Sometimes your life hits a stall-point. You probably won't know you've stalled at the time - that realisation will come later. You think you're going on, day after day, getting further and further away from the moments that have gone before, when actually all you're doing is rinsing and repeating, going nowhere. Maybe you're marking time, maybe you're waiting, maybe you're stuck. It can happen all sorts of ways . But the fact of the matter is you're going nowhere. You've stalled.
Merlin's life stalls one afternoon when Arthur spits 'Fine,' and leaves their bed and their bedroom and their flat, and doesn't come back.
It was probably something Arthur did that started it - it was probably something Merlin said that continued it. As always, it was Arthur that finished it. He never could leave something hanging - never could let things cool off, blow over, lie forgotten. And Merlin, in counterpoint, never takes instruction, never takes someone's word for it, never takes anything for granted. If Arthur says that's final, Merlin says, is it? If Arthur says we're not talking about this anymore, Merlin keeps shouting. And that's probably why in the end Arthur's walking, and Merlin's been walked out on.
Merlin doesn't realise until six months later, when he's tipping back another beer, that he hasn't been to any bar except this one in six months, that he hasn't bothered to find a new flatmate, that his marks have slipped at university, that he has, in fact, stalled.
He finishes the beer, and orders another, and spends another six months stuck in the mud, feeling pleasantly numb, before Gwen comes round, slaps him fondly but firmly in the face, and tells him to get out, for God's sake, Merlin. Apparently he needs to do something new, and that will help him get out of this rut he's in. She hugs him tightly, and asks him to think about it, please? Promise? and he says he will. She tells him that a new bar has opened a couple of streets from here. It's supposed to be fun. He should go.
Because it's Gwen, and she's never steered him wrong, he decides to show willing one Saturday night. He finishes his essay on the impact of hydroelectric power on freshwater ecosystems and emails it to the tutor before the deadline for the first time this year, and puts on a proper shirt with buttons and everything, although for reasons of warmth and petty defiance there is a Pearl Jam shirt underneath, and walks until he finds this pub.
He resists the urge to order something stupid like a Long Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against A Wall, and settles for the usual: good old dependable lager.
One more, though, and he gives into temptation. Cocktails are fun - stupid names and interesting flavours, and you always get a look from anyone who hears you order. Merlin used to get a cheap little thrill out of making Arthur get him drinks with truly, horribly bald and brash names (Blow Job, Quick Fuck, Screaming Orgasm) because hearing the words in Arthur's careful, proper English amused him. The barman quirks an eyebrow when Merlin drawls out all the twelve syllables of tonight's pick (possibly assessing his state of intoxication, given the four shots in the drink), but gets out the shaker anyway.
Watching the little performance that always seems to go with the act of mixing a drink means that Merlin barely notices the person sliding onto the barstool next to him.
The taste of Galliano and orange juice rides high and rough over Merlin's tongue, sharp and delicious, just as the newcomer says, in a low and familiar voice, 'Nice to see your tastes haven't changed.'
Merlin's mental gears crunch horribly as his brain processes and recognises the voice, and he nearly spits his drink all over the bar when he twigs who it is. Desperately trying to control his breathing and not choke in the attempt, he does manage to swallow, and as the booze warms the back of his throat he even manages a rictus of a smile as he turns to face Arthur.
'You'd like to think so,' he says, trying not to let his eyes rove, trying not to let the saliva rise like the tide in his mouth. As usual, Arthur looks like the wet dream of roughly 90% of the population. No doubt he's just on his way home from work, or something similarly mundane, but to look at him you'd think that that work was foiling Russian spies and romancing blonde bombshells in the back of expensive sports cars, not restaurant management. 'Long time no see,' Merlin adds, trying for casual, and aware that he's staring.
Arthur's expression is anything but casual, and his eagle eyes are darting all over Merlin's body, exploratory like Cortez upon his peak in Darien. Merlin swallows; Arthur looks up at the tiny sound of his throat working, and immediately looks away like he's been slapped. 'It's been a while,' he allows.
The bartender wanders over and asks what Arthur wants, and he asks for a Laphroaig and water (Arthur doesn't drink things that are cheap or complicated). He sips it slowly, rolling it around in the pretentious way he always did.
Merlin defiantly swigs his ridiculous cocktail. It does actually taste pleasant, unlike the whisky.
(He once offended Arthur horribly by telling him his favourite tipple tasted like someone died in a vat of drain cleaner. It's boggy!, Arthur had protested. You just have no taste.
I'm dating you, aren't I? Merlin had retorted, and they'd laughed, and Arthur had attempted to win the argument by kissing, and the whole thing had ended with Merlin's dick in Arthur's mouth, which everyone involved counted as a win.)
They drink in silence for a few minutes, slowly and contemplatively, and Merlin tries to pretend that he can't feel the heat of Arthur's body all down his side where they're close. He would swear that his breathing is abnormally loud, that every time he swallows it's a grating, gurgling intrusion on everyone else's evening.
'I suppose Gwen told you to come here as well,' Arthur says eventually, swirling his Laphroaig contemplatively in the tumbler and keeping his eyes down. 'I wasn't sure if she was pulling my leg, but I thought it was worth a try,' he adds.
'Gwen did suggest the bar,' Merlin admits. He drains his glass and puts it down with a thunk. 'And that's about my limit, so I'm off,' he adds - the lamest excuse he's ever had to give to leave a licensed establishment, but right now he cares less about his fibbing ability and more about getting out of Arthur's space before he does something he'll regret, like dropping to his knees, or begging for a long, slow, comfortable screw up against a wall, sans capital letters and very much single-entendre.
'Wait,' Arthur says, catching Merlin's wrist. Arthur's fingers are slick from the condensation on his glass, suggestive, raising goosebumps and playing merry hell with Merlin's resolutions. 'Merlin, we need to talk.'
'We needed to talk a year ago,' Merlin points out. 'But you walked out instead. Right now, talking is the last thing we need.' He yanks his arm free, dragging the chill of icewater with him, and turns to go. A screech of stool-feet on the wooden floor tells him Arthur's got up too, just before his hand lands on Merlin's shoulder.
His eyes are wide, dark, and he licks his lips. 'Are you open to other options?' he asks in a rough voice, and Merlin has to shut his eyes against the shudder of desire and the bad, bad decisions he's about to make, but it seems kind of inevitable.
He looks back at Arthur, and takes a breath, realises that whichever way he goes from this, at least he's going.
Arthur offers him his hand. After a second, Merlin takes it.
'Yes,' he says, and they go.
Arthur tastes of bog, of mud, like history in layers against the brash orange on Merlin's tongue, and the damp cold from the whisky-glass disappears fast against Merlin's pulse - wrist and throat, where Arthur has him held - leaving behind just the trace of it sinking into Merlin's skin.
'This doesn't mean anything,' Merlin says hoarsely, when Arthur moves his mouth from Merlin's down, down to his jaw, the back of his ear, the ridges of his Adam's apple, tonguing across them slowly, Merlin's hips twitching with each new place Arthur goes. 'This isn't-'
'If you want,' Arthur agrees, and his fingers start on the buttons at the bottom of Merlin's shirt, popping and sliding up until he can drag the thing down to Merlin's elbows and reveal the next piece of clothing, the t-shirt. Arthur always hated Merlin's band shirts. But, 'Nice,' he says wryly, tracing the buzz-saw graphic with one finger and making Merlin's breath hitch.
'You hate Pearl Jam,' Merlin points out, a little dizzy, high on the feel of Arthur through cloth, the warmth of it fuzzing and spreading along the fibres. 'You said Eddie Vedder sounded like someone beating a dog.'
'Don't care,' Arthur retorts, and his fingers are making an assault on Merlin's fly, and Merlin thanks God and, and, and Buddha and Jesus and whoever else might be watching over them - Zeus, he was always keen on a bit of this kind of thing, he's a good option - that there's a row of big rubbish bins they can hide behind from the wind and the streetlights and the potential prying eyes of the public. Arthur is pushing him into the dark space made by the nearest bin and the wall, sinking to his knees in that puddle of shadow and pulling Merlin's jeans with him, down into the dark.
There's going to be a bruise on the back of Merlin's head tomorrow, because as soon as Arthur breathes down there, damp and draughty and somewhere between body-heat and the ambient cold in temperature, Merlin's body can't help but arch, and his skull cracks against brick.
'Careful,' Arthur says, pulling underwear aside and licking. Merlin's head can't hit the wall any more, but he presses back involuntarily, feeling the nascent bruise deepen, and Arthur takes him deeper and deeper and deeper, hungry and determined.
One knee quivers - Arthur drops a hand to brace it. Merlin can't keep himself decently quiet - Arthur digs fingernails into his skin, warning. Just as Merlin thinks he's not going to last, that the edge of orgasm is dragging him down, Arthur makes a noise, half-dissatisfaction, half-realisation, and stands, dragging himself up like it's a real effort.
Merlin can't move, can't process anything except for how close he was. He tries to though. Arthur hushes him, his forehead resting against Merlin's collarbone and both hands busily tucking Merlin back into his underwear, scrabbling for Merlin's jeans, as if they suddenly have somewhere to be.
'What-' is all Merlin manages before Arthur has him fully dressed again and, if not entirely presentable, at least not committing public indecencies.
'I want to take you to bed,' Arthur says, muffled, into Merlin's skin. 'I want to spread you out over the sheets and-' he lifts his head, meeting Merlin's eyes. '- I want to do this properly, where I can pay attention.'
Merlin's head spins, and it might be the bump or the booze or it might be the idea of letting Arthur into his space again. He wants to say no, just like he said this means nothing, because if they stay on their feet and they can drag their trousers up from half-mast again afterwards and sail on like officers and gentlemen then maybe Merlin can salvage this. If he lets Arthur back into the flat - their flat - his flat, then in the morning, Merlin will wake up, and Arthur will either be there or be gone, and Merlin doesn't know if he can handle either option.
'Please, Merlin,' Arthur breathes into his ear. 'Take me home.' He sucks kisses across Merlin's temple, down his jaw to his mouth. 'C'mon,' he says against Merlin's lips - so quiet Merlin only makes out the word from the shape of it against his skin.
Merlin can feel brickwork grating against his shoulders, damp seeping through the denim over his backside, and the heat of Arthur's body up against his belly and his throat, and they're grinding together, tiny incremental pushes that the hindbrain wants and the conscious mind rebels against. Somewhere in between that hard and soft, hot and cold, back and forth motion Merlin loses his resolution, and grabs Arthur's hand.
Home isn't that far away, and he knows where it is instinctively, heart beating wildly in his chest as he drags Arthur there, trying to ignore the way Arthur tangles their fingers and pulls Merlin's hand with his into his warm trouser pocket the way he used to, so they're jammed up together as they walk, like a three-legged race.
Arthur's presence beside him is insistent, or maybe Merlin's body's insistent, after a year of not bothering - whichever it is, he's going to get what he wants right now, and he'll think about the rest of it tomorrow. Gwen's going to kill him, he thinks, for saying no to talking and yes to this, but he wasn't the one who walked out, he never said he didn't want Arthur any more, he's not the inconsistency in this equation.
They drop into step with each other, left, right, left right, walking in double time. Merlin fumbles in his pockets. Keys. Open door. Drop coats - then he finds himself pressed up against the inside of the front door, apparently wearing Arthur for an apron.
'Thought you wanted a bed?' he manages to ask, resisting the urge to spin them around and make use of the fact that Arthur's a smidgen shorter to make him feel it when Merlin fucks him up against the door, the door he left by, stretched high up on the balls of his feet with his own weight driving him down.
'Later,' Arthur mutters, one hand pushing Merlin's unbuttoned shirt off his shoulders and the other riding up under the t-shirt. 'You wear too many clothes,' he adds when the shirts refuse to cooperate, bunching up at Merlin's elbows and breastbone, half-on and half-off.
'You're just rubbish,' is all Merlin can think of to retort as he divests himself of the garments. 'Can you even undo your own damn trousers?'
Arthur can, it turns out, and he makes short work of Merlin's as well. The glass panes in the front door are too cold for Merlin's liking, and so he spins them with his mouth on Arthur's, more breathing the same air than kissing, gasping for it like drowning men. Arthur yelps as his back hits the hard surface, but that doesn't last long. He wraps his arms around Merlin's shoulders and hitches himself up to perch and grind over Merlin's thigh. There's a challenge gleaming darkly in his eyes when Merlin pulls back to get some air; Arthur knows exactly what he wants, and how to go about getting it.
His arse is gorgeous against Merlin's hand when he reaches for it, sliding his fingers over the curve. He resists the urge to haul Arthur right up against him, shove his fingers in and rut - instead he takes his time, exploring, testing. A stroke gets him a deep inhale, a scrape with a fingernail gets an answering pain in the form of Arthur's nails digging into the meat of his shoulders. When he finally makes it to the crease of Arthur's arse, deep and perfect, Arthur draws in a shuddering breath, and pushes back. 'Off,' he says in a distant, breathy voice.
Arthur's eyes open properly. 'Give me a sec,' he says, and Merlin lets him go. Arthur grabs his trousers, foraging through one of the pockets and eventually coming up with a condom and a tube of lube, new-looking, like maybe Arthur thought he had occasion to bring supplies with him. These he tucks into the pocket of a coat hanging by the door, not meeting Merlin's gaze, and he drags himself back into the position he was before, settling himself against Merlin's body with a perfectionist's little twist of the hips.
'Just out for a drink, were we?' Merlin asks, not as sourly as he should when Arthur's basically just told him he thinks Merlin's easy. Who brings condoms to meet their ex in a bar? Arthur's god-damned assumptions and preparations and just-in-cases, they drive - drove - him mad, but it means he gets his wish, Arthur up against the door, so he can't find it in him to be too upset. Arthur's got one leg hitched up against the outside of one of Merlin's, so they touch softly and constantly like that, skin all tender and hot.
Arthur drapes his arms back over Merlin's shoulders, held out straight and weighty in a coquette's pose, and says 'Depends on what you mean by a drink.' His eyes flick, or perhaps glide is a better word, slow and heavy, down to where Merlin is smearing wetness between them. He drops his leg like he's going to go to his knees again, and Merlin grabs him instinctively, holding him hard by the hips. 'Later,' he says, echoing Arthur from earlier. His hands are spread, thumbs over the blunt shapes of Arthur's hipbones and fingertips edging round the swell of Arthur's buttocks, so he just draws them further round til he can hold Arthur open, trail the tip of one finger down, down until he feels Arthur shake from the sensation, and then he reaches for the coat pocket.
The lube isn't as cold as it could be, but it still reminds Merlin sharply of Arthur's touch on his wrist, back at the bar, and he closes his eyes as he coats his fingers and goes back to the task at hand. He doesn't even notice he's biting his lip until Arthur's mouth meets his, gently, and sucks the lip out from between his teeth. They kiss, mostly breath and tongue, as Merlin works one finger into Arthur's body, smooth and slow; then two, a little harder, a little more twist to the wrist, a little more careful even as it's rougher; then a third, and Arthur's pushing down and his arms aren't elegant and balanced any more, they're strong brackets to hold Merlin close and hold him up where Arthur wants him.
'Unless you're going for a Guinness record for longest vertical shag here - ' Arthur says eventually, slickly against Merlin's mouth, ' - and please God, tell me you're not - I want you in me now.'
Something in his tone of voice, a kind of calm that only iron control can produce, makes Merlin fumble the condom. Arthur takes it off him, rips open the packet and slides the thing onto Merlin in the blink of an eye. He tosses the packet aside.
'C'mon,' he says, voice rough as gravel, low in his throat. 'Merlin, c'mon.' He stretches up as high as he can to make room. 'I need this.'
Merlin, knees bent, trying to get low enough to make this work, pushes up and forward, and Arthur, up on the balls of his feet just like Merlin pictured, lets himself relax down, opens for Merlin like a lock, and the fit is perfect and exact. Merlin braces himself, spreading palms still sticky with lube and booze and rainwater and Arthur to keep himself upright - one on the door flat and strong, the other at Arthur's hip, helping him up, up, muscles tight like cords as he lifts himself again. Arthur's shoulders are jammed up against the panels of the door, which can't be very comfortable but he doesn't look like he cares, with his eyes shut, brow furrowed with concentration and mouth hanging open, breathing harshly through the stretch.
Merlin holds hard like that for a moment, but Arthur reaches for the arm that's on the door, drags it down to match the other, to cradle his hips. 'Hold me steady,' he says, orders, and Merlin does, unlocking his knees to stand up straight and taking Arthur with him. Arthur holds on with his knees like Merlin is his dressage pony, and Merlin drops his forehead to grind on Arthur's collarbone as they move.
It's an effort to push and thrust, but Merlin can't do anything else now he's this far, needing to be thoughtless and functional, nothing more than a mechanism for pleasure, a movement, pared down to just the purity of this. His breath makes a damp, warm mess of Arthur's shoulder, his fingers grip tighter than they probably should, and he drives it along to the sound of Arthur's encouragement; bits of instructions, his name, and swearwords - higher, a little higher, just a little, Merlin, fuck, fucking c'mon, do it, - and Merlin jerks his head up to look, to watch and see Arthur, Arthur with his eyes closed, mouth parted, hair dark with sweat and rain. It makes him burn with lust, and he drags them closer together, wanting to be inside Arthur's skin as much as he's inside his body, wanting him to remember Merlin with every step he takes when he walks back out the door.
'Merlin, I, I lo-' Arthur chokes suddenly, meaning to say something stupid. Merlin thrusts harder, shoving the air out of Arthur's lungs and pushing the words back where he can't hear them. Arthur's eyes open for a second, holding Merlin's with a kind of intensity he's never seen before. It makes him catch his breath.
A car drives past, outside, its headlights refracting through the glass of the front door and lighting Arthur's hair in amber, flashing along the edges of their bodies. The whole thing is overexposed just for a second, and it's a picture Merlin would like to keep in his memory forever, because that's all he'll get to keep, he knows it. He shuts his eyes tight against the loss of the image, the loss of control, and buries his face in Arthur's neck, grunting with the effort of keeping everything moving, of not just letting go -
'Merlin?' Arthur says again, strained. 'You'd better finish this soon, or I swear-'
Merlin doesn't wait to hear what Arthur swears, he just wraps his hand around him and tries for prayers instead. It's mostly thanks to Arthur that they don't fall over - Merlin reaches the end of his tether, desperately crowding Arthur right into the door as he comes, and it's an explosion of light in the dark behind his eyes, like a blow to the head or the afterimage of the sun on his retinas as it takes him over, his hand still working on Arthur but losing rhythm as all reason drains out of him. He feels Arthur follow suit a moment later, a burning flood between them, and they almost topple to one side as Merlin's knees give out, but Arthur manages to ease himself off with a groan, and steady them long enough to slide to the floor.
They lie together for a moment, Merlin sprawled against Arthur's shoulder, and it's warm and comfortable. Merlin almost invites Arthur up to his bedroom, to sleep or maybe to try out the new bedsheets, but somehow the words won't come out. He can predict Arthur's face, how it would be if he made the offer, the rejection on the tip of his tongue, and he doesn't want to hear it. He knows what's coming. So they lie there in silence, with Merlin's sweat and Arthur's come cooling and slippery on their skin.
Eventually, instead of talking, Merlin ties off the condom and walks through his dark flat to the kitchen to dispose of it in the rubbish. Once upon a time there wouldn't have been a condom, but just because Merlin hasn't doesn't mean Arthur hasn't, and it's not like he can trust him again. Clearly Arthur didn't trust in that either, given he was the one with the supplies. Trust is messy anyway - hard to earn, hard to keep, and when it breaks it leaves marks that are hard to wash out.
When Merlin gets back, Arthur is somehow dressed. His trousers are miraculously unwrinkled, his shirt is only slightly rumpled, but his hair is a mess and there's a dark red mark at the edge of his jawbone that anyone would recognise for what it is. Merlin can't decide if he's pleased he left a memento or not. Fiddling with his jacket, Arthur won't look at Merlin, just tugs him close and presses a kiss to his hairline just above his ear, where his pulse pounds. Merlin is almost hopeful that Arthur will at least sleep on the couch (and why does he hope that? Given the state of his mind he might as well have fucking let them bareback and be done with it), but then Arthur leaves, letting the door shut noisily in the night like nothing's happened, like starting all over again from the beginning; go directly to breakup, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred pounds. Same fucking pattern all over again.
Merlin slumps against the hallway wall to watch cars flash past his front door. He knows he's an idiot. He knows all the ways and all the reasons, but talking wouldn't have got them anywhere and at least he feels like he can get on now. Maybe they just had unfinished business, is all. He tucks that notion away with the silhouette of Arthur burning gold against the doorframe, and tries to smile, with Arthur's mess drying on his skin. He drags a finger through it, thinking. He should have a shower ...
His phone buzzes in the pocket of his jeans, and he toes them over to get it. It's a text from Gwen.
'any luck at bar?' it says. See any1 familiar? :-) and just like that, Merlin remembers that this wasn't Fate or the universe or anything cosmic wanting him to have just one more bite at that apple. It wasn't even Arthur wanting one last time - it was some stupid expectation by their friends that they could talk like grown-ups and get this sorted and behaving like fucking adults so that everyone else could just feel comfortable with their lives and not have to worry about how sometimes apparently perfect bloody relationships just don't work, and people get hurt.
Merlin hurls his phone at the door, where it lands with a dark, cracked screen, on top of the condom wrapper, taking the remains of Merlin's smile with it, and he goes to bed, unshowered and unsettled and alone.
He can't sleep.
He gets up at 3am, realising that rest's a lost cause, and washes, wiping himself clean like sloughing off an old skin. It occurs to him then that Arthur isn't the only one who can keep walking.