The first time it happens—and Arthur wishes that he could say the only time it happens, wishes he could diminish it by making it seem so insignificant, a once-only thing, a momentary whim, an action without a consequence; but that isn’t how it happens, that isn’t how it goes at all—it’s under the influence of heavy alcohol, enough so as to pass as a mistake.
Saturday night in chilly October, home from university for a weekend: they’re all astonishingly drunk, Arthur and Percival and the whole lot, stumbling around the living room after the party stretches well into three AM. Lancelot says he’ll head up to bed, probably, even as he trips over a rug and takes ten minutes to locate the stairs in his own house. Percy mumbles something about, “yeah, yeah, gonna just crash on the couch—just for awhile, all right, Lance?” and Leon is already snoring face-down right there on the carpet, Gawain and the others passed out in another room somewhere downstairs. Arthur is—sloshed, obviously, and sorely tempted to fall to his knees and sleep for several hundred hours straight, but he’s really aching for a smoke right about now, and so staggers his way into Lancelot’s backyard, where the moon is heavy and full and the street is quiet, and fumbles out a lighter and a pack with fingers that can’t seem to really hold onto stuff tonight, and tries to light a cigarette four times but the flame just won’t connect with the paper and he keeps dropping the thing, damn it—
“Watch it! You’re going to burn the house down,” says a voice, and Arthur whirls around (unsteadily) to see Lancelot’s little brother, what’s-his-name-after-all, this skinny teenage boy who used to run around with them as kids at the local zoo, laughing and snorting at the monkey exhibits. He’s just standing there, hands in his jacket pockets. Marley. Maybe? Melvin.
“Listen, hey, Melvin—“ he begins.
“Merlin,” the boy says, frowning in the moonlight.
“Merlin, then,” Arthur slurs, thinks, that’s right, the one with the weird name, and the weird ears, what an unlucky kid, and he might actually say it out loud, on accident, because Merlin’s eyebrows furrow and he looks pretty angry.
Arthur says quickly, “Mate, do me a favor—light this for me, yeah,” holding out his cigarette and lighter with the fingers of one hand.
If anything, Merlin only looks more angry.
Arthur sighs and gives it up as a lost cause, all ready to walk back inside and crawl onto the nearest comfortable surface and sleep until sometime around mid-afternoon, but then Merlin stops him before he can get through the door and grabs the lighter out of his hand, conveniently lighting the cigarette, and then stealing it away to take a drag of the tobacco into his own mouth.
“Hey,” Arthur protests, reaching to grab it back. Merlin grins and moves further away, and then coughs—coughs, like the boy has never even tasted a smoke before, pathetic and a little bit endearing, for some reason—so Arthur takes advantage of his momentary distraction and lurches forward to tug the thing out from between Merlin’s second and third fingers and smirk triumphantly, but maybe he’s a little bad with depth perception after a certain number of shots, or something, because he oversteps and knocks his head into Merlin’s, who winces and shouts “Ow, you—“
and Arthur says, “Fuck, that was your fault—“
to which Merlin looks enraged and massages his jaw and says, “What did I do?”
and Arthur comes back with “Shut up and give me my goddamn—“
so Merlin glares some more and mutters, “You’re such a spoiled brat!”
and then Arthur’s not clear who starts it, and he doesn’t want to think about it too closely because he might discover it had been he himself—however it happens, one of them is suddenly launching at the other in a completely sad and uncoordinated manner, clawing, and a half-hearted punch lands, accidentally or otherwise, on Arthur’s chest, and then it just makes him irritated that this irrelevant little boy, so many years younger than him, has called him spoiled without even knowing what Arthur is like, so he pushes Merlin back a little too hard. Merlin’s hand grabs quickly onto Arthur’s shirt, however, and Arthur falls with him, both of them landing half on the cold hard gravel of the backyard, half on the grass. Suddenly he’s far, far too close to Merlin’s face. And also lying practically on top of him.
“Ow,” Merlin says again, almost pitifully.
Arthur laughs in spite of himself, and makes no attempt to move.
A sudden memory comes out of nowhere to him: it’s from years ago, afternoons spent heading over here to Lancelot’s house after school a couple days a week to play video games. He remembers Merlin occasionally standing quietly by the doorframe where he thought they couldn’t see him, watching in. Arthur jabs a finger at Merlin’s chest now, smiles drunkenly. “You’re only fifteen. Shouldn’t you be, like. I dunno. Asleep by now or whatever?”
Merlin scowls, the paleness of his skin exaggerated by the moonlight, so close up. “I would be, if certain people hadn’t been getting pissed rather loudly downstairs,” he says pointedly. Then adds, “And I’m sixteen.”
Like it matters.
“Like it matters,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes lazily. “You’ll always be the little kid tagging behind me and Lance—hey, d’you remember how you used to copy everything I did? Mum, can I get an ice cream cone too? Arthur’s eating one, oh, please, mum—you nearly worshipped me—“
“I did not,” Merlin interrupts, eyes flashing. He pushes up against Arthur, who still doesn’t budge.
“You did, too,” because Arthur sometimes just does not know when to give it up, not even when Merlin’s mouth purses into a thin, unhappy line, and struggles even more to push Arthur off of him. “Oh, Arthur’s everything I want to be when I grow up—“
“Fuck,” Merlin hisses, “you, fuck you,” and breathes long and hard, like he’s just run a marathon, and turns his head away to press his cheek against the grass.
Arthur is quiet.
After a while, he eases his upper body off of Merlin’s, at least, sitting up to grimace at the alcohol-induced pre-hangover headache blossoming early in his head. Merlin’s silent, too, so Arthur watches him—thin and pale, he notes, ears still weird but slightly less noticeable thanks to a loop of curling dark hair, messy around his head. He takes a finger and tugs at a lock of it a little bit, startling Merlin, whose legs are still trapped under Arthur’s in defeat.
“Okay,” Arthur admits.
Merlin says, “Okay?”
“Okay, so you’ve grown up,” Arthur says, now moving to touch the top of Merlin’s hair, card his fingers through it a little. It feels softer than it looks. “Maybe. Yeah. At least, a little. You don’t like me anymore.”
He doesn’t mean it to sound so wistful—it’s just a comment, an observation, something he notices and can compare to memories of years of having this kid trail around after him, hoping eagerly for approval; it was exasperating but kind of cute, that’s all—and fuck, he’s drunk as shit, he can’t be held responsible for anything he says or does. But Merlin seems to think Arthur’s having some sort of big self-pitying epiphany or something because he frowns and says,
“I don’t not like you,” frowns again and tries again, “I don’t—I’ve always,” and stops.
“I’ve always liked you,” Merlin says, so quietly that it sounds like a confession, and not one willingly given at all. He shuffles uncomfortably, trying to extract his legs from underneath Arthur’s. “Will you stop staring at me?” he says, a blush spreading from the sharp points of his cheekbones to his ears, and it’s fascinating, sort of, so naturally Arthur leans in closer to get a better look, which only makes Merlin more red, “What I mean—is—“
“That’s nice,” Arthur says absentmindedly, and ducks down to press his mouth to the base of Merlin’s neck.
Merlin is shocked into silence for all of six and a half seconds (Arthur rather likes it, likes the quiet; he can only hear street sounds, small stirrings of animals and distant cars; it is kind to the throbbing ache in his skull) and then when Arthur’s lips move higher to scrape the skin of Merlin’s ear with his teeth, Merlin starts and shouts,
“What—what are you doing, Arthur?”
“Don’t yell,” Arthur scowls against his jaw. “It’s too loud.”
“Arthur,” Merlin tries again, voice wavering up through a variety of octaves, “you’re drunk,” and Arthur has to actually pull away and laugh at that, because yes, well, obviously.
He tells Merlin as much, and Merlin mumbles something in response that might either be you are such a prat or yeah, sure, Arthur, feel free to molest me in my own backyard in the middle of the night—he really doesn’t care, he finds, because the one thing it isn’t is “stop” or “no,” and moreover, the sounds Merlin makes when he tugs gently on his dark hair and runs hands down his chest are really rather encouraging, and Merlin actually shivers when Arthur bends his neck to skim the hollow of his throat above his shirt, right in the join of twin collarbones, and it’s just so very irresistible, and so—
This is how it happens the first time—
and later in the morning he will ask himself a million questions, all of them tinged with too much guilt, too much what the hell—he’s Lancelot’s kid brother—he’s just a boy—and he will promise a million things to himself, but—
but the one thing he does not even think to answer, even in his own mind, is what about the next time? And maybe, just maybe, this is only the beginning of a long chain of events, too complicated to consider, but too easy to be drawn into, too hard to extricate, because (the skin of Merlin’s hips and the flick of his fingers, they’re just there), because, because—
However it happens, it does. Arthur says to himself, never again, and then a week later, Merlin shows up at his door.
It’s not even been one full week.
“No,” Arthur says.
Merlin leans his shoulder against the wall in the hallway, makes a face. “I haven’t even said anything yet!”
“No,” Arthur repeats, steps back and makes to close the door, but Merlin reaches out a hand lightning-quick and slides it in the gap, forcing it open, and all but shoves his way into the room.
The flat’s a mess—books and papers strewn everywhere from his last exam cram-session a few nights ago, empty take-out cartons lying toppled on the floor, the small trash bin in kitchen beginning to give off a slightly rancid odor—and Merlin walks slowly around to look at it all, completely oblivious to Arthur’s glare, surveying the living room with a rather unimpressed expression. “I always thought,” he says, waving his hand in the general direction of the kitchen, “you’d have some kind of crazy, posh place, maybe with designer carpet and a row of full-length mirrors,” Merlin gestures to a wall, “here, and a big-screen television over there. Or several.”
“Did you?” Arthur says flatly, crossing his arms. “Sorry my place doesn’t quite live up to the expectations of my stalkers.”
Merlin turns to him and flashes an utterly shameless grin. “I’m not actually stalking you, per se,” he says with a small shrug of his shoulders. “Your address was in Lance’s phone book at home.”
The mention of Lancelot’s name makes some uncomfortable, guilty feeling twinge in Arthur’s chest. Thinking about his best friend leads to thinking about last weekend, and then his brain reels to other thoughts, of pale moonlight and smooth skin underneath his fingertips, of tumbling about in the grass in a drunken daze with his hand down Merlin’s pants, for god’s sake, but mostly, he thinks of what the expression on Lance’s face would look like if he ever found out, ever knew—
“Hey,” Merlin interrupts his thoughts, looking like he knows exactly what was just going through Arthur’s mind. “It’s okay, you know.”
“What?” Arthur says. And then, crossly, “It’s not—it’s not okay at all. How would it be okay?”
Merlin looks like he almost wants to smile, but he doesn’t. “I won’t tell anyone,” is all he says. “We can keep it a secret.”
Arthur thinks, oh, hell, when did this start sounding like an illicit love affair made for daytime television? He has to actually cringe at that. But Merlin is just standing there in the middle of his flat, stupid and irritating and uninvited, looking completely serious about it.
“Firstly,” Arthur raises his hand, ticking off his fingers, “there is no ‘we.’ Do you get that? Merlin? It was a one-time thing. I was drunk. It’s not ever going to happen again, so—“
“That’s not really what I was thinking,” Merlin cuts in.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Because I care so much about what you think.”
“I was thinking,” Merlin continues, like there’d been no interruption, “that you live alone in your own flat, and that my brother’s place is all the way across town, so if I were to visit once in a while, and it were to happen again—“ he rounds the back of the old, gray couch and edges closer, ignoring the protest that’s already halfway out of Arthur’s throat, “nobody would have to know—“
“Secondly,” Arthur says loudly, pressing on, “I’m not even attracted to you—“
“Right, I definitely got that impression,” Merlin mutters, “what with you coming in your jeans and all, just from my—“
“Thirdly!” Arthur’s nearly shouting now, and Merlin is only inches away from him but he really can’t move anywhere due to the wall right behind him, and it’s his own flat, for fuck’s sake, “you are—“
“Possibly the greatest thing ever to happen to you—“
“—an idiot, and I’d really like it if you could leave me alone for the rest of my life, thanks,” Arthur glowers, and stops to take a breath.
Merlin steps up even closer, until his nose is almost touching Arthur’s, and his eyes go slightly cross-eyed from it. “Are you done now?”
Arthur blinks. “What?”
“Your list,” Merlin says, his breath ghosting against Arthur’s mouth. “Reasons you won’t sleep with me, or, whatever.”
“No,” Arthur says with his teeth gritted, “I’m not done,” so Merlin raises an eyebrow, waiting, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his lips.
“Fourthly,” Arthur persists, and suddenly he thinks he knows exactly what will piss Merlin off the most, “I don’t even like guys.” He pauses here, dramatically, waiting for the reaction he already half-expects.
It disappoints him, though. Merlin looks decidedly unimpressed. “Yeah?”
“Good for you, then. Are you finished now?”
“There are probably a number of other things I can’t think of at the moment,” Arthur snaps, still taken aback at the lack of reaction, and more than a little disoriented at how close Merlin’s very red mouth is to his face. “So, no—“
“You’ll have to tell me later, then.” Merlin shrugs. He keeps his eyes on Arthur’s, but as he speaks, his fingers slip slowly, nonchalantly into the waistband of Arthur’s pants, shockingly hot and insistent on the skin there. Whispers, “Some other time, hm?”
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, with suddenly no idea what he’s even talking about. Shit, Merlin’s hand is touching him through his boxers, and as it comes to wrap slowly around his cock— “Fuck.”
“All right,” Merlin murmurs against his shoulder, and Arthur can actually feel the smirk on his face, the smug little shit; he doesn’t do anything about it, though, except maybe turn his head slightly to the right to glare cross-eyed at the boy, but it doesn’t have quite the usual effect at all (Arthur’s glares are the stuff of legend, thank you very much; in grade school, all of his teachers knew exactly when to back away from an impending temper tantrum, and he’s even made Morgana cower, once; but Merlin—Merlin’s pretty much impervious to them, come to think of it) and instead he’s gifted with a full view of Merlin’s face, flushed pink at the cheeks and biting his lip in concentration as he maneuvers his hand farther down, down, down.
“We should—ah, god—not be doing this,” Arthur manages.
“Mmm,” Merlin agrees, continuing to jerk Arthur off through his trousers without even breaking rhythm.
“Really, it’s,” a breath catches in his throat, as Merlin swipes the pad of one soft finger over the head of his cock, “wrong, and,”
Merlin says, “Yes,” and does it again,
“Oh, I hate you,” Arthur bites out, but it’s half-hearted at best now. He wonders, somewhere in the back of his mind, why being angry at Merlin and arguing with Merlin seem to have this effect on him, and why it seems to have developed into an awkward pattern of ending up with Arthur’s mouth open, panting, shoving his hips urgently into Merlin’s hand (but maybe now it not the right time to question it, so he doesn’t, just doesn’t, only lets it go and clears his head of all thought, so the only thing he can focus on is Merlin, Merlin, Merlin in front of him, his hand and his lips, and—)
And it’s like Arthur has no self-control at all, gripping Merlin’s wrists in his hand and pushing him back, stumbling, until he tumbles over the side of the couch, looking up at Arthur from under his eyelashes, surprised but smiling, face flushed an even deeper red.
It’s rough and messy and just as uncoordinated as the last time, Merlin pressed into the cushions of his couch, papers crinkling underneath him. But Arthur is determined to at least get their pants off this time, so he does—tugs the zipper of Merlin’s jeans down, then his boxers, and his own, too, so that he can feel skin against hot skin in all the best places, burning; he slides his hips just slightly upward against Merlin’s lower stomach.
“God,” Arthur groans, reveling in the friction.
“I’d rather you call me Merlin,” Merlin quips, and Arthur wants to either strangle him or haul his head up to kiss him hard enough to bruise; he really, really doesn’t know.
He settles for “Merlin, do you ever shut up?” and Merlin responds by wrapping his hand around Arthur’s dick and his own at the same time, fingers twisting just the right way, stroking fast and almost-but-not-quite-painful, and whispering completely filthy things that should not come out of such a lovely, innocent red mouth, his eyes glinting deviously and focused on Arthur all the while, bringing them both off, so that (this is how it happens the second time) within minutes Arthur is coming, hard, his teeth dragging on Merlin’s bony white shoulder, shuddering and vision turned blank-white, and he feels Merlin do the same, mere seconds later.
Afterward, they lie tangled awkwardly and messily together on the couch; Arthur idly traces a thin white line of come up Merlin’s chest, quiet, and Merlin puts his mouth to the rim of Arthur’s ear and says, softly, “Your list—“ so Arthur says, “What about it?” and Merlin laughs a little bit hollowly, says, “I liked—well. You didn’t even mention my brother as a reason, not once.”
“Don’t really want to think about your brother right now,” Arthur mumbles, his face buried in the crook of Merlin’s neck.
A hand comes up to brush, unexpectedly gently, through Arthur’s hair. “All right.”
It’s nice, Arthur thinks. Nice to have somebody pressed up so close against him, fingers soft in his hair, heat radiating from a body, warming his skin. Arthur hasn’t had a real relationship since Sophia, ages ago, from the summer before his first year of uni—according to Morgana, he’s never had a real relationship, but who cares what his stepsister thinks, anyway—and casual fucks with strangers in bathroom stalls of bars don’t exactly make for intimacy. So he almost wants to close his eyes and drift slowly to sleep right there on his couch, Merlin’s hand a comforting weight on the top of his head.
But then (this is the cycle that will go through his head again and again, endless until he’s worried about it so much that it becomes second nature to have it looping in the back of his mind—and Arthur always, always makes the same mistakes) he remembers what he’s actually doing and who Merlin is and what Merlin is, exactly, in relation to him, and from then on it’s just a string of fuck, fuck, fuck, I can’t—this just can’t—
It’s like Merlin senses his apprehension, from the sudden tightness in his shoulders. “Hey,” he says, shifting on the couch into a half-sitting position. “I was serious, you know. Really. I won’t tell anyone.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Arthur says wearily.
“There’s nothing,” Arthur repeats.
A beat, and,
“I guess—just, I’ll see you, yeah?” Quiet, as Merlin slowly extracts his limbs from under Arthur’s, pulls on his pants, cleaning himself up with a tissue from a box on Arthur’s coffee table. Barely making a sound. “Arthur?”
“Maybe,” Arthur says, without meeting Merlin’s eyes. He looks at the coffee table instead, focusing on the headline of a half-crumpled newspaper sprawled haphazardly in a corner, dated two weeks back.
He thinks he hears another sigh, softer than the first, but he isn’t really sure; when he finally looks up, the front door is swinging shut with a small little click, and—that’s that. Merlin is gone. And something in his chest—too large and obstructive, unnamed, inexperienced until now—rises, and Arthur thinks (thinking, yes, that’s really more what he needs to do more of from now on, because clearly when he doesn’t think, things tend to get completely fucked up and ugly and complicated) it might, just might be sadness, and maybe a bit of regret, too.
His ear still tingles from the heat of Merlin’s breath against it.
October fades into November with an easy grace, calm and barely noticeable save for the gradually deepening chill in the air. Pumpkins and orange leaves become replaced with scarves and mugs of hot tea. Grass curls and hardens. Winter creeps into the small-tucked corners of unheated buildings and under the frames of windows in frosty huffs of white, silent and furtive and slow, inconspicuous, the sky darkening by notches and degrees, opening up to a heavy onslaught of rain—until two and a half months have gone by, effortless, and now it’s the nearing the close of December.
“Fuck,” Lance swears, “it’s fucking freezing out there, I don’t even—thanks,” as Arthur hands him a towel to dry the water from his hair, dripping onto the carpet Arthur’s living room. He shrugs off his coat, shakes some of the wetness out of it, and tosses it around the back of one of Arthur’s kitchen chairs.
“How’ve you been, man?” Lance asks when he’s settled in the seat, mopping at the rain clinging to his shoulders.
“Fine,” Arthur says, automatic.
It’s a perfectly ordinary and nonchalant answer, but he sometimes forgets that this is his best friend of almost seven years; this is Lance. Who stops, looks up, and frowns oddly at him. “You sure?”
Arthur nods slowly, eyebrows raised, making it as convincing as possible.
“It’s just,” Lance hesitates, unsure. “I feel like you’ve kind of been avoiding me the past couple of months. You never picked up when I called. And we haven’t really been hanging out.”
Arthur passes him a bottle of beer from the counter, then pulls out a chair across the table and settles himself into it. “Sorry about that,” he says, shrugging as casually as he knows how, keeping his voice just light enough. “Been really busy with classes, studying for exams at the end of term and all, you know? My father’s practically breathing down my neck about that degree.”
It’s a blatant lie. His father hasn’t bothered to so much as ask him about his life in months.
Lance’s face softens. “Uther’s called?”
“A couple times,” Arthur invents. “It’s really the same thing over and over. Feels the need to make sure I’m well on my way to learning everything there is to know about business, for when I eventually take my spot at the company, mostly. Wants to make it known how much of a disappointment I’d be to him, otherwise.” He lets just the smallest hint of real, unfeigned bitterness creep into his tone.
Lance looks sympathetic now, nodding and absently drumming his fingers on the tabletop.
“Holidays are going to be a bit strained this year, yeah?” he asks, kind and understanding in his own warm, knowing way, without ever being pitying. He knows how much Arthur can’t stand pity.
“We’re not actually spending them together,” Arthur says. “He’s going to be on some business trip to the States.” That, at least, is true, from the short, terse lines of the email he’d received earlier in the week from Uther’s secretary.
“She’s going to France with a boyfriend. Morris, or William, or, I don’t even know—whoever-the-fuck flavor of the month.” Arthur shrugs, rolls his eyes.
“So you’re telling me,” Lance says, eyebrows creasing, “that you plan to spend Christmas completely alone? Totally by yourself? In this flat?”
“It’s not really a big deal; not like we ever did any proper family-type things over the holidays anyway, remember? I mean, I might order up some take-out—“
“Arthur, that’s just fucking depressing,” Lance tells him flatly.
“Come over to my house,” Lance suggests suddenly. “You know my parents would love to have you over.”
“Your. . .?” He opens his mouth, wide-eyed and taken aback. “No, I’m not—I can’t just—“
“Seriously,” Lance presses, smiling at him. “The more, the merrier, right? Come on.”
“But what? I am not going to let you, my best mate, cramp up inside your filthy flat and drink yourself into self-deprecating oblivion,” Lance declares. And then adds as an afterthought, “Again.”
“What. That was one time, years ago, the circumstances were dire, and you promised never to bring it up again,” Arthur counters indignantly. “And my flat is not filthy—!”
Lance lets his gaze shift pointedly to the kitchen counter, where an array of unwashed food-stained dishes sit, stacked haphazardly, some of them sporting soft gray-green spots of what is clearly, unmistakably mold.
“You don’t even have to get us any presents,” Lance is quick to assure him, looking more and more excited about the idea. “My train leaves Christmas morning next week. I’ll book you a ticket, all right?”
No, okay? Arthur says no. Arthur says no a thousand times in a thousand different ways, says, no way, I’m not going, looks his friend dead in the eye and says I really won’t go with you, so don’t even bother with the ticket, calls Lance up after he leaves Arthur’s place for his own just to remind him, seriously, don’t, and then Lance does it anyway.
Sometimes he hates his best friend.
The train ride to Lancelot’s parents’ house is just under forty-five minutes long, and Arthur spends the entire duration of it staring down at the sweat on his palms and cursing inwardly, a steady flow of fuck, why, why, why?
Lance doesn’t notice, busy on his cell phone, calling up extended relatives and friends from uni, wishing them happiness over the holidays in that annoyingly warm-hearted way of his.
They coast to a stop, eventually. Lance’s father is waiting for them at the platform when they arrive; he smiles affectionately at his son, then just as enthusiastically at Arthur, who feels the sudden terrible urge to drop into the dark core of the earth and maybe stay there for the rest of eternity.
“Everything okay?” Lance wants to know, staring at the fresh, thin sheen of sweat on Arthur’s forehead.
He opens his mouth all ready to say, No, actually I’ve fallen ill with a deadly contagious sickness and I’m going to be going back to my flat, like, right now, so see you later!, but Lance’s dad is already taking his suitcase and lifting it into the boot of his car, smiling and asking Arthur about his studies like he really, genuinely cares, and he can’t find an easy opportunity to bolt without seeming exceedingly rude.
Christmas at Lance’s house is torturous.
It really is. Arthur really can’t decide on the worst thing about it: Lance’s mum looking so happy to see him, hugging him right there in the kitchen and smelling exactly like what he’s always imagined homely mothers who love their children to smell like, a blend of vanilla and cinnamon and kindness; or Lance’s grandparents joining them for a holiday dinner, regaling them all with funny, interesting stories of their lives from an older time, easily accepting Arthur into their family like he’s belonged there all along; or everything from the comfortable, cozy heat of the fireplace in the living room to the neatly trimmed tree in the corner with colorfully-wrapped boxes peering cheerfully from under its trunk being so scarily perfect, cookie-cutter, and lovely; or Merlin—?
Actually, just that. Yeah, the worst thing about Christmas at Lance’s house is definitely, definitely Merlin.
“I don’t care what you’re doing here,” Merlin snaps in a low voice as soon as they’re alone in a room together, his initial reaction of a confused, slightly drop-jawed stare at Arthur’s apparently unexpected arrival having dissolved quickly into narrowed eyes and a tight, upset frown. He’s wearing a loose blue jumper about three sizes too big, its sleeves slipping well over his wrists and making him look smaller, soft, somehow. It stands in stark contrast to the harsh, brittle words coming out of his mouth. “I really, really don’t give a fuck. Just stay the hell away from me, all right?”
Arthur stares, wordless.
Lance walks back into the room, a plate of freshly baked biscuits in his arms. Merlin turns; his face relaxes into a bright, fond smile for his brother, full of affection, and a sadness twists in Arthur’s chest.
He spends the entire day trying to keep out of the way, making excuses to duck inside the tiny guest bedroom and pretend to be unpacking his clothes or making important phone calls, using anything as a reason not to stray too close to Lance and his perfect family and their perfect holiday celebration and stupid, stupid fucking Merlin with his wide happy smiles (for family members only, they seem to say) who purposely avoids looking at him and finds his own polite excuses to leave the area whenever Arthur so much as walks within fifteen feet of him. It’s this that makes him feel the worst about being here—feel like he just wants to go back to his empty, silent flat and crawl under the heavy sheets, just sleep through the entire holiday week and wake up on the better side of the new year.
Another set of grandparents arrives. A couple of aunts and uncles drop by with small children peeking shyly from behind their parents. And the house, small as it is compared to the near-mansion Arthur was raised in, feels bigger, fuller, and more alive than any place he’s ever known.
After dinner, when most of the relatives have said their goodbyes, Lance’s mum announces it’s time to group around the tree and open Christmas presents. Arthur’s already opening his mouth to beg out of it, tell her, no, no, he can’t possibly intrude on such an obvious family thing, he’s going to go and—he’s got to send an email to—but she talks over him, saying, “Nonsense! You’re just as much a part of this family as anybody here, Arthur.”
From across the room, Merlin’s head snaps up from the middle of a conversation with a cousin, his eyes dark and uninviting, brows furrowed in clear disapproval.
Arthur smiles weakly, ignoring the sudden dryness of his mouth, and resolutely not looking at Merlin. “I’ve got this big paper to finish for school,” he lies, making sure to look both earnest and apologetic. “It was due last week, but my professor’s letting me send it in late as long as it’s done by today. I’d love to join you, but I really, really have to write this. . .”
Lance’s mum looks disappointed, and she tries to steer him toward the living room anyway—most everyone is already grouped in there, crowded on the couches or huddled by the merry, crackling fireplace, talking and laughing together like they belong in a picture-perfect family television commercial—but Arthur feels discomfort creeping all over his skin like an itch, the closer he gets to the scene. “Sorry,” he says to Lance’s mum, turning quickly away, seeing Lance in the corner of his eye, looking confused. “I’m really, really sorry, please, go on and enjoy the rest of your holiday without me—“
He ducks his way through the crowded hallway, locks the door of the guest bedroom behind him, and sits tiredly on the bed, able to breathe freely again.
It’s not like he’s actually scared of these things; holidays have just never been like this, that’s all. He remembers growing up in Uther’s house and spending various Christmases alone, playing video games on the floor of his room. Remembers sharing a quiet meal with the housekeeper on New Years. The idea of family to him is a big, empty house with lights turned on in separate rooms, the sounds of televisions drifting through cool dark hallways; so different from this that it makes strange, unfamiliar lumps rise up in the back of his throat.
There’s a muffled knock on his door. “Arthur?” comes Lance’s voice. “You all right?”
“Yeah, fine,” Arthur assures him through the door, voice perfectly even. He fiddles idly with the string of a lamp on the nightstand. “Just tired, I think. Gonna take a nap, maybe.”
There’s a snort. “Right,” Lance says, sounding amused. “What are you, five? It isn’t even eight o’clock yet.”
“I’m tired,” Arthur maintains, making sure to sigh over-loudly so that Lance will hear it in the hall. “Christmas with your family is exhausting, mate.”
He hears a pause.
“My parents can be a bit much sometimes,” Lance says gently. “But they’ve always really liked you, you know. I know you’re not used to—“
Arthur doesn’t want to hear this. He presses the heel of his palm into his temple, resting his head on his hands like that for a minute. “Your parents are great, Lance,” and he means it, really does.
Another pause. In the space of the silence, he lets himself remember back to the year he was fourteen years old and his father said, cold and distant, You disappoint me, Arthur, aloud for the first time in his life, and Lance was there, pulling him into a hug when he felt like crying right there in the toilet at school and inviting him over to his house all the time and saying It doesn’t matter anyway, you know it doesn’t—but it does, it does matter, sometimes, and Lance doesn’t really understand, as much as Arthur knows he wants to.
“Well. . . see you in the morning then,” Lance eventually says. “Have a good night’s sleep, Arthur. Merry Christmas, by the way.”
Arthur waits for Lance’s footsteps to recede down the hall, and then he rolls across the bed and feels a real kind of fatigue actually settle over him, sprawling out across the sheets and relaxing into the comfort of feathery pillows pressed against his cheek, cool darkness around him.
He thinks about calling Morgana. Maybe just a quick check-in to see how her holiday’s going, to let her know where she is, because he knows how much his stepsister worries about him when she thinks he’s not looking (and Arthur is always looking, always seeing the little glances she gives him and the extra care she takes to visit him at least once a month, make sure he hasn’t actually had a nervous breakdown yet or something, even when she’s halfway around the world, busy with her own glamorous life). He pulls out his phone and dials up her number, then remembers that she doesn’t actually have her mobile in France, and hangs up before it can go to voicemail.
He doesn’t think about calling Uther, or any of his other friends who might be in town. Doesn’t bother. He’s not particularly in the mood to talk to anyone, anyway.
Somewhere out in the hall, somebody laughs, the sound muted and far-off. Arthur thinks he can make out Lance’s father’s voice, and a couple unfamiliar ones belonging to Lance’s cousins, kids he’s never really ever met, or cared to; the house is probably still lively with family members and loving orange warmth, and it makes his throat ache, just a little.
He feels weariness all over his bones. Finally pulls the covers up to his shoulders, still fully clothed, and drifts eventually off to sleep.
When Arthur wakes—at one-thirty in the morning, according to the dimly glowing clock on the nightstand—he feels disoriented for a second, staring at the unfamiliar room and wondering why the hell he’s here. Then he rewinds back to yesterday—oh, Christmas. Lance’s house. Chocolate pudding, perfect happy relatives. Yes.
Blinking sleep out of his eyes, Arthur slips off the bed and into the hallway, feeling his way into the kitchen for a glass of water to alleviate the aching dryness in his throat that’d woken him.
He stands at the sink, silently filling a glass and staring absently out the window into the moonlight when he hears faintly, a whisper: “Shhh, shit, is somebody’s downstairs?”
“Probably just the cat,” answers a familiar voice, quiet from the next room. “I didn’t hear anything—“
“Are you sure? What if it’s your brother?”
A loud sigh. “Fine, I’ll go check,” and then footsteps are approaching, and before Arthur can stumble out of there, the lights are being flicked on and Merlin is standing before him, squinting, his clothes askew, a series of red marks trailing down his neck.
“Hello,” Arthur tries to say, except the word sticks in his throat, dry and silent.
Merlin just looks at him, frozen, clear blue eyes very wide in a deer-in-headlights kind of way that might be funny at any other time, in any other situation. A full minute passes, noiseless. Arthur tries his hardest not to stare at the open collar of Merlin’s shirt, or the loose flannel pajamas barely hanging onto his narrow hips.
“Mer?” calls a voice.
What a stupid nickname, Arthur thinks disdainfully (and Merlin’s name is already unfortunate to begin with, as it is), as a brown-haired boy with a round face rounds the corner into the kitchen, skids to a stop at the sight of Arthur, and promptly begins to flush a deeply amusing shade of red that spreads all the way to the roots of his hair.
“Merlin,” he stammers, mouth a tell-tale pink, lips swollen, eyes skittering quickly away from Arthur’s. “I don’t. . .”
Merlin just stands there uselessly, still staring at Arthur with an unreadable expression, arms loose at his sides.
“Should I go?” the boy asks, uncertain.
He hovers by the wall awkwardly for a few more seconds before clearing his throat and saying, “Mer? Yeah, I think I’ll just. I’m gonna. . .” and backing out of the room a bit, and Merlin seems to snap out of it, blinking like he’s just registered the boy’s presence.
“No, wait, Will—“ he says, “It’s just—Lance’s friend. It’s all right.”
“I really should get home anyway,” Will mumbles, still looking anywhere but at Arthur. He fumbles a pair of car keys out of his coat pocket. “M’not supposed to be out this late.”
“It is past your bedtime, isn’t it?”
Merlin turns to stare in disbelief at Arthur, who bites down hard on his tongue and wills himself not to say anything else he might regret.
“Um—“ Will splutters, “I’ll see you later, Merlin.”
Eyes still trained on Arthur, Merlin steps over to the boy and pulls him in close with a hand to his lower back, crushes his mouth against his own; it’s vicious, demanding and so utterly obvious, such a clear show of it at first; and then like an afterthought, the kiss melts into something sweeter, something light and loving and intimate enough that Arthur feels his chest constrict a little, involuntarily.
After what seems like an eternity, they break apart, Will’s face beet-red and Merlin looking proud and defiant. “Come on,” Arthur hears Merlin whisper, “I’ll walk you out,” and the two of them disappear down the hall, latching the door quietly closed, the sound of a car starting somewhere outside in the street audible a minute later.
Arthur feels a numbness spreading through his hand, and he looks down in confusion; his fingers are still wrapped around a glass in the sink, water spilling steadily over the top and over the edges. He shuts off the tap quickly, wipes his hand on a towel. And if his fingers shake at all, he blames it on the coldness of the water.
Merlin’s there again, shivering slightly in his thin shirt and pajamas, cheeks tinged pink from the cold outside. Chin tilted up, looking defiant.
“Hey,” Arthur answers back. There are a thousand things he could say. What the hell do you think you’re doing, maybe, or You had no right to treat me like shit all day, or Just because I turned you down, you go crawling to the nearest—. But when he reaches deep inside for some righteous anger about it all, about everything today, he only feels a sort of tired resignation.
Arthur says, toneless, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Lance.”
“That isn’t what I was going to say.”
“I don’t particularly care about what you may or may not have to say,” Arthur informs him, lifting the class to his mouth and taking a sip of cold, cold water, feeling the bitter sting of it travel down his throat.
“Stop it,” Merlin snaps.
Arthur raises his hands into the air. “Sorry, I’m just—what was it?—trying to ‘stay the hell away’ from you, as per your request.”
“Well, you’ve been doing a pretty shit job of it.”
“Have I? Oh, I beg your pardon. Maybe you should’ve been fucking your boyfriend somewhere not within twenty feet of my bedroom, then.”
Merlin’s eyes go ridiculously wide. “That’s none of your—we weren’t fuck—“ then his eyebrow draw down unhappily, and he lets out a loud sigh, looking down at his hands, fumbling with a loose string at the hem of his shirt. “Will isn’t my boyfriend, anyway,” he finishes, sounding almost annoyed to have to say it.
The sharp, not-entirely-faded red blotches on his neck tell otherwise, though, and Arthur makes a point of staring at them as blatantly as he knows how.
“We’re just.” Merlin follows his gaze down, uncomfortably adjusting his collar in a somewhat futile attempt to cover the marks. “Best friends.”
Arthur has to actually restrain himself from snorting, at that. He feels agitation pushing at his skin, and fights it futilely. “Best friends, like fuck. I don’t know about you, of course, but I don’t really go around putting my tongue down my best friends’ throats—“
“No, just their younger brothers’,” Merlin says, suddenly loud and angry and vicious.
There’s a minute of stunned silence that rings, resonates around the room. In the space of it, the low hum of the refrigerator can be heard. A dim, yellowing light bulb flickers uncertainly over them, on the ceiling.
Then Merlin ducks his head, mutters, “Don’t. . . I. . . Forget I said that.”
Arthur takes another sip of water, and sets the glass carefully down on the counter. He flips the light switch on his way out of the kitchen, sidestepping Merlin, who’s still standing in the same spot, now looking tired and uncertain. All the fight seems to have gone out of him, and he looks almost lost, unsure of how to go on. Arthur stops just long enough in the semi-darkness to say, taking care to make his tone light, despite the weird, inexplicable weight in his throat, “Make you a deal—I won’t tell Lance about this if you don’t tell Lance about that, all right?”
A moment of understanding flits past Merlin’s face. Unbidden, only for a fleeting second, it floats to the surface of Arthur’s mind—
(His lips, on Merlin’s. Hands clawing at Merlin’s skin, desperate like fire. Two times it’d happened, and it’s two times too many, and two times not enough, not enough at all, not for the burning in his veins, not for the mad, twisted desire in his throat, in his chest. Two times, filed under Things Never to Be Thought About Ever Again.)
“Right,” Merlin says, voice a little weird.
“It never happened, as far as anybody else knows. Or will ever know.”
“Good night, then.”
“Good night,” Merlin repeats, unmoving, watching him go, the words in a strange tone that might be reluctance, might be misery, might be tremendous relief. Arthur tells himself he doesn’t care enough to pick out which one of the three it is.
He drags himself through his door, crawling unfeelingly onto the creaking bed—for the second time that night—staring out the window and hoping to knock back a few more hours of precious sleep. And then perhaps, in the real morning, all of this will seem like nothing more than an especially irritating dream.
The room is black and silent. Once again, he finds that that he’s just so very, very tired.
Arthur leaves the morning of the next day. Lance’s mum and dad want him to say longer, a couple days at the least, maybe all the way through New Year’s—but he declines, politely, privately recoiling in fear at even the thought of staying in this house for so long. All the people. All the fucking tinsel. Just the smell of cinnamon in the kitchen makes unwanted feelings rise up inside of him, sad and unbearable.
Lance catches his arm in the hall to the guest bedroom, a quarter of an hour before he needs to leave for the train station. Says, “I’m a little worried about you.”
“Why?” Arthur asks innocently.
Lance’s face twists into something reproachful. “Arthur.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, sure you don’t,” Lance tells him, pulling his eyebrows down.
“I’m not stupid, you know. You’ve barely said two words all weekend. I get that you had a terribly repressed childhood and that being with a lot of people makes you nervous and everything, but honestly, mate—it’s the holidays. You know my family. They know you. You’re supposed to be, you know, happy. Somewhat.”
“I am happy,” Arthur says automatically. “I am, Lance. I’m just tired. The term’s been absolutely exhausting. Can’t I just excuse myself to get some rest?”
Lance still looks doubtful.
“Anyway,” Arthur lies, “Morgana’s coming back from France tomorrow, and I promised I’d meet her in London.”
“Morgana will be back?” Lance seems visibly relieved by this.
“Oh, well,” Lance says, “I suppose that’s all right, then. Tell her—well, you know. Send her my best.”
“Will do,” Arthur murmurs, and Lance claps him on the back, smiling tentatively, and goes upstairs to get dressed for church with the family, or something, whatever the sickeningly sweet bonding event of the morning is, on the agenda today. Arthur hadn’t been paying attention.
“You’re a terrible liar,” someone says.
He turns, already expectant; Merlin leans up against the wall, arms crossed, barefoot but otherwise already dressed. A light green buttoned shirt with a raised collar covers the bruises that must be deep red by now on his neck. He looks so different in the daylight. Softer.
“Everybody believes me anyway,” Arthur informs him.
“I don’t.” Merlin pauses. “They must only believe what they want to, then.”
“Thanks for the insight,” Arthur says dryly.
He steps past Merlin into the living room, pulling on his suitcase, careful not to brush against him. Merlin follows, for some reason.
Arthur’s gaze goes automatically to the Christmas tree in the corner—soft yellow glow catching the corner of his eye, making him see it clear and shining. Most of the curtains in the room are still drawn, and it stands out in the near-darkness. It’s all lit up, still, twinkling cheerfully in shades of red and white and orange, twisting upwards in neat spirals, its branches laid heavy with colorful ornaments glowing gently.
Bright, domestic. Cliché in the most awfully heart-wrenching of ways.
Merlin sniffs and says, “God, I hate the smell of pine.”
Arthur feels himself suppressing a smile. “Me too.” Almost involuntarily, he takes a step towards it, and then another, until he’s standing right beside it, taking in the distinct scent of wood. He kneels slowly on the carpet, aware of Merlin watching him, and feels some sort of great roaring sadness come up inside him, embarrassingly—stupid, he thinks, fucking stupid, it’s just a tree. A dead plant. It’s not a symbol of anything. Arthur touches a finger to an obviously home-made ornament on one of the lower-hanging branches, marvels at the cool metal and rough paint of it.
Merlin comes up to sit cross-legged next to him, resting his arms on his thighs and looking curious. “It’s like you’ve never even seen a real Christmas tree before,” he says.
Arthur doesn’t respond.
“You have seen one before, haven’t you?”
Again, he says nothing—only tilts his head up to see the dainty glass angel perched at the top of the tree, bright yellow points reflecting off of its corners from sunlight that has slipped through the cracks in the curtains, turning the figurine into a prism.
Merlin lets out a breath, sudden and sharp. “You haven’t,” he says, very, very quietly, and there is something in his tone—pity, or another thing too close to it—that Arthur already hates. Wants to rip apart.
“Of course I have,” Arthur scoffs automatically.
He thinks of window displays in department stores, bright and cheery; of shelves upon shelves of colorful little elves and nutcrackers and ornaments in boxed rows; of that one time Morgana was determined to do something as a proper family and almost set the kitchen on fire with her attempts at baking, finally giving up and calling her friends to go out to some bar. He thinks of Uther in his study, locked up with conference calls and paperwork. Of a half-made cake sitting alone on the marble countertop, cold and burnt.
Merlin scoots closer on the carpet, until the edge of his fingers brush up against the tight curl of Arthur’s. “Don’t do that.”
“Pretend,” Merlin murmurs. “I told you, you’re a terrible liar. And I always sort of figured, you know—your family, I mean. That they weren’t really the celebrating type. Lance used to invite you over for the holidays a lot, but you always had some excuse not to come.”
“How do you still remember that?”
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“It was years,” Arthur says, staring down at the soft, dizzying patterns of the carpet.
The house is quiet in the morning, a clock ticking distantly somewhere in the hall. A row of twisted, pointy lights flashes red and green; Arthur can see, in his peripheral vision, the colors splay across Merlin’s face, dancing off his cheekbones, his eyelashes, the point of his nose.
“I’ve always fucking hated Christmas,” Arthur says at last, picking at a loose string on one of his socks. “Everything about it.”
Merlin looks down at his lap. “I’m sorry,” he says, quiet.
“There’s no need to be.”
“I think there is, Arthur. It’s not as bad as you make it seem, you know—people having sympathy for you. It doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
Arthur doesn’t know how to answer that, so he doesn’t.
After a moment, Merlin nudges his thumb against Arthur’s wrist, touches the bone there. “Last night.”
“What about it.”
Merlin hesitates. “I’m sorry for that, too.”
“Why? It was probably the most you’d spoken to me all day.”
“You weren’t meant to. . .”
Arthur shrugs like he doesn’t care in the slightest, like he’s already forgotten the bruises on Merlin’s neck, the touch of a stranger’s lips to his mouth, the terrible clawing in him at the sight of it. Arthur is a good liar, no matter what Merlin thinks. He manages to convince even himself of it, enough to say: “It’s got nothing to do with me.”
“It’s got everything to do with you,” Merlin says, sounding small and sad.
He doesn’t know what that means. He doesn’t want to know.
The sound of footsteps coming down the stairs interrupts the quiet, and Arthur pushes himself to his feet as Lance walks into the room, pulling a tie around his shoulders, grinning. Oblivious to everything.
“Morning, Merlin,” he greets. “When did you come down here? And Arthur, I think your taxi’s outside—“
“Bye, then,” Arthur says, picking up his suitcase and heading for the door.
Lance smiles ruefully. “You sure we can’t convince you to stay another night?”
Arthur waves his hand in the air in a noncommittal, general sort of way. “Wish I could, but, you know.”
“Bye, Arthur,” Merlin says, lifting his eyes to look straight at him, only for an instant. His gaze is clear and steady and very blue, and Arthur feels it burn into his skin, somehow. He looks away.
The air when he walks outside is cold, brittle—the taxi’s heat control doesn’t work very well, either, and chilliness seeps in through the metal of the car, settling deep into Arthur’s bones. His train is almost entirely empty, nobody traveling anywhere so immediately after the holiday. Arthur sprawls across three seats, falling asleep until he comes to a stop at the station close to his flat. Rubbing tiredness out of his eyes, he walks the two blocks to his building, fumbles a key out of his pocket—hands numb with cold—and drags the suitcase up the stairs, pushes his way into his only-slightly-warmer flat. Breathes it in, familiar.
It’s not really home, but that’s all right. Arthur’s never really had one of those, anyway.
There are three messages waiting on the answering machine, small red light blinking, when he gets around to it.
“Arthur,” says the first in Morgana’s voice, when he pushes the play button, “you prat, you never pick up your phone—France is lovely, of course, wish you were here, et cetera, et cetera. Are you binge-drinking again? Am I going to come home to London to find you passed out on your floor? I’ll be back the week after New Years, by the way, if you didn’t remember. Anyway, happy Christmas, Jonathan says hello—“ Arthur thinks, who?, and needs a minute to remember that it’s the name of Morgana’s latest boy toy, “—and I’ll see you soon, all right? Don’t drink yourself into a seizure.” There is a small pause, and then she says, more gently, “I love you, Arthur,” and the machine clicks, signaling the end of the message.
Uther’s personal assistant wishes Arthur a generic happy holiday on the second recording, and Arthur actually has to laugh out loud at that. It’s a new low—even for Uther, who usually tries to make some sort of attempt at remembering he has a son, at this time of the year. He deletes this one before the woman, Christine or something, is done making whatever excuse, saying “Your father is in a meeting right now, but he regrets not being able to tell you personally—“, cutting it off in the middle.
The third message flashes as the number from Lance’s house. Arthur presses the button to listen to it, curious, wondering if he’s forgotten to pack something still in the guest room that’s important enough for Lance to call him about it.
There are a few seconds of silence, and then Merlin’s voice says, “Hey.”
Arthur stares at the phone.
“You’re probably still on the train,” Merlin continues quietly. In the background, Arthur can hear Lance talking to someone, maybe through a door, and a number of other voices milling about. “We’re leaving pretty soon for church, but—I wanted to call, make sure you were okay. I know—“
He pauses for a second, and there’s just the soft, static pattern of his breathing.
“I know you think I’m kind of an idiot,” Merlin says at last, and Arthur can practically hear the roll of his eyes that no doubt accompanies his words. “I know you think I’m really young and have no idea what I’m doing, but honestly, Arthur, you’ve got horrible judgment when it comes to people. And I meant it when I said I was sorry, about the other night—about everything, about whatever. God, I’m rambling now. So just. Give me a call back, yeah?”
A beat, and Merlin adds with a short laugh, “I already miss you, Arthur. You and your stupid face.”
Arthur listens to this one three times before deleting it, and even then, his fingers hover over the button, unsure.
He doesn’t end up getting spectacularly drunk that night, against his own expectations (though he debates it; it’s almost a tradition for him to do so, after all, tragically enough), but instead sits on the floor in the semi-dark living room and flips through the one photo album he owns, dragged out of a box at the bottom of his cupboard. There are pictures of himself, pictures of Morgana, all the way from toddlers through their awkward teenage stages. There are pictures of his mother as a young woman, the paper curled and yellowing at the edges from decades of wear. There is one picture of him and Lance, arms thrown around each other smiling, something around fourteen years old; another skinny, floppy-eared kid stands at Lance’s side with a scowl on his face, and Arthur feels himself smile at the sight of it, at the recollection of that day. He falls asleep on the couch, with his hand holding his place in the book, remembering.
It snows, four days later, on the last day of the year.
Arthur wakes up in the late morning to see the bedroom soaked in a bright, blinding kind of light, and he stumbles to his feet to squint through the window at the world: the entire street below is swathed in a thin, even layer of white, pure and dazzling. Snowflakes drift slowly across the windowpane, settling on the ledge, skating down to collect on streetlamps, on phone booths, on the tops of cars. The city is beautiful like this, everything quiet and new. Singing with a serenity it has never before possessed.
He pulls on clothes and goes out, just for the air, just for the feel of fresh snow crunching under his shoes. There are hardly any people out walking in the streets in weather this cold, and the ones he does see are hurrying about at fast paces, shivering, arms tucked deep into coat pockets. But he likes it this way. Arthur takes his time wandering around town, circling his block of flats, venturing deep into other neighborhoods, and eventually passing by his university, its gates still closed for break, all the buildings blanketed with snow. It’s not until mid-afternoon that he ducks through the door of a tiny café of an unfamiliar part of the city to warm his stiff, red-tinged hands, order a coffee, checks his mobile and realizes how long he’s been outside—hours, at least three or four. There’s also a text that beeps up on the screen, from Lance:
Arthur. Leon’s having a New Year’s party over here at his house tonight, 8 PM. You coming?
He shivers, feeling his skin tingling madly as circulation returns to his hands. Sure, he types back, why not? and then sets his phone down on the table. Closes his eyes, presses two fingers against his temple, against the headache that’s been slowly nagging at him for four days.
Four days, and—it’s ridiculous, it’s pathetic, it’s—Arthur’s been pacing around his flat, rearranging furniture out of sheer agitation, flicking through stupid television programs, listless, or just lying on his back on the floor, pointlessly mapping out the topography of the ceiling; trying to find anything to do, trying to develop some distraction from—something, from Christmas, from the still-there presence of the holidays, from whatever stupid, insistent thing that has lodged itself in his throat and won’t release its hold no matter how hard he struggles with it, damn it. It doesn’t even make sense. Arthur feels heavy with relief at the idea of a party tonight, loud and distracting; at the possibility of some return to what he considers normalcy in his life.
Eventually, after a while, he stands up and makes his way through the biting cold back to his flat, stepping again through the fresh, clean snow. He has to call Morgana to borrow her car, because Leon lives in the same neighborhood as Lance (which makes him a little wary at first, but it’s not like he’s scared of the area just because of Lance’s family or anything, so he determinedly stops thinking about it) and all the trains over there are sure to already be booked for today. Morgana threatens him in her usual way—“If there is so much a scratch on the paint, I will kill you in your sleep when I get back to England, I swear, and there will be lots of blood,”—and then tells him grudgingly that the keys to the ignition are in the drawer next to the fridge.
Arthur takes a cab over to her place at six o’clock, lets himself through the door with the door key she’d given to him years ago, and pulls her car out of the parking garage, joining the slow crawl of evening traffic out of the city. It takes him more than two hours to actually get out of town, and by the time he gets to the right neighborhood, the sun has set and the sky outside is dark, almost black.
He forgets the actual number of Leon’s house, so he just parks on Lance’s street, thinking he’ll walk around for a bit until he finds the right place; but it doesn’t work, because all of the houses in the vicinity look pretty much the same. It’s started to snow again, slow, watery flecks floating down to land on his shoulders, and he shivers.
Arthur’s standing in the driveway of Lance’s place, halfway through dialing up Leon’s phone number, absolutely freezing, feeling coldness trickle into the pores of his skin, when he happens to look up and see a single, faint light on in the otherwise darkened house in front of him—when some movement catches his eye completely by chance, and it’s upstairs from—
Of course it is.
The shutters are pulled most of the way down, but there’s a small slant of soft light peeking out from the bottom, near the ledge, showing the scratchy silhouette of someone sitting with their legs tucked up by the window. Reading, or maybe writing something, head bent low in a book.
And it’s just so—stupid, Arthur thinks, feeling the nails of his fingers digging into his palms, the sudden, acute tightening in his throat.
It’s stupid, because he doesn’t even want to be here, in this neighborhood, tonight. Because he’s hardly ever cared for celebrations of any sort. Because his entire life seems to have turned out to be one long, continuous mistake, anyway. Because he should just get in the car and drive, without a second thought. To anywhere. Because he isn’t supposed to be like this, as messed up as this: hovering in front of his best friend’s house, and thinking only that he’s not home, but his little brother is, and what a coincidence this is, what a funny coincidence (like some sort of sign, accidental or otherwise) that they’re both here, and Merlin is all alone, and so is Arthur.
Arthur has always been alone.
It’s stupid. So infuriatingly complicated and dangerous and pointless and stupid, in the end, and the quiet, confusing desperation of this gets too much for his head, the strange ache of the past four days spiraling into itself, into nothing at all, so something inside him crumbles—no, snaps, like the string of a quivering bow, like the shattering of glass, and he just thinks, calmly, detachedly—fuck it.
The cold chill in the air tonight has numbed his brain, maybe. Stopped his thoughts, halted them from logical progression. His finger is already on the doorbell, trembling, before he realizes he’s moved forward, at all.
“Arthur,” Merlin says when he opens the door, eyes wide.
He has a dozen things ready on the tip of his tongue: excuses, apologies to get off his chest, reasons for him to be here, standing on the rickety front porch, in the cold, feet drenched wet from snow. He has a dozen things half-formed in his mouth that would make this okay, but none of them really say anything at all.
Instead, Arthur takes a shivering breath, steps forward, and kisses him.
Merlin struggles at first, trying to get away; but eventually he gives up, letting himself be pulled tightly against Arthur’s chest, hands scrabbling everywhere for something to hold onto, while Arthur shoves into his mouth, pushing down his every protest, fierce and rough and silent until he has to break away for breath, whispering, “Is anyone else home—“
“N-no,” Merlin manages back, gasping, as Arthur sighs into the side of his face, slipping fingers around Merlin’s thin, sharp hips. “Parents are out, and Lance is at—friend’s party, I dunno, aren’t you supposed to be there—fuck, your hands are freezing—“
But Arthur only presses harder, more insistently, shuddering at the burning heat of Merlin’s skin, at how it feels so close to him. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, walking them both backwards, stumbling into walls until they hit the stairs. “This is all my fault,” and he kisses Merlin again, long and thorough, loving, loving the soft smoothness his lips, the delicately pale line of his jaw, and getting tiny bits of snow all over Merlin’s shoulders. He feels the ache in his throat growing smaller and smaller with every kiss, every touch of Merlin’s skin easing it a little bit, and then suddenly he can breathe again, and he’s never felt so free, like he’s in the air, in the sky—and all he wants to do is fall, so he does. Finally, finally, just lets himself go.
Merlin sleeps restlessly. He cocoons himself in the sheets and then tosses around so much that the fabrics twist around his body, tangle between his legs and under his arms and around his waist in a complicated sort of jumble, messy and hectic. His limbs fall into constant disarray, and he fidgets so often that it’s a miracle he can stay asleep at all.
In contrast, the moonlight is soft and blue on his skin, and his breathing is slow, quiet, calm. His eyelashes fan out against the pillow, and his mouth is slightly open, relaxed, in the curve of a half-smile. Shadows from the window pull at the angles of his neck, his ears, his eyelids.
Arthur knows all of this, because it’s right in front of him, because he’s lying on Merlin’s bed in Merlin’s room, just drifting, and thinking, and mostly, looking at Merlin. Looking at this boy he’s known since childhood, pale and gawky until suddenly he isn’t, anymore. Being fascinated now by the shape of Merlin’s chin, the peaceful, ridged lines of his cheekbones. He traces his index finger along Merlin’s jaw, along the bone, and the old familiarity of it makes him feel oddly comforted. Safe.
“Hey,” Merlin murmurs, stirring awake at the touch and blinking sleepily sideways at Arthur. “What. . .”
“Nothing.” Arthur shakes his head, tries to draw his finger back. But Merlin reaches out a warm hand and wraps it insistently around Arthur’s, keeping him there, close to his face.
“It’s,” Merlin sighs, his voice croaky, arching his back like a cat and turning to squint blearily at a clock on the wall. “past midnight.”
“Yeah, I know,” Arthur says quickly. “I didn’t—I meant to leave sooner, but—“
Merlin frowns at him. “Leave?”
A silence stretches out between them in the darkness, unspoken and uncertain.
Arthur says, finally, “Unless you. Unless you want me to stay.”
“Stay,” Merlin mumbles, deciding for him. He keeps his hand over Arthur’s, the weight of it steady and sure. After a while, when Arthur thinks he’s fallen back asleep, he coughs and says, “I was just. . . thinking. You know what some people say about New Year’s?”
Merlin shifts a little on the mattress, adjusts so that his head is half-resting on Arthur’s bare shoulder. “They say that whatever you find yourself doing on New Year’s—it’s supposed to set what you’ll be doing for the rest of the year.”
Arthur laughs, but turns to skim his lips over the top of Merlin’s ruffled hair. “You don’t really believe that, do you.”
There’s a pause.
“Maybe,” Merlin whispers.
It’s so soft, the word—spoken just barely above a gust of breath—and it makes a strange thing shiver down Arthur’s spine. Makes him want to wrap his arms around Merlin’s small body, warm from sleep, and stay there for a long, long while.
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Merlin says, his voice small. “Would it?”
Arthur wonders, himself.
Merlin says, “Doing this, I mean,” and presses a leg to Arthur’s under the covers (as if Arthur needs reminding, as if he needs actual prompting to think about the feel of Merlin’s muscles again, the hot crawl of skin underneath him, and what they’d done in this bed mere hours ago. As if he has been thinking of anything else but the memory of Merlin’s lips around him, Merlin’s ankles wrapped across his waist, Merlin’s strangled gasp when he comes, since then). “For the rest of the year.” And then his voice is shakier, less certain, when he adds quietly, “Waking up next to me.”
It takes him a moment to realize what Merlin is saying. What he is asking.
His first instinct is to recoil—to step back, to pull up his walls and drag back his old, fettered excuses: no, no, I can’t, this is why. Arthur’s been through this routine a thousand times, after all, and it plays out exactly the same way. The same guilt and the same frustration. He’s grown tired of it. The second thing that flits through his mind is hesitation; it is a creeping self-doubt, a sadness at all of the things he’s maybe missed, locked up inside himself for so long. It’s just a thought, one that would ordinary be dismissed; but he’s here, Arthur realizes, he’s here, in Merlin’s bed tonight, and—three times it’s happened now, and he can’t take it back. He can’t take any of it back. And he doesn’t want to. He wants this all (more than he could ever know), wants to keep it a selfish secret and keep it his, maybe the only thing that’s ever really been his own.
Merlin’s fingers are still twined with Arthur’s.
Arthur clears his throat. Says, “No. It wouldn’t be so bad.”
He feels more than sees the relief in Merlin’s smile, bright against Arthur’s shoulder; quickly, he rolls away onto his side to face Merlin properly and amend with, “But—“
“Yeah?” Merlin leans forward until he’s fully sprawled across Arthur’s chest.
Arthur gives in and brings a hand up to comb through Merlin’s hair, curl his fingers in it at the nape of his neck, barely repressing a smile of his own. “Lots of things. You’re still a child. I practically grew up with you. And I’m your brother’s best friend, for fuck’s sake—”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, muffled into his collarbone. “So what?”
He rolls his eyes, then realizes Merlin can’t see it. “So we’d be so terrible at this. At—whatever it is you’re even suggesting.”
“Yeah,” Merlin agrees, “probably.”
“It’s a bad idea.”
“How do you figure?”
There is silence for a while, easy time in which Arthur listens to the ticking of the faint clock on the wall and lets himself spread a hand across Merlin’s back, run down the line of his ribs, thinking it over. When he speaks, it is careful, deliberate. “Merlin,” he says softly, “why do you even want this?”
“What do you mean why do I—“
“I mean,” Arthur says in a rush, sighing out the words like they’re old air, “you’ve got your family, your friends, you have Will; you have your own life, and you’ve surely heard enough of mine from your brother to know that it’s nothing like yours. I can’t be your boyfriend, you know, however you imagined it. I won’t take you to your school dance—“
“I hate dances,” Merlin interrupts, sounding slightly disgusted.
“—And I won’t buy you flowers—“
“Allergic to them, anyway.”
“—And I’m never going to call you Mer—“
“God, that’s such a stupid nickname,” Merlin mutters. “Please don’t ever call me that.” And then, “Is that all?”
Arthur wants to laugh, but it just comes out as sort of a broken cough. “Yeah,” is all he says. “That’s all.”
“Good.” Merlin nudges his ankle with his foot, so Arthur gives in.
Easy as that—gives in, gives up, lets Merlin drape his arm around Arthur’s chest and press a small kiss to the space right over his heart.
“Lancelot is going to kill me,” Arthur says resignedly, closing his eyes.
“We’ll hold off telling him for a while, yeah?”
Then, a calm silence. There are no words left. It is simple. There’s nothing more to do but hook an ankle around Merlin’s foot, loop themselves together under the contorted sheets, smile mockingly at Merlin’s whisper of, “Oh, so—Happy New Year, Arthur, I know how much you love holidays,” and say, “Shut up, you idiot, go back to sleep,” and drift gradually off from consciousness, comfortable with the weight of Merlin’s body sunken into the space in the mattress next to him, after having spent so many other nights alone; it’s weird to listen to someone else’s breathing, but Arthur gets used to it, eventually falls into the pattern of it, adapting to all of Merlin and his sheets curled loosely on his chest. He sleeps, and it is the nicest thing he’s been able to do in a very, very long time.
In the early morning, Lance walks into Merlin’s room with an apparent hangover and half-formed question of “Hey, I just got in, do you know why Arthur’s sister’s car is parked out in fr—?“ that drops off his tongue immediately at the sight of them—at Arthur, arms still wrapped around Merlin, both of them yawning and half-dressed—and oh, everything, everything, goes to shit.
Arthur’s never really believed in fate.
Destiny, he thinks, is a ridiculous thing, fickle and unreal, a made-up fairy tale idea for those who can’t come to terms with the consequences of their own actions. It’s a lie and a poorly constructed justification for things that can’t, or won’t, be explained. Because some people are just too stubborn, and they try to fall back on the one ready-made excuse, that nonsense-notion of serendipity—Arthur’s always sort of hated anyone who tried to preach it to him, tried to validate the idea of kismet, of a series of events beyond possible control. He doesn’t believe in it. Has grown up scorning it. Until now, that is. When he realizes with a terrible pang that this is exactly what he’s trying to do right this minute: argue his way out with the worst explanation in the universe, the only thing that even comes to mind—
“It just happened,” he says, hands unsteady, fighting to keep his voice even and quiet enough not to be heard throughout the entire house. Lancelot is standing across from him in the downstairs living room, eyes still shock-wide, like he’s still seeing the image from earlier, burned into his vision. Not even listening to Arthur, who can only stand there uselessly and shake his head, say again,
“It just happened.”
“How?” Lance wants to know, the word harsh and accusing. “How does—how does it just happen? You stumbled and accidentally fell into my brother’s bed?”
“What, tell me—“
“I don’t know,” Arthur says, nearly pleads, “I don’t know, Lance, I swear I didn’t plan this. It’s not like I meant—just. I don’t know.”
He wants to be anywhere but here. Badly. Feels the very familiar itch under his skin, the need to run, to pull fast away from this. All he has to do is turn around to the front door, tug on his shoes, and flee to the car, drive it the distance back to his flat and stay there for the rest of the day, the week, the whole entire year; avoid the world for a little while, or maybe forever. He could do it now. Just take a few steps back, and go.
He wants to. But part of him is still sleepy, half-awake, warm in the space between Merlin’s sheets. Part of him is yet dreaming—comfortable with Merlin’s skin under his fingertips, before Lance had walked in and he’d scrambled off the bed to jerk on yesterday’s clothes and slip silently down the stairs, not daring to look at the expression on his best friend’s face. He can still now feel the pleasant heat of Merlin’s hand, lingering on the inside jut of his wrist. The pressure of Merlin’s lips on his.
Part of him won’t let it go, now, not that easily.
Arthur sighs. Looks up, and tries to say with his eyes all the things that he can’t.
Lance holds himself stiffly, arms crossed, leaning away from Arthur like he can’t bear to come any closer; his jaw is set, brows drawn together miserably. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” he repeats for fourth time.
“Merlin’s my—he’s my little brother. He’s fucking sixteen years old. How can you just expect. . .” Lance pulls an agitated hand through his hair, leaving it in rumpled waves. “I didn’t even know he liked guys. I didn’t even know you liked guys. God, have you ever actually had a boyfriend in your life?”
“One-night stands with people you pick up in bars don’t count.”
“Merlin isn’t the same thing,” Arthur finds himself saying, before he can stop himself.
Lance’s eyes go disbelievingly wide at that. “Of course he isn’t the same thing. He isn’t the regular kind of casual fuck you’re used to, Arthur. He’s just a boy. He doesn’t know what he wants. You can’t just do this, can’t treat him like he means something to you when we both know you’ll just turn around and—“
“And what?” Arthur demands then.
Lance bites his lip.
“And I’ll what?”
“You’ll leave,” Lance says, simple and plain. “Run away. Like you always do.”
Arthur blinks. Goes, “Oh.”
He takes a split second to look back before yanking the door open and stepping out, to tell Lance—“I thought you were supposed to be my best friend,” and Lance says back bitterly,
“And I thought I was supposed to be able to trust you!”
but he doesn’t hear anymore, doesn’t want to; is already halfway to the car, fingers trembling. Outside, the snow still falls around him, bright and cold and hushed.
And he calls.
And he calls, and he calls.
After letting all the messages go to voicemail, Arthur yanks the phone’s power cord out from the wall, fists clenched, without listening to a single one. He grabs a jacket and kicks his way out of the flat, goes to spend the day in the local public library, head bent pointlessly over a couple of textbooks spread atop a table, studying for exams he knows aren’t even going to come up until at least February of the new term. Fingers skim again and again over the glaze-smooth pages, and he’s barely aware of anyone else in the room. It passes the time, at least—forces him to focus on the narrow lines of text and concentrate. Think of nothing else.
It’s not okay. Nothing is okay. But this is how he wants to deal; this is the only way he knows. A fail-safe way to hold back everything he could not bear to feel, all that peculiar, unfamiliar wretchedness bubbling up and threatening to pull him under. And eventually, sometime at the end of the day around dusk when he packs up to go back home, his hands finally stop their violent shaking.
Morgana’s plane lands back in London on a Sunday. Arthur inadvertently forgets about it, having been preoccupied with carefully divvying up all his plans for this past week between sleeping, spending long hours at the library with his eyes glossing unseeingly over the texts, and generally avoiding anyone who tries to contact him. (Not like a coward—just. Just because. There’s no need, no reason.) He hasn’t even bothered to turn on his laptop or fetch anything out of his mailbox since New Year’s. Not seeing the point.
“Why haven’t you been answering my calls?” Morgana demands as she stomps her way into his flat, all bright colors and fierce presence, trailing little flecks of snow onto the carpet with her boots.
She comes to a stop in the middle of the living room. Glances around and then raises an eyebrow at the little wedge of space underneath his coffee table, where his mobile has been unceremoniously shoved, battery dead for four days.
“Sorry,” Arthur says, startled at her sudden appearance. He fumbles to his feet. “Ah. Sorry. I forgot when your flight was.”
“You wouldn’t have forgotten if you’d bothered to pick up the phone,” she says, disapproving.
“Sorry,” Arthur mutters again. “I’ve been—“
But Morgana hushes him with an impatient shake of her head, and steps closer, moving to the couch and pulling him back down by the elbow onto the seat beside her. She gives him a strange look, long and assessing, and something about the expression in her eyes slowly changes.
“Arthur,” she says cautiously.
“How was France?” Arthur ignores her. He slides his hands down the length of his trousers, hastily attempting to smooth out the creases there. Fixing his gaze on the wall opposite. “Hope your holidays were good this year. Exciting, yeah? You’ll have to tell me about it, all the places you went—“
“Arthur,” Morgana says, loudly, “what happened? You look like shit.”
A small silence. His wry, half-snorted “Thanks,” is just a split second off the beat.
“Tell me,” Morgana says, soft now, reaching up a hand to brush away the hair from his eyes. Gestures of affection like this—it’s something she hardly ever does. Not unless she thinks he needs it that badly. “Arthur?”
“Morgana,” Arthur says, in a voice as even as he knows how to make. “You’re being ridiculous. I’m fine. Really. Don’t worry about me.”
Lips twist, rueful. “I always worry about you.”
He wants to laugh, brush it off, say something like, well, that’s stupid. Wants to reassure her that everything is all right, ease off a bit of that guilt that he knows always rests on her shoulders, from not being around for him. Knows he should. But he’s tired and instead, he just swallows, throat a bit dry, and says honestly, “Yeah. I know.”
They sit there in silence for a few minutes. Morgana’s hand moves down from his forehead to rest on his shoulder, her fingers a comforting pressure. She’s always been like this, Arthur remembers, with a small wave of nostalgia. Tough on the outside, but so full of secret concern for him. It’s been the same ever since he was six and skinned his knees falling off a skateboard onto asphalt, and she made fun of him for it but then held his hand for the next two hours, gripping it tightly like she couldn’t ever think of letting go.
It’s the closest thing to family he has.
“You know,” Morgana says finally, after a long, quiet stretch. “All you have to do is tell me. Simple as that. Tell me who broke your heart, and I’ll gladly go and beat them up for you.”
“We’re hardly schoolchildren,” Arthur points out, unable to hold back an amused snort. “And isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t I supposed to be the one beating up kids for you?” Before she can huff and open her mouth to give him an already-anticipated lecture on sexism, though, Arthur’s brain catches up to the first part of what she’s just said and he blurts, maybe a smidge too fast,
“And who the hell said anything about broken hearts, anyway?”
The widening of Morgana’s eyes is almost comical.
“I was just guessing,” she says, sitting back and staring. “I mean, it was a random shot in the dark, to get you to tell me the truth, but—really?”
“No,” Arthur says immediately.
“You have to tell me who it is now, you realize,” Morgana says, already matter-of-fact.
He pulls his shoulder out from under her hand, backing away into the other side of the couch and crossing his arms. “I don’t,” he says, already regretting having engaged in this conversation, “because there isn’t a ‘who.’ There isn’t anyone.”
“Has anyone ever told you what a shit liar you are?”
Arthur gnashes his teeth together and thinks, wonders, what is it with people telling him that, lately. But he doesn’t even get a chance to say anything aloud because Morgana’s already doing that for him, ranting:
“I can’t believe you would meet someone and let me know, Arthur. Is it a new someone? You’d have to introduce us eventually, anyway. Is it someone I already know, and is that why you won’t say? Or maybe someone you don’t think I would approve of? I resent that, you know. Just because I didn’t like her all that much last time—“
“You told her you wished she’d go drown herself in a lake,” Arthur says.
“Yeah, well, Sophia was a two-faced bitch,” Morgana answers calmly.
Her mobile buzzes suddenly, loud in the quiet room; she pulls it out of her jacket and frowns at whatever text shows up on the screen.
“Is that Jonathan? Bloke you took to France?”
“Yes, it is, and no, don’t you dare try to change the subject,” Morgana says, smoothly tucking the phone back into her pocket. She fixes him with an unnervingly focused stare. “I’ll tell you about my life later. We’re talking about you right now, and the mysterious woman you’ve fallen in love with.”
“Good luck with that,” Arthur says sarcastically.
Morgana, of course, takes this literally as some sort of invitation, and starts to actually list every single female mutual friend the two of them have ever had off the top of her head.
Arthur stops listening about one-fourth of the way through, fiddling with a loose thread at the hem of his shirt and just nodding dismissively as she rattles off random names and watches him closely for reactions that don’t come.
It takes him a few silent seconds to realize she’s stopped.
Raising his head in confusion, he sees that she has her phone out in her hands again, dialing a number by the looks of it.
“What’re you doing?”
“Change of tactic,” Morgana says, waving a hand vaguely in the air, eyes intent on the screen. “I’m calling Lancelot. Surely you’ve told him.”
Blood freezes in Arthur’s veins.
“Don’t do that,” he says, fighting to keep his voice at a normal level.
“Why not? Come on, Arthur, it’s no fun if it’s a secret,” Morgana smirks, teasing now, like they’re little kids again, with all their stupid competitive games.
“Don’t,” Arthur says again, unsure of how to convey how serious he is, how this is a warning. “Morgana.”
The mobile number just rings only a couple times and then goes to voicemail, Lancelot’s usual message playing, the recorded voice apologizing for not answering, and wishing happy holidays. Arthur lets out a private sigh of shaky, desperate thankfulness—until Morgana just shakes her head and smiles maliciously, cupping her hand around the screen, hiding it from him.
She pays no heed, and quickly dials out the rest of another number with what can only be described as sheer childish glee. Arthur watches for a few disbelieving seconds, unable to move, and only belatedly registering the muted ringing sound coming through the speaker as the sound of a different telephone that has to be the home line being rung up when there’s a click and a far too recognizable voice answering, faint and tinny,
His heart lurches, against his better judgment, wild and frantically uncontrollable.
“Merlin, hi,” Morgana says cheerfully. Obliviously. “This is Morgana. Can you put your brother on? Arthur’s having a torrid love affair with some secret woman he refuses to tell me anything about, so I’ll be needing to talk to Lance—“
He grabs for the phone.
“—right away,” Morgana continues after jerking the device violently an arm’s length away from him, and then bringing it back up to her ear, not even breaking her sentence. “Would you mind, dear?”
Arthur sits rigidly on the seat, ears strained, listening for the answer—
“He’s outside,” Merlin says slowly. The tone to his voice is indecipherable. “Taking down the Christmas lights. Do you want me to go and get him?”
“That’d be great,” Morgana nearly sing-songs, simultaneously shooting Arthur a glare as he tries again to snatch the phone out of her hands, unsuccessfully. She ducks under his arm, twirling off the couch in one fluid motion, acting like it’s still some sort of game.
It’s not. It’s not, because she doesn’t know what kind of dangerous territory she’s headed into at all.
“Lancelot!” Morgana shouts into the receiver a few moments later—shouts, because she’s half-dancing around the flat now, laughing, circling around the dining room table and knocking chairs down to prevent Arthur from catching up to her. “Hi, how are you! It’s Morgana. Will you tell me who my brother’s fallen head over heels in love with?”
Arthur hears only the beginning of Lance’s reply that comes after a pause, tense and wary: “What? Is this supposed to be a joke? You can tell him to go and fu—“
But then he makes one more mad lunge for the phone, and this time he manages to wrestle it out of Morgana’s hand, jabbing the End Call button with as much force as he can muster, slamming the phone down on the table, and breathing out with final, exhausted relief, barely hearing the thud it makes against the wood under the drum-loud beating of his heart.
When he looks up, Morgana’s looking less annoyed than he expected, and more uncertain. An uncharacteristic expression, on her. “Okay,” she says, dragging out the word, “Arthur Pendragon, tell me, what in the world was that supposed to mean?”
Arthur doesn’t have an answer. He just stands there, blinking hard down at Morgana’s phone still held under his palm, and feeling hideously like he might actually want to cry.
“Whatever you did.”
“Whatever I did?”
“I don’t know what you’re. . .”
“Don’t you dare try to pretend.” Morgana’s stopped in her tracks on the way to the door, turned back around with one hand on the wall. She’s looking straight at him, but he can’t bring himself to meet her eyes, out of fear of seeing pity in them. “Whatever you did. Or didn’t do. Or made yourself do. I know you, all stupidly noble and self-sacrificing. I know how you get, sometimes, sealing yourself off from the world because you think that you’re not worthy, or that you’re not good enough for it—“ Here he lifts his head to give a half-hearted glare, but she only waves a hand dismissively in the air, and goes on. “I know, Arthur. Even if you won’t exactly tell me what it is.”
Because it doesn’t matter, Arthur wants to say.
“But that’s just the thing. You can’t keep doing this,” she says, as if she knows exactly what he would have said in the silence. “Denying everything you’ve ever felt. Purposely cutting off from people who care the most about you. You deserve to give yourself a little more credit.”
“What does that mean?” he wants to know, sounding more defensive than he means.
He hears a sigh, and then Morgana’s stepping back across the living room, coming to a stop with her eyes peering close to his face.
“It means,” she says, voice soft, “that once in a while, you know, you’re allowed to actually be happy.”
He has nothing to say to that. But he lets her wrap her arms around him in a small hug anyway, lets her kiss his cheek and nods hollowly at her whisper into his ear, “So just go out and fix it,” and he’s still standing there in the middle of his flat when she leaves, lost in multiple, confusing spirals of thought.
January eventually makes a slow slide into February—like the tilt of a seesaw, like the rise of a sea wave. The weather doesn’t change much: it still snows, it still freezes the bones of anyone who stands outside for more than five minutes without the protection of several layers of clothing. Buildings and sidewalks are coated with white that gradually turns to slush, gray with the city’s footprints. The days only lengthen by minuscule amounts. Simple and unnoticed as that, the month passes.
The new semester has picked up, and Arthur keeps himself more occupied than ever with classes, with work and tireless study. He politely sidesteps any offers from friends to go out anywhere, to get together; school becomes his all-around excuse. And it’s an easy one that goes, for the most part, unquestioned.
It’s the second week of February when he’s in some café a few blocks from the university, blinking wearily at the screen of his laptop, trying to draw up a spreadsheet for a business assignment, and only coincidence (or maybe not coincidence at all) brings an achingly recognizable voice above him—
“Arthur,” Lance says, stopping in front of his table. He shuffles and looks a bit uncomfortable, standing there with a coffee in one hand. “Hey.”
He blinks. “Hey,” he says back, after a moment’s lapse.
Lance sweeps his gaze briefly to the table, looking around at the hectic mess of paper printouts and empty coffee cups strewn in a wide arch around Arthur’s laptop. The things that’ve comprised his entire day so far. “Haven’t seen you around much,” he finally says.
And because Lance just keeps standing there, hovering awkwardly, Arthur really has no choice but to clear his throat and gesticulate to the empty seat across from his. “D’you want to. . .”
Lance slides into the chair with a nod, setting his drink carefully on a free spot on the tabletop. “Thanks.”
It comes as an odd sort of realization that this is the first time his best friend has spoken to him since New Year’s, more than an entire month ago. Lance seems to be thinking about this too, because he looks vaguely guilty.
“You’ve been well?”
“Yeah.” Pause. Awkwardly tacked on: “And you?”
“How’s.” Arthur makes a general gesture with his hand, fluttering pointlessly in the air and then coming down to rest on the edge of the table, accompanied with a small shake of his head. “You know. . . school. Your family, and everything.”
“Fine. Everything’s fine,” Lance says, nodding. “Everyone’s—yeah.”
“Glad to hear it.”
A lull of silence wedges itself in between them. The background noise of other people in the room blurs in, blurs out. After a few blank moments, Arthur deliberately focuses his eyes back onto his laptop, trying to send the message that he wants to be alone as clearly and as courteously as possible. He already half-regrets coming to this café; somehow, he’d forgotten that it was located in the center of town, as close to Lance’s uni as it was to his.
But Lance isn’t taking the hint and leaving. He’s just sitting there, fingers idly reaching for his coffee once every few seconds, fidgeting and obviously bursting with the need to say something. Perhaps anything.
“Your stepsister seems to think you’ve been going through some sort of serious mental trauma,” is what Lance settles on blurting, out of the blue. “She keeps calling my mobile and leaving threatening messages. Thinks I’m being unsupportive.”
Sighing inwardly, Arthur slowly brings a hand up to lower the lid of his laptop and look at Lance over the top of it. “Yeah, well, don’t take offense. That’s just typical of Morgana, prying into other people’s problems,” he mutters.
“Are you, though?”
“Am I what?”
“Going through—something?” Concern bleeds into the question, despite Lance’s struggle for a tone of indifference when he says, “I don’t know. Stuff with your father? Depression, or. . .?”
Arthur holds back the sudden urge to laugh. “Even if I was, would it matter to you?”
Something that looks like a mix of guilt and anger clouds Lance’s face. “Of course it would matter. We’ve been friends for years. I think I’d merit at least an update on your life once in a while.”
“You would merit that, if you were an actual friend of mine,” Arthur says, feeling terribly spiteful.
He knows how mean the words are—knows it even before he sees the flinch on Lance’s features. But he’s still got too much pride and residual irritation, after an entire month and a half of silence, to apologize for them. His fingers twitch with the urge to clench around the cold wood of the table.
“Arthur,” Lance says. “Look. It’s just. This is stupid.”
He says nothing.
“It’s not worth our friendship,” Lance says, fair and levelheaded as he always is. “Let’s just put it behind us, yeah? Pretend it didn’t happen, and never talk about it again. Do you think we could do that?”
A part of Arthur wants more than anything to seize upon that, say, of course we can, and he sees how it could play out already: he’ll offer up a smile, and Lance will breathe out in relief, and one of them will crack a joke that dissolves a little bit of the tension in the air and eventually, maybe not immediately but sometime in the coming days or weeks, they’ll be back to normal. They’ll have their regular nights out as proper mates, with parties and football games and movies as they’ve done for years. Distant at first, then growing as close as they used to be. No more Christmas invitations, probably, but it would be a good thing for all involved. They’d be all right.
The other part of Arthur, though—the other part can’t help but notice the slope of Lance’s jaw and the texture of his hair and note that it’s different. That his smile wouldn’t quite be the same, would be wider and more crinkly and oddly endearing, on someone else’s face. He doesn’t want to think about it, but he can’t do anything about that now: Merlin’s skin, Merlin’s eyes, Merlin’s darker, softer hair that curls on his ears. Merlin, himself. How different he is from his brother.
And Arthur wonders exactly what’s wrong with himself that he still doesn’t want to let any of that go.
“Forgive and forget, right, mate?” Lance stretches out a hand over the slew of papers on the table as an offering, toward Arthur.
He stares down at it and traitorously thinks only of Merlin’s laugh, of his bright audacity and his sharp, high cheekbones—of the warm of his fingers and how they would always feel, slotting in between his own, comforting as a blanket. Thinks of Christmas. Thinks of New Year’s. Thinks of Morgana, with that worried look in her eyes, saying, you’re allowed to be happy, and also, just fix it.
So in the end he says, knowing a part of him is going to regret it later, but at the same time feeling more honest than he’s ever been in his life:
“I don’t know.”
Then comes a long pause; Arthur suspects that it isn’t the answer Lance had expected. “You don’t know,” Lance repeats, an element of slight shock to his voice. “You don’t know. . . what?”
Arthur looks away.
Outside, through the thin pane of the glass next to the table, a family of four is walking down the street from the intersection. A little girl toes at the snow clumped by the sidewalk, her hands firmly held on both sides by her mother and a brother who’s just a few inches taller, his cheeks red from the cold, eyes sparkling. They pass by for a second, and then they’re gone.
When Arthur looks back from the window, Lance is slowly retracting his hand. A few of the papers crinkle underneath his movement.
“Arthur,” Lance says, quiet. “Think about what you’re saying.”
“I know what I’m saying.”
“You’re saying you’d throw away our entire friendship, all of it, for a,” he stops, and shakes his head in irritation, “what, a fling? Can it even be called that? A couple of casual fucks? With my kid brother?”
Arthur says, “It’s not like we—“ at the same time Lance says,
“Exactly how lonely are you, you sick—?”
Another terrible silence falls, the weight of it almost painful.
He releases a breath, only realizing in doing so that he’d been holding one in. Lance looks around and seems to come to an awareness of how loudly he’d been talking; the people seated around them who’ve been listening flinch, cough into their palms, and turn away.
“I didn’t mean to say that,” Lance says immediately, looking stricken. Almost stammers. “Like that, or. That isn’t what it. . .”
Arthur clears his throat. “Right,” he says smoothly. “Well. All right then.”
The lid of his laptop snaps fully shut with a smart click, and his arms are calm and steady as they gather up all the papers on the table, shove them all into his open bag on the floor, not bothering to stack them properly. As a result, they don’t all fit; with a sigh and then a mental fuck it to all the work he’s going to have to redo for the assignment later, Arthur crumples the pages and zips up the bag to sling it over his shoulder. He crams his laptop in there too, pushes back his chair, and stands up.
“Where are you going?”
“Dunno. Running away, like I always do,” Arthur murmurs under his breath with a self-mocking sort of twist to his lips. He rounds the table, sweeping the empty coffee cups up and throwing them at the nearby trash with more force than strictly necessary.
“Don’t,” Lance says, standing up too. He catches Arthur’s elbow. “All right, I’m sorry. Can you just stop and talk to me? I don’t understand—“
“And I wouldn’t expect you to.”
“See, you always do that,” Lance says in exasperation. “Once, just once, damn it, could you explain to me what you’re even actually trying to say? Why the hell wouldn’t I understand—?”
Arthur spins on his heel—he’d been halfway to the door, but he turns back, takes in the sight of Lance there, with all his good intentions and that god-awful, infuriating air of righteousness.
It’s like something inside him shatters wide open.
“Because you’ve got everything,” he all but spits. “Because, Lancelot, take a fucking look at your life. You’ve got the perfect home, with the parents and the doting relatives and all the clichés, all the traditions, everything down to homemade ornaments on the Christmas tree and a father who cares about you more than just to phone you once every two months—a mum who’s still alive, too. You’re surrounded by all these people who love you, unconditionally, in that stupid cookie-cutter movie kind of way, and don’t just want you around because you’re an obligation. Everything around you is just so sickeningly perfect. Your family. Your whole childhood. And then there’s Merlin—“
He cuts himself off. The entire room has gone silent. Strangers are gaping at him with their cups and mugs half-raised to their mouths, all eyes drawn to where he and Lance are standing, in the middle of the floor. Arthur can’t find it in himself to care.
“So just,” he finishes, “don’t try and patronize me. Don’t even pretend to understand, or give me any of your sanctimonious shit about—about anything. All right? I don’t need it.”
Lance’s mouth is open, but no sound comes out of it. Arthur walks out of the building without another glance back, teeth clenched and his heartbeat pounding loudly in his ears, but feeling something weirdly, blissfully close to relief.
“Hello, Arthur. What did you do?”
“Why do you always assume. . .?”
“You only ever call me when you’ve done something you regret, or really want somebody to rant to,” Morgana says shrewdly. Then she pauses. “Or when you need to borrow my car.”
“I just.” He runs his free hand through his hair, leaning against the brick wall and shivering in the wind. “It’s. I don’t know.”
Because he really doesn’t, anymore.
There’s a sudden loud clattering in the background from Morgana’s end, like the sound of several pans being dropped to the floor. He hears distant swearing.
“Sorry,” she says, after a period of static fizzes through the phone. “Ow, fuck. Jonathan’s coming over for dinner tonight, because for some reason I said I’d cook. As in, a meal. I honestly said I’d make a meal. Remind me, Arthur, never to promise something so stupid ever again, yeah? Fucking holiday spirit.” Another crash, and she curses again. “Anyway. Sorry—what were you saying?”
Arthur snorts, briefly entertained at the mental image of Morgana attempting to use an oven. “I ran into Lance this afternoon, who had some interesting things to say about—wait.” He stops, thrown off, furrowing his eyebrows even though she can’t see it. “Wait, what holiday?”
“You said, ‘holiday spirit.’ Have you finally cracked? We just passed the holidays.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Morgana says, slowly, like he’s thick. “Have you finally cracked?”
“Valentine’s? You know, the fourteenth of February? People buy flowers and candy and things to show affection for other people? It’s celebrated every year, Arthur—do try to stay in tune with the rest of society. Anyway, go on. What did Lance say to you?”
It takes him a second to process.
“Hang on. Today? It’s Valentine’s Day today?” Completely ignoring her question about his earlier conversation with Lance, Arthur knocks his head against the wall and scans the street in front of him, only now noticing the abundance of red and pink everywhere. He wonders how this has managed to totally escape his knowledge; but it’s not really a surprise, seeing as how he goes out of his way to avoid holidays in the first place. “Oh.”
“Why?” Morgana’s voice is curious when it says, “Have you got a hot date set up for tonight, Arthur?”
He stares down at the sidewalk and can’t help the faint smile that rises to his lips. Coincidence, he thinks strangely. Or not coincidence at all.
“No. Well, I don’t know. Yeah.” Arthur blows out a half-laugh, half-sigh and says, “So, listen. I think I might need to borrow your car.”
Fleetingly, somewhere between dashing off to his stepsister’s flat, fielding off her prying questions, and pulling her car out of the garage to meet the steady jam of Friday afternoon traffic on the street, Arthur takes a second to wonder to himself at how odd it is that his relationship with Merlin seems to revolve around major holiday events of the year. He wonders, too, at the memory of that party in October (was it? October) where it happened for the first time; the chilly swirl of air, alcohol on his lips, the first rush of guilt into his stomach not long thereafter. He thinks about the second time, and then the third time. How he shouldn’t. How he never, ever should have. But then the light at the intersection ahead changes, and he puts his foot to the pedal, and he just stops thinking altogether and goes.
Merlin’s house—Lance’s house—their house, whatever he’s supposed to call it—is quiet when Arthur parks Morgana’s car in the driveway and steps up to ring the doorbell.
There’s no response; he rings it again. And again. And a fourth time for good measure, trying to temper the knot of nerves that’ve somehow built up in his throat on the ride over here. The house is proven to be clearly unoccupied after the fifth and sixth rings, and a frightful jealousy abruptly twists in Arthur’s chest, at the thought that Merlin might be out somewhere with somebody else already, given the date today and everything—that he might be—
“Lance isn’t home, if you’re here to see him.”
The voice comes from the pavement by the driveway behind him, wary and slightly annoyed, but undeniably familiar. Arthur twists around fast enough to almost slip on the thin sheet of snow coating the front step.
“I know he isn’t,” he says.
Merlin’s arms are crossed, and his face is set in a tired frown. He’s wearing another overly large jumper, but it’s loose and his fingers tremble from the cold, where they’re clutching at his own sleeves. A pink tinge splays across his cheekbones. He shifts on his feet, a book bag slung over his shoulders; Arthur wonders if he’s walked all the way home from school in the snow. An ache stirs up inside him—a ridiculous, protective urge to wrap his arms around the boy and warm him up, all skin and bones that he is.
Arthur takes a slow step forward, and then another. Until he’s only a few feet from Merlin, who is very fixedly looking at the ground with interest, like there are tiny worlds embedded in the concrete. “Usually, see, an invitation indoors would be appropriate here,” Arthur says. And then quietly, after a pause and no response, “Aren’t you going to let me in, Merlin?”
Merlin looks up at him for half a second, something unreadable in his eyes, and then back down to the ground. “I don’t think so, no.” His breath is a visible huff of white air.
Arthur raises an eyebrow. “So you’re just going to stand there until I leave. Out here. In the snow.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“You’ll freeze,” Arthur says reasonably. “It’s something like two degrees out.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin argues, stepping away. But his words and the glare he tries to impose are belied by the sudden coughing fit that rasps its way out of his throat.
Unhesitatingly, Arthur reaches out a hand to steady Merlin’s elbow—flinching a bit at how sharp the bone there is, underneath his clothes—as Merlin stumbles. He draws Merlin in with his arm, forcing him to move closer. “Give me your house key.”
“No,” Merlin says stubbornly.
Up close, the tip of his nose is red with cold. His hair is longer than when Arthur last saw it, the dark mess of it looping down across his ears, down his neck, and over his forehead; it brings out exactly how pale his skin is. Merlin’s eyes finally meet his, only for a fraction of a minute before skittering away, but—they’re electric blue, a hue darker than Arthur had remembered, and they’re filled with something devastatingly close to hurt.
He opens his mouth, then closes it without saying anything—confused.
“You should probably just leave now,” Merlin tells him.
“Merlin, give me your key.”
“Seriously, leave,” Merlin says, ignoring him. “Why are you still here? It’s—“
“Valentine’s Day, yeah, I know, so I’ve been told,” Arthur interrupts, tugging on his sleeve. “Come on. Your key, Merlin. If you die of hypothermia out here I’m pretty sure Lance would murder me himself. Not that he doesn’t already want me dead, mind—“
“What do you want?” Merlin snaps, abruptly angry. “Like fuck you care about what happens to me. What do you even—why can’t you just go away and leave me alone, Arthur? After you pretended to—after, after everything. Don’t you have somewhere better to be? It’s Valentine’s, so shouldn’t you be with your girlfriend—?”
“What,” Arthur says, dropping his arm, “girlfriend? The hell are you talking about?”
“Your torrid love affair, with the mysterious, secret woman.” Merlin’s laugh is short and dry, and his breath hitches. “I mean, I’m. It’s not like I. It’s not like I was expecting any sort of—but god, you really don’t waste time, do you?”
“What. Are. You—“ Arthur stops, mind reeling in complete bewilderment until a gear finally clicks and he remembers: Morgana. On the phone. Forever ago, way back at the start of January, calling Lance’s house from Arthur’s flat. The things she’d said then. He exhales incredulously. “Shit, you didn’t believe. . .”
He trails off.
Merlin just stands there, still shivering, looking so small.
Arthur’s heart breaks a little at the sight of it. “Merlin,” he murmurs, and leans forward, ignoring the way Merlin keeps drawing back. He walks them backward like that, stumbling, until they hit his car in the driveway. And then Merlin is crowded against the side of it, his palms flat on the metal door, with nowhere to go.
“Merlin,” he repeats. “You—you’re the secret woman, you absolute, obtuse idiot.”
“What?” Merlin’s eyes are wide and uncomprehending.
In reply, Arthur only sighs; he lets the warm air of his breath skate over the goosebumps at Merlin’s neck, and then he presses his kiss to the same spot as gently as he can. Merlin quakes underneath him, skin alarmingly frigid.
“Oh,” he says, quietly.
Arthur reaches his hand around for Merlin’s. “Yeah. Oh. Can we please go inside your house now, before you actually freeze into an icicle? Jesus.”
Soundlessly, Merlin digs into his pocket and pulls out a key; Arthur moves away from the car to let him walk around it to the house. It takes three tries to unlock the front door, mostly because Merlin’s fingers are trembling so hard.
He drops his bag to the carpet, once inside, and Arthur shuffles his feet. They stand there in the hall, unmoving. Both waiting for something from the other.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur begins, right as Merlin says miserably,
“Why did you make me think—“
He stops, and Merlin swallows.
“You left. You just left, on—on New Year’s.”
Merlin looks like he’s fighting to stay together, saying, “And then, after that, it was just. You never called. I thought you regretted it, thought you were just humoring me all that time ‘cause you thought it was funny, maybe—“
“I didn’t, I—“
“—you complete prick,” Merlin finishes, a strangled noise making its way out of his mouth.
“Yeah,” Arthur acknowledges, cringing. As far as confrontations go, though, this one’s been going slightly better than the other one with Lance today, so he doesn’t lose hope. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, I really just. . .”
Somehow Merlin’s stepped close and crowded into his space, eyes peering straight into Arthur’s. His cheeks are more colored now from the heat, skin flushed. And the way he says, “Just what?” all mulish and daring, is most definitely a challenge.
But it’s the easiest thing of Arthur’s life, staring back at Merlin across the scant three inches between them and letting the words tumble out without so much as a second thought: “Just missed you. Really, really missed you.”
It takes Merlin by surprise, he can tell. He falters momentarily. Arthur takes advantage of it to grab his arms, pin him against the wall behind him, and push his lips against Merlin’s, cold and chapped and more utterly wonderful than anything he’s ever, ever felt in his entire life.
Merlin gasps out, “Wh—“ and “You can’t just,” but mostly he’s just bending back into Arthur’s kiss, fingers scrabbling on Arthur’s shirt for something to hold onto, words disintegrating into nonsense and cold, breathless wheezing, as Arthur mouths at his lips, his chin, his neck, warming him up, whispering,
“You, Merlin, you stupid boy, don’t you know? This is, it’s always been—“
and then Merlin is making a strange noise into Arthur’s shoulder, pushing his knee up between Arthur’s legs, saying in a voice that’s disjointed like he can’t quite focus enough to form one complete thought, “Why didn’t you ever,” and, “God, you are such an arse, I don’t even,” and “I want—“
“Upstairs,” Arthur murmurs into the tilt of Merlin’s cheekbone.
It’s a awkward endeavor, trying to get up the narrow stairs to the second floor and peel off each other’s clothes at the same time. Eventually, though, they do make it to Merlin’s room, hands impatiently shoving down jeans and pants, and kicking the door shut behind them with a bang. Merlin stumbles onto the bed, yanking Arthur down into a sprawl on top of him. Arthur doesn’t waste a second moving his hands all over the spread of skin beneath him, pulling Merlin’s jumper over his head and smirking at the rumpled hair, the shivery sound he makes when Arthur huffs out hot breath over his collarbone, his chest, his navel.
“Your parents?” Arthur asks, pressing a kiss down at Merlin’s left hip.
“You would bring them up now,” Merlin snorts, head falling backwards onto the sheets. “They won’t be home for hours.”
“Are you sure?”
Merlin groans, turning his face to smash it into a pillow. “I’m sure,” he growls, writhing as Arthur runs his hand down the length of one bare leg. “Do you really want to talk about my parents right now? Maybe while we’re at it, we could have a nice long conversation about my brother, too. There’s a phone in the next room, actually. D’you want to give Lance a call—?”
“Oh, fuck off,” Arthur cuts in, moving up the bed to shove his tongue into Merlin’s mouth, effectively shutting him up. He makes it lewd and messy, roaming around Merlin’s teeth, curling against his lips, chasing the flavor all the way to the back of his throat. He settles his weight onto his elbows, but lets gravity pull him slightly down to press against the dips of Merlin’s body.
When he pulls away, Merlin says, breathless, “Will you fuck me?”
Arthur’s pulse stutters. Heat rushes into the bottom of his stomach, and it isn’t helped by Merlin oh-so-subtly spreading his legs beneath him, letting them fall to the sides of Arthur’s. “Have you ever—before?”
Merlin doesn’t directly answer that. He just arches up and whispers, “Please, Arthur.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, before he even knows what he’s saying.
From there, it’s a hazy fumble as Merlin reaches into a drawer by the bed, pulling out small foil packets and flinging them at Arthur (“Why do you even own—“ “Shut up,”) who rolls on the condom and forces his hands not to shake as he spreads the lube across them and gently, very gently moves one finger to Merlin’s skin, letting Merlin get used to the touch, before pushing it slowly inside him.
Merlin’s shaking again, but not from the cold; his body is one arrow-line of tension, until Arthur bends to kiss him soothingly, saying, “Shh, you’re fine, you’re,” and Merlin grits out, “If you say something like ‘beautiful’ I swear I will punch you in the face,” but relaxes enough to stop shuddering. Arthur keeps still for a few moments, watching him.
“All right?” he asks.
“Yeah. More, come on.”
Arthur adds a second finger, rocking them gradually inside and back out again, mesmerized by the feel of this—of Merlin, around him, tilting his hips and breathing in long, ragged motions. He keeps his head bent towards Merlin’s mouth, catching his lip in small drags. It’s only a few minutes after the third finger before Merlin closes his eyes, twists the sheets between his hands where they’re spread on the mattress for support, and says, “Please, I’m ready, just. Please.”
The first slide of Arthur’s cock inside is like a burn, hot and unbearably tight. Invisible flames flare in the space between their stomachs, their hands. They’re both panting at it, and Merlin arches his head backward, legs pressed against Arthur’s chest, letting off a nonsensical stream at the ceiling of “Fuck” and “It feels, feels like,” and “God, Arthur,” and “Wanted this for so long—“
“How long,” Arthur wants to know, low and curious, searching for something to distract them both.
Merlin shakes his head mutely, but Arthur strokes his hand up Merlin’s thigh and repeats it, prodding, “How long, Merlin?”
He expects an answer of weeks, or months, or maybe since that first time in October. He hopes for it, at least, so he can feel relief that he wasn’t the only one so invested in this from the start. What he does not expect is Merlin’s quiet, shaky confession that comes next, the words tripping out on one lungful of air—“Since I was twelve, and you and Lance took me to the pool that one summer and you pushed me in as a joke but you didn’t know that I couldn’t swim, and—and then when you figured out that I was kind of drowning, you dived in the water with all your clothes on to save me.” Followed by a breathless, half-hysterical laugh. “Um. Since then.”
“What?” Arthur says blankly.
Merlin trembles, clenches tight enough around him for Arthur to curse and bend them both over so he can stare at Merlin whose cheeks are a lovely shade of red with embarrassment, barely articulate enough to say, “You really. . .”
“Move,” Merlin demands, huffing, eyes fluttering closed.
So Arthur does. He starts off slow, but Merlin moans and grumbles at him until he speeds up, unfurling the heat in his body with an intensity he’s never known. It’s unbelievable. Time seems to pass without any sort of pattern, fast or unhurried or delirious, and soon he’s reaching around to cover Merlin’s cock with one of his hands and pulling with the same rhythm that he’s pressing in and—and it’s like being set on fire, this feeling, it’s like falling, falling, falling—
He comes, lips pressed tight against the side of Merlin’s ankle, vertigo catching up to him and overwhelming every single one of his senses, only faintly registering Merlin following him over that same edge, coming not more than ten seconds later in his hand, and then they’re gasping for air, collapsed over each other, into each other, inside and outside and everywhere, melding into a confused, exhausted jumble of limbs, and Arthur’s only intelligible thought is that he’s been so foolish. So, so ridiculous and masochistic and foolish, for thinking he could ever give this up, for trying to ever give it up, when it feels like this—Merlin underneath him, breath slowing down now, fingers coming up to play idly with Arthur’s hair—feels like everything he’s ever wanted. Like happiness without any sort of restraint. Like home.
He doesn’t remember having fallen asleep, but the little details around him only add up to that one logical conclusion: the room is dark with a dwindling sunset and shadows are thrown over furniture when he opens his eyes, the sheets are warm and twisted comfortably around his body, and there are voices downstairs.
There are voices downstairs. Shit. Shit.
Tensing, Arthur takes in a sharp breath and holds it there, unmoving, listening to the distinct sound of someone—more than one someone, rustling, moving about in the hallway like they’ve just gotten in. Two people, two pitches.
“Merlin,” he says, as quietly as possible.
A cough, in response, is all he gets. “’M sleeping,” comes the muttered reply into his shoulder, next, as the body it belongs to just shifts and tucks itself closer to Arthur’s side under the blanket. Shocking, searing heat. A hand wraps stubbornly around Arthur’s wrist.
“Merlin. Wake up.” Arthur tugs his arm out from under Merlin, sitting up. He watches as Merlin’s mouth pulls itself into a delicate frown, and his eyes blink blearily open, the expression in them going from sleepy to confused to annoyed.
“Why are you—“
Reaching down, Arthur clamps a hand over Merlin’s mouth. “Listen,” he whispers, close to his ear.
Downstairs, there’s the jingling sound of car keys being set on a tabletop, and then more muffled conversation. The front door opening and closing, again. A third voice joins the other two now, their words blurring together unclearly.
Merlin lets out a loud breath into Arthur’s palm.
“Right,” Arthur mutters, more to himself than anything. “Fuck. All right. Where the hell are my pants—“ He moves away from Merlin, off the bed, wincing as it creaks a bit, and takes a minute to fumble on his pants, his trousers, and shirt, where they’re crumpled on various parts of the floor, his heart thumping fast in his throat. His mobile buzzes loudly out of nowhere, and he shoves a hand in his pocket to silence it.
Not now, he thinks, frantic. Not when it’s only begun. This—it’s not fair. Not now, not yet. This is his secret, his to keep, to have, to hold tight and close to his chest, to treasure.
After a few moments, he stands fully dressed in front of a wide-eyed Merlin, who’s still huddled beneath the sheets with his hair absurdly rumpled on one side of his head and his skin bare, watching his movements.
“Right,” Arthur says again, and forces himself to take a calming breath. “So I’m just going to climb out your window, all right?”
“What?” Merlin hisses back, incredulous. “We’re on the second floor.”
“That’s fine,” Arthur hears himself saying, with a dismissive shake of his head. He strides the length of the room, hands coming to rest on the windowsill and peering out down below, before turning back around. “Not that high up. There’s a ledge out here. It’s not that far to the ground, I’ll be fine—“
Merlin bites his bottom lip. “They’ll have seen your car in the driveway,” he says quietly.
Arthur raises a hand to his temple and presses down hard, resisting the urge to shout out loud in frustration. He feels restless, trapped like this. And then from down below comes the soft thump, thump of somebody’s footsteps, unmistakably making their way up the staircase.
He looks at Merlin a moment longer, and Merlin looks back.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispers.
Stepping close to the bed, Arthur takes a hand to rest it on Merlin’s cheek, red and pillow-lined from sleep. “It’ll be fine,” he says, bending to press a light kiss at Merlin’s jaw, calmly reassuring, despite the erratic jumps in his heartbeat. He feels Merlin tremble between his fingers with the same kind of nervous tension. “It will. I’ll see you later. All right? I’m just going to go out on the landing before they get up here, and then I’ll head downstairs—“
Eyes wide, Merlin clamps a hand down on Arthur’s. “No, don’t—“
But too late; Arthur’s already twisted out of Merlin’s grip, walking quickly toward the door, and before he can fully let the fear scrabbling at his throat take over, he turns the doorknob and steps out of the room.
There’s a plan in this somewhere, half-formed; it involves ducking behind doors and maybe leaping out a window after all, if it comes to that—but in the end he doesn’t get much time to execute any of it, because he turns the corner onto the landing, expecting enough time to dash across the upstairs hall into the bathroom on the other side before anyone comes far enough up the staircase to see him, but instead runs straight into Merlin’s mother.
“Oh—hello,” she says, taken aback.
She furrows her eyebrows at him, obviously confused. Arthur offers a silent, strained smile and quickly folds his hands into his pockets, so she doesn’t see the layer of sweat coating them. His brain chooses the moment to wipe itself completely, unhelpfully empty.
Merlin’s mum stands there for a few more moments with her coat slung over her arm, then clears her throat. “It’s wonderful to see you, Arthur,” she says politely. “Your car outside, I suppose? What, er, are you doing here, exactly. . .?”
There is no way out of this, he knows, heart falling madly. No plausible excuse, nothing to justify his presence here. Arthur watches her gaze roam down his body, lingering on the disheveled state of his hair, the flush on his cheekbones. And then just for a second, it flicks to the wall to the side of them—to the wall leading to Merlin’s room, with the door standing ajar. He takes a breath, and then another.
Blankly, Arthur watches Lance jog up the stairs behind his mother, and come up to clasp Arthur’s arm in a gesture only a fraction too stiff to be entirely friendly—but otherwise unnoticeable. Lance smiles at him, and Arthur feels dizzy with a sort of shock, wondering if he’s still asleep.
“Good, you made it,” Lance says, tone light and pleasant. “Merlin let you in, yeah?”
His back turned to his mother, Lance fixes Arthur with a quick, meaningful stare. One that says, follow.
“Yes,” Arthur says without hesitation.
“There’s been trouble with the heating in Arthur’s flat,” Lance is explaining to his mother, not letting go of Arthur’s arm. “It’s freezing in there; I asked him to come out here and stay with us for the weekend while they get it sorted. Sorry, Mum, must’ve forgotten to mention it—“
“Oh, you poor thing,” Lance’s mum says, expression instantly melting into something soft and affectionate. She smiles kindly at Arthur. “Of course. It’s no trouble at all. Lance will get the guest room ready for you, won’t you, dear?”
“Right. Come on,” Lance says, heading back down the staircase, still talking in that same pleasant tone. Arthur follows him dumbly, relief and disbelief spinning circles around each other inside his head.
Once downstairs and inside the guest room, Lance shuts the door behind them and then twists around to face Arthur, looking tired.
“Thank you,” Arthur says simply, for lack of anything better.
“That wasn’t for you.” Running an agitated hand through his hair, Lance paces across the room and starts to drag down a neatly folded stack of sheets from the top shelf of the closet, moving to spread them on the mattress.
“Who was it for?”
“My parents’ sanity,” Lance snorts. “Because if they found out, if they ever knew what you and Merlin were doing—god, Arthur. God damn it.” He turns around, abandoning the half-smoothed comforter, and looks at Arthur with a mixture of anger and exasperation.
“I went to Morgana’s,” Lance says abruptly.
“After seeing you at the café today,” Lance continues, and sighs, deflating a bit. “I went to her flat to see if I could get her to talk to you for me, since you wouldn’t. She said I’d just missed you coming by. And then she started ranting about this terrible, secret love you supposedly harbored, someone you couldn’t let yourself have, and how she didn’t understand why you wouldn’t just allow yourself to be happy—it wasn’t that hard to put two and two together from there, you know.”
“Does she,” Arthur swallows. “Does she know who. . .?”
“Yeah. Well, I mean. She asked me about a million times if I knew anything about it, so in the end I was pretty much forced to tell her everything.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. Tried to throw a frying pan at me, though.” Lance grimaces, pulling up the sleeve of his jacket to reveal a bright purple bruise on his wrist.
Arthur stares down at it. “Oh,” he says, unsure of whether to laugh, or wince in sympathy—having been in the trajectory of several dangerous objects thrown by Morgana, in the past. He struggles to rearrange his features into something resembling mild concern. “That’s.”
“You’re trying not to laugh, aren’t you?” The corner of Lance’s mouth twitches.
Arthur offers up a surprised grin. “Sort of, yeah.”
With that, the strain in the air seems to dissolve: not fully, but enough for the two of them to breathe, relax the set of their shoulders a tiny bit. Lance shakes his head and pushes out a sigh. After a while, he moves to a chair at the side of the bed, sitting down and looking up at Arthur with something equal parts baleful and sad.
“I didn’t know,” Lance says in a rush, almost like an apology, and almost like an accusation. “You never—we’re supposed to be best mates, Arthur, and sometimes it’s like I hardly know a thing about your life. Why don’t you ever tell me anything? I had to get it all from your stepsister today. I had no idea how it felt for you, being so lonely all the time, because you never told me.”
“I’m not lonely,” Arthur argues immediately. “For god’s sake, why does everyone keep saying that? I’m not.”
“Morgana would beg to differ.”
“Morgana is wrong about a lot of things.”
“Not this, though. Not about you and my brother. This,” Lance hesitates, but forces himself on, “thing going on between the two of you. It’s much more than anything I’d thought; much more than just casual, yeah? Just tell me. Is she wrong about that?”
Arthur struggles with himself for a minute, a thousand emotions fighting inside of him, but ends up going for the honest answer: “No. She’s not.”
Lance closes his eyes. “Yeah.”
A knock comes to the closed door, then, making the both of them jump. “Lance, Arthur,” Lance’s mum calls through the wall. “Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, if you want to come out here and sit down.”
“Be right there,” Lance calls back.
Arthur waits a safe twenty seconds for her footsteps to recede down the hall before he’s able to ask, cautiously, “Why are you here, Lance? Why did you. . . you didn’t have to go and make that excuse. You could’ve just let them find out.”
“For one thing, your stepsister nearly pushed me down the stairs into the cab after she figured the whole thing out, threatening to kill me if I didn’t go after you. I didn’t really have much choice in the matter,” Lance says dryly. Then he softens. “For another thing, you are, in spite of anything you might think, still my best friend. You should know that.”
“You should hate me,” Arthur blurts, all the guilt and shame he’s ever felt bleeding into the words.
“I don’t.” Rising from the chair, Lance lifts a hand to settle it firmly on Arthur’s shoulder. “We’ve been mates for far too long. Look, I’m not saying I approve or anything, okay? Far from it. I wish you would have—” Stops, then starts again. “But Merlin is maybe sort of good for you in a way, right? Someone kind and stubborn and willing to understand all the issues you’ve got. He’s always been wiser than his age. So I just. I’m not endorsing it, but I want you to be all right. I want you to have something that isn’t yours out of obligation or responsibility. I want you to be happy.”
“Did Morgana make you rehearse that?”
“Just the last bit,” Lance laughs a little. And then his eyes turn serious. “But honestly, Arthur. I do mean it.”
Arthur nods slowly, trying to take this in.
“Merlin always did have a bit of a crush on you.”
“Not really,” Lance says quickly, a bit of guilt stealing into his own face now. “I mean, I didn’t even know he liked boys, exactly; but when we younger, it was always more of a sort of—obsession with you?”
Seeing Arthur’s cringe, Lance hurries to add to it, “But not like that. Not in a creepy way! C’mon, you noticed it too. He looked up to you.”
“Stupid of him,” Arthur mutters.
“I don’t think so.” Lance’s eyes go soft, and he smiles in a warm, friendly way that Arthur hadn’t realized he’d missed, these past couple of months. “You’re a lot more than you give yourself credit for, you know. Your sincerity, for example. And the way you care so much for people. I think everybody can see that in you.”
Arthur clears his throat self-consciously, feeling a flush creeping across his face.
“So we. . .” he starts to say, unsure of how to phrase it. “Merlin and I. This. I have your. . . not quite your approval, then. But your—“
“—Acceptance, I suppose.” Lance pats his shoulder. “Although if you break Merlin’s heart,” he adds like an afterthought, “I’ll still have to break all the bones in your body, probably, best mate or not.” A light shrug. “Sorry. A bit overprotective of little brothers and all.”
“I’ll take that,” Arthur acknowledges, thinking of Morgana.
Lance lets go of his shoulder to nod grudgingly at the door. “Anyway, come on. I told my mum you’d be here till Sunday, so you’d better get out there for dinner if you want to stay on her good side.”
“Yeah.” He reaches out a hand to Arthur, like the offering for a truce.
“Lance,” Arthur whispers. It’s all he can say, hardly daring to comprehend what he’s being told. His throat feels suddenly tight, constricted with feeling, and any words he might have to say get lost on the way out of it.
But Lance understands, anyway.
Dinner with Lance’s family is nice. It feels ordinary, natural—his parents take particular care to ask Arthur about his life, and they genuinely care when he answers, taking interest as if he were one of their own sons. Merlin looks and smiles at him a lot, hesitant at first, then growing more and more bold. The conversation flows without any of the awkwardness he’d expected. At the end of it, Arthur certainly feels more relaxed than at any meal he’s ever shared in Uther’s company. He offers to do the dishes, but Lance’s mum waves him away, shooing him toward the hall and insisting that he get some rest.
Once back in the guest bedroom, Arthur sits on the edge of the bed and takes a look at his mobile, startled to find out that it’s already nine thirty. He flips the phone open for the message he’d received earlier. From Morgana:
Arthur. For fuck’s sake, have you fixed everything yet?
He types back a deliberately vague, Don’t quite know what you mean, and gets another text back seconds later full of angry exclamation points for his trouble.
Predictably, his phone rings immediately afterward, and the first thing Morgana says into his ear when he picks up is a huffy, “Of course you know what I mean. My god, you can be such a thick-headed moron sometimes. You and Lancelot both. I honestly don’t know why I put up with the pair of you—boys, honestly, it’s like you don’t ever talk about your feelings. Were you going to sulk at each other forever, Arthur? You absolute twat—“
“We talked,” Arthur interrupts, before she can build up any more steam. “Lance and I. We’re fine, really.”
“And what about Merlin?”
“What about him?”
“Stop pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Morgana warns testily. “Honestly. You really are quite bad at lying. How did you ever manage to keep it a secret in the first place? I shouldn’t have needed Lance to tell me who it was. It would’ve saved us all a lot of unnecessary anxiety, you know. I can’t believe it took so long for me to figure it out.”
“So you’re not,” Arthur fiddles with a corner of the comforter he’s sitting on, “bothered by it, then?”
“Merlin. The fact that he’s my best friend’s brother,” Arthur says, aiming for casual. “Or that he’s so young. Or the whole. You know. Him-not-being-a-girl thing.”
There’s a pause. “Arthur,” Morgana says, her tone conveying the same gentleness and endless patience one would exercise when speaking to small, petulant child, “oh, Arthur, darling, brother dearest. You are. Such. A. Moron.”
Arthur takes that to mean her approval.
Around midnight, the snow outside the window stops falling. He’s finally beginning to drift slowly off to sleep, more than a little exhausted by the day’s events, when the doorknob to his room turns with a small, barely discernable click.
Arthur sits up groggily, his eyes adjusting to the darkness enough to see Merlin’s thin frame standing in the doorway. “Hey,” he says.
Merlin waves a little, then pads across the room, his feet bare, and crawls up onto the bed to sit at Arthur’s side. “Hi. Were you sleeping?”
They stay like that, comfortable next to each other. Eventually, Arthur pulls the comforter up over the both of them, and he opens his arms to draw Merlin close, the heat of his body wonderful against his skin. Their legs overlap by their own accord, and Arthur tucks his chin on top of Merlin’s hair.
“Lance came to talk to me, after dinner earlier,” Merlin says, muffled into Arthur’s neck.
“It might take a while for him to get used to this. But basically he says, as long we keep my parents from finding out just yet, we’re all right together by him. For the most part, or something. He also tried to give me this really awkward talk about safe sex, though, which was just terrifying.”
“Oh, god.” Arthur reaches up to twist a curl of Merlin’s hair between his fingers. “I’m sorry you had to endure that.” Then he pauses. “What did he mean by ‘just yet’?”
“Eventually, I suppose.” Merlin shifts to look at Arthur. “If you—that is, if this is really what you want. I mean.”
“Me,” Merlin clarifies, sounding odd.
Arthur strokes his hand around to place it on the back of Merlin’s neck. “You. All right. Yeah. I want this.”
Merlin smiles, his eyes crinkling with what Arthur thinks might be relief. “You’re staying, then?”
“Lance told your mum I’d be here for the whole weekend, so, yeah. I suppose I am.”
“The weekend isn’t really what I meant, actually,” Merlin murmurs.
Arthur looks at him. “Oh.” Staying. “I—yeah, I am. For a lot longer than just the weekend, I hope. If you want me—”
“I want you.”
Arthur laughs softly, and he tips Merlin’s head up to kiss him, quiet, once on the lips. “All right,” he says.
He wraps his arms more tightly around Merlin, who scoots closer, pressing up all along his side until there’s barely an inch of space anywhere between them. Arthur kisses him again, reveling in the soft, delicate pressure of Merlin’s lips against his, and whispers, “You aren’t half bad, you know. For somebody’s kid brother.”
“Oh, shut up,” Merlin groans, aiming a kick at him under the sheets.
Arthur smirks, hushes him, then laughs again when Merlin tries to squirm away from him. He ends up pinning Merlin’s hands up on the pillow, sucking light, quiet kisses into his neck, his shoulder, his chest.
In the morning, he knows, Merlin will have to wake up and sneak out of the bed, back upstairs into his own room before the rest of the house wakes up for breakfast. It’ll have to be like that for a while, if they’re to keep up the pretense. But Arthur can’t bring himself to let him go just yet, right now, tonight. So instead, he winds his arms across Merlin’s chest and breathes in the smell of him, now-familiar and bright and comforting. He lets himself feel giddy with it: Merlin’s scent, wrapping all around him, kind and sweet like a promise. This is his, he thinks, feeling almost awed by it. His. It belongs to him. Merlin’s smile. Merlin’s fingers tapping out a lullaby on the inside of his wrist. Unconsciously, perhaps, he’s waited so long for this moment. The first time, and the second time, and all those times that will come after; they’re Arthur’s and no one else’s. This is his to have—his happiness, offered to him, if he chooses—and so he does choose it, finally, finally. Finally. Pressing one last kiss to the side of Merlin’s ear, Arthur closes his eyes, and they sleep.