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With Half-Shut Eyes

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“Keep the change,” Arthur says, and Merlin sours at the condescension.

The change is £17.65, and Merlin glances back up at Arthur’s complacent smirk, and yes, he’s serious, and yes, he’s feeling smug about it, so Merlin just shrugs and heads off to the espresso bar to make his drink.

“What kind of milk do you take?” he asks even as he’s already pouring in the whole.

Arthur has arrived at precisely 3:25 p.m.—five minutes before Merlin’s shift ends—Monday through Thursday for four months, and he always gets the same thing. Merlin had the order memorised on his third visit, of course, but he never lets on that he even recognises Arthur.

“Whole, if you’ve got it,” Arthur says, and Merlin wishes he’d say anything but that just once. Merlin is the one adhering to Monmouth Coffee’s employee script, after all.

Arthur isn’t a terrible person so far as Merlin knows, but he does wear thousand-pound suits and drive a car worth more than Merlin’s entire extended family, which, granted, is still just him and his mum. And maybe Will, if he counts, which Merlin thinks he should. And even with all that money lying around, the wanker has never managed to leave a tip.

Before today, that is. As the foam for Arthur’s au lait approaches the perfect temperature, Merlin puzzles over what makes today different. He pulls the espresso and pours it into the paper cup—and why exactly can’t Arthur just buy a travel mug?

Merlin sets the drink down on the counter and stares at it, but Arthur doesn’t pick it up. Merlin glances up at him. The part where Arthur leaves isn’t as rewarding if Arthur doesn’t leave. Instead, he takes off his sunglasses and sets them on the counter. Merlin looks at the offending accessory, confusion making him squint.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, and Merlin looks up.

“You,” he replies, because apparently his mum raised him to be a cheeky bastard. His name is Arthur Pendragon. Merlin has seen it on his MasterCard enough times to know that his middle initial is “D” and his CVC is 769, but beyond conveniently forgetting his beverage of choice and his face, Merlin chooses to forget his name as well.

He glances up to Arthur’s face, which is a grave mistake. Hiding behind sunglasses all these months have been striking blue eyes, and, really, fuck Arthur, because what kind of wanker hides that kind of beauty? Merlin looks away, frustrated.

“Here,” Arthur says, setting a slip of paper down on the counter. He grabs his sunglasses and coffee and turns to leave. Glancing over his shoulder, he says, “Hope to see you around,” and then with a lick of the lips, he’s gone, and Merlin is left feeling perplexed.

He looks down at the slip of paper, which says, “Down 4, #12, 2200-0200,” with a picture of some creature scrawled above.

“What the fuck?” Merlin whispers, pocketing the slip of paper. The clock face reads 3:30, and Merlin couldn’t be more ready to go home. He whistles Gwaine over to man the register as he takes off his cap and apron.

***

Merlin pushes open the door to his flat and breathes a sigh of relief. It smells like cinnamon and nutmeg, and he thinks his flatmate must have been baking before she went off to volunteer. Gwen has Thursdays off work, so naturally, she does a four-hour shift at the local shelter. Merlin walks into the kitchen, which is delightfully warm, and sure enough, Gwen has left a note on the fridge:

Help yourself! Half is yours. Half is mine.

Merlin chuckles at the note and grabs a plate from the drying rack. He helps himself to a generous slice of the pumpkin pie (his favourite of Gwen’s experimental baked goods) and sits down at the table to eat. The pen in his pocket digs into his hip, so he reaches to take it out, and with it comes the cryptic slip of paper Arthur left with him earlier. Chewing, Merlin studies the note more carefully.

“Down … number … what the shit is this?” He squints at the poorly drawn animal and decides it’s a llama, a chameleon, or a really fucked-up eagle. “Down four. Number twelve. Twenty-two-hundred to zero two zero zero.”

Merlin stares at the odd paper until he’s finished his pie. As he’s cleaning up, he considers just throwing the damn thing away, but for some reason, he brings it into his bedroom with him instead.

He closes the door behind him even though Gwen isn’t home and sets the scrap of paper on his nightstand. He rearranges the bedding, which is still an unruly heap from when he got up this morning, and climbs into the bed, shivering at the chill of the sheets.

He dozes. He’s not sure how long he’s been sleeping when he half-awakens, suddenly much too warm. He struggles with his clothes under the covers, first removing his shirt and tossing it across the room, then wiggling out of his jeans and kicking them to the foot of the bed. Slightly out of breath from the near brush with claustrophobia, Merlin tries to fall back asleep but can’t quite make it there.

Too awake to sleep but too comfortable to get up, Merlin does the only logical thing and reaches down to fondle his cock. He chuckles when he finds it’s already half-hard, clearly anticipating Merlin’s unwillingness to get out of bed.

He closes his eyes and doesn’t think of much of anything, just enjoying the warmth and comfort of his bed and the easy, familiar feeling of his hand on his cock. His torpor slips into hot arousal, and he quickly becomes more invested in the wank, movement turning from lazy to purposeful in a matter of moments. He’s vaguely aware of having some cleaning to get done before Gwen gets home, and he’s not interested in a drawn-out exploration of his limits. It’s only just as he’s about to come that he allows himself to think of something other than the feeling of his fingers running over his prick. He allows himself this one weakness, to imagine blue eyes looking up at him, dark pink lips wrapped around his cock as he jerks his hips in time with his release.

In the odd, frantic, intensely emotional moment immediately after his orgasm, Merlin reaches out and touches the perplexing slip of paper on his night table, trying to find some meaning in it in his altered state. Once he realises what he’s doing, Merlin feels uncomfortable and sticks the paper in the drawer beside the lube he didn’t bother using. He tells the part of him that remembers Arthur’s eyes to shove it as he strips the sheets off his bed and throws them into the laundry basket on his way to the shower.

***

Gwen gets home in the evening bearing Indian takeaway and a smile that says she just got done flirting with A Cute Boy, and most likely The Cute Boy. As Merlin takes down the plates, he says, “So I take it we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?”

“Why do you say so?” she asks, grabbing tonic water from the fridge.

“Well, you’ve got that rosy-cheeked grin that tells me you’ve some talking to do, and there’s no way I’m letting you chat over top of Battlestar.”

Gwen smiles and shakes her head but denies nothing.

Merlin fills two glasses with ice, and Gwen pours in the gin and tonic. As Merlin carries the glasses around the corner into the living room, Gwen scoops food onto the plates. Merlin returns to carry his plate and sees that Gwen, as usual, has an excellent instinct for what Merlin likes: lots of curried chicken, two halves of naan, one samosa, and a single spoonful of obligatory spinach.

As they bump hips on their way to the sofa, Merlin becomes intimately aware of their odd synergy, a thing you can only achieve over years of dedicated knowing one another.

“How about we watch a Battlestar while we eat, and I promise I’ll be quiet, and then we switch?”

Gwen is incredibly reasonable, as Merlin knows, and he nods his approval.

The curry is good, and the TV show even better. When the credits roll and Gwen says, “Holy shit,” Merlin clears the plates. He refills their glasses as Gwen switches DVDs, and when they’re seated again, Merlin leans his head onto Gwen’s shoulder. She rests her head on top of his.

“Okay,” Merlin says, thumbing down the volume on the telly. “Tell me about this bloke you’ll be leaving me for.”

They both know he’s only partially kidding, that the idea of Gwen moving on to a romantic life is both vicariously thrilling and personally painful for him, having already lost either by death or by distance all the people he loves, who love him.

“Possessiveness is not sexy, Merlin,” Gwen chides.

“Luckily, I’m not after sex.”

“No,” she says, poking him a little too hard in the ribs, “but….”

He knows, and to his credit, he thinks, at least he feels a bit ashamed of his jealousy towards the other people in her life.

“I’ll be happy for you when you find some gorgeous man to occupy your time,” she says, her voice gentle.

“I know. And I am happy for you. It’s just….” He thinks inexplicably of Arthur and wants to stomp on his own foot for it.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me, Merlin,” Gwen says, pulling her head back and looking at him. She’s got that look of genuine concern that Merlin hates putting there.

“It’s just been difficult lately.”

“That won’t be forever.”

“I know,” Merlin says, not quite believing it. “I just need to find some fucking queers in this city.”

“Or fuck some queers you’ve found?”

Merlin levels a glare at her that says “not even kind of funny” and then sneaks his hand up under her arm, fingers digging into the wet cotton in her armpit.

She giggles and squirms but doesn’t protest, so Merlin gets the other armpit.

“Eww, Merlin!” she gets out through breathless chuckles. “I’m all sweaty.”

“Don’t care!”

Gwen eventually wins the tickle war when she fights dirty and digs just under the waistband of his jeans. Very few people have ever known of Merlin’s ticklish hips, and he’s certain Gwen is the only woman. Aside from his mum, of course, though she hasn’t tickled him since he was a boy.

“I surrender,” he pants, and Gwen lets go immediately. They collapse into opposite ends of the sofa with their legs tangled.

“Okay. Tell me about Mr Handsome.”

Gwen’s face lights up, and Merlin vows to never let himself feel threatened by anything that makes Gwen this happy again.

***

The next few days pass without incident. Merlin works Friday and Saturday and has the evenings mostly to himself, as Gwen is out on Official Dates with Lance. They seem to go well if Gwen’s disheveled hair and skewed blouse upon returning are anything to judge by. Merlin catches up on some reading, does the washing, and Skypes with Will for three hours on Saturday. He even manages to sneak in a phone call with his semi-frantic mum, who is dating for the first time since Merlin was born and is incredibly worked-up about it all. But Merlin supposes he’d be high-strung, too, if he finally had access to another person’s genitals. Not that he’s particularly keen on imagining his mum and genitals as being in any way associated. Aside from the obvious fact of him finding his origin there.

He has Sunday off, so he and Gwen head over to Elyan and Elena’s flat for wine and Scrabble. Gwen accidentally gets drunk at four in the afternoon, and she and Elena spend two hours in an enthused conversation about soap and horses. Meanwhile, Merlin helps Elyan with the essential task of alphabetising their book collection, and then their DVD collection, and then their CD collection, until finally they give up and just watch shit Sunday TV instead. Gwen decides she’s ready to leave around midnight, when she’s hit with an overwhelming need for fish and chips. They swing by the 24-hour place on the way back home, and all in all, Merlin is quite pleased when he climbs into bed, despite knowing he has to be up in five hours.

***

Gwaine doesn’t start work until 1:30, but the two-hour overlap in their shifts is still enough to make Merlin just a little bit insane. It’s not that Gwaine is bad at his job, really. In fact, they make excellent tips, particularly from the young American girls, and Gwaine is never reluctant to share the wealth. Merlin probably takes home £50 more every week just from working with Gwaine for a couple hours each day.

Merlin can’t quite place what it is about Gwaine that makes him feel so wound-up. Maybe it’s that Gwaine is gorgeous in that but I would never let your cock near me kind of way that Merlin doesn’t understand at all. Gwaine seems to be a pretty sexually fluid bloke, and maybe that’s the problem. Merlin has shit luck with men and gaydars and general ability to be attracted to people who are attracted to him in return. Maybe the fact that he knows he could fuck Gwaine if he wanted to sets him on edge.

It’s not like he’s never thought about it, because he has. The sex would be hot, if a little awkward, but Gwaine as a person is the wrong kind of outgoing and carefree for Merlin’s tastes, and Merlin doesn’t see Gwaine ever being excited about an exclusive relationship. They’re ultimately incompatible, and Merlin doesn’t feel much like fucking around with relationships that aren’t going anywhere, particularly with coworkers.

“Hello, gorgeous. What can I make just for you today?” Gwaine’s at it again. Making young women feel great is his specialty, probably because he’s never disingenuous. Gwaine is slightly in love with every person he meets, and maybe Merlin envies him that a bit.

“I’ll take a latte, please,” the black-haired girl says through half a grin.

Gwaine returns the smile and flips his hair in that patented Gwaine way. “Coming right up, love,” he says, because it makes American women melt, and he knows it.

Merlin busies himself wiping down the counter and cleaning the sink, that 3:20 anxiety bubbling up in him. Somehow, he and Gwaine have this unspoken agreement that Merlin always works the customer end when Arthur shows up. For all Merlin knows, they fucked once and now it’s awkward, but that would mean Arthur has sex with men, which would really just make Merlin’s life too fucking complicated, so he chooses to believe that Gwaine is just odd, and that he is odd in return for tacitly agreeing to undergo an interaction that makes him so deeply uncomfortable every Monday through Thursday.

Gwaine flirts with a few more customers while Merlin stocks up on the Ecuador, and then that inexplicable synergistic shift they make for the last five minutes of Merlin’s day takes place, and Merlin is at the register and looking at the door, ready for Arthur’s black Maserati to pull up. Something feels off, so Merlin glances over his shoulder at the wall clock and sees that it’s 3:26. He feels the comfort of routine torn from him, and it unsettles the careful balance of his day.

He helps three customers and fumbles their orders badly, but Gwaine is on top of it, steaming the right milk and pulling nice-looking shots and generally saving Merlin’s sorry arse. Even though Merlin seems to have forgotten how to work the buttons on the register, and Gwaine keeps reaching around his waist to clear the wrong orders and put in the correct numbers, they still manage to get tips from all three, who probably assume Merlin’s mum just died, and Christ, he is acting that way, and he can’t figure out why.

“Where the fuck is your boyfriend?” Gwaine mutters, and Merlin feels like his stomach is losing the battle against gravity and might leak out his shoes any minute. He doesn’t even take issue with the boyfriend comment, too caught off guard by how deeply unsettled he is that Arthur has still not walked through the door.

Merlin stands there until 3:31, when Gwaine rests a hand on Merlin’s wrist and says, “Must be sick today, mate.”

Merlin shakes his head and says, “Yeah. Right.”

He steps away from the register and takes off his apron, balling it up in his fist and trying not to scream his irritation with himself.

Why the fuck does he even care?

***

The rest of Merlin’s week can only be described as unsettling. Arthur does not come in at all, and Gwaine has taken to asking Merlin to do menial tasks when 3:25 comes around just to keep Merlin from panicking. Merlin is begrudgingly a little in love with him for this, because he never comments on Merlin’s utterly perplexing behaviour, just gives him a reason not to think about it.

Merlin has no idea why he feels this way. He chalks it up to always being very attached to routine. Four months with no variance have made Merlin feel safe, and while he can handle Facebook changing its layout, he can’t, apparently, handle his most consistent customer just not showing up anymore.

He spends an embarrassing amount of time staring at the scrap of paper in his night table, his thoughts becoming increasingly frantic as he thinks that maybe Arthur has been kidnapped, is being held ransom, and Merlin is his only chance to be rescued. It’s ridiculous and irrational, but he can’t help himself thinking these things.

There’s no reason for it at all, unless he admits to himself that he has long fantasised about being fucked in the driver’s seat of Arthur’s stupid, expensive car, of being sucked off in the back room of Monmouth’s, of ripping Arthur’s finely tailored suits to shreds and shooting spunk all over his tie. But that’s not something Merlin cares to think about, long as he’s denied it. He really does quite hate everything Arthur represents: rich men who deem luxury a basic necessity of life.

He is drawn to people like Gwen, who give of themselves because they want to, because they have a genuine, unerring love for other people. He is even, apparently, drawn to people like Gwaine, who under vanity and swagger are compassionate and generous. Arthur is the kind of person he never, ever spends time with, and perhaps that’s why he desperately wants to come all over his smug, stupid, gorgeous face, and fuck, if that doesn’t make Merlin a headcase.

On Thursday night over Chinese and a Doctor Who marathon, Merlin finally tells Gwen about Arthur. He’s mentioned in passing, of course, that he has this one irritating posh customer, but he’s never let on how evidently important Arthur’s presence is to him.

Gwen purses her lips and strokes his ear as he tells her about his ridiculous tremors this week, his distraction and lethargy, and the fact that Gwaine has been rescuing his arse at work. When he mentions the slip of paper, Gwen throws up her hands and says, “Well, come on, then. Let’s see it.”

He ambles off to his bedroom to retrieve it and deposits it into Gwen’s palm.

“Four down, number twelve, twenty-two-hundred hours to oh-two-hundred hours,” she mutters. “Sounds like a place and time to me, darling.”

“Time,” Merlin says, shaking his head. “I’m an idiot. Of course it’s time.”

“So he wants you to meet him somewhere.” Gwen tucks her lips in to hide her smile. “You just have to figure out where.”

“Okay,” Merlin says, nodding but not quite understanding. “But what the fuck is this little scribble about? What even is that?” He points to the amorphous, vaguely animal-like blob.

“Couldn’t tell you.” She scrunches her nose at the poor artwork. “Is that a donkey?”

“I thought it was a lamb.”

***

Sunday night, Elyan drags Gwen and Merlin to Soho to hit a bar he’s wanted to go to for ages but hasn’t yet had a reason to visit. His excuse: Elena is out of town visiting her father, and Elyan may become depressed if he doesn’t experience overpriced alcohol and bartenders famous for hosing you down with water without warning just for the fuck of it.

The music is good, which is surprising. Merlin dances with Elyan mostly as Gwen sits at their table near the door waiting for Lance, whom Merlin still has not met. Elyan is fun to dance with, because, unlike with Gwen, Merlin can pretend he’s half of a hot gay couple. Elyan, while expressly heterosexual, is also expressly dancesexual. He will dance with anyone and will always make it look and feel incredibly sexy.

Elyan’s big hands on his hips ground him as he eyes all the attractive men who seem like they might be the dancing type. A gorgeous bloke with dark, curly hair not entirely unlike Gwaine’s steps into the bar, and Merlin shoots a coy look at him before he realises that Gwen has stood and is now walking towards him with open arms.

Well, fuck. Lance is handsome.

“Is that who I think it is?” Elyan says into Merlin’s ear, and Merlin nods.

“Think she’ll share?”

“Here, let’s get you laid, huh?” Elyan says, sinking his fingers into the hair at the back of Merlin’s head and pulling until Merlin feels his neck exposed, his lips parted. “I think I saw a bloke at the bar checking you out. Let’s give him a good look, hmm?”

Elyan manoeuvres them until Merlin is facing the bar, hips moving back against Elyan’s as Elyan noses down the side of his neck, which he knows is sweaty.

“Which bloke?” Merlin asks, scanning the backs of six heads at the bar.

“The blond in the white T-shirt.”

“Blond,” Merlin says, bringing one hand up to wrap behind Elyan’s neck. “My favourite.”

He gives the bloke a thorough stare, and so far, incredibly good. His thin, tight shirt puts a well-maintained body on display. He obviously works out but isn’t a fitness junkie. He seems to be drinking a dark beer, and his hair is fucking perfect. Merlin is certain it must sparkle in the sunlight.

“Turn around,” Merlin whispers, and as if a prayer has been answered, the bloke leans back with his elbow on the bar, turns, and looks directly at Merlin.

As their eyes meet, Merlin abruptly stops moving, or would, if Elyan would let him.

“He’s cute,” Elyan says. “Keep up the show, huh?”

“Right,” Merlin says, putting a hand over Elyan’s on his own hip as he takes in Arthur Pendragon in something other than one of his fucking tailored suits.

Arthur watches. He watches in that way you might watch someone fill your plate with a thoughtfully prepared meal you’ve been hungry for all day. He watches Merlin like he’s on display for only him, which he is, and fuck, if that isn’t sexy. He watches Merlin like he plans on having him, and soon. Merlin’s heart is racing, not in small part because Arthur is here. He’s not kidnapped or dead, and now Merlin is just a little bit angry with him, but then Arthur smirks and drags a thumb across his lower lip, and Merlin would mostly like to just drag him into the loo and fuck him silly.

“He likes you,” Elyan says, and Merlin can’t believe it, but he has to, because there’s no questioning it. Arthur has one hand on his thigh and the other around his beer, and then he grins at Merlin and fucking tips his glass before draining it, lips and throat obscene.

The song ends and the lights go up, and the DJ gets on the mic to announce the next week’s lineup of guest DJs. Elyan pats Merlin on the bum and says, “Thanks for the dance,” before heading off to the bar. Merlin runs a hand through his sweaty hair and is anxiously building the courage to approach Arthur when Gwen’s arms are around him and she’s trying to introduce Lance. Arthur gives him one last grin before standing and turning to the bar, wallet in hand.

“Gwen,” Merlin says, still unable to take his eyes off Arthur, primarily because his surprisingly large, round arse is now displayed in jeans before his eyes. “That’s Arthur.”

“Holy fuck, Lance, one minute,” she says, and they share a moment of silent awe that yes, that is, in fact, Arthur.

Then, as Arthur moves to step away from the bar, the absurd happens. For no reason Merlin can divine, the bartender aims a hose at him and fires, a steady jet of water soaking Arthur from head to foot.

“Holy shit,” Gwen says at Merlin’s side.

Arthur’s T-shirt is transparent and clinging to him, and when he turns around to escape the spray, Merlin sees that his fucking nipples are hard. Holy shit, indeed.

Presumably after the shock abates, Arthur breaks into laughter so genuine and boisterous, several people in the bar join in. Even Merlin feels himself grinning, infectious as Arthur’s joy is. His smile is wide, his teeth fucking gorgeous, and he looks at Merlin past his wet fringe, and Merlin’s chest suddenly feels two sizes too small for all the things he’s trying to hold there.

Arthur doesn’t stop looking at Merlin, even as he peels the wet shirt away from his body and wrings it out, exposing the tight flesh of his lower abdomen, and Merlin can’t be blamed if he breaks eye contact to watch.

Beside him, Gwen is frantically whispering into her fist, “Holyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit.”

Arthur brushes the fringe out of his eyes and gives Merlin a wink (seriously, who even winks) before heading for the door, his soppy shoes leaving a wet trail behind him.

Merlin looks over at Gwen finally to see that she’s gripping Lance’s hand. Elyan shoulder bumps him and hands over what looks like a vodka cranberry, which Merlin sips at appreciatively.

Gwen looks ready to explode, her head shaking from side to side.

“Hi, then,” Lance says, finally breaking the silence and setting everyone back into motion.

“Oh, god, I’m sorry,” Gwen says. “Merlin, Elyan, this is Lance. Lance, Elyan, my brother, and Merlin, my flatmate.”

Merlin and Elyan take turns shaking Lance’s hand and expressing their pleasure at meeting him.

“And you two are together?” Lance says, gesturing to Merlin and Elyan.

“Oh, no,” Gwen laughs. “Elyan is married.”

Lance shakes his head.

“To a woman,” Gwen clarifies, and Lance just shrugs.

“Don’t make it sound so heteronormative, Guinevere,” Elyan chides, and Merlin is now certain he’s drunk. Elyan always puts on his gender-role cap when he’s pissed. “It’s just for the taxes. Elena makes loads more than I do.”

The lights dim again, and the music is deafening. Merlin doesn’t much feel like dancing, so when Lance asks if they want to relocate to the pub across the street for quiz night, they all make quick work of their drinks.

It turns out Lance is, in fact, the perfect man, particularly for Gwen. He works for a nonprofit publisher by day and volunteers for a nonprofit shelter by evening, he hasn’t missed an annual Pride event since he was fourteen, and he looks at Gwen in a way that has Merlin and Elyan elbowing each other all night.

Merlin tries to let those odd moments with Arthur sink into the back of his consciousness as he enjoys a lovely night out with his friends, but he can’t keep his mind from stuttering over the image of Arthur Pendragon, half naked and dripping wet, winking at Merlin.

***

Monday morning is kind of a shitshow. Merlin wakes up in a strange apartment with a splitting headache and a playing card stuck to his elbow. He rolls off the lumpy sofa and takes three steps before he smells coffee, and then he’s power-walking towards the kitchen he thinks must belong to Lance.

When Merlin steps into the kitchen, hand trying to hold his brain in his skull, Lance looks over his shoulder from where he’s standing at the messy counter. Without a word, he pours a mug of coffee and hands it to Merlin, because he is The Perfect Man. The coffee is surprisingly good for homemade drip shit, and it’s made even better when Lance lines up a glass of water, two ibuprofen, and a shot of whiskey on the table and gestures towards it with his head.

Despite his stomach’s protests, Merlin throws back the whiskey first and chases it with coffee that’s still too hot to drink so quickly. Next is the ibuprofen and the entire glass of water. For about two minutes, Merlin is certain he will vomit, but it passes, and he and Lance sip at their coffee in silence.

Gwen comes tumbling into the room about half an hour later when Merlin has finally become certain he won’t die this morning. He and Lance look at each other and tag-team Gwen’s hangover cure.

“I need a tuna sandwich,” she moans into the crook of her arm, draped over the table.

“Nowhere’s open yet. How about some crisps?”

Gwen whines but agrees to the crisps, and once she’s had her medicine, they all sit and only halfway enjoy their coffee and crisps until Merlin remembers he has to work.

“Can I use your shower, mate?” Merlin asks.

Gwen looks grumpily up at him, and Lance nods, leading the way to the bathroom.

“Let me grab you some fresh clothes,” Lance says as he turns on the water, eyeing Merlin’s day-old, wrinkled outfit like it may come to life and eat him.

“You’re my hero,” Merlin says, stripping off without bothering to shut the door. Lance, to his credit, is utterly unfazed by Merlin’s bare arse climbing into the shower when he comes back to set a towel and some clothes on the toilet.

The hot water edges out most of Merlin’s headache and queasiness, and it’s all he can do to not just stand and luxuriate for half an hour. Merlin has always been shit at quick showers. He rubs his hands over every inch of skin he can reach, intent on scraping away the grime from a night of heavy drinking and, more worryingly, heavy soul-sharing. As he shampoos his hair—and really, this is better than Gwen’s brand—he vaguely recalls leaning Very Close to Lance’s face and explaining the revelation that is Arthur’s arse in jeans. He shudders and vows never to drink again. How many times is that now?

He gets out of the shower long before he feels satisfied and quickly dries off, pulling on the clothes Lance left out. They’re not really Merlin’s style—too much khaki and buttons—but they’re about the right size and do look pretty good on him. They smell like Lance, though, which makes Merlin scrunch his nose up a bit, evidence that looks aren’t all there is to attraction. He wonders how Arthur smells and then makes a face at himself in the mirror before heading back out to the main room.

“I’ll drop you at work,” Lance says, already by the door with keys in hand.

“I can take the Tube,” Merlin says, despite not actually having any idea where they are.

“Bollocks,” is Lance’s only response. They leave Gwen lying on the kitchen floor per her request and head out into the chilly November air, Merlin’s old clothes balled up under his arm.

***

The morning at work goes surprisingly well, given that Merlin is still decidedly hung over. The customers are cheerful and seem to have chosen today not to order weirdly complicated beverages. Coffee. Latte. Bam. Easy.

When Gwaine strolls into the shop, he whistles at Merlin. “Dig the makeover, mate.”

Merlin looks down at himself and then back up at Gwaine, rolling his eyes. “These belong to my flatmate’s boyfriend.”

“That sounds dramatic,” Gwaine says, waggling his eyebrows.

“Not like that. She was there too.”

“Didn’t know you swung both ways.”

“No, not….” Merlin sighs and decides not to finish that sentence. Gwaine is as Gwaine does, and Gwaine prefers to believe that the world is a glorious place full of magic, mystery, and deviant sex.

Gwaine somehow manages to split open an entire sack of Sumatra, sending coffee beans skittering across the floor. Merlin takes over manning the register and the espresso bar while Gwaine crawls around clearing up the mess. He’s still on the ground sweeping up beans at 3:25, when the door to Monmouth’s opens.

Merlin’s heart stutters, but when he looks up, it’s not Arthur. A striking woman with long black hair is striding towards him in an exquisitely tailored suit.

“What can I get for you?” Merlin says, a bit breathless in the face of a person who so wholly commands the room. Even the many customers squeezed into seats enjoying their coffee and conversation are muted by this woman’s presence.

“I won’t be ordering anything,” she says in an incredibly posh accent. “I prefer tea, of course.”

Of course, Merlin thinks to himself.

“No, I’m here to ask after one of your regular customers, an Arthur Pendragon.”

Gwaine grabs onto Merlin’s leg, and Merlin fights not to react.

“Oh?” is all Merlin says.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“I’m not sure who you’re talking about,” Merlin says, and Gwaine’s grip tightens. Merlin suspects he may bite soon.

“Blond, well-dressed, comes in at the same time every day, probably orders the same thing because he’s incredibly dull.”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks,” Merlin lies for the second time.

“Right, well, neither have I,” the woman says, and Merlin glimpses her flicking the nails of her right hand against each other.

“Has he gone missing or something?”

Instead of answering, the woman asks, “When last you saw him, was he behaving strangely? Did he say or do anything unusual?”

“No,” Merlin lies yet again, and he has no idea why he does it. “You seem worried.”

“I’m not so much worried about him as I am about the idea that my uptight brother is having some kind of cut-loose quarter-age crisis and is planning to do something wholly idiotic with our business.” She shoots Merlin a glance that makes his heart race, one devastating eyebrow lifted in challenge. “Do call me should he turn up.”

She pulls a business card from her purse and holds it out between two manicured fingers, not extending her arm away from her body so that Merlin must lean forward to take it from her. He glances at the card long enough to read her name—Morgana Pendragon—before sticking it into his pocket. He nods at Morgana before she turns, her long hair swishing and her heels clicking louder than any pair Merlin’s ever heard before. It only takes a moment for her absence to be felt in the shop, the noise of conversation returning to its typical level.

“Think she’ll marry me?” Gwaine says, tugging on the leg of Merlin’s trousers, which Merlin looks down to see are actually Lance’s.

“Not if you always hide from intimidating women,” Merlin says, kicking Gwaine off and heading to the back to grab his bundle of clothing.

***

When Merlin gets home from work, he immediately sheds his clothing, unable to stand another minute of being wrapped in someone else’s scent. He climbs into bed, vowing not to get up until six the next day. It’s wishful thinking, of course. He has a fitful nap that ends the instant he hears the apartment door click. He listens to Gwen setting down her keys, taking a long shower, and putting on a pot of tea. The sound of his apartment being lived in makes him warm and happy, despite the disappointing nap.

The kettle whistles, and a minute later, Gwen knocks lightly at his door.

“Come in,” Merlin says, still huddled under the duvets.

Gwen opens the door and smiles in at him. “Would you like some tea?”

“Please.”

Gwen disappears for a moment and returns with a tray. Merlin sits up in bed and smooths down the duvets, inviting her to sit with him. She pours tea into both cups and milk into hers. They take their first sip in silence.

“Lance is coming over around eight,” Gwen says, stirring sugar into her tea.

“Do you want me to disappear for a while?”

“No, of course not. We can always stay at his if we want privacy.”

Merlin nods, taking a sip of tea. “What’ve you got planned?”

“Nothing special. Probably just sitting around watching telly. May bake something. Any requests?”

“What region do you feel like today?”

“I’m feeling English and unadventurous.”

“Rhubarb crumble, then,” Merlin says, his mouth watering at the thought of it.

“Rhubarb crumble, it is.”

Gwen refills their cups and pulls her legs up onto the bed to sit cross-legged.

“How was work today?” she asks.

“Fine. Same old,” Merlin says, then realises that’s not true. “Actually, no. Arthur’s sister showed up at the shop today asking after him.”

Gwen’s eyes widen, and she sets down her cup. “What did she say?”

“Nothing much. Just said Arthur hasn’t been around lately, and I guess they run a business together. She asked if I’d seen him.”

“And what did you say?”

“No?” Merlin says, sipping his tea.

“Except you did see him.”

“Except I did, yes. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her, really. He just didn’t seem to be in trouble, so I figured it wasn’t really my business giving him away.”

“Did she say anything that makes any sense of that note he left you?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” Merlin thinks back to the conversation with Morgana. “She did say Arthur was uptight.”

Gwen’s left eyebrow climbs her forehead. “He didn’t look that way to me.”

“Decidedly not. She said he was having some identity crisis or something.”

“Hmm,” Gwen hums, standing and picking up the tray. Merlin drains his cup and sets it down. “And it seems his crisis involves flirting with dashing gay men who work in coffee shops. Lucky you.”

She leaves the room in a hurry, before Merlin can hurl a pillow at her. He checks his phone, and it’s already 7:30. He peers out the doorway to see if Gwen is within eyeshot. When he sees that the coast is clear, he hops out of bed and pulls a pair of pants out of the wardrobe, sliding them on. He grabs the first jogging bottoms and shirt he can find and decides it’s dinnertime.

On his way out of his room, his foot gets tangled in the pile of clothes on the floor, and he rolls his eyes at himself. He should at least be decent enough to wash them before he gives them back to Lance, even though he’s sure Lance will want to run them through again with his intense fabric softener.

Merlin throws together a small load—he’s miraculously caught up on his chores at the moment—including his seriously questionable clothes from yesterday, and heads to the kitchen.

“Don’t cook,” Gwen shouts from the bathroom. “Lance is bringing pizza.”

Merlin’s stomach makes an anticipatory lurch as he opens the machine and starts stuffing in clothes. Per routine, he checks all of the pockets of his trousers before throwing them into the wash. In one pair, he finds £5 and a crumpled-up receipt. In the other, he finds Morgana’s business card. He sets the machine to run and ambles over to the bin to toss the receipt and business card—he has no intention of ever calling Morgana—when something catches his eye.

“Holy shit,” he whispers. He tosses the receipt but keeps the card and runs to his bedroom. He pulls out the scrap of paper Arthur gave him, now worn from touch around the edges. He stares at it, then the business card, and then at the note again.

“Gwen!” he shouts, running to the bathroom.

Gwen is standing with her mascara wand poised in front of her eye.

“Scare me half to death,” she says. “What’s wrong?”

“I know what Arthur’s shit drawing is,” Merlin says, flopping down the note and the card on the counter.

Gwen picks up the business card and runs her thumb over the dragon in the upper right corner. “Shit,” she says. She squints for a moment, and then her mouth falls open. “Shit! Merlin, this is his office!”

Merlin shakes his head. That much is obvious.

“Merlin, Room 601. It’s on the sixth level.” She points at Arthur’s note, tapping the words “Down 4.”

“You don’t think….”

“I certainly do think. He wants you to meet him in Room 212 between ten and two.”

“What the convoluted fuck?”

Gwen shrugs and goes back to applying her makeup. Merlin stands helplessly beside her, staring at the paper. Down 4, #12, 2200-0200.

Gwen applies a light gloss and then smacks her lips. A spritz of perfume and she’s done, squeezing past Merlin through the doorway.

Merlin scoops up the paper and business card and goes to sit on the sofa. Gwen tidies up a bit and then stops and looks at him.

“You can’t wear that.”

“What?”

“You can’t see Arthur in that horrible top.”

“‘See Arthur’? Guinevere, you’re getting ideas.”

“I’m choosing your outfit,” she says before disappearing into Merlin’s room.

“I’m not going,” Merlin shouts as he gets up from the sofa to follow.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin,” Gwen says, pushing clothes around in the wardrobe. “You want to have sex with him, and he wants to give it to you.”

“No. No, no.”

“Yes,” she says, tossing an armful of clothes at him. “Put these on right now. You won’t want to look like you’ve dressed especially to see him.”

Merlin rolls his eyes but does it anyway. He swaps shirts, trading a Keane T-shirt for a plain black one that fits more snugly. He slides off his joggers and is stuffing a leg into the medium-wash jeans Gwen handed to him when she says, “What are you doing?”

“Putting on clothes?”

“Merlin, you’re meant to be seducing him. You cannot wear those blousy pants.”

“Oh, for….” Merlin says, though she has a point. “Well, grab me some better ones.”

Gwen rifles through the drawer until she pulls out a tiny pair of briefs and throws them at his face before running out the door.

Merlin cajoles his genitals into a comfortable position in the briefs and then pulls on the jeans. When he goes back into the living room, Gwen is sitting on the sofa with her laptop, writing something down on a notepad.

“The Tube stops a few minutes from the building, and there’s a bus that runs all night,” Gwen says, tearing off the piece of paper and sticking it in his back pocket.

Merlin is just coming up with a very cogent argument for why he can’t possibly just show up at a random office late at night, when there’s a knock at the door. Gwen rushes over to open it, and as soon as Lance comes in with the pizza, any hope of dissuading Gwen’s insistence disappears. It’s two against one, and when Lance says, “But aren’t you curious?” Merlin has no response that isn’t “yes,” so he instead clears the plates, pulls the wet laundry out of the machine, and hangs it to dry, throwing Lance’s over the radiator.

Gwen and Lance step out to pick up rhubarb and ginger, and Merlin is left alone with too many thoughts. He empties the bins, scrubs down the counters, and flips Lance’s clothes. Every time he thinks of knocking on Room 212, he feels nauseous. He has no idea what he’ll even say to Arthur, but Arthur’s the one who invited him, albeit in an irritatingly roundabout way, so the conversation starters are on him.

Merlin is scrubbing out one of the refrigerator drawers when Gwen and Lance come back, and Gwen wraps her arms around his waist from behind.

“Why so stressed?” she asks as Lance starts digging in cupboards, presumably looking for oats and sugar, judging by what he pulls out.

“Why do you think?”

“Because you have to leave in ten minutes?”

“Holy shit.” Merlin lifts Gwen’s arm and looks at her watch. “Shit.”

“Lance, will you do something about his hair?”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “I can do my own hair. And I can dress myself. And I can get my own directions and decide for myself whether I’ll go try to shag the hot blond who pisses me off on a near-daily basis.”

Gwen clucks her tongue in his ear and lets him go. He’s certain she and Lance share a look behind his back, and he isn’t actually frustrated with her. She doesn’t fuss over him unless she thinks he’s self-destructing, and maybe he is. Lance claps him on the shoulder, and Merlin follows him to the bathroom.

“We’re going for subtle,” Lance says as he opens a tiny silver tube carefully selected from Gwen’s shelf of hair products. He squeezes a dab of white cream onto his index finger and smears it over his fingertips. He turns Merlin’s face toward the light and smooths his fingers through Merlin’s hair, pinching and twisting clumps of it in a pattern Merlin can’t make sense of. Lance turns his face this way and that, and Merlin is acutely aware of how long it’s been since any man admired him this close. The deep longing to be touched and seen stills the anxiety in Merlin. As Lance clucks his tongue in approval and releases his face, Merlin feels resolve settle low in his belly.

He grabs a light jacket and stuffs his phone, keys, and wallet in his pocket. When he goes into the kitchen to say goodbye to Gwen, her fingers are sunk in a mixture of butter and oats, so he kisses her on the cheek, and she and Lance flash him bright smiles before he sets off for the Tube.

***

The Tube ride is smooth and uneventful, and Merlin’s nervousness catches up with him. Every step on the way to Arthur’s building, Merlin tells himself to turn back.

Merlin walks into the foyer and greets the night receptionist, a fierce-looking blond woman with an unexpectedly kind smile. He tells her he’s here to visit a friend in 212, and she stares at her screen for a moment before nodding. She takes down his information and waves him on to the lift. Pressing the button to call the lift makes his belly hurt with fear—fear of rejection, fear of being ridiculed, fear that Arthur won’t even be here.

He stands a metre off from Room 212 for a long moment, heartbeat thudding in his ears. The hallway is bright and clean. Merlin takes a steadying breath and approaches the door, reaching his hand out to knock before he can change his mind.

A beat passes, then two, and Merlin is abruptly flooded with the hot humiliation of having been stood up. He feels his face settle into a grimace and hates his own foolish hopefulness. He exhales deeply through his nose and reaches out to knock again. The door opens.

Merlin is punched in the gut with a strong urge to vomit. The face peering through the crack in the door does not belong to Arthur but to Morgana.

“Haven’t heard from him, you said.” Her face betrays no emotion. Only the taunting in her voice gives away her irritation.

“I’ll just go,” Merlin says, breathless, fists clenched by his sides. He turns back towards the lift and walks, willing himself to just breathe and praying that Gwen will still be awake when he gets home. He can’t bear this shame alone.

He’s halfway to the lift when he hears Arthur’s voice.

“Morgana?”

“Your lad was here,” she says.

“My … fuck!”

Merlin is pushing the lift button repeatedly, willing it to come faster, when he hears pounding footsteps behind him and feels a hot hand suddenly on his arm.

“Merlin,” Arthur says.

Merlin turns to look at him. Arthur’s nostrils are flared with his wide smile, his eyes bright and blue. The look of him this close makes Merlin angry with want. He turns away.

“I’ll just—”

“No, come in.” Arthur’s hand is still on Merlin’s arm, pulling him away from the lift. “Morgana is leaving,” Arthur says too loudly.

“Like hell I am!” Morgana says, now standing fully in the hallway. She’s in blue jogging bottoms and a white sweater with her arms folded across her chest. Somehow her bare feet don’t make her any less formidable.

Arthur leans into Merlin’s ear, and Merlin holds his breath. In a low voice that makes him tingle, Arthur says, “Please stay. I’ll get rid of her.”

Merlin lets out his breath and nods, looking into Arthur’s eyes and immediately regretting the decision. He lets Arthur lead him past Morgana into the room, which upon inspection is actually a rather posh flat.

“I thought this was an office,” he says.

“First three floors are apartments.” Arthur’s voice is surprisingly close. He’s hovering near Merlin as though he’ll flee at any moment. It almost makes Merlin want to run, just to see what would happen.

“You two are really a pair,” Morgana says when she reenters the flat. “A pair of liars.”

“What did Merlin do?”

Merlin,” Morgana says as though his name tastes bad, “told me he hadn’t seen or heard from you at all.”

“Did he?” Arthur says through a grin.

Merlin shrugs.

“And yet here he is,” Morgana says, curling the toes of her left foot under and cracking them against the wood floor.

“Well, Morgana, as you can see, I’ve got company, so….” Arthur hesitates, as though choosing his words carefully. “Leave.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow, Pendragon,” she says, picking up her messenger bag and sliding her feet into her slip-ons.

“Until then, Pendragon,” Arthur says.

Merlin looks around, feeling uncomfortable. The flat isn’t as opulent as he’d have guessed Arthur’s tastes to be. The appliances are worlds nicer than Merlin’s, but the telly is a modest size, and the sofa, while impractically white, looks lived-in. There’s a bookshelf lined with books and DVDs and a few stacks of paper. The counter separating the kitchen from the living area is littered with papers and a laptop. Two doors lead off the living room, both open, though the lighting isn’t good enough for Merlin to see inside.

Merlin hears the lock click, and Arthur tells him to have a seat on the sofa.

“Would you like something to drink? Tea? Beer? Water?”

“Whatever you’re having,” Merlin says, falling into the sofa that is as comfortable as it looks.

He listens to Arthur open the fridge and clink some bottles together before he hears the tight, wet sound of bottles being divested of their caps. Merlin rests his head sideways and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. He feels oddly relaxed, considering. He takes another deep breath and realises that Arthur lives here, that this is the scent of Arthur, and suddenly he doesn’t feel so calm anymore.

Arthur sets the beers down on the coffee table, pushing one towards Merlin, and then sits on the other end of the sofa. When he pulls his feet up under him, Merlin sees his bare feet and looks down at his own shoes.

“Should I?” Merlin points to his feet.

“Whatever makes you comfortable,” Arthur says, taking a sip of his beer.

Merlin grabs his and drinks as well for want of something to do.

“I’m glad you came,” Arthur says.

“Not sure why I’m here.”

“I can’t say I’m entirely sure, either, but I’m glad for it anyway.”

“Well, you did invite me,” Merlin says. “Sort of.”

“Yeah, that was weird of me.”

“Have you just been sitting around all this time, or might I have missed you on another night?”

Arthur smiles into his bottle. “I’ve been here every night.”

“Except that night you weren’t.”

“Well, you were in the same bar, so I was pretty sure you wouldn’t be turning up at mine unexpectedly. I went home anyway just in case.”

Merlin chuckles as he remembers the wet trail left by Arthur’s soggy shoes as he left the bar. He tries not to think of Arthur’s tight nipples beneath his soaked shirt.

“I may have come around sooner if you weren’t such shit at drawing. Or if you’d just given me a bloody address like a normal person.”

Arthur grins at him, and he’s so gorgeous Merlin has to take a sip of beer to distract himself from the tightness in his chest. Merlin wants to know why Arthur’s invitation was so indirect, but he’s not sure of the best way to ask, so he goes at it from another angle.

“Your sister seems intense.”

“Believe it or not, she’s my best friend.”

“Oh, I believe it. You’re a prat, too.”

Arthur guffaws, and when Merlin glances at him, he seems somehow delighted.

“You like being talked back to, don’t you?” Merlin doesn’t mean to say it.

“I guess so,” Arthur says. “Aside from Morgana, you’re the only one who really does it.”

“It’s too bad Gwaine never serves you, then. That one is full of cheek.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, resting his elbow on the back of the sofa and setting his face in his hand. “He’s not as cute, though.”

Merlin laughs and lets that one go, not quite ready to delve into talk of sexuality and attraction and the very real possibility that he might forget how to do it and end up vomiting on Arthur’s nice white sofa instead.

“Why’d you stop coming in?”

“Took a break from life,” Arthur says. “Got fed up with the routine and was a queen about it.”

“Doesn’t look like a real break.” Merlin points at the mess on the counter.

“Well, you can take the boy out of work.”

“This seems like a shit hiding spot,” Merlin says. “Four floors below your office in your own home? How did Morgana ever have trouble finding you?”

“She never knew about this place. Still don’t know how she found it, clever sister of mine. I’ve owned it for a few years but until a couple weeks ago only ever stayed here when I was falling asleep at work.”

“Which probably happened every day,” Merlin says, because he knows Arthur’s type.

“Only about twice a week.” Arthur’s smile fills the entire room, and Merlin is having trouble accessing the part of him that hates smug workaholics like Arthur.

They chat easily for a while about nothing in particular. Merlin finds himself enjoying Arthur’s company very much until Arthur asks him about his work at Monmouth’s, and Merlin answers with a bitter, “You must be embarrassed of hanging around with a coffee boy.”

“Why?” Arthur asks, and Merlin is irritated by the look of utter confusion on his face.

“Unskilled work? Shit wage? Stupid hat?”

“You love your work,” Arthur says, as though Merlin doesn’t already know that.

“Yeah, I do,” Merlin says, defensive.

“That’s all that matters. You’re not ashamed of what you do, so why would I be? I quite value your work. And unskilled work, my arse. You steam the most perfect milk in Covent Garden.”

“Charmer,” Merlin says, hoping he sounds ironic when he doesn’t feel ironic at all.

Apparently it comes out flirty, because the next thing Arthur says is, “I liked watching you dance the other night.”

In an ill-advised moment of honesty, Merlin says, “I liked you watching.”

The air between them is too thick. Merlin can’t tear his eyes from Arthur’s face, his parted lips. Panicking a little bit, he grabs his beer and takes a gulp. He pulls his feet out of his shoes and curls them beneath him on the sofa, leaning his back against the armrest and crossing his arms across his lap.

“That bloke you were dancing with—he wasn’t gay, was he?”

“No,” Merlin says, laughing. “How could you tell?”

“Excellent gaydar,” Arthur says, twiddling his fingers in the air as though they have magical gay sensors.

“No, Elyan is very straight.”

“Too bad,” Arthur says. “He’s gorgeous.”

“An excellent dancer, too.”

“So I saw. It was kind of him to put you on display for me. Though perhaps a little degrading.”

“Well, when you’ve been out of the game as long as I have,” Merlin says, immediately regretting it. Hot shit, Merlin, he thinks. Men love it when you come off desperate.

For his part, Arthur seems more intrigued than put off.

“How long?” he asks.

“A while.”

“If I tell you, will you tell me?”

This is a weird turn in the conversation, but Merlin nods anyway. Arthur sips his beer, so Merlin does the same.

“Nine years,” Arthur says, and Merlin feels his jaw drop.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Nine … what?”

“To clarify, it’s been nine years since I’ve done anything with a bloke.”

“So you’re bi?”

“Not even a little bit,” Arthur says flatly.

“Shit,” Merlin breathes, overwhelmed by all the things that admission makes him feel. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s done now,” Arthur says. Merlin’s chest swells with pride until Arthur asks, “So how long?”

Merlin groans, suddenly feeling guilty. “Two years. So not that long.”

“No, that’s impressively long for a bloke who’s out.”

“What, are you saying we gays can’t keep it in our pants?”

“No, not at all,” Arthur says. “It’s just, why would you want to? I mean, I’m sure you have your reasons.”

“Yeah, like having a shit gaydar, liking all the wrong blokes, and being ridiculously picky.”

“So what kind of man do you go for?” Arthur asks, sticking a foot out to kick at Merlin’s knee.

“Not telling,” Merlin says, taking a gulp of beer.

“I’ll bet they’re tallish, of medium build, and blond with blue eyes.” Arthur puts on a cheesy grin. “How close am I?”

“Not telling.”

Arthur finishes his beer and goes to the kitchen for another. Merlin feels stupid and giddy with how easy it is to talk to Arthur. He finishes his own beer and sets it on the coffee table. He extends his feet in front of him on the sofa and slouches, laying his head back on the armrest.

“What kind of bloke do you go for?” Merlin asks, eyes closed.

When Arthur speaks, it’s startlingly near, his mouth close enough to Merlin’s ear that the hot moisture of his breath ghosts over Merlin’s skin. Merlin stops breathing.

“I like thin black-haired blokes with big ears and straight noses who refuse to remember my name.”

“Arthur,” Merlin gasps, and he wants desperately for Arthur to kiss him.

Arthur’s fingers curl around Merlin’s hip and squeeze, and where Merlin is normally ticklish, he’s now incredibly sensitive and open, aching for Arthur’s fingers to dip lower. Arthur says, “Good boy,” and then he’s gone. When Merlin opens his eyes, Arthur is back in the kitchen, and Merlin’s empty bottle is no longer on the table. His skin still burns where Arthur touched him.

“You want another?” Arthur says as though nothing happened.

“Yes,” Merlin says, then remembers himself. “But I can’t. I work tomorrow, as you know, so I’d better get home.”

“Did you take the Tube?”

Merlin nods.

“I’ll drive you back if you don’t mind my knowing where you live.”

“Only if you kiss me goodnight,” Merlin says and is immediately shocked at how slutty he sounds.

“Well, in that case,” Arthur says, pausing, “let’s go.”

Merlin sits up and fidgets with his hair, which he’s sure he’s smushed into an unflattering shape. He puts on his shoes and stands, following Arthur out into the hallway.

They head downstairs into the heated garage and climb into Arthur’s stupid, expensive car.

“Where am I going?” Arthur says, handing his iPhone over to Merlin. Merlin punches in his address and hands the phone back to Arthur, and Arthur starts driving.

“So why do you drive this? It’s hardly practical.”

“My father gave it to me,” Arthur says, voice a bit stiff.

“Did he give you all your fancy suits, too?”

“Yes, he did,” Arthur says. “My father excels in little other than shows of extravagance.”

“And if you were to pick your own, what would you drive?” Merlin asks, veering away from what seems to be a sore subject.

“Smart Car.”

Merlin laughs, unable to imagine Arthur crammed into one of those.

“Why? What would you drive?”

“Nothing,” Merlin says, shaking his head. “I hardly even know how.”

They’re silent for the rest of the drive as the iPhone barks commands. Too soon, they’re on Merlin’s street, and he points out the building to Arthur. Arthur pulls over and turns off the engine.

“I, um … here,” Arthur says and shoves an envelope into Merlin’s hands. “Please don’t look at it until later.”

Merlin nods. “Well, thanks for the ride. And the beer.”

“Come here,” Arthur says, voice rough, as he reaches out and cups Merlin’s cheek.

The lulling calm of the car ride is lost the moment Merlin feels Arthur’s skin against his and sees the way Arthur looks at him, harsh desire lain bare. Merlin is scared of how much he wants this, wants Arthur’s mouth against his, the taste of Arthur and the simple nearness of him.

Arthur presses his thumb to Merlin’s lips and kisses him soft and long, first on one side, then the other. Merlin’s mouth falls open on a gasp, on being wholly unprepared for Arthur giving him something that is almost what he wants, something so close that leaves him aching for more. Arthur watches Merlin’s mouth and runs his thumb along his lower lip, then drops his hand.

“Goodnight, Merlin.”

“Goodnight, you,” Merlin says, and Arthur’s wide smile is worth the cheekiness.

Merlin holds the envelope tightly in his hand as he gets out of Arthur’s car and heads into his building.

Gwen and Lance are asleep together on the sofa with the menu of Buffy’s sixth series playing on the telly. Merlin tries to be silent as he turns off the set, but Gwen wakes at the change in the room.

“What time is it?” she asks, yawning big and loud.

Merlin checks his phone. “Around one.”

“Lance,” she says, shaking Lance’s shoulder. “It’s late. You’d better get in bed or get home.”

Lance grumbles and gives Merlin a grimace that Merlin thinks is meant to be a smile as he hobbles into Gwen’s room as though he’s got two peg legs.

Gwen laughs and shakes her head, the movement lethargic and familiar.

“Sit down for a minute,” Gwen says, patting the sofa. Merlin goes over to close Gwen’s door first, not wanting to keep Lance awake with their conversation. Gwen yawns again when he sits. “How’d it go?”

Merlin sighs, unsure how to answer. “Well, I think. Nothing happened.”

“Hmm,” Gwen sighs. “Maybe next time.”

“It was okay that nothing happened, though. We had a pleasant chat. He’s less of a prat than I thought and hotter than I remembered, so.”

“What’s that?” Gwen says, pointing at the envelope in his hands.

“I’m not sure. Arthur handed it to me in the car and told me not to look until later.”

“It’s later,” Gwen says, suddenly seeming less sleepy. “Open up.”

Merlin gives the envelope a proper look finally. It’s addressed to Arthur from the NHS, and it’s been marked by the post with Monday’s date. Merlin turns it over and sees that it hasn’t been unsealed.

“Why is he giving me his post?” Merlin asks before tearing open the envelope. He pulls out the sheet of paper inside and promptly drops it in his lap.

Gwen snatches it up and squeals when she realises what it is.

“What the fuck is this?” Merlin says, anger bubbling up quite suddenly.

“It’s his test results. He hasn’t got anything.”

“Obviously, but why is he giving this to me?”

“Dear lord, Merlin,” Gwen says. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“He wants to fuck me.”

“Yes.” The hesitation in Gwen’s voice betrays her confusion.

“You don’t see anything wrong with this?”

“Of course not. Don’t you want to know?”

Merlin sighs. He does want to know. He really does. But this is not how he wants to find out, an impersonal envelope after their first time talking outside of Monmouth’s—talking at all—that screams you’re just a shag to me.

“He went for the whole kit and caboodle,” Gwen says, looking at the sheet. “He got tested for everything.”

“Yes, good for him,” Merlin gripes.

Gwen puts the results on the table. “Well, whatever you think of Arthur’s decision to share this information with you, I think you and Lance and I should go. I’ll call in the morning and set us up.”

“Gwen—”

“Can it,” Gwen says. “We’re going.”

And with that, she gets up and heads off to her bedroom. Merlin sighs and goes to climb into his own bed, remembering that he has to wake up in only a few short hours for work.

***

Merlin leaves work Tuesday afternoon with a migraine the size of Wales and sees Gwen and Lance huddled just outside the door. Gwen wraps an arm around Merlin’s waist, and the three of them walk towards the Tube station.

“Did Arthur come in today?” Gwen asks.

“No.”

“Too bad.”

The cold air pierces Merlin’s throat as they walk, and he can’t wait to get home and climb into bed.

“Where are we going?” Merlin asks when they get to the station and Gwen gets on a Tube that doesn’t go by their flat.

“We’re being responsible adults and getting tested!” Gwen says, as though it’s the most exciting thing since she learnt to solder.

“I hate you,” Merlin says.

“You can nap on the ride.”

“Okay, I love you.”

“I know.”

The STI testing itself isn’t too bad. It’s the usual fare, and Merlin reminds himself that he hasn’t done it since he and Jason broke up, and it is definitely time to start taking better care of himself. He has to argue with the nurse to get her to mail the results to his flat and signs a consent form to be done with it. He admits to himself that there’s no better assurance for a potential partner than a sealed letter from the clinic, but he doesn’t give Gwen the satisfaction of hearing him say it aloud.

Next to the clinic is a burrito shop, and Gwen, Lance, and Merlin eat their weight in rice and beans before they catch the Tube. The walk from the station to their flat feels eternal. When they finally make it home, Merlin can’t quite figure out his keys at first, but eventually wiggles and jostles them enough to open the door. He doesn’t even wait until he’s in his room to start taking off clothes, losing his shirt and trousers before he enters his haven and shuts the door. He climbs into bed and sleeps until four in the morning, when he promptly has a nice long wank followed by a nice long shower.

When he goes into the kitchen to put on a pot of tea, he sees his clothes folded on the table and a plate of biscuits next to them. He checks his email for the first time in days (one from his mum, two from Will, and all junk besides) while he drinks tea and eats half the plate. He plays two rounds of solitaire, and then it’s time to leave for work.

Feeling more rested than he has in a while, Merlin is mostly chipper at work. Wednesday is Leon’s first day working mornings, and Merlin finds he’s happy to have the help. He hasn’t had backup on mornings since Mithian moved to the States to be with a bloke she met online.

Leon is new to Monmouth but not to coffee, so he’s very easy to train. He approaches each task with a degree of seriousness and concentration that Merlin finds adorable. With his floppy hair and left-weighted stance, Leon is an easy person to get along with. By noon on Thursday, Merlin also learns that while generally earnest, Leon has better comedic timing than anyone Merlin has ever met.

Even Gwaine is uncommonly well behaved, and despite himself, Merlin responds to his flirting. It’s better than spending all his time stewing over how frustrated with Arthur he is, and how he’ll probably have to do something about it soon. Merlin and Gwaine continue on their unspoken quest to perfect the art of synergistic coffee preparation, which involves many brushed fingers and shoulders pressed against one another, and Merlin takes none of it for granted.

Just as Merlin is getting ready to leave on Friday afternoon, Gwaine says, “I saw your beautiful blond in Soho last night.”

“Pardon?”

“He was looking fit. You should jump that before someone else gets there.”

Merlin rolls his eyes as he takes off his cap and apron and moves into the back room, but he suddenly does not feel quite so okay anymore.

On the way out of the shop, Merlin’s eye catches on the display of porcelain travel mugs. He waves at Gwaine and says, “I’m taking one of these.”

Gwaine shoots him a sly grin and says, “I saw it break.”

“Good.”

***

At ten sharp, Merlin is knocking on the door of Arthur’s flat.

“Here,” he says as soon as the door opens, stuffing the porcelain Monmouth cup into Arthur’s hand. “Now you can stop being so wasteful.”

“Thanks, Merlin,” Arthur says, wearing one of his stupid white V-necks, his chest wide and tantalising. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“Shut up,” Merlin says, and Arthur looks taken aback. “I’m angry with you.”

“I see that. Can I ask why?”

Merlin feels the corners of his mouth turn town. “You can do anything you damn well please.”

“I’ve missed something.”

“The fuck were you thinking giving me that envelope?”

Arthur winces and holds the door open wider, signalling for Merlin to come in. Merlin enters the flat and stands just in the entryway, shoulders stiff and arms crossed in front of his chest.

“I just thought you’d want to know,” Arthur says.

“Not the point.”

“Look, I wouldn’t have given it to you at all if I didn’t think our conversation went well or if I didn’t think we’d want to get physical soon.”

“‘Get physical’?”

“Fine.” Arthur rolls his eyes. “We’d want to fuck soon.”

Merlin is irritated with himself for the way his heart beats faster when Arthur says fuck like he knows how, like he could show Merlin a few things, and Merlin would beg for more.

“I’m not interested in being your coming-out shag or whatever this—”

“No, be quiet,” Arthur says, and Merlin inexplicably shuts up. “You liked that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You liked it when I said ‘fuck.’”

Merlin shakes his head and puts on his best incredulous face, but Arthur isn’t buying it.

“You did. You want me dirty and a little angry.”

“I don’t want you any way at all,” Merlin says. “I want you to leave me alone.”

“If that’s what you really want, then sure, but I don’t think it is.”

Arthur advances on Merlin, and Merlin steps back until he hits the wall. Arthur presses his hand flat against Merlin’s chest and looms over him, murmurs hotly in his ear.

“It’s like you don’t get that I chose you. If I wanted a quick meaningless shag, I could grab any fit bloke from a club, but I saw you and I wanted you and I chose you, not because you’re easy but because nothing about you is easy, and I want to win you and your cheek and the way you fill a room.”

“You don’t even fucking know me,” Merlin spits. He shoves against Arthur, and Arthur shoves right back, puts his hands against Merlin’s shoulders and pins him to the wall. Merlin can’t decide if it’s hot or threatening.

“The fuck are you—”

“I gave you that envelope because I want to be able to fuck you anytime you want it. I don’t want anything between your skin and mine, because I bet you feel as good as you look. I did that so you’d take me when you want to, and I don’t care if that’s two minutes from now or two years from now.”

“Fuck off,” Merlin hisses, but his heart isn’t quite in it. He struggles against Arthur just so Arthur will press against him harder.

“Are you angry because I gave you my results, or are you angry because I didn’t fuck you right there on the sofa that first night?” The heat of his body fills the small space between them, and Merlin can’t think.

“The first one,” Merlin says, feeling stupid. “I don’t even know what—”

“Yes, you do. You wanted my cock so bad you were choking for it.”

“Shit,” Merlin breathes, all the fight left in him replaced with an angry desire.

“Why are you here?” Arthur asks, voice low and thick.

“I don’t know.”

“I do,” Arthur says and then presses his body fully against Merlin’s.

Merlin gasps at the feel of Arthur against him, hot and hard and male and wanting.

“As much as you push, you love to be pushed back, don’t you?” Arthur says into Merlin’s neck.

“That’s not—”

“Spread your legs.”

Merlin does, half humiliated and wholly turned on. Arthur stretches Merlin’s T-shirt off to the side and bites down lightly on his shoulder as he settles his hips against Merlin’s.

“I’m gonna make you come like this,” Arthur hisses. “In your pants like a teenager just because I can.”

Arthur ruts up into Merlin’s hips, and Merlin can’t help the sound that pushes past his throat. Arthur rolls his hips against Merlin’s, setting a rhythm that’s a little bit too slow for the circumstances, and that drives Merlin even more mad. Arthur licks at Merlin’s ear, takes the shell into his mouth and scrapes his teeth over it.

It’s been so fucking long and Merlin knows he’s going to come soon, but still, he says, “You couldn’t make me come at all,” just because he can.

Arthur chuckles low against his ear. “You can be a cheeky little bastard all you like, and it won’t change the fact that you need this like you need air.”

“God, you’re so full of yourself,” Merlin gasps, moving against Arthur’s hips.

“You want to be full of me, too.”

“Fuck, you’re filthy.”

“You want more, and you can’t have it, and that drives you mad.”

Merlin is breathing hard and trying not to let it show, fists clenched at his sides so he doesn’t reach out and touch Arthur.

“Come on, sing for me, Merlin,” Arthur says. “Let me hear you.”

Merlin clamps his lips shut and shakes his head.

Arthur runs thick fingers over Merlin’s lips, trying to massage them open, and Merlin looks hard at Arthur, challenging him to do his worst.

“Stubborn, Merlin?” Arthur says, his breathing ragged. “I can fix that.”

He grabs Merlin’s thigh and pulls, lifting Merlin’s leg and holding it behind Arthur’s hip. He thrusts hard and fast against Merlin, and even through all the uncomfortable friction, Merlin feels like he’s coming apart at the seams. His resolve cracks, and a deep moan escapes him, and once it starts, he can’t stop it.

Arthur plunges three fingers into Merlin’s mouth, and he sucks like he’ll die without this, and for a moment, he feels like he might.

“So fucking hot,” Arthur grunts. “So fucking gorgeous like this, falling apart for me.”

Merlin feels wild and unsteady, like he might do something stupid like cry.

“Make me come,” Merlin says, and Arthur pulls his fingers out of his mouth. “Make me come, please. Fuck, I need to come.”

Arthur grabs Merlin’s other leg and lifts him up, pressing him into the wall and fucking against him like he means it. Merlin finally reaches out and grabs Arthur’s shoulders, and fuck, this is what he needed: Arthur’s strength, the tensing of his muscles under Merlin’s hands.

Arthur’s breathing in his ear gets frantic, like maybe he’s about to come, about to flood his pants because of the ecstasy of moving against Merlin’s body, and it’s that thought that makes Merlin finally lose all sense of coherency.

“Fuck, Arthur, fuck, Arthur, fuck! Gonna—gonna—”

Merlin doesn’t finish that sentence, because Arthur is grunting low and dirty in his ear, and Merlin comes so hard he can’t breathe, can’t remember how or why he even needs to. Arthur’s ragged breathing is the only thing that Merlin can make sense of through the heady semi-consciousness of his own orgasm.

When his mind comes back to him, he realises that Arthur’s entire body is shaking, and he wiggles until Arthur lets go of his legs. He helps Arthur down to the floor, and Arthur pulls Merlin down on top of him, cradling Merlin’s head against his shoulder and pressing his face into Merlin’s hair. Merlin feels like he could happily drown in the scent of him. Arthur’s arms twitch around him, and he runs his hands all over Merlin’s back and sides. He brushes the sweaty hair back from Merlin’s brow, and Merlin feels abruptly adored.

Arthur kisses all over Merlin’s face, but when Merlin moves to catch Arthur’s lips with his own, Arthur pulls back. He presses his fingers against Merlin’s lips and says, “I’m saving that.”

Merlin feels the dopey smile that breaks across his face and rolls his eyes.

“Do you always come like that?” Merlin asks.

“Like what?”

“With your whole body.” At the confused look on Arthur’s face, Merlin elaborates, “The shaking.”

“Oh,” Arthur says. “I don’t know. I guess not. But maybe I do with….”

“With men?”

“With Merlin.”

“Stop being gross.”

“Sorry,” Arthur says, wincing.

Merlin moves to get off of Arthur and becomes aware of the mess in his pants. “Can I go clean up a bit?”

“Of course,” Arthur says. “You want to borrow a pair of pants?”

“One shag and we’re already sharing pants.”

“Or you can wear your soiled ones. Makes no difference to me. One way is a laugh, I guess.”

“Get me some, prat.”

As it turns out, Arthur’s bathroom is immaculate. Merlin takes off his shoes, peels himself out of his pants, and takes a much-needed piss, then cleans himself up in the sink. Arthur’s pants are a little too big for him, but they get the job done, and he pulls his jeans over top. He rinses the come out of his pants and wrings them out. Arthur has a plastic bag waiting for him when he emerges.

“Are you sticking around, or shall I drive you home?”

“I can take the bus,” Merlin says.

Arthur rolls his eyes and goes to put on his coat. Merlin realises he never took his off. He follows Arthur to his car, and they’re mostly silent on the drive to Merlin’s flat. When they’re a few blocks away, Arthur seems to gather his courage.

“Was that okay?” he asks. “You seemed to enjoy it, but I did sort of jump you with sex, and you were angry with me.”

“Yeah, it was okay,” Merlin says, trying to stifle his smile.

“Did we figure out the whole test results thing?”

Merlin sighs. “I suppose as long as you plan on shagging again, there’s no problem.”

Arthur guffaws and parks the car in front of Merlin’s flat. He turns in his seat and reaches a hand out to dig into Merlin’s hair, pulling his head close to Arthur’s face. In a low voice, he says, “There’s no limit to the things I want to do to you.”

Merlin laughs with the sudden giddiness he feels. He sticks his tongue out at Arthur and gets out of the car, jogging up to his flat without looking back.

***

Gwen is up north for the weekend visiting her dad, so Merlin mostly just lazes about in his joggers. On Saturday afternoon, Will calls with a dating emergency, so Merlin spends an hour humming and grunting until Will has talked himself out. In the end, the crisis is that the woman Will has been seeing for two months just told him she’s poly and doesn’t want to be exclusive. Will is okay with this, but he’s very shaken by her offering to introduce him to her long-term partner, Frankie.

“Well, maybe it was a bit irresponsible of her to go out with you for so long without mentioning it, but you can’t really blame her,” Merlin says, digging through the cupboards. “Why does she want to trot out all her personal details with someone who she may not even get on with?”

“I get that, and I’m not angry or anything,” Will says. “I’m just … uncomfortable, because I’ve never done this before, and I’m not even bi, so I don’t think I can be … involved in the big group love.”

“Did she ask you to be, though?” Merlin says, finding a bag of crisps. “Introducing you doesn’t mean asking you to be sexual with her boyfriend.”

Will is silent for a moment and then sighs. “This is why everyone needs a gay friend.”

“Wrong,” Merlin says. “This is why everyone needs a rational friend.”

“Fair enough,” Will says. “I should give her a call. We’ll talk about you next time, yeah?”

“Sure. Talk to you soon.”

“Cheers,” Will says before hanging up.

Merlin sits down on the sofa with his crisps and settles into an evening with the DVR. Gwen, Elyan, and Elena are all visiting Tom, and Merlin doesn’t think he and Lance are “there” yet, to the point where they can call each other up and make plans to meet at a pub. He doesn’t even have Arthur’s number. If he were desperate, he’d ask Gwaine out, and if he were even more desperate, he’d call the number on Morgana’s business card and ask for Arthur’s mobile. But Merlin isn’t feeling desperate, and he’s perfectly content to binge on junk food and documentaries all weekend.

When Gwen gets home Sunday evening bearing takeaway, Merlin wonders how he didn’t die with her gone for so long.

***

Merlin arrives at work Monday morning feeling fresh and happy. Leon does most of the drink-making, and Merlin takes the orders and chats up the customers until Gwaine comes in and turns on the charm. The day is a comfort to Merlin, the routine of it, the sound of people talking and beans grinding and milk steaming keeping him connected with the world around him. He’s scrubbing out the sink when Gwaine says, “Er, Merlin?”

Merlin turns to look at him and sees Arthur standing on the other side of the counter in one of his bloody suits. Merlin can’t help his smile and feels himself flush with embarrassment. Gwaine saunters into the back room, and Merlin washes his hands before going over to grab a cup.

“Pardon me,” Arthur says, and when Merlin looks at him, his sunglasses are on the counter. “I’ve got this reusable.”

Merlin tries not to react, but he feels smug about Arthur putting the gift to use. Merlin takes the cup from Arthur, and Arthur runs his fingers over Merlin’s knuckles, the secret touch making Merlin’s heart rate double. Merlin prepares Arthur’s au lait wordlessly, a gesture that says, I know who you are and how you like it.

Merlin sets the cup on the counter and seals the lid directly in front of Arthur. When he looks up, Arthur’s lips are parted as though he gets the message. Merlin pushes the cup towards Arthur and drags his fingers down the side of the cup needlessly. He feels a little bit ridiculous flirting via coffee preparation, but Arthur looks like it’s working, so Merlin disregards any residual embarrassment.

“That’ll be £2.35,” Merlin says as though Arthur doesn’t already know that.

Arthur pulls a £20 out of his wallet and hands it to Merlin, along with a business card, then grabs his sunglasses and his coffee and leaves the shop without saying a word. Merlin puts the £20 in the till and pockets the change, leaving £5 in the jar for Gwaine. He looks at the business card and sees that Arthur has scribbled on his mobile number.

Gwaine pokes his head out of the back room and, upon seeing that Arthur has gone, takes back his place at the register. He raises his eyebrows at Merlin as Merlin heads back to stow away his cap and apron, but doesn’t comment.

***

As usual, Gwen gets home from work and jumps right in the shower. While she’s washing, Merlin tosses some sliced chicken and veggies into a frying pan and makes a simple stir fry. Gwen is dressed just in time to set out plates for Merlin to scoop the food onto.

While they’re eating, Merlin asks, “How was work today?”

“Good. Fun. Had a mystery engine problem in a VW that took me half the day, but it was a great puzzle, and now I know what to look for if it happens again.”

“What was it?”

“Basically, three totally separate seemingly cosmetic problems were causing a fourth giant problem.”

Merlin nods and takes a bite.

“How was your day?” Gwen asks, standing to refill her water.

“Good,” Merlin says, swallowing. “Arthur came in.”

“No way. How did that go?”

“Fine. He gave me his number.”

“Have you called?”

“No.” He’s spent a fair chunk of time staring at the number and still doesn’t know what he’d say even if he did call. “I’ll probably text him tomorrow.”

“Hard-to-get Merlin,” Gwen says, smiling.

“Maybe.”

“Well, I’m doing a big dinner Wednesday night for Elyan. Says he’s got big news. You should invite Arthur.”

“Doesn’t that seem a little soon?” Merlin asks, even though he rather likes the idea of having Arthur in his home with his friends.

“No.”

Merlin laughs at Gwen’s certainty. “Okay, I’ll ask.”

Gwen nods and digs back into her plate.

They clear up the dishes together and spend the rest of the evening sitting next to each other on the sofa, quietly surfing the web on their respective laptops. Merlin glances at his phone more than is healthy, but commits to waiting until tomorrow to text Arthur. Merlin heads to bed and wanks slow and long, remembering the way Arthur made him come just a few days ago. He falls asleep feeling calm and happy.

***

Merlin, it seems, is a giant texting whore when he’s interested in a new bloke. He starts out simple in mid-morning with a casual, Hey, it’s Merlin. Just texting so you have my number.

When Arthur comes back with, Cool. How are you? Merlin somehow loses most of his day to checking his phone and typing into it every time he has a spare moment. Leon makes fun of him, and Gwaine tears him a new one, but Merlin doesn’t care too much, particularly when Arthur starts with the filthy mid-afternoon texts.

Do you wank when you get home from work?
Do you take your time?
Do you watch porn?
What do you think about?

It all leads down a very convoluted and horribly arousing maze that ends with Merlin finding the sluttiest way to invite Arthur for dinner.

Flatmate thinks we’ll have too much food tomorrow. Doesn’t get home til 6. You could drive me from work. I’m sure we could find a way to pass a couple hours.

Of course, Merlin has the worst timing and doesn’t realise until he sneaks back out into the main room that Arthur has just approached the counter. He sets down his mug and a £20 and pulls out his phone. Merlin, despite desperately wanting to look away, watches Arthur read his last message. Arthur looks up at him and nods, and Merlin busies himself making Arthur’s drink so he can hide the blush he’s sure is fighting its way to the surface.

As Merlin is pouring the espresso into the mug, he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket. He takes a chance and reads the text, instantly regretting the decision.

Look forward to sucking you off tomorrow.

Merlin slips the phone back in his pocket and exhales before picking up Arthur’s mug and handing it to him. He can feel his ears burning, so he focuses his attention on the £20 on the counter.

“You want your change?” Merlin asks, not looking up.

“Nope,” Arthur says, the edge of a laugh in his voice. “See you tomorrow.”

When Merlin looks up again, Arthur is no longer in the shop. Gwaine pushes Merlin out of the way and helps a middle-aged woman, and Merlin remembers he should go home.

Merlin just about knocks a child off his bicycle in a near-tragic Texting While Walking incident.

Trying to buy my cock?

Arthur takes a while to respond, but when he does, he says, Just making up for four months of stiffing you.

Merlin can’t help himself and sends back, Stiff?

See you tomorrow, pervert, is Arthur’s last text before Merlin promises himself he won’t send any more texts to Arthur until they see each other tomorrow. Merlin isn’t sure he should tempt fate with any more near misses with streetlights, anyway.

***

Merlin is slightly disappointed when Arthur shows up at 3:25 on Wednesday in his suit with mug in hand. He’s been looking forward to taking Arthur home with him all day, but it seems Arthur has forgotten their plans. Sod him anyway, Merlin thinks as he asks Arthur what he wants to drink, and Arthur recites the same answers as ever.

He sets the mug down too hard on the counter and sees that Arthur has left exactly £2.35 waiting for him.

“No tip, tightwad?” Merlin says because he’s crabby and can’t resist.

“Saving that for later,” Arthur says with a wink. “I’ll be out front when you’re ready.”

Merlin feels instantly idiotic and takes his time leaving the shop. When he finally gets into the car, Arthur is happily sipping on his coffee.

“I’ve never seen you actually drink one of those,” Merlin says.

Arthur puts the car in drive and makes for Merlin’s flat.

“It’s the best in town,” he says. “Want a taste?”

Merlin grabs the cup from Arthur’s hand and takes a sip.

“Not bad,” he says, setting the cup in the cupholder. “Could stand to be sweeter.”

“Blasphemy,” Arthur says. “Is it okay to park out front?”

“Yeah, it’s metered.”

Merlin gets out of the car and waits by the parking meter as Arthur digs around in the back seat. He comes out with a garment bag slung over his arm and jogs to meet Merlin. “I’m not meeting your friends wearing my work clothes,” he says, taking a sip of coffee as he digs his wallet out of his pocket.

“Good call.” Merlin watches Arthur swipe his card in the meter, then leads him up the walk, opening the door for him. He grabs the post on the way in.

He hesitates outside the door to his flat, glancing at the stack of envelopes in his hand. One of them is from the clinic, and it has has Merlin’s name on the front. Wordlessly, he hands it to Arthur. When Arthur looks at him, he nods, so Arthur opens it and gives it a quick scan. Merlin is tense with anxiety until Arthur says, “Good news,” and hands the paper over to Merlin. He sighs, relieved, when he sees that all the results have come back negative.

He finally unlocks the door, and when they walk into the flat, Arthur kicks off his shoes by the door and says, “God, does it always smell this amazing in here?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, adding his own shoes to the pile and dropping the mail and his keys on the sideboard. “Gwen is a compulsive baking hobbyist. You really couldn’t ask for a better roommate.”

“You live with a woman?”

“Yeah, Gwen’s great. Clean and quiet, unlike most blokes I know.”

“And domestic,” Arthur says, taking what looks to be the last drink of his coffee.

“Only to offset her incredibly butch career.”

“What’s she do?”

“Mechanic.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows and whistles. “She and Morgana would get on. Consultant by day, small electronics tinkerer by night.”

“Speaking of,” Merlin says, motioning for Arthur to sit on the sofa and heading into the kitchen to grab two ciders, “what exactly does a consultant do?”

Merlin hands a bottle to Arthur, who sniffs at it and says, “God, this flat is perfect. You stock Gaymers?”

“Tastier than beer,” Merlin says, sitting down beside Arthur, not close enough to touch, but close enough, he hopes, to welcome touching.

“A consultant,” Arthur says, taking a sip, “gets paid to tell people the obvious.”

Merlin is caught off guard by this and nearly loses a mouthful of cider in his guffaw.

“No, I’m serious,” Arthur says. “People don’t like making decisions, and they feel overwhelmed by problems they interact with every day, and sometimes they just need some arsehole in a nice suit to tell them what service to buy, which employee to transfer, or what project to throw their money at.”

“And people pay you a lot for this, I assume.”

“That, they do. But if you think about it, the professionals at Pendragon Consulting,” he pauses to wink at Merlin, “take all the stress of research and decision-making off the business owners’ hands. And you’ll think I’m bullshitting you, but we usually do end up saving them money in the long run.”

“You’re right,” Merlin says. “I think you’re bullshitting me.”

“Well, you stick to saving my arse on the coffee front, and I’ll stick to suckering poor fools out of their hard-earned money, hmm?”

“Speaking of money,” Merlin says, setting his bottle down on the table. “Where’s my tip?”

“Who said your tip would be in cash?”

Arthur sets his own bottle down and reaches over to touch Merlin’s face, grabbing his jaw and turning his head to face Arthur. Arthur licks his lips and just looks at him, the corner of his mouth quirked up just a bit.

Arthur’s fingers press in just a little bit too hard, and Merlin is hit with a rush of arousal. He desperately wants to kiss Arthur. Instead, he says, “I don’t hire whores.”

“Not a whore,” Arthur says, pushing Merlin’s head away and pressing his face into Merlin’s exposed neck. “Just a tightwad.”

Arthur drags his tongue along the tendon in Merlin’s neck, stopping to bite at his jaw. His body isn’t close enough. Merlin wants the full hot spread of him, and all he has is the slight press of shoulder to shoulder. The stark divide between reality and what he craves makes Merlin feel suddenly too hot, makes him bold.

“You’d better make it up to me, then.”

Arthur pauses his kisses at Merlin’s ear and says, “Tell me what you want.”

Merlin feels nervous, almost panicky. “You talk too much,” he says, and Arthur pulls on Merlin’s T-shirt to reveal his collar bones, moving his lips along the newly exposed skin. “Let’s give that pretty mouth something else to do.”

He grabs a handful of Arthur’s hair and pulls his head back, and Arthur’s desire is plain upon his face. It makes Merlin feel heady with power, like he could do anything to Arthur and Arthur would just plead for more.

“Get your hot arse in my room,” Merlin says, turning Arthur’s head to look at the correct door. Arthur grins and stands, walking obediently towards the bedroom. Merlin takes a long pull from his cider bottle, gathering the courage to leave all traces of self-consciousness at the threshold.

When he walks in the door, Arthur is sitting on the bed, leaning back on his hands with his legs spread casually. He glances up at Merlin with an insolent smile as he loosens his tie, and it makes Merlin want to come all over his smug, bossy face.

“Don’t be shy,” Arthur says, looking up at Merlin. “Take what you want.”

Merlin spends a moment thinking of all the things he wants from Arthur and tries to invent a few in the process. He settles for slowly pulling up the hem of his own T-shirt, just enough to give Arthur a hint of skin. He watches Arthur’s face, watches his eyes as he drinks in the tiny revelation.

“Get on your knees,” Merlin says, and without a moment’s hesitation, Arthur moves to the floor, offering himself.

Still standing just inside the doorway, Merlin holds the T-shirt up, not even as high as his navel, and runs one hand over the front of his jeans, catching his thumb on the button and popping it open. He brushes his fingers over the flat expanse of his own exposed abdomen just above the waistband of his trousers. Arthur licks his full lips and waits.

Merlin slowly undoes the zip, watching the way Arthur’s chest rises and falls, breathing heavily through his nose as though he can’t quite handle how much he wants to see Merlin’s cock. Arthur’s reaction makes Merlin feel like a fucking god. Being so openly desired is a drug, and Merlin dips his fingers beneath the band of his pants as he approaches Arthur, feeling the swollen base of his cock. When he’s standing just a foot away, he pulls his pants and trousers slowly down to his mid-thighs, exposing his mostly-hard prick.

He watches Arthur’s face as he stares at Merlin’s prick. Merlin brushes his fingers down its length and then wraps his fingers around it and pulls, bringing himself to full hardness under Arthur’s steady gaze. Putting himself on display is more exhilarating than it is embarrassing, and Arthur looks about ready to burst.

“Come on,” Arthur says finally. “You want my mouth. Just take it.”

Merlin puts on his best smirk and takes a step forward. He rubs the head of his cock over Arthur’s lips, and Arthur fucking moans, and Merlin says, “You want my cock.” And then Arthur opens his mouth and sticks his tongue out, lapping at Merlin’s foreskin, and Merlin says, “Just take it.”

As though all Arthur needed was permission, he reaches up and grabs Merlin’s hips, pulling Merlin’s cock into his mouth. It’s fucking perfect and nothing like Merlin remembers it. Arthur is sloppy and unskilled, and Merlin realises that Arthur hasn’t done this since he was much younger, if ever, and Merlin is going to come if he thinks too hard about all the things he can be for Arthur.

Arthur has one hand wrapped around Merlin’s prick and the other digging into Merlin’s hip. He’s panting and moaning around Merlin’s cock, and he looks up at Merlin in a way that gives Merlin that nervous feeling, like he’s too exposed, like Arthur can see things in him that Merlin doesn’t even know.

But Arthur just keeps working his cock, keeps moaning, and Merlin marvels at the look of him, the complete pleasure laid bare on Arthur’s face.

“God, you’re such a slut for it,” Merlin says, and Arthur smiles around his dick, taking it as the compliment it is. “You look so fucking good. So hot, so gorgeous.”

Merlin brings a hand forward and runs his thumb over Arthur’s lips where they’re stretched around him. He feels his cock slide past his fingers into Arthur’s mouth and thinks he might pass out.

“You’re gonna make me come,” Merlin says, and Arthur moans in response. “You need to swallow it all if you want to keep your nice suit tidy.”

“Mm-hmm,” Arthur hums around his dick, nodding. He pulls off long enough to say, “Take what you want,” and then he wraps his lips lightly around Merlin’s cock, grabbing his hips and pulling them towards his face.

“Fuck,” Merlin says. He knows Arthur can’t take it all, so he holds the base of his cock as he thrusts. He cradles Arthur’s face, watching his concentration, the saliva falling past his lips. He listens to Arthur’s harsh breathing, feels the way Arthur’s hands wrap around his back and pull him in, the stiff cuffs of his shirtsleeves cool beside the heat of his skin.

The sound of Merlin’s cock fucking into Arthur’s mouth is obscene, and then Arthur looks up at him and moans, and Merlin is coming. He tries to keep his eyes open and watch as Arthur swallows him down. He moves his hand from his cock to Arthur’s shoulder for stability, and Arthur pulls him in closer, keeping him steady, licking out the last of Merlin’s come.

“Fuck,” Merlin says finally, and Arthur lets his cock fall from his mouth, wiping his face on Merlin’s shirt. Merlin pulls his pants and trousers back up, leaving them unbuttoned.

He sits down on the bed and thinks about the many ways he wants to make Arthur come. “Do you need to come right now, or can you wait a few minutes?” he asks once he’s decided.

“I can wait.”

“All right,” Merlin says. “Bathroom’s across the living room. Towels are in the bottom drawer on the left. Take a shower.”

“Pardon?”

“I intend to lick your arsehole, and I think you’d be more comfortable cleaning yourself up than letting me do it.”

“Point taken,” Arthur says. He stands and undresses, laying his finely tailored clothes flat near the wardrobe.

Arthur’s body is fucking beautiful. He’s all smooth skin and light body hair, and his thighs look unbelievably fuckable. Broad chest and shoulders taper to the lovely little swell of his hips. Merlin watches him walk to the bathroom, filled with a kind of awe that this gorgeous, confident man was just on his knees worshipping Merlin’s cock like he needed it to survive.

When Arthur returns, his skin is pink from the spray of the water and he has a towel tied around his waist. His hair is all wet and spiky, and Merlin indulges the fantasy of seeing Arthur like this every day, freshly clean and looking at home.

Feeling just a little bit sleepy and sentimental, Merlin holds his arms out and says, “Come here.”

Arthur tosses his bundled-up pants onto the floor and steps between Merlin’s spread thighs, looking down into his face. Merlin runs his hands over Arthur’s chest and arms, savouring the feel of him. He presses small kisses to Arthur’s abdomen, and Arthur strokes Merlin’s cheek, runs fingers through his hair. Merlin carefully untwists the towel at Arthur’s waist and looks up at him, silently asking for permission. Arthur nods, brushing a thumb behind Merlin’s ear.

Merlin pulls the towel from Arthur’s hips and drops it onto the floor, looking at Arthur’s cock. It’s lovely and full but not erect, and as much as Merlin wants to touch it, he resists. He kisses Arthur’s hips and abdomen, his chin brushing the top of Arthur’s cock as he moves. Arthur inhales with a soft hiss, and Merlin wants more of those sounds.

“Lie down on your front,” Merlin says, brushing his thumbs over Arthur’s hips.

Arthur climbs into the bed behind Merlin and lays himself down, pulling Merlin’s pillow into his arms and burying his face in it. Merlin watches this with an ache he can’t quite place.

The muscles in Arthur’s back lead down to a dip Merlin can’t help but touch, just above the ample swell of Arthur’s arse. Merlin spreads Arthur’s legs and kneels between them, looking down at Arthur’s body in wonder. He runs his fingers from the middle of Arthur’s back down to his thighs and up again, stopping finally to massage Arthur’s arse. Merlin leans forward and kisses the base of Arthur’s spine, and Arthur tenses.

“Has anyone ever done this before?” Merlin asks.

“No,” Arthur says, breathless.

“I’ll stop anytime you ask me to.”

“I know.” Arthur sounds too certain for someone who has known Merlin for such a short time, and it makes Merlin feel a sudden fierce protectiveness and desire never to betray Arthur’s trust in him.

“Up on your knees,” Merlin says, and Arthur complies, putting his arse on display for Merlin.

It is with reverence more than arousal that Merlin spreads Arthur and presses his first kiss to Arthur’s clean, pink hole. Arthur draws a sharp breath. Looking across the gorgeous spread of Arthur’s naked body, Merlin thinks to ask, “Are you warm enough?”

“Yes.”

Merlin kisses Arthur’s thighs and the skin behind his balls, brushes his nose down the cleft of Arthur’s arse, and finally runs his tongue flat across Arthur’s hole. He stays there, licking at him, listening for Arthur’s reaction. It takes a moment, but soon, Arthur is panting and pressing his arse ever so slightly back against Merlin’s tongue.

Merlin licks and sucks and kisses, trying to loosen Arthur enough to press his tongue inside. Arthur is oddly vulnerable like this, letting Merlin taste him so intimately, his entire body exposed while Merlin remains fully clothed. Merlin moans as he realises what Arthur is entrusting to him. He presses his tongue hard against Arthur’s entrance and finds his way inside. Arthur gasps, rocking back against Merlin in earnest now, wanting.

Merlin releases one of Arthur’s hips to wrap his fingers around Arthur’s cock, which is hard and heavy. When Merlin begins stroking Arthur in time with the plunging of his tongue, Arthur’s silence breaks on a moan that doesn’t end. He’s pressing wantonly into Merlin’s face and moaning his voice hoarse.

“Please,” Arthur says, and Merlin pulls his face back and kisses Arthur’s thigh.

“Tell me what you want,” he says, tongue sluggish.

“Your fingers.”

“Yeah.” Merlin kisses Arthur’s thigh again and leans back, removing his hand from Arthur’s cock. “Lube is in the drawer.”

Arthur reaches in and tosses the bottle back to Merlin. Merlin pours some onto his fingers and doesn’t hesitate. He pushes one finger into Arthur and twists, then presses a second in alongside it, the heat of his body sending a jolt of hot knowing through Merlin. He orients his fingertips downwards and crooks his fingers up and down the passage, searching, until Arthur cries out.

Merlin wraps his other hand around Arthur’s hip and asks, “Is that too much?”

“No,” Arthur says. “I like it like that.”

“Can you come like this?” Merlin watches the place where his fingers are pressed inside Arthur’s body.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” Arthur murmurs.

“Does it help if I talk?”

“Yes.”

“You’re so fucking hot, Arthur,” Merlin says, still transfixed by the way Arthur’s body stretches around him, takes him in. “Your arse is so tight and so willing, and I just want to take my cock out and push it in and fuck you.”

“Fuck, yeah,” Arthur groans. “What else?”

“Want to taste your cock and feel your come on my lips. Want to get myself all slick and open for you and ride you ’til you fill my arse with your come.”

“God, yeah,” Arthur moans. “More.”

“Want to lick your arse and get it nice and wet for me,” Merlin says, working a third finger into Arthur.

“Fuck, yes, like that, Merlin.”

“Then I’d finger-fuck you like this, get you all hot and stretched for my cock.”

“Yeah, fuck, you’re gonna make me come like this.”

Merlin grabs Arthur’s cock and holds it up against his belly, his hand cupping but not moving, waiting to catch his come.

“And then I’d press my cock inside and fuck you just how you want it, just how you need it.”

“Fuck,” Arthur moans. “Fuck, I want that.”

“And then,” Merlin says, visualising every step. “Then I’d make you come with my hand and watch you cover your chest, watch your face as you scream my name.”

“Merlin. Merlin, fuck, yes, keep going.”

“Just like that,” Merlin says, fucking his fingers into Arthur’s arse. “And then I’d come for you. I’d fill your hot little hole with my come and then pull out and watch it drip down your thighs.”

Arthur comes with a shout, filling Merlin’s palm with his seed. His cock pulses for a long moment and then stills, and Merlin lets it go as Arthur collapses against the bed.

“Need your skin,” Arthur says, body shaking, and Merlin wipes his hand on his shirt as he pulls it off, then crushes his front to Arthur’s back. He wraps his arms around Arthur and kisses his face, his neck, his shoulders, kisses everything he can reach.

“Am I crushing you?” Merlin asks, his lips open against Arthur’s neck.

“No. You feel good.”

“Are you cold?”

“A little bit.”

“Let’s get in,” Merlin says, and they roll off the bed just long enough to climb into it. Arthur grabs Merlin and pulls his back flush against his chest, stuffing one leg between Merlin’s.

“The door’s open,” Arthur says, and Merlin just shrugs.

“Gwen won’t mind.”

Merlin wriggles his back further into the heat of Arthur and thinks he manages to get out, “Don’t mind if I take a kip,” before falling asleep.

He wakes to the sound of Gwen tossing her keys onto the sideboard. Arthur is running his nose behind Merlin’s ear, and it makes him feel warm down to his toes.

“I’ll be another half hour,” Gwen says from the living room, and Merlin opens his eyes to see her resolutely not looking in on her way to the bathroom. “Don’t rush out of bed.”

“Welcome home,” Merlin says, his voice sleep-hoarse.

Arthur is very still behind him until the water begins to run. He kisses Merlin’s ear.

“You like my ears, don’t you?” Merlin says, wiggling to turn onto his back.

Arthur chuckles. “That’s a bit like asking if Jay-Z likes arses.”

“We should probably get up.”

“Can you grab my bag?” Arthur says. “I left it out near the sofa.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, tearing himself away from the warm pocket of the bed. He retrieves Arthur’s bag and sets it on the bed next to him. He looks down at Arthur and laughs. “Your hair is ridiculous.”

“I’ll bet.”

Arthur is staring openly at Merlin, running his eyes over the exposed skin of Merlin’s chest, and Merlin remembers Arthur hasn’t seen him like this yet. He feels a bit self-conscious, but Arthur looks pleased with the sight all the same, so Merlin takes his time digging through the wardrobe to find a new shirt. He hears Arthur slide out of the bed and unzip the bag. When he turns around, Arthur is already wearing a new pair of pants.

Merlin decides it’s his turn to watch, unsure how many times he’ll get to see Arthur getting dressed after being well shagged. Even without the fog of sex and arousal, Arthur’s body is perfection, and Arthur inhabits it with grace and confidence. He pulls on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt—this time grey—and turns to ask, “Do I need to wear socks?”

“No,” Merlin says. “Don’t your feet get cold?”

“No way. They’re always too warm.”

“Weirdo.”

Arthur picks up his clothes from earlier and carefully places them in the garment bag, zipping it up and hanging it over the door. Merlin suddenly feels uncomfortable in his own home, unsure what he has to offer Arthur now that they’ve left the safety of his bed. He makes the bed and tosses his soiled T-shirt into the basket. Arthur spots the lube on the floor and puts it back in the drawer, then turns to Merlin, smiling.

“You put it in your nightstand?”

“Hmm?”

Arthur pulls out the slip of paper, well-worn from being handled many times, and shows it to Merlin before putting it back and closing the drawer. Merlin feels his face heat up, embarrassment hitting him with surprising force. Merlin shrugs and goes back to tidying up until he feels Arthur behind him, arms winding around his waist.

“Not sure if you’ve picked up on this yet,” Arthur says, nuzzling Merlin’s neck, “but I like you a bit.”

“Great. Now I’ll never get rid of you.” He turns his head around just far enough to find Arthur’s mouth. He presses a kiss to the skin just beneath Arthur’s lips and feels Arthur shiver.

“Stop being adorable,” Gwen says, and Merlin turns to face the door.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, wiggling out of Arthur’s grasp. “Gwen, Arthur,” Merlin says, nodding between them. “Arthur, Gwen.”

Arthur steps forward to shake Gwen’s hand. “It’s lovely to meet you, Gwen.”

“Likewise,” Gwen says. “Are you any good at chopping?”

“I excel in it.”

“Perfect. Knives are my least favourite part of cooking.”

Arthur follows Gwen into the kitchen, and Merlin decides to let them do the food preparation while he rearranges the living room to make room for the dining table, which they pull out of the kitchen for company.

Merlin worries for a moment that the conversation between Arthur and Gwen will be awkward, but it sounds effortless and fun as he grabs five plates for the table.

“Only four seats,” Gwen says, tossing the chicken into the skillet.

“No Elena?”

Gwen shakes her head and jumps back into telling Arthur about her decision to follow in her dad’s footsteps. Arthur is surprisingly respectful of and fascinated by Gwen’s blue-collar work. He tells Gwen that if his dad hadn’t forced him and Morgana into the family business, Morgana would be an engineer, and he probably would have considered social work. Merlin learns more about Arthur via his conversation with Gwen than he has talking to Arthur himself and feels suddenly awkward about his own inability to ask the right questions.

Merlin brings Arthur’s half-drunk cider to him as he stirs the vegetables in the frying pan, and Arthur kisses him on the cheek as though getting ready for dinner together is status quo and not some frighteningly new territory between people who don’t know each other outside of coffee and orgasms.

Merlin is setting out the water glasses when Elyan knocks at the door. Merlin goes to let him in, and Elyan is waggling two bottles of wine, one red, one sparkling, and Merlin wonders at the occasion. Merlin takes the bottles from him, setting the red on the table and putting the other in the fridge. Gwen shouts for Elyan to carry the vegetables to the table, and Arthur and Merlin squeeze out of the small kitchen to give them room to move.

Without much fuss, the four of them are seated around the table, and Gwen fills her plate first and starts eating. Arthur goes next without hesitation, and Merlin envies how easily Arthur fits here. It took Merlin months to feel fully comfortable with his friends, but Arthur chats easily with Elyan about football while Gwen eats with gusto and Merlin finishes his first glass of wine.

“The creamy chicken and vegetables are the best you’ve ever made,” Elyan says, smiling across the table at Gwen.

“Thank you. Arthur is an excellent helper.”

“Hold on a minute, mate.” Elyan squints at Arthur. “You look familiar.”

“I was at the same bar as you lot a couple weekends ago.”

Elyan throws his fists in the air. “I am amazing!”

Merlin sets down his fork and shakes his head. Gwen smiles, and Arthur looks confused.

“I’d just like to take credit for noticing you checking Merlin out.”

“Damn. And I thought I’d been so discreet.”

“But you didn’t even talk that night,” Elyan says. “I think.”

“No, Arthur was already running a very unique courting scheme,” Gwen says. “They met at Monmouth.”

“You lot are humiliating,” Merlin says. “I want to be on the record saying I thought Arthur was a giant twat and wanted nothing to do with him.”

“Maybe,” Gwen says, swirling her wine glass. “And if it hadn’t been for the blue eyes, you’d probably never have chased him down.”

Merlin groans and tucks back into his plate.

“Wait, where’s this hidden twat?” Elyan eyes Arthur with an air of suspicion. “He seems all right to me.”

“You may not know it to look at me,” Arthur says, kicking Merlin’s foot under the table, “but I am really a spoilt rich kid, and Merlin hates that.”

“Ah,” Elyan says. “Merlin has always been uniquely disdainful of the privileged.”

“Luckily, I’m deeply homosexual, or I’d be a lost cause.” Arthur digs into the dish for seconds and puts a small amount on Gwen’s plate. “Don’t tell me you’re not still hungry.”

Gwen laughs and forks some chicken into her mouth. Elyan gets Merlin talking about sci-fi, which keeps the four of them animated until all the food has been enjoyed.

“So excuse me if this is rude,” Elyan says, tipping the last of the wine into his glass, “but it seems a bit early to meet the parents. How long have you two been dating?”

Merlin abruptly wants to die, and Gwen scolds with a harsh, “Elyan!”

But Arthur just laughs and sets down his wine glass. “No, that’s a good question. I can’t really say how long we’ve been dating, since we haven’t even been on a real date yet. We’ve been talking for just over a week. And I can’t speak to why Merlin invited me other than that I think Gwen suggested it.”

“I did.”

“But I suppose I’m the sort of person who knows what he wants and doesn’t fuck around.”

“Respect,” Elyan says, raising his glass.

“And I guess Merlin and I don’t know each other very well, but I’ve made a career of reading people, and I like what I see when I look at him. Bloke doesn’t waste time playing nice.”

“You’re going to make Merlin pass out. His face is so red.”

“Gwen,” Merlin says, extending her name over a whine.

“I’ve been in the closet my whole life,” Arthur says, and Gwen and Elyan both set down their glasses, watching him carefully. “I decided to do something for me, and this is where I’m starting. And I might be too-much-too-soon guy, and Merlin will have to tell me if I am, but I’m just done waiting, you know?”

Gwen stands and hugs Arthur from behind, kissing his cheek. Arthur reaches back and pats her shoulder, nodding into the gesture.

Elyan swallows and nods, saying, “Right, you are, mate. Everyone deserves to be happy.” Gwen is a bit teary-eyed, and she jerks her head at Elyan, signalling that he should help her clear the table.

Arthur and Merlin are left alone in the main room.

“Sorry if that was embarrassing,” Arthur says. His face is tight like he’s nervous.

“It’s fine. I’m just not very good at stuff like that.”

“I’m not either, really. It’s all an act,” Arthur says, twiddling his fingers in the air. “But really, if you want me to back off, I will.”

Merlin looks at Arthur’s serious face and finds he just wants to know him more, know him better, know him more intimately, know him at all. He shakes his head and smiles, kicking Arthur’s foot. Arthur grins at him just as Gwen carries out the pudding—a divine-looking trifle. Elyan carries out the cake plates and forks, and then both of them go back into the kitchen and return bearing the sparkling wine and champagne flutes.

Elyan pops the cork and pours four glasses, and Arthur and Merlin stand to join whatever toast is about to be made.

“I want everyone to know first that this is not a sad announcement, okay?” Elyan looks at them, and they all nod.

“Elena and I are getting divorced!” he says and clinks his glass against everyone else’s and takes a drink. It’s a moment before the other three catch up with him. Once they’ve all taken a sip of their wine, Elyan continues. “She wants to move back to Glasgow to take care of her dad full-time, and I want to stay here. We talked about it and agreed it’s time to move on.”

Gwen’s brow is knit with concern, and Arthur just looks blank.

“You don’t love each other still?” Merlin asks, uncertain how to feel.

“Oh, we do,” Elyan says. “But we’ve been together a long time, and we want different things now. We always knew our marriage might be temporary.”

“Well,” Gwen says finally. “Well, as long as the both of you are happy, then cheers, I guess.”

Arthur and Merlin both say, “Cheers,” and everyone sits down to tuck into pudding.

“God, I’m going to miss her.” Gwen shakes her head slightly as she serves the trifle.

“Skype is a beautiful thing,” Merlin says, reaching out to touch Gwen’s arm.

Gwen nods and smiles. “Of course, you’re right, Merlin. You and Will are still as close as ever, aren’t you?”

Merlin nods and takes a bite of the trifle, which is as delicious as it looks.

“Who’s Will?” Arthur asks.

“My best mate from home.”

“Where’s home?”

Merlin smiles as he remembers his mum’s warm kitchen and the smell of his old room. “A tiny little town called Ealdor, population of fifty.”

“It must be hard being away from there.”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Merlin says. “But Mum saved up for me to go to uni, so I left and fell in love with London.”

“Do you get back to visit often?”

“No. Haven’t been back in two years.”

“You should go,” Arthur says. “Bring Gwen with you.”

“Mum would love that.”

Gwen grabs Merlin’s hand and says, “Anytime you like, I’ll get the time off, and I’ll borrow Lance’s car, okay?”

Merlin laughs. “You’re at the car-borrowing phase already? And you think I move fast.”

“No, Elyan thinks you move fast. I think you need to hurry up and give me little nieces and nephews. I won’t be a young woman forever, Merlin.”

Arthur cracks into one of those face-splitting laughs of his, his eyes crinkled shut and his gorgeous teeth on display, and Merlin feels a sudden bubbling over of affection for him. He can’t help laughing, too, and he feels considerably more at ease the rest of the evening.

The four of them consume more alcohol than they ought to on a Wednesday night and tell stories, some old, some new. They try to play a board game and realise they’re all too drunk, so Elyan passes out on the sofa, and Gwen disappears into her bedroom.

Merlin takes Arthur to bed with him and looks at his face as he fucks into the cradle of Arthur’s hips, their cocks naked and wet against each other. He sighs his orgasm into Arthur’s ear, and this time he’s the one who’s shaking, and Arthur holds him through it, tells him he’s beautiful until Merlin sinks down the bed to pull Arthur’s cock into his mouth. Arthur tightens his fingers in Merlin’s hair, and Merlin opens his mouth and tugs at Arthur’s cock until he spills across his lips and down his chin, Merlin licking at the delicate skin at the head of his prick. Arthur pulls him up and nearly kisses his mouth, but Merlin wiggles his head away and says, “When we’re sober,” and Arthur kisses his forehead instead.

“Will you fall asleep?” Merlin asks, feeling himself beginning to lose consciousness.

“Mm-hmm,” Arthur hums. “Promise to make me coffee in the morning.”

“Just for you,” Merlin says into the damp skin of Arthur’s chest, finally allowing himself to sleep.

***

Merlin wakes to the sound of a strange alarm and flails his arms about to try to find the source and make it stop. Arthur reaches across him to the nightstand to switch off the alarm on his phone, and Merlin remembers falling asleep with him last night with a flush of pleasure.

He burrows into Arthur’s warmth and finds Arthur’s cock hard and bare against his arse. “What time is it?”

“5:30,” Arthur says, running his hand down Merlin’s arm.

“You get up even earlier than I do,” Merlin whines.

“I don’t have any meetings this morning. I can stay as long as you want. Or as not long.”

“Set that alarm for 6:30, then.”

Arthur leans across him again to set the alarm, muscles stretched along Merlin’s back, and suddenly, Merlin doesn’t feel much like sleeping.

“How hung over are you?”

“Not too bad,” Arthur says, wrapping his fingers around Merlin’s hip.

“Hmm. Want to fuck?”

Arthur lets out a surprised laugh into the back of Merlin’s neck.

“No need to be rude,” Merlin says, smiling.

“I don’t know about you, but my breath is not to be fucked around with.”

“Better not face each other, then.”

Merlin grabs the lube out of the drawer and slides up in the bed until Arthur’s cock slips between his legs. He pours some lube on his hand and wraps it around Arthur’s prick. He slicks his own thighs before clamping them around Arthur’s cock.

“Oh,” Arthur sighs and wraps his arms around Merlin’s chest, holding him close. “You want me to fuck you like this?”

“Please,” Merlin says, reaching down to tease his own prick.

Arthur begins rocking tentatively as though learning the architecture of Merlin’s legs. He presses his face into Merlin’s neck and begins thrusting more surely, brushing against Merlin’s balls as he moves.

Merlin doesn’t care to hold back his soft moans. He loves the feeling of Arthur taking pleasure from Merlin’s body and holding Merlin against him like he’s an essential part of this. “Arthur,” he moans, revelling in the way their bodies slide together, slicked with sweat and the heat of their desire.

“Merlin,” Arthur says. “You feel so good, Merlin. So good.”

They move against each other roughly, and the creaking of the bed makes Merlin vaguely aware of Elyan on the sofa outside. Merlin laughs at the idea of Elyan out there snickering to himself through a hangover. Arthur kisses his ear, his neck, his shoulder.

Merlin pulls at his cock, focussing on the feeling of Arthur sliding between his legs, the hot breath against his neck. Arthur runs a hand down Merlin’s arm, joining his grip around his cock. Arthur pulls at him a few times, then moves his hand to Merlin’s hip.

Arthur rolls onto his back and brings Merlin with him so his head is laying back against Arthur’s shoulder and his legs are spread on either side of Arthur’s hips. Merlin feels open and wanton, like the desire welling in his chest may split him in two.

“Want to watch you,” Arthur says, wrapping his right arm underneath Merlin’s leg and grabbing his own cock. The feel of Arthur’s arm jerking as he gets himself off makes Merlin pull at himself harder. He brings his free arm back to bury his fingers in Arthur’s hair, and he feels Arthur’s head lifted, his neck straining with the effort of looking down Merlin’s body.

“Want to see you come,” Arthur says and drags his tongue along Merlin’s shoulder. “Come for me, Merlin.”

Merlin plants his free foot on the bed and strokes his cock, imagining the way Arthur is looking at him, the way he pulls at his own prick in time with Merlin.

Arthur reaches the hand not on his cock down between Merlin’s legs, past his balls, swiping through the lube and pressing one finger against Merlin’s entrance. Merlin cries out, his orgasm sudden and intense, and Arthur whispers, “Perfect. So fucking perfect,” as Merlin streaks himself with come.

Arthur drops his head back and pulls his hand away from Merlin’s arse, running it through the come on Merlin’s chest. Merlin reaches down and takes Arthur’s cock from him, pulling hard. Arthur’s other hand joins the first on Merlin’s chest, touching and holding Merlin close like something beloved.

Merlin jerks the head of Arthur’s prick, and Arthur moans, “Fuck, Merlin. Fuck, I’m—fuck, don’t stop.”

Merlin tugs on Arthur’s cock until he groans and his prick starts pulsing as he comes. Merlin holds it to the crease of his thigh, and Arthur writhes against him, thrusting into the small space between Merlin’s hand and hip. Even when he’s spent, he keeps moving, as though the mere feeling of Merlin against him makes him feverish.

When he finally stills, he rolls them both onto their sides again, and Merlin wriggles onto his back to kiss Arthur’s scratchy chin. When he opens his eyes and looks at Arthur’s face, his cheeks are pink and his eyes glassed over. Arthur looks down at Merlin with a soft, personal smile.

Merlin runs his thumb across Arthur’s cheek and says, “Shower.” Arthur nods resolutely.

Merlin gets up and pokes his head out the door. Elyan is sitting on the sofa drinking tea.

“Erm, hi,” Merlin says, feeling his face flush.

“Good morning.” Elyan lifts his teacup to Merlin with a huge grin.

“Is Gwen up?”

“Not yet.”

“Erm. This is embarrassing,” Merlin says, unable to conceal his grin. “We’re too filthy to put on clothes. Can we just….” Merlin points at the bathroom.

“Go right ahead,” Elyan says, turning to face the kitchen.

“Grab your towel,” Merlin says before taking a brisk naked walk across his flat. Once Arthur is in the bathroom with him, he closes the door.

“Well, that was exciting,” Arthur says, tossing his towel on the counter.

Merlin waits until the spray is warm and then climbs in, and Arthur follows immediately, cupping Merlin’s arse. Arthur looks at him like he’s never seen anything so beautiful, and his desire is intoxicating and contagious. His want is so plain and intense that Merlin has to turn away or risk being late to work in favour of opening his body for Arthur and inviting him inside.

They clean up quickly, hardly pausing to press against one another. Merlin hopes someday he’ll be able to take his time and press Arthur face-first against the wall, spread his legs, and lick at him until he comes. Merlin has never felt so ravenous before. Even as a teenager, he never wanted sex the way he wants it from Arthur: every way he can have it and probably a few ways he can’t.

Even without taking any detours, they’re both half-hard again when they get out. They laugh about it as they dry off and wrap themselves in towels.

They barely make it back to Merlin’s room in time to turn off Arthur’s alarm when it goes off. They get dressed quickly, Merlin in a black T-shirt and jeans and Arthur in his suit from yesterday. As Arthur is knotting his tie, Merlin runs his fingers over Arthur’s face and says, “I like the stubble.”

“Let’s hope my clients do, too.”

They head back out into the living room, where Elyan is eating leftover trifle and watching the local news at low volume. “There’s tea,” Elyan says, pointing at the pot, and Merlin tells Arthur to sit.

“Do you like oatmeal?”

“Yes,” Arthur says.

“Care what’s in it?”

“Not at all.”

“You want any?” Merlin asks, looking at Elyan, who shakes his head no and gestures towards his trifle.

They eat breakfast in silence, watching the news and sipping their tea. At seven, Merlin tells Arthur he has to go to work, and Arthur offers to drive him.

“Traffic is shit this time of day. It would be faster to walk.”

“Yeah, but not as warm,” Arthur says. “Let me.”

They gather their things and say goodbye to Elyan, who seems content to sit on the sofa drinking tea all morning. Merlin doesn’t blame him.

When they get to Monmouth’s, Merlin offers to make Arthur the first coffee of the day. Arthur follows him in, watching Merlin get everything ready for the impending onslaught of customers. Once the machines are turned on and the pastries are out, Merlin washes out Arthur’s mug and prepares his au lait.

“Have a nice day, sir,” Merlin says as he hands the cup to Arthur.

“I probably won’t be in this afternoon,” Arthur says, grimacing down at his phone.

“Well, I’ll see you when I see you, then.”

“Until then,” Arthur says, leaving just as Leon walks in.

“Who was that?”

Merlin shrugs. “Early customer.”

***

Monday morning, Arthur leaves for Wales on business, and Merlin is on his phone nigh constantly texting him. Even Gwen takes the piss, but Merlin doesn’t care. He learns a lot about Arthur via text, such as: the reason Arthur doesn’t come into Monmouth’s on Fridays is that he and Morgana meet with their father to talk about the business. Arthur’s favourite food is seafood chowder, his mum died during childbirth, and he was engaged to a woman for three years before she lovingly informed him that he was gay. And for his part, Merlin tells Arthur how his dad was a fugitive for a peaceful protest turned violent near a military facility before he died alone in Stockholm, about his awkward two-year relationship with Jason with the most boring sex imaginable, and his love of visiting the zoo.

Merlin feels less anxious than he has in a long while. Though he doesn’t consider Arthur his boyfriend, he begins to feel as though he has some grounds for calling Arthur his friend. Arthur sends him pictures of the places he visits, and Merlin sends Arthur pictures of Gwaine’s tragic haircut. Gwaine catches him in the act and snatches the phone away.

“Oy, who’re you sending pap shots to?”

“No one.”

Merlin makes a grab for the phone, but Gwaine is too agile, sidestepping Merlin and running in back, leaving Merlin to help the three men who enter the shop.

Gwaine comes out after a few minutes and hands the phone to Merlin, saying, “Well, that worked out.”

“Hmm?” Merlin is wiping down the steam wand and counting down the minutes to the weekend.

“You and Blondie. Arthur,” Gwaine says with an exaggerated sigh.

“Different Arthur. You haven’t met him.”

“Bollocks to that. You were practically in each other’s laps the last few times he was in.”

“Please!” Merlin glances at the clock. Five more minutes.

“Why were you sending him pictures of me?”

“Because he’s desperately in love with you.”

Gwaine laughs as though this is ridiculous. It probably is.

“He has an odd way of showing it.”

“How’s that?”

“I mean, maybe he’s playing hard to get, but I guess when he paid me off to be busy for five minutes every day, I figured his interests lay elsewhere.”

“You don’t make any sense.”

“Oh, right. That part was a secret.” Gwaine shrugs and helps a customer, and Merlin gets hung up on the word secret.

“What do you mean, he paid you off?”

“You can ask him that.” Gwaine huffs, and Merlin feels something ugly well up in his gut.

“Tell me, or I will ask, and you’ll be the one with a problem.”

Gwaine sighs and rubs his eyes. “Before he started coming in at 3:25, right, he was my 3:30 regular. He saw you leaving every day and thought you were his kind of people, I guess, so he stacked the odds in his favour. Leaned across the counter and asked if I could find an excuse to be elsewhere at 3:25 every day. Slipped me a £100, and that was that.”

Merlin doesn’t know how to react. He should leave, but he can’t move. Gwaine puts a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin feels instant revulsion and jerks away.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Gwaine looks over his shoulder and pushes Merlin into the back, sitting him down by the small table covered in old newspapers.

“Look, it was easy cash, and I didn’t even know you.”

“That’s fucking creepy, Gwaine.” Merlin looks up at him, and at least he has the good sense to look remorseful.

“Yeah, I guess. But you liked him, and he liked you, and he never even looked at you sideways over the course of, what, three months?”

“Four.”

“Right, so for a creeper, he’s not really all that creepy. And I didn’t do anything that got you in trouble.”

“God, fuck off,” Merlin says, burying his face in his hands. “That’s bloody easy for you to say.”

“What? You’re shagging one of the hottest blokes in London, he’s got more cash in his wallet than you make in a week, and he looks at you like you’re the fucking Blessed Mother but sexier. I don’t see the problem.”

“Whatever. Go back to work.”

“I should have told you,” Gwaine says, turning to walk back out into the shop.

“You should have told me,” Merlin agrees, filling the words with as much venom as he can muster.

Merlin tries to get up and fails, struck with a vivid association he can’t ignore. Nothing Arthur has done is innocuous anymore, and Merlin’s stomach sinks when he realises that Arthur never left a tip until he started pursuing Merlin.

Merlin is helplessly caught in memories of his own powerlessness, the imposed lack of agency in his life, trapped within the oscillating whims of a wealthy older man who deemed Merlin a commodity to be bought, and Merlin had his price. Still has his price, so fucking easy for a plush set of lips and a gorgeous arse that Arthur can open his wallet and buy Merlin’s attention, and Merlin will give it without question. He feels disgusted with himself, shame roiling in his gut, making him nauseous.

It takes him ten minutes to finally call Gwen. He tries four times before she answers with, “Merlin, what’s wrong?”

“I need you to come get me from work,” he says, hating himself every word.

“Lance would be faster. Do you need anyone, or do you need me?”

“Lance is fine. Just. I’m in the back, and I can’t … I can’t move.”

“He’ll be there in a few. I’ll meet you at home. Do you want me to stay on the phone?”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll just—it’s fine.”

“Okay. I’ll see you soon, darling. I love you.”

Merlin hangs up the phone and clutches it in his hand. He focuses on the timing of his breaths, on the simple routine of breathing, and then his phone vibrates and lights up. He looks down to see a new text from Arthur.

I’ll be back tomorrow around 7. Excited to see you.

Merlin loses the rhythm of his breaths then, clutches his head in his hands and tries to shove back images of his own skin, young and fragile and on display under the gaze of Matthias, the feeling of an unwanted mouth around his prick, the guilt of being a glorified whore. Every piece of him bought and paid for, every decision stripped from him.

When Gwaine shows Lance into the back, Merlin has his head between his knees and his arms wrapped around his chest, trying to hold in all the things that want to leave him.

Lance crouches down in front of Merlin and asks, “Can I touch you?”

Merlin nods, and Lance puts his hands on Merlin’s knees.

“I want you to put your hand on my chest. Can you do that?”

Merlin tries to move from his position but can’t, and that terrifies him. All his control disappears, and he can’t catch his breath no matter how hard he chases it.

Lance takes Merlin’s hand and pulls it towards his chest, pressing it there.

“Breathe with me, okay?” Lance says. He takes long, slow, exaggerated breaths, his chest rising with each inhale, falling with each exhale.

Merlin looks at his fingers on Lance’s chest, listens to the sound of Lance’s breathing, and tries. It’s just shallow breaths at first, and he falters when he remembers what he’s lost.

It takes ten minutes of focussed effort between him and Lance before Merlin feels in control again. The humiliation burns deep and he almost loses all his progress, but Lance’s hand is steady on his shoulder, and he knows Gwen would never send someone to look after him that she didn’t trust with everything.

“Do you feel ready to walk?” Lance asks.

Merlin nods, and Lance helps him up. Merlin thinks to take off his cap and apron and put on his coat before they head out into the shop. Lance puts his arm around Merlin’s shoulders and talks loudly about nothing in particular, as though they’re having a perfectly ordinary day. No one even looks up at them as they exit the shop, and Lance opens the passenger door for Merlin to get in the car.

They drive in silence, and Lance parks in front of Merlin’s flat, leaving on the heating that’s just finally kicked in.

“Do you want to talk before we go inside?”

Merlin thinks about it and finds that yes, he does, so he nods.

“So what happened?”

Merlin lets out a shaky sigh and tries to find the words, but can’t quite think of anything that will make sense.

“Gwaine told me Arthur bribed him to get me to help him at the shop.”

“Wait. Arthur gave Gwaine money because he wanted to interact with you?”

“Yeah.”

Lance sighs, and Merlin glimpses him shaking his head in his periphery.

“That was stupid.”

“Yeah.”

“Why are you so upset?”

Merlin clenches his fingers together, unable to put into words this feeling, this sudden profound lack of power. He stares unseeingly out the window and says, “When I was younger, there was a bad person in my life. And I did things. And he had money.” It’s the closest he’s going to get, the best he can express to Lance the places he’s been.

“And now Arthur might be like this bad person.”

“And I ignored it because he was good-looking. And because he wanted me.” Hearing it aloud makes Merlin feel hot with shame, knowing he’s this easy. Show a little interest, and he’ll give you anything. He’ll let you in into his thoughts and his life and his fucking bed.

Lance sighs and taps his fingers on the wheel and sighs again.

“Okay, I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t tell Gwen this,’ because that’s not what I mean,” he says. “I want to tell her, but I want to tell her, you know?”

Merlin nods.

“My dad died when I was really young, but my mum was dating this guy, Carl, for most of my childhood. And he was a real piece of shit who mistreated her and threatened me and my sisters, and it was really bad. They finally split for good when I was about fifteen, but it really stuck with her.”

Merlin feels his own burden lighten a bit listening to Lance, remembering that whatever problems he may face, at least his poor decisions won’t affect his family.

“Anyway, my mum said the only reason they were even together was that he had stolen the fucking family dog and then returned it like he’d found it, and when she already owed him something, he found excuses to be in our lives and just…. He just knew how to make her feel like she needed him.”

“Shit,” Merlin breathes.

“And it came out one time when he was telling one of his arsehole friends about it over drinks. My mum was sitting right there, and he just said it like it was a joke, like some funny, cute story they told about how they met.”

“That’s fucking disgusting.”

“My point is, you don’t ever want to wind up with a piece of shit like that, because you’ll never be free of him.”

Merlin nods. “You’re right.”

“But here’s the thing, and I want to be clear about this. For anyone who knew to look for it, there were signs from the very beginning that this bloke was an abuser. And you don’t run your life suspecting everyone because that’s a shit way to live, but when you’re deciding whether or not you’ll talk to Arthur again, just think about it. Has he done anything else to manipulate you?”

“That’s a good question,” Merlin says. “And I don’t know the answer.”

“Take your time, and don’t let what you want get in the way of what’s best for you.”

“Thank you,” Merlin says, and he means it. He takes off his seat belt and reaches to open the door.

“Do you want me to come up with you?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Thanks.”

“Anytime, Merlin.”

Merlin makes the cold trek up to his building, and Lance pulls away when Merlin walks inside. When he opens the door to his flat, Gwen tackles him with a hug.

“Oh, thank god you’re here. Sit down.”

She leads him over to the sofa, where tea and biscuits await him. She sits down and puts her arm around him as he takes a reverent sip of tea. The warmth of it suffuses him, its bitter flavour creeping into his consciousness and bringing order to his chaotic thoughts.

“What happened, sweetheart?”

“I need you to be totally honest and not spare my feelings. Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“What do you think of Arthur, and of Arthur and me?”

Gwen sighs and takes a sip of tea. When he glances at her, she looks like she’s considering.

“I think he’s lovely,” she says finally. “I think I’ve never seen you so happy, barring today, and he’s the main reason for that. I think he’s well on his way to falling in love with you, and he has no reservations about that.”

She pauses.

“I think you’re falling in love with him, too. And that’s because he’s kind and generous and brave. And he’s genuine and humble, and he doesn’t hide his feelings.”

Merlin huffs. “You just described yourself, Guinevere.”

“Well, you’re madly in love with me,” she says through a grin. “Don’t act so shocked.”

“Is that it? He’s all good? There’s nothing bad about him?”

Gwen rests her head against his and is silent for a moment.

“I think I may be the wrong person to ask about this,” she says. “Elyan, though, would probably say he’s too quick to show affection. He rushes into things. Maybe he becomes too wrapped up in how he’s feeling to think about the consequences. But I’ve never seen an excess of heart as a bad thing.”

Merlin nods. He remembers feeling apprehensive about how quickly Arthur transitioned from stranger to lover. Merlin expected to be a one-off, and Arthur surprised him with soft smiles and forehead kisses.

“Do you think he’s manipulative? Or isolating?”

Gwen huffs, her face scrunched up in thought.

“I wouldn’t say so. Not that I’ve seen. Your behaviour hasn’t changed much except that you’re happier and having more sex, which are not bad things. And good lord, Merlin, isolating?” She looks down at him with an eyebrow raised. “He told you to go visit your mum and your best friend. And he told you to bring me.”

Merlin nods and grabs a biscuit, feeling calmer though still on edge.

“Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

“No,” Merlin says, considering. “Can you get next week off work?”

“Why?”

“I’d like to go visit my mum.”

“Then we’ll go. I’ll call Lance and ask to borrow the car.”

“Thank you,” Merlin says, clutching her hand.

Gwen kisses his cheek, and they sit in silence until the sunset washes the room in darkness.

***

Gwen drives all six hours to Ealdor. It takes two hours and a full thermos of tea for Merlin to tell her what happened. Her grip on the steering wheel looks painful. She’s angry, and Merlin loves her for it. They stop at a trashy cafe for burgers and chips, and Merlin turns on his phone to call his mum and say they’re an hour away. There are two new texts from Arthur.

What are you doing tonight?
Getting on the plane. Call you when I land.

Merlin feels suddenly ill and asks Gwen to talk to his mum while he visits the loo. He stares at himself in the mirror for a full minute, wondering what Arthur saw there that made him want to buy his way near. Merlin doesn’t think he looks unapproachable, and it makes him angry. Washing his hands with the putrid loo soap, he wonders why Arthur didn’t just talk to him.

***

Merlin’s mum is exactly how Merlin remembers her but happier somehow. She hugs Gwen first and holds her long and firm, tells Gwen to call her Hunith and says something too low for Merlin to hear. When she turns and cups his face in her hand before pulling him in for a tight hug, several things in Merlin slot into place and he feels calm again.

Tyres crunch on the gravel road behind them, and Merlin turns in time to see Will launching himself out of his car and running full-speed to where the group is standing outside the house’s threshold.

“Merlin!” he shouts, his arms waving wildly until he reaches them and grabs Merlin and Hunith both in a hug that makes Merlin bubble over with laughter. Hunith squirms after a moment and wriggles out of the hug, leaving Merlin and Will to shove at each other.

“Let’s get inside and have some tea,” Hunith says, taking Merlin’s bag and leading Gwen into the house.

“Come in, idiot,” Merlin says as though this is still his home. When he and Will enter, Will’s arm slung over his shoulder, he’s certain this is his home. It smells like the roast in the oven and under that like his family. Gwen and Hunith are sitting at the kitchen table talking about Gwen’s dad, and Merlin and Will sit down to join them.

It’s a comfortable evening full of laughter, and Will plays a few Christmas songs on the piano while Gwen and Hunith try to sing along. Merlin smiles into his whiskey glass and remembers just how much he’s missed a roaring fire in the hearth and the warm eyes of his mother.

Climbing into his old bed for the first time in years makes him feel older. He knows it’s a bad idea, but he turns on his phone as he lies in bed, already thinking about Arthur and despite himself hoping Arthur has been thinking about him.

There are two voicemails, and Merlin holds his breath as he listens.

“Hey, Merlin. It’s Arthur. Of course. I’ve just landed, and I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner tonight. Give me a call when you get this.”

“Merlin, hi. Haven’t heard from you, so I’m heading home. Give me a call anytime tonight. I’d really like to see you.”

Merlin can’t help himself. He listens to the messages on repeat. Arthur’s voice sounds easy, unconcerned. He doesn’t know yet that everything has gone bottom up. When Arthur is just a puzzle, something outside of Merlin’s immediate life, it’s easy to ignore the way he feels. But when Arthur is a person again, a warm, hard body that Merlin still aches for, the anger and hurt and regret well up until all Merlin can do is clutch the phone to his chest, wishing he could go back. But he can’t, and no amount of wanting will make him forget.

***

The week is soothing and carefree. Gwen and Hunith spend much of their time at the market and in the kitchen doing experimental cooking for the love of it. Will brings his girlfriend, Elise, to play Trivial Pursuit, and Merlin can’t help but smile when he looks at them. Will has entered a tentative polyamorous relationship, and while he is not sexually involved with Frankie, he has grown to enjoy his company a great deal. “It’s never being alone,” Will says to Merlin over late Bloody Marys at the town pub. Merlin nods as though he understands, but he doesn’t. Not really.

On Friday evening, Will’s power steering goes out while he and Merlin are on the way back from picking up pumpkins, and then the engine fails, too. Will’s phone is out of battery, so Merlin turns his on and holds his breath. He ignores the new texts from Arthur and calls Gwen.

She and Hunith find them on the road, and Gwen pulls out her lamp and tools and starts digging. Will watches as she works, asking questions, and Merlin wraps his arms around his mum to keep her from shivering too violently. Gwen pulls out Will’s serpentine belt and says, “Lucky I always carry a spare.” They’re on their way back home in under half an hour, and the whole drive back, Will chats with excitement about learning new things.

When the pumpkin pie comes out of the oven, Gwen insists Hunith have the first slice. “It’ll change your life, Mum,” Merlin says, because it certainly changed his. As expected, Hunith loves it, and she asks very carefully if she can invite Bill over for a slice.

“And here I thought you were ashamed of me,” Merlin says, shaking his head.

Hunith wraps her arms around his shoulders from behind and rubs her cheek against his even though he hasn’t shaved all week and is decidedly scratchy. “Don’t even joke like that,” she says. “You’re the centre of my world.”

“Invite him, then,” Merlin says. “I want to meet the bloke who’s made my mum all rosy-cheeked.”

Bill is actually amazing, to the point where Merlin has to excuse himself early claiming a headache. He goes into his room and turns off the light, then lies down on the bed fully clothed and turns on his phone. Merlin reads the text messages first.

Merlin! I just saw the best ad for chewing gum.
Hey, where are you? I just went in for coffee and got stuck with Gwaine’s burnt shit.
Are you there? Blink once for yes.
Merlin, are you okay? I’m getting panicky and pathetic. Spare a bloke some discomfort?
Are you just gone, or did I do something?
Okay, I’m going to stop texting you now, but please get in contact with me whenever you want. If you want. I’ll be here.

Merlin takes a shaky breath and moves on to the voicemail. He knows he shouldn’t do it, but the sound of laughter from the other room pushes him forward. With all the happiness surrounding him, all the people in love and loved in return, he deserves this small luxury. He deserves to hurt this way, alone and without interference.

The first voicemail is simple, just Arthur saying Merlin’s name in a variety of silly intonations. It makes Merlin ache for him.

The second: “Merlin, I hope you know you’ve got me wanking to your bloody Facebook profile picture. Accept my friend request so I can see more, yeah? Are there any beach pics?”

Merlin stuffs his fist between his teeth to keep from screaming. The image of Arthur sprawled out on his white sofa with his hand around his prick and his head turned to face a dopey picture of Merlin on his laptop screen is overpowering. It makes Merlin angry with a combination of bitterness and desire, and he moves quickly along to the last message before he can dwell too much on it.

“Merlin, I—I don’t…. Look, just—never mind. It’s fine. I’ll—yeah. Bye.”

Arthur’s voice is so fucking broken that Merlin finally loses himself and weeps. He hasn’t cried in years, and he doesn’t exactly remember how. It’s a painful, breathless thing that hurts his throat until he finally lets out a sob. The bed creaks with the shaking of his body, the choking sadness making him cough until he feels ill.

There’s a light knock on the door, which opens and then closes again, and the scent of Gwen is on the air. She moves slowly across the room and climbs into bed behind him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head in his neck.

“It’s okay,” she whispers. “Bill went home a bit ago. It’s just you, me, and your mum.”

So Merlin cries because this is the only chance he’ll get. Gwen rubs his shoulder and hums to him until he’s so cried-out all he can do is fall asleep.

***

Merlin wakes with the sun and feels the warm weight of a person beside him. In his sleepy state, he thinks of Arthur and rolls over to bury his face in his chest. But the body beside him is too soft and the smell is familiar but wrong. He opens his eyes to see Gwen shaking herself awake.

“Sorry,” Merlin mutters, a bit embarrassed but mostly just disappointed.

“I won’t tell Lance if you don’t.”

Merlin rests his head on her shoulder anyway and sighs.

“Thanks for sitting with me.”

“Of course,” Gwen says, scratching his scalp. “You needed that.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what you’ll do?”

Merlin considers it a moment as he looks out the window into the back yard, which is dusted with a fine layer of snow.

“I think I need to talk to him,” Merlin says. “But I’m angry still, and I honestly don’t know if it can be okay.”

Gwen stifles a yawn in the crook of her elbow. “All relationships have tests. Do you think he’d have told you?”

“I’m not sure,” Merlin says. He hasn’t thought of this, the idea that Arthur may have come clean on his own eventually. “Maybe. I guess it doesn’t matter now.”

“Has he tried to contact you?”

Merlin spots his phone on the rug by the bed and reaches down to pick it up. He opens to the texts from Arthur and hands the phone over.

“There are voicemails, too.”

She reads and listens for a few minutes, and Merlin stretches and stands, walking over to the window. He sees a sparrow land on the edge of the birdbath and tentatively poke at the ice with its beak before the glass in front of his face fogs up from the warmth of his breath.

“It looks like the last was this text message telling you to call him when you feel ready.”

Gwen’s voice pulls Merlin out of a strange musing on squirrels in wintertime.

“Yeah,” is all he can say in response.

“He’s giving you space.”

When Merlin turns back to the bed, he sees Gwen sitting with her back against the headboard, the phone cradled in her hands where they lie in the triangle between her crossed legs.

“He’s obviously hurt and scared, but he’s not asking you for anything.”

“Good. He doesn’t have any right to ask.”

“You’re right,” Gwen says, holding the phone out to Merlin. He takes it from her and stares at it for a moment. When he looks back at Gwen’s face, she looks contemplative.

“What is it?” he asks.

“I understand why you feel the way you do, but do you think maybe you’re being a bit unfair?”

“Unfair how?”

Gwen sighs, and he can tell she’s choosing her words carefully. “Well, he doesn’t know about your past. Even if he knew you were upset, he wouldn’t understand why.”

“I don’t see how that makes what he did any better.”

“Well, that doesn’t. But, Merlin, I just don’t think he’s like Matthias at all. He’s got a lot of money, yeah, and he definitely made a poor decision, but the difference is really clear to me.”

Merlin shakes his head. “What’s the difference? How can I know there’s a difference? I’m not known for showing good judgment when it comes to who I fuck.”

“Merlin, stop doing that. You were a child, and he was a predator, and that’s it.”

“Okay, but what’s the difference?”

“You want Arthur. I mean, you really want him,” she says, her face earnest. “You ache for him, and we can all see that. Arthur can’t buy you because he already earned you.”

Merlin sits on the bed next to her, feeling like something is cracking apart in him. He knows he can’t avoid seeing Arthur any longer. He calls Will.

“Hey, we’re leaving for London in an hour or so.”

“I’m putting on trousers now. See you in a few,” Will says, and the line goes dead.

“Are you showering?” Merlin asks.

“No, I’ll just shower again when we get home anyway.” Gwen rolls out of the bed and leaves Merlin to get ready. He grabs his bag and heads into the bathroom for his last unsatisfying low-pressure shower of the trip.

Wrapped in a towel, he digs through his bag for a clean pair of pants. He finds a single pair near the bottom of the bag and pulls them out, confused. They’re mediums, and Merlin is certain he only owns smalls. He has a sudden visceral memory of standing in Arthur’s bathroom rinsing himself off in the sink and putting on these same pants.

Without thinking, he presses the fabric to his nose, seeking out Arthur’s scent in them. He catches sight of himself in the mirror with Arthur’s pants balled up against his face and starts. “Panty-sniffer,” he whispers to himself as he steps into them, a bubble of mixed excitement and shame welling up in him at the thought of wrapping himself up in Arthur.

He puts on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and shakes his head. There’s nothing wrong with wearing the only clean pair of pants he’s got. It wouldn’t be weird if he wore Will’s, so it’s not weird that he’s wearing Arthur’s, and besides, no one else will know.

He heads into the kitchen to have breakfast with his family, with the three people who mean most to him in the world, and leaving is bittersweet. Will helps Merlin pack the car with the many containers of food his mum insists on sending home with them. Will slams the door behind the last cooler and turns to Merlin.

“Can I pretend to be the rational friend for a minute?” he says, and Merlin smiles back at him and nods. “Do you remember Jason?”

Merlin laughs. “Of course I remember Jason.”

“Okay, do you remember how you felt about Jason?”

“Distinctly,” Merlin says, scrunching up his nose.

“He was a good bloke. Nice-looking and cheerful and all that.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Merlin says. “Where you going with this?”

Will kicks at the gravel and sniffs before he says, “It’s just that objectively, Jason was pretty good. Never did anything awful, treated you well, liked your friends, but you never really got into him, you know? You were just with him because he was already there.”

Merlin nods. “Accurate.”

“I’m just saying, don’t underestimate the importance of how you feel with the rich git.”

“Arthur?”

“Yeah, him. He’s a spoilt twat, but maybe that’s all it is. Wankers like that never figure out how to act around normal people, but it’s usually stupidity more than malice.”

“Ugh, you think I should forgive him,” Merlin says, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Hey, I don’t care about him, mate. I’d kick his arse myself if he mistreated you. But so far, he’s just made you really, really bloody happy. And really sad, but I think that says a bit, too, don’t you?”

“Shut up,” Merlin whines, because he hates it when Will talks sense. “I don’t want to hear that shit.”

“Yeah, I know how you like your snits. Jesus, you didn’t talk to me for three weeks when I nicked your Lunchable.”

“Hey, my mum never bought Lunchables. That was a prized treat.”

Will smiles and rolls his eyes, punching Merlin’s arm. They say goodbye there at the end of the drive, a simple hug and a “cheers,” because distance has never been an obstacle to their friendship.

The hug with his mother is the hardest part of leaving.

“Tell Bill I said goodbye, and sorry for bailing,” Merlin says. “I like him.”

“Oh, darling.” Her voice is dark with the threat of tears.

She pulls away and takes Merlin’s face in her hands, looking up at him. She’s beautiful and fierce just like a mother should be, and Merlin loves her.

“I want you happy,” she says, nodding. “You understand?”

“Yes, Mum.”

“I don’t care how you do it. I just want you happy.”

They embrace one last time, and then Merlin climbs into the car beside Gwen.

“Ready?” she says, waving back at Hunith, who Merlin knows will stand outside waving until their car has disappeared.

“Now or never,” Merlin says, and he waves over his shoulder at his mum until she’s disappeared in the distance, and this is the hardest part, after all.

***

Lance calls when they’re forty-five minutes from home, and Merlin does the talking for Gwen, who refuses to use the phone while driving. She plans to drop Merlin off and then go straight to Lance’s. It is this, more than anything, that makes up Merlin’s mind.

“Just drop me at Arthur’s,” Merlin says, hoping he sounds casual. “We’re practically on top of it.”

Gwen is silent for a moment, then responds with a simple, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

They ride in tense silence until Gwen puts the car in park outside of Arthur’s building. She puts her hand on Merlin’s knee and says, “If you need something, call me.” She says it like a threat, and Merlin understands why.

“I will,” he promises. He hopes he won’t have to.

He grabs his bag out of the boot and jogs up to the entrance of Arthur’s building, waving at Gwen before he heads inside. Approaching the receptionist’s desk, the unthinkable happens: he runs into Morgana.

She’s leaning against the desk chatting with the receptionist, and Merlin tries to sneak behind her to the lift. The receptionist gives him away with a polite, “I’m sorry, sir. You’ll have to check in.” Morgana turns, and the casual smile slips from her face, her brow knitting together with urgency.

“Merlin!” she says, her pretty red mouth hanging open beyond the last syllable. She clasps his bicep and steps directly in front of him, blocking his view of the receptionist. Merlin readjusts his bag on his shoulder and stares past her shoulder.

“Oh, thank god you’re here,” she says, and she sounds earnest, which makes Merlin look fully into her face. “Arthur is sick with it.”

Morgana looks relieved, and Merlin feels the sharpness of guilt in his chest. He remembers Arthur telling him that Morgana is his best friend.

“Okay,” is all Merlin can say.

“Look, I don’t know what he’s done to upset you, and I can’t tell you what to say to him, but don’t let him tell you he’s fine, because he’s not.”

“You don’t get to guilt-trip me,” Merlin says, hot with sudden anger, and humiliated to be doing this in front of other people.

Morgana’s nostrils flare, and she looks vicious. “This isn’t about guilt,” she says, disdain dripping from her voice. “This is about my brother and how he deals with problems, which you’ll be lucky to know him long enough to learn, little boy. I’ve known him my whole life, and what I’m telling you is not something you should brush off. Do you understand that?”

Merlin scoffs and tries to push past her, but she is remarkably stable.

“You did this,” she spits. “You made him happy and you took it away, and fuck you very much for it.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Merlin says, leaning in close. “You have no idea what he did. So maybe you should turn your fuck-yous onto him, because he’s the one that fucked up, Morgana, not me. And I’m here because I’m trying to sort this shit out. I can’t….” Merlin doesn’t finish the sentence because he doesn’t know what it is he can’t, exactly.

“Fine, then,” she says, letting go of his arm and stepping aside. She doesn’t look in the least as though she’s just been admonished, and it bothers Merlin more than it should. He walks past her, feeling shaken, and the receptionist just waves him on to the lift, apparently satisfied with his right to be here.

“He’ll let you go without a fight,” Morgana says, and Merlin pauses outside the lift. “If you say you’re done, he’ll let you, but it’s not because he doesn’t want you. So don’t expect him to chase, because he won’t.”

Listening to Morgana’s light footfalls as she leaves the building, Merlin is hit with a sudden image of Arthur talking to Will, and all at once, he understands Morgana. She loves Arthur, just like Will loves Merlin, and neither one of them seems to be very graceful when it comes to protecting the things that are precious to them. Merlin isn’t very good at it, either.

Riding the lift up to Arthur’s flat fills Merlin with a deep dread. He’s terrified of how this conversation will go, but even deeper, he’s scared he’ll see Arthur and forget everything but the welcome warmth of his body, the brightness of his smile, the way he makes Merlin feel cherished.

He takes a steadying breath before he reaches out and knocks on the door. Just a few seconds later, Arthur’s voice is at the door, saying, “What did you forget this time?”

The door opens, and Merlin watches Arthur’s facial expression shift from playful to something on the order of distraught. Merlin drops his bag at Arthur’s feet and feels like a refugee begging asylum.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, and his voice is so broken that Merlin has to reach out a hand for the door frame to steady himself.

Arthur’s arms move as though to reach out to him, but they’re immediately snatched back.

“Erm, come in?” Arthur says, and he looks as lost as Merlin feels.

Merlin steps into Arthur’s flat and feels unsafe here. It’s all too easy like everything with Arthur has been too easy. Merlin can’t tell if he’d rather sit or stand, and somehow in his mind it makes most sense to go lean against the kitchen sink. Arthur pulls Merlin’s bag into the flat and sits at the counter, clasping his hands on the surface in front of him. They look at each other, and Merlin doesn’t know exactly how to start this conversation, so he doesn’t even try for subtle.

“You paid Gwaine off,” he says, shaking his head. He feels the flare of his own nostrils, his desperate attempt to keep his breathing steady because he’s angry enough that he might start hurling things at Arthur if he says something stupid.

But Arthur just sits there, silent, staring at his own hands, and it grates on Merlin. “It’s your turn to talk,” he says, and even to him, his voice drips with condescension.

“Yeah,” Arthur says, and he seems uncharacteristically itchy in his own skin. Merlin thinks he’s probably keeping his hands folded together to avoid fidgeting them. “That was creepy.”

“You fucking think?” Merlin shouts.

“I don’t think there’s anything I can say that will make it less creepy. And I can give you an excuse, but I don’t think you want one.” Arthur shakes his head and looks into Merlin’s face, almost daring.

“I don’t want shit from you,” Merlin says. “I think you’re disgusting.”

Arthur looks pensive rather than hurt, biting his bottom lip, and this annoys Merlin.

“Why are you so upset?” Arthur asks, his voice careful.

Merlin doesn’t want to have that conversation, so he says, “That’s not your business. Why’d you do it?”

Arthur sighs.

“I had just come out to my father, and it didn’t go well.”

“Oh, really? Coming out to my mum wasn’t a picnic, either, but I didn’t go around buying my way into interacting with men.”

“I know,” Arthur says, shaking his head. “I know. It was stupid and gross, and I don’t blame you for the way you feel.”

“You don’t know shit about what I feel, Arthur.”

“Then tell me.” Arthur looks at him with so much longing Merlin has to look away. “Or you know what? Don’t. It’s not my business anymore.”

“Was it ever your business?” Merlin says. “What did you ever even want from me, Arthur, because I thought…. I trusted you. And you didn’t tell me.”

“I can’t make you feel better about this, Merlin, and if I could, I would, but you’re right.”

“Fuck you!” Merlin hisses. “This isn’t about me feeling better. I felt something, you wanker. You made me feel like—like I don’t know what. But it was there, and now….”

“Now, what?” Arthur looks open and bare, and Merlin knows he could hurt him.

“I don’t know. I don’t even know you. I never did.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s always been too soon. And I shouldn’t have let you make a place for yourself in my life.”

Arthur lets out a broken breath, and despite everything, Merlin wants to reach out to him.

“That’s not what I was doing,” Arthur says. “I need you to know that.”

“What were you doing, then? This is really your only chance to tell me, so just do it.”

Arthur stands and faces the sofa, and his shoulders form a hard line against the room.

“I heard you talking to Gwaine about going on a date with some bloke, and I just….” Arthur turns to face Merlin. “A gay man I could talk to every day seemed like the best thing I could do for myself, to keep me from diving back into the closet.”

Merlin lets out a harsh laugh. “They have support groups for that. They have gay clubs for that. Jesus, you didn’t even talk to me, just ordered your damn coffee and left.”

Arthur is suddenly very still, his face blank and his muscles rigid. He looks unwell, as though he’s ready to fight for his life if he has to.

“I can’t,” Arthur starts, jerking slightly at the words. “I can’t do that. I can’t just….”

Arthur takes a deep breath and then another, and Merlin recognises this. All of the anger in him fizzles, replaced by concern.

“I know I seem—I’m good with people—but I can’t—not about this.” Each short phrase is punctuated with a rough wheeze torn from Arthur’s throat, and Merlin can’t stop himself from going to Arthur, from pulling Arthur’s palm to his chest and breathing deeply for him.

“Why?” Merlin asks on an exhale.

“I didn’t know—not before you—thought I was—wrong.”

Arthur shakes his head and coughs, and suddenly, his breathing is much more controlled. Merlin lets go of his hand, and Arthur pulls it away.

“And what about me?” Merlin asks, still too close to Arthur. “You thought you could stack the odds in your favour? Make me easier to approach? What?”

“No,” Arthur says, his face earnest. “I didn’t want you for myself until later.”

“How do I believe that?”

“I guess you don’t,” Arthur says, defeated.

“All the games, Arthur,” Merlin says, clenching his hands into fists at his sides. “First, you buy your way in. Then you make me solve a puzzle to talk to you. Then the envelope saying you’re clear to fuck me before we’d even been on a date. And now you won’t even fight for what you want.” Merlin looks at Arthur’s bare feet, unwilling to see the look on Arthur’s face when he says, “Unless I’m not what you want.”

“There haven’t been any games. I just wanted you to choose. I still just want you to choose.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I wanted to ask you out, but I didn’t know how. I thought if you were interested, you’d come, and if you weren’t, I’d never have to deal with it.”

Merlin thinks that’s stupid, but he doesn’t say so. “And what about now? I’m here, and you just keep telling me to go. Is that what you want? You want me to just fuck off back to my life a month ago?”

Arthur’s hands on his arms are sudden and jarring, and Merlin can’t quite find his breath. “It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“That’s idiotic. Of course it matters what you want. Just fucking tell me, because I don’t really understand any of this. I just spent a week at my mum’s hating myself for thinking of you, and I come here and you don’t even want me.”

“Of course I want you,” Arthur says. He cups Merlin’s cheek in one large hand, and Merlin feels everything in him breaking apart. “If I did what I wanted to, I would finally taste your mouth, and I would push you into my bed and beg you to fuck me, but I can’t do that anymore. Because I fucked this up.”

“Why can’t we?” Merlin says, and he hates how desperate he sounds.

Arthur pulls Merlin in closer and presses their foreheads together, wrapping his arms around Merlin, who clings to him, unable to sort out just how much Arthur’s body feels like home.

“It won’t feel right,” Arthur says, and Merlin feels the warmth of his breath on his lips. “You’re angry and sad, and I made you that way.”

“I’m not,” Merlin says. “I’m not angry anymore. I just miss you.”

“How do I believe that?” Arthur runs his nose along Merlin’s.

“You trust me,” Merlin says, leaning in and brushing his cheek against Arthur’s with a satisfying scrape. “If you want me, you want this to work, you want to start over, just say so. Tell me any other secrets, and let’s just be done with it. I don’t want this to be over.”

“I’ll tell you all my secrets, Merlin, but it won’t change anything.”

Arthur’s hands are all over Merlin’s back, caressing his neck, and Merlin knows without any hesitation that he wants this. “Let me be stupid and reckless. It’s my decision to make. Tell me the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done and then let me kiss you.”

“You won’t want to kiss me if I tell you that right now,” Arthur says.

“Tell me anyway.”

“I shit my pants after a track meet. More than once.”

Merlin’s laughter takes him by surprise, erupting out of him so forcefully that he spits on Arthur’s face. Merlin reaches up to wipe the saliva away and says, “That’s disgusting.”

“You’re telling me,” Arthur says. “I couldn’t have been a barfer.”

“Running is a horrible sport.”

“I rather fancied it outside of its unfortunate laxative side effects.”

Merlin rests his head on Arthur’s shoulder and feels truly well for the first time in days. “I want this,” Merlin mumbles into Arthur’s neck. “Even if you’re gross.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Gwaine,” Arthur says against Merlin’s hair. “I didn’t even think to. So much has changed for me since I’ve been out. I’m just not the same person I was.”

“I believe you,” Merlin says, because he feels it in the way Arthur holds him, like he’s something most dear. And he knows Arthur will hurt him again, but it will be in the ways lovers hurt each other, and all Merlin wants to do is live in Arthur’s skin until he finds the thing in him that makes Merlin feel known.

Merlin exhales long and slow, knowing he needs to tell Arthur everything. “When I was sixteen, there was an old rich guy. And I was poor and didn’t think it would be so bad to spend time with him, because he bought me things and gave me money that helped pay for things around the house so Mum didn’t have to work so hard. But it got bad and he made me do things, and I didn’t say no.”

Arthur’s arms around him tighten, and Merlin whispers, “Do you still want me?” His throat is thick with the idea of losing this, losing Arthur’s warmth and strength.

Arthur presses his lips to Merlin’s temple. “Of course I want you,” he says, voice rough and earnest. “I want to make up for everything that pervert did to you, if you’ll let me.”

Merlin lifts his head from Arthur’s shoulder and looks into his face. “Kiss me?”

Arthur runs a thumb along Merlin’s cheekbone and brushes their noses together until their mouths are almost touching. They share a breath and then two. Arthur presses his lips to Merlin’s and gasps like he didn’t expect this. He presses harder, pulling Merlin’s lips against his.

It’s gentle, tentative for a moment, and then Arthur groans like something has broken in him, and he sucks Merlin’s upper lip into his mouth, and they’re kissing, and Merlin remembers what this is like. Arthur presses into Merlin’s mouth like it’s sacred ground as Merlin sinks his fingers into Arthur’s hair and touches his neck. Arthur’s arms hold him steady.

Merlin runs his tongue across the seam of Arthur’s lips, and Arthur smiles and lets him inside. It’s hotter and wetter, and feeling Arthur’s tongue against his lips makes Merlin shudder. The kiss grows even deeper, and Merlin feels like everything in him will combust if he can’t find a way to be closer, to get inside Arthur and have Arthur inside him. He wraps a leg around Arthur’s thigh, and Arthur picks Merlin clear off the floor, his tongue reaching deep into Merlin’s mouth to take away any distance remaining.

Merlin pulls away from Arthur’s mouth to say, “I want to do this in your bed,” and then Arthur hefts Merlin up higher and carries him into the bedroom, with Merlin laughing breathlessly the whole way.

Arthur drops Merlin on the bed, and Merlin scoots back until his head is on Arthur’s pillow. He turns his face into it and groans at the scent of Arthur surrounding him. Arthur crawls up his body and says, “You’re heavier than you look,” before claiming Merlin’s mouth again like he belongs there, and Merlin thinks he just might.

Arthur settles between his thighs, and Merlin rubs up against him, shameless and wanting. He wraps his arms around Arthur’s neck and drags his lips across Arthur’s. His face is raw from Arthur’s stubble. Arthur’s hands are in his hair, and his mouth is everywhere. He leaves Merlin’s raw lips to explore all the spaces between his ear and the collar of his shirt, groaning softly as though pulling the flesh of Merlin’s neck into his mouth is the most arousing thing he’s ever done. Merlin pulls off Arthur’s T-shirt, and stares down at him, rubbing his hands along the overheated skin of Arthur’s back.

Arthur slides a hand up under Merlin’s shirt and rubs his thumb across Merlin’s nipple. This combined with the sensation of Arthur’s tongue dipping into the hollow between his collar bones makes Merlin mad with need, and he shoves Arthur away from him, tearing off his own shirt and working the fastenings on his trousers. Arthur watches maddeningly as Merlin strips down without any finesse, finally kicking off his shoes.

“Are these,” Arthur says, when Merlin is sliding off his pants. “Are these mine?”

“Yes.” Merlin doesn’t see fit to give an excuse. He sits up and reaches for the button on Arthur’s jeans. “Are you going to take these off, or shall I?”

A grin crosses Arthur’s face, and he rolls off to the side, lifting his hips off the bed to wriggle out of his trousers. He kicks them off the bed and rolls back towards Merlin. They meet halfway, lying on their sides and touching each other’s hips and arms. Merlin slides a leg between Arthur’s and leans in to kiss him again.

The heat of Arthur’s body is like nothing else. It welcomes Merlin in, makes him breathless with need, until seeking his pleasure in Arthur’s mouth and against the skin of Arthur’s abdomen aren’t enough. He pushes Arthur onto his back and straddles his hips, grinding down against him and needing more.

Arthur looks up at him, cheeks pink and lips red and swollen, and Merlin kisses him until he thinks he has the slick of Arthur’s tongue memorised well enough to speak.

“What do you want?” he says, startled by the roughness of his own voice.

Arthur worries his lip between his teeth, and Merlin leans in to take over the job, licking until Arthur relents and lets Merlin bite at his lips. “Just tell me,” he says against Arthur’s mouth. “I’ll give you anything. Just say it.”

“God, I want to fuck you,” Arthur says. “Let me fuck you.” He winds his fingers into the hair at the back of Merlin’s head and pulls until Merlin looks at his eyes.

“How do you want it?”

“Whatever you like best. I just need your cock in me.”

Merlin feels a flush spread down to his chest as he says, “I’ve never—not this. Not either way.”

Arthur runs a thumb across Merlin’s cheek like he’s precious and says, “I just figured you had, because … but I haven’t, either. Not with a man. I’m—is this too soon?”

Merlin smiles down at Arthur’s wide, earnest eyes. “Everything is too soon, and I don’t care.”

Arthur looks at him like this isn’t an answer or like it isn’t the answer he wants.

“I’ll need lube if I’m to fuck you,” Merlin says, not quite managing a straight face.

Arthur’s smile verges on goofy as he pulls Merlin flat against his chest and kisses all over his face. Arthur rolls them, pinning Merlin beneath him as he reaches into the night table and pulls out a small bottle of lube.

He leans back and straddles Merlin, legs spread wide, the creamy expanse of his thighs perfectly framing his heavy cock. Arthur squeezes some lube onto his fingers, and Merlin snatches the bottle away. “Let me,” he says, so Arthur just smiles and smears the lube over his own prick, a movement that clouds Merlin’s senses with a single-minded want.

He gets Arthur on all fours in front of him and presses a finger inside until it moves easily, and then adds another and another until Arthur is wet and open and writhing.

“God, Merlin, I need your cock,” Arthur groans. “Please just fuck me.”

Merlin can’t quite stop watching his fingers fuck into Arthur’s body when he asks, “Condom?”

Arthur wiggles away from Merlin’s hand and flips onto his back, grabs Merlin’s hand and pulls him down until Merlin’s cock slides against the slickness between his legs. “Don’t use one,” Arthur says, his voice thin and vulnerable, and the way he looks at Merlin is heartbreaking.

“Arthur, that’s—”

“I have one if you want it, but I want to feel all of you.”

Merlin can’t think through the way Arthur is wiggling his hips, his entrance wet and tantalising and so easy, so open and ready for him.

Merlin leans back on his knees and steadies his cock with a lube-slick hand, slides it against Arthur’s hole and can’t hear the thoughts of stupid and reckless over the need thrumming beneath his skin.

Arthur reaches between his legs and cups his balls out of the way, and Merlin realises shallowly that neither one of them is breathing as he watches his cock press against Arthur’s hole and slowly, agonisingly, slide inside.

Arthur lets out a sharp exhale and then another, and Merlin reaches for his hand, brings it to his mouth and kisses it as he hitches his hips further against Arthur, pressing his cock bit by bit into the scorching heat of him. When most of his cock is enveloped, Arthur pulls him down. Merlin leans on his elbows and strokes Arthur’s jaw as he presses in farther until his hips are flush against Arthur’s.

Arthur smiles and leans up to kiss Merlin, and they move, slowly at first, growing accustomed to the way their bodies fit like this, how Arthur’s arse pulls Merlin back in with every thrust. Merlin can’t help the sounds he makes. Arthur’s body is too good, too strong, too beautiful, but Arthur is panting and moans every time Merlin’s cock brushes past that delicious spot inside him that makes him squirm.

And Merlin doesn't feel strong enough for this, doesn’t feel stable enough to look at Arthur's face and move inside his body and not feel something shift deeply within him. Arthur looks wrecked beneath him, like Merlin is steadily taking apart everything in him and rearranging the pieces into something that only makes sense when they touch each other, that only Merlin can ever know. He's hit very suddenly with all the things he longs to say, things so full of affection he doesn’t know where they came from, but he just bites his lip and watches Arthur's eyes and bears through it, because nothing he could say would ever match what he sees on Arthur's face, what he feels in the way Arthur curls his fingers around Merlin's arm.

When his orgasm washes over him, it's like a hot bath after a winter's day: long and easy and deeply satisfying in a way very few things are. It's a simple pleasure that he shares with Arthur, pressing his face into the damp fragrance of his neck as he pulses into Arthur's body, fills him, and Arthur kisses his temple like he knows, fingers skimming across the small of Merlin’s back.

Merlin kisses Arthur's lips sweetly before he sits back and watches his cock slip out of Arthur's arse, watches his own come leak from him with a hot flare of possessive pleasure.

He captures Arthur's cock between his lips and relishes the taste of him, vibrant and clear and Arthur. Arthur’s appreciation falls from his mouth, low and aching. He gasps Merlin and yes, and Merlin watches Arthur watching him. Merlin sucks deep, wants to see Arthur come, and he does, one thumb stroking Merlin’s ear as his hips twitch against Merlin’s slack mouth.

Merlin drinks Arthur in, swallows his seed, and then simply rests his head against Arthur’s thigh and looks up his body, watches Arthur’s cock twitch and slowly calm. Arthur’s fingers travel restlessly through Merlin’s hair, and Merlin can’t remember ever feeling so at ease.

***

Epilogue

The others are already pouring drinks as Merlin and Gwen set the last two boxes in the bedroom. When Merlin looks down at Gwen’s face, there are tears in her eyes, and he scoops her up, presses his nose against her hair and holds her close.

“This is scary,” she says after a moment.

“I know.”

Their old flat is empty now, and different people will soon live there, will fill all the spaces that were once theirs. All of their possessions have been split up or thrown out, and now this is the place that will smell like warmth and spice.

Merlin leads Gwen out into the living room and sets her down on their old sofa, a nice replacement for that lumpy heap Lance used to have. He goes to grab her a drink and when he turns around, Morgana is cuddled up next to Gwen, long fingers squeezing her shoulder, and Merlin smiles at them both.

Over the past year and a half, all of their lives have grown so closely knit together that when Gwaine and Elyan burst through the door with a brown sack, Merlin just feels warm and pleased.

Lance suggests they play Never Have I Ever and makes sure everyone is holding a drink. They take their seats around the coffee table, Gwen, Morgana, and Elyan on the sofa, and Merlin, Lance, Gwaine, and Arthur on the floor. It starts innocently enough, with Arthur saying he’s never seen Doctor Who and everyone but Gwaine and Morgana taking a drink. By the time Merlin says, “Never have I ever had sex with an American,” gunning for Gwaine, a minor scandal is caused when Morgana takes a drink and Arthur gapes at her.

Lance gets everyone but Elyan with his “Never have I ever had anal sex,” and the game ends in mutiny when Gwaine says he’s never had a cup of coffee and no one believes him.

For want of something to do with his hands while Arthur sobers up, Merlin sands and stains wood for Gwen and Morgana’s latest hobby clock. Conversation is effortless, and laughter rings through the flat regularly. When Merlin and Arthur make ready to leave, Gwen hugs them both at once and says, “Take care of my Merlin.” They both agree.

At home, Merlin sets a six-pack of cider in the fridge next to Arthur’s beer. After a meandering shower, Merlin watches Arthur in the mirror as they brush their teeth together. Arthur heads to bed and Merlin stops off in the kitchen for a glass of water. By now, he knows where everything goes in the cupboards, but this is the first time any of this belongs to him. He’s not a guest anymore, and when he sets the glass in the sink, he has an odd fantasy of fighting with Arthur over whose turn it is to wash dishes, and it makes him smile.

He climbs into bed and curls around Arthur, pressing his nose into Arthur’s neck. Arthur slots their fingers together and hums, and Merlin loves how easy it is to belong here.