They both freeze at the first sound of Merlin’s mobile, the generic Nokia tune rolling over repeatedly, annoyingly cheerful. Gwaine pulls off Merlin’s cock with a wet, slurping sound that falls angry in the sharp silence, punctuated by the shrill nagging of would-be music.
“Don’t answer,” Gwaine says, staring up at Merlin’s face. “It’s the middle of the night, for fuck’s sake.”
The daze of lust is swiftly receding, and Merlin becomes aware of the awkward way he’s slumped against the headboard, the firm ridge digging into the back of his neck. His hand is trembling, pulling out from where it’s been tangled in Gwaine’s hair.
“Might be important,” he mumbles, reaching for the phone.
Gwaine groans, dropping his face into the sheets.
Merlin looks at the caller ID and winces. He sits up straighter and takes a deep breath, his pulse suddenly skyrocketing. It takes him two tries to finally hit the Accept button.
“Merlin, I know it’s late, and I’m sorry, but—”
“Arthur, you sound awful. Is everything all right?”
“No.” A pause. “It’s just... Can you come over? I really need... I don’t think I can do this alone.”
Merlin looks down and meets Gwaine’s resigned gaze.
“Yeah.” He sighs. “Yeah, I’ll be right there.”
Gwaine rolls out of bed faster than Merlin can say ‘I’m sorry.’
He stumbles back home in the wee hours of morning. He’s beat, with a bundle of snakes curling at the pit of his stomach at the thought of the conversation ahead. He hopes that maybe Gwaine is sleeping, but he knows that his limit of luck had run out quite a while ago through no one’s fault but his own.
Gwaine is smoking on the balcony, dressed too thoroughly to be simply fighting off the pre-dawn chill.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says, stepping out behind him.
Gwaine turns to look at him, rolls his eyes at Merlin’s t-shirt, and pushes him back inside, sliding the door closed behind him.
“You’re dressed,” Merlin says stupidly, because he hasn’t seen this jacket since the last time Gwaine went away – before they were, before them. “Did you go somewhere?”
“No; I’m just about to.”
Merlin follows his gaze to see a duffle bag crouching by the bed. His stomach drops. “Gwaine—”
“Put the rest of my stuff in storage. I’ll pick it up... some time.”
Merlin starts to shake. “You’re breaking up with me.”
“Merlin.” Gwaine sighs, his voice softer. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”
“He thought his dog was dying. The vet called, said they might need Arthur’s permission to put it down, and—”
“Merlin,” Gwaine cuts him off, grimacing, “I don’t care.” He rubs his forehead and looks at Merlin. “I don’t want to fight with you; I hate fighting with you, Merlin. I always did.”
Merlin hugs himself, trying to rein in the tremors. “I’ll do better. I swear. I’m sorry.”
“You can’t,” Gwaine says in a pained voice. “Merlin... True or false: if Arthur had so much as a single gay bone in his body, a single gay hair on his head, even, you’d be married to him by now?”
Merlin bites his lip, bile rising in his throat. “It’s not like that with us; you know that. Gwaine, please. I can’t—”
“You know, Lance warned me about it.”
“Yeah. When we first met, you were giving me all kinds of mixed signals; and I knew he and you used to date. So I asked him what your deal was. D’you know what he said?”
Merlin closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to hear this, but Gwaine seems intent on sparing him nothing. Merlin can’t even begrudge him that right.
“He said that you and Arthur were a package deal. That if I wanted you, I’d have to be ready to get Arthur as well. And I thought, fine, I’m not a jealous person and I understand about mates. Fuck, I was so head over heels for you, I’d have taken an orangutan if it came along with you.”
Was, is all Merlin hears. Was.
“I met Arthur, and I thought I could handle him. And you know what? I could. I could even get over the fact that there were three of us most of the time, even in bed. All those times you wanted me to fuck you harder? To go round after round until you couldn’t walk?”
Merlin closes his eyes, leaning against the wall. The vertigo is persistent.
“Yeah, made no sense to me at first. You’re so frail and gentle, I couldn’t get why you’d insist on testing your limits every fucking time. But that’s just your way, isn’t it? The only way you can forget about him for a few fucking minutes.”
Merlin whimpers without meaning to, clapping a horrified hand over his mouth.
“And I can’t say it was fun – knowing this – but I wanted you so much, Merlin. I learned to live with it. I learned to share you with him, but guess what? He never learned to share you at all.”
Merlin shakes his head vaguely. “It’s not like that.”
“Isn’t it?” Gwaine snaps. “He throws a tantrum every time he doesn’t have your attention for one bleeding minute. He spent three weeks on our couch and managed to call me a different name every fucking time, like he couldn’t be arsed to learn it. We’ve been living together for six months, Merlin. We were dating for about a year before that!”
“He knows your name, Gwaine.”
“I know he knows my name, Merlin. I also know that, if it were up to him, you’d never have sex ever again. You’d never have another friend or even a bloody pen pal. He wants you all to himself, even the parts he has no use for, and he doesn’t share!”
Merlin hunches in on himself, biting his lip hard.
Gwaine takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. “That’s not even the worst part,” he says bitterly. “The worst part is – you let him. Whatever he wants, you let him have it. Whenever he calls, you come running. No matter how much it screws up your own life, no matter who you hurt in the process. He doesn’t think about it. You do – but you still go.”
“He’s been my friend forever,” Merlin whispers.
Gwaine leans into him, tracing the shape of Merlin’s cheekbone gently. “No, he hasn’t,” he murmurs. Merlin flinches, but Gwaine presses on. “If he had ever truly been your friend, Merlin, he’d have let you go by now. He’s nothing but a selfish arse, and you—”
Merlin sucks in a breath and Gwaine braces him, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s. “I really like you, Merlin. But I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.”
He kisses Merlin softly on the lips, lingering almost against his will, then tears himself off of Merlin abruptly, picks up his bag with one smooth motion, and walks out of the room.
Merlin listens to the fading steps in the corridor, to the familiar squeak of the entrance door. Gwaine kept meaning to oil the hinges so that he wouldn’t be waking Merlin up when he went to work in the morning.
Wouldn’t be a problem now, and Merlin starts as a hoarse, sharp-edged chuckle escapes him. He wants to fall into bed, but the sheets will smell like Gwaine, and Merlin will be lying there sleepless, waiting for a pair of strong arms to wrap around him, telling him silently that he is safe and he is loved.
He sits on the floor instead, hugging his knees, as the sun slowly crawls up above the rooftops.
Arthur finds him four months later and two oceans away.
“You ran away,” he accuses, standing on Merlin’s doorstep in washed out blue jeans and a t-shirt Merlin might have once owned. It should theoretically cling to Arthur too tightly, considering, but right now, it isn’t.
Merlin doesn’t answer, just turns around and walks back inside, the small house too light and functional around him.
“You found me.” He shrugs, starting the kettle. “What do you want, Arthur?”
He doesn’t need to turn to know that Arthur is looking confused and angry and for the most part hurt.
“I want you back. I want you – why did you go?”
Merlin leans against the counter, facing him. “Gwaine left.”
“So what?” Arthur huffs. “Why punish me for it? He was a wanker, anyway.”
Arthur prefers not to understand. He glances around. “You needed a change of scenery, fine. Why go all the way to bloody New Zealand?”
Merlin shrugs. “Why not? I can write anywhere.”
“Damn right. So come back to England with me.”
“Why the hell not? Do you—” Arthur stumbles, eyes narrowing. “Do you have someone here?”
“And what if I did? You’d proceed to make their life miserable just as you did to Gwaine and Lance? Or would you go all the way and kill them like you did Will?”
“Don’t you dare bring Will into this! It wasn’t my fault and – and he beat you, Merlin! Or have you forgotten?”
“He didn’t beat me, he hit me once – once, Arthur, and I deserved it.”
“Once is too damn much,” Arthur hisses in his face, crowding Merlin against the counter.
“Oh yeah?” Merlin tilts his chin up defiantly. “Why? You seem to be having no qualms about it.”
Arthur winces and looks down, blinking. He hasn’t realised his hands were gripping Merlin’s arms with enough force to make them bruise instantly. He snatches his hands away, stepping back as if burned.
“You left,” Arthur says after a drawn, tense pause. He sounds torn between petulance and anger. “Not even a word. Not a fucking note, Merlin. I went to your flat, and there was nothing – nothing. Can you imagine what I – do you have any idea—”
Merlin closes his eyes. “I was going to send you an email. But then I – I couldn’t.” He swallows. “I couldn’t.”
“Email,” Arthur repeats dumbly. “Merlin... what have I ever done to you?”
Merlin chokes on a laugh. “Seriously?”
“Was it because I wouldn’t fuck you?”
Merlin blinks. “What?”
“It was, wasn’t it? I could do it. I mean, if that’s what you want. If that’s what it takes to bring you back; it’s not rocket science. I could totally do it if I put my mind to it. I could—”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, throat painfully tight. “Get. Out.”
“Look, I’m not into it, obviously, but I think I can make it good for you—”
Later, Merlin will think that this is how people lifted cars and walked into fire, because there’s no other way to explain how he manages to drag Arthur out of his house and slam the door in his face. But right now, leaning over the kitchen sink, holding up the wrist that probably isn’t broken under a spray of cold water, he doesn’t think about anything and is just fighting to breathe.
“How was Wellington?” Leon asks, helping Merlin upload his bags into the trunk. “Not to your liking?”
“I wasn’t in Wellington.” Merlin shrugs. “For the most part. But yeah, I don’t know. A bit too slow, I guess?”
“You should have gone to Brazil.”
“I don’t speak the language. And anyway, I shouldn’t have left at all.”
Coward’s exit. Futile. Outer space wouldn’t have helped.
Leon gives him a strange look, but doesn’t comment. “So this flat you asked us to find for you,” he says once they have both fastened their seatbelts. “You said you didn’t want it to be too quiet, right?”
Merlin stares at him. “Exactly what levels of ‘not quiet’ are we talking here?”
He does need to write, after all. Something that had proved to be utterly impossible on the free side of his world.
“Um…” Leon chews on his lip thoughtfully, eyes on the traffic. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Merlin looks out the window. He’s missed London.
His new neighbour is a mountain of a man called Percival, who’s painfully shy while sober and offensively loud while drunk. Merlin goes upstairs at three in the morning to ask him to keep the music down, not holding out much hope but desperate enough to try it.
He’s pulled inside before he finishes saying hello, and, five minutes later, he’s the one who gets obscenely loud, being fucked hard and fast against the door, face smashed into the unforgiving wood. It’s been too long, and Percy is too big and drunk, and Merlin doesn’t care. He does get to turn the damn volume down afterwards, and it has to be good enough.
He has to go upstairs again two nights after that and again on Friday. He goes in prepared.
Arthur meets Percival when he comes to take Merlin out to breakfast on Saturday.
“Is it weird,” he asks, stuffing his croissant with butter, “that I kind of want to watch him do you?”
Merlin takes a sip of coffee, skimming through the paper. He lifts an eyebrow. “I don’t know, Arthur. Is it?”
“The thing is,” Arthur says, “I don’t care about them. Any of them. Sophia, Vivian, what’s her face from last week.” He fondles the butter knife like a favourite dagger. “I sleep with them ‘cause they’re there. But sometimes I forget.”
Merlin hums absently over the reviews section. Number four isn’t bad, but he should probably try to do better.
“But I never forget when you’re not there. Is that weird?”
Merlin looks at him. Arthur’s eyes are astonishingly clear, like everything is all right with the world and he has somehow had a hand in that.
“I think we passed the category of weird a few centuries back,” Merlin says.
Arthur smirks. “So can I watch?”
“Oh, thank God,” Morgana says, even though usually she can’t stand the sight of him.
Merlin takes in the chaos of destruction in the reception area and nods at the closed door. “How long has he been there?”
“A few hours,” she replies, frowning. “He’s scaring the hell out of me.”
It takes a lot to get her into that state, and one hell of a lot more to have her say it out loud. Merlin shudders, but pushes the door open.
“Arthur, this is stupid,” he says, wrestling the half-empty bottle of scotch out of Arthur’s hands. “You couldn’t have saved him, even if you knew what he was planning.”
“I’m glad he failed,” Arthur whispers. “My own father, Merlin. He’s dead, and I’m so fucking glad he failed. What kind of—”
He shuts up abruptly, and Merlin sighs. He doesn’t know what to say, either. That he doesn’t know how Arthur and Uther shared the same genome? Except when they were too damn alike, the infamous Pendragon temper taking it out on the universe and everyone who stood in between. Abruptly, Merlin thinks of that one time when Arthur pushed him out of the car when it was still moving, however slowly, and drove off into the night, swearing at the storm. Merlin has a scar on the back of his shoulder from where he hit the pavement.
But Arthur hasn’t tried to buy his way into an international arms dealing consortium using the money collected for breast cancer research by the charity foundation named after his mother. Merlin feels that certain things could be disregarded in view of that.
“Come on, I’ll take you home. You’re scaring your employees.”
Arthur blinks, as though he’s just realised that Merlin is there. He stands up unsteadily and immediately sways, grabbing Merlin for support and nearly pinning him to the desk before they manage to restore their balance. They end up too close.
“Kiss me,” Arthur breathes out unevenly.
Merlin shakes his head. “Arthur, we’ve been through this.”
“Not like that,” Arthur murmurs, his hands roaming aimlessly all over Merlin. “Just – not alone. Don’t want to. Just this once?”
Merlin doesn’t move, but he doesn’t resist when Arthur falls against him, drunk and heavy, and licks into his mouth, tasting of grief and expensive whiskey. Merlin lets him take the kiss, responding slowly, sloppily, like they had when they were teenagers and Arthur used him for practice.
Arthur grabs Merlin’s face in his hands, foreheads pressing together painfully.
“You’re the only one who ever feels real,” Arthur whispers. “I’m sorry. Merlin, I’m so sorry it has to be you. I don’t know why. I don’t know how to...”
Merlin makes them move by sheer force of will, struggling with Arthur’s uncooperative weight. “Let’s get you home.”
Arthur sags against him. “I’m sorry.”
Merlin sighs. “I know.”
“So what d’you think?”
Merlin looks at him and rolls his eyes, but he can’t help grinning. Arthur’s face is the image of eagerness.
“It’s a nice house, Arthur,” Merlin teases.
“Yes, but do you like it enough to move in? You can have any room you like. You can have all the rooms you like, just say yes.”
Merlin shakes his head softly. Saying no at this point only means prolonging the argument, and they both know it. But it’s nice to see Arthur uncertain, desperate to please.
Merlin makes a point of sighing. “Do I have a choice?”
Arthur very nearly tackle-hugs him, squeezing Merlin’s ribs painfully in his enthusiasm. “I love you.”
“Ugh, get off of me,” Merlin grouches. “And I’m not cooking.”
Arthur plants a wet kiss on his cheek before scrambling to his feet. “Yes, you are. I’d just kill us both, or we’d starve.”
“Hm.” Merlin eyes him suspiciously, sprawled comfortably on the couch. “What about house guests?”
Arthur’s face tenses, and Merlin holds his breath. Arthur looks at him for a long moment, as if hoping Merlin would change his mind.
“Fine,” he relents finally. “But I get to kick them out.”
Merlin jabs a finger at him. “And if you walk in on us—”
Arthur throws his hands up. “I won’t hurt them. Too much.”
“God, can’t you take a joke?”
Not really, Merlin thinks, his jaw aching in phantom pain from the first time they talked about it. His left wrist feels sympathetic regarding the time after that.
“Fine, be like that,” Arthur sighs. “And stop fidgeting. It’s your house, too; I won’t hurt your guests.” He makes a face. “Do you really need them?”
“Fine,” Arthur says. “Fine, whatever. Not too often, though, yeah?”
“And you sleep with me afterwards. They can’t stay the night, and I get you afterwards.”
Merlin shakes his head, even knowing it’s a moot point. “It’s kind of insane, you know,” he points out, just for the hell of it.
Arthur ruffles his hair and grins, dangerous. “Sanity is overrated. Just look at Morgana.”
Merlin winces. He has always suspected that, if Morgana had spent less of her youth in bed with people she was related to, Arthur’s life could have been considerably different.
For starters, he and Merlin might never have met.
Merlin squints up at Arthur, who’s standing in the archway, gorgeous and seemingly flawless in the sunlight streaming from the wall-size windows. Few people suspect, fewer know, and no one as much as Merlin. For the first time in his life, Merlin is intensely happy that his mother died when he was sixteen.
“I love you,” he says suddenly. He means it.
Arthur blinks, startled. “That’s new,” he drawls, uncertain.
Merlin shrugs, grinning wryly. “Stockholm syndrome.”
Arthur’s smile emerges slowly, a little on the faltering side. “Merlin…”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Merlin rolls onto his feet, resting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “It’s fine, Arthur. Promise.”
Arthur lowers his head to Merlin’s shoulder. “I just can’t,” he whispers. “Without you, nothing is—”
“Shh.” Merlin takes the chance and slides his arms around him. “I know. It’s okay. I’m not running anymore, Arthur. I never will again.”
Arthur buries his face in Merlin’s neck and sighs quietly. “I’m so glad you’re here, Merlin.”
Merlin smiles, sifting his fingers through Arthur’s hair. It’s been ten years since he could say it and mean it the way he does now. “Me too, Arthur. Me too.”
“I have to say, you’re the weirdest couple I have ever met,” Elena tells Merlin, covering her mouth with her hand delicately as she burps.
“Cheers,” Merlin says, clinking his beer against hers.
He looks over to where Arthur is pouring marinade over the meat sizzling on the barbecue grill. It took them years to establish that roasted meat is the only dish Arthur can cook without taking on the risk of killing anyone. Arthur loves these summer weekend gatherings and takes his chef duty very seriously. Merlin glances back at Elena, who’s watching him with open curiosity.
“You know we’re not really a couple, right?” he asks her, smiling. “We just live together.”
She looks pensive. “I guess. But in your case… It’s not about accommodations. More of an existential sort of thing, isn’t it?”
Merlin blinks and, turning his head, catches Arthur’s eye. Arthur smiles at him immediately and it’s not carefree, but it’s peaceful. Or as peaceful as Merlin has ever seen him.
It’s not simple. It will never be easy. And it’s taken them years.
“Existential,” Merlin repeats slowly, and grins. “Like I said. We live together.”