His mum’s words (“It’ll be great, Merlin, you always worry needlessly”) ring mockingly in his ears as Britain’s golden boy of tennis, Arthur Pendragon, pulls his arm back to finish off the third set and send Valiant Greene back to Ireland with his arse handed to him – and then promptly falls forward with a shout, his face twisted in a grimace that makes Dr Gaius suck in a sharp breath. The crowd goes eerily quiet and there’s a collective breath held as everyone waits for Arthur to start walking it off and wave cockily at them. And he has to, because this is fucking Wimbledon and Britain is going to win for the first time in the history of colour television.
Arthur sinks to the ground and it’s as if the stands themselves sigh when every single person in the arena lets out their breath in a disbelieving groan. The job is over for Arthur Pendragon, tennis star, and it begins for Merlin Emrys, clueless newbie on the medical team.
Worst first day ever.
Merlin’s professional relationship with Arthur Pendragon doesn’t begin as well as he’d hoped. Even though he’d been vocally pessimistic about starting this new job, he had, admittedly, seen himself joke effortlessly with Arthur as he massaged his sore muscles and prepped him for each match, congratulating him on winning so spectacularly and possibly even being pulled into the celebrations for being such a top notch member of the medical team.
In reality, Arthur has an arm slung over his eyes while the other hand clenches and relaxes in turn when Merlin steps up to the table. Dr Gaius will be there eventually, but Merlin needs to assess the damage as soon as possible. The problem is that Merlin’s mum certainly did not raise him to start pawing at strangers without introducing himself first.
“Hi, I’m Merlin,” he says brightly, looking down at Arthur for a moment before putting one gentle, but firm hand at Arthur’s injured leg. “I’m the new guy? Yeah, I started today taking over for Cenred. I heard he was all creepy and handsy and I swear I’m not like that all. I’m only as handsy as I need to be. Of course, I do have to touch you a little but there’s a barrier there, you know? I don’t –”
“Will you shut the fuck up?” Arthur shouts, his voice strangled with pain. “Bugger fucking fuck.”
Merlin snaps his mouth shut and yeah, he had been rambling a little while Arthur was writhing in pain, which might not have been the best idea. He really should apologise, probably.
“No need to be all prickly about it,” he says instead and that was really a very bad choice.
He realises this because Arthur drops the hand from his eyes and glares daggers at him.
“Who the hell sent you to deal with this?” he spits, his breath stuttering slightly as Merlin stretches his leg out.
“That’s actually what I was trying to tell you when you interrupted me,” Merlin points out. “I work under Gaius in replacement of Cenred, so Gaius sent me. We’ll need to send you to get x-rayed.”
Arthur’s lips twist into a grimace.
“The good old x,” Merlin says to lighten the mood. “X-rated.” He draws out the syllables, smiling at Arthur encouragingly.
“Get. Out,” Arthur yells, managing to reach the shoe they had slipped off his foot and sends it hurtling after Merlin who ducks out the door.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Merlin says thoughtfully to Gaius as he feels Arthur glaring a hole in his head from the x-ray machine.
Gaius doesn’t look up from his notes. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Something hits Merlin in the back of the head and he clutches a hand to it, looking back over his shoulder with narrowed eyes.
“Arthur,” Gaius says, sounding tired. “Stop harassing our new medical assistant, we’re going to need him to get you back in time for the Olympics, you know.”
Arthur groans in reply.
Merlin had spent a fair amount of time ranting at his mum about his first day and then talked Elena’s ear full over a pint about how much of a knobber Arthur is, but then there comes a point when Merlin steps onto the training court and sees Arthur sitting in the stands with his arms supported on his knees, looking out at the empty area with his jaw set tightly. And Merlin has to admit that maybe he’s been a little self-centred about the whole thing.
Sure, it had been Merlin’s first day and he’d been nervous, not knowing entirely how to deal with something like that on his first sodding day on the job, but Arthur had been injured during Wimbledon of all things. He’d had to forfeit, robbing Britain of yet another chance at finally winning Wimbledon and on top of it all, the London Olympics are only a few weeks away.
It makes Merlin feel a little silly, because comparatively, his problems are not exactly to that extent. The worst of his problems is that Arthur didn’t take time to instantly love him when he was losing out on his chance at winning Wimbledon of all things.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as his mother always says.
He tries to ignore the twinge of embarrassment and guilt as he climbs up into the stands, nearly tumbling over when his foot hooks onto one of the benches, but he makes his way to Arthur relatively unscathed.
“I’ve got your training schedule,” he says, holding out a piece of paper as he sits down. “Ready for it yet? I can only give it to you if you’re truly ready to embark on this journey.”
Arthur just hums noncommittally, not even smiling a little as he reaches out for it. As he reads, Merlin watches him intently and notes how his face hardens, his fingers crumpling the paper as he grips too hard.
“Look,” Merlin says, putting both legs down on the bench below and pressing his palms to his knees, “I know it’s a lot less practising than you’d prefer. To be honest, I think the amount of practising you prefer is fucking insane and so does every normal person in Britain. And normally that’d be fine, I’d be over here cheering like an idiot over your crazy practising, but you need to recuperate.”
Arthur just stares down at the paper, looking closed off and a little lost, and Merlin feels a little lost as well because he doesn’t know Arthur. He doesn’t know how to get through to him or what would make him feel better. Other people would take that as a sign that they should stop talking, but Merlin has never been quite like other people, so there’s that.
“If I catch you overexerting yourself I will have to punish you.”
The corner of Arthur’s mouth twitches a little and Merlin has to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from bursting out into some little cry of victory.
“And how on earth would you punish me?” Arthur says. “If my dad didn’t kill you, the rest of Britain surely would.”
Merlin shrugs. “I’ll think of something. I’ll find all the music you hate and put it on an eternal loop. Or change all the names in your phone so you can’t figure out who’s calling you.”
“You’re diabolical,” Arthur says dryly.
“I’m serious, though.” Merlin nods towards the sheet of paper. “There’s every chance that you’ll be ready in time for the Olympics, but if you want to be you’ll have to do what we tell you to and not follow your own whims.”
“Why would I?”
Merlin looks at him, studying the proud set of his jaw, the squared shoulders, the stubborn line between his eyes.
“I know how this goes,” he says, picking his words carefully. “You’ll start to feel better and you’ll want to push yourself. You want to get the most out of your time before the Olympics, so you think you can push the limits and you’ll get impatient. You’ll think that you know your body better than we do, but honestly, you won’t. It tricks you.”
Arthur looks out over the court, his jaw working as he gets a faraway look in his eyes.
“This schedule, it won’t be enough. If I follow it, I’ll never be in the shape to win.”
Merlin looks at him, lips pursed, wondering if Arthur is the type who wants to be placated or if he wants honesty. In the end Merlin figures he’s never been the person to sugar-coat things and he’s not really about to start now.
“If you don’t follow it you might end up not playing at all.”
Arthur looks at him then, his eyes wide and unable to hide a hint of the panic that seems to simmer under his cool surface.
“It’s the London Olympics,” he says, his voice a little strained. “I’ve been working for this for bloody years. I’ve fucked up relationships over this. I’ve lost friends over this. Do you get that?”
“Yeah,” Merlin says not missing a beat. “That’s what happens to everyone who sacrifices something for what they want. So are you going to throw all of your hard work away on being impatient and too proud to listen to people who know what they’re talking about or are you gonna suck it up and do what needs to be done?”
Arthur doesn’t answer.
It’s unbearable. Trying to keep Arthur Pendragon from being... well, Arthur Pendragon is a full-time job. And yes, Merlin does know he is technically hired in a full-time position as a medical assistant, but he had never actually thought this would include spending hours trying to keep the golden boy of tennis focused while said golden boy makes moony eyes at Gwaine and Lance as they play.
At first, Merlin had wondered if Arthur was in some kind of secret relationship with one of them, but then he realised Arthur’s relationship is not at all secret: it’s with tennis. He is, honest to whatever gods there may be, making moony eyes at a tennis court.
“My eyes are up here,” Merlin says in a joke that falls completely flat when Arthur just looks at him sullenly.
“Do they pay you per joke or something? Is this a new inventive system of payment that I’m not yet aware of?” Arthur shifts under Merlin’s firm grip and Merlin has to flex his fingers against Arthur’s thigh to remind him what they’re doing. It’s a bit like chastising a horse. “If it is, I should have a talk with dad because it gets extremely tedious.”
Merlin presses at Arthur’s muscles with practised fingers, trying to channel his irritation into the soothing pattern of well-rehearsed movements. It works. Mostly. Well, a little. It works a little.
“Do they pay you to sulk?” Merlin asks, not looking up to gauge Arthur’s reaction. “Because you’re getting extremely good at it. I don’t think Gwaine and Lance appreciate the longing, lust-filled glances you’re sending their racquets either. It’s a little disconcerting. You know how protective Gwaine is about his racquet.”
“Christ, shut up, you’re making it sound like I’m eyeing their junk.”
Looking up at him sternly, Merlin tries to not smile.
“Arthur, come on. Do the reps on your sheet and stop having fantasies about racquets and balls.” Merlin gets up from his seat on the side of the court and brushes his hands over his knees. “And don’t you look at me like that; it’s not my fault that you picked a sport where the equipment sounds like euphemisms.”
Arthur gives a short laugh that is really more like a sharp expel of air and he looks almost as startled as Gwaine and Lance do when they glance over.
“You really shouldn’t call us by our first names, you know,” Arthur says almost as if he has to make up for almost-laughing in Merlin’s presence.
See, this is why Merlin originally wanted to turn this job down: snobby, entitled athletes who expect him to call them Sir or My Lord or Your Majesty or something equally ridiculous.
“That’s what Gaius does,” Merlin says, turning his back on Arthur to check his bag for the ointments Arthur will need after the workout he’s supposed to do.
“Well, Gaius is Gaius. I’ve known him my entire life.”
Merlin gives a half-hearted shrug. “Do your sodding reps, My Lord.”
Arthur stops his stretching mid-movement and stares at him. “You can’t talk to us like that either.”
Clenching his teeth, Merlin tries to apply some sort of filter to the words that want to come out next. It’s difficult, because frankly, he’s grown up with a mother who routinely told authority figures (and upper-class authority figures especially) to fuck off. But then again, she’d also been the one to say “Merlin, I know I’ve always told you where people who think they’re better than us can stick it, but sometimes it serves us better to let it go” when he’d wanted to turn down the job.
He’d accepted the position knowing that he’d be surrounded by sports royalty, but they’d also hired Merlin to get Merlin, so he’s not going to stop being himself. There’d be no point.
He looks at Arthur stretching as he sits down on the benches by the side of the court.
“I don’t know what you’re used to around here, but I’m not going to mollycoddle you,” Merlin says, getting the distinct feeling that he’ll be fired by next week sometime. “You need to heal, I know how to help you heal and I will tell you what to do.”
Arthur opens his mouth to speak, but he’s interrupted by a deep-bellied laugh as Gwaine appears next to them with Lance trailing behind.
“I like you, kid,” Gwaine says, clamping a heavy hand down on Merlin’s shoulder and Merlin does appreciate the sentiment, but is less pleased about being called a kid.
“If you like him so much, you can have him,” Arthur mutters through heavy breaths as he pulls out of his warm ups and squats down to finally start his reps.
Merlin hates his job. Just a little. He knows he’s too lucky to have gotten it in the first place to truly hate it in good conscience, but he allows himself a smidge of hate: a tiny nugget of satisfying loathing.
“Well,” Merlin says, resting his arms on his knees, “Gwaine happens to be smart enough to not injure himself during Wimbledon, so he’s also lucky enough to escape my particular expertise. Maybe you should consider that tactic next time.”
When Arthur is about to straighten up and speak, Merlin knits his eyebrows together and narrows his eyes. “Do your reps. There’s no ‘persnickety arguing’ event in the Olympics, although I’m sure that if there were, you’d be the reigning champion.”
Gwaine laughs in that extremely raucous way of his, and by some miracle, Arthur doesn’t answer, but does as he’s told. His scowl is answer enough, really.
While Gwaine has been extremely loud ever since they came over, Lance has been watching in silence and Merlin can feel his gaze on him. Lance can judge all he likes, though, Merlin doesn’t really care.
Arthur gets restless. By a long-deliberated decision on part of the medical team, Arthur doesn’t get to actually play yet. All he can do is strengthen the muscle in his leg again, doing exercises that won’t put strain on it. And Merlin knows that as soon as Arthur gets on that court, he’ll have less control on his impulses to push himself too hard. Even if Merlin didn’t know Arthur, he knows the type – and now that he does sort of know Arthur, it’s extremely clear that he’s exactly that type.
So Arthur has been restless for days, but now he’s downright surly. Merlin had greeted him with a cheerful “hiya” and gotten nothing but a scowl in return. Arthur had taken to his usual training routine with remarkable efficiency and an impressive stony face.
Merlin watches him from the doorway, feeling oddly superfluous now that he doesn’t have to tell Arthur to focus every five minutes.
“You’re pushing him too hard.”
Turning to find Lance standing right behind him, Merlin crosses his arms over his chest and throws a look over at Arthur again.
“So that’s what you think, yeah? Honestly, I think the problem is no one else ever expects him to do as he’s told and now that I am, he can’t handle it.”
Lance holds his hands up, inclining his head. “I’m not here to criticise the job you’re doing, really. Just remember that you’ve only been here a few weeks and you’re basing most of your ideas about Arthur on assumptions.”
“Everyone always coddles him, though,” Merlin says because he may have only been here a few weeks, but he’s not blind. “He needs to just be told things straight out sometimes.”
“I’m glad you’re not coddling him. You’re right – he doesn’t need that. But you’re assuming no one but you expects anything from Arthur,” Lance says, his voice low and mostly drowned out by the baseline in the music Arthur’s put on. “But everyone expects something from Arthur: the public, the sponsors, the coaches and his dad.”
Merlin wants to argue back, but nothing comes out. It’s true, isn’t it? There’s nothing to argue about. Arthur may get his way behind the scenes a lot of the time, but everyone expects a lot in return. And he’s failed in these expectations as of late, and another failure may be looming on the horizon. Merlin doesn’t look at Lance.
“Don’t tell him I talked to you. He’ll have me exiled. I’ll have to play for Micronesia.”
“I don’t even doubt it,” Merlin mutters before he can stop himself and Lance laughs.
Watching Arthur do several sets of reps while one of the coaches flits in and out of the room, Merlin finally sidles over and puts a hand on his shoulder as he leans over and turns the music down. There’s this odd feeling in his head, as if it’s crowded with thoughts and conflicting ideas about Arthur merging into one thing.
As Arthur looks up at him questioningly, Merlin thinks about how surreal it is to have a perception of someone from before you’ve met them and how hard it is to get to know them past that.
“What’s up?” Merlin asks instead of voicing any of his thoughts because Arthur might think he’s insane or just punch him in the face and be done with it. “You look like someone’s just smashed Roberta into splinters.”
Arthur arches an eyebrow as he wipes at his neck with the bottom of his shirt. “Roberta?”
“Your racquet,” Merlin says and waves his hand dismissively. “Anyway. I asked you a question.”
“Wait, you named my racquet?” Arthur asks, his lips twitching slightly. “You know that’s actually fucking weird, right?”
“Well, you seemed attached at the hand, so, thought it seemed appropriate.”
“Never make a single joke ever again.”
Merlin sighs and sets his eyes at the grinning lunatic in front of him. “Stop side-tracking the conversation, Arthur.”
“It’s nothing,” Arthur says quickly, leaning back on his arms. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does, though, because it’s affecting your training.”
“It’s nothing you can fix anyway.”
“I know that. I want to know anyway,” Merlin says and finds it’s not even a lie.
Arthur throws his head back and groans in frustration.
“It’s just press stuff. My dad’s making me do this press run to stop everyone from panicking about the Olympics. To show everyone how fantastic I’m doing.”
Merlin doesn’t say anything. He just watches Arthur intently until Arthur looks away, his gaze flittering around to find something else to settle on.
“It just sucks because I’m not doing that well. It’s going really slow, I feel restless, and I don’t think I’ll make it at this rate.” He makes a face. “I feel like I’m lying to them.”
“Look.” Merlin sighs and reaches a hand out for the nearest stability ball, sitting down on it until he feels like he’s a little bit more level with Arthur. “I’ve been hard on you, I know that. Because I really think you need people who are honest with you. Which is also why you know that what I’m saying next is true: It’s not going slow. It’s going according to schedule – a schedule that’ll get you to the Olympics.”
Arthur still looks doubtful.
“I’ve been talking to your coaches and they think your progress is good. The injury’s doing well. You’ve been doing a great job.”
“You don’t have to look like you sucked on a lemon.”
“Hey, give me a break; I don’t usually have to compliment posh gits on their excellent work ethic, okay?” Merlin says, rolling his eyes.
Arthur doesn’t say anything to that. He looks out across the room instead, his jaw working. Sometimes he becomes completely unreachable when he’s like this, so Merlin leaves without a word to search out his coaches, only to return a few minutes later to find Arthur done with his routine.
“You know,” Arthur says when Merlin enters, “now that I know how terrible your sense of humour is, that first day really doesn’t seem as bad in hindsight.”
Merlin stops, pulling his lips into a grimace as he tries to process the sentence.
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult?”
“Me neither, actually.”
“Well, as much as your attempts at compliments amuse me, I have something to talk to you about.”
Arthur hums, moving around to gather the things he’s spread around the room.
“You should go polish Roberta,” Merlin says with a slight smile and then pauses. “And that’s not a euphemism.”
It takes a second for Arthur to process it, but then he straightens up and the grip on his towel goes slack until it’s only hanging by his fingertips.
“I can play?” he asks, his voice surprisingly soft.
“Tomorrow. Only for a very little while. Not even long enough to beat Gwaine in a set. Hell, not even enough to beat me in a set,” Merlin says, shifting a little on the spot and not meeting Arthur’s eyes. “And if I tell you to stop, you’ve got to stop.”
Arthur’s face splits into a beaming smile that Merlin has never seen before, not even in pictures, and the bottom seems to fall out of his stomach at an alarming rate.
“Err, right, then,” Merlin stammers, turning to leave the room and fumbles towards the door as if he’s forgotten where it is.
“Is he as hot as he looks on TV?”
“Elena.” Merlin rolls his eyes to no one in particular and hopes it’s conveyed through the phone.
“What? It’s a legitimate question,” Elena says defensively. “He’s well fit and you get to see him every day, so of course I want to know if he’s just as fit up close or if he’s got huge pores.”
Merlin wishes dearly that Arthur did have huge pores or anything that would give him an excuse to tell Elena that Arthur’s really not that good looking.
“His personality is shit.”
Elena cackles down the line at him. “I guess that answers my question.”
There’s a crash on the other end and Will, Elena’s slightly intense flat-mate, swears colourfully in the background.
“I work with him, you know, I can’t go around focusing on how fit he is – even if it’d benefit the wank fantasies of my friends.”
“You are one selfish bastard, Merlin Emrys,” she says.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, but I won’t sacrifice myself on this point, El. I have to massage his thigh for god’s sakes, I can’t –”
He’s cut off by a high-pitched squeal on the other end of the phone and promptly goes temporarily deaf.
Watching Arthur close his fingers around the racquet, standing at his side of the court, reaching up to ready himself for the serve – it’s disconcerting, in a way. His face is more relaxed than it’s been as long as Merlin’s known him, his jaw no longer set in a tense line. As the sound of the ball hitting the racquet reverberates across the court, Arthur gives a crazed smile that looks more like a grimace than anything else, but if Merlin’s mother was here she’d never stop talking about the life in Arthur’s face.
Arthur isn’t exactly the personality to light up a room, as far as Merlin’s concerned, but he lights up a tennis court more than anyone Merlin’s ever seen. He demands attention as he moves deftly. It’s almost as if his body was made for movement: swift and easy, but calculated and strong at the same time.
The change in his entire persona is unsettling, not least because it shifts something inside Merlin that feels heavy and hot and weird.
“How does it feel?” Merlin yells, just to stop the endless stream of thoughts.
Arthur pulls his arm back and pushes it forwards in a rush of power. “Brilliant.”
“Not ‘how does it feel to play tennis’ but ‘how does your body feel’.”
“Not terrible,” Arthur amends and Merlin can see a smirk even from where he’s standing.
“I guess that’s as good as we get right now.”
Merlin watches him closely as he’s getting instructed by the coach (or manhandled as Merlin prefers to call it) and looks down at his watch occasionally. When it’s been about twenty minutes, Merlin steps in with a slightly apologetic glance at Arthur.
“Sorry, I have to stop you for today,” Merlin says. “But this went well, yeah? We can keep this up and see how it goes.”
Arthur almost seems to buzz with it, his face nearly glowing with something that Merlin can’t pinpoint. Merlin almost expects him to refuse to stop, but then he lowers his racquet and rolls his shoulders a little.
“Go make yourself comfortable on the table for me, yeah?” Merlin says with a wink, almost laughing out loud at Arthur’s flustered look.
He looks after Arthur who walks off with his racquet slung over his shoulder before turning to Arthur’s head coach, Leon. “That went all right, didn’t it?”
“He’s looking a little rusty, but that’s to be expected, I suppose,” Leon says, moving to pick up the balls Arthur had scattered around the court. “I’m sure it’ll get better. There’s no way we can do one hour sessions of playing?”
“Not yet, I’ll have to test him and steadily increase the amount of time, I think. If we push him too far too fast we’ll be right back to square one and I don’t think anyone wants that.” Merlin follows behind Leon, not quite sure whether or not he’s supposed to help pick up or just stand there. He keeps doing little aborted movements as if to help, but then changing his mind. “I know Arthur thinks he can do more, but he’ll want to push too far and we’ll probably need to hold him back a little.”
Leon straightens up and looks over at Merlin. His face is thoughtful and Merlin suddenly feels oddly judged. He knows he’s kind of standing in the way of what they want for Arthur, but he has to. It’s his job.
“I don’t know what you’ve said to him,” Leon says, pausing a little, “but he listens to you. There aren’t many that could make him stop playing like that without argument.”
“Oh, well, I... err.” Merlin rubs the back of his neck, not really knowing where to look.
“Whatever it is, keep doing it. We need him in the Olympics, Merlin. Arthur staying home isn’t an option, not after he had to bow out of Wimbledon. The sponsors will start getting restless and maybe even drop out.”
Merlin nods. He understands. Well, as much as he’s willing to understand in any case. No pressure, then, right?
Merlin has tried not to think of Arthur in that way, because their relationship has to have at least the pretence of professionalism even though Merlin doesn’t do professional very well. There’s also the added problem of Merlin continuously having to massage Arthur’s legs in a way that could feel incredibly intimate if Merlin ever let his thoughts stray in that direction. And that’d probably be bad considering why Merlin’s predecessor had been fired.
It had been going quite well, though, all things considered.
But then it doesn’t go well at all because Merlin is standing frozen in the doorway to the showers. He’d been wondering why Arthur’s been in there so long and if he’d ended up drowning himself because today’s training hadn’t gone as well as any of them had hoped. Arthur is definitely not drowning.
Oh, bollocks. Oh, fucking hell.
The water parts on Arthur’s bent neck, some of it slipping down the muscles of his back as the rest falls over his shoulders and down his chest. It follows the line of his stomach until it brushes over Arthur’s hand where it wraps around his hard cock. Merlin forces his eyes closed, but the image is burned into his retinas, flashing in his head until his knees almost buckle.
And just when Merlin figures it can’t possibly get any worse than this, Arthur moans. He fucking moans all hoarse and low, and Merlin can hear the water splashing. This is wank material for years to come, really, but he can’t do that. He really can’t, because it’s so unprofessional and so very, very bad.
Merlin tries to get his legs to listen and just take him out of there, but he opens his eyes one more time despite the fact that he knows better. The sight shouldn’t be legal. It should be outlawed in all nations of the world so that no one has to live with this image in their heads forever without being able to do anything about it.
Jesus Christ on a unicycle.
Arthur’s hair is almost what does him in the most – the way drops of water slip from the tips and down his cheek, under his ear and down his neck – despite the fact that there are definitely other things to focus on. Maybe Merlin’s brain just can’t handle to think too much about the really, really gorgeous cock. Merlin can almost hear his heart rate flat line the moment he tries to even think about the uses he could put that thing to.
When Merlin is sure that at least three thirds of his brain is now replaced with images of Arthur wanking, he finally manages to find the wherewithal to get the fuck out of there.
It might have been a bad idea to blurt “I saw Arthur naked in the shower” when Elena’s sipping on a cup of coffee. It wobbles precariously in her hand, coffee slushing over the edge and down onto the table before she manages to steady it and set it down. She stares at him for two seconds before her hands start flailing in an oddly spot on imitation of a seal.
“What?” She cries, staring at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Merlin raises an eyebrow at her. “I just did.”
“What the hell is going on?” Will asks, poking his head out of his room. “Your delicate screeching is blessing my ears again.”
“Merlin saw Arthur naked in the shower.”
“Oh, God, ew.” Will dances from one foot to the other. “Why would you tell me that?”
Elena fixes him a stare. “You asked. Idiot.”
Merlin hides his face in his hands and shuts them out as they bicker until Elena pushes Will back into his room with her freakishly strong arms.
“Tell me everything,” she says, breathlessly, as she leans back against Will’s closed door. “And I mean absolutely everything. Don’t you dare hold out on me. I’ve been waiting for this moment since you started that job. It was bound to happen. I’ve had dreams about this while stuffing my face with ice cream and chocolate sauce.”
“That’s freakishly specific,” Merlin mutters, trying to figure out how to tell her enough without telling her everything.
“How much did you see?” she asks, her voice a conspiratorial whisper.
He groans, trying not to hide his red cheeks in his hands again. “Let’s just say Arthur has no secrets from me anymore.”
That should be suitably vague.
Elena groans and slumps back into the chair across from him, lolling her head back. “I hate you so much right now.”
Merlin rocks a little back and forth, the words he’s been trying to keep back burning in his throat. He won’t say them, though. He won’t. It’s embarrassing and unprofessional and... just no. Just...
“Ohmigodhe’ssofit,” he blurts, giving a high-pitched whine of embarrassment.
Elena falls forward on the table and laughs, her blonde curls bouncing.
“Just give in, Merlin. It’s a useless cause.”
He groans and presses his head into his palm, wishing all of the images in his head so far away that they’d look like specs of dust floating around in there.
“Obliviate me,” he begs. “You got into Hogwarts, right? You told me that when we were eleven, remember? And I thought my mum had stolen my letter.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Elena says and pats his head softly. “Even if I did I wouldn’t help.”
He blames it entirely on these thoughts when he doesn’t notice immediately that Arthur is clutching his thigh. But when he does notice (with a feeling of impending doom) he rushes forwards and grabs Arthur’s arm, bending down to meet his eyes.
Arthur’s eyes have a wild look of panic in them and the twist of his mouth makes something uncomfortable clench in Merlin’s chest.
“Come on,” Merlin says quietly as Leon rushes over. “Let’s get you to the table and I’ll check it out.”
It’s a strained silence as Arthur leans a heavy arm on Merlin’s shoulder, his limp a little pronounced as he makes his way over the court. It doesn’t seem like he’s entirely unable to put any weight on it, but he does favour the other foot.
Merlin takes one look at Arthur’s face as he gets onto the table and promptly stands in the doorway like a wall, holding one hand to each side as Leon and Gaius try to follow him into the room.
“Can I deal with this alone?” he asks, knowing it’s probably a really unreasonable request all things considered. After all, Leon is the head coach and Gaius is the head of the medical team, and Merlin is only the medical assistant. But Merlin has had a lot of the responsibility for Arthur and he feels, somewhat strangely, like they need to do this together.
“Merlin,” Gaius says his voice grave. “If the injury’s worse, we need to attack this properly. It’s vitally important.”
“I know,” Merlin says quickly, his breath rushing out so quickly he’s nearly woozy with it. “If I find out it’s gotten worse, I’ll come to you immediately. Just let me check it out with him alone? I think it’ll feel less stressful if it’s not all of us.”
“He’s right,” Leon says looking at Arthur over Merlin’s shoulder. “Let Merlin do this, it’s the best thing for Arthur.”
Gaius looks thoughtful, a wrinkle appearing between his eyebrows, but he says nothing. He just nods and heads in the opposite direction. Merlin doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or terrified. He meets Leon’s eyes and tries to not let his insecurities show.
“I’ll take care of him,” he says, realising the moment it’s out that it sounds kind of dubious.
Leon gives him a long look. “I know you will.”
Arthur’s breathing is uneven when Merlin steps up to the table, gingerly pushing the shorts up and pressing his fingers tentatively to the outer side of Arthur’s thigh, steadily moving upwards. The skin is hot under his touch and the muscle quivers a little. Usually Merlin massages in silence because it always seems like that’s what Arthur wants and he often spends most of the time listening to his iPod in any case, but now Arthur looks tense and miserable and Merlin knows he has to say something.
“How’s the pain?” he asks as he rubs, looking carefully at Arthur’s reactions. “Was it sudden or have you been walking around with it without telling us?”
“Do you think I’m a bloody idiot?” Arthur snaps. “Of course I haven’t been walking around with it. I do actually want to get to the Olympics you know.”
Merlin presses a hand to Arthur’s thigh.
“Okay, that’s fine. Don’t freak out, Arthur, it’s not the end of the world.”
Arthur groans low in his throat and leans up on one elbow. “Don’t you of all people start being condescending with me, we both know this is bad. This is bad, Merlin. The sponsors and my dad and every fucking thing – it all hinges on this leg not doing what it’s doing right now.”
Looking up, Merlin stops his movements and takes in Arthur’s pained grimace. For some reason he thinks it’s not so much the pain in his leg as it’s everything else.
“I’m not being condescending, I’m just telling you the truth: It’s not the end of the world. Your muscle seized up, you’ve got a sudden sharp pain in your leg – maybe from pushing it a bit today, but it hasn’t been persistent so far and unless this continues tomorrow it doesn’t mean you’ve been set back at all.”
Arthur still looks doubtful, his eyebrows set in a deep scowl.
“It’s not swelling,” Merlin assures him. “I don’t see any signs so far that it’s flaring up again. I’ll massage you properly tonight and we’ll see tomorrow if any pain lingers and take it from there. But don’t panic now because this doesn’t mean that it’s all over.”
“If you’re bullshitting me, Merlin, I swear to god,” Arthur says, his expression dark. “I don’t need to be wrapped in fucking bubble wrap as if I’m something... breakable.”
“A porcelain vase? One of those flowery granny ones,” Merlin supplies very helpfully.
“Yes, thanks ever so much, Merlin. I’m trying to say that I can handle the truth, okay?”
Glaring at him, Merlin punches him lightly in the shoulder several times until Arthur gives a short huff of laughter and an indignant “Ow!”
“When have I ever lied to you to placate your spoilt arse, Your Highness of Tennis Royalty?” Merlin asks, sounding a bit more sincere than he planned.
Arthur flops back down onto the table and huffs, looking for a moment as if he’s going to snap something back, but then he gives a long sigh.
“Never, I guess,” he says, looking intently at nothing at all. “You never tell me what you think I want to hear and I – well, I guess I appreciate that, you know? When you told me I may not make the Olympics at all if I didn’t follow the training schedule... I mean, you could’ve been nicer about it, you’re a bit of an arse sometimes, but it’s... good. That you tell me things.”
Staring at him, Merlin grips at the side of the table and tries to sort through a frankly frightening amount of emotions at once. Merlin’s not really used to having a whole slew of emotions going on at the same time, which makes him sound a bit simple, maybe, but it’s true. The most overwhelming feeling is fondness, which is just the worst feeling of all to deal with right now because it merges with the images of Arthur naked and the whole other can of emotions following that particular incident.
“What do you mean I’m the arse?” Merlin says because when in doubt, always go for the teasing and never for what you actually feel.
Arthur gives a lop-sided smile. “As much as it may pain you, I don’t own the patent for arseholishness.”
“That’s not even a word.”
“What do you suggest then? Arsheholity?”
“Arseholeism?” Merlin suggests, tapping his chin in an exaggerated swipe of his finger. “Arseholevity? Arsholeicity?”
And really, Merlin could probably have kept going all night, but then Arthur is smiling. This would have been easier to deal with if Merlin couldn’t feel the smile against his lips since Arthur had yanked him down by the collar of his shirt and kissed him. His brain blanks completely, only leaving room for the blinking neon sign that screams “ARTHUR PENDRAGON IS KISSING ME... WITH HIS FACE. ON MY FACE.”
The neon sign could probably also keep going with the following information: “His lips are really soft. His mouth fits with mine in a way no one else’s ever has which is strange and unsettling. His lips are warm. It feels nice. Oh god, Arthur in the shower wanking. Oh god, why is the world spinning. His mouth feels way too good to be human. Oh fuck, we work together, this can’t be happening. I’m going to get fired. Oh, tap-dancing Jesus, I can’t breathe.”
When Merlin breaks the kiss and stumbles out of the room (crashing into all the things in it), he mutters unintelligibly under his breath and squeezes his eyes closed, wondering how the fuck he got himself into this one.
“He missed you?”
“No, he kissed me.”
“On the hand?”
“Yes, El, Arthur Pendragon kissed me on the hand because he’s a fucking knight from, like, the twelfth century.”
“That sounds far more likely to me than what I think you’re trying to imply.”
“He kissed me. With his lips. He placed them against my lips. In a kiss. A long kiss. It didn’t seem like he accidentally fell on my lips? It seemed kind of planned, like he grabbed my shirt and pulled me down and purposefully put his lips on my lips and he didn’t punch me in the face.”
“Why is this not a film that I’m watching at the pictures? I would pay money to watch this and so would absolutely all of my friends except Will, but Will is always excepted.”
“That’s all you have to say? Arthur “The Arsehole” Pendragon kisses me and I work with him and you want to sell tickets for the train wreck that is my life?”
“One: You mean Arthur “Fit As Hell” Pendragon. Two: The fact that you work together just makes this even better. It’s an office romance. Well, it would be if you had an office. And three: This is the bloody opposite of a train wreck. Dear lord, Merlin, you just got kissed by the wank fantasy of every person with eyes and you’re moaning about as if he’s some kind of unsightly troll.”
“They’re going to fire me! And they’re going to publicly shame me and, I don’t know, put me in the stocks or something. They’re going to put stocks back into style and then put me in them for my crimes against British tennis.”
“He kissed you. And while we’re on that particular subject...”
Merlin yanks the phone away from his ears, shaking his head until the ringing subsides.
The devil is in the details, as his mother would say, and yes he does realise that’s not exactly what it refers to, but it seems to fit in any case.
“You were right,” Arthur says, his grin widening almost impossibly.
Merlin shields his eyes from the sun as he stares up at Arthur and inclines his head a little.
“Oh, sorry, can I have that in writing, possibly? And make it nice cause I might get it framed.”
“You’re lucky I have mean calligraphy skills.”
Merlin just smiles crookedly at that, trying to make out Arthur’s expression as he’s backlit by the sharp glare of the midday sun.
Putting one leg on the bench above Merlin’s, Arthur stretches a little and leans one arm on his bent knee. “You were right about the pain. It’s gone today. Can’t feel a thing!”
“Brilliant!” Merlin exclaims, more than just a little relieved that he actually was right about that. “Now don’t get cocky. Which I realise is a tall order, but just cause it feels great doesn’t mean it’s all fine.”
“Yeah, thanks, I didn’t hear you the first eighty-five times, Merlin.”
“It bears repeating,” Merlin says, shrugging. “Now go do your reps like a good boy.”
It’s only when Arthur gives him a little salute before he jogs back down to the court that Merlin realises that they’ve both effectively ignored The Kiss That Shall Not Be Mentioned. It should make him feel incredibly relieved, but instead something unsettling lodges in his stomach.
It’s not that Arthur isn’t still like that to some degree, but the better training goes, the more the pressure eases a little and the lighter Arthur seems to get. Sometimes when Merlin goes to look for him, he’s joking around with Gwaine as if they’ve done it for years (and they probably have). When Merlin tells him to step down and relax, he’ll bring out a book and settle down with it instead of scowling at the court like it has personally offended him.
All in all, Merlin has to admit that success is a good look on Arthur Pendragon.
It’s just that this isn’t necessarily a good thing because if there’s one thing Arthur doesn’t need it’s to look better. Merlin already has an inner Arthur compass that seems to find Arthur for him in any given area, sometimes making him trip over a bag of equipment or stand completely still for five minutes just to stare at the power in Arthur’s arm as he draws it back and serves.
It doesn’t help that Arthur always seems to show up nearby, hovering around when Merlin sits in discussion with the coaches or sneaking up to poke him incessantly in the shoulder when he’s trying to write reports – or as he’s trying to rub down Gwaine’s leg, which happens to be now.
Gwaine is lying stretched out on the lowest bench on the stands, his hands spread out in either direction as if he’s relaxing in the sun instead of getting a nasty cramp worked out of his leg. As Arthur shows up, wiping his face with a towel, Gwaine is entertaining himself by making increasingly pornographic noises that make Merlin simultaneous amused and embarrassed.
“I’m deeply wounded, Merlin.”
Merlin doesn’t look up, but focuses on kneading his fingers into the muscles of Gwaine’s leg as he hums noncommittally.
Giving a dramatic sigh, Arthur throws the towel over his shoulder. “I can’t believe you’d cheat on me. And with Gwaine of all people – the harlot.”
“Well, his leg was just there and cramping just the way you know I like it,” Merlin says, looking up as he smiles innocently.
“Oh, so that’s how it is? You just jump on every available cramping leg?”
“What can I say, Arthur, I never pretended to be perfect.”
Arthur touches a hand to his chest and pouts. “Our love was so pure, Merlin.”
His heart skips unbidden in his chest and he clutches Gwaine’s leg a little too hard. God, he’s ridiculous. Arthur’s just joking – they’re just joking, then Arthur mentions the word love and Merlin in the same sentence and Merlin can’t even think anymore.
“Oh, Pendragon,” Gwaine says, shielding his eyes from the sun with his arm, “there’s enough of Merlin to go around. He’s very giving.”
“I am,” Merlin agrees, grateful for the save. “But you’ll always be my first.”
Arthur scoffs. “Deeply wounded.”
“You still have an hour left of your playing session,” Merlin reminds him, trying to remove all the teasing from his voice. “Stop hovering and do your work. This very private relaxation session is for people with cramps.”
“Whatever. I know you’ll miss me, Merlin.” Arthur gives a crooked grin as he backs away.
Merlin tries not to think anything of it, they always tease and now that Arthur is in a better mood than before it’s flirtier than it used to be. It had always edged a little into mean-spirited, but now it messes with Merlin’s head in a way he’s not used to.
“Jesus Christ, you guys should shag and get it over with,” Gwaine says and Merlin grabs his leg hard, making him yelp.
“Fuck, Gwaine, why would you say that?”
“Bloody ow.” Gwaine reaches down to rub at his leg, but Merlin swats his arm away. “Come on, Merlin, the tension is so thick I feel defiled just standing next to you guys. It feels like a threesome just being in the same room, and don’t get me wrong; I appreciate threesomes, but I like them better with the clothes off.”
Merlin ducks his head and curses himself for blushing a little. “Remind me to introduce you to my friend Elena.”
“What, she likes threesomes too?”
“No idea, but she’s as much of a nosy bugger as you are.”
The bag of equipment Merlin had been carrying clatters to the floor and tennis balls scatter across the room as Arthur buries his face into Merlin’s neck. Merlin doesn’t even breathe, trying to gather his thoughts to figure out what the fuck is happening.
“I’m reminding you,” Arthur mutters into his neck and then he fucking nuzzles into it, making Merlin melt back into the wall.
He manages to press out a low “Reminding me about what?” as he curls his fingers into Arthur’s shirt. It’s damp with sweat and he doesn’t even mind.
It’s quiet for a moment and all Merlin can feel is Arthur’s breath hot on his skin.
“About me. And not Gwaine.”
“What?” Merlin reaches up and tugs at blonde hair until Arthur pulls back and looks at him. “You were joking.”
“Yeah, but now I’m not.”
“You’re a fucking idiot if you think there’s anything with Gwaine.” Merlin is about to say ‘there’s only anything with you’ and then panic grips him. What is he doing? This is his job; he’s not supposed to do anything with anyone. He closes his eyes and breathes through the tightness in his throat.
He exhales shakily. “God, what the fuck am I doing? Cenred got fired for this exact thing and here I am... I can’t...”
“No, Cenred got fired for trying to grope Lance during massages when Lance told him to sod off,” Arthur says firmly. “I’m asking you to grope me.”
“You make it sound so classy.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re doing, exactly.”
Instead of giving an answer, Arthur smirks and bends his head again, his lips brushing lightly over the sensitive skin of Merlin’s neck. If Merlin had any more protests, they die very brutal deaths when Arthur nibbles a little, worrying the skin with his teeth and then mouths softly over the spot, sucking gently until Merlin’s head falls back against the wall.
“What I’m doing is trying to show you that I’m really not joking. Fuck, I could punch Gwaine’s face in.”
“It’s my job,” Merlin says and curses his voice for coming out shaky. “And you never even mentioned anything after you kissed me!”
“Yeah. I kissed you.” Arthur looks up at him. “I kissed you and then you ran off. The ball was in your court.”
Swell. Arthur Pendragon is actually making sense. Clearly, the world is ending.
“Very cute with the ball and court comparison. Very apropos,” Merlin says dryly.
Arthur runs a thumb over his cheekbone. “Don’t do that.”
“Deflecting. Hide behind teasing.”
Merlin lets out a frustrated huff and lets his head drop a little, not looking up at the blue eyes that stare at him so god damn earnestly. It’s stupid, isn’t it? Arthur might be right, maybe it had been Merlin’s move after they kissed since he did run off. But Arthur hasn’t really said anything about what he wants. Merlin doesn’t know... well, anything.
That’s not true. He knows that he’s already in way too deep and Arthur might just want a good fuck (or just a good snog). Not that Merlin objects to a good fuck, but it’s already more than that now because he’s stupid and he didn’t even notice it until it hit him upside the head. He should’ve seen it coming, but he didn’t and now here he is, dangling over the edge with only his fingertips still holding him up.
“Merlin,” Arthur mutters softly and Merlin’s fingertips promptly lose their grip.
His stomach drops as he free falls, meeting Arthur’s eyes long enough to know that he’s so fucking lost it’s not even funny and then all he can think is fuck it before he tilts Arthur’s head back by his jaw and pulls him into an open-mouthed kiss.
Arthur presses him into the wall, his body heavy and solid and Merlin holds onto it, clutching as if he doesn’t quite believe it’s there. A tiny part of his brain is panicking a little. If his brain was a crowd of people, there’d be one man in a corner flailing his arms and pacing back and forth while a hundred other people were ripping their clothes off and making lewd gestures.
Arthur moans, the sound pressing over Merlin’s tongue and then echoes in his head, mixing with the memory of Arthur in the shower moaning - just like this.
And there’s the hard on.
One would think that Merlin’s rapidly growing erection would make for more people making lewd gestures in his head, but really, the little panicking man just panics even more and distracts from everything else. Merlin’s head is about to burst with too many thoughts and feelings at once, kind of like a piñata of confusion, guilt, uncertainty and want.
“I saw you wanking in the shower!” he blurts and then stares at Arthur wide-eyed, a little shocked at hearing his own voice.
What the fuck is he doing?
Arthur stares at Merlin with his eyebrows raised. Merlin’s eyes move to his kiss-red lips for a moment, cursing his brain for cockblocking him. Or lipblocking him as it were.
“Okay,” Arthur says, dragging the word out. “Good for you.”
“And then you kissed me and I keep thinking about both of these things, but you’re my patient... ish, for fuck’s sake, and you’re supposed to be focusing on the Olympics. And now I’ve kissed you.” Merlin trails off, not really knowing where he’s going with this rambling at all.
He leans in and steals another kiss from Arthur lips, tightening his arm around his neck and twisting one hand into his hair when Arthur responds eagerly.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Merlin whispers, closing his eyes because the truth burns a little. “I really don’t. And we both really need to focus on getting you to the Olympics. I mean, trying to figure this shit out now will distract us both and I want you to get there and I want you to win that thing because you deserve it. And if I’m the reason you get distracted I would hate myself.”
He opens his eyes and smiles sadly as Arthur looks at him, searching.
“Okay, Olympics first,” Arthur agrees, frowning slightly.
Merlin nuzzles against his cheek for a moment before he disentangles himself and slips out under Arthur’s arm. He backs out of the room, smiling slightly, and tries to find out how to unravel the feelings that are just entangled in a useless heap like a tangle of yarn.
“I’m being a responsible, professional adult who doesn’t let his personal relationships with people get in the way of work.”
She moves her head from side to side as if contemplating his words, judging their truth.
“No, you’re really just a fool.”
Merlin sets his eyes on her, bemused. “I don’t even know what he wants with me.”
“Who cares?” she cries, throwing her arms out. “Clearly he wants to do really, really enjoyable things and if that’s not enough then I don’t even know you anymore, mate.”
Merlin looks down into his beer and slumps forwards. He knows he might be stupid, but is it really so weird to guard himself a little? Maybe he should be happy to be Arthur Pendragon’s plaything, but the thing that Elena doesn’t understand is that at some point Arthur Pendragon stops being a sexy, unattainable, glossy picture and starts being a person who Merlin finds himself kind of drowning in – like a very sexy maelstrom.
When he looks up at Elena, her eyes have softened and her lips scrunch together into a very Elena-esque grimace.
“You’re a catch, Merlin. You’re the prettiest fucking rainbow fish in the entire ocean and if Arthur Pendragon doesn’t see that he’s a pillock and a loser and clearly way below your standards.” She slams her glass down on the table and points at it. “Who do I need to blow to get a refill on this?”
Elena’s clearly been living with Will way too long.
The infuriating thing is that Arthur seems completely unaffected and as focused on the Olympics as ever. And that is what Merlin wanted, but at the same time it’s a little blow to the ego, all things considered.
And now Merlin’s having another late night because he spent half the day staring at Arthur’s chest as he moved easily across the court, his strokes seeming effortless and powerful at the same time. Needless to say, Merlin’s paperwork had suffered since reports were a lot less interesting than the hard lines of muscle and the way Arthur’s collarbone moved with each stroke.
There’s been quite a few of these late nights. Gaius thinks he’s being really diligent, so if anything, he’ll at least get a good reference if he’s got to leave the job. And he might actually have to quit because he’s pretty sure his dick is about to fall off from too much wanking.
It doesn’t register, at first, but when he does notice it he can’t stop hearing the low thump, thump, thump sound. He tries to ignore it, but it seems to bore into his skull and he keeps trying to figure out what it is. In the end, he realises the only way to get any peace is to find the source.
And then he realises that this is the start of a really terrible horror film.
He wanders the halls a little aimlessly, trying to stop all the thoughts about The Crazy Tennis Fan Serial Killer of whom he’s definitely becoming the first victim. When he finally finds out that the sound comes from the courts, he’s already envisioned himself fifteen different kinds of dead.
He grabs a tennis racquet from the storage room by the entrance to the courts and figures it’s a good a weapon as any as he sneaks into the area, his heart beating so loudly that he struggles to hear anything else at all.
“What the fuck,” he shouts, lowering his racquet as he rushes forwards, “are you doing here.”
Arthur wheels around, his eyes wide and he drops the racquet in his hand as if Merlin wouldn’t notice that he’d been practising his strokes against the opposite wall.
“Bollocks,” Arthur says, closing his eyes.
“Yeah, bollocks is right, Pendragon. What are you doing here sneak-playing tennis like some kind of... of...” Merlin is so angry he can’t even think of appropriate comparison and the sentence trails off into a strangled, frustrated sound.
“It’s not what you think, Merlin, seriously. This is the first day I’ve done this; I haven’t been sneak-practising. I’m not an idiot.”
“Obviously you are! You’re leaving for the Olympic Village tomorrow and you’re jeopardising a month’s worth of work for what, two hours extra practise against a wall?”
“Yeah, that’s right, two hours. Not even that, actually. I’ve only been here for thirty minutes. Do you think I’m going to die in that amount of time?” Arthur snaps, folding his hands over his chest.
Merlin clenches his teeth and breathes, trying to calm the anger that flows through him to fill the void the fear had left.
“That’s not the point. You’re recovering from an injury and we monitor your practises for a reason. I’ve told you so many times to not overdo it and I thought you fucking trusted me. I thought you listened to me.”
He doesn’t realise how revealing his words are until he sees the frown on Arthur’s face and the way his jaw tightens even further. Shit. Fuck everything. Fuck absolutely everything.
“Oh, fantastic. That’s what this is about. It’s not even about me practising. It’s about your delicate sensibilities.”
“Delicate sensibilities, what the –”
“This is all your fault in the first place!” Arthur shouts, throwing his arms out
Merlin stares at him, adrenaline rushing through his body making his hands shake. “How is this my fault?”
Arthur bites down on his lip, his face stony and he seems unwilling to elaborate for a moment until he suddenly sets his angry gaze on Merlin.
“I didn’t come here to practise my stupid strokes; I’ve been practising for this shit for years, what’s an extra thirty minutes the day before we leave going to help? I came here because I’m so frustrated I could die. You and your fucking ‘let’s wait until the Olympics are over, Arthur’.” He flails his arms a little and his voice goes up a pitch as he mimics Merlin’s words. “And then you stare at me every day for a week and I can’t even take a relaxing shower because you told me you saw me wanking and now I get a boner just trying to wash my hair.”
Staring at him, Merlin opens his mouth to speak, but Arthur won’t let him.
“Playing tennis is the only way I know how to unwind. I’m going fucking mental. I’m going to tear the head off whoever I have to room with over at the Olympic village. With my luck it’s probably Gwaine, too.”
Well, Merlin would be lying if he denies that a little part of him preens, but he’s mostly still so angry that he can’t see straight.
“Great!” he says his voice steely. “You’re throwing all our hard work away because you’re sexually frustrated. That’s really mature.”
The hard facade of Arthur’s expression crumbles and the flash of hurt in his eyes takes Merlin by such a surprise that breath lodges in his throat.
“You’re a fucking arsehole, Merlin. Jesus, do you think I would get distracted from the Olympics if all I wanted was a quick shag in the loo?”
Merlin’s too angry to really, really think about what that means, so instead of thinking he launches forwards, dropping the racquet in the process, and kisses Arthur in a way that is more like he’s trying to devour him whole than anything else.
“I’m so fucking pissed off at you,” he presses out between kisses, realising somewhere in the back of his head that this is ridiculous.
Arthur fingers splay over his cheek, gripping a touch too hard as he inches Merlin’s head upwards, changing the angle until Arthur has full control of the kiss, his tongue hot and demanding.
“I don’t care, you can be as angry with me as you want,” Arthur mutters against his lips as he pulls back. “Just touch my dick before it falls off.”
Resting his forehead against Arthur’s, Merlin tries to breathe to clear his head.
“I don’t get why you can’t just get that fixed by someone who’s not working with you. It’d probably be a lot easier, plus they’re probably lined up around the block, yeah?” He tries to joke, but he can hear the stupid insecurity running through it like a current.
The sad truth of it is that Merlin realises he may not have been panicking only because they’re working together, but also because he can’t understand why Arthur is doing this thing with him of all people. And he can’t bear it if Arthur gets bored, which he inevitably will at some point.
“You’re an idiot,” Arthur says in a hushed voice, sounding soft now that the anger has dissipated a little. “Do you think I’d be over here driving myself to madness if I just needed a random shag? I don’t know what it is you’re thinking, but whatever it is you should stop thinking it.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Merlin says, pulling Arthur back into a kiss, his mouth already open and greedy.
Merlin feels raw and a little exposed, maybe, with all of his doubts out in the open. Maybe he is an idiot, but the doubts are there and they’re real. Kissing Arthur is glorious, but it’s also scary and reckless, like BASE jumping from the tallest building in London and Merlin doesn’t know if he’s going to land safely or come crashing to the ground.
“Mphf,” Arthur says as he tries to speak into the kiss and Merlin attempts to draw him in even further, but Arthur pulls away. “It sounds like something we should probably talk about.”
“I don’t want to,” Merlin says again in a rush of breath. “I’m still mad at you and I can’t think straight. I just... just please shut up and let me...”
“I just think –” Arthur’s voice falters as Merlin palms his cock through his tennis shorts in a last effort to really, really avoid talking about this. “Okay, fuck, no talking.”
Merlin hums in approval and pushes Arthur back against the stands, leaning in to place open-mouthed kisses along his jaw and down his neck as they stumble backwards. He inhales as he buries his face into Arthur’s neck, feeling his head swimming with the mix of anger and need.
Arthur splays out on the stands, leaning back onto the bench behind him as Merlin follows a little gracelessly, straddling Arthur’s lap as he buries his fingers into the hair he can never stop wanting to touch at inopportune moments.
It’s not fumbling or gentle or tentative. Merlin feels like it should be – like he should do this with reverence because he’s wanted it so much, but his pulse is racing and the adrenaline of the anger is still rumbling through his system. He’s rough when he takes Arthur in hand, moving himself back a little on Arthur’s lap to get the angle right.
He doesn’t start slow. He pumps Arthur hard, barely even giving himself time to appreciate the weight and heat of it in his fist. Arthur doesn’t seem to mind at all, his head falling back until his neck is completely exposed and Merlin has bite back the urge to stop what he’s doing and just lap at the skin under Arthur’s jaw.
Arthur’s fingers grip at Merlin’s thighs so tightly that it’s just on the edge of hurting and Merlin can barely breathe. The thing with Arthur all along has been that there are just so many emotions at once. It’s scary and confusing, for one, but it somehow makes it even better to feel the way Arthur’s cock twitches into his touch and the way his neck flushes a faint red. Because Arthur makes him angry and frustrated, anxious and exposed, giddy and happy, desperate and needy, and everything else in between until Merlin feels ready to burst apart at the seams.
Merlin’s breath shudders when Arthur starts tilting his hips up into the tight fist of Merlin’s hand and there’s a sudden desperation he feels at the thought that Arthur could get bored of this and decide he wants something more. He knows that’s a stupid thought to have when this is the first time they’ve even done anything, but the thought alone makes him tighten his grip, changing his rhythm until he finds one that makes Arthur’s hips buck into it.
When Arthur’s lips part and he lets out a string of little uhs, Merlin thinks there’s a fair possibility that he’ll never be able to forget this and he doesn’t want to. He drinks in everything greedily, putting every little thing in a tiny little box for storage.
“Fuck, yes, Merlin,” Arthur says in a strangled voice. “Hngh, why didn’t we just...”
“Do this ages ago?” Merlin suggests.
Well, it had strictly speaking been Merlin’s fault, probably, but he’s learned the error of his ways now. And speaking of errors...
“No more sneak-practising,” Merlin warns and slows his hand until Arthur keens and writhes a little under him.
Arthur raises his head and glares at him with heavy-lidded eyes. “Yeah, just...whatever. Just keep going, for fuck’s sake.”
Merlin smiles crookedly and doesn’t really have it in him to stop for very long because he’s got a rapidly growing addiction to the way Arthur looks when he’s losing control.
He’s been trying to ignore his own hard cock, but when Arthur’s thumb strokes him through his trousers, he pushes into it, his head falling forwards. Somehow, Arthur’s fingers manage to fumble his button open and Merlin feels his hand shake as it grips him, squeezing slightly.
It gets messy when none of them are able to keep a steady rhythm, all finesse disappearing. For a moment it’s difficult, both of them gripping at each other, hands getting in the way. Merlin finally bats Arthur’s hand away and leans forwards, wrapping his own hand around both of them. The feeling of Arthur’s cock sliding slick with pre-come against his own makes Merlin moan low in his throat, using his free hand to press Arthur’s head up to kiss him in a mesh of lips that is nothing but messy and desperate.
Arthur breaks the kiss when he comes, his back arching as his cock pulses under Merlin’s fingers. Merlin forces himself to not even blink as he watches Arthur breathe in stuttering moans and he’s got Arthur’s come on his fingers when he fists himself, the sounds Arthur had made still in his ears and he doesn’t have time to feel self-conscious about being watched as his body shudders.
He slumps forwards and Arthur’s arms wrap around him, holding him to his chest as they both breathe erratically. The tension seeps into nothingness and the anger he’d felt feels foreign and weird, leaving more room for insecurity. But then he’s too sated, too blissed out, to actually think about those insecurities too hard.
“I’m nervous,” Arthur says quietly, the words barely intelligible.
“You shouldn’t be,” Merlin says into his chest.
“One wrong step and it can all fall to pieces, all these years of work.” Arthur’s arms tighten around him and he pauses a little. Merlin can hear his heartbeat under his ear which is an extremely surreal feeling. “If I fuck up I’ll disappoint everyone. I don’t know if I care about the public as much as I care about all the people who’ve spent so much of their time on me.”
Maybe it’s the fact that they’re both beyond thinking about filters at the moment, or maybe it’s the fact that they don’t have to look each other in the eyes, but it seems almost like they’ve stripped away a layer.
“I’ll be thrilled out of my mind if you win,” Merlin says. “But if you don’t I’m still proud of you and everything you’ve done since Wimbledon. And I know that’s probably hard to believe for one of you bull-headed athlete types who spend their lives trying to be best at something, but it’s true.”
Merlin feels Arthur exhale and there’s a weird, silent moment where Merlin can almost hear Arthur think.
When Arthur finally breaks the silence he pulls back a little and looks down at Merlin, meeting his eyes. “We... are fucking gross right now.”
Elbowing Arthur in the stomach, Merlin laughs.
“What are you shushing us for?” A bloke slurs. “It’s the bloody opening ceremony, they’re just walking.”
“Shut up, you unpatriotic bastard,” Elena shouts and there’s an answering roar of support from another group near the bar.
The bloke makes a face at her. “I just want the parachuting queen back. That was ace.”
Merlin leans even closer, craning his neck. “Jesus, why doesn’t any one of us have a telly, exactly? On a screen this size every one of them looks like Arthur.”
“Well, Will broke ours when he tried to make it into an aquarium.”
Merlin stares at her, his pint of beer freezing mid-air on the way to his lips.
She waves her hand. “You know how it is.”
“I really don’t.”
Somewhere behind them someone starts belting “God Save The Queen” when the camera zooms in on the British group. The telly is so small Merlin can’t even figure out who’s carrying the flag, and he says as much.
“It’s Chris Hoy, obviously, what kind of sports... medical... person are you?” Elena asks, narrowing her eyes at him. “Even I knew that!”
“- God save our spacious queen -”
“Spacious queen, really?” Elena yells, pressing one hand to her forehead. “Are we at the stupidest pub in Britain?”
Merlin looks around. “It seems like a good possibility, yes.”
“Oh, there he is!” Elena grabs his arm so hard it hurts as she points, bouncing in her seat. “He looks great.”
And he is there, recognisable only because they zoomed in on his face enough to fill the entire screen. He’s grinning and Merlin can see a glimpse of Gwaine next to him as Arthur turns and speaks, laughing a little. Merlin finds himself grinning too, trying to hide it in his pint as his stomach does a strange twisty thing.
“Shut up. He’s no giant Voldemort.”
“Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
“Clearly the giant Voldemort wins everything, Elena, get your facts straight.”
Laughing, Elena leans against his shoulder. “Look how happy he is, though. You got him there!”
“He got himself there,” Merlin corrects, unable to take his eyes off Arthur as long as they keep him in the frame. “I just hope it’s enough. He’ll be a pain in the arse to be around if it goes to hell.”
“Yeah, sure, hide behind the ‘he’ll be a prat’ thing. That’s not old at all.” She shakes her head, but smiles. “I know you worry about him because you care, you sappy old thing. It’ll be fine, though.”
Merlin once again tries to drown his mortification in beer. “You think it will be?”
“Yes, of course,” she says. “He’ll win it for you because true love conquers all. And also for celebratory blowjobs.”
“I really need to introduce you to Gwaine.”
“Uhm. Yes, please.”
It’s not as frustrating as he thought it would be, mostly because Arthur plays like he’s never played before and that makes Merlin forget any frustrations he may have had. Arthur’s everywhere on the court, moving like he’s never been injured in his life. They’d all been worried that being back at Wimbledon would send them right back to what happened last time, but then Arthur wins the first set 6-0 and just never looks back.
Merlin thinks he might be as high on the buzz from the arena as Arthur is, barely managing to carry out his own duties. It’s just surreal standing in the middle of the Olympics happening all around him. He’s even a part of it in his own way. Everything else sort of becomes secondary. And while Merlin has always been averagely interested in tennis, he’s never quite felt the tension between winning and losing as keenly as now.
When Arthur reaches the semi-finals with a fairly overwhelming victory, he corners Merlin in the changing room and licks into his mouth as if the key to winning everything else lies in kissing Merlin completely senseless.
And then it promptly goes to hell the next day.
“What’s going on?” Merlin asks as he elbows his way over to Leon. “He looks completely lost out there!”
Leon is scowling slightly, his arms crossed over his chest as he watches the game unfold.
“I don’t know,” he says distractedly. “Bayard really got the advantage with that ace and I think it got Arthur off his game. Now Arthur’s being sloppy and letting Bayard push him into unforced errors.”
The steady buzz of the crowd is unnerving rather than exhilarating now that Arthur seems to be one step behind at all times. Merlin tries to follow his movements, looking for signs of Arthur favouring one leg over the other, but he can’t figure out if the injury is flaring up.
There’s a lot less talking among the team than usual, everyone looking on in tense silence. Gwaine is sitting on the floor, his knees bent, and his expression is uncharacteristically grave.
“Arthur’s getting his pert arse kicked,” he says when Merlin moves over to him.
Merlin frowns. He knows the points aren’t looking good, but he honestly can’t tell if it’s terrible or just slightly off. “Is it that bad?”
“Worse. Your guy’s definitely losing the first set and the match if he keeps up this kind of play.”
“He’s not my guy,” Merlin says automatically even if it might be a blatant lie at this point.
Gwaine looks up at him, his eyes slightly narrowed.
“Listen, Merlin. Whatever you guys are doing, I suggest you swallow your pride or embarrassment or bashfulness or whatever because winning the London Olympics has been Arthur’s dream since we found out there was going to be a London Olympics. And he’s going to need you right now.”
Looking over at the court just as Arthur manages to earn a point from Bayard’s forced error, Merlin feels suddenly overwhelmed and, most of all, confused.
“Of course I’ll help Arthur, but I doubt he’ll need to talk to me right now. The injury doesn’t seem to be the problem; he’ll need to talk to Leon or the other coaches about this.”
Gwaine rolls his eyes. “Don’t be so fucking obtuse, it doesn’t suit you.”
Glaring at him, Merlin crosses his arms over his chest, not willing to get into an argument with Gwaine (who never really argues with anyone).
“Arthur doesn’t tell you when he needs you, he’s way too proud for that,” Gwaine says, twirling his water bottle between his fingers. “And since you apparently need it beaten into your head: Arthur is fucking stupid about you. I like you, mate, but if I have to hear one more thing about you I might barf.”
Merlin follows Arthur’s movements with his eyes, his thoughts spinning fast just as the set is called: 6-2 to Bayard. For a moment Arthur just stands still and runs a hand through his hair, but then his face twists into a grimace and he smashes his racquet to the ground twice until the metal is twisted. Merlin flinches but stands rooted to the ground as Arthur storms off towards the changing rooms.
“For fuck’s sake, Merlin, will you go get is head on straight?” Leon barks, his fingers whitening against the water bottle he’s been clinging onto for the past half hour.
It really isn’t the time to argue, but he does feel like he might buckle under the pressure. He’s supposed to get Arthur’s head back in the game? He’s not a tennis coach and he doesn’t know how the fuck this shit works. Part of him is fuming at Gwaine and Leon for putting this on his shoulders, but apparently everyone has had a meeting without him and come to some sort of consensus that Merlin is the only one who can talk to Arthur.
Arthur is resting his forehead against the wall with his right hand stretched out over his head. His eyes are closed and his breath heavy as his hair sticks to his skin, wet with sweat.
“Get the fuck out, Leon,” he says into the wall.
Merlin bites his lip, unsure of what to even say. How is he supposed to do this exactly?
“Poor Roberta,” he blurts, giving a cautious smile as Arthur looks at him.
A surprised snort escapes Arthur and he lets his forehead fall back against the wall. “Yeah, I guess you need to christen a new one.”
“I can do that,” Merlin says softly, moving slowly towards him until he’s close enough to let a hand rest between Arthur’s shoulder blades. The tension bleeds out of Arthur’s muscles under the touch of his hand. “What do you think about Donna? After Donna Noble because, really, how much better does it get? She’s the most important woman in the universe!”
“You,” Arthur says, turning his head towards Merlin again, his eyes startlingly blue up close, “are such a nerd.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Pendragon.”
Laughter rumbles under Merlin’s hand and he starts rubbing in slow circles without giving it too much thought.
“And right now, you’re the most important Brit in the universe,” Merlin says quietly.
“Thanks. That’s actually not helpful at all.”
Merlin smiles, a little sheepish. “I’m sorry. But really, everyone wants you to win. Everyone knows you’re good enough to get this. They don’t doubt that you will, so why should you? Right now my friend Elena is having a viewing party at home and their pizza spells ‘Arthur wins’ in pepperoni and they don’t have a back up one for losing. And granted, the ‘Arthur wins’ pizza is right next to the one that says ‘Merlin’s dick’, but still.”
Arthur gives another shaky laugh, but he’s still scowling a little. “Merlin, if he wins the next set, it’s over.”
“So don’t let him.”
“You’re a genius.”
“Hey, don’t mock it. I’m serious. Yeah, if he wins the next set, it’s over. But if you win the next set and the one after that, then you’re golden.”
Arthur looks so doubtful that it makes Merlin ache just a little. He leans in, pressing his lips softly to Arthur’s in a lingering kiss, his hand moving up to stroke across his neck.
“You’ve done this a million times. It’s just a set and then another set. Yeah, it’s the Olympics, but it’s just tennis and you fucking know tennis, okay? You’re brilliant at tennis, and you’re way better than what’s-his-face out there.”
Arthur just looks at him searchingly for a moment before bringing his hand up to run a thumb over Merlin’s cheekbone, pressing a kiss to the corner of Merlin’s mouth.
“You...” he says, and then the rest of the words seem to lodge in his throat and he just stares at Merlin for a second before he kisses the words into Merlin’s mouth with so much intensity that Merlin has to steady himself against Arthur as his body hums in response.
An awkward cough brings them back into the moment and Leon is looking at a spot over their heads as he speaks. “You’ve gotta get back out there. And preferably win this thing.”
Arthur plays like the first set never happened and wins the next two. In the following celebrations (which are loud enough to bring Wimbledon crumbling to the ground), Gwaine is grinning so smugly at Merlin that Merlin has to stop himself from punching him in the face.
“You’re giving me a headache,” Arthur says, his hand lingering. “Stop it.”
Merlin breathes through his nose, trying to settle his nervous pulse. “But I need to...”
“You need to settle down before you give everyone an aneurysm.”
“You know, someone once told me that it’s just tennis even if it is the Olympics.”
“That someone is an idiot,” Merlin snaps, slumping back in his seat.
Arthur laughs, throwing his head back and Merlin is sure that if there are cameras on right now, they’ll be zoomed in on that carefree laughter, his absurdly pretty face relaxed as if today is no big deal: like today isn’t August 5th – Olympic tennis final.
“How the fuck are you so calm?” Merlin asks, narrowing his eyes.
“Merlin,” Gwaine hisses from one chair over, “psych up, not psych out.”
“I’m just asking, though, because I think I’m about to actually die.”
“Maybe you’ve just taken over my nerves for me,” Arthur says, shrugging.
“How perfectly selfless of me.”
Gwaine shrinks into his chair and scowls. “God, you guys are gross.”
Turning his back to Gwaine, Merlin gazes up at Arthur trying to ignore the impulse to jump him with everyone watching. Not only would it be awkward, but it seems like it might be a little inappropriate timing wise. It’s a sacrifice, though, because Arthur always looks infuriatingly good in his tennis kit.
“How’s your leg?” Merlin asks to remind himself he’s actually here to do a job and not to ogle.
“Suspiciously good,” Arthur says, pursing his lips slightly. “I don’t know what you’ve done to it, but it’s been on perfect behaviour.”
“I doubt I did anything; I’m not God, you know.”
“In before Arthur objects,” Gwaine mutters and Merlin throws him a look.
When Arthur jogs off to warm up and get ready, the nerves hit Merlin full force again and his chest feels so tight that he keeps pressing a hand to it, trying to ease the pressure somehow.
“How do you guys do this shit?” Merlin asks, looking out over the stands as they steadily fill.
Gwaine shrugs. “It’s what we want, yeah? I mean, part of playing is the thrill of the match and never knowing how it’s going to end up. It’s unpredictable and the fact that you can always lose is part of why it’s fun.”
“You’re all messed in the head.”
“Now, Merlin,” Gwaine nearly sings, smiling sweetly, “don’t take your sexual frustration out on me.”
Merlin finds it best to ignore Gwaine after that, especially since Gwaine keeps laughing for at least half a minute as Merlin ogles Arthur’s thighs while he warms up a little further down the court.
Later, the conversation before the match will be the one thing Merlin remembers clear as day and everything that comes after is a terrifying ball of nerves and the strange vacuum of being somewhat involved in an Olympics finale: it’s as if nothing exists in the outside world during those minutes – as if nothing else is more important even though millions of things are happening in millions of other locations around the world.
But for Merlin, the most important thing is here at Wimbledon and it would still be the most important thing even if it wasn’t a match for an Olympic gold medal. Strip away the entire Olympic Games, the crowds, the coaches, the medals and the prestige and there would be Arthur playing tennis and that’s what matters to Merlin in the end.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not fucking terrified as the umpire announces the score as 0-0 and that Arthur’s serve starts the match.
Unlike the semi-final, Arthur comes out aggressive from the start, not willing to be on the defence again. He takes the first point and Merlin finds himself breathing easier when Arthur takes a comfortable lead and then wins the first set before Merlin can even blink.
It’s never a nail biter, and perhaps it’s a bit of an anti-climax for the viewers after the drama of the semis, but Merlin’s nerves have never been more grateful to see Arthur in full control over the match save for a slight down-period in the third set.
All Merlin can see when the umpire announces “Game, set, match for Arthur Pendragon” is Arthur’s beaming smile. As Gwaine tackles Arthur and sends them both sprawling to the ground, Merlin hunches over in laughter that’s half amusement and half relief. There’s no way he can shake the giddy grin from his face as Arthur stumbles back to his feet and meets Merlin’s gaze over the people crowding him.
“Well, I do love those gold medals.” Merlin throws the door wide-open and moves aside. “I should give him my number.”
When Arthur hangs up his jacket and reveals the gold medal hanging around his neck, Merlin bursts out laughing, reaching out to weigh the medal in his palm.
“Are you going to wear this as accessory from now on?”
“Well, you know,” Arthur says, giving an exaggerated shrug. “The girls dig it.”
“I bet they do. I guess I’ll find myself thrown out like yesterday’s trash,” Merlin jokes and tries to ignore the tiny grain of honest doubt.
Arthur just rolls his eyes and cups Merlin’s neck as he presses several short kisses to his lips, breaking off with a smile. If Merlin was going to say anything, it disappears under the feeling in his chest.
“So,” Arthur says, drawing out the word as he threads his fingers into Merlin’s hair, “want me to wear it while I fuck you?”
Merlin is about to say fuck yes when Elena cackles behind them. Damn it, he’d forgotten she’s here.
“If only the tabloids knew,” she says, shaking her head in mock-disapproval. “Also, I feel like I should get some kind of prize for calling this whole thing from the day you started working, Merlin.”
“Your prize can be to make yourself disappear like magic!”
“That’s a thoroughly underwhelming prize, I’ll have you know. You’re the worst friend I’ve ever had.”
Arthur grins at them, leaning over to slip his hand into the pocket of his jacket to find a slip of paper.
“Here’s Gwaine’s number,” he says and Elena rips it out of his hand before he can even offer it. “Have fun!”
Merlin stares after her and then back at Arthur, wide-eyed. “If I’d know she was that easy to get rid of I would’ve done that ages ago.”
“All the ladies want Gwaine. It’s just how it goes.”
“So, I won the Olympics,” Arthur says and a giddy smile follows because it’s still too soon for him to not beam like a kid at Christmas over it.
Merlin rolls his eyes. “That you did.”
“So I have all this free time now. I mean, at least a few days before Leon will start hounding me.”
“Oh, really?” Merlin says, raising his eyebrows. “I think my bedroom happens to be available for the next couple of days, but I might have to check my calendar. I have the Olympic Gold medallist in javelin coming over too at some point and –”
He’s cut off by Arthur crowding him against the wall, going in for an open-mouthed kiss that’s messy and edged with something else underneath. Merlin laughs into Arthur’s mouth and presses himself close, the gold medal trapped between them.