I have no fear of drowning
It’s the breathing that’s taking all this work
Do you know what I mean when I say
I don’t want to be alone?
Arthur has always been pretty happy with his family (discounting Morgana, whom he still thinks most days could have been replaced with a Rottweiler to very similar effect), and he knows he’s pretty lucky that way. Some people think it should be weird, having someone else’s mother move in with your father without marrying him, but Arthur likes it well enough. He lives with his best friend; what could be better than that? Most people have to sneak out a window and down the street if they want to hang out after curfew; he and Merlin only have to knock on the wall in between their rooms.
It also means that when they’re home from university for Christmas they don’t have to go very far to find someone to share a cheap plastic bottle of tequila with the sole purpose of getting completely sloshed while their parents are out of town for the weekend. They’re sprawled out on the sofa, salt and limes and tequila scattered a little haphazardly on the low wooden table in front of them, and Arthur has his head in Merlin’s lap while Merlin scritches him gently behind his ears, and really, Arthur doesn’t know why everyone doesn’t live with their best friends.
“We should live together,” Arthur says dreamily, and Merlin flicks his nose.
“We do live together, idiot.”
“No, not like that,” Arthur huffs, struggling upright to peer at Merlin’s face. His vision is a little swimmy, but almost pleasantly so; it gives the room a warm, close kind of glow. “I mean after we graduate. We should live together, just like this, for... for forever.”
“Mmm,” Merlin agrees, pushing at Arthur and rearranging himself until they’re pressed together with Arthur sort of pleasantly squashed between Merlin and the back of the sofa. “Yeah. Pretty perfect just like this.”
“Exactly,” says Arthur, propping his chin on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin’s face is close to his own, so close he can’t quite bring it into focus properly, but Arthur can see that Merlin’s eyes are closed, his lashes dark and casting little shadows on his skin. Merlin’s always had pretty eyelashes, Arthur thinks, too pretty for a boy. Merlin’s a little bit beautiful, actually, even though his ears stick out too far; somehow they just manage to make him look endearing, with his big eyes and soft skin, the long, long stretch of his legs leading up to his arse, which Arthur catches himself looking at sometimes for no reason he can fully name.
On one level, Arthur’s aware that he probably wouldn’t be having these thoughts if they hadn’t taken too many shots off of increasingly hilarious body parts, except that maybe... maybe he would.
Merlin’s just—always there, and that’s never a bad thing. Arthur likes having Merlin around, likes that they’re comfortable enough with each other that it’s not weird for Merlin to play with Arthur’s hair or for Arthur to grab at Merlin’s hand when he gets excited about something. It’s not conscious; it’s just a part of them, something they’ve always done since they were kids running around terrorizing the local cats and falling out of trees. Arthur calls Merlin whenever he gets drunk enough to think that calling anyone at a quarter past three in the morning is ever a good idea, and Merlin regularly sends Arthur postcards he makes himself. The postcards always say ridiculous, nonsensical things like REMEMBER TO CHECK YOUR UNDERWEAR FOR FROGS, LOSER in Merlin’s big, blocky handwriting, and have little doodles of terrified stick figures with wonky teeth being struck by things that might be frogs or anvils or lightning filling up all the white space.
(Well, it would be nonsensical to anyone who isn’t Arthur or Merlin. Arthur knows exactly what the postcard is referring to, and he writes Merlin a long email back detailing exactly how that particular incident was a complete betrayal of Arthur’s trust, and don’t think Arthur doesn’t know how Morgana broke into his room, Merlin, because contrary to popular belief in the Pendragon-Lefay-Emrys household, Arthur is not a complete idiot. He adds lots of threatening exclamation points for emphasis, and hits send with a vicious satisfaction. Merlin sends him back a one-word reply: HAHAHAHA.)
Arthur thinks about Merlin a lot, likes bragging about how Merlin’s probably going to graduate at the top of his class and go on to change the world, or maybe rule it as a benevolent evil overlord, and it would be weird and a little creepy if they were just friends but when Merlin’s basically his brother it’s different; it’s allowed. Arthur can talk about Merlin for fucking hours if he starts it all off by saying, “My brother, Merlin,” and people nod and smile and tell him he’s lucky to have a brother like that, so smart, so motivated, he’s lucky they get along so well and don’t fight at all.
That’s not true, not really: they’ve fought loads of times, but always over things like who was going to control the remote or who’d have to tell Morgana they’d broken her favourite china teacup trying to learn how to juggle, nothing serious. It’s like they’re always too in sync to really have a falling out, like they were somehow programmed at birth to be two halves of a crazy whole—that’s how brothers should be, Arthur thinks, real best friends, the kind that stick with you for life like chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe.
It’s not the most apt analogy, doesn’t really do the concept proper justice, but Arthur thinks he’s at least three sheets to the wind at this point, maybe four, and it works well enough. There are more important things to do, like study the shadow of stubble along Merlin’s jaw. Merlin has a hard time staying clean-shaven, which Hunith hates but Arthur secretly loves. Merlin forgets to shave more often than not, and Arthur likes seeing the difference it makes on his face, thinks it makes him look more distinguished even when his bony wrists are sticking out of his favourite ancient jumper with holes in the elbows, the one he’s had since he was twelve even though Hunith keeps trying to surreptitiously get rid of it.
Arthur thinks Merlin might be falling asleep: his mouth is slightly open, and Arthur can’t help staring at it, a little, examining the full redness of it closely, trying to figure out what he’s looking for.
Merlin cracks an eye open. “Choo doing?”
“Nothing,” Arthur says, squirming until he gets an arm free and can rest his cheek on it without looking away from Merlin. “Watching you.”
“You’re weird,” Merlin tells him, closing his eyes again, and Arthur hides a smile in Merlin’s shirt, breathing in the familiar smell of soap and old clothes and Merlin, something indefinably comforting and a tiny bit thrilling.
“Yeah,” he agrees, looking up again, and kisses Merlin.
He’s not really sure why, just knows that it feels like the right thing to do, the only way he can try to somehow tell Merlin what’s going through his head, which is just that Merlin is beautiful, warm and hazy through the tequila, and Arthur can think of no one else he’d rather be mashed against on an ancient sofa with the springs digging into his back. Merlin’s mouth is hot and wet and Arthur thinks it’s probably not a very good kiss but god, he’s enjoying it anyway, licking the taste of tequila and salt off of Merlin’s lips.
“Huh,” Merlin says when they pull back, and then says it again: “Huh.” He puts his head back and looks at Arthur curiously – there’s no anger there, just puzzlement, like Arthur just told him something in Czech, maybe, or Japanese, something important that Merlin doesn’t quite understand.
“Yeah,” says Arthur, “’s all I wanted to say,” and falls asleep.
They wake up the next morning with awful hangovers and the dog licking salt off of the table in front of them. The limes are gone; Arthur supposes he ate those first.
“God,” Merlin moans piteously. “Remind me why drinking that much tequila was a good idea?”
Arthur weighs the effort it’ll take to shoo Owain away, and decides it’s not nearly worth it. The dog has a stomach of iron; he can survive a little salt. Arthur buries his face in Merlin’s shirt to get away from the sunlight instead, because Merlin might be the lightweight of the family but Arthur, very unfairly, is always the one who ends up with the worst hangover. “Because we are young and stupid,” he says, voice muffled, and Merlin makes a small, pained sound.
“Stupid is definitely the operative word there.”
Somehow Arthur drags himself off the couch and into the shower, and it isn’t until he’s sitting in the kitchen in his boxers with a bottle of paracetamol and a piece of toast that he really remembers any of the night before, remembers that Merlin’s lips were slightly chapped, that he’d brought his hand up and laid it on Arthur’s shoulder, his fingers just barely touching warm against the skin of Arthur’s neck.
He lays his head on the table carefully, because there’s still an army of workers knocking hammers against his skull. “Oh, fuck.”
“What?” Merlin asks, coming in damp from the shower, his jeans slung low around his hips. Arthur shuts his eyes against the sight.
“Just that I’m an arsehole.”
Merlin tousles his hair. “Well, that’s nothing new,” he says, but Arthur hears the words behind it, hears what Merlin isn’t saying, which is that what happened the night before is done, past—it isn’t going to become a wedge between them. It happened, they were drunk; no more need be said. Merlin steals the cereal from in front of Arthur and takes a handful, rummaging in one of the cupboards for a glass. “Do we have any juice?”
Sometimes, Arthur thinks fondly when Merlin brings him a glass of orange juice without Arthur even having to ask, he really loves Merlin.
The problem starts after the holidays are over and they’ve both gone off to their respective universities, their separate lives. Arthur’s sitting through classes and doing his problem sets and supposedly thinking about what he’s going to do after graduation because living in his father’s cellar is completely not an option on any level, but the only thing he’s concentrating on is Merlin. Everything’s always somehow tied to Merlin in his life—you can’t be that close to someone without having that happen to some extent, Arthur believes—so at first he doesn’t give it a second thought.
He calls Merlin after each of his job interviews and over-analyzes every tiny detail of them, and Merlin makes non-committal humming noises and very selflessly doesn’t mention the hundred pages of papers he has to write in order to finish his year and graduate, and when Arthur wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic over a forgotten problem set and sends off a barrage of hysterical, semi-coherent text messages to Merlin while he tries to remember where his damned textbook is, Merlin never once tells him that he is a crazy man with a death wish Merlin would very happily fill for him. So really, life is perfectly normal.
Well, life is normal except that Arthur’s gradually stopped caring about anything that isn’t Merlin. He blows off a pub night with the lads because Merlin’s got him into some sort of freakish internet game where he and Merlin have little characters that run around and try to blow other people up, and Merlin says hilarious things over the headset until Arthur laughs so hard his stomach cramps up. There’s this girl Vivian he’s sort of been seeing, too, and she’s nice, really; they’ve been having the occasional dinner or movie or debaucherous night together since the autumn, but now he ignores her calls, lets them ring through to voicemail nine times out of ten—which is mad, he knows, because she’s gorgeous and deceptively smart and has a bloody fantastic set on her, but he’s lost all interest in chatting about corporate responsibility and the economic crisis over chicken tandoori. He’d rather stay home and exchange rude instant messages with Merlin and pretend to work on his final project for his game theory seminar.
He gets a job—to his surprise and Merlin’s amusement—at Price Waterhouse Cooper, with a decent salary and excellent chances for rapid promotion, and he hadn’t realised he was such a good catch for an employer but the manager is practically salivating as he signs the paperwork.
“Of course he was,” Merlin says when Arthur calls him to celebrate. “You’re brilliant; their profits will probably double now that they have you.”
“Right,” Arthur tells him, not believing him for a minute. “How long’ve you got left at the grindstone, then?”
“Two weeks,” Merlin crows. “Two weeks until freedom!” He’s silent for a moment, reconsidering. “Well, temporary freedom, anyway.”
Arthur snorts at that, because Merlin’s decided to be completely mad and go on for a Ph.D. in something suitably esoteric that maybe three people in the world actually care about, but he’s managed to land himself a disgusting number of fellowships and special scholarships to do it with, and Arthur has to admire that, even if he never understands what Merlin’s talking about.
“You’re mad, you know,” Arthur reminds him, and Merlin just laughs and tells him to fuck off before hanging up.
Merlin’s totally oblivious to this new fixation Arthur has on him, which gives Arthur some hope that maybe it’s not glaringly obvious to most of the world. Then again, Merlin is oblivious to most things that aren’t dead languages or tiny fossilized bone shards, so maybe Arthur shouldn’t use him as a judge. And talking it over with him is definitely out—even if Arthur was sure he wouldn’t die of embarrassment bringing it up, Merlin would probably miss the point entirely. Conversations with Merlin about emotions have a tendency to meander around the point overly circuitously, and rarely make any kind of sense.
Arthur’s been thinking about one particular conversation they had once that he’s not sure Merlin even remembers now. They’d been fifteen, and Arthur had been spending most days mooning over the lovely and utterly unattainable Sophia from the year above them, and Merlin had mostly been very patient with him and talked him out of the more harebrained schemes Arthur came up with.
“No, Arthur,” Merlin had said that day after Arthur outlined his latest plan. “You may not hire my friends as a band and serenade Sophia on her balcony at midnight.”
“You’re right,” Arthur mused, sprawled face down on Merlin’s bed. “She probably doesn’t have a balcony. What about just her window?”
“Arthur,” Merlin had said, stern, “she will call the police on you for disturbing the peace. She doesn’t like you.”
Arthur had given him an aggrieved look. “Why do you have to say all these hurtful things to me?” he asked petulantly. “Heroes do that all the time in those stupid plays we have to read in class, and they always win the girl in the end.”
Merlin had put a hand on his shoulder gravely. “I hate to tell you this, Arthur, but there is this thing called fiction which means things aren’t really happening—”
Arthur had tried to hit him for that; Merlin had very frustratingly avoided him. “Hate you,” Arthur informed him, because Merlin could usually stand reminding of that, and Merlin waved an unconcerned hand. “So who do you fancy then? Come on then, which bird gets your feathers all ruffled?”
He’d had a vague idea that if Merlin had a crush Arthur could use that to his advantage and level the playing field a bit, or at least use it to help fend off some of Merlin’s crueler methods of crushing all of Arthur’s dreams. He hadn’t expected Merlin to go a bit pink and drop his eyes, picking at a stray thread on his duvet.
“Come on,” Arthur said, rolling over and propping himself up on an elbow to get a better look at him. “I tell you everything.”
Merlin had given him a furtive look, and said, “Er, well, I don’t really... I don’t fancy any of the girls,” and Arthur had flopped back down onto the bed with an exaggerated sigh.
“Boring,” he’d moaned. “You are so boring, I am surprised you aren’t dead yet.”
Merlin had given him a small smile after a pause. “Well, someone has to balance out all your idiotic plans.”
At the time Arthur had just rolled his eyes and tickled the bottoms of Merlin’s feet until Merlin kicked him, but now the conversation gives him pause. He’s not entirely sure he remembers the conversation exactly—he’s positive he’d never been stupid enough to think caterwauling up at someone’s window at midnight was a good idea—but thinking about the things Merlin had said and not said gives him the definite sense that he’d missed something important: namely that Merlin wasn’t interested in any of the girls.
Arthur realizes, of course, that his evidence is circumstantial at best, but Merlin’s never had a girlfriend. He’s never had a boyfriend, either, at least that Arthur knows about, but Arthur’s begun picturing Merlin with other guys anyway, fitting him in alongside someone, his long arms slung over their broad shoulders, and he isn’t really prepared for the hot, uncomfortably sharp feeling that goes through him at that thought.
He spends a day being horrified at himself for being a closet homophobe, and locks himself in his room to brood over his newly discovered prejudice, listening to Enya on repeat in an effort to force himself into being more sensitive and accepting. It isn’t long before he starts repressing urges to throw his iPod out the window, though, and he ends up deciding his reaction had nothing to do with homophobia at all; the realization was just... unexpected, is all.
He tests himself by surfing the internet next, and has to hit his back button in horror repeatedly. He doesn’t think it bothers him to see two men together, not really—and there’s something he should probably spend more time analyzing, because some of the men had been really quite... well, interesting—but he can’t quite get past the forced acting of it all and the appalling amounts of oil that every film he tries watching budgets for.
And all of a sudden, before Arthur can really process the implications of what’s happening, all his projects have been presented, his last exams taken, and he and Merlin are finally graduating, which is exciting and frightening and fantastic and drives all other thoughts out of Arthur’s head.
Their graduations are a day apart, but they all still manage to go to both: Arthur’s father and Hunith and Morgana and of course the two of them, Merlin and Arthur. Arthur’s half-surprised that Morgana had bothered showing up at his ceremony, but there she is after, flicking at the tassel of his mortarboard before wandering off toward the table of free food and some of Arthur’s better-looking classmates. Arthur almost makes a comment about older women who prey on innocent young men and how no good ever comes to them, but Morgana’s out of earshot and besides, Merlin is there, looking very fine in his suit and tie, and Arthur gets distracted.
“Thanks for coming,” he says, grinning, and Merlin grins back at him.
“Well I did get this invitation in the post and a long pathetic email from some prat I used to know about how no one was going to come to his graduation since mine was the day before, so I figured I’d do my good deed for the month and show up.”
It had not been a pathetic email, Arthur wants to protest, but instead he says: “You matched your tie to my school colours?”
Merlin looks down at it, almost as if he’s surprised to see it there. “Mum picked it out for me.”
“Right,” Arthur drawls, because he knows Merlin’s refused to let Hunith pick out any of his clothes since he turned thirteen. “You’re just trying to cover up what an enormous sap you are; you don’t fool me.”
“Never could,” Merlin says cheerfully. “So, this is your town and all I know how to do is get to the train station. Where are we going out tonight?”
They go out with a bunch of Arthur’s friends and really hit the town; it seems like everyone Arthur’s ever met at uni is out celebrating. There are shots and free drinks and somewhere he thinks there might have been karaoke and Merlin getting booed offstage, and the two of them stagger back to the hotel sometime after four in the morning, where their parents are pretending not to have stayed up with their door propped open to make sure they did come home.
Alcohol is humming through Arthur, making him feel over-warm and bold with it, and while part of him knows that it’s a terrible idea and he should really just pour himself a glass of water and crawl into bed in the hopes of mitigating the hangover he can already feel building in the back of his skull, part of him—god, part of him really wants to kiss Merlin again, wants to see if it’s anything like what he remembers.
It takes them longer than it should to find the keycard, which has disappeared somewhere into the depths of one of Merlin’s pockets, and longer still to get the door open. Merlin’s coordination is always the first thing to go when he gets pissed, and Arthur keeps getting distracted by the flush in Merlin’s cheeks, by the little frustrated humming noises he makes when the little light flashes red and how he sways just enough to brush up against Arthur.
“Stop giggling,” Merlin whispers at him, which only makes Arthur laugh harder.
“Not giggling,” he objects. “Giggling is not manly, Merlin, and I am a man.”
Merlin leans his shoulder against Arthur again as finally produces the keycard. “Giggling like a little girl, Arthur, like a little teenage girl. Shut up, you’re going to wake up everyone!” He thrusts the card into the slot above the door handle, but the light flashes angrily at them again, and the door stays locked.
Arthur takes the opportunity to prop his head on Merlin and points out helpfully: “I think you have it upside down. And I am not a teenage girl! You’re the one who’s going to wake up the whole hall...”
The door opens abruptly as Merlin gets the card right and they fall through it, limbs tangling together in the narrow space, and Arthur has a moment to think oh god, oh god, I’m going to do it, before Merlin’s gone, peeling himself away from Arthur to flop down on his bed, passing out almost instantly.
Arthur spends a moment squinting at him, disappointed, and then he carefully gets on his knees on Merlin’s bed and kisses him anyway, just a little bit, just to see, and he thinks he should feel awful about it, like he’s taking advantage of Merlin, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still wants to do it, wants Merlin to be awake and kissing him back.
They wake up tangled together, and Merlin groans.
“Okay,” he says, not opening his eyes. “This has got to stop being a habit.”
Arthur panics for a moment before realizing that Merlin is talking about the hangover and the fact that his mouth tastes like dead feet, and when Merlin stumbles his way to the bathroom Arthur stares hard at the ceiling and promises himself he will never, ever do anything that stupid again. This weird fixation he has is just a phase, and there are plenty of more attractive people than Merlin to kiss; plenty of people who aren’t practically his brother and won’t hurt as much if Arthur mucks everything up and loses them.
“What do you think?”
Arthur sticks his hands in his pockets and looks around sceptically. The flat is small and shabby around the corners: the wooden floorboards dip and buckle just enough to make walking interesting, and there are mysterious dark stains on the ceiling. It’s in an old, dingy brick building which according to Merlin has character—something Arthur privately thinks means it’s two years from falling over. The two bedrooms are decent, though, if a little small, and the bathroom is adequate; the main room, with its kitchen and cramped space for whatever furniture they feel like buying, is surprisingly filled with light from the multi-paned windows.
Arthur honestly doesn’t think it looks a bit different than any of the other flats they’ve looked at so far, which have all been run-down in a comfortable, grubby sort of way that makes Arthur want to take a shower, but Merlin’s spent the last hour exploring everything in this flat in a flurry of ecstatic delight, and he’s giving Arthur such a hopeful look now that Arthur can’t bring himself to even tease about saying no.
“Okay,” he tells Merlin, who was apparently not expecting Arthur to give in so easily.
“I can bike to my lectures, and the tube is just around the corner so you can get to work, and it’s spitting distance from the shop so we don’t have to lug things all over town, and did you look out the window? The whole street is old houses and big trees and did you know that—”
“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, and when Merlin keeps nattering on about something that’s historically important to probably no one except him, Arthur shakes him a little and repeats himself, louder. “Merlin! It’s good. I like it.”
Merlin stops and blinks at him in surprise. “Really?”
“Really,” Arthur assures him. He’s sure it’ll be true in time, and right now the smile Merlin’s giving him is all the compensation he needs.
Arthur spends the first night in their new flat on a pile of blankets on the floor because they haven’t figured out how to get their beds from home to London yet, unable to sleep between the street light flooding in his window and the thoughts tumbling around his head.
He isn’t stupid, no matter what Morgana and sometimes Merlin might claim, and he knows better at this point than to pretend that the amount of time he spends thinking about Merlin is normal. It was easier to ignore it when they were living miles apart and busy with university, and even easier to ignore at home, where Arthur had to be careful about how much time he spent looking at Merlin because there were other people around less oblivious than Merlin is. Now, though... now they’re living together in a tiny flat all by themselves, and Arthur’s terrified of what that might mean for him—for them. Even now he wants to slip down the hall and look in Merlin’s room, see if Merlin’s asleep and maybe watch him, watch him breathe and listen to the small sounds he makes when he sleeps.
The fact that Merlin’s very much a man doesn’t bother him as much as Arthur had expected. He’s never looked much at men before, content enough with the women who crossed his path, but he can’t deny having a thought or two cross his mind during a football match or once, memorably, during an entire semester with an extremely fit Spanish economics professor named Raul. If that thread was the only one in the knot, it wouldn’t take long to unravel, but it isn’t. Merlin is his brother, or as good as, has been since they were eight and the moving van showed up at Arthur’s door, and his best friend besides. Crushes on unattainable professors are normal, acceptable; he can make jokes about it if he wants and everyone listening will laugh. No one goes around having these kinds of thoughts about their best friend, their brother.
Arthur curses softly and sits up, unable to lie still anymore. He can’t let whatever these urges are ruin his friendship with Merlin, can’t drive Merlin away. He’s going to have to ignore them entirely, and hope that they fade in time; never mind the fact that so far they’ve only been getting stronger. It’s not so hard; all he has to do is picture the look on his father’s face, on Hunith’s face, if he ever had to explain this to them, and his libido shuts up and cowers down in a corner.
In the end Arthur gives up on sleep entirely, abandons his blanket nest and drags the one plastic chair they’ve bought over to the window and spends the night staring blankly out at the street below. He can do this, he tells himself. He has to, because this is the only way he can have Merlin, and it’s going to have to be good enough.
In the end, adapting is easier than Arthur had expected. The flat is actually almost perfect for the two of them, although their downstairs neighbors have an unfortunate tendency to scream at each other in the middle of the night until the quarrel ends in smashing dishes or embarrassingly loud make-up sex. His new job is interesting enough, and he isn’t sure he loves it yet but he remembers the promises of quick promotion and already has his eyes on the top, because he really is very fond of running things, and he’s pretty sure he’d do a better job at it than most of the people he works with.
“You are hopeless,” Merlin tells him on a weekly basis. “I don’t think you know how to function unless you’re in competition for something.”
“I’m just naturally a winner,” Arthur replies loftily, and tackles Merlin to the floor to prove it.
Merlin works like a maniac all the time, and at first he tries to cook for himself, too, but after the second time he sets the flat on fire Arthur takes over all cooking responsibilities and forbids Merlin from going anywhere near the oven. He finds he likes cooking, too: he likes experimenting with different ingredients and watching them become something completely different and usually tasty. And when Merlin goes running in the mornings Arthur forces him to eat things loaded with butter and carbohydrates, because Merlin doesn’t need to get any skinnier, god.
Life settles into a comfortable pattern, and sometime while autumn is slowly cooling into winter, Arthur starts trying to grow a moustache. The results, unfortunately, are less than spectacular.
“Oh god,” Merlin wheezes out between gales of laughter. He’d been away for the weekend, off somewhere hiking around in the country with his friend Will, and he’d taken one look at Arthur after walking into the flat and collapsed onto the floor. “You look like a paedophile or something. You have to shave it off.”
Arthur gives him a deeply wounded look and covers his moustache with one hand. It’s a little rough around the edges, true, but that’s only because it’s a few days old; he has to give it time to mature. “I’m not shaving it off! Facial hair takes cultivation, Merlin, you can’t just give up after a few days.”
“You can,” Merlin assures him earnestly. “Please, give up.”
Arthur holds firm, even when Merlin refuses to be seen in public with him, loitering along behind him when they go out and calling him on his mobile from across the supermarket when they’re shopping.
“You are ridiculous,” Arthur informs him, but Merlin just says,
“I am not the one with the disturbing facial hair fetish, here.”
“I do not have a fetish!” Arthur protests, but Merlin ignores him and goes around sticking little paper moustaches on everything in their flat.
After a few weeks and an awkward conversation with his boss about the company’s policies on personal appearance, Arthur is forced to admit defeat. Merlin is completely unsympathetic, and perches on the cistern of the toilet to watch while Arthur slowly shaves.
“It’s for the best,” Merlin says, pragmatic. “You were starting to scare old ladies and small children.”
“That’s you,” Arthur grumbles. “You’re the one who always makes babies cry.”
“That’s not my fault! They’re prejudiced against me!”
Arthur rolls his eyes and splashes water on his face to wash away the last traces of shaving cream before reaching for the towel. “Yes, there’s an international baby conspiracy against you.”
“You know there is,” Merlin says. “Let me see.” He reaches out and snags Arthur’s chin, making a big show about turning Arthur’s face this way and that to inspect it. “Much better,” he announces. “I can now be seen to associate with you again.”
“I hate you,” Arthur tells him, and Merlin pats him sympathetically before hopping down off the toilet and pushing past him out of the bathroom.
“Come on, stop moping. I’ll buy you dinner to make up for your loss.”
“You can’t bribe me into liking you; I am grieving here,” Arthur calls after him, inspecting his bare upper lip in the mirror sadly.
“So that’s two orders of crab rangoons and a chicken satay for you?”
Arthur sighs. “Yeah, sure, as long as you get that vegetable thingy you like and the sweet and sour pork too.”
The months go by quickly, one week flowing easily into the next, and before Arthur knows it it’s Christmas again and Merlin has found time to decorate their flat with strings of hideous coloured lights which all flash at a different rate.
“You’re going to give me seizures, you know,” Arthur tells him, and Merlin scoffs.
“If years of going to that terrible disco club you like haven’t blinded you by now I don’t think a few decorations will do the job.”
Arthur points out that Merlin is the one who introduced him to that club in the first place, no matter how much Merlin wants to deny it. “And listen,” Arthur adds, because he’s seen the looks Merlin’s been giving the windows of the houses they pass, “if you want a tree, you could always ask, instead of laying siege to my eyeballs.”
“Who said I wanted a tree?” Merlin says, very innocently, but Arthur has had too many years of practice seeing right through Merlin to be fooled. He retaliates by bringing home the most pathetic-looking tree he can find, but the plan backfires when Merlin spends the entire evening crooning over it and buys it its own special string of lights.
“I thought you were on a budget,” Arthur says pointedly.
Merlin doesn’t twitch, sunk deep into the manky second-hand armchair which is still the only real furniture they’ve bought other than a plastic table and two chairs. “Get that promotion and you can be my sugar daddy,” he says without looking up from his book.
“I am not being your sugar daddy so you can buy horrible decorations,” Arthur argues. “And don’t use that phrase. Ever.”
Arthur brings Merlin to his office Christmas party because there’s no one else and also because he knows Merlin has a weakness for buffets. He gets a few questioning looks for that but after explaining apologetically that Merlin doesn’t get out much and throwing a few significant looks for good measure, most people nod in understanding, and Brenda who works the phones even gives him a sympathetic pat on the arm and tells him he’s a wonderfully kind brother.
“Arthur,” Merlin hisses about an hour into the party, “did you tell all your coworkers that I’m a recovering addict who lives in a halfway house?”
“Of course not,” Arthur assures him. “Why would I do that?” Merlin gives him a threatening look, but then Mark from HR pulls Arthur aside, and he leaves Merlin to the tender mercy of his coworkers with a cheerful salute.
Merlin is utterly charming despite glaring at Arthur when no one else is looking, and in the end he has enjoys himself enough that he forgives Arthur on the ride home, though he does complain that some woman matching Brenda’s description had carefully and systematically taken away every glass of champagne he’d managed to get his hands on. Arthur clucks vaguely in sympathy, and agrees to buy Merlin his very own bottle of champagne to make up for it.
“Which,” Merlin informs him while Arthur wrestles with the lock on their door, “I will not be sharing with you.”
“Whatever,” Arthur says, distracted with thoughts of how after the holidays they really have to ring the landlady and get this damned sticking lock fixed. “Say what you want, you still love me, really.”
Merlin’s quiet after that, but Arthur doesn’t notice.
They go home for the holiday, where Hunith scolds Merlin for not taking proper care of himself and Merlin protests that Arthur feeds him plenty.
“Hmm,” is Hunith’s response to that, giving Arthur a measuring look, and he sidles off through the nearest doorway before she can pull him into the kitchen and give him a pop quiz on nutrition or something; sometimes he thinks she forgets she stopped being his schoolteacher when he turned seven.
He doesn’t register that the door is the one leading directly into his father’s study until he’s closed the door behind him and sighed in relief.
“Hiding?” Uther says behind him, and Arthur jumps a little. He turns to look at his father, feeling a little guilty, and resists the urge to put his hands in his pockets.
“Not really,” he lies. His father raises an eyebrow behind the square, frameless glasses he pretends he doesn’t need to read his cases, and sets the file he’s been studying down on his desk. The desk is mahogany, dark, with an intricate dragon carved along the front of it; the whole room is done in deep, calm browns and burgundies, so different from the light airiness of the rest of the house. This is his father’s space, his personal kingdom, shaped by him over the years until it fits him exactly, from the floor to ceiling bookshelves to the small, multi-paned window overlooking the back garden and the leather armchair that belonged to his father. Arthur used to sneak into the study when he was a boy and pretend the chair was a throne, that the dragon would wake up and breathe fire or take him on grand adventures. His father only barely tolerated that, though, and more often than not Arthur’s adventures had ended within minutes, when his father declared that he was working, Arthur, and would Arthur please go crash around somewhere else.
This is the place where his father keeps his secrets, too. Once, Arthur had found the sandalwood box with every letter his mother had ever written to his father, wrapped together with a silk scarlet ribbon, and when he’d held them close he’d caught a scent that had lodged somewhere in his memory, an echo of her perfume. He hadn’t read them, just tucked them carefully away in the box again; it had felt like too much of an invasion to read the words she’d meant for his father alone.
Now he leans back against the door, feeling as much an imposer on some secret realm as ever. “Hunith has that look in her eyes,” he says by way of explanation when Uther just continues watching him expectantly. “I’m afraid she’s going to come up with one of her Ideas again.”
His father reaches a hand up to smooth it over his mouth, but not quite fast enough to hide the fond smile curling over his face. “Ah yes,” he says. “She has been excited to see you two again.”
“She’s excited to grill me on cooking minutiae to make sure I’m feeding Merlin adequately,” Arthur grumbles. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
“You both are,” Uther observes, “which is a feat in and of itself.”
Arthur stands straighter at that. “We’re doing alright for ourselves,” he says. He still finds it hard to tell what his father is thinking, if he’s going to congratulate Arthur or find a weak spot Arthur’s been trying to hide and express quiet, crushing disappointment. “Work is going well; my manager wants to give me a raise already.” Arthur knows that his father had wanted Arthur to follow his footsteps into the family firm, knows that maths and finance was not exactly the shining barrister’s career his father had envisioned for him, but he’s good at what he does, enjoys putting numbers together and shifting them until the world makes sense.
“I’m glad,” Uther says, surprising Arthur. “You’ve both become exemplary young men. I hope you continue setting the bar high for yourself.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says, a little stifled, because he can’t remember the last time he had a talk that went this close to feelings with his father. He clears his throat. “Thanks. Uh, I should probably—you’re working; I’ll just—”
“Close the door behind you,” Uther says, pushing the bridge of his glasses up his nose and turning back to the case file he’d been reviewing. “And try not to light anything on fire in the kitchen. We’ve just the paintwork redone.”
Arthur retreats to the relative safety of the stairs, takes a few deep breaths to settle himself, and heads off to find Merlin. He needs a distraction, and if he can tear Merlin away from whatever obscure rune translation he’s been working on for the past week and a half he knows Merlin is always good for distracting purposes.
Arthur’s looking forward to a bit of a lie-in on Christmas morning followed by a leisurely breakfast of Hunith’s secret-recipe pancakes, but Merlin ruins his plans by coming into Arthur’s room at some dark, ungodly hour of the morning after his run and burying his freezing hands in Arthur’s neck.
“Holy fucking bloody buggering hell!” Arthur yells, and adds lots of impressive, thoroughly inappropriate words after that before he wakes up the rest of the way and realizes he’s in his father’s house and not home at the flat, where swearing is allowed. “What the hell, Merlin?”
Merlin’s sprawled over his legs, still wearing his fleece and wool hat, snickering. “Happy Christmas to you, too.”
“There’s nothing happy about it when you’re woken at dawn by a thoughtless idiot,” Arthur grumbles, and tries to pull his pillow over his face in what he considers a clear signal to bugger off.
“Come on, Scrooge,” Merlin says, tugging the pillow away before going for the blankets, which Arthur considers blatant foul play. “Mum’s already making breakfast.”
Arthur goes with him in the end because clearly sleep is no longer an option, and steals the last pancake in belated retaliation.
Morgana’s home for the holidays as well, and she’s brought her friend Gwen with her, which is a little weird for Arthur because he hasn’t seen Gwen since before she moved away, back when she used to sit for him and he used to lock himself in the cupboard with the linens until his father was home again. It’s also embarrassing that he and Merlin both forgot she was coming, so when they all sit around later in the morning and exchange gifts, the only thing he and Merlin have to give her is a little paper card they’d made in a rush the night before with some half-dead markers Merlin had found in his room. All together the whole experience makes Arthur feel about eight years old in a thoroughly unpleasant way, but when he tries to apologize to Gwen, she laughs and waves it off.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” she says, “and besides, the card is lovely, thank you.” With anyone else Arthur would have kept on feeling guilty because the card is obviously hideous, but somehow with Gwen he believes she really does appreciate it, and he leaves her feeling a little less terrible about himself.
They head back to their own flat after a few quiet days, and it surprises Arthur how much more like home it feels than the house he grew up in. Merlin takes over the armchair almost immediately, sighing contentedly, and Arthur gives him only a half-hearted flick on the head before dragging over the blanket in one corner of the room and arranging himself propped up against Merlin’s legs.
“We should really get a sofa,” Merlin says, turning on the telly and flipping through the channels. There’s nothing on except repeats.
“Mmm,” Arthur says noncommittally, leaning his head back. “Wouldn’t fit up the stairs.”
“Another chair then, maybe.”
Arthur shrugs. “Sure. Comfy enough like this, though.”
“You’re so weird,” Merlin tells him, and proceeds to prove Arthur’s point completely correct when he starts running his fingers absently through Arthur’s hair.
January flows into February almost without Arthur noticing, and the winter passes uneventfully until the very end, when Arthur comes down with some kind of hideous flu that lays him low for over a week.
He can barely stand up, let alone go to work, and he mostly spends his time cooped up in his room, trying to breathe through the coughing and harassing Merlin when Merlin brings him chicken noodle soup and tea.
“Don’t worry,” Merlin tells him after Arthur loses what’s left of his scratchy voice demanding to know what damage had been done in the kitchen. “It’s all microwaved; I didn’t touch the oven at all.” Arthur gives him a suspicious look—even if the building was burning he wouldn’t be able to smell it—but accepts the soup, which is warm and soothes his throat, though he can’t taste it.
He’s on the mend, enough to be thinking about moving himself to the other room for a change of scenery and fighting Merlin for the armchair, when there’s a terrific clattering and thumping from the stairs one evening. That’s it, Arthur thinks, almost serene. The building’s finally collapsing in on itself. He hopes Merlin says nice things at his funeral and no one lets Morgana speak at all.
It takes him a while to haul himself out of bed and down the hall after nothing collapses immediately, and it turns out to be Merlin with a second armchair, significantly less ratty than the first.
“Will bought a new chair,” Merlin explains when Arthur shuffles over to investigate. “Asked if we wanted his old one.”
“You hauled this up here yourself?” Arthur asks, incredulous, inspecting the chair for mysterious stains or bulges.
Merlin laughs. “Course not. Will’s team helped.”
Right. Arthur had forgotten Will was on some terrible rugby team that seemed to value broken bones and flexing over any sort of fair play. “How’d you get rid of them so fast?” He knows from bitter experience that the team tends to clear wherever they are out of food before moving on to graze somewhere else.
“Threatened them with the plague bearer. Worked like a charm.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says dryly, and Merlin gives him a cheeky grin.
“Go on then, try it out.”
“Sure you don’t mind it getting infected with the plague?”
“Nah,” Merlin brushes him off with a lofty hand. “I figure we probably have to burn eighty percent of what’s in here now anyway to disinfect it, so one more thing won’t hurt.”
Arthur would protest that, but he’s too busy falling completely in love with the new chair. “God, this is heavenly,” he says from where he’s sunk down so low he’s not sure he can get himself out again. “Does the—”
“It reclines,” Merlin says, and pulls a lever that makes a footrest appear.
“You are the best brother ever,” Arthur tells him fervently, and Merlin ruffles his hair, fond, before going to putter around with more microwave soup.
It isn’t long afterwards that Arthur stops feeling like death scraped over toast and starts going back to work, even though Merlin tries to force him to stay home for a few extra days.
“You still have a temperature!”
“I’m fine, Merlin. And hiding my shoes won’t stop me going, it’ll only make me angry.”
He still doesn’t quite feel up to anything more adventurous than work, though, so when Merlin goes out with friends on Friday night Arthur stays behind, curled up in the new armchair with a blanket and a stack of old Bond films.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay?” Merlin asks, shrugging into his jacket. “I don’t have to go, I could stay—”
Arthur throws Dr No at him. “If you aren’t out of this flat in five seconds I’m chucking you out myself, loser,” he threatens, and half-lifts himself out of the chair before Merlin concedes with:
“Alright, alright—call if you need anything, yeah?” and ducks out the door before Arthur can throw anything else. Arthur settles back down comfortably to watch Sean Connery save the world again.
He falls asleep somewhere in the middle of From Russia With Love, waking up disoriented in the middle of the night to a dark flat and the DVD menu playing on repeat. He turns it off before checking his watch, groaning when he sees the time.
“I hate being sick,” he mutters, because if he was healthy he’s sure his body would never be so inconsiderate as to wake up at such an ungodly hour, and shuffles off to his bedroom, glancing in at Merlin’s door for the reassuring sight of the Merlin-shaped lump somewhere under the rumpled mess of blankets.
He’s two steps past the door when he pauses, frowning, and turns around to look again. Merlin isn’t there; his bed is empty. Arthur makes his way back down the hall to check the kitchen clock, which only confirms that it’s seven past four in the morning, and he pushes away the worry that tries to struggle up inside. It isn’t as though he and Merlin haven’t stayed out this late before; he tells himself he’s glad Merlin’s having a good night. He doesn’t go to bed, though, just curls back up in his chair and dozes off, jerking awake at small sounds that are never the second floorboard on the landing that always creaks or the familiar rattle of the lock.
At half past five he almost calls Merlin before swallowing the panic by sheer force of will and reminding himself that there are a hundred perfectly acceptable reasons for Merlin to stay out all night, and none of them feature a pleased Merlin if Arthur calls him now. He could have missed the last train or crashed on a friend’s floor or found a girl to go home with—
He probably missed the train, Arthur decides, and is staying at Will’s, which is close to the pubs they like to go to. He drags his blanket over to the ratty armchair, settling down against the slightly scratchy mustard-yellow cushions. Merlin’s left a dent that Arthur doesn’t quite fit in, but the chair smells like Merlin, like tea and ink and the cinnamon candies Merlin’s partial to, and Arthur takes deep, calming lungfuls of the smell and stubbornly ignores what an utter girl he’s being about this all.
It’s gone midday when he wakes blearily to Merlin trying to creep into the flat without a sound and failing miserably. “Hey,” Arthur mumbles, and Merlin lets out a breath, coming down off his tiptoes.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, unwinding his scarf and tossing it on the table. Arthur’s about to say something about how his mouth feels fuzzy and his entire head feels plugged with mucus, but when Merlin turns away for a moment Arthur catches a glimpse, the merest flash of a dark, unmistakable purple-red mark on Merlin’s pale neck. Every thought drains out of his head; they collect, heavy, somewhere low in his chest, scraping uncomfortably against his spine.
“Fine,” he manages, and his voice is perhaps a little higher-pitched than usual but otherwise he sounds normal.
“You hungry? Do you want some of this pasta?” Merlin’s pulled something out of the fridge and is turning back around to show Arthur, and oh god, Arthur thinks helplessly, there are three of them; someone’s sucked three enormous bruises into Merlin’s skin, and Arthur feels like someone’s taken a cricket bat to his brain. He snaps his eyes up to Merlin’s face too late to avoid being obvious, and Merlin’s expression turns cautious, guarded.
“Had a good night?” Arthur asks, too sharp.
Merlin gives him a wary smile. “Yeah,” he says, putting the pasta down and playing with the buttons on his jacket. “Yeah, a good night.”
“Thought you might be dead in an alley somewhere.”
“Oh,” Merlin says. “No such luck, sorry. I—should’ve called or something.”
“Was she was worth it?” Arthur knows he’s being a little cruel, but he’s not awake enough to care.
“He, actually,” Merlin replies, going bright red, and flees for the bathroom, pausing only long enough to add, “And yeah, yeah he was,” before disappearing, leaving Arthur staring speechless after him with a hot, sick feeling running up into his throat from his stomach.
It doesn’t matter that Arthur had half-suspected anyway, doesn’t matter that he’d mixed suspicions with fantasy in the privacy of his own mind. He feels like he’s been sucker-punched, all the thoughts he hasn’t paid attention to in months rushing back in to leave him breathless and aching from confusion and want and the new painfully frozen heat of bitter jealousy.
He sits in a half-daze listening as the shower turns on with a thumping groan, hears the pipes creak without paying them any attention. His mind is full of Merlin: Merlin looking up from beneath his lashes, fringe in his eyes; Merlin tugging someone closer, face tilting in for the kiss; Merlin and a faceless other twined together, all sweaty tangled hair and bare skin; Merlin gasping, pleading for more, for faster, harder.
Arthur pushes the thoughts away savagely, though they come back every time he tries. He has no right to any of these thoughts, these feelings; doesn’t want to have them. Merlin’s love life has nothing to do with him. When the shower clunks off, Arthur puts Goldeneye on for distraction and switches chairs, doing his best to keep from thinking at all. It only half works.
Merlin reappears in his raggediest hoody and a pair of worn corduroys, and bangs around in the kitchen for a minute before slumping into his armchair with a textbook and a cup of tea. Arthur pretends to be totally absorbed in Bond’s suave pick-up lines and ignores the fact that Merlin keeps shooting him furtive looks.
“Is this going to be weird?” Merlin asks abruptly, reaching for the remote and muting the sound. Arthur keeps watching anyway; he’s seen the movie so many times he doesn’t need the sound to know what’s going on.
“Why would it be weird?” he asks, falsely bright. He’s happy for his brother. He is an excellent best mate, and he is going to prove it by being as supportive as a best mate is supposed to be when his friend has just returned from a night of clearly excellent shagging. “It’s not going to be weird.”
“I’m seeing him again. Tuesday. We’re having lunch.”
Arthur has to take a slow breath at that and manages a quick, brittle smile at Merlin before going back to hiding in James Bond blowing things up. “Great. That’s really great.”
There’s a silence, and Arthur realizes with a hopeless, sinking feeling that Merlin is going to take this the wrong way completely if Arthur doesn’t snap out of the funk he’s in immediately. “So,” he says with an effort. “This guy have a name?”
“Cedric,” Arthur repeats. He stifles the urge to look up every Cedric in the telephone book and make threatening phone calls in favour of saying: “Better make sure he doesn’t sign up for any wizard tournaments, then. Won’t go very well for him.”
Merlin laughs at that, a startled chuckle that sounds like it was surprised out of him. “Thanks for the advice,” he says, sounding more normal.
“You know,” Arthur says thoughtfully, determined because even though he’d like nothing better than for this Cedric to be killed off by Voldemort, he isn’t about to let Merlin know that, “I always thought Cedric had more chemistry with Harry than that girl, whatever her name was. If you want you can borrow my glasses and we can paint a little scar on your foreh—”
“Oh my god, I hate you,” Merlin yelps, interrupting, and Arthur gives him a much more ordinary-feeling grin, steals the remote, and flips the sound back on just in time for another set of magnificent explosions.
It’s only natural for Arthur to start spending more time at work after that. He does have piles and piles of paperwork to catch up on from when he was out sick, after all, and he hates when his desk is buried under a mess. Besides, Merlin’s hardly ever home either. Lunch with Cedric becomes dinners, and dinners turn into breakfasts the morning after; the nights when Merlin comes home late or not at all become more frequent, and between that and his classes Arthur’s lucky to get a few scattered minutes of his time.
But Arthur stays out on the nights he knows Merlin’s home, too, because it might be cowardly but it’s easier. It’s easier to take the long way home, to dawdle at the office and stop by Sainsbury’s for bread they don’t really need; easier than sitting around with Merlin and pretending he hasn’t a care in the world. He knows Merlin’s too smart not to notice, knows Merlin will probably draw all the wrong conclusions, but at the moment it’s simpler, because even though Merlin’s starting to give him confused, hurt looks it’s better than Merlin treating him normally, ruffling his hair and tackling him to the floor when Arthur insults him.
The fact that Merlin’s seeing someone named Cedric and not, say, Sarah, isn’t the main problem, though Arthur’s aware that’s what it looks like from the outside. The more pressing issue is actually that Merlin’s been growing out his sideburns, and Arthur can’t help but think that they’re really fucking attractive. It just isn’t fair, how well Merlin’s face works with facial hair, and it isn’t fair of Merlin to ruthlessly exploit that advantage at the expense of Arthur’s peace of mind. Because it is disturbing Arthur’s equanimity; he’s always been excellent at carefully ignoring thoughts that might in any way be related to Merlin when he touches himself, but suddenly the vague thoughts he wanks to have all mutated into thin men with dark sideburns, and Arthur can’t, he can’t give in to that, so he avoids it the whole sordid, slimy-feeling mess instead.
The arrival of spring makes it warm enough that he can start walking most of the way home, taking detours through whatever gardens he comes across before catching the tube. He’s meandering through dark-leaved, ornamental plants one day, trying to remember what they’re called and if Merlin had said he’d be home or out for the evening, when someone calls his name behind him. It turns out to be Gwen, dressed a charcoal business skirt and smart red top; he slows to let her catch up.
“What are you doing around here?” he asks after they go through the customary almost-awkward greetings of two people aren’t quite friends. “Don’t you live up near—” he pauses halfway through, remembering that he doesn’t actually remember where Morgana had said Gwen lived; maybe up north somewhere, “—somewhere not very close to London?”
“I just got a promotion,” she tells him with a grin, and he’d forgotten how nice her smile was, how easy it was to be comfortable around her. “And I’m moving to the big city. I’m starting to move up in the world!”
“That’s great,” he says, which feels inadequate, so he adds: “Do you want to get a coffee or something? To celebrate, catch up...”
That gets another wide smile out of her. “I’d love to,” she replies, and that’s how Arthur finds himself in a tiny coffee shop hours later, coffee long since gone, talking with a beautiful woman about sweatshops and the 2012 Olympics and how Arthur owns three ties which are not hideous, and all of them have stains on them.
“I think everyone deserves a second chance,” Gwen jokes, “even hideous tie givers,” and happens to glance down at her watch. “Oh no. I’m sorry, Arthur; I have to go.” Arthur brushes it off, tells her she doesn’t have to apologise—he’s monopolized at least two or three hours more of her evening than he deserved—and she scribbles something down on her napkin and slides it across the table to him. “Call me sometime,” she tells him, slinging her purse over one shoulder. “This was fun.”
He smoothes the napkin with one hand and asks, dryly: “Are you sure Morgana won’t have twenty-seven kinds of fit about that?”
That gets a laugh out of her. “Don’t worry about Morgana,” she says, cheeky, and leaves with a little wave over her shoulder.
Merlin’s in his usual place when Arthur gets home: in his chair with his computer in his lap, papers scattered around him. “You’re back late,” he observes without looking up.
“Ran into Gwen,” Arthur replies. He toes off his shoes and pads over to the kitchen, rifling through the shelves until he comes up with a half-empty box of biscuits.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, deciding against the biscuits and opting for eggs instead. “She’s just moved to town, promotion or something.”
“You two have fun catching up?” Merlin asks as Arthur cracks their last two eggs into a pan.
“Yeah,” Arthur answers vaguely, thinking of the napkin with Gwen’s number tucked securely away in his pocket. “It was nice.”
And it is nice, turns out to be very nice indeed. He calls Gwen a few days later, and they go out for coffee again, which turns into a regular almost-every-day ritual. They aren’t quite dates, even when Arthur ups the ante to actual meals, but it doesn’t feel like just a friendship either. Granted, it does give Arthur a legitimate way to spend time away from the flat, but he never feels like he’s using Gwen just for that; spending time with her is too enjoyable.
Whether through time or acclimatization or just having something new in his life, Arthur doesn’t feel like putting his fist or a foot through the wall when Merlin mentions Cedric anymore. Arthur’s quite proud of himself when he finally does meet Cedric—accidentally, because he’d forgotten some papers and nipped home over his lunch break to get them. Merlin, he suspects, plans when he invites Cedric around so that Arthur will be out, which Arthur bristles at but doesn’t really object to, because it’s easier to passively hate someone he doesn’t really know. He manages to be polite and not call Cedric a slimy, bug-eyed, sallow-skinned bastard to his face, although he does think it extremely loudly, and once the pleasantries are over he escapes, papers clutched tight in hand, before Merlin can come in and give Cedric a gooey look or something equally horrifying.
“You should come over sometime,” Arthur tells Gwen one night while they’re walking together after seeing the latest ridiculous Richard Curtis. (Arthur had pretended not to get choked up at the end, and Gwen had held his hand.) The night is warm; Arthur’s slung his jacket over one shoulder, and Gwen is looking gorgeous against the soft darkness, carrying the cardigan she’d worn over her pretty floral dress. “I know Merlin’d like to see you. I’ll even cook dinner.”
“You?” Gwen says, giving him an amused look. “You’d cook me dinner?”
Arthur puts on a mock affronted glare. “And why not? How do you know I don’t secretly moonlight as a very famous gourmet chef?”
“Fine,” Gwen replies, laughing. “You’ve convinced, me, Chef Arthur,” and Arthur can’t quite stop the warm feeling that sweeps through him, leaving the tips of his fingers tingling.
“Oh no,” Merlin says when Arthur tells him about the dinner plans. “You two have a wonderful time, and I will make plans to be elsewhere.”
Arthur feels unfairly injured by that. “You’ve never had issues with my cooking before.”
“Arthur,” Merlin tells him patiently. “You are an emotional idiot. How did you ever manage to shag any girls at all? I am not going to be the third wheel at your romantic candlelit dinner date with Gwen. Besides, we only have two chairs.”
“Oh,” says Arthur, and then protests: “It isn’t a date; this is the woman who used to babysit me.” He realizes his mistake too late when Merlin’s expression turns positively wicked with delight as new and terrible Freudian things to say undoubtedly multiply in his twisted brain.
“Don’t you say a word,” Arthur warns, but Merlin opens his mouth anyway and Arthur is forced to tackle him to the floor to stop him saying anything he might regret.
Merlin stays true to his promise despite Arthur’s attempts at persuading him otherwise, and when the night of the dinner rolls around Merlin leaves halfway through the afternoon with an absolutely filthy wink. Arthur throws a half-peeled carrot at him, but Merlin ducks out the door quickly; Arthur can hear him laughing all the way down the stairs.
Everything goes swimmingly at first. Arthur’s halfway through the finishing touches on his apple pie when he notices the burning smell; he registers it with a mild irritation but doesn’t really pay attention. The potatoes are nearly done, and while they drain he’s going to check on the chicken...
The thought stops him cold with sudden, crushing realization. He runs for the oven, yanking the door open and releasing a cloud of smoke, and before he can remove the chicken—or see it, for that matter—he has to race around to the windows and throw them all open before the ancient, cranky smoke detector starts wailing. The chicken, when he does finally retrieve and inspect it, is a lost cause entirely unless Gwen likes her chicken too charred to chew and with a distinct, unpleasantly smoky flavour.
He leaves it on the hob and sits on the worktop to glare at it. It’s too late to prepare anything else; Gwen’s always punctual, and he has less than half an hour to figure something out or they’ll have a meal of potatoes and salad. Arthur’s aware than it’s not exactly the end of the world, but he still resents the chicken and the stupid, faulty oven. After a few minutes of fuming, though, he remembers that the Sainsbury’s down the street sometimes sells whole roasted chicken, and he’s out the door and pounding down the stairs in probably less than thirty seconds flat.
He’s in luck, and ten minutes later he’s back with a wrapped chicken which definitely won’t be as good as his would have been, but it’ll fit the bill. He puts it in a pan and covers it to keep it warm and spreads a cloth over the table (which is no longer plastic, at least; they’d finally caved and bought a real table, and the old plastic one has been reincarnated as Merlin’s desk, which means years from now archaeologists will have to be called in to excavate it), and after that there’s just enough time for him to shower off the sweat from his dash and change into something that isn’t his oldest and most stained t-shirt before Gwen’s pushing the buzzer to the flat.
She looks beautiful, dressed in another light summery dress with her hair pulled back, and Arthur tells her so.
“Thank you,” she says, holding out a bottle of red wine; “I wasn’t sure if I should dress up or not, so I bought this to distract you either way.”
“You’re perfect,” he assures her before he thinks about it, and winces, but she’s already moved on, looking around the flat.
“Merlin’s not here?”
Arthur makes a face. “Merlin is convinced we are having a torrid love affair and that he’d only get in the way of the smouldering looks we’ll be exchanging and probably the filthy sex we’ll be having in every room of the flat, including his.”
He joins Gwen in laughing at that, but it does feel a little like a date: he pulls out her chair for her and she lights candles while he uncorks the wine. The thought is strange but not entirely unwelcome. Maybe, he thinks with no little surprise, maybe Merlin had a point.
At first he’d thought he wouldn’t say anything about the chicken because buying one feels too much like cheating even if he did have good reason for it, but when Gwen comments on it, the little secret guilt won’t let him just accept the compliment quietly. So he tells her the whole story, rueful, and ends up exaggerating the details a little, just to make her laugh. The food and wine are making him feel warm, expansive, and the candlelight softens the curves of Gwen’s face until they almost glow, slides along the curls of her hair, and for the first time Arthur lets himself wonder.
She leaves well after eleven o’clock, after several pieces of pie each, and when he opens the door for her, he hands her a box with more of the pie and, on a whim, bends to give her a peck on the cheek.
“I had a wonderful time,” she tells him before she leaves, one hand resting lightly on his arm. “Thank you.” He watches her go, then shuts the door and sits back down at the table, closing his eyes. There’s still a faint trace of her perfume in the air, something light and floral, and he takes a slow breath, feeling a contented smile creep across his face.
Merlin shows up again the afternoon of the next day; Arthur’s sprawled in a chair, half-heartedly eating a sandwich and resenting the June heat. He ignores the fact that Merlin’s wearing what is obviously someone else’s shirt. It’s something he’s become quite good at over the last few months.
“So!” Merlin says brightly, flopping down next to him and grinning. “How’d it go? Did you sweep her off her feet, fulfill years worth of secret, filthy adolescent fantasies in one passionate night?”
Arthur kicks him. “We had a very nice dinner and she left at a respectable hour, so there’s nothing for your horrible little voyeuristic mind to get all hot and bothered about.”
“You are an old man,” Merlin sighs mournfully. “And boring, did I mention boring?”
Arthur refuses to let Merlin ruin the remains of his good mood, and tells him so. Merlin replies with a series of increasingly inappropriate suggestions about things Arthur should do now that he is doomed to a mental age of eighty-five, and eventually the whole thing devolves into spontaneous Electric Light Orchestra karaoke while jumping around and fencing with spatulas, arguing over whether it’s Bruce or Proust trying to bring the singer down.
The odd feeling stays with Arthur; it’s as if the itch at the back of his mind that’s been making him irritable has stopped, or at least been subdued. When Merlin goes out on a date, Arthur threatens to break Cedric’s legs if he does anything to besmirch Merlin’s maidenly honor, and he’s surprised to find that it’s a joke, that he doesn’t actually mean it.
He and Gwen keep seeing each other, keep arranging dinners and visits to outdoor markets or fairs where he buys her fresh-cut flowers and candy floss. They haven’t talked about it, haven’t really defined their relationship, but he’s aware it looks like they’re dating to everyone else, and if he hadn’t known it Morgana would have clued him in very quickly.
“If you do anything to hurt Gwen,” she tells him once over the phone, “and I mean anything, I will drive all the way to London and castrate you myself with a hot poker and a rusty spoon, and I know exactly how to make it the most excruciatingly painful experience you will ever have. Understand?”
“Morgana, we aren’t—”
“I don’t care. Do you understand me?”
Arthur huffs out an exasperated breath, but he says, “Perfectly,” because he knows too well how capable of vengeance Morgana can be, and then adds disapprovingly, because he can hear the odd pauses between her words: “Are you smoking again?”
“Of course not.”
“You know, those things are going to kill you one day—”
“Yes, thank you,” she interrupts. “Which of us is the one with the medical degree here? That’s right—not you.”
It’s an ongoing battle, Morgana and her nicotine addiction, and Arthur knows when not to get involved. “Fine, Doctor Lefay,” he says, “stop talking to me then; go see patients and do your job.”
“You’re damn right I will,” she tells him, and he laughs and tells her not to kill anyone; it’s become their standard goodbye since she passed her degree.
“There is something very wrong with you two,” Merlin comments, turning a page in his newest book, which is bigger than Arthur’s head. Summer rain has been pattering against the windows all day, and Merlin’s using the time to actually be productive while Arthur watches Come Dine With Me repeats on mute. “Really, something in your brain chemistry misfires when you talk to each other. Maybe you should—”
“If you insinuate I should have any kind of contact with Morgana that does not involve three feet of space and possibly riot shields between us at all times, I will disown you,” Arthur says, appalled at the very thought.
“I’m just saying,” Merlin says, cheerful, and turns another page.
The thing is, with Gwen... well, he’s not sure what the thing is, because they really aren’t dating, no matter what Morgana thinks. They’ve exchanged a handful of kisses, but mostly they talk about whatever they feel like discussing: Arthur explains complicated equations on the backs of napkins before Gwen flips them over and illustrates the more ridiculous plots of manuscripts she’s condemned to the slush pile. Arthur prefers Chinese takeaway or expensive restaurants; Gwen would rather find fish and chips and walk around watching other people until they sit together on a bench tucked away somewhere. Arthur doesn’t understand the way Gwen’s mind works, how she doesn’t hold grudges even against the spotty teenagers who try to cheat her out of her change, but that only makes spending time with her more enjoyable, because Gwen knows how to argue without letting things get nasty or heated.
More than that, he feels comfortable with her, content—it’s as if something slots into place when he’s with her, grounding him. If he lets himself imagine, which he doesn’t often out of a mix of fear and superstition, he can see himself settling down in her orbit, peacefully becoming the old man Merlin accuses him of being.
He does wonder, once or twice in the middle of the night when he’s alone in the flat, if he’s using Gwen to displace whatever his messy feelings for Merlin were, if he’s just with her because she’s overwriting the things he’d thought about Merlin, but whenever his mind takes that particular turn he stops it firmly in its tracks. Feeling—whatever—toward Merlin was a fluke, some anomaly of living so closely with someone, with knowing another person inside and out. Gwen is something different: calmer, realer, a steady tide where Merlin had been a passing squall.
They’re eating ice cream on a park bench on an unseasonably warm fall day when Arthur looks at Gwen and is hit by the sudden, quiet knowledge that if things worked out, if they kept on at this, he could be happy waking up to her face beside him every day. It catches him off-guard, sends his head spinning, and he has to concentrate hard on his ice cream to keep himself from doing something idiotic like running away.
They’re both quiet that afternoon—Gwen pensive, Arthur because he’s trying to find a way to talk about his new realization without scaring her or himself off completely. When he walks her home that evening, Arthur leans in without thinking to give her a kiss just outside her door, but she stops him.
“Look,” she tells him, the lines of her face sloping down unhappily, “I—we should talk.”
“That’s never good,” Arthur says. He’s trying to joke, but it comes out flat.
“Oh no, it’s not something terrible,” she says, and then: “Well, no, I suppose it’s—what I mean is I feel like I’m being dishonest with you.”
She’s looking at him with such earnest anxiousness, and after the immediate thought of whether one could be dumped if one wasn’t even actually officially dating someone, there’s a horrible, insane moment where he’s inexplicably sure she’s going to announce the world’s next virgin birth.
Instead she says, “This is coming out all wrong. Will you come inside so we can sit?”
“I do like you,” she assures him when they’re both settled in carefully separate chairs. “I mean—oh, that sounds awful and patronizing; I’m sorry.”
Arthur leans in, pressing his palms to his knees. He feels oddly detached, calm. “Don’t worry so much; whatever it is, just tell me. I won’t be angry.”
It turns out that Gwen wants to talk about her first and greatest love, a man named Lance who’d left her five years earlier, not intending to return. (Arthur bites his tongue against the impulse to say any man who’d leave Gwen for herding deeply unattractive livestock on the steppes and savannahs of the world is clearly lacking several important parts, such as a brain, and isn’t worth Gwen’s time.) Gwen had moved on from nursing a broken heart, lived her own life—and here Arthur feels justified in indulging a little smugness at that, at being considered part of her new, better life—but now Lance is back, a partner in a new travel magazine based in London.
“We were only going to be friends,” Gwen tells Arthur. “We weren’t—I wasn’t—going to jump into things again. But...” She looks at him unhappily. “There’s something with Lance I’ve never felt with anyone else, something that just... fits. I do really like you, Arthur, I think you’re wonderful, but—”
“It’s not the same,” Arthur finishes for her heavily, because he knows.
She looks down, away. “Please say you won’t think terribly of me? I honestly haven’t been trying to lead you on.”
“I believe you,” Arthur says. There is a sadness dragging at him—he still does believe he could have been happy like this, with a quiet comfortable love keeping his heart warm—but he knows somewhere deep, somewhere beyond that belief, that it would have been cheating both of them out of something more.
“Are you—will we be okay?” she asks, tentative, looking at him again, and he wants to feel a little broken-hearted but she looks broken-up enough for them both, her face still folded into an anxious frown, and he knows she must have been worrying over this since the day Lance came back.
He reaches out to squeeze her hand. “We’re okay,” he tells her, and when relief brings the smile back to her eyes he leans back again, stretches. “There’s a condition, though,” he says solemnly, and Gwen immediately looks concerned again. “I’m afraid I have to demand to meet this Lance fellow, just to make sure he isn’t a freak ax murderer or anything.”
Gwen agrees—he can tell she wants to introduce Lance to people, show him that life in the city can be just as exciting as in a yurt—and a week later Arthur’s cooking dinner again, this time for four.
“And all of it is homemade this time,” he announces, carrying things to the table with as much dignified pomp as he can muster. Gwen applauds, and he bows before serving her first.
Lance has three servings of vegetable lasagna, which would make Arthur inclined to like him anyway, but he finds himself genuinely enjoying Lance’s company, especially once he learns that Lance isn’t actually perfect.
“God,” Lance is saying to Arthur with feeling while Gwen has her head bent together with Merlin’s, deep in discussion about query letter formats or something equally boring. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone run so fast in my whole life, and there I was alone in the middle of the street with the guitar and the plate of fried scorpions while all these people kept walking by and looking at me like I was completely daft.”
“You are completely daft,” Arthur tells him, still chuckling. His stomach aches from laughing so much, and there’s a contentedness filling him from all the food and the wine and Merlin’s warm presence at his side. “So you can’t play guitar, and we shouldn’t make you sing. Anything else you can’t do?”
“I’m a terrible knitter,” Lance says, very seriously. “I was living on the side of a volcano in the Pacific for three months, trying to make all my own clothes, and I discovered that I can’t even knit a scarf, that’s how pathetic my knitting ability is.”
“Knitting,” Arthur muses, trying very hard to keep a straight face. “Right, so you are human after all. Glad that’s sorted. In that case, would you like another piece of bread?”
He’s glad he had Gwen and Lance over, mostly because he’s glad to have met Lance, but also because it helps settle his mind. It’s clear from the moment Gwen walks in with her arm linked around Lance’s that Gwen was right when she said something connected them. All Arthur has to do is see the way Lance looks at her, and the way she leans toward him unconsciously, and he knows he never stood a chance. It makes him wistful; he might not know much about love from personal experience but he knows when he’s looking at something enduring, something full of light and promise, and the two of them positively glow together.
Gwen and Lance stay late, finally stepping out the door with promises of phone calls and reciprocal dinners, leaving Arthur and Merlin to silence, a pile of empty dishes, and a flat that suddenly seems much emptier than it is. Arthur stands at the sink soaping up plates and rinsing them before handing them to Merlin to dry, the motions automatic by now, and the thought skitters across his mind that it’s been a very domestic night, the dinner almost like a double date. It’s a dangerous thought, the kind he’s been so good at resisting, but right now he’s too tired to stomp it down. He lets himself drift into fantasy instead, the kind he’s been able to keep at bay for months, where he and Merlin will finish washing the dishes and then roll themselves into the same bed, where Arthur can curl around Merlin’s bony frame and soften all of Merlin’s sharp angles with his own warmth.
“It’s too bad Cedric couldn’t be here,” Merlin remarks out of the blue, and the jarringly sudden obliteration of the fantasy leaves Arthur flustered, his tongue too heavy to be deft.
“Cedric?” he says, and it comes out twisted in ways he didn’t mean, not out loud. “Why—right.” He pauses. “I didn’t know you invited him.”
Merlin sets the glass he’s wiping down with a deliberate thunk, and Arthur rushes to fix things, stumbling. “I mean, of course you did. He’s your boyfriend—friend—thing... I mean... is he your boyfriend?” he asks, realising that he’s only ever assumed, that Merlin’s never actually confirmed—
“Yes,” Merlin says, a bit shortly. “We’re dating. He’s my boyfriend.” He waits, as if expecting Arthur to say something, but Arthur can’t think of a single thing to say that he won’t regret later.
“That’s... great,” he says lamely at last. “He... good for you.” He tries to say I’m happy, but even he can’t force that big of a lie.
“It is great,” Merlin informs him, and leaves him alone with the last pot, throwing the hand towel he’s been using down before disappearing into his room with his mobile. Arthur dutifully finishes the dishes alone, cursing his big mouth and his delusionary brain.
Arthur keeps up his regular lunches with Gwen, where she complains about her horrible boss and he tries not to complain about Merlin. Something’s shifted since the night of the dinner, and Arthur doesn’t like it. He isn’t sure if it’s because he’s stopped hanging around with Gwen all the time or if Cedric is just coming by the flat more often, but it seems like every time Arthur turns around Cedric is there poking through the kitchen cabinets or coming out of the bathroom with nothing but a damp towel wrapped around his hips or once, memorably, comfortably settled in Arthur’s armchair. It’s getting more difficult by the day to stop himself from challenging Cedric to single combat; Arthur spends a lot of time imagining creative ways Cedric could disappear which do not also involve Arthur going to prison for life.
“Morning,” Cedric says one day when Arthur shuffles into the kitchen, still groggy and wanting nothing more than some French toast and syrup.
Arthur does not tell Cedric to take his good morning and go drown himself in the Thames. “Morning.” He opens the door to the fridge and pulls out the milk before bending down to reach for the eggs he knows were there yesterday.
“Hope you don’t mind I used the rest of the eggs,” Cedric says, and Arthur realizes too late he’s cooking what looks like an enormous omelet made out of at least six eggs.
“Oh,” Arthur says, feeling the little thermometer of hate in his heart rise just a little further. “Sure. No problem.”
Cedric shovels the omelet deftly onto a plate, leaves the greasy pan on the hob, and goes off in the direction of Merlin’s bedroom, humming.
Arthur makes a few furious and inappropriate gestures at the door when he’s gone, throws on a pair of jogging bottoms, and goes out to find breakfast somewhere else.
He has an excellent, if French toastless, breakfast at Costa, turning the pages of a newspaper he’d bought but not actually reading any of it, too preoccupied with trying his best to be reasonable and not declare open war on Cedric just for using the eggs and not doing the washing-up. It makes no sense, he tells himself firmly, because Merlin does things like that all the time and Arthur never gets angry. He has to let go of this idiotic jealousy before he does something rash, like toss Cedric in the Thames himself, because if he does that Merlin will never talk to him again.
He sits until the resentment mostly subsides beneath the effects of coffee and pastry and the beautiful crisp day, and decides he’s ready to brave the flat again, steeling himself to be as nice as he possibly can be. When he lets himself in, though, at first he thinks Merlin and Cedric have gone out. There’s no one around, no murmur of conversation to be heard, and he can see that Merlin’s door isn’t quite closed; he figures they’ve already moved on with the day.
He’s taking off his hoody and thinking about a shower when a noise stops him dead. It takes him a minute to recognize it as a moan, and before he can make good his retreat, Cedric’s voice echoes out through the flat.
“Fuck, oh fuck, come on, Merlin. Come—” He breaks off into another groan. Arthur goes uncomfortably hot all over, a prickly sensation that starts at the top of his head behind his ears and crashes down over him. His legs feel leaden, fixed to the floor; his mind feels curiously distant, separated from his body. He hears Merlin say something indistinct, questioning.
“Yes, Christ,” Cedric gasps. He sounds wrecked already. Arthur can hear the noise they’re making now, wonders how he ever missed the creaking of the bedsprings before, though the pace is definitely faster now, pressing in on his ears more insistently.
Merlin is quiet apart from a few ragged gasps, but Cedric talks, babbles until Arthur can picture them perfectly: Cedric on his back, legs wrapped tight around Merlin’s hips until Merlin changes the angle, hoists Cedric’s knees over his own shoulders and drives in harder, reducing Cedric to hitching groans that come faster, wilder the longer Arthur stands listening, the longer Merlin fucks Cedric’s brains out.
Arthur moves only when Merlin’s voice goes up in a pleading sort of way, repeating Cedric’s name over and over. It’s clear enough from the wild desperation of it that he’s close, that he’s almost—
Arthur wrenches himself into motion, flees without grabbing his hoody off the hook again, focused only on getting himself as far away as possible.
He finds a café somewhere in an unfamiliar neighborhood that hasn’t put away its outdoor tables yet, and slides into a chair, putting his forehead down and ignoring the way the breeze cuts through his thin shirt, trying to will his way into oblivion. Flashes of it all keep creeping back to him; he feels sick, dirty. He’s horrified at himself for listening—and more horrified because he isn’t entirely sure if he would have avoided it if he’d known ahead of time, doesn’t know if he would have left straight away if they hadn’t caught him by surprise.
He doesn’t go home again, and tries hard not to say anything to Gwen at their lunch that afternoon, but she figures him out anyway.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks, and when he tries to bluster his way out of it she waves a forkful of jacket potato at him. “Something’s off; what is it?”
He sighs and gives in, grudgingly. “It’s really nothing.”
“So it’s a girl,” she says brightly, popping the bite of potato into her mouth. “Good! Well, not good, exactly; it’s just that I’m glad you’re—oh, never mind. You know what I mean.”
He does, and says as much, then sits there scraping the tines of his fork along his plate studiously.
“Well?” she prompts, impatient.
“It’s not—exactly a girl,” he allows at last.
She sits back. “That’s... unexpected.” She looks thoughtful, and he has a sudden, awful thought.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” he reassures her hurriedly. “Completely unrelated—”
“What?” she says, startled, then laughs. “Oh, you don’t think I was worried about that, do you? Not a bit.” She pats his hand. “How long have you known this boy, then?”
“Long enough.” He has no intention whatsoever of actually telling her who it is; life is complicated enough.
“Is he single?”
“No.” He can’t help the sour note that creeps into his voice, and she makes an understanding noise, a kind of sympathetic cluck. “His boyfriend’s a real piece of work, too.”
She slides half her fruit tart onto his plate. “Here,” she says. “Sugar: the tried and true method for treating thwarted love. At least it’s not a girlfriend, right? There’s hope for you yet.”
She’s right, of course, on both counts—but Arthur can’t help but think it’d almost be easier to cope with if Cedric was a girl, if Merlin were that much more unavailable. Something sits easier inside him now, though: he’s no longer the only one who knows that not everything is perfect and that the problem has nothing to do with being dumped. He lets Gwen tell him about her own worst date disasters and digs into her pudding, feeling just a little bit better about life.
It doesn’t last very long. Merlin’s waiting for him when he gets home, Cedric nowhere in sight. “Sorry about the mess this morning,” Merlin says after Arthur settles into his chair. “I cleaned up; didn’t mean to run you out of the flat.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Arthur says, thinking that it has nothing to do with dishes. “Cedric’s been around a bit lately, hasn’t he?” he asks casually, just trying to make honest conversation. He is not thinking about Cedric’s moans, about Merlin’s soft gasps and the creaking sound of bedsprings.
“Yeah.” There’s a defensive edge to Merlin’s voice. “He’s having some trouble with Sigan. His landlord. Is it a problem?”
“No, it’s fine. Really,” Arthur tries. It sounds feeble even to him. “He’s fine. I—maybe if he... is the trouble at his place going to last much longer?”
He knows it’s the wrong thing to say even as he says it, but the words come bubbling out anyway.
Merlin doesn’t twitch a muscle, just calmly raises his book again and neatly ends the conversation. “I’ll talk to him about it,” he says neutrally, and Arthur sits for only a minute longer before slinking away to his room, feeling like a prize idiot.
They live carefully, not quite separately, in an unspoken stalemate of sorts. Arthur sees Cedric less, but nothing about that feels like a victory, because it doesn’t mean Cedric is gone; it means Merlin’s out most nights again, and when he is home he doesn’t talk much, buried in books and papers.
Merlin gets a teaching fellowship that fall for the following semester, a real class he’ll actually get to plan for and teach by himself, and when he tells Arthur about it it’s the most normal Arthur’s felt in months. He sweeps Merlin up into a crushing hug before he thinks about it, and it doesn’t even matter because Merlin’s laughing and so is Arthur and things are right again. “That’s fantastic!” Arthur says, setting Merlin down again and giving his shoulder a thump. Merlin’s grinning fit to burst, looking giddy and lightheaded, and Arthur hugs him again, impulsively, because he knows Merlin’s wanted to teach since they were ten and Merlin tried to instruct Arthur on the proper way to search for Iron Age remains. That afternoon had ended in Arthur ignoring Merlin completely and trying to dig a hole to Australia and Hunith screaming when she came home to discover the wreckage of her vegetable garden, but Merlin’s dream hasn’t faded, as far as Arthur can tell.
“It’s about time you started moving on your world domination plans,” he informs Merlin. “And eighteen-year-olds are very impressionable. It shouldn’t take much work to control their minds.”
“That’s just your inferiority complex talking again,” Merlin says dryly. “Aren’t you required to attend ethics seminars for your job or something?”
Arthur scoffs. “Those are for plebeians, Merlin, when will you learn?” He grins. “So when can I take you out to celebrate? Tonight? I think there’s a curry special at that Indian place around the corner.”
Merlin pulls back, gently tugging his wrist out of Arthur’s grip. “I—actually, Cedric’s already taking me somewhere,” he tells Arthur. His cheeks are flushed, but Arthur can’t tell why, can’t do much of anything except think oh heavily, feeling the delight trickle out of him. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Arthur says casually, because why would he have expected anything different? Of course Merlin’s boyfriend takes precedence. “That sounds good; I think the special runs all week.”
“Okay,” Merlin replies, and he sounds about as stilted as Arthur feels. “I’m just going to—” he jerks his head in the direction of his room. “I haven’t told mum yet.”
Arthur waves him away, and wonders what it means if he ranks below Cedric but above Hunith. Nothing, he decides in the end. It doesn’t mean anything.
Arthur goes to his office party alone that year, and tells Merlin there isn’t one because of budget cuts. He spends a good deal of time sitting at the bar they’ve set up behind the receptionist’s desk, gradually loosening his tie and actively avoiding conversations more than a few words long because they interfere with the far more important work of taking advantage of the free—if admittedly terrible—champagne. It’s the same as last year, and for a brief moment he thinks about taking one home for Merlin, because he never did get Merlin his own bottle last year, but then realises that it’s a spectacularly stupid idea.
In the end, very few words are needed when he finds himself in a stationary cupboard with someone from the post room. He thinks the man’s name might be Hank, maybe Ernest, something a little old-fashioned Arthur would laugh at if Basil’s tongue weren’t halfway down his throat, and then he shuts off his mind and doesn’t think at all.
He wakes up in his own bed the next morning with no clear memory of getting himself home, but other memories are all too vivid, fragmented though they are. He remembers kissing, hard and careless—his lips still feel bruised from it—remembers hands and open trousers and friction, cocks sliding hot together; remembers the sound of breathing, his own gasps heavy in his ears.
More than that, he remembers shutting his eyes tight while Stephen stroked their dicks together, remembers biting at his neck and imagining Merlin, pretending Merlin was the one wearing cheap cologne, that it was Merlin’s stubble scraping along his cheek, Merlin whispering filthy things in his ear.
His stomach twists; he barely makes it to the toilet in time. The flat is silent except for the sounds that trickle up from the street. Merlin must be out, and Arthur is glad of it, glad he can creep back into his room and lie flat on his back on the bed and shut his eyes in a fruitless attempt to erase time, or at least the memories. Last night had taken things too far, farther than Arthur is willing to handle. He feels like the shittiest arsehole on the face of the planet, and he copes by pulling his sheet over his head and pushing his face into the pillow, half-hoping that maybe he’ll die in a freak suffocation accident and then he’ll never have to deal with this.
It doesn’t work, of course, because the universe is out to get Arthur and make him as miserable as possible. At least he’s pretty sure Harris—that’s his name, Harris, and Arthur shouldn’t feel proud of that but he is—was just as pissed as Arthur, just as uncaring and desperate, so Arthur doesn’t have to worry about awkwardly avoiding any kind of attempted follow up. All he has to do is forget it happened as soon as possible, which turns out to be a practical impossibility, because even if Arthur’s guilt index is working overtime, his libido has actually exploded. Arthur stays in bed until the sun is setting, trying to ignore everything, and even then he only heaves himself into the shower because his hard-on has become unbearable and the shower’s as good a place as any to commit himself further to a fiery hell.
He very determinedly thinks of nothing when he’s under the tepid water, just strips his cock as quickly as possible to get the embarrassment over with, but the universe isn’t finished with him yet.
When he makes his way to the kitchen after dressing, not hungry but determined to eat something anyway, because eating is what normal people with normal urges do, Cedric is tipping back in one of the slatted wooden chairs in the kitchen, trying to balance it on two legs. Arthur considers giving up on the day officially and crawling back into bed for forever, but he’s damned if Cedric’s going to run him out of his own kitchen. Again.
“How’s it going, Arthur?”
Arthur doesn’t look at Cedric, pawing through a cupboard distractedly instead. “Fine. Everything’s fine.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence which Arthur tries to ignore, but it’s hard while Cedric is right there, looking critically at Arthur while Arthur does his best to disregard the way all his own transgressions are twisting in his head, Cedric’s groans mixing with Harris’s panting breaths and Merlin behind them all, Merlin and the smooth line of his throat and his clever fingers in Arthur’s hair, the bright laugh which always sounds surprised out of him, his hidden weakness for trashy sci-fi that Arthur pretends not to indulge. Merlin, who’s completely inaccessible to Arthur except in secret, guilty ways that make Arthur feel sick and disgusted with himself.
“You know,” Cedric says unexpectedly, and Arthur tries to hide his jump. “Your brother really likes shagging blokes.”
Arthur looks at him, appalled, because they are not having this conversation, they can’t be.
“He’s damn good at it, too,” Cedric continues with a filthy, mean sort of smile, and now Arthur knows what’s going on; clearly he did suffocate on his sheets earlier, and now he’s in hell. “He’s happy, and ignoring everything isn’t going to ‘fix’ him, because he isn’t fucking broken.”
Unbidden, Cedric’s voice comes back to Arthur in a very different context: Fuck, oh fuck, Merlin, yeah, just like that, fuck me, oh Jesus fucking Christ, and Arthur has to try very hard not to vomit into the sink.
Cedric is still talking when Arthur wrenches himself out of the memory. “I’d punch your nose in to teach you a lesson, but Merlin still actually likes you, I have no idea why. So will you quit being such a colossal prick about everything?”
He lets the chair thump meaningfully back to all four legs, glaring at Arthur, and Arthur stares back, frozen, because he’d probably barely have enough mental strength to deal with all of this normally, if he weren’t completely wrecked with furtive guilt and shame. As it is, all he can do is sort of squirm helplessly, mind full of things he never asked for in the first place, until Merlin walks in on them.
“Ced, have you seen my old headphones anywhere? I wanted to—” Merlin stops, looking between them in confusion and dawning suspicion. “What’s going on?”
Cedric cocks an eyebrow at Arthur, daring him, and Arthur snaps into action. “Nothing!” he says. “Just—nothing! Nothing at all. Just chatting.” He looks around for food to grab to explain his presence in the kitchen, but there isn’t anything in reach. “Well,” he says, settling for ignominious retreat. “I’ll just, ah, be going, then” He hesitates, wavering, then bolts back to the relative safety of his room, but not before catching the dark, unconvinced look on Merlin’s face.
Arthur manages a week of hiding before he’s thoroughly sick of himself and decides whatever he feels about himself, the poison will bleed off quicker if he acts normally, if he interacts with Merlin and Cedric as much as possible, because Cedric clearly isn’t going anywhere and it’s time Arthur got over that. His fresh start stalls, though, when he starts noticing that Merlin is around more and Cedric less.
The realization comes to him in a slow sort of wave when Merlin ignores his ringing mobile for the fifth time in one afternoon. He very carefully does not read anything into it, just asks: “You going to answer that?”
“No,” Merlin says, reaching over to silence the phone. “Have to finish this lesson plan for tomorrow.”
Oh, thinks Arthur, and locks the matter out of his thoughts.
Merlin’s a little more irritable than usual, snaps a little more when Arthur interrupts him, but Arthur puts it down to stress and the end of the semester. He doesn’t think of Merlin ignoring his mobile again until just before Christmas, the night before they’re due to leave for Ealdor. Cedric shows up with a bag after dinner, and Arthur gives him a stiff nod before retreating to pack a few things and finish wrapping Hunith’s present, glumly resigned to a not-quite-unexpected guest for Christmas.
On the radio, Lennon is crooning about being a dreamer, and Arthur’s humming along, mostly content as he wages war on the damned wrapping paper, which always bunches in strange ways, making a square box into a lumpy shape that might have anywhere from three to seven sides. Tape should fix it, he decides, and searches for the roll of tape he’d brought in with him, noticing in a distant sort of way that their downstairs neighbors must be fighting again. The noise is louder than usual tonight, though, and oddly there’s no shrill female voice yelling about—
“—you don’t care about anything anymore! All you do is work on that fucking thesis—”
Arthur freezes. Cedric’s voice is unmistakable. It’s the first time he’s heard Merlin and Cedric fight, though he’s seen Merlin leave the flat in a rush before, whispering furiously on his mobile, and knows what it means when Merlin comes home looking tired and goes to bed immediately, his mouth a thin, pinched line. He feels like a voyeur, but he stands still, straining to hear over the tinny sound of the radio.
“—don’t try to make this my fault. I am not the one who decided to live with a psychopath.”
“No, just your bigot of a brother. Look, it wouldn’t be for long, just a week or two—”
“Don’t make this about him.”
“Who? Your brother? Why the hell not? It’s always about him!”
Arthur turns up the radio and reaches for his earplugs, all desire to eavesdrop gone. It helps, but not much; Merlin’s trying to be quiet but Cedric apparently has no such qualms, and eventually both of them are screaming at full volume. Arthur opens his door carefully and walks down the hallway to investigate, not really wanting to be involved but still feeling like he should stick up for Merlin somehow.
Cedric’s really finding his stride now. “You can’t do anything without him, without his approval; I didn’t sign up for three people in this relationship—”
“That’s not true,” Merlin shouts back. “That’s not true and you fucking know it; you want everything from me, want me all to yourself. You’d lock me up somewhere if you could, take me away from everything I care about—”
“Right, I forgot I was a fucking sadistic egomaniac who only wants to make you miserable. Sorry, I must have missed the part where I held you down and forced you to enjoy spending time with me.”
There’s a quieter lull, and Arthur hesitates; if the worst is over, maybe it’s best if he just—
Something splinters, shattering against a wall, and that’s it; Arthur’s had enough. He barges into the room, ready to fling himself bodily in front of Merlin if he has to, and finds Cedric between the armchairs and Merlin behind the worktop in the kitchen. There’s broken glass scattered and glittering behind Cedric, and a dent in the wall. It looks like Merlin threw one of the glasses Morgana had given them for a flat-warming present, and Arthur feels a little indignant—the glasses are half his, after all.
Now that he’s in here and ready for action, he isn’t quite sure what to do. They’re both staring at him, clearly wondering what the hell he’s doing. He decides nothing can make the situation worse, and just goes for it.
“Look, is there—”
“Get out!” Merlin and Cedric both yell at the same time, and when Arthur notices that Merlin has another glass in his hand he beats a strategic retreat, closing the door of his room behind him for good measure. He turns up the radio, pretends that Warren Zevon howling about werewolves is enough to drown out the fight. Cedric is bellowing that Merlin doesn’t give a flying fuck if his landlord leaves his body in a fucking ditch somewhere; Arthur lies on his bed facedown and pulls his pillow tight over his head and around his ears, not caring about the wrapping paper getting hopelessly creased under him and feeling about eleven years old.
When Merlin yells that maybe Cedric deserves to be in a ditch somewhere if he’s going to keep trying to control Merlin’s life, Arthur pulls the blankets over his head and wishes he’d left hours ago, before the fight ever started.
Cedric slams out of the flat sometime late; Arthur hears him banging all the way down the stairs. Merlin’s no quieter, slamming cupboards and drawers shut before he closes his door hard, rattling the glass in the windows. After a few minutes, Arthur lifts the pillow off his head cautiously and shuts off the radio, letting the flat subside into an exhausted quiet.
In the morning Merlin still looks angry, face drawn tight and closed. His eyes are puffy, his skin red and blotchy, but Arthur knows better than to comment on that.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Merlin says shortly when Arthur gives him a sideways look. Arthur just nods and offers up the Frosties in silence.
The silence lasts the whole train ride out of the city, though the lines on Merlin’s face ease somewhat until he almost looks normal, and when they do finally pull into the station the quiet doesn’t matter as much in the face of Hunith’s open-armed welcome and Uther’s poorly-hidden smile.
They drive out of town, past their house and into the forest on the familiar road to Uncle Gaius’s old farmhouse. Gaius isn’t really their uncle, not for any of them, but he’s the closest thing they have; he’s a bit of a cross between a mad scientist professor and a prickly grandfather. All Arthur really knows about him is that he’s practically older than dirt, has a weakness for port, Caravaggio, and Handel, in that order, and has been friends with Arthur’s father for nearly half a century. Arthur’s unreasonably fond of him and of his house, a grand old creaking, rambling sort of place that Arthur and Merlin must have explored from top to bottom a hundred times by now and still keep finding places they’ve never been.
Arthur stares out the window of his father’s sleek town car and lets the familiar streets and houses clear his mind. There’s a storm rolling up behind them, chasing them, and the branches of the trees are tossing about wildly in the wind, clacking against each other as they move. Everything from the city seems more distant, less important here; already the tightness is easing in his chest and between his temples. It’s Christmas, and he isn’t going to ruin it. He and Merlin can clean things up between them after the holiday, when there’s no danger of anyone like Hunith or Morgana catching wind of whatever’s gone sour.
Morgana finds Arthur in the kitchen that evening while he squints at the roast Hunith has forbidden him from touching, and pulls up a stool to the counter to watch him. He gives her a suspicious look.
“What do you want?”
She shrugs. “Is it unheard of for me to want to be with my stupid younger adoptive brother?”
“Yes,” he says immediately, but gives her a peeler and a bowl of potatoes because he doesn’t honestly mind the company.
They peel the potatoes in a companionable quiet, with only the warm ticking of the clock and the steady noise of the storm outside for background noise. Hunith’s turned the ancient stereo on, and Bing Crosby croons about being home for Christmas while ice tinkles against the windows. There are fairy lights and holly hanging along the corners of the familiar kitchen with its scarred worktops, the roast is beginning to smell divine, and Arthur is finally starting to feel a little bit festive when Morgana sets down her peeler and the potato she’s been half-heartedly working on and looks at him.
“How are you?” she asks, and Arthur looks back at her warily, because she almost sounds... kind.
“Fine,” he ventures, and waits.
She picks up the peeler again, turning it over in her long fingers.
“Just fine or truly fine?”
He shrugs. “I’m fine.” The potatoes are all peeled; he takes the bowl to the sink to rinse them before chopping them into quarters, glad for the distraction. He and Morgana don’t do feelings.
“Gwen and I had a fight,” she announces abruptly, apropos of nothing. Arthur blinks at the non-sequitur. “We aren’t speaking anymore.”
“Okay,” he says, unsure how he’s supposed to react to that. The potatoes go in a pot of cold water before going on the stove, but the matches are nowhere in sight. He wipes his hands and turns back to her. “Sorry to hear that.”
She gives him a funny look. “We’re different, I guess. She’s not the person I thought she was. Maybe it’s better to move on with our lives.”
“Still, you’ve been friends for how many years now? Seems a shame, that’s all.”
“Don’t pull the age card now,” she retorts with a crooked smile. “And she doesn’t have much time now anyway, not with that new beau of hers.”
Things click into place at that remark, and Arthur stops his search for the matches, surprised at the strength of the warmth running through him. “That’s—hold on. Did you fight over Lance? And me?”
“Of course not,” she blusters, but Arthur’s onto her now.
“I’m flattered you thought my honour was worth defending,” he drawls, fighting a smile, “but it was really unnecessary.”
“You don’t have the honour God gave a goat,” she grumbles, and looks surprised when Arthur laughs.
“Idiot,” he says affectionately. “You think Gwen would string anyone along? We had a talk when Lance first came back; everything was completely amicable, mutual.”
She purses her lips and gives him a narrow-eyed look, as if she doesn’t believe him, and he adds, “We still meet up for lunch every third Saturday. Ask Merlin if you don’t believe me.”
“As if Merlin would ever contradict anything you say,” she says with a snort—whatever that’s supposed to mean, he thinks—but she relaxes.
“I’m surprised,” he says, finding the matches at last under a pile of old student papers Gaius had left next to the sink and lighting the stove. “I would’ve thought you’d rather she date anyone but me.”
“Well obviously you’re only one step up from a single-celled organism,” she tells him loftily—
“Oh, obviously,” he interrupts dryly.
“—but you do have a few small redeeming qualities. Is the trifle ready yet?”
“Yes, and no, you can’t have any.” He arranges himself between her and the fridge just in case, and gives her his most winning smile. “So I have redeeming qualities, do I?”
She glares at him. “Very few, and getting fewer by the minute.”
He relents and hands her a slice of the mince pie he was saving for himself, which she snatches away from him as quickly as she can.
“Hmm,” she says through her mouthful. “Yes, I think you might not be entirely a hopeless case after all.”
“Oh good,” he laughs. “I’m glad you approve of me.”
The quiet returns, but only for a minute or two while she wolfs the pie down. “You don’t seem very broken up about it,” she says casually, and he’s instantly back on his guard.
“It was a mutual thing,” he reminds her as she licks the last of the crumbs from her fingers.
“Exactly,” she agrees, and he’s utterly confused until she adds with a roll of her eyes, “Mutual. A guy like you doesn’t give up a woman like her without a fight. So who’s your secret fling? You’ve been hiding her well, but I know when something’s up with you.”
“There’s no secret fling,” he says, too defensively, and her eyebrows fly up.
“But you want there to be.”
He turns away, brushing his hands off and leaving the kitchen. “I think Gaius is calling me.”
“This isn’t over!” Morgana calls after him. “I’ll figure it out eventually.”
The scary part is that she probably will, Arthur thinks, glum, as Morgana sends him keen glances all during dinner. Maybe not right away, and he probably has Cedric to thank for that, funnily enough, because he can blame any weirdness between him and Merlin on Merlin’s dramatic fight and probable break-up, but eventually; almost definitely when she mends her bridges with Gwen and they compare notes.
It used to be the most complicated thing in his life was figuring out new and exciting ways to piss Morgana off or make Merlin help him with their history homework, and while he doesn’t miss Morgana’s retribution schemes he does miss the simplicity of it all.
“I hate growing up,” he mutters, and goes off to hide in Gaius’s study, pretending to read medical textbooks that wouldn’t have been out of place before the automobile was invented.
Christmas morning dawns without a rude awakening this year; Arthur’s already making coffee when Merlin comes back from his run. “Happy Christmas,” he ventures when Merlin comes in.
Merlin just grabs a banana with a cursory “Morning,” before disappearing again. All right then, Arthur thinks with a sigh. If that’s the way things are going to be, he can play that way.
The storm has cleared, leaving the world glittering and dangerous, and after the initial glow of pancakes and presents wears off Arthur finds himself restless, skin itching from the weight of being too close to people who know him too well to be fooled. “I’m going out,” he calls, shrugging into his jacket, and Gaius looks up from his cup of tea and pile of ungraded essays.
“Be careful,” he says. “It’s slippery out. And stay away from the river; it’s quite full at the moment.”
“Take Merlin with you,” Hunith pipes up. “He’s only going to sit here and practice looking tragic if you don’t, and tragic doesn’t suit him at all.”
“Mum,” Merlin complains, but Hunith gives him her best I am your mother look, and he heaves himself out of the chair he’s curled up in with a groan and grabs his own coat, following Arthur out the door.
Gaius was right: the whole world is slick with ice, but Arthur strikes out across the fields behind the house anyway, soothed a bit by the satisfying crunch of the ice under his feet. He isn’t specifically headed for the river, but it’s in this direction and he thinks it might be therapeutic to throw things at it so he won’t throw things at anyone else. Merlin follows half a pace behind him, separate. Neither of them speak until the house is far behind them.
“So,” Arthur says at last, meaning to address something he’s been avoiding for months but that’s been bothering him particularly since Cedric put it into words, giving it a new, realer dimension. He loses his nerve, though, and lets the single word dangle in the air with a cloud of breath instead.
“So,” Merlin echoes. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets, his chin tucked into the collar of his jacket. He looks half-frozen and miserable.
“Guess that’s the last I’ll see of Cedric?” Arthur hazards, and Merlin sighs.
“I don’t hate you,” Arthur interrupts, which isn’t how he meant to say it but at least it makes Merlin stop talking. “I mean, it wouldn’t have mattered to me if Cedric was a guy or a girl or an alien or anything. I don’t care who you want to sleep with. I just—” he runs out of words he’s allowed to say and stops, stymied. “I want—”
His floundering is interrupted by both his feet slipping out from under him on a slick patch of black ice, and he’s falling, landing hard on his back and sliding down the bank toward the open, fast-flowing water of the river.
Well, fuck, he thinks resignedly, until there’s a jolt and he jerks to a stop, nearly choking as his collar tightens abruptly. He ends up spread-eagled on his back in the half-frozen mud of the steep bank, and when he tips his head back he sees Merlin on his knees, hanging onto a low branch with one hand and the back of Arthur’s collar with the other, looking extra pale and pinched.
“All right?” Merlin asks, a little shakily, and Arthur nods. Between Merlin pulling and Arthur digging in his heels and wriggling backwards up the bank they finally get Arthur back to safety, and Arthur takes a moment to lie on his back on the flat ground, feeling the wet seep slowly through his clothes. His good coat is probably ruined.
“Thanks,” he says finally.
“No problem.” Merlin’s sitting on the ground next to Arthur; he adds, after a pause: “Idiot.”
Arthur sits up with a huff, suddenly, unreasonably happy. Merlin hasn’t called him an idiot in months. “I am not,” he objects. “That could have happened to anyone.”
“But it didn’t,” Merlin points out, getting to his feet and holding a hand out for Arthur. Arthur takes it and lets Merlin haul him up, turning back to the house to hide his smile and tucking his hand carefully into his pocket, his palm tingling.
They’re halfway across the fields, following the thin trail of smoke from the wood stove back to the house, when Merlin slants a look over at Arthur. “You never liked him, huh?”
“He was scum,” Arthur informs Merlin. “I am the older brother, you know; I have instincts about these things.”
Merlin gives him a shove. “You are not the older brother, you liar—I have five months on you.”
“Well, I’m bigger.”
“You are not!”
Merlin’s response to that is to push him again, which Arthur cannot just let go, so he shoves back. It’s an excellent tussle; it’s a good twenty minutes and a hefty number of falls and snowballs later when they finally make it back to the house, arms slung around each other’s shoulders, both of them laughing, bright-cheeked from the cold and fun.
Hunith takes one look at them and throws her hands up in mock despair before ordering them back outside to strip off their muddy clothes. They do so as quickly as possible; when they come back in, shivering and still laughing, Arthur takes one look at Morgana’s face and knows without a doubt that his number is up, that she knows. All the careless joy leaves him at the expression on her face, and he has to try hard to pretend he is not so very, very fucked.
She corners him that evening. He’d managed to hide away for most of the afternoon, but family dinner is not an optional event, and she grabs his arm before he can volunteer for the washing up, dragging him into the walk-in pantry while everyone else is distracted.
“Do we have to do this now?” he asks plaintively as she shuts the door firmly behind them, and she glares at him.
“How long what?” he shoots back, playing for time.
Her glare becomes a full-out scowl. “Don’t play the idiot, Pendragon; I saw the MENSA letter before you pretended to throw it away. How long?”
“What does it matter?” He crosses his arms in front of him, not liking the curious, exposed feeling that comes with someone else knowing.
“When you said there was someone else I wasn’t picturing your brother.”
“He’s no more my brother than you’re really my sister.”
She waves that off angrily. “It’s not the same and you know it; you two were as good as twins the minute you met.”
“He pushed me in a puddle and called me a fat pig the first time we met.”
“Exactly,” she says, which explains nothing at all.
Arthur scrubs at his face and sighs. “What do you want, Morgana?”
“I don’t know what the truth is,” he says, irritated by her and by his own inability to figure life out. “It’s like I woke up one day and everything had shifted to make Merlin the centre of my fucking existence.”
“Don’t swear,” she tells him severely, which is unfairly hypocritical for someone who swears fiercely and creatively enough to make sailors blush. “When did that happen?”
He pinches the bridge of his nose, thinking. “Last semester, senior year, give or take a few months.”
There’s a beat of silence while she processes this information. “So your answer was to move in with him?” she asks, sounding disgusted by his lack of judgment. “And you’re still living with him? For someone so smart you really are an idiot.”
Arthur drops onto a box, pulling a knee up so he can rest his chin on it. “You don’t have to tell me that,” he says, feeling tired. “It doesn’t matter either way, though.”
“It doesn’t matter?”
“No, it doesn’t,” he replies irritably. “It doesn’t matter a damn because nothing’s ever happened and nothing ever will happen, and I’ll get over it eventually.”
“You’ll get over it.” He can tell she doesn’t believe him. Unsurprising, really, when he doesn’t fully believe himself.
“It’s a phase.” The words sound even falser outside his head, but he sets his jaw and doesn’t take them back.
“Aren’t you a little old to be believing that?” she asks him, narrow-eyed.
“Not in general,” he snaps. “Whatever, I like guys and girls; I don’t have a problem, that’s fine. Merlin’s just a phase. He’s off-limits.”
“He is,” Morgana agrees. “But off-limits never stopped you before. What’s going to stop you this time?”
Arthur is ready for this conversation to be over, whatever Morgana might want. “This is different. I’m not going to fuck things up with him; nothing’s worth risking that. And,” he adds, glaring because he can tell she isn’t finished yet, “that’s all I’m going to tell you because it isn’t any of your damn business anyhow.” He pushes past her and escapes into the house, but Morgana always likes having the last word.
“Don’t fuck things up for this family, Arthur,” she calls after him, threatening. “We’ve all been through enough to get here without you tearing things apart.” Arthur ignores her, heading for the furthest, remotest part of the house he can find, where maybe he can finally find some holiday peace and quiet.
Merlin and Arthur don’t hang around Gaius’s house for very long after Christmas is over; Arthur has to get back to work, and Merlin has classes to prepare for.
They celebrate New Year’s with Gwen and Lance, and when Gwen shows Arthur the little ring on her left hand—with a laboratory-created, certified non-blood diamond—he even manages not to feel any jealousy at all. Will is there; he and Lance have been thicker than thieves since they met at some rally Arthur hadn’t gone to since he hadn’t seen the appeal in marching around in the freezing November rain. Merlin greets everyone with enthusiasm—although Merlin would greet anyone with enthusiasm after his second glass of champagne. Arthur doesn’t drink much, still queasy with shame when he looks at a glass of bubbly, but he takes a flute obediently and surreptitiously pours it bit by bit into the poinsettias when no one’s looking.
Gwen finds him hiding in a corner of the room, feeling entirely too sober for the occasion, and gives him a hug.
“Thanks,” he tells her, managing a smile.
“Boy trouble?” she asks, and he chuckles wanly.
“You could say that, yeah.”
She gives his arm a sympathetic pat, and changes the subject, which he’s glad for, even if it confuses him at first. “Will you be my best man?”
“You mean Lance’s best man?” he corrects, puzzled because he and Lance are friends, but he hardly thinks they’re close enough to merit best man status.
“No,” she tells him, smiling. “Mine; we’re breaking with tradition.”
“Sticking it to the man, huh?” he says, and sighs exaggeratedly to hide how much the request has warmed him. “Well, anything for my best woman, though I hope you realise I will never hear the end of this from Morgana, ever.”
She laughs, and he can’t help but join in, because even if the bit about Morgana is absolutely and definitely true, it’ll be worth it. “Thank you,” she tells him, and before he can respond, the clock is counting down the final seconds to the New Year and he shoos her off to find Lance, feeling wistful but curiously happy anyway.
Merlin ends the night jolly and somewhere between declaring his love for humanity to anyone who will listen to him and declaring his love for humanity by serenading the streets with his very own remix of ‘Bad Romance’, but Arthur manages to shepherd him home without any significant mishaps.
“You’re a good brother,” Merlin tells him sleepily, propped up on Arthur’s shoulder while Arthur navigates through their dark flat to Merlin’s door. “You know that?”
“Not really,” Arthur says, ducking out from under Merlin’s arm before Merlin can drag him inside his room. “But thanks. Drink some water.”
“Okay,” Merlin says, trundling off in search of his pyjamas and a cup. Arthur watches him for a moment until he’s sure Merlin has everything under control, and then he heads for his own bed.
A good brother, he muses, staring at the pattern the streetlights make on his ceiling. Not especially, he doesn’t think. A good brother wouldn’t be wondering how wrong it would be to take advantage of relationship rebound, and whether or not it would be worth risking catastrophe for.
He’s just going to have to try harder this year, he decides in the end. If a good brother is what he stays, if that’s all he ever is for Merlin, it’ll have to be enough.
The days after the holidays are quiet: Arthur goes to work and Merlin goes to class, and half the time Arthur comes home to find Merlin already passed out in his chair or at the table, books and papers and half-finished rubrics strewn around him. On those nights Arthur just tucks a blanket around his shoulders and takes his cold mugs of tea or coffee away to clean—there are never fewer than two or three—and unplugs his laptop to conserve energy, because while Arthur honestly couldn’t care less about cutting his carbon footprint it’s the kind of thing that’s important to Merlin. He’s half-dreading Merlin and Cedric making up and starting over again, but Merlin never mentions a word about Cedric, and after Merlin sells all the stuff Cedric had left at their flat on eBay, Arthur finally relaxes and admits it’s pretty unlikely they’ll get back together.
Somewhere along the line, Merlin gets the idea in his head that what Arthur needs is to start dating again. Arthur protests—he has zero interest in dating anyone right now, but Merlin fixes him with a steely look he must have picked up from Hunith and says sternly: “Only one of us should be a celibate monk, and that is going to be me.”
Arthur thinks about pointing out that neither of them have to be celibate monks if he could... if Merlin would... but in the end he just rolls his eyes as obviously as possible and does his best to ignore Merlin. Merlin has always been obnoxiously persistent, though, and after Arthur starts receiving lewd emails from people on some stupid online dating site Merlin had made him an account on, Arthur gives in and lets Merlin set him up on a blind date with some girl from school named Nim Merlin had met when he’d accidentally crashed his bike into hers. It’s an odd basis for friendship, Arthur thinks, but then Merlin hardly ever does things in a straightforward way.
The date is an unqualified disaster. Nim is pretty, all huge blue eyes and dark hair, and there’s no question she’s got brains to match, but Arthur spends the entire dinner feeling like he’s at a particularly horrible job interview and being found woefully short. He pays the bill and doesn’t ask for her number at the end of the night, and she never offers it.
“No more blind dates,” he tells Merlin when he gets home, before Merlin has a chance to ask.
Merlin has the grace to look abashed, at least, scratching at the surface of the table where he’s spread out his work as usual. “Went that well?”
“Better,” Arthur mutters darkly, hanging up his coat and scarf. “Is she always that... intense?”
“Sometimes?” Merlin hazards, obviously lying through his teeth. “Sorry.”
“Just don’t let it happen again, young man,” Arthur orders, mock-stern, and cuffs him over the head as he walks by on the way to find something to wash the sour taste of the night out of his mouth.
“I just want you to be happy,” Merlin says, propping his chin in one hand and studying Arthur. “You—I don’t know, you’ve been pretty subdued.”
Arthur finds a box of Jaffa Cakes hidden behind the flour and grins in triumph. “I’m plenty happy,” he says, turning back to Merlin. “I have you, don’t I? You and your magnificent sideburns; that’s all I need right now. That and these cakes,” he amends. “Where did they come from, anyway?”
“Gwen brought them by.” Merlin goes quiet after that, looking thoughtful, which makes Arthur wary, but he drops the subject and Arthur allows himself to feel relieved until he gets up the next morning and Merlin has shaved every bit of hair off his face.
“What the hell?” Arthur demands, freezing at the sight of Merlin’s bare face. “Merlin, what did you do to yourself?”
“Oh,” Merlin says, reaching one hand up to rub his chin self-consciously. “I shaved.”
“I can see that,” Arthur informs him. “Why?”
Merlin, interestingly, flushes. “Well, I was thinking, and you still seemed down, and you mentioned... so I thought, maybe, it wasn’t helping you. You know, get over Gwen breaking up with you and marrying Lance.”
It takes Arthur a minute to work through all the Merlin garble and translate it into normal human speech, and when he finally does he doesn’t actually believe it.
“You shaved because you thought I was jealous? Of your sideburns?” he says, incredulous. “That is... Merlin, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
That makes Merlin defensive. “Look, I was trying to help; I know you have—”
“If you say you shaved because you thought I had delicate self esteem I am never speaking to you again,” Arthur says as forbiddingly as possible, and Merlin goes quiet, folding his lips together.
There’s a brief pause in which Merlin stares at the floor and Arthur stares at Merlin, contemplating the demise of his whiskers a little sorrowfully.
“So it really had nothing to do with facial hair?” Merlin asks at last, and Arthur feels his heart stretch huge from the fondness that fills him.
“No, Merlin, it has nothing to do with any kind of hair.”
“Oh.” Merlin pauses. “It’s going to take me months to re-grow it all now.”
Arthur laughs and chucks one of the brightly coloured throw pillows Hunith had given them for Christmas at him. “It’ll take you three days, you liar.”
Merlin ducks, grinning. “Well, maybe four.”
“My point holds,” Arthur says, and pulls Merlin into a headlock, scrubbing his knuckles hard across Merlin’s head. “Promise never to do anything that stupid again?”
“Ow!” Merlin protests, wriggling helplessly and flailing at Arthur with his fists. “Ow, yes, fine, I promise!”
“Good,” Arthur replies, and gives Merlin’s hair a final ruffle to get it all out of place before he lets him go.
The problem, Arthur discovers, becomes that since Merlin’s ruled out facial hair as whatever is bothering Arthur, he’s decided Arthur must still be pining over Gwen, despite Arthur’s repeated attempts to persuade him otherwise.
“Merlin,” Arthur tries pointing out, “I love Gwen as a friend, but I’m happy she’s with Lance.”
“That’s just because you are a horribly self-sacrificing person,” Merlin replies blithely, not even looking up from where he’s engrossed in some terrible self-help book about Zen and cross stitching or motorcycles or something.
“I’m going to be best man at their wedding,” Arthur tries next, but Merlin ignores him in favour of leaving articles with titles like Keep Loving Life When the Love of Your Life has Left You scattered strategically around the flat.
Arthur puts up with it at first, resigned but glad Merlin’s not trying to sit him up with anyone else or shave his whole head bald or something, but after a week when Merlin goes on a particularly adventurous rampage, leaving Eat, Pray, Love on Arthur’s bed, little stickers of encouragement on the bathroom mirror, and pamphlets for self-help groups in the silverware drawer, Arthur’s had enough. He thinks about just binning them, but it’s far more satisfying to burn them all in the sink, and as an added bonus Merlin will never know that Arthur could care less about Getting Back into the Game: Dating Do’s and Don’ts. He feels vaguely guilty as he fans the smoke out the window and watches the pages crinkle and go black as the flames lick away at the words, but it’s fun, too, a little like the pranks he and Merlin used to pull as kids.
Merlin comes home early, though; early enough to see the remains of Up and At ’Em, Tiger! Eight Fail-Proof Ways to Find Love before Arthur has a chance to wash all the ashes down the drain. He looks betrayed.
“You burned my books?”
“Merlin,” Arthur says, all the fun gone, swallowed up by the lurking prickly guilt, “I really—I’m not pining over Gwen, alright? And it’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment...” He trails off, because Merlin still looks sad and let down although he’s making a valiant effort to hide it.
“It’s fine,” Merlin says, too lightly. “Really. It’s fine! I understand.” He gives Arthur a bright smile.
“I should get to work,” Merlin decides, and goes off to gather the papers he needs from scattered corners of the flat before disappearing into his room. Arthur watches him go, feeling distinctly idiotic and like he’s missing something, but he’ll be damned if he knows what it is. He cleans the sink, torn between anger at himself for letting the pamphlets get to him and anger at Merlin for being so bloody difficult and unreadable.
He really does feel badly about it, because Merlin was acting out of purely good intentions, and Arthur feels selfish and mean the longer he thinks about it all. On Saturday Merlin goes out to buy a new cartridge for his printer, and Arthur bakes his favourite kind of cake. He makes it with extra chocolate and even makes the frosting himself; he’s just finished spreading the frosting over the cooling cake when Merlin walks in the door, rosy-cheeked from the cold and looking harassed and windblown.
“What’s this?” he asks, shedding his coat and bags in the doorway and coming to peer over Arthur’s shoulder.
Arthur tries to breathe normally even with Merlin so nearly pressed up against his back, smelling like wind and a little like wet dog and, inexplicably, of apples. “Cake.”
“What are we celebrating?”
“Do we have to be celebrating?” Arthur asks. “Do I need a reason to spoil my favourite brother?” Brother, he reminds himself sternly. Best friend.
It’s better when Merlin moves away again. Arthur takes a breath. “Fork?” he asks, offering one to Merlin, and they dig into the cake without bothering to slice and serve it because they are young carefree bachelors living on their own so who cares if it’s messy and besides, it tastes better this way.
“This,” Merlin announces through a bite, “is a magnificent cake. You get better at this cooking lark every day.”
“Really?” Arthur tries to control his grin, but it only half works.
“Really,” Merlin assures him. “In ten years you might be able to quit your job and be a real cook.” Arthur knocks his shoulder against Merlin’s for that, but Merlin just hops up on the worktop and keeps eating.
The cake is good, Arthur has to admit, and they’ve mostly destroyed it before Merlin starts looking pensive. Arthur nudges him with in an elbow. “Don’t tell me you have indigestion,” he jokes, but Merlin’s answering smile is weak.
“Just thinking,” he replies, and pauses like he’s trying to weigh his words, figure out how best to say them; Arthur’s seen this look on him before but never when Merlin was talking to Arthur.
Arthur sets down his fork carefully. “Come on then,” he says. “Out with whatever it is.”
“I was just thinking,” Merlin starts, and stops.
“You said that already,” Arthur prods. He clamps down hard on a nervous laugh that tries to break loose. Merlin looks terrible, like he’s about to announce that he’s moving to Antarctica or has some horrible wasting disease. “You know they say thinking is dangerous.”
Merlin sighs. “I was thinking I might find another flat.”
Arthur freezes, because whatever he was expecting, he wasn’t expecting that. “You mean, for us to move into?”
“No,” Merlin’s studying the backs of his own hands intently. “I meant I’d move. Just me, that is. I’d keep paying my share until you found someone to replace me, of course.”
“You can’t afford that,” Arthur says, and bites his tongue before he can add, There won’t ever be anyone else. “What is this, I make you a cake and you decide you want to leave?” He tries to smile, make a joke out of it, but the words come out sour.
Merlin looks up at that, startled. “No, I—Arthur...” he stops, composes himself. “Look, I guess this seems kind of sudden—”
“Oh, you think?”
“Stop it.” Arthur does, pulls himself together, but only because Merlin’s hurt look outweighs his own rising bitterness. “I’ve—been thinking about this for a while.”
Arthur can’t help himself. “Why?” he demands. “Why didn’t you say something? Did I do something? Not do something?”
Merlin tries to placate him. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he says, and Arthur has a crushingly horrible thought.
“Are you moving in with someone? Did you and Cedric...”
That makes Merlin look irritated. “No,” he snaps. “If you would just let me explain—”
“Explain what? Suddenly you hate me, you can’t stand the sight of me? What, Merlin?” He’s being cruel, confrontational, completely unreasonable, but he can’t help it. There’s a terror rising up in his throat because he’s losing Merlin after all, Merlin’s leaving.
“I don’t hate you,” Merlin says tightly, clearly annoyed now, maybe even angry. “You know that. This was a fun idea, but maybe it’s time we gave ourselves space.”
“You need space?” Arthur shoots back, stepping away from the worktop and spreading his arms wide. “I can give you space.”
“I meant both of us, Arthur. We’re adults now; we don’t have to live in each other’s pockets all the damn time.”
Arthur can’t quite control the volume of his voice; the words come out loud and angry, and that only makes him more irritated. “So that’s what you want now? We go our separate ways, act surprised when we run into each other and chuckle over the follies of youth? Ask after the kids when our parents have us ’round at the same time?” It’s uncalled for, over the top, but it’s hard to think through the panic; none of his thoughts make sense and he’s hoping if he makes this as surreal as possible maybe he’ll just wake up from it all.
All it does is make Merlin withdraw further. “If that’s what you want.”
“What I want?”
That trips some wire inside Merlin, releases a hidden lever that’s been holding everything back. “Isn’t that what you want?” he demands, his voice rising dangerously. “I thought it was just Cedric at first, but it isn’t that, is it, because you’re still avoiding me, still can’t stand spending time with me alone here. Something’s obviously bothering you, but you won’t admit it; when I try to help you burn things...”
“That has nothing to do with anything!” Arthur protests, but he knows it sounds weak. “I don’t mind you trying to help me, you idiot, but I’m not heartbroken and I don’t need you to convince me that I am! Gwen was never—” He folds his lips hard over the words, because he might be lightheaded with anger and confusion but he isn’t going to go further than that, not today, not ever.
“Gwen was never what?” Merlin asks, looking a little dangerous, and Arthur wonders for the first time just how badly throwing Cedric out hurt Merlin. “Never good enough? Never for real? Never named Harris?”
The world goes fuzzy at that; there’s a roaring static in Arthur’s ears and things are melting at the edges of his vision. “Harris?” he manages weakly, sounding not at all convincing. “Who’s Harris?”
“You tell me,” Merlin says. He’s crossed his arms defensively; his eyes are narrowed. “He called looking for you. Something about an office Christmas party you told me was cancelled and having a good time. He wants to take you out for a drink. He left his number.”
Fuck. Arthur should have known better, he should have known that was all going to come back to bite him in the arse. “It’s not, Harris wasn’t...”
“I don’t care,” Merlin announces. Arthur thinks he’s lying, but he isn’t sure; he can’t tell what Merlin’s thinking. “You can do whatever the hell you want with your own life, but don’t fucking pretend that you’re being honest with me when I know you aren’t. You want your own life, okay; so do I. I only wanted to be upfront with you and let you know I’m looking for another place.” He doesn’t say because I am a good friend, unlike other wankers in this room, but Arthur hears it anyway.
Arthur’s grasping at rapidly disappearing straws, desperate for anything that will keep Merlin here, anything that might help Arthur out of the giant hole he’s dug for himself.
“You can’t,” is what he finally comes up with, which is feeble even by the standards of Arthur’s arguments so far. “Merlin, you can’t leave. I can’t—I don’t want you to go.”
Something must show on his face then, the rawness and regret he’s feeling, because Merlin throws up his arms in a show of frustration and bursts out: “Give me a reason then! Give me one reason I shouldn’t pack up my things right now and leave.”
That stops Arthur in his tracks, because what can he possibly say to something like that? A hundred things fly through his head, all of them wrong, and Merlin’s waiting, looking at Arthur like Arthur has maybe one chance in five thousand to redeem himself here.
In the end, Arthur doesn’t say anything. He darts forward before he thinks about what he’s doing, before Merlin can react. Merlin’s lips are rough, chapped; his stubble scratchy against Arthur’s palms. He tastes like chocolate and butter cream, and Arthur kisses him hard, trying to say everything without saying anything while Merlin’s frozen in shock beneath him.
“That,” Arthur says when he pulls away, his breathing fast and uneven. “That’s why you shouldn’t leave.” Merlin’s staring at him; not doing anything, not saying anything, just staring at Arthur, pale and shocked, and Arthur feels an awful, sick feeling rising up beneath his stomach. He’d just—he’d kissed Merlin, and there’s no alcohol to blame it on this time, only Arthur’s bitter desperation. His knees feel funny as the realisation sinks in; the room is suddenly far too hot and close, making him light-headed. He turns away, reaches blindly for his coat on its familiar hook by the door. “I’m going for a walk,” he says. When he closes the door behind him Merlin’s still sitting on the counter, motionless, as if Arthur had taken all the energy right out of him.
Arthur walks all the way to Gwen’s, feeling too scummy and mixed-up to even try interacting with other people on the tube or a cab, and it’s dark by the time he gets there. She lets him in immediately when she sees the look on his face and hugs him, and he allows himself to slump against her, exhausted and raw down to his bones.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he tells her when she lets him go, and she listens.
“Here,” she says, handing him the remote and pointing him toward her small DVD collection. “I was just about to order Thai—that alright with you?” He nods. “Then I’ll just be going through these copies if you need me.” She plants herself at the table and, to all appearances, completely ignores him, intent on her work. Arthur’s never been so grateful.
He spends the night on Gwen’s sofa, physically unable to stomach going back to face Merlin and their flat. Sleep never comes; everything from the last two weeks, the last year and a half goes around his head in endless circles while he tries to chase down some sort of meaning. He can’t help the what if thoughts that creep in—what if Harris hadn’t called, what if Arthur hadn’t drunk enough to think that having it off in a stationary cupboard was a good idea, what if Arthur had never had this stupid, stupid fixation on Merlin to begin with—but they don’t do him any good, just keep him awake and blinking at the shadowed ceiling.
At some point after midnight he stops agonizing over the past and starts worrying that Merlin won’t be there when he does eventually go back to the flat. Merlin has Will and Will’s rugby team; it’s entirely possible for him to move all his things out in under an hour and still have time to wreck all of Arthur’s things. (Merlin would never do something like that—at least, Arthur doesn’t think so—but Will has never had any qualms about taking out his feelings on inanimate objects, and has never really cared all that much for Arthur.) He wonders if Merlin will ever speak to him again, if he’ll ever agree to see Arthur again, if they’ll have to divide Christmas and Easter holidays with the family between them in some twisted charade of slow reconciliation.
From there it isn’t hard for Arthur to imagine Morgana’s inevitable and probably violent reaction to his idiocy, or the way his father will look at him the next time he sees Arthur: the silent disappointment he never speaks aloud but that cuts Arthur to the quick in thirteen devastating ways regardless.
Arthur doesn’t even try to imagine what Hunith will say to him when she finds out how badly he’s wrecked things between himself and her son. There are some things he knows well enough to leave alone.
He gives up on the sofa when it’s light enough for him to see the room around him, and goes to sit at the table, comforting himself with leftover pad thai and the thought that things won’t necessarily be as terrible as his subconscious believes. Merlin might not have left; they might still be able to fix things, smooth things over well enough that no one else will ever know. He clings to the thought, and resolves that this is as low as he will allow himself to sink. It isn’t a new promise to himself, exactly, but there’s a new insistence to it, a new seriousness to it, because now he knows how real the potential of losing Merlin is.
Gwen gives him coffee and a piece of bread when she gets up, and while he’s still terrified of what he might find back at the flat he knows he can’t hide behind Gwen’s hospitality any longer, so when he’s finished his second cup of coffee he gathers up his coat and prepares to face whatever the consequences waiting for him are.
“Will you be alright?” she asks him at the door.
He shrugs. “We’ll see.”
“I’ll have my phone with me; call me if you need anything,” she says, and he feels a little warmed at that, enough to give her a smile.
The flat is empty, but Merlin’s things are all still there, and Arthur lets out a breath he’d been pretending he wasn’t holding. The half-destroyed cake is still sitting on the counter, probably stale now; Arthur bins it without a second thought before turning to the dishes in the sink. It feels a little disconcerting—he keeps trying to hand plates to a nonexistent Merlin to dry—but the sight of Merlin’s favourite hoody draped over one of the kitchen chairs calms him enough to let the work occupy his mind. He sits in front of the telly when he’s done, debating whether or not he actually wants the distraction of having it on, and in the end falls into an exhausted sleep before he can decide.
Merlin’s there when he wakes up, moving quietly around, hair freshly wet from a shower. Arthur doesn’t move at first, feigning sleep, but in the end he pinches himself for cowardice and puts his courage to the sticking place: better to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.
It doesn’t take Merlin long to notice when Arthur straightens in the chair and winces as he eases the kinks out of his back.
“Hey,” Merlin says, after a pause where they both pretend they aren’t looking at each other.
“Hey,” Arthur replies, and then, almost joking: “You’re still here.”
One corner of Merlin’s mouth twitches in a weak smile. “Looks that way.”
They both study separate corners of the room intently. Arthur keeps sneaking glances at Merlin. He looks like he slept about as well as Arthur did, but he doesn’t look obviously horrified or disgusted by Arthur’s presence, which Arthur is going to take as a positive.
“Can we just forget about last night?” he blurts out at last, and Merlin gives him a warning look. “Not all of it,” Arthur amends. “Just—just the last bit.” He hesitates, but when Merlin doesn’t say anything, he gives up and adds: “The Harris thing... I’m sorry I never told you. I’m sorry I lied about the Christmas party and everything. It was a stupid thing to do, and I don’t even like him.” He pulls himself back before his new honesty policy gets him into trouble for not even remembering Harris’s name. “Can we agree that I’m an idiot and forget the whole thing?”
“You are an idiot,” Merlin allows cautiously, and there’s a weight that slides off of Arthur’s shoulders at that. “You should have said something. But about the flat—”
“Look, you don’t have a place to go right now, do you?” Arthur says, wildly improvising on the spot. Merlin shakes his head. “Stay for a little while, then; give this one more chance. Stay until Lance and Gwen’s wedding at least. That’ll give us both time to look for new places if you still really want to move.”
Merlin looks at him sharply, and Arthur says: “You don’t really think I want to live in our flat with a total stranger, do you? Better to start over fresh.” He doesn’t say that the flat’s too full of Merlin to stay, that Merlin’s the only reason he loves this grubby little building that’s too far away from his job and everywhere else he needs to be.
Merlin takes what feels like ages to think it over, and finally shakes his head. “It’s a bad idea,” he says, half to himself, and then, louder: “Okay.”
Merlin shrugs. “One last hurrah, right? It’s only a few months, anyway.”
“Not that long,” Arthur agrees, and can’t decide whether he should feel triumphant or if all he’s done is come away with the worst kind of Pyrrhic victory.
Life goes on more or less normally after that, though Arthur doesn’t quite believe it. He goes to get fitted for his rental tux and tries not to count the days, reminding himself that Merlin leaving isn’t necessarily a done deal yet.
It doesn’t help that Merlin certainly looks like he’s set on moving out, despite his promise to think about it. Twice Arthur finds listings circled in the newspapers he gathers up to recycle; both times he’d dropped the papers where they were and pretended not to notice when they disappeared into Merlin’s room. He’s going to enjoy the last few months, that’s all. It’s not like he’ll never see Merlin again; even if they never meet up on their own time their parents will make sure they don’t fall out of each others’ lives completely. Family functions have never been an optional thing, and since he and Merlin aren’t completely estranged no one will ever have to know what happened between them.
It’s April when they get an unexpected and compulsory invitation to a family function neither of them have ever thought about before.
Arthur looks up, surprised at Merlin’s tone—he’s on the phone with Hunith, which is usually just a variation of “Yes, mum,” and “Of course not, mum,” with a few monologues about his work Arthur never understands.
Merlin puts his hand over the receiver and hisses, “Uther and my mother want to have an anniversary party.”
“Yeah, mum, I’m listening,” Merlin says, taking his hand away from the phone again.
“Do they even have an anniversary?” Arthur wants to know. “They’ve never celebrated it before.”
Merlin lifts his hands in what’s almost a full body shrug, looking as bemused as Arthur feels. “Yeah, of course we’ll be there,” he tells Hunith. “When is—the second week of June?”
Arthur does some rapid calculations in his head, because that’s the week of Gwen and Lance’s wedding and if Hunith and his father have planned it for the same day, he is going to be in definite difficulties unless someone comes up with an invention that lets him be in two places at once.
“Friday? Yes, I’m writing it down right now. “Yeah. You too. Bye.” Merlin hangs up and turns to look at Arthur helplessly.
“Anniversary?” Arthur can’t help but ask.
“She says they’ve been together for over fifteen years and they want to celebrate the occasion,” Merlin says, propping his elbows behind him on the counter and leaning back. Arthur looks away from the sliver of pale skin that shows when Merlin’s shirt rides up.
“At least it’s not Saturday,” he says. “I can’t get out of the wedding. We’ll just have to watch ourselves at the stag party Thursday.” He has a thought. “Unless we have to take the train up on Thursday and miss the party? We won’t be able to get there in time if we go up on Friday—”
“Will’s been invited too,” Merlin explains. “Mum has a soft spot for him, and he’s going to drive up early Friday morning. We can catch a ride with him.”
Arthur relaxes. It wouldn’t be that much of a hardship to miss the party, but he’s glad they don’t have to, even if the price is several hours in a car with Will. “Good,” he says, eyeing the bag of crisps Merlin’s holding. “Are you going to eat the rest of those?” Merlin rolls his eyes and hands the bag over, and Arthur secretly rejoices at the normality of it all.
Arthur expects Merlin to be working harder as the semester starts winding up; he does not expect him to all but disappear. Merlin’s already gone for his run when Arthur gets up in the morning, and most days Arthur’s walking out the door by the time he gets back. When Arthur comes home at night, Merlin isn’t there either: sometimes there’s a note saying Library or meeting until 7, sometimes not. Arthur makes enough dinner for two and leaves half of it out under a dish, and in the morning the plates are clean and in the drying rack, and the whole process starts over again. He wonders if this is how Merlin felt, when Arthur was avoiding him before Gwen, before everything, but he dismisses the thought pretty quickly as being a fruitless kind of masochism.
The first flowers are beginning to bloom when Arthur gets promoted. His new job is actually better than the one he’d been angling for; when he finally walks in the door of his flat after bottling up his reaction all day, he lets the madcap joy explode in a war whoop that scares Merlin out of his chair and onto the floor in a storm of papers.
“Sorry,” Arthur says cheerfully, helping him up, and Merlin gives him a pained look that doesn’t quite hide a smile.
“No you’re not.”
“Not really,” Arthur agrees, because he isn’t, nothing can bring him down right now. He is actually going to be in charge of things, of other people, and he might still be a peon in the grand scheme of things but this is his first leap up to the top of the mountain. He is a peon with an office, and he tells Merlin this, loudly and at great length, until Merlin hits him with the remote and treats him to dinner out to celebrate. They eat greasy fish and chips and joke and drink beer, and afterwards Merlin buys him ice cream and they wander along the Thames until the sun goes down and it’s too cold to be out just in their t-shirts.
On the tube heading home, Merlin dozing beside him with his head sliding slowly over onto Arthur’s shoulder, Arthur starts to really believe they’ve hit rock bottom, and that even with Merlin leaving there’s nowhere to go but up. He goes to bed feeling full and oddly content for the first time in months, and in the morning his father calls him.
“Hunith told me about the promotion,” his father says by way of greeting, and Arthur relaxes. Uther never calls him; his first thought had been that something beyond disaster must have happened to make his father pick up the phone.
“Oh,” he says, playing with a pen Merlin had left on the table. He doesn’t know what to say. “Merlin must have told her.”
“I believe so,” Uther agrees, and there’s silence over the line. This is why Arthur never calls his father; where Merlin and Hunith can both chat proficiently long distance, neither Arthur nor his father have ever quite figured out how to fill in the spaces around a few essential phrases, and invariably they end up discussing the weather—not out of interest, but because it’s at least better than listening to the other person breathe.
“We’re proud of you,” Uther says abruptly, interrupting Arthur before he can ask whether it’s raining as hard at home as it is in London. “I’m proud of you,” his father amends. “You’ve made a life for yourself.”
Arthur isn’t sure what the last bit’s supposed to mean, but it sounds encouraging, so he says, “Thanks, Dad.” He can’t remember the last time he called his father “dad,” but it slips out easily, feels right on his tongue. “I know it isn’t exactly what you had in mind for me—”
“But it is,” his father says. “All I ever wanted was for you to find something that gave you happiness, and it seems you’ve made that happen.”
“Oh,” Arthur says, completely off-kilter now. “Yeah. I guess.”
There’s another silence, and then Uther says: “We’re looking forward to seeing you both in a few weeks.”
“We’ll be there,” Arthur’s quick to reply, relieved to be back on more familiar ground. Their goodbye is short, cordial, reassuringly normal.
Happiness, Arthur thinks after he hangs up, looking pensively at his phone before turning to watch the rain beat down on the new green leaves outside. It’s a strange way to classify his life, but... he supposes he’s working toward a kind of careful happiness.
Merlin saunters through on his way to the kitchen. “Who was that?”
“My father,” Arthur says, and Merlin looks surprised.
“He never calls you.”
“I know,” says Arthur and lets the little bubble of hope swell up a little more, because if his father can call and congratulate him on his promotion, who knows what else might happen?
Lance and Gwen had decreed early in the game that they only thing they were allowing for their stag and hen nights was a joint pub crawl to their favourite places, so that’s what they do, accompanied by plastic trumpets and flashy beads and matching offensively pink shirts for the happy couple that declare that they’ll be needing everyone to GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME, because Lance has a hard time hiding his deep love for all things musical-related. Arthur discovered his secret stash of Oklahoma! and Bye Bye, Birdie movies months ago, and hasn’t let him live it down since.
It’s a good night. Arthur hasn’t seen Gwen and Lance stop laughing once, and he’s struck up a good conversation with Leon, one of Lance’s friends he’s seen around before but never really spoken to before. It turns out that they both used to fence competitively, and Leon knows of a place they can practice; when he asks Arthur agrees more than readily to a match. He hasn’t so much as dusted his equipment off since graduation, practically, and it’ll be good for him to get out and meet people outside of work. He imagines Morgana would be proud of him.
Arthur’s being careful, having a good time but setting a slow pace because he knows from painful experience that his father can spot a hangover three miles away, until Lance commandeers the stool next to him and slings an arm around his shoulders, drawing him close. “Arthur,” Lance announces, “you are drinking cranberry juice. Why are you drinking that when these fine gentlemen have offered to buy us all shots?”
“I have to be up in the morning,” Arthur tries, but Lance dismisses that scornfully.
“Utter tosh,” he declares, overly dramatic, and waves their newfound friends over to introduce them. “Percival, Bedivere, this is Arthur, my almost-wife’s best man,” he explains to them very seriously, “and he is in desperate need of a real drink.”
Arthur catches the raised eyebrows at his description and smiles wryly. “It’s a long story,” he explains, and Percival waves to the bartender.
“That sounds like a story we want to hear,” he says, grinning, and orders what sounds like enough alcohol for the entire bar.
Arthur’s never been one to turn down a free drink, and after the first neon-coloured shot it’s surprisingly easy to keep going. He does chance a look at Merlin, who seems sober enough, so he shrugs and figures as long as one of them can get up and get them both going in the morning they’ll be fine; he’s had lots of practice hiding hangovers from his father, after all.
“Fuck,” Merlin groans, leaning against the wall outside their flat while Arthur wrestles with the lock they still haven’t bothered to get fixed. He repeats the word, dragging it out into four or five syllables at least. “Fuck. I did not mean to get this drunk.”
“You didn’t?” Arthur demands, catching himself as the door swings open and the floor sways dangerously underfoot. “I didn’t meant to get this drunk.” He brings his watch up to his face and squints at the glowing numbers, trying to bring them into focus. “Fucking hell, we have to be up in three hours.” They are very, very dead, and he tells Merlin so as Merlin fumbles the door shut behind them.
“Well it’s your fault,” Merlin mutters. “You and those bloody drink whatevers, with the umbrellas.”
“Those were Lance’s fault,” Arthur disagrees. “I had nothing to do with—”
The wall wobbles away from him without warning, and when he tries to catch it he ends up face to face with Merlin, squashed together far, far closer than Arthur should be to Merlin right now, and this, this is why he doesn’t get drunk with Merlin anymore. Merlin’s no help at all; he just looks at Arthur, his eyes gone round with surprise, and doesn’t push Arthur away. His hands come up to rest flat against Arthur’s chest.
Neither of them move. “This is a bad idea,” Merlin says, but his face has gone betrayingly soft around the edges, like he doesn’t actually mean the words.
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, but Merlin’s expression has started a slow thought, struggling its way free up to the surface of his mind. “Merlin,” he asks, “why did you want to move out?”
Merlin blinks, his long lashes dipping slow, and pulls Arthur in by his collar for a kiss.
As diversionary tactics go, Arthur is willing to concede it’s damn effective. He lets his hands fall to Merlin’s hips, tugs him close as they stumble through the flat. Merlin slides his hands up until his arms are around Arthur’s neck, his fingers digging hard into Arthur’s hair. The kiss is deep, sloppy with a desperate, needy edge to it that overwhelms the fact that their noses get in the way when Arthur presses further into it. Merlin’s teeth are sharp when he nips at the corner of Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur’s glad oxygen has been replaced by Merlin in his lungs, because Merlin’s holding him too close, too tight to think about breathing; Arthur doesn’t know that he could break away even if he wanted to.
It’s not until they slam up against the doorframe of Merlin’s room that doubts start clawing their way back to Arthur’s consciousness. He pulls away with a wrench, freeing himself long enough to gasp: “This is—fuck,” he curses, because Merlin’s scraping his teeth along the side of Arthur’s jaw, sucking marks down his neck— “shit, Merlin, we... we shouldn’t...”
Merlin looks at him with dark eyes, his hair a wild mess. “I know,” he says, and goes for Arthur’s belt.
Arthur gets his hands under Merlin’s shirt, desperate to touch the skin he’s only looked at for so long, while Merlin manoeuvres them into the room. As long as they both know this is a terrible idea, they’ll be fine, he tells himself very reasonably, and follows Merlin down onto the bed.
Arthur wakes to the strong sense that something is extremely wrong with the world, a sense that only grows more forceful as his body realizes he’s awake and begins violently objecting to the amount of alcohol he’d poured into it the night before. He squints at his watch, trying to figure out what the sense of offness is niggling at the edge of his consciousness, and wrenches himself upright in a panic, ignoring the way his stomach heaves.
“Shit!” he says, hitting Merlin, who’s passed out next to him. “Shit fuck bugger, Merlin, wake up; Will’s going to be here in an hour. Where are my fucking trousers?”
“Whuzzat?” Merlin says blearily, blinking up at him, and the full meaning of that last phrase dawns suddenly, horribly on Arthur. He looks back at Merlin in dismay. Merlin’s bare-chested, and there are vivid, purpling bite marks all the way down its pale expanse. His fly is open, though at least he’s still wearing his trousers; Arthur hasn’t the foggiest where his own might have ended up.
“We didn’t,” Merlin says, in the dead tones of the truly terrified.
“We can’t have,” Arthur babbles, forcing hysteria down before it can run roughshod over him. “You’re still—” he waves a hand— “trousered, and I’ve got my boxers on.” He neglects to mention that the inside of his boxers is a grotty mess, jumping up instead and nearly killing himself when his ankles get tangled in Merlin’s sheets. “We really have to go, though, Will’s going to be here and if we’re not ready you know he’ll leave without us.”
“I know,” Merlin says sharply. “D’you think you could, maybe...” He makes a vague gesture toward the door, and Arthur clues in.
“Right,” he says in a strangled voice, and flees.
Neither of them say a word to each other on the way out of the city; neither of them, Arthur thinks, feeling the hysteria rise up in the back of his throat again, wants to be the one to bring it up first, to make it all real. Will and Merlin chat a bit about nothing in particular, and Arthur, in the back seat, leans his forehead against the window and does his best not to throw up all over Will’s car.
Once they’re at the house, Hunith falls on them immediately. “Merlin, I need you and Will to set up the arch from the driveway into the lawn; the flower garlands are out back, and be careful. Arthur, go help Morgana. She’ll show you what to do.” She barely waits to make sure they understand their instructions before moving briskly off, her student-made beads clicking together and the orange chiffon of her scarf floating behind her.
“How many people did they invite to this thing?” Arthur wonders out loud to Morgana as they drag the last of the tables into position, and she shrugs.
“Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole town showed up.” She cocks her head at him. “Something up with you? You seem—odd.”
“You always think I’m odd,” Arthur retorts, evasive, and slips off to help unload chairs before she can ask him any more uncomfortable questions.
Between them all and the hired caterers they get the garden and lawn into shape with the tables and awnings and chairs all neatly set up and waiting. Arthur goes to change into the button-up shirt and tie he’d brought, and pretends he isn’t avoiding everyone. Guests trickle in eventually, mostly people Arthur hasn’t seen since he was at least a foot shorter and getting chased out of their rose gardens. He doesn’t mind that their questions are all the same, because these people know him without being familiar with him, and he can float through conversations about his job and his life in London calmly on autopilot.
He keeps an eye on Merlin despite his promise to himself that he wouldn’t. Arthur thinks Merlin must be better at hiding things than he is himself, because Merlin looks utterly composed, framed beautifully against the garden, his hands casually in the pockets of his trousers as he chats with two older, carefully coiffed ladies Arthur thinks he recognizes from the women’s auxiliary at the church.
Merlin pushes absently at his collarbone once, and to anyone else it looks like he has an itch but Arthur has to sit down, his legs going wobbily as he remembers that there are love bites under Merlin’s shirt, a lot of them, and that he put them there. Merlin glances over at him, and Arthur thinks he catches a concerned expression on his face, but then Hunith is calling them over to fix some of the garlands on the archway that have started drooping, and when they reach her Merlin’s face is a smooth blank again.
They’ve just finished fixing the arch when someone slaps Arthur on the back and announces in an obnoxiously loud and cheery sort of voice, “Arthur! Been too long, son!”
“Cousin Edward,” Arthur says, turning around resignedly. “How’ve you been?”
Cousin Edward isn’t really his cousin—Arthur’s long since learned to ignore the suspicious trend in that most of his relatives aren’t actually related to him—but he knows Arthur’s father somehow. Arthur suspects Edward met his father through Uther saving Edward’s arse in court, but he’s polite enough not to mention it, even though Edward’s loudly coloured jackets and poorly done comb-over never fail to hurt his eyes.
“It’s Eddie, Arthur, don’t go all formal on me now. And fine, fine, just excellent; now tell me,” he says, wrapping an arm around Arthur’s shoulder. “How is life? How are the birds down in London? Find any good ones yet?” He gives Arthur a roguish wink and snakes his other arm out to drag Merlin in before Merlin can creep away. “Tell me everything, lads, you’ll find there isn’t much as can shock old Eddie.”
“Well,” Arthur says carefully, acutely and uncomfortably aware that Merlin is right there, listening. “I’m not exactly seeing anyone at the moment...” He doesn’t look at Merlin, but he can feel Merlin watching him.
When Arthur doesn’t offer up anything more, Eddie turns to Merlin as his next victim. “I know this one must have at least one girl hidden away,” he says, jostling Merlin a bit and braying a laugh. “Always the quiet ones, eh? How about it, Merl? You have a special girl, or maybe five?”
Merlin looks composed, if a little irritated, when he replies, “None, actually.”
“What? Not on, chap; gather ye rosebuds! Pluck them quickly or they’ll all be gone—”
“Actually,” Merlin interrupts, “I did have a boyfriend for almost a year. He was very good at—”
“Arthur!” Eddie exclaims, turning away from Merlin and dropping his arm from Merlin’s shoulders. Arthur gives a helpless look back at Merlin, but Merlin just crosses his arms and watches smugly while Eddie drags Arthur away. “There must be some little filly that’s crossed your path. You can tell me anything, you know; I’m excellent at keeping secrets. Why, I remember one time...”
Arthur lets Eddie talk at him for what feels like hours before he escapes under the cover of finding a spare serving spoon for the caterers, and when it’s safe to come out of the house again Merlin’s already found a seat at the long tables they’ve set up for lunch that’s securely far away from any of the other open seats available for Arthur. Despite that, the jealousy that rises up in Arthur wars with something resembling unexpected relief. He can feel Merlin’s eyes on him as he finds a seat, the focus of his stare a hot, uncomfortable prickle between Arthur’s shoulder blades. He doesn’t look back at Merlin, doesn’t quite dare—he doesn’t know why Merlin might be looking, and he doesn’t want to find the wrong answer in Merlin’s face.
The meal passes without upset. Arthur’s chatting to some old fellow with droopy whiskers he’s fairly certain he’s never met before, but who seems to know an awful lot about Uther’s golf swing and is all too eager to share. His hangover is nearly gone, and he’s able to more or less enjoy the luncheon without having to make a swift and conspicuous exit to the nearest toilet. By the time the toasts start, though, the end of his headache has merged with the discontent and confusion that have been growing in the back of his skull, leaving feeling morose and more than a little maudlin.
Fifteen years, he thinks, looking at Hunith and his father where they sit cozily together at the head of the table. Fifteen years of for better or for worse despite never having made official, public vows—which Arthur suspects was Hunith’s idea, not Uther’s. His father is a man of solid realities; he likes having something he can turn and point to, can say “ah yes, that’s it, right here”. The years with Hunith to keep him off-balance have changed Uther: Arthur remembers his father before Hunith came, when Arthur was lucky to see Uther every second day or so, if the case load was light enough. Hunith has softened his father’s sharp edges, warmed the coldness that filled him after Arthur’s mother died, and while Arthur’s happy for that he can’t help but feel just a little jealous. He can’t remember a friend he’s kept for more than a few years, let alone a significant other. The only constant he has is Merlin, and that puts Arthur right back where he started.
He can’t lose Merlin over something as completely imbecilic as last night. There’s a new thought rising inside him, overshadowing the old refrain of clinging to the status quo. He wants what his father has. Hunith and his father are one of those disgustingly blissful couples who manage to be romantic by being appallingly well-adjusted and normal, and Arthur wants. He wants someone to come home and complain to, someone to cook for, someone to fold the laundry with and do the dishes with and fight over who’s going to mop the floor when the windows leak. He wants someone to curl up under the blankets with when the weather’s foul, someone to go out with on beautiful days and do nothing but sit in the park. He wants Merlin. Maybe if he looked hard enough he’d find someone else, eventually, but he doesn’t want to look. He doesn’t know how or why Merlin ended up being the be-all, end-all for him, but that’s the only card he’s holding right now, the only card he ever wants to hold.
Before he can help himself, he’s looking at Merlin, gaze drawn irrevocably to that familiar face, and Merlin snaps his own head away, almost guiltily, caught staring. But why? Arthur wonders. That’s the question it comes down to; is Merlin looking because he feels guilty over a convenient drunken fumble—and that thought makes Arthur feel sick all over again—or is he looking for another reason, for a reason Arthur doesn’t dare think to himself but which sets off a little fluttery feeling in his chest anyway.
He has to talk to Merlin. He has to find out if it’s at all possible Merlin might not hate him forever, might even be... Arthur’s not really hoping that Merlin’s been dealt the same kind of hand Arthur’s holding, but he can’t help but wonder if Merlin might be more amenable than he’d thought to trying a different tactic than simple avoidance. Arthur squares his shoulders. He’ll never know if he doesn’t ask, and he’s dithered about asking for long enough.
Merlin’s doing a poor job of making himself scarce, and it’s easy for Arthur to pull him aside. “We have to talk.” He’s proud of how even his voice comes out, how confident it is without being overbearing.
Merlin won’t look at him. “I know.”
Arthur fiddles with his watch absently before he stops himself. “Can we—”
“Not exactly a good idea to do it here,” Merlin says with half a smile and a sideways glance at Arthur. “In the middle of all the best gossips in town.”
Arthur knows it’s only a delaying tactic but he lets it slide anyway. “You’re probably right. When?”
Merlin puts a hand to his eyes and drops it almost immediately, as if he realizes delaying more isn’t going to make Arthur go away. “Can it wait until after tomorrow?”
Arthur wants to say No, wants to drag Merlin into the house and have this out right now, but he knows better than to press the issue here. “Okay,” he says. “After tomorrow.” It gives Merlin plenty of time to wriggle out the conversation, maybe out of Arthur’s life entirely, but that’s a chance Arthur’s going to have to take. Merlin just nods and turns away without another look at Arthur, and it’s Arthur’s turn to rub his eyes. The shadows are stretching longer, and he slips away soon after, stopping by his father and Hunith to wish them happy anniversary for the first time in his life.
“I wish you could stay longer,” Hunith tells him with a hug, and he hugs her back a little harder than he’d meant to.
“Me too,” he says, “but Lance and Gwen will be expecting me.”
Hunith steps back and smiles. “I know; I shouldn’t begrudge them the happiness of seeing you. Go on with you, then.”
Arthur shakes hands with his father, and with one last hug he’s on his way, no less sure about life and Merlin than he’d been when he arrived.
He’s late for the rehearsal even though he runs nearly the entire way from the tube station to the hall Lance and Gwen have rented for the reception. Gwen pats his shoulder after he bursts in while he tries to catch his breath.
“You probably didn’t even really need to be here,” she tells him helpfully, “since it’s only the four of us anyway.”
“Now she tells me,” he wheezes, and they all laugh. He doesn’t really regret coming down, though; it gives him a little space to sort himself while Merlin is busy pretending nothing happened.
“Have you met Elaine?” Lance asks, and a stocky woman with glasses and strawberry blonde hair steps forward to give Arthur a firm handshake.
“I’m Lance’s maid of honour,” she explains, and Arthur shakes his head.
“You two really don’t do anything by halves, do you?” he says, and Lance and Gwen give him matching grins. “Of course not,” Lance says, and really, Arthur should have expected nothing less.
They all go out for dinner at a tiny, quiet restaurant; the owners come out from the kitchen to welcome Lance like a favourite son and make sure they all have the best of everything and plenty of it all evening. The conversation flows as easily as the wine, and Arthur is not at all surprised when he learns that Lance and Elaine met in the Caucasus, where Elaine has been researching for a book on Circassian history.
“She saved my life,” Lance says, “and in return she made me promise to invite her to my wedding.”
“It helps when the local leader of the Russian mafia has you over for family dinner once a week,” Elaine comments, off-hand. “And here I am, maid of honour to the finest couple I know.” She raises her glass. “May you never be so close to concrete shoes again.”
Arthur pauses before he seconds the toast. “I thought that was only in movies?”
“Hollywood doesn’t know the half of it,” Elaine tells him, completely straight-faced, and he has no idea if she’s actually joking. He isn’t sure he wants to know, so he just nods and smiles and raises his glass, and they toast to Lance and Gwen and benevolent Russian mob bosses with a softness for collectable porcelain picturing British royalty.
Despite the warm companionship of their little table, Arthur’s still antsy, unsettled, and he excuses himself as quickly as is polite when they finish and begin collecting themselves to leave. He goes straight home to the empty flat and turns no lights on, just goes straight to bed and lies there, staring up at the ceiling until he falls into an exhausted sleep.
He wakes to his alarm blaring, feeling as if he hasn’t slept at all, but he struggles out of bed nevertheless, going through the morning more or less by pure muscle memory before throwing on his rented tux and heading out the door.
When he gets to Gwen’s place, Lance is already there and dressed, rooting through some of the boxes of things from his own flat that are scattered haphazardly around and taking up most of Gwen’s floor space.
“Morning,” Arthur greets him, walking in without knocking since the door is wide open. “Ready for the big day?”
Lance grumbles something that might be anything from “I’ve lost my spoon,” to “I ritually sacrifice cheerful morning people to heathen gods.” Arthur, noticing that Lance has a ceremonial-looking dagger with a carved bone handle tied to the red sash at his waist, decides not to press his luck by engaging in real conversation.
“Is Gwen ready?” he asks, heading for the door he knows leads to the room she uses as an office.
That makes Lance finally look up. “No, don’t—” he exclaims, but it’s too late. There’s a lot of unusually high-pitched shrieking, and Arthur slams the door shut in a hurry, his eyes closed as tightly as possible from terror.
“I did try to warn you,” Lance points out with infuriating equanimity. Arthur remembers the dagger in time, and limits himself to glaring at Lance while Lance goes back to digging around in his boxes. Lance finally emerges with a funny-looking circular hat, crazily embroidered, and sets it on his head with an air of satisfaction. “Now I’m ready,” he announces.
“Good,” Arthur says. “Show me where Gwen’s hiding her coffee.”
True to form, Gwen and Lance have chosen to have their ceremony in a bloody field. Arthur supposes it’s picturesque and far nicer than many other places they could have chosen, but he’d appreciate it more if his nose would stop running like a faucet. He concentrates hard on smiling, ignoring the painful way his eyeballs itch, and that mostly works, especially when everything gets underway.
Gwen looks radiant in her simple dress, a crown of pale white and yellow flowers on her head that he’d helped pin down earlier after they’d all laughed off the embarrassment of him walking in on her and Elaine changing that morning. Well, Gwen had laughed; Elaine had marched out in a dress that resembled nothing so much as a bizarre muumuu and thumped him hard before considering the matter closed.
The ceremony is short, and Arthur only really listens to the vows which Gwen and Lance wrote themselves—he’s too busy scanning the small crowd for Merlin to pay attention. He sees Will and Morgana easily enough, sitting together near the front and still arguing, and nods to Leon, who’s a few rows behind them. He finally finds Merlin hidden in the middle of everyone, and nearly overlooks him a third time before his eye catches on Merlin’s lurid turquoise tie. Arthur recognizes it because it’s his—he’d left it at home when they’d moved out because it hurts his eyes and he can’t stand looking at it, let alone wearing it. He wonders why Merlin has it on, and wonders... He stops himself. Hunith is probably somehow behind it. She wouldn’t have let Merlin walk out of the house on the way to a wedding without a tie, and maybe Merlin had forgotten his own.
He wants to ask Merlin about it, because it would be one way of starting a conversation that might theoretically lead into the conversation Arthur really wants to have with Merlin, which has less to do with tie selections and much more to do with “why the fuck did you kiss me and disappear my pants and make me come in my boxers like a teenager; seriously, where the fuck did that come from, and does this mean we can never be friends again,” because if that’s the way things are playing out then Arthur officially hates this game. Merlin disappears while Arthur is a prisoner of the photographer, though, and Arthur ends up riding to the reception with Elaine and Leon, who are pretending not to flirt while they argue over directions and doing a terrible job of it.
His luck doesn’t improve when they finally pull up in front of the hall, either; Elaine drags him up to the front table before he can escape. The meal is good, probably, but he doesn’t taste a bit of it, too busy trying to see over Lance’s shoulder to where he can just make out Merlin and Morgana with their heads together.
He gives his speech off-the-cuff, and it must be okay because people laugh and clap for him, and then Lance and Gwen are pushing cake into each other’s faces and finally, finally he’s free to track down and buttonhole Merlin as the band starts playing.
Merlin is craftier than Arthur expects, though, and leaves Morgana to intercept Arthur before he even gets near Merlin.
“Is your card full already, or may I have this dance?” she asks.
He wavers, looking for an out. “I... no. That is, yes. I’ll dance with you,” he says at last, reluctant, and she tugs him out under the coloured lights of the dance floor.
Arthur hates waltzing—why couldn’t Gwen and Lance do one thing normally and hire a DJ or something instead of a bloody orchestra, even if they are friends with the quintet playing?—but more than plain waltzing he hates waltzing with Morgana. He’s no great shakes at any sort of dancing that involves rhythm, but Morgana hasn’t been taking Saturday ballroom classes for eight years for nothing, and she inevitably pulls him around until he’s thoroughly disgruntled and dizzy and feels like one of the fairy tale princes who are danced to death by evil spirits.
She takes it easy on him tonight, and it doesn’t take him long to figure out why.
““You and Merlin had it off, didn’t you,” she says, ignoring all his attempts to lead as per usual.
He’s pretty sure from the heat on his face that he looks instantly guilty. “No. Why would you think that?”
“Come off it, Arthur. The two of you haven’t spoken once, and you keep staring at each other when you think the other isn’t looking. It’s not exactly the epitome of subtle.”
“I am not staring at him!” Arthur argues instead of asking if Merlin really is looking at him. Morgana gives him a flat look, and Arthur sags. “It’s nothing big,” he lies.
“Really? Because it looks like a pretty fucking huge problem from here.”
“Clearly you’re delusional,” he insists stoutly, and she stops dead. Arthur barely manages to skip out of the way of another couple before Morgana is yanking him across the room and into a narrow hallway.
“Ow, what his wrong with you?” he demands. “Why do all our conversations have to end up in small spaces?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” she tells him. “Tell me everything.” She has his arm firmly in his grip, her nails digging hard into his flesh; Arthur is suddenly very aware that she’s wearing dangerously sharp stilettos and knows exactly where to press for the maximum amount of pain and the minimum amount of blood spatter to clean up afterward. He sighs.
“We were drunk,” he starts, and from there it’s easy to tell the story—not all of it, there are limits to what even Morgana can wring out of him, but enough of it to grasp the gist of the mess he’s in.
She lets go of him when he finishes and whistles through her teeth, a habit Uther has always hated and Arthur is still jealous of. “I was wrong,” she says. “You’re both idiots. What the hell were you thinking?”
“Do you know the average lifespan of a relationship?” she demands, interrupting Arthur. “Too short to fuck around destroying things by doing stupid things like this.” She waves a hand angrily at Arthur, somehow indicating whatever he and Merlin have ever done that goes outside the bounds of normal friend-brothership. “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur says, feeling a little resentful because he knows she’s probably right. “Look for a new place, I suppose.”
“Wrong!’ The finger she points in his face has a very sharp, scarlet nail, and he nearly goes cross-eyed trying to watch it. “You’re going to go find him right now and fix this.” He blinks at her, wrong-footed by the change in her tune. “You are not going to move, either of you, because I’ve already given you flat-warming presents and you’re not getting more.”
“I thought you were against this!” he replies a little rebelliously, and she glares at him fiercely. “Weren’t you the one telling me to stay away from Merlin?”
“It’s too late for that now; that was before I knew how catastrophically hopeless you were,” she informs him, “and if you split now things will never be right between you, and I will be the one Hunith calls and worries to. At this point I don’t care how you do it, just make it better.”
“Can we split if we’re not actually a couple?” he asks snidely, and she snaps at him.
“You’re a couple of morons is what you are.” She shoves him, and for a moment he thinks she’s actually going to kick him in the arse. “Go find him, or I will make sure your life is a misery.”
Merlin doesn’t take much finding: when Arthur emerges from the hallway he’s just in time to see Merlin slip off in the direction of the door, but by the time he gets outside himself, Merlin’s already gone. Arthur stands there debating for a moment, torn. In the end, though, he has better manners than to disappear without saying goodbye, so he finds Gwen and Lance and gives them his best wishes before heading out into the balmy night himself. He doesn’t know where Merlin’s gone, exactly—he could be anywhere—but he follows a hunch to their flat, reasoning that Merlin would want to at least change out of the terrible tie he’s wearing before fleeing to Peru or to Will’s.
The lights are on when he opens the door, and there’s something in the microwave. Soup, Arthur sees when he peers into the window, and when it’s finished he reaches in to take it out. Soup has always been Merlin’s go-to comfort food; Arthur remembers all the soup Merlin had made him when he’d been sick and can’t help but smile. The soup is hot, and Arthur almost burns himself on the bowl. When he turns to set it down, swearing softly, Merlin’s there, watching him with one shoulder hunched up uncomfortably. Merlin’s already changed out of his suit into a ratty t-shirt and rattier jogging bottoms. His feet are bare, and Arthur takes marginal comfort in the fact that if he is fleeing the country, he’ll probably need to put on socks first.
“Your soup’s done,” Arthur says unnecessarily, doing his best to sound offhand and not at all succeeding. “Where should I, uh—”
Merlin grabs a spoon from the drying rack. “Thanks,” he says, and Arthur realizes he’s going to retreat back to his room and probably shut the door and refuse to come out again, and then they’ll never, ever talk about any of this. Arthur has zero patience for that kind of game right now.
“Weren’t we going to talk?” he blurts before Merlin reaches out for the bowl.
Arthur can’t tell if Merlin’s shoulders sag before Merlin half-turns back to him. “Do we have to do it now?”
Arthur crosses his arms, stubborn. “Are we ever going to talk about it?” he demands.
Merlin clearly wants to say No, but he lets the soup alone and crosses his own arms in turn, waiting, and suddenly Arthur has no idea what to say. Maybe Merlin will say something first, he thinks, anything to cut through the air that’s gone abruptly thick between them.
“I don’t know what there is to talk about,” Merlin says at last, which isn’t exactly what Arthur had been hoping for. “It was one night. It was a terrible decision. It’s not like it’s going to become a thing between us.”
Arthur swallows back everything he really wants to say to that, which is mostly along the lines of why the fuck not?. “I suppose this means you’re definitely leaving,” he says carefully instead.
Merlin looks down, poking at the soup with his spoon. “Yeah,” he replies. “Found a place nearer campus I can afford. I was going to tell you next week.”
“Well,” Arthur starts, and stops. “That’s good,” he tries lamely.
Merlin shrugs, just a brief hunch of one shoulder. “It’ll do.”
“You don’t sound thrilled.” It’s probably all wishful thinking on his part, mixed with the fact that he may be a little delirious with all the sleep he’s missed recently, but Arthur has to know. He has to know if Merlin’s been looking at him just to look at him, or if there might be—
“Of course I am,” Merlin argues stoutly, and then seems to realize how that comes off. “Not that I—look, you know I don’t hate living with you.”
Arthur can’t help the bitter twist in his mouth. “Could have fooled me.” Merlin’s face darkens, his eyebrows furrowing together, and Arthur scrubs at his hair with one hand, feeling more exhausted than ever and irritated with himself for being so petty. “Forget I said that.” Maybe Merlin had a point: they shouldn’t be talking about anything until Arthur’s brain feels less like something that’s been trampled and left to sit in the sun for a week.
“I should change,” he says when the heavy quiet stretches too long between them.
“Wearing a suit always makes you grumpy,” Merlin agrees, obviously trying to lighten the mood, but Arthur doesn’t smile. It’s not the suit driving him mad, not the suit fueling the itch under his skin, although it’s uncomfortable and the shoes pinch.
He leans forward on his hands, balancing his weight on the worktop, and lets out a slow breath. Maybe he has been imagining everything; maybe the looks he’d thought Merlin had been giving him weren’t looks at all. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything that Merlin was wearing Arthur’s tie. “Merlin...”
Merlin walks past him to look out the window over the sink. “What do you want from me, Arthur,” he says, too-quiet, falling just short of being a question.
Arthur can’t help but laugh—a dry, rattling sort of chuckle—because how can he possibly say what he wants? His desires run too deep for words; he wants Merlin, yeah, but he wants all of Merlin, every annoying quirk, every endearing habit, every molecule of his body, but he wants it freely given.
“I want,” he starts, at a loss, and reaches out to touch Merlin’s shoulder. He only means to brush his fingers over Merlin’s shirt, the familiar lines of his body, a half-attempt to make Merlin turn around, but Merlin jumps under the touch instead. Arthur’s close enough to feel the shiver that runs through him at the touch: not quite a shudder but a fine trembling that Arthur might not have even noticed except that he’s felt it himself, every time Merlin accidentally knocked against him.
He catches at Merlin’s arm before he thinks, before Merlin can pull away again. “Sorry!” Merlin says. He’s speaking quickly, trying to subtly tug his arm free. “I wasn’t expecting... I didn’t...”
“Just tired, and you know how I get when I haven’t slept—”
Merlin clamps his mouth shut and looks at Arthur, and Arthur thinks: I do know. He knows Merlin gets irritable when he hasn’t eaten, knows how the corners of his eyes droop when he’s bored and trying to hide it, knows the rhythms his fingers drum on the table when he’s thinking, knows the words to every song Merlin mangles in the shower. And he might, just now, be starting to form an idea of how Merlin acts when he—when—
“Tell me,” Arthur says slowly. “Tell me, the other night, after Gwen and Lance’s party... tell me it wasn’t just me that felt something. Something more, I mean; tell me it wasn’t me that couldn’t get enough. Tell me it wasn’t just the alcohol in those fucking umbrella drinks.”
“I was very drunk,” Merlin whispers, but there’s something vulnerable hiding in his face, and it’s enough to make Arthur throw every sort of caution, all of Morgana’s warnings, out the window.
“That’s not a no.” There’s something thick and powerful building in the back of Arthur’s throat; he can feel the beat of his heart through it.
“No,” Merlin agrees softly. “It’s not a no.” He looks like he wants to pull away, drop his eyes, but he keeps looking at Arthur.
“What is it?” Arthur prods, losing all sense of self-preservation. “Merlin, it’s been fucking killing me for too long, not being able to touch you, and I can’t—I can’t not know anymore.” He brings his other hand up carefully, brushing his fingers lightly, carefully along Merlin’s arm. Merlin shivers again when Arthur cups his jaw, fingertips just brushing the soft skin behind Merlin’s ear.
“You’re not alone,” Merlin whispers, barely leaning into Arthur’s touch. “I want... Arthur, god, I’ve wanted to...” he stops, struggling, and Arthur can barely breathe through the pressure building in him.
“Stop me if I’m wrong,” he murmurs, but Merlin doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything except take another shuddery breath, closing his eyes, and that’s more than Arthur can cope with right now.
It’s nothing like before, nothing like he’d imagined it would be. His fantasies have been heavily weighted toward ripping buttons and desperate hands and Merlin’s mouth hot and hungry on his own. He blames the influence of Morgana’s extensive Mills & Boone collection—which he’d only read in order to make fun of her—and he’s glad, a little, that this isn’t like that at all. Maybe they’re both still too cautious, hesitant to invest too much in this, to push further; maybe it’s just that they’re both exhausted; but the kiss is almost calm, a quiet exploration. Merlin relaxes against Arthur, and his hands come up to rest on Arthur’s shoulders, warm against the curve of Arthur’s neck before he slides one hand up to run his fingers through Arthur’s hair. Arthur lets himself fall into the kiss, giving himself over to the sensation of Merlin’s fingertips catching a little against his skin, Merlin’s tongue licking deeper into his mouth.
Merlin’s the one who breaks away, though he keeps tracing his fingers along the curves of Arthur’s face, lays light kisses on the corners of Arthur’s mouth and his cheekbones, staying close. “I’ve wanted to do that for... I don’t know how long. Ages.”
Arthur leans his forehead against Merlin’s. “But you,” he says, confused. “But you and Cedric...”
“I never said I was smart about it,” Merlin confesses. “I never said I made good choices.”
Arthur whuffs a laugh and brushes their noses together. The pressure has run out of him; it feels disorienting, like his feet aren’t quite touching the ground. “Can we,” he starts, and he doesn’t care if he sounds like the lamest old boring fart that ever farted. “I feel like my eyeballs are full of sand. Do you mind if we maybe... sleep?” Merlin pulls back to look at him, and Arthur clarifies: “I want this, but I want to be awake for it.” Now that he’s stopped moving, now that the sick tension has drained out of him, he feels about as energetic as an overcooked noodle. “I think I might fall over,” he confesses, and he can feel the low vibration of Merlin’s chuckle.
“Come on, then,” Merlin says, and pulls him down the hall. There’s a brief awkward moment at Merlin’s door when Arthur hesitates and says: “I guess—until tomorrow, then?” but Merlin rolls his eyes and tells him not to be an idiot before tugging him inside and down to the bed, curling up around him. Arthur falls asleep before he can do much more than notice how their angles knock together, odd and uncomfortable and exactly right.
He wakes to rain lashing against the windows and Merlin quietly drooling on his shoulder. He looks at Merlin for a moment as thunder grumbles somewhere in the distance, half-afraid to move in case this is all just another dream. The rain keeps coming down, though, and Merlin keeps sleeping, his breath light and steady against Arthur’s skin. In the end, Arthur eases his shoulder free because he might be on the verge of falling stupidly in love with Merlin but that doesn’t mean he suddenly enjoys being drooled on. Merlin mutters something too garbled to make out and tucks a possessive arm around Arthur’s stomach. Well, Arthur thinks, settling back against the pillow, he wasn’t all that set on getting up anyway, and he goes back to sleep.
The next time he wakes the rain has slowed somewhat and Merlin’s sitting cross-legged on the opposite side of the bed, studying him closely. Arthur feels a stirring in his chest, small tremors of worry starting somewhere under his ribs. What if Merlin’s having second thoughts, wants to—
“Morning,” Merlin says, his voice still scratchy from sleep, and leans forward on his elbows, bringing his face close to Arthur’s. Arthur thinks he’s going for a kiss, but Merlin pauses, hesitating until Arthur closes the distance between them and gives him a soft kiss.
“We still haven’t finished talking,” Arthur says when they part, and Merlin rolls onto his back, looking up at the ceiling. His shoulder is pressing comfortably against Arthur’s. “You and all this talking,” he complains, but Arthur can tell his heart isn’t in it.
Arthur turns his head to look at Merlin. “It’s not like I want this to be difficult—”
“So don’t make it difficult.”
“Like you have room to talk,” Arthur shoots back, but without any heat. “It’s not simple. It’s not like I can just take you home to meet my parents.”
“Why not?” Merlin asks, sitting up again. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. We aren’t actually related, Arthur. The only DNA we have in common is that we’re both human.” He cracks a smile. “You have an excess of prat genes, and are clearly not actually related to me.”
“Oh, I’m the prat.” Arthur gripes, and sits up to loop his arms around his knees while Merlin keeps talking.
“If our parents—or anyone—has issues with us, that’s their problem, not ours.”
“But we do have problems,” Arthur argues. “Merlin, we have enough issues to fuel three talk shows for a year.”
“Yeah, probably,” Merlin says, and is quiet a moment. “But... you like me, in a more-than-friends, non-heterosexual way?”
“I—well, yeah, but—”
“In a non-one-night-stand way?” Arthur can tell Merlin’s trying to whip the questions off as casually as he can, but he doesn’t quite manage it.
“Definitely,” Arthur says firmly. “Merlin—”
“Then I don’t know what more we should talk about right now,” Merlin tells him. “Because I can give you the same answers.”
“Can you?” Arthur can’t hide the insecurity in the question, and Merlin moves closer to Arthur, looking at him with quiet, definite intent.
“Let me show you,” he says, and leans down to press their lips together.
This kiss keeps going, past good morning, past the quiet hesitance of the night before. Merlin crawls over Arthur, fitting their bodies together and pushing Arthur down into the mattress, and Arthur lets him, stretching his arms above his head and drinking Merlin in. It turns messy, slick, Merlin’s mouth sliding off of Arthur’s to press against his eyelids, the shell of his ear; Arthur catches Merlin’s chin in his teeth and bites, gently.
Merlin hisses at that and grabs Arthur’s hands, pressing them close together, and god, Arthur thinks, god, Merlin is hard and so is he, his cock filling as Merlin moves against him; he doesn’t try to stop his hips from rocking up.
“Arthur,” Merlin says in a tone that almost sounds like wonder, and dives into another kiss.
They’ve tipped over some invisible level into urgency, tongues and legs twisting together as they both battle for more, for control. Arthur tries to flip them over but Merlin still has his wrists pinned above his head, has his hips pinned beneath Merlin’s weight, and all the squirming Arthur does only brings him closer to the edge.
“I kissed you once,” Arthur mutters into the hollow of Merlin’s throat, lips just brushing skin, “when you were asleep.” He feels the shiver of remembered shame, the grimy heat of it, but it’s cut off by Merlin arching against him.
“Did you,” Merlin says, breathless, and moves until he can hold both of Arthur’s wrists in one hand, using the other to push at Arthur’s boxers.
“The night you came for my graduation,” Arthur confesses. “I know you wouldn’t wake up—fuck,” he interrupts himself, “fuck, Merlin...” because Merlin has his hand in Arthur’s (boxers) now, curling his long fingers around Arthur’s cock, and god, Arthur’s so hard, aching with it— “Come on,” he pants, pushing his hips up to encourage Merlin to fucking move already. “Come on, take it out.”
“Since then?” Merlin asks, stilling for just a moment before rearing back, yanking Arthur’s boxers down past his knees and taking his dick in hand again.
“Since always,” Arthur says, and maybe he’s exaggerating, half-delirious with arousal, but the words feel true: Arthur’s wanted Merlin since Merlin first kicked him in the shin, wanted to hit him and invent secret handshakes for the two of them and be the one Merlin looked for first on the playground—“Christ, yeah,” he gasps when Merlin gives a twisting flick of his wrist. “Yeah, like that, Merlin...”
Merlin does it again, and Arthur makes an embarrassing whining noise. “I’ve thought about you,” Merlin whispers, leaning down until his breath is hot and damp on Arthur’s ear, “since we moved into this flat. I thought about how you’d look spread out and open on my mattress, touched myself and imagine it was you, that neither of us could sleep and you’d crawl into bed with me...”
“Fuck, you idiot,” Arthur swears, because they could have been doing this months ago, and Merlin bites him in retaliation, nipping hard at his skin while he hand works steadily along Arthur’s dick, faster now; Arthur can hear the filthy noises it’s making, the slick slide of skin on skin, and when Merlin groans: “Arthur,” he comes, back arching, trying unsuccessfully to tug his hands free so he can stifle the wild moan that rips its way out of his throat.
Merlin brings him through it, takes every drop of it out of Arthur until Arthur can’t do anything but sag back against the mattress, still shuddering, and then Merlin’s moving again, letting go of Arthur’s hands to sit back and push at his own boxers frantically, freeing his cock, hard and dark red and already slick. Arthur thinks briefly, hazily, that he should return the favour, but he feels too drained to move; his arms and fingers are tingling as the feeling rushes back into them. Merlin doesn’t take long, either—a few hard pulls are enough before he’s coming, squeezing his eyes tight and biting his lip hard as his cock jerks, come going all over the skin of Arthur’s belly.
They fall asleep with their legs tangled together, and when Arthur wakes again it’s past four and he’s starving. Merlin’s sprawled beside him, looking content and adorably ugly in sleep, and Arthur marvels at this, at them, at Merlin asleep and naked next to him. He doesn’t lay there for long—he’s itchy in uncomfortable places—before rolling himself out of bed and shuffling down the hall to the shower.
Freshly bathed and wearing an old shirt of Merlin’s with clean boxers, Arthur considers the question of food. His first thought is to order out, but he isn’t actually sure where his wallet is; somewhere in a pile of clothes on the floor, he assumes. In the end he pulls out a box of spaghetti and a jar of tomato sauce he doesn’t remember buying and decides pasta will have to be enough.
The water’s nearly boiling when Merlin pads out into the kitchen wearing only a pair of black boxers, his hair damp from his own shower and curling a little at the ends. “Tomato sauce?” he asks, scratching at his stomach absently before hoisting himself up to sit on the counter, legs swinging.
“Pasta,” Arthur agrees. “How’d you guess?”
Merlin juts his chin out toward the sink. “Saw the jar,” he says, grinning, and this is just like normal, this is how they’re supposed to be, how they were before everything went sour.
There’s a difference now, though, Arthur thinks as Merlin catches him staring and flushes just enough to go a little pink in the cheeks. He’s allowed to touch now.
He’s still tentative when he reaches out, but Merlin folds their fingers together and pulls Arthur in close between his legs. “Hey,” he says, quiet.
“Hey,” Arthur says back with what he’s sure is a very foolish smile, and he’s about to kiss a very eager-looking Merlin again when the buzzer for the door goes off.
“Shit,” Merlin moans, letting his forehead drop onto Arthur’s shoulder. “It’s probably Morgana; she said she’d come by today for my pictures from the anniversary party and the wedding.”
“So we pretend we’re not here,” Arthur says, but Merlin’s already pushing him away and trying to scrub his hair into order.
“She has a key,” he reminds Arthur, flopping into his armchair and closing his eyes in apparent frustration, but he pulls a blanket over himself at least. Arthur looks around for something to cover himself with, but the only thing within reach is his old robe Merlin’s been using occasionally as a cleaning rag.
Arthur’s still tying the belt around his waist when he pushes the intercom button. “Hello?”
“Arthur, let me up.” Morgana’s voice is unmistakable.
He knows it’s inevitable but he still tries to stall. “Right now? It’s—” he checks the clock but it’s early evening; there’s no excuse not to let her in.
“Yes, of course now,” Morgana snaps. “Why would I—oh, Christ.” It’s startling, how quickly her tone flips from irritation to horror. “You and Merlin are going at it like rabbits, aren’t you?”
“Morgana!” Arthur yelps, scandalized, and Morgana sighs into the intercom, the noise crackling over the tinny speaker. “Christ,” she says again. “Please put clothes on and let me up so I can start forgetting this moment as soon as possible.”
“I amclothed,” he objects, but there’s nothing to do but buzz her up. She enters the flat gingerly, as if she’s expecting to catch them in obscene acts, and Arthur glares at her.
“My camera’s in my room,” Merlin calls out; Arthur sighs and stalks off to go rifle through the top layers of stuff on Merlin’s desk. Morgana’s already patting the outside pockets of her purse, and as Arthur ducks out he can hear Merlin saying, “Stop looking for your cigarettes.”
“I think I deserve a smoke after walking in on the two of you,” Morgana’s objecting when Arthur returns, camera and memory stick in hand.
“No,” Merlin says firmly, and Morgana subsides, muttering. She gives Arthur a dark look.
“So,” she says. “You averted the crisis. For now.”
“For now,” Arthur agrees. “No telling my father or Hunith,” he adds as an afterthought. “Or else.”
“Oh,” Morgana says, “like I’m going to be scared of a man who’s wearing a monogrammed robe.”
Arthur tugs the robe tighter around himself defensively. “Uncle Gary gave it to me, and you can’t judge; I know you have one too.”
“I threw mine out ages ago,” Morgana says scornfully. “When I was twelve.”
“Stop stalling,” Merlin calls out, and makes a rude noise when she turns her warning look on him. “You’re just trying to pry.”
“I can make your life miserable too,” she informs him. “Both of you, if this experiment goes all...”
“If we fuck things up, it’s our own damn fault,” Arthur says. “We’re adults, you know. You’re supposed to let us make our own mistakes.”
“You are infants,” Morgana replies, “but you’re right.” She regards them a moment longer, and then, unexpectedly, pulls Arthur into a hug. It’s sort of nice, in a frightening, possibly life-threatening kind of way.
“If you break his heart,” she whispers in his ear, “I will cut you so hard you won’t know what hit you.”
When she pulls away again, she’s smiling. “Glad we had this little chat,” she says. “Resume whatever you were doing, and I will pretend that you are scrapbooking.”
“Scrapbooking?” Arthur asks incredulously, but the door’s already closing behind her. Arthur stares after her. “She is impossible,” he says. “Impossible and terrifying.”
“She cares about you,” Merlin pipes up from the armchair, and Arthur snorts.
“Sure,” he says. “Like a snake cares about its victims being alive before it devours them whole. Dinner should be done,” he says, changing the subject before Merlin can say anything else about Morgana, because Morgana is not really who he wants to be thinking about right now.
“Hmm.” Merlin gets up out of his chair slowly, uncurling his limbs in a way that should definitely not be allowed, Arthur thinks, or at least only allowed where Arthur and no one else is able to appreciate it. “Certainly looks ready to me.” He’s very blatantly staring at Arthur, not the food, and it takes Arthur all of the few seconds he has before Merlin backs him up against the worktop to realize that spaghetti isn’t on the menu quite yet.
Merlin kisses him hard, messy, until Arthur is dizzy from it, clinging shamelessly to Merlin’s shoulders when his knees go wobbly beneath him.
“Keen, are you?” Arthur says, trying for suave, but the effect is ruined when his voice breaks and goes up embarrassingly on the last syllable.
“You have no idea,” Merlin says with a sly grin, sliding a hand under the elastic of Arthur’s boxers. “Do you know how sexy you are when Morgana flusters you?”
“Please don’t ever mention Morgana and sexy again in the same sentence,” Arthur says, aggrieved, and then Merlin does something clever with his fingers and oh, oh, that is not playing fair. “Stop, Merlin, not here, it’s not—ah—the food’ll burn and it isn’t hy—hygienic—”
Merlin huffs, but changes tactics, crowding Arthur out of the kitchen so fast their knees bang together and Arthur barely has time to turn off the hobs. They don’t make it far before Merlin loses all patience and shoves Arthur down onto the nearest piece of furniture—his armchair—falling to his knees between Arthur’s legs.
Merlin sucks him deep and filthy until Arthur comes, gasping for breath, his fingers dug deep into the nubby fabric of the armchair. Merlin looks so damned satisfied, licking Arthur’s come off his swollen lips, that Arthur can’t help but haul him up, kissing him fiercely to scoop his own taste out of Merlin’s mouth while he worms a hand into Merlin’s boxers to pull him off in a few strokes, Merlin squirming and panting delightfully.
They eat dinner late, wearing only their boxers, and Merlin flicks sauce at Arthur and then tries to lick it off him, which leads somehow to Arthur having a go at sucking Merlin’s cock. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and he doesn’t see any advantage from this end until he gets the hang of it enough to look up at Merlin, who has his head tipped back and is biting his lip hard, his face screwed up in ecstasy, and Arthur comes without so much as touching himself at the sight.
Arthur wakes slowly the next morning, sun streaming onto his empty bed, to the smell of burning bacon.
“Good morning, my little sausage roll,” Merlin says when Arthur skids out into the kitchen.
“What?” The worry leaves Arthur’s chest in a hurry, replaced by absolute horror.
“I thought we should start experimenting with pet names,” Merlin explains. “What do you think?”
“Oh my god, I think I liked it better when I thought you hated me,” Arthur groans, and goes to investigate the source of the burning smell.
“It’s just a little crispy,” Merlin lies, hovering over him with a spatula in his hand. “I had everything under control.”
Arthur relieves Merlin of the spatula and pokes suspiciously at the bacon. He didn’t know bacon could get that dark. “I don’t think it’s salvageable,” he says firmly, but Merlin is undaunted.
“It’s really not,” Arthur says, but there’s a helpless, fond feeling overwhelming him, and after he bins the bacon he tugs at Merlin, pulling him in so Arthur can wrap his arms around him and kiss his pout away. Merlin only makes a peeved hmph noise at first, but Arthur’s persistent, lavishes slow kisses on Merlin until Merlin finally gives in with a sigh and a poorly-hidden smile, his own arms sliding easy around Arthur’s waist.
They eat cereal instead, curled up together on Arthur’s bed, and after Arthur sets his bowl aside it’s easy, so easy to roll over Merlin, prop himself up on his elbows and kiss Merlin again; kiss him and keep kissing him until the world narrows. There’s just this, just Merlin pressed against him warm and happy and kissing him back, making little surprised, contented sounds when Arthur shifts and really, Arthur thinks, as fun as it was living with his best friend, it has nothing on this.