It was Merlin's first day at the Pendragon's school, and he was just a little bit nervous. When first period ended he stayed in his chair and waited for everyone to file out of the classroom, so they wouldn't see his knees wobble. He kind of wanted to bury his face in his arms and nap, but it was only minutes till his next class.
"I'm Arthur Pendragon," said someone and hovered nearby, waiting for Merlin’s reaction.
"I know who you are," Merlin muttered, still staring at his desk.
"No, you know my father. You don't know me yet."
"Did you want something?"
"Yeah," said Arthur. "I was wondering if you're gay."
"I'm sure that's none of your business," said Merlin, trying not to sound overly hostile. He'd heard good things about this school, but old habits died hard. "But, yes. I am."
"Cool. Me too. I run a gay-straight alliance," said Arthur and put a leaflet on Merlin's desk. "This is our meeting schedule. It would mean a lot to us if you participated."
"Oh," said Merlin. "I didn't realise - okay. Great. I will."
"I'll see you there, then," said Arthur. "And in class, obviously. And, you know. Around."
He shuffled his feet and drummed his fingers on the edge of Merlin's desk.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked abruptly.
"I don't think I should talk to you about my sex life."
"I'm single," said Arthur and suddenly leaned toward him. "Would you like to get a coffee sometime?"
"Oh my god," said Merlin and pushed back in his chair. "Please go away."
"Just a coffee. We don't have to do anything. If you want to wait a few years, that's fine. We'll just - get to know each other."
"If you come any closer I swear I'll scream," said Merlin, throwing desperate glances at the classroom door. The chair, balanced on two legs, creaked under his weight dangerously.
"I promise I won't touch you. You've nothing to be afraid of."
"Kid," said Merlin. "You're freaking me out. Seriously. You're fourteen, for God's sake."
"So what, I'll be sixteen in two years," said Arthur, and wiped his palms on his school blazer. He'd been turning paler as they spoke. A line of freckles stood out over the bridge of his nose, and his eyes looked darker, desperate. "Look, I've never asked anyone out before, I guess I'm not doing this right, I just..."
Merlin twisted out of his chair, ran out of the classroom and hid out in the teacher's lounge till he was five minutes late for his next class.
"Arthur Pendragon asked me out," he complained to Gwen as he consumed a hastily brewed cup of tea. It didn't really soothe his nerves - the complimentary tea was too posh and tasted kind of weird. "Just what I needed on my first day."
"Oh, yes, he does that. When he was in the first year, he asked me to marry him," she said. "He's adorable, really."
"What did you do?"
"I said I was very flattered and had to think about it. Come on, he was eleven, I knew he'd forget about it in a few days."
"Did he?" asked Merlin, hopefully.
"Kind of," she said. "After he figured out he was gay he told me he must regretfully withdraw his proposal."
"When was that? Was that a few days later? How long did he remember, exactly?"
"That was last year - Merlin, seriously, don't freak out. He's just a boy. Kids have crushes on teachers all the time. It's perfectly normal."
"We got off on a wrong foot, I think," said Arthur a week later. He’d managed to corner Merlin after class again.
"Oh, that's all right," said Merlin. He felt settled in now, confident. "Everybody pranks new teachers, I expected much worse. Good work on your assignment, by the way."
"Thanks. It wasn't a prank though, I meant it. I mean it. I like you."
"I'm very flattered - " Merlin started, remembering Gwen's advice, and shook his head. "No, actually, I'm not. If you really think I'm that kind of person, I'm seriously offended."
"No, no, I know it's illegal, I'm not going to push you into breaking the law. I just thought I should state my intentions now, while you're single."
"Intentions," sighed Merlin. "Arthur..."
"Yes, because I thought, if I wait for two years before asking you, you might start dating and you'll meet someone else and..."
"So, what, are you staking your claim? Is that what you do? Do you just go around informing people you might want to court them in the future? That's really creepy, kid."
Arthur grimaced and ran his hand through his hair.
"I don't mean it like that," he said. "I'm not asking you to put your life on hold for two years, just... You know how people date for a long time before they get married, so they can be sure they've found the one? We could use this time to make sure, and when I'm sixteen -"
"I could get fired just for talking to you about this," Merlin said. "Also, I think I already need therapy. Look, Arthur, whatever it is you want from me, I'm not interested. You should date someone your own age."
"They're children," sniffed Arthur sourly. "Even the sixth form, they're so immature."
"You don't want to date children."
"So why the hell do you think I would want to date a child?"
Arthur stared at him for a good minute, biting his lips and blinking back angry tears.
"Fine," he said. "You're not interested. Fine."
After that he started avoiding Merlin in the corridors and spent every lesson staring fixedly into his textbook. Merlin didn't try to engage him during class, worried about causing a public outburst.
"Maybe I was kinda harsh with him," he told Gwen a few weeks later. "I mean. He's really young, it's probably his first real crush, of course it sucks to be rejected. But what was I supposed to say? Fuck, why is teaching so hard?"
"Don't worry," she said. "He'll be fine. Boys need a firm hand. Haha, I should probably rephrase that, given the context."
"I hate you," he said. She smiled sagely and gave him half of her sandwich.
Two months later Merlin found Arthur sprawled on the lawn by the rugby field, basking in the last of autumn sun.
"Hello, Arthur," Merlin said and crouched next to him. Arthur cracked one eye open and regarded him with a wounded stare.
"Gwen told me you've been asking if you could take her class," Merlin said. "I hope you're not planning to drop mine."
"I'm thinking about it," said Arthur tragically.
"Arthur, you can't drop Maths. It's a core subject. Look, I suppose you feel embarrassed, but you can't risk your future over this. You're doing great, I want you to go for Maths A-level."
"I don't have to take class. I can learn from books."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"It's not that I'm embarrassed, really," Arthur said with a sigh. "It's just, when I look at you in class..."
"You feel a lot of emo feelings in your soul, yeah, I've been a teenager, I remember. Arthur..."
"No. I keep thinking how I could make you... Look, I can't help it, I'm solution-oriented. I could fail Maths on purpose, and then you'd have to give me private tuition. It's in your contract, I checked. You'd have to spend time alone with me. I could blackmail you - even if my dad wasn't the Headmaster, you're in a really vulnerable position here. I know exactly how I could abuse that. I hate that about myself. It would be better if I stayed away from you."
He stared at the sky, frowning bitterly, and Merlin remembered once again why he liked kids enough to think that teaching was a sane career choice.
He loved how agile and open young minds were, but it was their innocence that was at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Innocence wasn't ignorance, and it had nothing to do with sexual experience or lack thereof. It was this earnest, natural kindness, this fearless purity of soul - and Arthur really should have lost this by now.
"You shouldn't feel like that, Arthur," Merlin said. "You figured out how to get what you want, that only means you're smart. But you're not going to do any of that. That you feel bad even thinking about it shows that you're a good man. An honourable man. So I'm not worried at all. I trust you."
Arthur sat up and smiled, a goofy, wide smile that made him look about twelve.
"Yes. Now you're honour bound not to betray my trust. Okay?"
"Okay," Arthur said solemnly, nodding. "Yes. I promise."
Merlin offered his hand, and they shook on it solemnly. Arthur let go and curled his fingers into his palm, as if trying to protect the trace of Merlin's touch on his skin. He exhaled and flushed, staring down at his right hand.
"Oh come on, kid, don't," said Merlin. "You look like you're never going to wash that hand again."
"Of course I'm going to wash it," Arthur said and got up stiffly. "When it gets dirty. Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom."
He walked away, nonchalantly holding his folded blazer in front of himself.
"Positive thoughts, Merlin," Merlin muttered to himself. "Not disturbing thoughts of a kid wanking over you in the school toilet."
For the rest of the year Arthur remained, as Gwen had put it, "a perfect gentleman." As they were saying their goodbyes before the summer break, he had mixed with a crowd of girls who wanted a farewell hug from their Maths teacher, but Merlin hadn't minded that. And even though he was pretty sure Arthur sniffed his hair as they hugged, at least he didn't try to pinch Merlin’s arse like Morgana LeFay. That girl was trouble.
Merlin spent the summer at his mother's place, reading up on new teaching techniques and missing school terribly. Mum had arranged for him to tutor the neighbourhood kids, and in his excitement he took them through a whole year of material in about five weeks.
"Feel kind of guilty about taking that posh job," he confessed to Mum. "The kids who can't get into public schools need good teachers a lot more than those who can."
She smiled and kissed his forehead as if he was still ten, and he clung to her like he wasn't a grown man of twenty-three.
"Unfortunately, even good teachers have to pay off their loans," she pointed out reasonably.
Posh jobs had their perks, though, and he was glad to be back, breathing in the familiar smells of the old building, walking the beautiful grounds, surrounded by clever, bright-eyed kids.
And then the Headmaster summoned him to his office.
Merlin fidgeted in the oak-panelled office, feeling like a schoolboy about to be caned. Uther stared at him silently for what felt like several years, not inviting him to sit down, and then said:
"I'm impressed with your results from last term."
"Thank you, Sir," said Merlin, and cringed. He didn't have to address the Headmaster like that, but it was embarrassingly hard to resist. "Is that it, can I go?"
"No. I want to talk to you about my son."
"Arthur? Um, he's a great kid. Very bright. He's one of my best students, actually."
"Yes, yes," said Uther dismissively. "Arthur is growing up. He's developing certain urges."
"Uh, he's fifteen, I think his urges should be developed already... This isn't really my subject, shouldn't someone else - "
"He's sexually attracted to you," said the Headmaster. Merlin's knees buckled, and he brazenly flopped into the nearest chair.
"No," he said. "No. No-no-no."
"Did he not tell you?" asked Uther with mild interest. "That's odd. I always taught him to value the direct approach. Well, he is. He's talked a lot about you over summer. He asked me if I'd approve of you as a marriage prospect."
"Oh god. Sir, I swear..."
"I want you to encourage his affection."
"Okay," said Merlin and rubbed his temples. "I'm sure I misheard that last bit, can you repeat that please?"
"Arthur is quite emotionally mature for his age. He's naturally drawn to older people. Since he insists he's gay, this worries me. His innocence would attract predators, and his name would make him a target for gold-diggers and social climbers. But as long as he's focused on you, he should be safe."
"I'm not going to take advantage of a student," Merlin muttered, hoping this was all a surreal nightmare, and he would wake up soon.
"I'm not asking you to do that. Just keep him from..."
"Dating? I'm not going to do that. That's crazy. I don't even believe you mean to protect him," Merlin gulped for air and barreled on. "I think you're only worried because he's gay. I think you're homophobic. You want someone to string him along so he doesn't kiss any boys till he, what? Gets over this gay phase? Gets too old to have sex? Dies alone?"
"How dare you," hissed Uther, turning red.
"Oh, what are you going to do? You can't fire me for refusing to abuse a minor!"
"There isn't much I can't do to you, Emrys," said Uther. Merlin opened and closed his mouth a few times, considering a biting comeback, and then ran out of the office.
He hid behind the bushes by the fence, shaking with anger and a bit of fear, thinking about how he was going to tell his Mum he'd been sacked and probably banned from teaching on some bullshit pretext. Naturally, Arthur found him even there; he’d probably doubtless traced his scent like some sort of blond baby bloodhound.
"Hello, bane of my existence," Merlin sighed, and crawled out of the bushes before Arthur decided to join him there.
Merlin had always thought girls had it easy with puberty. They just quietly filled out and developed soft curves, while boys violently mutated in hideous spurts and bouts. Arthur seemed to have grown about five inches over the summer, and was reed-thin, even though his cheeks were still childishly round. His face had changed and become mostly nose; there was a constellation of acne around his jaw. His hands seemed too big for his body, and his eyelashes and eyebrows were bleached white by the sun of whatever exotic location he'd been to. All in all he looked a bit like a little cartoon dinosaur.
"I've spoken to my dad," he said. "He's not going to bother you again. I swear I didn't put him up to that."
"I believe you," Merlin said. "I know you wouldn't, you're better than that."
"I told him I don't need his help in this. I want to win you on my own."
"Win me? What am I, Battle of Hastings?"
"We lost at Hastings..."
"And don't you forget it."
Arthur sighed and sat on the grass next to Merlin.
"You have to forgive my father," he said.
"He's a great man, a brilliant man. But in certain areas, like relationships, he can be a bit, um..."
"Yeah. I had been wondering where you get that from."
"Look, I know you think I'm just a kid, but he's never treated me like that. He knows I'm serious about you, and he trusts my judgement. I've earned that by now."
Merlin sighed with sympathy. Uther did seem like the sort of parent who'd have treated his child as a short, inexplicably petulant adult since he'd learned to talk, and have kept hurrying him to grow up, shoulder more responsibilities, be a man. No wonder he thought his son might be one step away from eloping with someone inappropriate.
"My Dad met my Mum when he was eleven, you know," said Arthur quietly. "She was fourteen, she wouldn't even look at him. It took him a long time. She almost married someone else, but he won her over. And they were so happy. They'd still be happy now. If it hadn’t been for me."
Merlin knew that Arthur's mother had died in childbirth, and he wasn't at all surprised that Uther had fed his son this idealised version of the truth. Whenever his own mother spoke about his father she made him sound like he was some perfect magical creature. Of course Uther would create this fairytale about his marriage and saddle his child with completely unrealistic expectations.
"It wasn't you," Merlin said. "Don't ever think that, Arthur. These things just happen."
"Yeah, I know. My point is, he knew she was the one. He always knew. Maybe that runs in our family. So if I'm rushing things, it's just because I already know."
"Arthur, you can't know this. It's not how it works. You're supposed to be dating now, exploring, figuring stuff out. Then at Uni you're supposed to fuck everything that moves, just to get it out of your system. Then, when you're a grown up, then you can settle down..."
"Just because you haven't met the one yet, it doesn't mean it can't happen early in life," said Arthur wisely. "Why does it have to be all, like, scripted? I don't want to fuck everything that moves or date someone I don't really like. Look, I'm going to do Economics and Management at Oxford, right, and nobody so far told me why don't you explore, Arthur, why don't you waste some time studying Microbiology at Hull or something?"
"It's really not the same."
They sat together, watching the students mill around, talking about all the things they’d got up to during the summer break. Girls were hugging; boys were exchanging manly fist-bumps and handshakes.
Arthur pillowed his chin on his knee and grinned at Merlin.
"I missed you, Mr Emrys," he said.
"I missed you too," Merlin admitted. "Not like that though. Assuming that's what you mean. I missed all my students, all right?"
Arthur laughed and gave him a sweet, affectionate look. It was still kind of creepy, but Merlin was getting used to his weirdness.
"We'll talk next year," Arthur said. "When I'm sixteen."
"Seriously. It’s never going to happen. Ever."
"We'll talk next year," Arthur repeated breezily.
"Merlin, my friend," said Gaius, joining Merlin on the couch in the teachers' lounge. "I couldn’t help noticing that you've been looking at the sports page for the last ten minutes. Are you developing a keen interest in football?"
"Not really," said Merlin, and put the newspaper down. "I was just thinking that footballers have really nice calves."
"Ah," said Gaius with an understanding nod. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a penis must be in want of a date."
"Don't butcher the classics in my presence," huffed Gwen from the coffee maker. "Though, yes, how's your love life, Merlin?"
"Uhh. I've not met anyone nice yet," said Merlin sadly and then remembered that Gauis was gay. "Oh, present company excepted."
"I'm in a relationship," smiled Gaius. "Otherwise I'd be very much up for it, of course."
Merlin tried to suppress a sigh of relief. Gaius was very nice, except he was about a hundred and ten. Well, seventy at least.
"I need to get out more," he said.
"Always a good idea," nodded Gaius. "As a stop-gap I would suggest internet hookup websites."
Merlin had just accepted a cup of coffee from Gwen, and nearly splashed the hot brew all over his fingers.
"Really?" he muttered.
"Gaius wasn't always in a relationship," said Gwen, innocently fluttering her eyelashes. "Five years ago he was quite a player."
"Really," moaned Merlin, trying hard to unthink that mental picture. "Uh, I don't know. I always thought those websites were for desperate losers. Again, present company excepted."
"And you're not sure if you qualify? Well, there's a simple formula that you as a Maths teacher should appreciate. We just need to factor in a few things. First, when was the last time you had a decent shag?"
"Point taken," Merlin sighed as they laughed. "Another question, why are all my friends such sassy bitches?"
"We flock to you because you're so much fun to tease," said Gwen. "Come on, Merlin. Go on a date. We need more gossip fodder."
Gwaine didn't look at all like his picture on the website. In real life he looked about eight times hotter.
Miraculously, he was also nice and funny and easy to talk to. They'd been chatting for hours, even though Merlin kept losing the thread of the conversation, distracted by imagining Gwaine's lovely stubble rubbing against his naked thighs.
"A hypothetical question, apropos of absolutely nothing," Gwaine said suddenly. "How do you feel about sex on first date?"
"Oh," Merlin blinked. "Sorry, what?"
"Because if it’s an issue, we could relocate to that coffee house across the street and call it a second date. That would be effective time management, you know?"
"Mmm," Merlin said, biting down a smile. "You remind me of someone I know. He's also very solution-oriented."
"Oh, I have competition?"
"God no. He's fifteen. He's my student, he has this silly boy crush - anyway, I thought 'No Strings Attached' in your profile meant no second dates."
"No, it means I'm telling you upfront I'm not a long haul guy."
"Someone needs to make a glossary," Merlin nudged Gwaine's leg with his knee and rubbed his ankle along the man's solid calf. "Your place or mine?"
Merlin's place was closer.
It was after eleven when they got in, stumbling to the bedroom sideways because they couldn't stop kissing. Gwaine's stubble burned Merlin's face, and he loved that, rubbing his cheeks against the man's beautiful face, wanting more.
"We have to be quiet," he mumbled around Gwaine's tongue. "Walls are like paper. Neighbours. You're so hot."
They jerked each other off on Merlin's unmade bed, on top of the rumpled covers, most clothes still on. Merlin felt his whole body uncoil a little with every stroke of Gwaine's hand, every muscle loosening and singing after long months of celibacy. He clamped his hand over Gwaine's mouth to silence his soft grunts, and Gwaine kissed his palm and tickled it with his tongue. When they came, spurting over their moving wrists, it was a wonderful relief, pure and good, like quenching thirst with spring water.
"Fuck me," Merlin said as soon as he could breathe again, and kicked off his trousers. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," rasped Gwaine against his neck. "Just give me a moment."
He fucked like he kissed, with so much heat and grace it made Merlin shake all over and bite the pillow so as not to howl out loud. The headboard was banging against the wall as Gwaine drove into him over and over, and Merlin tried to brace and steady them with his arms to stop the noises, and then he didn't care anymore.
Gwaine had to carry him to the bathroom, then he sucked him off under the weak spray of Merlin's sorry excuse for a shower.
"It's two o'clock," he said later. Merlin had made tea, and they were drinking it naked, sitting on the kitchen floor together. "I should go. Or, you know, stay."
"Stay," Merlin begged, stupid with joy, just conscious enough not to ask Gwaine to stay forever.
"I have a day off tomorrow. We could go out for breakfast."
"I have classes," Merlin said, already mouthing at Gwaine's gorgeous chest again. "But, fuck it, I'll call in sick."
They went out for breakfast, then went back to the flat and tumbled into bed again.
"Do you think your neighbours are at work now?" Gwaine asked, licking whimsical patterns around Merlin's nipples. "Because I'd really love to make you scream."
And maybe Merlin had been feeling a little guilty about skipping his classes, but by the time Gwaine's tongue wormed into him, he really wasn't anymore.
"Stop," he begged some time later. He'd come twice in a row, and was dizzy now, sated and so happy. "My throat is actually sore."
Gwaine smiled smugly and licked soothingly over his Adam's apple.
"What's that noise?" he asked. "Is that your central heating?"
There were soft whining sounds coming from somewhere in the direction of the front door.
"No, that's outside," said Merlin. "It's something alive. I think there's a stray kitten or puppy on the staircase. I'm going to get it, it's probably hurt or hungry, and I'll call the RSPCA."
"Aw, you're such a softie," grinned Gwaine and stretched on the bed. "You do realise, if I see you fussing over a sad puppy I'll have to jump you again."
"Win for everybody," Merlin threw on his bathrobe and padded to the hallway.
The sounds were definitely sobs and whines, hushed and erratic. The poor thing was probably too abused and scared even to cry out. Merlin quietly turned the lock, trying not to spook the stray, and pulled the door open.
Arthur had been sitting on the door mat, leaning on the door, and he toppled backwards and soundly hit the back of his head on Merlin's linoleum.
"Why are you," Merlin squawked, clutching his bathrobe around his legs. "Was that - Arthur, have you been crying?"
Arthur's face was wet and swollen, his eyes bloodshot, nose runny. He twisted on the floor, scrambling into a weirdly curled-up position, and only when Merlin tried to pull him up he figured out that Arthur had been frantically trying to fasten his flies.
"What the, why - have you been wanking?" Merlin yelled. "Arthur!"
"Well," said Arthur, wiping his face with his sleeves. "I didn't mean to - do you have any idea what you sound like, when you..."
"No, I wasn't," Merlin stuttered, breaking into a cold sweat. He could probably say that all the screaming was caused by severe sinus pain. And his yells of "yes, faster, Gwaine, harder" were caused by... fever-induced hallucinations. Yes.
"I was just about to leave," Arthur said. "I didn't mean - it just happened. You were so... Here."
He got up and picked up a plastic container from the door mat.
"You're obviously not sick," he said bitterly. "But, anyway, take it. It's homemade chicken soup."
"You made me soup?"
"I had the cook do it," said Arthur, which in his privileged little world was probably the same thing. "I thought you were sick, all alone, with nobody to look after you."
"Oh, Arthur... Wait, how the hell do you know where I live?"
"Please. I read your whole file last year."
Just then Gwaine walked out of the bedroom, thankfully fully dressed. But it still rather put an end to any plausible deniability.
"Are you all right, Merlin?" he asked.
"I’m not sure I know anymore," Merlin confessed, hugging Arthur's soup to his chest.
Arthur leaned on the doorpost, struggling to breathe, tearing up again.
"He's so hot," he gulped miserably. "Well, of course, why wouldn't he be. You make a very handsome couple. Congratulations. I'm going."
"You're not going anywhere in this state," said Merlin, and pulled him into the flat. "Go and wash your face. Gwaine, put the kettle on please. You know where the teabags are."
Merlin herded Arthur into the bathroom, helped him roll up his sleeves and made him wash with cold water.
"I knew this would happen," Arthur sighed, soaping his tear-streaked cheeks. "I've been waiting, because I wanted to protect you. And now you've met someone else. And he's gorgeous, and he obviously makes you happy..."
"At least I got to hear what you sound like when you come," said Arthur wistfully. "I've been imagining, but..."
"Oh no. I've exposed a minor to live action porn," Merlin moaned. "I'm going to Hell. Or to prison. Gwaine! Will you send me care packages?"
"To Hell?" asked Gwaine, coming over to give him a soothing hug.
"Calm down, Merlin, the minor brought this on himself. You're not going to tattle on your teacher, are you, lad?"
"No, of course not," sniffed Arthur. "I'm going. Sorry for... interrupting."
"You're not going anywhere alone," Merlin said. "Let me get dressed, and I'll take you home."
While he was dressing in the bedroom, suddenly horrified at the state of the bed and the heady smell that had to be all over the flat, he heard them talking in the front room.
"No, I understand what you're going through," Gwaine was saying. "When I was your age, all I wanted from life was to suck my Geography teacher's cock. Or have Alan Rickman spank me."
"Mm, yeah, Professor Snape..." sighed Arthur.
"I was thinking Guy of Gisbourne."
"Nevermind, Grasshopper, the point is, I never got to fuck the teacher of my dreams. And the world hasn't ended, I got over it, I'm happy..."
"Well, of course you're happy now! You're fucking the teacher of my dreams!"
"Yeah, that's all in the past, probably," said Merlin, joining them in the front room. "I can't see myself having any kind of personal life while my student is crying and wanking outside."
"I'm not going to do that anymore, I'm not a creep. I was just... accidentally there."
"So, you'll just be crying and wanking somewhere else!"
"He won't," said Gwaine. "Go, I'll wait here. Come back soon, okay?"
Merlin walked Arthur home; it was a two mile walk, but he decided not to get a cab. Arthur could do with some time to calm down before he was alone with his thoughts.
And it seemed to work. They didn't speak or touch, just walked side by side, Merlin slightly shortening his steps to match Arthur's. Soon Arthur was no longer dragging his feet, and his eyes, still red, had some of their old sparkle to them.
"I love you," Arthur said abruptly as they were turning a corner.
"I just wanted to say it. Doesn't matter anymore, now that it's all over. But. I love you."
He turned and gave Merlin a soft smile, a little shaky but sincere.
"I'm glad you're happy," he said. "You deserve to be."
Merlin and Gwaine spent eight wonderful months together. They met almost every night, and wasted most weekends in a blissful haze of great sex and easy companionship. The school was better than ever, too - Merlin felt inspired, so happy that his enthusiasm for fractions and functions was truly infectious, and that all his students were doing well. Each year seemed to have improved.
He went to every meeting of the gay-straight alliance, mostly just to tell the kids again and again that it gets better, it gets bloody fantastic. And he felt like doing something extra for Arthur, even though he had no reason to feel guilty about dating Gwaine. Anyway, supporting the GSA was a good cause.
In the summer Gwaine took Merlin on a holiday to Spain, and there, on the city beach in Barcelona, under the perfect blue sky, they broke up, and it was just as easy, good and amicable as everything they did together.
"My contract is up next week," said Gwaine. "I meant to go back to Ireland."
"Oh," said Merlin and swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. "Right. Okay. I'd been wondering how you were going to end this. You know, when it got too long haul for you."
"Merlin," Gwaine started, and he looked a little distraught, like he was scared, maybe of Merlin making a scene or holding a grudge.
Merlin took Gwaine's hand and squeezed it, reassuringly stroking his wrist. Gwaine's eyes were so bright under the brilliant sun; he was beautiful, and it was all too perfect, too good to have lasted.
"Don't, don't," he said. "Gwaine, you don't need to explain. I always knew, you told me upfront. It's okay."
"Merlin, listen," said Gwaine urgently. "I've never been with anyone for so long. I never even thought I could. You're the closest I ever had to a boyfriend. Thing is, I've always thought it best to end things while it’s still good. Before people get sick of me."
"I could never get sick of you," Merlin said and kissed him. Gwaine groaned into his mouth, tracing shaking fingers down Merlin's face, and Merlin knew he would miss him, terribly, painfully. But it was still good that it would end in this honest and friendly way, without any tragedy, drama or betrayal.
"You're right, it's best like this. I'm grateful for everything we had, Gwaine," he said. "I'll always be. But it wouldn't be fair to, you know, attach any strings now. That wasn't what we agreed on when we got together. Go. Think of me sometimes. And make someone else as happy as you've made me."
Once Merlin got over the sadness, he thought it made a wonderful bitter-sweet story, and he told it to everyone in the teachers' lounge on the first day of the new term. He went misty-eyed with emotion all over again, and expected hugs and cake. Instead Gwen slapped the back of his head, really quite hard.
"Moron," she said. "My god, how stupid - I can't even talk to you right now."
"What?" he asked Gaius as she stormed out. "What's that about?"
"Never mind her," said Gauis. "You're too young to settle down, anyway."
Merlin had anticipated an ambush on the very first day, and even thought to escape by mingling with a group of students, but that would just be delaying the inevitable. Arthur was tenacious; he was going to catch Merlin alone sooner or later.
The whole class seemed to be in on it, judging by the giddy atmosphere. The girls kept smiling at Merlin and giving Arthur encouraging glances, and the boy himself was practically glowing with determination. When the lesson was over, they all filed out quickly, clapping Arthur on the shoulder as they went.
"So," said Arthur, strolling to Merlin's desk. "I heard you and Gwaine broke up. I'm sorry."
"I'm sure you are," Merlin grumbled. Arthur grinned from ear to ear, and tried to look like he was commiserating, but it didn't quite work.
"Well, he wasn't right for you, that's why it didn't work out," he said. "I shouldn't have despaired. If we're meant to be together, we will be, right?"
"Arthur, it's against school policy. You should know this."
"I checked with the Headmaster," said Arthur brightly. "He's okay about making an exception."
"The parents wouldn't be okay with it."
"Parents only care about their own kids, and they have nothing to worry about. You're just mine."
"I'm not - yours - okay, this is clearly time for heavy artillery," said Merlin, and took the printouts out of his desk drawer. "This is something I prepared earlier. I checked with Mr Monmouth and this law is current and it absolutely says no shenanigans between teachers and students under eighteen. There are laws to protect me, all right?"
"I think they're there to protect me, actually, but yes, fine," said Arthur and produced his own set of printouts from his school bag. His printouts were organised with colour-coded bookmarks, covered in highlighter. "If I may direct your attention to page twenty-four, I'm going to explain all about the loopholes."
Merlin hadn't read any of the legalese, happy to take the History teacher's word for it. The no shenanigans rule seemed pretty loophole-proof, but Arthur had clearly been thinking about it a lot.
"So as you can see, there are two distinct components to this: intentional sexual touching, and causing and-or inciting sexual activity. As long as you don't do any of that, it's all good. I could incite and cause everything, and I could touch you."
"It can't be saying that," Merlin muttered, confused by all the bullet points.
"Mr Emrys," said Arthur patronisingly. "You have five A-levels, which is frankly mad. Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Geology. I have to assume you didn't have time to study anything else ever, it's amazing you can even spell. Look, the way this is worded, it would be pretty legal if I tie you up so you can't touch me..."
Merlin grabbed the pages from Arthur's hands and firmly stuffed them into the paper basket.
"This right here," he said, "is a perfect illustration of why this must stop."
"I'm not actually suggesting kinky bondage right now, I'm just saying - there's no reason we can't go out for coffee and see what happens."
"Oh, we are going out for coffee. Come on. I want to be in a public place when we have this talk."
Th public place thing was cruelly calculated - Merlin knew Arthur was too proud and considered himself too grown up to cry in the middle of a coffee shop.
And he didn't cry. He bit his lips and diligently blinked away tears welling in his eyes, and for once he listened.
"The reason why I won't fraternise with students isn't because I'm afraid to get fired or go to prison," Merlin told him. "Well, I don't want to get fired or go to prison, obviously. But the reason is I want to teach. And for that I need my kids to trust me and respect me."
"You don't. You don't respect my wishes or my privacy, you think I'm some prize to be won. But that's just one side of it. I'm in a position of control and authority over the students, and that's not how a relationship should be."
"What control and authority, Mr Emrys, come on. You work for my family, we practically own you."
"See," said Merlin, jabbing at him with his latte spoon. "You don't respect me."
"That's not how I meant it..."
"Hush and listen. All that aside, the real reason why this can never happen is you. You, Arthur, you personally."
"Okay," said Arthur weakly and sucked in a long gulp of his mocha. "So, what. Am I just not your type? Do you like dark haired men?"
"I like men, and you're a boy. But that's not what I'm talking about. You're very clever, and your heart is in the right place, you're brave and generous and you have many friends, everybody loves you. But you've locked yourself in this stupid unattainable obsession, and you haven't grown up about it since you were fourteen. And you weren't exactly suave then, either. If you don't stop, you'll end up like your father, trapped and alone, and your heart will turn cold."
Arthur took another sip. His teeth clattered a short drumroll against the rim of his cup.
"What do you mean?" he whispered hollowly.
"I mean - this isn't how things work, Arthur. You don't proposition people like this, and you don't shake legal documents in people's faces as part of courtship."
"You started that..."
"You're weird and awkward and that's because you don't have any experience, and you refuse to learn. You have to learn. You have to meet people, flirt and kiss, fall in love and get dumped, get cheated on, soldier on through heartbreaks, have drunken one-night stands and doomed rebound relationships, you have to do all this, you have to open up to all of that happening to you. It’s part of growing up. The world is huge and scary and complicated, and you can't hide from it behind your childhood crush on a teacher. You have to go through pain and joy and make many stupid mistakes before you can know what's fake and what's real and what matters and what doesn't and who you really are and what you really want."
"I already do. I love you," said Arthur shakily.
"Well then," said Merlin. He felt kind of frozen all over, weirdly detached, even though his heart was pounding hard. "This will be your first heartbreak. And getting over it will be your first step to finding something true and wonderful."
He put money on the table and got up.
"Come on, I'll take you home."
"No, you go, I'll be fine," said Arthur, staring into his cup, hunched over as if he was cold. Merlin desperately wanted to hug him, but he managed to turn away and walk out.
For a few weeks after that Merlin felt like he'd killed a kitten, even though he knew he’d done Arthur a favour. But then Arthur started hanging out with Percy, his rugby teammate and a regular at GSA, and Merlin felt a lot better. He’d had a selfish pang of regret, but it was beyond stupid to miss a child's attention.
One day, strolling past the cricket field, he caught a whiff of a nostalgically familiar sweet scent, and crept closer, almost regretting that he had to bust the potheads instead of joining in. He could really do with some unwinding.
Arthur and Percy sat behind the equipment shed, passing the joint between them, stealing glances at the practice through the shrubbery.
"Do you think he's hot?" Arthur asked.
"Oh yeah," said Percy. "Fucking fit."
"I suppose he is," said Arthur uncertainly, taking a drag.
"You just can't see it, because you have a fucking one-track mind. Lance is way hotter than Mr Emrys."
Arthur shrugged. He looked completely stoned, bleary-eyed.
"Lance is straight, though," he said. "He'll never fuck you."
"Meh. Stop spreading your misery around, Pendragon. Just because Mr Emrys will never fuck you, you don't need to crush my hopes."
Arthur heaved a huge sigh and started to rip the leaves off a nearby bush methodically.
"Hey, come here," said Percy and pulled him into a hug. Arthur butted his head against Percy's shoulder and clung to him.
"Fancy a handjob?" Percy asked, stroking Arthur's hair. "Music room's empty."
"Nah, thanks, mate."
"I could suck you. Been dying to try that."
"Nah. I'd just be thinking about Mr Emrys."
"I don't mind. I'll be thinking about Lance, anyway."
"I don't want it to be like that."
Merlin tiptoed away and went to the teachers' lounge.
"Hey, Gwen," he said. "Arthur Pendragon and Percival Lowell are smoking weed by the cricket field. Go and bust them."
"Oh, yeah, why didn't you do it? So I can be a stuck-up ogre and you can stay a cool lovable teacher?"
"Don't argue, kids, I'll bust them," said Gaius and trotted off.
The bust didn't happen. According to Gaius, the boys were gone by the time he got there. He kept giggling randomly for the rest of the day, though.
Arthur's gaydar, apparently, wasn't up to much, because Lance and Percy did get together sometime after the midterms. They weren't any more discreet than any other couple at school: they held hands sometimes, exchanges a quick kiss in a quiet corner, but mostly just smiled at each other with unabashed, possessive affection. Merlin couldn't have dreamed of openly parading a boyfriend around his school when he'd been sixteen - but even if he was a tiny bit bitter about that, at least he could be happy for these kids.
The idyll lasted a few weeks, and then, during the lunch break, Merlin looked out of the teachers' lounge widow at the crowd of kids stretching their legs outside and saw Percy barreling through them like a raging bull. He was as tall as most upper sixth formers, head higher than the kids he was shoving aside; then he grabbed one of the boys and threw him on the ground, and Merlin didn't see the rest, because he had started running.
Arthur and Lance got there first and already had Percy subdued and calmed down by the time Merlin arrived. The boy he'd attacked was mostly fine, just bruised from the fall; he was still quiet and shaky on the way to the nurse's office, but once he was there he completely cheered up and started talking about pressing criminal charges.
The Headmaster was out for lunch, which was a good thing. At least they had time to do some damage control.
Merlin brought Percy to the teachers' lounge for interrogation and handed him over to Gaius.
"Percy, you have to tell us why you did it," Gaius said. His eyebrows looked extremely disapproving.
"He put a note in Lance's bag," said Pecy sullenly, staring down at his huge fists. "I knew it was him."
"What kind of a note?"
"A nasty note, Sir. And Lance saw it. I was with him, and he just.."
"Percy," said Gaius softly. "Was it a homophobic note?"
Percy tensed his shoulders and didn't answer.
"Wait, wait," Merlin said. "I thought we didn't have this problem in our school. We have the GSA and, well, Arthur never mentioned anything like it..."
"Obviously, Arthur Pendragon wouldn't have this problem," said Gaius. "And the others, well, we don't often hear - it's not that easy for kids to talk about it, you know that. Percy, you have to give us that note. It's a serious matter, we need to have it."
"I ripped it up and flushed it down the toilet," Percy said. "I didn't want anyone to see it."
"So there's no proof, and the boy will deny it. If indeed it was he who did it."
"I know it was him. I - I shouldn't have. I know. I'm sorry."
"I'm afraid you'll have to apologise to the boy and his parents. And even then - I'll talk to them, of course, but..."
This, the whole discipline thing, was really the worst part of being the teacher, worse than grading papers. Thankfully Merlin was teaching next period, so he left the matter for the others to deal with.
He was just setting up when Arthur burst into the room, shooed all his classmates out and slammed the door shut.
"He's going to expel Percy," he said when they were alone. He looked very pale, and Merlin could see those tiny freckles on his nose - he couldn't remember seeing those since Arthur first propositioned him, over two years ago.
"I'm sure it will all work out..."
"No, listen to me. Dad's going to expel Percy. He just told me so. He’s wanted Percy gone ever since we became friends. He thinks Percy's a bad influence. Because he's, you know, so working class. And Dad thinks I'm having sex with him, and, okay, we're close, but I told him Percy's with Lance... "
"The headmaster can't just expel a student because he doesn't want you to be friends..."
"Of course he can. He has an excuse now. He said if we don't make a fuss and promise not to see each other, he'll let Percy withdraw. Otherwise he'll expel him. Percy's on a scholarship here, they're poor. He'll end up somewhere awful."
"I went to a state school, they're not exactly pits of hell," Merlin grumbled, trying to think of how to dispel Arthur's fears and convince him there was nothing to worry about. Except the Headmaster very possibly meant every word.
"I don't know what to do," Arthur said, staring at him pleadingly. "Mr Emrys, what should I do?"
"You keep my class in the room and quiet till I come back," said Merlin. "Take attendance. And stop freaking out."
He went straight to the Headmaster's office, dodged Vivian, who was mid-manicure and not at her full secretarial capacity, and pushed in without knocking.
"You can't expel Percy," he said right into the Headmaster's tense face. "You know he was provoked. He'd been bullied, we should have been there for him..."
"It's no excuse. So a boy wrote a note to tease a classmate, that hardly warrants violence."
"No, but - it wasn't teasing. You know what it was. That's what we need to focus on, we have to protect our students from -"
"Emrys, you're obviously biased on this, so -"
"Well, so are you! Obviously! Someone needs to stand up for the gay students, and if Gaius can't make you see sense..."
"Gaius knows his place," said Uther in a softly menacing voice. "This is his last job, nobody will hire him at his age. And you have your whole future ahead of you, and you don't want it ruined."
"You think you can ruin me? You know what? Fire me, go ahead. But I won’t roll over and take it, I'll raise a stink like you won’t believe. Not just about this, I'll bring everything up. The words 'token brown teacher' will be uttered, and I know very well you hired me to replace Gaius as your token gay on the staff, to maintain this veneer of political correctness you're so proud of. I'm going to expose your bias with admissions, and fiddling with the grades, and that mystery with the budget last year, and that bizarre blatant favouritism toward certain students - Miss LeFay, for example - "
He was going to rattle off the long list of outrageous things he'd seen Morgana get away with over the past two years, including punching a few boys, but Uther surged up from his chair and glared at him, mad-eyed with rage.
"You leave Morgana out of this," he hissed. "Get out of my sight."
Merlin stumbled out of the office, stunned by the horrific implication. Morgana was just fourteen when he'd met her, probably younger when this had started...
"Viv," he asked. "Please tell me if I'm wrong, but, Headmaster and Morgana LeFay..."
"No, it's the Headmaster and Mrs LeFay, Morgana's mum," volunteered Viv readily, blowing on her shiny fingernails. "It’s all very skeezy, been going on for ages. I think Morgana might even be
his! She doesn't know, though, and neither does Arthur, and Mr LeFay, poor thing, just has no idea, and him and the Headmaster have been friends since..."
She carried on prattling even as he left.
His class was waiting for him, sat primly at their desks. Merlin gave Arthur a reassuring smile and leafed through his lesson plans.
If he was getting fired, he really wanted his last lesson to count. He had to teach something important. But that was the trouble with Maths, it was all important, all connected, and nothing could be skipped or glossed over. He straightened his papers and thought for a bit.
"Let's take a break from what we've been doing," he said. "Today I want to talk about some people who've made Maths awesome. For starters, let me tell you about Alan Turing, the gay Maths nerd who managed to shorten World War II by years and save millions of lives."
Arthur raised his hand and Merlin nodded, thinking resignedly that Arthur would ask him to tone it down and not make a fuss.
"Is this about the Enigma code?" Arthur asked instead, his eyes sparkling excitedly.
"Yes, very good, Arthur!" nodded Merlin and moved to the blackboard, thinking how he could simplify the Maths behind the code to allow his pupils to appreciate all of its beauty. "Some of you might know what the Enigma code was and why it was so difficult for the Allies to break..."
He talked till the bell rang, and they listened, rapt and wide-eyed, and, hopefully, learned.
"That story was kind of unsubtle, wasn’t it?" Merlin asked Arthur afterwards.
"Oh who cares, it had U-boats," Arthur laughed. "Thank you, Mr Emrys. You know, for everything."
"Well, it's my job," Merlin shrugged. "To look after you. All of you. And try to get some Maths into your heads."
Arthur's smile was gorgeous, and Merlin could almost see how handsome he would become some day. They were nearly of a height now. For a moment Arthur wavered , as if he wanted to hug Merlin, and Merlin was ready to let him.
"Better go and try to talk to my dad again," Arthur muttered and left.
Merlin wasn't sure what swayed the Headmaster's decision in the end. But he didn't get fired, and Percy wasn't expelled, even though he was in detention almost till the end of the year.
After the summer he’d had with Gwaine, the summer alone dragged endlessly. Merlin submitted two articles for academic journals, and both were accepted for publication. He went on four dates but clicked with none. He wrote a lot of new lesson plans, just playing around with ideas.
Gwen emailed him some pictures she had taken at the end of the term, and he looked at them, amused at how happy he appeared to be, towering over the younger students, or lost in a crowd of older teenagers. He still thought of them as little kids; only these pictures made him realise how grown-up they looked now. Both Percy and Leon were taller than him; Morgana LeFay was suddenly built like a swimsuit model, her smile confident and mysterious.
There was a shot of Merlin and Arthur, not quite posing together – Arthur had just popped into the frame to pull a ridiculous face at the camera. Somehow he still looked adorable with his blue eyes dramatically crossed and his tongue sticking out. Merlin stared at him, grinning.
"I think I miss you most of all, Scarecrow," he muttered. Arthur would turn seventeen soon; he'd be somewhere sunny right now: Florida, Barbados, Nice, maybe on a beach full of beautiful people, catching the eyes of eager, smitten boys and men. Merlin hoped he was having fun.
Finally it was September, and Merlin was back in the comfort of his teachers' lounge, sipping coffee from the mug the students had got him last year, watching through the window as the kids arrived and reunited once again. He saw Arthur get out of his father's car and run to the group of his closest friends, and felt a rush of warm affection before he’d even had a chance to look at him properly.
And then he did, and for the first time he understood the effect film directors were trying to achieve with dramatic slow motion and sudden zooms. Because that was exactly how it felt: a perfect moment of clarity, a moment lasting forever, till this sight, this second, this feeling burnt itself into his memory, become a part of him.
Arthur was laughing with his friends, and the sun glistened brightly on his hair, his skin, his teeth. His broad shoulders shook with the force of his laughter, and his face was perfect, finally locked into the lines it had been struggling to achieve through puberty. This was how Arthur was going to look for most of his life now, this was the real Arthur. He'd recovered from his last growth spurt and looked strong and solid, graceful and at ease in his skin, still very young, but no longer a boy. A man now.
Arthur turned to look at the windows of the teacher's lounge and saw him, and Merlin wanted to duck from the sight, fall on the floor or something, but luckily was too dumbstruck to move and make even more of an idiot of himself.
Arthur smiled his wonderful, loving smile, which now made Merlin’s heart flap helplessly in his chest, and waved at him.
"Oh yeah," muttered Merlin, waving back. "I'm going to Hell."
The worst part of it all, if Merlin had to pick the worst part in this clusterfuck, was that Arthur noticed.
Merlin tried to tell himself that this new calm, almost smug confidence in Arthur's demeanour was due to something that had happened over the summer. Perhaps he’d had a holiday affair, or even had a boyfriend now. Perhaps all those knowing smiles and slow, sultry glances weren't because he knew his teacher's stomach was swarming with butterflies every time he met Arthur's eyes.
But that was probably a moot hope, and Merlin knew he'd never been subtle with his emotions. He tried, he tried so hard, but it was impossible not to notice the firm lines of Arthur's jaw, the strength of his wrists and the softness of his mouth every time he looked.
It had been easy to treat Arthur as a child before, and have only his best interests at heart; it wasn’t hard to be virtuous in the absence of temptation.
"God, I swear," he moaned at Gwen once, lolling on the couch in the teachers' lounge, which had become his haven away from the inner turmoil Arthur's every glance stirred in him. "Arthur is getting back at me for all the rejection. He's doing this on purpose, being all hot and aloof just to to torture me."
"Yeah, I'm sure he turned hot just to stick it to you," she murmured and petted his hair. "He did grow up well, though, can't argue with that."
Arthur really had become kind of aloof, or at least a lot more crafty. He never sought Merlin's company the way he used to, but somehow smoothly roped him into co-editing the GSA newsletter, and now they spent an hour a week together, just the two of them. Merlin tried not to look forward to it, but if he was honest, it was the highlight of his week.
"Well, it's official," said Arthur once during one of these sessions of proofing and cutting and arguing the editorial angle. "Gil has a girlfriend. I'm now the oldest virgin in the school."
He glanced at Merlin through the fall of his fringe, not really looking up from the papers, his mouth curved a little, between a frank smile and a teasing smirk.
"I thought you'd..." Merlin said as casually as he could manage.
"No," said Arthur simply, and gave Merlin one heart-breakingly earnest look, before carrying on in an obnoxiously patronising manner. "You'd know. First-hand."
"Arthur, don't do this to yourself."
"Oh, I'm in no rush, really. I don't mind doing it to myself for now," Arthur said innocently. "If you get my unsubtle euphemism."
Merlin would have loved not to get it, but now he had the clearest mental picture of Arthur stroking himself, his face twisted with pleasure, his underwear pushed down his muscled thighs, hand moving quickly -
"God, I love your hands," said Arthur suddenly, and just like that the imagined scene changed and it was Merlin's hand on Arthur's cock.
"Fuck," Merlin hissed and slammed his pen down. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to swear in front of you."
"It's all right," said Arthur, grinning like a cat who’d got all the cream in the county. "I won't tell anyone."
Merlin was braced for worse; he was sure Arthur had already devised a campaign to drive him completely insane. But Arthur seemed content to test and enjoy his newfound power over his teacher. He was really quite benevolent for an obnoxious spoiled brat.
It was like that for a few months, and then the triumphant glow about Arthur dulled a little, and he started avoiding Merlin's eyes.
"Are you going to tell me what's eating you?" Merlin asked.
"Yeah," said Arthur. "I think I should. But I want to be in a public place when I do it."
And that's how they ended up going out for coffee the second time.
Merlin half-expected Arthur to order something self-consciously grown-up, like an espresso, but he still went for a mocha with whipped cream, caramel drizzle and all the sprinkles. He spent some time poking at the cream with his spoon and licking it up, not making any attempt to tease, lost in his thoughts.
"Do you miss Gwaine?" he asked finally.
"Yes," Merlin nodded. "Of course. We had a good time together."
"Did you love him? Do you still -"
"Love - no. It wasn't like that. He just wanted some casual fun. No strings attached."
"I don't think so," Arthur frowned. "Did you really think that?"
"It said so in his profile. We met via Internet dating."
"It said he just wanted - that, and you went for it? Why would you do that?" Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
"Because his picture was the hottest and his profile was the funniest and I was twenty-four and I wasn't looking for a lifetime commitment," Merlin shrugged. "Not everyone is a Jane Austen character, Arthur. Some people just want to have fun."
"But you liked each other. A lot. I saw you. Not just then, I saw him pick you up after school, you were both - you were so into each other. Were you not in love?" Arthur asked, for one moment looking just like that naive, too-serious kid he used to be.
"No. He didn't want that, and it would have been unfair to fall for him. You can't force feelings on people who don't want them, even if they like you - well, it’s worse then, it's emotional manipulation."
"No, that's nonsense," Arthur shook his head. "How can you choose who you fall in love with, and when? Or who you don't fall in love with? It's impossible."
"I don't know, I went to a Catholic elementary school, maybe I did learn something after all," Merlin joked, and Arthur gave him a patronising eye-roll.
"Okay," Arthur said and took a breath. "Okay. I've been thinking about it. And I think I should tell you. I think you should know. I'm Facebook friends with Gwaine."
"Oh," said Merlin and drank most of his coffee in one gulp to drown an idiotic pang of jealousy. "Well. You're seventeen. It's no concern of mine."
"Yes, I know, that's not what I'm trying to tell you. Listen. He told me something - at first I thought I should keep it confidential, but actually I'm pretty sure he's hoping I'll tell you this. So. When he took you on that holiday, he was going to ask you if you wanted him to stay in England. With you."
"What? Seriously? It didn't... seem like that," Merlin mumbled, trying to recall their break-up conversation. "Are you sure? Because he - "
"He said you seemed ready to move on, and he backed off without bringing it up. He's really insecure."
"Yes. You'd have seen that, if you weren't too busy having meaningless sex with him and keeping your heart guarded."
Merlin shook his head, trying to let this new knowledge settle. It did make sense, and it made him ache for the lost possibilities, and resent all the loneliness he hadn’t had to endure, as it turned out...
Arthur was watching him quietly, his face set, smooth and unreadable.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Hmm," Merlin shrugged. "Get drunk, kick myself, what else can I do now? It's been almost two years. He must have moved on a long time ago. And, out of all his many, many exes I must be his least favourite. For the first time in his life he wanted to try a real relationship, and I turned him down! And, to add insult to injury, I didn’t even notice!"
"You really have no idea of your own worth, do you?" said Arthur with a little tense smile.
"It's not - and he's in Ireland! Even if he wanted to give it another go, how would we? I don't want my sex life to be via Skype. And I don't want to leave the school, I love the school. I can't ask him to drop everything and move to another country just to try it again. We're obviously both crap at it! We'd be bound to fail, and I just got over him..."
He suddenly noticed Arthur was laughing, quietly, but so hard that his eyes were wet.
"What?" Merlin asked grimly.
"Oh, just," said Arthur. "I thought maybe you'd be on the next ferry to Ireland once I told you. I should have known, really."
He slumped in his chair, sighed in obvious relief and smiled at Merlin warmly.
"I'm glad you're staying," he said. "Even if it's for stupid reasons. Mr Emrys, do you remember when you told me I should grow up? Maybe it's time you did, too."
The other teachers volunteered Merlin to supervise the spring dance, because apparently he had no life and nothing better to do on Saturday night. But he really didn't mind. He'd not gone clubbing in years, and he missed it; the music wasn't quite to his taste, but it was still good to sit in the corner and watch the kids flail and jump with abandon. He was told that some light kissing on the dance floor was allowed, and didn't see any need to stare creepily at the couples to gauge if they were keeping it light enough.
He probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Arthur was a good dancer. Uther would have made him take lessons to prepare for formal functions in the future. And even without the dancing lessons, Arthur was an athlete, perfectly in control of his body, his every movement precise and graceful, even when he was jumping along to a chorus like a maniac. He stayed on the dance floor all night, bouncing tirelessly, playfully twirling and dipping the girls. At one point he wrapped himself around Percy and they spent a whole song shuffling together and exchanging whispers, and then Arthur was back in the dance, flushed, lovely, his bright shirt bringing out his colouring in a way that made him look utterly stunning.
And then, when the crowd went especially wild over some song they all seemed to love and know the lyrics to, Arthur slipped out of their circle and rushed over to Merlin, took him by both hands and pulled him out of his chair with a wide, disarming smile. Merlin thought Arthur would try to drag him into the dance, and, God, he wanted that, just for a moment, just to stretch his legs and let the music take him, and share their joy. He could chuck a few shapes with the kids; the sky wouldn't fall.
But Arthur pulled him outside, into the dark corridor, and Merlin went without a word, caught in the heady atmosphere, breathless just from the feel of Arthur's hands on his skin.
The door swung closed, leaving them with a sliver of light and a muted beat of the music. Arthur gently pushed Merlin against the wall, crowding him with his bulk. He was a lot heavier than Merlin now, and for a second, when Arthur's strong hands gripped his shoulders, Merlin's head went swimmy at the thought that he probably couldn't fight Arthur off, if it came to that.
And then Arthur kissed him, wetly, open-mouthed, tongue and all even though he didn't seem sure what exactly to do with that, and Merlin fell into it, kissing him back desperately. For one moment the whole world felt miles away, and there was only Arthur, his soft, eager mouth, his hands, roaming shakily over Merlin's chest, and the scents of fresh sweat and musk rising from Arthur's heated body.
"No," Merlin moaned against Arthur's lips, unable to break the kiss. "No, no."
"But you want me." Arthur went to mouth at Merlin's throat, his jaw, every ticklish caress of his lips turning Merlin's legs into jelly. "You do."
"I do," Merlin sobbed and let Arthur take his mouth again, let Arthur kiss him hard, let him draw Merlin's tongue into his mouth, let him slide his hands under Merlin's jacket. "God, I do. But I don't want this, I don't want it like this."
He was queasy with shame, and he was so hard, and he was going to let Arthur touch him everywhere.
"But it's all right," Arthur panted into his ear, pressing closer. "We can. I want you so much."
"I can't. We need to stop," and then Merlin felt the hard, hot line of Arthur's cock against his leg, and felt feverish with need, drunk with it.
"Stop," Merlin begged, nearly crying. "I can't, please, Arthur, help me."
Arthur pulled away and pressed his forehead against Merlin's, and they stayed like that, swaying a little and clutching at each other for balance, breathing heavily into the space between them.
"Okay," Arthur said and shifted his hips with a grimace. "Okay."
Merlin gratefully squeezed his wrist and stepped away. Arthur's mouth was red, nearly bruised, his eyes dark and pained.
"I'm going home," Arthur said. "I promised to drop people off - tell Percy I'll still send a car."
Merlin nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and watched Arthur walk out of the building. Then he went to the nearest bathroom to wash his face. In the mirror, under the harsh light, he looked completely deranged, shifty-eyed, guilty.
He returned to the dance anyway, and took his seat, hoping nobody would notice. But Percy came over almost immediately, just sitting next to him in silence for a few tense minutes.
"I'm sorry, Mr Emrys," he said eventually. "I told him you wouldn't. You'd never set an example like that. And you wouldn't want to hide, either. He knows, really. He's just... being a Pendragon. I'll talk to him. This is only torturing you both."
"I think we talked it out," said Merlin. The tactile memory of Arthur's kisses faded from his lips, slowly.
For the rest of the term Merlin and Arthur didn’t exchange a word outside the classroom, and barely met each other's eyes. So when one warm July night Arthur turned up at Merlin's flat, it was completely unexpected.
"I just want to talk," he said as soon as Merlin opened his mouth. "Can I come in? I don't want to be alone right now."
There was something different about him, some change to the way he held himself. He'd always stood tall and proud, chin up, shoulders squared, staring every challenge straight in the face. Now he looked lost, and Merlin let him into the flat and sat him on the couch, fidgeting with worry.
"Right," he said. "Tell me what happened. We'll figure it out, I promise."
"Oh, nothing happened. Well," he threw a quick glance at Merlin and dropped his head, staring at the floor. "I had sex."
"Ah. That's great!" Merlin offered, still confused.
"Don't lie to me, don't pretend you don't care," grumbled Arthur, still addressing his shoes. "I know you do, I remember how you - "
"I care about you. A hell of a lot more than I care about - being jealous or whatever. I want you to be happy, so - "
There were uneven blotches of red blush on Arthur's cheeks, and he didn't look happy at all.
"Jesus," Merlin said. "Arthur, what is it? Did something go wrong? Are you hurt? Was it..."
"No, no. It was fine. Safe, consensual, all that. Just... I don't know. Kind of horrible."
"First times are rarely amazing. You're disappointed now, but it will get better."
"I'm not disappointed, it was fine. I just didn't expect it would feel like this afterwards."
He sighed and buried his face in his hands.
"It was a stupid idea in the first place," he muttered against his palms. "Making love to someone I don't love..."
"Arthur, it doesn't always have to be about love."
"No, I know. I know it works for some people. Just doesn't work for me, I guess. I suppose it would get better if I kept doing it, I'd get used to it. But I don't see the point of putting myself through that."
"Yeah, you shouldn't with a mindset like that," said Merlin.
"No, look, I tried. I didn't fuck him to gross myself out, okay? I liked it, and I like him, and he likes me. I thought maybe you were right. Maybe I was stuck on you like a stupid child, and if I tried to open up to someone else, I could..."
He dropped his hands, and Merlin was glad to see that his eyes were dry, at least.
"Can I sleep here tonight?" Arthur asked. "On the couch, I mean. I don't want to go home."
"Sure, yeah. But I have to call your father."
"You don't. I'm an adult."
"I'm still going to. Are you hungry, or, I have beer..."
"Can I take a shower?" Arthur asked, restlessly scratching at his arms.
"God, Arthur," said Merlin, cringing. "That bad?"
"I just want to be clean," Arthur said weakly.
Merlin gave him fresh underwear and a towel, spread his only spare set of bedding on the couch, glad that he didn't forget to do the laundry this week, and dialed the Headmaster's mobile.
"Sir, your son is at my place," he told him without preamble.
"Shall I send a car?" asked Uther calmly, without any surprise.
"He's spending the night here. I hope that's okay with you."
"No, that's great, it's long overdue," said Uther. "I didn't want to meddle in your relationship, but, really, Emrys, for a boy of Arthur's age not to be sexually active is just - "
Merlin groaned and hung up on him.
Arthur went straight to the couch from the bathroom and burrowed under the blankets, and Merlin decided to turn in as well. He changed into his rarely-used pyjamas to keep things decent and went to turn off the light in the kitchen.
"Merlin," called Arthur from the couch. Merlin couldn't recall him ever using his first name before, and it chimed through him, warm and a little terrifying, and he wanted Arthur to say it again.
He sat on the edge of the couch and tucked his hands between his knees, so he wouldn't reach out to stroke Arthur's mussed, damp hair.
Arthur looked up at him from his pillow, his face soft, his fingers curled tightly over the edge of the blanket.
"You were right, though," he said. "I had to do it. I understand things a lot better now."
"Oh, shut up. What can you understand from one clumsy tumble you were determined not to enjoy?"
Arthur sighed and shifted onto his back.
"I'd never thought about how it feels," he said. "To be on the other end of unrequited love. I was so wrapped up in myself, I never thought what it was like for you. I was so sure we were meant to be together, I thought I'd win you over sooner or later. But I know now that’s not how it works. You can win respect, friendship, you can seduce someone, that's easy. But love - it's just there, or it isn't."
He reached out and tugged at Merlin's sleeve, and Merlin let him pull his hand over and cradle it in his palms.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "I didn't realise. I always thought you'd be flattered that someone loved you, but I know now how much it sucks, when someone wants so much from you, and you simply don't have it to give. When all you can give them is a fuck, really. I guess it's even worse for you, because you really do like me. But if you don't love me, then it's never going to work. So, just tell me - I think I need to hear you say it. Just say you don't love me, and I'll leave you alone, I promise. I'll get over you, and I'll move on."
He looked determined, fearlessly braced for it, and Merlin believed him. He only had to say the words, and this would be over. He'd snap that thread that had somehow been spun between them, a quick, clean break, and they'd be done. Arthur's life could finally begin, and Merlin would pull himself out of this confused, painful mess, and find something simple, uncomplicated.
He squeezed Arthur's fingers and drew a deep breath, trying to make himself dizzy, so this would be done and over with fast, without him even noticing.
"Yes," he said. "I... really should tell you that."
Arthur waited, and Merlin stared at their joined hands and couldn't push the words past his lips.
It was so quiet; the whole building has gone to sleep, and all he could hear was the ticking of his clock on the wall and the hum of his blood rushing in his ears. There were pins and needles in his fingertips, and his knees shook a little, and he only had to say the words.
Arthur smiled slowly and pressed a short, dry kiss to Merlin's palm.
"Go to bed," he said, and rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head.
He was gone by the time Merlin woke up. The bedding was neatly folded on the side of the couch, but he had left toast crumbs all over the counter and an unwashed mug in the sink.
After that Merlin couldn't focus on anything else. He thought about Arthur first thing in the morning, before he could open his eyes, and every night he stared at his bedroom ceiling for hours, sleepless, his mind racing in circles, like a hamster on a wheel.
He wanted to call Arthur, or meet him, and just talk, talk for days if they had to, till they had worked it out and arrived at some steady, sane place where they could both find peace. But there was nothing they could say to each other that they didn't both know already. The real reason he wanted to talk to Arthur was because he missed him and wanted to hear his voice, and it was dangerous to go with that impulse.
As September approached Merlin was swamped by anxiety, and thought about asking Uther for a sabbatical to get some distance and buy more time. He felt that something would change next time he saw Arthur, something would snap inside him and crush his resolve.
He thought about giving in, and taking Arthur out on a date, and then back to his place, and once he'd dared to think about it he couldn't stop, caught in a stream of feverish fantasies. It wasn't exactly illegal anymore. Just unethical. Just unfair on Arthur, who probably was still too inexperienced to make informed decisions. Bad for the other kids, who'd learn the wrong lesson from them. Bad for the school and the other teachers, because all their reputations would suffer from Merlin's indiscretion. Just that.
Then, one August morning, he woke up strangely serene, as if all the poison had finally burned out of his system, and realised that this would be Arthur's last year of school. They only had to get through it, and then, one way or another, things would change. If Arthur still wanted him, they could be together - and if not, that would be fine, too. As long as he worked for Uther, Arthur would be a part of his life, and Merlin would see him excel at Uni, build his career, find love, start a family, be happy, and that would be enough for Merlin's happiness. More than enough.
And if they couldn't get through the year and something happened again, like that kiss, or something more, then Merlin would resign. It was so simple, and he had no idea why it had taken him so long to decide on this. He'd resign right away, if Arthur wanted him to. He'd be letting his students down, but he wasn't the only Maths teacher in the world; he'd be replaced in a matter of days, and the transition would be smooth. And then he and Arthur could be themselves, not a kid and his teacher. They'd get to know each other anew, and Merlin had a feeling they'd get on.
He still freaked out slightly on the first day of the school year, spent too long picking an outfit and debating if he should call in sick, and ended up missing his bus. He arrived at the school just before the first bell, right on time to see the Headmaster's car pull up.
Merlin grinned like a fool, breathless with anticipation, and then he saw that Arthur wasn't in the car.
He ran towards Uther; it felt like running through deep water, like he couldn't move as fast as he wanted, as if he was drowning.
"Where's Arthur?" he asked. "What happened? Is he - is he okay?"
"He's fine," Uther said curtly. "Stop making a scene."
Merlin nodded and laughed, hysterically and off-pitch.
"Right, of course," he said. "You got him his own car, didn't you? For his eighteenth birthday? He's going to arrive late to show off, of course..."
"My office, Emrys," said Uther and went ahead, not waiting for Merlin to follow.
"Sit," Uther ordered once they were inside, and settled in his chair. "I know that dignified behaviour is too much to ask from you, but, really - oh, well, why do I bother. Arthur isn't here, because he went to Harrow."
"Harrow? What, why, is he visiting someone in town? But he's missing classes..."
"No, Emrys, he's enrolled into Harrow School."
"But," Merlin swallowed, shaking his head. "Harrow? He'd never said..."
"He's been registered with them since birth. He was always meant to be educated there. But, when he was thirteen, I..." Uther's eyes skittered to the picture of Arthur in his early teens, lost on his desk among the framed pictures of Arthur as a baby, Arthur playing rugby, Arthur in a tux at some formal event, Arthur, smiling contently next to a Christmas tree - Merlin had never noticed there were so many. "I didn't think he'd benefit from a boarding environment."
"You thought you'd miss him," said Merlin. Uther's expression was fond, tender, strange on his stern face.
"I couldn't part with him," Uther smiled. "He was still so young. He seemed younger than I felt at that age. Then he was meant to go last year, to do his sixth form there, but he refused. Because of you, I imagine. Now a place has opened up suddenly, not with my old house, but it'll do. And he’s gone."
"But, just for one year, it doesn't make sense..."
"He'll still be a Harrow graduate for life," said Uther pompously.
"I guess I... expected a goodbye, at least."
"He didn't want to see you."
"I understand," said Merlin, forcing a smile.
"He was afraid you'd ask him to stay."
"Of course I'd have asked him to stay! I'd have absolutely insisted! Adapting to a new school this close to A-levels will put him under unnecessary pressure. The quality of education isn't any higher there, and he'll be lonely, all his friends are here..."
"Actually, I think this will help him focus. You've made your views on fraternisation with your students abundantly clear, and it wouldn't do him any good to spend another year pining and waiting for you to make your mind up."
Merlin nodded contritely, remembering the days he'd lost in limbo this summer. If it was like that for Arthur - Arthur couldn't afford that kind of turmoil right now, during this crucial year.
He couldn't think yet about what it would mean for him, so he concentrated instead on Arthur. Arthur would focus on his studies, experience new things, forge new connections. He'd easily adjust to his new life: he was strong, charismatic, clever, he'd make friends right away. Being away from home, in a controlled boarding environment, would prepare him for leaving home for University. That was good; it was great.
He felt strangely numb, surrounded by emptiness. Arthur had been a permanent fixture in his life for years, and now Merlin was on his own, and didn't know what to do with himself, what to think, how to feel.
"So, I suppose the two of you will become an item now. I expect you to treat him right," said Uther stiffly. "I hope it goes without saying that if you ever hurt him, I'll make you wish you'd never been born."
Merlin stared at him, struggling to catch up.
"Wait," he said. "Are you saying... he left... to be with me?"
"Well, he's not your student anymore, isn't that what was stopping you? But don't flatter yourself. That was only part of his consideration. Harrow is a great move for him."
"Sir," Merlin said. "You're not actually - you don't actually want Arthur to date me, do you? He can have anyone. He can have his pick of the rich, famous, beautiful people."
"We've enough money, and no desire to be tangled in celebrity gossip. And," Uther added, raking a quick glance over Merlin's body, "I'm sure you smarten up just fine."
Merlin flushed and shifted in his chair, uneasy under the Headmaster's stare.
"Arthur has every resource and opportunity to realise his potential," Uther said. "What he needs now is someone who'll support him and never stop pushing him to be better. I've been watching you for years. You care for him deeply, and you have the strength and guts to match his. You'll do. I trust your work performance won't suffer. You won't get any special treatment because you're my son's intended."
"In - intended?"
"Well, whatever you call it. That will be all, Emrys."
At first Merlin expected that Arthur would call, or send him an email, to tell him he was waiting. He was ready to drop everything and go, any second, and he kept his phone on during classes, which he wouldn't have tolerated from any of his pupils.
As the days and weeks went by he started to worry a little. But the Headmaster didn't seem troubled, so Arthur must have been doing fine.
Of course, it was stupid to expect anything different. Arthur was eighteen, practically a virgin, on his own for the first time in his life, in a boys' boarding school, which would be like an all-you-can-fuck buffet for him. The boys there were his age, with the same upbringing and aspirations. Any of them would be a better match for him than his former Maths teacher. And, despite everything that'd happened between them, nothing definite had ever been said, no promises made.
Merlin waited, jittery and restless, and then he couldn't wait any longer, and called Percy over after class.
"Are you still in touch with Arthur?" he asked, proud at how smooth and casual he sounded.
"Oh, yes, we Skype all the time," Percy said, tightening his lips as if he was struggling not to smile.
"How is he? Is he enjoying Harrow?"
"He's great, yeah, he loves it."
Percy seemed determined not to volunteer anything else, and Merlin couldn't really ask if Arthur remembered him at all, whether he’d met someone else, if Arthur had finally got over him, now, when Merlin could no longer imagine his life without him. If Merlin had fallen in love with a beautiful, wonderful man to find he'd only loved Merlin when he had been a child.
"Well," Merlin said. "That's great. Tell him I said hi."
"Anything else?" enquired Percy, openly grinning now.
"No. He... He knows already. He knows, Percy."
"Yeah, he does," Percy said. "All right. I'll tell him. Really, Mr Emrys, we all thought you'd never ask."
Three days after that Merlin got a letter through the post, and then he finally understood. Arthur was showing respect for his wishes and his privacy. He'd made his intentions clear, and he'd been waiting for Merlin to make the next move.
Even using the post made sense, Merlin thought as he turned the envelope around over and over, plucking up the courage to open it. He'd never given Arthur his phone number or email address. Arthur had read his whole file, and he probably had every bit of Merlin's personal information to hand, including his next of kin emergency contact details. But he had used his street address, the only address he'd already admitted to knowing, because he didn’t want to infringe on anything else.
The envelope contained only a photograph: Arthur in a group of other Harrow boys, all wearing school uniforms complete with the ludicrous hats. They had their arms around each other's shoulders, already including Arthur in their circle of classmate camaraderie, and they were all smiling for the camera, and Arthur's smile was the brightest, so beautiful.
I'm the one in the middle, was written on the reverse in Arthur's hand. In case you had forgotten.
Merlin wasn't sure what Arthur meant to convey, exactly, but the envelope had the return address on it, and he thought it would be rude not to reply.
He had the picture framed, and put it on the mantelpiece next to his Mum's, and spent several evenings drafting his message. He covered page after page with words that didn't seem to string into anything coherent, and didn't come close to expressing what he wanted to say. Then he gave up on it and decided to copy Arthur's taciturn approach instead.
I miss you terribly, he wrote in the middle of a blank page, and signed it Merlin.
Once he had dropped the letter into the post box he knew the wording wasn’t right, it was completely inadequate, too cold, too little and too much at the same time, too pushy, too needy. He'd have clawed the letter back out if he could, but it was done.
The reply came the same week, again in the post:
Coming home for half term. Mind if I pop over? Let me know when is good for you.
Merlin had never realised how much random crap he'd accumulated in his flat over four years. He spent several days trying to tidy up, then he just shoved all the loose rubbish under the bed.
He bought the most expensive bottle of wine Sainsbury's had, and cooked a three-course dinner. He even attempted a cake. It fell apart when he tried to get it out of the tin, but he glued it back together with extra frosting and it looked as good as new.
For some reason he'd expected Arthur to turn up wearing his Harrow uniform, just like in the picture, but when the bell rang and Merlin opened the door, Arthur was wearing normal clothes. His hair was a little shinier than usual, and his dressy shirt looked like it was pure silk and draped softly over his broad chest.
"Hi, Merlin," Arthur said. "How are you? You look great."
"You too," said Merlin breathlessly and cleared his throat. "So, I made dinner, but if you want to go out..."
"I'd rather stay in," said Arthur smoothly, and shut the door behind himself. "Sorry, I came empty-handed, bit rude, I know. I bought you flowers, but it seemed stupid, so I gave them to some girl on the street."
"Thank God. Good call. So. How's Harrow?"
"Brilliant," said Arthur. "Fantastic. Love it. Will tell you all about it later."
He stepped closer, and stopped. Merlin felt sweat breaking under his arms and hoped his deodorant would hold.
"Please say yes," Arthur said.
"Um," said Merlin, caught up in ogling him, the flecks of darker blue in his eyes, the texture of his skin, the shape of his lips, and then he couldn't recall a question. "To what?"
"To me," Arthur said simply, and it probably meant 'to everything', and that was fine.
Merlin nodded, muttering "Yes, yes, you know that," and Arthur quickly closed the distance between them and kissed him on the lips, so tenderly and warmly it made Merlin shiver. They kissed and kissed, still standing by the door, not touching anywhere, their hands hovering awkwardly by their sides, losing themselves in the soft melding of their mouths.
Then Arthur grunted and grabbed for him, and they staggered backwards, kissing deeply, and Merlin finally let himself touch, slide his hands over Arthur's strong back, knead at the tense muscles there.
They crashed to their knees and Arthur pushed him down to lie on the floor. He unbuttoned Merlin's shirt with shaky fingers and touched his chest, softly trailing his hands to Merlin's nipples, then went to kiss him again, babbling incoherently.
"I've been waiting for you for so long," he said against Merlin's lips, around his tongue, kissing words right into his skin. "You're mine now. Mine."
And Merlin nodded frantically, mussing his hair against the carpet, and held Arthur close, and kissed his perfect face, his lips, his neck. Then Arthur's hand slipped between his thighs and Merlin spread his legs and canted his hips, grinding his hard cock into Arthur's hand.
"Fuck, fuck," Arthur swore, squeezing him through his jeans. With his lips swollen, his face pink with lust, he looked unbelievably, eerily handsome, breathtaking. "Oh, you, Merlin, you're, can I, let me - "
"Yes, yes," Merlin helped Arthur rip open his belt buckle and zipper and toed off his shoes, shoving his jeans down. "Wait, condoms! Did you bring? I think I have, in the bedroom, and there's a bed..."
Arthur sat back on his heels and smiled shyly, rubbing himself through his jeans.
"No, I didn't bring," he said. "I didn't think we were ready for... condoms. I wanted to look at you. Is that..."
"Anything." Merlin pulled Arthur into his arms again. They fitted together so well, sliding against each other, locking like pieces of a puzzle; Arthur was pleasantly heavy, even when he tried to take his weight on his knees and elbows to keep from pressing Merlin into the carpet. "I'm yours, Arthur. I mean it,” he said, surprised how easy it was to voice these soppy words. “Whatever you want. Whenever you're ready."
Arthur gave him a smile that was uniquely his, smug and teasing and endlessly warm at the same time, and slid along Merlin's body to tug down his underwear carefully.
"Wow," he said, reverently running his open palm over Merlin's cock. "You know, when I fantasised about you over the last... forever, this is just how I imagined you. But I didn't think you'd actually be like this."
He touched Merlin's cock, lovingly circled it with his fingers, and then bent down to kiss it, laving the head with his lips and tongue, the way he'd kissed Merlin's mouth.
"Oh God, Arthur," Merlin moaned, his eyes rolling back just from this caress. "Can I, I want you too, will you..."
Arthur nodded and lingered over his cock, kissing and petting it all over, cupping Merlin's balls in his warm hands. Then he shifted on his knees and stripped quickly, straddling Merlin's chest, panting harshly. His cock sprang out, thick and pink and gorgeous, and Merlin surged up to welcome and worship it.
He put his palms on Arthur's thighs and guided his cock to his lips, feeling dizzy with love and excitement. He wrapped his mouth around Arthur's cock and sucked him in long, indulgent pulls, about to show off every trick he knew and make this the one time Arthur would never forget. He glanced up at Arthur's flushed face, and smiled at him with his stretched lips, and suddenly Arthur bucked, dislodging him, and came all over Merlin's face, neck, chest.
"Fuck, sorry," he mumbled. "Fuck, that was, you are, you're perfect."
Merlin laughed and rubbed Arthur's come into his skin. Arthur's erection flagged only a tiny bit, and Merlin played with it, stroked soothingly, nosed into Arthur's blond pubes. He felt light, floaty, brand new, as if he was the one who'd just come.
"Sorry, I'll be hard again in like... forty seconds," Arthur panted over his head, stroking Merlin's face. "Oh, um, already, actually. Please, can we do more? Please?"
They ended up in a clumsy sixty-nine on their sides, Arthur's hands groping Merlin's arse, urging him to fuck Arthur's soft, yielding mouth, his fingertips sliding over Merlin's hole insistently.
"I want to fuck you," he said with a needy whine to his voice, and Merlin hummed around his cock in delight and opened his legs wider. Arthur screwed one spit-wet finger into his hole, all the way to the knuckle in one impatient, burning push, and they both came in seconds, painting each other's skin, holding onto each other for dear life.
"Wow, Merlin," said Arthur afterwards, while they were kissing slowly, still adrift on pleasure, curled up on his living room rug with their jeans tangled around their ankles. "You love me."
"Did I say that?" Merlin asked, because he honestly couldn't remember what he was saying with his face pressed into Arthur's thigh, Arthur's come on his face, Arthur's mouth on his cock. All the words had gone from his lizard brain straight to his mouth and he hadn’t processed anything.
"It's obvious," Arthur smiled, stroking his cheeks, his ears. "You do. I knew that already. But, right now - I can feel it. You really love me."
"I do. I think I've loved you for a while now," Merlin confessed, hiding his face against Arthur's shoulder. "Not always like this, but, yes."
Arthur held him and stroked light fingertips down his sides, and smiled against his temple.
"I can do a lot better, by the way," he said. "Next time I'll make it amazing for you, I promise."
"I've never had better sex in my whole life," said Merlin sincerely, and Arthur grinned and hugged him tighter.
"I'm going to fuck you tonight," he said. "I'm just giving you a moment to recover. Do you want to fuck me? I want you to."
"Yes," said Merlin, already squirming, and peppered Arthur's neck with kisses. "I baked you a cake. But we can have it after. We should go to bed. I want you in my bed."
"Your bed," Arthur chuckled, shivering a little under Merlin's lips. "Fuck. Yes. Just, I want to say something first."
"Before I go away to Oxford..."
"Yeah?" asked Merlin again and pulled back to look Arthur in the face, worried by the sudden sobriety of his tone.
"...I propose that we get engaged," said Arthur firmly.
"Arthur, no!" Merlin disentangled himself from him, panicking a little. "Don't, we've only just - we're barely starting out, we're still getting to know each other! It's not like that yet, and I don't know if it will be..."
"No, definitely, I agree," Arthur said. "And I don't want you to say anything right away. I'm only letting you know where this is heading."
"Arthur, you're eighteen! You can't marry the first guy you sleep with!"
"Second, thank you very much," said Arthur sourly. "And I'm not talking about marriage yet. This isn't binding in any way. I just want you to know who you belong to."
"What? I swear, it's like you haven't changed at all!"
"Why would I change?" Arthur shrugged. "I'm practically perfect."
He sprawled on the rug, looking at Merlin calmly, and he really was perfect in his afterglow, half-naked, mussed, gorgeous, his smile sure and arrogant. Only his eyes were the same as back then: wide, a little frightened, the eyes of a boy who'd unflinchingly offered his heart over and over, not caring if it was going to be broken, and picked himself up every time he'd been knocked down, and tried again and again.
"God, I love you so much," Merlin blurted out. "But, Arthur. You're still so young. I'm nine years older than you, I can't do this to you. This isn't meant to last."
"I think you're wrong, but I guess we'll see," said Arthur. "I know what I want. And I believe you want the same thing."
"Yes, I do, but..."
"If you're not ready yet, that's fine," Arthur said lightly. "I'll wait for you. But I think deep down you know you belong with me. And I think you're going to say yes. Maybe four years from now, maybe ten, maybe twenty. But you will."
Merlin climbed into his lap and kissed him hard, partly to shut him up, partly because he couldn't help himself, overwhelmed by shuddery, desperate want and affection. Arthur circled him with his arms and laid soft, possessive kisses on his lips.
"Arthur, Arthur, you're the most obnoxious, presumptuous, stubborn..." Merlin moaned angrily into his mouth.
"And you love me."
"I do," Merlin nodded, clinging to him with his whole body. "Yes. I do."