"But nothing." Arthur crosses his arms and arches an eyebrow at his sometimes-mad half-sister, a slip of a woman with dark hair, vampirishly pale skin, and a terrible problem with authority. Or being told no in any form.
Luckily, that is Arthur's speciality. "I am not going out into the woods with you to chase after some cursed—or was it haunted?—stone that doesn't even exist in the first place, and in the second place, if I recall correctly, is rumoured to kill those whom it finds it doesn't take a liking to."
"Well, when you put it like that," Morgana begins lightly, but he knows better than to think it means she's giving up. "It seems like the sort of excitement one can't afford to miss."
"I can afford it," he says mulishly, tugging at the lap blanket she's got covering her legs. It might be spring, but where they live that just means the chill is now more damp than snowy. "And if you're going gallivanting off into the woods, you can give me that blanket. I've revising to do."
"It would get your mind off Whatshisface," she says sweetly.
He stops tugging and tosses the corner of the blanket ineffectually back at her. She just tucks it back round her ankles. "You were never to speak of him again, dear sister."
She almost looks pitying, which is terrible. She doesn't pull it off very well, for one, and it makes Arthur want to hit things, for two. "I didn't invoke his name," she says. "He won't—" She waves her hand around like a wizard casting a spell. "—magically appear."
Arthur just scowls at her. "You're my least favourite person alive."
"Arthur," she says, in a voice as sincere as he's heard in a while. "Please. I promised Gwen and Merlin you'd be there."
Arthur's head jerks up at that, and his heart does a silly thing in his chest. He promptly ignores it. "Why on earth would you go and do that?"
There's a glint in Morgana's eye he doesn't like, but her words are kind. And effective. "Because Gwen misses you."
He smothers a grimace, knowing he's been less than gracious to his friends since his last breakup. With Whatshisface. "She can always ring me," he grumps in reply. "The number hasn't changed."
Her lips curl. "Also, I know you're secretly in love with Merlin."
Arthur groans and puts a hand over his face. Merlin is the knobbly-kneed kid who's been kicking about with Gwen since they were practically in nappies, and Arthur can't stand him. Can't stand to be around him. "You are secretly touched in the head." He removes his hand and pulls a wide-eyed mocking face. "Oh, wait, that's not a secret." He's tempted to chuck his throw cushion at her, but it's the only one he's got at the moment and it's rather comfy.
"It's just a walk in the woods, Arthur," she persists. "You like the woods."
He gestures very pointedly at his books. "Revising."
She waves a hand. "I'd put down a tenner that you haven't had a break in like, forty-eight hours, except occasional trips to the kitchen. And the loo."
He resolutely keeps his face impassive so she won't know she's correct. "This is important to me, Morgana."
She pauses. Her voice is softer when she speaks again. "For Gwen, then?"
Arthur purses his lips. Gwen is important to him, too. He'd at one point, not so long ago, thought he was going to marry her, for God's sake.
He clears his throat, crosses his arms again. "Does she know you're using her personage to guilt-trip me like this?"
Morgana looks at him like she thinks he's slightly daft. Which she undoubtedly does. "Of course not. She'd go that lovely shade of dark cherry she always goes when people embarrass her, and babble about how she never meant to impose and surely your doctoral studies are more important than little old her, and—"
"All right, all right, pull your claws in," Arthur says sharply, closing the book that had been open on his lap with a slap. "You get one hour."
Morgana claps her hands gleefully. "Brilliant!"
He unfolds himself from the sofa, then stands and looks down at her, straightening until he's at his full height, knowing his broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes can be quite intimidating. "One. Hour."
Her eyes twinkle; she's impervious to his posturing after all they've been through. "Of course, Arthur. One hour to get there. And then we see what happens."
He does throw the cushion at her, then.
The lines of that ridiculous Frost poem cross his mind as he and Morgana wait in the deserted car park for their tardy friends. He's had a drink or two from Morgana's flask (because she's the kind of anachronistic wonk that would have a bloody flask) and he's feeling indulgent. Nearly philosophical. These woods are lovely, something and deep…
Gwen's delighted voice reaches him, and he realizes he's been staring at the entrance to the woods with a kind of intensity he usually reserves for his school books and Channing Tatum. He turns to her, and her smile is genuine and lovely. Something loosens in his chest, and he catches her up in a hug before he can reason himself out of it.
…And I have promises to keep.
"Hello, fair Gwen," he says into her curly dark hair.
"Hullo, Arthur," he feels more than hears against his chest.
He pulls back, but keeps her close, and their smiles match in warmth. "How have you been?"
She hits him softly on the shoulder. "Oh, who cares! I'm just so glad to see you."
He tsks. "I care. I know I haven't—" He clears his throat, and squeezes her hand in a way he hopes conveys the words that are stuck somewhere in it. "I'm glad to see you too."
Her face softens, her brown eyes filled with affection. "You are a numpty."
"But we knew that," comes Merlin' voice in a wry drawl, ruining their moment. Arthur manages not to frown outright, but it's a close thing. Instead, he steels himself and turns, his arm still around Gwen.
Merlin looks…much better than he had last time they'd met, Arthur can admit. He's grown into his knees, and nearly grown into his ears, as his dark hair sifts down over the worst of them in an artful mess. His cheekbones have turned into something models would kill for, and the lines of his long-legged silhouette catch the edge of Arthur's imagination before he can stop his mind from going there.
He cuts that train of thought off as quickly as it comes. There is no way he finds this bloke attractive. Preposterous.
But when he meets Merlin' darkly blue eyes, he's still hit by a bolt of something, of disquieting awareness. It's an uncomfortable feeling upon which he doesn't wish to dwell. "Hello to you, too," he replies instead.
Merlin just nods at him, then turns his attention to Morgana, as if Arthur was no longer worth his time.
Arthur feels his jaw tighten. Then he feels Gwen's hand tuck round his waist, and he smiles down at her. He's not going to let one big-eared idiot ruin this evening with a dear friend.
Even if what they're doing is, well. Slightly mad.
The woods are just what Arthur had pictured, when imagining the setting for a cursed-stone-hunting-party: dark, slightly misty, and full of the soft noises of its non-human residents. There is a path, which Arthur immediately finds suspicious—What sort of legitimately cursed stone would have a path? Might as well put neon lights on—but it's nicer than battling through underbrush.
He is silently relieved not to be first in line on their little trek, though, because spiderwebs are one of his least favourite things in all the world, next to cough medicine and his father's Lecture Voice. And possibly Merlin' current bored expression. Bloke makes Arthur twitchy, with his snug jeans and his floppy hair, and it's not on.
They walk for a while, Morgana on point and Merlin following unstealthily behind Arthur and Gwen. Arthur wouldn't call it a hike, exactly, and it's sort of lovely once he grows accustomed to the hooting owls and occasional rustle in the brush. He and Gwen gossip, falling back into their friendship easily; there's depressingly little in his life to fill her in on, but it's nice to hear her chatter about her primary students and her herb garden.
"Morgana," he calls forward after it ticks over into half an hour of walking. "Are you leading us to Scotland?"
"Ha bloody ha," she answers, her sarcasm sharp. "We're nearly there, I think."
"You think?" Arthur says, and it really can't be held against him if his voice is a little loud.
Gwen winces, though, and tugs on his sleeve. "I think she's right, if that makes you feel any better."
"Loads," Arthur replies dryly. "I do hope at least one of you knows what we're looking for? I've heard about it, of course, but—"
"Of course we do," Morgana says instantly, in her 'I'm lying but I'm also stubborn so don't even think about it' voice.
And really, what can Arthur do? Nothing. He'd agreed to this daft expedition. "Excellent. Care to share?"
"No," is Morgana's instant reply. She's the worst person he's ever met.
Gwen, however, is possibly the best person he's ever met, and takes pity on him. "The legend is," she near-whispers, and Arthur wants to mock her for her reverent tone, but he's fond of her so he doesn't, "that a young couple died here, in the throes of passion."
"They died getting off?" Arthur says, a bit amused. He hears Merlin' also-amused noise behind him, and ignores the slight pleasure that flares through him.
"Well," Gwen says, "I like to think of it as a tender embrace, but--"
"Not the worst way to go," he muses. "Mid-coitus."
Gwen hits him with a little more force this time. "You're a boor."
He grins like a lad. It's a thing he hasn't done in a while, and it feels rather nice. "You'd know, wouldn't you?"
Morgana's laugh tinkles in front of them. "You dog!"
Arthur laughs at her. "We were engaged to be married, Morgana. What did you think happened?"
"Anyway," Gwen interrupts, and Arthur would bet twenty quid she's blushing, "the legend has many different versions, but the one we're looking into is that they died, this perfect, soul-mated couple, together, at the same time, and their spirits were discharged at once—"
"The simultaneous release joke is just too easy," Merlin interjects from behind, and Arthur chokes on a laugh.
"--and got stuck together. In this large stone, see. And on full moons—"
"Oh, are you kidding me—"
"—they appear and, well. Do their will."
"And what is their will?" Arthur asks, mostly taking the piss but a little bit curious. Naff legends like this thrive in their small parish, and had at Arthur's schools as well, including university. Humans can't seem to resist them.
"True love," Morgana calls back to them. "Or else death."
She stops so suddenly that Arthur nearly runs into her, and Gwen nearly runs into him, and their life is nearly more cartoonish than it's already got, what with being out in the woods hunting an urban legend like the Scooby Doo gang. "Where is that flask?" he mutters, wishing fleetingly to drown himself in it.
He feels a bump against his elbow, and the flask appears, held by Merlin. "Go on, kill it," Merlin says. He meets Arthur's eyes and Arthur sincerely wishes he hadn't, because he breaks out in gooseflesh. He immediately blames the stupid night, and the stupid ghost-hunting.
"Please don't use the word 'kill'," Gwen says anxiously as Arthur tips the flask to his lips as instructed. The alcohol burns slightly, but less than the feeling of Merlin' eyes on him. Jesus.
He hands the flask back, absolutely not noting where Merlin tucks it away in a back jeans pocket—a back jeans pocket that covers a surprisingly nice arse, not that he's noticing—and turns resolutely forward. They're stopped near a clearing of sorts, and Arthur prays to all things holy that whatever is there will satisfy his sister so they can go home.
"Guys—" Morgana's voice is actually almost surprised. "I found the stone."
Gwen squeaks and clutches Arthur's arm, although she'll probably deny it later. "No! Really?"
Arthur can see only a few feet in front of Morgana, but clearly she can see further out; her gaze is on the opposite side of the clearing.
Arthur follows it, squinting slightly, and—
And he sees a rock. About knee-height. That looks absolutely uninteresting.
"That's it?" he says, lip curling. But Morgana is walking towards it, ignoring him completely.
"Rude," he says, without heat. But Merlin snorts, still at his elbow, and Arthur feels a prickle of something. Again. Damn it. "Let's go and have a look, shall we?" he says tersely. When he uses that tone, people tend to listen, and this time is no exception. Gwen nods stoically, clutches at his arm a little harder, and they start forward.
It's really lovely, Arthur can't help but notice. The clearing is soft, with moonlight and lots of ferns and a sense of peace. He breathes in deeply, enjoying the way it fills his lungs.
At Gwen's gasp, he looks down, and finds they are, indeed, in front of a very old-looking rock, and it is, indeed, streaked with something a very dark red. Dark enough to be blood, he thinks, maybe. But he's not exactly an expert.
"Is that—" Gwen begins, then presses her lips together.
"Yes," Morgana says calmly.
Arthur scoffs. "You know, whoever owns these woods wouldn't be above painting it red every full moon so that idiots like us keep coming through here."
"What, they want us to trespass?" Merlin answers, his tone laced with condescension. "Yeah, that's likely."
"Well, no one's come out with shotguns and hunting dogs yet, have they?"
Merlin purses his lips. "I suppose not."
"But you bring up a good point," Arthur counters agreeably, because he's a logical sort of chap. He turns to his sister. "Now that we've seen it, can we go?"
She shakes her head. She's still not looking at him, gaze riveted on the stone. Her pale skin practically shines in the moonlight. "We have to test the curse, or else it won't let us leave."
"It won't," Arthur says, voice so full of doubt it's not really a question.
Arthur has never heard anything so ridiculous in his life, but he's getting rather tired of arguing about it. "Alright, then," he says, and ignores the surprised sound Merlin makes at his easy acquiescence, "what do we do?"
Morgana glances at Gwen. "We just— Well, Gwen might know it differently, but I've always heard you just—you all have to put your hands on the stone, and they'll—"
Gwen's soft voice finishes it when Morgana hesitates. "They'll judge us worthy."
Arthur clears his throat, smothering the laugh there until it dies, and hears Merlin do the same. Before he can think about it, he glances over to let his gaze catch Merlin', and for a moment they're sharing something, taut like a string and full of warmth.
Arthur's gut flares with something alarming and he breaks the connection. "Fine. Let's just—" He holds up a hand, like he's trying to prove he doesn't have a weapon in it. "On the count of three?"
Absolutely nothing happens. The seconds tick on while they stand crouched awkwardly together with their hands on this great dirty stone.
Arthur grows impatient. "See? Nothing. Just superstition."
Then the thing starts to fucking glow.
And Arthur feels it. He feels the rock pulling at him, like some sort of crazily strong magnet, holding Arthur's hand there. He looks around him wildly, expecting to see the rest of them in the same predicament—
But Gwen and Morgana have been thrown back, both sprawled on the ground with stunned looks on their faces.
Merlin' eyes find his, and they are wide and clear and trying not to be afraid. His strong, wiry hand is pressed tightly to the stone, inches from Arthur's.
Before Arthur can form any words, the glow starts to spread, going up their arms until it has most definitively enveloped them.
And it's heat. Heat of arousal like Arthur's never experienced, even in his most primitive of moments. His eyes are locked with Merlin' and he feels as though he's about to spontaneously combust.
The stone keeps them captured for an interminably long time, in Arthur's head, but once he's released, once he staggers back so suddenly he loses his footing and lands hard on his backside, he realises it's only been a few seconds.
The longest few seconds of his life.
As the fog asserts itself in the clearing, curling around them, he still feels warm. Unnaturally warm. His throat works as he tries to swallow. Words swirl around in his head and he struggles to stand, and his skin feels funny. Stretched. Hot.
Merlin' voice, through it's a little scratchy, is strong when it cuts through the silence. "What. The actual. Fuck."
And Arthur doesn't blame him for cursing; it's surely what everyone is thinking.
"It worked," Morgana says as they all find their feet, and in her tone is a thread of triumph that jerks Arthur's gaze to her. "I can't believe it actually worked."
She looks at him, and her expression is a heady mix of fear and satisfaction. "The legend. It connected you two."
Dread begins to form a knot in Arthur's stomach, counteracting the lazy pull of warmth lingering in his body. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"Just as I thought it would," she continues as if he hadn't said anything, and her voice sounds strangely placid, and smug as hell. "You are meant to be, you and Merlin. I knew years ago. I've been waiting, but I do so lack patience. You just needed…a little nudge."
Arthur blinks. And can't stop himself turning towards Merlin. Their gazes snap together, and a thing sparks, literally sparks between them. The look of horror on Merlin' face is surely reflected on his own.
Slowly, he turns back to his sister.
"Morgana Pendragon. What have you done?"
"It's all right," Gwen tries to placate, her hand clutching at a string of nonexistent pearls fitfully as they retrace their steps to the car park. "It's just a story, we don't even—"
"It's real," Morgana cuts in. She's at the back of the line this time, Arthur having stridently taken point and commanded them all to follow. He is getting them out of this forest before it kills them all. Or he does. "Did you never wonder about Aunt Abigail?"
Arthur ducks his chin in surprise. She's referring to one of her mother's sisters, and she doesn't talk about them much. "Not particularly, no. Why?"
"Their marriage is a meeting of souls, you great lump. You couldn't tell?"
His brow furrows. "They always argue. Like, always. Every day."
Morgana merely coughs delicately. "I hear make-up sex is to die for."
"Hashtag awkward," Merlin mutters.
"Don't you start," Arthur warns. He refuses to look back at Merlin, but can pretty much feel the eyeroll from two feet away. "What's that got to do with this—?"
"You've never heard the story of how they met?"
"We hardly sit around drinking tea and talking about those sorts of things. Uncle Gerald and I mostly discuss my internship. And the stock market." Merlin' derisive chuckle is not lost on Arthur, but he pretends not to have heard it.
"Well, you should ask. It might just involve a rock, and a spell, and—"
And that is it.
Arthur rounds on her, and in turn faces the others as well. "No."
"I refuse to believe that." He shakes his head, hard. "In fact, now that we're nearly back to civilisation—" Because three sheep and a tiny grocer's shop totally count as civilisation. "—I'm not even sure anything just actually happened. I've been under a lot of stress, with my thesis, and Father, and—"
Morgana is unimpressed. "You can't be serious."
"I can be serious. Group hallucinations are possible, and—"
She steps up to him, and he flinches, but—but she's not angry. "Is it that hard for you to believe?" she asks, her voice soft and smooth.
"In ghosts and haunted stones? Absolutely."
"In love," she murmurs, and again he gets the sensation that she feels sorry for him.
"Of course I believe in love. Just…" He stops short. His jaw tics.
"Just not for you," she finishes, and she sounds far too sad. It's not even any of her business, really, and he's about to tell her that, when Merlin clears his throat.
"I agree with Arthur, actually."
They all turn to him, varying expressions of surprise on their faces.
"Well, that's rude," Gwen says, and bless her. Arthur wants to kiss her for coming to his defence.
Merlin waves a hand. "No, I mean, I don't have an opinion about Arthur being deserving of hearts and flowers or whatever. I just am fairly certain it's not supposed to be with me. Like, one hundred and ten percent certain."
Now Arthur's kind of affronted on his own behalf. "Am I that terrible?"
Merlin' eyeroll practically has its own soundtrack, it's so dramatic. "You're that ridiculous, perhaps, but seriously." He looks at Morgana. "Have you ever met two people more mismatched? He doesn't even like boys, and I'm not going to be anybody's experi—"
"I do too like boys," Arthur interrupts before he can really think it over. It's just that he's fought long and hard to be able to say those words out loud. "Don't you go judging just because I don't splash it all about the world like you do."
Merlin looks genuinely surprised. "You're taking the mickey."
Arthur feels himself puff up in the chest a bit. "Not one bit, I'm afraid. Though I can definitely say I've never been interested in your skinny arse." Except those two minutes an hour ago, he amends in his head, but he'll claim temporary insanity.
Merlin' mouth opens, and Arthur is sure something blistering is going to come out of it, but they're interrupted by Morgana's airy laughter. "Oh, this is better than I ever imagined."
Breaking eye contact with Merlin, Arthur feels something lift from him, like a fog, and he shakes a finger at his sister. "You are a harpy."
"Possibly. But I am getting rather cold standing here, and I should very much like to go home."
"Yes, please," Gwen says quietly, and it tugs at Arthur's heart.
He reaches for her hand. "You can come back to mine, if you want. I'll make tea."
She looks at him, searching his face, but shakes her head. "No. You've got revising to do, and I'd—" She glances at Merlin. "It's alright."
He doesn't know what she's referring to, whether it be having a lift home or his sister claiming to have had a matchmaking spell put on him, but at this point he doesn't really want to know. He just wants to go home and forget about it.
He nods, tightens his hold on her hand for a moment. "All right. Let's go, then."
There's about ten feet between them and the cement of the car park. Arthur starts towards it, determined to believe that they are home free—
But when he reaches the very edge, he feels something hold him back. When he pushes through it and crosses onto the pavement, he hears an ominous crack.
"Morgana…" he murmurs as they all funnel out from behind him to stand in a cluster in the car park. Arthur eyes the path entrance warily. "What was that?"
"That's a warning," she answers, bemused. "The story goes that if you ignore their will, harm will come to you. You cannot, and should not, ignore true love."
Arthur feels the laughter bubble out of him, and knows he sounds a bit insane, but he feels it, right at that moment. "Of course it will. Of course."
Morgana shakes her head. "But it won't hurt you, I promise. It just wants you to be happy." She smiles, a small smile of secrets, and he remembers that he does love her, and she's been through a lot, and his duty is to protect her, mad or not.
Arthur sighs. "It's a good thing I love you, because you're an absolute nutter."
Gwen comes to Morgana's side, wrapping a protective arm around her. "And we adore her all the more for it." Morgana smiles affectionately at her, and they hug their goodbyes. Gwen turns to Arthur. "See you?"
He nods. He wants to hug her but he's not sure he could let go so he doesn't. "I'll ring you. I will."
She probably doesn't believe him, but she nods back, then reaches up on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. "Be well, Arthur."
"Take care, Gwen." He takes a breath and turns to Merlin, because he's nothing if not polite. The air between them jumps, and Arthur feels his teeth grind before he gives a terse nod. "Merlin."
Merlin gives him a sarcastic salute. "Arthur." And then he and Gwen are gone, driving off into the foggy night.
Morgana's looking at him, her arms drawn around herself tightly. "I'm sorry, at least a bit," she says, mostly sincerely. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"Ah, my girl," he says, gathering her to him and walking towards the car. "I dare say I shall persevere."
She has a lopsided smile at that. "Too stubborn to do otherwise."
He nods solemnly. "It's the Pendragon way."
It starts out a little like heartburn. Which Arthur's had like, twice before in his twenty-five years, so he's only mildly certain that it feels similar. It's just a little prickle in his chest while he's staring at his thesis notes, a few days after what he's now calling The Woods Debacle. The wee pain is close enough to the skin that he absently rubs at it like that'll soothe it. He momentarily thinks of finding some antacids, but then it fades and he forgets about it completely in the jumble of sentence structures and standard deviations and sample sizes.
Until the next week, when it happens again. Only this time it's—it's bigger, it's across the whole left side of his chest, like—
Like it's pointing out his heart.
"Oh, that's just fantastic," he says to no one, his copy of The Economist forgotten in his hands.
But it goes away again. So he pretends to forget it.
He gets away with it for about, oh, seven hours.
I tried antacid, is all the text says.
It's from a new number he doesn't at all recognize. Arthur stares at it, as if mere concentration will erase it, and is startled when another one pings in.
Spoiler alert: it didn't work.
It's Merlin, obviously, of that Arthur has no doubt. They've never reached texting level before, though, so it's mildly disconcerting.
He considers his options for a moment or two. He can't get away with feigning complete ignorance, or at least he doesn't want to. He's never been fond of people thinking he's daft, and past experience shows he's already got a deficit in that department as far as Merlin is concerned.
But obfuscation is something he's been trained in since birth.
Try an apple, he writes back. I hear that can do the trick.
There's no reply, and Arthur eventually stops checking for it.
The pain comes back stronger, though, the week after that, and lasts a whole afternoon. Arthur powers through stubbornly, drinking far too much tea and consulting with his academic advisor to the point of annoyance.
"Go home, Mr Pendragon," the silver-haired old coot finally says, looking over the rims of his round wire spectacles, "else I will have no choice but to request your assistance in marking all three dozen of these essays on the 2008 crash, which were lovingly written by my first year Macroeconomics class."
It's a very, very good threat. Arthur decides he'd rather face his sister, so he heads for the train.
"Do not," he says as soon as he's begun letting himself through her flat's front door, "even think of mentioning forests, stones, or annoying chaps whose names start with M—"
Merlin and Morgana look up from where they're sat on the sofa.
Arthur closes his eyes against the wave of heat, that same heat as all those days ago— It flares the ache in his chest, which had maybe almost been receding, and he wants to punch something. Of course Merlin is there, the last place Arthur wants him to be. "Of course."
Morgana sniffs and shrugs one delicate shoulder. "Well, you could have rung first."
"Details," Arthur says, slinging his briefcase beside the coat tree and shrugging off his suit jacket. He's halfway into loosening his tie before he notices Merlin' gaze is focused on him. Merlin is dressed in darker jeans today, and a t-shirt probably acquired at the show of some obscure band. Arthur thoughtlessly catalogues that it does good things across Merlin' lean shoulders and chest. "What?" he says defensively, annoyed at himself for noticing such things. "Do I have something on my face?"
Merlin' eyes narrow. "Nothing that can't be fixed by a lot of money and an excellent cosmetic surgeon," he replies, and there is a hint of real anger there.
"Steady on," Arthur says, surprised. "What's got your knickers in a twist?"
"Voodoo," Merlin says dryly, rising and taking his mug towards the kitchen.
"Ah." Arthur looks towards Morgana, who just arches one eyebrow. She seems tired, as if Merlin has been here a while and the conversation has been intense. It suddenly occurs to Arthur that he has no idea what Merlin does for a living. If anything.
He senses that now is not the best time to ask his sister questions like that, though. "Hi," he says instead, settling beside her on the sofa; the spot is slightly warm and he tries not to think about whose arse recently occupied it. "All right?"
She looks at him, contemplating. "Yeah, all right. Better than you, at least."
"What? I haven't said anything. Maybe I’m one hundred percent fantastic."
She snorts. "Yeah, that's why you're here on a Tuesday evening looking like you just got kicked out of Dr Gaius's office for badgering him about your thesis that is a) pretty much finished and b) not due to be defended for another three months."
He shrugs, allowing it to be a little charmingly sheepish, and she laughs. "You're an idiot, brother dear."
"Why this time?" he asks, distracted by Merlin coming in with more tea, and what turns out to be an additional mug for Arthur. "Cheers, mate," he says without thinking, then tries not to blush when something jumps between their fingers during the handoff. It's impossible to ignore, though; the heat travels up his arm until it joins the ache still in his chest. "Bloody hell," he swears softly.
"Seconded," Merlin says, sounding weary as he seats himself in the chair on Arthur's other side. "Today has sucked out loud."
Morgana sounds almost sorry. "The legend mentions there's pain in the heart, but I always figured it to be metaphorical."
Merlin and Arthur share a look, despite themselves. "What else does it mention that you didn't think was literal?" Arthur asks, not especially wanting the answer but knowing he has to ask.
"Well." She pauses. "The story goes that the spirits can either set you together, with consequences should you resist, or just plain reject you, and kill you off slowly for fun."
Arthur groans. "That's lovely, Morgana."
"Sorry," she says, no longer sounding very sorry at all, "but I did tell you, and you did volunteer to go. And I'm not the one that came up with it."
He raises an eyebrow at her. "You sure about that?"
Her chin tilts up defiantly. "Yes."
"Mm-hmm." He takes a drink of his tea, and is startled to discover it's exactly how he likes it, two sugars and no milk. How on earth—
"So, wait…" Merlin begins, interrupting Arthur's stumbling thoughts. "Does this—" He gestures vaguely between his chest and Arthur's. "—mean it did like us…or it didn't like us?"
"Well," Arthur says dryly, "if it means I have to look at your alarmingly prominent ears for the rest of my life, I'd say—"
"Oi! Be nice! You've got— You've got—" Merlin flounders, and Arthur just looks at him, an eyebrow raised expectantly. "—some crooked teeth!"
Arthur laughs outright. "Really? That's your great rejoinder? At least teeth can be fixed." He can't resist reaching out to twing one of Merlin' ears. "These, we are stuck with."
"Oh, 'we' are, are we? You believe in this now?"
Arthur finds himself flushing, a little, at least about the neck. "Of course not."
"Of course not," Merlin repeats, his voice neutral. He turns to Morgana. "So to get back on point: there's a chance this doesn't mean we're—" He waves his hand. "—soul-guppies, or whatever?"
Arthur pauses, his mug nearly at his lips, which are quirking. "Soul-guppies?"
"Yeah," Merlin retorts, the tips of his ears a little red. "Have you got a problem with my creative phraseology?"
Arthur puts his hand up in supplication. "No, never. It's perfectly sensible and not at all ridiculous."
And he finds he's grinning, and Merlin is too, and he has no idea why but the sensation in his chest is now less of a burning and more of a—more of a filling, pleasantly warming feeling.
"Oh," Morgana breaks in delightedly, "I'm now positively certain it's not trying to kill you, because you two are too adorable for words."
Arthur tears his gaze away from Merlin', skin heating for real this time, and finds her looking at them fondly. He doesn't like it one bit. "Piss off," he says eloquently, lifting his tea again.
She just smiles at him. At them.
He groans. "Can we just…not talk about it for a while? Watch some telly, or something?"
"I'd say yes, but I don't really watch telly," Merlin says offhandedly.
"What do you do in your spare time, then? Knit?"
Merlin rolls his eyes. It's like a tic of his, apparently. Or perhaps Arthur just brings it out in him. "Not that it's any of your business, but I paint."
Arthur is not at all surprised. "Ah, yes, I hear fingerpainting is quite soothing," he mocks. "They have those adult colouring books, now, too, that are all the rage."
"Well, I watch telly," Morgana interrupts, "and Iron Chef is about to be on, so if you don't mind—" She looks at them pointedly. "Keep your meet-cute bickering to a minimum, thanks."
Arthur purses his lips, shoots a glance at Merlin, and settles into the couch beside his sister. He also pokes her in the side for good measure. "Fine. But it's Top Gear after."
Merlin groans. "You are far too predictable, you know that? I suppose you have Grolsch in the fridge, too?"
Arthur smirks at him. "Yes, actually. Offering to fetch one for me?"
"Oh piss off," Merlin says back, but the corner of his mouth is up and his eyes are light. "I'd rather learn to knit."
Arthur can't help it, he throws back his head in a proper laugh. He hears Merlin' answering chuckle, and the warm ache in his chest practically pulses.
Morgana pushes at Arthur's side, and it effectively ends whatever moment they're having. "God, you have the loudest laugh. Stop. I'm trying to focus."
Arthur nods, although he can't stop his heart thumping and his blood zinging around in his veins. A glance at Merlin shows him to be a bit flushed, as well, which Arthur finds satisfying. "So sorry, sister," he says, sugar in his voice. "I'll endeavour to be much more civilised."
And he does, he really does. But the insistent feeling in his chest is always there, no longer a real pain but a warm ache, making him keenly aware of Merlin right beside him. Merlin, who is lean and long and gorgeous and damnably warm, and so easily entranced by the television show he's clearly never seen before that Arthur has the luxury of being able to watch him surreptitiously.
It's a dangerous game, considering how little regard Merlin seems to hold for Arthur, but Arthur is willing to play it. He's had his heart broken before; surely this is child's play in comparison. A story told to children to keep them disobeying their parents and sneaking out into the woods to get off, in fact.
Before Arthur can ruminate on that subject for too long, he feels the warmth spread from his chest down his side, along his leg, and looks down, startled, to find Merlin' thigh pressed against his. He swings his gaze to Merlin' face, his mouth open to protest, mock, question, he's not sure which—but Merlin is asleep, his eyes closed and his lips gently parted, his body curled somehow into Arthur's.
Arthur finds he cannot move. The ache in his chest has receded completely, only to be replaced with something grossly disturbing. Something close to a physical manifestation of contentment.
He thinks for a brief moment, then decides to stop thinking. He moves quietly, tucking Merlin into him until they're lined up top to toe, and the pounding in his heart pushes the lazy warm light all through his limbs. It's the best he's felt in days. Weeks.
He knows Morgana's watching. He doesn't, at that moment, give a damn.
He wakes up clutching at his chest, pain flaring as sharp and bright as the morning light seeping through the living room curtains.
He sits up and blinks wearily. He's still on the sofa, but decidedly alone. There's a blanket over him, and he'd be thankful of that but he's far too concerned by how much pain he's in. It's worse this morning, much worse, and it threatens to send him into a panic.
He swings his feet off the couch and leans into his hands, elbows on his knees. He forces himself to breathe, and to think rationally. It's what he's good at. Finding the facts and figuring the best path forward.
Fact #1: Something happened in the woods that night, and he can no longer deny it. Fact #2: That something has connected him and Merlin, for reasons unknown. Fact #3: Unless Merlin is hiding in Morgana's loo, which Arthur somehow knows he's not, that connection has evolved into demanding physical proximity, or rewarding a lack of it with terribly annoying and quite literal pain.
But one incident does not constitute proof, his brain insists. He has to test this theory.
He has to find Merlin.
His first phone call gets routed straight to voicemail, which doesn't surprise him, and he hangs up without leaving a message. He's not interested in doing this over the phone.
He texts his sister as he's rounding up his things:
Don't you dare leave the country.
She's been known to do it – Once, after a spectacular fight with their father, she'd gone to Morocco for a month, not taking phone calls from either of them until the very last week.
He pauses at the door to her building, and sends her a second message.
I'm going to need you on this.
She'll enjoy that, he knows she will.
His second call to Merlin goes to voicemail as well, and this time he nearly leaves a message. But 'don't think I won't find you' seems a little creepy, even to him, even if it is what he plans to do, and even when he isn't without reason for doing so. So he just ends the call, sends a warning text to Gwen, and heads for the station.
"He's not here," Gwen says apologetically. Her dark skin is slightly ashen, her expression tight, and Arthur's heart tugs in a wholly different direction. It must be terrible for her to be stuck in between two of her good friends like this.
He touches her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Gwen. This is not exactly how I'd planned my week to go, either."
She smiles up at him, and it's only a bit watery. "I know, love. And I'm sorry, too -- I helped it along, didn't I? Things happen when we least expect it."
Arthur chuckles, but there's not much mirth in it. "They do, indeed."
She hands him a piece of paper, her face so earnest. "But that said— Fix this, Arthur. Please."
He swallows as he takes the paper, on which Merlin' address is written. He's not sure he can, but he wouldn't dream of saying so. "I will. I promise."
Merlin' building is old, and sort of run-down. But it has character, as they say. So it's exactly what Arthur expected, really, and that fact almost pulls a smile out of him.
He's also expecting to have to charm a fellow resident into letting him in, but, surprisingly, Merlin responds to his let me in text within seconds, and the building's front door opens on the first try.
He pauses outside Merlin' flat. The pain in his chest flares excitedly, and for a second he hates it more than he has hated anything in his life.
He straightens up, then knocks like he does everything else: straightforward and with efficiency.
"Yeah, all right," he hears Merlin call out from somewhere in the flat. Then he stands there for what feels like ten minutes. He lets out an exasperated breath and is reaching up to knock again when the door finally opens.
The air whooshes back into his lungs, flavoured somehow like Merlin, and immediately, immediately the pain in his chest eases back. He's too surprised to move.
And Merlin is, too, it seems.
Only a neighbour slamming a door down the hall breaks them out of it. "Hi," Arthur starts, feeling more awkward than words can express, yet so bloody relieved he almost doesn't care.
"Hey there," Merlin replies back, and he's probably trying to sound relaxed but the strain and relief are evidence in his voice as well. He moves to the side and holds the door open. "Come in, then, before Mrs White tries to adopt you."
Arthur's lips quirk as he glances around the place. It's messy, but inoffensively so. "Do I seem her type?"
"She has about eighteen cats. She says she likes them because they're clean and standoffish. So, yes." He grins. "I was about to make tea, yeah?" Arthur nods, and for a moment he thinks everything will be okay.
Then his chest throbs as Merlin pulls away into the kitchen, and he flinches.
Merlin comes back round the corner immediately, his eyes wide. "Jesus," he says. "I thought once you were here, it'd be, like, placated or something, I dunno."
"Apparently not," Arthur says wryly.
Merlin appears to think for a moment. "Just out of curiosity," he begins, "when did you wake up this morning?"
"Around six-thirty. Why?"
"I left at about four. It didn't really start to hurt again until around quarter past six, so."
"So, what? If we force ourselves to cuddle for a while—" His distaste for the word is clear. "—we can go our separate ways long enough to sleep?"
Merlin tips back on his heels and crosses his arms. "Hard to understand why you're single."
Arthur scowls. "You're not helping."
Merlin laughs at that. "Yeah, I do suppose having to hang round me all hours of the day and night will put a damper on your sex life. So sorry."
Arthur looks at him, eyebrow raised. "So you think that's what it'll take?"
Merlin raises an eyebrow right back. "Don't you?"
Arthur clears his throat. "Well, yes, but—"
"But you expected me to kick up a fuss?"
"Listen, mate, I'm no more chuffed about this than you are. But I'm really not interested in going through life with this bloody painful weight on my chest, and we need to get it sorted. So I figure—" He shrugs one shoulder. "This is where we start."
"Just for a few days," Arthur insists. "Just until we know."
"Until it goes away, you mean."
"Yes, of course."
"And what if it doesn't?"
Arthur exhales quickly. "It will."
Merlin looks at him for a long moment, and Arthur has no idea what's going through his head. "All right, then," he finally says. "But not your place. You can do your work anywhere you have wifi, right?"
"Good. I'm not keen to try and move my studio anywhere."
"That's fine. Do you have a guestroom or am I on the sofa?"
Merlin has the decency to look a little embarrassed. "The spare room is my studio, sorry. I can try to straighten it up a little, if—"
Arthur holds up a hand, shaking his head. "No, don't bother. I'm sure it'll only be a few days, and I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble."
He looks Merlin in the eye, despite the flare that it brings. "I'm sure it'll be fine."
It's very much not fine, Arthur finds out quickly. It's very much the worst ten-point-five days of Arthur's life.
Firstly, Merlin keeps the strangest hours of any person Arthur's ever met. He's heard of night owls (Morgana claims to be one, although privately Arthur thinks she just likes people to believe she has a poet's soul or some such nonsense), and he himself is a morning person. But Merlin… Merlin is neither.
A small crash rouses him from sleep in the wee hours of his first night there. He sits bolt upright, rubbing quickly at his eyes and looking for the explosion, the intruder, or something equally exciting.
Instead, he finds Merlin, sprawled on the floor, with a ratty cup and several paintbrushes flung in a half-circle around his head.
It's not erudite, but considering the circumstances, Arthur thinks it's justified. They'd managed to sit in very close proximity for the whole of the evening, Merlin sketching and Arthur running through articles on his tablet, and it appears to have done the trick. The ache is minimal, more like a really low hum.
"Sorry, sorry," Merlin whispers as he hauls himself up and scrambles after brushes, and he really does seem sorry. "I just – I needed water for my brushes, and—"
"And you couldn't use the toilet?" Arthur's voice is gruff from being half-asleep and Merlin goes beet red. It's a curious look on him, and Arthur lets himself revel in having the upper hand for once. "It's—" He reaches to the coffee table for his mobile, squinting at it when it lights up. "—three-thirteen in the morning, Merlin."
"I know, I know, you great knob, and I didn't exactly fall on my face on purpose, so if we could just let it go—"
Arthur holds up a hand. "Steady on." He swings his feet to the ground and stands. The blanket falls down onto the couch and it's only at Merlin' gape that he remembers he's only in some well-loved pyjama bottoms that have a tendency to slide down on his hipbones.
He tugs one side up self-consciously, then stands with his hands on his waist so it stays there. "I am letting it go. I'm just curious as to why you're even awake right now, let alone, what, cleaning brushes?"
"Oh!" Merlin says, rocking back on his heels, his cheeks flushing. His gaze keeps flitting from Arthur's face to his chest to his pyjamas, then back to his face. "It's – It's the painting." He shrugs, a little helplessly, but his face takes on a tinge of pride. "It's always been this way. I just have to paint when it comes to me, otherwise—" He makes a gesture like smoke going up a chimney. "Otherwise, it's lost." He grins. "And I'd be terrible at a day job."
Arthur chuckles. "I have no doubt of that. Absolutely hopeless."
"So you could call it the artist's curse, I suppose. I can't just call it a night if the mojo is there and ready to go."
Arthur thinks Merlin is probably the most ridiculous person alive. And he's totally not charmed. Not in the slightest.
Secondly, Merlin also appears to have less grace than an ice-skating hippopotamus. Arthur is constantly picking up books knocked off shelves and magazines shoved off tables, mugs shatter with alarming regularity, and he learns early on to avoid being within elbow-radius within an hour of Merlin waking up, regardless of what time of day—or night—it is. Those things are pointy. Merlin bruises like a peach, too, but he's a good sport about that, at least.
Arthur knows he spends far too much of their 'enforced bonding time', as they refer to it, trying not to catalogue the new purple patches and tiny scratches on whatever bits of Merlin' pale skin that are showing. It's inches away, he reasons. Surely anyone would look.
Related to one and two comes the third, and perhaps this is where the real rub falls in: When he does fall asleep, Merlin often has trouble remembering to do so in his own bed.
Arthur had of course known this to be a possibility, since Merlin had fallen asleep on him at Morgana's that first time, but he doesn't quite expect it in Merlin' own flat, let alone for it to be a regularity.
But Merlin continues to surprise him.
Once, he wakes up to find Merlin sprawled out on the kitchen worktop. Not just sat in a chair with his head down on it, but most of his body up there, like a kid playing sardines. He doesn't snore, but he does sort of snuffle, and Arthur watches him for a minute, that first time, because he's just never seen anything like it.
Once, he comes home from the shops—They've found they can handle about twenty minutes apart before things go pear-shaped—to find Merlin passed out on the sofa. There's an armchair, so Arthur just rearranges some furniture and manages to stay close enough while doing his evening's business, but when Merlin wakes up, he's incredibly flustered and apologetic, and disappears into his room without really looking Arthur in the face.
Arthur looks at the closed door, brow furrowed, confused. Then he looks down at the sofa. Scrunched at one end is a sweatshirt Arthur could've sworn he'd lost in the shuffle of getting his necessary things from his flat to Merlin'. It's an old Arsenal hoodie, worn and faded and practically useless, but one of his most favourite possessions in the whole wide world. His father had gone alarming shades of Old Money whenever he'd worn it, so of course he'd worn it as often as possible, and he'd been sad to think it had been gone.
Apparently, though, it hadn't been gone at all.
Day nine, Arthur is about to settle down for the evening when he realises—is reminded by the pain in his chest, really—that it's been a large number of hours since they'd had any proximity time. He contemplates his options, but there really is only one.
He has his tablet in his hand and a distinctly uncomfortable feeling in his skin when he knocks on Merlin' bedroom door. It's not a line he's crossed, yet, and he doesn't like doing it right now. But he's kind of selfish, and Merlin will regret it, too, before long. So he knocks.
There's no answer.
He refuses to be alarmed, yet, but he lets himself turn the handle cautiously. "Merlin—?"
He doesn't see him, straight away, and his heart knocks about in his chest a little.
Then he hears the small snuffle.
He rounds the bed and finds to find Merlin in his pyjamas, half-sprawled, knees pulled up beneath him, quite literally asleep on a pile of large art books. The expensive kind of art books one puts on a coffee table to pretend to have taste. Merlin has them, but he actually has taste so he keeps them close. Apparently, that means in his bedroom closet, as said closet looks like it recently vomited up all its contents onto the floor beside the bed.
Arthur sighs. He contemplates sitting down right there with his tablet, but his back would protest, and certainly Merlin would feel embarrassed in a few hours when he wakes up.
So he crouches down, and puts his hand on Merlin' shoulder. "Mate," he says softly.
Nothing. He gives him a slight shake, bending a little closer.
Merlin' eyes open slowly, and a slow smile spreads across his face as he blinks sleepily up at Arthur. "Hullo."
Arthur is unable to stop the soft smile that comes to his face in return. "Hello." He gestures at the pile of books. "Comfy?"
"Wha?" Merlin takes in his surroundings, then looks back up at Arthur sheepishly. "I guess I—I fell asleep."
"You're like a giant toddler, you are," Arthur says, perhaps even fondly, putting a hand under Merlin' arm. "Up you go. Bed's right here."
He urges Merlin upwards, and together they get him onto the mattress. He burrows under the covers with no hesitation, then his still-sleepy gaze swings back to Arthur.
Arthur looks at him, then looks at the unoccupied half of the bed. He has to stay near, as near as possible, but this is just beyond the pale. He's not prepared to deal with this level of—of being in each other's pockets.
But Merlin' hand comes out from under the cover of the duvet and grabs flailingly at Arthur's wrist. "Come on, then. It's lovely up here."
He yawns, and it's ridiculous-looking, and Arthur's heart turns over. "I'm in trousers," he protests.
Merlin just waves at him and turns onto his side, his eyes already mostly closed. "'m not watching, you prat."
Arthur considers it for about half a second, but the battle was over before it began, and the sheets are crinkled and warm against his bare legs when he slides in.
He fully intends to keep to his side of the mattress, though, as much as possible. Just him and his tablet, hanging out in another man's bed.
But Merlin, mostly-asleep Merlin, takes the decision out of his hands as quickly as he's made it—He curls up against Arthur's side, arm meandering across his waist to land, warm and solid, at his hip.
The snuffly noise comes again, and Arthur feels his head thunk back against the headboard.
It's like that first night, at Morgana's, where the constant ache in his chest had become languid, honey-like contentment for the first, fleeting time.
Only, now—It's different. Now, he knows Merlin. He's chatted with him in early mornings and late nights and everything in between, seen him half-dressed, undressed, even covered in paint. They've gotten each other through terrible moods, through undercooked dinners, through crap telly, through shopping for loo rolls… Through the daily dealings of life.
And, as he looks down at the sleeping man next to him, floppy hair, cheekbones, and all, Arthur knows one thing truly and deeply: He is absolutely buggered.
He wakes up slowly hours later. It's dark now, and that's disorienting. He shakes his head, grumping mentally about how living with Merlin is going to ruin his sleeping habits.
Speaking of… He looks beside him, to where Merlin is still asleep, curled away from him this time but on his stomach, with a hand splayed out rebelliously toward Arthur like he just can't help it.
And Arthur, God save his soul, wants to reach out and lay fingers on that hand. Wants to curl up behind Merlin' lanky form and sleep fitted together for the rest of the night, for as long as the world will let him.
He clenches his fist and gets out of bed, instead.
When Merlin shuffles into the kitchen a bit later, it's to find Arthur already sat at the small table, holding a mug of tea. "The kettle's still hot, and everything's laid out," he says quietly, and Merlin nods. The sounds of tea being prepared ring in the stillness of the night.
The clock on the microwave says 2:46 in its green letters.
"I'm sorry if I woke you," Merlin says.
It's so far from the truth of what happened that Arthur nearly chuckles. "It's all right," he says instead. He stares down at his mug for a moment longer, then inhales and moves his gaze to Merlin. "But I do think we need to talk."
Merlin' expression shifts into wakefulness very quickly, then becomes impassive, unreadable. "It's been ten days," he guesses, getting right to the point.
"It's been ten days," Arthur confirms. "And we're still not able to be apart for more then twenty minutes, and that's only if we've had a serious amount of proximity time just before."
"So what are you suggesting?" Merlin seems a bit annoyed, and Arthur doesn't know what to make of that.
"I’m suggesting," Arthur says, the ache in his chest thrumming, heavy, "that we have my sister over for tea."
Her expression goes from hopeful to annoyed as soon as she walks through the door. "I can't believe you two," she says as she looks between them, her hands on her hips. She shakes her head. "Stubbornest idiots in all the land."
Arthur clears his throat against the tension in the room. His chest is stinging something fierce. He resists rubbing it. "Your matchmaking impulses aside, seeing as they have clearly failed—We've got to find a way to get rid of this."
She huffs, but comes further into the flat and puts her bag on the hall table. "I'm not an expert in all things supernatural, you know."
"Yet you seem to know quite a lot about this legend," Arthur counters as they settle on opposite sides of the kitchen table. Merlin stays leaning against the worktop, arms crossed, face mostly blank.
Morgana sniffs. "I pay attention," is her explanation.
"Okay. Well. Either way." He leans in, arms on the table. "We need your help."
She softens. She does love him, he knows she does, despite everything. And she seems to have grown inexplicably fond of Merlin in the past few weeks, as well. "You could always go back," she tell them. "I've heard a version of the story where they lift the enchantment, or curse, or whatever we're calling it these days, once you go back to the stone and…"
She trails off, and Arthur raises an eyebrow. "And what?" Merlin says, voicing Arthur's thoughts with disconcerting accuracy. "Ask nicely? Recite a sonnet? Sacrifice a virgin?"
A pin could drop in the flat, the silence that follows that pronouncement is so acute.
"Beg…pardon?" Arthur manages, too stunned at her audacity for much else.
Merlin, however, has no such compunction. Laughter bubbles from, becoming great big guffaws until he's bent over with his hands on his knees.
"Are you quite finished?" Morgana says eventually.
"Listen," he says hoarsely, voice still thick with amusement, as he wipes at his eyes, "Morgana. I believe something was there in that stone, I do. And I know you genuinely think that your brother and I are supposed to get married and live happily ever after, which is sweet, if misguided, so I don't mind. But this? Now I know you're taking the piss."
"I'm not," she says haughtily. She looks bored. It's to cover up insult, Arthur knows, because he knows her. And because he's not above reacting similarly when something hits too close to home. "But if you want to stay here and wait until you choke to death on your own unresolved sexual tension, by all means. Have at."
Arthur tries reason, his default setting. "Who's to say they won't off us if we do go to them? If we manage to keep out of each other's pants, of course."
"They're too romantic for that," she says, as if it's obvious. "They're not interested in forcing anyone together who truly doesn't want to be. They just—They just like to help it along if they can. So if it can be proved to be in error, well." She shrugs. "No harm done."
Arthur speaks slowly. "So all we have to do is go back again—"
"On a new moon," Morgana corrects.
"—on a new moon, stand around for a while without tearing each other's clothes off—"
"Which will certainly be a struggle," Merlin intones.
"—and it'll all be over?"
Morgana simply looks at them. "If you want it to be."
"Of course we want it to be," Merlin says, and it's nearly haughty, and Arthur doesn't wince, because he has his pride, and also because he knows Morgana is watching him closely.
He also doesn't add his own thoughts on the matter. It's done and dusted. "Alright," he says instead, "so when's the new moon?"
Arthur looks at Merlin, and Merlin nods once. His jaw is tight, but Arthur supposes that can't be helped. One more night of unenthusiastic proximity time, and then a trek in the woods, and it'll be over.
Over, he thinks as he watches Merlin make his excuses and retreat into his studio, promising thinly to come back out before the evening wanes too much further. Back to normal.
"You could tell him, you know." Morgana's quiet voice jars him out of his thoughts.
He shakes his head. But he doesn't try to disassemble; Morgana's had enough of that in her life. "No. No, I couldn't."
"He's made it perfectly clear—"
Morgana throws him a look. "Oh, he has not."
"—perfectly clear that he's only involved due to the curse."
"Yes." And Arthur's voice is firm. Housebreaking puppies and disciplining lecture students sort of firm.
She considers him for a long, long moment. He has a fleeting feeling of sympathy for bugs under microscopes. "That's too bad," she says finally. "He'd've been good for you."
She stands before he can reply, coming over to kiss him on the top of the head. "D'you want to watch some Top Gear?"
Arthur puts a hand over his heart. "Oh, heavens, you must think I'm poorly if you're actually offering me that."
Her lips curl into a devious smile. "They've got Chris Hemsworth on. I think you'll agree, it's hardly a chore."
Arthur can't help but laugh. "Two for one for me, then, eh?"
She cuffs him lightly upside the head. "Get in."
What Arthur retains about that evening is that Merlin has a bruise near his left elbow. He also has a small scratch on his right thumb, and a severe lack of interest in Top Gear even with Thor involved.
He's just sketching, instead, sat on the couch next to Arthur, pressed against his side reluctantly but familiarly. He's not even sketching, really. He calls it play, flat-out, and it's done on an app on his tablet. It's wild splashes of colour and shapes.
Tonight there are a lot of shadows, Arthur thinks. Or perhaps he's projecting.
He clenches his jaw and turns back to the telly.
The path seems to have changed, Arthur thinks as he looks at it warily from where he's stood next to his car. But that's not possible, seeing as it's only been a fortnight, and he scolds himself. There is no room for sentimentality, here. They just need to go in, appease whatever spirits they'd inadvertently sent into a matchmaking flurry, and everything will be right as rain.
"Shall we?" Merlin asks, and Arthur glances at him, then shrugs.
They end up side by side, mostly, and fairly quiet, until Arthur can't stand it anymore. "You probably won't believe it, but I am sorry you got dragged into all this," he says, his voice cutting into the night. "Morgana...has some unusual ideas about healthy hobbies. She loves urban legends, old wives' tales, that sort of thing. She's always trying to get me to try home remedies she's heard about. Some of which are quite vile."
Merlin chuckles, and it's only a little bit thin. "You haven't been poisoned, yet, have you?"
"No," Arthur answers with a smile. "She's a good enough sister to not actually be attempting fratricide. That I know of."
"Sometimes she doesn't seem to like you very much, though," Merlin says quietly.
Arthur exhales slowly. "Sometimes I am a lot like our father," he says finally.
A small understanding smile surfaces on Merlin' face. "Rich, bigoted, stubborn, brilliant, snobbish?"
"You've met him, I take it."
Merlin shakes his head. "Nah, don't have to. Sir Uther Pendragon is practically legend around this place, even to nobodies like me."
"Ah, yes." Arthur clears his throat, uncomfortable. "Then you can see why she's not fond."
"Well, he did deny her existence until she came of age," Arthur says, and he doesn't really try to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Sure, she's not fond of him. But you're not like him in all ways," Merlin says easily. "You're a lousy bigot, for one."
"And you're not rich."
Arthur's lips quirk. "Oh?"
Merlin glances at him suspiciously. "Your flat—You can't expect me to believe you'd live in that tiny thing if you'd any money at all."
Arthur feels himself reddening. "It's hardly necessary to have a bigger place when it's just me. Anything bigger and I'd be knocking about like a ghost."
"But you could afford something bigger," Merlin prompts.
"I could afford Kensington Palace, if you must know. But I hear it's fantastically draughty."
Merlin makes a choked noise. "Stop it."
Arthur brings a hand up to the back of his neck, then drops it. "I happen to have been gifted with a very generous inheritance shortly after my mother's death," he explains simply. "As she died from complications directly related to childbirth, it got invested on my behalf. As my father is who he is, I have been educated from a very young age to nurture it and make it grow."
Merlin closes his mouth abruptly. Then opens it again. "So your incredibly complex post-graduate studies are just—what? A diverting folly?"
"Ah, no." Arthur finds a small smile on his face. "I found I actually quite like the study of finance and economics. I hope—" He pauses, but decides at this point it's all water under the bridge. "I hope to help developing economies, with things like micro-loans, small business support for ventures giving the communities things they actually need… Pretty scandalous stuff, as far as my father's concerned."
Merlin' expression has shifted to something, something intense but indecipherable, and Arthur is suddenly sure he's said too much.
Then again, they're on their way to not-shag in a magical clearing in front of a haunted rock after living with a supernatural chest pain for two weeks. So perhaps his sense of boundaries is just a bit skewed.
He squares his shoulders. It's not something he's been embarrassed about, before, and he certainly isn't going start now just because he has feelings for this bloke. His choices are his and his alone, and he's worked pretty damn hard for that. "If you have a problem with my being well-off—"
"What did he do when you came out?" Merlin interrupts instead, and Arthur stops short.
"Your father. He didn't… disown you?"
Arthur chuckles. "Oh, he tried. But he hasn't had control over any of my assets since I reached the age of majority, and my coming out was only spectacular in that it was later than most."
Arthur waves a hand. "I've forgiven him. He didn't… he didn't mean it, in a way. He was trapped in what he thought he needed to do, and once he'd done it—or tried to—he saw what it could actually have wrought, and…" He shrugs. "He did his best."
"So everything's just…fine?"
"Well, he's still a pompous bigoted windbag who would probably dislike you just on principle. Arts people of any kind are immediate cause for suspicion, you see. And don't let him get started on asylum-seekers, I warn you. Not to mention, he still refers to all my boyfriends as 'friends'." Although, Arthur sort of finds that last one endearing, honestly. It's so very polite. "But we're all right, yeah."
By now, he and Merlin have reached their destination. The clearing is just as beautiful as Arthur remembers, though even more fog-ridden tonight. He rubs his chest absently. It's pulling at him, it is. And he can tell it's pulling at Merlin, too.
He's about to saying something—although, to be honest, he's not exactly sure what—when Merlin starts towards the stone, anger in his stride. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Arthur blinks, then follows after him, steps eating up the clearing until they're at the stone. "What's the matter with you?"
Merlin shakes his head, looking at the stone like it stole his lunch money and made fun of his sister. And Arthur's relatively certain he doesn't even have a sister. "Quite a lot, apparently."
Arthur sighs. "Don't speak in riddles, please. It's tiring."
Merlin rounds on him. "You're tiring!"
Arthur's legitimately affronted, at least a little bit. He hadn't thought he'd been the worst company for the past ten days. "I beg your pardon."
Merlin flinches. "No, I mean—" He throws up his hands. "I thought I could do this, you know? I managed with you in my flat for nearly two weeks, with your propriety and your work ethic and your tendency to go shirtless to bed; I thought I could manage being here with you, and your jaw, and your eyes, and your stupid nobility and chivalry and fuck it."
He steps in. Arthur doesn't move, but the constant hum in his chest has perked up into a near thrumming, like it knows what's going to happen before Arthur does.
Because Arthur sure as hell doesn't see it coming when Merlin leans in and kisses him.
He very nearly stumbles, but reaches out reflexively and finds purchase on Merlin' hip, hooking easily and thoughtlessly into a beltloop as Merlin kisses him urgently enough to surprise him on several levels.
The thrum in his chest starts to expand.
He surges forward, free hand sliding round Merlin' neck to hold on, to pull him in so that Arthur can take a little bit of control back in the mad merrygoround that has been his life of late.
Merlin responds beautifully, clutching onto Arthur's coat with one hand while the other arm hooks around his neck and holds him there.
Not like he had any thoughts about leaving. In fact, he'd be happy if they did this for quite a long while, and then some, right here in this little glade with this weirdly painted rock—
His brain comes back online with a clatter.
He ends the kiss, feeling his chest ping—though he's not sure if it's because he seems unable to take a breath, Merlin' kissing having done him in, or the actual curse.
"What?" Merlin says against his lips. "Please tell me you want this. And that I'm not just making a fool out of myself for no—"
Arthur presses their lips together briefly. "I do. But."
Merlin leans back enough to look him in the eye, his brow furrowing slightly. "But…?"
Arthur breathes the words out as quickly as he can. "But—what—what if it's just the curse?"
Merlin' expression melts into one of relief, and he grabs ahold of Arthur's jacket again. "It's not, okay? The curse has no effect on whether I find your bedhead adorable, or the way you make sure all the silverware faces the same direction and it's somehow endearing, or the way you never let me forget to eat when I'm deep into a painting." He shakes his head. "No. I don't believe it. It might've got us stuck in the same place, but I could've just hated you for those weeks and moved on."
He gets impossibly closer, and cups Arthur's face with both hands.
"Instead—Don't you see?—I was fucking stupid and fell in love with you. You incredibly stuck-up, buttoned-up tightarse, and are you even listening to me?"
Arthur is very much listening, oh yes. His heart is practically jumping about in his chest.
"You're an idiot," he says flatly, trying to keep the delight out of his voice.
"Oi, steady on." Merlin starts to back up, but Arthur has an arm around him before he can get too far.
His voice is rough but clear when he speaks. "I stuck it out for ten days to see what would happen. To see if we would be cured. But then what did happen was me waking up in a bed next to you and wanting it to be real so badly my teeth hurt. That's fairly the opposite of a cure."
Merlin' eyes widen. "Oh."
Merlin' gaze drops to his lips, eyes darkening. "Does that mean I can kiss you again? Because I know I didn't ask the first time, and I apologise, but—"
Arthur can taste it when Merlin starts to smile under his lips. Then ridiculousness of the whole shebang catches up with him, too, until they're half-kissing, half-laughing, hands on sides and necks, sharing warm breaths between them in the cool night air.
"Fucking stone," Merlin finally mutters. "I guess I owe it thanks, or something."
"Or something. I mean, it probably wants us to lay out right here and have a—" He looks away from the stone just in time to catch the glint in Merlin' eyes before he hooks a finger into Arthur's beltloop and rubs his nose against Arthur's cheek. "You're not serious," Arthur says, his body betraying him with a quickening pulse and slight trouble getting in a full breath.
Merlin' rejoinder is a murmur while he sucks a path down Arthur's neck, hands on zips and buckles, and Arthur has to clutch onto him in an unbecoming way for a moment before he can gather words together. "You're serious," he says hoarsely as Merlin' hand moves from his beltloop to tuck into his jeans, and—
"Cold," Arthur gasps. "Your brilliant artist's hands are bloody cold."
Merlin pulls away from his neck, and Arthur rather wants to protest. "They'll be warm shortly, I'd imagine," Merlin says to him, and the protests die on Arthur's tongue.
But nothing is ever perfect, is it, and Merlin' lean fingers don't really warm up properly, so Arthur ends up taking the matter in hand—literally—until they're both too gone to notice that the stone has begun, once again, to glow.
The glows surrounds them, expands outward, building and building into brilliance…then shatters into a million tiny pieces, dissipating into the foggy night air.
When they can breathe again, Arthur immediately notices the difference. The warmth is only the typical sort, now: his skin where it's clothed, his pants where the evidence of their indiscretion has been left, his lips where they're touching Merlin' cheek, slightly tacky with saliva and heated breathing.
But it is gone. Whatever it was. It's gone.
"Huh," he hears Merlin say, the sound skating across his skin. "Guess that's done."
Arthur clears his throat, closes his eyes briefly, then pulls back. He searches Merlin' face. "Is that…going to be a problem?"
Merlin' hands don't move from where they're wound round Arthur's neck. "Am I still going to find you palatable even without a meddling supernatural phenomenon?" he says, eyes alight with mischief.
He leans in and kisses Arthur, and it's slow and thorough, with none of the haste or stormy force of ten minutes ago.
All the same, Arthur feels it down to his toes, feels the stirring in his gut again.
He loves this ridiculous man, curse or no curse.
Merlin pulls back, eyeing Arthur contemplatively, and Arthur's heartrate increases with anticipation. He doesn't think he's alone in this, but. There's always a but, there's always a chance that it's all about to come crashing down around him.
Luckily, he's an efficient and straightforward sort of lad. "Well?"
Merlin seems to be considering, but his eyes are twinkling. "Would you mind being with someone who falls asleep in the middle of the day in your favourite chair?"
Arthur shrugs, his heart warming in his chest—in a way completely different from the curse—and a smile threatening to take over his face. "I've a laptop, I can move to a different chair."
"How about if he cleans paint brushes in your favourite coffee mug?"
He considers, drawing it out mockingly. "On purpose?"
Merlin chuckles. "Hard to say. He's an artist. That means your father will find him alarming, though, I've heard."
Arthur laughs, and leans in. Merlin' lips meet his easily. "That's definitely a bonus," he says against them.
"Thought so," Merlin murmurs. He gets back to kissing Arthur with aplomb, tongue sweeping in, and Arthur nearly forgets—again—that they're in the bloody forest, on someone else's property, and his clothing is in a rather undignified state—
"Come back to mine?" Merlin says, a bit cheekily, and Arthur grins.
"That might be the smartest thing you've ever said."
There may not be legendary magic involved anymore, but when they get into the flat and finally get to do what they've not allowed themselves for far too many days, they do it pretty well, if Arthur does say so himself.
Merlin is sweet and slightly clumsy but makes the most delightful sounds, which Arthur drinks in as they make their way down the hall and to the bedroom. They trip once, and Arthur is glad he's got practice avoiding pointy elbows, but they can't stop kissing and for once Arthur is not interested in examining his priorities.
Because his new first priority is soon spread out beneath him, pale and lean and utterly gorgeous, and Arthur makes it known with every touch and kiss and thrust just where his affections lie, and by the end they're both shaking and wide-eyed.
And slightly gross and sweaty, but that's par for the course and Arthur accepts it. Merlin seems to enjoy it, even, the weirdo, as he detaches from Arthur and fwumps back down on the bed, catching his breath.
He turns to Arthur, who is equally spent beside him, and lifts a hand to trail up his side. It sort of tickles, but Arthur can't be arsed to do anything about it. Plus, he likes the affectionate look in Merlin' eyes. "I think I might love you."
Arthur loses his breath all over again. Then he feels his teeth in his smile. "Excellent. I don't pull those tricks—" He gestures at the bed between them. "—out for just anyone, you know."
Merlin chuckles, and Arthur watches the play of it in his throat and chest. He feels like he'll never tire of watching this man. "And I love you as well, you mad thing."
Something occurs to him suddenly, and he groans. "Morgana's going to be positively insufferable after this."
Merlin waves a hand. "And Gwen is going to insist she colour-coordinates our living room curtains. It's fine."
Arthur presses his lips together against a laugh. The idea of having a place with Merlin, that's just theirs, makes his chest ache in a good, fond way. "Do you actually care what colour the living room curtains are?" he says, keeping his voice light.
Merlin turns to him, and all doubts are chased away by the look in his eyes. "Not in the slightest."
"Excellent. I think I shall keep you."
"It's one of my better traits."
Merlin rolls onto him with a laugh.
As predicted, Gwen insists they plan out getting a new place, a proper house for two people who each need work spaces, and firmly orders that they not hire anyone to help coordinate when they've got friends with perfectly good taste.
"And connections," Morgana adds as she slides into one of the kitchen chairs at Merlin' flat, tea in hand, a few weeks after the curse is lifted.
Gwen nods. "We're people who know people, Arthur, and you can't deny it."
Arthur rolls his eyes to the heavens, then just accepts it. "Well, please at least have the kitchen worktops made out of something sturdy."
"Overshare," Morgana mutters.
"—because Merlin tends to fall asleep on them. With ice cream spoons in his hand and chocolate all over his face."
Morgana's laughter is delighted. Merlin' yell from the next room is muffled but still audible. "Oi! That was one time! And you said you'd never tell!"
"I don't recall that being part of the agreement," Arthur calls back.
Merlin opens the studio door wide enough to throw two fingers, the shuts it firmly. Arthur just laughs, and turns back to his sister, his best friend, and his tea, knowing Merlin will join them once he's worked out whatever painting's got hold of him.
Arthur's got a rather nice life, now, if he does say so himself.
"You owe us, dear brother," Morgana says sweetly, as if reading his mind.
"Oh God," Arthur groans. "Don't you start."
Gwen protests, bless her. "They do not owe us! We very nearly ruined their lives!"
"But we didn't, so they do," Morgana insists coolly, leaning back in her chair contemplatively. "I've always wanted to go on one of those American cruises to Alaska."
Arthur goes back to his copy of the evening Times. "Too cold, even for you."
"A small Caribbean island?"
"Too lonely, even for you."
He looks up over his paper at her. She's grinning. And at that moment he kind of wants to give her an island, a cruise, whatever she wants. He tries not to smile too widely but he feels his cheeks redden as he refocuses on the words in front of him.
"You're getting a card," he says blandly. "From Sainsbury's."