Merlin couldn’t remember all of his reincarnations, but he took a great deal of satisfaction in remembering more than Arthur. The earliest either of them can recall is Camelot, where Arthur was king and Merlin his Court Sorcerer. These memories are the clearest of them all—most lives are reduced to shadows, surviving only in flashes and brief memories. They both remember the Renaissance, and how Merlin’s attempts at poetry had made Arthur laugh; the Great Fire of London, which had luckily spared their home but destroyed so many of their friends’; standing at the harbor, watching with heavy hearts as Gwaine sailed off for the New World; dancing in their sitting room, doors firmly shut and windows carefully shuttered, their brand-new gramophone crackling in the background.
Merlin harbors other memories, some fond, and some devastating. He tries very hard, in every life, to forget the day his magic had been discovered during the witch trials, Arthur’s terrified voice shouting his name over and over as Merlin ran. Arthur never remembers catching the Black Plague, but Merlin never forgets, watching Arthur wither away under the influence of the disease in his darkest nightmares, his magic useless against the unknown illness. He can still feel the terror of not knowing if Arthur will return from the war—any war, Arthur had never learned not to be a soldier—and the overwhelming joy of seeing him at the end, tattered but alive .
In every memory, they are always together, two halves of a coin, Merlin and Arthur. Arthur had whispered the same endearments into Merlin’s skin for centuries, but Merlin never tired of them. They’d dealt with hate in every life, had hidden their relationship from everyone more often than not, and it made Merlin’s heart break to watch Arthur smile and laugh with women, for the sake of society or his father, knowing how unhappy it made him. They’d been found out before, of course—someone would find them holding hands, or notice Merlin’s untouched bed, or just know by their intimate smiles. Lance was usually the first to notice, but sometimes it was Gwen, or Leon, or even quiet Percival. They were freer in some incarnations than others, but never were they truly accepted. But their last reincarnation had shown them a changing world.
It was the first incarnation where Merlin and Arthur freely told their friends. It didn’t matter that they were “wrong”, or “unnatural”—they were happy. They kept the truth from Uther—Arthur’s father was old-fashioned and stubborn, in every incarnation, and would never have been happy with his son’s relationship, much as he loved Arthur. Even as the times began to change, Arthur hid it from him, enduring Uther’s unintentional slurs with clenched hands and downcast eyes, pressing apologies into Merlin’s skin later that night, seeking forgiveness in his arms. And Merlin held onto him, wishing there was more that he could do, praying that their future held more than secrets.
This time, Merlin couldn’t help but feel like it was all worth it.
It’d taken longer than usual for him and Arthur to find each other, and a bit longer still to remember, but by the time they did, they didn’t have to hide any more. The first time they kissed, it was on the street, in front of everyone, and Merlin had giggled and Arthur had called him a girl, and they both beamed when someone nearby clapped. They held hands at the movies and played footsie at restaurants and kissed when they felt like it. Merlin sat at Arthur’s side at his monthly visits with Uther, who accepted Merlin’s presence with a sigh and an extra glass of wine. When Arthur graduated from uni, a year ahead of Merlin, it was Merlin he headed for straight after the ceremony, and Merlin he went home with later that night to celebrate with in private.
Finally, after so many centuries, they were free.
There were many days when Merlin seriously questioned his decision to go straight into grad school. He genuinely loved what he did, but sometimes the mound of work and the hum of lectures and the hurried, lonely dinners between trips to the library got to be too much, and he began daydreaming about dropping out and working in his uncle’s shop instead. The past week had been nothing but days like this, and he was more than relieved to find himself at the end of it, holed away with Gwen in what was becoming a depressingly familiar corner of the library.
A faint buzzing from somewhere under the pile of papers on the desk made Merlin jump. Gwen watched with a raised eyebrow as he dug around for his phone, which had somehow wound up in the middle of a stack of lecture notes, and flipped open the screen, thoroughly unsurprised to see Arthur’s name under the ‘1 new message!' line.
Need a study break? the text asked. Merlin smiled.
depends. shouldn’t you be working?
Just leaving now , Arthur’s reply said a minute later. Meet for lunch?
will there be coffee involved?
If you like.
Merlin could practically see Arthur rolling his eyes, and he chuckled.
“What does Arthur want?” Gwen asked in a whisper, biting idly on the cap of her pen.
“To steal me away for lunch,” Merlin answered just as quietly. “You don’t mind, do you? I shouldn’t be long; we could work again later if you want.”
“Oh, go ahead, he’ll only show up here if you say no,” was Gwen’s answer, and she rolled her eyes affectionately at the instant smile that spread across Merlin’s face.
“Thanks, Gwen,” he said, and hurriedly pulled out his phone to reply to Arthur.
sold. be there in 20.
Precisely thirty-two minutes later, Merlin stepped into his uni’s café. He looked around and saw Arthur already at a table, two steaming cups in front of him.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said in greeting, sliding into the booth with a quick kiss to Arthur’s cheek. “I got caught up in revision. That for me?”
Arthur smirked. “Believe me, Merlin, I gave up hope of you being punctual a long time ago.” He pushed the untouched meal closer to Merlin, who accepted it with muttered thanks. “Did you get any work done?”
“A bit. Enough to take a bit of time off, anyway.”
“Good. Maybe now you can sleep a whole night through without using a textbook as a pillow,” Arthur remarked. Merlin rolled his eyes dramatically, mouth full of sandwich.
“I’m not that bad.” Arthur snorted. “Well, okay, not anymore.”
“Only because you know I’ll drag you out of the library if you try it again,” Arthur said smugly, taking a sip of his drink, and Merlin made a face.
“Alright, fine, but you were just as bad when you were studying for the bar exam,” he pointed out, and Arthur kicked him lightly under the table in reply.
“Why don’t you stay at mine tonight, so I can make sure you actually get some rest?” he suggested, eyes suddenly earnest, and Merlin felt a smile tug at his lips at his concern.
“We both know I won’t get any sleep if I stay there,” he pointed out, but he couldn’t quite hide the longing in his voice when he said it. It’d been nearly a week since he’d had time to even see Arthur, let alone sleep with him. Judging by the sudden heat in Arthur’s eyes, he was thinking along the same lines. It only lasted a moment, though, and then that heat was once again replaced by concern.
“I promise to be a perfect gentleman. You can repay me later, after you’ve caught up on sleep. Alright?”
Merlin nodded, hiding his smile in his drink. “Yeah, alright.”
“Good,” Arthur said, and Merlin gave into the temptation to reach across the table for his hand. Arthur looked confused for a moment, glancing down at their hands like he wasn’t sure they should be doing this in public. It was the same blind panic Merlin had seen in Arthur’s eyes countless times before in other lives, whenever their arms brushed in the market or their eyes held each other’s glances for just a second too long. Merlin nearly pulled back, but then Arthur visibly relaxed, and squeezed Merlin’s fingers back.
When they finished their lunch, they stood to pay the waitress, who waved them off with barely a glance. They hadn’t been in the café long, but the wind had picked up, and Merlin shivered a bit in his light shirt, wishing he hadn’t been so quick to finish his coffee.
“Didn’t you bring a coat?” Arthur asked reproachfully. Merlin shook his head. “Typical. You’re not even wearing a scarf for once.”
“I didn’t think I’d need one without your love bites to cover up,” Merlin replied. He shivered again.
“Oh, for the love of—here, take mine.”
“What? No, Arthur, you need it, we’re almost inside, anyway—“
“Shut up, Merlin. You haven’t an ounce of fat on your body. I’ll be fine,” Arthur interrupted, shoving his jacket into Merlin’s hand. Merlin glared at him, but put the jacket on, anyway. Arthur may be an overbearing prat, but it really was cold out.
“Exceedingly,” Arthur said dryly. He reached out to smooth down the collar. “It suits you.”
Merlin snorted. Like all of Arthur’s clothes, the jacket was too big and hung on Merlin’s frame, making him look even skinnier than he was. But Arthur wasn’t looking at that. He seemed fascinated with something on Merlin’s chest, instead, staring at it with a strange look in his eyes. Merlin suddenly felt uncomfortable under his gaze. Before he could look to see what had his attention (and, knowing Arthur, it was probably some prank or another), Arthur’s lips were on his. He squeaked in surprise. Arthur’s kiss was sweet, hardly more than a gentle pressure against Merlin’s mouth, but his grip on Merlin’s arm was anything but. It was possessive, tight without being painful, a clear claim right there in the middle of the street.
Through his haze of shock, Merlin thought he heard Arthur murmur, “Mine,” against his lips before he was suddenly released, blinking stupidly while Arthur stepped away.
“You better go,” Arthur was saying, letting his hand fall to his side. “Don’t want to be late for your meeting with Gaius. I'll see you tonight?”
“Yeah,” Merlin managed a little dazedly. Arthur smiled, and with one last stolen kiss, was gone. Merlin watched him leave with the distinct impression that he’d missed something.
Shaking himself, Merlin glanced down to see what had so fascinated Arthur about seeing his own jacket on Merlin. It a simple one, red with the gold dragon emblem of Arthur’s football team on the right breast. On the left was one simple embroidered word: Penn .
“ It suits you ,” Arthur had said. Merlin laughed.
“Possessive dollophead,” he chuckled, and drew the jacket even closer.
Arthur was fairly certain the movers had made a mistake. There was no way that all of these boxes were theirs, taking up every available surface in what was supposed to be their new sitting room but which currently resembled someone’s garage. He spared a moment to be thankful that Merlin had corralled their friends the day before to help set up their furniture and get a head start on unpacking so they didn’t have to deal with it on move-in day as he waded past a series of boxes labeled ‘kitchen’. When he’d originally asked Merlin to move in with him, Arthur had expected them to simply shift whatever hadn’t already migrated there to Arthur’s flat and that’d be that. Merlin was practically always at Arthur’s, anyway, it’d seemed like the logical option. And Merlin had smiled, and agreed, and had gone nearly a month without a complaint, but—
“We should buy a flat together. A new one,” he’d said one day, out of the blue and almost nervously, picking at a loose thread in his jeans. Arthur had been confused, setting down the paper he’d been reading to ask, “But you just moved in here. Why do we need a new flat? I thought you liked this one.”
“I do,” Merlin had rushed to assure him, “I really do. I just thought…it was yours for so long, and…I want somewhere that’s ours, from the very beginning. We’ve never been able to do that before, and…I want to.”
Arthur had known by the tone of his voice that ‘before’ didn’t just mean the twenty-odd years they’d lived in this lifetime. Merlin had looked so eager, and Arthur had never been able to deny him when he looked like that .
“We could look into somewhere closer to work, for both of us,” he’d said, slowly, and Merlin’s answering smile had been all the encouragement he’d needed. Now, several months of extensive flat-hunting later and faced with the sheer amount of stuff they owned, Arthur tried hard not to resent his past self for falling for Merlin’s tricks.
Shaking his head, Arthur moved to toss yet another box onto the empty pile, nearly tripping over Merlin’s cat in the process. Kilgharrah (and wasn’t that a ridiculous name, but Merlin was a terribly nostalgic creature) meowed at him as it darted away to peer at him from behind a box. Arthur rolled his eyes at it.
“Bloody spoiled thing,” he muttered. Kilgharrah’s answering purr was drowned out by the sound of the door opening, and then by the arrival of Merlin, who was carrying yet another box.
“Found the bedsheets,” he announced, plopping the box down in a clear area, “thank God. I swear, if I had to go down to the car one more time I was going to scream. I don’t know how we lived without elevators.” He turned and smiled at Arthur, bending down to scratch Kilgharrah’s ears when the cat pounced at his shoelace. “But I did get to meet our new neighbor, Ms. Alice. She asked us round for tea once we’ve settled in.”
“Tea?” Arthur repeated, raising his eyebrows. Merlin nodded.
“Yes, tea. You know, delicious, hot beverage, served with cakes?” Arthur made a face at him, which was ignored. “I told her we would, she seemed lovely. And she called me a dear .” He sounded so delighted about the whole thing, that Arthur couldn’t hold back his laughter.
“I’m sure that’ll change the first time you have Will over for a visit,” he said, sniggering, “or Gwaine.”
“Oh, shut up, you,” Merlin snorted, turning to survey the crowded room. He whistled. “That tea might have to wait a while. It’ll take ages to put it all of this away.”
“Couldn’t you magic it done?” Arthur asked with a waggle of his fingers. Merlin looked scandalized.
“No, I can’t just magic it done . This is our home, Arthur, we have to do this properly .”
Arthur shrugged, trying not to show how much hearing Merlin say ‘our home’ pleased him. “Alright, fine, we’ll do it your way.”
Merlin beamed at him, darting forward to steal a quick kiss before dragging Arthur in the direction of the bedroom and instructing him to set their furniture in order. Arthur obeyed with a remark about Merlin fancying himself some kind of expert, to which Merlin replied, “Well, I’ve been cleaning up after you for centuries, haven’t I?”, and really, there wasn’t much Arthur could say to that.
Once they finished in the bedroom (and honestly, who cared if Arthur didn’t manage to get the sheets perfectly straight, and he was convinced Merlin usually cheated with magic, anyway), they moved out into the sitting room, where they dove warily but enthusiastically into the boxes. Little by little, the stack of empty boxes grew larger than the yet-unpacked one. Arthur paused for a moment to appreciate their work, and was surprised by how much the place already felt like them. Merlin was flitting around him, singing under his breath as he worked. Things Arthur had kept in his old flat were now strewn about this new one, mingled in with Merlin’s belongings seamlessly, in a way they’d never quite managed back at Arthur’s old flat. The painting Merlin had found at a rummage sale and instantly loved hung on the wall between their bookshelves, which were stuffed with their joint libraries and stood sentinel behind Arthur’s armchair and the floor lamp he’d rescued from the office. The blanket Hunith had knitted for Merlin years ago was thrown over the sofa, where it was promptly claimed by Kilgharrah.
With a start, Arthur realized that Merlin had been right. This wasn’t just Arthur’s space with Merlin’s possessions thrown inside it; it was theirs , a blank slate that they were slowly filling together. It felt right.
More importantly, it felt like home.
A throw pillow to the temple abruptly jolted Arthur out of his musings, followed by Merlin’s amused, “Come on, lazy, that’s enough day dreaming. I’m not your housewife, back to work!” Arthur snorted, and tossed the pillow back. An impromptu pillow fight broke out, where Merlin leapt between the boxes and tossed his ammunition blindly over his shoulder before being tackled gracelessly to the ground by Arthur. He laughed as he was pinned against the rug, shouting, “Fuck, get off me you ass!” and getting a “Not until you admit defeat, Merlin” in return. Their tussle only ended when Kilgharrah, jostled from his position by a wild arc of Merlin’s leg against the sofa, hissed and pounced on Arthur’s back, swatting him on the head and Merlin in the face with his tail as he sauntered off in disgust. They returned to work after that, still red-cheeked from laughing, and swapping ancient insults that were more fond than biting.
Finally, the pile of boxes had been significantly reduced, stacked in the shadows from the waning sunlight. Arthur was just finishing hooking up their landline, which Merlin had insisted on. He straightened and saw Merlin bending over one of the remaining boxes, pulling up a small wrapped parcel that Arthur couldn’t remember packing.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Flat-warming present from Gwen.” Merlin looked at him. “Want to open it?”
Arthur waved a hand. “Nah, you do it.” He was rewarded by Merlin’s happy grin and a quick kiss before Merlin tore into the parcel eagerly, unwrapping a picture frame. A post-it with Gwen’s handwriting had been placed in front of the photo.
Merlin and Arthur, (it read)
Congratulations on your new flat! Thought you could use some help putting yourselves in those bare walls.
All our love, Gwen and Lance
Curious, Merlin tore off the note to see the picture. There was a pause, and then both of them burst out laughing.
“Oh my God ,” Merlin gasped, “I can’t believe she still had this!”
“I can,” Arthur laughed. “It’s the very definition of blackmail.”
Merlin giggled again, glancing down at the photo. His photographic self beamed back at him. It’d been taken at a Halloween party years ago, back when they’d first found each other. Merlin was dressed as a rather shoddy-looking hobbit, and very obviously drunk. He had an arm slung around Arthur’s neck, who was holding him up by the waist, with a sailor hat askew atop his head. He was smiling, too, but it was a more controlled, fondly amused version than Merlin’s all-out beam. They both looked ridiculous, but there was something undeniably charming about it.
“It’s brilliant ,” Merlin remarked decidedly. “We have to put this somewhere.”
He strode forward and placed the picture in pride of place on the coffee table, right beside the phone.
“Perfect,” Merlin declared, turning to Arthur for affirmation. Arthur smiled at him.
“Perfect,” he agreed. He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around Merlin’s waist. “The whole place looks great.”
“It’s a mess,” Merlin laughed, glancing around at the half-unpacked boxes. Arthur shrugged.
“It’s still home,” he said into a quick kiss. Merlin beamed up at him.
“It is, doesn’t it?” He leaned in for another kiss, longer this time. “Thank you for asking me to move in with you. I love our flat.”
Arthur smiled back. “I do, too. Although that might be because you haven’t had the chance to make a mess of it yet.”
“Oh, shut up,” Merlin groaned, rolling his eyes. “You’re ruining the moment.”
“Am I? Here, let me make it up to you.”
He leaned in to lure Merlin into a slow, proper kiss, tightening his grip on his waist to bring them closer together. Merlin chuckled against his lips but kissed back, letting his arms move to wrap around Arthur’s shoulders. He licked his way into Arthur’s mouth, right there in their sitting room, between Merlin’s phone and Arthur’s coffee table and their IKEA sofa.
“Good thing you made the bed already,” Merlin said after a moment, breaking away to mouth along Arthur’s jaw. He shifted a little, and felt a promising hardness press against his thigh.
“Care to christen our new flat?”
Arthur grinned. “Why go all the way to the bedroom?” he replied, and pulled a laughing Merlin to the floor.
“You cannot possibly still be hungry.”
Merlin fixed Arthur with his best wide-eyed expression.
“Arthur, you can’t come to New York City and not have pizza. It’s a crime .”
“You said the same thing about the street vendor’s hot dogs,” Arthur replied dubiously, “and that was just an hour ago.”
“ Arthur ,” Merlin sighed, stepping closer to Arthur’s side. Considering that they’d already been pressed tightly together by the crowd around them, Arthur was rather impressed by this. He tried to hold his resolve, anyway, if only for the sake of argument. He didn’t stand a chance against Merlin’s pleading expression, and he knew it. “We can go to one of those fancy restaurants tomorrow if you want, but I am not letting you go back to England without eating some pizza. You said today was my day to choose what we do, anyway.”
That was true. They’d agreed to set aside one day each of their five-day holiday for them to dictate what they wanted to do. Merlin had drawn first, and so far Arthur had been dragged to a museum, a giant toy store (where he’d tried and failed not to show his delight at the giant, moving dinosaur model), followed by a tour of Time’s Square. Merlin had been positively delighted by all of the street vendors, happily munching on a hot dog and a pretzel the size of Arthur’s face while they walked. Now they were wandering around fairly aimlessly, stopping whenever something caught Merlin’s attention. Which, at that moment, was a pizza parlour. Still, Arthur couldn’t help but feel obligated to resist.
“We didn’t have pizza the last time we were here,” he protested, but that only made Merlin smile wider.
“Doesn’t count, it was 1872. Now come on !” he laughed, pulling Arthur after him into the restaurant.
After consuming a disturbingly large and greasy piece of pizza each, they were back on the street. Arthur was complaining about the grease on his fingers, not really paying attention to what he was saying in favor of watching the fond exasperation in Merlin’s eyes as he listened to Arthur swear that his fingers would never be grease-free again. They allowed the crowd to steer them back towards Time’s Square, where Merlin produced his camera. Arthur groaned.
“Didn’t you get enough earlier?” he complained, bringing a guarding hand up as Merlin clicked away.
“Nope,” Merlin said cheerfully, taking another picture of a pigeon on the sidewalk. “Don’t pretend you don’t love it, you’re still an egotistical prat.”
“Hey,” Arthur protested with a glare, which was simply met with another click.
“Excuse me,” a voice broke in, and they turned to see a young woman looking at them. She smiled. “Do you want me to take your picture for you? That way you can both get in it.”
“Really? That’d be great, thanks!” Merlin answered before Arthur could brush her off. He ran forward to hand the girl the camera, briefly instructing her on how to work the thing before sliding back towards Arthur, beaming.
“You guys ready?”
“Ready,” Merlin called back, sliding an arm around Arthur’s waist. Arthur felt something warm settle in his chest at the familiar feel of Merlin fitting against him, and he felt a genuine smile tug at his lips in response.
Impulsively, Arthur turned and hooked his fingers in Merlin’s belt loops. He tugged, and suddenly they were standing chest-to-chest, and Merlin’s confused “What—“ is swallowed by a kiss. There was the briefest of pauses, long enough for Arthur to wrap his arms tighter around Merlin while the girl counted “One…”, and then Merlin was kissing him back, leaning in further until there wasn’t any space between them.
Distantly, Arthur saw the flash of a camera. He pulled away, and Merlin blinked at him, kiss-swollen lips still parted in surprise, looking shocked and aroused and utterly fuckable.
“Huh,” he said, dazed eyes fixed on Arthur’s mouth.
Their hotel room was tastefully decorated, with a window that offered a nice view of the city lights. More importantly, it featured a large bed with soft sheets and piles of pillows, half of which had already been knocked to the floor. Merlin was spread across the mattress, naked hips wrapped around Arthur’s as Arthur worked him open. He had a long-fingered grip on Arthur’s shoulders, whimpering whenever Arthur brushed his prostate. They were both impatient, but Arthur waited until Merlin was gasping for him before he traded his fingers for his cock in a slow, deep thrust. Merlin’s toes curled as Arthur worked himself inside. He whinged at the snail’s pace Arthur had set and the firm grip on his hips preventing him from speeding things up.
“You utter bastard,” he moaned, and Arthur pounded in once, hard, in response. “Ah—Arthur,” Merlin whimpered, and the sound of his voice, already broken and breathless, snapped Arthur’s control. His careful thrusts turned wild as he fucked Merlin, who gasped and strained forward for a kiss. They were already panting too much to do more than press their mouths together, but Merlin managed a nip to Arthur’s lips between gasps and breathy exclamations. Arthur could feel bruises forming on his hips where Merlin clutched at him, and swore.
“Fuck,” he panted, tilting his hips for a better angle. Merlin whimpered. “Merlin, fuck, so…so good.”
“Yeah?” Merlin tried to tease, but his voice came out in gasps and the wild look in his eyes showed how close he was. He unclenched one of his hands from Arthur’s hip and put in on his own cock, stroking it in time with Arthur’s thrusts. Arthur leant down to kiss him again, licking at the spot where Merlin’s teeth were digging into his lip and muffling his whimpers. He wasn’t going to last much longer, and he knew it, and he was determined to make Merlin come first. A bite to Merlin’s jaw sent him gasping, the brush of Arthur’s fingers against a nipple bowed his back. Arthur canted his hips and fucked into him one more time, and Merlin came with a chocked-off “ Arth —fuck.”
“Jesus,” Arthur panted, hips still working frantically. Merlin sprawled beneath him, mouth open obscenely as he panted up at Arthur, one shaking hand coming up to thread through Arthur’s hair.
“Come on, Arthur, “he chanted breathlessly, “come on, fuck, yeah—“
Arthur cut him off with a low moan, hips stuttering to a halt inside merlin. His arms gave out, and he allowed himself to fall to the mattress, half-draped across Merlin. He could feel Merlin’s heat beating beneath his forearm as Merlin twisted a bit to kiss him, mouth open and wanting. As their breathing slowed back to normal, Arthur heard Merlin murmur something against his lips, and suddenly the sticky mess between them was gone, and Merlin was pushing at his shoulder.
“Heavy,” he grunted, pushing until Arthur relented and rolled onto his side. Merlin curled into him at once, tucking himself into the curve of Arthur’s body with a contented sigh. Arthur himself couldn’t see how he was possibly comfortable like that—one arm crushed beneath Arthur’s body, the other curled between their chests, legs twisted around each other and face pressed against Arthur’s shoulder—but Merlin seemed to love it.
“Better?” Arthur asked when Merlin finally stopped shuffling around.
“Much,” Merlin agreed, rubbing his nose into Arthur’s skin. Arthur could tell by the way he was tracing patterns into his skin that Merlin was growing sleepy and smothered a fond grin against his dark hair. It was quiet for a moment, both men just lying there, listening to the noises of the city in the distance mingling with their breathing. Arthur was halfway asleep before Merlin spoke again.
“We shouldn’t wait so long to come back to New York next time,” he yawned, and burrowed closer to Arthur’s chest. “It’s nice here.”
Arthur smiled, and hummed an agreement, already wondering if he could convince Merlin to spend his day of sight-seeing in bed.