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The Reincarnation Situation

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Merlin is twenty-seven and he’s never seen a New Year’s Eve - or, at least, he doesn’t remember ever seeing one. When he was a child he slept through them every year, from when his memory first began to take shape at around age six until he was old enough to go out with his mates at age seventeen.

Which leaves ten years of unremembered New Year's Eves which definitely weren't slept through. Five of them found Merlin waking up on New Year’s Day in unfamiliar surroundings, encircled by snotty tissues, crumpled pillows, vomit - usually his own and inside his shoes, which was just lovely - and with absolutely no recollection of how he got there. A few times, at nineteen, twenty and twenty-two, Merlin woke up with someone else wrapped around him too. He’s glad that doesn’t happen anymore.

The other five years - the five years between when twenty-two year old Merlin woke up next to some bloke called Arthur and when twenty-seven year old Merlin told Arthur, the love of his life, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with him - were slightly more bearable. At least, once he had Arthur, Merlin wasn’t alone in waking up confused with an empty ache in his stomach that didn’t have anything to do with food. There was less vomit, too. Usually.

They've tried everything to remember. Everything. A whole range of New Year’s, from getting inordinately pissed and spending the night in a club where the music was so loud they couldn’t remember their own names, let alone anyone else’s, to curling up on Arthur’s sofa with mugs of hot chocolate and an enormous, itchy blanket. Nevertheless, each year they both find New Year’s Eve completely blank in their memories, putting it down to alcohol-induced brain damage or nodding off early every time. Merlin can tell that it bugs Arthur for the whole of New Year’s Day but by January 3rd they’re slipping back into their daily routines and they forget the whole thing for twelve months.

This year, however, is special and it’s going to be different, one way or another. Five is Arthur’s lucky number and Arthur’s undying love (proclaimed on Christmas Eve and promised until he’s cold and dead and gone, heaven forbid) is Merlin’s lucky charm. They’ve even thought about it enough to have a plan in advance. It’s going to work - it has to.

Or so Merlin tells himself as their car winds its way along pitch black country lanes, headlights flashing on the occasional puddle and turning the frosted hedges a sickly yellow. He’s wearing four t-shirts, one shirt (Arthur’s, of course), two jumpers and the enormous scarf that Gwen and Morgana knitted for him last Christmas, starting at opposite ends and working in until Gwen’s intricate cream cable knit meshed abruptly with Morgana’s uneven, purple shaggy wool.

“Irritmuhfurfer?” Merlin asks, and Arthur glares at him until Merlin reluctantly pulls the scarf and jumpers and shirt collar down from where they are covering his nose and says, loudly, “Is it much further?”

The corner of Arthur’s mouth twitches up into a grin. “No,” he says, inclining his head forward a little, as if Merlin will be able to follow where he’s indicating in the total darkness. “There’s a few more right turns and then a gate and we’re there.”

Merlin nods thoughtfully, then bites his lip. “Arthur? What if we’re not alone?”

“We will be,” Arthur sounds certain but Merlin isn’t convinced. “I don’t think it’s actually a campsite. I think my mother just... Liked the spot.”

For a moment, Merlin manages to keep quiet - but only a moment.

“So, we’re starting the new year by trespassing on private property?” He knew they should have picked the spot together, done some research or something. Letting Arthur choose is always dangerous. He isn’t one for common sense.

“I mean,” Merlin continues. “I know the place is special to you but-”

“Merlin, seriously,” Arthur interrupts, taking one hand off the steering wheel to grab Merlin’s hand where it’s lying, palm up, on his knee. “It’ll be fine. It’s just a field. And it’s New Year’s Eve! No one’ll be checking.” Glancing over and seeing Merlin is still unsure, Arthur sighs and finishes. “Look, if you’re that worried then- then if we get caught, I’ll tell them you’re my prisoner. My hostage.”

Merlin smiles despite himself, letting his fingers curl around Arthur’s and lifting their linked hands up so that he can kiss Arthur’s knuckles.

“Your hostage? What’s the ransom?”

Arthur doesn’t say anything, just flicks his thumb in a soft line across Merlin’s cheek and turns back to the road. They drive in silence then, Merlin gazing at his own pale reflection in the window and wondering what exactly it is that Arthur and his golden hair, crooked grin and stubbled jaw sees in Merlin, with his scruffy mop, giant ears and ridiculous bone structure. The light isn’t doing anything for the dark circles beneath Merlin’s eyes, either.

It’s tiring, being so in love. It makes Merlin ache all over sometimes.

They stop in front of a fairly flimsy farm gate, not unlike the millions of others dotted across the British countryside, and Arthur climbs out to open it. Merlin watches him fiddle with the latch and drag it open, jumping at every creak of the rusty old hinges. Once they’ve driven through Merlin makes Arthur turn the headlights on at full capacity just to make sure there aren’t any cows hidden in the dark field that could charge them and cause mayhem.

- “It’s not cows that charge, Merlin. It’s bulls.”

“Shut up and check.” -

There aren’t, so Merlin hurries over to lock the gate behind them, fumbling through two pairs of gloves (Arthur’s and his own, obviously), then rushes back to wrap his arms around Arthur, who is scrubbing at a grubby mark on the windshield with the sleeve of his fleece.

“Gets dark bloody early this time of year,” Merlin mumbles, pressing his cold nose into the nape of Arthur’s neck. “It can’t be past 6.”

“Quarter past,” Arthur answers absentmindedly, reaching behind him to rub Merlin’s side. “Now let go so I can turn around and kiss you, you idiot.”

 

 

*

 

It’s a few hours later when Merlin and Arthur find themselves curled up together under three blankets, their legs crossed awkwardly half on top of each other where they’re sitting on the mattress Arthur had somehow managed to cram into the back of the car for the journey up. They’re leaning against the car, watching their little camping torch sputter on the grass in front of them. The time, according to Arthur’s phone, is about 9pm.

“If that bloody iPod 17.9 uses all its battery up on being generally ridiculously extravagant and we miss the countdown, I’m gonna be pissed,” Merlin grumbles, staring daggers at the phone in Arthur’s hand.

“iPhone 5, Merlin,” Arthur corrects him. “And you just don’t like it because that FatBooth photo upset you so much.”

“Shut up, it was horrid,” Merlin says.

“You seemed to enjoy the Morgana one,” Arthur teases, only growing more emboldened when he sees Merlin’s lips twist in the effort to hold back a smile. “And the Gwen one! We mustn’t forget Gwen’s photo.”

Arthur flicks through his photo album until he pulls up a photo of Gwen sticking out her chin and crossing her eyes, the normally sleek lines of her features fattened and distorted by Arthur’s stupid app. She looks large and unhealthy and absolutely nothing like Gwen. Merlin chuckles.

“Yeah, I admit that’s quite a good one,” he says. “Is it still her contact photo?”

Arthur wiggles his eyebrows mischievously and nods, the smug expression on his face making Merlin break out into a full fit of giggles. Gwen had nearly killed Arthur when he purposefully gave Lance his phone during one of her calls, pointing out the double chin on her photo and laughing himself silly. They had only just started getting to know each other at that point and Lance hadn’t known whether to laugh or pretend he didn’t see anything but Gwen’s natural, radiant beauty.

In fact, knowing Lance, that probably was the only thing he saw.

When Arthur had managed to force Merlin into having his own photo done he had run around half the people in his office, bragging about his “gorgeous cuddly muffin” and making up due-dates. Merlin had been extremely angry with Arthur for a whole of four hours, until Arthur had a few too many glasses of wine and wrapped himself around Merlin like a limpet, murmuring drunkenly into his chin.

“Ssss’fiine, I don’t care if we have kids or not, Merlin. Cos- cos I used to think that’s what made a family but now I know. S’fine.”

“Now you know what?”

“Don’t need kids! Don’t need’m. I could never be more complete. More complete than I am with you. You’re my whole family. You’re the best family.”

That had definitely done the trick when it came to Merlin forgiving Arthur for being such a prat. It had happened at least a year ago and Merlin doubts that Arthur has any recollection of it at all, but he still thinks about it a lot. It’s a golden example of what makes Arthur so special, of why Merlin loves him so very, very much - he’s ridiculous and proud and unthinking sometimes but he’s also the softest and strongest man Merlin has ever known. Arthur has a way with words, not in the sense that people usually mean that phrase, like a particularly imaginative prose style or even a great deal of eloquence, Arthur’s way with words is simply that he always picks the right ones.

Arthur also has a knack for picking out odd things, odd details that other people have never considered. That's how Merlin knows Arthur cares - how he knows that Arthur pays much more attention than he appears to.

Right on cue, Arthur’s fingers close around Merlin’s beneath the pile of blankets and Merlin smiles over at him. The warmth which fills Merlin’s chest when he smiles at Arthur makes him tighten his grip on Arthur’s hand and tug him closer, so that Arthur is bent awkwardly and resting his head on Merlin’s shoulder.

“You alright?” Arthur asks, stretching over to kiss Merlin’s neck. “Warm enough?”

“Yeah,” Merlin sighs. “Arthur, I’m wearing at least three layers more than you. I should be asking if you’re cold.”

“Gotta take away at least two layers for how skinny you are though, don’t we? Knobbly knees,” Arthur’s free hand grabs onto one of Merlin’s knees beneath the blanket and squeezes. Merlin squawks and kicks his leg out, desperately shoving Arthur off him and curling his knees up until they’re safely tucked under his chin.

“Twat,” he mutters. Arthur laughs. “I tell you what you can get me, since it seems you’re the busboy tonight,” Merlin meets Arthur’s amused gaze with as stony a look as possible. “I’m dying for some more half-cooked beans.”

Arthur narrows his eyes. “Oh really?”

“Really!” Merlin confirms, nodding enthusiastically and finally losing grip on the smile trying to spread across his lips. “Best dinner ever. Good work there, Nigella.”

“Oh fuck off!” Arthur laughs, shoving Merlin’s shoulder. “If it’s good enough for cowboys then it’s good enough for us - unless you aren’t man enough. Are you man enough, Merlin?”

“You know I am,” Merlin smirks. “I’m surprised you even have to ask. I seem to recall making a man of myself just last week, after you spent all day making sock puppets to play with Mordred and I came home to find naught but one lone sock to my name.”

Arthur tugs affectionately on Merlin’s ear and leans in to press a kiss, lightning fast, to Merlin’s cheekbone. “Yeah,” Arthur smiles. “You really made me pay for that one.”

Merlin lowers his knees again, deciding that a safe period of time without attack has passed, and leans over to catch Arthur’s lips in a kiss of his own. He reaches out to cup Arthur’s cheek and they shift until they’re cross-legged again and facing each other, sharing hot, wet kisses and tasting each other’s tongues.

“I would’ve brought a three course meal if I could,” Arthur confesses when they break apart, rubbing his nose up and down Merlin’s and staring into Merlin’s eyes. “But there wasn’t room for it on the backseat. I needed to bring the mattress so that you don’t get grass stains when I dry hump you later.”

Merlin snorts with laughter and pulls back, pushing his fingers through Arthur’s fringe so it stands up ridiculously on his head. “Well, that’s romantic!” He laughs. “Starving me now so you can shag me later.”

Arthur grins. “If I had to pick between food and you, I’d pick you every time,” he says.

“Except it’s not between food and me, is it?” Merlin chuckles, shaking his head. “It’s between food and sex. And not just your food, my food! If you don’t feed me then I won’t be here for you to dry hump.”

“Shut up,” Arthur mutters. He unfolds his legs and spreads them out, scooting forwards until he can wrap them around Merlin, slipping his knees beneath Merlin’s where they’re still tightly crossed and pressing the heels of his boots to the top of Merlin’s arse. Most of the blankets have been pushed off them by now and are lying in a large bundle to Merlin’s left. Arthur pulls a blue one out of the pile and stretches forwards to tuck it around Merlin’s shoulders, pausing when they’re nose to nose and using it to pull Merlin towards him until they’re kissing again.

“You’ve eaten,” he says between kisses. “You spent - all afternoon - eating Christmas chocolate.”

Merlin hums happily into the kiss and drapes his arms around Arthur’s neck. “Takes a lot of energy to put up with you," he mumbles back.

Arthur turns away from Merlin’s lips to grin and Merlin takes the chance to kiss along Arthur’s cheek and down towards his jaw.

“You’re impossible,” Arthur sighs, but Merlin ignores him. He knows that he’s won - whatever game it is that they’re always playing, constantly teasing and pushing at each other, Merlin has won this round and he just wants to enjoy his prize for a few minutes.

Kissing Arthur is pretty fantastic - he has big, strong hands which flatten out against Merlin’s back and warm him right through, he’s just the right side of rough, biting at Merlin’s lips and insistently tugging him closer but never forcing himself on Merlin when it’s too much, and he makes these muted huffy sounds at odd intervals and groans when Merlin’s tongue pushes into his mouth.

Merlin finds himself sinking into Arthur more and more, leaning forward into Arthur’s space until he can’t feel the sting of the cold air anymore, only the warmth of Arthur’s body. With a fair amount of trouble and a little bit of accidental kicking, Merlin manages to uncross his legs where they are bracketed by Arthur’s and scramble up onto his knees. He slips his legs onto either side of Arthur’s hips and slides down into Arthur’s lap, smirking into a kiss as he goes. Arthur smirks back at him for a moment but says nothing.

The shift makes it much easier for Merlin to push his chest up against Arthur’s and pin him to the side of the car. When Arthur’s tongue licks into Merlin’s mouth, Merlin makes a pleased sound and sucks on it, wriggling his hips so that Arthur’s hands slip down from his lower back to the swell of his arse.

“Mmm,” Arthur hums happily into Merlin’s mouth. “Surprised you can feel that through all those layers.”

Merlin rolls his eyes and twists his fingers into the hair on either side of Arthur’s head, making it stick up. He likes playing with Arthur’s hair, it has wonderful, gravity-defying effects. Arthur sucks in a sharp breath when Merlin pulls a little too hard and squeezes Merlin’s arse through his jeans as revenge.

They kiss for a while longer, Merlin holding Arthur in place with a hand on his nape. When he brushes his fingers across Arthur’s chest, Merlin feels Arthur shiver from the cold. He reaches for the blanket Arthur had wrapped around him a little earlier and shakes it out until it fits around both of them, nudging Arthur forward so he can tuck it between his back and the cold metal of the car. Once the blanket is pulled up over their shoulders, Merlin starts fiddling with a fray in its edge, not quite sure how to recapture the intensity of their kissing.

“This might be a really stupid idea,” Merlin sighs, pulling at the loose blue thread until it unravels a little. “We’re gonna freeze to death.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin can see Arthur shaking his head. “Not if we warm each other up,” he says.

Merlin can’t help giving a small smile at that. “So it’s snog or die?”

“We can just cuddle,” Arthur whispers, leaning forwards so that his breath ghosts across Merlin ear. “I only want you to be happy, Merlin.”

Merlin feels something uncurl inside his chest. Arthur is nuzzling into his cheek, moving slowly downwards until his lips reach Merlin’s neck. Merlin can feel Arthur’s fingers tugging at the high collars of his jumpers and shirt, tugging them down off Merlin’s neck so he can plant a few kisses on it before settling his mouth just above Merlin’s collarbone. Arthur presses his hot tongue to Merlin’s skin and begins to suck and bite, doing his best to leave a bruise.

Merlin keens into the touch, then sighs and says, “We should get back before they ring the warning bell.”

It’s a few seconds before Arthur makes a confused, non-committal noise against Merlin’s throat - one which says both “I have no idea what you’re talking about” and “whatever you want is fine, baby” - and Merlin realises that the words he had heard were actually his own.

“Wait, what?” He says, pulling away from Arthur and frowning.

Arthur blinks up at him dumbly. “What?”

“I just- I swear I said-” Merlin stops talking and frowns a little harder. He doesn’t know why he’s finding his own words so strange. They weren’t strange at all, were they? Just... sensible.

“Never mind,” he says, shaking his head and moving in fast for another kiss. “Doesn’t matter.”

Arthur kisses Merlin a few more times before saying, in a voice far more serious than Merlin has heard for a long time, “Look, if something’s bothering you then it does matter. I know it’s hard because- because I have so many things to attend to now, but don’t think I don’t have time for you or that I don’t notice. I do. You need to trust me, Merlin.”

Merlin shakes his head again, not opening his eyes. “It’s nothing, I can’t- Can we just have this, please?”

He leans forward again, searching for Arthur’s lips but instead only finding his cheekbone. Merlin kisses it anyway, over and over again. He keeps his eyes closed and he can feel the cold winter air tickling at the nape of his neck, sending a shiver down his spine which makes Arthur’s grip on Merlin’s waist tighten ever so slightly. They brush their noses together and Merlin makes a few small, eager sounds at the back of his throat.

Arthur’s voice is loud when he speaks again. “If you’re still hungry then I think I have some crisps in the boot.”

Arthur’s hands fit around Merlin’s hips and he pushes him back a little so that they can look at each other. Merlin moves out of Arthur’s lap and plops down between his legs instead, momentarily admiring Arthur’s utterly dishevelled state and wondering if his own matches quite so spectacularly.

“I’m not hungry,” he says quietly, scratching his head, and then - “Arthur, is this striking you as a bit muddled? I feel like I’m in someone else’s brain, except it’s still mine.”

“Umm.”

There is a very long moment when Arthur just stares at Merlin, forehead ever so slightly creased, lips parted and expression considering, but then he tilts his head and gives a half-nod.

“Yeah,” he says. “It must be the New Year’s Eve thing. Since we’ve never had one.”

“You know as well as I do that it’s just another night, it’s only made special by calendar makers and BBC scheduling officers,” Merlin tells him in a soft tone, shaking his head and frowning. “And yes we have! Don’t you remember sitting on your sofa last year and talking for, like, hours? We finished off the leftover Christmas pudding even though it looked a bit old and talked about how much better pastry used to be when it was made by Marge the cook and not giant supermarket factories.”

“And we ordered the pizza with the sparklers!” Arthur agrees enthusiastically, bobbing up and down on the mattress. “And we talked about that time in Italy and wished we still had the photos - they must’ve been sold off to some collector by now.”

“Yeah,” Merlin grins, remembering sitting beside Arthur in Venice with their toes tickling the surface of the water and their fingers brushing where they rested on cold stone. “I can’t believe we almost missed midnight because we were standing for that photo for so long. The guy would’ve killed us if he’d been late home.”

“I expect the picture suffered as a consequence,” Arthur says, nodding. “The fact we never went back to collect it probably pissed him off more than anything, though.”

Merlin glances up at Arthur through his eyelashes, eyes darting down again to examine his thumbnail after a moment. He always finds it hard to think about lost keepsakes. Arthur just smiles at him, warm and loving, and the sight of it makes Merlin’s shoulders relax and his stomach squirm with affection.

“You’re right,” Arthur whispers. “I see it now. We have had New Year’s Eves together before - lots of them.”

Merlin nods, feeling a small smile twist his lips, and crawls around to sit on Arthur’s right. He scoots in closer and rests his head against Arthur’s shoulder. Merlin reaches across his body and wraps his fingers around Arthur’s arm, rubbing his thumb over the bicep in a slow, circular motion. They both drop their heads back against the car with a thunk and stare up at the stars.

Merlin has never spent long thinking about the stars before - at least, he doesn’t think he has, but the night is pushing memories on him that he doesn’t even remember making, so anything is possible. As he stares up at them, tiny pinpricks of light in the deep black sky, Merlin feels old. Not old in an “how do you work this DVD player” way or even in a “Wagon Wheels are definitely smaller” way, but in a bone deep, tree roots and river stones kind of way. Merlin feels old like the creak of floorboards in a farmhouse; like the sprinkle of dust across tools in a shed; like the jagged fall of a mountain peak.

The feeling spreads through his bones from the bunch of his shoulders to the ache of his ankles, until each tiny stitch of Merlin’s clothes feels shockingly real and heavy against his skin and the blanket that Merlin’s mother gave him at age eight smells foreign and new, like fresh linens as they’re tugged from the packet.

Merlin takes a deep breath, closing his eyes for several long seconds and blowing warm air out through his lips, knowing without opening his eyes that it’s curling into a cloud in the freezing cold air in front of him. He lets his fingers loosen slightly on Arthur’s bicep and slip down to press into the dip of his elbow. With a jolt in his stomach, Merlin realises that Arthur is the only thing that doesn’t suddenly feel unfamiliar.

He cracks an eye open and squints across at Arthur.

The look Merlin is met with tells him, beyond a doubt, that Arthur is feeling exactly the same. His blue eyes are open wide, staring at Merlin, and a shred of fear dances through them. Arthur’s head is pressed back against the car and his chest is rising and falling rapidly, lungs taking in extra oxygen in the hope of calming the panic that he can feel twisting through his muscles - a panic that is knotting itself inside Merlin’s chest, too.

Arthur’s lips press together as if he’s about to say Merlin’s name but then his whole body ripples and they flatten out again. A muscle in his jaw twitches and Merlin pushes the tips of his fingers a little harder into the soft cushion of Arthur’s inner elbow, trying to offer comfort. Arthur’s left hand snaps away from where it’s digging into the mattress and locks over Merlin’s. The touch is harsh and desperate, Arthur’s palm pressing too hard against Merlin’s knuckles and his nails scratching light, pale streaks across the skin of Merlin’s fingers. Arthur gives a tight nod, his eyes still holding Merlin’s gaze, and that’s when the heat bursts into every corner of Merlin’s body.

It hurts, not like fire or boiling water or the burning sun, but like a bubble of raging passion and lust, devotion and desire, which has been swirling deep down in the recesses of Merlin’s soul for his whole life - for longer than his life, for a thousand years, for eternity. For forever. A bubble which has burst and coated every inch of Merlin’s consciousness with an overwhelming need to sink into the presence of another; into the presence of Arthur.

Merlin gasps and tears his gaze away from Arthur’s face, settling his eyes on the cold stillness of the moon. He knows his thumb is pressing hard enough into Arthur’s arm to leave a bruise but the ripples of oozing love and yearning and trust which are rolling through him won’t let him release Arthur, or move at all. Merlin’s breath shudders as he inhales, feeling the sharp sting of cold air inside his throat as keenly as if he’d been suffocating for years.

“Arthur,” he whispers after a period of time unknown, eyes shut and head hanging down so that his chin rests against his chest. “Arthur?”

Someone draws a rasped breath beside Merlin and he feels the flutter of movement across the back of his hand as fingers slowly, carefully remove themselves from where they’re buried in his skin. It’s Arthur. Merlin wants to reach for him and hold him close, but he can’t move his shoulders for the weight of time and memory and heartache that is pressing them down.

He tilts his head until there’s a click in his neck and begins to open his eyes.

“Merlin,” Arthur murmurs, sounding as though his lips are barely parting to form the sound. “Merlin, did you-”

“Yes,” Merlin says at once, wetting his dry lips and blinking into the night. “I did.”

“And,” Arthur tries again, touching the pad of his thumb to Merlin’s wrist. “And do you-?”

“I do,” Merlin tells him, clearing his throat and lifting his head, trying to make his voice as loud and strong as possible. “I remember, Arthur.”

The grin Arthur sends Merlin’s way is blinding, just as it had been when Merlin ran up to him after watching his first tournament. Arthur’s smile is as bright there, sitting beside their car beneath a pile of blankets, as it was in 1914 when Merlin stumbled into his officer’s quarters in France, soaked in mud and rain, struggling with the confusion of war and being called away from the men who had been living and dying around him for months, shaking with fright and the effort of ignoring the rush of a thousand memories he didn’t recognise as his own.

It’s as if all the snatches of half-forgotten feelings that Arthur’s smile triggers in Merlin are squeezing through a bottleneck in his mind, bombarding his senses with flashes of times long passed - Arthur ducking his head and grinning on a wooden dock with a deep sunset glinting over the horizon behind him and the smell of fish and sewage thick in the air, Arthur dropping a dagger he had been holding to Merlin’s throat and grinning through the darkness of a wild forest, his eyes catching the light of a small campfire to their left. Merlin sees Arthur grinning at him, shirtless in the back of an orange camper van, grubby and shivering through the smog of a London factory, wearing silver-rimmed glasses and glancing between dusty volumes in an old library, swaying in the snow to the rise and fall of a madrigal on the steps of a cathedral, staring at him as their fingers link through dirty iron bars, and from the doorway of a grotty public toilet with a muted bass line pumping through the white tiled walls around them and the smudge of tears stinging Merlin’s skin through his cracked face paint.

Merlin remembers a hundred Arthurs - a thousand - and yet, somehow, still just one.

“Oh my God,” Merlin chokes out, his words catching on a laugh. “Holy shit, Arthur.”

The name tastes strange and wonderful on his lips, as if it’s Merlin’s first word in a new language; as if it’s the answer to a question he is yet to ask. Merlin savours the rich, deep sound of it as it rolls off his tongue and he lets it wrap around him, as sacred and close to his heart as any precious secret. He repeats it, over and over, as he drinks in each and every inch of Arthur’s face and reaches out to place a hand on Arthur’s knee.

“Arthur,” he says. “This is- It’s really you, isn’t it? Arthur, you’re here. It’s us. Arthur, I can’t- I can’t feel my feet.”

Arthur’s smile widens even further - impossible, Merlin thinks fleetingly - and he leans forward to pat Merlin’s shoes through the blanket.

“Well, they’re right here,” he winks. “All of you, Merlin, you’re- you’re all right here.”

The hand on Merlin’s shoe squeezes briefly, then Arthur is running it up and down Merlin’s leg, lingering on the dip between thigh and hip. Arthur shifts up onto his knees and leans into Merlin’s space, pressing his nose to Merlin’s neck and gripping his hip tightly, holding him close.

“Merlin,” Arthur mutters against Merlin’s skin, lips brushing the hint of stubble beneath his jaw. “Merlin, I’ve missed you. It’s like half living, having you but not knowing exactly what we’ve shared. I need- I- I can’t let you go. I can’t.”

“Shh,” Merlin breathes, stroking Arthur’s hair and leaning into his touch. “You don’t have to, I’m right here. You don’t have to let go.”

Arthur nods, nose rubbing against Merlin’s neck, and lets out a long huff of breath. They stay like that for a while, with Arthur gripping Merlin’s hips and burying his face in Merlin’s neck, until Merlin feels a hint of warm dampness against his skin and pulls back to see Arthur’s face red with tears.

They stare at each other for a moment. Arthur opens his mouth to speak but the sound catches in his throat and he bites his lip and closes his eyes. Two fresh tears squeeze between Arthur’s eyelashes and run down his nose. Merlin kisses them away and tries to swallow back his own tears but there is a lump the size of a fist in his throat.

“It’s alright, Arthur,” he says, voice cracking on Arthur’s name. “It’s alright.”

And leans in to kiss Arthur’s lips. They’re dry and a little chapped but Merlin doesn’t care, he just threads his fingers into the hair at Arthur’s nape and pulls him in, kissing, soft and gentle, with all the restraint he has left aching in his chest.

Arthur inhales sharply but his lips move against Merlin’s, careful and hesitant at first but soon picking up into a perfect slide of warm, wet skin. It takes several minutes for the violent jolts in Merlin’s stomach and shoulders to calm, and even longer for Arthur’s hands to stop shaking. It’s like they’re learning each other again, like Merlin is a skill Arthur has long forgotten but is desperately trying to reclaim.

The clash of disconnected feelings makes Merlin’s soul churn in his chest and stomach. He knows Arthur, he has known Arthur inside and out for five wonderful years, but he has never known Arthur like this. He knows that he and Arthur have never been to Venice or France, let alone during conflict. He knows they have never sailed or mistaken each other for thieves in a dark forest. He knows that he met Arthur one New Year’s morning when they woke up together in Merlin’s flat, not in the filthy bathroom of a club. He knows that Arthur has never married, and yet Merlin remembers watching from his place as best man while Arthur smiles and kisses several women, each in a different flash of memory and a different white dress.

But none of it feels wrong. They are all memories as real and sure as the memory of pushing a ring onto Arthur’s outstretched finger and kissing him to the sound of Gwen’s cheering and Morgana’s catcalls on Christmas Eve. This is what they’ve been missing every New Year, Merlin realises with a start, this is why their friends always tell them that they disappeared without a trace early into the evening, not to be seen or heard from again until a sleepy, nonsense phone call at mid-afternoon the next day, asking what happened and how they got home.

It all floods over Merlin in a single, glorious moment of understanding and he gasps, opening his mouth for Arthur’s tongue to slip passed his lips and runs along the back of his teeth. The kiss turns dirty and a little forceful, with Arthur pushing hard against Merlin until he eases down onto his back.

Merlin spreads his legs so that Arthur can fit his hips between them. Their chests press together and Arthur props himself up on his elbows, arms bracketing Merlin’s head where it’s resting on the cold mattress. Arthur bites at Merlin’s bottom lip and then slicks his tongue along it. The heat between them is making Merlin’s fringe stick to his forehead and he whines low in his throat as Arthur drops a leg onto either side of his left thigh and presses his knee in a light, delicious rhythm against Merlin’s clothed cock.

Bending his own leg so that Arthur can press down against his knee, Merlin lets a rumble sound deep in his throat. He feels Arthur grin against his lips and then a moment later there is hot breath puffing into Merlin’s ear and Arthur’s body is moving in a strong, sleek wave over him. The sensation makes Merlin grip Arthur’s jumper where it hangs across his ribs and buck up into his touch, skin tingling at the intimacy of feeling their warm stomachs press together with each ripple of Arthur’s steady movement.

Arthur’s lips tease kisses through the hair at Merlin’s temple until he can tongue and suck and nip at Merlin’s earlobe. Merlin makes a needy, high-pitched noise and wraps his unbent leg around Arthur’s, pushing up into the pressure of his knee against Merlin’s cock and locking their ankles together.

“Mhm, Arthur,” Merlin pants, so overcome with desperate lust that he doesn’t know if he wants to lean into the feel of Arthur’s tongue on his ear and lose control completely, or pull away because it’s too much sensitivity for him to handle. “Arthur.”

“Merlin, I love you,” Arthur whispers into his ear, kissing along Merlin’s temple again until he can mouth at his cheekbone. “I love you so much.”

“I know, I know,” Merlin says over and over as if it’s a mantra designed to loosen the knots of need in his muscles and soothe the pangs of longing in his gut. “I know, Arthur. I love you too. I know.”

He slides his hands beneath Arthur’s jumper and fits his palms around Arthur’s ribs, rubbing his thumbs in slow, insistent circles over Arthur’s stomach. Arthur shivers and nudges Merlin’s nose with his own until their lips meet again and Arthur can moan into the wet heat of Merlin’s mouth.

That’s it for Merlin. He reaches down, eyes still closed and lips still locked with Arthur’s, to fumble blindly with Arthur’s belt. The buckle pops open eventually, once Merlin has pulled it too tight the wrong way and caught the skin of Arthur’s stomach in a pinch which makes him curse and hiss so that their teeth clash together.

“Shit, sorry,” Merlin mutters, but Arthur just kisses him again and pushes his hips into Merlin’s hands so Merlin goes right back to unbuckling Arthur’s belt and tugging at the buttons of his jeans.

When they finally come undone and Merlin unzips Arthur’s fly, he can already feel Arthur’s warm, hard cock nudging at his hand through the thin cotton boxers. Merlin bites his lip as he slides his hand into Arthur’s jeans and palms Arthur’s cock, circling the head with his thumb and wetting the fabric with precome. Arousal shakes through Arthur’s body, Merlin can feel it in the way his arms quiver and his hips stutter, and the thought that it’s him doing this to Arthur, him making Arthur this frantic with lust, makes heat build at the base of Merlin’s neck and in the dip of his stomach.

There’s something special about the slide of Arthur’s cock in Merlin’s hand as his pushes his boxers away and wraps his fingers around the base. There’s something special about the warmth of Arthur’s skin beneath Merlin’s palm as he runs his other hand around Arthur’s waist and cups his arse beneath loose jeans. There’s something special about the way Arthur’s lips are brushing Merlin’s neck as he presses his face into the skin there and breathes heavily, mind lost to arousal.

Merlin has felt these things with Arthur a thousand times, not only in this life but in those he has lived before, and each time there is a tickle of magic and love which winds just a little tighter around his heart. Each time is a little different because their souls are a year older, because they have loved and touched and wanted each other for a year longer and because the depth of their desire and the power of their urgency is just a little stronger.

Arthur’s gasps and moans feel new to Merlin, just as the touch of Merlin’s hand on his skin and the roll of Merlin’s body beneath his own must feel new to Arthur. These things are fresh and different for them every New Year’s Eve, regardless of whether they have spent their entire lives together up until that evening. It’s like breaking through a hard shell of false memories to the real feelings beneath. The heady rush of the kisses they share is like a silky, caramel centre beneath a dull chocolate casing which they have spent three hundred and sixty-five days trying to break through, and which they know will soon seal up around them again.

Arthur kisses and licks at Merlin’s neck, alternating between sucking bruises into his skin and opening wide to just pant against his stubble every time Merlin twists his wrist and brushes his thumb over the head of Arthur’s cock. It’s an uneven rhythm, Merlin’s wild, fast jerks falling out of sync with the frenzied roll of Arthur’s hips. Merlin closes his eyes and pushes down against Arthur’s knee, trying to rub his cock on Arthur’s thigh but struggling with the awkward angle.

The blankets have long since fallen away from them but Merlin can’t feel the cold. He’s sweating beneath too many layers of clothing and there’s a flush blooming across his cheeks, his jaw and in the tight, hidden skin around his cock. He whines and squeezes Arthur’s arse, prompting Arthur to shift so that his thigh is finally pressing, deliciously perfect, against Merlin’s cock.

Merlin gives Arthur’s cheek a messy kiss as thanks and jerks his cock faster until Arthur’s body freezes and he says, “Merlin- Merlin, I’m gonna-”

“I don’t care,” Merlin grunts, tugging Arthur closer with the hand on his arse, and that’s all it takes for Arthur to inhale a ragged breath and come. It shoots in thin stripes across Merlin’s fingers and drips down onto his jumper.

Fuck,” Arthur groans, all the tension disappearing from his muscles and leaving him loose and tired above Merlin. “Fuck, Merlin.”

“Arthur. Arthur, please,” Merlin mouthes helplessly at the air between them, voice thin and breathy. “Please.”

Arthur kisses him, licking back into Merlin’s mouth and making him feel completely surrounded, completely safe and taken and cocooned like there’s nothing in his world but the touch of Arthur’s skin and the desperate straining of his own cock. Merlin twists his fingers into Arthur’s hair, realises belatedly that he might still have come on his hand and rubs it off on Arthur’s shoulder. He can’t think much through his arousal and the desperate question of why Arthur isn’t touching his cock right now.

“Arthur,” he says again, tone urgent, and rolls his hips up, dragging his cock along Arthur’s thigh and groaning so loudly his throat burns.

Arthur pulls back, his eyes wide and his lips twisting into a smirk at the corners. He lifts himself off Merlin and tucks himself back into his boxers, the loss of heat and contact making Merlin whine in a way he would never admit to but which rings through his whole body - muscles, blood and bones - because he never wants to stop touching Arthur. He would rather exist in this painful state of anticipation for a hundred years than live without cupping Arthur’s cheek or kissing his hair for a single day.

Thankfully, this time, Arthur is only away for a moment. He runs his fingers through Merlin’s fringe, pushing it back off his face and grinning at the feel of Merlin’s sweat between his fingers

- Arthur’s got this weird thing for sweat this time around, Merlin doesn’t understand it but suspects he might have been the same once, when Arthur would come back to Merlin soaked in the musky, dirty smell of his own body after hours of training with a sword and mace -

and pulling his jeans back up over his waist.

Merlin makes a choked gasping sound when Arthur finally leans over him again and presses his hand against the bulge in Merlin’s jeans. It feels so mind-numbingly, heart-stoppingly good that Merlin thinks he might pass out for a moment - he definitely sees stars, anyway. Then Arthur is shoving the layers of jumpers and shirts and t-shirts up off Merlin’s stomach so that he can do battle with the awkward, lumpy button on Merlin’s jeans.

This particular button is a challenge for Merlin even when he’s standing up straight in a well lit room with a sober mind, so how Arthur is going to defeat it doesn’t bear thinking about. Of course, the only reason it’s so awkward in the first place is because Arthur ripped it off once when they were trying to fuck against the back of Uther’s shed and Arthur was growling and grabbing at Merlin with such ferocity that it felt a little more like he was being molested by a very determined bear than making love with his boyfriend. Gwen’s sewing skills could never compete with Arthur in such a state.

Somehow, Arthur wins and the button squeezes out of its loop. Within a moment, Arthur is tugging Merlin’s jeans and underwear down over his hips with both hands and bending down to give Merlin’s dry, panting lips a hard kiss. By the time Merlin has thought to help by lifting his hips and pulling five layers of clothing over his head at once, Arthur already has his face pressed into Merlin’s crotch and his nose poking the base of Merlin’s cock.

“Mm, God, Merlin,” Arthur hums, his voice deep and uneven as he starts to mouth at Merlin’s cock. Merlin bites his lip and tries to hold down a sob.

The slick heat of Arthur’s mouth finally sliding over the head of his cock pushes Merlin so far over the edge that he doesn’t realise how hard he’s pulling Arthur’s hair until Arthur makes an indignant squawking sound and his stubbled chin brushes over Merlin’s balls. Merlin eases off and Arthur edges back so he can suck and tease the head of Merlin’s cock with his tongue.

It doesn’t last long but Merlin’s fairly certain that if it had, he might never have recovered. Arthur swallows all Merlin’s come then swipes his tongue along the underside of Merlin’s cock and kisses the tip as he pulls off. He smiles fondly down at Merlin and rubs the palm of his hand along Merlin’s ribs and over his nipples where they’re hard and obvious through the two thin t-shirts Merlin is still wearing.

Merlin sighs, his muscles impossibly relaxed and pliant, and traces a loose pattern against Arthur’s thigh with his fingers. He can feel the cold creeping along his bare arms and reaches for the bundle of jumpers and shirts he flung off a few minutes earlier. The sleeves are all bunched and twisted inside each other and, try as he might, Merlin can’t untangle it - although, admittedly, lying flat on his back and holding it directly above his head probably doesn’t help.

Sitting up is not an option.

When he drops the bundle on his face and hits himself in the eye with the cold metal zip at the collar of Arthur’s dark green jumper, Merlin gives up and decides to just freeze to death. It’s much easier. He says as much and Arthur chuckles, slotting himself in beside Merlin on the mattress and kissing Merlin’s ear with a grin. Arthur’s chest pressing against Merlin’s arm offers some warmth but it’s not until Arthur moves away and then returns to cover them with three blankets that Merlin feels completely content.

“I love you,” Arthur says for the millionth time - it’s funny how Merlin never gets tired of hearing it. He’s lying on his side, tickling Merlin’s stomach with one lazy hand and studying Merlin’s face with all the intensity of a man who doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to learn everything about his subject, but is determined to try anyway.

“You too,” Merlin mumbles, closing his eyes and letting Arthur look his fill. “Always have, always will.”

A pregnant silence follows for a few minutes. Merlin can feel the slight tension in Arthur’s limbs and waits patiently for him to figure out exactly how to order his next words just right. It doesn’t take a thousand years to realise that an Arthur who is rushed into saying something is an Arthur who will undoubtedly make that something cruel and unthinking.

Eventually, he goes with, “I don’t know why this happens to us,” and leaves it at that.

Merlin cracks an eye open and turns to look at Arthur. He’s chewing on his lip and watching Merlin intently, questioning him without speaking a word. They have spoken about this before, about the reason why they can recall thoughts and feelings completely unconnected to the bodies they now inhabit. They’ve discussed why it is that they can both remember the Civil War and the Great Fire of London, how it’s possible for Merlin to remember working the canals with Arthur during the industrial revolution and how Arthur can describe with crystal clear clarity the scene when he met Merlin bathing on the shores of a small lake, tucked away in a private corner of monasterial gardens in some warm, green country.

Merlin knows why it happens to them - in fact, Merlin even knows why it only happens one night a year - but he’s never told Arthur. He only truly understood it himself one New Year’s Eve (although it wasn’t yet referred to as such) during his seventh life. Merlin had just married a gorgeous girl named Eliza, had bedded her, and had then found himself sitting in the pig pen outside their small house and staring at the twinkle of light in the homes of their relatives and neighbours, his body wracked with nausea and his mind repeating over and over that he was ancient - a legend, almost - and she was little more than an infant in comparison.

It is hard to explain. It came before Camlann, before Arthur knew who Merlin really was, before Merlin whispered “stay with me” beside the lake of Avalon and before Kilgharrah promised that Arthur would return some day. Merlin still thinks that perhaps the dragon was right and one day Arthur will return as a king destined to save the people of Albion, but that day has not yet come. Arthur has not missed a single moment of life since Merlin laid him to rest in the waters of Avalon but the lives he has lived have not been for his people or for the greater good, they have been just for Merlin.

“You remember the- the magic,” Merlin whispers, his heart suddenly pounding in his ears. A tremor runs through his fingers as Arthur nods. “I lost it at the end of that first life.”

Arthur nods again and rubs his thumb in a soft, comforting touch across Merlin’s wrist beneath their blankets.

“But. Well, there was- It-” Merlin stops his stammer and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes and letting the night chill wash over him and calm his fright. He wants to get this right.

“There was one night,” he tries again. “Before Camlann, before that druid girl, before- before everything, when we went up onto the hill behind Camelot and sat watching the stars. It was cold, like tonight, but you were so warm and so full of optimism and life and I loved you then, in that moment like in a thousand before it I knew that I loved you and I couldn’t- I just couldn’t live without you.”

Merlin pauses and studies Arthur’s face. It hasn’t changed, he’s just lying on his side and staring intently at Merlin, hanging on his every word; listening to him with a focus that it has taken too many lives and too many New Year’s Eves to perfect.

“Well, I knew about Mordred by then. I knew about the prophecy and I was scared but you didn’t know why.”

“And I told you to trust me,” Arthur murmurs, his eyes glazing over as the memory trickles back into his consciousness. “I told you that I was busy but I was still there for you. That I still cared.”

It’s Merlin’s turn to nod this time. He bites his lip and blinks away tears.

“It was an accident,” he says. “I didn’t even know I’d done it, but you were kissing my neck and I was thinking that if I could just have you for that one night - for that one night but somehow still forever - then it’d be okay.”

Arthur kisses Merlin’s bitten lip but his face pulls back into view creased with a frown, his brow furrowed and his jaw set in a tense lock. “What do you mean?” He asks. “I don’t understand.”

 

 

*

 

“I hardly think this is an urgent errand,” Merlin sighs, scratching the nape of his neck beneath the tickle of his scarf and folding his arms. “There’s nothing out here but moths and moonlight.”

Arthur grins at the pout Merlin sends his way and tilts his head towards the floor, indicating for Merlin to spread out the blanket Arthur had stuffed into his arms on the way out of Gaius’ chambers. Merlin rolls his eyes and does as he’s told, shaking the blanket out and lying it flat on the grass, but doesn’t wait for permission before plopping down on top of it and drawing his knees up to his chest.

“Liberties, Merlin,” Arthur mutters, shaking his head. “You take too many liberties.”

“Me?” Merlin squawks, the pitch of his voice rising with indignation. “How about taking the liberty of waltzing into my chambers on a cold winter night when I’m trying to sleep off the ache still thrumming through my head from the awful racket you and the knights made at Yuletide, and demanding I accompany you on an urgent picnic?”

“You’re my servant,” Arthur says, the words so familiar that Merlin’s fairly certain he even says them in his sleep. “You’re supposed to be at my beck and call.”

“Yeah, well, I never signed anything,” Merlin huffs. He catches Arthur’s smirk out of the corner of his eye and barely manages to hold back a grin of his own. He reaches over and tugs on the leg of Arthur’s breeches. “Come and sit down then, your Highness.”

Arthur sits, ruffling Merlin’s hair on the way down but then not pulling his hand away, instead letting it slip down to twist around the back of Merlin’s neck and cup his jaw, trying to pull Merlin in closer for a hug or a tussle. Merlin resists, the ease of a joke between him and Arthur already disappearing in favour of the heavy, twisting dread of loss which has been weighing in his stomach for weeks. He squirms out of Arthur’s grasp and wraps his arms around his knees, staring determinedly down at Camelot.

“Merlin, what is?” Arthur asks, his voice tired and sad as his hand drops down to the blanket between them. “What’s wrong?”

Merlin shakes his head and keeps staring down at Camelot, all of the reasons why he can’t tell Arthur swirling around in his head and holding down the urge to scream it all to the heavens - an urge which is digging an empty, desperate chasm in his chest.

“Is it Gwen?”

Merlin tenses at the dark tone of Arthur’s question and his shoulders hunch at the still-raw memory of the way Arthur had shouted, telling Merlin not to make him choose.

“You know, it’s difficult for me too,” Arthur continues, his voice wavering between hurt and anger. “Being torn and not- not knowing how to make two people happy. That’s all I want for her, for- for both of you, and sometimes it’s like you blame me or-”

“Arthur,” Merlin interrupts. He can’t bear to hear this speech again. “It’s not that, it really isn’t,” he pulls his features into his most convincing smile and turns to face Arthur. “I don’t have any problems with Gwen or with you, I just- Um. How. How is she?”

“She’s mending,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s never been so glad to see the fight drain out of him. It means he’s as eager to drop the subject as Merlin is. “I think deep down she always hoped she could save Morgana and this is... difficult for her. She’s retired to her own chambers for the foreseeable future.”

Merlin nods. “I understand.”

There’s silence for a few minutes. Merlin goes back to hugging his knees and gazing down at Camelot in all her moonlit glory while Arthur fusses with undoing the green cloak he had cast about his shoulders to disguise himself for the journey out of the castle. Merlin thinks about the last time Arthur wore that cloak, when he hid in the crowds of the tourney field and watched a farmer collect the prize he had earned himself under another name, and wonders if the two of them with ever see another tournament season together.

“What is it, then?” Arthur asks again once he’s done fussing with the cloak. He shifts over to press the side of his body along Merlin’s and places his palm lightly against Merlin’s lower back, his movements slow and gentle as if he’s trying not to scare Merlin away. “I know there’s something wrong. There has been for a while now.”

Merlin leans instinctively into the warm touch of Arthur’s body, pressing back a little against Arthur’s hand and glancing over to see that Arthur has piled the green cloak in a bundle to his left. He’s wearing a dark blue tunic which matches Merlin’s - although perhaps woven from a finer wool - and a short brown jacket which Merlin hasn’t seen for years. It had been his favourite once.

“Nothing,” he says quietly, feeling his heart drop a few notches in his chest at how beautiful and young and brimming with life Arthur is. All of his attention is focused solely on Merlin and it’s enough to make Merlin want to wind their limbs together as tightly as their destinies and never let go. “It doesn’t matter.”

Merlin tries to distract Arthur with a kiss. All of their grumpy jokes, their snide remarks, their awkward heartache and the uncertain, throbbing pain of not knowing exactly what the other person is feeling disappears when they kiss because Arthur’s tongue is strong and persistent and Merlin’s lips love to part and pant for it.

The technique works for a short while - Arthur seems more than happy to drop his line of questioning in favour of accepting the hot, wet press of Merlin’s mouth against his own. He fists his hands in Merlin’s jacket and pulls him closer until they’re sharing the same breaths and the same body heat, but then Arthur is pushing three cold fingers, light but insistent, against Merlin’s chin to halt the kiss.

“Merlin, if something’s bothering you then it does matter,” he says, brow creased and eyes hard and serious. “I know it’s hard because I have so many things to attend to now, but don’t think I don’t have time for you or that I don’t notice. I do. You need to trust me, Merlin.”

Merlin drops his gaze to the dip of Arthur’s throat, finding it too uncomfortable to look him in the eye, and nods. Sometimes he hates how perceptive Arthur is in the way he spots the slightest shift in Merlin’s tone and the smallest change in the hunch of his shoulders or the clench of his fist. Merlin hates feeling as though he’s keeping secrets from Arthur - and he hates Arthur feeling that way even more.

“It’s nothing,” Merlin tells him resolutely. “Please, Arthur, I just miss you. That’s all, it’s just the- the king stuff. I can’t- Can we just have this, please? Just for now?”

He leans forward and kisses Arthur again, the force of his enthusiasm knocking Arthur backwards until he’s forced to throw out a hand to keep himself upright. Merlin turns and lifts himself up onto his knees, reaching out to cup Arthur’s face and licking into his mouth with abandon. Arthur chuckles and rubs his free hand over Merlin’s waist, coaxing him into easing off a little.

“I wish you could be this enthusiastic about your servant duties,” Arthur chuckles. Merlin gives a weak smile, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. Arthur runs his thumb over Merlin’s bottom lip and says, “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Please don’t keep anything else bottled up. It has a terrible effect on your polishing.”

Merlin gives him an unamused look and pushes forward for another kiss, his eagerness making Arthur laugh happily against his lips. Sliding his hands into Arthur’s blond hair and feeling the soft strands slip between his fingers warms Merlin’s heart by degrees, until he almost convinces himself that the hole cut into his chest by his fear of the Druid Seer’s vision can be filled by Arthur’s grinning face, by the warmth of Arthur’s muscles under Merlin’s hand, by believing that Arthur is so solid and real and Merlin’s that he can never be anything but right here at Merlin’s side.

They don’t make a sound as they kiss besides the occasional heavy huff when one of them forgets to breathe. It’s perfect and close for a minute that feels like an eternity. Merlin allows himself this one freedom, this one chance to let go and tell himself that he has Arthur and Arthur has him and who cares about destiny, anyway? Merlin knows that if he was the lord and Arthur was the peasant boy, or if they lived a thousand miles apart or fought for opposite sides of a bloody war, it wouldn’t matter. There’s something deep in Arthur’s soul which ties with Merlin’s, regardless of upbringing or prattish quirks or fate.

When Merlin mouths at Arthur’s top lip and slides his hands underneath Arthur’s jacket to palm his ribs through his tunic, Arthur inhales sharply. He twitches away from Merlin’s touch and gently rests his own palm on the spot Merlin had been caressing.

“Sorry,” Arthur says, his teeth bared in pain. “Sparring injury from today. Pretty nasty.”

Merlin draws back as if he’s been stung, panic clenching around his heart. “What? Who was it? Why didn’t you have me dress it?”

Arthur gives Merlin a strange look as if he’s overreacting - which, frankly, is a ridiculous notion - and shakes his head in exasperation. “Sparring injury,” he says again, lifting his tunic to show Merlin the bruise. It’s hard to make out in the dim starlight. “Percival caught me with the mace and really, Merlin, it’s just a bad bruise, there wasn’t much you could’ve done.”

Merlin feels tension pour out of his shoulders at the news that it wasn’t Mordred - that he hadn’t failed to be by Arthur’s side when Arthur was in real danger - but that does nothing to ease the jealous, possessive knot in his stomach at the thought that Arthur hadn’t called for him, but had gone straight to Gaius or Gwen. He knew he should have delayed his medicinal herb-gathering trip until an afternoon when Arthur would be sitting safely in council meetings, not rushing around on the training field.

It would be silly, the fiercely protective lurch of Merlin’s heart at the thought of Arthur - a grown man, a warrior, a king - being injured on his watch, except it isn't because Arthur is vulnerable in a thousand ways that only Merlin knows.

“You bother me for stupid things,” Merlin mumbles against the corner of Arthur’s mouth, kissing him softly. “Like combing your hair and tightening your belt, and yet you don’t send for me when I could actually be of some use.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself there, Merlin,” Arthur says, fitting his hands around Merlin’s hips and nuzzling beneath his jaw to nip at his stubble. “You’re never useful.”

Then Arthur is kissing Merlin’s neck, dragging his tongue along the skin and sucking until it twinges on just the right side of painful. Merlin gasps and grabs onto Arthur’s arms to hold himself upright, pushing into Arthur’s touch. It’s too much and not enough. As Arthur kisses him, Merlin stares up at the stars - the twinkling eyes of a thousand dead souls watching over the living - and knows beyond a doubt that it will never be them; that their lives will never fade to two pinpricks of light in a jet black sky; that if they can have this one night together, this one perfect stretch of time, then destiny won’t matter - eternity will be theirs.

The feeling of Arthur’s fingers pressing into his hips and Arthur’s lips closing over his Adam’s apple makes a trickle of bubbling, excited magic awaken in Merlin’s chest. It shocks him, makes him withdraw a little in fear of Arthur feeling the magic shiver through his skin or seeing it glimmer in his eyes, but Arthur moves right along with Merlin and doesn’t stop kissing him for a moment. He tries to hold Merlin still by his hips and push his neck scarf away with an awkward wiggle of his chin, but all that does is make Merlin laugh.

“Arthur, come on,” he says, running his fingers along Arthur’s jaw and tilting his head up to meet his gaze. Merlin ignores the magic still swirling in his stomach and smiles. “You’re the king and you’re missing. We should get back before they ring the warning bell.”

Arthur sighs and his whole body seems to deflate. “I thought I was supposed to give the orders,” he grumbles.

Merlin smirks and starts to pull away. “Yeah,” he says. “Maybe in your next life.”

 

 

*

 

Merlin is old. He feels it in his bones. His grandchildren have left him, no longer drawn back by the warm pull of their late grandmother’s arms. They live in London, York, Birmingham - in cities which feel a thousand miles from Merlin’s cottage beside the lake. It’s been years now, countless years, and in the absence of company Merlin has let his hair grow long, his beard travel unchecked down his chest, his eyes grow empty and sad.

It would be funny, the resemblance Merlin’s true form now holds to the sorcerer he once used as a disguise, if it didn’t make each of his tired heartbeats ache with sadness.

This has happened before - Merlin has lived his whole life without finding Arthur, only remembering him on New Year’s Eve and finding himself overcome with grief each time. As he has aged through this life, the borders of Merlin’s memories have slipped away little by little. Whereas his wife gradually forgot his name and then her own, became at odds with the world and slipped away confused and lonely, the strict lines in Merlin’s mind between this life and the others - most prominently, the first - have broken down and decayed. Age has slowly fed him an agony which youth had hidden from him.

It’s too late now and he knows it. The memories cling to him for a few weeks in December, perhaps as far as February if he’s lucky, then they fade to the back of his mind and Merlin isn’t sure why he didn’t call his daughter to wish her a Merry Christmas or his sons to ask after their children.

Luck, that’s all finding each other has ever been. The world now is much larger than it was when Merlin’s magic sewed a bond between him and Arthur and he can only search so much of it in one night. This is a special kind of torture, Merlin thinks as he pulls on his old woollen hat and steps out onto the roadside. This is more than a torture of the mind or heart, it’s a torture of the spirit, a torture which haunted him even when he was a young child in the Amazon at one time in the 12th century, fishing and hunting with his brothers, carving spears from fallen branches and repairing gaps in the roof of his mother’s hut with dead leaves, and every year feeling that his time for finding the man who would complete his soul was getting shorter, dropping away like loose mud at the riverbank.

It is a torture which has haunted so many of Merlin’s lives, one which snags and tears at his heart every year he spends alone and yet sweetens the blue shine of Arthur’s eyes and the warm brush of his skin when they find each other, until it all feels worth it.

Until eighty years of living as half a person, of raising children with a woman who feels distant and separate, fizzles into nothing; until Merlin can shake his head and cast away the clutch of fear he once felt when soldiers cornered him on an empty country lane, yelling that he was dirty and wrong and going to Hell for what he had let the farmhands do to him the night before - promising that he would never see another Christmas as their boots connected with his stomach; until Merlin can let go of the cold, empty shakes which ran through his whole body as he sobbed into his pillow every New Year’s Eve until he was twenty-two, retching at the hollow sinking drag of despair as the sound of Arthur’s last whisper and the image of his last smile burrowed out from the deep recesses of Merlin’s mind and stung him, over and over, with fresh waves of loss and hopelessness.

Finding Arthur is worth all of that - as long as Merlin finds him.

Maybe next time he’ll be more lucky.

 

 

*

 

“I’m still the captain, y’know,” Merlin says with a huff as Arthur pins him to the edge of his desk by the hips and bites his neck, licking at the slick of salty sweat and sea water coating Merlin’s skin.

“Shut up,” Arthur pants, pulling away only just long enough to make the words audible.

“I’m still the captain and you’re- you’re-” Merlin loses the thread of what he’s saying when Arthur knocks his hat off and buries the fingers of one hand in Merlin’s hair, twisting the other around his waist and nudging between his arse cheeks.

“Do you really have to dress like this, Merlin?” Arthur groans into the skin behind Merlin’s ear, frustration clipping his words. “You look like a cockatoo.”

“Shut up,” Merlin grunts back, rolling his eyes as Arthur starts to rub against his leg. “I’m the captain. You’re barely the ship’s mate - probably not even that since I just had to send you to the brig for hoarding food, you absolute idiot.”

Arthur tightens his fingers in Merlin’s hair. “I had to get your attention somehow, didn’t I?” he says. “And I thought we could use something to keep our energy up.”

Merlin grins and kisses Arthur’s cheek. “I love you,” he says against Arthur’s short, bristly beard. “I don’t think I’ll ever say it enough.”

Arthur is silent for a moment, mouthing half-kisses into Merlin’s neck, before he snuffles against Merlin’s shirt collar and says, “I’d love you more without the ruffles.”

A bark of laughter, loud and free and happy, erupts from Merlin’s throat before he can stop himself. He gently pushes Arthur’s shoulders until he steps back and then reaches up to start loosening the ruffled white shirt which is causing Arthur so much offence.

“You’re ridiculous,” he laughs, tugging the shirt tails out from where they’re tucked into his trousers and tossing the soft, yellowing fabric onto a chair behind Arthur. “I’m sure just this morning I caught you admiring my long blue coat with the gold buttons. Don’t deny it.”

Arthur moves forward and wraps his arms around Merlin’s waist, running rough, calloused hands across the welted skin of Merlin’s back, feeling the scars of Merlin’s life in piracy. He smirks, his lips stretched wide and pink and perfect, and presses his nose into the short, dark beard lining Merlin’s jaw.

“I was actually thinking that I’d make a better captain,” Arthur whispers, hot and breathy, into Merlin’s ear. “I’m planning a mutiny.”

“Shit,” Merlin pants, all the air rushing out of him as Arthur licks at his earlobe, tonguing the fang piercing Merlin was given as a boy. “Shit, you- you better be joking.”

“Sorry,” Arthur mumbles. “You know what it’s like, I don’t know it’s you.”

Merlin nods frantically, digging his blunt, dirty nails into Arthur’s biceps as Arthur’s hands slide down his lower back and below the waistband of his trousers. The cloth loosens and drops down to pool around Merlin’s ankles, still tucked into his buckled leather boots.

“Write yourself a note or something,” Merlin says, his voice rising like a question as Arthur’s fingers slip into his cleft and push down to brush over his hole. “Or I’ll make you first mate, just don’t- please, don’t-”

“Shh,” Arthur hushes, kissing Merlin’s cheek and pressing their foreheads together. “We’ll work it out, alright?”

Merlin’s stomach jerks. He doesn’t feel reassured.

“Alright?” Arthur presses, looking Merlin straight in the eye and tightening his grip on Merlin’s arse cheeks.

Merlin bites his lip and nods. Arthur’s right, they’ll work it out, they always do. And even if not, well, it’s only one life. It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things - Merlin has lived a thousand like it, and he would trade them all for these precious few hours with Arthur’s hips against the back of his thighs and Arthur’s mouth at his nape.

“I just don’t want you to have to remember it next year,” Merlin says, small and quiet, as Arthur dips forward and starts sucking a bruise onto Merlin’s collar bone. “If it were me. I can’t imagine-”

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, his voice strong and clear. “It’s alright. It’ll be alright. We’ll work it out, just let me. Please, let me.” His fingers rub a little more insistently against Merlin’s hole and Merlin gasps and sways into Arthur with the roll of the ship, his open mouth panting against the thin cotton shirt still covering Arthur’s chest.

“Yes,” Merlin croaks, his throat suddenly dry. “Yes, Arthur, please. Please.”

Arthur kisses him then, hard and possessive, on the lips. Their tongues slide together in a wet, messy dance inside Merlin’s mouth. Then, when Merlin tries to push his tongue into Arthur’s mouth, Arthur’s lips tighten around it and he sucks until Merlin moans and tries to pull back for air. Arthur follows him, fucking his tongue into Merlin’s mouth over and over, making Merlin lean back over his desk as the wood presses into the back of his thighs and Arthur’s still-clothed cock grinds against his hip bone.

Merlin whines at the rough slide of Arthur’s ratty old shirt across the head of his cock, desperate and neglected in the tight space between their bodies.

“Come on,” Arthur mutters into the corner of Merlin’s mouth. “Come on.”

His fingers pull away from Merlin’s arse and close around his hips, turning Merlin around so that he’s looking across his desk and out of the grubby window at the dark, stormy sea beyond. Merlin lets out a desperate whimper as Arthur pushes him down to lie across the desk, his hands broad and warm around Merlin’s waist, and then a strangled yelp when he feels Arthur kiss the crease of skin between his arse cheek and his thigh.

When Arthur keeps kissing that same spot, his nose tickling a little higher along Merlin’s arse cheek, Merlin starts to pant in heavy, empty breaths which leave him light-headed and panicked. He can’t believe how close Arthur is to him, how close he is to licking and kissing and touching Merlin in a way he hasn’t for decades. It makes Merlin scrabble at the desk, nails scratching the wood, searching for purchase and pushing maps and boxes and bright gold coins to the floor.

He can barely see, he can hardly breathe, he can feel the edge of the desk cutting a harsh, red line across his thighs - and then it stops. Arthur’s lips pull down and away from Merlin’s arse and instead he kisses the back of Merlin’s thighs, the back of his knees, rubbing his thumbs through the hair around Merlin’s balls and humming a soft, calming tune. It sounds like the song Merlin ordered the men to sing that afternoon as they scrubbed the deck. It makes Merlin think of whistling sails and distant horizons and the safety of the sea; the safety of familiarity and home.

“I’m okay,” he murmurs after a minute. “I’m fine.”

“Shh,” Arthur hushes him again, leaning in to kiss the tender skin at the very top of his thigh. “Calm, calm down. I’ve got you. We can’t do this if you’re not calm, Merlin.”

“I’m calm,” Merlin says, coughing to clear his throat. “I swear, Arthur, I’m calm. Just- just please.”

Merlin pushes back against the teasing touch of Arthur’s thumb, resting just between his arse cheeks. He hears Arthur huff out a chuckle, so breathless that only half of the sounds catch his voice, and then Arthur is kissing the tight, aching ring of muscle around Merlin’s hole. Strong, determined thumbs spread Merlin’s cheeks wider for Arthur’s mouth and Merlin’s sure he’ll have bruises there in the morning and he won’t remember why but it doesn’t matter - in that moment, nothing matters but Arthur.

Merlin blinks his eyes open, having had them squeezed tight for far too long, and stares down at the desk beneath him. His chest is pressed to a large chart of the seas and Merlin’s nose is inches from Spain’s jagged coastline. He can’t focus on the scratchy ink lines but he can see where they fade into blotches, ruined by spatters of rain and sea water from when Merlin has used them to navigate through storms.

Arthur’s lips against his arse make Merlin’s whole head feel blurred, like there’s nothing but this one sensation in his whole dark, stretched, salty world. It makes Merlin moan into the desk and push back, desperate for more; desperate to feel Arthur against his skin; desperate to find some relief for his leaking cock.

The lurch of frenzied panic Merlin feels when Arthur’s mouth pulls away only lasts a few seconds. One of Arthur’s hands is still clamped around his arse cheek, holding him open so that Arthur can blow gently against Merlin’s hole, and the other returns quickly. Arthur’s fingers are now slick and wet with spit and he’s pushing them against Merlin’s hole, slipping slowly inside as he whispers, telling Merlin he loves him and misses him and that he’s doing so well. That he’s safe and Arthur’s got him and it’s going to feel so good.

Merlin knows that Arthur is on his knees, watching as first one finger, then two, then finally three disappear into Merlin’s body, coming out wet and glistening. The thought of it makes Merlin squirm and he whines again, his throat tearing a little with the dry sound, and pushes his hips up and back towards Arthur, silently begging.

“Alright,” Merlin hears Arthur say. He feels another soft kiss against his arse and then Arthur’s fingers are pulling away. There’s a brush of fabric along the back of Merlin’s thighs - Arthur’s trousers dragging against him as he stands.

“Arthur,” Merlin pants, the puff of his breath making a sheet of parchment rustle on the desk, but there’s no answer.

Arthur is muttering to himself, hands flying quickly across the desk, searching for something. He’s leaning right over Merlin, his cock nudging Merlin’s arse through rough, damp trousers, when he finally makes a triumphant sound and grabs a small glass bottle - Merlin hears the glass clunk against the wood.

Oil. Arthur’s found the oil.

Then there’s nothing but the hard, warm perfection of Arthur’s fingers - now oiled, thank Christ - circling Merlin’s hole and pushing in. Merlin keens, wanton and eager, and finally feels the press of Arthur’s bare cock against his thigh, the head smearing precome across his skin as he slides it towards Merlin’s hole and lines himself up.

The tip of Arthur’s cock just rests there, hard and hot, against Merlin’s hole for far too long. He holds Merlin’s hips in both hands and squeezes them, pressing forward little by little and then easing back, trying not to take too much too quickly and hurt Merlin. It makes Merlin’s heart ache somewhere deep down because, ship’s mate or not, this is Merlin’s Arthur and he’s just the same as he always was, but it also makes Merlin groan and shiver and try to jerk back into Arthur’s cock because he doesn’t think he can wait a moment longer - and because he wants it to hurt.

“Arthur,” Merlin says again, his words muffled against the desk. He’s already begged once, does Arthur really need to hear it again? “Arthur, please. Just- just do it, Arthur. Please. I need- I need you to just do it.”

Arthur’s thumbs press into Merlin’s skin, like a final squeeze of his hand before a deep plunge, and then he’s moving forward, his cock sliding, slow and easy, into Merlin’s hole and forcing all the breath from Merlin’s body. For a moment, Arthur holds still again, giving them both a chance to adjust to the heat and closeness, then Merlin whimpers and grinds his nails into the desk and Arthur starts snapping his hips with abandon. He pulls almost all of the way out, so that Merlin can feel only the tip of Arthur’s cock inside him, then pushes back in a quick, smooth movement which leaves Merlin feeling overwhelmingly full and helpless and desperate for release.

The pace Arthur sets is rough, fucking in to the root until Merlin can feel the scratch of coarse hair against his arse, then shifting his angle as he pulls out and moves in again, until he hits Merlin’s prostate and makes him cry out in pleasure. It hurts, how Merlin’s thighs are slammed into the edge of the desk and the sweat on his chest and stomach sticks to the varnished wood, but the feeling of Arthur filling him up and surrounding him is so good that Merlin wants to cry out for more.

He pants and pushes his hips back, spreading his arms out to grasp the opposite edge of the desk and hold on as Arthur fucks cut off little moans out of him. It’s brutal and desperate because they have waited far too long to find each other this time, and because this is who they are in this life - Merlin is a pirate captain, harsh and bitter and almost painfully in need of losing control, and Arthur is his crew, hungry for a release he hasn’t felt in months and sick of feeling powerless.

“Arthur!” Merlin chokes out over and over. “Oh- oh, fuck, yes.”

Arthur pushes in and hits Merlin’s prostate again, making him whine and squirm with delight. The movement makes Arthur slow down until he’s just pressing the head of his cock hard against Merlin’s prostate, leaning down so that his chest is pinning Merlin to the desk and his teeth are biting just beneath the nape of Merlin’s neck.

It’s too much, the way Arthur’s cock is dragging against Merlin’s prostate as it slides painfully slowly in and out of Merlin’s hole, fucked loose and pliant, and when Arthur licks behind Merlin’s ear and whispers, “You can suck my cock clean when we’re done,” it’s all it takes for Merlin to go lurching over the edge into his orgasm, his untouched cock jerking and leaking across the desk.

“Fuck,” Arthur groans into Merlin’s hair, reaching up to pin Merlin’s arms above his head and shifting his angle to something a little more selfish, pounding into Merlin and pressing him even further into the desk so that Merlin’s own cooling come starts to rub into the light dusting of hair across his stomach.

Merlin gasps into each thrust, lifting his hips to meet Arthur’s, encouraging him to take what he wants without hesitation. It works. Arthur pushes into Merlin three more times, panting against the nape of his neck, then fills Merlin with hot come, his final moan of pleasure mixing with Merlin’s whine and leaving an odd, tired silence echoing through the small cabin.

After a few minutes of nothing but listening to the muted howl of the wind as it whips around the ship and Arthur’s breathing as it softens down from heavy and frantic to quiet and calm, Merlin starts to feel the ache of the desk pressing into his hips and he shifts to alleviate the pressure. Arthur gingerly lifts himself up and off Merlin, brushing a kiss to Merlin’s shoulder as he moves, and Merlin feels as though he might slither down off the desk and end up in a puddle on the floor without Arthur’s weight holding him in place.

“Ngh,” Merlin whimpers, pushing himself up on shaking arms and turning to face Arthur, trying to ignore the tremor in his thighs and the small, shooting pains in his arse.

Arthur is staring at him, eyes slightly glazed and lips parted, and all Merlin can do is smile at him, loose and sated, and lean forwards for a wet, sloppy kiss. It’s uncoordinated and messy but if anything that just makes Merlin enjoy it even more. He wraps his arms around Arthur’s neck, letting his mouth be plundered like a chest of long-lost gold, and sinks into it, pressing his body flush against Arthur’s and smearing some of the come which is spread across his naked stomach onto Arthur’s dirty clothes.

Feeling Arthur’s fingers trace across his bruised hip and dip down below his arse cheeks makes Merlin grin. He gives a soft, breathy moan as Arthur runs his fingers through the come trickling out of Merlin’s arse and making his thighs cold and sticky, letting Arthur rub it into his skin and push it back up into his hole with nothing but a needy whine.

Merlin pulls free of the kiss, swaying slightly on his feet and blinking at Arthur for a moment, then he lets his lips twist up into a smirk and drops down to his knees, only struggling for a moment with the way his trousers are still knotted around his ankles and tucked into his boots. Merlin reaches up and flattens Arthur’s unlaced trousers out across his thighs, circling the sensitive skin around Arthur’s cock with his fingers, before flicking his gaze up to Arthur - checking this is okay, checking that he’s read this right.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice hoarse and slow to match his wide-eyed expression. “Merlin, you don’t have to.”

Merlin shakes his head. “I want to,” he says, and leans forward to take Arthur’s half-hard cock into his mouth.

He sucks in earnest, using his tongue to lick away what’s left of Arthur’s come and tease a little at the head. The way Arthur’s hands fall into Merlin’s hair, massaging softly between the strands and brushing lightly over the tips of his ears, makes Merlin close his eyes and moan. Arthur starts to huff and pant again, his cock filling between Merlin’s lips until Merlin pulls off to mouth at the skin around the base, cleaning away the last remnants of Arthur’s come.

By the time Merlin sits back on his heels, Arthur’s cock is fully hard again and Merlin’s is slowly filling. Arthur looks down at him for a moment, speechless, then rolls his hips forward to rub his cock against Merlin’s cheekbone, watching as it leave streaks of milky fluid against his skin.

Merlin closes his eyes and moans Arthur’s name, letting Arthur rub himself off against his face because he understand that sometimes they need this - sometimes they can’t be content with a night of holding each other close and whispering about all the lives they’ve led and all the secrets they haven’t yet told, or a night of sharing food and wine and nuzzling into each other on the verge of sleep; sometimes, they need to work all of their pent up sadness and longing and need out on each other’s bodies.

This may not be the fateful meeting Merlin has dreamed of for so many restless New Year’s Eves, alone in his cabin, but it is still tender and beautiful - and it couldn’t really have happened any other way.

 

 

*

 

Their fateful meeting comes when Merlin accompanies his sister, Morgana, to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire so she can spend the three weeks following Christmas with her sweetheart, Mr Fitzgreenfield, without causing a scandal. They find him locked in a swimming race with his cousin, Arthur, who emerges from the freezing cold lake with a shiver and a brazen grin, reaching to shake Merlin’s hand and bowing low for Morgana. Merlin smiles sheepishly, wondering how often he and this “Arthur” will be left to entertain each other while Fitzgreenfield and Morgana sneak off for time alone, only to find himself overcome with nausea during their third game of chess that evening and taking a moonlit stroll around the grounds, hand in hand with his Arthur and laughing until a button pings off his new silver waistcoat.

There’s also the early meeting, when eight year old Merlin charges up behind Arthur on the mucky, cobbled street of their village and kicks him in the back of the leg, yelling that he’ll beat him up if Arthur ever threatens to toss Will down the coal pit again - a meeting which ends with the two of them lying in the dusty attic of Arthur’s father’s cottage and staring up at the stars through the holes in the thatch, discussing just how they’re going to make Arthur a new Excalibur out of old bits of discarded wood and whether Merlin’s intense level of skill at conkers is the same as possessing real magic.

They meet because Arthur turns sharply enough to catch Merlin’s wrist as he pulls Arthur’s wallet out of the deep pockets of his winter coat, a pickpocket cornered on a busy London street; because Merlin agrees to take a photo of Arthur posing in front of the Sphinx, his smile blinding and his brand new Tutankhamun hat flopping down over his shoulders; because they both want the last available room in a rickety old Scottish inn; because all the best painters in France are gathered in one room and Arthur says he’s drawn to the elegant curve of Merlin’s wrist and the way his cheeks hollow around a strawberry.

They meet because Merlin’s mother always taught him to do the right thing, and he doesn’t like seeing a group of knights taunting one defenceless squire boy.

They meet, one way or another. They meet.

 

 

*

 

Merlin and Arthur are finally woken by a sneeze. Well, more precisely, it’s a sneeze that wakes Merlin, tickling his cold nose and sending a shudder through his whole body. It’s Merlin’s head snapping forward and smacking into Arthur’s because of the sneeze which wakes Arthur.

“Hrrnf,” Arthur groans, flailing behind him in an attempt to elbow Merlin. “Merlin, fuck’s sake.”

“S-s-s-sorry,” Merlin says into a yawn, pushing Arthur’s elbow out of his stomach and back into its resting place, bent awkwardly against Arthur’s ribs. “Time is it?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur grates out, sounding far more awake than Merlin. “I’m trying to stay asleep.”

“You’re doing a shit job,” Merlin mutters, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and trying to sit up, almost succeeding in banging his head on the car roof and knocking Arthur off the seat in the process. “Fuck!” he says, heart skipping a beat and hand shooting out to grab the headrest. “Whoa.”

They’re both lying on the backseat of their car. The front seats have been pushed as far forward as possible and the reclining option has been employed in full but there’s still hardly enough room to move. Merlin is on the bottom, most of his body wedged into the gap between seat and back cushions and his neck is twisted awkwardly so that his head is resting on the panel with the ridiculous handle for winding the car window up and down. Arthur is lying on top of him, his arse pressed against Merlin’s hips and his back squished up tight to Merlin’s chest. If Merlin turns his head, he gets a mouth full of blond hair.

He doesn’t turn his head.

He just lies there, feeling trapped and defeated but really not that upset about it, and wonders what exactly is going on. He remembers driving through dark lanes with Arthur the night before and eating awful beans. He remembers something about a creaky gate and charging cows but none of it is particularly linear.

Just then, something hums and buzzes against Merlin cock and he squawks in fright. Arthur mutters something indistinct and shifts a little, detaching the line of his back from Merlin’s front by an inch or so.

“Arthur, was that...?” Merlin begins to ask.

Arthur cuts him off with a disgruntled sound of confirmation and starts groping blindly at his own arse, eventually working a thumb and forefinger inside one of the pockets and pulling out his iPhone. He presses something and the screen lights up, then brings it up to his nose and glares, bleary-eyed, at a little green box.

“It’s Gwen,” he says after a moment, sounding even more irate than when Merlin asked the time. “She- she says,” he yawns and lets the phone drop off the seat onto the floor. “Happy New Year.”

Merlin frowns. “New Year?” he says, “No, surely not?” He doesn’t remember the countdown or kissing Arthur at midnight or-

Arthur’s phone buzzes again.

He picks it up and reads, “Morgana. Same, cockjockeys! Well, isn’t that brilliant.”

Arthur lets the phone drop to the floor again and starts to sit up, blinking through the morning light and swivelling his legs around to brace his elbows on his knees. He crushes Merlin’s thigh while he’s shifting but Merlin decides not to mention it.

“Well,” Merlin says instead. “Umm.”

“We missed it! Again!” Arthur huffs, shaking his head against the press of his palms and aiming a short, hard kick at the seat in front of him. “I knew I should’ve brought coffee.”

Hesitantly, Merlin reaches out and rests a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. When Arthur doesn’t flinch away he presses down harder and works his fingers into the tense muscle.

“We had coffee just before we left,” he says, trying to make his voice low and soothing. “It’s probably my fault, you know what I’m like.”

Arthur lifts his head from his hands and squints sidelong at Merlin, his eyes bleary and unfocused from being pushed so hard into his palms. He has taken the time to tell Merlin that he curls up and snuggles into sleep like a giant, eight-limbed cat before and blamed him for the two of them sleeping through their alarm or missing the end of a film. Technically, Arthur’s the one who drags Merlin into sleep because he tends to splay out across Merlin’s body like he’s competing in some kind of starfish competition and all Merlin ever does is tuck his head into Arthur’s chest and sigh contently, but that’s neither here nor there. This whole thing was Arthur’s idea and Merlin doesn’t want him to feel like he’s to blame for its failure.

“Probably,” Arthur mutters, smiling and reaching over to ruffle Merlin’s hair. “Thanks, Merlin.”

Merlin shoots him a small smile and twists his neck from side to side, drawing in a sharp breath as it clicks. He can’t remember whose idea it was to sleep in the car but he was obviously and idiot. Surely it can’t be that cold outside - and at least there’s a mattress.

“We should,” Merlin motions towards the car door. Arthur nods and reaches for the handle, groaning unhappily as he massages the stiffness out of his own neck with his free hand.

They tumble out of the car and onto pale, frosty grass. The cold makes Merlin swear and wonder what happened to his gloves as he pulls his limbs out of the jumbled heap he and Arthur are making on the floor.

Alright, so maybe it is pretty cold outside.

“Fuck,” says Arthur’s disgruntled voice, still muffled by the way his face is pressed into the grass. “Mattress is on the other side.”

Merlin rolls his eyes and pushes Arthur’s hips because he’s sticking his arse in the air and he looks like an idiot. It tips Arthur over and he ends up falling hard onto his side, groaning in pain and threatening to do something violent involving dogs and Merlin’s spleen.

Somehow, Merlin manages to stumble to his feet and make his way around the car. Their camping torch has obviously been kicked over at some point and is lying on its side several feet away. The bottom has popped off and the batteries are scattered on the grass around it. He plods over and kicks it back towards the pile of blankets and discarded bean tins nestled beside their grotty spare mattress.

It’s not until Merlin has gathered the torch and blankets and tins up into a giant bundle and carried them around to the boot of the car that he realises he hasn’t thought this whole thing through.

“Arthur!” he calls, waiting for Arthur’s face - flushed red and damp on one side, Merlin notes, and wonders if Arthur bothered to pick himself up again after Merlin pushed him over - to appear beside him before saying, “Could you open the boot?”

Arthur nods and disappears for a moment, returning with the car keys and a lazy smirk. He nudges Merlin out of the way as the boot swings open and then folds his arms and leans against the car, watching Merlin drop the bundle on top of the two sets of hiking boots they take everywhere just in case.

“What?” Merlin asks cautiously, starting to feel uneasy.

With a quirk of his eyebrows, Arthur steps forward into Merlin’s space, kisses him twice on the lips and then says, “You’ve got a bit of- um.”

Merlin looks down at where Arthur’s hand is rubbing his stomach through his jumper and finally understands the smug, stupid look on Arthur’s face. There’s a dried come stain across his dark, wooly fleece. Merlin pulls the fabric around it back a little, trying to get a better look but reluctant to touch the pale smear.

“Oh,” he says blankly, then smacks Arthur on the arm when he bursts into laughter. “Eurgh! Shut up, Arthur, you little fuck.”

Arthur just keeps laughing, his hands closing over Merlin’s biceps and pulling him into a hug, pressing his face into Merlin’s neck as his whole chest shakes against Merlin’s.

“You’re a weirdo,” Merlin says as he winds his fingers into the hair at Arthur’s nape, trying not to start laughing himself. This isn’t funny. It definitely isn’t funny.

The laughter rippling through Arthur’s body starts to calm and he kisses Merlin’s neck, trailing up to just beneath his jaw. Merlin tightens his fingers in Arthur’s hair and tugs a little, urging him up so that their lips can meet. Merlin opens his mouth for Arthur, letting him dip his tongue inside for a moment before pushing into the slick heat of Arthur’s mouth and humming when their rough chins scratch against each other.

“We don’t - even know,” Merlin says between kisses. “If it’s your come. Could be mine.”

Arthur snorts and pulls back, giving Merlin a disbelieving look. “Come on, Merlin,” he says, eyebrows raised. “We both know it’s mine.”

“Yeah,” Merlin admits, feeling his lips twitch into a smug grin of his own. “There was that time I made you come all over the wardrobe. Warning bells should really have gone off then, I guess. S’too late now.”

Something flickers behind Arthur’s eyes for a moment - something thoughtful, something half-forgotten - then he blinks and it’s gone. He pinches Merlin waist through his layers and kisses his jaw one last time.

“We better get moving,” Arthur says, pointing towards the mattress still lying beside the car. “How are we gonna get that back home?”

Merlin shrugs. Arthur sighs and goes to walk past him but Merlin catches his arm.

“You know we’ll do it next year, don’t you?” he says quietly, his thumb brushing Arthur’s wrist. “We’ll plan for- for a month, or something.” 

Arthur nods. “I know.”