“Breathe in deep, and tell me if it hurts.”
Merlin clamps his eyes shut. His heartbeat thrums in his chest, doubling in recognition of Arthur’s voice. He’s touched Merlin countless times since they started dating, plundering his every orifice.
This is different.
Lying stripped on a dentist chair, his chest shaved and slathered in ointment, Merlin can’t help but curse the post-sex euphoria that brought him here. He blames two orgasms for making this stupid promise. A terrible, short-sighted pledge, all in the name of his boyfriend’s thick cock.
“It hurts!” Merlin whines. He grips the leather armrests with sweaty palms, arching his back into the chair.
Merlin hears a gentle “Shhh” followed by a hot press against his mouth. Lips slide roughly against his, Arthur’s tongue coaxing them open. The kiss is possessive, and Merlin can’t help but groan into it, nibbling Arthur’s bottom lip for more.
Arthur breaks the kiss first. His voice rumbles in Merlin’s ear. “Deep breaths. Nothing’s touched you yet. I’ll warn you before it does.”
Merlin inhales as instructed but doesn’t dare open his eyes yet. “I know. I’m just… practicing.”
“Fuck practice. Let’s do it, yeah?”
“Always did like doing it with you,” jokes Merlin.
Arthur’s laugh is warm and so crisp, Merlin could bite into it. “I’ll make you cry for me tonight, Merlin, so good,” in a lower voice, “and it won’t be over a bloody tattoo.”
It’s a threat Arthur will deliver on. Merlin’s cock twitches, filing the filthy mental image away for later. Keeping their hands off of each other is a skill they haven’t mastered yet, not even after two years of dating. Merlin’s tattoo will be special, Arthur had promised, but now Merlin can’t help but wonder if special is just tattooist code for bloody painful.
It’s the two of them in the shop, no distractions. No one to hear Merlin cry and embarrass himself.
Merlin risks opening his eyes a crack to take in his surroundings. Arthur’s beside him, dressed in a sheer singlet and distressed denims, his expression pure concentration. The tattoo parlour is well lit, clean, with vintage black-and-white checkered floors. The gilded letters “Albion Ink” are mirrored in reverse on the front window, backlit by luminous streetlights. Absent is the friendly chatter and the emphatic music that hits Merlin every time he pops inside the shop for a quick “hello”.
Merlin watches Arthur’s bicep flex as he slips on a pair of latex gloves, adjusting the fit until the edges obstruct Merlin’s favourite part of his boyfriend’s body—the detailed tattoo encircling his wrist. He was hypnotised by Arthur’s ink the first time he laid eyes on it, captivated by the smooth lines snaking up Arthur’s arm, coiling once around his forearm before slithering seductively underneath the sleeve of his T-Shirt.
Merlin hoists himself up by his elbows, shivering as Arthur pulls a tortuous-looking metal implement with a dragon's head off a tray to inspect its working parts. The silver body gleams in the light. Arthur rips open a small plastic pouch, inserting needles and tubes into the machine, and loads it with a tiny cup of ink.
The machine wakes with a vibration that has Arthur looking pleased. He turns to Merlin, and winks. “The thermal-fax is in place, and Kilgharrah’s fired up.”
“You named your tattoo gun?” Merlin huffs a laugh. He was a fool to think he could handle this. No cock, no matter how lyrically gorgeous, is worth this level of needle anxiety.
“Don’t worry, Kil may be old, but he’ll take good care of you,” Arthur says.
“Have I mentioned my fear of needles?” Merlin replies.
“Fifty-one. I’m fucking terrified of needles.”
Arthur’s eyebrows furrow. He turns off the machine. “We don’t have to do the session if you’ve changed your mind. I won’t be upset,” he says in a calm voice,
Merlin licks his lips. Across the room, photos of clients line the dark wood paneling, testaments of Arthur’s mastery of both colour and form. His friend Freya's face gazes at Merlin with a frozen smile behind a frame. A delicate swirl of branches dance up her neck, the ink that instigated Merlin’s coerced blind date with her fit tattoo artist, Arthur.
Arthur had suggested tattooing Merlin during their first shag, when his thumb brushed the hollow at the base of Merlin’s throat, hovering over it like a divining rod. He doesn’t bring it up often, but Merlin can tell that every time they tumble in and out of bed together, Arthur’s imagination runs wild, tracing grand patterns over Merlin’s skin that only he can see.
Merlin’s always wondered what Arthur tattooing him would feel like in real life—if the design would be even half as beautiful as the work he’d done on Freya.
“I... want to do this,” replies Merlin after some thought. “I’m just… I don’t know how I’m going to handle all the staby action.”
“Staby action? Is that a technical term?”
“Shut up.” Merlin rolls over onto his side, his pupils blown. He swallows once, glancing at Arthur with a pleading expression.
Arthur looks worried as he puts down Kilgharrah. “Don’t move,” he says, gingerly stroking Merlin’s shoulder. “I have an idea.”
Merlin watches as Arthur rolls the squeaking tray of tools closer. He leaves his seat, and without touching the surface, climbs on top of Merlin’s chair in a graceful motion. Gears creak and the leather divots under his bulk. Merlin feels a shift in balance as Arthur straddles him, wiggling his arse down Merlin’s belly until it rests right below Merlin’s lap. He balances there on his calves, looking chuffed.
“Better?” Arthur asks.
Merlin snorts, adjusting his body under the hefty weight. “What are you trying to do? Crush me to death?”
“I’m making you more comfortable, of course,” Arthur says. He sounds confident, his gaze traveling the length of Merlin’s sticky chest, towards the edge of his trouser line. He squeezes Merlin once with his thighs.
“Admit it, you just get off on the idea of marking me,” Merlin says, hitching his hips into Arthur. “Coming on my back doesn’t cut it for you anymore, sadist.”
“No. No distractions,” Arthur replies. “I’m not going to arse this up for you, it’s too important.” He picks Kilgharrah up off the side table, looking at Merlin for direction.
With a weak smile, Merlin gives Arthur a thumbs-up.
“Now pay attention, breathe in deep, and—”
“—Tell you if you’re killing me. Got it.”
Kilgharrah comes to life a second time. Arthur leans over Merlin, steadies his hand, and with a look of determination makes his first mark.
Merlin grits his teeth as the needle punctures the fine skin between his collarbones. A bewildered “ah” escapes his lips, and his face contorts, the muscles in his chest contracting involuntarily.
A searing sting engulfs his body, the pain melting into him. Minutes tick by like hours, the silence between them a foreign presence.
“It’s not so bad, is it?” Arthur says, wiping excess ink off Merlin’s skin with a soft cotton round.
“Like a nest of killer bees having angry sex with my bones,” Merlin manages.
Cool latex gloves brush across Merlin’s collarbones, and there’s a blissful moment of relief as the pain subsides and the humming stops. A look passes between them. Merlin raises an eyebrow, but Arthur’s fresh out of comebacks. His eyes are soft and blue, lined with a frailness Merlin rarely sees in him.
“Contrary to what you think, I don’t enjoy hurting you,” Arthur says quietly.
Merlin pulls up, kissing the inside of Arthur’s arm, directly over a tendril of his tattoo. His mouth hovers there, murmuring into his skin.“I’d never think that,” Merlin says. “I want you to finish. I want to see what’s inside that strange head of yours with my own eyes.”
“Good,” Arthur smiles. “Because I’ve decided to give you a tramp stamp instead. Something large and misspelled. I’ll even throw in a dolphin if you want.”
Merlin’s face freezes for a moment, before bursting into laughter.
Arthur chuckles too. “I promise, Merlin, you’ll love it when it’s done.”
“I know, Arthur. I trust you.”
A pleased look passes over Arthur’s face, sending goosebumps down Merlin's arms. He nestles back into the chair, bearing his body for what’s coming next. He wouldn’t call this experience pleasurable, but it’s strangely... intimate. With every prick, Arthur is becoming a physical part of him, the separation between the comforting weight of Arthur on top of him and the bite of Kilgharrah’s jaws blurring.
The headlights of a passing lorry streak the window, but otherwise the room is still, save for a mechanical thrum and the slow pull of their breaths. Merlin tries his best to embrace the ache. To surrender to Arthur’s clever hands as he’s done so many times in the bedroom.
Kilgharrah moves in serpentine spirals, Arthur at one with its motion. The path his hand travels is almost hypnotic. When Arthur transitions into tattooing a fleshier area of Merlin’s chest, the pain in Merlin’s bones and the weight in his lap subsides.
Arthur puts Kilgharrah down. Carefully, he climbs off of Merlin and rummages through the equipment on his tray. Before Merlin can complain about the loss of body contact, a soothing substance like mercy-incarnate coats his chest, the drying blood and ink on his skin washed clean.
“That’s it,” Arthur says, peeling off his gloves. “We’re finished, except for the dressing.”
Merlin looks around the room, bewildered. He shudders as if waking from a coma. “What? No. You’re fucking with me. That can’t be it?”
“See for yourself.” Arthur picks up a small hand mirror, offering it to Merlin.
Merlin tries not to look as giddy as he feels when he tilts the mirror in his hands. Resting in between his clavicles flat as a pendant, lies the exquisite outline of a triangle. It’s interior is filled with intricate Celtic knot-work, each corner curled as a nautilus shell.
Merlin should really say something, anything, but he can’t stop staring long enough to pry his tongue off the roof of his mouth. It’s impossible, how a design could fit his own body so well, as if it had grown there organically. As if both the tattoo, and it’s artist who created it, were destined to be a part of Merlin’s life.
Arthur clears his throat. “So, what’s the verdict?”
“Worth it,” Merlin says without hesitation. “Every horrible god-forsaken prick.”
Arthur’s poster straightens. His eyes light up, and with a soft chuckle he nods, preparing Merlin’s dressings. He spreads a bandage over Merlin’s skin, soothing the edges down with medical tape. As Merlin starts sit up and look for his shirt, Arthur leans over him, curling his hand around Merlin’s waist.
He rubs his thumb over Merlin’s hip and Merlin snorts, wiggling his shirt on as Arthur steals kiss after kiss from him. “You know," he whispers, “they say tattoos are a bit like crisps. Most people can’t stop at one.”
Arthur’s got that dreamy look in his eyes again. The one where Merlin’s body is his personal canvas, brimming infinite possibility. Now that he’s clothed, the v-neck of Merlin's t-shirt acts like a picture window, showcasing the bandage placement perfectly. The tattoo’s going to look incredible once the dressings are off—he’ll have to remember to wear this shirt again.
“Let's let this ink heal first,” Merlin coos. “And then we’ll talk.”
Arthur kisses Merlin again, proving how much he loves that promise.