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Arthur stared at the bottom of his glass, watching the way the last trickle of scotch was refracted by the ice cubes. His two previous glasses had already been cleared away, and the bartender had given him this one with no little degree of hesitation. Arthur had managed not to snarl at the man, but it had taken every ounce of his professional self-control. Although he'd only finished his MBA two years ago, he'd already spent countless hours monitoring his tone, words, and expression as a junior board member of Camelot Trading, and that practice was serving him well tonight.

CamTrade, as it was called with varying degrees of affection, had not only weathered the recession but had actually emerged victorious from the ruins of a battered Wall Street. Arthur had been working there in one capacity or another since for the past eight years, since the day he'd started undergrad. There had always been whispers of nepotism, but it was fairly obvious that the terrifying CEO Uther Pendragon, his father, held him to higher standards than everyone else, and so those whispers never amounted to anything.

He'd been off his game recently, but luckily Uther was thrilled by his rapidly-approaching marriage, and had been unprecedentedly tolerant of his distraction for the past few weeks. Arthur had a feeling that showing up with bloodshot eyes and a splitting headache might be pushing things just a bit, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.

He swirled the remnants of the scotch and melted ice once, and hunched over his glass. Apart from the bartender, no one at the bar had approached him or even acknowledged his existence, which suited him just fine. His manner was blatantly at odds with the rest of the Friday happy hour crowd, and all the patrons of the trendy midtown bar kept their distance.

All except one.

Halfway into his second scotch, a man had come up to the bar next to him and ordered a beer. Arthur examined him out of the corner of his eye as he thanked the bartender and turned to face the room. He leaned back on his elbows against the bar, long, lean legs stretched out in front of him, eyes half-closed as he sipped his drink.

Arthur didn’t react as the man turned slightly and looked Arthur up and down, a small smile playing across his lips. Arthur could feel the man studying him from beneath his dark eyelashes, and something warm and shameful pooled in his stomach.

Three scotches before dinner had been a bad idea. He'd left his jacket at the office, but even his dress shirt felt too warm, his breath came too rapidly, his thoughts grew fuzzy and treacherous. He should go home right now, he should be home right now. Sophia would be wondering where his was, and it would just make things worse to return late. But last night’s fight, with its harsh words and accusations, still echoed in his ears … He couldn’t go back, not yet. The ring on his finger had never felt heavier, and he twisted it absently. With less than three months till their wedding, he and Sophia had fallen out of the careful rhythm they’d established, and last night it had all come to a head. Luckily, he hadn’t responded verbally to her attack—It’s like you don’t even care, you’re not even trying! At least pretend to give a damn about me, about us!—and had spent the night at Leon’s.

He gripped the scotch glass too tightly, his knuckles whitening as a feeling of panic washed over him. It had never been this bad before—he’d always managed to push it down, push it aside, focus on how beautiful she was and how easy it was to let her manage things. This was probably just the scotch talking.

“Squeeze any tighter, and your drink might choke to death.” The voice was warm, amused, intimate. 

Arthur did not look at the man. Did not notice his blue eyes twinkling, the way he’d turned to face Arthur completely, the way his body was loose and open in invitation, the way his dark blue jeans were stretched across his …

“S gone, anyway,” he mumbled instead, hunching down even more.

The man laughed softly, and Arthur jerked as a long, graceful finger slowly traced a path from his knee up his thigh.

He gasped, and the man leaned in to murmur in his ear. “Want to work off … whatever it is?” He squeezed Arthur’s upper thigh once, and Arthur felt himself flush all over. The shameful heat in his stomach raced through the rest of his body, igniting the alcohol in his blood ...

“Yeah,” he choked out.

With a smirk, the man stood. Arthur threw some bills down on the bar and followed him, head down, face burning.

The man led him to the alley behind the bar, and Arthur nearly turned and fled—the sun had barely set, for crissakes. But the man glanced back at him, that same smirk on his face, and ducked into a shadowed alcove. Arthur followed nervously. As soon as he was in the alcove, the man pushed him back against the wall.

Without a word, the man sank to his knees and began undoing Arthur’s belt. Arthur felt paralyzed—his entire body thrummed as a wave of lust washed over him, warring with fear and shame, threatening to choke him. He watched, eyes wide, as the man grinned up through his lashes before freeing Arthur’s cock and taking the tip into his mouth.

The noises of the city drowned out Arthur’s gasp, and his head fell back against the wall. He felt the man smile against him, and he moaned as the man licked a hot, wet stripe up the underside of his cock. The man gripped his base firmly, his tongue tracing teasing pattern over Arthur’s length. Arthur’s hips rocked forward of their own accord, seeking more contact with the dexterous tongue, but the man’s other arm pinned him against the wall. Then, without warning, the man took him completely inside his mouth, into his throat, warm and wet, and Arthur’s hands clutched the brick behind him. He felt his climax building—

“W-wait, stop!” he gasped. The man froze, rocking back on his heels to look up at Arthur in disbelief. 

Arthur felt as though his entire body was flushing; he couldn’t meet the man’s eyes. “That—I mean, I want—” 

He broke off. The man said nothing, just waited.

Arthur swallowed, and shut his eyes in shame. “Fuck me. Please,” he whispered.

Eyes still shut, he heard the faint rustle of material as the man stood, then nothing. Arthur’s heart pounded in his ears as the silence lengthened.

Then he heard the sound of a zipper. Letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, he turned to face the wall, burying his face in his shaking arms. 

Behind him, the man paused. A moment later, Arthur felt a hand gently pull his slacks down until they pooled around his ankles. His entire body trembled as the man gripped his hips, and moved to stand directly behind him. Then the man’s hands were gone, and he heard the sound of a wrapper tearing. His stomach clenched when he heard a wet, squirting sound; he flinched as a hand spread his cheeks, and a single, slick finger pressed against his entrance. 

“D-don’t,” he gasped as the man gently pressed his fingertip inside. “Just-just do it.”

The finger left, and Arthur braced himself—

The man gripped his hips again, but leaned forward without touching him anywhere else.

“You want this, don’t you,” he stated.

Arthur’s breath hitched, and he nodded jerkily. The man leaned back, and ran a hand across Arthur’s bare skin.

“Then you’re going to let me do it my way.”

The man’s tone left no room for disagreement, and Arthur’s knees nearly gave out. When he didn’t respond, the finger once again pressed into him, the coldness of the lube warming rapidly as the man penetrated him. 

Arthur bit his lip, unable to completely stifle his moan. The man’s finger was completely inside of him, and he tried to rock back, but the man placed his other hand on the back of Arthur’s neck, holding firm. He pumped his finger in and out as Arthur shuddered. He cried out as the man smoothly added another finger, scissoring and stroking him open.

Arthur felt pleasure wash over him, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t what he wanted—he was hard, so hard, but he needed more. As if reading his thoughts, the man’s fingers withdrew suddenly. Before Arthur could react to the loss, he felt the man’s cock nudge his entrance, and his own cock jumped in response. In one smooth, strong motion, the man pushed into him, pressing his chest against Arthur's back, entering him completely.

Arthur cried out—he could barely breathe, the weight of the man on and inside him, the man’s hand still on his neck, his other hand gripping Arthur’s hip firmly. Arthur couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but feel as the man remained still inside of him, filling him, claiming him.

Then, slowly, the man began to move. Still holding Arthur down, he pulled nearly all the way out, then pressed back in completely. The thrust rocked Arthur forward, and he sank back as the man pulled out again, before filling him once more. The man continued, and Arthur whimpered as the strong, even thrusts stroked deep inside of him. He felt as though he’d lost all control of his body—the only thing that existed, the only thing that mattered was the way the man took him, forcing Arthur into his rhythm, destroying him with each firm, measured thrust.

He cried out when the man shifted, hitting a place in the innermost part of him that made him see stars. The man’s grip on his hip tightened, but he didn’t alter his pace. “Harder—god—please, harder!” Arthur gasped, needing it, needing more

The man ignored him, and Arthur bit back a frustrated sob. The pleasure was approaching agony—he pulled one arm out from under his forehead and began to reach down—

The man released his hip and caught his wrist, forcing it up against the wall.

“Not. Yet,” he gritted out, punctuating each word with a rough thrust.

Arthur came, screaming.

* * *

“I’d ask what your name is, but I don’t think you’d tell me.”

The man’s tone was the same as it had been in the bar, brushing intimately over his ears, slithering warm inside him. Arthur slumped against the wall, not looking at the man as they leaned next to each other. The man slowly slid down the wall until he was seated on the ground, long legs bent and spread obscenely, framing his spent cock against his dark jeans. He didn’t say another word as Arthur shoved himself back into his slacks and staggered out of the alcove, but Arthur felt the man’s blue eyes on him until he emerged from the alley and into the open evening air.

* * *

Sophia had indeed been angry, but had forgiven him quickly enough when he agreed to escort her to the cocktail event at Morgana’s gallery the next day. He figured he could kill two birds with one stone this way—Morgana, his half-sister, had been pressuring him for weeks to come, saying this installation featured three “preview pieces” from a new artist. She was planning on giving him a full installation later if his pieces were a hit—he’d just started to make a name for himself in “the City scene,” as she called it, and she wanted in. She even mentioned how much Sophia might enjoy it, which surprised Arthur—this guy must be really good for Morgana to willingly suggest something that would entail her and Sophia breathing the same air. As much as she tried to play nice for his sake, Morgana never had warmed up to Sophia. Arthur always felt vaguely guilty about this; Sophia would have loved to be able to call the rebellious, avant-garde gallery owner Morgana LeFay a close personal friend.

Which was, itself, probably the root of the problem. For all that her business was predominately about visual impact, Morgana herself flatly refused to succumb to the status-seeking, image-conscious groupthink of the New York art scene, and detested anyone whom she felt cared more for success than substance. She’d instantly categorized Sophia as such the first time Arthur had introduced Sophia to her and Gwen, and there’d been no changing her mind. Arthur knew he probably should have defended Sophia more stridently from the beginning, but that was all in the past, now. Besides, Morgana had a point … Sophia was definitely more conscious of appearances than Arthur, but he considered that an asset. Relying on her to vet his image had done wonders for him professionally, even if Morgana thought it was overly co-dependent of him.

Anyway, Morgana’s approach had certainly succeeded for her on a personal level. Gwen, Morgana's long-term girlfriend, was one of the most genuine, wonderful people Arthur had even met, and the obvious joy she and Morgana found in each other provoked in him something he supposed could only be pleasure. If he ever looked at them and felt anything other than delight in their happiness, it was only due to the consequences she’d faced when she came out to their father. Uther was a man of “family values,” and he’d taken Morgana’s “lifestyle choice” as a personal betrayal. He’d cut her off, cut her out of his life completely—they hadn’t spoken in nearly five years. Arthur knew better than to even attempt to change his Uther’s mind when it came to this. From the safety of his relationship with Sophia, a woman his father had approved of from the start, Arthur could only listen to how Morgana’s absence rang hollowly in his father’s life, and remain silent.

Not that Arthur was denying that Gwen was worth it, but he knew that it had to hurt. Maybe that was one of the reasons Morgana had thrown herself into her work so completely, and worried so much about her gallery’s success. Though the gallery never really struggled, Morgana’s tendency to turn down lucrative installations that catered more to popular taste than artistic integrity definitely stacked the deck against her, competitively-speaking. Arthur hoped that this newest find would finally be her long-hoped-for shot at a stable, consistent, and respected presence in the art world of New York.

He dressed himself in the clothes Sophia had laid out to complement her newest dress. He glanced in the mirror, and reminded himself again how good of a pair they were. She'd picked him out a light blue shirt that perfectly matched his eyes, and the cut of the slacks was quite flattering as well. He bent over to lace his shoes, and winced. He was still sore from the night before, from—

He clamped down on that thought abruptly, finished dressing with single-minded intensity, and went to find Sophia.

* * *

Morgana had outdone herself this time—she'd gathered five artists together, each working in a different medium, and somehow managed to turn what could have been disharmonious chaos into a stunning visual experience. The event was in full swing by the time Arthur and Sophia arrived, but Morgana had no trouble spotting them at once.

“Arthur!” She strode over to them gracefully, her face lighting up. Her expression faltered for a moment as she offered a strained nod and smile to Sophia, before taking Arthur's arm. “Come on, I want to you meet him—you remember, the artist I was telling you about? He works in oils, predominately, but he also does some amazing experimental texture and collage work ...” She was far too dignified to drag him off, but he found himself being drawn inexorably into the throng nevertheless.

“Ah! There he is. Merlin! Merlin, I'd like you to meet my brother, Arthur.”

The man she was pulling him towards had his back to them, but Arthur could see that he was tall, with dark hair, and dressed in black skinny jeans and a midnight-blue collared shirt. He turned as they approached, and looked up with warm, blue eyes …

Arthur nearly tripped over his own feet, and from the look of shock on the man's face, the feeling was mutual. The man's mouth fell open, and Arthur felt a truly impressive blush explode across his face.

Morgana looked back and forth between them. “Have you two … met?” she asked curiously.

The man pulled himself together and smiled at her. Arthur's breath caught in his throat as he flashed to the night before, that smile following him as he'd silently staggered away—

“No, no,” the man—Merlin—assured her smoothly. “I was just surprised that you two don't look more alike.”

Morgana laughed gaily. “Well, we're really only half-siblings, but we grew up together, so it's just easier to introduce him as my brother.” She patted his arm, and smiled.

Arthur returned the smile weakly, and was saved from responding as Sophia caught up to them and attached herself to his other arm.

“Arthur, sweetheart, why don't you introduce me?” she said, her eyes betraying her pleasant tone. Arthur sighed to himself, another round of sister vs. fiancee looming in the near future, and awkwardly turned to Merlin.

“Um,” he began, but was interrupted as another man came up behind Merlin and slung his arm around Merlin's shoulders. Instantly, Merlin's entire demeanor changed—the smile disappeared and his face shuttered. His shoulders hunched in slightly, and Arthur was stunned to realize that he was actually pretty skinny despite the strength he had shown when …

He refused to finish the thought.

The stranger looked him and Sophia over, and poked Merlin in the side. “Come on, Mer, aren't you going to introduce me?”

Arthur felt a pang of sympathy—he knew that expression—and Merlin sighed. “Will, this is Morgana, the owner of the gallery. This is her brother,” Merlin's eyes darted up to Arthur's face—I'd ask what your name is, but I don't think you'd tell me—“Arthur.” He turned to Sophia apologetically. “And I'm afraid I didn't catch your name. I'm Merlin.” He extracted his arm from Will's, and Sophia extended her hand with a smile.

“I'm Sophia, Arthur's better half,” she said in her sweetest voice. They shook hands, and Arthur felt his world tilt abruptly. He recovered quickly, just as Morgana said, “Merlin, I'm so glad we found you. I've been talking Arthur's ear off about your work, and I'd love it if you could show your pieces off a bit.”

Merlin blushed and looked away. “I don't think that's—“

Will jabbed him again. “Come on, you can't say 'no' to the gallery owner! Really, Mer, you've got to start promoting yourself better—it's amazing you even got this gig, as shy as you are.”

Arthur definitely wasn't staring at Merlin, and definitely didn't see the way his face darkened momentarily before he raised his head with a chagrined smile.

“You're right,” he agreed, the blatant falseness of his tone setting Arthur's teeth on edge with its familiarity. Will was apparently as oblivious as Sophia had always been, and he just squeezed Merlin tighter.

“'Course I am. Honestly, Mer, where would you be without me?”

Merlin didn't respond, and Morgana led them away to see his work.

* * *

Arthur let out a sigh of … relief, obviously, what else could it have been? … when Merlin and Morgana were swept away by the demands of their adoring public. Merlin had only just begun to “promote,” as Will had repeated laughingly to Merlin's obvious discomfort, his first piece to them before he left, and Arthur found himself standing in between Sophia and Will as they chatted about it. Arthur tuned them out, finding himself more captivated by Merlin's work than his previous history with art would have predicted.

Merlin's style involved oil paints, but he'd done something to them to make them coagulate and clump, achieving variety of textures anywhere from congealed blood to mostly-dry clay. As a result, the painting wasn't flat—Merlin had used the raised parts to cast intentional shadows over the rest of the canvas. The actual paint itself was dark blue with swirls of black, struck through intermittently with vibrant red streaks. Arthur found himself wanting to reach out and touch it, and see if it would come off on his skin …

“So, how did you and Merlin meet?”

Sophia's words cut through his reverie. He felt himself tense, and was grateful she was no longer holding his arm.

Will laughed. “It's kind of funny, actually. We were neighbors growing up, in Rochester. It was like, us against everyone else, you know? Mer was a super sensitive kid, so I was always having to look out for him. This one time, some of the neighborhood kids were throwing stuff at him, rotten tomatoes and shit like that, and I totally got my ass kicked for him.” He chuckled at the memory, and Arthur’s stomach clenched.

Will continued. “We hung out all the time, up until high school. Then his mom moved to Brooklyn for work, and we just kind of lost touch … Flash forward to college, we both ended up at NYU, took 'Science for Poets” together, or something, and ...” He paused and grinned at them both. “Turns out we'd both come out senior year of high school. “ He shrugged. “So things just sort of progressed from there.”

“That's so sweet,” Sophia beamed at him.

“Yeah, I guess. It was just really nice to have someone from my hometown around, you know? And Mer's adorable. He really hasn't changed a bit. Still way too sensitive, except now he gets paid for it.” He gestured at the painting.

“I think it’s lovely,” Sophia gushed. “How does he get all the different textures?”

Will shrugged. “Dunno. He doesn’t paint much when I’m around. We tend to get … distracted.” He waggled his eyebrows at Sophia, who giggled. Arthur felt a muscle in his jaw jump.

Unfortunately, Will noticed. “What’s the matter, princess? Am I making you uncomfortable?”

Arthur glared at him. “Hardly.”

Will smirked at him. “So it won’t freak you out if I keep talking about how much Merlin likes it when I—”

Arthur stiffened. “We’re in public.”

“Oh Arthur, lighten up!” Sophia’s tone had just a hint of sharpness to it. “No one’s listening.” She turned to Will. “He’s always been a bit uptight, but he’s not really … you know.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “Not really what?”

Sophia made a vague gesture. “Well … Morgana is his sister,” she said significantly.

Will laughed. “Oh, that. No worries, I didn’t really think your man was a raging homophobe.” He winked at Arthur. “I just say shit sometimes. Gotta make these art things interesting, you know? It’s not really my scene … I just come along to support.”

Sophia took Arthur's arm, and he forced himself to relax. “Arthur's the same way. He's really just here to make me happy, aren't you, honey?”

Arthur managed something like a smile. Will leered suggestively at him. “Gotta keep 'em happy, right? But seriously,” he turned back to the painting, “People really seem to like this stuff. Honestly, if I didn't know Mer had done this, I could take it or leave it. But I hope he sells some of it, at least.” He grinned at Sophia. “I already told him when he's rich and famous, and I’m still just a poor nonprofit office monkey, he'd better at least keep me around for sex.”

Arthur choked, and Sophia patted him on the back. “That's pretty much what I told him, too.” She and Will laughed together, and Arthur suddenly needed to be anywhere but there.

“I'm going to get some air,” he mumbled before making his escape.

* * *

By the time he returned, Will and Sophia had moved on. Arthur snagged a flute of champagne from passing waiter and downed it in one, before returning to his examination of the painting.

Someone came up next to him, and cleared his throat. “See anything you like?”

Arthur most certainly did not flinch, or glance at Merlin out of the corner of his eye before fixing his gaze straight ahead. “Not sure. Maybe. This one.”

“I don't usually do that, you know.”

“What, chat with potential buyers?” Arthur's voice sounded strained in his own ears.

“No, fuck strange men in alleys,” Merlin said quietly.

Arthur whirled around in panic, sure that someone must have overheard, but they were miraculously alone. He forced himself to calm down, and turned back to the painting.

“Oh,” he said lamely. “Neither do I.”

“Yeah.” Merlin's voice was tight. “She's lovely.”

“So's he,” Arthur lied.

They were quiet for a moment.

“Merlin—” Arthur said his name for the first time, and could feel the weight of Merlin's gaze as he glanced over. “How much for this one?”

Merlin shrugged. “I dunno. Ask your sister. Or Will. I'm shit when it comes to the business side of things.”

“Oh.” Arthur paused, then shrugged. “Doesn't matter. I'm buying it.”

Surprised, Merlin turned to face him, and Arthur flushed. 

“I don't … I don't actually know much about art,” he admitted, “but I like this. With the shadows.” A sudden impulse struck him and, still piqued by Sophia and Will’s teasing, he took a deep breath. “Maybe you could come by when it gets delivered, to make sure it gets hung properly. You know. For the shadows.”

Merlin's small, hesitant smile warmed his skin like the sun.

“I'll deliver it myself,” Merlin said. “So I can make sure it’s perfect.”

* * *

Arthur’s heart beat in his throat as he looked himself over in the bathroom mirror the following Saturday. What in the name of all that was holy had convinced him that this would be a good idea? The gallery showing had ended the night before, and Merlin was due to stop by at any moment with the painting. Sophia had been fluttering around all morning, making sure the apartment was painfully perfect, and Arthur’s nerves had been on edge for hours. He should have done something earlier, manufactured an excuse to be somewhere else. Leon could have had an emergency, or work could have blown up Friday night … anything to keep him from being here, now.

He felt a twinge in his gut, the same one he’d been resolutely ignoring for the past week, which seemed to crop up whenever his thoughts drifted to a certain pair of blue eyes …

He gritted his teeth. This was going to be a disaster. It had been bad enough having Merlin on his mind for the past week; having him in his apartment was sure to be a special torture. 

He sighed, and wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs. On the bright side, it couldn’t possibly take very long to hang a painting, and then Merlin would leave. For good. And Arthur would never, ever have to see him again. Summoning his courage, he slipped on his corporate game face and left the bathroom.

Just in time. He heard Sophia press the buzzer to let Merlin into the building, and counted his heartbeats until Merlin knocked on their door. Fighting down a sudden wave of exhilarated panic, he hung back as Sophia answered.

Two of the men Morgana sometimes hired to help around the gallery came in with the painting, and Merlin followed after. Arthur saw Merlin’s eyes widen slightly as he saw Sophia, and he shot Arthur an unreadable look before pasting a shy smile on his face.

“Thank you again for buying this; it was the first one to sell, and I think the ‘sold’ sign encouraged the other buyers to come forward,” he said politely, shaking her hand. 

Sophia squeezed his arm, and drew him inside. “Thank Arthur; I’m just thrilled you finally got him to take an active interest in our interior decorating,” she teased. 

Arthur flushed, and Merlin’s eyes flashed to him. Arthur felt a jolt of something hot deep inside of him, and spots of color appeared on Merlin’s cheeks. “Thank you,” he said softly, before Sophia escorted him to the living room.

Arthur nodded jerkily, and followed. Yep, this was a terrible idea.

* * *

“This is a beautiful apartment,” Merlin murmured after the painting had been hung to the satisfaction of all. The hired men had made a hasty departure, but Sophia insisted that Merlin stay for coffee, and the two of them now perched on the loveseat across from the painting. Arthur had declined coffee, and made an abortive attempt to excuse himself, but Sophia’s glare kept him from escaping. Instead, he leaned against the doorframe, as far as he could get from Merlin without actually leaving the room.

Sophia beamed at Merlin. “I suppose the place does have a certain charm,” she said airily. “But we’re going to be moving after the wedding, so we might prevail on you to rehang the painting again.” She studied the painting. “It does bring the room together, though, doesn’t it?”

Merlin made a noise of assent. “When will you be moving?” he asked, his eyes flickering to Arthur. Arthur, who had most definitely not been staring at him, scowled and dropped his gaze to the expensive rug beneath his feet. 

“Well, the wedding’s in ten weeks, and then there’s the honeymoon—we’re going to France! It’s been years since we’ve been to Europe—and then we’ll need to find a new place, so …” Arthur could almost hear Sophia’s delicate shrug, “Not for some time, I suppose.”

“Ah.” Merlin sounded about as uncomfortable as Arthur felt, and Arthur couldn’t keep himself from looking at him. Merlin was swirling the coffee in his mug, the lines of his body tense. Arthur had a sudden flash of memory—Merlin sliding down the brick wall, boneless and sated, smirking up at him from beneath his dark eyelashes. A wave of arousal so intense it was almost painful crashed over him, and he clutched at the doorframe to keep from falling over.

Merlin finished his drink, and set the mug down. “Thank you for the coffee, but I have to be going,” he said awkwardly. 

Sophia frowned. “So soon? I’d hoped to be able to talk with you about art a little. You already know that Arthur’s hopeless about it, and we’ll be visiting the Louvre on our honeymoon … I’d love to get your opinion on what pieces we absolutely must see …”

Merlin straightened slightly. “Well,” he began hesitantly, “I’ve never been to Europe, but I did study a great deal of art history …” His manner became more animated as he continued to speak, his shoulders relaxing and a hint of confidence creeping into his voice. Arthur’s cock twitched—You’re going to let me do it my way—and he found himself leaning forward, drawn to the increasing authority in Merlin’s voice as he enlightened the captivated Sophia on the miracles of his craft she’d encounter in France.

After a moment, Merlin broke off, blushing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture you.”

“Oh, not at all!” Sophia laughed. “I just hope we’re able to find a tour guide half as knowledgeable as you.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him, and he laughed uncomfortably.

“I’m not, really—” he began, but she cut him off.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she chided. “Will was right, you really are too humble for your own good.” She patted his arm, and Arthur could see him flinch from across the room.

“Oh! That reminds me!” Sophia exclaimed, not noticing Merlin’s discomfort. “Arthur, I have a wonderful idea.” She turned to him, and Arthur looked at her in alarm. Merlin, sitting just behind her, looked at him with wide eyes, but Arthur had no idea what Sophia was thinking.

He wasn’t kept in suspense for long. “Will told me that Merlin does commissions, and I was thinking, why don’t you have him paint me something as a wedding present? I know you haven’t figured out what to get me yet, and this would be perfect!” She turned to Merlin, beaming. “It doesn’t have to be done by the wedding, but I adore your work, and it would mean so much to me …” She trailed off, and looked at him hopefully.

Merlin gulped. “I—suppose …”

Sophia grinned in triumph. “Wonderful! I’ll send Arthur to arrange it next week. I want it to be a surprise!” She smiled winningly at them both.

“O-okay,” Merlin stammered.

“Arthur?” There was just the slightest edge to her tone, and Arthur felt something in his gut twist, trapped.

He managed what he hoped was a convincing smile. “Of course.”

As Sophia beamed at him, he caught a flash of panic in Merlin’s eyes. The twisted feeling in his stomach grew, writhing and pulsing, as Sophia showed Merlin out.

“Next week!” He heard her call out happily as Merlin left.

Arthur closed his eyes, and groaned.

* * *

After work the following Wednesday, Arthur found himself in the West Village. He checked and re-checked the address on the card Sophia had given him, just to be sure. He’d never spent much time in the area, and while he wasn’t nearly as out-of-place here now as he’d have been during the neighborhood’s bohemian heyday, it was still a far cry away from his Upper East Side upbringing and current residence.

He was vaguely surprised to see that Merlin’s address corresponded with an ancient brownstone—a historical landmark, according to the bronze plaque on the door. Arthur had never needed to worry about property values, first as his father’s son, and later as his own man, but he had the general impression that a place like this should be far beyond the reach of a new-to-the-scene artist, no matter how successful his first pieces had been.

He rang the call button, and was buzzed in without question. Climbing the elegant staircase to the second floor, he marveled again to find Merlin in such a place.

Arriving at Merlin’s door, he paused and steeled himself before knocking hesitantly.

“‘S open,” came a muffled voice. Taking a deep breath, he pushed inside …

… and gasped. The room was filled with light, the pure afternoon sun pouring in from the huge windows lining the wall. What was supposed to be a living/dining room combination was completely bare of all traditional furniture, and instead boasted three easels, a huge drafting table, and a raised platform along the wall that was covered in a mountain of pillows and soft, flowing fabric.

But none of that was what had made Arthur gasp. Rather, his eyes were riveted on the man lounging, naked, on top of the pillows. A translucent swath of material just managed to cover his … but otherwise left nothing to the imagination.

Merlin was hunched over an easel, a look of intense concentration creasing his forehead.

“Just a sec,” he murmured, distracted. “Almost done.”

Arthur’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. He stood there awkwardly, shifting his weight from foot to foot, until Merlin straightened, and made a noise of satisfaction.

“Here, what do you think?” he asked, glancing up at the man.

Rising in all his glory, the man strode over the easel. Arthur was fairly sure he’d never blushed this hard before in his life. He bit his lip as the muscles on the man’s back flexed, bent over Merlin’s work.

“Perfect!” he pronounced, nudging Merlin with his elbow. “Lance will love it!” He smirked up at Merlin. “You have no idea how much anniversary sex this will get me.”

Merlin laughed, and flushed slightly. “That was, of course, the entire point. You’re horrible,” he chided, his voice full of affection.

The man straightened, and looked over at Arthur, still smirking. “You up next? Fair warning, those pillows aren’t nearly as soft as they look.” He winked at Arthur, who averted his eyes.

Merlin made a strangled noise. “Gwaine, stop. He’s here about a commission. For his fiancee. As a wedding present.”

Gwaine snorted. “So? Why not combine ‘I do’ with ‘I’d do you’?”

Arthur may have been gaping when Merlin glanced up at him. Merlin rolled his eyes, and gave Gwaine a gentle push. “Go on, get dressed and get out of here. I have an actual paying client to attend to.”

Gwaine grumbled, but obeyed. Passing by Arthur much more closely than was called for given the size of the room, he began to dress as Merlin came out from behind the easel.

Merlin’s jeans were stained with old paint, had huge holes in each knee, and just barely managed to stay on his slender hips. His black t-shirt clung to his frame, and Arthur swallowed audibly. A smudge of something—charcoal? Arthur wasn’t entirely sure—was streaked across his cheek, and Arthur found himself staring at the way it stood out against Merlin’s pale skin.

“So … I’ll be seeing you, then?” Gwaine asked from behind him.

Merlin rolled his eyes again. “I’ll call you when it’s done, and you can come pick it up.”

Gwaine chuckled. “Great. Lance won’t even know what hit him.” Without further ado, he left. Arthur jumped slightly as the door closed behind him, and Merlin scanned his face.

“Sorry about that,” he began. “Old college friend. You found the place okay?”

Arthur nodded. “It’s … not quite what I expected,” he said lamely.

Merlin gave him a small smile. “What, not the standard ‘starving artist’ habitat?”

He brushed past Arthur, and Arthur’s gaze followed him into the kitchen. “I didn’t mean—” he trailed off awkwardly.

Merlin returned with two glasses of water. Arthur accepted one, taking a drink to hide his embarrassment.

Merlin’s smile was warmer this time. “Don’t worry about it. I get that a lot, actually, and you’re right.” He gestured around the room. “I’d never be able to afford this on my own. I inherited it.”


Merlin nodded. “My grand-uncle was a pretty successful doctor, and he bought this place before it went all upscale. According to my mom, his colleagues thought he was crazy for living down here with the artistic riffraff, but Uncle Gaius always was a bit eccentric. He left it to Mom, and we rented it out while she was working in Brooklyn. But when she died …”

His face clouded momentarily, then cleared. “Anyway, I’m lucky to have it, you know?”

Arthur felt a pang of sympathy. His mother had died when he was a baby, but he’d known Morgana’s mother, and Morgana had never fully recovered from her death. At least Morgana had Gwen, now. Arthur had the sneaking suspicion that having Will just wasn’t the same.

“So, you work here, then?” His attempt to change the subject was inane at best, and he wanted to beat his head against the wall. Luckily, Merlin seemed to take his conversational failure in stride.

“Yeah, why pay for a studio when the lighting here is so good? Makes the commute a breeze, too.” He grinned, and Arthur found himself giving him a small smile in return.

They were silent for a moment. Just as it was starting to get awkward again, Merlin seemed to shake himself. “Um. So, how do you want it?”

Arthur choked on his water. Merlin’s eyes widened.

“The commission! For Sophia. What—what do you—what should it be?” he babbled.

Arthur was glad he wasn’t the only one whose conversational skills seemed to have vanished. Feeling slightly more in control of the situation, he shrugged. “I don’t care. You’re the artist.”

Merlin frowned slightly. “Come on, I need something to work with. What kind of things does she like?”

Arthur shrugged again, uncomfortable. “I don’t know … She likes clothes. And shoes. Shopping. Expensive things. The Opera. Art.” He struggled to come up with more specific details; usually Sophia just told him what she wanted, and he had his secretary arrange for her to get it.

Merlin raised his eyebrows. “You’re obviously deeply in love.”

Arthur felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach, whatever words he was going to say dying on his tongue.

Merlin’s face went white. “Oh god, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry—”

Very carefully, Arthur set his empty glass down on an endtable. “Don’t worry about it,” he said dully, clamping down on the hysterical laughter that threatened to burst out of him.

Merlin fell quiet, guilt written across his face.

Arthur looked up at him. “At least we’re both completely inept at this whole small-talk thing,” he said mirthlessly.

Merlin made an unhappy noise, and met Arthur’s eyes. “Listen—about that night—”

Arthur felt a rush of want as the memory swept over him, and clenched his jaw. Merlin’s mouth twisted, but he continued.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have … I saw your ring. But you … you’re just so … and I thought you were checking me out, and you seemed like you wanted it, and I wanted you so much...” He trailed off, staring earnestly into Arthur’s eyes.

Arthur went cold. Of course Merlin was apologizing. Merlin was with Will, and he was with Sophia. This was for the best.

“Yeah,” he agreed hoarsely.

“Yeah what?” Merlin asked uncertainly.

Yeah, you shouldn’t have. “Yeah, I wanted it.”

Merlin stared at him. “You have Sophia,” he said weakly.

Arthur managed to meet his eyes. “And you have Will.”

Merlin flinched, and Arthur saw anger flash across his face as he looked away. “No. Will thinks he has me.”

Arthur was silent, confused.

Merlin continued, his voice carefully nonchalant, still not looking at him. “You guys talked after I left, right? At the gallery.”

Arthur made a noise of affirmation.

“Let me guess.” Merlin turned to face Arthur. His face was twisted, as though he’d eaten something incredibly bitter. “He told you how he’s always taken care of me. How I’m too sensitive. How I’m adorable.” He spat the last word out like a curse.

Arthur opened his mouth to lie, to deny it, but Merlin’s expression flashed to anger again, and he glared at Arthur. He closed the distance between them with a single step, stopping so close that Arthur could feel the heat radiating from him. “I’m not adorable, Arthur,” he hissed.

Arthur swallowed weakly, his entire body suddenly on fire. “N-no,” he gasped.

Merlin’s eyes were dark, shadowed. They flickered down to Arthur’s lips, then up to his eyes again. The silence lengthened, Arthur’s heartbeat in his own ears the only thing he could hear, until—

“Unless you stop me,” Merlin said in a low, quiet voice, “I’m going to kiss you. And then I’m going to fuck you. Again.”

Arthur’s mouth went dry, a blade of lust stabbing through him.

Merlin waited for another moment, before surging forward. His mouth captured Arthur’s, his tongue forcing its way between Arthur’s lips, his hand gripping the back of Arthur’s neck and pulling him into the kiss. Arthur’s eyelids fluttered shut and he moaned, deep and low in his throat.

Merlin’s other hand wrapped around Arthur like a vise, pulling his hips forward and grinding their erections together. Merlin forced his knee in between Arthur’s legs and shoved up into him, biting his lip, sending a shudder through Arthur’s body.

Merlin pulled away and stared at him, eyes shadowed and unreadable. Arthur wondered what he must look like—lips swollen, cheeks flushed, mouth open. Then Merlin ducked his head and bit Arthur’s neck, just hard enough to hurt. Arthur cried out and clutched at Merlin, hips thrusting up involuntarily. Merlin thrust back against him, and Arthur dazedly thought they were going to come like that, together, pushing back and forth in the middle of the room.

Then Merlin was pushing him backwards, his arm around Arthur’s waist the only thing keeping Arthur from falling, and Arthur stumbled back, back, back, until he ran into the drafting table.

“Up,” Merlin commanded. Shaking, Arthur obeyed, sitting on the table. Merlin pushed him flat on his back, legs still hanging off the edge, and shoved in between his legs. Their erections pressed against each other through their clothes, and Arthur clung to Merlin’s shoulders as Merlin buried his face in Arthur’s neck. Merlin’s hands flew to Arthur’s belt, and he tore Arthur’s slacks and boxer briefs down over his hips. Arthur struggled to kick off his shoes, but Merlin stopped him. “No.”

He backed away, pulling Arthur’s slacks down around his ankles. Then, kneeling down, he ducked under Arthur’s legs and came up between them. Arthur watched, eyes wide, as Merlin undid his jeans with one hand and rummaged in a drawer in the table with the other.

“You keep those here?” Arthur asked breathlessly as Merlin produced a condom and packet of lube. Merlin rolled on the condom and slicked himself without answering. Bending over Arthur, he pulled Arthur till his hips were just hanging off the table, and lined his cock up with Arthur’s hole. Arthur’s stomach clenched in anticipation—Merlin wasn’t going to prep him, he realized dizzily. Merlin shoved inside with a single thrust, and Arthur cried out as he collapsed back against the table.

“Will likes to come over on his lunch break,” Merlin half-snarled, biting his ear, pounding into him again and again and again, and Arthur couldn’t do anything but hold on, and take it, until it was over.

* * *

Merlin stayed inside him when they finished. Arthur had come first, and Merlin had fucked him through it, Arthur’s whimpers punctuating each thrust, until Merlin came with his face buried in Arthur’s shoulder. He lay on top of Arthur, just breathing, and Arthur trembled underneath him, spent and sore and dazed.

Finally Merlin pulled out, removing the condom and dropping it into the trash with a blank expression. Arthur sat up shakily, feeling weak.

Merlin looked at him, face unreadable. “This doesn’t mean anything, you know,” he said.

Arthur looked down at himself, saw his own cum splashed across his shirt, and nodded.

Merlin continued. “You’re getting married. And I’m with Will.”

Arthur nodded again. Merlin stayed silent, and Arthur glanced up.

Merlin was looking at him, a strange smile pasted across his face. “Your shirt’s ruined.”

Arthur was about to say that it could be cleaned, when Merlin moved forward. Picking a brush up from a nearby palette, he painted a bright red stripe across Arthur’s shirt. Arthur glared up at him, but his protests died unspoken at the look in Merlin’s eyes.

Without a word, Arthur removed his shirt and set it carefully down on the table next to him. He stared at Merlin steadily, his undershirt plastered to him with sweat, his slacks still around his ankles.

Merlin’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. When his voice came back, it was breathless. “I’ll work up a sketch, and you can come back to look at it. Next week. Same time.”

Arthur just nodded.

* * *

“Two months to go. Arthur … are you absolutely sure about this?”

Arthur took a large sip from his scotch, and waited for his annoyance to settle before answering.

“Yes, Morgana, I’m sure.” He tried to sound firm, but just ended up sounding petulant, and he winced internally. Morgana sighed unhappily, and glowered at him from behind the rim of her martini. Arthur reminded himself that their Friday lunches were important for sibling solidarity, and didn’t glower back.

“It’s not that I don’t like her…” Morgana began. “Wait, no, scratch that. It’s exactly that I don’t like her. And that I just want you to be happy.” She looked at him earnestly, and he shifted uncomfortably. They didn’t do this—they didn’t do earnest. They didn’t do concerned. They did teasing and bickering and bitching about work.

“If I thought she’d made you happy for one minute—one second, even—I’d support you with everything I have,” Morgana said seriously.

Arthur scowled at his drink, and didn’t respond. Morgana made a soft noise, and covered his hand in hers. “Arthur,” she said quietly. “You deserve to be happy.”

He pulled his hand away. “I’m happy,” he said.

“Sometimes,” she agreed. “But not with her.”

He swallowed, and looked up at her. “Morgana.” He searched her face, pleading with her, willing her to understand. “I have to do this. I’m not … I’m not strong, like you.”

Morgana bit her lip, and looked away. “But you could be, Arthur,” she said quietly. “You could be.”

* * *

Uther had them over for dinner every other Sunday. Usually Arthur looked forward to, at the very least, an excellent meal followed by an exquisite nightcap while Sophia charmed his father, but this Sunday’s meal sat heavy in his stomach and, though he forced enough of it down, he had no taste for the bourbon. Sophia was at her best, he reflected, ignoring the way the thought made him want to drink until he passed out. She looked lovely, and his father seemed even more pleased than usual with his son’s choice of a bride. While she was freshening up in the bathroom, Uther raised his glass, and Arthur followed suit automatically. “To a perfect match,” Uther said with a small smile. “She’s far too good for you.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, as if in agreement. “I learned from the best,” he said smoothly, and Uther inclined his head.

“Remind me again who will be in the wedding party,” Uther said after a moment. “Have you settled on your final groomsmen?”

Arthur bit his lip before replying. Leon was an obvious choice, as were three cousins that he didn’t particularly care for, but whose inclusion would please his father. His final two, however …

Maybe it was the fact that Uther seemed particularly relaxed that made him careless with his words. Or maybe it was the bourbon. “I’m only having four groomsmen, Father.”

Uther frowned slightly. “Sophia will have six bridesmaids?”

Arthur nodded, a sudden wave of giddiness rising in his chest.

“Then you must have six groomsmen.”

“There will be six people in my party, Father,” Arthur said, throwing caution to the wind. “But only four of them will be men.”

Uther looked at him, uncomprehending.

“Morgana and Gwen,” Arthur said flatly.

Uther stared for a moment before his face darkened, turning a disturbing shade of red. Just as he was about to respond, Sophia returned.

“What did I miss?” she asked gaily.

Arthur just looked at his father. Uther calmed himself visibly, and responded in clipped tones. “My son has just informed me that … that the wedding party will include …”

“Morgana and Gwen?” Sophia supplied brightly.

Both men turned to stare at her, and her brow creased prettily with concern. “Had he not told you before? I met them at an art showing, and was so taken with them, I just had to invite them to the wedding. And then when I learned that Morgana was your—was Arthur’s half-sister, I begged him to include them in the wedding party.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, and she looked up at Uther from beneath her eyelashes. “Weddings are about family, and I just want mine to be … perfect.” She fell silent, and looked down at her hands.

Arthur stared as Uther reached out hesitantly, and placed a hand on top of hers. “Of course,” he said gently. “My dear, you are right, of course. Family above all else.” He looked over at Arthur, and Arthur could read the thought behind his eyes: She’s far too good for you.

And in that moment, weak with relief, Arthur agreed.

* * *

“Thank you,” Arthur murmured as they sat in the back of the cab. Sophia shifted against him, and laid her head on his shoulder.

“I know how much it means to you,” she said quietly. “Your father … he’s a good man, but he’s not perfect. I hate it when he hurts you.”

He put his arm around her, and kissed her hair, and closed his eyes against the guilt that threatened to overwhelm him.

* * *

The next week, Arthur couldn’t wait until after work to see M—the sketch. He told himself that only made sense—he owed it to Sophia to make sure that the painting was perfect. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he told his secretary he was taking a long lunch, and ducked out. The door to Merlin’s apartment was unlocked, and he pushed inside, anticipation swelling inside him—

Will was pressing Merlin down against the drafting table, sucking on Merlin’s neck and grinding against him. Arthur froze in the doorway, bile rising in the back of his throat—he must have made a sound, because Merlin’s eyes snapped open and widened almost comically when they saw him.

“W-Will!” he choked out. “S-stop!”

Will moaned, and raised his head to look at Merlin. “Mer, you can’t just—”

“No, look!

Will turned with a scowl, which only deepened as he saw Arthur. “Not to be an asshole, but what the hell are you doing here?” he snarled.

Merlin struggled out from under him—thank god, they were both still fully clothed, if rumpled—and ran a hand through his hair. “I told you, I’m doing a commission for him. Wedding present for Sophia.”

“Yeah, I remember, I just thought you said he’d come by later,” Will said, not quite whining.

“I … have to work late. Thought I could come by earlier. I’m sorry, I should have called, I’ll just—” Arthur stammered.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Merlin said hurriedly. “It’s not a problem.”

Will looked like he was going to disagree, but Merlin pushed away from the table. Shooting Will a reproachful look, he headed over to one of the easels. “Here. Take a look.”

Ignoring Will’s glare, Arthur crossed the room and stood shoulder to shoulder with Merlin.

“I was thinking, something abstract, but with the suggestion of—” Merlin began, and Will groaned.

“If you’re gonna start talking about art stuff, I’m heading back to work,” he threatened.

Merlin didn’t even look up. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”

Arthur glanced over at Will, whose mouth was hanging open quite unattractively, he thought. After a moment, when Merlin showed no signs of retracting his statement, Will stomped to the door, making sure to slam it on his way out.

“Mature,” Arthur commented mildly, and Merlin glared at him.

“You really should have called.”

Arthur looked away. “I know,” he said quietly. “I just couldn’t wait—”

“What do you think of it?” Merlin interrupted, indicating the sketch again. It was done in faint colored pencil, an abstract, swirling design that made Arthur think of galaxies and eternity and falling into time.

“Um,” he said. “It’s nice.”

“Nice,” Merlin repeated, voice torn between amusement and offense.

Arthur shrugged. “I told you, I don’t know much about art. I think Sophia will like it, though.”

Merlin looked back at the easel. “And that’s what matters, after all,” he said neutrally.

Arthur studied him, but Merlin’s eyes were unfocused, staring at the sketch. “Why,” he began hesitantly, “do you let him …?”

Merlin looked at him sharply. “Why do you fuck Sophia?” he snapped.

Arthur looked away. “Are you … working on some new pieces?” he asked, noticing the stack of blank canvases that leaned against the drafting table.

Merlin brushed past him and walked over to them, adjusting them proprietorially. “Yes. Morgana wants to show my work. The opening will be in a little less than nine weeks.”

Arthur’s throat felt tight. “What day?”


The day before his …

“You should come,” Merlin said neutrally.

“Can’t,” Arthur choked out. “Bachelor party.”



They were quiet for a moment. Then Merlin turned to face him. “Take off your clothes.”

Arthur blinked. “What?”

“Take,” repeated Merlin patiently. “Off. Your clothes.”

Arthur stared at him. Merlin stared back, his expression serious. Arthur felt his face getting hot, and averted his eyes. Hands shaking, he began to strip. He nearly fell over trying to get out of his slacks, and Merlin crossed his arms.

“Graceful,” he commented.

Arthur glared at him. “I’d like to see you—”

“Did I say you could speak?”

Arthur’s mouth snapped shut, and he almost fell over again. Eyes wide, he just stared at Merlin, who smirked. “Better.”

When Arthur was nearly naked, Merlin spoke again. “Leave your socks on.”

Arthur’s cock, more than half hard already, twitched, and Merlin smiled. “Come here.”

Slowly, Arthur walked over to him, stopping less than a foot away. Merlin’s eyes raked over his body, the blatant appraisal making Arthur fully hard. He shut his eyes and dug his nails into his palm.

He started as Merlin’s hand wrapped around his cock. He leaned forward, but Merlin pushed him back with his other hand. “Stay.”

Arthur stood, fists clenched, legs shaking, as Merlin worked his cock slowly, so slowly. Then he let go and moved away, and Arthur heard the familiar sound of a condom wrapper being torn open.

“Will was going to use this with me,” Merlin said huskily in his ear. “But I like this idea much more, don’t you?”

Arthur whimpered, and Merlin chuckled. “You are so … perfect,” he breathed. His cock nudged against Arthur’s entrance, and Arthur rocked back against it.

“And eager.” His voice dropped. “You can’t wait for it, can you? You can’t wait to have my cock inside you, filling you. Fucking you.”

Arthur moaned, and Merlin laughed, low and harsh. “It makes you so hard, doesn’t it? Knowing all I have to do is tell you to stop, stay, bend over, spread yourself. Knowing you’ll do whatever I tell you to, and love it, and come crawling back for more.” He pulled Arthur back against his chest, the cotton of his shirt soft and warm on Arthur’s skin, and Arthur shuddered. The slippery head of Merlin’s cock pressed into him slightly, and he tried to press back, but Merlin held him still. “No,” he whispered. “You don’t get to do that. You’re not in control here. I am.” With a single thrust, he embedded himself in Arthur. “I am,” he said again, his voice breaking.

They stood, not moving, Merlin completely buried in Arthur, holding him up with an arm across his chest, breath hot in Arthur’s ear. Then Merlin’s other hand reached around to grasp his cock again, and Merlin began to move in him.

Arthur’s head fell back against Merlin’s shoulder, his arms hanging limply at his sides as Merlin thrust into him. Merlin was slower, more controlled than he’d been the time before, more like their first time—Arthur felt that same sensation, as though he couldn’t control his own body, as though the world had narrowed until all existence was nothing more than each perfect thrust. Merlin’s hand was tight around him, forcing him to fuck Merlin’s hand just as Merlin was fucking him. Arthur lost himself in the pleasure, limp in Merlin’s arms, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

He felt Merlin come inside him, and cried out as Merlin’s grip tightened on him, almost painfully. That brought him over the edge, and he spilled his release over Merlin’s hand. They stood, rocking gently together, as the aftershocks faded. Then, still inside Arthur, Merlin raised his hand to Arthur’s mouth. Arthur tasted himself on Merlin’s skin, and he knees trembled as he licked Merlin’s fingers clean. Then Merlin grabbed his chin and forced his head back, claiming his mouth in a deep, rough kiss. They parted for air, and Merlin withdrew.

Feeling suddenly lost, Arthur looked around for something to clean himself up with.

“Don’t.” Merlin said, his back to Arthur. “Put your clothes back on.” He turned, his eyes dark with lust. “I want to know you’re spending the rest of the day like this, and that it’s because of me.”

Arthur nodded, and began to pull on his slacks. He hissed when Merlin came up behind him, unheard, and pressed a single finger deep into him.

He didn’t make it back to the office.

* * *

Arthur arrived home at the usual time, outwardly none the worse for wear. Merlin’s shower was quite spacious, and he was just lucky the pruning of his fingers had faded by the time he entered his own apartment.

Sophia was waiting for him. Or, rather, Sophia and a mostly-empty bottle of wine were waiting for him. He froze, taking in the sight of his fiancee curled around the bottle on their black leather couch, tears streaming down her face in the least artful way possible.

“Soph?” He whispered the nickname he’d had for her when they first started dating five years ago, before she confided in him that she hated how common it sounded.

She sniffled, but didn’t reply. Arthur gently shut the door behind him, and softly walked into the room. He paused for a moment, uncertain, and she raised her head.

“A-Arthur?” she said, her voice quivering.

Not knowing what to say, he knelt down next to her and looked at her red-rimmed eyes. “Soph, what …?”

Her eyes met his for a moment before she burst into tears.

Arthur felt like the floor was giving out beneath him. Fighting down panic, he awkwardly took her in his arms, and slid onto the couch, cradling her. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay,” he murmured. She sobbed, and clung to him, and he sat there, helpless.

He had no idea how much time passed before she calmed enough to speak, but eventually she took a deep breath. “Arthur, I …” She stopped.

“Soph, tell me.”

Shaking, she pulled out of his arms. She turned to face him, and he barely managed to keep from flinching at the naked expression of pain she wore.

“Do you love me?” she asked quietly.

“Of-of course I do,” he replied automatically, shaken.

Her eyes filled with tears again. “I want to believe you, Arthur, I do, but …”

Fear clenched in the pit of his stomach. “But what?”

She looked at him steadily even as the tears threatened to spill over. “But you’re never here, and when you are, it’s like living with a ghost … You’re so cold, so emotionless, and it wasn’t like this before, remember? When we first got together, and we couldn’t keep our h-hands off each other …” She choked for a moment, then continued. “And I know you’re busy at work and planning the wedding is stressful, I know you hate it, but … but … I feel like I’m losing you and I c-can’t …” She burst into tears again, and Arthur felt like a mountain had fallen on his chest.

“God, no, Soph!” He took her in his arms, and she sobbed into his shoulder. “You’re right, I’ve been terrible, it’s just work and the wedding...” He was babbling, the words flowing out of him so easily, too easily. “And I’m sorry, I’ll be better, I’ll be perfect. I love you.” He rocked her as she cried. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whispered, but his guilt did not fade.

* * *

Later that night, Arthur lay staring up at the ceiling as Sophia snuggled against him, asleep. His arm was numb underneath her, but he couldn’t summon the will to move it.

They were both still naked after the sex they’d had, Sophia clinging to him like he was the only solid thing in the world as he fought his way past the guilt to do his duty. He had nearly failed—only the memory of Merlin’s face, his smug smirk and lowered lashes, had seen him through. After, he’d gone through the motions, holding her, caressing her hair, like he’d always done before, and she’d finally drifted off to sleep, a smile on her face.

He shut his eyes, trying to will himself into oblivion, but sleep did not come. Instead, he remembered the feel of Merlin inside him, how he’d been held, stroked … How he hadn’t needed to do anything, just let go, let Merlin take him …

Sophia stirred against him, and burrowed closer, and the aching emptiness in his chest refused to go away.

* * *

The next three weeks passed as if Arthur were in a dream. It was like he hovered outside of his body, watching himself fill every spare instant with things he normally loathed: attending countless meetings, sending endless memos, attending numerous happy hours with the rest of the board, taking Sophia to dinner, and then returning home with her …

In the back of his mind, he knew he couldn’t go on like this much longer, but the wedding was approaching like the end of the world: he had no idea what would remain in its aftermath, he couldn’t plan past that point, he just had to make it till then. The busier he was, the easier it was to keep himself from questioning, from wondering, from thinking at all.

Five weeks before the wedding, Sophia greeted him after work with a kiss and a message. “Merlin called. He said he wants you to come by and see how the painting’s turning out. He said there’s still time to fix it if you don’t like it, but only if you come soon.”

Arthur felt the bottom drop out of his carefully-constructed calm. He barely heard what she said next over the ringing in his ears.

“I told him you could stop by tomorrow after work. I know we’d thought about going to dinner, but I can take the time to run some errands for the wedding, so …”

Blindly, he nodded his agreement, and went in search of the scotch.

* * *

The next day he paused, his hand trembling on Merlin’s door. He could still leave—tell Sophia he got caught in traffic, that he’d had to work late, that he was sure the painting was fine, anything …

Before he had decided consciously, he found himself pushing the door open and entering the apartment.

“Hello?” he called out, greeted with an empty room.

“Be there in sec,” Merlin’s voice came from the kitchen. A moment later, he emerged with two steaming mugs. “Coffee?”

Arthur accepted a mug and sipped it gingerly. Merlin was wearing the old, torn jeans Arthur had seen him in before, and Arthur’s hands were shaking.

“Would you like to see the painting?” Merlin asked casually, carefully.

“Not … really.”

Merlin looked at him quizzically, and Arthur ducked his head.

“I mean, whatever you do, I’m sure it will be perfect, and—” Arthur broke off. He shut his eyes, willing himself not to continue, not to say it, but—“And that’s not really why I came,” he finished quietly.

“Oh, thank god,” Merlin breathed. Arthur heard the clink of a mug being set down, and a moment later, Merlin took his mug as well. Arthur opened his eyes to find Merlin standing directly in front of him, and heat rose in his cheeks.

Without a word, Merlin stepped forward until they were just inches apart, and took Arthur’s face in his hands. They stood still, frozen, just breathing each other in, until Merlin closed the distance between them, kissing Arthur deeply, gently.

Arthur moaned into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s waist, clinging to Merlin as Merlin’s tongue slowly explored every inch of his mouth. 

Then Merlin pulled away and searched his face. Arthur felt raw, exposed, naked in a way he hadn’t before, as Merlin took his hands and led him back through the apartment, to the bedroom.

Merlin undressed him slowly, carefully setting each article of clothing on a chair, before taking Arthur in his arms again and running his hands up and down Arthur’s back. Arthur buried his face in Merlin’s neck, but it wasn’t enough this time—he wanted to feel Merlin, not through his clothes, but pressed up against him, hard and warm, skin to skin …

As if Merlin had read his thoughts, he gently pushed Arthur back onto the bed, before pulling his shirt off over his head. Arthur breathed in sharply at the sight of Merlin’s slender, pale form bending over him, kissing him again before removing the rest of his clothes. Then Merlin was crawling on top of him, pressing him into the mattress, covering him as their bodies rubbed together for the first time.

Arthur lost track of time as Merlin covered him in kisses, teasing and caressing him until he was so hard he thought a single touch would set him off. Merlin touched him everywhere but there, smiling against his skin and holding him down when Arthur’s hips bucked involuntarily.

“Please,” Arthur moaned, and Merlin captured the word in a kiss. As Arthur lay gasping for breath, Merlin pulled away.

“You keep those here, too?” Arthur gasped as Merlin withdrew the necessary supplies from his nightstand.

“Boy scout,” Merlin murmured into his mouth, raising his hand in the three-fingered salute. “Be prepared.”

Arthur managed a surprised laugh before Merlin pushed his leg up to his chest. He fell silent as Merlin slicked his fingers, and stared into Merlin’s eyes as Merlin pressed first one finger, then another, into him.

Arthur’s entire body tensed, then went limp as Merlin prepped him, slow and gentle, pressing kisses into his jaw, neck, and chest. When Merlin finally removed his fingers and buried himself deep inside Arthur, they both moaned.

“God—Arthur—” Merlin choked out, and Arthur gasped as Merlin’s hips hitched forward. He clutched at Merlin’s back, but Merlin pulled away slightly. Capturing both Arthur’s wrists, he pinned them over Arthur’s head with a single hand, before dipping down to plunder Arthur’s mouth. His hips began to move, and Arthur spread himself as wide as he could, drawing Merlin down deeper, closer, until he couldn’t tell where he ended and Merlin began.

Arthur’s eyes fell shut—he couldn’t keep them open, couldn’t see the way Merlin was looking at him and remember how to breathe. Merlin’s breath was hot against his ear as he whispered, “I’ve got you, it’s okay. Let go, Arthur. Let go.”

Arthur came with a strangled cry, which echoed through the room before blending with Merlin’s own.

* * *

Merlin lay on top of him, still inside him, and Arthur had never felt safer, more relaxed, more peaceful in his entire life. Merlin murmured into his neck, mouthing just below his ear.

“I love—” Merlin choked out, and Arthur’s stomach clenched, “—the way you feel when I’m inside you. The way we fit together. It’s perfect.”

Arthur’s heart pounded, and Merlin kissed him again. He kissed back, but something small and cold had begun to grow in his stomach. He shut his eyes, only to open them again in panic as Sophia’s face swam behind his eyelids. Merlin looked at him questioningly, and Arthur managed a small half-smile. He kissed Merlin through the twisted feeling rising in his chest.

“I should go,” he murmured against Merlin’s lips. After a moment, Merlin withdrew, pulling him to his feet, holding him close for a moment, before letting him go.

“Yeah,” he said huskily. “I’m … I’m glad you came.”

Arthur looked into his blue eyes, and felt something inside him die. “Me too,” he whispered.

* * *

Arthur sat in his car outside of Merlin’s apartment, forehead pressed against the steering wheel. “It’s over,” he whispered. “It’s done.”

The wave of emotion that broke over him must have been relief, and the tears that threatened to escape were only those of joy as he, finally, made the right choice.

* * *

“You’re making the wrong choice,” Morgana said bluntly. Gwen sat next to her, holding her hand, and biting her lip as Arthur glared. Normally, he’d have been thrilled to include Gwen in their Friday lunch, but this week, it felt like an ambush.

“Gee, Morgana, tell me how you really feel,” he snapped, retreating behind a shield of sarcasm.

Gwen looked at him unhappily. “We know it’s not our place, Arthur, but we both care about you … well, obviously Morgana does, she’s your sister, but I do too, and—” She took his hand, and Arthur just couldn’t be angry when she looked at him like that, “and we both think that marrying Sophia …” She trailed off.

Arthur scowled. “Why wait till now to say it outright?”

Morgana pursed her lips. “Because we didn’t think you’d let it get this far.”

When Arthur turned to her, face dark, Gwen interrupted.

“She’s right, Arthur. We both figured you’d go along with the wedding plans for a while, but then you’d realize … But it’s only a month, now, and …” She let go of his hand and looked at him sadly.

Arthur couldn’t look at either of them. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked quietly.

“Call it off. Tell Sophia thanks, but no thanks. End it,” Morgana said harshly.

Arthur winced, feeling a headache coming on. “Father would kill me.”

“He’d understand—” Gwen began.

“What, like he understood about Morgana?” he snapped.

“It’s not the same,” Morgana stated. Then she paused, and looked him straight in the eye. “Is it?” she asked quietly.

Arthur just stared at her, his heart pounding. “I can’t do it,” he said finally. “I can’t do it to Sophia.”

Morgana looked like she was about to protest, and Arthur rose. Throwing down enough money to cover the bill, he swallowed. “I can’t do it to Father.”

“Arthur—” Morgana started, then stopped.

Arthur shut his eyes. “I can’t. I’m his only son.” He swallowed. “And having two gay kids would destroy him.”

He didn’t look back at their stunned expressions as he left. 

He didn’t need to.

* * *

Sophia must have given Merlin his number, Arthur realized numbly as Merlin’s voice, distorted over the airwaves, cut into him and left him raw.

“... so before I finish it, do you want to come give it the final stamp of approval?” Merlin’s voice sounded normal, professional, but Arthur could hear what he wasn’t saying. He tried to respond, but no words came out.

“Arthur? Are you there?”

Arthur swallowed. “Merlin.” His voice sounded cold, business-like. He didn’t wince. “Things are pretty busy here, with only two weeks till the w-wedding,” and if his voice cracked slightly, it was only because the evening air was dry, “so could you just … finish it and send it over with a bill when it’s done?”

The other end of the phone was quiet. Arthur shut his eyes, and counted his breaths.

“Fine.” Merlin’s voice was faint. Then, stronger, “Yeah. That’s fine. That’s perfect.” Arthur did wince this time, as the bitterness of Merlin’s tone pierced him. “I’ll send it over. Have a good night.”

And he was gone.

* * *

He should have expected it. Really, he should have. He knew that Merlin’s opening started at six, and that Leon planned to pick him up for his bachelor’s party at nine. He knew how much Sophia had enjoyed the last one, and how excited she was about the painting Merlin was doing for her. He should have expected it.

So why, when Sophia asked him to go with her—Only for a little while, I promise—did he feel like all the air was ripped from his lungs?

She must have seen his reaction, because she patted his cheek reassuringly. “I know it will be boring, but even just for an hour? It’s better than moping around here before your party tonight. I'll meet you at your office and we can go right from there.”

Arthur couldn’t speak, and she took his silence for assent. “I’ll bring something for you to change into,” she beamed. She kissed him on the cheek—“Have a wonderful day, honey”—and shooed him out the door.

* * *

They took a cab from his office. He sat in the back, palms sweaty on his thighs, as Sophia rested her head on his shoulder.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he repeated automatically. His mouth was dry. He needed a drink.

She took his arm when they arrived, and led him into the gallery. Morgana was surprised to see them—they hadn’t really spoken since lunch a month ago, and he couldn’t quite meet her eyes. Their only conversation had been by phone earlier in the week, to finalize times for the ceremony on Saturday. He’d almost wept with relief when she told him matter-of-factly that she and Gwen would be there early to supervise the ushers.

“It’s good to see you,” Morgana said, her voice only slightly betraying the things they hadn’t discussed. “Please, go in, look around. Merlin’s not here yet; I’ll be presenting him in front of the signature piece at the back in about twenty minutes.”

She stayed by the door to greet new arrivals, and Sophia pulled Arthur towards the first painting. His eyes felt glazed; he looked without really seeing, fear and anticipation swirling in him and rendering him light-headed.

“... real depth of feeling, magnificent.” The voices of other guests swirled around them.

“Yes, and I heard that he only came up with the whole concept about two months ago. Remarkable quality for such a short period of time.”

“Indeed, especially the signature piece ... I wonder what inspired it?”

“Well … and this is just a rumor, so take it with a grain of salt ... I heard he’s only recently ended a rather long-term relationship …”

The voices behind them wandered off, and Sophia made a concerned noise. “Does that mean Merlin broke up with Will? That’s too bad, they were so perfect for each other.”

Arthur made a weak noise in the back of his throat, and Sophia frowned at him, misunderstanding completely. “I don’t care if you don’t like him, or if he and Will made you uncomfortable. That’s no reason not to be sympathetic. Honestly, Arthur, with Morgana as your sister, I thought you’d be a little more tolerant.”

Annoyed, she let go of his arm and headed to another painting. Arthur followed, his thoughts whirling. Merlin hadn’t told him. Merlin had ended it with Will, and hadn’t told him.

Sophia, still piqued, continued without him. The minutes dragged by slowly, and Arthur briefly contemplated making an excuse and leaving before Merlin arrived. But then Sophia, apparently over her irritation, took his arm again, and led him towards the final piece—the signature piece—and it was too late.

“Oh!” She let out a little gasp of surprise as they approached. “Isn’t that your shirt?”

The signature piece was a collage, of sorts. The background was comprised of Merlin’s signature dark, multi-textured paints, the shadows somehow suggesting handprints, fingerprints—and lips and teeth and tongue. Stuck to the paint somehow, crumpled as though it had been tossed onto the floor, streaked with red paint like blood, the shirt that Arthur had left at Merlin’s apartment looked empty, abandoned, alone. Arthur felt a sharp pain in his stomach as he saw the drops of white paint covering the place where his cum had stained, and Sophia tilted her head to the side.

“I thought you said the dry cleaners had lost it?” she asked.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please,” Morgana’s voice rang out. “It is my pleasure to present to you the artist of this exquisite collection, Merlin Emrys!”

The crowd applauded, and Merlin stepped forward, next to the painting. “Thank you, Ms. LeFay, for your kind words,” he said humbly. “I’m not sure if I’ve quite achieved ‘exquisite’ yet, but my muse most definitely was, so I’ll accept on … its ... behalf.” The crowd chuckled, and Merlin gestured to the collage. “For those who may not have seen the title of this piece yet, I call it …”

He glanced out over the crowd, and his eyes fell on Arthur. He faltered, and Arthur stared back at him, frozen. Sophia, feeling him stiffen, looked up at him in alarm, then followed his gaze to Merlin.

“Perfect,” Merlin whispered, his voice barely audible. “I call it, ‘Perfect.’”

The applause of the crowd seemed miles away. Arthur’s vision narrowed until Merlin was all he saw. He wanted to start forward, to run to him—

“No,” Sophia whispered beside him. A thrill of fear shot through him, and he looked down at her in panic.

“No,” she said again, more loudly. “I don’t believe it.” Then, dropping his arm as though it had burned her, she turned and ran from the room.

* * *

He caught up to her on the sidewalk in front of the gallery, overtaking her easily as she stumbled blindly in her heels.

“Sophia, wait—please!” He caught her arm.

The slap caught him full across the face, and he staggered and let go.

“How could you?” she sobbed, tears streaming down her face. “Five years, Arthur—five years we’ve been together, and you cheat on me with … with a man?”

“Sophia, I—” He broke off, unable to deny it, his silence all the confirmation she needed.

“Was he good? Did he fuck you? Is that what you need?” She was screaming now, people staring at them in the fading sunlight. Arthur reached for her again, to calm her, to make her see—

“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked. “Oh god, don’t touch me!” She staggered back. “And I’m the one who … oh my god, it’s all my fault!”

“No, Sophia, it’s not—”

“Were there others?” she spat at him, a hint of hysteria in her voice that made Arthur’s blood freeze. “All those long nights at the office, were you stopping on your way home for—”

“No! God, Sophia, no!” Arthur never shouted. Sophia stopped, stunned. He took a deep breath. “I never … it was just him. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, it was an accident …”

She laughed in his face. “An accident? Bullshit. You don’t ‘accidentally’ fuck someone, Arthur. You don’t just slip and wind up in bed.”

Arthur opened his mouth to respond, then shut it and looked away. Sophia looked at him like he was a stranger.

“I … I just can’t believe it,” she said, the despair in her voice cutting him to the bone.

“I wish—” he began.

“Stop.” She held up her hand. “Just—stop. I can’t do this right now.” She took deep breath, and held his gaze. “I think it would be best if you didn’t come home tonight,” she said, her voice shaking. “I’ll have your things ready for you tomorrow.”

He heard the resolution underneath the pain in her voice, and his heart ached. “Sophia, I … I’m sorry.”

She managed a weak, bitter smile. “So am I.” She took a step backward. “I love you, Arthur,” she said as she turned. “Goodbye.” She straightened, and walked quickly down the sidewalk. Arthur watched her silently until she hailed a cab, and it was over.

* * *

Arthur groaned as the hand shook his shoulder insistently. “G’way,” he mumbled. His head hurt, and he wanted to sleep. He slid farther down the wall.

“Arthur, get up.” Merlin’s voice sounded very far away. “You’re drunk.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. He tried to push himself up, but his arms weren’t cooperating. He frowned. “Can’t.”

Merlin sighed, and left. Arthur blearily registered that he didn’t want Merlin to leave, but then Merlin was back, lifting him awkwardly and dragging him painfully across the hallway floor, and he really, really did want Merlin to leave.

“Ow,” he complained as Merlin banged his shoulder into the door frame.

“You’re not exactly making this easy,” Merlin stated flatly, somehow getting him into the apartment. Annoyed, Arthur tried to stand, to show him, but only caused them both to stagger.

“Door’s locked. Door’s never locked,” he slurred, his face pressed into Merlin’s chest.

Merlin kept dragging him. “It’s never locked when I’m home, idiot.”

“Oh.” Arthur pondered this as Merlin managed to get him down the short hallway, into his room, and onto the bed.

“Arthur,” Merlin said carefully, starting to take off his shoes. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Arthur groaned. The room was spinning, and everything smelled like tequila. Or maybe that was just him.

“You—” he tried. He furrowed his brow. “Tonight—”

Merlin’s hands on his shoes stilled. “What about it?” he asked evenly.

“You left Will,” Arthur accused. “And kept my shirt. That’s important.”

“Is it?” Merlin’s voice was calm, but shaking.

Arthur nodded. “Yes,” he whispered. “It’s very important.”

“Why?” Merlin replied in the same hushed tone.

Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but the room tilted abruptly, and everything went black.

* * *

The next morning, Arthur opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn’t. His head pounded and his mouth tasted like something very small and hairy had crawled into it and died. Raising his aching head slightly, he saw a tall glass of water and two ibuprofen on the nightstand. He downed them quickly, and sank back into the bed.

The bed. Merlin’s bed.

The thought cut through his hangover, a spike of something cold and sharp lancing through his stomach and clearing his head temporarily.

He struggled to sit up, and found himself alone and fully clothed. “Shit.”

The events of the previous day came flooding back to him, and he fought to overcome the sudden urge to vomit.

The door to the room opened. Merlin looked at him from the doorway.

“Am I … taking you to a church?” he asked slowly.

Arthur shut his eyes. “No,” he said in a choked whisper.

“Why?” Merlin’s tone was blunt, harsh, and Arthur looked down at the floor, silent.

After a moment, Merlin left the doorway and crossed the room. He sat down next to Arthur, carefully putting his arm around Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur turned to him and buried his face in Merlin’s shirt with a muffled sob.

Merlin held him as he shook, rubbing circles on his back. When Arthur calmed, he let go, and pushed Arthur back to look him in the eye.

“Are you sure about this?” Merlin’s voice was tight, controlled.

Arthur held his gaze. “Yes.”

Merlin looked troubled. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I … I knew what I was getting into. It was stupid of me to … to think that you’d …”

“No, I was stupid. I almost made the biggest mistake of my life.” Arthur swallowed. “I almost lost you.”

For a long moment they just sat there, staring at each other. Then Arthur moved forward. He stopped just before their lips touched, barely daring to breathe, and waited.

After seconds that seemed like an eternity, Merlin closed the gap between them, covering Arthur’s lips with his own. He pushed Arthur back onto the bed just as Arthur pulled him down, so they ended up sprawled in an awkward heap, legs hanging off the edge of the mattress. Merlin’s hipbone dug painfully into Arthur’s stomach and his knee almost hit Arthur in a very sensitive place, and it was the best Arthur had ever felt in his entire life.

After a long, blissful moment, Merlin pulled away and looked down at him. Uncertainty flickered in his eyes. “We don’t even know each other. Not really.”

Arthur felt something leap in his chest. “I want to know you,” he said softly, nuzzling against Merlin’s jaw.

Merlin sighed, and pressed him down into the mattress. “This could end up being terrible,” he said as he claimed Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur smiled into the kiss, his entire body relaxing for the first time in weeks. “No,” he whispered. “It won’t be terrible. It will be perfect.”

The Beginning