right," Arthur said, and nodded. He pushed himself up and grabbed his bag from where he'd dropped it by Merlin's door when they'd come in earlier, slinging it over his shoulder. "Right. Tomorrow. Do you – do you want me to pick you up in the morning?"

"No," Merlin said, a bit too quickly for Arthur's taste. "No, Mum's not working so she'll take me."

"Oh. Okay." Arthur hesitated, hand tightening around his bag strap. "But we're still on for tomorrow night, yeah?"

This time Merlin's smile wasn't quite as tense, but there was something unreadable in his eyes. "Definitely. Consolation, remember?"

"Celebration," Arthur said, though the word didn't feel quite right anymore, and Merlin just shook his head.

He left, throat tight and a bitter, empty hole in his chest.

 

Friday

Arthur wasn't quite sure how he made it through the day. Merlin barely spoke to him, but as hard as he tried he couldn't figure out if it was because of the night before or nerves over the test. His classes blurred together and he skipped lunch entirely, locking himself in a bathroom stall.

After the last bell he chose to spend the time Merlin was taking his test in a back corner of the library, staring out a window at the football field beyond. He couldn't go home, since Merlin was expecting him to stick around so they could go to the movie, but he didn't want to hang around the Biology classroom like a pathetic puppy either.

His chest almost physically hurt, and more than once he couldn't quite catch his breath. It was ridiculous, he told himself, because it wasn't like Merlin had flat-out told him no, that he didn't feel the same. Their friendship was still salvageable, as long as they just kept ignoring what had happened. It would go away; the feelings Arthur had would eventually fade and his best friend would still be there, the same Merlin as always.

Then again, if Merlin kept being Merlin then Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever be able to stop loving him. He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the window. This had to be the worst feeling in the world; it was like his heart was literally being ripped to shreds, the hole in his chest swallowing up the pieces.

His phone vibrated in his pocket and he reached for it, knowing it was Merlin before he even opened the text.

hey, did you leave?

Arthur frowned slightly, wishing tone was easier to detect through written words. Did Merlin want him to have left, or was he hoping he hadn't? He shook his head and typed out an answer before he could think about it too hard.

no, i'm in the library. meet you by your locker.

He stood up and slid his phone back into his pocket, grabbing his bag from where he'd dropped it on the floor. Somehow he was going to have to get it together and start acting like himself again; if Merlin continued to see him moping around it would just make things worse. He straightened his shoulders and left the library with his head high, schooling his expression into something relaxed and blank.

Merlin was waiting for him at his locker, and as soon as Arthur saw his huge grin and the way he was bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet he couldn't help but smile, some of the tension he'd been feeling since the night before dissipating.

"I passed!" Merlin exclaimed as soon as Arthur reached him. "I bloody fucking passed, perfect score!"

He threw his arms around Arthur's shoulders, laughing in his ear, and it was such an unexpected move that Arthur automatically wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist before he knew what he was doing. He closed his eyes and breathed Merlin's scent in, and had to force himself to let go when Merlin pulled away.

"I told you so," he said, aiming for light and teasing, and Merlin rolled his eyes at him.

"Yes, you were right, I was wrong, and for once I don't even care."

Arthur laughed, the dull ache in his chest easing just a bit. He could do this; he could act like nothing was wrong. "Come on," he said, reaching up to ruffle Merlin's hair and then throwing an arm around his shoulder. "Let's go celebrate."

*

The movie was just as awful as Merlin had said it would be, which, of course, meant that he absolutely loved it.

"Did you see the part where Tank jumped from the crashing helicopter and landed on the bad guy's boat? That was so fake. Not to mention the big explosion at the end; why is everything CGI nowadays, why can't they have just taken a real boat out to sea and blown it up? I mean, good CGI is good, but bad CGI? Not even worth it. And I swear I could see the wires they used when Nina went flying off the top of that building."

Arthur just nodded along to Merlin's babble, well used to it by now. He opened the door to the pizzeria, letting Merlin go first, and was relieved to see how packed it was. There were a few tables open so they wouldn't have a problem finding somewhere to sit, but there were enough people around to stop things from getting too uncomfortable. He felt guilty about it, but Arthur was relieved that they wouldn't really be able to talk; it took some of the pressure off from trying to act like nothing was bothering him.

"Let's sit here," Merlin said, gripping his elbow and dragging him over to a booth in the corner. He slid into the seat on one side and grabbed a menu, opening it eagerly. "I've heard they have some seriously weird pizzas here. Oh gross, pickles and peanut butter!"

Arthur wrinkled his nose, taking the seat opposite and picking up the other menu. "Do they have anything normal? Like pepperoni or sausage?"

"Normal is overrated," Merlin said, eyes still on the menu. "Ooh, let's order the chocolate and olives one."

"Chocolate and olives?" Arthur repeated, looking up at Merlin in horror. "You can't be serious."

Merlin grinned and leaned over to point at the menu in front of Arthur. "Right there. Although, no, I don't actually want to order it."

"That's disgusting," Arthur said, eyes moving over the glossy page to see what else they had. There were quite a lot of strange combinations, but to his relief they had regular pizzas as well. "Can we just get what we usually get?"

"Where's your sense of adventure?" Merlin asked with a teasing laugh. "Try something new for a change."

"No, thanks," Arthur muttered without thinking, bitterness creeping into his voice. "I've had enough of adventure and change this week."

Merlin went quiet, and Arthur realised exactly what he had said. Shit. He kept his eyes on the menu, hoping Merlin would let it go. Unfortunately, not a single goddamned thing had gone his way since Monday, and this would be no exception.

"What does that mean?" Merlin asked, and Arthur could hear the confusion in his voice. "What adventure and change are you talking about?"

Arthur shook his head, glancing quickly at Merlin and then back down at his menu. "Nothing; I didn't mean anything. You know I haven't done anything out of the ordinary this week."

Merlin frowned. "But –"

"Just drop it," Arthur snapped, and at Merlin's hurt look he took a deep breath. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a server making his way to them, and decided to use the opportunity to escape for a minute. "Sorry. I'm – I'm going to go to the loo. Order whatever you like, okay?"

He didn't wait for Merlin's answer before dropping his menu and taking off for the bathrooms. Once inside he locked the door and leaned against one of the sinks, staring at himself in the mirror. "Idiot," he muttered, and dragged one hand through his hair.

This wasn't okay; he needed to get a hold of himself before he just blurted out everything. Keeping his mouth shut was the only way to save his friendship with Merlin, and honestly, he could kill Morgana for convincing him it was a good idea to admit his feelings. What the fuck had he been thinking?

He wasted a few more minutes splashing water on his face and then trying to get his hair back into some semblance of tame, but he knew he couldn't take too long. Merlin was out there waiting, and while they may not have been on a real date Arthur couldn't just ignore him.

When he got back to the table Merlin's expression was blank, and Arthur's stomach dropped. "Hey," he said awkwardly, sliding into his side of the booth. "Sorry about that. Did you order?"

"Yeah," Merlin said, his gaze not moving from Arthur's face. "Half meat and half supreme, with some breadsticks to go along. Didn't think you'd appreciate marshmallow and anchovy, though I have to admit I was very tempted."

Arthur winced. "Right, I deserve that. Honestly, Merlin, I wasn't trying to be an arse."

"I know," Merlin said, sighing. His expression softened, but there was a look in his eyes that Arthur couldn't quite place. "It shouldn't be long before the pizza's brought out, so…let's just eat and go home, yeah?"

"Okay," Arthur said, the word coming out almost as a whisper.

Their food arrived a few minutes later, and Arthur forced himself to eat a breadstick and two slices. It didn't taste like much of anything, and his stomach was churning so hard he wondered if he would even be able to keep it down. Neither of them spoke much, eye contact nearly non-existent, and for the first time ever Arthur wanted to be somewhere other than where Merlin was.

*

When he pulled up to Merlin's house he half-expected to be alone in his car within two seconds, but Merlin didn't move. He unbuckled but he didn't go to get out, continuing to stare out the window like he had the entire ride from the pizzeria. Arthur's hands tightened on the wheel, and the last thing he wanted to do was kick Merlin out, but goddamn it, he needed to get home and lock himself in his room so he could have his breakdown in peace.

Finally Merlin turned to look at him, and instead of the guarded, almost sad expression he'd had on his face since Arthur returned from the bathroom, he looked thoughtful and kind of nervous. He hesitated slightly, fingers twisting in his t-shirt, before he blurted, "Do you have any plans for tomorrow?"

"Uh," Arthur said, completely thrown. "No. Aside from sleeping, that is."

Merlin stared at him for another second and then nodded sharply, like he was making a decision. "Okay. Be back here at eight."

"Eight? On a Saturday?"

"Yes, eight. You can sleep later."

"But," Arthur said blankly. "Why?"

Merlin just shook his head. "Because I asked you to," he said, and then opened his door and was gone.

Arthur frowned, watching as he nearly ran up the walkway to his front door, never once looking back. It was an odd request, even for Merlin, but it wasn't like he would have said no. Sighing heavily, Arthur shifted into drive and turned the car in the direction of home. Whatever it was Merlin wanted, he just hoped it wasn't an end to everything.

 

Saturday

Arthur knocked on Merlin's door at exactly eight o'clock, half hoping he had overslept and would be forced out of bed at such an ungodly weekend hour. Sticking his hands into his jeans pockets, Arthur glanced around the front yard as he waited. The grass was neatly cut and there were rose bushes on either side of the tiny front porch, the bright red a direct contrast to the white of the house. The driveway was empty, Hunith's car gone, so she must have had to work.

The door opened and Arthur turned to see Merlin wearing a t-shirt and jeans, his feet bare and hair damp. Not asleep, then.

"I'm here," Arthur said, giving him a hesitant smile.

Merlin returned the smile and opened the door wider so Arthur could come in. "I can see that," he said, shutting the door as soon as Arthur was inside and turning the deadbolt.

"So why am I here so early?" Arthur asked, wanting desperately to get this over with so he could go home and continue wallowing in his own pathetic misery.

Merlin hesitated, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth. It took a mighty big effort for Arthur not to stare.

"Okay," Merlin finally said. "This is the thing. I might have figured out what you meant last night about adventure and change, but if I'm wrong I'm probably about to completely humiliate myself. So if I am wrong, you have to promise me that things won't get too weird."

Arthur stared at him, heart suddenly beating a thousand times faster in his chest. "What – uh. What is it exactly that you think you've figured out?"

Merlin opened his mouth and then snapped it shut again, taking a deep breath. There was a flush high on his cheeks, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips.

"Okay," he said again. "Okay – on Monday, when I cleaned my locker out after school, there was a half-ruined note in it. The words were blurred but not so much that I couldn't tell that it was your handwriting. I mean, I've seen it enough on homework and school notes and things, it wasn't hard to recognize it. I didn't really think anything of it at the time, I just figured that it was probably something funny or pointless, or if it was important that you would tell me. Since you never said anything I thought it was probably nothing, so I didn't bother to ask. But later – well, last night, really – I started to realise that you were acting quieter than usual that morning before we found the mess in my locker. What was that note, Arthur?"

Arthur shook his head, mouth dry and stomach fluttering with panic. "It wasn't anything. Like you said, just something pointless –"

"That's what I told myself," Merlin said. "But then I remembered the flowers from Tuesday. Mum and I both assumed they were for her, since there was no card, but they weren't, were they? They were for me."

Arthur couldn't answer, just shaking his head again. He couldn't meet Merlin's eyes, and he seriously considered turning and walking out.

"And on Wednesday you tried to cook me breakfast," Merlin continued, voice growing more sure at Arthur's silence. "I know for a fact that you've never cooked before, so what could have possibly made you want to cook for me?"

"Merlin –"

"I couldn't figure it out," Merlin said, clearly ignoring the plea in Arthur's voice. "No matter how much I tried, it just didn't make any sense to me, so I chalked it up to you just having a weird morning. But Thursday night –"

"Don't," Arthur choked out harshly, suddenly angry, his eyes snapping to Merlin's. "Don't you dare ask me what that was."

"I wasn't," Merlin said softly. "I was going to say that I felt guilty, because you were trying to be nice and there I was getting hard as a fucking rock."

Arthur was absolutely, one-hundred percent positive that he had misheard those words. "What?"

"And it made me think," Merlin said, ignoring him once again. "I mean, once I'd – er, calmed down enough to actually use my brain. And I realised that maybe – maybe you were doing it on purpose. Maybe you wanted that to happen."

Arthur stared.

"I didn't really piece it together until last night, though," Merlin said, and there went his fingers, fiddling nervously with the hem of his t-shirt. "When you said what you did about adventure and change. And you were acting so distant and sad, and it all kind of just fell into place."

"What exactly are you trying to say, Merlin?" Arthur asked, tired of whatever this game was they were playing. "That you've figured out how I feel? That's great; good for you. I'm not really sure why you had to recap the most disastrous week of my life –"

Whatever he was going to say died in his throat when Merlin reached out and tangled their fingers together.

"Come on," he said, tugging at Arthur's hand. "I've got something for you."

Arthur followed along, completely baffled, and when Merlin led him to the kitchen and stopped, keeping their hands intertwined, he was sure he had crossed over into some sort of alternate universe.

The breakfast table was covered with a full fry-up, and directly in the center was a vase full of the same roses Arthur had seen out front. Two empty plates were set close together, and on one of them was an envelope with his name scrawled across the front in Merlin's handwriting. He reached out and picked it up, hand trembling, and was forced to let go of Merlin so he could open it.

Inside was a simple sheet of notebook paper, and he read the words written on it out loud.

"Roses are red, violets are blue. I'm kind of ridiculously in love with you."

"It's, uh. Not the best poem in the world, but –"

Arthur cut him off, hands clutching at the front of his t-shirt as he hauled him close and kissed him as hard as he could. Merlin made a muffled noise, fingers curling into Arthur's arms, his mouth opening to let the kiss deepen. It was wet and messy and kind of awkward, but oh god, it was the best kiss of Arthur's life.

"Fuck," Merlin said, breaking away to gasp for air. "I was going to suggest giving you a massage, too, but I think I'd rather just skip straight to the sex."

Arthur moaned, crowding him back against a nearby wall, pressing his mouth to the line of Merlin's jaw. His cock was already aching in his jeans and he rolled their hips together, drawing a strangled noise from Merlin that sent a shiver right down Arthur's spine.

"I love you," Arthur said, nosing at Merlin's ear. "I've been trying all week to tell you, and then I thought –"

He broke off, swallowing, and Merlin kissed the side of his neck. His hands slid down Arthur's sides to his jeans, fingers slipping just under the waistband and thumb flicking at the button.

"Please," Merlin whispered. "Please. I want to feel you, I want –"

"Oh god, yes," Arthur said, dropping his hands to fumble with the fly on Merlin's jeans.

Merlin kissed him, tongue delving into Arthur's mouth, and it was so distracting Arthur almost forgot to undo Merlin's jeans. Then Merlin's hands were suddenly on his bare arse and Arthur gasped against his lips, thrusting forward and sliding against rough denim. He made a frustrated noise and yanked open Merlin's fly, shoving his jeans and pants down, and oh fuck, that felt so good. Skin against skin, Arthur's aching cock pressed against Merlin's, slip-sliding through pre-come.

His hands gripped Merlin's hips, fingers bruising, holding him in place as he rutted against him, gasping into his neck. Merlin was moaning, clutching at Arthur's hair and t-shirt, head thrown back against the wall.

"Fuck, fuck, oh fuck –"

Merlin tensed beneath him and then shuddered, back arching as he came. His cock twitched hard against Arthur's, hot come pulsing out and coating them both. Arthur gasped at the feeling, dropping his gaze to watch, and when Merlin's fingers scraped along the back of his neck he lost it, crying out and coming in spurts, adding to the mess.

Arthur shifted closer, body going heavy, pressing Merlin against the wall. Soft breath ghosted over his cheek and Merlin's fingers stroked through his hair, his other hand drawing circles in his back. Arthur's hands moved up from Merlin's hips, sliding around his waist and holding on as tightly as he could.

*

After they had cleaned up and straightened their clothes, Merlin reheated breakfast and they took it upstairs to eat in his room. Arthur knew he had the most ridiculous grin on his face but he couldn't have cared less, and he was pretty sure Merlin's expression mirrored his own.

When they were finished they stretched out on Merlin's bed, legs tangled and fingers entwined, Merlin's head on Arthur's shoulder. They didn't talk, and eventually Merlin's breath evened out as he fell asleep. Arthur pressed a soft kiss to his forehead, closing his eyes as his thumb stroked over his knuckles.

"I love you," he whispered, knowing Merlin couldn't hear him but wanting to say it again anyway.