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“So this is what rich people do,” Merlin said.

It was a picture-perfect day, cerulean water licking up against the white towns that climbed like vines along the hills of Santorini, and the yacht cut through the waves cleanly, sending salt-sweet wind carding through Merlin’s hair.

“You’re welcome to leave,” Arthur invited, stretching out along one the deck.  “I’m sure I’ll find someone to amuse me.”

Merlin glowered at him. 

Arthur was wearing black swimming trunks, a bit shorter and tighter than Merlin was altogether comfortable with, aviator shades, and the sun had dotted a handful of freckles across his nose and high over his cheeks that Merlin had found irresistible so far.  And under the Mediterranean light, Arthur had shed his paleness from a long winter of buttoned-up aristocracy.  His hair nearly glimmered now, bleached out, and his chest and broad shoulders were gold, so yeah, Merlin imagined Arthur might find someone with which to amuse himself.  It would, of course, end only in tragedy, as Merlin might not know what to do with his bit of magic, but he knew enough to know that he could leave a wake of dead, oily-haired Italian twinks in his warpath.

“I’m not complaining, just an observation,” Merlin admitted, finally, and sat on the edge of Arthur’s towel, pulling his knees up to his chest, looking at them knobby under the hem of his board shorts and feeling the thin, battered cotton of his t-shirt and felt, for possibly the thousandth time, out of place. 

Italy, Arthur, the glitterati he’d fallen in with by accident — they were all ravishingly beautiful, and Merlin was pasty and odd and terrifically bad with good company.

There was a sigh, and suddenly Merlin felt himself jerked backward.  He fell, graceless, in a flop across Arthur’s chest — searing-warm from the sun, and he should be wearing more sunscreen than this, Merlin couldn’t help but think, automatic — and caught in Arthur’s appraising gaze, bright even through the umber-brown of his sunglasses.

“We’re in Greece, Merlin,” Arthur scolded, palming Merlin’s back, fingers sliding underneath his t-shirt and stroking him, soothing.  “We’re in Greece on a yacht.  Must you brood so?”

The smile was already on Merlin’s face by the time he thought he should, that all the noise inside his head was just that — that to be anything less than joyful for this, what he had, was the worst ungratefulness — and he leaned in, a hand over Arthur’s heart to close his mouth over Arthur’s, and —

“Oh my God,” Everett moaned.  “I fucking hate you two.  You two are disgusting.”

Merlin startled, but Arthur just jerked him into the kiss by the collar of his t-shirt.  And in an obvious act of schoolboy aggression, Arthur licked open Merlin’s mouth, lewd and wet and slutty, sending his nails scraping down the bumps of Merlin’s spine and sucking on his bottom lip until Merlin found himself — mortified — making a kittenish noise into Arthur’s mouth, pleading and rolling his hip against Arthur’s knee.

“That is — that is — !” Everett sputtered, horrified.

Spurred on, Merlin felt Arthur grinning into his mouth before the prince bit, not at all gently, at the bow of Merlin’s upper lip, slid one hand up to tug at Merlin’s hair and the other beneath the waistline of Merlin’s shorts.  Somewhere in Merlin’s head, he knew he should be all scowling disapproval, that he was failing Morgana terribly by not reforming Arthur of his provoking ways, and that they were probably a sight for the paparazzi, which had chartered their own boats and were in all likelihood focusing their telephoto lenses on them now.

In the background, Everett was shouting something else, but Merlin ignored it in favor of focusing on the lush thoroughness of Arthur’s kiss, and thought — vaguely — of how Arthur’s embraces had changed in the months they’d been together.  He thought of how Arthur’s kisses had lost their desperation, their curiosity, and how they had rounded and softened and deepened and grown indulgent — how Arthur’s hands were both cupping Merlin’s face now, huge and warm and directing on his jaw.

Then Arthur moved one hand, slid it down to the space between Merlin’s shoulder blades, possessing, and Merlin’s heart raced and his head swam and all he could think was it’s love, it’s love.

And then Everett dumped a bucket of freezing salt water on them.

***

Which was, Merlin thought with a measure of resignation, how it started, of course.

After Arthur had heaved a gasping, dripping-wet Merlin off of his chest and chased Everett, whooping and laughing around the yacht, inevitably, they decided to settle their differences as men — with alcohol.

Merlin kept trying to share long-suffering glances with Mona, Everett’s well-endowed if intellectually deficient beauty of the week, but she kept becoming distracted by perfecting the line of her tan.

“Shouldn’t we, you know, stop them?” Merlin asked, watching Arthur and Everett laughing, arms slung over one another’s shoulders, cracking open another bottle of grappa.

Mona frowned down at her perfect breasts. “Do you think one of these is darker than the other?” she asked him, with wide, sweet eyes.

“Oh, God, we have got to find Everett a real woman,” Merlin said, out loud, and then went to slap Everett’s hands off of his boyfriend and drag Arthur below stairs, into one of the master suits of the yacht.

Arthur was an affectionate drunk, loose-limbed and likable.  And he laughed when Merlin shoved him into the suite and shut the door behind them.

“Merlin — you are so — ” he tried to say, decided it was a profitless endeavor, and sat down on the bed for a second before flopping over onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “This isn’t going to plan at all.”

Merlin didn’t bother to bite back a smile. “There’s a plan?”

“Well,” Arthur admitted, voice languid, “not really — not any more.” He pushed himself up on his elbows, a surprisingly fluid movement for somebody who’d drank Merlin’s body weight in shitty liquor, and his voice in a rasp, said, “Merlin — come here.”

Merlin went, letting Arthur settle his hands onto Merlin’s hips, thumbs stroking, and he eased Arthur’s sunglasses from his face to study his prince: the blushing beginnings of a sunburn, dark blue eyes, his face, well loved and well known and so familiar now.

“I’m glad you could come,” Arthur told him, turning his face to brush his mouth over Merlin’s palm, cupping his cheek.

“I’m glad you wanted me to,” Merlin answered in a whisper, and Arthur made an insistent noise, leaning back against the bed, dragging Merlin with him, until Merlin was straddling Arthur’s hips, being drawn down for a kiss.

Arthur always kissed to conquer: expansive, deep, entitled.  Merlin had tried — at least a little — to be offended by it at first, by the way Arthur’s kisses were so assuming, but his irritation never lasted beyond the first brush of Arthur’s tongue against his own.

Now, after all this time, Merlin just folded himself into it, curled himself into Arthur’s hold, grateful. It had taken time to realize it wasn’t just Arthur, being pushy and selfish, that when Arthur closed his palm — warm, heavy — over Merlin’s skin, cupped the back of his head and drew him in, it was possession, an endearment, the only way Arthur knew how to love.

“You,” Merlin breathed in between kisses, “are drunk, my lord.”

“It’s fine,” Arthur assured him, craning his neck lavish a kiss along the side of Merlin’s neck. “I’ll just tell everybody you took advantage of me.”

“As long as we are agreed,” Merlin laughed into Arthur’s mouth, and felt Arthur’s fingers tugging at his t-shirt, pulled away long enough to jerk it over his shoulders and toss it away.

“How are you still so pale?” Arthur asked, marveling. “We’ve been on a cruise in the Mediterranean for a week and a half already.”

Merlin’s response to that would have been something tart like, “I’ve spent most of it trying not to be singed from the sun, thanks,” or “Unlike some people here, I wore a hat,” but Arthur’s fingers were undoing the button on his shorts and skimming inside, nails scraping the coarse hair between his thighs, so it came out like, “Um.”

And beneath him, Arthur’s eyes were growing darker and more intent, the color of summer sea storms.

“I always want you,” Arthur said, suddenly skipping backward an entire half-drunken conversation, and there was such an unintended tenderness in the words Merlin was forced to kiss Arthur to keep him from saying anything else.

***

Everett walked in on them twice more before they managed to leave the Greek Isles, which Merlin secretly ascribed to a deep, hidden longing to experiment that Everett’s painfully chauvinistic side had never allowed and Arthur blamed on Merlin jumping him all over the fucking ship in plain sight.

So really, they should have seen this coming, but Merlin claimed the sex and sun and half-crate of limoncello they’d purchased in Capri had addled his brains, and he was sticking by his story.

“What do you mean, ‘we’re out’?” Arthur gasped, pushing himself up on his elbows, looking glazed and furious, heat rolling off of his skin like a furnace, his cock hard and wet at the tip and leaving a slick trail across his belly — drops of moisture catching on the dirty-gold hair that trailed between his naval and groin. 

Merlin swallowed hard and hated Everett, hated him. 

“I mean, it’s empty,” he forced himself to say, and plucking the note out of the bottom of the empty box of condoms, he read out loud, “’Take that, you dirty pillowbiters.’”

“I’ll kill him,” Arthur swore, and tried to get up, his cock hot and hard, pressed into Merlin’s leg as he tried to push Merlin off of where he was perched on Arthur’s thighs.  “Move — I’ll drown him in the jacuzzi,” Arthur added, which only made Merlin laugh, made it bubble up inside of him, and push Arthur back down to the bed, sliding up his hips and pinning him down with a kiss, hungry and wet and lavish.

“There are other things we can do, you know,” Merlin said, smiling into Arthur’s mouth.  “Just because he’s knocked off your routine — ”

Arthur tightened his grip in Merlin’s hips, fingertips digging bruises into the skin, and Merlin had to bite back a reflexive groan.  He’d vowed, earlier this month, not to be so obvious and so easy, to give in so quickly.  Merlin didn’t know what, but there was something huge and frightening in the prospect of total surrender, and although sex had never been a fight, there’d always been a struggle; Merlin’s fatal flaw wasn’t pride, but it haunted him.  Arthur was already the love of his life and his sovereign — to heap other endearments and powers upon him would be too much.

“Are you calling me dull in bed?” Arthur asked, sounding affronted, a bit dangerous, and he concluded his question by scoring Merlin’s collarbone with his teeth.

“N-no,” Merlin said, since Arthur wasn’t.  In fact, there’d been a period during Arthur’s internship in homosexuality Merlin kept finding the nut factory littered with print-outs from gay websites and bookmarked guides with titles like MEN LOVING MEN and THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO ANAL SEX and JAPANESE ROPE BONDAGE FOR BEGINNERS and spent a lot of time whimpering helplessly.  “Just goal-oriented.”

Arthur rolled them over, a sudden shift in gravity that had Merlin squawking, undignified, before he landed with a huff, Arthur’s reassuring weight and blanketing heat spread over him like the skin of a promise.  His eyes were nearly black in the dim light — mostly spilling underneath the crack of their suite door, and Merlin couldn’t help but to cup Arthur’s face with his hands and draw Arthur closer.

“You sure I’m not boring you?” Arthur whispered, into the tight space between them now, serious and Merlin nearly perished from the foolishness of it, that he could have Arthur and his haughty smiles and his undivided attention, his broad shoulders and good heart and be anything but grateful, constantly discovering.

So Merlin whispered back, “Yes, I’m sure,” and said, “Kiss me,” and Arthur did.

They kissed lazily, for long, long moments, the ship rocking underneath them, beneath their bodies pressed together, Arthur’s cock hot and hard in the hollow of Merlin’s hip, brushing against his own dick with every languid flex of Arthur’s thighs, pushing Merlin’s legs apart, holding them wide open. 

Then, like a step function, Merlin tipped off of one plateau onto another level of desperation, and need shot through him like a flash fire, running up his spine and down into his gut, churning.  Merlin could feel himself about to make a foolish decision, and it didn’t help that when he threw his leg over Arthur’s hip, Arthur’s cock slipped down between the cheeks of his arse and was now dragging, wet and hot and relentless against him, a horrible, cruel tease.

“Oh fu—uuck,” was Merlin’s meditation on that subject, and Arthur only pressed his face into Merlin’s shoulder, groaning while Merlin jerked and writhed and tried to rub his cock up along Arthur’s stomach, to catch the head of Arthur’s cock against his opening, torturous.  He knew he shouldn’t, that they’d never had that conversation before.  But Merlin had quietly gotten himself tested a month into their relationship and since been too busy learning how to wave with the proper amount of disconnected, benevolent pleasantness to a crowd to go round fucking other people.

Arthur nipped at his collar bone, warning.  “Merlin.”

Still, Merlin thought, making a whining noise, head spinning, and couldn’t resist doing it again, feeling the crown of Arthur dick tagging the soft crease between his cheeks.  He felt hot, like he was swollen and wanting and desperate for more than he would get rubbing himself against Arthur’s stomach, from coming across Arthur’s thighs.

 There’ll never be anyone else, Merlin couldn’t help but think, I don’t want there to be anyone else.

“Do it,” Merlin decided, and felt Arthur still, questioning.  “Do it, fuck me.”

Arthur’s hips stuttered, rough, and it felt amazing, even as Arthur said, “But — ”

“I don’t care,” Merlin preempted.

The look Arthur gave him was equal parts hopeful and angry and frustrated.  “Merlin.”

Merlin ignored him, freeing his hands to reach under the pillows, where the half-bottle of lube had made its home the entire trip.  He popped the cap and made a filthy mess of things — poured it all over his on his hands and then his stomach before managed to get any on Arthur’s cock — fingers shaking.

“I’m clean,” Merlin reassured, shifting around until he found the right angle, and Arthur just stayed, braced on his elbows and frozen, all the muscles in his body locked up and his eyes wide and wine-dark, gleaming.  “I got tested, it should be okay, and I don’t think you’ve — ”

And Arthur cut him off with a growl, all the potential energy transformed and he pushed Merlin deep into the mattress and pinned him down with every inch of weight, mouth closed over Merlin’s in one of those kisses he’d read about in romance novels: possessing, choking.  Merlin felt every huff of breath and every scrape of Arthur’s teeth and the strength of his bones underneath heaviness of Arthur’s skin and muscles, his touch bruising, and whatever noise he wanted to make when Arthur shoved inside of him — fucked into him with a jerk of his hips, and even the sudden shock of pain, the ache of the stretch, was sweet like the burn of wine, heady and intoxicating — it got swallowed up by Arthur’s tongue.

It’d been years since he’d done this, fucked anybody bare, and the heat and intimacy and the hugeness of it made Merlin dizzy.  He was halfway out of his head and into the stratosphere, rolling on the endorphin high of being skin to skin, of having Arthur this way — and his blonde fringe was pasted to his forehead, sweat beading at his temples, knuckles white where one was clasped to Merlin’s hip and the other braced next to Merlin’s face and Arthur was driving into him harder and harder, rough and greedy — and he couldn’t stop the litany of horrifying adult video encouragements spilling from his lips.  It was like the room had been flooded with ozone and Merlin was dying slowly from oxygen deprivation, floating off as he licked his mouth like a whore and moaned and begged and told Arthur harder and that he was so hard for him and God you feel so good, fuck I love feeling you fuck me out like this and that of all things, he just wanted Arthur, fill me up fill me up, fuck, yes, God.

And then Arthur broke away from sucking dark and dangerous-looking bruises into Merlin’s neck to gasp, heated, into his ear, “I love you like this,” and Merlin could only whimper, drag his nails down Arthur’s back, leaving a trail and breaking skin. 

“Begging for it,” Arthur went on, his voice like a scrape of teeth over Merlin’s cock, their hips grinding together.  “God, do you even know what you’ve been moaning?”

Merlin could feel his thighs trembling and his muscles protesting, his whole body screaming as Arthur pushed him up, until the weight of them was on Merlin’s shoulders, digging into the sheets and pillows and Arthur could drive into him in hot, furious strokes, a hundred kilometres an hour, fucking the words and thoughts and everything right out of Merlin’s head.  Until all that was left was the exquisite feeling of Arthur fucking him open, the lavish decadence of bare skin on bare skin, the lube slicking everything between them until it was a frictionless slide and Merlin was filled to breaking, like a high-tension wire, his body an arch, rolling his hips up against Arthur’s every push because he needed it, wanted it, was gasping for it and pleading for it and —

“You sure you want it?” Arthur asked, because he had an obvious cruel streak somewhere in there, based on the maddening twist of his hips, rubbing his dick over Merlin’s prostate on every draw in and out now, riding him hard and reckless.  “You sure you want me to — ”

Merlin dug his nails into Arthur’s back and hoped he drew blood, because Jesus fucking Christ, yes, he wanted it.  He wanted Arthur to shove up into him over and over again, fuck him until Merlin couldn’t walk the next day, had to lie on his belly in the bed and languish, sore to the bones.  He wanted Arthur to come inside of him, jerk himself out into Merlin’s guts.  Merlin wanted to feel the come dripping out of himself, fucked open and tender, used, and then he wanted Arthur to do it all over again because he could, because nobody else could have him, and Merlin would be the only one ever to see Arthur so wild and uninhibited, with something dark and deep and thrilling behind his eyes — to keep him. 

So he said it, all of it out loud, and felt Arthur’s hips stutter and jerk and felt Arthur lose his rhythm, and Merlin came with Arthur, feeling Arthur’s dick twitch and his balls tight against Merlin’s arse and the wet heat of Arthur spilling inside of him, Merlin’s name a benediction on his lips.

“What,” Merlin gasped later, waking up to the feeling of Arthur’s fingers sliding into him once more, long digits filling scissoring him open again, stroking him languidly, “are you doing?”

Arthur didn’t look up from his perch at Merlin’s hip, one arm slung comfortably over Merlin’s thighs, the other rocking his fingers slowly, wetly — oh God, oh God, Merlin thought, that’s Arthur — into Merlin.

“You’re a mess,” he said casually, and Merlin’s mouth went dry as a desert as Arthur finally angled a dirty smile at him, twisting three of his fingers, buried deep in Merlin’s arse.  “All red and swollen — and sopping wet inside.”

Hoarse, Merlin said, “Um,” because he was, and he could feel come dripping out of him still, along the curve of his arse and the crease of his thigh and it was fucking fantastic.

Pressing a kiss to the flare of one hip, Arthur said, his voice hot against the skin and bone, “I was, too, you know,” but then Merlin felt Arthur’s thumb slip past the loose, sticky-wet muscle around his hole and it took a few moments before he managed to ask, “Too, what?” and heard Arthur say, finger-fucking him in earnest now, the wet sound of it obscene: “Tested — and of course there’s been no one else.”

Which, of course, Merlin had sort of known, intellectually all along.  Arthur was, as Gwen had said once, the marrying kind.  For all that he’d lived out the crash-and-burn of his last relationship in the pages of tabloids, Arthur hadn’t an unfaithful bone in his body — he was all promises and the best intentions underneath the skin, and trusting him, falling arse over elbow in love with him had been too easy, unintentional, inevitable.

“So really,” Merlin heard himself say, “no need to replace the condoms.”

Arthur grinned up at him, coy.  “Unless you’d rather avoid the mess.”

And then Merlin couldn’t resist, drew Arthur up — and his fingers slid out, abrupt and Merlin hissed a bit at that — to kiss him sweetly and say, “I love the mess,” and then, at the look on Arthur’s face, found himself adding, “I love you coming inside me, I love having you like that, I love you filling me up and — “

Which contributed directly to round two, where Merlin climbed on top of Arthur and slid down the length of his dick purring the entire time, listening to the sound of water slapping against the side of the boat and wet skin against wet skin and Arthur’s breath, harsh and shallow and fevered, his voice as he said, “Merlin, Merlin.”

***

The next morning, they were docked in Cyprus and Arthur had gone ashore with Everett’s bimbette on a search mission for champagne, Everett’s brand of cigarettes, sunscreen for Merlin, and to give the paparazzi following him round new and interesting environs in which to photograph him being sunburnt and royal.

That left Merlin curled up on a lounger in the shade of the lido deck, feeling like one enormous, overjoyed bruise, happiness spilling over.  He was ostensibly reading a book but mostly thinking about Arthur, about the way he’d smiled that morning in the gray light of early day, and how he’d leaned over and kissed Merlin, chaste, indulgent. 

“You look happy,” Everett said, slumping into the next deck chair over with a bottle of beer and looking nothing of the sort. 

“I am,” Merlin chirped, because he knew that somewhere, deep down inside, Everett was a good person, or else he never would have volunteered his yacht for this vacation, and he would have stopped talking to Arthur long ago.  And also because one day, Merlin was going to find him a girlfriend who was less than 45 percent silicone and sort of plain, and Everett would love her fiercely and in an embarrassing sort of way and it would be delightful.  “I am gloriously happy.”

Everett sneered and clutched at his booze.  “Fuck — of course.  He asked you.”

Blinking, Merlin said, “What?”

“You can cut the act,” Everett said, long-suffering and taking a drag off of the bottle.  “It’s not like I’m going to run off and sell it to the papers or anything — and it’s not like he didn’t ask my opinion on the bloody ring.”

Merlin choked elaborately on his own tongue.

“I had really hoped you’d be man enough to hit him for treating you all the way like a girl, but I guess that was too much to hope for,” Everett said, looking genuinely disappointed, and then his 500 pound satellite mobile phone rang and he wandered off shouting at somebody about office parks outside of London.

After Merlin unfroze himself, he flung the book aside, barely listening to it skitter across the sun bleached deck as he ran down the steps toward the suites.  He threw open the door and all the drawers and cupboards and suitcases burst open at once, clothes going everywhere, and Merlin dug through them all wildly, ripping everything out of its proper place until he found it — a tiny, dark velvet box in Arthur’s shaving kit on the bathroom counter.  

Obviously, Arthur hadn’t asked for a reason, and this made his “not going to plan” comment make far more sense, and Merlin should really respect Arthur’s privacy and not go poking his nose about in things, so obviously he locked the suite door before flipping the box open.

The ring — it was a ring — was gold and plain, with the etches of writing on the inside, and when Merlin craned his head and turned the ring in the light he saw it was Welsh, cariad, and something wrenching and awful and lovely seized in his chest, and all he could do was stare and stare and stare at it, wondering.

It was late evening by the time Arthur got back, more freckles than ever appearing across the bridge of his nose, and Merlin grinned and waved to him cheerfully and was completely composed, the contents of their room back in rightful places, no one the wiser.  But when Arthur — with great pomp — presented Merlin with his SPF 50 sunblock and asked, “Is this what you wanted, then?” Merlin let himself give Arthur a kiss, deep and sweet and adoring.

Arthur was flushed when Merlin broke away, and Merlin smiled and whispered against his mouth, “Yes — yes, this is exactly what I wanted,” and thought that’d keep them, and the ring, back in its hiding place, until later.