"Come back to bed."
Merlin stops writing and knuckles his eyes. He's tired, exhausted if he's honest with himself, but he just needs to get this last part down and then he'll be able to sleep. "In a bit," he says, flicking Arthur a quick glance and a half smile. He turns his attention back to his note book and his own writing becomes a blurry scrawl before his weary eyes.
He hears Arthur sigh and the rustling of the duvet as he slides out of bed and hunkers down next to the armchair Merlin's curled up in. "It's four in the morning," he says, hands on Merlin's knees. "You're done in. Come on." His voice is so soothing and Merlin feels so sleepy. He lets Arthur pull him to his feet and lead him back to bed.
"Don't let me sleep in late," he mumbles as he crawls under the duvet. If he gets up early enough he'll have a couple of hours before his shift to finish the scene he was working on.
Arthur climbs in beside him, kisses his forehead and says, "Just go to sleep, idiot."
Merlin burrows into Arthur's side and is asleep within seconds.
He weighs up his options and opts to skip the shower, but even then he arrives thirty-five minutes late for work. He gets an earful from Mary and has to work through his breaks to make up the time.
It's gone three before he puts the note book to one side, his eyelids drooping. He plods to the bathroom to clean his teeth and slides naked into bed. The bed feels too big without Arthur and even as tired as he is it takes him a while to nod off without him there.
The bedside alarm goes off three and a half hours later. Merlin, dresses and heads out to work without bothering with breakfast even though his stomach is screaming to be fed. Sefa takes one look at him and makes him a triple shot latte; the caffeine gives him a kick start and the milk fills him up enough to stop the hunger pangs for a couple of hours.
In the late morning Arthur makes an unexpected appearance. Merlin leans over the counter to kiss him hello, tells Mary he's taking his break and makes Arthur his usual order and a cup of tea for himself. He had planned to spend the precious twenty minutes of his break re-reading the latest part of his draft but that's out the window now as his plans often are when Arthur is in the room; Arthur has a way of making Merlin blind to everything else. They go outside and sit on one of the benches in the square outside and before Merlin can speak Arthur scans Merlin up and down, brow furrowed, and asks, "Have you eaten today?"
Arthur rolls his eyes and heads back into the café, quiet in the pre-lunch lull, and returns with a cheese and pickle sandwich which he unwraps and slides over the bench to Merlin. "Eat," he instructs, sitting back and folding his arms as Merlin reaches for it and takes a bite. He'd considered telling Arthur where to stick it but now that he thinks about it he is actually quite hungry and he hasn't had anything since those crisps yesterday and besides, telling Arthur to back off would have exactly the reverse effect as Merlin knows from experience.
Arthur silently watches him eat the first half of the sandwich before saying, "Didn't you check your phone? I called a few times yesterday. I—" He breaks off and starts to fiddle the lid of his cup.
"Sorry, I turned it off last night so I could concentrate and I forgot it this morning." Merlin takes a sip of his tea and another bite of the sandwich. "Is everything okay?"
Arthur frowns. "You forget your phone, you forget to eat. You'll forget about me one day."
Swallowing down a bite of the sandwich Merlin looks at Arthur in astonishment. "I couldn't forget you, Arthur, even if I wanted to." And I don't. "Is something wrong?"
Arthur holds his gaze for an age before he says, "Move in with me."
This is so completely out of the left field that Merlin is stunned into silence.
Arthur's expression is deadly serious and he's perfectly still like he's holding his breath waiting for Merlin's response. In his mind's eye Merlin sees Arthur's new flat in Primrose Hill, the one he's moving into next week, that he'd helped Arthur choose from the dozens he'd viewed. It's the basement of a converted Victorian house, a large studio really, but it has a gorgeous long garden with a sun-trap at the end that Arthur fell in love with. He's sunk almost all of the inheritance he came into from his mother at twenty-one into buying the place. He'd wanted somewhere within an easy commute of his job as an assistant curator at the British Museum and a studio was all he could get for his money in the area.
Now Arthur wants to share that precious space with him and Merlin wonders how long he's been planning to ask him this. He feels a bit lightheaded as the old familiar feeling of panic winds through him, the one that has stalked him since his mother's death when he was fifteen and his home was torn out from under him and three years of short-term foster homes followed. "I can't," he says softly and thinks his heart breaks into two at Arthur's crestfallen face before his expression blanks and he nods.
"Am I allowed to ask why?"
Because I'm scared that if I make a home with you it won't last and I'll lose everything again. There were reasons he was something of a loner and it wasn't just his propensity to get lost in the fantasy world inside his head, the one he worked hard to get out onto paper.
"I just. I can't, I'm sorry." He stands. "I have to get back to work. I—" He shakes his head, glances at Arthur quickly and shoves his hands in to his pockets to stop himself from reaching out to him and walks away.
The rest of his shift is a complete blur.
Lance narrows his eyes. "Arthur."
"What about him?"
"I thought you were in love with him."
Merlin shrugs, aiming for nonchalance but knowing that it won't wash with Lance. "I never said I didn't love him, just that I can't move in with him."
"I'm sorry, Lance but it's none of your business."
"Do you have any idea how long Arthur has been waiting to ask you that?"
"It wouldn't make a difference," Merlin tries to bury the guilt from the knowledge that he'd hurt Arthur. "I can't risk it." He expects that Lance will fill in the gaps anyway, as Merlin's ex next door neighbour from back when his mum was alive, he knows about his past.
Lance heaves a heavy sigh and regards Merlin down the bridge of his nose. "Merlin, before Arthur met you none of his 'romances' lasted longer than a couple of months."
"What's your point?" he asks Lance now as he swills the wine around in the glass, watching it splash against the sides. If Merlin looks at Lance he knows he'll see right through him for certain. He always does.
"Are you just going to throw it all away?"
"Fuck's sake, Lance. Just because I said I won't move in with him doesn't mean we can't still—"
"For someone who claims to be a writer you know very little about people," Lance interrupts, voice gentle now. Merlin lifts his head and makes the mistake of looking into Lance's eyes. He deflates and turns to put the glass on the counter beside him.
"I know enough," he tells him, as though he hasn't had his head firmly in the sand all day. "And I hear you."
Merlin is more than aware that Arthur wasn't exactly chaste before they'd met. When he'd first met Arthur he'd been seeing Merlin's work colleague, Elena. The second time was the following day—just hours after Elena had told Merlin Arthur had ended things with her the previous evening—about five minutes before closing when Merlin was on his own and Arthur had appeared.
Merlin had raised an eyebrow at Arthur's request for a complicated latte when he'd just cleaned the machine. 'Drip or nothing,' Merlin had said, trying to not obviously stare at him, the writer in him slotting him into the role of swashbuckling romantic hero.
Merlin poured him a black coffee and as he pushed it over the counter the heavens outside opened up and it began to rain as though it was the start of forty days. Merlin had nodded at the window and said, "You're welcome to stay while I close up, but I have to lock the door."
Arthur had sat on the corduroy sofa with his paper cup and watched Merlin work. Merlin's initial attraction simmered beneath his skin, an unfamiliar itch of pure want. When he'd finished cashing up he joined him after ten minutes or so Arthur had introduced himself and five minutes after that he'd been on his knees between Merlin's legs sucking him off.
That had been nearly a year ago. Since then Arthur had finished uni, started his first 'real' job, had turned down his father's request that he work for him and he'd made an offer on his first flat. Merlin was still working at Caffe sodding Nero and hammering away at his book in his spare time, spare time that had lessened and lessened since meeting Arthur. In the beginning he'd just thought that this thing with Arthur would be a short term shag-fest until Arthur got bored of him. Instead they'd arrived here and he'd been in a relationship with the man without realising it the whole time. Had fallen in love, hadn't been able to walk away when it had come down to Arthur or his book, had been more or less managing them both and hadn't wanted it any other way even though at times he'd been torn between two loves. Arthur made sure he ate, made sure he slept. Arthur took care of him.
God, Merlin is such a twat. He loves Arthur. He loves Arthur. Arthur's new flat is just a brick box with windows and Merlin can live there or anywhere because home already is wherever Arthur is and has been for a while.
Lance sighs and nods. "Good. Merlin, just—don't leave it like this. Arthur deserves better."
Merlin feels the twist of guilt in his belly. "I won't." He closes his eyes against the sudden sway of nausea caused by necking a whole glass of wine on an empty stomach. "Have we got anything to eat?"
Merlin is cross-legged on the end of the sofa with his note book on his knee but he's been staring at it since he finished his food. His phone is on the arm beside him waiting for a reply from Arthur that isn't going to come now.
He looks up when Arthur enters the room and they lock gazes until Arthur is less than a metre away. Merlin hates the expression on his face, or rather the lack of, like he's trying to pretend he doesn't care about the outcome of the conversation he's here to have.
If he didn't care he wouldn't be here. Merlin hates that he's responsible for the way Arthur's trying to hide his feelings. That's not Arthur. He's always been rather transparent it was just that Merlin hadn't been ready to see through him.
"So, I'm here." Arthur moves to sit at the other end of the sofa.
Merlin draws his thoughts together, putting his note pad to one side and folding his hands in his lap. "You asked me to move in with you and…I panicked."
"Is the thought of waking up beside me every day that terrible?" Arthur's tone is teasing but Merlin knows him, better than he knows anyone, and he's not fooled at all, not now his eyes have been opened and he's acknowledged what he's been ignoring for months now—that this was far more than 'just sex' like he told himself back at the start. He probably fell in love with Arthur way back then, it's just—he's always been good at burying his head somewhere up his own arse.
"No." He lifts his eyes and stares right into Arthur's. "I love you."
Some of the tension in Arthur's shoulders lifts. "Then what's the problem?"
"I'm a mess. I need to write, Arthur, it's like a physical ache somewhere in here." He places a hand over his heart. "I work fifty hours a week making coffee to afford my rent and bills and until I met you that was okay, you know, because I'd get home and then my time was my own."
"No, Arthur, I'm not finished and I need to say this." He takes a deep breath. "That's never been the problem I thought it might be. The problem is that you're in here as well and I need you too and I'm shit scared that if I move in with you you'll get fed up of my ways and I'll lose you." Lose my home.
Arthur remains silent, eyes on Merlin. Merlin waits, his heart pounding. Eventually Arthur speaks, "That's not going to happen."
"You can't be sure."
"I can. I am." Arthur slides down the sofa and takes the hand Merlin still has resting over his heart. "Someone has to remind you to eat and look after you. I'd rather like that to be me, if you'll let me, for as long as you'll allow it."
Until that moment Merlin still isn't sure that this is something he can do but the dam breaks and he knows he'd rather be with Arthur and take the risk than be alone without him.
"Someone's got to save you from being such an arse," Merlin replies, picking up Arthur's hand and threading his fingers through. "I'd rather like that to be me. I'm sorry I ran out on you before."
Arthur's already paid someone to come in and decorate, and when they move in the whole place is painted white. They live with it like that for a while but Arthur expresses no surprise when he comes back from work one day and finds Merlin with up the stepladder with a can of blue paint, some of which isn't in his hair.
They've been in the flat about three months when upon finding Merlin awake in the middle of the night at the table, hunched over his laptop, cheekbones sharp in the light of the screen Arthur announces that that's it, that Merlin's reducing his hours at work down to the minimum, that he's happy to support him while he finishes the book. "It's not as though I have a mortgage to pay," he insists at Merlin's protest. Merlin suspects this has been his plan all along, and as he crawls back into bed and straddles Arthur he can't bring himself to really mind. This is where he's supposed to be. This is where he'll stay.