Arthur was on the flight before he could convince himself otherwise.
He needed to see Merlin. He could feel them falling apart under the pressure, the expectations, the distance, the slowly building resentment. It nearly broke him.
Merlin had sounded stressed and upset on their phone call a few hours ago and Arthur, having had a terrible day himself, hadn't reacted properly. He'd lashed out and the secret fears he'd started harbouring recently grew alarmingly in intensity –that Merlin was forgetting him, that maybe this wasn't working anymore, that they were just dragging out a relationship that had run its course.
The first couple of months had felt hard but seemed so easy in hindsight. They'd flown to each other almost every weekend, treating the trips like romantic getaways –barely able to keep their hands off each other. Merlin had been homesick and Arthur heard a barrage of ‘I miss you’ and ‘I wish you were here’ and ‘I can’t wait to see you’ every night, sentiments that Arthur had returned fiercely.
But then their visits started becoming far and between and before Arthur knew what was happening, it was almost two months since he'd seen Merlin in person. It terrified him that he was capable of going on without him for so long.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d told Merlin he loved him. He did though, so much.
Flashes of their conversation replayed in Arthur’s mind over the soothing hum of the aircraft.
He remembered how annoyed he had been when Merlin brought up Percy for the third time in a matter of minutes, some handsome stranger he'd met in one of his classes, and Arthur had felt inexplicably threatened.
"Maybe you should just ask Percy out, Merlin," Arthur had snapped bitterly, the burn of jealousy searing through him.
There had been a shocked pause. "What?" Merlin had stammered. "Arthur, what are you talking about?"
Arthur huffed a dry laugh. "Exactly what you've been talking about for the past twenty minutes. Percy."
Merlin didn’t speak for several seconds but when he did, his voice was cold. "I know you're angry about the fight with your father but that doesn't mean you get to take it out on me, got it? You've had a dozen fights like this before and I don't know what you want me to do about it. We all have problems, Arthur, you're not some special snowflake."
Merlin’s words had stung more than Arthur cared to admit.
"Of course, except you never talk about your problems with me anymore, do you? Maybe you go cry about them to Percy now," Arthur had bit out hurtfully, almost immediately wishing he could take it back.
There had been a sharp intake of breath across the line. "You –I -you're impossible, Arthur, you know that? I'm just –go fuck yourself," Merlin had shouted before hanging up and Arthur couldn't ignore the way Merlin's voice had cracked on the last word.
The thing was that Arthur didn’t even care about Percy, he knew there was nothing there. He had just picked something to be angry about and ran with it. He knew that Merlin was aware of it too, and probably hated Arthur for it.
The thought was so overwhelmingly unbearable that Arthur had to take a few deep breaths to keep his composure.
He started second-guessing his decision to impulsively fly out to Edinburgh when he reached the door of Merlin’s flat and the possibility of Merlin not wanting him there or looking at him with disdain became very real. He wouldn’t be able to take it if that happened.
It took every ounce of courage in Arthur to ring the doorbell, his blood roaring in his ears and his mind swirling with conflicting emotions of fear and want.
Arthur was just about to lose hope and turn around when the door opened with a creak.
Arthur's breath knocked out of his lungs at the sight of Merlin standing there barefoot, looking so small in his oversized orange jumper that his mother had knit him a million years ago. It was his comfort jumper, the one he only wore when he was extremely upset about something and Arthur's heart seized painfully when he realised he was the reason for it this time.
Merlin’s eyes were rimmed red and he looked like he hadn’t slept properly in days.
He looked gorgeous.
They stared at each other, barely breathing. Time was mysteriously suspended and Arthur couldn’t tell if they stood there for a minute or an hour.
“Hi,” said Arthur finally and that was all it took to break the tension.
Merlin’s face crumpled and he cried, “You’re an arse!” before hauling Arthur inside and throwing his arms around him. Merlin buried his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck and the position was so, so familiar that Arthur’s heart ached.
Arthur held on to him just as tightly, bunching up his fingers in the back of Merlin’s jumper.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said in a choked voice into his hair.
He felt Merlin nod before tightening his hold on Arthur, and it didn’t seem like he had any plans of releasing him. Arthur didn’t want him to. It was safe and warm like this, and Arthur hadn’t realised how bereft of the feeling he’d been.
He couldn’t say how long they stood there but he could feel the cracks healing as Merlin’s heat seeped into his cold bones and his hair tickled Arthur’s jaw.
"Arthur?" Merlin mumbled against his skin after what seemed like seconds and hours.
"I got a tattoo," Merlin said and it was such an unexpected statement that Arthur was thrown for a loop.
Arthur drew back to look at Merlin with raised eyebrows. "What, a tattoo? Really?" he said, surprised. "When?"
"Three weeks ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I wanted to show it to you in person," Merlin admitted shyly.
Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. "Show me then," he said softly.
Merlin stepped back from the embrace and gingerly lifted the hem of his jumper to reveal an intricate shape standing out against the smooth skin of Merlin's hip.
Arthur leaned in for a closer look and his breath caught.
His head swam as the figure registered in his brain. "That's –”
"A dragon," Merlin confirmed tentatively, biting nervously into his lower lip.
Arthur's eyes found Merlin's. "Pendragon?"
Merlin's mouth tugged into a small smile and he shrugged. "Or maybe it has nothing to do with you and I just really like dragons."
Arthur laughed, awed and his head spinning, and there was nothing more to be done but to press Merlin up against the door and drag him into a deep kiss.
Merlin made a low whine and desperately clutched on to the front of Arthur's shirt as he returned the kiss.
Arthur's hand wandered under Merlin's jumper to seek out warmth and his fingers brushed across the slightly raised outline of the tattoo. Merlin sucked in a harsh breath at the sensation of cold fingers against sensitive skin and pulled Arthur even closer.
Arthur feverishly trailed his lips down Merlin's neck, lower and lower, sucking and biting.
Merlin arched under Arthur’s hand on the small of his back. His breath stuttered as he said, “How the fuck did we go two months without seeing each other?”
Arthur lifted his mouth from Merlin's skin at the question. “I –”
"No, no. Later," Merlin gasped, his fingers digging into Arthur’s hair. “Don't you dare stop.”
So Arthur didn’t.
Afterwards, they lay wrapped together in Merlin’s tiny bed, the flat thankfully empty with his flatmate Will having gone home for a few days.
Arthur pushed his nose into the back of Merlin's neck, inhaling deeply.
"I missed you," he whispered.
Merlin hummed contentedly. "Me too."
Arthur knew Merlin was warding off sleep and that his attempts would prove to be unsuccessful any minute now. Merlin always got drowsy when Arthur cuddled him after sex and this time was no exception.
However, Arthur had never felt more awake. The feel of Merlin back in his arms was so overwhelming for his deprived senses that he could barely think straight. He had been a fool to think he could ever let this go.
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, the rain pattering against the window outside.
Contentment eventually gave way to unease when Arthur thought about how he’d ended up here in the first place, and he wondered if everything between them was magically resolved or if they’d just released pent-up energy and after the sex-induced haze had cleared, they would go back to the tenseness that had been suffused into their relationship as of late. He was terrified of the answer.
Arthur swallowed thickly against the roiling in his stomach and watched the steady rise and fall of Merlin’s breathing. Merlin’s thoughts felt galaxies away.
"Merlin,” Arthur managed at last, half hoping Merlin had already fallen asleep. “We –we’re okay, right?”
Merlin was silent for some time and Arthur almost believed that he’d really dozed off.
"Yes," came Merlin’s low voice finally. "Yes, we are."
The tight knot in Arthur's chest loosened and he pressed a kiss to Merlin's shoulder blade. “Are you sure?”
Merlin turned around to face Arthur, his eyelashes casting shadows on his cheekbones as he blinked sluggishly at him. "You're not trying to break up with me after I just showed you the tattoo I got for you, are you?"
Arthur's lips quirked up as he pulled Merlin closer by the waist. "I thought it was because you just really liked dragons."
"Obviously but I like Pendragons too sometimes, not that I’m admitting to anything,” Merlin informed him. He turned his eyes downward and added quietly, “Arthur… I –I don’t know how to not love you.”
The admission felt huge, but Arthur didn't know what he was supposed to feel about it. He studied Merlin with a critical gaze, “How comforting, sounds like you’re being forced to love me at gunpoint.”
Merlin laughed and looked at him with a soft look in his eyes. “What I mean is that it’s annoyingly impossible to fall out of love with you. I must say it’s one of your more irritating qualities.”
“So, basically I’m stuck with you?” Arthur asked drily, hoping with all his heart that Merlin would say yes.
“Absolutely,” Merlin agreed seriously. “I plan to keep you as long as possible, and if you let two months pass before the next time we meet, I’ll personally carry out your assassination.”
“That’s not threatening at all,” Arthur said and idly ran his hand down Merlin’s arm and intertwined their fingers. “I really am sorry, though. Two months. I can’t believe I let things get away from me like this.”
“It’s not just your fault,” Merlin said with a sigh. “I’m sorry too. It’s just been hectic and stressful and so hard sometimes, Arthur, and you aren’t here either. I barely feel like myself most of the time and I put off your calls because I don’t want you to see me like this,” he paused and took a shaky breath. “I’m scared that you won’t recognise me one of these days and you’ll hate the person I’ve become.”
Arthur’s heart clenched and he tightened his hold on Merlin’s hand. “Merlin, you idiot” he breathed. “I could never hate you, do you even know how crazy I am about you? And to think that all this time, I thought you were pulling away because you didn’t want me anymore.”
Merlin shot him a look of alarm. “Of course not!” he exclaimed. “Do you know that whenever I go too long without talking to you, I get so cranky that I become a nightmare for people to be around? I become a social pariah and it’s because I hate hearing voices that aren’t yours. Percy hasn’t approached me in two weeks and I’m pretty sure Will’s impromptu trip home at this time was not a coincidence.”
“Silver linings,” Arthur said with a smirk and Merlin rolled his eyes.
They stared at each other with faces slowly splitting into matching grins, processing the indelible words said between the sheets of Merlin's bed.
“So, we’ve both been idiots?” Merlin asked with an amused glint in his eyes.
Arthur nodded, smoothing Merlin's hair, looking for any excuse to touch him. “Massive ones.”
“Sounds just like us,” Merlin whispered, leaning forward to brush their lips together. Arthur was so giddy with happiness that it felt like he was falling for Merlin all over again.
With how Merlin was smiling against his mouth, he guessed he wasn’t the only one.