Uther Pendragon had gone completely around the bend. At least that’s what Merlin assumed after the meeting he’d had in the man’s office mere hours ago. Oh, it had started well enough – as well as any meeting with Uther Pendragon went. Merlin rarely had anything to fear since his end of the bargain was to be an excellent student in exchange for Mr. Pendragon’s generous funding, and Merlin was nothing if not a good student. Still, Uther had a way of causing sweaty palms and heart palpitations in just about anyone, so it was never a meeting Merlin went to with a skip in his step. He would let Gwen do the knot in his tie with deft fingers, he’d attempt to smooth his hair down and then he would say “very well, sir” when Uther brusquely asked how his academic pursuits were going.
That’s how the meeting had started: just as any other.
“I see your subjects are going very well,” Uther had said, briefly glancing down at a sheet of paper. “Very good.”
“Uh, yes. Sir,” Merlin had said, because when in the company of Uther Pendragon it was better to say as little as possible. It was a hard-earned lesson.
“Very good,” Uther had repeated before he leaned back in his chair, giving Merlin a measuring look under his furrowed brow. “You’re a handsome kind of lad. If one’s into that sort of thing.”
Merlin had been sure the dreaded moment had come: he would have to prostitute himself for tuition. It wasn’t like he hadn’t feared it before. They had always been poor and on the bleakest of days he had joked about it to himself, smiling grimly at himself in the mirror at the thought. Once, he’d even joked about it out loud and his mother had cuffed him around the ear with a spatula. So it wasn’t an unfamiliar sort of thought, it was just that Merlin had never actually been serious about it and in any case, Uther had hardly seemed the type.
“I, err. Thank you?” Merlin had managed to say and was about to add a hasty “sir” when Uther stopped him with a pointed look.
“My son Arthur attends Camelot University too.” Uther was tapping his finger absently against his own cheek. “He has a terrible nuisance of a girlfriend. Elena. You must seduce her.”
“You must seduce her,” he had said, as if this was just something one did out of the blue. Merlin Emrys did not seduce anyone. He had never seduced a single person in his life. His first kiss had happened during an ill-advised game of spin the bottle and the second person who’d kissed him had done it on a dare. Anyone he’d been involved with after that (which was, truthfully, not that many) had happened rather on accident. In fact, this was true for most of Merlin’s relationships whether romantic in nature or not. On his first day of working at the coffee shop at Camelot alongside Gwen, he’d sent an entire plate of cupcakes crashing to the floor, leaving both of them to stay behind after closing to remake them. It had been the start of his most meaningful friendship to date, but it certainly hadn’t been planned.
There was another snag in Uther’s clever plan. Merlin was as gay as they came. He had been ever since he was old enough to care and even if he’d known anything about seducing men, he’d still be absolutely clueless about seducing women. These were all very valid reasons for why he couldn’t just saunter up to the happy couple and lure Elena away with what Uther apparently thought to be his formidable seducing skills, but the problem was that no one said no to Uther Pendragon. And one certainly did not say no to Uther Pendragon if he was paying one’s university tuition.
So that was it, then. Merlin would have to seduce poor Elena away from poor Arthur. Or, as would be more likely, Merlin would have to attempt to seduce Elena and fail miserably, after which he’d either be hacked to death by Arthur or poisoned by Uther. This would surely be the story of how Merlin Emrys formerly of Ealdor, Wales, son of Hunith, had perished in a terrible family feud worthy of Hercule Poirot.
It took Gwen a full minute to stop laughing hysterically as she leaned on the mop for support. Merlin looked at her out of the corner of his eyes with a betrayed look, regretting spilling all his thoughts on the matter, but it wasn’t like he had anyone else to talk to.
“Ah, Hastings,” she said, putting on a fake French accent and a very ridiculous low-pitched tone. “We must use our little grey cells to find out what happened to poor Mr. Emrys.”
“That is a terrible impression,” Merlin told her as she fell into fits of hysteric laughter again. “Also, you are a horrible friend.”
Gwen recovered enough to begin sweeping the area behind the counter. “Am not.” She peered up at him from under her fringe and he hated that look. It was never good. “If I were a horrible friend I’d tell Arthur about your little task.”
His hands freezing mid-air where he was stacking cups, he turned to stare at her with wide eyes. “You know him?”
“He’s in my Macroeconomics class.” Gwen had the gall to grin.
“Look, I can do some snooping for you to find out where he usually meets Elena around campus.”
Merlin sighed, trying not to think about the hypothetical Arthurs and Elenas in his head (all gorgeous, wealthy and laughing at him). “You just want to be there when it happens.”
“I’m sorry.” Gwen gave a strangled chuckle. “But I really, really do.”
Taking several deep breaths as he stacked the last of the clean cups, he wondered what he’d done to deserve this. All he’d ever wanted was to go to university and earn his degree in math. Was it really so much to ask? He took off his apron and went in the back to switch it for his jacket. Maybe there was a way he could work more at the coffee shop. But it still wouldn’t cover his tuition, and Uther was the sole reason he could actually stay in school. Shrugging his jacket on, he sighed, wanting nothing more than to fall face first onto his sofa and pretend this day never happened.
When he came back into the shop, Gwen was holding two styrofoam cups of coffee.
“Have you just nicked coffee from the store?” he asked, feeling oddly panicked about this even if there was no way anyone would ever know.
“Relax,” she said, pushing one of the cups into his hand. “I paid for them.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re just saying that.”
“Shut up, Merlin,” she said, pursing her lips as she pushed him out of the store. “Now, let’s go teach you how to seduce women.”
It turned out that Gwen didn’t need to snoop out Arthur’s locations for him. Uther had taken to that task with frightening enthusiasm and Merlin kept getting odd texts about “Operation Goldilocks”. As it stood, Merlin wasn’t sure if Goldilocks referred to Arthur or Elena. Not that it mattered, truly, but it was a distracting thought nonetheless. The latest text read that “the target is in the university cafeteria at noon” and that was why Merlin was taking an early lunch. Not that he’d been getting any work done anyway, since he felt about ready to puke.
It was with a staggering amount of relief that he realised he had no idea what either Arthur or Elena looked like. He gazed out over the crowded cafeteria – always deafening and oddly alive at this time. There was no way he’d be able to pick out the right couple out of what must’ve been dozens of couples. And Uther could only blame himself, really, for not having shown Merlin a picture of the poor couple he was trying to keep apart.
“Ah, hey, Arthur, didn’t see you there,” a familiar voice said loudly, carrying very easily to where Merlin stood. “I never see you outside class, Arthur.”
Pressing two fingers to the spot between his eyebrows, Merlin took a deep breath and wondered why Gwen seemed to be teaming up with Uther in some kind of elaborate plan to make him look like a right wanker.
“Oh, look! Here’s my friend Merlin,” Gwen said, rushing forwards to grip him by the wrist. “Merlin, this is Elena and this is Arthur.”
Oh. So “Goldilocks” referred to the both of them. For some reason he hadn’t considered that and it took him by such a surprise that his mind went uncomfortably numb. He was struck completely dumb by how they were both bathed in a golden hue in the sunlight that filtered in through the large windows. It was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Elena had golden ringlets bouncing softly on her shoulders, a friendly, heart-shaped face and eyes that were soft and kind. And Arthur… Well, fuck. His eyes were startlingly blue as they measured Merlin up and down, making Merlin want to fidget slightly. The look felt a bit like it burned through his jacket to trail against his skin and the hair at the nape of Merlin’s neck rose uncomfortably. Arthur had hair that looked like a fluffy wonderland of golden threads that Merlin fingers could just run through and…
“Merlin works with me at Camelot Coffee,” Gwen said, her voice louder than usual as she elbowed him in the ribs.
“Yes. I do,” Merlin blurted, feeling absolutely bloody ridiculous. This was who Uther thought he could seduce? He was supposed to somehow get Elena to drop Mr. Chiselled Jaw with his fluffy hair and his millions for a gangly kid with ridiculous hair and bony knees? Merlin was doomed. “Can I join you guys? It seems to be pretty full in here.”
He stumbled a bit over the words, but Elena was quick to beam at him and agree, so he clambered in next to her on the bench, giving her a grateful smile.
“Are you staying, Gwen?” Elena asked, leaning forwards to meet Gwen’s gaze.
Gwen bit her lip as she met Merlin’s eyes and he widened his eyes at her, willing her to just leave and let him make a fool of himself in peace. His prayers were not heard.
“Sure, I can stay for a bit,” she said, beaming at Elena. “Scoot over a bit, will you, Arthur?”
Arthur’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes – not like Elena’s did. He looked at Merlin out of the corner of his eyes as he turned to ask Gwen how she was coming along with the reading material and Merlin felt the fleeting glance weigh heavily on him. It made him oddly aware of his limbs and he had a hard time arranging them properly.
“Bah, economics,” Elena said, leaning into him as if they were conspiring about something top secret. “Wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. But then Arthur says the same about my nursing, so I guess we’re even.”
“Yeah,” Merlin agreed, attempting to find his footing. Sod seducing. He could barely even talk. “I wouldn’t do economics either.” At Elena’s questioning look, he supplied, “I do math.”
She laughed and it was an oddly melodic tinkling of a sound. “They’re both numbers, though?”
“It’s not the same.” Merlin shrugged and his lips quirked a little at the corner. “Economics is all practical and math is, well, a bit more like art.”
“You’re an odd one, Merlin,” Elena said, but it was good-natured, and Merlin wondered how he was supposed to be able to do anything that might hurt someone like Elena. It seemed a bit like kicking a puppy and Merlin disapproved of puppy-kicking on a general basis.
He shrugged and opened his shoulder bag to find his bottled water. “So they say.”
In the silence that stretched, Merlin grew very aware of why he was here in the first place. He tried to think of the small things Gwen had been telling him, but all of them seemed scattered like small pieces of paper in a breeze. Well, he’d always heard that fluttering your eyelashes worked. It did, didn’t it? He looked at Elena as she smiled at him and smiled back, a bit strained, and blinked at her.
“You okay, mate?”
“What?” Merlin turned to look at Arthur who was looking at him with one eyebrow slightly raised.
“You okay, mate?” Arthur repeated slowly. “You look a bit ill. You keep blinking and you’re awfully pale.”
“That would be my skin,” Merlin said, a bit peevish in his embarrassment. “This is what I always look like.”
Arthur looked at him for a moment before pulling his lips into a smile that carried no warmth. “Huh.”
“What do you mean, ‘huh’?”
“Well, that’s just a bit unfortunate, is all.”
“Are you saying my face is unfortunate?” Merlin asked, trying for nonchalant, but ending up somewhere between offended and mortally wounded.
Arthur’s expression was nothing short of haughty as he leaned forward on his arm and tilted his head back and forth as if deliberating. “Your face too, yes.”
“Arthur,” Elena said, her brow furrowed as she set her eyes on him.
“You know I’m just having a laugh, Ellie,” Arthur said, his smile much more genuine when it was directed at her.
At that point, Merlin truly did not care. Five minutes ago, he might have felt a slight pinch of jealousy at the way Arthur looked at her, but now he really didn’t. Arthur was clearly an utter prat and Merlin wouldn’t even feel bad for stealing his girlfriend. Maybe.
“What does this even mean?” Merlin moaned, shoving his cell phone under Gwen’s nose and pointing at the newest text from Uther.
The eagle has left the nest.
“Don’t even ask me, Merlin,” she said, batting his hand away from the book she’d been poring over. “Clearly, M still has faith that you’ll seduce Elena out of her knickers.”
Gwen had given Uther the nickname M, which was admittedly very appropriate since Uther apparently thought he was in some kind of James Bond novel. Sadly, that also meant she kept calling Merlin “Mr. Bond” in a really annoying tone of voice.
“I think that ship has sailed,” Merlin said, rolling his eyes. “I tried flirting with her and Arthur thought I was having a fit.”
“Is that what you were doing?” Gwen gave an abrupt laugh and then clapped her hand over her mouth, looking around the library. “Jesus, Merlin.”
“Well, I don’t normally flirt with girls,” he reminded her, trying and failing to keep from blushing furiously.
“I don’t think that was the problem.”
“Yeah?” Merlin said testily, looking down at his notes. “You try flirting with someone you’re not even remotely attracted to and we’ll see how you do.”
The pat of Gwen’s hand was gentle against his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean it that way. But you’ve always been kind of rubbish at flirting. Don’t get me wrong. You’re great at it when you don’t know that’s what you’re doing, but when you’re trying to flirt, you’re a mess.”
“Maybe someone should tell that to Uther,” Merlin said bitterly, knowing Gwen was probably right. The flirting thing went hand in hand with the “no seducing people ever”-thing he had going.
When he looked up, she was biting her lip and he arched his eyebrow at her, waiting for her to spill what she was obviously waiting to say.
“Look. Arthur came up to me after class earlier and told me Elena thinks we’re fun, and she wants us to go to Camelot Towers with them tomorrow.”
“No,” Merlin said, holding his hand up. “You know how I feel about roller coasters.”
“Come on, Merlin.” She looked bemused. “You can hold our bags if that’s what you’re worrying about. Look, all I’m suggesting is that we just hang out with Elena and Arthur for a bit and then you can tell Uther that you tried, but it’s true love and it’s nothing you can do.”
“I guess. Maybe.”
It sounded tempting. It wasn’t like Uther could know how much of an effort he’d put into it, and he could certainly try to flirt a bit if it felt right. That way, Uther couldn’t fault him for not trying and maybe that would somehow fix the giant mess he found himself in.
The dreaded day had come: Merlin had found his kryptonite. Arthur Sodding Pendragon was like a huge, pulsing lump of the stuff shoved into Merlin’s face, leaving him weak, vulnerable and stupid. He hated it more than he’d ever hated anything, because Arthur was a prat of the highest order. If there had been a cult of prats, Arthur would be their God. There would be a shrine, muttered mantras and a lot of tie dye shirts.
“I’m going to kill Elena for making me sit next to you,” Arthur said, wincing as Merlin clutched his arm in a vice-like grip.
“You’re the one who forced him to do this,” Elena told him from the seat in front of them, “so you can deal with the fallout too.”
Merlin had hated roller coasters ever since he was eight. Together with Will, he’d snuck onto one that he was too young to ride and he’d been ridiculously close to slipping out under the safety that was supposed to hold him in place. Of course, Arthur would have none of that as they stood in front of The Dragon at Camelot Towers, where Arthur was bouncing on the balls of his feet as Merlin tried to slink away before anyone could notice he was gone.
The thing was that if it had just been Elena and Gwen, Merlin wouldn’t have let himself be talked into getting on a roller coaster of all things. Arthur made him stupid, though. It was sickening, but Merlin wanted to impress him even if he was a stupid prat, and he would let himself be goaded and teased into proving himself.
“Don’t be such a clotpole,” Arthur had said, scoffing, and then Merlin had to prove he wasn’t a clotpole – whatever that meant. Merlin didn’t think a clotpole seemed half bad, but it was the way Arthur had said it.
It was all so stupid, because Arthur would always be the handsome, golden-haired God with the crooked smile that made Merlin slightly light-headed, while Merlin was the math-loving awkward guy with impossible hair and bony arms. And also bony everything.
Merlin gave an embarrassing whine when the roller coaster lurched to a start.
Looking at him out of the corner of his eyes, Arthur frowned. “You’re scared shitless, aren’t you.”
“Which part of ‘roller coasters are the devil incarnate’ didn’t you get?” Merlin said through clenched teeth. “I know you’re an idiot, but this is low even for you.”
“Just hold on and breathe,” Arthur said, and then scrunched his nose in distaste when he realised he’d said something that could be seen as vaguely kind. “If you get sick all over me, I’m throwing you out of the cart.”
Merlin’s heart was working its way up his throat as they began the steady climb up and up until they would be dropped down again at sickening speeds.
“I fucking hate you.”
“Oh, no,” Arthur said flatly as he looked out across the park. “How will I ever survive?”
He would have answered, really, if he hadn’t been so preoccupied screwing his eyes shut against the horrifying sight of the roller coaster slowly reaching the top. This was the most monumentally stupid thing he had ever done, and he’d only done it to impress some arsehole who was just mocking him for it now. Merlin’s blood roared in his ears as his pulse thundered uncomfortably fast, making his fingers shake.
“Hold on.” The sound of Arthur’s voice was unexpected and hushed. “We’ll be dropping soon.” His grip on Arthur’s arm was being forcibly loosened and he felt panic twist his stomach into knots, but then Arthur’s hand was holding Merlin’s over the safety bar. It felt heavy and warm, forcing him to hold on tightly and Merlin fumbled for the bar with his other hand, gripping it so hard his fingers hurt.
“Now,” Arthur said and then Merlin’s stomach was in his knees and his kidneys were in his neck and his eyes were rolling somewhere in the back of his head. Arthur’s hand was still holding his to the bar as they hurtled down the tracks and all of Merlin’s breath had left him.
Elena and Gwen were screaming delightedly in front of them, their laughter almost hysterical as they took a sharp turn left. He could hear Arthur whoop and he wondered how they even managed to make a sound when he couldn’t even breathe. The wind stung his face and he felt like he was being dragged out of his spot. His heart pushed against his ribcage frantically, making his head throb in response. Screwing his eyes even tighter shut, he focused on the way his hand was trapped between the cold bar and Arthur’s warm hand, and then he formed a really elaborate fantasy about how he would kick Arthur in his gloriously imperfect teeth.
When they finally came to a stop, Arthur had to pry Merlin’s fingers from the bar and haul him out of the cart. Merlin’s eyes were still shut even as he tried to force his body to function. It was mortifying how he seemed completely stiff with fear, and the moment they’d made it out of the area, he sagged to the ground and sat there with the heel of his hands pressed to his eyes.
“Merlin,” Gwen said softly, squatting down next to him with an arm on his shoulders. “It’s okay.”
It wasn’t bloody okay. He could feel Elena and Arthur’s eyes on him and he felt like a complete loser. The rest of them had been whooping and laughing, and he’d been pathetically holding on as if he was about to die.
“Okay, listen to me,” Elena said and he felt her hand rest softly on his knee as she sat down in front of him. “Just listen to my breathing and try to follow my rhythm.”
He did as he was told, forcing his breathing to slow down in time with Elena’s exaggerated breaths. His heart slowed mercifully and he could feel himself relaxing and the humming in his skin subsided.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice coming out with an embarrassing tremble.
“Don’t be stupid,” Elena said mildly. “If I’d known you were this afraid I wouldn’t have let you go on it. I didn’t think it was this bad.”
Opening his eyes, the world slowly came into focus again and his cheeks burned when he looked at Arthur for a brief second, standing with his arms folded over his chest. His face was unreadable, but there was a tightness in his jaw that Merlin didn’t know what to make of. Merlin supposed that having his girlfriend’s hands all over some other guy wasn’t in today’s plans for Arthur. Maybe that should have made Merlin feel great, considering what he was supposed to be doing, but he just felt queasy and small.
“Merlin, you’ll have to sit the next one out,” Gwen said as she helped him to his feet. “My wallet nearly fell out of my jacket and I can’t afford to lose any money, I’m poor as fuck.”
Merlin gave her a shaky smile. She was a loyal friend, he thought, as he looked at the zippers on her pockets.
Miraculously, the rest of the day wasn’t a disaster. The other three went on more rides, but Merlin happily stayed on the ground holding bags and wallets and keys, delighting in the way his feet were planted firmly on the ground and how he no longer felt like his organs had been rearranged. It turned out that Merlin had a secret talent for shooting ducks and he gave the stuffed unicorn to Elena, thanking her for calming him down. Elena had beamed at him and hugged him as Arthur sulked in the background, and Merlin felt a twinge of guilt for several reasons. He felt really bad for doing this to Elena who was one of the sweetest people Merlin had ever met, and he felt bad for the pain he was trying to cause Arthur, even if Arthur wasn’t his favourite person in the world.
That’s why Merlin felt a strange mix of relief and dread when Elena looped her arm around Merlin’s elbow and told them that they’d have to meet again under circumstances where his insides would remain in their rightful place. He agreed to that, smiling, not bothering to admit to anyone that it was much too late for that. His eyes drifted to Arthur who was listening intently to Gwen and his heart seemed to drop into his knees.
When the sun was suddenly being blocked he looked up to politely tell whoever it was to get lost, but the words died in his throat as he found Arthur standing over him, his head backlit by the bright midday sun. It was ridiculously unfair. He looked like some sort of God who had just casually dropped down from his place of deity to visit the common men.
“Trying to burn some colour onto that pasty thing you call skin?” Arthur asked in the same cheerful tone he might tell Merlin what a wonderful morning it was.
It really was horribly embarrassing to be so attracted to someone who was such a git. Merlin had always taken some pride in seeing past the outer shell and falling for the person on the inside. That was clearly not the case here and it angered him more than he could put into words.
“Actually,” he said, flipping the page of his book demonstratively, “I was trying to get some studying in before I have to go to work.”
To anyone else that would have meant “kindly get lost, I don’t have much time to chat,” but to Arthur it evidently meant “please sit down and waste some more of my time.” Merlin bit back a sigh as Arthur flopped down next to him and pushed his knees up.
“Not a bad spot,” Arthur said, looking out over the grounds with his arms resting over his knees.
“I come here a lot,” Merlin found himself saying and he realised he’d probably have to find a new place now.
There was a hum from the man beside him. “I can see why.”
Merlin couldn’t stop looking no matter how loudly he screamed at himself to just tear his eyes away from Arthur’s sharp profile and the way the sun played up the golden hues in his hair. It was a lost cause. Arthur was wearing a t-shirt and Merlin wondered if it was possible to overdose on golden skin over sturdy muscles because if it was, he was screwed.
“You study a lot.” Arthur turned his head to catch Merlin’s eyes and Merlin gripped the edge of his book.
Giving a one-shouldered shrug, Merlin willed himself to look out over the grounds. “Well, yeah. I guess. I kind of have to.”
“I’m on scholarship money and all that. No way I could go here without it.”
“So you actually like it, then?”
“Yeah, don’t you?”
Arthur lowered one hand between his knees and nipped at the grass, rolling it around between his fingers. “I like it alright, but I think I’d like working better. The lack of structure is a bit weird for me.”
“You could get other people to structure you,” Merlin suggested, allowing himself brief glimpses at Arthur.
“It works out alright, for the most part. I just think I’ll like working better than studying, is all.”
Feeling a little stiff, Merlin moved to tuck his legs closer to his body. “I can get that. I really like it, though. If could choose, I’d probably continue in academia.”
He didn’t know why he was telling Arthur this. It wasn’t really anything he’d discussed with anyone, not even Gwen.
“Well, what else would you do with a degree in maths?” Arthur said, rolling his eyes as he kept snapping blades of grass between his fingers.
“There’s plenty to do with a degree in maths, you econ snob.”
When Arthur laughed, Merlin was taken completely by surprise and he couldn’t be blamed, really, for forgetting how to breathe for a moment when Arthur threw his head back and the carefree sound carried through the air around them.
“I’m just teasing,” Arthur said, turning his head towards Merlin and giving a slight smile. “Elena says hi.”
“Oh.” Great. He’d almost forgotten about Elena for a blissful second. “Well, I’ll say hi back, then.”
“You like Elena,” Arthur said lightly and Merlin could feel his eyes on him.
His cheeks burned a little under the scrutiny and he tried not to fidget. “Yeah, Elena’s great,” he said, and it wasn’t a lie. “Nicest person I’ve met, probably.”
Arthur nodded, giving a slight huff of laughter. “Too nice for her own good if you ask me, but that’s just who she is.”
All he could think to do was nod mindlessly. He felt so off balance whenever he had to think about this. It wasn’t him to do all of this – to try and break someone up for some arbitrary reason that Uther had probably made up. It made him feel as though he wasn’t himself anymore.
“Look,” Arthur said and glanced in Merlin’s direction. “I think you should know that Elena is kind of seeing someone. And it’s getting a bit serious.”
It was all he could get himself to answer, not wanting to say anything one way or the other. Part of him wanted to yell that he didn’t care, and the other part of him felt like he should keep up the charade of being interested in Elena. Neither one of them won out.
This was beyond terrible, because Arthur was being decent. He wasn’t even saying “listen, Elena is mine, back off.” Instead, he was tactfully telling Merlin that Elena was off limits in a vague sort of way and there wasn’t even a threat in there. Merlin really couldn’t have Arthur go and be a decent person on top of everything else because then Merlin’s world would implode with the need of it all.
“But in any case,” Arthur continued, giving a slight awkward cough. “She wanted me to tell you that you and Gwen should come to her rooms on Saturday for this thing.”
“Very specific,” Merlin said, smiling crookedly.
Arthur gave a slightly breathless laugh. “Well. It’s a vague kind of thing. It’s just Elena gathering all the people she likes spending time with into the same room. But there will probably be drinking so you should bring what you like.”
“Tell her we’ll be there,” Merlin said, knowing he couldn’t say no even if he wanted to, for several reasons. “Might be a bit late because we have to close up the shop on Saturday, but we’ll drop by.”
There was no reply from Arthur as he suddenly flopped down onto his back in the grass, tucking one arm under his head. He sighed a little and closed his eyes to the bright sun. “’m just gonna stay here,” he muttered.
Merlin swallowed down his unease and smiled slightly down at Arthur who looked peaceful and soft with his eyes closed. When their eyes met as Arthur’s opened, squinting against the sun, Merlin hastily looked down at his book and tried not to panic about how little he was studying. There was a rustle behind him and when he turned to check what it was, Arthur was holding up the book that Merlin had tucked into the pocket of his discarded jacket.
“Rasselas,” Arthur said, running his fingers across the pages. “Really? Snob.”
Merlin snorted. “Hardly.” He gripped the edge of his book. “It’s easy to relate to sometimes, though: searching for happiness.”
There was a soft hum from Arthur and Merlin didn’t know if that was an agreement or a dismissal. Arthur’s brow was furrowed and it made Merlin want to reach in and smooth the lines with his fingertips.
“We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself,” Arthur recited from memory.
Merlin stared in disbelief at Arthur who was running his fingers over the spine of the book. When Merlin gave a huff of breath, Arthur met his gaze with a challenging smile.
“Snob,” Merlin said and they both laughed.
He didn’t get any more studying done that day.
“You can’t do what?” Gwen asked, hurrying past with a tray of used cups in her hands. “Because if you mean your job, I’m going to hang you up by your ears.”
Waving his hand in the direction of the cell phone he’d discarded on the table, he puffed out his cheeks in a sigh. “Uther.”
“You need to tell him to go seduce Elena himself if he’s so desperate for it to happen.” Gwen struggled slightly under the weight of the tray as she put it down.
“I guess I should, I just…”
“Merlin,” Gwen said, exasperated. “Go mind the till. There are people out there waiting for their coffee.”
If anything, serving coffee took his mind away from his problems for at least a little while. He worked through the steady rush of customers with more efficiency than usual, only sporadically letting himself think about Uther, his money and his demands. The thing was: he knew he couldn’t seduce Elena away from Arthur. He’d known that all along, but now he’d reached the point where he felt lousy for even trying and for lying to both of them. There was no way he could keep going to Camelot if Uther withdrew his funds, though, and that was where the entire problem was. He didn’t quite know how to tell Uther that he had failed, nor did he know where that would leave him. All he’d been able to do was text Uther about the party he was going to, and at least that was holding off further questions for now.
“What can I get you?” he asked absently, looking up from the tiny note he’d scribbled to Gwen only to find Arthur standing on the other side of the counter.
“Just a regular coffee.”
“Yes, great. Regular coffee is good,” Merlin said, stumbling over his words. He tried to forget how serene Arthur had looked sprawled on the grass the last time he’d seen him three days ago.
Arthur nodded sagely, but looked amused.
“To go?” Merlin asked, his hand hovering over the styrofoam cups.
When Arthur nodded again, Merlin tried desperately to not fumble with the coffee pot as he poured. It was depressing how much concentration he needed for that particular task.
“Merlin Emrys,” Arthur said and Merlin was confused for a moment before he realised Arthur was reading his nametag. “Wait, Emrys? You’re the kid my father sponsors, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow at him as Merlin put the lid on the cup and placed it on the counter. “And you didn’t think I’d be interested in knowing that? Hey, Arthur, by the way, I have monthly lunches with your dad?”
“Well, it’s not like I’m dating him,” Merlin snapped, his cheeks flushing as he looked at the queue behind Arthur.
“Thank God for that, I suppose,” Arthur said, looking slightly queasy. “He says you’re some kind of wonderkid, though.”
“That’s what he says.”
“I’m alright,” Merlin said, shrugging. “But I have to be or I won’t be able to go here at all. Your dad’s money depends on my results, so.”
“I doubt that’s all of it.”
Merlin was about to answer when someone in the queue groaned loudly. “Come on, mate, you’re holding up the queue.”
To Merlin’s amusement, Arthur did look a bit sheepish as he apologised to the people behind him. “See you Saturday,” he said to Merlin before darting out of the shop.
The rest of the work day was nothing but the usual and he soon found himself cleaning up the place along with Gwen, doing the last few things on the list before they could go back home and rest for the remainder of the night.
“Are you going to talk to Uther?” Gwen asked as she sorted through their storage of styrofoam cups.
Merlin sighed and stopped mopping the floors for a moment, staring out of the window as if that was going to give him the answer he was looking for. “I think I have to. I can’t do this.”
“It’s not like it’s working very well,” she said.
“Well, no. Thanks for reminding me.”
She gave him a bemused look. “Don’t be so touchy. What I meant was that it would be worse if it was working, wouldn’t it? You’re not made for things like that. Hurting people deliberately isn’t your thing.”
“You’re right,” he muttered, pushing his weight into the oddly soothing movements of cleaning the floors. “At first I thought I’d be fine because Arthur was such a prat, but he’s... well, he is a prat, but he’s not a bad person. He’s rather nice, actually.”
When Gwen looked at him with a badly disguised smirk, he threw his arms out. “What?”
“Yeah, sure. He’s nice,” she agreed in a sing-song voice and he wished he could hit her in the face with his mop. “Rather good-looking too, isn’t he?”
“What, you looking for a hook up?” Merlin asked, sounding a bit more testy than planned.
Gwen laughed brightly, her eyes dancing with amusement. “Oh, Merlin.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“You’re so buggered.”
“Or at least you wish you were buggered.”
“I hate you, Gwen.”
She ruffled his hair and fell into a fit of giggles.
His plans to sit alone and blend into the background went slightly awry when a glassy-eyed guy with fantastic hair dropped down next to him, clutching a bottle of whiskey tight in his hand.
“You’re not drunk enough,” the guy proclaimed, pointing a finger at Merlin, and he was probably right. Merlin had only had a pint and he could probably have used some more, but he’d spent all night being afraid of losing control and saying something stupid.
Merlin laughed a bit nervously. “Probably true.”
“Here,” the guy said, thrusting his bottle at Merlin. “Don’t worry, I haven’t been spitting in it.”
“Comforting.” Merlin looked at the bottle with apprehension.
There was a gust of breath along Merlin’s ear and he shivered long before he even heard Arthur’s voice. “Don’t let him drink you under the table. He does that.”
“Hey, I’m a great drinker,” Merlin said defensively, which for some reason made the guy next to him laugh brightly.
“Gwaine, don’t be an arse.”
“I’m not being an arse,” Gwaine said, turning on the couch to face Arthur. “Offering him a drink, is all. He seemed bored, which is just quite the crime around these parts, innit?”
“Well, that is true. Boredom isn’t allowed at Elena’s.” When Arthur winked and smiled in his direction, Merlin gripped the bottle tightly as his heart skipped. Fuck it all. It was typical of Merlin’s luck that Arthur had somehow stopped being a prat (mostly) and started being a decent person (sometimes).
Gwaine jumped from his seat, then, a mad grin spreading on his lips. “It’s time for Captain Jack Sparrow.”
“Oh, god. What?” Merlin knew this was bad.
“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur exclaimed, clamping his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s our home-made drinking game.”
“Fuck,” Merlin said, but followed Gwaine and Arthur nonetheless.
“There are no roller coasters involved. I promise.”
Arthur grinned at him, not looking sorry in the least, and somehow the impish grin made a responding smile tug at Merlin’s lips without his permission. They were smiling at each other until it was almost uncomfortable. Merlin’s cheeks kind of hurt and his head was buzzing slightly from the way he was holding Arthur’s gaze, not able to look away.
“Oh, bollocks,” Gwaine said, throwing his arms up. “Stop that, you two. Explain him the rules instead, Arthur.” He whipped around and put his hand to his mouth. “Elena, darling! Captain Jack Sparrow! Everyone, come along!”
“Why not Captain Jack Harkness?” Merlin asked as Arthur began outlining the rules and Arthur laughed.
“Because that would get very kinky way too quickly.”
What followed was a drinking game that Merlin didn’t even understand, but as the objective probably was to get drunk, it certainly worked well enough. It did involve a lot of jumping, an uncomfortable amount of touching, singing and pirate speak. It also happened to be Arthur’s fault that Merlin found himself grinning through a haze of alcohol in no time at all, since he kept losing because he couldn’t stop staring at Arthur’s goddamn arse in his those jeans. There was no fairness left in the world when anyone was allowed to have an arse like that, as far as Merlin was concerned.
“Having fun?” Elena yelled in his ear at one point when they were both attempting to balance on a single chair.
“Your friends are mad in the head,” Merlin cried back, but he was grinning.
Elena chortled as she held onto Merlin’s t-shirt. Both of them were swaying slightly, though. “Which is why you fit in so well.”
“Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum!” said Gwaine’s voice from somewhere Merlin couldn’t place and they all cried “Yo, ho, ho!” before downing another mouthful.
By the end, Merlin had learned that the game had no winner, only a room full of people who were completely pissed. And he supposed that was fair enough, because he certainly felt more at ease than he had a couple of hours ago. He was breathless from laughing at nothing at all and he found himself dancing with Gwen and Elena to some god-awful 90s europop track that made everyone sing along with the lyrics they didn’t even realise they knew.
“I think some of the guys would like to take your place,” Elena said, smiling. “Lance is definitely giving you the glare of death.”
“Oh, he is not.” Gwen turned, searching for him.
Elena laughed as she swayed her hips softly to the beat of the music. “A little jealousy might just help you along. You don’t need to tell him Merlin is gay.”
“What?” Merlin stopped dancing, staring at her.
“Oh my god.” Elena clapped a hand over her mouth. “You’re... you’re out, aren’t you? I mean, or, are you...?”
“Yeah, I mean. I am. I just didn’t think you knew.”
“Oh, well, I just...” Elena chewed on her plump lip. “I thought it was pretty obvious?”
Which, in all fairness, it probably was.
“Don’t worry,” he said, reaching out to pat her arm a bit awkwardly. “I’m out and you didn’t just divulge my life secret or anything.”
“Jesus, thank god.”
They continued dancing, but Merlin’s head was elsewhere. It wasn’t that it mattered that Elena knew, it was just strange to consider that he’d been trying to clumsily seduce her for days and she’d known all along that he was gay. Strangely, it made him feel a bit relieved, because that meant that he hadn’t been leading Elena on and she didn’t think he was more interested than he actually was. She also, apparently, hadn’t clued into his really awkward attempts at flirting, so maybe he’d even managed to stay clear of some awful humiliation.
An arm came to rest on Merlin’s shoulders and he turned, looking into Arthur’s face being unsettlingly close. Arthur’s gaze was unfocused, but he was smiling and he tightened his grip on Merlin’s shoulders, forcing him to stop dancing.
“Merrrlin,” he said, his grin widening even further. “D’you like our game?”
“I’m very impressed,” Merlin assured him and laughed, only because the giddy feeling in his chest from the proximity of Arthur had to come out somehow.
“You should be. It took many weeks of perfecting.”
“Good to know you’ve been spending your time on something worthwhile.”
Merlin hadn’t noticed until then that Arthur was leading him away from the girls dancing, but he didn’t have it in him to stop or ask where Arthur was going. He just held the gaze Arthur was offering and he couldn’t look away, because Arthur was warm and solid pressed up against his side.
“Merlin,” Arthur said in a hushed voice and Merlin only nodded, completely unable to form a coherent reply.
If Arthur had wanted to say anything else, it never came. They were out in the hallway outside Elena’s rooms and Merlin had no idea how they got there. The lighting was harsh and he squinted against it, feeling the headache he was expecting tomorrow already coming on. He was about to complain about the blinding lights when he was suddenly pinned to the wall, the feeling of a warm and solid body being dizzyingly close. Merlin’s mind felt sluggish and slow, but he became increasingly aware of Arthur’s breath on his cheek and the way his hands flat against the wall were framing Merlin’s head.
There was a strange moment of clarity when his mind cleared like fog dissipating on an early morning and he saw everything in almost excruciating detail. Arthur’s dark lashes fluttered slightly against his cheeks as he blinked, his skin looked oddly green-tinged in the harsh light and his lips were parted over his shallow breath. Their eyes met and Merlin’s breath hitched, the hazy mist of want and alcohol creeping in again until he barely even knew up from down.
He could feel Arthur’s breath flutter across his lips and his skin, he could see the way Arthur tilted his head slightly and he wondered if this was really happening. And he wanted it – he wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anything, but he just stood still, overwhelmed by the way his skin prickled with the need to reach out and run a finger across Arthur’s jaw.
Arthur’s lips were soft and searching when they closed over his, stealing Merlin’s breath with a tentative brush. Merlin angled his head, pushing up into the pressure of lips and that was all it took before Arthur’s mouth was open and needy, breathing harshly into him. Giving a strangled groan, Merlin fisted his hands into the back of Arthur’s t-shirt, meeting Arthur’s tongue in a kiss that became desperate. Arthur’s hands slipped from the wall, cradling Merlin’s neck, his thumbs running softly in the spot just below his ear, and with the weight no longer supported, their bodies moulded together. It made his breath hitch into the kiss, and there was Arthur’s tongue gliding along his in a way that made him boneless with want.
It was Arthur’s broken mutter of “Merlin” that made something swell dangerously in his chest and he turned his head to the side. Arthur’s lips were hot and wet on his cheek, the soft pressure of tongue licking against Merlin’s skin, moving down over his jaw, leaving warm kisses and little nips along the way. If the kisses reached his neck, he would be doomed. He couldn’t hold back if it came to that – it was already near impossible.
“Arthur,” he said, but it came out as a throaty moan, making Arthur hum into against his skin. “Arthur,” he continued more insistently, bringing his hands up to push slightly at Arthur’s chest, trying to ignore the body-heat radiating through the t-shirt.
“What about Elena?” Merlin said, the strange fluttery exhilaration abating somewhat at the thought.
He felt Arthur sigh against his skin at that before pulling away and glancing at Merlin with a look in his eyes that was unmistakably hurt. It was shocking in a way that was hard to deal with. Merlin felt rattled, wanting to kiss away the look on Arthur’s face, but he couldn’t.
“I forgot,” Arthur said his voice low and hoarse.
Merlin stared at him incredulously. “You forgot? She’s your girlfriend, how do you forget your girlfriend?”
They stared at each other. Their bodies were still pressed together against the wall and they were breathing heavy.
“Your girlfriend. Elena.”
Arthur looked lost and he pulled away, running a hand through his hair. “Who told you that?”
His heart skipped uncomfortably. “Does it matter?” He asked, unwilling to lie.
“Of course it fucking matters, Merlin, because it’s not true.”
He tried to make sense of the words, but it just wouldn’t register, not really. How could it not be true? He’d tried to break them up for days. Not that actively, perhaps, but he’d tried. He swallowed, looking at Arthur’s drawn face and feeling utterly shit about everything.
Arthur swore and turned on his heel, pushing his hands against the wall on the opposite side of the hallway. “Of course it’s my bloody father. Christ.”
“I don’t understand,” Merlin said, rubbing a hand across his cheek, feeling lost and confused and drunk.
“My father’s been trying to set me up with these girls for ages. I got fed up with it and I told him I’m dating Elena to get him off my case.”
“I... oh. Wow, well, that’s a good idea,” Merlin said, wincing at his own words. “Sort of.”
Arthur laughed humourlessly and slumped against the wall, suddenly looking excruciatingly tired. Watching him for a few moments, Merlin felt the guilt heavy on his mind, unable to shake the terrible feeling over how he’d played a hand in making Arthur feel this way.
“Wait,” Merlin said, suddenly, replaying the conversation in his mind. “When I brought up Elena you said you forgot. If she’s not your girlfriend, what did you forget?”
They looked at each other, Merlin waiting for Arthur to speak, watching Arthur’s expression as he seemed to think, biting his lip and eventually dropping his gaze.
Arthur’s discomfort made Merlin feel suddenly exhausted, too. “We’re pissed,” he said, rubbing his wrist slightly as if it was itching. “We can wait – talk about this some other time. I think maybe we should.”
“You’re right. We shouldn’t talk about...well, this – now.” Arthur looked up as they heard yelling from inside, his eyebrow inching up slightly. “I guess we probably shouldn’t have done anything either.”
“Maybe not,” Merlin said, fidgeting slightly. “But you didn’t force me, or anything, if that’s what you think.”
Arthur gave a wry smile at that and Merlin’s heart kind of broke at the sight of it. For some reason, it seemed like Arthur may have thought just that, which was all kinds of ridiculous, but then Arthur didn’t know what had been going on in Merlin’s head since they met. When they both turned back towards Elena’s rooms, Merlin watched the back of Arthur’s neck where his hair curled softly into his skin and wondered for the first time why Arthur had kissed him as if the world was ending.
The question burned on his tongue but fizzled away when they came inside to find Gwaine on top of the table, his arms in the air, his yell of “yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum” ringing through the room.
“Yo, ho, ho.” Arthur joined in with the resounding choir of voices and as he pulled Merlin along into the fray, Merlin could only mutter a foreboding “oh, god.”
It took another thirty minutes of staring at the same math problem without even thinking about it before he knew it couldn’t continue. He packed up his stuff quickly and threw the bag over his shoulder, heading to Arthur’s rooms. There was a jittery feeling in his stomach as he headed down the unfamiliar halls and he briefly wondered if he was doomed to be distracted from his studies forever – until Uther found out and cut him off.
He grimaced to himself and reached out to knock on Arthur’s door before he could think twice about it. The door swung open to reveal Arthur with his hair ruffled, wearing grey sweatpants low on his hips and a dark blue t-shirt. He looked decidedly less awake than Merlin, but then again Merlin had dragged himself to the library three hours ago.
“Hey,” Merlin said, nervously scratching at his neck. “Can I...?” He motioned at Arthur’s room.
“Hey. Sure.” Arthur stepped aside and let him in, closing the door behind them. “I just got up like thirty minutes ago; it’s a bit of a – well.”
“That’s okay. I’m not here to inspect it.” Merlin smiled, trying to overcome the growing awkwardness.
Arthur’s room was larger than his, but that was no particular surprise. He also lived alone, while Merlin had a roommate (who was all right, but living alone would definitely have been nicer), so he rather envied Arthur the privacy. Merlin hovered a bit awkwardly before Arthur told him to sit on the bed while Arthur pulled up the chair from beside his desk and the silence stretched between them.
Merlin said “We should–” at the same time as Arthur rubbed the back of his neck and said “look.” Their eyes met and they laughed, making Merlin relax slightly.
“We should talk,” he tried again, folding his hands in his lap as he sat cross-legged on Arthur’s bed. “And I think we should just tell everything. I mean, you know. I’m confused. I don’t know about you, but I am, so we need to...”
“Elena and I really aren’t together.”
“I know,” Merlin said reassuringly. “I mean, I didn’t know, but you seemed really surprised last night, so I figured you were telling the truth.”
Arthur nodded, looking down at his hands. “Elena and Gwaine are kind of seeing each other, that’s why I told you she was seeing someone else. I shouldn’t have – you know, last night. I know you must feel bad.”
Furrowing his brow, Merlin looked at him in confusion before it suddenly dawned on him what Arthur was blathering on about. “I don’t like Elena.”
There was a look of stunned shock on Arthur’s face has he looked up, his eyebrows knitting together as he met Merlin’s gaze.
“Look, this is really awkward,” Merlin said, picking at the hem of his shirt. “Your dad told me to break you guys up. He wanted me to make Elena fall for me and I didn’t know how to get out of it. He’s the only reason I can even go here, I didn’t know how to tell him no.”
Arthur leaned back in his seat at that, sighing as he ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe he did that. Or, well, I guess I can, but it’s just...”
“I should’ve said no,” Merlin said, feeling himself flush a little in his mortification. “Not only is it a terrible thing to do, but I don’t know how to seduce people, and definitely not girls.”
To his surprise, Arthur gave a startled laugh that settled into a smile. “You were pretty rubbish.”
“I’ll have you know that Elena loves me,” Merlin said defensively, raising an eyebrow in challenge.
“She also thinks you’re gay,” Arthur pointed out, his eyes bright with amusement.
Merlin squared his jaw and met Arthur’s eyes head on. “I am.”
“Me too,” Arthur said. “If last night didn’t clue you in.”
Feeling suddenly shy, Merlin fidgeted slightly and looked down at his hands, picking at the nail on his thumb as he felt his heart thud loudly. “Why did you? Last night.”
When Merlin looked up again, Arthur had moved to the bed, sitting so close that Merlin forgot how to breathe. Arthur ran his thumb across Merlin’s cheekbone and the soft touch made him shiver into it, angling his head against the slight pressure.
“Because I wanted to,” Arthur said quietly. “Ever since you showed up with Gwen.”
“Fuck,” was all Merlin managed to say, closing his eyes as he allowed himself to feel the longing that had been stuck in his chest ever since he saw Arthur the first time.
There was a gentle press of lips against his and he whimpered, pressing into it and reaching up to touch any part of Arthur he could find. His hand pressed down on Arthur’s shoulder, his thumb brushing against his neck.
“I thought you liked Elena,” Arthur said against his lips, both hands coming up to cradle Merlin’s face.
Merlin kissed him in response. It was chaste and nothing like last night’s desperation, but it was tender and warm, making Merlin’s heart speed up in his chest.
“I never did,” Merlin said between kisses. “Been wanting to jump you since I saw you in the cafeteria, even if you were a dollop-head.”
Pulling away slightly, Arthur looked sheepish, his smile almost sad. “Ah, fuck, well. It was... well, I was...”
Merlin listened to him stammer and he almost laughed, catching himself just in time. “You were jealous, weren’t you?” The thought made him shamefully happy.
“Sod off,” Arthur said as he looked away, but his cheeks were flushed.
“You were so jealous.”
“Well, you were only interested in her,” Arthur snapped, still not looking at Merlin.
A sudden rush of annoyance flashed through him and he pushed at Arthur’s chest, making Arthur fall back on the bed as he tried to brace himself, his eyes wide as he looked up at Merlin.
“Oh, fuck you,” Merlin said, scrambling over Arthur’s legs until he was straddling him. “How do you think I felt? I thought I’d fallen for a straight guy with a gorgeous girlfriend. Couldn’t have dropped me a hint or anything?”
Leaning on his elbows, Arthur looked up at Merlin with his lip curling up into a satisfied smile. “Fallen?”
When Merlin realised just how much he’d revealed, he dropped his gaze for a second, looking at the way his hands splayed out on Arthur’s stomach. He moved his fingers slightly against the soft t-shirt sliding over solid muscles that twitched at the touch. When he looked up again, Arthur was watching him with darkening eyes and Merlin could feel his control slipping under the scrutiny. Arthur made to speak again and Merlin lunged forwards, swallowing Arthur’s words in a press of lips. It was far from the tender kisses they’d shared moments ago, Merlin going into the kiss with his mouth parted and the tip of his tongue licking at Arthur’s upper lip. Arthur groaned as he was pushed back onto the bed, his hands twisting into Merlin’s hair as he opened willingly under the pressure.
They kissed until Merlin’s jaw ached with it, but he wasn’t willing to stop licking into Arthur’s mouth, savouring the small whimpers he could almost taste against his tongue. It was increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that he was straddling Arthur and he found himself having to focus on not pushing down, easing some of the need. In the end it was Arthur’s resolve that broke first and he angled his hips only slightly, but it was enough for both of them to lose their breath. Their kiss became slack and for a moment they only seemed to breathe into each other, their rapid breaths mingling.
The moment was broken when Merlin’s phone rang in his pockets, the vibration sending a shock through the both of them. Merlin looked down, confused, and pushed himself up with an apologetic look at Arthur.
“Oh, god,” he said, staring at the display and then at Arthur in panic. “It’s your dad. I told him about the party yesterday, he’s probably calling to check up on it.”
“Take it,” Arthur urged, his hand coming to rest on Merlin’s hip and Merlin thought he could feel it burning against his skin even through the clothes. It was oddly comforting and seemed to soothe the panic that had threatened to well up.
“Jesus,” Merlin muttered before he accepted the call with shaking fingers. “Hello,” he said, trying to sound as unaffected as possible. It didn’t really work and Arthur grinned at him.
“Mr. Emrys,” Uther greeted, sounding far away – probably because Merlin’s head was very much elsewhere. “I trust you’re well.”
“Uh, yes.” Merlin forced himself not to look at Arthur, feeling way too distracted to keep a conversation going with Uther. “Just getting some studying done.”
“Ah, yes. That’s very wise of you. I waited as long as I could manage to call you, but I trust you’re not in bed with a headache.”
“No, I’m up and about,” Merlin said with so much fake cheerfulness that he saw Arthur bite his cheek in an attempt not to laugh.
“I trust you completed the mission.”
Merlin looked down at Arthur and he was a sight, really. His lips were swollen and wet, his cheeks were flushed with red that travelled even further down to his neck and he looked so debauched that Merlin couldn’t help that the image went straight to his cock – which was a bit disconcerting considering who he was currently talking to.
“Uh, in a matter of speaking, yes,” he answered lightly.
Uther gave what sounded like an approving hum. “So, they’ve broken up?”
“Oh yes, they’ve definitely broken up.”
Arthur shook with silent laughter and Merlin shot him a warning look, pushing one hand down on Arthur’s stomach to still him. He didn’t really need even further help with his current state while he was talking to Uther of all people.
“Good job, Mr. Emrys. You’ve been invaluable.”
“Yes, well. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, Mr. Pendragon.”
When the call ended, Merlin ended up staring at his phone for a moment, only jolted from his thoughts when Arthur laughed, his head thrown back, exposing his neck in a way that made Merlin’s mouth go dry. Leaning forward, Merlin threw his phone carelessly to the nightstand and buried his face into Arthur’s neck, mouthing along the skin with heavy breath. Arthur’s laughter faltered, fading into a moan that went straight to Merlin’s groin and he angled his hips, pressing down over and over until they were both panting.
“I can’t believe you made me do that,” Merlin said into Arthur’s neck, grazing his teeth over the spot where Arthur’s pulse beat rhythmically.
Arthur bucked up against him, one hand at Merlin’s hip and another at the small of his back, pushing him into the movement and Merlin nearly lost himself in the feeling of it, dropping his forehead to rest on Arthur’s shoulder.
“You deserved it.” Arthur was breathless, but when Merlin looked up he was smiling cheekily, “for trying to break up me and my fake girlfriend.”
Merlin looked at him sombrely. “I guess I did.”
“Hey, none of that.” Arthur reached out and ran his finger over the spot between Merlin’s eyebrows and he realised he was frowning.
The gesture felt strangely intimate and it sent a rush of something overwhelming through him, making him sit up abruptly, grabbing at the hem of Arthur’s shirt before he could dwell on the urge enough to feel the fear of rejection. His fingers briefly ghosted across warm skin as he pushed the shirt up over Arthur’s head, throwing it to the side. Arthur’s hands gripped at his hips as Merlin pushed his own shirt up over his head, nearly getting his elbow stuck in it in the process. His eyes locked on Arthur’s naked skin and he ran his hands up along the sides of Arthur’s body, watching as his muscles contracted in response. Leaning down, he mouthed along Arthur’s collarbone, the taste of his skin making Merlin’s head cloudy with lust.
“Merlin. Fuck,” Arthur said through clenched teeth. “Get those damn jeans off before I die.”
Sitting up again, he grinned at Arthur. “You’re getting a bit melodramatic, Arthur.”
Arthur followed him, sitting up on the bed and wrapping his arms around Merlin’s back, pushing him further into his lap. “You may think I’m kidding,” Arthur said, pressing his lips to Merlin’s jaw, sucking gently, “but I’m really not.”
Merlin’s fingers threaded into Arthur’s hair and tightened in response. The feeling of Arthur’s god damn hair running through his fingers and his lips at that perfect spot on his neck made Merlin’s eyes roll back, a slightly embarrassing keening sound coming from the back of his throat. Pulling Arthur’s head back by his hair, Merlin bent down and crashed their lips together in a kiss that was too rough – he could feel Arthur’s teeth and Merlin’s jaw ached with the angle, but it didn’t matter.
“Fucking jeans,” Arthur said against his lips and Merlin laughed in a way that edged into hysterical to his own ears.
If only to make Arthur shut up about the jeans, Merlin forced himself out of Arthur’s lap and fumbled out of his clothes. They were past the point where they bothered making anything playful out of it, and they only undressed quickly, sneaking glances at each other out of the corner of their eyes. The sight of Arthur’s cock tenting his pants made Merlin’s hands shake as he tried to free himself from his socks.
Merlin was nearly knocked off his feet by how much he wanted Arthur, looking at the way his muscles moved under taut skin and the sharp angle of his hip bones. Not able to resist, Merlin reached out and ran his thumb over the right hip bone, making Arthur look up from removing his socks and his lips were parted, breathing unevenly. Merlin wanted all of him so badly that he didn’t know how to deal with it.
“C’mere,” Arthur muttered, hooking one arm around Merlin’s neck, pulling him down until he was sprawled over Arthur.
They were pressed against each other, their legs slotting together and Arthur’s cock was hard and leaking against him as Arthur licked a wet trail from his collarbone to his jaw. Shaking with the intensity of his reactions, Merlin tried to breathe evenly, but he lost the match against his racing pulse. He bit his lip, trying to press back the frantic moans he could feel at the back of his throat, but it was futile when Arthur’s hand was between their bodies, wrapping around the both of them. Merlin shuddered, dropping his head to Arthur’s shoulder as he exhaled in a groan that was almost embarrassing. He closed his eyes to the dizzying feeling of Arthur’s hand moving in steady strokes.
“Oh, god,” Merlin muttered into Arthur’s skin, pressing himself into the touch.
Arthur nudged Merlin’s cheek, searching for his lips and Merlin angled his head, letting Arthur nip at his bottom lip before they both opened into the kiss. Their tongues slid softly and unhurriedly against each other, making the kiss languid and deep.
“Fuck,” Arthur muttered, breaking the kiss only to lean again and steal another one. “I need this to happen right now.”
Merlin nodded, unable to form any other words beyond that and he watched as Arthur reached over to the drawer in his nightstand, fumbling for lube and condoms. There hadn’t been any time to consider how this was happening yet, and he began to wonder if Arthur would be fucking him into the bed, or maybe he would ride Arthur until his thighs were quivering with it. He closed his eyes at the thought, his cock jumping slightly in response.
He felt Arthur shift under him, rolling over, and Merlin opened his eyes, looking down at Arthur lying on his stomach with furrowed brows. His mind was sluggish with arousal and it took him until Arthur drew his knee up, inching his hand over the swell of his own arse, to realise what was going on. When Arthur worked one slick finger into himself, arching back into his own touch, Merlin’s blood thundered in his ears and his hand went to his cock instinctively, gripping it to ease the almost painful ache. Arthur turned his head and met Merlin’s eyes over his shoulders as he inserted a second finger, fucking himself back onto his hand.
“Shit,” Merlin said, his voice breaking half-way through the word.
Merlin was completely unable to tear his eyes away from the way skin stretched around Arthur’s fingers, the flush that crept down Arthur’s neck and how he bit his lip as he looked over his shoulder. A whine from Arthur snapped him out of his trance and he fumbled for the condom that had somehow disappeared into the sheets, ripping open the foil with shaking fingers. It felt like the first time he tried to slip on a condom as his fingers seemed to have forgotten how to work, and he flushed in slight embarrassment at his fumbling until he noticed that Arthur’s eyes were closed as he fingered himself slowly.
Nudging Arthur’s hand in signal, Merlin reached for a pillow with his other hand and pushed it under Arthur’s hips, and his breathing hitched as Arthur withdrew his fingers, leaving him open and exposed. Merlin’s heart hammered in his chest when he let himself think about the fact that he was going to fuck Arthur. For some reason, Merlin had always figured it would be the other way around, and damn, he’d like that too, but the fact that Arthur was lying on his bed with his arse in the air just waiting for Merlin to take him was so arousing that Merlin nearly lost his mind from it.
He gripped Arthur’s hips tightly, his fingers digging into the skin making small crescent shapes as he pushed in, his pulse running rapidly until his temples felt like they were thumping. Arthur clamped around him as Merlin stilled inside and he squeezed his eyes shut, feeling as if he’d gone too far into the water, trying to bring himself back in. He’d just closed his hand around some last shred of control when Arthur moaned low in his throat and pushed impatiently back against Merlin, and it was all lost from then, really. Merlin exhaled shakily, thrusting back into Arthur’s rhythm and then it just built – the two of them pushing back into each other, setting a rhythm that got slightly more desperate with each deep stroke.
It was completely unexpected how Arthur seemed to fall apart under him, pressing his cheek into the pillow, his hands gripping at the sheets, rutting back into the rhythm as he tried to muffle his moans. His lips were parted over his laboured breath, his eyes were closed and those god damn sounds he made would probably haunt Merlin for eternity. He was ruined for anyone else after this; he’d just have to face it. Fucking Arthur and his perfect sex face, he thought as he gave a rough snap of his hips, harder than before, and Arthur’s back arched with a broken groan that made Merlin slump forwards. He was draped over Arthur’s back now, mouthing at his neck, licking the beads of sweat from his skin and wondering how this could possibly end without Merlin somehow blacking out from pleasure.
Leaning in until his lips brushed Arthur’s ear, he spoke in a whisper, his voice unsteady. “You could never have a girlfriend, could you? I can’t believe I thought you could be with Elena. You love this too much.”
Arthur only pushed up into him, pressing his head into the pillow as he grunted unintelligibly.
“You love this so fucking much,” Merlin said, not recognising himself. He had never said anything like this to anyone, but he couldn’t stop. All he could do was snap his hips and mutter words that made less and less sense into Arthur’s ear.
“Oh, god. Fuck. Fuck,” Arthur said in a broken voice and his eyes opened, looking up at Merlin with flushed cheeks and his swollen lips open wide.
Merlin never wanted anyone else to see Arthur like this, ever, and that was a terribly scary thought, but it was the truth nevertheless. He wanted Arthur like this all to himself, open and greedy, fucking back into him as if he needed it to survive. Merlin closed his eyes, burying his head into Arthur’s neck with a deep, helpless groan and his hips jerked erratically, unable to keep a steady rhythm.
Arthur went rigid under him for a moment before he arched back, coming with his hands fisted into the sheets and a muffled “Merl-” that morphed into an unintelligible shout mid-way. The feeling of it was so overwhelming that Merlin bit into Arthur’s skin to muffle the words that wouldn’t stop coming and he only thrust deeply a couple of times before he lost it, kissing Arthur’s name into his neck.
For a while he felt completely boneless and he struggled with forming any coherent thoughts. It was only when Arthur stirred under him that he managed to find enough co-ordination to pull away, grimacing slightly at the feeling. He flipped over on his back with his eyes still closed, sinking back into the sheets, his limbs feeling heavy. There was movement next to him and after a while Arthur removed the condom, leaving Merlin to feel slightly ashamed that he somehow hadn’t thought of doing that himself, but then Arthur stretched his arm around Merlin’s stomach and the mild shame gave way to a sated feeling.
Arthur nuzzled into Merlin’s neck, his nose rubbing at a spot below his ear, and Merlin’s thoughts caught up with him even as he seemed to grow more and more tired by the second.
“Do you think your dad would stop funding me if he found out?” Merlin asked quietly.
“We won’t tell him,” Arthur muttered against his neck.
For some reason that didn’t soothe Merlin in the least, even though it should. Maybe he was being unreasonable, but he felt a bit worried about whether or not Arthur wanted this to be as permanent as he did.
“Why not?” he asked, staring up into the ceiling as he tried to stop himself from assuming the worst.
Arthur lifted his head, watching Merlin with slightly raised eyebrows.
“You’re a complete muppet.” Arthur nudged Merlin’s cheek with his nose. “Because,” he said, his words skimming across Merlin’s skin, “it’s none of my father’s business and I don’t want him to fuck it up for me.”
It turned out that Arthur was an achieved cuddler and Merlin woke up two hours later entangled in limbs, feeling like it was a hundred degrees and he was almost annoyed for a second before he turned his head slightly to find Arthur sleeping with his head on Merlin’s shoulder, his lips pressed into it. Merlin managed to free his hand and run his fingers through Arthur’s hair, smiling softly.
“Because you love us and want to make us happy?” Gwen suggested as she pushed her bag into his hands.
He accepted Elena’s bag as well, bundling both of them into his arms. “No, that’s definitely not it.”
Gwen laughed, ruffling his hair before she skipped excitedly over to the queue with Elena on her heels.
“Coming, Arthur?” Elena called over her shoulder.
“Nah, I’m staying here. Merlin might manage to punch himself in the face with your bag or something.”
Merlin glared at him and since his arms were occupied, he kicked in the direction of Arthur’s shin. “Don’t be an idiot. You don’t have to stay down here because of me.”
“I don’t really want to go anyway,” Arthur said, shrugging slightly as he easily evaded the swipe of Merlin’s foot.
“That’s bollocks, Arthur.” He frowned. “You love roller coasters. You don’t need to stop loving them just because I don’t.”
Arthur sighed, looking lost. “That’s not what I meant.”
Merlin wasn’t an idiot; he knew what this was about. It wasn’t at all about roller coasters, really, it was about that fight they’d had on the weekend about how Arthur didn’t take an interest in the things Merlin liked. Somehow it had turned into a misunderstanding about whether or not it was okay to like different things, and this could only be about that. Arthur looked unsure as he stood awkwardly in between staying and going.
“Arthur,” Merlin said sternly. “You love roller coasters, I don’t. That’s fine. Now go ride one. Shoo!”
His boyfriend smiled carefully and then ran off after Elena and Gwen, leaving Merlin to hold their bags – which was exactly what he liked doing when he was dragged to these things, anyway. He sighed a bit, looking up at the dizzying coaster looping overhead.
Arthur could be such a stubborn prat sometimes, and he often failed to communicate on a basic level when it came to relationships, which Merlin could understand since he’d been raised by Uther. It was maddening, sometimes, but there were too many good things about Arthur to let it all go over something like that. And even if Merlin sometimes had to do the brunt of communication, he felt like the work he put in was worth it. It wasn’t as if Merlin wasn’t difficult to deal with, too, on some level. He was sure Arthur had plenty of frustrations about Merlin spending his life in the library at ridiculous times or about how he stressed himself into a frenzy of unkempt hair and coffee binges.
Just the fact that Arthur had tried to give up his love of roller coasters in some misguided attempt at being a good boyfriend made warmth spread in his chest and his heart ached a little because Arthur never did know how to set things right after they argued. Merlin left the coaster behind, feeling like a bit of an idiot carrying one bag on each shoulder, but wandered until he found the duck shooting stand, hoping that his talent for killing plastic ducks hadn’t been a one off.
It hadn’t been, luckily, and when the three of them came off the coaster, walking unsteadily as they laughed raucously, Merlin stood in the same spot they’d left him. Elena was leaning on Arthur, her mouth open in laughter as they stumbled towards him.
“That was amazing,” Gwen said breathlessly, holding one hand over her stomach. “Even if I feel like I’ll throw up for a week.”
“Sounds fun,” Merlin said dryly, shrugging both bags from his shoulder.
Arthur’s face was glowing with excitement, his eyes bright and his hair wild after being pushed around in the wind. Merlin thought it was gut-wrenchingly beautiful.
“I won you this,” Merlin said, getting a stuffed penguin from Elena’s bag.
Taking it from Merlin’s grip, Arthur glanced down at it for a moment before he looked up at Merlin and smiled in a way that made Merlin’s heart stutter.
“I love penguins,” he said, running a hand over its head.
Arthur put his arm around Merlin’s shoulders and pulled him against his side, pulling him along after Elena and Gwen who were walking ahead, heads bent closed together as they talked. Merlin snaked his arm around Arthur’s waist and smiled when he felt a press of lips against his hair.