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Sometimes, Merlin could still feel it.  He could still feel the fingers digging unwelcome bruises into his hips, the hand yanking painfully at his hair, and the deep, resounding ache within him, splitting him open from the inside out, in both mind and body.  He could hear the drunken snarling in his ear, the grunts and gasps that brought stinging tears to his eyes.  He could still taste the blood on his lip, and the smell of alcohol still made him sick to his stomach with memories.

It was for those reasons that Merlin came with a certain set of… boundaries.  Hesitations.  Tendencies to put off anything physically serious, because he was only just learning to overcome the instinct to shrink back from any offered touch.  That was when he met Arthur.

By now, Arthur knew about Cedric.  That is, he knew Merlin had been in a relationship with a man who drank too much and cared too little, who fucked Merlin even when Merlin didn’t want him to, and who passed out and sometimes didn’t even remember why Merlin flinched away from his touch and winced in pain the next morning.  

(But Merlin knew that sometimes he did.  Sometimes Cedric did remember, and he said nothing, and in the end, that was what finally drove Merlin to leave with the realisation that things were never going to get better.)

Arthur had been aware of all of that, back when they had only known each other for a couple of months; back when they were just friends who liked getting coffee and who made each other laugh, and whose glances and touches perhaps lingered longer than was strictly necessary.  Arthur had known it when he made some pathetic attempts at courting Merlin with awkward stammers and casually-bestowed gifts (Gwen called them tokens of affection, but that was rather over-the-top), and he had known it the evening he burst into Merlin’s flat, inelegantly declaring that he wanted to take Merlin out to dinner like on a proper date, not some bloody two-hour coffee break.

Arthur had always known what kind of baggage he was signing up for—and yet, he seemed to want Merlin regardless of it.

It had been four months with Arthur now.  Four months of Merlin slowly easing into things again, figuring out how to let someone back into his heart, but carefully avoiding eye contact as he tiptoed around the physical with quick, flighty steps.  Four months of kissing, cuddling, and occasionally wandering hands—but nothing more.

Merlin wasn’t stupid.  He could tell when Arthur wanted more; he could see the way Arthur’s eyes went dark sometimes, how he often needed a moment and a deep breath before reluctantly gathering his things, kissing Merlin goodnight, and heading home to his own empty flat.

It also wasn’t as if Merlin didn’t want it, because fucking hell, did he want it.  He wanted to kiss and lick his way down Arthur’s body, nuzzle along the fine hair trailing down past Arthur’s stomach, lose himself in the heady, skin-to-skin rush he imagined when he thought of Arthur’s naked body pressed up against his own, fingers and mouths trailing wherever they pleased.  Merlin wanted to fall asleep and wake up tangled in sheets and limbs, wrapped up completely in the feeling of Arthur.

Most of all, Merlin wanted to do it without the overwhelming instinct to shift away and curl up protectively.  He wanted to do it without the uneasy twisting in his stomach or the irrational fear that swelled in his chest and mind.  It always seemed to yank Merlin away from Arthur’s touch, whether he liked it or not.  

That was where the idea seemed to become a little less realistic and a lot more out of reach.  It wasn’t that Merlin didn’t trust Arthur; it was that no matter how wholly and completely he did trust him, the thought of being laid open and exposed and vulnerable again made an icy dread wash through Merlin’s whole body.

Merlin knew it wasn’t fair.  At least, it certainly didn’t feel fair, not to Arthur and not to himself.

Although, if Merlin really thought about it, he had to admit that that maybe—perhaps—possibly, he might just be falling a little bit in love with Arthur for his complete patience with all Merlin’s boundaries.  He had never asked for anything Merlin didn’t offer, not really; and very rarely had he done anything that even remotely resembled a sulk when his hands tightened around Merlin’s hips as they kissed, and Merlin tensed and pulled away.  Arthur only smiled understandingly (if not a little longingly), kissed Merlin gently on the lips one last time, and wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, content just to hold him close.

It had been four months, and Merlin had wished for the greater part of it that he knew how to move things forward, how to sidestep the giant wall that seemed to stand in the way, completely of its own accord.  The memories clung on like leeches, and Merlin was tired of trying to pry them off only to have them latch on even tighter because the pain was still there.

It was quite impressive, really, how spectacularly Merlin seemed to be losing a battle that he was fighting with no one but himself.

**

It wasn’t just four months that Merlin and Arthur had been together, no; it was four months to the day, and Arthur rather liked to make a big deal out of things that weren’t necessarily a big deal.  That being the case, Merlin was hardly surprised when Arthur claimed to have ‘the most exciting of evenings’ planned for them.

‘The most exciting of evenings’ turned out to be dinner at a restaurant that was a little nicer than the ones at which they usually ate (“Stop whining and just wear a bloody tie, Merlin; imagine it’s one of your hideous scarves, if you must.”) followed by a quiet evening in Arthur’s flat, curled up against him on the sofa (in exponentially more comfortable clothes) and watching a movie he let Merlin pick.

“Fine,” Merlin admitted as the movie ended and he stretched.  “So tonight has been a lot nicer than I expected.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow in mock indignation.  “Oi!  I’m perfectly capable of knowing the kind of evening my boyfriend would enjoy the most, thank you very much.  I’m offended you have so little faith in me.”

Merlin sighed as he curled up again, shifting his head onto Arthur’s shoulder and closing his eyes, content.  “I’m sure you are,” he mumbled.

“Hey,” Arthur said, his voice suddenly soft.  He tilted Merlin’s head up off his shoulder and Merlin opened his eyes to the most content smile he had ever seen on Arthur’s face, as if it was cracking him open and granting Merlin a look straight into the center of his heart.

Arthur stroked a thumb over Merlin’s cheekbone, tilting his head a little as he studied Merlin’s face.  “You know I—love you, right?” he asked quietly.

Merlin thought hearing the words aloud for the first time should have been a surprise, but it wasn’t.  It felt like he was slotting into place after teetering right on the edge of it for so long, and he couldn’t stop the smile that lit his face even if he wanted to, because Merlin found that, yes—yes, in fact, he did know.  Arthur loved him.

Then, it was more than natural to respond honestly with, “I love you, too, Arthur.”  The wave of emotion that swept over Merlin at simply saying the words—as well as the deep warmth that settled in his chest—caught him slightly off-guard.

Not just emotion, in fact.  It was more like… peace.  Reassurance.  Belonging.  If hearing it from Arthur had felt like slotting into place, then saying it back felt something like coming home.

If there had been any lingering doubt in Arthur’s eyes, any question as to how Merlin would receive his words, it disappeared immediately, and Merlin found himself being pulled forward into a deep, warm kiss.

They kissed for long minutes that stretched on and on, somewhere between serene and perhaps a little desperate, and when Arthur finally pulled away it was with an apologetic look.  “It’s late,” he murmured, leaning forward to brush his lips over Merlin’s jaw as he spoke.  “You should probably go soon if you don’t want to be driving home in the middle of the night.”

“Yeah,” Merlin said softly, but even as the word left his mouth he tightened his grip a little on Arthur’s shoulders.  He thought of leaving, going home and being so far away from Arthur—especially now, when Merlin had finally said the words that had been dancing along the edges of his mind for God knows how long.  His chest felt heavy at the idea alone.

Merlin thought of the way Arthur smelled, spicy and warm and welcoming, and how much he loved to bury his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck just to breathe it all in.  He thought of waking up alone in his bed, shaking from nightmares about cold eyes and twisted smirks, and pressing his face into the cold pillow beside him, finding himself wishing he had that comforting smell to burrow into and lose himself in.

Merlin thought of Arthur’s arms, warm around him now; he let his gaze trail over Arthur’s eyes and nose and lips, close enough to touch, to taste, to breathe in.

Arthur was smiling softly at him, and in the end that was all it took for Merlin to slide one of his hands up Arthur’s nape and twist his fingers into soft hair, leaning forward again to catch Arthur’s inviting top lip gently between his own.

He didn’t want to go.

Arthur sighed, his hands sliding down Merlin’s back as he leaned into the kiss, sucking lightly at Merlin’s bottom lip and then threading his own fingers into Merlin’s hair.  It wasn’t long before they were back to punctuating the silence of the flat with the soft sounds of their mouths and occasional, quiet moans.

“I don’t want you falling asleep at the wheel,” Arthur tried again a few minutes later, while Merlin sucked slow kisses along his jaw, and Merlin caught the faint quiver in his voice.

“’M’fine,” he mumbled into Arthur’s skin.  “Mm—don’t wanna leave yet.”

“Well, s’pose I can’t tell you what to do, then,” Arthur breathed, and the next second his hands were gripping Merlin’s hips, pulling him into Arthur’s lap and holding him firmly in place while Arthur’s lips began lavishing attention over his throat.

Merlin closed his eyes, humming a little as he felt Arthur’s tongue swipe over his adam’s apple, and dug his fingers into Arthur’s shoulders.  He let Arthur’s lips wander eagerly over his skin, biting back little moans as Arthur’s mouth slid hotly over the curve of his neck and the angle of his collarbone.

Then it wasn’t enough, and Merlin had to tug Arthur’s face up to his for another kiss, had to push his tongue between Arthur’s lips and taste him. Arthur willingly obliged.  Merlin licked into his mouth slowly, languidly, taking his time and drawing it out to savor the feeling as he flicked his tongue along the roof of Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur made a soft sound at that, drawing in a breath as their tongues slid together.  His grip on Merlin tightened then, dragging Merlin a little closer, and Merlin shifted obligingly, and—oh.

Then he could feel Arthur against him as his hips shifted, feel him even through their jeans, and Merlin felt an unexpected rush of want come crashing through him, so strong he couldn’t quite breathe for a second.  His mind was suddenly reeling with the urge to move, to touch, to rub Arthur through the rough fabric separating them; he was already trailing a hand down Arthur’s chest when familiar anxiety broke through his thoughts and stopped him in his tracks.

It threaded through the warmth of the moment and settled coldly in Merlin’s mind. It filled him with the urge to recoil and get himself out, out, out of the situation; the urge to curl up alone in his bed where he knew he was safe. He felt the instant dread of putting himself into that defenseless position with another person again, overshadowed by the reminder of where it got him last time.

And yet, Arthur’s body was unwaveringly solid and comforting against Merlin’s. His hands skimmed up Merlin’s sides with reassuring warmth as he kissed over Merlin’s lips and chin with all the care in the world.  Arthur nipped lightly beneath Merlin’s jaw before pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the spot and sucking the skin softly, and it was enough to make Merlin suck in a shallow breath.  

He found his fingers inching lower again, apprehension melting away with each press of Arthur’s lips.  Merlin stopped again moments later, however, because now his hand was creeping low on Arthur’s stomach, and suddenly his fingers were trembling, his palms were sweating, and cold, cold fear was eating away at the edges of his mind.

This wasn’t the first time Merlin had found himself like this, pressed close to Arthur and gasping for breath between long kisses, despite his inner turmoil; so close to pushing that little bit further, but unable to find the words or the strength in his muscles to take any final step.  It had happened a frustrating number of times before, always the same; always hovering on the edge until Merlin would finally skitter backwards from the idea and disentangle himself from Arthur.

Arthur was cupping Merlin’s jaw now, his lips having returned to Merlin’s. He kept the kiss slow and indulgent as he explored Merlin’s mouth, and Merlin was still trying to keep from rocking his hips into Arthur’s, wanting, wishing, trying and not quite managing to ignore the knot in his chest—but, God, wanting

The smallest tickle of fear curled inside Merlin again, and he groaned.  The sound started in frustration, tight and angry in his chest, because the burning need to beat this was clawing at his insides and he wasn’t doing a goddamn thing—but then Arthur’s tongue was running along the back of Merlin’s teeth, slow and decadent; his thumb was massaging tiny circles into the nape of Merlin’s neck, and Merlin’s shoulders sagged as he let his fingers twist themselves into the fabric of Arthur’s shirt.  The groan in his throat opened up into something different, something trembling and earnest as it escaped his lips, riddled with desperation for something Merlin had missed for far too long.

A second later, Arthur’s lips were gone from Merlin’s as he drew back, and Merlin opened his eyes to find Arthur staring at him, silent and curious, but otherwise unreadable.  He stared long and hard, eyes raking over Merlin’s face, and Merlin tried to steady his breathing, tried to get a grip on himself as his fingers continued to shake against Arthur’s stomach, and one of Arthur’s hands slid slowly down Merlin’s back to close lightly over his hip.

Arthur’s eyes remained on Merlin’s face, observant and almost inquisitive, as he very slowly pushed his hips up, shifting carefully into Merlin’s touch until he was pressing against Merlin’s hand.  Merlin’s mouth fell open in a soft gasp as he felt Arthur hot and hard beneath his fingers, and without even needing to think, he pressed back firmly.

Arthur’s hips stuttered a little at that; his breath was suddenly coming in shorter pants, and for a moment, he blinked blearily, his face full of new realisation. It passed quickly as Arthur focused on Merlin again, eyes glinting with a new kind of hunger that Merlin wasn’t sure he had seen before.

Arthur’s touch disappeared from Merlin’s face, his hand curled loosely as he ran the back of his fingers down the front of Merlin’s shirt.  His knuckles skated over Merlin’s chest and stomach, sending a shiver down Merlin’s spine, and Merlin closed his eyes, breathing slowly as Arthur’s hand stilled to hover over his belt.

“Merlin,” Arthur breathed.  Merlin could hear the tension Arthur’s tone carried and, because he had to, he opened his eyes to look, meeting Arthur’s dark, level gaze.

Arthur swallowed.  “Merlin, can I…”  He paused, hesitating, clearly working to restrain himself.  “Do—do you want—?”

Arthur’s fingers ghosted over Merlin’s zip, the touch so light Merlin almost couldn’t feel it—but dear God, could he feel it, and Merlin found himself rather incapable of doing anything in response but clutching tighter at Arthur’s shoulder as he pushed forward into the touch.  He nodded quickly, head spinning, and brushed their lips together with a whispered,“Yes.”

Merlin wasn’t even sure exactly what he was agreeing to, but he knew it was the right answer by the thrill that tore through him as Arthur’s fingers suddenly wound themselves through his belt loops, hauling Merlin closer until their chests were pressed together.  Merlin’s nerves felt both heightened and dulled all at once, buzzing with the knowledge of what he had just overcome as he repeated the word to himself: Yes, yes, yes, and I want this, and God, Arthur. He might have said some of it aloud because Arthur was murmuring eager, soothing responses, breathless words that were lost in the slide of lips over skin as his fingers carded through Merlin’s hair.

It wasn’t until Arthur was pushing his hips up again—this time directly into Merlin’s, leaving them both gasping and groaning—that Arthur finally pulled back with apparent difficulty, leaning his forehead against Merlin’s as he took a few steadying breaths.  Then he was moving, shifting Merlin off him and back onto the sofa so he could stand up.

Merlin stared up at Arthur, confused—swiped his tongue out over his kissed and bitten lips, wondering why he was suddenly very much without Arthur’s presence against him—and his heart plummeted with the fleeting idea that Arthur was rejecting him, after Merlin himself had voiced the request.

“What—” Merlin began.

Not a second later, Arthur was tugging Merlin up as well, not so much helping as dragging him to his feet.  He cut off Merlin’s question with a searing kiss that left Merlin’s legs unsteady beneath him.

“If we’re going to do this,” Arthur murmured after they separated, “then I want to do it properly.”  

Merlin didn’t have a chance to respond before Arthur was steering him through the flat, guiding him until they were standing in Arthur’s bedroom doorway. Only then did Merlin give a small “Oh” of understanding.

Arthur paused, raising an eyebrow at him as he realised Merlin’s confusion. “Fuck’s sake, Merlin—what, did you think I was going to just up and leave you there?”

“Well—no,” Merlin said a little sheepishly, though a smile was creeping onto his lips as he stepped closer.

Arthur rolled his eyes.  “Idiot,” he muttered fondly, and Merlin smiled, reaching out to tug Arthur closer by the hem of his shirt.

“Yeah,” he agreed before fitting their lips together.

Arthur drew a slow breath in as he pulled Merlin closer again, tugging gently at Merlin’s waist as he began walking them toward the bed. Merlin went easily, following Arthur’s touches and constantly leaning into his heat.  His hands slipped beneath Arthur’s shirt as his lips trailed from the damp corner of Arthur’s mouth down his neck, fingers skating up his stomach and pushing up the cloth.

Arthur took the hint and followed Merlin’s lead, reaching for the bottom of his own shirt as Merlin’s teeth scraped over his pulse point and nipped lightly at his neck.  Their hands knocked together as Merlin’s hands continued to climb Arthur’s chest, Arthur twisting and Merlin tugging until Arthur was pulling the shirt over his head and dropping it to the floor.

Merlin only had a moment to take in the sight of Arthur in front of him before Arthur was pulling him in close again, slanting his mouth softly over Merlin’s and coaxing his lips apart.  He threaded his fingers into Merlin’s hair, rubbing lightly over his scalp as he tilted his head for a better angle, lips and tongue soft against Merlin’s mouth.

Merlin melted into the touch, and Arthur let Merlin’s hands explore—run over Arthur’s arms and down his back to see where they fit best along the dips and curves of Arthur’s body. He let Merlin rake his fingernails lightly through the fine hair of his chest and shifted closer as Merlin curled his fingers into the waist of Arthur’s jeans.

Arthur’s hands didn’t take long to wander underneath Merlin’s shirt then, rucking it up so he could press a palm flat against Merlin’s stomach; run his hand over skin to feel the lean muscles beneath; push up farther to rub his thumb over a sensitive nipple.

Merlin arched into the touch, breaking off their kiss with a gasp, and Arthur’s lips fell to his neck, pressing a soft, open kiss to the skin before nudging Merlin to lift his arms above his head.  Merlin obliged, a small twist in his stomach as Arthur slowly pulled his shirt up and off him, head bent to follow it with a trail of tiny kisses up Merlin’s chest.

Arthur dropped Merlin’s shirt to the floor, lips parting slightly so he could tongue at the dip between Merlin’s collarbones.  Merlin’s muscles went a little slack at the feeling, but Arthur only held him closer, firmer, as he nosed lightly at Merlin’s throat, lips pressed to the skin just beneath.

“God,” Arthur murmured, small and secret and perhaps only to himself.  He began mouthing slowly at the hollow of Merlin’s collarbone as his hands slid over Merlin’s skin with touches that felt almost reverent, as if this alone, just having Merlin this way—chest to chest, skin pressed to skin while they stood, otherwise clothed, in Arthur’s bedroom—could be enough for Arthur forever.

It made Merlin wonder exactly how long Arthur had wanted this, exactly how badly he had wanted it, if he had thought about it—and, all at once, Merlin was wondering how much, and when, and even what Arthur did when he thought about it. He wondered if Arthur had looked to the empty space next to him in his bed at night and wished it was filled with Merlin, the way Merlin had wished his was filled with Arthur. Merlin wondered if some of the late-night calls they had shared were because Arthur had really missed him, not just because he was bored and couldn’t sleep.  Merlin wondered, if Arthur had gone ahead and asked for this sooner, would Merlin really have been all that hesitant to give it?

There was a part of Merlin that knew Arthur would never have intruded, would never have pushed, would never have even suggested unless he knew, without a doubt, that Merlin wanted to let somebody in like this again—wanted to let him in like this.  The way Arthur held him now—the way he ran his palms slowly down Merlin’s back, taking his time in beginning to learn Merlin’s body; the way his breath fanned over Merlin’s skin, warm and gentle; the way he looked at Merlin like he was something to be treasured, touched Merlin like he was something to be held dear, kissed Merlin like he was something to be adored—only made Merlin all the more positive that he did want Arthur, wanted all of Arthur, and, even more than that, wanted Arthur to have all of him.

That was why, when Merlin realised the way Arthur’s hips were pushing minutely into his, the tiny hitches of Arthur’s breath and the way Arthur’s hands had stilled against Merlin’s lower back, waiting for Merlin to make the next move, Merlin knew that the beat his heart skipped must have been in anticipation rather than fear.  He didn’t need to think twice about dropping his hands to Arthur’s belt, just a bit clumsy as he worked it open, and thumbing open Arthur’s jeans as quickly as his fingers would let him.

He paused then, as if his mind was catching up with his actions and halting him in his tracks as the situation in its entirety crashed over him in another wave of realisation. It threw Merlin just a bit off-balance, but when he glanced up at Arthur—perhaps it was instinct, by now, the way Merlin looked to Arthur in his moments of doubt—he was met with a reassuring smile.  Merlin’s breath caught in his chest at the sight, the way he had come to realise it often did, and he slowly pushed Arthur’s jeans down over his hips.

Arthur stepped away just long enough to shimmy out of them before he was back, soft lips and clutching hands and chest pressed warm and solid to Merlin’s own.  He caught Merlin’s lips again and again, stole long kiss after long kiss and breath after breath from Merlin’s lungs, as if only a few seconds away from him had been far too long.

Merlin slid his hands down Arthur’s back, finding it only natural to press Arthur closer, and gasped into his mouth when he felt Arthur pressing hot and firm to his hip through thin cotton boxers.  At that, Arthur broke away from Merlin’s lips; his face dropped to the curve of Merlin’s neck and he moaned softly, hands sliding instantly down Merlin’s hips to tug at his belt.

Arthur pulled it away smoothly and then popped open the button of Merlin’s jeans. Merlin looked into Arthur’s eyes once again, just to anchor himself to the world and keep from slipping away into the heady rush of it all.  Arthur met his gaze as he slowly pushed the jeans down over Merlin’s hips, kept his eyes on Merlin’s as he nudged them down as far as he could, and let Merlin shake them the rest of the way off. Merlin stepped out of them and right back into Arthur’s space, close and warm.

Arthur’s hands settled on Merlin’s waist and he leaned back, letting his eyes trail slowly up Merlin’s body until his gaze rested on his face again.  The scrutiny made Merlin blush, but Arthur’s smile was wide and fond, and he simply tugged Merlin close again to softly press their lips together.

Their bodies pressed along each other again as Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin securely. They were both a little more breathless, but Arthur’s kisses remained slow, and his touches were careful and measured against Merlin’s body as he ran his palms up Merlin’s chest then down over his sides; skated his fingers up the line of Merlin’s spine and back down to his hips.

Merlin wasn’t sure if his nerves had really been all that obvious or if it was natural for Arthur to be this caring, this blessedly slow and attentive. In fact, Merlin wasn’t quite sure of anything outside of Arthur in his entirety—Arthur’s scent, Arthur’s slow breath, Arthur’s adoring, unhurried hands against his skin.  Arthur’s thumb caressed the jut of Merlin’s hipbone and then his hands were sliding down to run lightly over the curve of Merlin’s arse, before traveling back up again to wrap around Merlin’s waist, simply holding their bodies flush against one another.

Somewhere, in some small part of his mind that was still functioning beyond the feeling of Arthur’s warmth, Merlin wondered how on earth he had kept such a distance from Arthur for four long months; how he had kept himself barred from someone he had admittedly felt so drawn to since the day they met.  He wondered why he had never felt this with any other person who had touched him this way, or with any other man he had undressed. Merlin’s mind spun, and he wondered if he had ever even come close to falling as perfectly in love with anyone or anything as he had done with Arthur.

Memories of the days and weeks and months he had known Arthur flashed through Merlin’s mind all in a moment, like flipping through a book, and he found himself fleetingly wondering if real love, as Merlin now knew it, had even existed before Arthur—or if it existed anywhere outside of him.

Merlin relaxed further and further with each of Arthur’s touches, breath hitching each time Arthur’s hands dipped lower, and arched shallowly against Arthur’s body.  Merlin’s hands, he realised, had slid down to hover along Arthur’s hip line just over his boxers, and Merlin’s fingers were occasionally dipping below the cloth, but stubbornly moving no further.

Merlin silently cursed himself for his ineptness; it had been ages since he had been here with anyone and, all anxieties aside, he was finding himself easily as awkward as if it were the first time he had ever peeled someone’s clothing from their body.  Merlin’s fingers skated again along the top of the last piece of Arthur’s clothing and, for a moment, he found himself paralyzed much more by that awkwardness than his nerves.

“Go ahead,” Arthur suddenly murmured against the shell of his ear.  It may have been the way that Merlin’s fingers were dancing indecisively along his skin that tipped Arthur off to his current dilemma, or it may have simply been that Arthur expected it.  Regardless, Merlin finally took a slow breath and hooked his fingers under the waistband of Arthur’s boxers, dragging them down his hips and swallowing, his heart stuttering into a faster rhythm, as he left Arthur entirely exposed in front of him.

Arthur shook off the piece of clothing and stepped out of it, taking a slow breath as he paused, his hands still resting lightly on Merlin’s waist.  Merlin couldn’t stop his eyes from trailing slowly down the length of Arthur’s body and back up again, taking in the miles of naked skin stretched before him, and—God, he couldn’t believe Arthur was his, all his to kiss and touch and keep.  Merlin’s stomach tightened as both heavy emotion and hot arousal swept through him, his mouth going dry, and finally he looked back up to Arthur’s face with dark eyes.

Arthur let out a shaky breath as their gazes met. The strain was clear in his voice when he spoke.  “All right?”

Merlin barely gave himself a chance to nod before reaching up to sink his fingers into Arthur’s hair, pulling him close and crashing their lips together.  Arthur gave a surprised noise that melted into a moan as Merlin pushed his tongue between Arthur’s lips, pressing their hips together. Merlin tensed for a moment as pleasure and anticipation twisted through him, his breath shuddering.

Arthur’s hands clutched tightly at Merlin’s hips and he kissed back just as eagerly but, a moment later, Arthur was easing off, his breathing ragged as he rested his forehead against Merlin’s and looked into his eyes.  Arthur said nothing, simply leaned forward to brush his lips lightly across Merlin’s again. Then, suddenly, he was moving down Merlin’s body, hands running along Merlin’s sides and settling at his hips as Arthur came to rest on his knees.

Merlin looked down at Arthur, his head spinning for an entirely different reason, because—because Jesus, this was very fast, and if Arthur was going to… right here, and right now, Merlin could have at least used some proper indication so he could mentally prepare himself—

But Arthur was simply smiling up at Merlin, eyes filled with soft affection—nothing like the darkened lust Merlin expected.  He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Merlin’s stomach, sucking a small kiss to the skin next to Merlin’s navel. Merlin squirmed the tiniest bit at that, but he couldn’t help the warmth filling his chest as Arthur mouthed slowly along his skin, tipping his face up to press a kiss a little higher as his fingers curled slowly into the elastic of Merlin’s boxers.

The next time Arthur looked up at him, Merlin found himself smiling warmly, and Arthur’s smile grew even wider in response.  He trailed his lips down and kissed Merlin’s hipbone as he began dragging down the last article of clothing separating them. Arthur’s hands moved slowly and his lips followed, pressing to each newly-exposed inch of skin—Merlin’s hip, the soft dip where his leg met the rest of his body, and lower down; the inside of his thigh, his knee.

Merlin shuddered as the cool air of the room hit his cock, and then again with each gentle press of Arthur’s lips to his skin.  Arthur made no move to do anything but kiss; kiss Merlin’s pale skin, dusted with dark hair; nudge his nose against Merlin’s knee to urge him to step out of the clothing.  Merlin did so, and Arthur kissed Merlin’s leg again, up his thigh and over his hip and back up his stomach before finally drawing level with Merlin’s face, curling a hand over Merlin’s nape and pulling him close for a long, sweet kiss.

“Gorgeous,” Arthur breathed against Merlin’s lips, free hand skating down over his hip.  “You’re absolutely gorgeous.”

Merlin wasn’t sure he had ever been called such a thing before.  He couldn’t stop the shy smile that spread across his face even if he wanted to.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” Merlin murmured softly.

Arthur’s grip only tightened on him at that; he remained silent as his mouth caught Merlin’s again, this time slower, gentle and deliberate.  His fingers curled over Merlin’s hips as he took a step back, drawing Merlin along with him. Arthur only broke the kiss when the back of his knees pressed to the edge of the bed.

Arthur smiled up at Merlin as he sat, gently pulling him down as well, and it was easy, the way Merlin slid into Arthur’s lap and settled against him; the way their bodies fit together as if they were made for one another. It was easy, the way Arthur guided Merlin—and Merlin went. Quiet, stuttering breaths escaped each of them as their hips slotted together.  Merlin rolled lightly against Arthur just to hear the moan that slipped from his lips, and a second later Arthur was sliding a hand behind Merlin’s neck, pulling him down for another kiss.

Arthur coaxed Merlin’s lips apart with a slow lick, taking all the time in the world to open Merlin up to him as his fingers trailed over Merlin’s flushed skin.  Merlin complied, let Arthur explore him as if it was all new, but his fingers were already growing less steady on Arthur’s shoulders as Arthur’s tongue traced slowly over the roof of Merlin’s mouth, drawing a soft whine from his throat.

Arthur,” Merlin finally breathed impatiently.  In response, Arthur pushed his hips up into Merlin’s again, and Merlin gasped, dropping his face to the curve of Arthur’s neck as he let out a moan.  He could hear the hitch in Arthur’s breath, feel the skitter of his heartbeat thudding against his chest and, in a moment, Arthur was shifting back on the bed, leaning down into the pillows and hauling Merlin up to hover over him.

Merlin’s lips were relentless then as he dipped down to suck a line of hot kisses to Arthur’s neck, and he mouthed along the column of Arthur’s throat and swiped his tongue beneath his jaw, just the way he knew would make Arthur twist beneath him and tilt his head back for more.  Merlin nosed along the line of Arthur’s collarbone, trailed tiny licks across it and back up his neck until the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest grew harsher, his legs hooking over the back of Merlin’s.

Then Arthur was doing that thing with his hips again, that thing where he arched and twisted his body against Merlin’s and left Merlin gasping for breath, heady with sparks of pleasure and resisting simply rocking their hips together until they both lost themselves completely and came, hot and messy, between their bodies.  Instead, Merlin gripped Arthur’s sides and rolled onto his back. Arthur’s legs tightened around him as he went, easily settling over Merlin and quickly dipping down to press a hot, open kiss to Merlin’s neck, followed by another and another and another until Merlin lost count.

Even now, Arthur’s patience was astounding—he drew soft little moans and groans from Merlin, yet would not be persuaded to move any faster. His lips were indulgent and his hands were explorative as they roamed over and over Merlin’s skin.  One hand slid into Merlin’s hair to tilt his head back as Arthur simply grazed his lips up the long line of Merlin’s neck, and then began moving down, down along his collarbones and to his chest. Merlin felt fingers trailing low along his hip to his thigh, ever-so-slightly nudging his legs apart, and—

—and suddenly Merlin imagined a condom, and slippery fingers breaching him, and pressure and aching and gasping and pain

“Arthur,” Merlin gasped, and quickly sat up because he really hadn’t known what Arthur had in mind when they were tangled together on the sofa, and suddenly the fear was crashing in again, vicious and consuming, and no, no, maybe he couldn’t after all, not if—because, no, he wasn’t ready for that, not yet, not this fast, not when he was only just now managing to—

Arthur drew back, hands stilling where they lay on Merlin’s body, and looked at Merlin with calm, kind eyes.

“Merlin,” he said softly, as if he had anticipated the thoughts clawing at Merlin’s mind, “I won’t do anything you don’t want me to.”

Merlin’s hands had fisted the sheets without Merlin’s permission, but they loosened as he gazed back at Arthur. He blushed as he realised his own reaction, but kept their eyes locked.  A strange mix of calm and breathless anticipation washed through Merlin again, brought on by nothing more than the tender, longing way Arthur was looking at him.

Arthur’s fingers absently drew light patterns over Merlin’s skin, but his gaze was sincere as it rested on Merlin, and his tone was almost pleading.  “You don’t need to worry,” he promised softly.  “I just… want to make you feel good.  I promise I’m going to make you feel good, if—if you’ll let me.”  He lifted a hand to Merlin’s jaw, drawing a thumb over the line of Merlin’s bottom lip.  “If you’re not sure, then—”

“No,” Merlin said quickly, because despite everything he didn’t know in this moment, the one thing he did know was that, yes, he was sure; he wanted to do this, and he wanted to do this with Arthur. He might lose it if he had to wait any longer.

Arthur nodded, then drew Merlin’s face to his, kissing him, slow and reassuring, before pulling away and nudging at Merlin’s nose with his own.  “Then relax.  You trust me, yeah?”

It was another question Merlin didn’t need to think about before answering. He nodded silently, the knot of anxiety in his stomach already loosening considerably.

Arthur kissed him lightly again.  “Good.”  He slid his hands down Merlin’s chest, smoothed them over his stomach and finally rested them on Merlin’s hips, thumbs drawing slow circles into the skin there.  “So relax,” he urged again quietly.

Slowly, Merlin did.  Then it was only Arthur’s mouth traveling down his chest, pausing to close over a nipple and suck, making Merlin’s body arch. It was only Arthur’s hands, steady and warm while his fingers dug lightly into Merlin’s hips. It was only Arthur’s nose, trailing over Merlin’s skin an inch behind every kiss; Arthur’s fringe, tickling against Merlin’s belly as Arthur nipped and sucked and kissed his way lower, taking his time as he moved down Merlin’s body.

Arthur nosed along the fine, dark trail of hair down Merlin’s stomach—hot breath ghosting along Merlin’s cock and making him shudder—and then turned to place a soft kiss at Merlin’s hip.  Arthur’s hands smoothed up and down Merlin’s thighs again and again until Merlin’s legs were gently falling open to the touch, allowing Arthur room to settle between them.

Merlin peered down at Arthur and his cock jumped a bit at the sight alone, tapping lightly against his stomach.  He caught the smallest grin from Arthur at that, and Arthur leaned down, tracing his nose lightly up Merlin’s stomach before trailing tiny kisses down his skin, carefully avoiding his cock.

“All right?” Arthur murmured into Merlin’s skin.

Merlin only groaned impatiently in response, because he had moved quite quickly from being all right to hardly being able to think past how badly he wanted Arthur.  Arthur looked up at him with a wide, teasing grin and affectionate eyes.  He hovered there for a moment; his eyes simply trailed over Merlin’s face as his grin faded into something softer.

“God, I really love you,” Arthur breathed suddenly.  His voice was riddled with a reverent sort of awe, as if it was the first and the hundredth time the fact had hit him in its entirety and it was still no less breathtaking. It was a whisper across Arthur’s lips that seemed to carry a thousand other whispers behind it; promises of love and everything Merlin needed to hear.

Merlin’s breath caught in his chest as he looked down at Arthur.  “I love you, too, Arthur,” he returned sincerely once he found his voice.  Really, Merlin wasn’t sure he had ever meant anything as wholly as he did those words.

Arthur’s lips spread into another wide smile at that, and he leaned down to press his lips to Merlin’s hip again before tilting his head, hot breath fanning over Merlin’s cock.  Merlin’s eyes fluttered shut at the heat and he lifted his hips towards it; seconds of nothing dragged by, then suddenly Arthur’s warm, wet lips were closing around the head of Merlin’s cock.

Merlin gasped, arching up further and letting out a long, high moan as Arthur sucked lightly at him—and then not so lightly. Arthur’s mouth slid down just a little more around Merlin, and already Merlin was fisting the bedcovers beneath him, the air gone from his lungs.

He didn’t remember the last time someone had done this for him—the last time someone had wanted to do this for him.  Merlin didn’t remember the last time someone had made him feel like this, or had cared about how he felt at all. He didn’t remember the last time someone had taken their time with him, as if moments with him were something to be savored—and then, quite suddenly, he didn’t remember anything at all besides the heat of Arthur’s mouth surrounding him, sending him into dizzy spirals of pleasure for long moments. Then, Arthur was pulling off again.

Merlin huffed out a harsh breath as Arthur’s mouth slipped off him, and a shaky, “God,” escaped Merlin’s lips.

Arthur dipped down further, sucking a brief kiss to the base of Merlin’s cock before pulling away just enough to grin.  “Not quite,” he murmured, a teasing lilt to his voice.

However, Merlin felt like he might have it in him to disagree, because then Arthur’s tongue was back, running hot and wet over Merlin’s bollocks before trailing back up his cock to swipe along the slit, and Merlin choked back a whine as his eyes fell shut.  The reaction seemed to spur Arthur on, and he began lapping at Merlin with tiny licks, teasing and light, until Merlin’s chest was heaving, hips tilting up sharply with each swipe of Arthur’s tongue, hands scrabbling desperately against the bedcovers.

Arthur grinned up at Merlin again as he pulled away, and it occurred to Merlin that the extent to which Arthur was enjoying this was bordering on obscene; his lips were already red and slick from all the time he had spent kissing down Merlin’s body. Arthur’s cheeks were flushed with arousal and Merlin could do nothing but stare and shudder as Arthur very deliberately lowered his head again and licked a slow, hot stripe up the length of Merlin’s cock.

His gaze flicked back up to Merlin then, and he paused.  “Good?” Arthur asked quietly.

Merlin would have huffed, would have said something snarky and impatient and demanding, but the words caught in his throat.  Arthur’s gaze was sincere; his grin had faded into the tiniest tilt of a hopeful smile, and something inside Merlin twisted at that—loosened and spread warmly through him as the question settled around him.

Arthur’s thumbs were tracing slow, soothing circles into Merlin’s hips again, and Merlin could only find it in himself to take a slow breath and shift back to relax against the pillows beneath him, nodding as he gazed down at Arthur.

“Yeah,” Merlin whispered simply, encouraging and pleading and more than a little desperate all at once.  “S’good.”

Arthur smiled wider and seemed to need no further reassurance.  He leaned down again, flicking his tongue out against the tip of Merlin’s cock before sucking at it indulgently.  Within moments, Merlin’s breath was gone; his eyes were shut against the sensations sparking hotly through him as his whole body twisted up for more.

Just short of Merlin losing his sanity altogether, Arthur seemed to decide he was through with teasing.  All at once he was swallowing Merlin down again, with much less finesse and much more eagerness, one of his hands catching Merlin’s as it slid across the sheets and squeezing as Arthur paused to swallow around him.

At that, Merlin’s other hand flew to Arthur’s hair and wound tightly into the strands at the back of his head. Then Merlin’s mouth fell open in a soundless gasp, because maybe he was imagining things, but he was pretty sure that this had never felt so good.

Arthur let out a small noise as Merlin clutched at his hair, and Merlin would have let go in an instant, timid, had it not only seemed to encourage Arthur further.  He hummed around Merlin as he sucked in earnest, mouth sliding faster up and down Merlin’s cock as his tongue worked messily, and Christ, Merlin couldn’t help the way his hips hitched up into the movements, the spikes of heat that flaring down his spine as Arthur bloody moaned around him, sending vibrations straight through Merlin that made his head spin.

Merlin wasn’t going to last long—not when it had been so goddamn long since he had been with anyone, and certainly not when he had wanted Arthur for so long that Merlin had lost track of the number of times he had spilled over his own hand with Arthur’s name on his lips.  He wouldn’t last, not when Arthur’s fingernails were raking down Merlin’s thighs as he pulled off just enough to swallow Merlin down again and again; not when Arthur was reaching up with his other hand to stroke his fingers over Merlin’s bollocks, squeeze them lightly in a way that drew helpless moans right from Merlin’s throat.

Breathless pleas spilled from Merlin’s lips as pleasure twisted through him, hot and growing hotter with every stroke of Arthur’s tongue, and god, he was close, so close—and then he could feel the tip of his cock pressing to the back of Arthur’s throat, and suddenly he was right there, skating along the edge as his bollocks began to tighten.  His muscles went tense and his fingers gripped Arthur’s hair tighter, words lost but for his gasps of please and yes and Arthur.  He tugged at Arthur desperately, tried to warn him, because, fuck, he couldn’t hold on any longer, and surely Arthur wouldn’t—

Arthur did.

Merlin arched high off the bed as he came with a loud cry straight into Arthur’s mouth.  Arthur remained firmly in place; he swallowed around Merlin and his fingers dug into Merlin’s hips, his jaw working as he sucked earnestly.

After moments that seemed to drag on for a blissful eternity, Merlin’s muscles finally began to go slack.  His every limb quivered as his breath shook, and stars danced behind his eyelids as the aftershocks of his release rippled through him, pleasure still threading through his consciousness.

Arthur was still mouthing softly at Merlin’s sensitive cock, and finally he pulled off as Merlin made a quiet noise of protest.  He wasted no time in sliding up Merlin’s body, planting kiss after wet, messy kiss on Merlin’s skin as he moved, and finally captured Merlin’s lips with his own as they drew level.

Merlin moaned weakly into Arthur’s mouth as he caught the taste of himself on Arthur’s tongue, sharp and bitter.  Arthur moaned back, threading his fingers through Merlin’s hair to tilt Merlin’s head back, and broke away from Merlin’s lips to pepper kisses over his throat.

“Christ, so beautiful,” Arthur breathed into Merlin’s neck.  “Beautiful, perfect—”

Merlin didn’t think twice then before sliding his hand down Arthur’s body, fingers quickly finding Arthur’s cock, hard and straining, and wrapping around it.  Arthur’s breath stuttered, voice catching on a soft, “Oh” of surprise as Merlin began stroking him in long, firm pulls, reckless and insistent despite the slight tremor in his fingers.

The angle was less than ideal, but it hardly mattered; Arthur was breathlessly close already, hips began rolling sharply into Merlin’s every movement, and with that realisation Merlin had to bite back another soft moan.

Arthur’s body shook as he dropped his face to the curve of Merlin’s shoulder, trailed his open mouth up Merlin’s neck as harsh, hot pants escaped him.  Merlin’s breath quickened along with Arthur’s as he stroked; Arthur’s mouth was pressed to the shell of Merlin’s ear, gasping and murmuring half-finished pleas and endearments as he trembled, and he came moments later with a harsh, broken moan, spilling hot over Merlin’s fingers and stomach.

Merlin’s hand slowed and finally stilled around Arthur’s cock, his eyes slipping shut and his chest rising and falling with heavy breaths.  Arthur had one hand tangled in Merlin’s hair and his other curled tightly over Merlin’s hip as he panted raggedly against Merlin’s ear, until he finally lifted his head again to look into Merlin’s eyes.

Arthur’s hair was mussed and his fringe was just a bit damp against his forehead.  His face was flushed and his lips were bright red, eyes just short of focused. All at once, Merlin was sure that he had never seen a more beautiful sight.  His chest swelled with affection and a hundred other things he couldn’t put into words, so he simply reached up, slid a hand behind Arthur’s neck and pulled him down for a long, languid kiss.

Arthur pushed his fingers through Merlin’s hair as he let Merlin guide him, taking in a breath as their lips met.  He kissed Merlin deeply, dragged his lips along Merlin’s again and again until his kisses grew almost chaste, simple presses against Merlin’s lips, his chin, his cheekbone, his hair.  Finally, Arthur was shifting slowly off Merlin, dropping onto the bed and curling around him, nuzzling into the curve of Merlin’s neck and nosing at his ear.

Merlin closed his eyes at the warmth of Arthur against him and shifted onto his side as well so that they were facing one another.  Arthur was smiling at him, brilliant and tired and all Merlin’s, and Merlin couldn’t help but reach up, trace his fingers fondly along the curve of Arthur’s jaw, his chin, and then the arch of his lips.

Merlin didn’t remember ever having felt this blissfully content in all his life.

Arthur kissed Merlin’s thumb as it wandered past his lips and Merlin’s own lips curved into a warm smile.

“I’m so happy you’re mine,” he breathed, earning an even wider smile from Arthur in response.

Arthur snaked his arms around Merlin’s waist, easily pulling Merlin closer against him, and Merlin traced a hand down Arthur’s chest as he settled comfortably into Arthur’s arms.  Arthur sighed happily into Merlin’s hair, a soft murmur of I love you falling from his lips as his hands slid slowly up and down Merlin’s back.

“Stay with me tonight,” Arthur whispered.  “Please?”

As he looked up at Arthur’s sleepy, hopeful, adoring face, Merlin couldn’t help the quickening of his heartbeat or the pleasant buzz of pure happiness thrumming through his body. He leaned up to catch Arthur’s lips in a soft kiss before settling down again, feeling Arthur’s arms tighten around him.

“Gladly,” he whispered into Arthur’s chest.