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A Favour Between Friends

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Merlin takes a deep breath, as he usually does, before he picks up the phone. "Camelot University help hotline, this is Merlin speaking, how may I help you?"

There's silence on the other side for long enough that Merlin thinks that the caller is about to hang up. It happens—some people lose their courage as soon as someone answers their call. It was one of the first things the professional counsellors told the student volunteers, when Gaius had arranged a training for them, since only a few of them are studying psychology.

"I don't know how this is supposed to work," the caller, a young woman judging by the voice, says. "Am I supposed to tell you my name or should I just tell you the entire sorry story of my life or—?"

Her voice breaks, and there's a suspicious sob-like sound. Merlin bites his lip. He always hurts for the people who have to cry. Lancelot says that's why Merlin's so good at comforting them. Gwen often starts crying with them because she cares too much, and Arthur tends to entirely clamp shut because he's good at listening, but not so good at dealing. Merlin used to wonder how in hell Arthur ended up volunteering at the help hotline, but it turned out that Morgana dared him to do something nice for other people and Arthur just ... stuck around.

"There are no rules for this," Merlin says. "You could tell me your real name or just any random name. You don't have to tell me anything at all. We could talk about the weather or how Manchester United is clearly superior to Arsenal."

She half-chuckles, half-sobs. "You're wrong in the head," she says. "What about Spurs?"

Merlin smiles. "I hear that quite often," he says. He stays silent for a moment, giving her the chance to say something, before he goes on. "I think you called me for a reason," he says. "You don't have to tell me about it. But I'd like you to know that I'm here because I'm ready to listen to anything you have to say."

"I'm Elena," she says. "And it's stupid really. I'm being ridiculous and stupid."

"I really don't think so," Merlin says. "If it makes you sad, it's not stupid."

"My—my boyfriend broke up with me," Elena says. "Because I wasn't girly enough." She laughs-sobs again. "We met playing football in the park. Half a year later he realises I don't care much about make-up and wearing high heels and being all dolled up and—" She sniffles.

"It's okay," Merlin says. "How does that make you feel?"

"Awful," Elena says. "I really liked him, you know? I thought he’d—that he accepted me. That he didn’t expect me to suddenly be different than I am."

"I know how you feel," Merlin says softly. "Being disappointed by someone you trust and admire and even are in love with, that's—it just hurts."

Merlin notices Arthur looking at him from where he's working a few desks away. He turns slightly away and swallows heavily.

"It hurts so much," Elena whispers. "I walk around and I wonder if everyone thinks like he did and—" She blows her nose loudly.

Merlin has to smile despite the rather sombre topic of their conversation. "It'll get better," he says. "You'll find your feet again and someone who'll appreciate you just the way you are. I know it."

Elena's quiet for a moment. "Do you really believe that?"

"I do," Merlin says. Sometimes being an idealist and very enthusiastic about life comes in handy, because this part is easy.

"You're very good at this whole comforting thing, aren't you?" There's a smile in Elena's voice.

"I suppose I am," Merlin says. "You feeling better?"

"Yes, thank you," Elena says. "I—I can call again, right? If I start feeling bad again?"

"You can call us any time. I can't promise I'll be here, though there'll always be someone to listen to you."

"Thank you," Elena says again. "It ... was nice."

She hangs up first. Merlin puts the phone down and uses the chance to stretch. It's Friday night and not all the calls will be this easy. He thinks Elena only needed someone to confirm what she already knew the guy really did sound like a tosser.

Morgana puts down a cup of tea in front of him just when the phone rings again.

By the end of the night there have been several more calls from people who've just broken up, a couple of people worried about failing their classes and one boy with family problems. Merlin wishes he could help them all, but often he can only offer them his time and being willing to listen.

They're supposed to take fifteen minute breaks about every two hours. Today there are enough people manning the phones that Merlin doesn't even feel guilty about taking them.

Merlin's drinking his tea and eating some left-over pizza when Arthur comes in. Since they ... well, recently Arthur's taken to ignoring Merlin. It hurts, especially when Arthur doesn't even acknowledge Merlin's presence, but then turns around to greet Morgana or Gwen or Leon. Whatever remains of their friendship seems unsalvageable.

So Merlin's surprised when Arthur sits down right opposite him at the table. He's fiddling with his cup of coffee.

Merlin blinks and stares at him. After a few moments Arthur takes a deep breath and says, "Hi."

"Hi," Merlin says cautiously. He doesn't know what to make of this.

"I—how are you doing?"

Merlin opens his mouth, but he has no idea what to reply. Oh, pretty okay given that you broke my heart? I'm absolutely devastated, but I'm getting by? I both hate your guts and love you so much it hurts, and I can't sleep at night because I miss your arms around me? I don't know why you changed your mind about being friends with me? He doesn't want to tell Arthur any of these things. Instead he waves his hand in what he assumes could pass as reply.

Gwaine comes in and drops into the chair next to Merlin. "That was the worst call," he says. "The guy didn't get any of my football metaphors."

Merlin's about to reply to Gwaine that not everyone cares as much about football (or even understands as much) as he does, but in that moment Arthur stands up, his chair scraping loudly over the floor and leaves with a wordless nod.

Merlin stares at his empty chair. Next to him, Gwaine asks, "What was that?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Merlin says. It's partially true, but there are things Merlin's not going to tell Gwaine.

~~~***~~~

Merlin's problem started when Arthur came into his life. At one team meeting Morgana turned up with this gorgeous blond guy in tow and introduced him as her brother.

It took Merlin exactly one shift to develop a huge raging crush on Arthur. That was not a secret. It couldn't even be secret, not when Merlin stumbled repeatedly over his words and his own feet during the first two weeks after Arthur started volunteering.

"As eloquent as you are on the phone," Arthur told him after their first shared shift, "you're a bumbling idiot when you're not."

Merlin blushed and shot back, "At least I can change. You're always a prat."

Morgana still told him at that point that he was absolutely hopeless and that Arthur was going to break his heart. Merlin wishes he'd listened to her.

Those first weeks had been interesting. It took Arthur a long time to get into the right mindset the volunteers are trained to use, and Gaius ended up asking Merlin to coach Arthur. Arthur wasn't amused—"I don't need coaching," he said as they sat down in the break room.

Merlin thought back of Arthur's last shift, when he’d told a boy who'd failed an important exam that obviously he wasn't meant to be at Cambridge, if he couldn't deal with the demands. "You really do," he said.

Somewhere between telling Arthur that he's not supposed to judge ("But they keep saying the stupidest things!" — "Ignore them! They're here for comfort, not for a dressing down.") and that he should be quiet ("You have to listen to them, Arthur, they need to tell their story." — "But what if they don't tell the complete truth? What if they fucked up and just won't tell me?" — "Remember the part with the not judging?"), they fell into a sort of friendship.

Merlin's okay with that, really. Arthur's not the first straight guy Merlin has had a crush on and he knows how to deal with that. He's managed to get over Gwaine and Lancelot just fine.

But sometimes Arthur gave Merlin these looks, scrutinising, as if Merlin was a specimen of a very rare kind of butterfly. He wasn’t being defensive, didn’t ridicule Merlin or stay away from him. Arthur just looked and whenever Merlin looked back, Arthur pretended to be suddenly very interested in his phone or computer screen or whatever.

Merlin felt a slight pang of regret in those moments. Arthur would also not be the first of his straight mates to decide that he couldn’t deal with being friends with a gay guy. Usually they just make it obvious earlier. And most of the time Arthur's didn’t even act strange. Merlin hoped he was just conflicted (not every straight guy is as assured in his sexuality as Lancelot is) and that Arthur'd decide that being friends with Merlin was safe.

"I could tell him to stop it," Morgana said. "He's not allowed to be a wanker to my friends." She was frowning, her Arthur will pay for this face. She'd been making that face a lot lately.

"It's all right," Merlin said. "I'll deal with Arthur myself."

But Arthur beat Merlin to it. He offered to drive Merlin home after their next shift. He’d used to do that a lot, although not as much since the strange looks and behaviour started. "You can't impossibly be serious about walking home," Arthur had said that very first time.

"This is Oxford, not Detroit," Merlin had replied. "I'll be fine."

Arthur had looked at Merlin, grabbed Merlin's things and thrown them into the trunk of his car. "I'm driving you," he’d said and that had been the end of the discussion.

It’d taken Merlin exactly one minute to stop being angry. "Heated seats," he’d said in what Arthur later called a "disturbingly dreamy" tone.

But after the looks started, Arthur mostly stopped giving Merlin rides, which was a shame. Merlin missed those seats. It was winter, and he'd forgotten how it felt to not be cold and wet.

So Merlin just accepted Arthur being unexpectedly nice and took the chance to get home early. Arthur was quiet during the drive, just glancing at Merlin every now and then.

When they reached Merlin's flat, Arthur stopped the car. "Would you mind if I came up with you? I—there's something I'd like to discuss with you."

Years of public school honed Arthur's posh accent and by now Merlin had learned that it was more pronounced when Arthur was nervous. Right now Merlin felt as if he was standing in the House of Lords.

"Sure," Merlin said. "Be quiet, Will's already asleep."

Merlin loves the flat he shares with Will. It might not look like much, but it's his. Arthur was standing now in his living room, barely glancing at their couch (given to them by Will's parents, with a blanket knitted by Will's grandma), scuffing his shoes against the rug Merlin's mum used to have in her dining room.

Arthur didn’t fit here, between their used furniture and IKEA shelves, Merlin's books cluttering all the surfaces and Will's music taking up the rest of the space. Merlin realised that he wanted to make Arthur fit, show him how comfortable that couch was, perfect for snogging and cuddling. He wanted to make Arthur tea in their tiny kitchen.

Merlin suppressed the sigh that was threatening to come up. He really was beyond hope. He was pretty sure that Arthur was now going to give him the speech about how they were mates and just mates. He was already bracing himself for the inevitable hurt.

Except that was not at all what Arthur wanted to tell him.

"I have an offer for you," Arthur said. "Well, it's more of a favour I'm asking for."

"A favour?" Merlin raised an eyebrow. "What sort of favour?"

"Have sex with me."

Merlin blinked. He reran what Arthur just said in his head and tried to figure out what Arthur really said because he could not have really... "What?"

Arthur straightened up. "I'd like to, uh, try something out and I know you wouldn't be opposed to spending a night with me. Of course, there'll be no attachments and no repercussions. I'd just like—" Arthur faltered.

"Some experimentation," Merlin said.

"Yes," Arthur said. "I'd like to—experiment. If you're agreeable."

Merlin hesitated . He should say no, not because he wasn’t “agreeable”, but because only madness lay down this road. He’d known Arthur for barely two months, their friendship was like a fawn that had just managed to get its legs to support itself, but had yet to master actually taking a step. Agreeing to sex would be putting that fawn on a frozen lake. There was a slight chance it would make it across the lake and to the safe shore, but it was much more likely to fall and break its leg. (It’s possible that Merlin has a slight trauma from being forced to watch Bambi at a young and impressionable age. His mum had to give their copy of the movie to a colleague of hers with young children, after Merlin started crying whenever he saw the box.)

And Merlin should feel hurt, as Arthur was obviously exploiting Merlin’s crush on him to get what he wanted. He asked Merlin because he thought Merlin wouldn’t reject him. On the other hand, he did ask Merlin and didn’t simply find himself a nameless man in a random club.

It couldn't end well, but Merlin couldn't make himself say no. Because despite all misgivings, they were still talking about sex with Arthur, and Merlin’s heart was beating so fast he was afraid it was going to explode when Merlin thinks about knowing what Arthur tasted and looked like, and his fingers were itching to touch Arthur. A voice that sounded suspiciously like Gwaine, who did not ever consider any consequences before jumping into bed with anyone, said, what’s there to lose?

Of course, there was also the chance that Arthur will realise how much he actually liked Merlin and declare his love. It was about as likely as for a pig to fly, but it was just enough to make up Merlin’s mind.

“No repercussions?” Merlin asked.

“None at all,” Arthur said.

Merlin took a deep breath and said, "All right. When?"

~~~***~~~

Arthur insisted on taking Merlin out for a dinner first. "As a payment of kind," he said.

Merlin didn't point out that this wasn't how friendship or favours should work. But it was easy to pretend they were on a date and—it made Merlin both excited and nervous, that Arthur cared enough about him to actually make it comfortable for Merlin. If Arthur had just wanted Merlin to turn up at Arthur's flat and then proceed immediately into the bedroom, Merlin would've done that, too.

Instead they were at the best steak house in town, on Lancelot's recommendation, and Arthur was smiling at him like he meant it.

By the time they left for Arthur's flat, Merlin was feeling warm and fuzzy. So of course everything turned weird again when they arrived there.

Merlin had been here before, for a movie night that Morgana arranged, as she had declared that "Arthur has the best sound system". Arthur had been grumbling, but they'd brought enough beer to cheer him up again.

Arthur's flat was impressive. The first time, Merlin had just stared until Gwen had elbowed him none too gently in the ribs. The flat was as big as Merlin and Will's shared one, and Merlin felt a bout of jealousy because Arthur had all that space which he wasn't even filling up, and Merlin and Will had regular fights about whose stuff was taking up more space. In all the places where Merlin's flat was cluttered, Arthur's flat was orderly.

Now Merlin was standing in Arthur's very tidy living room, and he had no idea what to do. "Um, so. How do you want to do this?" He had a vision of Arthur just undoing his jeans right here and expecting them to have a go at it.

Arthur was standing at his side, fidgeting. "I think you're the expert in this," he said. "I'm not sure where to start?"

"Well, what would you do with a girl?" Merlin said. He expected Arthur to lead him to his bedroom.

Instead Arthur stepped closer, right into Merlin's personal space, and leaned in to press a soft kiss against Merlin's mouth. "I'd do this," he said quietly.

"That's, that's a good place to start," Merlin said. He could feel Arthur smiling against his cheek and automatically turned his head to capture Arthur's lips.

Kissing Arthur was—it was addictive, Merlin thought. He'd kissed his fair share of people, but it was never felt quite like this. Arthur started out gentle, keeping the kisses shallow, sucking lightly on Merlin's bottom lip until Merlin whimpered. His hands were on Merlin's hips, his thumbs rubbing in circles. Merlin put his hand on Arthur's neck, just keeping him close, and Arthur grinned.

"Was that good?"

Merlin bit at Arthur's lips and deepened the kiss. He didn't want to talk.

Arthur pressed closer, and Merlin could feel Arthur's erection against his thigh. It made Merlin giddy, that he had this effect on Arthur. "Bedroom?"

Arthur froze for the fraction of a second and then nodded. "I suppose it's time for that."

Their progress was slow, though, as Arthur seemed not to want to let go of Merlin for long. He pushed Merlin against the wall and kissed him hard. Merlin pulled Arthur tight against him and just opened up. Arthur was kissing him like it was the only thing on his mind, and it was a rush to be the center of Arthur's full attention.

When they finally made it to Arthur's bed, Merlin was out of breath and well-snogged. Arthur was panting, too, his breath ghosting over Merlin's skin. "Let me," Arthur whispered and he started to undress Merlin slowly.

"You would just let your clothes drop wherever you pulled them off," Arthur said into Merlin's ear, as he unbuttoned Merlin's shirt.

"Perhaps I'm in a hurry," Merlin said. Arthur's fingers were warm as he pushed the shirt off Merlin's shoulders. "Perhaps I don't care."

Arthur put the shirt down on his chest of drawers. "Perhaps you should," he said. Then he kissed Merlin's jaw and down his neck to his clavicles. He gently bit the flashy part of Merlin's shoulder. "This still okay?"

"Yes, it's good, you're doing great, don't stop," Merlin said.

Arthur laughed against Merlin's skin and brushed his fingers down Merlin's sides. It tickled and Merlin shivered. It got even better when Arthur thumbed his nipple. "May I?"

Merlin nodded. He liked it, could come from this, but Arthur seemed so fascinated with Merlin's response that Merlin wondered. "Have you ever played with your own?"

Arthur shrugged. "Of course, but it's—I always wondered if girls only like it because they're on their tits. But you, well."

"It feels really good," Merlin said. He pushed his hand underneath Arthur's jumper, scratched his thumbnail over Arthur's nipple. It was a tiny hard knob already.

It was a surprise when Arthur leaned down and closed his mouth around Merlin's nipple and sucked hard.

"Fuck," Merlin moaned. And again when Arthur bit down carefully and tongued the nipple. When Arthur moved closer and pressed his thigh between Merlin’s leg, it was getting to be too much, though. "Stop, stop, I'm gonna—"

Arthur looked up at Merlin and he was a sight to behold, lips red and swollen, a dark blush on his cheeks.

"I think it'll be better if I take over from here," Merlin said. He stepped back and toed off his shoes. Arthur grinned and pulled off his jumper.

"If you think so," Arthur said, and he sounded so much like the arrogant git he was when Merlin met him that Merlin had to restrain the urge to smack him.

When they were both naked, Arthur faltered a little. "Just lie down," Merlin said, "and I'll—"

"No."

It came out harsh and immediate. Merlin stayed where he was. "You want to stop?" he asked softly. Arthur was still hard, but if he was chickening out...

Arthur shook his head. "No, I still want to. I meant—you should lie down."

Merlin bit down on his lip to suppress the whimper. "You want to give me a blow job?"

Arthur blushed, the red creeping down his neck and also flushing his chest. He nodded. "I want to try things," he said. "If—if you do it to me, then it won't be different than with a girl."

Merlin wanted to sigh. "It'll be different," he said. "Because I'm not a girl."

"I still want to suck your cock, though," Arthur said. "You can suck mine after."

Merlin was startled into laughing and let Arthur guide him to the bed. When Arthur gently pushed him down, he went. "Be careful," he said. "Go slow in the beginning."

Arthur sunk down to his knees. "Okay," he said in his 'bravado' voice, the one he used when he had an exceptionally trying phone call (usually the ones involving problems with fathers).

Merlin tipped Arthur's head up and kissed him. Arthur was tense, but he relaxed soon. "Just keep going," Merlin whispered. "You've been doing really well."

Arthur put his hands down on Merlin's thighs, rubbing them up and down. Merlin leaned back on his hands and watched as Arthur first kissed Merlin's chest, his stomach, then his thighs. Slowly he inched closer to Merlin's cock.

The first time Arthur put his mouth actually on Merlin's cock, Merlin had to moan. Arthur grinned up at him. "I'll keep your warning in mind," he said. "To go slow, I mean."

"Prick," Merlin said, but it came out gently.

"And you like me," Arthur replied. Then he pushed the foreskin down and licked over the tip of Merlin's cock, tasting the precome that's already collected there.

Merlin didn't know where to look. Arthur's mouth on his cock was mesmerising, but the expression on Arthur's face when he first tasted Merlin, that was—that was just incredible.

Arthur sucked cock like he did everything else—with full determination, even if he didn't have the skill perfected yet. He did listen to Merlin, first only taking the tip of Merlin's cock into his mouth, trying to fit his mouth around it, before taking it in deeper.

"Use your hand," Merlin said. "You don't have to—don't try to deep-throat, it takes practise and, god."

Arthur's wrapped his hand around the base of Merlin's cock.

“Pull off,” Merlin said. Arthur did as asked, pulling off with a plop, and looked up expectantly at Merlin. “Use your hand to spread—” Merlin had to swallow and just used his own hand to illustrate.

Arthur grinned up at Merlin, as he slowly jerked Merlin, getting him slick all over. "This is—" Arthur’s voice was hoarse and there was a bit of drool trickling down the corner of his mouth. He sounded both awed and astonished.

Merlin had to kiss Arthur then, taste himself on Arthur's tongue. "Your mouth," Merlin mumbled stupidly. He could feel Arthur grin against his cheek.

Arthur leaned down again. At first he had problems getting the rhythm right, moving his hand erratically, but then he figured out this counterpoint rhythm that made Merlin's eyes roll back in his head.

All too soon Merlin felt like he was going to come any second now, and he warned Arthur, pulling at his head, and rasping, "I'm gonna—Arthur, pull off, I'm gonna come."

Arthur grabbed Merlin's hand, but he pressed it against his hair and took Merlin's cock deeper. He jerked Merlin faster, though, until Merlin can't hold it off any longer. He grabbed Arthur's hair tightly and came, his orgasm washing over him. After, Merlin collapsed on his back.

Arthur licked Merlin's cock, little kitten licks, and even pressed a kiss on Merlin's scrotum. "That was good, wasn't it?" He sounded so pleased that you could think he'd invented blowjobs.

"Not bad for a first time," Merlin said. He pulled on Arthur's shoulder. "Come here."

"You know that was amazing," Arthur said, but he crawled up until he covered Merlin's body.

"Shut up," Merlin said and kissed Arthur. And then he realised that Arthur had swallowed. He whimpered and his cock twitched. "You—"

"I told you, I wanted to try it out," Arthur said. "I wanted to know." He still sounded smug, but there was also a hint of shyness.

"Now you do," Merlin replied softly. He bit his lip to stop himself from asking how Arthur liked it. Arthur was nuzzling Merlin's neck, and Merlin felt like asking questions was going to shatter this fragile bubble they have going on, the one they have sex in and pretend it wouldn't matter later.

Arthur was still hard and Merlin spread his legs to let Arthur settle between them. "Want to try something else?"

Arthur grinned. "Yeah."

"Do you have supplies?"

Arthur, amazingly, blushed again. "Yes." He rolled away from Merlin and reached for something in his night table. Merlin used the chance to move up the bed and position himself.

"I bought these two sorts of lube," Arthur said as he turned back. "I wasn't sure which one was better."

Merlin raised an eyebrow. "You bought flavoured lube."

"Um. The guy said they sold a lot of it, so I thought it couldn't be all that bad." Arthur put the lube down next to the pillow.

"You asked for recommendations?" Merlin tried to imagine Arthur standing in the pharmacy or supermarket and asking—no, the very idea made him laugh. "You could've asked me," he said.

Arthur shrugged, a short and awkward motion. The penny dropped for Merlin and he sat up. "Arthur, when did you buy these things?"

"Last month," he said. "Now move over."

"But it'll be easier for me to stretch myself like this," Merlin said. "Unless you want to do the honours?"

"Oh," Arthur said softly. "I, uh, when I said I wanted to try out everything, I meant..."

Merlin stared. He took a deep breath before he spoke, and yet his voice came out shaky and breathless. "You want to be the bottom."

"I want to try out all the things I couldn't have with a girl," Arthur said. "If I fucked you, that—I still wouldn't know if I'd like it."

"Not every gay man likes it," Merlin said. "There are lots of guys who only suck cock. You don't have to try it." For a moment Merlin questioned his own sanity. Here he had Arthur fucking Pendragon offering his virgin arse to Merlin, and the first thing Merlin did was to try and convince Arthur that he doesn't have to. Merlin decided that there was something really wrong with him.

"But I want to," Arthur said. "If I really hate it, I can still tell you to stop, right?"

"Of course," Merlin said, somewhat affronted. He was about to launch into his lecture about consent, the one he seemed to give at least three times per shift, to girls being pressured by their boyfriends and on one memorable occasion to such a boyfriend, reading him the riot act.

But then Arthur lay down next to him and Merlin lost the ability to speak. He just looked for a moment. Arthur was still hard, his cock flushed a deep red, and the thin hair on his chest and belly shimmered. He had this defiant look on, but his body was tense.

"Arthur," Merlin said quietly. "C'mere." He pulled Arthur in for a kiss, shifting them until Arthur was lying in the middle of the bed.

Merlin pressed soft kisses against Arthur's mouth, his nose, his cheeks, until Arthur exhaled shakily and relaxed slowly. "This was not a test," Merlin whispered. "There's no fail or pass. Either you like or you don't." He kissed Arthur deeper. "And if you don't, I do. It'll be all right."

Arthur threaded his hands into Merlin's hair. "Perhaps I already know I might like it."

Merlin imagined Arthur lying on this bed, alone, and pushing a finger into himself. His cock was definitely becoming interested in the events again.

"Relax and just let me do this, okay?" Merlin rolled off Arthur and reached for the lube.

"How should I—?" Arthur lifted his legs until his feet were flat against the bed. "Like this?"

"That's good," Merlin said. He slathered his fingers in lube and turned back to Arthur. "If you want to stop, just say so."

"Stop telling me that or I'll start to think that you don't want to," Arthur said, but the playful tone in his voice came rather off as hesitant.

Merlin kissed Arthur first before he reached down between Arthur's legs. The lube was cold and Arthur shivered when Merlin touched his skin.

Merlin ran his finger along Arthur's cleft, pressing down ever so slightly when he passed Arthur's entrance. Only when Arthur was completely relaxed, Merlin pushed in the tip of his finger. Arthur sighed quietly, bearing down on Merlin's fingers. "It's good."

Merlin laughed. "That's why people do it."

Arthur tensed up when Merlin added a second finger, but was actively begging Merlin to finally fuck him when they were up to three. "Come on, come on, come on," he said, "I'm ready, I'm good, god, what are you waiting for, Merlin?"

Arthur had to put the condom on Merlin, Merlin's own fingers were too slippery to do him any good. "Turn around," Merlin ordered him. "It'll be easier that way."

"I don't want easy," Arthur said.

"No," Merlin said. "For your first time, I want this." He pulled on Arthur's hip to turn him around.

After a short moment Arthur obeyed and rolled over. "But later," Arthur said. "Later we can—?"

"Yes," Merlin said and conveniently forgot about recovery times. "We can. Later."

Arthur pushed up on his hands and knees. When Merlin moved behind him, he felt strangely nervous. Arthur looked gorgeous, sticking out his bottom like he couldn’t wait for it, and Merlin was so stupidly in love with him.

Merlin positioned himself and pushed in slightly. Arthur tensed, but took a deep breath and Merlin could feel him open up. "Take it nice and easy," Merlin said. He tried to go slow, despite Arthur's quiet moans and the way he pushed back, bearing down on Merlin. By the time he bottomed out, he was shaking. "Still good?"

Arthur nodded. "Fuck, it's—god." Arthur dropped down to his elbows. "Merlin, please."

Merlin took a deep breath and rolled his hips gently. Arthur sighed. "You feel so good," Arthur said. His words were slurred, and his panting went straight to Merlin's cock. "Please."

From there Merlin's body took over. He was good at this, knew how to angle his hips just so that he hit Arthur's prostate, and within minutes they were both sweaty and barely hanging on. Merlin wanted to make it last, but his rhythm was getting erratic.

Merlin reached around Arthur, seeking his cock and jerking him fast. Arthur hadn't come yet, and Merlin wanted him to come first. It didn't take long until Arthur tensed. "Merlin," he said.

"Let go," Merlin whispered. "C'mon, Arthur. For me, let go for me."

Arthur groaned and shuddered, streaking hot come over Merlin's fist, his arse clenching tightly. Shivering he slumped down and Merlin follows.

Merlin stayed still, letting Arthur come down before he started thrusting again. "God," Arthur said. He winced quietly, but also pushed back. "It feels so—"

"If you're too sensitive, let me know," Merlin mumbled against Arthur's shoulder.

"No, no, don't stop," Arthur panted. "It's just—it feels so much more intense."

Merlin hummed softly. He took it slow now. Arthur was relaxed now and reacted so strongly to every touch.

"Now you," Arthur said softly. "Come on, Merlin. I—I want you to come in me."

"This is unfair," Merlin whimpered. "You're not supposed to say stuff like this."

Arthur laughed, the sound reverberating through his entire body. It also made him clench down on Merlin's cock, and that proved to be too much.

Merlin came with a gasp, pressing hard against Arthur. Afterward, he was unable to move. Only when Arthur started shivering, Merlin managed to heave himself up and off Arthur. He pulled off the condom.

"There's a bin on your side of the bed," Arthur mumbled.

Merlin reached over and threw the condom away. When he managed to actually hit the bin, he chuckled. Arthur wrapped his arm around Merlin's waist and pulled him back toward the centre of the bed.

"Hey," Arthur said softly.

"Hey." Merlin pressed back. "You all right?"

"I'm perfect." Arthur nosed Merlin's hair. "Just—a short nap before round two?" Arthur already sounded almost half-asleep.

Merlin nods. "A nap sounds good."

Arthur's breathing was already evening out and Merlin dared to cover Arthur's hand with his own. Arthur was a warm solid weight against his back and it had been ages since Merlin had anyone to cuddle with. Within minutes Merlin was relaxing and fell asleep.

~~~***~~~

When Merlin woke up, he became aware of two things: one, the erection pressing against his arse, and two, the hand on his cock. He stretched. "Hmm."

"It's midnight," Arthur said. "Ready for round two?"

Merlin just grinned. "As if I'd say no," he said, feeling daring. He turned onto his back and kissed Arthur. "As if."

"I think," Arthur said between kisses, "that you owe me a blowjob."

Merlin did and he would never forget the half-choked noises Arthur made when Merlin took him in deep and pressed one finger into him, crooking it just so.

Arthur pulled Merlin on top of him. "And now like this," he said.

"You'll be sore tomorrow," Merlin said softly. "You sure?"

"Of course, I am." Arthur whimpered, but he pulled his legs up high and grabbed Merlin's ass to pull him in tightly. "Just fuck me, okay?"

It was not an order Merlin could refuse. Arthur kept making these quiet groans and Merlin nuzzled his neck.

"Kiss me," Arthur asked, "please, I need—"

It was slow and gentle, almost—almost like making love, Merlin thought, his heart clenching at the thought. Arthur was soft, clinging to Merlin tightly, as if each touch was a revelation. It felt both wonderful and awful, because Merlin was not sure he could simply let this go when they were done. So he went slow, taking his time to touch and kiss and explore. Arthur didn't seem in a hurry, either, letting his hands roam over Merlin's back.

Merlin was almost sorry when he came, Arthur just a moment behind. It felt like so much more than just experimentation.

"Another nap?" Merlin asked. Arthur's eyes were already fluttering shut. "I'll take that as a yes." He kissed Arthur's forehead, ignoring Arthur's snort.

Unfortunately the next time Merlin woke up it was already morning. He glared at the bright sunlight filtering in through the curtains and wished he knew what to do now. Things were more difficult when you looked at them in daylight. Night tended to hide all the ugly edges that could cut you open.

Arthur didn't say how to go on. Merlin didn't know if he wanted Arthur to wake up soon or not. An awake Arthur could give Merlin certainty. But if Arthur wanted Merlin to leave, a quick shower and bye bye, Merlin would have to go home and pretend he wasn't heart-broken.

Arthur was wrapped tightly around Merlin, just like in the previous night. If Merlin closed his eyes, he could pretend that it wasn't just this one night. He could pretend that it was a normal weekend, that he was waiting for Arthur to wake up and have lazy early morning sex with Merlin and breakfast. Perhaps they would have more sex in the afternoon, go to dinner with their friends, Arthur draped over Merlin, and then a club, grinding against each other on the dance floor, and perhaps more sex when they come home, a little bit drunk and very horny.

Merlin closed his eyes and wished that he weren't quite so good at pretending. He longed for that vision the more he thought about it, and it was just—nothing good could come of this. Not now, not when the memory of Arthur's legs around his waist was still fresh in his mind.

He couldn't say how much time had passed when Arthur stirred. "Morning," Arthur mumbled. Then, after a moment, "We reek of sex."

Merlin closed his eyes. "Well, we did fuck."

Arthur hummed somewhat agreeable and ... nuzzled Merlin's neck and his shoulders. "You're warm," Arthur said. "Even your hands and feet." He sounded more pleased than the situation warrants.

"I have bad circulation," Merlin said huffily, but Arthur reached down to fist Merlin's cock, so he felt like forgiving him.

"You're too skinny." Arthur sucked on Merlin's skin. "You need to eat more."

Merlin rolled his eyes. It seemed that every person in his life was urging him to eat properly when Merlin already did. He had a fast metabolism. "Let's stop talking, okay?"

Arthur laughed and pressed a kiss against Merlin's jaw. "I am not opposed to that."

They stop talking. Mostly. This morning Arthur was in the mood for fucking Merlin, and he took his time stretching Merlin. There was an odd sense of delight in his touches, as if he couldn't quite believe that he was allowed to do this to Merlin, when Merlin was all but begging for more. Okay, so he was begging—and whining and moaning and promising Arthur everything if he just kept on pushing his fingers into Merlin, because Merlin lost control over his mouth when he was being fingered.

Arthur fucked Merlin slowly, almost reverently. It made Merlin feel cherished and loved, the way Arthur was so careful and gentle, and it almost made him weep because the more he had of Arthur, the more he wanted. He had to bite his lip from letting all those feelings tumble out, so he pulled Arthur down for kiss after kiss, until they were both coming.

And then they lay there, in the soiled sheets, the air heavy with the smell of sweat and semen, and Merlin never ever wanted to get up.

"D'you want to shower first?" Arthur asked. He was stretching and winced quietly.

"You're sore," Merlin said accusingly. "You can go first." It absolutely had nothing to do with Merlin wanting to lie here for a few more minutes, basking in the evidence of what they did, committing as much of this to memory as he can.

Arthur smiled at him, shyly, and Merlin loved him so much in that moment that his heart threatened to burst. "I'll be quick," Arthur said.

When he was gone, Merlin stared at the ceiling and wondered how he'd got himself into this mess.

He remembered to check his mobile and replied to all messages except Gwaine's. He was leaving those for later. Gwaine was using so many abbreviations that his texts were rendered illegible, so Merlin vastly preferred to call Gwaine.

But the shower was still running and Merlin thought one of the texts might have been about brunch on Sunday, so he hit the call button, already holding the phone away from his ear. Gwaine did not understand that he didn't have to scream into his mobile.

"Hey," Merlin said. It was only then that he realised that he sounded kind of hoarse.

"Someone pulled!" Gwaine hollered into the phone. "Who's the lucky git?"

"Not telling you," Merlin said. "What's this about Sunday?"

"I'll come pick you up at eleven tomorrow," Gwaine said. "And I want details."

Merlin hung up wordlessly. He knew that he wouldn't be able to hold out on a determined Gwaine, but thankfully Gwaine tended to forget about such things easily.

After Merlin's shower, they had breakfast. It was deceptively amicable, Arthur and Merlin arguing about the best early morning cartoons. Merlin pretended not to notice that Arthur'd given Merlin the larger share of the eggs, although he had to smile.

When Merlin's phone rang, he answered it laughing. "Hi Gwaine, what's up?"

Arthur pretended to be very fascinated by the TV, but Merlin could still see him frowning.

"It's about brunch tomorrow," Gwaine said. "How about noon instead?"

Merlin sighs. "Noon's fine," he said. "Do you have a date tonight?"

Gwaine said, "Only with you, sweetcheeks." Arthur stiffened next to Merlin.

"Sure," Merlin said dryly.

Gwaine hung up laughing.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said, "but I just remembered I have promised someone to meet with them today and it's getting time."

Merlin was a bit taken aback—Arthur hadn't said anything of the sort last night, and Merlin had sort of been hoping for some more "experimentation".

Arthur drove Merlin home, but the car ride was quiet. There was a shift in the mood that Merlin couldn't quite figure out, but Arthur didn't seem in any mood to talk.

"I suppose I'll see you on Friday, at the latest," Arthur said, staring straight ahead when he was parked in front of Merlin's flat, car idling. It felt like a bucket of cold water was been thrown into Merlin's face. Friday was their next shift at the hotline, and Merlin felt sad and disappointed that Arthur was not making plans to meet Merlin beforehand. But of course that was not what they were—Arthur was going to go home and remove all the evidence of last night from his house, and Merlin was going back to his shared flat to sit on his couch and mope.

Arthur hadn't said a single word about what they did, not after his shower. "Yes, I suppose you will," Merlin said. "I—your experimentation was—was it successful?"

"Yes, I have my answers," was all Arthur said. "Sorry, but I have to meet someone soon."

"Oh, okay," Merlin said stupidly and started to get out of the car. He'd opened the door when Arthur put his hand on Merlin's arm.

"Listen," Arthur said. "This—this was just an experiment among mates. It's not going to change anything between us, right?"

Merlin opened his mouth, but his throat was closed off and he felt like choking. So he simply nodded and fumbled with the door. The air outside felt freezing against his skin, the cold wind making his eyes water.

Arthur drove away before Merlin even opened the house door. Merlin was not quite sure how he got up the two flights of stairs up to his floor.

"What did you do?" Will asked when Merlin stumbled into their flat. He didn't even sound accusatory, just accepting that Merlin was messed up (again). Merlin collapsed on the couch next to him.

"Arthur," Merlin said.

"You're kind of an idiot, aren't you?" Will shoved at Merlin's shoulder. "Your mum sent us brownies."

"I didn't know that." Merlin frowned at their TV. "What the hell are you watching?"

"I hid them from you," Will said. Merlin was about to call him a traitor, hiding baked goods was totally a violation of the Best Friend Act, but Will popped the first Harry Potter film into their DVD player and Merlin forgave him.

"Thank you," Merlin said, much later, when they were on Prisoner of Azkaban, and they'd eaten all the brownies and Will made him tea just the way Merlin liked it.

Will just shrugged and let Merlin push his cold feet under Will's thighs.

Merlin spent most of the weekend moping. He watched Harry grow up and defeat Voldemort, ate excessive amounts of chocolate and biscuits, and drunk the tea Will brought him (a sure sign of love, given Will's inherent laziness). By mid-afternoon he'd decided he was a ridiculous twat and texted Arthur with something inane about Oliver Wood's accent. He put his mobile on the coffee table and pretended not to surreptitiously check it for new messages every five minutes. He didn't get a reply.

So this was how the world ends, Merlin thought. Not with a bang but a whimper, a quiet phone lying on the coffee table in the silence that was Merlin's heart breaking.

God, he was such an idiot.

~~~***~~~

So this is how the story ends, Merlin thinks.

Arthur is aloof afterwards, always staying civil and friendly, but carefully keeps his distance. Merlin thinks it's painfully obvious, it must be, but nobody seems to notice and, of course, Merlin stays silent because he's as much as promised Arthur not to tell anyone. Only Will knows, since he invoked best mate's rights, after Merlin ended up eating all the ice cream in their freezer.

At first Merlin was convinced that Morgana would work it out, but if she did, she hasn't approached Merlin about it yet. Gwen seems to know something's up, but she never pushes. Sometimes Merlin sees her talking quietly with Lancelot. If Gwaine notices, he doesn't let it show.

In a way, that makes it both bearable and worse. On the one hand, nobody makes Merlin talk about his feelings, so he doesn't have to admit that after all of this he's still arse over tits in love with Arthur.

On the other hand, he's still in love with Arthur and that's not helped a bit by knowing what Arthur looks like when he's coming or the way his hair stands up when he's waking up in the morning or how he kisses and—all of that is making Merlin yearn for more. Whenever they work a shift at the hotline together, Merlin gets distracted by watching Arthur—leaning down, talking in a low voice, being calm and comforting, while Merlin's barely listening to his own calls.

Merlin looks and wants. And sometimes he wishes he had someone to confide in. Will, best mate or not, honestly sucks at comforting. Will's good at being angry, he keeps making up elaborate scenarios for torturing Arthur, but that's not what Merlin wants. Well, sometimes he does, usually when Arthur's been politely distant and Merlin doesn't know whether he wants to hit Arthur or kiss him.

But mostly Merlin gets to have all the feelings of a bad break-up, but none of the outlets. Even when he gets angry, he only has himself to blame for becoming too invested and for being idiotic enough to agree to Arthur's hare-brained scheme. Merlin's seen enough films to know that the have sex with one of your mates plot never works out.

On the upside, Merlin's as well-prepared for his exams as he can possibly be. He even picks up another evening shift at the hotline—this close to the exams, they start getting more calls even on notoriously slow days like Tuesday.

Today is such a slow day. Merlin spends most of his shift surfing eBay. His mum has this one type of perfume she loves, and ever since Merlin's started earning his own money, back when he was still delivering the local paper, it's been tradition that he buys her a new bottle each year for Christmas.

Except the bastards stopped producing the perfume, and in the last few years it's become a treasure hunt to find a bottle that won't cost Merlin a month's wages. This year, he's afraid, he'll have to buy his mum a different present.

"Oh, don't be shitting me," he tells his screen. "£500 for a bottle of perfume?"

Morgana looks up. She's studying, something with integrals and other strange mathematical signs that looks like magic runes to Merlin. "What the hell are you looking at?"

Merlin sighs. "Something that definitely won't be my mum's Christmas present. That was the cheapest auction." He glares at the screen, but the numbers on the screen stubbornly won't change.

"You could buy her a different brand," Morgana says. "I could help you find one that's similar. What's the name?"

"Elegance." Merlin squints at her. "You just need someone to carry your Christmas shopping for you," he says. He's still considering her offer, though. He knows next to nothing about perfumes.

"Think of it as repayment," she says. "What's so special about this perfume, anyway?"

Merlin bites his lips and looks back at the screen. "My father gave her one bottle for their first anniversary," he says. "She's used this one, and only this one perfume, ever since."

Morgana's quiet. "I suppose it is too much too hope that your Secret Santa will leave you a cheque?"

Merlin snorts. "Last year Gwaine was my Secret Santa and he took me out for drinks at the pub. He pulled after half an hour and left me alone." He shrugs. "It'll be fine. She always tell me that the most important thing is that we spend Christmas together."

"Sounds nice." Morgana sounds oddly wistful. From what Merlin's gathered, holidays in the Pendragon household are neither merry nor a time to spend together. "So I'll see the last of you at the hotline's Christmas party?"

Merlin nods. "I'm taking the train home the morning after."

The phone rings and Merlin has to listen and comfort a fresher who's convinced she's going to fail all her courses.

~~~***~~~

And then Arthur tries to make awkward conversation with Merlin, just when Merlin doesn't feel like his heart was bleeding every time he so much as looked at Arthur.

Merlin hates himself a little bit for looking forward to these odd exchanges, even if they leave him unsatisfied and confused. Unsatisfied because Merlin can't ever get enough of hearing Arthur's voice or looking at him, confused because after a month of radio silence this was not what Merlin expected.

Merlin wishes he could already go home to his mother, far away from this entire mess. But first he has to get through the hotline Christmas party.

~~~***~~~

Because Merlin is allowed to get lucky once in a while, he drew Gaius in the Secret Santa exchange, so that at least was an easy gift to buy.

"Thank you, my boy," Gaius says after he unpacks a book on herbs.

"It contains recipes to make your own ointments," Merlin says.

"Wonderful." Gaius smiles.

"He dragged me through five book shops to find a book he liked," Will says. Gaius ignores him and pats Merlin on the back.

Merlin grins. Gwen gives Morgana a hand-made scarf, which Morgana immediately wraps around her neck. Gwen blushes deeply when Lancelot gives her a gift bag and adamantly refuses to open it.

When it's Merlin's turn to receive a gift, he feels a bit conflicted when Arthur gets up. It's their first real interaction in weeks, and Arthur's about to give Merlin a Christmas gift. It crosses the carefully drawn lines Merlin just established in his mind, blurring them. He shifts a bit uncomfortably. He feels like everyone's looking at them.

"Merry Christmas," Arthur says as he hands the gift over. It's small, but unexpectedly heavy. They exchange a perfunctory hug.

Merlin carefully undoes the sticky film and pulls the wrapping paper away. When the content, a small package, falls into his hand, he just stares. "Arthur," he says. "I can't accept this."

Leon raises an eyebrow. "Why is Arthur buying you perfume?"

Arthur glances at Leon and says, "I thought you could give it to your mum."

Merlin looks up from the £500 bottle of perfume in his hand. He notices Morgana looking at him, a small smile playing around her lips. She's not deterred in the slightest by the glare he throws at her. "Arthur, this is much too expensive."

"It's for your mum, mate," Will says. "Just shut up and accept a gift horse, won't you?"

Gaius coughs quietly. "I suppose it is now Lancelot's turn," he says. Will almost jumps up and runs over to Lancelot, making a great deal out of producing the gift from his pocket and handing it to Lancelot.

Merlin sits back, frowning at the package in his hand. He wishes he could keep the perfume—his mum would be so happy. But it's so expensive. A quiet voice that sound suspiciously like Morgana tells Merlin that he would have no qualms accepting the gift if he were still on good terms with Arthur. But with things being the way they are, Merlin doesn't know what this means to Arthur. He surely wouldn't spend 500 quid if he didn't even like Merlin one little bit. But if he liked Merlin, he would treat Merlin differently and—

Merlin takes a deep breath and quietly gets up. They have finished exchanging gifts and people are dispersing again, comparing presents—Will's trying to get Morgana to swap her scarf for his DVD of Les Misérables. It's easy to slip out and lean against the wall outside.

It's cold, Merlin's breath creating little puffs of condensation, and Merlin shivers. The more he thinks about Arthur, the less he knows to make of it.

When the door opens again, Merlin closes his eyes. He doesn't need to see to know who's standing right next to him.

"I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable," Arthur says quietly. "It was not my intention to do so."

Arthur sounds distant and it makes Merlin irrationally angry. He opens his eyes and turns on Arthur—only to stop short. Arthur looks earnest and surprised and underneath it all he seems so vulnerable.

"Arthur," Merlin says, and he's scared of how much his voice quivers. "I don't—you have to stop this."

"What?" Arthur looks confused.

"You can't keep changing the rules halfway through the game," Merlin says. "I can't—are we friends?"

Arthur opens his mouth, but doesn't say anything.

"So we're not," Merlin says quietly.

"What are we then?" Arthur sounds almost belligerent.

Merlin closes his eyes. "Arthur, we—we're not friendly with each other."

"This is about the sex, isn't it?"

"Of course it is about the sodding sex!" Merlin says. "Sex and friends, that doesn't mix."

"You seem to do all right with Gwaine." Arthur crosses his arms in front of his chest.

Merlin's so taken aback that he starts to laugh. "Gwaine's as straight as they come."

"But—" Arthur falters. "But he always flirts with you."

"He flirts with everyone who seems interested," Merlin says. "That doesn't mean we're having dirty filthy sex."

Arthur bites his lips. "Did we have dirty filthy sex?"

"Yes," Merlin says. He carefully leaves out the part where it felt like they were making love.

"I'm—I'm sorry," Arthur says, slowly. "I thought—"

The door opens again and Will comes out. "Hey," he says. "Everything all right, mate?"

"Yes," Merlin says. "Go away."

But Will glares at Arthur. "Oh, I think I'd rather stay."

"Oh, you won't," Morgana says. Merlin hadn't even noticed her coming after Will. She grabs Will's arms and drags him back inside. "Just keep talking, you two!"

Merlin stares after her. "Okay," he says. "Tell me what Morgana knows that I don't."

Arthur rubs his eyes. "I may have been stupid," he says.

"I already figured that out," Merlin says.

"I messed this up," Arthur says. He sounds kind of devastated.

Merlin bites his lips. "Not—not irrevocably," he whispers.

"God, I hope not." Arthur reaches out tentatively, his fingers skimming over Merlin's hand. "I'm—I'm sorry," he says. "Morgana already said I was wrong, but—"

"You are an idiot," Merlin says.

"But perhaps I'm just the sort of idiot you like?" Arthur smiles tentatively, and that is unfair, Arthur's blue eyes and that smile, and how is Merlin supposed to stand a chance against that.

"Perhaps," Merlin says, trying to be aloof and failing miserably, if Arthur's smile is anything to go by. "We'll have to talk," he adds, but Arthur's smile just gets brighter. "You can't just assume things."

"Well, if you believe Morgana, you might be the only one capable of teaching me how to be a 'real boy'," Arthur says.

Merlin ducks his head and closes his eyes when he feels Arthur lean in and carefully put his arms around Merlin. Merlin turns his head to press his face against Arthur's neck and breathe him in. "I missed you so much," he says.

"Same here," Arthur says. "I couldn't stop thinking about you and then I heard you talking to Gwaine and—"

Merlin lifts his head and puts his finger on Arthur's mouth. "We don't have to talk now," he says.

"Then I know just what to do," Arthur says and kisses Merlin. Merlin laughs and lets Arthur pull him close.

By the time they decide to go back inside, Merlin's lips are red and swollen and he's utterly chilled through. But Arthur's holding his hand and Merlin hardly notices the cold. Their friends are hooting and cat-calling, and Merlin even notices some exchanging money. He's not very surprised that his friends are all tossers who bet on Merlin's love life.

Rationally he knows that it's not this easy. It won't be done with Arthur admitting that he's made a mistake in jumping to conclusions. They will have to talk and there will be issues to work through. Right now, though, Merlin feels like they will make it through. And for the moment that is just enough.