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The kid's chart says he's seventeen, but the livid black-and-green bruise mottling his eye and the cracked split lip that's left a smear of blood drying across his cheek make him look vulnerable. The way he glares the moment Merlin pulls aside the curtain and steps inside defies him to say a word about it.

"Mr. Pendragon." Merlin sets the chart down on the table and offers him a smile. "I'm Dr. Emrys. How are you feeling today?"

The kid snorts and rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. "I'm in the hospital, aren't I? Ask a stupid question. And don't call me that. Mr. Pendragon was my father, and I don't care to go by a dead man's name."

Merlin's smile doesn't even waver. As far as difficult patients go, a little bit of sass hardly even ranks. "Arthur, then. What brings you in today?" He tips his chin at Arthur, indicating the bruised bruise. "That looks nasty, but a black eye hardly merits a visit to the ER."

Arthur heaves a great sigh and rolls his eyes up to the ceiling. "Well, no. It's not the eye. It's…" He sighs again, then grabs the back of his shirt and hauls it off over his head. Then he just sits there, hands braced on the bed beside him, glaring at Merlin like he's daring him to make comment.

Merlin's more interested in the expansive bruise spreading up Arthur's side. It's broader than both hands stretched side-by-side, the same mottled purple-green of the black eye. Acquired together, no doubt, but the width and breadth of this one is enough to bring Merlin forward, frowning as he reaches for a pair of nitrile gloves. "When did this happen?"

Arthur shrugs one shoulder, then grimaces. "A week or so, give or take."

"Did you see a doctor for it?"

His expression shifts to one of belligerent defiance. "I'm seeing one now."

"It's still bothering you?" Merlin presses his fingers gingerly to the bruise over Arthur's ribs.

Arthur hisses a breath in and flinches away. "Hey, watch it. I've charged guys twenty for taking less liberties than you are now."

Merlin stills and glances up at him. Arthur sets his jaw and meets his gaze, his own hard with defiance. "Did a john do this to you?" Merlin asks him quietly.

"If you're going to give me a lecture, I'm out of here. I came here for medical aid, not to have some stranger decide he's got the right to stick his nose into my business."

Merlin lets his brows climb high. He lets a beat pass, then says, "I don't get paid well enough to lecture strangers about their life choices. No judgment, just diagnostic relevance."

"It's relevant that somebody punched me in the ribs. Who did the punching is none of your business."

Merlin lets it go and walks his fingers along Arthur's ribs, feeling for any deformation that would indicate a rib was broken. He's swollen on that side, but nothing feels out of place.

Merlin steps back and asks, "Can you twist and look over that shoulder?"

Arthur does, but only manages to get halfway before he stops, bending over and pressing a hand to his ribs as he gasps, "Ow, fuck." He glares up at Merlin through the hair that's in his eyes.

"Does it hurt when you breathe?"

Arthur shrugs and lets his gaze slide away. "Not really."

"Not really, or no?"

He hisses out a breath. "Just a little, all right? Just sometimes."

Merlin nods and makes a note of it, while Arthur eyes him the whole time like he suspects that Merlin is secretly planning on doing something nefarious with his chart. "I want you to take a deep breath for me, okay? As deep as you can."

Arthur glares at him. "No."

Merlin lifts his gaze from the chart, startled. "No, you don't want to? Or no, you can't?"

"No, I'm not going to, because it's going to hurt like a son of a bitch and I'm not going to enable your sadism."

Merlin writes that down, too, then sets the chart aside so he can focus on Arthur directly. "All right, it sounds like your ribs are probably just bruised or cracked. I'm going to send you for a chest x-ray to be sure, and provided that confirms the diagnosis, we won't need to admit you. But I want you to take it easy for a few days. Rest as much as you're able." When Arthur snickers, Merlin fixes him with a look. "And when I say that, I mean rest. Over-the-counter medication can help with the pain. Don't overexert yourself, and if anything changes, if the pain gets worse or you experience any shortness of breath at all, you need to come back here immediately, do you hear me?" He pauses, and waits until Arthur realizes that that wasn't a rhetorical question, and nods. "Do you smoke?"

That gets Arthur's attention zeroed right back in on him. "Nosy," he snaps. "That's my own business. And I wouldn't be the first, if I did."

Merlin sighs. "Arthur, you may find this difficult to believe, but I'm not actually interested in narcing on you. But smoking while your breathing's compromised like this can lead to infection, so if you do smoke, stick with the patch until this has cleared up, all right?"

Arthur grunts and lifts one shoulder in a grudging shrug. Merlin takes it for as close to agreement as he's likely to get. "Barring any complications, then, you'll want to follow up with your primary care physician in a week to make sure things are progressing as they're supposed to. Any questions?"

Arthur just snorts and rolls his eyes up to the ceiling, mutters, "No," like he's mortally insulted Merlin would even ask. He hops off the edge of the bed, then catches his breath and hisses at the impact.

"That's an excellent start to taking it easy," Merlin says, droll, as he slides out of the way. "Very good, Arthur, I'm sure you'll improve in no time if you keep it up."

Arthur just huffs and rolls his eyes as e shoulders past Merlin toward the curtain that separates his bed from the rest of the others waiting to be seen by ER staff as well. "Which way's radiology?" he asks out in the hall.

Merlin gestures in the right direction, then puts his hand on Arthur's arm before he can take his leave. "Arthur?"

Arthur turns back halfway, his brow raised and his expression expectant. "Medically speaking," he says, "you could stand to be a little more selective about your clientele."

"Hey, fuck you," Arthur says brightly as he starts away, moving gingerly with his arm held close against his side. "And thanks. For my ribs, I mean."

"Any time," Merlin says, smiling wryly, and turns away to go see to his next patient.

#

A week later, Merlin drops off the chart from a patient he's just finished seeing and grabs the chart for the next when the name on the one beneath it catches his eye. Arthur Pendragon, he reads, and suddenly wants to just sit down and sigh. He grabs both their charts and smiles in relief when he sees his friend and coworker coming down the hall with her hands empty. "Hey, Gwen, can you take this patient for me?" he asks, and hands her the next patient's chart. He keeps Arthur's held in close against his chest. "I need to take care of this one."

Gwen takes the chart, but gives him a concerned look. "Trouble?" she asks.

Merlin shakes his head, already starting down the hall to the ER beds. "Just someone I know."

He finds the bed Arthur's been assigned to, then hesitates outside the curtain for just a second. Just long enough to shut his eyes, wipe his hand over his brow, and hope. Because it's always hard, treating someone who's been through something awful. It's worse, though, when it's someone you might have been able to keep from that fate. Maybe. In some alternate universe where that patient wasn't a seventeen-year-old street prostitute too busy being defensive to heed anyone else's advice.

He opens the curtain, braced to find Arthur bruised or bloodied or worse. But when it rattles open along its rail and Arthur looks up from the tattered paperback he's got propped on his knees, he looks so much better off than Merlin was expecting. He looks better than he did last time Merlin saw him, even. The black eye he'd worn before has faded to a sickly green, and though there are new marks on him — a few scratches, some finger-shaped bruises, a dark circle around one wrist that makes Merlin stomach flip with anger because it can only be from someone grabbing and wrenching at him — none of them are serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

"Back again?" he asks, flipping through Arthur's chart. There's the notes from his previous visit, and the x-ray, which had confirmed that he had two cracked ribs but nothing broken. He remembers his advice to Arthur, though, and given the obvious rough handling he's received, it makes him worry. "Has the pain gotten worse?"

Arthur shakes his head and drums his heels against one of the struts beneath the bed. "It's a lot better, actually. Only hurts if I take a real deep breath now, or if I exert myself." He says the last with a waggle of his eyebrows that's clearly meant to add an if-you-know-what-I-mean implication, and he watches Merlin with a sharp gaze like he's just waiting for him to take the bait.

Merlin just lowers the chart and gives him a level look. "And have you been doing a lot of that?"

He's sure it's not the reaction Arthur was hoping for, but it makes Arthur grin all the same, and thunk his heel even harder against the bed's supports. "Medically speaking?" He waits until Merlin inclines his head. "Now and then. I've been laying low, like you said. Only doing handjobs, mostly, when I can get away with it. And if they complain I tell them it's doctor's orders and they can fuck off if they don't like it. I've been eating ramen all week because of it, but now you'll give me the all clear, right?"

Merlin sighs and pulls a chair up so he can sit across from Arthur, so they're more on an even level. "Arthur, why are you here if you're healing normally and have no complaints?"

Arthur just smirks at him. "You told me to follow up in a week. It's been a week."

"With your primary care doctor." Merlin pinches the bridge of his nose. He knows Arthur's just baiting him, just trying to get a reaction, he knows it, but it's working all the same. "You don't have to come to the emergency room for a follow-up."

Arthur just shrugs one shoulder, loose and careless. "You're the only doctor I've seen in like a year. So I guess that makes my primary care doctor you, doesn't it?"

"It doesn't work that way." Merlin drops his hand and meets Arthur's gaze across the distance between them. "You should be seeing a doctor regularly."

Arthur's teasing humor vanishes beneath a sudden sneer, his eyes gone hard and angry. "Why?" he demands. "Because I'm a common whore and God knows what sort of diseases I might be carrying around?"

"Because you're a person," Merlin says, slapping the chart down hard enough to startle Arthur's eyes wide. "And people need to see a physician regularly to keep an eye on their health. And because your job exposes you to certain risks that need to be monitored, for the sake of your health. I'd say the same thing to you if you were a miner, or worked with asbestos, or had a desk job that put you at risk of carpal tunnel injuries--"

Arthur snorts and turns his face away sharply, his expression set into sullen lines. "Yeah, right."

And Merlin is busy, they've got a waiting room full of patients who need his attention much more urgently than Arthur does, so Merlin just presses his lips together, gets to his feet, and says, "Take your shirt off so I can examine you."

Arthur's brows shoot up and it startles a shock of laughter out of him. Merlin knows what that fucking sounded like, god damn it, but he's not going to give this kid the satisfaction of blushing just because he's decided to hear everything as an innuendo, so he just takes his stethoscope from around his neck and gives Arthur a flat look until he's regained control of himself.

"Eat your heart out," Arthur says with a smirk as he grasps the hem of his shirt and pulls it off over his head in a move that Merlin can only assume is designed to show himself off, given the way it leaves him with his arms stretched over his head, his whole torso pulled long and lean.

When he's got the shirt off and his head freed once more, Arthur watches him like he's expecting something. Merlin just steps forward, brushes the backs of his fingers against Arthur's arm to get him to hold it out from his side, and traces his fingers across the curve of his ribs.

The swelling's gone down nicely and his ribs still feel even and unbroken. It's a good sign, but Merlin can't help noticing, as close as they are, how the marks and wounds he observed earlier on Arthur's hands and arms are spread across the rest of his body as well. There's a rasp of beard burn on his collar and the bite of fingernails on his waist where someone must have grabbed him from behind, half a dozen other indistinct bruises and a bite on his shoulder that's red enough to make Merlin want to scrub it with antiseptic.

Arthur must notice where Merlin's gaze has wandered, because he jerks his chin up and gives Merlin that same, defiant glare that he remembers from the week before. "I like it rough," he says, throwing the words out like a gauntlet. "How about you?"

"I like it uncoerced," Merlin says, meeting his gaze.

Arthur gives a sharp burst of scornful laughter. "No one's forcing me to do what I do."

"No. But if someone handed you a check large enough that you'd never again have to worry about keeping a roof over your head, or where your next meal is coming from, would you keep doing it?"

Arthur just raises his brows and leans forward into Merlin's space. "Would you?"

"I like my job," Merlin says. "I like helping people."

"I like sex."

That makes Merlin laugh softly. "So do I. I generally prefer to have it with people I choose for myself, for no other reason than because I want them."

Arthur gives a sharp sigh and rolls his eyes. "Judgy," he mutters, and hops off the bed. "Thanks for the follow up."

He's wrestled his shirt back on and made it halfway to the hall when Merlin can't help himself. "Arthur," he calls after him, and Arthur stops mid-stride. He turns back, his gaze wary, his arms folded.

Merlin closes the distance between them, so they're not shouting across the emergency room. "Let me write you a prescription for some antibiotics."

Arthur's expression turns baffled as he shakes his head. "What the hell for?"

Merlin lays his fingers on Arthur's shoulder, over the place where the bite was etched livid into his skin. He's very warm through the thin layer of his t-shirt. "The human mouth is filthy, you know."

Arthur twitches like he wants to pull away from Merlin's touch, but doesn't. "I poured peroxide on it."

"It didn't work, or not well enough. It's inflamed, and that's going to turn into an infection if you don't nip it in the bud. A course of antibiotics will do the trick." But Arthur still looks resistant, his mouth flattened into an unimpressed angle, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans. "If you don't take them now you're just going to be back here needing them in a few days. You might as well save yourself the trip, and the pain."

"Christ! All right, fine." Arthur rolls his eyes skyward like Merlin's the biggest nag he's ever met. "Give me your damn prescription."

He snatches it out of Merlin's hand before he's barely finished ripping it off the pad, and then he's gone, hurrying down the hall with his arms crossed and his shoulders pulled up like he fears an attack from every angle. Merlin watches him go before he shakes his head, shakes off the encounter, and goes back to see to his next patient.

#

Merlin expects that to be the end of it. Especially as someone who by his own admission hasn't been to see a doctor in a year, he doesn't expect Arthur to show up again any time soon, not now that his ribs are on their way to fully healed.

Two weeks later, though, he's hurrying back from an infinitesimally-short meal break through the emergency room when golden hair in his peripheral vision makes him stop in his tracks and do a double-take. It's Arthur, lounging in the waiting room with his legs sprawled like he can't help but be provocative no matter where he is. His hair's shorter than it had been and Merlin's seized by the alarming urge to run his hands through it and demand to know what on earth he was thinking cutting it like that.

"I can take him back now, Frey," he says to the triage nurse at the front desk. She gives him a look that's puzzled, but more than a little relieved as she looks out on the bustling waiting room. He gestures for Arthur to come back with him and hopes that relief will keep her from wondering too hard why he's taking a patient out of order.

He doesn't say a word until he's got Arthur in one of the bays and the curtain drawn shut behind them, and then he turns to face Arthur and he doesn't even have any words, he just wants to sigh and put his head in his hands. "Did you get hurt again?"

"Do I look hurt?" Arthur arches a brow at him, leaning back on his hands.

"You're in an emergency room, so I can only assume you must be."

Arthur's grin flashes like it's a fucking joke. "I'm supposed to get tested every three months to make sure I'm clean, but my standing order's expired and apparently I haven't been to see the doctor who wrote the order in long enough that they don't consider me an active patient anymore, and they won't renew it."

"Arthur." Merlin doesn't even bother looking at his chart. Half of what's in it was written by his own hand, in any case. "The solution to that problem is to go back to your GP and re-establish yourself. Not to spend hours sitting in a hospital waiting room just so you can get a lab order. There are people here waiting who have actual emergencies, you know."

Arthur sighs like Merlin is the source of all the injustice in the world and rolls his eyes. "Can you just give me an order so I can get out of your hair and you can get back to all those actual emergencies?"

Merlin kind of wants to wring his neck. He grabs up a lab slip and quickly fills it out with Arthur's information. "Which STDs are you being tested for?"

"All of them."

It's an unavoidable fact of Arthur's life, of his profession, and it's not one that Merlin has been ignorant of up until now. But it still makes something run cold through Merlin's stomach at the thought of it. It's all he can do not to sit Arthur down with his hands on his shoulders and not let him up until he's had a nice, long look at his life and his choices.

He marks off the tests and signs it messily. "That's a standing order for six months. After that, they're going to need me to renew it, and I'll tell you right now, I won't do it unless you've got a GP on file here, do you understand me?"

"That's really none of your damn business." Arthur sits up straighter to glare at him.

"Maybe not." Arthur shoves the slip into Arthur's hands. "But if you want your renewal, it doesn't much matter, does it?"

"That's blackmail," Arthur snarls.

"It really isn't. Manipulation, though, definitely." He spreads his hand on the middle of Arthur's back and guides him out of the bay and toward the exit. "It's your choice."

"Some choice," Arthur mutters. He pulls away from Arthur's touch and stomps down the hall.

Merlin should leave it at that and let him go, but he's still thinking about that lengthy list of diseases and the dubious likelihood that any of Arthur's johns at all might give half a shit about staying clean, or keeping Arthur safe.

"Wait," he calls out and hurries after him.

Arthur turns back, half-twisting to look over his shoulder with a raised brow that seems to demand, What now? Merlin grabs a handful of condoms from the supply they keep available for anyone who wants to come in and get some, and shoves them into Arthur's hands. "Take these."

Arthur looks down at them. His lips twitch, but his eyes aren't softening the way Merlin would like. "I can't decide whether I ought to be insulted that you think I don't have any of these already."

"Just take them," Merlin says. "Use them. You can never have too many. You can never be too safe."

"Yeah, okay," Arthur says with a little laugh, like he's humoring Merlin, and God Merlin hopes that he isn't. He divides the condoms between both hands and shoves them into his pockets. "Thanks, or whatever."

#

Merlin sees Arthur a few more times over the next weeks. Usually, it's just a passing glance as he ducks in to get more condoms, which Merlin can't decide whether he's pleased or discomfited to see. If Arthur had been using them regularly before, and had a good supply of them available, he wouldn't keep needing to restock, would he? On the other hand, at least the need for frequent replacements means that he is using them.

A few times, though, he's there as a patient. Once Merlin catches him chatting with Gwen as she leads him out, and Merlin stops and stares after them, wondering what on earth Arthur said to her to convince her to waste her time on complaints that he'd be better served taking to a general practitioner.

Another time, he asks for Merlin directly, and Merlin sighs and leads him back and then looks him over with crossed arms, waiting.

Arthur hooks a finger in the collar of his shirt and drags it down, showing Merlin the fresh pink scars on his chest that are all that's left of the bite Merlin treated. "It's all healed up," he says, "so I thought I'd bring these back." He holds up a small pill bottle with a few white tablets rattling in the bottom. "I know we're not supposed to flush them or anything, so I thought you guys would know what to do with them here."

Merlin takes the bottle from him and looks at the prescription label and sighs. It's the antibiotic Merlin prescribed, of course. "Arthur, no," he says, and presses the bottle back into his hands. "You have to take all of them, whether you're feeling better or not. And--" He takes another look at the label on the bottle and groans. "You should have finished these days ago."

Arthur looks baffled and just shrugs. "I forgot. And it was feeling better."

Merlin quietly considers strangling him. How is it possible for someone of his generation to not be aware of c-diff and MRSA and the dangers of superbugs? "Arthur, listen to me. You have to take the full course of antibiotics you're given, on the schedule prescribed, or the infection's just going to come back, and it'll be harder to kick next time."

"Christ! All right, you don't have to lecture." He snatches the bottle back from Merlin and shoves it into his pocket, looking sullen. "Nice seeing you again, Doc," he mutters, and kicks the toe of his boots against the wheel of a crash cart as he turns and makes for the ER doors.

Merlin watches him go, and then gets back to work. What else can he do? He's got a job to do, and a room full of patients waiting on him.

#

More weeks pass, and Merlin doesn't see Arthur again. Eventually, he stops expecting him to turn up, hopes that it means he's finally found himself a proper GP and will stop using Merlin's ER as his own personal waiting room. Merlin stops looking for him, and of course, that's when he finds him, but it's not in the hospital at all.

He's driving through the streets of downtown on his way to pick up his dry cleaning when the flash of something golden in his peripheral vision catches his attention and he does a double take. It's Arthur standing a little ways down the street, leaning against a light pole wearing a truly ridiculous outfit of tight, cutoff shorts and a neon mesh top that's several sizes too big for him. Between the clothing and the suggestive lean and the way he gives every car that drives past an appraising glance, it's no secret what he's out here for. Merlin clenches the steering wheel in both hands and slams his foot onto the brake without thought, and it's only lucky for him that he's already stopped at a traffic light or he'd have probably caused a newsworthy pileup.

He shoulders his way into the left turn lane, earning himself more than a few dirty looks and at least one middle finger, and as soon as the light changes he makes a U-turn and starts back the way he'd come, pulling up to the curb right in froInt of Arthur's light pole and punching the button to roll down his passenger side window.

Arthur comes sauntering over and it makes Merlin's hands turn to bloodless fists around the steering wheel. He leans over, hands braced on the window's edge, shirt gaping to reveal what little of his chest it had previously managed to conceal. "Hey, mister," he murmurs in what Merlin has to guess is meant to be a sultry tone. "Want a date?"

"Really?" Merlin bends down far enough that he can see Arthur's face. "That's your pitch? Jesus Christ, Arthur."

Arthur's expression goes bewildered. He squints, peering into the car's darker interior, and Merlin knows when he recognizes him because he swears and all the artifice of his stance disappears, leaving him half-crouched and leaning his elbows on the edge of Merlin's window and glaring.

"God damn it, what the fuck," he snarls. "You making house calls to come lecture now?"

There's a car idling behind Merlin's and the man behind the wheel is watching Arthur carefully and Merlin knows, he just knows that he's looking to pick Arthur up, and the thought of it makes rage pulse through him so violently he can't even see straight. He hits the button to release the passenger side locks and snaps, "Get in here."

"Hey, fuck you, I'm working," Arthur snaps right back and glances back at the car behind Merlin like he's just waiting for the chance to go back there and try his line out on that guy.

Merlin clenches his jaw so hard his teeth ache. "Then I'll pay for your time, but get in."

Arthur goes very still and very quiet. There's something dark in his gaze as he scans it over Merlin's face, but at last he presses his lips together, jerks the door open, and drops onto the seat inside. He slams the door shut harder than he has to, but Merlin lets it go without comment.

"Fine," Arthur says, staring straight ahead, and there's a dullness to his voice that Merlin isn't used to. "But I take payment upfront."

Merlin does a frantic calculation to try to remember how much cash he has in his wallet. "An hour. How much for an hour?"

Arthur names a price that knocks the air out of Merlin's lungs because Christ, if he's going to put his life on the line for money, he should at least value himself higher than that. But the hard, distant look to Arthur's eyes keeps him from saying anything, he just sighs, grabs his wallet from the dash, and passes over a handful of bills.

Arthur snatches the money from his hand, shoves it in the pocket of his minuscule shorts, and presses his shoulders back into the seat like he's bracing himself to be taken to his own execution. Merlin shifts the car into gear, but pauses long enough to glance over at Arthur before he pulls away from the curb.

He's got one hand curled around the door's handle, his thumb drumming a rapid beat against the vinyl. The other is curled loosely in his lap, and it's trembling. Merlin's gaze fixes on it.

"Arthur," he says, his voice strained, because there's no way this is going to go well but he has to ask. "What are you on?"

"What?" Arthur's gaze flashes over to him. There's a moment of bewilderment that's quickly swept away by outrage. "Oh, fuck you, I'm not on anything. I'm clean, asshole. But we're not at the hospital and I'm not your patient and so it's none of your fucking business."

"You're shaking," Merlin says quietly.

"I'm fucking hungry, fuck off."

And that gives Merlin another moment's pause, makes him glance over at Arthur again and take in the pallor of his skin, the chapped lips that are probably from dehydration. He fights back the urge to swear. "How long?"

Arthur turns and gives him a blank look. "What?"

"God damn it, Arthur, how long has it been since you've eaten something?"

"I had coffee for breakfast," he says, lifting one shoulder.

"So since last night, then." He lets out a long breath and turns his blinker on as he changes lanes. "Okay. Hang tight. I know a place that's close."

Arthur huffs out a small little breath like Merlin buying him a sandwich is the most irritating thing he's had to deal with all day, and shoves his shoulders into the corner between the seat and the door as they make their way through the city.

There's a diner nearby, the sort of place that's open until all hours of the night and frequented by locals. Merlin pulls into the lot and parks, turns the car off and reaches for his seatbelt. "Okay, let's just--" he says, and that's all that he manages because he's suddenly got a lap full of Arthur, and he doesn't even know how that's possible with the steering wheel getting in the way.

"This works," Arthur says, his hands on Merlin's shoulders, pushing him back against the seat as he swings a leg over Merlin's lap. "Like a little danger, do you? A little risk of being discovered?" He reaches one hand down between the seat and the door and pulls on something, and suddenly the seat's back collapses and Merlin's flat on his back and Arthur's over him, staring down at him with an expression that's intent and challenging, but doesn't look like he's enjoying this at all, even as his hips rock down against Merlin's.

"Arthur--" Merlin manages, and then Arthur's got a handful of his hair and is pulling him into a kiss and oh Christ, he's good, there is no reason why a seventeen-year-old should be able to kiss this well.

Merlin's not proud to admit that for a moment, for just one brief moment, his hands slide into Arthur's hair and his mouth opens beneath his and he kisses back, breath coming sharp and heavy into the space between them. It's just a moment, though, and then reality comes crashing back in and Merlin wrenches his mouth away from Arthur's and turns his face to the side to gasp, "No. Arthur, stop."

Arthur doesn't, not really. He stays close, his warm breath caressing the side of Merlin's neck, and slides one hand from the base of Merlin's throat down across his chest and over the flat of his stomach. He goes tense when Merlin catches him by the wrist before he can continue on to the waist of Merlin's trousers or, God forbid, even further. "Hey, look, it's your time, you can spend it however you want," Arthur says, but there's an irritated edge to his words that belies the truth.

"What," Merlin says, and then he remembers the wad of gash he gave Arthur, the way his voice went dull and lifeless as soon as Merlin mentioned paying him, and he realizes. "Oh, Jesus Christ." He shoves Arthur off his lap, sends him sprawling gracelessly back into the passenger seat. "Get out of the car. Get out!" he snaps, and wrenches his own door open to climb out and circle around to Arthur's side.

By the time he's reached it, Arthur has opened the door and stepped out onto the asphalt. He shrinks back as Merlin stalks toward him, like he thinks Merlin's going to hit him, and that does absolutely nothing to quell Merlin's rage. He grabs Arthur by the arm and shakes him. "Is this what you think I wanted from you?"

"Isn't it?" Arthur asks, and presses his hips in against Merlin's as though he thinks drawing attention to the fact that Merlin's got a hard-on proves absolutely anything. His words are challenging, but he's still got that same distant, lifeless tone and it makes Merlin want to grab him and shake him again, until he stops doing this to himself.

"No! Christ." Merlin drops his grip from Arthur's arm down to his wrist and pulls him away from the car, toward the dinner. "Your time, Arthur. That's all I paid for. That's all I want from you." He drags Merlin inside and up to the hostess's station, who smiles brightly at them and only spares a brief glance for the white-knuckled grip Merlin's got around Arthur's wrist, and a second for the truly ridiculous clothing Arthur's wearing. "Table for two," Merlin says, and she nods, grabs a pair of menus, and leads them into the diner.

Arthur waits until they're both seated, the hostess has given them their menus and explained the specials of the day, and their waitress has come by to introduce herself and ask if they'd like to get started with something to drink, before he leans in across the table and says, low and vicious, "That's a lie."

Merlin just lifts his brows at Arthur and waits.

Arthur's smile turns sharp and cruel. "You're going to try to tell me you don't want me?" He settles back and slides his foot in between Arthur's, trails it all the way up until the flat of his sole is pressed between Merlin's thighs, right up against Merlin's lingering erection. "It's a lie. I know you do."

Merlin draws a careful breath, releases it, and then reaches down to grasp Arthur's ankle and move his foot aside. "That may be," he says, "but the difference between me and every other man whose car you've climbed into is that I'm capable of wanting something, and recognizing I shouldn't have it, and turning it down."

Arthur rolls his eyes with a scornful huff. "It's just sex. I didn't figure you'd be such a prude."

"You're seventeen."

And that makes Arthur's expression twist with outrage and indignation. "Oh, come on! I'm legal."

"That doesn't change the fact that you're seventeen."

"You're, what, thirty? Maybe?" Arthur looks him over with an appraising glance, and Merlin is absolutely not responding to that look. But he's grateful for the table hiding his lap all the same. "I've been with older guys. I've been with older guys tonight."

"Sorry," Merlin says, "is that supposed to make me want this more?"

Arthur groans and drops his head onto the table as though Merlin is absolutely impossible. When the waitress comes over and asks if they're ready to order, though, he picks his head up and gives Merlin a considering look.

Merlin gives her his usual order without bothering to glance at the menu. He glances at Arthur and tilts his head to indicate that it's his turn, but he just keeps frowning at Merlin. "What can I get?"

"Whatever you like."

"Seriously?" His expression turns disbelieving. When Merlin just folds his hands and waits, Arthur flips open the menu, scans it briefly, and names the most expensive item on the menu. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he darts a quick look at Merlin, like he's expecting a protest.

Merlin pulls his phone out of his pocket and pages through his email idly.

Arthur adds two sides to his order and, when that doesn't get a reaction from Merlin, a milkshake. The waitress writes it all down with her same perky demeanor and, when Arthur seems stumped, asks, "Will that be all for you?"

Merlin glances at Arthur, waiting for his answer. Arthur's expression turns bewildered for a moment, before he nods and says, "We'll want to take a look at the dessert menu when we've finished, though," gruff and frowning to cover for his confusion.

It makes Merlin grin. "We're going to need to pull up a second table just for your dinner," he says.

Arthur gives him a quick glance and jerks his chin up. "If it was too much, you could have stopped me," he says, like it's a challenge.

"I could have," Merlin agrees easily, and leaves him with that.

Arthur shakes his head slowly, watching Merlin. "Why are you doing this?"

Merlin sighs and leans his head in his hands, just for a moment. "Because apparently I do make house calls," he mutters. When he glances through his fingers and realizes that Arthur is still watching him, he sighs again, and drops his hands. "You were sick. This is medication," he says.

Arthur folds his arms over his chest. "I'm not sick. I feel fine."

"The shaking? It's hypoglycemia. It means your blood sugar's dropped too low. In this case, the best treatment for it is to get your blood sugar back up." He tips his head, indicating the diner. "So this is treatment for an illness, just the same as if I gave you antibiotics or an injection or anything else."

Arthur's lips quirk, pulling up into a slight, wry smile. "Sure," he says, drawing the word out to make his skepticism obvious. "I bet you take all your hypoglycemic patients out to dinner, don't you?"

Merlin just shakes his head and lets him gloat.

The food, when it comes, leaves little room on the table for their plates or silverware. Arthur blinks at it all, a little startled, like he hadn't even realized how much food he'd ordered, how much food Merlin had let him order. He glances up at Merlin, and when he finds Merlin watching him, shifts quickly to a smug smirk. "That's a sad little plate you've got there, Doc. I suppose I could be moved to share some of mine with you, if you really wanted."

Merlin can't help but grin at that. Arthur thinks he's being so sly, so circumspect, when in reality it's as easy to read his true thoughts and feelings as from the pages of a book. Arthur starts to scowl when he notices Merlin grinning, though, so Merlin just leans across the table, snags a fry from one of Arthur's plates, and bite it in half. "Thanks," he says easily, and Arthur's scowl is replaced by that same pleased-with-himself smile.

The food is good, and the more Arthur gets of it into him, the less his hands shake, and the more the pinched look on his brow eases. It makes Merlin breathe easier to see it. And when Arthur starts kicking his legs under the table and teasing, Merlin's so relieved that he teases right back, until they're grinning and snickering at each other across the table as though old friends. Merlin inquires after the book he was reading the last time Merlin saw him in the waiting room, and Arthur rolls his eyes and grumbles, "What, you think whores can't read literature?", and then grumbles further that it was in a bag of books he bought from the library's last sale and he'd already worked his way through all the other ones. When Merlin asks after the rest of the books in the bag, and which ones he enjoyed reading, Arthur's face lights up as he starts waving his hands and talking about classic golden age sci-fi, and Merlin's wants to lean across the table and kiss him, he's so pleased.

When Merlin asks him about his opinion on Heinlein versus Asimov, Arthur's eyes fly wide with surprise, and his face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. "You nerd," he declares gleefully. "I should have known." And before Merlin can respond, launches straight into a rambling discourse about reading The Positronic Man at an impressionable age.

Merlin holds his tongue and doesn't mention that Arthur's still at an impressionable age, as far as he's concerned, and just keeps the conversation going and enjoys Arthur's enthusiasm.

They don't even finish half the food on the table before them, even with Merlin helping Arthur out. When the waitress returns to inquire about dessert, Arthur groans and clutches at his stomach, and Merlin waves her away. He pays the bill without blinking an eye, asks to have the rest of Arthur's food bagged up, and then fills his hands with doggie bags and ushers him out of the diner and across the empty parking lot to the car.

Arthur dumps the bags of food into the passenger-side footwell and climbs in, making careful room for his feet. "Seatbelt," Merlin reminds him, waiting with the keys in the ignition but the car still off.

Arthur curls his fingers over the edge of the seat and kicks more space for his feet amongst the bags, staring hard at the logo on the glove compartment door.

"I see victims of traffic accidents every day, Arthur. This car isn't moving until you've got your seatbelt on."

Arthur rolls his eyes and huffs out a breath, and Merlin gets ready to start into a lecture about all the gruesome ways you can be injured, maimed, or killed by riding in a car without a seatbelt on, but before he can speak Arthur moves, grabbing onto the lapels of his coat and climbing over him, just as he'd been before they'd gone into the dinner.

Merlin freezes, the words dying in his throat. Arthur's crouched low against him, shifting his weight so that it presses their hips together, and he's sliding one hand up into Merlin's hair as he leans in and breathes, "Merlin," against his mouth.

That takes Merlin by surprise, and he pulls back and blinks at Arthur until he grins, cheeky, and says, "I snuck a look at your credit card, when you were paying."

Merlin sighs and fits his hands to Arthur's hips, trying to old him back. "Don't do this."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "I'm trying to thank you."

"The way you thank a person is by saying thank you. Not--" His voice chokes when Arthur rocks their hips together. "Not this."

"Sure about that?" He trails the hand that isn't in Merlin's hair down his chest and stomach, to press flat and firm against the front of Merlin's pants. He's hard, and there's no point in denying it. "You seem to like it well enough from where I'm sitting..."

"Don't," he says again, his voice dropping to a rumble. "I don't want this sort of gratitude from you."

Arthur just rocks against him again and leans in for a kiss, as though to remind Merlin that at least one part of him very demonstrably does want it.

He tastes like garlic fries and ketchup and, Christ, it makes him seem so young. Merlin curls his hand around the back of Arthur's neck and leans his forehead against Arthur's, breathing raggedly.

Arthur makes a sharp, annoyed sound and settles down heavier onto Merlin's lap. "Jesus, just stop."

The noise Merlin makes is strained and disbelieving. "I'm not the one who's--"

"Stop acting like I'm doing this as some sort of barter, like it's some sort of exchange, you buy me dinner and I get you off. That's not what this is."

Merlin shakes his head helplessly. Arthur's making small, maddening movements above him, and it's driving him out of his mind. He closes his hands on the seat's armrests and struggles for control. "You just said you were doing it to thank me."

"I do want to thank you. But that's not why I'm doing this."

"Tell me why, then."

Arthur gives a breathless laugh. "Why do you think? I want you."

And that… that's just so wrong it's almost painful. Merlin shuts his eyes and shakes his head again. "Why?" he demands, and he already knows the answer. It's transference, maybe. Merlin did something kind for Arthur and now Arthur's blown it up in his head to mean more than it should. Or perhaps it's self-esteem issues. He wouldn't be the first person of Merlin's acquaintance who couldn't believe that anyone would be nice to them for any reason other than because they wanted to get in their pants. And once you start believing that, it's a short trip to leveraging that in order to try to keep people being nice to you.

Merlin's first surprise is that Arthur sits back on his haunches, his weight more on Merlin's thighs now than his lap, and seems to give the question serious thought. He sweeps his thumb in long strokes up and down the side of Merlin's neck, tips his head to the side, and says with a grin, "Because lab coats are sexy."

Merlin lets out a huff of laughter. "They really aren't."

"And you can actually hold a conversation about Pournelle versus Niven without going cross-eyed or making jokes about Trekkies. And I love your hair, even if your ears are ridiculous." He slides his fingers up into Merlin's hair, brushing them through it in such a way to put Merlin's ears on display. Merlin just rolls his eyes, but the force of the gesture is lost because he can't help smiling fondly as Arthur gives his list. "And because you don't treat me like I'm some sort of leper because of what I do."

The words wipe Merlin's smile right off his face, leave him feeling cold and a little queasy. "That's not a reason to be attracted to someone, Arthur."

Arthur snorts and rolls his eyes. "No, you're right, it's a bare-minimum qualification. And it's one that most people don't pass."

Ah shit, Merlin thinks, and shuts his eyes, and doesn't resist when Arthur guides him back into another kiss.

It's warm and wet and slick, and Merlin wants nothing so much as to lose himself in it, to scrape his fingers through Arthur's hair and bite at his lips and stop trying to resist the urge to rise up against the pressure of Arthur's hips on his. Here in the close confines of the car, with the darkness wrapped around them and the only illumination the light from a distant street lamp cutting across Arthur's face, it's easy to let himself be lost, to ignore all the cold, uncomfortable facts that have been so unavoidable beneath the harsh lights of the hospital.

"You deserve so much better than this," he laments, breathed out on a sigh into the kiss, and sweeps his thumb along the edge of Arthur's jaw.

He makes a short, amused sound against Merlin's mouth. "I deserve to be happy." The easy way he says it makes Merlin's heart clench tight in his chest. Christ, this kid is a marvel, and whoever's responsible for him ending up here, selling himself on the street instead of loved and secure and studying for his SATs, ought to be taken out and shot. "I'm happy right now."

Fuck fuck fuck. Merlin wants to bury himself in this kid, wants to wrap him up and kiss him senseless and take him somewhere away from all this. He wants Arthur to be smiling and teasing and stealing french fries off of Merlin's plate, not standing on street corners asking strangers for dates.

Arthur sighs into the kiss, but it's a happy sound, a pleased sound. He shifts his weight above Merlin, a little wiggle that pushes his hips down against Merlin's and makes him swallow a groan. Arthur loosens one hand from Merlin's hair and slides it down his stomach as he pulls back just enough to murmur, "Do you want to--?"

Cold panic seizes Merlin as the full weight of Arthur's words crashes into him, as Arthur presses his fingers against Merlin's erection and traces the shape of him through his straining trousers. "No," he gasps, pulling his hands off of Arthur's skin. "No. Not like-- No."

Arthur just raises an eyebrow at him, cool and a little amused, his lips curved in a sly smile. "I've still got one of your condoms. I keep it in my pocket, for emergencies." He reaches around to the back pocket of his jeans and pulls the little foil packet out, waves it in Merlin's face like it's going to change his answer.

It's not, but the fact that Arthur refers to it as one of his condoms is going to do Merlin's head in. "No," he says again. "This is not an emergency."

"Are you sure?" Arthur's grin turns feral. He slides his hand further over Merlin's cock, the full length of his palm pressed hard against it. His eyes are brilliant, glittering in the dark. "It feels urgent to me."

There's nothing Merlin can do but take hold of Arthur's wrist and carefully move his hand away. "I'm sure," he says quietly, firmly. Arthur's answer is a sigh and a one-shouldered shrug as he shifts his weight back, onto the somewhat more neutral territory of Merlin's thighs. "I should take you back. Where do you want me to drop you off?"

Arthur climbs off him at last, sliding back over into his own seat. He kicks his feet up onto the dashboard and drapes his arms loosely around his knees. "Where you picked me up is fine."

The thought of it makes Merlin's stomach clench. "I could take you home, if you wanted. Just tell me how to get there. I don't mind." He grabs onto the steering wheel and lets his fingers clench tight, until they turn bloodless and white. "It's kind of late for you to go back to work, isn't it?"

Arthur's smile is lopsided and the sidelong glance he casts Merlin is too canny for his own good. "Late is kind of my prime business hours. Besides, you paid me for an hour and then kept me for two, so I've got to make up for it."

Merlin startles and twists to stare at him. "Oh shit. I didn't mean—"

The smile falls off of Arthur's face. "Stop that. If you reach for your wallet right now I'm going to be seriously offended."

Merlin has to shut his eyes, to take a deep breath. "But I promised. I told you I'd pay for your time, and I—"

"You bought me dinner." Arthur drops a foot off the dash to rustle it against one of the doggie bags in the footwell. "And lunch for a week, besides. We're even. I don't want money from you."

Merlin opens his eyes and stares at Arthur for an entirely different reason. There's a lot of food in the doggie bags, it's true, but it's not enough for a week's worth of lunches. He wants to sit Arthur down and lecture him about caloric requirements, about energy in versus energy out and the need to keep that equation balanced. He wants to tell Arthur about all the pernicious ways a person can starve without even realizing it, to press his thumbs into Arthur's hipbones and see if he's as skinny as he seems. He wants to feed Arthur until he fills out the way a young man should, and he wants it all so violently that his hands shake with it.

The urges leave him staggered by their sudden ferocity. He shouldn't want these things. He shouldn't care, not this much, and in the face of that, all he can do is to reach for his seatbelt with hands that aren't quite steady, buckle up, and wait with his fingers curled around the steering wheel until Arthur heaves a sigh and does the same.

He takes Arthur back to the street corner where he found him, because that's what he wants. And he absolutely does not watch him in the rear view mirror as he drives away, because if he did, he'd never be able to make himself leave him there.

It's late when he gets home, and he's on duty in the morning. He ought to drag himself to bed and get what sleep he can, but the effort it would take to do that feels enormous. Instead, he drops onto the couch and fishes his phone out from his pocket, hits speed dial to call Gwen and flops onto his back on the couch while it rings.

"Merlin?" She sounds groggy, and he feels a momentary regret that he woke her. "What's wrong?"

It takes him a few moments to make his voice work. "I think I'm in trouble," he says at last, and throws an arm over his eyes.

#

Gwen meets him at the hospital before their shift, and despite the late-night phone call he subjected her to -- or maybe because of it -- she's grinning at him with a wicked edge that warns Merlin that there's going to be no living this down, ever.

Together, they make a plan. Mostly it involves putting a note in Arthur's chart that he's not to be seen by Merlin, and explaining the situation to Freya when she comes in, so she knows not to give Merlin his chart. She laughs mercilessly at Merlin when Gwen explains the problem, and Merlin just sighs and leans his head in his hands and says, "I know! I know, all right?"

Gwen gives him a marginally-sympathetic pat on the shoulder, and then it's time for them to clock in and get to work.

It's a week before their plan needs to be implemented. He's just finished instructing a young girl with a sprained ankle on how to properly use her crutches when Gwen catches him by the arm and pulls him aside into an empty room. "He's here," she murmurs, glancing back over her shoulder.

Merlin just sighs and rubs his hand over his brow. "Is he asking for me?"

She shakes her head. "He's never had to before, I don't think it's occurred to him. I'll take him into room three, all right? And then you can grab the next patient."

"Thanks, Gwen." He squeezes her hands and kisses the crown of her head. "You're a life saver."

Her eyes dance as she steps back, her lips twisted into a teasing smile. "And don't you forget it."

He gives her a little bit of a lead before he follows her out to the nurse's station to get his patient's chart. It's inevitable, of course, that they pass in the hall, as Gwen leads Arthur back. Arthur stops and swerves, his gaze on Merlin, and starts to call his name, but Gwen takes him by the elbow and murmurs, "Right this way, Mr. Pendragon, and we'll get you out of here as soon as we're able," and the moment passes.

It doesn't stop the muscles in Merlin's shoulders from tying themselves into knots, though. He rolls his neck, then takes the chart and gets back to work.

The patient Gwen traded him for is suffering from projectile vomiting, and Merlin has to go change his scrubs by the time he's given her a prescription and discharged her, which he's sure Gwen is no doubt laughing about. But by the time he gets back, Arthur's gone, and it's about the best possible first encounter he could have hoped for, so he doesn't promise to make her pay like he ordinarily would have. He doesn't even make faces when she teases him mercilessly about having to mop up the floor.

#

Two days later, Merlin's got the day off, but when he shows up for work the next morning Freya tells him that Arthur was there looking for him.

"Was he all right?" Merlin asks, frowning. Two visits in three days is unusual, even for Arthur.

Freya just laughs lightly. "He left when I told him you weren't scheduled, so I think so."

Merlin nods and thanks her, and tries not to let the thought of what might have brought Arthur back so soon weigh on him throughout the rest of his days.

Three days after that, Merlin's taking a patient's history when he hears the curtain rattle open behind him. "Sorry, this one's occupied," he says without glancing up from her chart.

"Are you avoiding me?"

Merlin shuts his eyes briefly, even as Freya snaps, "Sir, please, you need to come with me," with the full measure of steel in her voice.

"I'm with a patient," Merlin says, turning to face Arthur. "And you need to go."

The anger in Arthur's gaze shifts minutely to bewildered frustration. He shakes off Freya's hand when she tries to take him by the arm and stomps forward. "You are. Christ. Is this because of--"

"No," Merlin says without waiting for him to finish, because if Arthur had meant to ask, Is this because you're trying not to lose your license, he wouldn't have sounded so angry about it, and any other reason he might suspect isn't the right one. "It's not. But I can't see you, and I can't treat you, so if you need to be seen you need to go with Freya now. We have many excellent doctors here who'd be happy to do so."

"Oh, fuck off." Arthur rolls his eyes, his expression twisted with derision. "Fine. I can take a hint. But you could have just told me, instead of pulling this bullshit. You didn't have to get your nurse to run interference."

Yes, I really did, Merlin thinks, but holds his tongue and keeps his expression impassive as Freya pulls him away. She shoots him an apologetic look before she slides the curtain closed again, and Merlin turns back to his patient.

"I'm very sorry about that. Now, when did your symptoms start?"

#

Another two weeks on, Merlin's working a night shift and coming up to the triage desk to take the next patient when Freya reaches out and puts her hand on top of the stack of charts. "Phone's for you," she says, holding out the receiver.

It gives Merlin pause. It's not common for the doctors to get calls on the front desk phone. Usually if they're needed, they're paged, or called over the PA system. "Who is it?" he asks.

Freya hesitates, her gaze sliding over to Gwen, who's standing beside her with her brows pinched. "I think it's important," she says, and pushes the phone into his hand.

And that's not reassuring in the slightest. Merlin shoots her a frown, then pins the phone to his ear. "This is Dr. Emrys. How can I help you?"

"Merlin? Oh, thank God." It's Arthur, and he sounds terrible, his voice shaking violently.

Merlin's hand clenches tight around the phone. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I need--" Arthur's voice catches and breaks, his breath hitching. "Please, I'm sorry, I know you're upset with me but I didn't know who else to call."

Panic is clawing at Merlin's chest, visions of Arthur hurt, bruised, broken. "Arthur. Arthur, just talk to me. What is it? What's wrong? Forget the rest of it, just tell me."

"They fucking arrested me," Arthur growls, and it sounds like a wounded animal's snarl, full of pain and fear. He sounds like he's trying not to cry. "I'm in jail, and they're talking about a fine, or maybe jail time, or maybe both. I can't pay it, Merlin, if I had that kind of money I wouldn't do this, and I don't have anyone else. Please, I know I shouldn't even be asking this of you, but I don't know what to do."

"It's okay, Arthur." Merlin leans his forehead against the wall. "Just tell me where you are. Can you ask them for the address?"

Arthur sniffs sharply and says something that's distant and muffled. In a moment he's back, reciting off an address that Merlin jots down quickly. "All right, just hold on, Arthur. I'm on my way, okay?"

"Thank you," he sobs. "I'm sorry, thank you." And Merlin has to hang up on him or he's going to be stuck on the phone all night.

"I have to go," he says to Freya and Gwen as soon as he drops the phone back into the cradle. They're both still standing there, watching him with worried expressions. "Can you cover for me? I don't know when I'll be able to get back."

"Of course," Gwen says as Freya nods. They both shoo him away from the desk. "Go. Go."

He nods, thanks them both desperately, and then goes. As soon as he steps out of the hospital, his only thoughts are for Arthur.

The city itself seems determined to stop him, or at least slow him. Every car in front of his seems to crawl along the road. Every stop light seems to turn red as he approaches. By the time he reaches the police station, his fingernails are biting dents into the steering wheel and he's surprised he hasn't wrenched it right off of the steering column, he's so tense.

He parks hastily and then scrambles out of the car and into the station, where a bored-looking woman sits behind a window. "I'm here for Arthur Pendragon," he says breathlessly. It's all he can do not to throw himself at the glass and demand to see him. "He was arrested, and I'd like to pay his bail."

The woman nods and taps on her keyboard, eyes on the computer screen. "First time offense, so there's no bail, no jail time. He just has to pay a one thousand dollar fine. They're processing and releasing him now, if you want to wait." She swivels her chair and glances at him. "Or would you like to pay his fine, instead?"

A thousand dollars. Merlin feels woozy at the thought. It's no hardship for him, but what if Arthur hadn't had him to turn to? What would have happened to him if he couldn't pay? What sort of extremes might he have been driven to, to try to earn the money for it? "Yes." He curls his hands around the edge of the counter. "Yes, please, I'd like to pay all of it. How long until he's released?"

"About half an hour or so." She glances at him as he passes his credit card over. "Are you his family?"

A knot lodges in Merlin's throat because he isn't, he really isn't. He's a virtual stranger who's known him for barely a month. The fact that he's the only one Arthur had to turn to in a situation like this makes Merlin's heart ache for him, makes him say, "Yes," because it's obvious that's he's the closest Arthur's got.

She smiles and nods and says something about how it's nice that Arthur's got someone to look out for him, and it just makes the pain worse, because Merlin hasn't been. He's been ignoring him, turning him away, protecting himself and not even stopping to think about what Arthur might be struggling with in his absence. He might have been able to prevent this, if he hadn't abandoned Arthur to his own devices. He might have at least been able to make sure that Arthur knew he didn't have to hesitate, if he needed Merlin.

He retreats to one of the hard, uncomfortable chairs placed against one wall to wait. It feels like an hour or more passes before the doors open and a uniformed cop leads Arthur out.

He pulls his arm out of the cop's hold and shoots him a surly glare over his shoulder. Merlin jolts to his feet and Arthur seems to notice him, his gaze swinging around to fix on Merlin like a compass needle drawn to north. The temper in his gaze vanishes quickly enough that Merlin's sure it must have been a front, and it leaves him looking exhausted and vulnerable. "Merlin." Arthur's voice trembles on his name.

Merlin takes a swift, aborted step toward him. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I--" He glances over his shoulder at the cop, then clears his throat. "Yes. Can we go?"

"Absolutely." Merlin puts a hand on the middle of the back for support, for connection, and they walk together out of the police station, into the cold and the dark of the night.

As soon as the door has swung shut behind them, Arthur slumps like it took all of his energy to walk out of there with his head held high. He leans in hard against Merlin's shoulder and his breathing goes ragged. "I'm sorry," he says unsteadily. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Thank you for coming. Oh God, a thousand dollars, they're going to make me pay a thousand dollars. How does that make sense? I live in a shithole, and I'm still lucky if I can pay my rent on time."

"Don't worry about it." Merlin slips the arm on his back down to hook around his waist. "I paid it. It's taken care of."

"What?" Arthur recoils, pulling away from Merlin's touch to turn and stare at him. His face is ashen, his jaw slack. "What? Merlin, no, that's too much. Oh my god. I can't accept that."

Merlin smiles a little and takes his arm as they keep walking out to his car. He wants to comfort Arthur, to reassure him with his presence, but he'd be lying if he didn't admit that at least part of his desire for contact is for himself. "It's already paid. It's done, there's no need to accept or not."

Arthur shivers hard. Merlin's not sure if it's because of the money, or if the chill night is too much for him. Either way, the car's just ahead. Merlin slides his hand down Arthur's arm to his hand and sweeps his thumb against the inside of his wrist.

Arthur shivers again within his grasp, but before Merlin can wonder if the touch is unwelcome, he turns his hand over and matches his palm to Merlin's, fingers threading together and clasping him hard, so there's no escape. Merlin fishes his key fob out of his pocket and unlocks the car, then walks Merlin around to the passenger side and helps him in. When Arthur's settled, he circles around to the driver's side and slides behind the wheel.

"What's your address?"

Arthur's head whips around violently. His eyes are wide and pale in the dim illumination of the interior lights. "What?"

"Your address, Arthur. I'm going to take you home."

"Oh god, no." Arthur covers his face with a hand, his words muffled against his palm. "You can't see my place. It's a hovel. You probably live in some big fancy house and my apartment is going to traumatize you to the depths of your soul."

It's all Merlin can do not to drag Arthur across the center console and kiss him until he stops worrying about stupid shit like what Merlin might think of where he lives. "You can come to my place, then, if you'd rather," he says, his voice tight, shaking at the limits of his control. "But I'll be damned if I'm taking you back to the streets tonight."

Arthur's sigh is resigned and makes Merlin want to shake some sense into him. "I ought to," he says wryly. "I haven't made anything at all tonight. Stop grinding your teeth like that, I'm not going to ask you to, I'm just saying." He sighs and leans back in the seat, dropping his head back against the headrest. His eyes slide shut as he lifts a hand to scrub over the middle of his brow. "Take me to your place. It'll probably make me feel like crap in comparison, but at least you won't be appalled by mine."

Merlin just nods and changes lanes so he can get on the freeway and head toward home. He is so, so fucked, and Gwen would probably cluck her tongue and shake her head if he told her what he was doing, but screw it. What's important right now is getting Arthur somewhere that he feels safe, and if that place isn't going to be his apartment, then Merlin's house it is. He'll deal with the consequences later.

They drive in silence. Every so often, Merlin glances sidelong at Arthur, concerned. Usually, Arthur's got his arms wrapped around his knees as he stares out the window at the night-shrouded city flashing by. He still shivers occasionally, but it's less than it was. And he doesn't ever look back at Merlin, until Merlin starts to wonder if maybe this hadn't been a mistake for a whole host of other reasons he hadn't considered. If Arthur doesn't really want to come back with him, if he's doing this out of misplaced gratitude because he doesn't know any other way to react when someone gives him money, if, if, if...

He pulls into the driveway in front of his house and turns the car off. The interior goes dark, only the light on his front porch giving them anything to see by. They sit unmoving for a moment. Merlin can hear his pulse in his ears. Finally, he glances sidelong at Arthur and asks, "Are you coming in?"

Arthur nods. A ghost of a smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. "Well, I can't exactly walk home..."

Merlin climbs out. He means to circle around and get the door for Arthur, but Arthur's already climbing out all by himself, staring up at Merlin's house with a wrinkled brow. "I was right," he mutters. "You're going to put me to shame."

"I didn't bring you here to make you feel bad." Merlin nudges him toward the front porch. "Come on. It's cold out, and you look like you're freezing."

The fact that Arthur doesn't protest at all tells him everything he needs to know about the truth of that observation.

Merlin leaves most of the lights off when he lets them inside, turning on only the ones necessary to get from the front door to the kitchen without tripping over an end table and killing themselves. Arthur trails after him, his head whipping around as he takes it all in like he can't believe it. "Christ," he mutters. "Do you live in a model home?"

It makes Merlin frown. "I live at the hospital, mostly," he says. "It's easy to keep a place nice when you're hardly there."

The noise Arthur makes is unconvinced. He picks his pace up to keep just behind Merlin's shoulder as Merlin leads him to the kitchen.

Merlin flips on the kitchen lights and bends over to stick his head in the refrigerator. "Do you like salami?"

"Ugh," Arthur says, and Merlin turns back in time to catch him making a face that's so exaggerated it's comical.

He laughs and rifles deeper into the deli drawer. "Okay, no salami, then. How about turkey? Everyone likes turkey, don't they?"

"Turkey's all right," Arthur says. "But I don't have much of an appetite, all things considered."

"That's understandable." Merlin pulls out the sliced turkey, a block of cheddar cheese, mayo, and mustard. "You're going to eat anyway, because your body needs it, whether your brain realizes it or not." He detours to grab a loaf of bread and then carries everything over to the counter to start assembling. "Doctor's orders."

Arthur gives a huff of laughter and leans back against the counter beside Merlin, close enough to almost be a hindrance. Close enough to almost touch, and Merlin figures it's that that he's after, so he works around him and doesn't say a word about him being in the way.

It only takes a minute to put the sandwich together. He slices it in half, grabs a plate, and hands the whole thing over to Arthur, who takes it obediently, if not eagerly. He takes a big bite, hums his approval, and then gives Merlin a sharp look. "You're not going to just stand there and watch me eat, are you?" he says around the food in is mouth.

It hadn't been Merlin's intent, but now that Arthur's mentioned it, he realizes that he was just standing there staring at Arthur, watching him the same way he'd watch a recalcitrant patient he didn't trust to take her meds on her own. He smiles in apology and leads Arthur back out to the living room and drops onto the couch with a sigh. He's not sure how it's possible, but half an hour waiting in the police station foyer has been more exhausting than even a full day on his feet in the emergency room. He wants very little more than to curl up around Arthur, reassure himself that he's safe, and sleep for a year.

Arthur follows his lead and sinks onto the couch, but he perches at the very edge of it and gives Merlin a wide-eyed look over his shoulder. "Are you kidding me, I can't eat on this couch," he says. "It's gorgeous, and I'll get crumbs all over it."

Merlin sighs and catches him by the arm, pulls him back more fully onto the couch until he can sink back into it, rather than sitting tense and stiff. "Don't be an idiot," he says. "That's what vacuums are for."

Arthur looks at him like he's starting to suspect that maybe Merlin is a crazy person, but he doesn't protest again, and he takes another big bite out of the sandwich. "This is good," he says at last, into the silence that's fallen between them.

Merlin smiles. "Good. Starting to get some of your appetite back?"

He lifts one shoulder in a jerky shrug.

Merlin lets the silence rest between them while Arthur finishes his sandwich. When he's done, he takes his plate into the kitchen and Merlin listens to the sound of him rinsing it in the sink, and then loading it into the dishwasher. It makes him smile. When Arthur comes back, he dusts off the couch where he'd been sitting, like he's still worried about crumbs, and then settles back down onto it with a sigh. "Thanks," he says.

Merlin reaches out and squeezes his knee. "Feeling better?"

Another one-shouldered shrug. "Maybe a little."

"Good." He nods, satisfied. "Then do you want to talk about it?"

Tension snaps through Arthur like electricity through a live wire. He stiffens beneath Merlin's touch, his shoulders gone sharp and square, his gaze fixed somewhere in the distance. "There's really not much to talk about. I got arrested. Happens eventually to everyone in this business."

It makes Merlin smile a little. "You called me," he says gently, and because it's been a long day, and certainly longer and harder for Arthur than for him, he doesn't add, And you were practically in tears at the time.

Arthur lets out a sudden rush of air. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have. I should respect your boundaries, and all that, but I just didn't know who--"

"I know," Merlin says quietly. "I'm glad you called."

It makes Arthur break off abruptly. He twists around on the couch, facing Merlin squarely, and frowns at him. "Are you?"

"Shouldn't I be? You were upset, and in need, and I was able to help."

Arthur lets out another breath of air. This one sounds like a disbelieving gasp, and the way he drops his head back and passes his hand over his brow only strengthens the impression. "I've been upset for weeks." There's a harshness to his voice, an edge that wasn't there before. "That didn't stop you from turning your back on me before."

"Arthur." Merlin wants to reach out and grab onto him, to drag him in and prove to him without words just how impossible an idea that is. "That's not what happened."

"My mistake." His voice is wooden, lifeless. He shifts on the couch, putting a few more inches between them. "Look, maybe you should just take me home after all. I'll be fine, I don't need you to babysit me like I'm going to fall apart over it or something, all right?"

Merlin shakes his head, though, and leans in, tightening his hand on Arthur's knee. "Stop that. Listen to me. What do you know about ethics?"

"That's just doing the right thing, isn't it?"

Merlin smiles a little. "In a nutshell, but it's more complicated than that. It's about moral principles, and in medicine, it's about recognizing how the balance of power in doctor-patient relationships is tipped in our favor, and taking pains to make sure we don't take advantage of that. Doctors lose their licenses, or worse, if they're found to be behaving unethically. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Sure." Arthur crosses his arms tight over his chest and stares fixedly across the room. "You got a boner over me and now you're freaking out and pushing me away so you don't get in trouble for it. Look, I get it, all right? No one wants to lose their job. But you don't have to pretend like you're doing me any favors when you're just protecting your own ass."

Merlin bites off a snarled oath. "God damn it, you're still not listening to me." He catches Arthur's face between his hands and drags him into a kiss that's fierce and vicious and over all too quickly. When he pulls back to catch his breath, Arthur's breathing hard and staring at him, his face gone soft with surprise. "It's called a conflict of interest. You can't have a personal relationship with a patient, and a professional one. There's plenty of reasons why, but that's what it boils down to. It's not allowed. Now do you understand?" he demands, staring at Arthur and praying that he does, because Merlin doesn't think he can bring himself to say it plainly, not when he's still kicking himself over letting it get to this point in the first place.

Arthur just looks at him with his eyes gone wide and solemn for a long moment. "I think so," he says quietly, and he's not snarling or snapping or throwing a temper tantrum anymore, so Merlin thinks maybe, finally, he does. "You can have a personal relationship with someone, or a professional one, but not both. So if you end up in one of these conflicts of interest, you have to choose." He draws a deep breath that seems to go on forever. "The other day, at the hospital. You told me you couldn't see me, and I thought-- I thought you meant... something else. But you didn't, did you? You meant in a the-doctor-will-see-you-now sort of way, didn't you?"

Merlin just nods, and leans his brow against Arthur's shoulder, grateful beyond words that he finally, finally gets it.

Arthur brings his hands up to curl softly around the back of Merlin's neck. "That's what you've been trying to tell me. That you've made your choice."

"It wasn't ever really much of a choice," Merlin says wryly, and then he can't say anything else because Arthur's mouth is back on his, devouring him, eager and avid.

Arthur grins into the kiss as he shifts on the couch, rolling up onto his knees and then climbing over Merlin. "I told you you wanted me. There wasn't ever any point in denying it." His kisses are sharp, teeth nipping at Merlin's lips as his hands race over him. "You were just being stubborn."

"Arthur. Wait." Merlin puts his hands on Arthur's waist and gasps against his mouth. "Stop."

"Oh my God." Arthur throws himself off and glares at Merlin from the other end of the couch. "You're not still going to deny it, are you?"

"No," Merlin says, because they're well past the point of no return on that. And then has to fend off Arthur's hands as he reaches for him again. "God, you're an octopus! Just stop, please, just for a minute."

Arthur does, watching him closely with an expression that seems to say that whatever excuse Merlin comes up with for stopping him this time, it had better be good.

Merlin lets out a long, slow breath and tries to marshall his thoughts. "This is a really terrible time to be making any decisions. You're shaken--"

"I'm fine."

"Well, I'm shaken, so the point still stands." He slides his hand up Arthur's arm for the comfort of touch. "Talk to me, Arthur. Just talk to me. How did this happen?"

Arthur makes a sharp sound like he's annoyed, but he shifts around on the couch and settles down with his shoulder pressed solidly against Merlin's, his legs crossed and his knees bumping against Merlin's with a casual intimacy that makes Merlin's heart thump harder within his chest. "Which part? The part where I ended up in jail? There's not much to tell. Some asshole cop made a sting, I was the unlucky sonofabitch who chose to approach his car." He turns his head to the side, looking straight at Merlin. "Or do you mean the part where I ended up on the street in the first place?"

Merlin didn't, hadn't intended to ask about that ever, only to offer a supportive ear should Arthur ever decide he wanted to bring it up. But he's bringing it up now, so Merlin just squeezes his hand and says, "If you want to tell me, I'm interested."

Arthur gives a sigh that rattles in his throat and turns to look straight ahead again. His fingers go tight around Merlin's palm. "My father died a couple years ago. Heart attack. He was one of those Type A, high-stress, vein-bulging-in-his-forehead sorts of guys, so it shouldn't have been a surprise. And I guess it wasn't, not really. Anyway." He pulls his shoulders back, straightens his spine, everything about him going stiff and unhappy. "He left everything to me and my sister, but we were -- are -- still minors, so it all went to my uncle Agravaine to keep for us until we came of age. He moved in, and then he kicked me out."

Merlin makes a low, hurt sound and holds onto Arthur's hand tighter. Arthur glances at him briefly, then continues. "He said it was because my father had spoiled me, because I needed to learn about responsibility and hard work before I was ready to receive my own inheritance. But it was just an excuse. He wouldn't give me a penny of it, not even to get my feet under me. And I tried, I swear I did. I stocked shelves, I slung coffee. But it's impossible to afford rent in this city with a minimum wage job. Especially when your roommates all bail on you together and leave you in the lurch for the whole thing." He's shivering, tight, violent shudders with every breath. Merlin wants nothing more than to pull Arthur into his arms and hold him until the pain has gone, but Arthur's still stiff, still talking. "I couldn't pay it, and I couldn't find more roommates, so I got evicted. And once I was on the street, I guess it's a pretty predictable story how I ended up selling sex to make ends meet."

"Your sister?" Merlin asks. "Is she--"

"Oh no." Arthur's laughter is harsh, more than a little bitter. "She and Agravaine are thick as thieves, these days. It didn't used to be that way. We used to be close, but she believed him when he told her that everything that happened was my fault, that it's all because I don't try hard enough. And I didn't tell her what I ended up doing to make ends meet. I'd rather she scorn me than pity me."

"I'm sorry," Merlin says quietly, because there's not much else to say in the face of a story like that.

Arthur makes a face and shrugs again. Resolve settles over his features, turning them sharp and fierce. "I'll be eighteen soon. He can't keep me from my money, then. I'll pay you back, I promise. Every penny, with interest--"

"Arthur, no." Merlin sighs. "That isn't necessary. I don't want you to worry about that, all right?"

Arthur turns to look at him, bright and shining with intensity. When he leans forward, his eyes sliding shut and his hands coming up to the back of Merlin's neck, Merlin predicts his intent, and lifts a hand to cover Arthur's mouth before he can kiss him. "No," he says quietly, gently.

Arthur pulls back enough to open his eyes and scowl at him.

"When you can do that without thinking about the money I've spent on you, then I'm in. Until then, no. I'm not going to have that between us."

"You said you chose," Arthur says, his voice snapping. "You said you could be my doctor, or you could be something more, but you had to choose, and that's why you won't see me at the hospital anymore."

"I did," Merlin agrees, and the shock of that still echoes through him. When did he become the sort of man who couldn't keep himself detached the way he needed to? It snuck up on him, so quietly he didn't even notice until he was already in over his head. "But this is still terrible timing. I don't want a debt of gratitude between us, when you decide you want to kiss me."

"I'm seventeen years old." Arthur rolls his eyes dramatically, and Merlin knows that he thinks it means something, that he means it to remind Merlin of how grown-up and adult he is, but it only accomplishes the opposite. It makes Merlin want to pull him in and kiss him on the head and tuck him close. "I can make my own decisions."

"You can. And I can make mine. And I have." He takes Arthur's face between his hands, holding him still so he can't turn and make it into something more than Merlin intended, and then leans in and lays a kiss on the center of Arthur's brow. "I can make you another sandwich, or something else, if you're still hungry. There's TV, if you're not tired enough to sleep yet. And if or when you are, this couch folds out, and you can sleep there. I was on night shift tonight, so I'm not scheduled again until tomorrow afternoon, so if you need me to take you anywhere in the morning--"

"Thanks." Arthur burrows down a little deeper into the couch cushions. "TV, you said? Got anything good?"

Merlin resists the urge to be sarcastic and insist that everything he's got is good, and tries instead to think if he has anything recorded that might be to Arthur's taste. "There's Battlestar Galactica on Netflix," he says. And he must have hit a bullseye, because Arthur suddenly scrambles upright, his eyes going wide and bright.

"Oh my god! Have you seen it? We have to see it. We'll start from the beginning so you know what's going on."

Merlin smiles and passes over the remote and lets him take charge of it, and as the title sequence flashes across the screen, he settles onto the couch with Arthur stretched out beside him, his head pillowed on Merlin's knee and Merlin's fingers combing through his hair. His heart still hasn't quite managed to unclench from the panic incited by Arthur's phone call at the hospital, but it's good. It feels nice. For just a moment, just one evening, he lets himself relax and enjoy it.

#

Arthur asks Merlin to drop him off at home the next morning, and Merlin's more relieved than he cares to admit. If Arthur had asked him to drop him off on some street corner so he could get back to work, Merlin doesn't think he'd have been capable of it.

Arthur says quickly, "You don't have to come in, I'm probably just going to go flop onto my bed and sleep a little longer," as Merlin lets the car idle next to the curb. He leans across the center dash and gives Merlin a quick, glancing kiss on the cheek. "Thanks again. I'm sorry for--"

"No. Stop." Merlin waves a hand at him. "If you're going to start in on that again, you can leave." But he makes sure he smiles as he says it, so Arthur doesn't take it the wrong way.

It makes Arthur's grin flash in return. "All right. Bye." And he slips out and runs into the run-down looking apartment building.

Merlin's head is in the clouds the entire drive back to his place. It's a problem. If he can't figure out how to focus before his shift starts that afternoon, Gwen and Freya are never going to let him live it down.

They're both busy, and Merlin's schedule is variable enough that it's a few days before they have any time to spend with one another again. Arthur strides into the emergency room late one evening, and holds a hand up to stave off the disapproving look Merlin shoots him when he sees him waiting there.

"I didn't sign in," he says. "I'm not here as a patient. But you said you'd be getting off about now, and I hear hospital cafeteria food is an experience everyone should have at least once before they die."

The hospital's cafeteria is actually not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it makes Merlin laugh all the same. "All right, let's go. I just punched out, so I'm all yours." He leads Arthur off, down the twisting halls towards the cafeteria, and does his best to ignore the way that Gwen and Freya are leaning out over the nurses' desk, making overcome faces at their backs.

A week later, Merlin finds himself downtown and is seized by the impulse to return the favor, and pull Arthur away long enough to have a meal with him. He swings by the corner where Arthur's most often to be found and smiles at the sight of him leaning up against a lamp post, staring off into the distance with a thoughtful look.

He doesn't move as Merlin pulls up to the curb, though by now Arthur knows Merlin's car on sight and usually grins and starts toward him as soon as he sees him. Merlin puts the car into park and climbs out when Arthur doesn't come over to him, wondering if he's done something to upset Arthur without realizing it.

As soon as he steps out of the car, a brisk wind hits him that makes him frown, makes him glance at Arthur again and take in the skimpy shorts and barely-there shirt he's wearing. "Are you insane? It's too cold out to be dressed like this. You'll catch your death." He comes up onto the sidewalk and takes Arthur by the arm, then recoils at how clammy his skin feels. "Arthur? How long have you been standing out here like this?"

Arthur turns and focuses on Merlin slowly. "Oh. Hey." A dopey grin spreads across his face. "What are you doing here?" His words are slurred and a little indistinct.

"Arthur, answer me." He takes Arthur's face in his hands and keeps Arthur's gaze on him. "How long have you been out here?"

It takes a moment for Arthur's face to reflect that he heard the question. He lifts one shoulder in a loose, lazy shrug. "Oh, a while," he says, like it's nothing. "Slow night tonight. Nobody's biting."

Hours, then. It makes Merlin's breath hiss out between his teeth. He takes his hands from Arthur's face and grabs for his hand instead, turns it over with one hand and presses the fingers of the other against his pulse. It's weak and thready and makes Merlin bite off an oath.

"Come with me, Arthur. Come on." He leads Arthur across the sidewalk to the passenger side of his car and pulls the door open for him. "Get in. Come on, I'm taking you home."

Arthur drops onto the seat, but it takes him a moment to manage to get his legs inside the car. It makes Merlin frown, watching him. As soon as he's settled, Merlin swings the door shut, then circles around and joins him. He punches the button to turn the heat on full blast as soon as he's behind the wheel.

"Whoa. Hey." Arthur pulls back from the vent aimed directly at him, making a face. "That's hot." He only then seems to notice that they're in Merlin's car, looking around himself with a frown. "Where are we going? I have to work."

"No, you don't. You're done for the night."

"But--"

"You're hypothermic and I'm taking you home. Don't argue."

He doesn't, for a moment, at least. As Merlin pulls out into the street, he demands, "Hypo what?"

"Hypothermic. You're cold, Arthur. Very, very cold. What the hell were you thinking, standing out in this weather, dressed like that?"

He scowls as Merlin speaks. "No I'm not." He holds his hand out in front of Merlin's face. "See? I'm not even shivering."

Merlin's mouth presses into a flat line as he carefully pushes Arthur's arm out of his way so he can see the road. "I know. That's a really bad sign."

Arthur sighs like Merlin is the worst person in the world. "You're not shivering, either."

"I'm wearing a sweater!"

And then Arthur is grinning, the argument forgotten as he reaches out to finger Merlin's sleeve. "It's a nice sweater," he says. "I like it. That color's good on you."

It takes all of Merlin's self-control not to fly into a panic. He drives, his hands clenched around the wheel and the heater blasting until it feels like a sauna inside the car, and Arthur starts to complain. And even then, he only turns the strength down a few degrees. "I know," he tells Arthur when he complains again. "But it's important. You need it."

They're just a few minutes out from his house when Arthur mutters, "Crap, what the fuck?" and his teeth start chattering violently.

Merlin glances sidelong at him and sees him reaching his hands out toward the heater vents as though toward a fire, shivering hard enough that the shudders wrack him visibly. "That's good," he says. "That's progress." And he can breathe just a little bit easier at last.

Arthur shoots him a bewildered look as he fiddles with the vents, unsatisfied. "Progress?" The shivering makes him stammer, and he has to try three times to get the word out. "How is this p-progress? I wasn't shivering before."

"That's why hypothermia's so sneaky. You get cold enough, and your body actually stops shivering. That you're shivering now means you're warming up."

"I felt warmer before," he stammers with a scowl.

"You'll feel better soon," Merlin promises. They're just a block away now. As soon as he pulls the car into his driveway, he climbs out and goes around to help Arthur out. It's still chilly and breezy outside, and as soon as the cold wind hits him, Arthur flinches and presses into Merlin's grip, his eyes gone wide with consternation.

"Holy crap," he mutters. "Christ. It's freezing."

Merlin just bundles him inside, turns the thermostat up several degrees, and then keeps directing him, all the way upstairs and into his bedroom.

Arthur must be on the road to recovery, because he has the presence of mind to laugh beneath his breath. "When you decide to make a move, you move quick, don't you?" He's still shivering, though, his words still forced out between chattering teeth, so the relief isn't as great as it might otherwise be.

"If you're going to tease," Merlin tells him, "at least do it while you're getting in the bed." Merlin's already kicking his shoes off, working at the buttons on the cuffs of his shirt.

Rather than obeying, Arthur just sinks down onto the edge of the bed and stares at him. "This is so unfair. Why are you getting naked when I can't appreciate it?"

Merlin closes the space between them and starts pulling at his ineffectual clothing. "You can appreciate it later," he says, short and brisk. "You know that cliché about how the best way to treat hypothermia is sharing body heat, the less clothes the better?"

Arthur nods, but his eyes are on Merlin's skin as it's revealed, and his gaze is distant, distracted.

"It's not a cliché, just the truth."

Arthur just nods and finishes undressing, shrugging his shirt off over his head. And Merlin would love to appreciate the view as much as Arthur wishes he could, but Arthur's skin is pale and clammy-looking and it's all so terribly alarming, he can't stand it.

He shoves his pants off, leaves his boxers on for Arthur's sake, and when he's wearing only that, flips the covers back for Arthur and motions him to get in.

He does so obediently, wriggling out of the last of his clothes, and then pulls the blanket up around his shoulders and shivers pitifully. Merlin only looks at him for a moment, then crosses the room to the closet and pulls out three more heavy blankets to spread across the bed and help warm Arthur up.

Arthur sighs like it's the most amazing thing in the world when Merlin spreads the blankets out over him. Then Merlin climbs under them as well, slides his arms around Arthur's back, and pulls him in close.

It's terrifying like this, feeling the long, frigid length of Arthur's body pressed to his. Merlin presses his face to Arthur's shoulder and lets out an unsteady breath. "Feeling warmer?" he asks, hoping against hope.

Arthur nods against his neck and slides his arms around Merlin's back as well, holding on to him tight. His fingers press into Merlin's ribs and his legs tangle through with Merlin's and it ought to be wonderful, but it's nothing but nerve-wracking. Arthur may have lamented his ability to enjoy Merlin's state of undress on account of his hypothermia, but Merlin figures it's worse for him. He's clear-headed and in his right mind, and he wants to appreciate it. He wants to be able to let his hands slide along Arthur's skin and take inventory of it, to learn the curves and contours of his muscles and how he responds when Merlin touches him. But he can't, because worry and fear are all he has space in his mind for, and they whip through it like a tornado, leaving chaos in their wake.

"Merlin?" Arthur's teeth are still chattering, and he's still stiff and tense where he lies pressed in against Merlin.

Merlin makes a soft, encouraging noise and nuzzles against the side of his throat.

"If I'd known this would finally get you into bed with me, I'd have gotten hypothermia weeks ago."

It shocks a breath of startled laughter out of Merlin, though there's really nothing funny about the suggestion. He tugs on a lock of Arthur's hair in reproach and keeps his voice stern as he says, "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

Arthur just leans his face against Merlin's chest. Merlin can feel his lips curve on a smile against his skin. "It would have been worth it."

"I'm glad to know you value my heart health so highly, that you'd gamble it so freely." Merlin tightens his arms around Arthur until Arthur sighs and squeezes him back. "You nearly gave me a heart attack, Arthur, and neither of us are out of the woods yet. Don't joke like that. Hypothermia kills."

Arthur hums wordless acknowledgment. "I'm feeling better, though," and Merlin thinks he is, too. He's still shivering, but it's less violent. The tightness that had gripped him is starting to ease, leading him on his way toward loose and pliant and warm. He can almost manage to speak a handful of words at a time without his chattering teeth interrupting.

"Don't get cocky," Merlin tells him. "You still have a ways to go."

"You said touch helps, right?" Arthur skims his arms on Merlin's back around to his stomach, fingers trailing in a way that can only be meant to be enticing. "Well..."

Merlin sighs and catches Arthur's hands in his, holding them still. "Stop," he says quietly.

Arthur heaves a great sigh and rolls onto his back. Merlin moves with him, pressing up against his side, keeping the contact between them. "Why are you always trying to stop me? If you just said no and moved on, that'd be one thing, but you send all these mixed messages."

Merlin's lips curve in a humorless smile. He drapes one arm over Arthur's shoulder, reaches with the other hand to trace the downward curve of his mouth. "Why are you always trying to do it for the wrong reasons?"

That doesn't make Arthur's expression brighten at all. "They're not the wrong reasons. They're my reasons. You might not like them, but they're still mine." He rolls again, turning in toward Merlin this time, pressing them close again, chest to chest and belly to belly, all the way down to their legs, which twine and tangle together again just as before. He looks into Merlin's eyes from very close and his gaze is clear. "I don't want it because you gave me money. I don't want it because there's some sort of debt between us." His hands are on Merlin's shoulders. He slides them down Merlin's chest in a slow caress, fingers tracing over the lines of muscles, thumbs sweeping around Merlin's nipples and making him shiver. "I want it because you're a god damned tease who's pressing all this skin up against me and won't let me do anything about it." Arthur leans in and presses his lips to the curve of Merlin's throat, then parts them and sucks a bruise there. Merlin makes a sharp, startled sound at the feel of him pulling the mark to the surface, but he doesn't stop him. There's a part of him that likes the idea of being marked by Arthur, marked as Arthur's. And he wants to leave marks of his own in turn.

"I want you," Arthur continues, letting his fingers slide lower. "Because you're hot and sexy and really smart, and you're kind and you let me ramble at you about books and movies that no one but me cares about, and you just saved me from certain death, so you're totally my hero." He slides his mouth down, leaving another mark an inch below the first. "How many ways do I have to tell you I want you before you believe that I mean it?"

Merlin lets out an unsteady breath and leans in to Arthur's hands. His body is rousing to Arthur's touch and the part of him that can think, that reminds him of all the reasons why this is a terrible idea, is rapidly giving way to the part that just wants. "You're still hypothermic," he says desperately as Arthur drags his tongue over the bruises he's left on Merlin's skin. "Your decision-making ability is severely compromised--"

"Oh my god." Arthur rolls his eyes with an impatient air that seems to suggest that Merlin is the most ridiculous man on the planet. He climbs up over Merlin, straddling him, and takes his mouth in a fierce, greedy kiss, his hands fisted in Merlin's hair to hold him there. "Then warm me up."

He feels warm. He feels like he's burning up in Merlin's hands, and Merlin wants little more than to touch and taste and claim. He slides his hands up Arthur's back, a slow caress that has him shivering until Merlin grabs onto his hair tightly and flips Arthur over beneath him, pressing him down into the bed.

Arthur's mouth falls open on a startled gasp, his expression transformed with surprise for just an instant before his lips curve into a wicked, delighted grin. "That's it." He leans up, biting at Merlin's mouth. "That's what I was hoping for."

Merlin feels like he's spiraling out of control. He wants to grab onto Arthur until his fingers have left bruises in his skin, wants to pin him down and plunder his mouth as he drives their hips together. He wants to take, and Arthur is offering himself up so beautifully...

He contents himself with leaving his own marks on Arthur, in exchange for the ones Arthur left on him. He bites down Arthur's throat and across his collar, leaving skin flushed and hot in his wake. He's barely reached the curve of Arthur's shoulder before Arthur is twisting beneath him, his hands frantic as he gasps, "Oh Christ, you're a tease, I should have guessed." The unsteady waver of his voice sounds like it's begging him for mercy, but Merlin just shakes his head and slides a hand down to grab onto Arthur's hip. He wants to make Arthur fall apart. It's a foolish thought, but he wants to show him what he's been missing.

There is at least a part of him, though, that still has awareness enough left to remember not to be a selfish bastard. What Arthur does... it's all about other people, and offering himself up to their needs, so Merlin presses his face into the curve of Arthur's throat and breathes unsteadily there for a moment before he asks, "What do you want?"

Arthur groans and smacks a fist against Merlin's shoulder. "Oh Christ, Merlin, you know what I want. I want you."

But Merlin shakes his head and holds him still when Arthur seems like he's inclined to twist himself out of Merlin's grasp. "I know that. I know. But what do you want? Do you want to fuck me? Or me you? I could use my mouth, or my hands, or you could." He sucks the salt off Arthur's skin, aching for more even as he holds himself back. "Just tell me what you want."

"Oh God. Fuck me." Arthur turns into a twisting, writhing thing beneath him, all hands and strong limbs pulling and grasping at Merlin. "Please fuck me."

Merlin nods desperate assent against his skin. He's still got enough sense, though, to pull back and look around wildly. His gaze lands on Arthur's shorts, discarded on the floor beside the bed, and his hands tighten on Arthur. "Do you still have that condom you were carrying around?"

Arthur's eyes shine bright and happy up at him. "Is this an emergency?" he teases, grinning, and Merlin wants to kiss him until he can't breathe.

"It really is."

It's been a while since Merlin's brought anyone back to his place to fuck. And condoms expire, so there seemed little sense in keeping a supply here. He always assumed that if (when) he needed them, he'd have advance-enough warning to grab some from the hospital. And then, once he'd met Arthur and found himself embroiled in a war against his own desire, bring condoms home felt like it would be too much like admitting defeat.

"I'll get it," Arthur says, and wriggles out from beneath Merlin before he can protest. "Christ, it's cold!" he gasps as he slides out from beneath the blankets, and crouches naked and beautiful to rifle through his pockets.

He comes up with it in a moment and climbs back into bed, pulling the blankets back over himself and pressing in against Merlin. He sets the condom on the pillow, safely out of the way, and then reaches for Merlin and curves his fingers around the elastic waist of the boxers that he's still wearing, tugging them down.

Merlin leans his forehead against Arthur's shoulder as he finishes undressing him. He's hard and aching, and even the glancing brush of Arthur's knuckles against his cock makes him shudder. As soon as Arthur's pushed his boxers down around his knees, Merlin kicks them off, leaving them to be lost beneath the blankets because Arthur's got the condom in one hand and Merlin's cock in the other and that suddenly requires the very whole of his attention.

Arthur leans up, his lips brushing Merlin's ear, as he makes quick work of tearing the packet open and putting the condom on Merlin. "I want you to fuck me," he breathes, and Merlin shudders against him. "I want you to fuck me face-to-face. I don't do that, you know. Not ever. Not with strangers." He catches Merlin's earlobe in his teeth and scrapes it with their sharp edges. "It's too intimate for work. But I want you to do it." His breath stutters against Merlin's ear and the side of his throat, and it's gratifying to know that Arthur's as moved by his own words as Merlin is. "I want to kiss you while you fuck me."

Merlin can't do anything but nod, too overcome for words. He feels as young as Arthur is, jittery with desire. As soon as Arthur's got the condom on him, Merlin catches his wrists and rolls Arthur under him, holds his hands against the bed and settles his weight onto him, pinning them together from shoulders to knees.

"Kiss me," he says, his voice sharp with command. It makes Arthur shiver beneath him, makes his eyes shutter briefly before he leans up, straining toward Merlin, his lips already parting in anticipation.

Merlin teases him with it for a moment, just because he can, because it's so sweet like this, with Arthur straining beneath him, his heart battering against his chest. Merlin skims his lips across his, but holds back when Arthur tries to draw him in for more. He laps his tongue over Arthur's lips, and when Arthur parts them in invitation, Merlin pulls them into his mouth and sucks at them, but he doesn't claim Arthur's mouth with a deep, hungry kiss the way he's sure Arthur wants until Arthur makes a sharp, frustrated sound beneath him and starts twisting to get out of his restraint.

And then, Merlin shifts Arthur's hands on the bed so he can hold them with one hand, and curves the other around the back of Arthur's neck, steadying him as he covers Arthur's mouth with his and plunges inside, kissing him fast and greedy until they're both breathless, and Arthur's shivering beneath him, and Merlin's so desperate for him his head is swimming.

When he breaks away, Arthur drops his head back and gasps at the ceiling like he's drowning. "Oh God, fuck me," he manages between breaths. "Merlin. Merlin. Now, God, please, now."

Merlin leaves a blazing trail of kisses down Arthur's chest. His spine bows up beautifully when Merlin stops to lavish attention on his nipples. Arthur presses his hips into Merlin's as his breath comes sharp and harsh through his lungs.

When Merlin has slid low enough that he has to release Arthur's wrists, Arthur keeps them where Merlin had pressed them just for a moment, his fingers opening and closing like he's not sure he trusts in his freedom. Then he moves, reaching across the bed, groping blindly until he makes a victorious noise and then reaches down to frantically press something small and sharp-edged into Merlin's hand.

Merlin grasps it and realizes what it is. A single-use packet of lube. Arthur must have kept that around for emergencies, too, though Merlin hadn't given this one to him. That was an oversight, he thinks now, and is profoundly grateful for Arthur's preparedness as he slides down to sprawl between Arthur's legs, nudging his knees apart to make room for Merlin's shoulders between them.

He holds himself up on an elbow as Arthur spreads for him, pulling his knees up and planting his feet eagerly. His cock is lying stiff and flushed against his stomach, red and dripping a few drops of precome onto Arthur's skin, and oh Christ, Merlin wants to suck him so bad it hurts. They need another condom for that, though, and Merlin doubts Arthur came that prepared, so he contents himself with sucking bruises onto the tender inside of Arthur's thigh as he slicks up his fingers.

Later, when they're done, he's going to go buy the biggest box of condoms the pharmacy sells, and then he and Arthur can figure out all the ways in which to use them with each other. But right now, Arthur wants Merlin to fuck him, and there's no way Merlin can find it in himself to deny him.

Arthur lets out a sudden breath when Merlin grazes the tip of a finger against his hole. His lips move, breathing something too faint for Merlin to hear, but if the desperate look on his face is anything to judge by, Merlin figures it's either an oath, or a prayer. Either way, it makes him grin, makes him rub circles with just a little bit more pressure. He keeps his lips pressed to the inside of Arthur's thigh, feeling the tremors that go through him every time Merlin presses a little harder, or slides a little bit deeper.

"Oh my God, come on," Arthur groans as a wave of tension goes through him. Merlin glances up to find him with his head tossed back, his arms thrown across his face, like he can't bear it. There's a sheen of sweat covering his skin, and he's beautiful without it, but it just serves to highlight every contoured muscle, every line and angle of his body where Merlin wants to fit his hands and grab on tight. "I'm not a virgin, Merlin, you're not going to hurt me."

Merlin can't help but want to be careful, all the same. Still, when Arthur jerks his hips beneath him, Merlin pushes in a little faster, sliding one finger in past the first knuckle, and Arthur moans like it's the most amazing thing he's ever felt in his life.

He begs Merlin, a constant, breathy stream of words imploring him for faster, for more, for another finger, for him to just fuck Arthur already. Merlin's head is swimming, so full of Arthur it's going to burst. He breathes unsteadily against Arthur's thigh and works another finger in beside the first. Arthur keens and rises up against him, and Merlin's lost.

When Arthur's taken three of his fingers and shown no sign of discomfort, only impatient eagerness for more, Merlin relents at last. He slides his fingers out, leaving Arthur gaping, his lungs heaving and his expression desperate as Merlin slicks the lube over his cock.

When Merlin climbs over him, Arthur's expression transforms into relief and ravenous anticipation. He twines his arms around Merlin's neck and slides his fingers into his hair, keeps his gaze fixed straight on Merlin's as Merlin reaches down between them to line himself up. And when he's pressed against Arthur's entrance, already light-headed from the feel of Arthur's muscle fluttering around him, Merlin holds his gaze and watches the transformation that washes across his face as Merlin sinks slowly into him.

"Christ, you're beautiful," he breathes as Arthur's lips tremble apart and his eyes go warm and liquid with wanting. He tightens his fingers in Merlin's hair and draws a gasping breath, then wraps his leg over Merlin's and uses the leverage to lift his hips, urging Merlin on, urging him in.

Merlin brushes his thumb across Arthur's kiss-swollen lip and pushes in a little harder, a little deeper. Arthur shudders beneath him and grabs tight fistfuls of his hair. "Kiss me," he growls, suddenly demanding even as he shakes apart beneath Merlin.

And Merlin does. He guides Arthur's mouth up to his and gives him a long, lazy, filthy kiss as he nudges deeper into Arthur, until he's buried himself entirely and his hips are pressed tight to Arthur's, and Arthur pants against his mouth, his fingers like claws as they scramble at Merlin's scalp. "Please," he breathes, kissing the words onto Merlin's lips. "Oh please. God, this is so much better--"

Merlin will never know what it's better than -- than Arthur expected? than he's used to? -- because he says it just as Merlin's drawing back, sliding out until just the head of his cock is still inside him, Arthur's muscles clenching tight around him to draw him back in. And when he does, when he sinks into Arthur with a solid, steady glide, the last half of Arthur's sentence is lost on a cry that pierces Merlin straight in the heart, startled and pleased and happy, and God, he wants to make Arthur make that sound all the time.

Their kisses are forgotten as Arthur gasps against his mouth, so Merlin pulls away to lean his brow against Arthur's shoulder. Arthur slides his hands down to Merlin's shoulders and back, traces his fingers over him in long, kneading strokes. Merlin shudders and drives into him again, hard this time, and Arthur makes a sound like Merlin's knocked all the air out of his lungs.

"Christ, you're so good," he whispers against Arthur's skin. "You're so gorgeous." And he's just getting more so, the more he unravels. Merlin's rarely had a chance to see him like this, without his guard up and his sarcasm wielded like a weapon. He's open and vulnerable and honest, and Merlin wants to see him like this all the time. He wants to make Arthur fall apart, and then help him put the pieces back together.

"What do you want?" he asks, because Arthur's brow is wrinkling, his expression twisting up like there's something he needs that Merlin's not giving to him, and that thought is intolerable. "What is it?"

Arthur just shakes his head, though, wild and desperate. "I'm so close," he gasps, and he looks startled by that, shaken by it. "I never-- Oh fuck. I've never, Merlin. Not like this."

"Do you want to?" Merlin drags his tongue over the hollow behind Arthur's collarbone. "Do you want me to slow down?"

He doesn't want to. He thinks it'll kill him, if Arthur asks him to. But he'll do it for him, if it's what he wants. Arthur shakes his head again, though, frantic, and digs his fingers into Merlin's shoulders. "No. Don't. God, please don't. I just--" He shudders and bows up underneath Merlin. "I want. I wanted more."

"There'll be time for more." Merlin kisses him lightly in between his words, as he drives his hips forcefully against Arthur's. "Lots more. Over and over again. We're going to have to buy stock in Trojan."

Arthur chokes off a laugh. It makes his face brilliant, but is lost beneath his expression of want and need just as quickly as it came. That's something else that Merlin's going to have to make him do all the time. He kisses Arthur, and keeps his eyes open as he works a hand between them and curls his fingers around Arthur's cock, stroking him in time with each thrust.

Arthur's eyes flash open, gone wide and startled. His lips part against Merlin's, and the sharp noise he starts to make slides down several octaves into a wrenching, guttural groan as he jerks and spasms beneath Merlin and comes in long, thick ropes across his chest.

"Fuck. Fuck." Merlin presses his face into the soft curve of Arthur's throat, shuddering. He's so impossibly beautiful, and Merlin's own orgasm is clawing at him, demanding release. It's all he can do to hold it off, to not fuck into Arthur the way instinct demands, because Arthur is twisting beneath him and the sounds he's making as he comes down are starting the slow slide toward discomfort, rather than pleasure. Merlin doesn't want to hurt him. But God, he wants him, and he's so close.

Arthur sighs as the last tremors of his orgasm release him from their grip. He goes suddenly loose and pliant beneath Merlin. Merlin wants to slide his hands over him and feel the ways his body has changed, the way the tense places have all gone soft. Before he can, though, Arthur shifts beneath him, catches his breath, and then rolls Merlin over with an easy, practiced move. It slides Merlin out of him, puts him on his back beneath him, and Arthur sidles up against him with a grin as he peels the condom off, tosses it into the trash can beside the bed, and then grasps Merlin in his fist. "I'm going to make you feel so good," he promises.

Merlin shuts his eyes as he lets out a breath. "Take a moment," he says, putting his hand over Arthur's to still him. "Catch your breath. I'll keep."

Arthur pushes up onto an elbow and looks down at Merlin like he's crazy. "What are you, a saint?" he demands like it's a bad thing. Or maybe just an incomprehensible thing.

Merlin shakes his head. He wraps an arm around Arthur's shoulders and pulls him down to lie half-sprawled across him. "This part's nice," he says. "Just take a minute and enjoy it." It makes Merlin's chest hurt to think that this need to rush might be borne of the work Arthur does, of demanding clients who won't even let Arthur enjoy himself before expecting more. Arthur's flushed, his face bright and dripping with sweat, and he looks glorious. Merlin doesn't understand how anyone could turn down the opportunity to get to enjoy him like this.

"You're not on the clock," he says when Arthur remains tense beside him, like he's just waiting for permission to make a move again.

"Do you not want me?" Arthur demands.

The idea of that is so ridiculous that there isn't anything Merlin can do but laugh. "Of course I do." He takes Arthur's hand in his and presses it against his cock, so he can feel how his erection hasn't flagged at all.

Arthur flexes his fingers against it and frowns. "Then why—"

"Because I'm enjoying this." Merlin turns his face in against Arthur's skin and breathes in the smell of him. "And you should, too. There's no rush. We have plenty of time."

Arthur humphs and rolls his eyes. "But I want to." He catches Merlin's mouth in a slow, heated kiss. "You got to watch me come. Now it's my turn. I want to see you." He sits up, closes his fingers around Merlin's cock again, and starts stroking. "I'm dying to. Let me."

And there's no way Merlin can respond to that but to nod and throw his arm over his face as Arthur's hand works over him expertly. He's going to come in minutes, at this rate, and Arthur's probably going to gloat over it forever.

"Ah-ah," Arthur says, lightly scolding, and pulls Merlin's arm down from where it shields his face. "Let me see."

So Merlin does. He lets it show on his face how much he wants Arthur. He lets him see the way his slick strokes make Merlin gasp for breath, has his lips forming around silent sounds. He shudders and gasps and groans as Arthur's hand pumps over him, and Arthur watches his face throughout it all, his gaze avid and hungry. There's no denying that he wants this, that he's after Merlin's orgasm for his own satisfaction, just as much as Merlin's. And when he's looking at Merlin like that, there's no chance that Merlin can deny him.

He shuts his eyes and gives himself over to it, to the tight grip of Arthur's fingers around him, to the slick friction driving him on, to the urge to let everything show on his face. He groans and mutters ragged pleas and pushes his hips up against Arthur's downstrokes, and when he comes it hits him like a sledgehammer, exploding through him and leaving nothing but wreckage in its wake.

Arthur is galvanized by his orgasm, climbing over him and breathing something about how he's gorgeous and amazing and Arthur is never going to let him go, as he presses frantic kisses against Merlin's mouth. Merlin kisses him back, dazedly, and wraps one arm loosely around Arthur's back. "You were right." Arthur grins down at Merlin. "This part is nice. But it's better when we get to share it together." He kisses Merlin again, then stretches out on top of him and lays his cheek on Merlin's chest. Merlin summons what's left of his strength to grab the blankets and pull them back up, flipping them over to cover his shoulders.

Arthur nuzzles in against him with a sigh and fits his hand to the narrowest part of Merlin's waist, sweeping his thumb in lazy circles across Merlin's skin. Merlin holds him in return, enjoying the long stretches of skin pressed together and the warmth that feels like a blessing compared to how clammy Arthur was just a little while earlier. Arthur's right, it is nice to be able to enjoy this lassitude together. But though Merlin's body is replete and exhausted, his mind continues to spin, thoughts tumbling through it too quick to catch, leaving him holding on to Arthur and staring up at his bedroom ceiling, wishing for merciful oblivion.

He thinks Arthur's drifted off to sleep in his arms, and he'll just lie there until his mind has worn itself out and he can follow after him. But then Arthur gives a sharp sigh and sits up, frowning down at Merlin. "I can practically hear the gears turning in your head," he says. "If you're still able to think at all, then I clearly haven't done my job."

The impact those words have must show on Merlin's face, because he isn't able to do more than open his mouth to protest, No, God, that's not what this was, you can't think that's what we were doing, when Arthur groans, rolls his eyes, and smacks the heel of his hand against Merlin's shoulder. "Oh my God, you're impossible. It's just a saying. That's not what this was." Merlin settles, a little, at hearing his own words from Arthur's mouth. Arthur braces his hands on his shoulders and leans over him, holding him down with his weight and bringing his lips close enough to Arthur's that they skim against each other, but he can't get any closer. Arthur's eyes burn into his as he murmurs, "I know the difference between business and pleasure."

Merlin swallows the knot in his throat and lets himself sink back down into the bed. Arthur seems satisfied by that. He looks down on Merlin a moment longer, his brow twisted into a troubled frown, then gives a sharp nod and wraps around him again, clinging tight as an octopus. "Good," he says, his voice muffled against Merlin's skin. "Then whatever it is, it can wait until later."

He's not wrong about that, either. Merlin holds him close and shuts his eyes, and tries to quiet his brain enough to sleep.

#

Merlin falls asleep after Arthur, but wakes before him. Even when he eases himself out from under Arthur's heavy-limbed sprawl, Arthur doesn't wake. Merlin finds his boxers dangling half off the foot of the bed and puts them on, grabs a thin shirt from his closet, then goes out to the kitchen to make coffee. He expects Arthur will be up shortly, but as the hours tick by and morning slides toward noon and Arthur is still sprawled and snoring on Merlin's bed, it's easy to remember that he's a teenager, still young enough to need to sleep half the day away.

He pours himself a bowl of cereal and tries to keep himself occupied, and when there's finally sounds of stirring from the bedroom and Arthur comes stumbling out, groggy-eyed and his hair a mess from sex and sleeping, Merlin's sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee waiting for him.

Arthur smiles a sleepy, grateful smile and drops down onto one of Merlin's stools opposite him. He drinks the coffee black and drains half the cup before he sets it down and focus on Merlin. And when he does, he sighs. "Okay. Out with it." He scrubs a hand through his hair. "Might as well just say it."

Merlin blinks at him. "Sorry?"

"Whatever you've been stewing on since last night. You look like you've been chewing it over all morning, too, just waiting for me to wake up." He's tense, his shoulders tight, his brows wrinkled on a frown. "If this is going to be that conversation, though, I may as well tell you beforehand that it won't work."

Merlin feels at sea, uncertain what exactly is going on or why Arthur seems so wary when last night he was nothing but warm and affectionate. "What conversation?" he asks, shaking his head.

"The one where you try to take me away from this life and show me a better way and all that bullshit." He sets the coffee mug down so he can fold his arms across his chest. "I get that a lot, actually. Everyone does. You get regulars and they get fond and then they decide that obviously you'll be flattered when they offer to move you into some place they've paid for and set you up as their mistress. But it's not flattering. It's not an escape from this life, even if we wanted one. It's just a different kind of prostitution, and I'm not going to do that, not even for you. I'm not going to be kept."

"Arthur," Merlin says.

"This isn't Pretty Woman. You don't get to call me princess and ride in on a fancy limo and whisk me off to a better life."

"Arthur," Merlin says again, and reaches out to grasp his hands when he doesn't seem to be listening. "I did want to talk. But that's not what I was going to ask. That's not what I wanted to say."

Arthur looks dubious. "What, then? What do you want?"

"Christ, Arthur. That's the question I should be asking you." He takes a deep breath and lets it out "Look. I'm not going to try to convince you to do anything. I'm just going to ask what you want. What you really want." He squeezes Arthur's hands in his. "When we talked about your uncle, you seemed to imply that that this profession was one you found yourself in because of desperation, not choice. So that's what I want to know, and what I want to ask. What do you want? What would you choose? If you want to get out and never stand on a street corner again, I'll help you figure out how to do that. If you want to stay self-sufficient and keep doing what you're doing until you turn eighteen, then I'll support you in that, too." It's hard for him to say those final words, because they feel like a lie in his heart, even though he means them. Because he's seen first hand the sorts of fates that can befall prostitutes, at the hands of their clients or diseases or each other, and he's seen Arthur nearly kill himself from hypothermia for his job not twenty-four hours earlier, and he'd move heaven and earth to keep Arthur from that. But he can't do it by being a bully. All he can be is supportive.

Arthur continues to look suspicious for a moment, but eventually, his expression shifts to confusion, bewilderment, and then something that looks like maybe he wants to cry. "You mean that," he says on a breath. "A choice." His laughter is choked and a little bitter. He buries his face in his hands. "You're going to kill me, Merlin. I haven't had a choice in anything, not anything, not since my father died. I can't even decide. I don't know what I want. I want this all to have not happened. I want my uncle to not be a dick. I don't know."

"Okay." Merlin lets go of his hands only so he can circle around the counter and pull Arthur into his arms. Arthur leans in against him, his arms stiff at his sides, his face buried against Merlin's chest. "That's all right. There's plenty of time for you to figure it out."

"You're amazing," Arthur says, muffled against Merlin's shirt.

Merlin smiles and holds him in the circle of his arms, his lips pressed against the crown of Arthur's head. "I'll tell you a secret," he murmurs. "I think you are, too."

And that's the crux of it. He can't get over this, he jeopardized his career for this, because every time he looks at Arthur he's just bowled over by awe of him, of what he's endured and how he's come out the other side of it, how he's prickly and defensive but only to protect the soft heart he carries within him, how he's funny and sharp and he always is able to make Merlin laugh. Arthur's amazing, and Merlin's blown away by him.

He tells him so, because it's not the sort of thing he can keep bottled up without exploding. Arthur lifts his head and beams up at him like it's the nicest thing anyone's said to him in a long while. Maybe it is, Merlin thinks, and he resolves to do something about that. "Have you been watching Battlestar Galactica without me?" Arthur asks. "We should watch it. Your TV beats my crappy little computer monitor by like a thousand. We can have a marathon." He catches Merlin's hands in his and pulls him over to the couch.

Merlin settles onto it and pulls Arthur down to sprawl out with him. His heart hurts a little as he wraps his arms around Arthur and pulls him back against him, propping his chin on Arthur's shoulder to watch the show. But he has the day off and Arthur here with him, warm against him, and for now, that's more than enough.